Programme Notes from Les Miserables

Look down, look down,

Don’t look ’em in the eye.

By the time Jean Valjean and his fellow convicts had hauled in the French Man O’ War, the couple to my left had nodded off – the man’s head tilted back against the wall, jaw loose,  the woman’s body twisted awkwardly over his chest.

Little surprise considering the intense heat laid on for matineés and the draining events of Les Misthe previous half hour. I’d counted sixteen of us filling the back row when the doors  opened and, in our early 60s, my friend and I were clearly the youngsters of the party. Outer clothes had been quickly discarded, and with the screen curtains still shut, a buzz of anticipation had filtered along the row as film reviews were shared and medical matters dissected.

‘I’ve heard it’s not as good as the stage version,’ the woman by my friend said, loudly. ‘But I’ll give it a chance’

‘Very noble of you,’ my friend replied.

‘Javert’s got a kidney stone. They take it out later,’ I thought I heard a woman say, although I doubted the stage show had been tampered with to that extent. Perhaps she meant someone else.

We’d hardly settled when a young usher came in.

‘Anyone dropped a Bus Pass?’ he called out. ‘Sorry, can’t give the name – Data Protection. But we’ve put it behind the hot chocolate counter.’

At this, the women of the row emptied purses of cards used for this, that and the other, whilst men checked front, back and side pockets of coats and trousers. To echoes of, ‘I know it’s in here somewhere,’ sixteen Bus Passes were eventually accounted for, and the usher had unwittingly added to our camaraderie.

But then the mood changed. A string of men in track suits came through the swing doors and took up the row in front of us. Word went round that they were basketball players from Bucharest at a tournament in Gloucester that evening. With their average height of six foot eleven and the cinema’s mean seating rake, we had a problem.

Taking the initiative, and not without a good deal of tutting and muttering, the couple at the end of our row moved into seats in front of the Romanians, encouraging others to follow, until we were all neatly ensconced in the third row from the back.

But to our surprise, in what seemed an intuitive counter-attack, the basketball team moved purposefully from their seats, once again lining up in front of us. Some people saw this as Les Misdecidedly anti-British. I heard mention of the European Community and unfounded comment on cultural differences, the net result of which was our second, more boisterous shift into the seats below the Romanians, followed by a bilingual exchange of views about what was right and who was entitled to what in Europe and in Cineworld.

It had become a grudge match. With the temperature rising in every sense, the Romanians took no time at all in re-establishing a positional advantage, and as the screen came to life and lights dimmed, so the battle between sixteen lanky basketball players and sixteen people of leisure, tumbling in childlike fashion down the centre stalls of Screen 6, had continued until the Romanians reached the front row.

The ignominy of defeat hung heavily over us. But we were not finished. Hushed tactics passed along the line, and at a signal from a man with a tartan cravat and navy Pringle sweater, we crept, under cover of a booming trailer for Red Dawn with which our rivals seemed pre-occupied, back up to the seats we’d started off in. The next few minutes, in which we sat tight-lipped, anticipating a re-run of the ten minute charade, passed peacefully. The Romanians seemed happy having extra leg room and  no-one in front of them, and we’d restored our viewing advantage.

‘Marvellous how they’ve designed a car that doesn’t need a driver,’ said the man next to me, as a slinky, red Golf drove itself across the screen.

‘No point advertising if it doesn’t need one,’ I suggested, wondering why in this heat he was still wearing his narrow-rimmed, check trilby.

With fifteen minutes to go, a mouth-watering advertisement had then informed us:

‘There’s still time to collect your refreshing Werther’s Original from the foyer – and, gentlemen, why not take the opportunity to make yourselves comfortable while you can.’

Announcement of this intermission, tailored for matineés, led to evacuation of the back row, but not before we’d possessively laid cardigans and cagoules across seats to discourage trespass. Outside, the eight women formed an orderly queue at the sweet counter while we men split into two groups, one taking up the four Gents urinal spaces while the other four of us chatted for five minutes about sundry coach trips until it was our turn.

Armed with various sized tubs of freshly-produced Werther’s Original, we headed back in, relieved to find the Romanians still at the front. As the familiar Werther’s crunch rattled through the air, a screen message beseeched us not to spoil others’ enjoyment by leaving mobiles on. Women foraged deep in handbags and men in pockets to retrieve phones.

‘It’s that silver knob on the side,’ said one woman, as her companion tried switching off his mobile, only to get successive, tinny renditions of Beethoven’s Fifth. I could see the light on another man’s phone coming back on as quickly as he turned it off, whilst the woman next to my friend was using a key-fob torch to browse an instruction booklet before poking randomly at a screen with a life of its own.

Now, with the movie taking hold, a glance along the row showed people at various angles Les Misof repose.The couple next to me were already away; the Family Bucket of Werther’s was sliding off my friend’s lap; and my eyes too were growing heavy. By the time a cropped Fantine was ‘dreaming her dream’, I barely noticed what must have been a minibus outing of Marge Simpson look-alikes slip silently into the row in front of us.

Paul Costello © March 2013

The story of how I can fall asleep anywhere is told in:

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello.

Illustrated by Emma Hames.  Header image above from chapter titled: Caught Napping    

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions 

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2



Shafted by a Shih Tzu

‘Urghh! Get off!’

‘He’s only being friendly. He likes you! Don’t you, Louie?’

‘Madam! Your dog is rubbing himself to delirium on my ankle,’ I say, lashing out my right leg to shake it off. ‘If I did that to you because I liked you, I’d be on the front page of the Daily Mail tomorrow morning.’

With that, the little Shih Tzu, losing his ecstatic grip, goes hurtling into the Municipal Garden shrubbery, whence a young couple, engaged in something similar, flee for their bare-bottomed lives – as if a dog had hit them.

The ultimate humiliation – being shagged by a Shih Tzu.

We’re known as a land of dog lovers, and I imagine for those who like dogs they must be great company. The vast majority of owners train their dogs responsibly. The epitome of this would of course be the wonderful Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the temperament-tested ones used by the Pets as Therapy (PAT) charity for visits to hospitals and care homes.

But spare a thought for those of us who are less keen. I do enjoy seeing people’s canine companions rushing about excitedly in open spaces and socialising with other four-legged friends. But  a dog will do what a dog will do if its parents don’t tell it otherwise, and I’d rather that didn’t include me.

10. A Dog Called Bite

I don’t hate dogs, but I do resent the small minority of inconsiderate owners who assume we all love their little cuties as much as they do. For you thoughtless few, here are 13 doggy doings I don’t love:

  1. Large dogs taking a fifty yard run-up in a muddy park and jumping up at me. Worse, large ones that bite. My friend was bitten, unprovoked, by a Rottweiler on a local lane – and the dog was on a lead. The owner wandered off. The friend, who was too maimed to go after her, had ten stitches in her thigh.
  2. Little ones, like a Jack Russell called Sheldon that tracks me down on the riverside walk, yapping aggressively round my legs to find a good nipping angle.
  3. Any size ones that sniff and snuffle round my shoes and trousers like a foraging pig.
  4. Staring ones a foot away, with hanging tongues and dripping gums, that ruin the enjoyment of my chicken and Branston baguette.
  5. Drooling ones plonking their sodden jowls on my freshly-laundered Chinos.
  6. Over-familiar ones trying to get up close and personal, depositing hair and goo and undigested-Pedigree Chum-breath over me.
  7. Peeing ones who choose my offside rear tyre, or worse, my rucksack on a beach or park bench.
  8. Poohing ones where the owner doesn’t clear up. Most owners are good about this in public, though I avoid their back gardens. The few who flout the rules often have the Pit Bull-owner look about them – not to be challenged.
  9. Digging ones that wreck gardens. As former gardener with English Heritage, I once spent the day planting a long border with perennials and bulbs. Dogs weren’t allowed on site, but that day the manager let her Collie-cross out “for a run” after the site closed, and Spot dug up the whole border. The manager’s flat-toned response was: ‘Oh, you are a naughty boy!’
  10. Sex-mad ones rubbing themselves to a frenzy on my lower leg (small dogs) or upper leg (large). The Shih Tzu story is true; well perhaps not the shrubbery bit – the assault took place on a friend’s sofa.
  11. Sex-mad ones trying to kiss me on the lips.
  12. Sex-mad ones licking themselves to a frenzy.
  13. Sex-mad ones licking themselves to a frenzy then trying to kiss me on the lips.

For many years I’ve found myself frozen to the spot when a dog rushes up. Freezing may not be the best thing to do, yet it’s my predictable response after years of being approached by unpredictable creatures. But I’m better off than my niece, who has genuine Cynophobia – abnormal fear of dogs. Once, a party of four of us was strolling on Brighton promenade when she suddenly shifted behind the group and froze after spotting a tiny, seemingly well-behaved dog on a lead, fully two hundred yards ahead. We rolled along like a rugby maul, shielding her until the dog had gone past.

10. A Dog Called BiteI feel safer with muzzled dogs, which can’t bark, slaver or eat me up, especially since they’re often the ones on leads. Yet I see them as the tip of the iceberg. There must be hundreds of other psychiatrically disturbed dogs on the loose, unmuzzled – a nation of canine maulers and murderers in waiting.

Many local dog walkers whose “children” rush up to me, do have that Pit Bull-owner, not-to-be-messed-with look. They think nothing of it when their animal forces me off the track into squelchy mud and takes a juicy chunk from my anatomy after freezing me into terrified submission.

‘Sir,’ I mumble, ‘your Doberman Pinscher is lunging at me with its double set of teeth, designed like a shark’s to shred the bottom half of my leg into digestible pieces. But I do understand, and it’s all right. Let him take me. Thanks for listening, anyway.’

I’d say about one in ten owners offers an apology when their hound attacks me. Even then they imply it’s me who’s wrong:

‘He won’t hurt you. He’s very friendly really.’

‘Oh, silly me! It’s only the unfriendly dogs I need worry about. Okay, must try and spot the “very friendly” ones as they maul me – make allowances.’

The other nine owners don’t address me directly, or look at me, or apologise for letting their slavering, over-excited offspring lead me one step closer to a heart attack. Instead they mutter to themselves like an old person at a bus stop:

‘Here, Fuddles. Good boy,’ in a way that the charging, black Labrador will never take as an instruction, let alone heed.

Do dogs understand English anyway, or do they perhaps get fed up with such dull commentary and hunger for more dynamic parenting?

‘If only you were more decisive!’ says Casey the Cocker. ‘How can I enjoy rushing up and down these brambly banks, through tangled foliage and eight inches of muddy ditch water, with you droning on? By the way, I left some you-know-what back there to collect.’

10. A Dog Called Bite

So listen up, you few unthinking doggy mummies and daddies. Yes, that might be you! The worm has turned. My world does not revolve around your gorgeous darlings as much as you think. Starting next week, I shall be:

Staring through your window like a boggle-eyed weirdo while you eat your Sunday roast.

Circling you on the High Street like a Collie rounding up sheep.

Cocking my leg on your Lidl bags.

Using your front path for number twos.

Laying my head on your thighs as I dribble and gaze at you adoringly.

– And dragging my butt-end along your velour carpets while you try to watch East Enders.

Sadly, I fear you’re beyond redemption. But please – don’t just ignore my behaviour. Promise you’ll at least look me in the eyes and, in your insipid way, say:

‘Come on, Paul. Don’t be a silly boy.’

Paul Costello © March 2013

Other doggy tales will be told in:

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello. 

Illustrated by Emma Hames. Dog sketch from chapter: A Dog Called Bite           

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2

Grumpy Geezer Week

Last week was Grumpy Geezer Week. My diary reads as follows:

SUNDAY. Waxed car. People kept stopping to say: “You can do mine next if you like.” Pah! 

MONDAY. Felt a bit below par. People kept saying: “Cheer up, it might never happen.” Pah! 

TUESDAY. Cleaned the front windows. People kept stopping to say: “You missed a bit in the corner.” Pah! 

WEDNESDAY. Felt on top of the world! People kept saying: “Can I have some of whatever you’re on.” Pah! 

THURSDAY. Early spring sunshine. Sat on park bench, feet up, with book and coffee.  People kept stopping to say: “You’ve got a good spot there. All right for some.” Pah!

FRIDAY. Thought the day would never arrive left job, took pension! People keep saying: “What are you going to do with all that time then?” Pah! 

SATURDAY. Free man at last! Wonder what to do now? I know – think up annoying things to say to people. Ha!

Happy Geezer Now

Paul Costello © March 2013

Utterly Undiscovered – comic Bed & Breakfast Memoir by Paul Costello. 

Illustrated by Emma Hames.            

Publication:  spring 2013.    Fineleaf Editions

ISBN 978-1-907741-30-2