COLUMN: May 17, 2018

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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.

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COLUMN: May 10, 2018

Saga
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

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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.