77. Beef with Claus

Christmas sentinelWhile I pine for my wife as a Christmas tree yearns to shed its needles in the furthest echelons of your living room, at this time of year it’s best we meet on her side of the equator. She needs sunshine, and here in Lancaster in December it’s hard enough to find sufficient light. After my morning stint at home I walk to the city centre, surfboard tucked under my arm, to chase a few watery rays before gloom encases the city and it becomes a romantic silhouette of itself, minus the romance. I don’t mind the melancholy so much. I might have been away for a few years, but this is the country I grew up in – I can’t say I wasn’t warned. However, it doesn’t take much for the ice in my veins to start bubbling with seasonal rage, as happened yesterday in Poundland.

Readers of my short-lived Toxic Bachelor blog will recall both my fondness for bargain stores, and my poor track record in negotiating their subtleties. But my confidence was high this week. I’d avoided slipping on the pavement beside the ice rink and paid my respects to the solitary sentinel above the chemist’s (pictured). Having stopped off at the croaky tobacconist’s therein, I’d emerged from ‘Santa’s Passage’ (last month no more than an austere shortcut into town) relatively unscathed. Charity shops scoured, I decided to stop off at Poundland on my way home – seeking something cheap and cheerful.

Unlike wedding anniversaries, the materials utilised for Christmas celebrations year on year never seem to change – plastic and chocolate. Yes, it’s time for the annual blowout; to forget the problems of the world by creating more of them. Perhaps you’re thinking this is the year I finally surrender all my worldly goods and wander the country barefoot preaching abstinence? You’re misremembering – that’s next year. Instead, grim-faced and guilt-ridden, I take my shopping to the self-service checkout seeking a quick getaway. What I get is the disembodied voice of an imposter.

‘Ho, ho, ho – unauthorised item in the bagging area!’

A schoolboy error. Rucksacks trigger alarm bells, or worse – robotic jollity. Because it seems Santa is moonlighting in place of the standard mechanical orator we all know and love. Perusing the clogged aisles, it’s clear we’ll be waiting a while. I’m content to wait in silence. The same can’t be said for Santa.

‘I think I’ll have a mince pie while we’re waiting – yum, yum!’

You have to be kidding. Not only is Santa insulting my intelligence with this little charade, but the bastard fails to offer me one. I tell him what he can do with his mince pie, under my breath, then thank the woman who comes to help before resuming scanning.

‘Ho, ho, ho – product requires age verification!’

Another schoolboy error (Santa can’t tell if I’m over 18, apparently, nor whether I’ve been a good boy – the cigarette papers suggest not).

‘I think I’ll have a mince pie while we’re waiting – yum, yum!’

This time I fail to keep my voice down when replying to Santa, allowing him to enjoy the moral victory his pompous tone suggests was never in doubt.

Heading home I detect the unmistakable scent of effluent in the moistening air – either from Santa’s passage or the drains; or perhaps the river or canal. I’ve nothing against Lancaster. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the UK. But the city’s appeal isn’t ever likely to run up and smack you in the face, like the smell of faecal matter. On plenty of days the most inspiring thing about wandering its streets is witnessing the unfussy goodness in ordinary, uncelebrated members of the public; people despised by the current government and scorned by the tabloids.

Because, despite getting my knickers in a twist in Poundland, and beginning a beef with Santa that could end badly (he has some powerful friends in the media), I couldn’t help noticing a couple of elderly people assisting a group with learning difficulties, some in wheelchairs, with their Christmas shopping. Details like these are my personal source of Christmas cheer. Long life to them. Up yours Santa.

74. Tickets please

The inventor of
The train ticket
Lived down the road:
It was his ticket
Out of here.

(All the way to Manchester
Where he died in 1851)

Teenage couple
Can’t wait to make
Their fortune to escape;
Can’t quite raise
The fare to anywhere –
Just know they must be going.

Hiding in disabled loos
Between carriages
Where Edmondson rode
Upfront in topper, one imagines,
Signing stubs and visualising
Tickertape parades on Princess Street.

Where to go is moot (toot-toot!)
For our young heroes.
“Please wash your hands” (they do)
Then jump the barricades
To find a world run by
Fat controllers, grey cardinals
Entwined – demanding tickets please.

Soon they are proven to be on
The wrong side of the tracks;
Then sitting on the fence
At an erroneous angle
By blinking data readings on
Smart troops’ smart watches.

(The Internet thinks
What I type is what I want,
So up pops an ad for a
Military smart watch:
Henceforth official timer
Of this poem.)

Here the ghost of Edmondson
Decides to intervene.
“God is in everyone,”
He tells the tooled-up bureaucrats
“Not according to this,”
Comes the reply; but when they
See his pasty Quaker face and swoon
The couple are off again.

Finding a planet blighted
By splurge and gut-greed,
And while weeping over birds
In sticky deaths throes
On foamy beaches
The couple decide
To try Plan B.

The office is manned
By a man in a topper,
They ask for one-way tickets;
Edmondson requests a code
Downloaded from a website,
Then smiles: “Please permit
My little joke.” They do.

And off they go again;
You hear the engines roar
While hanging out the washing;
But don’t worry, old man,
Old woman, old ghost –
You are not compelled
To join them: your only duty
Is to let them go (ticket or no ticket).

73. Goodbye to all cash?

Silver dollarCashless pubs – an overdue innovation for a struggling sector, or the thin end of the wodge, as our interactions become increasingly dependent on technology, and the pinpoint precision with which it tracks our movements?

Depressing to find the pub closest to me, a fine place to drink and eat with which I have no other complaints, now only accepts card payments. Efficiency is mooted, the most overrated aspect of our current society. And, the management claim, it’s reflective of customer habits – the customers a modern pub wants to attract, anyway. No more looking down the back of the sofa for nuggets of the non-chicken variety – overnight a series of invisible signs has been propped up beside the shouty SKY SPORTS blackboard. The first to catch the eye: Buskers, Bankrupts and those of No Fixed Abode not welcome here. Indefinitely.

All this tech. All this joined up tech. It’s not that we’re necessarily being spied on now; not unless you happen to fall into an ethnic group under perpetual suspicion – we’re simply allowing the tools for a surveillance society to be put in place if/when we get an elected leader who isn’t wild about elections, as is happening in many parts of the world right now. Fortunately, we still have a minimum wage in the UK, but it doesn’t amount to enough to let you go contactless all day, tempting as that may be. Consider the bar staff deprived of those modest ‘keep the change’ gestures. Another freshly painted sign: Charming and helpful bar staff must rely on cashless customers utilising that awkward piece of pottery marked TIPS.

I can’t deny my bias. Having lived in Hong Kong; having friends in Hong Kong who have no choice but to stay there, the latest news about the Chinese governments roll-out of a yet-more intrusive, data-based monitoring system (there’s only so many times you can huff ‘Why should I worry if I’ve got nothing to hide?’ before it sounds like utter crap) gives me the fucking willies, and why wouldn’t it?

The issue may soon be out of our hands, here on our small island anyway. In Latin America, dollars are kept under the bed while local currencies fluctuate wildly. They are a safe – if galling – bet, for those who can afford to accumulate them. Ironically, my experience of the US is that the federal system won’t allow a huge amount of joined-up thinking when it comes to the technology taking hold here. Of course, that will change. In the meantime, swallow your pride, and get yourself some bucks. Just don’t expect to be able to spend them down the local, mighty dollar or not.