Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On Builders

After much prevarication (just under nine years), Mrs L and I finally took the plunge and engaged a team of builders to carry out a minor house refurbishment. There wasn't a lot to do, was there? Knock through here, add something there, paint that. Except 'wouldn't it be nice if we just...' ended with 'well if we're going to do all that...we might as well do the whole house.'

And so, in December 2010, we made acquaintance with Michal and his crew. Michal is 6' 8" and not someone you want to fall out with over...well over anything. So I didn't. His boys, all Polish and unfailingly polite (except to the bonkers neighbour over whose driveway they parked every day just to watch him get in a froth), were dwarfs by comparison, one of them barely nudging 6' 2".

Day 1, Unforeseen Problem #1: That wall is going to need a steel frame to support it. Not just any old steel frame, mind, but one that will cost £350 just to design - enter the weirdo structural engineer. The frame itself cost way in excess of that, the installation...well, let's just say the contingency fund was looking woefully inadequate before the first week was out.

I won't bore you with the details of the disastrous kitchen designers and fitters (14 months later and it's still not finished); the arguments over the reneged promise to paint every room; the freezing fucking cold as doors and walls came down and the heating packed in; the useless - and I'm talking barely able to work a monkey wrench useless - plumber who has now made 796 visits to try (and fail) to rectify his own incompetence; the disappearance (off the face of the universe), money in hand, of the entire crew when we presented the snagging list (a mere 93 items).

Barely a year after that lot scarpered, we engaged another guy and his mute, scary mate to come in and finish everything off. Except his skills lay mainly in, I'm guessing, dressmaking or possibly retail. Hence the laughable attempt to prepare our front driveway which included cementing in anything not specifically removed by us (umbrellas, a loose manhole cover, one of the kids) and expertly 'repairing' a leaking pipe by burying it in concrete. Well we weren't to know these boys couldn't even put tiles on straight, were we? They came recommended, albeit I'm not sure by whom (whom needs shooting). And, bless them, when I sacked them after their ninth massive mistake of the day, they refused to remove the 27 - count 'em - bags of rubble comprising the erroneously laid concrete I had them remove from the driveway.

We live and learn...except we, obviously, don't.  


Thursday, 23 February 2012

Being Bald

Let's be clear. By any objective analysis, I'm not bald. Indeed, I'm told I have a thick - if greying - thatch that any sane man of my vintage would be proud to have flapping about atop his head.

Well say what you like, Mr Objective-Analysis. Like an anorexic is fat, I'm bald.

I need to explain. My Dad went bald before we even met. He was 30 when we first shook hands (I'm told I held onto his finger in a manly, British fashion on the day I was born) but it wasn't until I was about 10 that it first struck me that, in addition to passing his unusually thick-thigh and myopic-eye genes to his only son, he might also have let slip that poisonous baldness gene into my DNA. So, even as I experimented with David Bowie sticky-uppy hairstyles in my early teens and, later, the Duran Duran fop-top-mullet combo, I was convinced my days amongst the truly hirsute were numbered. As if to prove my terrifying theory, I started receding at 18 and, notwithstanding that I now had a hairline which matched that of my maternal grandfather and uncles (hairy bastards, all, well into their seventies) I thought it prudent to warn everyone in my immediate social orbit (and way, way beyond it) that I would soon be tress-less.  

It was only when I made Facebook contact with several friends I hadn't spoken to since the late 70s that it became clear just how far and wide I'd broadcast my obsession, and just how early I'd started. Every one of them queried my photo. Is that a wig? Thought you said you'd be bald at 25. Are you still being a fucking bore about your fucking hair?

Well I am still a fucking bore about my hair even though it hardly matters any more. I mean, I might still offer the occasional leer in the direction of a pretty young thing in Starbucks, but she sure as fuck ain't looking at me. No-one looks at old people. Ask my daughters. But I'm married, have been for a long time, and when my wife says she'd leave me if I went bald, I simply don't believe her. That's not grounds, is it? How shallow would that be? I wouldn't leave her if she stopped having fabulously wealthy parents.

No, I'm all set; don't need to impress the ladies any more. Like I ever did. But when you're 19 and you think you're going bald, the only thing on your mind is the ridicule, the loss of attractiveness, the premature ageing, the long lonely descent into forever-bachelorhood. Because women don't go for bald men, do they? And if they do, a 19 year old can't see it. A 53 year old knows no-one gives a shit.

And, if you need any more convincing, consider this. In 2002 I decided to do a show at the Edinburgh Festival which confronted baldness (ahem) head on. It was called Losing It and was a self-indulgent pile of shit with a few funny bits. I decided I couldn't convince the audience of my obsession (and its obvious hilarity!) unless I was bald myself. So, facing my worst fears, I shaved it all off. It was horrific, believe me, like losing a limb, but it had to be done. And this is how everyone I knew reacted: first sighting, fuck me!oh my God, ha ha! Three minutes later - forgotten, and never mentioned again. You see, unlike the superficial idiot with the shaved head, they only saw the bloke they'd always known. The hair didn't matter.

None of which means that losing it at any age - particularly when you're young - isn't traumatic. Of course it is. Given a choice, my guess is that no-one would go bald. And why not do something about it if you can (avoiding combovers, crappy pieces and weaves, of course)? But, ultimately - and here comes the schmaltzy moral to my story - it's about you, not your hair. You can be a dick with hair and a charmer without. A genetic predisposition like that says nothing about you.

That said, I've got a fucking fantastic head of hair (I'm told) so who cares about those slapheads?

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Free Chapter: Song In The Wrong Key (amzn.to/xaosKp)


Im a little bit suspicious of people who smile on the Tube;
specifically, commuters who smile to themselves. I have no problem with
foreigners in fluorescent cagoules, laden with maps and sheaves of
leaflets espousing the many joys of  anybody’s-guess waxworks and
open-top bus rides in the rain. They’re abroad and don’t know any
better. Smile away. And gabbling, reeking lunatics holding onto empty
liquor bottles for dear life are often very cheerful and capable of
creating their own blissful space in otherwise sardine-packed carriages,
like penicillin in a Petri dish. They can smile all they want to, though
preferably nowhere near me. But that bloke in a suit who, without any
obvious visual or aural stimulation, is just bloody smiling - well, he
bothers me. What I want to know is - what’s so funny, Smiley? What
entitles you to be light of  mood when all about you, whey-faced
drones with their shark-dead eyes are drowning in quotidian gloom?
Worse, The Smiler, snubbing his nose at propriety, is invariably keen
to broadcast his anarchic streak. So he’ll catch your eye to rub it in. He
wants you to know there’s a party in his head and you’re not invited.
And that’s when I get to thinking - and I’m sure he knows this - have
I done something to amuse him, something I ought to be embarrassed
about? Has he spotted a matted glob of  blood on my collar, unwitting
evidence of  a careless shave? Or do I have a hole in my crotch
revealing my ‘Oh crap, it’s Monday’ pants (they were a birthday
present, by the way, which I wear on Tuesdays pursuant to my own
anarchic streak, thank you). And anyway, why’s that funny? A bloody
collar, an unstitched seam, a witty pant? Ok, maybe I’m being a bit
over-sensitive, maybe it’s not me at all or, indeed, anyone else in the
carriage. Maybe something funny’s just occurred to him.
I don’t care. I don’t like it.
That’s the thing about the London Underground. People forget
who they are; that they got on the train with distinct and, in many

Simon Lipson
cases, complex personalities. Yet once ensconced within the sterile
anonymity of  the seething warren, arcane rules of  non-engagement
kick in. The haughty, physical defence of  personal space; the flickering,
fascinated eyes watching stations hove into and out of  view, stations
they’ve flickered at a thousand times before; the intense ‘I’m reading,
don’t disturb me’ po-face. Woe betide anyone making eye contact.
That’s why The Smiler stands out. He’s not to be trusted.
But, you see, that morning, it was me who broke ranks. I’m normally
a pack-dog, an automaton, a leave-me-alone merchant, someone
whose mind is ostentatiously elsewhere. But I was smiling - yes, to
myself - a smile interlaced with the odd gentle convulsion. Maybe,
hopefully, it was me pissing everyone else off  for a change as I ran a
mental video of  the night before. Me, in the kitchen, clattering about,
hopeless-dad-fashion, trying to conjure a meal for Millie and Katia
under cover of  the laboured comedy routine of  which they’d long
since tired. Undeterred by their indifference, I ploughed on. Where
was the pasta? What the hell’s
spelt when it’s at home? Which one’s the
special pasta saucepan? How long do you boil it for - or do you fry it?
Do you need to add meat to Ragu or merely slop it on cold from the
jar? In truth, I didn’t know the answer to too many of  these questions.
Millie wore the weary look she’d inherited, gene-for-gene, from her
mother, eyelids fluttering, barely tolerating my ineptitude and ham-
fisted witlessness, while Katia smiled wryly as she chewed on a waxy
rod of  cheese of  indeterminate colour whilst skim-reading a Jacqueline
Wilson book I’d have found too racy and sophisticated at eighteen,
much less eight.
Sunday evening meals were invariably my domain and I took the
responsibility  extremely  semi-seriously  despite  my  absence  of
domestic skills. Lisa always seemed to be on top of  it when she was in
charge, not militarily, but with that languid efficiency that mums do so
well. But she’d gone out to her book club meeting to discuss some
impenetrable Nabokov treatise - which she’d actually packed in after
thirteen pages (as it turned out, she’d got further than most) - so I
couldn’t refer to her higher authority. Soldiering on, I finally got the
water to boil, chucked in the penne with a flourish - a steaming splash


Song in the Wrong Key
burnt my hand (important lesson there) - and stuck the Ragu jar in the
microwave. Yes I took the lid off, come on. As I collected the requisite
plates, cutlery and glasses, I began to sing ‘Home,’ the all-time Michael
Bublé classic. In my book anyway. The kids pointedly ignored me,
embarrassed for and by me, so I waltzed closer to them, knives and
forks for dancing partners, forcing the poor things to cower at the
table. Katia pulled her book around her face in an attempt to insulate
herself  from the crooning nutter, while Millie stifled a smile as she
coloured in a pencil-drawn map of  Ireland, Peru or possibly Jupiter in
her exercise book. I leaned down, singing first into Katia’s, then
Millie’s ear. They cringed theatrically.
‘Come on,’ I pleaded, ‘you always used to love it when Daddy sang
to you.’
‘That was when we were young,’ said Millie, now seven.
I smiled and picked up the song where I’d left off, upping the
volume extravagantly and losing a little tonal accuracy in the process.
Millie looked up dolefully, half  covering her ears, wincing. ‘The thing
is, Dad, your singing…’ she said. I nodded, awaiting her sweet little
put-down, ‘…it’s shit.’
Shit? I blame the mother. I never say ‘shit’ in front of  the kids. Ok,
I might occasionally slip it in if  it’s contextually appropriate, like
‘what’s this shit you’re watching kids?’ Otherwise? Never. But, even
allowing for Millie’s little cuss - in fact largely because of  it - I was
The Smiler on the train that morning, a contented man breezing
along, not a care in the world.
Funny how your life can change in an instant.
I battled my way up the escalators at Holborn station, slipped,
Astaire-like, through the snapping jaws of  the automatic barrier and
skipped up the final set of  stairs into the hazy sunlight. The cold
morning air was thick with fumes, the traffic jammed and furious, but
I didn’t care. I was awash in smugness, still congratulating myself  on
those brilliant kids of  mine, my wonderful, tolerant, capable wife, my
overall domestic bliss. I observed the poor bastards whose lives
couldn’t possibly be as rich as mine, trudging to wherever they were
doomed to spend yet another pointless day.


Simon Lipson
I floated east along High Holborn, all but whistling a happy tune,
arriving outside my office building within a couple of  joyous minutes.
I spun through the revolving door, nodded at the security guy - who,
as ever, looked down at his desk gravely as though he had several
pressing security issues on the go and couldn’t possibly allow himself
to be distracted - and, eschewing the lift, hopped up the three flights
of  stairs to my floor. I bundled through the double doors and strode
sunnily into the open plan office area where half  the staff  were
cranking up for the day. The other half, like me, were late. I nodded
with what I hope could never be interpreted as condescension at the
handful of  underlings lining the path to my executive office tucked
away in the far left hand corner. A couple of  yards from my door, I
was intercepted by Pete Moore, my immediate superior. Of  course, he
was only superior in terms of  job title, salary and perks - and, ok, he
lived with a young Spanish model in a Docklands penthouse, had a
first class Oxford degree in some social science or other and drove
something silver and supercharged - but that’s not how you judge a
man, is it? Pete and I went way back. In fact, I started at Edmonds &
White IT Systems a month before him and was, briefly, his boss. But
Pete was all thrusting ambition, a ruthless operator who lived to work
- when he wasn’t spending his vastly inflated salary on exotic holidays
and expensive women. His greatest skills were licking the right arses
and  looking  ferociously  busy  even  when  he  wasn’t,  a  deadly
combination with which I could never compete. Good luck to him.
The poor guy had no family to coddle him in their warm, loving
embrace after a hard day’s work. I wouldn’t have swapped anything I
had for anything of  his. Ok, that’s not strictly accurate, but I don’t
want to split hairs over anything as vacuous as money, status, property
or stunning señoritas.
Pete placed his hand gently on my elbow and guided me away from
my office and towards his. ‘A word?’ was his sole, solemn remark.
Pete’s cavernous suite was cold, not because of  the surfeit of smoked glass, the soulless décor or the absence of  family photos, but because of  his face, his manner. You always know, don’t you?
    ‘Got a problem, mate,’ he said, his voice flat, foreboding.


Song in the Wrong Key
‘Don’t tell me. Those morons at Delta-D complaining about the network again?’ I could already feel myself  drowning, but didn’t yet know which ocean was sucking me down.
‘No. They’re fine.’
‘Yeah,’ I scoffed without conviction, ‘had to work my butt off  to get them onside. Bunch of  complete…’
‘We’re letting you go.’
‘Mike? We’re letting you go.’
‘Ok mate. Let’s do lunch later, yeah?’
‘Mike. I’m not pissing around. This isn’t coming from me.’ ‘Look, I’ve got stuff  piled up on my desk, so…’
‘They thought it’d be better if  I told you.’
‘Ok. Now, I may look cheerful enough, but I’m actually beginning
to get a bit worried, Pete. I thought,’ I chuckled pitifully, my heart
thudding, lungs barely able to replenish the oxygen they were hyper-
exhaling, ‘…I thought I heard you say you were letting me go, but
‘Elliott and Barry hauled me in last thing Friday. They’re making you redundant. No other way to say it.’
I let that one sink in as I struggled to breathe. ‘They can’t do that.’
‘They can. They have. I’m really sorry, mate. You think this is easy  for me?’
‘Oh poor you,’ I said with desperate sarcasm, ‘you’d better sit
‘My hands are tied, Mike.’
‘Why me? What about…what about Arnie? He’s useless. Or
Christine?’ I was pleading now, pathetic, emasculated. This was as
good a point as any to slump into the über-modern, supremely
uncomfortable leather armchair reserved only for the best clients.
Pete stifled a wince.
‘She’s on half  what you’re on…and, you know…’
‘Big tits,’ I mumbled in a sad echo of  the mock-laddish banter Pete
and I occasionally engaged in before his accession to executioner-in-
chief. And Christine did, indeed, have a sizeable bust, which didn’t


Simon Lipson
excuse it, I know, but we’re men and we can’t help ourselves sometimes.
But right now it wasn’t remotely funny, even if  everyone tacitly
acknowledged that Christine’s rise was largely due to the tongues-out
enthusiasm generated by her most prominent physical feature.
‘She’s pulling in the business, Mike; making the boys upstairs happy.’
‘Big tits do that,’ I said, shaking my head like a defeated schoolboy,  ‘I’m at a massive disadvantage.’
Pete rolled his eyes as though this sexist nonsense was, belatedly, beneath him. He’d invented it, the bastard. ‘What can I say?’
    ‘I’ve been here longer than Arnie.’
‘But  Arnie’s  just  nailed  that  Freestone  contract,’  said  Pete, hammering home another irrefutable nail in my coffin, ‘otherwise he’d probably have been the one to go. You know business is bloody tough. Someone had to take the bullet.’
‘Someone?’ I knew all of  this, of  course, but you never quite see it coming. ‘Didn’t you argue on my behalf ? Didn’t you tell them how unlucky I’ve been? I mean, if  I’d pulled off  that deal with Virgin, Elliott and Barry could’ve fucking retired.’
‘But you didn’t.’
I pinched my thumb and forefinger to within a centimetre of  each
other. ‘I was this close.’ I wasn’t even in the neighbouring solar system.
‘They think you fucked it up. And right now, it’s costing us to keep you on. You’re not bringing in the fees. You’re not even paying for yourself.’
‘Costing us?’ I whined. ‘Us?’
‘Them. I mean them, the company,’ Pete said in a hollow display of personal loyalty of  which he then thought better. ‘Well no, I don’t. It is us, isn’t it? We all have to make our contribution. I’m part of  the family here. We’re all in this together.’
‘Are we?’
Pete sighed. I wish I could say this was hurting him, but the guy was
a consummate actor whose prime concern was covering his own
‘And, Mike. How long have we known each other? Of  course I pleaded with them on your behalf,’ he lied. ‘Come on.’


Song in the Wrong Key
‘I was top fee earner…’ ‘In 1998, Mike.’
The internal phone buzzed and Pete held up an apologetic finger as
he rounded his desk to take the call. He spoke sotto voce, but I cupped
my ear. ‘Yes. Yes,’ he whispered, ‘won’t be long. I’ll pop up in a minute.
Ha, ha. Coffee’d be great. Any croissants? Mmm. Ok.’ He put the
phone down, turned to face me and quickly readjusted his features
until they settled on the sympathetic mien he’d probably practised in
the executive washroom mirror.
‘Is that how you pleaded for me? Over a nice plate of  flaky pastry?’ ‘Stop it Mike.’
‘But I’ve got kids and a wife and a mortgage…all that shit. What am
I going to do? I’m forty-two.’ It was lame, after the event. It wasn’t
going to help.
‘We’ve put together a really good package. Six months’ salary. And you can keep the gym membership until the end of  the year. Uh?’
‘Great. I’ll jog to the bankruptcy court. My God, Pete. Six months’ money? After all these years?’
‘And…you can keep the car.’
He’d obviously kept that up his sleeve in case I had the temerity to whinge. Hardly a clincher. ‘Oh, magnificent. Can’t afford to fill it up, but maybe I can fold the seats down and move in when the Nationwide forecloses on my fucking mortgage.’
‘You’ll find something in no time. You’re a good man.’
‘Look, fuck the package. Why not reduce my basic, load it in favour
of  commission? It’ll motivate me. Maybe that’s what I’ve been
‘My hands are tied Mike.’
My mouth opened but nothing came out. I was all done begging. I
gulped in some air and whimpered, ‘But I’m forty-two.’
    ‘What about Lisa? She’s earning good money, isn’t she? You’re not going to starve.’
Which was true, of course. My financial protestations were born
of shock, indignation, humiliation, not the facts. Lisa comfortably
out-earned me; had done for years. Maybe that made me easier to


Simon Lipson
get rid of. But I still needed a reason to get up in the morning. And I was only forty-two. Did I mention that?
‘That’s it for me. Who wants someone of  my age in this game?’ ‘The references will be great and…’.
‘Yeah? Michael Kenton worked for this company for 17 years. He is
reliable, capable, trustworthy and diligent. That’s why we got rid of
‘No-one’s going to take that inference. People in the business know it’s tough. The competition’s horrendous. There are new companies sprouting up as we speak, ready to undercut us.’
‘I know,’ I muttered, ‘I know.’
‘Hey, and…tell you what, I’ll see if  I can have a word with David
Lewis at Crack-IT. I heard he was after someone experienced on the
technical side.’
‘Yeah, right,’ I sulked.
‘That’d be perfect for you. Maybe sales isn’t your thing any more. You were always a techie at heart.’
‘Yeah.’ I squeaked up off  the armchair and gestured at the door. ‘I might as well…’
Pete laced a smile with his best approximation of  tragic empathy and put his arm around me, but felt immediately uncomfortable and turned it into a stilted pat on the shoulder.
I trudged out and slunk along the corridor, dead man walking, until
I reached my office. It already looked deserted. There was no point
sitting down, no point settling into my comfortable little kingdom;
better to clear it out and clear off. I rifled through my desk drawers,
finding all sorts of  items I’d forgotten I had - a liveried letter opener,
my Top Fee Earner plaque from 1998, a useless, frayed felt tip pen
given to me by Millie who insisted I use it at work. I removed the
family photos from my desk - the gap-toothed ones of  the kids in
their prim, ill-fitting school uniforms, the one of  my parents when
they still had a future, the yellowing shot of  me and Lisa looking lean
and shiny-faced, toasting the camera in a long-forgotten restaurant in
Mykonos. I dithered over the pens, the calculator, the plastic ruler, the
stapler, all of  which were company property, then decided to take the


Song in the Wrong Key
lot. Screw you, Pete, screw all of  you. I win!
I piled my sad little bounty into a couple of  the Tesco bags I kept in
my bottom drawer. It was pathetic. I was pathetic. Two plastic bags
full of  useless crap. Was that all the last 17 years had amounted to? I
stood by the door, bags hanging limply from one hand, empty
briefcase from the other, and looked around the room one last time. I
almost bade it farewell, then realised it was only a bloody room, one in
which I was no longer welcome.
What was I going to tell Lisa? 

The Miracle

The Miracle

One evening a couple of weeks ago, just before the icy Armageddon wreaked the kind of chaos that catches us all off guard and unprepared - well it only happens every year - I was girding myself for the ascent up Archway Road on my trusty, middle-of-the-range Pinnacle bicycle.  It's a pig, that hill, a precipitous gradient close to overhanging.  I'm 53, you know, and asthmatic, and I've got exceptionally dodgy knees, and I've been a little above my fighting weight for a while now (49 years), yet I am forced into daily combat with this demon if I am to make it back to the sanctuary of my Muswell Hill manor.

Now, as any regular cyclist will attest, there is no such thing as a following wind. It doesn't exist. It's a chimera. Cycle round a roundabout, a full 360, and the gale will be in your face all the way round, battering you, pummelling the skin on your face, ripping your hair from its very roots. All the way round. You hear me? It's nature at its most taunting and vindictive. And if there's a bit of rain in the air - with its spiteful shards and needles pocking and slicing, opening wounds to the flesh, the mind, the spirit that may never heal - God help you.

So, anyway, as I rounded the grim dereliction that is Archway Roundabout, my jaw set to 'grimly determined' for the routine double whammy - wind-against + vertical ascent - a sudden gust, no more, lifted me, driving me onwards and upwards on gossamer wings towards the brief, free-wheeling relief of Muswell Hill Road's downslope, my aching, ageing legs suddenly spared, my bronchial, wheezing lungs in unexpected oxygen-credit. It was like God's arm around my shoulder, forgiving me all my cycling sins (ok, I go on the pavement sometimes and ignore the odd - and even - red light). And, in that brief, epiphanic moment, I questioned my violent atheism for the first time in thirty years.

Course, it only lasted five seconds. A sleet-speckled tornado opened its jaws and pummelled my very soul, mocking my natural lack of aerodynamics, my physical decrepitude, my fleeting belief in another way, and forced me to cycle through treacle as I searched for a gear that doesn't exist.  

I made it home.  I always do.  Somehow.  It was a freak, that little gust, a one-off, something I'm unlikely to experience again during my diminishing lifetime.  And maybe, indeed, it was evidence of a higher power, one whose sense of humour is bordeline malevolent.  He's up there cackling as we speak, concocting still further indignities to heap upon those of us who dare to wear Lycra.  

We shall not be moved.  Literally. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

On Being Old

'You're 53, Dad, get over it.' Thus spake my senior daughter when I came home one evening complaining that my knees hurt. Just as well I didn't mention my hip.

When I were a lad, 53 was proper old. You had uncles and aunts that age and they were moments from death's door. And you didn't give a huge shit. You get old, you die. But now I'm here, it doesn't seem quite so aged or terminal, not if I ignore the aches, pains and creeping decrepitude. I once asked my 82 year old father-in-law how old he was inside his head and he said 27. Me? I'm 26. Back then, I had two good knees (pre my 9 operations - which I never talk about), shitloads of brown hair and a firm-ish tummy. I was ok looking, single and a qualified solicitor. I mean, what a catch, albeit, no-one seemed to be fishing in my immediate vicinity. Notwithstanding, it was and remains the ideal age to stop maturing.

Being 26 in my head is all well and good, but the 53 year old body is being a bit of a shit about things. I hobble everywhere, my hair's grey (though, small-mercifully, otherwise intact) and I feel the cold, even when it's warm. And the heat. Oy! The body starts giving up the ghost way too soon, in my view. Now it's in a losing battle with a mind marooned in mid-twenties self-delusion, a mind baffled by the inability to chase down that wide forehand or run up the stairs. It's still giving the right orders. Even if it has to deal with mortgages, parents' evenings, breakdown insurance, ISAs, it will never grow up, never accept that it's trapped inside a fading physical entity. It focuses on football, Su Doku on the iPad, worrying - properly worrying - about Andy Murray's quest for a Grand Slam and no-lighty-no-likey TV - and quite enjoys One Direction's latest single.

There are many tragic oldsters who, like me, don't own a suit and still have a crack at wearing those useless-in-the-snow Converse thingies on their feet. But why not? I'll be dead soon enough, especially if I carry on cycling around Kentish Town. Not that I'll be able to do that for long - 9 knee operations; there's very little mileage left on that particular clock.

But let's not talk about that.

Friday, 3 February 2012

How To Work in Cafes

It's not all glamour being a stand-up comedian. Granted our evenings are spent performing in exotic locations like Crewe or Sittingbourne, often to double figure crowds, but by day we have to come up with the comedy gold. Some of us can write a whole joke in a productive week, but our capricious muse demands the right environment. For me, working from what I laughingly call my study (study what? Twitter?) – is a non-starter. Too many pointless DIY jobs to ponder, too much food in the fridge, too many channels on Sky (S4C is terrific, by the way – wall to wall Welsh!).
So I, like an increasing number of self-employed people, have taken to working in cafes. The benefits are obvious. It gets me out of the house - sometimes before midday; I cycle there, like a middle-aged Cavendish (ish); and it makes me feel like I’m doing something. More to the point, it’s cheap. Commercial rents in the West End, where I spend most of my time, are £20-40psq, so I’m occupying some prime space for the price of a coffee. That’s good business in my book.
But it’s not without its downsides. That’s why you won’t see Shell moving its entire UK operation into Starbucks any time soon. It’s only for the committed pisser-abouter. Want to give it a try? These are my top tips:
1. Always nab your table first: Position is everything. I can't stress this enough. Coffee can wait; it’s not why you’re there.
2. Suss out the sockets: Ok, most laptops and phones have decent battery lives, but sockets mean you don’t have to worry about recharging when you get home which can be a terrible, terrible burden. Grab the table closest to the sockets, plug in and you’re king of the castle. If anyone whinges, ‘they're not there just for your benefit’, call the police.
3. Keep out of the draught: This is tricky. You need to be near the sockets but if you’re too close to the door during winter it’s a living hell. No-one – no-one – ever closes it and you’re much too busy to keep getting up. Oh, and the aircon can be a nightmare whatever the weather. It blows ice in every direction. Ice. But – top tip alert - it has a limited range. See what I’m saying? Think before you sit.
4. Order your coffee in a takeaway cup: This is where experience counts. Takeaway cup =  lid =  your coffee stays warmish all day. You can’t go splashing out on two or three cups every day, never mind that every 148th beverage bought using a Starbucks card earns you a free shot of vanilla. And – potential bonus – sleepy staff might charge you the takeaway price. Result.
5. Befriend the staff: They sometimes let you off if you’ve forgotten your wallet. And you’ll learn to understand 'how are you today' in 13 Eastern European accents. Don’t get too close, though – they’re usually just passing through and forming attachments can ultimately lead to emotional pain. Apparently.
6. Defend your space: You don't want someone sharing your table. Ugh. Absolute no-no. You need it for your laptop, coffee and…you know, other stuff. You certainly don’t want anyone wobbling your table with their busy, typing fingers. Or having telephone conversations that close to your precious, hard-won bubble. Put your bag on the other chair. If anyone asks, it’s just fallen in the urinal and you’re drying it out.
7. Avoid sitting near groups of young American girls: Xenophobic? Maybe, but trust me on this one. If this odd human strain enters your coffee shop, leave. This is the one known socket exception. Tough, I know, but it’s about retaining your sanity. You see, young American girls’ voices spouting their remorseless shit cut through the atmosphere and pierce the soul. And I'm over 70% deaf. Once you’ve heard the seven thousandth ‘like’ you’ll be Googling ‘Local Assassins’.
8. Develop your ‘tut’: People on mobile phones shout. Don’t know why. They just can’t help it. Nothing more infuriating than someone having a loud, one-way conversation and, worse, apparently enjoying it. Understand this: they’re doing it to annoy you. Learn to tut loudly. This takes time and patience. Practise.  
9. Make sure you can see the toilet door at all times: Positioning is key again. You don’t want to be craning or turning. Never queue. It’s demeaning and time consuming when you’ve got so much else to do. Oh, and never go in after that rancid tramp.
10. Look out for celebs: Recent spots include Hugh Grant, Peter Stringfellow and that bloke in that film. Always good for half an hour of doing nothing (or trying to sneak a photo on your phone for FB – make sure the silly shutter sound and flash are off otherwise you’ll look like a git and/or stalker or, worse, Paparazzi).
11. Wifi: Essential if you need – for professional purposes – to keep abreast of email and social media. Starbucks wins hands down here. Prêt and Nero offer the patchy, infuriating Cloud; you’ll top yourself long before you attempt your nineteenth reconnection. Key tip: Never – and I mean never – pay for it. It’s an offence.

12. If you see me anywhere, leave me alone. I'll be busy defending my space.