Sunday, 21 December 2008

Directionally Challenged

Mid Saturday morning, as I walked through the empty streets of the city, the sun blistered against the chill in the air and my eyes still felt fuzzy from the night before and all those before that. I felt half there and half somewhere else, somewhere horizontal.

As I crossed Moorgate a man stepped out from behind a pillar. We wore a green boiler suit, with a fluorescent yellow jacket and a stained Santa hat. In one hand he held an open bottle of Magners and the other pressed a mobile phone to his ear.

As our paths crossed he whispered something that sounded like “can you help me?”
I carried on, lost in my own thoughts of desperation over what one of my cousins might want for Christmas.

“Oi!” he shouted and I instinctively turned to see him paused and glowering in my direction. “I was talking to you! Don’t ignore me!”

“Sorry, mate.” I replied, turning back on myself. “I thought you were on your phone.”

“What phone?”

“That one,” I half-pointed. “In your hand.”

“I haven’t got a phone.”

“Yes you have.”

“No he hasn’t,” said a voice out of the phone which still hovered close to his ear.

“So, are you going to tell me or not?” he continued.


“Where it is?”

“Where what is?”

“Liverpool Street,” he shrugged cider into the air with exasperation.

“Oh,” I was relieved that it was something so simple. “Down the bottom of this road, mate.” I gesticulated in the direction I’d come from.

“No!” he cried (and inside I groaned).

“No!” said the phone, helpfully.

“Not the station. Duh! Liverpool STREET.”

“Well, um, I’m pretty sure it’s to the right of the station. So, if you go down here to the station, turn right onto Bishopsgate and then right again. I think that’s Liverpool Street.”

“Right,” he said nodding firmly. “Thanks a lot, man.” He suddenly seemed swallowed by a sense of serene calmness, as though from here on everything was going to work out.

“Hey,” said the phone, “Merry Christmas, yeah?”

“Yeah, right,” he turned away, “Merry fucking Christmas.”


Tuesday, 16 December 2008

I must confess that I’d kind of forgotten places like this exist.

You know me. I like a pint. Of real ale. Ideally from the Midlands. And I like it a pub. A proper pub, that has pumps and stools and wood, but not too much. I’m not adverse to a bit of spit and sawdust on the floor, indeed I prefer it to the sheen of blandness like many of the indenti-kit pubs up and down the country.

There was a time, however, when on a Friday night there was a reasonable chance of finding me in a Spanish bar drinking that horrific Estrella stuff that gives you wind, somewhere in the shadows of Canary Wharf (this being a summer’s evening, obviously). Or perhaps I’d be in one of the warehouses converted into a cavernous experience of faceless computerised music and impossibly tall and thin glasses of Guinness.

But I was never that comfortable so far away from the things I understand. It was a relief, in 2004, to discover that the guys I’d gone to work for shared a similar suspicion of organised fun. Far more preferable was putting the world to rights over pint after pint of high-quality ale before inexplicably finding ourselves in the arse-hole Irish pub on the Holloway Road at the time when the trains have long stopped running.

Sigh. Good times.

So, it was something of a surprise when on Friday night I found myself gingerly descending marble steps into a red splattered tapas bar deep underneath Charing Cross Road. Video monitors showing footage of Salvador Dali frolicking with bikini-glad impossibly breasted women masqueraded as pictures; in the centre, a table was set within a gazebo; elsewhere other tables came complete with curtains for diners to seal themselves off. On the furthest wall there was a panel of glass that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Cathedral and in front of it a Japanese ankle height table with what might have been pom-poms scattered across.

Needless to say there wasn’t any bitter on tap, not even Guinness or a half-decent lager. In fact, there weren’t any taps, just bottles of the Newcastle brewed so-called Spanish beer, San Miguel. It was dark except for when it was too bright. It was loud. There was a bloke in the toilet who took up far too much space by insisting on turning the taps for everyone. There was even a god-damned cloakroom.

But, you know, I thought, this is what other people like. It’s probably me that’s more than a little unusual. It was certainly busy enough. The food was okay. There was nothing unpleasant as such. The people I was with seemed to like it and that was why I was there, after all.

Except, after we had eaten, they wanted to dance. Right on cue the volume jumped several notches and the quality nose-dived. The disco ball began to turn and people flocked to strut their stuff.

I hesitated. For about thirty minutes. I quite wanted to be sociable, but wasn’t sure whether I could bring myself to dance to Beyonce, or a succession of other pop songs I vaguely recognised and were probably recorded by failed contestants in television programmes I’ve never watched.

In the end, there was just the four of us left. Two guys and two girls. The girls danced smoothly in time to the music whilst I stumbled along about two beats behind. I gave up and reduced myself to little shuffles with the occasional head-bob and/or raised arm. I was watching the blonde, who kept glancing at the other guy, who was looking at the dark-haired girl I’d never seen before who seemed to be peering closely at me. It was like pass the parcel, but with glances bouncing around in sequence throughout our lopsided rhombus of hopeless gyrating bodies.

Time was getting on and on, arduously shuffling into the night. I remembered, with a groan, that the place stayed open until three and wondered whether I should just make my excuses and leave.

‘No’ a voice in my head ordered, ‘you’re a newly single man. Dancing with girls is what you’re supposed to be doing. Isn’t it?’

So, I battled on until, finally, a particularly trite song came on. So bad, in fact, that I currently have zero recollection of exactly what it was, but for arguments sake, let’s say it was something by Pink. I looked around and all about me people surged joyously. One youngish guy with what looked like a drizzle of puke down his shirt opened his mouth wide, his yellowy teeth reflecting in the neon and his eyes swirling with excitement. I was felt simultaneously sober, yet not.

Nor, indeed, was I enjoying myself.

“I think I’m off,” I said, adding something about last trains.

“Yeah,” the blonde perma-beamed, “I think I’ll call in a night too.”

‘Oh, aye?’ said the voice in my head.

‘Shut up,’ said the rest of my consciousness.

We chatted in the inexplicably long and slow moving coat queue about this and that.

Outside the rain was streaming down and the city shimmered in its damp overcoat. We said goodnight on the street corner as a rickshaw careered past.

As I walked towards Charing Cross the voice said: ‘What was that? Why didn’t you-‘

“That was nothing. Just shut up, you twat,” I growled back and got a funny look from a passing tramp.

I had, thanks to cloakroom inefficiency, missed the last train home. The voice and I argued the whole time on the long route back via Lewisham.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Magical Mystery Tour

You’ll all have seen this, but I couldn’t let it pass without comment.
Lapland Dorset (and by extension Lapland Wolverhampton) have been steadily ripped apart all week by the press and trading standards for promoting themselves as a winter wonderland, a festival of festive joy, when in fact they were just some tents in muddy fields, surrounded by scruffy imitation huskies, bored staff and run by chancers who saw everyone coming.

I mean, let’s be clear here: It was bound to be shit. Even aided by the coldest winter in eight years and several heavy frosts (if not actual real snow) it would have been impossible to live up to the hype of the original website, even if, to me, it was all suspiciously vague. What exactly is a ‘magical tunnel of light’? Surely an ‘absolutely magical scene’, given that magic isn’t real, is open to some interpretation?

Who goes to these places, anyway? Who reads about something that sounds like a nauseating con and thinks it’d be a good trip out for the kids? Who pays £25 a head for this sort of rubbish – plus extra to enter the so-called bustling Christmas market, which was really some trestle tables in a shed display the contents of a couple of old suitcases the organisers found in the attic? One woman splurged £3,000on 132 tickets for a social club’s outing. She has my sympathy, but was it really the right sort of place for them to go?

Okay, so may be it’s just me. Perhaps some people like tat. But my favourite bit of the whole fiasco, is the parents who became so angry at their darling one’s naive vision of Christmas as a happy and jolly time being shattered, then really put the boot in on the whole broken dreams theme by kicking the shit out of Santa. If that’s not going to make the delightful tots burst into tears, then they’re made of sterner stuff than most of the parents.

The thing I find interesting is the sheer number of people who turned up in the first place. People had a terrible experience and the place has been rightly shut down, but the owners did get away with it for a while. In other words, it proves that with a clever website and not a shred of honesty we can all get away with anything.

Here’s an idea: I’m going to turn my flat into a museum highlighting the wonders of the world. A palace where visitors are taken on a mystery tour of the exotic. They’ll ride on temporal time-looping luxury carriages throughout the entirety of human endeavour; from the gleaming spires of Chicago, to the yawning chasm of the Grand Canyon. From seeing the peaks of Scotland to the hearing the roar in the Coliseum as gladiators battle tigers. From the beguiling wonders of Constantinople to the teeming crowds Delhi. Everything from the sweat to the tears will seep into the visitors’ consciousness. At the end of this life changing experience they can feast on some of London finest cuisine.

What I’m really going to is put all my holiday snaps on the wall, make a suitably bad mix CD, bring them into the middle of the flat and spin the around rapidly. Then I’ll give them a cup of tea and piece of flapjack.

No, no, no.

What am I thinking? That’s a ridiculous idea. In fact it’s almost as crazy as if the BBC commissioned a Saturday teatime programme that consisted of an ex-international cricketer and some bloke off that dancing show trying to avoid being plunged into a swimming pool by a giant moving polystyrene wall with shapes cut of it. And if it was hosted by Dale Winton and everyone had to wear skin tight silver catsuits and got so over excited it was embarrassing to watch... I mean that’d be seriously bonkers.

Oh. Wait a second.

Just goes to show: no idea is ever is stupid enough to not appeal to someone, somewhere.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Price We Pay

At some point during the summer I accidentally mislaid some body mass. To be slightly more accurate I lost a stone and a half very quickly and whilst it’s evened off, my weight still seems to be dropping.

Which would be fine – I think pretty much everyone who knows me would agree that I’m not exactly slender – were it not for two reasons.

Firstly, this isn’t actually deliberate. It just kind of happened without me noticing. I put it down to working in the pub: my beer quota dropped and I would eat my dinner at about four-thirty before spending seven hours either standing up or, pretty often, running my arse off. This was far healthier than my previous regime of eating between eight and nine, if not later, and then remaining fairly physically inert one way or another before going to bed.

However, I’ve been back in the doldrums of office life for two and a half months (Jesus, there goes the next decade) and whilst I’ve been trying consciously eat healthily I’m not doing significant amounts of exercise. So, shouldn’t I be sort of stabilising by now? If not actually going back up, at least remaining constant?

Anyway, the second problem (and in many ways a more significant one) is that now
none of my trousers fit me. Running for a bus is a no-no; carrying too much change a disaster waiting to happen. Take these jeans I’m wearing now. Okay, so you can’t see them, but they’re fairly standard jeans – a grey-blue, with white stitching down the outsides of the legs and a zipper on the left hand pocket. Got it? Good. Now,
I’ve had these since last Christmas and so they’re practically new. I don’t want to replace them, but they’re going to get me in trouble. As I walked along the road I could feel them snaking their way over my hips, dragged down by the rainwater clinging to the cuffs. To my left a gaggle of teenage girls at the bus stop. To my right two coppers in a patrol car, sitting outside the Chinese takeaway.

It was a close call.

So, I clearly need some new clothes (or at the very least a new belt), but cash flow makes this a challenge – plus I loathe going clothes shopping, but in December? Jesus. Perhaps a prison uniform would be simpler.

This is the thing that no-one ever mentions. We’re told that we’ve an obesity problem, that we’re a nation of fat fucks and that we need to sort ourselves out.
Floppy tongued Jamie Oliver and stool sniffing Gillian McKieth swoop down on unsuspecting Dominos Pizza mopeds, forcing the salivating customers into submission by being more irritating than having to wait for a replacement pizza.

But no-one in these credit-crunching days suggests how we are to re-clothe ourselves.

Presumably we could use the money we’re saving on excess food to buy new clothes, except we do still have to eat something and healthy food is so irritatingly more expensive than shit.

I guess the only solution must be that there will be lots of people with saggy skin never able to leave the house.

I am, of course, presupposing that everyone dislikes going shopping as much as I do. There’s plenty of evidence, however, to the contrary. People love shopping. They love the heat of the buildings, the ching of the cash registers, putting their cards in the little boxes and tapping out their unique numbers and spending money that was never theirs. My God, some love it so much that they’re prepared to kill for it.


In the early hours of last Friday out on Long Island, New York State, crowds were gathering outside a Wal-Mart where a sale was due to commence – the annual Black Friday Sales. Never heard it? No, me neither. The jostling punters were so impatient that they pressed ever closer to the doors, applied greater and greater pressure until the point – not of the door being forced open – but of the glass shattering.

Presumably this made quite a lot of noise, but rather than jump back in shock, or even pause to wonder exactly what was happening the mob surged forward desperate to gather up... Hell, I don’t know. What does a Wal-Mart sell? Cheap burgers? A tasteless festive jumper with fifteen percent off? Half-price Adam Sandler DVDs or Pussycat Dolls CDs? Whatever it was they wanted it badly enough to trample a store worker to death. Even after paramedics tried to clear the scene most shoppers simply refused and responded with a whinge about how long they’d had to wait in line.

So watch yourselves out there in this annoyingly advertising in advance season of so-called goodwill.

Me? I think I’ll simply break out the swiss army knife again and puncture another hole in this here belt.