Sunday, 14 December 2008

.....for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

I wrote this little Christmas story some years ago - but it still bears telling again.




I awarded myself a rare (albeit well-deserved) half-day off, last Thursday. I’d been to Towcester - there’s a monthly drive-in antique fair at the racecourse there, where usually I do very well. However on this occasion the December weather was against any form of serious commercial intercourse, the venue was awash and ankle-deep in mud; and The Trade (except for the few early birds who’d squelched around, snacked on such worms as were going cheap, and gone home to roost) had mostly given up buying for the tag-end of the year; so that effectively by about ten o’clock the fair had tailed off to a miserable miry nothing, and I’d taken all I was going to take. Which was more than enough to pay exes and my wages for the day, so I wasn’t bothered.

Usually under such circumstances, so as not to waste the day or the petrol, I’d probably go buying, but I too was infected with ‘end-of-term-itis’. I’d only one more fair before the New Year, and more than enough stock to cover it. So I thought soddit, packed and loaded the worldly goods, and drove the 30-odd miles south down the A5 to Dunstable with a view to spending some quality time with the most important people in my life, Robbie and Kirsty, my grandchildren. And of course Sara, my daughter and their mother.

As it happens, I got lucky. I’d no sooner breezed in the door than Sara informed me that I couldn’t have picked a better day - it was to be Robbie’s School Play that afternoon.
“And it’s been a long time since you’ve been to one of those” she reminded me archly. And rightly - it must have been a good 25 years since I’d proudly watched her doing an impression of a rather coy angel (as inapt a casting job as one could hope to find, believe me!) at her own Primary School’s annual thespian bash.

“Great!” I said, and meant it. “What sort of a play is it? The statutory Nativity job? So what’s Robbie playing? Joseph? A Wise Man? The Innkeeper?”

“Nah” said Sara, deadpan. “A burglar. He’s dead chuffed because it’s not a speaking part, and so he doesn’t have to learn any lines.”

I couldn’t decide whether to be concerned at Robbie’s apparent lack of ambition (uncharacteristic, in our family) or delighted at his innate distaste for honest toil. (That’sa Ma Boy!) But then it occurred to me that in any account of the Nativity that I’d ever read, including those of Ss Matthew, Mark, Luke and the other bloke, the burgling classes didn’t exactly figure in the dramatis personae. What was he going to do? Grab the Gold? Filch the Frankincense? Mug the Magi for the Myrrh? Weird. This was obviously going to be one of those avante garde productions. Committee of trendy primary school pedagogues rewrites the Gospels ‘to make them more accessible to underprivileged minorities’ - you know the sort of thing.
What I couldn’t know was that this was to turn out (whether by design or default I’m not sure, but it makes little difference) to be The Nativity Story as Low Comedy. Carry On and Follow That Star. Wise Men Behaving Badly. Have it Away In A Manger.

But we’ll come to that in a bit. First things first. In The Beginning, there was The Cake.

And it came to pass that Phil the junkdealer journeyeth a days journey to the Land of Beds (which ain’t anything like as interesting as it sounds, O ye Scribes and Pharisees, perverts) and findeth himself even unto the firmament of a crowded School Hall, overheated like as to the domain of Lucifer the Prince of Darkness himself. Yea, I say unto you, even unto the front stalls did he journey, where he plonketh him on a chair several sizes too small, and which accommodateth not both of his capacious buttocks at once. And Phil the Junkdealer did cry unto the Lord, saying thus: O Lord God of junkdealers help this thy servant to bear this pain with which in thy wisdom thou hast scourged him due to this pathetic little chair, and more to the point help thy servant to get the fuck up again when the time cometh, so that his poor old back seizeth not up. And then Phil the Junkdealer did wax philosophical, as is the manner of his kind, and did think unto himself, “Do we not these days pamper something rotten the children of our loins that we have begatted - we never had central heating at school when I was a lad, and in the winter, O ye children of Israel, we froze our very cods off, for we were arrayed only in T shirts and short trousers, I kid ye not! And Brethren, verily I say unto you - heed the words of Phil the junkdealer - it did us no bloody harm! But it surpriseth me not in hindsight that our schoolmasters did look oft upon the wine when it was red. Thus keepeth they the cold out of their ancient bones.”

Here endeth the first lesson.

So I’m sitting there, minding my own business, chatting to Sara and to Claire, her young baby-sitter, waiting for the off. Suddenly I’m aware of this strident faux-gentille Lynda Snell kind of voice, coming from behind me, getting gradually closer, slicing through the crowd’s conversational white-noise like a surgeon’s knife parting compliant flesh.

“Do you want to guess the weight of the cake? Would anybody like to guess the weight of the cake? Are you going to have a go at guessing.............” and so on, approaching ever nearer. Eventually she reaches us. “Would you like to guess the weight of this cake?”

I should confess at this point that I’d had a couple of large liquid Winter Warmers when I got to Sara’s, and was by now feeling no pain. And bossy wannabee-county-set women with loud voices get right up my nose, even stone cold sober. So. Let’s have a laugh, I thought, and (with some difficulty) stood up. In my experience the only way to deal with that type of person is from a great height. Sitting in a kid-size chair with her towering over me would have been a fatal handicap in the witty repartee stakes.

“Surely by now you must have a fair idea of the weight of that cake. “ Coming the innocent.

“Of course we know the weight of the cake.” Tetchy. Suddenly wary. She scents danger. Reacts like an alarmed Meerkat. And looks a bit like one, come to think, but without all that built-in cutesy stuff.

“So why are you going around asking everybody, then?" Butter wouldn’t melt.

Her face freezes into a mask. She’s fairly sure I’m taking the piss something rotten, but has this vague niggle at the back of her mind that I might just be mentally retarded, and thus to be heavily indulged as a matter of trendy political correctness. Besides, all her peers are watching. Not the time or place to take chances. She decides to play it straight. And patronise, patronise, patronise.

“It’s a competition, dear. You have to guess the weight of this lovely cake, you see.”

Metaphorically patting me on the head.

“Oh goody! I Love competitions.” Thinking ‘ Ooops, James! You’ve picked the only person in the whole of Bedfordshire who’s had a humourectomy.’ Never mind. n too deep now. Carry on. “How do you tell who wins?”

“ThePersonWhoGuessesTheCorrectWeightOfTheCakeWins!!” Teeth clenched. Words gabbled. Expletives deleted. Eyes desperately hunting around the hall for a quick escape route. Voice rising in pitch. “ItsFiftyPeeAGuess!!!”

I unsheath my secret weapon; my trusty Gateau-blaster; and let her have it, right between the eyes.

“So what’s the prize, then, luv? What do I win?”

Panic. You can see it in her eyes. Omigod, I’ve got a weirdo. (She’s the one shoving unsolicited patisserie under the noses of innocent strangers, demanding that they deduce the avoirdupois thereof, and she reckons that I’m a weirdo.)

Cool was rapidly going out of the window. “YOU WIN THE CAKE !!!” Pejoratives (fool! idiot! arsehole! dickhead!) while physically left unexpressed, couldn’t have been clearer if she’d shouted them.

By this time, we had quite an audience. The parents in the seats around us were agog. Sara was studiously looking the other way, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably. She’s been out with her Dad before, and knows what I’m like. Young Claire, who I learned later indulges in a touch of babysitting for the Cake-Peddler’s kids as well as for Sara’s two, was shrinking into her seat and trying to hide under her own right armpit. Nothing to do with me, missus, honest. Never seen ‘im before. True. Prior to that day, she hadn’t.

What neither of them know is that things could have gotten a lot worse. But at this point it occurred to me that Lady Cake was only trying to do her bit towards raising money, presumably for the children, and that perhaps I was being a little unkind. Besides, I’d only meant to have a joke with her, not to start WW3. I decided to let the silly humourless cow off the hook. Had I realised then what I learned from Sara later, that she was the local Gauleiter/busybody/do-gooder/into-everything/takes herself veddy veddy seriously/control freak, I wouldn’t have. It was a damned close-run thing, regardless. What I came within a micron of saying was:
“But I don’t actually eat cake! Tellyerwhat - I don’t s’pose you’ve got a leg of lamb about your person that I could guess the weight of instead? Or a chicken or two? Some Stilton maybe? A couple of pounds of mince? Nah - silly me -there wouldn’t be a lot of point your going around saying ‘can you guess the weight of this two pounds of mince?’ It’d be like Alice’s caucus race - everybody would win a prize except the Irish couple in the back row, and we’d end up with one small meatball each. Oh - and by the way - where do all the fifty pees go? To pay for the cake, or what.................?”

.........But all this merry badinage died still-born. I relented, confirmed with her that the requisite weight specifications included the box and the cakestand, (necessary information for proper evaluation of the project, I’d have thought, but delivered to me in a gravel-voiced venomous monosyllable as if I had no right to ask) hefted the confection, dropped the half-a-quid into her outstretched hand, refrained from thanking her for a lovely weekend (coward), told her the weight, and to deliver the cake to Sara when I won it, (I haven’t heard anything yet - I must get my secretary to ring her secretary) and let her go on her way, mightily relieved, and with her amour propre only slightly shattered into a mere million pieces. She’ll never know how lucky she was.

By this time the main event was due, and the players were under starters orders. The Chorus, assorted pre-pubescents of either gender, filed in wearing their best uniforms and sat down on benches beside the empty stage. The music-teacher started to give the piano some wellie. The lights dimmed. The Headmistress, (at least I presume it was she) entered centre stage in the guise (or so I thought until she started to speak) of Prologue. But no - her role was that of Apologia, Muse of Cockup. She coyly pointed out that they’d had a lot of problems lately, half the kids had been ill, some of the teachers likewise, most of them had had no time to learn their lines in between their normal schoolwork, and that the Prompter would thus be running red-hot. And so on, etcetera, blahdiblah. But that she was sure that we’d enjoy the play anyway, although would we kindly not get carried away, and please to hold back on the clapping until the end. This edict presumably aimed at specific parents who might go noisily bananas at the first sight of their own little treasures in Thespian mode, thus interfering with the overall artistic flow.

Such a resigned and contrite soft-sell rather set the tone for the afternoon, as far as I was concerned. What with her speech and the cake-saga, I was in no mood to take things seriously. There sprung to mind unbidden a picture of Terry Hands emerging onto the stage at the National before the first night of King Lear, apologising that the RSC hadn’t been able to learn its lines properly in between visits to the dole office to collect its Giros, that the scenery wasn’t finished because the stagehands had been on the piss all week, that the Assistant Director was out of it on illegal substances, that the actors who’d contracted to play Lear and Gloucester had fallen in lerve and had gorn orf to a villa in Tuscany holding hands, and that their understudies, having been given a mere ten minutes to learn their parts, could only be expected to do their best. Warning us, in effect, that the play would probably turn out to be unmitigated crap. But that he felt sure we’d love it regardless, because the writing was quite good, although would we kindly refrain from breaking up the theatre in our enthusiasm, at least until the Luvvies had had time to scarper at the end of the performance.

We gave Apologia the clap she so richly deserved, and the show got under way. I’m sure you know the story. Chippy meets girl/ Girl meets angel/ Girl pudding club/ Says angel’s fault/ Likely story/ King Herod skint, stamps foot/ All shekels to Inland Revenue PDQ/ Exeunt omnes Bethlehemwards where tax office/ Girl about to drop baby/ Chippy buys donkey for journey/ Hit Bethlehem/ Travelodge full/ No room at wossname/ Don’t care if she carrying sodding Messiah no rooms round here Christmas Week dickhead/ Pssst Wanna renta stable cheap?/ Only one cow sitting tenant/ Any port in storm/ Girl has baby boy/ 9lb 7oz inc. VAT, delivery, number plates and halo/ Dead ringer for 1950s Chad Valley dolly/ Name Jesus after nice waiter parents met Benidorm/ Three Wise men pitch up from points east/ Follow that star, cabbie/ Herod’s? Sorry guv, thought you said Harrods/ Where new King?/ Prezzies for same/ Herod no prezzies, right pissed off/ Shepherds watched their flocks/ Let’s start a religion, guys/ O Come All Ye Faithful/ Order Popemobile, sharpish.

Something like that.

The kids, let me tell you, were brilliant. But every single one of them was a comedian manque, from the ones who couldn’t wait to get their bit done, to gabble their allotted portion and so to escape back into safe obscurity, to the real stars of the show, the Innkeeper and the Camel, who were probably with hindsight meant to be funny. But consciously or subconsciously, they were all playing it for laughs. So that after about ten minutes I was in quiet hysterics. Which is when they had the marketplace scene, where Joseph buys the donkey. The transaction, according to the innocents of Lark Rise Junior School, Dunstable, went something like this:-

“I’d like to buy your donkey. How much is it?”

“A tenner, sir”

“Fine - here’s the money” (hands over some coin and leads beast of burden away)

Now you should know that in a real-life transaction of this importance between a Jewish Carpenter and an equally Jewish market trader and Donkey-Dealer, the commercial process wouldn’t have been quite so neat and tidy. For openers, Joseph would never have been allowed to buy the donkey on his own. This would have been Family Business, and his entire extended family would have gone with him. There’d have been his Bubbeh, his Grandmother, who saw donkeys not so much as transport as pot-roast - many a time in the old days had they had to sacrifice a donkey or two to feed the kids when things got a bit iffy in the Wilderness and they couldn’t face any more Manna. “Not Kosher, such a donkey, but in times of famine - feh! who cares!” She’d have spent hours poking the poor beast in the brisket, checking for quality, mumbling recipes and wondering if the Nazareth Tescos were giving extra loyalty points on carrots and onions. His mother would also have come along - in her younger unmarried days she’d been on a couple of dates with the donkey-salesman; she might even have married him if she thought he could have held down a proper job, but by now she knew him for what he was; she didn’t take any nonsense from him then, and wasn’t going to now. He stood no chance, poor sod.

There’d have been Poppa, tagging reluctantly along behind her, under orders. He was a shepherd by trade, and thus knew all there was to know about donkeys. “Neh, our lad - tha don’t want yon ass - clapped out, is yon ass - when tha’s been around beasts and sooch so long as I ‘ave tha knows a booggered ass when tha sees un!” His sister, Joseph’s Aunt Sadie, would be there as of right, to give him moral support, “so who’d vant a donkey thet colour already - it von’t go mit anytink” along with her husband Leonard, who had once seriously considered buying the Galilee Fatted Calf Ribs-U-Like franchise in partnership with his brother Morrie (before Morrie’s wife Miriam put the mockers on the deal by blowing the money on a new swimming pool) and was thus considered by all to be an expert both in matters of commerce and of livestock.

Mary’s family would also have expected to be consulted. All of ‘em. They’d have turned up in droves. Her mother, for starters, who didn’t for one moment fall for all that Angel-of-the-Lord folderol and reckoned that that schnorrer Joseph had been in pre-marital legover mode with her little girl; and while she was resigned to the realities, (after weeks of hysterics, meaningful silences, threatened suicides, and enough emotional blackmail to garner her a stock of prime scoring-points which would last her the rest of her days) she still felt that a mere carpenter and his family were beneath her. After all - her Uncle Solly may-his-dear-soul-rest-in-peace had been an Articled Scribe and a sidesman at the local synagogue, so they were Professional People, not In Trade like those common Carpenters. Consequently, she was going to contradict on principle every utterance, and countermand every decision, especially those of Joseph’s mother, who she both hated (for bringing her daughter’s seducer into the world) and was jealous of (because she’d had to shell out fortunes to some cowboy Lebanese builders for her new kitchen, whereas Joseph had built his mother a far more stylish one the following month for free.) She’d have also roped in her smartass brother, Uncle Hymie the fixer, who had a friend whose cousin knew a bloke whose wife’s uncle’s boss used to drink with a chap who was knocking off this girl who worked as a part time abacus operator for an outfit whose Sales Manager played golf with the Chief Executive of the firm that was the market leader, donkeywise, (then called Asses’R’Us but now known as Virgin Beasts of Burden, although it’s unclear whether or not this is in honour of the Madonna) and who could almost certainly “get wholesale if thet putz of a son-in-law of mine can vait a couple veeks....”

And so on. What with all this internecine interference, debate, argument, heated discussion and open warfare, allowing time for the asking price to have been chiselled down, sestercius by agonising sestercius, and allowing for time out during the negotiations to ‘let that momser of an ass-peddler sweat,’ it would have taken for ever to buy that beast! Before shekels and donkey changed hands the bloody animal would have died of old age, Mary would have been on HRT, and Jesus would have been shaving and going out with girls. But back to the play.

The story proceeded as per; King Herod was borne on, proudly ensconced on his throne, surrounded by his attendants (and carrying for some unexplained reason what looked like a dish of sprouts); the Nazareans were ordered to Bethlehem; the Three Kings were introduced; (and I betcha Robbie’s is the only primary school within 50 miles of the metropolis, who when faced with the need for a kid to play an African potentate, couldn’t find an ethnically suitable candidate and had to make do with a white one with a Bedfordshire accent. “Ay’m Melchier an’ Ay come from Afrik’er wiv gold ferder noo King” as opposed to “Ah’m Melchior, and Ah komm from Effreekah wid’ de Gold for de niew Kung”).

It was at this point that things started to get seeeriously surreal.

While I’m happy to accept the theory that the Welsh are the Lost Tribe of Israel, I’ve hunted through the King James Bible (the only one that I find readable; all the modern translations sound like they were cobbled together by the same linguistic hooligan who churned out the Customs & Excise guide to VAT) and can’t find, in the Nativity story or anywhere else, mention of a little Welsh girl called Megan. Or for that matter, her camel, known to his intimates (the staff and pupils of Lark Rise School) as Meredith. But maybe Lark Rise School is using a later interpretation of the Holy Scriptures than I have access to, so let’s not carp or cavil. Either way - these two voyagers from the Valleys seemed to have become a pivotal part of the Nativity Story.
Young Megan was a pretty child, sort of a cross between Shirley Temple and Alice in Wonderland, with a pleasant voice, and a good delivery. No gabbling here. And (her relevance to the storyline apart) no controversy, either - it was Meredith the Camel that was remarkable, not Megan.

Whoever made Meredith’s costume must have once heard someone describe a camel, but had patently never seen one. Or even a picture of one. Because, given acres of vaguely camel-coloured fabric and hours of painstaking stitchery, when the end product emerged, it didn’t turn out as a camel at all. It was a Brontosaurus. And as if this wasn’t hilarious enough, design dictated that it should be a two-seater Brontosaurus, in the manner of a pantomime horse; they’d cast a kid at each end, as it were. The trouble was that the drivers of this dun dinosaur had developed a major communications problem. Somehow the Back Legs didn’t seem to be interfacing with the Front Legs, and each end was acting independently of the other. So the hapless creature was staggering around the stage like it was pissed out of its pea-sized brain, audibly arguing with itself, and the puzzled audience was presented not with an indigenous and benignly stupid camel that the traditional story might reasonably have demanded, but with a ratarsed Welsh Brontosaurus with Attitude.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the beast’s head, due to a minor design fault, kept coming unput, falling forwards and closing up the small but vital spyhole in the creature’s neck; with the result that Front Legs couldn’t see where he was going; worse, his arms were hidden and restrained inside his costume and he had nothing to push his drooping bonce back up with; the bodily contortions he essayed in order to achieve some form of comfortable stasis headwise had to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile Back Legs, who was bent double, in the dark, and with such a view as he enjoyed limited by and to the bum belonging to Front Legs, not a vista normally reckoned to enhance one’s sense of direction, had by now no idea at all where he was at. His solution to this disorientation problem was to follow exactly what Front Legs was doing, or rather what he guessed Front Legs was doing; which would have been fine, except that his guesses weren’t always accurate, (unsurprisingly, considering Front Leg’s impromptu unrehearsed head-straightening convolutions) and his reactions weren’t exactly fast, so it was a bit like one of those satellite phone calls to New Zealand or wherever where there is both interference on the line and a time delay between transmission and reception; so that the Party of the First Part finds the Party of the Second Part answering the question before last, and vice versa, and if they’re going to make any sense at all out of the proceedings they both have to remember what happened ten minutes ago, assuming they heard it correctly in the first place what with the static. Tricky.

Anyway - Megan and Meredith did their statutory little song-and-dance number; I presume it was meant to be in unison, or at least in time, but what with one thing and another it came out as a sort of disharmonious trinity, with each participant employing a different beat and a different script. I’ve never seen anything quite so funny in my life. I hope it was intentional.

Anyhow - back to the story. Their dancing done, M and M were then firmly put in their place by the Reigning Classes when they mooted a joint Star-Following expedition, and so opted to Follow the aforesaid Heavenly Body off their own bats.

Who (the bats, I mean) bring us neatly to the next bit. Night. O celebrated and eponymous Night. Silent same; Holy same. That Night. The Night the Shepherds Washed Their Socks by. They (the shepherds) were All Seated On The Ground as the song and the script dictates; the Star had conveniently stopped zooming around the firmament so that everybody could stop Following it and get some much-needed kip in, the Angel of the Lord Came Down, pulled rank, and woke everybody up again, and Glory Shone Around for a bit. These things are traditional, they tell me. Which presumably means that by next year Lord Protector Blair and his New Meddle Army will have banned them outright. New Labour, New Liturgy. God rest ye merry, Mandelson.

Meanwhile Megan was sleeping with her camelosaurus, (funny people, the Welsh) the three kings were sleeping with each other, (Orientals - nuff said) Mary was sleeping with her baby, Joseph presumably got lucky with the donkey, and we were presented with A Tableau.

Which was obviously designed, or at least intended, to represent the aforementioned Night. But what I couldn’t work out, apart from the granting of some gainful employment to some of the kids that weren’t otherwise engaged in the drama, was why they needed it, for it had absolutely no relevance to the story. It was clearly aimed to represent a forest (the Judaean desert is after all renowned worldwide for its lush forestry) so a dozen or so kids came in dressed up as trees, which involved a certain amount of foliage draped round their persons, footwear like oversized wellies covered in bark, and outstretched arms. Once they’d got set up, there appeared divers others, kitted out as badgers, foxes, owls, rabbits, bats, deer, various assorted rodents, and other typically indigenous Levantine nocturnal fauna. It looked more like a wood somewhere vaguely Dorking way, or a traditionally-minded Shakespearean Director’s conception of the Forest of Arden, than an Eastern Mediterranean oasis. Maybe we’ve swopped plays in mid stream, I thought. Maybe Titania, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, Bottom, Snout, Quince & Co. are going to come on any minute and do their thing. But no such luck. Or such Puck. This wasn’t Midsummer Night, but Silent Ditto.

So, moving right along, the next participants to appear were a trio of Burglars. I’d been rather waiting for them, because as I said earlier, one was played by my grandson Robbie, who was only on stage for ten seconds, but let me tell you - he was brilliant. Stole the show, he did. definitely deserves an Oscar, the lad..... [ continues interminably in Proud Grandfather mode until everybody’s eyes glaze over...........] How could one tell that they were burglars? They wore masks, that’s how. Although not the statutory striped jerseys and the sacks marked ‘SWAG’, unfortunately. Fire the director, say I, and blame this significant departure from tradition on the Government’s education cuts. Neither did they commit any noticeable burgling; they were just there, it seemed, as typical ‘creatures of the night,’ along with the badgers etcetera. For all the relevance they had to the proceedings, the scriptwriters might as well have slung a few rapists, serial killers and parkers on double yellow lines into the melting-pot (although as I’m not sure of the correct symbolic uniform for any of these offenders, for all I know they may well have done.) Anyway - they all stood there for a minute or so being a Night, and then called it a night and legged it into the wings. The lights came up, and Lo! Morning has Broken. Christmas Day in the Morning, even. Time for The Presents.

Cut to the Stable. Joseph’s busy grooming the donkey. (Another kid-each-end job this, but better behaved and better co-ordinated than the camel.) Mary’s busy giving the baby Jesus a gobful of - well, she should have been, but this particular BVM couldn’t be more than about nine years old, and hadn’t grown any yet, so use your imagination. Jesus looks singularly unconcerned at this lack of mammary nourishment, but then why should he care - he’s a plastic dolly.

The Three Kings tip up. Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh are formally transferred to their new owners. Mary thanks them profusely, but the look on her face says “This is all well and good, but I’d far rather have a couple of Baby-Gros and some Pampers.” Enter the shepherds, stage right. Their gifts consist of a carpet (secondhand), a coat (Oxfam) and a lamb (newborn). Which presumably will need bottle-feeding shortly, along with the baby. Let’s hope somebody pitches up soon with the bottle, some formula, some Milton, and a few spare teats.

Megan arrives, with Meredith staggering along amiably drunk in her wake. “What have I, a poor orphan, got that I can give the Newborn King” she asks, half to herself, half to us. Sure and what indeed? the Irish couple in the back row are thinking. The brontosaurus, who’s seen the script, desperately tries to look invisible. And fails, miserably. It’s the long trek back to Nazareth for you, boyo.

Megan, having finally got shot of her familiar, turns into Goody-Twoshoes. And turns to the audience.

“And what would You give the Baby Jesus”, she trills.

This is the cue for the rest of the school to file up onto the stage, each bearing his or her gift (or rather a pictorial representation of same - for practical reasons the real things might have been a tad awkward to handle.)

“I’ll give him my rabbits.”
“I’ll give him my hamster.
“I’ll give him some goldfish.”
“He’d love my pony.”
“I’ve got a white rat.”
“Here’s my dog?
“My cat’s just had kittens”
“How about a jerbil or nine..............”

and so on etcetera, through about thirty of the little dears, each with his own particular species. You’ll notice that none of them was parting with anything significant, like a Spice Girls poster or a Nintendo game.

You should remember, this is a fairly small stable. Ensconced in it by now are two new parents, one new baby, three kings, their attendants, a coachload of shepherds with (presumably) their flocks; thirty-odd schoolchildren from 2000 years in the future, a two-part donkey, a lamb, a litter of kittens, a prodigious quantity of other assorted household pets and farm animals of all shapes and sizes, a pony, the cow whose nice peaceful pad this was before it got hijacked and turned into a refugee camp; the Innkeeper, who’s popped in to see what all the noise is about, his family, who have no intention of missing out on anything, a few chickens, Megan the Cambrian Pollyanna, a brontosaurus from Tiger Bay with a drink problem, two turtle-doves, and a Partridge in a pear tree. It must have been quite a party.

That was about it, really. They all took their bows, we applauded vociferously, an ovation which they all truly deserved, and we went home. An entertainment that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. I haven’t laughed so much in years. And if this has sounded like I’m knocking what must have taken considerable dedication, time and planning, just to be clever-clever, I’m not. I loved every minute of it.

It was only later that I got to thinking (the Theatre does this to me - I get lost in the magic and start confusing it with reality) of what poor old Joe might have said to his wife when everybody had left. and he’d finished mucking out the stable and feeding the livestock.
“Listen, darlin. By you this little bugger may be a king, but that don’t mean we’ve won the Lottery an’ we’re made a’ money. ‘Erod’s already nicked the gold - sent ‘is enforcer round afore you can say knife, ‘e did. Name of Gordon. Weaselly little shit. Unearned income, ‘e said. Taxed at 100 pee in the Shekel, innit. Payin’ for a Carin’ Society or some such bollocks. Sumberdy, probly that foreign bird, ‘as ‘alf-inched yer noo perfume; the bloody donkey’s eaten the Myrrh, give itself a narsty case of the squits, we’ve got enough bleedin’ livestock to start a zoo, ‘cep we can’t afford to feed the buggers, let alone find the money for the soddin’ vet’s bills or to get ‘em all back ‘ome, and most of the sods ain’t even edible in emergencies. The goldfishes’ polythene bag’s leakin all over the poxy gerbils, the rabbits are at it already, the cow’s drivin’ itself mad cause it reckons it’s got BSE, and the camel’s got the ‘ump, got ‘imself pissed as a fart and is doin’ dinosaur impressions. An’ I’m fed up to the back teef wiv shovellin’ shit. So do us a favour, willya. Next time you run inter an angel, keep yer bleedin’ legs shut, there ‘s a good girl!
Mindjew - one bitter good news - that newspaper geezer. Murdoch? Maxwell? Summink like that. Matthew, thassit. Sed ‘e might call round termorrer. Might buy our story, ‘e sez. The Noo Testament, ‘e reckons ‘e works for. Neverrerdovit. Must be one of them arty-farty Sundy papers..................

Friday, 21 November 2008

Marketing Revisited



There is, out there, a whole Industry-full of Marketing Zombies who have programmed into their victims the assumption that the rest of the population (you and me, folks) are gibbering morons, totally incapable of thinking for themselves, and that everything and anything, if they are to stand any chance at all of flogging it to us. has to be served as a pre-digested pap. Add to this a succession of Governmental nannies who are determined to legislate all the risk out of everything for everybody, and the simplest transaction ends up wrapped in more verbiage than a VAT guide, and festooned with more caveats than a Trade Union policy document.

Take packaging. Brushing aside the more obvious annoyances in that (for instance) if you have something that needs a battery, you won’t be able to buy a pack of less than two, but if it takes two, or worse, four, you’ll find that in that size they only come in threes. There’s also the physical problem, in that if the movers and shakers in the packaging industry really had our interests at heart, they’d design their product so that we don’t need a JCB to force our way into it.

But why should they address these genuine annoyances, when they’re on a far more vital mission. The main function of packaging is not to protect the product, or even, as often appears, to drive the consumer doolally. It is to act as the carrier of a comprehensive Manufacturers Cover-Your-Arse document, usually including:

· A list of ingredients (often, and rightly, a legal requirement, but you’d need to be a Regius Professor of Chemistry to grasp the finer (and thus the more salient) points.) And why can’t they call water “water” rather than the bland faux-impressive “aqua”?

· A chart, in the case of comestibles, giving details of calories and stuff (ditto Professor – but Physics.)

· Various disclaimers covering recycled materials. ‘All our packaging is made from secondhand loo paper’ ‘This can was made from replenishable trees.’ ‘Our bottles are 100% biodegradable.’

· More disclaimers, mostly concerning animal testing, and touching on Whales, Dolphins and other denizens of the deep perceived to be either cute or intelligent. And Pandas, for some reason. But if Medical Research found a use for, say, cockroaches, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of the Animal Rights nutters. Maybe I ought to set up a Leech Liberation Fund. Bloodsuckers Anonymous.

· Genetic purity or the lack of same. But isn’t the familiar hybrid Tomato a genetically modified food?

· Peanuts. (I’ve forgotten – am I supposed to be for or against peanuts?)

· Disposal of the used product and/or packaging. If it’s any shape other than flat, and any part of it is made of metal, don’t sling it on the fire. If it’s shaped like a pineapple and made of metal, just pull the little pin out. That’ll dispose of it nicely. And of course eschewing the local Bottle Bank, or worse, putting the wrong colour bottles into the wrong compartment thereof, is a black cap long drop sharp jerk and into the quicklime job.

· A use-by date (understandable for perishable foods, but can somebody out there tell me why I need a use-by date on a bottle of blue-black ink or a packet of aspirin?)

· A hot line, in case you have a problem. And if you try to ring it, you sure will have a problem. It’ll take you three hours to get through while your call is held in a queue and some snotty voice reminds you of that fact every thirty seconds whilst begging you not to hang up because they value your custom; half-an-hour punching digits, star buttons and hashes into your handset at the behest of a disembodied vaguely female recording; and then you’ll then be kept hanging on at a premium rate quid-a-minute listening to the most expensive and least accomplished performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik you’ve ever heard, while the tracey on the other end of the phone files her nails and rabbits to her girlfriend, before informing you that she can’t possibly help you with your problem, no matter what it is, and that you should ring Head Office in Manchester (and thus go through the whole rigmarole again.) Enjoy.

· Pronouncements from Brussels on the subject of how bad for you the product you’re buying is. Does being admonished with every packet that Smoking Is A Short Cut To Hell really inhibit the sale of one single solitary fag? Of course it doesn’t!

· And last but not least, a List Of Instructions. In seven languages, more often than not.

I can understand anyone needing a manual to operate a computer, or a video, or a Hi-fi system – I occasionally need one myself, which is why I get so infuriated when I find that the aide-toi for the appliance in question has been written by a robot, and a Japanese robot, at that, and thus is totally incomprehensible. One knows what each individual word ought to mean, but they don’t seem to be strung together in any recognisable pattern.

But forget the techno-goodies for a moment. Let’s take the most simple household products. In fact, let’s do just that. I’ll go round the house and pick a few real examples at random. Bear with me.

Right. Aerosol can of Sainsbury’s Shaving Foam. Regular, if that makes any difference. ‘Directions’, it says on the back.

‘Wash face and leave skin wet.’ Believe it or not, girls, us blokes just don’t need to be told that a shave is more effective and more comfortable if one starts with a wet phizog.

‘Shake can before use’. Valid enough, except can you honestly say that you know anybody who doesn’t shake an aerosol before pressing the tit?

‘Hold container upright’. Puhleeeze!

‘Press button gently to release a small amount of foam onto fingertips’ They’re slipping up, here. They forgot to tell us to locate said fingertips (presumably those attached to the hand that isn’t grimly holding the container upright as per) within foam-squirting distance of the nozzle. You could be in trouble, here. So could the cat, if he’s anything like mine – rubbing himself around my ankles when I’m shaving of a morning.

‘Smooth evenly onto face’ (they obviously haven’t seen my face – evenly is impossible) ’and shave.’ I’m surprised that they don’t tell me at this point to be sure and use a blade rather than an electric razor.

Rinse with water. As I tend not to keep the gin in the bathroom, water is exactly what I normally use for rinsing purposes. Am I alone in this?

Example 2. The other extreme. A thing of Araldite Rapid. Here, and rightly, they give simple advice re children, skin, eyes, and other damageable and non-replaceable elements. So far, so good, although they don’t actually warn you against spreading the stuff on the loo seat.

But then they go into orbit.

WARNING. Reaction product. Bisphenol A (epichlorhydrin); epoxy resin (number average molecular weight s700. 1, 4-butanedial diglycidyl ether N(3-dimethylaminopropy)0-1, 3-propylenediamine. (The Author will not be held responsible for any errors or omissions in the above transcript.)

Warning? Who are they warning? And against what? Like the poor old judge on the wrong end of F.E. Smith’s celebrated witticism, I’m none the wiser. (….but far better informed, m’lud….) But it sounds all high-tech and impressive. And it’s a well-known fact that gloop with an average molecular weight of s700 is inclined to be a bit iffy. Add a dollop of that hooligan 3-propylenediamine to the stew, and you could be in deep doodoo.

Example 3: A box of cotton buds. “Never insert into inner ear or nose.” But what else does anyone buy the buggers for? They might as well put a warning on a Black and Decker – “Do not use for de-waxing lugholes.”

Example 4: A bar of NEW Mint Aero. (Question – is it still “NEW” when it’s past its sell-by date?) The usual parade of e-numbers, and a list of chemicals which sound exactly the same to me as those used in the Araldite. A note from the ever-caring Nestle Consumer Services Department to inform us that ‘they welcome comments or questions,’ and a PO box number to address same to. At least you don’t have to ring the sods up. And then, proudly emblazoned in a fancy border. “The light minty bubbles are part of Nestle’s proud Chocolate Heritage”.

Wot? Come again? Shall we dissect and discuss? The ‘light minty bubbles’ are, by and large, air. This tends to be the norm, with bubbles. The substance surrounding and thus containing said air is green, not chocolate. It sure is minty, though. The outer carapace of this confection is chocolate, but they don’t mention that component – so can we presume that it isn’t ‘part of Nestle’s proud Chocolate Heritage’?

So have I gotta question for you, Nestle Consumer Services! Is this chockie Grade 1 listed, or what ? May I eat (sorry – ‘consume’ – let’s get the jargon right) it without ending up with an English Heritage halberd up my backside? Should I throw it open to the public on alternate summer Saturday afternoons? Give us a clue. And give us a break – do you really think that anybody falls for such prolix bullshit?

Even the stalwart jar of Marmite is guilty. “Spread thinly on toast,” it says on the back. Surely – anybody who didn’t know that, (Americans, notably) wouldn’t be buying the stuff anyway. “Shucks, Mizz Ellie – Ah jest done gotten me dis heyah thanga Marmite. Muddah come all de way from LunnonEngerlayund. You de one wid de eddicashun an de glayusses – y’all look on de back dere and tellus what it foah.”


I also loved the example quoted in (I think) the Sunday Times, which concerned a chap who had bought a deodorant stick. The instructions thereon read:

“Remove lid, and holding container firmly, push up bottom”

To my mind, this raises several questions:

1 Are you supposed to (a) leave it in situ, or (b) will a momentary application suffice?

2 If (a) , how do you perform natural bodily functions (or for that matter, arcane sexual practices?)

3 Do you need to buy a new stick every day, or

4 Can you just take the old one out and wash it?

5 If (3) how do you tell when the deodorant has run out ? Or must you wait for your best friend to tell you?

6 Does it come in different sizes?

7 Does it work for household pets?

8 Should one buy a separate stick for armpits?


Stop Press: My TV is on in the background as I write, and I’ve just heard a woman, vaguely famous, from her accent transatlantic, but not unnattractive for all that, extolling the virtues of [trying to flog] some nostrum, no doubt expensive, which is, she tells us, shit-hot at de-wrinkling ladies of a certain age. Not that she put it quite like that. She described this cosmetic Philosopher’s Stone as being, and I quote, “A Fresh Sensation in Moisturising Power.”

Madam – please – I beg of you - learn to speak English. Because You’re Worth It.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Back to basics


It’s Uncle Phil’s morning for a whinge. It’s my turn. I’ve earned it, I deserve it, and nobody ain’t going to stop me. So there.

It’s not going to be my usual grumpyoldbugger moan about control-freak politicans, council jobsworths, the growing feeling that we’re virtually being forced to live in a sort of open prison, anarchic amoral youth, or any of the other petty annoyances I tend to get my hair off about.

It’s not even really going to be about books, except as ballast.

The problem is, you see, that a couple of days ago I did my back in. It’s not a new phenomenon; I’ve done it before many times; after nearly 40 years in the antique trade, heaving bloody great lumps of furniture and pianos and such in and out of houses, vans and shops, it’s more of a chronic condition, which most of the time I can live with. But sometimes it seriously flares up, and when it does, it throws my life into tedious limbo. Not only that, it’s bloody painful, costs me a fortune in osteopaths and ibuprofen, and buggers up my love life.

A friend of mine, who's into these things, once told me that the Orientals have the best cure. Three little Japanese virgins tippy-toeing up and down my spine in their bare feet would sort the problem out nicely. They said.

And there’s the rub. Where do you find three young Japanese virgins in Coventry? (Or three young virgins of any nationality, come to that? )

Meanwhile, we’ve got about two dozen crates of books, all nicely catalogued and photographed, ready to go over to the warehouse to be shelved, and I can’t lift the buggers.

And we’re running out of space in our little house.

I’ve got a carload of fresh stock to unload ready for processing, and nowhere to put it even if I could lift it out of the car, which I cant, the garden’s a tip, it takes me half-an-hour to crawl up- or down- stairs, and Susie’s giving me grief bigtime because she can’t do the housework for boxes, heaps and piles of assorted literature.

Maybe I should blame my parents – if they’d had me later I’d have been younger, and better able to cope. But as Marvell put it:

At my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near……….


Maybe he had a bad back, too.
Pressing the right buttons
I get worse, in my old age.

The phone rings, right – I’m packing up some books, and at the same time trying to watch the news out of the corner of my eye, so I need to turn the volume down before I answer it.

Point TV thingy at TV, press button. No result. Realise I’d picked up mobile phone instead of TV thingy. Think – Silly old Sod! Put down mobile. Pick up thingy. Press button as before. No result, as before. Realise I’m holding pocket calculator. Throw same at wall, with torrent of fluent Anglo-Saxon commentary.

Meanwhile, phone has stopped ringing.

Dial 1471. Get strange noise. Realise I’m holding mobile instead of landline phone.

Screw’em. I didn’t want to speak to ‘em anyway. Whoever it was.

Some days one just shouldn’t get outta bed.

Friday, 7 November 2008

All That Glisters


While in my local charity shop some weeks ago, looking at such incunabula and 16th and 17th century works as they’d had in that week, I chanced upon a volume in a somewhat garish dust wrapper, emblazoned upon the front of which was a banner bearing the rubric “World’s Number One Best Seller.”

‘Well’, I reasoned – ‘This ought to be a good little earner’ – if it’s that good, everybody will want one’.

So I bought the volume, and then chased around all the other charity shops in the area, and a couple of car boots for good measure, thus managing to acquire another 27 copies. Fair enough, some of them were so-called “Book Club” editions, but for a World’s Number One Best Seller this shouldn’t matter too much, I’d have thought. People like clubs. It’s a security thing.

I duly prepared my new purchases for listing online, with my usual accurate and informative descriptions, pitching the prices fairly high to both create and control demand, and carefully photographed each one – no ‘stock’ photos for me, thank you – then uploaded both words and images, and waited for the orders to roll in.

But, do you know – I haven’t sold a single one. Something, somewhere is very wrong, as my so-called ‘best sellers’ have turned out in fact to be non-sellers.

Worse, I have since tried to read the book – I say ‘tried’ because I found it unreadable – a mere concatenation of scenes involving imaginative and potentially harmful sexual permutations, egregious violence, and shopping, with various plugs for overpriced branded products.


My question is – who can I sue?

The website for not doing their job properly and selling my books in the prescribed manner?
The publishers, for misleading point-of-sale advertising?
The charity shop, under the Trades Descriptions Act?
The author, for turning out such rubbish? or
The local Trading Standards department, for allowing such blatant chicanery?

[later]

All is not lost, my friends. I’ve just had an email from a very nice man in farthest Nigeria, offering to buy all my books, offering to pay me for express shipping, and happy to send me an international money order, even trusting me to send him any change after having worked out the shipping cost.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Herald of the morn.

So it's the early bird that catches the worm, right?

So they try to tell us. But the logical projection of this pious taradiddle makes a complete nonsense, so any metaphorical inference drawn from it is quite valueless. It's not Holy Writ, just blatant anthropomorphism hard-sold as a basic truth by a dour Puritan minority as a step up to that moral high ground they seem to crave as their right. while denying it to the rest of us foolish virgins. But the control freaks have got it wrong. Logic module malfunction. Abort. Cancel. Retry.

After all, what about the early worm ? Leaping virtuously out of bed at the crack, full of rich nourishing compost and good intentions, didn't exactly do that poor creature any favours, did it. Had it stayed in its comfortable pit of a morning like a sensible worm oughter, idly dozing, making slithery love to its comely wormwife, or as is often the way with hermaphroditic wrigglies, itself, (hence, I suppose, the proliferation of blindworms,) hacking into the wormish equivalent of Earl Grey and Weetypops, and snuggling under its loamy duvet doing its lazy vermiform thing, instead of dancing shamelessly about on the lawn wiggling its bum in virtuoso linguine impressions and generally showing out to passing fowls, it wouldn't have ended up as a blackbird's brekkie.

If you're a worm, matitudinal misjudgment can seriously endanger your health. And blunt your sense of humus something permanent, I shouldn't wonder. Tardiness should be next to Godliness, in Wormworld. As the vermicular versifier, Williworm Wormsworth, has it:

Early to rise, and early to bed
makes a worm healthy and wealthy and dead.

So before you set the alarm tonight, undress, turn around, and take a good look at yourself in the mirror. Any evidence of feathers, bills or talons, and you're onto a hot date with Aurora. 4AM will do nicely. And don't activate the snooze button, Woody. Get up, get out there and get the vocals going full blast. It's all you're good for, let's face it.

But otherwise, my old son, if you're feather-free, downless as an egg rather than descended from one, not a beak to see you through the week, you ain't a Woodpecker, you're a Worm.

So sling the timepiece out of the window, take the phone off the hook, snuggle up, and allow yourself a nice long lie-in. You'll feel better for it, I promise. And when, overcome by exhaustion due to lack of sleep and all that singing on an empty stomach, the early bird falls off his perch slap bang onto your front doorstep, that's the time to rise and shine. Bye-bye Blackbird, hello Brunch. That's the watchword, wormwise. While birds have their set of laws, worms must live under a completely different code. And not one concocted for them "for their own good" by nest-featherers masquerading as do-gooders.

What say you to a piece of beef and mustard?.



It is a truth universally acknowledged that a food manufacturer in possession of a hot new line must be in want of a fresh supply of marketing ideas.

Which is why, sooner or later, he’ll bring it out in Tandoori flavour.

If you don’t believe me, take a stroll round your local superstore. You’ll see Tandoori Pizza, Tandoori flavour Pasta sauce, Tandoori sausages, All-American Tandoori flavor [sic] potato skins, Tandoori style Peking duck, (honest – I’ve seen it, packaged with pancakes and ‘genuine’ spring onions,) Tandoori kebabs, complete with pitta bread doing nan impressions, racks of Tandoori ribs, a whole raft of Tandoori-flavoured nibbles, and so on etcetera.

Even the humble takeaway chicken sandwich can’t escape the statutory tandoorification. And more often than not it comes accompanied by the fashionable but markedly non-Indian ‘oven-roast’ (how else do you do it?) vegetables. With a dollop of fromage frais atop and wrapped in a tortilla. (Whatever happened to Hovis?) Ethnically confusing, but delicious.

So - you name it, and with the possible exceptions of sushi, which really would be a culinary paradox; jellied eels, which really would be revolting; and bagels, which might invoke the attentions of the Race Relations Board, some bright spark, with an insouciant disregard for theoretical ethnic pedigrees, will have smothered it in the spices of the Orient and flogged it to Tescos. Harry Ramsdens are probably road-testing Tandoori cod’n’chips as we speak, (and what are mushy peas, if not dhal with a Yorkshire accent,) I’m expecting Tandoori Yoghurt any minute, Tandoori Ripple is only a matter of time, and even that nice Mr Kipling has been spotted lurking around the Indian spice shops in Tooting High Street. And he ain’t about to make cinnamon buns.

Of course, it’s not just a Tandoori thing. Gastronomic cross-breeding has become part of our way of life. You can buy almost any ethnic foodstuff you like, and quite a few of our indigenous dishes, dressed up in the national colours of almost every other cuisine or discipline you can think of. Add to all this the considerable influence that fad, fashion, fancy and foodies have had on the range of comestibles on offer in our shops and restaurants, and almost anything becomes possible.

So – my highly-tuned nose having sniffed out a gap in the market, I feel a caff coming on. I’m going to call it “Uncle Phil’s Multicultural Cuisine-u-like” or something equally snappy. Here are some sample menus:

Breakfast:
Swiss muesli, with organic Greek goats milk and genuine Canadian Maple syrup. (Hoi-sin sauce optional).

Sweet ‘n’ sour Kipper blinis

Eggs various, served with piri-piri , garlic butter, satay sauce, or tiramisu



Lunch

Pizza Cosmopolitana, either Deep Pan or Thin ‘n’ Crispy ( sorry folks – I don’t know the Italian for either of these terms) from a build-it-yourself smorgasbord groaning with hundreds of delicious ‘morning-fresh’ fillings and flavourings, including deep-fried seaweed, rollmops, lemongrass, whelks, vintage Marmite, bacalhao, crystallised pineapple, ackee, gravad lax, sauerkraut, pemmican, smoked haddock (non-dyed, naturlich ), Mortadella (no, sorry – that’s Italian – we can’t allow that), Thai-style Cumberland sausage, California raisins marinaded in chilli and garlic, goose khorma, quails eggs in ginger & spring onion, aromatic crispy saltbeef, barbecued grapefruit segments, Cajun fricasseed whitebait, prune and pine nut tempura, strawberry raitha, anchovy and blackcurrant pesto, quenelles of goat’s thigh topped with feta cheese, sun-dried ostrich steaklets, squid and pistachio passata, kiwi fruit & wasabi coulis, shiitake mushrooms in balsamic vinegar, baby beetroot in brandy, and of course that old favourite, tandoori gefillte fish

Dinner
Sorry – somehow I don’t feel up to doing dinner. If you’re still hungry please avail yourselves of the leftovers from lunch. On the House.

Failing that, I suppose I could always take the battle to the enemy and open a Mexican takeaway in Beijing. “You likee tly unworthy tortirra ? Rotsa derricious orfentic firrings. Rancashire Hotpot, Gleek Kreftiko with flesh Coliander, Tandooli……………..?”

A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles

I can’t begin to tell you tell you how relieved I am. It’s as if a lifetime’s burden has been lifted from my aching shoulders by an uncharacteristically benevolent angel. It’s as if several billion prime brain cells have been released from decades of worry duty and can be recycled into concerning themselves with things pleasant, like sex, or food, or Lesley Garrett; or can be sent as cannon fodder up to the front line next time I go on a bender. It’s as if my personal Road to Damascus has instantaneously sprouted high-tech twenty-first century halogen street-lighting.

But maybe I’d better explain.

For many years now, I’ve kept a Commonplace Book. Well – maybe ‘book’ is slightly too precise a term – what I have is a hotchpotch of ill-assorted bits of paper, scrawled with notes and filed all over the place; yellowing photcopies; articles excised from newspapers and mags; several scruffy notebooks that contain not only literary nuggets, but everything from recipes to out-of-date phone numbers for people I can’t remember ever having met, to details of the day’s take for an Antique Fair I did in Builth Wells in 1983; a library full of books with grubby, crumpled, fading Post-it notes doing duty as bookmarks; and a vague but rapidly deteriorating idea as to where I can lay my hands on some juicy morsel of literary merit that first tickled my fancy in 1954 or thereabouts.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided that the time had come for a major rationalisation programme. I’d enter the whole bang shoot onto my computer, neatly filed, referenced and cross-indexed. Tidiness is all.

A major task, this, but I’m getting there. Another six months should do it. No sweat, apart from a minor case of keyboard wrist and a strong possibility of terminal eyestrain. I’m even learning to read my own handwriting, a skill which has defeated me since I was five years old. And O the joy of re-discovering little gems that haven’t seen the light of day since I first read them in my teens, and have been misquoting from memory ever since.

But it wasn’t until I came across (after a good twenty years lying fallow at the bottom of a cardboard box) a parody of Pride and Prejudice written in the style of Dylan Thomas (by a comic genius called Stanley Sharpless), that it hit me. Bingo!

I’m never, ever, ever again going to have to force myself to attempt Jane Austen!

I have her Complete Works sitting on my bookshelf. Well, you do, don’t you. They’ve been there for years, glowering guilt at me from every virgin spine. And every so often, in a flush of misguided virtue, I’ve taken down P&P (I always start with P&P, for some reason) and tried to sneak into it. I can quote you the first sentence off by heart, but I don’t think I’ve ever got past the second page. Because frankly, the woman is plain bloody boring. It’s her prissy, decaffeinated, anaemic style that induces chronic ennui, not the stories per se, which aren’t bad - after all, they work beautifully on television or on film – but by God it’s dull stuff to read. And having managed without for sixty years, I suddenly realised that I don’t need to make the attempt any more. Yippeeee!

But it gets better, because of course the tedium quotient doesn’t only apply to St Jane. She’s just the tip of the wossname. For starters, I can dump dismal Dickens, piecemeal. Another example of the camera being mightier than the pen. If I feel a Dickens coming on I’ll rent a video of Oliver – at least the tunes are good. I can bin a busload of boring bloody Brontes. I can slap ‘Not Wanted on Voyage’ labels onto all twelve turgid volumes of Gibbon’s so-called masterpiece. I can consign Carlyle to deserved oblivion. I can trash great screeds of Milton – any good book of quotations will serve to supply a compilation album of the best bits – Milt’s Greatest Hits, as it were. I can leave Bunyan’s Pilgrim to Progress unaided and unread. I can forswear Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Sir Walter-Scott-Fitzgerald, all those interminable Russian novels where everybody has at least three different sets of names and you have to draw up a genealogical flowchart as you go along so as to remember who’s doing what to whom, and why. I can quit trying to struggle through Garcia Lorca. Or Ibsen. Or Goethe. I can pare five centuries of French soi-disant literature down to Candide and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. And no – I’m not forgetting Proust. You can stuff Proust. Il pouvait ennuyer pour La France.

I can even (O Heresy ! O Blasphemy !) conveniently forget my self-imposed annual dose of The Faerie Queene.

It was Arnold Bennett who said something to the effect that “A list of the masterpieces I have never read would fill a volume.” Arnie-boy – I’m right in there with you. There are hundreds of worthy books that I’ve always felt I ought to read; some I’ve tried and failed miserably, some I’ve never got round to, and some I’ve never been able to face.

And I’ve just decided that I’m never going to bother. I’m only going to read what interests me, and the dickens take the rest.

Ain’t Freedom wonderful!

Sally Forth

It’s bloody ridiculous! At my age, too! Silly old fool!

You’d think by now that I’d know better. After all, the once-rampant testosterone, while hardly quiescent, is at least under control, most of the time. And besides, I’m far too busy for these emotional fripperies.

But that was before she came along to disturb my comfortable equilibrium.

‘She’ being Sally. My lovely Sally. Even though I’ve never even met her, I have only to hear her voice, and all commonsense goes out of the window. I’ve fallen in love.

Sally. Darling Sally! O be still, my fibrillating heart!

She lives above me somwhere, and spends her entire time, bless her, telling me exactly and precisely where to go. Other women have tried this over the years, of course, but never to such devastating effect. The woman has me in thrall.

Sally Satnav is her full name. It sounds vaguely Slavic, but I don’t think she is. A perfect English Rose, to hear her sweet carefully modulated Cheltenham Ladies College tones. While I motor along the highways and byways, eagerly awaiting her next instruction, I dream of her, comfortably ensconced in her nice little bijou satellite, up there somewhere twixt atmosphere and cosmos , roses around the airlock, chintz-framed portholes and weightless Laura Ashley cushions.

I see her in her twinset and pearls, serene and at ease on an overstuffed sofa in front of a flickering fire, a brace of ginger cats snuggled up to her trim ankles. Tea - Darjeeling of course, cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, or maybe Marmite soldiers, scones with jam and cream, Rich Tea biscuits, Woman’s Hour on the wireless, and a copy of Pride and Prejudice, or maybe some knitting, on her lap.

Her conversation is, admittedly, a bit limited, and consists mostly of instruction concerning exits on roundabouts, and left or right turns, but every perfect syllable brings a thrill to my trembling breast.

But it’s when I dare to disobey her that the real Sally emerges. Off comes the twinset to reveal clinging leather gear. Whips are brandished. Manacles are rattled. In an instant the voice turns from golden honey to blued steel. “Turn around as soon as you can”. “Go back the way you came” “You naughty, naughty boy!” Aaaaaaahhhhhhh.

And then finally she informs me, in a dreamy, post-orgasmic voice, that I have reached my destination, and I sink into anticlimax. The joy is in the journey, not the end of it.

Goodbye for now, dearest Sally. We’ll meet again on the way home, I hope. I’ll turn you on as usual, and you certainly will me.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Corporate Marketing Persons should be boiled in oil!


Prime quality first pressing oil lovingly squeezed from plump ripe olives hand-picked on sun-drenched Italian hillsides by blushing virgins from gnarled antique arboreal masterpieces that were mere octogenarian saplings in Michelangelo’s time, naturally.

But boiled, long and hard, they should be. Regularly.

What does Uncle Phil have against marketing wonks? you may well ask. Siddown. Pour yourself a drink. Bend an ear.

I wanted some toothpicks. Not a great and ennobling ambition, you might think, but if a chap’s gnashers need picking, they need picking. It’s allowed.

We were in our local Tescos . A veritable ├╝ber-Tescos this, so vast that I reckon it regards itself as the centre of the universe, and talks loftily of ‘our little local city’ You need a cab to get from one end to the other. I’ve never dared to venture further than Aisle127 for want of native bearers, and I hear tell that there’s a sign down the end somewhere saying ‘Here Be Dragons – Tescos will not be held responsible if customers get roasted’

So while Susie was stocking up on her weekly container-load of cleaning materials (as I may have mentioned before – we have a menage-a-trois, her, me, and Mr Muscle) I went on a toothpick hunt.

I wandered a couple of aisles down, to the section called (somewhat prissily, but no matter - it gets worse) “Oral Health”.

Toothbrushes, toothpaste and mouthwash, in other words. And in theory at least, toothpicks.

It should be noted that I had my driving glasses on, as opposed to the reading variety. (I tend to need about five pairs of specs, all with different focal lengths, which means that I invariably have the wrong ones on for whatever it is I’m doing. And if by any chance I have the correct pair on, I’m probably doing the wrong thing. ) But I digress, Revenons a nos cure-dents.

It should also be borne in mind that toothpicks by their very nature are not very big, and even bought by the hundred (when I was a lad you could buy them individually, like Woodbines, but that’s progress for you) they come in a very small box. With, by definiton, very small writing on.

So I went up and down the aisle for about twenty minutes, peering intently at lots of little white boxes, all of which seemed to contain dental floss. But toothpicks, I couldn’t find.

By which time Susie came looking for me, shoving a creaking trolley-full of curtain polish and such, and looking relieved to see me. I think she may have thought I’d ventured down to the dragons end, by mistake.

“Suse”, I said, “I can’t find any bloody toothpicks. Have a look for me, there’s a love – I can’t read a damned thing with these glasses”

She looked. For about ten seconds. And waved a little white box at me.

I took it from her. Took my glasses off so as to see better. Did it say “Toothpicks” on the front?

No – it bloody didn’t. Tescos don’t sell toothpicks any more. Their marketing people have, in their wisdom, renamed their product “Freshmint Flavour Interdental Woodsticks.”

It’s worth remembering that, in Coventry at least, half the population struggles with basic English, it not being their first language. “Toothpicks” they might just be able to work out. But “Interdental Woodsticks”? Do me a favour, Tescos – get real! And anyway – why “wood” sticks? Are there any other kind?

As I said – boiled in oil.

taking the Mickey

Not a mouse
Shall disturb this hallowed house.
I am sent with broom before
To sweep the dust behind the door

Much Ado About Nothing, 5,2. The titleof the play is apt, as you shall see.

We’ve been blessed with an outbreak of mice again, after an absence of some time. Or, to be more accurate, an ourbreak of mouse – as far as I can tell there’s just the one. We’ve not so far clapped eyes on our unwelcome guest, but every so often we hear the patter of tiny murine feet running about in the space between the first floor boards and the ground floor ceiling.

Not exactly one of the Twelve Plagues of Egypt, you might think. The taps aren’t running with blood. Not a locust in sight noshing the rose bushes. The local cattle, or at least the bits of them on show at Tesco’s meat counter, look healthy enough, if a bit dead. A frog-free zone, except for the charming little Kermits that always live in our garden. No more thunder and lightning than is usual for England in late summer, even allowing for the Climate Change Chimera. Any firstborn that happen to be around can slumber safely in their cots.

But to hear Susie, you wouldn’t think so. A Mouse! Shock! Horror!. Armageddon Hits Coventry!

Before the first pitterpatter had died away Susie (The Verminator) James sprang into action, ripping up floorboards all over the house, poking around with a torch for hours playing spot the shit, and shoving enough Warfarin into the underfloor cavities to send every rodent between here and Moscow to his maker. Traps? She set ‘em wholesale. Cleaned and vacuumed and swept the whole house, from top to bottom. Three times. Scoured in places I didn’t even know we had places. Major upheaval time. Furniture and floorboards all over the place. “Dropping Crumbs On The Carpet Is Absolutely Forbidden On Pain Of Death!!!“ “Turn The Bloody Television Down - I Can’t Hear The Mouse!!!”

That sorta thing. On the nuisance value scale, give me the mice, any day.

Last time we had a visitation, it cost me about a hundred smackeroonies in B&Q. Poisonous substances by the hundredweight, a clattering of traps, enough torch batteries to run the Blackpool Illuminations, some kind of foam sealant which turns into impermeable orange candyfloss when you squirt it into any available point of entry (consenting adults only!) and little electronic doohickeys that you plug into the mains in each room. Apparently they order Mickey In fluent Mouse to piss off, or give him a shocking headache, or something. At twenty-five quid a pop they didn’t make me feel all that good, either.

However, up to now at least, this marriage of toxins, torture and technology had worked. Albeit it would have been cheaper to give each little nibbling nasty his own plane ticket to the Bahamas and enough holiday money to keep the little bugger in gorgonzola for the rest of his natural.

Not content with our stockpile of Weapons of Mouse Destruction left over from the Last Show, Suse felt compelled to look up ‘mice’ on the internet to see if there were any other poisons, potions, instruments of torture, spells, amulets, ultimate deterrents, or anything else she could buy (read “I could buy”) to halt the advance of Genghis Mouse and his ravening hordes. Bloody Google! Whatever happened to Blissful Ignorance?

It would appear, quoth (and quoted) she, that Mr Mouse doesn’t come as single spies, but in battalions. In every group (according to those nice people from Google, may they each and every one spend eternity trying to work on a Commodore Pet with dial-up) there’s a Dominant Male, a non-dominant male, and several females. Presumably the function of the non dominant male is to take the DM out for a beer in between rudies, or when he’s just plain fed up with the girls not squeaking to him.

Amidst all this domestic chaos, in walks Melinda, my Elder Stepdaughter. Another one, like her mother, with strong and forcefully expressed opinions, not always backed up with impeccable logic.

“Oh, ” she says. “ What you need is to borrow a cat.”

Let us leave aside for the moment the fact that Gemma, the younger and more excitable of our two Rough Collies, would immediately think “aha – Lunch.” (the elder, Amie, is far too much of a lady and far too laid back to let a mere cat disturb the even tenor of her ways. )

Let us leave aside for the moment that Melinda has five cats, and still has mice.

“Yeah. Right. “ I said. “You mean I should go through Yellow Pages until I find somebody that hires out cats”?

A chap could find himself in trouble, that way.

“Hello – is that Rent-a-Pussy?”

“Yes, duckie, that’s us. At your service. ”

Good-oh. I need to borrow a cat. Urgently. ”

“Oooh – I don’t know, dear. I’ve heard it called all sortsa things in my time, but never ‘borrowing a cat’. I can do you French, I can do you Greek, I can do S & M, or I can do you straight. It’s a hundred and fifty quid and I can be round in half an hour.”

“A ton and a half call-out? Even my Polish plumber doesn’t charge that kind of money!…….”

………..but I think I’ll leave it there. You get the drift. Back to the mice. Or rather, mouse.

The house, always spotless, is now gleaming, top to bottom, from bedroom ceilings (“they might climb the curtains”) to under the kitchen sink. Any food, including tins and bottles (“just to be on the safe side”) is in a tupperware box, inside another tupperware box, in the fridge. The vacuum cleaners (all six of ‘em – Suse feels about Hoovers like Imelda Marcos felt about shoes ) are lying around in corners with flaccid hoses and gasping for breath. The office, normally in the state of organised clutter I find comfortable, is so clean and tidy it’ll take me weeks to find anything.

And as for………….hang on – what’s that noise?

“Pitter-Patter-Pitter-Patter………………”

Oh! Soddit!