The Writer’s Circle #2 – The New Man

It is traditional to give the floor to new members, to allow them to introduce themselves.

“…I think that most of you will probably know me: I’ve been in the papers quite a lot from time to time.  My name is Terry Tease and I’m a warm-up man.  Not my real name, of course.  Not quite.  Terence Teasdale I was born, but everybody called me Tease at school and it just kind of stuck.  My mum hated it of course.  More the ‘Terry’ than the ‘Tease’.  ‘You were christened Terence,’ she used to say.  ‘If God had wanted you to be called Terry, I would have christened you Terry.’  She wasn’t happy when the local paper started to call me Tease the Sleaze either, but it was all a simple mistake and it soon passed.  Mother spoke to the girl and I don’t know what she said, but she stopped saying things almost straight away.  It didn’t really matter anyway though, because she moved away soon afterwards.  Bought herself a new car as I recall.  Mother never spoke about it afterwards, but she made me promise never to go on any of those websites again.  Not that I had a lot of choice; the computer stopped working soon afterwards and mother refused to have a smart phone in the house.  She approved of mobile phones only as long as they didn’t have pictures.  Ungodly she called them, so I never bothered.  She took all my calls anyway, so I never really needed one myself.

I always wanted to be an entertainer.  I was never good at school work so I didn’t really have the skills to do anything else.  I wasn’t class clown or anything, nobody ever found me very funny if I’m honest, and I didn’t really have many friends.  Well, any really.  I always preferred the company of the girls, tell the truth, but they didn’t have much time for me – always kept me at arm’s length – and the lads just called me a mummy’s boy.  So, anyway, I went to school – mostly – and sat quietly, and kept myself to myself as much as I could: kept my head down, tried not to make enemies; it’s what we all do at school, isn’t it?

I had a few jobs after I left school.  Well, quite a lot actually.  Mostly in shops, stacking shelves, that kind of thing – never got to work with the customers really.  Never got near the till.  Never lasted that long.  Mostly ended with mother telling me not to bother getting my smart clothes on when she brought my tea up in the morning.  Something would come along, she always said.  Mostly it did, I couldn’t seem to stop it.

I’ve always been single.  Never seem to have met the right girl really.  At least, none that mother thought were right.  Stopped trying after a while.  You come to an age where everybody is already married or divorced with kids.  I’ve never been any good with kids.  They don’t seem to take to me.  I don’t know why.  Mother got me a job as Santa’s Little Helper one year in a department store.  That didn’t last long I can tell you.  Little sod.  It took me hours to get the chewing gum out of my hair.  I mean, what was I supposed to do?  You’ve got to be so careful with children.  I thought it was safer for everybody if he stayed in that cupboard until he calmed down.  His mother didn’t agree, of course – no idea about discipline – but the store said they’d have to let me go – just as soon as they’d persuaded the shrieking woman not to press charges.  So, another job bit the dust.  Still, it’s an ill wind and all that.

I was held in the manager’s office for a while with a young lad who I took to be a shoplifter.  We got talking.  Richard Danvers he said his name was.  He was actually from the warehouse, working part-time while he went through Uni.  Something to do with catering, I think: food hygiene, that kind of thing.  He had dreams of becoming a celebrity chef, but unfortunately he couldn’t keep his hands out of the till.”

Terry cast his eyes around the circle.  Many of the jaws were slack, but the eyes were all fixed.  One or two of the group appeared to be shifting uncomfortably in their seats, but he put that down to the hard chairs.  All in all, he had never enjoyed attention like it.

“Well,” he resumed.  “I’m sure most of you know my story from there on.  You look like an intelligent bunch.  All read the papers, that kind of thing.  I started on the club circuit much to my mother’s disgust.  She took to her bed and slowly faded away – it took her three years in the end.  She said she couldn’t handle the shame: her only son a ‘showman’.  Mind you, when it finally came, her death still managed to take everybody by surprise.  I’d made her a nice fish pie, just for a change, that kind of thing.  She said she’d never had one before I remember.  Who could have guessed that she was so allergic to shellfish?

Anyway, I worked my way up from third support to compere within the year.  I didn’t do the kids’ nights, of course, but I made up for it by doing a double shift on Thursdays, Cabaret Compere and Bingo Caller and, as many of you will know, that is where I once again bumped into a young comic called Dick Devine.  He was just starting out back then.  Changed his name from Danvers.  No-one would ever have guessed that he would become the UK’s Quiz Show King.  But I took him under my wing, gave him a few tips where I could, introduced him to a few people – on the council mainly – watched him grow up.  Become a man you might say.  I like to think that I set him on his way and, to be fair, he was very helpful to me when mum took ill.  Oh the stories I could tell…”

Terry smiled briefly.  It was not comforting.

“When Dick first moved into TV I sent him a little letter, to congratulate him and to remind him how far we went back, the memories we shared, that kind of thing and before I knew it, there I was, a BBC warm-up man.  The man that got the audience ready for Dick!  I loved that job and I was good at it.  ‘Never be too funny,’ they told me, ‘it upsets Dick if you’re too funny,’ and I never was.  He used to pat me on the back sometimes as we passed in the studio.  ‘Great job,’ he would say.  ‘You make me look so good.’  And then, one day, out of the blue, I got the news.  Sacked.  Direct from Dick, they said.  They said he would text me personally, but he never did.  He had just been given a new show, prime time Saturday slot and he said he needed a proper warm-up man, not some sleazy ex-bingo caller apparently.  Sent me a cheque and said not to bother to come back to collect my things as he was having them burned.  He said he would love to be able to recommend me to the other studios – but he didn’t intend to lie for me anymore.

So, that’s why I’m here really.  I’ve had an interesting life and I think it’s probably time I wrote some of my stories down.  He’s a powerful man is Dick, everybody loves him, and the papers really want to hear all about what he was like on the way up.  So I’ll tell them, and if they want me to tell them all about how to test for shellfish allergies, I’ll tell them that too…”

The Running Man and Beats per Minute

My ‘shuffle’ is trying to kill me.  On my last run it gave me Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters, Foo Fighters and, just as I was beginning to feel that something had gone radically wrong with it, Muse, more Foo Fighters, Led Zeppelin, Seasick Steve and Wishbone Ash.  I am no aficionado on BPM, but I do understand what happens to my heart rate when my loping run is spurred on by the kind of tunes that have no place in the ears of a sixty-year old in the advanced stages of hyperventilation.  Don’t get me wrong here, I love all of the tracks it gave me, but it does normally mix them up a little here and there.  There are currently only four Foo Fighters songs on the entire playlist, because they tire me out.  I can accept that I may get more than one per run, but back-to-back?  It had a few Muse tracks to choose from, but it chose Stockholm Syndrome; Led Zep, it chose Rock & Roll; Seasick Steve, Back In The Doghouse and Wishbone Ash Runaway.  You cannot tell me that it was not being wilful; it has Bryan Ferry and Elbow lurking about on there somewhere for goodness sake.

I have plenty of plodders on my list: great tracks, but with a beat that eases me along rather than driving me on.  They give me the opportunity to get my breath back to some extent (that being the extent that I do not actually expire) and ensure that I do not melt my bobble hat from the inside.  The weird thing about the tracks I got today is, although they exhaust me, they do not actually speed me up.  My pace is metronomic.  If running were a dance it would be slow, slow, slow, slow, slow.  Like the ancient couple you see at Blackpool tea dances, but without the twirling.  I’m not good with time signatures, but it feels like my running playlist songs are all the same.  If they’re not, I find a way to make them so.  Somehow they all fit in with ‘plod, plod, plod’.

My brain, no longer filled with ‘fifty reasons why I shouldn’t be doing this’, has decided to take in the music and allow entrance to nothing else whilst I run.  I don’t know where my conscious mind goes off to, but it is seldom with me whilst I run.  I can feel it emptying as I take to the streets.  I am a brainless man on a mission – although I’m not alone in that respect, am I?  If I carry on for long enough I could end up running a country (into what, I could not say).  It’s interesting – to me it is, however, you may choose to pick lint from your navel or trim the hairs in your ears instead – that something up there takes the opportunity to de-clutter whilst the sitting tenant is out.  I’m not conscious of it happening, but I am conscious of the mess between my ears when it has not done so.  Going for a run has become my way of allowing me to make sense of the world without my brain sticking its oar in.  Unfortunately, even though my running capacity is very time-limited, by the time I get back home I have already begun to realise that, actually, there is no sense to it all.

And that brings me back to my shuffle because, whilst this piece sat half-finished on my computer, I went out for another run.  (Perhaps I should explain here that pieces often sit around on my laptop for days before they get finished.  Sometimes they are only a first sentence.  I don’t want you thinking that, short of the house being on fire, I would ever go out running twice in the same day.)  Today my shuffle gave me Bryan Ferry, Blue Oyster Cult, China Crisis, Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, John Martyn and Judie Tzuke; altogether more sedate, I’m sure you’ll agree.  And yet I was quicker than my last run and less tired at the end of it.  Answers on a postcard please…

The last Running Man episode, The Running Man and Lockdown, is here.
The whole sorry saga started here.

Zoo #18 – Sloth

Consider now the two-toed sloth,
Gamely hanging on with both
His sharpened claws onto a tree,
Whilst envying the sloths with three.

It struck me that the last couple of rhymes – although undoubtedly nonsense – have drifted away somewhat from the original short and sharp, in and out, ethos of the earlier zoo rhymes, so this is intended as something of a return.  Truth is, it is impossible not to love a sloth with their big smiley faces – even though they are, apparently, covered in fleas, ticks and even moss.  They can’t scratch them off can they?  It’s so easy to lose your grip when you’ve only got two toes…

The Crown

Photo by Caroline LM on Unsplash

I am shedding teeth like a snake sloughs skin.  What was once a slightly crumbling Acropolis within my mouth now more closely resembles Stonehenge.  I dare not venture out on the Spring Solstice for fear of being continually turned to face the sun by druids.  If I grin in artificial light, the shadow I cast resembles the Andes.  If I floss, I have to use 4-ply wool in order to touch the sides, and I have to carry a bucket to capture the enamelled escapees.  If I eat a biscuit, I attract a crowd of children whom, it would seem, enjoy listening to the sound of dental fragments as they pitter patter down onto the plate.  I can no longer eat anything harder or more chewy than a marshmallow.  I can only really be at peace with a meal if I am able to suck it.  I would not be able to eat out if ‘Soup of the Day’ did not exist.

Today has been another ‘Dentist Day’: preparation for a crown that will take me one step closer to repairing the crumbling façade of my smile.  The procedure involves, as far as I can tell, having the remains of my shattered molar ground down to a stump using something that feels as though it might well have been made by Black & Decker – or whoever it is that makes the rigs for the North Sea.  It would be of no surprise to me to find that the vibrations have, Terminator-like, liquefied my existing fillings and, from the feel of it, bounced my brain around in my cranium like a pea in a beach ball.  My poor, emaciated dentine is currently encased within a ‘temporary crown’ that feels like a tea tray suspended on concrete has been affixed to my jaw.  Little bits of… something project from the edge at angles that consistently take me by surprise.  I most definitely dare not chew on it.  It has to last me three weeks before its permanent* replacement is ready.  I’m pretty certain that it will not survive the gnashing associated with the next Prime Ministerial Broadcast.  I feel as though breathing might unsettle it.

I am pretty certain that the dentists have notes on my file to warn them that I am a nervous patient: something along the lines of ‘If you don’t want him to die on you, keep him calm.’  They are very kind, but it doesn’t help.  Nothing in my brain can make sense of being laid down, beyond horizontal, whilst people fish about inside my head.  It doesn’t help that they currently look as if they are about to deal with toxic waste.  Understanding the explanation of what they are about to do with what looks disturbingly like a thermal probe is not helped by communication taking place through an industrial-strength surgical mask and a visor that would be at home in a riot.  Why is it, that not until I have four hands in my mouth and I am robbed of all alternatives, do I discover that my nose has stopped working?  Breathing through the mouth is definitely too risky: nobody wants the tube of a vacuum cleaner down there.  (Although, unless I produce unfeasible volumes of saliva, they certainly do not seem very efficient those little tubes.  Today, the dentist actually stopped, mid-drill, in order to mop me down – and, I suspect, herself, her assistant and possibly the walls too.)   I have tried to inhale through my ears, but they do not provide a viable alternative to the oesophagus.  I’m pretty certain that there is a route through to the lungs down there, but I am unable to make it work.  What I do is to freeze, breathing neither in nor out, until there is a natural break in proceedings and I can gasp in a lungful of air without the risk of swallowing a latex glove.  If my dentist appointments become any more frequent, I will have to develop the lung-capacity of a sperm whale.

I am back in three weeks to have the new crown fitted.  My face should have returned to its normal colour by then.  The burst blood vessels should have re-buried themselves.  Currently my jaw aches, my tooth throbs and my gums feels as though they are too sensitive to accept the application of ‘Sensitive Tooth Paste’, so I at least know that the Anaesthetic is wearing off.  Why does a worked-upon tooth always feel far too big for the mouth?  Currently I feel as if an inadvertent chomp might just force something up into my brain.

I wouldn’t mind, but since the ministrations of the paid-by-the-filling school dentist in the 60’s and the need to open beer bottles in the 70’s, I have taken great care of my teeth through my adult years.  I have brushed and flossed with the best of them.  Fear, I will admit, has always been a big factor.  The fear that I would have to visit the dentist more often than twice a year for a simple check-up has always been a great motivator in the dental-hygiene stakes for me.  But now?  Well, my teeth have started to take on all the hues of Rembrandt’s palette and bits of them, like Sugababes**, break away at will.  I cannot use a mouthwash for fear of washing them out.  It is the price we pay as we get older.  We either pay the dentist or we end up being unable to eat anything that will not puree.  Like Rome, a decent set of gnashers are not built in a day and, like that great city, nothing can prevent their decline and fall. 

I have the time on my hands now to search for an alternative: a life without teeth.  I may research whether it is possible to survive on bananas – it will at least give me something to chew on…

*Dentist’s Joke.

**If you are not British and ‘of a certain age’ you may well have to make your own joke up there – relax, it will almost certainly be an improvement.

The Writer’s Circle #1 – Penny’s Poem

“‘…Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.  If that is granted, all else follows…’”  Deidre paused, took a quiet breath, and gathered herself together before preparing to launch forth into her next chapter.  Frankie Collins scratched his chin, uncertain.  He’d heard that line before.  He knew he’d heard that line before.  He half-raised his hand to speak, but he just wasn’t certain, and he diverted his hand to smooth down the unruly mop of hair that swamped his forehead instead.  He knew that line, he was sure, but from where?  It could be a book, but it could just as easily be a toilet cleaner advert.  He just could not bring the source to mind.  It was no good, he would have to hold his tongue until he knew for sure.  No chance to consult his phone until the meeting was over and by then it would be too late.  If he called her out, she would just change it.  She would deny ever having said it.  Claim that he had misheard her.  He knew that nobody would back him up; Deidre Desmond was, of course, the Writing Club star.  A published author.  Four full novels under the Mills & Boon banner and a partial review in The Times.  You do not become a published Romance novelist by plagiarising the work of George Orwell…  George Orwell!  Of course!  That’s it, ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’!  Deidre opened her mouth to recommence the reading from what she was certain would be her new best-seller, ‘The Heart Full of Stars’, as Frankie leapt to his feet.  “Excuse me,” he stuttered, still uncertain that he had got it right.  Fourteen eyes turned towards him.  “I denounce you as a plagiarist,” he intended to say, but he had barely stammered through “I” before the door clattered open and Phil Fontaine burst in, late as ever, clearly not on the outside of just his first drink of the evening and conspicuously manuscript-less.  Deidre stared severely and Frankie slumped, deflated by the moment, back into his chair.  His time had passed.

Phil made his way around the circle, muttering soft apologies each time he stood on toe or handbag, until finally arriving at his appointed place next to shrinking violet Penny who studiously avoided eye contact, aware that she would blush horribly.  He looked around the circle, to the sheaves of paper nestled on knees, and appeared to notice for the first time, that he held nothing.  “Ah,” he said.  “I’m sorry, I… I think I must have left my book at home.  I… I was supposed to be reading tonight, wasn’t I?”  He sighed melodramatically.  “And I was really pleased with what I’d written this week.”
“Yes, well…” Deidre smiled the smile of a cat stalking a three-legged mouse.  “I have filled in with a little reading from my own new work so far.  If you are happy, I can continue.”
Phil nodded sadly, although his eyes were smiling.
“Now, where was I?”  Deidre continued.
“You had just quoted the line from Orwell,” yelled Frankie, half leaping to his feet.
Rictus gripped Deidre’s face.  Her teeth cleaved to her lips.  “Ah yes,” she lisped, taking a long, slow drink from her water bottle.  “The quote.  I’m unsure about the quote.  Maybe I will remove that…”

Phil Fontaine and Frankie Collins stood together at the bar, Phil cradling a large tumbler of Scotch whilst Frankie, who was driving, slowly spun a half pint of shandy between his palms.  “I know that she wouldn’t have dared to send that line to the publishers,” he said.  “It would have been picked up straight away.  She was just trying to impress, but just be careful what you read to her, that’s all I’m saying.  Unless you want it to end up in a ninety page pot-boiler.”
“She’s all bluster.  Have you ever seen a single word of what she has written in a bookshop?  Those books go out of print faster than the algorithms that write most of them.  She just regurgitates nineteenth Century bodice-rippers and good luck to her, I say.  She wants us all to believe that what she writes is much more worthy than it is, but let’s face it, she is the only one of us with a publisher at the moment.”
“I suppose so.”  Frankie drained his glass.  “Come on, we ought to go back upstairs.  Everybody else has gone.”
Phil looked deep into the heart of the amber fluid, feeling its pain, before swallowing it down and following Frankie towards the stairs.  “What have we got now?”
“I think that our little wallflower is going to read us one of her new poems.”
“Ah, is it about a bird by any chance?”
Frankie smiled broadly, but did not reply.
“It’s amazing how many rhymes she can find for tit,” said Phil, feeling just the slightest pang of shame.

The two men bundled into the room together, giggling loudly.  The chairs in the neatly laid circle were all occupied, with the exception of the two awaiting the late-comers.  All eyes, except for those of Penny, who was fidgeting nervously with her papers, turned on them.  They found their way towards the empty chairs as noiselessly as they could and took their places.  Penny had her eyes cast to the floor, breathing quietly and deliberately; looking for all the world as though she was waiting to address an audience of thousands.  Phil touched her hand lightly as he sat, and smiled apologetically.  Penny smiled back weakly and took a long deep breath as Deidre rose to her feet.  “And now,” she said, with a grin that played with the features of her face which released it to the world as a grimace, “Before Francis reads us the latest chapter from his new book” – she knew how much he hated being called Francis – “Penny is going to read us her latest little poem called…” she consulted a scribbled note on the back of her hand, “…‘Morning Chorus’.  It is, she tells me, another entry into her delightful little collection ‘The Book of Birds’ with which she hopes to approach a publisher very soon.  I’m sure I speak for us all when I wish her the very best of luck.”

After a sparse round of applause, led by Deidre, had died away, timid little shrew Penny rose to her feet, winking broadly at Phil as she did so.  Shyly, she coughed and began, “I wandered lonely as a cloud…”

The Running Man and Lockdown (the Third)

So, here we go again, locked away until things improve, even as government advisors tell us that we may well still be under some form of Covid restriction as we stagger into 2022.  It is impossible not to be depressed by it.  The vaccine is our salvation, we are told – except that it just might not be effective against the potential new strains of an ever-mutating enemy: Godzilla, Swamp thing, Piers Morgan…  In the UK, we have all become friendless hermits, locked away in pristine homes with the ever-present smell of fresh paint and Lynx Africa; staring out of the window through metaphorical net curtains (real net curtains having been removed from all glazed units except those in ‘greasy spoon’ cafes and once-trendy French Bistros, now Pizza Takeaways) and making note of any over-sized social gatherings marching by – especially if they appear to have strayed rather further from their own homes to exercise than the law permits (eg you don’t recognize their faces and their walking boots are far too sturdy for a gentle tramp around the block).  The village has become like a Moscow suburb in the 1980’s: everybody is boiling up leftover beetroot and onion roots; we are all suspicious of the actions of others; everybody is prepared to turn in their neighbours for the promise of a supermarket delivery slot.  Every curtain in the street twitches when the Amazon delivery van arrives. 

We have a car that parks outside our house every day.  The driver walks around the corner and down the road to visit whomever it is that he does not want to be seen parking outside the house of.  I cannot tell you which house that might be; it is far too cold for me to follow him in a Homburg and a raincoat and, by the time I have dressed suitably for the weather – at least five cosy layers, plus hat, scarf and coat – and packed my flask of soup in case of unforeseen circumstance, he will be long gone.  Whether he fears the Lockdown Police, or whether he chooses to park so far from the house he intends to visit for more nefarious reasons, I cannot say.  I know only that the annoyance it causes my wife is on a par with that caused by me hanging my coat on the coat rack – it covers the radiator apparently.  I’m sure that, in these times of grocerial drought, if she thought we could spare a potato, she would ram it up his exhaust, or – if he was lucky – that of his car.

We are allowed to leave the house only to shop, to go to work (which I no longer have) and to exercise (which I do daily, as it is free, it gets me out in the fresh air and it gives me space to think – although I still have no idea of where I should hang my coat).  Now, those of you who have stoically stayed by my side since The First Lot, will know that in May of the first Lockdown I began to run and I published the first part of my Couch to 5k Diaries, which ran weekly for ten weeks and thence more sporadically through to the last entry, ‘The Running Man in the Dark’, in November; providing material for twenty two posts in all (I think – I am certainly prepared to be corrected on that or, indeed, anything else that doesn’t cost me money).  Although the running posts have appeared more intermittently since the initial ten weeks of the ‘course’ my running has continued, predictably metronomically.  Whilst the world around me has changed, I have trundled myself out onto the village streets three times a week, without fail or enthusiasm, in order to lug this ageing frame into a position on the BMI chart that does not automatically alert paramedics across three counties.  The UK emerged from the first Lockdown in June and I finished the Couch to 5k regime in August – behind the curve as always.  As a nation we staggered on through various levels of restriction – from the brief window of hope in the summer to the drifting fatalism of doom in the autumn – and into Lockdown (Episode 2) in November when my running thoughts became, once again, a more regular feature: it pays to have something to hang your ‘coat’ on.  This mini-lockdown ended in early December – although the world in general didn’t get any better for it and my own part of it spiralled down like a tumble dryer tipped from the top of K2.

Through December, I began to appreciate the joys of running in the dark.  My pace slowed as I strained to ensure that I did not trip on kerb and unlit pothole, but the streets were generally empty, save for other runners and dog-walkers.  Even burglars did not venture out, as there were so few empty houses and the streets were full of people who looked as if they just might be able to chase them.  I began to ladle on layers: hat, gloves, snood, running tights, and I filled in on an exercise bike when the weather was too bad for me to venture out (I am notoriously unstable on the ice).  Running became a refuge from fear.

And then?  Well the gentle slide into worsening fortunes turned into a breakneck plunge into the abyss.  New, more infectious Covid strains, a hastily abandoned Christmas, the NHS in crisis, lead to the inevitable Lockdown#3 and the weakening of spirits more usually associated with an unscrupulous seaside landlord, a funnel and a bottle of water.  I have run through it all.  The reality of these thrice weekly ambles is seldom of interest to me, let alone anybody else, but then in times of crisis… 

Through both previous lockdowns, my running has provided the peg on which I have hung my coat of pain and – well, I think you can guess what I am going to say…

Thursdays may well become the day of the Running Man once again.  I’m sorry.  I realise that things are bad enough already.

Remember – Hands, Face, Space and Open the Windows.  Good times are just around the corner!

The next instalment of my running diary, ‘The Running Man and Beats per Minute’ is here.
The last instalment of my running diary, ‘The Running Man in the Dark’ is here.
This whole sorry, loping saga started in May, last year, with ‘Couch to 5k’.

Zoo #17 – Quail

She had this piece of homework
To finish off today
It says she must describe a quail
So I helped in my own way.


A quail is like a partridge,
A partridge like a grouse.
A grouse is like a moorland fowl,
He wouldn’t harm a mouse.

A mouse is like a gerbil,
A little like a rat.
A rat is like a guinea pig,
I’m almost sure of that.

A guinea pig is smaller
Than a rabbit or a dog.
It’s nothing like a lion,
And nothing like a frog.

A frog and toad are different,
Although I’m not sure how,
But both of them are absolutely
Nothing like a cow.

A cow is like a bison,
A bison like a yak.
A yak is like a camel…..
A little – from the back.

A camel’s like a llama,
A llama’s got a lot
Of everything and anything
Our friend, the quail, has not.

I hope that this has helped you
With what you need to know.
Whenever you have homework
I’ll always have a go.

So, when your teacher asks you,
You know you cannot fail.
Just hand her in your sheet that says
“It’s nothing like a whale…..”

You know what it’s like when you start and you can’t seem to stop.  I don’t know what made me think of a quail; I’m not even certain that they have them in zoos, but if they do, at least you will now know what you are looking at…

The Smile of a Madman

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Am I alone in spotting my own face in a photograph and seeing the smile of a madman?  I can never quite understand why the person I see in photographs is nothing like the man I see in the bathroom mirror.  I go to the mirror to brush my hair, clean my teeth, check for extraneous cilial outcrops, before posing for a photograph and I look ok, rational, a relatively normal-looking, middle-aged man and, thirty seconds later, the photographer has turned me into a wide-eyed lunatic with mad hair and teeth that look as though they might have been rejected by a camel.  It is hard to reconcile myself to the fact that I am the person that nobody wants to stand beside in case it rubs off: the man that bathed in TCP.  A photograph is worth a thousand words?  Great, but do they have to be so very jarring?  I would like, just for once, to look like the man who didn’t go through the windscreen; like I haven’t had a mincing machine incident.  I would like not to look like my features have been positioned by a malevolent sprite: not like a dreadful 1970’s police photofit assembled by a man with spatial recognition issues and an out of control crack habit.  I live with no illusion of pulchritude, no desire to be handsome – just the desire to not always be the post-vivisection monkey that didn’t quite get his head through the closing door. 

I don’t know who it was that said that the camera never lies, but he had clearly never attempted to get a passport photo from one of those train station camera booths.  It is impossible to arrange your face in any fashion that does not emerge as rigor.  I am of an age that remembers the first shared visit to the camera booth with the girl of your dreams as a rite of passage.  Of course, when I say ‘girl of your dreams’, it is important that you remember that, at that age, the position was re-cast almost daily, and at half-a-crown a pop, there was a definite hierarchy to who made it that far.  Half a crown bought a visit to the pictures*, a packet of Poppets and 5 Park Drive filter-tipped, with which to cough the film away.  There had to be balance even to the promise of a quick snog behind the closed photo-booth curtain – in my case, usually because the female involved had decided to stay at home to a) treat her own acne or b) not be repulsed by mine. 

I grew up at a time when everybody smoked.  I did not know a single adult who did not smoke.  Those that did not like the flavour of tobacco disguised it with menthol tips – the more they disliked it, the longer the tip.  Those who wanted to affirm their credentials as a ‘proper’ smoker went for Capstan Full Strength – a shorter, stockier tab, unfiltered and made, to the best of my recollection, from a mixture of tar and old socks.  I personally slipped quickly from Park Drive to Silk Cut (a cigarette specifically formulated for the non-smoker) and thereafter, having acquired my teenage smoking stripes, to the ranks of confirmed non-smoker where I have remained ever since.

Breathing in the warm, beery, smoky fug that used to emanate from open pub doors in the winter, however, is a pleasure that I will forever miss – like Bluebird Toffee that you broke with a little hammer, Sherbert Pips and Christmas gatherings captured on the new Instamatic camera with its twenty-four tiny, imperfectly frozen moments, carefully preserved within a plastic shell, and illuminated on occasion, by the four-flash Perspex cube that affixed to the camera at just the right position to temporarily blind you with every shot.  Nothing now matches the once-upon-a-time thrill of the forty eight hour wait for the photographs to be returned from the printers, festooned with stickers informing you that they had all been over-exposed, possibly as a result of either inserting the film cartridge in backwards or some other manifestation of incipient stupidity.  No phone-photo backup.  No two thousand frame safety net on the memory card.  Just twenty four snaps that you could not even review until they came back black, with just the faintest glimmer of a lighted cigarette to one side.  If you went on holiday with a spare film, you were indeed a rich man.

Today there are barely any limits to how many photographs you can take, nor how many you can erase in order to leave just the one in which you do not look like the hairless ape you are.  How far has photography progressed since my youth?  Well, we have digital capture, Adobe Photoshop and self-focusing lenses, but still no easy allowance for the unprepossessing visage and a smile that looks like it should not be let out in public – and still no way to reset the bathroom mirror.

It’s a very strange fact that whilst, with age, one does begin to feel far less angst about one’s appearance – to be honest, much to the dismay of my wife and daughters it has never been very high on my own agenda – one does become increasingly obsessed about ‘looking your age’: about whether you really do look as old as that guy over there, who you know is at least five years younger than you.  In reality, you know that nobody really cares what you look like any more and there is much joy to be had in ‘no longer being a threat’ to anyone below retirement age**. (It is a joy to discover how friendly young women become when you are unlikely to have ulterior motives beyond trying to slip in an odd out-of-date ‘money off’ voucher at the till.  As a man that has never posed a threat to anything beyond a chocolate bar, it is a privilege I have always enjoyed***.)  In as much as it was ever important – and teenage photo’s ensure me that it was – it no longer makes any sense to chase the unattainable.  What comes out of the mouth, what sits between the ears, is all that matters.  Unfortunately the jumbled mess that occupies my cranium does give some cause for concern on that front, but what the hell, nobody’s listening anyway… 

*What we in the UK used to call the cinema – before it became the movies.

**The three ages of man through the word ‘nightcap’:

  1. 15 – 60 – ‘Any chance of sex?’
  2. 60 – 80 – ‘Any chance of a bedtime whisky?’
  3. 80+ – ‘Any chance you might have something to keep my head warm?

***Be friendly.  It is so rare to encounter unfriendly people if you are friendly yourself – unless you are trying to buy a fridge.


Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on

I am not at all certain of how this will pan out: this is not my usual way of doing things.  The starting point for my little ragbag of ideas and mental cul-de-sacs is normally just that, a starting point – a first sentence, sometimes a paragraph, a vague idea of destination and an unrecognized postcode for the satnav.  Occasionally a topic will present itself, usually some vague gripe or perceived injustice or I may just spot a bubble I’m dying to burst.  Today I have none of those things, just a nebulous conviction that I should return to a topic of the past in order to measure how I view it today, compared to yesterday.

I plumped for Fashion.  I first did so in January 2019 (you can find it here) so it must have provided me a reason for the visit back then.  I don’t know.  I decided against reading it until I had finished scrawling today*.  I was interested to see whether I had returned to old themes, or maybe repeated the same jokes.  (In my head, old jokes are always delivered by Danny Dyer.  I have no idea why.  I think it is probably because there is so little to commend an old joke delivered by somebody who believes it’s a new one – especially when it is one of your own.)  Nothing goes out of fashion quite as quickly as a bad joke – except, perhaps, for tartan edgings.

Now, I know that my love of old comedy makes me deeply unfashionable.  In a weird kind of a way, I embrace bad comedy as warmly as I cling on to great comedy (I have to, I have written plenty of rubbish over the years).  I cast my mind back to when a joke was written and view it from that perspective, but (and this is a really big ‘but’) I cannot defend the indefensible, what was once hurtful, remains forever hurtful.  Racism used to be normal, an acceptable means of getting a laugh, seldom intentionally hurtful and yet in reality bitterly so, as it remains.  Sexism, racism, religious intolerance – all fair game once upon a sit-com, but now?  I desperately hope not.  These are things that should never have been tolerated in the first place and most certainly should never be revisited. 

And now I can’t stop thinking about okra**… 

Little in this world is as fashion-bound as food.  When I was a boy, mash was not mash without lumps: veg was not veg unless it turned into soup at the merest prick of a fork.  Everybody ate offal – it was cheap and nutritious and about as welcome on a young boy’s plate as boiled sock on a mountain of brussel sprouts: think boiled fish and lumpy mash with a watery sauce of unknown origin; think tinned sardines on toast.  In my middle years, nobody ate offal – it was cheap and therefore vulgar.  It could probably turn you into a mad cow.  (It was to my great amusement to find, on holiday in Greece in the late 80’s, that every bar had a sign outside the entrance  guaranteeing that their kitchen served no ‘English Crazy Beef’.) Now it is impossible to turn on Masterchef without being confronted by the lights of some unfortunate small mammal being turned into a bon-bon.  Meat – I think particularly of duck and pork – that once had to be cooked for a fortnight before being considered edible, is now served twitching.  I have not eaten meat for almost forty years, and for many of those years, I have considered Vegans to be some kind of vegetarian extremist wing: Patty Hearst with a carrot, but veganism is now viewed not only as normal, but as the way forward for the whole planet.  It could well be true.  Until, of course, somebody throws a spanner in the works by proving that plants really do experience pain and distress.  I have to ask myself, could I eat a carrot if it had big cow-like eyes?  Could I eat corn on the cob if it made orphans of its little kernel children?  I saw a TV programme recently about laboratory made meat, and it made me feel more queasy than standing beside the air-conditioning unit outside a KFC.  Sooner or later, as always happens, the way ahead will come to be seen as a wrong turn and we’ll all have to find somewhere else to go.

That’s what fashion does to us, isn’t it?  It makes us feel as though we are doing exactly the wrong thing, at precisely the wrong time, in completely the wrong clothing – although there is every chance that they will all be the right thing in the morning (except for those flares which, believe me, are never coming back).  The danger is that putting right past wrongs can also be branded as a fashion and surely that can’t be right, can it?  If we follow that logic it would be wrong of me to denounce the brushed denim loon just because I, myself, once wore them and at the time I didn’t think that it made me look like a dork.  My purple, patent leather, cork-heeled boots might not have ruined any lives – but it still doesn’t mean that I would choose to go back to them.  Nothing can put yesterday right – I’m not even certain of how we could possibly try to do that.  All that we can do is to acknowledge that it was wrong and make bloody sure that, like leg-warmers, it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN.

**…which I have now done.  It is actually far more concerned with what I would call actual fashion, but none-the-less, similarly anti-fashion.  Sadly, two years on, I still feel like a directionally dyslexic arrow with no map towards the target; a slightly warped quill in a world of carbon shafts.  I still feel like I have a sucker at the end…

*I fear that you might have to pick your own way through that little lot.  If you can make sense of it, perhaps you can pass it on.  This is a light-hearted little blog, not designed for big beefs, but sometimes they bubble up anyhow.  What I have to say can never change anything – although what we all have to say just might – and when I get mad, I think of okra…


Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash

I have been an employee all my life.  I am passably good at what I do: I have more letters after my name than the average Russian General, and yet nobody takes the slightest bit of notice of what I have to say.  If I ask somebody to do something, they invariably have any number of reasons why they should not do so; why any attempt to compel them to do so would precipitate a disastrous series of events.  I could stamp my little feet, scream and shout and get things done, but it’s easier, frankly, and much gentler on the nerves to just do it myself, trusting others to get on with mundane daily tasks whilst I unblock the toilet.  I don’t have the will to get into battles over matters of little consequence these days.

My goal, for what remains of this earthly journey, is to keep the path as smooth as possible – even though it is littered with hillocks.  I will fight when I feel that it is right, but I have a four word mantra that buzzes through my head each time I begin to get too exercised about nothing: Is it worth it?  Is the fight worth the pain of embroilment?  Almost inevitably the answer is ‘No’.  If I was taking part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, I just know that I would be galloping along, close to the back (never actually last – that’s a step too far) chuntering quietly about the futility of the whole exercise and muttering darkly to anyone that would listen about how it would all end in tears.

Throughout my life, trouble has always found it very easy to find me: I cannot think of a single reason to head off in search of it.  I never look for a fight for the very simple reason that I have a tendency to lose them.  (Losing my temper is, by the way, something that I always try to avoid.  My blood pressure – although moderated by pills and exercise – remains similar to that of Jupiter and I do not particularly wish to become embroiled in any activity that might raise it to fatal levels without the promise of at least some reward.  Especially when the possibility of taking a punch in the bracket is on the agenda.)

Now, you might think – probably with a certain justification – that this makes me sound incredibly effete.  I couldn’t possibly comment – at least not before I’ve looked the word up – but I can tell you what brought this particular spell of introspection upon me.  It is twofold.  Firstly, I am currently nursing a papercut, suffered during the proofreading process of my previous post (Yes, I do!) and it made me think about how troublesome even the smallest of physical intrusions can prove.  Upon realising that I had suffered such a laceration, and without pausing, even for a second, to retrieve the dummy I had just spat out, I decided that I would no longer proofread in my normal, archaic manner.  I even picked up my pencil and pad to write a post about it before realised how seldom I actually write in any other fashion.  It is almost always with pen on lethally sharp paper (and not, as many of you might believe, with a nice, blunt, wax crayon) which I painstakingly transcribe onto the computer before printing it up in order to revise it with another, differently coloured pen.  Minor inconveniences, you see, do not generally provide sufficient incentive for me to change habit.  I smooth my own way by following the path of least resistance.  It works for me.  I decided it was ok.  Then (Reasons for Introspection – part two) my wife chided me for being a push-over for the grandkids: that I am perpetually at their beck and call.  Again, basically true, but where’s the problem?  Grandchildren will hang out with grandparents for a very limited period of time – nature will see to that: one of them grows, one of them dies.  I try to enjoy every second, and if that means dressing up as a cowboy, partaking of an imaginary cup of tea, accompanied by a unicorn, a princess and a pull-along wooden dog, then so be it.  If I’d sooner watch the second half of the match, what of it?  Will the football give me a hug and tell me how much it loves me?  Will the football cheer me up without the faintest effort?  And if I tell the kids that I just need a minute to mend the plumbing, will they listen to me, or will they bring a blanket, a book and demand that I read them a story first?

Take a guess.