What use is wisdom?

Oh dear, I am beginning to sound like an old person.

With age, they say, comes wisdom. What use is wisdom, when confronted with the modern world?

A few weeks ago, I got an information pack in the mail from the Department for Work and Pensions. The very name is a contradiction in terms: either you work, or you don’t and get a pension. Having one department to cover two opposing types of people, those who work and those who don’t, seems to set up an irreconcilable conflict of interests, but we’ll pass on.

The pack set out to tell me all about my State Pension, and how to claim it. That’s right, they know who I am, they know I’m 65 soon, still the pensionable age (it’s going up in 2016, phew. Skin of my teeth.), they know my birthdate, my national insurance number (because it’s all printed on the letter) so they know how much tax I’ve paid and who last employed me, and they know where I live because they’ve got my address – the date of my divorce is also a matter of public record – but I still have to formally ‘claim’ my pension by giving them all that information, that they already have, and more.

It’s a shitty-looking little monochrome booklet in hard-to-see pale grey and white, written in that singsong baby-language the Government imagines is plain English, in English and upside-down Welsh (I live in Wales, so I must be Welsh and therefore capable of understanding the language; no actual Welsh person can be expected to understand plain English, especially upside-down), with the title Your State Pension – Your Options and Choices (Eich Pensiwn y Wladwriaeth – Eich Opsiynau a Ddwisiadau).

What the Government fails to understand is that. even in plain English, communications have to make sense, and not be riddled with ambiguities or oversimplified descriptions of impossibly Byzantine procedures and protocols. Or maybe it’s deliberate, because paying out benefits people are entitled to is the last thing this austerity-minded government is inclined to do.

Basically, the first option the Department of No-Work and Pensions most obviously wants you to choose is not to claim your State Pension. All the clues point to it. They even offer you a bribe: for every five weeks you delay claiming, you get an extra one per cent bonus added to the weekly payment, to a maximum of 10.4 per cent – or you can have it as a handy lump sum at the end of the year, less any tax owing or other benefits you’ve received in the meantime, naturally.

Hurry now, while stocks last…

Page 12 is interesting. Claiming State Pension online. Quote: “It’s really easy and secure to claim your State Pension online”.

No, it isn’t.

Assuming you are not one of the 10 per cent of people who don’t have Internet access, there follows a list of items you will need – a bank account (they already know it), your insurance number (they already have it), your address (how else did they write to you?), the addresses and dates of all employment you have had in the past two years (PAYE taxed at source, so they already know this too), your partner’s insurance number, the dates of your marriages and divorces and deaths… All this, to ‘claim’ a pension to which every citizen who has worked and paid their insurance to HMG for 33 years is automatically entitled.

And why the complexity? “Security, old boy. We wouldn’t want just any foreign Johnny coming in and claiming your pension, now would we?”

It’s a farce, but most bureaucracy is, nothing unusual there, so we’ll pass on that too, to the part where you go online.

Halfway into the form, so far so really easy, until it demands that you key-in your Government Gateway User ID and Password. This is not listed as a requirement in the brochure, but without it you can’t progress with your claim online. So I key-in mine, and it isn’t recognised.

The failure cancels all the data I have already keyed-in, and I have to start over again. In any case, I have no idea what my password was when I first registered over two years ago. Why would I? It means I have to apply for another one, confirmation of which will arrive by post within 7-10 working days.

Now, to add to the Kafkaesque dimensions of this Byzantine procedure, to mix my literary metaphors, I have kept the letter to which my previous Government Gateway card, now apparently invalid, was attached, and it says this:

“You cannot activate the service with this User ID. Thank you for using the Government Gateway.”

And what that means is, that once I have my new User ID and Password set up, I need to obtain an Activation Code, and this will be sent to me under separate cover, by post, within 7-10 working days.

Issuing password reminders and activation codes instantly online is standard procedure with virtually every other online registration you will ever experience, using your unique IP address, but no, The Department for Work and Pensions is incapable of doing it that way and insists instead on sending them by post, to the same address where they’ve already sent the claim pack, which could indeed be the address of an entire houseful of illegal Kyrzgystani immigrants posing as you and not yours at all….

To remind you, “It’s really easy and secure to claim your State Pension online”.

Bollocks, on both counts.




I’m a believer

For a non-believer, I have an awful lot of strange notions.

I could swear the Universe just actualised someone I was hoping never to meet again, on our walk to the beach, Hunzi and I.

My mind was once again mashing the frumenty of my recent past into the familiar polenta of loathing for this one particular individual, when first a Weimaraner in a stupid red coat came trotting around the next bend – and then appeared this ghastly woman in an inadvisable pair of red trousers, the same colour as mine, under a clashing bob of orange-dyed hair.

The apparition, who looked as if she’d had a facelift, or overdosed on Botox, a living embalming procedure or something, as her face was weirdly as smooth-looking and shiny as a pink billiard ball, recognised me instantly, and I grunted something and hurried on, staring at the ground. I was damned if I was going to recognise her after almost three years, in fact I was eyeing the nearby river speculatively. At this time of year it isn’t deep enough to drown an average human without standing on their head for several minutes to make sure, besides you never know who else might happen along with their dogs to effect a rescue. It might have been worth a try, though she was no average human.

This was the monster who, while working supposedly for me on a very part-time basis, had put me through two years of mounting annoyance while she tried to steal my job, bombarding my director eight thousand miles away with slanderous ungrammatical emails hinting strongly that I was permanently absent without leave, had drunk the bar dry and was stealing money by charging people cash and not booking it: all total, libellous balls; except of course for the bit about the bar, a bit. (You try living there on your own in winter.)

Eventually she convinced my employer to embark on a potentially disastrous and hugely expensive course of action. Three years later, the grandiose folly was completed, and I was let-go in favour of a ‘proper’ manager, the son of a business associate of hers, who gratifyingly lasted about eight months in the job. I’d made nearly seven years.

But here I go again, and if I go on raking the humous of this long-ago scenario to a fine tilth in my head, I should not be surprised if the bloody woman appears in a puff of smoke in the corner of my studio, to admonish me further. There was absolutely no reason to expect that she would apparate on the footpath between two nowheres at that point in time, she lives over 40 miles away.

Except that, only the other day, out of the blue, her accursed name had come up on this, my tiny laptop, when the dreary Linked-in social media site sent me one of those annoying messages asking me to link to her in professional fraternity, and I told it to fuck off.  It was a hint.

And just to rub it in, we ran into each other a second time on the way back from the beach. My grunt this time was well-rehearsed, her smooth, shiny face crestfallen. If she thought a cheesy greeting was going to put a sticking-plaster on bygone wounds, she was wrong. Everyone involved on the project had at one time or another come to me to complain about her Janus-like duplicity, half-brained ideas and astonishing ignorance of many matters a consultant in her field should have known more about, and to wonder why on earth our employer took any notice of her ludicrous prognostications.

I had to explain that it was only because she was telling him what he most in the world wanted to hear: that he would make pots and scads and oodles and shedloads of money if he did as he was told. (He hasn’t. Not unless it’s a big tax fiddle.) And my chief failing was, I wasn’t.

Clearly, the Gods want me to get over it and move on, it’s been two-and-a-half years already. Maybe it was a sign, maybe I will now be allowed to sell-up and move to the middle of a foreign country, with my dog and my guitar, my avocado tree and my Jazz CDs (see Pages), where I don’t have to encounter anyone else with unresolved issues from my past life ever again.

Except you know, don’t you, you just bloody know you will, someday.


And then you do

Old Age Pensioner…

In a little over a month’s time I shall, if spared, become an Old Age Pensioner. I roll the phrase around inside my grizzled old head for a moment, then spit it out contemptuously.

My grandfather was an Old Age Pensioner. I can’t possibly be compared with someone his age. I used to go occasionally to the hospital with my grandmother, where she was having a course of injections of metallic gold, supposed to cure her ‘rheumatism’, and see the Old Age Pensioners queuing up for the podiatrician to cut the ingrowing yellow old toenails they could no longer reach, on the free National Health Service, and think ‘there but for the grace of God I hope I never go’.

They must have been, what, 60?

And but for the accident when she slipped on the ice and broke her arm and the hospital left her in agony on a gurney in the corridor for five hours and she took to her armchair and eventually ten years later died from lack of exercise at the age of only 90, my granny would probably have lived to be 100.

The thought is both horrifying and comforting, in equal measure. I don’t think politically correctly speaking we still call the Over 65s ‘Old Age Pensioners’, as most of us are still on drugs and trying hard to accommodate Arctic Monkeys into our musical schema, and wondering if it isn’t time we made that pilgrimage back to Glastonbury with our teenage children by our third marriage and maybe think of changing our career trajectory….

As our society ages, we can all get excited by the return to the Hammersmith Odeon… sorry, Apollo, of the delicious Kate Bush, 56, making her first concert appearance since the Music Halls closed, and dream of happier times. The great Lord Page of Zeppelin is also much in the news, his playing on the 1968 single, ‘Whole Lotta Love’, having just been voted Best Guitar Riff of All Time by listeners to BBC Radio 2, the station for Old Age Pensioners.

Did I just bogl that yesterday? Can’t remember. Probably. Anyway…

I’ve said it before, but comparisons are indeed odious, whatever that tired aphorism actually means. There is, of course, no ‘Best’ of anything, ever. Can we say that Liane Carroll is the ‘Best’ jazz singer ever? How does she compare, say, with Billie Holiday, or Ella Fitzgerald? What we can say is that the eclectic modern music scene and her insistence on retaining her commercial and creative independence have allowed Liane to range with absolute assurance across a far broader musical spectrum than either of those undoubted Greats, whose output was channeled through the much narrower music industry and culture of their day.

And she must be, what, 60?

Old Age Pensioner. It’s not something you think much about when you’re 25. By 35 you’re so riddled with angst you can’t think about anything much, except your upcoming divorce and whether you made the right career decision and where’s your next car coming from? By 45 you’re balding, overweight, impotent and about ready to give up, yet there’s another twenty years to get through somehow, probably riddled with cancer and on the verge of bankruptcy. And the thought of hitting 65 knowing the teenage actuaries in the insurance racket are glumly predicting that you will cling on to your pension annuity for twenty years more, thanks to the wonders of modern NHS medicine, is just outrageous.

And then you do.

Personally, I would have voted for the Best Guitar Solo of all time, Andrew Latimer’s playing on the track ‘Lunar Sea’, from the album Moon Madness, by Camel. Or maybe something by Dave Gilmour. Even Page’s solo on ‘Stairway to Heaven’, to my mind still the best rock track ever, ever. You young whippersnappers wouldn’t have the faintest idea. By an amusing coincidence,  ‘Lunar Sea’ was recorded, in 1976, at the very same Hammersmith Odeon (sorry, Apollo) where the mighty Bush made her triumphant re-emergence on the stage last night.

I once saw Dizzy Gillespie play there.

Hey ho.


No, packet in

I have always sympathised with the elderly.

Not, of course, over the emergence of their latent conservatism; their habit of blaming the coloured people for everything that ails society; their clacking and hissing plastic teeth; their going on long cruise holidays instead of spending the money on proper dentistry; their addiction to thermal underwear catalogues; their ready adoption of Skype technology to communicate with their families in New Zealand (I’m so technophobic, I had to go back to the shop recently, after a full month had gone by, to lamely enquire of the mildly stunned proprietor how I was supposed to answer an incoming call on my new Smartphone, as I hadn’t quite got the knack yet and was too embarrassed to ask my son?).

No, my sympathy today has rather gone out to elderly people who have trouble accessing packaged goods.

I had always assumed that their inability to get at the contents of cans, screwtop jars, foil catfood packets, boil-in-the bag kipper bags, sachets of ketchup and bottles of Wincarnis was because they suffered from some chronic debilitating physiological condition brought on by age and more, affecting the strength in their bony old wrists, liverish hands and knobbly fingers. Rheumatism, perhaps. Arthritis. Tendonitis. Whitlows. Reynaud’s Disease. Gout. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Parkinson’s. Polyneuritis. Undiagnosed wheat allergy, plus many, many more.

In the past, I have always prided myself on my readiness to spring forward with a cheery ‘here, let me help you with that!’ on my lips.

No longer.

Having just sat down, perspiring, after several minutes’ battling to force my way inside a plastic tub of melting ice-cream, writing now as an elderly person myself, I can only say that I have no health issues whatever affecting my wrists, hands or fingers. I still possess a grip like a drowning man’s on a passing straw, a Scotsman’s on his wallet, that could crush the air bubbles out of a solid chunk of granite rock, or the testicles of a packaging designer.

But I am no match for Mr Carte d’Or (the posh name for Wall’s, for some reason it means Golden Menu – not to be confused with Mr D’Oyly Carte, the founder of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Savoy Opera company. Why would you?) and his new, consumer-proof ice-cream packaging, that seems intended to permanently separate anyone not a candidate for the title of TV’s The World’s Strongest Man from his Intense Chocolate Experience, with added chocolate. I am not even sure that strength is entirely the key. Advanced weaponry might be more apposite. Drone support. Russian tanks. A Swiss-army powered exoskeleton, thoughtfully equipped with a mechanical digger arm and a carborundum disc-cutter.

I shan’t go into the technicalities, the mechanics, the ergonomics of the way in which the lid of the tub has been deliberately deepened so that, even when you have located and removed the sharp-edged little plastic tab that protects the formerly free corner at which you are expected to lever it off, and found a plaster to staunch the bleeding,  it can by no means be forced to part with the main body of the receptacle within which, as Monty Python might have put it, reposes the desired comestible.

I’m not an engineering expert. But I am, deep down in my hypothalamus, a very angry, knife-wielding old lizard. And I always get what I want, even if it does end up all over the floor.

You have been warned, annoying baboons of the packaging industry.

The gummies are coming!



You answer my Smartphone, apparently, not just by prodding hopefully at the green ‘on’ button, as you might expect, but by expertly flicking it across the screen with your thumb until it sits exactly on top of the red ‘off’ button. Logical?

I am inordinately proud therefore to have discovered, entirely by myself alone, that you can in fact reconfigure the phone settings to answer any incoming call simply by pressing the same physical button that switches the screen on and off, and no jiggery-pokery playing shove-ha’penny on a touchscreen that doesn’t work if the weather is even slightly moist.

Couldn’t Team Samsung have organised that to happen in the first place? Logical?



Breaking bad (habits)

One of those reports you read on public blogs with off-the-wall references to better-known and more trustworthy names in the world of journalism (I include The Boglington Post among them) claims that Boko Haram, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist extremist group proposing to create a caliphate in northern Nigeria, has executed two village policemen for smoking on duty.

It does seem somewhat perverse to outlaw a particular habit as a health hazard, only to prescribe an even greater health hazard as the punishment for failing to break the habit. There are gentler ways of encouraging people to stop smoking, but I suppose a dramatic demonstration of what can happen if you don’t is as good as a health warning on the pack, or banning advertising.

But why? Well, according to the article, certain dimly educated village mullahs have ruled that smoking is un-Islamic, because the Qu’ran frowns both on self-harming, and on wasting money.

Now, forgive me, but where does this fatwa leave a) suicide bombers, and b) the hopped-up young jihadis who like to shoot thousands of bullets playfully in the air at a dollar a time, to impress foreign journalists? Or does simultaneously shouting Allahu akbar! in lieu of more coherent rationalisations absolve them of guilt?

It’s a somewhat quixotic gesture to enforce a fatwa on smokers in the Developing World (now there’s an oxymoron), where approximately 96 per cent of men are hooked on the habit by the age of seven – women probably find it harder to smoke with their faces covered. So my guess is that Boko Haram see tobacco as a capitalist Crusader conspiracy, rather as in the nineteenth century we Brits forced the Chinese at gunpoint to take opium to protect the tea trade.

They might not be far wrong.

One of my wives had a cousin who married an Italian who (over 30 years ago) supplemented a precarious living as a fisherman by running American cigarettes to Albania, returning with human contraband – political refugees.

Now and then, his fast powerboats would be shot-up by police operating from helicopters, and need replacing with faster ones. My Italian and his English met less than halfway, but from what he was saying, I gathered that, in his opinion (not the author’s, I’m having nothing to do with it) the boats were ultimately paid for by a grant from the US tobacco company, the money being channeled via some deeply reputable business associates in Palermo.

It was an extreme, but no-doubt effective, form of product promotion.

As I should know, because, while working in an advertising agency, I was once briefed to find a way of getting more smokers in Scotland hooked on a certain brand of cigarette made, as far as I could tell, from whatever was left on the factory floor after the previous shift had gone home. Research suggested that if you could get someone to smoke a brand for seven weeks, that was it, loyal for life. I’m ashamed to admit, my campaign was hugely successful*.

So now, twenty-five years on, the world is a very different place. And getting more different by the day. How many socially aggravating habits might the Mayor of London, Mr Boris Johnson, in his eagerness to overcome Islamist militancy, not eradicate by the simple expedient of putting a bullet through the back of a few miscreants’ fuzzy heads? Is wine banned in Islam? In that case, I’m a dead man drinking.

And what about drivers of diesel cars? People who watch (a pointless TV quiz-show called) Pointless? Householders who deliberately try to sneak out the odd empty fishpaste-jar with their recycling, knowing that glass is an officially banned substance? Apostates!

Still, it’s good to know Boko Haram are taking the health of the nation to heart. Gives us all hope.


*Fans of the Mel Brooks’ film, The Producers, will be familiar with the plot wherein our eponymous heroes set out to fail, and collect the insurance money, only for their terrible show ‘Springtime for Hitler’ to succeed beyond their wildest nightmares. Disliking smoking, I intentionally created an advertising campaign of such desperate banality that no-one could possibly have been taken-in by it, only to obtain an unheard-of 16 per cent positive response. I may thus have killed more Scotsmen than the Duke of Cumberland. I’m very, truly, sorry.

Warning: contains flesh photography

Interesting developments are arriving thick and fast in my Spam folder. If you don’t care to share them, look away now.

Now that Viagra is out of copyright, and prices have drooped by ninety per cent overnight (in a way one might imagine to be quite opposite to the brand image), I seem to be being offered fewer opportunities to maintain the lady’s interest fully between the After-Eight mints and, as it were, cock-crow.

Instead, my more perceptive Spammers in recent days have been proposing to rapidly trim belly fat without dieting, thanks to Forskolin. Bosley Hair is offering me an anniversary special opportunity to defeat hair loss; I can reverse my Type-2 diabetes with a free bottle of Glycemate; while, most intriguing of all, adorna@adornacream wants to help me grow my breasts naturally.

Taken together with the many offers of urgent finance, the dating sites for lonely singles juxtaposed with suggestions that I look at lovely Svetlana’s body (presumably for comparison purposes?), the special deals on car leasing, my Spam folder is not presenting a very attractive image of me these days.

Flabby, balding, with huge manboobs, financially underperforming, condemned to drive my own 15-year-old VW rustbucket into the ground, hooked on carbohydrate and incapable of making my way to the Russian embassy unaided, as I sit straining at stool I notice with distaste that the bathroom floor is covered in toenail clippings….

Maybe it’s got a point?

The haggard face that greets me over the basin, with its woolly, white felt beard and contrasty black Zapata moustache; the Louis Vuitton eye-bags beneath a noble brow that wasn’t there last time I looked, now extending over the back of my head; the eyes bulging like toads’ eyes from excess blood-pressure, the purulent, greeny-yallery laughter lines mingling with ancient zit craters mined with clusters of little blackheads…

Why, I’m glad to be so longsighted now that I can remain in blissful denial about my close-up appearance, until a selfie taken by the unforgiving light of the camera flash reveals the bitter truth: I’m an old woman, with puffy eyes and a fluffy beard.

I’ve always wondered why TV presenters warn you the report contains flash photography, now I know. It’s horrifying.

Natural breast growth is obviously more desirable than the unnatural variety, by which I guess @adornacream means silicon implant surgery. I already use a different method than hormone creams, however, which is to microwave my dinner ingredients all together in one dish, covered with pvc clingfilm. That way, you get to cook more economically while watching your breasts grow.

Melting plastic on a fishsteak broiled with diced potatoes and broccoli spears (add a dab of butter, cook for 7 minutes) is the best and most delicious way I know of obtaining the oestrogen-mimicking chemicals known as phthalates (the Greeks had a word for it), that can feminise the toughest male. My breasts are coming on a treat, easily passing the pencil test.

They do get in the way a bit when I’m writing, as I have to lean forward to type these, my interesting Posts, on a tiny malfunctioning laptop here on the coffee-table. Poor posture leads to all kinds of problems, tit-rash among them. How do real women cope, I wonder?

Like the poor jogger we just passed on our walk, mammaries flying about like cats in a sack as she tries keeping pace with a fit-looking younger friend, egging her on. It reminds me to get on Amazing.uk, order myself a sport bra before anything else happens.

It’s been mooted by certain people that I should present my Posts live on-line, as it were, being as how they’re so painfully humoresque, but I don’t think so, not on the basis of this evidence. I’m not some kind of freakshow. No cutesy kitten that’s made best friends with an alligator who has just eaten her own children. Not YouTube material.

A man with natural breasts? That’s so yesterday. You should see my friend ‘Carol’.

‘Oh, stuff that Gibson’ #2

(Boring guitar talk alert)

A new Gibson Les Paul Custom Shop guitar, fitted with three pickups, in Silver Burst grey, is for sale on a US dealer’s website at $4,599.

Quite expensive for a pressed plywood semi-hollow guitar whose basic design has not been updated in decades, nevertheless this price seems about normal for Custom Shop Les Pauls of most varieties. You’d pay a couple of hundred less for one with the regular two-pickup array.

Fitted with a clumsy-looking Bigsby tremolo arm, bridge and tail, and with gold-plated pickup covers, not that uncommon, however, the same model of guitar on the same dealer’s web site, in black, pre-owned, is just a buck under $35,000.

The $30 thousand difference? ‘Only’ 25 of those were made, in 2008, played briefly in the holy hands of, and then personally signed by, Jimmy Page, iconic lead guitar of the ‘greatest rock band of all time’, Led Zeppelin*. The owner has since kept it in a cupboard, never to be played again.

You may need to know, this is Number 8. If Page had ever played it in concert, maybe even knocked it about a bit, possibly even owned it himself, God knows how much you would have to pay to acquire it.

So think of it as a ‘Guaranteed low price’ bargain collectable.

And if you need the number of a good psychiatrist, don’t ask me, I only live here.


*Page’s playing on the 1869 single, Whole Lotta Love, theme tune for countless episodes of TV’s Top of the Pops, often starring Jimmy Saville, who now has to be cut out of the repeats, and played at the Beijing Olympics, has just been voted Best Ever Guitar Riff, Ever by BBC Radio 2 listeners, who should know. We were there…