Sunday, December 21, 2014

Now I know what it's like to be The Queen

In our household, December is always the busiest month. Not because of Christmas – we’re of the “let’s do all the shopping in November” school. To be more accurate, my wife is the one from that school, which also teaches: “Don’t dare buy me anything that I haven’t written down on this list, unlike the electric toothbrush you bought me last year”. I thought it was quite a nice electric toothbrush. 

Actually, I’m happy to take a back seat, leaving the whole Christmas nightmare to her. As a result, my diary this month is clear, apart from one enormous band of red: every spare night is taken up with what we call the Thumbdance Film Festival. 

Like all BAFTA members, I get sent a huge pile of movies on DVD and have to watch as many as I can before casting my votes at the end of the year. So throughout December, our next-door-neighbours bring lasagna and red wine, and we thumb through the pile of blockbusters. 

We usually play the 15-minute rule: if a film doesn’t grab us in the first quarter of an hour we assume it probably never will, so we hit the eject button. It’s the fastest way to get through the list. 

Boy, have we ejected some turkeys. I reckon North Korea’s hacking experts could turn round their country’s ailing economy by offering their services to longsuffering film audiences in order to block the worst movies from distribution. Much as I squirm to read of each new embarrassment at Sony, and I certainly detest and fear cyber-terrorism, I suspect North Korea may have saved us another fifteen minutes of disappointment. 

I’d hazard a guess that, if we ever get to see it, The Interview isn’t going to be up for Best Film. I do like the (presumably hoax) rumours that were floating around yesterday morning, which claimed the hackers have now given Sony permission to release it, provided they do a quick re-edit: 
  • Rule #1: no death scene of Kim Jong Un being too happy. 
  • Rule #2: do not test us again.” 
I have a suspicion that Rule #2 ought to have been: “make it a lot funnier,” but as the film probably won’t feature at Thumbdance, we’ll never know for sure. 

As well as the DVDs, we also get invited to special screenings. Izzy loves them. At the premiere of Paddington Bear, she wore her party frock and tiara, and we dodged the paparazzi (actually, tourists with their iPhones) outside the cinema. Izzy nearly fell off her chair when we saw Nicole Kidman. 

At the first showing of Penguins of Madagascar, a movie I confess I found less than whelming, she was bribed by the publicist with penguin balloons and as much penguin-shaped ice cream as she could eat. As a result she pronounced it the best film she’d ever seen. 

I hope she doesn’t get a taste for celebrity premieres. Yesterday afternoon I had a tiny, but bizarre glimpse of what it must be like to be the Queen. Walking up from Newcastle Central Station to St James’ Park for the Tyne-Wear derby, I noticed something strange about the police officers lining the route. 

Clutching their newly polished riot helmets, every single one turned to me and smiled as I walked past. It was bizarre, and quite wonderful. Of course, I instinctively nodded and smiled back, just like The Queen does. About a hundred times. 

After a while I thought: Her Majesty must get very bored with this. Finally, curiosity got the better of me. 

“Excuse me,” I said as politely as Paddington Bear, “Has someone high up told you to smile at every football fan?” 

The policeman blushed, then conceded: “Yes, we’ve been given special instructions to smile today.” 

Mind you, on the way back to the station, after Newcastle had been beaten by a late Sunderland goal, none of the officers raised a smile at anyone. I guess that was an order too, so they wouldn’t be taken for smirking Sunderland supporters. 

I’m pretty sure the police aren’t ever allowed to smile in North Korea, except perhaps when Kim Jong-un’s team wins at football. But then, I guess they’re also never allowed to lose.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The night they stopped the Tube

Clutching my overnight bag, I reached the Northern Line platform at Kings Cross to find a crowd of passengers milling around a man in uniform.  Despite the crush, everyone was strangely calm, staring in the same direction down the platform.

The man was shouting commands to a tube train that was nosing its way into the station. Instead of racing in and screeching to a halt at the last moment, forcing passengers to cling to the handrails for support, this train was inching forward, the driver with his head out of the window so he could hear instructions. I didn’t know tube trains could do that. 

“Stop!” the official shouted. “It’s over here.” 

Oh no, I thought, there’s a body on the line. I couldn’t bear to look. In London scarcely a week goes by without a suicide on the Underground - "person under a train" they call it. It would take ages for the police and ambulances and the fuss. 

I selfishly wondered how I would get home. It was after 10pm, and I didn’t have enough cash for a taxi. 

Then I reasoned: if it’s a body, surely they would have stopped the train in the tunnel. Maybe someone fell onto the tracks and they’re going to help them back up. So I gingerly walked to the edge of the platform and peered over. A large rat was scampering along the line. 

Surely they hadn’t stopped the train for a rat? There must be millions down there. I thought of what would happen if a rat got into a carriage. That would wake them up, the normally oblivious, unconcerned London commuters. I pictured chaos and screaming. They’d be jumping on the seats in panic. I smiled at the image, then shuddered in case it was my carriage the rat visited. Yes, best stop the train and catch it. 

“It’s off.” 

The shout from the driver broke the moment. 

“You sure?” shouted the man with the hat. His walkie-talkie crackled. 

“Yes, it’s off,” came the reply. 

They’d switched off the power. The entire Northern Line had been shut down for a rat. The official bent down and jumped onto the track. 

“Here it is,” he cried triumphantly, pulling up something white from beside the rail. 

There was a murmur from the crowd and a ripple of applause. The rumour quickly spread down the platform. It was a pair of earphones. 

To stop a tube train in the middle of the evening for a pair of earphones, that was so… British. Sure, we were going to be a few minutes late, but someone would save £65 at the Apple store.  I smiled as the official handed them to a little boy with a tearstained face. 

Just then there was an aggrieved shout from a furious woman in the crowd. She was puce with rage, speaking in a foreign accent. 

“They shut down the tube network for a pair of earphones? That’s disgusting!” 

She came up to me for support. 

“It’s repulsive, holding us all up for a pair of earphones.” 

Something in the woman's manner really irritated me. They were doing something nice here, helping someone out. For this city, it was a tiny act of corporate human kindness. 

All day I’d been so relaxed, nothing at all could irritate me. Except this woman. “Oh do be quiet,” I said loudly. “How can you get neurotic over a pair of earphones? Just chill, woman.” 

She was so stunned, I thought she was going to hit me. But instead, she stormed off down the platform, spouting bile at the men with hats. 

“I want your names. I’m reporting you to Boris Johnson.” 

I thought of the number of times I’d been held up by herds of sheep in Northumberland. A journey delayed for a pair of earphones? This was nothing. 

And maybe it shows there’s humanity in London after all.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Black Friday? Cyber Monday? Count me out!

How the Daily Mail reported "Black Friday frenzy"

[First printed in The Journal, Monday 1st December 2014]

It’s taken a while but yesterday morning we had a breakthrough: Izzy is swimming backwards. 

Lying like a tiny turtle on her back, she first flapped one arm like a propeller, which caused her to go in little circles while gradually sinking beneath the surface; then, gingerly, she introduced the second, till both arms were beating the water like a sealion’s flippers. To be accurate, it looked more backflap than backstroke, but she eventually got the hang of it and was soon storming around the deep end bumping into all the other pupils. 

After 55 years of swimming, I’ve never worked out how to see where I’m going when doing backstroke, so I doubt Izzy ever will. But I guess this is progress of sorts. Her teacher was so pleased, he gave her a badge and promoted her to the school’s “Crab” class, while presenting me with a bill for next term’s lessons, where he promises me he’ll begin to teach her to go forwards. 

“But surely crabs go sideways, not backwards?” I protested, but Juan, who is Spanish, pretended to not understand. It’s a profitable business, this swimming school.