31 December 2007

Kevin Greening 1962-2007

It really is always the good ones who go early.

Rest in peace, you supertalented fella.

30 December 2007

For services to Billy Connolly

"I hate it when people who have a good time get honoured."

A quotation from Michael Parkinson when he appeared on Room 101 fewer than ten years ago. He made the comment on, superficially at least, an admirable level during a general rant about the British class system, all within an attempt to banish the MCC to the chamber guarded by Paul Merton.

At the time, Parkinson had never been offered an honour. Since then, he has smugly and obsequiously accepted a CBE and, now, a knighthood.

I've always hated Michael Parkinson for his sycophancy, his humourlessness, his jealousy of other talk show formats, his unerring self-obsession and the mind-numbing tedium of his programmes (one of numerous nadirs came when he asked Tamzin Outhwaite: "Have you always been beautiful?"). Now I can add hypocrisy to that list.

Sir Michael Parkinson? It makes my teeth itch.

Dangerous dogs

The tale of the 13 month old boy being mauled to death by his family's Rottweiler is a heartbreaking one.

Rottweilers. What a dreadful breed of dog.

I'm sure there are plenty of "pet" Rottweilers out there who've never harmed a fly. But the issue here is that they could. And I don't mean a fly either; but an innocent, helpless child like this boy in Wakefield whose life has been snuffed out in the most agonising, merciless manner by this uncontrolled, raging animal.

Why do people buy Rottweilers? Protection of themselves and property? Fine, a good reason, but there are better dogs for that; dogs who won't force friends and tradesmen to stay away from your home; dogs who won't make fellow dog owners afraid to let their weaker, more docile breeds off their leads; dogs who won't potentially rip to shreds a young loved one because he or she is too young and undaunted by a cute animal who initially seems playful.

There were Rottweilers on my estate a few years ago. One lived in a bungalow round the corner, and was called Carla. She used to bark menacingly through the fence at anyone who passed, and if they had a dog, the noise was extremely threatening. However, she had an owner who kept up tight security, put ample space between her and everyone who didn't know how to handle her, and walked her off-peak on a steel lead and with muzzle.

The other two lived on the cul-de-sac opposite. These dogs were too walked late at night on reinforced leads. However, the similarity ends there. They lived in the garden, barked and fought all day, and belonged to a man who had enough tattoos, meatheaded expressions and extreme viewpoints (from my one conversation with him) to suggest that he didn't need any canine protection from a chihuahua, never mind a Rottweiler, yet he had two of these beasts loose and not disciplined in his garden. He also had a flimsy fence.

Twice I recall their escape - and the first time it happened was when Paddy, my beautiful old sheltie-corgi cross, wandered out the front door for his walk with me closely following him. Paddy was old, slow and streetwise, so he was allowed to walk up the pavement alone as I turned to lock the door.

The key never came out of my pocket.

There was a vicious bark and I turned round to see a large Rottweiler heading my way, closely followed by the puppy version of the second, who eventually would grow up into another venomous beast. I quickly re-opened the door and shut myself in as the bigger animal bounded a yard or two away from me.

Then I remembered Paddy.

I looked out of the window and saw my daft old pooch sniffing this Rottweiler's nose. They then did that circular tail-chasing routine before going off on a random exploration of something on the road. Paddy's natural canine charisma had saved his bacon, but the fact remained that two Rottweilers had escaped from their garden through what I'd noticed a few days earlier to be a fence which was rapidly becoming flimsier. And I still had to get Paddy back into the house without becoming a Rottweiler's supper.

Ten minutes went by and eventually the two Rottweilers crossed to the other end of the street. I opened the front door, beckoned Paddy and managed to usher him in. So now we were both ok, albeit he'd had to sacrifice his walk, which was important for an arthritic dog who needed to keep his legs active.

It was raining quite hard by now, and a woman came walking round our corner. Due to her hood and brolly, I didn't recognise her immediately, but the Rottweilers went straight at her. One jumped up, but she amazingly just continued to walk, ignoring them until she got to her door; a destination which allowed me to recognise her as my Scouse neighbour Pauline.

I saw her in the pub the following Sunday. She told me she'd never been so frightened in her life.

The dogs were eventually rounded up and the fence repaired.

It wasn't enough.

A few weeks later, I was walking home from the pub with a friend and was about 100 yards and one corner from my house when we heard, distantly but vividly, this shriek of horror from a man. We sussed out the vague direction it was coming from and ran; he sounded like he was being mugged. However, before we got much further we heard the harshest type of dog bark - the one of a mutt on the attack.

The two of us were both dog owners and knew what was going on - the Rottweilers had escaped again. We ran back to my friend's house - he lived closest - and got sticks and a couple of leads. We knocked on the door of the man with the secured Rottweiler and asked him to get his reinforced lead and help us. He did.

As we approached a cut-through where the noise of both man and dog was getting closer, the tattooed man was coming towards us, though not at us. He said his dogs had escaped. We didn't reply, just pursued the search. Eventually we found no dogs, but did find the victims - three of them. Three grown men had been overpowered by these two Rottweilers (the second one had by now grown rapidly into a strong, vicious, foaming-at-the-mouth adult) and had ripped their own clothes to escape the grip and get away. They'd returned with cricket bats and golf clubs and were hell bent on finding these animals and killing them. When they saw us, with leads and sticks, they came at us initially in the belief we were the owners, such was their anger and fright. We convinced them just in time. Then the search resumed - we didn't tell them we had seen the real owner go in another direction a few seconds earlier.

There was no sign of the dogs for the next half hour, and the barking stopped, so presumably the owner had got there first. Not long after, the dogs had gone - the barking from the garden had stopped when I walked Paddy past. The man himself also moved out of his house.

I can honestly say that Rottweilers absolutely petrify me. The ones brought up properly are fine by day, but they still have the potential to turn in situations where they misunderstand the threat and use their natural instinct to fight to the death. These two dogs attacked people in the village because an irresponsible owner had not secured them properly; this makes it unfair on the dogs, as for the most part it is bad ownership and slipshod habits which puts the public in danger of attack and the dogs, ultimately, in danger of destruction. While Rottweilers can be effective guard dogs without having a pop at the wrong person - Carla, who recently died of natural causes, was an example, though she still menaced us through her fence and would have had a pop if necessary - ultimately they are programmed to attack first and foremost. They are not worth the hassle, nor the risk.

I feel so much for the family of the baby boy in Wakefield, but I don't blame the dog. I blame the irresponsible idiot who thought a helpless baby and an animal easily capable of a ruthless killing were somehow compatible. I hope the book is thrown at them.

Rottweilers are a worthy breed; they show well, they look good and if put in the right environment by the right people, there is every chance that they will become adequate, life-enhancing dogs. But there will always be that risk element. The Government should make it a criminal offence to leave children under 16 with dogs classified under that 1991 Act as 'dangerous'.

And do you remember that Act? Kenneth Baker brought it in after a Rottweiler got little Ruksana Khan in Bradford and ripped her whole face away. A whole 16 years later and still such dogs are attacking tiny children because the owners aren't being monitored enough. That's a disgrace.

28 December 2007

"Shout it out with a megaphone!"

In no particular order then - ten songs by Stock, Aitken and Waterman which were really rather good, actually...

1 - Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley

2 - Especially For You by Kylie Minogue & Jason Donovan

3 - Happenin' All Over Again by Lonnie Gordon

4 - Say I'm Your Number One by Princess

5 - Can't Shake The Feeling by Big Fun*

6 - I Just Don't Have The Heart by Cliff Richard

7 - This Time I Know It's For Real by Donna Summer

8 - When You Come Back To Me by Jason Donovan

9 - Whatever I Do, Wherever I Go by Hazell Dean**

10 - Better The Devil You Know by Kylie Minogue***

*Yes, this is irrespective of the deadbeats who recorded it, thanks.
**I can never remember where the brackets go on this, so I've left them out entirely.
***But also see any single from Kylie's second or third albums, really.

Sometimes football fans are absolute idiots

Manchester City drew 2-2 with Blackburn Rovers last night at Eastlands.

It was the first time this season, and under Sven Goran Eriksson, that they have dropped points at home.

And it was in their tenth game there. Considering the wretchedness of Manchester City's form in the top flight for pretty much 30 years (lest we forget they've dropped down from the top flight a few times too during that period), this was a magnificent achievement. The run had to end, but it was against a good side and at least they didn't lose.

Which makes the supporters who chose to boo the team at the final whistle the biggest set of morons this season has seen so far.

Sometimes I really hate football fans.

Sale now on here too, so wake up you lazy gets

Further to the PC World early sale, the Natural Blonde informs me that Next started their sales at 5am on Boxing Day, a whole two hours earlier.

Bloody hell.

27 December 2007

"My new friend"

Here's Sidney, our youngest cat, and his new best friend - one of the two model Basset hounds we have on our fireplace.

I think we need a pet psychologist.

Sale now on!

I'm sure some of our biggest retailers are trying to win a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the earliest-commencing "January" sale.

The inverted commas are there for a reason. The very idea of some shop re-opening to flog its unsold Christmas gear on as tardy a date as January 2nd is laughable now.

It eventually became December 27th, and now it's Boxing Day for many stores.

Fine, if you like.

I personally would rather spend Boxing Day watching Hull City win again (which they did - hazah) and then having a roast dinner with my parents (which I did - delicious). But if charging around shops purchasing stuff which was 60% more expensive two days earlier (and don't they love smugly pointing that out) is your bag for the day after Christmas, you go for it.

The biscuit has been re-taken this year, and the descendents of the McWhirter twins may well have to update their hallowed pages if the TV adverts I have observed are correct.

It begs one question:

Who the hell is foolish enough to be queuing outside their local PC World at 7am on Boxing Day?


The only reason I'm ever not in bed at 7am is for work reasons. Otherwise our bodies should be programmed to be very much under a duvet, in a deep state of unconsciousness, and dreaming about Karen Hardy off of Strictly Come Dancing and some faulty strapping on her frock.

Though that's a personal thing, admittedly.

These people who prefer to be outside bloody PC World at that time deserve to be in homes for the bewildered.

No high-quality, low-price Pentium Processor is that important, surely?

24 December 2007

So here it is...

Some of my fellow bloggers seem to think that blogging is not an option over Christmas, so they've all posted seasonal messages of good cheer and added that they'll be back in January.

Maybe they've got better things to do.

I, however, intend to do more scattergun writing through Christmas, just in case some poor sod actually comes to this blog through the holiday period to check for updates. And because I like doing it.

That said, it might not be for a while, so this is my disclaiming post, just in case...

Merry Christmas! And thank you for your support so far for this blog's short, but ever-lengthening, life.

Have a great day.

Matthew, the Natural Blonde, Penny, Bentley, Ruby, Boris, Twizz, Sox, Harvey, Oliver and Sidney.

PS - I'm on KCFM breakfast on Christmas Day, and doing a party show in the evening....

21 December 2007

The gifts of Christmas past

*Christmas 1979 - "Gis a croggie!"
- a red Tomahawk bike, with smart new hexagonal seat and the notice which said This bicycle is not designed to carry passengers. I was still riding it at the age of nine. The photo depicts the old style seat of the early 70s, which my brother had on his purple version of what was a much underrated machine for a boy of six.

*Christmas 1980 - "No, it's FOUR away for hitting the yellow!"
- a 6ft snooker table and balls (ten reds) with cues, rest and triangle. My maternal grandad and I were never off it, and there's a great photo of us in my dad's slide archive somewhere of us posing with cues. I'm in an Adidas T-shirt and a light blue wristband, giving the thumbs-up. Every boy got into snooker in the 1980s thanks to Pot Black, and my primary school even had an internal competition. The table remained in regular use for most of the decade.

*Christmas 1981 - "Yorkle the yellow dragon is afraid of the gold key and will run from it..."
- the Atari console of the time, along with Space Invaders, Asteroids and Adventure. This was a joint pressie to my brother and I and our parents left us alone all day to play it rather than get us involved with family stuff, unusually. I later found out that it was because I was due to be admitted to hospital on Boxing Day for my long-standing tonsil removal op, and so they'd wanted me to have the best possible Christmas Day, which meant not having to do the polite stuff with aunties et al, before quietly telling me last thing at night before bed. Bless them. I was scared, especially when I found my hospital bag had been quietly packed by mum and left in my room during the day. I was home and playing that Atari again by January 3rd, and it lasted a good few years.

Christmas 1982 - "Can you help me put the chain back on?"
- the Tomahawk's replacement, an 18-inch Raleigh Arena, my first racing bike. I was a short nine year old so needed a short bike, and the Arena was the predictable model of the time, but I loved that bike. I had it for four years prior to my brother getting a moped and handing over to me his superb Cyclone. Great photo, though I don't think I had those yellow taped handlebars.

*Christmas 1983 - "Plug those bloody earphones in!"
- a Casio MT-45 synthesiser, a gift so synonymous with my childhood that my brother mentioned it in his best man's speech at my wedding last year. Eight drum beats (pop, disco, bossanova, waltz, samba, swing, beguine and tango) and eight instrument sounds (piano, electric piano, organ, erm... nope, forgotten the others) and before long I'd mastered New Song (well, the melody line anyway) and the Cuckoo Waltz theme. The pic is of the slightly better MT-60. My mate Tim Pakyurek had the MT-65, which had more sounds and more drumbeats. I was profoundly jealous.

Great presents through those important years. I was very lucky and very grateful, and still am.

From 1984 onwards it became the early adolescent mixture of cash, vouchers (I hated vouchers - basically they restricted what you could buy and gave the impression that the giver knew what to get you but couldn't be arsed to get it), records and clothes.

The last great motif of my childhood Christmases still exists - there's a selection box for me courtesy of my mum and dad under the tree every year. Bless them again. One year they forgot to give us (erm, give Santa) the boxes and ended up finding them, by accident, in July. So we got Christmas chocolate in the summer. Fair enough.

Your year-by-year gift memories would be most welcome.

Maybe it's because I'm not a Londoner

My trip to London for a Christmas bash was carefully planned. Hull Trains are reliable and clean, and their trains a refreshingly minty colour, and their direct routes through from Paragon and Kings Cross have never let me down.

On this occasion, once more they didn't let me down. But I still couldn't catch either of their trains I had booked.

A car journey from my home to the railway station takes approximately 15 minutes, depending on the regulation factors like weather, time of day etc. So, the Natural Blonde agreed to drive me from the village (we haven't had localised services to the vast terrain of small towns and villages east of Hull since Dr Beeching decided in 1964 that they were no longer necessary) to the station.

We set off on a 15 minute journey with half an hour to spare.

We got stuck behind a succession of 25mph transporters carrying those mobile offices, which take up two lanes by just enough of a margin to prevent you from overtaking.

I missed the train.

There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere and being late through no fault of your own.

We then tried, with the help of a growing speed limit and the Natural Blonde's accelerator, to pre-empt the train's next stop at Brough, a smart and small town west of the city where the trains always stop. The train goes there at a car's pace because of the shortness of the time involved, so we had a fighting chance of making it to Brough before it arrived.

We indeed got to Brough before the train (the track is visible most of the way from the A-road) and if we got one set of green traffic lights as we travelled, I'd have reached the platform on time.

They were red.

They stayed red.

When they changed, the person in the MR2 in front of us stalled his car.

There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere and being late through no fault of your own.

I missed the train.

It was a fraction of a mile in the distance when I got to the platform. I half-expected to see some woman waving a white handkerchief of farewell at it.

The next stop was Selby, a good distance away and therefore the train could open its traps and pick up its pace. My last chance of catching it had gone.

So, I had a cheap £50 return ticket in my bag, one half of which was now entirely useless. It was not transferable to any other Hull-London service, even with the same company, and the next Hull Trains service was three hours away, so that was a non-starter for another reason.

All I could do was buy a new, single ticket for the impending local service, with a change at Doncaster (Doncaster gets a lot of stick as a town, but the rail system in this country would be utterly lost without Doncaster's station) which would get me into King's Cross via an East Coast train about half an hour later than planned, and £74 lighter - yes, somehow a single ticket for this service was £25 or so more expensive than the return ticket I already possessed. I hate train companies, the greedy sods.

I thanked the Natural Blonde for her efforts and waved her goodbye as she drove away. The train arrived at Brough, I boarded, got to Doncaster, switched to the East Coast service and spent the journey sitting cross-legged on the floor of one of those small foyer-like areas between carriages, as every single seat in standard class had been pre-booked (this, of course, doesn't stop some people sitting down in such seats and then look incredulous when someone has the nerve to ask them to shift). I arrived at Kings Cross and put it down to a one-off experience.

Underground to Great Portland Street, met Callum, the pal I was staying with, ate well at a smart Italian restaurant (including raspberries and cream as a dessert - yum), then off to the Christmas do on Tottenham Court Road. Had a great night. Some of it is mentioned below. Underground to North Acton, where Callum collected me. Kipped on his floor.

My return train - the one on the £50 ticket - was at 9.48am. At 9am on the dot I was dropped off at Willesden Junction tube and Callum and I wished each other good Christmas cheer.

The tube train arrived within three or four minutes and I scoured the map to see where I needed to change for Kings Cross.

The options seemed to be the Circle or Hammersmith & City line at Paddington, or the same again at Baker Street. Or I could hold on until Oxford Circus and catch the Victoria line, which was a mild southbound detour but familiar to me.

I wish I had done the latter.

I got off at Paddington and was ten minutes and five stops from King's Cross with 25 minutes to my train. A piece of cake, despite my unfamiliarity with Paddington's set-up, as I ran from the Bakerloo line through the overground platforms in order to get to the H&C line. I chose this course because there were notices on walls and regularly parroted recorded messages on the tannoys about severe Circle line delays due to staff shortages.

There were also H&C delays, but the announcements only mentioned westbound, and I was going east. I got to the platform and looked at the clock.

0928 hours. Not a problem.

A westbound tube train arrived. The one with supposed delays. I thought maybe it was one which had been delayed considerably already. A few got on, a few got off.

Two minutes later, another one arrived. Fewer got on and off.

Two minutes later, another one arrived. Nobody got on, nobody got off. Literally.

Meanwhile, nothing had arrived on the eastbound platform during this period, making a mockery of the announcements still sounding every other 90 seconds on the speakers above my worried head. We were assured that the problems were westbound, but the evidence seen by our own eyes told a different, frustrating story.

Finally, a tube train arrived for us. I boarded it but already I knew I'd not get to Kings Cross on time. This didn't alleviate the rage I felt when it stopped at Baker Street and decided to switch off its engines for five minutes. You find yourself briefly clinging on to hope once the last leg of your journey finally starts, then something like this happens.

Had I gone through to Oxford Circus, I'd have arrived on time.

I got to Kings Cross a whole six minutes after my train's allocated departure time. Hull Trains are never late in setting off, so even a perverse desire for an ineffectual train service - the one we hear about constantly - didn't materialise for me.

There's nothing more frustrating than trying to get somewhere and being late through no fault of your own.

I missed the train.

So again, as I couldn't wait for the next one three hours later for work-related reasons, I paid through the nose for a daylight robbery single ticket via East Coast to Doncaster and then a local service to get me to Paragon. Those £50 tickets, purchased weeks ago and in my possession for four days prior to travelling, were now unused and unusable, bound for the bin.

So it cost me an extra £148 than initially planned, in Christmas week.

And environmentalists and politicians wonder why people don't catch trains when they could. It's because they're overpriced!

I don't do blaming; but on this occasion I know neither missed train was down to my own lack of organisation. A convoy of mobile home transporters brought a city's traffic to a standstill for just enough time for me to believe I'd be able to step on the train, breathless, just as the guard was waving his plastic sign to get the doors shut.

No chance.

Then, on the way back, a staff shortage (which is acceptable) and incorrect looped announcements (which are most certainly not acceptable) robbed me of my paid-for, comfier return home. I'm glad I had no hangover on this occasion (which was a fluke - again see below) and that my only physical discomfort was a mildly stiff back from sleeping on my mate's floor.

Now I know why Londoners sometimes moan about their public transport system. In Hull, which is a large city but has only just managed to integrate its transport structure (the new bus and train combo-complex opened in the autumn) it's easy to scorn Londoners when we read of such whinges. After all, the underground has always been, for me, efficient, quick, regular and unfussy - and, compared to the price of everything else in London - damned good value.

Not any more. I now empathise entirely.

I really should have gone to Oxford Circus.

Maybe Ian Jones, the writer of the ace To The End Of The Line blog (linked on this page), could be on hand for advice next time.

I'm back in London again on Saturday for football reasons. I hope to have better luck, although my journey starts and ends at different stations and only briefly involves the underground.

Oh, as a postscript and a slightly lighter note, my journey home on the expensive East Coast train did at least find me sitting adjacent to Jane Moore, whom I've always really liked. So I got to watch her applying her make-up and writing her Christmas cards, which made the time fly by.

That's worth £148 of anybody's money... maybe.

"Same again?"

How much can you drink?

I was at a festive "gathering" on Wednesday night in London, and the topic briefly emerged about alcohol capacity as one of our band of merry media pros, whose blog is linked to here, seems to have a bottomless pit in which to place his ale.

Medical types say it's about metabolism, don't they? And I'll be content to accept that argument at the age of 34. But when you're 21, shuffling for a high placing in your peers' pecking order and also on the pull, the more you can drink is, of course, purely down to your levels of masculinity. Copious drinkers are also the fellows who have almighty sexual stamina, the best job, the most money, the finest brain and a level of charisma which could further galvanise even the most vibrant of social circles. Some genuinely idiotic, uncouth groups of blokes measure their manliness on how much ale they can quaff before having to visit the lavatory.

I don't know what measurements you apply to women who can take their liquor better than others. When I was a student, the ladies in my throng of associates either drank steadily, stupidly or not at all. The steady drinkers were fresh and no more at the night's end. The stupid ones were comatose, incoherent or, most likely when I think back, in a taxi two hours earlier and long asleep, unaware of the regret they'd feel when their head would wake them up in a few hours. The sober ones were actually the best company. But in any circle of comrades I have punctured in my various life stages, I cannot recall a genuinely prolific female drinker who was rendered unaffected by her ability to take plentiful amounts of her beverage. The recommended unitary intake is lower and women are affected by the stuff more quickly than men, so maybe it's harder for a lady to drink well, drink substantially and remain unaffected on the outside.

Which brings me back to the "gathering". The sponge-like gent in question has become known among us for his remarkable ability to imbibe a high level of ale without ever appearing slurry, unsteady on his feet or variable in his personality. It was pointed out fairly early on in our evening's japery that he had an empty glass in front of him from the same round of pints which were still three quarters full elsewhere at our table. He shrugged, laughed, and is modest in his achievements (and to many of course it's nothing to brag about, though this pal was just on a normal night out) - and I must say that despite my maturity threshold gaining naturally with the ageing process, I'm dead jealous. It's the Adrian Mole "thing" scenario all over again - "Donkey Dawkins says his thing comes off the end of a ruler, yet he is only a week older than me"; well, my liquid-friendly chum is, as it turns out, a month younger than me. It's not fair...

He also drinks lager which, when in my previous life as a lager drinker, was easy enough for my belly to accept but I often found myself "full" too early - not usually because of ale, but more because of gas. A smart, timely burp (with added subtlety, depending on the company I was keeping) was sufficient to alleviate this problem and on I could go. But not at this pace. Not ever.

Nowadays, it's Guinness which passes my lips on such occasions, and it's very much a Russian roulette system with me when the gorgeous black throat reformer is placed before me. Depending on how much I've eaten prior, the last time I consumed any alcohol, the pouring quality of the tap behind the bar and probably astronomical factors too, I can feel bloated and beaten after two pints, or sober and stoic after eight. It really is that much of a lottery. I was the latter at our "gathering" and enjoyed the party thoroughly; however, not even I in an on-form Guinness consumption mood could keep up with the stamina-levels of my friend. I'd be nowhere near, in fact. It isn't a competition and you'd be a fool to say it was, but fair play to him nonetheless. We had just one of those nights where he could relax in the company of friends, and we could gain some form of sly sport from observing his way of doing so.

Drink responsibly this Christmas... (I feel I should say this, but I'm sure you are all adults...)

18 December 2007

"Sign here for my grown-up friend who should know better..."

This is former Hull City captain Justin Whittle, one of the club's all-time heroes, signing an old replica shirt for a friend of mine this week.

My mate is 22, an intelligent undergraduate (no asides about contradiction, please), a holder of two gold cards and a largely sane, sober (well, in terms of his disposition, as opposed to his blood alcohol measurement), ambitious, worldly-wise and normal human being.

Mention the name of Justin Whittle to him though and he turns into a gibbering wreck. Imagine the equivalent of a tartan turn-upped teen lass waiting for the Bay City Rollers to come out of the fire exit at some venue in 1975. This is the effect Justin has on this friend of mine.

However, we all have our heroes in adulthood and I admire him for being quite shameless about his. He gave me the shirt when Justin was booked as a guest on my radio programme and asked if his idol would be able to sign it for him. The shirt goes back quite a few seasons - Justin himself has long left Hull City - and has been worn numerous times. Now it's apparently going in a frame on his wall.

I have only once asked for an autograph in adult life, and that too was an ex-Hull City footballer, my own childhood hero. Garry Parker was seeing out his career at Leicester City when, as a 23 year old footie hack, I waited outside the dressing room on my Press card's say-so and got his signature when he emerged. I kept the signature, and even made a point of keeping the biro - a regular Bic one, in black - in a drawer, allegedly never to be held again. It took a few months before I told myself to grow up and retrieved it for use once more.

For my mate Joe then...

Look or listen?

Sky Sports News is sponsored by Ford, whose credits either side of adbreaks feature random people in varying social, recreational or vocational locations. There's a bloke on scaffolding in a hard hat; a bunch of minicab drivers outside their office; a woman on the touchline of a boys' match; and a bloke in a Ford Mondeo (in orange, a colour not available to me when I bought mine).

They all are doing the same thing - celebrating a goal as it's scored. Problem is, aside from the lady at the kids' game (who sees a goal before her very eyes), they are obviously doing so after merely hearing the goal being scored. The construction worker has a ghetto blaster next to him; the cabbies are inside and outside their office, but all leaping imbecilically; and clearly the bloke in the car has a radio on.

How does this benefit a television station, then? Sponsor credits which show people not using a TV to get their goal fix, but the very medium which, in the case of Sky, provides the only rivalry to their attempt to monopolise full match coverage. I don't get it.

"Email here in the event of an emergency"

My beloved father, who is 67, has just had to spend nigh on a fortnight in hospital. For his sake, I won't go into detail of why he was admitted, save to say that it was illness rather than injury, he has been released now and is mercifully on the mend.

I only visited him once, as he was taken unwell during a visit to my brother's house at the other end of England, so travelling was an issue. The Natural Blonde and myself drove the near-400 miles on Saturday evening, spent Sunday with Dad, then came back Monday.

Now it's been a long time since I was in a hospital ward. The last time I visited someone, almost a decade ago, they were in intensive care. Comfort and convenience for the patient therefore was a poor second to actual care. Dad was always in a general medical ward, albeit one with a specific function, and was therefore able to pass the time in the way conscious recovering patients do. But the toys and attractions available to him really opened my eyes.

For a few quid's worth of credit, he can watch TV (including the Freeview channels), listen to the radio (the hospital station and one local commercial station), play computer games (not really Dad's thing, admittedly) or, best of all, surf the net.

Internet access from your hospital bed!

And it's all from the same gizmo. The screen pulls down to wherever you want it, then a coloured button sequence, a bit like Fastext, switches from one medium to another. Opposite Dad was a teenage lad who'd had a motorbike accident, bashing away at a games console from a totally horizontal position. Adjacent was a chap who'd fallen off a horse, tapping his fingers as he listened to the hits. The other fellow in this four-man ward had chosen to stay asleep.

Dad, meanwhile, was watching the final of the snooker with his headphones on when we pitched up to see him. He'd not done anything other than watch TV with this contraption which swung above his bed, but he showed me how it worked nonetheless; essentially, it had a phone and ID number system akin to that which allows you to watch films or, erm, 'specialist' material in hotel rooms. So patients have to pay, but it's a peppercorn amount and considering the alternative is passing the time worrying about your health, it's a decent deal.

I appreciate that the NHS is about medical care, but I can't help but feel grateful that keeping recovering patients entertained and in touch with the world outside is also an issue to the powers-that-be. My last prolonged hospital stay was for the removal of my tonsils at Christmas 1981, and the only telly I saw was a grainy black and white thing which was in a room three floors down from the children's ward and therefore for two of the five days I spent in hospital I wasn't allowed out to see it. And there's only so many times you can read a copy of the Dandy before you get thoroughly bored of it.

Assuming that these multi-purpose entertainment systems are a standard in hospitals up and down the land, it means that anyone whose business relies on internet access could theoretically continue their work from their bed should they be taken ill. You and I can update our blogs while being intravenously nourished and having our catheters removed. And, best of all, my dad could watch an entire snooker championship without my mum whingeing for something else to watch, which I doubt he's ever managed before...

I'm obviously relieved that his health is returning, and for that we have the magnificent staff to thank; but I'm just as relieved that his stay in hospital was made as familiar and unstressful as possible, and something as daft as a TV/radio/console/PC, all on a playful pulley system above his bed, was able to help him achieve that.

14 December 2007

"Just a foolish beat of my heart"

I've just played Debbie Gibson on the radio for probably the first time in 17 years.

Crikey. It deserves a picture, that.

13 December 2007

Hirsutes you, sir!

I've just shaved off my beard.

The Natural Blonde is most pleased by this sacrifice on my part, and to be truthful there was an itchiness and irritation (with the beard, not the Natural Blonde) which prompted the 45 minute depilation session at the wash basin.

Beardiness doesn't become me, really. I'm fair-haired, so facial hair remains almost invisible unless the starer is very close indeed. There is also a danger that it can look ginger in a certain light (I'm not gingerist, but I don't want to be ginger nonetheless). And what can take more hormonal and rugged fellows a single day to grow is pushing a month's worth of shrubbery for me.

So it was merely an experimental beard.

The weirdest reaction I had were from the women in my life - the Natural Blonde hated it and my mum thought I looked scruffy. Their opinions matter the most (though my mum has always hated anything unconventional on blokes, especially either of her two sons - when both my brother and I grew our hair for the first time as teenagers she had a quite excellent tantrum; and don't get her started on men with earrings). However, just about every other woman I see (the regulars at the club and my female colleagues at the radio station) all approved. I was called "dashing" by one. Yeah, dashing! Me! Another decided to have a mild tug at my chinny fur and gaily remarked "oooh, isn't it soft?", suggesting to me that the facial hair which had been previously permitted near her had savagely stripped off the outer layer of her skin. Numerous other females have told me it suited me (so either they have a preference for beards or they're grateful for the partial covering of my features). I'm at a loss as to what to really think.

I do know, however, that I did like the achievement of growing it. As someone who has never had to shave more than once a week in his adult life, it was quite a feat to get as far as I did. And, as a chap who has always been a little boyish for his age (I looked 12 at 18; 18 at 28 etc), I also liked looking a bit older, even if all the beard actually did was make me look my real age.

I recall Bill Margold, the veteran adult movie star, saying in a magazine interview (FHM I should add, not Razzle or suchlike) that the obligatory porn moustache of the 70s and 80s did "leave lingering tastes of where you've been". I've no comment to make on anything that specific, though I did find that eating was slightly harder and the facility to use the mucky-eaters' retort "I'm saving it for later" was pretty frequent.

A chap I know from our attendance at football matches has always sported a quite staggering beard, one of which he is justifiably proud. But even he recently admitted to me, through gritted teeth and with a visible dent to his machismo, that he had given it the trimming treatment because the woman with whom he was walking out had requested it. In the company of his laddish footballist friends, he was mildly embarrassed by his admission, but ultimately it proved that even the manliest of manly men can heed the opinion of the lady closest to them over such matters, even if they don't agree with it.

And maybe this is the key to the contrast between beardists and non-beardists among the female population - ladies think beards are fine on a man, but not fine on their man. I reckon the ladies who complemented me on mine would have been just like my Natural Blonde in their huffy disapproval had I grown it after betrothal to them.

If I grow the beard again, it'll only be out of sheer laziness. A smooth face and a happy wife - the best a man can get?

12 December 2007

39 reasons why the 1970s were ace

Indulge me, please. These were the songs I picked and played on yesterday's 70s Night on KCFM 99.8. You can tune in each Tuesday (apart from nights when we have football commentary) via our website.

Rolling Stones "Brown Sugar"
Elgins "Heaven Must Have Sent You"
Glen Campbell "Rhinestone Cowboy"
Elvis Costello & the Attractions "I Don't Wanna Go To Chelsea"
*Cliff Richard "Power To All Our Friends"
*Jam "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight"
Dave Edmunds "I Hear You Knockin'"
Viola Wills "Gonna Get Along Without You Now"
Queen "Somebody To Love"
Donna Summer "Bad Girls"
Blackbyrds "Walking In Rhythm"
CCS "Tap Turns On The Water"
Chicago "If You Leave Me Now"
Lynyrd Skynyrd "Sweet Home Alabama"
Rod Stewart "You Wear It Well"
KC and the Sunshine Band "Queen Of Clubs"
John Lennon/Yoko Ono with the Plastic Ono Band "Instant Karma"
*John Miles "Music"
*Stranglers "No More Heroes"
O'Jays "Back Stabbers"
ELO "Rockaria"
Mink de Ville "Spanish Stroll"
Sherbet "Howzat"
Rose Royce "Love Don't Live Here Any More"
Anita Ward "Ring My Bell"
Shocking Blue "Venus"
Andrew Gold "Lonely Boy"
Tams "Hey Girl Don't Bother Me"
Suzi Quatro "Can The Can"
Stevie Wonder "Sir Duke"
**Elvis Presley "It Won't Seem Like Christmas Without You"
**Showaddywaddy "Hey Mr Christmas"
10cc "I'm Mandy Fly Me"
Supremes "Nathan Jones"
Ramones "Sheena Is A Punk Rocker"
Paul Simon "Take Me To The Mardi Gras"
Chic "Good Times"
Fox "S-S-Single Bed"
David Bowie "Heroes"

* Songs chosen as the artist(s) had played in the Hull and East Yorkshire area this week in a year of the 1970s.
** Part of a short-lived Christmas feature to showcase the festive songs of the 70s which weren't by Slade or Wizzard.

In the three months I've been doing this programme, the only artists I've found myself deliberately avoiding on the 70s Night are the Bay City Rollers.

11 December 2007

No ordinary Joe - thank God

Joe Calzaghe won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award by some distance, and thank God for that. At least this year it went to a champion.

The list smacked predominantly of mediocrity. Lewis Hamilton is clearly a superstar in the making, but he didn't win anything. Ricky Hatton's reputation, as well as his face, took a battering mere hours before the votes were cast. And these were the guys who finished in the runners-up spots.

Who else was on there? Andy Murray. For God's sake, Andy Murray. What a dour, miserable sourpuss this lad is. He somehow was deemed more deserving of a place on the shortlist than his elder, more impossibly barneted and far smilier brother, who actually won a Grand Slam title (albeit in doubles) in 2007. Murray the younger not only didn't win any Grand Slams, he didn't even play in two of them through injury. And he moaned a lot. And he hates the English. And he didn't go to the event.

Jonny Wilkinson displayed his usual immaculate kicking prowess at the World Cup, but wasn't in a winning team. He won this award four years ago when he was in a winning team. Voting for him this year therefore instantly devalued the award. His team-mate Jason Robinson, who in his retirement interview tried to get the crucial countryside vote by saying he was buying a farm, got more votes for also losing the World Cup.

I don't know anything about Justin Rose as I don't follow golf at all. But I didn't notice him winning much in the golf round-up.

I do know Paula Radcliffe won the New York marathon six months after giving birth. That's an achievement and a half. But she is always going to be the perennial underachiever at the biggest event of them all and that will always cost her votes. I know she's won it before, but that was when people weren't tired of her heroic track failures and were still attracted by that daft nodding action.

Then there's the other athlete, Christine Ohuruogu, who finished tenth and last in the final voting by a very, very long way. She won the world 400m title, but she also served a suspension (this was even mentioned in the one-line summation about her each time the phone lines were flogged on screen - without mentioning the reason or the later exoneration). Proof that the public take time to believe someone who played chicken with the rules.

That leaves the guy I'd have voted for, had I ever felt the inclination to spend 15p on a phone call. James Toseland was world superbike champion for the second time (yep, twice over, everyone) and had obvious good looks, charm, manners and humility. His fantastic piano playing also will have endeared him to more than just the grinning Suzi Perry. And yes, I know most of these reasons are not relevant when considering who to nominate, so let's look again at what he achieved - world superbike champion. For the second time.

It's enough to win, or come second to Calzaghe, no? This is as opposed to second in the world Formula 1 championship. For the first time. Or nowhere in the world tennis standings. For the umpteenth time.

Toseland should have been in the top three and in fact was a handful of votes from overhauling Hatton for third place. The minority status of his sport obviously doesn't help, and so far only the incomparable Steve Redgrave has managed to take achievements in a minuscule sport to such heights that he won the award.

I don't especially like motorbike racing. But I recognise a champion when I see one. And there were only two, plus a slightly tarnished two more, out of ten on show. The rest got on there to spread the sports around, encourage more votes (and money) and persuade some of them to go to Birmingham in the first place.

Bobby Robson's award, and the reaction to it, made the whole watching experience worthwhile. What a magnificent man he is - the only one who produced an England football team good enough to win a World Cup since 1966. Bit surprised by some of the individuals making up his guard of honour though - okay, I understand the presence of Terry Butcher, Steve Hodge, Peter Shilton, Roger Osborne and Mick Mills, but what was Dave Beasant doing there? I'm glad he didn't present the award, as (**old and telegraphed joke alert**) he'd have almost certainly dropped it.

And how great was Tom Daley, the 13 year old diver who won the Young Personality award? Ok, he recorded his speech as he wasn't at the ceremony, but his articulacy and self-belief made Zara Phillips' horrific, feeble effort of last year ("amazing!") look even more stupid. Good luck to him.

"Monkey government!"

I watched Russell Brand on my television obsession, Have I Got News For You, on Friday night.

It was the first time I've ever liked him.

9 December 2007

Sorry, kids...

One of my regular punters was wearing a silly Santa hat at the nightclub yesterday.

The hat was black rather than red, and on the white brim at the bottom it said 'THERE IS NO SANTA'.

It was a tie-in product handed out by the makers of After Shock, and it made me laugh a lot. Far better than turning up in plastic antlers.

7 December 2007

The unbeautiful game

I travel the country watching my football team play and I can't bear the thought of not going. I watch plenty on TV too. But there are things about football I cannot bear, and here are ten of them:-

1 - Music after goals. It's always Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag, Tom Hark or Hey Baby. Tom Hark is a particularly gruesome choice, as when I play the full song at my 80s night, Stockport County fans come up and tell me they never knew it had words as they'd only ever heard the first 20 seconds. Music after goals is wrong on so many levels; my club, mercifully, remains in possession of a soul.

2 - Shameless rip-offs. Not tickets nor replica shirts et al, but matchday stuff like programmes (four quid or so for something which is 80 per cent adverts) and particularly food and drink. At Crystal Palace's ground this season I paid almost a fiver for one bottle of lukewarm lager. A fiver! What establishment does Simon Jordan think he owns - Stringfellows? I'm so glad we scored a 93rd minute equaliser that day.

3 - Fixture arrangements. We have to go to Norwich and Cardiff on Tuesday nights this season. This will rule out attendance by families and anyone who works what you call "regular" hours, unless their boss is at the top end of the understanding scale. Our midweek games should be the local ones, or at the very least, games based in the north. Norwich is fine as the crow flies but there isn't a motorway in sight and it is the hardest place to get to if you don't actually live in East Anglia - and we've been given midweek fixtures there for each of the last three seasons.

4 - Witless supporters. "Get that white shirt off, ref!" shouted one absolute div behind me after the official gave a mildly dubious decision in favour of our white-kitted opponents on Tuesday night. I suspect he's polishing off his collection of insults about the ref's eyesight and parentage ready for the weekend as you read this.

5 - Supporters who only whinge. I've hosted many a football phone-in, and the lines are red hot after a bad defeat with knee-jerk, clueless fools wanting a clearout of players or the sacking of managers, but a team that plays well and wins and has a rosy garden generally gets next to nothing by comparison. I once opened the lines after a 4-0 home win and nobody rang up.

6 - Blinkered choice of live FA Cup matches. The third round draw has just been made and while it wasn't especially inspiring, Match Of The Day has chosen nonetheless to screen the Manchester United v Aston Villa match, passing up the chance to give the odd smaller club a bit of precious BBC exposure and instead pander to the sides we watch on our tellies all the time.

7 - Assistant managers talking to the telly. If a manager refuses to speak to a particular media organisation due to some dispute or other, then the organisation in question should just refuse to offer any airtime for any underling's version of events. Especially uninspiring is Nigel Pearson, a bland, miserable, cliche-spouting lackey to Sam Allardyce at Newcastle, who is still refusing to talk to the BBC.

8 - Greedy councils. All of the laybys and verges et al which were always good for parking if you couldn't get into the designated stadium car park have been added to our local council's "restricted areas" list, and as a consequence I've paid two parking fines this season for using bits of land which were perfectly fine for the last five years. Nobody's space is stolen, nobody is blocked in, and traffic is not prevented from moving. It's just basic greed. No more.

9 - Fans who comment on games and performances they haven't seen. Self-explanatory, really. This happens on the radio a lot ("Hi Alan, I didn't go to the game but....") and during matches on online forums ("sounds like the captain's playing crap again, they should drop him...") and yet somehow these people think their opinions are as valid as those who attended or, better still, the manager of the team.

10 - Timewasting. I've saved the worst until last, and I hate my own team doing it as much as the opposition. What sort of negative, anti-football set-up encourages players to kick the ball away when conceding free kicks, take forever to pick the ball up for a throw-in or - worst of all - "miscontrol" the ball when an opponent gives it to them for such a set-piece? What's worse is that this happens a lot in the first half of matches after the timewasting team has taken the lead; as if shaving off ten seconds in the 20th minute will make a difference an hour later. Referees always claim to add on appropriate minutage at the end to allow for such antics, but by then teams are playing a more frantic, less organised game and the later it gets the less chance there is of getting that required equaliser or winner. Effective it may be, but it's unsporting, ungentlemanly and sick-making.

I like football otherwise.

6 December 2007

Light fantastic ... (ish)

Well, a striking royal blue seems to be the "in" colour for Christmas 2007 if the lights which have gone up on a smattering of houses on my estate and beyond are anything to go by.

I see most of the village every day due to dog-walking duties, and a sizeable majority of the lights up so far are this colour. Either there is a trend at the moment (a colour "in season" for 2007) or someone at the market further up the A-road had a cheap job-lot for sale. It's actually a tone which is pleasing on the eye, and I say this as someone who has never really got used to lights, multi-coloured or nay, going up on people's houses in the month leading up to Christmas Day.

It's very much an American tradition which we have adopted, is it not? Twenty years ago my childhood cul-de-sac, where my beloved parents still live, would not have had a single wired bulb wrapped crudely around its front doors and drainpipes. Gretchen Wilson may keep her Christmas lights up on her front porch all year long, but to this day it's quite hard to convince some folk in this part of the world to put them up at all.

There are extremes the other way, of course; without getting all Daily Mail about it, I must confess to a substantial dislike for the widely-publicised annual madness of lights which engulf whole houses and negate the need for council-maintained street lighting, such is their brightness and multi-coloured obscenity. The sniffier end of tabloid journalism make a point of highlighting (arf) the marital status and employment situation of whoever shelled out for so much grid-eating tack - providing that marital situation is that of unmarried parent and the employment situation is one of claimant. Perfectly possible as it is for well-off, longtime-betrothed folk to suffer from poor taste and strangle a street or estate with its choice of outdoor decoration, such types seem to not make the papers.

When the Natural Blonde's father sold his house to move in with other relatives, she acquired his Christmas decorations. These included a small arrangement of droplet-esque flashing lights, in natural colour, which one hangs from the living room window. I don't mind these at all - they make their point and show a willingness to get into the seasonal spirit without yelling "look at my house now!" at the neighbours. They haven't gone up yet - three weeks before Christmas is way too early. But once we get in the swing of things, they'll be accompanied by a tree in the conservatory, a tasteful and understated garland on the front door and some form of small candle display on the windowsill. None of this Twelfth Night bobbins either - Christmas lights and decorations should be long gone by December 27th, never mind January 6th. To me, there is no day less Christmassy than the day after Boxing Day, when the Christmas break is at its furthest away. The trinkets and lights should be returned to the loft on the same day your local commercial station stops playing Christmas records.

With our decoration arrangements, it goes without saying that the cats will be banned from the conservatory (well, they'll be greeted by a closed door if they go there - it's quite hard to inform a cat verbally that they're not allowed somewhere, nor is issuing injunction orders appropriate; they'd rip them up and scatter them around the house) and their antics on the windowsill will be closely monitored. Decorations - especially real trees - are a complete nightmare when you own cats. Frequently in my childhood would we get up on December mornings to find the tree, baubels and tinsel scattered everywhere.

You can buy droplet-type lights to drape from the roof guttering, but these only look right if you have a detached house. Mine is a semi, and our neighbours hate us because they think the dogs are descended from Satan as one of them occasionally barks at, oooh, 10.30pm, so coming to an arrangement about sharing lights to form a collective ensemble of colour is at zero on the likelihood scale. The detached house at the end of the road (where eight King Charles spaniels live, as well as the odd human being) has these stalactite lights hanging from the roof, flashing on and off in random patches and rhythms and they look ace. And these happen to be one of the many sets of lights in royal blue. Evidence of better neighbourly relations than mine are apparent elsewhere in the village, with numerous semi-detached houses and bungalows sharing the lights so that it all looks symmetrical and artistic and nice. Maybe they take it in turns to plug them in so that they share the cost as much as the admiration.

Other light arrangements spied during the twice-daily Basset constitutionals include a terrific pair of animal-shaped wire things - a lamb and a donkey - with enough bulbs strategically-shaped to establish the species of creature intended. They are on the front garden, which has no fence or wall, and look really classy. I also like the random covering of garden conifers in lights which a few of my fellow villagers lucky enough to have gardens which can accommodate such trees have utilised, but multi-coloured bulbs don't look very Christmassy to me, irrespective of where they're placed or whether they flash or not; I think they're better off on fairground attractions than people's homes.

As for figures in the window depicted by lights; well, if kids live at the house then you can appreciate a waving Santa or a flapping robin (though what robins have to do with Christmas I've no idea; it's like the longtime propensity for putting scarf-wearing penguins on Christmas cards which has become one of Alex Lester's finest running gags), while there's a good window display in the village of a reindeer tugging a small sled. However, a household on the same street as me has, yet again, decided that an old fashioned choo-choo train (smoke from chimney, bloke at the back pulling a string) is festive enough to go in the window. I've scoured the nativity story tirelessly and nowhere does it say Mary and Joseph had to head for Bethlehem via Stockton and Darlington, only for Mr Trevithick to say there was no room in first class and they had to sleep on the roof.

5 December 2007

"Og ikke retur!"*

Well, Helge got out of the car, thanked me for the ride, shook my hand and offered a mild manly hug, collected his bag and coat from the boot and headed off to his digs, ready to pack his belongings and return home to Norway tomorrow.

I waved him goodbye and wished him a pleasant and safe trip.

We'd just lost at Preston 3-0, played abjectly, and it's all his fault for turning up. We were doing ok prior to his arrival.

*Norwegian for "And don't come back!"

(Okay, okay, we'll see him next year...)

4 December 2007

"What, no Davina?"

In no particular order, media-type people who are brilliant and don't get the level of acknowledgement they deserve:-

1 - Claudia Winkleman

2 - John Sessions

3 - Kirsty Young

4 - Alex Lester

5 - James May

6 - Adrian Chiles

7 - Peter Allen

8 - Matt Smith (pictured)

9 - Richard Bilton

10 - Nick Knowles

"Humour! I recognise that!"

Do you remember Deadpan magazine? It was a monthly journal about comedy which broached the subject with both humour and a degree of earnest analysis, and it perished after about half a dozen issues. For 1994 it was too niched and like its contemporary Comedy Review, disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived.

I did a spot of grocery shopping today and while fervently searching for gravy, as you do, found a packet of Bisto. Declining this particular brand in favour of another maker's granules, it nonetheless revived my memories of Deadpan and prompted a wry smile, as Bisto always does. This is because Deadpan made a point of giving it away as a prize.

There was a feature called That's Shit!, which was as sophisticated as the title doesn't suggest. As I recall, it happened mildly by accident after the first issue but became seemingly popular quickly, as people sent in photographs of items or pastimes or phenomena or events which were, in fact, a bit rubbish. And the prize was a crisp tenner and a packet of Bisto.

As an over-keen, ingratiating 21 year old, I decided to send in a photo I had only taken with the initial intention of arseing about with my camera and finishing a film off. Actually, my work colleague and housemate Chris, now a high-flying agency journalist who won't remember any of this, took it. It was of me playing keepie-up with a football in the kitchen of our rented Kirkheaton cottage. No more, no less. My belief was that it fitted the criteria (funny and rubbish) because there were better things to do in a kitchen, better places to kick a football, and better things generally for 21 year old lads with a semblance of a future to be doing with their time.

And lo and behold, they printed it. They said that it was "not at all funny, but we just wanted to show everyone his crap kitchen. Nice kettle, Matty." A few days later, an envelope arrived containing a new tenner, a packet of Bisto and a piece of headed paper with deliberately slipshod, hurried handwriting on it which said "Well done Matt, here's your tenner and gravy. Deadpan people."

I did send other photos with the now nationally consumed and much praised Kitchen Football snap. One was of a manual typewriter. Another was of a jacket potato out of which only the filling had been eaten. Neither of these made it, unsurprisingly. I can still recall, however, from the few issues printed, what else from fellow resourceful readers made the cut and earned some free meat stock. These photos included GCSE Art, Drunk Mates (When You're Sober), No Use Signs (it was a road sign for some minority-faith church), People Taking Photographs Of Themselves, and The Grumbleweeds.

I liked Deadpan so much. It had star columnists which included Barry Took and Sean Hughes; it paid a quite fabulous tribute to Bill Hicks as its debut issue coincided with the great man's passing; it gave comedy writing tips; offered showcases for funny amateur monologues (one marvellous example of which was called "Help! It's A Twat Being On The Dole!"); interviewed star comics (it sent its most radical left-wing shoulder-chipped hack to see Bernard Manning at the Embassy and the hack admitted in his copy that he was converted - "laughing like a loon" was how he put it) and tried to revive the careers of comedians who'd dropped down the bill a bit. The reviews were lengthy and meticulous; the letters page hysterical (somebody called Fat Martin seemed to have a monopoly on here, with all of his letters being about the exposure of his penis); and the knowledge of its subject untouchable.

Yet it shut down so soon.

A year or so afterwards, the relaunch under Mohamed Fayed of the second incarnation of Punch was widely reported and I remember BBC Radio Leeds claiming it was good for comedy fans after the demise of Deadpan and Comedy Review. But this wasn't quite so. Punch was satirical, swiping at society (and as this was under Fayed, swiping at Private Eye too, incessantly and boringly so) where as Deadpan certainly wasn't there to mock the world, but merely to examine and evaulate what made us laugh. If Punch made you laugh (I read a couple of issues, and only the column by Jerry Hayes did I find faintly amusing), then it could be classed as a comedy magazine, but it wasn't a magazine about comedy. It was also relaunched purely as a publicity toy for Fayed to get his pops back at the Eye, advertise Harrods to extraordinary lengths, and little else. It was bobbins.

After Deadpan, the "new lad" stuff got its claws in, and FHM, Maxim and Loaded all took their places on the shelf. I read FHM for a while as I remained single and in my 20s, but grew out of it quite quickly. My magazines of choice now are about football only (football played in designated stadia, and not in cramped West Yorkshire kitchens, I should clarify). But take me back to 1994 and you will find my favourite ever organ, which was briefly great and greatly brief.

There's only one photo of it on the internet that I can find, courtesy of Richard Herring's website. He and Stewart Lee were columnists. Brings a tear to my eye, this - might have to go kick a ball around the kitchen to celebrate.

2 December 2007

Police, broken camera, lack of action

Dear Humberside Police

If you think a SLOW DOWN electronic sign with an added "30" in a red circle is necessary to make drivers on my village's main road touch the brake, could you at least make sure the damn thing is set correctly?

It still flashes when one is driving at a speed as low as 20mph, irritating people, causing more danger than any allegedly there before, and proving considerably counter-productive, as now absolutely nobody takes any notice of the sign at all and are back doing 40 again.

Well done.

A Norwegian would

If you're in that sizeable minority of folk who think that football is an absolute waste of time, you will despair at this tale, assuming you decide to read on at all now that the subject matter is obvious. It's a story of a dedicated fan of his club making a seriously long trip to see his heroes in action. So forget the sporty side, the piece of spherical leather, and concentrate on the human endeavour angle.

Still with me? Hurrah!

Ladies and gentleman, I give you Helge. Now, that name to me always used to conjure up images of Scandinavian females, owing to the presence of one such lady on the international journalism course which was in the adjacent lecture room to my own NCTJ training course back in 1991. And, fictional status notwithstanding, Hagar the Horrible's resourceful Nordic wife was a Helga. But this is a Helge with differences - an 'e' rather than 'a'; and a man rather than woman.

As I write this, I never quite grasped why Helge, a chatty, slightly-built father of two from Norway, decided to adopt Hull City (my team) as his English team of choice to accompany Brann, his local side, in the restless scavenge for his affections. But he has been a regular on the online fans forum I frequent for a number of years, has a website on the club in his own language and, this week, has made his second pilgrimage to leafy East Yorkshire to see his team play.

His previous experience of actually watching the team consists of a few games on Sky which have been, with possible question marks about the legality, transmitted into his home or local bar, and one previous journey over the North Sea last year. That trip was for one solitary game which the Tigers lost 1-0 at home, after which Helge drank an inexplicable amount of strong ale (actually, he did this beforehand too), purchased pretty much every item in the club shop (possibly including the branded bike, dressing gown and bra) and flew back to his brood.

His plea for assistance with planning his trip this season came early in the campaign - he wanted a Saturday home game again, but this time followed immediately by an away trip on a Tuesday night and all that goes with it. So, having already seen the 2-2 draw with Cardiff yesterday, he is now primed for a seat in my car for the trip across the country to Preston on Tuesday night. While I've never been a big drinker on match days and therefore am happy to take the wheel for midweek away games, my companions are known for putting away some quite magnificent quantities of liquid refreshment during away trips, something Helge will have to get used to quickly. Last season he gallantly tried to keep up with the rate of glass emptying achieved by the seasoned quaffers in the pre-match pub - and both he and the cleaners of his hotel room suffered the consequences.

So, Helge is here, having travelled continentally (and gone through the misfortune of a diverted plane and missed train in order to reach fragrant Hull) and he's about to don a seat belt, crack open numerous cans of ale and follow the Tigers elsewhere. He won't be back this season, unless we make the play-offs (ie, he won't be back this season). And before any of this, I'm getting him into the studio with a tape running to ask him about why the hell he does it. If the human endeavour argument has earned your empathy, then pop back later this week and I'll tell you what he says...

29 November 2007

No, it really does have to be taxing

Freelancing has so many plus points - flexible working hours, picking and choosing, the joy of feeling in-demand when you are double-booked... bliss.

Unfortunately, the major downside is having to deal with the taxman yourself. And that time has come again.

Thanks to a severe fear that any minor revenue-based anomaly or tardiness will see me banged up with the nutters in Everthorpe, plus the handiness of an excellent accountant who lives 200 yards from me, I have managed to stay on top of this situation for the six years I've been off the PAYE system. More by luck than judgement, perhaps, but nonetheless I've told Hector what I earn and what I pay out and have stumped up the cash with reasonable grace.

However, this doesn't make the process any less uninviting, tedious or time-consuming. This week I spent a whole afternoon sitting on a pouffe in the centre of my living room, emptying out and cataloguing every receipt I had collected since April last year. They eventually went into envelopes marked per month, and now sit patiently in my spare room, next to me as I type this (a putting-it-off tactic) awaiting my hard drive. And sitting on a pouffe while leaning forward doesn't half do your back in. And throwing random bits of paper on the floor isn't an ideal tactic when five cats live with you.

I have to meticulously log every day I worked, every amount of money I spent on fuel, books, CDs and other stuff tax-deductible for my line of work, and every mile of distance spent on the motorways of northern England. For twelve months.

Then, once the expenses diaries are done, I have to print them all off, along with every invoice for every radio station and club I did every month. Add to that my bank statements, the bags of receipts (as back up), plus my domestic, credit card, mobile phone and subscription bills (Private Eye is tax-deductible, but I never used to claim Viz was) and the whole lot is then wheelbarrowed round the corner to the accountant.

He's a nice fellow who plays the revenue system really well. I sign the form HM R&C sent me months ago and leave him to it. Adam Hart-Davis gets his fee for telling us all that paying tax on time and without question or even mumbled protest is A Good Thing, and the wagon restarts its roll to the next April.

The things you forget you did when going through a year's worth of receipts. What in God's name possessed me to pay £6.45 for some stale fish and chips and a "refillable" Coke at some unclean motorway service station at some pisspoorly late hour? Well, hunger, obviously, but even late-night comfort grub on your way from drivetime in Stockton-on-Tees to overnights in Birmingham is not tax deductible. You could probably argue on a literal level that food is a necessary expense directly related to your ability to do your job, but without it I wouldn't be without the necessary tools of my trade. Consciousness and general health aren't on the list of items deemed vital. Revenue types aren't concerned with trifling inconveniences like malnutrition and death. Maybe that's why anyone I've ever known in the tax game looks so pale and unevolved.

There also is always a receipt for something perfectly deductible and - more importantly for the final bill - expensive which is declared invalid by the ink slowly fading off the paper, so the date is rendered totally invisible. Without a date, I can't confidently tell the taxman that I really did buy those four brand new tyres at 50-odd quid each during the financial year in question. So that's an extra 200 or so of the Queen's tokens I'll need to uncover later. I must write to Bush tyres and moan about the standard of the ink they use on their cheap receipts. Or maybe I'll just look at my fingernails and mutter that it's all a bit unfortunate really.

I appreciate that there are folk whose tax existences are a nightmare, with fines for non-payment or late-payment or late-submission coming out of their ears. Fines which, natch, are not tax-deductible (oddly, I'm not sure if I've ever asked my accountant if his fees for keeping me solvent and legal are deductible too). But this freelance, self-employed lark is only good until Hart-Davis begins his spiel again. I bet his accounts files are all alphabetically arranged, his receipts trimmed and carefully placed in the right scrapbook, his expenses diary neatly calligraphed with numerous flourishes and his accountant happily sunning himself in the Seychelles on his share of Adam's spoils. Which we pay for. And then might have to pay for again, so hang on to the receipt for that multipack of towelling socks ...

28 November 2007

Dancing in the dark

Being a nightshift worker, this time of year is a weird old one for me, as it means I rarely see any daylight at all during the working week.

Bedtime is about 8am, just as the light - or what passes for light in the last week of November - is starting to struggle into view. If I get up at my target time of 3.30pm, then the light is easing slowly away again.

Now, there's no whining monologue about Seasonal Affective Disorder on the way. I don't have it. Night or day, matters not to me. I live my life. I'd like to not feel quite so tired, but I've lived with that for more than a decade now. I hear these people who complain that they have this syndrome and I want to sympathise, but it isn't anything I can say I experience.

Years ago, a disc jockey colleague managed to persuade the radio station where we worked to install "natural light" in the studios; this brand of therapeutic electric lighting which came on not via a switch, but through movement in the room which activated its sensors, in the same way that nocturnal security lights are triggered. The light was supposed to be a reconstructed version of the type of light we get from the daytime skies, thereby not prompting the depressed sensations of this S.A.D. stuff. My colleague said it worked and he felt chirpier during his programmes.

The problem it did present came when you were physically inactive during your show. If you wanted to chain cups of tea, had a fag habit which required a beeline for the exit every half hour or just a weak bladder, then fine. But if none of these applied, then any great length of time sitting on the studio stool pressing buttons and talking (which, beyond the pre-show preparation, is what disc jockeys do, especially those who work off-peak) would prompt the lights to think the studios were empty and, suddenly, they'd go out. If you were speaking on air at the time this would obviously prove both a distraction and a problem; wild arm-waving above your head wasn't enough to allow the lights back on, you had to do an impromptu rendition of the Can Can around the studios for five seconds before you could see again.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can also hit during the summer, apparently; in this version, folk are prone to cloudy moods if there is too much daylight. This I find harder to believe as darkness is a preventative natural phenomenon; you can do everything and achieve more in daylight, even if there is a lack of actual sunshine, than you can at night. Night-time is for relaxation, sleeping and cosying up to loved ones, all of which should make one's disposition, er, lighten. This could now get confusing.

If you live in the frozen north, you've really a problem if you have this reverse version of S.A.D. as the darkest it gets, at roughly 11.30pm, is equivalent to the midday sun in western Europe. The only way to achieve darkness there is to put the entire contents of your wardrobe over your head. And how could you achieve "natural darkness" in the same way that my DJ chum achieved his "natural light"? It's all very well the lights going out when you move around and activating when you stayed still, but ultimately darkness stops you doing stuff.

If you have S.A.D. then you have my support, if not quite my sympathy. Ultimately, I'm suspicious of it - not because I don't believe it exists, but because it has a ludicrously convenient acronym. If I had an ailment which I labelled Melancholic Introverted Syndrome Every Rolling Year Gained Under Torpid Situations, you'd call me a lazy get and tell me to go to work.

18 November 2007

Wilted flower of Scotland

It's 6.30am on a Sunday morning, and right now I'm just contemplating how awful it must feel to be a Scottish football fan this morning.

Billy Connolly once said that Scotland always qualify. When he said it, in 1985, he was right - they'd made the last three World Cup competitions and would go on to reach three of the next four. But in the last decade, with the recriminations over a dearth of Scottish talent continuing as non-Scots fill the Old Firm changing rooms, the achievements of the team and rewards for its supporters had been largely nil.

Then along comes this qualifying campaign, for Euro 2008. Scotland were drawn with the two finalists from the World Cup, plus a quarter finalist. Italy, France and Ukraine. Prayers were immediately offered, as Scotland didn't have any.

But two wins against France, the second a ludicrously brilliant and admirable achievement in Paris, helped set them up for Italy at home in their final qualifier. Win it and go through. The fervour around Scotland, through those eager television news and sports outlets, was almost touchable through the screen. Constantly, the manager Alex McLeish was conducting interviews, trying to damp down the enthusiasm and expectation without once airing any negativity or bald realism. He was excited too.

Meanwhile, England had cocked up against Russia and the Scots had their perfect day planned out. Beat Italy, drink the place dry and receive texts saying Russia had won in Israel and England were out. For all the brilliance of the Scottish football fan in supporting their team and creating a frenzied but peaceful atmosphere, nothing is ever quite so becoming as their chip on the collective shoulder over the Sassenachs.

Italy score early. Scotland equalise in the second half. A draw might be enough if France do not manage goodly deeds against the Ukrainians. Scotland miss sitters. Frustration. Hands on head. Then Italy earn a dodgy free kick in injury time and score from it. Final whistle. Familiar despair of last-gasp failure for Scotland.

They'd still drink the place dry, of course, but to drown their sorrows. But how must your average England-hating Scotch loyalist have felt when they then heard that Israel had done for Russia - again in injury time - and so England were a mere one point away from qualification? England have played craply in their qualifying; Scotland haven't. England lost to Croatia, Scotland beat France - twice. But it's England who are going through.

Scotland's footballing history used to be one of qualification followed by failure. The bearded wavers of St Andrew chanting "what a load of rubbish" at Ally McLeod did at least make it to Argentina in 1978 prior to the dreadful collapse against Peru and Iran. The fans who watched in horror at Italia 90 as Costa Rica won 1-0 did at least, er, have each other. Scotland fans have always somehow represented the acceptable, jovial side of international football supporting, even though their team is either indescribably awful in qualifying, or indescribably frustrating in qualifying, or indescribably brilliant in qualifying and then indesacribably awful in the tournament. Archie Gemmill's goal - the one which apparently could prompt instant male orgasm if you believe Trainspotting - remains the one contribution the Scotland team has ever made to the worldwide game.

I'm a rare beast - an Englishman who is quite admiring of the Scotland team and (whisper it) I wanted them to win. I wanted them to qualify. I like Alex McLeish. I like James McFadden. That lad Hutton at right back looks a right player and half. But ultimately, Scotland will always deserve to fail for as long as they remain obsessed beyond anything else with wishing for the failure of the team south of their border. For once, they had a team worth backing and all their energies should have been channelled into supporting that team.

England have had some luck and can now finish the job, and Scotland will have to become honorary Czechs or something next summer, as their only involvement in the tournament will be as chief hecklers of England. Again.

12 November 2007


I took the dogs for an earlier than normal Sunday run because I wanted to be home for the Cenotaph ceremony.

My Sundays are odd; the club gig finishes at 4am, then I head straight back to do Sunday breakfast at work, so by the time I get home after 10am, I'm only thinking about hitting the sack. However, I wanted to observe the silence, so I passed the time between getting home and the mark of respect by taking the Bassets out.

Our regular walk takes us adjacent to the local playing fields, which contain three football pitches and an enclosed, tarmacked kids' playground. Dogs are disallowed through a local byelaw (and signposting on the field itself, though the lettering had been washed off over the years so it's now unreadable) from going on the field, along with horses, motorbikes and golfing equipment (and they'd probably ban the working classes if they could get away with it). However, the reality is that blind eyes are turned provided any mess is retrieved, and so we ventured on to the field.

I didn't expect to see a football match taking place. Two lads' teams were warming up and about to kick off. I looked at my watch - it was 10.30am. What about the silence? I'm not Garry Bushell, but I do find myself feeling rather alarmed that there is still an acute lack of awareness about Armistice Day, and as 11/11 happened to fall on the Sunday this year, there was even more reason to observe it than ever.

I didn't hang around to find out if the referee was due to stop the game at 11am and make the players and spectators stand motionless for two minutes. I carried on with the pack, and we got home at 10.45am. I ate, observed the silence, watched the Royals lay their wreaths, and went to bed.

The coach of the home team at this match was in our local on Sunday night, and I asked him. He said they observed a two minutes' silence prior to kick off, but couldn't change the kick off time because of the referee's schedule. My late grandfathers, both of whom mercifully came home from Africa unscathed in 1945, would have gone purple at this remark. Change the ref! Tell him him his schedule means nothing today! An extra half hour's inconvenience "caused" by the Armistice? I didn't push it though; it was their call and at least a silence was observed. I remember as a Sunday boys footballer in the 1980s we always delayed our kick off to just gone 11, and had the silence around the centre circle beforehand.

It was also notable that there was no silence at all at the professional football match I had attended the previous day, though I don't know whether that was replicated around the country or not and I don't pass judgment. I do hope that the current fad for swapping silences for applause in the case of a deceased ex-player etc isn't ever copied on Armistice Day though - that's when we know this piece of history has become a little too historic (though veterans of Korea, Ulster, the Falklands, two Gulf campaigns and the ex-Yugoslavia would argue otherwise).

And yes, I appreciate that I would have been silent at 11am had I just gone straight to bed as normal; I'd been awake for 26 hours and therefore deep sleep would have been achieved within seconds of hitting the pillow. But that's the wrong sort of silence; you had to be there, in mind and body.

Click here for the Royal British Legion.