COLUMN: October 18, 2018

Paula Wilcox, Richard O’Sullivan, and Sally Thomsett in Man About The House

I LIVE in a flat in a converted house, like Richard O’Sullivan in Man About The House, only without two female flatmates and Yootha Joyce downstairs.

Living in a flat has a number of advantages. For example, when I need to go to the loo, I don’t have to go upstairs. Nor do I have to vacuum stairs, which is the worst part of vacuuming.

But it also has several disadvantages. I can’t slide down the banister, for instance. And there is no loft, so there is nowhere to hide away my Christmas tree, which means it sits in the corner of my bedroom all year long, reminding me that Elf, the worst film ever made, is a thing.

And it means I share a building with an ever-changing cast. It’s worse than Casualty. I only just get used to one neighbour and then he shows up in Coronation Street. It’s a nightmare picking up the post, especially as we still get junk mail for people who were in flat 3 for three months eight years ago and are now in Emmerdale.

But recently things have become slightly worse. Because one of the people in my building has come out as a passive-aggressive note writer.

If you’ve ever worked in an office, you will be familiar with the passive-aggressive note, or passagg note for short. These are the notes that appear in the kitchen, next to the sink, and usually go along the lines of:

“Please can whoever is putting the spoons back in the drawer upside down stop? It is very upsetting to have to go into the drawer and turn them the right way up, as God intended.”


“Tea bags should not be used as scouring pads. If anything, they make matters worse. Please put used tea bags in the special used tea bag box. I am sick and tired of having to remove tea bags from the scouring pads Tupperware.”

These passagg notes usually finish with a smiley face, just to make it clear that this is not a scowling telling-off, but, rather, just a perfectly normal way of communicating with other human beings.

The best passagg notes are the ones that refer obliquely to dark events, perpetrated, presumably, by one individual. I used to work in an office in which there was a note in the gentlemen’s lavatory saying something like “Owing to recent events, please leave these toilets in the state in which you found them. It is not fair for the cleaners otherwise”, and nobody ever got to the bottom of the “recent events”.

The passagg notes in my building are more along these lines. The first one appeared a couple of weeks ago, and said:

“PLEASE stop slamming the door as you leave. It is very unpleasant for the people who live downstairs.”

The trouble with this is that the front door is a big heavy one that you have to slam to close, otherwise one can trap one’s fingers, which I suspect would be even more unpleasant. Still, since the note went up I have attempted with mixed results to close the door like a ninja.

Then, a week later, a second note appeared:

“Can everyone please ask visitors to park on the road? Spaces should be for those who pay to live here. Thanks.”

I’m afraid I saw red. I was so angry I wrote a passagg note of my own:

“Please can whoever is leaving these notes stop? It is too much to read when leaving the house and might make other occupants forget what they want from Little Tesco. Thank you.”

But when I returned home, my note had been torn down. This was outrageous. Not only had the passagg neighbour put up the original notes, but he or she had decided that other people in the building were not allowed to put up their own passagg notes.

So I put up a second note:

“Can whoever is tearing down my passagg notes please stop? It takes me three attempts to do a clean one without spelling mistakes. Thank you.”

And within minutes it was violently torn down, Sellotape and all. I mean, really! How dare he or she? I pay my rent too so I should also be allowed to tell people off in this manner for going about their lawful business of closing doors or having guests.

So now I am out for revenge. And this column is probably it.

COLUMN: October 11, 2018

A cake

I DO hate to bang on about Brexit, but it’s nearly here and we’re still no closer to knowing what it’s going to be like.

Obviously, we can make an educated guess based on facts, but half the population (or less than half these days, given that 1.3m of the Brexit electorate has died, to be replaced by even more young people) has decided that facts aren’t as important as feelings.

For example, it doesn’t matter that the UK was always sovereign, and always had the power to walk away from the EU, because it didn’t FEEL like it was sovereign.

But the fact is, nobody actually knows, not for sure, not even the government. If you interviewed the government for a job and asked them where they thought they’d be in five years’ time, they couldn’t answer you with any sort of conviction. In a fair world, some of them would actually have a conviction.

The only thing we do know is that the people who have been pressing hardest for Brexit are obsessed with cakes. The former Foreign Secretary was convinced in public that we could “have our cake and eat it”. John Redwood, the perfectly normal former Welsh Secretary, talked about making our own cakes instead of helping other countries with their cakes. And UKIP is full of fruitcakes.

So I have decided to explain the Brexit process through the medium of cakes.

LEAVER: I want an omelette.

REMAINER: Right. It’s just we haven’t got any eggs.

LEAVER: Yes, we have. There they are. [HE POINTS AT A CAKE]

REMAINER: They’re in the cake.

LEAVER: Yes, get them out of the cake, please.

REMAINER: But we voted in 1975 to put them into a cake.

LEAVER: Yes, but that cake has got icing on it. Nobody said there was going to be icing on it.

REMAINER: Icing is good.

LEAVER: And there are raisins in it. I don’t like raisins. Nobody mentioned raisins. I demand another vote.




LEAVER: Right, where’s my omelette?

REMAINER: I told you, the eggs are in the cake.

LEAVER: Well, get them out.

EU: It’s our cake.

JEREMY CORBYN: Yes, get them out now.

REMAINER: I have absolutely no idea how to get them out. Don’t you know how to get them out?

LEAVER: Yes! You just get them out and then you make an omelette.

REMAINER: But how?! Didn’t you give this any thought?

LEAVER: Saboteur! You’re talking eggs down. We could make omelettes before the eggs went into the cake, so there’s no reason why we can’t make them now.

THERESA MAY: It’s OK, I can do it.


THERESA MAY: There was a vote to remove the eggs from the cake, and so the eggs will be removed from the cake.

REMAINER: Yeah, but…

LEAVER: Hang on, if we take the eggs out of the cake, does that mean we don’t have any cake? I didn’t say I didn’t want the cake, just the bits I don’t like.

EU: It’s our cake.

REMAINER: But you can’t take the eggs out of the cake and then still have a cake.

LEAVER: You can. I saw the latest Bake Off and you can definitely make cakes without eggs in them. It’s just that they’re horrible.

REMAINER: Fine. Take the eggs out. See what happens.

LEAVER: It’s not my responsibility to take the eggs out. Get on with it.

REMAINER: Why should I have to come up with some long-winded incredibly difficult chemical process to extract eggs that have bonded at the molecular level to the cake, while somehow still having the cake?

LEAVER: You lost, get over it.

THERESA MAY: By the way, I’ve started the clock on this.

REMAINER: So I assume you have a plan?

THERESA MAY: Actually, back in a bit. Just having another election.

REMAINER: Jeremy, are you going to sort this out?

JEREMY CORBYN: Yes. No. Maybe.

EU: It’s our cake.

LEAVER: Where’s my omelette? I voted for an omelette.

REMAINER: This is ridiculous. This is never going to work. We should have another vote, or at least stop what we’re doing until we know how to get the eggs out of the cake while keeping the bits of the cake that we all like.


REMAINER: Fine, I’m moving to France. The cakes are nicer there.

LEAVER: You can’t. We’ve taken your freedom of movement.

COLUMN: October 4, 2018

Two lifts or elevators, depending on where you are reading this

MY office recently moved premises to a swish new building, and it has meant I have had seriously to raise my suaveness game.

I can’t turn up to work looking as if I lost at strip poker on my way in and had to steal items from a washing line, like David Banner. Not any more.

No, this glamorous new building requires that I look as debonair as, say, the late Sir David Frost or Rihanna. It requires highly-polished Chelsea boots and pressed shirts and a deck tan. It requires that I greet the security person on reception as I would the concierge at the Waldorf, as I glide past, still wearing my sunglasses.

Luckily, I can manage all of that, apart from the deck tan. Despite the long hot summer, I still look as if I have been carved from ivory by a sculptor who died before he finished.

In the old building I used an escalator to access and leave my office, which was fine apart from when it was switched off. Nothing is more disconcerting than walking down a paused escalator in the semi-darkness. Every step is a new adventure.

But in the swanky new offices, it’s lifts all the way. I am a big fan of lifts. They’re marvellous. I have often wondered how the pitch meeting went when the inventor – let’s call him Otis – addressed his bosses. I can only imagine. And here, I am imagining it…

OTIS: “OK, so, It’s a little box, and you go into it and stand with some other people, and the door closes, and you wait for a bit, and when the door opens you’re somewhere else.”
BOSSES: “You mean you’ve invented the TARDIS?”
OTIS: “No, this just goes up and down floors in a building. And it’s very cramped, so you’re standing way too close to people you don’t know.”
BOSSES: “That sounds a bit intimate. Can you make it so that everybody faces the door, so there’s no eye contact?”
OTIS: “Of course. Only a sociopath would face INTO the box.”
BOSSES: “OK, but we’re worried that people will be spooked when the doors open on different floors. Can you make it so that when the doors open, every floor looks exactly the same? You know, just to reassure them?”
OTIS: “Not a problem.”
BOSSES: “And what are you going to call your invention?”
OTIS: “I was thinking I’d call it a lift in the UK, and an elevator in the States, because things always have to have different names in the States.”
BOSSES: “So this thing doesn’t go down? It only lifts and elevates?”
OTIS: “Err…”
BOSSES: “Oh, whatever.”
OTIS: “Hang on. How do you know about the TARDIS? Doctor Who isn’t going to be invented for another 110 years.”
BOSSES: “It’s a time machine, innit?”

All this is to explain how what happened was not my fault.

I glided through reception last week in my sunglasses to see the doors of one of the lifts starting to close and I dashed forward to press the button so they would open again, just in case, I don’t know, they abolished lifts.

The doors opened and I stepped inside a lift full of mildly-inconvenienced people, noting that my floor had already been selected. Then I turned to face the door, and went through the tedious process of swapping sunglasses for normal glasses.

The doors opened again on my floor, and I stepped out into the lobby, turned to face the office door, and realised I had got out at the wrong floor. They all look the same, dammit, Otis.

“Still”, I thought, “style it out. Walk towards whichever office is on this floor and let the lift close. They don’t need to know. You can just take the stairs after they’ve gone.”

The trouble was, for the doors to have opened, somebody must have pressed the button for that floor. And so she emerged, also walking towards the office door, fumbling in her handbag for her pass card.

So I did what I always do in these situations. I dropped to the floor and pretended to fasten my shoelace until she had gained access to her office…

And, as she rooted through her bag, I realised that this was really not the day to have worn highly-polished Chelsea boots, as I genuflected before her for no apparent reason.

I really must raise my suaveness game.

COLUMN: September 27, 2018

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.

COLUMN: September 20, 2018

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

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

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.