Our newspapers and tv screens have been full of the images of tv reporters and MPs facing hostile demonstrators on Westminster Green this week. Anna Soubry had a particularly noisy confrontation with a group of men (where were the women in this age of #MeToo?) who screamed abuse and blocked her entrance to the House of Commons. Given the shouts and chants were more akin to a football terrace and not really that clear in getting a political point across, I am assuming these guys were all Brexiteers, standing up for their country, demonstrating a patriotic fervour not seen in many a year, but keen that the result of the referendum is delivered and Britain leaves the EU. They love their flag, love their country and hate all things European. Strange then, that they adopt the French idea of wearing yellow jackets to protest in….
January under way and as usual all the talk is about what we should all be giving up for the month as penitence for our outrageous excess over the Christmas period. There is no escape; on the radio, in the newspapers, social media and on daytime tv, it’s all about how we must lose weight, get fit and generally punish ourselves for being so damned naughty. People loudly proclaim how they are doing without alcohol or chocolate, joining a gym, taking up cycling to work and one of my more daring friends has announced that he is giving up Facebook for the month. Very rock and roll!
The thing is, that pretty much everyone that is seeking all this attention are people that don’t really live life to any sort of excess in the first place. The closest thy have got to Shane McGowan is seeing him on “Christmas Top of the Pops”. Having a few Quality street choccies and half a sherry on New Year’s Eve hardly count as overdoing it, yet these people will be the ones proclaiming their martyrdom in January. The rest of the year, they are the designated driver, the calorie counter, the ISA bore, the one arguing over splitting a restaurant bill because he didn’t have a pudding. I am more interested in the ones that go at it full tilt all year round, the ones in the pub Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday lunch as standard, the ones glugging a bottle of red at home in front of the telly, who are on first name terms with Papa John and Ben & Jerry. Who know their Masala from their Madras. These are the people that take Christmas and New Year in their stride. and are the best people to spend this festive occasions with, as you will have the best time. Not someone who is telling you that they are daringly on their third sherry at half past eleven on New Year’s Eve.
Recently, I read a quote attributed to Anthony Hopkins which said something along the lines of have that fine cigar, have that glass of wine, eat that steak. The gist being life is really too short to penalise yourself. I agree. The Bible tells us that a man’s life spans three score years and ten; seventy years. Nature has largely designed us that way too. If someone dies in their nineties we say, oh they had a good innings, die in their fifties or sixties and they’re taken too young. There’s always the view that “you could get hit by a bus tomorrow”, but by living a life of abstinence, what are you really trying to achieve? Are you clinging to your youth, trying to deny the ageing process? Or do you want to try and live forever, ending up aged and infirm, dribbling, but still alive in a care home or your offspring’s spare room?
A lot is written and spoken about the creaking health system and one of the main problems is our ageing population. It’s a fact that the older you get the more you rely on healthcare. And as research advances, the more is detected in your body as you get older and more is available to help you cling on. Nobody just dies of old age anymore, in graphic detail you are told exactly why they have shuffled off their mortal coil. The pension crisis happened because when the concept was being devised, it assumed you worked until sixty or sixty five, retired, then hung on for another ten years before joining the choir invisible. More people are living longer, more babies are being born, the country is creaking!
On the radio yesterday, Jeremy Vine (a man who sounds as if he is dangling on a fraying rope over the crater of an erupting volcano) advised that if you stopped sprinkling sugar on your cornflakes, it would add a whole four years to your life span. Now, called me old fashioned, but the risk/reward equation there hardly stacks up, does it?
So, do your bit for society. Don’t be a burden on your children. Free up the NHS. Enjoy life, be kind to others by not boring them with minute about your supposed decadence. Eat, drink and be merry at Christmas and if you really do feel the need for abstinence, save it for Lent.
The acronym “SPOTY” just about sums up the parlous state of this once august occasion. I wrote about this on another forum, about how SPORTS PERSONALITY OF THE YEAR used to be a massive occasion on the sporting calendar: a black tie event at BBC Television Centre in Wood Green, with the big names arriving in black limousines and nervously entering the studios. The only audience were the sporting stars of the day. No one had media training in those days and the interviews were always a little awkward, but much the better for it. Frank Bough would be master of ceremonies and there would be a proper round up of the major sports by all the BBC’s legendary names: Peter Alliss on Golf, Harry Carpenter on Boxing, David Coleman on Athletics, Bill McLaren on rugby, Peter West on cricket, Dan Maskell on Tennis and Jimmy Hill on football. It was a serious occasion, with none of the presenters endlessly making weak jokes or trying to be overly matey with whoever they were interviewing.
It is beyond me why the BBC now feel the need to make this an arena event, with not an evening jacket in sight, with many struggling to wear a tie, let alone do their top button up; the bulk of the audience wearing jeans and trainers. The presenters all throwing any sporting credentials to the kerb to appear as holiday camp entertainers. No real insightful account of the year, instead each sport is presented as a slow-motion film with some luvvie actorrrr voicing poetry over the top. What was once a celebration and an event of the highest honour now feels like a rosette being given out in a dodgy nightclub to the evening’s best disco dancer.
On Christmas Eve back when I was sixteen years old, my friend Douglas and I drank a whole bottle of Bell’s whisky between us. This was not a good idea on many fronts, not least because we were at work at the time in the local video library (ask your parents, kids). In a drunken blur, I somehow made my way home safely, only to projectile vomit all over the Christmas tree and all the presents that had been placed beneath it. I was then dragged to the bathroom and next thing I remember was waking up on Christmas morning with acrid stench of whisky puke still thick in the air and nobody speaking to me. It would be a good thirty years before I could go anywhere near Scotland’s finest drink again and I have since discovered it is a very effective way to treat a common cold.
Whisky is always an emotive conversation subject, as nearly everyone seems to have a view, whether make or female. Politicians such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were great whisky enthusiasts and many tell me that it is a great accompaniment to smoking a fine cigar. In soap operas, it is usual practice when a character receives devastating news that they reach for the whisky bottle and down its contents like water. By the way, have you ever tried doing that? It’s just about the last thing you can glug like that, due to its corrosive effect as it passes your tonsils. It can also make you talk like Rab C. Nesbitt. Others tell me about its qualities as fighting juice and a couple of glasses could turn Mother Teresa into Jean-Claude Van Damme. No wonder in all those classic Hollywood Westerns of the 50s and 60s, it was non-stop gunfights and bar brawls, because all those saloon bars seemed to serve was whisky and nothing else! It didn’t matter if you were a double crossing poker player, a stranger from outta town or a bandit on the run, the gunslinger having a quiet whisky at the bar on his own, would soon be taking aim, once the effects of his beverage kicked in. Of course, after all the violence, he’d still be man enough to saunter up to bed the quivering blonde who had been watching all this from the top of the stairs in her tightly-laced corset.
Long before Playstations and Xboxes came along, these old Westerns used to be on the telly all the time when I was a kid and after watching them, we’d all be out in the streets playing “Cowboys and Indians” (you can guess which side I was always on?!?!). We’d try and talk like John Wayne or walk like Robert Mitchum, point our fingers like guns and make “Pee-owwww” noises, if we were playing at being cowboys. To be an Indian, you had to fire pretend bows and arrows and make strange “woo-woo” noises by waggling your finger in your mouth. All great fun as we took glee in “killing” each other and not quite as violent and bloodthirsty as “Fort Nite”. Occasionally – and especially at this time of the year – one or other of the movie channels will show one of those classic cowboy films, such as “Rio Grande”, “High Noon”, “The Sons of Katie Elder” or “Gunfight at the O. K. Corral” and if I am feeling nostalgic I can’t help but watch.
The only problem is that I am no longer that wide-eyed kid who sat in eager excitement when these films came on; no now I am a parent myself and I find my perspective has completely changed. I am now all cynical, scoffing and gawd help us, gone all health and safety when I watch. Why does every town only consist of a saloon, a jail, an undertaker and a bank? Where do people buy their food or their clothes? Why is there always a coffee pot brewing on every stove? Why is there no blood when people get shot? Why is it only old men that have beards? Why are the saddle on horses only held in place by a blanket thrown over the horse’s back? Why do they call every stranger “amigo”? How easy would it be to rob a bar at night, when they only have those swinging saloon doors to keep people out? Why are there power lines crossing the corral scene in “True Grit” when the film was supposed to be set in 1890? and why oh why oh why oh why o why did they only serve whisky in the saloon? If they had served tea or milkshakes or lemonade instead, maybe the West might not have been so wild….
The next comedy night organised by us is this coming Wednesday 12th December (perfect for your Christmas celebrations) at the Essex County Crucket Club on New Writtle Street in Chelmsford. Three top stand up comedians all kept in check by your MC Dave Ward. Music will be provided by country music star Amy Westney. Tickets £15 on the door or in advance at :
See you there!
First week of December and we call all now agree that it is officially the Christmas season. Of course, if you are in charge of television commercials, Christmas began straight after Bonfire Night and at most garden centres near me, it began the day after the August Bank Holiday. Last weekend seemed the most appropriate time to put up a tree and deck the halls with boughs of holly. Advent calendars can now be opened, but I always wonder how many of them actually last until the big day before all the chocolates are gone. The tv countdown is building; we’ve had the “X factor” final, “Strictly…” and “I’m a Celebrity…” are nearing their climaxes. The BBC has announced its Christmas schedule (no more waiting for your dad to bring home the Christmas “Radio Times”) and ITV’s excitement has burst so much that they have skipped straight past Christmas and are constantly plugging all the treats they have in store for us in January, when of course we are all too busy down the gym to have time for any telly.
The next couple of weeks will see the peak of people’s Christmas shopping and fingertips will be sore from the constant tapping away on keyboards, as no one goes to the shops any more. This new trend brings with it a whole new world of stresses as the item you or yours want is out of stock or hasn’t arrived three weeks after you ordered it. I read an article that the Black Friday phenomenon that has hit UK shores has created havoc with parcel delivery firms, who struggle to keep up with demand and that might also explain some of the driving and parking habits displayed by the drivers of those dirty white or grimy yellow Transit vans.
Anyway, on Sunday, we caved in at my house and announced Christmas as underway. The day started with a trip to a nearby farm to buy a tree, joining the throngs of people who all had the same idea. The form in particular is deserted at almost every other time of the year, but today a team of marshals (all in Santa hats) was needed to guide the endless stream of Volvos, X5s and Range Rovers in and out of the entrance. another well-drilled team helped people choose their tree, get it trimmed, wrapped in netting and loaded up before sending them on their way. We go to the same place every year and it is amazing how much their popularity has grown; “We now take cards, sir” was evidence of this.
We finally got home, having taken the scenic route – I’d forgotten the High Street was closed for the annual Christmas market, which now seems to take place at every town and village in my area, where you can buy all sorts of festive tat you never knew you needed and sip mulled wine that would make your car go faster if you poured it into the fuel tank. Parked up, I removed the tree from the back of the car, amazed at the amount of pine needles it shed in the process, all disappearing down the gaps between the reclined back seats, joining all the other pine needles deposited there in years gone by. Fighting my way past our leaping and growling hound, I erected our tree in the living room and left my wife and excited daughter to decorate it. My son was too busy playing FIFA to register any interest.
While they got on with that, I was dispatched outside to put up fairy lights, icicle lights, grotto lights, illuminated reindeer, snowmen and a flashing train driven by Santa bearing gifts. Luckily, I don’t live in a neighbourhood where Christmas decorations are a competitive sport, but every house round me does make some kind of effort and who am I to be the local Scrooge? Anyway having dug several boxes out of the garage, untangled all the various wires and leads, I then set about hanging the illuminations on the front of the house, in the trees and along the driveway. Everything in place, all that was now needed was to hook them up to some power and then force a shut down of the national grid. Problem. However, only three of the leads were long enough to reach the power socket in the garage. I did think to get the extension lead out, but an unfortunate experience in 1st Year Physics reminded me that water and electricity don’t mix, so probably not a good idea in this weather.
So until the electrician arrives (very busy this time of year apparently), I have twinkling icicles above the garage, reindeer and snowmen among the bushes, but sadly by the front door, Santa is not flashing at arriving visitors…and in this day and age, that might not be a bad thing!
I was stood in my local chicken shop the other night, waiting to collect a family feast of chicken, handily served up in a bucket, which undoubtedly could come in handy later if one had overdosed on its greasy contents. As seems to be the case now with all major fast food outlets, you no longer go to the counter to order your food, instead you order at one of a dozen or so free standing touch screen panels, erected where once there was seating, and stood imposingly like the monoliths you see on Easter Island. Of course, this can pose all kinds of problems to certain people and I noticed an elderly couple struggling with this new technology trying to order some chicken wings. Others just queued as they always had done, only to be told about the new ordering system when they reached the counter. And then the shouting started. In fact, shouting seems commonplace in these establishments, as the staff scream and gesture at each others in ways you might normally see on the news when the stock market crashes. It made me wonder if the interview for a job there included an ability to demonstrate various levels of hysteria, as well as the obligatory levels of acne.
Anyway, after a few taps on the touchscreen, I placed my order once my daughter had made her selection, then changed her mind, the changed it again. And again. Finally, armed with the receipt, we took our place in the gaggle of people gathered near the counter, all transfixed by the monitors above our heads, which detailed the progress of our orders. The sense of anticipation as you wait for order 518 to move from the “Order Received” screen to the “Order in Progress” screen and then the punching-the-air moment of “Order Ready For Collection”. It certainly beats the monotony of the “Checkout Number 4” queuing at Tesco. My gaze turned to a small group of people sat in an alcove at the end of the counter. Typical of anyone in their late teens and early twenties, all were transfixed by their mobile phones, all had earphones connected and they all shared the same earnest expression.
In all the sci-fi films I have seen over since my teenage years, there seems to have been a fairly regular theme that in the near future, mankind will be living in some kind of dystopian vision, subjugated by aliens, killer robots, apes or nuclear war. According to these films, humans will be living in tribes in underground caves, as society has broken down and everyone is some kind of warrior. I was reminded of this as I studied this curious group sat in the corner. Every now and then, one of them would jerk to his feet, as if they had received some kind of electric shock and dash to the counter. There they would be given a large insulated bag and I realised this group were the restaurant’s delivery riders. Where I live, these guys have not had the misfortune to be sprayed with acid and robbed by certain lowlife individuals, so they are allowed to be more expressive in their attire and their appearance certainly resembled outfits I’d seen in “The Terminator” and “Planet of the Apes”: unshaven with long hair tied in complicated knots and buns, layer after layer of long and short sleeved tee-shirts, their necks wrapped in those long Middle Eastern scarves you see worn by Palestinian rebels. Leather biker trousers or those Gore-Tex cargo pants with a ridiculous amount of pockets and zips. Shiny biker boots and Darth Vader helmets completed the starship trooper look. One by one, they collected instructions and strode out into the night speaking Jamaican into the walkie-talkie drives clipped to their lapels. Occasionally, the door would open and one of them would be returning from the field, grimy and dishevelled like some battle-weary soldier. Of course, they all had intricate tattoos that covered their arms snaking onto their hands and spreading up their necks, but this is now getting so commonplace – especially if you play football, drive a minicab or work as a policeman – that it is fast losing its symbolism as a sign of rebellion. Nonetheless, they all looked pretty cool to me and I thought if was nineteen years old again, I wouldn’t mind looking like that.
Pretty soon my food was ready and we made our way back to the car. As we got outside, one of these time-travelling foot soldiers from the 23rd Century was reclined across his motorbike, crash helmet under his arm, gladiator-style, smouldering as much as the cigarette he was coolly drawing on. But the moment was ruined by the chavvy ten year-old stood next to him goading, “Oi mate, think you’re cool? You look a right pillock”….
We live in pampered times. Living in 2018 Britain, most of us don’t have to worry about not finding food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over our head or having to walk ten miles every day just to get a bucket of water, so our heart strings are easily tugged when we see unfortunates hit by famine, natural disasters or disease. The BBC’s annual “Children in Need” appeal has now raised over a billion Pounds since its inception in 1980, as generous people pledge from their warm living room to help disadvantaged youngsters. Maybe, it is because we are generally living such comfortable lives that we feel we must also be looking for reasons to have problems in our own lives and so people fret about their looks, their weight, their house, their car. Back in the 1990s, not many people had mobile phones, yet now everyone ie required to have one and not just any old phone. As Apple continued to raise the bar, our requirements for such gadgets became ever more demanding. First, it was the ability to speak to someone as you were walking down the street, then you were able to send texts. Then you could use your phone to listen to music. Then it could access the internet and you could send emails. You could read newspapers, take photographs. Then you could listen to podcasts, watch tv on catch up. The development of various apps opened a world of social media meant you could reach out to friends and contacts from all over the word. You could check your bank balance, insure your house, apply for a loan. You can even give to charity via text. The cost of owning a phone got cheaper, as contracts became more flexible through fierce competition. Now you argued about which was the best smartphone to have and which provider offered the best contract. Teenagers became obsessed with phone envy, arguing over Apple versus Samsung and whose phone had the biggest screen. Pressure was created where pressure never existed.
In adults, the angst manifested differently. Less obsessed with appearance, the problems were more basic. At first, the stress came from not getting a signal, of losing connection mid phone call. Then the problem of how quickly your phone’s battery drained, made much worse if you had forgotten to charge it overnight. Then along came wi-fi and you could not enter any bar, restaurant or business premises without first asking for the wifi password. Especially if the mobile signal there was rubbish. Now there is a new angst and for once, it’s not phone related: it’s, “Do you take contactless?”
At first, a bit gimmicky and the attraction of simply waving your credit or debit card at the reader to pay for things just seemed a bit unnecessary, even lazy. But as their use has become more and more widespread, so has the level of this new angst, as we stride towards a cashless society. Now you don’t have to worry so much about forgetting to visit the cashpoint, as you know you can buy most things from your newspaper to a pint of beer with a mere wave of the plastic. It makes for better budgeting too, as you only spend exactly what you need and the days of pockets or purses full of coins are gone. As will be having a giant whisky bottle full of 1ps and 2ps that will never be opened or counted. I have fully embraced the contactless world, but I have now also developed the panic and paranoia that sets in when someone doesn’t accept contactless and only accepts cash. It happened to me last night at the theatre when I was buying some M&Ms from the usher. I genuinely broke into a cold sweat, when I had to dig around in my trousers to find a ten pound note that had not been disturbed since my last visit to the cashpoint many moons ago. The utter wretchedness too, when having made my purchase, the clink of coins in my pocket for the rest of the evening. Last time this happened, I thought ahead and kept the coins for the ticket machine in the car park, but was a broken man when I found out that that too had now gone “card only”.
So now, alongside my piles of Euros, Cents and Krona, I have a growing pile of Pound coins and fifty pence pieces, that I am struggling to get rid of. I could always bag them up and visit the bank (which is no longer on my high street, but six miles away at the next town), but last time I went there to deposit money, a man with a name tag directed me to a machine on the wall which, once fired up, only performed card and cheque transactions! Argh…Now where’s that giant whisky bottle…???
The excitement is building, the tension is mounting. It’s that time of year. The nights are drawing in, the weather is colder, the days on the calendar tick by. Everyone is getting excited, boys and girls, mums and dads, yes it won’t be long, the time will soon be here for…the John Lewis Christmas tv commercial?!?!? Just when the old cynic in you was convinced we could not get any further from the true meaning of Christmas (celebrating the birth of a Jewish baby in a Middle Eastern stable, conceived out of wedlock over two thousand years ago), it had now warped so far to now be all about the marketing campaign of one of Britain’s biggest department stores. All because John Lewis hit on the lucky formula a few years back of a commercial made memorable by a tear-jerking story, loosely related to Christmas, accompanied by a haunting song to make people head in their drives for their nearest store or website to buy all their Christmas gifts. The impact has lessened recently, however, as pretty much every other bank, supermarket and insurance company has aped the format with arty slow motion films, soundtracked by a stripped back acoustic version of an 80s hit to emotionally attach you to their product.
The tv ad break is a real feeding frenzy at Christmas and it is particularly interesting this year, as there has been a tangible shift in how we do all our shopping with high street stores all reporting torrid times. The department store, the bastion of Christmas shopping, has been hit particularly hard with House of Fraser, Debenhams, BHS, Littlewoods and Woolworths having sunk or are sinking in the face of internet shopping. More worryingly, I spotted a brand new trend last weekend (reclined on my sofa, spilling Chinese on the carpet watching X Factor) when a commercial ended with the instruction of asking Alexa to send me a sample. I did so and within a couple of days, the most disgusting variant of a well-known cola drink arrived on my doorstep. So now, even if it is far too much effort to get off your backside and go to the computer, or pick up your laptop, tablet or phone to do your shopping, all you do is shout at your smart speaker and it is done. Amazing!
However, to me, part of the what makes Christmas (along with wearing gaudy knitwear, Santa hats, drinking in heaving pubs, office parties, nativity plays, carol services, Brussels sprouts, turkey and being nice to the mother-in-law) is fighting your way through the crowds in the days leading up to December 25th, stressing about the gifts you can’t decide on or the ones you can’t find. How much to spend, without appearing too tight or too obsessive. Getting home pleased that you remembered to buy wrapping paper, only having to dash out to every petrol station in the area late on Christmas Eve because you forgot the sellotape.
And here’s the Woolies Christmas ad from 1978, for your viewing pleasure:
* I’ve just remembered my favourite story about Christmas shopping. Legend has it that some high ranking marketing executives from one of Tokyo’s biggest retailers had cottoned on to just how important Christmas was to annual earnings to shops in the West, so decided to introduce the tradition of Christianity’s biggest event to the Japanese shopping public. At much expense, in the flagship store in downtown Tokyo, a huge display was constructed in the ground floor as the shopping public entered the store ready to dispense with their hard-earned Yen. Sadly, it all backfired, as, upon arrival, they were greeted by a thirty foot high giant Santa Claus….nailed to a cross.
As I write this, five men have been arrested in connection with the burning of a Grenfell Tower effigy at a bonfire party last weekend. There has been widespread condemnation from the Prime Minister downwards and across all the usual social media commentators. It is undeniably a grossly insensitive act, but sadly one which doesn’t really surprise me in the current climate. I can think of a few people I know that would have found this despicable thing funny. I remember, as the horror unfolded early on the morning of June 14th, live pictures in my office showing the smoke and flames billowing from the burning building. Even then, people around me saw fit to make comments like, “It’s okay, they’re all illegal immigrants in there anyway” and “Benefit scroungers, they won’t be missed”. Society, to me, is now more uncaring than it has ever been, certainly in my lifetime, even under the worst excesses of the “I’m alright, Jack” days of Britain in the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher. The pall of confusion that has befallen the nation as a result of the Brexit referendum, where nobody knows what they have won or refuses to accept the result, without suggesting an alternative has led to uncertainty about the future, which is translating to fear. And so, people feel empowered to be more racist, more misogynistic, more homophobic, more distrustful in general. Since 9/11, it seems all Muslims should somehow bear responsibility for the terrorist acts done by a tiny minority in the name of their religion in a way that Catholics were never held to account when the IRA were blowing up Harrods and pubs in Guildford and Birmingham a few decades before. A culture of not caring, about throwing people on the scrapheap has seeped down from top level government, where the Home Office was happy to create an environment of hostility, to underfund public services, for encouraging corporate greed and letting them put profit over people. The sick and the weak are vilified as burdens, anyone of a different persuasion is viewed as suspicious. We have gone backwards in a very short space of time. We care more about who wore what on the red carpet at the Pride of Britain Awards, than who won for what achievement. Education, facts and knowledge are now not regarded as important to the argument. Last night was Bonfire Night, but I wonder just how many people knew exactly what they were celebrating (the overthrow of a terrorist plot in 1605 by religious fanatics, with foreign backing, to destroy Parliament, assassinate the monarch and impose a new regime and laws shaped by their own religious beliefs, fyi) and last week, were we all solemnly remembering the saints (hallows), martyrs and all the faithfully departed? No, Hallowe’en is pumpkins and trick or treating, Bonfire Night is fireworks, hot dogs and burning a “Guy” or indeed any other effigy we think might be amusing or funny.