Sunday 22 April 2012

A sad but true moment in the life of a Chelsea fan!

For the next couple of months I’ve got Sky Sports on a freebie, so last Saturday I settled into my armchair to watch the lunchtime kick-off of Chelsea’s game at Arsenal.

There had been a gnawing anxiety in me before the match, which for a change was nothing to do with the potential result. Given that we’d beaten both Tottenham in an FA Cup semi final and Barcelona in the first leg of a Champions League semi final in the past 6 days, I was not expecting a stellar performance from the exhausted boys in Blue. 

The game against Barca had taken a huge toll, requiring a massive effort of concentration and focus (and the players had a pretty hard time too!), but both myself and the team did very well.

Yes it had been an ugly Chelsea performance to watch, but beating Barcelona has nothing to do with football. The challenge they represent goes way beyond any other encounter in the world of soccer, given that each opponent knows Barca will have at least 75% possession at all times. 

They’re just too good to beat at their own game, so despite the slagging targeted at Chelsea for their negative methods, there’s no doubt we delivered a perfectly pragmatic performance. Maybe we’ll do it again in the second leg at their home ground, the Camp Nou on Tuesday, or maybe Barca will put three past us. That’s the glory of the game, and I’m just delighted that somehow our season has finished with us playing at this level.

So no, football wasn’t the reason I was tense. Life has been demanding of late and constantly interrupted by unsolicited and sometimes unwelcome arrivals, and sure enough, 10 minutes into the game, there came a thumping on the front door.

My landlady had arrived with a lawn mower for the house, but it wouldn't start and as her husband and I stood in the rain and fiddled with HT leads and rusty cables I wondered how my team were doing.

Thanks to the wonders of technology I had paused the TV so when I sat back in my chair, the remains of the first half were stored in the digibox.

Rather than miss out on the excitement of watching the game live, I set the fast forward at x2 speed, so that I’d catch up with the action before the start of the second half.

The players flew around, but despite the double quick time I could follow the game perfectly, spotting trends and styles that might have eluded me at normal speed.  We were soaking up the Arsenal pressure very well, taking the ball off them outside our box and then making attack after attack, flying down the wings.

We looked great, positive and sharp. We looked like we wanted to go forward all the time and win the game. All things considered, we were performing at least as well as Manchester United have been of late.

Perky, positive and oh.
Oh yes.
It’s on double speed.
We look like Man U when we’re playing twice as fast as we actually do.
The second half looked slow and pedestrian in comparison.

A sad moment in the life of Chelsea fan.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

It’s no fun being a fat kid. I know because I was one!

Fat kids are a hot potato at the moment. It’s no fun being a fat kid. I know because I was one.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I was never slim, but between the ages of 13 and 16 I put on 5 stone, ending up as a 16 stone 16 year-old. Let me tell you people, that is no fun. The other lads didn’t want to hang out with me and as for girls, well, suffice to say that one low-down dirty day I found out my nickname at the local girls’ school was ‘Piggy’.


It’s painful enough being a 16 year-old without trying to deal with that kind of stigma. And stigma is what it was, firmly scored into my soul when my parents took me off at the age of 14 to see the Fat Boy Specialist.

To be fair to them they doubtless truly believed they were doing the right thing. Their motives were grounded in love, just as they were when they sent me to Merchant Taylors Public School at the age of 13. In their eyes it was a magnificent school that produced a high percentage of candidates for Oxford and Cambridge universities.

They were almost right. Rather than a school, it was a factory that produced candidates for Oxford and Cambridge universities. As a private company, the school needed to turn a profit, so they pushed the brighter kids forward unnecessarily quickly to boost the figures of Oxbridge graduates produced by their production line. These high figures attracted new customers, or parents as I prefer to call them.

Up until the time I was sent there I was a really popular kid. At my previous school I was top of my class, picked early for footie by my mates, a prefect and a Patrol Leader (yes, private education in England was indeed Hogwarts without the magic. Instead of dementors and death eaters, we had psychopathic sadists and sexual perverts for staff).

The trouble started when I scored straight ‘A’s across the board in my final exams. Merchant Taylors took one look at my stats and entered me into their system a year ahead of my age, straight into a class called ‘Divisions’, because it fell somewhere between the 4th and 5th year.

From being top of the class, loaded with friends and confidence, I found myself languishing like a dullard at the bottom of Divs. I knew nobody and appeared completely thick to all the other lads, because they were all pretty much a year ahead of me. I started to eat and that made me fat, which in turn made the brutal sports regime so beloved of English Public Schools an absolute nightmare for me.

To make friends you had to be either good in class, good at sport or good looking, but I felt none of the above. So I ate, because I was miserable and that made me fat, so my parents sent me to the Fat Boy Specialist.

Then I knew I was fat. It was official, so I didn’t care. Food became my rebellion and for a couple of years I stuffed my gob with ridiculous amounts of all the special foods the Fat Boy Specialist had told my parents I should eat.

It wasn’t until I was 17 and crashed my motor bike, breaking my femur, that I turned from that obese kid into the man I am today. I’m still carrying several stone too much body weight, but at least a good proportion of it is muscle these days, and more to the point, I no longer suffer from an adolescent mentality, although the Snapper might question that!

Happily middle-aged I now understand why I became that miserable fat boy. Much of it was the fault of the machiavellian English Public School system that turns teenagers into products that create profit, and a lot of it was down to being taken to the Fat Boy Specialist.

After my own experience of being stigmatised as fat, I can safely say that this proposed scheme to weigh every Irish child on their first day at Primary School is flawed from the outset. If your child weighs too much, their ‘cases’ will be referred to GPs and Fat Kid Specialists. That'll make them feel wonderfully bad about themselves.

Children can be remarkably cruel to each other, and I can think of no more scary and less necessary queue than the “Let’s See Who’s A Fatty” line awaiting your child on their first day at school.

Far from helping childhood obesity, it will stigmatise an entire generation of children, and churn out a bunch of teenagers with all manner of eating disorders.

Anyone who lives near a school sees kids out every day in their lunch hour, quickly stuffing their gobs with burgers, chips and subs. The food is cheap, fast and gives them a rush of fat, sugar and carbs for an hour or two, but by 3 o’clock they’ll be fast asleep in the classroom, unable to concentrate, their small bodies getting bigger and more blubbery by the minute.

It’s not often that I prefer the English way to the Irish, but back in my native country awareness of how to deal with this issue seems decades ahead.
Over there, Professor Terence Stephenson, vice-president of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has hit out at the government for their failure to stop what he calls “irresponsible marketing” tactics employed by the major fast food chains and soft drinks producers.

Last week the 200,000 member-strong Academy demanded a ban on companies like McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsoring major sporting events; exclusion zones around schools where it will be impossible to buy fast food; a ban on celebrities and cartoon characters advertising unhealthy children’s food and drink.

Now that makes sense. Stop selling of the playing fields. Get kids out and about, playing team sports in a healthy environment and they’ll seek out healthier foods. Stop them pigging out on junk and woh, hang on … hang on a minute … all of a sudden I’m sounding like Jamie bloody Oliver.

This colyoom isn’t single-handedly trying to stop childhood obesity, but rather highlight the insanity of implementing an arcane scheme that will make the situation much worse.

Now, I’m off to dunk a hobnob into a mug of tea. 
Well, I can, ‘cos I’m a grown-up.

Monday 9 April 2012

A tale of power, revenge, barbers and broken ribs!

Power is a funny old mite. We aspire to have it over ourselves; some seek it for its own sake; others enjoy using theirs over others.
Some people have a very particular power over you and generally it’s best not to upset them. Dentists and barbers spring to mind, yet in my own inimitable fashion I’ve managed to upset both over the years.

So here I am, walking towards my barber in the Westside. He’s outside, talking into his mobile, but as he sees me he raises a finger at me and slides himself the other side of his shop door, whereupon he flips the hanging sign from OPEN to CLOSED.

A few second later he deigns to let me in, giving out something rotten about how I should never have sent him the link to this blog; how I had made a big big mistake in writing bad things about him; how revenge is a dish best served cold.

I’m clutching at straws to remember what terrible things I might have written about him. There was that colyoom about himself and my previous barber, dead footballers and the law being an ass. 
I’d sent him a link to it because I feel it’s a courtesy to let people see what I’ve written about them, but I don’t remember having said anything nasty about this man, standing behind me now, pointing a pair of sharp scissors to my head.

“Best served cold you said. So I’m safe today, right? So what’re you so upset about?”
“Oh I dunno, maybe being described as the lowest form of human life…”

As soon as he uses the phrase I instantly recognise it as my rote description of Arsenal fans, or Gooners as they’re known amongst footballing cognoscenti. Jeeze, oops and corblimey missis, my fingers must have typed the words powered by pure muscle memory and instinct.

I like my barber. He is one of only 4 people ever to have found a way to tame the prolific shapeless Yiddish tide pool that is my Jewfro, for which I am truly grateful. Equally good, we enjoy a decent bit of banter, slagging and nonsense.

“Oh yes, the Gooner thing. Whoops, sorry about that. But you know where I’m coming from.”
I look at his reflection in the mirror and wonder why I’d ever upset a man with two blades and power over my hair. My mind wanders back to 1986, when I was sitting in a dentist’s chair in a plush posh dental practice in Hampstead.

As the dentist fired up his drill and raised it above my mouth, he coldly calmly stated
“So now you’re a struggling writer you can come to me on the National Health, but when you’re famous you can see me privately.”

Power. The man had the power to inflict pain on me. He had the power to destroy my teeth, to cause injury or just zip that shrieking drill bit straight into a nerve.

But that didn’t stop me. God knows why, but for some reason, through spittle, broken tooth chips and cheeks stretched by dried out swabs, I replied

“Gno sobby, buck I won’t. See, I donpt peleef in brivate mebdicime.”
He took a sharp intake of breath and told me I was a brave man to challenge him while he was drilling.

Brave ? I don’t think so.
Stupid? Most definitely.
There are times to expound your personal and political ideals, but that was not one of them, and an exceedingly painful 20 minutes later I left that dentist, never to see him again.
Why oh why can’t I keep my trap shut or, for that matter, my typing fingers?

“Oh, I know where you’re coming from alright!” says my barber, in reply to my long lost question

Long pause.

“Cold …” he says, finally. “… best served cold.”
“Oh, so each time I sit in this chair I’m going to have to be a little bit scared about whether this is the day you take your revenge?”
“Exactly. Lovely!”
“And one day I’ll walk away from here, ignorant of the fact that you’ve shaved Chelsea Cunt onto the back of my head?”
“Oooh, there’s an idea. Now you’re talking.”

There are political and personal ideals, and then there’s pure tribalism. My love of the enigma that is Chelsea FC transcends all threats, especially from Gooners.

“Cold you said. Not today then?”
“No. When you least expect it.”
“Oh, so if I’m going to tell you my dream outcome for the season, then you won’t mind today?”
“Go on then.”
“Well, Arsenal finish fourth under Spurs but ahead of Chelsea. So we don’t qualify for the Champions League while you do. You’re all happy and excited but then we win the Champions League final, thus qualifying for next year’s competition as incumbent winners, leaving Arsenal disqualified, as we’ll be the 4th Premiership team allowed in it.”
Oops. There goes my mouth again.
He laughs out loud and steps back.
“So you’re going to beat Barcelona and then either Real Madrid or Bayern Munich?”
“Dunno. Might do. Could do. We are Chelsea, after all.”
As he snips away my mind goes over the fantastically typical season Chelsea have had. We started with yet another exciting new manger who sold some our best players, alienated the rest of them and was promptly fired by our trigger-happy Ahab of an Oligarch owner.
Our aging lads have invariably played with gusto and gumption, grit and determination, apart from the times when they’ve run out onto the pitch and decided not to play at all.
To support Chelsea is to catch a zephyr, to encase an emotion, to hug a boulder of granite only to see it crumble to dust under your body.
Yet somewhere out of the mediocrity, apathy and mystery, we are in an FA Cup semi final against Spurs and a Champions League semi final against Barcelona.
Nobody but a true Chelsea fan could possibly believe that we can beat Barcelona, the best club side the planet has ever seen. But as a Chelsea fan I know we can.
We have not lost to them in our last 5 meetings. There is a tiny place in Barca’s psyche that fears Chelsea
Okay, more minuscule than tiny, but it’s there.
I know that we might crash and burn against them, losing 10-0 over the 2 legs, and equally we might beat them. The only thing I don’t know is which. I have no power over the outcome which is part of what I love about football.
But power is the name of Chelsea’s game. At our best we are not a beautiful team to watch but we can overwhelm any club in the world, if we want to.
John Terry, the Chelsea captain, has severe injuries to his ribs. As he explained after he was substituted in the game against Benfica.
“I was having trouble breathing.”
The man should lie down for a very long time. He should certainly not go anywhere near a brace of Catalan central defenders eager to elbow him sharply in his damaged ribs.
But will he play?
Will he want to?
Will he be asked to by the club who should be nurturing him?
Yes. Because he has the power. He has power over his own pain. He imbues his power in the other players and uses his power to shut out the opposition.
A very flawed human being, John Terry has the power of belief that allows victory to be a permanent possibility, and that’s my kind of power, thanks very much.
And anyway (squeaks he in cowardly fashion), if you lose against Barca, there's no disgrace in it.
Now I’m off to find a new barber.

Thursday 5 April 2012

I’m not a neurotic nutter, I’m just a writer, but I have great taste in music!


Had a charming young man painting the outside of the house last week. Unfortunately I had no idea he was coming - the landlady called me on the morning of his arrival, so that the job could be done and dusted in that warm Spring sunshine that feels so distant now.

It wasn’t his fault that I was upset to see him. After the maelstrom of the move I’d been desperate to get back to work, to bring some dosh into my bank account, but such is the nature of scribbling for a living that having someone appearing and disappearing while playing a radio outside my office window is enough to stop my work in its tracks.

Wherever I went he was there, so in the end I lost three days work and felt fantastically frustrated. Poor lad must have thought I was a neurotic madman, but after reading an interview with Colm Tóibín  in which he describes his need for complete and utter solitude to work I felt much better.

Anyway, having given up on my work I did what anyone would do. I cooked up a huge Shepherd’s Pie from my roast lamb leftovers, with music pumping loud and funky.

If the painter was trying to work out who this grumpy bastard was and why I was giving him such a hard time, he’d have had an interesting time building a personality profile from the tunes that came up on my iPod shuffle, in this order:

Kylie Minogue
Leonard Cohen
Sex Pistols
Johnny Cash
Otis Redding

I love my taste in music, and strangely I love the fact that so few others can enjoy it all with me.