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.

COLUMN: April 26, 2018

Catherine Isaac (left) at the launch of You Me Everything. I am not on this picture, but I was definitely there as I took it

I LOOKED natty, I don’t mind saying it. It is not every day one is lucky enough to go to a book launch, unless one is in some sort of book publicity business, and even then one would get the odd day off.

I was wearing a sharp grey suit, a shirt that did not look as if I had inherited it, and shoes so shiny I would have been able to see my face in them had I got the hang of my varifocals.

I wandered through town looking to all the world as if I parked my Lambretta somewhere and actually liked drinking espresso. I was even wearing sunglasses, which protected my eyes from the gleaming teeth of women beaming adoringly as I walked past them.

Nothing lasts forever. On turning the corner, I walked into a gathering of seagulls. I don’t know if you have ever done the same, but it is like entering a hostile pub.

We are all used, from childhood, to birds flying away when we enter their space. But pigeons and seagulls stand their ground these days and dare you to bump into them. So I picked my way through the crowd towards the bookshop where the launch was taking place. I wouldn’t bother them if they didn’t bother me, not in that suit.

But a yappy dog on one of Those Leads – a retractable, plausible deniability lead, a jogger’s tripwire – failed to read the room accurately. He unexpectedly bounded into the melange of seabirds and me, spooking at least one of us.

The gulls took flight around me, only my lack of wings preventing me from joining them. From a distance I would have looked as if I had tried to do one of those dove releases they have at ludicrously expensive weddings but on the cheap.

And, inevitably, one of them left its mark on my suit jacket. There was a Mr Whippy-style spatter pattern just over my left hip.

I rushed into the bookshop and into the customer toilet. The launch was 15 minutes away. I whipped my jacket off, grabbed some toilet paper, and turned on the tap to dampen it so I could dab at the affected area.

I had forgotten that you never turn on a strange tap in a hurry. A jet of cold water spurted out at crotch height and hit me at crotch height. In an instant, my problems had doubled.

I was grateful of the convention that there are no CCTV cameras inside customer toilets, as I am not sure how it would have looked as I thrust my crotch under the hand dryer while frantically attempting to remove seagull poo from a jacket in a toilet glaringly free of dry cleaning facilities.

The point is, it is very difficult to remove all traces of bird droppings from a grey suit. It is also very difficult to remove all suspicion of foul play caused by an unexpectedly exuberant cold tap from a grey suit. Basically, grey is the worst colour of suit you can wear if you want to get away with anything.

I decided the best way to proceed was to draw attention to the bird accident, and that way nobody would be looking at my crotch. Better to be a victim of misfortune than its father. I approached the author, an old and long-suffering friend and former boss. “A seagull pooed on me,” I explained, pointing at the residue with one hand and obscuring my other stricken area with the other.

Her eyes did the opposite of a look of surprise. “It’s supposed to be lucky,” she lied, as she bundled me out of the way to speak to other, less faeces-spattered guests.

My current boss arrived. “A seagull pooed on me,” I explained. “It’s supposed to be lucky,” she also lied, on her way to her seat. They must teach it at Boss School.

A former colleague said, “Ooh, lucky!” when I told her. By that time I had had enough.

“How is this lucky? How? A bird pooed on me. That is the definition of unlucky. Even if I’m supposed to be lucky from the second it hit me, my next job is to remove bird plop from my clothes…”

I was warming to my theme, and gesticulating madly, my arms a blur. “That is not how luck works. And I should know because I’ve never had… What?”

“Gary,” she said. “Have you wet yourself?”

You Me Everything by Catherine Isaac is out now, price £12.99, unless you can get it cheaper. You probably can these days.

COLUMN: April 19, 2018

Clark Kent
A man wearing glasses. I am not saying I am like Superman. It is not for me to say that

FOR most of my life I have worn glasses. I think only the logistical difficulties prevented me from being born wearing them.

For the first nine years, my glasses were intended to make my virtually blind right eye work. And when they realised they would have better luck getting a post-Brexit economy to work, my doctors told me I did not need to wear them any more.

But I started wearing glasses again in my mid-20s, when I belatedly realised that I was having trouble seeing into the distance. Luckily I was a poor footballer in any case, so this was not important. The only time I ever had to see into the distance was every day when I was driving on the motorway.

And so I continued to wear glasses, ostensibly for distance vision, but, because I am a) lazy; b) prone to losing things; and c) too vain to wear a Larry Grayson-style spectacles chain, I only ever took them off for sleeping and showering. Even when I took them off I still found myself absent-mindedly pushing a phantom pair up the bridge of my nose.

All was well for the best part of 20 years. I would have eye tests every couple of years. Occasionally my prescription would be marginally strengthened, and I am not entirely sure it had to be. When the optician asks me if the first or second lens is better, I honestly do not know. I am convinced that sometimes I actually got worse glasses after an eye test than the ones I had before.

But recently I was reading an article on my phone and I realised I was squinting and holding the phone at arm’s length. I lifted my glasses. The text was blurred without glasses and considerably more blurred with the glasses.

“Oh, marvellous,” I thought. “It’s finally happened. First grey hairs, then my barber’s suggestion that he might trim my eyebrows, and now this. I need reading glasses. Next stage is excessive ear growth, then elasticated waist trousers, then a more than mild interest in advertisements publicising funeral insurance plans starring the worst actors over the age of 65.”

I shuffled along to the optician’s, a new one this time. Perhaps the difference between this one’s first and second lenses would be more apparent and I wouldn’t have to guess the answer. “How long has it been since your last eye test?” the optician asked me. It felt like going to Confession.

“About 18 months,” I said. He raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Oh,” he clearly thought, “That’s not very long. I’ve got one of those recreational eye test-takers they warned us about at opticians’ school.”

“That’s not very long,” he said.

“I’m having trouble reading while wearing glasses,” I said. “This is a new and unwelcome twist in the story of my eyesight.”

“You could just take them off,” the optician said, presumably unaware of his company’s keenness to flog me as many pairs of glasses as possible.

“I could, but I know I wouldn’t. Can’t I have varifocals?”

He acceded to my request and gave me a sheet of small type to read. With a particular lens strength, I could read it so well I forgot myself and added intonation and emphasis, like Richard Burton. It was almost a pity when the optician snatched it away.

My prescription was ascertained and I was sent off to a salesman to choose some trendy frames (there is no such thing as a trendy frame) and work out what sort of varifocals I would like. For there are four different levels of varifocal excellence, and the only difference I could see between them was the price.

I chose the second cheapest, my standard approach to all such choices, and waited a week for my glasses to be hewn out of the glasses mine, or however they make them.

I have been wearing them for a couple of weeks, and I can tell you this: varifocals take a lot of getting used to. For a start, you have to remember to move your eyes, rather than your head, when changing focus from one thing to another, making you look like an Eagle Eyes Action Man.

And walking downstairs is much more interesting, especially if, like me, you have vertigo. Adding the element of blurring to the experience makes descending a staircase as exciting as a roller coaster.

This is what it is like to be older. I can see that now. Literally.

COLUMN: April 12, 2018

This is not a meal

TAPAS is a tremendous concept. I don’t know if you speak the language but “tapas” is Spanish for “can’t divide the number of items on the plate between the number of people at the table”.

Before the tapas revolution came to this country it was terrible. You would go to a restaurant and choose, usually, three dishes, a starter, a main course, and a pudding. They were designed so that your starter would pique your appetite, but not leave you too full for a main course, and your main course would leave enough room for a pudding.

And then you would stagger out into the cold air, pleasantly full, or, at least, not feeling that if you got your skates on you could catch the chippy. Imagine how awful that was, that feeling of having been looked after.

It’s much better these days, now we have Taken Back Control. How dare those expert restaurateurs decide what makes up a balanced meal, when we are perfectly capable of choosing three different starters even though we have literally no idea how much will be on each plate?

For nobody has ever walked away from a tapas meal having endured the tyranny of eating the correct amount of food. They have always over-ordered, on the basis that it’s better to order too much than not enough, or under-ordered, because they remember what happened last time when they ordered too much.

And how great it is that this tapas experience is no longer confined to Spanish restaurants. Every restaurant that opens these days is a “small plates” enterprise, so now you can have no idea how much food to order across a much wider range of world cuisines.

Before the big roll-out, if you wanted to have an argument because one of your companions didn’t order croquetas on the basis that “we’re all sharing anyway, aren’t we, and I’ll just have one of the three croquetas that you, the person who really wanted croquetas, ordered”, you would have to go to a Spanish restaurant.

But now you can have an argument anywhere, and not just over croquetas. You can have seething resentment boiling over into passive-aggressive comments like “Somebody didn’t have any lunch, eh?” about falafels or the last siu mai dumpling.

And, because the food “comes out when it is ready”, you can enjoy the experience of sitting there unfed for half an hour while you watch your friends tucking into the pad Thai and albondigas they ordered, and then let them wait while you eat the three dishes you chose and which finally came after everybody else’s (small) plates were cleared away.

I know, I know. I have over-ordered sarcasm. The fact is I have no idea why small plates have become so popular in the catering industry. I can only assume that they’re cheaper to clean. It can’t be because the small plates experience is actually good.

Because the tapas experience was not designed for the restaurant business. Tapas or the Italian version cicchetti were for bars. You’d go on, essentially, a pub crawl around Barcelona or Venice and you’d have a drink, and you’d choose a plate of tapas to go with it.

One bar would specialise in seafood. Another would do the best patatas bravas for kilometres around. But it would be a snack to have with your cerveza or dry sherry. It’s the Mediterranean equivalent of having a packet of nuts ripped from one of those cardboard displays featuring a woman who is not dressed for a trip to Sainsbury’s.

Imagine opening a restaurant in Madrid based on the British pub snack experience. You would be shown to a table which smelled of lager-soaked towels and the gents’. Your (small) plates would be placed on beermats.

And then the food would emerge from the kitchen, “as it’s ready”. A waitress with a Chinese character neck tattoo saying “mum” would rip open a bag of cheese ‘n’ onion crisps and leave it in the middle of the table. Tooth-shattering pork scratchings would appear, if you were lucky. If it were a particularly fancy joint, a rubbery pickled egg, dripping with vinegar, would be delicately placed in a repurposed Worthington E-branded ashtray.

And then, 20 minutes after you’d finished these traditional British delicacies, and were thinking about the bill, out of the swinging doors would come the scampi-flavoured fries both you and the kitchen had forgotten about.

Actually, this might work. I must have a word with my bank manager.

COLUMN: April 5, 2018

That’s right. Leave that coriander over there in the corner, well away from me

IMAGINE if there were an ingredient that roughly seven out of eight people really liked or, at worst, were not really bothered about, but made roughly one out of eight people retch.

And imagine if this reaction by a minority were not about fussiness or an understandable dislike of, say, melons (98% water, 1% cucumber, 1% air freshener) or yoghurt (condensed sour milk). Imagine if it were caused by a genetic intolerance which makes the ingredient taste like soap or rusty nails or that feeling you have when Nigel Farage is on Question Time.

If you were a chef or supermarket home economist, you would think: “Well, honestly, Trevor, I don’t think this is worth the risk. You and I might like it, but a significant minority of consumers are going to feel like licking the side of a matchbox to get rid of the taste. And I mean the rough side, not the side that says England’s Glory, in case you were wondering, you massive pedant.”

That is how things would work in a sensible world, but this is not a sensible world. This is a world in which there are 17 different types of vending machine and none of them work. This is a world in which I – a man who travels to work on a bus and put a bookcase together back to front at the weekend – would beat the President of the United States in a game of Scrabble or even I Spy.

And this is a world in which people put coriander (or cilantro, if you’re American and can’t be bothered doing the research) into things.

Now, if you are one of those people who think coriander is the best thing since sliced bread, and, actually, sliced bread could indeed benefit from the introduction of chopped coriander into the dough at proving stage, you will not understand what the fuss is about.

I can see you there now, chomping through mounds of coriander, happy as Larry (that’s Lawrence Berkowitz, four-time winner of the Man V Cilantro Challenge on the Cilantro Network). “What is wrong with lovely coriander?” you ask, mouth stuffed with the vile muck.

What is wrong with “lovely coriander” is that somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population have a genetic variation in our scent receptors that makes it taste like soap. Not my words, but the words of Science.

Sure, there are people out there who are fussy and don’t like coriander, like those people who don’t like garlic because it’s foreign. And they could train their palate to like coriander. And good luck to them.

But there is a significant minority of people, about one in eight of us, who will never be able to enjoy coriander because it tastes as if somebody has spread some Swarfega on our garlic naan.

That is a significant minority of people who can have their dinner completely ruined without notice. And it’s all very well saying that these poor, if incredibly attractive and witty, people can just avoid coriander, but it’s not as simple as that. Not everything is as blatantly labelled as carrot and coriander soup.

For coriander gets slipped into all sorts of stuff these days. It’s the Undercover Elephant of herbs. The coriander zealots think it improves everything, so they chuck it into soups, leaving you to assume it’s something safe like parsley until you slurp some, and salads, because the most diabolical place to hide some terrible leaves is among other harmless leaves.

This cannot be allowed to stand. We, the coriander intolerant, demand it. There needs to be clear labelling on packaging and menus, and not just in the list of ingredients. There needs to be a special sign. I recommend a logo featuring a big bar of soap, that should be plastered on the front of the packet.

This Soap Mark would be a warning to corianderphobes to stay away. And it would also be a signal to the sort of person who likes coriander. “Come in,” it would say. “You can’t move for herbs that taste like Fairy Liquid in here. Fill your boots.”

If anything, it would allow chefs and supermarket home economists to put even more coriander in things. Which is ideal, because there would be less lying around the place for the likes of me to worry about.

And if you say I’m overreacting, you are obviously not one of the chosen one-in-eight. And you should wash your mouth out with soap.