Friday, 28 September 2007

Toilet Enraged

It is an established fact that drinking lots of water (as recommended to everyone by the Nanny State) is bad for writers. The reasons are simple. Drinking lots of water increases the number of trips to the toilet. For writers this can be fatal, as it can destroy a line of thought, a roll of productive writing, or result in violent ejection from the ‘creative zone’.

Struggling writers such as myself do not have this problem. In fact, ‘problems’ such as these act more of an asset to finding displacement activities during extended periods of writer’s block when nothing is being produced. Therefore, I make a point of drinking lots of water throughout the day and wait for that heavenly moment when one finds it necessary to detach from the keyboard and head for the nearest convenience.

This does, however, introduce additional problems when one decides to work ‘in the field’ (i.e. a café), and it is therefore crucial to find locales which have good toiletry services. The branch of Starbucks in London’s St. Martin’s Lane is one such locale. It has a particularly good toilet – large, bright, clean, a pleasant scent. And if one has offspring, facilities are also provided to change its nappy.

It was here that I was happily reading my magazine the other day, sitting out my usual period of writer’s block, when ‘that moment’ arrived. Unfortunately, it happened in the peak period between three and four in the afternoon when the café and toilet are at their busiest. I left my comfortable armchair by the window, making sure to keep it ‘booked’ with my cardigan and current issue of The Oldie, and headed to the back of the café only to find that the toilet was engaged. I decided to wait for the current occupier to exit, but became rather uncomfortable when people started staring at me, including one old man who gave me positively sinister looks almost reaching the heights of Pink’s evil death stare. So I returned to my seat and decided to wait a few minutes.

In the meantime, a couple and their recently sprung infant had arrived on the nearby sofa along with a mass of infant survival equipment, and I became concerned that the peace would be unduly disturbed. Regular Electric Readers will recall that I am particularly unlucky regarding the mother-and-baby situation, but I was glad to see that everything seemed under control on this occasion and enough time had now passed for me to try the toilet again.

It was still engaged, but this time a woman was queuing to enter. It is an established fact that women take three times as long as men in the toilet, and half an hour later I was starting to feel the strain as I wriggled uncomfortably in my armchair. Using stealth tactics to monitor the surrounding area, I confirmed that no-one was planning to use the toilet, and was just about to get up when I heard a loud ‘thunk’.

I’m not sure what had happened, but when I looked round I saw two large mugs of café latte lying on their side with the café latte itself dispersed evenly over the table and floor. Meanwhile, the infant’s legs were flaying wildly in the air with Mum trying desperately to control them. Dad leapt to his feet and rushed headlong to the toilet. My plan was foiled. He returned moments later with a large roll of toilet paper and I felt it wiser to wait until he’d cleaned up the mess, flushed everything away, and replaced what was left of the toilet roll – just in case there wasn’t a spare!

With normality restored, I was just about to get up when there was another crisis at Infant Control. Mum gave Dad a strange look, then looked at the infant before disappearing with it into the toilet. By now I was absolutely busting and it was a good fifteen minutes before Mum and the infant returned. I raced to the toilet, locked the door, and was just about to do my bit when Pink rang on the mobile to ask if I’d remembered to buy some washing powder.

While I was trying to explain that it was a really bad time to be calling me, the handle on the door started shaking violently as though someone was trying to get in. I told Pink I’d call her back, opened the door, and was shocked to discover Mr. Strange standing there, smiling at me. Suddenly, all my feelings of having to relieve myself disappeared and I made a quick exit from the toilet back to my armchair.

By now, peak time at the café was over and I assessed the amount of time Mr. Strange needed in the toilet, allowing him a good twenty minutes. I didn’t notice him leave the café as I was reading The Oldie, but I returned cautiously to the toilet and looked around. There was no sign of Mr. Strange, no-one queuing, and – best of all – the toilet door was unlocked.

The door was unlocked, yes. Except the toilet wasn’t free. It was occupied. By Mr. Strange. And as I opened the door I got a full view of him sitting there, his trousers round his ankles, reading a magazine. And, as usual, he looked at me and smiled.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Technical Fault

Technical FaultThere are some people in this world who will tell you that if something gets broken it is always better to fix it yourself. There are other people who will tell you that they have learned from bitter experience that trying to fix it yourself only makes the situation ten times worse. Naturally, I fall into the latter category.

Our reliance on technology in this modern-day world means that we have lost the instinct to survive when something critical to our lives – a television set or electric toothbrush, for example – breaks down. We apparently live in a ‘throwaway society’ which advises us to ‘just buy a new one’ when the old one’s last legs finally give way, often increasing the size of our carbon footprint in the process.

Modern-day struggling writers like myself rely on technology – technology to write with, technology to format scripts with, technology to pass the time with when either of the previous two activities become monotonous, pointless or physically impossible. In days gone by, writers also relied on technology – but it was a much simpler case to replace a piece of broken chalk or blunted goose feather (depending on which age you lived in). And the only footprints they needed to worry about were the kind they’d simply get their servants to clean up afterwards.

These days, the personal computer can bring one’s writing practices to a complete standstill when it develops a fault. Either that, or it’s a useful excuse to avoid writing which sounds better than the usual ranting about writer’s block. During an unusually productive few hours the other day, my top-of-the-range MESH computer started making funny noises from somewhere deep within the bowels of its huge metal case. I had no idea what it was, except to say that the machine was noisier than usual.

Within seconds my concentration had been demolished, so I pulled out my original invoice with details about my on-site hardware repair warranty and found the number to call so I could get an engineer to come to the flat. MESH curiously-named Technical Support department is, in this context, an oxymoron. There are two reasons why this is the case:

1. They have limited technical expertise
2. They are not very supportive

The man who answered the phone didn’t speak very good English and the first thing he asked me was to tell him what the problem was. I explained that my computer was noisier than usual, and after he had rambled on at me without me understanding a word of what he was saying I gathered that he wanted me to turn the computer off and on again. I obeyed dutifully and the computer ended up being noisier than it was before.

I told Mr. Mesh that his solution hadn’t actually helped, nor was it very technical, so he said that he’d send me an address label to pack up my computer and send it back to the workshop. This is where I became very confused as I had paid for a service where repair technicians come out to your house. I explained to him that I had on-site warranty and he said he knew, but they would need to examine the computer in the workshop to find out what the problem is.

I fail to understand what MESH on-site warranty actually means and argued with Mr. Mesh that I’d paid for an insurance service which sends out engineers on-site. He said that they would only be able to send someone out if I could tell them what the specific problem was so ‘they could bring the right parts’.

Realising it was an argument I wasn’t going to win, I went out and bought five miles of bubblewrap and a roll of tape to pack up my computer. When I got home, I hoicked out the old vintage typewriter my mother once loaned me when I first told her I wanted to be a writer, only to discover that the ribbon needed replacing. Trying to find a shop which stocked a replacement is, of course, another story altogether...

Friday, 7 September 2007

Fare Play

Fare PlayThere appears to be an epidemic in modern-day life amongst people who try to take advantage of a given situation when the advantage being taken is not necessarily in everybody’s interest. The adverse result is that this kind of situation has a knock-on effect to people who have nothing to do with the situation in the first place.

Take, for example, the London Underground tube drivers who decided to go on strike (yet again!) this week. Usually, one would expect this to last for 24 hours. Unusually, this particular strike was planned for three days. No-one knows why the RMT union chose to strike, but it fell conveniently after a Bank Holiday weekend (as usual), timetabled around a rare period of sunny weather.

As a struggling writer, I work at home, so tube strikes affect me slightly less than your average man-on-the-street. Strictly speaking, this isn’t entirely accurate. It would be more truthful for me to say that, as a struggling writer, I attempt to work at home, fail dismally, so head out for some ‘me time’ and end up squeezing myself onto the only operational tube train in London along with everyone else. On reaching my destination, I try to work again, fail dismally again, and realise that I squeezed myself onto the only operational tube train in London for absolutely no reason. Thus, by the time I’ve got home I’m more fed up than I was before I left.

Tube strikes are a gold mine to some, and this includes taxi firms who see it as an opportunity to overcharge passengers in a way that the tube and rail companies haven’t dreamed of yet. The other day, Pink asked me to book her a cab to Stansted Airport from where she was flying to Majorca on a business trip with her boss, Jackson Muldoon. A relatively simple operation, I felt, but, being a struggling writer who tends to struggle with everything, it turned into a much more complicated saga.

The person who answered the phone at the taxi firm said that he would have to charge me a rate of fare-and-a-half ‘because of the tube strike’. I informed him that Pink’s trip had nothing to do with the tube strike as none of the lines actually went to Stansted Airport, but he just said it was the way things go and he had to make a living as much as the next man. I said that the next man probably wasn’t going to use his taxi firm either and promptly hung up to try somewhere else. But after several more phone calls to firms which either wanted to charge double fare or couldn’t accommodate Pink’s journey at all, I had no choice but to call back the Taxi Guy and grovel to him, much to his satisfaction.

The next morning, I helped Pink pack her suitcase while she put on her make-up. While I was doing so, the ‘phone rang. It was the Taxi Guy who said that ‘due to overwhelming demand’ he’d had to increase the rate to double-fare and did I still require a taxi. I protested at great length and asked him where he expected me to find a cheaper alternative half an hour before the pick-up time. But he just said that things were now ‘less flexible’ than they were when we’d spoken the day before and gave the speech about making a living again, so I had no choice but to concede. Forty-five minutes later, Pink was in a panic as the taxi still hadn’t arrived and told me that it was all my fault. I rang the Taxi Guy and he said that it would be at the flat in five minutes, and twenty minutes later it eventually turned up.

Pink told me to take her three suitcases downstairs, and when I carried them out to the taxi I was shocked to find that it was full of Swedish people, all of whom had several suitcases of their own. The taxi driver said there was no way he could fit all three in the car, but maybe he could squeeze in one. I questioned him about why my taxi was full of Swedish people and he just shrugged, saying that there was a tube strike and people had to make compromises. I repeated the whole rigmarole of how Stansted Airport was not on a tube line, but the taxi driver just shrugged again and told me to ‘blame the unions’.

At this point, Pink arrived and informed me that Jackson Muldoon was on his way to pick her up in his chauffeur-driven car, so she wouldn’t be needing the taxi after all. She apologised to the taxi driver who said that he’d have to charge his double-fare regardless, so Pink turned to me and ordered me to pay him. It is not wise to argue with Pink when she is in this kind of mood, so I just obeyed.

After I’d waved cheerio to the Swedish people, kissed Pink goodbye, and caught a glimpse of Jackson Muldoon through is tinted windows, I went back upstairs to attempt some writing. Naturally, I failed, so I was pleased to hear on the radio that the tube strike had been suspended after 24 hours and everything was back to normal. That is until next week, when the RMT union will decide whether they feel like another three days off - annoyingly coinciding with Pink’s return.