11 January 2008

"Do unto yourself as you would see fit for your brother..."

Five Centres has done it, as has the Apprentice of the Universe, and I've responded to each. So I thought I'd have a bash at baring my musical soul and playing a spot of iPod roulette! How exciting...

So here goes - shuffle mode on, and the first five to emerge are....

1 - Drama!, by Erasure.
Easily the most lyrically complicated song they did, but still refreshingly bleepy and in the midst of that phase where everything they recorded seemed to warrant an exclamation mark on the title.

2 - I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World), Howard Jones.
Should be Donald Fagen, of course, but Howard Jones was my childhood hero and I love this version.

3 - She Drives Me Crazy, Fine Young Cannibals.
A chorus my 80s night sings very, very loudly at 3.45am after last orders.

4 - Wishing On A Star, Rose Royce.
And not Paul Weller or Fresh 4 featuring Lizz E. See, I can do non-80s originals...

5 - Cold Cold Heart, Midge Ure.
From 1991, I think. I'm a Midge fan in all guises and I recently dug out his Best Of after reading his marvellous autobiography and seeing him on Celebrity Masterchef.

Soul bared considerably, I'm sure you'll agree. The sixth song was Della And The Dealer by Hoyt Axton. I must suggest the name Kalamazoo for our next British cream shorthair cat...

Over to you. Don't be bashful.

"Shall I stay here at the zoo?"

After years of radio-by-numbers which discourages and indeed punishes creativity, working at a non-corporate station is a breath of fresh air. Reasons why here, if you'd care to look back. But I'm typing this excitedly during the 5am news because, in the last 60 minutes, I've played the following one hit wonders of the 1980s:

1 - Big In Japan, Alphaville
2 - Twilight Cafe, Susan Fassbender
3 - Let's Go All The Way, Sly Fox

There are radio stations I've worked at which would have had emergency programming meetings if a jock had dared, even in an allocated 80s slot, to play any of these records. Whereas our attitude is "ah, that's good, let's play that!"


Also in the 4am hour, I played records by Girls Aloud, Joss Stone, the Kinks, Jimmy Ruffin, Stereophonics, Chaka Khan, New Order, Leif Garrett and Kelly Rowland.

You'd listen to us, wouldn't you?

10 January 2008

Most Noble and Honourable Matthew the Eerie of Lower Bumhampton

Get your own aristocratic title here.

9 January 2008

The unbeautiful game #2

I love my sport and I love my team. I have yet to miss a minute of Hull City's season (unless you count the three minutes of injury time at Southampton because my train was due). However, nothing can be perfect, so here are ten more things I hate about football (the last lot can be found here...)

1 - Players who wear gloves. Where do they think they are, Siberia? Some of you were brought up in this climate, for heaven's sake. Gloves belong on goalkeepers - and even they didn't bother until 25 years ago.

2 - Managers whingeing about the African Cup of Nations. It's there to benefit African football, not European, so stop calling for it to be re-scheduled. If you don't want to see your team decimated by call-ups, don't buy African players. And I doubt you were complaining when coverage of the competition allowed you to pick up a load of cheap African stars in the first place.

3 - Applauding attendances. Just stop. It achieves, means and signifies nothing. You turned up. That's all that matters.

4 - Players who applaud officials. Half the time, you're doing it because you cocked up and the officials haven't noticed and therefore have saved your face. Pack it in.

5 - Stewards who spend whole games getting fans to sit. At Plymouth last week, they were even having a pop at us as we celebrated a goal. Celebrated a goal! Incompetent, thoughtless and dictatorial - and counter-productive too, as when they inched along rows of seating to have a go at one fan, those behind them automatically stood up so they could continue to see the game.

6 - That "hush, you plebs" goal celebration. Eduardo did this to Burnley fans on Sunday after scoring an early goal. They hadn't been having a pop at him, so why antagonise them? That's not retribution, just the act of a spiteful, egotistical (and glove-wearing) tosspot. Be a graceful winner, please. It's not strenuous.

7 - Weakened sides in the FA Cup. 722 miles to watch our reserves lose in the third round, though at least we had prior warning locally it would happen. Elsewhere, Mark Hughes picked the most understrength, mediocre Premier League team ever seen for his Blackburn side's tie with Coventry, lost 4-1 and whinged about it afterwards. As someone who won five FA Cups as a player, he was the last person who should have treated the competition with such contempt.

8 - Garth Crooks and Alan Shearer. At the Stoke v Newcastle FA Cup tie (their respective former clubs), they teamed up to become the most banal, featureless, opinion-free and useless pair of studio pundits for a live BBC match. Ever.

9 - Swearing. I may sound wimpish when I say this, but I really hate any form of swearing by supporters at matches when aimed at players or officials, even when it's on the witty side (which is rare, but possible). I find myself feeling sorry for the dad a few rows down who is deciding there and then that he cannot take his young son to another game. Swearing by players I can cope with, even seriously gratuitous examples caught by the TV cameras.

10 - Multiball. You can't have a system whereby a ball is returned to the home team so quickly while an opponent is off the field, yet a ball is conveniently delayed when the away team is entitled to get it. It's mightily unfair. Get rid of it.

8 January 2008

"Open wide!"

I am partially embarrassed to say that I have not visited a dentist since 1999. I know I should. I was on an NHS list, but was then removed and find myself unwilling to pay through the nose for something NI contributions should automatically cover.

However, I was happy (well, willing without complaint, rather than happy per se) to shell out 190 quid last week for emergency removal of four of Bentley's molars. The vet said they were so rotten that the infection was causing him to lose weight, despite normal eating and lavatorial habits.

So, the dog gets the finest dental treatment and I miss out entirely.

I must say - and again bash me over the head if you detect any complacency on my part - that my gnashers feel in good nick. Cleaned twice a day, mouthwashed and flossed with some regularity. They bled a few years ago, but my last dental visit sorted that, and I've never needed fillings. I never get toothache and they don't even get that sensitivity when eating ice cream.

My beloved father has a contrasting dental structure. He has a full set of dentures though also remains in possession of some of his birth teeth; he had a large quantity kicked out during a particularly brutal and courageous amateur football career in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He used to do that parental trick of removing his teeth and making spooky noises when we were kids in an idle attempt to frighten us. God bless him for such japery...

My paternal grandma, who died in 2004 at 92, also wore false teeth. I can honestly say that the first time she spoke to me without her false teeth in - I'd stayed at her house when I was very small and got up while she was emerging from the bathroom - was the most petrifying thing I experienced. I just wasn't expecting it, although I don't think I let out a shriek, ran away or soiled my pyjamas. Looking back, I would have been within my rights to do all three.

When the dental van made one of its half-yearly visits to my primary school, the kids as ever dutifully lined up for their check-up and I was told I could do with a bit of help in getting the last of the milk teeth out. I therefore had an op, with general anaesthetic, and woke up with two holes in my bottom row. But the pain was non-existent; it just felt strange and mildly tender. The nurse gave me a list of dos and don'ts for my recovery process - don't consume tough food or hot drinks, and do not "indulge in violent exercise". I was seven - I had no idea what "indulge" meant. I needed to ask my mother. She told me I couldn't play football, basically.

Radio 2's pet megastar, dark lord and emperor of the halflings, Alex Lester, told a story on his show a few years ago about going 28 years without a dentist's visit, and when he finally plunged back into the chair after breaking a tooth, his set were largely in good order. His reluctance for almost three decades was due to having a childhood dentist who was a "butcher" and every visit was therefore agonising - and public schoolboys like Alexander N.C.P. Lester had to keep their smiles in tip-top condition, so butchery was a half-yearly necessity and it scarred him through a major wedge of his adulthood.

Jack Dee used to say dentists were con-artists - wannabe doctors who got to medical school, realised quickly they were out of their depth and left the course, taking the page on teeth from the medical journal on the way out. I don't hold this opinion; I don't have an aversion nor disrespect towards dentists, but you won't find me going near one soon until the free service returns. It's all about the money!

6 January 2008

"Please call again!"

The thing I hate most in the whole world is the motorway service station.

Yes ok, maybe I should hate racism, cruelty, injustice and poverty more. And I do. But as far as daily humdrum irritations are concerned, the Moto or Welcome Break service areas every 25 miles or so on our motorways absolutely do my head in the most.

Sadly, when you have commuted as much as I have in the last decade or so (60,000 miles a year since 2001) they become a necessary evil. Were it not for nature's calls or refuelling issues - either for tank or belly - I'd not stop at them at all.

You know we occasionally have a spate of headlines in our more unforgiving newspapers castigating "Rip Off Britain"? Well, take the sub-editors to our service stations (as I'm of the narrow-minded northerner's opinion that they never leave London) and they'd see that they are channeling their argument in wholly the wrong direction.

When it comes to shamelessly fleecing innocent, unwealthy human beings, forget those loan companies. Forget away supporter admission prices at Stamford Bridge. Forget premium rate numbers on ITV. Forget return tickets on Virgin Trains. Forget even inheritance tax thresholds. Motorway service stations are the masters.

Yesterday, as is my wont, I chose to drive a Mondeo's worth of footballing friends to an FA Cup tie at Plymouth. It was a round trip of 722 miles, which began at 7.30am and ended with my bleary-eyed greeting to the Natural Blonde at 11.10pm. For that sort of distance, even in an economising diesel vehicle, stops for fuel are inevitable.

I filled up locally before picking the others up, as local city garages do tend to flog their diesel at a cheaper rate per litre than the service stations, although the price of fuel at the moment is madly beyond fairness now - it finally reached a quid a litre late last year and shows no sign of sinking.

Off we went, and made good haste. I managed to drive past one service station (McDonalds and Shell) on the M62, and one (Burger King and BP) on the M18, plus three on the southbound M1 (various, all as bad as each other) before one of my passengers announced that they could do with a comfort break.

We negotiated half an hour on the M42 (in the past, some passengers to matches would have been content with a quick slash against a crash barrier while truckers papped their hooters at them, but we had a lady with us this time...) before reaching the M5, our route to the south west, and stopping at the first services they had. Can't remember its name, but it had a Welcome Break (the contradiction of that name is not lost on even the most knucklescraping of driver) nu-complex which was all glass, all in one room and looked like a Centerparcs which had been bought out by the service station maniacs midway through construction and swiftly altered.

I bought a cup of tea for £2.45.

You know, I reckon service station staff are sick to the back teeth of ordinary commuters of not great means looking at them incredulously when they ring through your order and ask for something resembling the national debt.

A cup of tea is only worth £2.45 if served in a platinum cup, having had the plant picked by naked Sri Lankan concubines with gigantic hooters and the written reassurance, signed by the consul in Colombo himself, that the leaves were rubbed against those very jubblies prior to shredding and bagging.

What I actually got was a tiny tea bag on a string (yes, you have to make the damned drink yourself, which I've always resented, irrespective of price or venue) which was never big enough to fill the ridiculous mug in which it was placed, thereby making the size of the portion a total irrelevance. The milk was UHT (vile as hell) and you could only stir it with one of those strange plastic holey things which have no effect in actually making the sugar dissolve into the tea, thereby giving you an unsweetened drink and a small pile of wet but still powdered sugar at the bottom of the cup, should you get that far.

It gets better. Have you ever had a motorway service station breakfast?

They have varying sizes of fry-up. Normal, Regular, Super, Super Duper, Uber Super Duper, You Gullible Coach Driving Dimwit and Oh My God, It's Moving Towards Us. These breakfasts are usually only a rasher of bacon or an extra teaspoon of tepid beans different to the next, but the prices all remain astronomical. For £10.95, I'd want my bacon to come from the sty at Balmoral, the beans to have been tinned by Mr Heinz himself and for the fried tomato (singular, you notice), mushroom and hash browns merely to be remotely edible.

Fish and chips - tough fish, cold chips - fleece you for a fiver.

Some of these places have somewhat fancy brands of otherwise mundane cafe items. I've never seen the crisps they sell in any other store. And they cost £1.35. Sorry, but it should be unlawful and punishable by birching for any firm to think they can charge proudly ordinary drivers that amount of money for an unhealthy potato based snack which tastes not half as nice as an honest bag of Walkers (which themselves weigh in at nearly a quid where sold in the shops). A bottle of Coke, retailing at 87p in a decent village shop which doesn't purvey dishonesty or greed, chimes on the tills in a service station at £2.19. And then there's the great "refill" rip-off with carbonated drinks - buy a draught (ie, unfizzy) Coke for some unspeakably high price, but hey! you can go back and fill it again and again and again. So drink an inordinate amount of sugary crap which makes you belch and urinate - eventually you might actually refill it enough times to make it worth the original price.

Fuel. It's bad enough paying more than a quid a litre at apologetic filling stations on the local city thoroughfare, but 110.6p a litre - for diesel - was what a BP garage on the way back from Devon in the evening threw at me when I pulled in for wares. I was almost tempted to refuse on principle, until I remembered that motorway service station Travelodges cost more than the ones in towns, and therefore I'd have been polishing a turd. Plus I had people in the car (all soon to be asleep, natch) who were relying on me to get them home. And I don't think the AA give you a free tow home because you object to the price of fuel. So I lodged the nozzle into the tank and delivered my hideously expensive diesel, muttering angrily.

Even the franchised food outlets at these places are dearer. Buy a Zinger or something else with a stupid name from the service station wing of KFC and it'll cost you more than from the high street, and somehow will taste worse. Burger King's stuff too.

Buying a "proper" meal? Try almost ten quid for a pie full of gristle, lumped-to-the-gills mash and tough garden peas. An Eccles cake costs almost as much as a trip to Eccles (near Manchester, sometimes mentioned on Coronation Street, one of the places where you're geographically entitled to be a Manchester United fan) to make the bloody thing yourself. A banana? 85p.

Then there are those things for sale which are not only less than vital for a journey, but would be fantastically dangerous if you had them in your car. A child sees a soft toy, in shrink wrap, wants it. It costs a bomb, but it looks ok and it might keep the sprog quiet.

Opposite effect. Child gets tangled in shrink wrap and asks driving daddy or navigating mummy - incessantly - to open it for them.

Some underpaid youth with the complexion and skin-tone of a newly-exhumed Pharoah is always trying to get you to join the RAC in the car park.

Oh, and the ATM charged me £2 - the most I've ever known at a cashpoint - to remove my own hard-earned money from my own bank account. So even if they can't get my cash directly, they can hire another firm to take it from me instead.

This is a genuine scandal. How much money do these companies think we have? Working class families off on a British holiday in their cheap car have to pay a king's ransom to get to their destination and get hot food (well, supposedly hot) into their kids' tummies. It's an outrage.

We have a return trip to Plymouth for a League match in a month's time. I intend to fill the car up locally and add an extra three cans of diesel for boot storage which might get me back home afterwards. And I'll take a large packed lunch. Make that two. Or I'll just starve...

I wouldn't be surprised if, like London railway stations, these unspeakable, evil places start charging us for using their lavatories soon. Which, if I'm honest, is the only reason I ever really have any desire to stop at them. Or I could just take a sponge and stay on the road...