Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Piano Time

As part of my quest for self-improvement I am learning to play the piano. I am having lessons with Simon - a well-mannered gent who lives just off the village main street. He is a very proper individual – always wearing a suit and tie, even though he conducts the lessons in his own home. Simon tuts gently at my inability to complete my homework and is very patient with my ham-fisted attempts to master 'Jingle Bells' as a Christmas surprise for Maude.

My lesson is in the same slot each week and I follow a young boy called Jack. Jack is about 9 years old and is quite the little prodigy. He has very shiny hair in an old-fashioned bowl cut and eyes as big as saucers. Jack's little fingers glide over the keys, to the delight of his attendant mother. There is always a slight overlap between our lessons - as Simon is far too polite to rush his students. I hover while Jack is congratulated on his progress by Simon, who then reminds the boy of what he needs to practise for his homework. Jack’s mother carefully packs Jack’s sheet music in his special music satchel (decorated with the word ‘Jack’ spelled out in crotchets) – all the while beaming with pride.

Simon and Jack’s mother exchange pleasantries at this point and laud the boy’s natural affinity with all things piano. It is at this point every week that Jack turns and casts a sinister look in my direction – while I stand awkwardly clutching my adult piano learner book in my arthritic old hands. When Jack is sure that his big saucer eyes have caught my attention, he plays one last dazzling encore on the keys – usually some particularly dramatic Gershwin or ‘The Entertainer’ – taking in several octaves and ending with a flourish and a toss of his shiny mane.

‘Oh Jack!’ exclaims his mother every time this happens – looking at me (in vain) for some kind of corroboration of her son’s precocious genius. I usually smile politely and glance at my watch – as though to say ‘I think you’ll find that Jack the genius is eating into my piano time now.’

Monday, December 11, 2006

All I want for Christmas is a refugee

I recently went through training to become a mentor for refugees. Maude checked my outfit as I left the house and agreed that I was wearing enough corduroy to pass for a caring liberal.

The training was comprised of intensive sessions with other Guardian readers in an inclusive, ‘safe’ workshop environment. I had never seen so many Fairtrade garments in one room. The sessions were led by a startlingly ginger young woman from somewhere near Liverpool. This meant that the way in which Janet spoke was, for the most part, Standard English. Every now and again, however, her face would contort into a Liverpudlian mien and a perfectly formed bit of scouse pronunciation would slip out – like an unfortunate tic.

We were led through a variety of possible scenarios which might come into the lives of refugees trying to integrate in the community here in the North East: how to join the library, how to understand the quaint local dialect, how to hold your own in a taxi rank at 2am after a 10 hour drinking binge.

I came away from the training feeling as though I was about to contribute something worthwhile to society – to ‘give something back’. Janet assured us all on our departure that we had all handled the training very well and that she would get to work on matching us up with appropriate refugees.

Last week I was invited to a social session for the members of my mentor group. Janet had insisted that we could all skip tea and join her in her office at 6.30pm where a festive buffet would await. This was the first disappointment of the evening. I arrived to see a ‘buffet’ of a dozen shop-bought mince pies, a tub of humous and some breadsticks.

I was one of the first arrivals and chatted with Penny from Yorkshire – or rather I chatted and she shouted. I gathered from her blaring that she had been matched with a refugee (possibly hearing impaired – or soon to be). She went into great detail about the many coffees she had already enjoyed with Hassan and how much she had learnt about his culture and he about hers. She had in front of her a sheaf of expenses to claim back from Janet’s petty cash. I was surprised that someone so abrasive had been so easily matched up with a vulnerable refugee adrift in the cold North East, but feasted on another breadstick and awaited the arrival of the rest of the group. As the liberals trickled in and cast weak smiles around the room, the conversation flowed and it became clear that everyone else in the room had been matched up with a refugee. Janet avoided my gaze and relayed information about various refugee-friendly local events and cultural venues. She then encouraged a general chat on the experiences of members of the group in their early dealings with the their mentees. Anecdote followed anecdote and it became clear that many of the members of my group had become so familiar with their charges that they knew, for instance, the basic rules of Iraqi cooking or the rudiments of Persian folk-dancing.

‘So everyone is having a really productive relationship with their mentee, by the sounds of it. I lurv it when that happens!’

I coughed gently at this point.

‘Oh, I know that not everyone has been matched up… just yet.’ Janet looked at me fleetingly and reddened.

As the get-together came to a close, I hovered. Janet was collecting her papers and urging everyone to ‘take care’.

As the room emptied she realised that I had no intention of shuffling away quietly without something approaching an explanation of why I was the only fugee-less member of the group.

‘Oh, you’re still here.’

‘Yes’, I smiled. ‘Just wondering if there is some kind of problem with matching me up…..’

‘No, not at all. Just having a little trouble finding a match for your particular range of talents.’

I resisted the temptation to ask her what those ‘talents’ actually were – up to now she had only witnessed my ‘talent’ for wearing the requisite amount of corduroy and my ‘talent’ for tolerating the volume of brash Yorkshire people and simperingly smug mentors who would soon claim to be dreaming in the obscure dialects of their mentees.

I buttoned my coat and gathered up my things. As I cast a last disappointed glance at the ‘buffet’, I made my position to clear to Janet.

‘If I haven’t got a refugee in time for the Christmas party, I’m not coming.’

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ending Up

Original Susan is already worrying about her thirtieth birthday – she turns 30 in March. I like to think of myself as a decent and humane colleague, so I made some efforts yesterday to counsel her and to bring to light the positives that such maturity brings.

I began by describing my own 30th. As I fell further into this story I realised that it wasn’t really the best example to use. I spent the evening of my 30th in a darkened room with a take-away curry and a half-written, overdue, Masters Degree essay. It wasn’t even my house. I was house-sitting at the time for some friends. The house was Georgian and was blessed with shutters which definitively blocked out the outside world. Maude was merely my girlfriend then and she called round to try and cheer me through my crisis. After the food she was soon distracted - happy to occupy herself in rifling through our friends’ possessions. I applied my aging, shrinking brain to an essay on ‘myths of masculinity in contemporary culture’.

I awoke in my thirties the following morning to the familiar sound of Maude screaming. She had set a bath running and promptly fallen asleep in front of morning television. The sound of fusing electricity had roused her – as water seeped through the light fitting above her head. I spent the rest of the day drying out the house and trying to find the fusebox. Maude thought it would be a shame for us both to be confined to the house – as it was so close to the shops of the city centre. I found the fusebox at teatime – after an exhaustive torch-lit search of the dank cellar.

Susan was heartened by this story. She did, however, go on to note that it was a shame I didn’t seem able to mend my career with 'a bit of fusewire’. She didn’t really, she smiled, want to ‘end up’ like me. I thanked her for her well-intentioned observations and reminded her that I had not yet ‘ended up’ anywhere. I was just ‘passing through’ – using the Arts Council for my own ends: funds, company…. biscuits.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Just like Christmas!

I was at a meeting yesterday which began at 10am and its first 2 hours were devoted to an ‘art’ exercise which had no place outside a primary school classroom under the guidance of a particularly witless student teacher. A smiley young arty woman with a wonky fringe and a bullet belt rallied all present to redesign a remote controlled car – to reflect in some way the creative ethos of our organisation. She distributed the cars in small gift boxes to each pair (we were working in pairs, as though at school).

‘It’s just like Christmas!’ she exclaimed as she sent the small boxes around the table. Identical, I thought, if your Christmas is full of forced enthusiasm in the company of people you can barely tolerate and involves the ultimately disappointing opening of over-wrapped boxes.

I sat next to a male colleague, Colin. Colin and I set about the task with an absolute lack of enthusiasm. Around the table others were really engaged - giggling, bouncing ideas around, strapping pens and miniature flags to their cars. I was preoccupied by the stark facts of the situation: this was a room full of professional people gathered together to discuss problems encountered with the Arts Council’s new computer system; the end result of the exercise was bound to be a) poor b) pointless c) a waste of time.

Colin and I took refuge from the giddy enthusiasm around us and gossiped. My ‘manager’ and his ‘manager’ are currently an item. They have been very clandestine about the whole thing – although neither of them is attached to anybody else. It’s all very strange, but intriguing. Colin mentioned that he still didn’t know what our manager looked like. I fed his imagination with various details of her appearance, voice, table manners etc. That way, I thought, I could spare him any trauma associated with an actual encounter.

The finale of the toy car exercise was a race of the redesigned cars around an improvised racetrack on the floor. The track had a paper surface which recorded the movements of the cars (they had pens strapped to them). The end result was a sub-Pollock mess and was rightly toasted as a ‘manifestation of all the creative energy in the room!’

Monday, November 20, 2006

How much is that teacher in the window?

Maude has found herself at the centre of a human resources problem at work. One of her colleagues, Geraldine, has managed to build up quite considerable debts on several credit cards. She has, like many young women, a predilection for the latest fashions. Her buying habits, however, have far outstripped her spending power. Geraldine has hidden the true extent of her debts from her fiancé and has resorted to desperate measures to get herself out of her predicament.

Maude has often mentioned to me her concern about Geraldine’s lack of engagement with her colleagues. Geraldine has an extraordinary capacity to sit or stand stock-still, without any facial animation or blinking. This catatonic state has worsened in recent months – as Geraldine has fretted internally on the subject of her debts. She was recently found by the school caretaker hours after the end of a meeting, locked in an attentive pose with her pencil poised over her shorthand pad.

On several occasions Maude has had to check Geraldine for vital signs – waving a hand across her eye-line and searching for a pulse. A series of gentle prods with a pen would usually bring Geraldine out of her reverie and back into to the world of the conscious. On one occasion, however, Geraldine was locked more deeply in her own private world than usual. She was seated in the staffroom at the time. Maude entered the room to wash her coffee cup and found Geraldine motionless, again. Maude noticed that Geraldine’s coffee was cold in front of her and that it had acquired a skin. She removed it and washed the cup. In a further attempt to cover for her unfortunate colleague, she found some kitchen roll and dabbed away the drool on Geraldine’s chin. It was at this point that Geraldine came round in a blind panic, thought that she was being molested in some indefinable way, and soiled herself. It was this incident that became the basis for the poor woman’s ‘official grievance’ against her manager, Maude.

Maude’s concern has grown. Geraldine’s absences have taken on a new dimension and she has become physically elusive. Her classes have been left unattended, her books unmarked and her car nowhere to be seen in the car park. Maude’s teaching was disturbed recently when noise from one of Geraldine’s classes filtered down the corridor and caught her attention. On investigation, Maude came upon a near-riot in Geraldine’s form class – with the teacher nowhere to be seen.

‘Where is Miss Hush?’ Maude asked. Sniggers circulated the room. Maude then noticed that most eyes in the room were trained on two mischievous boys at the back of the class. They were standing motionless, in poses reminiscent of shop mannequins. Maude resisted the temptation to be amused and put them both in detention.

On Saturday some light was shed on the reasons for Geraldine’s unusual behaviour. Maude and I braved the crowds and the bitter cold in an attempt to start our Christmas shopping. We parked on the open-air level at the top of our usual car park, after our trip up the helter-skelter ramp showed no spaces on all the other levels. Windblown and tired before we’d even entered a shop we decided to cheer ourselves by joining the ranks of parents and children taking in the spectacle of the famous Christmas display in the Fenwick department store window. Maude loves Christmas and her eyes lit up as we watched a clockwork Father Christmas pass exquisitely wrapped presents along a chain of animated elves. We watched, as rapt as the gasping small children around us, as each gift travelled from Santa along the chain to its destination under the splendid Christmas tree in the beautifully reconstructed 1950’s family lounge in the adjoining window. An idyllic family scene was represented. A boy and a girl were posed, with hands raised in glee, dwarfed by an enormous twinkling Christmas tree. Mum and Dad looked on with satisfied smiles from the sofa and all the family members basked in the golden glow of a large festive open fire. The accompaniment was a rousing version of ‘Jingle Bells’ - replete with Santa’s rich laughter and the chuckling of busy elves. Like Maude, I followed the progress of the first gift all the way to the foot of the tree and felt an uncharacteristic surge of festive anticipation.

‘Here comes another one!’ said a father beside me, drawing his little boy’s attention back to Santa’s sack – the source of all the wonderment. The assembled eyes all went back to the font of gifts – like spectators in a slow-motion game of tennis. All, that is, apart from Maude.

‘Darling?’ I noticed that her giggling had ceased.

‘Be quiet.’ Maude cleaned her glasses and replaced them slowly. I noticed that her eyes were then fixed with awe on the family scene – in particular on the mother figure. I took a closer look myself. There, in the Fenwick display and utterly inanimate (for what must have been hours), sat Geraldine. The unexplained absences all made sense. Geraldine was using her 'gifts' to address the debt problems. I couldn't help worrying, however, that she would crack and reanimate at any point, being in such close proximity to the town's largest stock of designer clothes.....

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Fits where it touches

I work in a ‘business centre’. Men in suits bustle about and young women wear bluetooth headsets to take calls while they are making coffee for the men in suits. The building is managed by a small, skinny man called Lionel. Lionel loves his job about as much as I hate mine. He finds himself unable to pass by one of his tenants without imparting some ‘vital’ piece of information about the management of the building. I usually come into the building via the back door and dart up the stairs while he isn’t looking, but he never fails to catch me at some point during the day. I know that he is only trying to connect in some way, but I really would rather not discuss our Christmas office arrangements when I am trying to enjoy the last few days of the summer.

Lionel also wears a suit which is far too large for him. He has the look of a man who has lost a great deal of weight overnight – a little like The Incredible Hulk in reverse. It is possible that he is without the time (in his busy management role) to update his wardrobe. Either that, or he is an escaped lunatic masquerading as the building manager – the real (portly) Lionel being trussed up in the generator room.

Lionel also has an unfortunate tendency to ignore the Susans when he enters the office (after a cursory knock when he is already in the room). He strides past their desks in his flappy suit and heads straight for me – proudly regaling me with his latest update on letter rates or fire drills. I have not as much as feigned interest in any of these things, but that doesn’t seem to daunt him. I really must make an effort to give out more unmistakably negative signals.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Being with Larry

Larry came to stay the other evening. I came in from work to find him sat on our sofa, wearing my dressing gown. Apparently he had cycled over from his lodgings and had been caught in a shower. Maude had insisted that he ‘get out of those wet clothes’. The sight of a man in my dressing gown on my sofa on my early return from work didn’t cause me any alarm whatsoever – I knew that Maude had better taste and that Larry would never expend enough energy to philander.

‘It’s not how it looks!’ said Larry in mock defence.

I smiled, went through to the kitchen and kissed Maude as she hoisted Larry’s clothes up on the airer. Larry’s clothes are all black. This means that, like Einstein, he saves the time and energy he might waste on choosing outfits. Einstein used the time to make an impression. Larry seems to be saving the time in a deposit account fashion. Larry was to stay for dinner, so Maude offered him an outfit from my wardrobe to make him feel more at ease (if that were possible). It was the first time I had seen him in primary colours – as he retook the sofa in a sky blue polo shirt and some brown cords. I noticed that he was agitated and looking around the room in a state of high anxiety. His fingers were visibly twitching and he began to stare in the direction of the television. I then realised that he was without the tools of his trade – the remote controls for the TV and the SKY box. His face brightened as I found them and placed them in his eager grasp. He looked straight ahead and his fingers darted over the surface of the controls in an expert, almost automatic, sweep. I was reminded of The Who’s ‘Pinball Wizard’ as the TV came alive and flashed a multi-screen display. Larry muttered to himself - his fingers a blur - as the images on the screen were renewed every couple of seconds.

It was at this point that Maude entered the room and turned the TV off at the wall.

‘Dinner is served.’

Larry was agog as he watched Maude’s figure recede into the hall towards the dining room. As the sound of the dinner gong rang out, Larry stood and walked unsteadily towards the doorway. I gently stopped him halfway and prised the remote controls from his hands.

Larry loves Maude’s cooking and made appreciative noises as he ate. His usual diet consists exclusively of Ryvita, peases pudding and mackerel - washed down with his flatmate’s coffee. Maude remembered to set Larry’s place in his usual spot – on the inside. Larry insists that he keeps his back to the wall and refuses to eat if seated ‘on the outside’. His conversation over dinner revolved around his happiness with his lifestyle.

‘I’m just happy with the space and time to just be’ he insisted. ‘I don’t need much money.’

Larry teaches the ukulele on a part-time basis and insists that he has a considerable roster of students and can recognise a potential ukulele player across a crowded room – she’s usually blonde and pocket-sized.

We then watched a film. It was quite an accomplished thriller and we jumped with fright in unison on the sofa. Maude then told Larry about the joys of our postal film rental deal – no visits to a shop, no overdue fees. Larry ventured that the scheme was flawed for two reasons a) it required payment b) he would have to make a journey involving 2 flights of stairs to pick up the film from the letterbox and get it back to the DVD machine at the foot of his bed.

As Maude made up the day-bed for Larry's stay, I caught her attention.

‘Remember what happened last time Dear…he stayed for 6 months.’

I thought that I had left Larry engrossed in a multiscreen TV nightcap, but he was actually at my shoulder.

‘It was only 6 weeks,’ he remarked sullenly.

‘Was that all?’ I added. ‘It was such an enjoyable spell, it seemed longer.’

Monday, August 14, 2006

Archie Asserts...

Arch had an assertive episode last week.

Archie and Leap have a penchant for ‘greasy spoon’ cafes and the greasiest of them all is on the quayside in Newcastle. I don’t know the name of the café – when I worked at a nearby theatre we just referred to it as ‘the dirty café’. The proprietor has always shown a distinct lack of interest in the needs of his clientele: hygiene, comfort, polite service. He has always viewed customers as an inconvenience. On the first of the few occasions he has ever bothered to serve me I made the mistake of asking him to make a fresh sandwich. He wiped his hands on his grimy apron and turned to face his workspace. I was treated to a view of his sweaty cleft as he assembled a sandwich with a scanty filling in tough bread. From that day on, I only bought the wrapped sandwiches that he bought in.

I was too polite to complain on that occasion. Archie has been going into the same café for nearly ten years – he has been regularly ignored in the queue, short-changed and even once spent an afternoon confined to the superloo on the quayside after an upset tummy he accredited to a dirty café all-day breakfast. His toilet travails even outlasted the money he had paid to use the convenience. He felt a draught as he strained to evacuate and looked up to realise that the door had been time-released and he was being observed by a group of Norwegian tourists.

Archie and Leap went to the dirty café one morning last week and Arch had a small epiphany. He was once again ignored for some time in the queue – burly workmen and pushy pensioners were all served ahead of him. Arch tends to reach up to shop counters with a banknote in his hand. As he has quite small hands, he can use the note in the manner of a small flag. (He did have a similar visibility problem when trying to stop the bus to get home from the factory, until Leap fashioned a small white hand-flag for him with the word ‘STOP!’ in a vertical setting). The banknote eventually worked – after all other customers on the premises had been served – and a surly teenaged girl took Archie’s order for a platter of chips and beans with two forks.

Archie and Leap settled into their usual spot by the window. Leap rubbed Arch’s beard to soothe his queue stress and began to roll cigarettes with imported liquorice papers. Ten minutes passed and the couple became concerned about the progress of their order. Arch turned in his seat and he and Leap made a concerted effort to attract the attention of the girl who had taken their order (she was now talking on her mobile phone). She eventually succumbed to the pressure of their joint stare and furrowed her brow. She turned to attract the attention of the proprietor who turned away from displaying his cleft to his customers and snapped ‘What?’

‘Them.’ The girl pointed at Arch and Leap, ‘I’ve just remembered they wanted a plate of chips and beans for two, a couple of forks and two teas.’

The proprietor turned to prepare the food and his cleft returned to its default of ‘on show’.

The girl returned to her mobile phone call without so much as an apology. Archie seethed.

‘Don’t make a scene,’ implored Leap. ‘She’s not worth it.’

The proprietor shuffled out into the café and carelessly distributed tea – wordlessly sliding two mugs onto Arch & Leap’s table. Leap mopped up the tea spilled around the cups and smiled at Archie.

‘It’s not good enough!’ exclaimed Archie in a raised voice (which was still unheard beyond their table). ‘I’ve just spent nearly two pounds, you know. That’s a the price of a pint.’

Archie’s attention was suddenly attracted by the sight of the surly girl drifting around the café with a plate of chips and beans. She was still talking into her mobile phone as a couple of chips slid from the plate onto the dirty floor. She passed the couple’s table and nonchalantly set the plate down on the open newspaper of an elderly man at a neighbouring table.

‘Hello,’ he said, ‘I didn’t order that.’

By this time the ‘waitress’ was back behind the counter and had begun to compose a text message. She stopped what she was doing, momentarily, to speak:

‘Pass it over, will you.’

She looked back at the screen of her phone. Archie could hold himself back no longer and got to his feet. Nobody noticed, but he was heard when he shouted ‘Why don’t you do it!?’

All eyes in the café suddenly turned on Arch. He was not just asking a simple question about a misplaced plate of chips and beans – he was trying to challenge and undermine the whole culture of the ‘dirty café’. The surly girl looked at the proprietor – who then left the confines of his counter for an unprecedented second time that morning. He approached the table on which the plate had been left. He picked up the plate of now lukewarm beans and chips and hovered in front of Arch and Leap. With his customary lack of facial animation, the proprietor uttered the longest sentence the couple had ever known of him.

‘You’re both barred. You’ve been nothing but trouble for years.’

Friday, July 14, 2006

Who's your Jimmy?

There was a funny picture of Jimmy Kranky working its way around the office recently and it got original Susan to musing on the number of people who go to fancy dress parties done up as either Jimmy Saville or Jimmy Kranky.

She also mentioned having been to a 70’s party recently at which someone was dressed as Jimi Hendrix (he didn’t see much of the seventies, but an interesting choice nonetheless).

We passed a few happy minutes in drawing up a list of interesting fancy dress Jimmys:

Good Jimmys:
Instantly recognisable – iconic even. Recommended for anything other than children’s parties – trauma could occur.

Easily achieved look – with flashes of purple and an accurate wig. Accessories: Fender Stratocaster, lighter fuel.

I like this one – chiefly because I know several pint-sized bald small town boys who could carry this off with a falsetto and a tight white T-shirt.

This one’s a winner…isn’t it? A prosthetic chin a possibility. Better still a Jimmy Hill mask (could make drinking awkward).

Bad Jimmys:
I thought this was the king of the Jimmys until original Susan looked at his website and stated that she’d never heard of him. I felt old. I tried to conjure up the hilarity of his act: the wellies marked ‘L’ and ‘R’ and the literally timeless catchphrase ‘There’s more.....’, but the only smile she offered was one of pitiful indulgence.

You’d probably have to wear an uncomfortably hot outsized doll’s head to make this one work. Again, difficulties could be encountered when drinking, or kissing (due to size of doll’s head and repellent aspect, if the face is true to life). The trauma factor also returns here: children and adults could suffer.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Tins of 'Don't Know'

'Don't Know' Tin
Originally uploaded by Chocolate Sandwich.
One of the Susans has a partner who ‘works’ for Sunderland City Council in an obscure planning department. Public sector employees seem to have a quota of sick days that they feel obliged to take (a little like annual leave in the private sector). Susan’s partner, Bert, is a believer in taking as many sick days as he can possibly get away with before being sent to Occupational Health for tests.

Occasionally Bert does go to work, dusts his desk, makes a few phone calls and sends some 'funny' emails to a group of friends (and Susan).

Bert breaks up the working day (when he is there) by taking extended lunchbreaks. He wanders into the streets of Sunderland with his colleague, Merv (on the days when their attendance at work coincides). Bert and Merv do circuits of the small city centre – trying to find new experiences. They never buy lunch from the same food outlet twice – their code of adventure dictates that they try new quarters and seek out new food from untried sources. On their last expedition for a thoroughly unique lunch they discovered a stall in Sunderland Market which sells unlabelled tins for 20p each. The tins are ‘labelled’ by the stall–holder. He has developed a three tier system of labelling - in permanent marker - which does not really make sense. The tins are marked as follows:

‘Don’t Know’
‘Not Sure’
‘No Idea’

‘Not Sure’ suggests to me an inkling, or a suspicion, of what is inside. I don’t know whether Merv or Bert pressed the trader on this one. ‘No Idea’ is probably the most definitive disclaimer and I would (if I could be bothered) counsel the man to stay on safe legal ground and go with that.

Merv and Bert decided that they would buy one of the larger tins and take it back to the office. An otherwise uneventful afternoon was brightened by an office sweepstake of guesses on the actual contents. Merv added the hilarious promise to eat the contents when they were revealed the day after. The guesses ranged from dog-food to motor oil to baked beans. Merv, apparently, was game to eat whatever the tin offered.

The next morning came and desks emptied for what was billed in a promotional email as ‘The Reveal’. A maternal colleague, Barbara, had even shown the forethought to bring a large bib for Merv, which he donned with glee. A drum roll was improvised with a couple of biros as Merv slowly opened the tin - pausing every now and again to gauge the excitement around him.

Colleagues drifted away with varying levels of disappointment. Merv stayed true to his word and consumed the tin's contents: spaghetti hoops. Merv was soon left alone to finish his long, cold meal - which he washed down with tea.

As Merv left Bert’s half of the sweepstake in his colleague’s desk drawer, Barbara wiped the corners of his mouth with a tissue. Bert had already phoned in sick.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

You hold it. I'll kill it.

I was at an Arts Council meeting in London on Monday. In the middle of last week, one of the meeting’s organisers called me to check on my dietary requirements. I told this person that I had a special dietary requirement: “meat”. There was a pause after I said this and I still do not understand why. Most of the meetings I attend lately, especially those organised by any branch of the Arts Council have entirely vegetarian buffets. I sincerely feel that, as a meat-eater, I have become the victim of sustained discrimination.

The caller thought that I was being facetious and said “perhaps you would like us to bring a live animal and you could kill it on site to guarantee freshness….”

“If that could be arranged,” I replied, “that would be great. Thanks.”

The buffet monitor laughed politely and then rang off. Of course when the buffet arrived at Monday’s meeting it was meatless and in the absence of anything else I joined the queue of pallid arts fonctionnaires to feast on Lollo Rosso and goat's cheese. I have just been invited to another meeting in June in Stoke (surely they eat meat there). The email ends with the words:

‘If you have any special dietary requirements let me know, but all food will be veggie anyway - Look forward to seeing you all there’

I work in a non-smoking building – which seems to be the norm these days and is a good idea. The smokers have been given a corner of the wheelie-bin compound to indulge their vice. A corrugated plastic porch has been constructed, so that they can even huddle together in the rain if their need to smoke is that desperate. I fully expect the Arts Council to bring in a similar policy for carnivores. I can contemplate being handed a ham sandwich with contempt at a not too distant meeting, before being directed to a dark corner of a car park, or even a cold fire-escape. There I will be expected to eat while standing and I will have to endure disgusted looks from self-righteous vegetarians and the even purer vegans in the organisation. I will walk this Via Dolorosa and endure whatever pain it entails. I will feel no shame and I will eat my meat.

I look forward to the meeting in Stoke, but I look forward even more to letting them know in advance that I do indeed have ‘special dietary requirements’.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Backstreet Nutritionists

You can tell a lot about a place by looking at its retail topography. The centre of any town or city is a combination of the usual high street homogeneity (Boots, Body Shop, Argos…) blended with local shops. Sunderland shows its true colours by the nature of the local shops wedged in with the big names: ‘the pie shop’, Greggs (6 at least), ‘Poundland’, ‘Supercigs’.

There is a branch of Holland & Barrett, but it is hidden away down an obscure backstreet – the kind of location usually reserved for sex shops. Healthy eaters tend to walk past a couple of times (raincoated) waiting for a moment when the street is almost deserted before dashing in. The local gossips tend to be merciless if someone is seen frequenting the shop and life can become very difficult at ‘the club’.

Local bodybuilders do use the shop to buy protein powder and this seems to be accepted. These shoppers usually decline the offer of a bag, so that the nature of their purchase is clear to see on the street. The more insecure among them are inclined to emphasise their contempt for the seedy world of health food by growling at passers-by and flexing their biceps as they leave.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

That's where the art will go....

I was coerced into attending some more irrelevant training this morning. The purpose of the session was to update staff on the progress of a new ‘Single System’ – an attempt to bring together all the various current strands of red tape and combine them to make one big, fat strand of red tape. This has taken a whole family tree of subgroups and well over a year to reach a stage at which the ‘update’ was able to tell us that the launch of this procedural panacea was still well over a year away. I suspected that some people in the room would no longer have all their faculties by the time the system was ‘live’ – indeed, they might not even be ‘live’ themselves.

The presentation was painfully dull – with moments of inadvertent hilarity. Notably, we were told that the new system would feature ‘art’. Space had been made at the top of the red tape screens for the inclusion of ‘art’.

‘And see where that sunflower is at the moment….that’s where the art will go. You can even choose which kind of art you want to see while you’re working.’

Bite-sized art for the rd tape monkeys of the art system – how thoughtful. We were then made privy to the high-level thinking behind this innovation.

‘They’ve done that because they reckon ‘Art’s good for the Arts Council’.’

There were a few titters at that point, but not the great clamour of derision that this statement deserved. It could, on reflection, have been a very cunning way to keep the listeners’ attention – moments earlier I had been toying with the idea of jabbing my leg with my car keys.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Football at Sir Benny's

My friend Benny lives in one of the neighbouring villages and he generously invites me around whenever there’s a big game on SKY Sports. Benny lives in a terrace house with a fine view over the Tyne Valley. The best advice I can give to visitors is to keep their eyes fixed on the view or on the television – as the eye can catch some scary sights around Benny’s interior.

Firstly, Benny has a vast array of DIY materials, tools and manuals (Maude and I bought him a large toolkit last Christmas). However, he seems to lack the will or initiative to do anything with them. His toilet seat is perched – not attached – to his lime green convenience. His fireback and fireplace both lean against the wall in the vicinity of the chimney-breast and a telephone wire trails right through the house from the main phone to the extension. The bare, unvarnished floorboards upstairs give the place the look of a safe house for fugitives and the curtains hang as in the aftermath of a bomb blast.

Another, more jarring, assault on the eyes is frequently provided by Benny himself. Benny is in need of a belt. The slightest bend – to throw a teabag into the pedal bin or to turn up the thermostat on the Calorgas heater which keeps him alive – reveals enough hairy cleft in which to park a bicycle. In his defence, he has now been living in a cold house for a long time and doesn’t seem to feel the cold – at least not around the rump.

We sat and enjoyed an emphatic win in the Carling Cup final for Manchester United – or rather I enjoyed it. Benny was magnanimous – being as he is a Manchester City fan. We then discussed who we might knight if given control of the honours list. I suggested Sir Mark Hughes and Sir Stephen Patrick Morrissey. Benny looked crestfallen.

‘Would you not knight me?’ he asked.

‘Of course I would’, I reassured him, ‘… for services to DIY.’

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's is just pants

Nothing lights up Maude’s face more than a present, nothing is more like music to her ears than the rustle of wrapping paper.

‘Is that for me?’ she exclaimed, as I handed over the small parcel of lingerie.

There is something reassuring about being clichéd. I stood in the queue at Marks and Spencer behind three other men clutching bra and pants ensembles as Valentine’s Day gifts. M & S had been shrewd enough to post a male floorwalker in the lingerie section for the evening – giving advice and reassurance to men whose only experience of lingerie was taking it off their partners' bodies. I could be jumping to conclusions – they might all have been transvestites (including the assistant). The guy behind me in the line was caressing his chosen gusset with a faraway look in his eye – this could have been lust in advance, or a 'Weekend Wendy' checking on chafing potential.

The man ahead of me had asked for some slow and elaborate gift-wrapping and turned to his brothers in ‘romance’:

‘Sorry chaps!’ He said, with a shrug of camaraderie.

I ignored him. The assistant then asked him if he wanted cashback on his purchase. I half-expected the customer to reply along the lines:

‘I’m hoping for more than cashback from that little purchase!’, complete with nudges and winks to the rest of the queue.

He let me down – he was only half the cliché I took him for……

Friday, January 20, 2006

Punch your way to wellness

The punch-bag is back in place. I thought I’d been carrying around some excess stress…. Since the house-move the bag had been out of commission – so I bought a bracket from a man with dangerously bulging veins in a workout shop in Newcastle. By the time I’d bolted the bracket to the garage wall, I didn’t have the energy to hit the bag – but I needed to add a few finishing touches anyway.

I fashioned a plastic pouch for the front of the bag. In it I placed an image of an individual – someone who had annoyed me.

This has now developed into a ‘system’. The image changes frequently (sometimes it’s a current irritant, sometimes somebody from way back…). If I don't have access to a photograph, a biro sketch comes close (with the name added because I don’t draw very well). A photo is best, though. The picture invariably gives me the incentive I need to wallop and kick the bag until I reach breathless, sweat-drenched exhaustion.

Some individuals have made regular appearances on the bag: The Noise, The Chair, various tiresome ‘arts practitioners’. If I knew anything about voodoo, they’d all be too bruised to leave the house. Who needs a gym – just use your pain.

Maude had a go the other evening – she was feeling a little stressed after a long commute, so I suggested ‘the therapy of the bag’. I put my shoulder to the back of the bag, bent my knees and told her to give it her best shot. She sent me flying into the paint shelf – god bless her.