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Staggering stags and superhero roadkill September 22, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Thirtynumbthing.
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And lo, Mr Incredible, watched by an assembled, cheering crowd, muscles rippling, stood before the blacked out windscreen of a gleaming new Range Rover. With a raised hand he commanded it to stop and, summoning all his powers, placed his hands on the bonnet to push it backwards.

“Given the reputation for organised crime, guns and gang violence in Puerto Banus,” I said to the person next to me, “this is probably not a very wise move.”

Sure enough as my friend, from a day of drinking on his stag do and now condemned to don fancy dress – demanded the 4×4 moved back, the driver clearly wasn’t in on the joke and thought otherwise. He lurched forward and ran him over. Winding down his window, to reveal more than a passing resemblance to Niko Belic from Grand Theft Auto, he waited with cold, dead piercing East-European eyes for my friend to stand up and get his bearings, “Next time I finish you.”

Imagine all of us returning home, hungover and full of remorse at Gatwick, presenting the bride-to-be with a coffin containing one dead stag. Dressed as a beaten up Mr Incredible. It certainly would’ve put a dampener on the wedding.

It all begs the question who the hell invented the British stag weekend? My money might be on Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and it was an even bigger regret for him than the atom bomb. It was one thing when it was just a night, but doing it once and then repeating all over again, invariably on foreign shores, is asking for trouble.

The notion of a few ales down the local, a sing song and maybe a peck on the cheek from a tassle-swinging saucy stripper called Stacey has long gone. The previous stag do I went on was in Kuala Lumpar of all places, and included a performance in a  strip club that has put me off table-tennis for life. Even now when I hear Boris Johnson talking up the origins of what he calls ‘wiff-waff’ as a British gentleman’s after-dinner parlour game I shudder. Do you know what they do with ping-pong balls in the Far East?

In your 20s there is the ‘activity stag do’. This is when the best-man, usually someone with military aspersions whom you’ve never met and no one else but the groom knows, thinks it a terrific idea for you and a bunch of other poor sods to pay a fortune pursuing a worthy ‘masculine’ outdoors activity. An activity you’d never in your wildest nightmares pay to do.

The one and only time anyone ever charged me with organising a stag do I had it drummed into me by other attendees “We have to have an activity”.  So I booked kart racing, against my better judgement. The groom and I knew better and spent a night on the town taking in an exceptional evening of Chas and Dave at the 100 Club, thus rendering us both incapable of taking the wheel the next morning.

It doesn’t get any easier as you get older, stag dos are few and far between. Almost everyone is married and only allowed off the leash in a pack, some possibly for the first time in many years. Cue the incessant contact from their wives who could almost scent their tracks toward wayward paths. I surveyed my companions at the poolside and they looked like The  Dirty Dozen, but with disposable income. Clearly this was not going to  be a weekend in Spain spent sipping sherry and admiring old churches.

We should all be relieved to have made it through two successive  nights without being taken out in a drive-by. Even the golf trip that I  missed for obvious reasons [I don’t like golf], in favour of Anadin and iced water  down at the beach, proved to have a near death experience. One chap and  Mr Incredible managed to flip the golf buggy at the 18th hole.

The worst scars we bore at Malaga airport on Sunday night were purely  psychological. By my count, there’s only me and a friend, currently  working in the wine trade in Sydney, left to have stag nights. Unless we get lapped by someone getting divorced and rapidly hitched, which given my own lax circumstances and that said friend is going out with a  stripper, there’s every possibility of that.

Are we alone in our  oddity? Recently, Newsnight sent a crew all the way to Beijing to  highlight how hard it is for urban Chinese men to find a suitable  partner. They could’ve saved the time and a fortune in our license fees  by coming to meet me in Surrey – and I’ve got my own home and a QPR  season ticket over my Beijing brethren.

In Chechnya, however, they  have a traditional route to dealing with this whole issue. If a man sees an unmarried woman he would like to be with he has two options. The  first is to introduce himself and ask if she is available for courtship. The second is much more straightforward: he kidnaps her with the aid of his mates and takes her back to his village where she is held by his  family. The latter often follows as a result as a failure of the former. The more direct, insecure Chechen man just goes straight for number  two.
It begs the question – what is it that gun-toting Chechens do  for a stag weekend? Presumably, if Saturday night is anything to go by,  they go to Marbella and run down Englishmen in Mr Incredible costumes  for fun.

First appeared as Thirtynumbthing @blokely.com


Nevermind the Horlicks September 22, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Music, Thirtynumbthing.
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Last week what appeared to be a run-of-the-mill transmission of Newsnight ended with an unexpected bombshell, putting the Eurozone crisis into perspective. It was a moment when Thirtynumbthings of both sexes were sent into a tailspin and forced to reach first for the nearest calculator and then for gin and The Samaritans.

Emily Maitliss coquettishly announced in a message to ‘any teenage viewers’, ‘This is what your mum and dad used to listen to when they were your age’. What followed was not a grainy clip of T-Rex or The Clash, but Nirvana. Nirvana?! What the hell was the BBC playing at?

I had already drafted the letter of complaint to Points of View prior to fully completing the maths. By my calculations Nirvana, like Gazza’s tears and Britpop, happened ‘a little while ago’. No more, no less. Furthermore, not only did I not have any teenagers, but I was positively convinced I still was one (and I can bring forward many ex-girlfriends from the past two decades who will testify on oath to this point).

It appears that Newsnight hadn’t been trying to mess with our heads in homage to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. It really is twenty years since Smells Like Teen Spirit was released. Maitliss clearly wasn’t one of those touched by nihilistic, post-Cold-War Genration X angst: she inadvertently nailed her colours to the mast by referring, in plummish tones, to ‘Smells OF Teen Spirit’. Evidently the most angst she felt twenty years ago was whether she’d be able to fit Latin homework, lacrosse practice and an hour of oboe playing into the same evening.

Getting older is like being in a bad science fiction movie. You forget it is actually happening. Then you meet someone from your past who might have once passed for a Prada model but now resembles Michael MacIntyre. They could be talking to me about work, kids or IKEA, but I’m not listening. I’m looking them up and down and want to reach out, stroke their cheek, shake them and scream ‘What is happening to us!’ This is precisely the kind of thing that has seen me struck off the dinner party circuit.

Usually, when confronted with the reality of the passing of my youth, I need to spend a week or so in a foetal position listening to whale music in a darkened room. With working hours the way they are, that option was not possible on Nirvana night.

Instead I had to console myself the following morning by cornering colleagues too slow to get away. Given most of them are in their early 20s I merely reaffirmed just how old I actually was by raising the subject of Nirvana. Might as well have been talking about the Charleston. In a rare attempt at empathy I put myself in their pointed shoes. Would I have understood, at the age of 22, if the senior bod at work started lamenting the passing of music from his teenage years?  The answer would be no. By god, I’d have punched my way through walls – and indeed him – to escape that conversation.

But, inevitably, what goes around comes around. To any young buck, let me assure you, it’s only a matter of a few sleeps for twenty years to pass and someone to laugh in your face when you mention Tinie Tempah.

Here’s the rub: I didn’t like Nirvana at the time and to this day have never listened to Nevermind in full. ‘Unplugged’ is the only Nirvana CD I own – and there’s a statement revealing my redundant pre-digital lineage yet again. Go back 20 years and I was proactively anti-Nirvana, preferring instead The Cramps and Pixies. Grunge permitted a large proportion of my generation to indulge in self-absorbed poetry, bad personal hygiene, oversized jumpers, cumbersome footwear and stating that they were ‘on a down’ about practically everything. It was pretty horrific. The fact that it gave us Pearl Jam was another reason to abhor.

Nirvana weren’t to blame for this. The point being made by Cobain was the horror of conformity, not to put anyone on a pedestal or adulate them. As is inevitably the case, the fans took the point and missed it by a country mile, by imitating and idolising him in another form of conformity. He responded to this by killing himself. Although having Courtney Love as a wife would test even the strongest willed man, including those of us who have gne out with a French girl for any period of time.

So if Nevermind didn’t mean much to me then, why the adverse reaction now? It transpired that what I was mourning was neither the passing of something precious about my youth nor indeed the passing of someone else’s.

This week’s episode was yet another procrastination on my part to deflect reality and time passing with an introspective howl. That I chose to do so now, with an outpouring of self-absorbed prose whilst wearing a baggy jumper and in urgent need of a shower, has just reassured me that, 20 years late, I may still be young after all. I feel better already.

This article first appeared on Thirtynumbthing at Blokely.com

Clothes horse, claret and Claridge September 18, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Food, Friends.
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What a difference a week makes. Today a home cooked Sunday roast with the girlfriend and domestic harmony; last week I was at the fag end of a ‘Gentleman’s Three Dayer’, surrounded by brimming ashtrays, empties, take away containers and manly pursuits with old friend Ed Wells and a cameo from Robbie Gale who lingered long enough for his wife to call him back home.

What was supposed to be a civilised Friday fine dining lunch at Drake’s in Ripley was somewhat fraught thanks to a murderous hangover as we got carried away on the good stuff the night before. Chit chat and decorum went out the window in favour of Ollie Reed style bravado and dancing around the house. Drakes is worth a visit (go for the duck) but ideally don’t enter with shakes and the eloquence of Dappy from N Dubz when confronted with a menu discussion with the front of house.

What can also throw the fragile diner is a somellier the spitting image of obscure character actor Paul Giamatti,  star of Sideways where he plays a neurotic wine obsessive so for reasons only those who were present on the Thursday night could possibly understand, I was watching his every move like a hawk. I in turn managed to knock my glass of wine – the one included in the set lunch price – flying across the restaurant thanks to a lack of spacial awareness and was humbled when Giamatti cleaned up my mess and refilled my glass.

‘What did you do for three days?’ asked the new girlfriend. We talked a lot I replied.

‘So did you talk to Ed about me?’ asked the new girlfriend. Yes, I replied, but when she asked what I told him I was at a loss. I mean, I told him she existed and she was very nice, but that’s about the extent of it and that’s the thing women don’t get. When two men of a certain age get together in a moment of freedom the last thing they will ever talk about is their partner.

‘So what did you talk about for three days then?’ she asked baffled. Well, after the initial two minutes confirming our respective partners were alive and probably well, the remainder of time drinking and breathing fire on the wheat fields of human mediocrity. Particular mention should go to the 41-year-old unemployed man in that day’s paper who was killed by his clothes horse. It transpires he’d tripped backwards and fallen into it after a marathon gaming session on his console. What did his 18 year old daughter ‘Shawnee’ (yes, we covered the name, the spelling and the wretchedness of modern names) have to say in tribute to her father at the inquest? He loved his X-box. The verdict on his death was accident. ‘More like natural selection!’ we concluded.

Other mentions must go to footballer Jack Wilshere who was pictured with a new tattoo of a praying Virgin Mary up his arm (‘Prat!), the purchase of a new mouse that came with an instruction manual, people who eat out at Bella Pasta (‘Why do people pay go to a place that manage to fuck up a carbonara’) and a mutual acquaintance whose recent Facebook update was ‘I love my wife’ (that’s the sort of sentiment to keep to oneself and one’s wife – the update ‘I hate my wife’, however, has potential).

What else was on the list I can’t remember what else, definitely the football punditry of Steve Claridge (whose retort to anyone who disagrees with one of his opinions is a chippy ‘You aint never played the game’), but we filled 72 hours with a few pauses for broken sleep, made ourselves thoroughly angry and ill in the process and intend to do it again as soon as possible.

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

Own Goals on Sunday August 24, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in QPR, Thirtynumbthing.
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Goals on Sunday’ is an unwelcome reminder to anyone who wakes up in a cold sweat, stares at the ceiling and is unable to remember what exactly happened at the football match they’d attended the day before. Despite the elfin pleasantries of Ben Shepherd and the thigh-slapping banter of Chris Kamara there’s no stopping the swift descent into unfettered horror recalling your team has been stuffed 4-0 at home on the opening day of the season.

Unlike others who’d spent their summer clubbing to dawn in Ibiza, taking their kids camping in the New Forest, singing along doe-eyed to Bono with their lighter in the air at Glastonbury I’d spent most of mine in a trance-like state fantasising about QPR’s first game back in the Premier League for 15 years. As anyone who follows football knows there are dreams and then there is reality.

Two-and-half-months are a long time to allow the male mind to drift into delusions of ‘tiki-taka’ football and goals aplenty from their team, irrespective of the alarm-bell ringing absence of decent signings and universal predictions for immediate relegation. Perhaps the warning signs were there: while Manchester City spent £40m on Sergio Aguero from Atheltico Madrid, QPR signed five players for a total sum of £1.25m and still managed to find a place in their Saturday line-up for ‘One Size’ Fitz Hall, a defender so addled by injury that he now limps onto the field of play.

For those of us who deign to leave the sofa to watch their team it is almost always an unedifying experience in which men are paid large sums of money to run into each other and fall over, or in the case of free-transfer debutant Danny Gabbidon, lunge like a shot animal to steer a straying cross into his own net. At these moments there’s no whizzy graphics and replays delivered with a whoosh and boom, just the tumbleweed silence punctured by the sound of a token erupting psychopath sat behind you unleashing a cluster of c words and spittle, followed swiftly by the sounds of small children pleading to be taken home

It had started well with composure and discipline but overconfidence led to sloppiness and then disgrace as the occasion overcame them as a normally workmanlike Bolton racked up an unprecedented four goals away from home –  like watching a flirty Auntie drink too much gin in the pub at Christmas and end up legless and led away  by a randy labourer who can’t believe his luck. Even Fabrice Muamba scored, that’s how bad it was!

New season, new girlfriend

Apparently New Girlfriend arrived at mine late on Saturday night to find me slumped on the sofa, wine glass in hand, illuminated only by the light of the television, 2-0 down to the Shiraz, mumbling ‘Danny Gabbidon’ like the dying burns victim in The Usual Suspects mouthing ‘Kaiser Soze’.

Sunday was a code red: the phone was switched off; appointments cancelled and New Girlfriend was scuttling around nervously making sympathetic cups of tea yet smiling nervously like someone who was trapped in a confined space with Fred West.  Not that these emotional deficiencies have been tolerated in the past – a previous girlfriend, coming from a more elevated, cultured social background than I, was absolutely appalled to the core that she was going out with someone who liked football. I challenged that because I’m not sure I actually like it, it’s just something I do, like passing water or bleeding when cut.

This is why it is all rather irrational. Someone commented to me only the other day that I didn’t seem like a QPR fan. Most of them he’d ever encountered were unsavoury and mentally unstable. I’d go along with that. To make a life choice to follow QPR when you have pick of any London team, is a quite insane decision, as if you are trying to prove a point, like putting your genitals in a food blender for a bet. (Not that regionality has anything to do with who your support these days – I once met an absolute idiot from Cheam who claimed to support Real Madrid but probably thought General Franco was a techno DJ).

Yet of course, it isn’t just QPR fans or me. Approximately half of the people across the country who crossed a turnstile on Saturday will ask themselves over this ruined weekend, Why do we do this to ourselves? (the other half will most likely be going through this torpor next weekend) as partners of both sexes seek escape. It’s a scene that would’ve been repeated not just in Shepherds Bush or Surrey, thanks to the digital age, from Kinshasa to Kuala Lumpur, but woe betide if they or anyone else suggests it is only or game or maybe it isn’t a constructive use of a Saturday.

Walking in a Stockholm Wonderland

Instead of burning the season ticket and deciding to spend the next Saturday at Tate Modern, take up lawn bowls, or go to South America on the Inca trail, we’ll have suffered the slings and arrows of colleagues’ comments and return gladly at the earliest opportunity full of good cheer and optimism for the next 90 minute debacle. All of which leaves me to conclude for most of us poor sods is just an elaborate form of Stockholm Syndrome, where an individual or group of people held captive begin to develop sympathetic and irrational supportive feelings towards their captors, even when presented with the opportunity escape and be free.

On the matter of escape, we are one game into a 38 game season and already I observed on Sunday afternoon, with the background hum provided by two hours of Alan Smith’s Brummie tones, New Girlfriend was looking at faraway locations on the internet and I swear it’s with not so much a holiday as permanent resettlement in mind.

(A postscript this missive: I’ve just got into work to find our Viking-like Head of Digital reduced to a tragic babbling mess having watched his beloved Coventry toss away a lead thanks to two injury-time comedy goals at Crystal Palace. Apparently their ‘one hope this season is a 17 year old from Burundi.’ Pitiful)

This post first appeared as a Thirtynumbthing article at blokely.com

Mop kicks the bucket August 10, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Thirtynumbthing, Uncategorized.
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Settling down. Now there’s a phrase peculiar to women and parents to a son of a certain age. It always seems to be prefixed by ‘When are you?’ – a question that morphs into an accusation when you hit a certain age.

We live in times of uncertainty and the unexpected: the constant threat of recession, the collapse of the Eurozone, tsunamis, England suddenly becoming the best cricket team in the world and Joey Barton quoting 19th century German philosophers for good measure. To compound it all, I find myself in an unexpected relationship, meaning, tragically, she is now thrust into the foibles of trying to come to terms with being on the arm of a Thirtynumbthing.

From personal experience and constant reminder, we are generally a hesitant and tricky lot when it comes to ‘settling down’. We’ve come this far being dysfunctional and doing our own thing that it has almost become our natural course.

On the surface we may be all stacked bookshelves, macchiato drinking, gym going and designer kitchens, but it only takes a well-manicured nail scratching at the surface to unearth the clues that it’s not all refinement beneath. An almost barren fridge save for a few bottles of wine and a jar of pickle, a dance-proof Union Jack coffee table that lights up and the letters Q P R mown on the lawn are hardly the stuff of a Homes & Gardens centrefold and something that, perhaps, she should have been properly warned about in advance. Still, I wish her well, especially as the football season has yet to kick off and that’s when things can go seriously pear shaped on the psychological front.

If she and I try to make sense of it all, it appears this disruption of my normal continuum has also thrown the cleaner off kilter. Arriving home from work this evening it was as if there had been a death in the family. Pavlina greeted me mournfully at the door cradling a broken mop in her arms. My first moments home after a day sweltering in an office without air-conditioning (the developers euphemistically call it an eco-building, I call it cutting costs) were thus spent watching sympathetically as she tragically attempted to force the head back on the handle as I stood there helpless, awkwardly trying to muster the words that she already knew. No two ways about it, the mop was f*cked.

Despite reassurances that there were plenty of mops in the sea, it was hard to avert the sense of loss. Then again she’d become attached to that mop, quite literally. Together they had formed a formidable grime busting team, dealing with cigarette ash and spilled Malbec wherever they went. Aside from buying a new, top of the range mop with all mod cons, it seems the only way we can have closure is a mop funeral, and do it in style – sherry, a couple of hymns and a tasteful reading by its companion, the bucket.

After she departed and I threw the mop in the bin, I thought that was the last bit of drama we’d have to discuss that evening, but never underestimate the machinations and intuitive panic of a Bulgarian cleaner’s mindset. A minute later I received a text:

‘Now you are having a girlfriend now, please don’t hesitate to discuss issues about the cleaning. I am ready to offer a different price for the job, if there is one that might match your needs better. Thanks, Pavlina’.

Where does one begin? How on earth did she know I had female company this weekend? (I thought I’d covered all those particular tracks, so there’s a worry for starters). Secondly, does she assume that me having a girlfriend signifies her cleaning duties have instantly been taken over by someone else? And to the point she will take a pay cut in order to see off this threat? Finally, what are my ‘needs’ anyway?

The depressed mood was not all down to the mop. I’m assuming, very much hoping, the tell-tale sign which made her realise I’d had a woman in the house was the two dinner plates left in the dining room. Besides, I often cook for a friend if they visit and she’s never commented before (I ought to check what else has been left around the house). By that same measure, if I hadn’t cleaned up after a dinner party would she therefore assume I’d had a Pompeiian orgy?

It must be all very different in Bulgaria – one seafood linguini supper and before you know it they’ve donned a pinny, carved their name on your mop and are ready to take on all-comers with a blast of Mr Sheen. All of which makes me think if what happened earlier with the mop was not wear and tear or accident, but sabotage on the part of Pavlina: if there is to be another woman in your life then she may have you, but she will never take the mop. And by God, if ever a working mop and a happy operative is needed then it’s here.

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

Posted by normanmonkey in Friends, Thirtynumbthing, Travel.

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.”


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.

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

Land of the Riesling Sun May 17, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in West Byfleet.
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The other day I was apprehended beside the wine section in Waitrose by a breathless Japanese in traditional costume. This is the kind of thing that happens if minutes before you breeze into a local sushi restaurant mutter your take-away order to the proprietor and then turn on your heels toward the nearest supermarket with an accompanying white shifting up to pole position in priorities.

I’ll learn in future to be more switched on in a sushi restaurant when placing a hurried order before dashing out. Instead of ordering ‘Five pieces of sashimi’ I’d blurted’ ‘Five pieces of sushi’, did a flit and left them wondering what type of sushi  of the many hundreds on offer I actually wanted. It’s not a good way to end the day and the genteel old ladies and tranquilised housewives nearly dropped their shopping at the sight of a frantic Japanese come rushing in. A few of the old timers probably had flashbacks to the fall of Singapore and ducked for cover and who could blame them as I almost had a heart attack as he waved a menu in my face having followed me a good hundred metres and across a main road.

According to a newly published Lonely Planet to Great Britain Surrey is dull, but with incidents like this I beg to differ. Dull? You don’t get that kind of impromptu theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue and had it not been me I’d have paid good money to watch the ensuing confusion. So it came to pass that i ordered my sushi dinner in a supermarket in front of bewildered onlookers and pointing children, the latter wanting to follow me round the fruit and veg (if I have any more sleepless nights older shoppers will assume I’m part of the display) wondering what would be conjured up next for their entertainment.

Despite or because of excitement like this I have decided to leave the country. There’s been a stag do in marbella I’ve been crying off for ages but seeing as I’ve driven everyone round the twist at work with Queens Park Rangers, point deductions, an ex-girlfriend texting at 3am and the paranoid fear of being leapt upon by a panting Japanese in traditional costume I’ve relented at the last minute, only I’ll be staying in my apartment and they will stay at their resort.

It is probably best for both parties that we have a break from each other or no good will come of it. I know them, the area and myself all too well. You go out to Spain thinking you are retracing the steps of Ernest Hemmingway and after two glasses of rose and a bikini passing by in the afternoon sun everyone has turned into a 21st century Sid James.  The chance of the weekend being spent sipping sherry and looking at old churches is looking slim, in fact if you want to bet on it you’ll hear the bookmakers stifling a howl of mirth at your expense as you hand over the notes.

No points deduction May 12, 2011

Posted by normanmonkey in Friends, QPR.
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The most beautiful three words in the English language are not ‘I love you’ but ‘No points deduction’.

This is my final word on anything football realted for some time as, believe me, I am more weary of it than anyone else reading this. After a week of sleepless nights, gnawing fists, speaking in tongues during meetings, bursting into tears, barking at and breaking down in front of friends, family and colleagues and reading wild speculation from those in the know (and not a single sports journalist can be included in that grouping), it was announced at midday on Saturday that QPR would only receive a fine for their transfer transgressions and were officially Champions. It is a week that I, nor anyone who came into contact with me, will want to endure again.

Enough has been written about the scenes of delirium around Shepherds Bush already. I’m not in a position to report on that moment as I was in a cab stuck in appalling traffic and going nowhere for a King’s ransom on the Warwick Road. All I’ve got to show for it is crippling shin splints after giving up and describing to run the remainder of the journey in Timberland boots arriving just in time to hyperventilate at the steps of the ground as QPR scored their one and only goal 29 seconds into the game before going on to inconsequential defeat.

Next season we will be in the Premier League for the first time in 15 years, entertaining the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea and for most of those games I will probably be stuck in a taxi somewhere on the Warwick Road.

Then there is Russell an ex-colleague, now present friend and ensconced in Paris who is a Cardiff fan who has watched our success and their capitulation at the final hurdle in unbounded horror. The rivalry between his club and mine is intense and dates back to a 2003 Cardiff play-off final victory – in Cardiff – that was full of loathing and retribution has been like an open wound ever since. Even in his job interview, he grinned to me, the interviewer, upon hearing I was a QPR fan ‘We could see you crying on TV’. He very nearly didn’t get the job.

A couple of years later Russell thought it a good idea to join me in watching a televised Cardiff-QPR fixture in a pub full of QPR types, most of them proper nutters, on a Friday night on the Goldhawk Road in Shepherds Bush. Despite Cardiff then being unbeaten  top of the league and QPR being bottom and pitiful, the latter scored a goal with their first shot in the 90th minute. Amid the eruption of hooped flesh and cacophony of delight sat a broken Welshman on a stool, his pint knocked flying, jostled by simian men who assumed he too was delighted at this sudden unexpected, undeserved twist, staring agonised, unblinking at the floor as if he’d just descended into hell.

Russell then did a funny thing. He went to the gents and locked himself in the loo for a full hour and refused to come out. Years passed and this season looked like being a head to head. For only two weeks this season was another team top of the league, that was Cardiff and, of course, Russell would be on me like a flash to salute the great breakaway (‘Just you watch us now!’ etc), yet it still went to the wire with Caridff bubbling closely beneath. In fact, had QPR had any significant points deducted, as it was predicted by the press they would, then Cardiff would be promoted in our place.

The no points deduction was announced and QPR declared champions at midday on Saturday and despite my best attempts to elicit a response there was not a text, tweet or call from Paris. All contact was down. And then at around 8pm on Tuesday evening he uttered his first words via Twitter: I’ve just come out the toilet. If Cardiff progress to the Play off final and lose to their bitterest rivals Swansea let me you, that self-imposed exile in the toilet will become permanent.