I’m twenty-seven hairy years of age, and yet I still received a toddler’s bounty this Christmas. In addition to a United ticket, hard currency and a pair of sexy suede Fred Perry trainers I also received a book, Robert Caro’s magisterial The Power Broker. Published in 1975, this is ostensibly a biography of American master civil servant and builder Robert Moses, but it is also a stirring history of the construction of twentieth century New York and a deft dissection of the sources and (mis)uses of political power in the US at the time.
At over 1200 pages, it also has roughly the same dimensions as your standard three-bed semi, and weighs about as much; humping it back to London, it felt as if the earth’s entire gravitational pull was focussed on a singularity in my bag, heaving my shoulder blades further apart. Thing is, despite enjoying it immensely, I’ve only read about 300 pages of it. And do you know why?
I’m back into this stuff with a vengeance. Being back at home for just over a fortnight, with no work, and only hangovers and Toblerone taking up the time I wasn’t drinking, I slipped back into those easy pleasures. I’d like to blame the significant other, but as she quite rightly pointed out, I was gleefully watching gladiatorial chavfest Trisha when I was at university. Mea culpa.
I’m not sure it’s a bad thing you know. I like poncey haute cuisine, but I also bloody love KFC; I like Will Self, but I also read Football365 every day; I love the Velvet Underground feverishly, and yet I think fizzy rubbish like ‘Blow Ya Mind’ by Lock n Load is an absolute belter. The view is good from down here, and so you can clamber down and join me, here are a few pointers of what you might have missed this Christmas. You’re welcome.
Firstly, the absolute jewel in the crown of my Christmas viewing was undoubtedly Hardcore Pawn (Bio), a show you just know had a title before the conceit had ever been put in place. It follows the daily events at a Detroit pawnbroker, American Jewelry And Loan, which in essence sounds bonechillingly tedious but which is actually brilliant. For one, the Eminemville 8-Mile area it is set in makes Homs look like the Champs-Élysées - I’ve glibly tried to sum the show up as ‘an American Jeremy Kyle filmed in Poundland’ but it is so much richer than that.
The Gold family, patriarch Les, his son Seth and his daughter Ashley, are the management and protagonists, and together they run the business. Seth and Ashley are both loveable and detestable in equal measure, the former the classic schoolyard shithouse, larging it to big angry dudes he’s trying to stiff, secure in the knowledge the two walking continents of armed steroidal muscle at his back will look after him, while Ashley stalks around the place as if someone keeps leaving warm cat shit in her pocket, scowling at the skirting boards if no one will catch her eye. I would back her to start a fight in a nunnery for the deaf and dumb. Les, for his part, with his slickback greased hair, long leather coats and wiry strength, looks like an '80s movie baddie, the type Bruce Willis would despatch fairly early on. You couldn’t make them up, and it makes for compelling viewing.
The real magic of the show though is the variety of people and things coming through the doors. At one point, someone is trying to sell a stripper’s pole, the next a stuffed pig’s head – then a set of tiddlywinks that once supposedly belonged to Cary Grant. And, of course, the contention is seductive, as spaced-out Detroiters try and sell utter junk and lose the head quicker than John McEnroe when they don’t get what they want. It’s an absolute human circus, from anger to laughter, and it’s ace.
There are other shows of this ilk but basically I don’t want reasoned discussion of the merits of an antique Ottoman, I want snaggletoothed meth-heads trying to get $1,000 for a rusty lawnmower with only one blade and no fuel tank, and then kicking off to high heaven when they don’t. Watch, you won’t be disappointed.
Speaking of human immiseration, the next thing that caught my attention like the merest hint of Mila Kunis’s nipple through a sheer white top was Dinner Date (ITV). Clearly, some bright young TV executive has stood up in a production meeting, held up two hands with ‘Blind Date’ and ‘Come Dine With Me’ written on them, then brought them together, lacing the fingers and giving a Brentesque lip bite in the internationally recognised wanker sign for ‘synergy’.
It’s actually a neat idea, but surely the washed-out Weltschmerz of singledom is better than what usually transpires, which is two people engaging in crushingly awkward repartee across some seriously undercooked asparagus, soundtracked by more nervous laughter than at one of Stevie Wonder’s archery parties. I also despair at how easily they take things when they get turned down, never once flinging the mocking ready meal into the road and threatening the cameraman with a knife. It’s all so soulless.
Most hilariously, the ‘winner’ gets to go on another date for a ‘posh meal’, though when you look at it it is clear, from the dappled afternoon light and echoingly empty interiors, that the two putative lovebirds are actually enjoying a classic cheapo two-course weekday lunch deal at a chain bar instead of the glitzy evening cuisine they were expecting. Come on ITV, dig deep you mingebags, love is at stake.
Finally, on a similar note, the Come Dine With Me Top 30 (Channel 4) made for a splendid watch, as it marched before us a cavalcade of 24-carat wankers I hadn’t before seen. People will make out they tune in to this for the culinary wizardry, but that’s bunkum – you watch for the warped personalities involved, and in this episode there were some absolutely world class whoppers.
Firstly, the mockney fella in the Spanish special got right up my nose, a classic gassy loudmouth who exhibited the finest sulk ever seen outside of a dropped ice cream on a primary school playground. This occurred when his lame ‘fake finger in the salad’ joke didn’t land, so he began berating the rest of them for being boring and dull, like a racist northern comic bollocking his audience for not taking well to his quips about ‘darkies’. Worse still was Marcello, a hairdresser who looked like an aged David Villa auditioning for the part of ‘preening prick’ in a Saturday Night Fever remake. This guy was so objectionable it’s a miracle no one gouged his eyes out with a melon baller and filled the sockets with chopped habanero peppers, as some (I) might have.
My favourite moment however was when Claire, from York, in an ill-advised bout of wacky funsterism, brought her snake to the table (not a euphemism). Said serpent then commenced to tenderly lift its arse and fountain a green lake of anal slurry on to the table, sending diners fleeing to the four corners of the room boking their pelvises up. Glorious. I should get a snake...
So, essentially, at Christmas, a time of supposed goodwill, I took great pleasure in watching humans sharply annoy each other - many of these tiffs escalating into the parties fighting with the delicacy of two hungover polar bears in a phone box - or people tragically failing at romance. And that, dear reader, probably says more about your miserable author than really should be shared outside of a psychiatrist’s office.
Happy New Year, anyway.