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 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.