Monday, June 28, 2010

Stupid sport

I knew that the Americans were a nation of taste and good losers to boot. If only we could view yesterday's match with the same attitude.

Hat-tip to Marbury.

They're coming home, they're coming...

Look, on the bright side at least we have avoided having to play Argentina in the quarter-finals.

I watched yesterday's Germany game on a small portable TV with bad reception by the boundary edge of the Coldharbour cricket ground in Surrey. It was the annual Times over-40s v under-40s match and because of the football we decided to take an extra-long tea interval between 3 and 5.

Except that once Germany scored their fourth goal there was very little reason to carry on watching the football and so the cricket resumed with 20 minutes left in Bloemfontein. That's how desperate England were.

But just because our football team are crap, there is no reason to feel gloomy. Here are a few signs that all is right with the world:
  • Andy Murray is still in Wimbledon (this will hold for at least another five hours as he is third on Centre Court today
  • England have just beaten Australia 3-0 in a one-day cricket series. True it is a money-spinning exercise not pegged to an Ashes summer and hardly anyone cares about it, but a win is a win
  • Our golfers are dominating America, which is always good in Ryder Cup year. Graeme McDowell won the US Open and other Brit winners on US soil this year include Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Paul Casey
  • Despite never seemingly winning a grand prix, the top two drivers in the Formula One table this season are British: Lewisham Ilton and Jenson Button
  • We won five gold medals and six other coloured medals at the rowing World Cup the weekend before last
  • Er... we must still be quite good at cycling and canoeing and diving and swimming and Paralympic sports and quoits and quidditch and backgammon and snooker and darts and conkers and Boggle.
So who cares if there is one sport that we are unremittingly cruddy at? We rule the world at everything that matters

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Honk honk

There was a bit of hoo-hah last week from people complaining that the South African vuvuzela - which looks like an elongated toy trumpet and sounds like an elephant trying to clear his trunk - was spoiling their enjoyment of the World Cup. I thought the lack of goals would do that.

The vuvuzela, which South Africans claim is a traditional instrument despite it being a) plastic and b) has only been mass-marketed in South Africa since 2001, drowns out all other noise, a safety risk as well as just plain irritating.

But not being in South Africa, I hadn't realised how the droning sound - a B flat, I believe - gets under your skin until the Great Britain men's eight arrived to cheer on their team-mates at the Munich rowing World Cup today, all carrying their own vuvuzelas. I'd have thought if they wanted to honour a local tradition, a Wagner tuba would have been more appropriate and just as loud.

Seven of the crew have been sat a few rows behind me here in the grandstand making the most almighty racket on their three-euro honkers, which they picked up in a Munich supermarket yesterday. Apparently they tried to play them in the hotel bar while watching the football last night and got evicted.

One of the crew was missing, though. Greg Searle, the 1992 Olympic champion who is making a comeback this year at the age of 38, was not in the orchestra. Was he too mature for it?

No, I was told, Greg is the ringleader. And sure enough, he showed up later with two vuvuzelas in hand. But where does he stick the second one? I could make some suggestions...

Friday, June 18, 2010

The glamorous life of a sports writer

Here I am in the grandstand of the Olympic rowing lake outside Munich, a brutalist concrete structure that makes you think that if the rest of the 1972 Olympics venues were designed with such lack of beauty it is no wonder that people started shooting each other.

It is raining. It is cold. The cheese in the press box rolls is bland, the apple juice slightly salty. I am staying in a hotel in Dachau, just down the road from the concentration camp. To add to the general mood of misery, the local press spent the afternoon watching their national team lose in the football World Cup to Serbia. It is not a jolly place. I got up at 5.30am to come here today.

I'm not moaning, though. It's just that when people sometimes express envy that I get paid to write about sport, they don't realise that it is not all Pimm's, sunshine and girls in pretty frocks (although at Henley it pretty much is that). But I am very lucky to be doing what I do.

This is a busy time, hence the lack of posts this week (I'm really sorry to the few kind souls who visit this blog each day and leave disappointed, I will try to write more often so that you can be disappointed only by quality rather than quantity). I flew to Munich this morning, having spent the past four days commuting from London to Eastbourne daily for the women's tennis.

I get back Sunday night and it is straight off to Wimbledon on Monday for a week and a half then it is a few days at Henley Royal Regatta (where really no one can complain about their lot - they even have courtesy gin and tonic in the press tent!), a day doing a one-day international at Lord's, three days covering rowing in Lucerne and then up to St Andrews for the Open golf.

That takes us to the third week of July, but I'd rather be this busy than twiddling my thumbs. My diary for August just says "sleep". And "blog".

(Thanks to Rachel Quarrell, my colleague on the Telegraph and editor of Rowing Voice for the photo of our bleak workspace above)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Swearing for beginners

So as the amount of cars bearing fluttering white flags with a red cross tells us, another World Cup is about to start. That and the car drivers have very small cocks. The World Cup may have officially begun yesterday, but those were games just involving unimportant countries like France. The real tournament gets under way tonight when England play the USA.

Incidentally, I can understand why David Cameron thinks it would be a good thing politically to fly the flag of St George over the office during this tournament, but isn't there the risk that it will make Downing Street look a bit like a council estate?

You may have read that Wayne Rooney, the troll who plays up front for England (a rather talented, semi-shaved troll, mind), has been told off for swearing and warned that if he does it tonight he will be sent for an early bath. To help referees to prepare properly, they have been given a list of 20 English obscenities to keep their ears open for.

Twenty? Crikey, I wonder what the other 15 are. Will they be really foul, or really tame. Will "you blighter" count? What about "bloody hell, ref"?

Still, if you see Joe Cole say "damn it all" after fluffing a chance and then one of the linesmen shouts "bingo", you'll know that they have completed the full set.

While Rooney must watch his tongue, there is no reason why he can't be creative about expressing how passionately he views the referee's decisions. These tips might help him stay out of trouble:

The Haddock method: Captain Haddock, the bluff seadog who accompanies Tintin, is the angriest cartoon character ever drawn, yet his abuse remains appropriate for children’s eyes, if not their vocabularies. “Billions of blue blistering barnacles” is one insult. “Ten thousand thundering typhoons” is another. And then there are the single-word curses, such as “ectoplasm”, “coelacanth” and “troglodyte”.

Follow Shakespeare: If it’s on the national curriculum it must be OK. So Rooney can call the referee “a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave”. And that is just from one quotation in King Lear.

It’s classier in Latin: “Pedicabo ego vos, et irrumabo” is the opening line to a love poem by Catullus. It is positively filthy – although one school translation just renders it as “nuts to you and go to hell” – but has the advantage that no one will understand it, apart from Frank Lampard, who has a GCSE in Latin.

Friday, June 11, 2010

New York Times bans tweeting

The New York Times remains a stout defender of proper English, even if its sports pages insists on using the ghastly American word "winningest" for the most successful teams (I'm not joking about that, as this story shows).

This week an edict was sent out to their writers from the NYT's "standards editor" banning the use of the verb and noun "tweet". Outside of an ornithological context, that is.

"Tweet", according to their style guru Phil Corbett, "has not yet achieved the status of standard English ... except for special effect, we try to avoid colloquialisms, neologisms and jargon. And 'tweet', referring to messages on Twitter, is all three".

He goes on to suggest "deft, English alternatives" such as "use Twitter or write on Twitter". One day, he concedes, "tweet" may become as common as "e-mail", but then again it may fade into oblivion. "It doesn’t help that the word itself seems so inherently silly," he writes.

I think Mr Corbett may be my favourite American. Now if only he can change their rule on "winningest"...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Erasing old contacts

There is a good joke in one of the early episodes of Friends when Phoebe finds her grandmother sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper and a thick book in front of her, in which she is drawing lines along a ruler. When asked what she is doing, grandmother replies: "Checking the obituary pages and updating the phone book."

That came to mind yesterday when I deleted Alec Bedser's home number from my address book. The former England fast bowler died a couple of months ago, so I guess I don't have any need for it any more. Sad that he has gone - Bedser had been a regular sight on the cricket dinner circuit and remained a good raconteur even in old age - but at the age of 91 he had had a good innings.

And then I flicked to the news and saw that Stuart Cable, the Stereophonics drummer, had been found dead at the age of 40 and another contact was scrubbed out. Journalists pick up contacts like cats attract fleas and having worked on most sections of the paper in my nine years at the Times, I have picked up an eclectic array of phone numbers and emails.

There are some odd groupings in my contacts book. Jane Asher, cake-maker and former squeeze of Paul McCartney, sits between the Arsenal press office and the official Ashes poet. Keith Chegwin, the 1980s children's TV presenter, is followed by a number for the Chennai Super Kings Indian cricket team.

I had spoken to Cable a few years ago for a rugby supplement I was editing. If you want to find a celebrity to talk about rugby, you can't go far wrong with trying anyone Welsh and Cable was happy to chat for half an hour about his love of the sport and his favourite players. He was charming, funny and very un-rock and roll.

I can't say that I knew Cable from a half-hour conversation any more than I knew Bedser, but he was kind enough to give me his mobile phone number and email and that formed a small connection that is now broken. Updating your contacts book can be quite cathartic, a good way of looking back on your career and remembering conversations long forgotten.

I've just gone through the book and found four more names that can be crossed out: Ben Pimlott, the historian, Bernard Levin, the satirist, George Melly, the jazz singer, and Ian Richardson, the actor. Other names had to be Googled before verifying that they can stay in the book a bit longer, such as Dannie Abse, Dennis Healey, Seamus Heaney and Lord St John of Fawsley.

Of them, it was the erasing of Melly that brought the biggest smile of recollection. When I last spoke to him he told me that he enjoyed watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer because he was a lecherous old man who liked perving over Sarah Michell Geller. You can get away with saying that if you are old.

So the Vole's contacts book is now a little slimmer than it was before, but it has been an interesting trot down memory lane. The only contact I can't bring myself to delete yet is that of my grandfather, who died more than four years ago. It seems that if I was to remove his phone number from the database, he would cease to exist. Does that seem rather pathetic?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Playing up

It's really kind of Nicola Smith, of the Trades Union Congress, to put in the hard work identifying where the coalition Government is cutting public services. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't know that they were doing such a good job, although I suspect she thinks this is all evil.

Apparently, £5 million is being cut from England's Play Strategy. I agree that this is outrageous. The strategy to build adventure playgrounds costs £235 million. Why can the Government only find 2 per cent in savings?

Mr Eugenides takes a more blunt view of the programme (apologies for the asterisks but I'm typing this at work):
"Here's a 'play strategy': a pavement and a piece of f***ing chalk. My memories of 1980 are hazy, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one who managed to play hide and seek in the street without some c*** from Renfrewshire Council explaining the rules to me; and I refuse to believe that the class of '10 are such panty-wetting inadequates that they need a f***ing budget to learn kick-the-can."
Or here's another bit of money being saved, the Government has said it will wait until the spending review in the autumn before deciding whether to let everyone with a longstanding health condition have a free prescription. Note that they aren't necessarily scrapping the previous Government's plan (a plan they spent 13 years doing nothing about, by the way). They are waiting to see whether there is any money to pay for it and will then decide whether it is worth it. Seems sensible to me.

This is a scheme that would cost getting on for half a billion quid a year. Apparently 15 million people, a quarter of the population, have some form of long-term illness, including asthma and depression. Some of them need help in paying for their prescription and, of course, they should be entitled to it from the public purse. Others don't.

I have had asthma for almost 30 years. It is mild and reasonably controlled. If I bought a prescription as often as I should do, it would cost me about £30 a year to get enough inhalers. I think I can afford that. It is a reasonable use of my money to stop me wheezing and I certainly don't expect other taxpayers to pay.

The reason I don't spend even that is because my wife is also asthmatic and I use her (paid-for) medication. This amuses our GP, who treats us like grown-ups, but irritates the surgery's resident asthma nurse.

Nursey won't issue me with a prescription unless I come in for an "asthma check", a pointless waste of time (no one knows how I am breathing - or how to control it when I'm wheezy - better than I do myself) and just an excuse for box-ticking. So I refuse and just wait until I next see the GP for some other reason and ask him at the end to print out an extra ventolin ticket, which he is always happy to do.

It is a very small war of defiance against state involvement in our lives but a crucial one. Reduce the needless asthma check-ups, I say, and spend that money on free asthma prescriptions for those who need them. No taxation without respiration.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Last of the whining summer

Is there any connection between the formation of our coalition Government and the news that Last of the Summer Wine is being axed after 37 years?

Maybe there is only room for one story about a likeable but dull character called Clegg being dominated by a slightly snobby military type and his Yorkshire-speaking sidekick.

The burning question now is how the BBC will bring the series to an end. Here are some ideas based on how other TV series concluded:

* They have been dead all along but, unable to accept it, have been forced to drink beer and reminisce in a sort of Yorkshire purgatory. Norah Batty is Gene Hunt the ferryman. The series ends with them all going to the pub, much like the previous 30 series.

* A ceasefire in Yorkshire is declared (they didn't like to talk about the war much) and Clegg is able to return to his native North Korea. As his helicopter takes off, he looks down and sees the word "tara" written in wheelie bins. A heartbreaking side story has Foggy devastated by the massacre of a colliery band he had been teaching.

* After spending many years in a pub, Clegg decides to emigrate to the other side of the country (Lancashire) and become a radio psychiatrist.

* The trio are ordered to slide down a really steep hill in a bath. Clegg admits that he is scared and just before they go Compo reveals that he has a cunning plan to get out of it, but we never find out what the plan was. As they go over the top of the hill, the action slows and then fades to a field of poppies.

* Holmfirth gets its first Latino antiques shop owner and Seymour is able to retire. His last act is to forgive Wally for telling the press about the secret military bathtub. Compo and Norah Batty finally get it together on the eve of the parish council elections.

Peter Sallis is 89. Thought you might want to know that.