Wednesday, 30 September 2009
SARAH: They can’t go on now, can they?
MLS: Of course they can. Chas will carry on solo. Dave was only the bass player anyway.
SARAH: But what will he be called? “Chas” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
MLS: He’ll be known as “Chas out of Chas n’ Dave”. Just like Mikey’s new band is meant to be called “Blind Sailors” but is actually called “Blind Sailors. Not The Blind Sailors, just Blind Sailors.”
IAIN: I bet he loves you reminding him of that all the time.
MLS: It’s not my fault! I happened to call it “The Blind Sailors” and he corrected me and said “No, it’s not The Blind Sailors, just Blind Sailors”. If he hadn’t said that I would never have made anything of it. It’s silly. Like correcting someone for talking in the wrong font.
MLS: You heard me. It would be like someone saying “Excuse me, but you said that in Helvetica and I think you meant to say it in Arial.”
IAIN: True. There are definitely some people in our office who talk in Times New Roman.
SARAH: I think I’ve always wanted to talk in Verdana.
MLS: You do! (Sarah speaks very clearly and cleanly with no hint of an accent) You definitely talk in Verdana. Iain on the other hand is more of a Century Gothic type. And imagine the horror of all the people walking round the office talking in Comic Sans.
SARAH: Oh god. My old boss used to talk in Comic Sans. It was exhausting.
MLS: I’ve always wanted to talk in Trebuchet MS. But I’m worried about the associations with multiple sclerosis.
IAIN: Not to mention medieval siege equipment.
Then we moved on to my other theory of the moment. In the old days, if you wanted to call someone a massive fucktard you had to use the word “respect”. “With respect” means, of course, You are wrong.
“With all due respect” means You are badly wrong and I want everybody to know that I consider you, in the nicest possible way, to be a congenital idiot.
And the doozy, to be saved for special occasions, is “With the greatest of all possible respect.” This means How you managed to dress yourself and get into work this morning without round the clock assistance from a carer is completely beyond me. You are an A grade imbecile and I would like nothing more than to watch you get beaten to a pulp by a pack of wild chavs. Then I would like a randy pitbull terrier to arrive on the scene, smell your blood and treat your ringpiece with the least of all possible respect.
But now everybody has rumbled this and we need to find new ways to be rude. And, in writing at least, it’s all about the winking smiley. It’s the new “no offence” but, best of all, it’s still just about on the right side of the crest of the zeitgeist which means you can use it in all sorts of useful situations without being rumbled.
What, you don't believe me? Just look at these examples...
“You’re a retard. That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. Everyone here is laughing at you and you deserve to end your career in humiliating ignominy in a warehouse somewhere in the less fashionable parts of Stoke – winking smiley.”
“I don’t plan to come round for dinner because the last time you served chilli con carne I genuinely thought something had escaped from your u-bend, jumped into a pan, been cack-handedly undercooked and served up with flakes roughly scraped from your crustiest verruca – winking smiley.”
“Catching up on the phone would be great, except that you have shown absolutely no interest in talking to me since you got a boyfriend and you don’t have to be Columbo to work out that the reason you are suddenly keen to chat is that it has hit the skids. And to be honest I can’t blame him as you’re shallow, self-obsessed, about as far from riveting as it's possible to be without actually being a rivet and, if memory serves, a moist and incompetent snog – winking smiley.”
See? It’s brilliant. It will catch on. It then led to a discussion about whether there should be a wanking smiley, but since the two dots in a colon and semi-colon are the same size I'm not sure any symbols on the keyboard adequately depict the eye-widening generally involved in banging one out. So I told my lunch-mates as much, just to lower the tone still further.
And with that, I headed upstairs to hop on the first of several conference calls with a number of fluent Wingdings speakers.
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
It’s clearly going nowhere in a hurry.
The sound of the traffic is almost deafening, a humming throb which makes conversation almost impossible. Kelly clambers into the car and calls the breakdown people. The only thing my presence guarantees is that they will take longer to arrive. This adds to my general uselessness. The call made, Kelly sits by the side of the road and idly leafs through her paperback, waiting for help to arrive. I am not help. I pace agitatedly up and down along the grassy verge, trying in vain to check out train timetables on my phone. Things are not going well.
Just under an hour later the vehicle arrives. The driver, a rotund and jovial West Country type, bounds over. He is all beaming enthusiasm. Over the next ten or so minutes the bonnet is popped open. Tubes are disconnected and reconnected. The car is started and revved, and revved again. His hands are utterly filthy. He wanders round the car with Kelly as they talk about the specifics of the size and type of the engine, the number of cylinders it is firing on, all sorts of information that means nothing to me at all. He explains in compendious, friendly detail just how badly screwed our car is.
I am used to people in situations like this talking to me as if I am the person they need to talk to, only to realise quickly that I am not. Kelly is the one in our flat with a toolbox. She’s the one who likes a challenge. When I find something difficult, I just give up and do something else.
So while they talk, shouting to be heard over all the other - irritatingly mobile - cars, I do what I always do in these situations. I stand by the side of the road looking off into space. None of what they say is comprehensible to me. I can pick something from the wine list, I can tell you a good restaurant, I can recommend you a CD, but I am not the man you need if your car breaks down or your computer doesn’t work or your toilet won’t flush or you need a washer tightened. I was never good at sport, I can’t drive and I absolutely cannot put up a shelf. When I was at school, despite being shown dozens of times, I never successfully managed to wire a plug.
I’m just not that kind of man. At times like this, I am barely a man at all.
We are towed to a grubby and unprepossessing industrial estate near the mediocre town of Andover. Our rescuer cheerfully informs us that his colleague will be taking us back to Reading on a significantly bigger vehicle. At this point the first of our friends are arriving at the cottage, many miles away. I check my phone. We have over an hour to get to the train station if we want to arrive at a sensible time.
The second driver is considerably less cheery than the first. He’s a ginger man with close cropped hair who says the grand total of three words as we load the car onto his incongruously clean truck. We sit in the back like naughty children as he pulls away. In all the time we are travelling he does not speak at all. He wears Robocop shades and has an awful lot of piercings - including a glinting metallic cluster of studs at edge of his eyebrow. He is also one of the slowest drivers I have ever seen in my life.
Some way down the road he decides to stop at a petrol station. He climbs down and walks away from the flatbed truck without saying a word. It soon becomes apparent as we watch his disappearing figure that he isn’t going to the toilet. He isn’t filling up either. Over five minutes pass and our chances of catching the train fade to nothing.
As he plods back towards the vehicle I realise for the first time that he can’t be more than five feet four inches tall. He climbs up the step gripping a large cup of coffee which he plonks unceremoniously in his cup holder. An insipid cup of “Good Bean Company” americano is the reason why we’re going to miss our train. He pulls off again with no apology, no explanation, nothing even approaching a running commentary. It’s not even a stumbling commentary or a commentary in a wonky wheelchair.
I start to wonder whether he’s doing a sponsored silence.
It turns out to be contagious. Just as it’s hard to have a conversation on a Tube train, it’s difficult to talk in a breakdown truck driven by a pierced, grumpy ginger midget. Especially when the main thing you want to say is “I can’t believe how rude this pierced, grumpy ginger midget is”. There is plenty of time to check out the cabin of his truck. Hanging from his rear view mirror is a small football shirt. On it are the words STUPID PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BREED.
Pictures of his children are Blu-tacked to the inside of the driver’s side door.
I get so bored that I send Kelly a text. This couldn’t be a much longer route to Reading if it went via frigging Dorset I say. She almost cracks a smile.
Silent, awkward minutes pass. We stare out of our respective windows. The sun begins to set and our train prepares to leave Reading station, undeterred by the sad fact that we will not be on it. Meanwhile, in darkest Dorset our friends pour the first of many gin and tonics they are going to enjoy without us.
We come off the motorway and head up the road to Reading, past the wind turbine, past the football stadium. My phone pings with a text from Kelly.
I haven’t seen him drink ANY coffee she says.
Monday, 28 September 2009
- A ten hour journey down there (it’s a long story).
- The delights of Lyme Regis, complete with lesbian bakers and the least inspiring mini golf course in the world. Eighteen holes with what appeared to be no slopes, no windmills, no water features and certainly no Jeep through which you somehow have to dink your ball while simultaneously being able to see nothing at all (as I experienced in Great Yarmouth‘s truly inspirational Indiana Jones themed twelve hole masterpiece).
- A mammoth game of 1980s Trivial Pursuit which looked at one point as if it was going to go on until about five in the morning. Bizarrely the answers to practically all of the questions seemed to be (a) John Major (b) Ghostbusters or (c) Daley Thompson. Honestly, if John Major and Daley Thompson had ever sat down in the same place to watch Ghostbusters I think the whole universe would have imploded in a giant black hole of Eightiesosity. And yes, I know that’s not a real word.
- More cheese than anyone can feasibly eat across a weekend. Oh, and chocolate cake. And cheesecake. Basically if it was made of cheese, chocolate, cake or any combination of the above it was fair game. I may have also accidentally ingested some pork scratchings.
Any or all of these may feature in forthcoming blog posts. Or they may instead involve video footage of me snorting crushed anti-cholesterol medication off a reflective surface using a rolled up fiver. Alternatively you may get some gloomy posts, because I was in a difficult mood all weekend.
Anyway, with your appetite suitably whetted on to more important things. The competition! Remember this picture by my friend Laura? I asked you to guess what it was since it stumped everyone who had to sit through it during a particularly drunken game of Pictionary on New Year’s Eve in Dorset many years ago.
The answers literally flooded in. I am going to have to do competitions more often. I got entries from readers I never even knew I had. And worst of all, a lot of you seem to be on the same wavelength as Laura and got it right. This has two very unfortunate consequences - the first is that I now feel extremely stupid as if I ought to have guessed it. The second, more scarily, is that I now have to accept that I live in a world where a large number of people are on the same wavelength as my friend Laura. You’re going to have to trust me when I tell you that is far more frightening than War Of The Worlds and Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers combined. I may just go to bed and stay there for the rest of the year.
Fortunately there were also some answers which were brilliantly wide of the mark. One of my personal favourites was from expateek who came up with this classic:
“Obviously it's one of two answers: either ‘intravenous drip’ or ‘pulse‘.
In the former case, obviously there's the whole ‘blood’ thing going on... with the IV, the blood droplets, the pointy teeth digging into the vein... even the anthropomorpheous drip creature is dripping, itself. Multiple examples of ‘drip.’ Quite clear, really.
Or perhaps simply, ‘pulse‘... same blood coursing through veins, but in this case the pulse is also anthropomorphised into a smiling fishy looking ‘pulse’ of the vegetable variety. Looks a bit like an evil legume, doesn't it? And we all know no one likes to eat peas, anyway. Which is why this particular one has fangs. Evil.”
I don’t know if expateek has ever done a Rorschach test but given that she is still at large and not in a correctional facility slurping mashed banana I am guessing not. Then there was my friend Sarah (the woman responsible for the horrors of Muncle) who had this interpretation of Laura’s autistic genius.
“I reckon I guessed what Laura's picture was supposed to be straight away! OK so here goes, Laura's drawing is of a white blood cell - and my reasoning is this: the drops coming from the arm/hand are in fact blood and the little sausage shaped thing with a face and teeth is a white blood cell because it a) is found in blood and b) kills off any germs in the blood by consuming and destroying them. Am I right? Hmm now I've re-read that and looked back at the picture I'm having doubts! Can't wait to read what it's meant to be!”
(Artistic. I mean "artistic genius".)
My other favourite guess was from Andrew, a relatively recent reader who has the same gift of positive thinking as me:
“I think Laura was drawing a waterproof watch. I won't bother including my address as I am sure it will turn out to be an incontinence pad or a Skoda, etc.”
Boy, what I wouldn’t give to be able to turn round at this point and say "Actually, it’s meant to be a Skoda!" but as we all know, life doesn’t work that way.
Anyway, the correct answer, as guessed by a whopping five of you, is a leech. So at this point five of you will be punching the air. Some of you will be thinking Damn, I nearly guessed that or I wish I’d entered that competition now. And some of you might be thinking Good lord, is that Laura woman on drugs? It looks more like a vampire wristwatch. It’s that last group of people I’m especially looking forward to hearing from in the comments.
Sadly there can be only one winner and having drawn a name from the hat I’m happy to announce that it’s scarlethue from A Beautiful Truth. So congratulations - all you need to do now is email me your postal address and an exciting CD will be winging its way to you soon.
Now then, on with That Was The Week That Blogged. The other blog recognition scheme I was aware of actually folded last week which makes this the longest running one (that I know about anyway, but if I don‘t know about it is it really happening anyway? Nah). So here are this week’s winners, and a truly superb bunch they are too.
1. Oh My God it‘s a Toronto Fashion Week Preview! by The Imaginary Review
“For me, Pierre LaPierre will always be synonymous with the 2002 show in which his models walked the catwalk while covered up in large sacks and described the clothes they were wearing when they got to the end. This year LaPierre has gone one step further and had no models at his show at all. Instead, the designer himself appeared and answered yes/no questions about the items in his collection.”
I love The Imaginary Review. The premise is simple - a collection of reviews of things that don’t actually exist yet. But better yet, there comes a point around halfway through any of his posts where you find yourself wishing it actually did. He’s nearly won TWTWTB several times (the Leonard Cohen remixes post is a particular favourite of mine and will appeal to any fan of Laughing Len) but this one is absolutely pitch perfect. It’s like Zoolander’s equally funny sibling and I don’t say that lightly. Enjoy!
2. like riding a bicycle by Miss Chief’s Blog
“it's hard to watch parents when they're wobbly.”
I had this one flagged to me by another blogger, I had never read Miss Chief’s blog. I’m really glad he did. This one is small, perfectly formed and touching. It captures the pain of watching people struggling that we had previously viewed as infallible. It’s moving yet unassuming and it succeeds brilliantly. A lovely piece of writing. I can even overlook the lack of capital letters, though that’s a particular bugbear of mine. Really, I liked this one an awful lot.
3. Taste in decency by The Gravel Farm
"There is also the occasional and criminal practice of putting sultanas in a curry, which is akin to putting geraniums in a trifle. Both are perfectly pleasant separated, but don't belong together in any way."
So, we have our first two-time winner of TWTWTB and it’s Jules. This post is an absolute dream. I can’t tell you how envious I am of someone who can write so fluently and funnily seemingly about anything he pleases. He makes it look so effortless - this post starts out talking about the heinous crime of refrigerated butter (and for what it’s worth I’m with him on that) before taking in broccoli cake and drag acts. I know! It shouldn’t make any sense but somehow the whole thing flows and at the end you find yourself thinking “how on earth did he get us from there to here?”. Much like my very woeful powers of navigation when placed in a passenger seat, the main difference being that Jules actually knows what he’s doing.
What‘s more, if he hadn’t won it for this post he would have won it for his other post last week about the vicissitudes of modern technology. If you don’t believe me go and have a look.
So there you have it, another three amazing winning posts and I think the standard keeps making my choice very difficult. I could easily have picked another three posts this week without any trouble at all. So I hope you go and check them out, and if you like them drop them an encouraging comment. It does wonders for their egos. And do tell them I sent you, because that does wonders for mine, which is of course giant and ravenous.
Last of all, don’t forget you still have until the end of Friday to send me your submissions for my week of guest posts in a couple of weeks’ time. I’ve had a couple so far but I’m away for six days and I’m really looking forward to having some excellent guest stars while I’m away. And I’m heading to Prague in November so I may well also use them then, if I get enough. You don’t necessarily have to be a blogger, you just have to want to tell my readers something interesting, sad or funny that’s holiday/vacation related in a thousand words or so.
Right then, I suppose I had better follow my own advice and toddle off to write some “what I did on my holiday” posts of my own - about Dorset.
Friday, 25 September 2009
I am off on holiday to Paris in a few weeks and I won’t be blogging while I’m over there. I’ve only ever had one guest post on my blog before and I thought this would be a good opportunity to have a few more.
So, if anyone’s interested here’s the deal – during my week off I would love to do a sequence of guest posts on the subject of holidays. You could regale my readers with stories of your favourite holidays, your absolute nightmare holidays or anything else with a holiday theme.
If you want in, email me with your submissions via the address on my profile. I’d rather we kept them to a thousand words or less but apart from that anything goes. The best ones will make it onto my blog while I’m swanning round Paris, I reckon I have room for six or possibly seven if I get that many submissions.
Oh, and you don’t necessarily have to have a blog, if you’re a regular reader or lurker who fancies taking part that’s fine too. If you do have a blog, obviously I’ll link to you in the post and say fulsomely lovely things about you.
The closing date if you want to send me something is end of Friday 2nd October. If I don’t get anything I’ll probably just end up reposting some stuff people may not have read, and nobody wants that do they? Exactly. So go on, you know you want to.
Oh, and the other piece of housekeeping is that I’m doing my first competition on the blog. But I’ll get to that at the end of this post.
The subject of holidays is quite appropriate because I’m off for a long weekend this weekend in sunny (fingers crossed) Dorset. I will be staying in a lovely cottage with a group of friends and I fully expect to have a civilised time – a nice day trip to Lyme Regis, a spot of loafing, lots of wine and conversation. Just to set the tone for what to expect, last time we all got together we were having dinner at a relatively posh restaurant in Norfolk (this term is actually wide enough to cover anywhere without (a) a carvery or (b) a laminated menu with pictures of the food on it, but never mind). We got funny looks from the other diners – well, funnier than usual – which I thought was uncalled for as we were having a perfectly innocuous conversation about amputee porn.
Honestly, some people.
Incidentally did you know that amputee porn was very popular in Japan? No, me neither. And apparently the in thing is to wrap the stumps and bandages and cover them in fake blood so they look good and recent. And best of all, for once I wasn’t even the ringleader in this conversation – I could sit back, drink my red wine and watch the torrent of smut without having to say a word. Sheer bliss.
Events are however conspiring to drain all the smut from my weekend. First of all, it turns out that we’ve missed the Knob Throwing Festival in the village by several months. And it didn’t just feature knob throwing either. I also won’t have the opportunity to experience “knob painting”, “guess the weight of the big knob”, “knob darts”, the “knob pyramid” and – most upsetting of all – the “knob and spoon race.”
The fact that the “Dorset knob” is some kind of miniature scone rather than some grotesque rustic phallus is the only thing that keeps that paragraph on the right side of the border between smut and filth that I spend so much time loitering around with intent.
Without any knob related action, things were looking a bit grim. Then, to heap disappointment upon disappointment, I found out that the village pub where we’re eating on Saturday night has stopped serving faggots. I for one was really looking forward to having my mouth full of a couple of juicy faggots but no. They are no longer on the menu. You have no idea how gutted I am that they’ve chosen to pull off the faggots.
The fact that a faggot is an English meatball rather than… all right, you surely get the idea by now.
Without all this we’re just going to have to make do with plenty of booze and lots of board games. I know it’s hard to believe nowadays in a world of Wiis and Playstation 3s but I think there’s a lot to be said for these. For that matter it’s hard to believe that Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum kept me spellbound for months on end, but back then we had to rely heavily on our imaginations. Mainly to pretend that we weren’t living through the 1980s.
But anyway, I’ve always had a real soft spot for board games. I think that’s because my parents realised very early on that these were one of the most effective means of crowd control at their disposal that didn’t involve chloroform. They were always brought out at Christmas time, largely as a coping strategy to try and help us all survive a week together in a confined space.
It didn’t always work. No Yuletide was complete without us desperately trying to explain the rules of some game or other to my Aunty Mary. She found The Game Of Life especially difficult - a sad fact laden with unfortunate parallels, as she struggled with the real thing as well. For years I thought that getting emotional on Christmas Eve, breaking down and telling everyone in your family that you loved them was just what people did. I worked out that it wasn’t roughly around the same time that I also came to the realisation that some people kept a bottle of vodka in their handbags.
In subsequent years we moved on to charades. This too had limited success, mainly because my dad also treated Christmas Eve as an excuse to give the drinks cabinet the sort of punishment beating that even Camp X-Ray would consider excessive. The time I will always remember involved us all sitting on our brown draylon sofa watching my father desperately failing at charades. First, he theatrically extended both his arms.
”It’s a song.” we shouted in unison.
He nodded. Then he raised a hand.
Again came the affirmative response. Then he raised a solitary finger.
So far, so normal. So none of us were prepared when my father – by this stage exceptionally drunk – began to frantically goose step round the living room. His hand came up again, again with all five fingers extended, but he was no longer telling us how many words were in the song. Then he put a solitary finger horizontally under his nose. This was, quite clearly, a Nazi salute.
Some people, when nobody can guess their clues in charades, have a plan B. “sounds like”, perhaps, or trying different words in the title. Not my dad. It was, as in so many other things, his way or the highway. We got more and more baffled, he got more and more frustrated, the goose stepping got more and more jerky. He was recreating the Nuremberg rallies in our suburban lounge and we were all genuinely none the wiser. Eventually - only slightly more exhausted than we were - he slumped back in the chair, totally defeated.
What followed was over ten minutes of arguing and recrimination as we tried to explain to him that it wasn’t called Adolf The Red Nosed Reindeer.
Another time he tried to get us to guess popular Eighties TV show The Equaliser by miming its star Edward Woodward having a heart attack on set. At least it was never dull, although we had to explain it to Aunty Mary several times.
As a creature with a delicate temperament and a rabid fear of failure many games were just ruled out for me. Fundamentally if the consequences of defeat were loud, jarring or scary I was best left quivering on the sidelines. Not for me the terror of Operation or the clattering horror and humiliation of Jenga. All far, far too scary. So instead I moved on to word games, the sort of genteel pursuits well suited to a boffin with nerves of cotton wool.
Scrabble was a particular favourite. I’ll never forget the time I was playing obscene Scrabble with my friend Deidre. It’s like normal Scrabble but you get double points for obscenities. As my turn came round I was almost beside myself with excitement because I had a bona fide rude word there just crying out to be played. When it got to my go, I derived great pleasure from getting my quim out and triumphantly plonking it on the board for all to see.
Can you believe they disallowed it?
I was crestfallen. Nobody likes sitting there with a verboten quim all over their rack and nowhere to stick it. But don’t worry too much about me, because I had my revenge a little later on. “NITROGEN”, on a triple word score, all seven letters down in one foul swoop. Nobody scorns my quim and gets away with it.
(I think that might be the most embarrassing paragraph on my blog to date. Let’s all just move along and pretend it was never written.)
We may play Scrabble on my weekend away (if I am very unlucky) but charades is all very passé. Nowadays it’s all about Pictionary, and there’s no pleasure quite like drunken Pictionary in my experience. Several years back, I spent New Year’s Eve in a cottage in Dorset with a bunch of friends playing a Pictionary game that passed into legend. The more you drink the worse your drawings get and the more convinced you become that, despite looking like they have been etched by Stevie Wonder on a galloping horse, they in fact are the finest illustration humanly possible of what’s written on the card. Take this effort by my friend Glenn for example:
Glenn drew this in seconds flat to his team’s complete nonplussed confusion. Then, in a direct nod to my dad’s method in charades, rather than draw anything else he simply pointed at the drawing and then glared at his team. The blank stares he got in return suggested that this hadn’t worked. So he then started stabbing at his drawing with his marker pen - first the image on top, then the image underneath. This was followed by some further Olympic standard glaring. Perhaps Glenn was trying to convey the meaning through his highly developed powers of telepathy. If so, I’m pretty sure he picked the wrong crowd for it. This went on for another two minutes, during which time he got so aerated that I thought the vein throbbing on his forehead was going to burst and shower us all, Carrie style, with blood.
That drawing is meant to be of an armoured car. I know, I feel so foolish as well. It’s obvious when you think about it, right?
But that was a mere appetiser compared to the banquet that was to follow. My friend Laura produced the most awe-inspiring drawing I have even seen in my life. None of us had the foggiest idea what it was. Even after the timer had long run out and Laura had tried to explain it for the fifteenth time, we still couldn’t see any way that even the most fevered mind could have thought it was a depiction of the noun in question. Here it is for your delectation:
And, before I sign off ready for my trip to the West Country, even if it’s a knob and faggot free zone, here is my first ever competition on the blog:
What do you think Laura’s drawing is supposed to be of?
Send me a mail (my address is in my profile) with your guess, your name and your postal address. Closing date for applications is Monday 28th September. After that, all correct answers will be put into a hat and the winner drawn at random. If there are no correct answers – and given Laura’s penmanship you have to say that’s pretty likely – the closest answer will win. If nobody comes close all entrants will get entered into the proverbial hat. The winner will get an excellent CD from the Mr London Street Audiotheque Of The Obscure, postage paid to anywhere in the world.
So send me your entries, send me your submissions for the guest posts, don’t forget to comment on this post and have a bloody marvellous weekend. Oh, and try not to miss me too much.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
It’s a place of contradictions. Above the shop fronts the buildings are gorgeous, all Victorian brick in beautiful patterns. Underneath, an array of grotty shops tries to sell plastic shoes to a bunch of sweaty and out of breath characters who wear plenty of sportswear but whose idea of physical exercise is shambling to the nearest of the four branches of Burger King that inexplicably grace us with their presence.
Anyway, despite all that I love my little town. I have however discovered something recently that makes me think about it slightly differently.
Like everyone who lives in parochial Britain, unnoticed by the national media, there’s a certain degree of London envy that goes on. They get all manner of cuisines, areas full of vibrant communities, a proper melting pot of sights and sounds. We get about eighteen different Italian restaurants, all chains, sporting practically the same menu. To meet our craving for diversity, we also get “Tutu’s Ethiopian Kitchen” in the Global Café. Yes, I’ve eaten there. And yes, no wonder those people were starving.
Actually I did write to them suggesting the slogan Eat At The Ethiopian Kitchen – No Flies On Us. The ungrateful bastards didn’t even reply.
Then there’s the culture. Smug Londoners get every indie band under the sun playing small intimate venues. You can be a stone’s throw from one of your idols on any given day. It’s magical. What does Reading get? Kevin “Bloody” Wilson at the Hexagon. Every single frigging year.
But what I really notice about how Reading Is Not London is how we all roll our eyes at the permissive nature of what goes on in the capital. One of my North London friends (who shall remain nameless) contracted chlamydia a couple of years back. She caught it off the guy who lived upstairs from her friend. Some time before that, her friend had also slept with the guy upstairs which is how it got passed on. She in turn had caught it from some other guy. None of these guys was her boyfriend. When she gave it to her boyfriend, and he found out, she then accused him of giving it to her. He was so lily-livered that he believed her even though he hadn’t been cheating on her.
Meanwhile chlamydia went through the whole social circle like a shit meme. Soon they were all queuing outside the clap clinic.
And what did I say when I heard this tale of promiscuity, infidelity and partner-swapping? “Oh, you crazy North London types.” (probably with an indulgent shrug).
My closest equivalent was receiving the most incompetent chlamydia swab of all time from my then GP Doctor Jacobs, who looked like Gene Wilder with Alzheimers. “But I’m married” I feebly protested as he bore down on me, holding his cotton bud like a fencing epee. It was to no avail. He may have held it like a foil but he practically chucked it like a javelin. It was weeks before the humiliation and the pain went away.
Worst New Year’s Eve ever.
It’s hardly the same is it? In North London they’re living it up in Bacchanalian orgies like the last days of ancient Rome, in Reading I get my most precious possession speared by an incompetent quack and I didn’t even get to screw anyone. That sums up the difference in a nutshell.
Or I thought it did. But events this month have changed my mind, because it turns out that Reading too has a seamy underbelly. It all began with Sausagegate.
As very long standing readers might dimly recall, I occasionally like to read the organ of local news that is the Reading Post. All human - and really rather a lot of subhuman - life is here, even if they still haven’t yet done a feature on me and my brilliant outpourings (I keep telling myself it’s only a matter of time). The story on canine sex back in May was particularly shocking, but with Sausagegate I think they might have hit a new low.
The facts of the story are relatively straightforward. Under the headline Naked neighbour ‘put me off men’ the paper reveals the eye-watering exposé that a concerned Reading resident spotted her “oddball” neighbour “pleasuring himself” in his back garden and going about his chores naked (except, oddly, for a pair of boots). The poor lady has now gone off both men and sausages, doesn’t work and is now on anti-depressants. Which I find odd – a penis can be many things, but depressing? Did its single eye have a gloomy twinkle in it? Unfortunately, the Post didn’t reveal this kind of crucial information. Which is odd, because the victim had clearly given the subject a great deal of thought.
“He looks younger than he is and is well-endowed and really hairy.” she told the newspaper.
Hmm. It sounds to me like she got a really good look in the split second before she turned away in disgust. Despite being scarred for life by the horrendous experience of being forced to watch a Yeti wanking in the garden next door every day, she was game enough to pose for a sensitive photo op for the paper which reveals the scale of her suffering.
Good, isn’t it? And best of all, her surname is Woodage, which just sounds for a euphemism for multiple erections.
Having found out that Reading has its fair share of exhibitionists, I thought nothing could further gast my flabber. Then came the story of the policewoman cum hooker (I did briefly think about rephrasing that, but thought better of it). I think it was Iain who first spotted the story on the Reading Post website under the catchy headline Police officer turned prostitute speaks out. It turns out that a Reading policewoman on maternity leave had been rumbled going on the game dressed in her uniform.
If nothing else, it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “Can you feel the force?”.
Her story was first revealed in the Sun, possibly our funniest national newspaper (though not usually intentionally) under the headline Maternity leave cop is hooker. In the story, the paper reveals that Ruth Carter, the lady in question, has up to seven bookings a day through Top Hat Escorts of Bracknell. My first thoughts were This could only happen in Bracknell followed quickly by Fred Astaire must be spinning in his grave. Top hat? If you work as an escort in Bracknell the only black tie events you’re going to see are funerals. Probably ones resulting from gangland stabbings at the cashpoint outside the petrol station.
The Sun reporter met Ms Carter in a budget hotel where she proudly boasted that she would “do anything”, a claim which seems a little unnecessary if you’re prepared to go into a budget hotel near Bracknell. Surely no act would be degrading enough to trump that. To be honest he could have taken a big reeking dump over her face and it still might have upped the dignity of the occasion. At that point, in time honoured fashion, the reporter “made his excuses” and brought proceedings to a close.
That journalistic cliche has bugged me for years. Why do they always do this? That’s not news. Just once I’d like the article to instead say “Readers, I shagged her. And claimed it on expenses. I’ll level with you, it was fairly substandard with a disappointingly toothy blow job. For £140 I would suggest you go instead to the Thai lady who was the subject of last month’s expose. She knows her onions, let me tell you.”
Obviously when Iain and I read this story our first instinct was identical. He turned to me and said “This is all very well, but is she attractive?”. It’s the stupidest question of all time if you stop to think about it. She works in the police force, lives near Bracknell, is registered to a Bracknell escort agency and even the journalist didn’t want to shag her. Of course she’s a munter. Here she is, doing something glamorous:
Her career clearly even more vigorously screwed than she was, she gave a tearful interview to the Evening Post saying that she had taken to sex with strangers for money because she was no longer able to make ends meet. And at that point I am almost tempted to walk away from this story because the punchlines are just too easy.
Debate about Copper-hooker-gate (on reflection, putting “gate” after every scandal doesn’t necessarily work) was still raging as I settled into my usual seat on the funbus after a hard day at the coalface. Mikey was back after a long weekend in the Isle of Wight, Donald Pleasence was at the helm after an inexplicable absence from this blog and real life and Cornish Rob was in the seat on the other side of the aisle. The classic lineup.
“Fucking hell that prostitute was ropy.” said Cornish Rob. “One hundred and forty quid to lose your muck up that? You have got to be kidding me. I’d sooner have had a wank while she made me a sandwich.”
“She’s not going to get a good writeup on Punternet with a face like that.” nodded Mikey sagely.
“Punternet?” I said.
“Yeh, Punternet.” said Mikey. “It’s this website where you can write up reviews of prostitutes you’ve slept with.”
I thought he was kidding. Then he showed me. Good grief, it’s Tripadvisor for prostitutes.
I don’t even want to know how Mikey knows about this (he said something about an internet forum he posts on) but the best thing is the negative reviews. How can you argue with verdicts like “She had a face like a painter’s radio by the time I’d finished with her” or, my personal favourite, “She was wider than Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s tie knot.”
I know that will only be funny to about ten per cent of my readers but I was laughing so hard I thought I was going to pass out.
My personal favourite, which I’m going to quote verbatim, was this one:
“After a brief period, Shirley decided it was time to mount. Having applied her lube, this she did. Actually, that's pretty much all she did - mounted and then remained pretty motionless (other than keeping her arms tight in to limit any touching on my part). Having apparently frozen in time, it occurred to me that I was the one who should be doing the mounting, so we switched to what is probably a far more natural and comfortable position for her, lying motionless on her back.
Bizarre to relate, screwing a corpse has long been one of my fantasies. Sadly, in reality, it was nowhere near as good as expected. Unable to come (despite Shirley's requests that I do so), I finished by hand - finished myself, of course. The only other event of note was Shirley almost cowering in a ball and shouting 'no kissing' as I apparently moved towards her.
This was truly a waste of time, money and effort. If all other parlours closed down, all independents retired and if I broke both of my wrists and arms, became completely bald and lost all my teeth and sense of smell, and if I became blind, then I might consider returning. In the absence of all of that, I will stay well clear of this establishment.”
Endless hours of fun. I swear all the other passengers were looking at the three of us very strangely by the end of the journey which is probably not completely unconnected to the fact that I spent the last ten minutes howling with laughter like a banshee.
One final thing to tell you about our uniformed prostitute before I wrap up this lengthy post. A week or so back I was rushing to Bus Stop Sierra Quebec, cappuccino in hand, and I saw a sandwich board advertising the latest front page news in the Reading Chronicle. I stopped in my tracks. I read it. I read it again. It still said the same thing. Dumbfounded, I rushed off to catch my funbus. Later in the day I assumed I must have been imagining things. There was no way it could have actually said what I thought I read.
Then, at the weekend, I spotted this in the window of a local newsagent. My eyes, after all, had not been deceiving me.
This headline melted my brain. What search terms do you put into eBay exactly to furnish a dungeon? Presumably “iron maiden” will just bring up a bunch of metal records. What’s the going rate for a cat o’ nine tails? Are there special harnesses or something? Even with my whole world thrown into turmoil, there was still one reassuring fact of which I could be certain: Ruth Carter must have paid an absolute fortune in postage and packing for her paraphernalia of perversion.
Because, of course, we don’t have that kind of stuff round here. Not in my little town.
Monday, 21 September 2009
Sorry, I’ve been meaning to say that for ages and I never had the opportunity and I was worried that if I didn’t do it soon it wouldn’t be topical any more.
Amid all the excitement of yesterday’s meditation on how Huey Lewis is the rightful heir to Kant (at least I think that’s what people say about him) regular readers might have been thinking This is all very well, but what has happened to “That Was The Week That Blogged”, your indispensable weekly round-up of your favourite writing in the blogosphere?
Well, I’m glad you asked that. And if you’re a new reader (because I’ve had a few lately - hello! Make yourselves comfortable), you might like to know that every week I do “That Was The Week That Blogged”, my indispensable… okay you get the picture. Anyway, I was all set to do this yesterday and then I got carried away with my diatribe and I thought it wouldn’t be fair to tack them on the end of that. The victors deserve a proper opportunity to bask in the glory without having to endure a long rambling introduction from me. Except they just did. Never mind, eh?
So here are this week’s worthy winners:
1. A Russian aide-memoire by expateek
“It’s as if a lovely window has briefly opened into the past, and you’re transported through it, remembering your own history, nothing like that of people in Odessa, but unique and odd and beautiful to you all the same.”
Expateek is one of the few bloggers I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and she doesn’t blog anywhere near as much as I would like. I think she might be the first to admit that her style has moved around quite a bit but nothing I read of her blog - and I’ve been a fan for quite some time - prepared me for this gorgeous post which appeared seemingly out of nowhere on my blogroll last week. This one is a joy and worth reading more than once – a lovely meditation on how a memory can suddenly barge its way to the front of your mind and make you think hard about who you are, where you’re from and where you’re going. More please.
2. The world is just a great big onion by Bag Lady
“As I leave Londis I pass a queue of cars, stopped by the traffic lights. I ponder, as I pass them, whether my onion, thrown with enough speed and anger would break the window on one of these cars. I wonder how many people think that and throw anyway (and then have to go and get another onion)?”
This one gave me no little difficulty. The thing is, I happen to know Bag Lady who is a fellow Reading blogger and a good friend of mine. So I read this post and thought “that’s quite lovely” but pretty much ruled it out of TWTWTB. Because if you know me, it’s naturally much harder to make the grade. But then somebody else mailed me nominating this post. So I read it again and tried to imagine how I would look at it if I didn’t know the person writing it, and I found I liked it a lot. It’s a small but perfectly formed meditation on a trip to the shops with a neat and delicate beginning, middle and end. So it makes it on to the list, and if you all cry “Fix!” then so be it.
3. Why I don’t like (receiving) oral sex by Calling People Names
"Something about the combination of the water bed, that giant nose, and Michael Bolton timed licking knocked me off oral. It took me years not to hear that long haired fucker in my head every time a man dined in."
If you can read the above quote and not want to go off and read the rest of the post then really, what’s wrong with you? What are you doing here? Do you even like my blog? This was easily the funniest thing I read all week, I just hope this approval is worth the years of therapy this experience probably set the author back.
My friend Dave and I once spent an entire evening failing to pull a very attractive South African woman in a nightclub. She instead decided to hook up with a man who was the spitting image of Michael Bolton. Dejected, Dave and I trudged off to “Kebab Kingdom” to pick up a large doner with garlic mayo (the consolations of failure). She then came in with the Michael Bolton lookalike. He treated her to a kebab and she’d still rather have shagged him than either of us. Despair.
Plus then I accidentally got off with her ugly mate the following week. Despair squared.
So there you have it – I think they’re all great and as always I’m very proud to have their words on my blog. I hope you like them, and if you do feel free to tell them I sent you. This often prompts a not particularly awkward conversation about a briefcase full of used ten pound notes. Enjoy it. It's all part of the ritual.
Oh, and if in the week ahead you read something brilliant or write something you’re proud of then please mail me and let me know and I might put it up here next weekend. Alternatively, if you come up with any especially good sick jokes about dead minor celebrities I’m itching to hear those too.
Don't be shy.
Sunday, 20 September 2009
Most of the time it’s very easy for me to forget that. I’ve never lived there and my mother, the only member of my family with The Accent, managed to lose it with almost indecent haste when she escaped over the Severn Bridge as a teenager in search of a better life. (That makes it sound like she was fleeing from the Holocaust. Wales isn’t quite that bad.)
Anyway, soon all that remained was my mother’s splendidly redundant O Level in Welsh (which I suppose should really have been called an O Llevel) and her ability to flawlessly recite the name of that train station at parties.
You know the one. The really long one.
The only real reminder of my dubious heritage was the regular trips back to the fatherland to visit my grandparents. These were never fun at the best of times, but when we moved to Reading they took on a new dimension of cruelty. My crumbling and dilapidated family would clamber into the latest in a long succession of my dad’s spellbindingly ugly 1980s estate cars and spend the next three and a half hours on the road, hermetically sealed in a bubble of bickering.
At first, as a young and curious child, there was some fun to be had once the car got to the far side of the Severn Bridge. The place names in Wales fascinated me. If nothing else, it’s almost completely impossible to say any of the bastard things. By rights the sign on the border should have said “Welcome to Wales: home of the least phonetic language of all time.”
I mean, really. One of the towns was called Ynysddu. How in Christ’s name are you meant to pronounce that? I just looked at the map of where my grandparents lived (research, you see). My reaction was about 20% nostalgia. The other 80%, regrettably, was me thinking There’s a place called Lower Gelligroes. Heh heh.
Anyway, by the time I was about 12 the novelty value of the Welsh language had completely worn off and all that was left, to keep us from killing each other on that long, long road, was the music on the cassettes we played on the tinny car stereo. And that was not a good thing.
Being a captive audience to some of the worst excesses on mid 80s music is not something I would recommend to anyone. And my father made us listen to all the greats. Born In The USA by Springsteen, or Reckless by Bryan Adams for instance. I must have endured Reckless thousands of times. Or the horrendous World Machine by Level 42. And who can forget the eponymous debut album by Go West? The answer to that question, sadly, is "not me".
(Incidentally, if those last two names mean nothing to you, congratulations. Do nothing to correct this. Do not go to Wikipedia. Do not pass “GO”. Do not collect two hundred pounds. Trust me on this.)
But the one that sticks in my mind from those glory days is Huey Lewis and the News. You may not know them, or you may only be familiar with their biggest hit The Power Of Love. You may not be aware that they released four – count them, four – albums of blue collar bar band rock in the 1980s. Well, now you are. But I was at the time, because my father bought every sodding one. And tucked away on their classic 1986 album Fore! was a song that has troubled me for over twenty years.
It’s very “now” to critique song lyrics in a sneering way. We all know that the song Ironic isn’t ironic. Nobody needs to be told any more. I’ve been known to do this myself. My friend Dave and I used to be particularly alarmed by Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman by Bryan Adams (him again). In it, to a cod flamenco backdrop, Bryan gloopily croons that you can tell you really (really, really) love a woman “when you can see your unborn children in her eyes”.
I don’t know about you but when I’m on a romantic night out, nothing would dampen my ardour more than leaning across the table and gazing into my beloved’s limpid pools only to find a pair of pulsating foetuses in there. What in God’s name was he thinking?
Anyway, back to Huey Lewis. On those long drives there’s nothing much to think about and that’s why I was uniquely placed to realise the genius of his unsung 1986 album track I Know What I Like. Ostensibly it’s just an uncomplicated summary of Huey’s simple pleasures. Watching old movies, fast cars and the sound of breaking glass all feature - really, it’s like My Favourite Things for rednecks. But lurking in the lyrics is the following couplet:
I like things that don’t change
Because the more something changes, the more it stays the same.
This threw me into somewhat of an intellectual tailspin.
So, he likes things that don’t change because if things change they actually don’t change? But I thought he said he liked that? What does he mean? If things stay the same regardless of whether they change or not then what’s the point of doing anything at all?
I was 12 years old with too much time on my hands and I wasn’t ready for the realisation that Huey Lewis was right up there with the giants of Western philosophy. And while my parents argued in the front and my brother subtly kept punching my arm in the back my mind raced round that thought experiment like a mental Möbius strip until I had to stop. If I hadn’t I think blood would have started spurting out of my ears.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Except that I’ve always hated change, and I’ve never understood why. But those words definitely had a profound impact on me. So, since I’m in the mood lately to blame other people for things, I hold Huey Lewis responsible for that. Not because he likes change, not because he doesn’t, but because it’s twenty three years on now and I still don’t fucking know.
Friday, 18 September 2009
It’s a quiet day anyway. Tiny clumps of people sit there manufacturing progress under laboratory conditions. They are flanked by giant battleship grey cabinets full of reams of nothingness that nobody will ever read, nobody can understand and no one dares throw away.
Every now and again I can make out a burble of somebody on a conference call sounding busier than they really are. The reverie is punctured by the sharp and jarring sound of random blondes from further down the corridor sloping out for the penultimate cigarette break of the day. One of them is wearing an ill-advised leopardskin top. But it’s all right; even that looks muted in the crossfire of the shafts of sunlight from outside and the fluorescent gloom from above.
Only the meeting rooms, flipcharted and glass-walled fortresses of tedium, show any sign of activity. You can tell a lot more about these meetings from the outside than you ever would if you were in there. And on a Friday, nobody wants to be in there. Here, in this one, a man is gesticulating expansively in front of the big screen. A pack of fidgeting underlings tries to make out the trees in the distance, all silently willing him to stop.
If you look across the way, there are clearly two teams sitting on opposite sides of the long table having an animated disagreement. I watch them long enough to note, with disappointment, that they do not break into West Side Story choreography. Willing them to do it, sadly, cannot make it so.
I don’t notice any meetings like the ones I run. Wisecracking, cajoling, trying everything in my exhausted bag of tricks to get those people to feel like there’s a reason for them to all be in a room together at all, agreeing to all those things they don’t want to do. I know they don’t want to do them. They are well aware of that. The brittle plates all spinning feebly in the air.
This office is holding its breath for the weekend. We all are.
The school bell will ring at 5pm and this curious mixture of people will disperse and not be in one place again for days. Some will spend it with the kids they rarely see, or the partners they wish they never did. Some will go and change and get blind drunk and spill out onto the streets, forming a different mixture of people, curiouser and curiouser. There will be day trips and DIY, tortilla chips and X-Factor, gardening and arguments.
I don’t know what I will do. For now, I scratch my head and look at the pointless pointer on my screen. I am half hamster, half goldfish, still frantically running round the wheel but with increasingly little idea why.
Wednesday, 16 September 2009
I stayed up on New Year’s Eve 1989 watching Clive James on TV running through his usual tired routine of jokes about Francois Mitterrand. As the fireworks went off and Big Ben struck I remember being astonished that I had made it through a whole decade. There it was, the 1980s - perfect at least in one sense. I found myself wondering whether the 1990s would hold great things.
I didn’t have to wait long. In February the next year, just short of my sixteenth birthday, Nelson Mandela was finally released. Again, I had a sense that I was seeing something significant on the boxy telly in the corner of our living room. The world was changing, anybody could see that. But aside from the Berlin Wall, there was still one more monolith of the Eighties due to be toppled. And, on a nothingy day in November, it happened. I was in my chemistry lesson being incompetent with a tripod and gauze when Mr Serpell left the room, ostensibly to go and get something from the store cupboard. He returned jubilant, punching the air and shouting “Yes! Yes!” It took all his strength not to do a little dance. We all knew instantly what had happened.
Thatcher had resigned.
Clearly all these events were building to a climax, and I knew what it was. It was that, on my seventeenth birthday in 1991, I was finally going to get one of those CD players everybody was talking about.
I was in for a considerable disappointment.
So, as it happened, were my parents. For there was no package waiting for me when the big day came. Instead, with a sense of real excitement, they told me that I was going to get the most valuable gift of all. I was going to get the gift of freedom.
That wasn’t exactly what they said, the precise phrasing involved the words “driving” and “lessons” in quick succession, but the flowery speech afterwards made it clear that they thought this was a life-changing present. Sadly, they were right. I had no enthusiasm for driving and I was pretty confident that I would be rubbish at it. But that didn’t matter, because Dave Nelson was going to make everything all right.
Dave Nelson had taught my mother to drive when she decided to learn in her early forties. It was part of a crusade of emancipation that began with her learning to swim, continued with her learning to drive and concluded with her and my dad sitting us down the day after my GCSEs and telling us they didn’t want to stay married to each other any more. My mother passed first time. Then Dave Nelson taught my brother to drive after his seventeenth birthday. He too passed on his first attempt, an achievement only slightly marred by his year long ban for drunk driving a few months later.
Naturally I was going to learn to drive, Dave Nelson was going to teach me and I was going to pass first time. Nothing could go wrong.
Except of course it did. Dave Nelson was a big man with long hair and a beard who spent most of his time as a driving instructor and the rest of his time as a country and western DJ on our local radio station. This was back in the days before the taste-makers Tippexed out the words “and western” from that phrase. I suspect people like Dave Nelson were the reason they did it. If not for the long hair then for the giant tattoo of an American Indian which took up the whole of his back. He showed that to me and my mother in our sitting room once. I suspect he was doing that on our time. We were paying him to show us his minging tattoo.
Instantly Dave Nelson and I did not get along. He could immediately tell I had absolutely no desire to be in his grubby little Nissan Micra. I on the other hand had no trouble working out that he had no time for a whey-faced geek like me.
My first impressions of the car were confusing. I had grown up reading about cars in The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. They always had buttons saying “GO FORWARD”, “GO LEFT”, “SPEED UP” and the like. Naively, I genuinely expected this car to be the same. I don’t think I ever quite got over the bewildering array of pedals and switches and what they all did. The pedals were a particular challenge. Some people have two left feet, but I managed to take that to the next level. My right foot was indeed a left foot. My left foot was more of a stump. If we hadn’t had dual controls in the car I would have killed one woman, one baby, mangled one pram and hit two sets of traffic lights. On my first lesson.
It didn’t get any better as I went along. In all the time that I was taking lessons from Dave Nelson - somehow the phrase “learning to drive” ceased to accurately describe what was going on very quickly - I only used the reverse gear once. That was by accident. During a hill start. The hill start, in fact, which soon became known as “Lesson 6” - mainly because I spent the whole of the hour failing to get up that fucking hill. Dave Nelson had to take over after we started getting honked by a milk float.
I soon grew to hate his sarcasm. Every time I went round a roundabout and forget to cancel the indicator he would say the same thing.
By lesson 8 I found myself hoping that I had remembered to cancel my indicator and someone had put a bomb in the boot.
I came to dread Saturday afternoons. Anxiously pacing the sitting room it felt like Dave Nelson was pulling up in a hearse to humanely dispose of my weekend. Some people see a car as representing freedom, some as a thing of beauty and some as a necessary evil to get you from A to B. Under Dave Nelson’s stewardship I soon came to see mine as an instrument of death – a cross between a torture chamber and a weapon of mass destruction.
He encouraged this every time I went past a parked car.
“What would have happened just now if a small child had jumped out from behind that car?”
“Well Dave, I’m glad you asked me that. I am going at thirty miles an hour. I think the child would have been plastered across the windscreen. It would probably have died. I would have swerved all over the road, unable to see because of a bug eyed tiny corpse smeared over the front of your beautiful Nissan Micra. Scarred for life, I would probably never drive again. Perhaps I would be convicted of motor manslaughter. I’m guessing you would have nightmares Dave. Horrible, vivid traumatic dreams about how you could have stopped it. You’ll probably get struck off and sacked by the radio station. Left to drink bourbon in your grotty house your life would slowly come to resemble those country and western songs you seem so inordinately fond of. That’s what I think would have happened. What do you think of that, eh Dave? Dave?”
(I didn’t really say that. I said “Oh.”)
We had The Chat at the end of my thirteenth lesson. Pulled up outside my house after another nerve-wracking hour, Dave Nelson told me that he thought I should get another driving instructor. “I don’t think there’s any more I can teach you.” he said. And that was that. The man who had coached spectacular results out of my family was giving up on me.
In one sense, I was ecstatic. I hated every minute of it, and if I was going to pay good money (not mine, but you get the point) to be humiliated for an hour every week by a total stranger I could see better ways to do so that would involve having sex or talking about my problems. And I didn’t want to do either of those things with Dave Nelson (besides, he pretty much was my biggest problem). But the shame was crushing and immense, and I never tried to learn again.
So there you have it: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took that one, because I can’t drive. And that has made all the difference. When you can’t drive your world is smaller. You only go places you know you can reach. Not for me the road trip, or the joys of setting off without quite knowing where you are going. And of course, those real limitations bring symbolic limitations and leak into the rest of your life. The risks you take, the horizons you have.
But the thing I remember most is the failure. It was my first significant failure, and thanks to Dave Nelson I was determined that there would be no subsequent ones. Even if it meant I never really tried to do anything.
A brief postscript: Kelly has never tried to persuade me to learn to drive. This is, I suspect, largely because of Grand Theft Auto. We bought it and I was even worse at it than I was at driving an actual car. I managed, in a feat of ineptitude hard to equal, to crash into a lamp post. Not in a car, mind you, but on a bicycle. This is something even I manage to avoid doing in real life.
Bored by my failure, I simply ended up wandering round the streets of San Andreas slashing up women with a big knife. Horrified, Kelly looked on.
“Stop it! That’s someone’s mother or someone’s daughter.” she said, in an impassioned plea for the life of a computer generated pile of pixels.
I didn’t care, but I gave up playing Grand Theft Auto soon after. I knew I wasn't going to be able to complete it, and that frightened me.
Monday, 14 September 2009
It makes a pleasant change to set out my stall at the start of a blog post rather than fumbling blindly towards it and possibly almost reaching it at the end. Although I ought to add that this is not a Child Called It-style tale of kiddy fiddling, nor is it some Flowers In The Attic festival of suffering. Incidentally I actually tried to read Flowers In The Attic for the first time recently and had to stop because it was too depressing. For somebody raised on The Songs Of Leonard Cohen I view this as a major psychological step in the right direction.
Before I start, one last digression. I recently noticed in my local Waterstones that, next to the autobiography section, they have a whole bank of books written by Dave Pelzer and his ilk under the separate heading “Painful Lives”. I was amused to see a book about Prince William’s girlfriend/fiancée Kate Middleton in there. Has she really had a painful life yet? Are they treating it as a fait accompli that she will?
Let’s move on, because this is not a misery memoir. I have done an all right job of getting to 35 - sane but not undamaged, though it’s been touch and go at times. The only exception is the fear. I am one of those people who has always been frightened of something, and occasionally been afraid of pretty much everything. They say you should do one thing each day that scares you. Sometimes I have struggled to do one thing each day that doesn’t.
My mother once loaned me a copy of “Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway”, but I didn’t dare read it. What if it doesn’t work? I thought.
I start out as a child on the nursery slopes of fear, being scared of the dark. I sleep with the door open, the comforting faint light of the bathroom washing out across the landing into the bedroom. I am sharing a room with my brother. He has no such fear. He does, however, have yet another reason to hate me.
Next, I graduate through to slightly more existential fears. I become frightened that my whole life will turn out to be a dream, that I will wake up to find that it’s all over. That I will have to start again and be someone else, somewhere else, without my parents, without my brother, without our dog Sam. It is more than I can stand.
Looking at those words on the page I wish I could go back and hug that awkward, over-clever child. To tell him that it’s okay to feel that way. More importantly, to tell him it’s just not normal to feel that way.
I am about three years old.
Then comes a fear of being lost. One summer, I am about four years old and this develops into an almost crippling phobia. I remember my family playing hide and seek on Rodway Common in Bristol. I can see that scene clearly, all tinged in the brown and mustard hues of the 1970s. I have almost white curly hair. I might even be wearing a tank top. It is a very quick game of hide and seek. The common is so big, and I am so small that I give myself up into captivity almost immediately. If I don't, I worry they won't come back to get me, will go back to their lives without me.
My parents seem disappointed. Knowing what I know now about my parents, their marriage and what a precocious child I was I can more acutely recognise the conflict between my parents’ keen desire to be lost and my abject terror that I might never be found.
The next step is fear of other people, of friends and girls (girls, back then, being another matter altogether). After playgroup one day one of the other mums approaches my mother. They are having some of the kids back for an impromptu party in the back garden and want to know if I would like to come. They probably have a swimming pool, and ice cream, and fun. It is a long hot summer. The 1970s and the past are both full of long hot summers, in my experience.
Now, I am relatively certain that somewhere there’s another version of me that went with them, that learned the secret language of coping and getting along that remained mystifyingly hidden to me for years.
But I say no, because of the fear. Always the fear.
We move to Reading. I have flirted with a number of different phobia, but am not quite ready to settle down and commit to one forever. My final fling of fear is thanks to my brother. We sit down as a family to watch the first part of the TV dramatisation of Stephen King’s vampire novel Salem’s Lot. There is to be, for me at least, no second part. Terrified, I retreat to my room for a fitful and sleepless night. The next night, my brother drags his nails down my bedroom door and begs me to let him in, in a cruel and amateurish parody of the film. Cruel and amateurish perhaps, but it works. I sleep with a crucifix and garlic on the little shelf behind my bed for over a month.
I am nine years old.
All those fears are just the callow fleeting passions of my salad days. As I enter my teens it becomes time to pick a fear to be my lifetime companion, to settle down. And so I opt for fear of failure.
There are basically three ways to cope with fear of failure. The first is to make sure you’re so superb at everything that you never actually fail at anything. This one is reserved for superhumans. The second is to fail often and badly, to break through the pain barrier until failure no longer casts such an oppressive shadow. That one is reserved for humans.
The third is to become so atrophied that you carry your comfort zone around with you like a deep sea diving suit, slowing you down and making you look stupid. Never doing anything difficult. Never doing anything where you might not succeed. Always worrying about the consequences, always assuming the worst, always having that argument with yourself until your fear armwrestles you into continual inertia.
That one? That one is reserved just for me.
It isn’t always that bad. And I have a fair amount of practice at failure, like any teenager. I am brilliant at exams but I have more than my fair share of failure everywhere else. Trying to climb a rope or do a forward roll is beyond me. So is wiring a plug, to the despair of my physics teacher. My father, never a man renowned for his patience, washes his hands of me after my fifth bodged attempt to fix a puncture. And my attempts to go out with Elizabeth Brunt are dismally unsuccessful.
So are my attempts to speak to Elizabeth Brunt and my attempts to get her to acknowledge my existence.
So, all things being equal, it might still have been okay for me. I might have got past rejection at the school disco and triumph in the chess club. I might have been able to treat those two imposters just the same and become a happy, functional, functioning young adult. I might have blossomed into a confident student and a young professional and maybe I’d have a holiday house in France and a book deal by now.
But then Dave Nelson came along and ruined everything. I’ll explain how next time.
Sunday, 13 September 2009
It has been a thoroughly educational week. I’ve learned a lot.
For example, in the Reading branch of CarpetRight there is a section marked Trendy Carpets. Seeing that taught me something very valuable, namely that if you describe something as ‘trendy’ you immediately prove two things. First, the thing you are describing is very unlikely to be trendy. Secondly, so are you.
I also discovered (although due to my prejudices I am pretty sure I felt I already knew this, despite having no practical experience) that carpet superstores are not pleasant places. They smell of beige despair.
Another thing I learned was that the phrase 'you still love me' sounds an awful lot like the phrase 'you used to love me'. Exceptional care should be taken when saying the former or it can be mistaken for the latter.
Also, it turns out that meeting other bloggers is great fun. I met the lovely expateek for dinner this week and had a fabulous time. It’s safe to say that my fellow funbus passengers were very sceptical about the reasons for this meet-up (there was a lot of unsavoury language used, along with a reference by the charming Cornish Rob to “the star spangled wanger” which probably should go unexplained) but despite that it was a very civilised and entertaining evening.
I learned, among other things, that I am apparently taller, thinner, less measured and more fun in real life than I am on the blog. There is an interesting post waiting to be written here about the personae we construct and our sense of self, but today isn’t the day for me to write that. So instead I shall simply huff that I apparently blog like a short fat dumpy grumpy shy emotional cripple.
Anyway, photographic evidence was very thin on the ground but here is expateek doing her best to enjoy a candlelit dinner. The restaurant was nowhere near as dark as this picture makes it seem, and yes, I know the overall effect is more "terrified captive of a serial killer". Come to think of it, she hasn't blogged in quite a while.
One of the week’s most useful lessons was that calling your other half "Jack the Ripperton" during their - admittedly very tuneful - rendition of Loving You might not be quite as funny as you think it is.
I also discovered the location of one of the most pointless signs in the world. Look.
Where did they think we might think the stairs went? The 10th floor?
Then there was my experience in Gatwick Airport. I had to wander through it on my way home from a work meeting on Thursday and realised this: there is nothing quite so heartbreaking as watching couples say goodbye at airports. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re stunning or ugly, well matched or ill-advised, there is something about watching couples parting company, seeing that awful pain and watching them struggle to express it, that hits me in a way I’m not comfortable with. It takes me back a couple of years to a goodbye of my own that I don’t want to write about.
What else did I learn? Oh, 9/11. Still a sore point, apparently.
Anyway, here are the winners of That Was The Week That Blogged. As always, you have made it difficult for me and as always the three winners are very different and I’m proud to have all of their words on my blog. One of these was nominated by somebody who dropped me a mail, so don’t forget that if you read something you love or write something you’re proud of I consider it your solemn duty to let me know.
1. Tram Bingo by Belgian Waffle
“I really need to get you a picture of Vest Man. Vest Man wears his Galliano branded vest and skintight jeans every day in all weathers. He has hair like fifteen grey Brillo Pads in a full Kevin Keegan mullet. And hairy hairy grey hairy shoulders. He is totally compelling.”
Jaywalker’s blog is very popular and justly famous and I’m sure many of you read it anyway. But I am a recent convert. Really, all the posts are a joy and the range is something else (for instance, her 9/11 post was one of the very few not to make me retch). But picking that would have been such a cliché when this post is a joy of people watching delight. It, like lots of her posts, makes me think Oh, I could write a post about that followed inevitably by Which would be very derivative of me. And like she says, we all play a game like Tram Bingo. The moment everyone has forgotten (I give it two weeks) maybe I’ll do a post about mine.
2. Understanding Your Dreams by Kid In The Front Row
“I only realized I was dreaming when a large gorilla walked in and praised me for being a great single Mother and an award winning acrobat. The amusement was short lived as he immediately charged me $50 for a contact lens examination.”
I can pay this post no higher compliment than to say that it reminded me a great deal of Woody Allen’s prose. And for someone to write so brilliantly in a way reminiscent of one of my heroes… well, I hate him. But he deserves to be here. How this post only has 6 comments I will never know. If you agree with me, go and tell him as much.
3. First Light by The Weather In The Streets
“I was lying in bed with Sarge last night, having one of those conversations that people have, in bed, when they have been together a long long time and still like each other tremendously.”
This made my shortlist right at the start of the week. Not enough blog posts have a superb opening sentence, do they? Take, for instance, It has been a thoroughly educational week. Hum-fucking-drum isn't. But this one sets the scene beautifully. The rest of the post fulfils its promise and I was dead set on putting this elegant and quietly moving observational piece in TWTWTB.
Then Leah, who writes The Weather In The Streets, decided to unfollow me because of my deeply offensive 9/11 post. Whoops. But I hope, for all my faults, that I’m no hypocrite. I still loved the post and thought it was very accomplished, regardless of whether she thinks I am a heaving pool of scum. So here it is, it justifiably makes up the last of my triumvirate this week.
Oh, and the fact that so far nobody has won TWTWTB twice is entirely coincidental. I don't deliberately set out not to pick the same people more than once. It just turns out that there's an awful lot of strength in depth. So I suppose I learned that this week too.
I hope you like them. Go check them out, and if you like them comment. Tell them I sent you, or there will be trouble of a sort yet to be defined. Maybe I'll make you go to dinner with me. That'll teach you.
Friday, 11 September 2009
No, not 9/11 you berk! I'm talking about my first ever re-post.
Sorry, I don't plan to make a habit of it but it feels appropriate on this of all days. This topical post dates from April when I had considerably less readers than I do now. So if you've read it before, hopefully it will make you feel like one of the select few who can say Oh, I remember that the first time. If you haven't - well, I just hope you don't storm out in disgust.
But come on, you can read all that florid God Bless America stuff in hundreds of other places in blogland and we all know you don't come here for that.
So, picture the scene. It’s September 2001. The world has been shaken by one of the worst terrorist atrocities of all time (didn’t kill anywhere near as many people as famine or genocide in unsung countries that nobody gives a monkeys about but let’s not start me on that). I watched along with millions of others as the horrendous images unfolded on every media source known to man. But life goes on and about a week later I was down the pub with my friend Ivor. Here’s the joke he told me:
Q: Why didn’t Superman stop the planes from flying into the Twin Towers?
A: Because he’s in a wheelchair.
See? It’s not really a 9/11 joke at all! It’s a joke about paraplegics. Which makes it much better, I think we can all agree on that. At the time (irony upon irony) I was working for the complaints department of a telecoms company making full use of my considerable powers of tact and diplomacy. Some of the time there I spent thinking I quit a job phoning sex lines for a living for THIS? (my adventures in the sex trade are covered in another blog post) but it wasn’t too bad.
So the next day at work I was itching to tell my hilarious and not remotely inappropriate new gag to the first person I laid eyes on. Here are some quick sketches of my team members. Can you sharp-eyed readers guess which one I told the joke to?
Mark. Mid 20s. Regular blokey guy, big fan of Southampton Football Club. Looking forward to buying his own flat. Good sense of humour.
Nick. Mid 20s. Regular blokey guy, big fan of socialism. Looking forward to getting married to his fiancée. Dry sarcastic sense of humour.
Justin. Mid 20s. Devout Christian and all round good egg. Looks like his surname could well be Baggins. Does a lot of charity work. Yes, that’s right, charity work. Fundraising, marathons, the whole shebang. For the disabled, as it happens. Lives with his girlfriend. She’s in a wheelchair. I wouldn’t rule out him having a sticker in his rear windscreen saying “I Heart Paraplegics”. Big fan of Ironside. No discernible sense of humour.
Do you get the picture yet? Of course it was Justin that I approached. How, given my unerring power to offend and complete inability to judge my audience, could it have been anyone but?
“Justin, I heard a great joke in the pub last night.”
“Go on then.”
“Why didn’t Superman stop the planes flying into the Twin Towers?”
Justin had a slightly apprehensive look at this point but that wasn’t going to stop me. Nothing, after all, ever did. But then I made out a shape over Justin’s shoulder. It was my colleague Mark and he appeared to be having an epileptic fit. But then, as I paid closer attention I could make out what was happening. He was alternating between miming cutting his throat and spinning the wheels of a wheelchair very very fast indeed. We’re talking Special Olympics world record fast. The penny began to drop as I worked it out: Mark had already heard the joke. Grimly, slowly, the realisation dawned on me of what I was about to say to lovely Christian flid fondling Justin.
“Go on, why didn’t Superman stop the planes flying into the Twin Towers?”
“Oh. Err… I can’t remember.”
I think I just about got away with it, though Justin’s general credulousness helped. In the end his relationship hit the skids (figurative rather than literal skids I should point out, though I suppose both could have been on the cards) and on the plus side whenever he pissed her off he’d just run up the stairs for a few hours until she had calmed down. So it was all okay and I escaped with my reputation for tact relatively unscathed – something I’ve now completely wanked up with this confession. C’est la vie.
I’ve always been tactless. As a three year old my mother took me on a bus where I accosted the exceptionally sizeable lady in front of me saying “You know why you’re fat don’t you? You eat too much.” That viewpoint is a lot more fashionable now than it was in the late 70s and my mother was lucky to escape a lynching on behalf of her vile child. Or, worse still, the woman could have just forced my mum’s head into her yeasty creases and forced her to inhale deeply. We were both fortunate to get home alive.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
She’s just bought her first ever place and we got to talking about the delights of living in shared houses and how, no matter hard you try, you always end up living with somebody who ostensibly seems normal and over the passage of weeks and months turns out to be a raving lunatic of some description.
As it happens, Louise once lived with a girl where the relationship between them deteriorated to the extent that they were only able to communicate by leaving notes out for one another. This happened roughly around the time when the housemate suggested to Louise’s boyfriend that she might want to consider cheating on Louise with her, unaware that Louise was looking on aghast from the adjoining room.
It proved impossible to top Louise’s story. She is thinking of starting a blog, and if she does I think mine might be doomed. But it did remind me of the year I spent living in the madhouse at Manchester Road so I thought I could write about that.
Reading’s New Town area is a maze of redbrick Victorian terraced houses east of the centre of town. It’s bordered on one side by a canal full of shopping trolleys, patrolled by vicious teenage muggers after dark. On the other side, the main road leads to the legendary Cemetery Junction, an X shaped crossroads packed with kebab joints. The most famous is called “Ye Babam Ye”. For many years I thought that was the Turkish for You’ll regret this tomorrow morning.
On the far side of the area is the sinister housing estate known as Mandela Court, where large violent looking leather jacketed gentlemen with walkie-talkies sell ziplock bags of cannabis out of a wheely bin in a shed while other equally large gentlemen patrol the perimeter looking for police cars. Or so I’m told by people who know.
Despite all this I loved New Town. What’s more, it constituted a step up on the housing ladder from where I had been living.
The signs were all good when I responded to the ad in the paper. All the inhabitants, like me, were in their mid-20s. Not just that but they were a multicultural bunch – one English guy, a German girl and a French girl. I fondly imagined that our life together in New Town would be like a cross between popular sitcom Friends and ill-fated Eurosoap Eldorado. I would be young, single and surrounded by like-minded people in the thrusting metropolis.
With hindsight, after meeting one of my prospective housemates for 10 minutes and having a cursory look round the house this was a very stupid conclusion to have reached. Over the months ahead I realised just how stupid.
The French girl was called Valerie. I didn’t meet her before I moved in but the words “French girl” and “Valerie” conjure up a certain image, n’est-ce pas? In reality she looked like Gollum in bad knitwear. She had elephant-grey teeth and a collection of sweaters I think she had discovered outside a branch of the Help The Aged charity shop in a bin liner with a Post-It note attached saying Not that desperate. She never went out as far as I know and she betrayed her national heritage not only by being so hideous but by eating Ritz crackers in her room every night. Clearly my vision of us all sitting Central Perk style in the local pub was going to have to do without her.
The German girl, Sigrid, looked normal to all intents and purposes. And it wasn’t her fault that she was one of the dullest things to ever come out of Germany. I should have guessed when she gave me the guided tour of the house and spent the best part of the ten minutes in the bathroom telling me in great detail about the water pressure. When she returned from a holiday in Egypt she didn’t tell me about the awesome spectacle of the Pyramids or the sights and sounds of Cairo. Instead I got an interminable anecdote about how she had to burn the toilet paper after using it.
She had used Teutonic precision to surgically remove the word “humour” from the phrase “toilet humour” with dire consequences.
Worse than that was her cooking. Every day I would come home from work and wander into the kitchen to find her cooking up something in a saucepan which looked tasty and smelled appetising. I would head upstairs and change out of my suit and when I came back down what Sigrid was dishing up bore no relation to what I had seen minutes before. Stodgy and sturdy, it looked like it would break the crockery as she ladled it out with a reinforced steel spoon. What had gone so badly wrong?
The answer came one day when I decided to linger in the kitchen and watch her at work. Right in the closing stages she would break a couple of eggs into the saucepan and deposit half a ton of white flour in there too. She would then stir it for a few minutes before tipping the quivering gelatinous mess onto her plate.
She did this every time, with everything she cooked. I swear I even saw her take this approach to dressing a salad.
The third of this unholy trinity was Mark. Mark worked in pensions, and spent all of his evenings in his room playing Counterstrike and yelling at his computer screen. That might have been forgivable, but for one thing. Mark never washed. I don’t mean "never washed" as in "rarely washed". I mean never as in never. In all the time I lived there I don’t believe he used the shower once. He didn’t even wet his hair. He would wake up every morning looking like Keith Flint from the Prodigy, throw his clothes on and go to work.
It was bad enough that the bathroom, built in an extension with no central heating, was at the very back of the house and involved a long walk in the middle of the night. By the time you got there your testicles had fully reascended into your body cavity like aliens going back into the mother ship, and your shrivelled cock was racing to join them. But woe betide you if Mark had been there before you, because the smell was bad – as if the living dead had eaten pickled eggs and held a guffing competition in there. I half expected to see the toilet cordoned off with biohazard tape every time I went to spend a penny.
Mark washed his clothes, don’t get me wrong. But to me an equally important part of the process is to take them out of the machine and hang them out. Because he neglected to do this they gradually mouldered in there and eventually came out the texture of damp cardboard and smelling of mildew. He also didn’t bother with new fangled inventions like clothes horses or washing lines. Instead he deposited his clothes on his double bed in a giant pile and slept curled round them in the spoons position. The mattress was also where his dirty washing lived. Over time it became impossible to tell which was which.
I tried subtle hints. They didn’t work.
Then I moved on to less subtle hints.
“Have you ever seen Psycho, Mark? That’s one scary film.”
“No, I haven’t. But serial killers have never frightened me.”
“I didn’t mean the serial killers. I meant the shower scene. I wondered if that frightened you. The shower.”
Pause. Embarrassing silence.
“Because you never shower.”
That didn’t work either.
He had the same attitude to food hygiene. We all had a cupboard in the kitchen and his was a scary place. The one time I opened the door, with a great deal of trepidation, he had had a loaf of bread in there so long it had turned into a giant pulsating puffball in a plastic bag. I genuinely thought it was going to attack me.
I did take Mark and Sigrid to the pub a few times, totally unable to give up my last vestiges of hope that we might have that Friends lifestyle after all. It was not a successful endeavour. In their separate ways they managed to whiffily and boringly complain about their inability to attract the opposite sex. But they both would sooner have died than fucked one another.
My shared house experience had proved something after all. Even I, with my rubbish job and inability to hold down a relationship, deserved better than this.
The day I eventually moved out, they both looked at me as if I had jumped off a sinking raft. They thought I was one of them, that I would stick around forever. Maybe they both thought they would jump first. But there’s someone out there for everyone. Sigrid eventually met a man while mountain climbing in Austria, got married and I assume is happily boring him about toilet paper and water pressure. Maybe he, like me, takes a childish pleasure in the fact that whenever she means to say “bad weather” her thick accent makes it sound like she said “bed wetter”.
And every now and again I see Mark in M&S with his girlfriend.
She is ginger and looks old enough to be his mum. He clutches her hand fiercely, as if he’s afraid she’s going to leave him. From a quick look at her I think he has nothing to worry about. He has grown his hair long now, and by the looks of it he must wash it more than once a year. I always look away and avoid catching his eye because I don’t want to talk to him, to be reminded of that sad time in my life.
To my chagrin, I once caught him doing the same.