Friday, July 30, 2004


So, British household debt has just exceeded the One Trillion pound mark – that’s £1,000,000,000,000 – just seven years after exceeding the half-trillion.

Sorry! For I fear it was my handling fee in that seedy East London bar that caused us to go over this limit. If we get a nasty letter from the Bank charging £35, I hope we can come to some arrangement.

One trillion pounds is a ludicrously, incomprehensibly large figure, but one which means little until understood in context.

Barely a day seems to go by without the media peddling another alarmist statistic. ‘Hottest June day ever!’, ’20,000 asylum seekers each month’, ’ ‘One in three love spam!’.

You’d think we’re living in the dawning of some new age. Which in many ways we are. But such mindboggling statistics often arise simply because there’s more of us now (59 million in the UK, compared to ‘just’ 50 million in 1951) spending more (inflation, greater purchasing power, etc).

Behind the headline-grabbing statistics, there are occasional genuinely interesting insights into how we live differently as time progresses. More often though there’s little substance beyond spin for some government propaganda or a desperate PR campaign.

But measurement, naval-gazing analysis and inane reporting of the findings is still relatively new. The simple reason so many records are being broken is because no-one used to record this shit; and if they did, inevitably less accurately than today. “Since records began”? Forty years ago, at a stretch?

Which is why I take most statistics I read with a heavy pinch of salt.

So I leave you with a more meaningful statistical conundrum to debate over the coming days:

Which would win in a fight: One horse-sized duck, or one hundred duck-sized horses?

Debate away, friends, and enjoy your weekends.
Wednesday, July 28, 2004

  Never discount it

I’ve struggled on my way to the top.

I’ve toiled to get where I am today.

You don’t just become a moderately successful direct marketer without some hard graft.

I’ve worked and studied hard for my success, and know what’s it’s like to live on meagre funds.

So much so, I used to be an ambassador for the ‘Value’ ranges you find in supermarkets: the mass-produced, substandard, genetically-modified product lines emblazoned with cheap-as-chips packaging, usually identified by garish red fonts or thick blue stripes which immediately identify you from eight tills away as a customer of poor means.

I used to buy foods which were not only cheap to buy, but easily adaptable for a variety of meals to make my paltry budget stretch that little bit further.

But my efforts didn’t stop there.

I used to pride myself on my eye for value, and how my ‘bargain fingers’ could seek out a good deal from a quick rummage through an initially apparently rubbish assortment of end-of-line product.

Over time, I applied these skills to my food shopping. I realised that the lowly-paid young assistant would reduce the price of perishables at the same time each day. So before long used to hover by the ‘nice’ bread awaiting her arrival.

After a while I began to converse then flirt with the Price Gun Girl. She began to recognise me and indeed expect my attendance as she in one quick swoop halved the price of Mothers Pride, Kingsmill and Own Label.

As my confidence grew I would tease Price Gun Girl towards specific items I wanted reducing. She understood: she was, after all, a woman of simple tastes herself. Usually she would toe the company line, restricting her price-reducing power to the items she had been specifically ordered to attend to. But occasionally with a flutter of her eyelashes she would flash an embarrassed smile and wipe her gun across a premium loaf before waving me on my way.

It was beautiful: I could see a future between me and my Price Gun Girl. I’d whisk her away from the aisle and down The Aisle. With my eye for value and her discounting skills we’d live happily together in our cheap house. We’d drink cheap wine together. Cook cheap meals together. And book cheap holidays together.

Of course, over the years, I have attained moderate success as a direct marketer, and no longer need restrict myself to the ‘Value’ range. I seldom flinch when I buy the ‘Finest’ range, shop outside of ‘Sale’ time and occasionally even dine at Pizza Express.

But sometimes I look down the aisle of a different supermarket in a different town, and wonder what might have become of my Price Gun Girl.

Because I know the only thing that wouldn’t have come cheap would have been our love.
Monday, July 26, 2004

  Slovenia, you’re breaking my heart

Norah looks fragrant in her Austrian maid’s outfit, and pouts teasingly at me, beckoning, “Come away with me”. I smile as she leads me suggestively onto her baby grand.

“Come on, you gettin’ breakfast now or WHAT?” she asks, curtly, her voice suddenly uncharacteristically gruff and deep.

Wiping my eyes to counter my utter disbelief, my dozy hungover haze slowly clears to crystalise into the disappointing sight of M and P standing before me in a low-rent Austrian hotel room. They’re laughing.

“You’re as security conscious as us!” continues M, “You left your door unlocked, so we walked straight in. Daft gits! You haven’t even drawn your curtains!”

A cold shower, and cold meat breakfast later, we’re all on the train headed across the border to Slovenia. We’re excited, yet we’re totally ill-prepared, with only a little currency, and no language skills whatsoever (not even “please” or “thankyou”) between us. Typically ignorant English tourists. But, most concerning is that only after arriving did I learn we didn’t actually have tickets for tonight’s Arsenal friendly.

“Couldn’t understand the website” defended Volvo, “it had funny characters on it.”

Maribor, Slovenia’s second largest city, is unspoilt with old, rustic buildings providing a contrasting backdrop with its fashionable inhabitants’ evident sense of pride and optimism. The pervading atmosphere is that of a population naïve enough to be innocent of their city’s as-yet-undiscovered potential for tourism. Our hotel situated slap-bang in the middle of the main square, we’re in easy reach of the town’s offerings, and the riverside bars and restaurants. It’s beautiful, and still incredibly cheap (under a quid a beer: “The more we drink, the more we save!” observed M). Under relentless sun, even the few minutes walk to NK Maribor’s football stadium breaks us into a sweat. Eventually locating the ‘box office’ among the sprawling layout, we’re relieved to find tickets still available, so part with several thousand Trolars each: still less than a fiver a ticket.

Excitement increasing as we anticipate the evening ahead, we lunch back in the main square, before taking some time out to explore the environs. Among the well-heeled locals we notice a gradual descent of obvious Arsenal fans, sticking out like sore thumbs, on otherwise finely manicured hands. Hours before the match, police presence becomes evident as a couple of horse-mounted officers pass the square. Dark clouds loom over to precede a heavy thunderstorm which breaks the intense heat, and we make the cooler evening stroll to the stadium. The convivial atmosphere among fans – Maribor’s naturally outnumbering the few Arsenal – jars with the sights of police armed with truncheons, and more. Inside the stadium, the ‘official’ Arsenal section looks predictably pitiful: a few dozen red- and yellow-topped beer-gutted fans with local banners draped over the terrace fence, yet police still concentrate around this area.

The match itself is perfectly enjoyable, Arsenal winning a not unfought-for 3-2 win against the hosts.

Circling the town post-match to enjoy more fine bars and restaurants, we soon realise from the ‘closed’ signs on any clubs we find that Thursday night is not Maribor’s busiest. Much walking, and more beer, later we’re soon flagging and acknowledge defeat; conscious again of tomorrow’s early train, plane, train and bus home.

Returning the next day through the turnstiles at Liverpool Street, I realise I’m home:

“Don’t fackin’ talk in my face, MATE” lectured the ticket inspector, not completely pleasantly.

“I ain’t talkin’ in your FACE” shouted back the irate passenger, pointing, “cos you’re a fackin’ CANT”

It’s good to be back, I think. I just wish Norah had stayed with me.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

  The hills are alive

I’m awoken by my early alarm. And am reassured to find myself surprising hangover-free. Kept to just a few birthday drinks, as promised. For I have a plane to catch.

Following my recent downward spiral that has seen me experience overindulgent drinking, dodgy nightclubs, gun crime, seedy strip bars, a mysterious biting-woman and one lost passport, a bit of culture might be just what the doctor ordered.

Passport, and tickets, are safely ensconced. Packing was completed early yesterday. And Slovenian dating pants procured. Now, I only have myself to worry about. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

So after a quick wash and breakfast, I’m out the door: I catch a bus, meet Volvo at Liverpool Street station, catch a train, meet M and P, and catch our plane from Stansted…and we land in Austria! Everything goes worryingly smoothly.

Arriving in Graz, it’s as Austrian a city as I’d ever imagined. Set in a valley with the River Mur separating its Old and New towns, the Alps dominate to the West. Tiny alleys link its web of squares and small courtyards, and baroque architecture rubs shoulders with the more contemporary, reflecting a vibrant, exciting city with a proud, historic past.

Lunching on schnitzel washed down with cold Grösse beers next to an old church on a beautiful summer’s day, we seem to be the only tourists. We watch locals chatter. The occasional walker or cyclist passes by. And we spot two nuns. Bliss. (Sister Bliss, maybe?)

Refreshed, we decide upon the long walk up to the fairy-tale clocktower atop the hill overlooking the town. The relentless sun beating down, our initially purposeful stride declines to a sporadic meander as we ascend the steps. Yet the increasingly impressive view provides the second wind we need to surpass the clocktower (which, it transpired, was mistimed) to reach the grand concert hall at the hill’s peak.

At the summit I breathe in the fresh alpine air as I immerse myself in the staggering view around. The hills are alive with the sound of music; as jazz music emanates from the hall band warming up for tonight’s concert. After rewarding our collective effort with another beer, we manage the immeasurably easier descent in minutes.

We have a great time taking in the city’s nightlife. Spend the evening getting “drűnken” on Grösse, shots and finishing, inevitably, on some ill-advised cocktails. Before deciding to try the ‘Night Club’ situated by our hotel on the more industrial edge of town.

With benefit of hindsight, perhaps the slightly phallic imagery of Venus surrounded by Greek gods should have set our alarm bells ringing of what was to happen next. Or the fact that in place of the typical club velvet-rope entrance was a secure door opened only by ringing a doorbell. Or perhaps the unusually sumptuous surroundings, unusually low-key music and unusual absence of any discernable dance floor. But at the time none of these clues gave us any cause for concern as we rushed for the bar.


“It’s a fucking knocking shop!” screams Volvo, “A fucking knocking shop!

Inside, a motley crew of gents are draped over by a mixture of girls in varied state of undress. But from the nature of their interaction, the manner in which the couples are making their way to private rooms, and the bizarre clues on our way in to the club, it suddenly damns on us where we were. Not any night club. And way beyond any strip joint. We’re in a brothel. A whorehouse. A fucking knocking shop.

Volvo’s poetic description, or the utter shocked look on our faces, must have translated easily, as our bouncer laughs at us whilst politely showing us the door without asking for so much as a Euro.

We’d had a cultured day already. And have an early train to catch for Slovenia tomorrow.
Friday, July 23, 2004

  Five Gold Rings

Tesco's only sell their raisin and cinnamon bagels in bags of five. I know this because when my girlfriend stays at mine for the weekend I often buy a bag, and we have one each on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Come Monday morning though, the fun and frivolity of the previous 48 hours is over - the real world is back with a vengeance. She heads off to work, and I start work/looking out of the window at home. Then, about 11:20 I usually go to make some toast to tide me over till lunch, and I find that I've still got a bagel left! The excitement on opening the bread-bin to find an extra tasty treat for your weekday elevenses is joy almost beyond measure - it's certainly on a par with seeing a squirrel.

However, if Tesco's sold their bagels singly I would only ever buy four at a time, as that's obviously all that I need. There are two of us, and the weekend is two breakfasts long. 2 x 2 = 4. I'm not given to indulging in fancy foodstuffs for myself during the week. I am a simple man with simple tastes - toast is adequate for elevenses. And it is very unlikely that my girlfriend and I would indulge in a threesome with a stranger we met on the internet and require an extra bagel one Sunday morning. I expect that Tesco's have spent millions on market research to find the optimum number of bagels to put in a bag, then put another one in to force us to consume more than we really need.

But I'm not complaining. What I'm looking for is more examples of such joyful serendipity in modern life - any kind of unexpected treat that is a pleasant side effect of something else that on first sight seems less positive.

There may be a prize for the best one.
Thursday, July 22, 2004

  Sultans of Spin

I was at a christening at the weekend and the hostess left me in temporary charge of a group of pre-schoolers. No problem as they’d just started singing a song together, complete with actions. I didn’t know the song, but it was to the tune of “Dem Bones”, and the simple lyrics made it pretty easy for me to pick it up.

“Alastair Campbell has five humps,
Alastair Campbell has five humps,
Alastair Campbell has five humps,
And this is how he goes: BOM BOM BOM!”

And they say that satire is dead.

I joined in with gusto for the next verse.

“Alastair Campbell has four humps,
Alastair Campbell has four humps,
Alastair Campbell has four humps,
And this is how he goes: BOM BOM BOM!”

And so we carried on with fewer and fewer humps until it turned out that the former spin doctor was, in fact, a horse. Of course. It was probably all a metaphor for Iraq.

The hostess returned.

Her: “Hope you didn’t mind looking after them for a bit.”

Me: “No problem. I really liked that Alastair Campbell song. Very funny.”

Her: “The what?”

Me: “You know. The song about Alastair Campbell.”

Long pause.

Her: “You mean Alice the Camel?”
Wednesday, July 21, 2004

  Joe's Story

Hello. I'm Salvadore Vincent, and I will be guest-editing Unluckyman until the end of the week.

It's a bit more complicated than that, but I think we'll just leave it there for now and I'll write my post. Except that today's isn't mine, it's one that Unluckyman himself left me with. So there you go.

Joe’s story

This isn’t my story.

It’s a true story recounted to me by a friend of a friend, with a face not dissimilar to that of squeaky-voiced TV ‘funnyman’ Joe Pasquale.

This is Joe’s story.

After a night out with the boys, Joe returns home bladdered.

Not quite remembering where he’s been, but glad to be home, he fumbles for his key. Not in his usual pocket, he starts hunting furiously around all the other pockets. Alas, his keys are nowhere to be found.

The bag! Joe remembers. His keys are in his bag. Along with his wallet, passport and other items of ridiculous importance. The bag which, inevitably, is no longer with him.

In his drunken haze Joe mentally retraces his steps from the evening. But can’t think where his bag could possibly be. So he does what any right-thinking Englishman does in difficult situations, and lies down for a bit. In his front garden.

Half-hour on, inspiration strikes: Joe breaks into his shed and grabs a tool with which he can wrench a window open from the outside. Miraculously, the plan works: the window prises open and Joe, just about, squeeeeeeezes in. At last! Joe has made it inside. Success!

Except Joe has neglected to take account of the deadlock on his front door. The front door for which, of course, he has no key. The window apertures are too narrow to let him out again. And his girlfriend is away for a couple of days. Joe is trapped. Disaster!

So poor Joe exists on the few scraps of food which remain in his fridge. His only contact with the outside world occasional conversations with his estranged lover.

Joe is alone, desperate and incredibly hungry.

The phone rings.

“Hey Joe”, announces the caller, “Burger King here. We appear to have your bag. Would you like to come and collect it?”

At that moment, there was nothing Joe wanted more than get his bag back, and gorge on a Whopper Meal. If only Burger King would deliver.

“That’s ok” replied our embarrassed Joe, “I’ll pop down in a couple of days.”

“Are you sure? The bag contains your wallet and everything.”

Joe replaced the handset, and continued his vigil for his girlfriend’s eventual return.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004

  Sherwood Forest

Everything’s as normal.
Well, at least, everything seems to be as normal.
I awoke with a mild hangover from a fun night: that much was to be expected.
But I was pleased I didn’t awake wearing striped BHS pyjamas.
Checking my reflection in the bathroom mirror, my eyebrows were still characteristically unruly, but I was happy I hadn’t suddenly grown a ridiculous ’tache.
Putting my usual jeans on, I found them to be as comfortable as ever, and didn’t experience any compulsive urge to go out and buy chinos.
I treated my hungover hunger as usual with a MaccyD’s breakfast, not so much as flinching as I passed Marks & Spencer.
Feeling brain dead, I bought my favoured tacky tabloid, reassured that my retained shallowness didn’t cause me to instinctively reach for the Daily Mail.
Comforted by my usual anonymity walking through the streets, I was perturbed when a stranger suddenly approached me with something to say. Perhaps he knew?
“Do you know the way to the magistrates court?” he asked.
I didn’t, but was relieved by the innocence of his question. I was satisfied I hadn’t suddenly developed an old man’s walk, or found my trousers pulled up to my chest.
I picked up my mystery package from the local sorting office, returned to my flat, and opened my post.
The cards confirmed it: today, I’m officially old. I’ve turned thirty-three. A third of a century. As old as Jesus. (I’m not saying I am Jesus. That is for others to say.©)
Everything seems to be normal. But today this boy becomes a man.
Sorry to be leavin’ ya, but for a couple of days I’m off to Slovenia… the excellent Salvadore Vincent will be filling in.

Unlucky man, earlier today
Sunday, July 18, 2004

  Sign o' the times

Plan, schedule, phone, sort, discard, pack, load, drive, unload, lunch, carry, pay, unpack, unsort, chase, liaise, argue, home, eat, telly, sleep.
The day after moving office from Camden to Chiswick, I decide exploring the area can wait.
Because today I just want to pop out to get a fresh sandwich from a proper sandwich shop.
I take the sprawling Hogarth Roundabout’s subway to emerge facing south. Leaving the bustling carriageways behind me, I stroll past the local Fullers brewery and within seconds feel miles away from the city. A leafy village lane with 16th century cottages, dominated by the old church, weaves the few hundred yards down to the Thames. This far downstream, water’s much calmer with swans and moorhen completing the picture postcard scene. Beautiful, but not a sandwich shop in sight.
Crossing back under the subway, I walk up Devonshire Road, past boarded-up shops and a couple of pubs, but resist the temptation for a pint. Besides which, I don’t want to eat in, I want to take-away.
Reaching the High Road, I ignore my groaning stomach to discard a couple of delis disguising themselves as cafés. The aroma of coffee and sun-blessed tomato teases my taste-buds, but today I don’t want brushetta or ciabatta: I want a sandwich.
Shaking off my slight sweat from the lunchtime sun, I dismiss Spar, Cullens, Greggs Bakers and Boots: all renowned sandwich makers, but I want fresh. Likewise Starbucks, Café Nero, Marks & Spencer and Pret A Manger: all chains; I want a proper sandwich shop.
I’m on a mission, and compromising now would constitute failure.
Half-hour on, I’m very hungry, hot and tired. At the far end of Turnham Green I believe I’m hallucinating a mirage, until from the swinging sign before me emerge the words ‘Sandwich Shop’. Hallelujah! A proper sandwich shop, selling fresh sandwiches.
It’s busy. A middle-aged woman takes orders. Others prepare the sandwiches, fresh. It’s swift, friendly and efficient.
And today they’re giving away a free packet of crisps with every order.
I pay my two-pounds-fifty-pence, and walk the two miles back to my new office.
Exploring can wait. Today, I have found my sandwich.

Friday, July 16, 2004

  Friday fuckwit

Apologies for my being a Friday fuckwit: having been too busy almost to breathe, let alone post, for the last couple of days.
Instead you can find me ranting over at The Mighty Crumb, where you'll also discover many other better things.
Catch ya later.
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

  Literary mystery

Vainly, I feel better for others showing concern in my well-being.

Loving family. Supportive friends. Even some reliable colleagues. I’m lucky really.

Occasionally, strangers too have shown concern:

Converying sincere apologies after inadvertently clashing against me in a crowd. Picking me up after I’ve fallen over pissed. And flashing an unsolicited smile. All these gestures have been appreciated.

But I was somewhat perplexed to return home to find a surprise landed on my doormat this evening.

For between the bank statements and ‘Time Out’ magazine was a book.

An erotica classic: Nin’s ‘Little Birds’.

Now, whilst very grateful for this unexpected gift, I couldn’t help but wonder what ‘little bird’ had convinced some stranger I deserved this?

It wasn’t with the post this morning, so someone’s made a special effort, albeit a week early for my birthday.

But it’s not new, mind. It’s a 1986 edition, and contains a shopping receipt from 1991.

I suppose it’s rude not to read it, but I’d have preferred vouchers.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Friends come, friends go, life continues.

But my mum proves an ever-reliable source of what’s happening with old friends from my childhood town.

And so she updated me the other day that my ex girlfriend is having a baby with my old best mate.

This didn’t surprise me, as they’ve been married for years; I attended the reception (but not the ceremony, perhaps because of the higher perceived risk of a jilted ex objecting).

Nor did it sadden me: I only went out with my ex (girlfriend) for a couple of months while at uni, and my ex (mate) and I had simply become less close naturally.

I’m really happy for them. Genuinely. As I was happy to have inadvertently got them together in the first place, when they met at one of my parties.

But I do feel responsible. It’s common for mates within the same social circle to get together. Yet a fact that, had it not been for me, they would likely have never met.

So I feel all the more responsible now there’s a little ’un on the way.

Being my first ‘Shag Bingo’ baby, I wish them all the luck in the world.
Monday, July 12, 2004

  Unlisted London

London’s a large, exciting, vibrant city of culture.

Any Saturday night, you can take your pick from a plethora of bars and restaurants, take in some theatre, catch an obscure film, attend a gig, watch live comedy, or wander round one of its many museums, galleries or open spaces. And there’s more nightclubs than you can shake a stick at (not that I’ve ever actually wanted to shake a stick). House, techno, indie, rock, garage, hip-hop, breakbeat, drum & bass; it’s all here.

The listings magazines are full to bursting with choices of places to see and things to do.

Yet there’s a counter-culture that never makes the listings magazines. Popular places that stay hidden, undocumented, known only to locals. Unlisted London.

And so despite my original intentions for a ‘quiet weekend’ I found myself accompanying my good friends the Dorset Boys to a club which came on recommendation.

Its name – ‘Infernos’ – was perhaps a clue to the shambolic disgrace it proved to be (in my experience, clubs ending in vowel sounds – ‘Pink Flamingoes’, ‘Bibas’, ‘Jazzos’ etc – invariably always are).

We made our way past the unpromising entrance to find a splendidly tacky oasis among the desert that is Clapham's otherwise well-heeled, respectable, trendy bars. A meatmarket like I haven’t been to in years.

Beyond the cloakroom revealed an absolute tardis of a club. Flashing neon everywhere, the cavernous room was quite literally an amusement arcade; coin-operated glass-fronted crane-grabbing machines housing cans of beer instead of fluffy toys. Instead of breakbeat, techno or drum & bass, the huge main dancefloor played a succession of ‘Celebration’, ‘Oh What A Night’ and ‘Like A Virgin’. Whilst the only slightly smaller other floor offered a more ‘contemporary’ mix of Minogue, Eminem and Destiny’s Child.

It was classless in both senses of the word: lawyers rubbed shoulders with factory workers (though I suspect there were more of the latter), but stylish it most definitely was not. Lagered-up lads in Ben Sherman shirts circled groups of girls dolled-up to the nines. Sumptuous side-booths housed hen-parties, it occasionally seeming every other girl had a pair of angel's wings on their back, along with the obligatory 'L' plates. I imagined how hellish it’d be for an ‘Infernos’ to represent my last night of singledom, but in the meantime it was like heaven on earth. When in Rome, I thought to myself, I don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump ’n’ grind, so I joined the masses to cut some rug on the dancefloor.

I’d been sceptical at my friend’s claims that it is the ‘ladies’ who approach the ‘gentlemen’ in this club yet, lo and behold, during an early play of 'Angels' (Eh? Slowies before midnight?), a pissed Kent girl lunged at me. The lads applauded this early surge. She passed me over to her buxom-breasted, fake-tanned mate, and though we danced and chatted for a few minutes I wasn’t seeking to close any deals this early.

Suddenly, pissed Kent girl was riding Dorset Boy #1’s back: his 6-foot-3 frame accommodating her with ease. Seconds later, she was riding Dorset Boy #2’s back: his slighter frame wilting with obvious discomfort. Within minutes, other Kentish mates were riding each of their backs. I shuddered as I received a smile from another of their friends, as I grew concerned at how I would carry her Jonah Lomu-like build, so decided it best to move on for my own safety.

As I single-handedly reinvented disco dancing, a sultry, dark-haired girl kissed me as she waltzed past. Dignity had been left back at the cloakroom. Alas my serenading The Tallest Girl In The World with ‘Deeply Dippy’ fell on deaf ears. And despite a couple of 'near misses' I found myself alone as the 2am deadline passed when any females had either collared a bloke, or had wisely left. I was too late. I’d managed to lose my friends. But at the end of a truly hilarious night I was not overly disappointed to be returning home empty-handed.

Sometimes, the best nights go unlisted.
Saturday, July 10, 2004

  Scrubbing up well

Scrub, scrub, dust, vacuum, clean.

Why am I bothering? After all, my visitors know me better than this: I was once but a twinkle in one’s eye, and kicked my way out of the other’s womb.

Yet here I am, bothering: scrub, scrub, dust, vacuum, clean.

It’s less than an hour ’til my parents arrive, so I’m moving heaven and earth to get my flat spick and span.

I live a pretty clean, tidy life. I like a sense of order. But I’m also human. My space looks lived in. Probably because it is.

It’s my mum and dad visiting, though. So, like many fully-grown offspring, I put myself through the futile, superficial ritual of a spring-clean whenever they visit.

Today is especially significant because it’s the first time they’ve been well enough to visit me in London for well over a year.

Much has happened in that year. Last time they visited, I and my ex served up chicken in a white wine sauce as we discussed areas we were house-hunting; as already well documented here, that didn’t quite pan out. I was treading water in my job, since which promotion has seen my career soar to moderate success as a direct marketer. And I was carrying a potentially permanently bloated beer gut, before the introduction of mild exercise combined with (mostly) healthy living has resulted in me looking and feeling better.

So I’m putting extra zeal into my scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming and cleaning. It’s my small way of showing I’m “doing ok”.

My mobile rings. They’re on the bus: early. My dad always ensures they’re always early. I haven’t left enough time to buy in the flowers I was going to plonk in a vase. Probably just as well, as that would have set back my efforts to become a lad again.

I rush to finish before they arrive: scrub, scrub, dust, vacuum clean. Five minutes just enough for a quick shave and shower.

After my weekend of shame, time with family might be just what the doctor ordered.

The doorbell rings. They’re here.
Wednesday, July 07, 2004

  Passport hell, part 2

Tedious, self absorbed, whingy post today. I’d skip 'til tomorrow if I were you…

Sometimes, when you least expect it, nice things happen. When you’re at your lowest ebb, something picks you up. When the shit’s hit the fan, someone’s there to help clear it off.

I was facing many difficulties a couple of weeks ago applying for a new passport, having discovered I’d lost mine the day before I was due to fly to France.

Alas, my problems didn’t end there.

My fourth obstacle was my own, rather than m’lackey’s, stupidity. Having gone to the trouble of obtaining and filling in another set of forms, I took the completed paperwork back down to Camden Post Office for their “Check & Send” service. After the surly middle-aged female teller demanded her £5 fee upfront, she worked her “Check, Wearily Sigh, Chastise, Tut, Patronise & Hand Everything Back” service instead. I’d written over the edges of each (ludicrously small) box, she told me, so “the computers they use won’t be able to read it”, and would need to obtain a report number from the police to apply. Thrust another form, I trudged off.

My fifth obstacle was the bureaucracy exhibited by my local rozzers. Having established I’d need to attend in person, I waited for ninety minutes laden with all the ID and paperwork they could possibly require. Only to be told they needed my lost passport number (which, of course, I didn’t have) before they could give me the report number I needed. “It’s because of all the passport crime, and illegal immigrants” the duty officer explained, helpfully. Indignant, I trudged off.

My sixth obstacle was the bureaucracy exhibited by the UK passport service. Having tried my travel insurance company, last travel agent, and various Caribbean hotels as a last futile attempt to locate my passport number, I resorted to the infamous UKPS helpline. Asking how the hell I could achieve this, they explained they didn’t really know, but that I should just turn up at the local passport office. “I’m surprised the police want your number” empathised the lady, “when you’ve lost your passport”. Bewildered, I trudged off again.

My seventh obstacle was the bureaucracy confronted trying to even get in to the Victoria office. Passing the security guards, along a complex queuing system, through an X-Ray scanning machine, picking up a ‘deli-counter’ style numbered ticket, and waiting again among a clearly exasperated group, my hopes were pretty damn low. At this point, I’d have gladly got the bus down to Brixton to sell a kidney or two in exchange for a passport, as a less painful alternative.

The queue screen flickered: five counters open, then four, then three. After an hour, it fell to two. I realised that even if I could get my passport number, I’d need to go back to the police, then book a fast-track appointment back at the passport office, then wait for an unknown length of time. The office was due to close any minute: I wasn’t optimistic.

Then my number was called. I made the short walk to my booth number, and was greeted by two courteous and polite women. I explained the problem using the sentences I’d been repeating in my head the past hour.

“That’s fine” explained my teller, “but you don’t actually need a police number.”

It didn’t matter I’d wasted hours of my time. It didn’t matter I’d wasted a fiver to be patronised by the Post Office woman, who told me wrong. It didn’t matter I’d wasted more money and time needlessly phoning the Caribbean.

“OK” I replied, sheepishly, spotting my chance: “If I’ve got all the forms with me, can I please apply right now?”

The two tellers exchanged a knowing glance before checking my photo ID.

“Ooh, I think it’s you!” she laughed, “I shouldn’t really put this through now, but seeing as you’ve asked nicely…”

She was right: I had asked nicely. And sometimes, when you least expect it, someone even in the most famously bureaucratic of organisations can be nice back.

My application got fast-tracked, approved, and I got a shiny new passport yesterday.

Slovenia, here I come.
Tuesday, July 06, 2004

  Friends reunited

Hallowe’en, 1992.

Even before dusk falls the sky casts a dark blue. Black crows circle overhead, intimidating me. Bats tease amid the whisper of the surrounding trees. In the isolation of this field, would anyone hear me scream?

Sod this, I think, I should be back at the JCR bar. Midway through my management degree (with no idea of the moderate success as a direct marketer this would bring me later on), I could really do with a beer.

Times are hard, and I rely on my holiday accounts job in a London insurance company to see me through. Tonight, watered-down lager’s half-price with each plastic glass of lukewarm schnapps. And there’s snakebite to be won in the apple-bobbing competition.

But I’m not in the JCR bar: I’m in a field in Sussex. Helping my holiday job boss put up an electric fence around its perimeter.

It’ll all be worth it, though: chilli con carne and cold beer is being served. Followed by a proper bath. And a warm night’s accommodation. Plus I’ll get my laundry done.

More importantly, this unimpressive patch of land will become my boss’s wine vineyard. This time next year, we could be millionaires.

In the meantime, after a hard afternoon’s work, we’re circling the field testing the fence.

And no-one can hear us scream.

Tuesday 6 July, 2004.

The sky’s bright blue but for the occasional cloud. Chattering masses sit among the pavement tables of Charlotte Street.

I’ve just met up with my ex holiday job boss for the first time in, ooh, at least eight years.

Despite our best efforts, the deers had easily jumped our carefully-erected fence. His vine crop had been ruined. Then, after a couple of years, we’d lost touch, and I’d learnt he’d returned to Malaysia.

Until years later, just like a deer stalker, I hunted him down. Through the wonder of google-search, I found him. Still working in Malaysia. But just back from a visit to London… Typical! I’d missed him by days.

One summer on, we finally meet for lunch. Any nervousness quickly dissolved as we catch up on lost years. I return to work absolutely buoyed by our long overdue reunion. So glad we did it. And seriously considering my invite to Malaysia.

Anyone you should get back in touch with?

After all, friends aren’t just for Hallowe’en.
Sunday, July 04, 2004

  Tale of the unexpected

Saturday morning, 8am.

My alarm rudely awakes me from my deep slumber. I clamber for the ‘Snooze’ button, but it’s futile. I nod right off again, and sleep through subsequent alarms and my friends calling me to see if I would, as predicted, be too hungover to meet them under Waterloo clock at 10am.

I can’t remember what time I got to bed, but do remember it was daylight. Bitter taste in my mouth reminds me I well exceeded the intended ‘few pints’ with Dorset Boy. Tinnitus ringing in my ears reminds me of loud indie music in a north London club. Aching limbs remind me of my ridiculous dancing, raising my arms aloft five times a minute, creating a 2 yard gap around wherever I happened to be.

So I eventually awake with a very sore head. This was probably to be expected.

But I also awake with a very sore upper arm. This was not to be expected.

Friends will testify I’m not an obnoxious drunk: far from it, I’m a pathetic “you’re all my best mates” drunk. Which is why I’m shocked to remember a girl biting my arm. Yes, biting. I’m not the provocative type (what behaviour justifies biting, anyway?) but frighteningly I remember nothing of the circumstances leading to this minor injury. Instinct tells me it was a pissed prank, but I do recall expressing my considerable annoyance, albeit less vocally than I would have done sober. Teeth marks are clearly visible on my swollen arm, but my T-shirt’s unharmed.

I mentioned in my very first post my concern over how at thirty-two years old I’d found myself increasingly regressing into disgraceful, embarrassing teenage-like behaviour. At least I had the chance to put the previous evening’s proceedings behind me with a cultured visit to horse-racing at Sandown to celebrate Volvo’s birthday.

So a cold shower and hangover-nursing pie & mash later, I’m finally on the train. My stomach churns as I watch an obese American couple gorge on an early afternoon kebab directly in front of me.

Returned to my normal cautious self, I slowly reintegrate with society by slowly sipping lemonade under the sun and placing small bets on each race. Against all odds, I win the main race, with my winnings comfortably covering my anticipated outgoings for the day. Eventually summoning the courage for my first beer, my friends nod disbelievingly when I explain I’ll only be out for a couple of hours after the racing.

Sunday morning, 11am.

I awake with a sore and sunburnt head. This was not originally to be expected.

But I also awake wearing a pink wristband emblazoned with the word ‘Penthouse’. This was definitely not to be expected.

Memories return of the train ride back to London; a Waterloo pub; a pizza restaurant; a Cuban bar; pretending to be Swedish; a taxi ride; and, finally, an East End dive bar containing ladies in states of undress.

I’m open-minded, but cynical enough to see through the manufactured fantasy that strip clubs create. Yet I admit I’m also shallow enough to go with the flow of the spirit of a very amusing day in the name of my good mate’s birthday, and part with stupid amounts of hard-earned cash in the high-testosterone atmosphere. And, fuelled by alcohol once again, just when I should be exercising the restraint I’d shown in the cold sober light of day, I’m doing the exact opposite: I’m obtaining ‘cashback’ on my credit card to pay for a private dance in the ‘Penthouse suite’.

Sitting in a ‘de luxe’ vibrating leather chair watching a young Brazilian divorcee undress in front of a fake, illuminated city skyline, I suddenly realise I’m literally sitting in one of those ‘dark corners’ I reserve for soul-searching questions. Even at the end of a surreal, escapist, ostentatious day, I’m sober enough to realise this is excessive, not moderate, behaviour. Why am I here? I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing. Haven’t I got a good, healthy social life already? Do I really need this? (Of course, I stay. It’d be rude to walk out).

Sunday afternoon, 2pm.

I sit here typing with a sore and sunburnt head, an aching arm, a depleted bank balance, and feeling a little bit appalled with myself. I am a disgrace.

I know we’re only young once, but I turn thirty-three this month, and feel some moderation is in order.
Thursday, July 01, 2004

  Over my head

Returning from a bizarre family do for a ludicrously manic shower and shave on Saturday, I hurriedly caught my bus for a night out in London’s glittering West End.

As I hopped aboard, I noticed the bus was empty but for three attractive girls in animated discussion at the back. I strategically placed myself a little further forward on the other side of the bus, tilting my head to the required angle to adopt a deceptively flattering, James Dean-like profile.

But inside the bus was silent.

Eerily silent.

What had happened when I stepped on the bus? Perhaps, I thought, the girls were in stunned awe at the vision that sit just a few feet away, before I dismissed this as unlikely. More probable, I considered, was simply that an argument had broken out just as I got on, leading to this frosty awkwardness.

Either way, I sensed tension, so I turned away towards the window to instead watch the delights as we rode from Elephant & Castle to Waterloo.

Crossing the bridge, my inquistiveness into what might have happened grew too tempting, so I discreetly turned back towards the girls to see what had caused this silence. Phew! Panic over, as the girls were still in animated discussion, just chatting in sign language.

But my momentary relief was replaced by the thought any single lad experiences when overlooked by any bunch of good looking girls: maybe, just maybe, they were talking about me!

So I discreetly turned back some more, watching their signing out the corner of my eye. This was futile, with my hopelessly limited knowledge of sign language provided entirely by a few chanced-upon episodes of ‘See Hear’, and the digital TV ‘Hollyoaks’ omnibus.

Then paranoia set in. They were talking about me, I decided, but most definitely not in glowing terms. I didn’t look at all like James Dean, I realised, I just looked like an idiot on a bus who kept tilting his head strangely. I was a deluded fool. I was scum.

I continued fruitlessly second-guessing their conversation until I hopped off at Charing Cross Road. As I stepped onto the pavement, a thunderous roar ripped across the sky and the crowds looked up shouting oohs and aahs normally reserved for local council firework displays.

I could tell from the red, white and blue vapour trails above that the Red Arrows flying team had just soared overhead to kick off the Olympics Concert taking place down the Mall. Among the excited chatter erupting among the hordes of people, I turned back to my girls on the bus as it pulled away.

I realised immediately from the confused looks on their beautiful faces they were the only people who hadn’t any clue what had just happened.

This time, I felt they’d missed out. This didn't seem fair.

Unless, of course, they had been dissing me, in which case they got their just deserts.
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