Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Shopping with Bez

I knew that the Happy Mondays were going to reform prior to the recent press release. How did I have the inside scoop? I was in my local Morrisons the other day and spotted Bez in the canned goods aisle. I wasn’t following him, I just happened to need tinned vegetables at the same time. What I did notice was that he was paying scant attention to the two-for-one and buy-one-get-one-free offers. As soon as I realised that he wasn’t going anywhere near the ‘own brand’ cans, I thought, ‘That’s it! Those loveable rogues are going to be plying their trade again this summer.’

I’m a fairly recent convert to the concept of budgeting whilst you negotiate the lanes in the supermarket. Until a couple of years ago, I would wander blithely round, putting things into a trolley. Sorry, did I say trolley? I meant basket. Trolleys were too much commitment. I preferred to pack it all into a basket so tightly that it looked like a skip with a handle, where even the cans were dented and my white loaf looked like a naan bread. Better that, than go for the overkill of a trolley, where everything rattles around with far too much freedom.

When I got home, my wife would help me to unpack and casually begin to note that I’d pulled off the amazing feat of buying the most expensive item in each category. My only defence was the hapless plea,

'But they looked nice.'

It works when you’re talking about tomatoes or prawns, but is less useful when pointing to a four-pack of massively overpriced washing-up liquid. I got a bit sick of feeling foolish, so began to just fabricate offers when I got home. As long as the receipt was on fire or in the bin I could bullshit my way through the cross examination.

‘Five tubs of Ben and Jerries?'

‘Oh yeah, it was buy one get four free, but only for today.’

‘Nouvelle Kitchen Roll twelve pack?’

‘The lady said that the 50% increase in price was offset by the 70% more child-generated mess that each sheet could remove.’

I wasn’t imaginative enough to keep this sort of stuff going, so eventually took the logical step of actually looking for bargains like everyone else, except for people in recently reformed, decade-defining bands.

These days I’m an enthusiast. The time that I considered a minute in a supermarket as a minute of my life wasted, are long gone. I will happily stand in front of a wall of beans and perform dizzying mental arithmetic until I’m certain that I have indeed saved myself four pence by buying four 415g tins instead of eight 200g tins. When in Morrisons, I’m automatically drawn to anything yellow. Their own brands and offers all use this colour and my eyes have evolved to screen out all other hues until this one has been considered first.

Now that I’ve mastered the basics, I’ve started spotting other bargain locations in there. 'Car-crash-corner’ is where they put all the stuff that looks like it’s been sat on or shat on. I’d have turned my nose up not so long ago. Not anymore. When you’re looking at a flat apple or a bottle of Lucozade with a bit missing and you’re thinking, ‘Might be alright!’ you’re a bargain hunter.

I’ve still not reached the pinnacle, though. The way to test this is to wander down to the bakery chuck-out display stand. If you can root through the mountain of stale cakes and crusty doughnuts without a backwards glance, you’ve cracked it. At the moment, I do what most people do and try to see what’s on there from about fifteen feet away, hovering round with the other Cornish pasty vultures and praying that if I go in to grab a pie, it’s got a filling I like.

Of course you can always ditch it later on in your shop, if you don’t fancy it, but filing it way innocuously can be quite tricky. One of my favourite pastimes in the supermarket is having a chuckle at unwanted purchases being left in inappropriate places. Check out the one below. Bog standard chicken curry as hair product!!

It seems that bargain hunting on the aisles will become more prevalent now, as all our belts tighten and more people join the throng.

We were in Marks and Spencer before Christmas, snagging one of their ten-pound meal deals. Part of the deal was a chicken. My wife bravely entered what can only be described as a well-mannered riot to snag us the best one. Without it ever descending to full scale lawlessness the ‘tut,’ ‘well I never’ and ‘charming’ count was off the scale, as everyone tried to jockey for position, but as politely as possible. We needed Bez with us. He’d have danced his way in and out with the biggest chicken before anyone else knew what was happening.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Kids On the Pop

I was discussing the relative merits of cider with somebody yesterday. As we all know, in recent years, it has undergone a miraculous renaissance. Using ingenious marketing methods like swapping the ‘e’ and ‘r’ around and showing young people quaffing it ecstatically, the brewers have managed to revamp boozy apple juice as a refreshing alternative to beer.

This entire campaign has passed me right by, for the sole reason that I have always - and will always - associate cider as the drinking choice of the discerning pisscan. My view of it is completely tainted, because the last time I had some was in Platt Fields Park in Manchester when I was fifteen. I got to enjoy its sweet taste twice. Once on the way in and thirty minutes later on the way out, when it left mostly through my nose.

very time I see the adverts, usually showing a group of demographically cross-sectioned, twenty-somethings having a lovely time whilst clinking their glasses, I’m always taken back to that place. It was near the seesaw, where me and Budgie Gallagher (that nickname will get its own blog one day) and a few of our friends shotgunned a couple of bottles of Strongbow and became violently ill. Perhaps we should have sat down and had it with ice, instead of drinking half a litre in a one-er then having a go on the swings.

It does make me think about a broader point, though and it’s the fact that I’m a complete hypocrite. When I talk to my eldest son (nearly 13) about the perils of substance abuse, I consistently fail to mention that I - and almost everyone I speak to who grew up in the 70s and 80s - seem to have embarked on their boozing career at a very early age.

When I was playing under 16s football for Hulme Lads, we used to go for a pint after the game. Not a sneaky half shandy behind the pub. The team, still dressed in football kit, would go into The Crown, with our manager and have a couple of pints and game of pool, whilst we conducted our post-match analysis. This wasn’t even considered unusual. We didn’t even have rubbish ‘Kev Webster’ moustaches. When I was fifteen, I looked like I was twelve.

A quick survey amongst my friends produced similar stories. Julie was getting served in her local when she was thirteen. She used to duck behind the bar when her older brother came in for a more legitimate pint. When he was sixteen, my mate Paul was told that he could only go for a pint one Saturday night if all his homework was up to date. Desy D couldn’t take his English O Level because he’d got a bit pickled at lunchtime, in the Birch Villa.

What am I going to do? I don’t like being a hypocrite, but I can’t see myself sanctioning a Christmas piss-up at the Yates Wine Lodge for the kids’ footy team that I run.

I don’t want to trivialise the current worry that society seems to have with the binge drinking culture, but a quick look backwards feels quite revealing. When our Joe came back from the Falklands, I fully participated in the celebrations with four cans of Kestrel in my dad’s shed, aged 13. The following year, I sat down and watched the FA Cup Final with my dad and a couple of bottles of his home brew. Did it do me any harm? Almost certainly, but it does help me get things into a little bit of context.

When my kids eventually find their way to a bar, aged 18 and holding a current passport, they’re not likely to drink some of the nonsensical, mind-rotting stuff we were putting away. Cider wasn’t known as ‘Central Heating for Punks,’ for nothing. Here’s just a quick sample of what was being ordered and consumed in industrial quantities in the bars of Manchester back then.

Cider and Black
Cider and Lager (Snakebite)
Cider Lager and Black (Red Witch)
Guinness and Black
Guinness and Lager
Blue Stratos (not a nickname, just an aftershave. To be sipped gently)
Blue Bols and Vodka (a Blue Lagoon)
Blue Bols and Vodka dropped into a Snakebite (An Experiment)

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Hooberstanks and One Cheek Sneaks

The analysis of whether people’s toilet habits are funny or not is an interesting subject.

I’ve encountered a wide spectrum of opinion over the years. There are those that are utterly horrified if they stumble into the telling of an anecdote involving white jeans and a stomach bug and there are those that find stories of ‘Midnight Firemen’ and behemothic turds absolutely hilarious.

The rest of us are somewhere in between. It will come as no surprise to those that know me, that I place myself closer to one side than the other. A funny story, well told, is just that.

Going to the toilet is something everybody does, every day of their lives, yet for many, it’s taboo to make jokes or laugh at anything to do with the process. Abstract references are used, to disguise the actual event. People ‘spend a penny’ or ‘pay the water bill’ when actually they are, ‘going for a piss.’ They are ‘nipping upstairs’ or ‘feeding Jim Davidson’ instead of ‘going for a shit.’

In our second book, The Map of Africa, one of the characters decides to defecate into a top loading tumble dryer, for a laugh. It was fairly throwaway for us. It was the kind of thing that went on in the army all the time. In single soldier’s accommodation, the combination of boredom and young men would ensure that barely a week went by without someone unearthing a Devil’s Coil in any number of places that weren’t identifiably toilets.

I found the reaction to that bit of the book quite interesting. Quite a few readers were offended enough by it, to be put off the rest of the book, whilst others commented on it being their favourite bit. I suppose that you can’t please everybody and perhaps describing the noise as ‘like a bag of cement being dropped into an empty skip’ was a little bit too graphic for some.

I like toilet humour, it’s a great leveller. I’ve been amongst groups of people where someone will tentatively relate something about a recent ‘accident’ only to find that, once the taboo has been lifted, everyone in the group is falling over themselves to go one better with their horrific anecdote about the time they found themselves caught short at Glastonbury, with only a couple of tent poles to use as toilet roll.

I like the fact that everyone seems to have their own toilet protocols within the house. I knew someone in the army who, at the age of 28, was still appalled by the fact that his mum liked to leave the door open and carry on chatting whenever she was lighting a bum cigar.

Though I found this quite disturbing, it didn’t prevent me a couple of years later, doing exactly the same thing. We were so bored on a UN operation in Africa, we’d end up going for what came to be known as a ‘sociable.’ There was really nothing to do in the evenings, so we’d find ourselves wandering down to the toilets, which were a pit dug by the Royal Engineers with a couple of rudimentary traps built over them.

We would sit down next to each other then have a nice conversation, which was exactly like other conversations, except that there would be the occasional over emphasis on a particular word. In a way that can never be adequately described with words, witnessing somebody’s face distorting with effort, whilst saying the word ‘birthday’ is truly a sight to behold. I still get flashbacks.

In our house, a place where farting was considered the noblest of the art forms, there was but one rule. Never when mum was in the room. My sister and other female visitors received no such concessions, but my dad was unwavering. If mum was out of the house, we could happily conduct our own brass band which consisted entirely of human tubas. All the events in the flatulent Olympics were included at 18 Gatley Avenue. The Cup-a-fart was something at which we all excelled. This involved farting into your own hand, then ambushing the nearest sibling with the contents. It was a gruesome practice, which was later banned by the European Court for Human Rights. Dad would generally turn a blind eye, occasionally awarding points for ingenuity or pungency. As soon as mum walked in though, it was all over and we became paragons of trumping virtue, going in to the back garden to get rid of our hooberstanks or one-cheek-sneaks.

In the same way that it is said, that the Queen thinks the whole world smells of fresh paint, my mum must have assumed that our house permanently whiffed of Glade air freshener and Shake and Vac, with a slight undertone of cabbage.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Nap Happy

During the Christmas break, I got nap happy.
Up until very recently, I would have chuckled at the idea of having a nap. I’ve always been pretty active, getting by on the usual seven or eight hours kip.

In the last year or so, I’ve found myself getting phenomenally tired at unusual times of the day. The tiredness is so overwhelming, I’ve got to stop what I’m doing and have ten minutes shut eye. These brief kips are some of the best sleeps I’ve ever had. I wake up feeling like Popeye just after he’s shotgunned a can of spinach. I’m wide awake and ready to deal with whatever daft question is coming next in our house, like,

“Daddy, was Anne Frank married to Hitler?”

Of course, I’m talking like this is some sort of elixir that I alone have discovered, but really it’s just middle age starting to knock on my door and remind me that I’m nearly 43.

I can remember when I was tiny, just before I started school. I would watch my mum selfishly taking a twenty minute nap before she went back to work-got tea ready-did the washing up-hoovered the house-mowed the lawn-cut the hedges-stopped me putting forks in plug sockets. To my four year old body clock, this was an impossible amount of time to go without attention and she would stoically kip, whilst I tried to prise her eyes open with my thumbs. Such was the power of the nap, that, despite my attempts at sabotage, she’d still wake up looking sufficiently energised to take on the rest of her onerous day.

The naps that I have now aren’t like the stolen bits of sleep we’d get when our kids were babies. Those were much more frantic affairs, with an undercurrent of, ‘If you don’t let me sneak in a half hour gonk, I’m going to lose my fucking mind………..MY FUCKING MIND!’

No, these are much more sedate. I’m lying on the sofa, usually with a newspaper over my face, well aware that lying there with my gob wide open will be an almost irresistible invitation for Caleb (6) to recreate a scene from Return of the Jedi and drop Lego figures in there.

I can feel myself dropping off and it’s just... so… pleasant. When I wake up, it feels like I’ve been out for hours and it takes a few minutes for my life to have its clarity restored. In those moments, I haven’t got a mortgage, my knees aren’t rickety and all my wages are available to spend on CDs and pizza. It’s a blissful time. I don’t resent the reality swimming back into view either. I just look forward to the next nap.

One of my favourites took place on a ferry from Mull to Tiree in 2008. We were going to do a site inspection and had taken a structural surveyor with us. The journey took four hours on a flat calm sea. It was sunny and I took the opportunity to sit on the top deck and marvel at the beautiful view as we negotiated the Sound of Mull. The structural surveyor, a man in his fifties, opted for a nap in some very comfortable seating. When he joined us up top later, he looked blissful. He said that the rocking motion of the boat had just given him the best sleep of his life.

We all tried it on the way back and had to agree. One of the lads was so refreshed and affected by the cradling sensation, he said he felt like having a little cry.

I’m hoping that, as I get older, the naps will increase in their rejuvenating power, effortlessly counterbalancing the multiplying indignities of the aging process. For every tooth lost, I’ll get younger in the nap and start playing for United. As my trouser waistband creeps closer to my chest, I’ll pass those O Levels and start knuckling down at nap school.

For now, though, I’ll just enjoy these impromptu breaks and revel in the fact that the alarm clock in these situations is a six year old boy saying.

“Daddy, did you say you used to live in a terrorists house?”

“No son, I used to live in a terraced house.”