Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A Careful Life

I have crafted a careful life for myself; fish in the morning, poultry or beef in the afternoon, dry food at night. Always something good in the bowl, and water from a fountain at the side, because nothing runs better than water and he knows how it fascinates me from all the bathroom sinks jumped in and gushing taps pawed at. He knows, in the squat, cough, rustle of the morning that I've rolled that way before, flicked fog off a mountain stream or two in a past life. As a lynx, or puma.

In any case it keeps the water fresh, so win-win, I'm impressed. Little fountain, little spring, blue bubbling donut in a brimless hat, paw to maw, dib-dab through the donut hole, lick lick, drippy-drop toe-suck. And if that sounds a little primitive then I'm sorry but it can't all be teacups and opposable thumbs. Left paw drinks, right paw scratches. Left for love, right for spite. We were all animals once, fending for ourselves. Killing things to stay alive, I've heard, and not  for sport.

I used to have milk on a standard saucer but, like most cats, I'm lactose intolerant. We  found that out the hard way. The fountain hums when the house is calm and I note that it runs on a hundred and ten volt circuit, converted by transformer to two-forty. How would I know that? Electrics. Words aren't really our thing, but cats do know electrics.

I know, I know. The last thing you'd expect.

Clunk-slam, click-slam means last call for supper, front door and back, so the first scratch of key on lock finds me diving from the bed (or pillow, which I often favour) quick as a pounce to find him, cock-eared and waiting at the foot of the stairs. It's become a sort of running joke and I play my part while he chuckles, throw a few shapes, tail flick, nose lift, trip-trap fence prance for my supper. None of it hurts. I'm cute as a cartoon. He shuffles into the kitchen and, from his haunches, gloops gravy-meat, pouch to bowl, fountain bubbling at the side and I purr-rub, blink-rub as he touches first my face then the plug, because it does get very, very warm indeed and that's how I know he loves me, because he'd risk the house aflame before my thirst. All for the sake of dual voltage.

If there's a criticism, it's that he drinks too much and retires too early, and that can catch me out, but my ears swivel, chiff-chaff at the slightest noise, even while asleep, which I believe was once a handy survival skill. I've crafted a careful life, of routine and the law of averages, the dependable nurture of a solid mammal.  Food. Water. Generally competent wiring. Fuses in the box. It's a great life, win-win. Yawn. A careful life. 

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Dear Virgin Media

Dear Virgin Media Droid,

That was uncalled for. I know you're really a person, so sorry about saying 'droid'. There are levels of customer service in the world that can truly make one wince or gnaw the carpet in frustration. For the most part, though, not at Virgin Media. I'll say that much and hold my hands up. Now I'll put my hands back down to type, noticing, as I do so, all the time on them. The reason I have all this time on my hands is because there's been no internet in my house for ten hours, since about 9am this morning in fact. Tomorrow somebody will come and probably get it working again. Tomorrow afternoon, though; there were no morning appointments available. Shame, because then it'll have been thirty-six hours without internet, and who knows what will have happened?

So while I wait, I thought I'd pen a letter of complaint. I don't want it to be one of those ranty, shouty efforts though, because, let's face it, there's more terrible things going on in the world. In the great scheme of things it'd be churlish to get worked up about a few bits and bobs not working properly while there's poverty and famine and all sorts of celebrities suffering in the jungle.

I don't want to take the easy option and say derogatory things about Richard Branson either because, let's face it, a) you've heard it all before and b) You don't know him personally and you don't care. In any event, I actually think he's doing a pretty decent job. I bet you get cheeky winks of encouragement from him all the time, maybe the odd 'keep it up'. Not personally, but via some sort of company screensaver, or a holographic badge that changes when you turn it.

Anyway, I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, being complimentary about the nature of telephone feedback from Virgin customer services. I can attest to this because I have plenty of experience in the field of phoning you up a lot. I genuinely feel, almost all the time, that I'm talking to a real person, that they exist in reasonable proximity to me geographically, and that they care I'm unhappy. I know you're a person too, perhaps a bit higher up, maybe even with their own desk and kettle. So, I'll tell you what, why don't you settle back, pour yourself some Elderberry tea, and let's both have a little chat?

It'd be all-too easy, I think you'll agree, for me to take some sort of consumerist hard-line and threaten to take my business elsewhere. After all, this has being going on the best part of two years now. I bet you hear that all the time, though. Even though you genuinely care, I bet you still moan inside, when you see yet another poorly-informed, grammatically deficient scrawl of semi-legible abuse land on your desktop. "What shall we do, Mr. Branson?" I bet you say in a sing-song voice, not to him directly but at his life-sized portrait on the wall. And then I bet you squeak back to yourself in a crude approximation of Richard's reply. "Send them a tenner-off voucher and say sorry."

I bet Sky don't do things like that. In fact I know they don't. Some of their customer service bods are downright rude, like they don't even care or something. It's not that we haven't been tempted by Sky, either. They're always popping round, waving futuristic looking devices in our face and offering 'deals' of one sort or another. Either that or buttonholing us outside Tesco. "Can I interest you in our movie package, sir? Try it free for a month?"

"No," I always say on these occasions. "I'm a Virgin Media customer." And when I say it like that they can see that I mean it, and they usually back off and ask me to put the leg of lamb down.

I'll let you into a secret, though. My wife loves Sky. We used to have Sky, but I cancelled it after their 20mb broadband package was mis-sold to me and, rather than drop me down to the free 2mb one (which was the only speed I could achieve anyway) they insisted on taking that extra £5.99 a month. Even when I suggested it would be financial suicide for them to carry on penalising me for six quid when I was spending £120 a month on all kinds of other multi-room goodness, they wouldn't relent. So, of course, at the first opportunity, I took all my business elsewhere - to you, in fact. That's exactly how grudgeworthy poor customer service can make people, and people like me can hold a grudge like pole dancers hold their pelvic floors. Forever, if necessary. I bet I'm not alone there, either.

Anyway, enough of my Sky woes. They were the bad old days, and it gives me an itchy face just to talk about it. You don't have to worry about it either, because your customer service is good, not particularly helpful, but good. So when I say, it'd be 'all-too easy' to take my business elsewhere, I mean the opposite, because that would entail giving it back to those greedy, soulless trolls at Sky and that's something that will never, ever do.

Still, there nonetheless exists a problem and, since I've started this letter now it only seems fair to talk about it. In essence, the problem is quite a serious one, mainly because of the lack of something being done about it. A consistently poor level of service has been provided by your company for about the last two years. During this time, it has become apparent that we have a less than satisfactory signal reception here at our address for the television, telephone and broadband services we pay you for each month. This has led and continues to lead to the following issues:-

- Interactive services unavailable / red button frequently unavailable.
- Channels subject to interference / artifacts, especially HD channels.
- Stuttering sound / popping noises / loss of audio.
- On demand programs frequently freezing or being unavailable.
- Navigation through menus on the TV via the remote control extremely slow and stuttery. Response times in excess of several minutes on some occasions.
- Random resetting of Set top box during programmes.
- V+ Recordings incomplete or corrupted.

- Frequent connection dropouts of between 10 mins and twenty-four hours.
- Loss of connection speed during peak hours and school holidays. Fluctuations in bandwidth and quality of connection.
- Wireless devices such as laptops and mobile phones being randomly disconnected or suffering from slow connection speed.
- Packet loss during online gaming, causing lag and stutter.

The broadband issues happen both on wireless devices and on the main wired computer. We recently received a new hub/router from Virgin after several days of particularly horrendous connection problems. One week on, it appears to have done nothing to alleviate the issues. In fact, in terms of the internet they are probably worse than ever. When I called Virgin this morning and we went through some investigative checking, I was told by Mike (lovely chap) that there was no reported fault in the area, the demand / capacity for bandwidth was at 50% or less and that no other modem users within the immediate vicinity had either reported problems or could be physically seen (via modem diagnostics) to have any issues. I'm pretty sure Sky wouldn't have done that. They'd have just traipsed out some tired company script.

On dozens of occasions during the past eighteen months, engineers have been called out to rectify similar, randomly-occurring problems at my address. They don't mind sharing their findings with me either, and I can tell you they are invariably as follows:-

Diagnosis of the set top box reveals that the Db signal ratio is below Virgin's acceptable guidelines. A console message helpfully suggests that the engineer "Remove Attenuation". But the engineer is well aware that there isn't any. The signal from outside is simply too weak.

The engineer then pays a visit to the external cabinet. This is not, as one might suspect, hundreds of miles away but a relatively short distance up the street. He opens the cabinet to discover something akin to an explosion in a spaghetti factory. Somewhere deep in this labyrinthine nest of snakes is our connection, the exact location of which remains inconstant. This is because, at some point in the recent past, a new subscriber has joined the network. Because there is competition for space within the cab, plugs get shifted around. Some plugs may even become 'accidentally' dislodged as I discovered in the summer, when our new neighbour's cable broadband was being installed and our own connection became mysteriously lost. After a passionate discussion with the two gentlemen performing the operation (who were fortunately within collar-grabbing distance of my front doorstep) and one hurried visit to the cab later, the connection was miraculously restored. At whose expense, I'm not entirely certain, and neither do I much care. It might be noted that these installation engineers are a separate team from the engineers who visit for fault calls. I wondered at one point if it might be possible they are in fact terrestrial saboteurs working for Sky, but eventually dismissed the idea after remembering to take my medication.

It should also be noted that this clandestine shifting around of user plugs within the cabinet is due to the fact that the option of using splitters has long since become redundant. Our own connection, I'm reliably informed, runs off five splitters before it reaches a terminal. That is an impressive amount of splitting by anyone's standards.

So it seems as clear to the technician as it is to me that the cabinet is at fault. The cabinet requires auditing. The number of redundant connections inside is doubtlessly high. I've made this suggestion to Virgin Media on a number of occasions over the years and so have the engineers themselves. After all, it is these poor misbegotten souls who are the real sufferers, continually subjected to a fate of scraped knuckles and the dismal job-dissatisfaction of knowing they can accomplish precisely nothing on these visits. "It's the cab," they say, sadly. "Nothing can be done until they sort it." And so, we all of us every day become more convinced that the solution lies out there in that box in the street, rising out of the tarmac like some graffitoed obelisk of hope. Ready to be one day absolved of guilt by the mysterious 'they'. All of us except you.

Sure, fixing it won't bring peace to the middle east, but it will bring something just as important; harmony to my household - a household that presently contains a told-you-so wife, ever more scathing of my provider choice, and teenage children who, in the absence of Facebook and Twitter, are faced increasingly with the cruel prospect of venturing 'outside' and contracting rickets from mobile phone masts.

Here's the other thing as well: on a semi-frequent basis we receive phone calls from other Virgin services such as cheap mobile phone contracts, or savings on our landline calls. Loans are available, also new HD packages, TIVO boxes and so on. "If only," I often opine on these occasions to the bewildered marketeer, "If only your infrastructure budget was as generous as your marketing one." I then go on to tell them how I can only dream of watching a HD movie uninterrupted by the snap, crackle and pop of your outmoded legacy technology. Can only lie awake thinking of a world in which 1000 gigabytes of recording space wouldn't be taken up by an incomplete recording of a snowstorm in the Himalayas that was meant to be Emmerdale. I'd love to be able to say 'yes' to some of those things. I'd quite like a Blackberry for a tenner a month, as it goes. Or a ten grand loan. But I can't, and you're the reason. I'm surprised they haven't been round themselves, to be honest. You've lost them quite a bit of commission. I keep them on the phone a long time too, especially if there's been no internet that night. And I always tell them the truth: "If I can't rely on the services you're failing to provide now, how can you expect me to sign up for new ones?"

Anyway, thanks for listening. I've tried to time this letter to the length of your afternoon break, which I'm hoping is 22 minutes long including toilet time. It's been a break for me too, a break from my wife's newly-minted, yet oft-repeated slogan "Sky's broadband may have been rubbish but at least it was reliable rubbish." And my kids, it's been a break from them too. I'm definitely thinking of sending them outside, but I fear it wouldn't be too long before social services got wind of their obvious 'at-risk' status, highlighted perhaps by the the fact that they're all dressed in sack-cloth and ashes, and two of them are holding signs. One that says 'The end is nigh' and another which simply reads: 'Epic Fail'.

So in some vain, romantic way, even if you don't do anything about the problem again, I'm hoping at least you'll put this letter on the wall next to Richard, a solitary note of poignancy amongst all the ranty, sweary ones that I know you print out and keep as well. I'll console myself with that thought, while spending the rest of the evening wondering how I can get out of having to speak to my family. They're all waiting behind me while I tap away here at the keyboard, arguing over who gets first go of 'solitaire' like a troop of otters squabbling over a fish-head.

The worst thing you could do in these circumstances would be to send me a standard letter, saying how sorry you were and offering some small concession in return. Because then I'd know you did that thing where you talk to Richard's portrait and pretend he answers you back. I'll know you've acted like those engineers who just wanted to get the job they'd been tasked with done and couldn't be bothered engaging with variables outside their remit. I'd rather you were all a bit more imaginative than that, like I've been. If you can't, then I'd rather you didn't reply at all, and I'll trudge reluctantly back to Sky, cap in hand, denunded of dignity, like some shameful junkie.

So, well. Perhaps we'll have an evening by the piano instead. Perhaps I'll go out and buy a piano. I've heard someone sells them in the local pub. Yes, that's it.


Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Genie

Back in the day you were allowed to buy fireworks for maybe a week or two before bonfire night and once November 5th was over, not thereafter. That was it, for at least another year. No cavalcade of rockets to bring in the New Year, (unless you were some sort of well-heeled Scrooge with a will of iron). No 'phlump, phlump mortar-round fzzt!' of roman candles to light up the birthday skies, unless you were lucky enough to be born after October 31st and before November 6th.

No, once it was all over, seen the androgynous dummy cremated, watched Catherine wheels spin freely, jerkily and not at all, had rockets blaze their trail across the sky and realised that the little pyramid-shaped one that you knew was going to be shit had not disappointed you. Once the serious concerns about how hot the windows were getting had subsided and once something had caught fire that wasn't supposed to and once an older neighbour had to go indoors with chest pains, it was done. Over.

Next day, we'd roam the foggy, post-inferno streets in a daze, like adolescent atrocity survivors, combing the cooling rubble for undischarged fireworks in order to break them open and call forth, from the powder they contained, what was commonly known as The 'Genie'.

'Place on ground.' Yeah, right.
The Genie was a flaky old demon. He didn't always make your wish come true (unless your wish was seared retinas and crop stubble eyelashes) sometimes he didn't even appear, would just give a damp sigh and fizzle off back to his lamp. He hated the rain, and we knew if it had been dry overnight there was a much better chance of a summoning.

Whenever he did appear, explosively and with an eyebrow-singeing 'whumpf!' well now, that was a time. The pile of powder had to be carefully set and a volunteer had to drop the match, someone who had perhaps thus far evaded a bonny night trophy scar - had not had a 'Little Demon' go off in the hand, not felt the molten whip of a toppled bottle rocket. Had not flayed their palm to the bone fishing out baked spuds from the embers of the fire. (I say 'baked', but of course this was much less al fresco Spud-U-Like and much more 'gnawing on starchy, smoke-tasting rocks'.)

As the Chosen One's trembling hands laid flame to the powdery kindling, chants to the Gods were muttered and a respectful path beaten, in case the Gods were wrathful. This swansong represented the greatest unity of Bonfire week. Whatever jealous claim you'd laid to those fireworks in their pristine tubular form was now forgotten as as the Swan Vesta bearer inched closer and you solemnly prayed that their piled-up innards would ignite. Here, a last chance to relive the magic, be privy to the cosmic lightshow, inhale something that smelt like old flintlock pistols and tasted of rotten egg.

We always forgot, somehow, how it would be. That these reanimated pyrotechnics were not bound to an orderly trajectory like their touch-papered counterparts. That their souls were jumbled up and when they cried out, it would be in chaos. If our guile and determination was to pay off, there would be fire and brimstone, a nuclear flash to rival any Tom Clancy novel. Saltpetre and singed nostrils. Afterimages to linger for a week or more; that's what would have made it all worthwhile. The months of canvassing for unwanted timber, the elaborate bonfire dens in which basic carpentry and sex education skills were dispensed with impunity, God willing.

This was the occult finale to the whole event, and, even though we'd used up two wishes each just getting him to appear, the genie symbolised the essence of rebirth. The dead risen, the phoenix from the flames, a closing ceremony to rival any olympic games and a big, whooshing cathartic send-off to whiten our hair and blacken our faces for the next time. As long as we didn't grow up and get old, and sit in nights and make children, there would always be a next time. And as long as the genie appeared to grant our final wish, there would always be a next time.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Nanged-Up With Mr. Whippy

I don't know if his cream charger was a bit leaky, or whether I was particularly susceptible to it. All I know is, whenever his jangly bells (Match of the Day theme, perhaps) sounded around the corner, I'd be first in the queue for Mr. Whippy.

Stop me and ingest one.
Perfectly understandable, you might say, for a young boy in the early 70s, when summers were apt to be long and - perish the thought - hot. Back then, a curly dollop of soft-serve with lashings of additive-laced raspberry syrup in a cone would be just the ticket. Except the drug I'm talking about wasn't ice cream. For one, I almost never had any money to buy one, and for another, there was something almost as good to be found by just standing at the counter and breathing in.

Ahh, I can smell it now, evocative and strangely religious. Now I don't know if many people know this (I certainly didn't until recently) but whipped cream chargers need nitrous oxide or N2O, to operate. So here's the thing: penniless or not, that van was a bong-on-wheels for my curious lungs and, like a needy little whippet, there I'd be, sucking in that heady whiff of ozone and crushed almonds. The machine itself, with whirring guts and perpendicular knob from whence the treat would flow, all cream n' chrome Bakelite, nudged by an expert fist, into swirls of ice-cold nourishing animal fat and whey product, if that's what took your fancy.

But beggars like me couldn't be choosers. So although that machine - belonging in the kitchen of a 1950s American housewife with sturdy grip and cherry-pie smile - could pull out endless extrusions of the curly stuff, it would be forever lost to my impoverished tongue. Instead, I'd breathe in, deep and long, letting the cloudy thrum of diesel fumes from the engine add a bit of a kick to the mix. And it smelled good, like a nasty, naughty, pheromonal heaven of chemical propellant. I'd stand there for as long as I could get away with, and there might, during the course of this infusion, come some gentle mewing, such as that of a cheetah cub at its mother's pap, or a blues player solemnly freebasing in a hovel.

Creamy payload.
After a while, I'd notice the impatience of the queue behind me, the ice-cream man looking at me oddly, or - more likely, plucking at his white coat with a half-stoned look in his eye, and it was then that I'd pull away, sucking on my fingers, saying. "I don't want nothing. I've changed my mind."

Because they were mostly pederasts, these cone-jockeys, and probably whacked up the N20 deliberately, hoping to get us high and capitalise on our innocence. So you had to know when to let it go. Don't get me wrong, given the choice, I'd much rather have been sucking a creamy payload, (in the non-kiddy-fiddling sense) through the bottom of a snagged-off cone. But, as far as consolation prizes go, this one wasn't bad.

Today they call it 'nang' and carry it around in bulbs or 'nang-crackers' that empty into balloons for recreation. I'm certain that one whiff of the stuff would take me straight back to the days of that old jalopy, the 'Happy Van', jangling out its screechy version of 'Blaydon Races' or 'Greensleeves' and a forty-year-old porn tash called 'uncle Robbo' dispensing the nang hits (well, at least the first ones) for free.

And I doubt that many of the nanged-up fourteen year olds plastered over Youtube could say that.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Stash. A Short Story

So Tony Morris, who covers the North, comes back from his paper mill visit the other day and straight away my ears prick up, because not even double glazing can muffle that whistle of his. Not even solid rock can. So I look up and he's winking like a carnival queen, swaggering towards me with this glossy bundle under his arm. Average seller, Tony, and a cocky sod at the best of times. I'm adding up VAT receipts and the number five keeps sticking, which means there's more till-roll in the bin than street bunting at a Royal wedding, so I'm not in the best of moods.

Anyway, he snakes around the door with this daft tippy-toe style that makes him look like Elmer Fudd and flops a stack of magazines onto my table. "Couple of over-runs for you boss," he winks, and I look at him and say "Is there something wrong with your eye?"

Without dropping the smug expression he nods at the literature knocking January's expense receipts out of alphabetical order and grins: "Pristine." Then taps his nose. "It's not what you know."

You don't do that in a tidy workplace, come in and plonk stuff everywhere like some heathen. But that was Tony, buttering me up in his own clumsy way. I couldn't begin to imagine how many paperclips had leaked through the hole where your computer leads are meant to go, that you always lose the little plastic disc for that covers it up. The whole tub had gone over.

"Just be bloody careful."

His undaunted look of lechery led mine to the boob-laden covers of the magazines. 'Jazz mags' we called them back in the day and, from what I could see they hadn't changed a lot in theme or content. Among such sobriquets as 'Double D Housewives' and 'Barely Legal Babes' were a few familiar ones from my era: 'Escort' and 'Fiesta'. That was the thing about porn back then, it was more refined, somehow; more innocent. Single word titles with 'step inside' attributes. Not spelling it out like common trollops.

"Christ, are they still going?" I said, becoming wistful despite myself.

As we leafed through them, leering like schoolboys, it rose up, large as life. The spotty spectre of furtive youth. Transport to that adolescent era of Clearasil, mood swings and spontaneous erections. Flagship aroma of council-cut grass and the estate where I lived shimmering boldly into view, like a mirage. Fields, carved with quicklime, into football pitches. Maisonettes rising into the murky sky; flares and white dog shit. A candlewick bedspread flapping on a neighbours line. My older mate pointing at the streak of ecru across its middle and sniggering, 'Bet it's spunk'.

There was a truck stop nearby. Greasy smell of oil on hot tarmac. Hempy whiff of ropes lashing tarpaulins down. DERV they called it then, not diesel, but it would still make rainbows in puddles that dogs allegedly drank from and were driven mad by. Anyway - if, on one long, boring day of those endless summer school holidays, with nothing to do (as my friend Peter Johnson famously put it) except 'watch Hong Kong Phooey and have loads of wanks'; if, on one of those particular days you were apt to scour the low suburban hedges, you would find, not only Blackbird's nests (they were ten a penny - it was the commonest egg in anyone's collection) but a trove of filth that truck drivers sometimes left behind.

Of course, I couldn't make any such connection back then, at fourteen. Couldn't know that it was truckers who were responsible, same as I couldn't know that Peter Johnson was a double phallic name. Incidentally, I think it was Peter Johnson who bet it was spunk, rather than aggressive bleaching on Mrs. Weatherby's bedsheet, and Pete's dad was a truck driver. It all made a kind of cosmic sense.

Anyway, there they were, hidden in the bushes: well-thumbed scraps of Knave, Penthouse and Mayfair, christened by bird shit and crinkled where dogs had cocked their legs. Titles that were modest and arty, like erm,  Razzle, with its penchant for amateur-style photography and messy burger shots and Hustler, with added penetration. All fairly bewildering to the unschooled eye, but for me, this tattered, incomplete outdoor library of filth was the closest to sex education I would ever come, because my dad was neither a truck driver nor had a suspiciously thick mattress.

Gazing now at the shiny folios on my office desk launched me squarely into flashback; the day I found an immaculate stack of them, tucked away near a priveted ginnel on Briar Hill. Three things were perfect about the occasion. One, they had clearly not long since been deposited by Long-Distance Stan, who could now presumably dispense missionary relief to Domestic Doreen with a clear conscience. Two, they were (apart from the odd stuck page) remarkably complete. Three, it was the drought summer of seventy-six. They were bone dry. Actually, thinking about it, there was fourth: I was on my own that day, no sharesies.

It was like stumbling onto a Necronomicon of Fanny, a shady hinterworld of come-hither looks and grown-up desires, populated by ladies called "Vanessa, from Cirencester" with their own Private Idaho growing down there like some kind of testament to topiary. I coveted them jealously, poring in secret, over each photo-spread, each tacky cartoon, each softcore Betamax production review with Maria Shriver or Sylvia Kristel. But the letters, especially the ubiquitous Reader's Letter - 'I am not normally inclined to write to this sort of publication, being a tireless servant of the Women's Institute, but felt I had to confide about a recent experience while supervising an over-60s fell walk...' These were the final piece of the puzzle, the words that defined the images. It was a Rosetta Stone of awakening, here, in my sweaty palms, in plain English, laid bare. This was it, what our parents did when we were tucked up in bed at night, listening to the muffled alien cries, rhythmic headboard percussion and gentle sough of plaster coming away from the walls.

The 'He fucked me like a badger in heat' style typified by the 'grittier' mags got a bit old after a while so I gravitated toward the more upmarket confession, such as might be found between the covers of Playboy or Club. Here was a classier style of prose, with proper spelling and even punctuation. Also, there were words in these that I had never come across before, so I knew I was on the right track.

Two things took some serious hammer that summer, and the second was my dictionary. Once, when mum asked what the heck I was looking up this time, I abstractly said "Cunnilingus". Fortunately, she didn't know what it meant either and went back to ironing 'wunda-web' onto the turn-ups of my school trousers. Slowly though, bit by bit, I deciphered all this arcane terminology and proceeded to sell it to wide-eyed schoolboys, behind the bike sheds and huddled around the worn 'D' of the five-a-side pitch. An explanation of Clitoris was worth ten pence or half a Curly Wurly. In my reverie, I wondered how many of them, like me, felt short-changed by the 'glorious pink nubbin' they had come to envision when they finally found one. Perhaps some of them still haven't. Likewise labia and vulva, although there was almost a riot the day Cuckoo Simmonds found all three referenced openly in a standard biology textbook. "Ahh, yes - but," I protested madly at the hostile crowd, "where does it say 'Doggy style' eh? Where are the 'shuddering orgasms? The 'looping strings of pearly jizz'?"

Currency of a bygone era.
At that point the daydream ends and I'm back to my deskbound self. Two truths strike me with the existential force of epiphany. One: how tame these once-revered publications now seem in the context of the internet, where everything is done to everybody else at once, usually with a harnessed animal or two in tow. If you went to an orgy these days, you'd need a kilo of duracells, a daypass for World of Leather, and a horse box.

Tony looks at me and says, "You okay, boss, need owt else?"

"Nah," I say, feeling an obscure, heartfelt pang for Vanessa, of Cirencester, if only to give her a comb and tell her to tidy herself up. I'm not his boss, just a lowly clerk, it's all part of the process. What he's after.

The wink returns. "Enjoy, then. Err, you will get that expenses cheque to me before Tuesday. Tough month see?"

"I know," I say sharply, and the second thing dies on my tongue, because I suddenly recognise that if it was true I wouldn't be sitting here on a lumbar cushion, with paper cuts, using a stolen adding machine. If I say what I believe it will just add to all the sadness in the world I seem to have failed to move on from. If I say it aloud he will know that too, and it'll embarrass us both that he'll have to pretend it's true, and between the awkward silence and the inevitable tit joke, I'll see the pity in his eyes. So I wait for the inevitable tit joke and whisper it at the same time his Gucci watch clinks against the closing door.

"I used to be twice the salesman you are."

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Spiders Can Shit Off

My cousin is picking them off a web-ridden paddling pool in the shed, prior to loading said pool into his car. Not little ones mind, massive fuck-off ones with Hulk Hogan legs.

No. Just. No

"There you go, little buddy," he says as it scuttles up his arm and he plucks it off, laying it considerately on my car windscreen. I'm hanging onto my gorge while pretending to be cool, knowing I've helped him carry it, and that there are strands of gossamer all over my hands and face and that the chances of one of those hessian-backed gorgons not being about my person somewhere are practically nil. My skin is quite literally crawling, and I leave him rescuing more on the driveway and stumble ashen-faced into the kitchen, spitting drily and doing that panicky thing where you look over each shoulder in turn and brush repetitively with your hands wherever you can't see.

As I make him a coffee, my cover is blown. There's a hairy tickle on my neck, as the fugitive departs the well of my collar-bone, where he has been harbouring as an illicit arachnid passenger, now seeking the safety of higher ground, via my neck and blanched cheek.

"YEEEEARRRRRRCHH!" I scream. I say scream, it was more a sort of ululating death-cry, such as popularised by the film 'Zulu'. There aren't really enough caps or vowels on my keyboard to do it full justice.

Even in that emotional state though, and with the barest nod toward masculinity, I resolve not to jab blindly, but to try and pluck it off in that same casual way, but my hand refuses to soften and it squishes between my thumb and forefinger. Squishes! Oh, don't make me describe that feeling of bristly succulence as it's lifeblood vents on the webbing between thumb and finger, leaving a dark ichor glistening dully there, under the kitchen spotlights. The poor chap falls to the linoleum, fatally crippled, and I'm scrubbing my hands in the washing-up bowl like the Lord High Emperor of OCD.

"What was that?" he says, tramping in moments later with his spider hands and gossamer face.

"Oh nowt," I say, palpitating shallowly with an outstretched mug of cappuccino and kicking its twisted corpse under the table. "Kids, probably. Upstairs. Tch."

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Leggings: The Closet War.

So I'm staring at a row of fifty-odd non-slip coat-hangers (space savers, they call them) in the wardrobe and wondering why it feels like the dawn of something sinister. Slim and black, the clothes hang uniformly from them like a particularly tactile Hitler Youth gathering. Despite all this apparent tidiness,  planet wardrobe still seems sad. I ponder its meaning for a moment before realising it is lifeless and barren, this new regime. Sterile, with no chaos to offset the order (a bit like when mankind couldn't get on with the first Matrix cause it was all a bit cosy and utopian.) 

What's lacking here, I slowly conclude, is ethnic variety. What happened to those chunky, wooden beech-boy hangers that kicked sand in your face, or at least gave you a slap in the eyebrow if you snatched your T-shirt off too hard? Or those old-school wire ones that left smudges of lead on your hands and buckled uselessly under the flimsiest of pressure? There's even a sudden place in my heart for those daft-looking hangers they tried to reinvent the wheel with, by attaching a sort of  framework to accommodate Elizabethan gowns or blacksmiths pinafores on. But, I can see there's no place for any of that in this Brave New World. These deviants were silently earmarked for cleansing long ago, then dragged silently from their beds one night to be stuffed into mass graves of charity shops and Tesco recycling ovens. All in the name of 'progress'.

Of course I'm not so easily fooled. Shoes, as is so often the case, are the catalyst for this axis of evil.  Shoes and Kipling handbags and Dennis Basso coats that have multiplied and won't fit under the stairs any more. When shoes and handbags and Dennis frigging Basso coats can't keep it in their pants, you can bet it won't be long before they've annexed the wardrobe. Then perfectly good wood and sturdy(ish) iron gets melted down for clothes pegs. Worse, comfy sweatshirts and jogging bottoms are ousted from their homes and herded into musty gulags called 'bed drawers', never to be seen again.

So yes, I'm bitter,  because it's always my territory - I mean wardrobe - that suffers. Just because someone needs an entire nation - I mean wardrobe - for the several hundredweight of leggings that ALWAYS have a victory salute for fashion's Final Solution. That's the bottom line, comrades. Leggings, in their many evil guises, turn women into power-mongers. And in case it has to be spelled out to you, in case you're one of those men who think."Yeah, they're tacky and unflattering on anything less than a roller-skating teen, but what harm can they do?" Well, let me tell you, my friend, when a certain little lady first combined jackboots with Lederhosen and called them 'jeggings' that's exactly what the Nazis thought. "What harm can they do?" Just chilling with our Reichstag buddies here in this Bavarian hillside retreat. We've all had a drink. Let her have her fun; no-one need know.

One night. One shining moment. Was that so wrong?
You think the ruthless reign of leggings left any room in poor Adolf's wardrobe for the Wehrmacht equivalent of hair shirts and Speedos? No sir, and once those pernicious pants took their seat of power, wasn't it just a few short goose-steps up the Champs-Elysee to disaster for the mighty Wehrmacht? French resistance? American firepower? Bulldog spirit? Forget it. One word: Leggings.

And while we're at it, who do you think it was convinced the Fuhrer that the world's most powerful men could win a war dressed as Finchley show-jumpers? Eva Braun, that's who. The real fist in the velvet glove. The real smile behind the Swastika. Don't be so naive.

Men everywhere need to examine their complacency, that's all I'm saying. Leggings are nothing less than the hidden master race promoting evil and hatred to anyone not allied to their cause. And just when you think that threat has been exterminated for good, out comes a subtle variation, imbued with the same mad designs. The Ski pant, the pedal pusher, the jodhpur?  Greater  monsters than any power-crazed warlord.

So if that feeling of unease I was talking about had a voice, it would be saying. "Wake up, Waldo" (even though I'm not called Waldo) "There's a new revolution going on; a new night of the long knives, and it's beginning again, right here in your own wardrobe."

Of course, I say 'my wardrobe' - but in reality there's more chance of Palestinians saying 'my place' in Tel Aviv. Come to think of it, my wardrobe has more in common with modern-day Gaza than it ever did with Ikea, and,  just for the record - what was the Middle East garment of choice behind this divisive landfall? What was and is still worn unwittingly beneath the Jubba and Burqa of desert man and woman alike, clinging lightly yet firmly to the hairy legs of latent unrest, forging mistrust and violence across the free world quicker than you can say '60% lycra'?


So fine,  it all starts with a few new coat-hangers in town, pushing their weight around and creating a bit of 'lebensraum', But, before you know it, the latter-day Eva Brauns, the fairer-sex Commandants of QVC have conceived their New World Order, and it comes ready-made and razor-wired up with Dennis Basso Belsens and Kipling bag Lubyankas for all who stand before it.

So when you're leading your children tearfully through the gates of that apparel Auschwitz, and  when they point - confused and wretched - at the coat-hanger wire legend 'Primark Macht Frei' hanging above it and say "Why, dad? Why?"...

I'm just saying. You were  warned.