Monday, October 30, 2006

Things Abandoned on the Pavement Within 100 Yards of My Home That I Have Taken a Photograph of #1

Many things are abandoned on pavements around my home. At one end of the scale there are the old fridges that regularly line my local streets. If Eddie Grant lived around here he might write a song called Electrolux Avenue. (I think I should take the rest of today off – I’m clearly not going to come up with anything better than that gag.) But that is quite commonplace, and also not really abandonment. Lots of people don’t have cars in which to take large items to a municipal tip, so it’s perfectly acceptable to put old white goods out on the pavement, phone the council and let them do the rest.

There was also a problem in recent times of abandoned cars, but again it’s usually pretty clear how they got there. This isn’t even a great place to abandon a car – it’s actually at quite a busy set of traffic lights.

And then there’s the irrefutable fact that it’s only half a car. I’ve seen abandoned vehicles stripped quite efficiently, and I concede that it’s fair enough that people recycle spare parts like this (so long as the car is actually abandoned, otherwise it’s technically carjacking), but this one looks like piranhas with Asbos have been at it.

The only explanation that I can come up with is that someone drove up to the traffic lights, very pleased with their new car. Perhaps someone who had a long and sad history of being ripped off by unscrupulous salesmen, but this time nothing was going to go wrong – they’d got an absolute bargain. Windows down, radio on loud. The lights turn green and they pull away, only for its cut-and-shut nature to become suddenly and indisputably apparent. But maybe they had the radio on very loud to some kind of industrial techno station that plays music mainly made up of sampled metallic bangs, and didn’t notice anything till they got home. (The Mini is front-wheel drive, so this is quite plausible.) They might have thought “It does sound like there’s a small hole in the exhaust, but I can get that fixed at Kwik-Fit – the car is still a bargain, make no mistake about that. That draught? It’s just because the windows are wound down. The sparks that seem to be issuing forth from the bottom of my seat? Er...” I just hope there wasn’t anything important in the back, like some shopping or a small child. Or a fridge that they were taking to the tip.

What would be fantastic is if someone found the front end abandoned on a pavement somewhere. If we could match the chassis numbers we could devote the next year of our lives to reunifying the two halves into a whole again. If we are going to do this, then you should perhaps know that all I know about cars is how to fill the windscreen washer, so you’d better be prepared to do all the other stuff. I’m guessing there will be quite a bit of welding involved. But it will have a really clean windscreen.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

My Old Job v My New Job

My Old JobMy New Job
Scraping ice off windscreen/waiting on freezing platform for delayed train.Rolling out of bed at 8:30. Switching central heating and kettle on.
Dressing down days.Dressing gown days.
Whizzing around in cabs to meetings with high-powered clients.Talking to cats on the way to the greengrocer’s.
Phoning for a courier to take important documents across town.Being a bit excited when the post comes.
Gossiping about the office affair.Watching squirrels and birds on the fence outside.
Power lunches.Rooting around in the fridge for last night’s leftovers.
Happily sorting out domestic problems on someone else’s time/phone bill.Wondering how I ever had time to do a job as well.
Conversations with colleagues about last night’s television.Conversations with myself about Murder, She Wrote.
Making executive decisions about implementing system-wide upgrades.Making executive decisions about what kind of biscuits to have.
Stealing armloads of stationery at every opportunity.Going through my neighbours’ junk mail in case there’s a charity letter with a free pen.
The office party: decorations, drinking, dancing, debauchery, disgrace.Ooh! Chocolate biscuits today!
Full salary paid every month, even if sick, on holiday, or just not really feeling like working.Er, did I mention I can wear my dressing gown all day?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Park Life

I go for a walk in the park. My local park is very pretty – far more so than one would expect for the area. It’s also very well cared for, and its proximity was actually the deciding factor in buying my flat. I always like going for a walk in it, even though this is usually on my own.

But today I see something that I recognise – two corgis out with their owner. I recognise them because I searched for my local area on Flickr recently and found dozens of beautiful pictures of the park. And quite a lot of them had these very distinctive dogs in them. Whoever took the pictures is surely the owner of the dogs.

Whoever took the pictures also surely thinks that the park is lovely as well. I want to share my appreciation with him – to reach out and make contact with my neighbour instead of passing silently by like so many city dwellers. Isn’t this what the world wide web is about? Bringing together people with similar interests?

Looking back on it, I am not sure that the best way for one man to approach another in a park is with the line “Hello, I think I’ve seen your pictures on the internet”.

It really could have gone one of two ways:

1) “Hello, nice to meet you too. Yes, it is a lovely park, isn’t it? Very nice to find someone else who thinks the same. Perhaps now every time we see each other we can have a brief conversation along the lines of “Lovely day, isn’t it?” “Yes, roll on global warming!” That would be nice.”

2) “Hello, nice to meet you too. Yes, not many people subscribe to Very nice to find someone else who thinks the same. Perhaps we can go back to my place now and do it up the bum dressed as nuns. That would be nice.”

OK, it was 1). Maybe I needed to bring my own wimple.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Blind Leading the Blind

I was rather worried to hear the latest instalment from David Blunkett’s diaries on Radio 4 this morning, in particular an entry from September 2001 regarding national security. He described the problems of damping down fear by telling the public that the government knew what was happening, whilst simultaneously having to get to grips with officials to make sure that things were actually done. He wrote of an old school-friend and his wife, Christine, who lived in Vancouver:

“Christine said that a patient in her physiotherapy clinic had told her a curious story. A relative who’d been in London had found someone’s wallet, and having returned it to them were offered money as a reward. They turned this down. So the owner of the wallet, who was an Arab, said, “Well, I’ve got to do something for you. Don’t be in London on the 11th of November.” I immediately registered the significance of this. The 11th of November is Armistice Day – the one day in the year when all leading politicians from the three parties, the Queen, other members of the royal family and the leading personnel of the armed services are in the same place at the same time. A known time. In Central London. I decided that I should at least tell Tony as it was absolutely clear that nobody had fully thought through the significance. We agreed that there was no way we could cancel Armistice Day, but we were certainly going to have to take increased precautions.”

I know it was five years ago, but is there anybody who hasn’t heard a variation on this story and instantly dismissed it as an urban myth? It’s usually Birmingham in the version I’ve been told, and I tend to reply, “Yeah, I’ll stay away – it’s a right dump.”

What if our whole country were being run according to things that had happened to a friend of a friend?

All exams to be replaced by one that just has one question: “Is this a question?” Anyone who answers “Yes, if this is an answer” will get an A. All exam pencils to be sharpened down to less than 4cm in case pupils stick them up their noses and bang their heads down to commit suicide. Because that happened at my mate’s school. And they gave everyone an A.

All money from Aids and malaria programmes to be diverted into eradicating the world of spiders. Because this woman got bitten by one once and a few weeks later this lump came up on her arm, and she went to the doctor, and he cut it open and loads of little spiders came out and she went mad.

Also more money urgently needed for stomach pumps for Marc Almond. Or was it the other one out of Soft Cell?

ID Cards
Passports to be combined with organ donor cards. Because I heard about this guy who went abroad and he woke up in a bath of ice and they’d taken his kidney. It’s true. You can’t trust them.

All theatres to be closed down to prevent criminals stealing your car, then returning it with a note saying sorry and two theatre tickets to compensate, so they then know that you’ll be out all evening and can burgle you. Subsidies to be spent instead on a memorial for the kid from the Frosties advert.

Also Countdown to be moved to a post-watershed slot. Did you know that the letters once spelt W-A-N-K-M-E-O-F-F?

Urgent recall of all 32m cars currently on the road to have their door handles redesigned so that they can’t be opened by serial killers who have hooks for hands. Did you hear about that poor woman? The policeman told her not to look back...

All homes to be fitted with constantly-monitored CCTV cameras in case a burglar ever breaks in and puts your toothbrush up his bottom then takes a photo of it with your camera. And much stiffer sentences for this crime because it happened to friends of mine and I retched when I heard.

Sarah Greene and a pool table to be drafted in to boost the morale of all national teams.

Social Security
Channel Tunnel Rail Link to be extended in an extra 250 mile loop winding through the back gardens of everyone in Kent. Then a train will be sent through at 6am every day to wake them all up. Too late to go back to sleep; too early to get up; only one thing to do: baby boom, end of pensions crisis. There was this village this really happened in, you know...

Foreign Affairs
There’s this guy at the Foreign Office, yeah, and he says that Iraq have got these WMDs or something and in 45 minutes we could all be dead. It’s true – a friend of a friend told me...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Lost in Translation

My girlfriend and I are out for a meal with some of her family. When we arrive at the restaurant, the waiter hears her mother and her uncle speaking in German (they are German – it’s not a party trick or anything), and immediately addresses us all in German, gesturing towards the table that we should sit at. I spend most of my life not really wanting to make a fuss, and I’m so impressed by his linguistic capabilities and welcoming nature that I feel it would be churlish to mention that as I am English, he is English, and we are in an English restaurant in England he and I could just converse in English. Instead, I make the subconscious decision that I will go through the whole evening just saying “danke schön” to him and pointing intently at the menu.

We take our seats. Here is a table of languages spoken, going clockwise around the table:

MeEnglish, French (O-level grade B)
My girlfriend’s fatherEnglish
My girlfriendEnglish, German, Vietnamese
My girlfriend’s motherGerman, English
My girlfriend’s uncleGerman, Spanish
My girlfriend’s uncle’s girlfriendSpanish

It is like the United Nations with breadsticks.

Note that I am sitting next to my girlfriend’s uncle’s girlfriend, and that nobody around the table speaks both English and Spanish. The fact that my girlfriend also speaks Vietnamese is not relevant, nor is my O-level. But I am quite proud of it.

We negotiate the menus fairly successfully (what with two thirds of us actually speaking English, three-quarters of those from birth), though a Colombian kitchen porter has to be brought in to describe a tricky sauce that won’t translate through three languages.

My girlfriend’s mother and her uncle haven’t seen each other for ages and have a lot to catch up on. Meanwhile, my girlfriend is being quizzed about work by her father. This leaves me with my girlfriend’s uncle’s girlfriend. Conversation is stilted to say the least as it has to go through at least two other parties each way. I decide to ask her how her starter is. By the time I get an answer we have moved on to the next course.

I am also slightly suspicious that someone along the line isn’t translating properly when an innocuous query about a recent holiday is met with a curious frown and a prolonged trip to the ladies’. I am reminded of the story of an official state visit where a diplomatic translator ended up taking things into his own hands at one point by saying, “My Prime Minister has just made a joke that I won’t bother to translate as it isn’t very funny. Please laugh now.”

“This has been like Chinese whispers”, I say to her over the coffees, inadvertently introducing a fourth language, and a non-Indo-European one to boot.


I decide to just cut my losses and ask for the bill. “Entschuldigen Sie”, I call to our waiter, before reverting to making an elaborate “writing on a pad” gesture.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Faking It

I have just sold some musical equipment to a friend, and as a result I have six £50 notes in my wallet. I am usually more of a chip and Pin man (there’s extra protection on purchases plus the opportunity to collect points, which really makes sense if you pay off your balance in full each month as I do), but I like having these large-denomination notes in my pocket. It makes me feel like a Cockney wheeler-dealer who pays for everything in cash from a big wad. As a result I have been dropping aitches all day. I am now at Tesco.

“That’s £44.92 please”, says the check-out girl.

I hand her one of my prized notes, just about managing not to say “‘Ere you go, Princess – buy yerself somefink nice.”

She takes her security pen to check that the note is genuine, and to my horror it makes an incriminating black mark right across Sir John Houblon’s boat race (face).

I immediately start to sweat. When I think about it, my friend is a bit dodgy. He certainly didn’t go to university. The woman in the queue who tried to push in front of me watches with interest, now in no hurry to go anywhere.

The check-out girl makes another mark on the note. Same result. She holds it up to the light. I have heard stories that they get bonuses for catching fraudsters – she’s certainly looking at me like Christmas has come early. I consider making a run for it, but realise that she has already swiped my Clubcard.

Idiot! Cockney hard-men don’t leave loyalty cards at the scenes of their crimes.

I hand her another note. “Perhaps you could try this one”, I say, my glottal stops magically disappearing. Same result.

Idiot! You’re now a repeat offender.

I want to be middle class again.

The check-out girl presses a button and after an agonising wait during which the growing queue happily regard me in the manner of an audience at a public execution, a supervisor appears.

I try to affect the nonchalant air of an innocent man, but inwardly decide that I will squeal on my friend at the earliest opportunity. That slag would do the same to me. The supervisor tries the security pen, putting a thick line right across the Queen’s forehead. Both banknotes now look like either a toddler or a deranged anarchist has been let loose on them. The spectre of prison looms large. I really, really, really don’t want to get bummed.

“Hang on a sec”, says the supervisor. “This is just a marker pen.”

We all have a right old giraffe about it – me, the checkout girl, the supervisor and the woman in the queue, and I head back to the trouble and strife for a knees-up with half a monkey.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Guess It Means Something Different in Ohio...

Ever since being given a copy of I-Spy Car Number Plates as a child I have always been just a little bit interested in these commonplace identifiers. Those long journeys used to fly by as I looked up each of the 650 basic ways of combining two letters. Sometimes, pre-2001 BDs, KVs and WKs still remind me of spotting them far from home on the motorway and wondering if they were going all the way back with us. I would never find out though, as my Dad drove so slowly. It's a wonder that I spotted any at all – every other vehicle was just a blur. Those near-neighbours would have been watching Pan’s People, eating Arctic roll and playing on their space hoppers long before us. (That was all anyone did in the 70s.)

I have mixed feelings about personalised number plates though. On the one hand, everyone who has one is an idiot with more M0 NEY than S3 NSE (yes, I know that first one isn't strictly allowed – they would have to do something like M10 NEY or N\0 NEY (that's N10 NEY with an illegally sloping 1)). It's like a designer label that says "I couldn't find a car expensive enough to show how rich I am, so look at what else I've wasted my money on!" You could achieve the same effect by fitting a device to the exhaust that burns a £20 note every mile.

On the other hand, I like the way that even in something as mundane as a rigid alpha-numeric system designed solely to identify vehicles in case of crime or collision people still like to express their creativity, albeit often in a piss-poor way that requires putting in extra screws to make one letter look a bit like another. Americans have a much more flexible approach to vanity plates though – you don't need to have even a single digit that you have to pretend is an E or, with a bit more squinting, an A. I find that a bit too easy – like writing poetry that doesn't have to rhyme. The only restriction is that it can't be offensive, so how this slipped through the net is anyone's guess...

I guess it means something different in Ohio...

I used to see this car around Cleveland a lot in the early 90s, and eventually had to explain to my then girlfriend what was so funny. I really wanted to get a picture of it, but as soon as I decided to carry my camera with me at all times it went into hiding. I would stalk my quarry along I-77 as others would go after big game in the Serengeti. Then, the day that we parted (it was the old story – boy meets girl, girl finds out boy is obsessed with number plates), there it was, parked majestically like a wildebeest at a watering hole.

(Note the Cleveland Rocks sticker. For anyone who hasn't been to Cleveland, "rocks" is perhaps pushing it slightly.)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Not On My Watch

I am looking for a new watch. My parents gave me some money several months ago as they wanted to get me something special when I got my MA. And now that the strap on my 15-year old watch has broken it is time to go out and spend it. I think that a watch is a lovely idea for a gift, and one that will always make me think of them.

Wrist-based timepieces seem to have changed a lot in the past decade and a half though. Back then, if you didn’t want a digital one your choices were pretty much silver/gold and numbers/Roman numerals/just little lines where the numbers would go. Now there is a bewildering array of shapes, sizes and different coloured dials. This is bad news for someone like me who is not very good at making decisions, and even worse news for the poor jewellers of Oxford Street who will have to serve me.

“This is an automatic watch”, says the pretty young assistant in the first jeweller’s, showing me the billionth watch in her shop. “It doesn’t need a battery – it just works from the movement of your wrist.”

The desire to make a joke is overwhelming. Something like, “It would probably run quite fast then. Haha.” Or “I could use it in the summer as a fan. Haha.” This does sound like a great way to harness this untapped energy source though, and one that could solve all our global warming problems. And if you got caught in a compromising position you could just say “I was boiling the kettle”.

By the time I have been in the fifth jeweller’s for half an hour I am beginning to get an idea that I want quite a classic design. A bit like my old watch really. The assistant bends down and reaches into the cabinet. I see his hand heading towards a tray of more modern designs which I don’t like. But I have been dithering a lot in here, and I want to save him the bother of bringing out a tray of watches that I know I won’t buy, so, trying to help, I say “I don’t like the black faces”.

The assistant’s head appears over the top of the counter again. Yes, he is black.

“On the watches!” I yell shrilly, even though I am sure that he knew that that was what I was referring to. “Though on second thoughts those ones look really nice”, I say, overcompensating wildly as I would if a suspicious-looking man that I had accosted outside my flat was, on closer inspection, Nelson Mandela leaving a freshly-baked apple pie on my doorstep.

He gets the tray of black-faced watches out, and I try several on, cooing over them in an exaggerated fashion, just about managing not to say “Those second hands have got really natural rhythm”.

We both know that I am not going to purchase one of these, so eventually I point back at the tray of watches I first looked at. I buy a very nice Tissot, though every time I look at it, it’s now not my parents who first come to mind.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Remorse for the Goose

I am becoming increasingly concerned about the situation in my local duck pond. One of the great things about being a freelancer is the ability to organise my time how I want. I genuinely work very hard, but I do like being able to go for a walk in the park when it suits me. I like to see the seasons change, and notice small differences in the plants and animals each day. And the duck pond situation is worrying me.

There are lots of mallard ducks that happily fly, swim, waddle and dive in the pond together. There is also one solitary goose that doesn’t seem to mix much with the ducks, preferring to just idly peck the grass on the edge of the pond and occasionally stand knee-deep in the water.

At first I thought that this goose was really cool. That because of his size and uniqueness he was king of the other birds, and they all respected him. But seeing this lone goose every day over the past couple of weeks I have developed a new theory. I now think that this goose is like the older kid at school who had no friends in his year, and had to hang out with kids a couple of years younger. And even those kids secretly, or sometimes openly, mocked and despised him, but just by virtue of his size and age they couldn’t shake him off. It is like The Ugly Duckling, but in reverse – Goosey No-Mates. It might make a good children’s story.

Perhaps the goose woke up one day to find that all the other geese had played a trick on him – they had left a note saying they had flown south for the winter, but didn’t tell him where. So the poor goose was left to hang around with the ducks, pretending that he preferred their company anyway, thanks for asking. Yesterday, I looked deep into the goose’s eyes, and just for a second we connected on a primal level and I saw the sadness in his soul. I was like St Francis of Assisi. I knew that I had discovered the truth, and I was not assuaged by the fact that he then did a big poo and waddled off.

That evening, my girlfriend came home from her proper job. Like the great boyfriend that I am I asked her how her day was. She told me about an Afghani woman in her class who had written about how she saw her family killed in front of her. About how she had to flee her homeland with nothing and try to settle in a strange new country. My girlfriend showed me the piece of writing. It was devastatingly sad, and was made even more poignant by the fact that this educated woman was writing in an unfamiliar script, so her letters were scrawled like a young child’s.

My girlfriend then asked me how my day was. I hesitated, and then decided to leave the whole anthropomorphised duck pond scenario for another time.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Up My Street

My girlfriend and I are on our way to see some old friends. They have moved since we last saw them, and we only have a small fragment of hand-drawn map to guide us. As a consequence we are late, and driving aimlessly around a modern housing estate – the kind where all the roads are named according to a central theme.

“Look at that”, I say, as we pass a small parade of shops for the third time. “Shackleton Drive.”

“I know”, she says. “That doesn’t help us.”

“Yes, but Shackleton was famous for perhaps the most astonishing feat of courage and survival ever – leading his men across the Southern Ocean to safety. Of all explorers, he is perhaps the one most associated with having a lot of drive.”

Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I slam the brakes on.

“Look! Look!”

“Is that their house?”

“No. Scott Close.”


“Scott narrowly failed to lead the first expedition to the South Pole. Of all explorers, he is probably the one who got the closest to his goal, without achieving it: Scott – Close.”

“I think we need to do a left up here.”

I drive off.

“Why are you turning right?”

“Don’t you see? This whole estate is named after explorers, but in an amazingly apt and witty way. I bet that each road has had the same amount of love put into thinking up its name. I want to see what the rest are called.”

“Can’t we do that afterwards?”

“It’ll be dark then.”

I look at my girlfriend, slightly concerned that the etymology of street names might not fit into the intersection of our Venn diagram of hobbies. I try to rouse her interest in the project.

“Don’t you think this is brilliant? Someone in the planning department has made this series of wonderfully subtle little jokes, and I might be the first person to have discovered them. This is... this is beauty.”

Alas, someone in the planning department hadn’t made a series of wonderfully subtle little jokes. All the other road names are rubbish – most of them just have the suffix Close, even applied to people such as Sir Edmund Hillary, who clearly achieved his objective.

“How can Amundsen be a Close as well as Scott?” I rage. “And it’s not even as though Amundsen Close is further south than Scott Close – that would have at least made some sense.”

My girlfriend phones our friends to explain that we are back by the shops and we may be some time.

I do not enjoy seeing our friends as much as I usually do. I am disappointed and distracted. At one point, my girlfriend leans over to me and whispers, “You’re thinking up road names, aren’t you?”

I was. Here they are:

Hillary Rise

Magellan Circle

Drake Alley

Oates Walk

Upper Piccard Way and Lower Piccard Way

Stanley Approach

Lewis Estate

Cook Court

Armstrong Crescent

Columbus Road (the last little bit of the way)

Monday, October 02, 2006

Top Trumps Deities

Top Trumps Deities

The game does drag on a bit...