Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Year of the Mouse, Pt. 3.

The Purrfect Solution.

You've seen that movie with Lee Evans in, Mousehunt, and had a chuckle at all the anguished bungling and ruined lives, for the love of one little mouse. It seems a far-fetched caper, even for Hollywood. But while Lee was only hamming it up and walked away with a zillion quid for his trouble, I'm left here, gurning with genuine rage, agonising over new schemes to get shut of the pest.

First, though, some intelligence gathering. The first clue for the mouse file comes unexpectedly, while my cousin and I are nattering over coffee in the garden one afternoon.

"There's your mouse," he says, cocking his head to the shed.

"What? Where?"

"Just came through that bit of offcut pipe, past your strawberries and slipped under the decking."

In fairness a small foal could get in there.
It is my second inkling of the kind of gaps these critters can get through. The radiator seems like a conservatory by comparison. The slit between wall and decking is little thicker than a playing card.

"Under there?" I say, aghast.

"Yup. They can flatten their spines into their stomachs. Probably got their own underground world down there."

"I think it's just the one," I say unconvincingly. And ripping up thirty square metres of decking isn't my idea of fun, so the wife isn't going to hear about this one. I always assumed mousey lived exclusively indoors, but the fact he can come and go at will makes me think about his tradesman's entrance, and I eye the overflow pipe and dishwasher outlet warily.

Days later I buttonhole the next-door neighbour, advising her to look out for critters. She hasn't been in the property long and lives on her own, but it seems she has already had the standard rodent welcome.

"Had to take the settee apart," she says, with a shudder. "It was living inside."

"That sounds familiar," I say, and go on to describe various highlights of mousey's year-long stay, including the bedcovers scream from the wife that Sunday, which doesn't go down too well. She cringes visibly, turning paler still. "I can't bear hearing it scratching everywhere. There's traps and poison down now, that should do it, right?"

"Err, yeah. Good luck with it," I mutter, thinking of our own collection of vermin lures that remain fossilised with peanut butter and rust.

From the increasingly neurotic conversation comes a further clue. Her new neighbours the other side asked if she'd seen 'all the field mice yet' and she laughed at the time, wondering if it was some colloquial joke. But, thinking about it, there's an old shed in their garden, she says. A perfect breeding ground, untouched for long periods and set into the soil. Their house had been empty for many months before the sale, and even now they only occupy it for four months of the year, living in Cyprus the rest.

Did you see something just move?
This new update explains some dimensional anomalies I was perhaps in denial about. The first mouse, who interrupted my morning ablutions was scraggy and dark brown in colour. The one in the radiator was smaller, sleeker and of an, erm, mousier colour. Another time, watching it clump up the stairs from my desk, I thought it had bigger ears. The shed theory makes one thing sickeningly clear. It is not just one mouse we are dealing with, but a succession of clones, each more cunning than the last. It is from their rickety community residence that they plot to take over the world; a chilling conspiracy to sizzle the brisket of any Englishman and awaken, finally, a touch of Blighty spirit. This whiskery Third Reich grew in my imagination, jackbooting its way in columns down the Champs-Elysee of the potting shed, through the Arc de Triomphe of our front doors, looking for something to gnaw on.

Not on my watch.

"They probably have a weekly lottery to see who gets the presidential suite and vol-au-vents," I joke, trying to make light of it through narrowed eyes. "By which I mean there's only ever one. Considerate, in a way."

"Sneaky shits," she shudders, and sneaks gingerly into her empty house, clearly wishing she could shoot the messenger too.

So I may have the diplomatic nous of Prince Philip on ketamine, but it's clear now. The combination of their shed and my decking makes for a flourishing population, where six lucky ticket holders each week get to check into the Dorchester of their choice from the half-dozen houses connecting their garden stronghold.

There's only one place to go from here, and it rhymes with Datsun Cogs Gnome.

Carole wants him cute and fluffy, but I want him mean. A combination of all three would be ideal, and by a stroke of serendipity, there he is. Black as night, disembowelling a twig on his cage floor.

"Look at him, he's a killer."

"He's not! Just a kitten. Aww, how cute!"

So our new saviour mews skittishly from his box on the passenger seat, a twelve-week old ball of fur, unaware that he is about to enter a life of hunting Nirvana, as well as an inordinate amount of injections, pampering and fake, catnip-filled mice to practice on.

"What shall we call this beautiful boy?" asks Carole.

"Churchill," I declare, pursing out a puggish frown. "For he will bite them on the feetses."

It was clearly one of those rhetorical questions women ask before they tell you. "I used to have a Gizmo before, We're calling him that."

Of course it's early days, but while the scratches heal on my hands and our curtains hang in shredded strips, things are certainly looking up for a winter clearout. Progress below in the form of a training video.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Year of the Mouse, Pt. 2.

Of course we put traps down, humane ones at first; three of them, laden with peanut butter. They go for that, apparently, the cheese thing is a wives' tale. Except he didn't care for it, nor the salt beef, nor the flakes of cod. The locations of the traps changed, under the sofa, behind the surround sound, in the gap between armoire and desk, but the hippy snares always came up empty. He wasn't daft, the whole house was a larder of luxuries. Crackers, crumbs of chocolate, Cheesy Wotsits. Real, killing, neck-crunching traps had the same effect, i.e. none.

During this time of occasional scares and fleeting visits, our luck changed. The stultifying job that paid the bills disappeared in a sink-hole of recession, the sort where companies merge and the least paid and most compliant replace their polar opposites for double the workload and a salary freeze. I pity the fool who took mine, and this without any trace of rancour, I assure you. We got creative and set up a business. Our lives changed. I went back to Uni, we took up golf. Things got good and I, thirty years a corporate wage-slave, didn't have to worry about the rat race any more. The mouse race, however, carried on unabated, all through the winter and into spring. We graduated to poison, little blue pellets of wheat, strategically placed where we knew he went. All beautifully ignored.

The more we succeeded as entrepreneurs, the more I failed as great white hunter. The wife's patience reached its nadir with a bedcovers sortie one Sunday morning while she was enjoying a bacon sarnie and catching up on the soaps. Three streets away, an old veteran heard the shriek and woke from dreams of the trenches, shivering.

"It ran straight over me," she squealed. "This, is beyond a joke."

He was still in the bedroom, somewhere. We lifted the bed to the wall and he scurried out, looking for a bolt-hole. There is nowhere to go though, because I've blocked up every visible orifice that doesn't have a lifeform attached to it. My nails have a permanent coat of Polyfilla. And at last, we have him. This time I go for the mop myself, finding a more convenient weapon in the process, an extension pipe from the hoover. The last place to hide in the denuded room is a small bedside table. We lift it, triumphant. I wait, panting, for him to spill out, the steel pipe poised above my head. My son opens the door to see what the fuss is about and a brown blur shoots out at escape velocity with me at his heels, cursing and clubbing blindly at the carpet. Into the bathroom he scoots, behind the tiniest gap in the bath panel he slips. Damn!

"You should have brought the whole hoover," Carole advises, unhelpfully. "Sucked the little shit up."

"This luck of ours, maybe it's the mouse," I say. "A talisman. He's been with us through thick and thin. It might not be fate to catch him. He's symbolic."

Of all the stupid things to come out with, and the wife's opinion rightly differs. "Symbolic? Some bollocks you talk."

It wasn't a discussion to dwell on, I realised, because I could tell that before too long the neighbours would hear it.

And so came August. Temperatures and redundancies rose, shares fell. Indoors, my mouse-catching had devolved to the half-hearted hefting of tv remotes as he frolicked in the car park of his own private drive thru under the table, waiting for service. Occasionally he would disappear, sometimes for weeks on end and we'd heave a sigh, too scared to mention him by name in case he took it as a roll-call.

Just for a few nights. Till the welfare cheque clears. Honest.
"Have you seen 'you-know-who' lately?"

"No, thank God."

"They have to mate sometime," I say, putting an even bigger foot in it than usual. "Makes sense."

"Oh, so he's coming back with the wife and kids then?"

"Might be even luckier for us, babe," I continue, still sawing at the branch I'm sitting on. "We might win the lottery!"

"It'll pay for the Black Death then, and the lawsuits from the council."

Black Death is rats. I think about correcting her, but it really is time. Time for me to shut up and curb this critter's plaguing of us. He's back, of course, but I think I finally have a plan.

To be continued (with video)...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Year of the Mouse, Pt. 1.

Checking the diary, it's been almost a year since, sitting on the toilet at five am, I first saw the mouse. In it saunters, almost past the point of my slippers, looks up at me, does a sort of double-take then skitters back the way it came, under the door. I can still hear its little claws on the lino, scrabbling for traction and was minded of that mid-air run Scooby and Shaggy sometimes do when running from a ghost. I can also remember looking up from the book I was reading and thinking, "Hmm, very big spider or very small mouse?"

And, on balance, being marginally glad it was the latter.

Balls to this harvesting lark.
I took a moment to get over the shock and then, since it was unlikely to be offering squeaks of "fair cop, guv" on the other side of the door, thought about how to get rid of him. It was October, the chill was starting to bite and the fields behind us offered nothing to compare with central heating and the odd discarded bra to nest in. I could perfectly understand mousey's reasoning and thought about explaining that to the wife when she woke up. I decided against it. Women can't always appreciate the foibles of nature, they're just as likely to turn paranoid and club at random shadows with mops. Nobody wants that, especially during Match of the Day.

So, what then? A brief flashback revealed my mum, her own mop bristling with carbolic as she rendered the house uninhabitable for man and beast alike. Domestic overkill was her generation's answer to everything and I smiled, remembering how we thought our nasal hair would never grow back and our lungs would forever wheeze with the croaky rattle of Phosgene survivors.

No scattergun approach then, and besides, those chemicals have long since been banned. A waiting game sounded more sensible (and a lot less labour-intensive). After all, he might quietly slip away into the night now he knew we lived here, like a conscientious squatter. "Sorry man, my bad. I've left the seat down and a quid in the gas meter."

And if not? I closed the book and washed my hands, muttering. "It's just a wee mouse. Shouldn't be too hard to catch, when the time comes."

How terribly naive I was.

Now peripheral vision is a funny thing. This gift of human evolution must have been great for snagging bats off cave walls to roast, or spotting the blade of grass a sabre-tooth just moved. Today though? Well, it's just a bit of a pisser isn't it? There are some things you'd rather not see, if it means having to conduct a mouse-hunt every time he catches the corner of someone's eye.

Three months on. A typical scene. We are watching tv and there's movement from the through-lounge carpet. Under the dining table, a piece of sweetcorn from dinner is about to be claimed. He is less discreet now, his appearances more regular and brazen. We merely gape for a moment, fascinated at his audacity and at how plump he's become.

"He's like a tiny hoover," my daughter giggles, as he scoots under the sideboard.

"Except there's no bag for the doings," I remind her, and croon, menacingly: "Little pellets in your clothing, little pellets in your hair..."

It is a costly song and the shrill unison of 'ewws!' from wife and daughter alike spell doom for the singer. A tolerance, borne of cuteness and fellow-feeling has been thoughtlessly shattered. I am an idiot.

"Don't worry," I bluster, "Where's he gonna go? Everything's open plan. They like nooks and crannies, holes in skirting boards. He's pushed it too far."

"Don't hurt him!" the daughter relents, "even if he does poo he's still sweet."

Except he had somehow vanished, leaving us to scratch our heads. Later, we found he had a trick of slipping inside the middle of the double radiator. The third time he did it, Carole spotted his tail hanging down between the impossible gap and the skirting board. "Well I'll be!"

I opened the patio door, just a foot away from his spot. "I'm giving you every chance to leave quietly," I said. "Before it gets ugly."

But he's safe within an impregnable fortress of steel. The only thing I can do is tug his tail, and he's either going to detach it (they can do that, apparently) or sink needle teeth into the webbing of my thumb and forefinger. Carole, less gingerly and more angrily, approaches with the mop.

"There's nothing you can do," I say. "He's in his ivory tower."

"Get out of my way," she snarls, and begins whacking the radiator with gusto. "I might not be able to get at the little f***er, but I can certainly ring his bell!"

Put the freshness back. And buy a shotgun.
This is typical of his endless inventiveness and in the months that blossom into summer, months where it is WARM outside and things to eat are PLENTIFUL, we go on to discover the new sanctuary he creates inside the frame of the sofa. There's a further embellishment though, he has tunnelled up underneath the far cushion, the one where crumbs from peanuts and pretzels fall while snackers watch telly. I lift the cushion one day to hoover and there's a nest of offcut paper, a million droppings and a puckered hole in the lining above the springs. A light goes on and my mother's face appears above folded arms and beneath a knotted headscarf, beaming from ear to ear with I-told-you-so. I coat the entire sofa in the strongest chemical nanny-state Britain permits: Shake N Vac. Then I ask Carole to look for something more potent on eBay, from Russia maybe. Army surplus.

Tomorrow - Part Two - Of Mice and Men.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


We took the Pendolino from Manchester to Euston recently. There was a problem with our train. It was a fine train in many respects, very space-age, with its aircraft-style features, and the quaint rotato-toilet that has the alarm conveniently alongside the open/close door button, so a reliable succession of idiots (like me) can set it off and blame it on being 'jogged' at a crucial moment.

Scoff a Ginster's in style. Or not.

We couldn't go as fast as it is possible to go, nor would the 'active lateral pneumatic suspension' work properly because, the announcer explained, the track was made of nineteenth-century wax, or something. A bit like putting the cart before the racehorse, I thought, but didn't say anything.

It'd been a long time before that since I went on a train, and I noticed that the problem was still there. The same one as before. It's the same problem they'd have if they decided to make buses into hover-coaches. They could put the finest minds of science into it, make them stylish, and functional, and fill them with modern gadgets, like, oh I don't know - a sauna and an eyebrow press. But - and here's the problem - there'd still be the same people on them. You're not suddenly going to get a more discerning class of passenger just because you polished up the ride. Mr 8-litre Ranchero is not going to renounce fingerprint engine starts and sprint for the nearest bus-stop, yelling, "Eyebrow press, y'say? Lead on, Carruthers...!"

No, some things you just can't change, unfortunately, and that was the real problem with our train. It was as if these people had never been away. I can only assume that they are, in fact, career misfits, graduates of a school specially designated for the job. Most notable among them was mister 'Still-pissed-wrong-stop-student.' two seats in front. Mr. Still-Pissed should have got off at Tottenham many hours ago, but needless to say, didn't. Now, he's telling anyone who will listen how much that return ticket cost and why it is such a travesty. What comes across clearly, as he relays this to the third unfortunate listener on the other end of his mobile phone, is the outrage and disbelief at the fish-eyed grunts at Piccadilly, who refused to let him come back for free.

"I mean, right, I facking fell asleep, yeah - fair enough. But then these caants've got the facking nerve to charge me 'aandred and firty-four quid to get back! 'aaandred and fackin' firty-four facking quid!! En I'm a stoodent, en ai?"

So, straight away, it's nine-thirty in the morning and we are already a captive audience to this foul-mouthed cockney melodrama. Speaking of gobby southerners, I remember that I happen to have one at the side of me, whom I married partly for this express purpose.

"Deal with your kinsman," I think about commanding, but she has already foreclosed on the notion by giving him a lecture in his own tongue. I don't know exactly what was said, it was all a bit diphthonged and lairy-larynxed, but I did manage to catch 'ere do you moind?' and 'I've got children 'ere.."

Cor blimey Maori Pawpins!

There was only ever going to be one outcome from this altercation, and in due course the oik stumbled off to annoy a different carriage, mouthing the word 'bollocks' behind him.

"I don't want to know what's keepin' yer ears apart," Carole snaps after him, and in the lightened atmosphere of laughter and applause (all implied rather than physical, of course, in the English way) I remember why I love my wife so much.

I then made the mistake of believing that the next two to three hours would be filled with a peaceful silence. What I should have been prepared for, were I a more seasoned train traveller, was the inevitable white noise that would magically take up the slack and fill this void, from the many, many other annoying dysfunctionals aboard.

And that's what's really wrong with trains. All this money spent on making things that don't work in areas that can't support them would have been a lot better employed in other areas, namely - acoustics.

Imagine being sealed in a opaque, hermetic, sound-proofed bubble for the duration of your journey, with just a little rubber-gloved inlet so that the ticket master can check your ticket, or dispense a small thimble of absinthe for the children.

Now that would be progress.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Stick your iPad...

See this is the sort of thing I'd buy for a dollar.

Can't be doing with that shoddy hipster pretense that £stupid on some cynical piece of tech-envy was 'money well spent' because it's got, like, a 'great form factor' - or, more irritatingly, is a 'thing of beauty'. So to go the opposite way seems the only common sense thing. Also, who couldn't fail to be consumer-inspired by this ringing endorsement?:
An earlier cheap laptop plan by the same ministry came to nothing.
Yes it's an etch-a-sketch sold by a Bangladeshi version of Del Boy, and wouldn't all those feckin' fingerprints just spam your OCD to new levels? But as soon as they sort out a suitable piece of fruit for a logo (mango or papaya would be my punt) and an arbitrary noun to stick the letter 'i' in front of (iBacus perhaps, or iKnowitsnotapplebutitsnotapisstakepriceeither) I'll be sending my pre-order straight off to Mr. Sibal. I shouldn't be surprised if he's got a relative or two in need of a short fiscal stopover in my bank on the way to reciprocal riches either.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

What's Broken About Britain #1 - Paint.

What colour's that then - baby plop?

I'll tell you what the problem is. Paint isn't paint any more. From the minute a kitten can't choke on the fumes and they start telling you to wash your brush in water it's all over. They've won.

Example one: Last week I needed to paint a little portion of the front of the house. I go to generic DIY floggist (Focus I think it was) and start scanning the tins. Don't want indoor, obviously. Something that'll cover well and outlast the weather for a few years (let's be realistic and say five). Outdoor paint, and there it is: Crown Outdoor White Satin gloss or whatever. Fourteen quid for a tramp's pocketful.

So I'm on the roof and it goes on well enough, but I spill a bit off the brush and it lands on the porch step. Better clean that off later or it'll never shift, I grumble. Anyway, about an hour later after I'd done I remember the splash. Go for the white spirit from the shed to clean it off and lo and behold there's no blob any more. It's disappeared. We've had a ubiquitous shower of rain which has completely erased it. I mean, what the hell? Then, I'm stunned to realise all the brush needs is a waggle under the tap. Even my fingers come clean with the barest splash. This is meant to be gloss paint, so again I say, WHAT THE HELL?

It's against slipping in principle.
Example two: Decking paint. Ours tends to get a bit slippy and algaefied with all the rain in Mancland, etc. So, non-slip decking paint. It appears there is a variety for just that occasion. In fact, there is just the one product on the shelves of B&Q, but it's Cuprinol, so what can go wrong eh? Cuprinol Anti-Slip Decking Stain to be precise, with 'microbeads' so there. Get caught up in the excitement and even buy one of those  broom handles with a wanky pad on the bottom so it feels more like swabbing the deck and less like inheriting the knees of a veteran carpet-layer. £28.99 for two and a half litres and we need at least two tins. Still, what price your granny going tits by the tool-shed eh?

It goes on one sunny day last June. One hour of pleasure and three more of torture as it takes to the wood like a reluctant rapist. By hour two the broom handle is slipping out of its worn hole; even the rape analogy is starting to turn sour. Still, it's done now. No more trips to casualty as it's good for at least, ooh, hang on - that's the one thing it doesn't "say on the tin", and what it does say on the tin I notice, for the first time, is 'anti-slip' rather than 'non-slip'. But still, come on - Cuprinol, £28.99 times two. Get what you pay for, etc.

Over the course of autumn it becomes clear its anti-slip properties come at a price. These microbeads obviously work by virtue of rubbing off onto the soles of the slippee's shoes, a law of diminishing returns that any fule kno can't be sustained and, by last week, not only is the bare wood shining through again, but there's a lovely tinge of algae to offset the carbon footprint of a touring Liberal Democrat.

So there you go. Can't get solvent-based paint for love nor money. And I bet my Grandad was bemoaning the exact same thing in the equivalent of an internet blog (labour club snug) forty years ago after they got rid of lead and his railings rusted up.

What really annoys me is that the paint companies must be in heaven. Their products clearly don't last (and I'm sure they'd cite health and safety or some bollocks if you asked for your fumes back) but you still get charged extra for all that eco-friendliness of water-washing that will need doing again in twelve months! In fact, I've just done it again today, using some old stuff from the dark recesses of the shed that I had to pop a skin to get to.

So up yours ICI.


Tsunami's the name. No idea why.

We went to the swimming baths today and they've changed quite a bit from the sweat-soaked repression-caves I remember. Unisex changing rooms with saronged Bohemians of both genders discreetly massaging conditioner into their tiny pubic mounds. Showers with sensible water flow and hot/cold adjustment. Real prospect of not shivering your balls off in a hydrochloric slick of snot and hair bobbles and worse. Water temperature of 30 degrees - meaning no huddling with other pockets of bathers around the warm vents like those fish that pick eczema off peoples' backs in the Red sea. Speaking of which: no wading through coral reefs of corn plasters and flaked-off verrucas. Alertly casual lifeguards with a definite air of possessing better credentials than grade C Biology and a subscription to Upskirts Monthly.

Then, just as we're acclimatising to this brave new world, this forty stone bloke in a surrealist Speedo thong wipes out three kids with his deep-end tsunami while a guy behind him unstraps a prosthetic leg and disappears into his frothy wake like they've been practising it for the next weirdolympics.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

Monday, 28 June 2010

Roll Out the Barrel.

Nothing stings harder than an 8-bit barrel.
Barrels. The ultimate videogame staple, from Doom to Donkey Kong. But have they become a by-product of lazy design or should they remain a vital component?

Well, barrels are fairly abundant in real life, so why shouldn't they be represented? Any outdoor stroll (where I come from at least) will yield one or more of these abandoned sentinels and, quite frankly, they beg to be interacted with. Be honest with yourself, have you ever not been in the company of a barrel, (not biscuit or beer, silly, but one of those fifty-five gallon jobbies) without feeling an irrepressible urge to whack it with the heel of your shoe or hoy a brick to see what sound it makes? And does it not unfailingly produce a deep, satisfying toll, to dredge up all kinds of race memories from the deepest caves of the tribal psyche?

It's a fact that barrels in videogames always make the same sound. But they don't in real life do they? It varies between a 'dong' or a 'clong' or 'clang' or even 'dung', always with that protracted, 'GGG...' on the end, though, in THX-quality reverb. Experts say this is likely to be a result of its contents - the viscosity and volume of liquid, for example, or the degree of decomposition of the unwanted kittens or dead prostitute within. Which leads to a secondary instinct that invariably kicks in once you've established what sound it makes. You know it's almost always going to be some kind of disgraceful substance. After all, very few people use barrels to store Objets D'art in do they? But you can't resist a peek and a niff anyway, if only to provide your companions with some light relief at your comedy gurning or spasmodic death-jerks from chemical inhalation.

Barnet's oil drum formation team could only manage
a disappointing sixth this year.
A chance encounter with a lone barrel in a field then - does that not fill man and boy alive with a marvellous sensation of serendipity? How about a clutch of 'em, huddled round like tin druids worshipping nature; metallic celebrants of the thing they can never be - truly alive.

But before we meander off into that whole other universe of pretend sorcerors and golden footpaths, I guarantee you that, after some funny-coloured mushrooms, a big outdoor poo and several hours perfecting 'Let Your Yeah Be Yeah' with a couple of rocks or (where I come from) the grisly remains of a runaway's scapula on this improvised drum-kit, you will rush straight home, drag a posse of unemployed Dudley suburbanites out of bed and form a gash reggae-fusion ensemble on the spot.

That's my specific 'beef' then. Not with the incendiariness or otherwise of barrels; not with their existence per se, but with the lack of tympanic variety these receptacles impart when pushed, shot or hit in the game world. No, they either crumple ineffectually, explode one by one with a pleasing chain reaction or do nothing at all.

Games are all about realising your dreams. Piloting a vehicle is simple and requires no training. All martial arts women wear revealing clothes and have great bodies, Most guards forget you unsuccessfully tried to strangle them after walking around for 20 seconds. So it's not unreasonable, is it, to expect to be confident of smacking a bunch of barrels around (not the ones coloured a vivid red, of course, or carrying the appropriate toxic symbol) and attaining some sort of rhythm approaching either a Ska classic or tellies being dropped randomly into an empty council skip. Something like that.

With the possible exception of Banging trash can lids for an hour then, there can be few things more solidly entertaining than barrels, I think we've just become a bit blase about them. Wait till they're gone, though. You watch, it'll be like Jade Goody and Woolworths. What was christmas like this year, eh? Turgid.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Parp Station

Of course. Of course.

When we were quite young, my two brothers and I shared a bedroom. I remember once, the wallpaper being stripped off in readiness for decorating. In the meantime, we were allowed to graffito upon the bare walls unpunished. Oddly though as with most things in life, without any guilty thrill to nurture, the novelty began to wear off. Until, that is, second eldest Steve (I'm the eldest) hit upon the idea of the pioneering 'parp underground'.

It started life as a large-ish circle with 'Parp Station' written in the centre. Mum was surprised and pleased to find us asking for seconds of ribs and boiled green cabbage, spinach and broad beans. But of course, by the time beddy-byes came around, our bellies were fermenting with unreleased flatulence. Upon retiring, 'up the wooden hills to Bedfordshire', with a saintly peck from ma and pa, we would proceed directly to the Parp Station, where we then took turns to drop our jimmies and splay our buttocks to the cool wall. The acoustics of this unpapered room, together with the sheer range of ringpiece harmonics exploitable by the 'washboard' effect of the wall's rough surface led to some legendary performances.

Andy, youngest and most 'sopranic' of guffers could manage long, wondrous harmonica riffs on some nights, with vegetative aroma for accompaniment. By twisting this way and that, even a kind of rectal 'wah-wah' trombone effect could be achieved. You can only imagine the amount of laughter-restraining headboard biting (in the most innocent sense possible) that went on as we tried to conceal our new-found hobby. Often, long into the night we could be heard stifling giggles at the recollection of some anal snatch of improvised jazz, or a virtuoso bass overture by yours truly. It's fair to say that, by morning, our innards felt vacuum-packed by all the sustained effort of expelling air in the name of entertainment.

Sniff up lady. That's Green Eggs and Ham.
Next day, while we replenished our instruments, so to speak, with as many pulses and legumes as recessive 70s Britain would allow, we reviewed the fruits of our labour with gourmet sniffing sessions of the (by now bustling and industrious) 'Parp Station'. "You can still smell it!" - "That's mine, right there," and "Eww, someone's followed through on that bit" could no doubt be heard in muffled tones through our bedroom door. Thankfully it was the school holidays. Mum and dad were at work and younger sister Michelle was probably busy biroing "I luv Michul Kilburn" on the foreheads of her dollies.

The only problem was that these unique aromas could not be separated for individual accolades and there were arguments as to whose the most pungent and long-lasting might be. So that very day, the chewed bit of pencil was retrieved and the Parp Station duly expanded. In came such edifications as 'Parpadilly' and 'Parpham Junction' and... ooh, I dunno, 'You-stunk station'. You get the idea. We became the station masters of our own platforms, and took great care of them, in the way an obsessive Jobsworth might nurture his beat, or an assiduous Neanderthal his own crude daubing in a sweaty cave.

There were no TVs in bedrooms those days; not even so much as a wireless radio, so the parp underground soon occupied the entire wall. There were elaborate switchbacks and embankments, viaducts and level crossings. Steve wasn't playing games now; a fire of creativity burned, Da Vinci-like, within his seven-year-old mind. Before long, we had a full-on magnum opus on our hands.

Oh, the delight! The sheer anticipation! The thumping rush of footfalls up the stairs as we waited anxiously for Andy, the sprout scout and cauliflower commander to herald the news. Then, that after-dinner stampede, casual upheaval of subbuteo pitch and careless paraplegy of Action men as we crammed into our carriages for the nightly commute on the parp underground.

They were heady days, but in spite of our most ardent pleas the decorating finally had to be done. To cover all that fine artistry with Super bloody Fresco. The agony!

Take your 'easy hang' and shove it.
Fast forward at least a dozen years and I'm helping to decorate that same room, now a spare room. The brothers have gone their separate ways, to work and forage for themselves, our infant shenanigans quite forgotten. That first uncovering of the faded legend: 'Parp Station' and imaginary waft of residual stink rising from its centre splits my face wide with pleasure. Not so imaginary, actually. Damned if there isn't a faint musk of methane there. Damned if I can't hear some plangent, oboesque refrain of "Parpsody in Blue" wafting on the breeze, causing a tear of nostalgia to spring to my eye. Ahh, those special nights of butterbeans, broccoli and woodwind hilarity. Why did we have to grow up?

Then mum comes in and says, "Telly's on the blink again. What did we ever do before eh?"

What indeed.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Once You Pop...

The Pringle knows not "no"
It doesn't dwell on reason
To eat just one, in some locales
Is classified as treason.

The Pringle knows not "subtle"
It's shape is built for sexing
Your stomach, through the tongue and mouth
With flavoured maltodextrin.

The Pringle knows not "sparing"
It demands to be demolished
In starchy stacks of fifty high
Till dieting is abolished.

The Pringle knows not "friendship"
It's a dehydrated potato
Of reconstituted wheat starch
To your Clouseau, it is Cato.

The Pringle knows not "ulcer"
It scoffs at indigestion
With yeast and monoglycerides
And the power of suggestion.

The Pringle knows not "mercy"
              (Or "rehab" or "remission")
                                 A whole that's greater than its parts
                                 Defines the word "addiction".

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Dicking About. The Xbox Generation.

My article below was originally published on Daily Rodent.

Wouldn't have to do this if me shoes weren't
wrapped round a telegraph wire.
Sometimes I look at my two lads and worry. In this supervised world of soft corners and paedo power, they are in danger of missing out hugely on the time-honoured pursuit of all adolescent boys – Dicking About. You see, when you and I were young, Dicking About was de rigueur. You didn’t think about it, you just did it. Something deep in the boychild hindbrain got stimulated by seeing how many pebbles the Walkden to Southport train could crush before it came off the rails (not that it ever did, officer) or whether that dense ball of hawthorn twigs high above could be investigated for eggs before mummy Magpie came back and got all Tippi Hedren on your ass.

Looking back now, with our minds fixed on PEPs rather than Pepsi, its hard to shoehorn the adult psyche back into that mindset. Innocuous premises, executed with fastidious intensity. I mean, you’d go to lengths involving ropes, pulleys, blueprints, the underwear of a smaller boy. Whatever it took to dam up that brook, because, well, the babbling son of a gun had it coming. You and a posse of like-minded pygmies could spend hours – days – pursuing these profitless schemes. And you never ran short of ideas. Around a matchbox fire, someone would say: “I heard you can catapult a person twenty feet by springing back a small tree, pegging it to the ground and lying on top of it. They did it in the olden days for laughs.” Boom, simple as that. A prime Dickabout project for mapping out the air-miles to A&E if ever there was one.

But what of now? Is the Dicking About gene recessive? Maybe this digital generation has moved on? After all, there’s Sky, laptops, iPods and any number of pretty reasons not to go out. You don’t have to sense the incredulity, it is writ large in your child’s saucer eyes as they search for the hidden meaning behind your words. "Outside? Wh-why would I want to go there?" So you might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Dicking About is a dead science. So History channel, dude. So Antiques Roadshow.

Well no, actually. If you really feel the need to televisualise, its more Brainiacs with a bit of Blue Peter thrown in. But what does any of this have to do with gaming, you ask? Well, the social landscape may well have changed, but on Sunday in 2010 I discovered that Dicking About is still a reassuring part of adolescenthood. It pleases me ridiculously that it lives on, an inalienable by-product of youth and curiosity, a process of our fascination with picking up something mundane and turning it over in our hands, not just wanting to better it, but having the endless patience to do so. To indulge our monkey-mind before it gets taken over by sex and drugs and sausage rolls. To embrace the uncomplicated essence of just ‘doing shit’ for no good reason and with no secure outcome.

Put that high-powered rifle down and come and get your tea.
The Xbox is whirring, and Adam is playing the farmhouse multiplayer map of Call of Duty 4 with two friends. What I am seeing warms me on this otherwise unremarkable Sabbath and I'm transported back to those endless summer school holiday days in Little Hulton. Of jam butties in greaseproof paper and warm tapwater, flavoured with a sub-atomic taint of what pop was left in the bottle. I am a small boy again in Madam's Wood, the woods of my youth. The song ‘Lovin’ You’ by Minnie Ripperton is playing on someone’s tiny transistor radio. It is bee-sting hot and we are Dicking About. There’s a rumour of an owl’s nest, trellis-high on the east side of an old people’s home in Peel Hall, former site of the Hulton family stately home. Three planets have aligned for our pleasure: climbing, bird’s nesting and trespassing. Ivy will provide handholds for our skinny frames and semi-lucid old dears will shriek in part horror, part routine-breaking welcome when our heads finally breach the wrought-iron veranda they are sunning themselves upon. We will scramble down in a panicky slide, collecting splinters, rashes, a police caution, (old fashioned clip around the ear, naturally) but no eggs. Hardly matters.

Adam is doing the equivalent with his Xbox mates. Scaling the barn wall via broken vertical planks and crumbly footholds. “Get out of the way,” he sniggers to the lad in front, who is either snagged on a nail or stuck in the scenery. ‘What are they doing?’ I wonder, over the top of the Sunday paper. What’s so familiar about it? Nothing to do with the game mechanic, no attempt to follow any route of scoring or skill. Just trying to get to places you’re not supposed to go.

Finally, one of them makes it onto the roof of the adjacent pillbox, inaccessible by any means other than the luck and persistence of a triple jumper on cherryade. “I’m up!” he whoops.

They throw celebratory ‘nades at each other. Then the next map loads, and a new challenge of exactness is mounted. Onto the rotor of a broken chopper and into the crawlspace of a ruined conning tower. I smell nettles and nostalgia, the mossy, shinbeef feel of clambered-over bricks as we emerge from the darkness of Madam's Wood, into the blazing sun of ‘76. A phantom, photic sneeze shoots out the preceding memory. My initial thoughts had been along the lines of ‘ekeing every scrap of playability from games, long after completion.’ But that wasn’t quite right. With the same everlasting patience I had left years behind and forgotten, they were Dicking About. The tools may have changed, but it was still a generation spanner.

Oddly comforted, I go upstairs and Scott is balancing Halo’s Master chief on a giant golf ball, which he then tries to wobble around an elaborate assault course, cheered on by his headsetted mates. I suddenly want to climb a tree so badly it hurts. Pity my back is dodgier than pesto.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Bollocks to Alton Towers

Being a roller coaster addict in Britain is practically the same as having a fetish for queueing. In fact, bargain hunters probably have it a lot easier. At least Selfridges' automatic doors don't jam every five minutes, leaving crowds of oddly compliant people with their faces pressed against the glass. At least British Home Stores don't proclaim, in optimistic neon: "30 minutes from this point" when they really mean "we haven't got the symbol for infinity so we'll plump for this arbitrary number instead. Have fun growing old." There'd be riots outside Next if they tried to pull that one.

What do you mean I'm not tall enough?

But queue riders? C'est la vie. Ah well. Let's go for a four quid hotdog and come back later. In theme park world, later means never. Queue times don't go down, they go up, just like petrol prices. The park opens at 10am and three minutes later the queue for their newest attraction, Th13teen, is 60 minutes.

A seasoned park-goer chooses his time carefully. Saturday is usually a no-no, but this one comes at the end of half-term holidays, when skint families, having already undergone their ordeal of 'fun' have learnt their yearly lesson. It's world cup Saturday too, and England are playing later. Stay-at-home dads will refuse to budge from their laz-e-boy recliners, having already tethered a Nuremberg rally's worth of flags to the front of their houses and procured a wife-beating volume of beer. Theme park, y'say kids? Sod off. This is me time. Unfortunately we underestimate the number of non-patriots with too much money. The park isn't packed but it's busy, with teenagers, old folk and single mums, offsetting the absence of fathers as though holding a mirror to society.

Disheartened by the early setback, we make our way to the adjacent coaster, Rita, former Queen of Speed, deposed somewhere between the conversion rates from kilometres to miles per hour one assumes, but still a nippy, if short-winded opener. This queue time bodes quite well. Fifteen minutes, practically the blink of an eye in thrillseeker terms, and it's all over in forty-nine seconds, but there's time for another go, as the sheep are still fixated with Th13teen, a ride that the guy next to me on Rita confirmed was 'not worth the queue time.' "It doesn't live up to the hype," he affirms, and the comments below that youtube link seem to bear it out.

In any case, you daren't stray too far from a good queue time, because it's unlikely to get any better than this. But Air beckons. It really is a special ride. Gentle in adrenaline terms, but inspiring in the sense that it really feels like a flight, mainly due to your 'Superman' horizontal seat position. Have a gander if you've never seen it before.

The queue time is 60 minutes, but there's a way of circumventing that. The Single Rider line means you don't get to go together. They will lump you in wherever there's an odd seat, maximising ride capacity and in theory reducing queue times. But that was before the fast track pass. It's clear Alton Towers want you to stump up extra dosh on top of the entry fee, and Single Riders, handy space-fillers of yore, are now looked on almost as freeloaders, and with a sort of withering disdain.

As we join the line there's even a notice to the effect: "Single Riders - if you are queueing at this point you will probably have to wait longer than the normal queue. We advise you to join the normal queue" The thing is, there are only about twenty people in front of us. Granted, they won't get on as quickly as the regular riders at the same point, but suggesting an hour's wait smacks a little of "why don't you buy a fast pass instead you cheapskate?" So we dismiss it as an idle marketing threat.

Our worst suspicions are confirmed, though, as we shuffle closer to the holding pen, feeling ever more like fresh meat at the Bangkok Hilton than paying guests. Every ten to fifteen minutes a gloomy tannoy voice declaims: "Ten more single riders," and the victims are despatched down the tunnel to await their fate.

Meanwhile the line to our immediate left - the fast track line - streams steadily forward, their golden ticket holders given salutory winks or flirty smiles then sent on their way. The third queue, to the far left, is the regular line. It is clear we are pleb central here, persona non grata. Twenty minutes later we are next in line for the amphipheatre loading area, but a nasal bird with no regard for speaker volume in enclosed areas blares out: "Air is experiencing technical difficulties..." We groan as the ride undergoes a few empty test runs. Then it seems to start moving again. Only ten minutes of delay, and we are at the front of the single rider line. Alright, it's been thirty-five minutes in total, but we are so close we can smell it, or that could have just been the stag party in furry animal costumes at the side of us. Not the most advisable attire in this heat.

Ten more minutes crawl by, then two of the single riders who were despatched twenty minutes ago come shambling back up the ramp. "We've had enough. They're giving priority to everyone else, while we hang about like lemons." The gate assistant makes a desultory attempt to placate them, but they are not angry, just saddened. "Just let us out, darlin'." Seconds later we are discouraged further when the breakdown bird plays her recording of doom. The ride has broken down, yet again. "Sod this," I sigh, and we finally admit defeat and decamp.

Now fair enough. If you're prepared to shell out for the privilege of fast track on the best rides, then why shouldn't you?

Fast track to poverty.
But here's the actual cost of that privilege, a staggering extra £80 per person on top of the entry fee (£38) and parking (£5) for the 'privilege' of not queueing upwards of an hour, and more usually two or three in peak times, for multiple goes on the good rides. That, for me, puts it well out of the realms of family entertainment and more into "ahh well, it's only a tank of gas for the Cessna" territory. Their preferred parking (close to the entrance) has also gone up from an already pricey tenner to a staggering £15, again putting it into the exclusive preserve of people who tether their yachts at Monaco.

Nemesis fares better. Twenty minutes on the single rider queue, although the suggested time is an hour. Sneery pass politics haven't reached here yet, or the ride isn't as popular as it once was. Whatever the reason, we aren't about to look a gift coaster in the mouth. The afternoon improves considerably when we consult the notices and see that Oblivion's wait time is 0 Minutes. Naturally, we are sceptical, but make our way over there anyway. It could be that the park is emptying so people can get home for the footy. There's a good reason for the lack of delay, though. The ride has broken down.

Here's how Disney fastpasses work. And they're free. Yes, that's free. Included in the entry fee. Will cost you nada. Nowt. They work pretty well too, and I can say that from experience. Five years of visits worth. As my dear wife observed, "The combined cost of entry, parking and a platinum pass for one day at Alton Towers would buy you a three-park 14-day ticket at Universal, Orlando, with change left over for a pupil-dilating slush puppie.

No shit sherlock.

Of course parks have to make a living, I just feel that they're doing it at the expense of families. If you're of the same opinion, you might be interested in the Merlin annual pass, that we usually procure through Tesco clubcard vouchers. That way we can factor in our rides per visit, rather than vice-versa, without tipping too much of our cash into their grabbing coffers. Plus it's good for all those other parks too, whose rides are hopefully better maintained.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Old Age and Treachery.

Some sort of generational sideswipe livened up the otherwise nondescript Glamour Awards this week, when a curmudgeonly Patrick Stewart upbraided presenter James Corden for his slovenly behaviour during recipient's speeches.

Perhaps only the two gentlemen concerned knew what it was really about, but if any deeper luvvie subtext exists, no matter how cringeworthy (for that was undoubtedly the outcome) I wouldn't mind taking a stab at it.

Ever since poor Andrew Sachs stood up to be cunted, the gardening gloves have been off concerning the lack of respect shown the older celebrity generation by the younger upstarts (pretty much mirroring the cosmos as a whole). Battle lines are more easily drawn on these principles now, and I can well remember feeling a heartfelt pang of "good for you, Manuel" when Sachsgate finally blew up in the prankster's faces. That'll teach 'em.

So it's really about art imitating life again, but because this is showbiz, the essentials are more grandiose, the grievances loftier and their enactment far more Machiavellian. All with, of course, a wide-angle helping of audience participation, because that's what it's all about really, isn't it darlings?

Except it didn't quite happen that way here. From that initial position of squirmy banter, the thespian masks soon slipped and something a bit less cosy emerged. It quickly escalated the way I imagine a playground fight would if one of the participants was a fully grown, school-of-life hard knock while the other was just a little fat kid.

But Corden, in fairness, stood his ground, albeit shakily. Recent experience had no doubt taught him that when an old un turns nasty under the spotlight, it's like trying to win a knife fight in a phone box. Subliminally he knows at this point that it's pretty much about damage limitation. One false move and it's the celebrity deadpile. Bang goes the World Cup number one and all the self-deprecating cash-in ads for Slimfast.

Sadly Stewart's fading grey matter failed to capitalise on this neon signpost, in much the same way that an elderly motorist might miss a red light, or a trucker's airhorn and 3000 watt lightshow as they pooter blithely up the M6 the wrong way. "I can see your belly, from way back there," comes the sonorous barb, and you can just imagine Connery and Douglas, Nicholson and Rooney (Mickey, not Wayne) groaning into their Ovaltines.

So I suspect the altercation came off far more suavely in Stewart's mind than it did under the footlights, but then that is the nature of improvisation, a venture perhaps better left ungained without script or direction, or perhaps, as in Sach's case, the benefit of several days hindsight and a shitload of media support.

For Corden, who can do very little wrong of late, this will be one of a few career-defining moments, albeit the sort that in ordinary pleb life finds its way onto Outtake TV or Youtube. That ill-advised go on a fraying tree swing, the pratfall on a wedding dance floor that continues to endear jolly fat folk to the public long after their type two diabetes has kicked in and confined them to carob snacks and sponge baths. Better this though surely than the wilful on-screen baiting of some half-blind old dog, tempted, via frisbee-like misdirection, into the freezing depths of a filthy canal.

Old scores then, we learned, are better settled in that Sachsian, poker-faced mould of "I'll see your hip-swivelling shagboast and raise you a trembly avowal of dwindling standards." That's how old folk micro-manage their faded power, Patrick, but instead you threw out the passive baby with the aggressive bathwater. It was, to paraphrase the sneery young, an 'Epic Fail'.

All that said, I believe there's mileage in this. I would personally love to see the two ends of this spectrum meet again, in organised bouts of shoutier, less formal match-ups.

So how about a semi-delirious Eastwood, for example, shambling at a teary but defiant Shia Lebouef, rasping "Teach you some, respect sonny. The way we did in my day. With a belt buckle."

Or Paul Newman suddenly snapping at some inane quip in the middle of a charity dinner and stoving Jack Black's skull in with a pool ball in a sock? What do you think?

As Erasure and Brando both said: Give a little respect.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Nice work if you can get it.

NICE - the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, an acronym which has superfluous left-wing sinkhole written all over it, is calling for minimum pricing on alcohol. The devil that's previously made work for the idle hands of smokers and old people for being burdens on the health system, has found a new target - or perhaps more accurately, reoriented its sights on a different area of the same target.

So if alcohol does become expensive, in the way of, say, cigarettes and fuel, will the put-upon masses actually consume less? I suspect not, but maybe we should examine why people consume more now. We know that alcohol is cheaper than ever these days, but is that the real reason people are slugging it back like Fanta?

In a society where we work such long hours in such cynical conditions (especially since the recession) in order to fuel our consumerist obligations to the Lord God Economy, it's clearly tempting to wash away the drudgery of that hell with a bottle of plonk or cans of Stella from their glorious loss-leader of two for ones and three for a tenner.

But we already know what happened when cigarettes went to six quid a pack, a huge black market sprang up, with even unhealthier cancer sticks from the Eastern bloc taking up the shortfall. Customs and excise are currently spending millions trying to cut it out. Nice save, there.

Similarly, when the price of diesel rocketed a while back, people began to steal it, from other people's cars, from garages, and from farmers, resulting in crime and death for at least one poor agriculturist. Isn't all this starting to sound a bit familiar?

And let's face it - if supermarkets are so keen to support this policy, it's for one reason only, because it will bolster their profits skyward in the confidence a competitor can't undercut, something they don't have now and base whole strategies around luring and keeping customers with. And let's be honest - if they cared that much about the effects of drinking and its burden on the NHS, they certainly wouldn't be stocking products like this:-

Hello Tesco. Catching them young, I see.

Nor emblazoning the booze aisles with England flags and associated product placement propaganda.

A Radio 4 piece about on Tuesday 8th June. (Listen again here) addressed to same issue to little firm conclusion. Unsurprisingly, Landlords and ladies are in favour of minimum pricing on alcohol (because it brings their trade gap down and will encourage more people to drink in pubs) and supermarkets as we said aren't too bothered about it either, for the reasons above.

So what's the real issue behind this? Whose beef is it? Wait a minute, government trying to save money, you  say. In more debt than we first thought, you say? NHS ring-fenced against cuts in order to win election, you say?

You smokers who like a drink and were recipients of a similar lambasting last time. You seriously didn't believe it would end with your quitting did you? How naive.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

World Cup Fever

This was originally written for Euro 2008 but never does a grumpy observation travel half so well.

The hype is here now, and there's no less than 36 England flags on my modest cul-de-sac street of perhaps ten houses. But to be honest I'm going to take a sabbatical from that sweaty mixture of high anticipation and lager-fuelled collywobbles. To pacing the floor between each tie, wondering if the hapless defence will grow some balls this time, or the manager make an actual, real-life, fer-god's-sakes telling substitution for once.

But, more likely, come the time, I'll get sucked into the media hype when, after the inevitable opening 0-0 draw against eleven well-organised part-timers from Sawkerland, our team of squeaky-bummed chancers manage to beat one of those shruggy, ball-stroking former French colonists with a last-minute, scrambled toe-poke by our apoplectic heifer, ripped to the freckled tits on Tizer and Nytol. Cue exotic celebration, giving unique insight into their preparation for the tie as eleven overpaid wankers simulate guzzling Sambuca in a lap-dancing bar.


Then more nail-biting while they speculate about the bloody weather of all things affecting our chances of progression. Adrian Chiles: "It is very, VERY, hot down here. Our boys will certainly need to take on a lot of water if they are to survive this very, very hot heat."

So, here we are, somehow running around the equator in woollen romper suits, while those savvy continentals have damp cloths and factor infinity. I bet they've even marked the pitch with sunblock. Phew what a scorcher. Unfair, really, what with everyone else being so acclimatised and never having to play in cold weather or rain like what we do. Fuck off Scandinavia, you don't count.

Thinking about it we are the fat, asthmatic kid of football. The one who either vomits a pile of undigested marshmallow twists (flumps, aren't they called?) on the sidelines after two charges down the wing or has to go home with a headache because he forgot to take his jumper off and bring a damp cloth to suck on.


Monday, 7 June 2010

Radio Gaga.

Odd this. Course there was that Cumbria thing last week. Very sad, then the guy who killed the prostitutes a bit before that. As a result, Corrie had a week off (storyline involving guy going ape with a gun) and Eastenders had to stretch out the climax of a plot (wafer thin to begin with if you arx me) of a guy who had been killing prostitutes.

But what has this to do with radio? Well it seems that Radio 4 ignored the groundswell of anathema at their peril, by broadcasting a play on Thursday called Six Impossible Things which received 66 complaints because the main character had a gun, robbed a bank and shot two people dead.

Now granted, I haven't had an acquaintance or family member gunned down lately or have ever been on nodding terms with a transient Tom that got offed either, but I was listening to that play and, even though we'd already been deluged with wall-to-wall coverage of the shootings for 48 hours (including some creative use of google maps to retrace the blood-drenched steps of the gunman's 44-mile spree), didn't think to associate it negatively with that event. For one thing, it was more a play about mind control than an actual nutter running loose. Nice, psychological piece, lovely use of music and effects. Highly recommended, in fact. Best one I've heard for a while. Unfortunately, you can't get it on Listen Again because it's been taken off there too.

Course the Corrie gun rampage goes ahead tonight, and Eastenders has a slightly revised plot conclusion that is probably not going to involve ladies of the night now, but will nonetheless still air during the course of this week. I mean, how soon is too soon? What other programmes should have been 'rested' from our screens in deference to the terrible events? How about Emmerdale? - That's set in the countryside and I'm sure I saw a shotgun in one episode. Broken over someone's arm, yeah, but for how long? What about "Loose Women" - bit of an insult to the families of those poor lasses who got killed isn't it? Why not give those cackling, cellulite beeatches a week off? Hell, a month, a year!

So who's to judge? The telly companies, it would appear, so long as it doesn't whack the schedules too far out. All of which (and this is probably stating the obvious) calls it out for the flimsy, arse-covering, watchdog mollifying exercise that it is. Now Radio 4 have had to grovel out an apology for not anticipating the offense it caused to 66 people who were probably only listening cause Corrie and Eastenders weren't on.

Ironically Radio 4s interviews with victims' family members was the most sensitive, unsensationalist reporting of the lot. Quite moving to hear some fairly sanguine attitudes too, especially the young lass who refused to focus on the killer, insisting they would honour and celebrate the life of her dad who'd died instead.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

The time of day.

In a previous life, time was a commodity to feel pressed for or be fretful about. If something mundane was apportioned to any part of my weekend I'd get grumpy about it, even though it might be beneficial to me or my family. It was as though this time was sacrosanct, because the nine-to-five routine sucked so much of it up in the pointless endeavour of work.

A partner who works from home wouldn't necessarily understand this, and so we may have gotten tetchy with each other. Her about wanting to get out of the house she'd been stuck in all week and me about not wanting to spend six hours shopping on a Saturday when I could have been at home, writing or studying or simply spending time that didn't have any demands or constraints on me. So that's how I found myself resentful of the time not spent of my choosing. I figured I spent enough of that during the week, in the non-inspiring, non-rewarding job that paid the bills, kept Xbox Live alive and bought steak for Sunday.

So what is this 'time of day' and what have I learned about it?

I've taken to walking the mile or two to the village instead of using the car. This has provided me with an insight into a couple of things. One: lung capacity seems inversely proportional to the size of the hill it needs to provide air for, but especially the huge one that emerges onto the high street. At the summit, I bend double on the wheezy pretext of tying a shoelace, while the old lady with the pug, who overtook me half-way, now begins the downward trek with a cheery wave; that self-same lozenge xylophoning against her dentures as she rattles by.

This is the second insight. These faceless, nameless folk are a testament to the time of day. In the past, I've always whizzed by them on the way to some pressing and unavoidable task. They were the extras of my life's drama, as trivial to me as those comparable fodder of film and screen. Bystanders. Scenery.

Anyhow, the second insight is that they are actually a rare breed. An example, if you like, of how life should probably be. This cabal of everyday folk are happy to give each other and me 'the time of day'. At the bus-stop, or from behind the garden wall with secateurs in hand. All it takes, I've found, is a tip of the cap and a 'good morning'. Then a pert comment about greenfly or the number 36 and blam - we're having a real, honest-to-goodness, joined-up conversation. Fascinating, I observe, feeling more like the earthbound, loud-shirted Spock of contemporary time-travel than ever before.

For whatever reason, time is their friend. It's on their hands. It's all over them. And, as I get used to and become less stilted about idle chit-chat, this is me joining them. It's a palpable journey and it extends to the staff of shops and supermarkets as well. Now with my sea-legs firmly in place, I'm engaging in conversation over the post office counter with a nice lady of indeterminate age. I can't tell if we're gently flirting or not, but she blushes when I compliment her ready-reckoning skills. 'You've got the mind of an abacus', I croon clumsily. But she likes it.

Later on I have to take the car for a new battery. Standing in the forecourt, while Martin the mechanic tries to decipher the idiograms on the battery of my mid-90s Japanese MPV import, I see a lady in a similar position. Eavesdropping on her conversation with the grease monkey, I lobby her with a few words of sympathy and self-deprecating ones about my own predicament. I should have took Green Flag's advice a month ago when I'd flattened it by leaving the lights on. Now it's biting me on the bum. She blushes and giggles a bit, before giving me some time of day back. She's a nurse on call. The car's a pain but it gets her from A to B. Careful the car doesn't hear you, I say. They get temperamental when you talk about them in earshot, same as your patients, I imagine.

Crikey, I'm on fire. What pheromones am I giving off? Am I delusional or what? Is this what the time of day does to you? Are they really all on their way to a massive swinger's party in the Free Trade Hall, recruiting as they go? I don't exactly know the answers to any of those questions but, damn, I sure like the idea.

Then I realise. They have become my new colleagues. They are what I missed about working in an office full of people. The shared trivia of a workaday existence. Communicating what sucks about the interconnectedness of random events that led you to turn in with odd socks and a chilblain that morning. And it goes both ways. I've become their colleague too. Maybe that's what they miss, with all that time of day on their hands. There's another side to every fence, I suppose.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

non-fast coloureds

Perhaps elaborating a little on the redundancy theme, there are, I feel, a number of luxuries that the time-unconstrained gentleman may observe to help offset the crushing void of an ordered existence.

  • Engaging the postman in conversation. Posties are nice chaps and will generally reciprocate. Partly, I think this just comes from the relief that you're not yet another slavering animal, come to chew an arbitrary piece of their flesh. (My wife can be pretty crabby in the mornings, but I think he meant pets). One of the pleasures redundant man misses most are those quality moments of 'slagging off', a cathartic process whereby one colleague moans on at length about another (or better still, superior) while the rest wait eagerly for the conch to be passed, hugging themselves and each other with vicarious glee. It takes very little encouragement, I've found, to get postie to slag off his bosses, the Royal Mail, at length and in colourful detail. Very little indeed.
  • Housework is a new and exhilarating novelty. Just having the time to stack the dishwasher thoughtfully, with all the plates going in order of size from right to left, and tupperware boxes set firm in a valid cranny, instead of upside-down and full of water at the end. Also, such things as being arsed to select the right hoover nozzle for the right job. Who knew that slotted little bevel-ended  jobbie could vamoose stairwell and skirting board dust so well? Those washing machine programs are no longer baffling, druidic glyphs but marvels of non-fast coloured science. It was a bit like decoding the Stargate wheel at times, but I got there. 
  • Engaging in and writing up pointless reviews about trivial items. More about this later. I started with the kitchen gadgets (of which I assure you there are many) and then, as a way of mitigating boredom in the many supermarkets I've been forced to visit by an emancipated wife, toilet hand-dryers. The Dyson airblade pisses it by a mile at time of going to press. But, as I said, more of this soon. I will post the results after at the conclusion of my comprehensive round-up. I'm sure I missed out the Cannon Air Jet in Sainsburys.
  • Off-peak activities. Shopping, as already mentioned . Ahh, the luxury of sauntering around an empty-aisled Tesco at half-ten on a Tuesday morning, instead of re-enacting Bannockburn at the deli counter on a Friday evening. There's a driving range nearby and that could prove useful for a leisurely Wednesday afternoon swing, where you might stand a chance of actually being able to see which of the many balls flying through the air is yours. Finally, that miserable dawn swim at the baths, then going in to work smelling of chlorine with your pubes in a squeaky knot? Sack that. Half-eleven on a Monday. Quiet as you like. Me and one old guy with white back hair who could hold his breath like a porpoise.
These are just a few of the benefits of career upheaval and imminent loss of socio-economic direction. Come on, people. Let's stick it to the man...

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Rita Hayworth

I was made redundant in August 2009 and, although this event was potentially the best thing ever to have happened, I seem to have carried around a feeling of being 'unhomed' ever since, a bit like Morgan Freeman in 'Shawshank Redemption' after he gets released and sort of wanders about being fitful and moody before finally seeing sense and going off to claim that massive wad of brick-bound wonga (sorry if you haven't seen it).

Anyway, the truth has gradually dawned. I've been institutionalised. Somewhere between 1979 and 2009, in offices old and new with colleagues young and mature, by bus, train, car and (unmemorably) bicycle, I strayed into waters of mediocrity and dropped anchor. It's easy to see things as they are when you're not aboard any more, staring into those murky depths and wondering if there's anything worth fishing for or whether you should just carry on basking, with just the need for an occasional steadying hand on the tiller. Becalmed, I think, is the word. But in a nice, sleepwalky way that allows you to still watch the kids grow up and visit Disneyworld.

But quite a few things about being a citizen of home are to be savoured. The daytime dogs, for instance, first heard when walking to the shop for a newspaper the other day. A forlorn bark, rising on a querulous note, the doggy equivalent of 'why hast thou forsaken me?' It was soon answered by another. In a different house, another dog wailed 'woe is me'. And so this contest of misery played out to the empty streets. I imagined spinsters and retirees behind closed doors, as unmindful to this caterwauling as the residents of suburban Heathrow to theirs. I wondered what it would take for them to notice. Maybe if cats and other pets were encouraged to join in and give a revolutionary voice to their abandonment?

"I could help those dogs. Wait, I have time now - I want a dog," was my first thought. "Maybe I'll write a poem about it instead," was my second. Naturally I haven't done either.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


Hello. Socks, paper and Rizlas are important components of modern life. You might think that's a stupid thing to say, but it does at least provide me with a snappy, if weakish bit of wordplay for a title. In that sense, I suppose, it satisfies the impulse to be original too. How do you tell if ideas are original these days? Google em? Yeah, that's it. Then if the search terms don't yield a million hits, or drag you into a frenzy of click-thrus and adsense, you've cracked it. That said, I haven't googled Sock, Paper, Rizlas yet. I'll leave that to you if you want. The truth is, it took me at least five minutes to think it up and I can't quite countenance the thought of it already having been claimed by some Sun reading lesbian who never gets out of bed and tells everyone who'll listen how 'blazed' they always are.

Ideas are fickle, though, aren't they? When you're walking around or driving down the motorway they're all there, like mongrel pups, clamouring at their mother's languid pap. What if snow was blue? What if an albatross could communicate by winking? How successfully could an entire cast of penguins pull off the musical HMS Pinafore, given limitless amounts of optimism and training? Meditative contemplation? You've had it mate. There's no such thing as the quiet mind. As soon as you get a minute to yourself, the floodgates seem to open. But how many times have you reached for a pen after such bolts of inspiration, only to find the car/toilet/motorway bridge bereft of such luxury? Those ideas evaporated and were forgotten because we simply didn't have time. Well now I do. Time to consider and sort the correct matched pairing of a sock, to read a paper from cover to cover instead of just front page and Sports, to roll a herbal cigarette of perfect  conical shape instead of a hastily rumpled windsock Because, like many others subsumed in the turdy spume of this global economic tsunami, I am - dun-dun-DUNNN 'Redundant Man'.

So expect to see bits and bobs of opinion and discovery. Random recycled forum posts from wayoftherodent, for when I can't be bothered. Articles, poems and flash fiction. Snatches of screen and radio plays, maybe a memoir or two, all hopefully enlightening in much the same way that Socks, paper and Rizlas can be. Or not.