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Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Change in the Changing Room Part 3

More revelations from the dark recesses of the male changing room...and other loosely related stuff.

The thing I like most about my gym, well, actually, the only thing I like about my gym (given that just about everything is designed to be a refined form of torture for which I pay a small fortune every month) is the pool. I do like to swim at the end of a gym session. Not because I am an ace swmimmer, oh no. Mostly because it means that all the nasty stuff is over and done with and, bar drowning, not much else can go wrong.
What really intrigues me about the pool are the various types that frequent it. By this I don't mean the dedicated, sub-Olympic types who dash up and down the 'fast' lane. I mean the odd people, such as
1. Groups having a Gossip
Why do people do this? Groups of people will gather at one end of the pool and stand and chat, completely oblivious to the fact that this effectively closes off one side of the pool to those of us monotonously paddling up and down. From time to time they will either all get out and head off to the jacuzzi or steam room, or they will suddenly set off in a flotilla to the other end of the pool where they will stop and natter for ages again.
2. Walkers (no, walkers, do read more carefully)
I presume this must be a new form of aerobic exercise? From time to time my feeble swimming (which is essentially like someone having a fit underwater) will be overtaken by someone striding purposefully along the pool, which is quite unnerving. My favourite of these was a bloke who always looked to me as if he should have a rolled up newspaper under his arm. I think it was the side parting and glasses that did it. All he was really short of was the bowler hat. He reminded me of a very well prepared banker caught in a sudden disastrous flood.
3. Little Old Blokes Who Are Better Swimmers Than Me
Actually, this isn't so much a category as one person, and he annoys the hell out of me. I think he spends 50% of his time on cruises and the other half in the pool at my gym, given the deep and even tan he sports. What narks me is that he swims along, making no apparent effort, but leaves me standing (well, sinking really). And he does it all wrong as well! He keeps his head permanently out of the water so that his immaculately coiffured pure white hair does not get a drop of water on it, and yet he still leaves me floundering. Okay, now just breathe normally and calm down, you're frightening the readers.
Right, I'm off to the showers now and I'll bet you any money that, even if every cubicle is empty, some damn fool will insist on taking their shower in the cubicle right next to mine. I appear to be a magnet for them, which I may discuss again at some time in the future - watch this space!

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Change in the Changing Room Part 2

It was the memory of all this that came back to haunt me when I first joined the Health Club (oh keep up at the back; I mentioned this in the first paragraph of the first part). Gone are the slatted benches and coat hooks of yore. Now we have lockers, televisions pumping out 24 hour Sports Channels, hair dryers and all manner of scented lotions. Of course, the joy of having lockers, as opposed to coat hooks, is that there is considerably less chance that you are likely to find your attire for the remainder of the day being used as a rugby ball by your peers or for it to appear unceremoniously dumped in a pile (and/or a puddle) by the subsequent class (always likely at Anglesey though not a strong possibility in a present-day health club, but you never know).
Although the modern-day changing rooms may have lost the Spartan ethic of my school days, the macho-man style so beloved of my P.E. Teachers is still there but just expressed in an entirely different way, such as:
Aggressive use of a deodorant
From time to time, an aspiring dominant male will form a noisy and noisome cloud of deodorant, ideally from a high-pressure, ozone-layer depleting canister. This is usually strongly perfumed and endorsed by some celebrity with no sense of smell or taste, and is guaranteed to have the same effect as tear gas on anyone within a 10 yard radius.
Making a noise like a hippopotamus on heat
There seems to be a need to make constant grunting and snorting sounds, occasionally punctuated by the apparent attempt to regurgitate something unpleasant from the back of the throat. This tends to be particularly evident in the showers, where it is often accompanied by apparent slurping sounds that defy description and which do not encourage further contemplation. The other day I was surprised to hear a sound akin to a small duck being sick. I can only imagine that all this is to counter any impression that there is anything less than masculine about wandering around with a towel around your waist, applying moisturiser to your face and mousse to your hair. Desmond Morris and David Attenborough would have a field day.
Hitting yourself whilst naked
Yes, honestly! I didn’t believe it either. Perhaps I had wandered into a ‘Sumo Wrestlers’ only’ session by mistake. The only saving grace, I suppose, is at least they’re not trying to hit anyone else whilst naked (which doesn’t bear thinking about).
Finally (yes, there’s that word you’ve been hoping for), back to the conversation that prompted all this changing room reflection. To understand the full horror of this you really have to understand the psychology of those of us who are ‘follically challenged’. The delusion that enables us to walk out of the door in the morning and gets us through the day is that ‘It isn’t that bad really’. This is a delusion that is frequently punctured by the hairdresser’s mirror or the first drops of rain, but, for, most of the time, it works. However, as I was standing in front of the mirror in the Health Club changing room, attempting to plaster (with the aid of mousse and a high-velocity hair dryer) what is left of my hair into something approaching a style, this gent who must have been at least two decades older than I am, came up and stood next to me, flicked the few remaining pure-white tufts of hair on his head this way and that, and said – “We’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got left, haven’t we?”.
My confidence and self-image can now be found, holding hands and whimpering, standing by the lockers and holding a note asking that they be excused any further physical activity involving changing rooms as their owner says they’re suffering from stress!

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Change in the Changing Room Part 1

I like to think that I'm something of a student of human behaviour (only GCSE at the moment, but I'm working on it) and the activities in the gents changing room are a rich source of study. Back in 2007, I wrote a piece for the Derby Evening Telegraph on how much the male changing room had changed since my school days. This is the first part of that article:
“We’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got left, haven’t we?” The white-haired gent said to me as we both stood in front of the mirror in the changing room of a local health club. I’ll tell you more about that conversation later (before you jump to any odd conclusions) but it did prompt me to realise just how much has changed in male behaviour in my fifty-odd (very odd in some cases) years.
In my youth, anyone attempting to ‘make the most of what they’ve got’ in the changing room (by which I mean adornment of any sort, from deodorant to hair gel, before the double-entendres start flying thick and fast) would have been viewed with deep suspicion. Things are rather different now, I have discovered.
In Uxbridge St. Juniors, the changing room for sports tended to be the brick built shelter on Anglesey Road Recreation Grounds (“the Wreck”). This was open to the elements on one side and the facilities consisted of a slatted bench around the other three sides (large chunks of which had usually been broken away by the older youths who frequented the place at night). It was somewhat Spartan in design and did not really encourage the spending of any time on one’s appearance. The main aim was to get your socks and football boots (or equivalent, depending on the season) on before the biting wind, scything across from the Wagon Works, turned your extremities a fetching shade of blue and condemned you to a Pobble-like existence for the rest of your days (for those who have forgotten their Edward Lear, the Pobble had no toes). I suppose we must have changed somewhere on site at Uxbridge St. as well. I can recall those ubiquitous draw-string pump bags hanging ominously from every coat peg, a sure sign of horrors yet to come (you may have gathered that my relationship with physical exercise was not an entirely positive one), so I suppose we changed in the coat-stuffed cloakroom but I’m not entirely sure.
The move to Secondary School brought much improved facilities for changing for the various tortures that featured in the school timetable. I can only speak for the Boy’s Changing Rooms of course, the Girl’s equivalent would remain a mystery to me, the only images I had were those conjured up by the lurid gossip of adolescence and consequent fevered imaginings (one being entirely the product of the other). The Boy’s Changing Rooms consisted of rows of slatted benches (again, I don’t know why, perhaps there’s a law somewhere) with coat hooks above. I seem to recall some lockers but these were for gym and sports equipment, I think. At the end of the room was the shower block, a tiled area split into two short corridors with shower heads either side, and the P.E. Teacher’s changing room.
Those unable to take part in the planned physical activity (or who hoped that they would not have to) lined up by the lockers, waiting for inspection by the P.E. Teacher. He would then proceed down the line, perusing the ‘papers’ (letters from home, allegedly) of the supplicants, like an S.S. Officer in a World War II film. By this time, the rest of the class would be changed and ready for their instructions and could sit back and enjoy the ritual humiliation of those who, for real or imagined reasons, were trying to avoid being involved. The degree of theatricality involved in this process tended to depend on the teacher for that class and the mood he was in. Genuine medical reasons usually just provoked a degree of discontented muttering from the track-suited Torquemada whereas the more feeble excuses (“I’m not feeling very well, sir”, “I think I’ve got a cold, sir” (as opposed to a cold sore), or “I had a letter from me mum, but the dog ate it”) would be seized upon, communicated to the rest of the class in pantomime-like tones, and followed by one of his stock of withering phrases or sarcastic comments (“Cold! Cold! If you can catch a cold, Whiteland then you can catch a ball, get yourself changed” or “Well, I’d rather teach your dog than you, Jones. Three times around the playing field, now!”).
Forgetting your kit was a cardinal sin and, whilst it might work occasionally as a means of dodging P.E./Sports, it was usually guaranteed to result in the utter humiliation of the ‘less than artful’ dodger. The standard punishment was to find yourself attired in kit assembled from lost items and cast-offs of previous generations of Anglesey scholars, in a bewildering range of sizes. The miscreant might therefore find himself wearing shorts that might be considered a little roomy by Bernard Manning, his (not Bernard Manning’s) school vest (we all wore vests in those days), grey school socks and football boots so tight that the erstwhile footballer would have to mince onto the playing field. All of the above in a range of colours from dark purple to “me mum washed it with me sister’s red flannel knickers” white.
Returning to the changing room after your bout of physical endeavour inevitably meant an encounter with the showers. In those days, adolescence and cleanliness did not really go together and many tried to avoid this particular ordeal. The P.E. Teacher was, however, always absolutely determined that everyone would shower, but as you were only ever allowed about 30 seconds in there, the chances of any thorough cleansing taking place was pretty limited. By and large, ‘he that must be obeyed’ seemed to be fairly happy if you were just wet. What the reaction would have been if you had trooped into the showers clutching some herbal essence shower gel and a bottle of ‘Wash and Go’ (I used that on my hair and they were right – I washed it and its gone!), I dread to think. Ideally, following the Spartan ethic, I’m sure they would have liked you to rub yourself down with a pumice stone and flay yourself dry with a whip. Of course, getting clean under these conditions would have been a minor miracle anyway, given that the floor was usually liberally coated with divots of mud and turf prised from the boots of all the preceding classes, and that you were putting back on the same sweaty (and there’s nothing like an adolescent male for sweat, they can sweat from pores that haven’t even been discovered yet), grotty garments that you changed out of in the first place.

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Wind in the Hollows

I've noticed a rather disturbing tendency amongst men of a 'certain age' to do things in the gym changing room that one would hope they would not do even in the privacy (or privy as Benny Hill used to memorably say) of their own homes.

I'm talking principally about (and readers of a nervous disposition may turn away now) the drying of one's important little places with a hair dryer. Why would anyone want to do this? Is it some misguided attempt to smooth out the wrinkles? If this is the case, I have to say they are definitely barking up the wrong tree. I doubt if the combined skills of Elizabeth Arden, Nivea and Oil of Olay (why did that stop being Ulay, by the way?)could ever smooth out the deep wrinkles surrounding the geriatric gonads. Perhaps we worry more down there?

There is certainly something deeply disturbing about watching pensioners, legs akimbo, fanning their genitalia with warm breezes. It certainly (if somewhat illogically) puts you off using said hair dryers for their actual purpose.

Of course, odd and possibly unhygienic behaviour is not just limited to the silver surfers. This morning I witnessed the unedifying sight of young chap clipping his toenails in the washbasin. Whilst you have to applaud the flexibility that allowed him to do this, you would really rather it wasn't happening at all.

Somehow, I can't imagine this sort of thing happens in the ladies locker rooms but maybe you can tell me otherwise?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Occasional Showers Part 2

ore helpful advice before you take your hotel shower
4. Know Your Shower Type
Not that this will make a blind bit of difference to the quality of your experience, but at least you will be able to bore others with your expertise and complain, with some authority, to the management.
Showers tend to fall into three different types (or, to put it another way, people tend to fall in three different types of shower). Firstly, there is the type that works by diverting the flow of water from the bath taps to a shower head. This can range from the relatively cheap but effective system of a rubber hose forced hopefully (and usually very temporarily) over the taps themselves, to the marginally more sophisticated version where the raising or depressing of a plunger of some sort diverts the water up to a shower head. The theory is that you should be able to run the water from the taps until you have established an adequate rate of flow and temperature and then, with a simple press of the plunger, divert this to the shower. In reality, either the depression of the plunger will force a stream of ice-cold (or sometimes, unaccountably, scalding-hot) water at your unprepared torso or there will be a disturbing sound in the plumbing, reminiscent of a flatulent hippopotamus easing its way out of a fetid swamp, and the hoped for water will vanish from sight.
The second category of shower is the electric shower. This has been a boon to landladies everywhere who, in an effort to meet the growing demand for ‘en-suite’ facilities in properties that were never designed to provide them, have forced shower cubicles into the most unlikely places. My broom cupboard experience in Dublin was an example of being at the mercy of an electric shower. You might think that the mixture of water and electricity is not necessarily a happy one, and you would be right but not for the obvious reasons. Electrocution is the least of your worries (and might even be seen as a happy release after 30 minutes or so wrestling with an unrelenting plastic box that has suddenly decided to stop delivering water at all). Electric showers work by diverting the normal water supply through a heating element. This presupposes that the normal water supply is delivered at sufficient pressure to provide an adequate shower. I suspect that these things are usually fitted and tested in the middle of the afternoon when nobody else is in the property and a fine, strong current of well-heated water is confidently delivered. Unfortunately, as the majority of hotels and guest-houses have set times for breakfast, the likelihood is that most of the residents will be trying to perform their ablutions at the same time, thus reducing the available water supply to a dismal trickle. Under these circumstances, the electric shower is not the place to be. It can be guaranteed, in the same way that toast will always fall butter (or low-fat, cholesterol-free, dairy-type spread) side down, that the water will disappear totally at exactly the point that you have shampoo dripping into both eyes and soap congealing in areas where you would rather it was not. It is precisely at this point that you realise that the controls were never designed to be operated by someone whose hands are covered in lather but that this is unimportant anyway as it is impossible to read the shower instructions whilst a selection of herbal extracts, essential oils and anti-bacterial detergents etch their way remorselessly across your eyeballs.
On the subject of items that were never designed to be operated by someone covered in soap, what lunatic first decided that it was a good idea to provide shampoo in sachets with tear-open slits? A glance around any fast-food establishment should confirm that opening sachets designed in this way is beyond the ability of most people even when they are dry and reasonably rational. Attempting the same manoeuvre when wet through, half-awake and fighting off the apparently amorous overtures of a shower curtain that has become irresistibly attracted to your damp body, should really feature as one of Dante’s circles of hell.
Finally we come to the last category, the Power Shower. This is my personal favourite. Here you are no longer at the mercy of the vagaries of the domestic water pressure. The hot and cold water supply is mixed to your desired temperature and then pumped through the shower head. What could go wrong? Well, unfortunately, a number of things. This system relies on there being an adequate supply of both hot and cold water, which is by no means guaranteed in many establishments, and sudden fluctuations of either can be character testing. Secondly, these types of shower are invariably supplied with the sort of shower head that has delusions of grandeur. A form of dial system on the shower head usually gives you the option of a fine spray, concentrated jet or a pulsating blast for the really courageous. I’m sure that these devices work really well when they are first fitted and that early users can probably amuse themselves by staging their own personal version of the Dancing Waters but, from experience, the early promise does not last and the shower head becomes jammed on some entirely inappropriate setting. The fun of the massage jet, as envisaged by the manufacturer, tends to be completely lost on the poor unfortunate who is running from one end of the bath to the other in a vain attempt to be in the right place at the right time for the next spasm of H2O.
I could go on (and I usually do) about shower curtains busily cultivating their own strain of antibiotics, about remarkably inadequate sections of transparent plastic designed to replace shower curtains that neither protect one’s modesty nor the bathroom from the water being sprayed in all directions and about shower head holders that either barely hold the shower head at all (and thus leave the user in a constant state of suspense) or which hold the shower head firmly but point it in entirely the wrong direction so that the full benefit of the shower can only be gained by someone spread-eagled against the bathroom wall. But I won’t. Oh, I don’t know though…
4. Evacuate the Area
Whether you have been supplied with a shower curtain, shower screen or (luxury of luxuries) an all-encompassing shower cubicle, you should resign yourself to the fact that, no matter how careful you are, your bathroom will be doused with water in every possible nook and cranny within 30 seconds of commencing your shower.
Given this simple fact, it still perplexes me that a well-known chain of holiday resorts insists on placing the entire stock of toilet rolls issued for your stay (including the one on the toilet roll holder itself) at one end of the bath and in direct line of fire of the shower head. Clearly soggy toilet paper is this year’s ‘must have’ for the discerning holidaymaker.
I suppose the only saving grace of these frequently ill-advised en-suite facilities is that at least we are spared the ridiculous situation of hotel or guest-house occupants diving in and out of their bedrooms like characters in a Brian Rix farce, every time that the sound of a bathroom door opening or closing is heard. Which, of course, is a quintessentially British tradition now lost for future generations (thank heavens!)
Right, hand me my floral shower cap and that sachet of Mango and Jojoba (which, according to Billy Connolly, is the month after September) Lotion. I’m going in and I may be some time.

You can now find the companion piece to this article "Dry with some, Sunshine!" in A Splendid Salmagundi

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Occasional Showers Part 1

I like to think that I am something of a connoisseur of the gentle act of showering. My wife says that given the amount of time that I spend in there, this announcement should surprise no-one, but I like to plan my day, bathed in the tender caress of warm refreshing water (in the absence of any better options) and whilst I can pretty well guarantee this will happen at home (the warm water I mean, not the better options), the whole plan tends to fall apart whenever I stay overnight somewhere else. If you’ve ever trusted what remains of your mortal coil to the often less than tender ministrations of a hotel or guesthouse shower, you’ll know what I mean.
Showers in hotels and guest-houses are the hotelier’s revenge on the world. Once you accept this simple fact, you can get on with trying to make the best of, what is all too often, a diabolical situation. For the uninitiated, here are some simple rules.
1. Ignore the Instructions
You might as well. The instructions (if they exist at all) invariably do not relate to the shower that is there now. They are more likely to form a sort of nostalgic tribute, to the shower that used to be there but which has long since gone to that Great Plumber’s Skip in the Sky. That is why the diagram shows that you must adjust two dials to achieve the optimum shower (coupled with dark warnings of what may happen if you do not do this), when you can only find one dial (which won’t move) and a mysterious lever. Speaking of dials…
2. Don’t touch the temperature dial
As previously noted, better establishments will have a well-worn notice describing the supposed functions of the piece of plumbing to which you are about to entrust your important little places. This is a work of fiction but it will give you something to read while you are waiting for the ambulance to come and tend to your first-degree burns. Lesser establishments will eschew the reading material, knowing that real men (and women) don’t read instructions and will instead present you with a Heath-Robinson collection of pipes, plungers and taps and leave you to work it out for yourself. In either case, I urge you – do not touch the temperature dial. This applies no matter what apparently ridiculous rating it appears to be set at. From past and painful experience, whatever the setting of the temperature dial, it is probably correct, unless the previous occupant was a sadist (or, possibly worse still, a masochist).
3. Don’t wait until morning to find out how it works
True of so many things but particularly showers. I remember one infamous occasion when I was staying in a B&B in Dublin. I should have been forewarned when I found that my sleeping accommodation consisted of a camp bed in what was clearly someone’s Study. The ‘usual facilities’ had been shoe-horned into what had previously been a broom cupboard, situated across the hall from my makeshift bedroom. The following morning, crawling unsteadily from my temporary dormitory after a night spent sampling Guinness, red wine and Chinese cuisine (in that order), I stumbled into the shower expecting an invigorating blast of (hopefully) warm water. It didn’t happen. I found that, with all dials turned to maximum (expecting at any minute a Scottish Engineer to appear from the basement screaming “If I gi’e her any more Cap’n, she’ll blow”) I was the less than pleased recipient of a dribble of marginally warm, brown liquid (perhaps it was Guinness?). All attempts to improve upon this state of affairs failed and I was forced to revolve my hung over corporation under this pathetic stream, resembling, for all intents and purposes, a vision by Salvador Dali of the closing sequence of Sunday Night at the London Palladium (now I’m showing my age).
Further helpful instructions in Occasional Showers Part 2
A version of this article appeared in the first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" which is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA.  The second, bumper collection "Crutches For Ducks" can also be found at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com and you can find the companion piece to this 'Dry with some, Sunshine!' in  A Splendid Salmagundi

Monday, 6 September 2010

A crush in the creche

We were recently sampling the delights of East Midlands Airport for slightly longer than we anticipated, due to a delay with our outbound flight.  Airports are not the most engaging of places when you really want to be somewhere else, and their primary purpose seems to be to strip you of any and all spare cash at every opportunity.  For example, I’ve noticed that EMA has followed the trend of most airports and now diverts you through the Duty Free Shop on your way to the boarding gate.  There’s no way around this, you have to walk through Duty Free.  Likewise, when you finally stagger out of the Security area having been stripped of most of your possessions and all of your dignity, you then get to walk past a row of shops eager to sell you the very things that have just been taken off you.

Anyway, as we sat there, grimly speculating on which, if any, of the vehicles parked all over the concrete might actually be our plane, a number of families came to join us in our seating area.  Most of the children were in the 2 – 5 age range and were clearly bored out of their skulls.  Regrettably, in a number of cases, their parents had apparently decided that their holidays started here and this did not involve child entertainment duties.  Celebrity magazines were unfolded and children left to their own devices.  Fortunately, one mother decided to take a more proactive approach and set up a miniature crèche consisting of her own four children (from the age range it was apparent what they did on their holidays) and one or two other strays.  She was clearly a natural at this and soon had the children engaged in simple games, reading or colouring.  She made a point of involving those who were orbiting the periphery of the group, too shy to join in but too bored not to.  Those who didn’t want to go along with the majority were accommodated with their own preferred choice of game.  I was really impressed and not entirely surprised to overhear that she was a Primary School teacher in her real life.  One or two of the errant parents made sporadic visits to the impromptu crèche, largely to show willing and assuage their guilt, but rapidly returned to the latest news on Jordan’s romantic life (how does her PR machine manage to come up with something to put on the cover of these magazines every week?)  Eventually, even our intrepid teacher had to have a break, so she called her husband in to the fray.

“Daddy” she said “I have to pop to the loo, could you keep an eye on the little ones?”

My admiration for her was instantly crushed.  One of my pet hates relates to parents who call each other ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’.  It all stems from an uncle and aunt of mine who did this.  I remember, as a small child, being absolutely perplexed when I heard them address each other in these terms.  How could they be each other’s mummy and daddy?  I think it’s a real shame when parents stop thinking of themselves as individuals and, instead, define each other by their family role.  It’s as if their personalities have been stripped away leaving just the childcare elements.

However, ‘daddy’ stepped up to the mark and took over supervising this loose knit unit of children in his wife’s absence, but with some reluctance as he had a motoring magazine that he was deeply involved with.  My abiding memory, as we were called to our boarding gate, was of this picture  of him sitting, cross-legged, amidst a sea of pre-school children all reading, crayoning or playing quietly, with his copy of ‘Top Gear’ as if he was a somewhat older member of the group.  I’m sure ‘mummy’ would have approved.

The first collection of stories - "Steady Past Your Granny's" is now available in Kindle e-book format at Amazon UK and Amazon USA