Monday, 16 November 2015

The funny side of disability

Ok, one last discarded writing pitch that I'm dumping on my blog. It's about the funny side of growing up with a disabled sibling:

Growing up with a disabled sibling can be many things; character building, challenging, emotional. For me though it has mostly been quite funny.

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been without its difficulties, but those have largely come from external sources – bullies, local authorities, this fucking Government – and not my brother, who for all of his quirks, is probably better value than a ‘regular’ sibling.

I can’t say for sure, my parents stopped at two so he is my only frame of reference, but you can judge for yourselves with my selection of his best bits below.

Before I begin though, a bit of context. My brother has brain damage, caused by lack of oxygen at birth. His disability therefore doesn’t manifest in a defined way. You will see how much of an understatement that is in a moment.

He is in his thirties but has an estimated mental age of five, so is not much different to most men his age, amirite ladies? He has a unique sense of humour and wouldn’t make hack jokes of the like that his sister just did. He has practically no filter, no social awkwardness, no concept of many of the things we take for granted – time, money, death. He’s the most interesting person I know and that’s why I wanted to write this. I have written seriously about him before - - but too many pieces about disability are downbeat; all about the struggle. The good stuff needs to get top billing for once.

My brother is very honest. A great quality you might think. Well yes, when exercised by someone with an appreciation for the fine line between refreshing candour and awful truths.

A few years back, upon meeting someone with a rather generous rear he turned to my mum and said, in a voice usually reserved for genuine emergencies, “oh no, fat bottom, fat bottom, fat bottom”

Luckily we side stepped that one by claiming it was just gibberish. “He’s learning disabled. He doesn’t know what he’s saying” we said unconvincingly as we pulled him away.

When he was a kid we were in the supermarket and a man passed wind. My brother loudly exclaimed “Oh yuck, that man has blowed off”. My mum told him not to say that. He replied at the top of his voice, with outraged incredulity “But he HAS blowed off, poo, it stinks”

We couldn’t really style that one out.

Related to honesty is his inability to internalise a thought and the truth coming out unintentionally. Our neighbours during my childhood were pretty unpleasant individuals. After we moved in they knocked especially to tell my parents that they hadn’t moved into their property to live next door to a disabled child.

Does anyone?

They said that my parents and I could address them, but that my brother was not to speak to them. My parents renegotiated these terms and proposed that none of us spoke to them. The problem is, if my brother sees you he speaks to you. He cannot be stopped. So after numerous incidents of my brother speaking to them whilst they angrily ignored him my mum sat him down and said “you are not to talk to Ted”. My brother asked why. Mum tried to break it down simply for him; “Because he’s nasty”. Accordingly thereafter, every single time we saw Ted my brother would shout “I am not meant to talk to you nasty old Ted”

No social constraints
My mum phoned him on his birthday this year to wish him well. He hates phones. Most probably doesn’t quite understand what the deal is. Someone’s disembodied voice emerging from a lump of plastic. He has a point, that’s just weird. Mum said happy birthday, he didn’t reply. She asked if he was having a nice day, he said a terse yes. Then she heard him hand the receiver back to his carer and say “take this away, I don’t want it”

That makes him sound unfeeling but he is actually a massive softie. One time when I phoned home and my mum tried to get him to say hello I just heard a load of banging and muffled sounds. Turns out he was trying to kiss me through the phone, perhaps assuming I must be in there somewhere. The differential between whether he is roughly discarding the receiver or warmly embracing it depends on where his mind is at the time, or how overloaded – in the old sensory department – he is feeling at that exact moment.

On Christmas Day for example, all of that wild oscillating between momentary excitement and long stretches of boredom often results in him cuddling up to me one minute and then telling me to fuck off the next. Don’t look at me. I didn’t teach him to swear. Which is a shame as that would have been great fun and a genuine honour.

Overly Literal
My brother is very literal so you have to be careful when giving him instructions, as his teacher once learned the hard way during a swimming trip.

He had his trunks on under his clothes, to make changing easier. However when they told him to go and get undressed he dutifully went to the changing room and took off everything, including his trunks. He wandered back out to the pool area stark naked except for his shoes and backpack weirdly. Maybe they don’t count as clothes to him. He then casually joined the line of kids to go swimming, like a boss.

Another time his tutor at MENCAP college was arranging a trip out one evening. They were awaiting the arrival of a minibus to collect them and as my brother was ready, the tutor suggested he look out for the bus. As the bus wasn’t there yet my brother assumed that the tutor meant he had to go and seek this bus wheresoever it might be. So he set off down a dark country lane alone until he found something resembling a bus; a bloke working on a van in his yard. He guessed that my brother was from the learning disability college and phoned them. The panicky manhunt was called off and my brother got collected from this man’s house by a police car, which he enjoyed immensely.

It’s also interesting to observe the way he processes language and understands words. When he was a kid he was quite a handful and we would often have to tell him to calm down or behave. “Behave Nicholas” my mum would say, and he would stop being naughty. So he understands the word behave right? Ish. When I recently told him to behave he snapped back at me “I AM being have!” So we’re talking more in code than anything I suppose, which is quite cool.

The unexpected
My brother’s lack of observance of norms often results in unexpected incidents.

When I was a teenager, and therefore really not up for public embarrassment of any nature, we were in the supermarket and passed an old lady in a wheelchair. Many of my brother’s friends at school were wheelchair bound and he pushed them around the playground at break time so his instinct, obviously, was to make off with this old woman.

We chased him around the aisles trying to stop him and retrieve her. When we finally caught up to him we apologised profusely to the old lady, who was actually delighted.

She said “I haven’t had a young man take me for a ride for a long time”

Lording it up
My brother can’t do much for himself; cooking, bathing, dressing. He needs 24 hour support to live. He’s kind of like a monarch, but with less taxpayer benefits. And indeed, he has copped some of the attitude too.

He will be telling us about the people at his placement, and when my mum says “Who’s that? One of your carers?” He will correct her and say “No, one of my staff”

Get you.

He goes to the toilet by himself but needs a bit of help here and there, like with wiping his bottom or pulling his pants back up properly – again, like a monarch, boom! (Is that treason? Sorry ma’am) - so sometimes he will walk out of the toilet with his trousers and pants round his ankles, point at me and bluntly say “sort my trousers out”


Upon first meeting people, carers or otherwise, he sees a chance to up the ante and will pretend he is even less able than he already is, usually asking them to feed him his dinner. When caught out, he drops the act immediately and picks up his fork like a pro. I probably just dropped him right in with Iain Duncan Smith there.

Speaking of food, he never used to know when to stop eating, or indeed what to eat. One morning when we were young, my mum woke up to the spectacle of my brother in the middle of the kitchen floor, surrounded by all of the food from the fridge and freezer. He had eaten some of everything. Even the lard.

Thankfully he has curbed his excesses in that department, but sometimes still slips. We had a roast dinner on his birthday and there were five Yorkshire Puddings left in a serving bowl. Before my mum had cleared the table he had managed to eat them all: one by one; systematically; no pauses for breath. At the end of this process he looked exhausted, and whispered to me in the most pathetic voice I have ever heard, “can I have an orange juice please?” Then a dramatic pause and an even more pathetic “please…please” When I left the room to get it he could be heard muttering “please, please…please mummy”

I shouldn’t laugh.

But then again I suppose I should, because as Matt and Trey have shown us in South Park, disabled people can and should be part of the group and the group laugh at each other’s idiosyncrasies.

Jimmy and Timmy deliver punchlines as well as sometimes being one themselves; the same as all of the boys in the show.

And that’s the thing. Worrying how to act around disabled people comes from a fear of creating offense. The trick is not to act at all. Be kind, and if something funny happens, laugh it up. It diffuses, demystifies and unites.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Urban Survival Guide: Walkers

What's this? Not another orphaned writing pitch? So sad. Let's give it a safe and secure new home here and tell it we love it like our own:

Welcome to this essential guide to surviving urban walkers. No, not walkers a la The Walking Dead or of the whiter variety in Game of Thrones – although these characters can be just as perilous should they cross your path – but the ordinary, workaday, normal kind. The ones who are just sort of wandering about the place like extras in Grand Theft Auto, getting in the way, causing chaos, obstructing the pavement, only reacting to external stimulus when you finally run them over or pull a gun on them. Ahem. So yeah, who needs cgi zombies when you have the true banality of evil readily available to you in your local streets? Get out there, spot them and if possible, use some of these tips to get them back on the right path, literally.

Phone Zombie What’s this lurching towards you? Slowly, unsteadily and on a collision course. Check their head, is it down? Check their hands, do they contain a phone like device? I am sorry to inform you that you are in the path of a Phone Zombie. Do not, under any circumstances, let them bite you. Nothing much will happen if they do, it’s just a good general rule.
Phone Zombie Action Plan: Do not move aside, that is what they want. They have abdicated responsibility for navigating their environment and are relying fully on other people’s vigilance and politeness to dive out of their path and clear the route. Hold fast, until you are almost in touching distance and then shout “LOOK UP!” before making them soil themselves and veer out of your way. Yes phone zombie, it’s not so much fun when the shoe is on the other foot now is it?

Reverse Phone Zombie No not a sex position, so stop sniggering in the back. This is in fact the inverse of the previous Phone Zombie problem, and it is in some ways much, much worse. Yes...getting stuck walking behind one *b-movie scream*. They weave from side to side, back and forth, they slow down, they speed up, every time you try to get past them they lurch in your direction of travel like some annoying heat seeking missile. Why can’t they admit their inability to multi-task and step aside for a minute? Or at the very least not opt to shakily inhabit the exact middle of the pavement? We will never know; such are the mysterious depths of their twattery.
Reverse Phone Zombie Action Plan: As tempting as it is to deliver a boot to their bottom, one must not stoop to conquer. Their lack of peripheral vision means that any attempt to get around them will be unsuccessful; without sound that is. So as with the original Phone Zombie, go in close, and deliver a bellowing “EXCUSE ME” directly into their ear. If you’re feeling bold, try to leap frog over them.

Duracell Advert Bunny Not technically a walker, although they once were, and will soon be again. But at this moment they occupy a curious limbo. Still in the midst of the pavement traffic but stock still, head down, checking their phone (what else?), giving off the impression – particularly when viewed from behind – that they are have run out of batteries. Yes, this Duracell advert bunny has the competitors product lodged up its bum and has ceased to function, becoming a living roadblock.
Duracell Advert Bunny Action Plan: Fight fire with fire. Stop right next to them. Stand uncomfortably close. Then look at their phone as if to say “What’s all this then? What’s this thing that’s interesting enough to justify causing all this disruption? Hmm? I MUST SEE!” They will soon move along.

The Usurper Usually found in the busy streets of cities and metropolises, these guys aren’t walking, they are full on marching and if you are in their path, woe betide you. Actually even if you’re not in their path, woe also betide you, because as their name suggests, the whole pavement is theirs and they are not afraid to kick you out of your bit. They weave in and out of people, huffing, puffing, shoulder barging. They have to get to their business meeting. They are important. They change trajectory at the drop of a hat. Any space that opens up, they’re in. And any space that is still occupied but they want, they’re in. They see you, coming towards them in the other direction and they decide they want to be where you are. Before you know it, they have switched lanes and are barrelling towards you like the boulder in Indiana Jones. What to do?
The Usurper Action Plan: Like Braveheart Mel Gibson before you, stand firm and shout “HOLD….HOLD….HOOOOOOLD” This will sufficiently freak them out and force them out of your orbit. If they keep coming, produce an umbrella, extend in front of you and open.

The Great Ape The most feared predator of our densely packed rush hour streets, it’s the (unfortunately not endangered) Great Ape. Swinging their arms like a goose stepping bonobo chimp, they slap silly anyone who walks near or by them, ensuring themselves a cheeky exclusion zone in otherwise crowded circumstances. The more ruthless ones swing not only their arms, but a bonus golf umbrella, raising the stakes from slapping to impaling for anyone who wants to walk within a four foot radius of them.
The Great Ape Action Plan: It is tempting to just duck and cover, but that is avoidance not action, so brace yourself, we’re going in. Get as close as you can without getting clobbered, wait until the arm comes down to their waist level – before they can get the momentum for the upswing – then grab their hand and swing with them, start skipping and pulling them along with you, singing all the way. Where the umbrella wielding ones are concerned, get within safe distance behind them, then grab the brolly as it reaches the maximum radius, stopping them and dragging them back so that you can nip in and get past.

Love’s Young Dream Picture the scene; a narrow pavement, room enough for one person comfortably, two at a pinch. You are walking along and then on the horizon you see...a couple, holding hands. Love’s Young Dream. You hope they will do the right thing, drop back and go in single file past you, but you know that never happens. They are always too enamoured of each other to let go for even a moment. THEIR LOVE IS TOO STRONG TO BE CAST ASUNDER...for two seconds. No, they will continue holding hands and taking up the full space quota of this narrow path, and you can just go in the gutter. Obviously.
Love’s Young Dream Action Plan: You could certainly recycle The Usurper Action Plan here but if you are feeling a little more fruity then how about this for an idea? If you are male exclaim to the woman half of the couple “I can’t believe this, you said you loved me!” If you are female, exclaim the very same to the male half of the couple. Then squeeze past whilst they break hands and squabble.

That's the guide. Go forth and survive.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Public Transport Idiot Bingo

Hey look, it's another article that didn't get to print. So let's dump it here in my writing graveyard / blog (note: need to work on selling it):

Public Transport Idiot Bingo

It’s costly, it’s crowded, it devours your time like some sort of mythical beast that eats…time; yes, it can only be commuting.

That daily trudge back and forth to a destination we don’t even want to end up at. A quick peruse of the Metro, peppered with the occasional existential realisation that our lives are being devoured by pure mundanity, then maybe a cheeky Sudoku.

So given that this is the time and place where we are all at our collective lowest ebb, it’s hard to imagine that we would want to make it harder for each other by being dicks isn’t it?

And yet…

The only way to survive is to turn the grind into a game. Namely, Public Transport Idiot Bingo.

That way, the next time you have an elbow in your ribs, or an armpit in your face, instead of a little bit of you dying inside, you can jump up and shout ‘house!’ instead.

See how many of these specimens you can tick off in one journey. You will probably win every day.

The Phone People Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way early. The phone people. With their phones. We’ve all sat next to Phoney McPhonerson. Yapping their drivel, in their best loud voice. The conversation is never necessary and in all cases could certainly wait. Forever. Their words drill into your skull. You start the same sentence of your book over and over. Nope, it still hasn’t gone in. You eventually give up and stare out of the window, all hope of useful pursuits crushed. Your journey becomes dead time. Cue the second existential crisis of the day. Award yourself a bonus point if you spot one of these varmints in the quiet zone. Award yourself extra, extra bonus points if you get up the courage to tut at them. The highest level of recourse available to the commuter.

The Old Phone People Old people with mobile phones. Now this brings with it a different but equally awful set of problems to the ones invoked by the regular Phone People. The conversations are not really an issue. Usually lasting the ten seconds it takes to tell their spouse they are on the train and should arrive in twenty minutes. No, with them, it is their phone settings that cause the issues. The keypad tones. The wretched keypad tones, that we thought all of humanity had mutually agreed to switch off; always on. The awful sound of them texting, slowly, for ages. Forget water torture. Put them in with the prisoner. They’ll be singing like a canary within minutes. And the ringer volume. Always set at the top level. Eardrum destruct level. A problem they compound by taking eons to extract their ringing phone from the bottom of their bag. Tick them off your game card and then move carriages for your own sanity.

The Loud Talkers I’m not even talking quiet zone loud talkers here. They go without saying. No pun intended. No, I am talking talker talkers. Obnoxious talkers. Good luck hearing yourself think when these guys hop on board. They are performing their conversation for the carriage. They keep looking around, all pleased with themselves for being the life and soul of this dull commuter train. They think they are a great wit. They think you want to hear these gems. They are bang wrong. This species of commuter is usually found later at night – the result of some post-work drinks – but do not let your guard down, they can be a rush hour occurrence too. Which brings us neatly to our next category…

The Non-Commuters The non-commuter on the rush hour service. Christ. They stick out a mile. They don’t know the rules. Spoken or unspoken. They destroy the equilibrium. Upset the fragile ecosystem. They must be stopped. They will pretty much always be in civvies, some will have luggage, some will have kids in tow, but ultimately it is their behaviours that betray them. They don’t know where to stand. They get in the way. They have loud, jolly conversations. They laugh. Laugh? This is no place for laughter. They do not push the door release button when they are right next to it and therefore very much in charge of it. But most of all, they increase the already fierce competition for space and seats. Something the daily commuter is already very on edge about. It’s bad enough competing with your fellow pros who know the protocols. These bumbling amateurs are a curve ball too far on a rainy Monday morning.

The Headphone Wearers You board the train and the carriage seems fine. Normal enough. Nice and quiet. Yes, I will do well here, you dare to think. Next stop and more people get on. Nobody boarding is displaying any obvious twattery. No phones to ears, no loud mouths. But the wave of relief doesn’t last long. What’s that faint sound? It’s getting closer. Ah, it’s the person seating themselves next to you and the tinny sound of their bad music choices. On a par with old people keypad tones, this constant niggle will drive you to despair all the way to your destination. Bonus points if you are wearing headphones and can still hear their music over your own.

The Couple Couples that commute together. It should be a thing of beauty. A shard of humanity in this bleak commuter wilderness. But let’s face it. It’s just annoying. Talking, giggling, holding hands and then sauntering along as though it’s a seaside holiday rather than the busy rush hour concourse at London Waterloo. Almost as bad as non-commuters. In fact maybe worse. You’re meant to be one of us guys. You should know better! Bonus points if you spot a couple who have clearly had a domestic before boarding the train and are still subtly sniping.

The Bag People With train ticket prices soaring and salaries stagnating, the several thousand pounds you forked out on your travel pass is bad enough. But wait, hark, what is that I hear approaching? It’s the Bag People. Here to add insult to injury by demanding the seat you more than paid for, to accommodate their backpack, briefcase, satchel or – worst of all – oversized handbag. Feigning a complete lack of peripheral vision as people board at each stop and the train gets more and more packed, they hold on to their ill-gotten second seat for as long as possible. Like a troll overseeing a fairy tale bridge, you must engage them to be allowed to pass. The toll? A snarky look, a woe is me sigh, a pantomime display of effort when moving the offending object to its rightful place of either baggage rack or floor. Speaking of the floor, bonus points if you spot a Bag Person who is trying to render the seat opposite them uninhabitable by placing their load in the space in front of their feet.

The Aisle Seat Hog A distant relative of the Bag People, the Aisle Seat Hogs have taken the baggage on the aisle seat format and upped the ante; yeah, human on the aisle seat baby, much harder to displace. These sly dogs rely on a combination of camouflage – if there is someone sitting in the aisle seat, then the window seat is surely taken, people think as they pass by without looking properly – and the abuse of our good old British politeness – Asking someone to move? Inconveniencing them slightly? For shame. Like their covetous counterparts, they will move if asked, and usually with the same degree of magnanimity i.e. nil. Their attachment to the aisle seat means they will only permit you the window, as a result, you will sometimes be forced to ask them to let you back out at your stop. The classic aisle hog will not get up for a second time and will only turn slightly in their seat, forcing you to rub your bum in their face. Maybe that is their sick little end game.

The Laptoppers Tappy tappy tap tap tappy tap tap tappy tap tappy tappy tap tappy tap tappy. Tap….tappy tappy tappy tap tap tap…..tap tappy tap. Tap….tap. The classic, and excruciating, sounds there of the common Laptopper. They board the train with a latte and a look on their face that says ‘I am always on duty…business duty’ Out comes the laptop and then starts the tap, rap, click and clack of their morning emails. To ensure that everyone thinks they are an extremely important hot shot, the Laptopper types in the style of someone trying to hack into the mainframe in a 1980s movie. Their try-hard ways tell you they are definitely a mediocre middle manager and nothing is actually at stake here. Which makes their torturous piercing of the otherwise unbroken train silence that little bit more insufferable. A distant relation of the Blackberry user, whose subtle taps and clicks are less annoying by contrast but still torturous over a protracted period. Save it for the office people.

The Space Invaders Help, help, we’re being invaded! By people with no spatial awareness! *Looks to camera* *Screams* They edge you out of your own seat, until you are clinging on by half a bum cheek. They stare ahead whilst doing it. Pretending you don’t exist. You start to see how Bruce Willis didn’t know he was dead. Sorry, spoilers. The businessman who wants to sit legs fully akimbo and will need half of your seat to so do, thank you very much. The person opposite edging their feet ever forward into your leg space until your knees are bent backwards under your seat and you are starting to develop DVT. The woman who insists on keeping her handbag on her shoulder, and lodges it into your rib cage as she takes her seat next to you. Resist them if you can. Nudge back. Flinch. Stretch. Employ the commuter death stare. They will consume you completely if you let them.

The Feet on Seatsers A typically off peak occurrence – although some are bold enough to try it in rush hour, if circumstances permit – it’s the Feet on Seatsers, with their dirty feet all over the, now dirty, seats. These languorous types like to make themselves nice and comfy. They’re not even trying to protect a seat like the Bag People or the Aisle Seat Hogs. No, they just want to put their feet up and simply cannot wait to do it somewhere more appropriate. Often found wearing an expression that seems to say, ‘I’m not like you squares, I mean look at me, I’m like a cool rapper or something’, their smugness is sometimes much worse than the original infraction. Bonus points if you see one getting told off by a train guard or an old lady and immediately sitting up straight and behaving. Rebels without any balls.

The Beauty Queens These ones sneak up on you. One minute they’re a normal commuter. The next, they are a fully licenced mobile beauty parlour. There is no way of spotting a Beauty Queen until they produce the dreaded make-up bag and by then it’s too late. Once that bad boy has been unleashed, you know what’s coming next, and there’s nothing capable of stopping it. These girls mean business. They are willing to risk poking their own eye out with a mascara wand should the train hit a bump. And so it begins. Flailing arms, elbow pokes, fidget, fidget, fidget, put one item away, get out another, put one implement down, pick up another. Your field of vision is full of their annoying twitchy movements. They are the human equivalent of strobe lighting. Epileptics, avert your eyes! Then after half an hour of this silent ruckus, they look pretty much the same, and you’re covered in their excess powder.

The Coughers Mostly seen in the winter months, this is a classic commuter breed. Here they come, entering a confined space of all places, hacking their guts up, and instantly infecting half a dozen others, like some sort of low rent zombie apocalypse movie. Go for the head! It’s their weak spot. Ok, this isn’t completely fair. People can’t help having a cough. People will sometimes have coughs. We should probably pity them a bit. Going to work poorly. Let’s start over and direct this ire where it truly belongs; with the No Hands Coughers. Born in a barn, with nobody to teach them coughing etiquette, they don’t even seem a tiny bit inclined to raise their hand to their stupid mouth when the spluttering begins. Moi? Cover my mouth? But that would involve moving my hands. And I am currently using both to hold this riveting Metro. So you will all just have to get a face full of my spit, germs and bad breath. Not even sorry.

The Eaters And finally, The Eaters, or rather the smelly eaters. The ones who think it’s a good idea to visit the Cornish Pasty Company before boarding a sealed capsule. The grease, the pong, the detritus, the humanity. If you are on a long journey then ok, a modest meal may be in order, but we are talking commuter trains here. If your journey is under two hours, have a Twix and wait nicely for you tea. Of course the light snacker is not entirely innocent. Filling the air with the crinkle, crack, crinkle, crack of a roughly handled crisp packet. Food should be seen but not heard.

So that's the game card. Match them all to win the game but lose in real life.

Monday, 31 August 2015

The Jason Donovan Board Game

It's Bank Holiday Monday and it's raining. So that's tomorrow's small talk at the work tea point taken care of. Whew.

It's also a great pretext to stay in and finally play the Jason Donovan board game, 'Straight From The Heart', a mere year after finding it in a charity shop for £1.

Here are the Jason Donovan rules; live by them, die by them:

There are four question categories: Love; Favourite Things; Dates; and Music

Some of the questions are about Jason and some of the questions are 'truth or dare' style posers for 7+ girls.

Here are some of the choicest questions that came up:

DATES: Name the date you think you'll get married - Not fair. Impossible to be proven incorrect. I got a puzzle piece for saying "Twelfth of never" though

LOVE: What do you love most about Jason? - Bit awkward this one. But again, easy to win a puzzle piece. Nobody can disprove a thing.

LOVE: Describe exactly what you would say if Jason phoned you now - Easy "How did you get this number?"

FAVOURITE THINGS: What are Jason's favourite foods? - Healthy foods. Nice and vague that. And smug.

FAVOURITE THINGS: What is Jason's favourite painting? - One he did. One he did? Fair enough, I did actually sarcastically guess that based on other self aggrandising answers to questions about himself but still, that's not something anyone could 'know'

DATES: What year will you be 18? - 1998. Does a retrospective answer count?

LOVE: Describe where you would take Jason on your first date - Pass. Keep your puzzle piece, some games are not worth winning.

LOVE: Name one of your friends' boyfriends you like - Looking to stir up a bit of trouble between the players there Jason?

FAVOURITE THINGS: Does Jason believe in nuclear disarmament? - Yes. A man of peace. A great man.

FAVOURITE THINGS: What is Jason's favourite house? - His house. It's the painting question all over again.

DATES: Give a date when you think your best friend's boyfriend will leave her - What larks!

MUSIC: Sing the first line of 'Especially For You' - Especially for you. Toughie.

LOVE: Pretend you're putting on make up - (a) Love? (b) Not even a question

MUSIC: Does Jason like Michael Jackson's music? - Yes. No would have been a little bitchy so an easy correct guess.

LOVE: Does Jason like dinner by candlelight? - Yes. Arrived at by using the classic 'what is the obvious correct sounding answer?' system of guessing.

LOVE: What does Jason think is most important? - Love. Bit easy, given the category.

FAVOURITE THINGS: What is Jason's favourite restaurant? - Any good Italian restaurant. Could you be any vaguer Jason?

LOVE: Describe what you would say if your friend dated Jason - Well, most of my friends are now married so I would ask if their husbands knew, what had precipitated all of this, and in some cases remind them that they have kids to consider.

FAVOURITE THINGS: What is Jason's favourite best friend at tea? - James Maguire. Obviously. Anyone who got that should not just win the game, but be made King of the World.

You have to keep playing until you collect enough puzzle pieces to make a picture of Jason. Which, given the overly specific nature of the questions, can never happen.

Play until you die. Or until you can pass the curse on to someone else a la The Ring, through the charity shop rather than the TV.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

All Work and No Sickness Absence Makes Cameron a Happy Boy

If this Government had a comedy catchphrase it would surely be ‘hardworking families’.

They bloody love hard work.

Which is weird, because most of them have never done any.

Must be the mystique…

Anyway, such is their love of hard work that they are presiding over a situation where many public sector workers are now doing the jobs of two or three people, after surviving being culled during the first round of cuts. And Osborne has the cheek to email us all whilst we’re working hard to ask for ideas for more cuts. I dunno, how about the mortgage the taxpayer is paying on your paddock Gideon? Now piss off I’m busy being hardworking.

The fun isn’t done either. Some departments will be cutting 30-40% in the next five years. How much work can one person take on? It’s like career Buckaroo.

As a result of the first round of cuts, many workers are already falling ill with stress and exhaustion related illnesses. I myself was signed off for two months at the start of the year when the admin team I worked in was cut by a third and subsequent staff absence left me flying solo.

All that sick pay, the occupational health fees and temporary staffing costs; boy it’s expensive this saving money lark. Luckily it’s all ideological bollocks and there’s plenty of cash. Even more if you tax people correctly and try to do something about the offshore problem. But I digress.

The increase in pressure and the resultant increase in sickness absence has, *sarcastic voice* totally coincidentally I am sure, been compounded by a recent nasty change in the sickness absence policy.

Someone I know in a central Government department was recently signed off for two weeks with a legitimate illness, certified with a doctor’s note, caused by work related stress and exhaustion.

This person returned from their time off to the same exact issues that made them ill. They continued to be overloaded with excessive amounts of work. They continued to be given work well above their pay grade. Stressful, high profile, urgent work, with short deadlines. No possible changes to the situation were discussed, mostly because everyone knew the situation could not be improved. The team were understaffed and more cuts were coming, so the overwork would just have to continue, and probably get worse. On day three of their return they were being sent all over town to cover senior management at various meetings. At the end of week one of their return they were on their knees and felt ill again already.

Then two weeks after their return they got a letter from HR informing them that they had reached a ‘Trigger Point’ in their sickness absence record – 15 days in one year – and were on course for disciplinary action.

Being made ill by work and then punished for being ill by the people who caused you to be ill. That’s irony Alanis, pop it in your song.

The ‘Trigger Point’ is 14 days in one year. The 14 days includes weekend days.

Yes, seriously.

So if you have a doctor’s note for two weeks, that’s 14 days of absence. Not 10 like you might think with your normal rational brain. 14. Saturday and Sunday. The day of rest no less. You can’t even be sick on your own time here.

The 15th day they recorded was a day that the person actually worked, but because it was during their doctor’s note (the final day of the note – which was revised to ‘may be fit for work’ to allow their return) it was counted as a sick day. Even though they were in the building working their arse off. That issue is still being appealed so may yet be rectified, as it seems ridiculous, but HR has been told this information several times and still remain insistent on disciplinary action, so maybe logic has left the building forever and Major Major is counted as out when he’s in.

When the person asked if this letter would be sent to someone coming back to work after a long term illness like cancer, they were told that, yes it totally would.

Wunnerful eh?

The letter stated that the person’s manager would have a formal meeting with them where action would be decided. This is what might save their bacon. According to the rules managers can decide not to take action in exceptional circumstances, at their discretion. Fortunately this person’s manager is not inclined to give them a warning, but how’s that for a bully’s charter? If you don’t have a great relationship with your manager they can give you a formal warning – which could lead to your dismissal – even if you have just come back from a serious illness.

The person sent me a copy of the new sickness absence guidebook. It’s very DWP work capability assessment esque. And we know how well that’s going don’t we? Ah, more sarcasm. Here are some snippets:

Attendance discussions will focus on what the employee can do rather than what they cannot, enabling them wherever possible to remain at work instead of taking sickness absence

The Department is committed to promoting a culture of attendance

The Department is committed to reducing the number of working days lost through sickness absence and the impact this has on the business

Generally, being in work is good for physical and mental health and well-being. In many cases an on-going attachment to, and focus on, work can lead to a speedier recovery

We don’t need to be 100% fit to be at work

The manager should adopt a work-focussed approach during all discussions with the employee throughout their sickness absence

Adopt a work-focussed approach to reduce the likelihood of further sickness absences

A work focussed approach to managing sickness absence

Don’t know about you but I’d love to know what a work focussed approach to gastroenteritis would look like.

I understand that people can’t just be off sick all the time. I would never argue for that. As someone who works in a small team, irregular attendance can be disastrous. However the Government are, as usual, approaching the situation with the view that everyone is a chancer who needs to be cracked down on. There isn’t an epidemic of long term sick leave, there just isn’t. People taking the piss are rare and can be managed out because they will usually also be poor performers and insolent. Long term genuine illness is also rare, and has to be managed sensitively. So this shit falls uncomfortably between two stools and is of little use to anyone.

They are also clearly viewing all of their workers as mere resources, to be tapped, exhausted and then slapped on the wrist when they drop down through work related exhaustion. There is no people focus here. Business, business, business, work, work, work. Pesky people damaging business with their frail mortality.

The cherry on top of this foul tasting cake is how dead keen they are to claw back time lost to them through illness but not so keen to recognise all the extra work and unpaid overtime people are doing. An ugly double standard.

Bonuses are limited and people are being told during their reporting year that they cannot attain a top box marking at review time because of top down pressure to mark everyone as ‘adequate’ regardless. So you work all year, doing the job of three people, you get an adequate marking, no bonus and then a cheeky disciplinary if you collapse under the pressure.

Hard working families my arse.


The person has since had a meeting with HR about the sickness policy. They were told the following:

There is pressure from the top i.e. the Government, to apply this policy.

The policy is going to be rolled out throughout the public sector soon and will be the uniform policy everywhere before too long.

HR admitted they did not agree with much of the policy and it had caused them a great deal of problems with many complaints received, but “unfortunately it is here to stay”

The trigger points at this person’s department are 14 days (including weekends) in 12 months and 7 days (including weekends) in 6 months.

Apparently these are generous allowances and at many other places it takes less than this to trigger a warning letter and formal meeting.

There used to be teams to examine absence cases on a more individual basis – i.e. stop an automated letter going to someone who has just come back from hospital or time off for cancer – but this team has been cut. Obviously. Cut everything why don’t ya Dave?

The team who sends out the letters are basically just administrators and do not have the training or knowledge to respond to queries from the people who get the letters. Hence this person having their query and follow-up emails ignored for a fortnight. The net result is a nasty letter gets generated and then radio silence follows if you ask about it. Nice and stressful.

Counting weekends is justified because technically – by bent of being paid annually – we are paid at weekends. Yeah, sure, right, so why am I never called in?...

The justification for the letter and formal meeting was that it is all about supporting people back into work. That old DWP chestnut. However when the person asked if this was not the function of the return to work interview, HR got a bit muddled. They confirmed that the formal meeting did not replace a return to work interview, that it was supplementary and there still needed to be a return to work one. Thus undermining the line that the formal meeting is about supporting people back to work. The return to work interview does this. The formal meeting is where the manager decides whether or not to punish you for your sickness absence based on whether it is ‘causing a concern to the business’. I don’t see how that helps the employee. This Government need to make their bullshit less obvious they really do.

The nature of the sickness is irrelevant. Cancer, depression, anything at the trigger point could get you a warning letter and a formal meeting.

The person asked if someone with a doctor’s note for serious illness, or someone returning from in-patient hospital treatment could be given a formal warning. They were told yes, but the line manager should make the right call. The person asked what if the line manager makes the wrong call or worse, has a grievance against the staff member and can use the system to bully them? HR said if a warning was given in these circumstances a complaint could be raised. The person pointed out that people who were sick or in a vulnerable situation (i.e. stress/depression/working for a bully) might not feel able to raise a complaint or have the energy to fight one. The HR rep had nothing to say to this and just made a sympathetic face and said they understood where the person was coming from.

The person asked about infectious diseases. Should they come in with gastric flu, ebola, the plague? Infect everyone and make entire teams of people go sick in their wake? Or what about the time they had shingles? Should they have come in and risked the life of their pregnant line manager’s baby? HR said no, it absolutely wasn’t the intention for people to come in when ill. Hard to see what the actual intention is then, because if people are going to be disciplined for taking a week off with gastric flu the inevitable result will be people forcing themselves in whilst ill.

The person asked why the letter and absence guidance was worded so harshly. HR confirmed a less confrontational version of the letter was being drafted in conjunction with the Union in time for the New Year. Returning to the issue of the guidance, the person pointed out that it was written in a very leading way that implied that formal disciplinary action should be the normal response to any trigger letter. HR actually strongly agreed with this, but said it wouldn’t be changing.

So there we have it, a sickness policy that overrules doctor’s notes, punishes you regardless of circumstance, has low triggers compounded by the taking into account of weekends and ultimately relies solely on the whim of your line manager, who could be a bully or an incompetent.

Let’s just all just run away and join the circus.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Pull back and reveal

My uncle recently found a card I had made, aged six, in my grandma's memory box.

It is my first documented pull back and reveal joke. And also evidence in any future murder trials I may be the subject of.

Here we have a nice looking house. Christmas wreath on the door. Santa going down the chimney to deliver the gifts. Lovely:

And here we have Santa hanging in the chimney, facing his fiery death with the dead eyes of true hopeless despair:

Interesting to note that there are already some presents under the tree.

Perhaps this card is a comment on the existence, or not, of Santa.

It was my Nietzsche moment.

Santa is dead kids. Santa is DEAD!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Corrections, clarifications and recriminations

They say the best things in life are free.

They can't have read the Metro.

On 11 June the Metro printed a story wherein they called Mencap a mental health charity.

A mistake. Fine. It happens. So I emailed their corrections and clarifications address pointing out that they are a learning disability charity and that learning disability and mental health are quite different things.

Checked the paper the next correction.

Checked the paper the day after...still no correction. All the time, other corrections are being printed.

So I emailed them again asking for a reply and adding that it was Learning Disability Week (at the time) and ironically enough the theme this year was 'what is a learning disability?' The reason for this theme being a general misunderstanding about the nature of learning disability, so it would be a really apt and helpful correction to print.


I emailed one more time because hope springs eternal right?

Then after a long pause...............................(these dots represent said long pause, to immerse you, dear reader, in the experience.....................and lo, at last, an answer! Oh. A rather snarky answer. Odd.

"Thank you for your notes.
Mencap has been described as a mental health charity in the media for many years.
A quick Google search will find many references in the media and I am old enough to remember the origin of the Mencap name.
Having said that, I take your point and note the current description of the charity as ‘the voice of learning disability’.
In future references to the charity we will endeavour to use ‘learning disability charity’ or similar. But ultimately, the charity and not the media is responsible for getting its message across and for the way it is portrayed. Our aim with descriptors generally is to let readers know who we are talking about and that inevitably may reference the past"

They agreed to use the correct term in future, which is good, but what's with the snark and the smug?

The (strangely overconfident for someone who is wrong) assertion that it started as a mental health charity and that he himself knows this from being aged and wise and knowing the origin of the name.

(Anyone who had an actual grasp of the name would know that it comes from The Royal Society for Mentally Handicapped Children and Adults. Hence Mencap. Not Menhealth)

Then the compounding of that incorrect factoid born of muddled memory or guesswork by only conceding that the correct description - borne out by a visit to their website - is actually merely the 'current description'. So begrudging and sulky.

The batting back of responsibility for their mistake to MENCAP, even though MENCAP get their message across very clearly thanks very much. Something that is undermined by incorrect reporting over which they have very little control.

The inference that previous incorrect references in the media mean that the media can repeat said wrongness ad nauseum, because fact checking is for losers right?

And a worrying reference to perfunctory Google searches, which explains a lot about the quality of their journalism.

They never printed the correction either. A correction that was definitely worth printing. The most they could promise is that they would try to use the 'current' (for current read correct) term from now on, but may inevitably fail.

Nice people. Excellent journalists. Great paper.

Correction: Twats, hacks, rag.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Ghost Hunt!

Hey look, it’s another sporadic blog entry!

Sorry, no discipline. It’s just so much easier to post a 140 character Tweet. Maybe that thing about the internet destroying attention spans wasn't a myth...oh look, a poodle...sorry what was I doing here?

Oh yes, one of my infrequent blogs. I suppose it keeps it special though, eh? Like spotting a yeti or a ghost.

And speaking of...

A couple of weeks ago, I went to 30 East Drive. A property billed as being home to Europe's most violent poltergeist.

As you can tell, I'm still alive. That's one spoiler alert that I can't help, sorry.

I answered an invitation from a friend who I met when I was doing comedy. He goes on lots of ghost hunts and has all of the equipment; emf meters, temperature gauges, night vision cameras.

I figured at the very least it would make for a more interesting than usual response to the dreaded “What did you do at the weekend?” question you get at the work tea point every Monday morning. A refreshing change to: “Not much, you?” - “No, not much”

Providing I survived. Which we have already established I did. More spoilers!

As we turned off the motorway on to the a-road leading to Pontefract we were greeted by a huge sign in a field which said ‘Prepare to Meet Your God’. A fantastic omen.

I should probably stop here for a moment and just state my position.

I was going along as an open minded sceptic. I like to think I am logical, rational and all those synoyms – see my previous blog entry on ghosts and how we frame everything backwards according to experience and preconception – however when I was little a few things happened which are hard to explain.

My dad was pushing me on a swing in our back garden. My mum was in hospital having just had my brother. I started waving and saying goodbye to, apparently nobody. Dad asked who I was waving to. I named the person and said they were saying goodbye and going away. When we got to the hospital we bumped into my nan who said that her neighbour, of that name, had just died.

I don't remember this as I was too young, so I can't conclude anything. The only explanation I have is that I may have overheard the grown-ups talking about her. Maybe they were mentioning she was ill or something and my imagination went with it. I didn't know her and hadn't interacted with her. My nan lived on the Old Kent Road and I lived in West Wickham. At that age, I only went there for a couple of hours at Christmas.

The house in West Wickham was weird too. My mum didn't like to be there on her own. When she put the TV on heavy footsteps started going up and down the stairs. Then when she muted it, they abruptly stopped. I used to claim there was an old man in the house, coming up the stairs. I used to run to bed and clean my teeth under the duvet. Again, I can’t conclude anything. I was too young to remember seeing him. I have no memory of any of it. But I have been told all of the stories. Here’s one which is really rather creepy.

Mum says I had a toy bunny, like the ones in the Duracell adverts, which I used to play with to excess. It was taken off me one day to give my parents some peace. The batteries were taken out and the bunny was placed on the top of a wardrobe out of my reach. In the middle of the night what do my parents hear? The bunny. Batteries back in, marching around my bedroom floor whilst I watched on from my crib. If I'd have been on the ball I would have said “They're heeeeere” in a squeaky voice. Ah, l'esprit d'escalier.

I can't think of an explanation for that one. But the absence of an explanation still doesn't mean ghosts. So yeah, open minded sceptic. More things in heaven and earth, only know I know nothing etc etc.

Whatever, back to the ghost hunt!

30 East Drive is an ordinary looking, fairly modern council property. A strange place for a black monk to haunt you might think. He should be in an abbey or a castle. But apparently there was a gallows on the site of the house and he was hanged for a crime he didn't commit, hence the restless spirit roaming the earth story. There is also supposed to be a little girl in there, and according to the neighbour, an evil elemental in the bathroom. Quite off-putting when you're on the loo I expect.

First impressions on entering were: it's freezing, it smells funny, the atmosphere is tangibly 'orrible. The former two were down to the property being uninhabited, the latter because of the story behind the house. It was odd though, being that struck by the unpleasantness of a place, despite the rational explanation.

(The d├ęcor didn't help. The guy who bought the house – the producer of the movie about it, which we watched in the house that night, woooooo! – has done his best to recreate the look of the place at the time of the poltergeist activity. Old furniture, old carpet, bare beds, creepy china dolls. He has bloody well succeeded)

The cold was weird though it has to be said. I've been in a house that hasn't had the heating on for a long while. This was a different cold. Extra cold. It clung to you. Literally. There was a point in the night where I thought someone was squeezing my legs (actually there was a point where someone really did this – hid under a bed and grabbed my ankles in the dark – I didn't flinch and am therefore, in the words of Alan Partridge, braver than ten firemen and a dozen policemen) The time I am talking about though, I was standing alone in the main bedroom. It felt like something tightening around my legs. I stood there for ages, trying to be objective about this weird feeling. Then I looked down and it turned out the cold and damp had caused my jeans to cling to my legs really tightly. I see now why people on Most Haunted keep insisting that someone is touching their leg (apart from the need to fabricate activity for their TV show that is) There were also sudden drops in temperature in certain isolated spots now and then.

“But were there any weird occurrences?” I don’t hear you say because how could I? Well, one or two.

When we were setting up for the baseline tests my friend found that all of his fully charged batteries had drained to zero power. Apparently this is something commonly reported at 30 East Drive. He put them in the wall charger and we went off to do some of the tests as a group. When we all came back, the wall charger had been switched off. Nobody admitted to doing it. We were all upstairs and the front door was locked. That was interesting. Not beyond explanation but interesting.

During the early hours light orbs were seen on film and on still camera – some say this is supposed to be ghosts trying to manifest, some say it's reflection and dust. So debatable and explainable. There was however an unexplained light which flashed brightly when we were asking for activity. We were in the sitting room and it flashed past the glass door connecting to the kitchen. It was like a car headlight but much more focused and very bright. Our resident die hard sceptic was in the kitchen at the time and my mate said that it had pained the guy to report that there were no cars going past when it happened. That too was interesting and we can't find an explanation for the source of the light. All of the lights and torches were off and the biggest sceptic among us was in the room where the light came from.

The best bit of the night was when we all went off to sit in different parts of the house in the dark. My friend went into the coal shed, where the dad who lived there at the time of the poltergeist activity got locked in by unseen hands, apparently. A friend of his who was standing outside in the kitchen asked “Where are you in the house? Are you in the coal shed?” At which point the motion sensor outside the coal shed went off. My friend leaped out of there and ran at his mate, who kicked the kitchen door shut behind them. My friend decided to put that down to setting up the motion sensor carelessly and it falling over by itself. Amazing timing though eh? Only time in the night it went off.

In the absence of actually seeing a ghost, shaking its hand and having a chat, I remain an open minded sceptic. It was a fun night though and I would recommend a ghost hunt whatever your perspective on the matter.

Here are some photos

The group at the start of the night

Sign on the kitchen door

Creepy decor

Using the emf meter in the coal shed

Stairs where the black monk is supposed to walk

Watching the film about the house, in the house

Waiting for something to happen in the dark

Lights out selfie

Monday, 26 January 2015

Now *that's* magic

Hi. Sorry for never blogging. It's a combination of being way too busy and not interesting enough.

Anyway, before I disappear back into silence, I wanted to show you something.

My friend Jane got me the birthday present to end all birthday presents: A personalised message from Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee.

Drink it in: