Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Weep, You May Weep, For You May Touch Them Not

We cremated my grandfather yesterday at 1.30 at the local crematorium. The place is surrounded by woodland and though beautiful is perishing cold at any time of year let alone in the middle of December.

I hope the service was what he would have wanted. Aside from a few favourite hymns there were few instructions. We had Jona Lewie’s “Stop The Cavalry” played at the start and end of service which raised a few smiles. It was one of his favourite records and we all have memories of him playing it constantly, much to my Nan’s annoyance, while he beefed up the percussion by striking a glass with a knife or a spoon. I have very vivid memories of him singing along to the “dub-a-dub-a-dum-dum” parts in a voice that strove joyously to be completely out of tune and atonal. Entirely deliberate one suspects from a man who sang in the church choir as a young boy.

What can one say about funerals? Other than to say they get more sad with each one you go to and each new one you go to reminds you of all those that have gone before...

It was sad. Very sad. But it was good to be together as a family. The New Year will bring some hard challenges as we all pull together to sort through the remains of my grandparent’s lives together – the house and possessions need to be attributed and sold. It isn’t going to be easy. And the solicitors are being harshly efficient. My sister had an estate agent ring her on the morning of the funeral wanting to arrange a viewing of the house so that it can be valued.

Wisely she told them to wait until the New Year. I realize there is a lull in the housing market at this time of year and the estate agents are kicking their heels but even so... a bit of tact wouldn’t have gone amiss.

We gathered in a local pub afterwards and said goodbye to the old patriarch the old fashioned way. He would have approved, I’m sure.

Wherever he is now I hope he is happy. And I hope he knows he is still loved.

As are all those who have gone before, all those who populate the many happy Christmases of my childhood. So many people who I now can no longer touch but who yet touch me still.

A very Merry Christmas to you all. I hope it is spent in the company of loved ones whose closeness to you, you will treasure.

The best memories of all are made of this.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Silent Night

My grandfather would always walk out of the room when he heard this carol. It was bizarre. Up he’d get and storm off grumbling to himself. I can remember my Nan smiling sadly to us all and explaining it away with “he just can’t bear to hear it; it’s to do with the war”.

It puzzled me for years. Sometime in my teens I thought I had it figured. Silent Night is a German carol. That must be it, I thought. The Germans, the war time foe. Though his reaction was so extreme this hardly seemed a decent explanation.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that he finally told me the reason. Before his illness and old age robbed him of the ability and the will to tell me stories of his war time experiences he just came out with it one lunch time while we were tucking into fish and chips.

My grandfather was a seaman in the Royal Navy and took part in a great number of the convoys that carried and fetched supplied to and from South Africa, Europe, Malta and the Med, etc. His ship, H.M.S. Kelvin, saw a good deal of action and was one of the ships celebrated for breaking through the curtain the Germans and Italians had put around Malta – it was certainly the exploit that he spoke about with the most ease and pride.

This other story though was more painful and was one he’d carried around with him for more than 60 years without speaking much about it...

I believe his ship was part of a night convoy in the North Atlantic. It was winter and bitterly cold. A man overboard would be dead within minutes – from the cold rather than drowning. The going was cautious – German U-Boats were about and very active. The ships were effectively operating under black-out – no lights, engines only and no radio communication. Anything to minimize the possibility of a U-Boat picking them up. Another stipulation was that the ships were not allowed to stop. Not for anything. Not even to help a comrade fallen overboard. They had to keep going; they had to get through.

The ship ahead was unlucky. A U-Boat picked her off sometime in the small hours and she went down spilling her crew - hundreds of men - into the water.

The other ships, including my grandfather’s could not stop to pick up the survivors. They knew this. The men in the water also knew this and very softly sang Silent Night as the convoy and their comrades continued on into the night and away from them.

I cannot imagine the pain of having to live through that night and of having such a memory bubble to the surface for every Christmas that you experience afterwards. If not for his reaction to the carol we would never have known.

When I hear Silent Night now I too will feel sad and an aching sense of pain though for different reasons. And I shall remember all the Christmases when my grandfather disappeared out into the kitchen to bang about with the kettle until the carol had finished.

And I shall feel regret and I shall feel sorrow.

But mostly I shall feel pride.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009


My grandfather died this morning. He went very suddenly in his sleep.

All things considered, not a bad way to go.

He will be missed not least for the hole in the world that he leaves behind.

Friday, December 04, 2009


The foyer in the building where I work has, as its centrepiece, a water feature. A huge brown stone monolith of odd angles and aesthetically engineered drops that guarantee a playful background plash of water whenever a visitor drops in to spend a week’s wages on a cup of tea in the café.

Or at least is does when the bloody thing is working.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked for about a year. It was turned off last winter due to suspicions of “a small leak”.

I guess this is an occupational hazard for a water feature. That and people lobbing pound coins down the plughole or going for a number 2 down the chute.

For various reasons it wasn’t looked into. It got overlooked. The water feature became a dusty dry stone sculpture that only dreamt of the cool flow of legionella rich water gently caressing its chiselled corners.

Until this week. The idea of restoring water to the “desert” feature suddenly became “of the moment”. It became my task for the week. My pre-Christmas mission.

Experts were called in and assembled. Opinions were voiced. An agreement was reached. Existence of the leak needed to be empirically proven or disproven one way of the other.

So an experiment was launched. The water was switched back on. The algae on the stone was moistened with H20 once more.

Like all water features, ours works by recycling the same water round and round. The continual movement prevents stagnation and bacterial build-up. A simple ball-cock mechanism adds fresh mains water whenever necessary to compensate water lost by evaporation or hoodies taking a rare bath. Yesterday, once the system was up and running, we disabled the ball-cock. With no fresh water topping up the system we’d soon be able to see if we were losing any.

We started at 3pm and my brief was to switch the thing off at 5pm when I went home and then back on again tomorrow morning at 9.

At the most we were expecting maybe an inch of water to disappear.

Instead, at 5pm I was gobsmacked to discover that not only was the water feature dry but the entire reservoir tank was also empty. The pump was gamely sucking up hot air.

Where had all that water gone? Several gallons of it had vanished down into the guts of the building in the space of 2 hours without any evidence of it ever having been there.

We have a mystery on our hands.

Further investigations will take place today. I daresay some dull, prosaic explanation will be found. Personally I’d like to imagine that the water has escaped into another dimension, possibly feeding a waterfall in Narnia or topping up a jacuzzi for a couple of half naked elf maidens.

Or perhaps, like a recent episode of Doctor Who, the water has taken on a sinister life of its own and is, even as I write, seeking out some poor unwitting human host whose body can be possessed and turned to some dastardly scheme of world domination. Indeed, it may explain the congregation of strange gentlemen who daily hang around the front of my work building, foaming at the nose with various sized cans of Special Brew growing out of their bottom lips and who have an undissuadable penchant for defecating up the pilasters.

It’s something in the water, I’m telling you...

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Day The Music Died

I’m wondering if I have fallen out of love with music.

Or, to be precise, new music. The discovery of it. The giving a go of new bands. The trying something new. I seem to have become as locked into the music of my formative years as my parents were when I was a kid.

Why does that happen?

When I was a teenager (though I came to record buying late) I was an avid music consumer. I would buy a batch of records every week. Singles, EPs, LPs, picture discs, I couldn’t get enough. I can remember going to a record shop in Birmingham and spending so much money that the shop assistant was kind enough to not ring the amount up on the till to save me from embarrassment. I must have blown an entire week’s wages in one go on rare records and collectibles. That seems so obscenely hedonistic now.

In no time at all I had built up an impressive collection of literally hundreds and hundreds of records (which I still own). They took over my entire bedroom. All of them boxed, alphabetized and inventorized. It was a collection that I lavished love and time on. And each weekend I’d carefully load up my turntable with my latest acquisitions, carefully wiping the dust off them with the special cloth I had bought for this purpose and savouring each hiss and pop of the needle swinging itself into the opening groove.

It was my life.

And then somehow, in the nineties, my expenditure dropped off, my interest waned and was pulled elsewhere. I moved on and got into other things. Books, computers, gadgetry, travel. The fact that the nineties were an awful decade for decent music only hastened me out of the scene.

And now, here in 2009, I’m somehow completely on the outside of it all. On the outside looking in but unsure of where the door is or if I even have enough interest to want to open it and step inside. A few new bands have caught my ear – The Doves, The Editors – but I haven’t gone as fanatically overboard on them as I did when All About Eve arrived on the music scene in 1985 or when Kate Bush released “Hounds Of Love” in the same year.

The passion for new music has left me.

My MP3 player is proof of this. The majority of its contents have been sucked from my CD collection and I’d say that 90% of that is from the eighties. I’ve become trapped in my very own time warp.

I’m no longer “down with the kids”. I’m looking at them and frowning at the infernal noise they listen to and dare to call music – much the same way, I suspect, as when my father just couldn’t appreciate the blisteringly fierce music of The Jam’s “Funeral Pyre” and dismissed it as tuneless rubbish. At the time his music of choice was Buddy Holly and Marty Robbins.

Is this the fate that has now befallen me?

Worryingly, checking my MP3 player this morning, I can’t fail to notice that “El Paso” is already on there...

*Sigh* It’ll be “Rave On” next.

And not in a cool way either.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Miser’s Touch

I’m at odds with the world today. I don’t know what it or I have done but we’re not on good terms. The atmosphere is decidedly chilled.

I’m not sure who started it and I’m not sure when it will end but we’re heading for certain bloodshed.

It seemed to start when I got up this morning. The world was deliberately obtuse and uncooperative. Things wouldn’t open properly. Things would fall out of my hands. Things would spill. Other things, evil cupboardy things, would mysteriously open at malicious angles and crack me passing blows on the head.

I cottoned on pretty quickly. Let’s face it when a campaign is being waged against you it doesn’t take long for the signs to become self-evident.

For my part I have responded with rapid fire door slamming, aerial bombardments of stomping and carpet bombing with high explosive expletives. I have an everlasting supply of the latter so if this is to be a war of attrition, world, you’d better be in for the long haul.

Please don’t worry about me, people, I can hold my own. But it is, I admit, a lonely stance. My biggest enemy is my own paranoia. I am eyeing old friends with suspicion. Have they been converted? Brainwashed? Programmed against me? Sleeper agents waiting for the trigger word...? My computer, my mobile phone, even my MP3 player – their shiny buttons look like teeth this morning. I’m not sure I can trust their electrical impulses to remain loyal. The world is urging them to foul up. To lose or corrupt data. To crash.

Even the toaster is looking at me belligerently.

What have I done? What have I done?

I’ve gone over it all in my head but I can’t think of a damned thing. Was I too rough with the oven? Has the world taken the size of my carbon footprint personally?

Why are you picking on me and not Jeremy Clarkson?

The world is so unfair!

Well, enough is enough!

If it’s a fight you want, world, you can have one! Put ‘em up or shut up!

Friday, November 27, 2009


My name is Stephen Blake and I am an addict.

I first became addicted when I was 6 or 7. It was my mother who got me onto the stuff. In her defence she probably didn’t realize the potency of the substance or my susceptibility to it. At the time “addiction” wasn’t a word that was particularly bandied around regularly at the nation’s breakfast tables so people thought little of my daily cravings.

Now though addiction is an all too common concept. In fact it is almost the norm. We are all addicted to something or so they say.

For me, ladies and gentleman, the vice of choice is chocolate.

Up until now I’ve always made light of it. It is even been a source of humour. When Karen and I go out for a meal (on the rare occasions that we have both the money and the energy) and order an after meal coffee it is always amusing to see the waiters mistakenly assuming that it is Karen who has ordered the hot chocolate and me the coffee. Why guys are deemed less likely to have a sweet-tooth is puzzling.

Anyway, I am sure I have mentioned in the past that I need to have “a chocolate bar every day”.

This is a lie. A falsehood that I have deliberately been bamboozling myself with.

If I was to assess the situation empirically I would have to admit that I must get through at least 4 chocolate bars a day. Sometimes even more.

Is this excessive?

I mean compared to say 25 or 50, 4 hardly seems like a health crisis. And yet a tiny sense of worry is beginning to flower on the herbaceous borders of my mind. Too much sugar. Too much sugar. Diabetes. Diabetes. It is like a mantra of impending doom.

Biologically the human body isn’t really engineered to process sugar. I know this. And yet my craving is such that I just don’t care.

My body shape also works against me. I am a “slim Jim”. Always have been. I can eat as much as I like and be as unhealthy as I like and I never put on any weight. I have the metabolism of an Olympic mouse. Hence there are no outward signs of the damage I might be doing to myself. My veins could be clogging themselves to death and I wouldn’t know a damned thing about it.

It’s a scary thought. But one that can easily be cancelled out by a Cadbury’s Boost or a Caramel Chunky Kit-Kat.

In my favour though, I went and had a blood test / weight ratio test thingie at my local doctors a few weeks ago. I was finally ready to bite the chocolate-free bullet if my health required it. But – gasp! – my blood pressure and weight relationship were on such good terms that the phrase “extended honeymoon” barely covered the depth of their mutual respect and contentment.

I am exceedingly fit. It seems I am not an obvious candidate for a heart attack.

Hence I rewarded myself with a Mars bar.

So where am I now on all of this? Well, my theory is that my natural paranoia and neuroses is counteracting any harmful effects that my chocolate excesses might be inflicting upon my body. My worry is eliminating the build up of sugar based toxins.

So provided I continue to feel guilty about it I can continue to munch my way through the sweet counter of my local newsagents on a daily basis.

Which changes the nature of my habit completely.

It is no longer an addiction. It is a form of Catholicism.

I am a holy man and my rod and my staff are Curly-Wurlys.

Please bring me some chocolate when you next come to confession.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rattus Norvegicus

A couple of weeks ago evidence was found of a possible rodent infestation at work.

A couple of packets of cookies had been found ripped open and the contents nibbled. Personally I suspected a tea-leaf; a member of staff helping themself to a biscuit subsidy... it happens, let’s face it.

But droppings were found. Small, black, like tiny raisins. No human could have produced such evidence unless they had a sphincter tighter than a nun’s, er, habit.

So the pest control guys were called in. They lifted ceiling tiles and trap doors, They poked around shelves and cupboards. They drank loads of tea. And below the ground floor of the building, among the foundations they found hundreds of rat footprints. They fixed their jaws and pronounced their grim verdict. We were being overrun by a rat army. A veritable rodent blitzkrieg.

Now I suspected that, given nobody has really been down among the foundations for 10 years, it could just as easily be one lone rat chasing its own tail among the dust of centuries.

The pest control guys humoured my inexpert opinion with a small laugh and then threw 250 sticky traps down into the void beneath the floor. They were expecting a big haul, I could tell.

Now these sticky traps (or rat glue traps as they are professionally called) are just like blunder traps that can be bought for catching insects. They rely on your chosen prey wandering along, going innocently about their business, and suddenly finding themselves glued to the sticky surface of the trap. Rendered immobile and very cheesed off.

I must admit the thought of having to retrieve live rats, squealing and wriggling, glued to a bit of board didn’t particularly appetize me but the advantage, when explained to me, was obvious: putting down conventional poison leaves the rat free to go off and die somewhere where it’ll never be found. Once the body count reaches the hundreds the smell is going to be very bad indeed...

So the traps were laid and we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And each morning during the week’s treatment I came to work expecting to find a living carpet of rat fur spread around the foundations of the building and at its head, dressed in bright, gaudy clothes and a strange feathered cap, a strange thin man of German origin blowing very feebly into a wide-ended flute.

Instead, when bodies were eventually discovered, the rampaging rat hordes proved to be no more than 2 measly rats and 8 mice (wearing dark glasses).

I phoned the Whitehouse and told them to stand down the troops.

In a way I feel relieved (and vindicated). We are not and have never been overrun. Bubonic plague is not about to rear its ugly head in my McVitie’s Hobnobs.

But I could never be a rat catcher, for all they tried to sell it to me as the good life – go where you want, when you want, do as much as you want when you want, etc – it has a decidedly ugly side.

The live rodents have to be dispatched quickly and humanely by the pest control operatives themselves.

Thankfully this was done out of sight of me. But I did overhear one of them say to his mate: “yeah, I’ve squished this one good and proper...”


Another Hobnob anyone...?

Monday, November 23, 2009


Saturday saw my mother, me and my two sisters descend upon my grandfather’s bedside like priests come to hear the final confession. We had been summoned, all of us, by the ward sister the day before, whose urgings had persuaded my mother that her original planned visit on Monday was simply (and I quote) “too far away”. We had to come now. ASAP.

This coupled with the news that my grandfather had been prescribed morphine on Friday had us fearing the worst. I mean, what else are you to think? Morphine is a pretty hefty painkiller. They don’t administer it without good reason. Or rather, bad.

So we were all there. Awaiting the arrival of the nursing sister of the day to speak to us. Apparently (according to another communiqué from the hospital) she wanted to speak to my mother in person to explain the situation more fully.

My grandfather lay before us. White, thin, skeletal. His skin now so transparent as to be almost non-existent – it looked as if a mad calligrapher had drawn veins and arteries in bold ink on parchment. His outline was a folded clothes’ horse of stick bones and rounded corners under the bed sheets. Piteous really when I think of how he used to be: always slim and wiry but always, always so vital.

The nursing sister eventually graced us with her presence, mystified by our request to see her. It seems she had no further information to give us. My grandfather was certainly very poorly but he was comfortable and stable. No real change from how he’d been over the last 2 weeks. It seems our urgent attendance was not really required. The priest need not be called away from his lunch. The morphine too was something of a red herring. Yes, he’s been prescribed it but he has not so far been given it – because he is in no pain whatsoever and does not need it. It is there merely “in case”.

Cue wry looks from us all. It is of course nice to know that although my grandfather is still at death’s door he is not yet, as we feared, ringing the doorbell. But it is irritating in the extreme to have lived with such a black picture of his condition for the last few days when the paint, barely dry, was only as grey as it has always been.

What havoc a little misinformation can cause! If the hospital can’t get their story straight between themselves my family and I stand little chance of ever staying well informed.

The only information that we received that could be deemed in any way useful was the sister’s expert opinion that it is highly unlikely that my grandfather will ever return home again. He needs 24 hour care. If he leaves the hospital it’ll be to go to a nursing home. The thing he most wanted not to happen. Alas, he is now so far gone that I doubt he’ll even notice let alone care where he is.

So, for the first time in my life, the house of my grandparents – the home of so many happy memories for me – will be completely empty and lifeless.

This seems another small death in a long line of small deaths that are inevitably leading to a bigger.

The dominoes are toppling but at least the game is not yet over.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The D Word

Nurses, doctors, medical staff. They do a tough, backbreaking, heartbreaking job. I couldn’t do it. Not at all. And I want to make that clear because there is a part of me that is just instinctively opposed to slating anyone in the medical profession.

But I can’t deny I am becoming more and more frustrated, disappointed and just let-down with the service my family is getting from the local hospital.

My grandfather is still in hospital. All week we’ve been getting reports from the staff on his ward that he is fine, that he is stable, that he is doing well. Yesterday morning we even got a fantastic report that he was doing very well indeed and was up and chirpy.

Then yesterday afternoon, out of the blue, a consultant advised us that actually he is doing very badly and is very poorly indeed. So much so my mother is rushing down from Sheffield tomorrow to see him. Things don’t look good.

I realize people can go downhill fast – especially when they’re old – but this really sounds like there has been a case of crosswires and misinformation. I sometimes wonder if the hospital staff are even talking about the right patient when they give us information about my grandfather.

There is also a massive and often very worrying omission of facts.

My grandfather has developed Clostridium difficile (C. diff) – not for the first time I hasten to add. It seems to be as a direct result of being admitted to hospital and pumped with antibiotics. He is very poorly with it and given his frailty the hospital has few options of how to treat it. Higher dose antibiotics could have an adverse effect and surgery to fix the resultant lump in his stomach / abdomen is off the cards because it is doubtful he’d survive an operation.

As C diff is very contagious it makes visiting him difficult – I have two young children and my parents both work with food and children; we need to be careful about not carrying any infection away from the hospital. Luckily my mother had tipped me off about his C diff diagnosis before my last visit and a good job too. The staff nurse, when told who I had come to see, merely waved me to his room and didn’t check to see if I knew of his condition or make any attempt to ensure that I took adequate precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. For all she knew I was just someone off the street who had no prior knowledge of his condition whatsoever.

This lackadaisical approach appals me. Again it comes down to poor communication and a reluctance to pass on necessary information. Surely this should all be part and parcel of the care package – keeping the next of kin fully and accurately informed?

Or, with the supremacy of the internet, should I be doing my own online Google research and Wikipedia-based prognoses? Or maybe checking the hospital’s Twitter account for updates on the state of my grandfather’s health?

My grandfather is dying. I shouldn’t have to bang my head against a brick wall to maintain a link that is already fading fast of its own accord.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Yes And No

Tom has finally mastered these.

It’s taken him a while. Up until a week or so ago, when asked a question, Tom would answer no when he meant yes, and no when he meant no.

This obviously led to a little confusion. Occasionally it was quite easy to determine which of the two answers he meant. Would you like some chocolate? No. This obviously and irrefutably meant yes. Would you please lie still while I apply some barrier cream to your tender-most areas? No. This generally meant no.

I must admit I was a little concerned as to why Tom had decided that no was the stock answer to every single question directed at him. It wasn’t as if we were denying him his every wish and desire. However, a little observation led to the answer. When you have a young toddler marauding around the house, attempting to operate sundry mechanical objects such as washing machines, ovens, DVD players and other delicate electrical devices of extortionate cost you tend to find yourself calling “no” out loud rather a lot.

Small wonder then that Tom saw no as a standard form of expression.

But somehow over the last 10 days or so he’s had a semantic break-through. His grasp of language has leapt. His vocabulary has increased exponentially. He’s discovered the glorious positivity of the word yes.

Would you like some chocolate? Yes.

Would you like a cheese sandwich (a great favourite)? Yes.

Would you please lie still while I apply some barrier cream to your tender-most areas? No.

The yes and no parts of his brain are now functioning normally. He can express his burgeoning opinions (and he has many) correctly and effectively. It’s marvellous. I’m very proud of him.

But it has made me wonder – this very significant developmental stage – how often we, as adults, unlearn this most important of lessons. How many times do we say no when we mean yes – denying ourselves some pleasurable item because we feel guilty or not worthy? Or, worse still, how many times do we say yes when we really, truly mean no – allowing ourselves to be put upon unfairly, or finding ourselves completing some onerous task that only serves to make us feel miserable and victimized?

Now that Tom has grasped the difference between yes and no I’m going to do all in my power to ensure that his understanding of them remains pure and unalloyed for the rest of his life.

But that barrier cream is still going to get applied. Sorry, Tom.

Monday, November 16, 2009


“The 13th has never been unlucky for me. Never. I’ve never had a bad experience with the number 13. Not once. Not ever. I’m immune to it.”

Even as I typed those words last Friday I was reminded of a poem by Roger McGough (can’t remember which one, sorry) where he talks about being afraid to tempt fate in case fate, tempted, one day weakens... but I shrugged it off anyway with a cavalier laugh and got on with cocking my snook at the universe. You can’t touch me, I thought to myself. I’m immune. Y’hear me? Immune! You can’t touch me with your so-called Friday 13th bad vibe!

Somewhere in the very centre of the universe an omniscient mind heard me and had an inclination...

And by the end of the day Friday 13th was going all out to prove just how unlucky it could be.

All was fine until it came time to head home. Of course this is the moment where you desperately want things to run smoothly. You can practically smell your evening meal being cooked. You can almost feel the warm cosy embrace of your sofa wrapping itself around you and calling you to submit to end-of-week TV-soothed slumber.

You just want to get out of the office and escape while the going is good.

Last Friday, the 13th, the going was decidedly not good. As I was literally on my way to the exit doors I was called to the men’s public toilets. A cubicle was occupied and the patron was refusing to respond to all calls to vacate the premises. I had no choice but to force the door. Inside I found a young male slumped over, completely unconscious, his trousers around his ankles and his head face down on his knobbly knees. He absolutely could not be roused by anything we did. It didn’t look good. One of my colleagues recommended we try smelling salts until I pointed out that, given the ever present stench of the urinals, if he wasn’t compos mentis now with the ambient bio-fall-out irradiating his nasal hairs a tiny little smell in a bottle was hardly going to kick-start his cerebral cortex.

So we called an ambulance. And therein the farce truly began. The operator took all the details and then asked some bizarre questions along the line of did the injured party have a history of heart trouble, etc. Now bearing in mind I had already explained that the injured party was an unknown member of the public I found this question rather ridiculous. I think the operator picked this up from the mocking pause that I dropped into our conversation. “I still have to ask, sir” he told me smartly.

Did he? Did he really still have to ask when he already knew I had never met the person in the toilets before in my entire life? I realize that most telephone operators work from a script these days but surely there is room for commonsense? Room for people to think independently and realize that sometimes portions of the script can just be dispensed with?

Plainly not.

Anyway. Despite all this guff the ambulance was apparently on its way.

Great, I thought. Blue and twos flashing it’ll be here in 5 minutes and I can get away home.

Not so. 20 minutes later me and my loyal colleagues were still waiting. 25 minutes later we saw a paramedic’s car parked on the other side of the road. Just sitting there. Waiting. What the hell was he doing? Mr Knobbly Knees in the toilet could be choking on his own sputum by now! Why wasn’t he attending to the 999 call I had made? We approached and asked, amazingly politely, if he had indeed come to answer our summons for help. Yes he had, he said, but he couldn’t do anything until his “back-up” had arrived.

Oh. Back-up. A SWAT team was on its way then. Or possibly armed specialist forces. Great.

We had no choice but to back to the building and continue our wait growing more and more sour with each passing minute. We appreciated, loudly, that in today’s world dealing with possible drunks or drug users can be extremely hazardous and a bit of support is probably a necessity but even so... this poor guy could be voiding his entire colon down the bog for all anyone was doing to help him.

And so the wait went on. And on. Made worse by a drunken gang of teens who suddenly appeared and decided to hang around outside the front of the building and empty their bladders over our railings. Charming. The evening was getting better and better.

Finally, 50 minutes after my initial 999 call an ambulance at last sirened into view. Hoo-bloody-ray. At last. Now with two green jacketed body guards flanking him the paramedic boldly stepped into the breach. As I opened the door to let them in one of the teens mumbled something along the lines of: “oh, hey mate, we think one of our friends might be in your toilets...” Cue Beavis and Butthead laughter.

Oh how typical. I managed to marshal my sarcasm (i.e. utilize it) and told him that yes, that was why we had called an ambulance as his so called mate was out stone cold.

“Oh,” said the dazed teen, “is it OK if I come in and watch?”

Come in and watch. Not, how is he? Not, is he OK? Just: can I come in and watch.

I shut the door on him and locked him outside.

15 minutes later the paramedics had got Mr Knobbly Knees up and mobile. He looked as dazed as his erstwhile mates outside. Confused and a little embarrassed too. But I daresay by Saturday he was rather proud of his exploits and was boasting of his advanced state of inebriation to all those of his friends who were not too inebriated themselves to tell him to shut up and go and flush his stupid head down the toilet.

Their job done the ambulance crew melted away into the night, reholstering their standard SWAT team issue revolvers. Don’t thank us; it’s just what we do. Yippee-ki-yay.

Whatever. My colleagues and I headed outside too and wiped the dust from our shoes and headed our separate ways.

I finally arrived home over an hour late, tired, soaked with rain and in a foul mood.

Friday 13th? I shall never mock you again. And that’s a bona fide promise. I have seen the power of the Universe and it scares me.

Postscript: Somewhere at the centre of the universe an omniscient mind wonders perhaps if it has gone too far and decides to offer a little consolation... a small token of recompense.

On my way out to get some milk on Sunday morning I noticed that among the assorted chip wrapping and drinks cartons that the wind constantly deposits on our front lawn a slightly damp but otherwise perfectly intact £5 note.

For moi?

Why, thank you Universe. Apology gratefully accepted.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Unlucky For Some

It’s the 21st Century. We throw ourselves around the world in great iron birds. We can communicate with someone on the other side of the globe in an instant by bouncing our voices off the myriad satellites that orbit our planet. We’re beginning to unravel the secrets of DNA. Our understanding of the quantum world is beginning to hasten in a new era of human enlightenment.

And yet we’re totally unable to rid ourselves of the most stupid of suspicions.

All week I have watched people grimace and convulse with the kind of facial tics that, a century ago, would have seen them thrown into a Victorian freak show at the merest mention of Friday 13th.

What? You are going to the dentist on Friday 13th? Are you mad? You’ll end up with a root canal and your tongue harpooned on the dentist drill? Or, worse still, stunned with Novocain while Dr Drillgood manhandles your boobs / moobs and etches his name across your pantie-line in teeth whitener!

You’re never flying on the 13th? Internal flight, be damned! You’ll be blown out of the sky by a shoe bomb or worse still find yourself bumped onto a Ryan Air flight with only Gary Glitter for company!

Are you crazy? You’re planning to tightrope walk across the top of the Clifton Suspension Bridge on Friday 13th wearing nothing but a pink peephole bra and bright red galoshes... etc, etc.

You get the picture.

What’s the big deal? It’s just another Goddamned day and just another Goddamned number. It doesn’t mean a damned thing. Why do people get so knicker-twisted over it? It’s like people enjoy the prospect of disaster or bad luck. Behind all the grimacing and gurning that Friday 13th provokes is a definite sunburst of joy that somebody just might fall off a ladder in front of you and spectacularly impale their gonads on a rollerdex... anything to break the tedium of another boring week at the office.

And I suspect that’s what’s behind it. A little something to break the monotony. The possibility that the bone grinding tedium of life might be temporarily broken up by the pig’s bladder of misadventure. As long as it happens to somebody else of course. Audience participation on the 13th is not to be welcomed.

But the 13th has never been unlucky for me. Never. I’ve never had a bad experience with the number 13. Not once. Not ever. I’m immune to it. Totally. And I put this immunity down to the fact that I was actually born on the 13th (of August).

I mean, how can the 13th ever be unlucky for me if it saw my pewling but beautiful form finally arrive in the world, glistening and wriggling and full of all this splendid potential?

Unlucky for the rest of you maybe...


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Great Work Is Finished

2 years, eight months.

303 pages.

231,558 words (though this is apt to change).

My novel is finally finished.

I typed the last words last night and then let my fingers hover over the keyboard for a few moments, savouring the slightly shocking sound of silence.

I can’t quite believe it. I’ve lived with this story and the characters for such a long time it now feels weird to be without them. But there is nowhere left for them to go. Nothing more for them to say. Their day is done.

And it feels good. This is the biggest writing project I’ve ever undertaken. I started a novel once before in my twenties but it petered out half way through and that failure was always a source of chagrin. It’s nice to have exorcized that particular ghost and proved to myself that I can see a narrative through to the very end.

But of course this isn’t the end. This is merely the beginning of the end. I now have to contend with the rewrites, the read throughs, the asking other people to read it and eventually the submission process. Writing the first draft was the easy part.

And so this is a heads-up to all my dear blog readers. Sometime over the next few months, I’m not sure quite when, I shall be asking for volunteers to read the damned thing. I’m not expecting reams of technical feedback or in-depth analysis, just a simple “yes I liked it” or a “no, it was crap” will do (though any technical stuff would be appreciated).

I’m not going to post it on-line for download but anyone who is foolhardy interested can email me and I will gladly email them a copy. I’m not expecting to be inundated with requests but I figure that at the very least a couple of you might be bored enough to want to read it. Go on, I’m letting you in on the ground floor of the next big thing here...

As a thank you I will ensure that you get a glittering mention on the acknowledgments page... (there, I’m sure that’s clinched it for you).

In the meantime, big spender that I am, I’m going to treat myself to a chocolate bar. A Boost Duo. I think I’ve earnt it.

Monday, November 09, 2009

I’m A Tramp

Yes it’s true.

See these fingerless gloves hovering in front of you? Well, could spare some change for a cup ‘o tea, please? I promise not to spend it all on meth. Honest, guv. Cough cough.

Well OK. So I’m not quite begging on the street just yet, nor selling my body for the price of a burger but I do have a confession to make that may see me part of the way there in the eyes of some of you.

Ahem. I’ve been wearing the same trousers to work for the last... ooh, 4 weeks at least.

I’m sure people must have noticed. I mean, they have a white paint mark on the thigh that is pretty hard to miss and is quite distinctive.

I’d like to point out at this point that they have been and do get washed regularly (but the paint mark on them is permanent).

How has this come to pass? I mean, having one pair of shoes is understandable in a man but only one pair of trousers?

It wasn’t always like this. My wife, God bless her, regularly restocks my wardrobe (er... for “wardrobe” read “drawer”) at Christmas and my birthday with fashionable items that, to be honest, I’d never think about buying for myself because I just don’t think about that sort of thing. Usually these items of apparel last me a good 18 months or so and I have never, until now, found myself short of trouserage.

But somehow, this year, I’ve gone through more trousers than Paris Hilton.

It’s the keys that do it, you see. The keys of responsibility. I have to carry more keys around with me at work than a screw at Strangeways. A great fob of metal that, if ever used in combat, would be as lethally effective as a spike encrusted mace. Open a door or open a hoody’s skull... it’s all the same to me.

But the average pocket of the average pair of trousers just cannot take the sheer volume of iron that is hammocked within them. I’ve tried to alleviate the tonnage by suspending my fob from a leather lanyard that I bought in Wales. But it’s no good. The keys chafe. The keys wear and tear the delicate fabric of my inner lining. They eat it away completely within a matter of mere months until the trousers themselves are beyond repair.

I’ve got through 2 pairs already this year. And now I’m down to my last.

Unfortunately a poor church mouse such as myself cannot just go out willy-nilly and buy a pair of trousers off the shelf without there being a big household budgetary knock-on effect. Trousers or food? Trousers or food? Which would you choose?

Which is why I must thank a fellow blogger for coming to my aid.

The Dotterel over at Bringing Up Charlie recently ran a prize draw. And yours truly was fortunate enough to be one of the winners. I received a £25 voucher for Marks & Spencer as my bounty. It was timely indeed.

Dotterel, thank you. I am going to M&S later today to get myself covered up appropriately.

The trousers, when I get them, will be completely on you.

Er... well, not quite, but you know what I mean...

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Hokey Cokey

After spending much of the summer in hospital my grandfather was sent back home again about three weeks ago with a “home care package” put into place to look after him. Two healthcare visitors four times a day to get him up, clean him, feed him, put him back to bed, etc. Not ideal but as he has adamantly refused all suggestions of going into a nursing home (which I don’t blame him for) this was the only option.

The family had reservations over the proven effectiveness of this package but had to roll with it.

Some of you will be aware of the logistical nightmare that ensued just getting a hospital approved bed and a key safe installed into his home to make this package viable.

Over the last few weeks the carers and the hospital – for all they have my admiration for their hard work and dedication – have slowly driven me up the wall with their continually mounting requests for my grandfather.

I’ve had phone calls and found notes requesting a microwave, a washing machine, a new razor, new trousers and shirts, new underwear, drinks beakers with lids, plug extension cables, etc, etc...

I don’t begrudge any of these items. Plainly they are necessary to make looking after my grandfather easier and therefore to make his life more comfortable. What I do begrudge is the assumption that I can just drop everything instantly to get it all sorted out. But I shall let that go. In the bigger scheme of things it is not important.

On Wednesday I visited my grandfather at lunchtime as usual. He wasn’t right. I’ve noticed him slipping away mentally for a few months now but Wednesday was the worst I’d seen him. He was very confused and wasn’t even sure who I was when I first arrived. He also kept talking about a parade that we’d watched that very morning on a bench over the road. Well, I needn’t tell you that there is no bench over the road, there was no parade, I’d been at work all morning and my grandfather is 80% blind.

I felt a huge sadness settle over me.

Even without having worked in a nursing home for 10 years in my twenties I know this is the beginning of the end. My gran got this way just before she died 5 years ago... spending most of the time asleep the mind drifts in and out of memories and dreams and everything blurs into one long stream of semi-consciousness.

He is loosening his grip on the world one finger, one thought at a time.

I dropped off the purchases I’d made on his behalf, made a note of the new requests, made sure he was comfortable and, at the end of my lunchbreak, headed back to work. I left a note for the carers who were due to visit in a couple of hour’s time detailing my concerns at how confused he appeared to be.

At 5.45 that evening I had a call from one of the carers to say that they’d found him sprawled on the floor. In his confused state he’d tried to get up out of his chair – possibly forgetting that he can no longer walk very well – and had fallen onto the wooden surround of the fireplace and hit his head. He was now back in hospital once more. Thankfully not too badly injured – the cut to his head was very superficial. He’d been very lucky.

A flurry of contradictory phone calls then followed from the hospital and various family members. The hospital seems to be big on spreading misinformation. He was coming home. He has a urinary tract infection. He has a chest infection. He has a chest infection but the doctor isn’t aware of it. They were keeping him in. They were releasing him. They were keeping him in for observation due to irregularities in his heart scan. On and on. And around it all the hospital’s bizarre reluctance to go into too much detail or to give out too much specific information over the telephone.

What? In case Al-Qaeda are listening in and might be tempted to recruit my grandfather as a suicide bomber? He wouldn’t have the strength or the mental wherewithal to press the detonator let alone have the physical strength to walk anywhere with half a tonne of explosives weighing him down.

By Thursday morning, once the dust had settled, they were all finally singing from the same hymn sheet. They’d admitted him to a ward and are going to keep him in for “a few days”. They’re giving him antibiotics to combat his various infections (their records of which seems to be alarmingly ephemeral) and are doing their best to correct his very low potassium levels.

So he’s “safe” for a few days at least.

But to be honest I’m wondering if he’ll ever come home again. Even if his physical health ever allows it, mentally he is already in the next room.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Comb! A Comb! My Kingdom For A Comb!

It isn’t often I go shopping for basic functional man items but whenever I do I’m always amazed at how difficult they are to find.

Take yesterday for example.

Over the weekend my eyes and intellect finally registered the fact that the comb with which I daily impose order upon my glossy barnet (admirably fulsome given my age) had seen better days. The teeth barely had 2 millimetres clearance from the years of grey scum, scurf, and abandoned follicles that had built up around the base. I swear to God there was a whole eco-system occurring in there. I think the reason I’m never plagued overmuch with nits is that they can get all the sustenance they require from my comb.

Anyway, despite using this comb quite blindly for years it finally dawned on me that maybe dragging a mouldy nit farm across my scalp every day was not doing my image as an International Man Of Mystery much good at all.

It was time to purchase a new one.

Yesterday was elected as the day to perform this task.

Now, you’d think it would be a nice, quick, easy job just buying a cheap plastic comb, wouldn’t you?

But do you think I could find one?

Plainly my consumerist instincts are not wired up correctly for menial shopping items. Computers, CDs, books, assorted gadgetry, dodgy DVDs... I can name and recommend dozens of shops for these. But where does one buy a comb?

I figured Tesco would be a good bet. I mean they sell everything else.

After 15 minutes of trudging up and down the aisles empty-handed I came to the conclusion that actually Tesco sell hundreds of items that you might need but don’t actually stock the items that you do. They’re the retail equivalent of cable TV – thousands of channels but nothing you actually want to watch.

I then tried Boots. Surely Boots would sell combs. They’re big on hair care and cosmetics after all. But no. Hair brushes. Hair nets. Hair bands and an amazing array of lip gloss. But I couldn’t see a damned man-comb anywhere.

I then got desperate. I tried all the cheap shops. I tried the hardware stores. I was even tempted to nip into Accessorize but the be-booted mini-skirted young things flitting about inside terrified me. Curse them and their freshly powdered décolletages!

Where are all the old flea markets when you need them, eh? They always sold combs. You just headed for the cheap wallet and purse store and there they’d be. All lined up and shiny. The Brylcreem freshly washed off them.

Oh yes. The markets have all been priced out of the consumer world by the likes of Tesco et al.

Well, I defy anyone to buy a nice cheap wallet at Tesco.

Anyway. Eventually I headed into Superdrug and they saved the day. Amongst the curling tongs and bobble-ended hair brushes they had a cheap unisex comb for 58 pence.

So the purchase was made and my hair, as a consequence, is extremely fly-away and glossy today.

My old comb, quite logically, is in the bin.

Along with my Tesco clubcard.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Seventh Heaven

The end of last week saw me both ill and gadgetted up with a brand new PC. Unfortunately the former delayed my getting to grips with the latter by a day or two.

‘Cos, let’s face it, you have to be completely healthy when faced with a brand spanking new PC complete with brand spanking new operating system – the much vaunted Windows 7. New PC’s are stress-fests of the highest order. Will it like your peripherals? Will it run your software? Or will it spit the dummy at the first whiff of your modem, tantrum at the mere proximity of your scanner? Will you have to claw your way through dozens of installation discs that have littered your shelves like strange voodoo objects that you’re too scared to throw away but have no idea what at all it is they were created to do?

The man in the computer shop assured me that the above scenarios would just not take place. Windows 7 is – despite a ubiquitous mistrust of all things Microsoft – a break-through. An operating system that for once delivers; it does exactly what it says on the box.

Just plug everything in, the man advised me, it’ll all work instantly...

Yeah right.

I’ve run PC’s for 10 years, mate. Plug ‘n’ play in a fallacy. It rarely happens. Instead it takes hours of head-bashing to work everything out or to download the necessary patches and updates and tweaks.

Like I said. I needed to be fully fit and healthy before attempting a job of this magnitude.

But blow me if the man wasn’t right.

The installation discs for my various bits of antiquated hardware were unnecessary. The dust on them has not been disturbed.

I plugged everything in and everything worked with barely a pause. I was online, emailed up and fully connected with the WWW in under 10 minutes. An absolute record.

No glitches. No freezes. No compatibility issues. All my hardware A-OK. All my software A-OK.

Microsoft has at last come up with a shiny new operating system that I have fallen completely in love with. It’s smooth. It’s (so far) stable. It’s visual and intuitive. It’s easily customizable. It’s fast (though this might have more to do with my quad core processor and fully stocked memory than the OS).

It’s, in short, beautiful.

I like it. I’m impressed.

Suddenly I’ve fallen in love with my computer again. I’m experiencing a new honeymoon period. I hate being away from it. For anyone or anything.

All other life is a distraction.

Me and my new motherboard, we’re like bonded, OK?

So, that’s it, folks. Me and Windows 7 have got things to do, things to discuss. We gotta shoot the breeze. And we might be some time.


Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Popping One's Clogs

My last post (or more specifically, its title) got me thinking about Red Dwarf. And in particular the episode where Rimmer and Lister perform a mind swap. For those of you who don’t know the show, Rimmer is a hologram (cos he’d dead) and gets to borrow Lister’s body for a week on the condition that he puts it through a rigorous training regime to get it back into shape. Rimmer, of course, reneges on the deal and goes on an extravagant orgy of eating and drinking. Lister is less than happy about this and accuses Rimmer of mistreating his body. Rimmer’s answer is that Lister has mistreated his body himself for years... and points out all the little pains, tweaks and twinges that Lister never ever mentions...

Now I’m not, by rule, a hypochondriac. By and large, like Lister, I ignore all but the most insistent messages that my body gives me. Or at least I did when I was younger.

Now that I’m 40 I’m suddenly becoming more aware of them. The slight headaches that come and go. The twinges in my guts. The aches in my elbows and my thumbs. The low level but nevertheless ever-present back pain.

Lying awake in the morning I can’t help but think my body is giving up whispering its messages to me and is now beginning to shout them at me through a loudhailer.

Are these all signs of my inescapable mortality?

I’ve never been one to dwell overlong on death and existentialism but I guess with my granddad grumbling his way through Death’s waiting room and a spritely 2 year old running around my home my thoughts are, quite naturally, being prodded into contemplating the great mysteries of life.

The last ten years of my life have flown by like they’re nothing at all – which is a little worrying for the next ten which will take me up to (gulp) the big 50. I’m already slowing down. I can feel it. My powers of recovery are weaker. I feel more tired more easily. I’m starting to really enjoy eating my greens. And, worst of all, I have stopped buying music.

I am becoming – slowly but perceptibly – old aged.

Mentally I still consider myself the same curmudgeonly, mean spirited grump that I was in my twenties... but physically I’m now less inclined to chase after ruffians on bicycles and throw my shoes at them for being cheeky. The spirit is willing, etc, etc.

I’m becoming less inclined to move with the times. I’m losing my grip on popular culture. Musically I’m still in the 80’s and cannot deny the parallel with my parents who were stuck in the 60’s when I was getting into Killing Joke and Fields Of The Nephilim. New music is beginning to pass me by.

Of course there other factors at work here. Less disposable income. Less space in the house to store my already humungous record and CD collection. But is this how it starts? Will I start falling in love with old black and white films purely because they remind me of my childhood? I can’t deny I’m already tempted to buy retro kid’s programmes on DVD for Tom (Bagpuss, Chorlton & The Wheelies, Pipkins).Of course I realize this is not on. He needs to be experiencing the same reference points as his peers not those of his father.

So am I merely wanting to regress to my own childhood to satisfy my own craving for what was once familiar? Isn’t this one of the signs of old age? Seeking to abandon the confusing present for the safety of the rose tinted past?

But maybe I’m looking at all these twinges and aches the wrong way. Maybe they are protests? A wake up call to get with the programme? To smell the New World coffee? A rallying cry to deliver me from the abyss of entropy?

Hmm. You know, I think that’s how I’m going to look at them.

A call to arms. A war cry raged against the dying of the light...

My 40’s are going to be my new 20’s. Old age can wait a little bit longer.

I is feelin’ the need to get me some bling, innit?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Q: Where Do All The Little Toasters Go?

A: To Silicon Heaven.

My computer died over the weekend.

The secondary hard drive experienced some kind of coronary during a bout of game playing (that’ll teach me!) and went into catastrophic mechanical failure. In the process it managed to blow the network card, take out my museum-piece floppy disc drive and mangle parts of Windows and Internet Explorer.

Quite how all these components were ever interconnected is beyond me but my computer’s internal biology is now completely irrelevant.

My desktop buddy has been rendered a virtual vegetable as a consequence.

Internet access is impossible. No network card means no modem. Although the router is still working and I can gain access via my wife’s laptop downstairs I, nevertheless, feel cut off and isolated from the virtual world of the World Wide Web.

I can no longer surf as and when I see fit but must (quite rightly) await permission and book a time slot on the laptop.

The loss of the hard drive also means I have lost an immense amount of data and media that I had amassed over the last 10 years. Although I have always been pretty good about backing things up you know what it’s like... You get complacent. You get lazy. You put off until tomorrow what really should have been done today. I’ve undoubtedly lost stuff. Thankfully nothing major or essential but the loss of it still hurts.

The loss of my little electric friend has left me more than a little bereft.

I’d had my computer for 10 years and had built it myself to my own spec. It went from a single hard drive beastie to a high-end multi hard drive, disk burning, internet munching monster in the space of 2 years under my careful nurturing and tutelage.

But then I got married, had kids and, I admit, the computer got neglected. The upgrades petered out. I made do with what I had rather than buying shiny new add-ons. As a consequence, it began to slow. It began to struggle with newer programs. The processor speed began to under clock. It couldn’t keep up with what I wanted it to do let alone what the software was asking of it.

I guess that was the beginning of the end really. The day of reckoning was bound to come. And now it has finally arrived and my finger is poised over the switch to the life support machine. I am merely waiting until I have finished harvested its software organs and its data banks for any retrievables.

Call me heartless but I am already in the market for a new computer. A replacement. My wife, God bless her, has not only given me permission but has insisted that I treat myself. An upgrade is long, long overdue. Possibly my wife merely wants her laptop back.

So I will be going to the local computer shop this week to spec myself up a new high end, quad core machine that should be able to levitate off my desk with the sheer speed of its fans.

I feel strangely ambivalent. It’s money I’d rather not be spending right now but I cannot deny that the acquisition of a new computer is very exciting.

The only thing that truly gets me down is the days of work involved getting it all running properly... connecting the modem and router and the other peripheries... getting email and internet access re-established.... getting the software and drivers installed... ‘cos none of this ever runs smoothly. Plus I will have a brand new operating system to contend with: the much vaunted Windows 7 which, yes, I have heard good things about but I would still welcome other people’s opinions on it.

In the meantime I am building a funeral pyre for my poor crippled friend. His mask has fallen off and I have at last seen the face of Darth Vader. The Force has left him. The electronic wheezing is just getting on my wick.

It’s time for him to burn.

P.S. Another milestone. This is my 500th post! Thank you all for reading!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bird Strike

So I’ve been going merrily about my business, ignoring the distant thunder of swine flu rattling the headlines and, though not feeling myself immune, at least feeling myself relatively out of reach. Nobody I know has had it. And my place of work brought in an excellent “stay at home if you or someone in your family has it” policy way back when the flu thing first kicked off in the media.

I felt secure. I felt buffered. I knew The Flu was still out there but I had a moat around me and the drawbridge was up.

Until yesterday.

My walls have now been breached. An ugly ballista rolled over my ground troops and fired a flaming rock over my ramparts and set fire to my great hall.

I attended an IT training session at work yesterday. 5 of us in a little room breathing the same air for 90 minutes. Nothing untoward in this. The biggest fear is usually someone with COSHH standard B.O. The pandemic was the furthest thing from my mind.

But just as I was signing my name on the attendance sheet a rather attractive female course delegate breezed in, apologized for being late and calmly announced that her kids were currently very ill at home with Swine Flu.

My chin dropped so fast I still have the pen top imbedded in my beard. My first thought was: in that case what the hell are you doing at work risking a further spread of the virus? But before anyone could speak she made an attempt to qualify her continued presence at work by stating that she thought she’d “probably had it herself by now and was fine”.

Oh great. You think you’ve had it. And you are therefore assuming that you are, as a consequence, not a carrier of the disease.

She then sat down directly behind me.

Have you ever tried to hold your breath for 90 minutes? I can tell you now, it’s not possible though the hallucinations almost make the attempt worthwhile.

So now I’m paranoid. I’ve woken up this morning with a racking cough and a sore throat. My nose is bunging up as I type. Admittedly I’ve had a perma-cold for the last 4 weeks so these symptoms could be just an extension of that but no. I am now convinced I have got Swine Flu and have carried the disease home to my wife and kids.

I should have done more to protect them. I should have stayed away from home for 2 months. I should have placed myself in a plastic bubble for 7 weeks and had the air exhaled from my lungs processed by second-hand equipment bought from NASA. I am unclean. I should be walking around with a bell around my neck or living in a colony in Cheddar Gorge living off berries and discarded McDonald’s hamburgers (a fate worse than death).


I’m trying to be sensible about it but it ain’t easy,

In all seriousness I’m not so worried about myself as my kids. Ben has chronic asthma so already has a respiratory weakness and Tom is only 2, God bless him. The possibility of infection is and always has been a major worry.

I must admit I feel very annoyed about the blasé attitude of my work colleague yesterday. But at the same time, in sane moments, I’m trying not to let paranoia run away with me. Lots of people have had Swine Flu and shrugged it off. But I also know that others have not been quite so lucky.

I just feel annoyed that someone saw fit to ignore the clear stipulations of my employer based on their own inexpert diagnosis of their own health. Whether it’s Swine Flu or not, whether my fellow delegates and I are now infected or not, it showed a remarkable contempt for the health and welfare of the rest of us.

Or am I just letting social panic and media hype get the better of me? Am I over-reacting?

Or am I on the ball? Should I be acquiring black market Tamiflu and Michael Jackson’s old face-mask right now?

Hand on heart, I promise not to sneeze over those who wish to cast a voice of dissent into the ring.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Ang Is A Sket"

This particularly informative piece of graffiti appeared on the road outside my house late last week. Applied with white aerosol paint the letters are about a foot high and each word has been rendered with a wobbly capital.

I have, I admit, been tempted to take a photo of it to publish it here for your delectation but, much as I love you all, being run over by a passing BMW or a souped-up moped doesn’t strike me as a suitable pay-off for my photographic skills so you’ll just have to use your imagination.

I had to Google the word "sket". I’m afraid I’ve long lost touch with street slang and youth speak but there are some bizarre resources available online which can bring one up to speed in no time at all (the Urban Dictionary being invaluable). Sket, for your information, means a loose woman of elastic morals. Or thereabouts. You get the picture I’m sure.

So basically some love-struck teen has discovered that his gal has been spooning some other chap behind his back and it’s soured his brandy somewhat to the point where he feels he must besmirch her good name in the nature of a painterly public broadcast announcement to warn all us other chappies to steer well clear of her unless we’re not averse to taking sloppy seconds.

How sweet.

I can’t help feeling sorry for Ang for all that she may be no angel. I can’t help but think of her every morning as the wife, kids and I pile into our little red Peugeot and inevitably drive over her name as we set off for our various destinations in town.

She’s been condemned without a fair trial. She may be innocent and of unblemished character but the tarmac now accuses her of base harlotry. She may even be guilty, may lie on her back nightly with a whole regiment of thrusting young bucks... but there may be mitigating circumstances. Maybe her "official" boyfriend is something of a sket himself or just plain nasty and she has sought comfort in the arms of someone more worthy and more understanding of her needs.

Whoever she is, I can’t help thinking how upset she must feel to see her name cast so indelibly to the dirt in this way. How awful if she lives in the same street (which presumably she does) and has to pass this graffiti every day with her parents or her siblings. What must they think? The shame must be burning her up inside.

I hoped, when I first saw the lettering, that a good rain shower or two might wash it all away. But no, Mr Paragon Of Virtue Himself saw fit to spray his snide little missive in permanent paint. Nearly a week later it’s still there, as bright and brazen as when it was first applied. Hester Prynne must be turning in her fictional grave.

Whoever you are, sir, I put it to you that there are worse things in life than being a sket.

Being petty and immature are two of them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

It’s That Time Of Year Again

I’ve ranted about this before.

But like a poo that just won’t flush away it keeps coming back.


I’m not trying to ban them. I’m not trying to make them Public Enemy no. 1. But I would, if I’m honest, like to see them more strictly controlled.

Now, I’m not a fun-puritan or a celebration-Nazi but it seems bizarre to me that a shop needs a license to sell fireworks but any idiot with a debit card or the cash can buy them.

Absolutely any idiot. Any idiot at all.

And they do. In droves. (Actually what is the collective noun for idiots? A pranite? A trough? A smear?)

We’re only half way through October but already we’ve had our evenings disturbed by the war in Afghanistan being reenacted outside and this nightly barrage will continue well into November as the shops who greedily stockpiled their weapons of mass disruption continue to offload them onto pyromaniacal youths with expensive Nike’s and cheap cigarette lighters in order to recoup their initial expenditure.

Where do these youths get the money from to buy all this gunpowder? I’m not talking about the odd bang every hour (hey – sounds like a great night in) but a whole orchestra of explosions and aerial eruptions. A veritable symphony of aural fire and destruction. And I’m not talking about little fizzes and popping noises either; I’m talking about the kind of detonations that could dissolve kidney stones if the sufferer was standing close enough.

The windows shake. The cable TV connection twitches. Pacemakers pause (literally) for a heartbeat.

The kids are disturbed. I’m disturbed. The TV is disturbed. And animals... well, animals just become disturbed.

And for what? Some pretty coloured lights in the sky. And that’s before we get onto the subject of burns, accidents, malicious damage (great name for a record company) and the number of deaths caused by unregulated firework usage in the UK alone.

I have personally witnessed youths launching fireworks horizontally down the middle of the road in a bid to prove how dumb and dumberer (great name for a film) they really are. Or worse still, throwing them – ignited – across a road. And then you read about the ones that launch fireworks through people’s letterboxes or light them inside a house or tie them to the tail of someone’s pet... on and on it goes. People who can’t be trusted with a bottle of Clearasil are being allowed to play with gunpowder at night on our own streets! It’s positively insane!

In my opinion it’s criminal.

So. I’m not saying “let’s ban fireworks”.

I’m saying let’s ban the sale of fireworks to individuals. Let’s have properly organized displays only. They’re safer. They’re more cost effective. They’re more entertaining. And, even better, they’re confined to a single night of the year.


So am I making sense? Or am I just an older banger with a short fuse?

Answers on a rocket to the usual address please...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On The Run

Regular readers of this blog will have “heard” me speak about my Polish (ex)neighbours before. Particularly daddy Pole who liked to wear shorts so tight it was like looking at a couple of vacuum packed faggots stapled to an all-in wrestler’s crotch.

Well, there have been developments.

They disappeared a couple of months ago amidst loud telephone conversations in their native tongue that we could hear quite plainly by standing on top of the kitchen counter and pressing a stethoscope to the wall. The conversations sounded stressed and urgent. They were obviously trying to book last minute flights at the nearest international airport. We assumed they’d decided to cut their losses in recession hit Britain and were heading back to their motherland.

Once they were gone we thought no more of them except to occasionally reminisce whimsically about the stressed faggots.

And then we received a letter from a debt collecting agency last week enquiring very stiffly if we knew of their exact whereabouts (the family and the faggots).

It seems they’d racked up quite a bit of debt and had decided to jump ship before the bailiffs arrived to confiscate their Nintendo Wii.

Not sure how I feel about it really. Part of me – possibly the slightly xenophobic part of me – feels a little put out that they came to this country, made good with our products and services and then left without paying their dues.

But the biggest part of me, if I’m honest, thinks good luck to them. Keep your heads down and keep running!

I’d like to think of them growing ridiculous moustaches and wearing incongruous sunglasses on the Costa del Sol somewhere. Possibly having dealings with the European underworld or local mafia. Obtaining new identities, false passports, new dental records. Maybe even having eye transplants like Tom Cruise in Minority Report – though I admit this might be taking things a little bit too far.

I also find it amusing (though it’s an awful joke) that this dear Polish family have absconded without paying council (poll) tax... even though it’s effectively cocking-a-snook at the local authority that pays my wages.

Anyway, I’m checking the Interpol web site regularly now.

Keeping an eye out, keeping ‘em peeled. Scanning the Most Wanted lists.

I’d recognize those freshly pressed faggots anywhere...

Monday, October 12, 2009

General Hospital & Major Cock-up

I have bored memories as a young child of having to sit through General Hospital because my mother used to enjoy watching it. That and Crown Court were the bane of the afternoons in my early years. I hated them but I do recall being faintly impressed with the dynamic efficiency of the hospital as represented on television. And that impression stayed with me for a long time. I long thought that hospitals were models of precision timing and perfectly coordinated activity.

It’s so disappointing as an adult to realize that like most things in the UK they actually run like two badly oiled bricks.

My granddad has been in the local hospital for most of the summer. He had a fall. Got a chest infection and a water infection. One thing after another and it seemed unlikely he’d ever come out again.

But coming out he is. This Tuesday after lunch apparently despite being unable to walk and therefore unable to care for himself.

He does however have all his marbles and has exercised his right to be sent home. Although some of the family are against this and would rather see him shoehorned into the nearest nursing home I’m of the opinion that as an adult he has a right to make his own decisions and die where he likes. And let’s be honest; that is what this is really about. Thankfully the law is with me on this. As he is fully compos mentis it is his decision and nobody else’s.

Getting him home however is proving to be a nightmare and this is where the badly oiled bricks come into it. I was plagued by phone calls all day Friday (which marred Tom’s 2nd birthday a little). First he was being sent home Wednesday. Then Monday. Then finally Tuesday after lunch. A care package was going to be put into place. Phew – very glad to hear that. 2 care workers 4 times a day will visit him. But before all this can occur he needs to have a hospital bed installed downstairs and a key safe put into the front porch so the care workers can gain access to him as and when.

Could I let them into the house to do all this?

Yes. No problem in theory.

Except that Saturday – the day when all this was supposed to occur – came and went with no sign of the bed arriving and Age Concern who handle the key safe side of things being shut all day.

It’s now Monday and I’m at work and cannot now just drop everything at an hour’s notice (the best the hospital can give me regarding the bed installation) to disappear for God knows how long while they shove a bed into my granddad’s dining room. And then possibly have to make a second journey to the house to meet with the Age Concern handyman (who also hasn’t got back to me yet) to get the key safe installed... because to coordinate the two together into one trip is, well, like trying to drive two badly oiled bricks up a hill.

It really feels like the hospital’s left arm doesn’t know what its right arm is doing... which isn’t what you want from a place whose primary function is to coordinate care...


Thank God my granddad hasn’t been booked in for a tonsillectomy and an endoscopy... or there might be some very unusual organs in a pickle jar by now.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Disaster Movie

My ambient paranoia has become such that, just like Chicken Little, I feel that my life is like an imminent disaster movie just waiting to happen. All the ingredients are there: low flying jumbos, a spate of local fires, a cut in funding for the local emergency services and more oddballs wandering around the streets than you could fit into the Casualty waiting room (and I’m talking about the BBC medical-soap series here, not the A&E reception of the local hospital which, let’s face it, tends to be bad enough).

Take the plane thing.

Now it might be I have just become more sensitive since having a little ‘un arrive on the scene but I swear to God they are flying lower and in greater numbers than ever before. So low I could slash their tyres with a kitchen knife as they pass overhead. Has Birmingham Airport re-arranged its flight lanes I wonder? I don’t recall this volume of air traffic ever occurring when I was a kid, teenager and young adult.

And I know the chances of one of them falling out of the sky is so remote I’d stand a better chance of winning Strictly Come Dancing than witnessing a plane crash on my home town but even so. The paranoia is there and kicking like a mule.

Every time a jumbo strains overheard I find myself listening closely to the engine sound just in case, you know, I can hear if something is wrong. Not that I’m a flight engineer or anything but I’d imagine hearing a rattle or a coughing exhaust at 3,000ft isn’t going to spell good news for anyone.

And then there’s the flight path itself. I find myself triangulating it mentally, breathing a sigh of relief when I realize it does not pass directly over my boys’ nursery and school buildings. Or my home. My place of work I don’t care much about. To be honest a good plane crash would sometimes relieve the monotony – provided, of course, no one was actually in the building at the time (I mean, I’m not completely callous).

More and more I find myself objecting to this invasion of my family’s personal air space. Who are these people who are endangering the lives of my loved ones with their holidays and their business trips? Why can’t they catch a bus? Or better still, walk?

Haven’t I got enough to worry about with the dying economy, the permanent risk of terrorist attack, food shortages, global warming, misleading food packaging, the war in Afghanistan, the UK’s underage pregnancy rates, swine flu, an increase in the Bank of England’s base rate and the Tories getting into power at the next election?

It’s all too much.

Come on, air traffic control! Give me a break! Send them over Coventry. It’s not like anyone would miss the architecture...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Meeting The Neighbours

It’s funny. Only two weeks ago I was lamenting to my wife, my friends and my work colleagues (anyone who would listen in fact) how much I missed university. The buzz. The creative atmosphere. The sense of higher learning and personal development that offered a sense of relief from the relentless toil of 9 to 5.

And then a week ago the university came back to me... the shape of new neighbours: students.

Oh joy.

Now I might have had my gripes about our old neighbours – the Polish family – but really they were lovely and hardly any trouble at all (as long as you averted your eyes when Mr Daddy-Pole was squatting in front of his barbecue like a Sumo wrestler in shorts so tight his genitals appeared to have been shrink wrapped in cling film). They were quiet. Kept regular hours. And mowed their lawn occasionally.

They had a young family like us and so there was enough common ground for us to harbour mutual respect for each other’s home lives and need for private R&R time.

The same cannot be said for the party animals now living next-door.

OK. I’m being a bit harsh. I’ve had one disturbed night out of 7 but really, given that they’re going to be here for at least 9 months, the odds aren’t great for me maintaining my beauty sleep regime.

Friday night the loud music kicked off at 10.20pm. Not a constant thump-thump-thump (which would be bad enough) but a horrible start and stop track that seemed to be on a permanent loop. It was maddening. However, end-of-week exhaustion worked in my favour and I did manage to drop off... Only to be woken at 1.0am by the same track now being pumped so loudly out of a car parked out the front that I could hear the house bricks vaporizing with each thump of the bass.

And then the music was unbelievably drowned out by a sleep shattering barrage of giggling and shrieking and screamed conversations whose beginnings, middles and ends consisted solely off “yeah, man, like, yeah, like, yeah man...”

In the end I had to don trousers and coat (it only occurs to me now that I was in danger of adopting flasher chic) and go outside and politely hail them over the hedge. Tempted as I was to give them a mouthful (I’m only talking strong language here, OK?) I decided to keep it polite. I figured it might be wiser not to launch straight off into a war on my own doorstep. I asked them if they wouldn’t mind “keeping it down just a bit so that their neighbours could get some sleep?”

To be fair to them, they apologized and the music volume was instantly dropped. And within minutes they had all disbursed and gone back to their hashish bongs or whatever it is they’re called these days. And I was able to get back to sleep.

However I was tired and grumpy the next day. And I suddenly recalled all the things about Uni life that had begun to irritate me greatly when I was there.

Students and their fun and their music and their good times and their living life to the max and their craziness and their drinking and their inane loudness and their totally in your face youthfulness and ebullience.

Bah humbug!

Come back Mr Cling Film – all is forgiven!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Meeting The Locals

Wednesday evenings have somehow become take-away night. The reasons for this are far too mundane to go into so I shall skip them. But being a connoisseur of the fish & chip supper I’ve been taking myself off to the local chippie at the appointed hour there to purchase the finest cod and chips that my hard won money can buy.

It’s a mere 5 minute walk to the top of the street but it does take me through the badlands – the rough end of the street; the wrong side of the tracks, etc.

By and large I’ve encountered no trouble but have passed some sights that have encouraged an occasional bout of rubber-necking. Couples arguing in cars. The contents of front rooms scattered over DIY gravel drives. And enough snotty nosed 7 year old smoking Marlborough’s to make me think this country’s potential population explosion might be naturally capped in about 40 year’s time.

This Wednesday, however, was different.

There I was, my freshly wrapped chips slung under my arm, heading towards home when 4 lanky youths disembarked very untidily from a house on the other side of the street.

Naturally, minding my own business, I attracted their dubious attention.

Initially I got the ubiquitous “alright mate”. I admit I didn’t respond. I’m rather choosy about whom I consider to be a mate. Maybe this was my mistake? The next two comments were plainly insults – I can’t even recall what they were – followed by loud, rather effeminate hooting laughter.

I didn’t respond again. I carried on walking. Neither quickening nor slowing my pace. Curiously I didn’t actually feel threatened. I’d quickly surmised that these paragons of teenage virtue were no more than 14 or 15 and were merely being buoyed up by each other’s leaking testosterone. On their own they wouldn’t have said boo to a goose.

But afterwards I did feel angry. Not seething, blood boiling angry but angry in a “maybe I should have crossed the road and lamped one of them” kind of angry. Why should they be allowed to get away with such behaviour? What makes them think they can act so aggressively to complete strangers and not have any come-back?

I know, I know.

It’s not worth the risk of a flick-knife in the guts. I’ve got a wife and kids at home. I’ve got cod and chips under my arm. All they’ve got is their own inferiority driving them on to acts of desperate foolhardiness.

But nevertheless the anger was there. Little shits.

In the past I have responded when a complete stranger has seen fit to be arsy with me in the street. I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve just hit boiling point straight away and launched in with some particularly nasty vitriol. The old adage that lions roar so loudly to avoid combat has held true. My opponent has usually turned tail and beat a mouthy retreat.

Afterwards I’ve usually kicked myself for being so damned stupid. But I can’t deny that I’ve also felt a small, glowing sense of satisfaction that I’ve held my own. Stuck up for myself. Taken no shit.

This Wednesday I was just too tired, too preoccupied, and possibly more sensible.

But even so. I can’t help wishing I’d kicked some ass.

Do you think it’s possible I have been exposed to a small dose of gamma radiation?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Anti Anti-virus

There are some things in life that you just have to put up with.

Paying taxes. Catching a cold. Working for idiots (for peanuts). Bruce Forsythe.

These things are just never going to go away. They are always there. The rough with the smooth. If you want the positives (i.e. local amenities, immunity to millions of bacteria, money to enjoy and... er... Tess Daly) then you just have to put up with the negatives.

So I understand why, if I want to enjoy broadband connectivity with the World Wide Web, I need to have an anti-virus program installed. And since first going online in 2000 I have never been without one. Although I initially bumped for McAfee I have, by and large, for the last 9 years stuck with Norton.

And it has increasingly irritated the shit out of me.

It has got more and more invasive. Rather like a virus itself actually.

It hogs resources. It does things behind my back. Things like “idle time scans”. It slows and frequently stalls my machine – particularly when I’m in a rush to do something – to the point where sometimes the whole thing just freezes and I have to initiate a “hard reboot”. Of course the scandisk thing then kicks in. And although you can press a key (any key) to opt out of this, you just know that paranoia will get the better of you in the end. So you let it scan.

And it finds errors. Invalid entries. Truncated files. Misreported file sizes. Files with names that no homo sapiens would ever come up with in a million years. And these files all originate from the Norton program folder.

Because Norton was doing something that I hadn’t asked it to do and the hard reboot messed it all up.


I’ve started to hate my anti-virus program with a passion.

I know it is only doing its best to protect me. That it’s looking out for my best interests.

But really.

It’s like hiring a security guard to protect your house and then finding yourself barred from the kitchen when you want to make a meal.

“Sorry sir, you can’t come in. I’m scanning the kitchen for malicious equipment.”

“But... I’m hungry. I need to eat. Can’t you do this later?”

“Sorry sir. Got to be done now. The procedure can’t be interrupted once it’s been started.”

“But I only want to make a sandwich. I’ve somewhere I need to be in half an hour. I have to eat now or I won’t eat at all.”

“Sorry sir. Your security comes first. You’ll have to wait.”

“But... but it’s my bloody kitchen!”

And it’s my bloody computer!

I don’t want Norton to initiate idle time scans without my permission. If my computer is being idle leave it damn well alone. Let it be idle and receptive to my commands! I want it to be ready to do what I want it to do!

And I don’t want to have to have a Master’s Degree in computer programming just to be able to make Norton behave. I want Norton to have one button which says “Steve, you are my master” which I can press and then relax in the knowledge that my computer that I bought with my own money and operate daily does so under my command and not at the behest of a group of faceless computer geeks based in America writing program code that takes over every computer it is installed upon under the guise of doing the owner a favour.


Yeah. Half right.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Stepping Outside The Barricades

The first time we put Tom into his cot it dwarfed him. He looked like a peanut in an empty warehouse. We filled the space with soft toys and spare blankets but still he looked lost.

Somehow, over the last year or so, despite our watching him intently he’s managed to sneak the act of growing past our eagle eyes. He’s grown stronger, sturdier, more self willed and determined. And longer.

And the cot has slowly shrunk around him. First it reduced itself from warehouse to wrestling ring – allowing Tom to charge around its railed edges in an endless game of ring o’ roses. And then it shrank further still. It became a one child pay pen. At full stretch Tom was practically touching the far edges with his toes.

And then, inexplicably, it became a pleasant prison. One he never complained about being inside – thankfully Tom has always loved his bed – but one he suddenly began to try and escape from a couple of mornings ago. The early signs were there. Tom was gearing himself up to “go over the walls” (as opposed to smuggling himself out with the laundry).

Such activity sounded the death knell for the cot. The drop down to the floor was such that Tom would be likely to suffer a broken neck or at the very least broken limbs.

Such a likelihood was simply unacceptable.

So the cot was dismantled yesterday afternoon and reconfigured into a proper bed. Tom’s first.

I must admit I felt... sad, regretful. There was something comforting about bedding Tom down in his cot each night. He was safe and secure. Contained. He could come to no harm and no harm could come to him.

He was also still my little baby boy.

Now, suddenly, I have had to re-adjust my thinking. Accept that he is no longer a baby. He is a very active, singularly determined toddler. He’s a proper little boy.

After we’d rearranged the bedroom yesterday afternoon we allowed Tom a little playtime in it. This proved to be a good move. He was very excited by the changes and his frequent squeals of “ooh look” indicated he was pleased with the new arrangements.

The test was bedtime of course. Rather sagely we managed to wear him out so that he’d be less reluctant to get out of bed and it seemed to work. He was tucked in and snuggled down. All his usual furry toys were there.

I snuck up to see him after half an hour and found him sprawled on top of the bed – the blanket kicked off as usual – sound asleep. Mission accomplished.

This morning he was up at 6.10am, running around the bedroom, dipping his little fingers into all this amazing stuff that Ben leaves lying around in the room they share. He loved it. So much so he really didn’t want to go downstairs today and only did so under duress.

So. Another developmental stage has been encountered and passed. The baby has gone. And I shall miss him dearly. But the boy that has appeared in his place more than makes up for the loss. I daresay as his confidence grows his morning wanderings will take him to the stair-gate at the top of the stairs or to the bathroom and all its myriad opportunities for mischief... I suspect I shall not get much of a lie-in for the next week or two...

But despite and perhaps because of that I feel immensely proud.

Welcome to a little bit more of the world, son.