Saturday, 19 July 2008

Priests, spies and so on

I have complained before that this collection of ramblings has mostly focused on grumbly subjects – the sort of things that would once have left me curled up in a corner, blinking lopsidedly and cackling, but which now, thanks to the internet (thank you, internet!), can be safely exposed online. I wonder if the Roman Catholics have tried doing confession this way? It would be safer, easier, and would save priests' valuable time, so they could concentrate on doing whatever it is that priests do when they're not sitting in a tiny box listening to somebody's petty jealousies. Presumably reading Father Brown stories and taking notes ('Step one: buy umbrella. Step two: solve mystery. Step three: become witty and reasonable face of religious belief in an increasingly atheistic modernity), or watching Father Ted rather like civil servants do Yes Minister – with a combination of recognition and guilt.

Do you think priests have relief-boredom - that evil bit of sadness you feel when everything turns out okay? Haven't you ever had a tiny, guilty wish that the fire alarm had been real, because you've always wanted to use the foamy extinguisher; the shifty alley really did have a nutter in it, because you've been looking for a way to practise your 400m; or that the lift did break down so you could climb through a little hatch in the roof of the car, scale the shaft then crawl through some ventilation ducts? I hope you have, otherwise I'm going to start feeling really weird. So I imagine that inside every otherwise-benevolent priest is a little impish wish that instead of another 'I said a naughty word,' or 'I bought a pirate DVD', they get some heavy-breathing reprobate saying '... and they're buried under the apple tree.' It's probably not a very serious desire, but I think it's only natural that every so often, until rationality comes back from making tea, we want our lives to be slightly less Heartbeat and slightly more Rebus. Messiah's probably going too far.

This is partly why bonkers entertainment is utterly healthy, maybe even including those massively disturbing and worryingly popular horror/torture films. They remind us that our odder sprees of imagination are extremely unlikely to be real. As it is, I can let the plumber in with only a brief thought of 'what if he's actually a terrorist imposter trying to destroy our nation's morale by stopping us having hot showers?' Without Jason Bourne to remind me how silly, vastly entertaining and rather horrifying that sort of life is, I'd have had no choice but to grab said plumber by the collar, pin him against the wall and demand to know where they're hiding the secret documents, what they did with Shergar, and why bread is so expensive these days.

The superheroes-without-powers don't just remind us how unlikely their lives are – they also remind us how rubbish it would be to actually live like James Bond or his chums. Despite his rather diverting lifestyle, this is the sort of fellow who doesn't just worry about cyclists running red lights when he crosses the road, but worries about them having machine guns in their panniers. Film stars worry about going into restaurants in case they're spotted by camera-wielding gossip artists. Adam from Spooks* worries in case the waiter is a foreign agent who'll slip strychnine into his I'm-sure-that's-an-abuse-of-expenses starter.

Thinking about that, I become glad I can say hello to the postie without having to frisk him for weapons, and I generally rejoice in not being part of a network premiere with strong language and violence right from the start.


* That just doesn't sound right, does it? I love Spooks, but they can't do names. Of their two leading chaps, I can't remember either of their names. I know they're British and so don't like to draw attention to themselves, but 'Tom' and 'Adam' sound more like people you vaguely remember from school geography classes than the sort who gallivant around the world keeping us safe from bad people with inappropriate facial hair. The BBC needs to invest in a dramatic surname research department. I'm sure it wouldn't be that expensive – like most research departments (except the one mucking about with hadrons in Geneva, one hopes), it could just be a work experience minion with a direct psychic link to Google.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Bath Books

More should be published in the bath book format. I don't see why only toddlers should have the luxury of reading in soggy places. Fat, colourful laminated pages have an appeal to all ages and demographics. To show that this is a serious business proposition, I'm going to abandon prose and use bullet points. This demonstrates that I have too many other important thoughts to warrant mucking about with anything so time-consuming as full sentences. So, my evidence for the
magnificence of this plan:

- Hardcore businessfolk with only half a second to spare in each day could read their FT in the shower;

- flouncy artistic types could contemplate Romantic poetry while soaking and inhaling things they bought in the Body Shop;

- messy cooks could render their recipes immune to any errant liquids (usually oil, but allowing for wine, vinegar, tomato, and, in cases of negligent knife-wielding, blood); and

- people hiding out in damp forests, whether for music festivals, hikes, or just to stay one step ahead of the sheriff, could have something to read that wouldn't go mouldy when they left it on a mossy

Obviously, these tiny groups of humanity alone aren't going to make the bath book the new iPod. However, they're just my back-up, because I have another category that includes pretty much every civilised lady, gentleman and other. Let's face it, everybody sings in the shower. It's something to do with the acoustics. I'm surprised they haven't yet decided to remodel cathedrals after shower cubicles. Singing clearly sounds better there than anywhere else, and I'm reliably informed that cleanliness is next to godliness. So a resurgence in the bath book manufacturing industry
could give every hygienic person a songbook so they'd never forget the words and end up humming until they get back to the chorus.

They could market it entirely on peer pressure - anybody who didn't want to buy one ridiculed as ill-kempt and filthy. What sort of monstrous excuse for a twenty-first century person doesn't shower?

Of course, this would play havoc with those who shared bathrooms, and as a result, there'd almost certainly be a lot more waiting-for-a-shower related deaths (currently riding high in the Top Forty Causes of Murder between 'turn that blasted stereo down, this isn't Ibizia' and 'are you looking at me?'), but I think it could at least partly save both the publishing industry and our souls, and
nobody since Mr Gutenberg's been able to claim that.

As further evidence that this is a brilliant idea, I can point to a really stupid idea that somehow made it out of a madman's head and into the world. You see, in my travels, I have encountered little as
silly as protective banana holsters. Imagine, if you will, banana-shaped, banana-coloured plastic frameworks, hinged like a book, which in theory would keep your bananas safe and secure. I think they may even have rubber strips to lessen any impacts. While it's an ingenious solution to the fatal flaw of a fabulous fruit, it's still desperately sad.

I can imagine a wild-eyed hairy fellow carrying his banana cases onto Dragons' Den with dreams of glory. He'd wave his arms a lot, spit a great deal more than is necessary, then be tragically disappointed when the judges laughed at him almost as much as they did at the self-righteous woman with the woolly toilet seat covers. After the programme, he shouted to himself, 'I'll show them, I'll show them all!' then funded his own production, sold four of his several thousand (all to the same young sporty type with the sort of keen parents who think 'if we buy all the absurd gadgets, the kid's bound to win'), blamed James Caan (on the grounds that he's the easiest dragon to
remember, since his name makes people think of Sonny Corleone in the Godfather. Probably quite a helpful reputation to have in the business world...), lay in wait to murder him, leapt out, slipped on a banana skin and woke up in a secure ward.

So yeah, bath books - they'll make a comeback, you mark my (safely laminated) words.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Folk music


Apparently, with a sufficiently positive mental attitude, it's possible to scale mountains, snaffle tremendous jobs and win Wimbledon, all in the same afternoon. In a hearty effort at self-improvement, then, I'm going to write about something that makes me merry and excited, rather than stodgy and grumpy. So this week it's all about folk and country music, because both are amazing, sometimes in slightly bizarre ways.

The two are fairly similar, primarily because both are mainly produced by moody people who reckon the twentieth century is a nasty rumour. There is actually an obscure Scottish island (by 'obscure' I mean one that hasn't had a Walter Scott novel set on it, which, given the quantity
of his output, leaves about four) with a local bylaw against plugging in. This is chiefly because the island's electricity supply is rather limited, and churning out a few trippy guitar noises uses an extra plug, and that really tires out the donkey.

Folk bands provide a valuable outlet for those who were run out of orchestras for being wantonly enthusiastic, and caught either tapping their feet or attempting to sing along. Conductors have to keep a very keen eye out for anybody using the word 'fiddle', or for any shifty, wide-eyed, henna-haired hippies lurking near the doors, handing out pamphlets. If they're not careful, one day they'll find their entire string section lying in the nearest forest, full of mushrooms and learning gypsy dances. Other popular recruiting grounds for folkies are standing stones, pagan enclaves and any rural village where they think 'pop' is something you drink. Comedy accents and shirts that look like curtains are keenly encouraged.

In contrast, a proper country singer spends at least three months a year living under the bridge, and the rest downing whisky in filthy bars, slurring '... and then she left me, so I took my wagon to Tennessee' to anybody who'll listen. Then they start a fight, kill a man, go on the run, and write a song about it. If your idea of heating involves gathering kindling, and seeing a car makes you cross yourself, you're probably a prime candidate for county music. Essentially, it's for people who haven't felt the same since spaghetti westerns stopped being popular.

In terms of subject matter, folk is generally about giving birth in a forest and having to kill your baby, then being haunted by its ghost until you hunt down the father and beat him to death with a dulcimer. Folk songs start off like horror films - if you make it through to the last verse without being bumped off, you're doing well. Of course, the last verse has a tendency to go a bit Hamlet and finish off everybody who made it through the rest of the song. It's a bit like climbing inside the big cat enclosure at the zoo - everything looks pretty and cuddly, then it gets messy. Of course, lions tend not to hide your body down a well afterwards.

Having said that, it's not always about murder. It's very possible to die instead from disease, poverty, a broken heart or old age caused by an extended accordion solo.

Country, in comparison, is a much jollier form of music, and sometimes an album can get through several songs without anybody being lynched, drinking themselves into a stupor, or being shot by banditos. It's sometimes quite similar to folk, but with Morris dancing replaced with spitting and swatting flies. Nashville record shops refuse to stock any album with fewer than four songs with subject matter chosen from: God, the devil, trains, general gunslinging, and dysfunctional families (traditionally a violent and abusive father, although an opium-addled mother or an irresponsibly pregnant sister are also allowed. The latter usually leads back to gunslinging). Thwarted love is also acceptable, but any song of requited love automatically counts as 'unnecessary frivolity', unless she dies in childbirth or is bumped off by banditos.

It has been suggested that country is just folk music for the New World, which means that it's more suited to somewhere where yes, there is loads of inspiring scenery, but it's on the other side of several hundred miles of desert, populated (if the cinema has taught me anything) only by wooden petrol stations, cults, missile silos and people hiding out in motels built entirely out of cockroaches and stains. For all this geographical theory, however, I'm convinced it really does come down to God, trains, and shooting stuff. Sometimes, if we're lucky, all three at the same time. It's a fine basis for a national music. Just don't mention line dancing.

Late addition: there ain't no such word as lonely in country music. It's lonesome, dagnammit.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Advertising, part the second.

Advertising, part two.

Hello folks. Here's the second bit, in all its slightly repetitive glory. I'm afraid there are no exciting revelations, other than that sometimes advertising is naff, and that's the most predictable ending since the last time the butler really did do it (1924, in my estimation).

Right, so, last I spoke, I was on the tube. Now I've disembarked, ready for work, and there, at the High Street Kensington underground station, are more posters than I can count (even if I use my toes as well), informing passers-by that Kuoni are opening their flagship store nearby. This message is accompanied by a picture of a magnificent expanse of dusty plain, across which gallops a lank of giraffes1. Lovely. Dramatic. Inspiring. But not a clue what it is that Kuoni are actually trying to sell.

My initial assumption was that they are a clothes shop. I mean, they're opening a flagship store on High Street Kensington, so it seemed like a reasonable guess. They could sell 'ethnic' clothes to the ra-ra residents. Clothes made by giraffes, or perhaps from giraffes, which would explain why they're all legging it in the picture. My second guess was an exotic pet shop. If the market exists at all, it's definitely in Kensington, and there's definitely a gap in it. If you asked me where to go in London to buy a large African land mammal requiring a forty-kilometre trot and at least half a tree of tasty and probably organic leaves every day, I'd never have had a clue until Kuoni appeared on the scene, serving all our absurd pet needs. Two for one on water buffalo? Buy a llama, get a capybara half-price?

Well, it turns out that they're a travel agent specialising in dusty and expensive holidays. Quite why a travel agent needs a flagship store is beyond me. It doesn't matter how big you make the shop, they'll never fit a holiday destination in it. Maybe it contains more brochures than have ever been seen in one building before? Or perhaps it has little taster rooms for different countries, where they fly in a scrap of land and install an authentic local to give you a taste of tourism before you buy a package?

Anyway, I hereby brand Kuoni 'loopy'. Why go to such trouble and expense to market yourselves without actually telling people what it is you do?

And one final oddness in this dreary double bill: my washing detergent. Blinded by the sheer range of apparently identical products, I picked one from the shelf at random and came home with Persil bio. The 'bio'/'non-bio' thing raises shedloads of questions all on its own: why do they cost the same? Is bio better or worse? What are its benefits? What are its ethical consequences? Is it alive? Is it wrong to conduct cosmetic experiments on it? Can you make it out of recycled cardboard? But that's so far from the point that it's bought a holiday from Kuoni and is at this moment riding a giraffe across the Savannah. The point is that this stuff, which does a perfectly decent job of actually washing, is cursed by a really silly label on the bottle. It says:

For that 'just washed' feeling!

Well I should bally well hope my four-hundred socks feel 'just washed' – I just washed them!

1 I'm fairly sure this is the correct collective noun for giraffes. It might just be 'a silliness', but I think this is already used for duck-billed platypussies, er, platipy, platipussati. Oh sod it. For more than one platypus.

Saturday, 21 June 2008



I don't suppose anybody will be surprised or shocked if I say that advertising is an iffy thing, but it can't hurt to add another voice to the crowd. And this ain't a happy crowd. If we were hanging about outside a castle on a stormy night, we'd definitely be carrying pitchforks and burning torches. Don't be tempted to try burning pitchforks – that's just taking good-natured running-a-warlock-out-of-town enthusiasm to a level that's both silly and dangerous, perhaps even reckless.

Anyway, advertising, and its manifold wrongs. I'm struck by one such sin at the beginning of every day, and I'm sure that in the long term it's ruining my breakfast, my digestion, and by extension, my life. You see, my very cereal packet offends me. For reasons no grander than convenience, I'm a regular at that corner shop run by the nice Mr Sainsbury1, and their cereal boxes, while thoroughly respectable as far as the contents go (if they were people, they'd probably be vicars or bakers. They'd certainly turn up in the sort of wholesome villages where they set children's stories), are disgraced by a heinous act of malpackaging. The back of every single blasted box informs me:

'If every Sainsbury's shopper recycled their cereal box, 750 tonnes of cardboard would be reused every year.'

Perfectly innocent so far, but the next line doesn't just slap you in the face, it sets your dog on fire as well.

'That's the equivalent to 101 double decker buses.'

Part one - slap in face: either 'the equivalent of', or 'equivalent to'. Mr Sainsbury and his assistant must have produced millions of these boxes since the new design went into action, and they all have this embarrassing, unpleasant, weevils-in-the-biscuits, Spice-Girls-in-the-record-collection of an error. But because somebody will no doubt point out that I'm wrong, I'll stagger swiftly on to the true horror:

Part two -'Good grief, what have you done to Rover? Put him out, you villain': You can't make a bus out of cardboard. Got that? It just doesn't work. The passengers will be too heavy (unless you make them out of cardboard as well), the wheels won't turn properly, and the engine, oh lord, the engine – there's supposed to be combustion going on in there! There'll be flaming chunks of eco-bus all over the place before you've even put it in gear.

There are hippy types about who won't wear shoes in case they hurt the syringes in the park, and even they wouldn't try to base a public transport system on cardboard. You could throw in junk mail, paper clips and rubber bands as well, and you'd still be hard-pressed to make anything fancier than a rickshaw, and, before you think 'hey, they're not so bad', let me remind you that this one won't have any tyres.

Gosh, there's more to complain about here than I had anticipated, so like a slightly frustrating television drama, I hereby declare this a two-parter, though not the kind that you have to follow to find out who the murderer is.

Having fumed at breakfast, off to work I go, and as the tube stops at Fulham Broadway, I am struck by another advert-based oddity. This one is only partly the fault of the advertiser, Adidas, but it did amuse me. Fulham Broadway has these big floor-to-ceiling spaces for posters, and just in front of each poster is a bench. Adidas have sent round some second division footballers to put up their new posters (sporting chaps standing on some dramatically lit rooftops, looking stern, holding footballs, and wondering how they're going to get down again. I think two of them are still up there), without realising that their logo is only on the very bottom of each poster. This, naturally, is completely obscured by the benches, so from the train you have no idea who the posters are actually for. Let's face it: every trainer company is essentially identical (except Hi-Tech, who have managed to carve out a curious niche by selling really cheap and spectacularly un-hip squash shoes to fencers), so without the logo, it's impossible to tell who the posters are for. I can just imagine some tracksuited youth seeing them from the window and thinking, 'hmm, yes, good point. I really must buy some new Nikes'.

Abrupt finish.

1 I was one by loyalty in the year they sent me a Toblerone for my birthday, but that policy seems to have ended. A pity. I'd have been an evangelist if they'd sent me some bread as well. I was a student at the time, you see. Nothing says 'happy birthday' like a small bar of chocolate from a faceless corporation.

Saturday, 14 June 2008


There is more to packaging than meets the eye. Actually, that's not strictly true. In general, there's just more packaging than meets the eye. The fellows who work down in the frudgetable*-wrapping factory really love their jobs. Probably the keenest worker in the world is the chap who tapes up lettuce. The plastic on one lettuce can take longer to get through than the US border, and that's including the 'plane flight. As for cucumbers, I'm just glad that somebody's found a use for condoms that didn't make it through quality control.

Sticking with foodstuffs, that Prince Charles fellow is a bit devilish. For all his rambling about how organics and environmentalism will cure cancer, mend the Middle East and stop Boris breaking London, he's managed to produce a range of comestibles that seem to be housed in more cardboard than it would take to wrap up a medium-sized Channel Island. You open a box of, say, biscuits, and you have to rattle it about for quite a while before you find anything edible amid the vast, empty acres of packaging.

But as the French found out when they were testing their over-sized cigar slicer, not everything is the fault of the royals. There's Argos as well. If Hercules were born today and had time to deal with a few super-human tasks before he was shuffled off to a documentary on Channel 4 (episode two, after the baby with a superfluity of limbs and before the man who can converse with root vegetables), two of them would probably involve shopping at Argos, then managing to unpack whatever he's sent to buy.

For the shopping part, the whole system feels like a 1960s dystopia. Everything has that bland but bright plastic look than was once touted as the incredibly depressing future by the same people who thought that concrete was sophisticated, rather than seeing it as the Duplo to the Lego of the red brick (Technics are all-glass skyscrapers - expensive, fiddly, cool and flash, but never looking quite right in the end). There is an American utopian novel from the nineteenth century called Looking Backward, in which all of humanity's woes are solved by a combination of clockwork computers and raging communism (and they say Americans don't do irony). Essentially, this describes Argos - a procession of queues that would have impressed the Soviet Union, and retro mechanics borrowed from a margin note in a Jules Verne novel. The worst bit is at the end, when like a gambling addict with his last ha'penny on Fuming Trousers in the 3.54 at Epsom, you stand before a brightly coloured monitor, your words alternating between prayer and obscenity, hoping your number will come in first. Its silliness is almost, but not quite matched by the bit when you use an over-sized pocket calculator to communicate with a gnome who lives in a tunnel, waiting to load things onto a conveyor belt. Oh, and the pens, the pens, which for all their failings are wonderful, because the entire pub quiz industry is based upon them.

In fact, the shop itself is like those pens - weird, a bit rubbish, but ultimately fab, because it's the best place to buy all those miscellaneous bits and bobs that you'd otherwise spend days wandering around looking for in dozens of different shops. Consumerism teaches us to forgive anything if it's cheap enough.

So, after Hercules has got his twin-pack of standing lamps, his remote control quad bike, or his sandwich toaster home, sweat pouring from his manly brow, he must then attend to the unpacking, which is where I get back to packaging, which was the point of this to begin with. The quantity and variety is almost thrilling. It's a bit like undressing a Victorian noblewoman, only instead of layers of lace, corsetry, bustles and frilly bits you must contend with sticky tape, cardboard, expanded polystyrene, foam, string, plastic bags, and sometimes smaller cardboard boxes, nested like Russian dolls. Even once you're unpacked, there's still plenty of work to be done, because there'll be tape stuck to the walls, tiny balls of expanded polystyrene all over the carpet and more cardboard piled up than you ever thought yourself capable of carrying home.

Once Hercules has dragged that lot down to the recycling bins, he can get back to some proper heroism, like saving Croydon from barbarians, or helping actuaries lift their wallets.


* A frudgetable is anything a bit green and a bit tasty that leaves the whole of human civilisation confused about the fruit/vegetable thing. Cucumbers, for instance, or peppers. Everybody bangs on about tomatoes, but they're only the tip of the really confusing iceberg. I don't know how an iceberg becomes confusing – maybe it has tax credits?


Saturday, 7 June 2008

Aristotle. No, wait, bear with me...

Right, so, Aristotle (if that's not too sudden an opening). A gent from back in the day when one could bash out reputable tomes on both politics and poetics without being thought an intellectual dilly-dallier, or a purveyor of tat and nonsense.

It turns out that some careless bugger, when packing the great Aristotlish (I can't spell Aristotelian) time capsule, only put in the first part of his two volume page-turner, The Poetics, and as a result, we, the semi- (possibly demi-, potentially hemi-) glorious future, only received the book on tragedy, leaving comedy as mysteriously absent as a House of Commons expenses receipt. This presumably explains why Renaissance comedies aren't always very funny.

Perchance the force of the human mind has become diluted over the years, for such great men of letters, and indeed words, sentences and entire paragraphs, are now as rare as an uninterrupted sortie on the district line. Not many folk are equipped to turn on their laptop on a long train journey and polish up an epoch-defining treatise on two wildly different subjects (such as, perhaps, Glastonbury and Sun, Etiquette and Youth, or Hip-hop and Music. Cripes, that made me sound old and grumpy). The closest I can think of is Bill Bryson, who, despite his evident splendour, doesn't strike me as a hemlock-swigging scion wearing a nightie. If he leapt out of a bath shouting 'eureka' (yes, I know that was Archimedes. At least it begins with 'A'), he'd probably stop to grab a towel.

Part of the problem with becoming wantonly polymathemical is that anybody now claiming to be an expert needs to have a name followed by more letters than you'd find on Christmas Eve in the Post Office Santa Claus room. You have to toil until you're older than Christopher Lee (who was eleventy-four at the last count) to reach a sufficiently remarkable degree of knowledge and wisdom to write something of utter, subject-redefining genius. You know, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. By the end of all that, you might have become the world's leading expert on eighteenth century teapots, or the reactions of water voles to reality television, but you'll have emptied your mind of any extraneous gubbins, like how to tie your shoelaces, or the reason nobody seems to accept groats as currency any more. If you try to skip earning your long, dreary spurs, then the moment you open your mouth or start your column in the Observer, a panoply of doctors, professors and other irate intellectuals will charge down upon you, rather like than bit in The Lion King when the old lion gets nailed by the herd of buffalo. Frankly, I'd prefer the buffalo to a stampeding studio of Newsnight Review guests. Have you ever been struck by a copy of Das Kapital hurled in anger? Neither have I, but I'm willing to bet that even the paperback could cause some serious damage.

Of course, Aristotle's mighty endeavours may also have been made a little easier because folks back then were mostly concerned with things like wine cellars and not being murdered by barbarians, so when somebody set aside time to scrawl down their deep thoughts, then like a groundskeeper at a sporting stadium, they pretty much had the field to themselves.

Also he was a bright chap, which I am told helps greatly in such matters.

In fact, on the whole these classical types were a bit on the clever side. I mean, they could speak ancient Greek fluently, and that's no mean feat (though from what I hear, their English was a bit ropey). I studied Greek for a year, and all I can remember is that there was once a farmer called Dikaiopolis, who had a dog. While admitting their cleverness, I must admit that every so often I wish I'd been born a few thousand years earlier. Sure, I'd be writing this by scratching a wooden stick on a wax tablet, but my old laptop wasn't much better. Any mild inconveniences, like the lack of toothpaste or sliced bread*, would be made up for by the ease of coming up with a seriously good bit of knowledge that nobody else has yet thought of. I mean, don't you ever read about some chap inventing the triangle and then think, 'well, that's a bit obvious – it's just three like-minded lines getting together for a good time'?

Even more depressingly, standards are going to change so that in another thousand years, give or take a century or two, we're all going to look like buffoons. Everyone will be wooshing about on their organic jet-packs, browsing the internet through their ear and telepathically saying things like,

'What fools those twenty-first century bods were. Would you believe they didn't even know how many dimensions the universe existed in, or how to talk to cats?'

Smug devils, eh? Still, even they won't know how to cure the common cold. After many years of research, the official advice of medical science is still 'oh, buy a box of tissues, eat an orange and stop complaining.'


* What was their yardstick for 'a jolly good idea' back then? 'Best thing since old Dikaipolois tried strapping a wheel and a handle to a bucket and called it a 'wheel barrow'?' 'Best thing since those strapping Italian lads toddled over with good wine'?


Sunday, 1 June 2008


'Monsoon Man' is apparently a clothes shop, which is no doubt a great disappointment to those who were hoping for a wetter sequel to Rain Man. On the subject of the naming of such emporia, Gap must have been calling the lawyers non-stop after they first opened a branch next to a tube station, wondering why those swinish underground announcers kept telling people to mind the Gap.

It's quite reasonable advice, really, primarily because Gap only cater to people shaped after some sort of mythical average. For some time I've objected to their wholesomely-dishevelled get-up on the grounds that everything was a bit square. Now, I'm ludicrously constructed, and was once mistaken for a pipe when I walked past a building site, so I can accept not being their target customer. However, I've also

heard nothing but fury from the diminutive portions of our society, so I'm left without a clue as to who can actually shop there. Apparently their underwear is quite comfortable, but this is Britain: all underwear comes from M&S, even when it doesn't. No matter where it's bought, the spiritual home of any British sock, pant, bra,

knicker or other undergarment is Mark's and Spencer's, just between the reasonably priced suits and the respectable skirts of a sensible length. It's like crime dramas and ITV, or nutters and night buses. Some things just belong.

As a clothes shop, M&S is a horrifying place. Even once you've dragged yourself away from the heinously magnificent scents of the bakery section and found an expanse of clothing, there's still a lot of exploration to do - I have very painful memories of getting lost in there. It wasn't just the disorientating effect of being surrounded by lingerie, but also the profusion of very clear mirrors all over the place, which made it appear that the signs to the stairs pointed in every single direction,

and also suggested that the place was teeming with customers. There came a point when I was ready to give up and go to sleep in the furniture section, finding my way out at night by the light of a display microwave. Then I thought of Scott of the Antarctic, and staggered onward. Domestic appliances is no place for a man to die.

I couldn't find a jumper even once I found the right floor (men swear? I know I did). The entirety of my vast local branch caters to old majors who want to dress entirely in an uncountable number of different shades of brown. I'm hardly a sartorial revolutionary (or I wouldn't have been in there in the first place), but surely a plainish jumper wasn't too much to ask? Plus, they only do their four shabbiest shirts in extra-long sleeves. Oh, and about half of their ranges are called 'Dad something', which is just humiliating.

Actually, that makes me think of another age-specific bit of shopping oddness. Reasonably often, when I pop into Mr Sainsbury's on the corner, seeking to top up my onion supply or replace the bread stolen by pixies in the night (happens more often than you might think), I'm asked if I'm collecting books/computers/weapons for schools vouchers. Being in my mid-twenties (I think I'm what's technically known as a 'youth', but not a 'yoof', because I can spell my name in a straight line and I only break things by accident), I wonder whether they think I'm an overgrown schoolchild or an irresponsibly young parent.

Whatever the harsh truth, I can't help feeling I'm incurring their disapproval. I must assume that as the till attendant sits there, a powerful and judgemental retail Solomon, they're thinking one of three things. Either,

'You - large child, why are you not tucked away somewhere, doing some homework? Good grief, lad, there's history of the Reformation to be learnt. Stop fondling fruit, and get thee to a textbook. You must use these formative years for useful tasks such as furthering your knowledge of differentiation, singing hymns purged of the imperialist verses, and being made to play rugby until you lose one of your ears and all of your self-confidence.'


'You, sir, are doing your child a disservice by not taking these vouchers. Don't you know that schools today are chronically under-funded and struggling to keep up with the increasingly complex educational needs of the modern day? Here we are, doing our best to help you, and you throw the vouchers back in our face. When you find

your fourteen-year-old son passed out on a river-bank clutching a plastic two-litre bottle of White Lightning, don't come crying to us.'

And hopefully not,

'How dare you have a child at your age? I pay my taxes to support those in need, not so that disreputable curs such as your rakish self can roger your way around London, leaving a trail of psychologically scarred infants in your syphilitic wake. I offer you these vouchers because it's my job, but if I had my way, you'd be had up before the

court of the Daily Mail and then forcibly emasculated for the betterment of our glorious but inconveniently overcrowded isle.'

Or it might just be because they have a pretty tough and dreary job, and frankly, one customer's not much different from any other. But where's the fun in imagining that?

Monday, 26 May 2008


Those who have recently bought (or, from a policy of social inclusivity, stolen) an MP3 player or a mobile telephone will probably have been given, out of the kindness of the hearts of our corporate masters, a pair of budget headphones. These will inevitably be of the kind that are so easily frightened that they wind themselves into a tiny tangled ball as soon as you look at them. The 1980s had the Rubik's cube, the noughties (or what's left of them) has unravelling headphone cables.

Said headphones come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and the only thing they have in common is that, like house keys when you're drunk, none of them will fit.

The most common seem to be the comma-shaped ones that fall out with such a small movement that the only people who can wear them are mimes. I think they are supposed to cling on through sheer force of earwax, but if your ears are that hideous I doubt you can hear anything anyway. I'm sure that Gregoire Lue (the Frenchman who invented artificial adhesive, don't'cha know?) had earwax on the list of sticky things to test before he settled on horse dust (which is like a cheap, sticky version of gold dust), probably in between soggy rice and computer scientists at house parties, but it just isn't enough.

Then come those big buckets that look like you've just walked out of a call centre and forgot to remove your headgear. These are designed either for people who want to look like a monster from Doctor Who, or for those who have exceedingly small heads and are quite self-conscious about it. Whoever thought they'd be a good idea clearly had good eyesight, because wearing them with glasses is a bit like paying a gas bill: unnecessarily complicated, and liable to give you a headache.

Equally unfriendly towards the bespectacled music-lover are the fish-hooks. You know the kind - the ones with a special 'ergonomic' design that's supposed to strap around your lugs so you can do proper head-banging without them falling off. The reason why they look a bit like devices of torture is because they also feel like them when you put them on.

These aside, my particular foes are the miniature hair-dryer variety, which you're supposed to jam so far inside your ears it feels like they're coming out the other side. Recently released secret documents from the designers have revealed that these are actually constructed with in-built malice. They take any opportunity they can to bound away from your head: too much swing in your step, an over-vigorous hat-doffing, or the dancing of an impromptu jig will almost certainly leave you without music, and, even worse, with a couple of irritating plastic leads swinging around your neck like corks on a comedy Australian hat. Even in those brief moments when they are in your ears, these newfangled 'phones will leave you so deaf to the outside world that crossing the road becomes as perilous as crossing the Siberian wastes wearing nothing but an 'I love gulags' t-shirt.

This is not to say that I dislike headphones. They are wonderful, and infinitely better than playing the latest rhythmic urban poetry out of a tinny speaker on the back of a bus. No, I very much approve of private music listening. I just wish somebody would invent a really snazzy way of doing it for people with shoddy eyesight and freakishly shaped ears. I'm sure there are plenty of us out there.


To a casual visitor, London's most noticeable features may be its extraordinary number of historical sights, its endless shopping potential, its infinite array of bus routes, or its fascinating range of crime. However, the true identity of the capital is found in none of these, for in truth, London is a city of musicals. Every building with a spare wall going will be plastered with posters for The Lion King, Avenue Q, Chicago, The Sound of Music, Billy Eliot or any one of a frankly silly number of bits of theatre born with so little dialogue that they had to sing it instead of speaking it.

This is plague on British society has somehow become taboo. Nobody dares to discuss the musicals problem, but it's there, for all to see, unashamedly bursting with melodramatic gestures and inappropriate explosions of song. In the city centre, the problem is so severe that you can barely walk a street without tripping over a musical retching in the gutter, or without being harangued by a drunken operetta. But do our politicians address this unwholesome parade of indulgence? Not one whit. Without exception, the mayoral candidates were obsessed with crime and public transport. Some of them even had other policies too. But not one, however, pledged to deal with the menace of musicals. Something, chaps and chapettes, must be done. I propose to write to the Telegraph. They always know what to do, and they're very good at disapproving.

One of the oddest offenders is the new treatment of Gone With The Wind. Even in non-musical format, this is the love story version of Taxi Driver - it goes on forever, then all kicks off at the end. Only instead of Robert de Niro on a killing spree, the payoff here is a Southern gentleman saying 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn'. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty leery of anything with a heroine called 'Frankly'. However, I can see that my objections are meaningless - they managed a musical of Lord of the Rings, and that's so vast it makes the American Civil War look like a border skirmish, and has so many silly names that Frankly would count as the homely, normal lass.

Whatever flaws in the material for Gone With the Wind, it does one thing exactly as demanded by the Commandments of Cheese: it ends with our strapping hero scooping up his heroine of choice and marching off to the sunset/bedroom. This is notably absent from the latest of the contenders for the peeling gilt throne. Deciding that the 'ageing legendary band has musical made about them' formula clearly needs updating without the 'ageing' or 'legendary' parts, Take That now have themselves a musical, Never Forget. Quite why they've given it a name that sounds like a documentary about genocide, nobody is sure. Also, to the hefty number of people who would really like to forget, it's an aggressive turn of phrase, like something a debt collector might say to make very sure you know the date by which money or kneecaps must be forthcoming. I'm all in favour of a spot of non-conformist story-telling, but I find it hard not to be cynical when their replacement for '... and they all lived happily ever after' is '... and they all went on to have solo careers, with varying degrees of success'. I'm also ill-disposed to anything without a sympathetic character beyond the panic-stricken usher who's had to watch it for the fifth time that week. To cap it all, it's about real, living people. This is awkward because they could even go to see it, which would be a bit like attending their own funerals. Or the funerals of their careers, anyway.

I did, however, love Les Miserables. It's hard to beat the combination of heroic, violent revolution and foxy French girls. For that, I'd set up a barricade of my own, only I think it's forbidden in my tenancy agreement. Ah yes, here we are, in section 14, paragraph (b):

'Thou shalt not use rented furniture to initiate or support the overthrow of oppressive capitalist society.'



I've always thought it a bit of a pity that stocks and shares and other slightly bewildering forms of gambling are doing so well. I'm sure they do something frightfully useful to do with making sure money doesn't fall to pieces and reduce us all to valuing things by number of chickens (or goats, in privileged circles), and I'm very glad they do this. Livestock doesn't fit in my wallet, for one thing, and I've never been very good at lobbing bricks, so I don't think I'd be well-suited to anarchy. However, despite the apparently splendid achievements of these people, they are responsible for some terrible deeds.

You see, economics has really confused all the words to do with markets. By 'markets', I mean the ones with stalls, not the ones with target demographics, graphs and people in pin-striped suits shouting a lot while holding more telephones than should be humanly possible. I have on several occasions met people involved in this seedy underbelly of maths (in my experience, real mathematicians would be aghast by the thought of their secret knowledge being used to make money. In many cases they would also be aghast by the suggestion that they shave, or shower, so perhaps they are not the most useful comparison) who have professed (or confessed, in some cases) to be traders. I, naturally, assumed that they travelled from town to town with a mule and a small wagon laden with potatoes. Apparently, this is not the case.

Equally, the word 'market' makes me think of somewhere I can stock up on carrots and onions, while being bawled at by a vast man in an apron. I imagine that a fourteenth century peasant, upon wandering into one of our markets, after being told he ought to be wearing a tie, would be very disappointed to find that he couldn't buy anything to eat.

Of course, it's also pretty difficult to buy food in a real market. Part of this is the fault of those power-shoppers who think a queue is something to do with snooker. Sometimes I wonder if this is what the harpies were a metaphor for - wooshing down and nabbing the choice cuts before the Argonauts could get a look-in. This particular brand of harpy is closely related to those shifty people who spend all week hanging about by the banana boxes in supermarkets, making sure that nobody else can so much as glance at an unbruised fruit.

But as I say, they are only part of the challenge, for markets are also blighted by imperialism. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of imperialism that sends gunboats to small, distant countries, or that sees a British passport as a sort of licence to oppress (a few steps down and quite a few more bureaucratic than a licence to kill). Instead, it's the kind that simply insists that centimetres and kilogrammes are the product of some combination of fascism, communism and the French. Which isn't such a bad assessment of the history of the EU, as it turns out, but it doesn't make it any easier for me to buy food. These retro measurements are just fiddly. For starters, they all seem to be pinned to the dimensions of the current monarch (who, considering her technical medical status of 'wizened', has massive feet), and for another thing, there's a unit of weight called the pound. I can't understand why anybody who's heard a cry of 'two pounds for a pound' can still take the imperial system seriously.