Observation

In Search of a Free Lunch

I’m a sucker for free gifts. Always have been. Growing up with my gran in the late 70s, we spent hours cutting out coupons from magazines and newspapers. Sending them off and waiting three weeks for a (then) state-of-the-art Pyrex dish. By the time she died, her entire kitchen was a museum to 1970s mail-order ovenware.

My grandfather wasn’t much better. His vice was collecting cigar cards. He’d smoke like a trooper just to complete the set then send off for the free presentation pack into which you could stick the cards. I’ve still got them, and while many of the cards have become faded or unstuck, the twenty or so booklets on stamps, coins, countries, and trains (to name a few) are a poignant reminder of my grandparents’ obsession with the free gift.

Years later, even my father got in on the act.

If you lived in the UK in the 1980s, you might remember collecting tokens at petrol stations that you could exchange for a variety of household items. He always went for the glasses, and as he drove a lot in those days it didn’t take long for our house to become a shrine to Texaco tumblers, high-balls, schooners and champagne flutes.

Fast forward thirty years and I seem to have inherited my ancestors’ penchant for gimmicks and free gifts. Rarely do I return from the shops these days without a stash of tokens, vouchers and coupons that I trade in for products I don’t need.

I don’t know why I do this. I’m not really the consumerist type, and I know it’s all a marketing gimmick. But like people believe in Jesus or Santa Claus, I too believe somewhere there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. This holy grail my grandparents were seeking out all those years ago.

This obsession came to a head last week when I received a free gift from my bank. Yes, even I was cynical. Bank? Free gift? Really? I was right to be cynical as I had to take out a year’s magazine subscription from the enclosed catalogue in order to obtain my free gift

Oh great! I sighed, magazines are not really my bag. But hang on, I was only thinking the other day that I need to improve my French. I can meander my way through uncomplicated French novels but when it comes to football or politics the language can get quite tricky.

A well known British football commentator coined the word ‘Lollipop’ to describe when a player steps over the ball to deceive his opponent. ‘One lollipop. Two lollipops. Three lollipops!’ goes one of his famous commentaries. The French use a similar phrase, Café Crème, to describe a similar skill. Both terms aren’t covered in any dictionary.

I therefore recovered the magazine catalogue from the bin but the first few pages weren’t promising. Télé Poche, Windows Gamer, Closer, Auto Moto, and Investir magazine didn’t grab my attention. Neither did Femme Santé, Mickey Junior, or TéléRama. At least Google wasn’t spying on me. If they were they would know that TV, gaming, cars and finance are not top of my internet searches.

I eventually went for TIME magazine. At €3 once every two months it seemed like a good deal. €18 a year plus I still get my free gift. Great work!

Only I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d misread the small print and confused Bimensuel for Bimestriel. Every two weeks as opposed to every two months. Shit! Now I was going to be billed €72 a year rather than €18. Suddenly my free lunch didn’t feel too free anymore.

But maybe I can rescue this. Find something else. Change my order.

I grabbed the catalogue again and had a look. Charlie Hedbo and Le Point looked interesting but expensive. Cuisine et Vin  looked OK, but would still cost me €70 a year. And Le Pêcheur (the fisherman), despite being cheap, looked incredibly boring.

Then I saw it. AD magazine – Architecture and Design. Arches, porticos, columns, that sort of stuff. Not my usual reading material, but for €4.50 every two months, I’ll take it. At least my free gift will retain some of its ‘freeness’.

That was last week. I’ve got my magazine, which is OK-ish, a bit heavy on detail, but I haven’t got my free gift yet. I phoned up the hotline and they said it’s on its way. That was Monday. Today is Wednesday and it’s still not here.

It’s got me wondering why I bother. Why me, my gran, my grandfather, and my dad wasted our time clipping out coupons, smoking ourselves to death, or filling our shelves with poor quality glasses. A cynic might argue, it’s a symptom of Western Capitalism. An optimist might argue it’s just a bit of fun.

It’s probably both. Fifty-fifty. Yes, we’re fucking up the planet, but who doesn’t like a bargain. Tell me that? We know the Free Lunch doesn’t exist, but for some reason we keep on looking for it all the same.

Only today I had another offer through the mail: Subscribe to SFR Mobile and Watch Unlimited Football For a Year – For Free!

(tempting, isn’t it?)


My whacked-out rural satire is still available. (No free gifts)


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Observation

Wine Box Bike Racks

I’ve been doing cycling tours on and off for years. Bike, couple of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, set off, see where I end up. They’ve always been great fun, either alone or with a friend. Total freedom, plus a clean and cheap way to see the world. But where do you put your wine?

There’s nothing more invigorating than drinking a bottle of wine while cycling. I normally keep it in the water bottle holder on the frame, so that when I come to a difficult hill, it’s within easy reach. A slug of Pays D’Oc decreases the gradient of any hill. Even a tortuous Alpine pass turns into a gentle climb.

I’ve loved touring since I was kid. Me and my school friend Duncan used to cycle round Cornwall in the rain and hail of the British summer. We stayed in youth hostels back then and didn’t drink wine. Just the odd fag now and then to fire our lungs up before an ascent of those ludicrously steep Cornish hills.

My smoking days are done, but the cycling continues. And so does the bottle of wine. Even though it has never been particularly secure, jammed into the flimsy metal wire cradle that was originally designed for a light plastic water bottle and not a heavy Bordeaux.

It of course goes without saying that over the years a bottle of Claret has broken free and shattered all over the road. Total disaster for me and any cyclists bringing up the rear in their skinny wheelers.

Despite the water bottle holder’s shortcomings though, I’ve kept on using it as my wine rack. Until a few years ago, when I found an old champagne crate in a dustbin up the road from where I live.

‘Oh Lord,’ I thought as I measured up the dimensions. ‘It’s perfect. Not only for wine, but beer as well. I wouldn’t even have to stop. Just a quick reach around into my portable bar for a chilled beer or a slug of wine.’

It’s not just that it fits exactly twelve cans of beer and two bottles of wine in it. It’s the utter simplicity of it that I find astonishing. A old box strapped to a bike. And yet it serves its function perfectly. Not just for alcohol. For anything. Books, groceries, vegetables, fruit, wood, dogs, fish.

I’ve seen bikes with boxes on them for years. Even on those Cornwall trips I saw crazy cyclists with gigantic trunk like containers on their bikes as though they were heading off to Africa. And yet I never thought of having one myself. Even as an adult.

Two years ago I cycled 2000 kilometres to Santiago from Nantes with my wife and the wine box went with me. As you can see in the photo it slots in perfectly between the two panniers. My tent went on top longways and was held together by a bungi. Sometimes I stopped in a town or a village and I’d share a glass with some other pilgrims. Then after we’d finished, someone would buy another bottle and put it back in the rack ready for the next people we might meet. Times like these made everything worth it. Not just the wine rack or the wine or the trip, but everything. Everything fitted perfectly, which is the way it should be.

That was the last trip I’ve done for reasons most of planet earth is aware of. I can’t wait to do another. I’ve still got the rack and a cellar full of wine. Allez!

wine box
Photo/Elizabeth Milligan

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Observation

Why I STILL Don’t Own a Smartphone

Do you remember when mobile phones were small and compact? When they easily fitted in your pocket? When the battery lasted for over a week? When they did nothing else except take calls. Do you remember those days?

A few weeks ago, my old Nokia 105 (above) clapped out, and I went to the store to buy a new phone. I was set on a smartphone. Why not? Get with the times.

When I arrived at the impossibly over-heated store, I asked the shop assistant about them. His eyes cracked open from his long shift, and he showed me to a stand.

‘We have the new iPhone 12 for €1300, or we have a basic one for €909…’

‘I’m sorry???’ I spluttered. ‘Can I stop you there? €1300! You must have misunderstood me, I’m looking for a phone not a small boat.’

The assistant stared at me unamused. Must have been a long shift after all. I was pretty blown away if I’m honest. Yes, I knew these things were pricey. But €1300 for a phone? I never realised the world had gone so bonkers.

‘We have cheaper ones,’ he said, noticing my shock, and showed me to another stand.

I stood there gazing at a showy array of chunky technology. ‘Do you have anything smaller?’

‘Smaller?’ he replied.

‘Yes. Smaller. Like in the old days.’

His eyes glazed over and he seemed to fall back to sleep.‘ Err, I think we have some Nokias over there,’ he wearily informed me. ‘But they are not smartphones.’

‘Great,’ I beamed and a few minutes later left the store with a brand new Nokia 105 with dual sim, flashlight, radio and headphones.

Can I watch a film on it? No

Can I watch TV on it? No

Can I listen to music on it? No.

Can I make zoom calls on it? No

Can I take photos on it? No

Can I access the internet on it? No

Can I read the news on it? No

Do I want to? No.

When mobile phones became popular in the mid-1990s (I’m 46, so I remember this) people wanted them small. The smaller the better. Remember those trendy adverts for Motorolas that sat in your palm and had the battery life of interplanetary space probes.

So what happened? Overnight mobile phones became as heavy as dustbins, and as clunky as plates.

Here is a quick comparison:

Weight of iPhone 12: 228 grams.

Weight of Nokia 105: 57 grams

Dimensions of Samsung Galaxy: 150mm x 75mm

Dimensions of Nokia 105: 85mm x 45mm

But here is the best one.

Battery Life of iPhone: 9 hours

Battery life of Nokia 105: 18.5 days.

That is not a typo. Yes, 18.5 days. That’s longer than it took the Apollo astronauts to get to the Moon and back. In fact, if they had taken my Nokia fully charged, they could have called Mum to say they were safe the moment they landed. If they’d taken an iPhone, it would have probably clapped out shortly after blast-off.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there? Shit! The battery’s dead.’

*phone dimensions and prices are approximate and may depend on the model. Although a Nokia 105 is round about €20** from most retailers. Yes, that is not a typo. Twenty.

**Or in Pounds Sterling, multiply 20 by the Euro Brexit rate and see what you get. If the shit has hit the fan, it’ll about £20 or more. If things are OK, it’ll be about £16-18. In $ it’ll be about 25.

***I don’t know why I’m even doing the arithmetic, because I know no one will buy one. But you might.

Further reading: Why I don’t have a Smartphone here.

(Image/Nokia © 2019)

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Observation

The Soulless Emptiness of a Warehouse Order Picker

I work in a warehouse for a large supermarket. It’s 5:45am when I arrive. The lights are already on because they are always on. The dull polished concrete floor is the colour of margarine before they add colour. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey.

The warehouse is the size of ten football pitches with various office pods dotted around like moon bases. Inside there are no drinks, no cups, no photos, no music, no paper, no life. Everything is computerised and runs from terminals. It’s like they said life would be in the future. In the sci-fi films I watched as a kid, only worse. Those films were in colour. Here everything is in black and white. Or white and white.

Most people have their own key for their locker, but I don’t, so I have to get the master key each morning from the office and be subjected to the magnesium grade lighting. I don’t know how anybody can work in here. It’s bad enough on the warehouse floor with a billion rows of fluorescent strips shining down. Here it’s like working in the headlights of a car.

I put my uniform on at home. A thick woven polyester T-shirt that has the feel of sackcloth. Black work trousers four sizes too big for me. Plus a pair of steel-capped trainers which are actually very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next ten hours. In my locker, there is a headset, a permanent marker, work gloves and a box cutter – the ‘tools’ of the trade. Plus a battery pod/wireless receiver the size of a large avocado, which I plug my headset into and then attach to my belt. I switch it on and a computer-generated voice asks me, ‘Do I want an order?’

I say ‘Yes.’ We’re on.

‘Go to slot 1726. Pick Area 6,’ the voice says and I obey.

‘A slot’ is the space underneath the huge five-storey high shelving units where the individual products are located. The picking areas are the aisles between the shelves where we work. I once asked a driver of the high-reach forklifts that replenish the stock if the shelves were safe.

‘Yes. Perfectly,’ he reassured me from inside his metal cage, his eyes shining out like kiln-holes from behind a balaclava to protect him from the dry cardboard chill of the warehouse. ‘Although it depends on the driver,’ he added while grabbing a 5-tonne pallet of sugar as effortlessly as a child takes cookies from a jar.

When I get to a slot, I’m required to say a verification code printed in large letters above the product line. This is to ensure I’m at the correct slot and not about to pick up dog biscuits when I should be picking up nappies. I say the code and the voice says: ‘Take 2 (or 4, or 6, or 40…).’

I take the products and stack them neatly on the back of a CHEP Euro pallet. The one below is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are scarred with half hammered-in nails, burn marks and splinters the size of spears. Gloves are essential unless you want to go back home looking like you’ve washed your hands in a meat grinder.

The pallet sits on a scissor lift order picker.

This too is from a catalogue photo. The ones we use are car crashes. Scraped, banged, bashed, dented, half rusted and coated in congealed chicken sauce, jam, fruit juice and cheap amaretto.

As you might notice, the forks at the back are sharp and when fully raised are the perfect height to skewer the lower abdomen. I regularly have a horrible vision of watching my intestines spool out onto the cold warehouse floor after someone’s driven into me fork first. We’re told never to drive backwards for this very reason. But it’s difficult not to.

The skill to order picking (if there is one) is the ability to stack 100 or more cases on a pallet without it collapsing. There are many ways to do this, but only one right way. Unfortunately, I was never taught properly, so I’ve developed my style – the Ogley Stack. Which resembles the Acropolis in Athens: Exquisitely designed, beautiful to look at but prone to collapse. The slightest bump in the warehouse floor sends my twelve case high pallet of red wine crashing to the floor.

The resulting scene is one of a massacre. Something out of a 1950s mobster movie. And if the sun is shining in through one of the high windows, it can look quite poetic. Until the bosses charge over from their office pods to calculate how much I’ve cost the company this time. It’s, therefore, no coincidence I’ve ended up on the nappie and dog food aisle – The Unbreakables.

Apart from this, the job is pretty simple. It’s also phenomenally boring, repetitive and physical. But not physical in an active manner. As in climbing a mountain or building a wall. Physical in a repetitive manner. The heart never really gets going. It simply plods along, a few beats behind the body. Not exactly exercise, more strained movement.

We’re able to have a breather and a chat of course; we’re not in prison. But not for too long. We have targets, called pickrates:

  • 300 cases an hour.
  • Or 5 a minute.
  • Or 1 every 12 seconds

Take your pick. But whichever statistic you choose, it’s hard to manage. And after twelve weeks, I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I get nervous. This is when one of our bosses (there’s about 6) tell us our first pickrates of the day (the other one is at 11:00). Something I really look forward to!

‘Morning, Phil,’ one will say, clipboard in hand. The young bosses have big quiffs, short back and sides. The older ones slightly smaller quiffs. And like rings on a tree, I can tell their age by the severity and angle of their ski-jump hairdos.

‘Morning,’ I say, my uncombed curly locks hanging out of my headset like rogue shoots escaping out of a hanging basket.

‘190 today,’ he says. There’s a pause. A  dramatic pause that doesn’t need to be there because this is a shitty warehouse. We’re not at the theatre. We’re not reciting Pinter. But I know what he’s doing. He’s waiting for me to apologise and promise to work harder.

Instead, I say: ‘That’s good. Better than yesterday.’ 

This stumps him because he doesn’t have yesterday’s figures, so he can’t verify whether or not I’m telling the truth. So he says ‘good’ or ‘OK’ and drifts off to the next picker, who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing around the place most mornings.

The only person who has the figures is the section manager who comes once a week armed with a graph to discuss my progress. It’s a total waste of time because I don’t make any progress. The graph is flat. A solid single undulating line running Eastwards across the page.

‘You need to pick it up, Phil,’ he says. ‘It’s too low. We need to sort this out.’

I note the personal pronoun ‘We’ as though he’s going to jump up and lend a hand. In the event of this ever happening, I will write a redaction and an immediate apology in this post.

‘I’m trying my best,’ I say flatly. ‘I find it hard.’

‘All the others manage.’

‘Yes, but they’re all wired on energy drinks,’ I reply.

It’s meant as a joke, but I’m half serious because it’s true. Plus, most people here are twenty years younger than me. I want to tell him this but he might advise me to find another job, and at the moment, if I can keep my head down, this is fine.

‘I better get on,’ I say. ‘Otherwise, my pickrate is going to plummet.’

There’s nothing much he can say to this, and he leaves me, screwing up his colour graph and tossing it in the bin like a teenager who’s been given a crap mark for a presentation he spent hours preparing.

I think regularly of how many people we employ in the retail industry. This bank of human bone and muscle moving boxes from one place to another. Then placed on lorries and driven to a store. Unloaded again by more muscle. Unstacked and put on shelves. The process repeated thousands and thousands of times a day. Imagine if the order pickers went on strike. Then what? Bare shelves within days, most likely. Maybe even hours.

And those films I watched as a child. The ones set in the future where the work is done by machines and mankind is left to spend his time exploring space or simply doing nothing. Reading. Thinking. I believed in those films and how good it was going to be. And yet I find myself with 300 others at five o’clock on a Sunday morning (no double-time here) hauling dog food and nappies from one part of a giant warehouse to another. Where are the machines? The robots? Surely if they can build cars and go to the outer reaches of the Solar System, they can pick up a few boxes. It’s my 86th job since leaving school. In that time I’ve done some pretty soul-crushing menial jobs – data entry, building site labourer, plongeur, dust-binman, sales agent, teacher –  to name a few. But nothing as unfulfilling as being an order picker. Maybe I’m not cut out for this work. Perhaps my body’s not connected in the way others are. My bones and ligaments and tendons and muscles work perfectly when I’m walking. I can walk for miles and miles. Endlessly traipse around a city. Hike a hill. Walk a coastline. Or swim in the freezing cold sea in the middle of winter. No problem.

But if I’ve got to bend down and lift a heavy box in a repetitive sideways movement for hours on end, I’m pretty useless.

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Observation

New You – New EU?

Image: Samuel Regan-Asante

So the children won. They enthusiastically traded in their shiny new marbles and in return got a few cracked ones back. That’s what leaving the EU feels like to me.

I once traded in a white Renault Trafic van for a Leyland DAF one. I thought I was getting a better deal as the parts were cheaper and it was also meant to be more fuel-efficient. Oh, and it was British (this was in the early nineties) when I was still vaguely proud of my country.

Anyway, within three months it was kaput. Even the garage I bought it from didn’t know what was wrong with it. Total mystery they told me. I took it to other mechanics and they couldn’t work out what the problem was either. ‘Should have stuck with the Renault,’ one bright mechanic joked with me. ‘Much more reliable.’

After seeing more garages that cost me money every time (I even paid for the diesel injector nozzles to be cleaned at huge expense) I ended up trading it in for scrap – I got £50. To say I felt short-changed was the understatement of the decade, and I haven’t felt this ripped off since you know what…?

The Brexiteers claim FREEDOM. But freedom from what and whom? The EU is still there, and getting on with life; while Britain fondles with its cracked marbles.

‘Free to make our own laws,’ I hear people say.

But we did that anyway. Except for some laws that protected people’s rights and dignity. But of course, that’s not important any more.

‘Nay,’ cry the Brexiteers. ‘It’s more than that. We wanted our Sovereignty back!’ Which is actually code for: ‘We don’t want any more immigrants.’

Which is what Brexit is really about. There has been a hundred arguments put out there, but there’s only one the majority of Brexiteers really wanted, and nothing will ever change my mind about this. But well done! You’ve achieved your goal but damaged the lives of millions of decent citizens. British and European. As well as damaging the country’s reputation.

All of his has been said before, and people including myself are pretty sick of it, but I still wanted to say something on it. Plus I still wish I’d never traded in my lovely French van for a crappy English one. What was I thinking?

Other articles: Advantages of the UK leaving the EU on 1st January 2021


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Observation

Love of The Moka Express

For the past six months, I’ve been getting up early to write a novel. I don’t know why, because the story isn’t going anywhere. But I do it all the same. It feels important. Necessary. Like breathing.

To help me along I drink coffee made with a Bialetti Moka Express. If you’ve never seen these, they look like giant octagonal chess pieces — bishops or knights in shining armour. I cleaned the ones for the photo above. Normally they’re coated in burnt-on coffee like seepage from an industrial process. If you buy them from a shop, they’re perfectly shiny. Like components for a missile.

I’m not much of a coffee connoisseur if I’m honest. I drink the stuff because it keeps me awake, plus I quite like the taste. I could probably buy a machine, stick a pod or a capsule in it and press GO. But where’s the fun in that?

With the Moka Express (and I’m not selling these things by the way) there’s a process. A process as soothing and as comforting as the coffee it makes. Even the most fractured of souls can be calmed in the morning by its gentle purring as it heats up on the stove. The quiet gurgle as the coffee splurges out of the nozzle. And then finally, that satisfying sigh as the remaining coffee is expelled. A three-act play performed in only fifteen minutes — a horror story in today’s high-pressured latte world. But worth waiting for all the same.

My fascination with these things started when I was a kid on camping holidays in the Scottish Highlands with my crazy uncle. He was my father’s sister’s husband, but he wasn’t like a relative at all; more a wayward traveller who’d befriended the family by accident, and simply wanted to do the right thing.

My mother had recently died, and as my father was always so busy at work, my uncle stepped in during the school holidays to take me off my father’s hands. I was only eight when my mother died and had already been at boarding school for a year. In short, I was pretty distressed at the time, so those trips to Scotland were amazing adventures, an escape from my grief and the austere surroundings of school.

The splendid Highland views, the soggy tents, the stiff walks in the mountains, I’ll never forget. But most of all the coffee. I didn’t even drink coffee back then, what eight-year-old did in 1979? But it wasn’t the coffee that fascinated me. It was the shiny 3-cup Bialetti he used to slide out of his bag like a pistol. Tapping the old coffee grounds away into the heather, refilling it with fresh ones, and then brewing it over his camping stove.

I’ve no idea where he got it from, or the coffee for that matter. In 1970s Scotland, it was difficult enough to get instant coffee, let alone real coffee. But he did, and as he smoked his Gold Leaf cigarettes and drank his brew, it looked like the most pleasing thing in the world.

He’s dead now but his memory lives on in a 3-Cup, a 6-Cup and a 12-Cup Bialetti, all neatly hanging from hooks above my stove. Which one I use depends on how I feel in the morning. If I’ve slept like a baby, I’ll use the 3-Cup. If I’ve dreamt about wild boars rampaging through my house (I live deep in the French countryside), the 6-Cup. And if I finished a box of Bordeaux the night before, the 12-Cup. My uncle would understand these nuances, I’m sure.

The other thing he gave me, apart from a range of Italian kitchenware, was a love of cold water. On our camping trips, we would invariably camp by a loch. For no other reason than he liked to swim in them. If you’ve ever swum in a Scottish loch, it’s like swimming in liquid nitrogen. An enormous vat of icy cold water ten miles deep, as black as hell and as cold as anything you can imagine on planet Earth. And when you swim out and look down into the depths, it’s total darkness. Like being in space.

‘It freshens me up,’ my uncle always used to joke with me as we dried off with our miniature towels the width of serviettes.

‘Yeh,’ I nodded painfully as my bones shook to dust. ‘And it kills me every time.’

It wasn’t actually that bad. Partly because I’d already been in coldwater training, courtesy of our psychotic housemaster at school. Bored with simply doling out detentions or lines, he resorted to half drowning pupils in cold baths. Making them lie fully naked in freezing water at midnight until we were told we could get out. And then forced to dash outside into the cold December air still soaking wet because he’d set the fire alarm off for a drill.

I never told my uncle what happened at school in case he told my father. Who would probably accuse me of exaggerating and ban my uncle from taking me on these trips. Either way, my uncle was probably quite surprised how well I took to the icy cold water when most kids would have no doubt screamed and shrieked. I mean I did too; of course I did, it was freezing, but I like to think I did it out of pure joy rather than total fear.

The upshot of this early introduction to cold water is that I now take cold showers most mornings, in the garden, even in winter. It’s a great thing to do while the coffee is brewing inside. Because at the moment I race back in through the door from the garden, my Moka Express is performing its final act as the last burst of coffee splutters through the spout.

Then I pour it into a cup and sit down at my desk to continue my book, still shivering from the cold. And as I sip my coffee, type away and gradually warm up, I imagine my uncle looking down on me. Immensely proud to see I’ve flourished into the vagabond writer I’ve become.


My New Novel: Le Glitch is out now HERE

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Commentary, Observation

Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone

On a recent visit to see me in France, my friend asked me if he could borrow my phone for a minute. His was out of battery and he needed to check something. I handed him mine.

‘What’s this?’ he asked.

‘My phone. It’s quite smart. It only cost €5. It’s even got a radio.’

He looked at me in utter disbelief. I hadn’t seen him for a few years so he couldn’t work out whether I was joking or I simply hadn’t caught up with modern life.

‘But it doesn’t even have internet,’ he complained pressing the thick plasticky keys of my Logitech D34.

‘No, it doesn’t,’ I declared. ‘But it does have a torch, so at least I can see where I’m going.’

Once he’d got over the initial shock, he congratulated me, telling me he would love to live without his phone, but sadly, he couldn’t.

‘Why not?’ I asked. I wasn’t trying to be smug or clever; I was simply interested.

‘Because it’s got everything on it,’ he admitted. ‘I mean everything, bank details, work schedules, films, photos, my diary, passwords, my life. If I lost it, I’d be screwed. Even leaving home without it sends me into a mild panic. I sometimes have to drive back home just to retrieve it. It’s like a drug I know.’

‘More wine?’ I asked.

I poured him another glass as we tucked into our confit du canard, which I’d lovingly cooked from the tin. ‘Mmm.’ He licked his lips. ‘Very good. I mean, down our way you can’t even order a pizza unless you’ve got the App! I can’t even remember the last time I actually spoke on the phone. I just communicate via Messenger or WhatsApp.’

‘I prefer email,’ I added. ‘Or the old fashioned landline.’

My friend burst out laughing. ‘That’s why I can never get in touch with you. Who uses a landline these days? Next you’ll be writing letters.’

We laughed and discussed more fantastical scenarios involving the future of technology, and what would happen if one day it all got turned off and we were all forced to write letters again. Then finally, we got onto my novel, Le Glitch.

‘So? I asked him tentatively, slugging back a glass of red Saumur so lacking in body it felt like I was drinking Shloer. ‘What did you think?’

He got my book out of his bag and held it in his hand like he was taking an oath. ‘I haven’t read it,’ he quickly admitted. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What!’ I exploded. ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read it? You said you would. What were you doing on the train down here? You could have probably finished it, you’re a fast reader, aren’t you? Plus it’s quite pacy — or so I’m told by people who have read it.’

‘I’m sorry, I got distracted.’

‘By what? The view?’

He looked sheepish. I’d known this guy since school and he always looked the same when he’d been caught out. His face muscles tightened and his mouth dropped open like a dead fish, signalling he was about to tell the truth. ‘I’ve just started seeing this new girl, you know how it is. Messaging and texting and before I knew it, I was at the station. It’s why my phone is out of battery. I’ll read it tomorrow.’

Then I had an idea. ‘No, you’ll read it now,’ I barked. ‘I’m not going to give you the internet code until you’ve read the book. And seeing as there’s no mobile signal around here for miles, I suggest you get reading. Unless you want to start writing letters. In that case the post goes at about eleven o’clock in the morning twice a week. But as the postman rarely shows up, you might have to resort to smoke signals to contact your girl. Your choice.’

My friend looked back at me. No internet. No mobile phone signal. His world had suddenly collapsed in on itself, casting him into a sea of impenetrable darkness. ‘But but but,’ he pleaded. ‘Can I just text her to tell her I’ve arrived?’

‘No — get reading!’ I ordered. ‘It shouldn’t take you long. As I’ve said, it’s quite pacy.’

And with that my friend sat down in my armchair, filled up his glass of cheap Saumur, and opened the first page of my book and started reading.

Five hours later he was finished.

‘Well?’ I asked.

‘It’s good. Can I go to bed now?’

‘Oh.’ I looked astonished. ‘Don’t you want the code?’

‘The code?’

‘For the internet.’

My friend rubbed his tired eyes. ‘Nah. Forget it, it can wait till the morning. I’m going to bed. Night.’

(*This was originally published 25 November 2019. I still don’t have a Smartphone. Although with technology creeping up on me and everything requiring Apps these days, I’m not sure how long I can last. I’ll keep you posted.)

Le Glitch is still available here

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Feature, Observation

Playing Music With Tourettes

Over the past few months I’ve been writing some songs. My first for over twenty years, and I can’t really describe how good I feel. But I’ll try.

You see, I’m a twitcher. I find it difficult to keep still. At night I sleep like a baby. But in the day I can’t stop moving, twitching, spasming, ticking, hunching, spinning, gurning, jerking, convulsing. You might think I’m ill — some have suggested I’ve got Tourettes — (maybe I have), but maybe it’s just the way I am.

I’ve always been like this: I’ve always had a fireball of energy in my belly like I’ve eaten a plate of red-hot chilli ladened with extra chilli and extra cheese, and then some more. And then some more. And then some more. Do you get the picture?

I only did sport at school, not because I wanted to, but because I had to. And it wasn’t that my teachers forced me or anything like that. The total opposite in fact. My school promoted the arts and music over sport, but luckily they did have a PE master. So most mornings and evenings I was out running, or practising gymnastics or swimming. Anything that gave my body a chance to run off its unused energy.

Even now, I can barely stay seated for more than half an hour, before I have to rush outside and expend some energy. Smash some bricks together or chop wood angrily with a blunt axe. It’s why I can’t watch TV, or watch a film without taking endless breaks. Luckily, I have a very patient wife.

So a few weeks after New Year, I pulled my old Washburn acoustic out of its ragged case, restrung it and set it up. If you’re not au fait with guitars, setting-up simply means, faffing around with truss rods (the bit in the middle), strings and fret distances so the whole damn instrument stays (vaguely) in-tune.

Once I’d done that (which took a month of procrastination), I strummed a few bars wondering if my fingers still knew what to do. Luckily, like riding a bike or swimming, you never forget such things, so for a few weeks I played a selection of covers I used to play live all those years ago.

Then I wrote a song.

Back then, I never really wrote songs. My friend Justin wrote the material and I played along, made up riffs and solos, and kind of chipped in.

After we split and went our separate ways, I wrote a few bits and pieces, but they amounted to nothing more than a tortured mess of mangled blues and wailing. So I let it go, and for twenty years, did very little apart from a few jams and a couple of open-mic sessions, most of which I don’t remember ( I was pretty drunk for most of my thirties).

I was therefore naturally quite surprised that by the end of March this year, I’d managed to pen about ten songs. I even bought some modest recording equipment to improve the quality of my efforts.

I was pleased with them. But most of all I’d stopped wandering aimlessly around the farm where I live, knocking down walls or chopping down trees. Finally, I had something real and tangible to put my energy into once again: Recording music in my makeshift studio on top of the chicken shed.

Here is one...
Insamia Revisited
© Philip Ogley 2020
Top Photo by Simone Impei on Unsplash
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