Friday, 28 November 2014

Bleak Friday

We import plenty of American culture into Britain. Most of it is fairly harmless, and plenty of it - some of the films, some of the TV, many of their writers, for example - is positively beneficial. Then there's the stuff that's just pointless, Americanising our versions of things that weren't American in the first place - Halloween being a perfect example. And then there's the stuff that's simply inexplicable as to why we need or want it, because it's negative. Damaging even.

The media today has been full of the evidence for the latest such thing that we've taken, for no good reason I can discern, from the States. Black Friday has suddenly become a huge retail event, with pretty much everybody who's got something to sell falling over themselves to persuade you to buy it. Not that, it seems, we need much persuading. Sales law is simple enough - the item only has to have been on sale at the higher price for 28 consecutive days before the commencement of the sale, and can't remain at the sale price for longer than the higher price period. So what do retailers do? Jack up the price of an item in the quiet period preceding a sale, for 28 days or so. Then, for just a few days, or some such giant event, drop it back down to a supposedly greatly reduced cost that is in fact only slightly lower than it could have been purchased at some weeks before. Then, when the sale is over, revert to the original price. Usually, with a bit of shopping around, a bit of internet research and not minding buying stuff that's end of season or end of line, you can pay substantially less than these so-called bargain prices pretty much all the time.

Yet people blindly swarm to the shops at these events, believing they're getting a bargain. What you end up with is scenes like these, with fighting, desperate scrambles, swarms of shoppers descending on harassed, under-secured retail staff, police in attendance even. What the hell has happened to us? Watching the footage on that BBC web page, looking at any of the countless number of photos of desperate faces, arms outstretched, forcing their way into shops, there is an unavoidable analogy to be drawn with another piece of that American culture I mentioned. The great George Romero chose a shopping centre as the setting for much of his classic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead for a very good reason, and did so long before the consumer excesses of Black Friday had reached the levels they're at now. Just look at the shot below the first paragraph of this excellent piece on exactly what I'm talking about - the man was absolutely on the money.

I'd understand this if we were living in a society coming apart at the seems, with shortages - people fighting over food or medicine for themselves or their children. But for most of us, that's simply not the case. We've seen this for real in places that seem a long way from our comfortable, wealthy lives in Britain, and it's very difficult to imagine how everyday life must be for people for whom fighting for basics is a reality. But, pretty much exclusively, Black Friday brings us people scrambling for TVs. Coffee machines. Big-brand, top-label clothing. Computers or MP3 players. Hardly stuff you'll die without.

I am not, of course, blaming America for this. This is all us. We've become so blinded by consumerism that we sacrifice our dignity for a '% off' sign. Black Friday? It's about the most aptly name shopping 'event' on the calendar.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ask no questions

I was fortunate enough to spend the weekend just gone in Madrid, ostensibly for a mate's birthday but basically to eat and drink a lot for a couple of days. It led, this morning, to the odd experience of waking up in another country but going to work in London in the afternoon.

Anyway, one of the many pleasures of Spain is the ability to get a decent coffee just about anywhere. In a country that has so many bars and cafés, you don't want to get a rep for making bad coffee. I've therefore had a decent cup everywhere from an underground station to the airport, and pretty much everybody makes real coffee at home - I've never been offered instant coffee in a Spaniard's house.

I was pretty unpleasantly surprised, then, to find that the only place I could get a coffee at Madrid's Barajas Airport this morning, once I'd gone through security at least, was a branch of Starbuck's. Now Barajas is a long airport. I walked the length of it, twice, but unless I wanted to sit down in a 'proper' restaurant, the only other option was a machine. Hobson's choice, as far as I'm concerned - I don't like Starbucks as a company and I really don't like coffee dispensed from machines.

Starbucks are a company that are not easy to like. They paid Corporation Tax for the first time in four years in the UK in 2013 only after adverse publicity and a drop in sales following the subsequent public backlash.Their branches are absolutely bloody everywhere. By far the worst thing, though, is that I think the coffee's just no bloody good. I simply don't like it and it means the other stuff becomes impossible to forgive.

But, hell. It's got to be better than a machine, right? So, reluctantly, I joined the queue. I do remember liking the cinammon roll thingy they do, so that and a coffee would have to do for a breakfast. Such sweet pastry delights are a rare treat for me these days. One snag, though. As the bloke in front of me ordered his drink, he was asked his name. This was a new, fresh hell that I'd forgotten about with this lot. I absolutely hate this gimmick - I'm there for a coffee, not to make friends with a corporate monolith. Were I a regular at Starbuck's I'd want to give ever-more ridiculous names; Zaphod. Ivanhoe. Jebediah. Moon Unit. Daphne. You get the idea.

Anyway, that was the final straw. I wasn't buying a coffee and going through the idiotic false intimacy of having them call out my name rather than just making sure the right coffee gets to the right person. Other coffee vendors manage this perfectly well without this folly. So I just took the cinnamon thingy, which you can buy without the name crap, and went and bought a coffee for half the price from a machine that wanted nothing more than coinage from me. It was blithely indifferent to my name or anything else as it dispensed what turned out to be a reasonably drinkable cup, for an instant.

And you know what? The bloody cinnamon thingy was dry.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Something good had to come out of Fifty Shades...

Huge congratulations are due to my friend H, who has had her first novel, Inspired by Night, published by Xcite. It's just come out for Kindle and in paperback and I make no apologies for giving it a plug here. I'm not altogether sure if she realises quite how hard it is to do what she's done, and how proud of herself she should be for her achievement.

The title of this entry, of course, refers to Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel which simultaneously seemed to make written porn and piss-poor spelling, grammar and punctuation acceptable in polite society. Don't get me wrong - it's the spelling and whatnot with which I have a problem, not the sexy stuff. It was, though, a major bugbear of mine that, with so many talented writers out there struggling to get their work even looked at, let alone published, all it took for FSoG to get accepted was a constant stream of bonking. Out of nowhere it was as ubiquitous as Captain Corelli's Mandolin had become a few years ago - on your morning commute you could pretty much guarantee that one of the women aboard your bus or train carriage was going to be reading it. This despite the fact that it didn't seem to have undergone the scrutiny of a proofreader's eyes at any stage before being shoved out on an undeserving public. Never mind the English, feel the shagging.

One major positive of FSoG, though, is that it's helped democratise publishing, alongside, of course, increased access to online self-publishing mechanisms. Anybody can now get a book out, giving some of that talent an outlet, finally, and just maybe it's made some publishers a bit more willing to have a look at the work of unknowns. I really don't know, I just hope that's the case.

It's still quite something, though, to get a book accepted by a publisher and published under their name. My friend has achieved that, and written about her experiences (and other stuff) in her blog Tales from the Sofa, to which a link can be found on the right of this page.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Things that don't happen

I recently returned from just over a fortnight in Galicia, savouring the peace and tranquility of the landscape and the noise and chaos of the August festivals at the same time. I'm very fortunate to be able to enjoy two very different lifestyles - the London one I live most of the time, with the attendant cosmopolitan bustle of nine million people, and the escape that Spain offers.

We spend much of our time in Spain in the little town where my girlfriend grew up, and the beauty of its natural surroundings is not unlike our own Lake District - hills and water feature prominently. The town itself sits on a peninsula that juts into a lake created by damming about sixty years ago, and sitting looking out across this lake in the almost absolute silence of the place, its contrasts with London are marked.

                                                   Photo copyright Tom Driver - tdriver74 on Flickr.

It's not just the landscape that's different, though. Some of the stuff that goes on there, you just don't get back home. Our place out there has, without exception, roller blinds on the windows. These things are designed to completely black out the summer sun when they're rolled down, and are set outside the house - they're tough, weather-proof things that you move from indoors with rolling pulleys. If you don't want your house to turn into an oven while you're out, you roll them down whenever you leave, leaving the house in darkness while the blinds absorb most of the heat.

Returning home one afternoon, we were rolling up the blind to the kitchen when it got rather stuck. Something wrong with the mechanism, we assumed, getting a bit caught up or something. Pulling the cord all the harder will soon get the bugger moving. And so it did - after some reluctance, when it seemed completely stuck, it suddenly gave way and rolled up into its housing above the window outside. Job done, issue forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until a rancid smell started to become apparent in the kitchen from the next day. We emptied the bin, cleaned the floor and sink, but couldn't find out where this smell was coming from. It took until a couple of days later to establish what was causing it. Our neighbours, relatives of my girlfriend, come to our kitchen window to talk to us, as it faces out over the ground in front of their own house. Saves them walking all the way to the front door. They pointed out that, hanging from the top of the blind outside our window, was the tail of some animal or other. Oh dear.

We clearly had to remove the corpse of whatever it was we'd killed if we wanted rid of the smell. This first meant we had to deal with the incipient nest of hornets which was just beginning to be built outside the very same window. Hornet heaven - warm, spectacular views of the nearby lake and handy for local amenities like dead animals and people to sting. So - reach out the window, spray liberally with insecticide (fly spray, basically), withdraw arm as quickly as possible and slam window shut until dozens of furious hornets have died in twitching fury. First part done.

Second part. Go outside and try to remove corpse. At this point, dear reader, I confess that I 'outsourced' the job by cunningly volunteering to go downstairs to the garage and get the hose, knowing we may have to jet the remains off the blind. My girlfriend's cousin pried the animal off using two twigs like chopsticks. I kid you not.

It was a bloody snake. A snake which, while still snake-shaped for the rear three quarters, was flattened into a messy, maggot-ridden disk, squashed flat on the blind, for the remaining 25% at the head end. We'd obviously rolled it up into the blind's housing, encountering the resistance as the poor animal's head jammed into the roll, only for the blind to then move freely again as the snake was squashed like a pancake and rolled up into the thing. Charming.

The stench was overpowering, so the corpse having been removed, I now heroically stepped up to rinse the remaining gunk off with the hose, while those who'd got closer to it than I had gagged and retched their retreats. I also, of course, had to wash off the bit of hornet real estate that had been sneakily added to the wall just by the window.

This does not, you won't be surprised to hear, happen back home in Streatham.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Mining for Millionaire's Slices

I know everybody says they don't like to look at themselves in a mirror, but in my case, it really is something I avoid if possible in a very literal sense. I have to look at my face, of course, in the morning, when shaving or combing hair or whatever, but beyond that, the rest of my body may as well not exist in the parallel universe behind those glass planes.

Every now and again, though, you get no choice. A couple of Sundays ago this happened to me, and let me tell you dear reader it was a salutary experience. I was up in Liverpool with my g/f, seeing friends of ours, and doing a bit of shopping. Needing to replace some of my increasingly worn shirts, I found myself in the changing rooms at Debenhams to try on a new one, with basically no way of avoiding seeing myself in the mirrors which entirely covered two of the four walls in the little cell in which I found myself.

My own brain decided to pass comment on what it saw in pretty forthright terms, through my inner monologue. You fat, lazy, pot-bellied, out of condition, ugly, going-to-die-young-of-a-heart-attack bastard, it basically said. Cheers, brain - give it to me straight, why don't you? I was, to say the least, displeased with what I saw. This has led to my first proper, serious attempt to lose weight for a very long time.

Now I've tried the Atkins in the past, for a few days. I've tried the soup diet, again for a few days. They're effective in the short term but, as you're always warned about during rapid weight loss, it goes back on in short order when you stop. The only time I've ever lost weight significantly over a long-ish period was the six months when I was out of work. I had, during that time, no money to buy choccy bars, cakes, muffins, creamy coffees and the like, and basically ate nothing but spaghetti tossed in olive oil, garlic and chilli flakes. Delicious and slimming - I recommend joblessness for weight loss, but for absolutely nothing else.

So it seemed obvious which route to take this time - all the various named diets and regimes I'm going to fail at, because I just get angrily, ravenously, desperately hungry, and end up exhausted and unable to concentrate at work. I then cheat, eating the sugary shit to wake myself up, and inevitably give up. The way forward has therefore been to simply eliminate all that lovely stuff. No more giant cinnamon Danish for breakfast. No more chocolate flapjack with lunch. No more partaking of the home-baked cakes, Krispy Kremes and chocolate that's always (and I mean always) on offer at work. (I really do mean always - I write this on Tuesday, and so far this week there have been two-dozen Krispy Kreme original glazed yesterday, and two giant Toblerones today. There will, no doubt, be something else tomorrow. My workmates are a generous bunch with sweet teeth.)

I has been absolutely killing me to sit there and not eat these things, munching through increasingly enormous salads I've been making in an effort to fill myself up. The first few days I was consumed (no pun intended, it's the only apposite word for it) by thoughts of food, I just couldn't think of anything else. And I was bloody hungry. It's getting a bit easier, to the point where I no longer have to make a salad comprising an entire family bag of mixed leaves, an entire family bag of spinach leaves and an entire family bag of rocket just as the base to put all the other stuff on. I can get by now on really quite normal portions and have, pleasingly, only cheated once, and that was on a Sunday at my parents' house, eating a small bit of my mum's treacle pudding, the first pud she's been able to make as her recovery from a stroke continues. So I'm allowing myself that one.

The booze has all but gone, and apparently bread is a great evil to be scoured from our diets, so that's gone too. I'm missing both, needless to say. Excellent advice has been received from my friend R and my brother, both of whom suggested a similar thing - eat what the planet provides naturally, rather than a load of processed stuff with sugar added to it, and you won't go far wrong.

On that note, a thought occurred during a conversation with my brother about that very thing, just a few days into this endeavour. It may perhaps give you an insight into my current state of mind, now fifteen days in. If all that the planet provides naturally is good for you, why the hell doesn't it provide, say, Millionaire's Slice? I'd work at a Millionaire's Slice mine in a bloody heartbeat.

Mined from the deepest Millionaire's Slice mine on the planet, in unrefined form. Just as nature bloody well should have intended.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Derby days

This past weekend-and-a-bit saw me lose my music festival virginity at the third-ever Maifeld Derby in what was an extremely sunny Mannheim in central(ish)-southern Germany. I'd been to a day at the now defunct Fleadh in Finsbury Park many years ago, but that was just a few hours in a park in the same city in which I lived, so could hardly count.

Cards face up, first of all. Anybody who knows me will know that I simply don't understand the idea of travelling any kind of distance simply to listen to music, because I'm not into it in the way most people seem to be. I'm not moved by it (or at least, not often) and certainly wouldn't give up the home comforts of bed, shower etc to enable this to happen. That people do this, in their hundreds of thousands at any one time, and seem to actively enjoy casting aside many of the advances we've made in industrialisation  to improve our lives - sanitation, for example - for a few days in a tent, I find particularly baffling. Personally, camping is the sort of thing I'd do only if society had broken down in, say, a zombie apocalypse, and the cities were no longer safe. Even then, I'd try to find an empty house somewhere rural before I'd resort to canvas.

Anyway, I digress. I was in fact doubly fortunate. Not only did I not have to camp, but this Derby at which I broke my festival duck is organised by people I know, so I was lucky enough to be granted access to the private bits usually set aside for the bands, the workers etc. So, sporting a gold wristband no less, I joined a few thousand other people to enjoy what for them was probably a familiar experience, but for me was completely new.

Observations from this newbie, then. Much of this will be second nature to many of you, but to me the idea of listening to music for anything up to 15 hours, however easily the beer flowed, was unfathomable. It'd surely be crushingly boring to somebody not into music, right? Well, I'll be honest, there were moments during some of the sets from bands whose music I didn't like that I did get a bit bored. These were, though, fleeting - there was always somebody else playing something entirely different on another stage. There was always beer and food available. And in most cases, even bands I'd never heard of (most of them, if I'm honest, but that's a reflection of my ignorance, not the standard of the bill) proved very enjoyable.

It helped greatly that, two hours out of the three days excepted, it was warm and sunny. It helped that I drank a lot of beer, and a lot of whisky'n Cokes, but I did enjoy the live music more than I expected to, even if I'd never heard most of the songs before. I was introduced to, among other things, the delights of Austrian electro-pop-rock funsters Bilderbuch (complete with a lead singer who looked like the love child of Jürgen Klinsmann and the lying blonde kid with the 'clunge' obsession from The Inbetweeners), whose set climaxed with an ode to all the sex things they wanted to do to a yellow sports car.

Then there was Temples, a British band who sounded like a throwback to the prog-rock era, with songs lasting five or six minutes past the last vocals; long, repeating sections that harked back to The Doors, a proper throwback sound which was superb live. There were others - Keston Cobblers Club, another British lot who all seemed to be multi-instrumentalists, and played an old English folk sound on a host of instruments, some of which I'd never seen before. Or Moscow Metro, an Irish rock band who had to cope with a guitar failing to work mid-song and did so without half as much swearing as you'd have heard from me, if I'd been in their place.

One thing that hanging around 'backstage' showed me was how much enthusiasm the bands themselves had for other bands. Their own work done, they'd be talking about who they were going to see with all the excitement of the paying punters. The band which was, I was told by one of the musicians, 'every musician's favourite band', The National, closed the whole thing with a two-hour set. I'm afraid, here, my ignorance got the better of me once again. While all around me, people with extraordinary musical talent of their own were excitedly heading off early to get a good spot for The Nationals' set, I ultimately thought them inferior to many of the bands standing there in the audience listening to them. I was clearly in a very small minority, though, because the main stage was packed for their slot, and they were received with huge enthusiasm.

And so my festival virginity was lost. Back to Frankfurt from Mannheim, and thence home. (If, by the way, you ever get the chance to use Frankfurt Airport, don't. It's crap.) I realise that, to the purist, a hotel room, a private-area-access wristband and a lack of knee-deep mud means I haven't done it properly at all, but I'm counting it.

By the way, the above descriptions of how some of the bands sounded must be regarded with caution, filtered as they are through my entirely ignorant and uninformed ears. That's just how I heard them, but isn't that the fundamental experience of everybody at these things? We must all hear them through the quality control mechanisms of our own tastes, even if that taste is formed from very little experience.

(My sincere thanks to L, P, T and all those others who know who they are, who were so generous in inviting me and my missus and looking after us so well when they had better things to do with their time.)

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Poles apart on Eurovision

So, Eurovision then. This is not going to be an entry about the winner - it's just a bloke in a dress*, Kenny Everett played the queen whilst sporting a beard as far back as the '80s, for crying out loud, can we all just move on? - rather, it's about the fundamental motives that lie behind where the votes are cast.

One thing that's come out about the voting patterns since the competition finished is that the juries set up to try to mitigate the worst excesses of the political voting, of which more later, differed wildly (in more than one country) in their opinions from the telephone-voting public. In some countries, those differences were dichotomically opposed, which gives the impression that the two entities are casting their votes based on entirely different criteria. Britain was one such country. We're one of the rare voting masses in Eurovision whose vote is not always predictable. There's an established voting form for most of the eligible countries which goes something like this:

  1. Maintain good neighbourly and political relations with your important trading or ancestral partners.
  2. Political point scoring about some contemporary issue, as the Russians found out to their cost this time round.
  3. Does it have a rising, anthemic quality, and at least one key change? (As a musical ignoramus, I don't know what this is, but I'm assured by my more knowledgable friends that it's of vital importance).
  4. Alright alright, in the event you can't think of anything else, I suppose you could vote on whether the song's actually any good or not.
Now I'd always thought the British vote was slightly different from others in that, Ireland apart, we're not surrounded by neighbours we feel duty-bound to oblige with points. Quite the opposite, in fact. This time's voting pattern in Britain seems to confirm that view. But in the great differences between jury votes and public votes, one song really stands out (you'll see what I did there in a minute…) - the Poles'.

If you'll excuse another list, here's how I personally regard the nature of most of the songs in this competition, year after year;

  1. The aforementioned rising, anthemic, key-change carrying stuff.
  2. Euro-pop.
  3. Quaint, folksy, doesn't-really-fit-any-category type stuff that may be better than 1 and 2 above but isn't going to win.
  4. For Christ's sake don't vote for us, we're too skint to host this next year, so we've entered this shit. (I'm looking at you, France).
Poland, however, eschewed these conventions and went for boobs. Never mind the song, check these puppies out. I thought, when I saw this, that they'd misjudged their audience. Eurovision is, of course, a huge event in the gay calendar, and therefore watched by large numbers of gay men, and is also evidently much more popular with women than men anyway. I didn't think the large-breasted sirens provocatively doing their laundry and churning milk would strike the right note. However, their busty ploy might well have worked for them, but for those meddling juries. Now there are a lot of Poles in Britain, I accept that, but not enough to make them runaway winners of the British public vote, as they evidently were. Same applied in Norway. And the Ukrainian public were clearly sufficiently diverted from their present political troubles to pick up their phones and vote for Poland in their droves. How many votes did Poland get from Britain? Nil. From Norway? A measly two. Ukraine? A healthy seven, but not the 12 the public had thought it due.

The Germans had no such qualms, firmly placing the Poles at the top of the, er, pole. Their jury must think like their public. Our own jury, and others, clearly missed the point of the Eurovision Song Contest completely, casting their votes based on the songs, of all things. Weird. (This means, incidentally, since they placed Poland last, that they regarded that French atrocity as a better song than the Poles' heart-felt paean to love and loss, We Are Slavic ('shake what your momma gave you'), a decision which is frankly baffling.)

So, a final list. It seems the British public voted based on the following criteria:

  1. Tits!
  2. Dunno. That girl's got a beard, though. That's definitely worth a few points.
  3. Had a nice holiday in Malta once, I did. Points for them.
I think you'll agree those are considerations which are much more in keeping with the whole tone of Eurovision. We obviously get it in a way that quite eludes the experts. We should think about the composition of our jury a bit more carefully next time.

*On a more serious note for a moment, it's quite easy to take for granted the vote for the Austrian from Britain, living as we do in a liberal, open-minded society. What is gratifying is the fact that this vote was so widely reflected across Europe - it's been seen by various media commentators as a vote for diversity and against homophobia. But even that raises its own questions of our jury - were they expressing their support (understandably if so) for the right to express your identity and sexuality as you see fit, or did they genuinely think that was the best song of the 26?

Monday, 7 April 2014

Bath plugs and bad language

We've just had the hallway, stairs, banisters etc in our house redecorated - what you'd call the 'common areas' in a shared block of flats, for example - and a very nice job has been done too. We're very pleased with it.

It has not, though, been without its drawbacks. It suddenly looks miles better than the decorative order of the rest of the house, and suddenly other parts of the place look decidedly shoddy in comparison. As a result, small things which I've lived with for years - since we moved in eight years ago, in some cases - are really starting to bug me. Stuff I've barely noticed before.

The crappy light pull in the bathroom, with its two-metres-too-long cord knotted up into a bunch to keep it short enough. The rust on the balcony outside at the back. The small bit of wallpaper missing from the corner of the living room. The come-away-from-its-mooring sink plug in the downstairs bathroom.

Now, when I was born, all the handiness, all the ability to undertake physical work requiring even minor dexterity was held back, and put into my younger brother. And
I mean all of it. While he can refit his entire bathroom, doing the plumbing and electrics and reconditioning his old sash windows in the process, I can turn even the simplest DIY task into a labour of Hercules, ultimately requiring the attention of a specialist to undo any damage I may have done in the futile attempt to take anything
on myself.

That bath plug, though. Surely I could manage that, yeah? You just take off the old one and put in a new one, right? So I ordered a new chain and stay (check out the use of professional language... oh yeah...) and set about replacing the thing on Sunday.
For those of you not 'in the know' as I now am *cough*, the picture below shows you what I ordered.

The metal bit with the screw thread is the stay. At least, that's what I'm calling it. 
On the old plug, that bit had its arse hanging out, so to speak - it had come loose from its fitting, the chain had broken, and it needed replacing. The screw, though, was completely rusted and frozen solid, which is why it wasn't quite the simple task it should have been. No problem, I thought - a liberal spraying of WD40 will get that baby moving.

I therefore started this task by applying a thorough drenching of this magical chemical. To my left hand. I couldn't see what I was doing because the sink was so tight to the wall; I was having to 'hug' the sink and work blind. Right hand round, squeeze the spray-can between the pipes, find the screw with the other hand and... shit. Missed. Cue first batch of swearing. It would not be the last.

Eventually, I was able to coat the thing in the spray, and I sat back for a bit to let it do its work. I was naive enough to assume it'd be plain sailing from there; that a bit of patience to allow the chemical to do its job was all that was necessary. How mistaken 
I was. It still wouldn't budge. What followed was an hour of shouting, cursing, wrestling and general bad humour as I tried, in vain, to get the damn screw moving. I even tried to get hold of it with pliers, but working completely blind, I spent at least 20 minutes trying to get a grip on the nut. I'm not proud of my language during that time - I may, 
I confess, even have pleaded with the thing for a short while.

I got to the point where, no matter how much resistance this recalcitrant bastard thought it was going to put up, I was not going to let it have its way. I had a bright, shiny new chain and stay to put in - I could not be defeated. I'll have to cut it, I thought. Think like a pro - you'll need leverage, I thought. So I hunted down the longest-handled pair of garden shears we've got, and with those applied as much force as I could to the thing. The result of another half-hour's shouting, screaming and grunting - God knows what the neighbours thought was going on - was a small dent on each side of the thing, and some moderate scratching to the rusted screw thread.

By this point I was pretty sure the old stay was starting to look smug. It was mocking me. My eyes then alighted on a hacksaw in our tool box. Ha! So I cut the bastard's head off! Yes! Just twenty further minutes of sweat and swearing, and it dropped to the floor, beaten. Now all I had to do was install the new one and... where the fuck has the new one gone? 

I'd lost the new one. Through constant sorting of tools, moving two cabinets out of the way and generally destroying the bathroom in my efforts, it had gone missing. It took a further fifteen minutes of searching to find it, buried at the bottom of the tool box under all the equipment I'd tried and rejected. Who can blame the thing? It had probably seen the abuse I was meting out to its older cousin and tried to hide, terrified. I can report, though, that after no more than three hours' work, some extremely creative swearing and enough sweat to fill the bloody sink that I was working on, it's done. I have successfully replaced a plug chain and stay.

My brother's coming up to install the new light switches, sockets'n stuff. 

Probably for the best.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The Budget: beer, bingo and Mr Flibble

So the budget, then. While it's been lauded in some quarters for its pension reforms - not sure how helpful this will end up being, with so many people turning away from pensions and looking to property to provide for their retirement - it's actually something that happened afterwards that caught the eye. The Tories ran this ad on the same day, crowing about giving 'hardworking people' what 'they' deserve. This is not only patronizing in the extreme, it doubly betrays the Tories' thinking. That 'they', firstly. Talk about give yourself away.

Clearly the Conservatives do not regard themselves as part of this group of 'they'. In fact it may be that they don't even believe that 'they' will be part of the potential audience for the ad - they're evidently talking to rather more elevated people about what they're doing for the poor, downtrodden masses. About as divisive as it gets, and a clear sign that your typical Conservative is quite happy to regard him/herself as rather detached from the 'common' man. Look at what we're doing for these poor, unwashed ruffians - helping them satisfy their working class obsessions. Next up: cutting VAT on racing pigeon sales, capping the price of whippet leads and 20p off tax on a pack of Woodbines.  

Then there's the measures in the first place. A penny off tax on a pint of beer. Cutting tax on bingo. Oh, joy. This is nothing less than distracting the poor simpletons with Mr Flibble the sock puppet with one hand while signing the order to close another hospital with the other. They won't notice - they're too busy getting shitfaced and gambling to care about us cutting the legs out from under their society.

No wonder Milliband, in what was otherwise a fairly weak response speech I thought, called it a budget for the privileged. I don't, personally, vote with my wallet. I'm fortunate - I'm in that large middle bracket of people who earn enough to live on without having to miss out on what in any wealthy country like ours should consider staples. So I'd happily forego a few pennies' tax cut, or even pay a few pennies more, to avoid cuts in public services. I don't care only about where my money goes - I also care about where the country's money goes, and on whom and what it's spent.

The Tories, of course, can't understand that thinking - they will no doubt cut income tax in the last budget before the next General Election. By all means cut tax, and cut it properly, for the lowest paid; the people who will actually notice it. But don't just drop it across the board by a penny or so and assume everyone will vote for you because they're £68 per year better off, or whatever the hell it is. 

And what of the Lib Dems in this? Desperate to take credit for the tax cuts that were included in this budget, they were like an excited kid, jumping up and down on the spot as the parents look at the class project. I made that sheep, Dad! That one! At the back! That one that one that one! Look!

Even if this was their work, it's just another sign of a coalition that's somehow holding it together despite clear idealogical differences. When the General Election date is set, those gloves are going to come off big time, I think. I hope people see the current government for what they are when it comes to it.

Monday, 3 February 2014

How to make enemies and alienate people

Last Friday my girlfriend and I went to a rather nice bar in the shadow of the Shard, by London Bridge station. What a building that Shard is, by the way - you can't walk past the bottom of the thing without craning your neck to catch a glimpse of its full height. It seems to go up and up into the very clouds themselves, and often literally does if they're low-lying. A wonder of modern construction.

Anyway, it being a Friday, and the first payday for many since just before Christmas (myself included – six weeks between paydays!), the place was perhaps not surprisingly absolutely packed. We were lucky to find a small table, recently vacated, and sat down to have ourselves a few cocktails, which my missus had assured me were of the very highest quality in this establishment.

So I went to the bar, which ran the length of the large room itself, and found an unoccupied spot right on the corner from where to try to catch the barman's eye. There were people sitting drinking at the bar, including two young women sharing a bottle of wine, one of whom I'd had to stand very close to in order to get to the bar in the first place. They therefore heard my exchange with the barman all too clearly.

"What can I get you?" he asked, taking my order for the first couple of cocktails (and a bit of grub, just to civilise the occasion further you understand).
"Where are you sitting?"

At this, I turned to make space so he could see my girlfriend, and pointed at her. She sat at the table, concentrating on an email or some-such on her mobile.

"The lady with the mobile?"

It's at this moment that I opened my gob and instantly and indelibly placed myself onto the two ladies' hate lists.

"I'm afraid so, yes," I answered, meaning 'I'm afraid so, she's using that wretched mobile thingy'. Two female heads whipped round and gave me what can only be described as the skunk eye, clearly interpreting my comment rather differently. One can only imagine what scenarios they had in mind – a blind date in which I was less than pleased with the lady's appearance, perhaps. A git of a boyfriend who'd rather be partying with people other than his own partner. Or simply a wretch, not good enough for the good lady at whom he'd been pointing. Who knows what they thought?

I did not hang about to find out. (It was the phone, ladies – honest. The phone!) I had no desire to get whatever they were drinking thrown over me with some force, so hurried back to the table. At this point I realised that there was every chance one or both of them could conceivably come over and tell my girlfriend exactly what they thought of her 'date', so I told her what had happened pretty damn quickly.

She, fortunately, saw the funny side and thankfully no such thing happened. Indeed I can confirm that the cocktails were indeed of the very highest order and a fine evening was enjoyed by both of us. I can only hope that either of those women, through some act of cosmic serendipity, stumble across this entry and realise that I'm not quite the heel, the cad, the thorough bastard I must have sounded at that precise moment.