The mysteries in the hearts of men

blue titsOne extremely hot day about ten years ago, at his brother-in-law’s funeral, a man approached my uncle. “I thought you were dead,” he said, laughing as he slapped my uncle on the back. “I could have sworn someone told me you’d croaked.” We all stared at this bloke and he seemed surprised by the attention. “No offence,” he offered, and slapped my uncle again. This time on the upper arm. There must be people for whom being stared at goes with the territory. For their fame possibly, for their beauty or astonishing dress sense. (Walking through Selfridges yesterday my long-dead grandmother spoke using my mouth. “You do see some sights, don’t you?” she said.) Or for something else entirely. This man was being stared at for confusing the living and the dead at funerals.

Travelling along Oxford Street on the 94 bus last week, I was mesmerised by the man sitting across the aisle from me. Bald now for some years, I sometimes wonder what it might have taken for me to feel I could improve things by donning a hairpiece. I am still unsure. This man’s wig was so outlandishly terrible it could barely be construed as an item aspiring to be taken for a human’s head of hair. A mere six degrees of separation would struggle to forge a connection between the thing crouching where air or a hat might more sensibly have existed and anything whatsoever a human’s body could feasibly produce without biological warfare playing a role. Its only redeeming feature was that where it was supposed to make contact with the back of his neck, it instead stuck out leaving a tantalising darkened gap, a space which brought the word ‘eaves’ to mind. How I hoped an otherwise homeless family of blue tits or ducks might have found a place to nest in there. At least some good would have come of it this way.turkish restaurant

As we scooped up hummus, falafel and yoghurty kebabs I told my friend Karl about all this. Supposedly we were both both on a diet, and I wanted to distract us from the garlicky guilt which accompanied our meal. Having undergone chemotherapy, Karl knows what it’s like to lose your hair but even he couldn’t find an excuse for this monstrosity when I showed him the photo I’d surreptitiously taken. “I wore a cap all the time, didn’t I?” he said. “I wonder what he thinks he looks like?”  At the end of the meal, as we knocked off the icing sugar on our complementary Turkish delight by way of nodding hello to our weight loss regimens the question hovered, still unanswered.

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Radio listening for the eternally punished

dog trying to pass catRight now, I can’t get enough of a video doing the rounds of a pony frolicking in a paddling pool.  Do watch it; although I’ve given the ending away, as well as the beginning and the middle it’s enjoyable none the less.  Only one other video has so appealed quite so much and that was of an American voice coach attempting to speak with a Geordie accent – “It ran oop and doone me lags.”  If he’d recorded this whilst spread out in a paddling pool with a pony hovering nearby wondering when it would be his turn I think my world would have spun off its axis with pleasure.

More often, I’ll watch one of the hundreds of online videos of feeble dogs too scared to walk past cats.  These dramas usually take place on a staircase but sometimes porches or the vestibule near the bathroom provides the setting.  I’ve noticed these things because it’s the settings that usually provide whatever little variety there is on offer.  Like the breakfast coffee or that sad, mid-evening realisation that the washing-up is actually more enjoyable than the meal itself these videos quite regularly punctuate my waking hours.  I usually watch the cat-v-dog videos about 11.30 as an alternative to doing something more useful. 

The premise is this: the entirely calm cat seems non-threatening although the juddering, whining dog obviously knows differently.  The denouement involves a human entering the scene, thereby shifting the dynamic, triggering something in the cat who ineffectually swipes its paw at the dog whilst the dog takes its chance and rushes by.  With a congratulatory “Come on Buster, there’s my boy,” from his proud owner as the daft dog wiggles with admiration at his own achievement, the furious cat puckers up its arse hole and stalks off. 

As aficionados of Steve Wright In The Afternoon know the same grinding sameness can be a pungent brew. sisyphus Turning on Radio 2 at two o’clock is akin to Sisyphus thinking to himself, “here we go again,” as he starts to push that bloody boulder up a hill only for it to roll straight back down.  “I’ll give it another go tomorrow,” our ancient Greek myth says as he wonders for the umpteenth time whether cleaning out the Augean stables could possibly be more draining than listening to Old Woman battle with her false teeth.  To some degree, all radio is like this but this show seems to depict what Hell dressed up as a fun fair would truly sound like.  Looking beyond the main feature and enjoying the stuff you’re not supposed to notice is the only way to make it bearable: there’s the simmering antagonisms between Steve and those laughing hyenas of his gathered in a pen at the back of the studio; the ever-present fury in Wright’s voice as television’s very limited desire to have him as a friend plays on his mind; the jingles which when listened to carefully sound as closely related to fun, happy things as a baboon’s rictus grin indicates he’s really laughing at life.  The dog- v-cat videos might be samey but at least there isn’t an ugly subtext worthy of psychiatric intervention.

steve wrightUpsetting my personal apple cart a few weeks ago, however, another video started doing the rounds which this time depicted a cat fighting off a terrifying brutish dog as it tried to maul a small boy playing outside his house.  The cat was certainly the hero here and the dog wasn’t nervous, neither pathetically nor attractively so, but instead the out-and-out villain.  It’s healthy to have our prejudices challenged from time to time.  I watched this particular video over and over again.  Like observing a car going down a one-way street my neural pathways were shocked by these goings-on.  With this in mind, I suggest to Steve Wright and his cohorts they should take a peek.  It really might be just the spur they need. 

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You’ll inevitably want to know what I made of the World Cup

Admittedly I don’t talk about it for long.  From this weekend’s Sunday Express.  Read it here or below:

england world cup team 1982Even I, an ardent non-follower of all things football, couldn’t fail to notice that Germany did rather well in its match against Brazil last week.  Football has never been my thing; the other boys at school were disgusted that it was me of all people, Four Eyes Neill, who was off to the World Cup back in 1982.  Dad and I attended three England matches: East Germany, Ruritania and the Moon were our opponents, I think.  Rather than watch the games, for each of those ninety minutes I sat glumly and read PG Wodehouse novels instead so the memory of it all is a little hazy.  But when wildly successful yet modest Germany performed their footballing miracle in Belo Horizonte I unexpectedly found myself really quite pleased by the news. 

Modern Germany has always struck me as a good thing, not least for providing us with bags of Haribo, but since the financial crash my enthusiasm for it has ballooned.  Whereas we in Britain had busied ourselves dismantling our manufacturing sector and throwing our weight behind snake oil salesmen in the City instead, the Germans continued to make things people actually wanted to buy.  Simultaneously, they fostered a climate of trust between management and trades unions rather than the out-and-out antagonism we opted for.  Then they went home: places they view quite sensibly as somewhere to live rather than magic porridge pots to spew forth money.  Whilst we made ourselves roar with laughter at jokes about Germans hogging beach towels and then pitied them for a lack of a sense of humour Germany, or West Germany at least, just got on with the job of making itself a nice place in which its citizens could lead their lives. 

At about the same time we were schlepping between the stadia of northern Spain, my grandfather was embarking on a relationship with a lovely German woman he’d met on a cruise.  scene from minderOn our trips to stay with Renate near Nuremberg I remember thinking the place seemed almost paradise.  It was hot and sunny in the summer and snowy at Christmas.  Whenever we went out there were plates of sausages, sauerkraut and potato salad to eat – so much tastier than the bangers and mash we had back at home.  Best of all they had my favourite programme on the television.  Minder might have been dubbed with urgent German voices but even that had an upside.  My sister and I found it hilarious.  Arthur Daley trying to flog a dilapidated Fiat Panda in tones I had only previously heard in Colditz could not possibly come from a country completely lacking a sense of humour.

Actually, one thing those trips left me with is how beautiful the German language truly is.  Those seemingly harsh edges are nothing of the sort.  Close your eyes as you listen to Schubert lieder and suddenly it seems the most romantic of tongues.  Its lexicography is a delight too what with its enormous compound words which when broken down make perfect sense.  If it’s cold out don’t put your gloves on.  Try your handschuhe instead.  Hand shoes, of course they are.  And if you’re off to play in the snow then you’re a Handschuhschneeballwerfer. 

Their straightforwardness doesn’t just extend to language.  I remember returning from a trip to the bathroom at Renate’s and asking what the shelf at the bottom of her toilet was for?  “So you can check whether everything is as it should be,” she said with no hint of embarrassment.  

german weather frogUntil recently, there was only one occasion when I almost made it back to Germany.  Some years back, I got down to the final two to play a talking frog in a weather ident on the country’s main television station.  By ultimately giving the job to someone else however I was spared the humiliation of hopping about on German tv screens in a frog suit and for that I shall always be grateful.  But earlier this year I visited Berlin.  At the end of long days exploring that astonishing city, what a pleasure it was to be able to buy a round of drinks for only a few Euros rather than be charged the best part of a tenner for two pints as we would be in our own capital city, and the food was good, if less so than I remembered it.  Better though than the soup a friend endured there: take one bottle of gin and mix with the crushed contents of a large tin of tomatoes.  Eat.  Fall over.  The sausages, I’m pleased to report, remained as tasty as they ever were.  

For all its splendours I’m not sure I’d actually like to live in Germany.  In fact, the story of the German chap who moved to Britain because he was so fed up with his own country’s inefficiency is very pleasing.  Schadenfreude, if you will. 

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A newsletter from me. Some of it may be too hot to publish (not going to happen)

postman delivering letter

With no good reason whatsoever, I’ve decided a newsletter from yours truly is what you might fancy dirtying your inbox with on a month to month basis. If I’ve not profoundly misunderstood the special relationship we two love birds share that slightly dewy look in your eyes has led me to believe this is just what you’ve been craving.  If so, I invite you to go and poke about for the link (it’s near the bottom on the right hand side) and sign up.  In the unlikely scenario of my imagining you keener than you actually are I can’t in all honesty blame you.  Until next time, mon cher…Xxx

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Skin deep

david sedaris cleaning a looOn an otherwise rather drab Sunday afternoon towards the end of last year, Rory and I were fortunate enough to attend one of David Sedaris’ recordings for Radio 4.  Having never sat in the audience at the BBC Radio Theatre before, I was surprised at how much fun it was.  Up until then my activities in that room were limited to either performing in some shows or producing others.  The first of those two is the more enjoyable but neither is really a barrel of laughs and so nestling down in our rather uncomfortable seats to watch a show being recorded felt a satisfyingly snug and smug treat. 

             I looked around at my fellow audience members and they seemed, by and large, ordinary enough – just people out to enjoy themselves with their free tickets.  Up until this point I’d regarded radio audiences with some suspicion, and so this ordinariness caught me a tad unawares.  The type of people who attended recordings of radio programmes had been the subject of some mockery by those of us who were involved in the making of them, family listening to radioI recall.  Not entirely unfairly either.  In the very first audience show I produced at the Paris Studios in Regent Street one of the retakes I was obliged to get from the cast was due to extraneous noises emanating from the front row.  Two elderly ladies had been arguing in loud whispers with each other as to the order in which they should eat the picnic they had brought along with them.  Settling on a first course of hard-boiled eggs they made quite a noise as they cracked the shells by rapping them with a knife one of them produced from her handbag.  They then passed a rustling twist of tinfoil between them containing salt with which to season their meal.  Twenty years later, this audience seemed a far better behaved group, and certainly not a discernibly hungry one.  Although possibly, as I have arrived within a decade or so of the age of the average Radio 4 listener, 56, I’ve now merely become just like them and so can’t see anything odd in it all. 

paris studiosIn one of his stories David Sedaris talked of the acquisition of a guest room as being the principal consolation of middle-age.  In one of his many wonderful turns of phrase the washer on his penis might have worn out he explained but at least he had somewhere people could sleep.  And in his case, as he was eager to inform us, he had two such rooms.  In my mid-forties I don’t have even one, let alone a pair, and a wave of ennui coursed through me as I reflected on this particular failure of mine.  
              “Do something sensible with the money,” my father had said to me when I told him of the quite generous redundancy settlement I received when I left the BBC back at the start of this century.  
              “Of course I will,” I replied before embarking on two years of long lunches, Paul Smith suit-buying sprees, several holidays, not earning a penny, and building up an ocean of debt.  If I’d spent the money on converting my cellar into an office-cum-guest room instead of booze and schmutter not only would I have somewhere people could stay but I’d also have been able to laugh along with the rest of that Sunday’s ordinary audience at the next bit of the story rather than missing it by being wrapped up in this particular chapter in my life’s story which I’ve entitled This Is Where I Went Wrong.

              I state the bleeding obvious when I say that the disappointments of middle-age are manifestly more pronounced than the consolations, but at least they often arrive in unexpected forms.  What I’m about to tell you, I’m afraid, is actually a bit disgusting.  You might want to stop now.  Well into my early forties one of the principle pleasures of bath time was to see if there was skin on the soles of my feet that could be picked at and peeled away.  On a good day, once or twice a month if I was lucky, after a reasonable soak, pads of whitened dead skin would puff up like prawn crackers in hot oil, revealing themselves ready for detachment.  But for some time now my feet have seemed less enthusiastic in relinquishing their carapace to my prying fingers.  Instead of coming away in satisfyingly large pieces they must have found an alternative method of saying farewell to my feet, and frankly this saddens me as picking away at our bodies is one of mankind’s genuine solaces.  (If you have got this far and actually do feel disgusted I’m compelled to inform you that you are a hypocrite as deep down we all enjoy this stuff.)

              Getting sunburnt, therefore, is a mixed blessing for me.  Horrid though sunstroke surely is even in the depths of nauseous despair I remain conscious of the reward to come.  I once made the mistake of being persuaded by a native of Guernsey that a few days on his island might constitute an enjoyable break.  sarkPrior to going, I had visions of merrily cycling about on my own, reading books in sandy coves, and spending the evenings eating reasonably priced seafood.  As it turned out the island was far too hilly for cycling so my daylight hours were spent trudging along country lanes pushing my rented bicycle past polytunnels of tomatoes, whilst anticipating yet another evening of being stared at in restaurants for eating alone.  So embarrassed by my presence were the restaurateurs of Guernsey I was usually sat in a Bermuda triangle between the toilets, a coat rack and the thing with spare napkins and cutlery on it.  After a couple of days of this grimness, I was desperate for a change of scene and so attempted to book a ferry ticket to Sark.  Sark is an island that prides itself on not having moved beyond the nineteenth century although I had visions of the inhabitants being delighted by my arrival with news of the post-atomic age.  
               “I’m afraid there’s nothing available,” said the man in the ticket office on the quay after he’d checked his computer.  
               “Really?” I exclaimed almost close to tears at being denied a chance to visit an even smaller island and look at the no-cars that were there.  
               “It’s a busy time of year, you see.  The busiest.”
               “But why?” I cried.
               “Spoon festival, isn’t it,” he said, “the world and his wife don’t want to miss Sark’s spoon festival.”

                Despite it being June, the sunshine isle that my friend had promised me was shrouded in rain and fog.  Until that is my very last day when suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun came out, the Nazi defences on the beaches were exposed in all their concrete glory, and I decided to soak up some rays.  Never have I been so ill in my life from the effects of too much sun.  At the airport that evening, I was close to curling up on the floor and willingly dying so grim did I feel and the next day at home I could barely move with the pain.  Worryingly, later in the week I was due to fly to Lisbon for a holiday with my friend Caroline.  
                “I’m really not sure I’ll be able to make it,” I said to her on the phone.  As she pondered contingency plans I focused on the considerable tracts of my body that were pulsating with a heat suitable for browning a joint of meat.  But by a miracle, a antihistamine-based miracle, I did manage to get to Portugal and on about day three I started to be rewarded for my pains. 
                “Come and look at this,” I shrieked with delight from behind our hotel room’s bathroom door one evening.  Caroline, who we’ve always called Deaf for a reason now lost to any of us, sounded dubious at my offer.  
                “It’s amazing.” I confidently reassured her.  An offer to look at anything that is produced behind a bathroom door is unlikely to be a universally appealing one and so “you’ll really be amazed at what I’ve done” is what I said in my softest most reassuring tones as she nervously poked her head in.  Proudly I was holding aloft a length of dead skin.  The years since have lent this piece of charred leg almost mythical proportions.  In my mind’s eye it is longer even than the leg that had produced it, although at the time Deaf demonstrated less a look of awe and rather one of a woman who would experience not a scintilla of regret were she to reach the end of her days without seeing such a thing. 

                 After Lisbon we travelled on to Sintra and despite ogling the lunatic palace there I was in a greater thrall to the skin my slowly recovering body was shedding like a snake in a hurry.  Deaf, however, had learned to avoid my siren call and would instead sternly ask me to clear out from the bed we were sharing the bits of me my body had chosen to discard during the night.  Finally we wound up for a two-night stay in a small fishing village.  sintra palaceStanding on our apartment’s balcony one night we looked down at the street below at a group of women wailing and genuflecting around a badly painted wooden statue of a saint and I wondered if the spoons of Sark engendered such enthusiasm amongst the locals?  Later on, eating yet another Portuguese meal that seemed mainly to be made of salt, we talked about what we’d both most enjoyed about the holiday. 
“Peeling all that dead skin off has been the best bit for me,” I boasted.  For a good few days afterwards back at home my body still kept coming up with the goods.  From my shoulders and upper arms and most tantalisingly from my back – an area so hard to reach I rang Deaf to try and persuade her to come over and help.  Several years later a doctor explained to me that I’d probably experienced burns to my skin of a degree the number of which I’ve now forgotten but do remember wasn’t to be recommended.  For a decade there were marks on my ankles where my socks had been (not with sandals but trainers I hasten to add) and I felt a modicum of disappointment the day I realised they weren’t there any more.  Like scars I could no longer share from a battle I was proud to have participated in.  And now here I am, far more careful in the sun than I was back in the days when I was blowing Licence Fee payers’ money on holidays, and the only skin-peeling I’m left to enjoy is that of an onion as even the stuff on my feet after a bath doesn’t seem to come up with the goods any more. 

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Of the need to browse and buy too much

My most recent column for the Sunday Express, on the subject of bookshops, was for once deemed worthy of publication on their website.  You can read it here or below:


new foylesRules exist to be broken and trends are there to be bucked.  With that in mind the news that the doughty old London bookseller Foyles recently abandoning its home of nearly a century  is not the glum result of the onward march of online shopping that it might first appear.  It hasn’t disappeared in a puff of market forces’ smoke under pressure from the likes of Amazon and its wretched algorithms, but instead re-opened a couple of doors along in a renovated building, flooded with light, much larger than the old one, stuffed with thousands of beautiful books, and brimming with optimism for the future of book buying.  When I first crossed its threshold nearly thirty years ago, Foyles was a rabbit warren of a shop and its idea of customer service would have warmed the cockles of the most severe Soviet Union shop manager.  You had to queue a very great deal, several times over, and most peculiarly the contents of the fiction department were not displayed alphabetically according to the author’s name but instead grouped by publisher.  Thankfully, this idiosyncratic old bird has been shedding its former stern and unusual plumage for years and it now reaches this current giddy high.

Making bookshops such welcoming places is a pretty recent development of the last twenty years or so.  Theold foyles idea you could anticipate a few books and then after all decide you’d rather go into the cafe and eat a slice of carrot cake instead would have been a most alien concept not so long ago.  Like the librarian, the bookshop owner was a figure of some authority if sometimes of a rather eccentric bent.  In a second-hand bookshop in Twickenham I first encountered Somerset Maugham’s short stories in three volumes.  They were priced at £2 each or all three could be had for a confusing £7.  Over three consecutive days I purchased the set.  Actually I feel rather sorry for second-hand book shop owners.  It’s guaranteed that if an ITV crime drama has one in it he will be the murderer, and should he wear a bowtie his crimes will be of a particularly sadistic nature.  It’s not just perverted pricing they go in for, it seems. 

somerset maughamLike with the products of Haribo, I am a glutton when it comes to bookshops and books.  I don’t remember being taught to read and I’m saddened when I think of children now starting school at five and not being able to do so.  From early childhood I rarely went anywhere without a book, and spent most money I had in bookshops.  Reading is such an integral part of my day-to-day existence that I am as wary of those who don’t do so for pleasure as I am of people who think it acceptable to sleep with their dogs. 

In my flat there are more books than I shall probably ever read and my oniomaniacal rate of purchase keeps it just so.  Assuming I don’t fall victim to something that demands a lengthy period of bed rest it’s unlikely I’ll find the time to get through them all.  Some were acquired in years so distant back then it would have seemed ludicrous to suggest Tony Blair was verging on the insane; that’s how old they are.  With my bookshelves buckling under the weight and further piles of books sprouting in corners, on windowsills and table tops you might think the prospect of an e-book reader would appeal.  However, for me it’s a book’s physicality – the look, feel, smell and heft – that is almost as much part of the experience as the words contained within its covers.  Imagine getting to the end of your days with a lifetime of reading behind you and there being nothing to show for all those experiences save a slab of plastic, the contents of which are only licensed to you and could be cut off on a whim at any moment.  When I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch earlier this year, so heavy was it a Kindle might have made some sort of bleak, utilitarian sense, I suppose, but truthfully, I’d rather not have read it at all.  Even when a book can fairly be described as a blunt instrument that is part of its character and choosing not to hold it in your hands is as logical to me as discounting someone as a friend because their kneecaps are too large.  Yes, taking it outside the house was akin to going about with a small anchor in my bag but its enormity was what lent it scope.  And although while as in life and wedding buffets, its scope meant that bits of it were great and others a tad dull experiencing it on an even duller matte screen would have robbed it of much of its value.  Thankfully, while there’s still beauty in the world real books in real bookshops will remain part of our lives.

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Getting blown

Having read more than my fair share of online articles guaranteed to Blow My Mind or introduce me to 24 Tricks To Make Me Completely Rethink How I Fold Laundry or a primer in Never Wiping My Arse In The Same Way Again you can’t blame me for experiencing a degree of disappointment when I look in the mirror and instead of meeting the gaze of a man who has had his world turned upside down I see just me. When Margaret Thatcher died, David Cameron explained it was she who had inspired him to be a Conservative.  Interesting, I thought.  In fact, a bloody sight more than simply interesting.  I’d always wondered what had lured an Eton-educated, right-wing minor aristocrat into the Tory fold.  And now I knew.  Yet, and yet.  Looking in the mirror once more I was disgusted to see there was still only me.  


It’s a shock to realise the body often doesn’t provide a corporeal metaphor for the what it’s just taken in through its eyes or ears.  Do some people’s hair still go white with shock?  It would seem the decent thing for your hair to do in certain situations, I think.  Your body shouldn’t be that uninterested and blase about what’s going on in your old noggin, should it?  Surely, it’s more of an oddity that you can hear of the death of a loved one or that a gale has swept away your house’s roof but still ten minutes later your bladder needs emptying or you sneeze unexpectedly as something irksome tickles at your nasal hair.  What a bloody jobsworth your sack of skin, bones, blood and hair truly is.  Not doing anything appropriately dramatic but rather just doing what it fancies doing, as and when it fancies doing it.  And as you think that grumpy thought it chooses to let you know you really need to take a poo while all right minded people will agree that it’s better to dwell on all the good things your great aunt Edna did in her life.  And furthermore as you should be mourning your aunt Edna it crassly occurs to you you’ve started not just one sentence with an And, but two of the things.  


Still feeling like I’d been slapped about the chops by the news of Call Me Dave’s decision not to join the Socialist Workers’ Party after due care and consideration I opted to switch off my flat’s internet in case more of this mind-bending info came my way.  The peace and quiet that suddenly descended on me was most welcome.  After something in the region of one minute and ten seconds however it was verging on becoming a tad oppressive so  I turned on the telly and went straight to ITV seeking a soothing bland balm to smooth away the ragged contours of newness which surely had recently been etched on my brain by our prime minister’s revelation.  I’m pleased to report I wasn’t disappointed.  An eager young cub reporter stood by the Thames with the breaking news that “Tower Bridge was first designed, then built and then opened.”  Designed, then built and then opened, you say.  I pondered this for a moment and before long my fluid mind was debating with itself how very different the history of London might have been if the chaps behind Tower Bridge had gone about things in a different way, less hidebound by convention but instead more interested in exciting the users of their new bridge and Blowing Their Minds.  This time though I’d learned my lesson.  I wasn’t going to check a mirror to avail myself of any changes.  I knew I’d be disappointed.  

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