COLUMN: July 19, 2018

Chris Hemsworth: unavailable

THE sun was shining down on me. Technically it was shining on lots of people around me too, and, I suppose, my half of the globe, but I play the lead role of the story of my life. Probably because Chris Hemsworth was unavailable.

The point is, I was in a good, if slightly sweaty, mood, heading across a courtyard on my way to work, and feeling at the top of my game. Yes, I play my game near the top end of the non-league rankings, but that is irrelevant. I felt I could take anything on – an interview with Donald Trump, Brexit negotiations, a difficult Branston pickle jar lid, anything.

I spotted a family of three generations – grandmother, mother, and two small daughters – bobbling around the courtyard looking both lost and trouble. In a spirit of almost lunatic optimism, they approached a backpack-wearing olive-skinned pedestrian and asked for directions to a nearby office operated by HM Government.

“¿Que?” replied the pedestrian, inevitably. It was obvious that they needed my help, difficult as it is to imagine a situation in which my involvement would improve matters.

I stepped in. “Excuse me, I know where you need to go. See that passage over there, on the left hand side? Just walk through it, and carry on in that direction and it’ll take you to the office.”

I am not sure how much clearer I could have been. You understand those instructions. There was no “take the second right after where t’Dog And Duck used to be and make sure thy ankles are widdershins, or treadle will be put out o’skew… No, wait, not Dog and Duck, t’old Farmer’s Arms” of the sort that I always get when I ask for directions.

They definitely took in the directions I gave them and did not glaze over at all. They headed towards the passage on the left hand side, and I headed towards the passage on the right hand side satisfied that I had done a good turn.

We exited our respective passages at the same time, and I looked down the road proudly at my fledglings. The pride did not last long. The grandmother wanted to turn left, the mother wanted to turn right, and the children were doing rapid laps of the adults.

I had given them a clear two-step itinerary, and somehow both adults had forgotten the second of the two steps. Even I can remember two steps and I’ve only just memorised my mobile phone number.

The worst part of me wanted to leave them to their fates. I owed them nothing. Worse, I had given them something and they had said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and then smashed it up in front of me, before setting fire to my house.

But they had children with them, and there is nothing worse than being lost while in charge of children, and that trumped whatever goonery they had visited upon me. I gritted my teeth and headed towards them.

“Hello, me again,” I said, as if they couldn’t see or remember me. Belt and braces. “Sorry, I should have been more clear,” I lied. I was not sorry and I could not have been more clear.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s just down there. Can you see that building with the big sign on it?” I pointed, extending my index finger further than it had ever been extended.

Their eyes went everywhere apart from where I was pointing.

“Which big sign do you mean?” asked the grandmother, on a road on which there is only one big sign.

I felt I was getting more purchase with the mother. “Can you see it?” I pleaded.

“That one down there?” she said.

“Yes! Brilliant! Well, it’s not that building, it’s the one after it. See? Dead easy.”

They thanked me again and went on their way, following the direction I had pointed out to them. I hung back and watched them as they slowly edged into the distance, getting closer to the building with the big sign, the two girls orbiting the adults like hyperactive moons.

I felt pretty good about myself. I had helped somebody and gone the extra mile to help them again. And given them the correct directions. I felt like a proper grown-up…

And then they turned left before they reached the building with the big sign, and I have no idea where they ended up. They’re probably still looking for that office.

Some people aren’t worth helping.


COLUMN: July 12, 2018

A perfectly normal Chinese dish

THERE are some experiences we repeatedly undergo because we forget about the bad parts and only remember the good parts – buying a car, or jogging, or childbirth, for instance.

To this list of infamy we must also add the act of going to a Chinese buffet restaurant. Visiting a Chinese buffet restaurant always seems like a good idea at the time. “What?” you say. “All I can eat for £9.99? Did they not see me take the last piece of Dundee cake on December 29?”

Challenge accepted, you walk inside. Because you have forgotten about The Chinese Buffet Trap.

You take up a seat and order a small beverage, perhaps a Coke. “THREE POUNDS?!” you think. “I wanted a Coca-Cola, not cocaine. So that’s how they make this pay.”

You pick up a bowl and take it to a couple of tureens. One of them is filled with hot and sour soup. You can see one prawn in there. “They must be saving the prawns for the sesame prawn toast,” you think. Then you look in the other tureen. It is labelled “sweetcorn soup”. “Where’s the chicken?” you wonder. The floor, you realise at this point, is going to be strewn with cut corners.

“I didn’t come here to eat bits of sweetcorn,” you tell yourself. You take some hot and sour soup, and the three prawn crackers that you can carry, and sit down. The soup is both hot and sour, and so you cannot complain, even though you didn’t get the prawn on this occasion.

Now for the bit for which you really go to Chinese restaurants, the dim sum/hors d’oeurves. “Take me to the sesame prawn toast, feet,” you say. You fetch up at the buffet area. There is no sesame prawn toast. Instead there is sesame chicken toast. “Oh,” you think, “that’s where the chicken went.”

You pile your plate with ribs and dumplings and chicken wings and crispy seaweed – because what could be healthier than deep fried kale? – and sit down again. You realise that 70% of what is on your plate is bones. “So that’s how they make this pay”, you think again. You try to pick up crispy seaweed with your fork. Neither the fork nor the crispy seaweed is having it. It is like trying to pick up water with a tennis racquet.

The napkin you have been allocated has given up the ghost, defeated by hoisin sauce and your skin. Your plate is now 95% bones and 5% crispy seaweed. It is time to return to the buffet.

The buffet is a free-standing thing filled with vats of stuff. You take a fresh plate and pay close attention to the flow of traffic. It is moving anti-clockwise. You find a gap and join the queue, planning to furnish yourself with a bed of rice on which you will later sit a variety of what the Chinese think the English will eat based on years of the Chinese’s bitter experience. A nearby waitress watches and inwardly shudders.

Your plate filled with a variety of rice and noodles, you move anti-clockwise towards a vat of vegetables in something when somebody swoops in from the clockwise direction and swipes the serving spoon before you can touch it, and you have to wait for them, like a seaside gull waiting for a dropped chip.

“Fine,” you think. “Anarchy it is.” And you plunder the remaining vats, pushing children and little old ladies out of the way, piling some very undistinguished sweet and sour chicken and beef in black bean sauce onto your plate, not caring that it is the equivalent of piling pizza, fish fingers, and shepherds pie onto your plate, and forgetting that this is lunch and not a Man V Food challenge.

And then you remorselessly work your way through the meal you have carefully curated. It turns out that “all you can eat” is roughly equivalent to a normal meal. And now you have found yourself in the Chinese buffet trap.

There is a sign saying, “Please do not take more food than you can eat.” But also you remember that bank advert that says that Chinese people take it as an insult if you clear your plate, because it implies they haven’t given you enough food.

So how much food are you allowed to leave? You have no idea, and you remember that’s why you told yourself last time you would never go to another Chinese buffet restaurant.

COLUMN: July 5, 2018

It wasn’t like this. And even if it were, it still would have been unacceptable

I HAD to catch the bus for a meeting and it was warm, early July warm. And I don’t mean normal early July warm, where we are insulated by off-white clouds and the rain is slightly less cold.

No, I mean this early July warm, where the sky is an unbroken blue and the grass verges are an unbroken yellow, where the tumbleweed blows across the cracked soil and tongues dart in and out of the mouths of lizards.

I do not know if you have ever been on a bus in such weather, but it is like a greenhouse on wheels, a portable Tenko, a charabanc outing for the Body Odour Pride Support Group.

Windows are abundant, and windows that can open are rationed, because it’s a nicer design, and air conditioning is restricted to the breeze caused when somebody rushes past when he realises that the bell didn’t work and he has to alert the driver to his stop sharpish.

And I was wearing a dark suit and trying not to perspire, in circumstances expressly designed to make a body perspire, because I was going to a meeting and did not want to give the impression that I had stopped off at the baths in order to dive for a rubber brick.

“Think cool thoughts, chum,” I told myself. I imagined Rihanna and the late Sir David (Aptly-Named) Frost sitting on thrones of ice while making short work of a pile of strawberry mivvis, and, for a moment, this inspirational scene fooled my easily-led body into holding off on the sprinkler system.

“This is good,” I thought. “The important thing is that nothing enrages me in the next five minutes…”

And then I saw him. Across the aisle, there was a man, also dressed in a dark suit, the sweat on his neck making his hair curl. Had things turned out differently, I might have shared the Rihanna/Frost secret with him and changed his life.

But they did not. I saw him reach into a carrier bag and bring out a cheese sandwich. And instead of him saying to the rest of the passengers, “Who has put this in my bag? I mean, what sort of absolute psycho eats a cheese sandwich on a bus as hot as the core of the sun?” this man actually took a bite of the sandwich.

I do not want you to think I am against cheese sandwiches in general. There is little that gives me greater pleasure than Cheshire cheese and tomato on some thickly sliced wholemeal bread. And I am a big fan of the cheese toastie.

But it is utterly unacceptable to attempt to make a cheese toastie by using the heat of an early July bus, no matter how hot it is.

Just imagine what this cheese sandwich would have been like – medium-sliced Mother’s Pride slowly drying out on the outside, butter melted into bubbling liquid, and cheese, sweaty and floppy. What kind of monster could actively enjoy that?

Reader, I baulked, involuntarily and loudly. I am sure I was not the only one.

Because you can’t do that. Cheese sandwiches are on the list of things you cannot eat on a hot bus, because of the effect they have on normal people like me. The other items include – and this is not a complete list – egg sandwiches, fish sandwiches (specifically tuna), sliced ham, slices of melon, peaches, and yoghurt.

And then he took another bite, and a small morsel of cheese attached itself to his chin. Did he not know, or did he not care? I expect it was the latter. Either way, it remained on his chin as he polished off the rest of his vile sandwich, as if he were taking part in some sort of Japanese gameshow.

I felt the heat rising in me throughout, and the sweat ran down my face and the back of my neck, and I turned up at my meeting looking as if I’d been sculpted out of strawberry ice cream.

Some of you – the worst of you – will be thinking, “Just get over yourself, Gary. He ate a cheese sandwich on a bus. What’s it got to do with you?”

But what if he’d been flossing his teeth, or cutting his toenails right in front of you – both examples of behaviour I have witnessed on the bus?

We have to draw the line somewhere. And this is where I draw it. No cheese sandwiches on hot buses.

COLUMN: June 28, 2018

A man dressed like Batman

THERE are very few things I have in common with Batman apart from the obvious: I have legs, I mostly work at night, and I don’t like clowns. I have dressed like Batman on a number of occasions, most frequently – though not exclusively – when I was aged seven, but I don’t believe that this counts.

Mostly, though, one would be able to fit far more than a cigarette paper between the Dark Knight and me. Except for one thing…

Let me take you through the mists of time back to 30 years ago. I was a Robin rather than a Batman back then. I shaved once a fortnight, and even that was pushing it. I thought my voice was going to break at any moment, without realising that it already had and I was always going to sound like this.

Bros were in the charts, acid house was in, well, houses, and banks advertised the fact that you could withdraw cash on a Sunday morning from a hole in the wall as well as being able to afford a flat in London’s docklands.

And I lived in a terraced house with my family and my dog and my large collection of super-hero comics, and had just finished my GCSEs, with a long summer holiday ahead of me. My house was on a very sleepy road, with a park at the end of it, which partly made up for the fact that we had a yard, rather than a garden.

So when I heard a commotion going on outside my house, I leapt from my seat, put the video on pause, pressed pause a couple more times to get a better pause, and looked out of the window.

The woman who lived in the house opposite was at her front door yelling something about the colour purple. I was a Prince fan, so naturally I was intrigued, if not as exercised by the hue as her.

I opened my own front door, and realised I had misheard her. She was shouting that she had been burgled, which explained her keen interest in the subject, if not her urgency.

“Have you called the police?” I said. “Would you like me to call the police for you?” The woman was West Indian, with a West Indian accent, and I had decided, in my lefty youth, that the police in my area, who had a well-deserved reputation at the time for racism, would respond more quickly to a white male voice. Even mine.

Besides, I knew the number – 999. I had had to call it a few weeks before, during the Grill Pan Incident (That Was In No Way My Fault), and I wanted to try one of the other emergency services.

“No!” she said. “I’m BEING burgled! He’s in here right now!”

Oh, I thought. I ran back to my house to call the police right away, and heard the woman scream again. I turned back and saw him – the World’s Stupidest Burglar, emerging from the alley.

I think it’s fair to call him the World’s Stupidest Burglar. He had broken into an occupied house, in the broadest of daylight, and then, when discovered, had climbed over the yard wall into an alley, and had attempted to make his escape right under the nose of his victim, while carrying a microwave oven, bent double so that nobody, apart from people with eyes, could see him.

I had read too many comics. I tore across the road. He dropped the microwave, and ran back into the alley, with me in hot pursuit, jumping over bin bags and boxes and dog poo.

He turned into the long alley between my road and the next road, and I followed him, arms pumping, legs pounding the paving slabs. I was gaining on him…

And then I realised something: if I caught him I had absolutely no idea what I would do. Imagine the World’s Stupidest Burglar in a clash with me, the World’s Unluckiest Man. It would be a long, drawn-out, and ultimately inconclusive affair.

Also, I did not actually have time to call the police, so what would have happened if I had somehow overpowered him? How long would I have had to sit on him? Would I have had to explain to a passer-by why I was sitting on a man?

So I slowed down a little, and watched the burglar get away, empty-handed, at least. Just like Batman.

COLUMN: June 21, 2018

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.

COLUMN: June 14, 2018

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

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.