The Running Man and Beats per Minute

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

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

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

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

The last Running Man episode, The Running Man and Lockdown, is here.

The whole sorry saga started here.

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 Running Man and Lockdown (the Third)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Zoo #16 – Pig

Consider now the humble pig
Who has a brain that’s very big;
Who fate has cast, by some mishap
As perfect filling for a bap*.

Pity please the humble porker
Who never got to see Majorca:
No sun-dipped beach on which to lie,
For him the bottom of a pie.

Consider now his certain fate,
To end his days on dinner plate
Emulsified as paté starter,
Extruded in a chipolata.

How can it be, this brainy beast
Is viewed as nothing but a feast?
The answer lies in evolution –
To be less tasty, the solution.

Now, I haven’t eaten meat for years, but I have no bones whatsoever with those that do.  It is a personal choice.  Killing to eat and survive is certainly no crime.  Although killing for fun is quite another thing, in my humble opinion: especially since we so revile other creatures that kill to live if their actions impinge upon us in any negative way.  Anyway, pigs fascinate me in this way.  My grandad always used to say that the only part of a pig that you cannot eat is the squeak.  It is almost as if the animal had been especially created just for food.  So, why is it so brainy?  Even more perplexing, as it is so brainy, why doesn’t it do something about it?  Why hasn’t it evolved cute? Maybe koalas are good to eat, but you wouldn’t eat one, would you?

*Bap – a bread bun.  The average Briton has more words for the humble bread roll than the Inuit have for snow.

Still Getting On

It strikes me that the most obvious sign of getting older is the tendency to ooze.  Every day that passes, I seem to find somewhere new through which to leak.  Life is a diuretic.  I choose my clothes these days on the simple principle of absorbency.  Whilst younger people choose their clothes on style – pinstripe suit or check, flared skirt or ‘A’ line – I choose mine based solely on stain resistance.  If I don’t seep it, I spill it.  I normally have to be hosed down after spaghetti.  You can gauge how much I have enjoyed a meal by the amount of trifle I have down my crotch.  Two metres social-distancing is nothing new to me: I am forbidden, by law, from eating tomato soup in public.  Sitting opposite me when I am in possession of a jam doughnut is a little like lying, face-up, under a cow: you know what’s coming, you’re just not sure when you’re going to get it.

This would be understandable if I was a fast eater, but I’m not: I’m slow – painfully slow – I cannot remember the last time I made it through the potatoes before the gravy congealed.  I have never eaten a cheese fondue: by the time I get to it, it is just cheese.  I seldom have to ask for the bill in a restaurant, I just wait for the waiter to come round and ask me to turn off the lights as I leave.  Which comes as some relief of course, because, as we all know, waiters are trained from birth in how to studiously ignore people who wish to pay their bill.  It is as though bringing the bill drags the whole evening down to the status of ‘financial transaction’, which seriously reduces their opportunity to appear superior to you in all respects.  How can a waiter maintain an air of quiet superiority when you are about to pay him?  When you are his de facto employer?  To be honest, I find that most of them manage to maintain a reasonably high level of disdain when they see the amount of tip I am about to leave.  The skilled waiter is trained – up to Ninja level – in the art of saying, ‘Well, you obviously need that more than I do,’ without ever moving his/her lips.

Now, I used to be a waiter – a good one, oddly – able to silver-serve a Dover Sole, off-the-bone, without so much as a scale out of place: the waiting equivalent of eating a mushroom vol-au-vent without getting a crotch full of pastry.  I worked in the dining room of a high class hotel, in which the well-heeled clientele reinforced their sense of pre-eminence by hardly ever leaving a tip.  When they did, it was generally in the form of a handful of small change from some exotic foreign shore – ensuring that you were left fully aware of the places that they could afford to visit whilst you continued to wait at tables.  Also that they were tight enough to hang onto their change on the way home rather than drop it into the little seat-back envelope, in order to help a Romanian orphan buy a prosthetic nose, or similar.  I am always polite to waiters: I know what they can do to your food.

When I was younger, I worked behind a bar with an older man called Neil.  He had a semi-permanent ‘dew-drop’ on the end of his nose.  It was always there when he started to pull a pint, but not always by the time he finished.  It was like Russian Roulette.  Did you buy lager so that you could see any sign of viscous intrusion, or did you buy Guinness so that you would never know?  It paid never to examine the pickled eggs too closely.  I was popular simply because I didn’t have a dew-drop.  Damned by faint praise: the barman that everybody wanted to be served by, just because I didn’t add volume to every third pint.  As a barman I was always told to, ‘Get one for yourself’; nobody ever told me that when I was a waiter.  ‘The entrecote was superb.  My compliments to the chef and get one for yourself.  I would recommend the Chateau Laffite to accompany it, but you’re only sixteen.  Here, have a Tizer.’

I did learn to love food as a waiter.  We were fed at the end of breakfast and lunch sittings, and before dinner.  I would have been happy to have done the job without pay.  For a boy raised on luncheon meat, tinned tomatoes and chips, this food was a revelation.  I didn’t realise that you could eat food that hadn’t been fried.  I didn’t comprehend that salmon didn’t necessarily come from a tin, full of tiny little crunchy bones.  I didn’t know that fresh scampi was even a thing.  As far as I was concerned, fish was caught in batter – I had never seen it any other way.  Who knew that vegetables didn’t have to be boiled for hours?

I met my wife when I worked as a waiter.  We were both children.  The pride of the dining room was the sweet trolley.  It was famous throughout the county.  Everything was freshly made, every day.  One evening, at start of service, she managed to upend the whole trolley.  The head waiter refused point blank to go and tell the head chef – who, to be fair, may well have killed him – and ordered my one-day-to-be-wife to go.  I went with her, regretting my decision from the very first millisecond, especially when she was struck half-dumb by the fearsome visage of a gourmet chef in mid-stress and I took it on myself to help her explain, hoping only that death would come quickly.  He stared silently, hollowly, first at her and then at me.  The whole kitchen froze.  He turned away from us and started barking out the instructions that ensured that within a scant few minutes, sweet trolley#2 trundled off to the dining room in all its resplendent glory and service resumed almost unbroken – except that a certain waitress was quietly excused sweet service.  The chef never mentioned the incident to either of us – although he did give the head waiter a severe wigging.  He, too, never mentioned the incident.  Funny things, adults.

Anyway, there we are.  Other than my wife displaying a slight nervous tic every time she serves a syllabub, you would never know that the incident ever occurred.  I’m not even sure what brought it to my mind, but I do know that even now, forty five years later, the memory of that trolley is making my mouth water…

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.