Archive for the U Lads Category

Grills & Boys

Posted in Food & Drink, U Lads on May 29, 2012 by Johnnie

Originally published in U Magazine, June 2008

Can you get the stench of burning flesh in the air? It’s that time of year again. Any day now, invitations to friends’ barbecues will come flooding in.

No one invites you to dinner during this period, no one says they’re having a few nibbles and cocktails in their garden, or in their 4’ X 3’ yard, in summer, you only ever get invites to barbecues.  And because there’s been a week of sunshine, they’ve been out in force early this year.  Apparently, it’s against the law to burn garden rubbish, but boy are you permitted to turn a small corner of your rear end into a funeral pyre for chunks of indeterminable animal offcuts.  I’m sure many of you are now wearing tops that were out on the washing line when one of your neighbours threw one of these acts of wilful fire-raising; smells yummy, your t-shirt, doesn’t it? I bet you were delighted when you first noticed what was happening. First you catch the scent of hot charcoal, then your throat and eyes begin to sting and choke, and finally you see the black plume snaking over the fence, the universally understood smoke signal meaning, “Man. Cooking. Now.” Continue reading

I’m always touched by your presents, dear

Posted in U Lads on December 16, 2009 by Johnnie

Hundreds of Christmases ago, before DVDs were invented, I bought someone the VHS of Wallace and Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers. It turned out to be the wrong Christmas present. “I’ve already got this,” she said glumly. Apparently, I hadn’t listened properly, although, due to her subsequent, door-slamming, stomp off to her room, I was left unsure whether it was just the wrong Wallace and Gromit video or if she’d wanted an actual pair of trousers.

Anyway, I’m reminded of this gaffe every year when I think about going Christmas shopping. It ought to have taught me a lesson, to listen more, to write things down, to basically remember to get people whatever it is they asked for. Buying Christmas gifts is a minefield; and it’s a minefield under additional sniper fire when you’re buying for your significant other.

At the start of any relationship, when all is lovey-dovey, you’ll ask her what her heart would desire for a yuletide gift; and she’ll reply, in all sincerity, with that beautiful line from the great poet and sage, Mariah Carey: “All I want for Christmas is you.” Of course, she doesn’t mean it. Continue reading

Grills & Boys

Posted in Food & Drink, U Lads on June 3, 2009 by Johnnie

BBQnotbroad

Originally published in U Magazine, June 2008

Can you get the stench of burning flesh in the air? It’s that time of year again. Any day now, invitations to friends’ barbecues will come flooding in.

No one invites you to dinner during this period, no one says they’re having a few nibbles and cocktails in their garden, or in their 4’ X 3’ yard, in summer, you only ever get invites to barbecues.  And because there’s been a week of sunshine, they’ve been out in force early this year.  Apparently, it’s against the law to burn garden rubbish, but boy are you permitted to turn a small corner of your rear end into a funeral pyre for chunks of indeterminable animal offcuts.  I’m sure many of you are now wearing tops that were out on the washing line when one of your neighbours threw one of these acts of wilful fire-raising; smells yummy, your t-shirt, doesn’t it? I bet you were delighted when you first noticed what was happening. First you catch the scent of hot charcoal, then your throat and eyes begin to sting and choke, and finally you see the black plume snaking over the fence, the universally understood smoke signal meaning, “Man. Cooking. Now.”

Continue reading

Mamma Mia

Posted in U Lads on March 20, 2009 by Johnnie

mamma_grazie

U Magazine, March 2008

Dear Mum,

As it’s soon to be Mothering Sunday, the day in which all us kids stop what we’re doing to honour the woman who brought us into the world and made us the treasures we are today, I thought it was a good time to write a little appreciation of the mother and son relationship. I don’t want to over-analyse things – I know how you’re prone to concentrate harder on Ready, Steady Cook when I get all philosophical – but our special bond deserves a review and an overview. Yes, it’s not what you had in mind for Mother’s Day, you’d probably prefer a tepid breakfast in bed and a box of Terry’s All Gold, but if it really is the thought that counts, you might want to read this. Your little boy has (sort of) grown up, and there are some things he’d like to say. Continue reading

The Valentine’s Massacre

Posted in U Lads on February 11, 2009 by Johnnie

love_will_tear_us_apart

Originally published in U Magazine, February 2008

If there’s one thing most women desire of their men, to show them just how loving, caring, sensitive and thoughtful they are, it’s a spontaneous display of romance. Presumably that’s why St Valentine’s Day was invented – it’s the most heralded, advertised, hyped and commercial piece of romantic spontaneity most men can muster.

On this special day, we are wont to spoil our entirely suspecting ladies with lavish gifts, like silk heart-shaped cushions, genetically modified flowers, handmade child-labour-intensive chocolates or fluffy cashmere Dyson cosies. Instead of the usual takeaway, we’re prepared to go the extra yard and find an inviting chipper with seating. Nothing but nothing brings out a man’s romantic ineptitude quite like Valentine’s Day.

If love is, as Plato suggested, a grave mental disease, then Valentine’s Day is organized, commercial Bedlam where men are concerned. While women’s hearts are a-flutter with sugar and spice and all things fattening, men’s hearts are heavy and in grave danger of seizing in fright.

In many ways, Valentine’s Day is more fraught with worries than Christmas, largely because it’s not a public holiday. Time away from work means that the disappointment brought on by ill-chosen Christmas presents can be smoothed over and eradicated by the time you go back. But with Valentine’s Day gifts, there’s that horrible, panicky feeling that women will be comparing notes with their colleagues, possibly whilst awaiting a sizeable delivery of flowers – and men who don’t come up to scratch will be forced to face the consequences of their shortcomings later.

After all, what does Valentine’s Day really mean to men? As anyone who’s familiar with top-selling loo-read The Incredible Book of Vatican Facts and Papal Curiosities will tell you, the Vatican dropped St Valentine from their official liturgical calendar in 1969 – so even that society of men don’t know what to do with it. It has long since been left for well-known charitable organisations Hallmark and Interflora to pick up the celebration – and for us to pick up the tab.

So what exactly can the hopeless non-romantic do that will make a difference on a day which demands more sincerity of our hearts than any other day of the year? Well, convention dictates he firstly buys a card.

Sadly, this is a minefield. Faced with an infinite selection of soppy-looking pink cards, a man can easily panic and end up purchasing an unpostable, barn-door-sized cardboard effigy of a teddy bear or loveheart, bearing some toe-curling, stomach-lurching verse, written, in all optimism, by some friendless, lonely, bifocal-wearing sap in Kansas. Only when he gets it home does it dawn on him that no one in their right mind would want to receive such a thing.

Perhaps, he may think, it’s a better idea to make his own card? Well, only if you’re reasonably artistic. I once received a spine-chilling homemade Valentine’s card from some lovelorn nutcase, a tatty, soggy piece of folded A4 paper that reeked of Tramp and Copydex, and bore more resemblance to a kidnap ransom note than any token of romance. Beside a few lines of syntax-free verse, pledging undying lust and an overdue requirement for a thesaurus, there was a stuck-on, cut-out heart that would have looked more at home on a butcher’s shop counter. In no way was it going anywhere near my mantelpiece.

“Say it with flowers”, the advert used to say. Say what, exactly? “I haven’t the beginnings of an idea”, perhaps? The difficulty here is that men are the ultimate last-minute buyers and last-minute flowers always look, and make the recipient feel, like an afterthought. It’s good for Spar and Esso, whose floral buckets do brisk business around the 6pm mark, but it’s not good for the hapless male who then has to present them to his beloved. Or ex, as she might start calling herself from then on. Either you make an early call to Interflora or it could later result in a call to Interpol.

The same thing applies to restaurants, although the rules change here to put you at a disadvantage. Many have Valentine’s Specials, a crude way of upping margins, shooing in more punters elbow-to-elbow, and spoiling any hope of an intimate candlelit dinner because you have to raise your voice above other couples’ barf-inducing smooch-talk. But a carefully-chosen restaurant booking will at least show you care; leaving it until Valentine’s night means, at best, a dank tourist hovel that, under normal circumstances, you’d only take a woman to if you were planning to dump her.

As with everything, men are often hopelessly unprepared for this day, mainly because romance doesn’t come naturally to them anymore. They’re no longer thinking outside the chocolate box. Gone are the mythological days of naturally romantic poets, gallant knights and eligible Princes Charming who knew how to sweep a woman off her dainty feet with a chivalrous flourish – unless you spend your days watching Barbie DVDs, that is. Instead, cynicism has produced selfish, self-styled chancers, cads and boors, men too easily distracted by themselves, who think that making a huge token gesture is what’s required and who don’t just focus on the person rather than the day.

Valentine’s Day may simply have become another victim of our times; prices and people’s expectations both rising with perceptions of increased cash and decreased taste. It needn’t be the case. A successful Valentine isn’t about affordability, it’s one where the thought really counts, where time spent in preparation pays off in the most rewarding way; and very often, that means less is more.

Tokens of affection shouldn’t be dictated by anyone advertising gifts, dinner specials or weekends away, lovely though these may be. Who can actually put a value on someone making the effort to have the person closest to their heart feel utterly loved, worshipped and desired on a special celebratory day, by doing something unique to them? A home-cooked meal, a good bottle of wine, a nostalgic conversation about their own love story, a little surprise gift and some selfless sharing – it’s a day for time spent and a little imagination applied, more than any of the clichéd trinkets associated with the biggest retail opportunity between Christmas and Easter.

And please, please, no matter how tempting or easy it seem to be, steer clear of those appalling Love Songs CDs that get dusted off year in year out – how on earth could anyone feel in the least bit romantic, let alone sexy, with Celine Dion or Jennifer Rush screeching away in the background? A couple of glasses of full-bodied and your heart will go on with the power of love. No, honestly.

The Road To Hell…

Posted in U Lads on January 1, 2009 by Johnnie

promisess600x600Originally published in U Magazine, December 2007

Like your first love, your first cigar and your first electric shock, you never forget your first New Year’s Resolution.

When I was six, I resolved to get to the moon. I’d seen it done on telly and we even sang a song about it in school, I thought it’d be a piece of cake. My friends, Cameron and Steven, volunteered to help me gather the bits and bobs together to build our rocket: three castors, a lawnmower engine and a metal bin. Having successfully procured the castors from a three-legged table in Cameron’s living room, we then hit a couple of unforseen snags. Firstly, neither of my mates had a lawn, never mind a mower, and, in any case, all our dads were fiercely protective of their sheds. Secondly, the standard-issue bins in town were made of plastic; I knew Mrs Davidson next door had a metal one around the back for her garden rubbish – but we couldn’t steal it because she also had a big dog.

It was downhill from then on. There were rumblings of recrimination, threatened reprisals and accusations of selfishness pointed in my direction when it dawned on the boys that there wouldn’t have been any room for them in the rocket. Well, I protested, it was my idea.

And that was that, my first New Year’s Resolution went up in smoke. Or rather, it didn’t. From a tender age, from my lowly position on terra firma, I discovered how inherently pointless it is to make ambitious, potentially life-changing promises to yourself on the basis that you’re starting a new calendar.

As grounds for making promises you can stick to go, the festive season is particularly treacherous. As any woman knows, men are full of promises when there’s drink involved. “Yes, I’ll be home early,” is one; “thanks for your number, I’ll phone you tomorrow,” is another. Worse than any regular Saturday night, New Year’s Eve is traditionally seen as an alcoholic Halloween, a frightening, mind-warping night where we raise glasses and down bottles to the ghosts and ghouls of an old year before the white-satin gown of a saintly, virginal new year tiptoes in around the prostrate bodies of drunken revellers, promising goodness and forgiveness for all. And the first empty promise made every year is? “Oooh, I’m never going to drink again…”

Why can’t people just be honest and enjoy the party season without feeling that they need to put themselves under self-flagellating pressure to stop doing things they like? Of course, everyone you meet will still ask, “are you making any resolutions this year?” I somehow find myself giving out the same answer every time: yes, I’m going to take up smoking, put on weight and write a Scottish recipe book – 365 Days Of Deep Fried Anything.

Women seem particularly obsessed with the idea that a New Year means a new start; that somehow you can wilfully purge your soul of the most sleepless, credit card-maxing and debauched of Decembers by turning January into a frugal, monastic cleansing experience.

Thousands of Euro are thrown at the annual, deluded self-promise to shed pounds, tone flabby bits and fill in the perforations on livers. January is a boom-month for gym staff and slimming gurus who don’t have to even think about going out into the cold with their clipboards to annoy people at tea-time into signing up for something they don’t want; the over-indulgent, corpulent and tragically vulnerable will come to find them. “Forgive me Weight Watchers for I have sinned,” you say; “that’s OK,” they say, “if it wasn’t for you lot indulging in all Seven Deadly Sins over a supposedly religious holiday, we wouldn’t even be here.”

If the statistics are true, 39% of resolutions are jettisoned by the end of January, thereby making liars out of millions around the world. People who have difficulty giving up a few simple pleasures for Lent shouldn’t even entertain the notion of resolutions. What exactly is the problem with them?

It can be summed up in four words: hard work and change. Not only is the festive season indulgent, it’s also bone-lazy. Most men are realistic enough to know that change isn’t something that happens to you, it’s something you have to effect. You may be seduced by the TV ad for those little belt things that supposedly electrocute your jelly belly into a six-pack while you watch Star Trek marathons but even that delusion requires that you make a phone call.

If you really want to change, it has to be done soberly and involve calculation. For example, if you want to lose weight, it’s not about ‘giving up’ food and drink, it’s about eating the right things and exercising – crucially, spending more calories than you consume. It’s a notion that starts out sounding do-able and gets less and less exciting as January wears on. Winter is a dreadful time to consider this anyway; the weather is generally adverse, which discourages exercise, you want to spend more time snug on the sofa watching telly anyway and who wants to eat anything other than comforting stodge when it’s so cold out?

If anything, sensible people should resolve to enjoy January more than they enjoyed December; it’s a long month for salaried people who’ve overspent at Christmas, and the short days and unremitting frost make for an atmosphere of utter bleakness if these 31 days are not handled positively. By simply doing the things you enjoy, things that don’t necessarily cost much money, then, without the horrific pressure of the previous month’s present-buying crush, you could reach February more refreshed than you would if you had a list of half-a-dozen broken promises to your name. A little bit of what you fancy, and all that.

Therefore, I propose that the inherently negative New Year Resolution is scrapped and replaced by positive Spring Resolutions. The weather is getting kinder, the days are getting longer and men’s thoughts are getting slightly filthier. We should resolve to get up earlier at weekends to elongate our time off, not switch on the telly first thing, eat more seasonal fruit and veg, drink more water, have more sex, ring people’s doorbells and pretend to be someone from the overpriced local gym with a special introductory offer, then leg it back home to get some more sensual exercise. It’s not about preachy regimes, giving things up, self denial and martyring ourselves at the burning stake of evil indulgence; it’s just about adding positive things to enliven our lives and to avoid dragging us into the perilous pit of self-pity – that’s what Damien Rice records are for, after all.

This January, tear up and recycle that list of optimistic fibs you wrote; New Year’s Resolutions are simply the alcohol-induced good intentions that crazy pave our road to hell. And, God knows, we’ve seen enough Big Brother to know that there are plenty of other pointless pursuits out there without bothering with those.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Posted in U Lads on December 13, 2008 by Johnnie

1_r2_c12Originally published in U MAGAZINE, December 2007

Dear Johnnie

Did you know that girls spend at least 6 weeks before Christmas hinting at
what they want you to buy them? Men say they never know what to get. Is it because:

A They’re deaf
B They’re stupid; or
C They don’t care enough to listen to what we’re hinting for?

Discuss

Jennifer Stevens, Editor, U Magazine

Hinting; women are great at this. The undisputed champions. I’m not sure if any scientific study has been carried out to determine what percentage of female words and actions are made up of insinuation but it would doubtless be very high. Whether it’s leaving things strategically around the house ‘to be done’, hiding our favourite gadgets or leaving magazines open at specifically random pages, life is a barrage of strict female orders delivered through the medium of subtle implication. And woe betide the man who systematically fails to pick up on these hints; before long, a couple of empty suitcases may just happen to appear adjacent to his belongings.

Hinting about Christmas presents is so fraught with danger, it’s a wonder women still do it. Women are life’s shoppers; the notion of going to an appropriate shop to buy the appropriate gift is second nature, like breathing, weight-watching and clogging the bath with hair. Sending a man to buy women’s things is like getting a Rottweiler to choose a kitten; he’s not looking at the merchandise the same way you do and it’s likely to end up in a terrible, terrible mess.

If we’re looking for a reason why men don’t know what to buy a woman for Christmas, the multiple choices above are slightly unfair; and yet, they’re all perfectly true at the same time. The catalyst, however, is fear. The fear of getting it all horribly, horribly wrong.

Take clothing. For 9-12 months of the year, women complain of having ‘nothing to wear’. Let’s say blokey resolves to fill her supposedly ‘empty’ wardrobes, he takes his lunch break to zoom around what he thinks are her favourite clothes shops. It’s then that the fear takes hold. Crap, what does she like? What size is she? Does this really look good? Are these my hands I see trembling before me?

If I hadn’t seen such a man with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe this happened. Said gentleman arrives in the shop slightly out of breath, perspiring profusely at his temples and a glamorous assistant greets him with a smile. “I’m looking for a present for my wife,” he says. “Certainly, what size is she?” “Oh… er… about your size.” It was a maternity clothing shop and the assistant wasn’t pregnant.

Actually, assistants are another issue. Those geared towards selling things to women tend to be overtly, intimidatingly glamorous women themselves. They also view male shoppers with a high degree of suspicion. If you try to buy underwear, they may say, “can I help you” but they still give you that look that says, “are they for your wife? Sure they’re not for your mistress you lecherous, fornicating pig?” Or maybe that’s just my paranoia.

“Yes, what type are you looking for?” Well, nice underwear. “OK, what about the briefs? High leg?” They’re pretty high, yes. All the way up to her waist, I think. “Bra size?” About… out to here.

There’s a whole language we have to learn about buying these items, a language that women have been speaking since they first noticed bits of themselves were changing shape – what hope have we got in a cold, December lunch break with queues going out the door in every shop?

Jewellery? That’s a laugh. Never mind the fact that buying a nice, affordable rock from the Argos catalogue would result in GBH, the alternatives are a matter of taste – and salary. How do those romantic heroes in the movies who present the girl with a ring always pick exactly the right size? How do I choose something that doesn’t look inexpensively delicate or so chunky that Fiddy Cent would consider it ostentatious? No, I’ll leave it.

Now, what was it she was saying during No Frontiers the other night? The one where Kathryn Thomas was swanning around on a beach in Barbados – there was something the Mrs was hinting at. Was it the swimsuit or the hammock? I know, it was the snorkelling gear. And a spa treatment, that was the other thing she mentioned. I saw those in Boots, I’m sure. Are they only for feet or can you treat your head in it with that avocado sludge as well?

A few years ago in my previous job, the boss called me into his office one December afternoon. He offered me a chair and shifted around uncomfortably in his own. He sighed heavily. “Can I ask you something? I’m not trying to steal your idea but… what are you getting your Mrs for Christmas?” Quite a few things, actually. A watch, some DVDs, books, smelly stuff, things I know she’d like but not necessarily want. “Right,” he sighed again, having glazed over. “I really don’t know what to get for mine.” What did you get her last year? “A nose hair trimmer.” So you’re the romantic type, sensitive to her needs. I’m sure if you listen carefully, she’ll be dropping hints. Get her something to stimulate her senses – again. “OK, I’ll have a think, cheers.”

After work on Christmas Eve, we all piled into a local pub. The gaffer walked in with a large, oblong piece of first-form woodwork wedged under his arm. What’s that? I asked. “A spice rack.” Is that what you got her for Christmas? And only today? “It’s what she wanted.” There aren’t any spices in it. “She’s got loads at home, just nothing to put them in. You don’t happen to know if Centra still have any wrapping paper, do you?” A couple of our colleagues began tittering and he became defensive. “She only had two things she wanted, a spice rack or,” his voice trailed off slightly, “a wine rack.” Hang on, she wanted a wine rack? “Yeah.” Which you could have filled with loads of really nice wine to, you know, stimulate her senses, like we discussed. “Sigh.” But you got her a spice rack. With no spices in it. “F***! F***!”

He’s now married to someone else. “S’pose, on reflection,” he says now, “it’s easier to see why we didn’t last. Plus, she kept farting.”

Hold on, if I was able to give him advice on buying presents all those years ago, why can’t I advise myself the same way? Take it calmly and, more importantly, try to start shopping earlier than the last-possible day before Christmas.

OK, I’m going to hand this essay in now. I doubt my editor will give it any more than a C+, it may even warrant a big red, festive “SEE ME!” across it, who knows? But I’m also posting a copy to Santa – hopefully he’s been listening to all women’s frequent bouts of subtlety and is ready to help us deaf, stupid, uncaring and terrified men make this Christmas a pleasantly surprising one.