I have loved football all my life and I continued playing it until my late fifties at which point I started to become rather over-agitated when kicked by children, deciding that my subsequent reactions were not always beneficial for my blood pressure. I found being kicked by people of my own age so much more acceptable, but so few of them were still at it. And I don’t want you to think that I was totally averse to a bit of kicking myself, but when those you are kicking are younger than your own children, it all starts to feel a little odd. Frustration started to take hold and I considered it wise to heed the signs that it might be advisable to call it a day. We are not talking elite football here; there were no uniformed paramedics on stand-by. If I had suffered a heart attack, somebody would have had to nip round to the local Co-op on their pushbike to find out whether the community defibrillator had been nicked again. I fear that the black shroud would have been tightened around me long before the hands of the on-call doctor.
Anyway, I stopped playing and I should be able to say that I thought no more about it, but that would be simply untrue. I think about it all the time. Not going back of course. I am sixty three and even though I know that I am fit enough to do it, it is the reaction of the other players, potentially a quarter of my age, that I fear. The possibility of not being tackled, lest I should break, is not something I choose to consider. The possibility of not being substituted by the manager whilst having a mare, lest I should be terminally upset, is not something I would ponder. There is definitely no going back.
So I now need to contemplate ‘Walking Football’ and, it may be a sign of my softening brain, but there are times when it almost feels like a good idea. There are also times when I question the entire rationale of taking myself off to play a game with a bunch of old codgers who cannot run anymore. Me, an old codger who can run, sometimes for seconds at a time. Is it really appropriate? Could I play football without, at least, breaking into an amble? Would I be forced to chase the ball like Benny Hill chasing a scantily-clad nurse*? How fast is it possible to walk without breaking into a trot? Is there, perhaps, a maximum walking speed and, if so, how is it measured? It all sounds just a little too complicated to me. Maybe I need to look for some other form of low impact sport to replace those that propriety dictates I can no longer do. What about cricket with a foam ball and a rubber bat; tennis with no opponent, but with the ball on a length of string; perhaps touch rugby could be slowed down by tying boot laces together and wrapping the ball in Velcro. Maybe I should take up Crazy Golf, I’m sure the walk would do me good.
*If anybody below the age of fifty is reading this – although God knows why they would – they may need to Google Benny Hill and watch Youtube in order to understand what I am getting at. I wish it to be known that I cannot be held responsible for attitudes that were fifty years out of date before Mr Hill started employing them. Just saying…
However much of a surprise it is to you to find that I am still running, it is a bigger one to me. Like banging my head on a wall, I am sure that I will enjoy it when I stop, but none-the-less, I keep banging on. I still look like the World’s Worst Dressed every time I set out, in a collection of ‘gear’ that can only be described – at least with my limited vocabulary – as ‘motley’. I watch other runners as they trot by in their neon yellow vests, lycra shorts and trainers that cost more than my car: they do not sweat, they do not pant, they do not look as if somebody has just had a paint-stripper to their face. I do. In my slightly holey T-shirt, baggy shorts and trainers that I borrowed from my brother and never returned, I still look like I spend my time testing fan ovens from the inside. I want to feel better when I am running, but no matter how often I do it, I never do. I always think that I feel worse. I don’t of course. That would not be possible. But, and here is the crucial point, when I don’t run, I definitely do feel worse. Each time I take a break, I feel the pressing need to run again and every time I run again, I definitely feel much worse than I did before it. Each time I sit at home with a pint of beer, a vegan pastie and nine series of Still Game on iPlayer I feel great, but guilty. I’m not good with guilt. Each time I set out, guilt-free and bereft of all pastry I feel as though I should feel great, but I don’t. I feel great when I set off – sometimes for seconds. I feel great about running, but I feel terrible doing it.
I have recently returned to the jogging throng after recovering from a chest virus and a bad back – neither of which, I suspect, would have dragged me so far down ten years ago. Throw in a holiday and I missed running for six weeks in all. I put weight on much quicker than I could ever lose it. I would have drunk much more, but I got out of breath pulling the corks. And all the time I wasn’t running I was wishing that I was. And as soon as I was, I was wishing that I wasn’t. It has become habit. It’s a strange fact of life (well, mine at least) that I only ever really want to do something when there is a perfectly valid reason why I cannot. It is another strange quirk of existence that whenever I really don’t want to do something, I can never find a suitable impediment.
So, after a fitful return to the regular routine, I am fully back on it. I run because I know that I will feel worse about not doing it than I do whilst doing it. It’s like voting. I know that I must either waste my vote by gifting it to somebody who has absolutely no prospect of success, or I use it to elect somebody who I know will disappoint me. I would like not to vote, but it might allow somebody of whom I do not approve (anybody vain enough to stand for election) to sneak into power. So I vote, in the certain knowledge that I will regret it before the envelope hits the bottom of the post box. I haven’t been to a polling station in years. I don’t like the false good-humour and the forced formality of it all. I particularly don’t like standing behind a partially drawn curtain, staring at an ill-printed scrap of destiny, desperate to do the right thing, but certain that it will be wrong.
I have had similar problems in returning to this little routine. Unusually, for me, I was laid as low in spirit as I was in health and I decided that I should pour such energy as I could muster into a long-form piece of tom foolery through which, for better or for worse, I breezed. I had four characters – all of them me – who I knew and understood. I had a plot (I am perhaps stretching things a little by using the word ‘plot’, but I knew what had to happen and, even though it was precious little, it did) and my characters just found their own way to the end. I enjoyed picking up threads. Each evening’s finish provided the following morning’s start and nothing more taxing than, ‘now, where was I?’ When my characters wandered off-piste, I didn’t have to worry about them. I just let the others take the strain whilst I waited for them to find their own way back. When it was done, I read it through. It made sense – at least to me it did – and it made me laugh (although I’m not certain that it is good form to admit that). It was one of those diversions where you discover a beautiful country church that you never knew existed, in the garden of a pub, that sells ice cream…
I have found my return to the short-form to be slightly more problematic. I want to do it, I love to do it, but somehow I have just not found the groove yet. I don’t want to keep on doing the same old thing, but then I remember that this little column is my life, and my life, pretty much, is the same old thing. It works only as long as I don’t over-think it. Someone else can do the thinking: somebody who is good at it. I should do what I am good at – and I will, just as soon as I find out what it is. Whatever it is, I’m pretty certain it will not involve too much in the way of cogitation and, if I’m honest, only a very limited amount of actual doing. It might involve thinking about doing – just as long as I don’t have to explain it to anybody else.
So anyway, there you have it, the current state of play as I ease myself back into routine – still running, still writing, still no idea why the Earth orbits the sun, why cake goes hard and biscuits go soft, why I am happy to think of myself as a running man, but most definitely not a runner. Why I fear I will forever be a man who writes, but never a writer…
DIATRIBE A bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism. Known in subversive circles as ‘conversation’. There is little point in speaking about anyone at all except in derogatory terms. All subversives are bitter about something, be it the blatant oppression of the working classes by the ruling elite; the exploitation of minority groups in our supposedly egalitarian society, or the price of deodorised socks at the Co-op, and will waste no time in denouncing¹ any or all of them.
1. The most important thing to remember about the act of denunciation is that it does not encumber the denouncer with any responsibility, e.g. suggesting a solution to the problem. This is the job of politicians – who really should know better.
DICTATOR (See Despot – above) Charlie Chaplin played The Great Dictator in a film, only to find that a Mr A Hitler subsequently plagiarised his creation and went on to achieve worldwide notoriety without having to eat liquorice boots. Many historians have considered how the impact of the Second World War might have been lessened had Mr Hitler been as funny as Mr Chaplin, but on closer examination of the latter’s films, most are forced to agree that he was.
DIM Rather stupid. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of dim people to your organisation. With proper persuasion, they will do all the things that you are far too scared to do. Also, when captured by the authorities, they will waste no time in admitting to anything at all, as long as the policeman offers to share his Smarties.
DIGESTIVE A medicine which aids digestion. More importantly, a biscuit. Should you ever find yourself in gainful employment, always strive to assume control of the staff tea fund. Once in this lofty position of power, replace the digestives with Rich Tea and watch the fun begin¹. Remember that, whatever is claimed to the contrary, the tea fund never did stretch to Custard Creams and always offer to reinstate the Digestives in return for an increase of the weekly subs. Be prepared to deny emphatically that the quality of the tea has fallen during your time in charge and also that the tea money has, in any way, contributed towards your new Rolex watch, whilst pointing out the importance of proper timekeeping in the delivery of the tea. Always keep a separate stash of Supermarket Own-Brand Rich Tea, which can be passed off as ‘low-sugar’ or ‘gluten-free’ as required and a small pack of Jammie Dodgers for the exclusive consumption of the person in charge of the photocopier and the recently divorced hottie in accounts.
1. It is a universally acknowledged truth that absolutely nobody likes Rich Tea biscuits – with the possible exception of vicars’ wives, who do so solely on a cost basis, and Supermodels, for whom a single biscuit provides a)100% of their daily nutritional requirements. b) A convenient ashtray. c) A nice shiny surface from which to snort their actual daily nutritional requirements.
DISMEMBER To sever limb from limb. Probably not the best course of action for the do-it-yourselfer. To be efficient at this you need a sharp knife and a strong stomach. It does make a dreadful mess in the bathroom and, unless you feel you really have to make a point, I recommend you dismember something with far less blood, gristle and sinew than the average human being. Try a chocolate digestive biscuit, a plastic duck or Donald Trump (please).
DISSENT To disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view. Does this make you a subversive? No, this makes you normal. Governments in general serve only one rational function, that of being the focus of dissent. It is perfectly logical to hold in contempt anyone who always knows what is best for you. Government is full of them¹. It is also full of people who know that what is good for you isn’t necessarily good for them.
1. Politics is the only profession for which being called a ‘sanctimonious prig’ is considered a good thing.
DODGE To evade by sudden shift of place. What one does with all responsibility.
DOMESDAY Archaic word meaning ‘The day of Judgement’. Generally associated with the Domesday Book, an early census, ordered by William the Conqueror, who wanted to know exactly how much he could screw out of whom. Think combined Census and Tax Return with the implicit threat of disembowelment for non-payment.
DOOMSDAY The Day of Judgement. Your afternoon in Magistrates Court – £25 fine and bound over for two weeks. Also, excluded from all branches of McDonalds until April.
DOWNHILL Into a worse or inferior condition. The direction in which your life is heading. Generally, unless you are wearing skis, it is not considered ‘a good thing’ to reach the bottom first. Even in Downhill Skiing, one is expected to reach the nadir with some form and grace; not with one shoe missing, a fat lip and a tampon up one nostril. Also, remember that not even Franz Klammer was able to walk back up the mountain, no matter how quickly or elegantly he got down it. A couple of paper cupfuls of gluhwein down at the bottom end and you’re staying there baby.
DUEL A prearranged combat between two persons, fought with deadly weapons according to an accepted code of procedure, esp. to settle a private quarrel. Once an invitation to duel has been accepted, it is considered extremely bad form to hide behind one’s girlfriend pretending to be a non-English speaking Lithuanian with a dodgy leg. You will be considered a complete cad if you do not go ahead with the duel and die with honour. Duels are traditionally fought at dawn, with either swords or pistols. (If you are offered the choice of weapons, go for celery. Contempt is much easier to handle than fatal wounding.)
DUET A piece of music for two performers. What you thought you’d read when you accepted the invitation to a duel.
DUODENUM The first portion of the small intestine, from the stomach to the jejunum¹. The first indicator that you are actually properly scared.
1. The section of the small intestine between the duodenum and the ileum – and you think your job, stacking supermarket shelves, is grim.
DYNAMITE High explosive. Much like next-door’s glue-sniffing son, this is never to be approached with an open flame. Much like next-door’s glue-sniffing son, dynamite can have a devastating effect on the neighbourhood. Unlike next-door’s glue-sniffing son, dynamite is very rarely sick on your rhododendrons.
Place a soft-boiled egg up a politician’s exhaust (or that of his car).
The Beginner’s A-Z of D.I.Y Subversion (DDT to Devil)
DDT Hydrocarbon compound, an effective insecticide. Many of the people you will encounter in the pursuit of your subversive activities would benefit greatly from a spray down with this. Pay special attention to all warm, moist areas: The Amazonian Rain Forest, North West India, all regions generally covered by underwear.
DAMAGE To injure or impair. It is a legitimate course of action to cause damage to those who themselves cause damage on a much greater scale. There are those who would damage our communities, our countries, our planet and, were they to be given the opportunity, probably several others across the universe. Now is the time to rise up and damage their cause. It is impossible for even the seasoned subversive not to take sides. Sit on the fence and you will get your balls creosoted. Think of your children. If you don’t have children, think of somebody else’s children. If you don’t like children, think of yourself.
DANGER Exposure to injury; jeopardy; risk. Oh, dear me, no! No, no, no, no, no! Exposure to injury is to be avoided at all cost. Besides serving no useful purpose whatsoever, injury is in itself a foreign word to the subversive. It translates as ‘Pain’. Pain is exclusively reserved for the benefit of others. Pain is to be inflicted. Pain is most certainly not to be endured. Some people thrive on danger. To the brave, it is like a drug. To the subversive it is like a laxative. It is best never to get involved in anything that could, in anyway, be considered dangerous.
DEATH Extinction of life. Death is not a skeletal figure dressed in black, carrying a scythe¹. Death is an insurance salesman. Death is called Nigel. Death works at a call centre in Mumbai. He got your phone number from the HMRC website.
1. An agricultural hand-tool for mowing grass or reaping crops. How it became associated with Death, I am not certain. A scythe is used in the reaping of crops and Death is, of course, The Grim Reaper. I Googled ‘Grim Reaper’ and got a short piece about a heavy metal band from Droitwich. I also accidentally Googled ‘Grim Reeperbahn’, which I do not recommend as a course of action, and I would like to make it known, here and now, that I have never met the lady.
DEBACLE A confused rout. Now here is a word I know all about. My whole life is confusion – at least I think it is, I’m not sure. A rout is any overwhelming defeat, which just goes to prove that my wife is completely correct when she describes my entire life as a debacle.
DEBATE Contention in words or arguments; discussion; controversy. To dispute; to deliberate. Forget it. Politicians do it all the time – and look at them. The gentle art of persuasion is best served with a baseball bat. Do not deliberate – it merely postpones the painful realisation that you haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. Debate requires at least two parties and has three rules:
Don’t get involved.
If you do get involved, always stand by an open door.
Write down very clearly the points you wish to make and, in an emergency, use the list to set fire to the other person’s trousers.
DEBAUCH To corrupt; to pervert; to riot; to revel. Excess in eating or drinking; lewdness. This sounds like so much fun, the government will almost certainly tax it in the next budget.
DEFEAT Frustration; overthrow; loss of battle. Try to avoid all possibility of defeat by never openly being drawn into battle. If you should become embroiled in a literary battle, use a pen-name and, if possible, somebody else’s typewriter or cut letters out of the newspaper. If you are drawn into a verbal battle, remember always to speak slowly and quietly. Very quietly if your opponent is bigger than yourself. Keep calm when stating your own arguments and listen carefully and patiently to those of your adversary before destroying them with your incisive wit and perception. It is also a good tactic to stand behind them and pull faces. Should you get drawn into a physical battle you have two basic choices: flight or fight. Of course, one of them is right and the other one is fight. If all possible escape routes are blocked, and a physical confrontation becomes inevitable, you must immediately adopt the correct stance. This is best known as the foetal position. Roll up in a ball, as tightly as you can, and whimper softly¹.
Never worry about losing face – it does not hurt as much as getting beaten up.
1. Foam at the mouth if at all possible: your opponent will a) believe that you are in need of medical attention and will not want to get involved in all the questions that are associated with a 999 call (the answers to which are all ‘I don’t know’) b) will not want to get sputum all over his brand new linen trousers and c) will have just the vaguest suspicion that you might have rabies and/or a trapped fish bone – the consequences of either being far more messy than they would want to risk.
DESPERADO Desperate fellow; reckless ruffian. A media word for subversive. If you like the sound of this title, do not wash or change your underwear for a week.
DESPOT (See Dictator – below) A king or other ruler with absolute, unlimited power; autocrat; any tyrant or oppressor. Everything that you most revile. Everything that you’d most like to be. You could buy a dog, but remember that even the dimmest of canines might be inclined to answer back now and again – also it is not easy to remain imperious with dog crap on your slippers.
DEVASTATE To lay waste; render desolate. The effect that the dedicated subversive can have on an ‘All U Can Eat Oriental Buffet’ during its £4.95 Afternoon Special session. Also the effect that certain prawn dishes in the above may have on the hungry subversive after they have sat in lukewarm water for four and a half hours under a dodgy heat lamp. (You know that I meant the prawns and not the subversives.)
DEVIL (1) The supreme spirit of evil. I drank some of this on holiday in Bulgaria and spoke Swahili for three days afterwards.
DEVIL (2) An atrociously wicked, cruel, or ill-tempered person. You will meet a lot of these. Tell them that you have wandered into the Job Centre by mistake and, anyway, you can’t attend a job interview right now because you have a bunion.
DEVIL (3) A person who is very clever, energetic, reckless, or mischievous. Exactly the kind of person that you do not want in your band of desperadoes, but will almost certainly be first in the queue to join you. Allow them to become a member at your peril. Finding your shoes super-glued to the pub floor is all well and good the first time it happens, but can become seriously annoying, particularly when you are trying to evade the landlord.
DEVIL (4) (Cookery) a grill with Cayenne pepper. Something that you do with kidneys – although God knows why. As far as I am aware, kidneys serve only one purpose in the culinary world, e.g. something to pick out of steak and kidney pie.
Beneath my desk as I write this post is a large lidded bucket which is spewing out sufficient CO² to make me personally responsible for the depletion of several feet at least of the Morteratsch glacier and will possibly result in a severe ticking off from Greta Thunberg. According to everything I read carbon dioxide is an odourless gas, but as whatever is bubbling its way out of my bucket smells like the kind of sock you find at the bottom of a child’s sports bag three months after the end of term, and is covered by the kind of living blanket you find on the elderly jam sandwich tucked away at the back of a bedroom drawer, I have severe doubts. I am supposed to be brewing beer, but it is obvious to me that something has died in the bucket. I dare not lift the lid – whatever is growing in there, it is clearly desperate to get out.
My daughter bought me the kit and all associated paraphernalia for Christmas. She clearly felt that I had time on my hands that needed to be filled. Like almost everybody of my age, I used to brew most of what I drank back in the day when I had very little money and alcohol cost a lot of it. I have produced many a glass of wine with a fine, rich and creamy head; many a pint of beer with all the aesthetic appeal of Spring Vegetable Soup, and I’ve drunk them all. The main difference with the current brew is that I am embracing the challenge, not because I have to, but because I want to. I have drunk sufficient quantities of ‘craft’ beers over the years to lead me to believe that I can, myself, produce something perfectly acceptable (e.g. not strictly poisonous). I’ve looked at a lot of paintings over the years and I feel sure that I could do that too, if I just had access to a decent brush. I’ve read enough awful novels to feel confident in my ability to write one of those. My head is full of songs that I know would be best-sellers if they ever made it out into the world – or at least into The Eurovision Song Contest (b group). If other people are able to do things, I find it hard to understand why I can’t do them too.
I’m a believer. I believed when I started writing this poor benighted blog that I could make a decent fist of it. I believed that more people would want to read it rather than just tick ‘Like’ and try to sell me vitamins. I believed that many more would read it than ever did. It is a crazy affliction: to be fully – and painfully – aware of your own limitations, whilst still believing that you might, somehow, overcome them. When ‘just about acceptable’ is an aspiration, then not reaching it is painful. I’m not looking to climb Everest – I get a nose-bleed on a high kerb – but I wouldn’t mind standing atop a knoll for a little while.
I once produced a gooseberry ‘champagne’ of breathtaking beauty, and a greengage chardonnay that could have stripped the enamel off a toilet bowl. The ingredients were similar, the methodology identical, the results, it would appear, not something over which I had any control. I don’t recall putting any more effort into one than the other. Managing ‘effort’, if I’m honest, has never been my greatest forte: generally things either come easily, or they frustrate the hell out of me, and the things that frustrate me the most are the very things that make me resolve even harder to succeed. It is only after I have discovered that I am unable to do something, that I become really determined to do it.
Consequently, I have spent many, many hours over the last three-and-a-bit years working on this blog. Hard as it is to imagine, I put a lot of effort into each and every post I make, and the disappointment of the realisation that I have fewer readers than Vladimir Putin has rational brain cells is, at times, crushing. Whilst I understand and accept that the goal is not to have thousands of readers, well… the thing is that it is really, isn’t it? The joy may well be in the writing, but the point is in people reading it. This blog has become the equivalent of playing ‘The Toilet Tent’ at Glastonbury and I don’t seem to be able to do anything about it. It is time, I think, to take a bit of a break, to finish The Play, to record some scripts to see how they sound…
Okay, so I know that I have done this before. Last year I was writing four posts a week and it was taking over my life. (You should try walking around Marks & Sparks, looking at the rows of pants and wondering ‘Can I get a post out of this?’ I even considered getting arrested for shop-lifting, just in case I could find something amusing to say about the experience.) So I stopped, briefly, and then commenced this more manageable two-times-a-week routine. I can handle this with time to spare each week. My problem is that, instead of finding something ‘profitable’ to do with my spare time, I simply write more posts. I can be frighteningly prolific – some form of literary diarrhoea – and I tend to have so many posts ‘in hand’ that I will probably have had a good four weeks off by the time that you loyal two dozen read this, and I will be raring to go again. I will already have revisited all of the things I have been unable to finish, finding no doubt that those that I can finish are not worth the effort and those that are worth the effort, I am still unable to finish.
I have no doubt whatsoever that I will be back, just as soon as I write something and think ‘that would be ideal for the blog’ but, for now, that is not the plan. By the time you read this, my beer will be in the bottles. I may even have sampled some. I have a second episode of Frankie & Benny (who are an absolute joy to write) with which I will, for now finish, as it seems to me to be as good a way as any of saying ‘adieu’…
I did it when I was a child, for the shortest of times – trainspotting. I had a book I recall, given to me by my parents who thought that ‘getting out there’ might ‘do me good’, printed with rows of numbers which, to the best of my knowledge, I was just meant to tick off every now and then. You could go on the stations back then – a platform ticket was a penny I think – as long as you didn’t get on the trains. You could put your tanner in the chocolate machine for excitement. It never gave you what you wanted. Mostly it gave you nothing at all. And you never got your money back – no matter how hard you kicked, you never got your money back. Better to spend it in the buffet really. You could get a terminally watered-down orange squash and a penguin biscuit for your sixpence, but not a Fudge bar. They were only in the chocolate machine and it wasn’t letting them go.
More often than not I spent my money on the ‘I speak your weight’ machine because I was fascinated by it, but I was so thin that it never knew that I was on. I imagined it tutting at me – but it never gave me my money back.
Whenever a train chugged into the station I marked the number off in my little book, but I felt no excitement: just the slight rancour of a wasted life everytime I realised that it was a train I had already seen. Sometimes I just marked a different number anyway, and I felt like a real maverick. I began to mark numbers off at random every time a train pulled up to the platforms. It got so that I could do a whole days spotting in the bus on the way into town.
I was aware that for most of my fellow social outcasts, Saturday morning trainspotting was a real collective deal. They gathered in little groups and chatted about what to expect from the day. “567431 is coming in about ten,” somebody would say and there would be a general murmur of appreciation. I was never invited into the groups. I stood on the edge and marked off 567431 as soon as the number was mentioned. It was as good as. No point in wasting the whole morning waiting to actually see it. If it was a diesel train, then I knew what it would look like. Instead of becoming closer to my fellow hobbyists I was aware that I was growing ever-more distant to them. There was them and there was me and we had absolutely nothing in common but for our little books of numbers. They had bright hooded anoraks and nylon over-trosers whilst I had faded loons and a Gratton’s catalogue tank-top. They had waterproof rucksacks and I had a Tesco carrier bag. They had tea and cake from the buffet whilst all I had was a sense of loathing for the solid state that wouldn’t give me my money back. They were interested. I was not.
I did like it when the occasional steam train thundered through though. I lived through the very tail of the steam age and it was always a thrill to see them. They were not the gleaming red and green leviathans of today’s tourist lines, but decaying, smoke-blackened hulks chugging their way to the knacker’s yard. The best thing in the world was to stand on the bridge as they passed below belching lung-crippling blasts of steam and smoke into the air. The power was palpable. It went up through your feet, along your legs and reverberated around your chest like a firework in a can. The steam trains were always the highlight of any day – they had names rather than numbers – but they became fewer and further between. Mostly it was just diesels. Powerful, but clean and bland, and to me, the trainee trainspotter, very boring.
So I began to find other things to do with my time. I wandered from the station – no point in wasting a perfectly good penny on a platform ticket – to the town, to the castle, to the cathedral… You could wander on your own then, and mostly I was on my own. I loved the cold silence of old buildings and I would meander around them endlessly. There was a little hexagonal stone building in the Cathedral grounds – which I now know is nothing more than an ornamental well-head – where it was rumoured that with the right number of circumnavigations, you could summon up the devil. I tried every weekend, but he never came. Shame, I could have done with the company. Then one last wander back to the sweet shop, or best of all the joke shop, where I spent my precious accumulated 7d before crossing a few random numbers off my book and heading home for dinner. (In my world, ‘dinner’ was always taken about mid-day. Anything after 1pm was ‘tea’ and seldom involved potatoes unless chipped.)
Dinner over and Saturday afternoons throughout autumn, winter and spring were spent in our own little corner of the Sincil Bank stadium watching the Mighty Imps get trounced by whomever it was that was lucky enough to be playing them that day. It didn’t really matter that they lost so habitually back then, I was part of the crowd and we all wanted the same thing. The fact that we so seldom got it was of little consequence. Two hours on the freezing terraces in the company of the same group of people every other week was what weekends were made for: stewed tea out of a steel urn, a slightly faded Garibaldi biscuit out of a crumpled paper bag and a nip from my grandad’s hipflask if I was lucky. People around me that always seemed happy to see me and all I had to do was sing, cheer and groan as appropriate: one of the gang. There have been ups and downs for the team in the half century and more since, but I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed my football more than I did back then. From the ground at full time, the whole world it seemed traipsed as one over the two railway bridges back to the steaming buses home, and I would often spot a determined little gaggle of weather-proof anoraks on the distant station, waiting still for the 4.45 from Peterborough. I had no desire to be with them then – even their little tartan vacuum flasks of now lukewarm Bovril were unable to ward off the clawing cold by that time, their fold-away kagoules no match for the stalking wind and biting sleet – but never-the-less, when I got home, I always crossed another number off my little book, just so that I still felt at least a little bit a part of it…
When you’re growing up and you’re small and you’re ginger, then you try to cope by being funny and you can always gauge the moment when you actually succeed for some, because someone else – normally much bigger than yourself – will be screaming in your face, tight and red and angry, “Yeh, you think you’re so fucking funny, don’t you?” and you have to try really hard to stop yourself from saying, “Well, now you come to mention it…” and that’s when you begin to associate laughter with pain. As you get older, it stops to be such a problem: you stop trying so hard because nobody ever finds you even remotely funny anyway – at least not fully clothed – and all in all, you are slightly less likely to find yourself grappling around in the mud with somebody twice your size whilst a crowd has gathered around you chanting’ “Scrap, scrap, scrap…” hoping to see blood, hoping to see snot and tears, hoping not to get collared by the dinnerlady. You may still, occasionally, seek to deliberately amuse, but mostly you just trip over your own feet…
Now, I thought about this whilst I was having a shower and I was adopting the pose that we must all assume, regardless of gender, while rinsing the soap from the undercarriage. In the shower, there is no other way of achieving this short of standing on your head, and as there is no worse feeling than that of soap lingering around the nethers as the day drags on, it has to be properly rinsed away in the morning. So, it occurred to me that we must all present this same twisted aspect to the falling water – the intended target being pretty well shaded from downward droplets by head, shoulder, belly and, for some (amongst whom I fear I must now include myself – muscled flesh having long-since morphed into pendulous manboob) – fleshy chest adornments. It’s a ridiculous, hip thrusty kind of stance, that ensures the descending rivulets have an appropriate route that allows them to wash over the necessary areas, whilst you endeavour not to put your back out and – should you have an un-steamed-up mirror within view – not find yourself laughing at your own reflection. It is an absurd stance in which, I envisage, we all find ourselves from time to time. A truly egalitarian posture. All life should be like it.
I don’t know what it is about a few minutes under the warming spray that brings this habit of maudlin reflection upon me: it’s like feeling sorry for myself, except that, of course, is something that only other people do. Today I have been reading the latest bestseller by A. Veryfamousperson, thinking to myself “I could write that” and in that moment of indignation I believed that I really could, failing to realise that even if I did, it would make not the slightest difference because, frankly, I am not A. Veryfamousperson and nobody gives a twopenny fig what I have to say. I could write the Bible and still not find a publisher…
So, this is the point – wherever I find myself in the day’s downward arc – whether still striking the pose in the shower, sitting on the loo, or attempting to explain to a 6-year old why a laptop keyboard and honey are not compatible, when I realise that it is probably time for me to get a grip and review the current situation:
What’s so wrong with a sticky keyboard? (Well, if you reaaaaaaaaaaally waaaaaaaaaaant to know, eaaaaaaaaaach time you press the letter AAAAAAAAAAA it just keeps on going on aaaaaaaaaaaaand the only thing you caaaaaaaaaaan do is to go through aaaaaaaaaaaaall you haaaaaaaaaave written aaaaaaaaaaaaat aaaaaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaater time aaaaaaaaaaaaaand baaaaaaaaackspaaaaaaaaaaaace it aaaaaaaaaaaall out. Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!)
I am alive and, to all intents and purposes, fit and well.
I actually quite like playing the clown.
Fame and money would only spoil me.
I have grown up relatively well-adjusted. I am blessed with a loving family and far more friends than I actually deserve.
Too many of my best friends have died over the years. I have lots now, but if I’m honest, few of my own age. I’m a little scared of making new ones in case I kill them, but I know that I should make the effort. The problem is, how? I don’t do many of the things that people of my age are apt to do: I rarely catch the bus; I don’t have an ancient terrier to walk around the block and I don’t even own a cap. I thought of taking up bowls, but I’m not to be trusted in white clothing. The problem with almost all suitable hobbies is that they are so much more age appropriate than I am. I would like to take up fishing, I think. I would like every single thing about it, except for the catching of fish. I would be perfectly happy sitting on a riverbank watching the world flow by: the birds, the bees, the fishermen – I often walk along the river banks and despite encountering fishermen all the time, I am not certain that I have ever seen a fisherwoman¹ – the bird-sized dragonflies, the occasional wary rodent, the ducks and the swans. I would be quite happy eating foil-wrapped sandwiches and drinking over-stewed tea from a flask. I can talk about the weather with the best of ‘em. I have a cloth bush-hat that makes me look like one of the Flowerpot Men (I have no idea which one. There is a link here – you must judge for yourselves). I am fully qualified in all respects except that of owning a fishing rod: except that of wanting to haul a hapless Piscean from its natural habitat on the end of a nylon line and metal hook…
I did go fishing quite a bit when I was small, but I never really took to it. I got bored too easily back then: partly by the inordinate amount of time I had to spend doing so little and partly by having to go home so often to tell my mum that I had fallen in the river again so that she never knew that I had been thrown in by somebody much bigger than me, who clearly didn’t think that I was at all funny. Fishing trips then, even those in which I managed to remain terrestrial, always seemed to end when the cold had seeped into my bones, and I went home to thaw myself in the few inches of lukewarm water I was allowed. No showers back then – I don’t ever remember going anywhere with a shower. Even the kind of hotels we visited on high days and holidays had only a single bath on each landing – so no fear of dislocating a hip whilst rinsing the soap off. Mind you, being a boy of that age, I didn’t have a particularly close relationship with the soap bar, truth be told. Infact, the more I think about it, the more I think that might be the real reason that people kept chucking me in the river…
I have developed a stupid habit of leaving things half finished and open on the laptop so that I can return to them when the mood takes me, and thus I have now managed to write and delete today’s post a total of three times. I have absolutely no idea how this current incarnation compares with its mistakenly expunged counterparts: I remember the first couple of sentences, but I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of what I found to prattle on about thereafter. It was kind of the idea if I’m honest, but I could certainly have done without the repeats. If you feel unfulfilled by what you have read above, then I can only seek to assure you that my first three attempts were almost certainly much, much better…
Surely I should have learned by now that having time on my hands is never a good thing, that idle hours are never well spent. My own idle hands clicked onto ‘Reader’ and typed ‘Humour’ into the search bar. It’s been a long time since I found a new blog to follow and my latest crop of followers clearly don’t want me as one of their own, or if they do, they obviously think that I am somebody else: somebody with even the slimmest chance of making an income out of this waffle. I scanned down the page of the ‘humorous’ blogs on offer and reminded myself that dealing with crushing disappointment is all part of the human condition – at least if you are me. Firstly, I did not find a single blog that could in any way, be described as humorous, unless my grip on the English language has become even more tenuous than I feared. As far as I could see, most of them were there because they had the word ‘Humour’ as a tag. If this is the way that tags work, then I am very tempted to tag my next post ‘Get £1,000,000 of free cash by clicking on this blog.’ I see myself with thousands of new, albeit disappointed, readers.
Secondly – and I must be honest, by far the more distressing aspect of my trawl, this blog hadn’t even made the cut! Now, I realise I am no Oscar Wilde – I miss that particular qualification on so many counts – but come on, surely I should be able to get myself onto a list that is otherwise filled with ‘What is the basic fundamental of joke construction?’ and not a single ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ This is a very small pond, belly laugh-wise, and I cannot even get myself hauled out in a very broad net. I fear my goose – along with all hope of golden eggs – is cooked. I have ‘Humour’ as a category for God’s sake! What on earth do I need to do? (OK, if you’re going to be picky, I concede that including a joke or two might help.)
I have spent my life attempting to wrangle some kind of joy out of words. Most of the time the words have put up a pretty good fight. I know from very long experience that on the rare occasion I am truly happy with something I have written, a sober read-through the following day will see it hurtle towards the bin. Writing alone is the process of making a hundred jokes that nobody else gets whilst completely missing the one that everybody laughs at. There is nothing more joyful than finding that ‘killer line’ and nothing more soul destroying than seeing it die a death. There is joy to be found in writing with another discordant soul, laughing at the other person’s jokes and realising that you can add to them. Joy is in reading through an idea you had and hearing laughter exactly where you thought it might be hiding. I have laughed so much during long-ago writing sessions with the wonderful Mr Underfelt that I have feared for my health and my sanity – something I have never done in the last thirty or so years of writing alone. (Laugh, that is. I fear for my sanity on a daily basis. If I ever manage to find it, I will give it a very stern talking to.)
Solitary writing is a form of self abuse – although without quite the same sense of guilt or fear of blindness. It is all about the release. It is all about the disappointment. It is all about the ‘I’m not doing that again.’ I never think about writing: I just write. Like everybody else with an enthusiasm that dwarfs talent, I know that I will get it right one day. Like everybody else who waits for the day that they will get it right, I wait, and write.
I know that many of you are far more professional in your approach than I. On the one occasion that I wrote a novel, I meandered through the first half of the book, found the ending, went back to the beginning and then slowly drew the two together. I never had a plan, it just sort of worked itself out in a way that all of the top publishers of the day described as utter tripe. Only in sit-com did I ever have a beginning, a middle and an end in mind, because each episode is really just a single joke and the trick is just in holding the attention long enough to get there. Normally I had given up the ghost myself long before I reached the end. My dialogue just wouldn’t follow my plot. The phrase ‘It’s almost there, but…’ is the one I will have chiselled on my tombstone.
For the last three decades I have passed my time banging out this kind of fol-de-rol. Generally I start with the first line – I know what you’re thinking, but let me explain… I have a bookful of them. I write them down constantly. A million first sentences with absolutely no idea of where they are going. Often I sit down and leaf through the book until something catches my eye. Always I will have something on my mind, although I seldom know what it is, and it somehow attaches itself onto what I have written and, hand in hand, the two of them wander off towards the horizon where, if I am lucky, I catch them before they fall over the edge. Comedy is the gift of a flat earth. I can agonise all day over a single sentence, or I can find myself with a thousand words on paper and no real idea of how they got there. Either way, it makes little difference unless I can find a way to search for them that does not include the word ‘humour’. (Before you suggest it, I have tried prefixing with ‘Vain attempts at’, but I’m still not there. In fact I have just typed my name into the search bar and I still do not appear to exist. How closely this blogosphere mirrors life.)
The Devil makes work for idle hands, so the saying goes. I’ve always thought that the Devil probably had the best jokes. I wonder where he keeps them…
Having granted myself some extra ‘spare time’* by posting less often on my blog, I am now faced with the quandary of how to profitably deal with all of those vacant hours. In the certain knowledge that I will return to the fruitless pounding of computer keyboard in the very near future, I am loathe to stumble down the primrose path to pastimes anew – I have thought about fishing, but the only thing that really appeals is the sitting on the riverbank doing nothing for hours on end. I would be most put out if anything decided to take my bait, particularly if it meant that I had to remove something slimy and sentient from a hook. I fantasise about picking up the paint brush, but each time I do, my wife say, ‘Brilliant, you can start with the kitchen.’ In my mind I am sure that my current mental inertia is even more time-limited than my ability to carry the grandkids around on my shoulders all day, so what I need is something to fill the empty hours that is not too onerous, not too taxing, not too expensive and doesn’t involve me in any kind of physical activity that just might mean that my enhanced access to free time actually merely adds up to an end to it. I am, in short, watching an awful lot of daytime TV.
Daytime TV, it appears to me, exists for only one reason: to prepare you for death. Nothing intensifies the experience of passing years and increased decrepitude like a couple of hours spent in front of some half-remembered detective yarn from the 1960’s, a 1970’s sitcom in which the ‘isms are so often displayed that it makes your brain hurt, or a coven of middle aged misandrists who believe that all manner of noisome wrongs can be righted by simply shouting louder. Nothing, that is, except the adverts that punctuate the effluvial flow at five-minute intervals, at a volume that all but ensures injury in the dash for the remote control.
If you have never craved a stairlift, you will almost certainly do so after you are shown how simple they are to fit to almost any staircase and how transformative they can be. How easy it is to glide sedately heavenward at a speed that will almost certainly ensure you have forgotten why you were going by the time you get there. Such is the allure of the slow-motion ascent that I envision millions of ageing bungalow-dwellers trading in their single-level abodes for an upper-story simply so that they can avail themselves of Messrs Stanna’s finest and cruise upwards with cup of tea, linen, or a bouquet of cut flowers at a pace befitting their age and the elasticity of time.
That is if they have not already released the equity in their home, of course. The knowledge that the equity release company’s representatives – whose sole task it is to sell you their product – will ‘even tell you if it is not right for you’, is comforting indeed. Everyone loves the warm embrace of a commissioned salesperson.
Of course, you might not be tempted to sell your home for half of its value if you have previously fitted a stair lift with, at the top of its stately rise, a doody little bath with a door in it. Strip off, step in, sit down and wait to be enveloped by the gently rising waters – as long as you don’t succumb to hypothermia in the meantime. In a world of fuel-poverty, there can be few better ideas than encouraging those of advancing years to sit naked in the bathroom, waiting for the water to rise to waist-level and, having bathed, wet and naked whilst it drains. Clean in both life and death, it is win/win, as long, of course, as the deceased has taken out a Funeral Insurance Plan.
And who could resist the lure of happy, smiling septuagenarian friends discussing how much better their lives have become since ensuring their relatives will have no expensive funeral bills to face? Filling in the form is clearly great fun – I suppose that compared to the alternative of Classic Emmerdale, it might well be – as they laugh a lot, especially when one of them admits to having a over-abundance of parsnips this year. The insurance company will even send you one of those new-fangled ballpoint pens just for enquiring. You can bin the quill. Send them your bank details and you will have a friend for life.
That is not, though, to say that the daytime advertisers expect all of their viewers to be housebound. Despite our reputation for impulse-buying everything we could ever need from QVC, they realise that we, the ancient ones, may still have to venture out from time to time: perhaps to have the Velcro renewed on our shoes or to loudly discuss with the doctor’s receptionist which slot we should put the sample in. Indeed, they are very keen that we should get out and about. So keen, in fact, that they have created a myriad ways in which we can do so: three-wheeled, four-wheeled, five-wheeled, collapsible and de-luxe versions that remotely load themselves into the boot of your car providing it is the size of a bus and has a similar amount of free space for the ramp (not included) behind it. As a species, it would seem, we are not designed to walk past retirement. We are designed to weave manically through a peripatetic maze of pedestrian and on-coming vehicle whilst grappling with the calculation of multi-driveway power loss viz the possibility of getting back home without having to be dragged there by the AA or the surly offspring of the next door neighbour who has nothing better to do since he lost his balaclava. The information that a battery is available that will get you to the shop and back, but is of such a size that you will need a second vehicle to carry it, is always in the smallprint, which, of course, you will not be able to read unless you have just ordered your new on-line varifocals with guaranteed comfort fit and a fully recyclable cleaning cloth at no extra charge.
Myself, I now get all my exercise via the little vibrating footpad advertised and, I am certain, regularly utilised by Sir Ian Botham. It does make the TV picture a little blurry, but when you’re watching episodes of Dr Finlay’s Casebook that are older than you are, it barely matters and, if you keep on watching, they are almost certain to come up with a product to rectify it sooner or later…
*There is, of course, no real way to increase the time available to you – other than a deal with the Devil – if it was possible to buy extra time by doing nothing, I would probably live forever.
Being ‘a runner’ at last has come as something of a surprise to me: I have always been a runner last of all things. Covid has changed me and although I do not now, and doubt I ever will, enjoy running, without question I do feel better for doing it and I will continue to do so for as long as I am able. What I will not do, if I can possibly avoid it, is to run on a Sunday, because the paths are thronged with weekend dog-walkers and I spend so much time leaping up and down kerbs in an attempt to give them what they consider to be sufficient space that I might as well stay at home and go up and down the doorstep. This week, however, for reasons that might provide someone with a decent PHD thesis, I was forced to brave the canine overlords and head out on the Sabbath. I prepared myself and planned a route that, for the most part, allowed me to stick to the gutter, where most people seem to think that I belong. What I had not considered is that nobody appears to park their cars on the road any longer. All cars are parked across the path as close to the hedge/fence/discarded mattresses as it is possible to get without scraping the paint from the wing-mirror. There is absolutely no way to pass without taking to the centre of the road where you encounter the second Sunday morning issue: all home deliveries, it would seem, are now made on this day. The whole village is a web of DPD vans, Yodel vans and vans that are obviously recently purchased once-upon-a-time Post Office vans with which ends are being forced to meet. I am able to run a straighter line after sixteen pints of cider than I am in the streets of this village on a Sunday morning. Car doors spring open in front of me, drivers leap out on top of me, everybody wants to know why I am not on the path. I am not on the path because it is full of bloody car! I am not in the gutter because it too is full of bloody car! I am in the road because it is not full of bloody car, it is full of Amazon.
Sunday morning is a very social time and, for reasons unknown to non-dog walkers, almost all Sunday morning dog walkers dress as if they are about to run a marathon and they cannot resist the opportunity to gather on street corners to discuss it. The array of skin-tight, body-shaming, hi-viz elastane on show provides a pallet otherwise seen outside of Salvador Dali on a particularly vivid acid trip. Not a single molecule of it has ever encountered human sweat*. Everywhere you look there are small groups of middle-aged, semi-fluorescant lycra-clad dog exercisers chatting the morning away before, presumably, wheezing their way back home to a full roast dinner, a bottle of red and a couple of hours in front of Harry Potter on Netflix. These tiny gatherings do not move for any reason what-so-ever. They merely stare disdainfully as you try to navigate a path between them and the adjacent delivery van without falling under the wheels of the four-by-four on its way to pick up the morning papers. I cannot begin to imagine how upset they would be if I were to be disembowelled by the three-ton school transporter and, in the process, managed to splash brain all over their leisurewear. I cannot imagine anything would get that out, and blood red clashes so horribly with lime green…
Anyway, having misguidedly sallied forth, I persevered – I had no other way of getting home – but, the morning being warm and my anxiety being heightened, I pretty soon found sweat trickling down every available surface (as well as one or two that really should not have been) and particularly down my brow and into my eyes. I wear contact lenses to run: I cannot rub my eyes for fear of losing one down a drain, I cannot rub my forehead for fear of stretching the sagging mess of skin that ripples across my brow and popping an earbud out, so I blink a lot and rarely recognise anyone around me. Strangely, that situation seems to work for everyone, particularly those who studiously avoid looking me in the eye; who choose to deny my entire presence by staring at the ground, scanning the clouds or talking to the lamp-post. They appear to believe that whatever I have got (and I must have something) it must be infectious and could possibly be contracted by eye contact. To me, they are an amorphous blob; to them, I am a peripatetic pariah but, to everyone’s relief, our eyes never meet and thus I do not get the opportunity to leach out their very souls from their hooded optic orbs. Which is just as well, being Sunday and all…
*Other, of course, than the children forced to produce it.