Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Generation Bad Teeth

I was talking to my dad a couple of weeks ago. He’s a very healthy and fit 79. He’s always taken good care of himself and is always on the go. He spent a lot of his childhood on a farm in rural Ireland and the work ethic never left him.
Like many men of his age, he’s got a few, stock one-liners that he likes to wheel out. One of his is to grab his front tooth and say,

“Look at that, strong as a rock. I’ve not had one filling in my life.”

I’m always impressed when he says it. To live eight decades without any sort of dental problem is something to be envied. But underneath this admiration, I harbour a bit of resentment and think,

‘Yep, they look great, Dad. Just one question. Why didn’t you ever bother making me brush my teeth?’

When he grew up, if people had bad teeth, they had ‘comedy’ bad teeth. Massive gaps, punctuated by the occasional, outsized gnasher, suitable only for punching a hole in a can of evaporated milk.

The picture below is of a group of British soldiers in 1944. They were just about to set off for France. I include the photo, because an Army dentist noted on the back that the entire group had eighteen teeth between them.

They were a more stoic generation. Extraction was a simpler affair. If someone was walking to work with a toothache, they’d just stop the nearest passer by, exchange pleasantries, point to the offending tooth and ask them to knock it out with a right hook.

By the time my generation starting growing teeth, dentistry techniques had advanced and we were living in a nation that had excellent access to useful information about the benefits of dental hygiene.
Unfortunately, we were also living in a nation with unprecedented access to fang melting sweets. That, combined with my dad’s rather lax enforcement, has meant that I’ve got so much metalwork in my mouth, I feel a strange, tugging sensation in my head whenever I walk past a scrapyard.

When it was bedtime, my dad would usually be watching the news, usually remarking that computers or CDs would never catch on. He’d shout upstairs,

“Charlie, have you brushed your teeth?”

and I would reply,

“Yes, Dad.”

That was it. The information that wasn’t being passed in this brief exchange was how exactly I was brushing my teeth. I’d be using the sherbet from a sherbet dip dab as my toothpaste with the lolly as a brush.

Once I’d brushed my teeth, I’d rinse with some neat Kia-Ora, the only drink capable of making your voice change so that you sounded like Phyllis from Coronation Street.

Me and my mates indulged in unchecked, destructive behaviour when it came to what we put in our mouths.

We had so many fillings, that it was the ultimate hard man test in our gang to bite on a piece of tinfoil. Our most metal-mouthed member could pick up Piccadilly Radio on his molars. We’d seek out and buy only the most tooth damaging sweets. We’d put pear drops in our mouths and crunch them immediately so that our back teeth would be surrounded by a three millimetre thick, sugar shell for the entire day. A quarter of chewing nuts on the way to school would ensure that you had a smile like a panto witch all morning.

I started looking after them when I was sixteen, but as I explain to my kids whilst brushing their teeth (see that, Dad? brushing their teeth), once the damage is done, it’s an exercise in damage limitation from that day on.

I had one pulled out in June. The dentist had done everything to save it. Scraped it, filled it, did root canal work on it and had even shoehorned a Kola Kube out of the cavity that had been in there since 1982. But we’d reached the end of the road. With a solemn shake of the head, he declared that it’s time had come. It was almost refreshing to find out that some elements of the dentist’s art haven’t moved on since the middle ages. I’ve still got the imprint of one of his trainers on my chest. When he eventually got the thing out and showed it to me, it was the same size as my mobile phone. I’d put it through some tough times.

Throughout his assault, I had the mental image of my dad rapping on his front teeth like he was knocking on a door, saying,

“Look at that, you could make piano out of these when I’m gone!”

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The Devil's Conkers

Dendrologists (Tree Botanists) are flocking to Chorlton Ees after the discovery of a new species of tree.

The Ploplar (Canis Inconsideratus) has evolved a unique method of preventing insects and small mammals from eating its vulnerable leaves. The scientists aren’t sure how it does it, but the Ploplar has managed to persuade a small minority of Manchester’s dog walkers to contribute to its defences. Without realising that they’re part of a complex ecological chain, the dog walkers allow their animals to defecate near the tree (usually whilst looking around and whistling nonchalantly), then bag it up.

Here’s where the tree pulls the trick.

Instead of the walker then selfishly carrying the bag to a place of disposal like a bin, the tree compels them to tie it to one of its lower branches, at once creating a powerful olfactory deterrent and a beautiful visual image. The more successful trees can have as many as twenty bags dangling in the wind.

Known as Devils Conkers, they come in a wide variety of colours and sizes. The most common form is the white, supermarket bag. These beauties can hang there forever. They can sometimes outlive the tree before depositing their still moist contents back onto the path and ultimately into the complex tread of a casual training shoe, necessitating removal with a matchstick or toothpick.

Note how the small carrier bag, full of turds, blends seamlessly with it's host to become almost invisible to the naked eye.

It’s another incredible demonstration of the way that Nature can nurture symbiotic relationships between unsuspecting neighbours. As far as the human is concerned, it’s a simple act of couldn’t-give-a-fuckedness, right up there with parking on the school zigzags at drop off time or laughing at mentally ill contestants in the first rounds of The X Factor. Little do they know that those little sacks of semi-digested Winalot are helping to fend off all manner of marauders.

Some trees have evolved even further, to deter larger birds from picking their berries. In the example below, the tree has artfully fashioned the bag of discarded dogshit, to vaguely resemble a dead blackbird.

All but the hungriest of birds (and anyone that’s just had their tea) will be immediately put off by this fascinating display of animal imitation.

Collidge of Nollidge grabbed a word with tree expert, Doctor Eddie Bluebottle.

“This has changed decades of orthodox thought on arboreal behaviour. Up until this discovery, we were all guilty of thinking that the tying of little bags of shit to branches, usually adjacent to a bin, was a grotesque practice, carried out by people who had a complete disregard for anyone else. I hold my hands up. I’m a mild mannered man, but it used to get me so mad, I’d dream of catching one of the buggers and making them eat it. But I had it all wrong. We’ve been granted the great privilege of seeing evolution progressing in front of our very eyes. The next time I see someone climbing into a perfectly clean car, having just fastened half a pound of dog eggs to the nearest bush, I’m going to go up and shake their hands.”

(With thanks to Mark Hillsdon and Mitzi)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Chippy Run at Downton Abbey

In this day and age it’s very complicated to define where you fit in, with regard to class definitions. Not so long ago, it was quite straightforward. There were the people who lived in Downton Abbey, the people who wanted to live in Downton Abbey and the people who scrubbed the toilets in Downton Abbey.

At the moment, the best that the Office for National Statistics can do is to condense everything down to eight subgroups, hiding behind phrases like ‘mosaic geodemographic’ to paper over the many cracks and subtle distinctions.

I have a simpler method.

If you can talk for at least half an hour about the intricacies of the British chippy, then your apple hasn’t fallen far from its working class tree. Regardless of your tertiary level education or your adoption of accents that you didn’t start out with, if you can speak with great skill and fondness, without hint of condescension or shame, about the protocols and habits surrounding your chippy experiences, then you aren’t middle class. It doesn’t matter how many cheese names you remember or if you buy your wine from the ‘more than five quid’ shelf at the supermarket, if you’re choosy about the curry sauce or gravy at specific chip establishments, there’s hope for you yet.

During a casual conversation last week, it transpired that I was a chippy connoisseur. The horrible phenomenon of ‘chippy shut-out’ was mentioned and expanded upon. This is when, after a hard days work, mutual consensus is reached in a household, that ‘chippy tea’ is on the cards. After the initial euphoria (in our household, the kids dancing around to the chorus of the Abba song ‘Chiquitita’ with that word replaced by ‘chippy tea time’) the elaborate and tantalising process of order taking takes place.The forager is despatched to fetch the meal, only to find that fate has stepped in. A hastily written sign on the inside of the door tells the world that the fryer is bust and nothing is cooking.

This is chippy shut-out and it generates a horrible anticlimax.

With hungry mouths at home, the poorer alternative round the corner is selected. The curry’s gash and the chips are sweaty. The service is rubbish and the pies are dry, but anything’s better than a healthy alternative or returning home empty handed.

You’re a chippy connoisseur if any of these apply to you.

  • You have a strong opinion on whether pies should be packed separately to chips.
  • You feel that the doner meat ‘Elephant’s foot’ has no place in a chip shop.
  • You can’t resist putting your bare hand on the metal surface that says, ‘Hot Surface – Don’t Touch.’
  • You watch closely to ensure the correct amounts of salt and vinegar are dispensed.
  • You can’t cope with being told, ‘Five minutes for fish.’
  • There was a time that you had no idea that scallops were molluscs.

For a while, the ubiquity of the high street omni-takeaway seemed to be a harbinger of doom for the common or garden chippy, but my generation seems to retain enough affection for the simple menu on offer, to ensure their continued survival. Their halcyon days may be over though. During the summer holidays in the 1970s, the lunchtime queue at Kam Sengs on Platt Lane was similar to the one outside the Dixon’s in Moscow in 1986 when they announced they had four Walkmans to sell.

Those were simpler times, when you could be accused of having delusions of grandeur because you opted for a 2p plastic fork instead of the free wooden one which gave you tongue splinters whilst you ate. Those were the days of badly written signs offering rubbish bargains like the ‘CHIP BARM SPESH’ – a chip barm that came with a few more chips for an extra 15p. Those were the days of eagle eyed grannies nipping in with a quick sob story and swiping the last fish, despite being further back in the queue. Those were the days of marvelling at the bi-lingual skills of Kam Seng’s daughter who could take a building site order and give her dad a Mandarin mouthful in the same breath.

Maybe that’s what we’ll see in Downton Abbey as the post war decade arrives in Yorkshire.

Carson (Butler) – “I’m sorry sir, but Mrs Patmore the cook has come down with exhaustion.

Earl Grantham – “Then fuck it, Carson, we shall have chippy tea.”

Carson – “Sir!”

Earl Grantham – “Here is a ten spot. The Countess will have a chip barm, Lady Mary and Lady Edith will share chips, curry and rice. For Lady Sybil, peas, pudding, chips and gravy.”

Lady Sybil – “Pudding separate, Carson, pudding separate!!”

Carson – “Yes m’lady. Will that be all, Sir?”

Earl Grantham – “Yes, that should do, but see if they’ve got any scraps and get a couple of cans of Vimto if there’s any change.”

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Lesser Spotted Tommy Two Shits

You may not think you know a Tommy Two Shits. It’s a military expression, but it describes a person that we all have experience of.

A Tommy Two Shits is the person that you know, that has to go one better than everyone else. ‘Two Shitting’ in the army was commonplace which is why they came up with a name to describe the practice. In simple terms, if you’ve had a shit, he’s had two.

If you’ve been to Tenerife, he’s been to the Barrier Reef.

I always enjoyed being around them, because the conversations were never dull and generally took place when everyone had returned from leave. Some exponents of the art were fairly discreet, opting to go for slight one-upmanship, usually with claims of sexual conquest and always involving pantomime levels of rhythmic, pelvic movements to aid the description.

The most cherished of the Two Shitters were actively encouraged to attain new levels of outlandish bullshittery. Everyone loved to hear how far they’d go. To plant the seed, someone would relate an obviously fabricated anecdote and we’d all watch as the Tommy Two Shits absorbed the story, then multiplied it’s components before coming out with his. One lad I knew had a particular penchant for pretending to have met Hollywood A-listers in the most unlikely of scenarios. We’d all sit there open mouthed whilst he’d casually mention that he’d bumped into Dustin Hoffman outside the Rumbelows in Darwen, then had a few pints with him.

He’d then stop, to see how the story was being received and find us all nodding sagely whilst trying not to fall about laughing. Emboldened, he’d then go on to tell us that he’d told Dustin he was shit in Marathon Man and that Dustin had took the criticism on the chin allowing our Tommy to give him tips on playing the, ‘Is it safe?’ scene correctly.

I always marvelled at the levels of self delusion on display, which allowed the narration of these tall tales to be told with a completely straight face.

I don’t know why I assumed it was a strictly military phenomenon, but I’ve met more than my fair share of Two Shitters in the sixteen years that have passed since I left the Army.

It’s important to make a distinction here. Someone who embellishes a story for comic effect whilst under the influence of alcohol is not a Tommy Two Shits, nor is the person who utilises l'esprit de l'escalier. This is when the right comeback line to an insult or slight occurs to you five minutes after the incident, but you remove the time lag when telling the story. Traffic wardens and unhelpful retail employees figure strongly in these situations.

No, the Two Shitter is a different being. A tell tale sign is their use of the interruptive phrase,

“That’s nothing, that is,” before they recount a yarn of startling implausibility, whilst maintaining an expression of perfect sincerity throughout. I’ve noticed that every pub and workplace has one. Perhaps it’s an unofficial duty and they have to do a little course, like the first aiders and fire wardens. I can just imagine the final test, with the instructor doing a bit of one on one.

“Right Tommy, I’m going to tell you a short story and I’d like you to repeat it, after you’ve processed it through your garnishing filter.”


“Whilst on a recent weekend break in St Ives, I took the opportunity of going on one of the little boats round the harbour. It was very pleasant, but I must confess to feeling a bit queasy towards the end. On the same evening, I went to the cinema and enjoyed the film ‘Contagion’, though a fire alarm midway through, spoilt things a bit.”

A couple of deep breaths and a little bit of shadow boxing precede the response.

“Whilst spending the summer in St Moritz, I chartered Roman Abramovich’s yacht. I decided to take it for a spin round the Cape of Good Hope, but encountered a Force 9 gale which forced me ashore at Rabat. That evening, I bumped into Matt Damon at the Post Office, who insisted that I join him and his party for a gala dinner in my honour.”

“Very good, very good. You could have made it a hurricane and you’ve neglected to embroider the fire alarm, but good on the whole. Here’s your badge. You’re now qualified to corner people in the brew room or near the fruit machine and terrorise them with your narrative enhancements.”

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Kids Have Just Left the Building

A classic example of the 'how times have changed' topic, is the speed (or lack of) at which young adults decide that it's time to fly the family coop and set out on their own adventures.

For various reasons, some way beyond their control, the age at which our children choose to leave home for good is moving steadily upwards. Inflated house prices and exorbitant rents, coupled with university attendance no longer being available to those that can’t afford it, are helping to shut off the traditional avenues that allowed kids to get out from under their parents feet and live their own lives.

I feel so sorry for a lot of these youngsters. I love my mum and dad dearly, but I couldn’t wait to get away. Seven people into a three bedroom, semi-detached house in Moss Side does not go. Because I had a younger sister, it meant that us four boys, for a short period of time, had to live in the same room. That’s four boys aged 17, 15, 9 and 7, in a room built for two. There were no bunk beds, so we had two double beds shoehorned into the space, with their front right hand corners almost touching. We were like a younger version of the grandparents at the start of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but there was no Golden Ticket out of there.

We had wildly different lifestyles, with John (17) and Joe (15) coming back from the pub or gigs and crashing into things, whilst Paul (9) and me (7) had nightmares about being attacked by farting bears.

Technically we all loved each other, but practically, the competition for the limited spatial resources meant unending conflict and the desire to bugger off smartish as soon as humanly possible was ever present.

To be fair, by the time I decided to join the army, things had relaxed a bit. John was married and Joe was in the marines, leaving just five of us altogether.

Army life was a doddle in comparison. I had my own designated amount of space and didn’t have to take part in daily squabbles and shows of strength to hold on to it.

Going home for leave always felt weird. At the age of 17, I already had my independence. I loved to visit, but the idea of having to conform to my parent’s rules again, ensured that I never made the arrangement permanent.

I can remember going for a beer with my brother years ago. He was out with a bunch of workmates and they were all ribbing one of the lads because he was the only one who still lived at home. They referred to him as a ‘bedroom millionaire’ because he could afford to buy a nice car and was in possession of an enviable amount of disposable income. He wasn’t on better wages, but gave his mum almost nothing for digs, leaving him eternally flush. This was great until each time he met a girl, having to feign illness rather than admit that the reason she couldn’t come back to ‘his place’ was that his mum and dad always stayed up for Match Of the Day on a Saturday night.

It’s worth mentioning that this geriatric bachelor was 21.

As a father of four young children, I know there’ll come a point in the future where this dilemma will arrive. It would be great to have them around forever, but part of their social education has to be making their way in the world, making their own mistakes, purchasing wonky furniture and realising that the chippy is an expensive meal choice if you use it as your only meal choice.

But I don’t want them to be saddled with debt and unhappy, which is already the cost of independence, a price which is only going one way.

Perhaps, when we’re in our 70s, we’ll be sharing the house with four people aged 40, 38, 36 and 34. They’ll still be squabbling, not about lost books or snot-stained homework, but who they inherited male pattern baldness from.
As long as they still comply with the rules laid down in childhood, they’ll always be welcome. I can just imagine Chester having a conversation with his girlfriend.

“Yes, of course I’d love to see Rocky 15, but as you well know, Friday nights are for baths and de-nitting.”

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Kids and their Disarming Honesty

My wife suffered a TDM (Terrible Disco Mishap) last week. Whilst negotiating a tricky dancefloor, she slipped on some oil from a misfiring smoke machine, resulting in a manoeuvre that Jeffrey Daniels would have been proud of, quickly followed by a broken arm. To compound the fracture, it was her birthday the next day and all our plans were quickly ruined.

The following morning, I gathered the kids together to let them know what had happened. In a tone reminiscent of Neville Chamberlain informing the country that ‘no such undertaking has been received’, I explained quietly that their mum was currently in Wythenshawe Hospital, awaiting surgery and avoiding the food.

They all took it quite stoically. Chester (12), Casey (10) and Bryher (9) were worried enough to ask pertinent questions, but Caleb (6) got straight to the point in the way that only small children can.

“We’re still going to Croma though, right?”

Though he loves his mum very much, her smashed limb was a feeble excuse for us ducking out of a slap up Italian meal.

For all the crap that you put up with as a parent, disarming honesty in social situations is one of the ways that I think we get something back from kids. The constant, low level bickering that hums through our house (it’s as if they take it in turns to maintain a steady pace, like moaning relay runners), is instantly forgotten when one of them produces a frank statement that leaves no room for ambiguity.

I was comforting Caleb last year. He’d started to think about death and was crying in bed.

“Daddy, I don’t want me or my family to die.”

“Don’t you worry about that, love. It’s such a long way into the future, that it’s silly to even think about it.”

“Not for you.”

Many years ago, my older brothers, John and Joe, were on a day trip to Southport with my mum. She took them to an ice cream van but in the time it took to buy two cornets, Joe (6) had disappeared. As her panic and dread rose, she dragged John (7) all round the park, looking for her little boy. With ice cream melting down her arm and her beehive wilting, it took her two hours to locate him. Thankfully, he’d just wandered off and had come to no harm. 

Whenever she relates the story, as a cautionary tale about never taking your eye off kids, the thing she remembers most about the incident isn’t the horror of his loss or the relief of finding him. For the entire two hours, every couple of minutes, John would ask.

“If Joe’s dead, can I have his ice cream?”

I suppose that acquiring the social skills to know when to say something and when to say nothing is an essential part of growing up, but I know that we all secretly wish that we could, occasionally, come right out with whatever’s on our mind. Kids get to do it and so do pensioners. I’m not sure at what age it becomes acceptable again, but most old people I know are quite happy to air unsolicited views on everything from haircuts to immigration. My wife’s grampa had a solution to almost every societal problem. Unfortunately, it generally involved a shotgun.

I stumbled across a great website the other day, that taps into the perfectly human desire to free oneself of the shackles of conformity. At www.bluntcard.com there’s a great variety of greetings cards you can buy that will leave the recipient under no illusions about their place in your affections. My two favourites were, 

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Scamming the Scammers

I’ve been getting some strange phone calls recently. At about 6 in the evening, almost to the minute, the phone rings and I find myself talking to somebody I don’t know. It’s clearly originating from a call centre somewhere in India, where many companies have outsourced their customer operations. This isn’t the strange bit; I get loads of annoying phone calls trying to sell me things I don’t want or need.

What’s weird is that the operator insists on pretending that he’s got a western name. Though their English is perfect, it’s so heavily accented that I flatly refuse to believe that I’m talking to someone called, Gareth, Simon, Steven or Darren. Why are they doing it? Is Britain so populated with wankers, that we refuse to deal with anyone called, Ishaan, Suraj or Satvinder? Perhaps it’s just a mistaken attempt at establishing a rapport, but where does that end? I have visions of poor buggers in Bangalore receiving ‘Coronation Street’ training, forced to memorise massive diagrams of the complex family trees to be found in Weatherfield.

“Yes, Aisha, you’ve done very well on the exam. You only got one wrong. It was a tram that killed Alan Bradley.”

I had it out with the guy who called yesterday. I stayed on the phone with him for a couple of minutes.

“Hello, Sir, my name is Patrick and I’m calling you from…”

“You’re not called Patrick.”


“You’re not called Patrick.”

“Yes I am.”

“Why did your parents call you Patrick, if you live in India?”

I was hoping he’d done a bit of prep and would bullshit me that his dad was a big fan of The Prisoner, but he just carried on insisting that he was really called Patrick. I know it wasn’t his fault, just obeying orders and all that, but it does demonstrate the sort of contempt that these companies have, both for us and the people who work for them.

When someone’s trying to rip me off, I prefer them to do it by good old fashioned email. I’ve been getting the 419 scam emails for years now. These are the ones that imbue me with a feeling that I’m a very important person, because the Finaunce Minster (sic) from the Ivory Coast has took a bit of time out of his day to try and improve my life. The ‘419’ refers to the part of the Nigerian penal code that this particular scam contravenes.

I often wonder how anyone working for the government in a small African country manages to get anything done these days. Can you imagine actually being the Finance Minister for the Ivory Coast? Hardly anyone replies to your emails and when they do, it’s to accuse you of being a heartless charlatan.

Every now and again, I reply to one of the emails, just for the crack. A whole internet community has built up around this. Just have a quick look at www.thescambaiter.com to get an idea of the lengths people go to, to take the mickey out of the scammers. It’s seizing a bit of the power back from them and the logic dictates that the longer they’re messing a scammer about, the less time the scammer has to dupe the more gullible people in society.

The best fun I had with one was a couple of years ago, when I received a heartfelt plea from a low level civil servant in Burundi. Somehow he’d managed to lay his hands on $43 million dollars. It was burning a hole in his little pocket and he was determined that I should have a chunk of it.

I informed him that his email had arrived in the nick of time. As the Managing Director of a feather duster factory in Merseyside, I was having a hard time of it. I’d just had a huge tax bill and was experiencing some cashflow problems. I quickly supplied my details to him and urged him to act quickly, as I really needed the $8 million he was promising.

He soon got back to me. Apparently, the account details I’d supplied weren’t working and I must have made a mistake.

As a show of good faith, I then emailed him a picture of myself and let him know that, as I now considered him to be a friend, he could stop calling me Mr Dodd and use my nickname, ‘Doddy’.

In the next email, he described me as a very handsome man, who he was sure would spend the money wisely. I informed him that I intended to invest heavily in the Jam Butty Mines in Knotty Ash. Unfortunately, Ken Dodd’s ubiquity was my undoing. Someone in Bujumbura must have seen a Royal Variety Performance and let my scammer know he was having the piss taken.

With no sense of irony or shame, I received a terse, final email from my new Burundian friend. I was ‘a man widout no moral, and you waste a god fearing man’s time. Please think about your action.’

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Military Merriment

It seems like a very long time ago that I was in the army. That’s because it was. I joined in September 1985 and left ten and a half years later, at the age of 27.

Considering that it was a job that I left over 15 years ago, it continues to inform my life and occupy my thoughts more than it probably should. This is mainly because I had such a laugh being a soldier.

That’s not to say I didn’t take the job seriously (sometimes). I was never, in British Army parlance, a dreg, slug, leg-iron, waste-of-rations or oxygen thief. I passed the courses they put me on. I got promoted roughly in line with the average. I never got into much trouble, apart from a bit of standard, drunken tomfoolery in the early part of my service.

It’s just that, with the passage of time, I seem to have screened out all the shit bits of being a squaddie and I’m left with a skewed memory that suggests that I spent 10 and a half years, on the floor, helpless with laughter. If I really try hard I can recall some of the bad times, like being very, very cold, on exercise in the middle of nowhere as a recruit. I was lying next to another lad, both of us 16, guarding our comrades while they slept. I’ve never been as cold, before or since, my teeth chattering so hard that one of the Sergeants had to come over and tell me to, ‘shut the fuck up.’

There! I’ve done it again! It sounds funny now, but I wasn’t laughing then. I thought I was going to freeze to death. So did the lad next to me. He asked me quite seriously, ‘What would happen if we just ran off?’

Like members of the emergency services or people who do jobs where hardship and exposure to danger is a feature, the soldier’s ability to winkle out nuggets of humour in the darkest of circumstances is essential to maintaining some sort of mental stability. Almost everyone I knew in the army would go to elaborate lengths to be cheerful in adversity, with some displaying a superhuman ability to be un-pissoffable. These guys were worth their weight in gold. I can remember standing on the top of a hill on Aldershot training area, having been last to get to the top on what felt like the 50th ascent, whilst being screamed at by the instructors. I was given a water bottle by someone who looked more knackered than me. Whilst I was guzzling the water, dreading what was to come next on our beasting, he started laughing at the situation.

“Look at the fucking state of us, Charlie. All this and pay as well!!”

Despite my exhaustion, I joined in the laughter. I knew that he was referring to a famous recruiting video, where a rotund Sergeant salutes the camera, implying that service itself was reward enough, but to top it all, the army were that charitable, that they’d give you money too.

Though nothing like today, where your signature will guarantee you a posting to somewhere dangerous, the British Army of the 1980s had its own perils. Everyone was convinced that at some point, millions of bloodthirsty Russian soldiers would pour into Western Europe and lay waste to everything before them. Of course, it turned out that this wasn’t entirely accurate and the annual Moscow, show-of-strength parades were a little bit rose tinted. The reality was that some of the Warsaw Pact fighting units were armed with only cardboard tanks and cooking apple ammo.

If you went to Northern Ireland, there were some people who would attempt to ventilate you or make your car jump thirty feet into the air.

But none of this stopped us smiling and I think this is why my time in the forces lingers and will always linger in my memory. The intensity of the relationships formed in hard times and the determination to take the piss as a defence against discomfort is something I’ve found impossible to replicate since.

At least once or twice during my working day, something will remind me of a cutting comment delivered with all the subtlety of a Harpo Marx expression.

I went to a church a few weeks ago, to attend a friend’s wedding. As we entered the building, I hesitated for a fraction of a second, thinking about removing headgear I hadn’t worn for decades. When I was in the army, we had to go to church quite a lot, particularly at the Army Apprentices College. One of the lads was a bit slow to remove his beret as he went in. The Sergeant at the door spotted him and shouted at parade ground volume.

“Smith!!! Take your hat off in the House of the Lord, you cunt!!”

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Beauty of the Regional Accent

I love regional accents.

Until I was sixteen my exposure to them was entirely through the telly. My mum’s favourite soap at the time was Emmerdale Farm -  Coronation Street being a bit too close to home. It took me seven years of concentrated viewing to understand that,

“’Appen as’ mebbe’" meant, “I suppose so.”

The difficulty was in the lack of exposure to variety. In those carefree days before The Bill and Eastenders, people from London were assumed to sound like Richard Baker off the news or Jack Regan off the Sweeney, with nothing in between. I had no idea what Billy Connolly said to Michael Parkinson, but it must have been funny. Max Boyce and Tom Jones were plying their lonely trade as the only high profile Welshmen to grace our screens.

Regional accents then, to me, were these strange, impenetrable things that were simply a bar to understanding.

This all changed on September 3rd 1985. For reasons still unclear to me, despite writing a book about it, I joined the army and turned up at a place that seemed to be a cross between Eton and a borstal, The Army Apprentices College, Harrogate. Amongst the many lessons I learnt there (like how to eat really quickly and masturbate undetected in a ten man room), was how to love the myriad accents and dialects to be encountered in the UK.

I didn’t get off to a great start. I shared a room with nine other recruits and the Room NCO. We had a mixture of Scots, Londoners, Scousers, a Welsh lad, a couple of home counties chaps and a Yorkshireman. This was replicated throughout the rest of the recruit troop, forming a body of 120, 16 year old lads who struggled to understand anyone who didn’t arrive at Harrogate on the same train as them.

My initial inability to negotiate this linguistic hurdle nearly saw me getting filled in for my trouble. One of the lads came back late from leave and I asked him why.
He replied simply,

“I gat on de wang metwo.”

Even written down 27 years later, I’m a bit confused by it. He was saying that he had inadvertently boarded the wrong train, but it had been converted into a strong Geordie accent, further clouded by the speaker’s inability to pronounce his ‘r’s.

I spent the next five minutes staring bleakly, saying, ‘Eh?’ as he shouted that he’d gat on de wang metwo repeatedly and more angrily with each repetition.

It was only the quick interpretative thinking of a fellow recruit from Darlington that saved my bacon.

After that early scare, I soon learned that accents weren’t to be feared, but embraced and used to good effect. Most of us became excellent mimics and enjoyed the attempts at each others twangs. I started to enjoy the differences. No one was better at the dismissive phrase than the lads from Scotland, so, “Awa’ tae fuck” was used by us all to give our speech extra emphasis.

The boys from the north east seemed to have sardonic humour off to a tee, so whenever we were cheesed off and needed to pass comment, the Newcastle accent was perfect. Stood on the square, snow filling your left ear like one of those old hearing aids, with a two hour drill lesson in the offing, you’d often hear a comment from the rear rank,

“How man, this is nee laffin’ matta!!”

As I said at the top, I love the regional accent and I’m hopeful that they’ll never disappear. My chldren are from Manchester but have a worrying tendency to use words they pick up from ICarly and other American programmes which seem to serve the principal function of teaching kids how to be smartarses.

Fortunately, the Americanisms are counterbalanced by some solid northern-ness and, when pushed, my daughter can scream, “Alright love?” in a style that makes Julie Goodyear sound like Joyce Grenfell.

In an attempt to see if I’ve still ‘got it,’ I’ll occasionally try and use an accent in its place of origin. In 1996 I had a fascinating conversation with a mono-toothed old lady at a sandwich wagon near London. Adopting my best cockney, pitched somewhere between Pete Beale and Mike Reid, I attempted to buy a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea. If she’d rumbled my hackneyed act, she didn’t let on, content to let me fiddle about with imaginary braces whilst using the word, ‘tweacle’ more than is probably legal.

I was in Liverpool last month for a medical. Scouse is always a tricky one. It looks straightforward, but you can find yourself veering off into Brummy or Welsh very quickly if you get complacent. I was early so went to a Starbucks for a coffee, prepping myself by pronouncing it, ‘Schtarbucksh’ on the way in. I asked the girl behind the counter for an Americano, but put stretched out the ‘carrrrrrr’ sound so much, it was obvious she’d rumbled me, her eyebrow raised in a, ‘What a knobhead,’ statement. The trouble was we still had a transaction to complete and I found myself working my way back down the East Lancs in embarrassment as we went, morphing from St Helens to Salford by the time I’d got my change.

Regional accents are as much to be celebrated as any other elements of our culture. If it’s not something you usually do, you should take the opportunity to have a little dabble yourself, from time to time.

As you’re reading this, think of the word, ‘Kentucky.’

Now say it out loud in the strongest cockney accent you can muster. Lay it on thick, hold nothing back.

I bet you couldn’t do it without moving your head!!!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

All the Fun of the Big Family

We had a few friends over for something to eat on Saturday night. There are those who would refer to this as a ‘dinner party’ but that’s a phrase that scares me more than the Childcatcher on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I love having people round. I always spend most of the evening laughing and one of my favourite topics inevitably comes up. Reminiscing about a 70s or 80s childhood and the differences between growing up then and growing up now.

Most of the people I know come from families that would be considered big these days, but were normal for the predominantly Irish Catholic communities we lived in. At the start of each school year, the teachers at my secondary school only had to amend the first names on their registers. They’d be guaranteed to have the next Duggan, Bell, Murphy or Fitzpatrick in their new class, the elder sibling having moved on.

I remember being a bit nonplussed once, when a classmate told me he had only one brother and one sister. One of the other lads overheard and said.

“That’s just weird, that!”

If you question someone from a big family, it never takes long for them to start revealing the arcane hilarity and one-upmanship that occurs due to competition for attention and finite resources.

One of the people who was sat with us on Saturday described a teatime rule at their house which decreed that as soon as you’d finished your tea, you were allowed to start poaching off the adjacent plate. This led to incredible levels of speed scoffing and fork puncture wounds to the back of hands.

There were quite a few kids that I knew that subscribed to the edict, ‘First up, best dressed.’
Our house was no different. We constantly vied to be top dog, or get a brother or sister in the shit.
My little sister had a brilliant way of sending me from 0 to 60 in no time flat. She’d select a small noise from her repertoire and start making it, irregularly. This would interrupt my enjoyment of Scooby Doo and I’d ask her to stop. It would go back and forth like this for a couple of minutes until I delivered the ultimatum.

“Stop making that noise, or I’ll lamp you.”

Peace would descend for a few seconds and then she’d do it again, so quietly that it was almost imperceptible, which just increased my level of fury. I’d jump off the sofa and she’d run in to the kitchen with me in hot pursuit. As soon as she reached my dad, she was safe. I’d get sent to my room and she’d get what she’d been after all along; the opportunity to have the tv to herself, because she hated Scooby Doo.

There were five of us and we were all terrible to each other, in sly, underhand ways. My mum and dad got the Manchester Evening News and I liked to have a crack at the crossword. If I didn’t complete it, I couldn’t stand the thought of my brother filling in the last couple, so I’d just go over them with a black, magic-marker.

When we took turns to wash and dry the dishes, it became apparent to the dryer that, if you allowed evaporation to weave its magic on the hot dishes, you could save yourself a bit of work. This also became apparent to the washer, who would counteract this bit of good fortune by intentionally dousing all the dishes with washing-up liquid suds, necessitating a rinse and dry.

My mum and dad were generally oblivious to our low-level tribute to Lord of the Flies.

In this bonkers world, the rules were often confusing. At the age of 8, I went swimming with my older brother. After we’d finished we were walking back to our cubicle. I was then pushed in to the deep end by another kid. I was a non-swimmer and would have promptly died because the ‘lifeguard’ was clearly disobeying his own ‘petting’ rules.

My brother dived in, pulled me off the bottom, got me out to the side, then battered the lad that had pushed me in. As we changed, I expressed my gratitude for his display of brotherly heroism, only to have him explain that he was the only one who was allowed to drown me.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Male Grooming by my Desperate Dan dad

My dad was an old school dad. Though he was full of humour and always singing, whenever good cop-bad cop needed to be played, he was quite happy to let mum take the pleasant role.

As kids, we always worked under the unspoken rule, “Don’t get dad involved.”

If he needed to be called in to ‘mediate’ one of the daily disputes that were bound to take place in a three bedroom semi containing two adults and five children of similar ages, then it would only go one way.

Mum could be worked on, cajoled into sympathy or empathy, but dad was rigid. A closed newspaper followed by the single, softly spoken word, ‘Bed’ was enough to terminate all argument.

It’s one of the things I loved and still love about him. He was a fixed anchor point in my life. It wasn’t always pretty but you knew where you stood with him.

I used to love to watch him shave. Like all men of his generation, the notion of male grooming as something to spend time on, was completely absent from his life. Sacha Distel was the only man in England who knew what moisturiser was and he was French.

My dad’s shaving routine was rudimentary to say the least. I wet shave. I use the latest multi-bladed offering from Gilette, which shaves so close that I can occasionally see my back teeth through my skin. I fluctuate between foams and gels, searching for the best combination to give me the perfect shaving experience. My dad used to use a bag of Bic disposable razors.

I think they were meant to last a week or two, but he could get a whole year out of a ten pack. They were usually blunt after the first go. He had a proper, Desperate-Dan five o’clock shadow as well.

He didn’t bother with any sort of facial lubricant, other than to get a bit of lather off some Lifebuoy and smear it around in a cursory fashion. He’d fish into the Bic bag, pull one out and then start dragging it round his face. The noise was horrendous. It sounded like someone rubbing a pine cone up and down a cheese grater. It can’t have been comfortable but he never batted an eyelid, whistling as the rusty blade yanked out the stubble, hair by hair.

When he was finished, the Bic would get a quick rinse then be chucked back in the bag to ferment some penicillin with its mates.

His post shave routine would see him chucking on half a pint of whatever rubbish aftershave we’d bought him for Christmas. He wasn’t really a brand man. I don’t remember ever seeing a bottle of Brut, Denim or Hai Karate in the bathroom. If you can cast your mind back that far, Hai Karate was the aftershave that came with a leaflet, offering tips on how to defend yourself from the swarm of women that might attack you if you used it. My dad's aftershaves were basically white spirit that smelt nice. Putting neat alcohol on to an open wound never seemed to bother him. A quick slap followed by a stoic grimace was all you’d see.

I liked to watch him, because I’d always get a pat on the head and a wink as he walked past me on the landing.

I can feel him and the rest of the men of his generation, peering over my shoulder whenever I’m in Boots, walking along the ‘male grooming products’ aisle. As I try to decide between ‘King of Shaves’ and ‘Gilette Fusion Stealth Hydragel’, I can almost hear him saying, ‘I would’ve repaired a bike, built a wall or carried out some home improvements without planning permission in the time that it’s taken you to decide.’

In all things, more choice seems to create the illusion of happiness, whilst just making life that bit more complicated. The variety of products available to the man who has been conned into caring about his appearance being just one example.

In 1980, my parents decided which secondary school I was going to by pointing at it, so things have definitely changed.

It didn’t happen that long ago, either. When I was a young soldier, I turned up in Aldershot to make a futile attempt to pass P Company in 1987. On the first morning, our ragtag bunch were prepped and ready to go for our first run, when the Staff Sergeant taking the course, gave us a once over. He was an old school guy and had been in the army since Centurion was a rank not a tank. He paused at the lad stood to my left, pointed at his head and asked him a question. He wasn’t angry, just clearly shocked, his world rocking on it’s axis.

“Are you wearing hair gel?”

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

I was on my way home from work in the car the other day. It’s a largely uneventful, seven mile drive. In fact, the only thing of note that’s occurred in the two years I’ve driven this route was a couple of weeks ago, when I had to pull up at a zebra crossing to let someone cross. I took a picture.

If I live to be ninety, I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get another chance to see an elderly woman, riding a mobility scooter whilst towing a miniature horse, in the middle of Wythenshawe. I’m assuming that the horse was some sort of battery backup for the scooter or the woman was taking the words, ‘Zebra Crossing’ literally and the little black and white thing she was dragging was the closest she could get.

I’ve made the journey more than eight hundred times, but aside from tiny Mancunian nags, I usually just have the back of other people’s cars to stare at. I get to see all the usual bumper and window stickers, telling me that the driver has been clever enough to get someone pregnant and now has a ‘child on board’, or that I should be supporting the work of one pigeon sanctuary or another.

I do get a bit irritated by the Christian fish symbol ones, though. I suppose that the driver is just stating their affiliation, but I always feel that I’m getting a finger wagged at me. The car in front contains souls earmarked for saving, but my vehicle, absent the appropriate emblem, is on the A666.

“Check us out, you heathen. We’re statistically less likely to be involved in a serious RTA. We’ve got the badge and we’re with the Big Fella.”

Last Wednesday, I saw a new twist on the familiar motif. It looked like this.

There was no explanation about the letters, but the light was on red for a good thirty seconds which allowed me to work it out. The ‘J’ had to be Jesus, him being the central figure in Christianity and all that. A bit more head scratching lead me to the rest.

‘What Would Jesus Do?’

The bloke in the car might well live his entire life according to this particular credo, but the message was for me, not him, otherwise he’d have it on his dashboard or tattooed on his hand.

So I spent the rest of the evening thinking, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’

When wrestling with the big philosophical questions of life or dealing with matters of conscience, I imagine it’s a very useful tool to the average Christian. Its simplicity probably eases the decision making process, but if you apply it literally it’s not so effective.

I was trying to fix one of the drawers in the kitchen. We bought it from IKEA nine years ago, so I can’t quite believe it’s gone wonky. The screwdriver I was using was a little too big to get into the gap to access one of the screws, so I took a deep breath and thought, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ It was no good to me. Even though his dad was a carpenter, people in Nazareth two thousand years ago can’t have been familiar with modular, flat packed furniture. With the best will in the world, Jesus would have only been able to give me some general advice about taking my time and not swearing, but that wouldn’t get the drawer fixed.

Later, I was trying to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm, but realised that two things were being taped on Sky Plus. The box was giving me the choice of deleting Family Guy or Modern Family, both programmes which I wanted to watch. What Would Jesus Do? Once again, he was likely to be a bit stumped by the technology. By the time I’d have explained the system (as well as backtracking through the invention of television and the harnessing of electrical power), Curb would have finished.

He was able to help me just before bed, though.

I was brushing my teeth and contemplating a shave. I’d not bothered for a couple of days and on looking in the mirror, I couldn’t decide if I looked rugged or dishevelled. I thought about it for a few seconds and then chanted my mantra.

“What Would Jesus Do?”

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Novel Theft

After the recent riots, I was discussing the rights and wrongs of helping yourself to things that don’t belong to you with my son, Chester (12).

He’s a lovely kid. He’s got a nice bunch of mates and a good sense of humour. He’s polite and chatty to people who come to the house and to my knowledge, he has never stolen anything in his life. He was clearly horrified to be asked the question.

He asked me if I had and in the spirit of honesty that pervaded the conversation, I came clean about the little bit of ‘dare’ inspired petty larceny I got up to as a boy.

Having spoken to a lot of men and women my age on the subject, it seems to have been a pretty common thing for kids in the 70s and 80s to conduct a bit of five fingered discount in the hope of impressing their mates. It seems that my experience was typical.

I never had to steal anything because I couldn’t afford to buy it. My mum and dad weren’t rich by any material standards, but I had everything I needed.

I don’t remember who amongst my mates suggested stealing something from the newsagents, but it caught on and one by one, we took turns to be the thief of the day. It took a few weeks for it to come round to me, but eventually I found myself, aged 9, nervously holding the door handle of the newsagents on Platt Lane, with a semicircle of my pals giving useful tips.

“Straight in and out, Charlie.” “Go for the Fizz Bombs, they keep ‘em near the till.” “Ask for some kop-kops and when she turns around, grab a handful of Refreshers.”

I was terrified, but determined to keep my nerve. The shop was quite busy and I was in there for a couple of minutes. When I emerged, I had my swag carefully hidden in my jacket and my mates quickly surrounded me.

“Did you get something? Did you get something?”

“Yep. Have a look at this.”

I opened my coat to reveal a copy of ‘Jaws’ by Peter Benchley.

“What the fuck’s that?” cried Clement.

“It’s a book.” I replied. “It’ll be great for us all to read it,” I lied.

I wasn’t really promoting my own literacy programme. Everything else was far too risky. The assistant seemed really hawk-eyed and the bookstand had been the nearest thing to the door. My friends sussed this out in no time flat and I was roundly scorned for showing a clear lack of moral fibre.

After a few more rounds of this, one of the lads got caught. The 70s were a different time and extra judicial sentencing by the man in the street was quite common. He’d gone for a copy of Roy of the Rovers and got as far as the door with it. A bloke who’d been reading a paper rather than buying it, spotted him and just as he left, yanked it out of his hand and delivered an immense toepecker to his backside, accompanied by the warning.

“I know your dad, lad. If I see you or any of your mates helping yourselves in here again, you’ll be for it, coppers and everything!!”

That was enough to curtail our fledgling careers and we went back to playing football and popping tar bubbles for a few years.

I only ever stole like that once more, when I was 14. Once again, I did it to impress my mates and it backfired completely. We’d just left a museum trip to make our own way home and as we walked down the road, I was telling a few of the lads about my artistry in the specialist world of shark novel theft. Filled with bravado, I helped myself to a pear from the display of the fruit and veg shop we were passing. I hadn’t spotted the shopkeeper but he’d spotted me. He grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, relieved me of the pear and started marching me down the road, informing me that we were on our way to the police station.

It was only some Olympic standard blubbing and continued pleading, all witnessed by my mates, which persuaded him to let me go, probably in disgust. I was ribbed for weeks afterwards, my attempts to convince them that I was only pretending to cry, falling on the deafest of ears.

Those days are behind me now. I limit myself to occasionally hiding a sausage under the bacon in the work canteen or putting £10.01 worth of petrol in my car and offering the service station man a £20, forcing him to give me £9.99 of change or letting me off a whole penny. I’m keeping my hand in for the leaner times ahead, which I hope will never come.