Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Issue 8: We need to talk about toilets

There’s something decidedly not nice about the male toilets in Marks & Spencer on London’s Oxford Street. It isn’t the fact that they’re grotty, it’s more to do with the clientele, who tend to be men of advancing years who, it seems, are suffering from tropical stomach ailments or amoebic dysentery. You should hear the noise. “Rrrrrrrr.” “Ahhhhh.” “Uggggghhh.” “No!” “Pleeeaaase!” And it’s every time! You feel like you’re in British Borneo during the Indonesia-Malaysia conflict of 1962-66. The smell’s not fantastic either. I think the grandads who use M&S’ facilities actually make a special journey, as part of their daily routine, so they don’t have to scrub the pan clean in their own homes. I’ll bet their wives are dead. John Lewis up the road is very similar in this respect. I don’t have a solution to this problem, I’m merely flagging it up.

Me and my brother used to play “paras” when we were kids. This involved dressing in camouflaged or muted shades, finding a rifle-shaped stick, venturing to the Women’s Institute hut near our school, hiding in long grass and mowing down church-going women in cold blood as they departed for home, carrying their knitting. The last time we played paras, I distinctly recall that I was wearing brown cords. Waiting for the WI door to open, I decided to get a better aiming position and shifted sidewards. In doing so, I was soon enveloped by a most terrible stench.

Like the coward of the county, I deserted my post, leaping into enemy view so I could investigate what the caustic pong was. There, in the grooves of my brown cords, another similarly toned material had attached itself, effectively smoothing out the fabric. It was a dirty booby trap. A nauseous time bomb. Corporal Gale – our kid – leapt out of the grass wondering if I’d taken leave of my senses, telling me he was now in a position to seize power of the entire unit. “Come here,” I said, “I want to give you a big hug.” Before he could bayonet me, I grabbed hold of him and pretty soon the pair of us were covered in dog muck. He found this unusually funny, but my view at the time must have been a problem shared was a problem halved, and we ran back home to get changed.

In the bathroom, we stepped out of our foul-smelling fatigues and left the battle-ravaged remains at the foot of the sink. We swiftly found alternative strides and stampeded downstairs, without washing our hands, to pour some icing sugar onto two plates, which we’d then lick in front of the television. Three licks in and we caught the sound of Mam retching upstairs. “Bwurr-bwurr-bwurr.” Then she called out – almost at screaming point – “GET UP HERE, YOU DIRTY PIGS!!!” We pretty much court martialled ourselves on that occasion. Alas, this tawdry tale is far from unique.

I’m often asked if I’ve ever sat in tramp’s urine, and the answer to that is an emphatic “yes”. It was Wednesday, 13 August 2003, at 12.55pm, and I was hungry. Many of my acquaintances are familiar with the basic outline of this grim episode, but there has been so much wagging of tongues, idle hearsay and unnecessary fabrication, that I feel I ought to set the record straight.

Summer 2003 was very, very hot. Even worse than this year. The previous Sunday – 9 August 2003 – was a fire-blast afternoon, when the temperature in South London weighed in at a hefty 37 degrees. It’s ridiculous for this country. I mentioned at the time that if it was equally hot the following day, I was going to kill myself. Thankfully, the screaming apex of indescribable heat was reached that Sunday, and my life spared. By “tramp’s-p*** Wednesday”, it was a more manageable 27 degrees.

In midweek, I used to meet up with former colleagues of the defunct VOX magazine at the Fifties-era New Piccadilly Café on Denman Street. Formica tables. Staff steeped in European football knowledge. Reliable fare. All this kept us returning each week until it closed in 2007. For the record, I always ordered cheese omelette and chips – fabulous stodge. The owner, Lorenzo, hadn’t taken had a day off since 1957, but regrettably informed us that he could no longer afford the spiralling rent. We were devastated. I brought my London-disliking younger brother – the paras’ veteran – to the Piccadilly one Saturday afternoon and after he’d eaten his fill, having been treated like royalty by top waiter Mario, he admitted, “It’s alright this place.” The café has since been erased to make room for air-conditioned offices or a little hotel. I forget which.

So I was heading down to the “Picc” on Wednesday dinnertime, but I was carrying an injury from Monday night’s eleven-a-side football match. I played in goal a lot at this point due to faltering stamina. I was on the p*** a lot. During the match, I’d made a typically scrambling save but managed to clank my head on the goalpost, whereupon I entered a two-day psychedelic trip. I couldn’t form thoughts, my vision was a sparkly kaleidoscope and I spent hours and hours asleep on the floor like a tired dog. Concussion. I quite enjoyed the peace, actually.  

As I was still a bit of a dreamy delight from the head injury, I decided to forego a 25-minute stroll to the café and instead caught the Bakerloo Line. All good so far! Got on the train and hey, look, a free seat, even though a lot of people are standing! I dutifully checked for pregnant women, then settled in like Mother Hen for a six-minute journey in relative comfort. These were the old Tube trains with sprung seats. People would regularly nod off on these upholstered relics because you’d sink back and be rocked to gentle kip, ending up at Elephantiasis & Castle. Not that sleep was an option on this journey.

I was getting my book out of my bag, probably a tome on heritage football hooliganism, when I realised in an instant that my backside wasn’t just wet, it was sopped through to the skin. I could tell it wasn’t rainwater or spilt elderflower cordial – the aroma was too strong and sweet for that. It smelt like Special Brew, but worse. The damaged synapses in my football-injured brain quickly fixed themselves and I added up the sums. Wet bottom + Special Brew-plus pong = tramp’s p***. I now faced a dilemma. Did I admit my predicament to the carriage and have them fall about in hysterics like the birds on Roobarb, or keep quiet and sit it out. I decided it would be best to register a complaint – someone must have known that the seat was soaked. It was as if an alcoholic blue whale had blasted out lager through its blowhole.

I leapt to my feet and looked at the faces of my fellow passengers. A man opposite seemed genuinely entertained by what was unfolding, and for a time, obviously fighting the urge to squeal with joy, he looked like he was urinating on his own seat. To him, life was an ongoing series of s***s’n’giggles. Now he could add p*** to the mix. I said, “You knew that seat was wet, but you let me sit in it?” He didn’t respond. “I bet you’d have let a child sit in that, or a 90-year-old nana, because that’s the level your humour works on.” He replied, “Norvern mankey.” Actually, he didn’t, but I wish he had. I’d reached a personal low. I egressed at Piccadilly Circus.

There was no question of omelette and chips by this point. I had to find clean, dry clothing, because the aroma was so intense. In Gap, I grabbed a three-pack of undercrackers as efficiently as the queue allowed, and then pace-strolled up Regent Street in search of emergency jeans. Browsing was off the agenda. I developed a guerrilla-shopping technique – straight in, check price, straight out, and no conversation can be entered into. Even in 2003, denim had drifted into the three-figure price bracket. My rule then, as it is now, is pay no more than £70 for leg coverings, but in London, even slacks made out of carrier bags set you back £120.

By the time I’d reached Oxford Circus, I was walking like a baby in a wet nappy. Then, out of nowhere, a Levi’s sale shop presented itself. I said: “Thank Christ.” Once past the shop’s threshold, I wasted no time, snapping up a pair of 501s for £65 – a Pyrrhic victory because 501s are an awful fit for my footballer’s thighs. They naturally corkscrew below the knee so the seams ends up central on my shins. The shop assistant removed the tags while I was standing at the till. I placed the sodden items in a carrier bag and stuffed them in the first bin I could find. Of course, my lads-mag work colleagues thought this was a hoot, and word quickly spread via email to the female/gay staff on the interiors magazine next door, and from there to the cycling titles, the accounts department, the CEO, and inevitably to our rival magazine companies. All in all, a really productive day.

Following my recent experiences at Marks & Spencer, I came up with the idea of running a sister site to Tripadvisor, whereby members of the public can give reviews of the toilets they’ve visited. Trapadvisor! It could make millions. I’m afraid M&S scores a lowly “1”, although I think London’s high-street shops should embark on a fact-finding mission to the Ceredigion coast in Wales if they want to learn the art of toilet management. You don’t just want to spend a penny in these immaculately maintained s***houses, you want to invest in them. The more I see of Wales, the more I think it’s a fantastic place. They’ve obviously realised that civic pride starts, literally, at the bottom and works it way upwards. We could learn a lot from Welsh toilets. If Wales can keep its restaurants serving food after 9pm and open its shops on Sunday, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Issue 7: The green, green grass of home

I don’t like abroad. It’s too far away, the driving is treacherous and it’s too hot. Every possible pleasure you can experience is here, in Britain, on your doorstep – you’ve just got to get up and shape yourself. Beaches? We’re an island nation, we’re surrounded by sand. Hills? Have a trek through Snowdonia if you want life-affirming views. Wildlife? Have a shufti out of the window. We’ve got robins – the friendliest birds on the planet. They’re not afraid of humans and seem to be offering themselves up as the next logical candidate for domestication. You wouldn’t get an ostrich doing that, or a rhea.

Usually, when I’ve travelled abroad, I feel a sense of relief arriving back in Blighty. I like the order, the culture and the fact that our roads have defined edges. Apart from the odd housing estate in London, Belfast and Manchester, you can walk through UK’s thoroughfares largely unmolested. I’ve never understood this rabid desire to see the world. “Finding yourself”? You’re not going to do that backpacking in Burma. You’ve already found yourself – you live in your head. There isn’t a secret, dynamic you about to reveal themselves in Peru, Ecuador or Papua New Guinea. Be satisfied with who you are and what you’ve got. And if you must travel, to satisfy your internal hippy, keep the tales to yourself! We’re not interested hearing about lost Inca cities. They became lost for a reason. It’s because they’re boring and people wanted to forget about them.

I’ve always been satisfied taking holidays in Britain, but often, the people I’ve been with have insisted on booking flights to far-flung locations, where we’d stew in 40-degree temperatures and fall out with each other. It was as if the more miles the airliner clocked up, the more exotic the stay ought to be, but then you’d end up in a sweltering bar chatting to couples from Brighton or Leeds about lines of business. What used to annoy me was that the people I’d travel with would have an obsession of trying to find the locals’ hidden, not-in-the-guide-books, good-time hangouts. You’re taking your life in your hands wandering into a tropical shack, waiting for some steaming voodoo concoction to be poured into a cracked glass when you’d just asked for a lime and soda with a straw.

“I want the real experience,” I’d be told, “like a carnival atmosphere.” It’s never going to happen! For a start, the locals are living a subsistence level of hardship, and when you stride into their rotting booze shed, next to a banana plantation, the last thing they want to do on a Friday night is discuss your traffic problems on the South Circular or who your favourite DJ is.

The worst holiday I ever had was on the Caribbean paradise of St Lucia. Even with suntan lotion on, my legs burnt. I think the spray method was in its infancy back then. Maybe I didn’t rub it in properly. I had to wear jeans for four days. Most of the resorts in St Lucia are enclosed holiday prisons of excess. The walls are there to keep the locals out and the holidaymakers (and their cash) in. It’s a very crooked state of affairs, and you can see why the surrounding poor get so browned off. You’re living on an island idyll, where money from tourism could sort out so much grief, then you’ve got the holiday equivalent of Tescos buying up your beach and building ten-foot walls. Even so, on St Lucia, the locals did little to garner any sympathy from me, luxuriating in their hatred of Europeans. I can understand their anger – I get the root causes – but don’t invite somebody onto your premises and treat them like a rattlesnake.

I was in St Lucia for a week; it seemed to last months. Instead of staying at one of the high-class Sandals, it was decided beforehand that we’d share our holiday pennies with the community. The hotel was a 30-minute stroll from the beach, ie: a bus journey away. It wasn’t cheap, but the prostitutes who used the hotel must have sorted out special rates. What hits you about St Lucia is that everybody is trying to rip you off all of the time. You can see why rum is such a big hit in these parts. You need to down two stiff fingers before leaving the front door, because men walk around with machetes in much the same way that we might carry a newspaper in the UK. It’s a chastening experience having a 6’3” man approach with a meat cleaver in his hand, with his eyes rolling round the back of his head because he’s so off his face, asking if you’ll buy the coconut shell in his hand that he’s crudely hacked into the shape of a bird.

In the ludicrous heat, you’d traipse to the beach bar to grab a frosty beer and the barman would say, “$23.” You’d have to argue the toss on every single transaction. I went for the $18 fish option in our prostitute-friendly hotel restaurant one evening, expecting delicately cooked snapper, and had a plate of kippers with tinned veg clattered on the table in front of me. “I don’t feel comfortable paying £12 for kippers!” I argued. “You’re from a rich country, you can afford it!” the waitress shrieked. When she’d calmed down, I said, “Can we get two beers?” “$40.”

I counted the hours until the flight back. An Air France Concorde crashed in Paris while I was in the middle of that long, long week, so the upcoming homeward journey became fraught with fire-engulfed nerves. The few Brits who were staying at our hotel looked haunted. We’d have secret discussions about how awful the place was. Some of the poor buggers had paid for two weeks. You’d get a bus to town, which was more like a long van with windows, and all the pasengers would be asking you to pay their fare. You’d reply, “Sorry.” Then you’d face six or seven death threats, with everyone on the bus flashing machetes, even the driver.

With a day to go, and weary of the constant harassment, we paid to lounge in one of the Sandals holiday prisons. Once inside the protective hub, I headed dutifully to the bar and ordered two beers. “$30.” Everyone was at it, even staff in the plush beach resorts! I reported the barman. As far as I was concerned, he could sling his machete.

Apologies if you’ve just booked your honeymoon in the Caribbean. At least if you’re heading to St Lucia, you’ll be getting a break from the endless drone of British radio DJs. I’d certainly like a fortnight away from Gideon Coe and Mary Anne Hobbs at the moment. I’ve just seen on Google that “Gidz” went to Coventry University and used to be on Why Don’t You?. A child star! Why Don’t You? was one of only two kids TV programmes that were unwatchable because they were so dull. The other was Jackanory. Ooh, controversial! I’d rather be ploughing through maths homework than listen to Bernard Cribbins reading a long story.

I don’t mind 6Music. I love Marc Riley and Mark Radcliiffe, as you’d expect, but Gideon Coe is a first-generation Nick Grimshaw. Obviously, if you’re called Gideon, doors will be flung open for you in London, in case you’re the son of a Lord. “Are you related to Seb?” As I’m writing this, Gideon’s just come on the radio, with that stupid background music. By my radio, I have a writing pad, and on this, I write down tracks that I need to further investigate. I’ve never written anything down while Gideon’s Coe’s been on the radio.

Mary Anne Hobbs wants gobbing. She’s emerged out of nowhere on 6Music and, to my horror, I’ve discovered she’s filling in for Shaun Keaveny – who I’m not overly fond of either – on the breakfast slot. She speaks like a Seventies drip – probably still goes backpacking. “I feel really privileged that BBC Radio is allowing me to delve into the history of electronic music,” she’ll drawl, “to play the most amazing, most fantastic electronic music in the history of mankind, and that this amazing genre of music is at last getting the attention it deserves, through me, and I was at the Latitude Festival at the weekend, and Gideon Coe and I DJ’ed from 11pm till 4am, and we were so privileged to witness our own success, and it was so packed, and I’m from Lancashire, and everything was so amazing that they had to create a moshpit for us, because everyone loved us and everyone was going wild, cos we work for BBC radio, and I loved me, and Gids loved me, and Gids was spectacular, and Sandals in St Lucia loved us and have booked us up for the entire winter, then we’re going travelling in Vietnam,” etc.

I quite like Norway and Greece, and Hungary’s OK too. In fact, me and the wife are going to Budapest quite soon, covering the Sziget festival for work. Franz Ferdinand are playing. Hopefully it won’t be as roasting as London is at the moment, which is like being on Mercury, but it’ll no doubt be hovering around 37 degrees. I keep having visions of a black Labrador attempting to read the BBC London weather forecast, standing in for the boozy Wendy Hurrell, and all the dog can do is go, “Heheheheheheheheheh,” with its big tongue sticking out of its mouth, because it’s too hot. I was up at 3am ironing the other night with the sweat running off me in rivers. I couldn't sleep! No wonder I’m daydreaming about weather Labradors. Right, I’ve got some freelance work to finish off about autumn/winter high-street trends. Just looking at a heavy coat makes me feel exhausted. No wonder Italy and Spain can never lift themselves out of economic uncertainty. How can you do anything in the heat?

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Issue 6: The loneliness of the football close season

In mid-July, I find that I’m pining for football, although since having nippers, football’s all-encompassing hold over me is no longer what it was. With kids comes a shift in priorities. I now disagree with Bill Shankly’s epic quote about football being more important than life and death, although I accept that it’s able to produce strong emotional responses. But then again, so do cancelled trains on First Capital Connect or the decidedly crooked practice of online “passport-checking” services, who masquerade as a bona fide government website and then charge you £34 for filling in a form on your behalf.

When I was a kid, Final Score’s last results of the season chewed my insides. I felt bereft. The following day, the People newspaper would clatter through our letterbox and in the sports pages you’d find the forecasts for the following weekend’s Australian football fixtures. Aussie pools. You’d get such scintillating two-pointers as Wooloomooloo v Brisbane, North Dandenong v Doncaster (there was a Down Under version) and Ayers Rock v The Sullivans. I had visions of a demarcated rectangle of orange soil, screaming-bright sunlight, temperatures of 103°, kangaroos hopping past corner flags, snakes wrapped round the upright and eleven spectators drinking tinnies. Our school kickabouts were bigger deals!

I was never bored in the ensuing six-weeks holiday. There was too much to do. I busied myself with key pastimes. I’d embark on long bike rides on my trusty Grifter through miles of woodland; construct and play with 1:72 model aeroplanes; take my toy cars for a full-day backyard safari; organise football matches on the school fields that the headmaster had strictly forbidden us to play on; and write out my own World Cup competitions on paper.

The latter would be an ongoing tournament that could last anything up to a month in duration, starting at the qualifying stages and leading right up to the tournament finals. In fact, and I’m ashamed to say it, I think I staged my last boredom-beating World Cup when I’d turned 16 – this is before I’d discovered the joys of literature, and I didn’t stick a chance with local birds back then. All of the lasses my age were sexually active with Vauxhall Cavalier Convertible-owning men who were 23 years old. If the police investigated all these cases of under-age nookie, I reckon half of Doncaster’s male population around the age of 50 would end up with a Stuart Hall-type sentence.

My World Cup competitions were fixture marathons, usually scrawled on the back of reams of unwanted wallpaper. The choice of venue would be chosen from the index of an aged Sixties atlas at random. I closed my eyes and pointed at the page. I remember Northern Rhodesia were once handed the golden chalice, but after consulting with my dad, I had to snatch the tournament back as the nation no longer existed, and I didn’t really want my prestigious tournament held in Africa anyway – it would be too hot, like the Aussie league. One time – and I wasn’t happy about it – the lucky recipient ended up being Mongolia, who had to rapidly piece together an infrastructure of football stadia and motorways to meet my FIFA requirements.

I loved my made-up tournaments. At school, I used to get butterflies in my tummy because I knew I’d be returning to a packed fixture list that coming evening. I’d grind through group stages two matches at a time and work out the table accordingly, so the story of the World Cup would gradually unfold. England never won the damned thing. We usually went out in the quarter-finals; they made a semi-final once. Got knocked out by the cheats of Argentina. Despite the lack of success with the home nations, I soon realised that I had an unacceptable bias towards them, meaning all but Wales would usually find themselves lining up against the likes of Brazil, West Germany and those shirt-ripping scoundrels Italy in the finals proper. In the end, I had to devise a system to police myself, because I could no longer rely on my impartiality.

As an avid collector of Panini sticker books, the answer was literally in front of my eyes. Each World Cup or European Championship sticker album would contain records of international matches played during the previous four years. I’d also started collecting The News Of The World Football Annuals, and pretty soon, I had a comprehensive list of internationals that had been played since 1976. To offset my warped favouritism, I started using real results, where possible, to determine the outcome of my matches. This created a few upsets – all of a sudden, the might of West Germany could slip up at Malta, just like in real life, and elements of chance suddenly entered the fray. I’ve got to admit, it made the whole process even more exciting.

By the mid-Eighties, I suspected I was the only person in Yorkshire, possibly the entire universe, who’d have the patience for such a time-consuming endeavour. I’d write until my hands hurt. Although I believed I was ploughing a lonely furrow, the truth is, I was a Johnny-come-lately to fictional football competitions, a fact I learnt with much shock when, in 2002, I interviewed sports commentator Jonathan Pearce, the Young Turk of Channel 5’s football coverage.

During a lively exchange of football opinions and anecdotes, Pearce revealed that he was well versed in staging his own World Cup competitions, all the way from qualifying to the Final. Incredibly, Pearce’s vice was not biro but Subbuteo. At five minutes a match, Pearce’s World Cups must have lasted considerably longer than my simple results service. My tournaments merely required cursory glances through international records to determine a score. Pearce would’ve played out his games flick by flick, shot by shot.

During the Q&A, Pearce stated that one of his favourite childhood moments was when England and Scotland reached a Subbuteo World Cup Final, and in an animated state, he excitedly re-lived the staggering 7-6 (after extra time) encounter. When I told Pearce of my own paper-and-pen competitions, his mouth dropped in astonishment. “Listen, I think we’re both unusual in this respect,” he admitted. “Good times, though,” I said. “Absolutely,” Pearce boomed. We departed with a firm handshake.

In the yawning chasm of the close season, I tend to read a football tome to keep me going. The trouble is, there’s very little decent sports literature out there, but I’ve recently come across a cracking sports writer called Duncan Hamilton. In the Seventies and Eighties, when I was scribbling out my World Cups, Hamilton was a sports reporter on the Nottingham Evening Post and would, each week, meet Brian Clough to gain a quote or two.

In 2008’s Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years With Brian Clough, Hamilton catalogues Nottingham Forest’s double European Cup triumphs and the manager’s subsequent fall into sozzled ineffectiveness. For me, it’s one of the most illustrative biographies ever written. The book is as much about Hamilton learning his journalistic trade as Clough’s brash methods and reads all the better for it. The words glide like a George Best dash down the wing; every paragraph has been crafted. I’m now reading Hamilton’s latest title, The Footballer Who Could Fly, a silky review of football’s leading figures, featuring the likes of Jackie Milburn, Bill Shankly, Clough and Sir Bobby Charlton. It’s fantastic, a joy to read, and I welcome every train journey so I can get back to Hamilton’s peerless descriptions of bygone greats. Last week, it made me want to interview Charlton, but when I asked in my office, the sports editor replied, “You’re going to hate this, but I went up to Manchester and interviewed ‘Our Bub’ last week, in the centre circle of Old Trafford. Lee, are you crying now?”

My own footballing superhero was Kevin Keegan, the England captain, the wearer of that all-important No.7 jersey. I never wanted a poodle perm like King Kev – I wasn’t mad – but his attitude to the game impressed me mightily. I think I wanted my hair to resemble West Germany’s Bernd Schuster at this point; I was well into the way the Germans plied their robotic football around 1980, and Keegan’s move to Hamburg fitted perfectly with my emerging Teutonic football style in the school playground. Like Keegan, I was brought up in Doncaster and I followed his ensuing nomadic career with avid interest. When KK dropped a division to play for Newcastle United, I thought he’d lost the plot, and sensed – rightly – that his England career was in its twilight.

I loved Keegan’s unbending captain’s approach, but I only ever saw him play once. When I was 12 and already dreaming of taking over England’s No.7 shirt, I used to travel around the North and Midlands with an FA linesman called Mr Topham. I never found out his first name. He drove a decrepit Triumph Toledo, and hanging from the interior mirror was an air freshener that was a naked green imp in a state of extreme sexual arousal. I didn’t agree with that at all, but lived with it because I was getting free match tickets and a chauffeur service.

In November 1983, Mr Topham invited me to watch Newcastle United v Fulham at St James’ Park. Keegan had been captain at Toon since August 1982, after joining from Southampton for £100,000, a staggering purchase at the time, especially as Keegan was wanted by 20 clubs. I suppose the equivalent would be Steven Gerrard signing for Blackpool today. I was desperate to get Keegan’s autograph. Before the match, in the bowels of the stadium, I was introduced to some of the team. I recall David McCreery, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and there, centre of the melee, Keegan, Captain Fantastic. My impending trip to St James' Park had created a vortex of jealous interest at my new secondary school, and rather foolishly, I’d started taking orders for Keegan autographs, even from girls. By the time matchday had arrived, I realised that I’d need to ask for ten separate signatures – a bit of a tall order. I approached Keegan with my heart pounding…

Lee: “Hello, Kevin, I'm from Doncaster!”
Kevin: “You’re from Donny, wow! Is Armthorpe still there?”
Lee: “Phhh! I think so! Can I have your autograph?” 
Kevin: “Yes, give me your pen. Eh, what colour’s this?”
Lee: “It’s red. It’s all I could find when I left home this morning.”
Kevin: “It’s not a popular colour round here, you know.”
Lee: “You did play for Liverpool, though – I thought you might like it.”
Kevin: “That’s true – well give it here.”
Lee: “Can I have ten autographs?”
Kevin: “Ten?!! Well, look, come back after the game, and if we win, I'll give you them all.” 

I had to accept this frail offer, but instantly realised I’d made a world-class cock-up, a cock-up that Mr Topham’s air freshener would have been proud of. During the match, I sat next to Liverpool manager Bob Paisley and was given a private commentary on how the match was shaping, but his accent was so strong that I could barely understand a word he was saying. In fact, when he introduced himself as “Bob Peersley”, I replied, somewhat confused: “Oh… you look a lot like Bob Paisley, the Liverpool manager.” He laughed like a wartime toilet, and it was only during the first half that I realised his 1890s Durham accent had caught me out, and he was indeed the Liverpool boss. As for shiny-tete Mr Topham, his energetic rabbit-like dashes down the touchline had caught the attention of the home massive. “Gan an, ya bald-heddad bunneeeeee!” they roared.

At the 90th minute, Fulham led 2-1, but Keegan grabbed hold of the match by its breeches, and by the final whistle, Toon had overpowered the Cottagers through sheer force of will and won 3-2. The victory meant I could still leave Tyneside with a full loaf. I made my way like an electric charge to the corridor by the changing rooms and stood patiently by a white-painted, scuffed wall. As jubilant Geordies dissipated, my ebb reached the relegation zone – he’d obviously beaten me to the changing room and I’d muffed it! But wait a moment, what’s this? Out of a mob of flat caps and brown raincoats, an excited throng of bipedal zebras, sponsored by Newcastle Brown Ale, approached, jumping, dancing and singing. Such was the jubilation of King Kev and his vertically striped cohorts that they rushed straight past me and before I could shout, the changing room door had slammed shut.

I think the tears were trickling down my cheek before the door had even closed. I wanted his signature like nothing else on the planet. Keegan had had my pen in his hand, and I still managed to mess it up! What I must have looked like in that hallway, I can only imagine, but a policewoman approached. I thought she was concerned at first, but then she asked how I’d managed to slip through security to gain entrance to the Newcastle United inner sanctum. Only by getting a grip of my senses was I able to tell Juliet Bravo that I was the personal guest of the linesman, the bald bunny. She quickly made up her mind that I was a confidence trickster and attempted to eject me into the black of the Newcastle night, where I’d have to sleep under a pile of Pink Uns until the boat came in. Thankfully Topham arrived like the shopkeeper in Mr Benn, otherwise I’d still be walking down the A1 today. It was a long, long drive back to Yorkshire. Mr Topham chuckled at my sob story and bought us fish and chips in Newton Aycliffe.

Back in Doncaster, I forged Keegan’s signature for my school pals – I can still conjure a passable Keegan scrawl to this day. What angered me most was that my peers didn’t really care if I’d managed to get the England captain’s autograph or not and lobbed the strips of paper in their Puma and Patrick bags. They were more interested in mischief or how expensive their trainers were. Seeing my anguish, family members sprung into action and very soon I had a huge, colourful poster of Keegan in an England kit with the message “To Lee, Best wishes, Kevin Keegan” in permanent marker. In the Seventies, Keegan was the best footballer in the world. Today, it would be almost impossible to secure the signature of Lionel Messi, but back when I was composing my own World Cup competitions, I wouldn’t have wanted anything from an Argentinian, because they were bloody cheats and foulers.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Morning Warship Issue 5: A summer reminder

The Poles over the back have got a dog called Tony. To offset this, I’m thinking of re-naming our cat Zbigniew. The Palmers Green Poles are zealous worshippers of that big shining thing in the sky. They own a white, £67,000 BMW 6 Series Convertible in order to catch all the sun’s rays on their drives to the sklep. When the temperature edges over 19 degrees, the Poles’ back garden becomes a Central European version of the DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince “Summertime” video. Their conversations are so shrill that I feel like a superhero with enhanced hearing – only I can’t understand a word other than “TONY!” Tony, God love him, barks and barks all day. He’s a fighting dog, fashionably illegal and will happily yap just to pass an hour.

The Pole’s intriguing blend of Gdansk techno and Wroclaw pop-reggae team up tantalisingly with the stereo of my English next-door neighbour. In the daytime, he’s as free as a dicky bird. I think he’s a barman. His musical taste is as wide as Poland’s borders, but all his tracks have to be played loudly, whether it’s The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival or Ghostface Killah. An overlooked musical genius in the Jools Holland mould, he tinkles the ivories every hour, on the hour, replete with full-power vocals, always with his windows open at their maximum 90-degree gape. Ah, the joys of summer. I’m working at home today – well, I should be, but I’m writing this. Twenty-six degrees and the back door is fastened shut. At least the double-glazing acts as an effective sound muffler. However, it’s not easy to breathe in here.

I’ve got my shorts on today. That’s alright cos I’m at home, not the office. You should never wear shorts to work unless you’re a footballer – I thought you knew this already? – yet in summer, London’s offices transform into Rio-style poolside parties. Spring’s first shafts of sunlight release Havaianas flip-flops and skater shorts from hibernation. In a way, we were lucky this year to have had an extended winter. Those obscene extremes of cold and shiver-me-timbers Arctic blasts meant offices were free from hairy legs until 7 May – my wedding day, which was the first warm day of the year. But Britain’s ongoing Brazilification is back on track now. With the mercury rising, we’re dancing the samba.

Earlier today, I passed through London’s Soho and found that 98 per cent of male workers are clad in shorts. With all that hair, it’s Movember for the legs! Most of Soho’s media stock look like “Will”, that Mr Puniverse who was Chris Evans’ lackey. These days, wiry white legs and bulging Neanderthal toes are permanent fixtures in the office until 30 October. Women, meanwhile, wear bras and pants beneath perfectly see-through dresses. Most men revert to their Carry On base instincts at such sights, booming, “The girls, Sid, the girls,” like demented Bernard Bresslaws. Bras are for the bedroom! We’re walking through an endless lingerie section of Kay’s catalogue! The basic slips that women wear barely deflect the fierce yellow of the sun. They’re going home in the evening with sunburn even though they think they’ve been covered up. I don’t think I saw the clasp of a bra until I was 16… you can see one every 16 yards now.

The thing is with flip-flops is that they lead to full-on barefootedness in the workplace. What happens is, myriad sets of sweating monkey feet clasp hold of table legs between big toe and the next toe along, spreading advanced forms of canker and gym-derived infection. There comes a time where you have to make a stand against germ warfare. Some of you already know my drill. We should treat the barefooted in much the same way that the Royal Navy dealt with the threat of U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. Mine the channels!

I found the most effective weapon against bare feet to be the drawing pin. Simply sprinkle a couple by the printer and then drop a pin every few yards. You’ll be amazed at their effectiveness. Just wait for an explosive scream and then try to maintain a straight face. Stricken vessels will naturally hop to a seat to inspect the damage, thinking they’re the most wronged individuals on the planet. They’ll see that a small hole has appeared in their calloused pads, a circle that quickly fills with their own homo neanderthalensis blood. Oh, he’ll shout and swear alright, but the next day he’ll be wearing heavy jeans and boots. In British offices, you should wear long trousers with appropriate shoes and socks. Where do you think you are lad, double-games?

Regardless of seasons, once you reach 40, all the clothes in your wardrobe suddenly feel like they’re from Mothercare’s toddler range. No matter how many times you flick through your logo-adorned shirts and polos, they no longer represent who you are or what you believe in. At first, you think you must be sliding down the same slope as Reginald Perrin prior to his mental meltdown, because all your clothes look comical and absurd. It’s like all your outfits have been designed for hanging out at the youthy.

If you’re from the North, like what I am, instinct tells you to wear your shirt hanging out, ie: not tucked in, because that’s how Bernard Sumner of Electronic wore his shirt on the Philippines-shot “Get The Message” video in May 1990. Clinging doggedly to the past, and with few sartorial options available, a few days after turning 40, I went into work with a shirt flapping around my backside, convincing myself that I wore my garment in such a manner purely for socio-cultural reasons – I was Northern, working class, remained a Factory Records idealist and I didn’t want to look like a Hooray Henry with my shirt tucked into hipster jeans. But I felt scruffy, like a bin man, like Eddie Yates.

I’ve met Sumner a couple of times in the last few years, and I have to say, I’ve never seen him with a shirt hanging out, not that I’m basing my entire wardrobe around his fashion teachings or owt. In fact, he seems to wear a lot of Adidas and Superdry, which is not my thing at all. When I turned 40, I had a ruck with fashion. I stopped wearing shirts completely because I didn’t know what to do with them. Our office at work is as hot as Haiti all year round, due to perpetually shivering women (cold hearts!), so you can’t wear long sleeves anyway – it’s like being locked in a car in Port-au-Prince with all the windows wound up. And regular polo shirts, like Lacoste and Fred Perry, seem too casual. My solution was knitted T-shirts; I was partial to a knitted Gio-Goi T-shirt around 1990-91, so I’m maintaining a link, of sorts. I get my versions from H&M, Banana Republic and Zara, all for under £30 a pop.

The days of splashing out £70 on a Lacoste are in the past. A polo shirt lasts for three months before it loses its shape, so it makes sense to pay modest prices. Also, when I turned 40, the thought of wearing a logo suddenly seemed vulgar and uncultured. And to think, 15 years ago, I’d have been stomping around lower-league football grounds in Stone Island, which I now consider the most vile fashion statement in the history of mankind. What a pile of s*** that label is. I once paid £120 for a Stone Island cagoule and it wasn’t even showerproof. It went translucent in drizzle and even struggled with fog moisture.

One of the major fashion transformations for a man in his 40s is a new-found love of proper trousers, the sort your grandad wore all his life. I refuse to pay over £50 for a pair of jeans as it is. I’ve become reliant on Uniqlo’s range of casual-fit denim. I’ve also noticed that lots of jeans brands have started scrimping on their arse coverage due, I assume, to yoot’s predilection for revealing the brand of their undercrackers. I don’t want to look like a bloody builder or rapper! Trousers have become the practical option, and the best leg coverings I’ve found in recent times have been at Banana Republic. Tony Wilson’s favourite label! Soft and comfortable, I hope mine last forever. The trouble with trousers is that they have baggier pockets than jeans, and this can lead to disastrous consequences.

Having DJ’ed at a Central London location the other Friday, I got on a night bus, with my trousers on, obviously, sat down and settled in for the journey. The ride seemed to last 40 seconds… I was drunk. I got off and as I put the key in the front door, I realised that my pocket was empty. My phone was travelling, without a valid ticket, towards Enfield. My baggy pocket had released its bounty and my no-nonsense Nokia phone, my constant companion since 2008, that had sent something in the region of 25,000 texts and never taken a photograph, because it had no camera, was gone. With a screeching hangover, head ringing with pain, the following day I had to call Vodafone to explain my loss. It proved a fortuitous cock-up because I was rewarded with a free phone and a reduced monthly bill. Even so, proper trousers demand respect. You need to keep your hands in your pockets more.

I’m often asked if I’ve ever had any fashion faux-pas in my stylish existence, and apart from the Stone Island debacle, my only outre purchase was a pair of white jeans in 1995. They were great, actually. White jeans are a young man’s game, but in ’95 I was young and single. So I bought the white jeans and wore them on a sweltering Tuesday, which was also the day that the music and football titles at IPC Magazines played football at dinnertime. It was 32 degrees, and I had pure water leaking from my armpits and forehead, such were the conditions. An hour of full exercise and I was as thirsty as a dog, so I jogged back to my office and downed a litre of Evian in little over ten seconds, then kept slurping to rehydrate. With my white jeans atop my sweltering legs, I was asked to run an errand as my junior position implied. Twenty minutes in, my arse turned into a crop spray. Without going into too many details, I had to bin my boxer shorts and remained in an IPC toilet for 30 minutes as my body expelled as much from my bowels as it could shift. I had plans that night; I soon wouldn’t.

It was a diabolical afternoon. I had acute diarrhoea and was wearing Daz-white denim. Inevitably, the strain started to show and a copper line developed around my Winnersh Triangle. I abandoned the evening’s meet-up and planned my homeward journey. I knew I was embarking on an embarrassing escapade, where schoolgirls and attractive women would crease up with laughter as their eyes spied my zebra’s rear. I sat wherever possible, stood against walls other times, then ran up Wimbledon hill to get indoors. I washed the jeans twice but the stains remained stubborn. In fashion, some things are not meant to be. The jeans were quickly disposed of.

When I was in Banana Republic the other day, buying some proper trousers, there were a few pairs of white jeans in the sale section, so I tried some on for old time’s sake. For a start, the legs were too tight. Anyone who came of age during the Madchester era can’t bear unyielding material against their skin. I thought I looked terrible in them – the wife wanted me to buy them. I knew that if I bought white jeans, at some point I’d be bent double in some godforsaken toilet feeling like I was the Space Shuttle on take-off. And I’d have left the burn marks! Having just seen a photograph of an albino zebra, that was the look I was rocking on that fateful Tuesday in 1995. Right, I’d better get on with some real work. And I need to feed Zbigniew.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Morning Warship Issue 4: My kingdom for a board

Before the Frenchgate Centre in Doncaster was massively extended to make room for an H&M – because no town can truly call itself contemporary without a cut-price Swedish fashion emporium – the only way to reach the train station from Doncaster’s shops was by dashing across a very busy dual carriageway or by descending into a dingy, yellow-lit subway where big boys loitered. Big boys were Town’s trolls; their ability to block narrow thoroughfares would have been widely admired by the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

If you were a little boy – a “nipper” – you tended to steer clear of Doncaster’s warrens due to terror, choosing instead to dance with Datsuns and Talbots on the A630. I first darted across this busy racetrack when I was eight; I’d been travelling on buses on my own from the age of seven. You did that then. Different times. We stayed up later, too. On Saturdays, I’d ride my Grifter back from my mate’s house at 10pm with two carrier bags full of model aeroplanes swinging from my handlebars. It’s funny how the Soviets would launch an all-out attack every Saturday while Dynasty was on the telly; our 1:72 air forces maintained your freedom. It was also uncanny that a werewolf would instinctively know I’d be gliding past Retford Walk at 10.03pm, meaning my uphill climb on a seven-ton bike would make my legs turn to wobbly fire-jelly with the strain of survival.

A few years ago, me and an old schoolmate were passing through the aforementioned subway – probably to avoid H&M – and found it had become the hangout of baggy clothed skateboarders. For us, this was a sorry sign of the times. “I despair of the younger generation,” my pal mentioned, and I nodded. I don’t like skateboarding – it’s an Americanism we can well do without. It’s actually a declaration of being anti-British, because you’re bypassing all the great youth movements we’ve had in the past and eschewing all our fantastic edgy musical genres in favour of California, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Vans, pastrami on rye, hoodies and Avril Lavigne.

Ker-CLANK CLANK. “Ooh!” Ker-CLANK CLANK “Yeah!” Ker-CLANK CLANK, “Ooh!” Ker-CLANK CLANK “Yeah!” It sounded like a slowed down version of “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock. It was Saturday, match day. As we neared the skateboarders, at the opposite end of the subway a gang of Doncaster Rovers late-teen hardnuts emerged. Like oryx antelope in the Serengeti, the boarders sensed extreme bother and, for a moment, desisted from their clank until fate revealed its hand. Deeply intimidated, they looked to the floor, shamed because of the mobile-Pacific pastime they’d opted for. The football lads moved past with rolling shoulders. At the critical moment, and with much sneering, one of the football supporters shrieked, “Hey! Skateboard – USA!” It refreshed my soul. I smiled at the incident for the rest of the day.

Skateboarding is the most uncool movement in the history of youth culture. In fact, I dislike anything to do with boards, especially surfing and snowboarding. In the booze-soaked lads-mag days, me and my superior, the editor, had to spend a day getting pulled around a lake on a “boogie board” by a speedboat. It was right next to Heathrow’s main runway. Boogie board is a stupid name. It sounds like Doogie Howser, that child surgeon from the eponymous Eighties’ TV show. As holidaymakers lifted to the clouds in their Boeing 737s, I repeatedly went headfirst into the freezing black water, with my face smashing into the riptide over and over again. Around ten falls later, I decided I’d had enough of this. Eventually, I strode off to the bar in a state of shivering anger. I couldn’t get the basics of board balance – and why should I? The editor, of course, was spraying up 20-feet walls of water and changing the rope from hand to hand, while waving to people on the shore who were walking their dogs. I just think balancing on a plank of wood isn’t much of a claim; not like scoring a wonder goal.

There was a German writer with us that day, a frizzy-haired Karl-Heinz Rummenigge/Andreas Brehme lookalike called Gertz from a surfboard magazine. With their shaggy perms, Germans are perpetually stuck in 1986; they’re born to look like skateboard freakz. Gertz, true to form, wouldn’t queue for sandwiches. He bypassed the system and helped himself to handfuls of butties, so I called him “Greedy Gertz”. “Greedy Gertz, this is Britain! We queue here.” He pretended not to hear. I also had to pull Greedy Gertz up on his quasi-San Fran accent. After cross-examination, he admitted that he’d changed his accent to fit in with the Newquay surfer community, who had affected a Californian/Australian/hippy lilt. Their god is Henry Ramsey.

There’s a videogame called Subway Surfer that all the kids are playing on their £500 iPads and Kindles. The premise of the adventure is that an errant Japanese teen on a hoverboard leaps between, and on, moving Tokyo trains collecting … big coins, by the look of it. I think it’s Angry Birds for 2013. Inspired, my youngest asked for a hoverboard “with lights on the front and two flames out the back”. He’s aware of my dislike of skateboards but obviously hasn’t grasped the family lineage. He seems determined to own a flying toy. Around the time of Hallowe’en last year, he bought a broomstick from the local party shop expecting instant fast-moving fun at altitude. He asked if I’d ever flown on a broomstick and I said that I had.

“We used to have a broomstick in our house when I was young,” I told him, “and I’d climb on it, whack your Auntie Tracey round the back of the head, then I’d fly off round the living room while she jumped up at me, screaming.” “How did you make it fly?” he enquired. I said, “Just believe you’re going to fly and you will.” He spent the next half hour running down the hallway and leaping into the air at critical moments, but, alas, never got airborne. I said the batteries might be low. Later that evening, prior to bath time, I stopped Young Un in the nick of time from leaping off the top of the landing with a helium balloon tied to his waist. He was stark naked too, which, he explained, was to assist with the lift. I maybe shouldn’t have told him about the broomstick. I won’t do that again.

I maintain a resolute determination to get my kids interested in UK pleasures and not board sports. Football is played a fair amount, and we go to the odd match. Trees are climbed, largely unsuccessfully. Railways play a massive part in our existence, whether it’s through Brio train sets, visiting preserved lines or dashing around the National Railway Museum in York. And there are always model-aeroplane kits on the go. I suppose a defining step will be introducing the boys to The Fall, but let’s take it one step at a time. The only pleasure I derive from board sports is the ridiculous fact that surfers feel compelled to ride monstrous waves in South Africa, where 25-foot great-white sharks amass. You just think their brains must have become contaminated by sea water. It’s not the most pleasant way to go, being pulled ten feet down and losing your extremities in the confusion of a submerged frenzied attack, before being wagged to death by a killing machine the size of a helicopter. I like drinking red wine, but I wouldn’t crack open a bottle surrounded by spitting snakes at London Zoo.