Monday, 31 August 2015

We're all going on a bank holiday

I've just seen on the news that Kanye West reckons he's going to run for president in 2020.
Seriously? After having a movie star in the form of Ronald Reagan as president, will the American voters really sink to the depths of having an ageing rapper with an ego the size of a planet in the White House?
As if that isn't bad enough, can you imagine that narcissistic publicity-seeking-missile Kim Kardashian being first lady? If this was to happen (and I don't think for one moment the average American is stupid enough to let it) it really would be final confirmation that the world has gone insane.

Not that we need look to the US for signs of this of course.
On a daily basis we see signs of mankinds relentless plummet towards the deepest abyss of bad taste and social indifference.
Today is the August bank holiday, which is fertile ground for the observation of the insanity around us, and predicably it's raining with a vengeance. It always does, and yet there are still countless outdoor events organised by hopelessly optimistic people with corduroy trousers and excessive beard growth.
Every year it's the same and yet we still hold on to that tiniest sliver of hope that next time will be different.
We had every intention of going to Wimbotsham, just outside Downham Market, today for the annual Fenman Classic motorcycle show. We've been before and it has been a great day out, but unsurprisingly we awoke this morning to be greeted by the sort of precipitation guaranteed to put off all but the most hardy of bikers, so we figured it wasn't worth the trip when the event would probably be reduced from the usual thousands of bikes to three BMWs and an old Yamaha FS1E.
There was nothing on at the cinema worth seeing, but we felt the urge to get out of the house and do something - anything - so we made the stupid decision to pop into Cambridge to get a couple of bits from Dunelm. Fat chance of that working out.
All routes in that part of Cambridge were gridlocked because everyone else in the region was bored too and had the same idea, so not wanting to spend the day in a traffic jam, I took evasive action and ended up at the big Scotsdale garden centre instead, along with everyone else over the age of forty within a 20 mile radius.
By the time we'd wandered half way round we'd lost the will to live. The place was littered with people who were obviously there because there was nothing else to do. Like us. We kept catching snippets of other peoples conversations, all saying they didn't know why they were there.
It was almost a sort of out-of-body experience, a sense of detachment as if watching a film rather than really being there. The characters, the expressions of exasperation, boredom, and confusion, and the old man bent double over his walking stick with a face that appeared to be made of melting wax like the nazis at the end of 'Raiders Of The Lost Ark'.
Every conceivable example of the hopelessness of western civilization gathered together in one place with the sole purpose of killing time until that skinny bloke with the scythe and the black cloak comes to relieve them of their misery.
It was time to leave.

This sums up the whole problem. At a time when everyone claims to be so busy and stressed out because there's so much to do and so little time, days like this just go to show that it's all nonsense and they're bored shitless with the pointlessness of it all.
We have filled our lives with things that take the hard work out of life for us like washing machines, dishwashers, convenience food, and not bothering to iron clothes, so all the little jobs that used to be required to keep our households running have been reduced to a level previous generations could only have dreamed of.
We opened up all this free time for ourselves but we have no idea what to do with it, and when it's pissing down the only thing we can think of doing that doesn't involve getting wet is watching shite TV or shopping. Something has gone very wrong.
Yes, I know this is a sweeping generalisation and there are plenty of people who do have lives that are full and rich with a whirlwind social life, just as there are those who are perfectly content with a life spent sitting on the sofa eating chocolate until 'Eastenders' comes on.

I don't particularly want to be any of these things. I want to be happy doing what needs to be done before pottering about doing little things to keep me busy, watching the odd movie, or spending a couple of hours killing bad guys on the Playstation. I like cooking from scratch and would much rather do that than eat something from the ready meal aisle in the supermarket because at least I know what's in it. I enjoy making wine and beer, and I enjoy drinking the result even more.
I love listening to music, creative photography, walks in the countryside and fixing stuff.
Mostly I'm perfectly content with this simple life, but occasionally that little voice in the back of my head gives me the urge to get out and do something different.
When I do give in and listen to that voice, I quickly learn that it belongs to an evil little bastard who puts me in situations I'd rather not be in. It makes me realise that I don't want to join in with the rest of the world running around like headless chickens, and searching for the next fix of unashamed materialism that is the scourge of the modern world.

People everywhere have a 'to do' list pinned up somewhere - a list of tasks that need to be completed in the near future. What I think I need is a 'don't do' list - things I've done that I need reminding never to do again. There are lots of things that belong on this list, such as 'don't buy fruit from the market because it'll be manky within two days',and 'don't mix bleach with other cleaning products unless you want a near-death experience', but the newest addition to it will be 'Don't leave the house on a bank holiday because you WILL regret it'.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Manbags and gladrags

It has always been a fundamental part of being a man that you must be able to carry all your day-to-day essentials in a small piece of folded leather that slips neatly into your inside pocket.
Everything you're likely to need will live in there including methods of paying for stuff, old receipts that you can no longer remember what they were for, and in my case the occasional moth.
Keys are about the only thing it's permissable to carry separately, and these should ideally be shoved into your trouser pocket in such a way that they stab you in the leg when you sit down.

The reality, however, is that we often need to carry more than that, and this leads us to a whole minefield of problems.
My wallet only ever contains cash on the day I'm due to buy my weekly bus ticket, but it does do a pretty good job of ensuring an assortment of cards including payment cards, driving license, organ donor card etc, are kept in one safe place, but it lacks the capacity for other things I need to carry most days.
The wife carries a bag that I call 'Bessie' (a reference to Courtney Cox's bag in the comedy series 'Cougar Town') which is roughly the size and weight of a small country. I avoid getting too near it for fear of getting lost, but it seems to contain anything and everything you might need and plenty more that you won't.
Hermione Granger had the best bag ever in Harry Potter, which was physically the size of a small handbag but had immense capacity. Unfortunately my lack of magical powers means that such a thing is not an option, so I'll move on.
On the average weekday I'll travel to work with a small rucksack over one shoulder that contains a decent size lunch box, a pair of full-size Sennheiser headphones, an iPod Nano, keys and ID card for work, and usually a packet of ibuprofen.
The trouble with this is that anyone carrying a rucksack in Cambridge is automatically assumed to be a tourist, and for many reasons outlined in the previous post I'd prefer to avoid that association.
So what's the alternative?

There are sports bags which are fine if you're going to the gym or to play squash, but otherwise they're too big and cumbersome.
A briefcase makes anyone other than a lawyer or estate agent look like a dickhead, and those people generally achieve that without one.
What you're left with is that relatively recent fashion item - the man bag.
Most of these are along the lines of what I understand are known as messenger bags, but as usual life becomes increasingly complicated the more you look into it.
I've looked in lots of shops and on various websites, and while the variety of options is mindboggling, I have at least been able to narrow down the field a bit.
I don't want one of those that looks like your stereotypical professor bag - you know the sort, brown leather with a fold over front secured by two buckles, and a single handle on the top.
In fact I don't want it secured by buckles at all because they're time consuming, and none of those plastic spring clip things either because I'm guaranteed to end up with fingers covered in blood blisters where I've got them trapped. Velcro is cheap, nasty and noisy, so that leaves either a zip or maybe those little magnetic button things.
The ideal bag will be big enough to accommodate the items mentioned above, but not so big that it's clumsy and awkward to carry on the bus. Waterproof would be good, and a shoulder strap rather than a small handle. It mustn't be bling, shiny, have big corporate logos on or look 'a bit gay'. I don't care if someone is, but I'm not so I don't want to give that impression.

So what to do? I guess the right thing will present itself at some point and I'll just have to get it when it does - otherwise I'll never see it again. Of course sods law dictates that when I do see the right one it'll have a silly price tag attached, so I'll walk away shaking my head and tutting, telling myself I'd rather keep the rucksack and risk being mistaken for a tourist than be ripped off over something that is essentially lunch box camouflage.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

The trouble with tourism

I'm not a fan of summertime. It's too hot and there are far too many bugs around for my liking. The ants are out in force making it impossible to spend time outside without having the little bastards crawling up your leg in search of Christ-knows-what. If you ride a motorcycle you have to compete with clouds of greenfly that coat the front of the bike and your helmet visor, ensuring an hour's riding results in a further two hours getting all the splattered and dried corpses removed.
You can't even sit in the garden with a book because even if the ants don't get you, you'll spend the entire time itching from all the feckin' thunderflies wandering around on your skin - so much so that you end up feeling them even when they're not there.
For my part, when the sun puts its hat on and comes out to play, I disappear indoors until it has gone away behind a cloud.
I love the spring and autumn which are when you witness nature changing day by day, and usually it's not so hot that you want to take refuge in the fridge. Even winter has its benefits, because even if it is cold and wet with very little daylight, it's a lot easier to make yourself warm when the weather is cold than it is to get cool when the weather is hot. After all, there are only so many layers of clothing you can remove before you end up in front of the judge trying to explain why you were walking around the town wearing nothing apart from Crocs and a pair of RayBans.
Winter is also a time when you can go out in the world without having to face a great multitude of tourists (unless you live near a ski resort), and for me this is a wonderful thing. No matter how dull and depressing the weather may be, at least you're not going to get wedged  between two coach-loads of Chinese tourists all sporting identical pink rucksacks while you're trying to get to the bus station.

Now I realise that we're (nearly) all guilty of being tourists ourselves at some point, and that the tourism industry is a major income for some places who without it would be financially destitute, but for those going about their everyday lives, tourists can be a total pain in the arse.
I work in Cambridge, which along with Oxford is a major draw for tourists owing to its world renowned University. From roughly the end of March until winter gets its claws out, Cambridge sees a relentless stream of coaches disgorging their eager cargo, all clutching Nikon SLRs with big lenses and generally wearing the sort of clothing that screams "TOURIST!" and means they may as well be carrying a large placard displaying the words "Beware - I may suddenly stop dead in front of you to take a photo of my friends in front of Kings College".
One of the things that does amuse me is the number of people who in all innocence ask for directions to the University. To the uninitiated, Cambridge University is not situated in a single campus, but its immense collection of colleges and departments is spread in a fairly haphazzard manner across the entire city, with a few bits actually beyond the city boundary. To answer the above question with a simple "Which part of the University?" will result in a look of complete confusion and a certain amount of stammering.
If you're lucky enough to avoid these encounters, you still won't be able to steer clear of trouble in Cambridge because tourists are pack animals and will therefore at some point block your path completely. Some of them pretend to be oblivious of the problem they are causing, which means you have to point out the error of their ways with a well-braced shoulder. Get it right and they go flying with an effect not dissimilar to pins in a bowling alley. This is most commonly required when faced with groups of Spanish or French students who are noticeably ignorant.
Tourists here seem to deliberately make a point of finding the narrowest part of any given footpath or pedestrian area and amassing in a huge clump right there for an extended conference. I'm sure I've seen a catering trolley being wheeled into the midst of the most inconvenient and annoying groups with coffee and biscuits.
Probably worse than the groups blocking the footpaths are those that go en-masse to hire bicycles with the sole purpose of trying to commit suicide on the road. It's fortunate that locals can spot them from a mile away and fully expect a wobbly Asian with a dayglo rucksack to suddenly turn right, straight across the front of them without even bothering to look behind. Unsurprisingly there's usually one foreign tourist deleted permanently each year. The surprising thing is that there aren't more, but that is probably explained by the fact that anyone who drives in Cambridge regularly is used to cyclists jumping red traffic lights, and those who ride a black bike with no lights at night, wearing black clothes and with their hearing blotted out with full size headphones, believing that they're completely invincible.

Then we have the additional effects of tourism, such as the usual selection of quaint little shops in side streets selling all sorts of tasteless trinkets bearing the citys name.
The punting touts hang around near the river trying to drum up a bit of business offering the unwary a new and exciting way of finding themselves clinging to a long wooden pole in the middle of a river while a flat-bottomed boat full of drunk friends drifts away from them.
Honourable mention must go here to red telephone boxes which are a very rare sight these days, and as far as I can tell only serve the purpose of something for foreign tourists to have their photo taken beside, and a place for inebriated clubbers to urinate on the way home at 3AM.
Thankfully the summer is drawing to a close, and it won't be many weeks before the swarms of tourists diminish, and Cambridge can concentrate on its other infestation - students.

I may work for the University, but I was never a university student. Hell, I didn't even do A-levels.
I left school at 16 with a small handful of O-levels, the best of which was a 'B' in physics, and went straight into an apprenticeship to become an airframe fitter. I've never been much of a traveller either. Apart from a couple of day trips to France, the only time I've been out of the country was when the wife and I went to Austria for our honeymoon over 20 years ago.
All that may change soon though, as we're now considering exploring a few bits of the world outside England, and that means that I shall then become (occasionally) a tourist myself. All these years of negative experiences of tourists as a local means that I hope I shall try my hardest to avoid following this example and instead make every effort to blend in and not piss off the locals.

"Punting on the Cam, oh please do come, they say" - Marillion.

Photo stolen from the blog 'Comedy Travel Writing' by Adam Watts (the wife's nephew)
Please visit his blog - he's a fantastic writer!

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Brain-dead bleach-blonde barbie dolls

A couple of posts ago I very briefly touched on something with a reasonable amount of rant potential, and I now feel (in the absence of any other material) like giving the subject of Barbie doll wannabes a bit of an airing.
We see them every day on the streets, and they're so common that we barely spare them a glance, but for those who firmly believe that what really turns a bloke on is the old-fashioned 'painted whore' look, here's a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to doing the job right.

The patent 'Barbie' look is basically a uniform for those with little to offer the world other than what they look like. First there's the long bleach-blonde hair that's been straightened to within an inch of it's life, followed by copious quantities of make-up that appear to have been applied with either a trowel or that special shotgun that Homer Simpson invented.

Then comes the perfume. The preferred method for installing this would seem to be with either a well-trained crop-duster or if all else fails, actually taking a bath in the stuff. The job's not done right unless everyone else can still smell it three hours after you walked by.
Then comes the question of clothes. In general, the sluttier the better, but there are times when the Barbie purist must adhere to certain dress codes demanded by an employer. Obviously most Barbies manage to find employment where their Barbiness is not only allowed but positively encouraged, such as behind the perfume counter at John Lewis or in an estate agents office.
Certain key features must be employed regardless of any workplace guidelines - skirts must be short enough to enable male colleagues to catch a tantalising glimpse of arse cheek or maybe even a hint of crotch. At the top end, it's essential to flaunt as much cleavage as possible so that any male is so distracted by the imminent flash of nipple that he fails to notice that you have nothing of substance to say.
Shoes will preferably have many strengths with the exception of practicality and comfort. Barbie doesn't care that she's in excruciating agony as long as she's wearing Jimmy Choo stilettos that put the overzealous cleavage as near as possible to eye level.
Next step - accessories. Here it's all about bling, and it must be bling with the right label. It doesn't matter if the right label is Gucci and buying it means living on lettuce and air for a month, because as we all know, Barbie doesn't eat anything anyway.
Finally we come to the attitude. Barbie believes that after all the effort she's been to, men will fall at her feet and do anything she wants. She holds all the power because surely there's no man in this world who doesn't want to get in her knickers, but as most men are simply not good enough for such a goddess, she can take what she wants before crushing their hopes and dreams beneath her tortured feet.

Now I know I may be a bit odd, but I don't find Barbies in the least bit appealing. I have no time for anyone who believes what they look like on the outside is more important than who they are on the inside, which makes me think that Barbie's facade is only there to camouflage a deep rooted lack of confidence and personality. Yes, sometimes they might manage to strike the right balance and actually manage to look attractive, but you still know that there's going to be nothing of long-term interest so I refuse to encourage them by pretending to not notice them.
It's like when you see an expensive supercar going down the street. The muscles controlled by the ten year old boy in you want to make the most of seeing a Lamborghini Aventador in the flesh by staring until it's out of sight, while those controlled by the mature cynical grumpy git in you refuse to give the driver the satisfaction of seeing someone staring and therefore feeling even more smug and self-important than they already do.
Barbie is just like that because, sticking with the supercar analogy, you wouldn't mind a test drive but you certainly wouldn't want the expense and aggravation of owning one.
To me, far greater appeal lies in a woman who is not afraid to be herself and to hell with anyone who doesn't like it. Tamsin Greig as Fran Katzenjammer in 'Black Books' gives me all sorts of funny feelings, and that character makes no attempt to hide who she is.
Confidence is sexy but narcissism is most definitely not.
So who exactly does Barbie really appeal to? I've asked plenty of blokes this question and so far I haven't found anyone who goes for that sort of look. Maybe the reason they all hang around together in groups trying to out-Barbie one another is because they find each other appealing, but what do I know?

Fran Katzenjammer. Yes please.
Barbie? No thanks.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The greenhouse effect

There are a great many trappings of modern life that people aspire to having - things that are seen as essential to show others just how successful you are and how wonderful your life is. In other words, unnecessary bullshit.
We all know someone who considers it to be the height of importance that their house is as large as possible and located in the most 'desirable' postcode. Someone who wouldn't dream of there being a car that isn't an Audi or BMW sitting on the drive.
The family dog must be a pedigree labradoodle (the sort of thing we used to call a mongrel before the snobs got into dogs), vacations must be in the Bahamas, and handbags can be as ugly and garish as you like as long as the price tag exceeds a thousand pounds.
These are people for whom outward appearances are everything, and failure to comply with all the requirements of this morally bankrupt sector of society will lead to being shunned at the local golf club or the weekly wife-swapping parties.

For many years, before they became a more commonplace item, conservatories were one thing on this list of snobbish 'lifestyle' essentials.
Nowadays it seems every other house has one, and the filthy rich either have a conservatory the size of a tennis court that cost more than the average house or they simply bought a bigger mansion.
Regardless of any reflection on social standing though, I'm still hard pushed to understand why anyone would pay to have such a thing fitted to their house.
I have one that was already installed when we bought the place, even though I'd been insistent that I wasn't going to buy a house with one because of my reluctance to be associated with the sort of person who would actually want one.
After living with the damn thing for ten years now, I'm still mystified at the popularity of conservatories. I daresay people have them because it's a relatively inexpensive (compared to buying a bigger house or having a proper extension) way of gaining a bit of indoor space, but the reality is that a conservatory is only of use for about four months of the year at best.
During the Winter it's too cold to spend time in it, unless you're prepared to spend a fortune on heating something with all the thermal retention qualities of asbestos. You may as well sit in the garden throwing fivers on a bonfire.
When Spring rolls around, you enter a brief period where it can be a nice place to sit and eat your breakfast, but this is assuming it isn't raining because as soon as the heavens open you're going to be deafened.
This situation doesn't last long, because before you know it Summer is here and your little bolt-on UPVC box is transformed into a kiln. Even a moderately sunny day makes a conservatory uninhabitable, to the point that even cacti struggle to survive. If you were to install some sort of humidifying system it might make a good place to grow weed or some other useful tropical plant, but a superheated greenhouse is definitely not a desirable place to spend your time.
Luckily, Autumn isn't far away, bringing with it a bit of respite from the intolerable heat and the occasional opportunity to be able to actually spend time in the conservatory before Winter starts to dig it's claws in once again, whereupon you switch on the heating and close the door on the conservatory for the next four months or so.

So why have one at all?
A number of times we've considered having ours demolished and using the space for a nice patio area instead, which would allow us a much better view of the garden and let far more light into the living room. Unfortunately now that it's there, the cost of having such work done would be prohibitive.
I've know people who have talked excitedly about getting a conservatory and how wonderful it was going to be. I've done my best to piss on their fire by pointing out the problems in the hope that they'll see sense and save themselves many thousands of pounds by not buying a glass and plastic folly.
The words fall on deaf ears, they go ahead with their plans, and when a year has gone by they're moaning about it being too cold in the Winter, too hot in Summer, and if they'd known what a waste of money it would be they wouldn't have bought it. Sigh......

The only reliable use for a conservatory is as a dumping ground for bits of furniture that aren't good enough to have in the house, drying clothes on an airer in a place where you're not constantly having to sidle past it, and storing random bits of crap that aren't needed very often but you can't be arsed to put them up in the attic.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Anything I can do for yourself today at all?

A hundred years ago, England was an industrial powerhouse. Our engineering was world class, with Germany our most serious competitor, and the products churned out by the endless supply of factories were generally of an enviable quality. People worked hard for long hours, took pride in their work, and kept the country rolling.
Today things are very different. The majority of those industries have dried up, the factories closed, steelworks, mining etc all culled and replaced by cheap foreign imports.
Regardless of the environmental impact, it's cheaper for a British company to have their products built in China and shipped halfway around the world than having them made in this country, because the pennies are all that matter to the corporate bean-counters. It's shameful.

So what's left? Car manufacturing is now down to a handful of small volume companies like Morgan and Ariel, apart from the slightly confusing presence of factories making certain Nissan and Honda vehicles.
Aside from the seriously depleted manufacturing industry and an endless supply of shops that mostly (judging by the average city centre) sell either women's clothes or mobile phones, it's hard to see where a large portion of individuals are actually employed.
The answer is the service industry. Those paid to give the illusion that you're being cared for by a company that makes so much money that they can afford to pay people to convince you to keep coming back to give them even more.
Here we arrive at the subject of today's gripe - the special twisted variation of the English language employed by customer services workers in this country.
For a long time it was a matter of dread that you'd need to phone customer services because you knew there was a 95 percent chance you'd end up trying to decipher the jabberings of a bloke called Raj in Bombay.
The consumer backlash over this situation has led to most call centres being UK based which has helped immensely, apart from the UK also including accents such as Glaswegian to throw you off your game. For the most part though, the feeling of impending doom when you dial the number for customer services is pretty minimal these days.
Or at least it was...
Over the last couple of years there has emerged a new and disturbing trend of twisting the English language about, presumably in a vain attempt at sounding intelligent and professional.
For example, what's with this insistence in using the word 'yourself' instead of 'you'?
"Is everything alright for yourself?" It was until you opened your stupid mouth and said that.
Yourself...... If your kid falls over you might say "Oh dear, did you hurt yourself?", and that's fine.
If you go to a barbecue at a friend's house they might say "Help yourself to a beer", and that too is perfectly acceptable.
However, "Is there anything else I can do for yourself?" is most definitely not acceptable. It's an abomination that would have Dickens turning in his grave.
It's not just 'yourself' that I'm ranting about here, but what seems to have become the holy trinity of customer services workers across the country - 'Yourself', 'Today', and 'At all'.
The greatest goal seems to be to employ all three in a single sentence. For example, "Is there anything else I can do for yourself at all today?". Wouldn't it be so much easier (not to mention better English) to simply say "Is there anything else I can do for you?". Not only are the additional bits unnecessary padding, like large chunks of the last Harry Potter book, but they also make the speaker sound as stupid as poking a crocodile with a stick.
What's with the 'at all'? It's completely redundant and serves no purpose other than to infuriate the listener. The 'today' is also utterly pointless - of course we're talking about today. Today, right now, is when we're having this conversation so we're hardly going to discuss what you could have done for me yesterday because it's too late, and tomorrow hasn't happened yet. If I need your assistance at a later date I'll call you then, except I might not bother because you talk such bollocks.

You hear this everywhere, from banks and insurance companies to coffee shops and takeaways, and it needs to stop.
I had a phone call yesterday from a customer services bloke at who was very nice but still managed to abuse the English language in this manner several times within the space of about five minutes. Interestingly, while trying unsuccessfully to get me to take out the usual insurance cover, he displayed an impressive ability to talk very fast for an extensive period without actually drawing breath. Probably yet another ploy to confuse the unwary into signing up for something they didn't want by making them agree just to shut the bugger up.
As I said, a nice enough bloke and genuinely helpful once you discounted the marketing bullshit, but I still couldn't shake the idea that once the call had ended, he was putting up a bunch of gold and silver stars next to his name on a big chart in the office. A silver for using any one of the trinity individually, and a gold for getting all three in the same sentence. There's probably a bottle of bubbly for the winner each week and at the end of the year the overall winner gets an engraved plastic trophy and a holiday for two in Magaluf.
There must be something in it for those who are so determined to wreck the English language, otherwise why would they do it?