Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

World

Life Is Absurd. So Is Death.

I maintain that life is absurd, and this is never better demonstrated than when it comes to death.

A one-time colleague of mine died recently. We were not close, despite working reasonably closely on a short project nine or ten years ago, yet – unlike some others I have worked with before and since – he was memorable. When I read of his death I recognised his name immediately and could instantly picture his face. Given that I freelance and meet a lot of people, the same is not true of everybody I have worked with.

I was sorry to read of his passing, always figuring that our paths would cross again some day – socially, if not professionally. Instead, I am left with a memory of that project which has been blurred by time and events that have happened since. While it did not seem appropriate to share my faint half-recollections alongside the tributes being paid on his Facebook page, I went through and read many of them. The public outpouring of love and affection was touching.

What struck me, generally speaking, is this: it seems really sad that you have to die before most people are prepared to reveal the extent of their love for you.

The old adage is true, everyone loves you when you are dead. To my mind that appears a little late to express it. If someone matters that much to you, is it not worth letting them know while they can fully appreciate it?

This world makes no sense. At the risk of being facetious while trying to illustrate this point, next time I am feeling low I might kill myself, just so people say nice things about me.

 


9/11 – Remember To Remember While You Are Remembering.

Happy 9/11!

I realise that that may come across as a little insensitive, and yet it almost feels like that is how we are supposed to greet this day. There have been plenty of terrorist attacks in the past century, and a significant number of them within my own lifetime. We do not remember, or commemorate, the bombing of the Arndale Centre in Manchester; the Oklahoma and Lockerbie bombings do not have their dates prominently – almost proudly – etched into the public conscience. Without wishing to sound callous – I understand that a lot of families suffered the death or injury of loved ones, and huge numbers of rescuers are condemned to long-term respiratory afflictions – what makes this incident so special?

It is hard to conceive that any other nation on earth would “remember those lost” by offering one-day discounts and other promotional deals. That sounds a lot more like a cheap cash-in than any meaningful form of remembrance, and one golf-course owner faced a backlash after advertising nine holes of golf for $9.11. Here are some other examples.

I am not debating that “9/11” was a shocking and powerful event in recent history, please do not misunderstand me. I merely find it absurd that the date has been added to the collective conciousness, unlike the dates of so many atrocities which have occurred before or since. Do you know when the Mumbai bombings took place? Can you remember which year London had its terrorist atttacks (July, yes – but which year? And what of those conducted by the IRA?)

Every year, it feels like the images of that day are voyeuristically dragged out and replayed for us. The media shouts “Americans died!” at us in case we have forgotten. The loss of life on that scale and in that or a comparable manner is tragic, no question. Yet it feels like we are not being asked to remember that people died, rather that Americans did.

I do not feel the need to be bludgeoned over the head with this footage annually, lest it has slipped my mind. Other terrorism anniversaries are available. Many of them are more dignified, not heralded like some international celebration.

I do not have any answers. I write this blog to draw attention to my observations, specifically when what I see seems unusual and worthy of comment. All that I have written above was intended as preamble, before I reproduced a stand-up comedy routine I performed on the tenth anniversary. It no longer fits here, out of context, and if you want to read it you will find it on my comedy blog. It is gallows humour, because that is the only way I know to deal with life. To replicate it here would be to undermine my point.

My point being, perhaps we would be advised to remember all victims of terrorism, regardless of nationality. As I discovered within minutes of writing this entry, I am not the only one to suggest it.


T-Mobile, Triggering Misery.

Account Number [redacted]

Dear T-Mobile/EE/Everything Everywhere,

I wish to complain about the service you almost provided while I was contracted to you, and the nightmarish circumstances you created when I tried to leave your shoddy excuse for a network provider.

Since T-Mobile merged with Orange to become EE, your signal is more accurately described less as Everything Everywhere and more as Nothing Anywhere. I complained about this lack of service on two or three different occasions in the past few months (via your 150 phone service – “press every number under the sun, and once you have a blister on your finger your call will eventually be answered by someone who is unable to help meaningfully.”)

I grew tired of being asked if I had an alternate number you could contact me on. I only have one phone, as it did not occur to me that your service would be so dreadful. Had it, I would have been sure to take out a second contract with another phone company, in order that you could reach me on it when my signal disappeared – as it frequently did, often in the middle of calls to you. I could invoice you for plasters purchased to cover my blistered number-pressing fingers, but I chose to waive those fees rather than speak to further incompetent members of staff.

I use the word “incompetent” advisedly.

It was confirmed in your Glasgow store that much of Greater Glasgow is suffering from poor coverage just now, as you are dismantling masts. Your shop monkey tried to take the edge off it by sympathising “even we don’t get much signal.” This was little comfort, as you may gather, and while I appreciated his attempt to sympathise it was sorely lacking.

To cut a long story short – the full version is a work-in-progress that will appear on my blog, in two or maybe three parts, with accompanying times, dates, and screen-grabs – after a dozen calls to you it was agreed that you would give me two options. Firstly, I could accept a fifteen percent discount, applied monthly until the end of my contract. My monthly bill never rose higher than twenty-five pounds, and I had zero signal to speak of. You would charge me (at most) £3.75 less per month, in return for which I could continue to suffer your appalling “service” for nearly another year? What a bargain! How about no.

Alternatively, you would release me from my contract early, having checked your systems and discovered that – yes indeed – Glasgow, the biggest city in Scotland and third biggest city in the UK, is not particularly well served by your network. That sounded far more appealing, given that you could not supply any kind of time-frame as to when your masts might actually begin working properly again. I was quickly given a PAC code, which I asked to be repeated to me as I knew how very difficult it had been to speak to somebody capable of issuing it, and I wrote it down.

At this time, having wasted three hours of my Saturday night trying to get enough signal to call you, and having been passed from department to department, I asked about the terms and conditions of transferring my number. It was explained to me, patiently enough as I made myself very aware of your procedures, that my PAC code (read and repeated for confirmation again) would be active for thirty days, and that my contract would not end until I used it. Failure to use it would see my contract remain unchanged. This seemed reasonably straightforward, and I made sure to equip myself with (I believed) all of the facts during this phonecall.

A week later, I found myself in Northern England. I went there deliberately, so it was no great surprise to find myself there. It was equally unsurprising to discover that your service/signal/network/coverage is just as bad down there. As I was there for seven days, armed with the PAC code that I had jotted down phonetically, and confirmed phonetically twice, I called into the shop of a nearby rival. Within an hour I had chosen a new phone and payment plan, agreed to their terms, and left jubilant that finally I would be able to receive calls as they were made. Hell, I could even send texts and browse online – all of the fundamental basics that you should have been supplying as contracted.

This other company informed me that my number would transfer within a few hours, maybe a few days. Four days later, I had to contact them to find out why my number had not been transferred to my new phone. The answer? You had given me an incorrect PAC code. I was condemned to keeping my old phone to hand for a longer period, until I would get back to Glasgow.

In the meantime – and really, bonus points for being utterly useless here – since being given my (evidently wrong) PAC code, you had begun sending me texts thanking me for signing up to T-Mobile. I received texts telling me all about your wonderful company which I had just left due to you not providing the service you were legally obliged to.

Once I returned home, I was met with written confirmation of my PAC code. It was different to the one I had been given verbally, and thus was not so much confirmation as new information. I duly gave it to my new supplier, who was able to use it and transfer my number accordingly. Shortly afterwards, I was able to use my existing number with my new phone, and for a brief spell all was right with the world. Then you spoiled it, as your ineptitude suggested you would.

I was sent a final bill, which contained a load of figures that seemed unwarranted. Rather than waste further hours of my life trying to contact you, and heartily sick of your inability to function anything like competently, I ignored it. I guessed that, if it was important, you would contact me again, and you did.

This time, in bold letters at the top of the page, you announced that I had an overdue balance. My account had now been disconnected from the T-Mobile network, you said, and followed “for your service to be restored, please pay the amount in full stated at the top of this letter.”

The quoted sentence is important. I did not want my service, such as it was, to be restored – and so I did not pay you any money. I did not trust you to not try and reconnect me, since – until this juncture – there was no acion on your part that instilled confidence in me.

You wrote to me again, three weeks later, an identical letter (save for the amount asked for) which opened the same way. Again, as I have no desire for you to restore my service, I did not pay “the amount stated at the top of this letter.” That said, as my hand had healed somewhat, I was willing to risk new blisters. I dialled your customer service number, and pressed all of the required keys to talk to one of your employees. She was very helpful, inasmuch as she was thoroughly unhelpful.

She went through my final bill, breaking it into its component parts. It includes a “notice period charge”, and she explained that it is the fee charged for providing me with a PAC code. I suggested I should be given a discount, since I was provided with an incorrect code and thus inconvenienced. In truth, I told her outright that I dispute that amount as at no point – during the conversation whereby I decided to leave T-Mobile – was I informed that I would be charged for doing so. It had been a lengthy conversation, given that I received my PAC code and confirmed it, while asking for all of the relevant information regarding the issuing and use of the code, and I am sure you can go back and listen to it for quality and training purposes.

I asked this new staff member for an email address, so that I could put this complaint in writing. Unbelievably, she told me that T-Mobile do not communicate by email, and I countered by asking which century you are operating in. Her argument, weak as it was, is that you prefer all complaints to be in writing and sent by post, so that you can keep them all in one place. As much as I refuse to undermine my argument by resorting to cursing, this sounds like complete bullshit.

She seemed to suggest that, rather than have my complaint sent quickly and directly, to be stored in as many locations as you wish to copy it to, making it instantly and easily retrievable, you would prefer that I type it, print it, affix a stamp, and entrust it to the Royal Mail. Perhaps your internal servers are as dubious as your network coverage? This is the only reason I can imagine which would necessitate the involvement of a postman to resolve this. Unless you have suddenly elected to support and reinvigorate the flagging reliance on their centuries-old infrastructure.

Once I thanked the girl for her assistance, having jotted down the postal address she furnished me with, I did as all modern-day endurers of appalling service do, and went online to register my disdain for your company. While there, connected to the internet by a rival company who manage to fulfil that contracted duty, I decided to find a number for your head office. I had hardly begun browsing your terrible website before a box popped up, inviting me to chat to someone. Here we go! I asked for an email address to make my complaint and – incredibly – it was immediately forthcoming, without hesitation.

tmobile

Why is it, then, that your advisors disagree on the methods of communication open to your customers? I resent being misinformed by the telephone advisor, only to be given the correct information online minutes later and without fuss.

Now, with the tools necessary to document my subjection to your poor standards and inconsistent policies, I could begin writing. I took my time, admittedly, since this is a lengthy complaint and one I wished to word well. The telephone advisor had said that she would make a note on my account, saying that I had called in and planned to discuss the amount you claim I owe. I was under the impression, perhaps misguidedly, that I had bought myself time to compose a letter worthy of all the hassle and stress you have caused me.

Today, 7th September, I received a letter from [redacted] Debt Recovery Limited. You can guess the rest, I am sure, but my account has been passed to them. The next step is that I need to contact them and explain that I am in dispute with you, regarding the amount allegedly owed. I look forward to that chat, it gives me buckets of joy repeating the same thing to so many of your employees and associates.

I propose an alternate solution.

You can immediately waive the £[redacted] “Notice Period Charge”;
You can also dismiss the outstanding amount*, in lieu of the hassle and inconvenience of addressing your repeated failings and inconsistencies;
You can re-word the opening of your standard letter, so that it does not suggest that payment of final bills will result in reconnection to your service. I am prepared to give this advice free of charge, and shall not charge a consultant’s fee for recommending it.

You will note that I have appended an asterisk(*) after mentioning the outstanding amount. Here is why:

A letter from T-Mobile, dated 02/08/13, gives the outstanding balance as £[redacted].
My final bill, dated July ’13, and a letter dated 23/08/13, both give the outstanding balance as £redacted].
This letter from [redacted] Debt Recovery Ltd claims that the balance due is £[redacted].

Prior to having spoken to them, I would expect you to clarify how much you believe me to owe your company. Although it is a moot point, as I stand by my request that you write off the amount in full and with immediate effect.

You are the worst telecommunications company I have ever encountered, unable to justify your existence or provide even the most basic of services. Not only is your network and signal provision a joke, but your staff repeatedly fail to corroborate the most fundamental information. Instead of chasing me for your mistakes, your finances would be better spent on improving your national systems and in administering training.

I anticipate a full response to this letter. Unlike you, I accept emails – although you may use Royal Mail if doing so truly is an altruistic act on your part. At the very least, I demand an explanation for your continued failings throughout this troublesome episode, and I would like it in writing (typed or joined-up) that I no longer owe you any money.

Thank you for making me waste another few hours of my life documenting all of this, yet again.

Yours insincerely (apart from the bit about waiving any amount outstanding, I am entirely sincere about that),

[me]


Radio Uncontrolled Cars

I have mentioned previously that I once worked, in a temporary capacity, for the Inland Revenue (as it then was.) Regular readers know that all the stories I tell here are my own, observed by me and not apocryphal. Everything I document I can substantiate, with further background detail and facts as appropriate.

This is a break from the norm, a story told by a colleague who had the desk opposite mine. I cannot vouch for its authenticity, but he told it well and I have told it often since, without ever encountering it in any other form or from any other source. I am not sure how it will translate to the written word, but told with gusto it is very entertaining.

My workmate had previously been in the army, relating an incident that occurred when they were on manoeuvres, or out training in some capacity. His team were hidden in the undergrowth on the side of a hill, above a road that cut across the landscape but which gave way to a valley on the other side. My friend had control of the unit’s radio, being taken aback when suddenly, from nowhere, a landrover came roaring up the road. It took off when it hit the crest, bouncing down and continuing on its way at some speed.

soldierAbove: Hide-and-seek, with guns.

Next thing, another landrover comes after it, flying up the road but missing it when it lands. The landrover tumbles down the hillside, while my friend looks to his group for advice. If this were war, the enemy vehicle would not trouble them. However, being an exercise, he is unsure whether to call it in or not – technically these are his comrades, and they may need help. He reaches for the dial. Suddenly, from behind him, high up on the hill, he hears his commanding officer bellow “don’t touch that radio!”

He looks round, and sees his sergeant (or whatever rank he may be) tearing down the hillside. He is red in the face, leaping over rocks and tearing through heather, vaulting over prostrate soldiers and small shrubs. Shocked into inaction, my friend again hears the same shouted command:

“Don’t touch that fucking radio!”

My friend is at a loss, already unaware of the correct course of action and now unsure of the intentions of his superior. His superior is still charging over the terrain, making the final leap that lands him in the ditch next to my friend. Without a word, he grabs the radio and immediately screams into it “there’s a rover rolled-over, over.”

Turning to my friend, he smiles and says “I’ve waited fucking years to say that!”

 

 


Outward Bound At The Inland Revenue

I used to work for the Inland Revenue, long before it was renamed Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and at the time when Working and Child Tax Credits were being introduced.

It was an alright job, for what it was, and it gave me an insight into civil service life and how much money is (or was) squandered there. My job was to check data that had scanned incorrectly when the application forms went through OCR, by calling people up or issuing letters to enquire whether their name was John (as common sense would dictate) rather than what the computer had read and input as j04n. Initially, such judgement calls were disallowed, and I had many embarrassing conversations asking for details that seemed obvious.

We processed a huge number of claims, so efficiently that our contracts were repeatedly extended while other centres in the UK wound down. There were incidences of two teams in the same building working on the same caseload, though, and occasionally we would contact people or read notes only to find out that someone else had done the same work an hour earlier. We came in at night and worked for a few hours, getting attitude from the permanent day staff whose desks we had to use. I signed the Official Secrets Act before starting there, and at the time I was convinced it was so I could not tell anyone how badly the place was run.

It is my firm belief that nobody is truly incompetent until they work for the government.

I was part of a small team working in a huge glass-walled office building, and we got on well. We would socialise together, initially sharing jokes and collaborating on the paper’s cryptic crossword when the work dried up, as it frequently did during the evening. As we worked through printed lists of National Insurance numbers, pulling up files and generating letters or making calls as appropriate, there was a great sense of camaraderie. Being young, and perceiving incompetence within the methodology and managers, we were passively rebellious. All of us took smoking breaks, regardless of nicotine intake, and the best days were Sundays and Bank Holidays. These were voluntary, and you would be assigned to some supervisor who did not know you. Many were the hours of taxpayers money wasted as we sat and played Solitaire instead of doing paperwork. You had to be careful, though – if it was dark outside, and you were sitting facing into the office (so your monitor display could not be seen), the reflection of it in the window was occasionally noticed.

hmrc centre1Above: My workplace for some of 2003

One colleague successfully used the Jedi Mind Trick on our boss, when asked to hand in a contract renewal form. He waved his hand in front of the gaffer’s face, telling him “I already gave you it back.” The boss moved away, before realising this was an untruth.

Another friend asked me to join her on a smoking break, during a Bank Holiday shift when we were being largely unmonitored. Outside, with no cigarettes, we jumped into her van and drove to the shops. On the way back, being a nice day, she suggested a detour. I had no real choice, given that hers was the sole mode of transport back to the office, and it was not ideally situated for walking. I do not advocate skiving, and I am ordinarily conscientious and hard-working. However, as it really was a nice day, and since we were driving past the park anyway, I had no issue with stopping for a while.

Admittedly, drinking a recreational drug, then hiring a pedalo and cruising on the park’s lake, might have been taking the piss a wee bit. If every smoking break lasted ninety minutes and included a boat-ride in the sunshine, while paid on the company’s time, I would take up the habit.

To reiterate, I do not condone this as the actions of a responsible adult. However, I was only twenty-two at the time – an adult, but still irresponsible. We were on temporary contracts with definite end-dates, and I was starting my degree that year, and so I held no real fear of repercussion.

james-hamilton-parkAbove: James Hamilton Park, island not in shot.

Entry to the building was, as you may imagine, strictly controlled. Photographic ID was issued, and checked by security guards manning the front doors. Nobody was exempt, and our shift began with several hundred people filing past the uniformed staff glancing at every pass. It seemed to me that they did not always give their full attention to the job, and in my last week I elected to have some fun.

I wanted to find a picture of a gorilla, that I could cut out and stick over my photo. I am not saying that they were lax, but as I write that sentence I realise that it is indicative of the solemnity with which we did not treat this job. I cannot fathom, now, that I would ever pull that stunt while working for a high-profile authoritative department. At the time, it was in keeping with our collective attitude, but I failed to find an appropriate photo (this being the age before the internet really took off, when Encarta was as close as you got to a Google image search.) I did manage to locate an image of Al Pacino, however, and duly substituted it. Nobody noticed, at all.

I endeavoured to make the point, kicking subtlety out of the window and jettisoning the star of Dog Day Afternoon. I needed something bolder, something so ridiculous that to not spot it would be hilariously inept. I found a book that had been an unwanted present, setting about it with a pair of scissors and deftly removing the face of another movie icon. I attached it over my own headshot, and the next day – my last – I walked into the office unchallenged, despite having a photographic ID card that, in place of me, bore the likeness of Darth Vader.

VaderrotjAbove: “Hi, I’m Darth Vader, and you may be entitled to Working Tax Credit.”

Before condemning the desk staff for being particularly unobservant, it is worth noting that I was very visually recognisable in those days. The dress code was “no football shirts, nothing offensive” and I took that to the extreme. This later became a staple of my stand-up set, but every word of it is true, right down to the final, contemporary observation:

“When I was 20, everyone had wallet chains. I had a wallet chain and four pairs of handcuffs, hanging from the belt-loops of my blue camouflage combats. Those were tucked into my calf-high Doc Martens, and I wore them with a band t-shirt. On top of that, I wore a white doctors coat, and on the back of it I painted ‘Trust Me’ in red, so it looked like blood. The sleeves were rolled up and on the left forearm I wore a black leather spiked armband, which ran from wrist to elbow with spikes two-inches high all down it. On the other arm, I had a smaller armband, with smaller spikes. On my head, I wore a black top hat.

I might have looked like a dick, but I had a fucking cool shadow.”

 

 

 


Taking A Walk On The Wildlife Side

I walk a lot, and think nothing of it. I would like to say that this is indicative of a healthy lifestyle, but it is just something that was instilled in my nature a long time ago.

I grew up in a residential area, an area not served by public transport. Due to its relative proximity to the town centre, a walk from my childhood home to the nearest bus stop was, in effect, a walk to where I would want a bus to take me. The two primary schools I attended were similarly located, and my secondary school was not much further away. I had a bicycle for going longer distances – my friend’s bit at the top of the town; the local parks – but I made a two-mile round trip to school every day, by foot and whatever the weather. As a teenager, if I wanted to go somewhere, I walked.

When I moved to Glasgow, my first flat was situated at Charing Cross. This busy city intersection, where several motorway junctions converge with Argyle Street, Sauchiehall Street, and Great Western Road, was not well-served by public transport either. From the front door of my close, the nearest bus stop was at least halfway in the direction of where I wanted to be. Given the congestion, and our notorious one-way streets, I found that I could easily cross the city quicker than the average bus. While a double-decker bound for my destination idled at yet another set of traffic lights, I would be cutting down side streets and darting across junctions, making good time despite the weight of an extra couple of quid in my pocket – coins unspent on a fare.

glasgow city mapAbove: Map of Glasgow City Centre

As I came to know the layout of my adoptive hometown, I realised that everything is near everything else – if not geographically then psychologically. Aided by the grid system of the city centre, I quickly discovered that there are a dozen different routes to a given place, and it is remarkably easy to work out in which direction you are heading. I love this city (and its people) and, as much as I despise living in the UK, I cannot envisage living anywhere else. Part of my loathing for shopping malls stems from this desire to roam freely – I resent being herded along a single, congested thoroughfare.

Now that I live four miles from the centre of Glasgow, I still regularly make my way home on foot. One of my friends sees this constant walking as me seeking solitude, creating a space where I allow my thoughts to breathe, and this observation is astute of him. The road I walk, literally and not figuratively, is largely straight. Despite the distance, this makes it seem closer than it is – closer still if I have the partial company of someone who lives on the route. It is this last stretch, once we have gone our separate ways, and often in the early hours of the morning, where my plans formulate. The stillness of the night is remarkable, in stark contrast to the noise of four lanes of jammed and stationary vehicles which will congregate there a few hours later.

Whether I walk to think, or think because I am walking, it is a useful way to sort the notions and ideas in my head. Many is the one-liner or wee story that has come from this quiet time, or from an encounter just prior to it. Scenarios suggest or present themselves, and I twist them until I find the perfect way to express them – as a sentence, as a set of jokes that build, or as an entry on this site.

sct_WestEndParade015_1_0Above: The West End Festival 2013, as it passed Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

Earlier this year, at the West End festival, we followed it into and out of Kelvingrove Park. The park has a number of entrances, leading onto at least four main roads, and as the crowd dispersed a disoriented chap next to me stopped to get his bearings. “Whit street’s this?” he asked, as I passed, before working out which direction he needed to go in.

This incident came to mind late last week, when I went for a wander along the canal that is beside my home. I knew there was a path from it to the Botanic Gardens, but had never successfully found it. Although starting aimlessly, I took a turn off the towpath as idle curiosity drove me to seek it out. Taking this unknown route, passing through avenues of trees and diverting past some high flats, before negotiating down to and following the river, it would be easy to lose track of your position. I did not fear becoming lost, confident that I could always retrace my steps, but I imagined an exchange with the adroit wit of a typical, though non-existent, Glaswegian. We meet as we are walking in opposite directions along the canal, with me trying to find my way to this park.

“If I keep walking in this direction, where will I get to?”
“The coast.”

DSC_0213Above: Route to the east coast, if you are in no rush.

if i was still doing stand-up comedy, I might have used this or transformed it into something else. Instead, it went unwritten. At the weekend, I came to relate all of this in conversation – an acquaintance asking:

“Which canal, the Forth and Clyde Canal?”
“Yes.”
“Then it would take you to the Forth, or to the Clyde.”
“Oh yeah. It was well-named.”

You would still get to the coast, you would just come to a tidal river first.

Had I turned this into a tall story, I would now have a second or possibly even third laughter point in it. I yet might. I did, however, chance upon the correct turn-off – my walk along the waterway cleared my head, gave me a new joke, and the idea for this blog, and enhanced my knowledge of the local area. Compare that to the constant stop-start of smelly buses, noisily polluted by modern technology, arguing neds, crying children, and accompanied by the sounds of unnecessary air conditioning and a loudly-throbbing engine.

Buses can go fuck themselves. There is a more serene and scenic way to travel – foot.

DSC_0211Above: A more tranquil way to get to the Botanic Gardens, avoiding Great Western Road.


Driven To Distraction

I applied for my provisional driving license as I turned seventeen, receiving it once I reached the legal age to take lessons.

I was not champing at the bit to learn, counting down the days as some of my peers did. It was just something that was done – celebrate the milestone birthday, obtain license, find an instructor, book test, be allowed on the roads. My older cousins and my friends and schoolmates had been or were all in the throes of going through the same process. I did not really know what I was doing when I was seventeen, generally speaking, and being rather laid-back I simply followed the path that was prescribed for me. That is, stay in school until sixth year, sit my exams, spend three or four years at university, and then emerge with a degree and a sense of the career that would fill my twenties and beyond.

It did not happen like that. I went to Strathclyde University, started and dropped out of two very different degrees, and left to work in a shop for a while, before finally graduating from an unaffiliated institution seven years later. I remember that at the Open Days, when all the departments set out stalls to sell their courses, I completely flummoxed several of my prospective tutors – with no idea which path I wanted to follow, they asked what subjects I was studying. I was in the process of gaining my Higher Drama and my Certificate Of Sixth Year Studies in Maths – two unrelated subjects that failed to suggest any obvious route into further education.

Above: Bob Newhart’s classic take on Driving Instruction.

In the end, I did my degree in the technical side of theatre, specialising in scenic carpentry. It maintained my interest in drama, and utilised my maths skills too. Ultimately, it neglected to offer the steadiest of employment opportunities, as I discovered, but it did at least sustain my interest.

Anyway, with regard to my provisional driving license, I booked lessons and trained to the required standard to pass my test. My instructor found out that I played the guitar (in truth, I owned a guitar. To say that I played it is stretching the extent of my abilities), and we connected over that. His advice was always that I should treat my guitar like I would treat a woman, or maybe it was the other way round – I forget now. That was the upshot, though, and I shall rise above the cheap and crude hack jokes that arise from guitars having G-strings, and from what you do with your digits to elicit a pleasant sound.

I never sat my theory test, which prevented me from taking the practical, even though I was repeatedly told that I would sail through it, so to speak. I cannot now fathom why I did not put in the final bit of effort to secure my right to sit behind the wheel, and regret this shortcoming. I tried to get back into it several times in the intervening years, always being met by some obstacle or other – funding being the main one. it is not a cheap thing to acquire.

Above: Rikki Fulton and Tony Roper, Scottish comedy legends.

Part of me relates it to the time that, turning into a packed residential street with poor visibility, my instructor leapt on the brake to prevent me from driving into the back of an ambulance. The sight of an old woman lying on the road outside her church, in a compact area crammed with parked cars and now hosting a couple of police cars and the aforementioned ambulance, would stay with the most seasoned of drivers, far less an intermediate. He took care of all the footwork while directing me to do some exceptionally tight steering. I managed to negotiate around the parked cars; the emergency vehicles; the attendant paramedics and officers; the bystanders and fellow emerging churchgoers; and the oncoming traffic – but the image and the experience stayed with me.

Another part of me is reluctant to learn now, even if the funds were available, believing that it is just tempting fate. I have visions of crashing and burning within days of getting my license, leading to painful scenes at my funeral as people remark on the irony – “he waited fifteen years to get his license, got into a car and died the next day.” It would be a good story, one that people would enjoy telling thanks to the morbidity and the twist, but there are other stories that I would prefer to be part of instead. Given the choice.

This year I will be thirty-two, and I have held my provisional license for fifteen years. It has recently occurred to me that, In two years time, my provisional driving license will be old enough to apply for its own provisional driving license.


It Takes The Donations Of Millions To Move Us Forwards.

Like eighteen million others, I am now on the Organ Donor Register – but not by choice. This is surprising, as it seems a very personal decision to not be consulted on.

I have had plenty of chances to voluntarily sign up for donation, and have avoided all of them for no rational reason. I simply omitted to give it any thought, beyond the fleeting ones that occurred naturally, and those providing me with images with which I did not wish to contend. It was preferable to completely skip the issue, with its grisly reminder of mortality, and focus on something relatively cheerful instead.

It is five years since I first registered with a GP in Glasgow, and I have moved flat twice since then. One of my friends has just moved into my neighbourhood and, as she needed to find a practice to join, I took the opportunity to accompany her and sign myself up with a nearer surgery. The form had a section enquiring about one’s desire to participate in organ donation after death, and I bypassed it as I always have before. It is my understanding that Scotland, if not the entire UK, operates an opt-in scheme rather than an opt-out one; that is, you ask to be added to the scheme, you are not automatically added and then required to ask for your name to be withdrawn. The proposed mandatory inclusion is frequently subject to debate, but – as yet – consent is not presumed.  That said, Wales has recently voted to introduce it.

donor card

Two letters in identical envelopes arrived in the post yesterday, one addressed to me and one to my friend, who provided this as a care-of address during a recent transitional period. My letter thanks me “for joining the NHS Organ Donor Register through the GP service,” which I absolutely did not do. I jotted a note asking whether she had agreed to this, attached it to her mail, and popped it through her door when I was passing. The answer was no, or more specifically “what the fuck?! I haven’t signed anything like that.”

Either we both managed to misread the forms, agreeing to something that neither of us had a desire to volunteer for, or the receptionist or other unknown staff member ticked those boxes for us once they were out of our possession. It is nice to feel wanted, but disconcerting to think that only specific bits of us are wanted, and then only after the necessary precursor of death.

It has been pointed out to me that I can have my name removed if I wish. I am unable to think of sufficient justification for that, though. “Sorry, I have decided to keep all my organs once I have no further use for them. Tell those suffering that I’d like to help, but I’m not going to.” Better, I feel, to just concur. Among other vital parts, they want to take my heart, lungs, and liver – so I might save a few lives, and if not then they can cook up a sizeable haggis for the wake.

Above: My only previous encounter with Organ Donors.

My friend was equally pragmatic and shared my gallows humour, taking to Facebook to complain about the surgery’s apparent amendment to our completed registration documents. She added, referring to her party lifestyle, that “when I die, I won’t care what will happen to my body, so actually they can take whatever they want. Apart from the liver, cos I don’t have it any more.”

My sole objection, taking a very broad overview, is that I firmly believe the world is drastically over-populated; that there are already more people than the earth’s resources can sustain and it does us no favours to prolong life. However, reducing it to individual cases, I can only begin to imagine the difference that it must make to those who receive transplants, and the improvement to the lives of those who love and care about them. Condensed to that level, and being largely compassionate despite my inherent cynicism, I have no complaints. My name will remain on the list of potential donors.

If you want to register, or find out more, you can do so:
http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/

 


Witness The Unconventional Solving Of A Bloody Problem

I used to post regularly on an internet forum for industry students and professionals. In truth, I posted too regularly, and without putting sufficient thought into many of my musings. It is important to know your audience – not on a personal level, but in order to gauge what is or is not appropriate. I was often inappropriate.

I did not deliberately set out to shock or offend, but I have a strange sense of humour and it does not always come over well in person, far less online. I have some unusual and off-kilter ideas, which I like to think is a keen sense of the absurd, but that does not always translate well to everyday people. It appears to be very good, in particular, for alienating me from vast swathes of middle- and southern-English people and from readers of the Daily Mail. After a year or so of frequent posting and resultant raised eyebrows, one of the more tolerant forum moderators politely but firmly suggested that I should perhaps find an alternative outlet.

I began channelling my creativity into writing less publicly, if not less provocatively, managing to complete a few drafts of a screenplay and one draft of an unpublished novel. I also took up stand-up comedy as a way of putting my skewed view and less-conventional thoughts across, with wit. I have barely posted on that forum since, and am grateful to (and respect) the mod who advised me to quit while I was behind. There were a few bones of contention, it seems, but one remains foremost in my mind – posted after I read two unrelated news stories and concocted an unorthodox solution.

Homosexual men are not allowed to donate blood, or were not (they can as of November 2011, provided they have not had anal or oral sex in the preceding twelve months.) There may be a shortage, certainly the campaigns never cease, and there is hypocrisy inherent in this legislation. Firstly, all donors are screened and all donations fully tested, making it ridiculous to exclude much-needed volunteers on the grounds of sexual preference. Secondly, there are plenty of promiscuous heterosexual people, some of whom statistically do not take sufficient precautions against contracting diseases. You can be straight and sleep with a dozen partners a week, yet you can still opt to give blood while a long-term monogamous gay couple are barred outright. This makes no sense.

At the same time, the religious beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses prohibit them from accepting blood transfusions. There have been a couple of high-profile news stories reporting on deaths that have come about from this backward notion. If someone you love is dying, and they could be saved by a relatively simple procedure that has been successfully carried out many thousands, if not millions, of times before, then I cannot fathom the mentality that would instead let them die.

I saw a chance to link these issues. You could immediately start taking blood donations from homosexual people, and then only offer it exclusively to Jehovah’s Witnesses – who would refuse it.

In this way, the gay community would be able to volunteer without prejudice, the blood banks would be able to maintain their outdated practices, and the Jehovah’s would be able to continue dying unnecessarily like they think their god wants.

In hindsight, I am inclined to agree that this is a bit of an extreme argument to make unsolicited on an unrelated forum. The proposed changes are hardly cost effective for a start. My main argument is that blood is blood, and since it is thoroughly checked then the source should not matter (well, provided it is voluntarily given.)

Since I first posted this evidently unpopular suggestion, the rules changed and gay men who have been celibate or abstained from sex for a year can now willingly contribute – which is a small advancement, at least.  It is possible that the religious doctrine is changing too.


A Different Kind Of Drinking Problem.

A major international soft drink manufacturer has recently begun emblazoning common first names on containers of their main products. I am unwilling to name the company in question, as I do not believe in giving most brands any undue mention that may help further embed their names in the public conscious. I am also certain that you can imagine who I refer to, given my opening sentence. They are not known for scrimping on their advertising or sponsorship budgets.

It is probably a shrewd move on their part to personalise bottles, leading people to seek out specific names and perhaps buy something they would otherwise not have purchased. I detest advertising and marketing though, and the dedicated psychologies that target consumers in attempts to sell us things we do not need and that do not benefit us. I make a deliberate effort to try and remain unsusceptible, as far as possible, while being aware of the power of suggestion. I despise commercials that are designed to tempt us by asking “why not try…?”  or telling me to “go on,” “treat myself,” or that I “am worth it.” Use of these and similar phrases is a sure-fire way to make me boycott whatever service or product you are hawking.

In the supermarket recently, I noticed a display of these canned soft drinks. Rather than being aimed at one person, as the individual bottles are, the multipacks are for sharing with “friends” or “family”, something about “summer”, and the one that caught my attention – “everyone.”

drink everyone

It is not clear to me how it can be possible to share twelve cans with “everyone.” One possible explanation is that this multinational corporation has now developed such a messianic view of itself that it believes that its primary carbonated output is akin to five loaves and two fish. Even Jesus only managed to feed five thousand in that way, considerably less than the current population of the world which could generally be considered to constitute “everyone.” With approximately seven billion people on earth, most are going to get barely a sniff from this particular pack size.

Another possibility is that a dozen people is indeed everyone. Given that there are no provisos, such as “everyone at your party” or “everyone in the meeting,” perhaps this design was accidentally released for sale early, being intended to go out after the nuclear holocaust/flooding/mutated superbug decimated our human number down to barely double figures. If this is the case, then how could the manufacturer know just how many survivors would be left? Conspiracy theorists, you can have some fun here if you wish.

A more realistic slogan would be to advocate sharing beverages with The Dirty Dozen, or with 12 Angry Men. You could try giving them to the days of Christmas, or to the Christian apostles. If you were so inclined, you could have one and spread the rest around every member of your favourite football team. Alternatively, they could have stopped short of quantifying who you should share it with, as it seems they have grossly underestimated how many of us there are.

When I ran the above observation past a friend, she envisaged a far different scenario – that you would share this liquid by opening a pack and distributing the contents freely to other shoppers around you. I much prefer this idea, taking the caption at face value and immediately presenting passers-by with tins as instructed. It would be similar to the experiment conducted in the brilliant pop-culture Adam And Joe Show of the late nineties, when they helped themselves to the free percentages of promotionally-marked items.

 

In response to this global supplier’s current strategy of printing different names on their bottles, the makers of Scotland’s homegrown and most popular soft drink adopted the idea with tongue firmly in cheek. Tying in to their own current advertising campaign, they printed up several thousand limited-edition bottles with the girls name Fanny. As well as being an outdated forename, the term is an everyday slang name for the female genitals and – therefore – also used as a (relatively mild) insult, often  between friends and on a par with eejit or numpty. Ya mad fanny.

They also produced bottles named Tam, Rab, and Senga – the first two being very common Scots versions of Tom and Rob, and the third being a ubiquitous though now largely under-used girls name.

Given the dual meaning of “fanny,” it is easy to derive risque or vulgar humour from it. For instance, with reference to the photo below, it can be said that it is wet and it tastes good; it is best enjoyed when it is wet on the inside; some guys see it and lose their bottle; nothing wrong with a bit of fanny juice. You can probably come up with your own too, and by placing two bottles together you can refer to them colloquially as “a pair of fannies.”

I do hate advertising, and yet I have a wee soft spot for a local, highly successful business whose ad campaigns are famously risky, cheeky, bold, funny, innovative, silly, memorable, definitely Scottish, parodical, and genuinely entertaining. It makes them a lot more tolerable.

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