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,