Get lost.

The Firs, NorthamptonSo, last night, I decided to try and get lost. Nothing serious, just an attempt to find myself in mild but slightly enjoyable peril.

The venue was the local jungle. Alright, forest. Alright, collection of trees opposite Harlestone garden centre. Anyway, minor details aside, I set off with my four-legged friend, eager to tread new ground, forge footpaths and generally pretend I was in search of my imaginary comrades in a remake of Platoon.

I’ll tell you this. It’s near impossible to actually get lost. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t manage it. And I did try very hard.

There were moments of hope. Finding myself in an unfamiliar clearing surrounded by tall trees, I headed – not for the manmade footpath, oh no – but for what looked like a path smashed into place naturally by fallen branches and large bits of tree. What would it lead me to? A forgotten land? Narnia?

It took my just a few yards to realise that what I’d actually entered was not the work of mother nature but a carefully constructed route for the transportation of fallen wood to the giant timber merchant. Which was just around the corner.

In fact, I couldn’t escape from civilisation. Later on, I headed deeper and deeper into the wood. Further than I’d ever been before. The trees overhead grew more dense and, in turn, the ambient light faded, as did the background sound of the A45. At last I was in with a chance of being lost. I began to spook myself out by thinking about the Blair Witch Project; the distant sound of crying babies and snotty-nosed, whimpering monologues. I got my compass out and quickly realised I had no idea how to use it. That didn’t matter. In fact, it helped. I had no idea which way to go.

A quick glance at my phone yielded yet more eerie pleasure. Moments before, I had a very un-Ray-Mears-like access to a full 3G signal (I think there may even have been a WIFI hotspot available) and the entire world in the palm of my hand but now, it simply read ‘No service’. No phone. No texts. No Facebook status update notifications.

I was alone. Cut off from the rest of the world.

Lost.

“Come on, Thomas. Keep up!” A family of three – mum, dad and small boy clattered past on their post school stroll.

I can’t remember that happening in Predator.

To make up for this crushing dose of reality, I briefly considered wandering aimlessly across an adjacent field but conceded I’d simply end up at the local Co-op which I knew was just over the horizon.

It was time to give up.

So I went home.

An upcoming area, fallen

Both women were fat. Both bent awkwardly over their pushchairs, snotty-nosed babies looking as miserable as the house from which they had vacated.

Our crossing of paths was brief; I, walking the dog during a short lunchtime break from the confines of the office, they, walking, presumably, to fetch their giro. Yet in that briefest moment of shared airspace I learned about an impending court case and Shane, who had apparently ‘not fucking stopped ringing all fucking night, the twat.’ I’m not sure who came out with that last comment, but it might have been one of the kids.

Then, they were gone. And I stepped in some dog poo.

We moved into the Northampton area of Semilong five years ago. It was our first home and we were lured there under the pretence that it was an ‘upcoming area’ with houses that offered a lot for their modest purchase prices.

The latter, certainly, was true. High ceilings, good sized rooms and bomb-proof builds are what you get with Victorian terraced properties and ours is no different. It’s lovely, in fact, and suited two excited new homeowners perfectly.

It could also be argued that, back then, it was indeed an upcoming area. Whatever that means. If it means first time buyers like ourselves commandeering an area, that’s exactly what it was. We bought during the property boom and houses were being snapped up across the estate by like-minded individuals. Great, we thought, we’ve discovered a little gem, here.

Then, something went horribly wrong. I can’t pinpoint when or what it was, but the area simply nosedived. Litter and dog muck flooded the streets, illegal immigrants moved in (one set even took residence – and eventually became squatters – in the rented property next door to us).

Every single time I step out into the street I see something that I can only greet with a sigh. Whether it’s the two aforementioned fat ladies (or similar), discarded mattresses, drunkards, smashed bottles, junkies asking for change or the guy who looks like he would definitely kill you for absolutely no reason at all, it’s there. It’s there all the time and it’s a fucking shame.

Thankfully, we’ll be off soon, but if you’re from the Northamptonshire County Council and you’re reading this, you should be ashamed. The area that could have blossomed into what it presumably had been years ago – a proper community – is now slowly decaying.

As if to make matters worse, you have also turned the street light off outside my house in order to save some electricity. Might I suggest you turn it back on and switch your attentions to the far more glaring problem that is Semilong itself. I’ll pay the bill for the fucking light.

Business acumen? Grammar is what I’m worried about, Lord Sugar.

Alan SugarWe know how it works. The premise is simple. Round up fifteen or so ‘business people’ and put them in front of Lord ‘Bongo Drums’ Sugar. They must have vague job titles which include the words ‘global’ ‘brand’ and ‘manager’ (in fact, there’s one right there). They must have faces you wouldn’t tire of driving the pointy end of a trowel into. Their clothes must be as pretentious and outlandish as their claims of business grandeur.

Lastly, they must be unquestionably, astronomically, biblically, stupendously thick.

With that criteria met, you have the next series of The Apprentice ready for the off. And last night’s first episode didn’t disappoint. Handed £250 by Mr Amstrad, they were instructed to invest it in fruit and veg. They were then told, in no uncertain terms, to come back with more than £250.

The boys team very quickly bought 1,400 oranges – clearly a little overexcited and confused by the start-up capital with which they had been trusted. The plan was to turn the oranges into fresh juice for London’s busy morning commuters. Great idea, if only they could have squeezed the juice out of more than four of them. The other fly in the ointment was that they’d left themselves with just £40 for their lunch menu which, after five seconds of deliberation, they decided to invest in soup ingredients. The fact none of them knew how to make soup was quickly glossed over.

The girls, on the other hand, decided to sell a mixed fruit cocktail for breakfast and a vegetable pasta for lunch. They won, obviously. But it was during their frenzied selling task that the true horror of what the economy is up against was revealed.

“How do you spell vegetable?” Asked one of the contestants, kneeling down at the menu board, piece of white chalk in hand. An answer never materialised, leaving us to assume that her fellow members of the business elite were similarly perplexed.

She shrugged and proceeded to scrawl ‘Vegatable Soup’ on the board.

And therein lies our problem, folks. Putting the contestants of this brilliant program to one side, I am inundated daily with email from respectable companies, customers and partners displaying a shocking disregard for our wonderful English language. Poor grammar and spelling litters correspondence from people who really should know better and I have had enough, quite frankly.

If you can’t be bothered to proof read written correspondence before sending it – particularly when software such as Microsoft Word makes it nearly impossible for you to misspell a word or start a sentence without a capital letter – you don’t deserve to have a meaningful job title. I’m not entirely convinced you even deserve to breathe.

I’m not the greatest speller in the world, nor am I a literary genius (go on, trawl this post looking for grammatical errors – there’ll be plenty), but I do take pride in any sentence I write. I take even more pride in ensuring it will be read and digested as intended. When emailing customers or colleagues, that pride is amplified tenfold.

Maybe I’m old fashioned. Perhaps in the new world of instant messaging, it is less of an issue. ‘Txt spk’, while interminably irritating, unfathomable and difficult to type, is now as prevalent in business as it is between friends. Perhaps I just need to get with the kids and LOL it off.

Or maybe not. Trust me, if this continues, we’ll never see the back of this economic slump. I take very few illiterate people seriously and I fear those in my camp are of a similar disposition. Economic output won’t increase meaningfully until we can all start to communicate effectively and the ability to string a sentence together is at the very heart of that.

Sorry, Alan, but I don’t envy your task.

Man up. Start a fire.

Fire. Man. Fire. Grr.
Fire. Man. Fire. Grr.

There are several things you can do to make yourself feel more of a man. Read up on tanks. Tighten something with a monkey wrench. Watch Any Given Sunday. Reload a gun. Pretend you understand cricket. Walk down the power tool isle in B&Q, stroking each piece of machinery and pretending you know exactly what they all do. Pull off in 2nd gear rather than 1st. Use the phrase ‘bastard wouldn’t budge, but I got there in the end’ regularly. Buy the Racing Post. Set fire to something.

The only problem is, unless you’re Chuck Norris, all of those things are either painful, confusing or just plain difficult. Particularly the latter. I found out just how hard setting fire to something is when I bought a chimenea at the weekend.

Before Saturday, I didn’t even know what one was. However, that evening, we attended a BBQ at a friend’s house, and he knew exactly what a chimenea was. It stood proudly in the centre of their garden, heat fiercely rippling the air above its chimney. Flames whipped up an intense heat in the gaping furnace as it chewed up everything that was thrown at it. Admittedly, it was a small child chucking things into it, and it was highly likely the pieces of paper he’d found were our friend’s insurance documents or car service history. But that didn’t matter. This marvellous contraption was producing man-made fire and I immediately decided that I needed one.

The next day I went for it. Plumping for a slightly smaller clay unit, I immediately felt a bit of a fraud. But that didn’t matter either. I would still be able to create fire in this thing. That evening, I would become a real man.

If you’ve bought a chimenea, you’ll know that they need ‘conditioning’. This involves slowly burning kindling and paper two or three times in order to… ok, I have no idea why, but if you don’t your lovely piece of garden pottery will apparently crack into three billion pieces.

You are instructed to add a little bit of kindling (if you know what that is – I had to look it up) and some rolled up newspaper. So I did. And tried to set fire to it. And absolutely nothing happened. Last week’s Chronicle and Echo lit briefly before dying into a smouldering grey mess. The kindling wood sat at the bottom of the furnace on the bed of sand I’d kindly laid out for it, grinning and clearly very, very cold.

Thankfully, no one was watching. My lack of testosterone wasn’t on display. I briefly considered making the most of the opportunity of solidarity and crying a bit but then decided to consult Google instead.

That didn’t help either. Every ‘how to start a fire’ article assumes you are Ray Mears. They talk of unseasoned wood and lava stones. One even states that you’ll require ‘fire-starting materials’. The only ‘fire-starting materials’ I’m aware of are matches and the hobs on my oven. The latter would have obviously been a logistical and insurance-claim-inducing nightmare, therefore I opted for the matches.

Only, I got through an entire box just trying (and failing) to light one lousy newspaper.

I won’t lie. It took me a good hour to get the thing going. But get going it did. Flames I had made were suddenly dancing around my little fiery cavern and smoke billowed effortlessly from the chimney.

A little over-excited, I decided to do what people in films do when they’re making fires in jungles: blow on it. I knew the introduction of more oxygen, or something, meant the flames would grow more intense and, as I blew, that’s exactly what happened. Only, the sudden gust of man-made wind also sent thousands of burnt bits of the Chronicle out of the chimney and into next door’s pearl white washing swinging on their line, creating a speckled pattern of what was once the Sunday football results on Mr and Mrs Jones’ underwear.

Concluding I was suddenly deep into unchartered man territory and consequently a little out of my depth, I retreated back into the house, and let the fire die out.

Oh, and if this story isn’t enough to convince you to buy a chimenea, before you consider other ways of increasing your manliness, just remember, someone this weekend blew the game out of the water when he aimed his gun at Bin Laden and shot him in the face. I’m not sure that can be topped.