7 November 2008

"So whose matches are those?"

Without even the merest hint of smugness, I've realised that today marks the fifth anniversary of my cessation of a cigarette habit.

Yep, I gave up on November 7th 2003. All meticulously plotted and planned it was too, in order to give me the best chance of succeeding.

Previous attempts at packing in the weed had failed dreadfully. The best I managed was roughly five weeks, with gum permanently wedged between teeth and cheek, before I reached for a fag while inebriated and ended up purchasing 16 Regals from the machine.

I once laughably tried to stop by vowing to smoke other people's fags, which many of those 'occasional' smokers (my, they irritate me) still do to this day. I ultimately got tired of being refused/threatened/reported for haranguing innocent drug addicts and so reverted to my own purchases.

However, a moment of shame prompted my successful aims to be rid of tobacco forever. In 2002, the Natural Blonde and I visited France, as ever, and acquired a mighty stack of fags on the boat back. Hardened smokers will scoff (between coughs) at my preferred brand, Silk Cut ("like smoking fresh air, that!") but the shame remains when you pile 2,000 of the blighters in a cupboard in your living room.

"That's it, " i said, out loud. "I'm smoking every single one of those, and then I'm going to stop."

Hollow words they may have sounded to anyone else, but that's precisely what happened. As a 25-a-day man it didn't take as long as it would for those 'occasional' smokers, but the process of giving up and meeting a day of judgement was underway.

I got down to the final 200 and braced myself. You see, although I knew it was ruinous to my health and wallet, I loved my fags. The first one of the day, the one after a big dinner, the ones you light up with ale, were all divine. Soon, unless I was to be seen as a coward, a weakling with no will power, all that would be gone.

The last packet was opened at 3.15am on November 7th 2003, five years ago today. I had just got up, as I was on Imagine FM's breakfast show at the time and needed to be in Stockport for 5.30am, so these sort of alarm calls were regular. I smoked my normal load through the day, ending up with about half a dozen by teatime that evening. However, on my way home, I stopped at the local chemist, a determined man, and bought a pack of those patches.

Point of order: If there's one thing that stops smokers giving up, it's that the products designed to wean you off the things cost a lot more than the fags themselves.

I smoked a handful more after eating and then fell asleep on the settee. This was clear as day (even though it was night) as when I woke up, pushing midnight, I looked in my fag packet and there was one left. I knew if I saved it for the morning I'd buy another pack straight afterwards. So, I enjoyed one last glorious dozen lungfuls of poisonous fumes, put the fag out and hopped to bed.

The next morning, I put a patch on my arm and began the day.

You get seven patches in a pack, designed to last you a week. I used six of them - the seventh remains buried somewhere in my bathroom cupboard in the event of an 'emergency'. No such emergency has occurred. Cravings since the proper cold turkey began were minimal, and I don't get them at all now, even though the NB still smokes, albeit only five or so a day. She also smokes menthols, which I could only bear when I had a cold. Recently, when back in France, she and our two friends were all smoking. I was the exception and it never got to me, either through craving or passive smoking. Sometimes I'd quite like a cigar after a hearty feed, but have always refrained from doing so.

Five years is an important milestone, as when I happened to visit my doctor this week (nothing serious, you'll be relieved to learn), she asked if I smoked. She'd clearly not glanced at my medical history prior to calling me into her surgery. I said no, and then realised how close the anniversary was. Upon pointing it out to her, she advised me that after five years I become as susceptible to smoking-related illnesses as every person who has never touched a cigarette.

I'm not an anti-smoker, even though many ex-smokers become vehement (and conceited) in their denouncement of people who enjoy a fag. I'd hate to be like that. I loved smoking, though I would never return to it, and I was fiercely against the smoking ban. The atmosphere might be cleaner now that the addicts are all in heated outdoor shelters, but it's also less fun. At my club nights, when everyone buggers off for a fag, there are massive empty spaces on premises deemed 'full'. It's crazy.

Anyway, if you smoke, then just get on with your lives. I have (again, without smugness) proved it is possible to give up, but I'm certainly not going to tell you to.

6 November 2008

Milk and thirteen sugars - #4

The first hole in our living room wall.

It's a watershed moment (not least because the house is letting in water and we may have to sleep in the shed) and as I type this, the builders are turning the above hole into a connecting door sized one.

We've shifted masses of stuff into the garage as the living room finally begins to be gutted. The initial hole above was acceptably cat-sized, so all five of our moggies have been shut in the master bedroom (with water, grub and tray) and last time I checked on them, one of them had left a deposit on the bed in protest, while two others were fighting. A fourth was (still) hiding under the bedclothes, where he has seemingly been since yesterday morning and the fifth is making good use of the shoe rack in the wardrobe.

The heating was off all last night, but tonight it will be working again. However, the presence of a door-sized hole leading on to an enclosed bit of building site makes me glad that East Yorkshire has had it mild of a night-time lately.

I knew it would be chaotic, and now I want it to be over... roll on Christmas.

5 November 2008

A wary White House experience

The American election was all a bit complicated for me, but I had a couple of hours flicking through the various news channels anyway. I started with ITV's coverage, then saw that Jon Culshaw was on and switched over instantly. He wasn't even on as light relief, but as supposedly a proper commentator on American politics, albeit one who kept going into Bush impressions.

Ultimately, while waiting for results and for Jeremy Vine to do something gimmicky and stereotypical with that touchscreen, the Natural Blonde challenged me to name all 50 American states. I managed 38 before I fell asleep.

Woke up this morning thinking McCain had won, because I thought Republicans were blue and Democrats red, in the way that our right-wingers are blue and left-wingers red.

4 November 2008

Milk and thirteen sugars please - #3

The extension is taking great shape now. In fact, it's finished.

Well, I should qualify that. The exterior is finished. The bricks are up, the breezeblocks are done, the roof is on and the windows are in. Just the small matter of knocking down two walls and gutting out the existing living room and kitchen now...

It's been a relatively painless process so far for us, as the builders have worked hard. I'm particularly grateful, however, that the scaffolding which has adorned the side of my home for the last few weeks is finally due down today. Not only is it ugly and gets in the way, but with the garden fence removed for access reasons, I've had nightmares about local teenage delinquents (even sleepy East Yorkshire villages have their share) using it as a climbing frame. Go and play on the pylons, you ruddy hooligans.

The old porch is now entirely surrounded by the extension, so the postman and other visitors have needed to clamber through broken bricks, scaffolding and protruding cables in order to get our attention or drop the bills through the letterbox. All that is also about to change. My postman, of a jollity level akin to that of Courtney Elliot out of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, has told me privately that Royal Mail guidelines mean he and his colleagues are barred from going through building works in order to deliver mail, but he thinks it's bunkum and does it anyway. I am more than grateful that no flying buckets of cement have bashed him on the bonce while he faithfully places more tat from QVC through the door.

We've had very heavy rain lately round these parts, and this has curtailed some of the work the builders have been able to do. Irritatingly, the rain poured down on the day they were sorting out the guttering on the old roof and connecting it to the new one. The result was rushing water cascading through the walls and windows and a mercy dash to the airing cupboard for big towels. Mercifully, it was a brief problem.

So, phase two is about to begin. Aside from the obvious long-term benefits to the house, the extension work has also been handy for conversational starting points with neighbours and getting me out of bed in the morning, as they arrive just before 8am sharp and immediately start bashing away. The dogs are still confused and the cats are a mixture of scared (Harvey hides under the bedclothes all day) and fascinated (Sox and Sidney spent the day at the back door, watching).

All good fun, and hopefully all done in time for Christmas.

2 November 2008

Theatre of (quiet, soulless, sick-making) Dreams

I indulged in my first ever visit to Old Trafford at the weekend. The game was exceptional, as were Hull City, and a 4-3 defeat to the reigning European champions was as far away from a disgrace as it is possible to be in defeat.

Beyond the actual football, I was looking forward to the whole Manchester United experience, as was everyone else who had journeyed from Hull that day. I'm not one of those doltish football snobs who hates everyone and everything about other clubs through a blend of local rivalry, regional snobbery or general jealousy, and I supported English football on that (oh dear, sorry in advance for this) "balmy night in Barcelona" in 1999 when United completed allegedly the most ridiculous comeback in club football history (actually, Scarborough got a 3-3 draw at Crewe about 15 years ago from 3-0 down in injury time, but that one seems to have been mysteriously forgotten). A club steeped in so much history, with so many iconic names passing through its doors, and lest we forget with a good chunk of tragedy and drama thrown in, deserves to shout about itself in the way that it does.

Unfortunately, Manchester United also represents everything that's currently wrong with football. This is not on the pitch, but off it. On the pitch they are fine - blessed with some of the world's most tongue-hangingly awesome footballers while still maintaining, remarkably, an element of (almost) localness thanks to the longevity (and brilliance) of figures like Giggs (from Wales), Neville (from Bury) and Scholes (from Oldham). Cristiano Ronaldo is a posing, effete ham actor when a defender dares approach him, and Wayne Rooney a sheared piece of Liverpudlian thuggery who wouldn't be out of place chucking pebbles at a pensioner's window on Mischief Night were he not handy with a ball on his toes, but they are worth the entrance money (£41 for this away fan) and more.

No, the issue is the way that Manchester United have been the leading proponents of the removal of football from its rightful status as a sport and lurching it, for maximum financial gain, towards its current status as a product. Football should never be a product. A chap who works as a labourer on a building site can love the game as much as the chap who happens to be able to play it, really play it, yet neither can now treat it as a sport. To the labourer it's a luxury, with ever-increasing ticket prices (and heaven forfend if he has a family interested in the game) and to the player it's a career, not even one they can always enjoy.

Football as a product means that you can extend and extend your stadium until it becomes almost Babel-like in its height, but the reason for such extensions is to accommodate people with no local pride in Manchester United. Or general pride in football. Their attraction to the club comes either because of the corporate glamour of paying silly money to be served a three-course meal while listening to anecdotes from Stuart Pearson, a fabulous striker of the 1970s whom they have never heard of and never really want to; or because they are of another nation, one not steeped in footballing heritage, so they look for a glamorous foreign club to 'support' and decide that the one featuring that nice Mr Giggs and his smouldering looks is the one for you. Mike Edwards is the best looking footballer in the English game (the Natural Blonde says so - he usurps even that Beckham chap, apparently) but you try getting football-hungry Koreans to fly halfway across the world to watch Notts County lose 1-0 at home to Bury. Our own Michael Turner has a burgeoning fan club of willowy mature women, I'm told, but his boyish features and crunching tackles aren't sending mad Canadians to the airport in a frenzied attempt to book a place on a nippy trans-Atlantic flight and a room at the Premier Inn in Kingswood in time for our game with Bolton next week.

I'm fortunate in that I know of one, just one, Manchester United fan who ticks the supporting box that I tick myself - there is only one, and that is geography. He is proper local - born in Manchester and raised in Eccles, making United his closest club. Mark Chapman, the redoubtable Chappers of the BBC, is United through and through and comes from Rochdale. I suspect he could have supported Rochdale FC from boyhood if he'd really tried but no, he was drawn in (presumably) by the joys of Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill in the 1970s, and their ilk. Gary Neville, the greatest Englishman ever to play at right back, bangs on about being a local lad made good, playing for the club he worshipped as a child. Yet he was born and raised in Bury - his dad even worked for Bury FC - and yet somehow he forgot about them when picking his favourite team.

These guys at least have the north west in their systems (though having worked in Stockport, I saw first hand the number of United window-lickers from Bramhall and Poynton who'd eschew Macclesfield Town and Stockport County and physically drive past their grounds in order to be part of the Old Trafford experience). The fabled Surrey (Surrey is a form of shorthand for the whole south of England, really) branch of the Manchester United supporters club, official or otherwise, make up some chunk of the 75,000 or thereabouts capacity. The Stretford Enders who are actually from Stretford must hate it as much as the rest of us laugh at it and despair of it.

The interloping football fan, the one who clears the club shop of every conceivable bit of official tat and then still buys all the dodgy merchandise on the street stalls outside ("oooh, must get a scarf with Patrice Evra on it!"), is not there for the experience of supporting. They don't know what supporting is. They don't know the game, the division, the opposition, in some cases even the rules of football. They scour the fixture list and only notice the Champions League fixtures, wondering why a club like Manchester United need participate in the FA Cup or Carling Cup. Most pertinently of all to the visiting away fan, they don't sing. This is why Old Trafford, for all its architectural splendour and ferocious sense of history and occasion, is easily the most atmosphere-free ground I have ever visited. If the away support don't sing up (which they always do, and Hull City's supporters don't need any invitation so to do) then you do feel genuinely like you are watching football in a huge soundproof booth.

Goodness, it was a vacuous experience. Were it not for the immense entertainment from both teams on show, then I would have felt more short-changed from this alleged footballing utopia than I was when I travelled on an official club coach all the way to Brighton on a Friday night to see us lose 2-1 and play with the tenacity, confidence and skill of a burst verruca. Before the game, I travelled into Stockport to park the car (I was due there later to do the club gig) and caught the same train as people clad in Manchester United hats with accents that suggested that Exeter City had lost out in the marketing department again. On the Mancunian tram later, there were people who were not only not English, but not able to speak English. Football tourism, they call it. Apt and frightening an expression, so it is. I was both amused and unsettled by the number of cameras which flashed whenever Cristiano Ronaldo got close to a touchline. This isn't football supporting, it's sightseeing. These people choose to go to a football match with the same intentions as people who go to the Tower of London or Sydney Opera House. That's not what football is for.

My friend from Eccles despairs of these faux-fans as much as football in general does. Manchester United represents next to nothing for the city of Manchester any more, or specifically the part of the city which it geographically holds rights to. I haven't looked, but I suspect that the Football In The Community officer at Old Trafford (if there is one) goes on fact-finding missions abroad more often than his 19 contemporaries in the Premier League put together. The word 'community' is anathema now, unless talking about a sickening global community which encourages people to spend vast sums of money on overpriced tickets and tat, not to mention the cost of getting there.

Back in the 1970s, manager Tommy Docherty used to dissociate himself publicly with a section of Manchester United fans. These fans were Mancunian scallies who were renowned as the worst football hooligans in the country, at a time when all clubs had such an element. Now it's time for the children of these same locals, the ones who have grown up and have never thrown a punch in their lives, to re-acquire their club. It'll never happen for as long as their club courts the overseas supporter ahead of the local fan, especially as they have an arrogant assumption that the next breed of Eccles kids will blindly support Manchester United anyway. But being a football fan is very different to being a football tourist, and the last interest football tourists have is football.

I'm glad I went yesterday, but purely for the joy of seeing my team compete with the greatest footballers this country currently showcases. And it was a ground tick. But there was so much about the day that made me feel sad for the way football has deserted the people who used to maintain it, while embracing, nay manipulating the gullible and emotionless who have ample money but no understanding of what they are spending it on.