A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times


           
            Every December, usually around the evening of the 24th, as I find myself buffeted along all the brightly lit corridors of the Trafford Centre by numerous happy, laughing, greedy, materialistic shopping crowds, and as the frosty nights draw in and the pavement artists draw on, I often ponder the true meaning of the Christmas festival and despair of ever understanding its real significance. I have in the past, searched everywhere for the answer to this perennial spiritual enigma. I once rather stupidly, (considering they were unwise enough to employ my daughter Charlotte), asked the lady in the information booth at Selfridge’s. She seemed to know the answer to every other question of life, the universe and everything that is, so I enquired of her what the real significance of the Christmas celebration was. She said in a rather disdainful, humdrum and monotone way, “Try ‘leather goods’ dear.” At the time, I was too young to understand what she meant and in actual fact, I still am. Not a good sign at all.
            I then asked my mother the same question, but she misheard me and gave me the standard lecture that she had learned from the Family Doctor booklet on How Babies are Made. As a matter of fact, she also gave me the very same lecture when I asked her about VAT, and now that I have fully experienced both, I can honestly say that I do see the similarity. Anyway, unabated in my quest, I later asked my father and he said, “My dear girl,” (his sight was failing somewhat, or possibly his memory, maybe even both or was it my ever increasing man-boobs?) “Christmas is nothing but an evil commercial invention of the capitalist consortiums to increase profits, and it would be a whole lot better if it came in February when business is slack.”
            So, armed with this fascinating lack of understanding, last year I again set out to learn the real essence of Christmas for myself. As I ventured forth on this voyage of discovery, delving deep into the innermost crinkles of my psyche, I tried to be totally honest. After all, it was Christmas. I knew that deep down inside, I loved Christmas. But was it, I asked myself, merely because of the gaudy shops jammed with glossy novelties and bright cheap baubles? Was it merely the commercial spirit and the profit motive that so lifted my heart? Was it merely the exchange of monies and the tinkling of cash registers that made me look forward to Christmas from Boxing Day onwards? And being as shallow as I am, I answered: Yes, yes it was. Christmas is the time when the Spirit of Giving is everywhere in evidence, and if there is one thing I enjoy more than all others, it is to allow other people to enjoy themselves by giving me lots of presents. Who am I to refuse them this privilege of giving? I know that in so doing I deny myself the pleasure of giving on my own account, but no true joy ever comes without sacrifice does it?
            But then I carried my self-exploration a step further. Granted that Christmas signifies the widespread joy of others in giving me gifts, what is the most enjoyable aspect of the Christmas shops? What then is the single most feature, so unique to the Christmas shops, that brings such rare happiness to the aching heart?
            My quest took me to my most favourite of all shops, the book shop. And while musing upon a pile of new and glossy Christmas releases in a brightly lit, tinselly clad modern book shop, I stumbled across a rather strange book. It told a simple tale of a child born in an animal’s manger in a stable, because there was no room at the inn for the mother and putative father. The book came in a plain but stout and shiny cardboard slip case, which also held another book telling of the creation of the world and the first man and woman in it thereof. They were marked the Old & New Testaments.
            And then all at once, the answer came to me in a flash. I suddenly realised that I was holding in my hands the two books and the slip case which held the key to the real essence of Christmas. The real essence of Christmas, it came to me in a burst of (no pun intended) revelation, is: THE BOXED SET. All over the world, to worshippers of every creed, colour, language and credit card, Christmas means that special time of the year when their favourite volumes are miraculously transmogrified and wrapped, bound in identical spines and glittering with uniform lettering, in a skin of glistening cellophane inside an all singing all dancing festive and shiny case. Can there be anything else more satisfying to the human spirit I ask you?
            Now that we know the full mystery of Christmas and the boxed set, let us now ask ourselves what it is about the boxed set that exerts such miraculous and seasonal a pull? Well first of all, and above all else, a boxed set of books is something truly substantial. If someone gives you a boxed set, it tells you something, a great deal in fact about the donor straight away. It tells you that they were prepared to spend three (or even four) times as much money on you as they would have normally done if they had bought you only a single book. Secondly, the boxed set appeals to two basic human emotions simultaneously – the first being a desire to read, learn and inwardly digest, and secondly, the desire to collect things in sets. And in the event of a clash, the latter usually always wins over the former. Such is the level of our fickle mindset.
            Of course the book industry hasn’t been alone in appreciating the above mentioned deeper meaning of Christmas for many years. Thus not only are special boxed sets of the testaments widely available, but for many years now, there have been special Christmas sets of other books, CDs, DVDs, cosmetics, cleaning fluids and even biscuits too. And to give these sets a special appeal and purpose, these boxed sets are imbibed with familiar feel good titles such as: “Family Selection”, “Greatest Hits” and “Complete Works.” One such example being “The Complete Works of Charles Dickens”, and in keeping with the Christmassy Theme of this dialogue, I now give you my very own tribute to that master of writers with my very own rendition of “A Christmas Carol” in:


WHAT THE DICKENS?

            Bob Cratchit groaned loudly, loudly enough to be heard over the buzz of the counting house computers. “But Mr Scrooge, it’s just not fair! You do this to us every Christmas. We just want to go home and be with our families!
            Ebenezer Scrooge swayed on the ladder in surprise and let the highly coloured tinfoil streamers drift downwards like snowflakes. His light up Santa Claus hat slid perilously over one eye.
            “But we always have a Christmas party,” he told his senior clerk. “It’s a company tradition. You know – egg-nog, mince pies and a good old sing song? The big binge. Furtive flings behind the filing cabinet. Secretaries faxing photocopies of their nether regions to our Birmingham office. Punch ups in the car park. It’s a great night.”
            Bob Cratchit sighed. “For you maybe, but not for the rest of us. We appreciate the thought, and don’t think we’re not grateful. But none of us likes Christmas any more. We think it’s a terrific waste of time and money.” Ebenezer’s mouth fell open.
            “But everyone loves the Chrissy party blow-out. It’s the highlight of the year!”
            Bob silently waved a hand around the high-tech trading floor of Scrooge and Marley International PLC. There wasn’t a Christmas card, a clump of mistletoe or an advent calendar in sight. Even the usual dog-eared artificial tree had gone – manhandled earlier through the office shredder.
            “Sorry Mr Scrooge,” he said, “but we’re sick of it. You’re the only person left in Canary Wharf who looks upon Christmas as anything more than a pain in the wallet. This year we’re all giving it a miss.”
            Blinking in surprise, Scrooge held up his sprig of mistletoe.            “But what do I do with this?”
            Bob Cratchit bit his lip and shrugged, resisting the overwhelming temptation to reply with the obvious, painful answer.

**********

            That night, as he enjoyed a televised carol service, Ebenezer couldn’t help feeling sorry for his trusty staff. Getting them into the festive spirit was going to be a real problem and no mistake, he told himself, but he was determined not to be beaten. He was about to ring Bob and invite him over for a Yuletide drink, when the TV picture unexpectedly vanished – replaced by a snowstorm of interference.
            Tutting, Ebenezer fiddled with the controls, but couldn’t get the picture back. Instead, as he watched, a face formed in the swirling dots … a face he knew well – it was his old partner Jacob Marley.
            Ebenezer thought he was going to faint. “I-I-I don’t believe it,” he gasped, “You’re dead. Buried. Gone. It can’t be!”
            Jacob Grinned. “No-one dies on television, you know that. There are always repeats.” The phantom winked. “Think of it this way. I’ve been sent to give you a message.”
            “A message? What message?”
            “A message from our sponsor. Mend your ways, Ebenezer Scrooge. You must abandon all this Christmas nonsense before it’s too late!”
            Ebenezer was baffled. Christmas nonsense? When Jacob was alive, he’d enjoyed the annual knees-up more than anyone.
            “Ah, but I was a fool, an empty headed fool,” the spirit told him, reading his thoughts. “Like you, I savoured the delights of plum pudding and crackers. I, too, watched the Queen’s Speech and bought over-priced wrapping paper. But I was wrong – Oh so wrong. Christmas was my undoing and it shall be the end of you, Ebenezer!”
            Shaking his head, Ebenezer told himself that he was having an hallucination. Snatching the TV remote, he flicked to another station, but Jacob’s features continued to stare at him. Anxiously, he flicked through the channels but the ghost image remained chillingly the same.
            “Learn by my mistake,” his dead partner pleaded, “remember my festive fate. I died at the office party, choking on a mince pie while groping at Mavis from the typing pool. That little nibble did for me. Don’t let it happen to you …”
            Ebenezer was terrified but he stood his ground. “You’ve got metaphysical sour grapes,” he said. “Just because your Christmas didn’t work out, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t enjoy mine.”
            At that Jacob wailed, almost knocking Ebenezer off his feet.
            “You’re a fool, Ebenezer, completely Christmas Crackers. I see there is no alternative but to show you the error of your ways.” His voice dipped low and menacing. “Tonight you shall be visited by three spirits….”
            “Spirits? Oh goody, I love a nice spirit – especially that one with whiskey and cream. What’s it called again?”
            “DO NOT MOCK!!” the screen boomed. “These spirits will show you things that will chill your blood. Things that will touch your very soul. Fear their coming, Ebenezer Scrooge, fear them.”
            With that the television switched back to the carol service.

**********

            After several drinks, including that one with the whiskey and cream, Ebenezer convinced himself that he’d been the victim of one of Bob Cratchit’s famous practical jokes – like the exploding toilet seat in the executive loo during last year’s wages dispute.
            “I’ll have to think up some prank of my own to play on him,” he thought happily, as he fell asleep clutching his copy of Delia’s Yuletide Yummies.
            He was dreaming about revenge when a hand fell on his shoulder and a rasping voice whispered: ”Wake up Ebenezer. It’s a spook at bedtime!”
            Blinking, he sat up groggily and gazed in shock. Within an instant he was wide awake, shaking. There, floating above him, towering above him, swirling above him, were three incredible visions from Hell.
            The first nightmarish figure was decked out in flashing Christmas tree lights while the second wore a garish orange sweater several sizes too big, and sported a necklace made up of bottles of cheap aftershave. The third wore only a black hooded shroud. Together they looked like a Stephen King version of the Three Stooges.
            “W-w-who are you?” Ebenezer demanded.
            “I’m the ghost of Christmas Past,” the twinkling apparition said, “and this…” he pointed to his nearest companion, “is the ghost of Christmas Present.”
            The second phantom gave a little wave.
            “And the character on the end is the ghost of Christmas to Come. He doesn’t speak much.”
            The shrouded figure on the end nodded slowly – like a coffin lid being lowered.
            Ebenezer grasped the duvet tightly. “Wha-what do you want with me?” he stammered. “I’ve done nothing wrong! You’ve got the wrong bloke. I love Christmas. I can’t get enough of it.”
            “That,” said the first ghost “is the problem. You’ve got it bad. You’re suffering from acute tinselitis.”

**********

            “LET ME get this straight,” Ebenezer said after the apparitions had spent half an hour explaining things to him, “you’re here to make me despise Christmas?”
            “That’s the idea,” the spirit of Christmas Past agreed, “we’ve only got one night to save you from yourself so we’re keen to get cracking. Haunting is not cheap and we charge double time after midnight.”
            Ebenezer shrugged. “Sounds a bit bizarre if you ask me, but go ahead. But you won't find anything in the past to upset me. I remember the Christmases of my childhood, and they were all wonderful. Lovely times, warm, friendly times ... joyous times.”
            The phantom made a face. “Joyous times? I’ve never heard such sentimental clap trap in all my life.”
            It soared over to Scrooge’s side. “Memory plays tricks, my schmaltzy old friend, and it’s done a whole Paul Daniels routine on you.”
            With that it snapped its fingers and Ebenezer felt himself lifting, being sucked towards the grandfather clock. Swirling round and round, he gazed as the clock’s hands whizzed backwards and he was transported back through time – back to December 25th 1946.
            The swirling stopped abruptly. He gasped, watching himself at the age of six, sitting by the Christmas tree, sobbing.
            “You don’t remember this, do you?” The spirit whispered in his ear. “You don’t remember getting a smack because you wouldn’t kiss your Great Auntie Enid. Remember her nasty, horrible moustache and how sick it made you feel?”
            Ebenezer swallowed hard. He had forgotten that. The ghost pressed on. “And what about the nauseatingly cutesy pixie suit your mother made you wear. Remember what a fool you felt in it, and how the other boys used to jeer?”
            Scrooge shivered at the recollection.
            “And what about the Christmas party piece you had to sing for all the adults. Little Boy Blue. YUCK!!”
            Suddenly, Ebenezer felt hot. The ghost’s prompting brought back a tidal wave of bad memories. How could he have forgotten all those awful family parties with his hateful cousins and grandmother complaining all the way through lunch that the sprouts were too hard for her false teeth?
            “Okay,” he conceded, “perhaps it wasn’t all that great back then, but I’ve had some fantastic Christmases as an adult.”
            Sighing, Christmas Past brought them back from Scrooge’s childhood. The apparition patted his colleague on the back. “Over to you, Present old lad. Tell it like it is.”
            “I am the ghost of Christmas Present,” the second spirit announced, “or rather, I am the ghost of Christmas Presents. The spirit of all those naff, totally tasteless, useless gifts people give you at Christmas.” He clapped his hands, and the flat began to fill with a treasure trove of tat.
            “Behold,” he said, “the flotsam and jetsam of Christmas consumerism. The overpriced, tweeley packaged, cringe making stuff no one would ever buy at any other time of the year.”
            Gazing at the huge mountain of packages, Ebenezer gasped. There were space-age silver Christmas trees, tablemats with Dickensian street scenes, a plastic nativity scene with light up baby Jesus, a Mr & Mrs Snowman cruet set, a Santa Claus jewellery box that played Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer, ceramic cherubs, artificial candlesticks, a family sized tin of Monarch of the Glen shortbread – enough yuletide yuckiness to fill a dozen mail order catalogues.
            “And that still doesn’t include socks, hankies, individually packaged Olde Worlde English Marmalades or...” The phantom pointed sadly to his jumper and after shave bottles, “the old favourites.”
            Stunned, Ebenezer realised that the ghost was right. Most Christmas gifts were over-priced rubbish – useless items even a junk shop wouldn’t handle. He had cupboards full of stuff he’d never even opened.
            Confused and suddenly depressed, he looked across at the third ghost. “Of all the spirits, you are the one I truly fear the most,” he said, with a gulp “Show me what horrors are to come.”
            Silently, the shrouded figure pointed a bony finger towards the television set and it flared into life. On the screen Ebenezer could see the Cratchit family.
            The scene in their front room was bedlam. Bob and his wife knelt on the floor, hands over their ears. All around them chaos reigned as the kids re-enacted the Battle of the Somme.
            A karaoke machine boomed out Here it is – Merry Christmas, electronic toys beeped and whirled, computer games screamed, and the kids yelled at the top of their lungs, trying to be heard over the ear-splitting din.
            The children berated their parents for not buying enough batteries, while Bob tried to explain that the shops were shut. The kids were in no mood to listen! Even saintly Tiny Tim jumped up and down in a tantrum, snapping his walking stick.
            “Is this the future then?” Ebenezer asked, shuddering. The ghost didn’t answer, but Ebenezer needed no reply. He gazed hollow-eyed at the three spirits. So this was the true face of Christmas. The face he’d never seen. Childhood misery, cheap shoddy gifts and an electronic nightmare to look forward to. Now he knew why most people groaned at the mere mention of the word Christmas.
            “Okay,” he told the rapidly fading phantoms, “you win. I’m convinced.”


**********

            Early next morning, Ebenezer leapt out of bed and phoned his secretary in a panic. Glenda sounded surprised: “A flight? Today? But where?”
            “Anywhere,” Ebenezer replied, “Timbuktu, Outer Mongolia, the South Pole. I just want to escape this Yuletide lunacy. Away from crowded shops, turkey leftovers, family quarrels, department store Santas, piped carols and the 100th re-run of the Sound of Music.”
            Glenda was convinced that her boss had finally flipped, but she promised to do her best. She rang back after an hour.
            “I’ve managed to get you booked one way on an Air China flight to Shanghai,” she announced. “It wasn’t easy at this time of year, but I pulled a few strings.”
            He hung up well before she had a chance to wish him a Merry Christmas, and began his packing. Somehow he managed to block the idiotic festivities from his brain, even getting the taxi driver to stop humming I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day with the promise of a large tip.
            At last Ebenezer was safely on the plane. He settled back in his seat, relaxing, letting every thought of Christmas drain away. As the engines roared into life, he allowed himself a satisfied smile. He had done it! He’d escaped the Boxing Day blues. He was leaving the mistletoe madness behind.
            “Boiled sweet?” the stewardess asked, thrusting a small basket at him.
            Gratefully, he popped one into his mouth. The sweet’s musty flavour took a moment to burst out onto his taste buds, but when it did he started to gag.
            “Bah,” he spluttered in disgust. “Humbug!..”



THE VERY ESSENCE OF CHRISTMASSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend



Delia liked to think that she was not a stupid woman, but what she had been was vulnerable. She was at her most vulnerable in 2001 when she first met Dave.

            Before then, she had been married to her first husband Tony, she'd had a good job in the city and through a course of natural progression, she gave up her job when her children came along - first a boy and then a girl and now she had a third on the way.

            Tony too, had a good job; they had a beautiful London home, two large cars and all the other perks that a large wage brought with it. The present was good for Delia and the future looked golden. But then, out of the blue, the couple split up. The divorce was bitter and she never felt so alone. With three little ones in tow, her life now revolved solely around her home and looking after them.

            It was then, in April 2001, that Dave introduced himself via a social networking site. They connected at once and began e-mailing each other, together they would communicate online straight through the passing nights, constantly laughing and chatting away. That was when Dave told Delia he was an international accounts manager, based in Riyadh, Saudi-Arabia. Just like Delia had once done, Dave had to travel a lot - Europe, Japan, and Australia. Delia was very impressed at the similarities between his high flyer status and that of her previous career.

            Delia wasn't too badly off financially. She'd kept the family home and Tony her ex paid the mortgage and gave her money for the kids - nearly £2000 a month. But Delia missed male company and wanted to share her life with someone again.

            Dave flew into London regularly. "Let’s meet for dinner," he suggested and in the May, he arranged to meet her at the London Hilton. Next they were to go off to see Simple Minds at the Royal Albert Hall, but at the last minute he cancelled, claiming that his grand-mother had died. Delia was somewhat disappointed to say the least, but she met with him again the following month. At this meeting, Dave showered her with all kinds of gifts including a diamond necklace he said he'd had imported from Riyadh.

            "It’s too much," Delia protested.

            "Anything for you," he smiled. And together, they had a wonderful time taking the kids to Brighton for the day... She felt she'd met someone very special.

But there was one very dark cloud on the horizon ... Cancer.

            "It’s in my pancreas," Dave said sadly. "But I'm getting treatment for it in Saudi. The very best that's available." He was so positive about it that Delia felt sure he could beat it. In the June, Dave returned home to Delia in London after his treatment. His head was shaved because his hair had fallen out in clumps, he'd told her but he still managed to take Delia and the kids away for the weekend to visit the steam railway at Sheffield Park in East Sussex.

            Brilliant! She thought dreamily, here was a man with a similar lifestyle to Delia's. He was a man who was extremely generous to her, and got on well with her children. What was there about him, not to love? She asked herself. Dave even proposed to her that same day, on bended knee too. Sure, it had been a whirlwind, but Delia felt positive he was a good man and he was very right for her.

            "Yes," she smiled.

            Dave had it all planned out for them, a diamond De Beers engagement ring, a dream wedding in the Caribbean, the works. He set about arranging it all. The children were thrilled, they wanted a father figure back in the family, and Dave was fast becoming just the man for the job.

            In August, Dave moved in with Delia. He'd quit his job in Saudi to be with her and the children. This was no longer a dream for Delia, it was actually happening. All her dreams were becoming a reality. He'd left all his stuff back at Saudi and arranged to have it all shipped over, it would be there within a couple of months. He was also due a lot of money, in bonuses and commissions from his company. That was coming too.

            He promised Delia he'd soon have another job lined up, after all, he had many skills he could call upon. For instance, he was also a qualified scuba diving instructor. In the meantime they'd just have to get by on her money but it would only be weeks at the worst.

            It was September now, and Dave had to fly off to America on business. No problem thought Delia, my ex used to take trips like that all the time. It was normal standard practice in their walk of life. But there was a nagging problem. Delia was worried about money. Between the cancer treatments and the trips abroad, Dave wasn't bringing in any money at all. But how can anyone pester a man with cancer about something as trivial as money? She was convinced he was good for it and it would all right itself in due course. That was when her headaches began.

            February brought more bad news. The dream wedding in the Caribbean had to be called off.

            "I'm so sorry," Dave said gently. It was all down to money again. Delia put on a brave face.

            "Its fine," she smiled somewhat disappointedly. But even worse was yet to follow...

            Dave had now been told he had problems with his legs. They were covered in bandages, the poor thing. Had the cancer spread? Delia thought. Her headaches, getting much stronger now.

            They married in early May at a registry office in Basingstoke. It was a surprisingly small affair for Delia and from Dave's side, only his mother came along. He pleaded with Delia not to mention the cancer for fear of upsetting her. Delia foolishly played along.

            It was a small but beautiful ceremony. An intimate affair with exquisite food and wine, all paid for by Delia of course. The only let down to the day, was that Dave's vintage Ferrari, somehow didn't make it to the wedding. The battery was flat she was told. He turned up in one of his other cars instead, it was only a battered Alfa Romeo. More headaches...

            Still the wedding was over now and it was time for the honeymoon. They were off to Disneyland in Paris. Although an official honeymoon, it was mainly for the kids. And once again the bill and further headaches came Delia's way.

            The kids were happy, and to a certain degree so was Delia, but she was getting more and more worried about the money. She'd already remortgaged the house, that's what they had been living off for the previous year and now the money had run out. She decided it was time to confront the situation.

            "Dave," she asked, "where's all the bonus money, the cash from your business deals? We can't go on living off my borrowings forever..."

            Dave smiled and gave a hint of a shrug.

"Sailing close to the wind makes you feel so alive don't you think?" he replied. Whatever could he mean? Alarm bells started to ring for Delia. Even though Dave was everything that Delia could have ever wanted in a man, there was something now that just didn't feel right. Her head was constantly banging by now, harder than ever before.

            Things weren't looking good at all. Dave was trying to persuade Delia to hike the mortgage up again. When they'd first met, it was for £125,000 and early on in the relationship he'd asked her to up it to £175,000 so he would have money to spend on deals that he was trying to pull off. That money had all gone now and he was asking Delia to up it to £300,000. She couldn’t and wouldn't do it and he wasn't happy at all.

            His moods started to worsen. He was fast becoming a perpetual slob around the house and furniture was now getting thrown during their arguing. Delia tiptoed her way around him now, not wanting the kids to see the full extent of her relationship mistake. They'd only been married for six months and she was already thinking of divorce. And, almost as if by magic, Dave's cancer was practically becoming nonexistent , it was now becoming obvious that it had all been nothing more than a scam, and the banging in Delia's head was getting still louder and louder.

            The very last straw was when Dave went behind Delia's back and asked her mother to lend him £20,000 for a lucrative deal. A deal that would secure an instant £5,000 payback with an additional £120,000 to follow. Luckily, her mother refused Dave the loan and had the foresight to tell her daughter all about it. Delia knew she was heading fast for bankruptcy now and had to find a way to bring this man down. He was now pushing for a divorce himself, in a bid for his freedom from her debts and Delia would cry herself to sleep at night, worrying about how to get out of this awful mess.

            Knowing there must be some form of evidence of Dave’s past deals and overdue commissions on his computer, Delia logged herself in to track down the missing money. She was in no way prepared for what she found next – Dave had been trawling through numerous online dating sites. He had been searching for women. Women in their mid thirties, women that were in some way damaged and vulnerable after previous bad relationships. Wealthy, wounded women, just like Delia had been. He was obviously setting up another sucker to replace her. He was now showing his true colours, he was nothing more than a simple conman.

            It was November now and still nothing had got any better. The debts were still piling up. The tempers still flaring up and the headaches were almost crippling. Fresh demands for divorce were coming thick and fast but Delia held firm. There was no way this monster was getting away scot free, she thought. Becoming a free agent once again, moving steadfastly on, to his next victim. Delia still had no idea of how to sort things out, but she knew that whilst she was still married to him, he was trapped. That certificate of marriage ensured that her debt was still considered as his debt too and there was no getting away from it for him. But still, she knew that as things stood, it was only ever going to be a stalemate situation.

            All through that month, Delia contorted her aching brain for a solution to her problems. And every single night she drew a complete blank. It wasn’t until the 26th that that evil man Dave was finally brought down. The war was finally won, but even then it could only be classed as a somewhat shallow victory with a somewhat disappointing outcome.

That night, it was Delia's headaches that had scored the winning point, releasing her from all her troubles in one foul swoop, as her aching brain haemorrhaged during her sleep. Delia was dead now, and Dave was to inherit her full estate. The children would go back to Tony under the terms of her will. But more importantly, it was finally time for Dave to pay off his dues.



COST OF LOVINGSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend



I have only ever given my children one piece of advice. Other parents I know talk solemnly about drugs, sex, pregnancy, work, manners and the importance of good A-level grades. But all I’ve ever told my kids is this: “No matter what, never salute a magpie.”

I don’t know when I got into the habit. Or even why. Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe it was boredom. But one day, while driving along, I saw a lone magpie hopping about on the grass verge and I saluted it. And that was that. I was hooked. And now, I know for sure that if I fail to salute even a single one of them I will catch cancer within the hour.

This is a huge problem in Milton Keynes where, for reasons known only to Bill Oddie, there are one trillion magpies, all of which hang around by themselves on the endless sponsored roundabouts.

I’d love to know how many people die on the town’s roads each year because the driver was warding off bad luck. I bet it’s millions.

All superstition is mumbo jumbo. I know that. As a result, I will happily walk under a ladder, and I know that if some bees come to my house it will not burn down. I realise too that a black cat will give me just as much asthma as a brown one and that if my left ear feels warm it’s because it’s a sunny day. And yet I have this magpie thing going on. It makes me very angry as there is no methadone. There is no clinic. There is no cure.

Still, it could be worse. I could believe in the power of ley lines, the magic of dance and that I have the ability, through deep concentration, to become a dog or a cow, so that I may experience life from its point of view. In short, I’m awfully glad I’m not a druid.

Last June they were at Stonehenge again to mark the summer solstice. Apparently, 36,500 poor souls got up in the middle of the night and were dragged by their beliefs and their little Citro├źns to a field in Wiltshire where they were forced by custom to mark the disappointingly cloudy dawn by chanting and pretending to be King Arthur.

As a saluter of magpies, I have every sympathy with these people and I wish them well. I like having hippies in the world. They bring a richness and a calm, and while they like to wear hoods, they do not beat up old ladies.

And that brings me on to the point of this morning’s blog entry. What in the name of whatever god you hold dear were the police doing using an unmanned spy drone to fly around, taking pictures of these people as they swayed gently in stillness of morning?

Can you imagine the hullabaloo if Dixon of Dock Green used similar tactics during a Catholic Church service?  If the smells and bells were drowned out by the relentless buzz of a spy plane? And let’s be honest, shall we? On the crime-o-meter, Johnny Pope’s merry little gang of bachelors is far more likely to be involved in serious wrongdoing than some dizzy druid bird with flowers in her hair.

I can see why the army might need a spy drone in Afghanistan. But how on earth could the Wiltshire constabulary justify the purchase of such a thing? To catch crop circlists? It’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.

And why were revellers limited to taking just four cans of beer each onto the site? This means there must have been a meeting at which a busybody in a trouser suit will have said “two” and then a fat man will have said “five”, and much discussion will have taken place, at our expense, before the figure of four was arrived at.

This is even more absurd, come to think of it, than the police spy plane. Certainly I feel sure that early man would not have embarked on the road to civilisation if he had thought that, one day, humankind would arrive at a point where one man has the right to determine how much beer another man may take into a field in the middle of the night.

Then there’s the drugs business. Now, I’m not going to come here and defend the use of narcotics. But we learnt last week that there are now 1m cocaine users in Britain. Statistically then we can be assured that marching powder is being used in the House of Commons, in village halls, in business meetings, at dinner parties and even, perhaps, by pop stars.

So why pick on the druids? Why send sniffer dogs to their annual summer get-together? We know there will have been some dope and we know, because they’d stayed up all night, that some of the Morris men will have got some marching powder up their schnozzers. But if it’s busts they’re after, Plod would probably have had a higher success rate if they’d had a snout about in their own locker rooms.

The fact is that despite the massive, and extremely costly, operation the police made only 37 arrests, mostly for minor public order offences. That’s 37 from a crowd of 36,500. One in a thousand, or thereabouts.

I’m not suggesting that the police ignore large gatherings of people.

Whether it’s a football match or a bunch of Tamils in Parliament Square, the forces of law and order need to be on hand to give people directions to the nearest bus stop and break up whatever fights may occur.

But I simply cannot understand why such large numbers were used to monitor a group of people who, by their very nature, pose about as much threat to the world as a flock of budgerigars. They hum. They make love to one another. They speak in Welsh. And they go home.

Certainly I can assure you that driving along while under the influence of a silly scare story about magpies is much more of a threat to the nation’s peace and tranquillity.



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Have you ever wanted to really fool a Traffic Warden? Then go jack up the side of your car, take a wheel off, lock it in the boot and go do the business...

            Dane Brooks is a member of the notorious Rossendale County Bachelors Drinking and Mayhem Club. Bragging one evening about how easy it would be to hoodwink a Traffic Warden, he found himself on the wrong end of a silly bet.

            Loosing face is a sin worse than losing one's pants to a County Bachelor, so Dane duly set out to honour - and win - the bet.

            The task before him was to stage a breakdown in his local High Street, on double yellow lines, for two hours during a peak shopping Saturday, without being lent assistance, towed away or told to get the Hell out of there by a Traffic Warden or anyone else. The twist was that his chosen vehicle should stand alone, no human being in attendance, during the whole of the two hours - and the entire proceedings had to be videoed for playback at the next CB party night.

            Dane set about his project with the dedication and detailed planning of an SAS commander. A beat up Transit van was selected for the event, borrowed from a local parcels carrier. Equipment included a professional garage trolley jack with pump handle, two tool boxes full of spanners, various greasy mechanical parts from underneath a similar Transit van, two pairs of matching, greasy blue mechanics overalls, two pairs of size eleven cheap, oily black boots, socks to match, a portable, battery driven cassette player with auto reverse, an old fashioned hearing aid, complete with lead and ear piece, two plastic red and white cones - and the bottom half of a male tailor's dummy.

            8:45am, one cold, wet Saturday morning (Dane had checked the weather forecasts. A warm, sunny day was not to be part of the plan). Transit and Dane drove into position in the High Street. Opposite, the proprietor of a TV shop, himself a County Bachelor, set up in his shop window a video camera, focusing on the van and locking the camera in position, a VCR unit inside the shop began recording the scene.

            Shoppers were not yet out and about. Zero minus 15 minutes!

            Dane hauled the trolley jack out of the van, positioned it under the front engine mounting and jacked up the front of the van about a foot into the air. Next he pulled the tailor's dummy out from the van, already dressed in the greasy mechanic's overalls, oily boots, etc. and slid the dummy under the side of the van, so that the boots and half a foot or so of the dummy's legs could be seen, roadside. Zero minus ten minutes.

            Next the cassette player was placed under the van, adjacent to the torso end of the dummy, and switched on. Dane had spent a happy half hour recording the tape in his garage the weekend before.

            The two tool boxes came out next. One was positioned next to the booted feet sticking out the off-side of the van. The other was positioned in front of the van, next to the jack handle. A few spanners were laid onto the road, along with the various greasy mechanical parts from underneath a similar Transit van. Zero minus five minutes.

Two road cones were then placed fore and aft of the van. Finally, the most important piece of equipment of all, the hearing aid, was laid out, carefully and conspicuously, on top of the tool box at the front of the van.

            Zero minus one minute. Dane took a final, careful look round his set, rubbed his hands with undisguised glee, and sauntered over to the TV shop to his observation post and a hot cup of coffee.

            Saturday shoppers began to bustle. Soon the High Street became a hive of activity, congested with people and with traffic. No one took the slightest notice of the broken down van under repair.

            At 9:21am, Dane's nerve was tested as a police car drove past the van. The two uniformed occupants looked across at the van, saw the mechanic at work and drove on without stopping. Dane could breathe once again.

            At 9:43am a Traffic Warden appeared, but she was on the TV shop side of the road. Female, already cold and damp from the morning rain, she stopped and looked across at the van. All appeared in order; road cones in place and a professional on the job. The Traffic Warden kept walking along the TV shop side of the High Street.

            10:37am. The Traffic Warden re-appeared, her usual half hour circuit had increased to nearly an hour because of the inclement weather. Again she stopped and looked across at the van. "Obviously a difficult job. Wonder if he needs assistance." She thought. She waited for a break in the traffic and crossed the High Street to the van side pavement. Dane began to worry, beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

            In accordance with standard practice, the Traffic Warden made a complete circuit of the van. She observed that the van belonged to a local carrier. She inspected the jack handle and the tool box at the front of the van. She wondered how a hearing aid could possibly help a mechanic repair a vehicle. She looked down at the size 11 oily black boots and the greasy overall legs sticking out from under the van, road side. As she made her inspection she heard the normal kind of spanner noises, clanks and mild swearing coming from beneath the van, intermingling with the humming of one of the County Bachelor's favourite war chants.

            Dane's pre-recorded tape was performing well.

            The Traffic Warden grimaced at the sight of the greasy mechanical parts which the mechanic had obviously stripped from the van's belly. Clearly this was going to be a long job. She raised her voice to compete against the traffic. "Need any help?" No response came from under the van. The spanner noises, swearing and humming continued. "NEED ANY HELP DOWN THERE?" The Traffic Warden shouted.

            Still no response. Across the High Street, Dane crossed his fingers. This was the weakest link in his plan. Would the Traffic Warden put two and two together and come up with five? Would she throw away months of rigid training and stoop down to look under the van? He prayed for a below average intelligence level and an above average ego. His prayer was soon answered.

            Shouting in the High Street was definitely beneath the dignity of a Traffic Warden. Standard procedure took over. Hands clasped behind her back she made another complete circuit of the van. At the front, her eyes once more made contact with the hearing aid on top of the tool box. "Of course," she exclaimed silently, "The man's deaf. That's why he didn't answer me."

            Across the High Street, Dane saw the Traffic Warden's head nod twice as she looked at the hearing aid. He hugged himself. It was going to work.

The traffic Warden made a third circuit of the van, trying to decide what best to do, paused on the pavement, looked hard at her watch, looked up at the rain filled sky, thought to herself, "Who needs this aggro?" and continued on her rounds.

            Much hilarity ensued in the TV shop. Dane looked at his watch. "Twelve minutes to go. We're practically in the clear."

            At 11:05am, Dane, dressed just like his dummy left the TV shop and crossed over to his van. First item to go back inside was the tailor's dummy - as fast as it could go. Then the greasy mechanical parts, equally as fast. No point in taking any chances this close to success.

            And a precaution well worthwhile, for, as Dane was straightening up from under the van, having retrieved and turned off his cassette player, he saw walking towards him the Traffic Warden, this time accompanied by a police constable.

            Dane just had time to put the cassette player into the back of the van and make sure the doors were firmly shut before they were upon him.

            "Sorted out the trouble?" the Traffic Warden asked warmly.

            Dane was thinking fast on his feet. He turned round to face the Traffic Warden and the policeman, and faked a "you startled me" expression.

            "SORTED OUT THE TROUBLE?" the Traffic Warden shouted, smiling, six inches from his left ear.

            Dane held up a finger, walked round to the front of the van, picked up the hearing aid, plugged the earpiece into his ear, made as if he was turning the aid on, gave it a tap and faced the two officials.

 "Sorry, can't hear without this. No good wearing it under the van. Get's in the way. Been here since a quarter to nine. Hell of a job, but it’s all okay now. Thanks for letting me get on with the job."

            "That's life." said the copper. "This weather, I reckon you've been in the driest place under there." And he and the Traffic Warden walked on.

            Dane had triumphed in his dare. The bet was won and his dignity was still intact unlike that of the Traffic Warden, who would be diligently torn apart at the next CB party. 



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Recently, we heard in the news, about two neighbours fighting over a bit of lawn with a bush on it. And, at a cost of God knows how much, the case has ended up in the High Court in London. A court case. Over a shrub. It beggars belief.
Except it doesn’t any more. A friend told me yesterday about the dispute she’s been having. “The deeds to my house say people can drive cattle down the lane past my house but now my neighbour’s son has passed his driving test and he’s driving his car down there. So I’ve rebuilt the boundary wall, which means his car won’t fit any more. Ha ha ha.”
Then we have Griff Rhys Jones, who, a few Wednesdays ago, urged the nation’s canoeists — all four of them, I should imagine — to “disturb as many anglers as possible”. He claims that many stretches of river have been bought by private fishing clubs and are now therefore out of bounds to exponents of the eskimo roll.
I’m not immune to this either. All week, my partner has been at a public inquiry, started because some militant dog walkers in the Isle of Man wish to ramble through my kitchen and take YouTube footage of me on the lavatory. Or something like that.
And then there’s my friend, who moved house last year because the builder doing up the house next door took down a tree, or planted one. I can’t remember which, but I remember it being a hell of big deal. And, worse, it makes me wonder: are we perhaps starting to run out of space?
When you look at the figures, it’s hard to see why everyone is at one another’s throat. At present, only around 19% of the United Kingdom’s 95,000 square miles is built up, which doesn’t sound so bad. Certainly, if you look at the country on Google Earth, it appears to be a patchwork of nothing but fields with a smallish grey bit near the Thames estuary.
But plainly there is a problem. When you have Griff Rhys Jones and Jeremy Paxman actively wrestling with each other on the banks of the Kennet and Avon canal, and neighbours fighting in the High Court over a bloody bush, it’s very obvious the country is not just full. It’s actually starting to burst at the seams.
Plainly, the planning regulations are to blame. You aren’t allowed to build anything on Farmer Giles’s cabbages unless you join the freemasons. And since most people don’t wish to have their tongues pulled out for blabbing about the stupid handshake, developers are being forced to erect new dwellings in urban back yards. Which invariably causes even more friction with the neighbours whose view is about to be ruined.
So what’s to be done? Well, obviously, it would be stupid to relax the green-belt rules, partly because this would ruin the whole point of Britain and partly because we need all the space we can get for Ed Miliband’s plans to carpet-bomb every hillside in the land with his stupid and useless bird-mincing windmills.
And anyway, as the global population grows and farmland is built on, there will obviously come a time when we all have somewhere to live. But bugger all to eat.
The obvious solution is to spread out a bit. At present, the southeast of England has a greater population density than Puerto Rico. And it’s getting worse. Recent figures suggest that even a town such as Guildford in Surrey will need an extra 18,000 houses by 2050 to help to accommodate the national increase of 350,000 people a year.
The trouble is: where do we spread out to? Scotland is the obvious answer, but it can’t be a very nice place to live, or there wouldn’t be so many Scottish people living in London. Lincolnshire is a better bet in some ways but, from what I understand, it’s being eaten at an alarming rate by the North Sea, and Wales doesn’t really work either because it’s far too mountainous.
My gut reaction then, is that we must at least consider the possibility of conquering France. There are good reasons for this. First of all, we can be assured the French will not put up much of a fight — they never do — so casualties would be relatively small. And second, the simple fact is, they don’t need all that space. And we do. Certainly, I can’t see any reason why they don’t hand over Lesser Britain, or Brittany, as they insist on calling it.
I realise, of course, the United Nations would have something to say on the matter and that Britain might be ostracised internationally for a while, but I feel this could well be a price worth paying if it were to prevent Griff and Chris Tarrant from having an unedifying punch-up at the Cotswold Water Park.
Of course, I’m sure a lot of you reading this will be harbouring dark and dangerous thoughts about perhaps limiting the number of people who want to live in Britain. I’m thinking of the ... I-word.
We were told a few years ago by the Labour government that Britain needed many millions of Somalians and Estonians to fuel Mr Brown’s booming economy. But now what? The economy’s gone tits-up and I’m sure there are many people quietly harbouring a notion that perhaps Mr Mbutu and Mr Borat might like to go back home again.
I do not have these thoughts however. I’d far rather have Mr Mbutu round for tea than, say, John Prescott. But I can quite understand why some people do. And that worries me.
Because how long will it be before Griff Rhys Jones stops attacking Ian Botham and starts throwing bricks through the window of his local Indian restaurant? How long before the stockbrokers of Guildford decide they don’t want any more homes and that Mr Ng’s Chinese takeaway must be burnt to the ground? In short, how long before this pressure on space and the need to breathe out once in a while leads to all sorts of problems which are very ugly indeed?
Maybe, then, the government should consider asking Glaxo Smith Kline to perhaps slow down the development of its vaccine for swine flu. Just a thought.



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