Idle Eye 141 : The Smear

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that the humble gerbil has graced the dailies once again, but not in a good way. Turns out our furry brethren can no longer be considered impossibly cute playthings of the very young (and, on occasion, my good self), being as they are conveyors of misery, disease and quality herbs and spices brought in on the Silk Road. And we’re also expected to believe that in 1347, in between exercising on their little wooden wheels and nibbling whatever they liked nibbling back in medieval Syria, they found time to pop over to London and give us all the Black Death.

It is a monstrous slur, cooked up by some Norwegian boffin with too much time on his hands, and fails to digest some pretty basic facts. For starters, there is no evidence whatsoever that gerbils took up residence in the UK until comparatively recently. Why would they? If your thing is copious quantities of sand and sunshine, you’d probably give it a bit of a wide berth, right? To say nothing of the logistical issues if and when you finally made it to Calais. Absolute nonsense.

Furthermore, architectural clues only date back to the 1950s. Before Rotastak, the Nottingham-based pioneers of affordable rodent housing, there were slim pickings to be had if you were small, hirsute and over here. Rats understood this implicitly, so they made alternative arrangements. But they were also fat and greasy enough to hack it. Their smaller, more delicate cousins wouldn’t have lasted five minutes. You can take Syria out of the gerbil etc…

Clearly we are being whipped up into a collective state of anxiety. It’s what the media does when it wants us to go to war, or sanction the spending of taxpayer cash on something unpalatable the government has shares in. What on earth can the gerbil have done to get them wound up so? And why are we being told that the more sinister rat is the fall guy? It smacks of Andy and Rebekah, the former taking the hit so the latter can persist with her satanic craft. Something stinks up there in the corridors of power, but what?

And then it struck me. Helen Perley’s exquisite 32-page tome Enjoy Your Gerbil (The Pet Library™, 1971), clearly states that the same is no ordinary rodent, and frequently refers to him as a ‘Superpet’. Probably the exact kind of pet that could radicalise British teenage girls into making the arduous pilgrimage to his homeland. And guess where that is? See? By demonising the critters, we surreptitiously put the brakes on the next wave of IS recruits and no-one gets hurt. No-one, that is, except these innocents abroad, and who speaks for them? Who will fight their corner after the first spate of distressing pet murders? And which sick individual will be the first to expand their perspex property portfolio at the expense of the less fortunate?

Right there.

Idle Eye 140 : The Blood Test

In May 2013, I made an appointment with a certain Dr Nunn for a routine blood test. Apparently you’re meant to do this sort of thing when the ratio of your years left on the planet versus years already used up, tips unfavourably towards the latter. I made light of any reasoning behind it, of course, suggesting that my request was purely investigative and of no great consequence. However, Dr Nunn is no fool. Looking straight past the saffron-tinted jellies through which I decipher the world and deep into the very core of my being, he offered me a seat next to the computer. Then he made me wait. For eons.

Time slows down to a crawl when you know you’ve been rumbled. The skinny document containing my records was theatrically scrutinised, and accusatory glances from over the top of his half-moon glasses were staged for maximum gravitas. I knew what was coming next:

Dr Nunn:  Smoker?

Me:  Er…Not really. The occasional puff, perhaps.

Dr Nunn:  How many?

Me:  Hmm…Depends on my week, I suppose! (laughs nervously)

Dr Nunn:  I’ll put you down for twenty. Sound about right?

Me:  Absolutely. (rapid blinking)

Dr Nunn:  What about alcohol? How many units per week?

Me:  Units? I’m not really sure, to be honest. How do you…

Dr Nunn:  Someone of your age should be looking at no more than one or two small glasses of wine a night. Preferably with breaks in between. The liver isn’t a miracle worker.

Me:  I see. I think it would be fair to say I do drink a little more than that. Not always, and I do try to keep it to…

Dr Nunn:  I need a straight answer. Or we’re both wasting each others time, aren’t we?

Me:  Yes, I’m sorry. Well, on the odd occasion it has been known for me to get through half a bottle of red wine in the evening, and sometimes a beer or two.

Dr Nunn:  How often?

(long pause)

Me:  Every night.

(long pause)

Dr Nunn:  No more than that?

(long pause)

Me:  No. (swallows)

Dr Nunn:  Right, I need you to come back next week. Give this in at reception, they’ll make another appointment for you.

Me:  Thanks very much for…

Dr Nunn:  Goodbye.

I looked down at the printout thrust into my hand. There, in a little box marked ‘Relevant Clinical Details’ was the evidence statisticians and the red tops pay top dollar for, no doubt to keep social pariahs such as myself out of the surgeries: ‘Screen: High Alcohol.’  And it works. Because I never went back. If half a bottle of pinot and a hop-based aperitif counts as alcohol abuse, my return visit would have seen Dr Nunn strapping me into some kind of detox seat, like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, forcing me to watch endless loops of waterfalls and Bavarian milkmaids until I recanted my feckless ways. Do me a favour…

Idle Eye 139 : The Writer’s Prerogative

Last night, Rupert, Donald and I were up into the small hours recording the audio version of what you are reading here. Not this exact one, obvs, but time will come when whatever piffle I have flying about inside my head right now will also be read out by a voice that isn’t my own, and Donald’s technical know-how will make it sound like it is. This bizarre parallax should be second nature to any writer familiar with producing material for radio or television, but I’m pretty weirded out by it, to be honest. Because the overwhelming temptation is to take the piss.

Not that I would, mind. But just knowing I have the power to make Rupert say something completely inappropriate whenever I so fancy is curiously erotic. For example, I could start him off on a paragraph of unnecessarily verbose waffle, as is my wont, and then stick the word ‘turtle’ in there for no apparent reason. And he’d have to say it! See? ‘Cos it’s all about the integrity of the piece and you can’t dick about with that. Even if the piece has no integrity whatsoever, like this one. There’s also endless fun to be had with the layering system: There’s me (bottom), writing this as Idle Eye (middle), being read out by Rupert (top) and, if truth be told, you’ve got no idea which one you can trust, have you? If any. They’re all messing with your head, right? And which one do you point the finger at when you’ve had enough?

Well, seeing as we’ve built an understanding over the years, perhaps I can be of some assistance. If you’re listening now, step away for a moment and think on this: That smooth-as-silk, candy-coated baritone clearly isn’t mine, is it? We established that earlier. He is essentially a charlatan, inhabiting the skin inside which I exist for fiscal remuneration or sexual favours. The very fact that he has told you this just proves my point. And if he baulks, I would caution you to be suspicious. Because it is highly likely I told him to do so, despite whatever childish nonsense he may come up with to prove otherwise.

If you are reading this, however, you can relax somewhat. Safe in the knowledge that you are the cognoscenti (with one less layer of remove to circumnavigate), you can go about your day in confidence. Because you’ve sided with the good guy: The writer. For it’s all very well for them clever bastards to appear out of nowhere and take the credit for all the graft we’ve put in, but this time I’m fighting back. If I was spewing out this crap in times past, I would challenge him to a duel: Pistols at dawn, you know the drill. But we are living through an era in which all manner of dross is king, and I must cave if I am to survive. Just remember who told you first.

Idle Eye 138 : The Windows to the Soul

When he put his mind to it, my father had a great smile. It was one of those magnificently craggy ones, as pioneered by WH Auden towards the end of his own years, which dug huge trenchlines into the soft tundra of his face and suggested, whether it were true or not, that he was kind and genuinely delighted to have you as company. Yorkshire Television was quick to pick up on this most saleable of assets, so in pretty much every publicity shot taken from the 1980s onwards, you can see him attempting to squash his nose hard into the well of his cheekbones, like some sort of demented human Corby trouser press, whilst simultaneously keeping his eyes open and looking sexy. And, unlikely though this may sound, for the most part he pulled it off.

As the firstborn of four, I have inherited (to a lesser extent) something similar. When it first appeared I was horrified, so desperate was I to preserve the illusion of perpetual youth, and those appalling fissures, snaking their way across my cheeks like levees towards the ocean, became impertinent reminders of my own mortality. Which I bitterly resented. But as the years rolled on, I kind of grew into them, accepted them, and now I shall ruthlessly exploit them for my own financial gain. Hear me out:

I’ve only ever had publicity shots done once. It was back in the day, when I was trying to look moody and angst-ridden for an art-rock band which I fronted. The fact that we never got picked up, and that the photographs fell into the dustbin of insignificance, was clearly down to the fact that I was not yet ready to face the full-frontal glare of fame and fortune. And possibly because a previous night’s drinking had made my eyes look like pissholes in the snow. But now I am older, wiser and sly as you like. So, what if I harness Dad’s old ruse for the back cover of this book that I’m doing? That, instead of going all Charles Bukowski on you, I could make you believe I’m enormous fun to hang out with? Simply by wrinkling up my face! It works across the board: The oldies will think they can trust me, and the young people will find me endearing. Sexy, even.

Now, I’ve been practicing in front of the bathroom mirror, but I think the silver must have buckled. When I scrunch up one side (leaving the other unwrinkled and all come hither), it looks like I’m having a stroke. Yet if I go for both at once, the eyes are lost in a sea of unsightly crevices. And the eyes, as any fule kno, are the windows to the soul. I’ve even tried the direct approach, looking straight into camera with just a hint of crumpled world-weariness. But I just come across as a massive tool. And we can’t have that, can we?