Invisible Stranger

Invisible Stranger

Collecting Crises on Old Compton Street and Beyond

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Friday, October 31, 2003
Ten Things I Wish I'd Known Five Days Ago
When you draw up a detailed list for your holiday week of things to do, places and people to visit, and chores to get out of the way, then less than ten per cent of said list will get done. And you will beat yourself up over it.

Those dark circles under your eyes are not hereditary. A good solid eight hours' sleep every night gets rid of them faster than Yves Saint Laurent's Touche Éclat ever will.

Missing out on going to the gym five days in a row will not result in you blowing up into Leigh Bowery proportions. It may, however, help to put your own personal body-fascism into some sort of perspective.

When you plan your entire week-off around the focal point of a delivery from Sainsbury's To You, then you need to do some fine-tuning on your social life.

Deciding on Monday that you'd like to hop on the Eurostar later in the week for a couple of days of ooh-là-là-là, means that, come Friday, you won't have got any further than SE1.

Day-time telly really is as bad as they say it is. And just when did they move Countdown away from its regular slot?

Despite telling your work colleagues to feel free to contact you if there are any problems, your phone stubbornly refuses to ring. This is their sneaky way of reminding you that you are not indispensable.

If you decide to spend much of the week working at home on the proposal for a freelance project for which there's no guaranteed payment, then you will invariably remember there is laundry to do, knick-knacks to be dusted, CDs and videos to catalogue, and a blog to be written.

London is possibly the greatest city in the world, with a wealth of attractions, the grooviest galleries, must-see museums, top historical sites, and the finest theatre around. Apparently.

Just one lunchtime drink on Old Compton Street is never just one lunchtime drink on Old Compton Street, and you really are fooling precisely no-one.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003
Here Comes The Sun
Most acclaimed "modern" art, as far as I'm concerned, is crap. There. I've gone and said it now. Now, how many of you wish you'd've said it first? Right. Thought so.

Yes, it makes money. Yes, it creates headlines. But most of it, if you're asking me, is a pile of self-referential, media-aware, masturbatory pooh. So there.

I've studied this, my dears, really I have. I used to be a member of London's über-trendy ICA. (To be honest, most of us were members, not because of our appreciation of late-twentieth-century "art", but because it gave us an increased chance of a pseudo-intellectual shag with someone else who also wore a black polo-neck.)

And, after the shag, our duvets had more tales to tell than Tracy's, and Dawn and Jennifer ended up being far more interesting than Gilbert and George. And as for Damien Hirst,well he should be pickled along with his cows. Can't even run a decent bar, can our Damien. Shock Content does not Modern Art make, my dears, at least not in this Stranger's book.

And then today, I saw my latest piece of "Modern Art". One of these ever-so-trendy interactive "Installations", you know. In the grand, soul-less, and mist-enshrouded turbine hall of London's Tate Modern, I saw Olaf Eliassons's "weather installation", a huge, artificial Sun, powered by a thousand orange light-bulbs, hovering above a couple of hundred twenty-first-century spectators, their wide-open eyes, fixed and fascinated inexorably on a blazing, sacred orb, just as their ancestors' eyes were, sixty generations ago. Suddenly we were all pagans again, suddenly we were all flung three thousand years back in time, every single one of us a sun-worshipper again, our civilisation rendered puny in the light of the all-conquering sun. Absolutely breath-taking.

The best, and most evocative, review I've read - across the entire print and internet media - is here. And, if you have the chance, I recommend you see it (it's free as well).

The Sun, as someone once said, is God.

(And he wasn't such a bad painter either.)

Monday, October 27, 2003
My Back Pages
Since New Year's Eve 1992, I've faithfully kept a daily journal. It’s a reasonably fair record of what was going through my head at the time, although there are the odd few things of which I'm too ashamed even to tell my diary.

Before then, I used to keep scrapbooks of newspaper and magazine clippings which caught my passing interest. So, flicking through the scrapbook I put together for the period 1989 - 91, the time of the fall of both the USSR and the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm and the ousting of Thatcher, I find that these are the things which really interested me:

An early-sixties career advice leaflet on How To Become An Atomic Energy Engineer ("Andrew is intelligent and go-ahead, and thinks there is a great future for Engineers in this Atomic Age"); and, as a companion piece for the girlies, How To Become A Kennel Maid.

A shirtless photograph of a nameless Frenchman.

A celebration of Bob Dylan pushing fifty, and Sinatra heading for seventy-four, and a confident forecast that newcomer Harry Connick Junior was going to be more influential than either of them.

A serious examination of the revolution in men's underwear, moving on from the baggy boxers of the 80s to the "muscle-bound cotton and Lycra separates" of the 90s. (With pictures.)

A report of a Nuneaton man prosecuted for operating a battery-powered wheel-chair while over the drink-driving limit; and a Londoner who tried to rob a bank with a water-pistol, while wearing full drag,

Recipes for the best bouillabaisse (top tip: add some pastis to it), the classiest crêpes (add some vodka), and four different profiles of Antoine De Caunes (add some irony, lots of it).

The obituaries of Serge Gainsbourg ("Ugliness is superior to beauty because it lasts longer"), actress Delphine Seyrig (possibly the most beautiful woman in the world), and the Blue Peter presenter and friend of Elton John who died on my thirty-first birthday.

A celebration of surf-culture in Newquay, and a feature on the blond-bombshell Cambridge don who used to drive down there every weekend.

Another shirtless and anonymous Gallic man, this time in his bath; nine articles extolling Parisian café society, and one on how to carry your baguette with style and élan.

Interviews with Quentin Crisp ("The only drink of any help on a desert island would be a magnum of vintage arsenic"),and the great Janet Street-Porter ("They've got me down as a cheery Cockney idiot"), and a rather huffy and possessive review of Marianne Faithfull's successful concert tour of the USA ("Marianne's tragedy was made in England, not America. She's ours.").

An interview with men's underwear designer Nikos Apostopoulus, whose sexy lift-and-separate designs look like "a cross between "bondage and stage attire", and a chat with little-known Edinburgh Festival drag queens Lily Savage, and Mother Theresa, the latter played by someone called Graham Norton.

A tale of under-age prostitution in Budapest, and (should Andrew fail at his chosen career in the Atomic Industry) tips on how to become a successful gigolo in Tokyo, and an exposé of murder and intrigue in a gay S&M club in the City of London.

A quote from John Betjeman on Coronation Street: "Thank God: half-past seven tonight and I shall be in heaven", far too many pictures of Rob Lowe, and only one of the infinitely sexier Ivor Novello from the 1925 melodrama, The Rat.

A feature on surfing fashions this time, followed by, er, yet another double-page, six-picture spread on, um, men's underwear. (In colour.)

Twelve years on, and my scrapbook would probably contain the very same pieces. Some things just don't change with this Stranger. And you know, I've a great designer underwear collection now, but I still haven't learnt how to surf.

Friday, October 24, 2003
The Friday Grrrr…
4: Bad Actors

Quite a while back, in those mythical pre-Internet, pre-Gaydar days, I used to do quite a bit of work for a couple of gay publications. One fortnight, I was drafted in as holiday relief on the personals section. My job involved processing the several hundred classifieds which used to come in each week, filtering or editing the ones which were dodgy or illegal, and occasionally contacting the client with a query about their ad.

This wasn't the most appropriate job for someone who, even then, still thought "W/E" meant a resident of London's West End, and I was crap at the job. The personal advertisers didn't make it any easier. While some of them were really sweet, and you knew the ads they placed were their only contact with the gay "community", some others I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.

There was the woman who threatened to send the Islington mob round when I explained why I had to tone down her ad which described, in graphic detail, just what she wanted to do with her two-foot strap-on and a well-greased fist. And you've no idea of the number of hissy fits chucked my way by latter-day Julian and Sandys screeching and queening their way down the phone, when they discovered that a (mis-placed) apostrophe had been deleted from their ad, or that I'd corrected their (frankly atrocious) spelling.

I can handle camp indignation. Trust me, my dears, I do Master Classes in it every Saturday night. But, looking at those ads, I'd invariably find that each and every one of those prissy queens had described themselves as "regular geezer, looking for horny man-on-man action, XXXL, extremely straight-acting".

Straight-acting? Come on, precisely who are you trying to fool, my dolly old omi-palomi? You are a male homosexual placing an ad for a meeting sex with a fellow male homosexual. Yeah. That's really "straight-acting", isn't it?

What really makes me go grrrr is the implied notion in those ads that being "gay- or queer-acting" is somehow inferior to, or at least less desirable than, being "straight-acting", when even the most poppered-up, K-holed brain should tell you that there's actually no difference at all. We're all of us as screwed-up as each other, or haven't you climbed out of your gay ghetto to notice that yet?. A question to my straight friends: if someone described him, or herself, in an ad as "gay-acting", would that turn you on? Is that what's considered to be the height of sexiness in Hettieland? Yeah, thought not.

I am a "gay" man, who's also a lousy actor and so refuses to act "straight". But it seems that's what most of the gay men in London want to do.

Their loss.

It's Friday. Fridays always make me grumpy for some reason. Don't worry: I'll feel better in the morning.

Thursday, October 23, 2003
Let's Work!
Things are reasonably under control on the work front at the moment, and, as I've a whopping six weeks' leave owing me, I'm taking the next week off. In today's pre-holiday wind-down, I've already drawn up a two-page, thirty-three item list of Things To Do, grouped under four separate headings, all colour-coded and with check-boxes and footnotes (of course), as well as an attached spreadsheet to monitor my progress.

For most normal, right-thinking people in possession of a life, taking time off would include at least one of the following: the Eliasson weather installation at Tate Modern; a couple of nights in rehab; relaxing on a Greek island somewhere, Iliad in one hand, lager lout in the other (remind me to tell you my Faliraki story sometime); a leisurely meal at a fancy restaurant; sleeping in late under crisp, white sheets; or just a long meandering walk in the countryside, enjoying the first frost of an English winter.

This Stranger, on the other hand, shall be embarking on constructive and sensible tasks: waxing floors and cleaning Windows; reconciling accounts and sewing on buttons; reading some "improving" literature, and trying to teach himself some programming; and spending at least a daily three hours on a couple of ideas which might bring some extra work his way. You see, I find it almost impossible to just sit around and do nothing. If I've not filled the unforgiving minute with its full sixty-five seconds' worth, then I've not been trying hard enough.

It's a work ethic and guilt trip instilled in me when I worked mostly for myself, and not the Grown-Up company I do today. As a freelancer, you never know when that next cheque's coming in, or that last promised job's going to fall through. Constantly on the go, planning my day meticulously to take advantage of every available minute, I used to beat myself up mercilessly whenever I gave myself an afternoon off. It's only recently that I've removed that sign above my desk at home which reads Why Aren't You Working?, and realised that – hey, guess what! – it's OK to take time off (and, now you're an employee, you actually get paid for it!).

That's why, even with the coming holiday week, I'm still planning on doing stuff that'll produce something tangible at the end of it. But if anyone can locate my "Off" switch, feel free to press down on it very hard indeed, disconnect me from the mains, and then transport me to the nearest pub to train me up on all this standing and staring lark.

Or, at the very least, tell me about your favourite waste of time. And whether you think I'd enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Bog Standards
I've mentioned before that my gym, even with its reputation for having everything for young men to enjoy, is admirably mixed. (I don't think I could face an all-gay gym anyway: you get enough of other men's dangly bits during last-orders on Old Compton Street, thank you very much.) Apart from the odd hetero- or homophobe, everyone gets on together, and it works OK. Well, for most of the time.

There are five urinals in the gents; let's call them Urinals One, Two, Three, Four and Five. They are ranged against the wall left to right, with Urinal One situated just by the open entrance from the changing rooms, and Urinal Five furthest away in the corner.

Entering the loo area, after your work-out, if you're lucky all five urinals are free, and you may happily choose whichever one you so desire. Heavens, I'm not one to hang around public toilets, you understand, but long years of observation have shown me that, faced with this option, most straight men take the middle way, and head for Urinal Three. There's no "modesty screen" to the left of Urinal One, so people are reluctant to use that one; and if you head straight for Five, the gossipy queens are just going to start wondering what it is you're fiddling with in that corner, out of sight of everyone else.

Things start to get more complicated when another man enters. Urinals Two or Four are definite no-no's. To use either of these would not only be intruding on Number Three's personal space, but might lead him to think that you are, in fact, a Predatory Homosexual trying to come on to him. (This is the YMCA, after all.) So our newcomer will, most certainly opt for Urinal One, which, being nearest the door, also provides a quick and easy exit, should Number Three actually turn out to be the genuine Predatory Homosexual instead.

Now that Number Three is no longer alone, he will adopt a totally different stance and attitude. Where before he was slouching nonchalantly at the urinal and admiring himself in the wall-length mirror to his left, he will now stand ramrod-stiff, and look straight ahead, trying to avoid any eye contact with Number One which might be misconstrued. However, neither of them will be able to avoid a quick half-second's sneaky shufti at what the other is holding in his hands.

(A note to my female readers. This is not a gay thing. All men, gay or straight, check each other out. This is because we are all such insecure individuals and need to know which one of us has the biggest dong of them all.)

Things become even more awkward when a third gym bunny enters, and is forced into choosing between Urinals Two, Four or Five. If he follows One's reasoning, as he most certainly will, and heads for Urinal Five, then everyone will be happy, and bladders will be emptied with the minimum of effort. However, if he chooses Four, then it will be assumed that it is he who is the Predatory Homosexual, and has been spying on Three from behind the pec-deck for ages, and is now so pumped and addled with testosterone that he doesn't care who knows.

This will offend One, who is strictly heterosexual and doesn't like that kind of thing, but at the same time, and being vain, would also like to think he is the most attractive and buffed person in the gym, and is outraged that the newcomer could fancy Three over him. The imagined attention will upset even more the ever-so-straight Three, who will then find himself unable to urinate. As urination is supposedly the whole point of coming into this sort of place, then our newly-arrived gym bunny will naturally assume that Three has other more carnal things on his mind. If gym bunny is straight, he will then promptly head for Urinal Five which is where he should have been in the first place. If he is not straight, then queens being queens being men, he may just make an indiscreet move, in which case he will get a punch in the face.

(However, if the newcomer stakes his place at Urinal Two, between One and Three, then it can safely be assumed by all concerned that he is a proper little slapper.)

Assuming he takes his rightful place at Urinal Five, no-one will be threatened or embarrassed. Or at least, not until the fourth person enters, and he has to decide just which two he is going to stand in between. And if he chooses One and Three, then how is Five going to feel being given the brush-off like that?

And if the next one to enter is just that tiny bit gay, something which happens now and again down the YMCA, then that's, quite literally, a whole different ball game.

Is it any wonder that I always use the cubicle?

Monday, October 20, 2003
L'Homme Aux Camélias
Luckily I rarely fall ill, which is probably just as well, as I'm lousy at it. Some of my friends have got the thing down to a fine art, shamelessly pulling a sickie after they've overindulged at the weekend, or whenever there's a major day-time sporting event on the telly. Conscientious Stranger that I am, my sickies are (nearly) always genuine, and two hours of Phillip and Fern are guaranteed to make me get on back to the office faster than you can say "pick up thy bed and walk".

I'm off sick today. After a hot and wakeful night, spent unfortunately not in the company of [insert name of current sex god or goddess of choice] but one of those twenty-four-hour fever thingies, I got up to stagger to the loo, and passed out in the hallway.

It was a marvellous swoon, my dears! I really wish someone could have been there to see and capture it on film. I felt it coming, and managed to grab one of my coats hanging in the hall, so I could slip, elegantly and sylph-like, to the floor, like some screen queen upon hearing that Armand her lover has just shacked up with the stable lad. Unfortunately it didn't quite work like that. Which means I now have one ripped French Connection coat, a bugger of a bruise on my left knee, and a bent and warped shoe-rack, where I crashed, not quite as gracefully as planned, to the ground.

So now I am supine on the sofa, swathed in white taffeta and tulle (well, my blue Calvin Klein dressing gown), rose petals strewn around my pillow, sipping herbal tea from the finest china, and wasting away actually rather magnificently, even if I do say so myself. My face, its skin translucent and porcelain-white, is naturally in soft-focus monochrome, and in the background you can just hear the muted strings of an orchestra.

I fear I may not be long for this world, my precious ones, but I shall be brave, yes, I shall ignore the pain and I shall try to be brave. For all of you…

OK. Fade-out. Exit. Cut!

Friday, October 17, 2003
The Friday Grrr…
3: Soap Spoilers

I used to be a soap addict, or "drama serial devotee", as I believe we're meant to call ourselves these days. A well-brought-up Northern lad, I tuned into the Street religiously, and had done ever since Elsie first spat into her mascara. A weekday wasn't the same without a wander down Walford way, and I was always turning up at the Close, although that was mainly because one of my exes was shagging a cast member at the time (and no, I am not naming names, so don't even ask).

I certainly didn't watch them for the acting, but rather their intricate storylines, devious interweaving of characters' lives, and often completely unexpected plot developments. Half the fun of turning on your favourite soap was never quite being sure what was going to happen in the next twenty-five minutes.

Of course, these days we all knew for months that Dead Den was going to come back from the canal, and that Nick and Todd were set for the chastest, briefest gay snog in tellyland history. That's fine by me. Without publicity, ratings would plummet and the shows would be axed.

But it’s not just the big, audience-pulling, loo-flushing events which get trailed way in advance. Nowadays, every minuscule and intricate plot twist and turn, from the colour of Pat's new earrings, to what Emily and Norris are having for breakfast, is reported in such great detail in the individual episode listings that any suspense is gone. And without suspense there's no drama.

Most publications carrying daily or weekly telly listings receive their info from one central source. The episode breakdowns, provided a couple of weeks in advance, are pretty detailed, and very rarely embargoed. It's the job of a good TV editor to take that information and edit it, adapting it for the readers, and providing a succinct and seductive (dare we also ask for witty?) teaser for the forthcoming episode. Tell us just so much, and no more, dear Mr Telly Editor, and we'll be counting the seconds to 7.30 to see what happens.

Of course, what most of them do is just cut and paste the whole lot in its entirety and piss off to the pub, having just given away the plot, and spoilt it rotten for the rest of us. If I know how Corrie's current story arc is going to pan out just by reading next Friday's episode listing, then there's very little point in my watching it. Instead, I could join the TV Editor down the pub, couldn't I? The Rovers' Return, of course, and with a pint of Newton & Ridley's in my hand, served by Bet Lynch who is just about to – oh, you mean, you really didn't know?

Next Week At Invisible Stranger:
It's drastic measures as Stranger makes a last-ditch effort to improve his stats. An important piece of gym etiquette is breached, and a midnight stroll leads to darker things. And just who is the boy in the sailor suit, and what sinister secret is he hiding?
Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 16, 2003
Dead Giveaway
Today, after receiving the nineteenth unreasonably and impossibly deadlined telephone "request" from Someone Upstairs who pays my salary, I penalty-kicked my company phone across the office in a fit of pique, whereupon it shattered into a hundred corporately-beige pieces. God, try it sometimes! You can't believe just how much fun it is!

My colleagues kept quiet about it, naturally. They're used to me. Earlier that morning, they'd already seen me KO one of our malfunctioning laser-printers into inactivity, and apparently they're just about to sell ringside seats to tomorrow's encounter with the engineer.

Besides, in my immediate boss's absence, I'm in charge for the rest of the week. And that's why, I suspect, no-one allowed the words "hungover", "over-reacting", or " drama queen" to slip their lips.

Bet that's what they all thought, though.

And you know what? I think they might just be right.

(You mean, you never guessed?)

Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Picture This
While he's ooh-là-là-ing it over in gay Paree this week, Mike of Troubled Diva is giving over his site to four guest bloggers: Rainbow Villa John; Quarsan of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts; Gofish Mac; and Mike's own incomparable Auntie Cyn, who, if she doesn't exist, then Ronald Firbank shall just have to jolly well go off and invent her.

I was at a dinner party with another Cyn once, none other than ex-madame Cynthia Payne. She was a mate of a friend of mine. I remember she was a short-ish woman, who, despite the brassy image, was surprisingly well-spoken and well-mannered, but with an X-rated glint in her eye. She was your naughty auntie, the one your parents didn't mention, but were secretly quite fond of.

All we "gay boys", as she called us, were on our best behaviour. And, as so often happens when you're in a celebrity's company, we tried hard not to mention the thing for which she was famous, and on which the film Personal Services had been based. Secretly we were all gagging to know what had really gone on behind those closed brothel doors in Streatham. We didn't ask though, because that's not something you asked a lady.

Finally, after dinner the conversation got round to sex, as it always does. Sitting in the easy chair, with her boys on the floor around her, she talked about the absurdity of the sex laws chucked the odd polite compliment the gay "community" way (to which I got the impression she was pretty indifferent), and only once displayed anger at the hypocrisy of the un-named bishops and clergymen who were some of her perviest regulars.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we gossipy queens nodded in sage agreement, all the time wishing for some prime, juicy gossip. A little wearily perhaps, she clipped open her handbag, and passed round a selection of Polaroids of her parties, all the faces discreetly blacked out and anonymous, of course, and talked with obvious fondness of her clients over the years.

There was the inevitable elderly judge, bound and gagged, rolls of fat splurging out from the openings of his bondage gear, who "pulled a few strings once"; a remarkably young (and actually quite horny) guy in dog collar and chain, yapping at the feet of a busty, thirtysomething dominatrix. ("Did well for herself. Married into money. Sends me a Christmas card every year.") And best of all, someone I took to be a younger Madame Cyn herself, stilettoed feet resting on the wide-open backside of a middle-aged paunchy man, trussed up in leathers and begging on all-fours.

As a party piece, it certainly beats handing out the After Eights.

Already this morning I have: complained about the alarm which didn't switch on Radio Four when it was supposed to; last night's pizzas and that rather cheeky extra bottle; the overcrowded Number 17 and the state of London's roads; how I certainly didn't behave like that when I went to school; mobile phones set to "stun" rather than "vibrate", and personal stereos which are anything but; dawdlers on the pavement incapable of walking in a straight line, and thereby getting in my way; and security guards who demand to see my pass, when they've given me a cheery hello every morning for the past two years.

I feel I should point out that all these complaints have been extremely vocal, although I have, as yet, not entered into conversation with one other human being. I'm turning into one of those grumpy and grizzled old men you see on street corners, Special Brew in one hand, babbling away to themselves about all the sodding iniquities this shoddy little world's chucked their way.

You know, at lunchtime I might just go out and buy myself something fetching in purple, and get it all over with, once and for all.

Monday, October 13, 2003
Joined-Up Writing
Sleek and stylishly silver, but with just the right "chunkiness" so it's not girly, my Cross Townsend is the fountain-pen you could imagine in the delicate hands of a sensitive young poet, coming up with one final heart-rending verse before knocking back the laudanum; or a member of the jeunesse dorée, signing away for squillions the rights to his as yet unpublished masterpiece as he thoughtfully sips his Ricard on the banks of the Seine.

I bought it for round about ninety quid ten years ago, and I never regretted the purchase. There's really nothing like a fine-nibbed fountain-pen for giving expression and character to your handwriting. It's a dead giveaway of your emotions too. I once used it to write my personal journal: the times when I was on an emotional up, my words are bold and well-rounded; when things were spiralling downwards, then the characters are all spiky and cramped.

I say "once" because about five years ago, the nib became buggered and clogged through overuse, and it proved impossible to write with. It was only this weekend I finally got my act together and bought a replacement nib. (Have you ever tried to find a decent pen shop lately? And don't even think about looking for blotting paper.)

My anticipation of once again writing reams of witty correspondence in my distinctively long and flowing Cursive hand lasted about half a sentence. Over the past five years, my fingers, probably just like yours, have been keyboarded to death. I can't even remember how to hold the fountain-pen properly anymore, and more than two paragraphs of continuous handwritten prose is impossible. That's probably just as well, as my once-fine handwriting now resembles nothing more than a series of badly hacked-out Norse runes.

Nowadays everyone can type, and personal correspondence for most of them means a two-line E-mail. Somewhere along the way we've lost the art of good penmanship – and probably along with it the art and joy of letter-writing. I find that rather sad.

Now, please excuse me: I must just text my agent, and then sign the contract. Now, where's my Biro?

Friday, October 10, 2003
The Friday Grrrr
2: Prêt à Manger

It's a little-known fact that, in time, every Prêt à Manger "gourmet" sandwich turns into every other Prêt à Manger "gourmet" sandwich. After about your twentieth visit, you suddenly realise they are all exactly the same, and that your Crayfish and Rocket tastes exactly like your More Than Mozzarella tastes exactly like the BLT I had for lunch.

It's not a nostalgic longing for sausage and bacon butties, dripping with fat and their edges curled just so, which gets me peeved with Prêt. I don't mind the fact they've Starbucked their way onto every London high street, forcing out the old delis, or that McDonalds has a thirty-three per cent stake in them. I can just about handle their smug and trendy corporate image, and I even get on with their chirpy and helpful young staff, when a saner Stranger would punch that cheery grin right off their face.

No, it's the way those employees have been trained to hand you back your change. Rather than just drop the coins into your outstretched hand, they very deliberately place them there, ensuring, for just one half-second or so, they are touching you, their fingers resting in the centre of your palm.

Check it out when you next pop in for your Avo and Italian. They all do it. It's probably called something fancy like "customer care", or "connecting", or "bonding". Whatever it is, it annoys the hell out of me.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003
Slip's Sliding Away
Denis Quilley died over the weekend (via Welshcake). You probably won't know who I'm talking about, but he was one of those always-in-demand, but never quite front-page-famous, character actors, admired by their peers, who form the backbone of British theatre.

I caught him last year at the National in Humble Boy, where he nearly stole the show from luvvies' favourite, Simon Russell Beale, which is no mean feat. Such was his versatility that back in the eighties he was seen swishing magnificently as one of the queens in La Cage Aux Folles, before RSCing it with the best of them. Shakespeare and showtunes: what more could a Stranger want?

For me, though, he'll always be Commander Traynor, the scheming villain of seventies telly Timeslip. If you're old enough, you might just remember the series as "that one where the boy and girl went through a hole in the fence and into the future". Quilley's chilling performance, and the show's (for then) remarkably prescient exploration of themes such as the consequences of global warming and the ethics of cloning, still knock most of today's telly for six.

(For the two of you who have even half an idea what I'm talking about: I met Liz and Simon once, or rather the actors who played them. After all these years, they're still bessie mates in real life, and "Simon" remains as deliciously nerdy as he was on telly.)

I don't think it's just nostalgia for a simpler, more crackling, black-and-white era which makes me remember fondly the children's TV series of my childhood and teenage years, especially since I've loads of them on VHS anyway, and can watch them whenever I want. (However, if anyone out there has a copy of The Owl Service, let's talk.) I really do believe that kids' shows were far more intelligent and demanding of their audience then than they are today; well, apart from The Tomorrow People, that is.

I've recently been DVDing my way through Sapphire and Steel, and just one episode of that is far more provocative and original (and, OK, miles more pretentious) than any number of X Files repeats.

Tell me, because I really do not know: is there any kids' TV drama around these days which is worth watching? (If there is such a thing as kids' drama these days, that is.) The last thing I even bothered taping is Press Gang with Dexter Fletcher (whatever happened to him?) and Julia Sawalha (we all know what happened to her). And that was in the nineties, for heaven's sake!

And, apart from you know who, which TV series of your childhood do you remember fondly today?

Tuesday, October 07, 2003
I Didn't Know They Cared
I get hardly any spam: just a couple a day, nothing I can't handle. This is because I have the best spam-filter, and virus-checker, in the world: namely, my almost pathological fear of on-line forms, and a distrust teetering towards paranoid of paper-clipped e-mails from persons unknown.

So that's why it was amazingly only last night, after four years of being on-line at home, that I received my very first batch of viagra and willy-stretching ads. It had taken them so long to get round to me I thought they'd forgotten me, or given me up as a lost and celibate cause.

I find it rather touching to think there's some innocent out there who still hasn't heard that I am, in fact, my dears, a rock-hard and ultra-masculine stallion, capable of making grown men's eyes water. And not that I need either vacuum pump or little blue pills, you understand, but it's nice to think that someone cares.

(Ooh, all right then. But just a cheeky half, mind. And that thing is going nowhere near my - )

Sunday, October 05, 2003
Local Shops for Local People
Probably like loads of Londoners, I rarely have time for local shopping. I'm hardly at home during the week. I leave early for a gym 'n' swim (yeah, yeah, I'm an insufferably smug git: you'll learn to love me in time); and, when I return home, only the mini-market, the three offies, and Ali's Northern-Fried Halal Rat-Burgers are open for business.

So most of my grocery shopping gets done anonymously at Sainsbury's. I can do it on-line, and, what's more, they deliver. Occasionally, I'll drop by Chapel Market for a stack of cheapo loo rolls, the Sunday farmers' market for cheese, or breeze into the Islington Marks and Sparks (they have a very yummy young man working one of the checkouts, and that's excuse enough for this shallow and superficial Stranger).

On Saturdays I'm usually too brain-dead from the previous week (and/or Friday night), that any activity involving person-to-person contact, including shopping, is a definite no-no until about eight p.m. that evening.

This Saturday, however, for the first time in a couple of years, I braved the local shops just five minutes' walk from my flat. Within three tiny blocks, I discovered: a florists naffly-named Austin Flowers and a swish designer-glassware store; a post office, two chemists and three newsagents; two butchers and one fruit 'n' veg; a dry-cleaners and an overpriced hardware store; a greasy spoon and an undertaker's; four Tandoori restaurants, three organic health-food places, two crusty bakers and one Italian deli.

The baker gave me a free cream-bun, and the chemist offered me advice for my "little problem"; the deli-man told me just how al dente my pasta should be; and, when I asked the butcher to spatchcock my chicken, he actually knew what I was talking about, rather than threatening to call in the authorities.

I could get used to this support-your-local-retailers lark. I might not get points on my Nectar card, but at least Jamie Oliver doesn't work for them. And the cashiers smile back at you as well.

Friday, October 03, 2003
Things Which Make Me Go Grrrr 1 (and trust me, there will be plenty more over the coming months):

Like most of the things which are turning me day by unrelenting day into a queer version of Victor Meldrew, ATMs, or Automated Teller Machines, are a necessary evil in my world. I much prefer being in control and paying cash whenever I can (yes, I know, not very Patsy and Edina of me, is it?), so I can't live with them, and I can't live without them.

Surprisingly, the first, very basic, ATMs were introduced into the UK way back in the sixties. Most people, however, only became aware of them round about the time I did, at Uni in the mid-/late-seventies. There was definitely one in a prime location right next to the local student boozer, sneakily sited to ensure pissed-up undergraduates blew most of their term's grant on Stellas by the end of Freshers' Week.

We didn't call them ATMs in those days. Back then, they were known as cash-dispensers. The acronym is, I reckon, yet one more example of the American colonisation of our language, and you really don't want to get me started on that one, or we'll be here all day, swapping Anglo-Saxon expletives, and no-one will be home in time for tea.

To be fair, it's not the machines I hate. After all, unlike in my cash-strapped student days (when persuading the hole in the wall to hand me a few quid past my overdraft limit was regarded a major achievement), nowadays they willingly give me the money. And giving me money is good.

It’s the people congregating around them who make me grumpy. For starters, guaranteed to be lying in wait will be the local high street's representative of Beggars Inc., sometimes with mangy canine accessory, more and more often with equally mangy wastrel child.

Now, get real, my unfortunate friend. While I've every sympathy for your plight (what with the price of Special Brew these days), asking me for change for a cut of crack is a surefire way to wind me up. If I had any money to give, why would I be at the ATM in the first place? And do you seriously think I'm going to hand you one whole tenner, when all I really wanted was a fiver, just like you could get in the good old days? Ah, no, I see! The juxtaposition of my push-button wealth with your down-at-heels situation is meant to embarrass me into coming up with the readies. Well, you'll have to try a whole lot harder than that, matey. I've been guilt-tripped by experts, and nobody does it better than my mum.

And then there's the person waiting in front of me on Sloane Street. When it's her turn, she (sorry, ladies, but it is invariably a she, usually bottled-blonde, and of a certain age and bust-size) will rummage around inside the TARDIS-like interior of her Prada handbag, before whipping out her gold plastic and inserting it into the ATM, upside-down, and with the magnetic strip facing the wrong way.

On finally learning of her mistake, she will then make two unsuccessful attempts at keying in her PIN, before taking out the mobile, and calling Caroline for the correct number. And then, before drawing out any money, she will need to check her husband's balance, and print out a mini-statement, deciding just how much she really needs. Once she's taken her wad of cash (with receipt, of course), she will then spend the next few minutes, filing the money away in her purse, before selecting yet another gold card and repeating the whole procedure.

By this time, the waiting Stranger's spontaneously reckless Ab Fab moment has passed, and he realises his own decision to withdraw a couple of hundred for those Persol sunglasses in Harvey Nicks is not the act of a sane and responsible individual, and he slinks off home to N7, forever deprived the chance to swank glamorously at the Roof Gardens.

Guaranteed to push me right over the edge, however, are those queues of people lining up by the ATM, keeping a discreet distance away from the person currently withdrawing money, so as to reassure them mugging's the last thing on their mind. Very thoughtful and caring, I'm sure. If their line stretched down the road in an orderly fashion, I'd be even more approving. But oh no, they line up across the pavement, blocking the way of any passing Stranger, staring viciously at him when he asks them to let him pass, and forcing him to risk his life walking in the road of a busy Saturday-afternoon Oxford Street. May their PINs be forever rejected, and their cards be swallowed whole, before being greeted with the message: Sorry there are insufficient funds in your account.

And I really hate queues anyway, but that a grrrr I'm saving for another day.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Food, Glorious Food
Although I was born in the summer, October always marked the start of my favourite part of the year when I was child. The days were turning darker and more mysterious, the nights longer. October meant Hallowe'en, even if it was thirty-one days away, and, less than a week after that, Bonfire Night; and then it was the Blue Peter Advent Crown and the run-up to Christmas. October was the beginning of a magical three months of excitement and anticipation.

Back then, winters were colder, winds wilder, and rain wetter. To warm us up around the bonfire, or on the rec' down the road where we played safely till well past sundown, we stoked ourselves up on traditional comfort food.

Creamy Lancashire cheese-on-toast, bubbling brown under the grill. Jacket potatoes glistening with butter, baked in silver-foil, eaten in the cold with mittened hands. Pea and ham soup, and piping-hot potato-pies. Mouth-wateringly rich parkin on November 5th, and treacle toffee so sticky and hard you needed to see the dentist afterwards. And my favourite: brown parched peas, eaten outside on the doorstep from a paper bag, nutty and salted, dripping with malt vinegar, and one of the few things from Up North I still miss. Them posh Southerners didn't know what they were missing out on.

And today? Well, the dwindling daylight hours are making me grumpy, and I'm already dreading the tinsel season, as well as next month's kiddie pyrotechnics. I've cut sweet things out from my diet, I spread lo-fat gunk on my organic bread instead of butter, I seldom eat cakes, and it's just not done to eat fish 'n' chips on the street anymore. And tonight, if I'm not microwaving a bland Be Good To Yourself at home, then it'll probably be sushi or some similar noodled nonsense in an air-conditioned West End canteen.

Wish I were a kid again.