One of my school run acquaintances is at her wit's end. Her husband – already frowned upon by the playground mum debating society for deliberately leaving his shoes in the middle of a tidy living-room to undermine the common sense rules of feng shui – has purchased a Panini World Cup sticker book. The World Cup, still weeks away, has probably already ruined her summer.
This man's efforts to hasten his wife's mental deterioration are well documented and have been hampering her attempts to lead a stress-free existence for at least the five years I've known her. His selfishness is legendary. The constant repetition of the goading discarded shoes – often placed quite literally half a yard from the sofa, so as to disrupt the only clear route from the hall to the dining-room – isn't the half of it.
He regularly buys her the wrong kind of confectionery, even though they've been together for 17 years and she's told him literally a million times she only likes hard toffee, not soft caramel. And he always waits until everyone has their coats on, often having helped their six-year-old into her anorak himself, before he goes to the toilet. In which he "takes ages".
The Panini album is probably the last straw. Not just because it's obviously pathetic for a grown man to spend money on stickers of footballers' faces, but because he's also roped in their seven-year-old son. In other words, he's already encouraging their offspring in his own dysfunctional compulsions, hoping to turn his currently socially successful child into an anal hermit.
This woman doesn't always spark sympathy, but the Panini episode did appear to garner a general response of derision. As it did among female readers when Guardian writer John Crace recently revealed he'd been buying the Panini World Cup album since 1970. "You can become fixated for days – weeks, even – about a particular sticker," he wrote feverishly. "Then one day it's there and, after a momentary feeling of exhilaration, there's a flatness." His words reminded me of Russell Brand's description of heroin as "moreish".
A female online commentator advised Crace that if he were ever to meet "an attractive young woman", "you should not mention any of this, ever".
The majority of comments, however, came from men of around Crace's age who understood his fetishistic enthusiasm. Though many admitted that, without sons of school age, they felt unable to continue indulging it themselves. The mood online was one of a nostalgic glow, the most commonly used phrase "happy days". Details of favoured World Cup years spilled out (Espana 1982 was very popular), as well as cards keenly sought but never found (Kevin Keegan was never so coveted).
Mike Bayly, community manager at Wingate and Finchley FC, compared the joy of opening a pack and seeing a flash of a coveted card to that of Charlie Bucket's discovery of a golden ticket. He remembered rumours that David Cooper in the year above him had two elusive "shiniest". "I would have been less impressed had he walked into school with a Snow Leopard."
Research from Tesco shows that the most common buyers of the current Panini album are men over 30. This information is likely to result in a few rolled eyes. But not from me. Whether these men are single, or dads keen to share a passion with their kids that doesn't involve staring at a computer, I warm to passion of any kind.
Panini seems for many men to offer a joyful passageway back to the unrivalled untethered freedom and happiness of childhood. I find it charming – enough to forgive even the most confrontationally placed pair of brogues.
Seeing light as the darkness beckons
Last year guitarist Wilko Johnson said his diagnosis of terminal cancer had given him an “ecstatic” realisation of how “bloody good” it was to be alive. His words provoked awe and admiration, as the dying, equally inspired Dennis Potter's did years ago.
This week Clive James described a similar response to his leukemia, speaking of how lucky he's been in his life, and rhapsodising about the wonder of a mind which allows him to “practically hallucinate the sheer beauty of Sydney Harbour” though he's too ill to ever see his beloved Australia again.
Where there is darkness, it seems, there may also be the brightest of lights.
Boyband career not up in smoke
It appears to be news that a pop band may have smoked marijuana.
A group of adolescents who have spent most of their recent life travelling across thousands of miles, occasionally stopping to perform in front of tens of thousands of hysterical teenage girls, have indulged in a cigarette containing a well-known relaxant.
And, according to the Daily Mail, fans of One Direction feel betrayed.
If this is as dark as the heart of a bunch of kids trying to work out how to negotiate a crazy life of near-permanent exhaustion and enforced role model-ism gets, I reckon it's a heart that can still be saved.