Blogging along…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

A gale still buffets this lip of rock, but there was good cheer in the wind yesterday. Man On Ledge is on the shortlist for the UK Blog Awards 2016.

This ledge of mine has been a saviour in difficult times, a reason to hang on to my hat, as it were. I have written a blog almost every day since the beginning of June; more than 130,000 words the last time I looked.

Those laptop labours are massed like loose stones in mountain scree. Or like the diarrhoeic keyboard output of a man who can’t contain himself. The words pile up because composing them gives me something to do every day.

Blogging is my idea of fun. Some people may find this strange, but those who take succour from arranging words into some sort of order will understand.

My ledge has also been a new-for-old thing: continuing the column I wrote for 25 years by another means. So being on the shortlist is lovely (fingers crossed for April 29).

Yesterday, after a sleepless night, I came up with a minute-by-minute account of writing this blog. My efforts brought the following cheerful rebuke from Steven Burkeman, a Press reader who has been kind enough to follow me to this new, windy place. Steven wrote: “What, no gazing out of the window? No checking emails/twitter etc? No getting up to get a cup of tea and a biscuit? Julian, despite your years of experience, you are but a beginner at the art of AP (authorial prevarication).”

Ah, well. Here are my observations about that.

Although there was artifice in the writing of that blog, it was an accurate account more or less. Blame the journalist in me, but I like to give myself an hour or so to bash something out. It concentrates what passes for my mind.

When my old newspaper came out in the afternoon and evening, with different editions drawing up and then leaving all the time, the start of the day could be busy. Occasionally much of the work prepared the previous afternoon ended up being pulled off the page to be replaced by something newer or newsier. On those days we would have an hour to 90 minutes to write, edit and layout a new features spread. And those flat-out hours were scarily enjoyable. Or enjoyably scary.

So my self-imposed deadline harks back to those days.

As for ‘authorial prevarication’, oh I can be as guilty of that as the next man or woman sitting down to write. Blog done, I turn to freelance journalism or press on with whatever novel I am attempting to finish. At this point, I often wander the endless corridors of Facebook or burrow into the damp soil of Twitter. Sometimes, as explained in an earlier blog, I settle back to gawp at the Mail’s sidebar of shame. Or check my two email accounts. Or take another look at my blog statistics (a sure way to drive yourself mad). Or skim the newspapers again and double-check the BBC.

Then there is Facebook again: has anyone said anything about me or my bloggy acres?

And often I wonder is it coffee time yet? Or pick up that electric guitar I foolishly bought years ago and crank out a few discordant chords.

So yes, Steven – I can waste time with the best of them. But I do like the creative jolt of a deadline. It’s like having a big hairy dog snapping at your heels.

Bunking off with history…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

Sometimes writing is a messy business given a tidy up. What follows is a guide to how this blog is being pieced together today, live and as it happens…

8.15am: Sit down at laptop with a head full of bad sleep. Skim the headlines. Reject Europe. Nothing personal, Europe. It’s just that whatever dodgy deal David Cameron might or might not be weaselling his way towards is elusive and plain boring anyway.

8.20am: Tired red eye slides to a story in the Daily Telegraph. This says Oxford University has decided to keep in place its statue of Cecil Rhodes. Ah, yes, remember something about that. The statue upset student activists because Rhodes was a Victorian imperialist and a racist.

8.25am: A thought stirs in my mind, like a fish at the bottom of a weed-wrapped pool. Hasn’t a statue of Rhodes already been brought down in South Africa because of similar protests? Ah, yes so it has (thank you Google, where would I be without you).

8.30am: Think about history, then remember I haven’t finished with Rhodes yet. Oriel College, owners of the statue, say it will remain. Now me and my tired mind think this is the right decision. You cannot go around censoring the past to suit the present, can you? The trouble is, the university logic appears to be less nuanced. It’s all about money, you see.

8.40am: Yes, the statue is staying in place because “furious donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if it was taken down”, according to the Telegraph. Ah, so this isn’t about academic rigour or anything. Nope, just follow the money.

8.50am: Tell myself that this is disappointing. Look, shouldn’t a great university make a proper intellectual case for not tinkering with the past to suit the present? Yes, but in the end just follow the money. According to the Telegraph, donations worth £1.5 million have already been cancelled, with more to follow if the university bows to the Rhodes Must Fall student campaign.

9am: I reckon those students were wrong, however heartfelt their arguments about Rhodes, whose legacy still funds Rhodes scholarships for overseas students. These students, they’re like Doctor Who in a time-cleansing machine, wanting to tumble back in time and remove the bits they don’t like.

9.04am: Yawn.

9.05am: Focus again. Here is what Sean Power, development director at Oriel College, reportedly wrote to staff: “Pride in the institution is major currency when it comes to fundraising, and this has already been severally diminished. The fact that Rhodes was the College’s most generous benefactor only compounds the issue; ‘is this now we treat our donors?’ etc.” God, but that’s a depressing paragraph. Rub eyes. “Pride in the institution is major currency…” Where do they find these people?

9.10am: Didn’t Henry Ford say something about history being bunk? Yes, he did. Don’t even need to Google that, although the full quote is out of mind’s reach. The founder of the Ford Motor Company was speaking 100 years ago, in other words during the First World War, a time history cannot forget. But Ford, yes, he said it and then became history himself.

9.15pm: I think Ford’s point was that we should live in the present, as history is bound by tradition. “We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today” (thanks, again, to Google).  History doesn’t work like that. One moment you are vitally in the present, beset by all the present problems; then time rolls on and you are the past.

9.20am: Scratch head. Is it fair to say that history is complicated, messy and open to many interpretations? The past is constantly being rewritten, for sure – but we shouldn’t try to change what we don’t like about the past.

9.25am: Another quick trawl. Ah, here is a quote by Mark Twain. Did that man ever say anything that didn’t end up in quotation marks? I am sure that in a book somewhere there must be a Twain quote saying: “Yes, coffee, thank you, milk and sugar.” Anyway what Twain said was this: “The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Now that is a quotation, suggesting that is always written with a partial eye. True enough, but if we can’t help but see the past through the present, we shouldn’t change the past to suit the present, should we?

9.30am: Read again, press button and publish…

 

Trumped up…

TRUMP – even the name sounds funny. Donald is a pretty funny name too. But put the two together and you have one scary man.

He could win the Republican nomination. He could be president of the US. A ranting demagogue whose views are even madder than his hair. A crowd-stirring narcissist, a TV game show ruffian, a pouting populist. A mass of laughable contractions that aren’t remotely funny.

On Facebook yesterday a friend of a friend brought out Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable to show the definition of ‘trump’. A nice idea and as that’s a favourite book, I fished out my copy.

“Trump: This word, in such phrases as a ‘trumped up affair’ (falsely concocted), ‘trumpery’ (showy finery, worthless stuff) and the like, is the same world as trumpet, from French trompe, ‘a trumpet’ hence tromper, which, originally meaning ‘to play on a trumpet’ came to mean to beguile, deceive, impose on.”

It is also a British slang word for fart, something Brewer’s is too polite to mention.

Matt Frei used a Channel 4 documentary the other night to explore The Mad World Of Donald Trump. Before it screened, one of those warnings popped up on screen; not nudity, swearing or anything – but views of an extreme nature.

Everything about Donald Trump is of an extreme nature. His opinions are scattergun extreme. Find a target, shoot; swirl round, find another target, shoot again. Mexicans, Muslims, women – all are sprayed with hate-bullets when the moment suits. And it usually does suit this man and his toxic mouth.

None of this is by chance. His constituency in the US is the great mass of people who feel overlooked, downtrodden; they want someone to blame for their plight – and Trump is happy to point a jabbing finger. Say something flamingly, idiotically stupid. And stand back while they cheer him on.

Find someone to blame and you have – done what, exactly? Indulged in bullying. Muddied the waters. Thrown an innocent corpse or two in the river to feed the crocodiles of public opinion. Given the powerless a reason to feel powerful. Stirred up an almighty shit-storm.

All of this is trumped up, falsely concocted. Yet his supporters love him. They filled Matt Frei’s documentary with praise for his raging incoherence. They added a bit of raging incoherence of their own. Trump wants America to be great again. They want America to be great again.

So they’re all in this together. Beguiling and deceiving each other. Pretending Trump’s form of politics isn’t really politics. Yes, it is; it’s just a different sort of politics. Trumpery; showy, hateful stuff. Rampantly egotistical, as vainglorious as one of his ridiculous towers.

Frei’s documentary contained shocking footage of the Trump lovers in communion with their hero. It also contained interesting background details about Trump’s great inherited wealth – something he keeps quiet about when bragging of his business skills.

While his supporters swoon, others in his own party openly hate the man. “He’s a huckster, he’s a fraud – and that was from a Republican tactician in Frei’s film. Another Republican strategist, Rich Gallen, who was press secretary to the former vice-president Dan Quayle, said in an Observer report last Sunday that there was a confluence of anger at the pillars of American society, which explained the rise of two outsiders: Trump for the Republicans and the lone left-wing voice of Bernie Sanders for the Democrats.

“We’re in an era when nobody likes anything and the two people most vocal about not liking things are Trump and Sanders. From two different directions they’ve attracted people who like the way they see the world.”

Hate politics by all means. Despise politicians if you wish. Just watch out when something worse, far worse, rolls along to fill the vacuum you helped create. Me too – I’ve done my share of politician bashing. Sorry if any of it’s my fault. Perhaps we should all be more careful in future.

Danish law is no way to treat refugees…

SO where is Birgitte Nyborg when you need her? Nyborg was the prime minister in the Danish TV series Borgen – and, just to throw in a personal thought here, the sexiest politician who ever lived.

Much of the time in this superlative political drama from the makers of The Killing was spent knitting together unlikely political alliances, with Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) frowning at the eye of every storm.

So what would Nyborg make of Denmark’s decision to approve a plan to seize assets from refugees? Surely she would be appalled.

The biggest migration crisis in Europe since the Second World War is raising seemingly insoluble difficulties – but enacting a law that allows police to seize assets from refugees is a step too far.

Under this heartless new measure, Danish police can now search asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate what are seen as non-essential items worth more than 10,000 krone (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.

Desperate people who have sailed and trudged from godforsaken places will have their pockets emptied by Danish police officers so their belongings can be assessed for economic and sentimental value.

Wow! Denmark you really have played a blinder there. Perhaps you would like asylum seekers to sing a song too and be judged by a gruesome X-Factor-style panel.

Denmark’s centre-right government justifies this procedure on the grounds that it covers the cost of each asylum seeker’s treatment by the state, and echoes the way Danish citizens on welfare are treated.

Sorry Denmark, this is a terrible idea, cruel and demeaning. The good and bad aspects of a country have to be balanced. So here is Denmark’s rough guide: good marks for butter and TV dramas; poor marks for bacon and treatment of asylum seekers.

Perhaps we should hear what a real Danish female politician has to say. Here is Pernille Skipper, owner of the coolest name around and a member of parliament for Enhedslisten, a left-wing Danish party: “Morally, it is a horrible way to treat people fleeing mass crimes, war, rapes. They are fleeing from war and how do we treat them? We take their jewellery.”

Quite so. As a man of a sometimes obvious cast of mind, I just searched for Skipper on Google. Do the same and you will discover that she just as glamorous as her fictional counterpart, as well as being a woman of sound good sense too.

Asylum seekers arriving in Denmark will still in general be treated humanely, but the nasty-minded new law that should worry us all.

This Danish move comes as central European leaders discuss plans to seal the borders of the Balkans. Now on a basic level it is easy to see why countries might wish to protect their borders. But sealing off the Balkans could well trap thousands of poor asylum seekers in Greece, a country weighed down with many domestic difficulties.

This is Europe’s problem so Europe should find an answer; this is the world’s problem so the world should find an answer. Just blocking the doors and saying that refugees should stay in the country where they first land is selfish and impractical.

This solution appeals to some of our own right-wing politicians, yet we cannot leave Greece to solve this problem alone.

But here’s an interesting thing. Reports at the weekend suggest Greek islanders could be nominated for the Nobel peace prize for their humanitarian efforts in helping asylum seekers on the frontline of the refugee crisis.

What a fantastic idea. Those Greek islanders who have helped people at the point of desperation remind us that humanity can rise above race, creed and nationality. Something the small-minded Danish government might remember.borgen_season1

Google deal nothing to crow about, George

WHO’S the real Lotto winner? Not that woman from Worcester who claims her ticket went through the wash. No, Google of course. What a cosy deal they’ve done with the Treasury.

Chancellor George Osborne has been crowing about the all-round wonderfulness of his arrangement with Google, under which the company has agreed to pay £130 million taxes in a deal covering ten years – on reported annual UK revenues of £3.9 billion.

“A major success,” says Osborne, hopping around with his crow head bobbing up and down and his black eyes gleaming.

“We’ve been had,” almost everyone else cries.

According to The Times this morning. Google could pay France three times as much in a similar settlement, even though the UK is the company’s biggest foreign market. In an aside, The Times reports that Google spends “$12 million a year alone on chicken for its staff canteens” – feeding them chicken while we get chicken feed, in other words.

Hardly anyone apart from Osborne thinks this deal is worthy of a crow dance – with even Number Ten distancing itself from Osborne’s enthusiasm. A press spokesman for David Magpie Cameron said “five for silver” and declined to make further comment.

Incidentally, should you be wondering why Mr Cameron has been depicted as a magpie to Osborne’s crow, I direct you towards the RSPB website, where you will find the following: “Magpies seem to be jacks of all trades – scavengers, predators and pest-destroyers, their challenging, almost arrogant attitude has won them few friends.”

Keeping financial tabs on multinational tech companies such as Google is a tricky business – but then so is politics, and what George Osborne is attempting to do is pass off a shameful failure as a success.

And that just won’t wash (a bit like that lottery ticket).

The Financial Times tends to understand these things. It says this morning of George’s dodgy arrangement with Google: “The deal ended a decade-long probe by the authorities into whether the tech group had skirted its tax bill obligations by allocating profits earned in the UK – its second biggest market – to its European base in Ireland, where tax rates are lower.”

Now Google is a wonderful thing and where would we be without it? Some of us can barely remember what life was like pre-Google. Yet if we are to have tax systems, it is only fair that companies such as Google and Amazon should pay their share of taxes, as smaller and less protean companies have to (just Googled ‘protean’ to check and reckon it will do).

Tech companies seem able to slip in and out of countries like spectral money-making machines, providing services people want, and yet being reluctant to pay a fair whack of tax, as if they believe themselves to be citizens of a higher world that shuns the old shackles and shekels.

Of course what various sketch writers have done this morning is put George Osborne into Google. I just did that and got “about 58,300,000 results in 0.57 seconds”. Wow! And I bet none of them say that George is right.

A different sort of tax applies to the National Lottery: a tax on idiocy. Now I stump up £2 a week as my contribution. It’s good to feel there is a chance of winning, however remote the odds.

There is much reporting this morning of the Worcester woman who claims she put her £33 million winning ticket through the wash. Susanne Hinte is splashed all over the front page of the Sun. The 48-year-old ‘gran’ is not believed by all, with one neighbour telling the tabloid: “Sue is a clever girl, but claiming to have a ticket with the barcode washed off is a bit much.”

Well, yes.

I might as well claim to have won because I had a ticket with completely the wrong numbers on – as happens every week. I’ve not checked Saturday’s numbers yet, so here goes. Ahem, not a single number again. And the millionaire draw? “Sorry not a winning match…”

Raising a glass to bread and beer…

Vote for me now in the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

I only know two Russian proverbs. And one of those goes like this: “Foolish is the man who thinks he can reduce War and Peace to a six-part TV series for Sunday night telly.”

Before relaying the other, let’s just admit that BBC 1’s War and Peace is a fantastic treat, marred only by a sense of having been more condensed more fully than a can of that sweet milk.

Enough of that though, as this morning I wish to talk about beer and bread, two important ingredients in a life roundly lived. That at least is my theory, one which has got me this far.

Here, then, is the proper Russian proverb: “When you die, all the bread you ever wasted is weighed. If it is heavier than you, hell is your destination.”

That came from one of my many bread recipe books, and I remember those words when tipping a small concrete chunk of stale bread into the bin. Stale bread can have many uses, not least in making croutons for soup, but there does come a point when what was once springy and fresh is beyond alternative use.

So I was thrilled to read about a London brewer who is using waste bread to make beer; genuinely pleased, as here were two of my favourite things joined in parsimonious union.

The Hackney Brewery is reported to have made beer from unsold loaves of bread, the first time this has been done in Britain. The ale is made from “bread that would otherwise be thrown away by bakeries, delicatessens and supermarkets”, according to the Guardian.

The idea for the beer came from Tristram Stuart, founder of the charity Feedback, which campaigns to end food waste, and was inspired by a Belgian brewer who already follows this process.

Stuart says that 24 million slices of bread are thrown away every year in this country. An awful lot of bread. And an awful lot of people going to hell.

Toast Ale is made by turning waste loaves into breadcrumbs which are toasted and then brewed with malted barley, hops and yeast. The resulting beer is said to be a pale ale with a distinctive taste. Each bottle uses one slice of bread, and all profits go back to the Feedback charity.

Toast Ale costs £3 for a 330ml bottle. That sounds a lot but I will definitely give it a try.

This crusty ale seems like a good way to raise the matter of what we throw away. According to a survey by Love Food Hate Waste, 49 per cent of adults eat bread every day, with 38 per cent buying two loaves a week (the same number as I bake each week). Shockingly, 18 per cent of bread buyers admitted to throwing away a whole loaf before opening it, while 25 per cent threw away the end of a loaf.

As for the ale, there is a pleasing wholeness to this idea, as bread and beer have always been linked, and not only in my diet. Bread needs assistance to rise in the oven, and this comes from yeast. Before the production of commercial yeast, early bakers made their own sourdough cultures (popular again now among craft bakers and bread-obsessed home bread bores) or made a ‘barm’ using yeast residue skimmed from the top of beer during the brewing process. This yeasted scum was fed with flour and left to grow, after which it could be used to raise bread.

Home bakers can have fun using live beer, which still has yeast in the bottle, to experiment with in making beer. Although you do have to waste a bottle of beer to do that.

Not such a tall story…

Vote for me now in the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

I have been robbed by the actor Stanley Tucci. In today’s Guardian Weekend magazine, he features in a Q&A, one of those old newspaper ideas that still work well.

The questions are the same each week, and one asks: “What do you most dislike about your appearance?” To which Tucci replies: “I would love to have my hair back, and to be two inches taller – I am 5ft 8in.”

Ha! That man has taken those words from mouth, stolen them while I was sleeping perhaps. Still, it’s encouraging to learn that a famous man worries about follicular loss and a lack of height. I would have put Stanley taller than that, but that has been said about me too.

“I thought you’d be taller,” a letter writer/occasional columnist said when he met me years ago.

No, same height as I’ve always been since the growing business stopped. At the time this man had only spoken to me on the phone and seen my by-line photograph in the newspaper. Although I can’t claim much in the way of tallness, I can safely say that I am taller in the flesh than in the picture that accompanied my column.

Wishing one had been taller and hairier is pointless, but sometimes pointless distractions carry a certain weight. In the photograph to accompany the Q&A, Tucci looks handsome with his bald and shaved head, heavy glasses and stubble on his face that runs on from the bristles at the side of his head. That’s a trick I have never managed to pull off. Without visits to the barber, my hair grows thick at the sides and back, and eventually reaches a ‘mad professor’ moment with too many protruding clumps. And the stubble just looks scruffy.

People of perfectly average height – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – often wish they were taller. My great university friend John Sheridan, the subject of one of these laptop excursions, was 6ft 4in and towered over me. I wished I could have been taller then but John thought there were disadvantages, including a tendency to slump your shoulders. It is also harder to pass unnoticed.

As a Tucci-sized man, I have one son of 6ft 2in and another of 5ft 11in. Thankfully our daughter is a little shorter than me, and indulges in a good-tempered squabble with her mother over who is taller.

According to a story in the Daily Mail last year, being tall can be good for your heart but can harm your sex life. The story below this was such a mass of worry-inducing contradictions that I fear I shrunk an inch while reading it. Nothing worth repeating there.

A couple of years before that, the Daily Telegraph was reporting on “The benefits of height”, and opined that “Tallness, particularly in men, has always been a valuable biological characteristic, where those fortunate enough to be at least 6ft benefit from a pervasive positive discrimination.”

If small men suffer the opposite effects thanks to their limited stature, then those of us in the middle – yes, I’m still calling this the middle, thank you – presumably get away without being too much affected either way.

Would I have escaped this ledge earlier if I’d been as tall as my son? Who knows, but I’m stuck at 5ft 8in, size eight shoes and a head of larger than average dimensions.

But then look at Stanley. He seems pretty cool to me.

The prime minister with two heads…

Vote for me now in the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

Two hits for the price of one today: David Cameron talking to himself and the truth about Ed Stone.

Last Autumn, David Cameron – you know, prime minister of this country, chief architect of cuts to local councils up and down the land – wrote in his capacity as an MP to the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire county council to complain about cuts to services in his constituency, saying that he was “disappointed”.

This story first surfaced in the Oxford Mail, and then went national. There was something pleasingly insane about David Cameron ticking off a council leader for the cuts he himself had made. This raised the frankly terrifying prospect that there might be two David Camerons in a Jekyll and Hyde scenario.

Now Cameron has once again warned his local council against making cuts, telling them to “look again”. In turn the council leader, Ian Hudspeth, tells Cameron his authority will have to make more than £69m of extra savings, including cuts to children’s centres – on top of cuts worth £292m already agreed between 2010 and 2020. Mr Hudspeth says his council has been “badly hit” by the government’s new funding formula.

Here we find David Jekyll talking to Dave Hyde. Please press OK to agree that you are over 18 and unlikely to be disturbed by this scenario.

David Jekyll: “Now Dave – and is it okay if I call you Dave? – I understand that you are upset about cuts to your local council and that the good folk of Witney might be up in arms.”

Dave Hyde: “Too right I am, David. I’ve already told that useless bunch to make back-office savings.”

DJ: “And what are back-office savings, Dave?”

DH: “Ah, not rightly sure. You’d need to ask George. He handles all the back-office stuff. Look, all they need to do is lay off a few unimportant people, you know, that sort of thing.”

DJ: “But don’t you feel at all responsible for cuts made by your own government?”

DH: “Who, me? I am the prime minister, I’m far too busy running the country to worry about something like that. Nothing to do with me, David, it’s all the fault of those local councils. We have made the cuts democratic…”

DJ: “Passed the buck, you mean.”

DH: “Look I don’t have time for any of this. I’ve got to dash off to Davos and put on my sad but reasonable face – and then bore the arse off all those Europeans until they get so sick of me moaning on and on they just agree to my demands.”

DJ: “Don’t go just yet, Dave. We’re still talking about the cuts in your own constituency caused by your own government – which is to say you.”

DH: “Me? Oh this has nothing to do with me. Look I’ve already told that fellow – damn fool is meant to be in the same party as me – that we have made it possible for councils to sell property assets and use the capital to invest in transforming local services – and ensure future savings.”

DJ: “And what on earth do those words actually mean, Dave?”

DH: “Haven’t the foggiest. George told me to say that. He’s big on selling things off is George. He’d put me on eBay if you gave him half a chance.”

DJ: “So what are you going to say to your constituents about the cuts?”

DH: “Constituents? Oh I’m far too busy to talk to them. They can go and moan to that council leader. All his fault. Nothing to do with me…”

Interestingly, when Robert Louis Stephenson wrote Jekyll and Hyde one of his interests was said to be the concerns over the divide between public and private selves in Victorian Britain. A similar divide seems to exist in David Cameron’s head.

Now let’s roll onto that stone. The Ed Stone was a two-tonne slab of limestone on which Ed Miliband had his election promises carved. This was by general agreement one of the worst gimmicks ever dreamed up by a politician (second only to Donald Trump’s hair). How many meetings did that idea go through; was everyone asleep?

After eight months of speculation, Labour officials have told Bloomberg News that the stone was smashed up shortly after the election. Presumably by applying it with force to the head of whoever had the idea.

Incidentally, Ed Stone is also a character in the York Theatre Royal panto, which ends an enjoyable run at the National Railway Museum tomorrow. So good I saw it twice.

That’s hairy: why beards aren’t dirty at all…

Vote for me now in the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

Beards are nasty, unhygienic facial doormats in which germs and bits of undigested food can hide like fugitives in a jungle, right?

Plenty of people think that. Plenty of woman-shaped people insist on it. Yet beards have never been more popular, with hipsters going around the place looking as if they have swallowed a fox whole leaving only the tail on view, hanging over their chin.

Mind you, I have read a few times that we may be reaching beard tipping point. This phrase is open to interpretation. Either it suggests that beard popularity has peaked. Or it indicates the moment when a beard has grown so huge that it threatens to topple the wearer onto his face.

Yes, nasty, dirty things – and I haven’t attempted to grow one since I proudly turned myself into a garden gnome in 1983 during a six-week holiday to Australia. That beard followed me home like a facial fungal growth. Either that or a koala bear was missing an ear that had somehow become stuck to my face.

Thick hair under that young chin, no moustache to speak of – I looked ridiculous, although I was proud of that beard.

Since then my face has been clean or carried a dusting of stubble. The only further excursion into facial adornment was a moustache grown in the name of charity. I reckon my wife would have paid me more than I raised just not to grow the lamentable thing in the first place.

Anyway it turns out that everything I have just written is wrong. Not about me looking like a tit when I grew a beard in Oz; that is true. Not the bit about the creepy, near-invisible lip caterpillar; that too is veracity itself.

No, what’s wrong is the hygiene slur. Beards are not dirty at all but are indeed cleaner than a close-shaven face. According to study published in the Man’s Book of Beardy Excuses – sorry, the Journal of Hospital Infection – beards may contain bacteria which could potentially be developed into new antibiotics.

And it may seem strange to those of us with mostly respectable chins, but clean-shaven men are more likely to harbour bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

A ‘naked’ face is more than three times as likely to carry MRSA – and ten per cent more likely to harbour colonies of Staphylococcus aureus – “a bacterium that causes skin and respiratory infections, and food poisoning” according to a report in the Independent.

Apparently shaving could be the problem, as the bacterial nasties can lurk in the cuts men inflict on themselves while shaving.

So far from being dirty, beards could save the world and men shaving too often could be the ones harbouring nasties on their skin.

Mostly I shave every other day, with a brush and shaving soap, and of course a very sharp blade. Really women have no idea of the way we men suffer (although I might just go and hide somewhere when my wife is reading this).

An outing to the sidebar of shame…

Vote for me now in the UK Blog Awards #UKBA16

Something a little unworthy today. I have been looking at the Daily Mail’s online strip of shame – also known as the sidebar of shame, a sidebar being a newspaper name for something incidental on the page.

A flight of nibs is a column of short stories – and the Mail’s online version is a column of flighty nibs. This is not a technical term as such, but something that occurred to me just before my brain rolled out of my ear. That’s the price I pay for research.

A ‘nib’ in this context is a mini-celebrity you probably won’t have heard of – and when you have been introduced, you will wish to jump again into the waters of blissful ignorance.

It’s surprising how much material you can get out of half-famous nonentities (not that most of them are wearing much in the way of material). Can you even be half-famous and a nonentity? Well you can on the strip of shame.

This sticky little feature has helped to make the Mail’s online version one of the most visited newspaper websites in the world, apparently. That ‘apparently’ is there as a caution, meaning I read that online more than once. And that’s good enough for me on my ledge.

Perhaps you are in a state of innocence about this modern cultural phenomenon. I shall explain. The sidebar of shame is a column of short stories about women in or half-out of their clothes. It is a tacky hymn to the bikini body; or a cautionary giggle about bodies that should never be seen in a bikini.

It’s raucous, shameless and smutty in a Carry On fashion. And scrolling through what amounts to an array of vaguely famous women’s breasts and bums is simultaneously sick-making and horribly addictive.

There are puns about bums, quips about tits. Flat stomachs often win a mention, as sometimes do their flabbier cousins.

Here is a taster of what is on offer today.

An Australian model called Lara Stone is worthy of three separate entries. In one she is “showing off her figure in a white bandeau bikini” on a beach in Sydney. In another she is having her photograph taken with a hunky male. And in the third the 32-year-old is seen shopping “with a sunburnt face after she took part in an outdoors photoshoot”.

The last pictures look like paparazzi shots. And what’s shown on Lara’s face isn’t sunburn but displeasure: she is pissed off at being followed round by a photographer.

Quite often the women have been snapped from a distance, possibly without realising. They do not appear to have been willing participants in their exhibitionism – although some shots look staged, so perhaps they knew all along.

Some of the photographs are selfies supplied by the women themselves. Someone called Lauren Goodger features often. Apparently she is a former reality TV star, which has a ring: what, do you think, “former reality” might be? It’s an interesting philosophical concept; more interesting anyway than Lauren’s self-snapped pictures of her “stripped down to her smalls”.

So a onetime reality star is now an all-out star in her own right in the smuttersome arena of not news. Perhaps not news sells because the actual news is just too damn depressing some days.

What a curious place this sidebar turns out to be. Women such as Lauren are on there all the time with semi-naked selfies they’ve put on Instagram – endless narcissism via mobile snaps. Scroll down further today and you will encounter Nikki Minaj’s “pert posterior”. Actually do be careful as it does stick out rather and I’m worried you might trip.

Ah, what’s this? “Has the world gone mad!? Bikini-clad Poppy Delevingne shows off her stunning model figure as she celebrates reaching 1 million Instagram followers.”

Yes, the world has gone mad – and you, Mail Online, helped make it a little bit madder, so don’t pretend otherwise.

I don’t understand this madness; and I don’t understand this sidebar of shame. It’s certainly traffic-accident compelling, but really I think I should pop my brain back in and look at something else.