Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Daggers Made Of Cardboard Wrapped In Silver Paper

I absolutely loathe dancing. I don’t think any man over a certain age should engage in any kind of dancing. It’s just embarrassing. It’s just about acceptable if you are a professional (and even then only if you promise never to be Brendan Cole) but most men just look ridiculous as they awkwardly stumble around like drug addled peacocks. Look at Ed Balls. Some clearly saw his efforts as entertainment but I just view it as unwatchable and cringeworthy. The campaign to STOP DANCING starts here, on Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard.

Perhaps this is because I have some very dark memories involving dance. The concept of wheelchair dance fills me with dread to this day. This was actually a thing….a real lesson on our curriculum for far longer than it should have been during my school days. The nadir came when we were forced to participate in something called Indian dance. A lady would come in to the school once a week and teach us some of the most mortifying moves, all carried out to a soundtrack previously rejected by Bollywood. And there were props. Daggers made of cardboard wrapped in silver paper (could even have been tin foil but the memories are sketchy on that one) and topped off with rolled up bits of coloured paper meant to represent precious stones. I’m going to have to stop describing this in any more detail now lest I wake up screaming in the middle of the night tonight. Post Indian Dance Trauma is a very real condition as far as I’m concerned.

Yet despite all of this anti-dancery I do respect the right of other disabled people and wheelchair users to disagree and so participate if they wish to do so. So reading about 54-year-old Frank Walden today rather got my back up. Mr Walden was banned from something called a Jive Addiction event in October because the organisers said that his wheelchair was damaging the dance floor. Apparently the rules of the competition (and others like it) stipulate that dancers are not allowed to use any objects that are likely to cause damage to the dance floor. Cowering behind this ruling, the company organising the event insist that the ban on Mr Walden was not discriminatory.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Walden is suing the company believing, rightly I think, that he is a victim of discrimination under the Equality Act. He has been wheelchair dancing for 15 years after he was left paralysed by an accident way back in 1984. Before that he had enjoyed disco and northern soul dancing, which only makes me want to punch him in the face even more. Have you seen those northern soul dancers from the early 80’s? There is a film about it in which Steve Coogan briefly features. Basically it is just a lot of bobbing up and down on the spot while wearing a look on your face that suggests you don’t actually know where you are. Yet despite my distaste of this practice, Mr Walden is still within his rights to sue the company to my mind.

Not content with trying to stop Mr Walden from embarking on his admittedly berserk hobby, the organisers had to throw a dollop of humiliation into the mix also. He was asked to stop dancing at the Jive Addiction event after someone approached him and informed him that his wheelchair had left a black mark on the dance floor. Quite why he didn’t at that point decide to leave a couple of black marks around the interfering gobshite’s eyes is anyone’s guess. What is more remarkable is that is the first time in Mr Walden’s 15 years of wheelchair dancing that anyone has put a stop to his antics for the heinous crime of damaging the surface of the dance floor.

This reminds me of the time I tried crown green bowling. I was watching the Commonwealth Games event a few years ago and decided, on the loopiest of whims (I have whims occasionally, as my previous entry regarding cutting my own hair proves) that I would have a go at it myself. So I went down to my local club to get the skinny on it. I say local, it was in Southport. Local is such a vague definition. Yesterday I was watching an NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and the Oakland Raiders during which the commentator pointed out that the Carolina coach was experiencing a homecoming as he grew up ‘just 100 miles south of here’. Just 100 miles? That’s from here to fucking Birmingham. It’s all relative I suppose.

So anyway after a 45-minute drive out there I was told that yes, I could have a game no problem, but not in the wheelchair that I had arrived in. They don’t let every day or even sports wheelchairs on their precious surfaces in crown green bowling, so instead you are expected to transfer to quite the most hideous contraption masquerading as a mobility aid that it has ever been your displeasure to look upon. I couldn’t even operate the thing myself. Emma had to push me around on the green which was both undignified and likely to lead her into a state of exhaustion were we to make a habit of playing. We have not been back near a bowling green since.

But at least I was allowed to play, in a fashion. Mr Walden was royally excluded from participating in the Jive Addiction event. It’s only one event but if others take their lead from the organisers of that event then Mr Walden may have to look for a new hobby which, whatever you think of dancing, and furthermore dancing in a wheelchair, is preposterous and wrong. Also, it could have a serious impact on his continued good health;

“I think if I hadn’t found jive dancing I would probably be dead.” He told the BBC.

“It’s very easy if you are paralysed to put on a lot of weight, especially in the winter when I used to suffer chronic chest and kidney infections.”

This is so true. I only have to look at a Tescos Bakewell and I put on three stone. Since my inglorious wheelchair basketball career ended I have become, shall we say, a little portlier.

“With dancing, aswell as getting the exercise, I get out and meet lots of really, really lovely people.” Continued Mr Walden, absolutely not convincing me to take it up even if it will slim me down a touch.

But clearly this is a big deal. A significant part of his life, without which he would not find the same level of fulfilment. Still, as long as your fucking floor is clean, eh? Perhaps the most salient point that Mr Walden makes is about how dancing, as irksome and awkward as some of us find it, offers a genuine level of integration between disabled and able-bodied people. The kind of integration, in fact that something like Paralympic sport does not facilitate, for obvious reasons. Haven’t we moved on from what whiffs suspiciously of an attempt to segregate Mr Walden and others like him from the able-bodied population? Are we really telling him to stick with his own kind lest our dance floors get a little bit scuffed? I should hope not.

The last word should be left to Mr Walden’s lawyer, Chris Fry, who seems to have hit the nail on the head by explaining that;

“If you have a policy which says wheelchair users are not allowed on the dance floor, then essentially you are preventing disabled people from participating in this activity.”

Seems a reasonable assertion.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Denny Pain

It’s the off-season so there isn’t much going on at Saints beyond last week’s kit launch and the belly-laugh inducing news that Matty Smith is 16-1 to be Man Of Steel in 2017. With such meagre offerings on the Saints front we really need to thank Denny Solomona for filling the rugby league void with some of the most spineless, despicable behaviour seen in sport since the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding affair.

To recap, Solomona has been the subject of much speculation regarding his future. Having notched a record 40 tries in Super League in 2016 the Castleford Tigers winger was thought to be in talks with Sale Sharks over a switch to the rugby union side. Understandably Cas were not too keen on releasing their man while he was still under contract and issued a series of hands-off warnings to Sale and any other potential suitors.

Yet Sale did not keep their hands off, instead getting even more handsy in a manner which Donald Trump would have denounced. Their pursuit of Solomona continued and with Sale and Castleford unable to come to an agreement about his transfer, the former London Broncos winger has taken the unpalatable step of ‘retiring’ from rugby league in order to try and free himself of his Castleford contract and so become available to play rugby union for Sale.

We have long since known that rugby union is out to get us. The doctors, laywers and dentists of that moribund sport will never rest until they have sounded the final death knell in rugby league. They have seen to it that union is the only code offered in many schools throughout the UK, but have nevertheless decided that rather than spend their sacks full of cash on developing their own talent they will instead splash it on the best that rugby league has to offer. Witness their shambolic handling of Sam Burgess’ switch to union. Despite Burgess’ hasty return to RL and that of others like Josh Jones they continue to return to this particular well, with Sale also having recently signed Wigan winger Josh Charnley.

On the face of it we can’t complain too much. Rugby league cherry-picked the best rugby union players for decades before the kick’n’clap merchants finally stepped into the present and became fully professional. Men like Martin Offiah, Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs graced rugby league after starting out in union and there were countless more who had a huge impact in rugby league. There was also Scott Quinnell. Financially we bullied rugby union into submission to acquire these players and so should probably just grin and bear it now that the boot is on the other foot.

Except. Except that nobody did anything as unscrupulous as to retire from rugby union to get their hands on a lucrative rugby league contract. We do not like those apples. Nor do Castleford, who have already announced that they will be taking legal action against Solomona after he failed to return for pre-season training on November 7. Yet it’s unclear how likely they are to be successful. The best that they can probably hope for is that the court will see Solomona’s under-hand and desperate bid to retire as the callous ruse that it is and force Sale to pay an appropriate transfer fee. It would be nice to think that the court would throw the book at Sale for their part in all of this and hand out the kind of fine that would launch them into financial oblivion. Charnley would be on his way back to Wigan sharpish in that case, but alas it seems unlikely. Players get their way in modern team sports and especially in rugby league. Should Cas insist on holding on to Solomona’s registration he will count on their salary cap without any prospect of him taking the field for them, both because he doesn’t want to and because if they have any sense, they wouldn’t have him back if he crawled back on his hands and knees.

Which brings us to the only rational solution to this new threat to rugby league’s prosperity from the evil empire that is the other code. When Solomona finally secures his release from the Tigers and joins Sale, which will happen whatever the cost to the union club, he should be politely informed that the door is closed on a return to rugby league at a later stage of his career. A lifetime ban. Had we given the same ultimatum to Burgess he may have thought twice about piss-balling around at flanker for a year. Though union offers greater riches for players at the peak of their powers, league continues to offer those players a lifeline when it eventually and inevitably goes boobs up for them and they sidle back towards the Super League or the NRL. How many of the Burgesses of the future would be prepared to take the risk that they will make it in union if they know that a return to league should they fail is off the table? A few less I would suggest.

Now this may seem like a draconian solution to the problem. There will be those who argue that RL should just wear the loss of Solomona and anyone else who tries to go down a similar route in the future, and concentrate instead on developing younger talent to replace them. No player has ever been bigger than the game after all, and in any case as we have seen players who take the RFU’s riches are likely to return cap in hand in the not so distant future. But sometimes a situation is so grave that it demands drastic action. The RFL needs to grow a pair and not allow the game it governs to be treated as a mere stepping stone to union, or as a retirement home for those who fail to shine on freezing afternoons at Twickers. Let them go, but let them know that if they do they had better be successful at rucking, mauling, eye-gouging and farting because if not, they will have to go and get a proper job like the rest of us.

Fuck you, Denny.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

A Weird Day And A Trumpian Bad Idea - Evidently

Yesterday was a very strange day. It started with the funeral of the granddad I never knew and ended some 18 hours later drunkenly attempting to shave my head with a bic. The impromptu hairdressing was not related to the funeral but can instead be attributed to my appearance on Facebook Live. All will become clear if you stay here for a few more minutes.

The funeral, then. Last week I explained on these pages how I had no relationship with my recently deceased granddad because he and my nan divorced when I was a toddler. Actually, was I ever a toddler? Strictly speaking toddlers toddle, which obviously I never did. From what I can gather it was my granddad's choice not to stay in our lives after his divorce. We saw plenty of my nan. She'd come round on a Friday night and talk for hours, starting every anecdote with the word 'evidently' while simultaneously shouting instructions at fictional people on the television. Hurry up, you fool..she'd shout at Gene Wilder as he chased after the train in Silver Streak. But then, who doesn't do that? No doubt you've spent some time before stumbling upon this column telling Ed Balls to just stop it now. Anyway my nan made the effort whereas my granddad seemed not to.

I wasn't expecting much of a turnout. To my mind a man who doesn't stay in contact with his own children and grandchildren can't be all that sociable and so probably has few friends. The list of people I knew in attendance extended to Emma, my mum and dad, Helen, my dad's brother David and his daughter Chloe. Regrettably there was no sign of my dad's other brother Derek who if you were here last week you will remember has followed his father's lead somewhat in losing touch with the family. He's rarely been sighted since Helen's wedding eight years ago and all David could tell us is that he's tried to reach out to him with cards and letters but without any response. Nobody seems to know if he still lives in St Helens or whether he even knows about my granddad's passing.

Despite all that there were a whole raft of people there who I didn't know. It turns out that my granddad had a new partner and had very strong relationships with her children and grandchildren. The lady delivering what you might call the eulogy complimented my granddad on this, suggesting that he was a wonderful and loving parent and grandparent to those in his new family. As you might imagine this came as some surprise to me. His real children and grandchildren barely got a mention either because the lady didn't know much about any of us or because his new wife wanted it that way. Hard to tell. The thing is that to them, with their experience of him as this fabulous family man, it can only look like it was our decision not to have him in our lives. Which it kind of is after you spend long enough believing that your granddad doesn't want to know you. I barely remember him so I never felt like I was missing out and so had no desire to track him down and chat over tea and biscuits. But I know that my apathy towards him was not the original reason for his absence. He made that choice originally and the rest of us just seemed to end up agreeing with him as a consequence.

So there weren't the usual emotions on display that you might expect to see at a funeral. Instead there was a strange atmosphere. I remember looking straight ahead at his coffin and wondering how it was possible to know so little about a man without whom I wouldn't be here. Quite apart from his other fanily I never knew he spent time in Australia after serving in the forces. I never knew he was a Saints fan. Liverpool FC were a poor second we were told although the playing of You'll Never Walk Alone at the end of the service seems to conflict with that. Either way we had a passion for Saints in common, which might have been interesting had we had a normal relationship. The other thing I seem to have in common with him is a distaste for religion. The funeral was held at Thornton Crematorium rather than at a church and talk of God was kept to a minimum. That's how mine will be when I go. No priests, just stupid anecdotes (maybe starting with the word 'evidently', maybe not) and some music of my choosing. Not You'll Never Walk Alone. Something by Joss Stone. Anyway these things are as much as I want to have in common with a man who was not, from my perspective at least, a wonderful, loving parent and grandparent. I don't want children but if we ever did have them I would hate to think that I would disassociate myself from them and from their children. It's just odd.....

Even more odd perhaps than trying to shave your own head at 3.00 in the morning after drinking enough Budweiser to make Wayne Rooney crash a wedding. This is exactly what I tried to do after a night out in town last night. Paul, Lee and I were in Ice Bar where it is customary to get up on the karaoke and sing a song. It's pretty much all there is to do in Ice Bar when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it. So I did, even though my recent bout of ecoli has greatly affected my ability to con the world into thinking I can sing. That's what it was apparently, ecoli. Not the sort you hear about on the news but a little bug in the water. I've had two courses of leeches and I feel much better but my throat is still a little gunky. So my rendition of Oasis' Stand By Me (not Ben E King's song which I know disappoints you all greatly) was not one of my best efforts. Being drunk however I failed to take this into account and so allowed it to be filmed in Facebook Live. That's basically Zuckerberg's dubious gift of a the facility to make videos on your phone via the social media monster that is Facebook.

The sound of my voice, sub-par though it was, wasn't my problem when I took a look at the video. My hair was. Or lack of it. From the point where it was filmed you can only really see the back of me. To my horror, and don't ask me how I didn't know this, I had a band of quite thick hair at the back of my head but a blinding bald spot that made me look like Willie Fucking Thorne. I knew I was bald but I had hoped that having it shaved regularly at the barbers had gone some way to reducing the contrast between the hairy part of my head and the bald part. 'Evidently' not.

Overwhelmed by this I went straight home and began shaving the whole lot with the cheap razors with which I regularly butcher my face. I had to. Fuelled by my alcoholism I just couldn't stand being out in public at that point. However having never attempted this kind of self-grooming before to do so for the first time under the influence was a quite Trumpian bad idea. It was a bloodbath, according to Emma when she saw the red stains on the pillow this morning. And not only did I hack myself to pieces but I did the kind of job you might expect under the curcumstances. It's relatively even but it'll need another touch-up before I see the light of day again. That's going to be fun. Fortunately I have no real need to leave the house until Monday morning, but I do worry about the fact that I'll have to do it this way all the time now since the trips to the barbers 'evidently' aren't enough to stop me looking like an 80's snooker player.

Maybe I'll get better at it with a bit of practice.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

White With A Red Vee

The new Saints home shirt was released today and, in a stunning move the like of which has not been seen since 1994, I have admitted to actually liking it. So much so, in fact, that I may actually fork out some of my barely hard earned to buy a replica of it. You know, to wear out and about in public. Or even at the game when the maddening Grind comes around again in February. Of course, I might not need to buy it for myself since one of you reading this might consider it the ideal Christmas gift. The timing of its release is not an accident, by the way. Despite the usual howls of derision on outrage generators Twitter and Facebook about how some clubs had released their new clobber weeks ago, Saints were always going to get theirs out there in time for the annual jamboree of forced fun.

It sounds obvious, but I like it because it is white with a red vee. It’s always white with a red vee but so often the vee is littered with overly fussy sponsorship lettering or logos or, as in the case of last year’s abominable effort, is too low on the chest to resemble a traditional Saints home shirt. When the 2016 effort was tucked into the shorts the vee was barely visible at all, which just will not do. I started watching Saints in the 80’s when mulleted, moustachioed men rocked the traditional Saints look, the vee hanging low on the chest and beautifully free of any company’s clutter. Times have changed so you are never going to go back to those days of a completely minimalist design hindered only by the club’s coat of arms and/or stick man logo, but the 2017 effort is as close to that as we can expect nowadays. I want Saints to look like Saints, although older fans than me will probably offer the argument that a real traditionalist longs for a return to a design featuring a single red band. For fans my age Hull KR have cornered that particular market now.

Though I won’t be straying into Full Kit Wanker territory and purchasing them, the switch to red shorts adds even more to the new design. Very few biffs look good in shorts anyway. You should see me on my holidays, all trackie pants and t-shirts. No shorts and absolutely under no circumstances no fucking flip-flops. Flip-flops should be illegal. They are an absolute monstrosity. Really there is no excuse for them. Where was I? Oh, yes, back to the kit and the shorts. As many have alluded to the red shorts evoke memories of the 1994 kit, made by a long forgotten company called Stag and featuring a smart red vee with black pinstripes. And red shorts. Saints were a hugely entertaining if not particularly effective side during that season, the first at Saints for Bobbie Goulding who would go on to captain the team to their first league title in my lifetime in 1996. Perhaps some of that entertainment value will rub off on the class of 2017 and we will see Matty Smith morph into a modern day version of the little general, mesmerising defences with his range of passing and his legendary bombs. I know, there is more chance of Smith jumping up and down on Dougie Laughton’s car or getting involved in a race row and being turfed out of the club. Allegedly.

If there is something to moan about (and there always is in this column) then it is the away shirt. Released last week in advance of the home shirt (oh Saints, you tease….) it was met with widespread approval on social media but personally I found it decidedly underwhelming. Blue with a white and gold diagonal sash, it looks like something worn by a mid-table Premier League football team during the mid 1990’s. I made the point that if we see video footage in 20 years time of Saints playing in this shirt it will take us a good 10 minutes to work out that we are actually watching our own team. That design really could belong to anyone in any sport and for me has absolutely nothing about it which identifies it as a Saints shirt. For some that might be a good thing as they look for something different, and there is an argument that if the club is successful wearing it then over time it will become instantly recognisable, like that dreadful blue paint-splash McEwans lager effort from the early 90s. But for now it is….well…..I believe the modern term is meh……

I’m going to leave you with a couple of pictures in case you haven’t seen them and want to decide for yourself. You’ll have the time it takes the club to contact me through their solicitors to ask me to take down these images to make up your mind. About 1,000 years then since the powers that be at Saints are about as likely to read Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard as I am to turn up for work on the first day after the Christmas break wearing the red shorts.

Tweet your thoughts to me @saintbiffy. Or don’t.

Monday, 21 November 2016

A Boozy Roo & Cuba Gooding Junior Leaves Warrington

I'm writing this now because if I don't I might spend the next four hours trolling journalists on Twitter. You know, the kind of pond life who accept jobs with hateful shitrags like The S*n and The Mail and then begin pontificating about how everyone else should behave. I know, I shouldn't follow anyone who writes for either of these turgid turd tray liners but there is something to be said for knowing your enemy.

This week Daily Mail writer and sanctimonious arsehead Matt Lawton has been getting his funk on over suggestions that Wayne Rooney had a few too many in England's hotel during the recent international break. Rooney was given the night off following England's win over Scotland on Friday and, having been told he would not be starting the meaningless cash cow meeting with Spain a few days later, decided to stay up way later than Lawton's bedtime so he could crash a wedding and, you know, mix with real people. In an age when berks like Lawton constantly lament the disconnect between millionaire footballers and the man on the street, here he is telling anyone who will listen how appalling it is to see a grown man having a drink on his night off.

To go to the trouble of writing a back page story on this is beyond hysteria. Quite frankly, nobody gives a shit and nor should they. That Lawton does speaks to his desperation to get his dirty little rag noticed, and is evidence of a long held agenda against Rooney by the British tabloid press. They refuse to forgive him for the heinous crime of being very, very, very good without ever being as good as....say....Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. The failure of both Jose Mourinho and Gareth Southgate to remove Rooney from their team selections and thus the limelight irks the scribes even more. They won't rest until he is removed from the top level football landscape once and for all, so they can set about the real business of building up and knocking down the next big thing in English football.

The truth is that no matter how much Rooney drank, or whether Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana went to a strip club, there are roughly around 2681 more pertinent reasons why the England team doesn't do as well as we would like. Unrealistic expectations placed upon them by a hypocritical media both on and off the field are a far more troublesome problem. That Rooney was gently persuaded to apologise by the FA is an embarrassment which smacks of the governing body trying to divert attention from their own failings. Until we stop overpaying and overhyping our footballers we are probably never going to see them truly fulfil their potential. As such we should not shit our pants if a group of millionaires indulge in some hedonistic behaviour three days before a pointless friendly which Lawton and company agree and never tire of telling us is pointless in any case. If I earned what Rooney does in a week I should think I'd be dead by the middle of next week and I suspect that Lawton would too. That they can motivate themselves to continue at all instead of just sitting at home rolling around in their piles of cash is still a source of wonder for me.

To rugby league now and the news today that Cuba Gooding Junior impersonator Chris Sandow has left Warrington Wolves with a year remaining on his contract. Sandow didn't even have the decency to break the news to the club himself, instead getting his agent to do it by text. That's the sporting equivalent of me getting my mum to ring the office tomorrow morning to tell my manager that I'm off sick. It's juvenile, irresponsible and almost certainly breaches his contract. Now, we like to pretend in rugby league that our players are of greater moral fibre than those football types. So this is a real kick in the dick for the game really, however amusing it is to contemplate Warrington losing their best player. They gave Sandow a chance to rebuild his career when NRL clubs were running in the other direction from his barm-pot behaviour. And this is how he repays them. With a text from his agent saying 'so long'.

And yet it's a cautionary tale. Warrington might well have known that in today's climate the top Australian stars don't come to Super League unless the clubs in their homeland are so tired of their bullshit that they won't risk offering them a deal. Such players are using Super League as a shop window to prove to NRL suitors that they can still cut the yellow stuff and that they've had time away to rethink their lives. I've changed. Take me back, please. Hull FC's Frank Pritchard and Catalans Dragons' Dave Taylor are further examples of this trend having left their respective Super League clubs after just one season. Super League is fast becoming an NRL trial in all but name.

Not that any of this will stop a large portion of Super League fans from demanding that their club break the bank to land themselves a current Australian or Kiwi international star. One of the most common complaints among fans on the forums is that the top English clubs lack the ambition to sign the calibre of player who would routinely find his way over here in days gone by. None of us will ever live another day without seeing someone on social media demand that Saints re-sign James Graham. All of which ignores the restraints of the salary cap especially in relation to the rather larger cap which governs NRL clubs' spending. Any player who is good enough (including Graham) is going to choose the NRL over Super League, not only for the money but also for the higher standard of the competition. The number of current English internationals plying their trade in Australia is proof of that. We in Super League get what's left, which is why the only players of world class ability who arrive here are those like Sandow who come with baggage and leave at the first whiff of a better offer from back home.

If we're not going to raise the cap to compete with the NRL (and we're not because to do so would likely bring about the return of a predictable, four-team league in which one-sided blow-outs are the norm) then we need to switch our focus to the development of junior talent in the UK. Results in the recent Four Nations tournament seem to heighten this need even further if England are to be genuine contenders in the World Cups in Australia in 2017, at home in 2021 and in the brave new world of the recently announced 2025 event in North America.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

London - Episode 5376 - The Prospect Of Whitby & The Four Nations

After yesterday’s strabilious entry let’s try to raise the mood a little. I’ve been to London again. Among my many failings as a human being my regular trips to the capital have become a bit of a running joke in the office. This was the fourth time this year that we have travelled down there for one reason or another, which almost makes it like a second home. I’ve been to London so often that I now understand how to use the tube.

The reason for this trip was the Four Nations game between England and Australia at what we now apparently have to refer to as the London Stadium. Basically what they mean is the Olympic Stadium at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford. Scene of Super Saturday in 2012 and now entirely soulless den of disarray rented out on the cheap by West Ham United. And us the taxpayer. On which subject, if West Ham’s results don’t improve soon I think we should all contact Her Maj and enquire about some sort of rebate. We’re not getting value for money from them.

With the game on Sunday we travelled down on the Saturday. The plan was to meet Roland and Susan and do…well…..something. Originally the idea of Tower Bridge surfaced but the weather on the day is dismal. I don’t want to do anything outdoorsy. Outdoorsy is really a word in as far as Word has not corrected or underlined it. Who’d have thought? Anyway I hate doing anything outdoorsy in the rain, unless it is watching Saints which is absolutely necessary. I don’t fancy traipsing (also a real word although I thought only my mum ever used it) around London collecting mud around my midrift. Midrift is not a word, according to Word. Funny thing the English language, especially when it is butchered by an American word processing programme.

Happily Emma agrees, and so we take the decision to just go to the pub. It takes four and a half hours to get to the hotel (Tunes again, cheap and cheerful but do bring your own kettle and milk) during which Colin Murray presents every single minute of airtime on Five Live as if he is involved in some kind of charity Radiothon. Radiothon is not a word. Colin Murray used to annoy me, but now I have significantly more time for him on account of his decision to leave right-wing bigot platform Talksport due to their association with The Sun newspaper. Despite the extensive journey time the rooms are not ready when we arrive. At the same point, I find out about the passing of my granddad (which we covered yesterday and will not dwell on here) so it seems somehow appropriate to just forget about any other plans and just hit the pub.

We take the D3 bus from just around the corner from Tunes at Canary Wharf. Access fans will be enthused to learn that the D3 has both a ramp and a driver who can be arsed to operate it. We have a particular pub in mind, the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping. This is a place notable for the noose which hangs from the roof around the back. Yet the first thing I notice when we go in through the front is a bloody Christmas tree. It’s November 12. I’m sorry but I really can’t get on with this sort of thing. I’ll spare you the rant about how Christmas is forced fun based on kookie, made up religious clap-trap, but I am sure even you will agree with me that November 12 is too early to be putting up your Christmas tree and decorations. It isn’t just the tree. There is holly, tinsel and what can only be described as baubles all over the place. And yet it doesn’t feel like Christmas. It feels like what it is, a normal, cold and damp Saturday afternoon in Wapping, London.

The only downside to the D3 is the time it takes to get from Canary Wharf to Wapping in Saturday afternoon traffic. It is supposed to take around 13 minutes but is more like 40-45. London is rammed with people going absolutely bloody nowhere. Christmas shopping no doubt. Rammed is not a word. Still, it’s early so there’s still plenty of drinking time.

Which is exactly what we do for the next five hours, before heading back to Canary Wharf (on another D3 which also has a ramp and a driver who can be arsed to operate it and takes significantly less time in Saturday evening traffic). Having not eaten since we stopped on the way down at Hilton Park we decide to go for a meal at one of the row of restaurants on West India Quay. Someone, I don’t know who, chooses Rum & Sugar which is a pretty good choice as it turns out. I have something called Jerk Chicken, which Emma doesn’t think I’ll like but which is really quite good. A bit spicy perhaps, but I don’t really mind that.

We meet for breakfast on Sunday morning at the Wetherspoons across the road from Tunes. No matter how many times I visit this place I can never remember its proper name. All Wetherspoons pubs have a proper name, more like a pub name. The two in St Helens, for example, are called the Running Horses and the Glass House. Google has just informed me that the one we have breakfast in on Sunday morning is called the Ledger Building. A pretty unremarkable name which offers some insight into why I never remember it perhaps. But a Wetherspoons brekkie is a Wetherspoons brekkie, even if it does cost a little more in this part of the world. It is of course my duty to report that access is not exactly world class at the Ledger Building. Good luck getting in there if you are a wheelchair user on your own. There is a set of steps outside the building and you can only get in if you have someone with you to go inside and ask them to come out and put the temporary ramp up. This is not ideal, but is a step up from the efforts of the staff at Wetherspoons in Trafalgar Square. They don’t have a ramp, but if you want a pre-pubescent young fellow will come outside and try to force a stretcher to serve the same purpose. Which it cannot.

After breakfast Emma and I go our separate ways from Roland and Susan. They are not coming to the game and are instead either going to the Cenotaph (it’s Remembrance Sunday today) or getting the train back home. It’s only an hour for them. You can tell it is Remembrance Sunday because the past week has seen the media report nothing other than another instalment of the tedious, annual poppy row. Yes people should be able to wear a poppy to remember the fallen if they wish, no they should not be forced to do so if they don’t want to. Why are we still arguing about this? Principally because FIFA, that bastion of morality and new entry on the FBI’s most wanted, has spent much of its time recently telling everyone that the poppy is a political symbol and political symbols are not allowed in football. Calling the referee a cunt, is, however. In any case, the poppy is not a political symbol but a symbol of remembrance in this context. Other cultures may not see it that way but so bloody what? People just fall over themselves to be offended these days. England are due to play Scotland in a World Cup Qualifier next weekend and FIFA has forbidden both sets of players from wearing a poppy on their shirts. As a fudged compromise, the English and Scottish FA’s have declared that they will wear black armbands with poppies emblazoned upon them. Two questions. What’s the difference and why don’t they just go ahead and wear the poppy on the shirt and cop whatever fine FIFA decides to slap them with? Football is awash with money as we know. Just do what you think is right and accept the consequences…

We get the DLR (Docklands Light Railway) to Stratford. It’s only a few stops from West India Quay, is less busy and involves less walking/pushing than would be the case if we took the tube from Canary Wharf. I can’t tell you if there is a price difference because the policy is to just tap in with our debit cards at every station we go to and then wait for the bank statement to come. Everyone does exactly that, although the locals probably tap in with the knowledge of exactly how much it costs since they are more regular users. Besides they probably have Oyster cards, which apparently can get you into anywhere including Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Last year we came here to watch England play New Zealand, and I remember having to push through the shopping centre to get to the stadium. Things are slightly different this time around. Those heading to the stadium are directed away from the shopping centre, presumably because they don’t want so many people in there at once in addition to the regular shoppers that a normal Sunday (and remember it is Christmas in London) would attract. But I need to top up my phone. How else am I going to let everyone know on social media that I am at the Olympic Stadium? How else am I going to take the obligatory stadium selfie? It is surprising how many shops you can pass in a custom built shopping mall without ever finding one which might even look like it can offer mobile phone top-ups. In the end I go to a cash machine and do it that way. Consequently, we have to walk all the way back out of the shopping centre and around the diversion that has been created to separate match-goers from shoppers. It’s like driving to Barrow.

Even then we are nowhere near the stadium. Had we got off the DLR at Pudding Mill Lane we probably would have been closer than we are now at Stratford. There are more lifts to negotiate and an endless road at the end of which you can see the stadium, all decked out in claret and blue now, which seems to somehow get further and further away from you the more you move towards it. Finally we get to Gate F and are greeted by a volunteer, dressed in blue to distinguish him from the yellow-clad stewards. The difference appears to be that the people in yellow are getting paid to stand around being unhelpful, whereas the guy in blue is overbearingly helpful purely out of the goodness of his heart. As soon as he lays eyes on me he crouches down in the manner you would if you were about to greet a four-year-old;

“Hiya.” he says, in the kind of voice that said four-year-old would just tut at and walk by;

“How are you today?” he asks, still crouching.

I give him my best Edmund Blackadder eye-roll and inform him in the most adult voice I can muster that I am fine, the implication being that he doesn’t have to talk to me as if we are discussing an episode of The Tweenies;

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“St Helens.” I answer, and he looks at me blankly, either because he is gobsmacked that Emma hasn’t answered the question for me or, as I suspect, because he doesn’t have a clue what or where St Helens is. Which would be about right. He’s volunteering at a rugby league event and he has no idea what or where St Helens is. St Helens is not a particularly famous place, but if you have even a basic knowledge of English rugby league then you would at least have heard of it, even if you couldn’t find it on a map. Anyone who read yesterday would remember that I know about dates because of sports events, I also know about geography because of sport. My entire knowledge of American geography is based on the NFL. Clearly this volunteer hasn’t cottoned on to this idea, which he might have thought about doing once he had put his hand up for duty. Poor.

Typically the block we are sitting in is fully 15 blocks from the entrance we are directed to use by the overbearing volunteer who doesn’t know what or where St Helens is. Evidently he doesn’t know much about this stadium’s geography either. It takes another three minutes to get to our seats. Handily, as we head towards them there is a man at a small kiosk selling lager which is not as unreasonably priced as I’d expected. This being London, and this being a stadium I was fully expecting to fork out over £6.00 for a beer and so £4.90 feels like a bargain. Brexiteers will probably claim this is as a victory but it is more likely that the organisers didn’t sell much beer to northern folk at last year’s prices and learned their lesson. I remember one Yorkshireman entering the stadium last year, seeing the price of a beer at the first kiosk he came to before muttering an expletive and walking away. That was the general feeling last year, I think. Whatever the price was I paid it but then I’m a Carey and Careys are reckless. We know we’re not taking it with us.

Yesterday’s damp and miserable weather has given way to bright sunshine. That sounds nice, and it is, except that the sun is peering over the top of the stand on the opposite side of the stadium and is right in my eye-line. I have to resort to shades in mid-November. First it was Christmas, now it’s fucking shades. I looked a little something like this. I can only apologise for the nose hair;


The glare of the sun makes it impossible to get a decent photograph of the teams as they come out before kick-off. Instead I just sit in silence through the formalities, many of which involve silence anyway given that this is Remembrance Sunday. The exception to this is two performances by rugby league’s ubiquitous go-to songstress Lizzie Jones, wife of the late Danny Jones who tragically died of a heart condition during a Keighley Cougars game a couple of years ago. Lizzie has spent the time since doing nothing but good for the cause and, to be fair, she can belt out a tune. She leaves the rendition of the Australian national anthem to someone else whose name completely escapes me, but then she hasn’t appeared at every rugby league related event over the last two years so my forgetting her name can surely be excused.

And so to the game. England need to avoid defeat to qualify for next weekend’s Four Nations final at Anfield, which the Australians are already certain to appear in thanks to New Zealand’s baffling inability to beat Scotland on Friday night at Workington. Still, it’s England v Australia so the Aussies are not going to give up anything easily. England score the first try in a tight first half, Jermaine McGillvary going over in the right hand corner just in front of us after Jonny Lomax’s pass. But that’s really about as good as it gets for England, who are pegged back by Blake Ferguson’s try, before a Jonathan Thurston penalty pushes them out into a 10-6 half-time lead. Then it’s a case of blink and you’ll miss it as the Aussies run in three quick tries after half-time. Sam Burgess could have notched the first score of the second half had he been able to take Josh Hodgson’s distinctly forward looking pass close to the line but instead Greg Inglis, Matt Scott and Josh Dugan cross for Mal Meninga’s side as they cruise to a 28-6 lead. Game over. All she wrote. In a very English manner Wayne Bennett’s side open up once the game has gone, Gareth Widdop and Ryan Hall crossing for tries but even then they cannot shut the back door as Matt Gillett and the superbly named Valentine Holmes also grab four-pointers to complete a 36-18 win.

Anyway, Ryan Hall. Let’s talk about Ryan Hall. He crossed for his 31st try in as many England appearances and, while he doesn’t have a bad game, I still think he is the most over-rated rugby league player in the history of the game. For me he encapsulates much of what is wrong with the game at the moment. He’s a second row forward playing on the wing. He can finish like a winger as his try-scoring record will attest, but ask him to go the length of the field when given a yard in the style of a Martin Offiah or an Anthony Sullivan and he is as likely to do so as I am to appear on the couch with Susanna Reid tomorrow morning. Who wouldn’t want to appear on the couch with Susanna Reid? Probably a bit early for me but I’d make the effort.

So where were we? Hall. He’s not helped by Mark Percival’s unconvincing, wobbly performance alongside him at left centre, but as I say it is more about what wingers like him mean for the game as a spectacle than any personal failings on his behalf. This game, although it featured seven tries (which in union would be cause for cork-popping and pats on the back all around) was not much of a spectacle. Style-wise, it was not that much different from some of the turgid affairs I have endured during the last few years as a season ticket holder at Saints. Love of the game keeps me going, allied to hope that this is all cyclical and that the more open, entertaining approach of years gone by will soon come back into fashion. But really what we are witnessing these days, and what we witnessed here in London is The Grind on fast forward.

This Australian team is extremely good, don’t get me wrong. But they don’t throw it about like the Harlem Globetrotters. They just make good decisions in the halves and through Cameron Smith at hooker. Bennett, on the other hand, does not even know what his best halfback combination is having brought in Widnes’ Kevin Brown to start this one, his first international start since rugby league was entertaining to watch some time in the mid 1970’s. In bringing back Brown (try saying that when you have had a few at the Prospect Of Fucking Whitby) Bennett (and that) has seemingly jettisoned Castleford’s Luke Gale who, in the eyes of many, was the best halfback in Super League in 2016. Even when Brown was dragged from the field late on it was not Gale but George Williams who took his place (Gale having missed out on the match day squad altogether). Williams looked lively but the game had well gone by the time he was introduced. Meanwhile, all Bennett has to say for himself following another high profile loss by the English against Australia is that we need to learn how to win and that we should have more belief in ourselves. Which strikes me as his job to instil, unless I am missing something. Bennett has won every conceivable honour at club and international level in his several million years in the coaching game, but his impact on this England team has so far been minimal. However, it has only been three games and how much improvement was he ever likely to produce in such a short period of time? If both he and the RFL want it then I suspect his leadership of the England side will continue on to the World Cup in Australia at the end of next year but frankly, he must do better.

At the end we foolishly try to find our way to Pudding Mill Lane DLR station and are advised by the police and stewards that we should carry on to Stratford with the crowds because it will be ‘better for the wheelchair’. Like the wheelchair gives a fuck. Anyway it isn’t. It takes an age to get through the masses of people all heading in the same direction at the same time. At one point Emma suggests that she is never going to this stadium again, which is a conversation for two years time since next year there will be no home Four Nations tournament due to the aforementioned World Cup in Australia. Thirty-five thousand might not be a wildly exciting crowd for a rugby league international in a stadium which holds 54,000 (and there were huge swathes of visible claret seats over the other side from where we were sat which must have looked pretty average on television) but it is still a significant number of people to try and get on a tube train with. We get on ok, at which point we make our next mistake.

Having not eaten since the Wetherspoons breakfast we head for what we know, a pub near St.Paul’s Cathedral called the Lord Raglan. This means taking the DLR to the notorious Bank station, where they deliberately shut off the lifts at weekends and you have to ask for assistance at the intercom by the gate. Because disabled people have no business going anywhere at weekends. When we get to the Lord Raglan it becomes clear that it is not only disabled people who should not bother travelling to this area at this time on a Sunday night. By 6.00 (about two minutes before we arrive) they have stopped serving food and by 7.00 they are calling last orders. Last orders! They are shutting at 7.00 on a Sunday night! We should have gone to the fucking Vine.

Devoid of any real knowledge of where to eat out in London despite our now frequent visits we decide to head back towards Canary Wharf and eat in one of the restaurants on West India Quay where we had been the previous night. We know that Browns is open until 9.30 (thanks to Google again) and that La Tasca is open until 11.30 should the situation become that desperate. In the event we make it into the former, which is perfectly pleasant and would have been more so had I not started to feel distinctly peaky after my meal. Which of course was more chicken. I start to feel bloated and I’m retching every five minutes, all of which is probably the fag end of the infection that I am seemingly permanently trying to recover from these days. Either way I can’t get through any more lager and so, some time before 10.00 we rather disappointingly have to concede defeat and call it a night.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Futility, Mike Dicko And My Granddad

I don't feel good right now. It's Tuesday night. I've just come back from work. On the plus side Emma is ordering Papa John's for tea but this is a mild diversion from my malaise. Frankly I feel deflated. Existence seems somewhat futile which is a statement that is both berserk and lacking in perspective. But work is an endless cycle of hopelessness. The level of apathy I normally feel for it would be a distinct improvement on how I feel about it right now. I probably need to leave but then why would you? Thirty days leave, flexi, at least a week off at Christmas on top of that. Where else am I getting that? In any case it's more than likely that I'd find a reason to be miserable about work whatever I was doing and wherever I was doing it. I'm the problem, not my job.

In other, unrelated news my granddad died. This is, as I imply, totally unrelated to my current desire to go and sit somewhere dark and hide from the world for a month or so. In fact it's effect on me is remarkably miniscule. I haven't seen said granddad since I was about four years old. He and my nan divorced some time around Johnny Rotten's hey-day and I don't remember him ever visiting me or Helen since. I don't know if he ever even met either of Helen's boys. This was not your average grandparent/grandchild relationship. As such this piece is devoid of amusing anecdotes of his Meldrewian behaviour (by all accounts he was as miserable as I am and then some), and completely lacking in even the most cursory levels of warm memories that most people have of their grandparents.

My biggest concern on learning of his death was for my uncle, my dad's brother Derek. In what may look like a family tradition, we haven't seen Derek for a number of years either. The last time I recall seeing him was at Helen's wedding which I believe was in 2008. Certainly the stag do was 2008. I'm one of those people Nick Hornby wrote about who can remember dates because of sports events. The 2008 European Championships were definitely on during the weekend of the stag do in Edinburgh. I remember sitting silently watching a game when the merriment had subsided and I'd had far too much to drink for the good of my mental state. Sadly for the quality of this column I can't even recount an amusing tale from that night. What happens in Edinburgh stays in Edinburgh, though I think we'll all always feel a little bit disappointed in Paul for wearing a Wigan shirt in public that day.

So Derek. After that day he just seemed to completely disengage with everyone in the family. I managed to get in touch with him via email a couple of times but even that was short-lived. There was a time, back before I had a head-bursting office job and fancied myself as quite the writer (think Mike Dicko from Brookie but without Claire Sweeney) when Derek would visit me regularly. He'd come around to my Little Australian bungalow and we'd kick around bad ideas for novels that would never be written. But most of all we'd laugh. At the people he'd meet through his interest in music, and at the scratch record he made of my nan's second husband talking about his dinner. Even now if you utter the phrase 'could have had my dinner by now' to me or Helen we might very well wet ourselves. That memory alone has slightly lifted my mood, as does that of the other classic recording Derek made which featured a woman yodelling on about Bovril.

Anyway unlike most of us Derek had some sort of relationship with his father, my estranged granddad, even though he too had not seen him in a long time. So I was a little concerned firstly about whether my dad would be able to find him to let him know, and secondly how he would take it. Like me Derek is prone to bouts of what can only be described as depression. These things have no rhyme or reason. Grief and loss aren't necessarily the source of the lowest lows for depressives, but it could be a trigger for him all the same. Worse than that though is the prospect of not being able to make contact with him and so having him not know and not have the opportunity to go to the funeral. My dad has left a message at his last known address and that's pretty much as much as can be done in the circumstances.

As for me, well it seems somehow fitting that a column which started in such melancholy fashion should end with me dithering about whether I will attend my own granddad's funeral. I probably will, just to offer a bit of moral support to my dad if nothing else. Equally, I think it would be understandable if I chose not to bother since it seems that my granddad chose not to bother with his grandchildren. Despite all that it feels kind of significant that he's gone. I used to think that one day I'd go and visit him and get his side of the story. I don't think he lived far away. I think what stopped me is the thought that he might not know who I am (I have regular acquaintances who think my name is Paul, Lee or Phil) or even the thought that he would know me and we just wouldn't have anything to say to each other. It's been nearly 40 years after all.

Rightio. Best get back to my Papa John's and my colleague-driven listlessness.....

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

The End Of The World

Have you ever seen that scene from The Young Ones in which Vyvyan walks around the house hitting himself over the head with a cricket bat shouting ‘armageddon, no future!’? I think we all feel a little bit like that today following Donald Trump’s bewildering US Presidential Election victory.

We shouldn’t be all that surprised by it. It’s totally in keeping with a 2016 that has seen the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali and er……Paul Daniels and which stooped to a ludicrous low with the still baffling Brexit. By the way, has anybody actually figured out what ‘we want our country back’ means yet? If you do then please let me know, because as far as I can make out it just means that we want to catapult a lot of sane human rights legislation to the moon along with pesky things that stop rich people making even more money like maternity leave, sick pay and annual leave. Those bloody Europeans with their crazy liberal laws. Glad we’re shot of them, aren’t you? They were just getting in the way of our barely concealed bigotry in any case.

So anyway, the US election has certainly Trumped all of that. Sorry, such an obvious joke. In their wisdom the American people have managed to elect a racist, sexist champion bigot to a post they refer to as leader of the free world. Don’t you just love democracy? Of course they refer to their own basketball, baseball and American football teams as ‘world champions’ so maybe we should take their titling habits with a healthy helping of salt. Still, it’s a remarkable result all the same.

It’s possibly going over old ground to point out that Trump is a man who wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. He wants mosques kept under surveillance by law enforcement to keep an eye on those Muslims who have already gained entry or, heaven forbid, might have been born in the US. He would also like the Mexicans to pay billions of dollars to have a wall built between their country and the US to stop the flow of what he calls ‘criminals’ into the ‘land of the free’ (another shit, self-important title), and he thinks it is perfectly acceptable, desirable even, to treat women as sex objects to the point where you should, if you feel so inclined, feel quite within your rights to just cop a handful of their most private areas whenever the mood takes you. All of which makes former Republican nutcase Arnold Schwarzenegger look like Mary Poppins.

That a sub-human with a terrible wig has been elected President of the United States says little for his vanquished opponent Hillary Clinton, who right up until the early hours of this morning was expected to follow in the footsteps of straying husband Bill and sweep to the White House. She was few people’s idea of a perfect candidate. But this is America we’re talking about. It’s a conservative country in which rampant capitalism reigns supreme. You’re never going to see a President who is what we would call left-leaning. Socialism is a dirty word in the states, much like scrotum is here. Whatever ills would have been foisted upon us by Hillary pale into insignificance compared to the berserk aims of a Trump regime. There were certain controversies surrounding Hillary but they were relatively tame compared to the outrageous hate spread by Trump. So she set up a private email account when she was Secretary Of State which apparently was a threat to America’s favourite phrase, ‘national security’. It almost certainly was not, and so doesn’t rank alongside say……storming in to a room full of blokes and grabbing them by the knob as Trump would no doubt endorse. Meanwhile every scandal Trump has created has just bounced off him. Clearly America wanted something different and it was prepared to let a loudmouthed letch seize power in order to secure change, any kind of change.

But what a change. Think Nigel Farage becoming UK Prime Minister and you have some idea of the scale of barminess involved in Trump’s election. Fucking Farage can’t even win a seat in the House Of Commons which is only right and proper since he is the face and voice of UKIP, or as it is otherwise known, the fucking loony wing of the Tory party. The one vestige of hope we can hang on to is that the machinations of the American political system are so complex that they will possibly stop Trump from implementing some of his nastier ideas. Trump cannot just turn up to work on a Tuesday and sign off an order for the deportation/execution (delete as appropriate) of all those he considers unattractive, for example. Half of the insidious shadowy figures within the Republican party recognise that Trump is probably too far past the signpost marked ‘bigot’ to be a credible President while to a man (and woman) everybody in the Democrats’ number will already be thinking of ways to diminish Trump’s power. Between them the real politicians should be able to keep Trump in check.

Further hope is offered by representations of Presidents and US politics in TV drama. If The West Wing is anything to go by then White House politics consists mainly of people in smart dress talking in indecipherable political jargon while walking through corridors side by side. Meanwhile in preposterous but undeniably entertaining TV drama Scandal the President has virtually no power at all and is instead a mere mouthpiece for the decision makers scurrying all around him. If we can put our faith in scriptwriters having given us an accurate portrayal of American power games then nothing meaningful is likely to happen in the next four-year cycle. Not as a result of any decision made by Trump anyhow.

So maybe it is not the end of the world, which in one sense is a shame because I have been abusing the possibility that it might be for pretty much the whole day in work today. It’s amazing how low the bar is set for ‘banter’ when it is End Of Days. And we’re back to Arnie, aren’t we? Regrettably what the continuation of life on Earth also means is that I will probably have to sit through another episode of Victorian Bakers at some point in the near future. Or I could just wander around the house hitting myself in the head with a cricket bat.