COLUMN: June 21, 2018

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An egg and spoon, as nature intended them. Unless you’re a vegan

IT’S sports day time at a primary school near you. “Sports day” is something of a misnomer. There are very few actual sports involved in a primary school sports day.

I am assuming this is the case, anyway. The Rio Olympics was on at the wrong time of day for me to be watching, so I could be wrong, but I am fairly sure that there wasn’t a Running With A Small Bean Bag On Head event.

The BBC didn’t have a retired plastic ball and spoon bronze medallist sitting between Denise Lewis and Matthew Pinsent in the studio.

And Team GB definitely has not been ploughing millions into building a Hempdrome in Greater Manchester to develop a world-beating sack and three-legged race operation.

As far as I can tell, the closest sports day comes to actual sports is the sporting wardrobe displayed by the (non-competing) teachers, people who don’t have time to exercise because they spend all their time outside school marking, writing lesson plans, and working out what massive changes to the National Curriculum the Government has come up with that week.

It is just difficult to see who benefits from sports day. Children who are bad at sports do not welcome the opportunity to display their shortcomings to an audience of bored parents, who have only come to see their own children and display their own ability to balance on a tiny chair on a bobbly playing field.

And children who are good at sports do not need any more self-affirmation. Their heads are big enough.

And the skills you have to learn to be any good at sports day do not carry over into daily life, unless you have both a massive kitchen and the lack of foresight to bring the egg cup closer to the hob.

I have the solution. If we are not going to make our children engage in actual sports on sports day, then we must at least ensure the races prepare them for later life, or we’re just wasting everybody’s time. I present The Alternative Sports Day…

The Phone Race
Children must make their way to the finish line, avoiding obstacles (bean bags, plastic cones, open manholes) while reading their Facebook/Instagram feed on a mobile telephone. To make it extra difficult, half the children will be walking in the opposite direction.

The Basket Race
Children must carry a supermarket basket of groceries around a maze, and then stand in a baskets only queue for 10 minutes without dropping anything. The number of groceries in the basket must be too many for a basket but not enough to justify getting a trolley, even though the trolley queues are zipping through, and the child two positions in front has a DVD with a tag in it that the check-out operator doesn’t know how to remove and has had to call for Susan.

The Fitted Sheet Race
Children must put a fitted sheet on a bed. The fitted sheet is a special sports issue sheet which is designed for a mattress precisely one and a half inches (3.81cm) narrower than the one provided. The semi-final would introduce The Mattress Topper, and the final would include The Cat That Wants To Lie On The Bed. Also, the children have to be very tired and, ideally, weepy, so this event should be at the end of the six-hour sports day.

The Photo Race
A greyhound races-style hare is released down the track. The children have to take a picture of the hare using only a locked mobile phone that has previously been set to selfie mode and video mode. The first child to negotiate the various locks (fingerprint, PIN code, pattern), switch the phone to rear-facing photo mode, AND take a picture wins.

If one of them actually gets a picture of the hare in time, he or she shall be named Prime Minister.

The Four-Legged Two-To-Four-Wheeled Race
Each child is provided with another smaller child, and that smaller child’s scooter/tricycle/dolly’s pram. The competitors then have to make their way along the same track used in the phone race, while the smaller child demands randomly and repeatedly a) to be carried; b) to ride/push their wheeled plaything; c) for the plaything to be carried; d) a cuddle; or e) to be allowed to run out into the road.

This one is not to prepare them for the future. It is just to see how they bloody like it.

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COLUMN: June 14, 2018

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Jeff Goldblum from the film The Fly. I suppose you could say he is pretty fly for a white guy, as long as you have seen the film and/or understand the premise of the film. The point is, I didn’t want to use a picture of an actual fly because who likes flies, apart from entomologists, who now hate me?

I AM not what you would call an animal lover. Some people say that those who aren’t keen on animals are probably psychopaths, but they’re usually the sort who post rainbow bridge memes on Facebook when somebody’s goldfish dies, so we can safely ignore them.

I am not saying I hate animals. Only that there is a line that should not be crossed. For example, I don’t want your dog in my face even if he is “just being friendly”. You wouldn’t want me in your face “just being friendly”, and I don’t even eat Pedigree Chum and lick places you can’t mention on CBBC. Nor do I bite, even if provoked.

Now some of you are punching the air and saying, “Yes, Gary! You are absolutely right! It’s about time somebody took on the “he’s just being friendly” lobby.” The rest of you have already started writing angry emails and tweets, but stay with me. Unless you’re an extreme Buddhist or Morrissey, you have a line that should not be crossed too. Mine just happens to be a bit further along than yours.

For instance, if a fly flew into your face, you would not generally welcome it on the grounds that it was “just being friendly”. You would wave your hands around and feel slightly queasy that it had been on your face.

Now there are several reasons why you wouldn’t want a fly on your face – they have disgusting eating practices, you don’t know what they’ve been standing on, they carry diseases, they make rats look attractive. But the main reason we are repelled by them is because they are so stupid.

It is that time of year again. I have to have my windows open in the hope that a mild breeze might find its way through my flat. But the problem with having windows open is that flies think it is perfectly acceptable to enter without an invitation.

And once they are in, the fun just doesn’t stop. I have vertical blinds, so when a fly enters the room, the chance that it will leave again without assistance is about as slim as that of a four-year-old boy with his head between railings.

So I was disappointed when I was tidying my bedroom and a fly buzzed by my face. I waved my hands around in an attempt either a) to knock the insect away; or b) to win the National Speed Semaphore Championships. You decide.

There is only one thing worse than unsuccessfully hitting a fly with your hand and that is succeeding. It skittered across the room towards the window as I recoiled in disgust. Good, I thought. I had made it clear that this was a hostile environment for flies and that it would receive short shrift if it tried to move in with me.

But, as I pointed out, flies are incredibly stupid. It loitered near the blinds, then came back into the room, buzzing around my head. No more Mr Not Especially Nice Guy, I thought. I picked up a piece of paper and closed my bedroom door. At least I could contain the problem.

I waved the piece of paper, like an MP at Prime Minister’s Questions, and somehow the fly ended up on one of the blind slats. I edged closer and knocked it towards the open window. Game over, I thought, as I closed the window.

Game on, said the fly, which had somehow missed the opening, and resumed its annoyingly random buzzing flight pattern.

I pulled back the blinds and opened the window wide. The fly needed a much bigger target and I was happy to help. It flew at speed towards the window, and bounced off the closed pane, glass still being news to the fly community.

It made another few attempts to fly through the glass, bouncing off, but each time closer to the open half of the window. Come on, I thought, no longer an enemy of the fly and now rooting for it, you can do it.

It hit the frame. One more heave…

The trouble with opening a window wide to give a stupid fly a better chance of leaving your bedroom unswatted is that windows are a double-edged sword. The fly flew out of the window and, before I could let out a victory cry, it thought better of it, made a U-turn, and came back indoors…

Accompanied by another fly, this one bigger, heavier, and, if anything, more stupid.

COLUMN: June 7, 2018

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One of the things I would rather do, because there was no way I’d be able to get the rights to a picture of Love Island

“HAVE you been watching Love Island?” somebody I previously thought was a friend asked me.

“No, I have not been watching Love Island,” I said. “For one thing, I am usually at work when it is on, and for another thing, literally everything else.”

“Oh, you big misery guts. It’s escapism.”

But it is not escapism for me. It is the opposite of escapism. Love Island is everything I have spent most of my life avoiding: Lynx-soused banter-lads on stag dos aiming themselves at shellac-taloned wine-o’clockers on hen dos in a clash of the worst tattoos in the world. And all on Instagram.

It is superficial and shallow and I don’t care if you call me a snob. I’ll wear that label proudly if it means I don’t have to have an opinion on the sexual conduct of the daughter of a man in EastEnders.

And so, I have decided to compile a list of things I would rather do than watch an episode of Love Island…

Negotiate Brexit.

Ride on a Northern Rail train at rush-hour in June, when the previous train had been cancelled.

Ride on a Northern Rail train at any time of day and any time of year.

Eat some slightly out-of-date chicken at room temperature.

Read a Mr Men book to a child with enthusiasm. And I mean one of the later ones.

Have a picnic, in which jam sandwiches feature heavily, near a wasps’ nest, while wearing a floral T-shirt.

Wear flip-flops.

Sit on a bus opposite a man wearing flip-flops.

Watch the film Grown-Ups 2, without any sort of break, in the company of the cast of Grown-Ups 2.

Be Donald Trump’s press secretary.

Be Donald Trump’s secretary.

Not watch an episode of Love Island.

Explain how to set up a wireless printer to Iain Duncan Smith and Nadine Dorries.

Baby-sit for Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Formulate Labour’s Brexit policy in such a way that it satisfies, on one side, Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner, and Kate Hoey, and, on the other side, everybody else in the Labour Party.

Mention Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage in anything less than glowing terms on Twitter.

Give Facebook my telephone number in order to “make my account more secure”.

Give Twitter access to my contacts list.

Play a game that somebody has invited me to play on Facebook.

Use that snap I accidentally took of myself last Thursday while my phone camera was on front-facing mode as my profile picture on social media.

Be tagged on a photograph which was taken when I did not know it was being taken on Facebook.

Drink a half-can of Coke Zero that I have forgotten about and left on a wooden dining table outdoors in the sun for two hours.

Rip off a plaster on my shin.

Listen to your podcast.

Do a tandem parachute jump with a wind-up merchant who says things like, “Oh, no, I forgot to pack the parachute,” and “I was joking before, but it’s not working! It’s not working!”

Go to a pre-Christmas showing of the worst Christmas film ever made, Elf, in a novelty Christmas jumper.

Go to A&E on a Saturday night with a very minor, low-priority injury.

Have a haircut from a barber who is not my usual barber and consequently have to explain my hair to a stranger in a way that does not make me sound clinically insane.

Be a judge at the British Scraping Fingernails Down Blackboards And Knives On Dinner Plates Awards.

Listen to poets at a political event.

Listen to a ukulele orchestra at a political event.

Go to a political event.

Go to a church service which has a cool name like #JC4eva, has a poster with its own cool graffiti-style font, and in which guitars feature prominently.

Go to a political event which has a cool name etc, etc.

Be taught how to ride a unicycle by a hipster with one of those handlebar moustaches, which in this case would be ironic for several reasons.

Attempt to ride on a so-called hoverboard after watching a 12-year-old son of friends do it. Again.

Give a bouncer a Chinese burn.

Subscribe to your YouTube channel.

Compile a list of things I would rather do than watch an episode of Love Island.

COLUMN: May 31, 2018

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My hand on what is apparently supposed to be a bench

I FELL into my usual Bank Holiday Monday trap. People who do my job never get a Bank Holiday Monday off work because people like you demand a newspaper on the day after Bank Holiday Monday. I am not blaming you, but it is your fault.

Anyway, my usual Bank Holiday Monday trap is to forget that not everybody is working, and that buses operate to what is officially termed “a reduced timetable”, a term that is technically true, but does not adequately describe the full horror of the situation, like “all-inclusive 18-30s holiday”.

And so I sauntered towards the bus stop on my way to work, the sun glinting off my shades, my special summer shoes on my feet, appearing to all who cared to look as a man who finds the hot weather a pleasure instead of the shambling, sweaty lump I knew myself to be inside.

This sauntering was cut off abruptly by the gust of wind caused by my bus sailing past my face. And the reduced timetable meant that the next bus would arrive far too late for me to be on time for work.

I had only one option, or two if I included calling work and telling them I wouldn’t be in because I had died of good weather – I had to get the train…

The sun beat down on the platform, melting the tarmac. A lizard skittered past, narrowly avoiding a ball of rolling tumbleweed. Atop the automatic ticket machine was perched a vulture, its beady eyes trained upon me. What I am saying is it was blooming hot and I am too pale to deal with that nonsense. I needed shelter, sharpish.

And there was indeed a shelter on the platform. I use the word “shelter” in its loosest form. It was barely bigger than a cocktail umbrella, and made mostly of metal, soaking up the heat. If I breathed out, half of me was in the sunshine again.

Inside the shelter was a seat. I assume it was a seat, it was in the position where one would expect to find a seat. It was metal, like the shelter, and roughly one and a half times the depth of a handrail. Gymnasts would take one look at it and say, “I am not balancing on that. What do you think I am, a mountain goat?”

But I like a challenge, especially when there is nobody around to watch me fail. I attempted to sit on it…

I am a very average-sized man. It is a nightmare buying clothes because they have all sold out. I do not have an inordinately large bottom. I won’t lie, I struggled to sit on this thing.

Bits were hanging off, and if I moved any further back I risked falling into the gap between the wall of the shelter and the seat, with my knees somewhere near my chin. I assume I would have been able to get out of this situation without the help of the local fire and rescue service, but I didn’t want to take the risk, especially with my train due.

I stood up again. It was the worst sitting experience I had ever had, and I lived through the “Kevin Parr has got his hands on a packet of drawing pins” period of Second Year Seniors.

I would like to think that this bench was an aberration, but it is not. It was a mean little seat in a mean little shelter, and typical of the meanness in the public realm these days.

At this point, we’re eight years into the government’s austerity measures. Austerity, we shouldn’t forget, is just meanness dressed up as a virtue. This austerity has filled up our streets with vulnerable homeless people.

And then, because we’re so mean, we block up doorways and put metal studs on low walls, so that these vulnerable homeless people have nowhere to sleep. We make shelters so tiny and benches so impractical that they are not fit for purpose, just to prevent people who make us feel uncomfortable in our meanness from getting a decent sleep.

We’re so mean that we’re prepared to suffer ourselves just so that other people can suffer more. We’re even prepared to cut ourselves off from Europe and watch factories and call centres close and watch family and friends lose their jobs, just so that we can get rid of brown people.

I am not blaming you, but it is your fault.

Sweaty Naked Stevie Wonder

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Everyone’s feeling pretty. It’s Hotter Than July

FIRST of all, hello to the people who have arrived at this blog post by Googling the headline. It’s probably not the sort of content for which you were hoping, but you’d be welcome to stay.

The music writer Andrew Male asked a question on Twitter today. He wanted to know which great albums his followers believed had the worst cover art. And if you have a look at his feed, you’ll find there really are some shockers.

I wanted a piece of that sweet, sweet action. I didn’t even have to think about it. It was unquestionably the cover to Hotter Than July by Stevie Wonder. It’s one of my favourite albums, and one track on it – Happy Birthday – actually changed American civic life, as part of the campaign to have Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday named a public holiday.

It’s the classic album he still had in his bag after that run of Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness First Finale, and Songs In The Key Of Life. (We don’t talk about The Secret Life Of Plants, because that was a soundtrack anyway.)

The cover of Hotter Than July is a photo-realistic painting of Stevie Wonder’s head and shoulders. He’s a good looking black man wearing only braids in his hair and sunglasses. I suppose he could be wearing trousers, etc, out of frame, but he won’t be. He’s Stevie Wonder, dammit. And it has always made me laugh.

Stevie is, not to put too fine a point on it, sweating cobs. And he has an expression on his face that is, well, he looks as if he is engaged in the sort of activity that would have him and his companion thrown out of the frozen food section of Sainsbury’s.

So that makes me laugh. And also, it’s really on the nose. The album is called Hotter Than July, and the picture is of Stevie Wonder looking as if he is very warm, possibly because he is engaged in the sort of activity, etc, etc.

So I waded in and stopped my Stevie bomb into the conversation and didn’t think too much about it.

And then, a couple of hours later, I started to receive messages. “What’s wrong with this cover?” “Hater! This is iconic. Beautiful.”

Where were they coming from? Apparently the discussion had become a Twitter Moment, which meant that many more people than those who normally see my tweets were exposed to me. And they did not like it one bit.

Essentially black America had seen my tweet suggesting that an album cover featuring a picture of a black man’s face was in some way a bad album cover, and they were unimpressed. And I realised what I had done. So I spent the next two hours explaining how I wasn’t a racist, like Father Ted in that episode.

“No, no,” I said repeatedly. “I don’t object to Stevie Wonder, per se. It’s naked sweaty Stevie Wonder.”

But LiNCOLN PARK said:

And it suddenly occurred to me that, oh, God, maybe I was being racist.

And Nait Jones said:

And I thought, maybe it’s not racism as such. Maybe it’s blindness to what’s important in a culture that isn’t my own.

It’s the Vauxhall Nova, it’s the fanny pack, it’s Donald Trump.

  • What are you talking about, Gary?
  • Well, voice in my head, they launched the Vauxhall Nova in Spain, and didn’t understand why it wasn’t going down so well until somebody pointed out to them that “no va” in Spanish means “not going”.
  • And the fanny pack?
    Well, that’s more obvious. “Fanny” refers to very different, if anatomically adjacent, body parts in America and the UK. What the Americans call a “fanny pack”, we refer to as a “bum bag”, and I can’t begin to imagine what a fanny pack would be.
  • And Donald Trump?
  • How can the British possibly take Donald Trump seriously, even aside from everything he does and says, when “to trump” in the UK means “to fart”?
  • So what are you saying?
  • I’m saying that I didn’t get it. Look, can we get out of this affected bit of this blogpost…?

That’s better… The point is, to me, the cover of Hotter Than July looks like an entrant in Viz’s Up The Arse Corner. That’s why I found it funny.

But to an African American, it’s an expression of proud black manhood. I’m not saying it’s a sacred text, but it’s beloved. It raises all sorts of questions of representation in popular culture. And it was offensive of me to be rude about it, even if I wasn’t intentionally being offensive.

And when you offend somebody, even if it’s unintentional – especially if it’s unintentional – you apologise. And you make some sort of reparation. It stops being a matter of free speech and becomes a matter of good manners.

So I took down the tweet. And I’d like to apologise to anybody who was offended by it. I’ll be more thoughtful in future.

Even if the phrase “sweaty eye candy” makes me feel ill.

COLUMN: May 24, 2018

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Look at how happy this man is to be wearing sunglasses. Can you imagine being that happy about anything?

WHEN I bought my new varifocal confuso-spectacles a few weeks ago, I received a free pair of varifocal confuso-sunglasses. It seemed wildly optimistic. Imagine needing a pair of sunglasses in the United Kingdom in spring. I might as well have bought shorts.

However, for once in my life, my optimism was founded. The sun has been cracking the flags like the Kettering All-Elephants Jogging Group. Men have been showing off their awful leg tattoos. Women have been showing off their awful men.

And I have been wearing my sunglasses. That is an oversimplification. There are two types of people in this world. There are people who wear sunglasses and there are people who are worn by sunglasses.

I am in the latter camp. I look at best like a Mafia hitman, and at worst like somebody who has gone to a fancy dress party as the sunshine emoji. What I do not look like is a man wearing sunglasses because it is sunny and they are a sensible item of clothing to wear under the circumstances.

It is ridiculous. The use of an umbrella during rainy weather does not appear like an affectation. If I wear a jumper in the autumn, nobody says, “Ooh, look at swanky-pants Alan Titchmarsh over there!”

But because somebody once decided that sunglasses are cool, it follows that only cool people can wear them without comment. If you are not cool, and you wear sunglasses, you look like somebody who is trying to look cool. And I am very much not cool. Not in this weather.

So I undergo a process every year of breaking in my sunglasses, in order to look comfortable while wearing them. For the first couple of occasions, I wear them only if there isn’t a cloud in the sky and it’s impossible to see without them, but I remove them the second I go indoors or board public transport.

Then I’ll gradually step up the pace. I’ll wear them even if it’s suddenly gone overcast. Before too long I’m leaving them on when I walk into shops – unless they’re too dark, like Hollister, when I’ll swap them for my normal glasses, or while on the bus. I will even wear them when entering work, which is extremely brave of me as newspaper offices are full of observant people with regard to glasses. Lois Lane is very much the exception to that rule.

And, once I have got past my reservations, sunglasses are absolutely brilliant when you are on a bus because nobody can see your eyes, which means I can indulge in my favourite bus pastime of people-watching without getting my head kicked in, a boon for anybody with a big nose who doesn’t want it broken.

I have been able to take in some awful sights. I do not want to get into the terrible business of bodyshaming, but nobody looks good in a muscle top, not even people with muscles. As for those calf-skimming not-quite-shorts that men have taken to wearing in this weather… when I was growing up it was a cause of shame to wear half-mast trousers, and rightly so.

By far the worst man I have seen, I saw a couple of days ago. I exited a dark shop into the blazing sunshine and stepped straight onto the bus, time for once working in tandem with my body.

It was a single-decker and I sat at the back – the Golden Seat on a single-decker. A couple of stops later a shaven-headed man boarded the bus and sat opposite me. He must have agreed with me that muscle tops were bad, and thrown his in the bin because he was topless, his sweaty back doubtless soaking the seat as a treat for the next passenger.

He was wearing those not-quite-shorts. And, above his left nipple, he had the grimmest tattoo I had ever seen. I think it was meant to be a lion. Or a camel. It was hard to tell. It was the Mona Lisa of bad tattoos.

I took it in and suppressed a grimace. At least, I did around the mouth area. My eyes, shielded by my lenses, told a different story, bulging with disgust, as I took in the full horror of this inept display of animal anatomical drawing.

And if only I had put my sunglasses back on after I had left the dark shop, the owner of the tattoo would probably never have known.

It was not cool.

COLUMN: May 17, 2018

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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.