COLUMN: August 23, 2018

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An actual picture of me in the wild, with a clue to the final paragraph of this story. Picture: @VONmarketing. Models: your writer and @SouthLondonGirl. Hair and clothing: Models’ own

AS regular readers will remember, or, at least, have just been made aware that they had forgotten, I recently bought a car after years of exclusively using public transport.

It turned out that, while I remain more or less capable of driving a car, many things have changed on our country’s roads.

Speed bumps are far more prevalent, for instance. It is unclear why they are now called “speed bumps”. They were previously and poetically called “sleeping policemen”, which lent them a certain Z Cars-style glamour.

But “speed bumps”? That is the opposite of what they are. They should be called anti-speed bumps. Speed bumps are what you give somebody on their birthday if you’re in a hurry and they’re getting on a bit.

Cyclists have also become more cocky in recent years, like pigeons, or racists. They weave in and out of traffic with less care than I remember, treating traffic lights as guidelines and pavements as extra lanes of the road. It is as if the enhanced danger from increased numbers of cars has given them the sort of fatalism that we could admire in battle but not when they are inches from our bumpers.

Only last week, I was driving down the road and on the other side of the road a cyclist with the livery of a takeaway delivery app was moving in the same direction, causing cars coming in the opposite direction to us to swerve wildly.

He was of Asian appearance, and I charitably decided that he must have been a recent arrival and had forgotten that we drive on the left in the UK, as I would inevitably have done in the same situation.

I shouted, “Hey, mate” – I call people “mate” even if I don’t know them, as a way of showing that I am not to be feared – “you’re on the wrong side of the road.”

“No, f****** way, mate?” he replied. “Do you think I don’t know?” as if being on the wrong side of what was a single carriageway were a cross he reluctantly had to bear and he were disappointed that I had highlighted this sore point to him.

However, the biggest change on our roads since I were last a regular motorist appears to have been in parking. I was lucky in that the written theory section was introduced about five minutes after I passed my driving test, and I haven’t really kept up with developments.

But it seems that there has been a shift in parking practice and I can only assume that the test has changed so that drivers have been told, when confronted by a 90 degree parking space, to park at a 45 to 60 degree angle, so that at least one wheel, and preferably two, will touch a painted line separating parking spaces.

I drove to an appointment today, entering the car park. Time was pressing, but I found a space. My driving instructor, a highly-strung man, would have been proud of my skills for probably the first time, as I executed a centimetre-perfect old-school parking manoeuvre, ending up at precisely an equal distance from the two painted lines.

However, the person who parked next to me was one of the new-style 45-degree drivers, and as I opened my door and poked a shoe out it became clear that I would not be able to continue opening my door to a width which would enable me to leave my vehicle, unless I gouged out a significant portion of the other car’s door.

Fine, I thought. I am just going to have to re-park a little bit further over. But as I attempted to pull my foot back inside, it became obvious that it was stuck, and I had three immediate choices: become double-jointed, tear my trousers down the seam separating my posterior’s twins, or amputate my foot. And time was pressing.

Maybe, I thought, if I turn slightly, I can straighten my leg and pull it in by lying back and shifting into the passenger seat. I did so, edging over.

But as my foot re-entered the car, my back hit the gear stick or handbrake – I don’t know which. I jerked in pain, slipped off the leather seat, and my head ended up in the passenger footwell, with my feet dangerously close to going through the sun roof.

I gathered my thoughts, unlocked the passenger door, and continued my ungainly cartwheel out of the car.

I don’t want to tell you how I got back in after my appointment.

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COLUMN: August 16, 2018

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A harmless-looking glass of water

EVERY night before I go to bed I lay an elaborate trap for myself as part of my bedtime admin routine.

Among other things, I brush my teeth, check all the things that are supposed to be unplugged are unplugged, look for the charger cable for my phone, check once again that all the things that are supposed to be unplugged are unplugged, and place a glass of water on my bedside table.

Often I go to bed before completing all of those tasks and then annoyedly have to get up again when I realise I haven’t ticked everything off the list, but the point is, by the time I close down for the evening, everything on that list is done, especially the last one.

And yet, despite the fact that every night I feel compelled to provide myself with a glass of water, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in the past couple of years I have woken in the early hours desperate for a drop of tepid water.

Roughly 90% of the time I find that I am just replacing the full glass of water that is left on my bedside table from the night before with a new one.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Gary, you said you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times you’ve had a drink of water in the night in the past couple of years. That means you’ve had four drinks of water tops, or five if you’re including your thumb.

“Yet there have been 730 days in the past two years. Five is nowhere near 10% of 730. You’ve left a lot of glasses of water out of this story, haven’t you? What’s happened to the other glasses of water, Gary?”

The answer to that is partly down my trousers at the moment. I am a serial and inadvertent knocker-over of bedside glasses of water. I did it this morning, while fully dressed and watchless, while reaching for my watch. I now look as if I have had “an accident” instead of merely an accident, having worn precisely the wrong trousers in order to get away with a water spill.

I did it last week while reaching to turn off an alarm on my phone which I had set earlier that week but had forgotten I did not need any more. Honestly, you do not appreciate just how much water a tumbler contains until you find yourself on all fours on the carpet at 6am trying to mop it up with some tissues.

I did it the week before by dramatically pulling back my duvet in a huff because I had forgotten to do one of the things on my bedtime admin list. The corner of the duvet hit the glass, the glass hit the bedside lamp, and then ricocheted back. On this occasion, my relief that virtually none of the water had reached my carpet was overshadowed by the fact that virtually all of the water had reached my mattress.

The only time I spilled my water as a result of actually reaching for the tumbler was when, a couple of years ago, I woke with the sort of raging thirst that only a faintly stagnant room-temperature glass of water could slake.

I picked up my glass in the darkness – which could only have been a fluke – forgot that one has to be upright when drinking, collapsed back onto my pillow, and emptied the vessel all over my face, somehow waterboarding myself. In one move I had both demonstrated the reason why I had such a raging thirst AND provided a cure for that reason.

The point I am trying to make is that I have got myself a glass of water every night of my adult life, mostly with no benefit, and, when it does impact on my day, it overwhelmingly does so in the most negative way.

I can only assume that as a child I decided that what my adult life needed was more largely ineffectual practical jokes, and, in the absence of a regular target, I would have to do it to myself. And then I underwent some sort of self-hypnosis to ensure I did this every day.

No more. Tonight I am going to bed without a glass of water by my side. Like everybody else, I will just have to balance a bucket of water over the bedroom door.

COLUMN: August 9, 2018

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I am almost entirely sure that I locked it

YOU might remember that I bought a car in last week’s column, after years of travelling everywhere by public transport, and about three days after buying my monthly bus ticket.

It has been a period of intense readjustment. I have gone from pretending to drive the bus, in the Golden Seat (top deck, front row, driver side) to actually driving the vehicle. And while it has been several years since I regularly drove a car, it is odd how easily I have slipped into the routine of driving.

I thought I might have been rusty, but it turns out the physical act of driving is something my body did not forget. It’s just like riding a bike, although clearly not. Checking the rear mirror, reversing into parking spaces, doing that tiny – almost imperceptible – wave to tell somebody you’re giving them right of way… they all feel like instinct.

But they are not instinct, they are learned responses ingrained in the driver’s behaviour. It’s a muscle memory. If they were instinct, even babies could drive, if it weren’t for the pedal issue and expense. Can you imagine how much insurance would be, for a start?

What I have tended to forget is the little tricks of driving. These are the bits of local knowledge that have been lost, or made obsolete by highway changes, the nuggets that you carry with you, like “If you’re going from A to B on a Friday afternoon, do not in any circumstances go via roundabout C, or you’ll feel like you’ve been stuck at the back of a lift carrying twelve flatulent sumo wrestlers,” or “never let anybody out at junction D if you ever want to see your family again”.

On the other hand, sometimes the forgetfulness is entirely benevolent. Take, for instance, the other day. I had to go to visit my GP for a complaint which appeared trivial, if annoying, but which Dr Google had convinced me was life-threatening. Googling symptoms is like a flow-chart in which all the boxes lead to one marked “CANCER”.

The appointment was before my shift started, but uncomfortably so. I would have to rush out of the appointment, jump on a bus, and then… Wait, I thought, I have a car now. I’ll be fine. And the realisation removed a little bit of stress from my day. It was like the joy of waking up in a panic because your alarm hasn’t gone off and then realising it is Saturday morning.

I jumped into my car and tootled off to the surgery, parking in a side road opposite, locking the car with the remote, then going back to the car to check that it had actually locked, then going back again, just to make sure.

Of course, sitting in the GP’s waiting room quickly replaced the stress that had previously been removed. On top of the worry about my clearly impending death, the radio was tuned to a station which believed it acceptable to follow Total Eclipse Of The Heart with I Just Called To Say I Love You, and then Tina Turner’s The Best. All this in an environment which is supposed to make people feel better.

I saw the GP, who told me in the kindest possible way that I was a total idiot and little more than a timewaster, but did at least give me a prescription. I thanked him and left, and took a long and deep breath…

I composed myself and went to the pharmacy next door. There was, inevitably, a mix-up which involved the man behind me, who had only come in for a bottle of cough mixture, paying for my £8.80 prescription, but I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to enjoy it.

Eventually, I left the pharmacy, and began walking, while composing a text message to my significant other, giving her the good news about my no-longer-imminent demise, still feeling distracted.

Argh! I thought, as I looked up mid-message. It’s my bus! I abandoned the message, and sprinted, Usain Bolt-like, to the stop.

I flopped into the bus seat, my heart still pounding from the stress. What a relief, I thought, that was close. I’m not going to be late for work.

I had travelled perhaps four stops before I remembered the car that I had abandoned in a side street opposite the surgery. You might have remembered that I bought a car in last week’s column. I certainly flipping hadn’t.

I blame muscle memory.

COLUMN: August 2, 2018

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Haggling, as seen in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian

I HATE haggling. The last time I had to haggle was nine years ago, when I was doing a car boot sale, and a customer was trying to get me below a quid for an unopened set of four Ben 10 figures.

I, you will be delighted to know, refused to budge, and the customer moved on, to be replaced by somebody happy to pay £1 for something worth at least 12 times that amount. Retail’s loss is also journalism’s loss.

I am not, it turns out, a natural haggler, haggling being alien both to me and the British psyche. I am comfortable with the system we have in which items are labelled with a price, and if you hand over the amount of money on the label you walk away with the item, and it doesn’t become an anecdote.

But haggling is a complicated poker game, with many opportunities to insult your opponent and also be ripped off by him. It is, in short, extremely stressful.

We don’t go into newsagents’ shops and try to knock down the price of a Twix, so why do we British reserve this uniquely stressful way of conducting transactions for the already stress-filled business of buying houses and cars?

I recently decided to buy a car. My friends were aghast. “But, Gary,” they said. “You can’t buy a car. Your personal brand is that you catch buses everywhere. In fact, your defining personality trait is ‘bus passenger’. Without buses, you are just a man with glasses.”

“Yes,” I said, “but all bad things must come to an end.” The final straw had been when I was forced to watch a sweaty man eat a sweatier cheese sandwich on the sweatiest bus. You can’t blame me. I’ve put up with a lot.

And it was not as if I had never driven. One of the things you need to take part in a car boot sale is a car.

But I am not one of those men who can lift up a car bonnet, peer inside, and say, “The big end’s gone”, with any sort of conviction. I am one of those men who hovers by the bonnet and says to the other man, “Well, I’ve definitely filled the windscreen wiper reservoir recently, so it can’t be that.”

When a man like me walks into a used car dealership, it is like dropping a steak into a tank of sharks. So I was at an advantage when I saw the exact car I wanted online at roughly my budget. All I had to do was walk into the dealership and pretend to be somebody who takes no nonsense from car salesmen.

“I’m interested in this,” I said, pointing to the car of my dreams. “It seems quite cheap for the model. What exactly is wrong with it?” Ha, I thought, come back from that, carmonger.

He did. He explained that this was a small operation with low overheads. But that was fine. I had laid down a marker.

We took the car out for a spin, the dealer in the passenger seat. I took a corner a little ineptly – I was rusty, dammit – and the dealer audibly inhaled.

“I feel like I’m on my test,” I said.

“Everybody says that,” said the dealer. Good, I thought, my mission to appear like a normal, no-nonsense person is succeeding.

We returned to the dealership. I informed the dealer that he would be parking the motor, giving him the impression that I was a very busy person rather than somebody terrified he’d scratch something while executing an otherwise perfect 44-point turn.

We retired to the office. It was time for the dance to begin. I call it a dance, but it was very stressful, with many opportunities for things to go wrong, leaving me flat on my face. Come to think of it, it was exactly like a dance.

“I’m very interested in this vehicle, but it is slightly above my budget,” I said. This was both a bargaining position and 100% true. “Would you accept [£200 less than the asking price]?”

He looked at me. “The first thing you said to me is that the car was cheap for the model. It’s already as low as I can go.”

I had sabotaged myself, as usual. Damn him, I thought, for using my own words against me. I considered using the Trump defence of denying I’d said what we both knew I’d said, and even if I had said it, I meant the opposite.

But I aim to be honourable, even if I often miss. I made a half-hearted attempt at £100 less, and the dealer batted it away, as if I were making a sub-£1 offer for a set of Ben 10 figures.

And so I left agreeing to pay the price on the ticket, and disappointed with myself that I had done so.

This is why I hate haggling.