COLUMN: February 2, 2017

Newquay. Picture by Giuseppe Milo (via Creative Commons)

I HAVE spent most of the past week arguing with people about the issues raised in last week’s column, in which I described going to a rally against Donald Trump.

Much of that time was taken up in conversation on Twitter with white men of a certain bearing absolutely incensed that I had called them racist for asserting that all Muslims are rapists, terrorists, or both, and for saying that Sir Mo Farah is not really British because he is black.

It is an odd symptom of the time that there are some people who very much object to being called racist, while at the same time are not prepared to put in the hard work of actually not being racist.

How strange it must be to hold a position that you know is wrong. It must be like knowing you should eat salad if you want to lose weight, but fancying a bag of chips and a dandelion & burdock.

“Gah!” they must think. “I know that racism is wrong and the thin end of a wedge which has genocide at the other end, but I REALLY enjoy the feeling of superiority I get from having this colour of skin – the best colour – rather than that colour of skin.”

I will just say that if your response to hearing that a Muslim or group of Muslims have committed a crime is to call for a ban on people from Muslim countries, then you already did not trust Muslims before – “because they’re not like us” – and you are using this to justify your prejudices.

White English-speaking people commit crimes all the time. Come back to me when you want to ban people from New Zealand.

Anyway, there is quite enough division in this world at the moment, and it is time that we looked at something Donald Trump and I have in common – an inability to wear fake tan convincingly.

I am a very white person. Most racists are jealous of how white I am. Cameramen can use my skin – and have done – to check their white balance. I make milk look like caramel. I don’t need to wear reflective clothing when I am running at night, in fact oncoming runners tend to scream when they see my disembodied ghostly head.

But when I was 15 I went on summer holiday with family to Newquay in Cornwall. The beaches were filled with golden people, the colour the Orange Don believes he is in his head, while I looked like an animated sheet of foolscap.

And then one morning I saw her – a raven-haired vision, sitting at breakfast with her parents, looking about as bored as a 15-year-old girl on a seaside holiday with her parents as you might expect. She would have stood out anyway to me in a Newquay hotel dining room in which the occupants’ average age was 48, but she was genuinely very pretty.

How could a pasty youth like me compete, I wondered, with the bronzed beach gods? Expose me to sunlight and I shrivel like a crisp packet under the grill.

But that evening, I was in the bathroom, and I noticed a bottle on the shelf. I expect it belonged to my uncle or auntie, who had taken me on the holiday, and it was an artificial tanning product, I presume, in retrospect, for fading out tan lines.

However, I was 15 and stupid. This was the answer to my problem. I “borrowed” some and smeared it all over my face. I looked in the mirror and saw no effect.

“I probably need more,” I thought. And I smeared more on. Still no effect. I shrugged and went down to the hotel’s “disco”, where somehow I managed to dance with the girl, who told me her name was Christina.

The next morning I woke and examined my white hotel pillow. It looked as if I had engaged in a dirty protest.

Horrified, I dashed to a mirror. My body was as radiantly white as ever. But my face… Oh, my face! It was not so much golden-brown as conker brown. And it was white around my eyes, where, presumably, I had been wary of smearing the artificial tanning cream.

I spent the rest of the holiday wearing long sleeves and sunglasses, with my hands in my pockets, avoiding Christina. It was the only time in my life I believed that being white was superior.

COLUMN: January 26, 2017

A number of people who think Donald Trump is bad

I AM not really one for protesting. I complain and moan quite bitterly after the event, but at the time, I keep my mouth shut, like the good Brit I am.

That is not strictly true. Recently I complained about a poached egg in a restaurant. The waiter actually looked surprised by my actions, almost as surprised as me.

But, in fairness, it was so undercooked it was more an unpleasant hangover cure than a breakfast. It looked as if the chef had broken the egg straight onto the plate without going to the trouble of putting it in some simmering water first.

The point is that even I have my limit, a red border of tolerance beyond which I cannot be pushed meekly. An ineptly poached egg is where I draw the line – that, and Donald Trump as the leader of the free world.

Which is how I found myself, entirely out of character, in the middle of one of the women’s rallies around the world protesting the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America.

At this juncture, I wish to clarify that I am not a woman, but I know a number of women and wished to support them.

I also know there are some readers who are saying: “Oh, for the love of Pete, get a grip, you bumbling idiot. So a democratic vote didn’t go your way. You lost, get over it, you Remoaner.”

And I have some sympathy with that point, specifically the bit where they called me a bumbling idiot, which is cruel, but not something I could fight in court.

But arguments are not settled with a vote, not even referendums. For example, we had a referendum in 1975 on whether we should stay in the Common Market. An overwhelming majority said yes. It did not stop opponents of being in the EEC/EU from banging on about it for 40 years until Easy Life Cameron decided to give us another referendum.

Opposition to a vote does not end after the vote is cast. If we had a vote tomorrow on whether we should all put our hands in the fire – and I would not bet against Team Hands-In-Fire winning these days, especially if they started talking about the “cold-handed metropolitan elite” with their “privileged unscarred fingers” – I would protest about it.

Moreover, I would protest right up to the point at which I had to put my hands in the fire, and probably after it, although my argument then would be along the lines of “Ooyah! Ooyah! Hot! Hot!”

Which takes me back to the rally. I am not a rally person. If I wanted to stand still in a crowd for an hour while somebody gives instructions over a megaphone, I would go on the London Underground at rush hour.

I am told that by rally standards it was a very well attended event. Obviously it was in no way as well attended as the rally supporting Jeremy Corbyn on the same spot a few months before, but that is because women’s rights are not as important.

But it felt good to be there, among people with many of whom I would disagree on several subjects, but on this speaking with one voice. All of us were saying that Donald Trump is a bad choice for President.

All of us were saying he is a climate change denying, bullying manchild who dismisses inconvenient facts as from the “lying media”, who talks about grabbing women by their genitalia, who hasn’t released his tax returns, who, while not necessarily racist himself, uses racism as a weapon, and who follows Piers Morgan on Twitter. And he has his finger on the nuclear button. And that was just one chant.

And if I do not protest about this man being the leader of the free world, then I am saying that I am fine with this. And I am not fine with this.

Normally, I would dismiss rallies as useless. I watched hundreds of rallies against Thatcher in the 80s.

But Trump is a man obsessed with numbers and personal popularity. He may well be the only leader in recent history who could be dislodged by rallies.

While I was just one person in a crowd, the fact remains I was in a crowd. And he can ignore one leaf on his driveway, but he can’t ignore a tonne of leaves.

Though obviously he can protest about it.

COLUMN: January 19, 2017

A small yappy dog

I HAVE mentioned before that my chosen form of exercise is running. Running is terrible. I chose it because the other options were out of the question.

Swimming, for instance, is not for me. I am not keen on putting my face in the water because I have heard that water makes you drown and I cannot trust myself to breathe at the right time.

As a result, I swim at roughly a 45-degree angle, which means I do not glide through the water like a porpoise. Rather, I drag myself through the water, like a man crawling through the desert.

So I can swim, but not for any sort of distance. I could probably save my own life if dumped 25 metres from land, but any further out I would need professional assistance or an undertaker.

The gym, equally, is not for me. I tried it for a couple of weeks, when I was a much younger man, and found it like an adventure playground in which every piece of equipment is designed to hurt you.

Team sports, also, are beyond me. I have poor depth perception, to go with my poor everything-else perception, which means I cannot catch, or hit a ball with any degree of accuracy. And my unwillingness to hurt people means my tackling is less bone-crushing and more gentle essential oil-scented massaging.

So that leaves me with running. I do not run because I like it. I run because it is the only thing that might keep me from dying before I qualify for a pension.

But the thing about running is that it is very boring. It is just putting one foot in front of the other over and over again until you stop – like life, only marginally faster.

Obviously, this has an effect on you. On your run you notice very mundane things, and your brain tricks you into thinking they are interesting just so that you do not die of boredom. “Oh, look,” you think, “the branch on that tree is a bit like that other branch I passed eight minutes ago,” or “Ooh, that jogger’s got a white earphone cable like mine, I wonder what sort of phone she has.”

It means your standards for what is interesting are lowered dramatically. This is why runners always tell you about how they are runners and how far they have run and post it on social media. They don’t know how boring that stuff is. Runners are basically the vegans of the exercise world.

So I am going to tell you about my run the other day because I am not sure if this is interesting or not. I am going to count on your good manners either way.

I went for my run through the nearby park while it rained. I judged that it would keep my interest levels high. I might have seen a remarkable branch or some well turned-out railings.

But the problem with running through parks is that it increases your chances of encountering the natural predator of the runner: the small yappy dog.

It is not so much the fear of being bitten on the ankle – although that is a factor – it is more the fear of treading on the dog, as it is attracted to the trainers.

And small yappy dogs hunt in packs and are, it appears, invariably tethered to their owners by those retractable leads, which means that, as they run in front of you, they lay tripwires.

So when on my run I approached a fork in the path, and on the right-hand path there was a cluster of small yappy dogs. I naturally took the left, next to a bubbling stream.

And there I met a Rottweiler, off its lead, its owner texting away and not massively attentive. I am wary of Rottweilers, and before you write in and say, “Oh, I’ve got a Rottweiler, and he’s never attacked anybody”, remember that is like saying, “I have never been beaten in mortal combat.”

The fact is, if I am attacked by a small yappy dog, it is an inconvenience and a tetanus jab. If I am attacked by a Rottweiler, I am toast, and I don’t care how friendly your Tyson is.

I continued running, remembering that showing fear was probably a bad idea, but the Rottweiler decided I was scared anyway, and made a beeline for my crotch.

I dodged, and ran off the path onto the bank by the stream. But the rain had made the bank muddy, and I skidded. Somehow, I managed to fling my right leg onto the path again, staying upright while turning my ankle and running while the Rottweiler switched its attention to my rear end.

But the residual mud on my trainer made me slip again on the path and I bashed against a tree.

The dog, tired of my antics, ran off to its still-texting and oblivious owner. I, on the other hand, limped home bruised. Running is terrible.

COLUMN: January 12, 2017

A kitten – because I couldn’t find an appropriate illustration
I WOULD not want you to think I am accident-prone just because I write most weeks about the accident which has befallen me that week.

You probably have as many accidents happening to you in your day-to-day life, it is just that you do not have a newspaper column to tell people about them. Or perhaps you are ashamed of them. Or perhaps your need to earn money does not outweigh your sense of personal shame.

That is certainly what I tell myself, otherwise why would I ever get out of bed? Or, indeed, why would I be allowed out in public? A responsible government would have me locked away somewhere in the countryside, far from the nearest self-service checkout.

At least, that is what I did tell myself until last week, when an entirely preventable accident occurred, in my actual bedroom, while I was writing last week’s column. And just to be clear at this stage, this was not a “Donald Trump-style” bedroom accident.

Let me take you back first to a couple of days before Christmas, when I received an email from the lettings agent in charge of my flat.

The message informed me that some necessary maintenance would be undertaken on a particular date early in the new year and that the contractor concerned would need access to my flat, to which he had a key.

In an ideal world, readers, I would have made a note of that date in my diary. But this is not an ideal world. This is a world in which the purple ones in boxes of Roses have shrunk down so much that an alien would assume that Cadbury’s primary source of income is wrapping paper.

So, after the kerfuffle of Christmas and the New Year, the impending visit of a couple of workmen was the furthest thing from my mind. Face it, I only mentioned it two paragraphs ago and you had already forgotten they were coming.

It was the morning of the day I was due to submit last week’s column and I was writing it in bed – I live alone and work odd hours, I don’t have to justify myself to you – chuckling away at how clever I am. And, before I knew it, it was time to get myself ready for work.

I put a wash on, and prepared myself for my shower and it is probably best that we do not dwell upon this. I hung up my bathrobe in the bathroom, and then realised that I had not sent my column to the people who make it look nice on this page.

So I went back into my bedroom and sent the column over the internet. I did not put my bathrobe back on. As I said, I live alone, and it was a quick job, and it was not that cold.

That was when I heard the knock on the door. “Oh,” I thought, “that will be the workman from that email I haven’t thought about since before Christmas. This is suboptimal.”

I looked around for some clothes, but I had chucked everything that would have been easily to hand into the washing machine, and my suit was hanging up in my living room. And my bathrobe was hanging up in the bathroom.

I scrabbled about, but could not find trousers. A less panicked person might have called out to the workman to wait for a moment, but I had started down the wrong road and nothing was going to divert me.

“Fine”, I thought, “bathrobe it is”. It would not have been hugely dignified, but it would have been several leagues better than greeting a contractor as nature intended.

Did you remember the bit a while back where I said the contractor had his own key? You had probably forgotten. I had too, until I stepped into my hallway and heard the key in the lock.

I yelped and grabbed the mortice lock handle so it could not turn. I heard him say, “It won’t turn”, to his colleague – of course there were two of them – and I used his confusion to dive into the bathroom and close the door, just as my front door opened.

I emerged, clad in my bathrobe, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “Oh, sorry,” I said, “I didn’t hear you. I was in the shower.” If the contractor noted the fact that the bath was bone dry, he did not say.

COLUMN: January 5, 2017

A person of indeterminate gender jogging in special black running trousers
I DECIDED to make some New Year’s resolutions in an attempt to make myself more viable.

I have now reached the age where, if I were the equivalent in car years, my owner would worry about taking me for my MOT. Bits have started falling off, and there’s some rust around my trim.

Joint chief among my resolutions were “get fit (again)” and “eat less bread”. The second of this is because I work odd hours and eat too many sandwiches as a result. I am roughly 38% sandwich.

But the first of those was prompted by a trip a few days ago up five flights of stairs, which left me not so much out of breath as with my lungs trying to escape my body via my ears.

This time last year I would have been able to take those stairs with a bounce and then drop to the floor and do 50 press-ups, if it had not have been for the looks I would have got from the diners in Nando’s.

Back then I was running 4-5k three times a week and pondering the next step – registering for a 10k race. I even owned actual special running shoes and trousers, which just goes to show how serious I was, when you consider I eat a lot of bread but I don’t even own a toaster.

But I stopped running after a minor setback, and found it difficult to get started again. For once you have stopped running it is hard to get the motivation to start again, in the absence of a pursuing lion or a chugger with a clipboard.

So yesterday (as I write) I pulled on my special running trousers and shoes. My special running trousers are black and very, erm, form-fitting, so I look a little like a goth principal boy.

Luckily, I run without glasses, partly because they would steam up and/or fall off, but mostly so I cannot see the disgusted looks of people coming in the opposite direction.

Normally, I run in silence, listening only to my ragged breathing, my heartbeat, and the annoying jingling of a pound coin against my key.

But this was a new start, and I chose to listen as I ran to a running podcast, which plays blandly inspirational music, while a nice lady tells you when to run and when to rest. For when you start running again, you can’t just launch into a half-hour run. You have to ease into it.

And I was easing into it at first. My excursion was split into a three-minute run followed by a short walk, then a five-minute run followed by another short walk, all of which is then repeated.

That sounds sensible, but it does not take into account the fact that passers-by see you running and then stopping to walk, and assume you are a massive lazybones who can’t cut it as a runner.

My initial three-minute run – don’t laugh, you try running for three solid minutes when you haven’t broken into a jog since you were 15 – was not too taxing, and it was good when the lady told me I was doing really well and I only had 60 seconds to go.

By the time of the second five-minute run, the nice lady was really starting to get my dander up. I was seeing stars and could hear my blood whooshing around my head. Because she was telling me how well I was doing and I knew – I KNEW – that she was recording this motivational message in a warm studio with a tea and Kit-Kat on the go while she leafed through Take A Break.
And as I finished the run, an agonising stitch in my side, and began the warm-down walk, she told me that people often get a stitch during this run, so I should have a drink of water before I set off next time.

It was the last straw.

“WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT BEFORE, YOU SILLY MOO!” I yelled out in the deserted street.

If I had not been wearing earphones, I would not have been angered by the nice woman. And if I had not been wearing earphones I would have heard the pounding on the pavement of the two women running behind me, who passed me laughing.

I can only hope it was at my seemingly insane outbursts and not my special running trousers.

COLUMN: December 29, 2016

Robin (The Frog), nephew of Kermit The Frog

THE thing about New Years is that they force you to take stock of your life.

They give you a chance to look back at the previous 12 months and see what you would have done differently, in order to make your life improve, to be a stronger you, a happier you.

For me, 2016 was a rickety roller coaster of exhilarating highs and devastating lows. And, looking back now, I know what I would have done better.

For example, I know that I would be a better, happier, and, crucially, richer person had I worn different trousers on Boxing Day.

When I got home from visiting on Christmas Eve, I changed into my “not going out” trousers. I will not attempt to describe these trousers, suffice to say they are built for comfort rather than style. It was only then I realised I had forgotten to buy satsumas, and what is Christmas without a small orange you can buy all year round?

I rushed to the nearest branch of Britain’s Best-Loved Struggling Retailer and bought the necessary citrus globes, hoping that shoppers and staff would be too busy with Christmas preparations to ask questions about my trousers.

And then from Christmas Eve afternoon until Boxing Day I largely confined myself to my flat, in a brave and largely successful attempt to avoid ruining Christmas for everybody else.

But Boxing Day afternoon came around, and I had to go to work. The greatest divide in this country is not between Leavers and Remainers or Strictly fans and X-Factor fans. It is between those people who have to work every Bank Holiday and those who do not.

To people like me, the words “Boxing Day” do not mean “day of eating cheese and the rest of the Roses and seeing the relatives who didn’t make the Christmas Day cut”. They mean “day I still have to go to work, but there aren’t any buses or trains when I want to come home.”

I dressed for work, leaving behind my “not going out” trousers, and donning my “going out” trousers, and prepared to step out, blinking, into the light, like a mole emerging from Hollister.

And as I slammed my flat’s door behind me, before the echo died away, I realised that my “going out” trousers had been transformed into my “going out and not getting back in” trousers.

For I had transferred my flat key from my “going out” trousers to my “not going out” trousers on Christmas Eve, and had completely forgotten that I needed to switch it back.

“Oh,” I thought. “This is very disappointing. This is going to inconvenience me quite massively.”

I wondered for a moment just how much locksmiths charge for a call-out on Boxing Day, but the calculation made my jaw ache, and I sat on the staircase leading up to my flat with my head in my hands. I was not going to let this beat me and I was certainly not going to shell out a load of money the day after Christmas.

I have seen enough films in my time. I flicked through my wallet and found a plastic card I do not need any more. Which, it transpired, was just as well.

Could I get into trouble for this, I wondered? Surely not, as it was my own flat.

I wiggled it into the gap between the door and the frame, and tried to fiddle the lock open. But it turns out that films are full of lies. My efforts were fruitless. On the bright side, I have now discovered a new and glamorous way to destroy expired credit cards.

I sat back on the stairs, like Kermit the Frog’s nephew, Robin, and contacted my long-suffering colleagues to explain my temporary absence.

Eventually I got through to the emergency maintenance contractor, who told me that I would be paying time and a half for him to come round with a key and let me in, because it was Boxing Day and nobody works on Boxing Day. I decided not to beg to differ, because I wanted to see the inside of my flat before 2017.

He arrived and let me in with his skeleton key. “Why didn’t you lock the mortice?” he said, as he pushed the door open. “That’s not very secure.”

“Because I didn’t have my key,” I explained, as I handed over a cash sum roughly equivalent to my day’s wages.

And at that moment I resolved that, in 2017, I would not forget the satsumas.

COLUMN: December 22, 2016

A bauble – not suitable for juggling by small monkeys

TWAS the day before the night before the night before Christmas, and all through the house it was utter bedlam.

Mummy Monkey did a big sigh as she lunged forward to stop the tree from falling over. It was always like this on the first day of the Christmas holidays.

As usual for the time of year, her cheeky monkeys were hyped up on cheap Advent calendar chocolate and the prospect of presents and were bashing about the place, laying waste to it. It was as if a bomb had gone off in Lady GaGa’s dressing room.

“Enough!” she yelled, as she tried to pick glitter off a piece of cold toast. “There will be peace on earth, or, at least, in this living room.”

“You!” she said to her little girl monkey, Georgina. “Baubles are NOT for juggling.”

“You!” she said to her smallest boy monkey, Howard. “Stop laying Lego traps for your father.”

“And you!” she said to her biggest boy monkey. “I want you to go out and find the spirit of Christmas, Eric.”

Eric blinked. “What?” he said.

“You heard,” said Mummy Monkey, as she untangled Howard from the lights.

“It…” said Eric, “It’s just that 1) that seems like an incredibly vague challenge; and 2) you’re seriously sending me out on my own? I’m only eight.”

“Well,” said Mummy Monkey, “1) yes, that’s the point; and 2) this is a generic children’s Christmas story – that’s the sort of thing that happens in children’s stories. Eight-year-old children go out on their own, even though the last time that happened was in 1982.”

“Fine,” said Eric Monkey, and he went upstairs to change out of his pyjamas and into his warmest clothes, including trousers which had a hole in the bottom to accommodate his tail.

Eric stepped out into the snow, and trudged up the road. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

He met his friend Rhino. “Hello, Rhino,” he said, “Do you know where I can find the spirit of Christmas?”

“Listen, Eric,” the rhino replied, “do you know how racist that sounds? You’ve got an actual name, but I’m just called Rhino? I have a name too. I have hopes and dreams and…”

“Sorry,” said Eric, “I have been Ukippy. What is your name?”

“Ian,” said the rhino.

“Ian, do you know where I can find the spirit of Christmas?”

“No,” said Ian Rhino. “I am only the first person you have asked. In these things it’s always the third person you ask who has the answer. You’ll have to waste your time with a second person first.”

Off Eric trudged up the road. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

He met his monkey teacher, Mrs Baverstock.

“Hello, Miss,” said Eric. “Do you know what the spirit of Christmas is?”

“Where’s your mother?” asked Mrs Baverstock. “What are you doing out on your own?”

Eric explained that this was a generic Christmas children’s story, and anyway, there was no way Mrs Baverstock would have the answer because she was only the second one he’d met, but the author had to pad this out somehow, and they said their farewells.

Off Eric trudged up the road. Trudge, trudge, trudge, until…

He met a human with a white beard and normal clothes who was clearly Father Christmas, but not in his Christmas Eve regalia.

“Hello, kindly human stranger,” said Eric, his tail twitching in case you’d forgotten he was a monkey. “I don’t suppose you know what the spirit of Christmas is, given that you’re the third person I’ve asked and we’re close to the end of the story.”

“You’re in luck,” said the undercover St Nick. “It’s stories like this one, which are boring and repetitive for grown-ups, but which you read to your children one Christmas.

“And then they insist that you read it to them every year after that, because Christmas isn’t Christmas without that story. You see, you do it for them because they love it, and you love them. And that’s the spirit of Christmas. And then one day you don’t get to read it any more, and you miss it.”

“You’re a very wise man, kindly human stranger,” Eric said, “but that’s a bit of a downer. Can’t I just tell Mum it’s ‘letting kids do anything they want, even eating the rest of the Advent calendar chocolate’.”

“Yeah, go on,” said incognito Santa. “It’s Christmas.”