COLUMN: September 27, 2018

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Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett with Rihanna, but sadly not the late Sir David Frost

OWING to a series of events so unlikely and yet so narratively fitting that I have submitted my own life for the Booker Prize, I found myself alone and at a loose end in London on a Saturday night.

In theory, I could have stayed in my hotel room and watched television, but the bottom half of my hour glass has more sand in it than the top and is only getting more full. Life, in short, is too short.

And so I headed up West, as in EastEnders.

When I arrived up West I realised I had got myself in over my head and had no idea where to go. I gawped at the screens at Piccadilly Circus and wondered where a man on his own should be.

The fleshpots of Soho held no appeal for me. Also, there aren’t any fleshpots of Soho these days. It’s all £18 burger places and bars full of people who don’t remember dial-up internet, people whose childhood pets are still alive, people who aren’t even aware there’s a bottom half to their hour glass.

I suppose this is an improvement. Instead of places one would be embarrassed to be seen entering, Soho now has places one would be embarrassed to be seen inside.

This, though, was the home of British cinema, and if there is anywhere I am comfortable to be seen on my own it is inside a British cinema. Unfortunately, there was only one film starting nearby in the next half hour, but I had not seen it.

It was the heist movie Ocean’s 8, confusingly the fourth film in the series, following Ocean’s 11, 12, and 13. Presumably the person who named the iterations of Microsoft Windows was put in charge of the numbering.

Keen followers of film will think: “Hang on, Ocean’s 8 came out ages ago. Are you sure you were in the centre of a great world city and not, say, Oswestry?” But the ticket cost £15, so it was definitely in London.

Along with my ticket, which was made out of paper and not, as you might have expected, platinum, I purchased a £4 thimble of chocolate ice cream, and I took my seat prepared for a roller-coaster of entertainment.

In my entire 46 years I have only fallen asleep during two films. The first was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I was only seven years old and a philosophical exploration of artificial intelligence was something of a big ask for me. The second was Ocean’s 8.

Ocean’s 8 is a film that looks as if it were an absolute blast to make, but about 4% of that fun comes across on screen. And I really wanted to like it, because it had an all-woman main cast, and that’s still far too rare.

But, oh, my goodness, it was dull. I suppose it’s possible that the 20-minute section during which I was asleep contained cinematic gold that made the rest of it worthwhile.

However, through bleary eyes, I didn’t care about any of the characters, the heist was low stakes, there was an entire sequence that seemed to be included just because somebody remembered that Sandra Bullock is half-German, and the film only livened up when James Corden appeared.

Imagine that. There’s a film out there starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, AND Rihanna, and the best thing in it is James Corden’s performance, in which he portrays James Corden in a suit. Quite frankly, I should not, while watching a heist movie, want the perpetrators to be caught.

But the worst thing about it was that, because I hadn’t fallen asleep during a film for 39 years, I had become careless about the risks of consuming a thimble of chocolate ice-cream in the darkness.

And as the lights came up, and the credits rolled, I discovered on my white shirt a brown stain the shape of – and half the size of – Wales.

I fastened my jacket over it, but there was still some stain visible. And so, as I sat on the tube, I clutched my jacket as if I were hiding something, which, I suppose, I was.

But you can’t do that when half the viewing public has just been watching Bodyguard and is on high alert. People were looking at me in fear. And so, rather than alarm the carriage, I displayed my embarrassing stain to the world.

I should have stayed in my hotel. Life, in short, is too short.

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COLUMN: September 20, 2018

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The experience could not have been less like this. Thanks, stock photo library, you’ve been a big help

ONE of the problems with living in a second-floor flat is that it is very difficult to wash your own car.

I suppose I could carry endless buckets down four flights of stairs. But you’ve been reading this column long enough to know how that would work out, bearing in mind I ended up sitting in a bucket simply because I was making mashed potato a few weeks ago.

And it’s not as if I could run a hose from my bathroom tap, through my flat, through my bedroom window, and then down two floors to the car park. Don’t think I haven’t considered it.

And standard car washes are out of the question. I do enjoy the spectacle and mild peril of a standard filling station car wash. For example, I like how the gigantic swirling brush runs over the windscreen, and the joy of finding out afterwards that it has left a million tiny scratches on the paintwork.

But the car I bought recently is a 12-year-old hard-top convertible, which is roughly 10 per cent mid-life crisis, 50 per cent brilliant, and 40 per cent “Oh, sweet mercy, where the hell is that water coming from?” If I went through a standard car wash, I might as well coat myself in detergent and run through Niagara Falls.

The only realistic option I have is to go to one of those hand car wash places that have taken over the many filling stations that have closed down because apparently we don’t need petrol any more. The existence of these car wash places is a paradox, a bug in reality, proof of simultaneous demand and lack of demand.

So that is where I went. I drove my filthy car, which was covered in a fine film of sticky sap and the feathers of birds which had unwisely rested on it, to a car wash place.

I steered onto the forecourt, and parked behind a car which was being attacked by four men armed with chamois leathers.

“No!” said one of them. “You go through entrance!” And he pointed to an archway which I had dismissed thinking it was the entrance to an automatic car wash. I am not sure why I thought there would also be an automatic car wash there, but I was on unfamiliar territory. Why would a car wash have car washing facilities? That’s the last thing you’d expect.

I drove muttering through the entrance – it was clearly previously a car wash in the premises’ filling station days – round the back, and came out on the other side of the forecourt. I switched off my engine, not wanting to cause damage to men who spend all day around cars with their engines running at a car wash on a main road. It was like not wanting to throw a chocolate wrapper in a bin because there was already quite enough litter in there.

A man with a cigarette limply hanging out of his mouth emptied a water cannon at my car. I laughed. My roof seals were working perfectly. What was I worrying about? I could have gone to an automatic car wash after all.

That’s when the water started coming in. From the ceiling, from the door, from, somehow, underneath me. “Well,” I thought, “this is suboptimal.” The man blasted my door window, and I was drenched. I might as well have had it open.

Then the deluge stopped. He motioned to me to move forward, as the dripping slowly subsided, while one of his colleagues squirted the car with what appeared to be weed killer. And then the car withstood an onslaught of suds as the chamois-wielding men arrived.

It was weirdly intimate, like having a haircut or a dental check-up. I wasn’t sure where to look, as these faces loomed in close. Still, at least the process was almost over. My trousers would probably dry soon enough.

No, wait! A second blast from the water cannon soaked me again. One of the men laughed. I can only assume they knew exactly where my car’s weak spot was. It was sitting in the driving seat.

Another bout of chamois and the outside was as dry as the inside was not. I opened my dripping door and handed over the cash and, wetly, drove away.

The next morning I found my car covered in a fine film of sticky sap, a number of white feathers, and a lavishly spread pile of bird droppings.

COLUMN: September 13, 2018

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Of course! I shall happily attach my squiggle to this lorem ipsum gibberish

I HAVE had my own name for quite some time, as long as I can remember, in fact. Ask me what my name is, and I can answer in a flash. It would definitely not be the point at which I embarrassed myself on Mastermind.

And yet, when I am called upon to write my name down, my knowledge escapes me, and I find myself actually misspelling my 10-letter, two-syllable surname.

Every time I visit my dentist, I have to sign my name in a box on a computer tablet using a stylus, and every time I miss a letter out in my signature, and then have to style it out. I am sure my dentist thinks my name is Gay Bainbidge.

There is probably a name for this condition, and the condition probably could not spell it under pressure.

In most other ways, I present as an ordinary member of the public. I hold open doors for people and can engage in good-natured repartee with the woman in Sainsbury’s about my grocery choices. Not even my friends would know I was a member of the “incapable of writing their own names on a piece of paper” community.

Which was why, as I was walking through the office the other day, one of them stopped me and asked for my assistance. She wanted me to countersign a passport application for her child.

Finally, I thought, recognition of my true worth. As you will know, if you have ever had to apply for a passport, a countersignatory has to be “a person in good standing in their community”.

I am that in spades. I pay my taxes and I have never been arrested, as long as you don’t count that time I drove the wrong way around a bollard right under the nose of a police officer and he told me off. In fairness, I did not know it was the wrong way, nor did I see the police officer, but apparently that is not a defence in law.

I readily agreed, feeling at once like an actual grown-up and not like a teenager forced to live undercover posing as a grown-up.

Can you imagine the sensation of one of your lamp bulbs popping when you switch it on, and then going to the cupboard where you keep light bulbs, more in a spirit of hope than expectation, and then finding that you have a spare bulb which exactly fits the lamp in question? Well, it was like that. I felt like somebody who can drink coffee and actually enjoy it.

I took the form and black ballpoint pen and sat at my desk. The form was one of those ones on which you have to write each character in a separate box. These require a level of concentration far above of which I am generally capable. Worse, they require planning. This is because you have to be aware, at all times, of how many characters there are still available at the end of the line on which you are writing AND how many characters there are in the next word you will be writing.

And this is because the last thing you want to do is to start writing a word and then find out you have run out of boxes and have to continue the word on the next line, because you don’t know if the computer that will be scanning this form will be able to work out if your address is 221b Baker Street, London, or 221b Baker Stree, T, London.

And it is not as if you are filling the form out for yourself, and if you make a mistake, you just have to go back to the Post Office for a new one. Twice, in my recent experience. You only have one opportunity to get it right, otherwise you have to go back to your friend and tell her she has to fill in a new form. Or, worse, make her have her small child have new photographs taken in a booth.

I actually allowed a drop of sweat to fall from my forehead onto the page, as I painstakingly formed every letter. I do not wish to overdramatise matters, but now I know exactly what it is like to be a bomb disposal expert or brain surgeon.

And then, finally, I completed the difficult part. I was relieved. All that remained for me was to sign my name. Which I did. As G. Bainbirdge.

COLUMN: September 6, 2018

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A number of potatoes. I’m assuming three, but there might be a smaller spud behind the one at the front

THE most ridiculous accident I ever had, in a field as crowded as the Glastonbury Festival, involved a potato.

As ever, I came to grief because I was attempting to broaden my horizons. You would think I would have learned by now never to alter my life in any way, but the trouble with experience is that it merely allows me to recognise a mistake after I have made it again, rather than before, enabling me to prevent it.

“Ah, yes,” I think ruefully, tumbling down the stairs, “this is exactly what happened last time I tried roller skating to the bathroom.”

I had become mildly obsessed with making the perfect mashed potato and had eaten it a little too often. I was, at that point, a human croquette. But my mash was a little gluey, and I wanted it to be fluffy.

Then somebody – I can’t remember who, probably somebody on television with a massive kitchen and a book deal and a PA – suggested that boiling my spuds was the issue. If I wanted my mashed potato to be good enough to serve to humans it needed to be drier. I needed to bake my potatoes, taking water out of them rather than putting it in.

Fine, I thought. I’ll make one type of potato dinner to make another type of potato dinner and it’ll take twice as long and this had better be worth it, Nigel, or Nigella, or Nigellest, or whoever it was.

I baked the spuds for an hour, did some domestic tasks including mopping the bathroom floor, then took the red-hot boulders out of the oven and began the work of scooping them out with a spoon into a bowl, holding each potato with a tea towel because I am not an idiot. Ah, I thought, this potato is already very fluffy. I can see where this is going. As, indeed, I suspect, can you…

My phone rang, so I left the kitchen to answer it. Only three types of people ever ring my land line: people who have heard I have recently been in an accident (which is always true, but never with grounds for compensation), people pretending they work for BT and attempting to get my bank details and passwords, and my father.

It was one of the first category, and I strung the caller along for a while with the story of when I fell off my bike when I was nine, and after he had hung up in despair, I sauntered back to the kitchen and picked up the last potato. Without the tea towel. Because I am an idiot.

It was roughly five minutes out of the oven. If I’d cut a cross in it and shoved some butter and salt inside I might have been able to eat it, as long as I blew on it. In my hand, it felt like a glowing coal.

I flung it out of my hand with a yelp, it ricocheted off my fridge behind me, bounced between my legs, and ended up underneath my worktop, behind the bin.

I ran my poor fingers under the cold tap, shook off the water, and went to retrieve the potato, crawling under the worktop, and pushing out of the way the many bags for life I have accumulated. I have so many bags for life I can only hope that reincarnation is real.

Experience should have told me that the potato would still be quite hot, and also a little battered after its journey. And yet I still went to pick it up with my bare hand. My middle finger pushed right through the ruptured skin into the steaming hot, if admittedly extremely fluffy, flesh.

I yelped again and flung my head back, as one does in these circumstances, bashing the back of it fairly hard on the worktop above me.

I missed the opportunity for a yelp hat-trick by swearing fairly inventively and forcefully, and crawled out, to rub my head and to cool down my hand under the cold tap again.

But I did not immediately get the chance to do either of those things. I slipped on the small patch of water left on my tiled kitchen floor after the first attempt to cool down, fell backwards, hit the fridge, slid down the wall, and ended up sitting in my mop bucket, which I had not yet emptied.

I am happy to report that the mash was quite good.