Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fringe reviews: Edinburgh 2011 (part 2)

Here's the second part of my Fringe reviews from this year's festival. 

The Suitcase Royale in Zombatland (Pleasance Two, Friday 19 August, £10)
One of the revelations of last year, Australia's Suitcase Royale were on form again with their new show. Their form of comic musical theatre is unique, with surreal tales of the outback set to their own brand of junkyard skiffle. If anything, the music was even better this year, although the tale of a failing caravan park overrun by zombie wombats lacked the human touch of last year's doomed love story. As ever, their rapport with the audience kept a thread of humour and warmth throughout the show. 4/5

Devil's Advocate (Buff's Bar, Saturday 20 August, free)
I saw a couple of the Edinburgh Skeptics' shows last year and ended up writing the quiz for one instalment of this year's Devil's Advocate panel show. Unfortunately, the Skeptics had found themselves in the upstairs bar of Buff's Bar in West Register St, way off the beaten track and completely hidden from view. With no chance of picking up any passing trade, the audience was small and the show was further compromised by the loss of Ash Pryce, whose 'baby' this show was. 

The subject this time was 'Holy Books', and of course I'm going to say it was a great set of questions because I wrote them. What followed was an hour of funny banter and intellectual one-upmanship, which was a great way to start the day if you get up at noon. 4/5

The Oxford Imps (Gilded Balloon Nightclub, Saturday 20 August, £10.00)
Improv is an acquired taste. Oxford University's improvisers seem to have acquired the taste from 20-year old re-runs of 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?', because they aren't really taking the genre any further than that. As they poured onto the stage doing enthusiastically wacky dancing to the music, I turned to my companion and said, "I hate them already." That distaste grew with the attitude of their compère, who had no idea how to engage the audience other than by grinning and generally acting smug. 

Of the troupe of six, only the balding American showed any serious talent, although most of them had at least one good moment. Given those limitations, it's perhaps a good thing that they kept within the comfort zone of a predictable structure, so that the show was an amusing diversion for an hour rather than an embarrassment. But considering the talent that could be seen for the same price, and the far more dangerous and inventive impro on offer from the likes of The Noise Next Door, a tenner seemed a bit steep for a bunch of university amateurs larking about. 2/5

Andrew Bird's Village Fete (Underbelly Balcony, Saturday 20 August, £9.50)
No doubt about it, Andrew Bird is a lovely fellow and an hour in his company is a complete pleasure. His show is essentially his impression of moving back to a village with his young family after living in London, observing the quiet insanity of village life. His observations are spot-on, and he mines a vein of humour seldom tackled by mainstream comics, where the irrelevant minutiae of life acquire a significance that makes the death toll in Midsomer Murders entirely understandable. 5/5

The Boy With Tape On His Face (Pleasance Courtyard, Saturday 20 August, £12.50) 
Back by popular demand after a sell-out show last year, Sam Wills justified his reputation with a breath-taking show of silent comedy and naïve clowning. Given that his entire mouth is covered for the whole show, his communication skills are remarkable. It's pointless describing it because it has to be seen. 5/5

Translunar Paradise (Pleasance King Dome, Sunday 21 August, £10)
Two dancers with hand-held masks, accompanied by a woman on accordion, tell the story of a marriage cut short by cancer. Sounds like the most awful kind of pretentious Edinburgh show, and it is, but performed with such skill and poignant emotion that it works – so well that many of the audience were in tears. There were times, especially in the third quarter, where I lost touch with what was happening, and some of the tribulations suffered by the couple were telegraphed a long way off, but it retained its power. The accordionist deserves special mention, using her instrument not just for music but also sound subtle yet clever sound effects. 4/5

David O'Doherty (Pleasance One, Sunday 21 August, £15)
O'Doherty's performance was capable and slick, but relied too much on the audience being in on the joke. This was absolutely a show for confirmed fans. As someone who didn't know his material, I was lost at times. This was less of a show and more of an epilogue to previous shows I hadn't seen. He's a capable comic, but this show was a bit lazy and very much over-priced. 2/5

Tom Stade (Pleasance Above, Sunday 21 August, £12)
I'm surprised only two people walked out of Tom Stade's gloriously offensive show. It was self-conscious too, with Stade asking the rhetorical question, "Why d'ya do that, Tom?" when he went over the top, as he did on many occasions. I did feel for the teenage kids in the front row as Stade compared their sex life of their parents, sitting next to them, with that of the couple a few seats along. The young man (about 19) became Stade's partner in crime throughout the show as he built a story of espionage and criminality, killing sacred cows everywhere he could find them and mounting their stuffed udders for entertainment. 5/5

Monday, August 29, 2011

Review of The Idea Hunter

Leverage your super-guru solutions
Remember the dark ages of scrambling to find the right lid for your coffee cup before civilisation was brought blinking into the sunshine world of standard lids? Never mind the budget deficit, a double-dip recession and unwinnable wars, my life was on the verge of collapse from the stress of working out which lid fitted my coffee cup at Starbucks.

The message of this book is that it didn't take a genius to come up with the idea of a standard-size lid for take-away - sorry, 'to-go' - coffee cups. Wow Einstein, you're telling me that wasn't the work of a genius? No kidding!

Admittedly, 'The Idea Hunter' doesn't get any banal than that, but how could it? It's a formulaic book whose jargonistic language and bland, templated structure makes you want to hate it so much that it's hard to remain objective and recognise any good ideas when they appear. The first 'leverage' (as a verb) is in the preface, 'ongoing' appears on page 1 and we're only on page 5 when the cretinous acronym I-D-E-A makes its painful appearance, followed a page later by 'super-guru'. If you get to page 28, you'll come across the irony-free use of the term "wow-ize". Throughout, we are in the world of the inspirational management mystic - the kind of idiot who gets shown the door in any serious organisation except in America (and even there they went out of fashion a decade ago).

The usual business paragons are here: Warren Buffett, Neutron Jack Welch and Steve Jobs; but the first company to get the sycophancy treatment is Intuit, an organisation whose recent reputation seems to be built less on intuition and more on the old-fashioned and prosaic practice of getting market dominance and squeezing its increasingly captive and unwilling customers for every last cent with the help of well-lobbied regulators.

In some ways, this book lives by the principles it expounds. It insists that the best ideas aren't original but come from using "loose ties", picking up ideas from places that don't have an obvious link with a company's business and doing a lot of talking and reading. This is sensible advice and I won't disparage it.

In keeping with the authors' philosophy, there doesn't seem to be any original research here. All the quotes look like they are second-hand and there is nothing to suggest that the authors met any of the top executives quoted. The arguments follow the standard structure of hypothesis-quote-q.e.d., with little explanation of how to use those examples to advantage. Indeed, it seems to revel in its intellectual shallowness, and it seems the height of vanity to give this method its own trademark.

There is some useful content in here and there is some practical advice later in the book, but its pomposity and grandiose self-importance are extremely off-putting.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Edinburgh 2011: Fringe reviews part 1

Edinburgh's Fringe festival again proved its worth this week, although my two companions and I only had four days to sample what this year's festival had to offer. We've been lucky: there's a lot of cack at the Fringe, but we generally don't get many duffers and there was only one this time.

David Lee Nelson… Status Update (Beehive pub, Grassmarket, Thursday 18 August, free)
This was a rather odd show, which wasn't sure if it was comedy, philosophy or therapy. Nelson used video interviews with himself followed by live commentary to take us through his personal relationships, using anecdotes such as his then-future-ex-wife buying him porn for his birthday. The long pauses were probably intended to add poignancy to his story, but they tended instead to suck the energy from his performance and failed to counteract the effects of an excellent lunch at the same venue.  2/5

Colin Hoult's Inferno (Pleasance, Thursday 18 August, £12/14)
I saw Hoult on a whim last year and insisted this year that my companions come and see the man who gave me one of the highlights of 2010. Hoult's stock in trade is a series of realistic, damaged characters, all played with frightening realism and who presume that the audience understands and approves of their world-view. Last year, each character had his own slot in the show; this year a new set of characters merged and returned throughout the performance, engaging with the audience and allowing catchphrases to emerge. My favourite was the Welsh poet, listening by the wall to his neighbour – who is more successful on "the YouTube" – entertaining his friends and acolytes and "playing Monopoly and Twister and eating prawns straight out of the packet… who eats prawns straight out of the packet? Perverts, that's who." Hoult seems to have made a few changes after some bad reviews at the start of the run, but despite a couple of misfires I still found him utterly wonderful. 4/5

Tim Key, Masterslut (Pleasance, Thursday 18 August, £12)
A brilliant show from a master performer, who managed to keep a big theatre laughing without telling any obvious jokes. He used projection to enhance his show without ever losing contact with his audience, relating surreal and often meaningless stories from the life of a loser where logic collapses in on itself. Most memorable was the scene where he dived into the on-stage bath while allowing the screen to take us on a quest for a submerged can of Carlsberg, after which my companion (who had foolishly caught a thrown towel earlier in the evening) had to dry him off. Did the meaning of life emerge from any of this silliness? I hope not: neither from mine nor Key's life, but I didn't care one jot. 5/5

Shakespeare For Breakfast (C Venues, Friday 19 August, £7.50)
Gotta get up for this one. After King Lear last year, Macbeth got the treatment for an audience fighting the combined assault of hangovers and croissants that are more stale than a workingman's club comic. Here the Scottish play is re-tooled as an episode of Glee, with Duncan reduced to head boy of secondary school. As ever, there were cringeworthy moments and cultural references that went over my head (did Ross really have a monkey in Friends? Three simian seasons, apparently. How did I miss that?), but it's always a romp and the actors were excellent as usual. 3/5

Amused Moose semi-final (Bongo Club, probably £10 though I can't remember how much it cost…)
…but I do remember that it soaked up three hours of an afternoon that otherwise would probably have involved too much red wine. It's difficult even to name the comics, since I've lost my playbill and the website is so shit that it would have looked embarrassing in 1999 and even makes the lame name look professional. I mean, "Amused Moose"? And don't get me started on the fact that the two intervals were five minutes long while the queue for the understaffed bar was ten minutes. Fortunately, none of this detracts from the fact that this was a cracking afternoon's entertainment, with some quality acts giving ten-minute excerpts from their shows. DeAnne Smith deserves a mention for her warmly engaging show that constantly undermined the traditional relationship between performer and audience, ending with a 'Dear John' letter to the audience: "I love you, but I know you want to see other comedians and, to be honest, I'm seeing other audiences…"), but the clear winner for me (and the audience) was Canadian comic Tony Law with his laconic performance about how to be a comedian. Was that post-modern comedy? I think it was. 4/5

It's just such a shame that this was the prelude to Doctor Brown (Underbelly, Friday 19 August), which was the biggest pile of shit I have ever seen at the Fringe. I just don't have time to describe how rubbish this show was. I could have done better myself, except that I wouldn't have imagined anyone would pay to see such lame and irrelevant garbage. You've got to be seriously drunk to enjoy this crap, although some of the audience were, especially that annoying woman at the back who was even more annoying than the young man sitting next to her who tried to seduce me before the show. As I walked out I commented to my companions that I could have spent an hour looking at my own arse in a mirror and had more fun. 0/5

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dammit, Janet, am I parent or child?

Janet Street-Porter's column in yesterday's Independent On Sunday was a logical car crash, except that her intellect seems to have had a head-on collision with itself.

In celebrating Father's Day, she begins by praising parents as "unsung heroes" and ends by concluding that the solution to society's ills is for government to take on the responsibility that parents are seemingly incapable of exercising for themselves.

Having criticised politicians for blaming society's ills on parents, she then suggests that the solution to boozy Britain is to regulate the price of alcohol, which is mostly an attack on adult drinkers who can't be trusted to regulate their own alcohol intake. Grown-ups, who should be left to make their own decisions, will thus be penalised for the government's failure to police existing laws to prevent under-age drinking. Who suffers? The poor. And if those parents are irresponsible alcoholics, the only effect will be more money being extracted from adult drinkers by the government, leaving them less to spend on their children.

Street-Porter seems unable to make a point without contradicting herself. Having stated that "the vast majority [of modern teenagers] drink exactly as I did at their age," she then states in the very next sentence: "The simple reason why many kids drink today is because drink is everywhere." So, if it wasn't a problem then, why is now? Why do we need to "impose a strict price per unit of alcohol, a move demanded by every important medical body in the UK"?

Medical organisations have no expertise in this field. They might know about the medical effects of alcohol, but they are not remotely qualified to pontificate on how pricing affects behaviour, still less on whether treating adults like children is sound social policy. Her article is shot through with the absolute belief that parents are incapable of looking after their children and that the government needs to step in.

Having urged politicians and commentators to get off parents' backs, Street-Porter then urges them to leap right back on our backs with more heavy-handed, micro-management regulation of individual behaviour. She starts by lambasting those who criticise parents and ends by joining their ranks.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mark and John

I wrote this in October 2009. I can't remember why.

John and Mark at Box Hill, May 1983
It’s not a great photo: it was taken at Box Hill, the famous Surrey beauty spot, in May 1983 and my East German camera’s four functions: shutter, aperture, focus and wind-on, were all strictly manual. So when my brother John clambered onto my brother Mark’s shoulders there was no time to adjust the exposure or compose the picture properly. I just focused and pressed the shutter. Imperfect it might have been, but I did get this one shot.

A year later we returned to Box Hill, but this time we left Mark there: his ashes barely stirred by the windless air. Now, a year after John’s death, we are still waiting to do the same for him. 

When someone dies suddenly, friends will comfort you with platitudes like “at least he didn’t suffer”. When dying is long and drawn out, there is supposed to be comfort in the fact that we have time to say goodbye, put our affairs in order, spread the grief.

In April 1984 I was at university in Birmingham, John was a soldier serving in the Falkland Islands, our eldest brother Tony was preparing to go to polytechnic in Stoke and Mark had stayed in the Croydon area after our parents had moved out to Hampshire.

On Saturday 7 April, Tony and I were visiting Mark and we went to see some friends in a drama revue. During the show, our friend Tim came on stage wearing a sweatshirt with the legend “Falkland Islands 1984”. It could only mean one thing: John was back! In the bar afterwards, I commented that this might be the last time all four of us would be together. I did have my camera but couldn’t get everyone together, so I let the moment pass.

Two days later, Mark twisted the throttle on his Laverda slightly too hard as he accelerated up Oakwood Avenue in Purley. The bike skidded into a parked car while Mark was thrown into – and through – a lamp-post. He took the full impact on the chest; his heart was torn open as it was pressed against his vertebrae. The lamp-post was broken in three. Mark was dead before he hit the ground.

There is no comfort. Death is cruel and agonising. Mark’s death was a sudden, enormous horror that had to be swallowed painfully whole. In the days that followed, the worst times were the mornings: that shapeless world between sleep and wake where for just a moment you don’t know what is real and what was a dream. Every morning for weeks afterwards, there was that half-second of hope that it had been a nightmare, before full consciousness tumbled in and crushed it.

John was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1990, and this merciless condition ripped his body away from him nerve by nerve, I thought somehow that the pain at the end would be less; that I would spread my grief out over years, paying it off in instalments; with a smaller payment to come at the end.

I was wrong. If anything it was worse. I wasn’t paying off a debt of grief: I was saving it up. It paid out with interest last December when one infection too many put him in hospital and he never came out.

I had planned to see him the next day, but the day he died was my company’s Christmas ‘do’: while I was winning a go-kart race, my phone was ringing in my jacket pocket in an empty changing room. His carer never left a message or sent a text, and I didn’t notice the missed call till Dad called to tell me John had died.

We finally had a funeral for John. Being the nearest to the crematorium, I got the job of collecting his ashes (3.47 kg: he ain't heavy). Chance took me close to where Mark had died, so I photographed John's ashes on the spot where it had happened 26 years before. I took a photo – again, not a great one – simply because I couldn't think of a reason not to. The kerb is so pock-marked you can't even see the damage any more.
After nearly two decades of knowing what the end would be, he still died alone. That still hurts. I find no comfort in the platitudes of “lives lived to the full” or “our lives enriched by having known them”. Mark would have been 47 in December; John 48 in September. They should still be here and I’m angry and hurt that they’re not. Grief is the price we pay for surviving.

There hasn’t been a funeral yet. John left his body to science and science still hasn’t finished with it. I don’t care for funerals anyway.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to end an album and start a decade

Someone was asking about favourite song endings recently, and I couldn't get further than the somewhat obscure Hard Lovin' Man. Why? Because it makes a statement not just about the band that recorded it but about a whole decade.

Cacophonous guitar noise and heavy rock were still new when Deep Purple recorded this song on the first day of a new decade: 1 January 1970. Woodstock was only four months in the past, Hendrix was still alive and The Beatles had yet to record their final song. But the 60s were over, and the 70s were to be a very different decade.

Deep Purple were cheifly known in Britain at the time as the band that had recorded Concerto For Group And Orchestra with the London Philharmonic, a piece of experimentation that epitomised the limitless ambition of the 60s when there seemed no boundaries to what popular music could do in a world that could only get better. The disillusionment of the 70s prompted a tougher attitude that found its musical apogee (or nadir, according to your taste) in punk rock. The roots of that descent into anarchy are planted here.

Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore hated the Concerto and wanted the band (complete with new singer Ian Gillan and new bassist Roger Glover) to show that hard rock was the way forward. That statement was encapsulated in the title of the album, which also gave someone a wickedly simple yet memorable idea for the cover. "If this fails," Blackmore promised, "I'll play with orchestras for the rest of my life." In Rock was his rebellion, blasting in with a surge of electrical noise that kicked into 'Speed King'. The last track, 'Hard Lovin' Man', ended the same way, bookending the album perfectly.

'Hard Lovin' Man' gallops along, with a thumping drumbeat and driving bassline, overlaid by screamed vocals and searing guitar. Jon Lord, composer of the earlier Concerto, plays his organ barely in tune, as if any kind of melody would be an insult during such a brutal sonic assault.

After five-and-a-half minutes, the band sounds like it's going for a fade-out to a fast, heavy song, but Blackmore suddenly veers off on his own. Eventually the band stops but Blackmore carries on with some screeching, tuneless guitar noise. The band comes back in again, trying to corral the guitarist, but he's having none of it. Chaos triumphs over order and the band is pulled under, like the second Terminator briefly re-emerging in agony before sinking back into the molten steel . The fun new toy that was stereo enabled the guitar to tear from speaker to speaker like a victorious gladiator doing a lap of honour.

The track (and album) finally ends as the unaccompanied guitar screams, howls and eventually subsides into squeaks and pops, like the sound of tinkling glass that follows a catastrophic car crash. Blackmore has made his statement.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The worst writer on Fleet Street

I have plenty of bad habits, but self-deprecation is one of the worst. But if I'm honest with myself, I'm actually a good editor, which is lucky, since that's what I'm paid for. The downside is that it does strange things to one's brain, such that even now I'm worrying about the second comma in that last sentence. Or should that be 'past sentence'? Still, at least I know that the question mark goes outside the quote marks. And so on. And don't ask whether I should allow myself a verbless sentence like the last one. Or whether I should start a sentence with 'and'. Or 'but'. Or 'or'. Want a fight about it? Bring it on. I'm good at this. Being a good editor doesn't mean I'm any good at writing of course, but if you've got this far then you're probably prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt.

One rule of editing is that any piece can be improved by deleting the first paragraph and the first sentence of the next, so you can ignore all that preamble and start here. My job means dealing with 80,000-word screeds by experts who know everything about their business but next to nothing about communicating in English. I edit their work, I suggest ways to improve it and I warn the ambitious ones against trying to produce great literature, but I don't expect much. However, I do expect much from professional writers, which brings me to Kevin McCarra of The Guardian.

In a world where talented journalists can't find work, it offends me that one of the best newspapers in the land employs, on staff, a chief sports writer who cannot write.

I don't want to be an internet troll here. I have two friends who write for the same paper as freelances, one of whom has just been subjected to a virulent piece of abuse from a blogger who has made nasty and inaccurate assumptions about her based purely on her name. I'm sure McCarra is a nice guy who knows his subject and I don't want to upset him beyond saying he should go on a writing course. And I can't believe I'm the first person to have suggested this. Look at the opening paragraph of his report on Birmingham City's victory over Arsenal in the Carling Cup final on Sunday:
If Birmingham City held one advantage over Arsenal it lay in the art of endurance. A side striving not to fall out of the Premier League reached a peak in their history by defeating opponents who took far too long to discover impetus in this Carling Cup final. After 89 minutes, the substitute Obafemi Martins thrived on hapless defending to notch the winner. Alex McLeish's side had brought the club their first trophy since taking this prize in 1963.
This is not a paragraph. It's a vaguely related set of sentences that bear little or no relation to each other. It could almost be written as bullet points, the flow is so lacking, and yet it's the first paragraph of the paper's main report. It might be forgiveable if McCarra had been attempting a stylistic opening (albeit a botched one), but all his writing is like this.

Not having a thread is bad enough, but losing it half-way through a sentence is simply incompetent. Let's see how McCarra handles the winning goal in a major cup competition:
Koscielny moved as if to kick a long ball from Foster and distracted his goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny. He then let possession spill to the Nigerian Martins, who…

Well, we're getting really excited here, since this is a rare description of a goal (Robin Van Persie scored a terrific equaliser for Arsenal, but his name is not even mentioned in McCarra's report). We're so excited, we can almost ignore the missing comma or the fact that we don't know whether "he" refers to Koscielny or Szczesny (readers will assume it's the defender, but anyone who saw it knows he must be talking about the goalkeeper). We just want to know what Martins did. Did he…
pounce on the loose ball and stroke it into an empty net
react fastest with a striker's instinct to follow up and score
charge into the penalty area to punish the mistake, tearing the Gunners' dreams to tatters and sending the Birmingham fans into raptures
Any of those standard football-reporter clichés would do, but no, this is McCarra's effort:
He then let possession spill to the Nigerian Martins, who came to Birmingham last month on loan from the Russian club Rubin Kazan.
And that's the complete description. There really is no excuse for this. It's not a case of bad sub-editing. Heaven knows, I've been a sub-editor and I've fouled up enough good pieces with inept subbing, and bad subbing doesn't look like that, unless The Guardian employs a sub whose only task is to squeeze the rhythm and logic out of all McCarra's work. Maybe the same sub also inserted the nonsensical word "co-conspirators", to distinguish those who conspire together from one who conspires alone.

This rant isn't part of a personal grudge. Do you think I do unpaid, fantasy subbing on every article I read? That's what Wikipedia is for. McCarra only caught my attention because Guardian sports reports became so difficult to read that I felt compelled to ask, "Who wrote this?" And the same name kept cropping up. Look for yourself.

I stopped reading the BBC's website at the end of last year when its standards began plummeting. I started buying (yes, buying!) The Guardian because I like quality and I care about football. I can find (and sometimes supply) amateurish, opinionated drivel for free online. That's what the internet is for. A national newspaper should do better.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fly me to the moon or Basingstoke (Valentine's Day special)

It’s the time of year when Valentine’s Day sidles up to me with her sweet smile, whispers in my ear and then vomits on my shoes before grabbing an unshaven amateur poet by the crotch, gargling a Sambuca and staggering to another club where people who are more fun than me go to have a good time.

It’s ten years (to the day!) since I last celebrated Valentine’s Day in any meaningful way (apart from the notorious Grapefruit Incident of 2007, but that’s another story). I have some talents in other areas, but my love life resembles the Bognor Birdman contest: year after year of launching myself hopefully, followed very shortly by a predictable drenching. It’s a record of under-achievement that would put the England football team to shame. And I’ve only got time to write this blog because of the following text message:

“Sorry for the late notice but i wont be able to make it tonight … deadlines … items delayed …wont be an early finish … postpone until next week? Sorry about that. Thanks.
A-----  13:17

But I’m not here to grumble, nor to name any of the unfortunate women involved (don’t worry Angelina, our secret is safe). And the characters mentioned earlier are not based on anyone I know but are entirely the product of my deranged imagination (I, on the other hand, am entirely the product of my ex-wife’s deranged imagination).

February 14 is the one day of the year when I’m truly, blissfully, heart-leapingly happy to be single. Why? Because I’m a bit of a romantic, and today is far and away the least romantic day of the year. It’s the day when the most tender, considerate and loving of men turn into scheming liars. In their hearts, their faces and their deeds they will lie more desperately and miserably than they have ever lied before. Why? Because they have to pretend that they’re enjoying it too.

Men hate Valentine’s Day. No sooner has the pressure of Christmas been banished, with the presents bought and given and the drinks cabinet emptied, than the looming storm-cloud of February 14 darkens the horizon. Her favourite restaurant? Best ring up now, because this is the only night of the year (except Mother’s Day) when every restaurant is fully booked, and you don’t want to take her down the kebab shop or you’ll be in danger of getting skewered yourself. And if it’s a romantic weekend away, then you’re probably too late already. The best hotels in the most beautiful locations took their first bookings on February 15 last year and by mid-January there’s only the Holiday Inn in Basingstoke left*. Are the flowers big enough? Did you remember that she hates fondant centres? Should you buy a present as well? Will those earrings match? A man can’t enjoy Valentine’s Day. The best he can hope for is to survive.

Valentine’s Day explodes the myth that women are romantic and men aren’t. Men do dumb things like arrange surprise weekends away or buy chocolates when they’re not feeling guilty and their loved one isn’t feeling hungry. Men try to conquer the Antarctic and defeat tyrants, fly to the moon or cross the Channel in a bathtub. Almost always they do this to impress women (or occasionally to get away from them – I admit the argument doesn’t hold every time). If a woman wants to impress a man, all she has to do is wear a slightly redder lipstick and leave the top three buttons of her blouse undone. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to discourage that. I like to think I’m as shallow as the next man.

At its heart, romance is about letting your emotions inspire you to do stupid things on a whim. If women did that, the kids wouldn’t get fed and the laundry would start to pile up. Even if gender roles are changing and some men know how to operate a vacuum cleaner, the mindset is still there: women are fundamentally more organised than men. Romance has its place, and its place is February 14, which is why this is the one day when it is impossible to do anything romantic. When romance is organised, diarised and pigeon-holed, it loses everything that made it romantic in the first place. In short, it becomes sterile and emasculated. 

So I’ll wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day. Me, I’ve got to go. My Pot Noodle is getting cold.

* At the time of writing, the Holiday Inn in Basingstoke had three double rooms available from £135 plus breakfast.