24 December 2009

Seasonally yours...

Typing this with a) a rather hefty migraine, and b) a three-hour radio programme to present (combining the two is a laugh a minute, I tell you) so I'll keep it brief.

To everyone who reads this blog, signs it, recommends it, scorns it, links to it or just happens to have an awareness of its existence, thank you for making me feel the whole thing is worthwhile and a very merry Christmas to you all. I don't know why you keep coming back, but you do and it makes my heart all aglow. Really it does. I'm like a kid on Ready Brek.

I'll be back, maybe before New Year, but maybe not until New Year too. I haven't decided. Cliffhanging stuff, I'm sure you'll agree...

All the best.

22 December 2009

You're right, you boneidle tabloid sub-editing tosspot, it really is snow joke

I don't like snow.

I have despised snow all my life. Cold, useless, dangerous, disruptive, overrated and only newsworthy when it affects the south of England.

It has the capacity to cock up your whole weekend and give you a first migraine in six months.

On Saturday, the gritters had been out, and good on them. I set off for Stockport at 9.30am to pick up two friends and then head down the M6 for the football. We were away to Arsenal but the unwatched television station with Premier League rights had elected to make the game their 5.30pm kick off.

(This, by the way, meant that Hull City supporters couldn't travel there and back by train on the same day, as the last one from King's Cross was before 8pm. So more people were forced on to the roads).

I picked the boys up at 11.30pm and on our merry way went we. We managed the M6 with only a mild delay near Walsall and hit the M1 in good cheer. Then, at junction 12, we hit gridlock as the matrices, with accuracy rarely seen, informed us that the motorway was closed. The radio said there had been an accident. Naturally no source chose to hazard a guess as to how long the carriageway would be shut.

So we were forced on to an A-road and trundled with a tortoise's sense of velocity through Woburn and other minute places. We still had three hours to kick off and knew, from one of my passengers and his telephone call home to an atlas-wielding wife, that we'd get to Dunstable, rejoin at junction 9, and then be able to continue towards our ultimate destination of Cockfosters.

Trundle, trundle, trundle.

We heard the game kick off on the radio and we were still not quite in Dunstable. We had numerous conversations about sacking the trip, turning round and finding a pub that was showing the game. But stubbornly we decided to make our visit a token one and stayed in the queue. Football fans will understand this.

We finally rejoined the M1 and went like billyo to the M25 and then Cockfosters. The only mild piece of fortune was the small saving we made on a return ticket to Arsenal tube as a family were departing the train as we were alighting, and gave us their day passes. Goodwill to all men, especially three slightly flustered northern men who'd been cooped up in a Mondeo and were ultimately going to manage 45 minutes of football.

Off at Arsenal 20 minutes later, running round the Emirates to the away end and into the throng of people getting interval refreshment. We also deciphered, depressingly, that we'd conceded a late goal during our tube journey.

Sat down. Watched us gain a penalty, miss it, concede two more goals and then dash like insanity back to the tube. Cockfosters by 8.15pm, whereupon I got changed in the boot of the car into my nightclub gear, along with a quick spray and gel application. Smooth.

No traffic problems upon return, and I was onstage in Stockport by 10.45pm.

So there we go. Ten and a half hours at the wheel of my car for 45 minutes of football and a 3-0 defeat.

The next day, I did my show at Pure as ever and set off for home at 1pm. It's a 115 mile journey and with a clear enough highway I can stumble through my back door at about 2.40pm.

I arrived home at 6pm.

The snow and slush had affected the M62 quite badly to the point where cars didn't move for so long that people set up picnics on the hard shoulder, released their dogs from the boot for some exercise and, in my case, reclined my seat and had a kip. A rare occasion where sleeping in the fast lane is a good thing.

The matrices were back to being useless and anger-inducing. "SNOW - SLOW DOWN" said one. We were stationary. In snow. And going nowhere.

The traffic reports on the radio were equally beyond meaning. There aren't any on local radio at weekends because the output is mainly pre-recorded or networked. On BBC 5 Live, a station I hold dear, they had football commentary that was uninterruptable and so we had to wait until Newcastle v Middlesbrough in the Championship was over. But, of course, everyone was wetting their knickers over Eurostar so the roads elsewhere got next to no mention. We got "the M62 has severe delays between junctions 18 and 22 eastbound". That was it. Sherlock, your capacity for shit has excelled itself. No information on what was causing the accident, how long it would be before it cleared, etc. There were desperate people in these cars and no sod wanted to help.

So, I was awake for 32 hours at the weekend. I spent 15 and a half of them in the front seat of my car.

On Monday morning I woke up with a migraine. It's the first I've had since I was battered into submission by one during my summer holidays in France.

So, I don't like snow.

18 December 2009

"There were people who expressed doubt about another DJ on a news and sport station - including me."

Yes, it was Sir Terry's last day today. But it was also Simon's. And while he, unlike Terry, will still be on the airwaves each day in the new year, he'll still be missed.

17 December 2009

"A man under cover but you tore me apart..."

Yes, yes, it's Last Christmas by Wham!, the biggest selling single of the 1980s which didn't go to number one in the charts.

Now look, I don't mind this song but at the same time I can't say I'd be devastated if I barely heard it at Christmas ever again. For all that, I'm mentioning it now because the current George Michael solo effort for Christmas is so dire.

Last Christmas is a cynical bit of work by George, in that he has written a rather basic lovelorn tale but manacled Christmas rather crudely into it in order to guarantee it a niche every year. Had it been Last Summer, for example, or Last September, the song wouldn't have been guaranteed any airplay at all once it had left the charts, never mind summer or September airplay, but any semi-passable Christmas song, irrespective of the tenuous links to the festive season within it, is dug out by radio stations and shops everywhere when December comes round.

The thing I do like is the video, and what it proves beyond all doubt is that Andrew Ridgeley is a shit best friend. He's now clearly enjoying what dear Charles would call "night-time adventure" with George's ex but somehow the two bessies have found themselves at the same alpine Christmas do and Andrew is happy to let discretion go hang, ignoring his chum's feelings and doing lots of necking with his squeeze before George's very eyes.

The first glimpse of the past comes when George is helping to decorate the Christmas tree as the party is prepared (Shirlie Holliman and her awesome hair leading the table-setting team in the foreground) and his ex is also charged with adding trinkets to the tree. George drops some tinsel, stoops to catch it and their eyes meet. If looks could kill...

The rather tired flashback subsequently explains all, as George and the ex have the least compelling running race in the fresh snow, with George stumbling unconvincingly. The connection to the present is established courtesy of a rather cheap looking brooch that was handed over as a gift and, of course, the unfeeling ex is now wearing it while Andrew bites chunks from her neck. George must have been a real git for them both to treat him like this.

Still, it's soon forgotten as we return to the present and everyone leaps into a cable car to go ski-ing. And, well, that's about it. Martin Kemp is in the video, of course, as Shirlie's boyfriend in 1984 who remains happily married to her to this day. I'm assuming the rest are hired actors and I don't recognise anyone.

This sold more than a million copies for Christmas 1984 and won by a mile the battle most folk were expecting - that of Wham! versus Frankie Goes To Hollywood, by a mile the year's two prime acts, for the Christmas number one. Well, almost so, except Bob Geldof stuck his oar in and so a million-selling number two single was instead cut as Band Aid - featuring George singing with his eyes closed anyway - took hold of the festive charts.

The best thing about Last Christmas is actually the equal billing of the flip side, again a shrewd bit of work as it guaranteed the single's continued presence on the radio after Boxing Day. Everything She Wants remains, very simply, the best song George Michael wrote during his Wham! days and, frankly, it's also better than a considerable chunk of self-help stuff he has written since he first went solo. Could have done without the screaming, but go on, fill your (fur-lined) boots...

15 December 2009

"They should have just written Beckinsale's part out..."

This was a pleasant bonus from last night's TV Cream Christmas shebang - a photograph with Reginald D Hunter, who happened to be in the same drinking boudoir as us.

Nights at the Phoenix Arts Bar in London with the Cream staffers are always a giggle, and the Christmas gathering brings out the non-locals like me. I was badly/effortlessly influenced by our pal Ian, who came down from Cheshire for the bash and promptly took over the unofficial but crucial post of best drinker within our group. I'm sure cardigan-clad Phil, author of a fine book about reading on the lavatory, is relieved (so to speak) to relinquish it after all this time. He needs to keep a clear head as he has an important assignment about Butterflies (as in Wendy Craig, shit cooking and wannabe lotharios in the park with discreet chauffeurs, as opposed to lepidoptery or nervousness in the stomach area) to upload to his blog before Christmas.

So we settled into our seats with ale and anecdotes while Louis gritted his teeth through another unoriginal observation about his likeness to 1975-stylee Graeme Garden and handed out signed copies of a book he wrote five years ago, drawn from a carrier bag. If you saw the British Comedy Awards at the weekend, this was sort of Harry Hill in reverse, really. Also a recipient of flattering lookalike comments was the marvellous Roman Empress, whose smart buzzcut and denim skirt convinced me that she should go blonde and start a new career as a Yazz tribute act. I am, however, unaware as to whether Yasmin herself has the Empress's remarkable capacity for Red Stripe.

The new job I start on January 4th received a surprising amount of attention, though this mainly consisted of Five Centres and others coming up with show features based on weak puns. Which, to be fair, is how the best radio mechanics are often thought up anyway. The alleged "highlight" of this Kronenbourg-aided brainstorming session was a feature showcasing the best looking women from my beloved home city and calling it "Hull's Belles". You see what these finest of media minds have done there? The fact that a) such a visual feature is not exactly compatible with radio, and b) the new show is not in Hull, did not discourage them from declaring the idea a surefire winner and toasting their creativity. I'll forward it to Paul Foster at Viking and see how quickly he deletes the email.

The next brainstorm involved everyone, as a debate began on the best comedy programmes that have never, to our collective knowledge, been committed to DVD. From initially sensible suggestions like Dear John and The Mary Whitehouse Experience, we soon veered into the less fondly remembered vault of laughmakers and the likes of Miss Jones And Son, Men Of The World and, brilliantly, Full House were thrown into the cauldron. The latter's suggestion prompted a ten minute collective rant about why Chistopher Strauli should have stayed away from the Rising Damp movie and then how a fresh-faced, youthful Steve Steen managed a full crediting in the Porridge film ("Belt up Atkinson you noisy scroate!") even though his character, Wellings, never said a damned word, although Fletcher did mention his name when reading the football team out to Grouty (which, by the way, appears to have 13 players in it before he gets to the substitutes. But anyway...).

Less hardy sitcoms like A Prince Among Men and Fresh Fields were also mentioned, although I seriously doubt that even society's ironic minority would exchange real money for a DVD of Julia McKenzie struggling with a cordless phone while Ann Beach hams up her annoying neighbour routine. The discussion ended with a welcome and impromptu humming of the theme tune to Three Up Two Down.

I stayed in a townhouse hotel in Bayswater, booked via lastminute.com for just 39 quid, half of what you'd expect to pay if you went to the Travelodge website and tapped in 'London'. Cheap, cheerless and complete with that must-have for all slightly seedy hotel rooms - a shower which produces only completely scalding water, irrespective of what you do with the taps. The "continental breakfast" was bread and jam. I don't think I've ever seen kippers on a continental breakfast menu in my life, despite what Fawlty Towers taught me. But yes, it was very cheap and you don't get what you don't pay for as a consequence. Devoid of sleep and entirely hungover, I ate two jammy breadrolls as a token gesture and then headed for the fresh air and the underground journey to Kings Cross. The new job will, assuming it's a success, preclude me from further Phoenix visits for the foreseeable future, so last night we made sure it was as worthwhile as possible. And so it came to pass.

I'm now away to read the book that Louis handed over. No, really. And here's how he signed it to me...

He is a gent. Who looks like Graeme Garden.

11 December 2009

Knife edge

On 4Music (yes I know, but they have it on constantly at the gym so I can't avoid it) they're running a pair of ads designed to deter youthful hobbledehoys from carrying knives. Each ad is halved, acting as a top and tail for the whole adbreak. They've been running the campaign a good few weeks now.

The first top is of two black lads, both saying the same thing. "I love music, it's all I want in my life, but I never thought..." and then it stops. The other ads come on, then at the end the tail comes on, with the two lads emerging in different scenarios. One says "I never thought I'd be producing hit albums!" and we see him in a studio. The other says "I never thought carrying a knife would get me in prison" and we see him being cuffed and taken away.

The second top is of two girls, one is black and one is white although this time their skin colour isn't the issue. Again, they're saying the same sort of thing. "I love music, it makes me want to dance, but I never thought..." and then, again, it stops. After the other ads have played, the girls return. One says "I never thought I'd be dancing for a living!" and we see her onstage, and the other says "I never thought that carrying a knife with my boyfriend would get me in trouble" as she is cuffed and led away.

So, is the first ad racist? Both boys are black. One is seen doing the right thing, one the wrong thing. Does the fact that one boy is doing the right thing neutralise the prejudice against the other boy? I feel uncomfortable with it.

And as for the second ad, is it sexist? After all, a girl is more than capable of carrying a knife with evil intentions without the company or influence of a boyfriend. She seems to be arrested as an accessory rather than actual aggressor in waiting. The inference is that it's her boyfriend's fault really. Why?

The anti-knife message is fine and worthy, of course, but they do seem to be conforming to horrid arcane stereotypes here - ie, that black lads exclusively cause trouble and girls are easily led by boys and can do no wrong on their own.

Or am I reading too much into it?

10 December 2009

"Can you repeat that please?"

Call centres in India have become something of a cliché in recent years, a shorthand for uncaring big business in the UK that has decided that the customer service department doesn't deserve major investment and so employ a bunch of sub-continental people because they're much cheaper.

In many cases, I suspect they're a myth now. Indeed, some companies are using "UK call centres" as an actual selling point these days, whereas before you'd expect it to be a given. Churchill's Insurance ads, which you can't avoid if you're a watcher of Dave or Sky Sports News, make a big play of this. Given that they're also shelling out for Melanie Sykes, I'm surprised they can afford call centres over here.

Anyway, I had cause to telephone a call centre yesterday which happened to be based in India. Your heart goes all heavy when you hear the pre-recorded message (in an American accent) telling you the call will be charged at the national rate, and then there is a gap just long enough to make you suspect you've been cut off, before finally a call centre worker connects to you.

There are three straightforward problems. Firstly, the accent of the call centre worker is very strong indeed. You have to listen intently and even then you occasionally ask them to repeat, which makes you feel bad. And I suspect a Hull accent like mine isn't awfully audible when travelling down a phone line to Mumbai either.

Secondly, the quality of the line is not terrific, with a delay that often prompts you to talk over the person at the other end, thereby again forcing you to ask them to repeat. A slight cough from you and the other voice is drowned out entirely. And woe betide anyone in the same room as you who tries to suggest what you should say or even offer you a brew. Even the most flexible of multi-taskers would struggle here.

Thirdly, the person at the other end often doesn't realise you're talking to them when you ask a question and therefore doesn't reply. You then repeat the question, and finally say "HELLO?!" in a semi-agitated way which finally digs their ribs and returns them to your query.

And all this at the national rate.

It was Netgear I was ringing, as we'd had to acquire a new wireless router because the old one had suffered a power surge too many and had bust. Of course, replacing one wireless router with an identical new one doesn't just mean it automatically takes on your broadband and computer settings, and so we had to go through this rigmarole from the call centre somewhere in the sub-continent.

It's a long old process, but boy are they patient and boy, do they know what they're doing. In the end we had to ring twice due to a software issue they couldn't solve (it involved the re-installation of Internet Explorer, which I don't use and haven't for years) but once we got past that hurdle, we kept going.

They sent me a survey afterwards and I felt compelled to fill it in, as I suspect it's a thankless task to have impatient people from all over the world yelling at them and so when they do the job well, they deserve to be thanked for it. Like those occasions when a cold caller interrupts your day, the chagrin you feel should be aimed at those who choose to exploit them, rather than the exploited themselves.

For all this, I really hope the new router never, ever, ever breaks.

8 December 2009

"It's very hard to even say 'bum'"

Somebody whom I shall love forever has uploaded this to youtube. Embedding is sadly disabled but it enhances the surprise (or disappointment) when you click it, I suppose...

Rik Mayall was a massive hero of mine when I was nine and remains a massive hero of mine now I'm 36. I saw this interview at the time and couldn't believe it was the same guy, as I'd never seen him just sit down and chat as himself before; used as we all were to the grotesque character he was playing in The Young Ones, the second and final series of which had just been screened when he went to see Terry Wogan.

This remains the straightest interview about his career I've ever seen him give. He appeared on Wogan one more time, to my knowledge, but was there solely to promote Comic Relief and so could just goof around - indeed, I seem to recall the interview was truncated by Mayall claiming Wogan had farted and protesting to the audience about it.

Subsequent interviews to hacks and talk shows have done what he refers to in this clip - people expect him to be funny all the time and and seem disappointed that he is relatively normal and nice to them. When he appeared in the stage play of The New Statesman all of the publicity interviews he gave to TV and radio were in character as Alan B'Stard. Even his autobiography was semi-fictionalised, hiding a little behind a character.

I think this is still a genuinely enjoyable interview, a thoughtful response to the questions with a few extra asides for the audience. And to think my mum thought his "type" were a bad influence...

4 December 2009

A car park space for ambulances

I'm working for Pure this week, which is always a joy, and at the moment there is a campaign on the station to find Stockport's Perfect Pub. Listeners are voting between two pubs a week and eventually we'll get to a final two and the accolade will be handed out.

I remember as an FHM reader when I was a thrusting twentysomething that the mag had a feature called The Lush, in which an unspecified number of the magazine's people visited a different UK town and took in five of the local bars and hostelries. If I recall rightly, they marked on the basis of convenience, welcoming of strangers, range of "strong lagers" to mix, the chance of a decent conversation and the likelihood of a beating. I lived in Huddersfield at the time, and they went to at least two bars whose doors I'd previously vowed not to darken again - and liked them. Maybe it was just me that night, then.

The worst pub I've ever frequented was in the Lowerhouses area of Huddersfield, one of the more dubious parts of the town. I drove through this estate every day to get to and from work, and there was one pub in the centre of the estate called the Masons Arms. I would never have visited in a thousand years but on this occasion, I had to because of work.

A well known (to the police) extended family lived on the Lowerhouses estate and were extremely notorious in the area. They were responsible for a number of burglaries, deceptions, thefts and the like, to the extent that the Local Intelligence Office at the police station, where I as a hack had to go each day to be given the overnight crimes, had photographs of every single member of this family on its wall, almost for decoration.

This family committed one crime on the Lowerhouses estate too many and local vigilantes decided to do something. The house the family squeezed into (we're talking a dozen adults here - a mum and dad, sons, daughters, nephews and nieces) was firebombed. The house itself didn't catch fire but those family members present were forced to flee.

As an agency hack, this had potential to do more than just trouble the local press and so we needed to find a way of flogging it to the nationals. So, a colleague and I were assigned to go and talk to the Lowerhouses locals and, of course, the best way to do this en masse was to head for the Masons Arms. we were given a bit of company petty cash in order to get a round in for willing talkers, and off we went.

Oh dear. This place was even more horrendous inside than even the grubby exterior could ever have made you imagine. However, it was evidently popular with the residents, and on the midweek evening we turned up, plenty were in. We got the inevitable "who the hell are you?" look when, as strangers, we walked through the door and ordered two pints of lager. But after ten minutes, we managed to get chatting.

We figured the best way to go about it was to be honest about who we were and what we wanted from the beginning, and this seemed to work. A round of ales later and a few tongues at the bar began to loosen. We didn't ask for names and didn't make notes; our best hope was to not look like journalists at all.

The goodwill lasted about half an hour, then gradually they began to turn on us. We quickly finished our drinks and did the classic hack's routine of making our excuses and leaving. I'm not especially brave in most situations, but I have to admit that throughout my time in that wretched tavern I was terrified. These were rough people and I doubt that they were especially law-abiding themselves, but we had gone in there to try to profit, in a way, from their desperation and anger and although for a while we got away with it, in the end they made it clear what they'd do if we didn't vacate.

The Masons Arms was undecorated, floorless, freezing and odorous. I look back now and wonder how the hell it maintained a licence and a safety certificate. The cracks in the furniture and the splinters sticking out of the pool cues suggested frequent punch ups. As we recalled what we were told in the office the next day, we knew we'd had a lucky escape.

We got bugger all in the papers and the Masons Arms closed down within weeks. I drove past it for two more years on my way to and from work and never saw it reopen. I wouldn't be surprised if it still stands there, crumbling and desolate, housing a thousand nasty memories for all those who unwittingly drank there.

To my knowledge, the extended family never changed their ways. I expect their mugshots are still on the police station walls to this day.

1 December 2009

Corrie questions

Still love it, and as ever, still questions worth asking...

1 - How come we got a reasonably good family in the Mortons and then saw all of them leave except the utterly hideous ex-wife?

2 - Is Natasha the hairdresser on a three month sabbatical?

3 - Why does Sean never mention his child?

4 - Why has Molly changed her ringtone from Molly Malone to a boring, standard double ring?

5 - How efficent must the Manchester justice system be to allow a murder trial to be set just a month after the accused was charge?

6 - Why have the Connor parents not wondered aloud if Carla was tupping Liam while still married to his brother?

7 - How does Ashley make a living by selling four lamb chops every week?

8 - Are we seriously meant to believe that the casting people at Granada looked at John Thomson and thought "yep, he'll pass for a 40 year old"?

9 - What happened to the burgeoning storyline about Bill paying Audrey her money back?

10 - Exactly when will Fizz be allowed to give Rosie the biggest lamping in soap opera history?

25 November 2009

Boyle or Boiler?

I don't especially care about the X Factor, and I never see the Saturday show anyway as it's strictly Strictly in this household. However, I watch the results show on Sundays, so I reckon I get a decent deal - all the egotistical bollocks from the judges without any of the weekly crucifixion of great songs.

I saw Susan Boyle perform on Sunday night (and, thanks to JM's marvellous weekly review, established that she didn't really) and enjoyed it. The material she's doing is very easy listening, of course, and as well as the new single, her album also contains a version of Madonna's You'll See, which I heard on Radio 2 the other day.

I would have loved to have been inside the brain of Dannii Minogue or Cheryl Cole as they watched this performance. Yes, those two have looks, youth and got lucky early etc - but they must know that despite all their riches, successes, hunky conquests, profile triumphs and the like, that they simply have absolutely nothing in comparison to a frumpy, bashful, untouched woman who kept her talent and ambition hidden until her dying mother instructed her to try to get noticed.

We've all heard the usual showbiz mantras about how image and looks and style matter too much in the music business. Here's the proof. It's pejorative and too simple to call Susan Boyle ugly, but frankly, she is no beauty. And yet her voice projects more light and drama and grace and theatre than any younger, thinner contemporary whose audience she now seems to be chasing. Could this amazing battle of talent over image really change the music business as we currently see it?

Look at Dannii Minogue. She got a record deal because a) she was in an Australian soap; b) she looked good when she was 19; and c) her big sister was already a proven pop star on little discernible talent and there were currency signs in some executive's eyes when the next Minogue rolled off the production line. There was no sign of a d) suggesting that she was a good singer. Listen to her debut hit Love And Kisses, if you dare. And even when she did break into the charts with that hideous record, she never got even close to Kylie's stranglehold and had, all told, a very ordinary pop career.

As for Cheryl, well she came through a reality show to make Girls Aloud and I do find that group entertaining, as well as easy on the eye. But that bum note she hit at last year's Brits will haunt her for life - and now she's telling unknowns how to sing and perform.

Three things have gained her individual status from the rest of her group; her court case, her marriage to a footballer and her role on the X Factor. None of the things have made her essentially the Chief Girl of Girls Aloud have anything to do with her ability. She could have released a fart and it would have gone to number one in the charts (and judging by the blandness of the record, hasn't strayed far from that notion) but that song has got to number one not because of artistic excellence, but of the personality and image behind it.

Cheryl Cole and Dannii Minogue are professional singers who didn't hit any branches on the way down from the tree. However, would they rather have the best looks, as they do, or the best voice, as Susan Boyle does? Even though it's a singing business, as Dannii herself likes to say when deciding who to keep in the show, I bet I know how both would answer.

23 November 2009

"Hope your room is to your liking..."

Facebook has got me in touch with a few old college pals lately and, being the nostalgist I am, subsequently had me thinking about my solitary year of education away from home.

I didn't go to university. After passing my A-levels, despite the best efforts of my head of sixth form to force me to fail, I went to Darlington College of Technology to train as a journalist. The course felt quite exclusive as it was the only direct training course available at the time and gave you recognised trainee status after a year of study if you passed your exams at the end.

So, upon acceptance on to this course, I received from the college a list of available accommodation premises in the Darlington patch, some within easy walking distance of the college, some a bus or bike ride away. I opted to stay in a guest house rather than take on student digs; I figured that this would make me a little more disciplined in getting the right things done on the course as stuff like housework and meals were done for me.

The guest house was run by a Scottish family and had a smattering of students, but it was mainly made up of doleites and long-term pensioner residents, plus the usual array of shift workers and overnighters. The pensioners were an interesting bunch; all men, all widowers, all somehow affected by their working lives to the extent that they couldn't cope with the idea of living alone and so, upon the loss of their wives, moved into a guest house.

As a teenage student who knew bugger all, their stories would be most enlightening but often they were told second hand, as they didn't seem to trust any of the younger people who shared the dining area with them. One chap was called Rudi, a German prisoner of war who stayed in England afterwards and built a family life here. A second chap was as introverted as any person I've ever met in my life, apparently suffering from lifelong traumas caused by what he observed and endured in the Korean conflict. Yet though I was able to smalltalk with them, they didn't choose to tell any stories. The landlady was, instead, the relayer of this fascinating information. As a trainee hack there were potential interviews there but it was impossible to know where to begin.

Three doleites stayed at this guest house too. One was called Craig, a chap who was pleasant on the outside but, as it turned out, was a bail dodger who was facing charges of obtaining money by deception; essentially this involved vulnerable pensioners and non-existent conservatories. When he left the guest house in a hurry, he owed me £35, which was a lot for a student on what the dreaded Humberside County Council considered a worthwhile grant. He nicked more than £200 from one of the other doleites, a simple but likeable local boy called Keith, who spent his money on records. Weeks after I moved out, I later learned he had been fooled into lending his record collection to someone who promptly flogged the lot and disappeared. There were some vile people in Darlington in 1992...

The third doleite was called Alan, who was a temporary resident who had injunctions against him as he battled his way through a horrific divorce. I remember once he went out to visit his wife, all smartly suited and booted, and came back with a nosebleed and black eye after an encounter with her new bloke. He and I talked about all sorts but mainly football and music, and only disagreed once when I was watching the Conservative Party conference on the communal television and he came in to switch over for the horse racing. I lost the row.

I do wonder what happened to each of these people. I would suppose that none of the old chaps are with us any more. I hope Craig got caught, punished and rehabilitated but I also hope Keith and Alan are doing okay. In the end, a lack of stimulating conversation and a need to fend more for myself took over, and I moved out after one term and took a room in a house where two other chaps from my course lived. Aside from a mad, drunken Welsh building student in the room downstairs occasionally smashing the place up, it was a decent six months there and I was able to combine studying with partying to good effect, and could make a killer pasta 'n' sauce for four.

Looking back, I should have done that from the start though when I think back, I was the same as most of the other 18 year old school leavers on the course (there were five of us; the rest were graduates or mature students) as I chose to live in a place where help was at hand. Two of the other school leavers did likewise, although they lodged with families instead of taking a room in a guest house. The other two school leavers were already local to the area and so stayed at home.

To be honest, I'm not sure what the point is to telling you all this. I suppose I should find one. Well, I'm twice the age now as I was in Darlington and yet the year I spent there remains very influential on how I've lived ever since. Leaving home for the first time and seeing how other people live strengthens you and enlightens you, and as I didn't immediately get a job in newspapers upon finishing the course, it was a little bit of a culture shock when I had to go back to my parents' house again, aged 19, with a professional qualification and desperate to experience real adult life. A year later I found work, moved out and never went back.

Right now, there are people I went to school with who, for varying reasons of misfortune, are still living with their parents. I don't pity them at all, but I also don't envy them. To have your own space, be it a dingy room in a guest house or a decent home of your own via a mortgage, is totally invaluable.

I want to know about your student digs, and your first home after shuffling free of the apron strings.

18 November 2009

"It's wrong to wish on space hardware..."

A New England by Kirsty MacColl. A glorious, joyous cover of one of Billy Bragg's more interpretable tunes that I rushed out and bought as soon as I heard it (and as soon as I'd saved enough money).

I had little knowledge of Kirsty MacColl before this song. Upon later hearing There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis I realised who it was, but the song itself passed me by when it was in the charts. The only time I'd read or heard her name before this 1985 release was in the songwriting credit for They Don't Know by Tracey Ullman in the sleevenotes for the original Now! album. Her backing vocals on that huge version of her song suddenly went from anonymous to obvious.

MacColl always struck me as someone who probably wrote and recorded loads of stuff but probably only released a quarter of it, given that she was notoriously uncomfortable with fame and especially of singing live, despite being evidently very good at it. Maybe this was why she did so many co-vocal or secondary vocals on people's material, as it gave her the security of knowing she wasn't on her own if she ended up onstage with the band. I don't know, and I can't recall her ever being asked about it, but it's a theory...

The video of A New England sees our heroine wandering around a snowy scene in various millinery items while mouthing the song to camera, amidst sideways shots of big wheels and helicopters and children at play. Timing was everything here, as demonstrated by MacColl's word-by-word revelation of her expanding stomach as she approached the line "you put me on the Pill" - and made it obvious that she was very pregnant indeed. In fact, upon introducing the video on Top Of The Pops, Gary Davies even offered a message through the camera to the lady herself ("Good luck with the baby, Kirsty!") thereby ruining the gag. Mind you, I was 11 years old and only vaguely knew what the Pill was...

The lyric had to be re-gendered from its original male-to-female theme, so while Bragg was an active persuader of contraceptive use in his version, MacColl had to be the passive recipient in hers. In the chorus, Bragg was looking for another girl, whereas MacColl was asking the man of mystery if that was his intention. Etc. It was clever stuff, aided by the kitchen sink simplicity of the lyrics. Re-gendered songs don't always scan so well, though the re-doers of Cher's version of Walking In Memphis did a top job when rebranding Muriel the pianist as a man called Gabriel.

Smash Hits caused a stink and some confusion upon the printing of the lyrics, as there were errors everywhere. "You put me on the Pill" was actually typoed as "You puy mr on the Pill", in perhaps the most memorable of the anomalies. One person wrote to Black Type next issue and asked if the magazine had "started employing dyslexics". Such a caring generation of pop fans in the 1980s, we were...

And my mum, who can raise eyebrows of ire as well as any protective woman of her generation, did not approve at all when she heard MacColl singing "But that was bloody yesterday". Tame now, but "bloody" was a taboo word for children in front of their parents during this period, as were words like "crap" and "fart", as well as the more obvious ones. To have such a word in a song lyric was tantamount to pop stars encouraging kids to stab their eyes until they bleed, but I was allowed to keep the record, on the reasonable understanding that it would be heard on the radio before long anyway. I should point out that a few weeks earlier my parents had bought Bachelor Boys, the spin-off book by the Young Ones, for my brother and I to share at Christmas, only to then return it to the shop after reading it and deciding in mild disgust that it wasn't for their delicate sons. I've still never read it to this day. Bah.

After an unusual appearance by a pubescent gospel choir in sunglasses, we get the third verse of A New England. This was written for MacColl's version by Bragg in order to prolong the song to a reasonable length for a single release. I absolutely love, to this day, the line "When at last it didn't ring I knew it wasn't you", summing up the desperation the wronged half feels after a break-up and the slight hope they maintain that some reconciliation is possible. The image of MacColl sitting on the stairs waiting for the phone to ring (everyone's phone was at the bottom of the stairs back then) was immediately in my mind when I heard the lyric back then and still appears today. Naturally, like all performers in the 1980s, the word "telephone" in song is illustrated by the singer extending thumb and little finger next to ear. By the closing chorus fade, she seems happy in her tartan trousers and trilby, doing aeroplane impressions with a smile on her face.

A New England was produced by MacColl's husband Steve Lillywhite and entered the Top 40 at the end of January 1985 and peaked at No.7 a month later, with no album to follow. MacColl concentrated on the family stuff for the rest of the decade, not emerging as a solo chart star again until her version of Days four years later. However, she did the backing on Ask by the Smiths and a certain co-vocal with the Pogues in that time, and then helped tune up Shaun Ryder when the Happy Mondays churned out Hallelujah at the end of the 1980s.

Electric Landlady was fantastic, with My Affair still a regular player on my iPod and Walking Down Madison probably coming close to the record for the most people ever to appear on one Top Of The Pops stage. She did her usual harmonising shtick the same year on hits for Bragg and the Wonderstuff. Her love of Cuban music then took hold of the rest of her career.

Kate Nash and Katie Melua have taken her place on performances of her most famous recordings, including A New England, in recent years following MacColl's death. Although it's almost exclusively her collaboration with the Pogues that keeps her name alive with the wider public, it's A New England that I best remember her for. I've never quite understood what sort of strange ideas one can get in one's jeans, though...

16 November 2009

"I feel I've let Ian down... *blub blub blub*"

Here's a foolproof way for Chris Hollins, my favourite competitor on Strictly Come Dancing, to get to the final.

Feign an ankle injury. You'll get a bye to the next phase, then the next, then the ... etc until the final itself. After Jade Johnson's injury at the weekend, it appears that it is now possible to survive a further week without actually doing any dancing.

That really doesn't wash, does it? Her injury was genuine, of course, but injury usually means game over. Had she been taking part in a long jump competition and suddenly done her knee in, she wouldn't have expected a bye to the next round while an able (ie, abler) competitor was eliminated.

More baffling was the public's decision to save Laila Bouass, who only managed half a dance with a bad ankle and ended up being dragged and carried around the floor by her partner Anton du Beke while she bawled her eyes out. Inevitably she was in the bottom two after the judges had scored "on what we saw", and with some heart-sinking predictability, the GBP fell for for the "plucky trier" card and made her stay. Phil Tufnell, who danced really well, ended up exiting despite being a) able to dance; and b) not bursting into tears and saying it was all so unfair. I reckon a decent lawyer could make a "loss of earnings" case for him, given that he left while dancing, while someone else stayed without dancing.

The two injured women should both now be out of the competition; moreover, they should have offered to exit the competition. It would have ruled out a phone vote and robbed the BBC of plenty of wonga of course, but that shouldn't have been an issue.

Chris is my favourite and either he or Natalie Cassidy will win if the personality issue comes through strongest; otherwise, it's the skilful but charisma-free Hollyoaks bloke.

Oh, and I love Ronnie Corbett, but please don't ask him to do anything like that ever again. The poor chap was embarrassing. However, Claudia Winkleman was and is completely loopy, and so brilliant for it. The show only actually missed Bruce Forsyth and his gigantic ego because they didn't adequately replace him, not because he was absent per se. Sort out a decent stand-in for his next bout of lurgy and maybe the time will arrive to ask him to step down.

12 November 2009

10 November 2009

"How the intercourse are you? Where the intercourse are you?"

It's Alex and I, across a corner table at a bar called Scrooge's in Blackpool, where we and our regular group of compadres met for the latest Nerd Night.

I've never had a night out in Blackpool before. I've been five times in the past; four times for football matches, and in those instances it's always a case of park up, find the pub, go to the game, watch it and - invariably in my case - leave as quickly as possible after an inept defeat. The other time was for a photo session.

So it would be a new experience for me as I hopped off the teatime train that took me into the town and dragged my sorry self through the biting November gales to the Travelodge where most of us would be staying. A few phone calls were exchanged as we established where we all were.

Now poor Charles Nove, of Radio 2 and the esteemed deputy voice of the balls, had a dilemma. He had chosen to drive up from London but discovered upon arrival at the nearest car park to the hotel (which didn't have its own parking facilities) that it would cost £13 for an overnight stay. Fine, except it didn't accept a) credit cards; b) notes; and c) £2 coins. This meant he had to have £13 in pound coins and lower denominations, something which you only have in Blackpool after a few hours in one of the amusement arcades.

Eventually, a loose plan was hatched to meet in the hotel bar at 6pm for a few warm ales (Travelodge fridges never, ever work) prior to another pub and then our restaurant booking. Suitably refreshed and suited, I was just reaching for the door handle to exit my room when I heard this astonishing groaning noise from the corridor.

Briefly, I paused. I don't know why - it may have been that I was about to walk in on some hotel spook (which was unlikely because Hallowe'en was a week earlier, the hotel was too new to be haunted - oh, and because ghosts don't exist) and shivered a little. Then I regathered my sanity and opened the door, just as another large groan - and this time I established it was female - sounded.

Very quickly, as the groans increased in speed and volume it soon dawned on me what was going on. In the room almost directly opposite, a woman was privately pleasuring herself but a combination of her obvious skill and the criminal thinness of the walls meant her shrieks of enjoyment could be heard down the whole bloody corridor. I was not perving in the slightest; I had no choice but to hear (note: I heard, not listened - thanks) as I walked past her room and even as I went through the exit door and called the lift to my floor the noise continued. I swear I heard one last groan as the lift door closed and I began to head down to reception. The recorded voice saying "stand well back" seemed quite appropriate.

Anyway, I made it to the bar, took a lukewarm ale to the table and one by one the other chaps arrived. I related this story to each, and wondered how on earth we were going to top that in Blackpool, having not even left our chain hotel. Fortunately, while carnal exclamations of invisible people were not audible at any other stage of our evening out, we did have a lot of fun.

Regular readers of this blog (I know, a contradiction) will know what goes on at these evenings. A bunch of us meet up, drink, eat, drink some more and chew the fat about the radio industry, swapping anecdotes and stories and exchanging the sort of gossip that could trouble the Official Secrets Act.

In our first pub, the nerdishness of the occasion was quickly established by my pal Martin, who had uncovered, edited and saved some of Charles' past audio as a presenter of Radio 2's nightshifts back in the day when records were played on a horned contraption that had dogs peering down them. These clips were stored on his phone, complete with jingles and stabs, with only the music removed. Charles listened intently, quickly identifying the makers of the jingle package. This sort of stuff thrills radio professionals and quickly bores everyone else. I therefore shall move on.

On to the restaurant we went, which was a traditional English place and absolutely superb. They looked after us really well and the food was exquisite. We seemed to stay there quite a while, allowing the two waitresses to lean on the bar and laugh along at some of the tales told by especially Alex and Charles, the two more grizzled pros among us. The tale of the (very well known but not massively bright) presenter who went to the lavatory during a commercial break, forgot he was on air and got in his car and drove home had us in hysterics for quite some time. Usually with on-air mishaps most jocks can say "we've all done it"; however, I can categorically claim not to have ever forgotten I was doing a radio programme after that programme had started.

As we exited the restaurant, the waitresses' local knowledge helped us to our next bar, the aforementioned Scrooge's (the directions were "across the road, past the knocking shop and it's round the corner", which I doubt you'd get from Tourist Information). The alleged knocking shop was obvious as there were lights of a certain colour gleaming through the half-closed blinds (and a flourescent sign saying 'OPEN' which I thought was a bit of a giveaway), and we duly made our way past said house of questionable repute and happened upon our next bar.

This was a country-themed pub with black T-shirted bar staff and I loved it. It was exactly what we needed, as our combined age and wish to converse fairly normally with one another meant we didn't want to go somewhere with loud music. The stories continued to spill out and the ale continued to flow. As the Bellamy Brothers played on the speakers, we continued to relate and digest our tales of the industry before realising we were last ones there, with the music long stopped and last orders long called. We hope if you were a patron of Scrooge's that evening that we didn't bore you too much.

On to the Ché Bar, which adjoined our hotel. Simon Hirst had previously acquired us free entry to this place as he is mates with the owner, both from Barnsley. However, this piece of information didn't seem to have been handed to the fantastically bored girl at the pay desk who, after five minutes of spoon-fed information from the patient Hirsty, claimed she didn't know who her manager was nor who the big boss of the whole chain was, or indeed where her arse was in relation to her elbow. The doorman, evidently someone who had despaired of this colleague of his on endless occasions, took pity on us and shouted "Oh, just go in!"

But we didn't stay. It was loud, the floor was horribly sticky and the atmosphere didn't quite feel right. Mr Brightside by the Killers does sound fantastic in big speakers though. We wandered round this front bit, wandered into the back bit (The Key, The Secret by Urban Cookie Collective) and then wandered out again, carefully choosing an alternative door so the disinterested girl and the benevolent doorman didn't see us exit a mere minute and a half after finally persuading ourselves in.

There wasn't much after that, so it was a return to the hotel bar and more tales. I retired to bed after about an hour and can report that the corridor was blissfully silent when I emerged from the lift and headed, weary and drunken, towards my room. However, I had been given a room right above the Ché Bar smoking shelter, meaning there was still much noise to be had directly outside my room but far less appetising than previously, given that it consisted mainly of swearing and drunken giggling. Some of us are older and need sleep, goddamit!

It was a top night, as confirmed by all when we met for breakfast the next morning at various stages of the bleary-eyed, sore-bonced recovery period. I was on my train out of Blackpool by 10.45am. If you were in Room 326 of that Travelodge, congratulations on your achievement.

Brighton next. Heaven only knows what awaits us...

6 November 2009


It's a big day today. My father in law, Ted, celebrates his 90th birthday. It's a fabulous milestone, but it is made all the more remarkable by the fact that he has been in hospital for more than a fortnight after suffering a stroke.

When a man of such advanced years has a stroke, you prepare for the worst. Indeed, we were told to do just that a few days after he was admitted to hospital. Yet almost from the moment the doctors told us he might not last another 48 hours, he has got a little stronger and a little better and so today his big day has come.

Ted, who already has Parkinson's, caught pneumonia once he was in hospital but has already fought it off with the aid of atomically-strong antibiotics. He has regained the feeling he lost in his left side and, although sometimes semi-conscious or confused, has managed a few conversations which included airing his wish for fish and chips on his 90th birthday, proving to us that he knew who he was and roughly where the calendar was at.

It's little short of miraculous that he has fought his way to this day of all days, ready for his family of four generations to make a fuss of him (though he won't get fish and chips just yet). However, I had a hunch he might see his birthday, despite the initial prognosis. Medical knowledge I don't have, but knowledge of this man I do.

He had not had a day of illness in his life, and therefore boasted a fully paid-up immune system to call upon for when adversity finally hit. He is a tall, heavily-built, strong old widower, rugged and handsome with a glint in his eye and, until recently, a happy capacity for long walks and the occasional drive.

He's not out of the woods yet and we don't know what sort of long term issues will come from this stroke. But that's for later. Right now, we're celebrating a 90th birthday that a few days ago looked like it wasn't going to come. I raise a glass your way today, Ted.

5 November 2009

"If God hadn't meant us to eat animals, he wouldn't have made them meat-flavoured..."

There's a Bob Monkhouse joke about vegetarians in the Bible, who had there been any, would have "killed the fatted cabbage", thereby re-influencing all Christian dietary habits thereafter.

The very carnivorous Kevin Day once asked the Loose Talk audience if there were any vegetarians among them, only to add "yeah there is, but they're not strong enough to put their hands up".

Jeremy Clarkson went on Room 101 to bemoan "vegatablists" who expect you to cook an entirely separate meal for them when you have the grace to invite them to a dinner party, before expounding on a comically rational theory that the only way to preserve all animal species, endangered or otherwise, was to eat them.

Soap operas have mentioned it, in passing. The only episode of Brookside I ever watched involved a siege (about 1986?) during which one of the hostages was a committed vegetarian, but ended up scoffing meat as she was starving and it was all that was on offer. Maxine and Ashley briefly became vegetarian in Coronation Street, much to the chagrin of Fred Elliott, master butcher of Weatherfield. And Harold Bishop was a vegetarian in Neighbours, despite accidentally once eating meat in a stew he began to cook but then left to Eileen Clarke, who added ham to it without telling him.

Yes, vegetarianism is both a serious issue and the butt of many jokes, mainly at the expense of those who practise a herbivorous lifestyle. But yesterday, for the first time ever, I learned of someone who had given up many years of flesh-free diets and returned to meat consumption.

And it kind of knocked me sideways, genuinely so. Vegetarians don't do that, do they? Whether their commitment to such a lifestyle is through principle or just what their palette prefers, I assumed it was a case of once a veggie, always a veggie. Yet I suppose that a quiet commitment to vegetarianism, as opposed to a Hynde-esque political struggle against farmers and their customers, is as susceptible to change as any other lifestyle habit, such as drinking and smoking.

I am an animal lover but have rarely considered vegetarianism. I think it's more than possible to be both pro-animal and pro-meat. The food chain is nature, and we're merely at the helm. I like roast beef, bolognese sauce and bacon sandwiches (not on the same plate, although then again I've never tried that...) way too much to ponder giving them up. I don't like lamb at all, am so-so with pork and can do without most poultry, though the turkey at Christmas always goes down well. My taste in meat is limited but it does exist.

There are the meat substitutes of course. I remember Sissy Rooney got chucked out of the Big Brother house because, among other things, she was a vegetarian who - and this is the killer - also didn't eat Quorn. So the grocery budget had to have a vast percentage of it thrown to one side to satisfy one solitary person's medically-unrelated dietary needs and as there were still ten people in the house and money was tight, she had to go.

But while I can understand meat substitutes, I can't understand the need to make products that resemble meat in looks as well as taste. Vegetarian burgers, for example. Why make burgers? Why not just eat the vegetables? Is it about keeping up with everyone else? If so, what happened to all the revolutionary principles that go with not eating meat? "I don't eat meat, but, well, I want to look like I do..."

Then there are the half-committed vegetarians, like those who eat poultry only. They call themselves "vegetarians, except for chicken". That makes me a teetotaller, except for Guinness and the odd bottled lager on warmer days. Nonsense.

Howard Jones, my childhood hero, was such an extremist in vegetarian issues that he tried to get the family dog and cat to eat meat-free pet food. Only the dog conformed. As everyone knows, dogs eat what you give them and cats eat what they like.

My "lapsed" ex-vegetarian friend, whom I won't name in case he has militant pals who will call him a traitor and smear his windscreen with deer's blood after reading this, says he had "few, if any, principles behind it" and so regarded it as "pointless" and re-invested in steak knives, a George Foreman grill and a tenderiser. Maybe he sees it as a growing up exercise, which is harsh on him as he is already at the highest of maturity levels (except when ratted).

But either way, despite all the vegetarians I've known (and I'm related to one, shared houses with at least two others, used to go out with one, and can think of half a dozen more whom I've known or worked with), he is the first I've ever heard of who has happily ditched the lifestyle and reverted back to how God (through his messenger Fred) apparently intended. I suspect there aren't many like him.

3 November 2009

"The next voice you hear will be your mum's..."

I was watching the football tonight and, upon the shrill of the half time whistle, did a spot of channel-hopping. I happened upon Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? on ITV1, a programme that was once discussed round every watercooler in the country.

Like, I suspect, many more people, I haven't watched Millionaire? for years. Yet within seconds of finding it here I stayed tuned in as Chris Tarrant mentioned that the middle-aged lady in the hotseat was from Brough. If you've ever driven or travelled by train to Hull from the west or south then you'll always go through Brough. Nice place.

So, with a slightly tenuous local interest, I eschewed the restart in the Champions League and stuck with the last 25 minutes or so of Millionaire? as this lady blundered and quipped and twittered (in the traditional sense; modern day twittering would be regarded as cheating, I fear) her way through questions she didn't know the answer to but, by hook or by crook, managed to get right nonetheless, eventually reaching £75,000 before a question about the first ever House of Lords speaker finally dried up her luck and she ran back towards the A63 with the cheque.

Do you remember just how massive Millionaire? was when it first arrived on our screens? It was ten years and more ago. It is the simplest of formats - Chris Evans describes it in his (very good) book as the best format for a TV show he has ever seen - and it just seems so odd that the finest creators of TV concepts never came up with something similar in all the years of gameshows that preceded it.

It was high noon, with the contestant sweating and worrying while Tarrant offered a mixture of concerned assistance and clownish goofing in order to fulfil his brief of reassuring the competitor while entertaining the audience. The music was brilliantly dramatic, a mixture of stabs and underscores that could be fired off the playout systems whenever the situation demanded it. The tension sometimes was unbearable, especially if you were yelling the answer at the television while someone in the studio was deliberating, a mixture of bewilderment and self-doubt.

I remember one woman going over the answers to a question over and over again and eventually blurting out in all her desperation: "Oh Chris, I don't know what to do!" You felt for her. You also wanted to reach through the screen and offer a hug to the woman who, upon reaching the £8,000 mark, looked at the gurning multi-millionaire Tarrant and explained, coldly and matter-of-factly, that as a nurse and single mum this was already a sum that would transform her life.

There was the controversy over Judith Keppel, a woman as unlikely an applicant for an ITV quiz show as you could find (though the money on offer does dispense with principles; you couldn't imagine Judith doing Pass The Buck or Keynotes, really) as she was, as Ian Hislop put it, "a rather agreeable woman who lives in Fulham". For a good while questions were asked about whether she was planted as the first millionaire of the show because of the clash with the final episode of One Foot In The Grave on the other side. Given her wretched performances on Eggheads, she was either a set-up or just fantastically lucky. A sport question on £2,000 would have sent her home early.

The major and his wife, and the terrifically-named Tecwen Whittock, all conspiring to get an evidently unintelligent man all the way to the million. The bloke who struggled and spluttered and agonised his way through to half a million and then didn't know where Chester-le-Street was. The guy who changed his mind a thousand times about the occupation of Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire, before finally choosing the right answer.

And the tricks were soon learned. Don't use Ask The Audience after around £4,000 as you'll get a mega split, as too many simply won't know. Don't say out loud what your suspicions are before taking 50/50, as the computer will always "randomly" leave you with the two answers you were most attracted to. Don't be afraid to take your time - the also-rans on contestants' row, despite being desperate to try another Fastest Finger First, would do the same were it they in the chair.

I didn't know, such was the length of time since I last saw it, that the prize money ladder had been altered and now a thousand quid was achievable - and guaranteed - within two questions. A bit late to comment on this, I suspect, but the one thing Millionaire? lacked was the facility to make it dramatic from the beginning. The questions leading up to a grand were kindergarten standard, with only the odd dense contestant falling victim, and it became a slightly pointless watch.

For all the drama of the Brough lady, I don't know if and when I'll watch it again. I hung around because of where she was from and then quickly began rooting for her big time because she managed to put on a show for the crowd while working through the questions. And there was real drama in her decision to choose Frog as an answer as soon as a question )"What kind of creature is a treecreeper?") came up, double checked with her son on the phone, and trusted his call when he said Bird. He was right, and he won his mum £50,000 in being so. Good on them all, though it's not as if Brough isn't already full of residents with that sort of cash - half of Hull City's first team squad lives round that way.

30 October 2009

"And it's sink or swim, like it's always been..."

Not much is going on this week, as you can probably tell. Hull City are all over the papers but I'm not going to bang on about it here. I'm three quarters through the terrific autobiography of Chris Evans. And that's about all. So, as if it were the Red Adair of this small segment of the blogging world, we indulge vehemently again in a round of .... iPod roulette!

1: Hanging On The Telephone - Blondie
"Did she go to work or just go to the store?" Frantic, simple and fabulous stuff from Debs et al. It has the fewest airs and graces of any Blondie record and I love the controlled desperation within the lyrics as the intended recipient of the call stays away from the phone. There is a Def Leppard version on the ether, and the song title was borrowed for a fanzine for Huddersfield Town after one of their ex-managers told the local press he was "hanging on the telephone" when trying to secure the services of a new player.

2: Victims - Culture Club
"Show my heart some devotion..." The one song of Boy George's career which should mark him as a great composer first, prior to great singer, great showman and great figurehead. Phil Pickett's piano playing is wonderful.

3: Jessie - Joshua Kadison
"She asked me how the cat is, I say 'Moses? He's just fine'..." Oooh. Now I don't believe in guilty pleasures at all - you like what you like and folk who sneer can bugger off - but there is something nagging at me that says this simply isn't a song for a man. It is a tug-of-love bit of schmooze that women love but having played it on endless radio shows (it tests well) over the years I've listened to it properly and grown very fond of it. It is a terrific bit of storytelling, even if the story itself makes you shiver uncomfortably, and I will always enjoy it. I'll get some real stick for this...

4: Acceptable In The 80s - Calvin Harris
"It was acceptable at the time..." This is looped as backing music on thousands of television programmes these days and as a consequence has suffered from over-exposure (it dies on dancefloors, despite being eminently danceable) but I still like it. The title of it appeals, naturally, but it's just a smart, funky tune and that's perfectly fine.

5: Tap Turns On The Water - CCS
"Come and ride a river, come and find the sun..." Collective Consciousness Society, or something. The line about looking at your sister "in the raw" remains most dodgy to this day but I love the brass inserts and the multi-layered chorus as it fades out. It sounds like a record where everyone was having a really good time and, surprisingly, it fared quite well on the dancefloor when I did 70s nights, although I only played it after last orders when everyone was ratted.

So there we have it? Joshua Kadison, hmmm...

27 October 2009

And the Brand played on

I've just finished reading Jo Brand's autobiography. It's an interesting read but she has made the assumption that we know all about her comedy career upon her elevation to television gigs and so ends the story with her debut appearance on the box.

I was rather looking forward to anecdotes about The Brain Drain, being treated like utter shite by Garry Bushell, Through The Cakehole, being invited on to Question Time to the mega chagrin of the right-wing press and her raucous put-downs to unkind hecklers over the years, but nothing was forthcoming. Aside from a prologue based at a recent Loughborough University gig, her tale starts in 1957 and ends suddenly and promptly in 1988.

This disappoints me mildly, and the fact that I've always found her more interesting than I have funny also means I should have disliked the book a bit. In fact I really enjoyed it, even without any words on her fame. Some of her tales as a teenager who hated being moved schools at the age of 16 are riotous; her relationship with her parents is intriguing (and seems to reach no conclusion, or at least not one she wishes to share with us); and her nursing career also receives much attention.

I think the reason why I never took massively to Jo Brand was that she did seem extremely prejudiced against men. She spent so much of her act monstering the less fair sex while simultaneously bemoaning the fact she couldn't find a husband. To me, this seemed a rather odd contradiction though eventually I did realise this was, of course, the point.

I remember seeing that debut on Friday Night Live in 1988 and being quite frightened of her. Again, I suspect she set out to frighten the audience as much as she could in order to ward off hecklers and also make it clear she appreciated her physical and sartorial flaws. For years we saw her dressed just one way - baggy black T-shirts, baggy black leggings and red Kickers. It was as much her trademark as the weary one-liners and the emphasis on men, cakes and alcohol.

She has softened her image substantially in the last decade - marriage and motherhood presumably helped this - and it does her much credit. She wears more colourful outfits, does more mainstream programmes (she was in Dictionary Corner on Countdown before her imperial phase was over) and has acknowledged the establishment by doing talk shows and daytime telly. I must say I haven't seen her do any stand-up on television for a long time and I'd be interested to see if her material these days has matured with her.

I suppose her showbiz career could be the subject for a sequel to her current tome, though I would doubt it because a) it's called The Autobiography, not The Autobiography Part 1; b) making the public buy two books when the whole shebang could go in one would go against her socialist principles; and c) she regards her last 20 years as far less interesting as her first 30. In my case, she'd be wrong on option c) and I hope we might get a second edition.

Enjoy the debut appearance on television...

26 October 2009

Come what Mayo

We had Octoberfest here in Hull for three days last week, with BBC Radio 5 Live presenting most of their programmes from locations within the city.

An enormous inflatable igloo represented the off-air face of the network in Queen Victoria Square, in the shadow of the BBC-sponsored big screen. With my friend Andy, I attended the two Simon Mayo broadcasts that took place - Thursday was at the Ferens Art Gallery (a building I last entered in 1981) and Friday was at the Vue Cinema (a building I'd only attended in its previous life as the catering section of the Princes Quay Shopping Centre).

Hell, I even got on air. John Prescott was the first guest on the Thursday and I put a question to him about the lazy, inaccurate image Hull owns nationally as a cesspit of doom and dirt (I put it in a more flowery manner than this). I was informed afterwards that my mug was on the big screen outside as a consequence of putting this question. Sorry about that.

I blogged recently about how much I dislike John Prescott. Well, I still do but my attitude to him did soften a touch. He spoke his mind and also talked with great passion about the city's excellent history. You could tell that a) he was retiring from politics next summer; and b) he cared about the city that he has represented a chunk of since 1970.

In the audience, we settled into our seats and then one of the many production assistants asked in advance if anyone would like to put a question to the Hull East MP. I offered my question among about ten others and then had a large yellow BBC News boom mic put in front of me when Simon chose my question, putting me on 5 Live for only the second time (the first was an episode of 6-0-6 after Hull City had won 3-0 at Stoke in 2006, though Alan Green evidently wasn't interested and quickly got rid of me).

After 2pm, the fantastic John Godber took a seat and brought the house down with a smart, witty, intelligent interview where he never once took himself too seriously despite being the most culturally important Hull person of modern times. His alleged love of German expressionism took the programme off on a tangent which Simon dealt with in good humour, not least because the emails flooded in from academics on the subject.

The last hour dragged a bit as it was the book review slot and there wasn't a lot a watching audience could take from the experience that a listening audience in homes and cars around the country couldn't, though when the face of Kate Moss (not that one) dropped upon one local reviewer declaring she didn't like her book (albeit merely "not as much as the other one we've just reviewed") was a moment of theatre. She'd travelled all the way from the south of France for this. I took an irrational dislike to her the moment she spoke, as he first words were that she'd never needed to come to Hull before...

The next day's programme was the big event for me, and indeed we had a full house in Screen Ten at the Vue, as Mark Kermode and his movie reviews were due. This hour of radio has been the best bit of speech broadcasting anywhere on the dial for many years now, and we weren't to be disappointed. The watching experience was made worth it initially for the sports panel but then especially for Nitan Sawhney's exquisite guitar playing and the impromptu singalong of Another Brick In The Wall as a quick request slot was introduced to get to the news. Simon's head was seen disappearing into his hands as the singing from Screen Ten, conducted by the quiffed one, rang out to the nation.

It was notable in the hallowed final hour that every person who put a point or question to Simon and Mark about a film under discussion was not local. A couple had come from the London Film Festival, and from memory there were people from Bristol, Nuneaton and Pontefract also offering their opinions. The discovery that one audience member used to be a drinks lackey on Simon's Radio 1 breakfast show led to an industrial-sized order for cappuccinos, lattes and espressos, while the buckets of popcorn on the broadcast tables were handed out to the audience.

It was a great viewing experience which, according to people I saw afterwards, also came across via the medium wave as a great listening experience too. It's on the iPlayer for a few more days and the podcasts of Godber and Sawhney are there too, plus the film reviews - go find them.

23 October 2009

Nick, Dick, take yer pick

And I too watched Question Time last night. I watch it most weeks so wasn't settling down before something new and inviting, like many people were, but nonetheless it was evidently not a 'normal' episode of the programme. Go see Broken TV for an especially marvellous analysis of what was said and done.

What did really enhance the public slaying of Nick Griffin and his poison was the running commentary and instant reactions on Twitter. This is a fine way of showing why Twitter works, why it's entertaining, why it's addictive. Everyone using the #bbcqt hashtag had something funny or enthralling to add as the programme rumbled on.

A few of my favourite quotes:-

"Blimey, at this rate the bonk-eyed racist won't even have an arse to be handed before he leaves..." @AndyMedcalf

"Surprising amount of people 'sieg-heiling' between questions." @serafinowicz

"This is the worst Mock The Week I've ever seen..." @HaggiWaggi

"Soon Griffin will be claiming he was misquoted by himself..." @charltonbrooker

"Dimbers was about to describe Gately as a member of a "popular beat combo" on the "Hit Parade"..." @smithsky1979

"Inside Bonnie's head 'Don't agree with me you bastard'." @feelinglistless

"I would find Jack Straw kissing Nick Griffin repulsive..." @serafinowicz

"It's a shame the BNP knows what it's getting for Christmas..." @serafinowicz

"Typical leftist BBC destroying the BNP by letting its leader talk in public. It's a plot." @minifig

"I am not sure I enjoyed this week's edition of Britain's Got Racists..." @edgarwright

"The campaign to get Nick Griffin on Who Do You Think You Are starts now..." @athinkingman

And my absolute favourite...

"'Churchill, are you upset that the BNP have used you as a figurehead?' "Ohhhh yes!" @SallyClarke

21 October 2009

It's an honour

Jack Dee has offered a humble response to the news that Winchester University is to award him an honorary degree. He grew up in Winchester, bummed through school and became a waiter with a drink problem before discovering he could make people laugh. His local university has acknowledged his contribution to the town with a free degree.

I suppose an honorary degree is one of those surefire signs that you've made it in terms of fame, public success or notoriety, like an entry in Who's Who? or a Rear of the Year nomination, or an appearance on A Question Of Sport (all sports stars claim this proves they've done well) or, more generally, Have I Got News For You.

Having not gone to university and almost certainly never likely to, I suppose an honorary doctorate is my only chance of getting letters after my name and a square hat on my head.

So no hope or Bob Hope, then.

Honorary degrees cause controversy, of course. I still can't believe that Robert Mugabe was offered one by the University of Edinburgh, albeit back in 1984 when the idea of Rhodesia being rebranded and de-westernised still sat well with society. Famously, Margaret Thatcher was denied one by Oxford because of spending cuts on higher education, and Jim Hacker was offered one by Baillie College, Oxford in return, unofficially, for reassurances about funding. That last one might not have happened...

Billy Connolly received notice of his honorary doctorate from Glasgow almost to the day that his wife Pamela Stephenson completed years of hard study to get her psychology degree, therefore causing something of a domestic. Again, this may have been embellished to look coincidental in her book about him. Meanwhile, Jeremy Clarkson was attacked by environmental protestors as he posed for the cameras with his award from Brunel University. He reacted sportingly, and said something about "too much sugar", as I recall.

Looking through the history of honorary degrees, they were initially awarded to famous academics, in pre-mass media days when only people with real brains earned any sort of public profile. These days, they go to someone who has achieved something worthwhile or infamous, with or without academic backing, preferably with a connection to the university's city, hence why people who drive cars fast or tell jokes are deemed as worthy of a place in the university gallery as the man who invented the steam engine or the first writer of the English dictionary.

Let the paid columnists moan about this - I'm just interested in what Jack Dee's acceptance speech will be like.

19 October 2009

Let's get physical #4

And so back to the gym we go. I'm still traipsing along four times a week and still trying to overcome the potential boredom threshold that goes with it.

But I am improving, and I am taking it seriously - my recent purchase of some tracksuit bottoms and a drinks bottle proves this, surely. More pertinently, I can now do the whole 30 minute treadmill session at a sturdy nine kilometres an hour which means the calorie target is almost reached when I stagger off, panting and perspiring, before even touching any other endurance contraption or the weights.

Podcasts do help more than music when it comes to passing the time and stopping you from watching each second tick by, wishing it was far closer to the end than it is. You do get odd looks from other people though when you realise that your little, self-created world has made you laugh out loud at a pithy comment on Jennifer Aniston that Mark Kermode has just made.

Anyway, anything is preferable to 4Music, which seems to be perennially on the screens in the gym when younger members are about and appears to show the same JLS video every 15 minutes.

That said, a Freeview-accessible radio station was on the screen when I turned up a week last Sunday - and I happened to be on the air, in all my pre-recorded glory. A rock fan with long hair, a bandana and camouflage trousers had put it on while pumping the dumbells and so I quietly slipped my iPod in, not wishing to hear any adverse reaction to any of the lovingly crafted links I had put between songs. However, when camouflage man had gone, I did overhear one younger member say words to the effect of "turn that shit off" and 4Music was instantly selected, just in time for the new JLS video, again. I said nothing and kept running. Professional artists will always confront the uneducated every now and then, darling...

Another decent achievement of late is that I've also managed to tolerate, if not master or gain affection for, the cross trainer. This vile machine usually makes my calf muscles spontaneously combust after 30 seconds but recently, maybe because my body is now used to a bit of exertion, the pain in my lower legs has subsided enough for me to grimace through it. It also feels like the sort of lactic acid build-up that suggests I'm doing something right on the wretched thing, though I wish the manager hadn't put a mirror up directly opposite because it is one of the campest activities a man can do.

I still aren't using the stepper. And it would appear nobody does. It's in an adjoining room with two exercise bikes and only the bikes need to be wiped down by the staff each day, it seems.

Anyway, the calories are shifting, the shoulders look a bit better and, most importantly, half a stone has gone. I'm getting there.

16 October 2009

"You say you'll change the constitution, well you know..."

After a court ruling, the BNP has been told to make a constitutional change to allow black and Asian people to join up. Then someone I know came up with this brilliant, if entirely unworkable, idea...

Every black and Asian adult in the UK should join, then democratically overthrow the leadership before quietly (or, even better, very noisily) disbanding the party.

It would never happen for several reasons but it's a great thought in theory.

Meanwhile, I'm all for that bombastic arse Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time next week, just to see the git taken to the intellectual cleaners.

15 October 2009

Tying the knot

If there's one blog post you read this week, it's Alex's account of the wedding of our pal John Foster that he attended at the weekend. Determined to go "off-list" with his gift, he consulted his million Radio 2 listeners and ... well, the results are detailed here.

I've been to a few weddings - three this year alone - but had only ever attended one up to the age of 21. I count my blessings for this, as some weddings can be stupefying, although the trio of 2009 nuptials that have had my name on the guest list all were anything but.

The solitary wedding I attended in childhood was that of my mother's rather eccentric cousin when I was eleven years old.

It was at Hull's eastern branch of the Mormon church (leave your jokes about 47 Brides for Seven Brothers at reception, thanks...), a fact that passed over me at the time. Peggy, for that was (and is) her name, was getting married quite late in life and then promptly moving to Basingstoke. I personally have never seen her since, as she never attended subsequent funerals of my maternal grandparents (her aunt and uncle) or many other relatives on that side, which disappointed my mum considerably. My parents have seen her though, again in funereal circumstances for Peggy's own parents, whom I barely knew. I am told that she sang at one of those funerals, which suggests exactly the sort of personality we're talking about here.

My memories of 1984 that matter - school, football, pop music, good stuff on telly, Nicola Turnbull - are excellent, but of this wedding I mercifully can't think of much. My aunt has a little photographic record of it though, as her two lads, my cousins James and Philip, were the youngest boys in the family and so Peggy asked (or, more accurately, demanded) that they become her page boys. The lads were eight and five respectively and therefore not blessed with the wisdom to object on coolness grounds, but their mum had cause to object when told exactly how they should be dressed for the role, and that the expense would not come from the wedding kitty but her own pocket.

The lads were in traditional page boy garb, all white skin tight garments with tights and pumps and a light blue cummerbund. Even though they were very young, I'm half-surprised that they didn't look at themselves in the mirror upon the first fitting assignment and tell their mother in unbroken voices exactly what Auntie Peggy could do with her page boy clobber. They looked cute and traditional, yes. But kitsch simply doesn't cover it, even for the 1980s and even though their extreme youth meant they wouldn't be held responsible. The images of the day were doubtlessly going to haunt them as they got older though, and the photos are now among the more famous of the family album.

As the next eldest child, I was the odd one out on the day with no specific role to play except to not be a nuisance. I hope I succeeded. My brother, the eldest of the lads, was 14 and was assigned ushering duties, resplendent as this teenaged heavy metal fan was in a striped shirt and white tie. It was the first of many millions of occasions my beloved father was able to use the "his job is to tell people to 'ush 'ush if they're talking too loudly" gag, and I never get tired of it. No, really.

Peggy and her bridegroom Barry, a nice enough chap who didn't seem to say much, were married with surprisingly little fuss, though maybe I've managed to erase the bad stuff. All I clearly remember of a ceremony otherwise mercifully unetched on my brain was that the kiss was a minor peck, not the all out tongue-sandwich which television weddings always seemed to produce. Of the subsequent meet-and-greet gubbins and reception I have no recollection at all.

And, as I said, I have never seen Peggy since. She and her new husband skedaddled to Basingstoke and very quickly had two children, presumably because the biological clock had ticked into time added on for stoppages. The only time she has returned to her home city since, to my knowledge, were for the funerals of her parents and yet news of a handful of other close family demises were dutifully sent her way, with rarely an acknowledgement and never attendance at the funeral. My mum and others have always been a touch peeved about this.

Yet every festive season we continue to get what my late grandma used to cuttingly (and very wittily) call "The Epistle according to Saint Peggy". A Christmas card would suffice, and even then we'd not be surprised if one failed to materialise, but instead every year a short (but not short enough) biographical account of the year gone by is posted out to members of the family, which essentially permits Peggy to talk about herself and all her smashing achievements of the past 12 months with total lack of awareness or interest in anything or anyone else. Christmas actually isn't the same without it, in a way; nor is the temptation to not actually read it but quietly file it away...

The wedding of Peggy and Barry was possibly not the worst I've attended (though I'm not going to spend forever deciphering which one is) but it's one of those where you have to go, irrespective of your opinion of the person who invited you. I suppose that's what family is all about. But when thinking about the first wedding I ever attended, I do still cringe for my cousins, now smashing young men of substance and decency, who have those photos on their record for life, and count my blessings that I was able to wear a white shirt and maroon tie and just smile a bit.

I know I'm likely to be attending an all-out Gothic wedding in about two years' time. Now that's one I wouldn't miss for the world...