Tuesday, 24 June 2008


You know those Saturday mornings when you haven’t got a huge amount of time and you’re not sure what to do with yourself? You know that in an hour or so you’re going to have to head down to Marlborough School in Wiltshire, via Kensington to look at some reflective cubes left in the middle of Exhibition Road. At the exclusive boarding school you’ll look at some intricately balanced pieces of wood, listen to an embittered failed Catholic priest rail against the establishment and worry about an eighty-six year old drunk driver before gathering up one Peruvian and one French girl and heading back to London.

You know, that sort of morning?

So, I was drinking coffee, reading the Saturday paper whilst Beck banged around upstairs. Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was overshadowing the incessant drip-drip coming from the kitchen, when I came across an article on the twenty people who, allegedly, decide how I live my life. My attention was drawn in particular to Phill Mills the deputy chief-executive of Water UK, whom the Guardian bills as the man who ‘stops your toilet overflowing.’

Except he doesn’t.

No-one does. Hence the drip-drip echoing out of the kitchen as water seeped between the bathroom floor and the wine rack.

Suddenly irate I considered speaking to Trevor-The-Handy-Man’s voicemail yet again, but then a sliver of sun slipped through the gap in the concentrated grey clouds, through our back window and across my face.

“No,” I thought. “I am a man. I should be the man who stops our toilet overflowing,” and I rise out of my chair with determination etched into my eyes.

Then, the sun disappeared behind a drizzle filled cloud and I sat down again; the heady high of optimism swiftly departing. For whilst I am a man, just, I am one who fails to grasp even the simplest elements of DIY.

It’s just not my forte. It’d be pointless if we were all good at the same things so my skills lie in talking at length about why The Jam were such an important band or naming a pub for every square on the Monopoly board - AND what they sell on tap - or I can even whip up a fantastic mushroom risotto blindfolded and with one wrist tied to the opposite ankle. However, I breath a sigh of relief every time I change a light bulb successfully.

(Of course, that’s partly because of the growing suspicion that the wiring in this house is probably of a similar standard to the plumbing and that death by electric fire is a daily risk - perhaps we shouldn’t run the TV, DVD player, video, broadband hub and four lamps off the same socket anymore.)

Actually, it’s more that I definitely don’t have much DIY experience, and I think the desire to have a go has been battered out of me by regular failure.

Failure which, I should add, isn’t usually my fault.

For example: when we moved into this place at Christmas 2005 the door to the utility refused to shut properly.

“There’s a bit of a draft,” Beck said pulling her cardigan tighter.

“No problem,” I replied in a moment of uncharacteristic macho confidence. I bought a sliding bolt, drilled a hole into the door frame and fitted the bolt in place. Hey presto - extra security and warmth in one.

Half an hour later I heard grunts from the kitchen.

“Stupid - ngh - door -ah - won’t - ugh - open.”

The bolt just about survived Beck’s prolonged attempts to shoulder barge the ‘stuck’ door, but now it forms an interesting crescent shape. The seven years living together are littered with instances of draws fixed, windows temporarily repaired, telephone wires neatly run around the flat all to be ripped up, broken, moved or otherwise interfered with mere hours after I’ve downed tools and this has somewhat dented my willingness to even bother.

So, anyway. The leaking toilet. What to do? What do real men do?

They consult the internet, clearly.

A couple of helpful websites complete with illustrations later I set to work.

Our toilet is, for some reason, encased in a wooden box making access difficult so first I removed the bottom portion of the box to ascertain exactly where the leak was. From the overflow pipe. Good. Then I ripped off the top of the box, opened the cistern up and fannied about with the ball-cock for a bit. The website’s weren’t very consistent in whether I should turn the little screw clockwise or anticlockwise, but after umming and aahing for a while I went for clockwise.

I flushed the toilet and it appears to fill to the correct level.

I put a selection of bowls under the overflow pipe before deciding on a pint glass as more efficient water catcher. Just in case I’m wrong.

“Right. Sorted,” I said to no-one in particular yet with an air of triumph. Not one shout or swear word has escaped my lips.

Eleven hours later we returned and I excitedly scampered upstairs to inspect my handiwork. The pint is, of course, not only full, but overflowing. I empty it out, then turned the screw all the way anticlockwise optimistically and replaced the glass with a large vase.

“Perhaps you ought to have a go at getting Trevor round,” I said a little sulkily. Not shouting or swearing, mind, but quietly wishing we owned a cat I could kick.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

It’s good to try new things.

On Saturday I managed to indulge in three new experiences.

1) I’ve never read any of my fiction out loud. Or not in a formal environment, anyway. Sure, I wander around the house reading parts to myself, irritating the neighbours by repeating the same two paragraphs again and again, altering just a single adverb. It’s a useful part of the editing process. It forces me to think about how words sound in other people’s heads as well as how they scan on the page. Also, by enunciating every syllable typos are revealed - as though the part of my brain that controls the eyes expects to read words correctly and so does; it’s only when the mouth becomes involved that I realise there’s no q in picture, or whatever it may be.

There was the opportunity to perform (for want of a better word) at the college open day and I decided this would be a reasonable way to ease myself into reading to an audience, popping my vocal cherry as it were. As most of the listeners were fellow students it would, in theory, be a unhostile audience.

I haven’t been nervous about speaking in front of people for years, but for some reason on Saturday morning my stomach was making unusual twists. I was a cluster of indecision; changing my mind from minute to minute over which part of the story I’d selected I was actually going to read; wishing I’d picked another, better, short story in the first place.

Preferably written by someone else.

Plus I seemed to be losing my voice.

I’m strangely susceptible to sore throats. It does that whole rasping, tin-foil crackling thing. It sounds like I’m rumbling through a million cheap cigarettes.

The indecision was made worse by the part of the story I’d originally chosen, the part I thought was the best bit, the lines I’d been practising all week, but hadn’t really grasped that I was going to have to sing. I’d been ignoring the fact that there are Beach Boys lyrics playing the background; woven into the narrative.

I can’t sing. Even with my pipes working perfectly I am utterly, utterly tuneless. Somehow I’d allowed Beck to convince me that it wouldn’t matter.

“You sound fine,” she’d said. “You can pull it off.”

Evil, evil, evil.

On Friday I found the recording function on my mobile.


So, my hasty rethinking was still taking place when I walked into the senior common room with the whole story printed out in an oversized font.

Then I spotted the free wine.

“I’ll just have a glass. To help me relax. To loosen up my nerves and my voice,” I thought to myself but in my mind’s eye there was that look Beck does so well.

One, of course, became three and red wine in a warm room doesn’t really help already dry throats.

Still, I got away with it. Just about. I think.

And afterwards there was a little surge of adrenaline that pushed another three glasses down before I’d even noticed so as when Amy said “pub?” I went “yeah, all right then. A quick one.”

A pint was all I had time for because I was pulling the six to twelve shift at another pub, the one they pay me spend time in, which leads us to…

2) …Being a bit pissed whilst working.

Technically, I probably have done this before. The large media company I spent for two and half years working for had a very boozy culture. The pub was the most popular lunchtime destination five days a week. In fact, I once bumped into an editor coming out of the pub at one o’clock who closed one eye to focus on me and said: “Shit! Is it lunchtime already? I only nipped in for a quick one before heading up to my desk.”

One pint was fine. I could work with that. Two or more and I’d do nothing for the afternoon except hide from the telephone in the photocopier room. So whilst I may have been a bit pissed inside an office I didn’t actually DO any work.
(Which is why after a while I either stopped going to the pub at lunchtimes or sneakily switched to shandies).

Working in a pub, however, doesn’t really offer any hiding opportunities. A busy Saturday night is not the time to lurk around the cellar pretending to collect the bottles needed for restocking the bar.

Initially it felt like the rest of the world was on fast-forward around me. Voices came across as a high pitched scramble that needed translating. People left templates of themselves in their wake, glimmers of where they’d been moments before.

The physical act of doing stuff, though, is always sobering. Concentrating on adding rounds up in my head rather than relying on the till, drinking copious amounts of water also helped and two hours in I was back to normal.

Well normalish anyway until we get to…

3) …impersonating Vicky Pollard.

Right. I’ve never watched Little Britain, as anyone who knows me is aware, most discussions about TV tend to get greeted with a blank gaze, but actually my knowledge isn’t as bad as I sometimes make out. I do know who Vicky Pollard is. I just don’t find it funny.

(In fact I’ve been trying to appear less of a cultural snob after suffering a fantastic put-down by someone on my course. We were sitting on the college back field with a bottle of wine - and how much does that make me sound seventeen again; honestly we do more than just drink wine - when Sera says to Catherine something along the lines of “is that the new copy of Heat?” “Yeah, look at the state of Amy there,” Catherine says and then without missing a beat turns to me “Amy Winehouse is a popular singer, David.” Ouch.)

Anyway. As it approached eleven-thirty I’m persuaded by the deputy manager that all new staff are challenged to ring the last orders bell in an allegedly amusing fashion as a rite of passage. After some debate they decide Vicky Pollard would be apt for me.

Not that there’s anything even remotely amusing about a complete lack of comprehension of the rules of grammar, but there you go.

So I slam the bell and bellow in what’s left of my splintering voice “yeah, but, it’s last orders at the bar, innit.”

Everyone behind the bar bursts in hysterics whilst I grumpily serve two guys with bemused faces. Only once they’ve regained some sense of comprehension do I learn that new staff are challenged to ring last orders in an amusing style…

But no-one’s actually gone through with it before.

Oh well. Next week, expect me to be heading up a Girl’s Aloud tribute band followed by leading a intellectual debate on the virtues of CSI Miami versus CSI Shitback, Utah or some such bollocks.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Thinking things through...

You’ve probably seen this before, it’s dropped into my inbox from a couple of different sources over the last few days:

“We are hitting 12 9.9 a litre in some areas now, soon we will be faced with paying 2.00 a ltr.

All You have to do is send this to 10 people. That's all.(and not buy at ESSO/BP) How long would all that take? If each of us sends this email out to ten more people within one day of receipt, all 300 MILLION people could conceivably be contacted within the next 8days!!! Acting together we can make a difference If this makes sense to you, please pass this message on.

Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations have conditioned us to think that the cost of a litre is CHEAP, we need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the market place
not sellers. With the price of petrol going up more each day, we consumers need to take action. The only way we are going to see the price of petrol come down is if we hit someone in the pocket by not
purchasing their Petrol! And we can do that WITHOUT hurting ourselves. Here's the idea:

For the rest of this year DON'T purchase ANY petrol from the two biggest oil companies (which now are one), ESSO and BP.

If they are not selling any petrol, they will be inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit. But to have an impact we need to reach literally millions of Esso and BP petrol buyers. It's really simple to do!!

I am sending this note to a lot of people. If each of you send it to at least ten more (30 x 10 = 300)... and those 300 send it to at least ten more (300 x 10 = 3,000) ... and so on, by the time the
message reaches the sixth generation of people, we will have reached over THREE MILLION consumers! If those three million get excited and pass this on to ten friends each, then 30 million people will have been contacted! If it goes one level further, you guessed it... ..


Again, all You have to do is send this to 10 people. That's all.(and not buy at ESSO/BP) How long would all that take? If each of us sends this email out to ten more people within one day of receipt,
all 300 MILLION people could conceivably be contacted within the next 8days!!! Acting together we can make a difference If this makes sense to you, please pass this message on.


It's easy to make this happen. Just forward this email, and buy your petrol at Shell, Asda,Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons Jet etc. i.e. boycott BP and Esso.”


Do you know what? Chain emails really annoy me. This one does, however, expose an interesting human characteristic.

Before I get to that, though, a brief discussion as to why this is, of course, rubbish.

Firstly, whoever’s written this has gone to great lengths to describe the mathematical process as to how their campaign will reach 300 million people and seems to have forgotten that the UK’s population is currently only 60.7 million and that includes quite a few people under seventeen, those who can’t drive, those who don’t own a car, and probably quite a few who are simply rich enough not to care. Sending it to so many seems a little pointless.

BP and Esso have a virtual monopoly on petrol stations at motorway service stations. Not entirely, but the vast majority of filling up points on the major routes belong to ‘the big two’ - which, you know, is why they’re the market leaders (curious how Shell, who also had a very successful first quarter are excluded from this). This’d make going on holiday, driving any sort of long distance, or doing the sort of job I used to do very difficult. It would involve significantly more planning to find out where alternative petrol stations are based and anticipating when you would need to refuel on the journey. Possible, certainly, but time consuming and irritating. Let’s face it, no-one would bother.

Okay, so BP made a $7.6 billion profit for the first quarter in 2008, up 45% on the same time last year, but this revenue is generated by the exploration and production side of the business, not selling it to motorists on the forecourt. In fact, BP is effectively split into two. The production side of the business has to sell the oil to the retail side and it is illegal to for them to set their own price for a barrel of oil. They have to follow OPEC‘s rates.

(Interestingly, this means that when the cost of a barrel of oil is low, as it was recently, the retail side of the business supports the exploration and production.)

Not buying from Esso or BP forecourts isn’t actually going to harm the profit margins of the two companies significantly. Why? Well, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Tescos, etc, are retails businesses. They don’t have a refinery. In fact, I’m ninety percent certain I read somewhere that Tesco buys its oil from Esso - from the part of the business that’s already making a profit.

So, bypassing Esso and BP is not likely to reduce the cost of petrol to 69p a litre. The most likely outcome is that Esso and BP will close petrol stations down and with less competition prices will rise elsewhere.

Don’t forget that the current tax-rate is also 50.35p per litre of petrol. Which would mean, if the email’s aims of reducing petrol cost to 69p a litre, just less than 19p going to the retailer. I doubt there’s any sort of profit margin in this.

(I’m slowly getting to the point).

What can be done about the cost of petrol?

I haven’t a clue, but here’s a couple of alternative solutions:

Governments can bear down on OPEC and try and force a reduction, but understandably won’t.

The government could reduce the tax rate on petrol, but taxes are generally a good thing. They pay for the NHS, for schools, for unemployment benefits, the maintenance of highways - no good having cheap fuel if the roads collapse. (And okay, they also pay for immoral wars in the middle-east, but with a national debt of somewhere around £500 billion, according to an article I found on the Daily Telegraph’s website, don’t expect any cuts in any taxation soon.)

Here’s one solution. BP has to generate a profit because it has shareholders. Its shareholders are extremely happy with these record profits. If, however, there wasn’t such a need, if it was content to break even for a while or make a smaller profit of say, half a billion a year, then it could reinvest the money into the forecourts side of the business and take a loss on petrol sold to the motorist in the short-term whilst prices increase more steadily. They’re never going to do this, and why should they? The purpose of BP is to make money; it does not have a moral obligation to the public.

Of course we could always renationalise the company and then it would be able to consider prices from a moral rather than a business perspective, but a) that’d probably result in job losses at the competition as they make cuts to cover for lower profit margins at the pump and b) I think I hear the socialist bell ringing which means it’s time to stop.

Here’s a vaguely interesting fact: According to the AA’s website the average price of petrol in 1974 was 16.26p a litre and according to the Liberal Parties manifesto of the same year the average wage was £2,106. This makes twenty litres of petrol about 8% of a weekly wage. Apply this to 2007 figures, £1.17 a litre and an average salary of £22,000, and it’s 5.5%. Proportionately the cost of motoring is going down, so should we be demanding cheaper petrol at all?

Anyway, this is all kind of by-the-by (and I’m clearly putting off doing something else), but what really struck me about the email was the price they wanted to reduce petrol to.

69p a litre.

I’ve been driving and buying petrol for twelve years now and, feel free to correct me, but I think the 69p mark was around 1999-2000. Nearly a decade ago.

I started thinking about other things that have gone up significantly in prices over the same period. Beer, for example. When I lived in Sheffield you could get a round of three drinks for under a fiver, so about £1.50-£1.60 a pint. In the Brockley Jack at the moment the prices range from £2.25 for an IPA to £3.40 for a Peroni. Which is cheap by London standards. In the Honor Oak Tavern Black Sheep goes for £3.20 a pint, the same as a pint of Landlord in Jam Circus. Outside of London it’s more or less the same. I went in the Waterman, in Warwickshire, recently and, I think, it was pushing the £3 mark for a pint.

Bread. Apparently the average cost of a Hovis loaf is £1.15, ten years ago it was 65p. (But I make my own, so what do I know?) Free-range eggs are £1.75 for half a dozen, up from 79p. Pasta. Most fruit and vegetables. Okay, so sausages plummeted to under a pound a pack at Asda recently, but everyone knows that’s a PR stunt.

(Call me crazy, but in doomsday scenarios I’m more worried about people starving to death than not being able to drive around.)

Let’s not even get into gas and electricity.

You can see where I’m going with this. Everything has gone up in cost. That’s how it works. Certain things are rising out of proportion with wage inflation, which is why people are starting to find the cost of living difficult.

So, presumably whoever came up with the plan to force the cost of petrol down would like this to apply to everything else deemed to have risen in cost too much, too fast.

Including, no doubt, the value of his house.

Welcome to the recession. I hope you enjoy your stay.

(UK average house price up from £84,000 in 1999 to £229,000 at the end of 2007; a 272% increase versus 169% for petrol.)

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Unrestrained Urges

A short piece today and, whilst time is always precious, that’s not the main reason.

I want to exercise restraint.

Having blogged everyday throughout May I was a little perturbed to find on Sunday that my fingers were getting itchy. I took the morning off, lazed around a bit, read the papers and so on and then worked at the pub from two till eight. After the some dinner I, without actually making the decision to do so, found myself perched behind the computer. Poised. Ready to update the world on my day.

Which was slightly weird.

Yesterday, I again part of me wanted to force an entry out in-between writing a whole chapter of the novel and heading out to a bar to make idle conversation with a girl wearing a nineteen-twenties style ball dress, carrying a telescopic cigarette holder and sporting a rather elegant moustache.

(Don’t ask.)

Resisting these urges is surprisingly difficult. I’m not very good at resisting any urge, truth be told - although never acting on the rather odd impulse I had a few times in Sheffield to run off with pushchairs containing babies was probably a good thing - but the urge to post is so simple to scratch. Just open a new document, hell I’m sitting here anyway, and type away.

Instead, I’m getting little twitches in my wrists. Allegedly amusing lines are presenting themselves to me and then disappearing again, like hallucinations.

So, whilst I’m not quite going cold turkey I am strictly rationing how much time I spend writing on this, as opposed to how much time I spend writing the thing I’m supposed to be. I need to ensure that my percentage balance of work/piffle stays happy.

H‘mm. Blogging addiction. There’s probably loads on the internet about it. Just open google and away…

No. No.

Work not waste…