Thursday, 31 December 2015

Where did 2015 go?

It's new year's eve. Time to wave goodbye to the outgoing year, put up a new calendar and do it all over again.
The trouble is that apart from having our 20th wedding anniversary, I'm struggling to remember anything significant that has happened over the past twelve months. Yet again it seems to have been an endless cycle of work, eat, sleep, interspersed with random attempts to alleviate the boredom.
Maybe I should think a bit harder to see if anything can be dredged up from the cesspool of my mind.
I completed a management course at work, which was at times tough but ultimately satisfying, I met up with friends in London that I hadn't seen in quite a while, I've successfully expanded my belly to the point where a gym membership is in order, and on a rare trip to the cinema recently I discovered that the new 'Star Wars' movie is absolutely friggin' awesome.

It would also appear that I've been extremely successful at ignoring the news.
Last night we sat and watched a programme on Channel 4 about 'What we bought in 2015', because it looked as if it would be an interesting insight into the world of those easily led by trends and advertising. Predictably it was a parade of overpriced pointless crap that people convinced themselves would improve their lives, coupled with a raft of items that proved some people will buy any old shite if it's endorsed by a 'celebrity'.
While the programme was mostly devoted to the shortcomings of the terminally suggestible, there were also passing mentions of events that occurred throughout the year.
This is where I became confused and asked the wife questions such as "Do we no longer have a coalition government?", and "When did William and Kate have a second kid then?".
Clearly I've detached myself so efficiently from news I don't care about that even things that perhaps I really should have some knowledge of are slipping through the net, leaving me in a state of blissful ignorance.

On the other hand, things I'm interested in are constantly under scrutiny - sometimes obsessively.
Although I may not have realised why Nick Clegg has been so quiet lately, at least I know that the United Nations conference on climate change failed miserably to tackle the issue of methane from animal agriculture, which contributes 55% of greenhouse gases - more than all fossil-fuelled transportation including cars, planes, ships etc put together.
In other words, Daisy's farts are killing the planet an order of magnitude faster than an Overfinch Range Rover, so it seems odd that the Rangey driver is public enemy number one while the local burger joint is bereft of placard-waving environmentalists. Surely a distraction technique worthy of Houdini himself.

So as we prepare to screw up the 2015 calendar featuring amusing vegetables, and replace it with one that has soft-focus photos of fluffy animals, I can't help but wonder if the coming year will be an improvement on the one I've just had and apparently forgotten.
If nothing else I think I shall spend the coming year finding a decent calendar for 2017 that has pictures of something more interesting on it like gunship helicopters or drifting.

Drifting. More exciting than the usual calendar subjects....

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Hidden meanings

How often do we really say what we mean?
Personally I have most time for people who just come out and say what's on their mind, warts and all.
While some may consider such behaviour to be rude or a bit weird, I find it to be a comfortably reassuring level of honesty.
You know where you are with someone like that, without having to worry about such minefields as psychological manipulation or back-biting.

Most of us are guilty in our own little ways of not saying what we really mean. Sometimes we might do this to avoid hurting someone's feelings or because we find the subject uncomfortable.
My objective with this post is to uncover the real meaning behind the things we might say in everyday life that don't tell the whole story - not deliberately deceptive, but which don't convey the entire truth of the matter.
So here's a few of my own examples for deliberation. No doubt the reader will have others of their own, so maybe this is an opportunity for comments. Maybe...

1. "Let's have a quick wander round Currys[1] while we're here."
Translation - "We said about getting a new kettle, so let's go and look at all the cool shiny things for the next hour, come within a gnat's whisker of making a very expensive purchase before talking ourselves out of it, and leaving the store empty-handed because we've forgotten why we were there in the first place."

2. "Why don't we pop into town for something to do."
Translation - "Let's head towards town, see the enormous traffic jam, take a diversion, see another traffic jam, decide it's not worth the arse-ache, and go to the garden centre and have a cup of tea instead."

3. "Is there anything you fancy watching tonight?"
Translation - "I hope there's nothing you want to watch tonight because I fancy a couple of hours shooting bad guys on the Playstation."

4. "Looks like there's sod all on at the cinema again."
Translation - "There's a chick-flick you might enjoy, but I'll be buggered if I'm gonna waste two hours of my life watching that crap."

5. "I don't do Christmas."
Translation - "I detest this annual commercial festival of greed and gluttony that kicks off around October and doesn't go away until the new year when everyone else has cut up their credit cards and is wondering why they do it."

6. "I'm not sure if I'll be able to come."
Translation - "I really don't want to come and now I need time to think up a good excuse that won't cause offence."

7. "What do you fancy listening to?"
Translation - "There's no point me putting on what I want to listen to because you don't like my music, so make suggestions until you come up with something I can just about tolerate."

8. "There's a really nice BMW 318 with low mileage for sale up the road."
Translation - "Please tell me I should just go and buy that nice BMW so I can finally have a car I feel good about owning and driving."

9. "We ought to do a bit of spring cleaning."
Translation - "You ought to do a bit of spring cleaning while I hide in the shed and pretend to be tidying up."

10. "I've deleted my entire porn collection"
Translation - "I've deleted my entire porn collection, but in a couple of months I'll give in to temptation and start a new one."

Please let me - I've been really good....

[1] For those not in the UK, Currys is a huge electrical retailer.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

See you next Tuesday

Things are constantly changing, and one of those changes has been happening in the wonderful world of swearing.
Regardless of your opinion of it and to what degree you do it yourself, there's no denying that we've become increasingly desensitised to language that earlier generations would rarely, if ever, use and would consider outrageously offensive.
Use of 'shit' or 'fuck' was something that just didn't happen in decent everyday society, and someone would ask their language to be excused if they slipped up and used the word 'damn'.
Oddly enough, the same people saw little wrong with using racist terms including c**n, n****r, w*g, etc that society now quite rightly deems unacceptable.

These days we barely notice swear words because they've become so common. Wherever you go there's someone having a conversation so littered with expletives that they could say what they need to in half the time if they left them out.
Back in my school days I very rarely swore, but that all changed when I went out into the big wide world and found myself surrounded by hairy-arsed engineers who all held black belts in swearing.
And like any bad habit, it's far easier to get in to than it is to stop.
While I'm certainly no angel when it comes to such things, even I get wound up by much of today's rap music. Back in the 80's when rap, hip-hop etc was still in its infancy, it was reasonably inoffensive.
Today's 'gangsta rap' stuff on the other hand is absolutely vile - full to overflowing with bile and hatred, and with practically every other word being 'fuck' or some derivative of it.
We hear it so much that when we hear someone say 'motherfucker', we barely notice. Who would have thought that we'd reach a stage when a Samuel Jackson rant would not seem over-the-top or even remotely shocking?

This does beg the question of what do you do when you really need that special emphasis that only a top rate swear word will provide, but all the good ones have lost their sting?
It seems to me that there's only one weapon left in the arsenal that still has that sledgehammer power to hit people where it hurts, and that word is 'cunt'.
Commonly referred to by those with more delicate sensibilities as 'see you next Tuesday' or simply 'the 'C' word' (which can be confusing as I find 'Christmas' to be equally offensive), cunt is the one word that most people reserve a special dislike for.
While shit and fuck may be on the top shelf in a blacked out cover, cunt is still a specialist 'under-the-counter' item.
I can't think of another word that provokes such alarm and outrage, which is a good thing. With all the others being so passé, you need something that still has the desired effect.
Tell someone they're a fuckwit and they won't notice. Call them a cunt and suddenly you've made a point, especially if you make the 't' on the end clearly defined - it really does add that extra bit of venom.
Even in films and TV it's rare for you to hear it. I know it appears in 'Snatch', and Jenji Kohan has made prolific use of it in her series 'Weeds' and 'Orange is the new black', but it still comes as a surprise when it crops up.
I remember Jeremy Clarkson writing that his wife liked to drop it into conversation at parties when meeting new people - if they were shocked, they clearly weren't worth talking to and it was time to move on.
Happily there aren't many occasions when it's necessary to resort to this level, but from time to time it's the only one that meets the requirements.
Usually when you've been cut up by yet another cunt in an Audi.....

"Do you know what "nemesis" means?
A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appropriate agent.
Personified in this case by an 'orrible cunt... me."

Sunday, 13 December 2015

You gotta fight for your right to partake

Over the past couple of years a gradual transformation has taken place.
Events beyond my control and their aftermath coupled with a tendency to enjoy the finer things in life have conspired to change my body from one that I think was in pretty reasonable shape for my age, to one that I'm rapidly becoming a wee bit ashamed of.
Let's start from the top. The hairline is beating a hasty retreat in a desperate bid to join forces with the empty space on top, so it won't be long before all I have left is that sort of horseshoe shape wrapped around my head.
This is why I cut my hair so short and periodically consider simply shaving my head and being done with it for good. If Patrick Stewart can get away with it then so can I.

Moving on down we're met with moobs that are one small step from requiring a training bra. Shave my body and put a wig on me and you could almost get away with throwing me up the catwalk because they're already bigger than those on the average emaciated supermodel.
I say almost, because given that supermodels typically regard their digestive system as a kind of two-way operation, bringing back most of that which finds its way in, my belly would spoil the image in its current state. A couple of years ago it was more or less in check, but now, although I suspect I still have a six-pack, it seems to be cunningly camouflaged beneath a food and beer induced pad that gets in the way when I tie my shoelaces. I make light of it by calling it my one-pack, but I despise it.
You know something needs attention when it causes your underpants waistband to fold over.

In contrast to the beer belly and tits, my legs have degenerated since I've been having trouble getting any proper exercise that would keep them strong. The right has noticeably more muscle on it than the left due to compensating for the ruined left knee, and they're both suffering from a lack of cycling.
Come to that, my overall muscle mass has declined since I stopped riding motorcycles (I haven't ridden since the crash that took my knee out) and it's surprising how much riding big bikes is like going to the gym - like a full body workout when you're hustling a quarter ton of machine around twisty country roads at warp factor four.
Not only that, my fitness has not just gone downhill, but also failed to make the hairpin bend halfway down and hurtled through the crash barrier into the yawning chasm below.
For example, yesterday I put up a new blind in the kitchen. This required drilling four small holes in the lintel to accept Rawlplugs for the end fittings. Having performed this task I was shocked to find myself huffing and puffing as though I'd just run the 200 metres sprint.
Something needs to be done.

I know exactly what I need to do to combat this decline in my physical state, but actually doing it will take phenomenal willpower, and I worry that I may not be able to summon up the necessary reserves to keep me going.
First I need to reduce my consumption of certain things, and although I revisit this issue time after time, I never really get to grips with it long term.
Biscuits, crisps, and alcohol are my greatest enemies here, and not necessarily in that order.
My alcohol consumption has seen a gentle rise of late, when by rights I should have been cutting back. If I can force myself to have just one bottle of wine at the weekend and nothing during the week that would be a huge improvement.
Biscuits are tricky, partly due to 'Biscuit Club' at work and partly because they're habitually the first thing I reach for if I fancy a snack, and of course one or two is never enough. If they're really nice ones I'll happily sit hugging the packet until they're all gone and I start beating myself up over consuming around a thousand calories for sod all nutritional value.
It's not all bad news though, because I've recently given up eating meat which can only be a good thing. Ecologically, morally, and nutritionally it felt like the right thing to do and surprisingly I don't miss it at all - not even bacon. I do still eat fish a couple of times a week but that's it, and I must say that I do feel better for it.

I also need to get more exercise, but this is where it gets tricky. I'm physically incapable of running now, so it's important for it to be a low / non impact activity.
Cycling is great as long as I refrain from pushing too hard, but at this time of year it's difficult to get the enthusiasm to do it while battling against the wind and rain - kinda takes the fun out of it...
Swimming would be a good idea because you get wet regardless, but although I can swim (crawl only - never could master the weird frog-like leg movement of breaststroke) I wouldn't say it's something I've ever enjoyed.
What I ought to do is break the habit of a lifetime and actually go to the gym where I can get advice for a proper workout that will burn calories, increase my fitness and muscle mass, as well as kicking those feel-good hormones into action. God knows I could do with them.
So the next logical step is to investigate the local gym, stop buying crappy snack foods, and limit the alcohol to weekends only.

It's sad that the things we really like are usually bad for us.
A few years ago I went teetotal and caffeine-free for about a year, and to this day I can't remember why I went back on it because I've never felt better than I did during that time.
But if we gave up absolutely everything we enjoy, we'd be so damn miserable that life would not seem worth living.
The mad thing is that I do generally eat healthy meals. For example, Friday's dinner was a big swordfish steak with boiled new potatoes and samphire. Yesterday was vegetable chilli with brown rice.
Then I'll spoil it with half a bottle of wine and a large packet of Tesco Finest cheddar and caramelised red onion crisps.
To imagine a life devoid of Galaxy chocolate, Jaffa Cakes, Hob Nobs, Pringles, Jack Daniels, and Taylor's 'After Dark' coffee, and replaced with one involving little but carrot sticks, cottage cheese, and peppermint tea is pretty bloody depressing, but if the alternative is to carry on down the path I'm currently walking then I suppose these are sacrifices I may very well have to make.
And salt & vinegar rice cakes aren't a bad alternative snack....

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Guilty little secrets

If someone asks you what music you like, what are the first bands you would mention from your collection?
Chances are you'd pick a couple of safe bets that you're confident few people would deride you for liking, before throwing in a few lesser known but widely accepted artists to prove you're not completely musically blinkered.
You might even be brave enough to push through to some bands that few have heard of, but you're determined to act as their ambassador - spreading the word so perhaps others might find the same enjoyment from them that you do.
It's easy to respond to the music preference question by kicking off with Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, before moving on through the likes of Massive Attack or Diana Krall, then dangling the carrot of someone rarely heard of like Mesh or Xandria.
But what of the other music buried within your collection - the things that you normally omit from such a conversation?

Personally I'm quite happy to trot out a list of artists I like such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, Coldplay, Marillion (the Fish years),  Depeche Mode, Roxy Music etc, and once I've judged the reactions I might move into more diverse territory like Within Temptation, Oh Land, or Lunascape.
However there are always those bands that never get wheeled out during such conversations, and I wonder why that is.
For example, I also enjoy listening to Pet Shop Boys, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and even ABBA, but for some reason I assume that to admit to this during one of those taste-probing conversations would be social death.
It's probably a fear of being judged, but why would I be worried whether another person would laugh at me for my taste in music?
It doesn't stop there though, because moving from the CD racks and turning attention to all the music stashed away neatly on the computer reveals a whole new world of musical sins.
A quick browse of the 'Misc' folder shows such delights as 'U Got 2 Know' by Cappella, 'Rush Hour' by Jane Wiedlin, 'Only You' by the Flying Pickets, 'Push It' by Salt n Pepper, and Zager & Evans' 'In The Year 2525'.
These and many more similar examples lurk in the depths of that folder like dirty little secrets - a Pandoras Box of musical shame.
Yet I love spending time investigating this treasure trove of inane nonsense, picking out and enjoying snippets of stuff that you'd never admit to liking during some hairy-chested debate over a few pints down the pub.
Metallica? Fine. Betty Boo? Better grab your coat and run 'cos there's a lynch mob coming!

Like most things there's an element of snobbery surrounding music. There's always some toff whose idea of music doesn't stretch beyond Mahler, and anything that doesn't get played on Radio 3 is symbolic of all that's been wrong with the world since the end of the nineteenth century.
Others might bang on about the emotion conveyed in a singer's voice or the poetic excellence of the lyrics, and that's all very well but it doesn't guarantee that it's a piece of music you actually enjoy.
Personally I like nothing more than sitting back with my eyes closed, immersing myself in Pink Floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' or Enigma's 'MCMXC-AD' from start to finish with no interruptions.
But while there's a big place in my heart for a good prog rock album full of many experimental sounds and a hefty dose of pretentious posing, I also believe there are times when a session of light-hearted pop nonsense is exactly what you need.

As far as music goes there's pretty well a time and place for everything (except for Skrillex which is anti-music) and if you like it then listen to it and enjoy it.
Unfortunately there are some things - even in music - you just don't admit to in public.
Like I just did.

Careful what you admit to!

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The centre of the universe is all around us

A few years ago one word took on a whole new meaning, going from being used as one small part of a sentence to being a sentence in its own right. That word is 'whatever'.
Wherever you went there would be a bored and disillusioned teenager going "Whatever."
This roughly translated as "I'm so full of angst that I can't be bothered to dedicate my last bit of head space to anything you have to say."
Since then, 'whatever' has filtered through the consciousness of the greater collective to become the go-to word for summing up the apathy that dominates modern society.
Nobody cares.

Actually this is a generalisation - there are those who care, but unfortunately they're few and far between and are often regarded as being 'a bit odd'.
For the most part however, it feels as if people have become disconnected from the world and its other inhabitants. They go about their business without even appearing to be aware of the presence of others, and any encroachment upon their space or progress is seen as a gross invasion of their privacy and/or rights.
When you're walking along the street with your head held high, taking in your surroundings and engaging with the world at large, you can get the overwhelming feeling of being some sort of weirdo.
You look around you and notice that most people are either glaring angrily at the floor as if it has personally insulted them, or they're staring intently at their phone - paying no attention to potential hazards such as other pedestrians or traffic, because they're too absorbed in the world inside their own head to pay attention to the one around them.

On the road few have any patience, with aggression being the default setting for anyone sitting behind a steering wheel. If you dare to drive with politeness, consideration, and within the realms of the Highway Code, you find yourself on the receiving end of the wrath of all and sundry.
This is noticeably worse the further south you go in the UK. When you're used to Cambridgeshire it's a wonderful relief to drive around North Yorkshire, but a nightmare in Devon.

Then we have the apparent lack of value placed upon human life. The number of news reports telling us about stabbings, shootings, and all other manner of extreme unpleasantness could easily make you want to barricade yourself behind your front door and refuse to come out.
The conspiracy theorist in me might suggest that this could be government-controlled media manipulation to keep everyone in line through fear. Make people want to stay indoors eating pre-packaged food containing god-knows what while being brainwashed by the constant stream of propaganda emanating from the TV, and you can make them think and behave exactly how you want. The only difference between this situation and that descibed in George Orwell's 1984 is that instead of Big Brother telling people how to be, we have a raft of so-called celebrities.
Turn on the news and it's an endless parade of atrocities that generate bad feeling, anger, frustration, and all other kinds of negative emotions.
With this outlook on the world, it's hardly surprising that so many people are deliberately distancing themselves from life and instead focusing on their own selfish desires, each and every one of them under the illusion that they are the centre of the universe and everything else revolves around them.

So yes, this has been a bit of a soapbox moment, but it's a subject that frustrates me.
The one consolation is that not everybody has succumbed to that mentality, and those that continue to tread the path of goodwill are a diminishing resource that needs to be treasured.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Motoring mingers

The other day I passed the local Bentley dealer and was staggered at the sight that met my eyes.
With my salary and aversion to outward displays of financial excess, Bentleys aren't something that are generally on my radar, but what I was seeing was so disturbing it inspired me to do a post about ugly cars.

Now I realise that the old maxim 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' is just as relevent with cars as it is when related to women (lots of guys think Jennifer Lawrence is hot stuff, but I don't see it) and my opinions shared here may not be shared by the reader, but here's my countdown of what I consider to be the ugliest cars ever to disgrace the roads.

10. Citroen C4 Cactus:
Citroen have on many occasions proved themselves to be such an innovative manufacturer and it's hard to understand how the company that gave us the original DS could think it might be a good idea to glue an inflatable mattress to the side of a car.

9. Chrysler PT Cruiser:
It never works when a company tries to make something with a vintage style while having to comply with modern regulations, and the PT Loser is a case in point. In black it looks like a shortened hearse.

8. Hyundai ATOZ:
Oh please... a bug-eyed lunch box supported by four biscuits. No. Just no.

7. Dodge Ram:
I'm sorry, but even the presence of a big fuck-off V10 engine doesn't detract from the fact that the only people who would drive this road-going leviathan are blokes with a major inferiority complex and a very small penis.

6. Reliant Robin:
With all the stability of a teenager after eight pints of cider, the plastic pig has a small but dedicated bunch of enthusiasts who presumably run the owner's club from the safety of their padded cells.

5. Morgan Aero Eight:
When the classic Morgan style went head-to-head with a wind tunnel they came up with a cross-eyed frog that has been punched in the nose.

4. Bentley Mulsanne:

It comes to something when even Bentley can fuck up this bad. This looks like one of those cases where the Chinese have made yet another misguided attempt to replicate a proper prestige European car.

3. Fiat Multipla:
In Fiat's desperation to fit three people abreast in the front seat they successfully created a mobile greenhouse that is difficult to park due to its width and looks like it should be an insurance write-off due to having had a piano land on the bonnet.

2. Perodua Kenari:
There really is no excuse for making a car look as shit as this. Driven exclusively by octogenerians who have already lost most of their eyesight along with their sense of style and their self-respect.

1. Lamborghini Egoista:
Considering Italy's reputation for style, it's hard to comprehend how Lamborghini who have brought us such delights as the Miura, the Murcielago, and the Huracan, could have come up with this dogs dinner. It's as if they sent the usual design team on holiday and drafted in a bunch of five year-olds with a fetish for HotWheels products. Having spent three minutes with a pack of felt-tip pens and a ruler, they produced something that even Batman himself would be embarassed to be seen in.

So there we have it. There were a few that were just edged out ot the top ten, like the Alfa Romeo Disco Volante which appears to have been designed by several different people who never actually met, and the Ford Scorpio which for good reason appears on lots of ugly cars lists. Then there was the Skoda Roomster which had the front half designed independent of the back half and then the two bits were crudely welded together.
Since car design was taken away from artists and put in the hands of computers and wind tunnels, one car looks pretty much like the next, but clearly that doesn't mean that we've stopped being subjected to the occasional Friday afternoon job.

The internet has won - so long High Street

It should have been a simple task.
All we needed was a toilet seat, a new roller blind for the kitchen, and a couple of LED light bulbs.
Simple items, right? That's what we thought when we jumped into the car and set off for Homebase in Newmarket, but as it turned out we were obviously expecting a bit too much.
Having settled on exactly which bog seat we wanted (white, soft-close, non-rusting hinges), we found there were none left on the shelf. Bugger.
How about the blind? Well, unless you were prepared to pay fifty quid for some Laura Ashley thing (I wasn't), your choice was limited to a handful of items with a ridiculous pattern in a colour scheme that wouldn't go with itself, let alone anything else. So no joy there either.
So what about the bulbs? The shelves were loaded with a massive range of light bulbs. What I wanted was a couple of 75W equivalent bayonet cap LED lamps, and that's exactly where there was a big empty space on the shelf.
Three simple items, one enormous DIY store, zero success.
We returned home empty-handed, pissed off at having wasted time and petrol, and vowing never to set foot in Homebase again.

It's not the first time this situation has occurred, and it seems to be getting more common to go out to get something only to find nobody has it on the shelf.
I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to buy something only to be told there's none in stock.
"We can get one in for you tomorrow" they say. Yes, but I'm here now.
Or they say "You could order one from our website". Are you trying to do yourself out of a job?

It's true though. It has become so easy to get what you need via the web.
Take Amazon for example. Regardless of how the staff are treated and their allegedly questionable attitude to tax, it has become such a massively successful business because it's a one-stop shop for almost anything you might need.
I'm fed up with wandering around shops becoming increasingly frustrated because HMV is the only music shop around and they don't stock anything by Ashbury Heights or Blutengel because they're not mainstream bands. This raises another question - where have all the record shops gone?
When I tried to get a new stereo for the car I made the mistake of wandering into Halfords because it's the standard Aladdin's cave for Barry Boys who want to weigh down their under-powered  Vauxhall Corsas with 100kg of 'Hotwheels' style body kit and a subwoofer that makes the wipers dance on the windscreen. Predictably everything in there was festooned with distracting blue LEDs so bright it would make night driving a genuine hazard, and the demo unit had been turned up to eleven by the spotty youths who work in there so I was unable to even think straight.
I walked out, went home and ordered a nice Alpine head unit from Car Audio Direct instead, which arrived at the door two days later with no fuss or drama, and it doesn't burn your retinas when you turn it on.
The internet is now the default destination for almost all purchases because you can actually get what you want delivered to your door, and all it takes is a few clicks. This way shopping is less tiring than walking to the fridge to get a beer. No wonder we're becoming a nation of lard-arses.
The High Street stores bleat about how they can't compete with the internet and that's why so many small businesses are failing. This is true, but in a way these shops are their own worst enemy. If they don't sell what people want to buy and they don't have stock on the shelf, they won't make sales.

The average city centre is now a wasteland of coffee houses, charity shops, and mobile phone retailers. Big companies have moved to out-of-town retail parks because people won't visit unless they can park their car, and city councils have made it impossible or financially prohibitive to park in town centres, leaving you at risk of incurring the wrath of the local parking Nazis.
As a result we see more and more shops in previously vibrant towns with windows boarded up or painted over, with faded signs above as a memorial to yet another failed business.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Sound of Music - please make it stop

Am I the only one who finds the modern trend of permanently having music playing wherever you go to be incredibly irritating?
My son is 17 and seems to be incapable of functioning without some form of music blaring out.
From the time he wakes up in the morning and immediately logs into Spotify to the evening sitting in his room with something or other shaking the bedroom door because he insists on cranking up the bass control up to maximum, there's no period of waking time where he allows himself to exist in silence. Thanks to a bluetooth speaker, he even carries his music between rooms rather than pause it, whether it's getting a shower or raiding the fridge for a snack.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that so much modern music sounds like it's being sung by an Autotuned nobody on speed to a backing track supplied by a faulty PacMan arcade game.

It's not just in the home that you notice this shift in listening habits.
Take a walk into town and note how many people have earphones in, blotting out the world around them - even when cycling, which is a recipe for disaster on our overcrowded roads.
Walk into a shop - especially a clothes shop - and you're likely to be greeted by some sort of music that makes it hard to concentrate.
A couple of months ago I ventured into JD Sports in Cambridge, and was practically assaulted by some awful racket from a vast array of speakers. I was asked by a staff member what I was looking for and I genuinely could not remember why I was there and was suddenly unable to even speak coherently - my brain simply couldn't process the necessary information because of the noise.
A few staff members looked at me curiously - I noticed they all looked to be about fifteen years old and apparently immune to the deafening roar surrounding them - at which point I figured that this wasn't a place I wanted to be, and I quickly departed.

It feels like no matter where you go, someone feels the need to surround themselves with music.
It's as if everyone is terrified at the possibility of spending any time at all in their own head, where they might actually realise there's nothing of any appreciable substance in there.
Music, which not that long ago was something to be enjoyed as a specific activity, has become nothing more than aural wallpaper; a device to provide a barrier or shock-absorber between the individual and the world around them.
It's much the same with mobile phones. Now I'm not going to go on a big downer about mobiles, but it's a similar issue to the music thing, where people wander along the street completely unaware of what's going on around them because they're staring at a touchscreen six inches from their face.
They walk into other people, step out into the road without looking, and are generally disconnected from the world.
The other morning I was walking to work and a guy was doing what I call the 'ostrich walk' with his head buried in his phone. He pressed the button at a pedestrian crossing, the lights changed, the cars stopped, and he just stood there staring at his phone. I couldn't help myself and shouted at him, at which point, shocked, he gathered what was left of his wits and skittered across the road as the lights were changing back.

I find myself increasingly frustrated at so many people's lack of involvement in their surroundings.
They do whatever they can to separate themselves from reality, losing themselves in stupid and pointless Facebook posts, text messages and Tweets, while ensuring that the sounds of people, traffic, birds singing and the wind rustling the leaves on the trees stand absolutely no chance of filtering through into their consciousness.
Has the world become so bad that it needs to be blotted out?
I must seem so weird because I listen to music when I want to sit down and listen to it and otherwise enjoy a nice bit of peace and quiet, allowing my thoughts to drift in and out of my mind, problem solving, observing my surroundings, evaluating experiences, and generally being content in my own head.

Yet another High Street zombie performing the Ostrich Walk

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Shopper's paradise

Let me make one thing clear from the start. I really don't like shopping.
Going shopping is like visiting the dentist, paying taxes, or having a crap - unpleasant yet unavoidable.
When the unthinkable happens and shops do need to be visited, the only way I can dilute the experience is by buying a new CD - just that little something that reminds you amidst all the crowds, greed and adrenaline, there's the prospect of getting back to a calm home and sitting with a nice mug of tea listening to the latest offering from Coldplay.

I feel very lucky that the wife's idea of a satisfying shopping trip consists of a visit to the local garden centre where she'll spend a tenner on some potting compost and a small cactus.
Many men are in the unfortunate position of having partners who love nothing more than being let loose with a credit card at Lakeside shopping centre, and I really do pity these poor chaps. There really is nothing more soul-destroying than hanging around while someone tries on an endless parade of clothing articles. There's only so long you can carry on pretending to be interested before you take on that glazed and resigned look worn by ninety percent of men you see in the city centre on a Saturday. The other ten percent have just managed to grab a few minutes in HMV to relieve the monotony.
I suspect this is why we've seen such a proliferation of coffee shops that all manage to do enough trade to survive despite the obvious level of competition - the blokes are all desperate to use any means necessary to avoid an argument due to falling asleep during yet another extended bout of shoe testing, and if that means overdosing on caffeine with a large Americano at Costa then so be it.

On the occasions that I do have to go shopping I generally have two distinct modes.
The rarest form involves a significant outlay on something that has either an engine or a plug, and will often be accompanied by a bottle of single malt scotch to numb the intense feeling of guilt.
The commonest method will see me entering a shop to buy the thing I was after, looking at the price tag, and walking out again having suddenly come up with several reasons why I don't really need it anyway. Sometimes I have to be coerced by the wife to go back in and get it, and stop being so stupid.
This happened the other day when I was trying to find a new winter coat to replace the crappy looking thing I bought on sale two years ago from Mountain Warehouse, which I'm told made me look weird. Having looked around various places like Next and Zara, I found the ideal thing in M&S but balked at the price. By this time the wife had reached tipping point and told me to wait outside while she bought the damn thing.
To be honest I'm glad she did - it's a vast improvement and actually makes me look decent. I know that if she hadn't then I'd still be wandering around wearing something that makes me look like a subject of 'care in the community'.

I don't usually buy clothes unless the old ones are falling apart, too tight, or so faded from repeated washing that you can no longer tell what colour they were to begin with and have reverted to that well-known shade called 'Not even good enough for a jumble sale'.
Clearly however, there exists a breed of person whose attitude to clothing is the complete opposite to mine. Such creatures were paraded on TV last night during Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's program 'Hugh's War on Waste'. One was a young woman who would go out every week clothes shopping and sometimes wouldn't even wear her purchases. To me this qualifies as a serious mental condition.
Not only was she absorbed by her own addiction, but she was also a serious fan of numerous vloggers who devote their YouTube channels to enthusing over their latest acquisitions.
How bizarre it seems, not only that someone feels the need to go clothes shopping and then film themselves showing off what they've bought, but that anyone would want to spend time watching the videos.
Oh well, they say there's nowt as queer as folk.....

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A Perfect Unicorn

As the TV companies show no sign of reversing their policy of showing nothing but crap in the evenings (a step up from the utter mindless shite they put out in the daytime), we are continuing along the path of online entertainment plus a light scattering of DVD box sets to while away the empty hours between dinner and bed.
The most recent of these has been the DVD set of 'Men Behaving Badly', which kept me highly amused back in the 90's.
For those who don't remember, this was a comedy that revolved around two blokes who refused to grow up, and the rather reluctant women who were the object of their affections.
It was a common occurrence for the lads to be sprawled on the sofa in front of the TV with several lagers on the go, discussing what their perfect woman would be like. They'd normally start with Kylie Minogue's bottom and work from there; picking favourite physical attributes from various celebrities.

In times of complete boredom this game can be fun but only as an exercise in imagination because, as we all know, perfection doesn't exist.
Oh, I know there are some people in this world that think they are perfect, but the rest of us know that those people are self-deluding fuckwits that you wouldn't piss on if they were on fire.
I expect most of us have fantasized about what our perfect mate would look like, and with TV, movies, magazines and the internet giving us unlimited access to sources of inspiration, countless winning combinations of body parts can join in our minds to create our own personal fantasy.

What would our real reason be for dedicating brain space to this obviously pointless activity?
As a species we rarely seem to be completely satisfied with our reality, and are always looking for ways to improve it - even if it's something as mind numbing as kitchen taps for instance. You have taps on your kitchen sink and they work fine, but take a walk around Homebase and suddenly you desperately want something cooler than the existing bog-standard items.
In the same way, you might love how your wife's bum looks in tight jeans, but even a walk around the supermarket will turn up one that looks more exciting.
So we might think "She's great, but she'd be better with Winona Ryder's nose", but what we're doing here is starting to create a sexual fantasy, which is what Gary and Tony were doing during their lager-fuelled slob-outs.
It would be easy to mentally assemble a collection of bits and come up with something that would prevent you from ever wanting to leave the bedroom. I could say I'd have Keira Knightley's face, Kate Beckinsale's bum, Anne Hathaway's boobs etc, etc, but it wouldn't do any good.

I expect we all have a list of turn-ons and turn-offs; attributes we'd prefer our partner to have or not have.
My personal turn-ons would include long dark hair, big brown eyes, nice perky boobs, slim body, a warm smile, a kind heart, confidence, and a ravenous sexual appetite.
Turn-offs include tattoos, smoking, narcissism, excessive talking about 'he said, she said' nonsense, and fat bellies.
This is all very well but when it comes down to it, all that can be blown away by the right person.
When you find someone who you can have a decent conversation with, is kind and caring, lifts you up when you're feeling down, and with whom you can share all of life's ups and downs without wanting to kill each other, you find that all your dreams and desires aren't what you thought they were.
The wife doesn't look like Audrey Hepburn and I don't look like Vin Diesel, but it doesn't matter when there are so many other aspects of a person that are far more important.
So while Gary and Tony may have enjoyed their sofa-bound sessions of rampant objectification, and provided plenty of laughs in the process, it just serves to illustrate a very important point.
The perfect woman (or man) is just a unicorn.
They don't really exist.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

A living product

I love meat. Actually, I'm a big fan of food altogether and find cooking and eating to be two of life's greatest pleasures, but for me a good piece of meat is food nirvana.
Lately this has started to bother me though, and it's the realisation of what the meat industry has become that is causing me to reconsider my options.
Now I'm not stupid, and I'm under no illusions as to where meat comes from. I don't even have a problem with that in itself, but what is bothering me is the sheer scale of the operation that exists in order to put Ermintrude in a nicely presented package on the shelf in Sainsbury's and Shaun The Sheep on a big rotating skewer in the window of 'Pisshead's Last-Stop Kebab Emporium'.

The wife was vegetarian when we met and then I gradually turned her to the dark side, but there was something she always said that very much rings true - Why grow crops to feed animals for us to eat, when we can just eat the crops ourselves?
It wasn't that many decades ago that meat was a rare treat, so how is it that there is now such a glut of it that huge amounts of the stuff ends up in land-fill because it hasn't been sold before its best before date?
It's us. It's our fault. We are the ones making the demands for such phenomenal quantities of meat, and with any area of consumer demand there will always be a business rubbing its hands together with glee, seeing nothing beyond the prospect of an enormous pile of money.

You don't need to watch too many films of slaughterhouse operations to be convinced that this is not something you really want to be party to. I'm talking here about real films, rather than the sanitised and polished things put out by the media to keep us appeased, but even on TV there's occasionally a slip-up that could easily be missed. One of these occurred the other day when a farmer referred to his flocks of sheep as 'our product'.
I'm sorry? Since when did an animal lose so much dignity that it became a 'product'.
I've shot and butchered animals to eat, and every time I've encountered some level of guilt. You might feel daft if you catch yourself apologising to a pigeon as you cut the oh-so-tasty breast meat from its still-warm carcass, but it's still an important reminder that you've taken a life - even if it is a seemingly insignificant one that's been annoying the hell out of you all morning.
So how detached can someone be to call an animal a product?

The question is, how to change? It shouldn't really be that difficult - we often eat meals without meat anyway, so although going cold turkey (hah!) might be a bit of a shock to the system, gradually reducing the amounts over a period of weeks ought to be do-able. It's just a habit after all.
The hardest thing to stop eating will be bacon because, as we all know, bacon is the ultimate cure for vegetarianism. Lamb may be very tasty but the texture can be a bit hit and miss and it's very expensive for what you get so that's the easiest to quit.
Beef will be more tricky because it's hard to make a really good lasagne with anything else, but I'll give it a try. Pork may come from the same animal as bacon but it doesn't have quite so much appeal, although such associated things as ham, sausages, and Spam would be sorely missed.
Then we come to poultry and fish which is often where the boundaries become a little blurred.
Perhaps the confusion exists because chickens are essentially mobile vegetables, and if I had a big enough garden I'd be quite happy to have them running around laying eggs and making more chickens so that I could pick one out for Sunday dinner and wring its neck.
It seems rather more acceptable than buying one from the supermarket that has been crammed into a big warehouse with no natural light and a diet of hormone-enhanced grain to ensure its pitiful life is as short as possible before it's despatched on a production line to end up being sold for £2.50.
Fish is difficult one. I really like fish, but I'm also well aware that our oceans are being so overfished that it won't be long before there's nothing left and the whole marine ecosystem goes tits-up.
On the other hand, surely farmed freshwater trout can stay on the menu because if I can't stick one of those in the oven wrapped in foil with lemon and dill, then what's the point of it all?

It could be said that giving up meat is a choice, not a necessity, and that's certainly true. There are things we might give up because they don't do us any good, like alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, or those amazing butterscotch and pecan yum yums from Waitrose, but unless we eat excessive quantities of it, surely meat doesn't do us any harm?
Personally I think rather than eliminating meat completely, I'd prefer to eat less but only buy what has been ethically produced. Meat from an animal that has had a decent life running around a field (apart from the fish of course) and eating natural food before being dealt with humanely.
As we all know, meat reared in this manner is way more expensive than supermarket stuff, but I'm quite happy to revert to the days when meat was an occasional treat and pay for the privilege.
There's plenty of really tasty vegetarian food to be had, but if I'm quite honest with myself I don't think I could ever become completely vegetarian. What I can do is make more ethical choices and not support the Frankenstein's monster that the wholesale meat industry has become.

I'm off to do the weekly grocery shopping shortly, and although meat will be a bit thin on the ground, I am getting unusually excited about today's trip down the vegetable aisles because it's pumpkin season, and if there's one thing I do know, it's that a good old homemade pumpkin pie is a thing of beauty.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Anatomy of a shed

While the rest of the world seems to spend its weekends running around frantically, waving its arms and making lots of noise, I'm quite happy to sit back for a well-earned rest.
The grocery shopping has been done, an uncharacteristic lie-in has been enjoyed, and all that remains is to decide how to fill the hours until it's Monday morning and time to begin the cycle all over again.

If I was sufficiently motivated, I could find lots of jobs around the house that need attention.
The grout in the bathroom could do with a bit of bleaching, the CD rack needs some sort of reinforcing because the shelves are sagging under the weight, and the subject of redecorating the bedroom keeps rearing its ugly head.
I do need to clean and sterilise one of the beer barrels in readiness for the next batch which is bubbling away happily in the corner of the living room, and I still have two written assignments to complete for the ILM Leadership & Management course I've been doing for the past five weeks.

Last weekend I replaced the front shock absorbers on the Civic, but was unable to change the rear ones because the bottom bolts are seized solid and I don't have enough room to swing on a long bar to get them undone without the car being up on a ramp.
After two good sessions and much swearing I finally gave up, and for the first time in twenty six years I've had to resort to employing the services of a garage for something other than an MOT or the fitting of new tyres.
With all the tools in the shed you'd think I'd be able to shift a couple of bolts, but a combination of fourteen years of corrsion from rain, mud and hefty quantities of the salt they throw on the road in winter, coupled with major access issues, have conspired to make my efforts fail.

While undertaking this task I did realise what a complete mess the shed has become, and maybe this could be something for me to tackle.
Usually I'm pretty good at keeping things in order, but lately I've let things slide a little.
Shelves are piled up with cans of paint, polish, and lubricants, plus assorted jars filled with bolts, washers, screws etc.
What used to be a small work bench is now topped with the early stages of an N-gauge model railway, which came along in a flurry of enthusiasm which has petered out over the past few weeks, and a fair chunk of space is taken up with my two bicycles (a Diamondback hardtail mountain bike and a Trek road bike), the wife's Claud Butler hybrid, and the boy's BMX which is in kit form due to extensive abuse and a complete lack of interest.
The tumble dryer lives in the shed because there's no room for it anywhere else, with an old PC on top which gets used as a handy juke box when I'm pottering around in there. Next to that are a pair of 40 pint beer barrels to take the rough edges off the world in general, a table littered with assorted model railway-related bits and bobs, and the fairly extensive tool collection.
These have been gathered since I was about sixteen - especially when I first started my apprenticeship - and luckily those have been just as useful for cars and motorbikes as they were for aircraft. Many others have been added since then, with plenty of power tools and a fair few vehicle-related special items like a brake pipe flaring tool, a ball joint splitter, a valve spring compressor, and even a four-tube mercury manometer that I made myself for balancing the carburettors on four-cylinder bikes.
Added to all this is the standard collection of detritus that most of us end up with such as nearly-empty cans of emulsion, off-cuts of water pipe, assorted electrical fittings, and numerous items kept for the sole reason that they "might come in handy one day".

All this stuff is normally stashed away neatly, but recently I've taken less notice of it all and consequently I now have a big mess to wade through. On the plus side though, once I've got it straightened out I might even regain some interest in the model railway which will give me something else to do at the weekend instead of just shooting people on the Playstation.

Not so bad as sheds go, but messy by my standards...

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Creatures of habit

It has been quite a while now since I started commuting by bus, and I've got used to it very quickly.
While it's not without its issues, bus travel at least allows me to avoid the stresses of driving in rush hour traffic.
In an earlier post (Bus Wankers) I mentioned some of the characters I see on a regular basis, and as the past few weeks has given me the opportunity to collect a few more observations, I thought I'd give them an airing.
What's interesting (assuming you're really bored already) is seeing what creatures of habit we all are, and a way to illustrate this is to summarise my daily journey.

Boarding the bus, I make my way to my preferred seat. Mumbles and Calhoun are sitting together in their usual seat, along with Jock two rows behind them. We exchange 'Good mornings' secure in the knowledge that it's the only communication that will occur.
Mumbles is a pleasant elderly lady who appears to be in her mid-seventies, reminds me of the junk lady from the movie 'Labyrinth', and I suspect has had a teensy bit of a stroke at some point, hence the mumbling.
Calhoun is the passenger formerly known as Fag-ash Lil, but I renamed her when she got her hair done recently and now looks a bit like the character Calhoun from the movie 'Wreck-it Ralph', only two or three decades older.
Jock is a recent addition, and I only realised he was Scottish the other day when an attempt at conversation left me floundering in a sea of thick Glaswegian.
Occasionally I'll find that we've been joined by Eminem - a middle-aged woman who seems to have developed a method of speaking that enables her to talk continuously without ever pausing to breathe in. She fires out words of scorn at the rate a machine gun fires bullets to anyone daft enough to pretend they're listening and she simply won't shut the fuck up. This is where a decent pair of closed-back headphones comes in handy.

A couple of miles down the road there's the usual stop for Fugley to get off the bus, after which the acceleration seems to improve.
Next stop is in Waterbeach is where we are join by Charlotte Sometimes - so called because she doesn't get on every day and it's also a song by The Cure. Charlotte Sometimes is then wedged against the wall by Mrs Bland who is determined to sit beside her even though she'll shortly have to stand up again to let Charlotte Sometimes off.
At the same stop the bus is also boarded by two of the Beverley Sisters. I'm still waiting for the day they spontaneously burst into song, but I suspect I might be waiting a very long time.
Last stop before leaving Waterbeach comes Victor Meldrew On Speed. This grumpy looking chap looks like he'd be the one holding everyone up when we get off the bus, but instead he takes on a surprising turn of speed - practically sprinting to make it to the bus which will take him on the next leg of his journey.

Landbeach is the next village, which is a colossal waste of everyone's time because it's a big detour and there's hardly ever anyone wanting to get on. It also means the bus has to cross the busy A10 twice to go there which often involves a lengthy wait.
Milton comes next where, among others, we meet The Headmistress - a skinny severe looking old lady who is itching to sit beside Mrs Bland, but has to wait until the next stop when Charlotte Sometimes gets off and they all shift around.
As we come into Cambridge a few passengers depart, including Anna Rexia - a thirty-ish woman who possesses that thigh gap that many women crave because they've seen it in the glossy magazines but in reality this is unobtainable without having an eating disorder. Seeing her walk up the street is like watching an amateur stilt-walker, or a new-born foal getting to its feet for the first time.
Nearly at our destination, there's only a couple more stops to drop off Big Boo (from Orange Is The New Black) and Eminem (if we've had the pleasure of her voice / company).
On arrival it's the usual scrum for the exit and off to our respective jobs, not forgetting to thank the driver - it's only polite after all.

The return journey in the evening is when I prefer to don the headphones and shut out the world as much as possible, but there's always the odd character that catches the attention - especially in the bus station which is a melting pot of every conceivable variation on the human animal. This includes Supermassive Black Hole - a woman so large she has her own gravitational field. She sits at the bus station spread across three seats, reaches into her bag and proceeds to munch away on a family-size pork pie. It's hideous, but it's a bit like a car crash because you can't help but look.
A similar character - I call him Fat Bastard - gets on our bus sometimes on the way home. When he gets off after a couple of miles, he walks straight into the Co-Op next to the bus stop, presumably to stock up on fizzy drinks, crisps and lard. Him and Jabba The Hutt would make an interesting couple.

The question that sometimes occurs to me is that assuming I'm not the only person in the world who assigns names etc to unknown people in everyday life, what sort of names do people come up with for me, and what assumptions might they make?
Maybe it's for the best that none of us really know what strangers think of us, because chances are we're mostly completely wrong.

Monday, 31 August 2015

We're all going on a bank holiday

I've just seen on the news that Kanye West reckons he's going to run for president in 2020.
Seriously? After having a movie star in the form of Ronald Reagan as president, will the American voters really sink to the depths of having an ageing rapper with an ego the size of a planet in the White House?
As if that isn't bad enough, can you imagine that narcissistic publicity-seeking-missile Kim Kardashian being first lady? If this was to happen (and I don't think for one moment the average American is stupid enough to let it) it really would be final confirmation that the world has gone insane.

Not that we need look to the US for signs of this of course.
On a daily basis we see signs of mankinds relentless plummet towards the deepest abyss of bad taste and social indifference.
Today is the August bank holiday, which is fertile ground for the observation of the insanity around us, and predicably it's raining with a vengeance. It always does, and yet there are still countless outdoor events organised by hopelessly optimistic people with corduroy trousers and excessive beard growth.
Every year it's the same and yet we still hold on to that tiniest sliver of hope that next time will be different.
We had every intention of going to Wimbotsham, just outside Downham Market, today for the annual Fenman Classic motorcycle show. We've been before and it has been a great day out, but unsurprisingly we awoke this morning to be greeted by the sort of precipitation guaranteed to put off all but the most hardy of bikers, so we figured it wasn't worth the trip when the event would probably be reduced from the usual thousands of bikes to three BMWs and an old Yamaha FS1E.
There was nothing on at the cinema worth seeing, but we felt the urge to get out of the house and do something - anything - so we made the stupid decision to pop into Cambridge to get a couple of bits from Dunelm. Fat chance of that working out.
All routes in that part of Cambridge were gridlocked because everyone else in the region was bored too and had the same idea, so not wanting to spend the day in a traffic jam, I took evasive action and ended up at the big Scotsdale garden centre instead, along with everyone else over the age of forty within a 20 mile radius.
By the time we'd wandered half way round we'd lost the will to live. The place was littered with people who were obviously there because there was nothing else to do. Like us. We kept catching snippets of other peoples conversations, all saying they didn't know why they were there.
It was almost a sort of out-of-body experience, a sense of detachment as if watching a film rather than really being there. The characters, the expressions of exasperation, boredom, and confusion, and the old man bent double over his walking stick with a face that appeared to be made of melting wax like the nazis at the end of 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark'.
Every conceivable example of the hopelessness of western civilization gathered together in one place with the sole purpose of killing time until that skinny bloke with the scythe and the black cloak comes to relieve them of their misery.
It was time to leave.

This sums up the whole problem. At a time when everyone claims to be so busy and stressed out because there's so much to do and so little time, days like this just go to show that it's all nonsense and they're bored shitless with the pointlessness of it all.
We have filled our lives with things that take the hard work out of life for us like washing machines, dishwashers, convenience food, and not bothering to iron clothes, so all the little jobs that used to be required to keep our households running have been reduced to a level previous generations could only have dreamed of.
We opened up all this free time for ourselves but we have no idea what to do with it, and when it's pissing down the only thing we can think of doing that doesn't involve getting wet is watching shite TV or shopping. Something has gone very wrong.
Yes, I know this is a sweeping generalisation and there are plenty of people who do have lives that are full and rich with a whirlwind social life, just as there are those who are perfectly content with a life spent sitting on the sofa eating chocolate until 'Eastenders' comes on.

I don't particularly want to be any of these things. I want to be happy doing what needs to be done before pottering about doing little things to keep me busy, watching the odd movie, or spending a couple of hours killing bad guys on the Playstation. I like cooking from scratch and would much rather do that than eat something from the ready meal aisle in the supermarket because at least I know what's in it. I enjoy making wine and beer, and I enjoy drinking the result even more.
I love listening to music, creative photography, walks in the countryside and fixing stuff.
Mostly I'm perfectly content with this simple life, but occasionally that little voice in the back of my head gives me the urge to get out and do something different.
When I do give in and listen to that voice, I quickly learn that it belongs to an evil little bastard who puts me in situations I'd rather not be in. It makes me realise that I don't want to join in with the rest of the world running around like headless chickens, and searching for the next fix of unashamed materialism that is the scourge of the modern world.

People everywhere have a 'to do' list pinned up somewhere - a list of tasks that need to be completed in the near future. What I think I need is a 'don't do' list - things I've done that I need reminding never to do again. There are lots of things that belong on this list, such as 'don't buy fruit from the market because it'll be manky within two days',and 'don't mix bleach with other cleaning products unless you want a near-death experience', but the newest addition to it will be 'Don't leave the house on a bank holiday because you WILL regret it'.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Manbags and gladrags

It has always been a fundamental part of being a man that you must be able to carry all your day-to-day essentials in a small piece of folded leather that slips neatly into your inside pocket.
Everything you're likely to need will live in there including methods of paying for stuff, old receipts that you can no longer remember what they were for, and in my case the occasional moth.
Keys are about the only thing it's permissable to carry separately, and these should ideally be shoved into your trouser pocket in such a way that they stab you in the leg when you sit down.

The reality, however, is that we often need to carry more than that, and this leads us to a whole minefield of problems.
My wallet only ever contains cash on the day I'm due to buy my weekly bus ticket, but it does do a pretty good job of ensuring an assortment of cards including payment cards, driving license, organ donor card etc, are kept in one safe place, but it lacks the capacity for other things I need to carry most days.
The wife carries a bag that I call 'Bessie' (a reference to Courtney Cox's bag in the comedy series 'Cougar Town') which is roughly the size and weight of a small country. I avoid getting too near it for fear of getting lost, but it seems to contain anything and everything you might need and plenty more that you won't.
Hermione Granger had the best bag ever in Harry Potter, which was physically the size of a small handbag but had immense capacity. Unfortunately my lack of magical powers means that such a thing is not an option, so I'll move on.
On the average weekday I'll travel to work with a small rucksack over one shoulder that contains a decent size lunch box, a pair of full-size Sennheiser headphones, an iPod Nano, keys and ID card for work, and usually a packet of ibuprofen.
The trouble with this is that anyone carrying a rucksack in Cambridge is automatically assumed to be a tourist, and for many reasons outlined in the previous post I'd prefer to avoid that association.
So what's the alternative?

There are sports bags which are fine if you're going to the gym or to play squash, but otherwise they're too big and cumbersome.
A briefcase makes anyone other than a lawyer or estate agent look like a dickhead, and those people generally achieve that without one.
What you're left with is that relatively recent fashion item - the man bag.
Most of these are along the lines of what I understand are known as messenger bags, but as usual life becomes increasingly complicated the more you look into it.
I've looked in lots of shops and on various websites, and while the variety of options is mindboggling, I have at least been able to narrow down the field a bit.
I don't want one of those that looks like your stereotypical professor bag - you know the sort, brown leather with a fold over front secured by two buckles, and a single handle on the top.
In fact I don't want it secured by buckles at all because they're time consuming, and none of those plastic spring clip things either because I'm guaranteed to end up with fingers covered in blood blisters where I've got them trapped. Velcro is cheap, nasty and noisy, so that leaves either a zip or maybe those little magnetic button things.
The ideal bag will be big enough to accommodate the items mentioned above, but not so big that it's clumsy and awkward to carry on the bus. Waterproof would be good, and a shoulder strap rather than a small handle. It mustn't be bling, shiny, have big corporate logos on or look 'a bit gay'. I don't care if someone is, but I'm not so I don't want to give that impression.

So what to do? I guess the right thing will present itself at some point and I'll just have to get it when it does - otherwise I'll never see it again. Of course sods law dictates that when I do see the right one it'll have a silly price tag attached, so I'll walk away shaking my head and tutting, telling myself I'd rather keep the rucksack and risk being mistaken for a tourist than be ripped off over something that is essentially lunch box camouflage.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The trouble with tourism

I'm not a fan of summertime. It's too hot and there are far too many bugs around for my liking. The ants are out in force making it impossible to spend time outside without having the little bastards crawling up your leg in search of Christ-knows-what. If you ride a motorcycle you have to compete with clouds of greenfly that coat the front of the bike and your helmet visor, ensuring an hour's riding results in a further two hours getting all the splattered and dried corpses removed.
You can't even sit in the garden with a book because even if the ants don't get you, you'll spend the entire time itching from all the feckin' thunderflies wandering around on your skin - so much so that you end up feeling them even when they're not there.
For my part, when the sun puts its hat on and comes out to play, I disappear indoors until it has gone away behind a cloud.
I love the spring and autumn which are when you witness nature changing day by day, and usually it's not so hot that you want to take refuge in the fridge. Even winter has its benefits, because even if it is cold and wet with very little daylight, it's a lot easier to make yourself warm when the weather is cold than it is to get cool when the weather is hot. After all, there are only so many layers of clothing you can remove before you end up in front of the judge trying to explain why you were walking around the town wearing nothing apart from Crocs and a pair of RayBans.
Winter is also a time when you can go out in the world without having to face a great multitude of tourists (unless you live near a ski resort), and for me this is a wonderful thing. No matter how dull and depressing the weather may be, at least you're not going to get wedged  between two coach-loads of Chinese tourists all sporting identical pink rucksacks while you're trying to get to the bus station.

Now I realise that we're (nearly) all guilty of being tourists ourselves at some point, and that the tourism industry is a major income for some places who without it would be financially destitute, but for those going about their everyday lives, tourists can be a total pain in the arse.
I work in Cambridge, which along with Oxford is a major draw for tourists owing to its world renowned University. From roughly the end of March until winter gets its claws out, Cambridge sees a relentless stream of coaches disgorging their eager cargo, all clutching Nikon SLRs with big lenses and generally wearing the sort of clothing that screams "TOURIST!" and means they may as well be carrying a large placard displaying the words "Beware - I may suddenly stop dead in front of you to take a photo of my friends in front of Kings College".
One of the things that does amuse me is the number of people who in all innocence ask for directions to the University. To the uninitiated, Cambridge University is not situated in a single campus, but its immense collection of colleges and departments is spread in a fairly haphazzard manner across the entire city, with a few bits actually beyond the city boundary. To answer the above question with a simple "Which part of the University?" will result in a look of complete confusion and a certain amount of stammering.
If you're lucky enough to avoid these encounters, you still won't be able to steer clear of trouble in Cambridge because tourists are pack animals and will therefore at some point block your path completely. Some of them pretend to be oblivious of the problem they are causing, which means you have to point out the error of their ways with a well-braced shoulder. Get it right and they go flying with an effect not dissimilar to pins in a bowling alley. This is most commonly required when faced with groups of Spanish or French students who are noticeably ignorant.
Tourists here seem to deliberately make a point of finding the narrowest part of any given footpath or pedestrian area and amassing in a huge clump right there for an extended conference. I'm sure I've seen a catering trolley being wheeled into the midst of the most inconvenient and annoying groups with coffee and biscuits.
Probably worse than the groups blocking the footpaths are those that go en-masse to hire bicycles with the sole purpose of trying to commit suicide on the road. It's fortunate that locals can spot them from a mile away and fully expect a wobbly Asian with a dayglo rucksack to suddenly turn right, straight across the front of them without even bothering to look behind. Unsurprisingly there's usually one foreign tourist deleted permanently each year. The surprising thing is that there aren't more, but that is probably explained by the fact that anyone who drives in Cambridge regularly is used to cyclists jumping red traffic lights, and those who ride a black bike with no lights at night, wearing black clothes and with their hearing blotted out with full size headphones, believing that they're completely invincible.

Then we have the additional effects of tourism, such as the usual selection of quaint little shops in side streets selling all sorts of tasteless trinkets bearing the citys name.
The punting touts hang around near the river trying to drum up a bit of business offering the unwary a new and exciting way of finding themselves clinging to a long wooden pole in the middle of a river while a flat-bottomed boat full of drunk friends drifts away from them.
Honourable mention must go here to red telephone boxes which are a very rare sight these days, and as far as I can tell only serve the purpose of something for foreign tourists to have their photo taken beside, and a place for inebriated clubbers to urinate on the way home at 3AM.
Thankfully the summer is drawing to a close, and it won't be many weeks before the swarms of tourists diminish, and Cambridge can concentrate on its other infestation - students.

I may work for the University, but I was never a university student. Hell, I didn't even do A-levels.
I left school at 16 with a small handful of O-levels, the best of which was a 'B' in physics, and went straight into an apprenticeship to become an airframe fitter. I've never been much of a traveller either. Apart from a couple of day trips to France, the only time I've been out of the country was when the wife and I went to Austria for our honeymoon over 20 years ago.
All that may change soon though, as we're now considering exploring a few bits of the world outside England, and that means that I shall then become (occasionally) a tourist myself. All these years of negative experiences of tourists as a local means that I hope I shall try my hardest to avoid following this example and instead make every effort to blend in and not piss off the locals.

"Punting on the Cam, oh please do come, they say" - Marillion.

Photo stolen from the blog 'Comedy Travel Writing' by Adam Watts (the wife's nephew)
Please visit his blog - he's a fantastic writer!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Brain-dead bleach-blonde barbie dolls

A couple of posts ago I very briefly touched on something with a reasonable amount of rant potential, and I now feel (in the absence of any other material) like giving the subject of Barbie doll wannabes a bit of an airing.
We see them every day on the streets, and they're so common that we barely spare them a glance, but for those who firmly believe that what really turns a bloke on is the old-fashioned 'painted whore' look, here's a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to doing the job right.

The patent 'Barbie' look is basically a uniform for those with little to offer the world other than what they look like. First there's the long bleach-blonde hair that's been straightened to within an inch of it's life, followed by copious quantities of make-up that appear to have been applied with either a trowel or that special shotgun that Homer Simpson invented.

Then comes the perfume. The preferred method for installing this would seem to be with either a well-trained crop-duster or if all else fails, actually taking a bath in the stuff. The job's not done right unless everyone else can still smell it three hours after you walked by.
Then comes the question of clothes. In general, the sluttier the better, but there are times when the Barbie purist must adhere to certain dress codes demanded by an employer. Obviously most Barbies manage to find employment where their Barbiness is not only allowed but positively encouraged, such as behind the perfume counter at John Lewis or in an estate agents office.
Certain key features must be employed regardless of any workplace guidelines - skirts must be short enough to enable male colleagues to catch a tantalising glimpse of arse cheek or maybe even a hint of crotch. At the top end, it's essential to flaunt as much cleavage as possible so that any male is so distracted by the imminent flash of nipple that he fails to notice that you have nothing of substance to say.
Shoes will preferably have many strengths with the exception of practicality and comfort. Barbie doesn't care that she's in excruciating agony as long as she's wearing Jimmy Choo stilettos that put the overzealous cleavage as near as possible to eye level.
Next step - accessories. Here it's all about bling, and it must be bling with the right label. It doesn't matter if the right label is Gucci and buying it means living on lettuce and air for a month, because as we all know, Barbie doesn't eat anything anyway.
Finally we come to the attitude. Barbie believes that after all the effort she's been to, men will fall at her feet and do anything she wants. She holds all the power because surely there's no man in this world who doesn't want to get in her knickers, but as most men are simply not good enough for such a goddess, she can take what she wants before crushing their hopes and dreams beneath her tortured feet.

Now I know I may be a bit odd, but I don't find Barbies in the least bit appealing. I have no time for anyone who believes what they look like on the outside is more important than who they are on the inside, which makes me think that Barbie's facade is only there to camouflage a deep rooted lack of confidence and personality. Yes, sometimes they might manage to strike the right balance and actually manage to look attractive, but you still know that there's going to be nothing of long-term interest so I refuse to encourage them by pretending to not notice them.
It's like when you see an expensive supercar going down the street. The muscles controlled by the ten year old boy in you want to make the most of seeing a Lamborghini Aventador in the flesh by staring until it's out of sight, while those controlled by the mature cynical grumpy git in you refuse to give the driver the satisfaction of seeing someone staring and therefore feeling even more smug and self-important than they already do.
Barbie is just like that because, sticking with the supercar analogy, you wouldn't mind a test drive but you certainly wouldn't want the expense and aggravation of owning one.
To me, far greater appeal lies in a woman who is not afraid to be herself and to hell with anyone who doesn't like it. Tamsin Greig as Fran Katzenjammer in 'Black Books' gives me all sorts of funny feelings, and that character makes no attempt to hide who she is.
Confidence is sexy but narcissism is most definitely not.
So who exactly does Barbie really appeal to? I've asked plenty of blokes this question and so far I haven't found anyone who goes for that sort of look. Maybe the reason they all hang around together in groups trying to out-Barbie one another is because they find each other appealing, but what do I know?

Fran Katzenjammer. Yes please.
Barbie? No thanks.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The greenhouse effect

There are a great many trappings of modern life that people aspire to having - things that are seen as essential to show others just how successful you are and how wonderful your life is. In other words, unnecessary bullshit.
We all know someone who considers it to be the height of importance that their house is as large as possible and located in the most 'desirable' postcode. Someone who wouldn't dream of there being a car that isn't an Audi or BMW sitting on the drive.
The family dog must be a pedigree labradoodle (the sort of thing we used to call a mongrel before the snobs got into dogs), vacations must be in the Bahamas, and handbags can be as ugly and garish as you like as long as the price tag exceeds a thousand pounds.
These are people for whom outward appearances are everything, and failure to comply with all the requirements of this morally bankrupt sector of society will lead to being shunned at the local golf club or the weekly wife-swapping parties.

For many years, before they became a more commonplace item, conservatories were one thing on this list of snobbish 'lifestyle' essentials.
Nowadays it seems every other house has one, and the filthy rich either have a conservatory the size of a tennis court that cost more than the average house or they simply bought a bigger mansion.
Regardless of any reflection on social standing though, I'm still hard pushed to understand why anyone would pay to have such a thing fitted to their house.
I have one that was already installed when we bought the place, even though I'd been insistent that I wasn't going to buy a house with one because of my reluctance to be associated with the sort of person who would actually want one.
After living with the damn thing for ten years now, I'm still mystified at the popularity of conservatories. I daresay people have them because it's a relatively inexpensive (compared to buying a bigger house or having a proper extension) way of gaining a bit of indoor space, but the reality is that a conservatory is only of use for about four months of the year at best.
During the Winter it's too cold to spend time in it, unless you're prepared to spend a fortune on heating something with all the thermal retention qualities of asbestos. You may as well sit in the garden throwing fivers on a bonfire.
When Spring rolls around, you enter a brief period where it can be a nice place to sit and eat your breakfast, but this is assuming it isn't raining because as soon as the heavens open you're going to be deafened.
This situation doesn't last long, because before you know it Summer is here and your little bolt-on UPVC box is transformed into a kiln. Even a moderately sunny day makes a conservatory uninhabitable, to the point that even cacti struggle to survive. If you were to install some sort of humidifying system it might make a good place to grow weed or some other useful tropical plant, but a superheated greenhouse is definitely not a desirable place to spend your time.
Luckily, Autumn isn't far away, bringing with it a bit of respite from the intolerable heat and the occasional opportunity to be able to actually spend time in the conservatory before Winter starts to dig it's claws in once again, whereupon you switch on the heating and close the door on the conservatory for the next four months or so.

So why have one at all?
A number of times we've considered having ours demolished and using the space for a nice patio area instead, which would allow us a much better view of the garden and let far more light into the living room. Unfortunately now that it's there, the cost of having such work done would be prohibitive.
I've know people who have talked excitedly about getting a conservatory and how wonderful it was going to be. I've done my best to piss on their fire by pointing out the problems in the hope that they'll see sense and save themselves many thousands of pounds by not buying a glass and plastic folly.
The words fall on deaf ears, they go ahead with their plans, and when a year has gone by they're moaning about it being too cold in the Winter, too hot in Summer, and if they'd known what a waste of money it would be they wouldn't have bought it. Sigh......

The only reliable use for a conservatory is as a dumping ground for bits of furniture that aren't good enough to have in the house, drying clothes on an airer in a place where you're not constantly having to sidle past it, and storing random bits of crap that aren't needed very often but you can't be arsed to put them up in the attic.