Idle Eye 187 : The Spanish Inquisition

In a desperate attempt to be liked (or at least accepted) by my peers, I recently acquired a 170g container of shop-bought guacamole. I had a vague notion that, on one of the very rare occasions somebody came to visit, it would be noted I have flamboyant, cosmopolitan taste and this, in turn, would open up channels of conversation/admiration hitherto denied me. Initially, the fluorescent green gloop didn’t appear all that promising, but after a little tweaking and decanting, I was able to approximate one of those food photographs you used to see in cookbooks of the 1970s, or off of the cardboard sleeve of a Vesta quick meal. So far, so good.

Anyway, I popped the concoction into the fridge, cling-wrapped to buggery, and went through my little black book. Who would be the lucky recipient, I wondered? From the dwindling gene pool of those still speaking to me, I decided that my mother was probably the safest bet. After all, she hadn’t seen me in a while and if I seriously cocked up, she’d break it to me gently like mothers do. Having said that, I knew she’d be suspicious if I casually asked her over for nibbles, as I still carry an official warning from the WHO. So I dressed it up a bit: I pretended I’d painted the kitchen in a new eco-friendly Farrow & Ball estate emulsion – Badger’s Backside, or something like that she could relate to – and waited for her to take the bait. It didn’t take long:

Mother:  What have you done?

Me:  Nothing.

Mother:  Bollocks!

Me:  It’s not bollocks. I’ve just painted the kitchen and I thought you’d like to see it.

Mother:  I don’t believe you.

Me:  Seriously, I have. Why don’t you swing by and I’ll get us something to eat?

Mother:  Are you on drugs?

Me:  Of course not!

Mother:  So what’s the catch?

Me:  There’s no catch! It’s just an excuse for you to come over.

Mother:  Okay. But this something for us to eat you mentioned. Will you be making it yourself?

Me:  Don’t be ridiculous! When have I ever done that?

Mother:  I want you to promise me.

Me:  I promise. It’ll be from the shops. Like you like.

Mother:  No, not how I like! I’m just not comfortable with you getting involved at the business end. Let’s go for a spaghetti or something. I’ll pay.

Me:  All right, I’ll come clean: I bought some guacamole the other day and I was just trying to impress someone. But I don’t have anyone any more so I chose you. I’m sorry, I feel a bit cheap now.

Mother:  Did you paint the kitchen?

Me:  No.

Mother:  Did you dick about with the guacamole?

Me:  A bit.

Mother:  Look, you know I love you…but not that much. I’m going to call the police. Do you understand?

Me: I do.

Mother:  Bye for now.

Me:  Thanks, Ma.

Idle Eye 159 : The State of Denmark

Good title. Well, I like it. Those of you who had your Coriolanuses kicked into reading the Bard’s greater works at school will recognise that the broader idiom suggests an element of brooding malcontent, that something in the land of salty liquorice is not exactly as it should be. See, you’re already hooked! Perhaps one of the perilously thin strands along which we all conduct our lives has become tangled or broken. Perhaps a moral compass has been thrown out of kilter. Perhaps it’s just an elaborate decoy to throw you off the scent. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, as our Doris once succinctly put it.

As I write this, it is the hottest day the UK has cooked up in a decade. And heat, as any fule kno, plays havoc with the brain and those last remaining pollutants of Glastonbury. The synapses within sizzle and fuse, neurons struggle to function and the propensity for rational thought gradually deliquesces into chaos and confusion. So what chance does one have if this is the moment to step up to the plate? To make brave, life-altering decisions before yielding to the charms of high summer and going out topless into the streets (the Englishman at home’s favourite pastime)? It’s a one word answer: Fat.

In that tragic-heroic fashion all romantic schoolboys are prone to, I was once asked (after midnight, around a flickering tealight) to declare the one thing I’d be prepared to give up everything else for. And, being a relatively inexperienced resident on our complex planet, I answered, with some certainty, that it would be the aquamarine pair of Speedos (with white printed dolphins bobbing their merry way across my privates) I had just been given for Christmas. I was serious. Life had not yet complicated my childish aspirations, and I could think of nothing or no one I wanted more. And in some ways, it was the perfect response. Perfect in its unswerving simplicity, and perfect because it was a need easily fulfilled. No hopes dashed, no hearts broken. And it would probably be different the next day. Ironically, it was the summer of 76. Another hot one.

Then we age. And as we march through our lives, things get increasingly difficult. They just do. We steal moments of pleasure wherever we can, in the full knowledge that they will probably be fleeting and outweighed by the sheer pressure of hanging in there. It’s why our occupations are so much more than a means to an end. They define us. They validate the reasons for our being alive at all. Otherwise we’re just grown-up sperm looking for something to do. If asked the same question again, after all this time, I only wish the answer could be as economic. But the things we crave in later life inevitably come at a price, by which I do not mean anything so vulgar as money. And we’re usually too busy to notice.

IE Audio 3 : The Song of a Sceptic

This week, it’s the contentious subject of foodstuffs. Practical solution to the endemic crime of celebrity chefs also included at no extra cost, along with convincing dystopian alternative for those who prefer their lunch to take three minutes and come from a pot.

https://theidleeye.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/idle-eye-121-the-song-of-a-sceptic/

Idle Eye 153 : The Pig’s Table

The 1970s. A decade of strikes, skyrocketing inflation, shocking trousers, way too much hair and cars that didn’t start in the morning. But to this then knock-kneed schoolboy with nascent food issues and a paranoic fear of authority, it will forever be remembered as the one that threw up the Pig’s Table. And I mean that quite literally. Let me get you up to speed:

The Pig’s Table was a monstrous form of ritual trial and humiliation, cooked up by some of the sickest minds this side of the Nuremberg trials and brutally administered by a stringent headmistress and the minions under her employ. These punitive cronies were known collectively as The Danes, whose sole remit was to concoct a regular school meal that could be instantaneously jettisoned by any formative digestive system within a fifty foot radius. In this they were ruthlessly efficient. The universally feared Egg Nest™, an impossibly thick substrate of aqueous grey potato, cunningly concealed beneath a quagmire of zygotic discharge, was the jewel in their crown. Even Heston has not yet superseded this appalling Frankendish, and God knows he’s tried.

In the days before CCTV, food slop bins were manned in shifts. The trick was to get your plate of Egg Nest™ in there at point of changeover and make a break for the door before the new guard had worked out what was going on. But alas, as many did try, so many more failed and were instantly fed into the sausage machine of corrective punishment. First, an guilt-inducing rebuke. How that the thousands, if not millions of disadvantaged children in some of our poorest nations would be pathetically grateful for the delicacy you had just rejected. At which point you resisted the urge to mention Parcel Post. But then came the killer. Your penance would be exacted the very next day. You would suffer the Table.

I’ll take you through it. Like Spartacus, albeit unshackled, you were led into the refectory, filled to capacity with one hundred plus Lords of the Flies with an immense thirst for cruelty, and thrust towards a table for one. This braying throng, despite having narrowly missed the margin themselves, saw you as legitimate quarry and mocked mercilessly as you gingerly took your seat, steeling yourself for the imminent arrival of yesterday’s Egg Nest™. When it turned up, more congealed and pitiful than before, so began the painfully slow process of its consumption. The inevitable gagging was met with a wall of pre-pubescent ridicule, sweat, bile and fear meshing together as one as you prayed to whichever deity was in the vicinity to make it all stop.

It did eventually. But as you collected your thoughts in the ensuing nauseous aftermath, you knew you’d never be the same again. You had become a husk, a grotesque traumatised ghost of your former self, and mealtimes would from now on be heinous culinary skirmishes for you to fight and lose. So then, lunch anyone?

Idle Eye 151 : The Body Beautiful

I have a distant memory of my mother’s bathroom in the 1970s. I’m pretty sure it had turquoise carpet throughout (right up to the unit borders), and around the bath itself was a set of those mirrors which disappeared into infinity. I mention these because I’ve never seen anything similar since, and it did strike me at the time that they were curious things to have at all: The very notion that anyone would willingly install a primitive version of CCTV, seeking out and exposing every unsightly crevice the human body can muster, brutally illuminated under the unforgiving scrutiny of a 150W bulb encased inside an upside-down jelly mould, did seem rather odd. But, to be fair, I was only about eight. At that age, you get things wrong.

I hadn’t, though. This last Bank Holiday weekend saw me ensconced with fine friends in an Edinburgh AirB&B. It had one bathroom and yes, in what probably was a nod to the retro accoutrements of yesteryear, it also had the very same fitted mirrors. Which meant I could see my own sorry bottom snaking into the distance more times than I would care to discuss. The horrors did not stop there. When was the last time you had a proper look at your own body in its entirety? Not recently, I’d wager. As I wrestled with the shower head, and made silent prayer that the glass would steam up smartly under the surge of its own revulsion, I noted that the ageing process had effectively morphed my once relatively well-proportioned frame into something out of Lord of the Rings.

The torso looked like an afterthought. Squat, pushing out in areas I previously didn’t know existed and, to these eyes, shamefully unaesthetic, it sat uncomfortably above two vulgar flesh potatoes, crushed mercilessly out of shape by the passage of time and the ongoing onslaught of Marlborough Pinot Noir. Not being load-bearing in their own right, the buttocks had clearly begged the legs below for reinforcement, but sadly to no avail. Consequently, some not inconsiderable subsidence was evident at the join, probably worthy of one of those Heritage grants if I’d got my act together. To say nothing of the hilarious thinning pin that balanced precariously on top of all the above. The whole bloody shooting match was a David Attenborough documentary on the decline of Western human anatomy, realised in Kinder Egg Surprises. And directed by ISIS.

Now, I know we’re all supposed to accept the inevitable deterioration of the body as standard. That the vanity of youth should disappear in a plume of dust if one has any dignity whatsoever. But if you could have seen what I saw in those ridiculous mirrors, I do honestly believe you might think again. When confronted with the genuinely shocking, we tend to be genuinely shocked. As I was. Which is why, from now on, I shall be taking my showers in the dark.

Idle Eye 142 : The English Straitjacket

Sometimes being English is just plain awful. The absolute pits. Yes, yes, I know we’re all terribly polite and good at pop music, being ironic and making the most of our crappy weather, but when it comes to saying what we actually mean, we are lamentably backward. How often have you apologised for someone else’s rudeness? For being in the way when you never were? Or pretended things are just fine when your internal tolerance needle has just tipped into the red?

I do it frequently. At the end of pretty much every cold-call received, over which I weakly feign surprise at that accident I never had, or the very specific amount the banks owe me for insurance I never took out, I hear myself thanking a computerised voice for its time and, on occasion, wishing it a pleasant day. Which only serves to fill mine with self-loathing and misanthropy. And, cliché though it may be, I constantly find myself drawn to queues, quite often for something I have no interest in whatsoever. Why? Why?

Because it reaffirms the quintessence of our Englishness, and that Englishness breeds deep inside us all, gnawing away at more vulgar attributes such as anger or self-confidence, until all that is left is the quivering bag of neuroses we move around inside every day. It is a curious evolutionary quirk, for if shifted over to the animal kingdom, your average Brit would be mercilessly and fatally mauled before he/she had finished blinking. Probably by something French or Polish, whose very means of survival hinges on the exact opposite.

Speaking of France, here’s another example: When I was fifteen, I was placed at a school in Toulouse for a short while. There, I came across a delightful young lady called Catherine Voisinet, who blushed when I was around and clearly wanted me to make the first move. My French was adequate enough to facilitate this, and I was not yet marred by a forthcoming volcano of acne. But did I? Of course I didn’t. I just sat around, blushing back at her in English until she got bored and started dating a Neanderthal rugby player with grazed knuckles. Who thought I was ‘un con.’  And he was probably right.

I’d love to be able to tell you that it’ll all turn out ok. That being a bit Hugh Grant isn’t such a bad thing, and that more bullish nations will sneakingly admire you for all that pent-up emotion. But I fear that would be a lie. It is and they don’t, despite what you may have been lead to believe from the inexplicable overseas success of Downton Abbey and the like. They’re just collecting ammo for the next way to shaft us rotten, based on information we willingly throw at them. Then they’ll steal our ideas, market our booze, buy up our housing stock etc… and repackage it all as their own. And we’ll probably thank them for it.

Idle Eye 128 : The Turn of the Screw

It started with Mary Poppins. Perfectly harmless, but the seed was sown. When I didn’t baulk at that, the bar was incrementally raised: Doctor Doolittle/The Jungle Book/Oliver/Bugsy Malone, even Camelot (which was really quite grown-up). Still I did not flinch. Then the heavy artillery: Cabaret/Grease/Jesus Christ Superstar/New York, New York/A Star is Born. I took umbrage at the latter, my tender sensibilities already affronted by the vulgarity of Hollywood pizzazz. But still they kept on coming: Evita/A Chorus Line/That’s Dancing. And then I knew. How could I continue to live this lie? The sleepless nights, the deception, those red velvet trousers I had always secretly despised? No, the time had come: I had to tell my mother I was straight:

Mother:  Oh, don’t be ridiculous!

Me:  Ma, I am. I think I always have been. I’m sorry.

Mother:  It’s probably just a phase, dear. Lots of boys your age go through it. Now, settle down and I’ll pop on some Barbara Streisand.

Me:  Please don’t. I’m serious about this.

Mother:  Of course you are. Let’s have a cup of tea and you can tell me all about it.

Me:  You’re not listening to me, Ma. I’m straight. And no amount of cups of tea or Barbara Streisand will change that.

Mother:  Yes yes yes! No need to shout. Now, I’ve been flicking through the papers and they’re showing West Side Story again at the Ritzy on Saturday. Thought we might…

Me:  You’re just not getting it, are you? I don’t want to see West Side Story, I don’t want to see The Sound of Music and, to be frank, I don’t want to see any more musicals. Ever. Again. Do you understand?

Mother:  I’ve seen you watching Cabaret alone in your room. And singing along.

Me:  Cabaret is different. The narrative is the driving force behind that film, and the music just so happens to be great as well. But without the former, they’re just songs looking for a vessel. The combination of the two is a heady mix. It’s the unsurpassed, bitter-sweet genius of Bob Fosse.

Mother:  See?

Me:  See what? Look, just because I like Cabaret does not make me gay, ok? You’re just going to have to get used to it.

Mother:  But…but what will I do?

Me:  I know it’s hard for you right now. But lots of straight men go on to lead happy, fulfilled lives and I’m determined to be one of them. I just want you to be happy for me. Do you think you can do that?

Mother:  Yes…I think so. But are you sure? I mean, have you actually tried it? You know…

Me:  Yes, I have.

Mother:  Oh God…(sobs)…I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!

Me:  Please don’t be, Ma. It’s ok, really. And I think, given time, you’ll come to love Echo & the Bunnymen as well. They’re super on stage, and you’ll die for the hairstyles.

Idle Eye 125 : The Sos Age

In days of old, when knights were bold
And Bowyers sausages stood the test
I’m glad to say that still today
That Bowyers sausages are the best

This curious little rhyme was drummed into my subconscious relentlessly by my late stepfather pretty much every weekend in the 1970s. Partially to whip up a kind of inter-family bonhomie, as we would chant the thing together in the car on the way to the shops, but mainly because he was the chairman of Bowyers sausages, cynically utilising a primitive form of subliminal advertising for his own ends. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t join in with gusto, but even then I could spot the flaws:

Thrust instantly into a medieval context, the reader is presented with a given that all knights back then were actually bold, as opposed to the more likely premise that they were shit-scared, metal-clad servants of whichever fanatical despot that happened to own the land upon which they lived. Next, there is the contextual leap we are expected to take, in which the Bowyers sausage is inexplicably time-travelled to the period in order to stand a test. Exactly what test is not made clear, probably for reasons of economy, but already we are none the wiser and hunting for clues. 

There are none, for the second half has no correlation whatsoever with the first. For starters, the introduction of the possessive noun only serves to confuse, and the whiplash suffered from being thrown back into the present weakens us so conclusively, we are unable to challenge the outlandish supposition that the Bowyers sausage knocks spots off the competition. Consequently we take it for granted, bereft of any insight as to who the narrator may or may not be. These four lines are, at once, a travesty of continuity, credibility and impartiality. I am eleven years old.

Obviously, I didn’t let on in the car. I knew how ruthlessly I was being exploited yet somehow I was complicit. How could I tell a man fifty years my senior that his grasp of language was at best rudimentary, particularly as I had not yet received my pocket money? So I let it lie. To the point where I taught the very same to the equally exploited workers of a slaughterhouse in which I worked over the summer of 1980. And they loved it too.

I kept shtum for ages when I became a vegetarian. It would have made a mockery of all the ideals we held so high as a family which were built on the foundations of the very thing I had so vehemently rejected. And besides, I wanted Bill Newton-Clare to meet his maker without doubt, which he almost certainly did. But not before leaving us another salient reminder of the mark he made when he was around:

Q:   What came before the Ice Age?
A:   The Sos Age

Idle Eye 121 : The Song of a Sceptic

A little while back, I wrote a short piece about food on another blog platform when I was attempting to find my voice. It was deliberately confrontational and probably a touch derivative, the main thrust being that food is, in essence, merely petrol to keep us all alive in order to do far greater things than the act of eating itself. This would have been apposite if written in the 1970s (or indeed earlier), when the greater irony may well have been appreciated by frequenters of those appalling trattorias, nascent curry houses and stick-in-the-mud bastions of public school cuisine. But it wasn’t.

Over the last twenty years or so, we have morphed into a nation of foodies. Suddenly, every man and his dog has developed a palate that subtle, it would leave Abigail and her guests floundering like jetsam at one of her soirées. We demand choice and quality as standard (despite having come through the worst recession since WW2) and, more than ever, we require affirmation that our opinions are justified. Why so?

Because our newly-found appreciation of all things gastronomic is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes. We food snobs, like wine snobs, know deep down that our honed interest in the ephemeral is pretty low down on the pecking order of things that actually matter. Consequently, in much the same way that our current government operates, we surround ourselves with like-minded sycophants who will be the first to forgive us for thinking that it does. So when the bill payer clicks his/her fingers at a chain restaurant minion and they come running, no-one from either camp dares question the validity of the challenge. Money talks, deafeningly when there isn’t much around, and putting an opinionated Herbert to rights is probably not worth losing your job for.

But it is a wafer-thin confidence, to be annihilated absolutely in the not too distant future by global events, the seething aficionados of packaged goods, and common sense. I predict a time when all celebrity chefs are dragged by the hair from their culinary idylls, thrown into the stocks and pelted to death with every last leaf of kale, lollo rosso and organically-farmed, locally-sourced cucumber that inevitably ended its days in the recycling bin. When coffee houses, like televisions in the 1950s, only offer black and white as an option, and if anyone with a manicured moustache demands anything with more than one syllable, they too will be executed on-site in the manner of Charles I and their remains fed to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s pigs. And when the beasts of Smithfield, at the point of their bloody departure from this world to the restaurants of St John Street, are given the option to turn the tables, they do so on the sole condition that they feast exclusively on their perpetrators.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the future.

Idle Eye 113 : The Refusenik (A Slight Return)

The Persians deliberately weave a flaw into the corner of the astonishingly beautiful rugs they create because they believe that only Allah is truly perfect, and it would be a bit of a slap in the face if they try to emulate him/her through their Earthly offerings. Readers, I am that rug: I got it wrong about Glastonbury (as I did with the Olympics and the once Scotch, then Brit, now re-Scotched Andy Murray). As a weathervane for the zeitgeist I can get seriously off-kilter sometimes and hands up, I’ve done it again. Not that I’m admitting it to those who dragged me there, kicking and screaming blue bloody murder to the permanent detriment of their weekend – Good Lord, no! Some things must remain between you and I, and I beg you to keep schtum on this one.

Despite the mud and the mucus, the filth and the fury, the long-drops and the long marches home, I reluctantly acquiesce that it was all reasonably acceptable. Being little more than a soldier ant in a ruthlessly efficient outdoor entertainment machine was, to be fair, somewhat daunting initially. And last time I frequented the place it was a squalid haunt of low-lives, drug dealers and hippies trying to locate my chakras. Particularly after bedtime, which it then seemed churlish to adhere to. However Glastonbury, like all things, has evolved.

Yes, it is vast and yes, it is seemingly commercial. But there are no Audi stalls here, attempting to flog you a luxury vehicle in the most inappropriate of places. No Costa, no McDonalds or Coke, miserably shoehorning their bullshit product in with anything popular they can access in order to maximise reach. For the most part (and I grant you, there are a few exceptions), the on-site businesses are small and endearingly homespun. You do not resent spending a couple of extra quid to keep these guys going. And this in itself would be enough. Perhaps a thumbs-up from this rusting ancient, best suited to keeping an eye on his portfolio in the pink paper, is not the best festival accolade out there. But it doesn’t matter, really it doesn’t.

If you fancy seeing out your ticket price in a hessian shack listening to ’70’s prog rock powered by punters on bicycles, then good luck to you: It’s there for the taking. Failing that, head off to Shangri-La when the main stages shut down and gurn the night away on substances for that authentic Hieronymus Bosch experience. Again, it’s your choice. The trick is knowing which buttons to push and which ones to let go of, and no-one really minds if you screw it up. It’s all part of the deal. Despite myself, being in a field with thousands of people yelling “ED…IS…DEAD!” at the Pixies felt curiously liberating. But if you think for a minute I’m going to let on now that I’m home, dream on…