COLUMN: August 31, 2017

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The recovery position. Picture posed by model. Obviously

AIDAN has been with me all week, ever since I met him, every time I close my eyes, every time I walk down the city centre streets.

Aidan is not his real name. There was so little dignity in the circumstances of our meeting that I have to give him at least some of the stuff by leaving him his anonymity. This is ironic. People like Aidan have anonymity in spades.

I had just arrived in town on my way to work. The sun had decided to make a brief appearance, and people were more cheerful, or, at least, less not cheerful. I crossed over a busy road, and then checked my phone as I walked, as it is 2017 and that is what we do.

And that is when I stumbled upon Aidan.

“Stumbled upon” is a poor choice of words. It would have been entirely accurate had I been walking 12 inches to my left. Aidan was lying on the pavement, convulsing, in a pool of his own vomit and blood.

The last time I had first aid training was when I was nine years old. I was not going to be much use there. There was a part of me – quite an insistent part of me – that was saying that I should just move on. Somebody had already dialled 999, and a paramedic was on his way. All I would be doing is getting in other people’s way.

Except… there weren’t any other people. There was a man on the phone, speaking to paramedic control, and describing the condition of Aidan. There was Aidan’s friend, standing next to him, inappropriately chuckling away. And there were people walking past, as I would have done normally.

But he was lying on his front, which vague memories of Casualty and of an old acquaintance who had epilepsy told me was bad. “What’s his name?” I asked his friend, which is how I learned his name was Aidan. I crouched by his head, and turned him on his side into the recovery position.

It was the first time I had seen him properly. His hands were filthy. He had a sleeping bag bunched up underneath him.

“What happened?” I asked the friend, although I didn’t need to. I have read enough about it. “He’s on Spice,” his friend said cheerfully, clearly on it himself.

You can look it up yourself. Google “Spice seizures”. Page after page of scientific studies into this synthetic form of cannabis, many times more powerful than pot. It’s so powerful it can cause psychosis, and, yes, seizures.

A second seizure started. I kept him in place on his side. It seemed the right thing to do. Why had I not kept up with first aid? I had the badge, for goodness’ sake, although Cubs first aid was fairly sketchy on drug-induced seizures. “It’s all right, Aidan,” I said, “help’s on its way. You’re going to be OK.”

People kept stopping and asking if they needed to call an ambulance. A cyclist rode over to us. “His name’s Aidan,” he said. “It’s the Spice. It’s happened before.” The fact it had happened before was both horrifying and reassuring.

“It won’t be long, son,” I said to the young man shuddering in front of me, his eyes rolled back into his head. I had no idea how old he was. He could have been anywhere between 20 and 35. I asked the man on the phone how long the ambulance would be. “They just keep saying it’s on its way,” he said.

And as I was trying to settle Aidan, I was aware of something happening over my head. Even then, the cyclist was conducting a Spice deal with Aidan’s friend.

A woman joined us, a mother, with the wipes that all mothers have. She cleaned the area around Aidan’s mouth, and stayed with us until the paramedic arrived. His siren spooked the dealer and Aidan’s friend, and they scarpered.

“Will he be OK?” I asked the paramedic, as he donned his latex gloves. “Yeah,” he sighed. “I’ve seen a dozen of these this month. It’s the Spice.”

Spice is the only thing that makes life bearable on the streets. I can’t blame Aidan or his friend for taking it. I can blame the suppliers, though.

And I can blame the government for allowing rough sleeping and homelessness to become rife. Because somewhere along the line we let Aidan, and people like him, down.

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REVIEW: How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb

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Robert Webb

About three and a half years ago, my marriage broke up. I didn’t write about it at the time. I don’t imagine I ever will.

But unless you knew me personally, you would never have known about it from my columns. Over that period I continued writing the sort of thing I usually do, pieces about small social embarrassments, designed to amuse.

I drew a veil over it for two reasons. Firstly because break-ups are private and painful for all concerned, and the family of a writer should not necessarily be fodder for copy. Those relationships inform the work of the writer, but that doesn’t mean wholesale invasion of family members’ privacy is warranted.

But the second reason is because it is so much easier to be the clown, it’s so much easier to be the one who gets into silly scrapes on the bus than it is to talk about feelings and being hurt and vulnerabilities. And, especially, about your own failings. It’s so much easier to expose yourself as an idiot than to expose your wounds. Especially if you’re a man.

Robert Webb is braver than me. A clown of much greater note, in How Not To Be A Boy, he writes about his Lincolnshire childhood, and the two men who taught him what it was to be a man – his father and stepfather.

These are two men trapped by patriarchy, emotionally stunted, like most men of their generation, and, I suppose, mine. These are two men who unquestionably love him, and who are almost incapable of expressing this love except through subtext.

And he writes about his mother, a woman who appears romantic and practical and uncomplicatedly loving, and whose absence is felt on every page of the second half of this book.

robert webbWebb is honest, sometimes almost to the point of cruelty, about his father’s and stepfather’s failings. But he is never as hard on them as he is on himself. He rips pages from adolescent diaries to show his self-centredness. He picks at scabs covering his crimes against kindness. He acknowledges his behaviour in the early years of his marriage.

In part it is a difficult read, especially for the sort of man who doesn’t know how to repair his own white van. So many bells are rung it feels like a campanologist’s convention at times.

And it is not perfect. It loses momentum in the second half of the book – we’ve read the Cambridge/Footlights memoirs a million times from previous alumni – and sometimes Webb goes for the gag when he knows he should hold back. Just like a man.

But this feels like an important book. How Not To Be A Boy is heartbreaking in the right places, and Webb writes fluently and stylishly, with a light touch. And the central thesis is compellingly drawn – that patriarchy is an evil that limits men as well as women.

Comedy is hard, honesty is harder. Robert Webb has managed to master both.

  • How Not To Be A Boy is published by Canongate, RRP £16.99.
  • I am speaking to Robert Webb about How Not To Be A Boy at Heswall Hall, Heswall, Wirral, on Friday, September 1, at 1pm. All the tickets are sold out. I’m just being transparent in case you think I’m getting a bung for this review. Which I am not.

COLUMN: August 24, 2017

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An apple pie. I could not find a picture of an apple pie bed

A FRIEND suggested that I get into minor scrapes intentionally, just so that I will have something to write about every week. I know this revelation will shock you. “You have a friend, Gary?” you will say.

My friend, who definitely exists, and is not just a narrative device, went on to clarify the belief that this was not a conscious act, but my subconscious becoming aware that I would soon have 750 words to write and no subject matter, and then leaping into action to force me into a poor decision which would backfire on me, providing me with column fodder.

It gave me food for thought. I mean, I am generally competent in most everyday matters. I am maintained and clean and mostly solvent. How can I really be so accident-prone?

But then I realised it was nonsense. I have only been writing a weekly newspaper column since the end of 2009, but for 37 years before that I was regularly self-sabotaging for absolutely no benefit.

For example, when I was 12, my Auntie Edna gave me a book by the humorist Richard Boston, called The C.O. Jones Compendium of Practical Jokes. It explained the concept of the apple pie bed. An apple pie bed is made in such a way that victims, when they climb into bed, cannot get their feet down.

This is a confusing explanation, and the explanation in the book was equally confusing, so I tried the method outlined by the author on my own bed. I laid down the bottom sheet and tucked it in as normal.

Then I put the top sheet over it, and tucked that in only at the top of the bed. I put the pillows in place, then folded the top sheet in half, back over the pillows.

Then I arranged my blankets in the usual formation, folded the top sheet back over the blankets – it helps to imagine the top sheet now looking like a Z shape from the side – and tucked in the sheet and blankets as usual.

I stepped back, proud of myself, a new arrow in my quiver. Anybody who crossed me would risk being slightly inconvenienced at bedtime, assuming I had five minutes’ access to this person’s bedroom. Then my mum called me for my tea, and I think we can all guess what happened when I went to bed that night.

It was the 1984 equivalent of emailing an important document to oneself, and then immediately seeing an email notification on one’s phone, and thinking, “Ooh, somebody’s emailed me. I wonder what it is,” and opening it. I am only grateful that everybody has duvets these days, so I am unlikely to inflict another apple pie bed on myself again.

These days I have to inflict apple pie beds on myself in other ways. You might remember a few weeks ago I missed a bus because I became too engrossed in the book I was taking back to the library.

What I did not mention at the time is that I renewed the book. Why should I? You don’t need to know everything. Stop hassling me.

And so it became due again. I left it on my coffee table to remind me to take it back, but still somehow kept forgetting. Until I read about somebody going to the library, just as I was getting ready to leave my flat for work.

My brain made a quick calculation. There was a train due at the station near my house in five minutes’ time, and that train stops near the library. If I scooted, I would be able to take my slightly overdue book back – and pay my fine – before work.

I tore around my flat, made sure everything was switched off, pulled on my boots, made sure everything was switched off again, and ran to the station, buying my ticket on my phone as I sprinted.

I ran down the long ramp to the platform just as the train doors were opening, flung myself onto the carriage in a cloud of sweat, and fell into a seat, panting, opposite two seven-year-old boys screaming and hitting each other with McDonald’s Happy Meal balloons on sticks, while their mother, sitting behind them, kept telling them what good boys they were being.

And eleven minutes later, when I disembarked, dishevelled and nerves shot, I realised my book was still on the coffee table.

But at least I got a column out of it.

COLUMN: August 17, 2017

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The Brummie comedian Frank Skinner

AS A person who occasionally writes comedy for money, I found myself drawn once again to Edinburgh’s Big Showing Off Festival. For the sake of clarity, when I say I write comedy, I am not referring to these columns. These columns are not comedy; they are cries for help with the occasional joke.

This was my third visit to the capital of Scotland and the capital of people who can balance on sticks. This makes me an old hand and meant that when I arrived, I had already learnt the important lessons.

For example, I knew that you cannot pull a trolley suitcase through a bus shelter without enraging a local, that bagpipers don’t like it when you laugh at them, and that it would have been no loss if jugglers had gone out of business when we invented bags.

It also means that I know how the Edinburgh Fringe works. You have the normal Fringe, where you buy tickets for events beforehand, and the free Fringe, where admission is free, but you have to pay to get out, as they used to do in clip joints.

That is unfair. What actually happens is that the performer stands by the exit with a bucket and as you file out past him or her, you put in what you believe the show merited.

Now, technically you could walk out past the performer and put nothing in. But very few people are capable of doing that, and those who are tend to become right-wing radio talk show hosts.

Or you could drop 28p in the bucket. In many ways, that would be worse than just walking past the performer. That would be like saying, “It’s not me, it’s you. That performance was so abysmal, so lacking in any artistic merit, that I am paying you in coins so inconsequential that they will probably be abolished in the next four years. Watch as each of the five coins bounces grimly off the bottom of a bucket for which you will still be out of pocket at the end of your run.”

But you do not. You drop paper money into the bucket, because you are a human being who understands the torment of other human beings, and the choices that have led a person to stand in a small room in Edinburgh dressed in curlers and a housecoat, pretending to be their own grandmother.

Another thing about Edinburgh during festival season is that time has no meaning, and mealtimes happen when you are hungry, and so I was wandering along a street mid-morning, looking for somewhere to eat in a place where the Edwardian beard and tattoo count was acceptably low, when I was assailed by a woman bearing flyers.

But this one was unlike most other flyers distributors because she was also one of the two women on the flyers. “Please come and see us. We’re very funny and we’re not Frank Skinner,” she said. At no point had I even imagined that Frank Skinner was two women, but this was clearly meant to be helpful.

But when I looked at the flyer, it said Franks & Skinner – presumably their surnames – and I understood the potential for confusion. I had no idea what their show was about. Half of the sales pitch was explaining that they were not a male Brummie comic.

Their show was in 15 minutes’ time. “Yes,” I said, “As God is my witness, I will come to your show.” There had to be more to them than not being the man from Fantasy Football League.

But it was a Free Fringe show, and I only had 28p in my pocket. I had no choice. I had to find a cashpoint, for I am not a monster.

However, there was not a cashpoint in sight. Quickly I opened the maps app on my phone and looked for the nearest cashpoint. It was six minutes away. I could do this.

And so I tore through the always-uphill streets of Edinburgh, directed by my phone. Until I reached my destination. Where there was no cashpoint.

I thought I had learnt all the lessons about Edinburgh, but I was wrong. I had learnt three new lessons. First, always have a five-pound note in your pocket. Second, never promise anybody anything. And third, if you have a double act and your names are Franks and Skinner, and you are worried about the confusion, you should go by Skinner & Franks.

COLUMN: August 10, 2017

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Look at all those sesame seeds. What are they even for?

SESAME seeds are dangerous, and it’s about time that somebody did something about it.

There should not be an outright ban on sesame seeds – sesame oil is an important ingredient in Chinese cuisine, and the last thing we need to do at the moment is annoy the Chinese – but there should at least be some regulation surrounding their use.

I say this because I have previous with sesame seeds, and so I understand just how perilous they can be. A few years ago, I was enjoying a post-film hamburger with my son when I cracked a pre-molar, an experience which very much is not to be recommended.

At the time I blamed my distress on an onion ring. But, in retrospect, I realise it cannot have been that. The onion ring, while battered, was hardly crisp. It was so soft that if I had rolled over onto it during the night while in bed, I would not have woken up.

The bun was pappy and certainly not up to the task of holding a small beef patty for more than a few bites, although the amount of sugar in it might have had some effect in weakening my tooth.

The burger itself was not exactly al dente. A small baby could have made a good stab at it. As for the barbecue sauce, if you have to bite through barbecue sauce there’s obviously been some sort of accident. The same goes for the weird plastic melted cheese that was draped over the burger. I do not know what makes the cheese that strange yellow-orange glowing colour, but I would not want to meet the cows responsible.

That only leaves one culprit. The only things hard enough to break a tooth were the sesame seeds sprinkled for some reason on top of the bun.

Nobody knows why sesame seeds are sprinkled on top of hamburger buns. In quantity, sesame seeds have a strong flavour, but you only get 20 on your bun, so they have a limited effect. They are the Andrew Ridgeley of garnishes – a hamburger would look wrong without them, but nobody knows what they do.

The only reasonable explanation is that they are part of a stitch-up between the fast food industry and the toothpick industry, because unless you are lucky, or you somehow manage to grind them between your molars, those super-hard little seeds are going straight for the gaps between your teeth.

But that was not my worst experience with sesame seeds. A few years ago I was invited to a swish cocktail party. I know what you are thinking. “But, Gary,” you are thinking. “You are one of the gilded metropolitan elite. You voted Remain in the EU referendum, and you call them napkins, not serviettes. Surely a man of your calibre goes to swish cocktail parties all the time?”

The fact is that I rarely go to swish cocktail parties. In fact, you can count the number of times I have been invited to a swish cocktail party and have been able to attend a swish cocktail party on the fingers of one finger.

Bear in mind that all I knew about gatherings like this was what I had seen on television or in films. An Eastern European waitress passed me, carrying a tray of prosecco flutes. I suavely swiped one from the tray, as James Bond would have done, and headed into the throng.

I spent five minutes trying to find somewhere to put my empty glass down and by that point I was peckish. Luckily, another Eastern European waitress was passing with a tray filled with tiny cones of fish and chips. I swiped one. This really was the life. I felt at one with Rihanna and the late Sir David Frost.

I introduced myself to a group of people at the party. I was devil-may-care, refreshed by a glass of wine, two chips, and a goujon of cod. And as I launched into a sparkling anecdote, I swiped a tiny bite-sized burger from another passing tray.

I popped the slider into my mouth, and then I let out a blood-curdling teeth-jangling scream.

If it had not been for the sesame seeds scattered on it, I expect I would have noticed, sticking out of the top of the bun, the cocktail stick that was holding the whole thing together, and was now connecting my tongue with the roof of my mouth.

And so that is why sesame seeds are dangerous.

COLUMN: August 3, 2017

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Chris Traeger goes for a run wearing literally no glasses

I HAVE been running for a few years now, on and off. I do not know why I have to qualify it with “on and off”. Everybody who runs does it “on and off”, otherwise they would never sleep or watch the television.

The point is, I have a routine now. I strap on my phone holder, I insert my earphones, I check I have my key, I put on my running shoes, I check I have my key again, I pick up enough money for water, but not enough for bus fare in case I am tempted to cheat, I check I have my key again, and I head out of the door.

What I do not do is put on my glasses. There is a very good reason for this. When I run, I perspire. I also bounce up and down.

Those of you who wear glasses will understand that perspiration, particularly around the nose and ears, reduces friction. Add a bouncing motion to lack of friction and you know that those glasses are not long going to stay attached to your face.

And even if they do somehow stay on – for a laugh, perhaps – they will just steam up.

Glasses, then, are useless to the serious runner, which is why you never see Sir Mo Farah stop in the middle of the 10,000 metres to huff on his specs before wiping them with his vest.

And yet, if I could find a way to incorporate glasses into my running, it would prevent me from getting into the sort of scrapes into which I regularly get.

It might, for example, have prevented me from spooking the Duck Women.

I was pounding the pavement. I would like to think that I looked masterful and fit, but I know deep down I looked as if I were tumbling forward in slow motion, never quite reaching the horizontal, while trying to catch invisible cakes that had fallen out of my hands.

In the distance, I could see two figures. They were blurry, as was everything else at that distance, but they were moving fairly slowly, and, I anticipated, would not cause me too much distress. They were not, for example, carrying a ladder or large painting between them. There was little chance of a slapstick-type accident.

As I got closer, they moved into sharper focus. I could see they were women. One of them was carrying a cardboard box, and the other had a small dog on a lead. As long as I did not directly run into either of the women or the dog everything would be fine. Such are the calculations I must make every day.

I continued to head towards them, and it was only at the last moment that I realised that the small dog was not on a lead. Nor was it a dog.

It was, in fact, a duck, leading the women somewhere. And in the cardboard box was another duck, guarding a number of ducklings.

In retrospect I can only assume the two women were taking a duck family, which had hatched in their garden or yard, to the nearby park, presumably to rehouse them, rather than as a treat.

At the time, I did not have the luxury of working out what was going on, as my thundering hooves and poorly coordinated body threw the women and the elder ducks into confusion. The duck in the box flew out towards my head in an attempt to protect its young, the other duck quacked, and the women shrieked, almost dropping the box. I understood at last what it must be to be Godzilla.

I yelled an apology over my shoulder. It was the very least I could do in the circumstances, but also the most, given that my experience with ducks is limited to feeding them or being fed by them.

I clattered on, feeling bad about disturbing a family of ducks and their human companions, and I suppose I was overly preoccupied. Because in the fug of guilt I failed to see the real danger.

A single bramble stem snaked out from a wall, hanging over the road at face height. Had I been wearing my glasses it would have been deflected by them. Of course, had I been wearing my glasses I would have seen it in time.

It turns out that being smacked in the face by a bramble really hurts.

This sort of thing never happens to Sir Mo Farah.

COLUMN: July 27, 2017

MRS BROWN'S BOYS
A person from a television programme
I HATE raffles. They combine two of my least favourite things – giving away money and admin – and so I tend to avoid them if at all possible.

For this is what happens in raffles. Somebody sidles up to you with a book of tickets and says, “Twenty pence each, five for a pound”, as if I don’t have a GCSE in maths, and you think that sounds reasonable, and you can’t get away with giving them 20p, but you don’t mind handing over a quid.

And so you hand over that quid and then the person with the lanyard – for that person is always wearing a lanyard, as only the most responsible members of staff are entrusted with raffles – says, “Right, just write your name and address on the back of all of the stubs.”

This is pressure you don’t need, because you have to do five times a boring task which you should not be capable of getting wrong, but during which, because you are being watched, you find yourself thinking “Argh! What number do I live in? How do I spell my surname? What is ‘pen’?”

And then you think, “Why am I writing my name and address on the back of the stubs? I have an individually numbered ticket. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that, as it happens, the point?”

So, I was at my desk, minding the company’s business, when I became aware of money being extorted from colleagues, and my antennae, finely tuned by years of working in the same office, detected that it was not a leaving envelope. There was something about the jingle.

He appeared at the desk next to mine, blindsiding my colleague Barrie. Some people might question the wisdom of putting a Gary and a Barrie next to each other in an office, but I welcome the confusion.

I overheard the conversation, while frantically calculating if I could leave my desk without being detected until the coast was clear. Each ticket was a pound. That’s inflation for you. (For European readers, a pound is roughly equivalent to half a euro.)

I felt in my pocket. I had a two pound coin, a 50p piece, and a couple of copper coins. No idea where they came from. Copper coins are like blue belly button fluff these days. Could I really buy just one ticket? Yes, I could.

But then I heard Raffle Man say which charity it was supporting. Now, I am all for charity, but there are some charities which tend to leave me unmoved. Funds to build garden bridges, for instance, or those which employ people in tabards to stop you in the street in an attempt to obtain your bank details.

However, this charity was a children’s hospice, and there is no arguing with the need for hospices for children.

Raffle Man came to me. “Go on, give me two,” I said, like Rockefeller. I wrote my name and extension number on the back of the tickets – after checking my extension number on the phone twice (I don’t need to know it; I never have to call myself) – and it was only after I had done this that I had a look at the prizes.

There was a range of treats – a bottle of expensive gin, some high street vouchers, that sort of thing. But one thing stood out above all – a pair of tickets to see Mrs Brown live.

You can’t argue with Mrs Brown’s Boys. It is the most popular and highly-rated TV sitcom in years. It makes millions of people happy. It is so popular, somebody thought giving away two tickets would be a good prize.

It is just… its appeal eludes me. I don’t get it. I’d rather watch QVC. Knowing my luck, I chuckled, I’ll win those tickets. And then I forgot about the raffle.

The weekend went past. It was a glorious day. I was humming ELO’s Mr Blue Sky on my way to work, when I received a message.

“You’ve won tickets to see Mrs Brown,” a colleague, who finds the sitcom’s appeal equally elusive, informed me with some glee.

It was the first raffle I have ever won, and now I have to go and sit with thousands of Mrs Brown fans, while watching Mrs Brown. Don’t tell me I can give the tickets away and I don’t have to go. Of course I do. I am a journalist.

And that’s why I hate raffles.