Friday, December 31, 2010

My sporting year

As 2010 is cast into the litter bin of time and we finger the wrapping of 2011 with anticipation, I present my sporting highlights of the year, all events that I had the privilege to see in person and people who I interviewed.

The life of a sports journalist is not as glamorous as some would think. Lots of travelling but little sight-seeing and after a while the run of airports, hotels, stadiums, motorways and being away from my family can pall. But that is not a moan, I am privileged to watch sport for a living. Here are the moments I will remember best from 2010 and links to the articles (all behind the paywall, I'm afraid, but a snip at only 5p each or £1 for 20)

1) The marathon tennis match In terms of events about which you would like to say "I was there", the first-round match on Court No 18 at Wimbledon between John Isner v Nicolas Mahut trumps many a final. It went to five sets, spread over three days, and ended with Isner winning 70-68 in the decider. I was courtside for the final 20 games of the match, sitting a few seats away from John McEnroe and Tracy Austin. The things I most remember are not to do with play, but the fact that McEnroe was incongrously wearing a red baseball cap with his grey suit and tie and that Andy Roddick later described Isner's feet after the match as looking like "deli meat".

2) The Boat Race Because the right crew won in the best fashion. I'm biased, but this year's Cambridge side were particularly likeable and very welcoming whenever I went to visit them. Oxford had the Winklevoss twins, the Olympic rowers who claimed to have invented Facebook, but Cambridge had team spirit. Although they were almost a length behind at Hammersmith Bridge, they fought back to win. Helpfully, their victory netted me £70 at the bookies.

3) Rory McIlroy's first round at the Open My third Open Championship but my first in Scotland. When I arrived at St Andrews it was shrouded in mist and there were questions about whether play would start. I was first asked to follow Tiger Woods but when he failed to tear up the course or blow his top, I switched across to watch a promising young Ulsterman instead. With a round of 63, McIlroy took the first-round lead. Two days later, I played my first round of golf in St Andrews, at the Castle course, and went round in a mere 55 strokes more than McIlroy.

4) Somerset throw away the County Championship I had not been to Durham before - it's a smashing ground - but was sent up there for the final day of the county season as Somerset eyed a first ever Championship. Special request of the Deputy Editor, who is a Somerset fan. Alas, they were unable to beat Durham and so Notts took the title, but I did get to meet a fascinating character called Tractor Driver, who travels the country watching Somerset with his keg of cider and had managed to drink Durham dry.

5) Nadal v Soderling at Wimbledon I have several more special memories from Wimbledon, including watching Roger Federer and Serena Williams on Centre Court, but the quarter-final between Rafael Nadal and Robin Soderling on Court 1 stands out. As Soderling took a 5-0 lead in the first set, word went round that Federer had been knocked out by Toma Berdych. Could there be a double shock? No, Nadal found his mojo and won in four sets, but he had been briefly made to look mortal.

6) England v Pakistan at the Rose Bowl A one-sided match, England winning by 121 runs, but the end of a topsy-turvy one-day series, which the home side won 3-2, and the end of a fractious summer in which the game's morality was called into question. I spent the game chatting to the Pakistan fans, some of whom had travelled from as far as Glasgow.

7) Women's rugby World Cup semi-final They lost the final to New Zealand, although they competed all the way, but England's women looked wonderful on their way there, including this 15-0 last-four win over Australia. Maggie "The Machine" Alphonsi, the England flanker, was the star of the tournament for the way she bulldozed through everyone in her way.

8) Australia v Pakistan at Lord's The Ashes win started here, with Australia's batsmen made to look vulnerable. And all this while Pakistan's bowlers were deliberately underperforming for money.

9) England win Dubai Sevens In four successive must-win games, they beat the four sides who finished above them in last year's Sevens World Series to claim the title, playing spectacular rugby and proving that teams can win in orange shirts (eh, Holland?)

10) Yani Tseng wins the women's Open Royal Birkdale is one of my favourite golf courses, made all the better by the lack of spectators. Hurrah for women's golf. What those who didn't attend missed was some splendid golf by a 21-year-old Taiwanese golfer with superb iron play, a red-hot putter and a charming personality.

And the ten interviews I most enjoyed doing this year

1) Billie Jean King. I spoke to her on the phone for almost an hour while sitting on the floor behind the press box at the Oval as I supposedly covered a one-day match between Pakistan and England. Even an hour wasn't long enough as Billie Jean kept me engrossed with tales of the fight for equality 40 years ago.

2) Paul Collingwood. I had three one-to-one interviews with Collingwood in 2010 and each time he had something fresh to say. A modest, frank, intelligent cricketer, who gives good copy without coming across as a berk, unlike some of his team-mates.

3) An unnamed 17-year-old Afghan. I was unable to name the captain or any of the team who played cricket against MCC in a game I watched at Chigwell. That is because they were all child refugees who had escaped horrors in search of a better life. One of those interviews that really makes you appreciate how lucky we are.

4) Steve Brown Speaking of inspirational tales about people who fight adversity, I found speaking to Steve Brown, a wheelchair rugby player, very moving. After a fall from a balcony, he did not even know if he would survive surgery. Now he has his eyes on a place at the 2012 Paralympics.

5) John Woodcock The 83-year-old former Times cricket correspondent is one of the last survivors of a golden age of sports journalism, when reporters travelled by ship to Ashes tours and were able to socialise freely with players. Better still, they only had to write 400 words a month. I chaired a round-table discussion with Woodcock, Mike Atherton, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Richard Hobson and then filmed a discussion about Woodcock's personal memories of playing deck quoits with Alec Bedser.

6) Pete Goss Returned to sailing 13 years after he rescued a fellow sailor in the middle of the Southern Ocean. I spoke to him briefly before the start of the Route du Rhum, in which he finished fourteenth.

7) Greg Searle Another great comeback. Eighteen years after winning an Olympic rowing gold with his brother Johnny, Searle decided to get back in a boat and try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, when he will be 40. It was a pretty good season, in which he won a silver at the World Championships in the eight. We talked about his lucky socks, which are older than half his new crew-mates.

8) Jonah Lomu The former New Zealand rugby player talked about pimping his rides. Worth reading if only for the words "Tongan ukelele music".

9) Rebecca Adlington. Talking Delhi belly with the Olympic swimming champion after the Commonwealth Games at the site of the 2012 Olympics.

10) General Sir David Richards. Not a sportsman, but a highlight none the less. I was asked to interview the head of the Army, now Chief of the Defence Staff, about a new play on Afghanistan. Quite why I was asked, I don't know, but I was up in Birkdale at the women's Open and spoke to him on the phone from my hotel room while wearing only a towel. Certainly an interview I will never forget... It's nice to take a break from sport and use my brain occasionally.

Finally, three events I wish I had seen:

1) The Ryder Cup I was down to report on this but decided to pull out because my wife was due to give birth the next week. Naturally she was two weeks late...

2) England v Australia at rugby The third match of the year, when Chris Ashton ran the length of the field for his second try in a 35-18 win. I covered England's match the next week at Twickenham, but Samoa is a rather less glamorous tie.

3) The Melbourne Test Or any of the Ashes Tests for that matter, but Mike Atherton and Richard Hobson pulled the seniority rank on me there... Still, I am heading to the cricket World Cup in February, so that is something to look forward to.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Hold the celebrations: we haven't won the Ashes yet

Honestly, anyone would think we had won the Ashes series. I've done broadcasts on Australian radio and Indian TV today about England's win at Melbourne, while the story was leading all the British news items today. England retain the Ashes - but retaining is not the same as winning. We still lead by one with one match to play.

England have done marvellously well in winning two Tests in Australia for the first time since 1986 and by winning two by an innings for the first time since the series at home in 1985. Their win in Melbourne is the heaviest winning margin in the Ashes since Jim Laker did his spinning tricks in 1956. These are feats worthy of celebration, but the celebration should wait a week.

Delightful though it was to see the whole England team do the Sprinkler dance on the outfield after play, like the cast of The Full Monty only with the jockstraps under their whites, the job is not yet complete. They must avoid losing in Sydney next week to be sure of winning the Ashes. A 2-2 draw will seem like a mighty anticlimax.

If sport's version of Sod's Law works properly, Australia will call someone up for the last Test who they have ignored all series and they will make the difference in winning the match. Perhaps Nathan Hauritz will get a start on his home turf and take 16 wickets; maybe Usman Khawaja will make a double hundred on debut. This would take the gloss off England retaining the Ashes.

Andrew Strauss, the captain, is right to urge against complacency. It was not that long ago, after a heavy defeat in Perth, that people were writing that the wheels were coming off the Ashes wagon. What we have learnt is that Australia and England are remarkably inconsistent. The Melbourne party could be followed by a Sydney hangover.

If we were 2-0 up, I'd suggest that we could let Australia have one for morale's sake. It's what they often did with us, taking their feet off the jugular once the series was won. But England should have more ambition than a mere 2-2 shared series. A 2-1 win is the minimum requirement, 3-1 starts to look like a proper beating.

It could be argued that a 3-1 defeat would be in the best interests of Australian cricket too. Share the series and they can claim that basically everything is OK. But for some bad luck (like losing the toss at Melbourne), they would have won. I think this would be bunk, but Cricket Australia like all governing bodies will be looking for excuses rather than problems.

A 3-1 defeat means that Australia need to look at the coaching, the selection, the scheduling, the development. They need to go through rebuilding and perhaps jettison some members of the current set-up, and not just the players.

They need to confront the systemic failings that it took England several Ashes defeats to face up to. Then they may just be in a position to win the urn back in 2013.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Ponting nears the end

Ricky Ponting's distinguished Test career should not end this way, scraping around for runs and ranting at umpires. Not that he was ever much of a one for respecting authority, but his rant at Aleem Dar on Day 2 of the Melbourne Test last night betrayed a man on the verge of despair.

At some point in the next two or three days, barring an astounding rearguard batting effort by Australia to match the way England batted at Brisbane a month ago, Australia will lose the fourth Test and fail to regain the Ashes.

If they do not win the final Test in Sydney, which starts on January 3, they will lose the series and Ponting will become the third Australia captain to lose three Ashes contests, the first for more than a century.

It is hard to see him continuing as captain for much longer, although it would be rather late in the day for Australia to get rid of him as one-day captain, with the World Cup starting in mid-February. Ponting will presumably lead Australia into the tournament, where they have not lost a match since the final in 1996, and then stand aside. Bangladesh are Australia's next Test opponents and it would make sense to let a new captain take the team on.

Generally, Australian captains do not stay in the side after handing over command. In the past 40 years, Waugh, Taylor, Border, Greg Chappell and Bill Lawry all retired straight away.

Kim Hughes lasted one Test after resigning as captain before a pair of ducks ended his career. Graeme Yallop stayed for another five years after his seven-Test captaincy reign ended, but he was only ever a stop-gap while Greg Chappell was away making money off Kerry Packer, while Ian Chappell came out of retirement to serve under his brother.

So, it is possible that Ricky Ponting has only a dozen days and three innings left in his distinguished Test career. Mathematically, it would be nice if he only made two more runs, so that his final career aggregate stands for ever at 12,345, but that would be a humiliating end.

As a cricket-lover and someone who respects Ponting as a batsman, I would like him to go out with one more hundred. Maybe even two. Just so long as England go home with the urn.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A traditional loony Christmas

The coachload of Chinese students who were decanted into Greenwich Park on Christmas morning to visit the historic observatory must have wondered at the eccentricities of the English.

Not only was Santa Claus jogging through the park (or at least a man wearing a red and white coat over his shorts, a Santa hat and a strap-on beard), but there were two men hitting a tennis ball to each other on the main road.

Traditions are important at Christmas and, like the Serpentine swimmers who refused to allow the frozen river and cancellation of their annual Christmas race to prevent them having a dip, so my father and I were determined to play tennis on Christmas morning whatever the weather.

It is a tradition going back at least 15 years (the last time I let him lose was in 1998) but it appeared that the cold snap in Britain might have broken the run when we arrived in the park yesterday morning and found the four courts covered in white ice.

No matter, we decided to play in the road instead, which was the only surface free of ice. My car marked the line of the net and the gutters formed tramlines. The baseline was a moveable feast but as we decided to dispense with scoring and just see how long we could keep each rally going, it didn't matter.

We stayed out there for an hour, despite the cold weather, batting the ball back and forth and sharing the odd joke with passing joggers and pedestrians, pausing occasionally to allow a car to drive through our court.

It was wonderfully eccentric, which is as it should be at Christmas. Some stony-faced sourpusses didn't understand why we would want to play tennis in the road on one of the coldest days of the year, but most raised a smile. One jogger deliberately hurdled our imaginary net, while Santa, as he jogged past, promised that next year he would leave a net in my stocking.

Most heartening, though, was the man who stopped to chat to us at the beginning of our match and then returned half an hour later with some mulled wine. "I thought you could do with this," he said. And there, in that kind gesture of a stranger to two madmen, is the true spirit of Christmas.

Miracle on the 3rd or 4th strip

"And what did you ask Santa to bring you for Christmas, daddy?"


And so it came to pass that during the night after Christmas a miracle came true in Melbourne. And, even better, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook made 157 without loss by the close.

So much for the controversies about the groundsman swapping the pitches he would use. There was no devil in this wicket. In fact, while it had quite a green tinge on it, the condition generally was reminiscent of an early-season English wicket. Lovely, what a Christmas present.

I wonder whether Ricky Ponting would have bowled first if he had won the toss? He has never inserted an opponent since England made 400 in a day at Edgbaston 2005 and I suspect that he would have thought about bowling only to bat out of superstition.

Either way, England bowled beautifully and caught well (although they dropped three chances and missed a run out), while Australia's batsmen looked as if they had been at the port the night before. There were some very careless dismissals, for all the quality of England's bowling.

Yet, unlike in Perth, England's success came from them hitting the right length consistently. The fact that all ten of Australia's wickets were caught behind square, six by the wicketkeeper, shows that. Whatever was being said about England a week ago, they are fast learners.

It is hard to see them losing from here, although who knows in this baffling series. Momentum has not just swung back and forth this series, it has shaken. Instead of a close series in which matches are settled by millimetres, as it was in 2005, this is a close series in which matches are settled by miles. We walloped them in Adelaide, they thrashed us in Perth and now, again, it is no contest.

Australia will probably demolish England in Sydney next week, but that of course will all be a bit late.

This match is not yet won, however. England may start Day 2 59 runs ahead with all wickets in hand, but if Australia can take those ten wickets for 100, maybe even 150 runs, they can regain hope of winning. More likely, they will just have to resign themselves to a deficit of more than 300 and try to bat for more than two days to get a draw.

You would really have to fancy England now, though. Poor Ricky Ponting, who may have only three Test innings left in his marvellous career. How Australia could do with him raging against the dying of the light.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Pontifex pontificates

What a remarkably humourless, killjoy bunch the National Secular Society is. They must have been delighted when the Pope agreed to contribute a Thought for the Day on BBC Radio as it would give them something to whinge about over the festive period. A Christian message at Christmas? Disgraceful.

Naturally, the Pope should not be allowed to spread a message of love and peace, not even in a three-minute homily. He should have spent the whole time apologising for child abuse. Or that is what the secularists want. After all, isn't Christmas all about child abuse? Abandoning babies in mangers and all that. Why, I bet the shepherds hadn't even been CRB-checked.

The child abuse scandal has been a godsend for the secularists (well, maybe not a godsend but you know what I mean). In the actions of a few wicked men, those who despise religion have an excuse to portray everyone with faith or who practises religion as themselves evil or apologists for evil. As if those without faith don't abuse children too.

It is not a "slap in the face for child abuse victims" that the Pope was asked to broadcast on Radio 4. It is a recognition that this weekend marks a major Christian festival and as a major Christian leader he may have something interesting to say. He isn't Josef Fritzl.

And as for the criticism that the Pope was "pontificating", well isn't that what a pontifex is meant to do?

You may every right to disagree with the Pope on doctrine and Vatican policy, you can be godless yourself (I'm all in favour of Christmas not being a national holiday and people made to go into work unless they attend church), but it is a bit petty to complain about Christian messages at Christmas.

Worse than that, it is dull. Just go and watch X Factor highlights or whatever seculists get their kicks out of instead and stop boring us.

Christmas Quiz

Already bored? Struggling to find a new conversation to have with your family or just want an excuse to lock yourself in your room? Alex Massie's Christmas Quiz at the Spectator provides the answers. Or rather the questions. You'll have to find the answers, with a little help from Google...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Snow tales

We had a spectacular blizzard in Blackheath this morning, the snow mounding up on the tree next door so quickly and so heavily that the boughs bent dangerously down towards the ground.

With the snow comes a wonderful silence. No trains pass along the tracks at the foot of the garden, no cars come sliding down the road in front. The satellite signal is disrupted so the TV is turned off and my eight-week-old daughter and I sit in blissful peace listening to carols through iTunes.

All very Narnia-like, although farther into Kent it has fallen so deep and crisp and even that, according to my cousin in Tonbridge Wells, it is more Scott of the Antarctic than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Roads are chaotic throughout the southeast; airports closed. My friend Richard was due to fly to Turkey from Heathrow this morning. He made it out, a couple of hours before the runways were shut, but his luggage did not follow. How long he will have to wait to be reunited with his trousers is a point for debate.

At least they sell trousers in Istanbul. Of more concern to Richard is the fact that they don't sell gravy granules. In his luggage was a box of Bisto so that he could make gravy to go with his Christmas dinner next weekend. Already denied of pigs in blankets by his wife's religion, the possible absence of Bisto is too much to bear.

Miracles come true at Christmas, of course, and Richard may yet have something beefy to pour on his bird next Saturday. There's more chance of that miracle coming off than England snatching victory in the third Ashes Test after a dismal performance last night.

Well done Australia - particularly Mitchell Johnson and Mike Hussey, the two local boys - for getting back into the series. 1-1 and on to Melbourne. Let's hope that when England open their Christmas presents, the bowlers are gifted a better control of length and Kevin Pietersen rediscovers his brain.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ashes fantasies

There is an excellent Nick Newman cartoon in the latest issue of The Wisden Cricketer titled "Ashes Nightmare" that first shows someone going to sleep while a voice from the radio announces "and Strauss moves on to nine". Then, below, the next picture shows the same person waking with the sun shining through the window and the radio saying "and Strauss moves on to four".

That is the problem with an overseas Ashes tour: it is always on at the wrong time of day and all sorts of horridness can happen to England while you sleep.

I tried to stay up late to watch the start of most days in the first two Tests, but the third match in Perth starts far too late at 2.30am. By the time I wake, there have been two sessions of play and for a few seconds before I can switch on the radio, I play "guess the score". This morning I was way off.

At the end of Day 1, England were going to win the Ashes. Having walloped Australia in Adelaide, they bowled them out for 268 in Perth and were 29 for nought when Day 2 started. As I reached for the radio, I thought: "Best case scenario, Cook or Strauss are still in; worst case, Swann and Prior are building a small lead."

And then the announcer said: "And Hughes moves on to three." Bugger. Australia batting again after bowling England out for 181.

It is very easy for people to get carried away with Ashes hyperbole. Victory in this Perth Test is no more beyond England after two days than the Ashes was done and dusted after one day. The thing that keeps drawing us cricket fans to the sport is the wonderful unpredictability.

I have tried to keep perspective. The gloating can wait until when (if) England win the series. Until then, let's enjoy the battle. Knowing cricket history helps: Australia may have been dismissed for a sub-par 268 on Thursday, but in 2006 they made 244 batting first against England and still won heavily.

Furthermore, Mitchell Johnson, their erratic bowler, loves Perth and had 22 wickets from his previous three Tests there. Now he has 28 from three and a half.

But if that should have been a warning for England not to assume the match was won after one day, here is a lesson for why Australia, who now lead by 200 at the start of the third day, should not assume their job is done.

Two years ago, Australia took a first-innings lead of 94 on South Africa, with Johnson taking eight wickets. Australia then made 319, setting South Africa 414 to win. The touring side achieved it for the loss of four wickets.

There is a lot of cricket still to be played and I envy those in Australia (or those with insomnia) who are able to watch all of it. For my part, I'll be waking around tea-time, hoping to hear the announcer say "and Strauss moves on to 57" rather than "and Watson moves on to 139".

Facebooking the Nativity

This video of a very modern Nativity (seen on Cranmer) is superb. I'm not sure what any genuinely wise man is doing titting around on Twitter, though.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Get a life": Lib Dem MP tells constituent

Bob Russell, the Lib Dem MP for Colchester, is a bit of a pillock but a highly effective one, especially when it comes to self-promotion. When I was growing up in Colchester, he was never out of the local press, first as a councillor, then as town mayor and then as leader of the council before becoming MP in 1997.

As a former local journalist, he knew how to grab attention. He would attend the opening of an envelope if it got him more publicity.

His political skills have not yet been recognised by his own party, let alone the coalition Government (it probably says something about the esteem in which he is held that his most lofty job has been as spokesman on sport for the Lib Dems), yet he is happy being one of those backbenchers whose job is to ask important questions, on subjects like morris dancing and darts, in order to get another page lead in the Essex County Standard.

Today, though, Bob Russell leapt in my estimation for his blunt reply, below, to a constituent who had complained, no doubt in a particularly mean-spirited whinging way, about the cost of the royal wedding next year (seen on Guido). There are some who will criticise Russell for being rude and there are some who will suggest, without seeing the original letter, that the constituent may have had a point, but I salute him.

Why should constituents be toadied to when they behave like arses? Hurrah for MPs who speak their minds! A bit more contempt for the electorate is in order. All this "servants of the people" stuff is rot. MPs are paid (pretty low wages) to represent us, not to lick up to us.

My only concern is that, knowing Russell, he probably leaked this letter to the press himself for the attention. I'm slightly distressed by the poor quality of his English as well.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Good English rocks

I love the esoteric and thought-provoking emails that get sent round the Times office by our chief revise editor, Richard Dixon. Such as this one:
"A stone is a small lump of rock that can be thrown by someone, eg, hypothetically, by an alleged protester at the police.

"In British English, a rock is too big to be thrown effectively in that way; however, chiefly in North American and Australian English, a stone that can be thrown is called a rock.

"As we aspire to British English, please make sure that we do not refer to a rock when we mean a stone."
I'm sure that I shall never confuse the two again. But what if someone throws a piece of Blackpool rock at the fuzz? Apart from the sticky mess it would leave on their day-glo jackets, I mean. Can we call that rock?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Little man with a big dream

Ronnie Corbett considered giving up his dream to be in show business if he had not made it by the age of 37, according to an interview in the latest Radio Times.

Fortunately for fans of shaggy dog stories told by short men in Pringle sweaters, it was in his 37th year that Corbett got his big break on The Frost Report, met Ronnie Barker and the rest is Saturday evening history.

This gives me some reassurance as I agonise about my life's direction - three more years in which to polish my golf anecdotes and meet someone funny to hang out with - but after ten minutes' on Wikipedia (what passes for modern research in journalism) I can reveal why Corbett nearly gave up on the dream.

When he was 35, Corbett was appearing as Will Scarlett in a short-lived Robin Hood-themed musical called Twang!!

Despite a strong cast (well, Barbara Windsor and Bernard Bresslaw) and a score by Lionel Bart, creator of Oliver! (1960) and the moderately successful Blitz! (1962), who clearly thought that all you needed for a hit was a one-word title and a bit of punctuation, the play flopped and closed after three weeks.

Bart thus proved, as many people do every day on Twitter, that there is nothing that can't be made worse by adding an extra exclamation mark. Anyway, here's the title track. No wonder the 35-year-old Ronnie Corbett wondered if he was ever going to make it...

Google says... you're an illiterate pillock

Many years ago, when I worked in politics and had to write the daily "lines to take" for MPs, there was a more senior chap who used to go through what we had written and alter our punctuation if he felt it necessary.

If a semi-colon was more appropriate than a comma, he would reach for the red pen. It was pedantic but precise and with hindsight I appreciate it. Accuracy matters. Bear that in mind when you read the rant below.

Occasionally I have to write advertorials for The Times. These are paid-for adverts masquerading as written pieces in the advertiser's hope that readers will pay closer attention to them than a standard ad.

You can understand why marketing companies ask journalists to write advertorials rather than get someone in their company to bash out a few paragraphs. We, after all, are supposed to have a certain talent for speling and gramar and fings like that.

Yet I get more suggestions for how my copy could be improved from bozos in promo companies than I ever do from my day-job editors. Generally they want more "core messages" inserted (as if that will make it more readable), very occasionally they spot a genuine error for which I am blushingly grateful (although we have sub-editors to do that too). But mainly they just want to cock it up through their own ignorance.

In one recent campaign, a slack-jawed gopher from a marketing company didn't like me writing "band of brothers" in a piece on the essence of sport. "Can you make it team of brothers?" I was told. Shakespeare did a pirouette in his tomb.

But an email yesterday really made me splutter with rage.

I had written a headline for one advertorial that read "The Gentlemen's Code". To which I received this reply from a promotions guru:
"Not being a grammar expert I think it might be Gentlemans' Code ie is singular and then the s with ' to indicate possession. We did a quick google check and this appears to be correct."
Why would someone who admits to not being a grammar expert assume that we might be wrong? Why does he think that s' is the construction for indicating possession in the singular? And why does he use Google to check his ropey grammar?
 
For that matter, how did Google back him up? I just typed gentlemans' into the search engine and nothing leapt up to suggest it is accurate. Lots of gentleman's or gentlemen's but no s' option.
 
So not only did he rely on Google to support his intellectually stunted assertion but he then failed to read the results correctly.
 
This man has the title "managing director". I dread to think how dim his staff must be.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Country matters

"Countryside," according to the definition given to it by Stephen Fry on the Radio 4 panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue a few years ago, means "to kill Piers Morgan".

It was witty, it had a grain of truth that few in Britain would disagree with and, spoken rather than written, it was indisputably filthy.

No one was in any doubt that the National Treasure was calling the then editor of the Daily Mirror a cunt. Quite premeditated and purely for laughs. And at lunchtime on a Sunday too.

I could be wrong, but I don't recall there being any outcry or newspapers running stories about it. There was certainly no apology issued by the BBC and, given that the programme is recorded, there clearly was no problem with what Fry said.

Quite right. Except that Jim Naughtie's verbal slip on the Today programme, which was obviously said in error and apologised for immediately, seems to have got some people hot and bothered. Introducing the 8.10am interview this morning, he referred to "Jeremy Cunt... er, Hunt, the Culture Secretary".

Most found it funny, to be fair, including Naughtie, right, who had a bout of coughs as he tried to carry on reading the news while sniggers went on in the background. My mother sent me a text message within half an hour calling it Naughtie's "Johnners moment", a reference to Brian Johnston's fit of giggles after Jonathan Agnew described Ian Botham not quite getting his leg over.

But Today reported 16 emails of complaint by mid-afternoon and presumably there will be more when the papers report the story tomorrow. The Daily Mail, for whom countryside seems too tame, has already ranted on its website about Naughtie, and Andrew Marr who repeated the profanity when discussing the story, "turning the air blue", calling it an "embarrassment" and a "bombshell".

It is surprising that in this day and age people can still get so upset about the C word. It can be horrid when said with anger or venom, of course, but so can a simple "oi" when yelled by a drunkard in the street. Likewise, while it can be offensively sexist, so can "bitch" or "cow" if snarled on EastEnders. Motive offends more, to my ear, than meaning.

When I started in journalism, working for Giles Coren on the Times Diary column, cunt was used adjectivally. "Where's the cunting Daily Mail?" he might ask although probably not to Rupert Murdoch.

It had the same outrageous force as the words pillock or twat, both of which denote body parts but which come a fair bit lower on the Mail's List of Outrage.

Personally, I prefer the term "twunt", a portmanteau of twat and cunt for someone who doesn't quite fit into either camp. Or both, like Julian Assange.

The word has been about since the Middle Ages, in various spelling forms. Gropecunte Lane was a common street name in red-light areas until it disappeared in the 16th century. Chaucer has both his Miller - "prively he caught her by the queynte" - and Wife of Bath - "you shall have queynte right enough at eve" - use his spelling of the word quite openly.

Shakespeare has Hamlet make a play on the word when he relaxes in Ophelia's lap with talk of "country matters", a sign that it had become Carry On smut but still not offensive, while Katherine in Henry V mishears her English tutor saying "foutre" and "coun" (French for fuck and cunt) when she meant "foot" and "gown" and tells her off for being rude. John Donne, Samuel Pepys and Robert Burns also use the C word fairly tamely.

By the 20th century it had clearly become crude, with Joyce and Lawrence using it, but does it still offend? After all, even Sir Robin Day once used the word, in an interview with Dennis Skinner. And he was so straight he wore a bow tie. (video from Guido)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Cook only part of the story

My colleague Simon Barnes is right to devote his piece in the Times today (paywalled, sorry, but there's more than a quid's worth of good stuff on the website today) to Alastair Cook's marvellous start to the Ashes series.

Having arrived in Australia with people questioning his place in the team, Cook made a decent enough start in Brisbane with 67. He followed it with 235 not out in the second innings and is now 136 not out after a day's batting in Adelaide.

It has been 674 balls and pushing 1,000 minutes since an Australian last took his wicket and near the end of today's play he passed Len Hutton's record of 364 runs without being dismissed in an Ashes Test. If he carries on where he left off tomorrow, England can build a total that should be match-winning with three days left in the Test and mean that Australia need to win two of the last three Tests to regain the Ashes.

It is sublime form and even if he makes a duck in every innings he plays for the rest of the series, he will still leave Australia with an average from ten innings of at least 43 and probably, with even modest success, 60 or 70. But let us not get carried away just yet. As England saved the first Test by making a big second innings score, so Australia could bat their way to a draw in Adelaide.

Simon is wrong, though, to say that "it is a long, long time since an England batsman has been in such form in Australia". It was only eight years ago that Michael Vaughan made three hundreds in five Tests and ended the series with 633 runs, the best by England since 1970 and only 25 runs short of being the best since Wally Hammond in 1928-29.

England lost the first four matches in Vaughan's series heavily and the Ashes were surrendered in 11 days. The key to success is more than one batsman over-performing. You need several (hence Trott's support of Cook in both Tests has been crucial, as was Strauss's in Brisbane and Pietersen's today) and a strong bowling attack.

Ultimately, if England are to win the Ashes Down Under for the first time in 24 years, Cook's runs will play only a part. It is the wickets that the England bowlers take that are more important.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Five reasons why Qatar should have lost World Cup bid

The Fifa World Cup vote was, of course, a travesty. Not so much that England did not win the rights to stage the 2018 tournament (although if Jack Warner, the Fifa vice-president, thinks he is getting an invite to Prince William's wedding now he is much mistaken), but that Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022. Here are five reasons why:

1) Qatar has never qualified for a World Cup before and probably will not qualify for the tournaments in 2014 and 2018 but will get to compete four years later as hosts even if they don't improve on their present world ranking of 113, which is lower than North Korea, who were embarrassingly bad at this year's World Cup, and even lower than Wales.

When South Africa were given the rights for the 2010 World Cup, they were No 41 in the world, only just outside the 32 that ideally should qualify. South Africa and the USA were 22nd in the world when they hosted the 2002 and 1994 World Cups. Qatar are nowhere near qualifying. There are 15 Asian nations ranked higher; it is simply unfair that Qatar can buy a place at the top table and deny one of those above them a spot.

2) Temperatures will be pushing 50C in the Gulf state at that time of year. But their air-conditioned stadiums, to be built like most baubles in the Middle East by virtual slave labour, will look magnificent and isn't expensive spangly arenas what the World Cup is all about, even if they get dismantled straight after the final?

3) They have a poor human rights record. Not that that stopped China hosting the Olympics. And anyway, do homosexuals, women and Jews, all of whom are persecuted in Qatar, really watch football?

4) The Fifa technical report on Qatar's suitability was, like Russia's for 2018, shockingly bad. They were able to overcome that by proming to spend $4 billion on the tournament. Some might suggest that Fifa should be pressing for that money to be spent on developing football in Asia rather than on building new air-conditioned dismantleable stadiums in a desert. Qatar should have proved its commitment to football, rather than wealth-creation, before being given the rights.

5) It is one of the smallest countries in the world. In terms of area, it comes in below Vanuatu and the Falkland Islands and is only five places higher than Cyprus. It is about 165,000 sq km smaller than Uruguay, the previous smallest World Cup host. It is a third the size of Belgium, who put in a joint bid with the Netherlands for the 2018 World Cup because they thought it would be silly to go it alone. I'm all in favour of the little guy getting a chance and for the World Cup to go to new countries, but this is simply a case of a country buying - some say bribing - its golden ticket and it stinks.

Australian collapse a perfect wake-me-up

Is there any better feeling than arriving in a foreign country after a seven-hour flight knowing that an Ashes Test has begun while you were somewhere over Iraq and then, on landing, discovering that Australia lost their first three wickets by the start of the third over?

I'm in Dubai for the rugby sevens (horrible country - the fact that Andrew Flintoff loves it tells you all you need to know - but a great tournament) and arrived at my hotel at 5am, three hours before I was due to leave it for the stadium.

Having risen at 6am the day before to catch a flight from Gatwick that was cancelled because of snow (I went via Heathrow in the end), I am dog-tired, but Australia's dismal start in Adelaide and the fact that they have just been dismissed for 245 puts a bit of a spring in my step.

Eighty-five TV channels in my hotel room, not one of them showing the cricket. You wouldn't know that Dubai is where cricket's world governing body is based from the coverage. Fortunately, a New Zealand friend finds a website where I can watch play live without charge.

He is delighted by Australia's woes, as are the South African pressmen here. "I don't care who wins as long as one side gets thrashed," a Saffer said, without much love for England or Australia. Looks like he may get his wish.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ashes schmashes

Apparently, Australia will do "everything in their power to boost the morale of their misfiring strike bowler Mitchell Johnson" before the second Ashes Test starts on Friday.

What, they're going to ask him to bowl at no one but Marcus North in the nets?

Meanwhile, I see the BBC's round-up of Ashes gossip reports that "Fast bowler Steven Finn celebrated in style after his side sealed a draw in Brisbane - with a hearty steak sandwich". This is followed by "Full story: Twitter".

Surely the whole point of Twitter is that you shouldn't need to click to read more?

Monday, November 29, 2010

England did not save the first Ashes Test, they failed to win it

I should have written a post earlier today celebrating England's great escape in the first Ashes Test, but it doesn't feel like that.

England have become quite good at escaping from Tests with a draw in the past two years but this time it was their batsmen who did the hard work. Monty Panesar was just carrying the drinks; Graham Onions isn't even in Australia.

By passing 500 for the loss of one wicket, which has only happened six times and never to England, Andrew Strauss's team (or rather the top three) showed how toothless Australia's bowling is and how flat the pitch was. Why couldn't they bat like this first time out? I watched the first two sessions on Day 1 and Australia's bowling was pretty tame. Peter Siddle found inspiration for a spell after tea but that was all.

An Australian friend, my co-author Peter McGuinness, emailed to express his disappointment. "Many Poms are acting stupidly triumphant but this is a Test they should have won," he wrote. "This match was saved not by England's batsmen but by the out-of-character good-length bowling by Siddle in your first innings."

He goes on to add that while Australia conceding 500 for the loss of one is demoralising for Aussies, so it should be for Poms that England could not capitalise on having Australia 180 for five in the first innings or do much in the brief second innings save lower Simon Katich's already poor Ashes average to 33.

"This was a genuine shitty old draw not a moral win for England like at Cardiff," he wrote, and he is right. But five shitty draws mean that England retain the Ashes. Still, I think our bowlers are rather better than they showed in Brisbane. Hopefully with their nerves gone, they will be better in the rest of the series, especially if the batsmen can continue to score easy runs.

One final point: Alastair Cook has taken an immense amount of flak from the British media over the past six months. Some, like Mike Atherton in my paper, have even argued that he should have been dropped a year ago and wasn't worth the air fare to Australia.

There was some basis for this because he had looked very ropey all summer and, until the Oval Test, was scoring as many single-figure scores as Australia's hot-or-frozen batsman Marcus North.

But consider this: in the 12 months before the Brisbane Test, England's batsmen had made 13 Test hundreds. Four of them were by Cook, three of them overseas. Now he has a fourth in 12 months, a Test double hundred no less and the highest score made by an England batsman since Cook's mentor Graham Gooch made 333. If Cook doesn't deserve his place, we must have a fabulous batting line-up....

Nice beaver

First Bernard Matthews, now Leslie Nielsen. Who will be the next giant of 1980s culture to depart this world? My money's on Jim Bowen. Or possibly Gordon the Gopher, whose addiction to crystal meth has surely screwed up his insides.

Nielsen had a brilliant gift for deadpan gag-making, completing the most excruciating delightfully bad puns set up by other actors, none more famous than the "Surely you can't be serious..." "I am serious and don't call me Shirley" exchange in Airplane!

Some other favourites:
  • "We're sorry to bother you at such a time like this, Mrs Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then."
  • "Is this some kind of bust?... "Yes ma'am, it's very impressive but we need to ask you some questions."
  • "It took me two weeks to find Stella's apartment. She'd neglected to give me her address."
  • [offered a cigar he is asked "Cuban?"] "No, Dutch-Irish, my father came from Wales."
  • "What was it we had for dinner tonight?"... "There was a choice of steak or fish." ... "Yes, I remember, I had the lasagne."
His obliviousness was what made the Zucker-scripted lines so funny, his knack of acting, as Jerry Zucker put it, "like a fish in water". His later films, as spoof followed spoof, were pretty poor but that was more to do with the quality of the writing than his acting.

The Naked Gun trilogy was a huge part of my adolescence. With my friend Richard, I watched the video of the original film until the tape snapped even though we knew all the jokes backwards. We knew some of them forwards as well. Familiarity bred contentment.

It perplexed my father, who often wondered why George Peppard had gone into slapstick. What a shame the A Team remake came too late for Nielsen to tackle Hannibal Smith. "Cover me, Murdoch" (cue coat being dropped over his head)...

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rudderless

Watching the start of play on Day 3 in the Brisbane Test just now, the camera picked up and lingered on a round-faced, grey-haired man with glasses who was carefully explaining the rules of cricket to three Chinese friends.

Obviously, anyone who watches the news will have recognised Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister until pretty recently, even if fewer will have known that he is the constituency MP for the area that contains the Gabba, but it was disappointing that none of the commentators were able to, well, comment.

The footage came during a break in play and the cameras, which presumably were held by Australians, lingered for longer than they normally would if it was Joe Public but neither Nasser Hussain nor his commentary sidekick (I think it was Ian Botham) were able to identify him. Nor, one assumes, was a producer able to whisper in their ear.

I shouldn't be shocked, but I am saddened and rather ashamed of the lack of worldliness by Sky's commentary team. No doubt if it was Lily Allen or Kevin Spacey they would have spoken for five minutes about their entire CV.

Bootiful

Bernard Matthews, the king of the twizzlers, has died at the age of 80. On a farm in Norfolk, a million turkeys have their hopes raised of a last-minute stay of execution.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gone in 60 seconds

I had my first piece published on The Roar, an Australian sports opinion website, yesterday. Written before the start of the first Ashes Test, it was all about the importance of taking the initiative early in the Ashes, as this extract shows. The full article can be read here.
It is never too early to throw away the Ashes. In 2002, Nasser Hussain appeared to have done just that when he walked out for the toss convinced that he would bat if he won and found himself uttering the words “I think we’ll field” as soon as he got the call right.

In those few strides, he had become convinced that his batsmen would not be able to handle Glenn McGrath and Co. Within the space of a few seconds, all plans had gone out of the window. Australia cashed in.

To be fair to Nasser, he was probably just surprised he had called correctly, having won six out of his 27 previous tosses, including a fabulous statistically improbable sequence of one win out of 16 in 2000-01. A great captain, Nasser, but a hopeless tosser.

I was speaking to Phil DeFreitas recently about the importance of seizing the initiative early. “Daffy”, who at the age of 20 was given a Test debut at the Gabba in the 1986-87 Ashes, said it was crucial in that match that England’s batsmen passed 400 after winning the toss (helped in no small measure by 40 for DeFreitas).

It gave the bowlers the confidence to attack Australia and from that initial win flowed the series. England have not won the first Test of an away Ashes since.
Eight years later, Defreitas was the older, wiser spearhead of Mike Atherton’s attack as they tried to regain the Ashes. DeFreitas had done his visualisation exercises, putting himself mentally in the right place for the Test. He had worked out what end he wanted and gone through in his mind what he would do with that first ball.
And then, as they walked out on that first morning, Mike Gatting smelt the wind, decided it was blowing in a funny way and suggested to Atherton that they should open from the opposite end.
“I wasn’t happy about it,” DeFreitas told me. “It really threw me. I couldn’t find my line and Michael Slater hit my first two balls to the fence.” And so passed another Ashes series out of England’s clutches before the first drinks break.
The dismissal of Andrew Strauss to the third ball of yesterday's opening day could also be regarded as a momentum-shifter, except that England did not quite roll up and die.

Historians may yet come to regard his ill-judged cut stroke as the point at which England lost the 2010 Ashes, but fifties from Ian Bell and Alastair Cook at least ensured that England are not quite out of the game. By reaching 260, they gave the England bowlers something to work with.

I am foolishly grasping to a recent example from Australian state cricket at the same ground. Last month, New South Wales played Queensland in Brisbane and were dismissed for 262, two more than England. They went on to win by an innings and 90 runs. Time for England's bowlers to follow that.

Welfare hypocrisy

Spot the difference between the first two items on this evening's BBC's Ten O'Clock news:

1) Former Tory MP Howard Flight says that the welfare system gives incentives to the poor to breed and discourages those in work. He says that this is not very sensible. Labour's attack dogs play the "shame and offence" card. David Cameron, spineless as ever, says that the comments were wrong and Flight should apologise. The whole spin on the item is "are the Tories still the nasty party?"

2) Ed Miliband goes to speak to Labour voters and they are filmed telling him that they are fed up with working hard and being penalised while those on benefits have no responsibility. One says words to the effect that "they're encouraged to have children while we can't afford to" (see about a minute into this video). Miliband nods and says that this has to be sorted out.

Am I missing something, or are both stories making the same point? Why is it OK for Labour voters to say there is a problem but not for former Tory MPs? Why can the BBC not link these stories and have a proper debate about it? And when will Cameron grow a pair?

Baby warning system

It appears that my month-old baby has already developed an impeccable sense of occasion when it comes to cricket.

Last night, I stayed up to watch the first two sessions of the Test match, while my daughter slept in her crib, oblivious to Strauss's third-ball trauma and Cook's scratchy fifty and the flamboyant but all too brief innings of Pietersen and Trott.

With eyelids drooping, I decided to turn in at tea but had barely been asleep for an hour when a grizzle emanated from the crib beside the bed, gradually getting louder until it woke me.

After first checking that my baby was all right, I switched on the radio to be greeted by the news that Alastair Cook had just been snaffled by Shane Watson. And so, thanks to the baby warning system, I was able to listen to the next two balls of Peter Siddle's hat-trick.

Not sure if the daughter appreciated them as much as she should - or felt quite the same despair as her father - but at least she can say in years to come that she was listening when Siddle turned the 2010-11 Ashes.

North Korea, east of Delaware

Dear old Sarah Palin proved her presidential credentials yesterday, suggesting that North Korea, part of George Dubya's axis of weevils, is an ally of Uncle Sam.

Slagging off President Obama for the way he is handling the brewing tension after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong island (it's just like Nantucket, Sarah), the would-be next Republic president said:
“We’re not having a lot of faith that the White House is going to come out with a strong enough policy to sanction what it is that North Korea is going to do... Obviously we gotta stand with our North Korean allies.”
Palin says in her new book that it is sexist to call her a bit thick and that her malapropisms don't really matter. It brings to mind the spin by a Bush aide after her candidate was unable to name several world leaders, including the heads of Pakistan and India, during the campaign for the 2000 election.

"He is seeking to be the leader of the free world, not a Jeopardy contestant," she said.

Still, the 2012 campaign will be a lot of fun if Failin' Palin goes all the way...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The loneliness of a long-distance Ashes follower

If you want sports nostalgia, you can't do better than Frank Keating. The veteran Guardian writer, now in his seventies, only seems to be wheeled out these days to talk about sport when all the participants are dead, but he does it beautifully.

Take this piece on the Ashes, for instance. Keating recalls his 8-year-old self listening to the 1946-47 Ashes on the wireless while away at boarding school:
"It was the week before Christmas and I swear I can remember vividly still that telling first moment I twiddled through the hiss and crackle, the strident squeals and seashell static to deduce from a faraway voice with a metallic, self‑satisfied colonial twang that Australia had declared at 659 – Barnes 234, Bradman 234 – and England were on the way to a slaughter."
The first Test slaughter is a common part of my Ashes awareness. I was ten when England last won the opening Test of an Ashes Down Under and cricket had not yet seeped into my skin. I'm afraid I have no memories of the 1986-87 Ashes.

Other events from 1986 have stuck: Space shuttle Challenger exploding, I can definitely recall. I'm pretty convinced that I remember the Government announcing plans to build the Channel Tunnel, too (there's a joke in Asterix in Britain about needing to build one, so that is probably why the news stuck). I remember the Hand of God and the Jeremy Bamber murders, which happened in a village close to ours. I remember seeing The Great Mouse Detective, Disney's take on Sherlock Holmes, at the cinema. But I don't know if I took an interest in the Ashes and Gatting's success. For shame.

That was the last Ashes tour that I did not make a point of following and the last that England won. Since then, I have fanatically been glued first to the wireless - and, rather desperately, to Teletext - then to the internet and satellite TV. In three hours' time, I will start the ritual again as England attempt to beat our old friends in their own backyard for the first time since 1986.

It will be a lonely vigil, unless my month-old daughter decides to join me, and I am sure that I will not make it far past lunchtime on any day. And then I will wake when the baby wakes, probably with an hour to go in the evening session, and switch on the TV again, wondering for half a second whether England are still in the match or whether they have again been slaughtered.

Sixty-four years ago, Keating listened to the fourth Test as the slaughter continued and found enough brief joy in a short passage of play to send his mother a brief birthday card with the line:
"Dear Mum, Happy birthday, Bedser bowled Bradman for a duck, Your loving Francis x."
She never threw the card away. Today, children would probably send it as a tweet and it would be lost almost as soon as it was received. How sad.

I end this post with a delightful tale of Keating's about the passions that listening to the Ashes in bed can arouse:
"During that victorious 1987 England trek the Observer published an unforgettable letter from a reader, Vicky Rantzen, who told how her best girlfriend was making love to her husband at dead of night when, just as mutual passion was reaching its heady heights, she noticed something in his ear.

"Ardour dampened, she pulled away and asked him what it was? "Be quiet, woman, I'm listening to the Test match from Brisbane."

Monday, November 22, 2010

All change (apart from US, Brazil, Ireland and Yemen)

There is a fascinating new world view over on the Strange Maps blog, which shows a revised atlas with the countries that have the biggest populations assigned to the countries with the largest areas. A larger, zoomable version of it is here.


China, the most populated country, gets to shift northwards and take over Russia, the largest land mass whose population is only ranked at No 9, which qualifies them to inhabit the space currently held by Kazakhstan. India, with the second largest population, takes over the vast mass of Canada.

Pakistan is given the whole of Australia to occupy, which at least ensures that there will still be winter cricket tours to the Antipodes, although the United Kingdom is now sitting where Niger usually is. Australia takes over Spain, which means that only Mexico stands as a buffer zone between the Ashes rivals. The UK is now occupied by Tunisia, which will upset the Daily Mail.

The USA, the third largest country in terms of population and area, stays where it is, as does Brazil, which is fifth in both lists. Less predictably, Yemen and Ireland also remain where they are. Does that make those four countries the most efficient on our planet? A small crumb of comfort in these troubled times for Ireland, perhaps.

Meanwhile, in a delightful twist, South Korea would take over South Africa, which should suit them fine until they inquire about who their new neighbours are. "So who's moved into Botswana then? Oh fuck, not North Korea again..."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Star Wars in art

The ever-excellent Retronaut has some splendid mash-ups of Star Wars characters in classic art. I wonder where people get the time and talent, let alone the ideas...




Peer silenced for speaking his mind

David Cameron can be quite menacing. Asked about Lord Young's comments yesterday, in which the Tory peer said that the majority of people had "never had it so good" during the recession and that some people did not have a right to state support, Cameron snarled: "I think he will be doing a bit less speaking in future."

Given that Lord Young is only an unpaid adviser to the Government rather than under collective responsibility, I don't see how Cameron has a right to silence him.

I know that Young's comments will be embarrassing for the Government and the opposition and trade unions have been predictably hysterical in condemning him. It would have been better if Young could have expressed sympathy for those who have lost ther jobs and are finding the economic situation tight.

But his basic points were not inaccurate. They certainly were not "offensive" as a Downing Street lackey called them. With interest rates at 0.5%, those for whom a mortgage is their main expenditure have done OK. This recession has been less calamitous for more people than other recessions.

There is belt-tightening and uncertainty, but not soaring costs for the majority. Very few people have had their homes repossessed. Government spending is only being cut back to the level it was three years ago. Some people are suffering and that is tragic, but it is a great shame that Cameron could not simply have said: "Those are his views, he is entitled to express them. It is not the view of me or my Government."

The Daily Mash makes a fair point:
The Tory peer was later forced to apologise for his sadistic, upper-class rightness, adding: "I'm very old. Look at my bow tie. I'm not right in the head.


"I now realise that if your income stays much the same and your biggest monthly expense goes down quite a lot then you're worse off. You don't need a PhD in maths to work that one out.

"And I don't know what I was thinking when I said some people think they have a right to state support. I suppose I must have just thought it was okay because it's a view shared by more than half the Cabinet and the vast majority of the people in this country.

"I'm so old. Can I have a cup of tea now?"

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Couple who met at university to marry"

The Caledonian Mercury has the best take on today's big news:

Two people who went to university together are to get married, it has emerged.

William Windsor (or possibly Wales or possibly Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) and Kate Middleton, both 28, met at St Andrews University eight years ago.

Mr Windsor is a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF – and also a prince.

Wall-to-wall, dewy-eyed hysterical coverage can be found in every other media outlet.

Win the Ashes, win a beer

Sorry for the delay in posting. Having a new child and the sleep-deprivation that brings has rather affected my energy levels.

Still, the Ashes is only nine days away and my baby daughter and I can start planning to stay up through the night watching England's efforts in Australia. Hopefully she can stop grizzling, even if we win the toss and choose to field in Brisbane.

One of my friends taught his baby to raise a finger at the mention of the words "Ricky Ponting" (an index finger, indicating "out", I'm assuming). I'll have to teach my daughter to chuckle at the words "Nathan Hauritz, Australia's best spinner".

There is a mood of pessimism over the Australia camp. For the first time in 24 years, England have headed Down Under as favourites. But now I hear that an Australian brewery has come up with an incentive to the nation. If the Aussies win the series, Carlton and United Breweries will give a free pint of beer to every Australian.

I'm not sure that weak Australian pissbeer would be much of an inducement to me to cheer on my side, but as a marketing gimmick goes, it could prove costly. With about 15 million adult Australians in the population, it is estimated that the promotion could cost the company £12 million.

Could Carlton and United end up regretting their gimmick in the same way as Hoover, who offered free flights to anyone who spent £100 on their products in 1992 and found themselves £50 million out of pocket? Or might England actually not lose the series and spare their blushes?

Friday, November 05, 2010

Pot... kettle...

Rather surprising to see Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems deputy leader, pop up on the Ten O'Clock News to have a go at Phil Woolas, who he said had come "severely unstuck" after being found guilty of smearing his Lib Dem opponent during the election, behaviour that Hughes called "unacceptable".

Perhaps Hughes has forgotten that he benefited from dirty tricks when he was first elected as MP for Bermondsey in 1983 as his team ran a homophobic campaign against the Labour candidate, Peter Tatchell, that involved billing Hughes as "the straight choice" and wearing stickers saying "I've been kissed by Peter Tatchell".

Hughes, who revealed that he was bisexual four years ago, apologised for the 1983 campaign when he was running for his party's leadership and said that he never wanted to see a campaign run like that again. He is completely right, of course, but it might have been better to let another Lib Dem give Woolas a pasting. Glass houses and all that.

Disgraced Phil Woolas not even worthy to be called Mr

Who says The Times has lost its thunder? Within hours of Phil Woolas, the shadow immigration minister, being found guilty of deliberately making false statements about an opponent in his election literature, the following email was sent round to Times staff by the paper's Chief Revise Editor:
"He should not get an honorific as he has been found wanting in the electoral court by High Court judges under Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. We remove honorifics for those convicted in criminal cases, and indeed for doctors, teachers who are, eg, struck off the register."
So the MP for Oldham East & Saddleworth (until the by-election) can carry on drawing a parliamentary salary and claiming on expenses while he appeals against the court ruling that he accused his Lib Dem opponent of pandering to Islamic militants, but the Paper of Record has already decided that he is no longer fit to be called Mr Woolas. That must sting. It is, of course, the correct thing to do.

By doing so, not only is Woolas lumped in with crims and bent quacks, he is also treated in the same way as sportsmen. The Times has long ruled that the Rooneys and Hensons of this world are not to be styled with an honorific. It just looks silly.

Which makes me wonder: now that Ann Widdecombe has moved from Parliament to the world of light entertainment, should she also be known as just plain Widdecombe, rather than Ms W?

Thursday, November 04, 2010

The woofs to the left....

A delightful anecdote on Iain Dale's blog:
On Wednesday night during a Commons vote, David Blunkett's guide dog took him towards to aye lobby, which of course is the lobby Government supporters normally vote in. Being nice guys, the Tory whips helpfully pointed out he ought to be voting no in the other lobby.

During a vote yesterday afternoon the dog again took Blunkett to the Government side of the committee room. Blunkett proceeded to explain to the assembled that although he was in opposition his dog was still in governing mode!
Some might argue that Blunkett's dog, Sadie, would perform the duties of an MP just as competently as much of the lobby fodder on either side of the House. Probably would charge less in living expenses too.

It was Sadie's predecessor, Lucy, who was famously sick on the floor of the Chamber during a speech by David Willetts, now the universities minister. If only frontbenchers today could match the quality of Lucy's interjection.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

From ward 2 to Cell Block H in five days

We experienced the best and the worst of the NHS during our recent stay in hospital. When they dealt with my wife, the midwives were wonderful. Hard-working, patient, encouraging and thoroughly competent. They were public-sector professionals at their very best.

The problem was how long it took to get anything done. If it wasn't absolutely urgent, there was a lot of waiting around. The three hours between my wife being admitted and them beginning to induce her for the first time was frustrating, but nothing compared to the 12-hour wait between the first and second induction (when it should have been six) or the 12 hours between them saying they would put her on a drip to kick-start labour and it happening.

And then there was the long wait to get sent home. My wife was given the all-clear by the doctor by 4pm on Tuesday. All that was needed was a bag of drugs from the pharmacy and a signature on a release form from a midwife. It took until 8.30pm before we could leave.

The pharmacist took his time, but the main hold-up was because the woman in the bed opposite needed to be processed first so she could be sent to prison. Oh yes. You don't get that sort of company in the Portland.

I don't know whether the soap opera that went on the other side of the curtain was amusing or desperately saddening. The woman (little more than a girl to look at) had given birth on Thursday and needed to attend court on Tuesday. While she was away being sentenced, her ratbag mother and sister alternated care for the baby with frequent cigarette breaks.

I never found out what she had done, but when she returned in the afternoon with two social workers in tow, we heard that she had been sentenced to four months in a secure mother-and-baby unit. Her new-born would start its life behind bars. Sadly, I suspect it won't be the last time it is there.

Her partner wept after an argument because he couldn't spend time with his child, but it was clear that he did not really understand his responsibility towards the family. Meanwhile, the sister expressed relief that her own partner's anger-management problems had gone and that her children "didn't know him when he was ill".

It seemed immoral that a woman could be made to attend court so soon after giving birth and she complained that she had been made to sit for so long in the court-room. Yet it wasn't her personal discomfort that distressed her but the fact that she had been "dying for a fag".

This was a snapshot of London's underclass that we rarely encounter outside of television, a cyclical deprivation that one fears can never be cured no matter how much money is thrown at it. The social workers were helpful - one offering advice on bus routes to the prison and suggesting how much the parents could save if they stopped smoking - but the suspicion was that it was a wasted effort.

Some could wonder if the American woman who was over here recently sterilising drug addicts for money should expand her remit, although regular contraception that is not self-administered would be better and more humane. Kindness and guidance is better than punishment, but how much kind advice sinks in?

The actors in this soap opera rarely develop beyond the childish state in emotional intelligence, so it is no wonder that most struggle to raise their own children.


As they left hospital after all the checks, the mother smiled. "Free at last," she said.

"Well, up to a point," replied her sister. For the underclass, they will never really be free.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Swing low sweet Harriet

Delighted to announce the birth of the future England cricket captain/fly half/polymath and Archbishop of Canterbury - but most importantly, my daughter.

Harriet Elizabeth Nancy, known as Hattie, appeared at 6am on Monday after my wife had spent an Athertonesque 57 hours in hospital waiting for her to arrive.

I'm looking forward to spending the coming sleepless nights with her watching the Ashes. We spent our first night together watching old episodes of Bullseye and a Led Zeppelin concert. It's important to get them started on appreciating culture early, although I was glad that she nodded off before Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You as that could have been traumatic.

She shares a birthday with my good friend Bob Miller, captain of the PG Wodehouse Society cricket team, and also with the Battle of Agincourt and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Office's Tim to play Bilbo

I'm delighted to read that Martin Freeman will play Bilbo Baggins in the film version of The Hobbit. I think he'll be excellent in the role.

I like the idea of Richard Armitage (Lucas in Spooks) playing Thorin Oakenshield, the head dwarf, too. Presumably he'll be bearded, but he has a suitably grim expression.

Hopefully Sir Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis will take on the roles of Gandalf and Gollum that they played in The Lord of the Rings again.

My only bugbear about a film that I'm now beginning to look forward to hugely is that Peter Jackson, the director, is going to split the story into two films.

I know he has no discipline for cutting his work - the three LotR films would have each benefited from having half an hour chopped - but The Hobbit is not a big book, barely 400 pages. It could easily have fitted a three-hour film.

I guess the first film will do the whole Rivendell/Misty Mountains/Gollum story, maybe ending with the dwarves being rescued by the eagles from the wargs and finding sanctuary at Beorn's house (am I showing a worrying depth of knowledge here?). The second film could then take them through Mirkwood, up the lake and on to the battle with Samug (who really should be voiced by Alan Rickman, I think), but it still could be compressed.

Oh well, all this has got me wanting to go and read the book again. It is one of the great children's books of the 20th century, with arguably the most fabulous cover design, designed by Tolkien himself.

Stay at home, says Ken

According to Iain Dale, Ken Livingstone has called for a tax on people who take more than one holiday a year.

Apart from the difficulty of policing that (I've not had a holiday since we drove to France in March but I have flown abroad at least four times since then on business - does that count?), has Livingstone not heard of air passenger duty, which is due to rise up to £60 depending on travel-class and destination from November 1? Or seen the euro exchange rate? Or heard of how Ryanair rip you off for everything?

And when Livingstone says that travelling abroad is a class issue, has he never visited Marbella or Paphos?

There is a separate argument to be made about whether airline taxes should increase to mitigate for the environmental impact of flying, but pegging that to whether it is your second holiday of the year seems barmy.

And presumably, assuming his philosophy is that what is right for Britain is right for other countries (class envy has no boundaries), then would Livingstone like tourists who come to London for the Olympics in 2012 to pay extra if they have had a holiday earlier that year?

He has a point, though, in saying that we need to spruce up Britain's seaside resorts and make them more attractive holiday destinations and he has a personal reason for saying so.

As I learnt from this interview with the Indy, in which he reveals how classless he is by taking frequent trips to San Francisco, Corfu and Italy's Bay of Poets, Livingstone's parents worked for Butlin's at Skegness.

Redcoats, naturally.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just a small prick

As Mr Unenlightened Commentary says, when you are an athlete accused of taking drugs, isn't it less embarrassing just to admit to the offence than to claim that you inadvertently took the steroid in an over-the-counter penis-enlargement product?

The schoolboy side of me, which is never fully dormant, loved this quote from the disgraced athlete, LeShawn Merritt:
"To know that I've tested positive as a result of a product that I used for personal reasons is extremely difficult to wrap my hands around."
Guess the penis-enlargement must be working, although won't it get in the way when he runs? Presumably it makes entering the relay race difficult in case his team-mates grab hold of the wrong baton.

Advice to George Osborne

If I could give one piece of advice to George Osborne today it would be: try not to look smug. It will be hard for him - I'm reminded of the quote by Ringo Starr when asked why he always looked so sad and he replied "it's just me face" - but it really might be worth trying.

He has just been shown on BBC News leaving his home for the Cabinet meeting before he delivers his £83bn cuts and, when asked by a reporter if he is going to put 500,000 public service workers out of a job, he smirks - yes, actually smirks - and says "you'll just have to wait and see".

Would it really hurt him if he looked as though this was going to be a difficult day? He may not care about what people think of him, but he has to try and understand that what he announces today will leave many people in pretty dire financial circumstances. I know he feels that this is his moment of destiny and should be relished, but even lions look saddened just before they rip open a wildebeest.

Osborne may be doing the right thing for the economy and he may have inherited a busted economy from Labour, which he should point out calmly and without political point-scoring, but all that matters is that this essential medicine will hurt and he should show some sympathy for those who don't have a family wallpaper empire to fund them.

I'd even suggest that he should end his speech today with an apology. Not an admission of guilt or failure, but an expression of sorrow: "I would like to apologise to the country that we have been put in this position but this is necessary and I promise that everything I announce today is for the good of everyone in the long run."

And then just sit down and try to think of something sad - the end of Bambi, maybe - rather than smirking at the cameras.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Give the French an inch and they take 2.54cm...

Tomorrow, anniversary-spotters, marks 50 years since the French imposed SI units on the world.

Metrication had been about for a while - the French had been dividing things by ten since the late 18th century -  but it wasn't until the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960 that the Systeme International d'Unites, or SI system, was introduced, specifying kilograms, metre, second, Kelvin, ampere and candelas.

Within five years, metrication had become the system used in Britain, with a few exceptions such as on road signs and in pubs, where miles and pints still hold sway, but generally these islands are resisting the French vandalism of our measurements.

It is hard to shake off. Even though I was born ten years after metrication, I still think of my height in feet and inches, my weight in stones, my cheese in pounds (half-pounds, my wife would prefer) and my fields, when I get them, in acres. And yet it is hard to think of petrol in anything but litres for some reason.

I know that metrication makes more sense, but it does kill some of the joy of arbitrary measurement, as the image above shows. Leonardo's Vitruvian Man demonstrates different measurements based on the body from the fathom (or six feet) to the cubit (measured from the finger tip to the elbow).

Then there is the chain (66ft, which survives in the length of a cricket pitch), the furlong (originally the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting and about the length of ten chains), the cable (100 fathoms, after the anchor line on most ships), the gill (a third of a pint, from the Old French gille, or an earthenware pot) and the rod (51/2 yards, the length of an ox-goad).

It's delightful and non-specific (like my approach to time-keeping). The world was a happier place when people were less exact.

However, metrication has given us one important thing: the dialogue between Vincent and Jules at the start of Pulp Fiction.

Vincent: you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: Nah, man, they got the metric system, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: What do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with Cheese
Jules: "Royale with Cheese."
Vincent: That's right.
Jules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: A Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac
Jules: "Le Big Mac." What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I don't know, I didn't go in to Burger King