Thursday, December 29, 2005

Don't ask a policeman

We have just moved into a new house. The old house was comfortable, but on a rowdy street – the main thoroughfare to three pubs. The house also had a very small front garden which gave passers-by the seemingly irresistible urge to gawp in at us when we were trying to relax on the sofa. A gesture, or hard stare, from Maude usually shamed them into looking away and scuttling off.

The new house is up an acute drive in a sleepy neighbourhood. When we viewed the place, we believed the vendor’s patter on account of him being a policeman – a tall policeman, who looks you right in the eye as he tells you things. He was/is a police dog-handler and boasted at one point that one of his dogs had just hospitalised a burglar – in retrospect this should have alarmed us a little.

I am a traditionalist and used to trust and believe policemen – but not any more. We moved in to discover doors falling off, dodgy taps (B & Q) and no TV aerial. Details a vendor should really apprise a buyer of.

Plod also had a fishpond, which he had assured us he would fill in before moving. He didn’t bother – he just drained it and left various items of fishpond paraphernalia littering the garden. Perhaps he thought I was just kidding and secretly wanted to join his fraternity of pond-lovers. Thankfully the terriers have enough wit to avoid the abyss, but I do fear for the safety of the others. I took Maude to the edge and pointed out the dangers. There is talk of a gathering to bring in the New Year. Archie’s expected, so perhaps chicken wire would be a good idea.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Big Daft Day Out

The Arts Council brings together all the members of its family every so often (the last time it did so was 2 years ago in Birmingham) for a ‘Big Day Out’. The sub-Wallace and Gromit tone of the title gives a major clue to the patronizing nature of the event and the quality of the ‘humour’ likely to pepper the pointless speeches.

Brighton was this year’s setting – the Brighton Dome, in fact. Formerly a royal garage, the Dome played host once more to a right royal waste of public money. 759 Arts Council staff got together to be thanked for all their hard work and to be told in the most abstract terms what the next two years had in store.

The Chair relished the sound of his own voice and made a series of ‘jokes’ – including an imitation of young Mr Grace from ‘Are you Being Served?’: ‘You’ve all done very well’. He certainly wasn’t knighted for services to comedy.

Then came the Chief Executive with his repertoire of Blairlike hesitations and his ability to seemingly strut without stirring from the podium. His speech had an inclusive preamble in which he reached out to the staff – at times literally – to acclaim all their hard work. Certain egos, however, are irrepressible. Soon ‘we’ gave way to ‘I’ and it was time to install matchsticks in the eyes as we were treated to ‘my vision’. Like Blair, he is selflessly setting a natural limit to his brilliant reign. He reminisced and took us all back to the bad old days of 1998 when he bravely took over the sleeping giant of the Arts Council and breathed new life into it. He then shared his difficult (but brave) decision to leave in 2008 after a momentous decade at the helm.

There can be few things more galling and depressing than having to wear for an entire day a gaudy name badge advertising the true owner of your soul.

One of those few more galling and depressing things is being asked to participate in a morning singing workshop. A scruffy, posh musician with wild, posh hair took the stage with his singing assistant (she had the incensing brio of a children’s TV presenter). They had put their unkempt heads together to compose a song to be sung in a round by the three sections of the auditorium. It was a ‘funny’ composition about the arts funding system and Tony Blair.

We were asked to stand to sing. I stood in silence. My neighbours might just have picked up the sound of my piss boiling with rage. I was surrounded by half-hearted singing – the kind of singing you hear at weddings by self-conscious non-believers. This exercise captured the spirit of the day – patronizing, wasteful and ultimately pointless.

Of course, I look forward with relish to the next ‘Big Day Out’.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Oven Ready

Originally uploaded by Chocolate Sandwich.
Suffering from the back to work drabs, we sought refuge at the caravan for the weekend. The dogs had been in the boot for the journey and I felt guilty about this. I could hear them whimpering, so I let them out as soon as we arrived on the site. I hadn’t noticed that a hen was happily pecking her way around a neighbouring caravan. One of my Jack Russells, Dotty, noticed the bird instantly and gave chase. I ambled after her – she was often in the habit of chasing rabbits for pleasure and no harm was ever done. When I caught up with Dot, in the neighbouring field, her face was full of feathers and her mouth was dripping with blood. The hen was groaning and in its death throes.

I must admit that I panicked – I have relatives in the country, but have never lived beyond walking distance of a cash machine. The hen was obviously from the neighbouring farm. Dot had thoughtfully chased it onto home ground before despatching it. I grabbed the dog and ran back to the caravan. Maude is a pragmatic woman – she grew up on a farm. ‘Take this carrier bag and get the hen’, she advised. ‘We’ll get rid of it and no-one will never know what happened to it.’

Our friend Esme had joined us and I sensed that she was rather disapproving of this plan. I weighed the options: cross Maude or upset Esme....

I was vaulting the fence back into the field (with carrier bag in hand) when I spotted the farmer’s wife crossing her field. She had her own dog for company and even a city boy knew that it was only a matter of seconds before the dog would catch the scent of the dying chicken and the game would be up. I hurriedly dumped the bag on the blind side of the fence and opted for confession.

I began with a jaunty ‘Hello!’ I got a cagey ‘Hi’ in response.

We established that the land was indeed hers and then, as I led her to the bird, I asked, in passing, ’Is this your hen?’

‘Well, it was…..’She stooped and lifted the dying bird and deftly rang its neck.

I explained the circumstances and offered to pay. She refused any money and showed great understanding in the cicumstances. The hen would do for Sunday lunch, she said, and added that ‘dogs will be dogs’. She left me to jump back over the fence and carry on my weekend flirtation with the countryside. She turned towards the farmhouse, the dead hen swinging from her hand and the dog at her heel. Halfway over the fence I was struck by an irrational city-dweller fear of an arseful of buckshot, but I made it back safely to Maude as the kettle whistled for tea.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

New Model Amy

I was asked to housesit for some friends not so long ago. They were renting a Georgian townhouse in the centre of Newcastle and I was free and agreed. I like the opportunity to live in someone else's house - I am naturally nosy and enjoy the chance for a good rifle through the possessions of others. I am pretty shameless about this and would probably do it to anyone - even if I looked them in the eye and swore to them in advance that I would not touch a thing. I didn't feel too much guilt about having a bit of a look in the couple's cupboards - we had never really been what I would regard as 'close'.

There wasn't really much to be found in the house. They had only moved in a few months earlier and had chosen to leave a lot of unpacked stuff in the cellar - which had sadly allowed itself to flood. I do draw the line at rummaging through other people's damp stuff. I couldn't figure out the password on their computer - I tried birthdays, his nickname for her, her nickname for him, the cat's name ('Fanny'), all were joyless - so, no chance of knowing what his/her/their taste was in web-porn.

I swallowed my disappointment, donned his dressing gown and parked myself in front of the television. There was no evidence of any filth on video or DVD - only a large collection of comedy and a small collection of 'Family Gatherings' on VHS. The comedy was the stuff to be found in most young professional households - 'The Office', various Peter Kays. There was also some older stuff - the kind of thing that middle class blokes do seem to cling to: 'Black Adder', 'Red Dwarf' etc. I sat and wondered if this couple still actually watched this older comedy. More importantly, did they still genuinely laugh at it? Did they know key lines and compete with each other to recite them verbatim? I considered this possibility, thought of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis (and 'Love, Actually') and decided to pass on 'Black Adder'.

I read the blurb on the newer comedy - all of which I'd seen - and really couldn't be bothered with it either. 'Family Gatherings' it was then. If I couldn't piece together a true picture of what these 'friends' were really like from their computer and didn't feel the urge to paw damp storage boxes, I could learn something from them in a family context.

The gatherings were all of Jeremy's family. Family members seemed very much enthralled by their own importance. By the looks of it they were very inclined to mark any minor event with a celebratory meal and a post-prandial oration (usually by Jeremy's father). I happened to know that Jeremy's father was into his second marriage, to a French woman. Amy had voiced to me her sadness that her in-laws spoke French at the dinner table and festooned their mantel-piece with framed pictures of Jeremy's ex-girlfriend. The father certainly looked pompous enough on the video I was watching. I could see the shrine to Jeremy's ex as a celebratory speech was made on the occasion of some junior family member's success in her 'A' Levels. The results were recited in detail - by subject and grade. The camera alternated between Jeremy's father and the poor girl in question. She was hiding behind a hand, desperately trying to hide her embarrassment and her braces. Jeremy's father continued regardlessly until his progress was halted by a sudden snowstorm on the screen. I lingered for a while and felt slightly mesmerised by the fuzzy screen and the crackling sound of static electricity. I resolved to watch something else and rose to my feet. I was then surprised by the sudden return of an image to the screen. The blurred picture began to clear and showed Jeremy standing in a doorway - being filmed by someone inside the room. Nothing strange in that - apart from the fact that he was exposing himself and seemed to be looking for the approval/admiration of the camera-person.

Jeremy then approached the camera - his wagging penis drifting in and out of focus as he did so. The camera then switched to his face and an expression of immense pride in the achievement jutting from his flies.

'Come closer' came a feminine whisper from behind the camera.

The camera then panned down again to groin level. Jeremy's penis suddenly came into sharp focus and dinked the camera lens. It was in such close up that it seemed to be about to enter the room. The camera picked up the sound of one of the filmmakers tutting. Jeremy took command of the camera and, as positions were adjusted, the sofa and various Ikea products flashed across the screen. I was then troubled by the possibility of seeing Amy nude - she had confided in me and to carry on watching would seem like a kind of betrayal.

I carried on watching. I was surprised to see that the female in the home movie was actually Jeremy's ex-girlfriend, Anna. I had to do a double-take and get close to the screen - as Anna and Amy looked so alike that they could have been sisters. This eased my sense of betrayal and I returned to the sofa. The couple tried to have sex in various positions. Anna made appreciative gasps and Jeremy grunted and offered occasional words of encouragement to his partner, such as 'Yes, take it!' and 'Who's your daddy!' In the absence of a tripod, however, the production values were pretty low. Anna began to criticise Jeremy for his inability to maintain his rhythm and film steadily at the same time. Jeremy was distracted by this criticism and his enthusiasm visibly waned.

As the screen once again became snowy, I began to wonder why the tape was so accessible. It was, after all, a film of Jeremy and his ex-girlfriend on a shelf in the home of Jeremy and his present wife. The tape seemed casually filed - among the comedy tapes. (It took several days for me to track down Jeremy's cache of professionally produced pornography - in a storage box with the camping gear in the garage). I wondered if they watched the video together and if so, why? Perhaps he left it around as a reminder to her that he was a still a young buck who could walk out and romp with other women at any time.

I bumped into Jeremy recently, as we approached the bar of a city pub at exactly the same time. We had a polite, inane chat about nothing in particular. I briefly contemplated confessing to having watched the video. That feeling passed as he told me that he and Amy had divorced. I feigned surprise and commiseration. He then wound up the conversation and we shook hands. I noticed that he was being beckoned back to a table by a new girlfriend. Jeremy smiled and curled his fingers around their drinks and crisps on the bar. He returned to his table and to a girlfriend who looked so remarkably like Anna and Amy that all three could have been sisters.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

They came on bicycles...

I was recently back in Ireland with my father and we returned to one of his old haunts for a drink. An old guy at the other end of the bar caught my Dad's eye and came over for a chat. They had been firm friends in their youth - but had not seen much of each other since. They were, nonetheless, entirely abreast of the details of each other's lives - thanks to the grapevine.

The old friend was, like my father, called Paddy. He was a dapper man in his seventies and my father later attributed his spritely disposition to the fact that he never much troubled himself with inconveniences like 'work'. They inevitably began to reminisce and recalled a police raid on the same bar some fifty years earlier. Paddy, my Dad and his brother had all been charged with underaged drinking and each fined half a crown. The guards then held them to ransom for many pints of beer for several weeks - threatening to tell parents of the crime.

My Dad tried to capture the atmosphere for me. 'They didn't have any fast cars with flashing lights, you know'. He took a sip of his pint and looked to Paddy for confirmation, 'They came on bicycles...'

Thursday, July 07, 2005

'packed with care by Ashley'

I took delivery of some business cards the other day. Each parcel was labelled with an image of the poor guy who packed them. The label read:

Your order was packed with care by:
Ashley [in faux handwriting]
If I’ve slipped up, please return this card when you complain or email your comments to me at…..

Ashley’s image suggested that he didn’t really care at all and had been coerced into posing. He looked as caring as someone who’d just been arrested and I respect him for that. Who do they think they are kidding – these organisations who add a personal touch to packaging? I’m sure that Ashley would rather just get on with his job and retain his anonymity. And what does the labelling really mean. Here’s a possible translation:

‘You ordered something and here it is. This guy packed it and resisted the urge to vent his frustration with his life by sabotaging your ego-trip business cards with any body fluids or razor blades – he just excelled himself in the caring world of packing stuff. Oh, and make sure that if there are any problems with this order of business cards (that you will probably never have any meaningful opportunities to distribute anyway) you direct your gripe(s) to Ashley. He didn’t listen at school - so now he’s packing business cards. That really does make him fair game as a scapegoat for your complaint, while the management takes home the real money and drives the company cars. ‘

My business cards are now in my desk drawer (with just a couple in my wallet). I don’t think I packed them with care.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Mazda Man

The older I get, the more I seem to attract unwelcome advances. I was recently accosted in the car park of my local Marks & Spencer by a man – or rather a ‘bloke’.

“Mazda man!” was his opening gambit. No, this is not the name of an obscure comic book hero – the man was trying to connect with me on the subject of cars. His remark didn’t really make sense at first, so I just looked at him and smiled.

“I see you’re a Mazda man like me!”

He paused, I realised what was happening and then missed the brief opportunity to end the conversation.

“I’ve had them all – the 626, the old 323, that one…is that a diesel? Great cars, great cars.”

I wanted to point out that I was not a ‘Mazda man’, that he was very mistaken and that I was only driving a Mazda because it’s reliable and my father-in-law sourced it, got me a good deal and I was pressurised (in a well-meaning way) into buying it. I wanted to make it clear that I would not be working my way through the Mazda range, was not comfortable with his assumption that I wanted to join his club and that, in fact, I was on my way to waste ground to burn the car out as a favour to some guy I met in a really tough pub in the West End of Newcastle.

Instead I mumbled a polite response and drove away.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Picnic in Sparta

Picnic aftermath
Originally uploaded by Chocolate Sandwich.
Got out of town at the weekend - all the way to Craster in Northumberland. Craster has kippers, a castle and a pub - what more do you need from a daytrip destination? In the pub the night before, Maude and I had arranged to have a picnic with our old friends, Archie and Leap. It had been Maude's idea and the enthusiasm for it from our friends was heartening - Archie's last words on the subject were 'looking forward to it immensely!'.

Archie and Leap share a pretty cottage on the road to Craster, so we arranged to collect them and their hamper en route. Leap had assured us that her larder was crammed with picnic fare and that she would gather it all together in time for our arrival. She too was excited and recounted various stories of glorious days spent picnicking around the Borders as a child. Her mother, Summer, took every opportunity to take Leap into nature - walking, collecting berries, bathing in homemade bathing suits. Archie once told me that his first encounter with Summer was memorable - as she was gardening, naked, at the time.

Arriving at the cottage on the morning of the picnic, we hugged Archie and Leap and joked that we hadn't seen them for 'ages'. As we laughed, Maude glanced around the kitchen discreetly. She was obviously hoping to catch a glimpse of Leap's hamper - keen to see the efforts of such a seasoned picnicker. Leap is a vegan (once introduced by Maude's father as a 'severe vegetarian') and tends to buy unusual fruit, rare chutney and delicious cheese. Late morning sunshine poured in through the kitchen window, bathing the room in light and anointing the day as a perfect opportunity to picnic. The room, however, showed no signs of recent activity - only the remnants of the previous evening's supper could be seen. I smiled at Maude, sensing her anxiety. 'It's probably in the hall, dear. We just didn't notice it on the way in.'

Archie then began to shuffle around the house, collecting cricket stumps, choosing music for the journey and gathering small change as he went. At this point, Leap was not visible.

'She's probably looking for napkins, a tablecloth..that sort of thing.'

Maude's face had acquired a look of worried suspicion. She smiled politely, nonetheless.

'Why don't we make some room in the car.' she said, regaining her enthusiasm. I told Archie that we would wait for them outside and left him to his last minute preparations.

Maude whistled happily and repacked the car boot, shifting our hamper to one side and creating a buffer in the centre with the picnic blanket. The sun began to blaze, I kissed Maude's cheek and we looked up together to trace the path of a jet through the cloudless sky.

When our eyes returned to ground level Archie and Leap were stood before us with their 'picnic'.

Apparently, Leap had overestimated the amount of fresh food left in her larder and the chain on Archie's bicycle had come off as he set off for the grocer's. Their contribution to the daytrip consisted of two apples and a flask of green tea. I wordlessly spread the picnic blanket out across the empty half of the car boot floor and placed the 'picnic' on it. The apples and flask looked like small children in a kingsized bed. Maude maintained an air of dignified disappointment for the rest of the day.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

'Regular short. Not short short.'

Not quite sure which part of downtown San Francisco I was in when I found ‘Lulu’s’ barbershop – not sure who Lulu might have been either. The hotel concierge had directed me to the basement of the San Francisco Shopping Center when I’d asked where I might get a haircut. I had not been inclined to pay the minimum charge they listed on their tariff - $50 for a dry cut with a ‘junior stylist’. I have a sparse stock of hair – it really does not merit such outlay.

I wandered off in search of an old-fashioned barbershop. A couple of blocks away from the muzak and smooth elevators of the mall, I arrived at a grim neighbourhood of porn cinemas and shuffling vagrants. As I was about to give up on my mission and retrace my steps, I spotted the beacon of a barber’s pole half a block away. ‘Lulu’s’ looked unchanged since the mid-60's. A gnarled figure of a man was the only presence in the shop – seated in the waiting area by the window. He looked up at me with a very blank expression: ‘he’s in the back’. He nodded towards a door at the back of the shop. For a second I wondered if this was some kind of elaborate trap. The guy by the window was almost bald and looked as though he lacked the resources for a haircut (even at Lulu’s). I hesitated. He repeated, ‘he’s in the back, just knock.’ I knocked and a small man appeared – he was probably Korean. He looked at me with a quizzical look. I thought the knock alone was enough to indicate what I wanted – but no, this needed to be reiterated: ‘I’d like a haircut, please’.

‘Sure’, he replied and shuffled into his working slippers.

As the barber set to work with a flurry of scissors and comb, I saw a faded newspaper cutting on the wall between the mirrors. The headline mentioned two notable generals and their success in a campaign in Korea. The accompanying photograph showed the same in an active pose (possibly staged) - as they landed on a beach from an amphibious craft.

As the barber focused on the intricate coiffure around my ears, I scrutinised the clipping more closely. I realised that there was an attendant foot-soldier, in plain khaki and hardhat, following the pomp of the generals . He was laden with a heavy old radio and was labouring to keep up. His face showed great determination and his trousers were wet to above the knees. I then realized that the same man was now cutting my hair. He had aged well, with good posture and a boyish slenderness. The only obvious nod to maturity was a neatly trimmed moustache and a beret. I wondered what his journey had involved – from that beach to this salon. Another image on the wall suggested that the journey had been fruitful – it showed a large family gathering of several generations. The barber sat proudly at the centre of that shot – surrounded by smiles and love.

The barber did not speak as he worked. I was not offended by this – quite the opposite. I prefer a barber with focus – not some ‘junior stylist’ who would be likely to babble on like your best friend in order to pass off the style they wanted to give you, whether you wanted it or not.

The salon equipment was very old. In fact, the place looked like a film-set or a museum of barbering paraphernalia. I had just been on the audio tour of Alcatraz and, interesting though that was, I think I would have got more from an audio heritage tour of Lulu's.

My silent stylist then reached for his clippers and I noticed that his long fingers did not get around the girth of the handset. The device was at least 40 years old and my barber’s small hand gripping the clippers made him look like a child about to play ‘barbershop’. The clippers also made a noise like that of an aging outboard motor. This might have explained the silence. What would be the point of starting a conversation, only to have it drowned out by the clamour of the clippers?

The other notable object on the wall was a large metal box with a tube coiled around it. It turned out that this exhibit in the museum of hairdressing was the hairdryer. The tube had a serrated mouth and my hair was dried with a twisting, massaging motion. It was a pleasant, relaxing experience and it achieved something I thought I would never again see in my life: a quiff.

The barber then carefully returned each piece of his equipment to its correct place – such care, I thought, would ensure their service for many years to come. I smiled, he smiled. He knew I was happy with his handiwork and broke his silence:

‘That is regular short – not short short.’ I made a mental note of this, forgetting that I would probably never be in the neighbourhood again. We shook hands and I left feeling like a million dollars – although I’d only spent 20 (12 charged and 8 tipped). I still do not know who Lulu was and there hadn’t been a good moment to ask. I do know that one should always seek out maturity in barbershops – the ‘junior stylists’ are unlikely to provide what you really need.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Sign for This!

One of my colleagues is quite posh. Not overbearingly posh, but all the tell-tale signs are there: never talks of money, elegant posture, good diction. The other day she told the team a story about an event of the day before. She lives in Durham City – in a 2 storey house. She had been busy preparing for a friend’s wedding for a couple of weeks and on that afternoon last week, she found herself waiting in for the postman. She had ordered something original and stylish from the internet and expected it to turn up in the lunchtime post. Whilst tidying her upstairs study, she heard the distinctive sound of a postal van pulling up outside. Looking from her upstairs window, she was surprised that the driver did not emerge from his cab. Sadly, it was not the delivery she expected. She then noticed a strange motion in the driver’s seat. She reached for her glasses. To her great surprise she realised that the postman was, in fact, masturbating. He was masking the act from the ground-level public, with a parcel. My colleague gasped in the realisation that she might be on the verge of receiving a rather soiled item of post. On hearing the story, I suggested that the postman could possibly have been selflessly conscientious. Having discovered an unsealed package in his charge, he had scoured his van for sticking tape or glue…..Perhaps then – in devotion to duty - he thought he might improvise some adhesive fluid……”No”, replied my colleague, demurely, “he was definitely just wanking.”