COLUMN: January 18, 2018

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Guy Fieri eating something. I shudder to imagine what

I HAVE never been to America. But I know everything I need to know about America because I have read DC and Marvel comics and watched a lot of television.

Certainly I have learned a lot about American food because I am a regular viewer of the Food Network, which shows hours and hours of American food programmes when it is not showing the same four episodes of Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals.

And the most American of these programmes is Diners, Drive-ins & Dives.

Diners, Drive-ins & Dives – or Triple D, as the programme is known, because they went overboard with the title and didn’t consider how often American TV presenters would have to mention the name of the programme – is presented by Guy Fieri.

Fieri is what a hairdresser would look like in a Nintendo Mario game. He has bleached blond hair, a red convertible, and a permanent outdoors voice. By rights, I should hate him. But I do not. Perhaps it is because he is engaging and appears genuinely enthusiastic about food, or perhaps it is Stockholm syndrome.

If you have never seen Triple D, I will walk you through a sample episode…

Fieri fetches up in a dusty American city. There are no pedestrians in sight. He says something along the lines of, “Right now, Triple D is in Bogbrush, Indiana. And you know what that means…” I don’t know what that means. Only people in Bogbrush, Indiana could possibly know what that means.

He goes on, “We’re in the home of the Bogbrush double dip piranha sandwich, and there’s nowhere that does it better than Carlito’s Piranha House. They’ve been doing the double dip for an amazing 23 years.” In America 23 years is roughly equivalent to 387 British years.

They then go into Carlito’s Piranha House to meet some of the regular customers. “I have a double dip piranha every day,” lies an attractive, clear-complexioned woman. If she really had a double dip piranha every day she would be on the news because they had to use a crane to get her out of her bedroom to take her to hospital. “They’re so fresh and tender.”

Tenderness is very important to Americans. They hate chewing things. This is why their teeth are so good – they never have to use them.

Fieri then goes into the kitchen to meet the chef and watch him put together a double dip piranha sandwich. This will involve a ton of sugar and salt, which will go into the “rub” so the piranha has a great “bark”, and a whole “stick” of butter. Americans have butter in sticks because they use it as a weapon.

Fieri will then shove the entire sandwich into his mouth before explaining that it is by far the best Bogbrush double dip piranha sandwich he has ever had, which is probably true, and that the flavours are “off the chart”, which is probably not.

And then off he rushes to another diner or drive-in. He has been to more of these than he has had hot dinners. I don’t know how that can be, but there we are. (He never seems to go to any dives. Or if he does, he does not refer to them as such, for diplomatic reasons.)

He is always in a hurry. It’s a wonder he does not have constant indigestion. This time he is at “the best chilli dog joint in Milwaukee”.

I should explain. Americans, like Guy Fieri, are always in a hurry, so much so that they often have one meal on top of another meal in order to save time. They put bacon on top of pancakes with maple syrup, scones and custard next to their fried chicken, and they have the chilli dog.

For those who do not know, a chilli dog is a hot dog, but instead of topping it with mustard, or perhaps onions, the Americans opt for chilli con carne, a thing that other nationalities eat on its own as a satisfying meal.

This is like going to the chip shop and ordering fish and chips, and when they ask you if you want salt and vinegar you say, “No, actually, could you chuck a couple of scoops of shepherds pie on it?”

After he goes into rhapsodies about a sausage with some mince on top of it, Guy Fieri leaps into his red convertible, cuts off proceedings abruptly, and promises he will be back next time.

And this is why I can never live in America. It’s hard to pull off that sort of exit when you travel everywhere by bus.

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COLUMN: January 11, 2018

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A carelessly discarded banana skin makes a delightful floor ornament

I HAVE two pairs of shoes. I don’t want you to think I am bragging when I say this. “Oh, here he comes, Billy Four Shoes.” If anything, I am Billy Ten Shoes, as I also have two pairs of boots and a pair of running shoes. I know, I know, my flat is almost indistinguishable from a branch of Clarks.

The point is that, unless I am running, I have a choice of shoes. I can literally fill my boots.

So I suppose that what happened that day was my fault. I did not have to choose the one pair of shoes I own which have a smooth sole.

But, on the other hand – or foot, the manufacturers were at fault for making a shoe with a smooth sole. What were they thinking?

These are people whose job it is to think about how shoes work and are used. Is there nobody in their R&D department who has pointed out that shoes would ideally grip the floor, rather than glide like Torvill and Dean on Teflon across it. Is there nobody saying, “People tend to stand up and walk when wearing our shoes. I don’t see the benefit of a sole that reduces friction on surfaces. Our customers tend not to fry eggs on the soles?”

Anyway, I first realised that this was an issue when I was on my way in to work. I had run out of the specific hair gel that I have to use – and a man with difficult-to-explain hair like mine has to use a specific hair gel – which is only available in the bigger branches of Britain’s Favourite Large-scale Retailer.

Hair gels and suchlike are situated on the first floor of this establishment, and accessed by a travelator on a steep slope, shopping trolleys being tricky to accommodate on conventional escalators, as anybody who has ever gone to town on a Saturday with a pushchair will tell you.

I stepped onto the steep travelator, and gripped the moving handrail, and all was fine until about halfway up, when I had to release the handrail to answer a text message about nothing.

The thing about gravity is that it is no respecter of texts about nothing, and I felt its pull immediately. I started to slide down the incline, my shoes giving me no traction, my legs thrashing about as if I were in a Japanese game show called Enormous Comedy Slippery Slope, until I could sheathe my phone without causing it damage and snatch the handrail again while falling to my knees.

This is why I have never been skiing, incidentally. Ice is slippery. I don’t see how making a virtue of that helps anybody.

Luckily only the 12 or so people behind me on the slope saw me, and, presumably, the security man watching on CCTV. And the members of staff he called over.

After picking up the gel, I went on the return journey. It was easier going down, because even if I slipped at least I was going in the right direction.

I walked gingerly to work after that, very much aware of the shortcomings of my sole, and got on with my job.

But I had a lunchtime meeting outside the office. A cold wind was whipping up as I went there, but there was nothing to concern me, because I was wearing Medium Coat.

However, the wind, as it turned out, was the beginnings of Storm Eleanor.
“Goodness me, it’s blowy,” I thought, as I returned to work, and I turned a corner, walking down the middle of the pavement. But Eleanor was now at my back, and the difficulty began.

You see, Medium Coat is a three-quarter length affair, and is flappy in even a light breeze. In these conditions, Medium Coat was effectively a sail.

Had I been wearing any other shoes, I might have got away with it. A gust slid me along the pavement, heading helplessly straight for a busy road.

I was too far from the railings on one side of me, but there were cars parked perpendicularly to the pavement…

I jumped, using Medium Sail to turn me into the path of a car, and grabbed the bonnet, preserving myself until the wind passed, my head down.

And then I looked up into the eyes of the driver, who was sitting behind the wheel, watching a man who had, inexplicably, leapt from the pavement to hug his car.

COLUMN: January 4, 2018

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Some Cheshire cheese, but on a French plate for some reason
I AM not the most decisive of people under pressure. No, that is not true, sometimes I can be very decisive. Actually, I’m not sure the word “decisive” is the one I should use. Maybe “resolute”? No, decisive is the one. Definitely.

The point is, the fewer decisions I have to make, the happier I am. I am not saying I would welcome a totalitarian government, but I would probably do all right under one, especially if it banned coriander leaf, melons, and workplace raffles.

But most of life in 2018 appears to be forcing me into decisions that I would prefer not to have to make. I have to decide which company supplies my gas, which of hundreds of TV channels to watch, which of 12 different types of olive oil to buy.

I am exaggerating for comic effect, of course. I do not have hundreds of TV channels, as I only have Council Telly rather than Posh Telly, and consequently have limited access to channels which show exactly the same programme as another channel, but one hour later.

But my fear of making decisions is that of making the wrong choice, because I make the wrong choice far more often than I should. And knowing this fact leads me to make more bad decisions, as I change my mind on the assumption that my first instinct must be wrong.

Essentially, I am constantly engaged in a game of bluff and double-bluff with myself. It is exhausting as I am simultaneously a fiendish opponent and a totally useless one.

So I was the worst person to be faced with an automated check-out over the holiday period, because it offered me the opportunity to buy and weigh my bag at the start of the process, which would allow me to put my items straight into the bag, saving me as many as 30 seconds.

I gave that a lot of thought – should I stick with what I knew, and bag up my groceries afterwards, or should I take a risk on a new and brilliant short cut?

“This is inevitably going to be the wrong choice,” I thought, as I went for the short cut. This is because I have never found a short cut that is more successful than the longer route.

I scanned my bag and then placed it in the bagging area. The computer ummed and ahhed for a moment, then told me to proceed, its fingers steepled.

I tried to scan some cheese, failed, straightened out the bar code, failed again, straightened it out again, succeeded, and put it in the bag.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area”, the computer lied. It had been lulling me into complacency. Instinctively I removed the cheese. Another bad decision.

The light flashed and a supermarket operative appeared. “I took the cheese by accident,” I explained. He stabbed a code into the machine to cancel the cheese and scooted off.

I immediately put the cheese back in the bag instead of scanning it.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area”, the computer said, reasonably this time. The supermarket operative returned. “I accidentally put the cheese back,” I explained. He repeated the cheese cancellation. I now hated cheese, and put it back in the basket.

I tried another item, some washing-up liquid this time. I scanned it correctly, the price came up, I placed it in the bag.

“Unexpected item in the bagging area.”

The supermarket operative appeared. I think he hated me, and I could not blame him. He probably dreams about me now. “I don’t understand why it’s not expecting the things it has told me I’ve got. Oh, it’s the bag, isn’t it?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I don’t get it. How can it not be expecting a bag in the bagging area? If anything, that is the one thing that a bagging area should be expecting.”

He cancelled the bag without a word and stalked off in search of less problematic customers, like a half-starved Rottweiler on heat, or a sarcastic teenager covered in flaming spikes.

And so I went back to my usual practices of filling up a bagging area while not quite having enough space, and ruing my poor decisions. The cheese worked this time, the check-out having become reconciled to the idea that I might want to buy some. It even accepted the bag. Eventually.

Come to think of it, “decisive” probably isn’t the word.

 

COLUMN: December 28, 2017

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An oven front panel

I SPENT Christmas on my own, partly for complicated reasons, but mostly in an attempt not to bring calamity to other people’s Christmases. Nobody needs a repeat of The Stuffing Incident.

It seemed wantonly extravagant to buy a turkey for myself, and Christmas is hardly the time for wanton extravagance. Besides, I was not sure if the shelves in my oven went down far enough to accommodate one and my chopping board is fairly small.

So I decided to go for a chicken. You’d have been happier with a chicken too. At least chicken tastes of something. Turkey just tastes like a photocopy of a photocopy of chicken.

But I pushed the rubber dinghy out and bought the best organic chicken I could find. It was corn-fed, and consequently, apparently, was bright yellow.

I do not understand this. Why does chicken’s skin turn yellow on a corn diet? What is it about corn that tints skin so? I mean, I live on a diet of strong tea, but I am as pale as Michelangelo’s David, which is where the resemblance ends.

Perhaps some enterprising farmer could try different feed, like beetroot or asparagus, and we could have multi-coloured chickens, like heritage carrots or tomatoes. The chiller cabinet in Tesco could look like a packet of Refreshers.

Anyway, I took my yellow chicken, rubbed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and chucked some sprigs of thyme in the cavity, all the while using expressions like “bosh” and “luvvly jubbly”, as Jamie Oliver might have done. And then I fell at my usual hurdle, which meant I had to switch on my laptop.

You see, I live in a rented flat, and a previous occupant had been so fastidious when it came to cleaning the oven that he or she had scrubbed off most of the labels on its front panel, rendering it useless.

So when I moved in, I did a trawl of the internet in an attempt to master my oven, and I found that somebody was selling as a spare part a front panel of my oven on eBay. And so I made a copy of the photograph.

Similarly, I found a PDF of the instruction manual online, not, of course, on the website of the oven manufacturer, but in an internet forum I discovered halfway down page 6 of a Google search, which is, by the way, the best place to hide anything.

So, whenever I have to use my oven, I have to switch on my computer, find the manual and picture of the front panel, and zoom in on it so I know which settings to use.

I know I am not alone. Yes, the specifics are different, but we all have quirky things and workarounds in our homes. There’s the broken flush that you have to press in just the right way. There’s the funny window latch that you have to wobble before you open it. There’s the bathroom door you have to keep your foot against because the lock froze and it would probably work if you got some WD40, but you’ve forgotten to get some WD40 for about 18 months.

These are all things that, if you were buying a property, would probably put you off, the inconveniences that are just enough to annoy you at the time, but not inconvenient enough to stick in your mind and make you do something about it. If they were a television programme, they would be The One Show or a Michael McIntyre variety show.

So instead of fixing them for good we bumble along, with a low-level buzz of irritation in our lives.

No longer. Let us make a New Year’s Resolution together. Let 2018 be the year we finally adopt a zero-tolerance approach to slightly annoying things.

Let 2018 be the year you finally get the gas company to spell your name right. Let 2018 be the year you unsubscribe to those emails. Let 2018 be the year you buy a new ironing board cover instead of just Sellotaping it back down because the elastic perished.

Better than that, let 2018 be the year you find out why corn turns chickens yellow.

Fix the small things as they crop up, and we can turn our ire in 2018 on the important things, like the spread of food bank use, the rise in homelessness, the increase in post-Brexit-vote hate crimes.

And maybe we can see our way to having a Happy New Year.

COLUMN: December 21, 2017

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Not really my thing

I HAD to pop down to London for a function, which is my favourite word to describe an event in which people stand around with drinks in their hands while eating small pieces of toast.

This is because the word “function” makes it sound as if a party were grimly necessary, like plumbing or paying your council tax, instead of being a jolly business involving a free bar for the first two hours.

I always enjoy going to London, because it allows me to witness one of the best things about living in the UK in the early 21st century – people using public transport looking genuinely angry about having to wait half a minute for the next train.

It is all I can do to prevent myself from telling them about the two trains an hour that run from my local station, and how there are people in rural parts of the country who will be reading this and thinking, “Look at that fancy pants remoaner Bainbridge with his two trains an hour. We have one train a week, every Thursday, and that gives us 38 seconds to get all our shopping at the market in town or we’ll miss the only train coming back.

“This is why we voted for Brexit. Not to make our lives better, but to make his life worse.”

I travelled down to London by train, and unfortunately there was an incident down the line which caused my journey to be cut short at Rugby. A light-hearted column is not the place to dwell on what the incident was, but my sincere sympathy goes to the family, especially at this time of year.

As a result, my entire train was decanted onto another entire train, on which space was already at a premium. This meant that people who had paid for seats were forced to stand. Nobody, of course, could complain, and nor should they have done. Soberingly, we had all been reminded that things could definitely be worse.

And this meant that we could focus our full attention on the very specific problem of remaining upright on a fast moving and tilting train while being unable to move one’s feet because of luggage on the floor.

I have rarely been accused of being well-balanced. I have to stop before descending stairs because of vertigo. My record distance travelled on a skateboard is 1.5 metres, and that was mostly by accident. My PE teacher used to call colleagues to watch whenever I attempted to walk from one end of a gym bench to another. I suspect there was a book run on it.

So standing in a very small space while battling the twin forces of momentum and gravity is especially taxing for a man like me. All of this is to explain that what happened was not my fault.

Five passengers including me were crammed in a small space between the toilet and the on-board shop. One of our number decided that this was the ideal opportunity to learn everything he could about four new friends, while four of us were more sceptical, focused as we were on being mostly vertical while everything else was diagonal.

The others were holding safety bars. But I did not have one to hand, and had to grip a slightly dimpled part of the wall, like one of those rope-free climbers you see dangling from overhanging rocks. And it was heating up, and my fingertips were becoming increasingly slick with perspiration.

“And why did you leave your last job? Have you had any sexual problems? What’s your favourite colour?” our garrulous friend asked. I was distracted, and, before I could say “green”, the train jolted violently, my grip was lost, and I was flung forward, my face ending an inch away from that of a recently retired elderly gentleman.

“Sorry!” I said, and flung myself back, my elbow hitting the sliding door between our tiny compartment and the on-board shop. It hurt my elbow, but that was the least of my issues.

For I had hit the button which activates the sliding door, and the elderly retired gentleman’s similarly elderly retired wife was leaning against the door at the time.

And the door slid open, sending the woman spiralling backwards into the on-board shop, just shy of the display of Snickers bars.

I apologised to her, as she staggered back into our shared area, but somehow it did not quite seem enough. Or functional.

COLUMN: December 14, 2017

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It’s not easy seeing green

WHEN I tell people my favourite colour is green – for example, whenever I am interviewed by Smash Hits or Look In – they look at me askance.

“Green?” they say. “That is a very unlucky colour.” I usually ask them to explain, but they cannot. “I have green eyes,” I say, “and I am not… oh, yes, I see what you mean.”

Green is certainly discriminated against in the colour community. Some people say “red and green should never be seen”. Many more say “blue and green should never be seen”. But both camps clearly agree that green is a bad ‘un, associated with sickness and envy.

Even when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented The Incredible Hulk they must have had a conversation about his hue. “What colour, Jack, should we make our big angry monster? Shall we make him red, the colour traditionally associated with rage?”

“No, Stan, we will make him green, to symbolise his terrible curse.”

“Excelsior, Jack. Right, I’m off to be a film star while you die in virtual penury.”

Despite the slurs against its character, I remain a fan of green. It soothes me when I see it, unless I am camping and it means something has gone very wrong with my ground sheet.

And a few years ago I found my perfect green, a shade which somehow, for reasons I do not understand, made me feel at peace with everything. And, when you consider that I can become angry about onion soup and bollards and literally anything else, that is quite the thing.

It was a green bauble in a garden centre, hanging among other, more boring colours, and it stopped me dead. I cannot describe this green, apart from to say it was at once more blue and more gold than any other green I had ever seen, which should be impossible but somehow was not.

I had to buy it – it was only a couple of pounds – but you can’t buy things if you’ve left your stupid wallet on your stupid bedside cabinet and all your stupid change in your other stupid trousers. I went home to get cash, but by the time I got back to the garden centre, my green had gone.

I have spent much of the time since looking for “my green”, unable to describe it, but knowing I would recognise it if I saw it. I’ve looked at paintings, at colour charts, in books, everywhere. Google is a marvellous thing, but “that shade of green I like” is not a search term which has brought me much joy.

I have been Elmer Fudd in search of Bugs Bunny for years, driven to distraction at times.

And then, last week, as I was walking through a department store, I saw it. It was a bauble again – perhaps it is a colour that only works on spheres.

What’s more, there were loads of them, all packed in boxes with other, lesser colours. And I had my wallet this time.

But I was on the way to work, and if there’s one thing you can’t take into a newspaper office, for fear of distracting the younger reporters, it’s a box of shiny baubles.

I went back a few days later to claim my victory. And all the boxes had been sold. I actually gibbered. In public…

“Mum, can we get these?”

I looked. There was a boy, aged about eight or nine, holding the last box of my baubles. It must have been hidden behind other, rubbish baubles. My eye twitched. I looked at his mother, hoping that she would be a terrible misery guts.

“No, put them back,” she said. The boy tutted and did as he was told. I felt bad for him for a moment and then, after he left, pounced on my green.

Now they are sitting on my tree, and I feel guilty that that boy is going to have the same long quest to find that colour as I had.

So this is a message to that boy. If you are that boy, and this is several years later, and you Google in desperation “that shade of green I like”, you will probably have found this column online, and I will give you one of my baubles.

But if you’re not that boy, and you’re trying to con me, don’t even bother. I’m not as green as I’m cabbage-looking.

COLUMN: December 7, 2017

Film: Die Hard
Scrooge with an Uzi

A FEW years ago I wrote a column about the Christmas film Elf in which I explained in painstaking if compelling detail why I thought it wasn’t any good. That done, I gave it the inflammatory headline “Why You Are Wrong To Like The Film Elf”.

I knew what would happen. The sort of people who like the film Elf would rage at me that you can’t say it’s wrong to like a film, even if it is definitely a bad film. As Elf is.

And they did, and it is true. It’s entirely possible to like something that isn’t remotely good. Even Violet Kray loved her boys.

Because everything is a matter of opinion, apart from the things that aren’t. For instance, a recent poll by YouGov said that 50% of people in Britain believe that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie, and just a film that happens to be set at Christmas.

Half the people out there believe something that is demonstrably not true to be true. Obviously it is none of my readers, who are a sceptical and fiercely intelligent bunch, but their number contains your friends, your neighbours, maybe even members of your family.

For of course Die Hard is a Christmas movie, and I will explain why. I apologise to those of you who haven’t yet seen a film that is 30 years old next year, but you’ve had your chance.

Everything that happens in Die Hard happens because it is Christmas. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is visiting his estranged wife and family because it is Christmas. The company his wife is working for is having a Christmas party. The building in which the film takes place is deserted because it is Christmas Eve. The heist and hostages plan carried out by Evil Alan Rickman – the best sort of Alan Rickman – only works because the building is deserted.

The ending is rooted in Christmas. The secret gun McClane has hidden is attached to his back with Christmas wrapping tape, and the Swiss watch to which Evil Alan Rickman clings before his slow-motion fall is a Christmas present to McClane’s wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) from her sleazy colleague.

More than that, McClane’s own story in the film follows the classic Christmas movie tradition, a selfish man sacrifices himself for the good of others, and through that comes to realise that the most important thing in his life is his loved ones. He is basically Scrooge with an Uzi.

Yes, there are more violent deaths in Die Hard than in your average Christmas story – unless you’re counting the Slaughter of the Innocents – but it could not be a more explicitly Christmas film if Willis were replaced by Santa Claus and it were set in a stable. Even his wife’s name is Holly, for goodness’ sake!

There’s a case that you could heavily rewrite Die Hard to be set at another time of year, but that would entirely change the character of the film. Everything bad that happens in the film is made worse – as in life – by the fact it happens on Christmas Eve.

But you could rewrite Home Alone – the children’s version of Die Hard – to take place at another time of year, and nobody ever suggests that is not a Christmas film.

Even It’s A Wonderful Life – the Christmas film to end all Christmas films – could be set in June, with even less rewriting than Die Hard would need.

So Die Hard is clearly a Christmas film, and anybody who suggests otherwise is deluded, insane, or wantonly contrary. This is not a matter of opinion, it is plain fact.

And yet, 50% of the people out there, faced with overwhelming evidence, have told YouGov that black is white.

Apparently that is democracy these days. People make a decision, while paying no attention to the facts, and then the rest of us – who have done the reading – have to lump it no matter how demonstrably wrong it is, just because the tiny majority “feel” they are correct.

And there will be people now, reading this, who will say it’s just a matter of opinion, and if I could just get behind the idea that Die Hard is not a Christmas movie then we could make Die Hard not be a Christmas movie, even though Die Hard clearly is a Christmas movie.

They are wrong, no matter how they feel. Just like Elf lovers.