Batman 400

I was a Batman fan from my very earliest years but this love got seriously out of hand in the late 80s when almost overnight I started spending actual thousands on comics (an example of why I could never do recreational drugs. I'd develop a killer habit). You'd have thought, given that at the time I was still sharing the marital bed with my dad following the breakdown of my parents' marriage, that I might've put some of that money into buying myself my own bed.

I'd grown up with (and gradually outgrown) UK comics before finally getting into the American scene, although I vividly remember being so shocked by 'The Killing Joke' in April '88 that I stayed away from Marvel and DC comics for a good six months. I had been troubled by how dark that graphic novel had been. I had no idea at the time that US comics were moving in a new dark and adult direction by that time, spearheaded by many British creators. Suddenly I knew what I wanted to do and a year later, I was the youngest writer at the London Cartoon Centre in west London where some of these creators were actually teaching.

Anyway, this cover art for Batman 400 by Bill Sienkiewicz introduced the new-look quite frightening Joker, a look taken on by Brian Bolland on 'The Killing Joke' and not long after, and perhaps to a whole new darker level, by Dave McKean on 'Arkham Asylum' whose cover was so stunning, I had a copy blown up and framed in the halcyon summer of '89.

The comic habit came to an end in the early 90s. I felt the industry had exploited its readers on the back of the '89 Batman film. That multiple covers collection thing was never for me. But I'll never forget all those Friday nights staying up in bed (trying to keep the lamp out of my dad's eyes) immersed in my comics.

Batman 400.jpg

Han Solo goes missing in 1983

The 10th of September always reminds me of a kid I went to infants and primary school with, the middle son of Irish immigrants who holed themselves up, as many did, in Clapham, southwest London, and who would, as the eighties arrived, acquire the nickname ‘Spud’.

Spud was born on the 10th September 1971. Blonde and freckly, he was the oldest kid in the year, a status he held for the full seven years we schooled together, as well as always being one of the shortest boys in the class. Being the oldest kid in the year always held a mystical status and I’m sure as much as the world has changed, that’s still the case in schools these days. To a mid-spring kid like me, the fact that Spud was always celebrating his birthday a full eight months before me might as well have made him five years older than me.

I think it was that status as the class elder statesman that allowed Spud to get away with much of his behaviour. He would appropriate the latest kids showing any sign of popularity among their peers and acquire them for his entourage, a bit like mid-90s Elton John with Take That, before quietly dropping them and moving onto the next popular kid.

I was always in and out of favour with Spud. In September 1980, just days after proclaiming me the hardest tackler in our football team, Spud quietly dropped me from an invitation to go to Windsor Safari Park to celebrate his ninth birthday. That’s the closest I ever came to visiting any kind of zoo. Having never been to a zoo to this day, I’m actually pleased that happened. While not an animal lover, I have never had any desire to see caged animals, though at the time I was hugely disappointed to be dropped from the Safari visit, not so much because of the opportunity to see the animals, but because it was Spud’s birthday and it meant something to be invited to his birthday. Given that on the final day of the summer term the previous school year I had chosen Spud to play Subbuteo (I had brought my favourite game to the school that day, the teams I brought with me being the Man Utd home and Liverpool away), I felt hard done by.

There was another kid in the class, also of Irish extraction, whose initials spelt out SOS. SOS was a nice kid. The tallest in the class. He idolised Spud throughout primary school, but was regularly treated with such disdain by the most inexplicably popular kid in our class. To be fair, it wasn’t just the kids that seemed to be bewitched by Spud. The teachers loved him too, especially the teachers who took us un the second and third years (1980-82).

The thing that really sealed it for me with Spud though, the pinnacle of my disappointment with this kid, came in the spring of ’83. By the following September, we would finally go our separate ways, electing to go to different Catholic secondary schools, and perhaps it was knowing that after seven years together, it was all coming to an end, that our on-off friendship enjoyed one final flourish. After several visits to Spud’s council house just off Clapham High Street, he came to my bedsit and I pulled out all the stops to entertain him, knowing full well if the visit came up short, it would be all around the school when we got back to St Mary’s Juniors.

We must’ve been playing with my Star Wars action figures because at the end of his visit, Spud asked to borrow my Han Solo (the original Star Wars film doll with the black waistcoat and the red stripe down black trousers) and a Hoth Storm Trooper. I don’t like lending stuff to this day, something probably not unrelated to that day, but it was Spud. You didn’t say “no”. By then I had set up my Star Wars football league as I sought more than Subbuteo could give me. I wanted to build teams. I didn’t want the identikit miniature figures that came with Subbuteo. I wanted to be able to look at a figure and say, “Okay, Hammerhead, that’s a defender. This one, Snaggletooth, he can play off the front man.” So I was loath to lose two players. Solo was captaining cup specialists X-Wing, while the rather stocky figure of Hoth Trooper was keeping goal for, well, Hoth, who had won the Division 2 title in the inaugural 1982-83 season.

It was the February half term I think as Spud had come over on a week day. We agreed he would return the action figures when school started up again. The following Monday, Spud handed back a chocolate covered Hoth Trooper, explaining his year-old brother had got hold of him. I wasn’t impressed. When I borrowed stuff, people always got back exactly what I had taken. But all this was soon overshadowed that there was no Han Solo, arguably the finest Star Wars footballer of the early 80s (the league would run until 2000, played behind a then girlfriend’s back).

Solo - missing since the spring of '83.

Solo - missing since the spring of '83.

I didn’t understand how he could lose something that he had borrowed. To this day, I don’t think I have ever done that. It was the final disappointment of that hot-cold friendship that had begun in January ’77 when my first ever teacher at St Mary’s infants in Clapham had asked Spud to look after me on my first morning.

The ’83-84 Star Wars football season resumed with Han Solo still missing from the X-Wing line up. More anal Star Wars fans will know the specifics of what happened with the action figures at that time, but I know there was some sort of changeover from the original makers, it might’ve been Kenner, to another manufacturer, and the original Han Solo doll was pretty much scarce all over London.

It was not until the 23d of December 1984, a Sunday, one of the greatest days of my young life, when ahead of a Christmas party at my friend’s dad’s pub in Clapham North later that day, my mum had taken my sibling and I to East Street market off Walworth Road on the 45, that I managed to find a Han Solo action figure and X-Wing got their missing captain back. Okay, it wasn’t the original Han Solo, and the new manufacturers had given him a larger head, but you know, it was as good as things were going to get. The search was over.

In the spring of ’85, I saw Spud for the last time, as we were both attending Sunday school ahead of our confirmations. I hadn’t seen him for two years and I was struck by how kids from our old school who had switched to the same secondary as Spud, now treated the long-time St Mary’s God. They would play punch him, grab him in a headlock. The awe of old was no longer there. One old classmate even invited me to punch Spud (I declined). It seemed Spud’s move to the big boys’ school had diminished him somewhat.

I never saw him again after that.

33 years on though, I still remember how he lost my Han Solo.

Footnote: Hoth Trooper kept goal for Hoth in their 1986 FA Cup Final win, the chocolate stains of ’83 still evident.

Why South Lambeth needs the Tate Library

My local library, Tate South Lambeth, is set to close in 37 days time. Lambeth Council would tell you it’s not closing, it’s merely becoming a book-gymnasium, one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard in a borough – my home borough – that is historically silly. The library is having to compete against two other libraries in the borough, Spartacus-style, to see which library survives the cut. The details of this are covered far better than anything I could do here, whether it’s on Brixton Buzz, who’ve done sterling work to highlight the plight of the library cuts over the last few months, or even Private Eye. What I can tell you is that no library should be having to fight the other for the right to remain open. No library should be closing. And I hope that there are members of those other libraries doing what I and others are trying to do for the library we love. I’m sorry that we are in this situation.

In SW8, I found the community I’d lost twenty years ago when Clapham where I’d essentially grown up, gentrified. I didn’t understand back then what was happening in Clapham, only that I didn’t feel comfortable with it or the new people that I arrived and I knew I didn’t want any part of it. So I headed north up to South Lambeth Road, just past the Stockwell streets I’d also grown up in. And in a sense, I was coming back home.

My mum came to London in the mid-sixties in her early –twenties – we’re an old family, one which I’m taking into extinction as the last male on my side of the family, but that’s another story – and settled in Tradescant Road, minutes from the library. My mum then moved south into SW9 in the late sixties. So there are strong family ties to the area and in South Lambeth Road, I found echoes of the old immigrant community (I know we’re saying ‘migrants’ now but I’m going with immigrant – that’s what my parents were) I’d grown up in, where only the kids spoke good English and everyone smoked and drank coffee. The sounds took me back to a world I’d loved and lost, and now this world, as the money-obsessed glass heavy age of Vauxhall kicks in, as the climbing centres and street food markets arrive, is also slowly dying out. I don’t want a climbing centre. I don’t want a street market. I don’t want another SainscoLocalMetro whatever or the CostaStarNeros inching closer to South Lambeth Road. But I accept they’re here and I don’t know why this area, with all its grand ambitions, with all the professionals flooding in, would not want a library. The area is now well served for gyms. It does not need another gym. I for one am not going to be comfortable flicking through a book in the library whilst some steroid case lifts three times my body weight right next to me.

Further south in Stockwell, Brenda and her fruit stall were moved to a less visible place by Stockwell Station last year after being outside the station for sixteen years. It has hit her business. The independent café inside Stockwell Station was closed down to make way for a CostaStarNero. Further south, outside my old road in fact where I grew up and lived my first quarter of a century out, the last fourteen years with a centre parting I should add, a giant bed showroom was built, the irony of which was not lost on me after spending eleven years sleeping in a z-bed in our bedsit.

Change happens. You accept it. I just don’t know why given we have such a beautiful library with so much history, a library that serves the community better than ever, why we should lose it. It’s over twenty years since I lost my original library on Jeffreys Road in Stockwell. There was no social media back then. It went quietly. It was sad and I still remember the hours I spent in there as a kid and my half-hearted attempts at studying in there for my A Levels.

Just before Christmas, I went into South Lambeth Library on a Thursday night, its strongest events night. I’ve been going in there for two decades now. I’ve been in there late on Thursdays before, and I know just how much they do in there and how busy it gets. That particular night however, and I say this as someone who regards himself as having become something of a cold fish over the years, I was deeply moved by what I saw. There were English classes for all the non-English speaking locals, something that was not available to the big and sadly insular Spanish community that existed in SW8 and 9 from the mid-sixties through to the late nineties, before they made way for their more successful Portuguese cousins. There was a knitting group. There were several reading groups. There were people on the laptops, maybe downloading shows like I downloaded series 1 of Dallas back in 2008 from the library, who knows – let’s not jump to conclusions, and there were banks of silver surfers getting to grips with the internet. In an area that is losing its diversity and shutting so many things down, South Lambeth Library was a hive of activity, and the reason I was moved was because I knew there was every chance that this was one of the last occasions the community might be together in such a way. I looked around at every group that night and took the moment in. ‘This is what this library is,” I told myself. “This is what it gives the community.”

There is no logical reason to lose Tate South Lambeth. I know the area very well. I recognise many of the people. I know some of them have been through hard times or are still going through a difficult period in their life. The recession wrecked a lot of people. The library gives these people a place to be. We see these people in there and we still know that they exist. They are functioning at the very least. With services being cut everywhere, the library is a place where many can hole themselves up and read, learn, improve themselves, increase their chances of turning things around. These people will not be able to afford to sit in the CostaStarNeros, paying £3 for a disastrous froth-heavy coffee, These people need the library. THEIR library.

In 37 days’ time, there is every chance this beautiful library, Tate South Lambeth, will no longer exist in the way that it should. And if that happens, it will always be wrong.

Everyone gets a kicking from time to time

Christmas 2010 saw me at a low point referred to in work elsewhere, one which seemed to beat all the other low points I'd overcome. It was the only point I think where I have felt sorry for myself. A year earlier, I had found myself facing another work disciplinary, thankfully one of the last ones I'd find myself caught up in, at an office job I'd had to take following the evisceration of my TV writing career (my sacking from a TV pilot confirmed over a sea bass meal in north London).

I'd gone into the office job on the back of 4 bereavements in 14 months. I had a broken foot which wouldn't get dealt with properly for another two years and I was homeless too. Not for the first or last time. It's fair to say I wasn't at my best.

My then boss had gone into bat for me at the disciplinary which had come about after I slated a colleague over his Movember 'tache on the staff intranet. My boss was a terrific guy. Early fifties. Always wore a short back and sides, never letting the back of his hairline reach the collars and always clean shaven. He lit up an exceptionally dull work environment as he put the world to right every morning, despite battling with cancer. He didn't know that I knew his situation and I would never reveal to him that I did.

The job was awful but he was one of the most upstanding people I've ever worked with. I was sorry that I brought him so much trouble at work.

I hung onto the job. It was sheer luck that in addition to having my boss fight to retain my 'services', a girl on the disciplinary panel turned out to be an old classmate who had witnessed my second A Levels failure in the mid-nineties. It was the first time I'd seen her since my English Lit A Level meltdown in Putney in the summer of '94. Seeing the situation I found myself in fifteen years later, I think she could see, once she had recognised me (I'd had three nose jobs since we'd studied together) that my nose aside, I had made little progress.

Christmas Eve 2010 was particularly dark. I didn't know where I would be staying beyond Boxing Day having moved out of the hotel I was living in. I decided to email my old boss to thank him for what he'd done for me the previous year. I knew I hadn't been easy to manage. He had been aware of my situation and showed compassion in keeping me in a role he knew I was not meant to be doing. Five years on, I feel I'd like to paste his reply here because it is funny and humbling too in light of his illness.

We all need a bit of stability in our lives Dan. It's important to put some roots down at some point and stick with it. I knew you weren't comfortable with the job at ***** and I also knew you needed the money so I went with it and hoped you'd settle in. You didn't, but the job wasn't the most interesting so I wasn't really surprised. Even if things had been good for you outside of work, you didn't belong there.

Life is without question an uphill battle for most people, Dan and you need to stop beating yourself up. Absolutely everyone will struggle at some point in their life due to something that happens to them and you can be certain that something traumatic will happen to everyone. War, drugs, career, love, debt, illness, death, accident, take your pick, it's all there and more. Some people will never get over whatever it is that happens to them, others seemingly put it behind them and get on with their lives without missing a beat. The truth is that everyone gets a kicking from time to time and it hurts. Unfortunately there is no hard and fast solution. Some people cope better than others under duress, that's why psychiatric nurses can do a days shift at Broadmoor and piss off to bingo afterwards instead of doing heroin. Doctors dealing with life and death situations all day every day can end up writing their own prescriptions or touching up a patient when taking their pulse.

We all react differently to stressful situations and basically it comes down to how well you learn to cope mentally with your lot. Imagine living as a paraplegic being fed through a straw, fook that, kill me now. Stephen Hawking writes a book makes another million and pays a Thai bird to stretch his monkey for him. The one thing I have learned is that you only get one go at life and spending it lying awake at night is not the best use of the limited time we all have on this planet. Promise yourself that 2011 will be the year it turns round for you then do what you can to make it happen.

Enjoy the holidays Dan.


2011 certainly wasn't the year when I turned things around. There would be many more corners to turn and another eight flats to live in before there was progress on that front.

I never replied to that last email.I don't know if my old boss beat his illness. I was always too afraid to find out. I just liked to think he is still out there fighting the corner of the next hopelessly inadequate administrator it's his misfortune to line manage.





#5fifty5 'Must Have Bubbly Personality'

A job spec sent in by a listener that has really got my back up.

‘Must have bubbly personality’

Why the bubbly?

Is this a new requirement on the job market?

Were they asking for ‘bubbly’ during the economic boom years of New Labour when many people had reason to be bubbly?

And looking at the ad in closer detail, it’s £7.25 an hour.

If you’re an employer, you’re certainly not getting bubbly for £7.25 an hour.

It costs a fortune just to rent a room in London.

If companies pay their workers a proper salary, I’m sure they’ll find a way to be bubbly for you.

£7.25 an hour, they’re either still living at home or living in a room and climbing up a ladder every night to get up to their mezzanine bed.

Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available - Bumper Christmas Annual 2015 podcast - starts Sunday

#5fifty5 Star Wars - The Dad Critique Awakens

The arrival of the latest Star Wars film you probably won’t be surprised to hear has met with little enthusiasm from yours truly. I’m not a big one for the cinema. It’s not to say I don’t like films, although I’m not inclined to switch off for a couple of hours and lose myself in them. I’m too fidgety to be able to focus on something for long, sadly. It’s just more that I really don’t like cinemas. I don’t enjoy sitting through trailers, worrying about how easy it might be to get to the loo should I need to, in the dark, and I can’t stand having morons munching popcorn or sipping soft drinks whilst checking their phones every couple of minutes. These are issues separate to the fact I have no interest in actually watching another Star Wars film. Whilst my hair be as big right now as it was in the summer of 1980 when my dad reluctantly took me to see The Empire Strikes Back, quite simply, as a middle aged man, I feel like I left these films behind about twenty years ago.

My fondness for Star Wars is actually more to do with the action figures which I fell in love with after swapping some toy for a Chewbacca figure at school back in ’78 and then wandering into the old Bon Marche department store in Brixton not long after with my mum and adding to my new collection with a Luke Skywalker. Being a football obsessive, I soon had enough figures to set up a football league with my Star Wars figures that ran for 15 seasons and was comprised of 8 teams: Tattooine; Rebels; Hoth; Empire (the only side never to win a single trophy despite the presence of AT-AT Trooper, a wonderful ball playing midfielder with a hell of a strike on him); Death Star; Bespin; Alderran and cup specialists, X-Wing. The Star Wars football league gave me something that Subbuteo and its successful offshoot, Car Football, never quite gave me. It also, along with the z-bed I slept in for 11 years, contributed to my longstanding back issues.

In the winter, games would be switched to a different carpet so I could be closer to the single fireplace we had in our room that British Gas had frequently shut down on account of being dangerous, and the Star Wars figures occupying the flanks would become uncomfortably warm to handle.

I had badgered my dad to take me to see The Empire Strikes Back in the summer of ’80. I’d been too young for the first film but have vague memories of my cousin and his best friend leaving us outside the old Sainsbury’s on Clapham Road to go off and see the original film. I was able to piece together my knowledge of the film over three years through collecting the packs of Star Wars cards that came with bubble gum, the Brown Watson annual of the original motion picture and the action figures. The original film wasn’t aired until October 1982 on UK television, so like much of my generation, I actually saw the first sequel before the original.

By then, having read Marvel’s adaptation of the film, I knew the plot to Empire Strikes Back but I still enjoyed the film immensely and like many kids, soon as I got home, I froze my Han Solo in a soap dish. It was probably my favourite of the three. Unlike the first and third films, it didn’t end with space ships shooting at each other, something which like the usual end of a Bond film, I can never get into. My dad though did not enjoy the film one little bit. Nor did he gain anything from watching me enjoy it.

I still recall asking him what he thought of the film as we made our way back to Mayflower.


That’s all he said and carried on walking. And my dad was not a man of few words. Unlike me, he was a raconteur of Peter Ustinov proportions. Once he engaged you in dialogue, it was hard to find that segue to bring the conversation to a close. But he was so appalled by that film, he just had no words beyond ‘rubbish’ to give me. He looked angry that he had had to sit through it.

My dad never took me to the cinema again. There are so many eighties films I still haven’t seen. Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, to name but two, though to be fair, I’ve never had any burning desire to sit through them.

35 years on, with my Imaginary Son pushing for me to take him to see the new film with the terrible title, I find myself turning into my dad once more. I don’t think I can sit through it, and maybe it’s better that we don’t go. I don’t want to find us walking back home and my Imaginary Son excitedly asking me what I thought of the new film, and me replying as tersely as my dad did three and a half decades earlier. I don’t want him remembering the disappointment that I can still recall from that day at the cinema and I know I am more than capable of emulating my dad’s response all those years ago.

#5fifty5 Tuck that chin in and limit the screaming

This afternoon I have been trying to teach my Imaginary Son how to defend himself. It put me in my mind of my dad putting me through my paces back in the early eighties after becoming concerned that my then fussy eating meant I might be something of a soft touch. I guessseeing my mum remove the egg white from my egg with some fancy contraption, he grew alarmed and thought, "My God, this boy's going to be in trouble in the school playground if they single him out for the long hair I refuse to let him cut."

My dad taught me how to tuck my chin in when fighting. If I got attacked in our own road, he advised me to tuck my chin in and “Not to scream like a girl.” A scream would alert the neighbours, he explained, and “We don’t want them knowing your shame.”  We’d still, according to my dad, have to live in Mayflower after any attack and it might be months before we could move, particularly with him (as I would too decades later) struggling for work references. 

Even if the fight was going bad for me, my dad said I should never be tempted to bite my opponent. Not because we were noble fighters, but as he went onto explain, “You never know what disease they might be carrying.” The wait in the clinic to find out if I’d caught Hepatitis would be worse than any beating I might have taken. I’d have to grow a beard to disguise any weight loss if I subsequently fell ill and he had the prescience, even then, to identify I didn’t have the beard depth to pull that off.

#5fifty5 The Way We Live

Over the last couple of weeks I have publicised hundreds of overpriced London private flats on the market, some in poor condition, many featuring dubious layouts that would make it onto my rental all time hall of infamy. I have spoken about the housing situation in London on my radio show Daniel Ruiz Tizon is Available at length too, the third series of which ended just last night. 

The situation in London, despite what the media would have you believe, is not new. The private rentals market has been bad for the last fifteen years. It's just since the 2008 crash, many middle class people, obsessed with owning their own homes, like much of the working class, to be fair, have been forced into the private rentals market and it has at last become fashionable to speak about private renting.

I have always rented. As did my parents before me. I had no desire to have a mortgage hanging over my head. If I couldn't buy a home outright and thus eliminate the bogeyman landlord from my life, I wasn't interested in home ownership. In that respect, I'm similar to many Spaniards. I have family who have lived in their rented homes for forty years or more but unlike in London, they can hang up pictures without consulting a 20-page tenancy agreement and they can make their places look like a proper home. We can't do that here. 

Coming from an immigrant community, I have always been familiar with beds being in every room of the bedsit. Before my family moved into the house that continues to plague my nightmares, Mayflower, in '76, my cousins had lived there and one of my uncles used to sleep in the kitchen when my mum used to live with them before she got married. I myself never had my own room till my mid-twenties. I never had a proper bed till 1999. The day my mum died, I had that same morning put the second and last of my z-beds away for the day. Our home always took on a different appearance by night. I was used to living like that. I retreated into my own imaginary world to cope, creating, as some of you may know, seminal US cop show procedural, Kid Cop, which won 37 Emmys between 1980 and 1992, including five best actress awards for my original co-star, Victoria Principal.

Many of the immigrants we knew from the southern European community I grew up in also lived like us, but eventually, by the start of the eighties, had progressed and moved onto council homes or even bought their own properties. Others who had already owned their properties by the seventies, moved their lodgers on and eventually had enough money to be able to take over the whole house. That never happened with us. I grew up in a harsh poverty-stricken climate and both my parents were dead before they were out of their fifties and both outlived by siblings who were twenty years older. There is no coincidence there. Poverty kills. 

Growing up, I could never quite get my head around wondering into the homes of friends and discovering rooms without beds. Rooms with heating and running hot water. Places with self contained bathrooms. All the things my family never had. 

I therefore find it extraordinary that three decades on, hundreds of thousands of Londoners, young and old - this obsession with the young cheeses me off - regardless of age, many are in the same boat - are living in a way that my family and the old community I sprung from did. To be waking up every morning in a bed by your white goods, that you are paying sometimes upwards of £800 or even £900 per calendar month for, is extraordinary and wrong. Very wrong.

Too many people are holding down low income jobs. Too many are suffering mental health issues as a result of leaving their old neighbourhoods and moving somewhere new. They have little money after covering their rent to go out and escape the confines of their sick joke tiny homes, and with mental heath services being slashed, often find themselves with nowhere to turn to for help. We cannot and should not accept that it is right to pay this obscene amount of money to live in such shoddy accommodation in the places we grew up or settled in. These private landlords cannot and should not be allowed to get away with what they're doing and I will continue to highlight the shameful private rental accommodation pockmarking this increasingly divisive city. Already councils have been in touch about some of the flats I have highlighted and I am determined to continue doing this. 

#5fifty5 Just leave it in the corner

When you rent a property, and you have your check in inventory, the lettings agent should bring you a brand new toilet seat. It should still be in its wrapping. Clearly unused. That's important. Maybe when you sign the financially crippling paperwork at the estate agents, there’s a little box by your signature which asks you to tick what your preference for your new seat is – plastic or wood. The former is, according to workmen I've spoken to, more hygienic.

Maybe to save the embarrassment, there wouldn't be a formal handover of the seat. Instead, the inventory clerk would nod nonchalantly in the direction of the seat. “It’s all yours now,” they might say. “Enjoy it.” Or they might choose to say nothing. The seat would be left in its wrapping in the corner. It’d be in the corner. You’d know it was for you.


#5fifty5 Blue Checked Shirt Duplication

Wednesday night I was in a Restaurant with some friends. I was wearing a blue and white checked shirt. About ten minutes later, a couple arrived and sat at the next table. Straight away I noticed the man was wearing the same shirt as me. That’s the problem with checked shirts. There’s only so many colours. You wear a checked shirt, anyone comes in with the same colour checked shirt, the similarities will be noted.

It was an embarrassing evening. It needn't have been. The man came in after me. He saw me while he still had his jacket on. He saw I had the same shirt. He had that advantage. He could've kept his jacket on or made some excuse to his partner and moved on elsewhere. Instead, he sat right opposite me. He could've sat with his back to me, which even then, the shirt similarities would've been noted but at least the humiliation would've been limited.

In those circumstances, a restaurant should offer a change of shirt service. It wouldn't be too dissimilar to when you wet yourself at school and they give you a pair of ill-fitting shorts to wear alongside the rest of your school uniform. Your parents come and pick you up, and all the other parents know straight away what’s happened to you. Back at St Mary's Junior Boys in Clapham, it was always the same kid in our class wearing the shorts. He wet himself so often, we named the shorts after him.

It was an awful evening. I was muttering at an angle to my mate about the guy. Duplicate Shirt
was muttering to his partner at the same angle. That got me wondering whether you can only mutter conspiratorially at that same specific angle. Maybe there's no other angle at which you can tell the person you’re with that someone’s wearing the same shirt as you.

I'll own up to the fact this guy looked better in the shirt than I did. Though in my defence, I had ironed my shirt.  I hope everyone present recognised that. Maybe his partner would've made a point of mentioning that as they made their way home.

Meantime, I’ve subsequently seen the same shirt about on several people in the days since. They say a thousand years from now a middle-aged wardrobe messiah – probably quite camp - will emerge, part fashion designer, part hipster beard, to lead middle aged men out of the wardrobe wilderness. This saviour will design clothes for men of my age who have no wish to dress like a twenty-five year old.


#5fifty5 Medium Strength Handshake is the target

My handshake is a medium strength handshake. I don't claim it to be any more than that. When I’m up against the bone crushing handshakes, I just need to make sure that mine isn’t the weakest handshake they’ve had in a while. That’s the target I set myself. I don’t want my handshake standing out for the wrong reasons. So long as you’re not remembered for a weak handshake, that’s good.

A weak handshake is never good and I know a surprising number of what I would regard as formidable guys who have awful handshakes. It seems to be something of a lost art these days, relegated to a sideshow as the awful fist bump and man hug fight for centre stage.

I think if real tough guys were to reflect on the handshakes they’d had with me, they wouldn’t have an issue with it. They’d probably conclude, “Well, at least he tried.”

I'm okay with that.


#5fifty5 Loose shoelaces a sign of getting older and shrinking accommodation

We all reach a point where we can feel our body’s starting to give out on us. A moment where we really do start to feel old. I’m not talking liver spots and Seborrheic warts here. Or your back cracking soon as you get up in the morning. Nothing as obvious as that. I’m talking subtle things that have crept up on you.

A couple of evenings ago, I got caught in a torrential downpour in south London and I realised that once again my trainers laces were dragging on the ground and soaked. This was never me. I grew up in Lambeth, a borough whose streets are so dirty you learn from a young age never to throw a snowball when the snow comes. I always knew – once I eventually learned (right before secondary school) to tie up laces – that in south London, you do up your laces real tight.

I looked at why was this happening to me. It didn’t take me long to conclude that it’s because I’m not getting down low enough to tie my laces because crouching down is just that little bit more of an effort these days.  But then I took it further. Because given my OCDs about cleanliness and removing footwear soon as I’m indoors, I am aware of keeping my laces tight and short. I treat every street, no matter where I might be, like it’s Lambeth.

I realised it’s also down to accommodation, more specifically, shrinking accommodation. Smaller hallways make it less easy to get down in addition to no longer being as sprightly as I once was. Communal living is also an issue.  If you flat share or lodge with your landlord, and if you’re a misanthrope like me, you’re ideally looking for somewhere with a big, easy to negotiate hallway so as to avoid being drawn into conversations with your landlord or flat mates.

I realised that this slackness with the shoe laces is partly down to age but also down to having got into the habit of hurrying up my lace tying because a significant chunk of the recession years werespent living in people’s houses – there’s every chance I might have lived with you – and you know, that was a struggle for someone with as limited a personality as mine. When I was leaving those houses, I just wanted to get my shoes on and go.


#5fifty5 The Running Face

I was stood at a bus stop the other morning when I saw a woman running for a bus. Nothing unusual in that, except that as she ran, she pulled the most terrible of faces, flaring her nostrils till they were as big as the nostrils on my doomed 2005 nose job, which incidentally, the surgeon had failed to run past me prior to surgery.

As a rule, I have in my life mostly avoided dating women with large nostrils. Back in the mid-nineties, I briefly dated a girl with cavernous nostrils and one night, smack in the middle of winter, as I leant in for the kiss, I could smell the mucus on her. Normally I wouldn’t have seen her again, but I was 23, 24. A single Mediterranean man living at home. That doesn’t work in our culture where parents like their kids to marry young. I was under pressure to prove I was straight, so I tried to see the relationship through to the spring, by which time, the warmer weather meant her nose was less runny and my family knew I liked girls.

Back to the woman running for the bus though. As she drew closer to me, her open mouth exposed a high gum line, which I think can be indicative of overaggressive brushing. Often gum lines recede due to toothbrush abrasion. The enamel at the gum line is worn away by scrubbing the sides of the teeth in a washboard fashion. Of course, gum lines can also be a consequence of inadequate brushing or flossing, which allows the bacteria that sits in between the teeth to build up.

As the woman reached the bus stop, still pulling this most terrible face as she boarded, I found myself thinking that if I was her, I’d rather run a little slower and miss the bus than pull the face. How much of a difference did pulling the face make to her getting the actual bus? If she hadn’t pulled the face, would she have missed the bus?

If that woman has a partner, have they seen her run? Are they aware of the running face? If they are, how do they feel about it? As you may know, I’m a non-driver, but as much as I dislike cars, I’d learn how to drive if it meant it gave this woman no reason to ever have to run for anything. I would even give up writing and devote my entire life to driving her around so long as I never saw that awful running face again.

This got me thinking. Given so many couples/families are two car households these days, I wonder how many couples have actually seen each other run for anything? Are you aware of your partner’s running face? You might have seen their bedroom face, you might have seen their childbirth face, or even their cardiac arrest face. But have you seen their running face?

If you were both drivers, what reasons would you ever have for having to run together for something? Are either of you fit enough to even run now if you’re driving everywhere? Because in a long relationship that may have reached the jaded stage, that’s not going to make for an attractive spectacle if you both end up coughing your guts out after running for something.


#5fifty5 The Interim Face

The other evening I noticed a local man introducing an old friend to his boy and looked on as the friend appeared taken aback by the teenager's appearance.  The kid, who I've known since he was just an infant, now has the face of a young man stuck on the frame of a boy. It’s unsettling, more so when he greets his dad’s friend with a grown up handshake. These kids should be taken out of everyday society until their whole physical development’s in sync. I especially feel that way about sixth formers.

The average sixth former face is a curious one. An interim face liberated by no longer having to wear uniform and behaving as if that’s all there is to being an adult. Sixth formers should all be separated from their families and transferred to one big sixth former-only city until their physical development has been completed. When adult features have finally assumed full control of their no-longer-sixth-form faces, we can bring them back into normal society.

I was lucky. Everything about me came late and in one go. The growth spurt, the shaving, the manlier voice. I had to wait until the spring of ’89, having endured five years of teasing at school by kids who I would end up towering over. I went from underachieving baby faced kid to arriving at a set of traffic lights at Clapham North and suddenly feeling an unusual pain in my side. I ended up stuck at home for three weeks, beset with growing pains and reemerged into the spring seven inches taller and having memorised the lyrics to Boy Meets Girl's Waiting for a Star to Fall, which has nothing to do with this story whatsoever.

I never confused my family and friends with the sort of hybrid man-boy features that so threw this man the other night when he met his friend's boy. All my changes came simultaneously. That’s the way it should be.

#5fifty5 Windowless Bathroom spreads through London in a way Swine Flu never did

The majority of the short term homes I occupied over the last decade and a half came with the windowless bathrooms that have spread through this city in a way swine flu, despite the mass hysteria in the summer of ‘09, never did. The windowless bathroom is effectively a tomb, a daily reminder of how far you are from turning your life around. The world can’t see you. Shorn of any natural daylight in there, you can’t even shave properly, something I’m almost certain is behind the recent beard renaissance. If you’re a guy with a windowless bathroom, it’s less hassle simply not to shave.

#5fifty5 I'd had a good run with the dream flying

The Great Recession claimed my dream flying. The fact is I never flew again after I left the hotel following my five-month stay there. I could hardly complain though. I'd had a good run of dream flying.

This fantasy flying had started in the mid-seventies whilst dreaming in the first of the two z-beds that bookended almost a decade sleeping on a bunk bed. In these early dreams, which I remember often featured both The Osmonds and the Bay City Rollers, I was originally flying through the air whilst actually lying in my first z-bed. Eventually I did away with the first of my fake beds and graduated to free-form dream flying, using swimming-like strokes to drive my way through the air. 

The flying got me out of no end of troubled dreams, most notably in January 1984, when it helped me escape from the Gamorrean Guards that had taken over the QE11 where I was attending an Eddy Grant concert. It's crossed my mind on more than one occasion that perhaps my regular dream flying was born out of an urge to take to the air to keep off the ground and away from the dog muck that litters the streets of my home borough of Lambeth.

#5fifty5 Orthodontics interest rekindled after light bulb blows in room

From 'The Letter'

One Friday night, the bulb in my hotel room blew, leaving the flashing multi-coloured neon coursing through Room 11 as my only source of light. The bulb was one of those modern day energy bulbs – about the only modern thing in the hotel – that was not going to be found in a local shop late at night. I went down to reception see they had any spare bulbs. At weekends, a young guy, Abdul, manned the desk. He was tall, angular, slightly effeminate in his movement, and sported a World War One high fade and quiff long before every man under forty started wearing their hair like that.

Abdul had only recently returned to work after some time off to get an invisilign brace and was on his laptop watching what he told me was a DVD of the virtual 3D treatment plan of the work his Budapest dentist was overseeing. Abdul explained it was much cheaper to get dental treatment out in central Europe. Picking up on my curiosity, the search for a spare energy bulb took a back seat. Instead, I leaned against the desk enthralled as I watched Abdul’s dental video.

“This video shows the series of movements my teeth will go through over the course of the treatment,” Abdul told me, clicking on a number of individual clips on the menu.  “And this last one here is a projection of the final alignment of my teeth in nine months’ time.”

The visuals were impressive. Seeing it made me recall the invisilign brace I’d had pencilled in until Channel 4 eventually declined to make my pilot, so I was intrigued to get an unexpected opportunity to learn a little more about the orthodontics my writing failure had denied me. While I was out of luck on the bulb front that night, the half hour or so I spent with Abdul going through every stage of his treatment ended up rekindling my long-standing interest in orthodontics.

#5fifty5 It's all in the mirrors

So many men get sideburns wrong. Lopsided sideburns infuriate me as they once did my dad. It’s pure laziness on a man’s part. Nothing more. I know so many of us these days lack natural daylight in our bathrooms, but if you use your mirrors right, and angle your razor downwards as my dad showed me, you won’t get your sideburns wrong. While he may not have set me a great example in terms of holding down a job, when it came to shaving and getting sideburn angles right, my dad came into his own.

#5fifty5 Ghosts as likely to be perplexed by modern day housing as I am

If there are such things as ghosts, it’s likely they’re as perplexed as I am by the often-shocking layout of the accommodation that can be found in today’s lettings market without too much effort. During the refurbishments, spirits probably sat back bemused as they tried to work out what exactly the builders were assembling, unable to get to grips with the fact their old bedroom, where they might once have passed onto the next world surrounded by loved ones, was being converted into a windowless bathroom.

There’s every chance too that any ghostly sounds emitted to frighten the new tenants would most likely be drowned out by extractor fans that work away in the modern day bathroom like the coffee granules murder detectives burn to disguise the smell of a rotting corpse.