COLUMN: March 9, 2017

The eyes follow you around the room

I DECIDED to go to a gallery, because culture is important. Also it was raining, and one of the good things about galleries is that they have ceilings.

I suppose I could have continued to depend upon my umbrella, but the trouble with umbrellas is that they are unfit for purpose if there is any wind, and rain rarely comes without a wind chaser. I was essentially poking some bent wire at the heavens in an attempt to ward off the rain gods.

And so I went indoors, through the clouds of steam emanating from people in kagouls and clear plastic ponchos, emerging from the other side like a contestant on Stars In Their Eyes.

I picked up a guide and leafed through it, confused that it was in French until I realised I was looking at the wrong bit. In any case, the guide was quite clear on one subject. There was a symbol of a camera inside a red circle with a diagonal line going through it.

Either photography was prohibited or this was a branch of Camerabusters. So photography was not allowed. Perhaps they were worried that people might try to copy the paintings and set up their own gallery down the road.

As I am scrupulously law-abiding, I kept my phone firmly in my pocket. There was no way I was going to be thrown out of a gallery by an elderly bouncer, not with my knee. Also, it was still raining heavily and I was not going out in that again.

I had forgotten how much I like galleries. My father used to talk about “egg and chips” experiences, those activities which you disdain because you find them a bit dull in theory, like walking in the park or watching an episode of Still Open All Hours, but which you actually really enjoy when you’re doing them.

Do not be under the impression that my life is a tornado at the eye of which is me. I am excited when I am handed a plate of biscuits and spot a fig roll.

But there is something calming about a gallery, something soul-soothing. Perhaps it’s the quiet, or the subdued lighting. Or perhaps it’s the knowledge that you are among works which have taken months, even years, to complete – a sense of trapped time slowly leaking out into the room, and giving you back a bit of life.

Anyway, who needed to take photographs of the paintings? The whole point of going to see a piece of art is to take it in properly, to appreciate the brushwork, to see the cracks in the paint, to experience the colours as they are, instead of how printer’s ink or the electronic eye of a camera interprets those colours. To see the…

“Click!” went the phone of the idiot who pushed in front of me. “Ho ho,” I thought. “He’s in lumber now. That gallery attendant will have his scalp for a balaclava.” But she did nothing.

And, as I looked around the room, I saw that most people had phones and were clicking away, untroubled by the attendant.

“Oh,” I realised. “That symbol did not mean ‘No Photography’, it literally meant ‘No Cameras’.” Liberated, I whipped out my phone, ignoring all that flowery guff I wrote three paragraphs ago.

Then there was a flash, and the attendant showed her fangs. “No flash photography!” she informed the punter, leaving him in no doubt that she would happily murder him if it were not for the interfering nanny state. “It destroys the paintings.”

I shuffled off after snapping a couple more pictures into the next room. There was a sculpture of a beautiful woman, and I wanted to take it with the window as a backdrop.

This meant I needed to use my flash, or the woman would be in silhouette. There were no paintings in the room for me to destroy, nor, crucially, any attendants. I switched on my flash and risked it, before moving on.

In the next room was a stunning painting taking up much of the wall. I took out my phone and lined up a shot. I pressed the button. And the wall lit up.

“Argh!” I said. I had forgotten to switch off my flash. I clamped my hand over the phone, but could not muffle the whole stardust.

“Sir!” said the same attendant. “No flash!”

And so I made a run for it, out into the rain.

COLUMN: March 2, 2017

A cheerful sheep

I AM a massive fan of sleeping through the night in the same sense that I am a massive fan of long division or backward somersaults. I am impressed when people can do it, but incapable of doing it myself.

I cannot remember the last time I went to sleep the day before I woke up. For bedtime for me is not about resting, but is about thinking in the dark until my exhausted body launches a coup against my brain and switches it off.

If the thoughts I had while attempting sleep were profound it might be worth it for the human race. I would probably have found a new sustainable energy source or a cure for cancer or a way to make the Labour Party electable in this time.

But they are not. They are all “I wonder what would have happened if Frank Spencer had checked in at Fawlty Towers” or “Which Bangor were they going to in the song Day Trip To Bangor – the one in Wales or the one in Northern Ireland? Are there any other Bangors?” or “Who came up with the idea of eating eggs?”

Inevitably this takes its toll. The bags under my eyes are so heavy Ryanair could charge me an extra £25. And probably would. It means that between the hours of 1pm and 3pm I could happily snooze at my desk if it were not for the fact that HR had to put out a memo once.

I know I am not the only one. Everybody is tired. You’re probably yawning now. Even if you were not, you are now, thanks to the power of suggestion. But the 2pm slump is real. Most people who work in offices suffer from it.

The theory is that it is a combination of sitting in one place for hours at a time, the rhythms of our body, and the fact that between 2pm and 4pm, the core temperature of our bodies drops, triggering the brain’s sleep mechanism.

All of this preamble is to show you, dear reader, that what happened to me was not my fault. It was the fault of whichever buffoon decided that having an hour-long meeting of people who work in an office at 2pm was a good idea.

It was a while ago. I do not want to say how long ago it was, for reasons which will become apparent. Sometimes it is better not to be specific, which is why some birthday cards do not have a message inside.

We sat around a table in a windowless room, a flipchart in the corner with indecipherable notes from a previous meeting, and the meeting started.

I had nothing to contribute. It had been decided previously that somebody from my department should be at this regular meeting, but the goings-on in this meeting had little if anything to do with my department.

And it was warm, so warm. Cosy, even. Somebody started reading out some figures. It was so warm. Wake up, I thought, this is like counting sheep.

I focused on the smeared flipchart. Perhaps I could work out what the puzzle of words said. That would keep me awake. But I could feel a yawn building. I had to suppress it. I couldn’t suppress it. I covered my face with a sheet of A4 and yawned silently, my mouth making a sort of figure-eight, as the figure reading droned on.

Maybe if I looked away, I could just close my eyes for a second, just rest them, I wondered…

And then suddenly I was in a muddy field with sheep everywhere. And in the distance there was a cow in a suit with a clipboard coming towards me. I knew, somehow, I had to move the flock through the gate before the cow told me off.

“Gary, what do you think?” somebody asked me.

My eyes snapped open. “We need to get all the sheep in the pen,” I said, immediately and automatically.

I could feel every pair of eyes in the room on me. Everything slowed down. My stomach dropped to somewhere below my adjustable chair.

And then somebody said: “Exactly.” And, lo, there was a great umming and nodding of heads. I had inadvertently created a buzz phrase. It’s probably still being used across the business.

I had got away with falling asleep in a meeting, but the adrenalin kept me awake for the rest of the hour.

Sometimes it still keeps me awake at night.

COLUMN: February 23, 2017

Boris? Is that you in there?

IT gladdened my heart to see the recent pictures of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Rt Hon Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson MP, going for a run.

For one thing, running, as I have mentioned in recent weeks, is excellent exercise which gets you out and about in the fresh air.

More importantly, when I go running, I am conscious that I look an absolute state. I wear special running trousers which look as if they have been painted on, my mouth is open, and I have a bright red face which emits perspiration in a constant series of jets, like a sprinkler. I look, in short, like a public information film about heart attacks.

But now I know that, no matter how bad I look, I will never look as bad as the Foreign Secretary when he goes running. I will never look like an animated jumble sale, or as if I’ve fallen into a clothes bank in Sainsbury’s car park, or as if I was dressed by a two-year-old fuelled by cheap sweets and Kia Ora. I will never look like a children’s book character called Boris The Heap.

Unfortunately, I am unable to take advantage of that knowledge at the moment, owing to a probably avoidable injury I sustained while running.

As I mentioned in a previous column, I have been following the NHS Couch to 5K programme, which has transformed me from an unfit mess into an unfit mess who owns running shoes.

As I reached the end of the penultimate week, during which I had to run for 28 minutes on three occasions, I noticed that my calf was giving me what I can only describe as gyp.

I rested for a couple of days, and embarked on the final week, when I would run for 30 minutes. My heart raced as I geared up to reach my target. Who knew? Perhaps somebody would have arranged a fanfare at the finish line.

I started to run. I felt a twinge in my calf, but no matter. It would surely loosen up as I ran.

It did not. And soon it was joined by a pain in my knee. But I only had 15 minutes left to run. I was 15 minutes away from my target, after weeks of training. Dammit, I was going to break the pain barrier.

I did. I reached my target. But there was no fanfare, apart from the sound of my “ooyah” as I realised I had done something bad to my leg.

You see, the pain barrier is there for a reason. It is to stop you from doing yourself further injury. “Yeah, mate,” it says, when you try to iron your collar while still wearing your shirt. “That’s a bit too hot. I’m going to stop you from melting your neck by giving you a sharp pain.”

And so for the past week or so, I have been walking with an exaggerated limp, and taking twice as long to travel to places as normal, because I cannot run for the bus. And my leg hurts in four places, including parts of my leg for which I do not know the anatomical term.

It is inconvenient, and, worse, embarrassing, as I discovered while shuffling through town.

I edged across a road, dragging my leg as if it were a wounded soldier I could not leave behind, and became enmeshed with a group of young tourists with backpacks. I ducked between a couple of Spaniards as nimbly as a limping pedestrian could, and came out the other side walking alongside an elderly man with a stick.

Normally, a dynamo like me would have left him behind in my dust cloud. But my pace matched his. As did my limp.

This meant that I was walking alongside him for some distance, matching him, step by halting step. To the casual observer, I would have appeared to be mocking the elderly man.

That conclusion was also reached by the elderly man. “Excuse me, sir,” he said eventually, using different and more forceful words, “Could you do me the service of explaining why you are emulating my lame gait?”

“I’m not!” I said. “I’ve been running!” It was not an especially convincing explanation, and the elderly man suggested that I take my leave, using some eye-wateringly anatomical language.

And so I waited in a shop doorway until he had disappeared into the distance. It took him four minutes.

COLUMN: February 16, 2017

A man who is unafraid of ‘product’

I WOULD not say I am a vain person, although I have used the word “I” four times in this sentence, so you can judge for yourself.

However, I will admit to using product on my hair. “Product” is a weirdly non-specific word to use, only one step up from “stuff”. It is one of the mysteries of our age that the word product is used to describe the various types of glop applied to men’s hair, when it could mean literally anything produced.

Anyway, my favoured form of product is gel. I have to use it because I have very strange hair. It is both thick and flyaway. Left untended it looks like Donald Trump’s would if he were suspended upside down by his ankles, which is a lovely image and one which often features in my daydreams.

For reasons which need not detain you, I have had to use a different gel from my usual brand, and I am unhappy with it. This is not because the gel is no good. Gel is gel. It sticks my hair down. I require no more of it than that.

But the problem with my current gel is the container in which it comes. It’s a standard squeezy tube, like my normal gel, but the lid is different, a screw cap, rather than a flip top.

“Bainbridge, you idiot,” you are now saying. “Is this going anywhere?” Yes, it is. You see, this is how you apply gel to hair. First, you squeeze the gel from the tube into your hand. This is a two-handed job. Then you rub the gel between your hands. This is a two-handed job. Then you rub the gel into your hair. This is a two-handed job.

Do you know what else is a two-handed job? Screwing the top back onto a tube of gel. But if one of your hands is now holding the gel, it is virtually impossible to do this without spilling the gel. And you can’t hold the tube in your hand while you gel your hair because you need two hands to do that job, as I have established at tedious length.

So you end up having to balance the tube on your bathroom sink while you hurriedly apply the “product” to your hair, because whoever designed the gel container did not give any thought to how gel is used. This is the sort of thing that gives designers a bad name.

And it was at another sink a couple of weeks ago that I cursed designers. I was out for a meal, living the swanky life like Rihanna, or the late Sir David Frost, and felt the need to powder my nose, or whatever men are supposed to say when they have to go to the toilet.

I was about to wash my hands, because I was not a barbarian like the other man who left the gents’ without visiting the sink, presumably on his way to put his feet up on a train seat, stopping only to dip his hand into a bowl of mint imperials. I examined the taps. They were those plunger taps.

I sighed and pressed the hot tap plunger, and put my hands under the flow. The flow trickled to a halt as my hands reached it. The only way I could sustain the flow was if I kept one hand on the plunger, which meant I could only wash one hand at a time.

You can’t wash one hand at a time. Washing hands, like gelling hair, is a two-handed job. I used to work in the NHS, believe me on this. I’ve seen notices.

The only way that I could obtain enough water would be to put the plug in and spend a minute leaning on the plunger.

So I examined the plug. It was one of those “clever” plugs which are lowered or raised by a little lever somewhere near the taps.

I wiggled the lever. I pushed it and pulled it. I yanked it. But nothing would shift the plug, not even loud swearing.

I understand why the designer had done what he did. Plunger taps save water, and plug chains break. But his money-saving solution had rendered the sink unfit for purpose. For what use is a sink unsuitable for washing hands? It’s as pointless as a tube of hair gel with a screw-cap.

I washed one hand at a time and went to the hot air hand dryer. Obviously it was broken.

COLUMN: February 9, 2017

When I do not have a picture to illustrate my column I use a picture of a puppy, a kitten, an otter, or TV’s Susanna Reid. This is TV’s Susanna Reid
IT was my own fault. If I could find somebody else to blame, I’d be on it like UKIP on immigrants.

But the fact remains I was the one who decided there should be a reunion for the staff of the newspaper I worked for 20 years ago and I was the one who organised it, even though I was warned that reunions are invariably a terrible idea.

There’s a reason, my friend Tony told me, that you haven’t seen these people for 20 years. I scratched my chin and wondered what the reason was.

Coincidentally, he was the one who put the idea in my mind. He had posted a decades-old picture of a group of us on Facebook. If you do not know what Facebook is, it is a special website which allows you to find out which of your relatives and friends cannot spell properly while being harassed to sign up to games you do not want to play.

I looked at me on the picture. I was apple-cheeked, with round glasses, like a young Benny Hill. I did not want those people to think I had turned into a middle-aged Benny Hill, so I suggested that there should be a reunion.

“Yes, Gary,” one of my former colleagues, Mike, typed, “this is an excellent idea. You organise it.”

“But nobody will come,” I said.

“If you build it, they will come,” Mike retorted, like the ghost of a long-dead American baseball player. “But don’t do it on a Saturday night, do it on a Friday just after work.”

“Fine,” I said. And so I organised a reunion. Mike was right, I thought. Lots of former colleagues and their own former colleagues were either definitely or possibly coming. Tony is an idiot, I thought. Look at all the people who are definitely coming.

And then I realised that if all the people who were definitely coming were joined by half the people who were possibly coming, there was not going to be enough room in the pub I had suggested. I needed to book a place big enough for 40 people. Boo to those, like idiot Tony, who suggested that reunions are invariably a terrible idea. This was going to be amazing…

Five of us met at a bar before the reunion. “How many are coming, Gary?” asked Mike, one of the five. “Oh, dozens,” I said. “Even if a load drop out, we’re still talking about 30 people.”

We fetched up at reception at the reunion venue. I leant suavely on the desk, like James Bond. “Good evening, mish, I have booked an area for the evening. The name’sh Bainbridge. Gary Bainbridge.”

The receptionist took us through into the bar, where an area roughly the size of a tennis court had been roped off for us. A young couple, gazing into each other’s eyes, sitting inside the reserved area were approached by the receptionist and told to sling their hook. They glared at me as they were bundled out into the main bar.

And so it was for the next hour, five of us, in one corner of this reserved area, like a single Tic-Tac in an otherwise empty box of Tic-Tacs, while drinkers standing in the rest of the bar plotted our deaths. They need not have bothered killing me. I was already dying.

Tony arrived. He was not the crest of a wave of latecomers. “This it?” he asked. I nodded, morosely. We chatted about old times and tried to look like a crowd, but while three might be a crowd six is definitely not.

Then the cavalry arrived – a group of women from advertising sales who had taken their pre-reunion drinks more seriously than us. I might have whooped. I cannot swear that I did not. In total 17 or 18 former colleagues turned up, not all of whom I knew.

But in the end, it didn’t matter. Because it was lovely to feel responsible for old friends meeting each other again. And that’s why those people who say reunions are a terrible idea are wrong.

Because the reason you don’t see people for 20 years is because your life moves on, and you have to concentrate on the people you are with right now.

But occasionally it’s good to remove those old friends from their boxes on the shelves of your memory and appreciate what you once shared.

As long as they flipping well turn up.

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.