#296 – No Need to Knead – A Short Culinary Tale

bread-1643951_640‘Of course you have to knead bread Jeff,’ shouted Sandra. ‘Don’t be stupid all your life.’

I hadn’t been paying much attention to the conversations taking place over the dinner table. Partly because they were all about food and drink, neither of which I wanted to talk about. It was the same every time I came, the same people droning on about en croûte this, au gratin that. Frothing at the mouth as they forced foie gras down their fatty gullets as though it was the only thing worth eating.

Jeff was the only one I liked and I didn’t even know him. But I knew his type. Trying to be invisible in the hope everyone would forget he was there. Forcing a smile now and then to show he was listening, only chipping into the conversation when absolutely necessary.

I knew what he was going through. I felt the same every time my sister Lilly invited me over. In the vain hope that I might hook up with her best friend, Isabel, who by her own admission was on the lookout for a husband.

‘I’m looking for man with money and taste,’ she’d declared halfway through the ensalada de gambas.

I only came along because she was my sister. Loyally supporting her quest for culinary recognition among her foodie friends. Turning up every few months with a crate of champagne and a bag of fresh prawns on the condition I could leave after the dessert.

‘But how about Isabel?’ she would then complain half drunk when I made a dash for the door after the chocolate torte. ‘She likes you so much. Why don’t you stay a bit longer, have a drink, get to know each other?’

I’d then remind her I was in fact gay. Only for her to insist it was just a phase I was going through, which I’d eventually grow out of. I’d then have to reassure her it wasn’t a phase as I was nearly 46, not 16. Then I’d say my goodbyes and walk home wondering what planet my dear little sister lived on these days.

Jeff was Sandra’s new boyfriend. That was all I knew about him. Two months ago at the last dinner party, she’d been with someone else. John, perhaps? Two months before that, another guy. Sammy, maybe? In fact, now I thought about it, she seemed to have a different man every time I saw her, as though her men were on hire from an agency.

Jeff wasn’t the agency type though. For one he looked human. And secondly he looked bored out his mind. Which was probably why he kept looking at the door, wondering how long this nightmare would go on for.

He’d been talking to Greg Peels, a graphic designer from Brighton, when the bread incident took place. Greg had been explaining to Jeff about his new fandangled bread machine he’d bought from California, which used a series of tongs and paddles to fold and knead the bread, so as to create a perfectly crafted artisan loaf.

It was at this point that Jeff made his faux pas. A misplaced sentence that shattered Greg Peels’ smug gadget-infested world into a million pieces. ‘You don’t need to knead bread at all,’ Jeff had calmly said as though asking for the salt.

It was meant to be a joke. But nobody got it. Certainly not Greg Peels, who looked like he’d been stabbed in the stomach with a fork, he looked so deflated. And certainly not Sandra, who’d attempted to defuse the situation by humiliating her boyfriend.

Jeff pretended to laugh it off and went back to his gambas. But I knew Jeff was absolutely livid. Fuming behind his ensalada like a red hot ember, and I was pretty sure he was about to walk out at any minute. Instead he did something else. Something so unexpected, I still think about it to this day.

He stood up and violently clinked his glass with his knife. Everybody stopped talking immediately. Even Sandra, who’d spent most of the evening chewing the ear off a deep sea diver, who luckily for him, was practically deaf after a diving accident.

The room went silent. Even the supermarket jazz on the stereo had gone miraculously quiet. Everybody was wide eyed in anticipation. He’s going to propose was on everybody’s lips. He’s going to pop the question in front of her friends. What a man!

Not a chance in hell, I thought. If Jeff proposes to Sandra, I’ll step in first and marry her myself. I was that confident. This wasn’t going to be a proposal, this was going to be a demolition. Something I’d been waiting for at events like these for years, and now the show was about to start. And I had a front row seat.

‘I’d just like to thank Lilly for inviting us to dinner tonight,’ Jeff began. Everybody smiled. ‘But that’s as far as the gratitude goes.’

A mild titter went round the room.

‘I can’t remember having such an awful evening. I mean really awful.’

A sharp inhalation.

‘Oh, you think I’m joking,’ he continued.

A slight murmur. Somebody let out a snigger.

‘OK, let’s get down to it,’ he said as though starting some incredibly boring seminar. ‘For starters – no pun intended – the food looked good, but tasted like wrapping paper. I mean, where did you buy it from Lilly, I mean really? Homemade food, my arse. Pre-packed from an upmarket delicatessen is my bet. You can tell by the gelatine they put in it to keep it firm. No freshness about it. It tastes OK, but it’s not real. There’s no labour, no intensity behind it. No thought or guile. Produced for presentation purposes only. Like plastic fruit in a window display.’

I looked round the room. Nobody was sure whether Jeff was being real or sarcastic. Or was just incredibly pissed.

But he continued. ‘It’s like your lives. Like Sandra here. She looks good, great presentation, nice tits, hair, makeup and so forth. But is she nice? You heard her. “Don’t be stupid all your life” she said to me. That’s nice, isn’t it? From your girlfriend as well. And I suppose you all thought I was standing up to ask her to marry me. I mean, come on. Seriously?’

This was brilliant I thought. What a guy!

Sandra’s eyes looked as though they were about to fall out of their sockets and roll under the table. ‘I clocked you all the moment I walked in,’ Jeff continued. ‘You think you’re all in control of your lives. The job, the house, the wife, the boyfriend, the car, the phone, the posh food, the nice clothes. When really, you’re just turds floating in a u-bend. And the thing is, you know it. Just like the food. It’s totally tasteless, but you go on eating it because it looks nice and you don’t want to offend anybody. I’m sorry people. Sorry Lilly. But that’s the truth.’

He paused. Everybody was waiting for more I could tell. Perhaps they were enjoying it. Like me. ‘That’s all I’ve got to say,’ Jeff finally said. ‘Now I’ll leave.’ And with that he started heading towards the door.

I felt like applauding, asking for an encore. I’d seen many people lose their temper and say the wrong things. But I’d never seen someone so calmly publicly destroy nine other people in a room before. I couldn’t imagine a dictator or a mafia boss doing something as bold as what Jeff had done. I was immensely proud of him. And I didn’t even know him.

Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. So I quickly followed Jeff out onto the street and left the rest to ponder the wreckage of their lives.

‘Wow,’ I said to him once we were outside the front door. ‘That was some performance. I’m Lilly’s brother by the way, I don’t think we were properly introduced,’ I said shaking his hand.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’m Jeff, Sandra’s boyfriend.’

‘I gathered that,’ I replied.

Then he corrected himself. ‘Was.’

‘I suspect so.’

‘I didn’t mean to be rude. You’re Lilly’s brother. I’m sorry. But it just came out. I’m not sure what happened. I just couldn’t stand it any longer.’

I burst out laughing. ‘Don’t worry Jeff. You were brilliant, best thing I’ve seen in years. Should have recorded it, would have been priceless. A modern day antique. Worth millions.’

He smiled, but he didn’t look particularly happy. 

‘Jeff, you said it how it is. She’s my sister I know, and she’s a bit fucked up with all the cooking and foodie thing.  You told the truth and you can’t hate yourself for telling the truth.’

‘I suppose,’ he accepted. ‘Thank your sister for inviting me anyway. For what it’s worth.’

‘She’ll be OK, it might knock a bit of sense into her. You meant it though, didn’t you? What you said.’

He nodded. ‘Yeh, all of it. I fucking hate prawn cocktail.’

I laughed. ‘Me too.’

‘But I mean the bread,’ I continued. ‘That you don’t need to knead it.’

‘Oh yeah. Everybody thinks you have to knead it. But you don’t. Just mix it in a bowl and leave it. For a day, or even two, the longer the better. It’s called patience. People don’t have it these days. Especially when it comes to cooking.’

‘You’re a chef aren’t you?’ I enthused. ‘You must be.’

He looked at me funnily. His head tilted to one side. For a minute I wasn’t sure whether he was looking at me or at something behind me.

‘You OK?’ I asked.

‘Yeh,’ he said. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Sorry to pry, it’s not my business.’

Jeff shrugged. ‘It’s OK. Just one thing though. Do I look like a chef?’

I wasn’t sure what to say. What does a chef look like. Some are fat. Some are thin. Jeff wasn’t really either. He had a slight paunch, but so did I.

‘No. You don’t,’ I replied.

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Fucking hate chefs.’ And with that he walked off up the street and I never saw him again.

 

Copyright Philip Ogley 2019

 

Audio Version:

#295 – Being a Holiday Rep

I work in France near the town of Sarlat in the region known as Perigord Noir. I’m English but I don’t feel English. I don’t feel particularly French either. I’m just grateful to have a job as it isn’t easy finding work round here. I only got it because the last guy crashed the van into a barrier above the town of St. Cyprien and I was the only one who applied to take his place. The French I’ve learnt can be very superstitious. I’m not in the slightest and had no bones about stepping into a dead man’s shoes.

I move bags for a living. From hotel to hotel, hotel to hotel, hotel to hotel, every day except Sundays and Thursdays. People on high-end gastronomic walking holidays, sometimes cycling, occasionally canoeing. Outdoor enthusiasts who want to get from A to B without an engine or the inconvenience of carrying anything. Sometimes they give me a tip at the end of their holiday. More often than not, they just say goodbye.

The work is pretty boring but I don’t have a boss poking his nose in every day to see what I’m up to because my boss is in England. It’s just me and a van and as long as I deliver the bags to the correct people in the correct hotel in the correct order, no one bothers me. Plus when I do get tips, especially if the customers are American, they’re quite big. One time I was handed a 100 Euro note, which I thought was a tenner. When I got home that evening I couldn’t believe my luck.

Today is Monday and I’m on the last part of my day, carrying fourteen bags up to the village of Tamnies in the northern section of my bag run. I’m running late as I was waiting for some incredibly slow Australian to repack his bag fifteen times in order to maximise space. That’s what he said anyway. I think he was doing it to piss me off. As a result, I’m pulling the van around the tight corners of the Perigord roads like I’m racing a dodgem round a crazy golf course. Keeping to the middle of the road as much as possible to save time. My van’s big and white so most people get out of my way except English and Dutch motorhome drivers who hold their nerve until the last minute before swerving into the verge.

I rev the van hard round another tight hairpin, rolling the suitcases in the back violently over to the right. ‘Hope you don’t have a bottle of plum brandy in that carefully repacked bag of yours,’ I say looking into the windscreen mirror at the pile of luggage behind me.

Then I notice it. A small red rucksack has made its way to the top like it’s come up for air. It’s unusual because one, people don’t use rucksacks any more, and two, most luggage these days is ten times the size. Suitcases the width and height of small houses stacked up each morning outside their hotel rooms like sentinels. Packed with wine and brandy ready for the hapless porter to shift to the next hotel.

‘Thanks for that,’ I often say under my breath, my spine bent over like a crane as I drag a fifteen tonne case up five flights of stairs in a hotel built before the revolution. ‘You all enjoy your stay, yeh. Don’t forget me when I’m sitting in my wheelchair in five years time.’

The red rucksack in comparison is tiny. A 15 litre daypack with a couple of notebook-sized pockets stitched onto the outside, big enough to pack in a picnic and a bottle of wine. Just.

‘Strange,’ I mutter to myself, looking into the mirror again, narrowly missing an ancient Renault the size of an egg box chugging along in the opposite direction. ‘I don’t remember packing you, where did you come from?’

I look at the bag once more, give myself a weak Gallic shrug and continue powering towards Tamnies hoping I can do a quick unpack, an even quicker repack and set off towards Sarlat for the last drop of the day before three o’clock.

I get there at four. The result of some bloated angry man at Tamnies claiming I’d damaged his gigantic Samsonite suitcase, even though I know through experience they’re practically indestructible. His complaint centring around a tiny scratch to the huge gold embossed logo on the topside of the case. A mark so minute it was actually harder to see it than not see it. Like a bent blade of grass in an otherwise perfectly manicured lawn. Invisible to the naked eye unless you got down on your knees with a magnifying glass.

I reminded him of the reasonable wear ‘n’ tear clause written into his holiday agreement, but if he had any further grievances he could fill in the online complaint form. Failing that he could claim on his insurance. That didn’t please him one bit and he continued to make a scene in front of the four other people present in the reception: his wife, his daughter, the hotel receptionist and me.

There was nothing wrong with his bag. A monkey could figure that out. It was probably scratched before he bought it from the shit retail park near his Lego brick house. Or scuffed when he took it out of his Toyota Rav4 in front of his neighbours and plonked it onto his granite gravel driveway like an elephant unloading a gigantic turd.

He accused me of being lazy and deceitful. Then a liar and a coward. Then a man who couldn’t own up to his own mistakes. It was quite a show I have to admit, but I couldn’t understand who his intended audience was. His wife, his daughter? A tired receptionist? A bored porter? Were we the only people he dared have a pop at or show off to? Would it be the same if other guests were around, or his boss, or his colleagues? I doubt it. He’d look like a total idiot with everybody bending down on their knackered knees peering through their bifocals at some nonexistent scratches.

After thinking about it, I concluded that all the bravado was for his benefit. To pump his ego up so he could face another day. It probably happened all the time, which was why his wife and daughter looked so utterly indifferent, and simply let him get on with it.

I eventually placated him by giving him a paper copy of the complaint form in a prepaid envelope. It was either that or slamming a heavy oak coat stand into his soft flabby skull. I then bid him goodbye, threw his trunk of a suitcase violently into the back of the van and set off towards Sarlat, cursing the day people started thinking they were superior the moment they went on holiday.

Once there, I ask the Irish born French receptionist, who refuses to speak English to me on the grounds that improving my French will lead to a better future, if she knows who the red bag belongs to. She tells me she doesn’t.

‘If I’d seen it, I’d have remembered it,’ she adds in her soft French-Irish accent, which if it were a drink would be a cocktail of Baileys and Medoc.

‘It’s not labelled either. Idiots,’ I reply in my Yorkshire-French. A mixture of bitter and pastis.

She advises me to put it in the left luggage room with all the other crap customers leave behind at the end of their holiday. I nod and wonder if there’s anything in the bag worth having. It’s an unwritten rule that at the end of the season, I can take whatever is not claimed. Clothes, hats, phones, books, wine, shoes, liquors, sometimes cameras, even laptops, all find their way into my apartment come the end of September.

I’ve hardly bought clothes since I’ve been here. Which will be nearly five years in June. Luckily customers never return to do the same holiday twice, so there isn’t the fear of running into someone wearing their Ralph Lauren polo shirt from the year before. Furthermore, this access to designer yachty fashion does generate better tips. As though the outgoing customers feel the moral obligation to tip the going rate for expensively dressed porters.

So what’s in the bag? This is all I can think about as I drive home. Tomorrow is my day off as the holidaymakers are given a free day on Tuesdays and Fridays to mope around the pool at the hotel or visit the sites. I normally go to the cinema and then to a restaurant. Like most people my days off are precious and I like to put them to good use. Cinema, a good meal, sometimes a walk, or a cycle, or I just read. I rarely watch TV, occasionally football or a film.

As I plate up some spaghetti bolognaise and sprinkle some parmesan over it, I decide I have to see what’s inside the rucksack. I don’t know why, it seems ludicrous to be even contemplating it, but it’s created such a draw in me that the thought of not looking seems worse than doing it. I get like this sometimes, I suppose compulsive is the word.

I finish my dinner and drive up to the hotel. It’s eight o’clock and in the van I think of a story to tell the receptionist when I get there. ‘That red bag,’ I’ll tell her. ‘Well it belongs to the Hunt/Thornton party in Tamnies, they’ve just phoned me. It’s got their damn medication in it. I’m going to have to run it up. Have you got the key for the store room?’

The story will probably sound wooden and unconvincing as I’m a bad liar, but hopefully by this point in her shift she’ll be looking forward to going home. She looks tired most of the time and at eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening, she’ll be too exhausted to spot anything suspicious.

‘Hi,’ I say smiling broadly as I enter the hotel. ‘That bag…’

Ten minutes later, I’m in the van driving home again, the red bag sitting beside me like a child. I even strapped it in using the seatbelt in case it slid out onto the floor with my erratic driving. I don’t know why I’m doing this or what has possessed me, but I’m glad I have because I’m totally bored with this job and if I get sacked, so be it.

My friend Adam once found a camera in an old shoe box in the attic of the expensive flat he’d rented after moving down from Nottingham to London for a banking job. Three years later, he’s an award winning travel photographer who lives out of a rucksack wherever there’s a photograph worth taking. I’m hoping for something similar. There’s only so many movies at the Sarlat cinema I can watch and the food at the restaurant I go to has gone downhill recently. I’m sick of driving, sick of pasta, and fairly sick of myself to be honest. It’s time I did something else.

I get back home and place the bag on the table in the kitchen. I’d be happy with a camera. A great book by an author I’ve never heard of would also be good. Or a pair of walking boots. A block of mouldy cheese or a bottle of old wine would be a disappointment. So would a computer or clothes. Or toiletries.

I hold my breath, unfasten the two straps and open the top. Nothing. Empty save for the bag’s receipt. Walmart, Sainte-Foy, Quebec City, $34.99. The weight of the bag was deceptive I realise, its heaviness due to the thickness of the material. I check the pockets, but there’s nothing in them either except dust. It’s clearly been used and my guess is that it belongs to the Fournier/Defosse party who left two weeks ago after a week of cycling in torrential rain.

For a few seconds, I’m not sure what to do. I’d been expecting something more. Something more tangible to grab hold of. I ponder the situation for a few minutes and then I get it. Of course! This is exactly what I’ve been waiting for and I almost missed it. I give myself a great big smile in the mirror above my fireplace and start packing.

Passport, bank cards, a couple of books, laptop, two changes of clothes, notebook and pen. Everything fits into the red bag perfectly. I put on my shoes, walk out of my flat and drive to Paris. Two days later I’m in Quebec.

*

‘And that’s about it,’ I say to the bartender as he wipes the bar clean for the hundredth time. He’s bored out of his mind I can tell, but I had to tell him.

‘Is it true?’ he finally asks pretending to wring the cloth out in the sink even though it’s practically dry.

‘Of course, it’s true. Look, I’ve got the red bag to prove it,’ I say picking up the now faded rucksack from the stool beside me and showing him. ‘Been all over the world with this.’

‘What are you going to do now?’ he asks filling his own glass up from the pump. ‘Hit the road again?’

‘I’m not sure.’

He stares at me intensely as he drinks his beer. ‘Think you’ll come back?’

‘To live you mean?’ I ask looking at some old faded pictures of the Town Hall screwed onto the pub wall.

‘I could offer you a job if you want. For the time being at least, however long you want. Start tomorrow even.’

I finish my beer and put the glass firmly on the bar as though I’m putting down a mark. ‘I’ll think about it.’

‘It’s not that bad here you know.’

‘Yeah,’ is all I manage to say. ‘I’d better go, haven’t seen my folks yet, they’re waiting for me.’ I stand up and sling the red bag over my shoulder with intent. ‘It’s good to see you again, Mike. It’s been a while.’

Outside I start walking to my parents’ house a few roads up. Walking through the red brick terraced streets, the same ones I played on as a kid. Firing plastic arrows at the old people, water bombs, footballs through windows, hot summer nights riding BMXs all rush back to me. Not many of the old gang are here anymore Mike told me. ‘Most left and went away to London to find money and didn’t return,’ he’d said.

As I slowly walk up my old street, past Mr. Singh’s grocery store that still has the rusty metal sign advertising Blue Riband biscuits above the door, I feel for the first time in four years that I don’t know what to do. I feel tired. Hungry, incredibly hungry. Probably the alcohol wearing off, or the thought of Blue Riband biscuits. Do they still make them, I wonder. Or is the sign a relic of the past. Like Mike and his pub. I could take the job he’s offered me. Live at my parents and settle back down to life in Leeds.

I knock on the door and my mother answers it, tears welling up in her eyes, my father standing behind her, shorter than I remember him. Older. Frailer. My mother hugs me and I can’t help the tears either. I mutter the words, ‘Sorry’ as I press my face into the thick woollen cardigan she’s worn forever.

She lets me pass into the narrow hallway where I embrace my father who’s struggling for words because I know he’s probably missed me more than my mum. I say sorry to him as well and how well Leeds Utd are getting on even though we both know they’re crap.

I follow them into the kitchen where I can smell pork chops and sour tea. ‘We thought you weren’t coming,’ says my father drying his eyes pretending it’s just a spot of hayfever.

‘Sorry, I went to see old Mike down the pub, he offered me a job.’

My mother’s eyes widen like the shutters of a million windows opening at once, her green irises expanding like balloons, a huge smile spreading across her face. ‘Are you going to take it?’ she says a little too quickly. ‘You could have your old room back. If you want to.’

I’ve already made the decision so there’s no point in fudging it. ‘I said no to Mike, it’s a short visit I’m afraid.’

I can see their disappointment. My mother starts stirring the tea in the pot, desperately trying not to cry.

‘Oh well,’ says my father looking greyer than he did a few minutes ago. ‘As long as you’re happy, that’s the main thing.’

It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made. I’ve turned down good job offers and business propositions over the last four years. Friendships and relationships that might have worked out if my heart had told me otherwise. But nothing compared to this. Declining the unconditional love of your parents when they need you the most.

‘How long are you staying?’ my mother asks recovering her composure.

‘A few weeks, if that’s OK.’

My father laughs. ‘Stay as long as you want, might get a few trips in to see Leeds, depending on how long you stay that is.’

‘I’d love to,’ I say smiling. All of a sudden the thought of going to Elland Road every week with my dad makes me want to stay forever.

‘You hungry?’ my mum asks as she plates up the chops and spuds.

‘Starving,’ I exclaim with a big beefy grin on my face.

We eat, we talk, and after the mandatory ten o’clock news, which is mainly about the ongoing strikes in France, I go to bed. In the few minutes before sleep overtakes me, all I can think about is going to the football every week with my dad. Those special days when we used to wake up late on a Saturday, have a big breakfast, talk about the match. Get dressed and walk to meet our friends down the pub. Go to the match, then back to the pub, then home for tea to talk about the match some more. Reliving every moment in the kitchen drinking tea and eating iced buns. As I drift into sleep, my last thought is that despite everything I’ve ever done in my life, nothing, absolutely nothing, compares to going to the football with my dad.

*For more stories see my books page

 

 

 

#293 – Why I Canned Social Media

I joined Facebook in 2007 and for ten years used it almost every day. Ten years of logging on to a web page to ‘like’ someone else’s lunch. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

I thought so. What an idiot.

It was fun for a while I admit. Hooking up with old friends, seeing what each other was up to. Conversing, joking, having a laugh. But then it got too serious and too silly. Too many photos of people’s dogs and children, too many petitions, polls and posters on stuff which didn’t interest me. 

The very reason I stopped reading the news in the first place. Now it was being shoved down my throat. Suddenly Facebook had become a news channel in its own right. Personalised and branded news beamed right into my home.

I was a villain in this as much as anyone else. Posting my own self-congratulatory crap. Blog pieces like this for instance. Or links readvertising my book on France over and over again to MAKE SURE everybody saw it.

Buy A Man in France – It’s only been out for two years!

Once I was FB-free I felt lighter. The feeling was palpable, which is quite disturbing seeing as it’s just a website and proves, almost without doubt, how stupidly addictive it is.

I also realised how much time I’d been wasting. Time I could be putting to better use, like looking blankly in the sky for instance. Thinking for myself.

Someone once coined Facebook “Boast Book”. I tend to agree, although it’s not necessarily a bad thing – we all show off, it’s part of human nature. But before I deleted my account I looked back at some of my postings. It’s pretty boring. Here’s a cycle/run I did today. Here’s my lunch? This is what I’m reading.  I mean honestly, who really cares. Was I that insecure about myself that I couldn’t do anything without sharing it? When I look back now, I’m not really sure what the point of it is.

It didn’t take me long to delete my other social media sites. And last Friday I finally deleted Twitter. This was quite hard as I quite liked it even if I still don’t know how it works.

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve Googled “What is the difference between a reply and a mention.” Before concluding that it doesn’t really matter. Putting a full stop before a @ sign means more people might read that pointless fragment of information I’m posting than if I’d simply left it blank. Which I think I was craving for. A blank in my life. Just me again. And now I’ve turned it all off I feel like I’ve rejoined the real world. Even if everybody else hasn’t.

 

 

Over Christmas I worked in an Aldi warehouse as an order picker.  At break times we all piled up to the canteen for coffee and cake. There was some lively banter on the way up – slagging off our bosses, goading one another, showing off about how much stock we’d nicked – you know, usual stuff.  However as soon as we entered the cafeteria and got our coffees from the machine, everyone got out their phones. You could hear a pin drop.

I was the only one sitting there doing nothing – I haven’t got a smartphone either in case you’re wondering (perhaps that’s a boast). Simply looking out of the window drinking my coffee while everyone else was plugged in. I’m not passing judgement on my colleagues, I’m simply making a point. If I had a smartphone, I’d probably do the same. But I don’t so instead I sat there thinking of the pub I used to visit as a student in Nottingham.

It was called the Plumtree and on Thursday nights it was as raucous as hell. Juke box on full, everybody tanked up, smoking and drinking, singing and talking. Everybody paying attention to each other and nothing else. No phones, no internet, no messengers, no social media.

I use technology. I read a Kindle. I’ve published books on Amazon and I write this blog. I’m not anti-technology. I’m 43 years old so I grew up with it, and yet I’m lucky enough to have lived in an age before it. When I could go to the pub like the Plumtree without the fear of being photographed cross-eyed and blind drunk in the corner. The image of my bedraggled self appearing round the world in seconds.

In 1994 if I took a camera down the Plumtree I would be considered really weird and unless it was my birthday would have probably been kicked out:

“Got some pervert here with a camera photographing everyone – you’re barred.”

I don’t think social media is bad – for a small business it’s quite useful. But neither do I think it’s good. And I have the feeling (a strong feeling in fact) that as we creep towards the third decade of the century people will start turning off – if they haven’t already. Finding more innovative and fun ways of keeping in touch and promoting business. We might all go back to writing letters to each other. Imagine that?

“Dear Friend, since my last letter I’ve been enjoying fresh walks in the countryside, reading books and generally enjoying life…”

Maybe I’m living in the past. Or maybe social media is the past. A dangerous step back to the days of public floggings and hangings. You say something wrong, something off the cuff and you’re lynched for it. The Spanish Inquisition on hand 24/7. Terrifying eh?

Personally I feel better without it. I feel freer.

Copyright © 2018 Philip Ogley

Images Courtesy of GDJ

#292 – A Holiday Inside the Mind: Ten Days on a Silent Retreat

Not particularly excited at the prospect of taking my Spring holiday this year walking in the rain in Wales, or boozing it up on the Canaries, I decided to do something totally different: a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat. A holiday inside my mind.

I walk up the road to The Vipassana Meditation Centre with a terrible fear I’m entering the unknown. I’ve done some pretty harebrained trips over the years, but walking up this lane in rural Herefordshire feels like one of the scariest. On my mind is a snippet I read somewhere describing this type of meditation: ‘Like a surgeon performs an operation on the body, here we perform an operation on your mind.’ I shudder and walk in.

It’s certainly not what I expected. During the weeks leading up to this I envisaged a damp, ramshackle farmhouse tended by a couple of shaven-headed monks preparing huge pots of porridge for their unsuspecting guests. But as I follow the signs through to the registration area, it feels more like an upmarket rehab clinic than the monastic dwelling I expected.

The dining room is airy and I count at least thirty other men waiting for their turn to register. And even more women in the adjoining, yet separate female dining room. Judging by the apprehensive faces, it’s obvious everybody is aware of the seriousness of what they are about to undertake.

I’m not sure whether to join a table and say hello, or just keep myself to myself, bearing in mind that in two hours time we’ll be sworn to silence anyway for the next ten days.

I walk across to the noticeboard on the other side of the room and pretend to read it, even though I’ve read all the information before on the website. All that grabs my attention is a sign telling us which day of the course we are on. Today simply reads ‘Day Zero’.

I decide to make a cup of tea and stand looking out of the window cursing the friend who got me into this.

‘You’ll have a wonderful, relaxing time,’ I remember him saying.

Relaxing yes, but I’m not sure about wonderful given the terrified faces gathered around me. I drain my mug and quickly make another just in case the builder’s tea is replaced by some non-caffeine herbal tea when the whistle blows. Twenty minutes later and after two more cups, I’m called to register and shown my room.

Along with the shaven-headed monks and decaying farmhouse, I also envisaged fifty men crammed into stark, high ceilinged dormitories. So it’s a surprise to discover I’m only sharing with one other, and while the room is hardly lavish, it’s certainly more luxurious than I expected.

I sit on my bed. This is going to be hard and I know it. No books, no writing, no drinking, no meat, no sweets, no cheese, no profiteroles, no coffee, no phones, no internet, no films, no photos, no sex, no smoking, no talking, no gestures, no nothing. Although I know the rules are there to maximise the students’ ability to learn, I feel  nervous about whether I can cope without even a book or a notepad – or a glass of wine or a lovely cold pint of beer. Mmm…

But as my friend pointed out, it’s hard enough to meditate in the first place, imagine trying to do it with a hangover.

We have a light dinner of lentil curry at six o’clock and then are summoned to the main hall by a gong for our first meditative experience and to take the vow of silence. This is where the relative comfort of my short stay so far evaporates when I have to sit cross-legged.

I haven’t sat cross-legged since primary school and hear my knees splinter as I settle down on the thin bamboo mat. The female contingent on the other side of the hall I notice are all calmly sitting in lotus positions as though they were born that way.

Luckily, just as my knees are breaking and I’m thinking of whether there is a last train home, the course leader tells us we don’t have to torture ourselves and can use some extra cushions to prop ourselves up if we like. I kiss him – not really – and grab three cushions to make a nice comfy seat, then plonk myself on it like a gnome, ready for the course to begin.

As it turns out my Indian roommate arrives late. (“Train strike,” he tells me 10 days later.) He can’t tell me at the time because we’ve already taken our vow of silence. And as the vow also precludes any visual or bodily gestures, I have to ignore him for the next ten days. I don’t even know his name and it’s like sharing a prison cell with an inmate who hates me so much he won’t even acknowledge my existence. And vice versa. Or sharing a room with my own shadow. Say what you like, it’s never going to answer back.

That night I’m in bed by nine and asleep by five-past; a miracle for a night owl like myself, but this is my routine for the next ten days: total mental exhaustion on a scale I haven’t experienced since writing my university dissertation in a weekend.

I wake up to the sound of a gong somewhere in my unconsciousness. Even though it’s the middle of summer it’s still dark, so I assume I’m in a dream and roll over. But as the gong gets louder I realise the nightmare is real. I really am at a silent Buddhist retreat in the middle of nowhere! It’s four o’clock in the morning and it’s time for the day to begin.

Explaining meditation is like trying to explain what sex is like to a virgin. You have to experience it, and like sex, it’s a slow process. For the first three days you simply learn how to observe your own breathing. Once you have accomplished this, you can turn your attention to observing every pain, ache, itch and sensation on your whole body.

Every emotion we have – whether good or bad – creates a biochemical response in the body. If you observe this response you’re observing the emotion. The important element is to simply let the emotion rise up and pass without attaching either a negative or positive label to it.

For example, if it is an itch, you try to resist the craving to scratch it. The same idea could apply to a cigarette. Equally, should you experience a negative emotion, such as guilt, fear, jealousy, anger, or hate, then likewise, you try to observe it objectively and let it pass. The idea is that over time you gradually learn how to divorce yourselves from the past and future, and how to observe reality as it is, rather than how you want it to be.

What’s so appealing about this type of meditation to many people, is the absence of worship, blind faith, tradition or ritual. There is no scripture or commandment to obey, no god, deity or idol to worship, and no religious rite, initiation or custom to undertake. And this ‘striving for liberation’ is what I did for the next ten days: up at four for meditation, breakfast at six-thirty, more meditation until lunch at eleven, further meditation from one to five, then tea followed by more meditation until bedtime at nine.

Counting down the days is inevitable, but due to the early starts they tend to roll into one massive meditative blob. You have wild dreams and even wilder visions coupled with personal memories, good and bad, erupting out of nowhere. And this is the hard part, as without the comforts of modern life, you are forced to deal with these sometimes unpleasant memories alone as they filter up through the subconscious. Perhaps one important note is that there is no real fun. People expecting some sort of happy-clappy holiday camp will be extremely disappointed. It’s pretty damn serious, partly due to the silence but also due to these deep seated emotions rising up from the bottom of your mind.

Copyright © 2018 Philip Ogley

For more information about Vipassana Meditation and how to join a course see: http://www.dhamma.org

#291 – 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 colour is added. If you’ve never seen this: it’s grey. The sort of grey you find by a city river.

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 run 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.

The only link with the real world is a scratched metal cupboard full of keys for the lockers outside. By outside I mean outside the office. Nothing here is outside. Once you’re in you’re in.

Most people have their own keys but for some reason I don’t so I have to get the master key each morning 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.

My locker is the size of a mouse trap so 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 very comfortable. They have to be because once the signal goes at six o’clock we’re on the go for the next eight 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. Picking 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 in between the shelves where we work. I once asked one the drivers 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 been washing 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 own 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 mobster movie from the 1950s. 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 very 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 I choose, it’s hard. And after twelve weeks I’m nowhere near it. Which is why towards 8.30 I start to 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 I’m telling the truth or not. So he says good or OK and drifts off to the next picker who says the same thing. ‘Better than yesterday,’ I hear echoing round the place most mornings.

The only person who does have 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.

‘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 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 are employed in the retail-industrial complex nationwide. 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, salesman, 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 together 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 round 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. I suppose that’s just the way it is and why tomorrow is my last day.

Copyright © 2017 Philip Ogley