16 May 2009

We are the Champions(hip)

It's been a long time since Hull City were last relegated, and even if we do go down today, it won't feel as bad as the last two.

In 1996 we sunk to the bottom division after losing at home to the horrible, play-off chasing Bradford City, whose fans were given our South Stand at Boothferry Park. This inflamed an already volatile situation. You can guess what the two sets of fans then proceeded to do.

In 1991 we knew we were down by the time the inhuman Stan Ternent was fired in the New Year and the pain of our sinking was at least treatable on a weekly basis but it was still a long, slow, agonising death. In our five years in the second tier that preceded we had entertained pretensions of promotion to the top flight, which everyone knew we'd never done before.

What's hard to bear about this season is just how much we have thrown away since being seventh in the table at the turn of the year. We've only won one Premier League match in 2009 and gradually, but noticeably, we've slunk down the table, although only in the last six weeks or so did it become obvious to everyone - except Hull City fans, who always knew - that we were a relegation candidate.

Today, at Bolton, we need to better Newcastle United's result. Even if we don't, there is an opportunity to overhaul Sunderland on the last day if they lose on Monday night. However, our final game is against Manchester United and, even if they have the title sewn up and play all the kids when they come to us, it will still be the tallest of tall orders.

As the great Adrian Chiles, a man used to the horror of relegation, paraphrased from someone wise and philosophical: "It's not the despair, I can stand the despair. It's the hope I can't stand." No quotation could better sum up my feelings right now than this one.

It's been a long time since I've written about Hull City, as Boyhood Dreams kind of covers all of the Tiger Nation's feelings in blogland. But today my heart ruled my head. Even if you're laughing at us in private, wish us luck in public.

Best get to Bolton then...

15 May 2009

"Do like the others do, and don't you drag your heels..."

Let us not forget that Kajagoogoo were once a highly-prized art band, instrumentalists whose early work was acclaimed and even got them a Peel session.

Oh okay, let's.

While the ribbing by hacks of the announcement of the band's reformation is largely sneery (and evidently done by youngsters whose disparaging view of anything at all from the 1980s is set to automatic), it is one of the less impressive reunions.

Kajagoogoo had three hits, but even though Too Shy was a number one single, it remains a very boring one, with a catchy chorus and a very smart, best-of-a-bad-job production by Nick Rhodes shrouding a ditchwater pair of verses, an intro that goes on forever without actually reaching anywhere and no discernible middle eight or key change.

Having got to the top, they had a row with Limahl and sacked him as their singer ("I've been betrayed!") and installed Nick Beggs, the bassist with the car seat cover sewn into his head, as replacement. As it turned out, 1983 was their breakthrough year and their only year of stardom. It says a lot about their impact that despite three Top 10 hits that year, they're regarded by default as one hit wonders.

They dropped the 'googoo' from their name in 1984 and got nowhere, splitting thereafter. Limahl's solo career fared little better, with only Never Ending Story achieving anything resembling success. By the mid-1980s the News Of The World was running a story that he was claiming the dole.

The only reason Kajagoogoo invoke any memories at all is because they sacked their singer, the bloke they hired to turn them from skint art band into pop superstars, after their No.1 hit - a No.1 hit where few people still know the verses. For all the politics going on, it was still a staggeringly daft decision.

I'm as impressed by this reunion as I was by that of Spandau Ballet, although at least they had something resembling a shelf life.

13 May 2009


While the expenses scandal is utterly contemptible, it's also very funny. I suspect that Douglas Hogg's moat will probably be the main abiding image of it when it dies down and becomes part of political history.

One exceptional, priceless, jaw-dropping moment came this morning, when Austin Mitchell's wife - whose name escapes me, as she doesn't even use 'Mitchell' in it - tried to implore to Victoria Derbyshire and her 5 Live listeners that, in theory, claiming taxpayers' money for underwear supplies in their second home was not only "within the rules" (the reason, if not an excuse, for all this unseemly behaviour) but also perfectly reasonable.

A specific quote, which was played back delightedly a few times all over the BBC afterwards, went: "You've got to have your Grimsby knickers, and your London knickers, and never the twain shall meet."

She's not claiming the cost of her pants from the taxpayer, it was just a metaphor for when Menzies Campbell's state-funded bog brushes came under discussion, but nonetheless, just how deluded is this woman? Has she ever visited the planet earth? Is she a rarity, or are they all like this?

In case Austin's missus hasn't already been made aware, you can purchase something called a suitcase, and when you leave London on Fridays to jaunt up to the constituency pad in Lincolnshire, you put a few pairs of undercrackers in there, along with other garments and toiletries. Or maybe she thinks that the type of pants she chooses to protect her modesty when fulfilling consort duties in Grimsby are not suitable when going to balls and functions in the capital.

As a final and not wholly attractive thought, if this lady has her London knickers and her Grimsby knickers, and never the twain shall meet, then what does she wear on journeys between the two? Is she admitting in a roundabout way to going commando? No wonder Austin wears that daffy grin of his so often.

You see, you thought this was going to be a political post of gravitas but no, it's about women's knickers. It's the level where I'm at my happiest.

12 May 2009

"We didn't light it but we're trying to fight it..."

We Didn't Start The Fire by Billy Joel. The Bronx midget's musical timeline was his comeback single of 1989 after a three-year hiatus and was, for me at least, one of the most bizarre songs I'd ever heard.

Joel claimed he was a history fanatic and just chose to recount events from his lifetime, some major, some less so, and put them into a patter song in the manner of Subterranean Homesick Blues. What we got was 40 years' worth of chanted occurrences, interspersed with that odd semi-falsetto chorus claiming that his generation may have been present at all these political and social phenomena, but weren't necessarily to blame for them.

I do think the song is interesting, if not necessarily endearing. Certainly it's educational, but to blithely list events from your lifetime rather than your own life seems, at face value, a slightly idle thing to do. That said, Joel must have had to do a lot of cross-referencing in his local library (assuming he didn't have his own library within the Joel estate) in this pre-internet era. It'd be a synch to pen a song like this now - just call up the BBC On This Day site and find the year you were born. Mine would probably start with the UK joining the Common Market.

The cleverest - and also the hardest - thing within the construction of this song would have been getting the rhymes. It's all very well picking out the events and personalities you wish to reference, but finding ones which fit a rhyme structure as well as the required chronology would have been a bind. Still, he makes a very good fist of it, though I do wonder whether he chose all his references and then tried to force rhymes, or deliberately ditched major events in favour of more mundane occurrences simply because they fitted the verse better.

The references selected for the song are mainly American. Given the traditional view from a sizeable chunk of the global society that America is barely aware of a world of trouble's existence beyond its own borders, it's perhaps not unexpected that Joel should do this. However, the more generous would suggest that Joel is an American, born and raised in America, and therefore should exercise all the right there is to use events and personalities of his own nation. Most of the presidents of the 40 year period are mentioned, as are a couple of American popular culture references and a few sports stars.

Our fair islands are referenced five times through the monarch, two films, a politician and a band. Not a bad haul, and at least only the Profumo affair is a faintly negative story, and it seems quite impressive to me that it reached the USA's news radar in 1963. The royalist quarters of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may also baulk at the line "England's got a new queen" but then again that's down to American ignorance of the world.

So why is it hard to like? Probably because there isn't enough meat on the bones; some of these events were horrific, others groundbreaking, and few could be regarded as trivial, although enough lighter-hearted references are made to stop the song from being inordinately negative. Yet there is little room for comment beyond the content, and even the chorus exists just to deflect blame and culpability from a certain generation rather than attempt to suggest a righting of wrongs.

The video depicts a Joel-generation family attempting to live the fabled American dream, but it's almost as interesting watching the singer's chorus bits and wondering why he, or anyone else, believed that rhythmically clouting a picnic table over the chorus would look good.

At roughly the same time, Transvision Vamp released Born To Be Sold, quite easily the worst single to come off the listenable Velveteen album, and three of the first four icons breathed into our ears by Wendy James were also used by Joel on We Didn't Start The Fire. Joel really should have thought of using Morrissey, as mourning Smiths lunatics would have bought the record on that alone - not that there could ever be another reason for a Smiths fan ever to purchase something by Billy Joel. In case you disagree with this, I'd like to point out that I and loads of other mere observers, rather than devotees, of the Smiths, bought Panic in 1986 purely because it mentioned the place where we lived.

One or two of Joel's references evaded my knowledge entirely - Bernhard Goetz was, apparently, a bloke who shot and wounded three muggers who'd threatened him on New York's public transport and was equally held up as a hero and villain by American society, prompting debates on handgun ownership, self-defence and racism. Wow. I don't know if any of his victims objected to the reference being used in song, but I suspect there'd be an outcry from both sides of the story in this country if someone decided to write about, or even idly mention in passing *thinks of anyone resembling an equivalent British felon* Tony Martin.

Sally Ride is a good one, though. For years I assumed this was about Mustang Sally, not a female astronaut.

The song was a hit, getting to an inevitable No.1 in the States and reaching No.7 here. The follow-ups, Leningrad and I Go To Extremes (which I did like), flopped completely but the album, Storm Front, was well received. We Didn't Start The Fire is often named in lazy World's Worst Records To Ram Up Your Arse-type polls by people who only use a sixth of their brain. I think intrigue keeps it from being resoundingly awful, but probably no more than that.

11 May 2009

What a tangled web we weave

Most days we will read a court story in our morning papers. The criteria for getting a case from a mere magistrates court into the national press is three-fold, and only one needs to be applied to give it a chance of avoiding the Fleet Street spike. To wit, the story must involve a famous person; or it must be as a consequence of an infamous or wildly serious and well-publicised incident; or it must be a little quirky.

If it has all three (which is extremely unlikely, given that serious and quirky don't really mix) then all the better.

I spent almost five years reporting the magistrates court proceedings in Huddersfield when my career path had forced me to wear a tie and look shabby and underfed on a daily basis. And apart from the odd local sporting person getting done for shouting at a policeman or being a few microgrammes over the limit, nobody famous got done on our patch at all.

The serious stuff was quite rare too, certainly in my time wandering up and down the concourses from courtroom to courtroom. We had one especially notorious murder case - it was very familial in terms of the victim and the perpetrators - but magistrates are merely part of the process in the most serious cases and there was next to nothing the law would allow me to report.

The quirky stuff was the most likely to generate some lineage and a few pennies from the nationals. Way back in this blog, I talked about my favourite ever criminal court case, and it's available here for your eternal perusal, or at least until the day comes when infirmity, boredom, blindness or a call from a celebrity's lawyer forces this blog to close. Look at the last paragraph and you'll see I also mentioned, teasingly, a second great court story that was discussed on Have I Got News For You and was, rarely for me as I genuinely was a poor journalist, a proper scoop as it didn't involve an actual court case.

Let me set the scene. I'm sitting at a table on the concourse one early afternoon, waiting for a case to restart after a lunchtime recess, drinking coffee and chatting to one of Huddersfield's many solicitors, most of whom I got on very well with. As we talked, probably about football as opposed to anything deeper, someone in an official capacity (no names - even rubbish hacks such as I know about protecting sources) asked if I had a moment for a quiet chat.

We slipped into the empty duty solicitor room and this professional court user informed me that a bit of a panic was afoot in the lower ground area of the building, where the courtrooms that usually housed family and youth proceedings were based.

The upshot of it all was that a lad aged under 17 had arrived for a youth court appearance that morning, carrying a cardboard box. Upon his case being called, he left the box in the waiting area and trotted into court. Then, as he exited - thereby not being imprisoned for whatever his offence was - he collected his box and vacated the premises. Straightforward.

However, a panicky telephone call was then made by his mother to the court office over the lunch hour. The contents of his cardboard box had gone missing.

Stolen? Possibly. Let's be frank, you're more than likely to bump into an opportunistic thief in a magistrates court than you are in most places. However, it seemed unlikely as it turned out that the cargo within this box was also capable of disappearing by itself.

It was a tarantula.

A Persian blue-backed tarantula, to be precise.

So there I am, in this tiny, almost soundproofed office, being informed that a large arachnid was on the loose in the very building where the laws of the land were being upheld.

I telephoned the office and got the go-ahead from the news agency proprietor to make this story my priority. He started to research the type of tarantula in question while over the next two hours, I wandered around the building, collecting information about the defendant and quotations from the professional users of the court. Even while going from courtroom to courtroom, office to corridor, outdoor smoking area to phone booth, I couldn't help looking around for the spider myself.

The staff thought it hilarious, with the exception of the man who ran the court at the time. He was a talkative enough chap, but he was rigidly protective of his court's reputation, known as an obstructive individual among briefs and hacks alike and lacked a sense of humour. His priority, upon hearing of the unwelcome intruder somewhere in his building's bowels, was to extinguish it. Not find it, necessarily - even though it was a youngster's pet - but to exterminate it. From his taxpayer-funded budget, he ordered industrial fumigators to come in after hours and give the court's fabrics and foundations a thorough sterilisation. Finding a spider's corpse was less of an issue. This pompous, soulless reaction just added extra meat to the tale.

One lawyer, who was an out-of-town trial advocate and therefore didn't mind being named as he was unlikely to be back, gave me my best quote of the final piece: "We're all going to do our cases with bike clips on." Meanwhile, the ushers surreptitiously set up a crack spider-catching kit in one of the courts, where a trial was ongoing. It consisted of a box and a pasta jar, and came with swiftly-penned instructions on scrap paper, which read: 1 - FIND SPIDER. 2 - PUT SPIDER INTO JAR. 3 - PUT JAR INTO BOX. This apparatus was placed on a spare public gallery table, in full view of the courtroom, while the trial continued. Nobody said anything.

The only thing we didn't have was an actual sighting of the spider, which was somewhat crucial when analysing the story at face value. After all, the box hadn't been opened by the youth that morning, and the only evidence that it existed was provided verbally via his mother's frantic telephone call. I casually mentioned this mild drawback to a couple of court users and staff members prior to returning to the office.

Half an hour later, as the agency proprietor and I were sifting through the gathered information and quotes, working out what we still needed, the phone rang. It was one of the distinguished people who I saw at the court each day, claiming that one of the defendants in the trial court had seen the spider scuttle along the carpet as he gave evidence. When his case was adjourned for the day, he mentioned it to the court user who was now passing this bit of dynamite on to me.

It still wasn't ideal, but it was enough. What really helped was that the Persian blue-backed tarantula was a genuine breed of arachnid, as my boss had discovered when he rang a zoo curator for information, and it was more than possible that such a creature would be able to survive - pre-fumigation - in the various pipes and catacombs of a large building, living on insects and water pools from the air conditioning system. It all added up to a story with legs. Eight of them, you might say.

It was nearly teatime, so we'd done well on the timing front - I had the evening and the next morning to get it written up, ready to send for the unofficial deadline of midday for copy to be considered by the national papers.

So, at roughly noon the next day, a dozen or so paragraphs duly went off with the press of a button down the line and into the computer systems of every news editor on Fleet Street. It also went to the local and regional papers, but we held back on sending it to the broadcasting organisations for fear that staff hacks at the printed media may hear it and do their own version, thereby rendering ours unnecessary or, worse still, there to have bits picked off for free, with us unable to prove they had directly used our information.

We had no need to worry, as we stormed the papers the next day. Sometimes, when doing a story for the nationals, we'd write two versions - one suited to the tabloids, the other to the broadsheets. There were a good handful of page leads and every national newspaper (except the Guardian, who absolutely never printed our stuff) used it in some way. Furthermore, the Yorkshire Post put it on the front page as the light-hearted piece immediately above the serious main yarn of the day.

It was this version of the story, in the Yorkshire Post, which prompted the court boss to ring up our agency that afternoon and complain to me. Using lawyerly argument, he began reading the story out loud and adding the word "untrue" after each sentence, taking light-hearted stuff like "a giant spider is giving magistrates the creeps" literally, rather than in the spirit that such gentle metaphors are designed to exude. I knew I was in the right, but I didn't have the clout for such a debate, so I passed the phone to my boss who talked him down. The local broadcasting establishments picked up on the tale and I was interviewed by the great Ian Timms on BBC Radio Leeds, and even the national outlets were interested, with Radio 5 Live putting me on standby while they tried to get the court boss to talk. He did, but proceeded to talk about a lack of evidence that a spider ever existed.

I can date this story to the early summer of 1996, as on Have I Got News For You at the end of the week, the headline COURT SPIDER IS SENTENCED TO _______ was used on the Missing Words round. Ian Hislop correctly guessed 'death' and Eddie Izzard, guest captain on the other team (it was the series Paul Merton decided to sit out) "complained" that such action was illegal. That was it, as they moved on to the next headline. But it meant I'd had a story of my own discussed, albeit with considerable brevity, on a television programme I rather liked.

The tarantula was never found, alive or dead. To this day I cannot say for certain that it ever actually existed.