9 May 2009

He's Welsh, and don't you forget it



There are many things I detest about John Prescott.

I hate the national assumption that he is Hull born and raised, which he isn't. He was born in Prestatyn and had next to nothing to do with us until he was elected to the Hull East constituency in 1970. I'm not suggesting that the good people of Prestatyn should embrace him, just that we in this cherished corner of the nation don't wish him to be seen as one of our own, as he isn't.

I hate the hypocrisy of the man. He was as scathing as any left wing politician about the Tory sleaze of the 1990s, and yet was himself slipping a scabby length to one of his underlings. He is also a proper left winger who kept his big gob shut in order to acquire and then keep his job as deputy leader as Labour reformed.

I hate his temper. He has been a man of considerable power over the years, and yet aside from the infamous twatting of the egg-throwing mullet man in 2001, he has become renowned for being rude and obnoxious to interviewers over perfectly acceptable political issues that needed raising.

I hate his ego. I suspect that his position as deputy prime minister made him officially entitled to take an active role in policy making, but it wouldn't surprise me if Tony Blair never once consulted him. Then there was the time he and his wife drove 200 yards to conference on a day when conservation and the environment was under discussion, and he brusquely claimed, aside from the remark about his wife's hair, that it was because of "the security implication". He genuinely believed he could be a target for someone and that his sudden, violent demise might somehow affect the country's very stature.

However, I will always have sympathy for him when people decide that the best thing to mock is his grammar, as Have I Got News For You did for the umpteenth time last night. That brand of snobbery irks me to high heaven. When I hear him being interviewed, his mangled verbs and participles don't affect the point he makes, which is invariably a point that I'll disagree with. There are far more salient issues about Prescott and politicians as a whole to criticise; having a pop at a bloke because his manner is authentic to his upbringing is sneery and genuinely unfair.

I still hate Prescott though. I hope when he stands down as an MP next year he moves house.

8 May 2009

The telephone always rings



We recently acquired a set of new cordless phones for the house. They are sleek, jet black and look rather stylish. There is one to the right of the screen I stare at right now, plus one in the kitchen and one in the main bedroom.

I'm already annoyed with them, however, as there is a button with a big letter 'R' on them, bottom right, under the # button. To me, that screams 'redial'. But that's not what it does. Not only do I not know what the 'R' button's function is, I also do not know which of the hieroglyphically-labelled buttons really does redial a number.

Landline phones have changed quickly and substantially since my 1970s generation were born. There are people just 15 years younger than me who cannot believe that we ever had just one phone in the whole house, and that phone had to be attached to the wall, and you had to walk to a particular room to answer it - and stay there - and if you wanted to call someone you didn't push convenient buttons, but instead had to stick your index finger into the dial facility.

The first phone I recall was a grey, GPO-standard dial phone. This phone had a vibrant, very loud ring and our six-digit number stamped crudely on the small paper dial, which also had enough room to remind us of the numbers to call if we had an emergency or needed the operator. When you picked up the phone, be it to make a call or answer one, there was a very audible and satisfying click as the connection was made.

As everyone had the same kind of phone, much was made of where it was in the house. We had a small hallway next to our front door, with the stairs immediately opposite, and my mum found room for a tiny telephone table against the wall adjacent to the bottom stair, which didn't leave much room for the wire underneath. I suspect she felt that having a telephone table in the hallway was classier than keeping the phone on the floor or windowsill of the living room, although any element of decorum was lost by the fact that any reasonably long conversations meant the caller, including my mum herself, had to sit on the stairs and face out of the front door's glass panel for all the neighbours to see. On the second shelf of the table was one of those dial phone books, where you stick your finger in the appropriate letter and all the surnames of friends and family beginning with that letter would flip open.

Upon moving house in 1983, we had a slightly bigger front hall and there was room for a bigger telephone table. The old phone initially came with us, though we acquired a new number, then eventually we got an off-white push button phone. In Hull, as you may know, we have our own telephone exchange and the Telephone House issue models from Carr Lane came with a Mercury 'Push 13 for Cheaper Calls' sticker.

Push button phones were easier on your finger, but the technology hadn't progressed to make the time taken to make a call any quicker. Push a button now on a phone and the registration of the digit you've chosen is represented by a rapid beep. Push a button on a 1984 telephone and you still got that noise resembling a cat's purr, varying in length from 1 to 0. This was a bit of a problem when trying to get through to 31 Days In May.

A year or so on, the real leap in fortune seemed to come when we acquired a second phone. A two-phone family, get us! This was a handset only phone, not cordless, which was hung on the kitchen wall. The buttons were on the inside of the receiver itself and so the second bit was just a socket to slide it into upon completion of a call. It had a red light on the front which flashed when it rang, and flashed in time to the purring noises when you pressed buttons to dial out. For a good while, when the phone rang, two people would answer it at once and upon establishing who the caller needed to speak to, one would put it down. Listening in to a conversation was impossible (and, of course, not to be encouraged) as the noise of two phones vying for one conversation was obvious. This, however, didn't stop my brother often interrupting my calls with an immature remark from another room. He also worked out which two-digit number he should call to make one phone dial the other, making us answer the phone to nobody except someone in the same house as us. The joke wore thin quickly.

Then - we were really making progress now - a third phone was installed. Like the kitchen phone, it was a one-piece, corded unit which was hung on to the upstairs hall wall, and still it purred rather than beeped when dialling out. We'd got our first answering machine which was connected to the hall phone, and so an upstairs phone was needed because often a person alone and upstairs couldn't get to a ringing downstairs phone before the machine kicked in, and my maternal grandma, for one, absolutely hated answering machines, telling my mum frequently that she didn't pay her phone bill just to get an answering machine.

I like to think, also, that the upstairs phone was installed as both my brother and I were teenagers and needed to have the odd properly private conversation, although we still had to ask permission if we wanted to ring a girlfriend or friend, never mind 31 Days In May.

Cordless phones were in fashion by now, but we never had one while I lived in the family home. Ma Boswell's phone ("Hello, yes?") in Bread was probably the most famous one in popular culture, and I remember an entire episode of Fresh Fields was essentially about Hester getting a cordless phone and tricking Sonia next door by making a call, then ringing her doorbell during the call in order to be, apparently, in two places at once. How the studio audience laughed.

When I moved to Huddersfield in 1993, the office I worked in had three of the GPO-issue dial phones. In 1993! They worked fine so the chaps who'd run the news agency for nearly 40 years by this time had never felt the need to change them. The reception phone had buttons at the bottom which made a faint buzzing noise when you pressed them to put a call through. I'd never seen an interconnected phone system using GPO-issue phones before. It was great.

Not only is everything cordless now, but a hell of a lot of people don't bother with a landline at home at all. And, if everyone they need to contact has their mobile number, why should they? And at least on mobiles it's easy to do a quick redial...

7 May 2009

"Down serve!"



Mark X's revelations about his childhood game Death Square on the post a couple further down brought back to me another playground game we had at school which was concocted out of both necessity and accident, and became very popular.

Our secondary school playground was a very large concreted area made up of equal-sized squares. The borders were obvious and had weeds sticking through them. A huge number of kids needed to use the play area, due to a) there being just one play area for second years to fifth; b) our enormous playing fields were ridiculously out of bounds at breaktimes; and c) we were something like the fifth largest comp in the country, in both size and intake and so proper ball games, with proper balls, were banned.

The exemption we were given was Squares. It was a game played with a tennis ball and required dexterous hands. Ideally it featured two or four players but could conceivably be played by as many kids as there were squares on the playground. It was essentially tennis without racquets or a net, and those of us who rather enjoyed it took it very seriously, creating rules (some sensible, some designed to play to our strengths). The basics were that you slapped the ball to your opponent and, in traditional tennis format, only a single bounce or straight volley was allowed. You could hit the ball to any contender you wished. No points were given in a game of more than two players, it was straight elimination until a winner emerged, and that winner would be the server for the next game.

The adolescent rules we made up in the little group I was with included:

Down Serve - this was an "illegal" serve by which you had played the ball in too downward a direction, giving your opponent an unsporting chance of getting it back. You needed to retake your serve.
Line - if the ball struck the line (sometimes obvious as the square borders could make it shoot in a wild direction, sometimes less obvious and provoking argument) then the ball was returned to the server and the point replayed, irrespective of how long it had been going on.
Out - straightforward; hit the ball out and you exited the game.
Straight At - you were not permitted to strike the ball evidently at the face or body of an opponent in a way as to not give him a fair chance of making a shot, although this rule was ignored if the opponent managed to avoid the ball entirely and it went out of play, thereby eliminating you. Ha!

I remember at one point there being such an argument among my group over the rules, that one lad turned up at lunchtime to our game with a booklet he had written covering the laws of the game. As dim and terrible as this sounds, we all signed it and agreed to abide by them. Oh dear.

We had a primary school version of this called Four Square, which we like to think at least partially inspired the cheap game show hosted by former Hallam FM voiceover man John Sachs. This time, on a plain playground, the four squares were painted on, with a tiny quadrant in the corner of one indicating a serving position. The four kids taking part would play the same "bash ball with hand rules" except that it had to go to the person clockwise to you, irrespective of where the ball had landed in your square, and if you failed you were out.

The remaining three kids shuffled round one square, and the empty one was filled by the child at the front of the inordinately long queue of kids waiting to take part. You would duly go to the back of this queue which, during 15 minute breaktimes (10.30am-10.45am and 2.30pm-2.45pm at our primary) often meant you never got another go before the whistle went. How we played this game successfully I don't know, as it was generally done with footballs rather than tennis balls. Have you seen the size of a nine year old's hands, for Cliff's sake?

6 May 2009

Police, camera, action



I absolutely love stories like this. One assumes his own products weren't on the road in question...

Add it to the one about the loathsome Harriet Harman getting done for speeding, the cop giving a thumbs up to a speed camera and the chief of police who was collared for driving while holding a mobile. My heart cockles are suitably warmed.

4 May 2009

"That was a half volley, you're in goal!"



While chasing Basset hounds around the field yesterday, I spotted a group of lads, aged about ten to 15, kicking a ball around. They were clearly playing a game of Headers & Volleys, a game passed down through generations of footy enthusiasts.

I was tempted, briefly, to ape that great scene from This Life where Egg, contemplating his future, sees a bunch of teenagers kicking a ball around on a park and whips off his jacket and tie to join in, thereby producing the epiphany he needed to leave the legal profession behind. The knowledge that a) I had responsibility for some four-legged friends; b) I'm 36 and unfit; and c) some of my village's teenagers may quite possibly be far more unwelcoming than the London kids whose game Egg gatecrashed, combined to stop me.

Headers & Volleys provides a great alternative to a normal kickaround if it's too hot, or you haven't enough players, or you're too boneidle, to run around and play proper football. As few as three players can play, and it's a reasonable test of your technical prowess with a ball, something we're forever told by a despairing Sir Trevor Brooking is, wrongly, not regarded as important compared to the depressing mantras of running around and getting "stuck in".

One player (the weakest) starts in goal, and the others proceed to play the ball around themselves, trying to set up a chance on goal which can only be delivered via a header or volley. If he scores, he gets a point. If the keeper saves, the game goes on. If he misses without goalkeeper intervention (unless the ball hits the goalframe and comes back out), he goes in goal and the keeper becomes an outfield player. And, as extra punishment, he has to go and fetch the ball from the bushes 200 yards away.

There would always be one lad who, horrified at the prospect of being in goal, especially if he was regarded as an outsider in the group, never took a header or volley for fear of missing and then spending the rest of the session in goal as the other lads ganged up on him.

Variations on the rules exist, like in Blackjack, round-the-clock darts or at a pub pool table, depending on where you were from and whether you were hard enough to make up your own rules to suit your abilities.

Other games which involved a football but were not football included:

1 - Kerbie. Two players needed, each standing on opposite kerbs of the cul-de-sac. This was a throwing game, rather than kicking, and each player had to try to aim the ball at their opponents' kerb so that it would bounce back angularly right at them. Extra points were gained if you threw your ball so accurately that it rebounded right back into your grasp without bouncing.

2 - Wembley. One goalkeeper, the rest playing football rules except every player was against each other. Each one who scored would stand behind the goal, having gone through to the next round, and ultimately two players would be left trying to stay in the competition. Once it had whittled down to the two players who would compete in the final, it would be best of three goals.

3 - Every Man For Himself. Similar to the above, except there was no knockout principle. The players would simply compete against each other, scoring goals (and being told not to "scrounge" by standing next to the goalkeeper and waiting to get last touches on someone else's effort) until they all dropped down shattered or, more likely, the breaktime whistle went.

4 - Ballie Wallie (also Wall Ball). At least two players required, along with a handy brick wall of any size. A running order would be established and then each player in turn would have to kick the ball against the wall from any number of impossible angles created by the previous contender's kick. Sometimes this became Advanced Ballie Wallie, whereby you weren't allowed one touch to control the ball prior to kicking. Eventually players would miss and a winner would be declared.

5 - Crossbar. Enjoying a resurgence thanks to Soccer AM's Crossbar Challenge, two players would position themselves either side of the goalposts and try to hit the crossbar with their kicks of the ball. The bar could be struck at any angle - bounce back, underside, clip and over - as long as it was touched. Which, 998 times out of 1000, it wasn't as the lads hadn't been properly coached on the way to get height on a ball.

6 - Crickball. Cricket with a football, which the bowler delivered with his feet via a bounce, and the batsman dispatched with his feet rather than with a bat.

7 - Rugby. For when the lads decided they want to play rugby but hadn't got the rugby ball out of the garage. A round ball was deemed more than adequate as a replacement, even though grubber kicks became a little easier to judge.