What the Dickens – From Listless Christmas Past to Glorious Present

Charles Dickens is a bona fide nitwit.  In his book, ‘A Christmas Carol’, not only did he forget to include a character named ‘Carol’, he victimized a man of advanced years just because he was thrifty.  Granted, ‘A Christmas Scrooge’ sounds somewhat unsavoury, but in less judgmental times Ebenezer Scrooge would have been lauded as a fiscally conservative hero.  Worse still, Dickens needlessly uses ghosts to transport our misunderstood protagonist to the past, present and future.  It’s totally pointless – Christmas has always been about time travel. 

There’s no other day of the year that can move you so effortlessly from one point in your life to another.  No matter what age you are, you can feel like a child again, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.  Charles Dickens knew that.  But I don’t need a ghost to help me see Christmases past, present and future.  For me, seeing the past, present and future is what the day is all about.  Christmas is a signpost, a crossroad and gigantic roundabout with a tramline running through it (possibly) all at once.  It’s a day that tells you where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.  It’s glorious.

The sense of nostalgia is especially potent at my father’s house.  That’s partly because he still uses the same artificial tree and decorations he did when we were kids.  I realize that the very notion of an artificial tree can be controversial to some, but their allure lies in the promise that you’ll never have to buy another Christmas tree again.  My father has taken that promise to heart.  In the four decades since he purchased his artificial tree, the plastic needles have fallen away, leaving what’s left totally denuded and looking like a demented TV antennae.  That it he sets it up whenever he wants to watch something on SBS only entrenches this impression further.

 It’s not just the tree.  As kids, we were required to remove the wrapping paper with the utmost care, ensuring no rips or tears.  It was a task we approached with all the caution of a member of the bomb squad.  He even gave us each a scalpel.  This has enabled my father to reuse the same paper numerous times over the subsequent decades.  There’s an upside.  These days it can be difficult to secure a supply of ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ wrapping paper, but each year I can rely on my gifts being swaddled in cartoon images of Steve Austin.  It’s comforting.

Other things change quickly.  Two years ago, I headed down to family Christmas on my own.  It was a difficult day but, luckily, I had Steve Austin wrapping paper to look forward to.  A year later, I was arriving in a small minivan full of people.  It was to be an entirely different experience.  A better one.  Twelve months earlier, I’d driven down with just my thoughts for company.  It was a lousy experience.  In contrast, the following year was full of colour, movement and chaos. 

Arriving with such a large entourage was new for me.  I’ll admit there were moments that caught me off guard.  Especially when the eight year old loudly declared that his seventeen-year-old sibling had an image on his cap that, for reasons associated with good taste, I’ll simply describe as a ‘Dickens’.  The picture had been drawn on with black texta and, hopefully, was not to scale.  It was a moment of great excitement that resulted in some rather heated discussion. 

As to why the image of a male appendage had been drawn on the hat or why this hat had been selected for Christmas lunch was never explained, as the seventeen year old kept his thoughts to himself.  In a moment of panic, his sister snatched the cap and used a marker to turn the offending image into holly.  By the time she was done, it looked quite festive.  With the stroke of a pen, the Dickens had become decorative.  A Christmas miracle!

Truth be told, I’ve always loved Christmas.   But there were times when my family was no good at it.  For a little while, after we all left home, we struggled to come together on Christmas Day.  Looking back, I’ve no idea why that was.  What I know, however, is that it all changed when the first nephew arrived; Christmas was instantly reinvigorated with purpose and meaning.  It’s been that way ever since.  Christmas is a malleable thing.  It changes as we do.

I’m looking forward to all of it.  The threadbare tree skeleton that haunts the living room as presents spill out across the carpet.  The sound of children and (possibly) adults screaming with delight as they shred wrapping paper with merciless vigour (my father is more relaxed when it comes to wrapping paper these days), the decorations and the festive jumpers and t-shirts.  Crackers and tinsel, baubles and pudding, and even hats that have a giant Dickens drawn on them.  I can’t wait.  And, when it’s done, I’ll find a moment to sit down with one of my all-time favourite books – ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens and marvel at the transformative nature of good will and generosity of spirit.  Then before I go to bed, I’ll likely read the last line of that great book aloud – God bless us.  Every one!

  The Adversarial Anniversary

Ultimately we all want the same thing.  No matter who we are or where we come from, deep within each of us is a burning desire to live our best life.  The hope that we might do so is the very thing that sustains us and drives to get up in the morning to put our pants on, one leg at a time.  Granted, I’m overlooking ambi-trousered freaks that put their pants on, both legs simultaneously.  Those people can’t be trusted. 

But as much we may strive to live the best life we can with whatever meagre talents the Universe has seen fit to bestow upon us, what if there was an alternative?  What if, instead of living your best life, you had the chance to live somebody else’s?

We went out to lunch.  It was a glorious occasion.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing and I’d managed to secure a midday booking.  As we arrived, the waitress stepped towards us with a grin as wide as the ocean and declared ‘happy anniversary!’  She sounded so incredibly certain.  It seemed rude to disagree.  So despite the fact that our lunch was not adjacent to anything you could fairly describe as an ‘anniversary’, we nodded and simply said ‘thanks’.

I realize there were other options.  It would be possible, for example, to take umbrage.  Take it where, I couldn’t say, but definitely take umbrage somewhere.  By wishing us a happy anniversary at a time wholly unrelated to our anniversary, they had clearly mistaken us for two other people.  Some folk might react to a case of mistaken identity by saying something regrettable like, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’  Unfortunately, if you ever find yourself in a situation where it’s necessary to ask ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ the answer is, inevitably, either ‘no’ or ‘I don’t care’.  No good can come of it.  Ever.

A better reaction might have been to ask who we were.  Or, at any rate, who she thought we were.  Instead, we accepted the misplaced warm wishes, believing we’d heard the last of it.  Tragically, we were wrong.

Clearly the couple we had been mistaken for had decided to go all out.  I knew we were in trouble when a plate of food arrived with the words ‘happy anniversary’ written in what I think may have been a mix of truffle oil, a balsamic reduction and unicorn tears (possibly).  It must have taken them ages.  The lettering was so precise and perfect, it almost seemed a shame to ruin it with a piece of char grilled asparagus.  Only as I pushed the food into my mouth did I notice what I think might have been a tear in the waiter’s eye.

We had only just started the main course when I realized we were surrounded.  What seemed to be every staff member in the entire restaurant had encircled our table, singing ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ in perfect three-part harmony.  Their voices rang out as other people began to cheer them on.  Clearly, we were stuck in the middle of something we couldn’t control.

On the one hand, it’s nice to be showered with praise, even if it’s undeserved.  On the other, it’s impossible not to reflect on the fact that there were two other restaurant patrons to whom all this acclaim and love rightly belonged.  Doubtless, they felt aggrieved as they watched us bathe in the good wishes of others and wondered when someone might get around to wishing them ‘Happy Anniversary’.  They’d be waiting a long time.

I started to panic.  Drops of sweat appeared like rivets on my brow.  Granted, the salad was a bit heavy handed on the chili, but I was suffering under the weight of my conscience and I wanted the madness stop before our ruse was uncovered.  I considered trying to sneak out before dessert, except they asked if we’d pose for photos with the kitchen staff and the patrons.  I got up to go to the bathroom and they released a hundred white doves in my honour.  Talk about awkward.

Other guests were lining up to get a Selfie with us.  I felt embarrassed.  I felt ashamed.  Indeed, I lost all Selfie respect as I grinned my way through the afternoon.

Ultimately it was too much, we were stealing somebody else’s big day.  Not out of malice but because we didn’t want to tell the waitress she’d made a mistake.  An announcement was in order.  Standing on my chair, I cleared my throat and confessed that we were imposters.  The couple by the window shouted ‘yes’ in full-throated vindication and punched the sky, almost hitting a low flying dove.

Having confessed to wrongfully inhabiting somebody else’s life for a few hours, I would now have to accept my just desserts.  Which, in this case, was a vanilla chocolate mousse with berry compote.  There was another message, this time written in what I hoped was chocolate – ‘Get out’ it read.  Normally, it’s the patron that tips the staff, but this was a tip I was more than willing to take.

I’d like to formally apologise to the couple whose anniversary we inadvertently (at least tot begin with) stole.  If there’s anything we can do make it up to you both, please don’t hesitate to ask.  If you’d like a full fork-by-fork description of the meal or would like one of the doves back so you can raise it as your own, you need only ask.  Think of it as our gift to you.  Happy anniversary.

From Hero to Zero – Great Dining Debacles

It seemed so innocent.  A simple email arrived in my inbox without warning or fanfare.  Little did I know that it was a veritable poison pill whose sole purpose was to heap shame and ignominy on me like I was a nature strip and they were seeking to dispose of their hard rubbish after two years of lockdowns.  Put simply, it was a lot.  And to think, it started with a dinner at a swanky Melbourne restaurant.

I suffer a severe form of imposter syndrome.  In fact, my condition is so acute that I feel like a fraud even having imposter syndrome.  It means that when I go out to a fancy-pants restaurant for a special occasion, I can never quite get over the feeling that I don’t belong there and that all the staff and the other patrons know it too.  I don’t know whether it’s because I lack experience or because I always insist on wearing fly fishing wader pants when I eat out since it’s so much easier to mop up the inevitable spillage; I just never really fit in.

Like any good imposter, I like to do my best.  When ordering from the menu, I always try to pronounce the words if not correctly then, at least, convincingly.  In this case, the menu was in Italian (except for the word ‘menu’ itself which is of French origin) and I was determined to do it justice.  But before I knew it, my lips were tripping over syllables and consonants resulting in the kind of heinous alphabet soup that, for sure, what not featured on the menu.  To seem even more genuine, there may also have been hand gestures on my part, which I now concede were regrettable.

But despite the fact that I was something of a fraud, we had a really tremendous night.  The food was exquisite and there was something quite glorious about the very fact of being in a restaurant at all.  We had a wonderful time, and spilled out into the street, happy and content.  Then the email arrived.

The email came from the fancy restaurant.  It included a heart-warming message, thanking us for dining with them and hoping that we enjoyed our recent dining experience.  Then they sunk the boot in.  The email went on to say, ‘You’ve just earned 0 points’.  The zero was bolded just to drive the point home.  Granted, I had no idea when I went there that by chowing down on their food, there were points up for grabs, but now that I do, I really want some.  I’m even prepared to return the bread in exchange for points, if that helps.  But bread or no bread, it seems our attendance wasn’t enough to render us ‘point worthy’.

It was strange, I thought.  On the one hand, they were emailing me to thank us for dining at their restaurant whilst, at the same time, refusing to recognize us by giving us zero points.  My first instinct was to demand answers.  But then I paused and thought better of it.  Perhaps, I reasoned, it was better not to know why I’d been denied points.

I could imagine it – me, pleading my case in a lengthy email and them, in an equally loquacious reply, revealing the depravity that led to me having my points withheld.  ‘Sorry sir’, the response would begin.  ‘We’ve recently learned that two days after you dined at our high-end restaurant, you purchased a three-piece feed from something called “KFC” and, as a result, you have been disqualified.  Goodbye.’ 

It could have been so much worse.  If they’d been aware of the number of times I’ve devoured an entire box of barbecue shapes on a Friday night and called that ‘dinner’, I doubt I’d have ever been permitted to set foot in the joint to begin with.  I’d have been removed forcibly if they’d known how often I’d ordered an ‘Aussie’ from the pizzeria because I truly, genuinely believe that egg and shredded ham belong together.  The less said about all the times as a kid (and, also, possibly not as a kid) I ate Nutella from the jar using only my finger, the better.  Forget points.  Had they known about the ‘Nutella fiasco’, I’d have been banned for life.

Then, unbelievably, it got worse.  This was not the first time we’d gone to this very fancy Melbourne restaurant.  In fact, we’d gone there almost exactly twelve months earlier to celebrate the same very important occasion.  This, I feel, makes us regulars.  But despite this, having now told me that my attendance had just earned me ‘zero’ points, the email went on to say that this would be added to my current balance of  ‘zero points’. 

Not only were they refusing to recognize that I’d been there this week, they were now asserting that I’d never been there.

Ultimately, I feel the fault may be mine.  When they served us the artisan bread, I should not have sent back the butter and demand a tub of ‘Flora’ instead.  When the scallops arrived, I should have restrained myself from requesting a potato cake.  And when my exquisite spaghetti marinara appeared, I should not have demanded a bottle of White Crow tomato sauce.  Be that as it may, I regret nothing.  Eating out is not just a matter of ‘what’ or ‘where’ but also ‘who’.  And in terms of the ‘who’, I couldn’t have been happier.  That, after all, is what counts.  And with that said, I feel I’ve made my (zero) points.

To Hell and Nickelback

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s intolerance.  Whether it be intolerance for other people or even for gluten (I’ve never met a gluten I didn’t like), blind prejudice really gets my goat.  And in my goat-deprived state adrift in a sea of intolerance, I’ll admit that I get a little bit angry.  I’m not proud of it.  Hatred is often irrational and always ugly, it should be avoided at all costs.  That is, with one exception – Nickelback.

For those of you who don’t know what a ‘Nickelback’ is, I can only say that I’m incredibly jealous and I’d like to join you in the blissful state of nirvana you so obviously inhabit.  You don’t know how lucky you are.  For others who might be tempted to rush to the defence of Canada’s premier exponents of Cro-Magnon sub-metal mullet rock – save your breath.  When it comes to Nickelback, I am not for turning.  I respond to them in the way others might to peanuts or Kryptonite. 

Some people fall in love instantly.  It took me a similar amount of time to decide that Nickelback was not for me.  Put simply, I was under the impression that, as a species, we’d evolved beyond that kind of music.  I’m not sure I can even put it into words – their songs rub me the wrong way and I’m horrified by the idea that they’re making any kind of physical contact.  Imagine being yelled at by a drunk, dodgy uncle who sees himself as some kind of lothario but who, in reality, is an obnoxious, slightly overweight gutter-tramp that smells like shrimp paste.  That’s Nickelback.  I can barely say their name without feeling nauseous. 

Recently, someone I know has started playing Nickelback.  Not because she likes them (she doesn’t) but as an experiment conducted either in the name of science or, possibly, Satan.  It’s hard to say.  The objective is to see how long it takes for people to notice.  It’s insidious and strikes when you least expect it.  You can be standing in the kitchen having a perfectly lovely conversation when you’re suddenly gripped by a sense of terror as you realize the stereo has been commandeered and your ears are now being assaulted until they beg for mercy.

  I’m all for practical jokes, so long as those jokes don’t involve Nickelback.  My nephew went through a phase where he and his friends liked to install a ‘Nicholas Cage’ screen saver on any computer monitor they could get their hands on.  Step away from your laptop to get a cup of tea and you’d return to be confronted by the smouldering intensity of the greatest actor of his generation named ‘Nicholas Cage’ staring back at you.  There are computer shops in Melbourne that still have Nicholas Cage screen savers, thanks to my nephew.

But Nickelback is an entirely different proposition. Last week, I was wiping down the kitchen bench when the unmistakable aural stench that is ‘How You Remind Me’ tore the air apart.  Immediately, I began feeling queasy, losing my sense of equilibrium.  For me, the song really ought to be called ‘How You Remind Me To Cover My Ears Whenever This Awful Music Starts Playing.’  Within seconds, I was on the tiles, curled into the foetal position and begging for the madness to stop.

My hatred for this band knows no bounds, either in terms of time or depth.  Formed in Alberta in 1995, they were originally a cover band called ‘Village Idiot’.  It was one of those rare circumstances where the description on the tin perfectly matched the contents.  But then they went and spoiled everything by changing their name to ‘Nickelback’ and selling about fifty million albums.  That’s a lot of records.  To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never met anyone who owns a Nickelback album.  Either that says something about the company I keep or is proof that anyone who owns a Nickelback record is unlikely to admit it.

I blame myself.  It’s possible that I’m being subjected to drive-by Nickelbacking because I taunted them in song.  Recently, the local folk club had a ‘metals’ theme night.  We wrote a song called ‘The Metal Song’ that listed tunes mentioning either ‘silver’ or ‘gold’ before declaring there was a metal we were avoiding because no one wanted to hear Nickelback.  To date, that performance by ‘A Band of Rain’ has racked up an astonishing eight views on ‘YouTube’.  Clearly, four of the eight people were Nickelback and they’re now hell-bent on revenge.

Perhaps they’re jealous.  Whether they’re envious of the soaring melody, the biting lyrics or the fact that I now have ten monthly listeners on Spotify (meaning that I’m now only twelve million, eight hundred and seventy two thousand, six hundred and forty seven listeners behind them and closing in at a rapid pace) I simply couldn’t say.  Or maybe they resent that ‘A Band of Rain’ is a much cooler name than ‘Nickelback’.

For now, I live in terror.  At any moment, I could be walking around the house only to be hit with an unsolicited blast of ‘Rockstar’.  I am tempted to started wearing noise cancelling headphones all the time, for my own protection.  And if you think I’m being melodramatic and am making a lot of fuss about nothing, we’ll have to agree to disagree.  Let’s blame ‘musical differences.’

Bemoaning the Era of the Post-Modern Mullet

Forgive me.  Forgive me in advance for the truly intemperate, intolerant things I’m about to say.  Forgive me if I hurt your feelings or betray myself as being too old to understand.  I don’t want to upset anyone or hurt anybody, but sometimes the truth is a blunt instrument – probably a bassoon – and the kindest thing to do is simply to blow it and damn the consequences.  I speak, of course, of haircuts.

We were at a shopping centre.  You may disapprove, but we’re entitled as anyone to do our Christmas shopping without experiencing a wholesale assault of the senses.  We walked (as you do when you’re at a shopping centre) for what seemed like hours and time and time again were confronted by the sight of young men, often in groups, sporting a haircut known as a ‘mullet’.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a mullet is the ‘platypus’ of haircuts.  Just as a platypus looks like several different animals rolled into one, a mullet consists of two types of haircut that are diametrically opposed.  Like ‘fire’ and ‘ice’.  Like ‘oil’ and ‘water’.  Like ‘good taste’ and ‘Married at First Sight’.  Some things simply cannot co-exist peacefully.

A mullet consists of short hair, generally located at the front of the victim’s subject’s skull, combined with long hair at rear.  The logic – such as it is – being ‘business up front, party at the back’.  It was the haircut that defined the eighties.  If that sounds like a somewhat pathetic achievement, you need to remember how competitive haircuts were back then.  It was an era that featured titans like the ‘blow wave’ and ‘the man-perm’.  Ultimately, they were no match for the mighty mullet.

As someone who grew up in the eighties, I aspired to have a mullet. My dreams, however, were cruelled by a school rule that strictly forbade boys to have hair that touched the collar of their shirt.  Flouting this rule was all in a day’s work for some, who insisted on growing their hair out until a teacher intervened and threatened to cut it on the spot.  The resulting handiwork was proof – if it were needed – that hairdressing is a skill acquired through training and not at teacher’s college.

But as human beings, we evolve.  That is, if we’re lucky.  With the benefit of hindsight and, possibly, a mirror, we came to understand that the mullet was an incredibly ugly haircut that not so much failed to flatter the host as it did insult them outright.  Eventually, mullets went the way of acid wash jeans and were quietly retired at some point in the nineties.  Granted, there was the occasional resurgence, including one led by Billy Ray Cyrus and his magical carpet of hair; who brazenly boot-scooted to distract you from the tonsorial atrocity that was perched on top of his head.  The horror.

Quite literally, I thought all that ugliness was behind us.  Turns out I was wrong.  A mere thirty-five years later and it seems that young men have embraced the mullet with a disturbing level of enthusiasm.  Worse still, they have taken this most tragic of haircuts and made it worse with a series of new and horrifying additions.  These include a bowl-cut at the front; presumably to get the ‘demonic altar boy’ look that everyone’s been raving about.  What’s happening out back only makes it worse.

There are two models of modern mullet.  There’s the one where the long hair at the back is teased or curled to give the impression of some kind of ‘hair explosion’ from a flatulent skull.  The other is lank and creates the impression of having only recently been released from prison.  Both kinds are all kinds of ugly.  It’s as though young men everywhere are participating in some kind of competition, vying for the title of ‘world’s rudest head’. 

Perhaps I’m too old and don’t understand.  Maybe I’m jealous at not being able to grow so luxurious a mullet of my own.  For all I know, these haircuts are a part of a sincere albeit misguided vow of abstinence by these young men.  Or perhaps it hurts to see the mistakes of the past being so hideously repeated by the next generation.  I’m not sure.  All I know is that you ought not go out of your way to have a head that looks like a dropped pie.  You can do better.  Humanity is begging you.

Naturally, I said nothing as they sauntered past me in the shopping centre.  As much as I wanted to walk up to one of these young men, grab him by the shoulders and shake him whilst screaming, ‘IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS SACRED, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??????’ I refrained, because I thought there was a slight chance that I might be misunderstood.  Instead, I said nothing.  Perhaps I subtly shook my head in disbelief and, granted, there was the slightest hint of a tear in my eye, but I kept my thoughts to myself. 

If you’re reading this and are sporting a renaissance mullet, I beg you to reconsider.  You’ll be glad you did.  But if, after reading this story and viewing footage from the eighties, you remain unconvinced, then I simply can’t help.  Just know that I’m disappointed by your decision and that you broke my heart.  My achy, breaky heart.

Something Or Other For My Slightly Younger Brother

As occasions go, I can’t let it go by without remark.  Granted, there are others who are equally if not more qualified than I to say something but believe me when I say there are sound reasons as to why it should fall to me.  I’m sure my father has plenty of thoughts on the matter, but this column is only half a page long and the risk of a voluminous outpouring that is unlikely to remain on topic is simply too great – as anyone who saw my father give a speech at my sister’s wedding would doubtless attest (ideally, wedding speeches should be about the wedding in question, and not about the time you and your best friend used dynamite to launch a tree stump into space).  My brother, Cameron, has turned fifty.

I’d describe myself as his older brother but, traditionally, that has been a disputed statement.  That’s because we’re the same age, he and I, for four days every year.  As kids, these were the most fractious days of the year – I’m surprised our parents didn’t drive us out into the wilderness and leave us there, so incessant was out bickering.  Our conflict was rooted in a mathematically-challenged assertion that we were, for those four days, ‘the same age’ and, as a consequence, I was ‘no longer the boss’ of him.

As someone who, most of the year, was an undisputed older sibling, the news that I had ever been the ‘boss’ of my slightly younger brother, came as something as a shock.  Had I been aware, I would have made more of it.  But once I overcame the initial shock, I quickly despaired at his cavalier attitude to maths.  Granted, we’d accumulated the same number of years, but there were still nearly twelve months separating us and I was, without doubt, still the older brother.  Cam wasn’t having it.  He rejected my appeals to reason outright.  Not because he can’t count (he can) but because he knew that to do so would wind me up like watch.  Which it did.

But as difficult as these four days were, there have been many advantages to having a sibling who is (practically) the same age.  It means that there are many things you don’t have to experience alone.  This is particularly true of social events, where my natural inclination would have led me to avoid them completely.  But with my brother, I always had the option of tagging along.  Were it not for him, I’d have seen, heard and done a lot less than I have.  Mostly, that’s a good thing.  Through my brother, I have lived an almost unparalleled vicarious life.

Because of him, I never have to wonder what would happen if I tried to make wine out of blackberries.  Cam launched himself into the business of wine making in the same way he does everything else – with extraordinary gusto.  This enthusiasm resulted in him generating litres of the stuff, poured into old sherry jugs and left to ferment on the back step.  Then, without warning, the jugs began exploding, sending blackberry wine in all directions and the dog off the bush from where it refused to return for several days.

He was passionate, too, about break dancing for a time, even going so far as to sign up for lessons.  Although he only studied for a little while, he’s still known to break out the odd cardboard box for a few backspins now and again.  There was a mercifully brief flirtation with motorbike riding, a short stint learning karate and a moment during which he was deeply committed to scuba diving.  There was phase in which he curated bonsai plants and the time he decided to build a greenhouse and constructed something so elaborate and beautiful that it could easily have been upgraded to ‘primary residence’ status.

Somewhere along the line, he no longer fought with me for four days a year.  Either he was confident that I was not the boss of him for the rest of the year (which I wasn’t) or he no longer considered being the same age as me to be a desirable outcome.  He may even have been in denial.  As late as last week, he insisted he was ‘mid-forties’.  For my part, I took to labelling pictures of him in family calendars as ‘late 40s’ and, for several weeks before his actual birthday, sent ‘gifs’ wishing him a happy fiftieth.  It was, so I claimed, to get him used to the idea.  I may have gone slightly too far when I gave him a card that read ‘ninety years today’ and suggested I was ‘getting in early’.

Landmark birthdays are funny.  Often, they’re an opportunity to remind that person how lucky they are.  But I’m the lucky one.  To have a brother who’s practically the same age has been a gift (not ‘gif’).  I don’t mind the fact that we used for fight for four days every year as he challenged my authority. 

I don’t care that, for years, his favourite trick whenever we went anywhere was to park so that the passenger door was right up against a tree and I couldn’t get out.  I’m fine with the fact that when he used to ask how I’d done in any kind of athletic event, he’d let me answer and then claimed he’d done ever so slightly better.  I’m just thankful he’s here.  Happy birthday, Cam.

Men at Twerk: Great Dancing Catastrophes of the Modern Age

There are two types of people in this world – those who can dance and me.  If Michael Flatley is ‘The Lord of the Dance’, I’d describe myself something more like ‘The Undertaker of the Dance’ or, possibly, ‘The Night Cart Man of the Disco’.  Suffice to say that I have a surplus of left feet and not so much a sense of rhythm a nonsense of rhythm.  I am both a sight to behold and an object to be avoided, as my body cavorts and lurches to the music.  If all that sounds like an exaggeration, I can only say this: had I danced at my wedding, it would have been a far shorter marriage.

But despite the fact that I’m rhythmically deprived, there’s still a lot of dancing in my life.  Mostly it comes from a nine year old.  For reasons known only to the Internet, he’s taken to ‘twerking’ when I least expect it.  Not that I want to be critical of a nine-year-old child, but it’s horrifically off-putting.  For those unfamiliar with this particular brand of dance, ‘twerking’ involves suggestive thrusting whilst in a low squatting position.  It’s not something you expect when you’re changing rooms for a cup of tea. 

I suspect it’s something they do at school.  Not as a stand-alone subject, but in the playground to amuse each other.  When I was that age, such activities generally centered around yo-yos.  It was a safer, more wholesome era.  Things have changed.  In Flatley terms, this child is ‘The Lord of the Twerk’, prone to spontaneous outbursts of ‘River Twerking’ without so much as a note of music to warn bystanders.

At first, I assumed that this was his chosen form of self-expression.  I smiled politely and mumbled some vague words of encouragement before leaving the room as quickly as humanly possible.  Soon, it became apparent that it was a test of some kind; one in which my reaction became the basis for whether I was to be accepted or not.  He was winding me up like a toy.  It wasn’t just the twerking that upset me.  For, in truth, I have been traumatized by dance throughout my life.

My father cannot dance.  Luckily, it’s something that’s rarely required of him.  He had an office job and was seldom expected to communicate his feelings through the medium of dance when there was a perfectly fine typewriter within spitting distance.  Occasionally, though, he’d take temporary leave of his senses and bust out a couple of moves to terrify his children.  He didn’t twerk (thank goodness for small mercies); rather, he grimaced and bent his arms at the elbows in time as though he was manning an invisible water pump whilst leaning to one side.  It was awful.  The kind of thing that would make Michael Flatley throw up, before starting to cry.

 My brother did his best to overcome what limited natural ability had been granted to him by way of genetics with huge doses of enthusiasm.  And he specialized.  Specifically, my brother mastered the gentle art of ‘the disco pistol’; a move he’d use to wow onlookers at the local pub on a Friday evening.  Unlike twerking, ‘the disco pistol’ has the advantage of having holsters so they can be put away at the appropriate moment.

I, on the other hand, was a tragic case.  Instead of being fueled by enthusiasm, my dancing style was marred by self-delusion.  I was of the unshakeable belief that because I could play musical instruments, I must be a fabulous dancer.  I have since seen video footage that categorically demonstrates that my confidence was tragically misplaced.  I could not dance.  In fact, I couldn’t stand within ten feet of a dance floor without tripping over myself.

This is where is gets a little tragic.  Because I was in a band and, in particular, was the singer in that band, I had assumed dancing was one of my key performance indicators.  I shook not only my groove thing, but my entire body as though my soul was trying to break free of its earthly cage.  It wasn’t pretty.  It was, in fact, downright horrifying.  I’d forgotten precisely how horrifying it was until relatively recently when I sat down with my partner to watch one of my early musical performances at the Cheltenham Youth night.

There’s only one thing to do to combat the nine year old.  Next time he twerks, I’m going to sit him down and force him to watch a video of one of my early dance performances.  Maybe then he’ll appreciate how damaging the power of dance can be when not used responsibly.  One look at my flailing teenage self and I’m semi-confident he’ll swear off twerking for life.

As for me, I have no plans to return to the dance floor.  I have, however, started to see twerking everywhere.  It’s as though I’m being stalked.  Just last week, we were walking through a department store when I spotted a mannequin, hunched over and in a squatting position.  No one else seemed to notice, but I could not let it pass by unchallenged.  Without warning, I began my own primitive form of twerking.  Seeking to dance it into submission, I believe I was starting to prevail before the mannequin began getting smaller and smaller as security dragged me away.  It’s for the best.  

You Can Bank On It

It’s been a while.  So long, in fact, that I feared that I’d completely forgotten how to do something that was once, if not second nature, at least a close third.  It’s funny how something that is a part of everyday life can vanish.  Like a weekly trip to the Video Library, some things veer rapidly towards extinction until they disappear altogether.  That said, in the case of Video Libraries, it’s well deserved – you can’t go around calling yourself a ‘library’ and reject the Dewey Decimal system outright.  It just won’t stand.

I went to a bank.  For the life of me, I can’t recall the last time I did that.  As a kid, it was the place to which you were dragged on a warm afternoon against your will and forced to suffer a supreme form of boredom.  People spoke quietly when they were in a bank.  They were like libraries in that regard (although not video libraries – those places were bedlam).  At banks, they gave people money and dullness.  One you paid for, the other was complementary.  In fact, the most exciting thing about the bank was that the pens were on chains.

The chain made an interesting sound as it slid across the countertop.  It was inconvenient if there wasn’t a spare patch of bench proximate to the pen you were using which meant you had to stand much closer to a fellow customer than either of you felt comfortable with.  There was about a fifty percent chance of a pen actually working, meaning that you might have to suffer the indignity of moving from pen to pen as the security guard took note of your suspicious behaviour.  Clearly intended to discourage theft, the pens would have been worth all of about two cents each. 

Banks also had a substantial pot plant in the main customer area, together with the day’s date displayed prominently so that people could fill their deposit and withdrawal slips in accurately.  I’d watch the hand on the clock as it turned.  As a kid, the bank is where time slowed to a crawl.  There was no such thing as a ‘quick’ trip to the bank and even if your parents spent no more than ten minutes in there, it still felt like a lifetime.  Granted, major financial institutions are designed to do a lot of things, but they were experts at testing a child’s perseverance.

The other week I received a cheque.  I had no idea what to do with it.  It’s been so long since I saw such a thing that it had an air of novelty about it, despite being a regular rather than oversized cheque.  Until it arrived, I’d believed the phrase ‘the cheque’s in the mail’ was one not to be taken literally, much like other fanciful statements such as ‘a lot of people are saying’ (they’re not) and ‘due to popular demand’ (we still have heaps left of whatever it is we’re desperate to get rid of).

I did my very best to remember what it is I used to do when coming into possession of a cheque.  Trawling through the dank and abandoned recesses of my mind, where I found several tennis balls and a jumper I used to like, one word suddenly jumped up and slapped me fair in the face – bank.  I would be making a trip to the bank. 

I haven’t lived here for that long, but I knew that a branch of my bank had just re-opened after an extensive refurbishments.  Given that I was going to bank for what was possibly the first time this century, I decided to make an occasion of it and pretend it was still the nineteen nineties.  Dressed in Blundstone boots and a lumberjack shirt, I consulted my Melways to ensure I knew how best to get there. 

I grabbed my regular sized cheque and headed down to the bank.  As I strode into the branch, the scene that greeted me was like something from, if not another century, then from some time other than the nineteen nineties.  There were no counters, no tellers and no pens on a chain.  How they even had the nerve to call themselves a bank, I’ll never know.  Instead, there was modular furniture and a series of small workstations and a tasteful pot plant.  I thought I knew how banks worked.  Turns out, I knew nothing at all.

A polite lady approached me and asked if she could help.  Struck dumb as a result of sensory overload, all I could do was point mutely at the cheque in my hands.  The lady smiled and shook her head, telling me that they didn’t accept cheques at this bank and that I’d need to deposit it some other way.  As I stood in the middle of the bank branch / modular furniture showroom, it occurred to me that I was standing in the wrong bank.  That is, not the wrong type of branch but the wrong financial institution altogether.  I began to back away whilst still keeping eye contact, lest the helpful lady wanted to sell me a pot plant.

As it turns out, all I had to do was scan the cheque with my phone.  It almost made the Internet seem worthwhile.  It’s funny how activities that were once pivotal are relegated to novelty status.  Who knows when I’ll see a cheque again?  Or how long it will be before I need to set foot inside a branch?  Truth is, if I ever attend a bank again, I’ll probably travel by hoverboard.  By that time, I’ll just be getting over the embarrassment at having gone to the wrong bank.  Maybe.

From Hold to Eternity

I don’t think about ‘hell’ that much.  For better or for worse, I don’t while away the hours pondering the battle between good and evil and the eternal struggle for redemption.  I probably should, but it’s hard to find the time.  Between sorting the recycling and opening the mail, I barely have a moment to scratch myself, even though it’s one of my absolute favourite pastimes.  Hell remains something of an abstract concept.  I don’t wonder what it looks like, how it’s decorated or whether they use VHS or Betamax.  I don’t think about how it feels and whether Uber Eats delivers there.  I do, however, know how hell sounds.

Whatever you’re thinking, you’re totally wrong.  When invited to consider the aural atmosphere of the underworld, doubtless most of you are instantly thinking about thrash metal or hard-core techno music.  Put that out of your mind right now.  All that’s saying is that hell sounds like the music you, personally, don’t like.  For me, hell would sound like Ed Sheeran.  Nothing against Ed; it’s just that I find his music as inspiring as a jar of olives that’s been sitting in the back of my fridge for eight months.  Which is to say I could do without it.

But whether you think hell sounds like the thrashiest thrash band to ever tumble down from the summit of Thrash Mountain (there’s bound to be such a place.  In Finland.  Probably) or the plinkiest plonkiest bleepiest electronic vomit in all of techno music history (and there’s lots of competition), you’re entirely mistaken.  Even my belief that Ed Sheeran is in league with the Dark Lord and is a supernatural portal to eternal hellfire is mildly off the mark.  That’s because hell doesn’t sound like any of these things.  It sounds like Vivaldi.

 Now I like Vivaldi as much as the next person, unless the next person is glowing red, smells of sulphur and has a pair or horns sticking out of their head.  Broadly speaking, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ is a masterpiece.  Evidence, were it required, of the artistic heights to which a single human being can soar.  Unless, of course, the ‘Four Seasons’ is used as ‘hold’ music.  In which case it’s enough to make you want to rip your ears off with your own hands. 

I had to call a company and was put on hold.  Immediately, Vivaldi kicked off.  It was ‘Spring’, I think. I can’t be entirely sure because I may have fallen unconscious after half and hour or so.  As I waited for someone to take my call, the first ten seconds of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ kept playing and playing until I began to weigh up whether it was better to be patient in the hope that my call might one day be answered or to hang up now to preserve what was left of my sanity.  That I chose the former suggests that my sanity was something of a lost cause.

They say ‘hope springs eternal’.  When on hold, ‘Spring’ by Vivaldi has a similar running time whilst simultaneously ravaging whatever hope you might have had when you first dialed the number.  Worse still, every twenty seconds a voice (possibly Satan) interrupted to tell me that if I wanted to update certain kinds of details, I was totally out of luck because a member of the service team would be unable to assist.  I assume service team members were, instead, instructed to laugh in the faces of those unfortunate enough to try and update their details.

The voice then went on to extol the virtues of doing everything ‘on-line’ instead of over the phone.  Clearly they were seeking to discourage anyone from attempting to ring them.  Fittingly, their ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ customer satisfaction guarantee wasn’t enough to put me off.  That’s because I had no choice.  The reason I was enduring Vivaldi in ten-second segments even though I suspected that the longer it went on, the more my soul was attempting to escape my body, is that I couldn’t log in to the website.  Here’s where it gets tricky.

The reason I wanted to log into to the website was to change my mailing address, which had been misspelled.  However, to log in to the website, the company send you and authentication code.  Through the mail.  Which, if your address is wrong, is tantamount to a parachute made of barbed wire.  Thus, there was no choice for me but to grit my teeth, gird my loins and generally brace myself for inanity on a loop.  After ten minutes I was annoyed.  After twenty minutes I’d forgotten why I’d called in the first place and after forty minutes, I was reduced to rocking back and forth with my clasped hands raised to the skies as I begged it to stop.  Then it did.

A pleasant person asked how they could help.  ‘By magically dislodging Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from my mind’, was the obvious answer, but I didn’t say it.  My issue, ultimately, was resolved but there are still nightmares.  I can’t even look at a phone without hearing a bright burst of strings.  I’ll probably have to listen to some heavy-duty thrash metal or obnoxious techno music just to get it out of my system.  But not Ed Sheeran.  Despite the physical and mental anguish caused by Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’, there are still limits.  Sorry Ed.

All Hail Me: Mega Bowling-Lord Extraordinaire

It was, to put it mildly, unexpected.  On an evening on which I anticipated keeping a very low profile, I ended up being crowned king and supreme ruler.  Had I known that a simple afternoon at a lawn bowls club would end with my coronation if not deification, I would probably have worn a better shirt.  But some are born to greatness.  Others have greatness thrust upon them.  And then there’s the rest of us for whom greatness just rolls along as it pleases until it comes to a gradual resting touch.  So it is with lawn bowls. 

This was the second time I’d ever set foot inside a bowls club.  The first was decades ago in St Kilda to see one of my all time favourite bands, You Am I, play.  Although they may well be terrific lawn bowlers for all I know, they stuck to playing rock music.  And, as music goes, it was a great gig but it wasn’t much of a sporting event.  Which, in retrospect, made my decision to dress in bowling whites all the more unfortunate.  I’ll only say that I was misinformed as the venue entry requirements.  Besides the ensuing mockery, I’ll simply say that bowling whites will always come off second best in a mosh pit.  Always.

But this time, my visit to a lawn bowls club was different.  This was no late night gig but an afternoon that would casually slip into the evening by which time spirits would be high and great sporting achievements would be honoured.  My partner plays football.  In fact, she plays football really, really well.  And this year, her football club’s end of season shindig was being held at a local bowling green.  Naturally, I went as her ‘plus one’. 

I say ‘football’ instead of ‘soccer’ because I quickly learned that referring to God’s own game as ‘soccer’ is akin to referring to Penfold’s Grange as ‘go-juice’ whilst drinking it from a plastic sippy cup, and is something that only the most ignorant of neophytes would do.  I’ve also learned to refer to potato chips as ‘crisps’ and to ‘Eurovision’ as awesome.  There’s been a lot of talk, too, about the World Cup but, to be honest, I’m still trying to get my head around that one.  All I can tell you is that Meat Loaf won’t be playing at half time.  I know because I expressly asked.

The end of year knees-up was dedicated to celebrating the sporting achievements of the club, whatever form they took.  From great victories and bags of goals and glory, through to narrowly avoiding relegation – the teams within the club had experienced it all.  For my part, I was there as the partner, not the star attraction, which is the role I feel I was born to play.  In attending, my mission was simple: don’t get sunburned and don’t do or say anything embarrassing that would result in being disowned.  It was, without a doubt, a low bar.  As it happens, there was also a low bar directly behind the bowling green that was doing a roaring trade, but I took up a discreet position against a wall and watched.

Early on in the pandemic, I stopped drinking alcohol.  I’m not sure why.  It was event without drama – there was no bottom of the barrel (or bottle) moment.  Rather, it was a gradual loss of interest that was hurried along by a general sense that the world was spiraling out of control.  That was more than two years ago, and I’m still very much enjoying life without it.  But when it comes to lawn bowls, would being sober give me an unfair advantage?

We were broken up into teams.  One of our players had played the game before and another had seen the movie ‘Crackerjack’.  Looking around the room, some of the teams were large, loud and were limbering up.  Given the warm up exercises they were doing, I could only assume that some of them were intending to bowl over-arm off a long run-up.  I was nervous.

I’ll admit there was a learning curve.  One that saw my bowl skive off the green and into the path of someone else’s before high-tailing it to the gutter.  But the next one was better and, by some miracle, we won our match.  And the next one and the one after that.  Within an hour, we were in the grand final.  The atmosphere was electric.  The other team was taking things very seriously indeed, but our team held its nerve and we ultimately prevailed. 

As the medal declaring me ‘Lawn Bowls Champion – 2022’ was being hung around my neck, it occurred to me that I may have made a mistake.  Attending a sporting club function as the ‘plus one’ and designated driver, I had no business winning anything.  Much less winning against a group of highly competitive humans.  Mind you, I suspect I’ll have to return the medal once the results of the random drug test come back and it’s revealed that I was stone cold sober.

I wasn’t the only winner that night.  As I sat at our table, I watched as my partner collected a ‘golden boot’ award.  Unlike my medal, her trophy was hard earned and richly deserved.  It was quite a night.  And if you’d asked me a year ago whether being a ‘plus one’ at a sports team function held in a bowling club would be a glorious experience, I’d have thought you were mad.  It’s funny what time does.