The chimpanzee would be a fool, To turn his brain to making tools: To evolve himself to number one, Far better if he made a gun.
I’m always puzzled by why, exactly, we became what we are whilst chimpanzees did not. They have brains, they have opposable thumbs, they are bloody minded and, at times, blood thirsty – why are we the ones with the overdrafts? Why do whales allow themselves to be harpooned, why do dolphins get caught in fishermen’s nets? They must know something we do not – and God help them if we ever find out what it is…
I have just realised that chimpanzees also appeared in week 12 (although a completely different rhyme) of our little glide around the zoo. You know what it’s like, constantly finding yourself back at a cage you’ve already seen…
Having ‘retired’ at the beginning of the year I, like the majority of our benighted nation, have spent the last few weeks at home, doing things that I have been putting off for months, but in two weeks time I start my new, part-time job and, having worked full-time without a break for the last forty plus years I suddenly find the prospect quite daunting. I was adamant that I was not going to return to ‘pressure’ situations and my new employer assures me that this will not be the case. There will be no pressure in what I do – except that there will be a thousand new things to learn, and it occurs to me that it is a long time since I last did that. Am I still capable of learning, not an odd thing – how to peel an onion without crying, for instance; how to pull my socks up without putting my back out – but many, many new things, all at the same time? I am seriously concerned about it.
Have you ever stopped to think what you have learned recently? ‘Every day’s a schoolday’ is my mantra. I love to learn. I learn new things – all of them useless – every day, but I learn maybe one new thing at a time, not dozens, and I am increasingly aware that my brain is now operating a ‘One in, one out’ policy. Every time I learn how to set an electrical gadget, I forget the name of one of the grandkids. I look at those grandchildren and I realise how much they learn each and every day. They have brains like sponges, I fear mine is probably more like a pickled walnut: the content just as unpalatable. Pickled walnuts are soaked in vinegar, and we all know what that does to conkers. (I have only once eaten a pickled walnut*. It tasted like pickled coke**. I could not think of a single sane reason why I would ever want to repeat the experience.) Will I be capable of learning even the rudimentals – which key goes where, which button rings the till, which button sets the alarm off – let alone the more complicated stuff: whose turn is it to make the tea, who has milk, who has sugar? My brain is very good at what it does – at least that’s what it tells me – but how will it be at doing what, to date, it has not done before?
I wonder if I should somehow test it, maybe force it into doing a Sudoku, learning the chords to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ on a ukulele, making sense of the gas bill. I’m good at quizzes, but I always have been, I need a new mental challenge. How much of a stretch would it be for me to sit through an entire episode of ‘Eastenders’ without searching for something more interesting to do, e.g. researching how to pickle a walnut? I can only hope that my need to understand everything that I find puzzling is a good thing, that it shows that I am still curious, and not that I am stupid. Everything is a puzzle to me, but I know that curiosity does not necessarily equate to intelligence – I have looked it up. I am curious about how the universe works, but I do not understand any of the workings of it. Forget The Big Bang, I do not understand how come all of the planets do not just sink down to the bottom. (Also, come to think of it, where is the bottom? If there is no up and down in space, how on earth do you avoid spilling your gin?)
I still find the same things amazing now, as I did as a child: a butterfly, a snowflake, the way that animals find their way home from the other side of the world, the way that paint always drips in exactly the one place you don’t want it to. I have stopped trying to understand politics, but that is only because I have grown to realise that there is nothing to understand. It would all be so much easier if I could choose what to forget every time I manage to remember something new: the name of my next door neighbours, ‘In’ – the atomic weight of plutonium, ‘Out’; the names of the people I will shortly be working with, ‘In’ – the nicknames of the people I went to school with – ‘Out’; anything even vaguely important, ‘In’ – the kind of pedantic crap my mind is full of (‘aitch’ not ‘haitch’, ‘may I’ not ‘can I’, ten thousand incorrect uses for the apostrophe, ‘we were’ not ‘we was’) ‘Out’. It’s the knowing what to let go of, that’s the problem. I‘m sure there’s a place in my brain that is set aside for making such decisions – I’ve just got to clear out the junk so that I can reach it.
*Just for the record, I have never eaten a pickled conker – that way lies madness. **The stuff you put in furnaces, not the stuff that makes your teeth drop out and your manly chest drop to just below waist-level.
The main thing about the ‘mistake’ rack is that albums do not make their way onto it over a period of time: they do not move there because I have grown bored of them over the years, or because I seldom play them any more – I have many, many CD’s and some of them get played very rarely, but when they do, I still love them. ‘Mistake’ rack albums are different. They are destined to be there. Back in the days of Andy’s Records they would have had appropriate labels on them: ‘This album may not be anything like as good as you think it is going to be.’ Sometimes I have been given them, sometimes I have bought them on the strength of one great track, sometimes I was just looking for something new. However they came into my possession, I just knew that we were not meant for one another. I am not saying that they are, necessarily, bad albums – just that, all in all, they would have been better not to have been made…
So, having paused only for fortification in a glass of 40% proof, I continue my trawl through ‘The Shelf with No Name’. Next in line, and the most recent album on the shelf is ‘Amulet’ by Circa Survive (2017). I was led to this partly by a brilliant Roger Dean-esque cover, which is every bit as good as Alisha’s Attic (part one) is bad. The album is very polished, but so soulless that not even the devil would want it. This is a band that very badly wants to be Rush, but sadly seldom gets past amble, playing the kind of music you would expect to hear piped into the toilets at a prog-rock convention. It came off the shelf only very briefly. It is back there now.
If you can imagine cutting and pasting little bits from every great rock album by every great rock act into a single album and still ending up with something interminably boring, well, that brings me onto the next album on the shelf, because that is exactly what Thirty Seconds to Mars managed to do with ‘A Beautiful Lie’ (2005). It is an album that is far, far less than the sum of its parts. Waiting for one track to end, knowing that there is another one to follow is actually painful: not so much a question of where one tracks ends and the next one starts as why they bothered? It is like throwing every fruit you have ever liked into a liquidizer and switching it on only to end up with a brown, tasteless sludge. Every little bit of this album detracts from every other bit. The album sold by the bucket-load (the bucket, in my opinion, is where it should have stayed) and won plaudits galore as well as awards, which just shows what I know. Like deliberately banging your head on the wall, the only fun to be had from this album is when it stops. Back on the shelf.
Next in line is The Flaming Lips ‘Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots’ (2002), an album that I really feel I should like, but I’ve tried and I can’t. It doesn’t help that the melody from track one (Fight Test) is lifted straight from Cat Steven’s ‘Father to Son’. It bothers me. I have checked the cover to see whether it is credited, but it is one of those bloody awful booklets that is either designed to confound all attempts at reading it, or very shoddily printed. The cover is littered with critical praise and five star reviews, yet the record is nothing like as good as it thinks it is. This is the class swot. This is the album that stands in front of the class and says, ‘Look at me’. This is the record that your parents point out is so much better than you. I don’t know who Yoshimi is, but I’m pretty sure I’d like to flick him/her with a wet towel. I played this CD all the way through to give it the chance to change my mind. It didn’t. Back on the shelf.
Kula Shaker’s ‘K’ definitely has moments, notably in the singles (a common theme) ‘Hey Dude’, ‘Govinda’ and ‘Tattva’, but the rest of it sounds uncomfortably like a bunch of middle class public school boys who want to be The Stone Roses. It’s ok for a little while, but then… actually, it’s not ok for a little while. It’s dispiritingly tedious. The overall sound is of a band whose independent financial means ensured that the music didn’t really matter. It’s a bit of an ‘in-joke’. On the ladder of aptitude, they are many, many rungs above me, but, if I’m honest, that’s nothing like enough and, sadly, I can still hear them. Rather than a ‘Curate’s Egg’, this is an Easter egg of an album: cool cover, plenty of glitter, but, ultimately, hollow. It’s back on the shelf.
Finally, we come to an album that it kills me to see there: Iggy and the Stooges ‘Raw Power’. I know, I know, please let me explain. I am a life-long Bowie fan. This album was released in 1973, having been rescued from the record company bins and cleaned up by Bowie at the mixing desk*. Along with The Sex Pistol’s ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ it is the very best of punk. Over the years I have played the grooves off the vinyl twice and so eventually decided to buy the re-issued CD, which was re-mixed by Bruce Dickinson and Iggy himself, who did not like the buffed-up edges on Bowie’s mix. Fair enough, except in re-mixing, they merely seem to have returned it to the kind of sound that nearly blocked its release in the first place. It sounds as though the whole thing is being played through a child’s megaphone with a sock in it. They have maxed out everything available to them. They have borrowed an amp from Spinal Tap and turned it up to 12. Everything is buried in a fuzzy, messy growl of tinny electrical noise that drives me mad. There is rough, and there is rough. I love this album, but the CD has gone on the shelf because every time I think about playing it, I just go downstairs instead and play the worn-out vinyl. Age has made that a little fuzzy too, but I remember how it used to sound before Iggy tried to force it through a tin box filled with horse-hair and feedback and so, as long as I still have the old vinyl, the CD stays on the shelf with all of its friends…
Once again, I must point out that the opinions expressed above are all etc etc etc. Before you are tempted to be upset by anything I might say, just remember how worthless my opinion is. If you feel that you can give me the key to unlock the joy in any of these albums (or indeed those by The Levellers, ARZ or Ben Harper that I never quite got round to mentioning) I would be delighted to hear from you.
*Whilst transposing these two posts onto WordPress (yes, I do still write with a pen on paper) I played Bowie’s three great career-rescuing productions of the 70’s: Lou Reed’s ‘Viscous’, Iggy’s ‘The Idiot’ and Mott the Hoople’s ‘All The Young Dudes’ and the world became a better place. Now, where did I put those glittery flares?…
These two articles (part one and part two) are somewhat atypical of what I normally try to entice you into reading on a Tuesday but, you know, different times, a change is as good as a, wossname, rest and all that. If you don’t like part one, I feel it only fair to warn you that you are pretty unlikely to like part two, but don’t give in, the rest of my twaddle is the same as ever and there will be no part three. All the same, I would love to know what you have on your own Mistake Rack…
This is a little bit of a trawl through some of the CDs I have bought over the years that have never quite cut it for me. They have coalesced into a motley collection of ‘the unwanted’ on a rack that is, for most of the time, hidden from sight. I played each of the albums as I wrote about them, desperately hoping that they would somehow magically change my mind: that having listened to them again, I would feel obliged to remove them from ‘The Mistake Rack’ and put them back in the light, where they belong. It has added up to one of those days that I will never get back…
It started because the startlingly awful cover of Alisha Attic’s ‘Alisha Rules the World’ (1996) caught my eye and I couldn’t resist popping it on the player. The singles taken from it are relatively passable and there are faint echoes of Alanis Morissette hidden away in there somewhere, but I am left with no idea whatsoever of what possessed me to buy it. It’s not actually offensive, it’s just… I’m sorry, I drifted off there. ‘Not as bad as I remembered’ would probably be the best review I could give it, which I’m not sure they’d thank me for. I made it through to track 3, which is probably more than it deserves. Will it be back in the player any time soon? No. It’s back on the shelf, but while I’m there…
Next to it I find River City People’s ‘Say Something Good’ (1990) which I bought on the back of the lead single ‘What’s Wrong With Dreaming?’ They subsequently had a huge hit in the UK with a cover of ‘California Dreamin’’, which is the fourth track on the album and as far as I got. The band had the good sense to split up after this and, as far as I can see, have not intruded upon the public consciousness since. Good decision. It, too, is back on the shelf.
Which brings me to The Seahorses’ ‘Do It Yourself’. 1997 and The Stone Roses were no more, John Squire formed The Seahorses and they released the single ‘Love is the Law’. Who wouldn’t buy the album? I so tried to like this. It has some really good moments, but in the end it is more up itself than all of Oasis’ post-‘Morning Glory’ albums put together. Love is the Law is the fifth track and, if I’m honest, my attention was seriously flagging by the time I got to it. I tried to remember where the really good moments were, but it would appear that someone had stolen them. Shame. Back on the shelf.
Tasmin Archer’s Sleeping Satellite (1992) next and who can deny, a great song? The album has two further stand-out tracks (Lords of the New Church and In your Care) but they are not enough to lift the whole collection above turgid. This is a record that has no idea of where it is heading and yet still lacks the conviction to get there. The satellite is snoozing in the midst of an infinite void. An album that has no identity – at least not one that you’d want to spend any time with. Back on the shelf.
Next? OK, well here’s where I really start to make enemies. The Verve’s ‘Urban Hymns’ (1997). I bought this album at the time when there was much discussion over which was the best album of all time, this or Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’. Truthfully, I don’t believe there could ever be a best of all time because it is all so dependent on time and place. In any case, who knows what’s to come? To my mind, however, OK Computer is a very fine album indeed whilst Urban Hymns is not. Despite some great songs, as a whole it is nothing more than one long, terminal moan. I made it through to The Drugs Don’t Work, but only because I was out of the room clipping my toenails most of the time. This is one of the few albums I own that actually annoys me. It is like Chinese Water Torture. The first few seconds are fine, I can live with them, but after a while, oh dear me, no… I develop the irrational desire to strangle the CD player. If I had this album on vinyl, I would scratch it. Back on the shelf.
In ‘Closing Time’ and ‘Secret Smile’ (1998) Semisonic had two of the big hit singles of the late 90’s. Unfortunately the album does not stretch beyond those two great songs. It is hard to warm to an album that is so knowingly eighty percent filler. Shortly after its release I heard a critic say that the problem with Semisonic was that they were not nearly as good as they thought they were. With hindsight, they were not even as good as he thought they were. There is a definite element of not being bothered about this album. It has the same sense of image over substance as fat-free ice cream. Like a ballot box in China, there really is no point in it at all. Back on the shelf.
*NME (New Musical Express) journalist of my youth.
This started out as a much longer piece, which would have tried the patience of a saint. I cut it in half and even then, as a single piece, I felt that it had the same potential to hold your attention as an interview with Van Morrison, so I have split what remains into parts one and two. I can’t actually vouch for it being any more interesting this way, but at least you won’t be bored for quite so long. I can’t help but notice that the nineties don’t come out of this bit terribly well. I’m not sure whether I was less discerning back then, whether I was more keen to give anything a chance or whether it really was a decade of dross. I am also fully aware that some of you might really like these albums. I’m sorry. The opinions herein are mine alone and so, I really wouldn’t worry about them…
I am used to waking with some weirdly disassociated phrase or sentence banging about at the forefront of my cerebellum, desperate to get out before wakefulness blocks any means of escape. (I have written about this before in a short piece from June 2019, There Is No Means of Testing This Hypothesis, but the Fact Remains That the Dog Has Three Ears which you can read here and from which I nicked the photo at the top of this post) These little phrases, fleetingly available to me only in the very moments of waking, trapped, like Steve McQueen was not, on the barbed-wire fences that separate conscious from unconscious, disappear from view as the morning’s more immediate uncertainties kick in: ‘What day is it?’, ‘What time is it?’, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What on earth has died in my mouth overnight?’ This morning the little nosegay documented atop this post clattered through into my conscious mind, refusing, like a spoonful of yesterday’s cold mashed potato congealed in the bottom of a bowl, to be dissipated by the cold-water swirl of dawn, and hammered around until I wrote it down. It did not need to be so conscientious; I could not shake it off now even if I wanted to. It is stark and it is precise: I remember it word for word. It has somehow imprinted itself onto some neuron or other (Do I mean neuron? Is it synapse? I can never remember.) that has strayed off into some darkened recess within my cranium, where it should not be; taking up the private parking space, no doubt, of the whatever-it-is that should be remembering the PIN number for my credit card. It has become impossible to forget. It is still pinging around the cortices of my brain like the little ‘table tennis ball’ in the video games of my youth.
I remember the phrase, I hear it still, but I do not recall the context and, because of that I have no idea of what I was banging on about at the point that daylight punctured my nocturnal bubble. I presume that the words are meant to be reassuring: ‘Don’t worry, Viffers are safe to eat,’ but I can’t be sure. Is it, perhaps, a warning: ‘They have no calories and are, therefore, of no dietary value’? Well that really rather depends on where you stand on celery, doesn’t it? Does food without calories serve any purpose other than to make you crave food with lots of them? Perhaps I am mistaking lack of calories for something else – like lard – and lack of calories may not mean that foodstuffs are deficient in dietary value – just taste.
Initially I thought that I understood what I meant by ‘vicious’ – fiery, as in chilli, or Gordon Ramsay when yelling at the powerless – but now I’m not so sure. What if I meant feisty – as in something alive – if it continued to be vicious, it would have to be alive wouldn’t it – which carries quite a different meaning. Who eats living beasts? Well, pretty much every carnivore except humans if you think about it. Was the sentence spoken by an animal? If so, who gave it rational thought and, more to the point, have I been sleep-anthropomorphising again? Slightly difficult to imagine a weasel, for instance, issuing such a warning to its offspring (although I can, for some reason, imagine a cat doing so). Besides, if it was about to be eaten, it would have every reason to be a little spiky wouldn’t it? Anyway, if it was a living thing, it would contain calories surely. Am I wrong in thinking that anything that consumes calories must, itself, contain them: that a miniscule part of everything you consume becomes a constituent part of you? That when all is done and I am being loaded onto the little steel trolley that will wheel me along to my fiery goodbye, they will find me to be sixty percent chocolate, thirty-nine percent alcohol and one percent cauliflower?
Perhaps it is a good thing. Perhaps whatever-it-is is being encouraged to eat whatever-it-is by whatever-it-is because it has no calories. Perhaps obesity is a growing problem in the weasel world.
But if I was right in the first place, it would be a warning wouldn’t it: a little voice saying, ‘Don’t eat that chilli: it’s volcanically hot. By the time you’ve quenched the fire in your mouth you will already be dreading the consequences elsewhere.’ Or what, after half a dozen pints, most men would consider a dare. As my dad would say, ‘I think they put something in it up the brewery.’ The consumption of beer makes men uniquely susceptible to autosuggestion: ‘You would never be stupid enough to do that.’ ‘Oh yes I would!’ Let’s face it; no Indian Restaurant has ever sold a Phaal to anybody sober. It is on the menu merely to allow the waiters to get their revenge on Stag Parties – and quite bloody right too.
On balance, I am most inclined to adhere to my warning theory. I like a nice moral ending to my dreams. But then, I know, as usual, that you were there way before me, we are still left with one unknown. That this has not occurred to me until now as even being an unknown, may tell you a little of how my brain works – or fails to do at times. Anyway, what I have to consider now is what, exactly, is a Viffer? It is not a mispronunciation of something else, of that I am certain. The word was very definite. I was clear on it when I wrote it down, I am clear about it now. Something tells me that I knew what a Viffer was when I wrote it down, but it is equally adamant that I will never know it again. Unless, perhaps, the Buddhists are right and after a dotage spent chomping celery, I am one day reincarnated as a weasel.
It was a feature on our local TV news today, showing a man having an engagement ring delivered to his fiancé by a grocery delivery robot that finally tipped me over the edge. Yes, you read correctly, a grocery delivery robot. A robot that delivers groceries. Who knew that such a thing existed? Who ever thought that this could be a good idea? I can see the planning meeting now: ‘So, what we do is when somebody phones up with an order, we pack it into this wheeled receptacle and it finds its own way to their house.’ ‘Really? Who programmed the satnav, because if it’s the same person as did my car, it can’t get me to Birmingham without going through Hull? What’s the range of this thing anyway?’ ‘Well, at the moment it’s about two hundred yards…’ ‘Two hundred yards? Just across the road then. At least I suppose there’s no chance of it going to Hull.’ ‘No, actually it can’t cross roads. Can’t manage the kerbs.’ ‘Right, so the shoppers have to live within a couple of hundred yards from here and be on this side of the road?’ ‘Initially, yes.’ ‘Initially?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘…Just how lazy are these people?’ ‘It’s not intended for the lazy, you’re forgetting the elderly and the infirm.’ ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to just send a robot round to pick them up and bring them here?’ ‘Well I…’ ‘And when you say ‘wheeled receptacle’, excuse me for asking this, but in what way is it different to a dustbin on skates?’ ‘It’s a very hi-tech piece of kit.’ ‘Right. What’s to stop other people taking all the groceries?’ ‘You need a secret code to open the lid.’ ‘Or a can opener, presumably.’ ‘It’s all very secure. It’s been tested.’ ‘Really? So tell me, what is the code?’ ‘Well, it’s 0000 at the moment. There’s a slight hitch in the software. IT are looking into it.’ ‘Fine, so we send out our dustbin on wheels…’ ‘It’s not a dustbin on wheels! It’s a robotic delivery system and it’s super-smart.’ ‘…we send out our super-smart delivery robot, providing it’s not going further than the corner and it doesn’t have to tackle a kerb, around to a house that’s thirty seconds away by foot, and it spits out its contents to anyone who’s bright enough to try 0000 in the keypad. What makes you think that it will get there anyway?’ ‘Sorry?’ ‘What makes you think that anybody that sees it coming will not just stick it into the boot of their car and Sellotape it to the lawnmower when they get home?’ ‘Well, we have to go on the delivery with it for now.’ ‘For now?’ ‘For now, yes. It’s not good with dogs. IT are working on it. Soon it will be able to go on its own – providing it doesn’t rain…’ ‘Well, that all seems fine with me…’
You do have to question why anyone would think it a good idea to have their engagement ring delivered with the groceries anyway. Let’s face it, having your ring scanned into a bulk order with a Savoy Cabbage and a six-pack of baked beans doesn’t always add up to the most memorable of romantic gestures, does it? And I’m not sure of how much of a ‘catch’ it makes him, this man, co-opting a toothless Dalek to do his dirty work. I imagine the family asking’ ‘Did he go down on one knee?’ ‘Don’t be silly, it’s a robot. Robots don’t have knees.’ ‘I meant Derek*.’ ‘Oh Derek, no he was too busy trying to re-open the lid, because it had closed on his humus.’ ‘No big proposal then?’ ‘No, but I did get a big jar of Marmite and a box of tampons.’
What I really want to know is where do these people live? If they’d have sent a robot out carrying food where I was brought up, it would never have made it out of the car park. It would have been mugged within a hundred yards. Its wheels would have been nailed onto a wooden go-kart and the motor fastened onto grandad’s wheelchair within minutes. Even if it did, by some miracle, make it to its destination, it would most certainly be empty and in urgent need of critical care. They would have to send it out with robot bodyguards if it were to stand any chance of going about its duties unmolested. They would need to arm them. Doesn’t seem such a cute way to get your engagement ring delivered now, does it? Let alone your four-pack of rhubarb yoghurts and a pound of sprouts. It is only one step away from Terminator. A robot assassin in charge of your Clubcard. How long before they’re fitted with a little voice-box to say ‘I’ll be back,’ after each delivery?
I believe that Amazon are planning to do a similar thing with drones. Brilliant! There is nothing quite as thrilling as the knowledge that your birthday present has just brought down a commercial airliner. We will all have to fit little landing strips at the bottom of the garden. ‘You can’t put the pond there; it’s where the drones land.’ You would have to build a little island for them to land on. Like China in miniature. At least it might stop the cats taking them out the moment they touched down. Mind you, depends on the size of your pond, I suppose. Nobody wants to have to don the waders every time the post arrives. And who’s going to fly the bloomin’ things. If it’s the guy who drives our local delivery van, I may never leave the house again.
I suppose it’s a good thing to find a new way of doing things. I’m not sure that I ever actually ‘popped the question’ to my wife. I think it was just a mutual decision. We chose a ring and it seemed a shame to waste it. Mind you, we had a much more limited range of robots to choose from back then. Robbie the Robot from ‘Lost In Space’ and I Speak Your Weight machines on railway platforms were about as far as it went. Oh, and the vending machines that stole your tanner and never dispensed the chocolate until late at night when the rest of the world had gone to bed and the station master got a hatful – that’s what my dad always said happened anyhow… I’m not quite sure what he would have had to say about grocery delivering robots. Sadly, he’s no longer here to ask – although my wife keeps looking at me and saying, ‘Oh yes he is…’
*I don’t know whether his name is actually Derek, but if it isn’t, it should be.
I am shedding teeth like a snake sloughs skin. What was once a slightly crumbling Acropolis within my mouth now more closely resembles Stonehenge. I dare not venture out on the Spring Solstice for fear of being continually turned to face the sun by druids. If I grin in artificial light, the shadow I cast resembles the Andes. If I floss, I have to use 4-ply wool in order to touch the sides, and I have to carry a bucket to capture the enamelled escapees. If I eat a biscuit, I attract a crowd of children whom, it would seem, enjoy listening to the sound of dental fragments as they pitter patter down onto the plate. I can no longer eat anything harder or more chewy than a marshmallow. I can only really be at peace with a meal if I am able to suck it. I would not be able to eat out if ‘Soup of the Day’ did not exist.
Today has been another ‘Dentist Day’: preparation for a crown that will take me one step closer to repairing the crumbling façade of my smile. The procedure involves, as far as I can tell, having the remains of my shattered molar ground down to a stump using something that feels as though it might well have been made by Black & Decker – or whoever it is that makes the rigs for the North Sea. It would be of no surprise to me to find that the vibrations have, Terminator-like, liquefied my existing fillings and, from the feel of it, bounced my brain around in my cranium like a pea in a beach ball. My poor, emaciated dentine is currently encased within a ‘temporary crown’ that feels like a tea tray suspended on concrete has been affixed to my jaw. Little bits of… something project from the edge at angles that consistently take me by surprise. I most definitely dare not chew on it. It has to last me three weeks before its permanent* replacement is ready. I’m pretty certain that it will not survive the gnashing associated with the next Prime Ministerial Broadcast. I feel as though breathing might unsettle it.
I am pretty certain that the dentists have notes on my file to warn them that I am a nervous patient: something along the lines of ‘If you don’t want him to die on you, keep him calm.’ They are very kind, but it doesn’t help. Nothing in my brain can make sense of being laid down, beyond horizontal, whilst people fish about inside my head. It doesn’t help that they currently look as if they are about to deal with toxic waste. Understanding the explanation of what they are about to do with what looks disturbingly like a thermal probe is not helped by communication taking place through an industrial-strength surgical mask and a visor that would be at home in a riot. Why is it, that not until I have four hands in my mouth and I am robbed of all alternatives, do I discover that my nose has stopped working? Breathing through the mouth is definitely too risky: nobody wants the tube of a vacuum cleaner down there. (Although, unless I produce unfeasible volumes of saliva, they certainly do not seem very efficient those little tubes. Today, the dentist actually stopped, mid-drill, in order to mop me down – and, I suspect, herself, her assistant and possibly the walls too.) I have tried to inhale through my ears, but they do not provide a viable alternative to the oesophagus. I’m pretty certain that there is a route through to the lungs down there, but I am unable to make it work. What I do is to freeze, breathing neither in nor out, until there is a natural break in proceedings and I can gasp in a lungful of air without the risk of swallowing a latex glove. If my dentist appointments become any more frequent, I will have to develop the lung-capacity of a sperm whale.
I am back in three weeks to have the new crown fitted. My face should have returned to its normal colour by then. The burst blood vessels should have re-buried themselves. Currently my jaw aches, my tooth throbs and my gums feels as though they are too sensitive to accept the application of ‘Sensitive Tooth Paste’, so I at least know that the Anaesthetic is wearing off. Why does a worked-upon tooth always feel far too big for the mouth? Currently I feel as if an inadvertent chomp might just force something up into my brain.
I wouldn’t mind, but since the ministrations of the paid-by-the-filling school dentist in the 60’s and the need to open beer bottles in the 70’s, I have taken great care of my teeth through my adult years. I have brushed and flossed with the best of them. Fear, I will admit, has always been a big factor. The fear that I would have to visit the dentist more often than twice a year for a simple check-up has always been a great motivator in the dental-hygiene stakes for me. But now? Well, my teeth have started to take on all the hues of Rembrandt’s palette and bits of them, like Sugababes**, break away at will. I cannot use a mouthwash for fear of washing them out. It is the price we pay as we get older. We either pay the dentist or we end up being unable to eat anything that will not puree. Like Rome, a decent set of gnashers are not built in a day and, like that great city, nothing can prevent their decline and fall.
I have the time on my hands now to search for an alternative: a life without teeth. I may research whether it is possible to survive on bananas – it will at least give me something to chew on…
**If you are not British and ‘of a certain age’ you may well have to make your own joke up there – relax, it will almost certainly be an improvement.
Am I alone in spotting my own face in a photograph and seeing the smile of a madman? I can never quite understand why the person I see in photographs is nothing like the man I see in the bathroom mirror. I go to the mirror to brush my hair, clean my teeth, check for extraneous cilial outcrops, before posing for a photograph and I look ok, rational, a relatively normal-looking, middle-aged man and, thirty seconds later, the photographer has turned me into a wide-eyed lunatic with mad hair and teeth that look as though they might have been rejected by a camel. It is hard to reconcile myself to the fact that I am the person that nobody wants to stand beside in case it rubs off: the man that bathed in TCP. A photograph is worth a thousand words? Great, but do they have to be so very jarring? I would like, just for once, to look like the man who didn’t go through the windscreen; like I haven’t had a mincing machine incident. I would like not to look like my features have been positioned by a malevolent sprite: not like a dreadful 1970’s police photofit assembled by a man with spatial recognition issues and an out of control crack habit. I live with no illusion of pulchritude, no desire to be handsome – just the desire to not always be the post-vivisection monkey that didn’t quite get his head through the closing door.
I don’t know who it was that said that the camera never lies, but he had clearly never attempted to get a passport photo from one of those train station camera booths. It is impossible to arrange your face in any fashion that does not emerge as rigor. I am of an age that remembers the first shared visit to the camera booth with the girl of your dreams as a rite of passage. Of course, when I say ‘girl of your dreams’, it is important that you remember that, at that age, the position was re-cast almost daily, and at half-a-crown a pop, there was a definite hierarchy to who made it that far. Half a crown bought a visit to the pictures*, a packet of Poppets and 5 Park Drive filter-tipped, with which to cough the film away. There had to be balance even to the promise of a quick snog behind the closed photo-booth curtain – in my case, usually because the female involved had decided to stay at home to a) treat her own acne or b) not be repulsed by mine.
I grew up at a time when everybody smoked. I did not know a single adult who did not smoke. Those that did not like the flavour of tobacco disguised it with menthol tips – the more they disliked it, the longer the tip. Those who wanted to affirm their credentials as a ‘proper’ smoker went for Capstan Full Strength – a shorter, stockier tab, unfiltered and made, to the best of my recollection, from a mixture of tar and old socks. I personally slipped quickly from Park Drive to Silk Cut (a cigarette specifically formulated for the non-smoker) and thereafter, having acquired my teenage smoking stripes, to the ranks of confirmed non-smoker where I have remained ever since.
Breathing in the warm, beery, smoky fug that used to emanate from open pub doors in the winter, however, is a pleasure that I will forever miss – like Bluebird Toffee that you broke with a little hammer, Sherbert Pips and Christmas gatherings captured on the new Instamatic camera with its twenty-four tiny, imperfectly frozen moments, carefully preserved within a plastic shell, and illuminated on occasion, by the four-flash Perspex cube that affixed to the camera at just the right position to temporarily blind you with every shot. Nothing now matches the once-upon-a-time thrill of the forty eight hour wait for the photographs to be returned from the printers, festooned with stickers informing you that they had all been over-exposed, possibly as a result of either inserting the film cartridge in backwards or some other manifestation of incipient stupidity. No phone-photo backup. No two thousand frame safety net on the memory card. Just twenty four snaps that you could not even review until they came back black, with just the faintest glimmer of a lighted cigarette to one side. If you went on holiday with a spare film, you were indeed a rich man.
Today there are barely any limits to how many photographs you can take, nor how many you can erase in order to leave just the one in which you do not look like the hairless ape you are. How far has photography progressed since my youth? Well, we have digital capture, Adobe Photoshop and self-focusing lenses, but still no easy allowance for the unprepossessing visage and a smile that looks like it should not be let out in public – and still no way to reset the bathroom mirror.
It’s a very strange fact that whilst, with age, one does begin to feel far less angst about one’s appearance – to be honest, much to the dismay of my wife and daughters it has never been very high on my own agenda – one does become increasingly obsessed about ‘looking your age’: about whether you really do look as old as that guy over there, who you know is at least five years younger than you. In reality, you know that nobody really cares what you look like any more and there is much joy to be had in ‘no longer being a threat’ to anyone below retirement age**. (It is a joy to discover how friendly young women become when you are unlikely to have ulterior motives beyond trying to slip in an odd out-of-date ‘money off’ voucher at the till. As a man that has never posed a threat to anything beyond a chocolate bar, it is a privilege I have always enjoyed***.) In as much as it was ever important – and teenage photo’s ensure me that it was – it no longer makes any sense to chase the unattainable. What comes out of the mouth, what sits between the ears, is all that matters. Unfortunately the jumbled mess that occupies my cranium does give some cause for concern on that front, but what the hell, nobody’s listening anyway…
*What we in the UK used to call the cinema – before it became the movies.
**The three ages of man through the word ‘nightcap’:
15 – 60 – ‘Any chance of sex?’
60 – 80 – ‘Any chance of a bedtime whisky?’
80+ – ‘Any chance you might have something to keep my head warm?
***Be friendly. It is so rare to encounter unfriendly people if you are friendly yourself – unless you are trying to buy a fridge.
I am not at all certain of how this will pan out: this is not my usual way of doing things. The starting point for my little ragbag of ideas and mental cul-de-sacs is normally just that, a starting point – a first sentence, sometimes a paragraph, a vague idea of destination and an unrecognized postcode for the satnav. Occasionally a topic will present itself, usually some vague gripe or perceived injustice or I may just spot a bubble I’m dying to burst. Today I have none of those things, just a nebulous conviction that I should return to a topic of the past in order to measure how I view it today, compared to yesterday.
I plumped for Fashion. I first did so in January 2019 (you can find it here) so it must have provided me a reason for the visit back then. I don’t know. I decided against reading it until I had finished scrawling today*. I was interested to see whether I had returned to old themes, or maybe repeated the same jokes. (In my head, old jokes are always delivered by Danny Dyer. I have no idea why. I think it is probably because there is so little to commend an old joke delivered by somebody who believes it’s a new one – especially when it is one of your own.) Nothing goes out of fashion quite as quickly as a bad joke – except, perhaps, for tartan edgings.
Now, I know that my love of old comedy makes me deeply unfashionable. In a weird kind of a way, I embrace bad comedy as warmly as I cling on to great comedy (I have to, I have written plenty of rubbish over the years). I cast my mind back to when a joke was written and view it from that perspective, but (and this is a really big ‘but’) I cannot defend the indefensible, what was once hurtful, remains forever hurtful. Racism used to be normal, an acceptable means of getting a laugh, seldom intentionally hurtful and yet in reality bitterly so, as it remains. Sexism, racism, religious intolerance – all fair game once upon a sit-com, but now? I desperately hope not. These are things that should never have been tolerated in the first place and most certainly should never be revisited.
And now I can’t stop thinking about okra**…
Little in this world is as fashion-bound as food. When I was a boy, mash was not mash without lumps: veg was not veg unless it turned into soup at the merest prick of a fork. Everybody ate offal – it was cheap and nutritious and about as welcome on a young boy’s plate as boiled sock on a mountain of brussel sprouts: think boiled fish and lumpy mash with a watery sauce of unknown origin; think tinned sardines on toast. In my middle years, nobody ate offal – it was cheap and therefore vulgar. It could probably turn you into a mad cow. (It was to my great amusement to find, on holiday in Greece in the late 80’s, that every bar had a sign outside the entrance guaranteeing that their kitchen served no ‘English Crazy Beef’.) Now it is impossible to turn on Masterchef without being confronted by the lights of some unfortunate small mammal being turned into a bon-bon. Meat – I think particularly of duck and pork – that once had to be cooked for a fortnight before being considered edible, is now served twitching. I have not eaten meat for almost forty years, and for many of those years, I have considered Vegans to be some kind of vegetarian extremist wing: Patty Hearst with a carrot, but veganism is now viewed not only as normal, but as the way forward for the whole planet. It could well be true. Until, of course, somebody throws a spanner in the works by proving that plants really do experience pain and distress. I have to ask myself, could I eat a carrot if it had big cow-like eyes? Could I eat corn on the cob if it made orphans of its little kernel children? I saw a TV programme recently about laboratory made meat, and it made me feel more queasy than standing beside the air-conditioning unit outside a KFC. Sooner or later, as always happens, the way ahead will come to be seen as a wrong turn and we’ll all have to find somewhere else to go.
That’s what fashion does to us, isn’t it? It makes us feel as though we are doing exactly the wrong thing, at precisely the wrong time, in completely the wrong clothing – although there is every chance that they will all be the right thing in the morning (except for those flares which, believe me, are never coming back). The danger is that putting right past wrongs can also be branded as a fashion and surely that can’t be right, can it? If we follow that logic it would be wrong of me to denounce the brushed denim loon just because I, myself, once wore them and at the time I didn’t think that it made me look like a dork. My purple, patent leather, cork-heeled boots might not have ruined any lives – but it still doesn’t mean that I would choose to go back to them. Nothing can put yesterday right – I’m not even certain of how we could possibly try to do that. All that we can do is to acknowledge that it was wrong and make bloody sure that, like leg-warmers, it NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN.
**…which I have now done. It is actually far more concerned with what I would call actual fashion, but none-the-less, similarly anti-fashion. Sadly, two years on, I still feel like a directionally dyslexic arrow with no map towards the target; a slightly warped quill in a world of carbon shafts. I still feel like I have a sucker at the end…
*I fear that you might have to pick your own way through that little lot. If you can make sense of it, perhaps you can pass it on. This is a light-hearted little blog, not designed for big beefs, but sometimes they bubble up anyhow. What I have to say can never change anything – although what we all have to say just might – and when I get mad, I think of okra…
I have been an employee all my life. I am passably good at what I do: I have more letters after my name than the average Russian General, and yet nobody takes the slightest bit of notice of what I have to say. If I ask somebody to do something, they invariably have any number of reasons why they should not do so; why any attempt to compel them to do so would precipitate a disastrous series of events. I could stamp my little feet, scream and shout and get things done, but it’s easier, frankly, and much gentler on the nerves to just do it myself, trusting others to get on with mundane daily tasks whilst I unblock the toilet. I don’t have the will to get into battles over matters of little consequence these days.
My goal, for what remains of this earthly journey, is to keep the path as smooth as possible – even though it is littered with hillocks. I will fight when I feel that it is right, but I have a four word mantra that buzzes through my head each time I begin to get too exercised about nothing: Is it worth it? Is the fight worth the pain of embroilment? Almost inevitably the answer is ‘No’. If I was taking part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, I just know that I would be galloping along, close to the back (never actually last – that’s a step too far) chuntering quietly about the futility of the whole exercise and muttering darkly to anyone that would listen about how it would all end in tears.
Throughout my life, trouble has always found it very easy to find me: I cannot think of a single reason to head off in search of it. I never look for a fight for the very simple reason that I have a tendency to lose them. (Losing my temper is, by the way, something that I always try to avoid. My blood pressure – although moderated by pills and exercise – remains similar to that of Jupiter and I do not particularly wish to become embroiled in any activity that might raise it to fatal levels without the promise of at least some reward. Especially when the possibility of taking a punch in the bracket is on the agenda.)
Now, you might think – probably with a certain justification – that this makes me sound incredibly effete. I couldn’t possibly comment – at least not before I’ve looked the word up – but I can tell you what brought this particular spell of introspection upon me. It is twofold. Firstly, I am currently nursing a papercut, suffered during the proofreading process of my previous post (Yes, I do!) and it made me think about how troublesome even the smallest of physical intrusions can prove. Upon realising that I had suffered such a laceration, and without pausing, even for a second, to retrieve the dummy I had just spat out, I decided that I would no longer proofread in my normal, archaic manner. I even picked up my pencil and pad to write a post about it before realised how seldom I actually write in any other fashion. It is almost always with pen on lethally sharp paper (and not, as many of you might believe, with a nice, blunt, wax crayon) which I painstakingly transcribe onto the computer before printing it up in order to revise it with another, differently coloured pen. Minor inconveniences, you see, do not generally provide sufficient incentive for me to change habit. I smooth my own way by following the path of least resistance. It works for me. I decided it was ok. Then (Reasons for Introspection – part two) my wife chided me for being a push-over for the grandkids: that I am perpetually at their beck and call. Again, basically true, but where’s the problem? Grandchildren will hang out with grandparents for a very limited period of time – nature will see to that: one of them grows, one of them dies. I try to enjoy every second, and if that means dressing up as a cowboy, partaking of an imaginary cup of tea, accompanied by a unicorn, a princess and a pull-along wooden dog, then so be it. If I’d sooner watch the second half of the match, what of it? Will the football give me a hug and tell me how much it loves me? Will the football cheer me up without the faintest effort? And if I tell the kids that I just need a minute to mend the plumbing, will they listen to me, or will they bring a blanket, a book and demand that I read them a story first?