Category Archives: Anecdotage

Another wine about Brexit

We popped over to France and Belgium at the weekend for a little jauntette. It was all plain sailing, except that we went by Eurotunnel so it was more like plain training.

We didn’t need to buy a visa in advance or complete any paperwork, because we’re in the EU and none of that is necessary. There was no need to apply for an International Driving Permit for France and/or Belgium before we could travel, and we didn’t need to contact our insurance company a full 30 days before departure in order to obtain a Motor Insurance Green Card.

We weren’t required to buy and display a big GB sticker on the back of our car.

During the trip, we could use our phones as normal and not worry about data roaming charges, because the EU abolished roaming charges years ago.

We drove from Calais to Ypres at a steady 80mph on smooth, well-maintained roads where, if our car was fitted with one, cruise control would have been handy. Driving in mainland Europe is as close to the driving experience portrayed in car ads as I ever get. And if anything were to go wrong and we were involved in an accident, we wouldn’t be faced with life-changing bills because our European Health Insurance Cards would have entitled us to reduced-cost or even free medical care.

At Ypres, we visited the vast Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world and the last resting place of nearly 12,000 servicemen who died during the Battle of Passchendaele (total casualties there exceeded 475,000). Last year we spent a weekend in Normandy, site of the WW2 beach landings. It’s no leap of the imagination to suggest that the founding of the EU has in no small way helped prevent a repeat of those bloody battles, those unspeakable wars, those millions of deaths.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

We nosed around the town for a bit (it’s lovely, by the way) then headed for the Menin Gate to witness the playing of The Last Post, a ceremony that’s been conducted at 8pm sharp every night since 1927.

With 30 seconds to go, the crowd of several hundred suddenly hushed, then the Last Post began. It was very moving, despite us arriving too late and not being able to see the buglers. Then a man on our left started chatting to his son, which drew a few ‘shh’ noises from people standing nearby, me included. The father’s enormous friend turned to stare down us down. So instead of being wrapped up in the solemnity of the occasion, I found myself wondering how people could be so utterly self-centred to think that it was perfectly all right to chat away during it, and also whether the big guy was going to be a dick and start something. He didn’t. Phew.

This bit’s got nothing to do with the EU, by the way.

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After dinner we whiled away a few hours outside a bar situated directly opposite our little hotel, the Ambrosia. (What’s the WiFi password, we asked. ‘We will remember’ came the reply. Ah, I said. We will remember that. The manager smiled like she hadn’t heard the joke a thousand times before.)

Next morning, we set off back to Calais to conduct our main business, buying coffee, cheese and olive oil.

OK then, wine.

majestic

One of the advantages of living in the south of England, apart from not having to live in the north of England (note to self: delete this before hitting publish), is that you can access cheap wine and beer relatively easily.

In fact, outlets like Calais Wine Superstore and Majestic Wine Warehouse (above) make it even more tempting by paying for your crossing, provided you buy more than £200 worth of stuff. We were definitely going to do that because we are in the EU and so aren’t limited to the six-bottle limit that applied before we joined.

(There’s currently a rumour that the UK Treasury will maintain the status quo even after Brexit, as long as you can prove the wine you bring back is for your own consumption. To which I will produce an x-ray of my liver and say OK matey, what do you think? And anyway, the rumour might turn out to be a lie. I know! Almost inconceivable.)

Some people would say I’m depriving the UK of significant tax revenues by buying our wine and beer in France instead of in Tesco or Sainsbury’s. I try to avoid these people. But if cornered, I’d say that the French seem to manage quite well without taxing their booze to the neck. Public transport is cheap. The roads are good, even the toll-free ones. The provision of medical care seems, er, healthy. Everything works pretty well. OK, their TV is awful, but you can’t have everything.

I don’t know about you, but I grew up thinking that the USA was way ahead in terms of just about everything, then came the UK, then everyone else was way down there. This all stemmed from my post-imperial education, at a time when we thought Britain was pretty much the dog’s bollocks when it came to progress. It seems we still think that way, because the people who swung the vote in favour of Brexit are almost certainly the ones who never had the opportunity to see how the UK is, at best, on a level with our European partners. Plus loads of Leave voters are racists, but let’s not dwell on that.

Anyway. That’s that, as far as our little trips to France and Belgium go. Unless there’s a miracle, up will come the drawbridge at midnight on 31.10.19.

If only there was a next time

 

Goodbye, wine warehouse. Or is it au revoir? Nope, it’s goodbye

 

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How journalism works

flats (not in Birmingham)One of the founder members of direct response agency Evans Hunt Scott (now Havas something or other) told me this story about his brief brush with journalism in the early 1980s.

He was doing work experience at a newspaper in Birmingham and had been sent to gather details of a burglary at an apartment block in the city. He found the flat, introduced himself to the tenant, interviewed her about the break-in and headed back to base.

The editor asks him about the robbery. David – for that was his name – replies that it doesn’t really amount to much of a story. The burglar had looked through the apartment window and seen the tell-tale flashing light of a video recorder (as rare then as now, but way more desirable). He forced the door and nicked it. The tenant came home to find her door open and the VCR gone.

That’s it? asks the editor. That’s it, says David. That’s not good enough, says the ed.  So David is sent back to the tower block with a list of questions to ask the residents. The elderly female residents, preferably.

Questions like: Do you worry about being burgled and your flat turned upside down? Are you anxious about coming home late at night on your own? Does the sight of groups of youths scare you? To which the answers were inevitably yes, yes and yes.

Now there was a story. It was about far, far more than a one-off opportunistic theft.  I can’t remember if it made it to the front page or not, but I do remember David telling me the headline they came up with.

Flats of fear

Remember, variations of this happen every day, in everything from whatever’s left of local papers to the national dailies. They’re not happy unless we’re scared.

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A cyclist brings me up to date

I went on a short cycle ride just now. I’m not what you might call a keen cyclist. I don’t even look the part, having none of the kit and certainly not a flashy racing bike. I just like exploring the roads and parks near me when the weather suits. It’s also about the only exercise I get.

Today I was in Richmond Park, southwest London, which in case you didn’t know is HUGELY popular with cyclists. I was midway through my little jaunt and taking a breather on a park bench, when a proper cyclist approached and asked if she could share the bench. Of course, I said, and asked if she’d been out for long.

‘Yeah, a few hours, I’m training for the 78-mile ride next week.’
‘Wow, that’s got to be further than Brighton!’
‘Yeah, Brighton’s 55 miles, I’ve done that, no this is a loop. I’ve done the Castlebridge loop, that’s 44 miles, but this one’s longer at 78.’
I couldn’t question her grasp of arithmetic.
‘I’ve probably managed three miles this morning!’ I said.
“Yeah, I’ve been doing that hill over there a few times but it’s not long enough.’
‘That’s quite steep.’
‘No, it needs to be longer for proper training. The one at Box Hill is better, that’s a gradient of 1.3 to 6 and is over 2.4 miles, done that a few times, but need to do more for this 78-mile ride next weekend, only I didn’t train at all last weekend.’
‘Right. Well, you certai…’
‘My company organises the ride, they do it every year.’
‘It’s not compulsory I hope!’
She looks at me. ‘No, you have to sign up for it. I did the 36-mile Bridgenorth loop with them a few years ago, then the 60-mile Box Hill to Sussex ride last year. Today I’ve just been going up and down the hill for the last four hours.’

I decide I’ve rested enough. ‘Bye then. Nice hearing about you.’

Note: Box Hill exists, but I made up the other names. I couldn’t care less where her bloody loops are. 

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Confessions of a Snow Friend

In the summer of 2015 the local council called for volunteers to be ready to grit and clear pavements in case of a heavy snowfall in the coming winter. It sounded like a satisfyingly mindless yet civic-minded thing to do, and also something I could square in my mind with a natural reluctance to help a Tory-run council.

No local authority of any political persuasion had ever cleared snow from pavements as far as I know, so it wouldn’t be as if I was making it easier for the council to quietly stop doing something it had previously taken responsibility for. The only time I’ve seen a city employee clearing snow from pavements was in 1980’s West Berlin. It was early morning, just hours after heavy snow had started to fall, and a man was operating a sort of mechanical pavement plough. He wore no gloves, I recall. No wonder the German army was so close to defeating Russia in WW2.

Back to 2015 and a small band of volunteers – not one of us under 50 – met at Kingston council’s offices to receive instructions about when to grit, and to get taken through a few health and safety dos and don’ts. Then we were issued with warm gloves, anti-slip snow grippers, a big snow shovel and a hi-viz yellow tabard emblazoned with the Snow Friends logo. The grit caddies would be delivered later.

I made my way home in bright sunshine wearing shorts and sunnies and incongruously carrying a two-metre  snow shovel.

I waited for the worst the winter could throw at New Malden
It was a long wait. There was no snow in the winter of 2015/16 or again the following year. But then came 2018 and the warnings about the Beast from the East. My time had come. But where was the grit? I asked the council’s twitter feed and within a few days about 20 kilos of the stuff arrived in a big plastic container. The idea is to scoop out about two kilos at a time into a smaller caddy and use a small hand shovel to scatter it on the pavement as you slowly walk along. Then you go back and refill.

An email from the council provided a weather forecast but fell short of actually telling us when we should get to work, which I thought was a bit lame. So I kept listening to the BBC, checking Metcheck and asking Siri and Alexa until, on a cold day in late February, everyone agreed that snow was imminent. To the dressing-up box!

There was proper snow after the Beast from the East. This pic was taken a few weeks later, during the Least from the East.

First, I tried out my improvised pavement grit spreader, a repurposed garden tool designed for spreading grass seeds. I assembled the contraption, filled it with a handful of grit, gave it a little push and it seemed to work. My stroke of inspiration meant I wouldn’t have to keep going back for grit refills.

Gritspreader not fit to grit
However, my test drive in the garden wasn’t indicative of actual conditions out in the field, or rather the pavement. A full load of grit clogged the spreader’s outlets, resulting in only a few grains falling through as I pushed the thing forwards. So I tried a vigorous up-and-down shaking motion as I walked, looking like someone with Parkinson’s struggling to control an unruly garden implement. The technique lasted just a few steps before I inadvertently yanked the handle out of the hopper part. I picked up the pieces and took them home.

Clearly not designed for heavy-duty gritting work. Any fool can see that.

When two gritters meet
So it was back to the council-approved manual method. I started gritting the route I take when I’m walking to the railway station, which is to say the route most commuters, somewhat bizarrely, don’t. (A spatial phenomenon I bored blogged about here).  I’d only got half-way down the road when I spotted a council worker rapidly advancing towards me. He was gritting the pavement too, using a rugged hand-operated grit spreader that was clearly designed for the purpose, unlike my lightweight plastic effort. The grit was spraying out evenly in an impressive metre-wide arc. He ran while he gritted, which I thought was keen. He clattered past without a word, spreading grit more efficiently over where I’d just been with my laborious and now decidedly analogue scoop-and-scatter technique.

There was no point continuing, so I switched routes. Remembering my earlier commitment to civic-mindedness, I chose the route that people actually take as they head to the station, even though they’re clearly wrongheaded about this.

I devise a plan to prevent the problem of double-gritting
I reached about half way to the station before exhausting my supply of grit. Back home, I emailed the council requesting more. I also annotated a Google map showing where I’d been. Perhaps, I suggested, they might post an interactive version of the map on the council’s website so that volunteers could see where fellow Snow Friends had gritted, thus eliminating duplication.

They were so overwhelmed with the brilliance of my brainwave that they were rendered incapable of forming a coherent response, or indeed an incoherent one. My email went unheeded, my grit caddy was never replenished and, despite more snow falling and ice forming over the following days, my Snow Friend days appeared to be at an end. But if my efforts helped prevent just one child from slipping into the path of an out-of-control juggernaut, it will all have been worthwhile.

 

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“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

A pipe-smoker from years ago, or perhaps from Yorkshire last week.

Mr Watmough certainly did things a bit differently. He was the geography teacher at my school in Bournemouth back in the 1960s. He doubled as the school’s second-tier, hands-off rugby coach who never once actually played any rugby, and tripled as the drama teacher for the boys who’d chosen drama as their ‘special subject’.

This was the name given to the one-hour period each week in which pupils could learn about a topic not covered by the national curriculum. As the other ‘special’ subjects included chess, running about and, unbelievably, additional maths, I chose drama.

There were around 18 of us budding thespians, not that we would have known what thespian meant at the age of 14. We didn’t have an allocated classroom so met in the dining hall about an hour before the dinner ladies started preparing that day’s heated sludge. We’d read parts of Macbeth, pretend to be other people, improvise dramatic conflicts, learn to project our voices (which we probably understood to mean ‘shouting’) and generally have a welcome break from the day’s usual routine of maths, double maths, corporal punishment and maths.

Mr Watmough smoked a pipe and he probably thought that teaching arty-farty, trendy-wendy drama in a room that wasn’t technically a classroom gave him permission to light up during the lesson. So he got out his pipe, filled the bowl with St Bruno, fished around for his box of Swan Vestas, struck a match, applied the flame to the tobacco until giant plumes of smoke began billowing around him and simultaneously replaced the match back in the box and put it in his pocket.

Then his jacket caught fire.

It wasn’t an instant conflagration by any means. A few moments passed before a curling wisp of smoke began snaking out of his right-hand pocket. We watched transfixed as Mr Watmough continued listening intently to a boy somewhere behind me who was extemporising haltingly about life being but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage; the boy’s powers of concentration evidently compromised by the drama unfolding before him.

We should have said something, obviously. Was there not an ounce of common humanity between us? What if it was our own father slowly incinerating before our very eyes?  Of course we’d raise the alarm. And as the flames took hold, one of us did. “Sir!”

“Shut up, Bailey.”

“Sir! You jacket’s on fire!”

Seized by a sudden panic, old Watmough began beating his flaming pocket with a vigour he’d never displayed on the touchline of the rugby pitch. The dining room filled with smoke: from his pipe, from the wood and cardboard of the matchbox and from the material of his ancient sports jacket. I swear I can remember the awful stench of a singed leather elbow patch, although that may be amusing-but-false memory syndrome kicking in.

I was reminded of the incident yesterday when Donald Trump suggested it might be a good idea to give guns to teachers. My experience of teachers – of those who raged and lashed out, who relied on whisky to get them through the day, who seemed to derive pleasure from assaulting and humiliating young boys and who could actually set themselves on fire during a lesson – strongly suggests that this strategy might not be entirely without risk.

 

[edit] Although some boys could do with a clip round the ear!!!!!!!!!11

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The day I met Bernard Manning

Younger readers, this is Bernard Manning.

It’s 1992. I’m a young, fresh-faced freelance copywriter which, amazingly, I still am. I had picked up a few little jobs from a London advertising agency that specialised in film work. That is, they made press ads for when Hollywood films were about to get a video release. I had a lot of fun coming up with ads that were appropriate to the film being advertised, reasoning that this was a key element of my job, but the agency generally rejected my work in favour of a pack shot with the headline ‘OUT NOW ON VIDEO’.

But today my job is a bit different. I am to direct the comedian Bernard Manning in the recording of two radio scripts I’d written. They were to publicise the release of his own video, charmingly titled ‘Banging With Manning’ and allegedly a ‘hilarious’ spoof of sex education videos.

Manning. He was much bigger back then.

I arrive at the Manchester recording studio with the agency’s account lady at the same time as he rolls up in an enormous Cadillac bearing the number plate 1 LAF. No doubt you were supposed to read that 1 as an I in case you were left thinking the plate alluded to the number of actual jokes in one of Bernard’s comedy routines.

The passenger door opens and Bernard, not the lithest comedian on the circuit, grips various parts of the car to leverage himself out of his seat. He waddles across the car park and introductions are made.

“See the boxing last night?” He’s addressing me, correctly assuming that the posh young account lady wouldn’t care one iota about boxing. Neither do I, but I say I missed it while making a face that I hope conveys the idea that this was an unavoidable oversight on my part.

We walk to the studio. “I don’t mind black blokes punching shit out of each other,” he continues, “but I don’t like it when they beat white fellas.”

I don’t have a face ready for a remark like this, much less a suitable vocal response. The account lady and I look at each other. This is going to be interesting.

And it is, and not only in the way I’d been expecting. No sooner does he settle down in the recording studio, still angry about a white boxer being beaten by a black one, than my colleague gets a call from the agency back in London. Apparently the body that oversees the suitability of broadcast advertising has belatedly taken objection to an element of the script. “Which script?” I ask.

“Both of them,” she says.

“What it is about them they don’t like?”

She hesitates. “The word ‘banging’.” The name of the product, in other words.

I glance at Bernard in the booth. Although I can’t hear anything, he seems to be asking the recording engineer questions about the equipment. What’s there to explain? Like all such rooms there’s only a microphone and a pair of headphones, and surely he’s familiar with the former.

“You’re going to have to rewrite the scripts,” says the account manager, “and quickly.”

I look for a place to, er, bash something out while the situation is explained to Manning. He’s not happy. He’s decided that blame for the episode should be laid at London’s door. “Fucking London,” he yells at everyone. “Fucking London idiots,” he adds, getting a bit more specific.

Writing radio scripts isn’t easy. To be honest, I don’t find any writing easy. Those who come up with headlines like OUT NOW ON VIDEO probably do, but I don’t. And although I’m not what you might call precious, I do find a desk and a chair and a bit of peace and quiet help the creative process. Not an enraged shouty comedian stomping about, a product I’m not allowed to mention by name and less than 45 minutes to write and record a couple of 20-second radio commercials.

It gets worse. Once we’re in a position to get something down on tape, it becomes clear that Bernard is as unfamiliar with reading aloud as he is with basic recording equipment. He stumbles over every line, strays from the script, adds pointless pauses and PUTS the emphasis ON all the wrong words. The agency didn’t bring an actual radio producer, someone skilled in the diplomatic art of getting the best work out of the ‘talent’, and all the engineer says after each take is “was that OK?” So it’s down to me to explain to an increasingly impatient Bernard that he needs to read a bit faster, or a bit clearer, or with less yelling, and please can you wait until the microphone’s turned off before saying fucking London wankers.

Luckily, the studio – situated in a largely residential area just outside Manchester, as I recall – doesn’t have any other jobs lined up so we’re allowed to overrun. A couple of hours later we’ve got frayed nerves but two commercials that even the most puritanical member of the radio clearance committee won’t have a problem with.

Recently I was clearing the loft and came across a whole bunch of my old radio ads on C30 cassettes, including the two with Manning. I ordered a bit of kit called the Tonor cassette tape to MP3 convertor, and stuck the least-crap ones on my website. Grit your teeth and have a listen. 5th and 6th ones down.

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The lady in the launderette

In the early 1980s a  job move took me to new accommodation in a flat in Hornsey, north London. By the end of the second week it was time to wash some clothes. Trouble was, there was no washing machine in the flat. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much of anything in this flat. No TV or radio. No stereo. A tiny two-ring hob in a poky kitchenette. There wasn’t much in the way of conversation, either. The only other occupant – the flat’s owner – was a humourless, vegetarian teetotaller. My small room contained an ancient wooden-framed single bed that made such an alarming series of creaks and groans every time I shifted position that the noise would wake me up. I ended up sleeping on the floor.

Two weeks later I’d be out of there, moving to a much more lively flat on the edge of Clapham Common. Sex, drugs, booze and noisy parties all awaited.

But right now I needed my clothes washed. So I stuffed them all into a heavy duty plastic sack and hauled it to Turnpike Lane, the local high street, where I quickly found a launderette.

I opened the door to an uncharacteristically empty shop. In my experience of using these places when living in other flats around London, your typical launderette would be full up on a Saturday. There’d be people chatting, smoking, reading magazines and lifting great baskets of steaming laundry from one machine to another. Everyone would know what to do and the order in which to do it. Crucially, they’d also have the right change for the different types of coin-operated machinery.

I never had the right change. Nor could I face the prospect of dumbly sitting there while the machines slowly did their stuff. I could conceivably zip off to the pub to while away the time, but harboured the fear that I’d come back to find I had missed the end of the washing machine cycle, and an irate customer had angrily dumped all my clothes in a tangled heap.

So I always opted for a service wash, where the attendant – typically a harried, no-nonsense, chain-smoking woman of indeterminate age, dressed in a floral garment made from some electrically-charged synthetic fibre – would for a nominal fee do all the heavy lifting for you. Hopefully without spending too long judging the general state of your smalls.

There was just such an attendant there in the Turnpike Lane launderette. I approach her with my sack of dirty clothes.

“Hi! Do you do service washes here?” She looks at me while she considers the question. You should know the answer to this instinctively, I think.

“Yes, love,” she says eventually. “Yes we do. You want that little lot washed, do you?” She nods at the sack.

“Yes please, that would be great.” I hand the sack over. “How long will it take, do you reckon?” She gives the sack a once-over. “Couple of hours?”

“Great,” I say. She starts to turn away, then stops.

“What, are you going to wait for it?” Well, no. That would defeat the whole time-saving purpose of a service wash. It would also be a bit odd, sitting there watching while someone you didn’t know washed your clothes.

“No no, I was waiting for a ticket. You know.” Back when people used launderettes, you needed a ticket for a service wash. Otherwise anyone could walk in and claim your washing as their own. Or there could be a bag mix-up and you’d get home to find you’d picked up the clothes of a petite 25-year-old PA. So they’d give you a ticket, normally one of those cheaply-printed tear-off raffle ticket affairs.

“Oh right. A ticket.” She puts the sack down and heads off into her little office at the back. I hear what sounds like heavy wooden furniture being scraped across the floor. I turn to have a look around. No one else has come into the shop. Curiously, none of the machines seems to be in action. All I can hear is the steady drone of the traffic outside. Eventually the attendant emerges from the office. But she doesn’t have a ticket. Instead, she’s dragging an enormous pair of old-fashioned wooden step ladders. She plonks it in front of me, extends the legs outwards, rocks the assembly back and forth to ensure it’s stable and begins slowly climbing up.

I follow her progress. When she gets to about the third step, she reaches up and pushes at a ceiling tile. It moves a little. She gets both hands to it and slides it fully out of the way. Then she climbs up on the next step, and the next, until she’s in a position to climb off the top of the ladders and into a black space above the ceiling. She disappears from view.

I stare at the darkly forbidding aperture. The seconds tick by. Anyone glancing in through the window would see a 20-something man standing motionless in front of a pair of tall stepladders in an otherwise deserted launderette. My mouth starts to feel a little dry. The sounds of more objects being moved around reaches me from above. There’s a muffled thump. At least something’s happening up there, I think.

Eventually a leg appears, its foot searching tentacle-like for the uppermost step of the ladder. It makes contact. The attendant slowly descends a few steps, stops to replace the little trapdoor in the ceiling, then makes it all the way back to terra firma. Plumes of dust fly from her crackling nylon housecoat type thing as she brushes herself down. She reaches into a pocket and hands me the ticket.

It’s the customary raffle ticket. I look at the number. It reads ‘1’.

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