Saturday, 19 November 2011

Are You Pulling My Legacy?

The Olympic Stadium just hours before
the 2012 games begin. Lord Coe
is confident of its punctual completion,
and of Elvis
arriving in time to perform
at the opening ceremony.

For those of you that care, London has been awarded the 2017 World Athletics Championships. I say it like that because I expect that not many people do. Not that much anyway. Certainly it pales into sporting insignificance when compared to the glimmering spectacle of the Olympic games to be held here next year, and for many, constitutes a far duller prospect. It’s a bit like being out in a bar: you get chatting to a confident and gorgeous girl/guy, and bask in their glorious presence for a short while as they pay you the attention you’ve worked so hard to receive. Before you know it, he or she leaves and you’re left talking to their awkward, shy and ugly cousin, and despite doing their level best to impress you, you would much rather they just went away forever.

That’s what we’re dealing with here, and I’ll tell you why. It’s because most people don’t see athletics as a sport. Simple. It’s a spectacle: a once-in-four-years reason to care a jot about a bunch of men and women running around a field and throwing things. If I ever tune in to such events, it is because of the outside chance of a javelin missing its target and nestling itself in the shoulder of a middle distance runner. It hasn’t happened yet.

I’m being slightly unfair – some people love running, jumping and throwing. So much so, they do and talk about little else. You know the people I’m referring to, and they’ve almost certainly bumped into you when you’ve been strolling romantically along the South Bank, or jogged absurdly on the spot next to you in yellow leggings while you’re waiting to cross the road. Fitness is important, I grant it, but that’s what gyms are for. Runners and jumpers are thus safely contained and shielded from the army of non runners and jumpers who try really hard on a daily basis to fight the overwhelming urge to trip them up or clothesline them as they bounce annoyingly past.

But I digress. The point is, athletics for most people is a spectacle, and not a sport. We all love the 100 metre final at the Olympics. Thousands of years of Darwinian achievement sandwiched into less than ten glorious seconds worth of explosive muscular contraction. Likewise, we all know Usain Bolt, and Asafa Powell, and, erm, the other ones. Similarly, the 200 metres are popular. And the 400, a little bit. The 800 metres is bearable, but anything longer than that and we’ll generally wait half and hour to rewind the Sky box for the last lap. That’s the sort of dedication the British public has for track and field athletics.

Thus, the World Championships constitute a watered-down version of this already diluted enthusiasm, and I will bet a discus throw of small change that the newly preserved running track around the national stadium will put fewer bums on seats than during its glory days in 2012, with the footfall of Olympic champions still echoing around its capacious, spectral shell. Don ’t believe me? Just look at the Crystal Palace complex during one of the absurdly titled ‘grand prixs’ next time it’s on TV. Ghostly.

But the point of securing the games was to ensure that the stadium didn’t turn into an athletic burial ground like Barcelona’s, right? Well yes, ostensibly. Coe and co will regurgitate the same platitudinous rhetoric of the ‘legacy’ and ‘sustainability’ of track and field athletics in this high-achieving land. But in reality, it’s analogous to a hungover fry-up in a greasy spoon café. Winning the World Championships saved their bacon. Just think, if London had lost out to Doha, then the egg deposited on faces would be runny and plentiful, just like after the failed World Cup bid, except with a half-billion pound stale piece of ovular fried bread as the centre-piece of the oily, tepid platter.

By securing the championships in 2017, the legacy committee has managed to justify retaining the stadium in public ownership; an 11th hour decision that saw West Ham lose out on its (previously ratified) bid for a new home. Without 2017, the farcical organisation of the stadium’s fate would have stood out like a world-class velodrome in Stratford. Which is another issue, for another time.

Cynical perhaps, but Coe got lucky here. Surely the concept of a legacy is predicated on deciding it beforehand? Otherwise it’s just chaotic bureaucracy buried in a happy accident. The Olympic organising committee has got so much right in the build up to the games that it magnifies the confusion surrounding the stadium ten-fold. The saving grace of it all is that the centrepiece of 2012 will be ready on time, a tremendous feat considering London’s recent efforts at building completion. It’s taken, for instance, nearly ten years to install the new escalators at Bank station, and as we all remember, Wembley was late (an eventuality that won some of its builders considerable sums of money at Ladbrokes).

And so, Qatar defeated, we jog inexorably on to the games next year. Excited? I am actually, and my ticket lottery win for the synchronised swimming will be put to good use. As for 2017, I would tell you here how to get your hands on tickets, but you’re not going to bother, right?

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Failure is Golden

Frank Lampard has dismissed claims
that his relegation to the bench during
a recent Chelsea Pensioners swimming
gala could have knock-on effects for
his England career

Gold, in Athletics, is reserved for the winners. Quite rightly. While it’s true that expectation is unfairly lumped on to runners, vaulters, jumpers and other athletes prior to competition, the determination, guile, strength and tenacity required to triumph on the track or field is rewarded with a solid gold medal, along the equally important recognition of success.

Only in football is it the other way round. Completely unjustifiably, almost a decade ago the media (and therefore the public) crowned a bunch of relatively unproven young men with the title of the ‘Golden Generation’, largely due to England’s 5-1 demolition of Germany in the run up to the 2002 World Cup. This same shining crop crashed out to ten-man Brazil in the quarter-finals of that particular tournament. It was also this gleaming group that disappointed in 2006 in Germany, as well as two years later when Steve Mclaren’s umbrella led the stalwart army of prodigious brilliance all the way to the qualifying stages of Euro 2008, before mercifully sparing them the humiliation of having to actually compete in the tournament.

You know the rest. It’s hardly a revelation that Messrs Gerrard, Lamps, Cole and the rest of the golden boys failed to achieve anything remotely resembling a successful stint during their tenure at the pinnacle of football’s rocky peaks. It’s also no great shock to anyone (except the FA, strangely) that there is a glut of extremely talented young players emerging in this country that should be given their shot at being mildly competitive for England on the world stage. My only gripe is that it’s taken so damn long.

It’s worth dwelling on the ‘Golden’ label that has followed this group through their careers like a heavy application of David Beckham signature aftershave. Was it a hindrance? Did the semiotic significance of ‘Golden’ place an unattainable level of expectation on their young shoulders that proved impossible to live up to? If so, then it was hardly their fault. Anything less than a sustained period of success would have been deemed a failure. As it happens, it has been deemed a failure, and no, they are not entirely to blame for this. The criticism for their lack of success should be viewed mainly in terms of a warped sense of entitlement. In the same bizarre way that Britain still holds the belief that it should remain a world beating military force, each England set-up going into any major tournament is lauded as a genuine contender for the silverware. Is this reasonable? Given the track record of the national team, you’d have to say it isn’t. The almost biblical hype that surrounds the team’s palm-leaf donkey parade into every World Cup renders their actual performance an inevitable failure, with the hearts and minds of supporters existing in a parallel universe where it is either still 1966 or late in the reign of Queen Victoria, the only two times when England really were that dominant (with the latter being more down to imperial exclusivity than actual talent).

It is also the fault of the FA, which I am convinced is also partially responsible for world poverty, international conflict and large scale destructive weather phenomena, such is the ineptitude of its governance. Not since the Conservative party of the 1990s have we seen a group of such misguided, confused old men squabbling and head scratching over the direction of their policies and forward momentum. Just look at England’s recent World Cup bid. It begins with appointing the wrong manager, every time, purely with the belief that success can be bought. In Capello’s case, guaranteed success was secured to the tune of £6m a year. Look where that got us. I’m not opposed to the idea of a foreign manager, not at all, but one that speaks English is a good start.

With the overhyped, big-name manager securely in place, all that is left for him to do is select the same eleven players utilised by the previous, overhyped, big-name incumbent. Cue 2-3 years of confusion, platitudinous interviews and excuses by the bucket load. Next, repeat this process ad infinitum, and ladies and gentlemen, there you have the mastermind organisation that is the English Football Association. Ask any businessman stepping in to rescue an ailing company or brand. What to do when faced with forty years of similar disappointments and hallmark mistakes? Shake it up, change it around, root and branch. This is exactly what the Germans did after that night in Munch (even Heskey scored for goodness sake). Taking a step back, they oversaw a back–to-the-drawing-board approach that led to an experimental, young side that have gelled fantastically, culminating in the last laugh for the vibrant Germans, who destroyed a lack-lustre England set-up at last year’s World Cup in South Africa.

So what now for Capello? Well, with his contract secured until after Euro 2012 (and no longer), anything he likes. Oddly, with this finishing post in sight, only now has he adopted the common-sense view of trialling a comparatively fresh line up. In came Smalling, terrific for Manchester United so far this season, and perhaps vitally, Lampard was dropped to the bench. Happily, you could tell how much that pissed him off, but it is the first real moment of resolve from a manager with an otherwise predictable selection policy.

For me however, Capello didn’t go far enough. With Terry in perhaps his last full season as a first choice centre back (he certainly won’t see the next World Cup), why not now opt for the hugely impressive Phil Jones, recently bought by Alex Ferguson as a long- term first choice replacement for Rio Ferdinand. If one thing is certain in football management, it’s that you should trust the judgement of the most decorated manager in the country’s history. Plus, John Terry is a horrible man as we all know. The same goes for Frank Lampard (although not necessarily the horrible bit). Annoyingly, Capello has rowed back on his apparent statement of intent by sheepishly holding a press conference to iterate Lampard’s continued importance to the national team; presumably this kind of ego-massaging is in his contract.

Though Jack Wilshere would almost certainly have started had he been fit, Tom Cleverly and Jordan Henderson must surely remain contenders in an England midfield that is crying out for youthful exuberance and creative options for the newly thatched and resurgent Wayne Rooney. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t like to be in Steven Gerrard’s increasingly rickety boots when he makes his overdue comeback after injury. It may have only been less than a year, but it really does seem like the footballing scenery has totally changed since he began his lay-off. And that can only be a good thing.

Things are looking a little difficult as far as a second striker goes. Bent is Lineker in disguise, but only half as good, and Defoe is so frustratingly inconsistent that I applaud any manager who has worked with him for an entire season without wanting to sacrifice him on a plate to feed up Peter Crouch. Wellbeck is shaping up to be a genuine contender, but a couple of clever back heels in a team surrounded by genuine stars does not a prolific England striker make. Give him a season I say; after all, he did fail to lift a hopeless average England under 21 side this summer.

Whilst Qualification for next year’s Euro tournament has not yet been secured, it seems likely that England will be present, unlike the shambles of two years ago. A good start. But Capello’s strategy at this tournament will be vital to the development of the team in the long run. Hypothetically (and hopefully), off the back of excellent domestic seasons for their respective clubs, the likes of Cleverly, Smalling, Jones and Henderson could really step up on the international stage come the start of Euro 2012. I doubt they’ll win it, but a strong showing at a major tournament would cement them as a regular, cohesive unit, and would supply the much needed experience at the top level to propel them forward to the World Cup two years later, by which time the youngsters will be at the peak of their careers. Far fetched? Perhaps, but as far as I see it, the only way forward.

What then of the Golden Generation? Here’s a suggestion: let the emerging, bright young things embark on a European Championship crusade to eastern Europe, and in the meantime, Fat Frank, Stevey G, Becks and JT can remain at home and apply their gilded boots to the more leisurely path towards Olympic Games glory. You never know, they might even get bronze.

Sunday, 31 July 2011


After its successes in the world of home computing,
Microsoft's foray into the more unfamiliar
territory of designer drugs has received mixed
reviews from users and critics alike.

The other day, I was recalling with some relish the woeful ITV football programme ‘The Premiership’ – it was terrible, and I’m not just talking about Andy Townsend’s ‘Tactics Truck’ which, last I heard, was teetering on the edge of cliff somewhere in continental Europe, with Townsend insisting that everyone holds on, as he’s ‘got a plan’.

No, I’m talking about the strange and exciting time during which the Internet was taking over our lives. There was a palpable switch, sometime around 2003, where a website address became not just a luxurious but inefficacious addition to media coverage, but an integral part of its output and creative content.

The particular link that sprung to mind involved Des Lynam, a luddite of the highest proportions, attempting to raise viewers’ awareness to ITV’s snazzy new online footballing site. You could see techno-fear in his eyes as his producer barked into his earpiece, instructing him to mention the web stuff. Des, bless him, had no bloody idea what he was talking about and began wildly throwing around w-s, co-s and dots until he went crossed eyed and was led off for a lie down during the break.

Utterly alien to us now, the thought that television presenters, or anyone else for that matter, could be ignorant to the goings-on of the Internet and the accompanying lingo seems absurd. In a short space of time, the web has gone from inconsequential puff to vital resource. It seems quite touching, and delightfully sweet, that in halcyon days of the 80s and 90s, viewer participation in television programmes was conducted via the Royal Mail. Remember that big sack of letters and postcards that was routinely emptied onto the studio floor during Going Live each Saturday morning? I used to love that, although they never read my bloody letter out; thanks Schofield.

For me, it’s been fascinating to watch the way in which the language of the Internet has morphed itself into the very fabric of our day-to-day lives. Even as recently as 5 years ago, advertisements and promotional material quoted website address with a plethora of https and forward slashes, which always looked a little messy and seemed to alienate the technologically challenged. But, as we became more familiar with and reliant upon the Internet as our primary source of information, companies and advertisers dispensed with these superfluous prefixes and even dropped the ‘w’s.

Nowadays though, it is simply not necessary to direct anyone to a website address. We accept that by Googling what we need, we will be effortlessly transported to our desired location. Indeed, most people (myself included) feel inconvenienced by having to even type a full website address into the search bar, and judging by the search suggestions thrown up by Google, are largely unconcerned about the correct spelling either. Interestingly, my Microsoft Office 2007 does not recognise 'Google' in its infinitive or participle form. That said, I'm not sure the OED does either, but it's surely only a matter of time, such is the speed with which the term has become the only real way to succinctly describe the act of searching for something on the Internet.

With advertisers fully aware that the Internet is most people’s first port of call for information, a major shift has taken place in media marketing strategies. Where before, companies would include their website address, they now often dispense with it altogether, fully aware that people will flock, like lemmings, to their site anyway. Other brands feel it necessary to include an instruction to ‘search’ for them online, such as the ‘Search Colgate’ banner emblazoned underneath a tube of the stuff on a billboard near you. Presumably, these sorts of brands must still include the gentle reminder, just in case people forget that they have better things to do with their lives than to Google a brand of toothpaste.

The other great coup of the online branding world is the recent vogue for centralising the online content into the thrust of the ad. Strongbow for instance, have recently launched an absurd marketing drive through their website for thirsty volunteers to collaborate and build their own pub, presumably supplying them with enough Strongbow in the process to ensure the work force is as sozzled as the rest of Britain’s tradesmen, and that the workmanship is to the same, shoddy standard. This is just one of the many weird and wonderful recent ideas to have been dreamed by marketing executives with the considerable new weapon of social media at their disposal. Many brands, simply as a measure of quantifying their market, encourage customers to ‘like’ their latest venture, insisting that once a million people follow suit, they will throw a party or something. What next, two billion re-tweets and Apple Corp will eradicate world poverty? That’d be nice.

I was having a conversation with my brother recently, and I speculatively enquired with him as to whether he thought there might be any tickets remaining for the upcoming England Test Match. ‘Haven’t you googled it?’ was his bemused reply, seemingly baffled that I would have even thought to ask anyone but the multi-coloured search bar. And that’s out problem today, in my opinion. Not just that we consult our phones or laptops before we do people with real opinions and experience, but that having such a bounteous go-to resource is damaging our capability to learn, memorise and recall. Psychologists in a recent study confirmed the startlingly obvious; that heavy use of the Internet for on-demand information has rendered us reliant on it use and affects memory capability. I can’t remember the exact statistics though, but I’m sure there’s a way of finding out…

Or, perhaps it’s a good thing? The playing field has been levelled, information is now a right and not a privilege, and that anyone, anywhere can be self-taught in any intellectual practise they choose. If only that were the case. It would be nice to suggest that with access to the sheer wealth of material online, people would seek and devour knowledge like demented PhD students, but sadly (and predictably) the human race refuses to learn, and instead use it primarily for watching porn and gambling. Hey ho.

On a mildly serious note, it begs the question: with total and utter ubiquity of wireless internet signal, which will surely be realised in the next few years, the requirement to store information in our brains will be unnecessary, nay, perhaps even futile. And that’s a little worrying. If the Internet were taken down (or taken out) tomorrow, we would survive. After all, we’ve been reliant on it for a relatively short space of time, and none but the Facebook-weaned, moronically-brained youth would be irrevocably affected. But a few years down the line? Hard to say, except a catastrophic and apocalyptic scenario is looking ever more likely to be cyber-induced. And let’s not forget that if Facebook disappeared tomorrow, the population of the developed world would cease to speak to one another, and may even be forced to resort to face-to-face contact.

Possibly the most regrettable side effect of the Internet is the awful cyber-slang that inevitably follows. In the most egregious way conceivable, it seems that a number of people (women usually, without partners) insist on suffixing .com onto any number of inane verb participles. It’s horrific, and the next time I see a Facebook update containing the ‘phrase’ ‘’, or ‘I’m’ I may well drown myself in a bath of toasters. Come back Des, all is forgiven.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Excess All Areas

Like many bands with waning popularity, Queen

embark on a tour of Britain's Universities, where

along with the new line up, Brian May completes

a PhD backstage at each venue as part of his

tour rider.

‘And that’s when he got up on to the table, and in front of the whole pub, snorted a line of drawing pins whilst ingesting a bottle of Jack through his left eye.’ Everyone loves a good rock n roll anecdote, and it is this indulgence that informs the entire genre of retrospective music documentaries. A bloke, usually in a leather jacket and sporting a face resembling a tube map, sits in a pub (now a wine bar) where an infamous piece of rock folklore allegedly took place. I say allegedly, because you never can be too sure. The bloke in question has been telling that one in various pubs since 1976, and jumps at the chance to regurgitate stories of the old days to a television audience who’ll lap it up like Keith Moon on a stag do.

The thing is, everyone wants to believe the rose-bespectacled roadies, producers, biographers and journalists who routinely apotheosise their idols through the medium of the talking head. I’m not saying these things didn’t happen, but the fact is that the people doing the remembering were often as largely drug-addled as everyone else in the 70s. Except Queen. I watched a documentary recently in which Brian May and Roger Taylor laboriously took me through their entire career, from the band’s inception through to Freddie Mercury’s death. Fascinating. Except it wasn’t, not really.

The problem with May is that he’s too damn clever. There’s nothing wrong with a rock star Post-Grad per se, it’s just that he didn’t take enough drugs in his heyday to translate his story successfully to television 30 years later. Good for him, of course, but a little staid for the rest of us. He could even remember which part of the middle eight he wrote on ‘Killer Queen’ which, being a rock star, he has no right to remember. Ozzy Osbourne, for instance, can’t even remember how to sing.

Contrast this with Motorhead, and the quite excellent documentary they produced in the 90s. My favourite anecdote involved drummer Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor who, having taken an alarming quantity of acid, narrowly escaped death after attempting to escape his dressing room by climbing out of the bathroom mirror. Love that guy.

Yes, I concede that this is all very juvenile behaviour, pitiful really, but for me, the hedonistic antics of rock musicians in the 1970s helps to define the era and contribute towards its rightful status as a behemoth of musical history. The argument that Hendrix (60s, I realise), Moon, Bonham, Morrison et al would never have achieved such legendary status had they lived to be fat, old, leather jacketed men is erroneous and academic. The focus should be on the prodigious talents they did display during their blistering, if relatively short, careers. Twice as bright, half as long as they say.

Some do make it out the other side, but not always successfully. Roger Daltrey looks more like a hip old geography teacher these days, and Brian May, well, the hair was bad enough before it greyed.

With the current vogue for band reformations, a nod must go in the direction of the Rolling Stones, who despite trying their level best to kill themselves repeatedly over the years have managed an unrivalled longevity at the top of their respective games without the need for a break, apart from Ronnie Wood’s rehab and Keith Richard’s ‘Palm Tree’ episode. Scorcese’s 2008 film Shine a Light was simply superb, and the physical condition of Mick Jagger at that gig was nothing short of phenomenal. Admittedly, if we didn’t already know him to be particularly svelte, one would either think he was dangerously malnourished or a twelve year old girl, or both, but that’s by the by.

Some rock stars manage to juggle the respectability of unrespectability alongside a clean living lifestyle. Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden not only shunned the long hair, but also now pilots the band’s private jet on world tours. Impressive, considering the band’s reputation. I’d have loved to see Keith Moon try that; it may have been marginally more successful than his attempt to drive a hovercraft through the side of his local pub.

Now I wasn’t born in the 70s, and I realise I may have fallen into the trap of drinking the same anecdotal whisky I derided earlier, but I make no apologies for that, it's more fun that way. It does lead me to think though: what enduring legacies and Winter’s Tales will the current crop of popular musicians leave in their wake? Remember the time that Chris Martin of Coldplay held an all-night smoothie binge? And what about the time when Justin Bieber took four groupies backstage to play Wii? Classic.

Lemmy once expressed his annoyance at seeing bands getting on the tour bus with laptop computers – ‘There’s no place for that in rock and roll’ he said as he sipped his first whisky of the morning. But, unfortunately for Lemmy, that is rock and roll in 2011, and there just isn’t a place for the Rolls-in-the-swimming-pool approach to life on the road anymore. It’s one reason why the 70s is so fondly remembered; a time when men were girly-looking men, groupies hadn’t quite grasped their equal rights and more importantly, when record companies had more money than they knew what to do with and would surround their stars with a comfort blanket of cocaine and sex, just to keep the creative juices flowing. The Rolls Royce thing never happened by the way, which just goes to show the lengths to which people will go to keep the memory of those days alive.

So, we should be content to consign the days of rock ‘n’ roll excess to where they belong; the heyday of the superstar rock band and of globe trotting lunacy. It would be an exercise in futility for today’s wannabe stars to even attempt to live up to the reputations of Zeppelin, The Who or Black Sabbath. Pete Doherty? Oh please, Lemmy would be turning in his grave had he died when medical science dictated he should.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Exclusive: UK shock at Cameron 'In A Relationship' Facebook Status

'And that's St James's Park over there -
you could use that as the Air Force Base'.

I have a special relationship with my shoes; we’re close, intimately so, and share the good times alongside the bad. It just so happens that the pair in question is the most expensive I own, but it is also the most enduring and they fit like a glove, pardon the mixed metaphor. They protect me from the hard city streets, from the invasion of foreign objects into my fleshy feet and from a multitude of other podiatric concerns.

You might even say it’s an essential relationship. Without them, I’m in some trouble from outside factors. Yes, I have other shoes, but none provide the level of reassuring comfort, protection and longevity. But, it’s a fairly one-way relationship; I need them far more than they need me.

Though not altogether analogous, you understand what I’m getting at in relation to Obama’s state visit to UK (London) shores last week. However, the fact remains: in the same way I lovingly polish my shoes and administer restorative treatment with heart and sole, the British government invariably comes over all gooey-eyed and sycophantic at the self-interested prospect of our ‘Special relationship’ with the US.

You may remember the video to George Michael’s ‘Shoot the Dog’ from a few years ago. You may also, entirely forgivably, have forgotten the song itself. It depicted Tony Blair as George W. Bush’s obsequious lapdog, feverishly panting and drooling over him as he padded obediently by the President’s side and played fetch. Indicative, you might say, of the Blair-Bush years. But what of 2011? What of the new breed of transatlantic leaders and their back-slapping antics? Well, there was plenty of that going on as David Cameron entertained the Obamas at a sickeningly contrived barbecue on the back lawn of Number Ten. It was all smiles and handshakes at the event comprising several heavily perspiring military personnel and starry-eyed members of rent-a-crowd. Cameron even flipped a burger; a practice he is all too familiar with following his days working in McDonalds, trying to make ends meet whilst struggling through his social science degree at a mediocre suburban polytechnic. Right?

Apparently, the rest of the Bullingdon club were disappointed at having not been invited, with one over zealous chap being turned away at the door clutching a croquet set. Shame, Obama really should enjoy the authentic English experience, don’t you think? Also, from the creepily voyeuristic television footage, it was just possible to see Nick Clegg doing the ice run, shortly after peeling the spuds for the potato salad. The lapdog’s lapdog, if you will.

The US president rather interestingly termed Anglo-US relations as a ‘special and essential relationship’ during his state address. Simply by introducing a new adjective into the time-wearied term, he has re-defined and rejuvenated the concept of the partnership as one of a more pragmatic nature, rather than the reassuring, hackneyed lullaby that has eased the British government to sleep at night since World War II. One of action, as well as affection. At any rate, the ‘special’ element of the relationship lost its meaning during Brown’s tenure, when it was not so much a case of the leaders nibbling burgers together, more Brown sulking off on his own to eat all the pies.

Obama is not Ronald Reagan – he is less interested in schmoozing and more intent on taking action to force change; although admittedly at times it seems unclear as to quite what it is he wants to take action to change. Nevertheless, he is content to ride the ingratiating merry-go-round during his stay, if for no other reason than to placate the leg-hugging British neediness whilst securing a place to park his planes in the event of a full scale World War. That and ensuring his soldiers have women to fraternise with once they are parked.

Just who is the relationship ‘essential’ to anyway? In recent years it‘s been a case of ‘You scratch my back, I’ll let you’. But, after all, America is the world’s number one economy and it would be suicidal not to do everything to sustain relations. Which is why every effort has been made to make this state visit as natural as possible and to avoid the try-hard feel that once seemed inevitable following Blair and Bush’s bosom-scraping proximity. It is an attempt to brush those years under the carpet and to re-establish the links forged between the two countries over the generations in a fresh, vivacious way. Who then, took the decision that Messrs Cameron and Obama should form a transatlantic table tennis team on their visit to a South London school? I implore you to watch the footage; it smacks of the try-hard bravado they really should have avoided. The only thing worse than a Cameron-initiated high five is a second one, and by the third, the PM’s gung-ho hand-slapping had engendered just the slightest flinch of discomfort from the leader of the free world.

But he’s like that, Cameron. It was the same during the coalition’s formation, with the much-scrutinised game of back slapping one-up-man-ship with Nick Clegg as they entered Number Ten for the first time. A little like a game of table tennis, and one that Cameron was adamant he didn’t lose.

Talking of Clegg, the poor chap was snubbed by Obama following a request for a private consultation during his visit. No, he was told, you’ll just have to wave a flag and wait in line with the rest. He did, of course, but got a little confused about which side he was on, resulting in a serious flag-brandishing dilemma. When he did get to speak to Mr President sir, he came all over all gushing schoolboy, grinning obscenely at his jokes and furiously nodding his head until he was led off for a lie down.

Obama, to his (speech-writer’s) credit, did attempt to infuse some humour into proceedings and to defuse the formal and imperial overtones to his first state visit. His inaugural joke to the house at Westminster was risky, but was delivered with aplomb. It was also the funniest joke witnessed in Parliament since Charles Kennedy. He brushed aside the potential criticism at having spoken over the national anthem at the Queen’s reception dinner, insisting he believed it to be a soundtrack to his toast. Perhaps Cameron will employ ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in a similar way, possibly as a backdrop to announce government cuts to the Royal family, with Andrew being the first to mandatorily exiled to the US for his daily appearance on Oprah.

Whatever the long term outcome of Obama’s whistle-stop tour of the capital, one thing’s for sure: Cameron will feel mighty pleased with himself; ‘Special’, you might say. Nothing new there, but you get the overwhelming feeling that he now sees himself firmly established on the world stage, with an open invitation to watch the Baseball over at Obama’s place whenever he feels the need for some ‘essential’ transatlantic ego-massaging. Nick Clegg may even get the chance to briefly install himself at Number Ten while he’s away; someone’s got to feed the cat after all.

And so, all is well with the world. America and Great Britain have firmly re-established their age-old political ties and my shoes fit as well ever. The difference is this: I understand that eventually and inexorably, my once imperious footwear will perish, will fall apart and be consigned to the scrap heap. Empires fall, soles fall apart and the once confident stride reduced to a blistered hobble. I wonder if Cameron has thought of that. My shoes were made in China, incidentally.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Back of the Net?

As he contemplates his greatness,
England number 12 goalkeeper David
James displays a rare momentary lapse
in concentration moments before
Hartlepool's fourth goal.

Who’d be a goalkeeper? Judging by the look on the face of Hiralio Gomes following his moment of darkness against Real Madrid recently, he wished he’d never reached for the gloves. They didn’t used to wear gloves of course, but footballers were just coal miners in disguise back then.

Being ‘in nets’ is not a thankless task, as many an acrobatic No.1 has proved, but on the whole it’s a pretty miserable existence. Strangely though, goalkeepers (with specific notable exceptions) always strike me as the calmest, most intelligent players on the pitch and the ones you’d feel safest leaving your girlfriend with in China White on a Saturday night. They just look so, well, normal. Take Edwin Van De Saar or David Seaman for example: boring looking men who probably have a nice home life and maybe two dogs apiece. No prancing round like a fairy and swan diving over another fairy’s tight-clad leg for them. No, the goalie chooses to spend his days standing on a field watching his friends play football, with all the time in the world to philosophise about world peace or whether he booked his Audi Q7 in for a service. All the while with 5,000 yelping away fans throwing small denominations of change at his head. Or is that just at Millwall?

Surely part of the reason goalkeepers seem a pretty cerebrally collected bunch is down to their ability to put up with inevitable flack from fans, the press and even politicians. Take Seaman (please, not literally) for example; the vitriol that came his way following his world cup clanger against Brazil haunted him for the rest of his career. It was a shocker mind you - meteors take longer to reach Earth than Ronaldinho’s free kick did to sneak in. Thus, as any mistake they make is magnified and almost exclusively leads to a goal, they grow a fairly thick skin. Notable examples of suicidal goalkeepers (in the footballing sense but who knows) include Bruce Grobbelaar, Arsenal’s Flapi-Hand-ki and of course David James, whose blooper reel actually makes up whole shows on BBC3 these days. Incidentally I met Bruce Grobbelaar once at a wedding, and trust me, if I’d offered him a bribe to get me more wine, he’d have taken it.

Like the perennial horse racing question ‘are they jockeys because they’re small or are they small because they’re jockeys?’, it’s strange that nearly all goalkeepers stand well over six feet. We all know that keepers start keeping around the time they can stand (as any of them will, and do, tell you), so it constitutes a pretty fortunate growth spurt statistic. Just in case you were wondering, to keep them small, jockeys are made to sleep in tiny, dark boxes inside stables in Donegal so there’s no mystery there.

There’s no denying that when they do good, they do good, the most famous example being Gordon Banks’s heroics against Pele and co in 1970. I feel a little heathen to say it but for me, with time, ‘that save’ becomes less impressive. Not because of the save itself, but because of the extremely high standard others goalkeepers now attain in the modern game. In the same way you wouldn’t expect Jesse Owens to keep up with Usain Bolt, keepers in the modern game are superior athletes to their predecessors. Maybe not all of them, but the like of Joe Hart are Pepe Reina and are great to watch: fabulously athletic, quick on their feet and often seem to read the game with matrix-like vision. Remember that crazed Colombian with the reverse overhead kick save? Very Keanu.. On top of that, the forwards are stronger than ever too. No disrespect to Gordon, but a solid Ronaldo strike may have rendered him paraplegic.

I can’t write about goalkeepers without mentioning Peter Schmeichel. The absurdly limbed Dane more or less changed the way an entire generation of his successors played the position. The slow motion replays of his flailing arms and legs greeting an attacker at twenty miles an hour were enough to give you nightmares. God knows how his opponents felt. Barring possibly Shilton, ol’ Rudolph must be the finest keeper of the past twenty years, and played a bigger part in Man Utd’s huge 90s success than he is given credit for.

Amongst the invective levelled at them however, there is praise to be had for goalkeepers after a successful penalty shoot-out, kudos for keeping a particularly impressive clean sheet (no more Seaman jokes I promise) and back page action shots for game-saving heroics. The problem is that it goes as badly wrong as often as it goes pleasingly right, as Gomes will tell you once he’s stopped crying. That’s the dilemma for aspiring keepers – to risk a polarised life as a hero and villain or to tick along anonymously as a centre half. No doubt any goalkeeper will tell you he’s happy with his choice, but it’s a bit like having an ugly baby; it’s not how you wanted it but you wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Good for you boys, keep up the good work as you reach for your spit-encrusted Sondicos, sag into the turf all alone on a rainy Tuesday night and pick coins out of your hair. Personally, I was a left-winger; much better, everyone loves a left winger.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Writing's on the Wall

Following the large-scale success of
the recent advertising campaign for
Viagra, its manufacturers are
rumoured to be planning an
audacious attempt to turn the
moon into a giant scrotum

General assumptions in life tend to indicate an element of truth, and as far as public conveniences go, the universally held opinion that men’s toilets are dank, filthy and stench-infused places certainly hits the mark, usually as a direct result of the patron’s failure to do so. A fitting environment then, for the darkest, most primal and often disturbing instincts of the male race to pour out. I’m talking, of course, about the universal constant of lavatorial scrawling. Being (relatively) ignorant to the goings on in the world of female toilets, I shall forego speculation into those sweet smelling Arcadias. I have, however, amassed enough reluctant experience of the underworld that is the Gents to pour comment.

Mid urination, lift your eyes for a moment from the foaming, golden Styx and you will invariably see an artistic representation of a Penis. I use the term artistically quite loosely, though the phallic scribblings rendered on tiles up and down the country, and for that matter around the world, do tend to deviate from the strictly anatomic to a startling degree. Sometimes flaccid, sometimes erect; sometimes complete with hair, sometimes incongruously without. Some even opt for ejaculatory actions shots which provide a dynamism hard to capture within a still frame. It is tempting to impute these genital monstrosities simply to the limits of male thought association, yet there does seem to be an almost Darwinian beauty to the parallelism of the capability to simultaneously hold one’s own penis with one hand and create an artistic replica with the other. I suspect (though I don’t know) that women rarely reproduce vaginal scribblings in the same way on the sanctified walls of their latrine, though if they did I suspect they may be more faithfully recreated than their male counterparts, possibly with coloured felt tip shading. Purely speculation of course.

Cave paintings they may not be, but the fascination with inscribing the male member onto the toilet wall of time is as old as the hills. The Saxons after all felt it necessary to suggest for posterity that their virility knew no bounds, as any low flying aircraft over the hills of Dorchester will hardly fail to testify. The magnificent 180 ft tall Cerne Abbas hill figure is really nothing other than a cubicle scribble for people with too much time on their hands. These days, a marker pen on the wall is the only subconscious Freudian manifestation we can readily fit into out busy schedules. Even religious imagery relies heavily on the phallic. Ok, Jesus maybe not, but the Hindu gods make no secret of their virility, and the icons plastered on walls and temples throughout India are as explicit as a public lavatory in Dudley, if a little holier.

Perhaps it’s an ideological thing; the cultural saturation of discourses on masculinity has led to a situation where men do not feel comfortable with open discussion of their bodies and candour as to anatomic size ratios. This then, would suggest that the inscriptions on toilet walls are an attempt at self-justification, an effort to carry out a comparative study to establish if they are, in fact, normal. Either that or the opposite is true, and constitutes a habitual self-aggrandisement. Whatever the case, while penises constitute the most common graffiti item in the Gents, they are joined by a happy throng of offensive messages, abbreviated football team loyalties, the odd swastika and more than a few solicitations to partake in a little fellatio.

Having had the good fortune to study at an arts university, I have been exposed to an entirely different lavatorial experience. The penises are still there, of course, but nestled alongside is some truly hilarious and pseudo-philosophical, how shall I put it, bullshit. This varies from genuine attempts at toilet philosophy to the feverish ramblings of mind-rotted students fresh from a bout of hefty revision on political theory. ‘Foucault fucks freshers’ was a particular favourite of mine before the cleaning staff had the temerity to wipe from posterity that particularly poetic piece of rhetoric.

The act of tagging, the undecipherable signatures that ‘professional’ graffiti artists insist on leaving dotted around in the same manner as a dog pissing on a tree, seems to me the height of stupidity. It’s a little like a serial killer in a Sherlock Holmes story leaving a white glove or sprig of lavender at the scene of each crime. It’s essentially a perpetual act of self incrimination, and dooms the perpetrator to an Dante-esque punishment of spending longer cleaning the stuff off the wall than it took to put up. Perhaps the Penis symbol is the work of a single, particularly prolific ‘artist’. If that were the case, you’d have to applaud the endeavour. Maybe even an MBE for services to street art?

Just when does graffiti become ‘art’ anyway? Admittedly, some of the stuff along any given stretch of rail line is actually pretty good; pointless, but good. Is it art for art’s sake, or simply the manifestation of disaffected youth, bored to the point of being willing to risk life and limb on the railway for the sake of spraying a wall? Or is it for the commuter’s enjoyment? A nice sentiment, but probably not. A few years ago there was a governmental drive to bring graffiti artists into the fold, to lend some legality to their practise by apportioning areas of urban decay for them to work their magic. This, predictably, resulted in vast areas of inner cities plastered with graffiti paint; the very same graffiti paint that contributed to the urban decay in the first place. Suffice to say, apart from nominating the theme, this achieved very little. I might be being a little harsh; after all, it’s not different to what Michelangelo did with the Sistine chapel. His sanctioned fresco is really a renaissance equivalent of a miscreant with a spray can approaching a wall behind Tesco.

Finally, I read recently about a piece of toilet graffiti that is particularly shocking. Various contributors have combined to inscribe the entire first chapter of the first Harry Potter book onto a cubicle wall, to the general praise and approbation of all. Possibly the worst public crime ever recorded, this act of defilement has not only gone unpunished but was actively encouraged. Given that there are an interminable number of tautologous volumes in that particular series, there is a risk that public conveniences up and down the land may be overrun with the infestation of Hermione and co. This would be a huge shame and as a nation, we must not let such ephemeral cultural phenomena run roughshod over countless centuries of graffiti tradition. Give me the penises any day.