COLUMN: August 17, 2017

The Brummie comedian Frank Skinner

AS A person who occasionally writes comedy for money, I found myself drawn once again to Edinburgh’s Big Showing Off Festival. For the sake of clarity, when I say I write comedy, I am not referring to these columns. These columns are not comedy; they are cries for help with the occasional joke.

This was my third visit to the capital of Scotland and the capital of people who can balance on sticks. This makes me an old hand and meant that when I arrived, I had already learnt the important lessons.

For example, I knew that you cannot pull a trolley suitcase through a bus shelter without enraging a local, that bagpipers don’t like it when you laugh at them, and that it would have been no loss if jugglers had gone out of business when we invented bags.

It also means that I know how the Edinburgh Fringe works. You have the normal Fringe, where you buy tickets for events beforehand, and the free Fringe, where admission is free, but you have to pay to get out, as they used to do in clip joints.

That is unfair. What actually happens is that the performer stands by the exit with a bucket and as you file out past him or her, you put in what you believe the show merited.

Now, technically you could walk out past the performer and put nothing in. But very few people are capable of doing that, and those who are tend to become right-wing radio talk show hosts.

Or you could drop 28p in the bucket. In many ways, that would be worse than just walking past the performer. That would be like saying, “It’s not me, it’s you. That performance was so abysmal, so lacking in any artistic merit, that I am paying you in coins so inconsequential that they will probably be abolished in the next four years. Watch as each of the five coins bounces grimly off the bottom of a bucket for which you will still be out of pocket at the end of your run.”

But you do not. You drop paper money into the bucket, because you are a human being who understands the torment of other human beings, and the choices that have led a person to stand in a small room in Edinburgh dressed in curlers and a housecoat, pretending to be their own grandmother.

Another thing about Edinburgh during festival season is that time has no meaning, and mealtimes happen when you are hungry, and so I was wandering along a street mid-morning, looking for somewhere to eat in a place where the Edwardian beard and tattoo count was acceptably low, when I was assailed by a woman bearing flyers.

But this one was unlike most other flyers distributors because she was also one of the two women on the flyers. “Please come and see us. We’re very funny and we’re not Frank Skinner,” she said. At no point had I even imagined that Frank Skinner was two women, but this was clearly meant to be helpful.

But when I looked at the flyer, it said Franks & Skinner – presumably their surnames – and I understood the potential for confusion. I had no idea what their show was about. Half of the sales pitch was explaining that they were not a male Brummie comic.

Their show was in 15 minutes’ time. “Yes,” I said, “As God is my witness, I will come to your show.” There had to be more to them than not being the man from Fantasy Football League.

But it was a Free Fringe show, and I only had 28p in my pocket. I had no choice. I had to find a cashpoint, for I am not a monster.

However, there was not a cashpoint in sight. Quickly I opened the maps app on my phone and looked for the nearest cashpoint. It was six minutes away. I could do this.

And so I tore through the always-uphill streets of Edinburgh, directed by my phone. Until I reached my destination. Where there was no cashpoint.

I thought I had learnt all the lessons about Edinburgh, but I was wrong. I had learnt three new lessons. First, always have a five-pound note in your pocket. Second, never promise anybody anything. And third, if you have a double act and your names are Franks and Skinner, and you are worried about the confusion, you should go by Skinner & Franks.

COLUMN: August 10, 2017

Look at all those sesame seeds. What are they even for?

SESAME seeds are dangerous, and it’s about time that somebody did something about it.

There should not be an outright ban on sesame seeds – sesame oil is an important ingredient in Chinese cuisine, and the last thing we need to do at the moment is annoy the Chinese – but there should at least be some regulation surrounding their use.

I say this because I have previous with sesame seeds, and so I understand just how perilous they can be. A few years ago, I was enjoying a post-film hamburger with my son when I cracked a pre-molar, an experience which very much is not to be recommended.

At the time I blamed my distress on an onion ring. But, in retrospect, I realise it cannot have been that. The onion ring, while battered, was hardly crisp. It was so soft that if I had rolled over onto it during the night while in bed, I would not have woken up.

The bun was pappy and certainly not up to the task of holding a small beef patty for more than a few bites, although the amount of sugar in it might have had some effect in weakening my tooth.

The burger itself was not exactly al dente. A small baby could have made a good stab at it. As for the barbecue sauce, if you have to bite through barbecue sauce there’s obviously been some sort of accident. The same goes for the weird plastic melted cheese that was draped over the burger. I do not know what makes the cheese that strange yellow-orange glowing colour, but I would not want to meet the cows responsible.

That only leaves one culprit. The only things hard enough to break a tooth were the sesame seeds sprinkled for some reason on top of the bun.

Nobody knows why sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of hamburger buns. In quantity, sesame seeds have a strong flavour, but you only get 20 on your bun, so they have a limited effect. They are the Andrew Ridgeley of garnishes – a hamburger would look wrong without them, but nobody knows what they do.

The only reasonable explanation is that they are part of a stitch-up between the fast food industry and the toothpick industry, because unless you are lucky, or you somehow manage to grind them between your molars, those super-hard little seeds are going straight for the gaps between your teeth.

But that was not my worst experience with sesame seeds. A few years ago I was invited to a swish cocktail party. I know what you are thinking. “But, Gary,” you are thinking. “You are one of the gilded metropolitan elite. You voted Remain in the EU referendum, and you call them napkins, not serviettes. Surely a man of your calibre goes to swish cocktail parties all the time?”

The fact is that I rarely go to swish cocktail parties. In fact, you can count the number of times I have been invited to a swish cocktail party and have been able to attend a swish cocktail party on the fingers of one finger.

Bear in mind that all I knew about gatherings like this was what I had seen on television or in films. An Eastern European waitress passed me, carrying a tray of prosecco flutes. I suavely swiped one from the tray, as James Bond would have done, and headed into the throng.

I spent five minutes trying to find somewhere to put my empty glass down and by that point I was peckish. Luckily, another Eastern European waitress was passing with a tray filled with tiny cones of fish and chips. I swiped one. This really was the life. I felt at one with Rihanna and the late Sir David Frost.

I introduced myself to a group of people at the party. I was devil-may-care, refreshed by a glass of wine, two chips, and a goujon of cod. And as I launched into a sparkling anecdote, I swiped a tiny bite-sized burger from another passing tray.

I popped the slider into my mouth, and then I let out a blood-curdling teeth-jangling scream.

If it had not been for the sesame seeds scattered on it, I expect I would have noticed, sticking out of the top of the bun, the cocktail stick that was holding the whole thing together, and was now connecting my tongue with the roof of my mouth.

And so that is why sesame seeds are dangerous.

COLUMN: August 3, 2017

Chris Traeger goes for a run wearing literally no glasses

I HAVE been running for a few years now, on and off. I do not know why I have to qualify it with “on and off”. Everybody who runs does it “on and off”, otherwise they would never sleep or watch the television.

The point is, I have a routine now. I strap on my phone holder, I insert my earphones, I check I have my key, I put on my running shoes, I check I have my key again, I pick up enough money for water, but not enough for bus fare in case I am tempted to cheat, I check I have my key again, and I head out of the door.

What I do not do is put on my glasses. There is a very good reason for this. When I run, I perspire. I also bounce up and down.

Those of you who wear glasses will understand that perspiration, particularly around the nose and ears, reduces friction. Add a bouncing motion to lack of friction and you know that those glasses are not long going to stay attached to your face.

And even if they do somehow stay on – for a laugh, perhaps – they will just steam up.

Glasses, then, are useless to the serious runner, which is why you never see Sir Mo Farah stop in the middle of the 10,000 metres to huff on his specs before wiping them with his vest.

And yet, if I could find a way to incorporate glasses into my running, it would prevent me from getting into the sort of scrapes into which I regularly get.

It might, for example, have prevented me from spooking the Duck Women.

I was pounding the pavement. I would like to think that I looked masterful and fit, but I know deep down I looked as if I were tumbling forward in slow motion, never quite reaching the horizontal, while trying to catch invisible cakes that had fallen out of my hands.

In the distance, I could see two figures. They were blurry, as was everything else at that distance, but they were moving fairly slowly, and, I anticipated, would not cause me too much distress. They were not, for example, carrying a ladder or large painting between them. There was little chance of a slapstick-type accident.

As I got closer, they moved into sharper focus. I could see they were women. One of them was carrying a cardboard box, and the other had a small dog on a lead. As long as I did not directly run into either of the women or the dog everything would be fine. Such are the calculations I must make every day.

I continued to head towards them, and it was only at the last moment that I realised that the small dog was not on a lead. Nor was it a dog.

It was, in fact, a duck, leading the women somewhere. And in the cardboard box was another duck, guarding a number of ducklings.

In retrospect I can only assume the two women were taking a duck family, which had hatched in their garden or yard, to the nearby park, presumably to rehouse them, rather than as a treat.

At the time, I did not have the luxury of working out what was going on, as my thundering hooves and poorly coordinated body threw the women and the elder ducks into confusion. The duck in the box flew out towards my head in an attempt to protect its young, the other duck quacked, and the women shrieked, almost dropping the box. I understood at last what it must be to be Godzilla.

I yelled an apology over my shoulder. It was the very least I could do in the circumstances, but also the most, given that my experience with ducks is limited to feeding them or being fed by them.

I clattered on, feeling bad about disturbing a family of ducks and their human companions, and I suppose I was overly preoccupied. Because in the fug of guilt I failed to see the real danger.

A single bramble stem snaked out from a wall, hanging over the road at face height. Had I been wearing my glasses it would have been deflected by them. Of course, had I been wearing my glasses I would have seen it in time.

It turns out that being smacked in the face by a bramble really hurts.

This sort of thing never happens to Sir Mo Farah.

COLUMN: July 27, 2017

A person from a television programme
I HATE raffles. They combine two of my least favourite things – giving away money and admin – and so I tend to avoid them if at all possible.

For this is what happens in raffles. Somebody sidles up to you with a book of tickets and says, “Twenty pence each, five for a pound”, as if I don’t have a GCSE in maths, and you think that sounds reasonable, and you can’t get away with giving them 20p, but you don’t mind handing over a quid.

And so you hand over that quid and then the person with the lanyard – for that person is always wearing a lanyard, as only the most responsible members of staff are entrusted with raffles – says, “Right, just write your name and address on the back of all of the stubs.”

This is pressure you don’t need, because you have to do five times a boring task which you should not be capable of getting wrong, but during which, because you are being watched, you find yourself thinking “Argh! What number do I live in? How do I spell my surname? What is ‘pen’?”

And then you think, “Why am I writing my name and address on the back of the stubs? I have an individually numbered ticket. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that, as it happens, the point?”

So, I was at my desk, minding the company’s business, when I became aware of money being extorted from colleagues, and my antennae, finely tuned by years of working in the same office, detected that it was not a leaving envelope. There was something about the jingle.

He appeared at the desk next to mine, blindsiding my colleague Barrie. Some people might question the wisdom of putting a Gary and a Barrie next to each other in an office, but I welcome the confusion.

I overheard the conversation, while frantically calculating if I could leave my desk without being detected until the coast was clear. Each ticket was a pound. That’s inflation for you. (For European readers, a pound is roughly equivalent to half a euro.)

I felt in my pocket. I had a two pound coin, a 50p piece, and a couple of copper coins. No idea where they came from. Copper coins are like blue belly button fluff these days. Could I really buy just one ticket? Yes, I could.

But then I heard Raffle Man say which charity it was supporting. Now, I am all for charity, but there are some charities which tend to leave me unmoved. Funds to build garden bridges, for instance, or those which employ people in tabards to stop you in the street in an attempt to obtain your bank details.

However, this charity was a children’s hospice, and there is no arguing with the need for hospices for children.

Raffle Man came to me. “Go on, give me two,” I said, like Rockefeller. I wrote my name and extension number on the back of the tickets – after checking my extension number on the phone twice (I don’t need to know it; I never have to call myself) – and it was only after I had done this that I had a look at the prizes.

There was a range of treats – a bottle of expensive gin, some high street vouchers, that sort of thing. But one thing stood out above all – a pair of tickets to see Mrs Brown live.

You can’t argue with Mrs Brown’s Boys. It is the most popular and highly-rated TV sitcom in years. It makes millions of people happy. It is so popular, somebody thought giving away two tickets would be a good prize.

It is just… its appeal eludes me. I don’t get it. I’d rather watch QVC. Knowing my luck, I chuckled, I’ll win those tickets. And then I forgot about the raffle.

The weekend went past. It was a glorious day. I was humming ELO’s Mr Blue Sky on my way to work, when I received a message.

“You’ve won tickets to see Mrs Brown,” a colleague, who finds the sitcom’s appeal equally elusive, informed me with some glee.

It was the first raffle I have ever won, and now I have to go and sit with thousands of Mrs Brown fans, while watching Mrs Brown. Don’t tell me I can give the tickets away and I don’t have to go. Of course I do. I am a journalist.

And that’s why I hate raffles.

COLUMN: July 20, 2017

Game Of Thrones
This man isn’t in Game Of Thrones any more. Don’t ask me how I know this

WHEN I was undergoing the six-year process of changing from a boy into technically and legally a man, I owned a Sinclair ZX Spectrum computer.

It was not by current standards a powerful computer. It was not even by the standards of the time a powerful computer. It was the computer equivalent of me. But it was relatively cheap and easy to program and had so many games. Again, the computer equivalent of me.

Yes, it took eight minutes to load one of those games – and often the loading process would fail – but that was OK. I was 13, what else did I have to do but wait? Teenagers are famously patient.

But I was loyal to that computer. In those days, among my peers, there was a divide. On my side, Spectrum kids, on the other Commodore 64 divs. I suspect they did not refer to themselves in such terms, but that is because they were divs because they had Commodore 64s.

Yes, there were other computers available, like the BBC Micro, but they were for rich children whose parents could afford to spend £399 on a computer just because it had a nice keyboard.

Games for my computer were not always available for the Commodore 64, and vice versa. Normally, this was fine, because, ugh, who wants to play a Commodore 64 game?

But occasionally a game would appear on the Commodore 64 that I actually wanted to play. I would hear the Commobores in my class excitedly chatting about their game about llamas or Ghostbusters, and ache to join in. But I had made my choice. It was not to be.

I grew up – more accurately, older – and such emotions of frustration and exclusion were relegated to the 1980s, along with Black Watch check trousers, trimphones, and cartoons on BBC2.

But now it’s back. Because virtually everybody I know is watching Game Of Thrones, and I am not because I don’t have Posh Telly.

Actually, I do have Posh Telly, but I have the wrong sort of Posh Telly. There are three main types of Posh Telly – I won’t list them here because this is not an advertisement – and I have picked one of the ones which doesn’t have the Bosoms And Dragons programme.

Usually when I tell people this, they explain to me that I can very easily sign up to a package which will give me access to Swords And Nudity. And I have to tell them that I am not in a position to do that.

This time I am not sticking with my own type of Posh Telly out of loyalty, but because I can’t afford to have three types of Posh Telly. I have to draw the line somewhere. If I shelled out eight quid a month just to watch a show that only has 10 episodes a year, what would happen if a show I like appears on the remaining type of Posh Telly?

I’d have to pay for that too, and in the end I would be paying more per month to watch programmes that aren’t even on than I would be paying for food.

This logistical situation means that I have now effectively become a keen viewer of a television programme I do not watch.

I understand all the references. I know what the Red Wedding is. I know who John Snow is. In fact, when I hear somebody say the name “John Snow” I do not automatically assume they mean the Channel 4 News man.

I understand the joke when people say “Hodor”. I know what both Robson AND Jerome are doing these days. I am incredibly angry that Ed Sheeran was in the latest episode.

I feel like I did whenever I visited my late mother and she would tell me the ins and outs of the lives of people I had never met: utterly confused and yet fully briefed to A Level standard.

But this stuff is taking up too much valuable real estate in my brain considering I have never seen a second of the show, and I wonder which important information is being crowded out whenever I recognise the Iron Throne in a picture.

However, I am not going to let it bother me. And that is the proof that I have now grown into an actual man.

Mind you, I bet if I had been a Commodore 64 owner I’d still be whinging. They are the worst.

COLUMN: July 13, 2017

An amount of ice cream
I HAD accidentally worked for seven days in a row because I am both unlucky and stupid. I understand that that does not sound like a very long time, and that many workers in the NHS can work for 10 days at a time, but what you do not appreciate is that I am very lazy.

I am so lazy that sloths use me as a metaphor. “Hurry up,” they say to each other, “Sloth Tesco is going to close in four hours, you total Bainbridge.”

The point is that I was really looking forward to my single day off in 12. I was going to have a lie-in, maybe have a cup of tea in bed, take a walk to buy an ice cream. The sky really was the limit.

And, best of all, I was going to have a bus-free day. I do not get a lot of buses – maybe two a day tops, to and from work – but I do feel that I spend most of my life as a bus passenger. So this was going to be a proper day off – a busman’s holiday, if you will, which I very much hope you won’t.

I settled in bed with my cup of tea, half delighted to be drinking it, half annoyed that I had had to get out of bed to make it, and decided that this was the perfect time to catch up with my correspondence. I insulted a couple of people on Twitter, half-heartedly “liked” some posts on Facebook, and checked my email.

This column contains two lessons. This is the first: never check your email on a Sunday. I did it and immediately regretted it. For there was a reminder that two books I had borrowed were due back at the library the following day.

This would not normally be a problem, but I am working on a project at the moment, the hours of which mirror precisely the opening hours of the library, which meant that I would not be able to take the book back until the following weekend, which meant that the fine would start racking up, for both books…

“Argh!” I said, out loud, to nobody, save a pigeon that was perched outside my bedroom window. “I’ve got to get a flipping bus.”

Enraged, I got out of bed, did the things necessary for me to pass in the outside world, picked up the stupid books, and stormed out of the house.

It was rather sunny, and the rage soon passed. I reached the bus stop. My bus was not due for another five minutes. It was too sunny to stand at a bus stop, so I decided to walk to the next stop, about two minutes down the road.

Halfway between the stops, I was passed by my bus. You can do the mathematics. This was definitely not my fault even though my actions brought it about. My next bus was not for ages, so I trudged off to a stop half a mile away, where I would be able to get a bus which would come sooner.

I sat at the stop, and could see my new – and better – bus in the distance. “This is the bus life,” I thought. It was going to take a while to reach me because of traffic lights and physics.

I opened one of the books I was taking back, and began reading it. It was a book on Italian grammar. I am trying to learn a few foreign languages in time for Brexit, when I won’t be able to use them.

“Ah! Now I get it”, I thought, about a simple bit of grammar that I had not previously been able to grasp. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my bus bearing down on me. I leapt to my feet and flung my arm out.

But it was too late. A second bus in 10 minutes flew past me. And this one was definitely my fault. I was too engrossed in Italian verbs – that old story.

And by the time the next bus came, and I got to the library, and came home again, the ice cream shop I was planning to visit was closed.

And so that is the second lesson I have to pass on to you: never try to improve yourself in any way – you will miss out on some ice cream.

COLUMN: July 6, 2017

A cooling glass of cider in a perfectly ordinary pub in London. Price: £47

I HAVE A naturally quiet voice. It is sometimes hard to tell whether I am whispering or shouting. It does not help that I make the same cupping gesture for both activities.

Part of this is because I have a lisp, which was cute when I was a small child, made me a target when I was a larger child, and is just annoying now I am an adult.

It means that I spend far too much of my life avoiding S sounds in conversation. There is no way, for instance, that I could ever romance a woman called Cecilia. I would have to call her Thingy all the time.

Similarly, I could never take up with a coastal-based marine fossils dealer, because I could never explain her job.

But mostly my quiet voice exists because I am polite. I do not think that anybody should be forced to listen to me when I am having a conversation. It would be nice to think that people engaged in conversation with me did not feel forced so to do, but they are not my concern.

My concern is that I am never considered That Man In The Pub. For there is nobody worse than That Man In The Pub.

You hear him before you see him, and then when you see him you immediately know that the voice you heard came from him even if, for that moment, he is not speaking, because his appearance is as loud as his voice.

There are two main types of That Man In The Pub. The first wears a suit and appears to be aged about 35. He may not actually be 35 – he might be in his twenties – but he has always wanted to look 35. He is probably an estate agent. He may not actually be an estate agent, but he has always wanted to look like an estate agent.

This man does not wear a tie, but he does have a pocket square. The pocket square is the most ridiculous piece of clothing since Adam and Eve donned fig leaves. (Incidentally, does anybody know how they managed to attach these fig leaves? Did they have Pritt Sticks in the Garden of Eden?) It is a handkerchief that you cannot actually use as a handkerchief. Its only use is as a signal to other people that you are a person to avoid.

The second type of That Man In The Pub wears a football shirt. It is a never-ending source of amusement to me that if I turned up at the pub dressed as Spider-Man I would be lambasted. Also I would have no idea how I would drink anything through the mask.

However it is perfectly acceptable for a man with a beer gut and an approach to personal hygiene and fitness rarely seen in the modern game to pretend to be John Terry.

But what the two types have in common is an overwhelming need for everybody in the pub to know that they are there. They have to be the loudest in their group. They think that banter is a good thing rather than a substitute for a sense of humour for people who cannot think of their own jokes.

I witnessed the first type this week. I was in London for a meeting and had an hour to kill before my train home.

I went to a pub, because there is only so much entertainment to be had in a station waiting room, ordered a drink, and sat in the corner trying to look as if I hadn’t been stood up.

In he came, wearing a pinstriped suit and shiny shoes, surrounded by his entourage of nodding pillocks. The party sat around me and started talking across me. I know I was going for a discreet effect, but I did not realise I was actually invisible.

The subject matter chosen by That Man In The Pub was wide and varied. It concerned the ugliness of his companions, the likelihood that they might be homosexual, the likelihood that various female tennis players might be homosexual, and the physical attributes of the female bar staff. And all of it was delivered in his outdoor voice.

I tried to hide my distaste, finished my drink, and left them to it, glad that I am able to say I am not like That Man In The Pub.

But even if I did, you wouldn’t be able to hear me.