Friday, 3 April 2015

Vox Unpopuli

It's been a tough week for morale. On Tuesday I was outside in the rain for hours asking the public to be interviewed. Amazingly, not many people like the idea of being on camera, and it's incredible how many old people are suddenly "in a rush". One woman bleated for 4 minutes about how she couldn't afford a bean. I thought it rather diplomatic of me not to remind her of her "triple-locked" pension that ensures it rises above inflation every year without fail. 

Having spent my afternoon and some of my evening looking back through the footage of people in raincoats forcing their opinions on me, I decided to take a break and watch the TV debates, where people in suits could force their opinions on me. 

These have been a point of contention in advanced democracies worldwide ever since they were invented by I.T. Vee der Beight, a Dutch-American who realised that politics needed to suit America's Hollywood-driven culture of hyperbole to have any chance of success. I'm sure it really works over here, but all the same, I'm an open-minded person, and I was keen on what they had to say. 

Which I shall relay to you now:

"Let's have our opening question from someone randomly plucked at total random by our producer who wanted somebody young and male. Totally random. Johnny,"
"As a 17 year old politics student, I've asked to be called 'Johnny' to hide the fact that I clearly go to private school. How would you deal with the deficit - cuts or taxes?"
"Nick Clegg."
"Well Johnny, I think it's great you're here tonight and tonight I'll be balanced in a desperate bid to offend nobody, but end up slightly annoying everybody in the process."
"Nigel Farage."
"Well, Jonny, it's quite clear what's driving up the deficit, immigration. When you go to the polls, you can tell the Poles where to go!"
"Leanne Wood."
"I'm new to this, so I'm going to answer the first question using just my notes."
"David Cameron."
"Well Johnny thanks very much for your question, it's great to hear from a normal person. I love normal people. Some of my best friends' wives' cousins' servants' drivers are normal people. But what I think you'll find Johnny is that jobs are up, and that's all that matters. If you get a job, you'll be spared from my friend George's humongous axe (yes, I mean that literally)."
"Ed Miliband."
"Johnny, let me say this: do I want to answer your question? Yes I do, and here's why: austerity has failed, and let me tell you what I'll do if I become your Prime Minister: tax the rich."
"Natalie Bennett."
"Austerity has failed. Let's end austerity. Don't be fooled by my voice, I am actually passionate about things. Like the planet"
"Nicola Sturgeon."
"Johnny, nothing can stop me running your country anymore. Nothing. Not you, not him, not him, not her, not that, not anybody. I am yours, and you are mine. You WILL be giving Scotland our independence - enjoy Miliband as a PM, losers."

"Thank you leaders, we're now going to open up the floor for debate, let's start with you, Nick Clegg."

What followed next was a hark back to the good old days for Top Gear fans - white people pretending to argue with each other. For AGES. It was expected when you're trying to give seven people space. Absolutely ages. First it was Clegg vs. Cameron (both sounded like scorned lovers in the end), then it was Farage vs. Cameron, then it was Sturgeon vs. Miliband, Then it was Farage vs. Bennett, then it was Bennett vs. Capitalism, then it was Sturgeon and Wood vs. Cameron. Then it went back to Sturgeon vs. Miliband, with Cameron and Clegg egging Sturgeon on. 

"Thank you leaders for your interesting comments," said host Julie Etchingham, who in that one sentence lied more than all of the leaders put together, "Let's move on to Terry, who's question is on the NHS."

"As a-" All the questions started with 'as a such and such', because it's much quicker than saying "Hi, I'm Terry, I'm 60-odd, and I used to work for the NHS". We needed those precious seconds so they can interrupt each other later on.

This was a good chance for the left to excel. The NHS is their meat and drink (presumably nuked in a microwave, served on a paper plate and counting as a full on meal in a hospital), so we're expecting them to score well. Yep, nobody stumbles. Clegg talks about mental health, good. Cameron talks about dementia, because people keep saying to him they forgot why they voted for him in 2010. Leanne Wood mentions the others 'point scoring' that's very Cleggy of her - wait, what's Nigel Farage got to say about this... HIV? Wait - WHAT?! Oh... Oh god, I'm not sure about that. That's like a drunk bloke blurting out his feelings about a hurtful ex totally unprompted. 
"Err, nobody mentioned Stephanie, Nige?" "I know, I know, I know, I know... I know... I just... I just can't believe her... God I fucking hate her. HATE HER." 
Thankfully, Leanne Wood shoots him down and gets some applause from the audience, and we go back to the usual melee. From the mess, like Batman and Bane seeking each other out, Miliband and Cameron round their guns onto each other and start firing blanks. "You failed on the NHS!" "What's that Ed? I can't hear you over the cock up of Mid-Staffordshire." "You keep living in the past!-" "- ALRIGHT, I STILL LOVE STEPHANIE, OKAY GUYS?"

"Let's talk about immigration," says Julie. Farage explodes.
"RIGHT well I've spoken about HIV so basically anything I say from now on is comparatively tame - and off I go!"
The other leaders round on him, and, back home all those who had the word "scaremongering" in their '#Leadersdebate Drinking Game' are instantly shitfaced. 
Then we move onto the EU. 
"We should stay!" says Sturgeon and Wood, (both whom receive huge grants from the organisation, it must be said).
"We should leave!" says Farage, who can't really say anything else.
"We should stay!" says Clegg, Miliband and Bennett, for reasons ranging from blind idealism to the fact that it's the opposite of some Tories' opinions. 
"We should stay on better terms, with a referendum" argues Cameron. Bennett also says she wants a referendum. "I don't want a referendum, it's too risky." says Sturgeon (at this point, steam started pouring out of my irony gauge). 
Miliband steps in calmy, but it looks like he's aloof from all of this debating. He chips in with another soundbite. Don't be afraid to get too passionate, Ed.
Clegg reminds Farage that he's from a family of foreigners, both their wives are foreign. Almost simultaneously, Wood and Sturgeon turn on Cameron, who probably expected to be deflecting two or three people at a time, having gained experience from battling against 20 others in Europe. 
Miliband has something to say about apprenticeships, "Let me say this-"
"-Okay, that's all we have time for on the subject of foreign policy, now let's move on to our final question."

It's on the yoof, education, housing, the future - basically everything else.
Wood and Sturgeon immediately wave their arms and say "Look! Over here! Free tuition fees! We did that!" 
Clegg, realising he's on the back foot from the start over that promise, says so. Then realises he's still on the back foot for agreeing to join the Conservatives in the first place, which Cameron reminds him of. Natalie Bennett doesn't like the idea of competition between schools. "Schools shouldn't try to be better than one another." What do you even mean by that?? Farage, a public schoolboy, bemoans how Politics is overwhelmed with public schoolboys. All the others agree that education should be free. Cameron replies "I opened up free schools". In unison, the others retort "Yes but not in a good way!".

Moving onto housing, Nick Clegg ANNOUNCES A POLICY. Goddamit Nick, you're not here to promote your party! You're here to debase yourself for our viewing pleasure! "Rent-to-Own" sounds good in principle, but the thought of having Vince Cable as a landlord doesn't fill me with much hope. 

Speaking of which, the final point is about being 'optimistic'. 
"We have global clout" says Cameron, citing the G8, NATO and the EU. For a moment I me cower in fear that he's going to reel off Hugh Grant's "Love Actually" monologue- but WAIT. He's interrupted by a member of the audience! She has a gripe about homeless ex-servicemen and she has to "speak up".
"Oh dear, dear", Farage mutters.
"Not from the audience, thank you", reminds Etchingham.
"Fuck that! Turn the mic up!" says the producer. 
"There are more of us than there are of them!" the woman says. Cripes, she's right! What an enlightened woman! We should be having a sixty-million people debate. Seven is so cliché. I hereby demand that the 2020 TV debates have a representative from the newly-formed "Nesquik and Alfa Romeos For All" Party! Our full manifesto is here

Zero-hour contracts gets a mention. 
"I don't want them - nobody wants them!" says Miliband.
"70% of Wales wanted them when we asked" said Leanne Wood. Then it transpires Labour ministers employed people on zero-hour deals. Then there's some shouting, and the public begin to see the real people underneath the suits and make up - are our leaders finally getting passionate? Is this them fighting for the true future of our country? Yes. Yes I think they are! Go on boys and girls! Scrap it out! Go on! GO ON, NIGEL, DRAW BLOOD!

"That's all we have time for, I'm afraid. Time for your final statements, leaders.
Nicola Sturgeon."
"Ignore the fact that the SNP has run the Scottish Parliament for the past 8 years - Westminster has failed Scotland with it's austerity. Now, let's GTF outta here."
"Nick Clegg."
"When you think of voting, think of those less fortunate than you. Your family, your peers. Think of me."
"Ed Miliband."
"I am the one who has done the most training on my speech, and I am drilled to the core because my aides don't trust me to speak out of turn. I've smashed their low expectations. Let me break yours."
"Leanne Wood."
"Let's not go back to a Westminster rule. You can tell I'm like you, because I'm the only one that speaks your lingo. LITERALLY. Watch me: Diolch yn fawr."
"Ooh, nice! Nigel Farage."
"Well, what did I tell you about these guys? All the bloody same - white, middle aged, privately educated, only worked in London - not like me at all, what what! Let's fuck up the establishment! Come on Britain! Tally-ho!"
"David Cameron."
"I've been your leader for five years. We've been on an incredible journey, and there's been a bit of give and take. You've given me an earful, and I've taken all your benefits. Security over uncertainty is what's needed. Trust in me. I am superior to you in every practical way."

Will it have any effect on the result? Definitely. Will that effect be big enough to break the deadlock? Probably not, but there's still more to come. What would have been more effective is a QI-style conclusion, where we see just how negatively each of them scored, and simply picked the least-shit one. 

That's all we'll really be doing on May 7th anyway. 

Well, until NARFA come along, that is. 


Well, everyone would get some Nesquik, and all public transport would be Alfa Romeos. 

Who wouldn't be happy with that??

Friday, 27 March 2015

Alfa Male or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Brakes, Part Three

I have volunteered blah-fucking-blah planet shit this cunt that Green Party membership fucking livelihood gone yada yada yada - here's a bit about the Alfa. 

Part Three: How I learned to stop worrying and love the brakes

Three months and two days into my ownership of an Alfa Romeo 156, I began to realise what people meant about the "continuous disappointment" of having one. Which is a bit of a shame, especially when you consider that it came with a three month and no days warranty. But it is a beautiful car. 

A light comes on. It looks like something to do with the airbag, but I'm not too sure, I'm too busy looking ahead of me, as the dreary M4 slithers across the south, ruining most of the countryside it cuts through, but somehow still improving Swindon and most of Eastern Wales. And my beautiful car is improving it all. 

Wait, if it's the airbag, what does that mean? Is it just going to blow up in my face, at 70-ish miles an hour? What if I have a crash? Will it do nothing? 

"Amber... Amber..."
It's been a long day in London. 
"Do you reckon you could get out the car's handbook out the glovebox and have a look at something for me?"
"..... mmmm, right now?"
"Yeah, if you could wake up a bit"
"I think there's something wrong with the airbag"
"What the - THE AIRBAG? When did that go wrong? Why didn't you say earlier? Pull over! Pull over RIGHT FUCKING NOW AND LOOK YOURSELF, WHY DID YOU BUY A SHIT ALFA ROMEO I KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN."

We pull over, and I scan the handbook for any information that may save us both from a gruesome death. Nothing. Reading the handbook of an Alfa Romeo, you may think that it would contain information about what to do in the inevitable event of something going wrong. I could just have it as an ornament, and look at how beautiful it is, I suppose.

"Airbag light on: Take to a certified Alfa Romeo garage."

Remembering my harrowing experience of Ford's garages, I decline and instead take it to the place which correctly diagnosed the piston problem. Thankfully, they sort it while I wait, so there was only time for two people to say "Is that your Alfa Romeo there? Ooooh, risky mate, especially at your age!" (ha, good one mate, and despite what you ingest from the Daily fucking Mail, some people under 25 do have jobs, you know) and £30 later, I'm back on the road. 

And I stay on the road. For ages. Oh my god, I've struck gold! The one Alfa Romeo in the world that is - dare I say it? - reliable! In my possession! These are the kind of good-luck-stories that you only see clogging up your Facebook page ("A young man from Cheltenham buys an Alfa Romeo - what happened next will blow your mind!"). Nothing has gone wrong for ages! It's practically biblical! Alfa Romeo will surely be on the phone asking for it back to go in their museum, as an artefact of historical importance. 

But, dearest reader, pride doth often precede the fall. We are two days away from an MOT test, when I offer to drive to Bristol to pick up a couple of friends from a music concert. Feeling a bit like a responsible dad, I drive down early, find somewhere close to the venue to park, and wait for them. 

Beautiful, but stationary. But beautiful. 

It's only when I'm driving slowly through Bristol that I notice a slight grinding noise on the brakes. This sound usually only happens when they're cold, but I've been driving for 45 minutes, what could possibly be wrong?

But before I have a chance to investigate, my fare for the night arrives. Ears ringing from cheers, eyes glazed from beers, they hop into the car ("wow! You cleaned it just for us??" "No, it's filthy, it's just dark so you can't see the mess." "Right! Cool!") and we're on the motorway in no time. 

As we arrive to a set of roadworks, I gently brake, but quite a rumble is fed back to me. And them. The reveller in the backseat, previously snoozing, sits up. 

"What's that?"
"Sorry mate, the brakes have started to grind slightly."
"Okay... Are we safe?"
"Well, I'm taking it for an MOT in a couple of days, so we'll only know with hindsight."

Interestingly, he didn't return to sleep. 

And for 48 hours, my own body clock goes into spasms. What if it does fail? I'm not exactly a Barclays banker, it could spell disaster. 

In it goes. But damn! I left my phone in there! I get home and ring the garage. 

"Hi, I've just taken an Alfa Romeo in for an MOT and I think I left my phone in the car?"
"Oh, hi James! Your car has failed the MOT."
"Oh, that was quick, is it back yet?"
"No, it's there now being tested."
"Okay, so how do you know it's failed?"
"The airbag light came on while I was driving it over there, so that's a fail straight away."
"I see."
"Also, the brakes sounded pretty dodgy, so we'll just have to wait and see what they say, I'll let you know."
"Okay - and was my phone in there?"
"I didn't see."
"Okay, thanks anyway."

10 minutes later. 

"Hi James, it's [the garage] again. Yep, your car failed."
"Yeah, you're colleague said it might."
"Quite spectacularly, really."
"Yeah, he hinted at that as well."
"Even by Alfa Romeo's standar-
"Is my phone in the car?"
"Oh, I don't know, but your car will need some work. You're looking at some new brakes, a new sensor, and three tyres need replacing, and then it'll need a second test."
"It'll be around-" then a figure comes out of her mouth that is usually reserved for NASA's accountants... But it is a beautiful car, right? 

And like most beautiful things, ultimately the Alfa become ravagingly expensive. Cars, diamonds, visits to Twickenham, the Cotswolds, my girlfriend's birthday present - my girlfriend, for that matter. But I would argue with you until the cows come home (just in time to become my girlfriend's next present, no doubt) that all things that are beautiful are worth it. 

Alfa Romeos are worth it, whatever 'it' is. Money, embarrassment, jibes, it doesn't amount to a grain of sand on the warm beaches that Alfa Romeo owners walk upon. 

Months after my own mini-economic recovery from MOT-gate, I am driving back from a day of working in London. The Sun and I are locked in a westerly race, and just as I pass through Oxford, I'm conceding defeat, which is more of a shame for the Sun more than myself, because now he's missing out on one of the best sights in England - the roads and the surrounding environment between Oxford and Cheltenham. A serenely stunning sight, one glance of which would cast away any doubts about the reliability and cost of an Alfa Romeo. 

Life is too short to be pottering about in a dull car, staring at an empty road wondering if you can make it out onto the road in time for tea. It's too short to be sitting on a train pretending to work while you tweet about how shit trains are. It's too short to be on a bus, full stop. 

If you're short on a smile, come and have a ride in my Alfa Romeo. You'll be beaming in seconds. 

But not right now, it's in the garage.

And looking damn beautiful while it's there, I can assure you.  

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Alfa Male or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Brakes, Part Two

I have volunteered to become an environmentalist at work. Y'know, save the planet n' shit. It's a massive character-shift for me, but I'm up for the challenge. 

But there's one tragic condition: I'm to use my car less. LESS! But I bloody love cars. I've always bloody loved cars. What would I do without one? Cars have been a staple of my adult life - so much so, I can't imagine my life without one. Could it be done? There are so many fond memories. So so many. 

Part Two: Pistoff
It was the perfect marriage. I had loved them for years and years. Other kids at school may look at Ferraris, Zondas and McLarens and lust after them as if they were metal supermodels. I had other, loftier ambitions. Driven by my adoration for Colin McRae, I wanted a Ford Focus. Nothing fancy, nothing garish, not even a rally-spec model. Just a humble, simple Focus. And I'd accept any model from any seller. 

The seller in question was just that; rather questionable. In we drove to somewhere "near Fulham", which certainly was not Fulham, and there he was on the corner of a street next to it. A man from Jerusalem who insisted we paid with cash sold it to us, and watched us drive away that very frosty morning. A quick clean sale. He couldn't have wished for a better start to his day. 

Two weeks later, sitting in the garage of a local Ford dealership, I learn that there is a problem with the cooling system, but it's sorted now. 

One a half week later, sitting in a garage just outside Newport, I learn that there is a problem with the cooling system, but it's sorted now. 

Then, two weeks later, while I am at my parents' home, nothing starts. At all. So I have to wait until one of them returns from home for a jump-start (though luckily, an old friend was able to help me out). 

A month after that and almost £400 later (which, in undergraduateland, where I was living at the time, is the equivalent of 400 million billion pounds), I'm told by another man from the RAC at Cardiff Gate services that there's a problem with the fan. 
"Oh, what makes you think it's the fan?"
"Well, it doesn't seem to be kicking at the right time, which means there's a problem with the cooling system."
"Oh. How can I fix it?"
"Just get the car drawing in air. Flick the air con on, and see if it makes a difference."

Fucking hell, the man's a genius. No cooling problem! Not only does the fan work when the car's running, it occasionally carries on cooling the car when I stop at my destination, as if it's making up for lost time! What a good little car! 

I bet he never had any problems with his Focus. 

Until one morning, and I'm driving to work. The heating sensor shoots up as if it were measuring a kettle. Then the engine light comes on. Then the battery light comes on. Then there's a severe loss of power.

"I've got power loss!" I shout, because I'm an idiot and thought there was a Formula 1 garage I could report to. As it is, I'm alone, on a cold October morning, in the middle of fucking nowhere. 

Once my tears had dried and the usually reputable company I work for had a good laugh at my expense as I informed them of my circumstances, I find myself in a familiar position: looking at an engine without a fucking clue what to do or say, while somebody else updates me on the situation. 

"So, this is your engine" (Alright mate, I'm not that bad) "and these are the pistons" (Yep, got that, 'suck, squeeze, bang, blow' - I did do GCSE Physics, you know, Sir!) "and there's the crack in the piston" (woah- what the fuck??)
"How did that happen?"
"Well, there's nothing in the pipes that could have cracked it, so it's been there a while. How long have you had the car?"
"A few months."
"Hmm, it could have been any time. Where did you get it? Do you still have a receipt or a copy of a sale?"
For a brief moment I imagine the man from Jerusalem starring in a P. Diddy music video, flicking notes at women as they all jump into a pool, drinking champagne and wearing neck chains the size of tank tracks. 
"No. I'm due to take it to Ford for a service next week, can they do something about it?"
"Well, we could do it here, but you're looking at (mechanics have a habit of saying to you that you're 'looking at things' that aren't there) a new engine, and a test and a service anyway, so it's probably worth more than the car."
"Right... and how much would I get for scrap?"
"Hm, you're probably looking at about... couple of hundred quid?"

Trudging out of the garage considerably later, a cheque for £138 in one trembling hand, and my phone in the other (also trembling), I make a call to Ford.
"Hi, I had a service booked for a 2002 Ford Focus, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to cancel it."
"Okay, is this Mr Brittain?"
"It is"
"Hi Mr Brittain, may I ask why you're cancelling your service? It does need to be done."
"I've just scrapped my car."
"Oh right, may I ask why?"
"There was a crack in the piston."
"I see... Yes, it's on your file that it was a problem."
"Hold on, so you knew?"
"Yes, I can see it on my screen about your car."
"I was never told about this."
"It passed the engine test, so it wasn't necessary to tell you."
"Right, well it blew while I was driving it this morning, and now I don't have a car."
"Oh... I'm sorry to hear that Mr Brittain... Would you be interested in hearing about our finance deals for a slightly newer Ford?"
"No thank you."

Monday, 23 March 2015

Alfa Male or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Brakes, Part One

There are troubled waters ahead, dear reader. Particularly hot ones, which I have landed myself into. 

I have volunteered to become an environmentalist at work. Y'know, save the planet n' shit. Just imagine me as a Bono-type figure who checks to see how much paper my colleagues are using, and switches lights off after them. 

It's a massive character-shift for me but I promise you, I am up for the challenge. If everything goes smoothly, I may be the first privately educated white male to really influence people. What a time to be alive!

But there's one tragic condition: In order to lessen my own impact on this great giver of life, I'm to use my car less. LESS! As in, drive fewer times than I do now, and travel fewer miles! But I bloody love cars. I've always bloody loved cars. What would I do without one? Cars have been a staple of my adult life - so much so, I can't imagine being without one. 

Could it be done? There are so many fond memories. So so many. 

Let's put on that 'shimmering' effect over our vision and take a stroll back through three of the greatest joys of my life...

Part One: Golden Years

We were first introduced by a care worker in Worcester. She was looking for somebody new, young and exciting, and I was looking for a chance to kickstart my adulthood. 

Admittedly, most people wouldn't look twice at a Peugeot 106, even if it was decorated in such a lurid shade of gold. But to me, my future first car meant the world to me. 48hp, 146,000 miles on the clock, and did I mention about how fucking gold it was? It was the moment I went from a boy to a man (yes, even more than that moment, when I went from a boy to a profusely apologetic boy). If there was a better way to spend six hundred pounds, I did't want to know about it!

Unfortunately, a bit like Ri Sol-ju, (who, you will of course recall, is the wife of Kim Jong-Un), I was a little blind to the real problems my partner was causing. And, behind our backs, our beloveds were subject to much ridicule throughout the Western World. Yes I had freedom, (which is more than Ri Sol-ju can say, I'm certain), but at what cost? 

At just over the weight of a bag of sugar, it was quite easy for a man on each corner to lift it and carry it from the car park to the middle of the road, it turned out. And if you've ever met a BMW X5 in a country lane, and you're driving anything less expensive than a fighter jet, it's a good chance to practise reversing. Something I quickly learned, and slowly perfected. 

With a car so easy to break into, incidents like this were frequent.

It's the kind of car you'd describe to your friends as 'plucky', because you couldn't bring yourself to tell them it was a 'rusty shitebox'. But what a joy it was. Come rain, snow, fog, sun, the Peugeot magnificently performed in all weathers. 

And I mean all weathers. 

It's a snowy December in Swansea, where I have stayed in my student accommodation to work for a terrible telecoms company. The job was thoroughly enjoyable, even if the company was rubbish, so I wouldn't want to do it discredit by naming the store. But it was on the High Street in Swansea, and the logo was orange. Come to think of it, most of the branding was orange. 

Briefly, Wales' second city stops being a dystopia of tracksuits and heroin and looks like a Winter Wonderland. Noticing my car is the only one in the car park, I leave for work two hours early (something I've never repeated, and I've had some pretty fun jobs), and spend an hour and a half my additional commuting time driving my car around the Student's Village, having the time of my life. 

I forget for a moment about the car I'm actually driving, and only focus on the joy of driving it. This little thing is brilliant! Truly amazing! And when it is time to actually drive to work, I notice I'm still the only car on the road. I see Porsche Cayennes abandoned. Jeeps halfway up hills. At most, two or three cars pass me as I head towards the city centre on roads deemed not worthy of grit by the council. 

I arrive at work beaming from ear to ear. Suspicion is instantly aroused. 
"Why are you so happy?"
"I just had a really good drive in, that's all."
"You drove?"
"Well, it was a faff to de-ice the car, but I just got in and drove."
"Fuck! My car's on the side of the road by Sketty (it's a small part of Swansea close to my quarters - and yes, by nature as well as name)".
"Oh, well I'll give you a lift back tonight if you want?"
"Yeah please! What car have you got?"
"A Peugeot 106."
"Oh... Well, yeah if you could give me a lift, that would be great, but it's no big deal."
"No, it's okay, I don't mind." I was too ecstatic about my journey to notice that somebody was, as the kids would say, 'dissing my ride'.

Time crawls almost to the point of standstill throughout the day, offering little in terms of notable events except for a crying teenager, after being told her phone bill is £800 (considerably more than I paid for my car), wailing that her father is going to "literally" kill her. But eventually, 6 o'clock does strike, and it's time to drive home. With ease. And with a grinning passenger. 

"Your car... is fucking LEGENDARY! I know this is a bit cheeky, but could you give me a lift tomorrow? I'll get you a sandwich at lunch or something."
"Wow, yeah sure I'll come and get you - 8:45?"
"Sounds perfect, see you tomorrow!"
My guest practically skips past his abandoned car up to the street where he lives, thinking he's got a great deal. I drive off with glee, thinking I've got another great reason to take the car out in the snow. I completely forget that I don't even have work the next day until I get back to my room. But fuck it, I don't care - I'll just turn up anyway and drive about again! Because my car is fucking legendary. 

People rarely forget their first car, and I'll never ever forget mine. Yes, it didn't look very cool (one friend described the colour as "urine yellow"), and yes it wasn't very fast, except for one heady moment when I was urged by friends to overtake a man cruising in a Ferrari just outside Cardiff, who proceeded to toy with us until we were in the fast lane of the motorway trying to keep up with him, doing about 71 mph, (I think, Officer), at which point he'd decided he'd had enough and sped off into the distance. But when I was alone in Swansea for those couple of weeks in that December, and through many more hardships to come at University, it was a true companion to me. 

When I'm old, grey and living on a diet of blended chicken pie and Countdown, my room will be void of pictures of snotty grandchildren achieving things better than me. There won't be any images of the places I've been, or of the people I've met. There will just be the Peugeot 106 I bought from an estate in Worcester when I was 17, hanging over my bed. My one true love, sadly taken from me by the relentless grip of time, but never, ever forgotten. Even now, as I meet old friends, they still ask after it, as if it were an old friend. But they're wrong to speak of it that way.

It's so much more than that. 

What newer, wiser, nobler car could have possibly taken the place of such steed? How could any vehicle, short of a Concorde, hit the heady heights that the Peugeot achieved? Keep an eye out for Part 2 on Wednesday. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

2015: A Waste Odyssey

Congratulations, Earth. It's been exactly 2015 years since Jesus celebrated slaying the dinosaurs by setting fireworks off and singing Auld Lang Syne. Thankfully, this is the two-thousand and fifteenth CONSECUTIVE year we haven't cocked anything up since he left it in our possession. That is, if you don't count the wars, plagues, natural disasters and famine, but that's all his "will" anyway, apparently, so I doubt he'd be that pissed off.

Let's peer over our half-moon glasses of optimism and look into the crystal ball of incredibility at what lies in store for the year ahead, shall we? 

The start of the year ushers in with it yet another "cold snap". The Internet is awash with pictures of beautiful whitened pictures of otherwise shit locations. "OMG! Snow's falling! #snow #winter #coldsnap #coldestJanuarysincerecordsbegan #snowflake #frozen #MiltonKeynes". On Instagram, the new "Antarctica" filter makes the pictures, erm, white. It's all fucking white, like an American police force. Selfie sticks? White, but with your face in it, and (thank fuck) you're fractionally further away from the camera than when you didn't have a selfie stick. 

The Mail describes 2015 as set to be the "coldest year in history". 

The weather finally gives way to an unusually warm spring, bringing Bruce Forsyth out of cryopreservation early and leading The Mail to describe 2015 as the "warmest year in history". 

Greece and Italy become so poor that they are forced to sell national monuments. The Acropolis starts to be dismantled, and moved to Qatar. The Colosseum becomes the latest OArena, where Sam Smith plays the first gig of his world tour to a sell out crowd, and is then fed to the lions. It's hard to see how he's going to follow that up. 

After a gruelling four-month campaign, and thanks to a last-minute promotional offer in The Daily Express, Prime Minister Farage is on his way to be inducted into Parliament by Her Majesty, when suddenly his route is blocked by a group of straight-chest-haired men and his car is upturned and set fire to. Farage escapes, nips into the pub by the road for a swift couple, and uses the burning wreckage to light a cigar. He is subsequently forced into hiding, and simply a myth that is used to scare little politicians into eating all their greens. 

Hmm.. What usually happens in the summer of non-footballing years? Can we cheer for Andy Murray - what? June? Bugger, that completely passed me by! How did he get on? WHAT? Against who? Who?! Oh fuck it, it doesn't matter, that's pretty embarrassing, though. I miss Tim... and it's raining, great. The Mail was right, you know - this could be the wettest year in history. 

The Rugby World Cup comes to our shores, and despite Team GB giving itself three chances of winning, none of them do, and it's France vs. Australia in the Final. Who wins? We stopped caring after the group stages. 

God it seems like ages since it was sunny. Where has all this cloud and smog come from- woah, petrol's EIGHTY PENCE now??? Quickly! Fill the car. Fill the other car! Fill the jerry can! Buy more jerry cans! Fill the kids' sports bottles! Fill the dog's bowl! Do it now before it goes to eight-one pence!!

Black Friday comes to a head in an ASDA in Bolton with two fully grown men who "don't think they're going to make it in today, Boss" start bludgeoning each other over a Blu-Ray player with 20% off. 

Meanwhile, in a Waitrose in St. Albans, "Were you about to take the last artichoke heart?" "Oh no, you can have it." "No no no, please, take it!" 

Downton Abbey once again concludes with a strangely harmonious aristocracy and proletariat, showing just how backwards we've become 85 years later. Look, there's Mr and Mrs Carson having tea with Lord and Lady Grantham as if the only thing separating them from us is how much sugar they take. Why can't I have tea with Richard Branson? What kind of sick elitist is he? 

And before you know it, it's all over far too soon. We're back on our sofas, scoffing on Celebrations, wondering what happened to that resolution that you stuffed in February. The TV is blaring out some seasonal drivel, and as you slide into a food and light entertainment-induced coma, you wonder if there's really something else going on; whether Christmas is a veil pulled over our eyes to stop us from seeing the truth. Looking down into the box and seeing only fucking Bounties, you realise things HAVE to change. 

And dammit, NEXT year will be your year. 

Right after this little Snickers. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Penguins, Bears and Hares! Oh my!


Nobody wants to admit it? Fine. I'll go first. 

I think John Lewis is shit. 

I understand this is hard to take for a lot of people. It was a shock for me when I first came to this opinion. It's a bit like learning that Santa isn't real. There's the brief moment where you bury your leaky face into your pillow as you can't believe you've been taken for a fool all these years. But when you open your eyes, only light will stream in, and you'll realise that life is marginally better now that your Christmases can no longer be built on a foundation of lies.

Speaking of which: "This is perfect, you owe me an Orla Kiely hand towel", I'm told by my girlfriend, holding an Orla Kiely towel in one of their stores.

This is a lie on two counts. No, it's not perfect, and I don't owe her shit.

"Yeah it looks quite nice." I reply, "Feels nice too! Don't we have one by Orla Kiely?"
"Well, when you were cleaning the bathroom, you decided to get bleach on the it, and it's ruined, so you need to buy this one." 
Intently looking at some rugby scores, I must have made some nodding sort of action which signalled that I had agreed to buy something which, as of yet, I haven't even properly looked at. 

"Brilliant, thanks James, now how much actually is it?... Oh that's alright, that's not as bad as I thought."
Woah, hold on - what the hell does not as bad mean? Suddenly I realise that I'm holding a towel that's exactly the same as its barely marked predecessor, and its cost has been described as not bad? I need to do something that mildly resembles making a stand! 

I look at the price.
"I'm not paying that much for a fucking hand towel." (Because it can't hurt to simply charge in headfirst into a dispute.)
"Alright, if you find something better than this, we'll get it instead." 
"Well how about this one? It's a store brand one, it's just as soft, just as nice, and about a third of the price."
"....hmm... No, it's just not as good. I can't explain to you why, you don't understand, but it's just not. Just get the Orla Kiely one."

This is the first problem with John Lewis. The store's own-brand stuff, pricey though it might be, is bloody good. I'd be over the moon to have a John Lewis hand towel in their bathroom. I'd pop it out when guests came over, and take good care of it, and be proud of it. But because they've plonked other-branded stuff next to their perfectly good stuff, it now looks like a knock-off piece of crap. So not only am I paying more than what is acceptable for a hand towel, I'm not paying more than more than what is acceptable. I've been double-done by John Lewis. Bastards.

Treat this as an intermission, but with no fucking 
stupid faux-love story forcing you to buy a toaster.

"Oh my god!" squeals an excited voice from beside me. "There he is! Oh my god this is amazing! Can we get a picture?"
A picture of who? I wonder. A famous celebrity? A sports personality? Is it a national statesman? An old friend?

As it turns out, in the corner of the store, surrounded by a lot of plastic painted to look like ice, stands a lone bit of plastic painted to look like a penguin. 


We walk over to where the bits of plastic are, but are unable to get particularly close to it, as every infant in a 20-mile radius has had the same idea as us. Which brings us to the second problem with John Lewis. 

Those fucking adverts. They're beautifully made and the stories in them are fantastically told. It's not so much the adverts themselves, it's the way we absorb them. The two-day trend on Twitter, the constant Guardian articles, the fawning over it on Facebook. We have created a monster, which very kindly is only making us want to buy things. If next year's advert subversively told us to storm Buckingham Palace and overthrow the monarchy, it would be beamed to an already willing audience, ready to die for the John Lewis cause.

Joseph Goebbels, Propaganda Minister for the Third Reich, once allegedly said that the most effective messages are conveyed with 90% fiction, and 10% truth. Hold on, I'm NOT comparing John Lewis at all to the Nazis, but how much would they realistically have to alter their adverts to inspire the nation to carry out despicable deeds? We're already halfway towards pledging allegiance to them. We're just lucky the worst thing they're going to make us do is buy some extortionate hand towels - for now. Did you know the Tom Odell song this year started with "All my little plans and schemes"? Yeah, that's why we need to start worrying. 

We continue our magical Christmas journey through this sacred British institution, and towards the menswear - and swiftly through menswear, because I'm not as stupid as everyone else. I know a stitch-up when I see one, and I'm not being taken for a fool. Anything in this store, I can get cheaper elsewhere. 

Actually, that bag looks quite nice. Ooh, it's Barbour. Ooh, and there's 20% off all Barbour stock. That's not bad. 

Out of nowhere, a John Lewis salesperson, disguised as my girlfriend, pops up. 

"You've been talking about having a bag for ages, this looks perfect for you, oh and it's only [a fucking shitheap of] pounds. Ooh, and there's 20% off, so that would make it [a shitheap of] pounds."

Hmm, I have a shitheap of pounds, I was paid on Friday! This might actually work. And it is a nice bag... And it is 20% off... Oh, go on then! 

But, moments later at the till, what's this? 

"That's [a fucking shitheap], please."
Excuse me, Lady at Checkout?
"What, no, it should be [a shitheap]"
"Hmm, sorry Sir, it's coming up as full price"
"But there's a sign on the shelf that says 20% off all Barbour stock?"
"Err, the sign probably just says 'on selected stock', do you still want it?"
"pffff, yeah whatever then, I'm here, you're here, I'll pay for it."
Oh well, so it was a fucking shitheap of pounds, but that's alright, it is a really nice bag. 

As we walk out, we walk past the shelves where the bags were. My girlfriend checks the sign again. 

"Oh my god, they just fobbed us off, it does say on all stock! Let's go back and dispute it."
But that will cause a fuss, won't it? I'm not a fussy kind of guy. I've worked in hotels and shops, I've seen people cause fuss. I've dealt with people who kick up fusses, and I can say that each and every one of them is a certified cunt. 
"No, let's go back, they were just lazy and didn't check the facts. We've both worked in retail, it's what's right."

Over we march. 

"Hi again!" the lady at the checkout says sweetly. I've banned myself from talking - I won't be responsible for this fuss. 
"Hi," my girlfriend takes control, carrying the sign that confirms our consumer rights, "the sign does say 20% off, so you have to honour that promise."
The lady is unperturbed. 
"See, the bag is exclusive to John Lewis, and it says here '20% off all full priced stock compared to other stores', and it's not in another store."
"Doesn't matter" my girlfriend rumbles on, "it's under the sign, it's misleading if the product is right there next to it."
Something is going to give.
"I'll get my manager."

A boy roughly 12 years our junior in a suit waltzes towards us. 
"What's the problem?"
The lady explains the situation, which the manager mulls over for ten seconds. He doesn't want to fuss. 
"Yeah, give them the discount."
Good man.

"Just pop your card back in here, Sir."
If there is such a look for sheepishly smug, I am suddenly the embodiment of it, despite doing nothing.
Even as we walk away, I mumble something resembling "thank you". A look is returned which says "this has only happened to you because your girlfriend has a spine, you slug". 

Well, so much for their famous customer service, eh? What about the historical niceness of their staff? It's no better or worse than any other store. At least we've got our own back on one of them. Oh, and now her manager is barking at someone to do something. He doesn't look happy. Wow, now two of them! Power to the people!

But in reality, we have no power over John Lewis. It is the epitome of what is wrong with consumerism. It's not like Tesco, or Sainsbury's, which is filled with things you need, such as food, water and some things you want, like batteries for the TV remote. Instead, John Lewis is half-crammed with things you want, and half-crammed with things you didn't even realised you wanted until you saw it there with a "20% off" sticker on it. It is a warehouse full of waddling middle-class adults who are unhappy that the TV adverts have opened up "their little secret" to the masses, as if suddenly the store had unveiled a partnership with Poundland and a deluge of delinquents had descended on their precious fortress. 

For most of us, it remains an aspirational symbol. If you can buy something in John Lewis, it means you've made it. For most of us, visiting the store is a bit like watching one of their adverts. Yes, it's really nice, and it makes you feel good, but the X Factor will be back on in a bit, and soon as we step outside of the bubble, our shit lives will continue. It's only a very select few, that stay inside, and don't look out.

As we prepare to re-enter the real world, a barely-movembered teenager is removing all the "20% off" signs. It's catching the attention of quite a gaggle of middle-aged, middle class women.

"What, so that's it? Just like that, no more discount?" one splutters, holding a blouse that's just risen in price by a fifth before she can even blink. 

Don't worry, dear. You'll be never knowingly undersold.