COLUMN: May 31, 2018

My hand on what is apparently supposed to be a bench

I FELL into my usual Bank Holiday Monday trap. People who do my job never get a Bank Holiday Monday off work because people like you demand a newspaper on the day after Bank Holiday Monday. I am not blaming you, but it is your fault.

Anyway, my usual Bank Holiday Monday trap is to forget that not everybody is working, and that buses operate to what is officially termed “a reduced timetable”, a term that is technically true, but does not adequately describe the full horror of the situation, like “all-inclusive 18-30s holiday”.

And so I sauntered towards the bus stop on my way to work, the sun glinting off my shades, my special summer shoes on my feet, appearing to all who cared to look as a man who finds the hot weather a pleasure instead of the shambling, sweaty lump I knew myself to be inside.

This sauntering was cut off abruptly by the gust of wind caused by my bus sailing past my face. And the reduced timetable meant that the next bus would arrive far too late for me to be on time for work.

I had only one option, or two if I included calling work and telling them I wouldn’t be in because I had died of good weather – I had to get the train…

The sun beat down on the platform, melting the tarmac. A lizard skittered past, narrowly avoiding a ball of rolling tumbleweed. Atop the automatic ticket machine was perched a vulture, its beady eyes trained upon me. What I am saying is it was blooming hot and I am too pale to deal with that nonsense. I needed shelter, sharpish.

And there was indeed a shelter on the platform. I use the word “shelter” in its loosest form. It was barely bigger than a cocktail umbrella, and made mostly of metal, soaking up the heat. If I breathed out, half of me was in the sunshine again.

Inside the shelter was a seat. I assume it was a seat, it was in the position where one would expect to find a seat. It was metal, like the shelter, and roughly one and a half times the depth of a handrail. Gymnasts would take one look at it and say, “I am not balancing on that. What do you think I am, a mountain goat?”

But I like a challenge, especially when there is nobody around to watch me fail. I attempted to sit on it…

I am a very average-sized man. It is a nightmare buying clothes because they have all sold out. I do not have an inordinately large bottom. I won’t lie, I struggled to sit on this thing.

Bits were hanging off, and if I moved any further back I risked falling into the gap between the wall of the shelter and the seat, with my knees somewhere near my chin. I assume I would have been able to get out of this situation without the help of the local fire and rescue service, but I didn’t want to take the risk, especially with my train due.

I stood up again. It was the worst sitting experience I had ever had, and I lived through the “Kevin Parr has got his hands on a packet of drawing pins” period of Second Year Seniors.

I would like to think that this bench was an aberration, but it is not. It was a mean little seat in a mean little shelter, and typical of the meanness in the public realm these days.

At this point, we’re eight years into the government’s austerity measures. Austerity, we shouldn’t forget, is just meanness dressed up as a virtue. This austerity has filled up our streets with vulnerable homeless people.

And then, because we’re so mean, we block up doorways and put metal studs on low walls, so that these vulnerable homeless people have nowhere to sleep. We make shelters so tiny and benches so impractical that they are not fit for purpose, just to prevent people who make us feel uncomfortable in our meanness from getting a decent sleep.

We’re so mean that we’re prepared to suffer ourselves just so that other people can suffer more. We’re even prepared to cut ourselves off from Europe and watch factories and call centres close and watch family and friends lose their jobs, just so that we can get rid of brown people.

I am not blaming you, but it is your fault.

Sweaty Naked Stevie Wonder

Everyone’s feeling pretty. It’s Hotter Than July

FIRST of all, hello to the people who have arrived at this blog post by Googling the headline. It’s probably not the sort of content for which you were hoping, but you’d be welcome to stay.

The music writer Andrew Male asked a question on Twitter today. He wanted to know which great albums his followers believed had the worst cover art. And if you have a look at his feed, you’ll find there really are some shockers.

I wanted a piece of that sweet, sweet action. I didn’t even have to think about it. It was unquestionably the cover to Hotter Than July by Stevie Wonder. It’s one of my favourite albums, and one track on it – Happy Birthday – actually changed American civic life, as part of the campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday named a public holiday.

It’s the classic album he still had in his bag after that run of Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finale, and Songs In The Key Of Life. (We don’t talk about The Secret Life Of Plants, because that was a soundtrack anyway.)

The cover of Hotter Than July is a photo-realistic painting of Stevie Wonder’s head and shoulders. He’s a good looking black man wearing only braids in his hair and sunglasses. I suppose he could be wearing trousers, etc, out of frame, but he won’t be. He’s Stevie Wonder, dammit. And it has always made me laugh.

Stevie is, not to put too fine a point on it, sweating cobs. And he has an expression on his face that is, well, he looks as if he is engaged in the sort of activity that would have him and his companion thrown out of the frozen food section of Sainsbury’s.

So that makes me laugh. And also, it’s really on the nose. The album is called Hotter Than July, and the picture is of Stevie Wonder looking as if he is very warm, possibly because he is engaged in the sort of activity, etc, etc.

So I waded in and stopped my Stevie bomb into the conversation and didn’t think too much about it.

And then, a couple of hours later, I started to receive messages. “What’s wrong with this cover?” “Hater! This is iconic. Beautiful.”

Where were they coming from? Apparently the discussion had become a Twitter Moment, which meant that many more people than those who normally see my tweets were exposed to me. And they did not like it one bit.

Essentially black America had seen my tweet suggesting that an album cover featuring a picture of a black man’s face was in some way a bad album cover, and they were unimpressed. And I realised what I had done. So I spent the next two hours explaining how I wasn’t a racist, like Father Ted in that episode.

“No, no,” I said repeatedly. “I don’t object to Stevie Wonder, per se. It’s naked sweaty Stevie Wonder.”

But LiNCOLN PARK said:

And it suddenly occurred to me that, oh, God, maybe I was being racist.

And Nait Jones said:

And I thought, maybe it’s not racism as such. Maybe it’s blindness to what’s important in a culture that isn’t my own.

It’s the Vauxhall Nova, it’s the fanny pack, it’s Donald Trump.

  • What are you talking about, Gary?
  • Well, voice in my head, they launched the Vauxhall Nova in Spain, and didn’t understand why it wasn’t going down so well until somebody pointed out to them that “no va” in Spanish means “not going”.
  • And the fanny pack?
    Well, that’s more obvious. “Fanny” refers to very different, if anatomically adjacent, body parts in America and the UK. What the Americans call a “fanny pack”, we refer to as a “bum bag”, and I can’t begin to imagine what a fanny pack would be.
  • And Donald Trump?
  • How can the British possibly take Donald Trump seriously, even aside from everything he does and says, when “to trump” in the UK means “to fart”?
  • So what are you saying?
  • I’m saying that I didn’t get it. Look, can we get out of this affected bit of this blogpost…?

That’s better… The point is, to me, the cover of Hotter Than July looks like an entrant in Viz’s Up The Arse Corner. That’s why I found it funny.

But to an African American, it’s an expression of proud black manhood. I’m not saying it’s a sacred text, but it’s beloved. It raises all sorts of questions of representation in popular culture. And it was offensive of me to be rude about it, even if I wasn’t intentionally being offensive.

And when you offend somebody, even if it’s unintentional – especially if it’s unintentional – you apologise. And you make some sort of reparation. It stops being a matter of free speech and becomes a matter of good manners.

So I took down the tweet. And I’d like to apologise to anybody who was offended by it. I’ll be more thoughtful in future.

Even if the phrase “sweaty eye candy” makes me feel ill.

COLUMN: May 24, 2018

Look at how happy this man is to be wearing sunglasses. Can you imagine being that happy about anything?

WHEN I bought my new varifocal confuso-spectacles a few weeks ago, I received a free pair of varifocal confuso-sunglasses. It seemed wildly optimistic. Imagine needing a pair of sunglasses in the United Kingdom in spring. I might as well have bought shorts.

However, for once in my life, my optimism was founded. The sun has been cracking the flags like the Kettering All-Elephants Jogging Group. Men have been showing off their awful leg tattoos. Women have been showing off their awful men.

And I have been wearing my sunglasses. That is an oversimplification. There are two types of people in this world. There are people who wear sunglasses and there are people who are worn by sunglasses.

I am in the latter camp. I look at best like a Mafia hitman, and at worst like somebody who has gone to a fancy dress party as the sunshine emoji. What I do not look like is a man wearing sunglasses because it is sunny and they are a sensible item of clothing to wear under the circumstances.

It is ridiculous. The use of an umbrella during rainy weather does not appear like an affectation. If I wear a jumper in the autumn, nobody says, “Ooh, look at swanky-pants Alan Titchmarsh over there!”

But because somebody once decided that sunglasses are cool, it follows that only cool people can wear them without comment. If you are not cool, and you wear sunglasses, you look like somebody who is trying to look cool. And I am very much not cool. Not in this weather.

So I undergo a process every year of breaking in my sunglasses, in order to look comfortable while wearing them. For the first couple of occasions, I wear them only if there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it’s impossible to see without them, but I remove them the second I go indoors or board public transport.

Then I’ll gradually step up the pace. I’ll wear them even if it’s suddenly gone overcast. Before too long I’m leaving them on when I walk into shops – unless they’re too dark, like Hollister, when I’ll swap them for my normal glasses, or while on the bus. I will even wear them when entering work, which is extremely brave of me as newspaper offices are full of observant people with regard to glasses. Lois Lane is very much the exception to that rule.

And, once I have got past my reservations, sunglasses are absolutely brilliant when you are on a bus because nobody can see your eyes, which means I can indulge in my favourite bus pastime of people-watching without getting my head kicked in, a boon for anybody with a big nose who doesn’t want it broken.

I have been able to take in some awful sights. I do not want to get into the terrible business of bodyshaming, but nobody looks good in a muscle top, not even people with muscles. As for those calf-skimming not-quite-shorts that men have taken to wearing in this weather… when I was growing up it was a cause of shame to wear half-mast trousers, and rightly so.

By far the worst man I have seen, I saw a couple of days ago. I exited a dark shop into the blazing sunshine and stepped straight onto the bus, time for once working in tandem with my body.

It was a single-decker and I sat at the back – the Golden Seat on a single-decker. A couple of stops later a shaven-headed man boarded the bus and sat opposite me. He must have agreed with me that muscle tops were bad, and thrown his in the bin because he was topless, his sweaty back doubtless soaking the seat as a treat for the next passenger.

He was wearing those not-quite-shorts. And, above his left nipple, he had the grimmest tattoo I had ever seen. I think it was meant to be a lion. Or a camel. It was hard to tell. It was the Mona Lisa of bad tattoos.

I took it in and suppressed a grimace. At least, I did around the mouth area. My eyes, shielded by my lenses, told a different story, bulging with disgust, as I took in the full horror of this inept display of animal anatomical drawing.

And if only I had put my sunglasses back on after I had left the dark shop, the owner of the tattoo would probably never have known.

It was not cool.

COLUMN: May 17, 2018

Some Korean food

I ALWAYS wanted to be able to drop into a place and for the owners to say “The usual?”

I would only ever have wanted it to work that way round. You never ask for “the usual”. I saw a man walk into a pub once and ask for “the usual” and then have to explain to the barmaid what his usual was.

It’s impossible to come back from that. It’s the hospitality business equivalent of coming up with your own nickname or liking your own posts on Facebook.

I always thought it would make me feel like James Bond, or the late Sir David Frost, or Rihanna, a cut above the other customers, who are just a faceless mass.

I was very wrong.

Over the past six months or so, I have been frequenting a small Korean takeaway. It’s a little treat on a Friday evening. If you have never tried Korean food, it basically keeps all the things you like about East Asian food, discards all the things you don’t like about East Asian food, and adds mayonnaise and crispy fried chicken. I blame the Americans.

After a couple of successful meals, I found a dish on the menu that is like the ambrosia of the gods. It’s a sort of crispy chicken with a spicy sauce served with vegetables and rice, and as I write that down I realise it sounds like 93% of all food sold in Chinese takeaways, but it is so much better than that.

It was love at first sight. I didn’t know that chicken and rice could work so well together. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I ordered it the next time, just to see if it was just a one-night stand. It was just as good.

This specific meal is only available at this one takeaway under this specific name, and so, to help maintain some sort of anonymity for the takeaway in the fairly safe expectation that the owners do not read this column, I will call it Bang Tidy Chicken.

It got to the point where I would wake on Friday mornings and be excited that I would be having Bang Tidy Chicken that evening. It would literally be my first thought, or my second if my first was “Oh, great, I’ve just knocked my glass of water over my phone. I need rice. Oooh, that reminds me…”

Sometimes I would go into the takeaway and look at the board and think, “You know what, Gary, maybe there are other dishes on this menu that you would like just as much as Bang Tidy Chicken. You should branch out. This is how Brexit happened.”

But Bang Tidy Chicken would always win out, its gravitational pull was too great. Even if I’d decided to go for a katsu bibimbap, my mouth would form the words “Bang Tidy Chicken”, saving me from myself.

And then… One Friday evening I walked into the takeaway, and the owner said, “Bang Tidy Chicken?”

Oh, no, I thought. This is not how I imagined it would be. I don’t feel like James Bond at all. Not only have I proven myself to be predictable and unadventurous, but I am, by a process of elimination, insulting all his other dishes.

“Er, er, no,” I said. “I wanted, erm, erm…” I scanned the menu wildly and picked a dish at random.

I took it back to the office and tucked in. It was fine. If I’d never had Bang Tidy Chicken I’d probably have been pleased. But it wasn’t Bang Tidy Chicken, not even close.

Still, I had wrong-footed the owner. And when I went in to the takeaway over the next few weeks, he did not take for granted the fact I wanted Bang Tidy Chicken, even though I definitely ordered it.

But the following week he did it again, as I walked through the door. “Bang Tidy Chicken?” he said, somehow making the question mark at the end of that query into an exclamation mark.

Shame made me buy a different meal. And so I find myself in a position where I have to alternate Bang Tidy weeks and other, lesser, weeks, until the owner works out the pattern.

After that, I don’t know what will happen. But, currently, I am effectively paying twice as much for the privilege of having my Friday treat, but only having that treat half as often.

This is just typical for me. The usual, you might say.

COLUMN: May 10, 2018

Saga Norén, Malmö County Police

I REMEMBER the good old days, when “binging on a box set” was a shameful act involving eating an entire packet of Ritz crackers while crying.

How times have changed. I am currently halfway through the third 10-episode series of The Bridge, having never seen a single episode of The Bridge until two weeks ago. You can imagine what my eyes look like now – bloodshot and staring.

This is because the start of the fourth series is imminent at the time of writing, and I was informed in threatening terms that I would be required to watch it, but would have no idea what is going on unless I had seen the earlier episodes.

I had previously been advised by many other people to watch The Bridge, which usually ensures that I keep well away from their recommendation. It is like the “Who To Follow” panel on Twitter, which is invariably full of people of whom I have spent years being aware, and, consequently, have avoided. “You’ll love it, Gary,” they said. “There’s never any sunshine and everybody dies.”

If you have never seen an episode of The Bridge, it is a programme in which a Swedish cop and a Danish cop team up to take 10 weeks to find a politically-motivated serial killer who works across both their countries. You would think that would be unusual, but they appear to find at least one every year.

It’s a good job we have Brexit now. The last thing we need is a load of politically-motivated serial killers coming over here from Scandinavia with the right to work.

Anyway, my advisors were right. I do love it, despite my awareness of the ludicrousness of the storylines, and the suspension of disbelief I have to employ over the coincidences that put people who happened to stumble upon things in episode one at the centre of events in episode six.

When you make that sort of commitment to a television programme, it is bound to have an effect on your life. And so it has proved. I feel I am turning Scandinavian. I have started saying “tack” instead of “thank you” to people. I was pleased when I heard that ABBA were planning a reunion. I am seriously considering going to IKEA even though I don’t need anything. Thor is now my favourite Avenger.

Perhaps it’s (appropriately enough) Stockholm syndrome, the psychological condition that makes captives identify with their kidnappers. Over two weeks I have watched 25 episodes of The Bridge in order to catch up. And each episode is nearly an hour long. That’s roughly 24 hours spent in the company of these people – the equivalent of three working shifts.

There is a part of me that feels guilty for having spent so much time watching these programmes. Think of what else I could have done with that time. Dolly Parton wrote Jolene and I Will Always Love You in the same 24-hour period. I haven’t written a single country-pop standard in my life.

And that guilt is not confined to me. It’s implicit in the term “binging”. For a binge is an awful thing, shameful. You binge on things that are bad for you, like booze or louche company or junk food. At the end of a binge you feel bloated and hungover and regretful at your lack of self-control.

But these programmes, these “binge-able boxsets”, are usually well-crafted, well-acted pieces of entertainment. They’re serials designed to keep you enthralled. They have, if you want to go down that awful route, artistic merit.

And it’s only snobbery against the idea of television itself that suggests watching good television is a more shameful waste of time than consuming other art forms.

When was the last time you heard anybody saying, “You watched a three-hour opera? You could have cleaned the grouting in the bathroom in that time?”

When was the last time you heard anybody saying, “Oh, this book is so awfully good. I had to read one more chapter last night. I am utterly ashamed of myself for binging on this book, Terence”? Unless you work in the theatre, where that nonsense goes on all the time.

We are living in a golden age of great television, with Night Managers and Happy Valleys and science teachers who are Breaking Bad. The best writers and directors and actors are working in telly right now. It won’t last. Golden ages never do. Enjoy it while you can. And don’t be ashamed.

COLUMN: May 3, 2018

This is what supermarkets look like when it isn’t Saturday morning

I DO not have a problem with pensioners. My grandmother was one, as was my mother. My father continues to be one. One day, I hope to join their ranks – probably when I am 75, the way things are going.

But I do not always understand pensioners. I had to go to a bank last week to conduct some business. Ideally I would have done it online, but I have very recently switched banks, and I chose the one that likes to say yes, not only to its customers but also, it turns out, to bad IT solutions.

Owing to a series of disappointing events, I was forced to go to the bank at lunchtime. Nobody goes to the bank at lunchtime by choice, because it’s lunchtime for bank employees too, which means that at the time of greatest demand, the supply of cashiers is at its lowest.

It is a little like having a soft play area that is open all year round apart from at weekends and during school holidays.

The point is, everybody knows that the very worst time to go to the bank is at lunchtime. It is the equivalent of driving at rush hour. If you could go to the bank at any other time at all, of course you would. It would be madness otherwise.

So when I turned up at the bank, expecting to see a queue of estate agents, clerks, and shop workers tapping their feet and wondering why a bank with seven cashier windows only had two open, I was surprised to be in a queue with nine out of ten people in it pensioners.

Now, before you send me abusive messages about having respect for my elders – which is refreshing at my age – just hear me out. Or read me out. Or hear somebody else reading me out.

I am not suggesting that pensioners are banned from bank queues at lunchtime. Their parents didn’t fight a war so that they would have to wait another hour before paying in a cheque. It is the right of every free-born British person to go to the bank between 12noon and 1pm, even if they’re in front of me and they’ve got 12 bags of one-penny and two-pence pieces.

But why, with the whole of the working day available to them, would they actually choose to go to the bank at 12.23pm on a Thursday?

Similarly, why would anybody choose to do their big supermarket shop on a Saturday morning? Shopping at a supermarket on Saturdays is a hellscape of anger and rancour and clashing trolleys and young children who know that life ought to be better than this, as they kick their legs and try to get out of their tiny seats to escape to anywhere other than there.

These wise children speak for all of us. And, yet, go to a supermarket on a Saturday morning and regard in amazement the number of people who remember rationing and BBC2 starting who have become involved in the melee.

These are people who could go to the supermarket at any time, even on Thursday after they’ve been to the bank, when the shelves are heaving with freshly replenished goods and more than one colour of toilet tissue. It is as baffling as those people without children and who do not work in the education system who choose to take time off during the school holidays.

Why would they voluntarily make their own lives more inconvenient, I wondered as I stood in the queue? I would like to say that I did not give the fact they were making my own life more inconvenient a moment’s thought, but that would make me a big fat liar.

“Ooh, it’s ridiculous,” said the elderly woman in front of me. All the women in front of me were elderly. “It’s chock-a-block. They should have more windows open.”

“Yes,” I said.

She continued, “It’s always like this at lunchtime.”

I felt my neck pop. I wanted to ask her, if she knew that, why she was there right then. Why didn’t she wait an hour? Why wasn’t she there an hour before?

But I didn’t, because I had finally worked it out. The reason she was there, the reason they were all there, was precisely because there would be loads of people around to complain to. To talk to.

And one day I’ll understand it properly. Probably when I am 75.