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Straight Outta Compton August 29, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Food, Thirtynumbthing, Travel, West Byfleet.
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‘As I l leave, believe I’m stompin’, but when I come back, boy, I’m straight outta Compton’ – Ice Cube

In days long gone an August bank holiday was a perfect excuse to not go to sleep for 72 hours in the company of other itinerants a backdrop of thumping beats. Not anymore. Those same itinerants are now hollow-eyed and sleep deprived on account of their kids or running businesses and marathons, possibly at the same time.

As per usual I had been taken by surprise by the sudden arrival of an August Bank holiday. Where on earth do they spring from?  While trapped in the killing fields of commuting and the 9 to 5 (make that 6) ] I’d fantasised and whinged about  could be done if only I’d had the time the time. It was all visions of a weekend break in Rome or a bohemian day in Brighton and yet when the time came I realised it was too late to actually do anything meaningful.There was a mad scramble of phone calls, texts and tweets like a manager without a squad on transfer deadline day at 10.55pm and discovering that even Marlon King isn’t available.

So what did a Thirtynumbthing do with three days to fill?

Left to my own devices led to the usual distractions of writing a to-do list, losing it, giving up, and then forming a nest of papers, magazines, endless cups of tea,  and an interminable feed of live sports. That was Saturday morning. By Monday however the mind-numbing effect of Sky Sports News and fermenting scent of stale sweet and sour sauce tends to lead for a call to action. What was needed was escape from the detritus of my own mounting detritus. My kitchen had turned into a scene from a William Burroughs novel. Something had to be done!

Straight Into Compton
There comes a moment when a man doesn’t want cocktails or to be surrounded by hipsters and urban attitude. I’d hit that moment and what I craved was a radical departure reassurance and twee harmony. Above all that I wanted cake.

In what may prove to be a defining turning point I went online not to Time Out but Surrey Life.  The pleasurable afternoon I had as a result could be a portent of the comfortably numb future that will befall us all before incontinence.

If anyone goes to Compton in Surrey in a confused pilgrimage to the place made famous by Niggaz With Attitude they will be sorely disappointed.  Among the cottages and rolling green hills there’s a distinct lack of gang warfare, bitches or LAPD brutality.  I, for one, would still very much like to see a twin-town exchange programme and the resultant fall out in a fly on the wall documentary.

What Compton lacks in crack houses is made up for with the Watts Gallery Tea Rooms and a fine lemon sponge for starters. The Watts is precisely the kind of place a person can end up and lose an afternoon watching middle-England in full throttle. I’d been transported to another England, one well away from the London of my work week, the one of traffic, uppity bar staff, drunks on the Jubilee Line, wasabi popcorn, feral kids, feral social media gurus or cabbies moaning about ‘the fackin’ Spurs’.

This was a haven of scones with jam and clotted cream, genteel old ladies, upstanding families, children (and even dogs, come to think of it) seen and not heard. Everything and everyone had a place and permanence to the point you could practically hear Elgar playing in their footsteps. It was, in the words of Vivian Stanshall, ‘English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestled in green nowhere’.

The only hitch was that I’d left my wallet at home. What would Ice Cube or Eazy-E of NWA have done in Compton when faced with only enough change for the tea room or the Watts exhibition, but not both?  According to ‘Cube’ when he’s called off, he’s got a sawn off, squeeze the trigger and the bodies get hauled off.
Wise words, but armed only with a lighter and a copy of The Guardian, violence was not an option. It meant forsaking the Victorian art and sculpture of George Frederic Watts in the Gallery favour of Welsh rarebit and cake in the cafe. Yet again, my stomach triumphs in a mismatched bout with the arts. I shall be back.

What did I learn? Firstly to plan future bank holidays well in advance; second to remember my wallet if I do should venture out and finally, next time I’m heading down to Compton to pack a sawn-off just in case I can’t pay for a cream tea.

This article first appeared as Thirtynumbthing @blokely.com

Stuck in the mud – a weekend away in the country July 14, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Friends, Thirtynumbthing, Travel.
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Deliverance, Thirtynumbthing, Blokely.comWhen Tom, an old uni friend, phoned the other week and invited me to join him, his wife and a large number of couples for a weekend away to Blo Norton Hall my immediate thought was, ‘Are they at the
swinging stage already? And how come this Norton Hall chap is getting all the attention?’

It turns out that Blo Norton Hall isn’t a sexual act, but an Elizabethan country house in Norfolk. So rest easy if you too ever get an offer to Blo Norton Hall, that is unless you know someone who knows someone called Norton Hall, then be careful because you could end up in a state rather than an estate. Get it in writing. If there is no ‘w’ you’re set for a good time rather than being the source of one.

Once the parameters of the invite were established I readily accepted. A weekend in the country would do me good: fresh air; charming, rustic inns, tranquility, nature, picture postcard England and new company, practically everything currently absent from my present existence. And not the only thing absent either:

“So.” I breezily asked my friend Tom, “who is going to be looking
after all the kids?”

“Oh, everyone is bringing their kids. There will be kids everywhere.”

“Ah.”

There is nothing wrong with children and, although I hardly ever encounter them, there’s much to like. For starters, they are the people least likely to engage in conversation about Cheryl Cole’s love life, Fabio Capello’s team selections, the Ikea sale or the importance of an integrated marketing strategy.

In fact, other people’s kids are inexplicably drawn to me, possibly on the grounds they see someone else operating on their level. However, by my calculations the last time I would be surrounded by that many young kids was back in the infant school playground and, I might add, I was one of them.

On the Friday night everyone was arriving at Blo Norton Hall, but I was still bracing myself with a Bloody Mary at a bar in SE1, telling colleagues who asked why I wasn’t yet off to Norfolk that a ‘livener’ was a tactical necessity if I was to settle in to the rural idyll without having a panic attack.

When I arrived the kids were either sleepy or already in bed. Mission accomplished. What hadn’t been factored into the equation was the collective force of a group of thirty-something parents unleashed and unfettered. The sight of a grown man walking around with a water gun loaded with neat tequila set the tone for the weekend and it was only a matter of minutes before my mouth was very much in its crosshairs. I’d arrived thinking I was in an Evelyn Waugh novel but it quickly unraveled into Blo Norton Uncovered.

Discovering rural England

Staggering painfully into the sunlight the following morning, accompanied by a symphony of birdsong, it’s difficult to see how a hungover me decided to abandon the home comforts of my rural idyll in favour of exploring the surrounding countryside. But abandon it I did.

I recall thinking that we’d be entering a world of hay bales, Orwell’s ‘warm beer and old maids cycling to communion’, which would’ve been odd for a Saturday, I concede, or, at the very least, a country inn packed with sun burnished farmers cheerily chewing straw and talking about the harvest over ale and game pies.

Four of us decided to make the two mile walk to the nearest pub, but crossing its threshold we might as well have walked to Croydon. It served neither food nor local ales, but what it did provide was a tattooed coterie of angry looking locals whose age and gender was indiscernible beneath their leisurewear, scowling over their lager and Daily Star upon our arrival. Any attempt at interaction was drowned out by David Guetta’s Sexy Bitch. Hardly the sort of thing Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall has been peddling to gullible city dwellers for the past decade. Try foraging for Morels around here you curly-haired ponce.

Defeated, disheartened and a couple pints later the fatal decision was made to take an alternative route back through open countryside. Unlike anyone else on this break, I have absolutely no rural background or breeding. Drop me, worse for wear, in a field under the glare of the afternoon sun near a ramshackle farm and one word springs to mind: Deliverance.

The fear of a psychopath leaping from the wheat fields, though, was relieved by seeing Blo Norton Hall. Now there was just the matter of the River Ouse in our path.

“We’re going to have wade,” said Greg.

“What do you mean wade?” I demanded, “these jeans are Hugo Boss!”

As I sank crotch deep in mud and silt, it was practically impossible to save all the Guardian supplements. Family was first to be abandoned, Culture was sacrificed shortly afterwards and not even the Sport section could be saved when I fell forwards into the muddy, nettled laden banks.

There’s a certain indignity to going in search of a country pub and having to return looking not unlike Willem Dafoe in the closing scene of Platoon.

The rest of the weekend was spent firmly within the grounds and always in reach of the claret, removing the remnants of the riverbed from my pores.

When a child spotted me enjoying a contemplative moment in the sun, she gladly informed me I was going to be blasted in the face by a water gun. ‘At least,’, unlike her father, ‘it won’t be tequila,’ I thought as it forced me to re-evaluate my position on everything. My absolute unsuitability to the countryside was reaffirmed, but for the first time I realised it’s not the kids who are the problem, it’s the parents.

This post first appeared on Thirtynumbthing @blokely.com

The Jury’s Out June 15, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Friends, Thirtynumbthing, Travel, West Byfleet.
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This morning I was woken from my slumber by REM’s Shiny Happy People, provoking what can only be described as a Fred West style assault on the radio alarm clock, and it’s been downhill ever since. Readers hoping for a review of the opening night of the new Playboy Club in Mayfair and the itinerary of my planned trip to Antibes with Keira Knightley should probably look away now.

Those of you who want a write-up on the descent of a man of a certain age in Partridge-esque parallel universe, alone in a Jury’s Inn hotel in Leeds trying to type on a laptop with a virus, no internet connection, a dead iPhone, no charger, and therefore no way of connecting to humanity have come to exactly the right place. There isn’t even a Corby trouser press to disassemble. It’s just me, four walls, the sound of faulty air-con, a kettle, UHT milk sachets and a laptop dying with digital herpes with which to write this latest desperate missive.

There is the matter, I suppose, that most international business travellers actually a) bother to pack their phone charger and b) sort out a decent hotel room before they rock up in town with their overnight bag and to avoid the situation I find myself in now. Downstairs, the lobby and restaurant are littered with the detritus of humanity, a mish-mash of bad suits, leisurewear, steak well-done, abandoned lager and mid-life crises.

Early on in the evening when there was a desperate urge for outside contact and a sense of purpose, I inquired at check-in if they had an iPhone charger and a cheery fellow called Wojech informed me they did. He then disappeared to some other part of the hotel, or Yorkshire, to find it.

“Do you have lead?” he asked on his return.

“No I don’t have ‘lead’. What do I need a lead for?”

“I only have plug to put in wall. You need to put lead in plug and then lead into your phone to charge.”

I wasn’t sure which one of us by now should be feeling stupid but I suspected the smart money was on me. Oh, for the want of a lead in Leeds. After a retreat back to room 316 there followed a period of indecision, brooding and pacing. There was, I felt for certain, exactly the lead he mentioned in the office I’d been working in today on the other side of town. I went back to reception and announced to Wojech with all the flourish I could muster that I’d be returning with a lead, but I could be sometime.

Forty minutes later there was no Wojech at reception. In his place was Elaina and she didn’t know anything about Wojech’s plug and my need for a lead. What she did know was that she had given the only charger plug or whatever the hell it is to someone else about five minutes before.

If you happened to be in the foyer of the Jury’s Inn Hotel Leeds on Tuesday night and saw an unshaven man in a Gieves and Hawkes sports jacket and brogues, slumped at the reception desk staring into the distance whilst clutching a limp iPhone charger lead from his hand before sighing heavily and heading to the bar, then you had the privilege of witnessing yours truly experiencing a dark moment of the soul.

Meanwhile in Surrey:

The other unmarried friend, Leon Dale,  is over from Sydney for a week for a mixture of work and no doubt, lording it up at my house in my absence. God only knows what he is up to left to his own devices and I’ve got no way of phoning him to find out. Plus there’s every chance he may run into Pavlina the cleaner upon his arrival this evening. I forgot to inform either about the other’s possible presence and I don’t know whom I feel sorry for the most.

He’ll probably get a thirty minute barrage of provincial Bulgarian wisdom and sledgehammer interrogation on how he knows me. Given his penchant for male grooming, she’ll no doubt assume, yet again, I’m homosexual. Great. When my much older, twice-divorced cousin crashed at mine for a bit earlier in the year, she entered the house to find him merrily sitting next to me with a beer watching Arsenal in his underwear and shot off saying she didn’t realise I was “busy with friend”. Despite my explaining the situation and he was actually my cousin she returned with a doubting smile that could be easily interpreted as ‘Ok, but back home in my village we would paint your house pink and nail your genitals to the door for this’.

Actually, come to think of it maybe I’m better off here out of reach. I just hope for her sake he doesn’t get out his iPhone after the home movie he played on it last night just as I’d finished dinner. It was one thing when men used to boast about what they get up to with their uninhibited girlfriend, but a blight of the modern age that I hadn’t expected and certainly not asked for last night when he unexpectedly showed it to me on playback, especially when he appeared on screen.

“What the bloody hell has got into you? I don’t want to see that! Get it away,” I said, batting away the his mobile device. “Steve Jobs would be proud. That may be a novel use of technological advancement, but it doesn’t mean it’s progress.”

“I suppose you’ll put that in ‘your column’ now,” he said sarcastically.

As if I would. Goodnight.

This article first appeared as a Thirtynumbthing column on blokely.com

Dos coffee, Fraulein. March 13, 2011

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Imagine the scene: two Englishman arrive at an Italian cafe in a bohemian district of Hamburg one Saturday morning. One of them has not long mentioned in the taxi from the airport how a few years military service as a marine in Germany meant he picked up some of the lingo. Not that this is a factor of course as almost everyone in Germany has a faultless grasp of English these days. Imagine then the surprise when the obliging waitress arrives, he jabs the menu and, with all the authority he can muster, orders ‘Dos coffee’.

I could but look back at her bafflement with a pained, apologetic expression. This was the beginning of my pilgrimage to watch St Pauli FC with Lee Blewett, The Publican, a couple of weeks ago. And that was about as top of the game as we got. An Englishman speaking Spanish to an Italian waitress in Germany is a sight to behold and triggered our downhill spiral of this ‘cultural visit’.

Imagine an English Premier League football club in England based on radical politics, punk rock, anarchism, eccentricity, a steadfast refusal to conform, a team that comes out to AC/DC, whose ground and fans bear a skull and crossbones emblem and locate their stadium in one of the world’s most infamous red light districts (in this case the Reeperbahn where the teenage Beatles cut their musical teeth and caught the pox for good measure) and you have St Pauli FC, recently proclaimed by CNN to be ‘the world’s coolest football club’.

The football was absolutely dire, the atmosphere was magnificent with constant singing, jumping and chanting all conducted by a few fans with megaphones. For 90 minutes this offered a spectacle inspired more awe than any 22 men hoofing a ball round a field could muster. It’s only this season and the likelihood of promotion that things have livened up at QPR. For the previous 15 years in the wilderness the only thing going on in the stands has been the occasional erupting psychopath or small children pleading to be taken home.  So St Pauli was a revleation, it was fun, it was raucous, it was friendly, especially given the plastic, witless and often oafish snarling nastiness of support we get served up on Sky these days.

Neither were we prepared to walk down the road from our  shi-shi hotel toward the bars of the Reeperbahn and be propositioned by at least twenty different pretty German girls in jeans, ski jackets and bobble hats to do outrageous things for money (I think, alas, the deal was we paid them rather than the other way round ). One after the other, it was relentless, like a domino effect and it felt like the opening of an Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Forget anything Usian Bolt has done, us pair completing that 100 metres without seizing up or falling at a hurdle has to be marked down as one of our greatest achievements. There are some friends we could’ve had with us who’d still be negotiating their way to the end now.

Twenty four hours later we checked out of our suite sporting our St Pauli scarves and holding our heads. Lee insisted upon crashing out in the hotel’s ironically named Wellness Centre spa rooms. I have never felt a Sunday is best spent spread out fully clothed on a lounger in a spa listening to ambient music as a publican snores loudly next to me with an assortment of towels and German newspapers over his head, so decamped to the bar for my book and a bloody mary to sort the nerves.

It wasn’t long before Blewett turned up looking  even more jittery and shellshocked than when I left him. He’d come to in the Wellness Centre, aware of the presence of voices and removed his towel to find a middle-aged German couple on the loungers near to him, both stark naked and in a state of contemplation. I didn’t know who I felt more sorry for, him or the couple. Imagine having your plans of  shared tranquility in the buff with your partner ruined by a hungover skinhead publican in Fred Perry polo shirt and jeans with a QPR bulldog tattoo on his forearms and a towel on his head staggering, spluttering and crashing from wall to wall in a panic to escape.

After that it back to reality for us at QPR. We’ve been top of the league since the opening day of the season (save for a fortnight when Cardiff had the honours but were rapidly hoiked out like a grubby man in a mac at a beauty pageant), but that may all change due to charges of an illegal transfer. When the potential points deduction and the promotion that may not be news broke this Wednesday I had to give Lee counselling to deal with the trauma. Meanwhile, somewhere in Germany there was the strong possibility of a middle-aged German couple booking in for the latest counselling session to overcome their newly found fear of ever entering a spa in the buff again. Karma perhaps.

Lobster bisque and crackers February 8, 2011

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A Sunday breakfast of lobster bisque and cream crackers was a clear indicator as ever needed that it was definitely time to go food shopping. Domestic chores have fallen by the wayside recently and that is attributable to the malaise that came from the hellish month of January. It’s a good job it finished when it did. One more day of that month and I swear, if it was a person, I’d have knocked it on the head with a shovel and tossed it into a ravine.

It’s around this time of year, and because of it, that people start plotting their escape away from all the domestic turgidity, the kind that comes with combining crackers with lobster soup for breakfast. The closest I’ve been to abroad in months was on Friday and that was only Reading for a QPR away game and that could hardly be described as a new horizon.

In recent years my holidays to the likes of Las Vegas, Phuket and Marbella, not to mention the recent Cow PR three-day invasion of Budapest, have been about as cultural as a lock-in with Bernard Manning. Although well versed in the art of the lone traveller having been to Cuba, Jamaica and Buenos Aires with nothing in my ‘backpack’ except clothes, a few books and the booking confirmation of a five star hotel, planning flight for foreign soil is not so easy when you are a single man in your mid-30’s. Half the destinations I’m genuinely interested in going to such as Vietnam, Central and South America would immediately have me placed on an Interpol database headed with the words ‘Sex Tourist’.

All this has been accentuated while currently reading ‘David Bowie In Berlin: A New Career in a New Town’, the account of how a manically-depressed, drug ravaged, reclusive rock star fled mid-70’s L.A, where he survived on a diet of milk, green peppers and paranoia to go to the Cold War torn but culturally fermenting city of Berlin with Iggy Pop as a traveling companion. Here they subsisted on Thomas Mann novels, Weimar inspired art, beer supped in anonymity in backstreet cafes and asparagus shopping in the food market with members of Kraftwerk and still managed to find time to  record five of the most seminal albums of the decade that shaped industrial rock, electronic and ambient music into a mainstream form. So, is there any sign of a middle ground between Bisque in West Byfleet and Bowie in West Berlin?

‘Hamburg with Blewett’, the imminent weekend jaunt of myself and a pub landlord with a pair of eyes tattooed on his arse, may not prove to be as seminal or culturally significant as ‘Bowie in Berlin’ not to mention The Beatles formative period there so don’t get your hopes up. We’ve got tickets to a football match at St Pauli FC, whose stadium is slap bang in the Reeperbahn, and a hotel room with a mini-bar. It probably begins and ends there with not a single Bauhaus building or name check of Brian Eno in sight.

Believe in Buda November 23, 2010

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James Daly, personal trainer to the stars, the middle-aged and my sorry arsed self, is never short of a motivational mantra or two. These usually involve attainment to greatness, fulfilling potential and then exceeding it, belief, strength, focus and the triumph of the will. I suspect that if he were alive today Nietzsche would almost certainly have been not a philosopher but a master of the squat thrust and attending to the paunches of Cobham housewives.

It was with every best intention that I’d go to the gym this evening. All those little mantras flew around my head like gnats in Scottish summertime from the moment I woke up, all through work, on the train journey home and right through until I walked through the front door and was stopped in my tracks by a box of Marks and Spencer mince pies.

So much for self-discipline and good intentions.  The gym was supposed to have made up for recent lax form on my part where there had been a significant absence of focus of belief or strength in a sterile gym atmosphere in Weybridge. That being the Cow PR 10th anniversary trip to Budapest where our entire company of 28 was unleashed upon one of the great European capital cities for three days.  The locals haven’t seen anything like it since the Soviets sent the tanks in back in ’56 and at least the Red Army wasn’t wearing silly hats and charging around with a large tea urn singing ‘We’ve won the cup!’

Someone who has joined recently spoke of a similar trip to Madrid with a previous agency. All that was achieved was transplanting the cliques, animosities, hierarchies, frostiness that was all pervasive in the office to another part of Europe so people just traipsed round, supped beer and scowled and pointed at the occasional landmark to kill time before posing for the obligatory picture to PR Week to show just how fabulous they were.

Not our lot. There’s a lot of love, a lot of colour, a highly developed sense of the absurd, dumb hats and a few smart dance moves. An ex-Cow, Russell Williams, visiting from his new life as an academic in Paris compared the photos of our visit to ‘The Benny Hill Show as written by Bret Easton Ellis’ and that is taken as a compliment.

Turner placing a copy of Men Only over Good Housekeeping in the women’s lifestyle section of WH Smith at Gatwick, my being propositioned on the flight by a middle aged Thai widow from Llandudno (‘My husband, he die’) on a hen trip and Gloria dropping her own passport in the ladies loo before flushing at Budapest airport on our arrival arrival pretty much set the tone for the trip. When Cows take over a dancefloor of a highly respectable nightclub is like watching a scene from an Attenborough documentary, particularly when an intruder from outside the ranks attempted to muscle in with dance moves of his own and was unceremoniously ushered back to the fringes in a broom sweeping motion by Big Al that Michael Jackson couldn’t have choreographed. The same could be said for any deluded Hungarian approaching Liz Beswick and not realsing they stood little chance unless they not only came from the Home Counties but owned a large portion of them as well. As for whomever thought leaving that tea urn out on display by the hotel lift was a sensible idea only has themselves to blame.

Come Monday morning back in my desk in Bermondsey if asked what the greatest evils of the 21st century were I would say in no particular order: the perils of an unregulated banking system, the global inequality of rich and poor, terrorism, religious fundamentalism and two nights in a row on Jagerbombs – in no particular order except for the latter at number one (and possibly a space for people who use multiple exclamation and question mark in punctuation).

Later in the week and the tables were turned. James Daly was staggering around the gym, in the manner I am often prone to do so on his account, upon hearing about the goings-on. If the Jagerbombs was a left hook, the upper cut was hearing that several of our party consumed seven BK Whoppers in three days.  Between meals. ‘One or two in a YEAR is acceptable’, he gibbered uncomprehendingly, ‘but…seven…are you sure?’. I might as well have said murders and not burgers. It just goes to show, what one man sees as weakness, others see as focus, dedication and beating all odds.

It can’t be denied that yet again my route to beefcake has been blocked by a solitary mince pie, but tomorrow we start anew. If we believe we may reach the promised land. James and his weights and his wise words of wisdom will be waiting and there will be neither mince pie or a tea urn in sight.

Leaving Marbella September 15, 2010

Posted by normanmonkey in Food, Travel, West Byfleet.
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San Pedro, Marbella

There was a time when four days in Marbella was defined by emerging mid-morning from nightclubs, blackouts, coming to on golf courses, sleeping through the daylight hours and on at least one occasion, knocking a girl backward off the port wall in Puerto Banus harbour during an Errol Flynn style embrace.

A mid-morning stagger across the ninth hole in a party shirt whilst trying to ask in an advanced state of dehydration where and whom I am is certainly the closest I’ve come to playing a round of golf. The last night here, of which there has been many, has almost always involved incidents that one can largely place in the file charitably marked ‘Regrettable’.

Yet, this trip has been defined by long walks on the beach, grilled fish, the memoirs of Christopher Hitchens and spending the last night indoors listening to Ipswich-QPR on the internet with a single glass of rose. Normally listening to QPR would be good cause to go out and end up waking up in a bunker the next day, but times have changed. Another 3-0 win and still top of the league. The rest of the bottle of the rose had to be consumed to help numb the shock of looking at their standing in the Championship.

In fact, that’s one of the few things that will make returning to a rain-sodden West Byfleet and Bermondsey bordering on bearable. That and the matter of a night out tomorrow courtesy of 72 Point who are celebrating the opening of their London office. They’ve rightly gauged what will entice me from my post-holiday malady and it being the word ‘bar’ rather than ‘seminar’ .

The invite decrees that invitees are drawn from the London media set: journalists, opinion formers and the major players in the PR industry. Plus me and Dan Turner making up the numbers. In fact, Turner wangled an invite sometime after hearing about mine and I swear we’ve commissioned far more surveys than necessary around the time he was angling for an invite: we’ve probably got data on how slavery may come back into fashion, France being the country the great British public would must like to bomb to take their minds off the recession (come to think of it, one for the Daily Mail) and the Taliban’s favourite rom-coms of all time (Four Stonings and a Funeral?).

Whichever way one cares to at it, that’s tomorrow night sorted and Friday ruined. I hope last weekend is more successful than the last. Against better instincts a friend and I ventured to a crappy West Byfleet Italian restaurant by the name of Trevi where I’d been once before an served off-skate that tasted heavily of ammonia.

Just to prove a point I again ordered skate. One thing their kitchen could never be accused of is inconsistency. Again the skate was off and inedible.  Ideally the  portion of the evening which immediately wouldn’t have been spent locked in that toilet thanks to a jammed door. Thirty minutes is a long time in a cubicle, especially so when you were irate in the first place, your wine is getting warm and would actually be quite welcome not only to lift the spirits but wipe away the unshakable taste of ammonia.

After some time negotiating and explaining my predicament to an assortment of aging Italian waiters on the ‘other side’ I started to empathise with the predicament of the Chilean miners except for they got served far better food down a tube 2km underground.  The sound of a serious voice intervening with the words ‘Let me sort this. I’m a builder’ capped my night out. It seems the the skills endowed at building school on freeing a trapped media type from the karsi consists of trying the handle repeatedly (if only I’d have thought of that) and then beating the sdhit out of the door when the handle failed, something I’d been doing for some considerable time.

There were no well wishers, camera crews or garlands of flowers to greet me when I surfaced. Just a bewildered looking friend and a bill.  Not even a brandy on the house. Instead a grinning waiter said ‘You must be really embarrassed’. Well as a matter of fact yes I was rather and not as much as they should’ve been, but I’m glad he found it funny. Poisoned, incarcerated,humiliated and left for dead: who did they think I was, Rasputin? Which reminds me – not only is the Boney M track on him a great pop song, it’s also historically accurate. Stay in, check it out, avoid Trevi and spare yourself the indignation.

Rewrite the Past July 12, 2010

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Amsterdam / West Byfleet

How does it come to pass that a man of a certain age can arrive back home from a leisurely weekend in Amsterdam for the World Cup final, immediately pan fry a fillet streak with chopped garlic and chili and have his play of decorum somewhat shattered by the discovery that there is a fag butt in the English mustard?

It had been chilling in the fridge for at least a fortnight and I haven’t even summoned the will to go back and see what lurks amongst the Dijon. If ever I needed an appropriate welcome back to Wisley House then this is it.

What sort of person stubs out a cigarette in a perfectly good jar of mustard, puts the lid back on it and places it back on the condiments shelf in the fridge? The worrying thing is, given the Cow barbecue two weekends ago I can think of many candidates, myself very much included.

It’s been that kind of weekend. Everything in place, perfectly poised and then at the dies irae ,what is the final note? An unpleasant surprise. My weekend started with a metaphoric fag butt in the mustard upon waking on Saturday morning at 11am with a hangover that looked to set in. As the room span there was a lot of reasoining going on. Mainly along the lines of why should I feel the desperate urge to panic because although I’ve woken at a relatively late hour, I do not have to go to work. If one does then not have to go to work, why should waking at 11am be such an issue?

This question rumbled around the brain like a pinball in slow motion until the I realised that I really needed to be panicking as I had 60 minutes to get out of bed, pack and be at Terminal 5 to check in for a flight to Amsterdam.

Dehydration on the M25 is never good at the best of times, but especially not done against clock watching and traffic jams, Suffice to say I missed the flight, but only on a technicality. Cocktails at Village east, technicality – call it what you will. Whatever, it meant a delay until I could get away on the next flight. Waiting five hours in Heathrow for a 45 minute flight is no way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon with a headache.

Being in the losing nation of a World Cup Final is something I’ve begun to master. In 2006 I was in the South of France with my then French girlfriend (she does to this day remain French, if not my girlfriend). At the time I was having a near death experience courtesy of a rogue oyster and got very little sympathy in the aftermath of Zidane’s headbutt, Trezeguet’s penalty miss and the loss of Les Bleus. Even if I had a near terminal bout of Les Vertes.

Later that night as I lay agonised in bed, green of face with a raging fever and stomach cramps, she was far too pre-occupied hanging out the hotel window giving the finger and, in a manner not dissimilar to the possessed little girl in The Exorcist, screaming abuse at the Italians who’d thoughtfully made the effort to drive over the border nearby to toot their car horns and wind up the locals such as herself. (We exchanged texts yesterday. She was laid up on holiday in an Italian hospital with a minor illness and her Dutch boyfriend for company. How’s that for events coming full circle, though I was careful not to point it out)

Amsterdam was no different. I stayed with a dear friend, Jodi Banfield and her family. On Sunday Jodi and I shopped for food which she then prepped and I barbecued for their coterie of friends from the advertising world. Her daughter ensured that maximum surface area of my arms and head were coloured in in the red, white and blue of the Dutch national flag and surely enough, with the city ablaze in orange and high spirits (natural, herbal or otherwise) and everyone in anticipation of the biggest party the party capital of Europe had ever experienced, Iniesta scored and all the Dutch went home in shock or tears.

Now, I thought, is not the time to console anyone I’d bonded with over lager and the previous few hours that at least it wasn’t all bad news as I’d got Spain in the Cow office sweepstake

Jodi’s partner and one of his friends were the creatives behind the Nike ‘Write the Future’ World Cup campaign ad. The one which starring the likes of Walcott, Rooney, Canavarro, Ronaldinho, Ribery and other players setting both the world and the World Cup on fire with their skills and bravado to become god-like global icons. We all know what happened there. As a creative ad it’s a breathtaking piece of art. They couldn’t help the talent Nike gave them to work with.

‘Rewrite the Past’ would be my next pitch to Nike. Then we can be spared the spectacle of the once imperious Cannavarro run ragged and rinsed by New Zealand or a belligerently detached Wayne spending every 90 minutes walking around a football pitch like Raoul Moat trying to behave himself on day release.

How brands see football is never like real life of course. Any fan will tell you, there are few heroes to be found and watching football mostly consists of interminable boredom, the occasional moment of optimism that almost always quickly morphes into a brutal buggering of jailbait proportions before a return to the boredom again. Amsterdam was a fluffed Arjen Robben shot from exploding into the wildest night of joy imaginable. Instead people dispersed quietly and the cycle through the cobbled streets past the wilting, heartbroken Dutch will stick in the memory.

Three World Cup defeats can start to chip away at the national psyche and do permanent damage. How can they pick themselves up from that? Well, there was also a noticeable charge by a small minority toward the red light district and there you may have your answer. For the rest, they will have to make do with sunflowers and Gouda.

So will anything have lasting impact as a result of this World Cup? Gloria at work certainly hasn’t been the same since someone crept behind her and blew a Vuvuzela into her head. For that I can only apologise. It may only be a cheap piece of plastic tubing, but we’re still waiting to see if the damage is permanent.

If one could rewrite the past, three recent lessons learned are: not to blow so hard on a Vuvuzela six inches from a sensitive Cypriot-Colombian; the second is not go to Village East the night before an international flight. Thirdly, always check the mustard before serving.

For the modern man, this rather puts The Ten Commandments in the shade – to the point of being frivolous.

Don’t Look Baht in Anger June 7, 2010

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Wisley House, West Byfleet, England

It’s hard to believe it was only yesterday I had an exotic Sunday champagne brunch at the Twin Palms,  but now I’m in West Byfleet with jet lag and a tub of herring rollmops in the fridge to sustain me until I can face Waitrose. I reckon for the first time ever I will renege on my purchase of their Thai hot chillis in case I have a moment and have to be revived amongst my fellow vegetables.

The only face to face conversation I’ve had is with Iliana the cleaner and that’s coming back down to earth with a bump, I can assure you. The house had only been mine for a couple of hours and it had to be pointed to me that I’d left my suitcase, suit carrier and flight bag sitting on the driveway. There’s really no explaining that apart from, perhaps, depression.

Weary and run-down, conversation was always going to be a struggle. Discussing the subject of the customs at the Chinese wedding in Kuala Lumpur, Iliana asked me what we do at traditional British weddings. Apart from an interminable church service, rambling speeches, drunkenness and at least one woman locked in the karsi in tears, I was at a loss to think of anything we do that smacks of originality or invention.

Wanting to be all-inclusive I asked Iliana if there are any traditional customs at a Bulgarian wedding. Twenty minutes later and we’d still barely scratched the surface. There was something to do with the bride having a shoe that was too big, the groom having to stuff the shoe with money and then having to search the bride’s family home for another shoe. There was also something else to do with feet that I can’t even begin to recall, meaning it sounded less like a wedding and more like a team-bonding day at Clark’s. Around the stuffing the big shoes with money, I’d lost the thread to this other dimension completely and was seriously contemplating getting the first flight back to Phuket.

Why do we inflict holidays upon ourselves? They only serve to remind us of what life is like without responsibility and in my case with good company. I even include the ladyboys of the Bangla Road in that. Perhaps the best line I heard all holiday came from one and was an indignant: “Me no ladyboy! Me lady! Me just don’t know why I have cock!”. A question I’m sure many of us have asked on a lonely Saturday night in with the TV guide and a ready meal.

I’m back on my own now for the first time in a fortnight and, in the absence of conversation and the hazy days of reflection of our misspent nights, I have already started shuffling my to-do list around the coffee table in the hope that it will take pity upon me and sort itself out. She’ll be back on her podium by now and I’m back on the herring rollmops. Leon is probably up to no good in Sydney and as for Betty, god only knows. The dentist?

Turned out nice again June 3, 2010

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Surin Beach, Phuket

So much for learning from mistakes. The second night in Patong was a bigger disaster than the first and there’s a broken man by the swimming pool today. In one mad Sangsom fuelled hour he managed to break his watch, lose his iPhone, wallet, bank cards and dignity, be photographed pole dancing with bar girls like the worst Brits abroad cliche you’d never wish to meet, run out of money, not be able to pay his tab and still manage to find the time to wake up in his room for the second consecutive night with Ugly Betty.

I swear this travelling companion only exists to make me feel good about myself for a change.With the iPhone are all his photos of the wedding in Kulala Lumpur and his time in Thailand. All he has left is Betty.

He emerged to greet us today as we took drinks in the grounds. For someone who’d been working on his tan and acting like George Michael in the Club Tropicana video for the past week, he was unnaturally ashen faced and jittery. ‘I don’t remember much and Betty’s still in my room. She made me a cup of tea this morning and now she’s watching Thai soaps. How am I going to get her out without people seeing me?’.

It’s all quite endearing really. They do actually make a lovely couple and showing all the characteristics of a long-term relationship. I’m told she nagged him for the full thirty minute Tuc-Tuc journey back to Twin Palms for losing his possessions and being disgusted with him for drinking too much. It’s not often one’s drawn to say it, but I think it had occurred to a girl who works the tourists of the Tiger Bar on the notorious go-go strip of Bangla Road she could definitely do better.

His problem now was that it was midday, Betty was settling into his room and somehow a walk of shame was going to have to be negotiated. None of us would’ve noticed him carefully leading her around the side and through the undergrowth, thus avoiding the walk of shame round the pool area at Phuket’s self-annointed ‘most stylish, contemporary resort’. That is until Betty spotted us by the pool and shouted out to wave and say ‘HARRO! HOW ARE YOU!’ with such enthusiastic ferocity she could’ve won awards as a budget tannoy.

People, all bright, beautiful and well-to-do, who’d been swimming, lounging in the sun or quietly been reading Vogue or the International Herald Tribune over their lunch at the Pool Cafe looked up in unison to see where the tranquility shattering noise had emanated from.

What greeted them was the sight of a highly animated Thai bar girl in a high heels and a short, tight purple dress, with a matching purple brace on her teeth. Next to her stood a man frozen, like an escaping POW trapped in the full beam of a sentry’s searchlight, dying a thousand deaths on the spot, not knowing what his next move should be.

Does he panic and attempt to usher her along, only looking even more guilty or does he play it cool looking like this is exactly what he does all the time? Instead he stood frozen as we prolonged the agony, ‘Did you have good time…ah, that’s nice…did he look after you? He likes you too…Maybe you see him again tonight? ‘ (at which point I swear I saw a vein pop in his forehead as he chewed his lip).

In the longest of shots that someone had failed to have their attention drawn to the scene, there was a follow up shrill shreik when Betty looked over to where we’d been sitting and grazing on lunch: ‘AWW NAAAW! BIRD GOT YOUR BURGER!’. Even the bird looked stunned. Friend just inhaled deeply through his nostrils, pursed lips and looked dead ahead into vacant space.

Like a good painting, the disapproving eyes of all the guests followed their journey around the pathway toward the reception entrance with Betty tottering along and timing the arm flung around his shoulder just a fraction before they disappeared out of sight.

He hasn’t spoken much again today. The words ‘rock bottom’ have been used a few times. For once, I think a very quiet night is on the cards.