How A House Through Time peels back the wallpaper of history…

Something all home improvement shows have in common is that they make you look again at your own house and sigh a Kevin McCloud-shaped sigh.

Grand Designs on Channel 4 is a long-time favourite, apart from those episodes where a rich person builds a fantastic house from bricks of gold or whatever. Right now, McCloud is presenting a spin-off show about self-erecters who are building a whole street. It’s a decent watch, with the usual hammed-up moments where it all goes wrong, only to go right straight after the ad break.

Then there is George Clarke with his amazing spaces, possibly so called because every other word he utters is “amazing”, and his ugly houses made lovely after being rubbed down with Cinderella sandpaper.

A new variant on BBC2 uses virtual reality in a standoff between two architects who compete to win a commission to improve a home, with the owners being taken on a VR tour round the options, then choosing their favourite. I’ve only seen one episode of Your Home Made Perfect so far. Clever, goes on a bit – but the first house makeover was impressive.

What none of these TV programmes does though is consider a house through all the people who have ever lived there. That’s the simple but brilliant concept behind BBC2’s A House Through Time. The layers of history are peeled away, showing what happened in the house, the ups and (mostly) downs of previous owners and tenants. It’s a history lesson wrapped up in a house, and it works a treat.

In the first series, broadcaster and historian David Olusoga uncovered the history of a Georgian terraced property in Liverpool, and for the second series, running now, he peels back the wallpaper on a Georgian end-of-terrace on Ravensworth Terrace in the West End of Newcastle.

The busy-bee researchers do much of the work, at a guess, before David rolls up, as the houses are well chosen. History certainly bubbles up through the floorboards of the Newcastle house.

So far this series, we have seen the burglary of umbrellas leading to two boys being transported to Australia, thanks to the lawyer who owned the house (and the purloined umbrellas); attempted murder; musical hall stars; a local woman made an enemy alien through marriage to a German man shortly before the First World War; shameful death the workhouse; alcoholism; IRA activity – and even occasional evidence of happy lives having been lived.

This series starts with an investigation of lawyer and family man William Stoker, whose uncharitable behaviour over those umbrellas made an 1835 edition of the local newspaper. Stoker, should you be wondering, came to an appropriately sticky end.

A House Through Time beats all those other house programmes. It reminds us that a house is more than something to decorate and improve.

Mind you, that Newcastle terrace looks lovely now. Just the sort of house to raise a Kevin McCloud-shaped sigh.

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Let’s all listen to this inspirational teenager from Sweden…

That makes a change – an inspirational teenager is splashed all over today’s newspapers instead of the usual ragbag bundle of same-face politicians.

We could do with the uplifting sight of Greta Thunberg, especially with Donald Trump heading here for a state visit in June – although not staying at Buck House, reportedly, as the ERbnb is full. And doubly especially as Nigel Farage is once again flogging that finger-smudged old narrative about being a simple man angered by career politicians – this from a man who has had a lucrative career as an MEP for 20 bloody years.

Let’s put aside that shameful, duplicitous pair for a moment and turn instead to the 16-year-old from Sweden.

The young environmental campaigner has been nominated for the Nobel peace price after sparking protests around the globe. Yesterday, after catching the train rather than the plane, she was in London to meet some of our politicians. What she made of environment secretary Michael Gove is anybody’s guess: was it fair to submit one so young to that ordeal?

Undeterred, Greta criticised the government for continuing to support fossil fuels and airport expansion. According to The Times, her speech at Westminster has inspired the government to act on climate change. The paper reports that the environment secretary admitted to feeling guilty about his generation’s failure to tackle climate change.

Govey said he was listening and agreed that “not nearly enough” had been done. Young Greta should keep her unrelenting eyes on the environment secretary to make sure this wasn’t just recycled soft-soap.

How astonishing that one 16-year-old from Stockholm should have brought so much attention to the global debate on climate change, all from starting a solo school strike that travelled the world almost as quickly as a Trump tweet. Her simple message is that politicians have ignored climate change, and that is impossible to deny: Greta tells the truth, and keeps telling it, a stark truth that has recently seen parts of London blocked by rolling environmental protests.

All this has focused much attention on the teenager behind the remarkable revival of green activism. Greta was diagnosed with Asperger’s four years ago and turned her remorseless gaze on climate change after suffering from depression.

On the BBC Today programme, she told Nick Robinson that “being different is a gift. It makes me see thing from outside the box. I don’t easily fall for lies, I can see through things. If I would’ve been like everyone else, I wouldn’t have started this school strike, for instance”.

Greta is the future and those of us further down the line should be glad of that. Her unshakeable determination that something should be done is admirable beyond words and suggests we should celebrate difference and the confronting of awkward truths.

Now let’s turn, with the deepest of sighs, to Trump’s state visit. Must we roll out the red carpet for that proven liar, racist, shameless rabble-rouser and ardent climate-change denier, a man whose interest in anything extends no further than the end of his over-sized tie?

Trump is no friend to Britain – especially not as Brexit turns into one of those escape room games, but one when all the doors are locked, and someone just swallowed the key.

Brexiters who think that Donald Trump is any sort of answer to Britain’s post-EU future should take another look at their friend from the US and realise that Donald Trump is a friend only to himself. Just like Boris Johnson, our possible next prime minister, but let’s not spoil the day by going there.

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Sajid Javid’s roughest street versus my old cul-de-sac

Sajid Javid is boasting again about growing up in Britain’s most dangerous street. As someone spawned in Britain’s most unremarkable cul-de-sac, I hesitate to join this game of rough roots trumps.

The home secretary is scratching up his image with tales of his tough childhood in Bristol, much to the irritation of people who still live in the street he left decades ago (‘Wake up, we’ve moved on’ – the Guardian, April 20).

Javid is the sort of Tory politician who likes to brag about his gnarly roots. In 2016 he visited Stapleton Road with the political editor of the Sun, pointing out the two-bedroom flat above the family shop where he lived with his family.

As he shapes up for a tilt at the Tory leadership, he is banging on again about Stapleton Road, telling youth workers in east London about the drug addicts who stood near his school gates offering him easy money, and how instead of being a Cabinet minister he could have “turned out to have a life of crime myself”.

Oh, I don’t know, Javid, don’t sell yourself short: being home secretary in a Tory government is just a different shade of criminality; and you did make a pile of easy money doing different sorts of deals in the City.

Sometimes in moments of dull romanticism, I like to think that growing up in a cul-de-sac in the south Manchester suburbs left its mark. Never mind drug addicts at the school gates, you should have seen those parties in the 1970s when everyone got drunk on my dad’s over-powerful home-brewed beer.

My story doesn’t begin or end in that cul-de-sac, where we lived two doors down from the football writer David Meek, although sometimes lately it feels as if I am turning around and around in the pollarded end of the street, still looking for a way out.

Like Javid, I once lived in a rough part of Bristol; like Stapleton Road, Hartcliffe has or had a reputation. Even now if you type that place name into Google, the option to search for “Is Hartcliffe rough?” pops up.

Two years ago, Bristol Live reported that The Groves in Hartcliffe was one of Britain’s most dangerous streets “for violent crimes and sexual offences”.

Still, I don’t want to start a roots brag-off with the home secretary. My only memory of Hartcliffe is a photograph of me riding something (a tricycle, a toy car?) on the roof ‘garden’ of our flat above the Co-op. We didn’t live there for long and ended up in a different road, before heading north to the cul-de-sac a few years later.

According to that report in last Saturday’s Guardian, community leaders, business owners and residents criticised the home secretary for once again boasting about growing up in Britain’s most dangerous street.

Afzal Shah, a Labour councillor quoted in the article, described Stapleton Road as one of Britain’s most vibrant places – “We talk about 91 languages being spoken in Bristol. You can hear most of them here. There is great energy and great potential.”

A more imaginative politician would boast about growing up in a multicultural street of 91 languages. Sadly, as a Tory leader hopeful, Sajid Javid must appeal to the culturally dim backwoods Tory members who decide these matters. That’s why he dusts off that old “toughest street” brag.

Politicians banging on about their background is one of the least appealing games in town. Sajid Javid having once a long time ago lived in a rough part of Bristol isn’t remotely relevant to the present: that bit’s gone – it’s what you’re up to now we’re interested in, mate. Interestingly, he doesn’t boast about reports in the Daily Mail and elsewhere that in his banking days he earned around £3m a year as a managing director of Deutsche Bank.

You can’t deny that Javid has travelled a long way in his life, but he should stop the “my childhood street was rougher than yours” game. It’s long past its brag-by date.

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Stalin’s strange present to Warsaw…

Stalin’s lift operators do not have the best job in the world and your dullest moment at work is unlikely to touch the sides of their boredom.

Up and down they go many times a day, confined to a claustrophobic lift packed with tourists who are asked to remove backpacks. There isn’t room to swing a cat in those lifts, never mind a rucksack.

The women sit on chairs facing the panel with the buttons, but only press the one marked thirty. The lift rises to the top of the 231-metre skyscraper in hardly any time at all; the tourists walk out, more walk in; and the lift descends.

Up and down, down and up, all the working day. There is nothing for those operators to do, except press the top button and later the one for the ground floor. It’s hard to imagine a duller job.

Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science is strikingly bizarre, impressive or oppressive, perhaps a bit of both. Erected above the rubble of a city centre that was 90% flattened by Nazi bombing, this building was given to Poland as a present from Joseph Stalin, who supplied 3,500 Russian workers to do the job.

This sky-touching pillar of Soviet realism, with added Polish touches, is still the tallest structure in the city, although now it is surrounded by more modern skyscrapers. It looks a little like something out of a Batman film, where the villain lives perhaps, and its full name is the Palace of Culture and Science in the name of Joseph Stalin.

There are venues and a museum here, and a congress room where once 3,000 guests possibly nodded off during the annual meeting of the Communist Party, and where happier guests attended gigs by the Rolling Stones and Leonard Cohen. The entrance halls are dazzling and offered luxury for the masses – “like the famous Moscow metro system”, as a useful Guardian article from May 2015 observed.

Once un-podded at the top by the expressionless women of the lift, you can walk around a turreted terrace with lofty long views over the city. Strong wire mesh reassures those afraid of heights (I trod warily to the edge, then retreated, feeling that pinch of fear up behind my balls).

This skyscraper stands for the communist past the Poles rejected after the Berlin Wall fell and is an unsubtle reminder of the banished days of the Polish People’s Republic. Walk around consumerist Warsaw today, around the beautifully rebuilt old city, through the modern spaces of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, up the floors of the Warsaw Museum, in and out of the many craft beer bars or the street food stalls, and you are reminded that a city can rise.

The old city is perhaps a touch Disneyesque in its renovation, but it fits a risen city, and the reborn old square, where you can sit in the sunshine and drink coffee that is hardly overpriced at all, is a beautiful spot.

We sat on deckchairs at the top of Stalin’s tower-block, enjoying the sunshine. The traffic was busy far down below. Then we rose from hammocky rest, took a last look at the miniature world of tiny cars and human dots and commas, and headed for the lift.

On the way down, a different woman sat on a chair and pressed the button for descent. Quietly, she sang to herself, a way to dent the boredom perhaps, or maybe she didn’t know she was doing it.

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Council ‘fat cats’ are far from the only scandal…

“Anger erupted last night…” is how the Daily Express beings its splash today. The crusty tabloid probably keeps those four words in a drawer somewhere, knowing they’ll pop up, erupting anger being an occupational hazard alongside ulcers and a scowl frozen at the state of the world.

Funny thing is, that’s just what happened when I saw the story, although it was more by way of grumbling displeasure, as angry eruptions mostly arise in newspaper clichés rather than in life. “Grumbling displeasure” are not words I keep a drawer as a search reveals they’ve never been used in this blog before now.

The angry boil the Express wishes to lance is its ‘discovery’ that 2,500 council bosses across Britain are said to earn more than £100,000. There is no reason for council bosses to be paid such a fortune, so it is easy to see why the Express should choose this target. But then I spotted that its story was based on research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a group dragged onto this ledge as recently as March 22.

For all its grassroots, man-and-woman-of-the-people posturing, this alliance is part of a worldwide right-wing network in support of free-market capitalism.

And that’s fine if you’re upfront about it, but pretending to be a people’s movement when, as the Guardian reported last November, the alliance receives funds from US-based donors suggests a lack of honesty.

Added to that, Who Funds You? – a UK campaign for transparency in think-tanks – gives its lowest rating for transparency to the alliance.

It’s always a good idea to look around you when the alliance is kicking up trouble. With that in mind here, dear Daily Express, are suggestions of other things to get your anger blowing.

How about Brexit already costing the UK economy £40bn a year? This is according to Bank of England rate-seller Gertjan Vlieghe, who mentioned it back in February, but that one escaped the editor’s attention. That’s the Brexit you have been banging on about for untold months, the Brexit that will bring us freedom, sovereignty and a pocketful of free money. Perhaps today’s splash is by way of a diversion from the shitstorm reality of the Brexit you crave.

And that’s the thing with such stories: they us deflect from what is going on. So, Daily Express, you could just as easily have let your anger erupt over councils that can no longer cope or do their job of supporting people because the government – as generally supported by you – has slashed grants to the hard white stuff, year after bone-cutting year.

You could have had one of your eruptions over cuts to education that are seeing schools struggle – a relentless squeeze on state education carried out by the Tories you love under the guise of “the highest spending ever”, or some such slippery lie muttered through the lips of an official deceiver.

You could have erupted over the rising use of foodbanks – a much more reliable measure of disgrace than paying council bosses too much.

Gary Jones, the editor of the Express, probably sees himself in campaigning mood this morning, bravely taking on all those over-paid council bosses. But he is doing dirty work for a shadowy pressure group by showcasing one relatively minor scandal.

He could just as easily have blown his kettle by exposing the astonishing pay rise granted to the boss of British Gas.

Ian Conn, who runs Centrica, owner of British Gas, has just received a 44% pay rise to £2.4m. This is put down to a “difficult year” – although not that difficult in the Conn household, at a guess.

Different shades of scandal exist wherever you look. The trick is to wonder why you are being asked to look in a certain direction.

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Line of Duty vs Fleabag…

Let’s leave Theresa May on her sofa saying: “Over the past few days, people have been asking me how I made such a spectacular balls-up of Brexit” – or something like that. Let’s leave her talking to Labour through teeth so gritted you can hear the clenching ten feet away. And let’s take refuge again in television.

Two episodes in, Line Of Duty is all hurtling confusion as expected, while Fleabag ends tonight having neatly dodged any bad second series bullets.

Writer Jed Mercurio is up to his usual head-spinning tricks in Line Of Duty. We are already deep in a blizzard of barked-out acronyms, tense interviews and deeply doubtful characters. No one knows who to trust in AC-12 and we don’t have a clue either.

Is DS John Corbett (Stephen Graham) really a deep undercover cop or has be gone so deep he’s popped out the other side with blood on his hands? Is he a rogue cop undermining a criminal gang; or a gang criminal undermining his old employers in the force?

Is Corbett “a straight arrow… carrying all of this on my own?” as he tells Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) after temporarily kidnapping him; or he is a bent arrow in it for “money, power, respect” as he tells Lisa McQueen – and is she straight, bent or something in between; is she an undercover cop too or just a young woman on a gangster training scheme?

All these questions and more: does Arnott have a king-sized wardrobe to contain all those natty waistcoats and is he trying to out-waistcoat Gareth Southgate? And behind all those questions lies the big one: is Ted Hastings really the king-pin bad guy after all or is he just under pressure because of the divorce papers he won’t sign and his money troubles?

There was a fleeting moment last night when Adrian Dunbar did a spot of shifty eyeball work that made him look as suspicious as hell. Is he really rotten – or has Uri Geller been bending the lot of them after using his ‘powers’ to burst the pipes in the House of Commons?

With Arnott having been secretly talking to Corbett, Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) casts him a super suspicious glance across that open-plan office where none of the planning is open. Does she think he’s up to something; is she up to something (no sign of that yet this series, but the uncertainty is the only certainty here)?

Line of Duty works because the all-pervading doubt is combined with an acronym-pelted plot that never pauses for a second.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge serves up what is said to be the last-ever episode of Fleabag tonight. Sian Clifford, who plays Fleabag’s miserably put-upon sister Claire, told BBC Breakfast that this was it, no third series – only “this beautiful, perfect ending”.

Two helpings? That doesn’t seem a lot for something so good. But John Cleese famously stopped at two with Fawlty Towers – and that’s long been preserved in the dusty hall of treasured things.

According to the advanced material, Fleabag bids farewell with the wedding between Fleabag’s hopeless Dad (Bill Paterson) and Olivia Colman’s monstrous step-mum. Two family conflicts are promised, alongside a show-stopping turn from Andrew Scott as the priest Fleabag has been pursuing.

In the penultimate episode, as the inevitable happened and Fleabag got her heavenly man, she reached out and deflected the camera lens – a moment of coyness from a woman much given to endless disclosure.

I’ve loved Fleabag from first moment to last (unless Waller-Bridge changes her mind: she did say there’d only ever be one series) and will be sorry to see her go. What a dark delight: funny and sad, gentle and furious, and a hymn to being allowed to fail. And, in the inverse world the show inhabits, Fleabag is the failure who still comes out on top, especially in comparison to her miserably successful sister with her endlessly creepy husband.

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This is where having ‘characters’ for MPs gets us…

POLITICIANS who are ‘characters’ should be avoided like the parliamentary plague – but sometimes their idiocy is hard to resist. That brings us back to Brexit-bonkers Tory MP Mark Francois, the biggest twerp in the twerp pile.

Perhaps no journalist, columnist or blogger should ever write about the annoying man: if our fingers stayed away from the ‘M’ and the ‘P’ on our keyboards, would Francois just disappear back to well-padded obscurity?

This is a serious question, as two leading ‘characters’ in this saga are Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and in both cases the characterful veneer is a put-up job that acts as a disguise. We think they are ‘characters’ and that allows them to get away with just about anything.

Anyway, let’s turn with a tug of reluctance to what Mark Francois said yesterday in the Commons yesterday, after Labour MP Yvette Cooper’s Bill to force Mrs Maybe to seek a delay to Brexit rather than crashing out a week tomorrow was passed on a majority of one vote (313 to 312).

This was enough to set Francois off on one of his tirades. With shuddersome recall you may summon up the time Francois accused the boss of Airbus of “German bullying” – saying with splenetic lack of splendour: “My father, Reginald Francois, was a D Day veteran. He never submitted to bullying by any German and neither will his son.”

Just the other day, Francois laid into Chancellor Philip Hammond during a live radio debate. The member of the European Research Group (which isn’t European and does no research, preferring to agitate on its troublesome arse) said: “If you’re listening Mr Hammond, my fraternal message to you is: ‘Up yours’.”

When he isn’t spluttering out old headlines from the Sun newspaper, Francois likes to call on his military background, infamously saying: “I was in the army, I wasn’t trained to lose.” Not exactly true: he was an infantry officer in the TA.

Then this yesterday after Cooper’s Bill passed: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Factual pointer: he isn’t Jesus on the cross as his persecutors cast lots for his garments. He’s a short rotund Tory with a pomp-pumped mouth.

But if by some slip in the space-time continuum he really is the Son of God, then we are in even deeper shit than we thought.

Still, my money is on him being an annoying MP over-inflated with  puffy self-importance (other insults are available).

Just the other week Boris Johnson was comparing himself to Moses, so it was only a matter of time before Mark Francois went one further.

And it’s probably too late in the day now, but could we try to navigate the Brexit shitstorm without mentioning the war? It might help.

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Meeting Corbyn is May’s Wile E Coyote moment

I see that the Brexit shitstorm has reached its Wile E Coyote moment. Like the Looney Tunes cartoon character, Theresa May has run off the cliff edge into thin air, feet flapping without purchase, so she’s reached out to Jeremy Corbyn to say: “Why don’t you join me out here?”

This latest plot twist came after May locked her Cabinet into a seven-hour meeting. Seven hours! God, seven minutes is sometimes enough meeting for me. I know that bickering and backstabbing bunch in Cabinet deserve each other but just imagine the torture of being imprisoned in a seven-hour Brexit meeting with Theresa May as referee in name only.

As none of that locked-in lot could apparently agree on anything, Mrs Maybe emerged with her only workable suggestion: reaching out to the Labour leader in the national interest/her interest. Is this simply a last desperate bid to get her Brexit deal through Parliament; or is it a political elephant trap for Corbyn, letting him take ownership of Brexit for when it all goes even more tits up than it’s going right now?

Bit of both, probably. But you know, Theresa May will now say just about anything to anyone about Brexit. She’s said so many things about Brexit she can’t possibly remember them all; and she’s said so many things that were just a cynical ruse to see her through another blood-stained day.

If you try to be non-partisan about it – a big ask in this slanging match – such collaboration makes sense: but that should have been the approach from the start, rather than as a desperate minute-to-midnight wheeze.

Why has something so momentous for the country been conducted almost purely as a private matter for the Conservative Party? I know they and David Cameron got us into this mess, but a grown-up country – which we used to be – would have taken a sensible and non-shouty approach to dealing with Brexit.

Will this reported meeting between May and Corbyn amount to anything? Oh, we’ll be lucky if they can agree it’s Wednesday. Corbyn’s tactics over Brexit to date have included: saying nothing while sitting on the fence and waiting for the Tories to cock everything up; remaining so gnomic about what he actually wants that nobody knows; and stirring suspicions that he secretly hankers after Brexit anyway even though most Labour members/supporters want to remain in the EU.

Agreeing to meet Mrs Maybe does at least allow Corbyn to play the grown-up for a while, and he has said he is “very happy” to talk to May and that he recognises his “responsibility” for easing the deadlock. As for May, she can’t deliver Brexit with Tory votes, so now she’s hoping to hitch a ride on Labour votes.

The Brexit headbangers aren’t at all happy about May seeking the advice of the man she’s been slagging off for years, but they won’t be happy until they’ve banged their heads right through that wall.

Boris Johnson was aghast, but we shall leave him with his mouth popping open and toad-creaking orotund outrage. Jacob Rees-Mogg used his snooty-vicar-from-hell voice to loftily complain that Corbyn was a Marxist.

It’s a wait-and-see pudding of a development – and we’ll probably end up with nothing on our plates. Perhaps when he’s in the room with May, Corbyn could mention this headline from last Sunday’s Observer: “Teachers volunteer for £7,000 pay cut to save jobs.”

We won’t get anywhere without sorting out Brexit, but while it’s endlessly not being sorted, parts of the public realm seem to be collapsing.

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Just call me Cappuccino Man…

It is a truth universally learned in the coffee queue that sometimes you discover what other people think about you in ways of small surprise.

There is a lovely café close to one of my jobs, the Friday and Saturday one, and each week coffee is bought. This is a popular place and the two queues are long: one for those waiting to eat upstairs, another for the takeaway counter.

Twice each week I stand in the notionally quicker queue, clutching my reusable bamboo cup. The cup is bright, brighter than my mood probably, and acts as a sort of beacon. Many of the friendly staff work in the higher seating area. From that cake-and-sandwich-serving eerie, they will spot me in the queue, pop down and take the brightly coloured cup (saving the world one coffee at a time, and all that).

No one else seems to mind this favouritism or scowl at the queue-jumping.

This scene plays out again as I stand in takeaway queue. And that’s when the name pops.

“Cappuccino Man’s here,” one of the women says. The world-saving cup is handed over, along with two quid, and makes its way upstairs. “That’s Cappuccino Man’s coffee,” someone says.

“Cappuccino Man’s paid for his coffee,” another friendly woman says, in acknowledgement of the till-swerving.

After a milk-frothing, espresso-spurting gap, one of the friendly women hands the cup down. “Cappuccino Man’s got his coffee,” someone else says.

The till man is passing at the time. He is quite small, smaller than me at any rate, wears round glasses, has a beard and a voice with actorly tones. There is a twinkle behind those circles.

“I’m sure you all have very professional jobs,” he says, pausing on his way back to the till. “But we have names for you.”

Then he is off to stand behind the glass counter with its over-sized cakes, pork pies, Scotch eggs and sausage rolls.

Do I have such a job? Sometimes it’s hard to remember. If two weekly shifts at PA, two part-time lecturing gigs, a spot of freelance feature writing and some obsessive blogging counts, then perhaps I do; who can say?

Anyway, we never know how others see us. But I do at least now know that to one group of people I am Cappuccino Man. I’ll take that, it’s cool enough, certainly cooler than that coffee. But if only I’d been drinking espresso all this time, I’d be Espresso Man, which would be cooler still, but at least I’m not Flat White Man or Skinny Oat Milk Latte Man. Or, heaven help us, Peppermint Tea Man.

The unknowable lens of how others see us has long concerned poets and ageing men in coffee queues.

Famously, Robert Burns addressed this in his poem To A Louse

“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Oh, think I need to hit Sassenach Translate – “O would some power the gift to give us to see ourselves as others see us.”

I bet Robbie Burns was never called Cappuccino Man.

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A few thoughts on Masterchef and Fleabag…

Fie for today on Theresa May and her throne of games; fie for today on the unravelling of the Brexit dream/nightmare (delete as appropriate). Let’s just watch television instead, and no you’re not allowed to turn on the news for it will only make you bad-tempered or pool you in despair.

Masterchef (BBC1) finished last night – and thank heavens for that. That show is so damn addictive for a programme that just features people cooking for two over-fed judges who shovel the calories down their throats while the cameras roll, pausing on John Torode’s way with a fork – hover, waggle, open wide and in it goes – or Gregg Wallace’s way with the cheesy chat and over-enthusiastic consumption of puddings.

How did you spend some of your evening last night, you might ask? Oh, watched a bald man in a shocking pink waistcoat salivate over assorted puddings. At the time I was sitting on the viewing sofa eating a modest dish of rhubarb and yoghurt.

If you don’t want to know who won, look away now. It was retired banker Irini Tzortzoglou, from Crete by way of Cartmel. She has no plans to open a restaurant, apparently, whereas you suspect the runners-up in an all-women final probably fancy a shot at that. I was rooting for Delia, the charming policewoman from Essex by way of Kent, while my partner on the viewer sofa was cheering for Jilly, the equally charming rugby player turned Scottish teacher.

All the food looked great, but someone had to win; and it was Irini, annoying at times, although the other two finalists seemed to love her.

Anyway, that’s enough of watching people eat bizarre food for another year. Like all such shows, Masterchef is more about the people than the food – hence the manipulative drama-cranking with all that absurdly dramatic music to introduce a plate of food.

It’s a spectacle but one I love.

As for Fleabag (BBC1 by way of the non-terrestrial BBC Three), this second series is a jaw-dropping marvel/rocky family horror show. Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays the titular Fleabag, sexually promiscuous in an unhappy way in the first series; falling in love/lust with Andrew Scott’s priest in the new series.

Having Fleabag move from sexual recklessness to a devotional crush on a priest is a clever move from Waller-Bride, who also writes this painful jewel of a series.

Fleabag is occasionally very funny, but much of the time it is car-crash cruel, raw and exposing. It’s brilliantly written and easily the best show on TV right now.

Last Monday’s episode features a confessional scene of painfully uncomfortable brilliance, in which Fleabag breaks down and says she doesn’t know how to live her life. One of the strongest pieces of drama you’ll ever have seen in what is, notionally at least, a comedy.

Waller-Bridge looks amazing in this series too, as stylish as she is sad, and she maintains that lovely trick of mugging directly to the camera. She can say a lot without saying a word; and she can summon deep acres of angst with a few words. She is a writer to treasure and envy.

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