The Crown

Photo by Caroline LM on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Dentist’s Joke.

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

The Smile of a Madman

Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fashion

Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh on Pexels.com

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…

Doormat

Photo by Derick McKinney on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

Take a guess.

Sixty Two

Some of the things that are kicking about my office and make me feel my age.

Today is my birthday.  I am sixty two.  I made the decision to use a new photograph as an avatar, which I hope should have changed today.*  (It may not have done – I am certainly not sufficiently confident of my IT aptitude to put money on it myself.)  Providing the photo is there – I hope it is, I hated the last one – you can gauge for yourself the stories it has to tell about this particular ageing male.  For instance, the small scab on the end of my nose tells you that I am unable to safely carry a three-year old granddaughter through a wood without snagging my snout on a bramble.  The non-smiling concentration speaks of a total selfie-taking ineptitude bordering on the bloody-minded.  I need an extra thumb.  The one I have available merely ejects the phone from my hand.  In order to use the other thumb, I have to lean forward and I appear to be leering horribly at the camera from an angle that suggests that I might be more used to having my likeness ‘snapped’ by security cameras, mid-burglary.  I really have no idea why I always emerge from a smart phone lens looking like a creepy uncle.  I never really see creepy uncle in the bathroom mirror.  Fat geek, but never creepy uncle.  I’m not at all certain why a smart phone should choose to do this to me – unless it has some issue with my browsing history – although why a record of searches for cheap wallplugs, green ink and deleted CD’s should turn it against me, I cannot imagine.  I always look like the happy pictures of dead men released by the Kremlin in order to demonstrate how content they were in custody.  “Zoom in on his eyes and you can see the reflection of a man with a gun.”  “That’s not a man with a gun, that’s a family-sized tub of cookie dough ice-cream and a spoon for one.”  That deranged looking photo of Rasputin had to be taken with a smart phone…

I could ask my wife to take a photo, but she would think me, with a certain degree of justification, incredibly vain.
“Why do you need a new photo for your blog?”
“So that my readers can see what I look like.”
“Why do they care what you look like?”
“Erh…”
Don’t you hate it when that happens? 

Anyway, what you have here is the latest photograph I have taken of myself and you have it simply because I do not hate it quite so much as the last one.  For some reason that I cannot fathom, I feel obliged to try to show you that I actually am a real person and most definitely nothing to write home about.  I think I might change it every month through this year, until I find something better – possibly a smiling sloth, a grinning cat, or a brightly coloured orphan fish – with which to replace me.  I have a soul that is predisposed to laughter but a face that’s predisposed to glum.  This is what old age looks like through a filter of rum.

Rum and ginger beer is the tipple of the day.  I don’t know why.  I like it and I’m not at work in the morning.  That’ll do.  Although I’m not at all sure that it is the drink of a newly redundant man.  What should that be, I wonder?  I’m not ready for hemlock.  Perhaps, in the future, I will have to accept that whisky can be blended – but I won’t have to like it.

I didn’t expect to be redundant at 62.  It wasn’t in my plan.  When I started to pay my pension, I expected to retire, a rich man, at 60.  The financial crash of 2008 destroyed that illusion.  I settled for ‘relatively comfortable at 67’, only to find myself torpedoed by unemployment five years early.  I planned to spend my retirement on holiday, now I will probably spend it on PG Tips and oven-chips.  Maybe I already look like a man who lives on tea and chips?  You will need to tell me.  I seldom drink tea and I will eat oven-chips only when all other options, including starvation, have been exhausted – do I look that way?  When you turn 62 and you sit in your office with a rum and a smart phone, and you think, ‘I know, I’ll take a new photo for the blog,’ and you point and – after several aborted attempts at artistically portraying the best of your right ear – you manage to take a snap in which the entirety of you sexagenarian visage appears, only for you to discover that you look uncomfortably like a Russian mad-monk, then some kind of independent appraisal is probably necessary.

Having established that I am not what I assumed I would be at my age, I perhaps ought to take a closer look at what I actually am.  More to the point, do I look like I’m 62?  Well, I don’t think I look like a 62 year old looked when I was twelve, but then, when I was twelve, the 62 year olds had survived a war.  I think they had earned the right to look a little bit jaded.  If they wanted a three-foot crotch on their trousers and a waistband under the chin, they had earned that right.  What have I actually done that has given me the right to look like a tangerine-haired lunatic?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps it’s just what I am.  (My wife, by the way, constantly tells me that my hair is too long.  I ask, ‘Too long for what?’ and she just rolls her eyes and disappears for a couple of hours before she reappears and finds a new way to tell me that my hair is too long.  I don’t mind.  It reminds me that I’m not going bald yet.  Vain?  Yes, alright, I’ll give her that.)  I suppose I feel like a 62 year old because I am a 62 year old – and this is how I feel.  I will try very hard to get to grips with my iPhone camera before I crown 63.  Who knows, by my next birthday, I might have an avatar that looks like a rational old man.  God knows, I might even be one…

*The observant amongst you may have noticed that it actually changed yesterday. Doesn’t that just go to show?

Resolute

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Well, the New Year arrives and with it the same old resolutions that I make and break year after year.  I can’t help but feel that it would be great this year if we all got together to make one single New Year Wish instead of wasting our time making promises that we never even expect to keep.  7.5billion souls, all wishing that Covid would go away forever and leave us alone would have to achieve something wouldn’t it?  There is much to be said for the power of positive thinking.  Like when you stare pointedly at the last doughnut in the canteen chiller, just knowing that the seven people in the queue ahead of you are not going to take it before you get there… O.K., bad example…

In truth, this year, as every year my resolutions will do well to make it past my birthday – which is January second – so my ambition does not stretch too far.  My seldom-varied resolutions are:

  • Be Kinder – A laudable and achievable ambition if only the world was not so full of IDIOTS!  Let us all stand aside for the self-important.  In this country, you only have to drive a car in order to realise that everyone is much more important than you!  That everyone in a bigger car than yours is infinitely more important than you and that you, yourself, are actually the idiot if you think otherwise.  I have very little knowledge of the German language, but just enough to understand that Vorsprung durch technik means ‘Get out of my way, pleb in a small car.’  Being kind to a person who stares down at you at you from the lofty heights of the family SUV, sneeringly observing you as though they would have more respect for something that had just dropped out of the back of their dog, is not easy.  They turn driving into some kind of mediaeval feudal battle in which those with the poorest armour are fated to perish, whilst those with airbags, roll bars and a little hook in the back for the riding boots are set to prosper.  What right do we small car people have to even share their road?  Call that a car?  It’s more like a motorised skate.  Where do you even fit all the pony’s tack?  Where do you put the glamping stove?  How do you transport the gardener’s barrow?  They manage somehow, these people, to carry their cars with them wherever they go: even in the supermarket, the best cumquats are theirs by right; the Parma ham has been sliced solely for their benefit, and they shudder to think what you might do with a decent Chablis.  The content of their trolley is infinitely more worthy than your own four cans of Belgian lager and a ready-made chicken Madras.  It is difficult to be kinder to these people – even in anger…  I used to try, I promise I did, but now I just think about it, before dismissing it out of hand.  I cannot be kinder to them, and they wouldn’t notice if I was.  Will they be kinder to me?  Possibly.  If they feel that God is watching and is as easily bribed as everyone else they know.*
  • Keep my opinions to myself – Age has brought me the knowledge that nobody wants to hear them anyway.  We live in a society within which listening to the opinions of others is considered a sign of weakness.  Where the slightest temptation to consider, even for one second, the possibility that you might just, conceivably, be wrong, is an admission of abject failure.  Where not having an opinion you feel impelled to share – especially upon subjects of which you have no knowledge – is considered disrespectful; demonstrating a kind of benign disinterest, a complete disdain for societal norms.  The unwillingness to enter into an argument over a subject of which you know nothing is viewed as a declaration of war.  The determination to find a fight becomes a battle in itself.  If you don’t fight, you can’t win.  Keeping your opinions to yourself comes at a price – namely alienating everybody you know who feels you should be arguing with them.  If you want to keep your friends, just tell them they are wrong.  You don’t need a reason.  They wouldn’t listen to it anyway**.
  • I will be a better person – I will try, for ages, sometimes hours, but it’s just so complicated, so time-consuming.  And where do you draw the line?  I do make random phone calls to lonely people all the time – but it’s usually just to order a take-away.  Does that count?  I give money to charity virtually every single time I am shamed into doing so.  This year I will drop something into the supermarket food bank box that is not the second half of a buy one – get one free offer.
  • I will be optimistic – I will never have a half empty glass (unless of course the bottle is completely so).  I shall endeavour to always look on the bright side – even if that means putting my back out.  Sometimes the bright side can be very difficult to see.  The human body is not built for obtuse angles.  Also for rollercoasters.  Sometimes the bright side is only marginally more cheery than the dark side – like a BBC3 sit-com.
  • I will stop worrying – because worry is leading me to an early grave.  Today, at my house, ‘A’ happened.  I don’t want to go into detail – it is profoundly depressing – but perhaps I should explain a little.  ‘A’ is the start of a chain of events.  ‘A’ varies, the chain of events, less so.  If ‘A’ – which is generally of little consequence in itself – has occurred, then it stands to reason that ‘B’ is only just around the corner.  ‘B’ will always lead to ‘C’ which, itself, always causes ‘D’, and the inevitable consequence of ‘D’ is ‘E’ which, leads inevitably onto ‘Z’ just a few minutes later, resulting in the collapse of the house, and the disintegration of my entire life; leaving us all homeless and hopeless.  In my head, the train has left the station, destination Rack and Ruin, with no stops between here and there.  Will I be able to talk my way out of the journey?  Almost certainly not: I was given the ticket at birth.  Anyway, my bicycle is in the Guard’s van which detached, along with the Buffet Car, at Crewe. Logic dictates that mishap leads inexorably to disaster; the only variant being the number of stops between here and there.
  • I will be more ‘on the ball’ – if there is a ‘party’ to metaphorically go to, I will generally arrive as the swingers emerge, sated, from beneath the dining table, vaguely aware that the person with whom they have just forced the Earth to move (or, more likely the guacamole to wobble) is almost certainly their four-year old’s teacher, and the jilted lovers appear bleary-eyed from the bathroom whilst the host is running warm water into a bucketful of Dettol.  I never seem to be there for the fun, just for the clean up.  (It should be clear that I am not talking about an actual party here.  Parties are never fun once you have passed the age of jelly and custard.)  I become aware of trends simply because they cease to be trendy.  If there is a bus to miss, I will miss it.  If the world is looking one way, I will be looking the other, wondering why everybody else is wearing something that ceased to be fashionable twenty years ago, blithely unaware that twenty years ago became the New Now yesterday.  I will endeavour to change all of this.  I have no idea how.
  • I will try to sleep more – this is the path to contentment, although I have no idea of how I might achieve it.  If I go to bed early, I do not sleep.  If I go to bed later, I do not sleep.  If I go to bed loaded with alcohol, I cannot sleep as my bladder constantly tells me that I need to go to the loo, whilst my prostate just laughs at me when I get there.  I can happily fall asleep over a book or an ITV Game Show, but the moment my head hits the regulation pillow I am wide-awake, counting the darkened seconds until my alarm goes off.  Only after the morning clarion call of the radio-alarm do I truly feel like sleep.  I have tried counting sheep, but those spooky little yellow eyes keep me awake.  Sheep are not restful.  Sheep are evil.  I believe that people count them only so they know where they are.
  • I will try new things – I won’t.  I think, in a piece entitled ‘Some of the Things That I Will Never Do’ I explained why, a year ago.  The list of things that I wish to try before I die is dwarfed by the list of things that I fear would kill me if I attempted them.  I have a personality that means that some doors must always remain closed on me – I tried to explain that one in ‘The Great Abstainer’ also last year – I have lost the will to kick those doors open.  These days, I am happy to sit outside with my ear to the letter box, trying to catch snatches of what is going on, whilst ensuring that the letter flap doesn’t snap down on the bridge of my nose.  If curiosity killed the cat, then indifference must be the gateway to a long and unproductive life.  Whatever…
  • I will eat less crap – I won’t.
  • I will drink less alcohol – I won’t.
  • I will wish you all a very happy and contented New Year – I do.

*Wow!  I’ve just caught sight of that chip on my shoulder.  It’s a very big one, isn’t it?  I must make a resolution to do something about it.
**Ok, I’ve just realised what a balanced person I am.  A chip on each shoulder.  I must make a resolution to do something about that too.

The Space Between

When he was a boy, my now elderly uncle dived into the Manchester Ship Canal – foolhardy enough, given its fulfilled capacity to encapsulate every dead cat, supermarket trolley and dog turd in Lancashire – intending to swim beneath two heavily laden barges and appear, merman-like, at the far bank: a swim-suited hero, dripping in glory and excrement.  Sadly, he merely surfaced, gasping lightly, between the two giant steel hulls as they prepared to clang together like two giant cymbals.  He dived straight back down and, luckily, did eventually re-emerge, a floundering wreck, on the other side, from where he was dragged by all of his mates, who left him stinking and retching on the tow-path, whilst they went off in pursuit of his unimpressed girlfriend. 

Sadly, the space between the point from which you depart and that at which you arrive is not always the one in which you would seek to find yourself.  Such, I find, is the space between Christmas and New Year – or, more correctly, on this particular turn of the carousel, between the sterile disappointment of Covid Non-Christmas and the high hopes and possibilities presented by the New Year ahead. 

At this stage, I wonder how many of us truly believe that, by this time next year, things will really have returned to normal, that when the New Year shame-facedly sneaks its way in without its usual fanfare of fireworks, inappropriate touching and vomiting, it will actually point the way towards a brighter future and not just more of the same?  Much, much more of the same.  Here we are, lodged in the space between what has been and what is to come.  Trapped in a turmoil of Hope and Fear: hope that the vaccine will work and fear that it will not.  Everything else seems to hinge upon this one thing.  We are stranded in the hinterland that lies between what has been and what will be, without ever really touching on what is now.  We are frozen in the very millisecond before Basil Fawlty attempts to use his guest’s nipple as a light switch, before Del Boy falls through the pub hatch, before Jones starts to panic: we see it coming, but we are helpless to stop it.

You see, it has just occurred to me that whilst most ‘creative writing’ tells of a journey – either real or metaphorical – mine largely involves being stuck in the station waiting room with only a homeless man and his dog for company, yesterday’s papers and a coin that doesn’t fit any of the slots available: permanently stranded between departure and arrival, clutching my super-saver ticket as it slowly ticks around to ‘invalid’ and the photo on my railcard grows ever-more to resemble a startled refugee from reality.  I am the Man of the Moment!

I have to schedule most of my posts through December: I get the opportunity to write very little and to read even less and, for that, I apologise.  Things should return to normal now in the New Year – and for that I also apologise.  I strongly suspect that what I write will continue to depart a few hundred yards beyond the station platform and arrive with me still in the lavatory.  I’m looking forward to it.

Have a brilliant New Year everyone.  I’ll see you on the other side.

The Ghost of Christmas Past – Christmas Dinner

xmas dinner
Photo by Amelie & Niklas Ohlrogge on Unsplash

The highlight of Christmas Day in the UK (after the seasonal TV ‘special’ Stars In Their Eyes, featuring pets of the rich and famous, and Susan Boyle singing a novelty version of ‘We Three Kings’ especially written for her by Richard Stilgoe) is the Great British Christmas Dinner, and it is this repast upon which this piece will focus as, to be brutally honest, I simply do not know what is eaten elsewhere in the world, although I would be delighted to hear, should anyone wish to fill me in.

The traditional Christmas Dinner contains sufficient calories to see the average Blue Whale through the winter, but it does not usually begin with any form of appetizer as most celebrants are already stuffed to the gills with candied fruit, chocolate covered nuts, mince pies, sausage rolls, buck’s fizz, cream sherry, glacé cherries and eggnog by the time they sit to eat. It is entirely normal for over-imbibed members of the family to have to be woken in order to be brought to the table, whereupon they immediately fall asleep in the chestnut stuffing and dribble gently into the gravy.

At this early stage, instead of eating, the Christmas crackers are usually pulled. The ‘crack’ associated with these sparkly seasonal tubes will inevitably make the babies scream and the elderly momentarily lose control of their bladders. Disagreements over the ‘prizes’ in the crackers, and whose flew where, may persist well into the New Year. The wise host will have a carrier bag full of crap with which to pacify the disaffected. The contents of the cracker usually consists of a paper crown which splits into two as soon as you attempt to put it on your head; a plastic novelty that flies across the room, ricochets from head and ornament before settling somewhere unseen, where it remains lost until a week later when it is sucked up with 3cwt of pine-needles and a half-eaten coffee-cream which jams the Hoover, having smeared itself over a six foot strip of mushroom shagpile. Finally, there is a joke, written, I believe, by a robot in Taiwan, which proves beyond doubt that there will never be an AI comedian. Never-the-less, it is not considered good manners to begin the meal until everybody has had the opportunity to read out their joke – even if a packing malfunction at the factory has resulted in everybody having the same one.

The traditional ‘bird’ of Christmas Dinner is, I think the goose, but this has now been firmly superseded by the turkey, due largely to its greater post-Christmas adaptability in sandwich, curry and rissole. Henry the Eighth, it is said, was the first person to eat Christmas turkey in the UK and, looking at some of the sandwiches in the shops around this time of the year, the same bird is still doing the rounds. It is traditional to concur, when taking one’s first mouthful, that it is a bit dry and ask for more gravy. As a non-meat eater, I will traditionally be asked at this point if I would like some ham.
Christmas Dinner is, in effect, a standard Sunday Roast with knobs on, separated from ‘the normal’ by volume and accoutrement:
• Brussel Sprouts are, for many people, a once-a-year veg. Traditionally boiled for approximately three weeks before the day and hidden under the table during the meal.
• Bread Sauce – follows the English tradition of taking something relatively bland and stodgy and transforming it into something even blander and stodgier.
• Pigs in Blankets – pork sausage wrapped in bacon (so, more correctly Pigs in Pig, I would argue) presents the UK diner with the unique opportunity to accompany a meal with the sensation of inadvertently driving a cocktail stick through the hard palate and into the nasal cavity.
• Cranberry Sauce – this is most un-British, like having gravy on your pudding. Tolerated only on this one day of the year. For the rest of the year such gastronomic eccentricities are left to the French.
• Wine, both red and white may be served. Grandma, robbed of her mug of tea, will reluctantly agree to have a glass of port and lemonade (‘More lemonade than port, please. Well, perhaps just a splash more port…’), before falling to sleep and coughing her false teeth into the mash.

After the meal has been eaten, the plates have been cleared and the worst of it mopped off grandad’s shirt, comes the Christmas Pudding: the densest duff since Cnut. The glistening globe is placed, steaming, in the centre of the table before being doused in brandy and set alight, to shrieks of admiration from everyone around the table, except for grandma who has woken to find her hairpiece is on fire. The brandy soaked pudding is usually served with brandy butter, brandy sauce and brandy – or perhaps that’s just our house. In the past, the pudding would contain a silver sixpence, which the lucky finder would use to get their teeth fixed.

Only the hardiest of souls, and those desperate to avoid the washing up, will attempt to tackle the cheese and biscuits after all of this. Those wishing to have a cigar will be sent to the bottom of the garden as the smell makes Auntie Vera nauseous. Unfortunately, the bottom of the garden contains a compost heap that makes the smokers nauseous.

When the traditional moaning about who always gets landed with the washing up has subsided everyone settles down for an afternoon doze.

The first to wake opens the window and lets it out.

Originally posted 21st December 2019.

The Ghost of Christmas Past – ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

xmas-eve.jpg

(with abject apologies to Clement Clarke Moore)


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

Originally posted 22nd December 2018

The Ghost of Christmas Past – I Believe In Father Christmas

father christmas

Come on, even in the short time that we have known one another, you and I, you must have realised that the very mention of Christmas was going to set me off on one. It is unfashionable, I think, to admit it but I still get excited by Christmas: the whole thing. The carol singers, the TV specials, the food, the drink, the panicky rush to the local petrol station for the last minute present, the never-ending trailers for this year’s Eastenders Christmas disaster… Well, perhaps not the TV trailers. I just can’t understand the desire to witness such unremitting melancholic disaster as the highlight of Christmas evening. The vicarious thrill of eavesdropping on an entire community of joyless and soulless characters as they plunge headlong into increasingly preposterous seasonal scenarios of calamity and bedlam is not, for me anyhow,  any way to let the sprouts go down. I’ll take Eric and Ernie making breakfast together anytime, thank you very much.

So many people seem to want to be depressed by Christmas: ‘I can’t wait until it’s all over,’ ‘It’s such a lot of fuss for one day,’ ‘I don’t even like Christmas pudding…’ What is this nonsense? For a start, Christmas pudding, Christmas cake and mince pies are the three kings of the epicurean calendar and the greatest consumable inventions of all time: fact. I would buy mincemeat flavoured toothpaste if it was available. Everyone’s happy* – especially the maker’s of eggnog – and even the dourest of aunties will agree to wear a paper crown for the duration of the meal. When it is all over, you have 364 days to wait until the next one. Enjoy the day, embrace the mayhem. I know it’s overhyped, unnecessarily expensive and endlessly protracted, but come on! It’s once a year. As far as I’m concerned, the best Christmas present is Christmas. A sense of benign serenity pervades the house and will last all day, as long as nobody gets the Monopoly out.

What’s not to love?
• Hungry Hippos? Tick.
• Whoopee cushion on Aunty Elsie’s chair? Tick.
• Hugely inappropriate joke from Great Uncle Derek? Tick.

As for mawkish sentimentality – well, why not? Twenty first century life is completely hidebound by startling and grimly held reality: dreaming is something we are only allowed to do when we’re asleep. What’s wrong with allowing a little fantasy into our lives from time to time?

So, does Father Christmas actually exist? Well, why would I choose not to believe in something that brings so much joy to so many? Father Christmas exists in spirit. That spirit itself may exist for just a few hours each year, but as long as it is here I will embrace it and yes, I do believe in Father Christmas.

I have actually, in the past, ‘played’ Father Christmas for the village children in my Father-in-Law’s pub on Christmas day. I have to tell you, it is not a job for those of weak disposition. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted to pull my beard. I was prepared for all of the children who wanted the opportunity to complain about what I had brought them that morning (or even what I’d brought them the previous year). I was even prepared for the sinisterly whispered, ‘I know who you are really…’ I was not prepared for all of the children who wanted to kick my shins.

We are asked to believe in so many things for which there is no proof. Most of them are intended to constrain or control us. God knows, millions have died for some of them. I believe that Jesus existed. I believe that he was a very great man whose life has impacted on millions for centuries. But a virgin birth? No, surely not. The whole Christmas story is a metaphor isn’t it: a fable become lore – either that or a very cynical ploy by the manufacturers of hand-made wooden cribs and personalised Christmas tree decorations. To be honest, after some of his frankly appallingly vengeful behaviour in the Old Testament, I think God had probably been spoken to by somebody from PR before setting off on the New Testament. A story of love and hope and peace and joy; just what we need at Christmas time.

Of course, as with all major undertakings, planning and preparation are the keys to a successful operation. Allow me to talk you through some of my own basic preparations for the big day:

  1. Miracle on 34th Street (the Richard Attenborough version). If you need proof that Father Christmas really does exist, it is right here. Settle down with a glass of something seasonal, a warm mince pie, a little stilton and watch this film. I defy you to leave it without feeling the spirit. (And by the way, just for the record, Christmas did exist before Prosecco.)
  2. Love Actually. I know, I know, and frankly I don’t care. I could watch this twice a week and it would still warm me cockles. A must for the pre-Christmas run-in. Christmas is not Christmas without an in-depth discussion of what’s the best bit of this film. (It’s the Colin Firth/Lucia Moniz bit, by the way.)
  3. A trip to the supermarket to purchase several hundred-weight of snack foods and any number of bottles of sweet alcoholic beverages that would not be allowed through the door at any other time of the year. Sweet British sherry is produced for this single occasion alone: along with Advocaat and those little marzipan fruits, it has no purpose other than to keep the (more) elderly relatives quiet during the afternoon session of Charades. Nothing grates quite like an over-lubricated Great Aunt yelling ‘Casablanca’ to every single mime, especially when nobody else is getting your superb rendition of ‘Oops… I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears.

Drinking the overlarge tot of whisky and eating the mince pie left out for Santa remains my final Christmas Eve task (Santa does not like sherry at our house). No carrot to nibble on behalf of Rudolph these days – he can fend for himself. Every year the startling realisation that, by a process I do not fully understand, somebody has bought and prepared everything for Christmas lunch and dinner. I’m not sure who. The Pixies I think… And then one last check of the night sky:
• Giant airborne sleds? No.
• The unmistakable glistening of snow in the air? No.
• Superbright star on the eastern horizon? No.
…and so to bed.

Christmas morning, I usually wake at about 5am. When they were at home I used to creep into the children’s rooms and try to make just enough noise to wake them. Oh the joy of seeing their little faces as they looked at the clock before burying their heads under the duvet. I am certain that both of my children learned to tell the time simply so that they could tell me to go back to bed on Christmas morning. But I’m up – no point in going back to bed now. Christmas jumper, Christmas shirt and Christmas socks: it’s the one time of the year when everybody else is just as badly dressed as me.

Christmas dinner is a big deal in our house. Crackers are cracked, paper hats are worn and terrible jokes are read. The lighting of the Christmas pudding is a ritual that cannot be missed. It usually comes directly after the mass panicky dash by the assembled adults towards one of this year’s high chair incumbents who, with some encouragement, manages to cough up half a sprout, two carrot sticks and a red Lego brick. A spirit of benevolent bonhomie pervades even in the midst of the communal clear-up and dishwashing that follows the meal. The dregs of the wine are consumed, perhaps a small coffee and Bailey’s, and then for many the mass, slack-jawed snooze of Christmas afternoon, whilst the rest of us (me and the kids) construct Lego housing estates or attempt to disentangle the new mini drone from the light fitting without fusing the rest of the street. Sometime later, everybody wakes for the afternoon ritual of ‘Oh look at the time. We’ve missed the Queen.’ And ‘who’s putting the kettle on?’

The rest of the day is filled with the welcome drifting in and out of various members of our joyfully expanding family. Every available chair, pouffe and footstool is utilised. As the afternoon draws into evening, people are routinely stepped on, sat on and, if certain members of the family are having a nap, dribbled on. Board games are begun and almost immediately dismantled by children who crawl through them, sit on them, fly a Lego rocket through them or otherwise decimate them because they are being ignored. Everyone, except grandad, who has just evaded a very large snake and reached the top of an equally long ladder, thinks that it’s funny. Come the evening and anything that is vaguely soft becomes a crib. All rooms are occupied by people sleeping on beds and mattresses, on inflatables and floors in a selection of duvets, blankets and sleeping bags, many of which have not seen the light of day since Glastonbury 2004.

Anyway, that’s Christmas for me, and a joyous occasion it always is, until, of course, I turn on the news on Boxing Day and discover that the world is still in exactly the same mess as we left it in on Christmas Eve – and a whole new year to look forward to…

Oh well, Merry Christmas One and All.

*Not totally true, I know. This is a very lonely time for lonely people. Nobody chooses to be lonely yet loneliness could be the future for any of us. It’s easy to ignore the future as you get older; there is a lot less of it and the end of it is quite a lot closer than it was. If you get the chance, then making somebody less lonely could be one of the best presents you could ever give yourself.

Originally posted 20th December 2018 when the world was sane.