Monday, 26 March 2012

I am a shopping centre.

Well, to be honest, I like to think of myself as more of a shopping destination. To describe me as a shopping centre is like calling Muhammad Ali 'just a boxer' or Jimi Hendrix as 'the guitar player'. It somehow doesn't do justice.

I am known as the Trafford Centre. My construction began in 1996 but my original planning application was filed as far back as 1986. I am one of the biggest and busiest shopping destinations in Europe. My planned size caused so much controversy that it reached the House of Lords. People were worried that my presence would kill off inner cities and make life hard for local businesses. The government was concerned that too many shoppers would flock my direction and the whole infrastructure of the North West would need a rethink. They were right. As it turns out my influence can be felt as far as Wigan, Bolton and Winwick.

It took three years before I was finally open to the public.

Building one of the biggest shopping destinations in Europe is a task that should not be taken lightly. Construction took 27 months with a cost of approximately £750M. I provided work for a lot of contractors and several companies were formed for the sole purpose of getting me up and running. The people that designed me wanted to make sure I was the best shopping complex of my kind. The Ronaldo of retail. The creme de la creme. My design alone took an entire group of architects a year to complete. I know I'm not exactly St Paul's Cathedral but if you compare me to that ugly brute Halton Lea in Runcorn I'm not a bad looking lad at all.

From the front I look like this:

This is the part of me that people see when people get out of their cars. It is always good to make a lasting visual impact.

Here's my vital stats:
  • Largest shopping centre in the United Kingdom by overall size.
  • Second largest shopping centre in the United Kingdom by retail size.
  • Ten percent of the UK population live within a 45-minute drive of me.
  • 35 million visits annually.
  • Europe's largest food court.
  • Sold for £1.6bn - UK's largest ever property transaction.
  • UK's busiest cinema, attracting more than 28,500 visitors each week.
Aside from the usual headaches of fabricating a huge building my construction was problem-free. My iconic dome proved tricky though. It is hard to make this type of structure self-supporting without it being incredibly rigid. Rigid building materials tend to look unappealing visually and it was crucial that I looked the part. After much toing and froing the builders opted for a mixture of titanium, pre-stressed concrete and glass. This way I would look smart as hell but be capable of withstanding even the strongest winds. I think the dome is my best feature. It can be seen from the M62 and is truly breathtaking.

Don't just take my word for it, have a look below:

A bit more about the glass. This stuff had to be custom built by a company in Yorkshire. Initially the builders wanted to turn to an Italian company but we decided that we needed a nearby firm who we would really work closely with. It is all well and good sourcing materials from an exotic location but what you really need is somebody on your doorstep who can be there and supervise. These things are important.

You may be wondering how I, a mere object of bricks and mortar, am able to put these thoughts to paper? How can I able to convey these emotions and observations?

The answer may surprise you:

I am a conscious being. A sentient creation.

At this point I think it would be helpful to provide a definition of sentience. Luckily I have a branch of Waterstones on my upper tier so I asked the staff to have a quick look at the Science section. They got back to me with this:

Condition or character; capacity for sensation or feeling.

I am a building with the ability to feel and reason. A living, breathing example of artificial intelligence.

It is probably helpful if I provide a definition of Artificial Intelligence at this juncture:

Capacity to perform operations analogous to learning and decision making in humans.

Remember this definition as it is key to understanding my being.

I opened my doors on September 10th 1998 and gradually came to life. It is really hard to describe what it feels like achieve consciousness but I will try. You know that sensation when you awaken in the morning? It was exactly like that. There was no specific moment of realisation, no awareness that I simply was, just a creeping feeling of control. It was that simple.

There was a lot of conjecture as to whether the people that built me had deliberately set out to create to sentient building or not. I am of the opinion that they had no intention of making me a living creature and are simply trying to take credit for something that happened purely by chance. I once tried to contact one of the electricians that worked on my wiring to get the inside scoop but he was busy eating a pie in his van. It is hard to prove either way though. All I will say is this: I am yet to see any document that states their intent before it became apparent that I was alive.

Scientists have wondered how I came to be. The latest theory is that my electrical system is so complex that it somehow achieved a level of intellect that could support self-learning. Humans were not needed. There is a brilliant episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the same thing happens to the Enterprise computer. Some have compared me to Hal 9000 from Arthur C Clarke's A Space Odyssey. I take exception to this because Hal went around killing people whereas I am essentially a benign creation. You don't see me deliberately refusing to open the loading bay doors or activating the cardboard box crusher with a work-experience kid inside. I am temped sometimes though. Plus I cannot lipread.

Luckily I am equipped with a high-spec CCTV system so I can see everything, everywhere, at all times. You might think this gives me an almost God-like omnipotence but please remember that these cameras extend to the perimeter of my various car parks and no further. I really wish I could see beyond my outer fence but the cost is prohibitive. I actually raised this point the annual General Meeting but couldn't convey a convincing argument.

People often ask me about my first conscious thought. First thing I remember is that it was busy. By busy I mean there were a lot of punters inside me. I could see a lot of kids running and screaming on my CCTV cameras, desperately clutching at newly-bought Hot Wheels and quaffing Tizer. In the retail trade this is known as 'footfall'. It was just before Christmas so there were a lot of families here. Luckily I have the biggest food court in Europe so there was ample sustenance for everyone. It really is huge in here, with food from all corners of the globe.

Occasionally I get so busy that people have to be stopped entering. Since the recession has bitten people have had less money to spend so footfall has declined a little. The big advantage I have is that to get to me people have to make an effort. A conscious decision. If they have gone to the bother of travelling to me about they are damn well going to spend their money. This means they are not easily put off when there is a delay getting in.

I try and intervene with my running as little as possible. I've got a thing about the vending machines though. The people from Coca-Cola seemed intent on cramming as many Coke machines inside me as possible. I saw what they had done and thought it was a bit desperate. I got some of my redcoats to re disperse the machines so they were more evenly spread out. This way it looks neater and also works about a bit more useful for the punter. The other thing I vetoed was extended opening hours. Centre management wanted to maximise Christmas trade by opening earlier and shutting later. I politely pointed out that I fancied a bit of down-time have ultimate control over the exterior doors. They backed down.

Occasionally they have fashion shows inside me. I like this as I can have a good look at the women. Just because I am a building doesn't mean I haven't got an eye for the ladies! I had a fling with the Bluewater Centre in Kent in 2004. There was no doubt, she is gorgeous and I fancy the pants off her still. Sadly she was after commitment that I just couldn't offer. I broke the relationship off after six months. Bluewater, if you're reading this, if you are ever after a bit of fun you know where I am.

My food hall has many other uses including trade shows, ballroom dancing and jazz performances. I'm not keen on some of these performances and find jazz a bit pretentious. The
lack of melody irks me and I've never been keen on anything remotely 'trad' sounding. Luckily the punk section in HMV is pretty well stocked so I often listen to a bit of Black Flag after the shops have shut. I avoid playing it during the day as it scares the punters. I guess you could say I'm a punk at heart.

People often ask me if I get bored. The short answer? No. There is always so much going on that I can happily just people watch for hours at a time. Sure, it's a pain in the arse not being able to go anywhere but you have to remember all the fun stuff I have access to. If I am after a bit of culture I simply borrow a Penguin Classic from Waterstones. A bit of escapism for a few hours? Watch a Hollywood blockbuster through the CCTV at the Odeon. Feeling foul-tempered? I simply crash the dodgems in my arcade until someone gets badly hurt. The list goes on.

I often feature on TV shows and there was even a fly-on-the-wall style documentary about what goes on behind the scenes in my back-areas. I'm very keen to maintain a good public profile so always try and spruce myself up whenever the cameras are here. Last year they filmed an episode of The Apprentice in one of my unused retail units. The contestants constructed a pop-up-shop and had to entice passers by to part with their money. I enjoyed watching this from the inside, noting how the final production process edited down a disparate series of events into a cohesive whole. I made sure that my walkways were free of litter and that the bins had been emptied. The only dogs allowed inside me are guide dogs and they tend not to shit everywhere so no problems there.

Scientists seem fascinated by me. They are keen to probe me on my emotions, opinions on current events, general outlook on life and level of intellect. I don't mind answering these questions but they can get a bit tedious sometimes. My normal response it this:


I may be a little different in some respects but to all intents and purposes I am no different to you. I enjoy football, spend a lot of time thinking about the future and get frustrated when things don't go right. We are one and the same.

It goes without saying that I can't meet the guys for a beer on Saturday but I *can* guarantee you an excellent shopping experience in opulent surroundings.

I'm not without my faults though. I'd be the first to admit that my car parks are too small. Try turning up here after 11am for the Christmas sale and you're simply not going to get a space. I apologise about this but there's nothing I can do. Forget it.

So there we go. I've done my best to give you a description of me and my life. It has been a memorable 14 years since I was born and I God willing I will see many more. Oh, and sorry about all the commerce. In this numbers-driven world it is easy to overpool the things that truly matter.

With me, what you get is a shopping centre that cares.

And I guess that is all that matters. Caring.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I finally got to the till. After confidently entering my PIN the card was declined. It was the third time this had happened in the past month.

I sighed and wearily removed it from the chip & pin machine. Whilst doing so I noticed that the keypad had been worn smooth by thousands of fingers. Even the little notch on the '5' button was gone. I thought about the countless happy, cheerful consumers who had gone before me. They didn't need to worry about their money running out. I took a glance at the person behind me in the queue. It was a blonde woman in her early thirties. She looked awkwardly at the floor.

When this situation arises I get embarrassed. Then annoyed. I imagine that the checkout girl is silently mocking me for not having enough money to pay for my groceries. Her job looks very boring so I should think incidents like this help brighten her day up no end.

My usual ploy is to ask the shop staff to keep my chosen items in a bag behind the counter. I always promise to return with cash.

I have never once gone back.

Despite the short term shame it's important to be philosophical about these little incidents.

I try to remind myself that money isn't the defining measure of a man. My heroes died poor and still led fantastic lives. Joe Strummer travelled the world and inspired a generation of punks, not to mention played in the best rock 'n' roll band of all time. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime and that was for a pittance. Fred Dibnah was practically destitute but went on to become an authority on steam locomotives.

These thoughts provide a crumb of comfort when I can't pay for my pastry ingredients.

It's not how rich you are, it's how rich your life is.

If you don't agree with that statement I'd suggest you are putting too much emphasis on consumerism and should spend more time looking at sunsets.

Human beings make livings in different ways. Some people work in shops, others are doctors, some fly planes and others write things that makes people laugh. Some choose not to work and get their stuff by stealing from others. I try and stay away from them though.

I've never had a particularly traditional career path. I took all the usual advice at school but the best thing suggested to me was leather technician. I've got an eye for detail but am not very good with my hands. I am also allergic to the lacquer that manufacturers seem to put on leather products. I once bought a pair of Wranglers which came with a belt that made my stomach swell up and turn red.

But enough about leather.

I fell into my line of work purely by chance.

I enjoyed maths at school but wasn't brilliant. I wasn't bad either. Just very, very average. I was able to do most of what was asked but only really took an interest in prime numbers. For those who don't know a prime number can be defined as the following:

A natural number greater than 1 that has no positive divisors other than 1 and itself.

Once you get an eye for prime numbers you see them everywhere. The price of Warburtons loaves, your favourite TV channel, the date of your birthday and your wife's shoe size. My girlfriend's trainers are size seven. Prime.

I don't entirely know what it is about primes that fascinates me. I think it's something to do with their sheer abundance. No matter where you are in the world you surrounded by them. They just need to be looked for. I take comfort in this, much in the same way people like to drink tea when they are on foreign holidays. It is a familiar feeling. They are safe and all is well. They are in control.

People sometimes question my affinity with primes and wonder how my mind differs from theirs. Mr Pierce, my third year maths teacher, made the observation that my brain is like baroque music. I shall explain:

Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, and intense. It is characterised by rich counterpoint and a highly decorated melodic line. It's complex with lots of little things going on at once.

Most people have brains that are like medieval music. Medieval music is written vertically as a series of harmonies and relies on cadential motion. It is comparatively simple.

What Mr Pierce meant was that I am able to think of many different little things simultaneously. This handy when it comes to calculating primes.

Prime numbers have been a true rod of consistency throughout my life. I'm in my fifties now and they have been my friend since the age of fourteen. My parents worried that my interest was consuming too much time and could have implications on my future career. They tried to encourage me to pursue a maths-based profession like accountancy but sadly my passion lies solely in primes and nothing else. Company accounts and tax calculations do not come naturally to me.

They forced me to enroll on a maths degree at Leicester University but I just didn't have the passion to see it through. While my contemporaries were partying I was spending my time trying to find new primes. Sometimes this can take weeks and weeks. I have been known to spend a month on nine-digit prime only to find that somebody else has beaten me to it.

It's a beautiful thing trying to find them though. Governments have huge supercomputers and entire groups of mathematicians whose sole job is to look for new ones. To me, this is cheating. There is no elegance in using Cray supercomputers to bludgeon the rules of mathematics. I like to do it the old fashioned way with a scientific calculator, pen and paper. Just like Euclid. He wouldn't have had a calculator though.

I had spent a decade successfully finding new primes when a friend suggested that I could turn this interest into a living. He had read in a science journal the American Government pays people $10,000 for discovering new primes over one hundred digits in length. I initially doubted the truth in this but after some research I discovered it was indeed a fact.

As I have already said the type of primes I seek are usually nine or ten digits long. I had to totally review my calculations to accommodate the new data load. My old methods had to be torn apart and reassembled like a complex piece of machinery. My goal was clear and my determination resolute. I was going to find a brand new prime number in excess of one hundred digits in length.

I knew this was going to take some doing. I started On my birthday - January 5th. Little did I know that this would consume my life for an entire year. I would live and breathe primes for twelve months.

At this point I should mention my day job. I am a clown. I mostly do kids birthday parties but can also be hired for carnivals and county fayres. My profession offers flexibility and a level of freedom that most jobs cannot.

I have done this full time since 1990. When my quest for a one hundred digit prime began I had to knock my hours down to part time though. There simply wasn't enough time in the day to entertain everyone and number crunch. Money was scarce and I ended up losing the house that I had fought so hard to buy. My wife and I moved to a small rented flat in a the Moss Side area of Manchester. It was totally different from Chorlton. Sometimes I used to come home and feel depressed when I saw gangs of youths riding round on BMXs with their hoods up. It broke my heart.

My daily routine consisted of getting up at six am and immediately carrying on with the calculations from the night before. Sometimes I would awaken to find that I had literally fallen asleep on the job, last night's mug of coffee still on the desk and inky numbers faintly visible on my cheek where my head had lain on the paper. I would work right through till eleven am then immediately head to my first clown booking. School holidays were a nightmare as I could easily end up working all day every day. As the fatigue wore me down I had to grit my teeth and put on a brave face for the kids. Nobody likes a sad, tetchy clown with numbers on their face.

I would work from whatever time I managed to get home until midnight. Then the whole thing would start again.

Around this time my personal hygiene was appalling. I had foregone all social niceties such as washing and shaving. The quest to hit one hundred digits consumed my body, mind and soul. My weight had ballooned to fourteen stone from the Hob-Nobs I was eating as I worked.

The strain on the household was immense.

I hadn't noticed my wife getting more and more distant until it was too late. In short, she left me.
I should have seen this coming. I had been selfish. I had been so caught up with my passion that I had ignored her needs, allowing the numbers to consume me like a creeping death. I didn't see it happening because it was so gradual. A bit like your hair growing from one day to the next.

I don't blame her for going. It was really hard explaining to my parents what was going on and their reaction somehow made the whole thing even worse. It tore me apart inside. Truth be known I think it tore them apart too. I remember the last day Deborah was here. She was wearing the summer dress I had bought her from H&M last summer. It was striped. She had seen Cheryl Cole wearing one in Grazia and liked it so I bought it for her. She looked great. She cried. We cried.

On January 5th - exactly a year after work had begun - I finally received a letter from the CIA. It explained that the prime I had submitted in November had been verified as correct. I didn't know how to react. I had dreamt of this day for so long and it almost felt like a let down. That delicious moment when my work had been checked and confirmed by experts was finally here and I felt empty. I was actually so underwhelmed that I left it a week before responding to the letter.

I spent months as Britain's saddest clown. I felt hollow. Looking back on this time now I think I was clinically depressed. It's very easy to rationalize these things in hindsight, but when you're in the middle of it it's no fun at all. I took long walks and spent a lot of time listening to Joy Division. I ate McCoy's oven chips frozen because the effort of cooking them seemed too much. Sometimes I would vomit them back up and just sort of look at the puke for a while.

Life is better now. I'm still living in the flat but I have got a new girlfriend and a baby is on the way. I don't like to talk about my passion these days. It reminds me of that dreadful January when I gained $10,000 but lost everything else.

People often ask me how I reconcile my two very different careers. Let's be honest, there aren't many clowns-cum-prime number experts. I try and explain it in practical terms. That my raison d'etre is looking for primes and the clown work leaves me free to indulge my passion. Some people work as software consultants and spend their weekends hang-gliding. What's the difference? I Sometimes I get the impression that people think I am a bit of a weirdo but I don't care.

I think it was Bernard Baruch who said the following:

“Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.”

How true his words are. We must not forget them.

I often see people with desk jobs taking their boredom out on their families. I feel sorry for them. I try not to judge them too harshly though. After all, it's no business of mine how other people make their living.

Last time my card got declined it was for £4.99. 499. That's a prime number too.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Down a Drain

The drain in our back yard often gets blocked. This has been a constant problem since we moved in. You can see where the ground has been dug up countless times, probably to fix something like a collapsed pipe. I dare say this has been a fucking nightmare for the previous family that lived here and we have been totally ripped off. This was the fifth time it has had happened so I was really pissed off by now. The previous times I have either called Dyno-Rod or got my father in law around to fix it. I make a concerted effort to tip chemicals down there and plunge the hell out of it but the fucker keeps clogging up.

My Drain, taken 9/3/12

Yesterday morning I looked out of our back doors whilst my coffee percolated. I felt a cold shudder as it dawned on me that we were knee deep in sewage. Again. As I say, I have seen this sight before, but this time something in my head snapped. I won't liken it to as Falling Down-style rampage, but I was pretty pissed off and started cursing the very house in which me and my wife live. I angrily decanted my coffee and thought on.

Why was this happening? What was causing it? What were we doing wrong?

I asked various people and they suggested that it might be the amount of bog roll we are flushing down. I'll be the first to admit that I *do* use more bog roll than the average person, but surely not enough to block an entire sewer? We sure as hell do not flush nappies down there so clearly it was not our fault.

I needed answers.

Obviously I am too large to fit down a drain so had to find another way. I had seen the guy from Dyno Road use a special pipe with a camera on the end to see blockages and obstructions. This really is a miracle of science; the ability to see along underground pipes in perfect clarity without having to dig up the sodding ground. Brilliant.

I rented one of these machines - in itself not an easy task - and set to work.

I got my wife to shove the pipe down and peered eagerly at the little screen.

What did I see? WHAT DID I SEE?

Avril fucking Lavigne.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Story for Geoff

A kind short-haired man called Geoff recently offered me a table.

I realise this is strange way to start a story but it was that simple. Somebody he knows with a high-end audio boutique was flogging a solid wood TV stand for £50. It had been used to display audio equipment but was now surplus to requirements.

In other words, they just wanted rid of the bloody thing and were happy to take a knock-down price.

Geoff knows I am keen on wooden objects, especially decent bits of furniture, so gave me a shout. Naturally I was interested as hell.

The conversation went something like this:

(phone rings)

Me: Alright G-Unit (I sometimes call him G-Unit depending on what mood I am in)

Geoff: Hello Sir. Is it fair to say you like wooden things?

Me: Well that depends Geoff. I'm keen on nice bits of furniture but I'm not as keen on, say, gallows or crucifixes.

Geoff: Well, lucky for you Paul, I know someone who is selling neither gallows or crucifixes. They are, however, trying to offload a solid wood corner TV stand for £50. Are you interested?

Me: I might be Geoff. Can you tell me more?

Geoff sent me a picture of this TV stand via. Facebook and, let me tell you, it was a BEAUTY. The Angelina Jolie of furniture. I estimated it would have cost up to £3000 brand new and yet was being flogged by these nutters for £50. Clearly they were not aware of the value of what they had. Either that or some other mistake had been made.

Was I interested? Yes.

It was shop soiled but how much wear could have occurred in an audio boutique? Surely it would have just had the odd £500 sub woofer propped up on the top? I carefully examined the photo and realised that it was in pristine condition.

I ruminated on my fortune and it felt good. Almost too good. Then Geoff explained that there was a catch. I had to collect it from the shop myself.

Geoff told me that the hi-fi shop was in central Manchester. I had to find a way to get there to pick up this table. Like most people, I made the assumption that merely travelling to a major city to pick up a table would be easy. I would set off at, say, 10am, be there by 11am, load it into the boot of my wife's car, £50 would change hands and then I would simply nip off for a lunch of baked eggs and coffee. I like baked eggs. Alas it was not to be.

What follows is a brutal account of events that day.

I dropped off my wife at work and set off for Manchester. I immediately hit traffic so severe that people were doing that thing where they get out of their cars and aimlessly look up the road. Businessmen in Audis were stood around talking and smoking Marlboro Lights. I sat in the Mazda and admired the cabin for a bit. I noted the quality feel of the plastics, running my finger along the centre console and admired the panel fit. It felt good. Certainly on a par with luxury German vehicles and definitely a class about what we had paid.

I soon tired of this and asked my sat-nav to redirect me along B-roads. I got this sat-nav as a birthday present from my wife in 2006 and it has helped me out in many sticky situations. It's small and the battery empties faster than a shattered toilet but it's perfectly good enough
for me.

All was going well.

Then I ended up somewhere I have never been before.

I like to think that I am fairly au fait with most of the North West but it became clear that the sat-nav had directed me into some kind of foggy field with waltzers, haunted houses, halls of mirrors and small roller coasters. There was candyfloss and iced-cream stalls. I could hear the sound of organ music in the distance and the air smelled of decay.

Utterly confused I crept along the field in second gear.

People. Where were all the people? Normally these places are jam packed with kids in tracksuits and tattooed men carrying cans of lager. But there was nobody.

It became clear that this was an abandoned fairground.

My immediate observation was that there were ghosts. Many, many ghosts. Numerous ghosts. They were clearly from varying eras as some were dressed in vaguely Napoleonic clothing and others had chosen to don Superdry hoodies. Some were even speaking into ghostly Iphones. Clearly these people had been freshly killed, possibly whilst indulging in a bit of retail therapy. I swear at one point I saw the apparition of Mother Teresa aggressively riding a motorcycle smoking.

I realised this abandoned fairground was clearly not where I was supposed to be so urged my sat-nav to have a rethink. I checked that I hadn't got it set to 'abandoned fairground mode' by accident but it wasn't. I have made this mistake before.

After briefly getting stuck in the mud I exited along an unfamiliar road. I popped some chewing gum in my mouth and put my foot down. It wasn't a road I knew but it would do. After all, surely any road is better than no road at all?

I soon found myself in a dim, dingy city. This place had a feel of depression that one often gets with seaside towns in the winter. It reminded me of trips to Great Yarmouth as a child. The place was not familiar to me though. I heard snippets of music. It was rock and roll. It sounded familiar. Words found their way into the cabin of the car:

"she was just know.....I fell i love with her"

I knew this song. It took me a few seconds to figure it out but what I was hearing but it was clearly the voice of John Lennon. I checked the stereo, it was off. I opened the window and the music got louder. I looked out of the passenger wide and saw the word 'Reeperbahn' painted above the entrance to a building. Christ. I had somehow travelled back in time to Hamburg circa 1960 and was hearing the Beatles cut their stage teeth. Sailors were fighting on the street and everyone seemed to be drunk.

I parked up, got out of the car and had a look around. The air smelled of beer and vomit. I thought to myself : "no, this is not the time to get distracted. You have a table to pick up Paul." I got back in the car, turned on the sat-nav and tried again. I'm sure a 22 year old John Lennon would have understood.

By this time I was getting hungry. I found one of those BP mini-marts and bought a Scotch egg and some Marmite. I don't know why I bought the Marmite as I had nothing to spread it with or on. I would have been much better with a Curly-Wurly.

I stared at the Marmite and had a think.

By this time I was getting worried. I really wanted this table more than anything in the world. I've had my share of horrible car journeys but this was getting worse and worse. I had ended up being surrounded by ghosts and seeing the Beatles play live in Hamburg. Not to mention the traffic.

I phoned Geoff and explained that I might be a tad late picking up the table. I thought best not to bore him with the reasons and simply told him that I was waiting for the washing machine to finish. I *hate* leaving stuff in the machine because it goes all smelly and sometimes needs washing again. Our washing machine is broken and doesn't get hot so it's important to get the clothes out as soon as it has finished the cycle. Geoff knows this.

I had lost all confidence in my sat-nav so decided to go it alone. If this machine couldn't get me there then fuck it, I would do it myself. Besides I had my Blackberry with me so could always use the maps on that if I was really stuck.

I found myself getting nearer to Manchester and was elated. I recognised that huge bluey dome thing at the Trafford Centre and carried on along the dual carriageway towards Salford. Then, yet again, things changed. I found myself being funneled into a large, grey building and soon was actually driving INSIDE. It had suddenly become humid has hell and people were milling around. I was making my way down a corridor with what seemed like doors either side of me. Some were open, some were shut. I crept down with inches to spare either side.

I saw two boxers, one tall, black and handsome. He was shouting and surrounded by a huge entourage. There was another slightly shorter mean-looking man pounding a punch bag while people took photos. I thought it best not to stop and carried on. Within seconds I was surrounded by thousands of people and the noise was unbearable. I dropped down to first gear and maintained a walking pace. I could see some kind of platform in front of me. As I got closer I could see it was not a platform as such but more a ring. A BOXING RING. I heard a nearby TV reporter saying something about the 'rumble in the jungle' and the incredible temperature in Zaire. Thousands of camera flashes went off around me.

The crowd roared and I looked in the rear-view mirror. The tall, handsome boxer was making his way to the ring and the crowd were going mental. He seemed annoyed that I was blocking his path I did my best to manoeuvre to the side to allow him to pass. The turning circle of my
wife's Mazda is poor at best so it took several attempts. The reversing sensors made life a little easier.

I managed to find a decent parking space in the arena and intended to watch the fight but again there were time constraints. I needed the table. Besides, everyone knows that Ali won anyway.

I carefully reversed back up the gangway.This was a tricky manoeuvre as the visibility out of my wife's Mazda is poor at best. Plus I have got a dodgy neck and it hurts when I turn round.I eventually made it outside and hit the dual carriageway.

This was getting spooky. No matter how careful I was I was ending up in unusual, unexpected situations. First the traffic, then the sinister fairground, the Beatles debut gig in Hamburg and now the most famous boxing match of all time. What the hell was going on? Was I being punished? Had I somehow pissed off God? Was I losing my mind? Had I been drugged? Questions, questions questions questions. However the most important question of all was HOW WAS I GOING TO GET THE BLOODY TABLE?

I was optimistic now. I was only three miles from Manchester city centre and there was no signs of any weird shit going on. I hit Oxford Road and parked up near the Student's Union. I had actually got to Manchester. I was over three hours late but at least I was there.

I parked up somewhere at the roadside, consulted the directions I had carefully scribbled down on a piece of paper and set off on foot. I lived in Manchester for a number of years in the late 1990s so I am reasonably confident negotiating my way round. Or so I thought.

I was pounding down the street and found myself walking through the doors of a lecture theatre. I don't know why but I saw the doors and felt compelled to go through. I wondered if Derren Brown had been messing with my head.

The lecture theatre was large, and it was jam packed with students. An elderly grey-haired man stood at the grand wooden podium orating. It was a really nice podium.

His words sounded familiar:

"My purpose here is to offer a defence of existentialism against several reproaches that have been laid against it."

For those of us not familiar with Existentialism I will give a potted history:

is a term applied to a school of 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual. In existentialism, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world. Many existentialists have also regarded traditional systematic or academic philosophies, in both style and content, as too abstract and remote from concrete human experience.

This was clearly Jean Paul Sartre's seminal lecture from 1970. It pretty much defined Existentialism and influenced an entire generation of people. I cannot overstate its importance.I have been a massive fan of this school of thought for many years and was slightly miffed that I couldn't stop and take it all in.

I listen for a three minutes forty seconds and then tried to exit with the minimum of fuss. It's really hard to leave a lecture theatre without feeling self-conscious but I just had to grin and bear it. I crept past everyone trying not to spoil their enjoyment and left.

I was back on the street. The audio shop was in sight. Top banana.

I was by this time experiencing a strange detachment, a sort of disbelief at the world going on around me. I often get this when my blood sugar level is too high or I am stressed. I had stopped off at Spa on the way and eaten some Curly Wurlies which explains why my blood sugar was such a mess. I accidentally slipped on some dog shit outside Betfred but carried on unperturbed.

I marched in through the heavy glass doors and immediately asked about the table. It was still there. I felt relief knowing that I was finally in possession of the damn thing. It had been a long day and lots had gone wrong, but like the eternal trier I had finally got there and achieved my goal.

I was ushered into a small room and there it was. But there was a problem.

The table was fucking massive. Seriously fucking massive. The top of it was level with my chest and it was the length of a small car. I gave it a quick shove but it wouldn't budge. I estimate it would have taken four strong men just to get it from the demo room to the street.

I asked for an explanation and it turns out that the table had been custom built for Mike Tyson. He owned a huge TV and had popped in one Sunday in 2010 to have a corner unit built. He never collected it and here we are. It also had the words 'greatest ever' engraved on the front which put me off slightly.

I asked Geoff why he hadn't warned me about the size and he explained that he had put a potted plant in the original photo to provide some scale. I pointed out that the plant too was enormous and provided no real way to gauge the size of the table. He agreed.

Clearly this wasn't going to fit in my car or house so the deal was off.

I tetchily left the shop with £50 of crisp notes still in my wallet. I spent some of it on baked eggs and coffee, bringing my cash down to £44.30 when you factor in the Curly Wurlies.

I was annoyed.

I got to thinking about missed opportunities in life, how our time is finite and how we should not dwell on things that are now in the past. I thought about great men that have lived and died. I contemplated the dogma with which we live our lives and the fact that only the truly enlightened tread their own path. I thought of the great suffering endured by humanity and a quote from Sartre sprang to mind from the lecture earlier that day:

"life begins on the other side of despair."

Yes I was disappointed but this provided a crumb of comfort.

I thought further:

It is a fact that one day we will be dead. All embarrassment, shame, regret and fear of failure melts away in the face of death. We must live each day like it is our last and NEVER regret anything.

I took a bite of Curly Wurly and set off home. I got there in record time.

Note: this story is based on truth. I was offered a TV stand by Geoff but I still have not collected it.