The Beginner’s A-Z of D.I.Y Subversion – Introduction (part one)

It is over two years ago that I wrote ‘The Gentle Art to Subversion’ parts one and two, which I now realise are crying out to become the introduction to the opus that will be ‘The Beginner’s A-Z of D.I.Y Subversion’.  I hope that you will excuse me for publishing them again – together with a footnote, which I hope will buy me patience and, if not exactly sympathy, then perhaps some protection from litigation – before I begin the serialisation of my masterpiece in earnest…

This is not a terrorist handbook.  If you are scanning this page at random whilst pretending to peruse some far more worthy thread, you need not be concerned – it is highly unlikely that you will receive a knock on the door from a shady-looking character with a rolled-up umbrella and a GCHQ security pass hanging from a purple lanyard around his neck.  You can read on in relative safety.  You are unlikely to find yourself on the receiving end of a polonium enema just yet.

Perhaps we should begin with a definition.  My hastily Googled enquiry offered this – Subversion: the undermining of the power and authority of an established system or institution.  I see it more as the art of being a bloody nuisance.  Like stretching Clingfilm over the toilet bowl, it seldom ends well.  I tend to think that the aim of undermining the entire established system might be a slightly ambitious one for a long-in-the-tooth loner such as you.   I am happy to discuss subversion in all of its forms, from hacking the Pentagon computers to leaving a drawing pin on the Bowl’s Club Secretary’s chair, but I urge you to consider – those on the receiving end of acts of subversion do not necessarily share your healthy regard for democratic rights and may just call the police if you continue to shout rude words through their letterbox – worse, they might just open the door and chase you.

Subversion is a gift for life.  The desire to subvert is there from birth.  Any parent will recognise the look on a baby’s face as it widdles on the changing mat or poos in a freshly changed nappy.  The urge to subvert grows with the child.  School brings unrivalled opportunities: bird whistles behind a raised desk lid; innocently made smart-arse remarks during class discussions; getting lost on the way to classes; falling to sleep during them…  all of the things that teachers love.  In adulthood, the opportunities to act subversively occur daily.  I am not talking about the kind of actions that could cause physical harm; I’m talking about the slight discomfort of a rubber band on the back of the neck, a dried pea in a brogue, an unpicked seam in the underwear…  And I’m not necessarily thinking about actual physical irritation, I’m thinking mental too.  I’m thinking about moving the most expensive suit you can find onto the Bargain Rail at Next; I’m thinking about casually pretending to pick up a loose bolt from the floor near the railings at the top of the Eiffel Tower or producing your own bottle of tomato ketchup at an oyster bar.  It might sound like little more than a practical joke, but it will put a bat up the nightie of a) the multi-nationals, b) the French and c) people who insist on eating raw molluscs in public.

Subversion that results in violence is often linked with religion.  Religion is, in my opinion, not something with which the subversive should become involved.  Too often, the incorporation of subversion and religion can lead to shed-loads of anguish and not a little bloodshed – just think back to the Sunday school outings of your youth.  If you are decided upon a career in religious subversion, there are other websites out there for you, although I would not necessarily recommend accessing them on your mother-in-law’s laptop.

I am no connoisseur of violence – I haven’t queued for a bus in years – but I am aware that some factions quite like it.  I am a firm believer that blood is designed to remain within the body.  As far as I am concerned, a pool of red liquid around a person’s feet can only spell trouble – unless it is being lapped up by the cat, in which case it probably spells strawberry sauce.  I would certainly never encourage risky behaviour: life and limb are not designed to be exposed to danger.  Extreme pain is nature’s way of telling you to stop whatever it is you are currently doing, even if it is just sitting cross-legged on a concrete floor.  The only advice I can offer is that violence is seldom the answer (unless, ironically, the question is ‘what is seldom the answer?’).

© Colin McQueen 2022

Stand Down

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

Yes, well, I’m sure you must all know the feeling.  I started to write today’s post early on Wednesday evening and by the time I was ready to wrap up the day I was confident that I was ready to wrap up the post.  I was happy with almost every single aspect of it.  I read it through again on Thursday evening, by which time I was happy with some of it, and I tinkered around the edges with the bits that I thought could be better.  This morning I read it through one last time before scheduling publication only to find that overnight some malevolent little spirit had toyed around with my carefully chosen prose and turned a thousand handsomely woven words into a complete dog’s-dinner.  It is awful.  I have not got the time to edit it into any kind of shape – it has, by some means that I do not understand, contrived to bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything I had set out to say: it was a random chapter ripped summarily from a jumble sale Jeffrey Archer, run through a cross-shredder and reassembled by a three year old, dyslexic chimpanzee – it had to go.  I hit ‘delete’ with the kind of relief usually only experienced when the police car that has been following you for three miles finally pulls off into Starbuck’s car park, at which point I immediately realised that I had nothing left to say today.  I rooted about the scrumpled papers that line my desk and finally found one that said… “It is a recurring nightmare.  I am performing a stand-up routine in front of everyone I have ever known and not a single person is laughing…” so, here we go then.  Please excuse spelling, grammar, syntax, lack of logicality – if that’s even a word – but I haven’t left myself with the luxury of enough time to edit it into any kind of shape, nor to bin it if it’s beyond salvation…

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever known me that I have never actually delivered a comedy routine on stage.  In fact, I can recall performing before a massed audience only once in my life, that being in a schoolboy ‘Mummer’s Play’ which featured myself forgetting whatever line of mediaeval gibberish I had been entrusted to deliver and instead, possessed by the sheer panic of an empty head, blurting out from astride my broomstick steed a decidedly non-period joke, with which my English tutor was pointedly unimpressed.  I have always found writing jokes easy, but I have cherished the luxury of blaming other people when they fall flat to the stage with the kind of ‘splat’ more usually associated with the back end of a cow. 

Stand-up comedians are, by tradition, young – older stand-ups are usually known as ‘washed-up game show hosts’ or ‘didn’t you used to be?…’ and generally know much better.  Occasionally I imagine this could be my ‘way in’: an old man telling jokes to a drunken, student audience: how cool would that be?  Young women have so much time for old men, and young men know better than to upset young women; it’s fool-proof.  Could I be the fool to prove it?

I know how a stand-up set works: you don’t go for the big laughs too early (just as well really) you introduce yourself and get the audience on your side.  The big laughs come in the middle of the set, although in my nightmare-set, I have never actually got that far – I usually wake just as the audience mood begins to darken.  I have no idea whether my ‘big laughs’ would, in reality, be bangers or damp squibs.  I have no idea, in fact, of exactly what they would be at all, nor of how I would deliver them.  Would I stalk around the stage acting out the scenes that I picture in my head, or would I lean casually on the mike-stand, laconically weaving my comic tapestry with a wry smile on my lips?  The stage ‘prowl’ is probably not likely for me – not with my knees – but at the same time ‘laconic’ is not a word that is easy to reconcile with my general demeanour.  I am not so much an uncoiled spring as a tightly wound-up spiral of anxious inconsequentiality.  An unmanaged de-coil could have, what I believe are known in psychiatric circles as ‘far-reaching consequences’.

It doesn’t help that I have the tendency towards the tongue-tied stutter when I’m stressed.  In reality, it could take me hours to tell my first gag.  I do have a strategy to cope with it in restaurants – uniformed waiters stress me out – I tell everybody what I am going to order and then, when the waiter stares expectantly at me, I say something completely different.  Surprise is the trick.  Dinner in a restaurant is like a lucky dip for me.  I’m never certain what I am going to get – even after I’ve ordered it.  The same strategy could give me a certain air of unpredictability on stage, but I’m not at all sure of how I would handle the knowledge that I had no idea either of where I was going, nor how to get out of it.  I fear for my sanity and my underwear.  I have a similar problem with social gathering ‘chit-chat’: pre-party small-talk with me can be unpredictable – and seldom in a good way – particularly when I’m not at all certain of who I am talking to.  My friends know what I am like – they make allowances – but whenever I am invited to mix with an unfamiliar set of people, I simply apologise in advance and pretend that I am somebody else.  My whole demeanour, combined with my social ineptitude, reminiscent of a man attempting to overcome the confusion of just having woken up…

(…I enter and walk to a stool, centre stage, carefully placing a folded towel over the seat.)  “The management insisted.  They’ve just had it re-covered…”  (I sit down.)  “Hello.  My name is Colin McQueen.  That is Colin, as in dead Scottish forename and McQueen, as in dead American actor, and the only reason that I started by telling you that is to prove that I don’t have to look it up from the label in my pants.  Now, if I appear to be a little uncomfortable, by the way, it is because my pants are on their third day – I did inside-out yesterday and today is back-to-front – never the most comfortable of days…  I’m sure that many of you will have seen me walking on and thought to yourselves, ‘He’s a bit old to be doing this sort of thing, isn’t he?’ and you are, of course, correct.  I have crossed the threshold between checking my pants in case I should get lucky, and giving them the once-over just in case I have already been very unlucky…

Thankfully, I normally wake then, bathed in sweat, uncertain of where the boundaries of reality lay, and aware only that all I can hear is snoring.  How closely dreams resemble life…

Now, Where Was I?

There are times when I sit down to write – whether because I feel I need to for the sake of my sanity or simply because it is Tuesday and I have nothing ready to post – and I have no idea of what I intend to prattle on about.  It is hugely important at these times that I do not get distracted.  (Prattle, by the way, according to Google, means to talk at length in a foolish or inconsequential way, so at least I can be sure that I choose my words well.  Google, if you are interested (according to Google) means that somebody – I have no idea who, I will need to look it up – invented one word just because it sounds like another; in this case Googol (itself invented by Milton Sirotta) which is 10100, e.g. lots.  Anthimeria, incidentally, is what allows me to google although, if I’m honest, what it actually means at the moment is that I’ve lost my thread…

Anyway, here I am, all ready to go, but with no idea of where I’m going.  It’s not like writer’s block: if I could just think of what to write about, I would have no trouble at all in writing about it.  Writer’s block, as some of you may remember, has been the subject of a number of my past blogs (My Unceasing Battle with Pratchett’s Californians and A Return to California for instance) and simply because some of you may remember, I dare not use it again.  How could I possibly be sure that I was not repeating myself?  How could I possibly be sure that I was not repeating myself?  Well, other than actually reading what I wrote then – and there are some lengths to which I will not go (such as ending a sentence with a preposition or starting one with ‘Well’) – I could not, and so won’t…

Anyway, as I was saying, the problem is not in writing, but in deciding what to write about.  (About what to write?)  As a rule I would just contemplate what has recently happened to me, but latterly that has not proved to be quite so effective.  Nothing much happens to me these days, and what does, has generally happened several times before.  The odd discussion over how to stem the bleeding after I have tried to trim the hairs up my nose with the kitchen scissors is just acceptable – is it? – but probably not suitable for regular repeats, and I suspect that some of my more singular little peccadilloes may have already outstayed their welcome, so where do I go to now?

I could look to the news as a resource, but I seldom publish what I have written before the news has become history.  I am very aware of my propensity to be asinine and I try not to lay anything before a potential six billion souls before I have had time to check out that I have not got it completely around my neck.  The news has a terrible habit of un-making itself within a few days.  Besides, even when my output is in no way topical, I need to check it again and again before I post, as much of it, if I am perfectly frank, has a disturbing tendency to drift towards the drivel if I’m not careful (I was about to tell you here that drivel simply means ‘nonsense’, but I got sidetracked by the fact that topical can mean ‘directly applied to the body’ and I wondered if I should rewrite the previous sentence).  That’s ok, I am happy with nonsense, but I do have standards.  I have a file (quite full) on my computer titled ‘Not Good Enough’ and whilst I am aware that most of my readers will now be wondering ‘Exactly how bad do things have to be?’ I would ask them (and by definition you, now that you have made it thus far) to just think yourselves lucky that it is there at all.

Local news is a possibility, but, If I’m honest, I would struggle to make some of the stories any more bizarre than they already are and I’m not at all certain as to how I would even start to work on ‘Door bell camera picks up man urinating on hydrangea’ or ‘Local man’s third cousin knows someone who once met a man who spoke to The Dalai Lama’s stepmother in Swahili’.  By and large, I think, I have to find other seams to mine.  (The Dalai Lama’s favourite hobbies, incidentally, are listed as meditating, gardening and mending watches, although not, probably at the same time.  Surely, if he bought himself a sundial he would be set for the day.)

The worst thing of all is the nagging feeling that I started the day with the certain knowledge of what I intended to say.  Well, not necessarily the day if I’m honest, it could just have been the journey up the stairs.  The amount of time I need to forget something is breathtakingly short.  I have stopped worrying about it.  Often it will come back to me when I least expect it, and anyway, ideas are a little like buses: there’ll always be another one along any minute.  If only I knew where the bus stop was…  There is something of the Time Portal about the foot of the stairs.  Somehow in every terraced ascent, I appear to head off in one direction whilst my memory lopes off in another.  Sadly, if I turn around to return from whence I came, I seldom find my lost marbles.  In truth, I am far more likely to lose another.  Pen and paper are my only salvations, which is fine as long as they too are not at the top of the stairs.

Anyway, whichever way I do it, sooner or later I have to sit myself down at the laptop and…  Now, where was I?

‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to erh…’ – the real reason Robert Plant will no longer sing the song.

100% Natural

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

It came along with Personal Trainers.  It came along with annual health checks, D.R.E and sending poo samples to government laboratories every other year.  It came along with nutritional traffic light labelling and a diet filled with fear: the fear of fat, the fear of sugar, the fear of salt, the fear of caffeine, the fear of not eating and drinking all the right things, the fear of eating and drinking all the wrong ones.  We must have all Natural Ingredients, like lard, like lead, like dog shit…  E-coli could not be more natural if it tried.  Let’s bring back the natural joy of a tapeworm.  What could be more natural than never washing your hands?  Where did this notion even come from: natural is per se good?  A huge, barely cooked slab of dead cow might be completely natural, but probably not entirely welcomed in a vegan household.  Try pork scratchings at a Bar Mitzvah, or cockles at Eid-al-Fitr…

I love to cook – and in that way I do at least monitor what goes into my food, but I find it increasingly difficult to follow recipes.  All that ‘weighing and measuring’ nonsense; all those ‘healthier alternative’ options…  I am what I believe is called an instinctive cook – which means that although I really cannot cook, I firmly believe that I can.  My cooking ‘journey’ invariably follows the same path and always takes place whilst my wife is out of the house, because I have been married for a very long time and I have learned that it is always best to avoid confrontation whenever I can:

  1. Rifle through the fridge and extricate anything that is wilting, but not yet dead.  Anything that does not actually smell offensive.  Anything that does not ooze when I pick it up.
  2. Lay it on the kitchen table.
  3. Chop it all up and throw it in a saucepan with a tin of tomatoes.
  4. Decide what shape of pasta to pour it on.

My one firm rule of cookery: never say what you are cooking until it is finished.  It might not be at all what you intended.

Like all men I have a signature dish and like all men it is called Spaghetti Bolognese.  Like every other non-cook, I believe that I make the very best Bolognese, and I start from scratch: no jars of ready-made sauce for me.  I mutilate all of the onions, tomatoes, basil, olives myself.  It never turns out the same twice, but it is always the best – although my wife, who is clearly completely devoid of taste, would disagree.  I make a decent curry and a great dhal, I scramble a mean egg and I can cobble together any type of cake as long as it is a sponge.  I can poach, and roast, and bake, and – with a following wind – coddle, but what I cannot do is follow instructions.  I try, but improvisation takes a hold of me.  Bits get added, bits get omitted, quantities may vary and when it does not turn out quite as expected, well, I’ll always eat it even if no-one else will.  As long as there is no meat, okra or beetroot I will eat just about anything – particularly if I have cooked it.  A 1960’s upbringing means that I very seldom turn my nose up at food.

My mum seldom cooked anything that would not fit in the chip pan.  My arteries were calcified long before I could walk.  My dad, who did most of the cooking, was an army chef, so he knew precisely how to fill a hungry soldier and exactly how to deal with the subsequent abuse.  Whatever we ate was accompanied by huge mounds of mashed potato and gravy – particularly disconcerting when it was a treacle sponge.  We ate the innards of so many animals that I couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the rest of the animal.  Presumably it went to the gentry.  I assumed that they didn’t live on hodge and chitterlings.  Flesh did creep into our diets from time to time: an occasional rasher of streaky bacon (90% fat), a boiled ham hock (ditto) and a joint of beef for Sunday lunch that had been rejected by the cobbler as being both too tough and too small to successfully resole a working boot, but mostly what we ate were the kind of internal bits and pieces that wind up in the bucket after an autopsy.

I don’t recall ever turning down food.  I have seen photographs of toddler me: when the sun is behind me it shines right through.  Like every other boy I knew, my life was one of perpetual motion.  I was running, scooting, cycling, karting or one-footed skating¹, but seldom sitting.  Exercise was not something you paid for, but just something you did if you wanted to get somewhere.  Mostly you didn’t do it in lycra; you did it in a duffel coat and muffler.  Food was merely fuel and I used loads of it.  Whatever went in through my mouth went straight down to my knees.  These were times when whatever meat there was went to the men whilst the women and children had a slice of bread soaked in gravy instead.  There was a little logic to it.  Most households were funded solely by the working male.  My dad worked his forty-eight hours a week on building sites in all weathers and he earned his couple of slices of sinewy old flesh whilst the rest of us fuelled up on soggy Wonderloaf.  Not my dad’s choice, I should say, always my mum’s – although the influence of her own mother was strong.  As for the veg, well that could not have been more natural, as most of it was grown in our own back garden, although how much goodness it retained after having been boiled for several hours I am not certain.  Back then, veg was not considered cooked unless it had been boiled into dissolution.  Close your eyes and all vegetables were the same: soft and slimy.  Thank goodness that the cooking water was used for the gravy: whatever flavours and nutrients remained were surely floating around in there somewhere.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, I am not claiming that we were all healthier then: my class had children with polio; some had rickets; we all had measles, rubella, chickenpox, mumps and a thousand various rashes and parasites that, I would hope, are now vaccinated and, if I’m honest, just washed out of existence, but I think that is probably my point.  (Oh yes, there is one.)  Pretty much everything I ate was 100% natural back then, but it didn’t mean that it was actually any good for me (although it did save me from starving, which from my standpoint at least, is no bad thing).  And, if you’re at all interested, that’s also why I’ve never had a personal trainer…

¹Nobody ever had exclusive use of a pair of roller skates.  They were shared between two.  You strapped them to the sole of your shoe and ‘scooted’ around on them until the wheel fell off and you discovered how much blood you could get on your socks from a grazed knee and how much you needed to avoid your mum when you had taken the knees out of your trousers and the toe out of your shoe.

Wood Pigeon Days

Photo by Charlotte on Unsplash

There are good days and there are bad days and there are days in between.  On good days I tend to be a little more philosophical and inward-looking, on bad days I try to make jokes.  I have no idea why this should be, but it has always been this way.  On a good day I roll out of bed in the morning and head to the shower with a skip in my step and a song on my lips.  (If I’m honest, this is probably not true.  My knees are deeply intransigent and after a few night-time hours of non-weight bearing activities, they take much persuasion before they are prepared to get their shoulders back to the wheel, so, whatever my mood, the morning trip to the shower is always a painful, stiff-legged lope.  We’ll call it artistic licence.)  On a bad day, I confuse my morning tablets with my contact lenses, I get toothpaste in my eye and I wash my hair with shower descaler.  I write happy things, but just so that I balance my Ying and my Yang, I do so with a heavy heart.  It is how I maintain equilibrium.  It’s like packing an overloaded cargo ship with an additional consignment of helium balloons.  Like filling a Jumbo jet with a thousand balsa wood gliders, like believing that a ferry would be less inclined to sink if all the car tyres were fully inflated.

Bad days are the days when I set out to write jokes and when I hit the chocolate when I can’t.  I make no plans over what to do with whatever I scrawl when it is finished, because finishing it is all that matters and any focus beyond that is a waste of good eyes.  Bad days are not the days for revisiting something that could not be finished days ago – if I couldn’t finish it then, why should I be able to do so now?  Bad days are for starting afresh and finishing no matter how long it takes: of finding the jokes, even if I have to tie them down to make them sit still.  Bad days are magpie days.  It really doesn’t matter whether they appear in ones or twos, on bad days, not even the memory of Jenny Hanley can make me smile at magpies.  Magpies are creatures of dastardly monochrome perfection – like devils in pied plumage – flawlessly crafted to fulfil their diabolical purpose, devoid of mercy and morality.  Definitely not a bird you would invite into your home.

On good days I see buzzards circling on the thermals and kestrels hanging on the wind, their intent equally sinister, but their impression noble rather than evil.  I see robins and, occasionally, the wren that my mum always swore she would return as.  On good days writing is painless.  Words fall easily into place, but somehow they belong in somebody else’s book.  My own tome is not so smooth.  Run your fingers over it and you will feel the splinters.  On a good day, all I want to do is to write like I do on a bad day, but without the angst; without the beard trimmer and the whisky.

And then, increasingly, there are the ok days.  Ok days are not great, but nor are they awful.  They are porridge without blueberries, but with just enough honey to allow me to swallow it.  They are blended, not malt.  They are decent coffee: not great, but not godawful Starbucks.  On ok days there are no raptors, just wood pigeons walking, Charlie Chaplin-like, across the lawn and looking up at the bird table that does not allow them access.  They make me smile although I’m not sure why.  They are chased away by a single blackbird who hops up onto the shed roof and ‘chirps’ loudly at the cat on the opposite fence.  The cat bares his claws, but does not move because the bird has got his number and, if he’s honest, Kit-e-Kat is much easier to swallow anyway: much less beaky.  On ok days, life establishes a stability that just about allows everything else to get on with it.  Whatever ‘it’ is.

I’ve grown to quite like the ok days.  I have fewer edges on an ok day, but I can still find quiet corners if I search for them.  Some days I can stare out of this window and see nothing, on other days I see the vastness of the universe.  Mostly I see sparrows squabbling over peanuts and spiders hanging from the eaves.  I see oceans of emerald and jade, and I wonder how many shades of green there are.  How many shades can a human eye detect?*  I can see them all from my little window.  Every single one.  The ones with a name and the ones that lay between them.  Green takes the earth from birth to decay.  Green is the colour of being alive and being awake to it.

On an ok day, I roll out of bed with, if not exactly a song in my heart, then at least a note or two on my spleen.  I may not sing in the shower, but I don’t howl at the moon either.  On an ok day, I can be the kind of man that I would like to spend time with.  I am much easier to live with when I’m not swinging like a pendulum – although less efficient in a grandfather clock.  These in-between days are most of my life now.  I live more than function and I smile more than frown.  I feel as though it all makes sense from time to time – and me with it.  There are good days and there are bad days, but mostly there are wood pigeon days – and for most of those days, I am happy with that.

*I can’t find a definitive answer to this, but everyone seems to agree that we see more shades of green than any other colour – except for my brother who, amongst millions of others, is red/green colour blind and thence quite unable to decide whether a rose is the right way up or not.

Old Times

Photo by John Nail on Pexels.com

I’m never quite certain what it is, exactly, that we are meant to celebrate on New Year’s Eve and who it was, exactly, that got to decide that the first of January should be the day on which we celebrate it.  Is it perhaps conceivable that a bunch of no-hope Bronze Age serfs, having hauled numerous huge rectangular boulders across half of this country to Wiltshire, might have eventually realised that the planetary calendar they wished to chart was, itself, somewhat lighter than the giant slabs of quartz they had been dragging about, shouldered their load and said ‘Sod it, we’ll just leave ‘em here.  Drop ‘em in some sort of circle lads, so it looks neat, it might be a while before anybody thinks to clear them away.’  And to those who said, ‘But what about the astronomical calendar?’ replied ‘Er, see that big bluish number over there.  Well, when the Sun rises in line with that, it’s the start of a new year.  A year?  Oh, that’s what passes until the next one comes along…  Here, have a bowl of fermented something or other and a neat little tray of pig’s entrails to chew on.  It will become a tradition.’  Probably not.  I don’t know who invented the year but, if I’m honest, if I had to guess, I would say the ancient Chinese or Egyptians – if it had been up to us, it would almost certainly have started at some other time to everybody else.

I can understand how early humans would have been able to work out the yearly cycle from the stars, the moon, the crops, the birds and the bees, and the annual demand for money from the tax man, but how did they decide where one year was to end and another begin?  Surely they could have chosen the shortest day, or the longest day or at least something that could be recognised without a calendar: the day that next door gave the kids their annual nitting and bath; the day that the one with the lumps on her chest started mysteriously filling out and craving mammoth again…  By whatever means, it has to be clear that the actual choice was an arbitrary one.  It could have been any one of the 365.25 days that mark the Earth’s passage around the sun.  If you ask me, it would have made a lot more sense to have chosen a day when far fewer people had a hangover.

It is, anyway, a strange thing to celebrate, don’t you think: everything is another year older, another day closer to death, including the Sun, which as far as I understand it¹, is just biding its time until it gets its chance to swallow the Earth during its death throes.  It’s a fairly vindictive thing to do, but it seems to be just the way it is with stars…  Maybe New Year’s Day is the Sun’s birthday… or God’s, or Time’s – that would make more sense wouldn’t it?  That would be a better reason for letting the fireworks off.  You wouldn’t feel quite so daft sitting on some dateline beach, waiting for the New Year Sun to rise if you knew that it was its birthday.  What could be a better choice for New Year than the birthday of Time itself? 

You wouldn’t mind hugging a stranger if you knew it was the anniversary of the almighty’s birth², although, as always, God’s a tricky one.  It’s hard to see how he can have a birthday when he’s been around forever.  (Ever wondered what he got up to before he decided to create the Universe?  You can’t help but thinking that with all that Eternity to mull things over, he might have arranged things in a more logical manner: thought things through a little more.  Mind you, if we’re created in his image, then he must be just like us, in which case, it’s a miracle that we’re not in an even bigger mess than we are.)  Astronomers would have you believe that they know exactly how old the Sun is – even when, like the rest of us, they can’t work out when the car’s MOT is due – but try asking them for a precise date.  To the nearest one million years does not help when you’re trying to book a party at the play barn.

Philosophers say that Time is a manmade construct, well, fair enough I say, but who was this man and what did the rest of us do to wile away the days before he did it?  Presumably nobody got older until he sorted that one out.  Mind you, you’d have to question how we all got here: a nine month pregnancy could be a very long time indeed if nobody had bothered to invent Time beforehand. 
“You’re looking a little bit… erm… rotund these days, Shirley.”
“Yes, I know.  I’ve been pregnant now for…”
“‘For’ what?”
“I don’t know.  I’ve been pregnant since…  Since…  Been a funny sort of day hasn’t it?”
“Day?”
It’s almost impossible to imagine a life without Time – mostly because you wouldn’t have the time to do it³.  At least it makes some sort of sense for us: if humankind created Time, then it must have a birthday and it is only right that we celebrate it.  If we keep it happy, then it might stop slipping away quite so quickly.  It is the one thing that none of us wants less of.

And that, of course, is the only real significance of New Year’s Day – as a tangible reminder that Time is drifting away and, if we’re honest, we realise that there is nothing we can do about it, other than light up a cigar, pour a giant glass of single malt and stare up at the stars: there’s nothing like a sense of your own insignificance to set you up for the year ahead.  Just tell your family that you love them and stagger on to the horizon…

And a Happy New Year to one and all.

¹Not very

²Terminal embarrassment is really not so bad as long as it occurs on New Year’s Eve

³If you wish to experience eternity, simply watch an entire episode of Casualty in the company of an insurance salesman.

N.B. This piece was originally to be called Auld Lang Syne, until I realised I’d originally used that title in December 2018, so Old Times it became because it means more or less the same thing and, by some miracle, it fits the text.  Making sense – something I resolve to do more often in the New Year – I’ll give it a week…

Ubi Sit Res*

Photo by Hobi industri on Pexels.com

Many years ago, my great friend Madge, left me in tears of laughter following a rant about the new Supermarket that had just opened in town.  It was ok, she said, but nothing was in the same place as it was in her local store.
“But, it’s a different shop,” I said.
“I know,” she pouted, “but I went in to look for a new pair of Marigolds yesterday and I went to exactly where they are when I go to Asda, and all I could find was cat food.  Who puts cat food next to the water filters?  Cat food goes next to the toilet rolls…”
I didn’t understand her bemusement and she didn’t understand my amusement and, as usual, it all ended up in helpless mirth.  Very sadly, Madge is no longer with us, but I think about her every time I walk into a Supermarket and, of late, I have started to understand her point of view.

Now, I know that there is a science to the layout of Supermarkets: that the floorplans are designed, based on the principles established by Daedalus** two and a half thousand years ago, whilst the shelves are stacked by bright young things with BSc’s in leading the sheep to chocolate.  But they do seem to have been taught in different schools: the school of putting the pasta next to the bread versus the school of putting it next to the cook-in sauces.  The school of putting the Pot Noodles with the convenience foods versus the school of putting them with the scratchcards, King-size Rizlas, Peperami and Carlsberg Special Brew.  Do you put together things that go together, or things that belong together?  Do you put custard with the puddings, or do you put it with the sauces?  Do you put pasta with the sauces, or do you put it with the garlic bread?  Do you put bread with the butter, or do you put it with the Marmite?  Where do you put toiletries?  Where do you put magazines?  Where do you put all of the cleverly designed, bright plastic gizmos that never quite manage to perform the task for which they were designed?  I know that in the closing days of 2021, this really should not be an issue, but does layout depend on location?  Do you, for instance, put the fresh organic pasta, next to the truffles and wild mushrooms in Kensington, on a shelf that would be occupied by Spaghetti Hoops in Burnley?  Do you even attempt to sell tinned pasta in Chelsea, unless you have a specifically labelled ‘Ironically Stocked’ shelf to put it on?  Do you put Vegan ready meals alongside the fresh fruit and veg, or alongside the herbal tea and artisan crafted toilet rolls in the ‘weirdo’ section?

I understand that the fresh fruit and veg always looks great and that it might lure people in because it is bright and colourful, but near the door?  Really?  Beautiful soft fruit, no matter how carefully placed in the basket, always ends up under the tins and bottles – ok, mostly bottles – accumulated through the rest of the shop.  Surely that can’t be right: unless, of course, it is all part of the plan.  Once bitten, twice shy?  Having arrived home with a terminally flattened punnet of now strawberry puree, or a half litre of raspberry coulis dripping through the holes in what was formerly a nice, neat box, do you thenceforth bypass the fruit on the first sweep and return to it later, so that you can lay it safely on the top of your basket?  Do you, in short, walk past everything twice?  Aah, you’re getting it now.  Walk around the maze in one direction (‘Always turn left’ my dad used to say, although, if I’m honest, I’m not certain that he ever really knew where he was.) reach the end and come back the other way, before picking up some berries and heading for the tills.  You wander past the cat food three times.  By that stage you will grab a tin even if it means buying a cat on the way home in order to justify it.

I understand why they always put the items they want you to buy at eye level – who wants the eye strain involved in moving the things – but I do not know why everything I want is always out of reach at the back of the top shelf.  Imagine you have a stand of five shelves: you put what you want the customer to buy where he/she does not have to look up, down, left or right to see it.  You put the things that you don’t want them to buy – the budget versions – at foot level, and the niche products – ‘We don’t get much call for those round here’ – at ladder height.  If you want to find a cheaper product, you don’t usually have to shop around, just stoop.

And then I start to think about Madge and I begin to understand what she was saying.  Why can’t things always be in the same place?  If nappies are by the formula milk powders in Tesco, why can’t they be in the same place at Asda?  If the vegan meals are with the bamboo utensils in Morrison’s, why not in Sainsbury’s?  If Aldi has the wonky carrots next-door to the cordless hammer-drills, why doesn’t Lidl?  If the chocolate is not alongside the whisky anywhere, then it bloody well should be.  As you get older, the only thing you want from a Supermarket is the ability to get out of it as quickly as possible.  How quickly could you do the shopping if you didn’t have to pass so much that you don’t want, in order to get to what you do?  How little would you buy if you didn’t have to pass so much other stuff to find it?

Ah, now I understand…

*Where things should be.

**Daedalus designed the Labyrinth in order to contain the Minotaur and so cunning was his plan, that he could barely escape it himself after it was built.  He was the same Daedalus who made wax and feather wings for himself and his son Icarus and managed, unlike his son, to survive as he did not succumb to the temptation to fly too close to the Sun.  He also murdered his nephew because he thought that he was a better inventor than himself – e.g. using a good epoxy resin to hold the wings together and affixing a ‘Do not operate this equipment in the proximity of a broiling celestial body’ to the flight feathers…

Christmas Past – A Boxing Day Tale

photo of santa claus sleeping
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  This is the last of those reposts and is from Boxing Day 2019…

‘…Always the same these days,’ said the old man randomly stabbing the buttons on the remote control. ‘Reality TV and repeats. Whatever happened to Morecambe and Wise? Whatever happened to Only Fools and Horses? Whatever happened to Val Doonican?’ He switched off the set as the latest X-Factor winner made his final ever TV appearance before returning to his life of flipping burgers and performing in the local Working Man’s Club on a Saturday evening – a valid life, with which he would have been perfectly happy, if only some idiot had not told him he could be a star.

‘Here,’ said Mrs Claus. ‘I was watching that.’ With a glare, Santa turned the TV back on. ‘Moan, moan, moan,’ continued the old woman, even as the seasonal Celebrity-Something-Or-Other burst into noisome life. ‘That’s all you do these days, moan, moan, moan. I’ll be happy when December comes about again: get you out of my hair.’
‘Yes, well,’ said Santa, stroking his beard agitatedly. ‘I’ve been thinking about that. I think I might retire. I’m tired. This is no job for an old man.’
Mrs Claus stared at him for a very long time whilst she considered spending even more time with him than she currently did. ‘What do you mean, no job for an old man? Who else is going to do it? It has to be an old man.’
‘Could be a woman.’
‘Not according to all of the literature.’
‘Literature can be modified,’ S.C. muttered, darkly.
‘Besides,’ ploughed on the old lady, ignoring the truth in her husband’s argument ‘You only really work one day a year – it’s a long day I’ll grant you, but other than have a few kids to sit on your lap through December, what else do you do?’
‘Elves don’t look after themselves, you know,’ he snapped. ‘Elves do not forward plan. Leave it to the elves and we’d have, come Christmas Eve, nothing more than dolls and wooden forts. And’ he continued, a steely glint entering his eye ‘Kids do not sit on my knee anymore. Not allowed. If I can drag the little bleeders away from their mobile phones for a minute, they pull my beard, wipe KFC down my coat and kick me in the shin before asking me for a vaping kit.’
‘What you need is a good sleep,’ soothed Mrs C. ‘Why not go to bed? Don’t worry about setting an alarm; I’ll wake you in March.’
‘Why March? What’s happening in March?’
‘Just a few promotional shots. Nothing taxing. Maybe a video or two. Few minutes work; nothing more.’
‘Promotional shots?’ he spluttered. ‘Promotional shots? Why do I need promotional shots? There’s only one of me. I’ve got more people on my books than I can handle already.’
‘Never hurts to advertise,’ she said, placing a small glass of sherry at his side. ‘Here, drink this.’
The old man eyed the drink. ‘Sherry?’ he coughed. ‘Sherry? Have you any idea how many glasses of sherry I drank last night? You’ll be offering me a mince pie next.’ He glared into the fire. ‘I’ll tell them in the morning,’ he said at last. ‘I’ll tell them I’m packing it in; that I’ve had enough.’
‘Tell who?’
‘Well… I’ve no idea. I’ll find someone.’
‘And what about the children?’
‘They won’t even notice, as long as they still get all of their stuff, they won’t care who brings it. The magic has gone already. They’ll never know.’ Despite himself, he drained the sherry in a single gulp. ‘I’m off to bed,’ he said.
‘Fine,’ said Mrs Claus. ‘No problem. Just before you do, though, can you read this so that I can reply.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a letter. It came down the chimney earlier while you were out talking to the reindeer.’
‘A letter? My God, they start earlier and earlier with their demands, don’t they? Can you read it to me? I don’t know what I’ve done with my glasses.’
Mrs Claus unfolded the single sheet of paper and, having cleared her throat, she read. ‘‘Dear Santa. Thank you for everything. I hope you get some rest today. I love you X.’ Carefully she refolded the letter, ‘Shall I burn it?’ she asked.

Santa coughed slightly and rubbed gently at what might just have been a little itch in the corner of his eye. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Give it to me. I’ll reply now and then I suppose I’d better go and get some sleep. I’ve got a busy December next year…’

Originally posted 26th December 2019

Christmas Present – A Beginners Guide to Christmas Traditions (part two)

Photo by Jill Wellington on Pexels.com

…in which I continue to probe modern festive customs…

Dinner – The main Christmas Day meal is traditionally regarded as the centre-piece of the annual feast day and is, from the pigs in blankets to the brussel sprouts (via the chestnut stuffing and the ‘family recipe’ gravy), unquestionably the most stressful occasion on the festive calendar (unless it has ‘circumcision’ written on it in red pen).  Every single element of this mammoth meal has the potential for disaster: over-cooked veg, under-cooked turkey, roast potatoes that fall under grandma’s deathly scrutiny, bread sauce that is to all intents and purposes merely bread, sage and onion stuffing that you can pour from a jug, gravy with lumps that could threaten safe passage along all major routes – for those with a nervous disposition, this part of the day is more threat than treat.  [Please note: Christmas crackers are tiny tubes of cardboard stuffed with a gunpowder ‘snap’, a paper crown that will fit any head as long as it does not broaden out from the neck, a joke that has been lovingly translated from Serbo-Croat by a man with a Latvian to Classical Greek translator, and the kind of plastic ‘novelty’ item with which China intends to bring down the whole of Western Democracy – they are not what happens when granny warms the tinfoil-wrapped turkey in the microwave.]

Elf on the Shelf – Who could possibly tire of finding some novel misdemeanour for the knitted little scamp to perpetrate for each of the first twenty four days of Christmas?  Ah yes, of course, everyone.  Where did this tradition come from?  I don’t recall it even existing ten years ago.  When I was a boy, traipsing icing sugar across the kitchen floor, wrapping the Christmas tree in toilet roll and riding the cat up the curtains would merely have resulted in a clip around the ear and the possibility of having the tangerine removed from your stocking and the hammer detached from your toffee.  Now, the appearance of the kapok stuffed scallywag heralds twenty five days of gift giving and the very definite likelihood of the Hoover giving up the ghost before the month is out.  My tip: drop the gnome on the fire on the first of December and tell the kids he’s had an unfortunate little accident.  Promise chocolate to whichever child can dig the deepest hole in which to bury him.

Film Night – Settle down and pull up the Bailey’s for a couple of hours bickering together in front of the TV.  Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually, Home Alone, The Muppets’ Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life – now is the time to relish sentimentality and drown in marshmallow.  Don’t fight it, this is the true spirit of Christmas: laughing together at jokes you’ve heard a thousand times and grinning again at an ending you’ve seen coming right from the very start. 

Garden Centre – Do you remember a time when garden centres sold plants?  Do you remember a time when you went there to buy the constituent parts of a hanging basket?  Do you remember a time when you could find a hybrid tea without having first to join the queue for a cream one?  All greenery is now banished from the garden centre on the first day of September and replaced by acres of tinsel, bauble and gnome; the pesticides are usurped for the season by Santa’s Grotto and every person of pensionable age in the county is drawn to the queue for the Christmas Carvery.  This is the world of the super-sized, the battery-powered, the twinkling and the singing; the land of everything you had no idea you ever wanted and the source of everything you will never need.  It is impossible to enter these dream factories in the search for a potted poinsettia without exiting, some flustered hours later, on the outside of a festive three course (including mince pie and coffee) and clutching a boxful of something that will, with the introduction of a thirteen amp fuse, inflate into a rooftop sleigh at little more than the cost of a new roof.  The enthusiastic gardener need not be down-hearted: as soon as Christmas is over, the space will be refilled with everything that has withered away during the last three months.

Mistletoe Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it, that the symbol of Christmas romance should be a poisonous parasite.  Little compares to the horror of seeing an elderly relative stationed under the mistletoe with the facial expression that says they are either puckering up for a kiss or sucking the chocolate off a brazil nut.  Pray that it is the nut…

Posadas Pinatas – Other than Mexican Food (also known as edible origami) this is probably the most popular thing ever to come out of that country.  Tie up a container full of sweets, blindfold the kids and let them knock seven bells out of one another in the attempt to release the goodies.  Once the children are all safely blindfolded, the piñata can be taken away and the kids allowed to thrash around until exhaustion kicks in, whilst the adults eat the sweets and chuckle as their offspring walk into walls.

Present Giving/Receiving – Do not believe what they tell you, receiving is much better than giving.  However much joy you might get from giving away something really nice, you can double it by receiving it.  Presents require choosing, buying and wrapping.  Even worse, some of them require making!  Giving them away is a betrayal of all that you hold most dear – you.  Tell everyone that you are not giving presents this year but are, instead, giving the money to charity – they may believe you, you have some really stupid friends – but don’t try to persuade them to do the same or you may end up having to buy your own Walnut Whips this year.  If anyone asks what you would like, quietly murmur ‘World peace, an end to poverty… and a nice bottle of malt wouldn’t go amiss…’

Walk – The bracing Christmas day walk is a highlight for everyone who can’t wait to get away from the kids in the afternoon.  Wrap up warm (or, in alternative climes, deck the thongs) and attempt to get around the block without somebody moaning that they’re cold, tired, hungry or sure they’ve just trodden in something brown and malodorous.  The best thing about fresh air is that it makes you desperate to get out of it.  Pour the sherry before you leave in order to save time upon your return – and make sure that everyone leaves their shoes outside.

Yule Goat – Okay, I admit, I had no idea what this was until I saw it in a list of the best Christmas traditions and I haven’t had the chance to look it up yet.  Whatever it is, it is already my favourite…

Whatever your own Christmas traditions, I hope that you have a happy and peaceful few days.

Christmas Past – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

xmas-eve.jpg

(with abject apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)

Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The fifth of these reposts is from my very first WordPress Christmas in 2018 and is, I think, my very favourite Seasonal Special to date…


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
It should have been squeaking away at its wheel
Not laying face down and stiff in its meal.
 
 
There’ll be tears in the morn’ when she comes with his bread
And your dear little daughter discovers him dead,
But still, do not worry, she will not stay sad
When she spots, through the wrapping, that she’s got an i-pad.
 
 
The stockings we hung by the chimney with strings,
Were not for all the extravagant things:
For those they have hanging, at the end of their beds
Two giant sacks with their names on instead.
 
 
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
Whilst visions of smart phones danced in their heads
And mummy and I, with an hour to kill,
Were fearfully reading the credit card bill.
 
 
When out in the street arose such a din,
‘Cos the people next door were trying to get in,
But the key they were trying was turning no more,
Which wasn’t surprising – it wasn’t their door.
 
 
‘If you hadn’t guzzled that last Famous Grouse,
You’d have known straight away that it wasn’t our house.’
Said the wobbling wife as she stumbled for home
And was sick down the back of a small plastic gnome.
 
 
‘It’s four in the morning,’ an angry voice cried.
‘Just shut up your racket or I’m coming outside.’
Then all became silent, except, from afar
The sound of a key down the side of their car.
 
 
As dry leaves start falling from autumnal trees,
So snow began drifting along on the breeze
And high in the sky at the reins of his sled,
A white bearded man with a hat on his head.
 
 
‘Now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer and Vixen.
On Comet, on Cupid, on Donner and Blitzen!’
He cried to the reindeer in tones slurred and merry,
Having just swallowed down his ten thousandth sherry.
 
 
And then, for a moment, I heard from the roof
An outburst of language that seemed most uncouth,
Then a flash by the window – a red and white blur
Of fat man and white beard; of red felt and fur.
 
 
He knocked on the door when he’d climbed to his feet
And adjusted his cloak ‘gainst the cold blinding sleet.
‘Just give me five minutes to sit by your fire
And I’ll see that your children get all they desire.’
 
 
We gave him some tea and both patiently sat
As he talked about this and he talked about that
And then, having eaten the last hot mince pie
He rose and he slapped on his red-trousered thigh.
 
 
He yawned – ‘I must return to my duty
My sled is still packed with a mountain of booty.’
And then, as he turned to the door with a wave
We reminded him of the promise he gave.
 
 
‘Of course, yes,’ he laughed, his jolly face beaming.
‘But quick now, while the kids are still dreaming.
Here, look at this dolly with glass-beaded eyes
And this wig and some glasses to make a disguise.’
 
 
‘A car made of tin and a train made of wood.
This big Snakes & Ladders is really quite good.
An orange, some nuts and a new, shiny penny.’
But electrical goods he hadn’t got any.
 
 
‘You conman,’ we cried. ‘You are not Santa Claus.
If we’d known it we would have left you outdoors.
The real Father Christmas would not carry such tat.
We want top class products – and brand names at that.’
 
 
‘Our kids will go mad if we give them this shite:
There are no soddin’ batteries and no gigabytes.
They don’t give a monkeys about innocence lost;
Just leave them a bill so they know what stuff costs.’
 
 
He turned to us now and his eyes filled with tears,
‘These presents have kept children happy for years.’
We looked at the list of the rubbish he’d got.
‘You silly old fool, you are losing the plot.’
 
 
He sprang to his sleigh crying ‘Sod this, I’m beat!’
And they all flew away to their Lapland retreat,
But I heard him exclaim ‘They are never content.
Now the thought doesn’t count – just the money you’ve spent.’
 
 
And so Christmas morning descended with gloom.
The children both rose and they looked round the room
At the i-phones, the i-pads, the Xbox and games
And they pulled at the labels and picked out their names.
 
 
Then at last they had finished, all presents unwrapped,
And we sat down for breakfast all energy sapped.
‘This is lame,’ they exclaimed.  ‘This day is a bore.’
‘We’ve only got what we asked Santa Claus for.’
 
 
Then they saw on the floor where the old man had stood
A doll made of cloth and a train made of wood
And happily, low-tech, they played all the day
Whilst we packed all of their i-stuff away.
 

Originally posted 22nd December 2018