Friday, 27 July 2007

Rising Camp

'I found myself the subject of a watery problem recently when Pink ordered me to flatsit her friend’s tiny abode.'God knows, Noah had his problems. But at least he was given prior warning about The Great Flood and had the opportunity to build a huge boat which, I expect, is what the population of Tewkesbury wished they had at the moment as the rains seem to show no sign of ceasing and the water levels continue to rise.

And so it came to pass that I found myself the subject of a watery problem recently when Pink ordered me to flatsit her friend’s tiny abode in Willesden Green while she was away for a few days. To use the word ‘tiny’ is possibly rather generous. In order for there to be enough room to swing a cat, the cat would have to have disproportionately smaller limbs than normal, preferably no tail and, in an ideal world, no head or body either. Such are the pitfalls of extortionate rental prices in London. So I dutifully agreed to the job, in the hope that I could take advantage of the change of locale to get some writing done, free of the usual distractions. I had no instructions other than to keep an eye on the place but as I left home Pink called after me that her friend’s landlord could be a little ‘difficult’ – though she was sure I’d have no reason to contact him.

However, I did have a reason to contact him because when I arrived at the bedsit I found a dead mouse on the floor in the tiny kitchen. I think I fainted, because the next thing I remember I was lying on the floor with my head propped up against the sofabed, one leg sticking through the door to the kitchen, and the other wedged between the wardrobe and living room wall. Even more disturbing was that the dead mouse had now disappeared. I rang the landlord, Abdul, immediately and a lady answered the phone with, what I perceive to be, an over-friendly and less than professional manner. She asked me to ‘hold on just one second, love’ before returning to the phone several minutes later and saying, ‘Sorry darling.’ I explained who I was and what I was doing at the flat, and asked to speak to Abdul.

It turned out that it was Abdul himself who I had been speaking to and when I told him about the mouse he let out a high-pitched shrill which, I think, was supposed to be a laugh. He said there was nothing he could do as it was just ‘one of those things’ and a dead mouse was better than a live one. The fact that there had been a dead mouse on the kitchen floor when I arrived and that same dead mouse was now missing didn’t seem to concern him, but he said I should think myself lucky it wasn’t ‘the other thing’ when the previous tenant was last seen fleeing the bedsit in the dead of night, screaming hysterically, wearing nothing but a towel and fluffy slippers.

After my strange conversation with Abdul, I put ‘the other thing’ out of my head and decided to attempt some writing. Unfortunately, I made the foolish mistake of switching on the portable television set and becoming distracted by an episode of Murder She Wrote. This is puzzling really, because I have been unable to stand the sight of Angela Lansbury ever since my parents forced me to watch Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the nightmares from which are the reason I slept in a large cardboard box until I was fifteen. When it had finished, I switched on the news and watched continuous reportage about the current state of the flood crisis, and thanked my lucky stars I was not one of its victims. Unfortunately, I have yet to learn a lesson from bitter experience that I should never thank my lucky stars about anything, especially when I’m exposed to a situation which is potentially hazardous enough to necessitate the thanking of one’s lucky stars when one has managed to avoid it.

Having attempted to take a shower, I waited several seconds for the water to heat up, but it remained stone cold. I braved another call to Abdul who let out his high-pitched shrill again and said it was just ‘one of those things.’ He assured me that if I ran the water long enough it would eventually heat up, but after running the shower again for fifteen minutes, the water remained cold. I redialled Abdul’s number and asked if he could fix the problem, but he told me it was probably a simple case of all the hot water having been used up by the neighbours as it was a shared boiler, but I shouldn’t worry as it would reheat in a couple of hours. I was rather flabbergasted that I was sharing a boiler with some people I’d never met, and when I asked him why the bedsit didn’t have its own boiler he just said that you get what you pay for and hung up. I retired to the sofabed wondering how landlords were allowed to treat their tenants with such an apathetic manner, and if Abdul was currently enjoying the luxury of a hot shower.

I woke up the next morning to the sound of something resembling The Great Flood. Willesden Green was now in the grip of, what London Underground announcers call, ‘extreme weather conditions!’ However, it was worse than I thought because when I put my feet on the floor I found them immersed in three inches of water! The floor of the living room was completely swamped and I could see a steady flow of water pouring in under the front door. On top of that, the dead mouse had returned and was now bobbing around next to the coffee table. I felt like calling Abdul again but changed my mind as I expected he would just let out his high-pitched shrill and tell me it was another ‘one of those things.’ So I did my best to protect any furniture and valuables from getting soaked, and discarded the dead mouse down the toilet.

The rain didn’t last that long and I was pleased to find that the water in the living room began to reside. Even better, the hot water was now hot! I quickly took my chance to beat the neighbours and jumped into the shower. While I was in there, I thought I heard something moving around in the kitchen. My overactive writer’s mind immediately generated thoughts of an invasion of mice taking revenge for the undignified disposal of their furry friend. But on stepping out of the shower, I was absolutely horrified to discover a tall, skinny man in tight jeans and black vest who introduced himself as Abdul. You can imagine my reaction, especially when he looked me up and down and let out his high-pitched shrill. But he told me not to worry as he was just collecting the money from the electricity meter. Naked and in shock, I could only think to tell him about the flood, and as Abdul looked around at the residing water he said: ‘It’s just one of those things, Ducky,’ before mincing off with the meter money.

Naturally, I did not relay this part of the story to Pink as she is suspicious at the best of times. I never did find out how or why the dead mouse disappeared, but a couple of days after returning home the phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Pink’s friend. She was in an uncontrollable, hysterical panic after waking up next to a ‘giant rat’ asleep on her pillow and wanted to ask if anything like this had happened while I was there. But I just looked at Pink sleepily, let out a high-pitched shrill, and said that it was just ‘one of those things.’

Friday, 20 July 2007

Service Not Included

'The homeless guy on Hungerford Bridge makes a fortune by holding a piece of card with ‘Thank You’ written on it.'Tipping a waiter or waitress is one of those issues which seems to somehow divide entire nations through difference of opinion. Many people seem compelled to give a waiter extra money for doing his job of waiting on tables, yet no-one seems compelled to give a bus driver extra money for doing his job of driving the bus.

Similarly, no-one ever seems that keen to give struggling writers like myself extra money for struggling with their scripts, let alone putting up with the struggle of everyday life. Yet the homeless guy who sits on the steps of Hungerford Bridge seems to make an absolute fortune by simply holding a piece of card with Thank You written on it. Somewhere, somehow, I clearly took a wrong turn.

Tipping and tipping methods seem to go by a variety of curious names. The most common of these are:

1. Optional Service Charge: ‘We’re asking you to leave a tip by adding it to your bill’
2. Compulsory Service Charge: ‘We’re forcing you to leave a tip and have added it to your bill’
3. Service Not Included: ‘We’re neither asking nor forcing you to leave a tip, but could you really live with yourself if you didn’t add one to your bill?’

Pink and I have endless arguments about the morality of tipping. She will tip everyone from the bus driver to the homeless guy on Hungerford Bridge. I tip no-one, usually because I have no money left to tip with after paying the extortionate food and drinks bill which London establishments are so good at handing out. Pink has some kind of ‘special’ savings account which does not allow her to access her money for five years, so I usually end up paying for both of us.

The Slug and Lettuce in Canary Wharf’s Nash Court appears to have developed a new ‘stealth’ form of tipping by forcing its customers to use waitress service whether they like it or not. This naturally exploits the more weak-willed group of patrons who find it a nearly impossible task to refuse money to anyone who has brought a plate of chips to their table.

I went there with Pink last weekend where we decided to order a bottle of wine and, feeling a bit peckish, something from the food menu. I noticed that there were five waitresses milling around, but none of them seemed particularly interested in serving us, even though I was casually waving the menu at arms length and trying to make eye contact. However, they seemed to be having a jolly time discussing boys and clothes at the waitress station near the door.

Pink can be irritable at the best of times, even more so when she is on an empty stomach, so I decided to go to the bar and order our wine and food. However, the young chap behind the bar, after opening our wine, told me that food ordering was waitress-service only and I could not do so at the bar. I did not really understand the logic of this and relayed this too him, but he politely said he would send over a waitress.

On returning to our table, I kept an eye on the barman and noticed that, after ten minutes, he still had not spoken to a waitress, let alone sent one over. I began waving my menu again, as one waitress veered dangerously into the outskirts of customer territory, holding a cloth which she dragged limply over the corner of a table to try to look busy. But no sooner than she appeared, she was gone, and I was left waving my menu at nothing but oblivion.

Pink said that I should go back to the bar to try ordering again, and where was that ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy I’d been bragging about all this time. Feeling rather manly, I went back to the bar and tried ordering again, only to be told that I should speak to a waitress and that one would be sent over. I sat back down next to Pink and began the menu-waving routine again, but to no avail. By now, Pink was becoming borderline hysterical – it was the formula of alcohol without food which was causing it – and so I decided that enough was enough and I would confront the waitresses at their station.

Confronting five young waitresses talking about boys and clothes can be quite an intimidating experience, especially when you have interrupted their conversation at a critical moment causing them to glare at you with positively hostile tendencies. I asked if I could order some food, but one of them just said that she would ‘send someone over’. Not standing for this, I insisted that they take my order immediately and one young confused-looking waitress pulled out her notebook whilst the other four walked off to continue their conversation elsewhere.

I began relaying the order to the confused-looking waitress – a relatively simple affair, as there were only two menu items for her to remember – but she just looked at me blankly, poised with her pen and notebook, and kept nodding. I pointed to the menu and queried the actual size of a ‘baby’ Chicken Caesar Salad, but she just nodded again. Eventually, I realised that the confused-looking waitress looked confused because she seemingly did not speak a word of English and my ordering had been a complete waste of time. So I gave up, went back to the barman, and asked him to ‘send someone over’.

Myself and Pink finally got our meals. When we had finished, it took just as long – with much menu-waving – to get our bill. But when it finally did arrive, I noticed that it had Service Not Included printed at the bottom. So I just scribbled I Know under it, before not leaving a tip.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Royal Fail

'First Class mail now takes anything up to three days to reach its destination.'The United Kingdom postal service is a curious enigma. In days gone by, when postmen were real postmen, and people wrote to each other using the prehistoric ‘Pen Method’, one could guarantee that one’s letter sent by First Class post would arrive at its destination the following morning. Similarly, one could guarantee that a letter sent by Second Class post would arrive at its destination exactly two days later. Not only that, but postal deliveries were twice a day, regular as clockwork. The first would arrive before eight o’clock in the morning, the second delivery would appear around midday. And that’s how life was when we were young and innocent, postmen were happy chappies, and the government was content with a national non-privatised service.

Today, you have none of the guarantees you once had. ‘First Class’ mail now takes anything up to three days to reach its destination, intact or otherwise. ‘Second Class’ mail just arrives when it feels like it, either damaged in an apologetic plastic bag, or not at all. ‘Recorded Delivery’ is just what it says on the tin – a record that your item has been sent, and paying more for the privilege, but with no guarantee of delivery. And ‘Special Delivery’ isn’t that ‘special’ at all, now having seemingly replaced what used to be the old ‘First Class’ service, but costing a lot more. Thus, there is nothing particularly ‘royal’ about the Royal Mail these days, other than often turning out to be a right royal cock-up - usually when one has to rely upon it. Where most writers rely on the Royal Mail to distribute their latest commissioned works, struggling writers like myself generally rely on it to distribute prized possessions sold on eBay in order to subsidize a diminishing income.

During a particularly healthy turnover period recently, I found myself making the trip to my local Post Office branch in Canary Wharf. I was going there to ship off a parcel containing a pile of magazines I had never read, accumulated via monthly subscription over the course of ten years. Queuing at a Post Office is a strange phenomenon. Post Offices don’t just deal with your post anymore – they offer several other services completely unrelated to sending mail. Adverts for these services line the walls and writing benches which you can read and digest while you wait, and there’s even a free pocket magazine which explains everything about these extra goodies one can take advantage of.

Another thing you find dotted around the branch is something called a ‘thickness indicator’ which is a plastic board with several slots of different sizes cut out of it. Sending mail is not a simple operation anymore. Postage for items is no longer calculated merely by weight, but also by size, and these ‘thickness indicators’ are a way of confirming how much extra postage you are now paying, compared to how much less you paid when it was the old system. It is fascinating to watch customers using this guide, and I was rather intrigued to witness one customer sizing up her large packet against each slot before deciding that, yes, it was a parcel, not a letter. I’m convinced she had misinterpreted the sign instructing all customers to use the ‘thickness indicator’ and panicked that she may have been penalised if she had ignored the procedure.

Having queued for twenty minutes, and read my Post Office pocket magazine in its entirety, I reached the front of the queue only for two of the three attendants to close their counters and start talking to the remaining active attendant. I noticed the queue behind me was lengthening quite fast, and people were giving me one of those looks suggesting that it was my personal duty to hurry along the chatting attendants as I was the next in line. Why it should be my job to do this I do not know, but I decided to cough politely in the direction of the counters nonetheless. Naturally, this made no difference; but after two more polite coughs, a semi-loud throat-clearance, and a deep hawk which almost resulted in unintentional vomiting, the chatting attendants disappeared altogether and an electronic voice instructed me to go to ‘Position Four’.

I always make a point of being very specific about the service I require when I go to a Post Office. This, however, often turns out to be utterly pointless. After stating that I required delivery to the UK mainland and that the item was of no significant monetary value, the attendant looked at me blankly and asked if I was sending my parcel to the UK mainland and was the item of any significant monetary value. I just shook my head and, after weighing the parcel, the attendant analysed it against his ‘thickness indicator’ and confirmed to me that my item was a parcel and should be sent via the ‘Standard Parcels’ service. I considered at this stage that it would probably have been more practical for the attendant to analyse himself against the ‘thickness indicator’, or at least for the Post Office to introduce it to their interview and selection process for new staff.

So, having established that yes, my parcel was a parcel, I read out the delivery address to the attendant whilst he programmed it into his computer – only for him to then tell me that, according the computer, the address did not exist. I told him that it very much did exist as I had printed the address label directly from the buyer’s PayPal invoice page, and it was exactly as he had typed it. This made no difference to the attendant who said the buyer must have made a mistake as the computer did not recognise the address because there were ‘too many lines’. I asked the attendant if it would be simpler to write down the address with a pen and paper, but he said this would ‘not be possible’ as they did not ‘have the facilities’.

After finding a way to convince the computer that my buyer’s address did actually exist, the attendant stressed there was now no guarantee the parcel would be delivered. I paid the postage, and just as I was about to leave, the attendant asked me if I had a car. At first I thought he was going to suggest that it would be safer to drive my parcel to its destination in person, but he was, in fact, asking me if I wanted car insurance. I told him I did not have a car, so he asked me if I wanted home insurance instead. I asked him why the Post Office kept offering me things which were nothing to do with sending my parcel, but he just looked at me blankly. I then asked him if he could absolutely guarantee on behalf of the Post Office that I would receive car or home insurance, to which he replied ‘Yes’. Next, I asked him if he could absolutely guarantee on behalf of the Post Office that my buyer would receive his parcel safely. But he just looked at me blankly again and said ‘No’.

Friday, 6 July 2007

The Lives of Mothers

'Finding a writing location, free of distractions, is easier said than done.'It occurred to me the other day that the lives of writers overlap with the lives of estate agents in more ways than people imagine. Both must be skilled in the art of fiction in order to achieve the end result of a sale – one sells a script whereas the other sells some property. Dream worlds are created for their respective audiences through manipulation and ingenious use of the English language – a writer through the structure of words on a page, an estate agent through imaginative definitions of the word ‘compact’.

But perhaps the most common bond between the two is the concept of location, location, location. Just as it is important for one to buy a property in an ideal location for future resale value, it is important for one to write in the ideal location for there to be any vague hope of simply finishing one’s masterpiece in order to sell it in the first place. Like buying a house, finding an ideal writing location, free of distractions and annoying external forces, is easier said than done.

Removing one’s self from the home in order to write in an alternative location can help towards alleviating the problem of writer’s block, as a change of environment is always good for the creative juices. So I decided to go to one of my favourite cafés in central London in a vain attempt to develop an idea based on a very curious dream. I rarely have dreams worth remembering, but this one was particularly strange and involved finding myself at a Jubilee Line station called ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ where I met two middle-aged women. After waiting several hours for a train, we all agreed that if we instead walked along the main road ‘that way’ for half an hour, we’d reach El Paso. I’m not sure what El Paso was doing on the Jubilee Line, or why it appeared in my dream at all, as I have only been there once with the BBC in 1990 – but that’s another story.

My journey to the café was relatively uneventful and I even managed to find my favourite seat by the window when I got there. On this day, the place was empty and quiet – so I couldn’t hope for better conditions to concentrate on beating off the writer’s block once and for all, and settled down with my coffee and laptop ready to take the writing world by storm. Then I looked out of the window.

Every writer has their personal fears. Some have an excruciating fear of failure. Others have a fear of losing their creativity. I have a fear of mothers with newly-born offspring who launch a group invasion on the café where I am trying to work. It can be the most terrifying thing for one to witness a fleet of buggies approaching at speed under the ruthless control of a group of women, none of whom will ever stop for anything which dares cross their path. Individually, a mother with child is an innocent and harmless thing. Collectively, a group of mothers commanding a fleet of buggies is a nerve-shattering unstoppable force, like tanks rolling over the horizon of the Iraqi desert.

Such an event usually brings on one of my funny turns, and, when my head had cleared, the noisy squad had claimed their territory in the café, with strategically positioned buggies to barricade out enemy individuals who may have attempted to occupy the empty table in the corner. With Stage One complete, preparations were made for Stage Two: feeding the troops. In a single precision move, each mother synchronously exposed a breast and clamped her baby onto it. This was all executed in well under three seconds. Clearly, these mothers were a force to be reckoned with, and breast-feeding drills were obviously a huge part of their routine duties.

At this point, I recognised it was pointless me trying to do any writing, so my people-watching mode kicked in instead. I had to be careful though, as three mothers on the outer rim of the pack had obviously been trained as lookouts. I noticed they did not take part in the mass conversation about motherhood and baby clothes, but utilised their stealth tactics to move their heads from side to side, expertly scanning the immediate infiltration zone. I think breast-feeding is some kind of fuelling system for new mothers, because I noticed that the longer the babies fed, the louder and more excitable their mothers became.

The invasion lasted for pretty much most of the afternoon. A number of the mothers passed out from the group at various intervals, so the noise of the chit-chatter gradually lessened, and eventually the group dwindled from nine to only four. For the most part, the babies had been well behaved. I think they realised they were safe in the hands of such a formidable group. It was then that strange things began to happen.

Having spent several long minutes clamped to its mother’s chest, one baby was introduced to the wonders of a cheese and Marmite panini. Curious, as not only did the baby clearly not like the smell of the panini, it also did not have any teeth with which to eat it. However, orders are orders and, whether baby liked it or not, the panini would be eaten – mother would make sure of it, and she had the support of her three associates who began egging her on.

I found this behaviour to be completely inexplicable.

Next, one of the other mothers thought it would be highly amusing to attach giant clip-on strawberry earrings on her baby, which were bigger than its head. Baby clearly did not like this and began to cry. The other mothers then forced their own babies to look at the baby with the strawberry earrings, whilst commenting on how ‘cute’ she looked.

I found this behaviour to also be completely inexplicable.

Minutes later, one of the babies fell victim to the unfortunate escapades of its mother who decided to remove it from its buggy and bounce it up and down on her lap, whilst simultaneously making very odd ‘goo goo’ noises. Clearly panicked and distressed, the baby started screaming in fear, having previously been perfectly content to just sit in its buggy. This, naturally, set off a chain reaction of screaming babies who, in the space of five seconds, had gone from quiet contentment to noisy hysteria. And the screaming only became worse when their mothers decided to apply the same bouncing treatment to try and calm them down, whilst collectively making identical ‘goo goo’ noises.

Not only did I find this behaviour completely inexplicable, but largely illogical and borderline irrational.

And so the peace was finally shattered once and for all, and all hope was lost for me to finally defeat my writer’s block. I tried to make sense of what I had witnessed long and hard on my way home, and wondered whether the only solution to the writer’s block problem may involve Pink making strange ‘goo goo’ noises whilst bouncing me up and down on her knee. But then again, perhaps not.