All tildes carefully pasted in place

I was listening to Escape (The Piña Colada Song) by Rupert Holmes yesterday. You probably know it. It’s about a man who is tired of his lady (and if he insists on calling her a lady, we can presume the feeling is mutual). She’s sleeping in bed, he’s reading the paper, and he sees an advert:

If you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain
If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape
I’m the love that you’ve looked for, write to me, and escape

And he thinks, well, that’s me to a tee. He replies and says yes, I do like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain. He also says he’s not much into health food, which I suppose one could lump under a broad heading of “healthy living” with yoga. He dodges the having half a brain part of the question altogether, opting instead for the fact that he is “into” champagne. And he arranges to meet her at a bar.

He’s waiting there next day, full of high hopes, when who should walk in but his own partner? Awk-ward, right? Well, seemingly not. Because neither of them says “Wait a minute, you… you were willing to cheat on me?” Neither of them cringes, or runs away in embarrassment, or sighs and says “Well, this marriage is a bit of a farce, isn’t it?” No, she smiles, and says “Oh, it’s you”. As you would. And they laugh for a moment. As you would, when confronted with the fact that your romantic life is a complete sham. And then he says “I never knew”.

Because apparently he never knew that she liked piña coladas, or getting caught in the rain. Surely that would come up, over the course of a long relationship? Why would she not admit that she liked piña coladas? Does he have some dreadful allergy to pineapple and she didn’t like to mention it? And what about the rain? They must have been out together at some point when it started raining, why wouldn’t she say “This is fun!”, or words to that effect to indicate general positivity? What has she been playing at, keeping these to herself? Especially if they’re important enough to her that they’re top of her wish list when it comes to finding someone with whom to escape.

He also says he never knew that she liked the feel of the ocean, and the taste of champagne. Neither of which she even mentioned. She doesn’t say a word about the ocean. I think we’re starting to understand why she’s a bit fed up with him, because you don’t listen Rupert. As for champagne, she expresses no feelings there either – it’s he who is “into” it. He’s clearly one of those men who thinks that just because he likes something, she must too. She probably hates champagne. He never asked, did he? Too busy reading the paper.

One thing they do agree on, however, is that they like making love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape. Which all sounds lovely in principle, but:

  1. Midnight, precisely? Bit regimented, isn’t it? “Rupert, it’s 11.30, we should be heading for the cape.” “Can I just watch the end of Match of the Day?” “No, because then we’ll be late. The dunes won’t wait, Rupert.”
  2. Won’t that be a bit chilly? I mean, it depends which cape, clearly. Still, I’d take a nice cardigan.
  3. The sand. It’s bad enough getting sand off your feet.

They’re welcome to each other.

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Autumn in New York

Needless to say, I had certain expectations of New York. I assumed it would feel aggressive and abrasive, the people to be irritable and offhand. I anticipated feeling intimidated and anxious, and finding the city itself soulless and alienating. If I had to summarise my predicted response in a word, it would be discomfort.

The reality was more than a little surprising. In the first place, so much is familiar that it didn’t feel like I’d never been there before. I don’t just mean the obvious landmarks (although it was somewhat comical to head out of Penn Station on arrival and say to myself right, find something recognisable to look out for, to make finding my way back easier – and literally the first building I looked at was the Empire State). I mean the whole infrastructure, the road signs, the police directing traffic, the hot dog stands… everywhere are aspects of New York life that we’ve all seen thousands of times in TV shows and films, so they seem completely natural. The way people talk seems much less odd than the New Zealand accents I encountered in April, just through so much exposure.

There’s a slightly surreal sense of fiction coming to life. I went to Grand Central Station – you know, from ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘North By Northwest’ – and there it was as a sumptuous, majestic, fully-functioning railway station. Not a film set. There’s the Chrysler Building – you know, from ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ – just languidly appearing sporadically between the more prosaic skyscrapers, nonchalant in its architectural superiority.

Talking of skyscrapers, I definitely expected to find the urban landscape cold and overbearing. In reality, there’s such a mixture of styles from differing eras, so many buildings in deep red and brown brickwork or rich limestone, that the cumulative effect is quite the reverse – the environment feels warm, almost comforting. It’s like being embraced by the city. And the greenery! There are trees down practically every street, softening any sense of being in an urban grid. And it felt safe to be out cycling. Every crossroads a traffic light, every junction controlled. I never felt as likely to be knocked off my bike as I do trying to negotiate the roundabout at The Plain.

The people took me by surprise as well. I couldn’t say whether they’re friendly or not – I was never really in a position to test that – but they were largely courteous and pleasant, in terms of basic interactions on the subway and in the street. Sunday morning I was buying a bagel and a muffin in a busy bakery, and as the woman was in the middle of working out my change I decided to get an orange juice as well. If I’d done that in London I’d have expected at best a sigh of exasperation. She just waved her hand in a gesture of “it’s fine, just have it” and carried on. And it wasn’t because it was too much hassle or she was too busy to charge me for it, she was just being nice. I’m not going to extrapolate from that one incident to form an opinion of New Yorkers, but it did fit with my experience. People hold doors open, and say please and thank you, and apologise when their dog runs over and sniffs you. Only the way that people do in normal cities. But not like I expected them to in New York, where I imagined every interaction would be like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Midnight Cowboy’.

Maybe all of those responses were just an artificial balance to the negative expectations I had. And obviously I got a limited view, having barely ventured outside Manhattan. But it felt comfortable, and natural, and almost cosy. And none of those were adjectives I expected to need.

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I blame that idiot prince

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the decline in popularity of the name Andrew, which was about to drop out of the top 100 boys’ names. Revisiting this theme, after emailing an Andrew in his late 20s recently, the scale of the crisis has become apparent.

Below is a graph (lifted, I should probably credit, from the Mirror’s website), into which you can insert names to check how they have progressed over the last 20 years. It’s very interesting, if you like that sort of thing. Witness peak Jack from 1996, and its slow decline over the last two decades as Oliver rose to its current dominance. See how my decision to name a child Alfie inspired a generation, taking it from 119th in 1996 to 4th from 2009 to 2011.

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 12.40.31

But now look at the heartbreaking, lingering death of the name Andrew. A respectable 29th in 1996, it has drifted lower and lower, until in 2016 it comes in at 209th. 209th?! Could you even list 208 other boys’ names? Just to give some perspective as to how ridiculous this has got, let’s compare and contrast with the ludicrous name Joey, which is only really appropriate for either a budgerigar or a member of the Mafia. In 1996 – the very year I gave that name to a child (and it was me, his mother assumed I was joking) – only 22 baby boys were called Joey. And it trundled along at that level for a while, until the last few years where it has suddenly spiked. In 2016, 459 poor unfortunates were named Joey – nearly twice as many as Andrew. What is wrong with people?

Other names more popular than Andrew now include Jaxon, Rayan and Kayden, which all sound like household cleaning products to me; Wilfred, Grayson, Maximus, Milo, Kacper… and one which I find somewhat unsettling – Aryan. The 165th most popular name for boys now is Aryan. Let’s just hope they don’t all get together and try to establish a new society.

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Wotalottabot

There’s a been a lot of talk in recent years of the inevitable takeover of the robots, and how it won’t be long now before they can do everything we can and we will no longer be needed. Anyone who believes this has clearly never tried to deal with a bank’s Digital Assistant.

A Digital Assistant is basically a chat programme, which mimics human interactivity to try to make you feel more at ease as you navigate the automated faceless leviathan that is online banking. Or at least, it tries to. It doesn’t take much to get it out of its comfort zone though. Here’s what happened when I tried to find out why my bank had declined a payment to my electricity supplier.

Hi, you’re chatting to Cora and I’ll be your Digital Assistant. Ask me a question (the simpler the better) and I’ll help you find the answer.

Why was a direct debit payment declined?

I’m sorry, I’m not too sure. Could you try rephrasing the question? For example, “how do I amend a standing order?”

Declined a direct debit payment why was? Will asking like Yoda help?

OK, I see you want to manage your direct debits. Would you like to: Set up or change • View existing • Cancel • Get a refund • Reactivate • Switch

Nope, I want to know why one was declined.

Sorry, I think you are asking about Direct Debit but did not fully understand.

I did fully understand. Don’t be so condescending.

I’m just going to search our FAQs for your first question: How long does it take someone to receive money I’ve sent them? • I don’t recognise a direct debit, what can I do? • How do I cancel a direct debit? Was that helpful?

No.

Would you like me to see if one of the team is available?

Yes.

I’m sorry you haven’t found this service helpful. I can help with all sorts of everyday banking queries. Ask me a short, simple question, such as “how do I order a new card?” and I’ll be able to help.

Yes but this isn’t a short, simple question, is it? It’s a question which needs an actual human being. Hello, hello, is there an actual human being there?

Let’s see if I can help you in a different way. Just a moment. Ok, let’s see if one of my colleagues are available. This can take up to a minute. [Up to a minute passes.]

You are now chatting with Rajat. Hello.

Hello. ScottishPower tried to collect a final payment from my account yesterday and it was declined. Can you explain why?

I am very sorry to hear that, let’s work together to try and resolve this within this chat for you. Please help me with your full name and the account number last 4 digits.

Andrew Goodwin, xxxx

Thanks. Andrew, did they try via direct debit?

At which point, given that my opening question was “Why was a direct debit payment declined?”, I started to bang my head on my desk. In fact I wasn’t at all convinced that Rajat wasn’t also a computerised assistant until he wrote “No there is nothing from there end, it seems that they have not tried to take the money out for your account.” Only a human being would write “there” when they meant “their”. Dream on robots. You’ll never be able to mimic that level of basic ignorance.

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Shhh

It’s quiet in my house this morning.

In the film The Family Man, high-powered businessman Nicolas Cage is given a ‘glimpse’ by his guardian angel of how his life would have been if he hadn’t dumped Tea Leoni (one of the least plausible events even by the standards of Cage’s bizarre filmography) to go to London and make his fortune. He is shown the family he would have had, the path his career would have taken and basically what might have been.

This morning, with the two kids who live at home both away, it feels like my guardian angel is giving me a glimpse of the life I should have had, and will have again. For a lot of the last year, it’s felt like someone has been trying to ask me “Who are you kidding? What made you think you were supposed to be a husband and father?” And now this morning they’re saying “This is you, this is what you were meant to be. Three more years and I’ll have you back on track.”

Problem is, the guardian angel hasn’t factored in the couple of decades where he got sloppy and let things slide. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to meet a cute, mixed-up girl who was so keen to have kids she was willing to take me on as well to make it happen; but I did. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to father four kids who all turned out far better than anyone could have expected: one so strong-headed and self-assured that he lives on the other side of the world and only feels the need to get in touch about once a month, one so driven and ambitious that there was never any doubt he’d get where he wanted to be, one with music so deeply ingrained that I’ve already had to promise to bequest my CD collection, and one with such a black sense of humour that, if memory serves me right, he has plans to attend my funeral wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Ha ha you are dead” and a sash proclaiming “I am the bestest”. (He’s already had the sash printed. It’s hanging up in my room.) And, yes, most of what’s good about them they get from their mother, but that’s fine. I was there too.

So if the future is supposed to be a return to the life I had before all that happened, well, tough, it can’t be. Because pretty much the only thing those four kids have in common is that they all think I’m great. Which is an uncharacteristic piece of self-aggrandisement for me, but that’s the truth of it – when it came to being a Dad, I more or less nailed it. One way or another, be it by email or social media post or (who knows) they might even phone once in a while, those kids will always be around. Bad luck life. You let me off the leash for too long.

So yes, it’s quiet in my house this morning. And in three years, when the last one leaves, it will be quiet a lot. But not all the time.

The film The Family Man is a sweet, funny look at the travails of that existence. But it’s no sweeter or funnier than mine has been living it for real.

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It’s that time again

At what point did Do They Know It’s Christmas become part of the classic songbook of radio-friendly festive tripe, rather than what it really is, a song about starvation?

Those who were around when it was released (and greetings fellow dotards) will recall that hearing it always carried with it a heavy sense of the reason for its creation. When it hit the top of the charts, every performer on Top Of The Pops (apart from one bozo from Slade) wore a Feed The World t-shirt. This was never a song about celebrating Christmas, it was about getting sustenance to people who were dying.

But somehow, in the last decade or so, it has become a fundamental part of the avalanche of schmaltz which infests the December airwaves. Do broadcasters really not understand that just because a song has Christmas in its title, it doesn’t necessarily slot in alongside classics like Wonderful Christmastime or pap like Last Christmas? There are clues in the lyric, after all. “The Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom.” It’s not exactly “When the snowman brings the snow”, is it?

And while we’re on that subject, “There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time”? Yes there will. You might have to look pretty hard for it – the higher ground of Chad, Libya, Algeria and Tunisia, Mount Kilimanjaro, there’s even a ski resort in Lesotho. Given that Africa is as big as China, India, the USA and most of Europe, generalisations were always likely to be a bit on the crass side. The whole continent didn’t have famine, you patronising Europeans.

The worst of it, though, surely has to be “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. Sorry, do what now? Thank God that someone else is starving instead of me? I won’t, if it’s all the same to you. If I’m going to say anything to God, I’ll probably ask why anyone needs to be starving at all. And if I’m going to thank him, it will be for my not being a smug, self-important, tax-evading rock singer who apparently believes himself to be an international statesman.

Still, at least it’s not that abomination by Mariah Carey.

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A minute of your time

There was a minute’s silence at the football on Saturday. I was there with my youngest. He’s old enough to have figured out for himself how he feels about it, but even so I felt like maybe I should explain to him why it mattered to me. He’s used to me talking rubbish, spouting controversial opinions for comedic effect, so I thought I should say why observing a minute’s silence was important.

It seemed quite straightforward at first. It’s to acknowledge the sacrifice of people who gave their lives to protect our freedom. People who died for what is just and proper. I’ve been watching the 1980s documentary series The Nazis: A Warning From History with my kids (that’s right, I’m a fun Dad), and it’s very easy to understand that the men who fought the Nazis in the Second World War were doing the right thing. They really did exactly what I wrote above – protect our freedom and die for what is just.

The problem is, not every conflict into which our young men have been thrust can make the same claim. It’s hard to say that the invasion of Iraq effected by Tony Blair was anything other than political, not to say cynical and profoundly misguided. A cold analysis from outside the partisan hotbed of Northern Ireland itself would struggle to find a straightforward right or wrong viewpoint. This is not, let me make explicitly clear, any comment on the bravery or sacrifice of the men and women who fought in these wars. It is a comment on the muddier ethical and moral imperatives behind them.

Well, I reasoned, if it’s complicated to use the wars themselves as the rationale for the minute’s silence, it’s easy to use the character of the people who died in them. Courageous, patriotic men and women who were willing to pay the ultimate price for what they believed in. That’s what we are respecting, people who adhered to the old Zapata quote, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Job done.

Except.

What about the people on the other side who were exactly the same? If we’re respecting people solely on the grounds of their bravery, doesn’t that apply to all soldiers, whatever their nationality or belief system? What about the three men who attacked Borough Market when my eldest was working there in the summer? They knew they were going to die, but they did what they did anyway in the name of what they believed. Am I supposed to respect them? I’d rather not, if I’m honest, but that’s where the logic takes me. Just because I disagree profoundly with their motivation, shouldn’t I acknowledge their courage?

So, like the snowflake libtard that apparently I am, I ended up standing in a silence full of confusion. I spent my minute reflecting on the futility of nationalist expansionism and religious dogma, of conflicts in which passionate, committed young men and women are exploited and sent to their deaths by jaundiced leaders, with little or no regard for the lives they will ruin with their politicking.

I’m sorry if this seems controversial. I would genuinely love to be a Daily Mail reader and labour under the simplistic delusion that everything is black and white. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

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