An extremely vivid memory from childhood—probably about seven or eight years old. Waking up and coming downstairs with an absolute, unshakable conviction that what I wanted to do with all of my spare time for the next few months was to build near-full sized fairground rides in our back garden. I don’t know where this came from; prior to that point I had no especial interest in fairground rides, beyond the annual visit to the Goose Fair. I wanted to go into the garage immediately and start measuring pieces of wood, making designs, etc. It took my parents a couple of hours to dissuade me that doing this was utterly impractical, against my deep, passionate protestations. Truly I cannot think of anything before or since that I wanted to do with such utter conviction.
Archive for the ‘Things that happened’ Category
“Oi!” (Whole bus goes silent) (parent shouting at child) “You’ve got a tissue in your pocket—don’t wipe your bogies on other people.” (collective “ugh” from the remainder of the bus).
It is depressing, yet informative, that the end result of no-doubt endless meetings and careful planning and strategy documents and analyses of employability results in the NSS and all that woffle ended in the following fragment of conversation from two students on the bus t’other week discussing the assessments that they had to finish by the end of term:
“…and then there’s [whatever it was], but it’s just that employability shit, so it doesn’t matter.”
(Meta-lesson. You learn a lot by getting the bus up to campus.)
When I was around 10-11 years old, my parents made a shed at the back of the garden, by putting a door and roof on a small space at the back of the garage. This was used to store gardening supplies—compost, plant pots and the like—and bottles of the dubious home-made wine and beer that was popular at the time.
One summer day I decided, on a whim, that this needed a label putting on it. So, using a chisel and hammer from the garage, I gouged the words “TOOL SHED” into the paint and wood, fairly deeply. Then, realising that the shed wasn’t used to store tools, I panicked; but a simple solution came to mind. As a result I carved the word “NOT” above the word “TOOL SHED”, with an asterisk added to retain the symmetry of four letters on each line. As a result, the shed had (and retained for several years) the label:
and was thus referred to in my family for many years subsequently.
I believe that I am the only person alive who remembers this.
It sometimes surprises me quite how formulaic the smalltalk at the beginnings of conversations is. I know that it isn’t acceptable to respond to the question “How are you?” with a list of your latest ailments and insecurities, but it is still sometimes surprising how much that part of a conversation is a cognitive readymade, without any ready deviation. I remember a couple of incidents in the days after my father died.
- Meeting a colleague a few days after my father had died. Wanting, gradually, to let people know what had happened, I responded to his “How are you?” with a “Actually, not so good.”, expecting to get a query back about what had happened. Instead, I just got the response “Great, I’m fine.”, as if I had said (as I would 99.9999% of the time) “I’m fine, how are you?”. Literally, my response hadn’t been processed at all. If you want some evidence for hearing being a process of anticipation then you’ve got it there. There’s no other response in the “repertoire” to “How are you?” other than minor variants on “Fine, how are you?”, so the brain doesn’t even really bother processing what has been said. Any response is just treated as the standard one.
- Speaking to my uncle a day or two after my father had died (I had already told my uncle). This time, he asked first: “How are you?”. My response, understandably: “Not too good.”. My uncle’s response—no criticism intended, this is just a point about how deeply embedded language structures are—”Oh, why is that then?”. I was, very unusually, struck dumb for a few seconds. For a moment I thought “Perhaps I didn’t tell him that Dad had died?”; for surely, someone wouldn’t say something so crass to someone who had just lost a parent—surely it would be obvious why I “wasn’t too good”. Eventually, I managed to stutter out “Well, you know, Dad died yesterday.” It is bizarre how fixed our linguistic patterns are that, even after one of the worst things that can happen to you, saying that you are anything other than “fine” causes our whole language generation system to collapse.
There was a little shop in the town where I grew up which sold local souvenirs etc., and often had pictures of the locality in the window. One day I was looking in the window of this shop with my mother, and there was a painting of the street where we lived.
Mum: “It’s Mr. Zoff.”
Me: “Who’s Mr. Zoff?”
Mum: “No—they’ve missed us off. Our house isn’t in the picture.”
From that day, any unknown artist was referred to in our family as “the famous Polish artist, Mr . Zoff”.
I am the only person alive who remembers this.
There is a wonderful subreddit called Dear Reddit, Today I Fucked Up… in which people post (usually fairly lighthearted) accounts of how they erred during the current day, beginning with the abbreviation “TIFU”. Here is my post there from today.
TIFU by starting to ask someone the question ‘So, where are you from?’, realising as I opened my mouth that it often sounds a little bit racist (with its implication of ‘So, where are you from *really*?’), deciding to draw attention to the fact that I know that it’s a stupid and clichéd question by putting it in air quotes, then didn’t really start moving my fingers until the last word of the question, which made it look like I was saying ‘So, where are you “from”?’ which made the question even worse.
My mother used to work for the purchasing department at Boots, a major pharmaceutical retailer. One day, she had the following phone conversation with a rather posh sales rep:
Rep: “Good morning, I’m Miles from Nicholas Products Ltd.”
Mum: “Well, I’m miles from there too, but how can I help you?”
From my late grandmother, in the corner shop:
“I’d like an uncut sliced loaf, please.”
A conversation from many years ago between my late mother and the dentist’s receptionist:
Mum: “I’m here for the 2pm appointment.”
Receptionist: “And your husband? He is here for his appointment at 2:30.”
Mum: “No, I’m afraid I’ve lost him.”
Receptionist (with a look of deep sympathy): “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.”
Mum: “No, I haven’t lost him; I mean he’s wandered off to the shops round the corner and I can’t find him.”
Oddly, the bus driver asked me this evening what route the bus was meant to be taking. I didn’t think until after I got off the bus that I could have exploited this to my advantage by diverting the bus down the road on which I live and convincing him that the stop outside my front door was one of the stops on his route.
Walking down an ordinary suburban street this afternoon, someone in casual clothes chatting on their mobile phone is standing at the corner. As I pass by I hear exactly seven words: “…we’re going to need a ballistics expert…”. That’s almost a short story in its own right.
It is a source of ongoing frustration, torn cuffs and dropped soup-bowls that I am exactly the right height, right down to the nearest inch, so that when I am walking between rooms my rolled-up shirt cuffs are at exactly the same height as doorhandles.
Interesting scam attempt on the tube t’other day. Someone came up close to me as I was entering the gates, briefly flashed open a wallet revealing the sort of “police officer” badge that you can buy from Toys’R’Us, and said “Can I follow you through? I’m a police officer so I get free travel anyway.”
Outside my flat in a (studenty, but quiet) area of Edinburgh a few weeks ago. At 11pm on the dot someone starts playing bagpipes at full volume (is there any volume control on those things?), and gives a wonderful rendition of some tune.
Immediately after, several people from the surrounding flats start applauding, a couple of people cheer, and after about two seconds someone clearly articulates the word “wanker”.
What makes this perfect is that he waited until the performance was finished before shouting out—it would have been so easy to have shouted it in the middle, and so less effective.
I have in the past been impressed with the ability of people like Derren Brown to present a losing ticket to a bookmaker and get a payout. A little while ago, I had an experience that gave be some insight into how this works. I was rushing to get a train at Charing Cross, and when I got there I discovered that the station was closed and that the train was starting from London Bridge instead. A sign said that tickets would be valid on the underground between the two stations, so I rushed to the tube station. When I got there, I tried by train ticket in the barrier and it didn’t work, and so I showed it, with some urgency, to the guard at the barrier, who looked strangely at the ticket. I said “don’t you know that the station is closed; I need to get through” and the guard opened the barrier for me.
When I looked at the ticket a few second later it was an old ticket from Nottingham to Edinburgh.
Somehow, my guileless confidence in the ticket had worked. I think the skill of someone like Derren Brown is to be able to fake this even when knowing that the ticket is irrelevant.
Situations in which I thought that a euphemism was being used but it turned out not to be the case (1)Thursday, May 3rd, 2012
Followed signs to the “cloakroom”. Ended up in a room full of coat hooks.
When I was a student, I moved into a house in my second year with two other students. We had all brought a glass bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup with us. I had been learning to juggle that summer, so the obvious thing to do was to juggle the three bottles of ketchup. Equally obviously, I dropped two of them on the hard kitchen floor within a few seconds, splatting ketchup everywhere. What my housemates thought of this, within a few hours of moving in, I have no idea.