Richard Osman on Broadcasting, Bright Kids, and Biscuits

In a cavernous room beneath the Sheldonian Theatre, Richard Osman and I sit opposite each other beside a crate of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, a fact which could easily have derailed the interview from the off if Richard wasn’t of the opinion that superior confectionery is in existence. Some groovy tinkling piano music is, quite inexplicably, playing overhead, and I am resisting the urge to sway in a vaguely distracting manner.

Richard Osman

Richard Osman’s existence is largely Pointless, but he is also the presenter of Two Tribes, Channel 4’s Child Genius, and team leader on comedy panel show Insert Name Here. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, to learn that the adolescent Osman had “no real academic interest.” My first question, perhaps unfairly, was to ask Richard how well he recalls his university days. “Not brilliantly, I have to admit,” he replies. “When I was at uni, 25 years ago, I remember that exams weren’t quite such a big deal. I remember, essentially, just one long drunken evening for three years…”

Essex-born Richard Osman, a boy “not from a posh family at all”, expected to feel isolated when he arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, but admits that the university changed his opinion on a lot of things. “I thought that it was going to be full of posh people,” he explains, “and I mean, there were more posh people there than I was used to, but actually, the posh people were really…nice. Oh, it was frustrating! There were so many people I met who I thought, I’ve never met anyone like you before…People like Xander, in fact!” Richard’s fellow Pointless presenter, Alexander Armstrong, also attended Trinity. “I would say to anybody, if you get the chance in twenty years’ time to work with someone you’re at college with now, then gosh, you’ll have the time of your life…” Was he tempted to provide the backing vocals on Armstrong’s new album, In A Winter Light? “You know what, I would love to,” Richard replies, smiling. “He’s going to do another one this year. I like to keep involved with it.” If he’s planning to add a resonant baritone to his colleague’s Christmas classics, he’s keeping this under his thinking-cap.

On the subject of music — and the overhead piano embarks on a convenient crescendo at this point — I ask Richard for his true opinion on the Pointless theme tune. This number, with its slurring up-and-down runs, flutey flourishes and blasts from the brass, is danced along to, generally with enthusiastic thrusts of a cooking implement, by millions of viewers every weekday evening. Surprisingly though, it isn’t depriving Richard of several hours of sleep on a regular basis. “I honestly could not hum it to you,” he admits. “I’ve heard it thousands of times, but it’s not in my head at all. That’s bad isn’t it?” It is, then, a pointless theme tune. I make this pun lamely to myself and am glad that I did not vocalise such a sub-par attempt at witty repartee. Instead, I ask Richard where the idea for Pointless came from. “We had a show years ago on Channel 4 called Beat The Nation where we asked every question to a hundred people and scored it.” he explains. This scoring system — an attempt to qualify how difficult or easy questions are — became the basis for a new show. “Someone came up with the name,” Richard tells me, “and as soon as we had that we thought That just really works. You start talking about going to Pointless meetings and having Pointless run-throughs.” I laugh heartily here, feeling my earlier attempt at humour vindicated.

Richard also presents Channel 4’s Child Genius, a show that tests the noggins of sproggins in a series of gruelling intellectual challenges. What would a young Richard Osman’s area of expertise have been if he were a contestant on the show? “Nothing really,” he replies instantly, “It’s an absolute fallacy that I’m clever. My memory is good, though.” What’s it like filming Child Genius? “It’s really, really intense,” Richard explains. “Every muscle is clenched throughout the entire thing because everybody wants every contestant to get every single question right. I’ve never been on a show like that before. It’s so stressful to make!” “People say ‘Is it cruel?’” Richard continues, “and I say ‘Well it’s no more cruel than a kid playing football at eleven and getting substituted.’” As someone who went to Cambridge, he tells me, he thinks it’s good for intellect to be tested. “I think failure is inevitable in life, and it’s a good thing to get out of the way early,” he explains.

I was keen to know how Richard felt, as a Cambridge graduate who attended a comprehensive school, about access to educational opportunities for state-educated children and those from poorer backgrounds. “Equality of opportunity is the most important thing, of course it is,” he states, with emphasis. “As much as I like posh people,” Richard continues, “When someone tells me ‘My child got three As and didn’t get in, and someone else from a state school who got three Bs did’, I think, Good, because I went to a state school and I can tell you that someone who got three Bs at a state school is brighter than your kid who got three As at a public school…You know, it’s very hard to go to some schools and not get three As, and that’s why I think Oxford and Cambridge do good outreach things.” He expands on this theme, observing that the home environment can make a huge difference to a child’s educational performance. “If parents are motivated, kids are motivated,” he explains.

We move on to the slightly less serious topic of biscuits. “Did you consider the Chocolate Digestive a worthy winner of…” I don’t even get to finish the sentence. “No!” Richard states emphatically. I have touched a nerve in mentioning his ‘Best British Biscuit’ Twitter poll, and sit slightly further back in my seat. “With a large following,” Richard explains, “everything regresses to the mean and you get Dairy Milk winning ‘Best Chocolate Bar’. I mean, come on everybody!” He looks around with despairing eyes, and I twitch slightly, conscious of the actual stack of Dairy Milk sitting, smugly, to his right. “Twitter to me is just psychology and statistics,” he continues, regaining composure, though the shoulder slump remains. “But I mean, no, of course the Chocolate Digestive is terrible! It’s…”, he falters, struggling to adequately express his anguish, “It’s deeply upsetting as a winner.” So what is Richard Osman’s slam-dunk of a biscuit, as it were? “Well now, this is the problem, because you said we were getting less serious,” he begins. “I have to say the Jaffa Cake, and that’s where I get in trouble. People get furious with me. It’s crazy. I’d rather mention Brexit on Twitter than Jaffa Cakes or biscuits…” (I wonder whether the unwitting ‘or’ here signifies some suppressed self-doubt, but don’t dare comment). “I can’t mention it because people are constantly like ‘Oh, but you know the EU…[classifies the Jaffa Cake as a cake]’, and I say, ‘Yeah, I do know that. I know…You don’t have to keep telling me that! However, it doesn’t mean they’re not a biscuit. They are. They’re in the biscuit aisle. They’re biscuits. They’re biscuit-shaped.’” (I am nodding my assent vigorously here, largely out of fear) “I know they’re called Jaffa Cakes, but you know, Bonnie Tyler is called Bonnie Tyler, but I wouldn’t use her to re-grout my bathroom.” “It’s been the bane of my life for the last three years,” Richard laments.

To avoid further undue distress, I change the topic, and ask Richard what advice he has for young people wanting to launch a career in the media industry. “Well the good news is that with media, if you’re good and you can get your foot in the door, there’s a very quick career progression. We do intern schemes at Endemol, which is my company, and we ask people to send in ideas. Anyone who has good ideas we’ll take them and encourage them, because we’ll make money from them, and they’ll make money from us…So I would say, knock on doors, knock down doors. If you’re good, then you’ll make a fortune.”

What was the most important thing that university taught Richard Osman? “Oh goodness,” he replies, “Well I didn’t learn anything at university academically I don’t think.” He pauses, then continues, “It taught me that there’s no one out there who’s better than you, that there’s no one out there who has a divine right to be something before you get to be that thing…and you have to see that, you can’t be told it. So that really, and just that there isn’t a strata of society where I can’t hold my own, and I think that’s true for everybody.”

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Keeping Abreast Of ‘Round Robins’

It’s December 20th. The new day is sounded by the neighbour’s hacking cough, and by the soft thump of an envelope on the doormat. Tucked inside is a summary of your failings in size 12 font, or, as it’s more commonly known, the ‘Round Robin’.

‘Round Robin’ letters can be difficult to decipher, not least because your vision tends to blur with the tears of your own inadequacy. Stuffed like a turkey with spiced-up descriptions of family life, these Christmas newsletters can cause you to start losing your grip on reality, and the lighter you’re holding at the edge of the paper.

Is this even for me? Is often your first thought, because how can you know? It seems like Liz was so fired-up with relaying Helena’s SATs results that she forgot to address the letter personally, never mind to ask you how you are or how the divorce is going.

But it’s not just the sheer smugness of these letters which makes them hard to read. Many writers insist on ending every single sentence with an exclamation mark, making you feel a little like the ball on an over-excited two year-old’s paddle-bat. Sometimes, one isn’t even enough, you get a line of three or four, the textual equivalent of a grin, raised eyebrows, and thumbs-up. This can leave you wondering if these people find everything so utterly astonishing, or just their own extraordinary lives.

 “Bob and I went for a gorgeous walk in the Quantocks last week! It was sunny! A wonderful day, only ruined slightly by Bob’s knee exploding halfway down Beacon Hill!”

Now, in my opinion, only one of these sentences warrants an exclamation mark – Meredith must have been very surprised to have such good weather. We can therefore assume that the other two are merely used to continue the jocular tone of the letter – full stops can be rather cold and impersonal (just like some people you might know).

Having slogged through the bit about the writer themselves, you’ll be faced with the next most important thing in their lives – their endearing and exceptionally skilful spawn.

 “Samantha is making astounding progress on the hurdy-gurdy, passing Grade 8 alongside revising for her 19 GCSEs (we don’t know how she does it!). Phil and I simply cannot keep a rein on her truly admirable ‘zest for life’.”

No one can be average these days. Put simply, you can’t just be mediocre at making a snowman, you have to be spectacularly brilliant at making a snowman. In fact, if Aled Jones doesn’t launch into a spontaneous fluting warble as soon as you finish making your snowman, you may as well just go home.

Note the cliché thrown in here. Sounds like something you’d write, doesn’t it? You see, you and Alison aren’t that different really – you speak the same language! Ahhh, it’s like you’re one big happy family.

Now, mind the gap (year student).

“This month, Pamela is building drainage systems in Uganda – hard work, but she’s not one to complain! She’ll be back for a few weeks in June before setting off for Somalia to help in a hydrotherapy centre for aardvarks.”

What they’re not telling you here is that Pamela complains incessantly because the ground’s too hard to dig (‘so hard!’), and because she’s subsisting on insect larvae when she’s used to eating flambéed quail.

And of course, the angelic youngest child, adored by his quadruple CRB-checked teachers.

“Not to forget 8 year-old Titus, who can now put on his Velcro-shoes unaided, and who is a whirlwind on the rugby pitch! The referee at the last match actually forgot to blow the whistle, so transfixed was he by our little sporting phenomenon!”

The metaphor may have momentarily sparked your grossly depleted interest, but probably not. ‘Revolving plate in a microwave’ would have been more captivating, and accurate. Speaking of microwaves, your Sainsbury’s ‘Taste the Additives’ mac ‘n’ cheese has just pinged. Best go get that, you’ll need all your strength for the travel section.

“Rose at 5:20 sharp and caught the 5:59 train from Reading to London Paddington, changing platforms for London Kings Cross with 52 minutes spare to grab a coffee and eat a raisin bagel in the waiting room. A slight hold-up of 12 minutes at Peterborough due to detachment of carriages, but I arrived more or less on-time in Lincoln at 10:05.”

Such over-sharing isn’t just limited to journeys. You’ll most likely reach the end of the letter (keep the faith) with precise knowledge of the circumference of Jolie the Dalmatian’s hind-quarters. This is preferable to knowledge of Sandra the writer’s hind-quarters, however.

Unlike these people’s taxes, family photographs in Christmas newsletters can’t be avoided. Shots of all 15 Robsons crammed into frame, eating marinated feta al fresco under waxen fronds. Perhaps a snap of Tina and Jeremy, arms around each other in a visceral embrace, obscuring a large proportion of the Basilica behind them.

By this point you’ve concluded that the senders of these ‘Round Robins’ don’t care one ounce of currants about your puny sorrowful life. This is not the impression that Julian, who likes to talk about traffic calming measures, and who you haven’t seen in 17 years for precisely that reason, wants to give you. And so, into the mix of stodgy self-aggrandisement he sprinkles some sugar, or candied orange peel if you prefer, in the form of a mention of you, dear reader. This can cause you to fall backwards in shock, to salute yourself in the mirror, or perhaps, to lose it completely and destroy the letter with relish (or petrol, which tends to be more flammable).

“We hope you are well, Laura, and keeping off the booze. We must make sure to pop over sometime in 2017.”

If you’re erratically splashing a red cross on your door, there’s no need. This is never going to happen. Don’t you know these people are ‘so incredibly busy’? Stop thinking you’re so important.

NW15

I was out and about in Oxford city centre with my new friend Iris. We were sight-seeing, and meandering in and out of the star-anise-scented, Slade-playing shops with little intention. However, a strange urgency emerged in Iris’ step when we neared Debenhams, and she could see, in emboldened signage, the word ‘Mac’.

“We HAVE to go in Mac!” she implored, in tones so fretful I was convinced that my life’s purpose had just been realised and that fate was compelling me to join the hand-bagged horde swelling through the automatic doors opposite.

Unaware of Iris’ real purpose in bringing us into the store, I calmly perused the portals of eye-shadow sparkling along the walls. I was aware of the tunic sporting ladies who were bustling around dabbing and blending, and who stirred up minute powder clouds as they went. I  was aware of my paleness alongside their heavily-bronzed faces, but this was only a fleeting concern.

But a sudden shift in Iris’ behaviour caught my attention. Before I could do anything to help myself, she had locked eyes with one of the makeup artists, Aleisha, whose face, if you carefully tapped at the temples with a chisel, would probably come off in a near-perfect replica of a Bafta award.

“My friend Ros here is wondering what shade of lipstick would suit her. Can you help her?”

I saw Iris as if in a dream. Her pink-painted lips were moving, but I could detect no sound escaping from them. The assistant’s eyes latched onto her prey, and I immediately coloured in the cheeks, naked in comparison to her own fawn cemented orbs. I was a blank, slightly red, canvas, upon which was about to be hurled every shade of cerise under the sun.

Dear reader, I am not a confident person. My hand-wave resembles a one-flippered penguin attempting flight, and I can never acknowledge people with the appropriate salutation to match their age and status. Example in question – I greeted an elderly acquaintance of my mum yesterday with a prolonged “Yo”. The other day at work, I responded to everything Geoff said in a Mexican accent, reason unknown. So to have a makeup artist studying every pore and contour of my face was about as uncomfortable for me as being strung up by my ankles and repeatedly prodded with a salad fork.

The first thing Aleisha asked me was what colours I generally ‘go for’.

“I don’t tend to wear lipstick,” I replied meekly. “I haven’t got a clue what suits me.”

This first honest declaration set her completely aback, and she looked at me with new-found pity.

“Well what colours do you tend to wear, clothes-wise?”

I replied that I wore blue quite a lot. And black. She was unimpressed.

“Hmmm,” she replied, chewing a matte-coated lip. We both stood staring at the rows of lipsticks in front of us, as if the perfect shade would summon itself and shoot out like an arrow. I prayed that it would, and that it might hit me right between the unlined eyes with force enough to end my suffering. In an instant, Aleisha’s face was directly in front of mine. Our noses were touching; my own very cold from the rain, hers delicately powdered and soft as a new-born calf’s.

“Eye colour is the best indicator of what shades will suit.” Aleisha informed me. I caught a brief glimpse into her own eyes and thought that I could see all of the secrets of the cosmetic universe.

“For green eyes like yours, it’s going to have to be a brown or purple shade.” I found myself nodding sagely. “Or an orangy-red.” She added as an afterthought, and I quickly nodded my head again in full agreement.

I assented to her picking out lipsticks for me to try on. All this time, Iris stood carefully overseeing my transformation. And all this time, I later realised, another shop assistant was trying to access the drawer of lipsticks in front of my legs. She whopped me in the shins with it just as I was applying Plum Dandy to my chapped lips, causing me to smear it down the side of my chin. This error was immediately vanquished by a wet-wipe which materialised out of Aleisha’s tunic with something of a matador’s flourish. For some reason, I remained clutching this wet-wipe in my hand for the rest of the time we were in the shop, and I probably would have carried it out too if Iris hadn’t delicately removed it from my white-knuckled fist and put it in the bin on exit.

“What do you think?” Aleisha asked me, as we stood examining my many-coloured face in the mirror. I was crippled with self-consciousness.

“I think it’s a shade too light,” Iris declared.

Back at the lipstick counter, I let my finger hover over various shades I deemed appropriate, only to have my hand gently nudged onto a different course. Aleisha and Iris settled on Velvet Teddy and Party Line.

“Okay, we’ll try Velvet Teddy first,” Aleisha said, taking one of the lipsticks in her hand and turning her back. I promptly picked up the other lipstick and applied it so poorly that I could have rivalled Heath Ledger’s legacy as the Joker. Aleisha turned around again.

“Right, I’ve cleaned Velvet Teddy ready for you to try on…” She drifted off mid-sentence when she realised that I was already brandishing Party Line.

“Well I think that one looks just great. Don’t you think?”

“Oh my God that looks soooo good!” Iris squeeled, clasping her hands together and squeezing my arm. I promptly went bright red in the face, such to the effect that the vivid impact of Party Line was entirely diminished.

Purely as a means to hasten my escape, I said that I would put Party Line on my Christmas wish-list. This idea had the full and quite aggressive backing of Aleisha, who probably thought that I needed lipstick more than I needed water. Then I headed towards the exit.

Iris intercepted me and restricted any movement beyond the lip gloss counter. She had a grip of steel, developed, I am sure, from years of measured mascara application. She beckoned to Aleisha.

“She needs foundation,” Iris stated bluntly, pointing, rather unnecessarily I felt, to my naked blemished face.

“NW15.” Aleisha fired back instantly. Iris, fully versed in makeup code, responded with a sharp nod. The ‘Mission Impossible’ theme started up, and I was steered towards the foundation pumps.

Jingle Hell -Survival Tips For Scrooges

Ah, Christmas time.

“Excellent,” the shopkeepers say, “Tis’ the season for spending!”

“Hurray!” the children cheer, “Santa is coming!”

“Oh Christ,” every other ordinary person utters, “Let the complete obliteration of my dignity commence.”

The road to the New Year is a long one, littered with obstacles and paper hats. But fear not – help is at hand in the form of these six survival tips.

  1. RELATIVES – The tinny throb of a Ford Fiesta spells the arrival of undesirable individuals. The little people have an unappealing habit of shooting fluids out of their facial orifices, and if you haven’t bought them what they want (i.e. a unicorn or various items of foam weaponry), then the turd hits the suspended air-filter in the most spectacular fashion.

How to survive – Giant Toblerones work wonders in stopping tantrums. If seated between your partner’s parents at the dinner table, take extra caution with the Christmas crackers – you run the risk of chronic elbow injury and blinding your father-in-law with a rogue spinning top or stencil set.

  1. CHRISTMAS TREES – Vomit pine needle puddles all over the carpet, then find their way into socks and are inhaled by dogs, leading to mild canine congestion.

How to survive – Feel no shame in rockin’ around your Homebase acrylic Nordic Spruce. If you do plump for the real deal though, disposing of it can be a nightmare. Either burn the bushy bastard or plant it neatly in your garden, then Rex can continue putting presents under it all year round.

  1. THE QUEEN’S SPEECH – What’s with this? You’re just tucking into your roasted road-kill from Lidl when this regal party-pooper turns up.

How to survive – This one’s easy – don’t watch it. As soon as you hear the first parps of the royal fanfare, make a majestic dive for the ‘mute’ button. It’s also worth noting that Channel 4 broadcast their ‘alternative speech’ each year. Previous speakers have included Edward Snowden, Sharon Osbourne and Ebola survivor William Pooley, i.e. people who’ve actually done stuff rather than lolled about in a pastel two-piece feeding Corgis titbits of antelope loin.

  1. DEALING WITH DRUNK PARENTS – This situation occurs every year, but is never anything short of harrowing. Last Christmas, my friend’s mother was grabbed and snogged by the husband of one of her friends, right in front of the man’s wife. Apparently, prising them apart was like trying to remove an octopus from a high-suction hoover-nozzle.

How to survive – Before it gets to the stage when Graham’s wrestling the Christmas tree to the ground, break out the non-alcoholic wine, but do so discreetly – you run the risk of having your neck garroted with a string of twinkly lights.

  1. FOOD – Christmas dinner is notoriously slow to cook, which leaves plenty of time for absent-minded cashew nut consumption. Mince pies also declare war on humanity and bolster the UK wholesale of gastric-bands.

How to survive – Accept the fact that you’re going to end up looking like a pregnant Pillsbury Doughboy. Don’t buy a Christmas pudding and a cake – your love affair with both is passionate, but in the end there is only room for one in your heart (and your stomach).

  1. SHOPPING – It’s like God wanted to punish us for all of our mortal sins by forcing us to traipse around towns in our quests for novelty bird-feeders.

How to survive – Shop online! In the comforting realm of the Internet you can merrily fill up your metaphorical basket without interacting with a single human. However, if a shopping-trip is unavoidable, allow for regular pit-stops to sample cranberry Stilton and to use the M&S facilities. Allow an extra minute for missing the exit in the Debenhams revolving door. About half an hour into your miserable excursion, you’ll start flagging. Be sure to exit TopShop before you reach the ‘zombie’ stage or you may be mistaken for one of the shop assistants. Also, start saving in October – purchasing of slipper socks and scented candles will push you to near bankruptcy.

Paradise Lost

 After a tough few months Mum and I decided to escape from the world, and so we booked a room in a Weymouth B&B for three nights.

This was the plan:

We would while away our time, spending a blissful hour or two lying languidly on sun-soaked sands, meander towards an icecream stall to purchase two 99 Flakes without so much as breaking a single bead of sweat, before strolling around the harbour with a sense of abandon which speaks only of having thrown your cares to the ocean, and seen them washed away along with a flip-flop and a crushed Buxton bottle.

This was the reality:

We got off on the wrong sandal-clad foot immediately. In the breakfast room, whilst I was serenely spreading my Longmans unsalted, I became aware of a very oppressive silence. The topic of the weather had been exhausted, revived, given CPR, and then finally laid to rest, leaving Mum and Colette from Northhampton next to us sitting in silence, nervously catching glances and smiling at each other. I met my mother’s gaze as I took a sip of orange juice, but must have unwittingly given a cue for a horrendous conversational blunder.

‘So what did you think of the referendum result?’ asked my mother, with instant audible regret. I nearly spat my orange juice in a beautiful arc right through the air.

‘I wasn’t surprised at all.’ came Colette’s reply, ‘I’m delighted. I always thought we should make our own rules, and not be told what to do by other people.’

Heads and faces flaming, Mum and I bit down on our jammy wholegrain, which had become as brittle as the atmosphere.

At the Sealife Centre, the day, and indeed my mother, went even more rapidly downhill as Mum tripped on a stone outside the crocodile enclosure and went for the biggest and most extended stumble I personally have ever witnessed. Bent at the waist, Mum hurtled head-first at fantastic speed towards the Humboldt penguins, her feet kicking out to the left and right like two frantic paddles. It was like Concord. I was forced to run after her as she zoomed away, save she should take out one of the many toddlers waddling along clutching plush octopi. As I cleared the bend I witnessed the final flurry of this spectacular display as Mum careered into the hedge lining the otter sanctuary and disappeared into it. I finally caught up with Mum, and delivered her from the leafy arms of the evergreen.

At the Sealife Tower, things didn’t get much better for us. Having shown our tickets we were promptly bustled into a dark room where a young graduate shouted “You’re surrounded by sharks!” which caused my bewildered mother significant alarm. In the midst of our confusion the grad took a photo of us and tried to fob us off with a fob with our photo on it.

As we entered the revolving pod, another young spud directed us to walk right around to the double doors at the other side. The pod was big enough to seat seventy but for some reason the one other family that was going in squished up right next to us, the mother pressing shoulders with Mum, with her toddler practically straddling the both of them. I motioned to Mum to follow me around which of course prompted a snooty cry of “Ooooooh, Grace, that lady didn’t want to sit next to you!” “No, I didn’t want to sit under you,” muttered Mum under her breath. Unfortunately, no matter how far away in the airborne doughnut we sat from Grace, Caitlyn, and the two yummy mummys, the noise levels did not diminish. One mother spent the whole three rotations ordering Grace to “sit next to Caitlyn” in exaggerated tones of scorn. By the third rotation, when amazing Grace still hadn’t dutifully parked her benappied butt on the plastic beam, I began to wonder whether Caitlyn was actually a human, or rather, some heinous hairy arachnid. On the other side of us we had a second family with a young boy, who, quite understandably, was distressed at being suspended 90′ above the ground in a revolving bagel. The father, keen to instil in his offspring the same wonderful and acute appreciation of the natural world, was loudly drawing his son’s attention to various bits of scenery. “Look Leo, can you see the Osmington white horse carved into the limestone hill circa 1808 which shows King George III riding away from his beloved Weymouth?” Sadly not. What we got was, “Look Leo!” followed by “Sea!”, “Cloud!” and “Bird!” These astounded ejaculations from the man to our left, combined with yummy mummy’s shrieking of “Juice Caitlyn! Do you want juice? [no reply] You do? What juice do you want? Do you want apple or blackcurrant or pineapple? Caitlyn?” on our right, as well as the overhead commentary telling us the “wonderful secrets of the Jurassic coast” made for a deafening cacophony of performance parenting that had Mum and I gripping the seats, clenching our teeth, and contemplating how far above the water we’d feasibly need to be before we could dive in without being killed.

Dinner at Ming Wah restaurant. Here I struggled to enjoy my chicken and cashew nut chow mein because the waiter kept coming over to our table, bending down, smiling at me and saying “Are you okay?”, then turning to my mother smiling and asking “Is she okay?” As far as I knew I wasn’t making suicidal gestures with my wantons but I had to go to the toilets just to check that ‘Death is bliss’ wasn’t smeared on my face in sweet and sour sauce.

Paying the bill, there he was again, appearing sporadically from under the bar like a whack-a-mole. He waved a fortune cookie at me and said “Do you want it do you want it?” I had to time my response for when he next surfaced. “Thank you,” I said, handing the cookie to my mum. Obviously, this was not the desired outcome, as he swiftly submerged himself again and appeared with a second cookie which he thrust into my hand. I laughed and thanked him again, with slightly more emphasis, but found that I couldn’t retract my arm because the waiter had held onto my hand.

The final instalment of this most emotionally taxing day involved two women, two icecreams, and a coastal breeze. Having ordered two small Mr Whippys, we were informed that there were no small cones left, and the girl promptly started filling two gargantuan waffle cones with whippy. I really cannot exaggerate how large these icecreams were. I felt like I was carrying the Olympic torch as I emerged onto the street.

But disaster struck. A sudden and inexplicably vigorous wind whipped up and whipped Mum’s whippy. She was coated from face to foot. I made it to the bench and begun the difficult task of consuming my creamy cornocupia. My best eating efforts were in vain however, as my cone split and ice-cream dripped onto my black jeans, forcing me to dab sheepishly at my crotch area with a desperately inadequate serviette.

As for souvenirs, we came home with two ‘lucky cats’ –  ‘luck lucky cat’ (yellow), and ‘happiness lucky cat’ (green), and this tells you all you need to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Ball’s Up

DSC00136This is Earl. Look how happy he is. He’s just so darn happy with life right now. But this was before we told him that he only has one testicle…DSC00020And now he looks like this…DSC00143Yes, little Earl’s got a little problem, and we’ve got a big problem, because unless this furry ball produces his second furry ball (which is inside of him), we’re going to have to fork out our bucks so that the vet can fork out Earl’s bollocks. You see the problem, or rather, you don’t see it…

The 16th of Jan-you-worry

There are two words which, when placed together, are enough to strike the general populace to the core with debilitating fear, and make them want to burrow into the ground and lie prostrate in cold, enclosing earth. Nuclear war? Loose murderer? No. Dad’s birthday.

It comes once a year, though a generous proportion of the preceding months are consumed by this most alarming of events. Months in which wives watch Masterchef restlessly and without their usual tranquil regard of Gregg Wallace’s pate, and plate. When solitary and introverted teenagers press themselves even further into the corner of their bedroom wall so that they develop minor shoulder disfigurement. When dogs do an extra circuit of their sleeping spot before settling.

My dad’s birthday falls on the 16th of January, and lands sometime around noon. This means that it’s even more formidable due to depleted cash reserves from Christmas, depleted present ideas from Christmas, and depleted goodwill from Christmas.

For hours each day I racked my brain, surveyed shelves of books with unseeing eyes, drifted listlessly in and out of the automatic doors of the garden centre, blasting the hyacinths with intermittent cold air. But it was to no avail.

I heard on the radio earlier in the week (the panic is widespread) that if you need to buy something for a man, you buy a replacement for something he already has. Like a wife. And a leaf blower. And pants. But the problem is is that my dad doesn’t want you to buy him things, he wants him to buy him things because inevitably, what you buy him will be wrong for reasons you will never understand because you have never performed extensive comparative analysis of the sensory qualities of Spear & Jackson spade handles.

All things considered, Dad didn’t have a bad birthday. I mean, two thirds of our relatives forgot it but, hey…and he got a two-tiered draining rack…

Party hats off to Mum though for summarising the whole terrible fiasco of buying presents for men…

“I bought you this DVD in Oxfam because it has that woman on the front that you really like.”

“No, that’s the woman I really don’t like.” replied Dad.

“Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. I think the disk is cracked anyway.”

The Migrant Crisis – A First-Hand Experience

As college students in England, it can be easy to feel distanced from the migrant crisis. My friend Kai, however, has shown that this need not be the case, and by delivering aid parcels with his mother in Calais, has proven how much difference individuals can make. Interested in his first-hand experience of this global issue, I conducted an interview with Kai, and his responses are presented below.

Q: What was it that made you want to go and help in Calais?

A: I felt a sense of needing to do something about the crisis. I felt a moral responsibility, as a human, to help these people.

Q: What preparations did you make in advance? What sort of things were you collecting and where did you get them?

A: I talked to friends about our proposed plan. Then, from whoever was willing, I gathered old clothes, and also looked in charity shops for shoes and warm jumpers. We did a few ‘big shops’ for food. Back at home, we created packages of food and clothes and piled them in the living room. The room was absolutely stacked with stuff.

Q: What was your initial reaction upon arriving at the migrant camp?

A: Shock, as it was clear that those people had been through Hell. The camp was like a shanty town, and the living conditions were terrible. They were living in absolute squalor, in tents that completely lined the underpass.

Q: How did you go about giving aid? Did anyone try to stop you?

A: No one tried to stop us, there wasn’t any security there except for a razor-wire fence and a single soldier. We parked up, opened the boot, and immediately started handing out the stuff, because the migrants had flooded around the car as soon as they’d seen us.

Q: What was the reaction of the migrants? How did you feel in that situation?

A: The migrants were just very very grateful. They were desperate, standing in the mud wearing half-fitting sandals, so of course they were grateful that we were helping them. One of them tried to pull my jacket off my shoulders because he said I didn’t need it, and that made me feel guilty of course.

Q: Were there many other people helping?

A: There were loads of people, lots of volunteers wearing high-vis jackets, and about four or five people like us. There was no set system though, just lots of people doing what they could.

Q: Was there anything that you saw or heard that left a lasting impression on you?

A: I saw a couple of people there who were smiling and laughing, and I thought, ‘Why aren’t you worrying?’. That gave me a sense of perspective, and it made me realise how lucky I am.

Q: Did you get to speak to any of the migrants?

A: Most of them didn’t really speak, but my mum talked to a woman. Her daughter had been left behind, and she was trying to make contact with her with a broken mobile phone. Another man had lost his two sons in a previous country. He’d jumped on a truck to get through the border, but his sons hadn’t been able to get on it. They were left behind.

Q: Have you got an opinion on how the migrant crisis is being handled? 

A: Shoddily. Just the fact that it’s been labelled a ‘crisis’ shows that it’s not being handled well. I don’t think our government realises that people like me feel the need to be helping. The government just takes no action.

Q: Many individuals in this country want to do more to help, but perhaps don’t know how to go about it. What advice would you give to them?

A: Get in contact with the volunteers that are there already, and anyone you know who’s been involved. It’s always useful to look at social media and on the internet for advice and information. Finally, I would say just do it! Yes, it’s a bit scary, but you’re helping people, and they won’t hurt you.

The Great British Bake Off Finale – Who will rise to the challenge and who will crash and burn?

It’s the Bake Off final this Wednesday. Everybody knows because BBC1 have been intermittently interrupting programmes with the plummy voice of Mary Berry. Not that they really needed to do this much plugging – the viewing figures for this series have hit record highs as the nation tuned in to drool over Tamal’s ‘Vol au Vents’ (and also Tamal, according to Twitter), to marvel at Paul’s bread lion, and to cheer Ian’s ‘Charlotte Russe’. A national day of mourning was almost declared when Dorret’s mousse equivocated in its tin, then flooded down like the baker’s futile tears.

So why is this show so popular? Perhaps it’s because a certain pleasure can be gained from watching people’s dreams flour, or crumble into insignificance. Perhaps it’s because it’s strangely fascinating to watch Paul Hollywood slice a gateau with the precision of an 18th Century executioner. Perhaps it’s just because we’re unashamedly obsessed with cake, and are more than willing to dedicate an hour a week to watch the creation of this floury phenomenon. Whatever the reason, the finale is certain to be a hectic and heated affair, at the end of which, either Nadiya, Ian or Tamal will receive the cherry to put atop their cake.

Anyone who watches the show is bound to have picked a favourite already, but I have profiled the three finalists anyway.

TAMAL: Tamal is the titan of the Bake Off tent. Every week he’s mesmerised us with his astonishingly-delicious sounding pastries, pies and puddings. Will the trainee anaesthetist be a knock-out in the final?

NADIYA: Nadiya has graced our screens with her superb bread snake, exquisite-looking arctic roll, and remarkably flexible face which can go from ‘calm and collected’ to ‘in a state of mortal peril’ quicker than you can frost a shortbread centrepiece.

IAN: Ian won over our hearts early on with his delighted exclamation, “My rosemary is vindicated!”, which surely stands as one of the best things ever to be uttered on primetime television. Ian whisked through the first weeks but, like a cake, had a dip in the middle. He made a chocolate well complete with bucket in the semi-final, but have Ian’s chances of winning pailed?

Find out this Wednesday, 8pm on BBC1!

Beach Howl

Ah, the seaside. A long sandy beach, glistening in the sun like golden sherbet. Surf lapping at the AquaShoe-clad feet of the merry children, and the capri pants of their fathers. A clear ocean stretching out so far that it blurs its blue into the sky on the ship-speckled horizon. This is what I imagined when my brother and I decided to take our dog to the beach for a day. This was the image that shattered the moment we stepped foot and paw on the train.

When the automatic doors shut, our fate was sealed. Me, Jesse, our large dog, a man (large but not ours), and his pushchair stood cooped into the tiny space in front of the doors, the train being packed. We exchanged grim glances with the man, then lost eye contact as the train pulled off and we did the awkward wobble. We still felt reasonably optimistic about our day, and our dog, Laika, was enjoying the view of cows out of the window. That was until she wanted to chase the cows and started to scratch against the door, mercilessly stripping First Great Western of its pink painted interior.

I think it’s remarkable how quickly you can end up with your hands between a man’s legs, particularly if your hands are attached to a dog lead, attached to an overly-friendly dog now attached to a train conductor. From crotch-height I ordered a return ticket. In the remaining hour and fifteen minutes on that train, Laika licked three toddlers on the mouth, got her head lassoed in a departing passenger’s bag strap, barked in a child’s face, and greeted everyone emerging from the toilet cubicle like they were long-lost friends. The headache I had begun to nurse was not helped by the young couple who chose our tiny little space to end their relationship, the man shouting, “I’ll leave, and I’ll take the kids”. Laika stood by like a canine Jeremy Kyle. When we finally got off the train, I was drained. Laika, however, was not, and yanked Jesse out of the station and straight towards the beach.

We tried to walk along the promenade through the throng of sailor-striped OAPs to get to the dog beach, but Laika wasn’t having any of it. She was pulling so hard to the left that she was near horizontal, and Jesse’s arm had extended about 3 centimetres. She was also choking herself, and making rather loud intermittent seal honks. I said, “Oh sod it, let her off” to Jesse, thinking we were finally at the dog beach. Apparently we weren’t. Some old geezer who obviously sat in the beach cafe just waiting for such instances bellowed “READ THE SIGN. DOGS AREN’T ALLOWED ON THIS BEACH. WHY DON’T YOU READ THE SIGN? WHAT DO YOU THINK IT’S THERE FOR?”. When I finally did read the sign in question which was, to be fair, very small, and read ‘Dogs allowed beyond this point’, Laika was stooped 2 yards in front of it on the pristine white sand delivering the biggest turd in Christendom next to a family with two small children. The three-year-old girl said “Oh well, I’ll dig another hole now”. I wanted to ask her to dig one for me too because Laika had just shat on her other sand creation.

Bagged, binned and hair thinned, Jesse and I finally put down our picnic rug and headed for the water. Here we met two men carrying out an experiment to see if their pug, Kaleb, would sink or swim. He did neither in fact. He just stood next to us and yapped his head off at Laika. Before I could conclude their experiment by lobbing Kaleb out into the English Channel, we left for the harbour.

Here, our misery continued. We had barely taken two sips of our scalding hot tea before we had to leave. Two small birds had landed on the rim of the dog water bowl, an act which outraged Laika and sent her into a barking fit.

The bench up on the fort wasn’t much better. A troupe of Americans walked past us wearing sandals and white sport socks pulled up to their knees. Laika barked at them too. Jesse simply looked up and told them, “It’s the socks”. Then Laika did a fart on the fort, and we had to abort the fort.

Back at the station, we realised that the train was delayed by an hour, which we spent watching Laika lick drops of ice-cream off the waiting room floor.

Laika pulled us off the train at 5:30. Back at home, we didn’t even need to say a word to Mum. “I knew it was a terrible idea,” was all she said.