COLUMN: December 20, 2018

An empty cinema

EVERYBODY has perks of their job. Teachers get 30 presents at Christmas. Binmen have people chasing them up the street at this time of year with money instead of rubbish. Window cleaners get to judge strangers’ wallpaper without having to wait till they have the big light on and the curtains open.

Even journalists get perks. We get free green eye-shades. We get to shout “Hold the front page!” and “Stop the presses!” And occasionally we get invitations to swanky events at which we will be comfortably – or uncomfortably, in my case – the least swanky person in the room.

Most of these invitations we have to turn down. Most functions occur during the time that newspapers are actually produced, as well do many of the people who work in public relations know, as they have jumped ship from journalism. They are poachers turned gamekeepers, or gamekeepers turned poachers, depending on your point of view.

We can always tell, by the way, which PR people have never worked in journalism, or, indeed, have never read a newspaper, as they will ask us when we finish for Christmas. The short answer to that is “We don’t.” The longer answer to that is unprintable.

Anyway, I had had quite the week, personally and professionally, when an invitation popped into my email. Would I like to go to a screening of an upcoming film in an unspecified venue in the West End the following week? It is a film I have been looking forward to seeing, was being introduced by a writing and performing hero of mine, and would be followed by a question and answer session with the writer and director of the film.

Would I like to go to that? What do you think? I booked the day off, RSVPed in the resoundingly positive, and went online to buy the cheapest train tickets I could find.

The PR person who had invited me replied to me asking if I would like a “plus one”. Now there are people in London who dislike me less than most people. I would probably be able to rustle up a more or less willing companion. So I replied that I would.

Two days later, a different PR person from the same agency contacted me to ask if I would like to go to the screening. My word, I thought, these people are very keen to ensure that beloved columnist and wit Gary Bainbridge is at their event to lend it a touch of class. This, I thought, must be what it is like to be Rihanna, or was like to be the late Sir David Frost.

I said I had already accepted, and asked how it was going with the “plus one”. The new PR replied that she had checked, noted my request for a second ticket, and would get back to me. That was a bit rum. It was hardly a request. If somebody asks if you want a ginger nut and you say yes, you haven’t requested it.

Anyway, my mind was at rest. These people definitely wanted me there. In many ways, these people were going to be my new friends. It was safe, therefore, to book a hotel…

The day before the event, I still had not received details about where the screening was, or confirmation of my “plus one” ticket. I emailed the original PR for clarification.

Two hours later, and less than 24 hours before I was due to catch my train or check into my hotel, the PRs’ manager emailed me to say that there had been a change in ticket allocation, and that my request for tickets had been declined. “Apols for the confusion”, said a man who was so sorry he couldn’t even write the word “apologies” in full.

I pointed out that telling me less than 24 hours before my train or hotel reservation meant that I couldn’t get a refund, and that I did not request tickets, I was flipping well invited.

Then, in a rage, I cancelled my tickets and reservation. There was no point in going to London and spending more money if I wasn’t seeing the film.

Mr Apols emailed back. It turned out that they did have a pair of tickets available.

I told him not to bother, and banged my head on the desk a number of times.

The PRs won’t be reading this, of course. They’ll be on their Christmas holidays. It’s a perk of their job.

COLUMN: December 13, 2018

I used to be Prime Minister, you know?

DAVID Cameron was on the television the other night, after the latest calamity at that point to befall the Brexit process. There were probably three or four more calamities that followed that night, and there will be about another dozen between the writing of this column and your reading of it.

Anyway, a reporter asked him if he regretted calling the EU referendum and he said he did not because he had promised to have one in his 2015 manifesto, before jumping in his car and being driven off, ignoring questions about whether we should have a second referendum now that we know what the Brexit deal looks like.

One has to wonder what it is like inside the previous Prime Minister’s head. He spent years agreeing, presumably for political effect, with the rabid right wing press and his rabid right wing backbenchers, that the European Union was an absolute shower of bounders obsessed with giving us straight bananas and time off work when we have a new baby.

Then he pulled the Conservative MEPs out of their natural grouping in the European Parliament and put them in with the harder-right head-the-balls. He pandered to Ukippers over immigration – Theresa May was at the Home Office, for goodness’ sake.

Then he went to the EU to get a better deal for the UK, despite the fact that the UK had a pretty cushy deal from the EU anyway. We’re not in the Schengen area, which means EU residents still need their passports to enter our country, we’re not in the single currency, and we get a massive rebate despite the fact we’re one of the richest members of the EU.

And, of course, when he came back with a mildly better deal, there was no way it would placate his backbenchers or the Daily Mail, because it was an article of faith with them that the European Union was as bad as the Nazis.

He could have come back with the political equivalent of you finding a £20 note down the back of the sofa, and they would have still complained that he didn’t find a £50 note, and, besides, the sofa was lumpy.

So he spent years doing the European Union down, mostly because it was politically expedient. And then he announced the referendum and put himself down in the Remain camp.

Why did he do this? Because he expected to win. He thought he would be able to settle the issue in his party for a generation, and stop his backbenchers from banging on about Europe, because people like him always expect to win.

What he did not realise is that he had played his entire professional and political career up to that point on easy mode. He went to Eton and Oxford, he got a job at Conservative Central Office after a phone call of recommendation from Buckingham Palace. He was handed a safe seat in Oxfordshire.

His smooth manner put him in prime position when the Tories finally realised they needed a Blair-like character, rather than an oddball, to win elections. And then he was lucky in his opponents, a tired Tony Blair himself, a grumpy Gordon Brown in the middle of a global financial crisis, and Ed Miliband.

And this would be the third referendum he would fight, after the voting reform and Scottish independence polls, which he won convincingly. Because he had the overwhelmingly Tory press behind him.

He still had the Tory press behind him for the EU referendum, but this time they had knives. They were overwhelmingly pro-Leave, pumping out anti-EU propaganda for decades. They were never going to help him. He didn’t stand a chance.

I’m going to assert that nobody who voted in that referendum voted intentionally to make this country poorer or to close factories or to destroy jobs. Nobody who voted Leave did so thinking that it would be a disaster.

That’s why what people on my side of the debate call Project Reality was dismissed as Project Fear by people on the other side. Because, really, if things were going to be that bad, there was no way a sensible PM would put it on the ballot paper.

No. A sensible PM would not have done that. So, if David Cameron is telling the truth, after we crash out with no deal, or limp out backwards, bowing and scraping, with Theresa May’s deal, the only one who won’t regret it is the one who is to blame.

COLUMN: December 6, 2018

What it looks like inside a pub

OCCASIONALLY, when the planets align and my shift pattern allows it, I go out for a midweek drink with three colleagues.

I do not want you to think that these are evenings of debauchery – far from it, although once we got pizza and one of us (me) burped over his Pepsi and didn’t even say “excuse me”.

In fact I have come to appreciate their sedate nature, nights of sitting down and becoming gently sozzled while working out where the worlds of politics and the media have gone so very wrong. They are about as far away from the sort of night out a normal 21-year-old would enjoy that you could imagine.

“Where should we go for our night out?” I asked in our online chat group.We have a group solely concerned with making arrangements for our bi-monthly night out, even though we sit so close to each other in the office that we could hit each other with a paper aeroplane built with little skill.

These arrangements make the Brexit negotiations look like a piece of cake,though not one we can eat and still have, because four adults with responsibilities and mortgages and shoes cannot just decide to do something.

This is the reason I knew that, when the Brexit head-the-balls, with their men-of-the-people-I-might-be-a-toff-but-I-know-what-you-salt-of-the-earth-gorblimey-trousers-sorts-want shtick and their hedge funds, were waltzing around two years ago saying, “Oh, it’ll be the easiest deal ever, we don’t even have to do the reading, we can just turn up in our pants”, they were talking absolute nonsense.

Because if four people take the best part of a week to come up with a mutually satisfactory date, time, and location for a night out, then Brexit was always doomed to failure. You might as well tell the tide to get on with it.

Anyway,the answer to “Where should we go for our night out?” turned out to be “I thought we might go to that cool quarter where they have the sort of night out that normal 21-year-olds enjoy”.

I was sceptical. But nobody else raised any objections, and I thought,“Well, life is about taking risks, otherwise you might as well be dead, so I suppose I should do this”, which gives you a sense of what it’s like to go on a night out with me.

We met in a quiet pub on the tepid outskirts of the cool quarter. We were the only customers. I tossed a gag grenade at the barman about it being Bedlam in there that night, but he wasn’t having it. We drank up and entered the cool quarter.

That was also quiet, with hints of off-season seaside resort and dripping tarpaulin. A wet wind lashed us. “Why is it so deserted?” I asked. It looked like a science-fiction film in which the population had mysteriously vanished.

“They’ll be inside,” one colleague said, “on account of the wet and windy conditions.”

They weren’t. We entered a bar about the size of half a football pitch with a dozen customers and sat down with our drinks until a man with a guitar and a microphone made it intolerable to stay.

We went into another bar, and entered another sort of middle-aged nightout. There was a group of women dancing to Dancing Queen between the entrance and the bar.

There are only two ways to get through a group of women dancing to Dancing Queen. One is a sort of awkward shuffle around them, the choice of my colleagues, the other is to indulge in some fancy footwork.

I am no dancer. Sober me has come to terms with this fact. Mildly sozzled me will never accept this.

So I strutted through them, because I had had two drinks, and straight into the gents’ toilets, because I had had two drinks. “Got away with that,” I thought, as I washed my hands.

I went to rejoin my friends, this time on the right side of the dancing women.

But they had vanished, deciding amongst themselves that this was not the place for them. They had abandoned me, the weakest antelope among lionesses.

“You’re dancing with us now,” the alpha female said.

And so I was forced to dance with the women, in the manner a normal 21-year-old would enjoy, until I was able to manoeuvre myself into a position to Moonwalk out of the bar and to safety.

It was thoroughly humiliating. Like Brexit.

COLUMN: November 29, 2018

A number of elephants

I DO NOT know if you are familiar with the Elephant Man Syndrome. This is not something which involves medical intervention, I am happy to say.

The Elephant Man Syndrome is what happens when you have, for example and by chance, a couple of elephant ornaments. “Oh,” people think when they pop round to your house to borrow a video or cup of sugar like somebody from an 80s sitcom, “I see from his mantelpiece that Terence is clearly a huge fan of elephants. I know exactly what to get him for Christmas/his birthday.”

Before you know it, your house is full of elephant-themed teatowels and elephant clocks and tusk-shaped candles, and people start describing you as The Elephant Man, and you’re not even allowed to be offended.

All of a sudden you have a collection without doing any collecting, like one of those people who buy full Panini sticker albums on eBay.

But there’s the opposite syndrome too. Let’s call it the Elf Syndrome. I’ve been suffering from the Elf Syndrome at this time of year for a few years now, ever since I published a column in which I explained, at great, even tedious, length, the many reasons why I do not like the film Elf.

I won’t go into the reasons here, except to say that the film is clearly a practical joke being played on the credulous, and the producers are laughing all the way to the bank, though not at the script or performances.

I am keenly aware that mine is a minority opinion, but, as Brexit has shown us, the majority is not always correct.

The problem is that I have been identified as an Elf hater, which is fine, and this means that people who are full of mischief keep throwing Elf-related things at me, which is not.

“Oh, I’ve got just the thing for you,” they tell me. “Gosh, really?” I think, excited by the thought of a lovely present, for I have feelings and enjoy the idea of people liking me enough to give me gifts.

And then I open the attachment and it is a picture of an Elf onesie, or an Elf bedspread.

Sometimes it is a picture of tickets to Elf The Musical. I cannot imagine anything worse than a musical version of Elf, apart from a musical version of Mrs Brown’s Boys, or a musical version of being tied to a stake while arrows are shot at me. Imagine. It’s the story of Elf, but performed by the sort of people who enjoy participating in musical theatre.

And sometimes it is just a picture of Will Ferrell, the star of Elf, gurning while wearing the clothes of the eponymous character, with a quote from the film overlaying it.

These last ones are the worst, because the sender hasn’t even gone to the trouble of looking on the internet for Elf merchandise. It is the difference between being insulted in a creative way, as Oscar Wilde might have done to me, and being called a four-letter word in a rough pub.

The only thing these messages have in common apart from the Elf content is that they all appear initially benign. They lull me into a false sense of security by making me feel loved for a moment. And then – BAM! – I’m smashed in the face with a picture of the man who has ruined my Christmases for a decade and a half.

I am like Charlie Brown from the Peanuts strip taking a run up at that football time after time, only for Lucy always to pull it away. It is not good for a person with trust issues, who tries again and again, despite my inherent pessimism about human nature, to see the good in people.

I know I am taking a risk by telling you this. In fact, it is no risk at all, as this will definitely happen. Now they know how needled I am by Elf bombs, the people responsible will redouble their efforts. My email will be spammed with awful memes, dinners ruined by syrup, and pictures of a man in tights who thinks it’s fine to go into women’s locker rooms.

But this is not OK. If I told you I had a phobia of creepy-crawlies and dungarees, you wouldn’t send me endless pictures of Super Mario riding on the back of a tarantula.

It’s enough to make me pack my trunk and say goodbye to the circus.  

COLUMN: November 22, 2018

The worst idea in the history of ideas

WHENEVER I search through my pockets for one key or another, people always suggest that I put all my keys on a keyring. I have no idea why they do this. Do they think that I have somehow managed to reach my mid-forties without having ever heard of keyrings?

As it happens, the first thing I ever made in CDT was a keyring. Admittedly, it was also the last thing I ever made in CDT. It became quickly apparent to both me and my teacher that my talents lay in other areas, and I look forward to finding out one day where these areas are.

The reason I do not put all my keys on a keyring is the same reason why I opposed the introduction of national identity cards. Yes, it’s a great idea to have a single card which gives me access to all the gifts of the state to which I am entitled, and it would be hugely convenient… right up to the moment at which I lost it. And then I would have to prove my identity to receive a new one, without any proof of identity.

And if I put all my keys on a keyring, I would always know where they were, until I lost all of them at once, probably down a drain or in the throat of a shark or in the setting concrete foundations of a building.

This means I have chosen to run a more or less constant risk of minor inconvenience, rather than a considerably slimmer risk of catastrophic inconvenience, on the basis that what can go wrong inevitably does.

It means I have a routine every day. You see, I am not Dennis The Menace or Donald Duck. I don’t wear the same clothes every day. I have a range of outfits, most, if not all, of which include trousers.

So when I choose my work outfit, I go through the pockets of yesterday’s trousers, retrieve the various keys that I need to get through the day and/or doors, and transfer them into the pockets of today’s trousers.

Often I only remember to do this just before I close my front door. On occasion, I remember to do this just after I close my front door. Those are generally the worst days.

Anyway, I had to go to work earlier than usual, because of a thing I was doing. But I also had to write one of these columns for you, and, I will not lie, it is not always a straightforward process. It might look to you as if I vomit these words onto the page, but sometimes I can spend actual seconds considering the mot juste.

The point is that you would be surprised how long it can take me to write 750 words, and on this occasion I joined you. I had gone over my budgeted time so comprehensively I had roughly seven minutes to shower, dress appropriately, throw down some breakfast, brush my teeth, and get into my car.

I was a cartoon whirlwind. I raced out of my flat, pulled the door, then yelped, and shoved my arm in the rapidly closing gap between the door and frame. Keys!

I ran back in and grabbed yesterday’s trousers, shaking the various keys out of them, like a bully stealing lunch money. One key bounced under my bed. I am too old to drop to the floor at speed, but somehow I managed it without injury.

I raced out of the flat again, jumped into my car, and drove at a legal speed to work, arriving at the car park a satisfying hour early. I reached for my car park pass…

The thing about changing outfits every day is that trousers are not the only variable. My car park pass was in my wallet. And my wallet was in yesterday’s jacket.

“Gah!” I thought. “Oh, well, I’ll just have to go to the NCP car park down the road and take the heavy financial hit.”

But my debit card was in the same wallet. “Cash?” I thought. In the wallet, obviously. Maybe I could withdraw cash? Nope, I needed a debit card for that.

Maybe I could park up and ask a colleague to spot me a tenner? I will leave you to guess where my office passcard was kept.

I drove home and back again, and was half an hour late for work. And this, THIS, is why I don’t have a keyring.

COLUMN: November 15, 2018

Iron Man, Stan the Man, Spider-Man

Up to the age of nine, the greatest moment of my life was when I received a letter from Marvel Comics. It’s probably still in the top five.

This was because I had used an insult in conversation which I had previously seen crudely etched in cement on a wall in school, and assumed was beyond the pale.

But then it had appeared in a amusing comic strip called Jet Lagg in Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, and I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Marvel Comics, surely it’s good enough for me.”

It was not. I was roundly admonished by my mother in the traditional early 80s manner and I never swore in front of her again, even as an adult.

When she stopped for breath, and I was able to get a word in, I explained my reasoning, and she demanded I show her the offending comic. “Hmph,” she said, and she dropped the subject.

I forgot about the incident until a week later, when the handwritten letter arrived from Marvel. I shook as I read it. It had a colour letterhead, with Spider-Man on one side and The Incredible Hulk on the other. And they were apologising to me.

“Sorry, Gary. Of course we meant to write ‘twit’.”

My mother had called to complain. It was all Stan Lee’s fault.

If he hadn’t, over a period of about 10 years, created or co-created or inspired the colourful and compelling characters which dominate popular culture in 2018, including the Spider-Man and Hulk at the top of that letter, there would have been no Marvel Comics, and especially no Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, with the landmine onto which I unwittingly stumbled.

Stan Lee, who died on Monday at the age of 95, was one of the biggest influences on my life. It surprises me, as I write this, just how much of my childhood memories are tied up with the Marvel comics created and inspired by Stan Lee.

One of my earliest memories is watching the 60s Spider-Man cartoon in the house in which I lived when I was three years old.

And then I remember, a few years later, cuddling up to my Uncle Bernard, as we watched Bill Bixby’s eyes turn white before he transformed into a giant green Lou Ferrigno in a fright wig and trousers which ripped at the hem, but somehow never at the waist or bottom.

I remember the Spider-Man suit my Auntie Mary made me and the Marvel Top Trumps game that everybody in my primary school played.

I remember the chemistry set I got for Christmas, because I wanted to be Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, although I failed to give myself super powers, unless you count the ability to make a bad-egg smell in a test tube.

And I remember, most of all, the comics. First of all they were an escape from mundane 70s and 80s childhood. I would read them curled up on the stairs, usually black and white British reprints of the American originals, but later, when I found an actual comic shop in my hometown, full-colour imports.

Second, it was through those that I bonded with my closest secondary school friends, people with whom I am still in touch. We would pore over the latest X-Men or New Mutants, as if they were sacred texts.

By this point, Stan had largely stopped writing comics himself, but his monthly Stan’s Soapbox letter still appeared, full of his catchphrases like “Nuff said” and “Excelsior”. He was easily pushing 65 at this point, but was clearly the coolest man on earth.

You can see that in his 1960s Marvel work. It’s quite quaint now, and a little antiquated, but compared with what his rivals at DC were publishing at the time, it’s like the difference between punk and Englebert Humperdinck. There’s an energy and reality to it, and the characters are solid and have proper motivations.

It wasn’t all his own work, but he brought magic and pizzazz to Marvel Comics.

If you had told me 15 years ago that people – actual people with legs and jobs and bills – would know, in 2018, who Groot is, I would have had you sectioned.

But these Marvel characters dominate popular culture now. And I take great pleasure in the fact that so many people see in Stan Lee’s creations what I saw in the pages of Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly.

And in the fact that he lived long enough to see this happen.

COLUMN: November 8, 2018

Absolutely dental

THIS week’s column starts with a trigger warning. People can be a little sniffy about trigger warnings and start bandying about words like “softy” and “snowflake”.

But then, when they find out that this trigger warning is about dentistry, half of them will say, “Oh, no, well, fair enough.”

So, I was having trouble with a tooth, an impacted wisdom tooth to be exact. If you don’t know what an impacted wisdom tooth is, you are either lucky, or you are in for a rude awakening one day.

Basically, your teeth normally emerge from the gum vertically, but impacted wisdom teeth – and they are common – emerge lazily and almost horizontally, and they form a small gap between its crown and the next perfectly upstanding tooth.

And if small gaps love anything, it’s bits of food. They love bits of food so much it’s very difficult to get the gaps to give them up. This means that when you brush your teeth, you spend 90% of your time dealing with the gap between just two teeth, like a bad teacher exerting most of their effort on that one annoying kid.

So, although it was not causing me any pain, I decided I wanted it to be expelled, because bits of food that can’t be removed start to make their presence known, if you follow me.

I went to my dentist and asked him to get rid of it, and he referred me to the local dental hospital, presumably because he’s been treating me for a few years and he didn’t want any part of this.

A very capable fifth-year student saw me on my first appointment. I was x-rayed and it was confirmed that I very much did have the tooth about which I had been complaining. This was a relief. I hate those imaginary teeth that people sometimes have.

She explained the risks of my operation, and I signed a form, and went away, pleased that I was going to be rid of this nuisance. I had had a couple of similarly impacted wisdom teeth removed about 20 years ago and knew what the procedure was like – fairly unpleasant, with a few days of recovery, but ultimately worthwhile. Like jogging.

I then received a letter inviting me to a follow-up treatment appointment with the consultant. “Ah,” I thought. “This will be the appointment after which my extraction will be booked in. What this absolutely is not is the extraction itself, because there would be some sort of leaflet telling me how I would have to behave after the extraction, including, for example, advice to take a couple of days off work.”

On the day, I went to work as usual, and told my line manager that I would have to pop out of the office for an hour later that afternoon, explaining why. “Are you sure they’re not going to take it out today?” he asked. I scoffed at him, for the reasons I outlined in the previous paragraph.

You do not need an MA in Gary Bainbridge Studies to know what happened to me when I arrived at the hospital…

I was ushered into a room, to be greeted by a consultant, a registrar, two nurses, and a student dental hygienist. “Right, let’s get this tooth out,” the consultant said.

“But… But…” I said. “I wasn’t expecting this now. I thought this was just a follow-up appointment.” She gave me a look. “I didn’t get a leaflet,” I added, pathetically. “I mean, I’ve got to go back to work.”

“What do you do?”

“Erm, I sit at a desk and press keys.”

“Yeah, you’ll be OK,” she said.

I sat in the chair while my mouth was numbed, and I was subjected to what I can only describe as an assault. From the sounds of things, my tooth was the biggest and most awkwardly placed any of the medical professionals in that room had ever encountered. I expect it’s in the Natural History Museum now.

“You’re doing very well,” the consultant said to me, while the registrar stood on my chest, the better to get purchase on my tooth. I didn’t exactly have a choice.

After a couple of stitches, I was allowed to return to work.

“How did you get on at the dental hospital?” my line manager asked.

“I gon’t gant go galk agout it,” I dribbled.

My jaw is still sore and swollen a few days after its ordeal. I look like Brando in The Godfather.

And I can only eat flat food because I can’t open my mouth wide. In fact, my face can now only register mild surprise.

But at least I can brush my teeth properly now.

CODA: The day after the extraction, I received a text from the dental hospital asking me how likely I would be to recommend my experience to friends and family if they needed similar care, from 1, meaning extremely likely, to 6, meaning extremely unlikely.

I imagined for a moment the circumstances in which this would be a thing anybody would do, and replied with a 1, assuming I would be left alone.

A second text arrived, asking me the main reason for the score I had given.

I replied: “I needed my impacted wisdom tooth to be extracted. It was extracted. I can’t elaborate on that any more. I didn’t visit on a whim, I didn’t choose to visit you. I didn’t think, ‘Ooh, it’s Thursday. Shall I go to the cinema or have two dentists yank my tooth out?’ I was referred. You lived up to my expectations. I’m not sure I can write a review beyond that. I’m not the Dentistry Critic for The Sunday Times.”