Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where's Malty?

I miss him terribly.

Binegar (Gurney Slade), Foreign Office, Chancellors

I haven’t been able to write much this week, first because my business is to a large extent based on a mountain of work around the Budget, and second because I spent yesterday driving to Dorset and back on the rain-blasted A37, a road of constant accelerations and decelerations, tiresome enough to break any man’s spirit were it not enlivened by the yokel-sounding village names, such as Farrington Gurney and Binegar (Gurney Slade). Love those brackets. Pertinent to Gaw’s recent musings I did enjoy the scrawled but massive handwritten Somerset sign “Cider Here”, conjuring visions of a swimming-hole full of the stuff with gleeful rustics plunging.

I did catch a couple of political programmes on the gogglebox. The Great Offices of State is my kind of politics – long, long views, in which the politicians of the day are but passing pests in the night while faceless, rigid-backed civil servants run the country. This episode was about the Foreign Office. Old Etonians prowl dark leather rooms, patriotically formfilling, standing on burning decks, keeping Britain British in a hideous, irrational world. Frowning, they sift dud intelligence from the lamplighters and pavement artists (The only problem with the TV adaption of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that it took the action out of Le Carre’s timeless shadow world and put it in a real one with cars and hairstyles). Robin Cook as Foreign Sec was remembered as a vandal who removed a big old painting from King Charles St in the name of ‘modernisation’.

Douglas Hurd noted a notable thing in the discrepancy between perceptions of Britain at home and in Europe. When he goes off to Brussels, the Foreign Secretary leaves the country as a craven compromiser, all too eager to sacrifice British interests to his Eurocrat cronies. He arrives in Europe as a bully and wrangler, wily, suspiciously well-briefed and determined to protect British interests at all costs and hang the rest.

Channel 4’s Ask the Chancellors ‘debate’ proved that we are living in a golden age of Tinkering Politics in which there is absolutely no ideological distinction between any of the main political parties. Vince Cable had nothing to lose and was therefore in the strongest position, but he blew it by admitting that even he, the great Lib Dem sage, couldn’t have predicted the scale of the banking collapse, even as the monkeys in the audience were poised to applaud him for predicting exactly that. He should have milked it – most people want to believe that people can predict things and therefore we can blame those who don’t, because they cannot compute the brute fact that we live in a hideous, irrational world. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter who wins the Election in the long run but you should vote Tory because they’ll have a second Budget and I’ll be quids in.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

We're men. Men who like cupcakes.

The ever-vigilant Worm points me to yet more evidence that the cupcake movement started on this blog has jumped the shark gone to Prestatyn.

Butch Bakery in New York proclaims the following Mission Statement:

Our objective is simple. We're men. Men who like cupcakes. Not the frilly pink-frosted sprinkles-and-unicorns kind of cupcakes. We make manly cupcakes. For manly men.

I imagine the Butch Bakery boys intend the above to be uttered in a booming bass Voice of God. In fact, it is impossible to recite it without turning camper than Larry Grayson and Alan Carr in a two-man tent. In fact, it couldn't be camper if it concluded with "Now chase me!"

Monday, March 29, 2010

100 Japanese schoolboys

Via this comment by Tim Newman I find the following video on James Hamilton's blog, in which a professional J-League team take on 100 schoolboys. James admires the way the pros figure out a way to overcome this unusual problem; for myself, I just find the sight of the boys charging through midfield in impossible swarms very funny.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Approaching the Piglets

Scandalously, my Alpaca film only managed third place in the 2010 Yo! Sushi Award for Film and Sculpture Exploring Issues Around Identity in a Powerful Way.

Banksy won it, of course, with a video of a day glo orange Guantanamo inmate holding a megaphone but with his mouth taped up, entitled An Obvious Gag.

However, such is the emotional and aesthetic force of my next piece, Approaching the Piglets by the Side of the Lane, that I’m considering saving it for the Turner. I won’t patronise you by explaining the meaning – it speaks for itself.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A doss

‘The Exmoor’ is the longest compulsory school cross-country run in Britain. A ‘character-building’ eight mile walk to the start then a ten mile run back to the finish (there’s Devonshire logic for you), an eternal hill and mud-blighted slog that instilled in me a deep loathing of the English countryside which it took years to shrug off. There were three possible approaches to the ‘race’:

1) take it seriously and try to run as fast as you can all the way
2) huff and puff along inoffensively doing a bit of running then a bit of walking when you get a stitch or lose a trainer in one of the innumerable bottomless swamps.
3) treat it as an out-and-out doss

Schoolboys who took approach 1 were all prefects and suchlike, insufferable flaxen-haired toadies doubtless now employed in large banks and driving beamers. Those who took approach 2 now vote Lib Dem. Naturally I was a dosser. In our parlance, to doss (v) = to mess about to no aim or purpose. A doss (n) = anything that permitted dossing, eg. a field trip, a free period or a lesson with a teacher unable to maintain discipline.

We all moaned like hell about the Exmoor but an 18 mile nearly-unsupervised ramble about the country - walking, rolling, throwing stuff and talking twaddle - was a prime doss. Fellow Exmoor dossers are still firm friends now. Blogging is a doss and dossing has made me the blogger I am, just as ZMKC’s letters to Dewsbury-Briggs have made her the blogger she is. Character-building.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The British are now too good at cooking

From the Guardian:

Official: British are better at cooking than the French

…A poll has undermined France's reputation as the home of unrivalled culinary excellence with results that suggest the British cook more often, for longer, and produce greater variety than their French counterparts.

As the French television station TF1 put it: "They trounced us at Trafalgar. They whipped us at Waterloo. Now the English have scored their ultimate victory: they are better at cooking than us … we, the self-proclaimed kings of nosh."

The survey, carried out by the French magazine Madame Le Figaro and the BBC's food magazine Olive, has produced an agony of French soul-searching – and a certain amount of disbelief – over the apparent erosion of the country's most celebrated heritage.

…Marilyn Jarman, 36, a French marketing manager, has lived in London for 15 years and admitted she had noticed a huge improvement in British food. "When I first arrived in Britain, chicken kiev was about as adventurous as it got. Now there are farmers' markets and gastro pubs and we eat really well. French food is good but it tends to be very traditional and the same. My mother's a great cook but it's always the same dishes: sautéed veal, wild boar stew, cannelloni with cheese, fish soup."

Mmmm… wild boar stew. Anyway, this isn’t really surprising at all because the French have no interest in variety or culinary adventure or anything other than the eternal repetitions of a nice if stifling monoculture.

Meanwhile, no cliché about the British is more outdated than that we can’t do food. Never mind the farmer’s markets and gastropubs, which are often rip-offs anyway, the major British supermarkets are exceptionally good, both for ingredients and for readymade stuff. We don’t appreciate this because it has crept up on us. Americans think we eat nothing but liver and custard, but while the States is great for eating out deliciously and cheaply – and their lack of a clear distinction between junk and non-junk food is enjoyable for a bit - they have no notion of reasonable portion sizes and the supermarkets are terrible.

The other day I went to a low-key house party where the hosts served up a buffet lunch. When I was a kid the fare at such events would have consisted of pineapple chunks and plasticy cheese on cocktail sticks, thin ham sandwiches and grisly sausage rolls. On Saturday we loaded our plates from a table holding a platter of seven different continental meats including a quite remarkable chorizo, six cheeses none of which were remotely plasticy, olive bread, two homemade breads, two kinds of olive, a delicious homemade chilli and tomato chutney, a bespoke satay curry rice thing with peanuts which I couldn't stop scoffing, homemade Spanish tortilla and many other such pleasing items, washed down with a few glasses of the host’s homebrewed Weissbier, which wasn’t half bad.

This is normal now in the middle classes (see Channel 4’s hard-hitting social documentary Come Dine with Me) but if anything it’s gone too far. I’m pretty tired of turning on my TV to see somebody trying to serve up grilled monkfish on a bed of puy lentils against the clock while stern-faced judges look on and wait to pronounce on the seasoning. Perhaps Sophie Dahl’s new Nigella-ish show is the sharkjump. The campaign for spaghetti hoops on Mother’s Pride starts here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


This morning as I munched my brekkie (and swiftly followed it up with my lunch, a la ZMKC) in front of Sky’s coverage of the Bangladesh-England Test, I’m sure I heard Nick Knight say of debutant spinner James Tredwell:

“He’s bowled well; he's got plenty of zang off the pitch…”

I doubted myself immediately of course, but it did sound like ‘zang’. He emphasised the zang, and emphasis is a good way to give any noise a bit of meaning.

Perhaps Knight thinks of zang as the yang to zing’s yin.

Saunton Sands

Saunton Sands in North Devon ought to be more famous really, it’s one of the Great bits of Britain. A vast, empty, undeveloped beach, normally only glimpsed by the grockles as they drive by on their way to the smaller, crowded, developed beaches at Croyde and Woolacombe.

Three miles of sea spray, wind and light – Eau de Cheryl is instantly blown to nothingness on Saunton Sands.

I’ve just found the above picture, which I took with my phone in January last year, I think it was. The tiny figures in the distance were in our party, but walking on Saunton Sands is like that: pause for a moment to look at the sea or the dunes and suddenly a great space has somehow appeared between you. Saunton Sands is absolutely crammed with spaces.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hell, handcart news: the Relics of Cheryl Cole

Last night on an episode of Channel 4’s hard-hitting social documentary Come Dine with Me, a young lady uttered the following profundity: “You know, I would really love it if Cheryl Cole brought out a perfume.”

This struck me as an unusually frank admission by a consumer that the quality of the product is not only secondary but irrelevant compared with the value of the celebrity endorsement.

Have we then reached the stage where a celebrity is no longer used as an excuse to sell pieces of merchandise, but where merchandise is used as an excuse to sell pieces of a celebrity?

Or is it only certain celebrities? And is it a new thing or has the Relic element always been there at the extreme end of the fame and tat-flogging business?

Friday, March 19, 2010

One quarter of human misery... toothache, as Thomas de Quincey or someone like that possibly said some time in history. I can dig it; a miniature molar is currently forcing its way through Brit Jnr’s infant gumline. That tooth is a terrible strain on us all.

De Quincey’s estimation also tallies with the Study of Human Misery I’ve been conducting on behalf of Gallup. My survey showed that 25% of human misery is indeed dentistry-related. 13% is airport security, 11% is Tuesday and 6% is the feeling that it’s getting too late to catch up with contemporaries who appear to have been more successful than you. Christmas accounts for 4% of human misery, the Go Compare adverts for 3% and the remaining 38% is Paris Hilton.

This last seems grossly unfair. Few realise that beneath Paris Hilton’s veneer of Slutty Attention-Seeking beats a sold gold heart of Exhibitionist Promiscuity, and I for one would gladly don helm, visor, comb, gorget, pauldron, breastplate, plackart, fauld, rerebrace, couter, vambrace, gauntlet, greave, cuisse, fan-plates and sabaton, mount my charger and, with flamberge and spetum slay any number of Black Knights or dragons to defend whatever paltry scraps remain of what we might laughingly call "Paris Hilton’s honour".

Thursday, March 18, 2010

If ebony and ivory…

...can live together in perfect harmony, side by side on my pyaano keyboard, O Lord, why can’t these alpacas on the alpaca farm* down the road from my office?

This film is my entry for the 2010 Yo! Sushi Award for Film and Sculpture Exploring Issues Around Identity in a Powerful Way. I feel that, in a powerful way, it explores issues around identity.

*not llamas on a llama farm down the road from my office, as I previously thought in my goddamn ignorance

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On albums and filler

In one of his occasional bursts of iconoclasm (previous targets have included Roald Dahl, who never did me any harm, and Dylan Thomas), the great Nige slates the Floyd for their preciousness about single-track downloads, and for their concept albums. Nige mentions in particular Dark Side of the Moon but I can’t agree with him on that one – Dark Side of the Moon, like the movie Casablanca, is surely one of those self-justifying cultural artefacts for which, by various flukes and inspirations, everything came together and it just works. Besides, the ‘concept’ is pretty loose compared to the more overt ones in later Rog Waters-led records such as Animals, which doesn’t make a lick of sense, and The Wall, which is, alas, in retrospect, a load of whiny old twaddle. In fact, downloading the handful of good tracks strikes me as being the only sensible approach to The Wall.

But leaving aside the badness or otherwise of concept albums, nonetheless I can’t help feeling regret at the threat of the iTunes culture to straightforward album albums. All music lovers prefer proper albums to compilations because they appreciate the LP as the unit in which musicians serve up their artistic efforts at particular stages in their careers. This is why, for example, Astral Weeks is better than The Best of Van Morrison. Of course, Astral Weeks is one those rare and cherished records devoid of filler, but the aficionado’s preference also applies to albums of uneven quality, these naturally being the vast majority. When one has spent a good deal of one’s spotty, repulsive youth hunched in one’s bedroom with headphones and lyric booklets, one becomes highly attuned to the art - which has survived the two-side format of vinyl and cassette and still exists in CD releases - of album sequencing, ie. tucking away the crap.

There are various approaches to dealing with album filler. There is the frontloader with all the best bits coming crash bang wallop at the start of Side 1. Nevermind, Funhouse, Gold by Ryan Adams and REM’s latest, Accelerate, to pick just a few off the top of my head, all follow this format and it does have advantages for the listener – there is absolutely no reason at all to listen to the second half of the Killers’ debut Hot Fuss, for example, which saves messing about. The backloader is a rarer but not unknown gambit (Magical Mystery Tour, Bringing it all Back Home, Ocean Rain by Echo and the Bunnymen), the middleloader rarer still (Exile on Main St, Trompe Le Monde) and is probably usually accidental.

But most albums are much more calculating in their filler-placement, and follow a familiar sequencing method with the strongest songs opening (lead and follow-up single perhaps), track three an anthemic slowie and all the filler in the lower-middle order but interrupted by the third single to throw the listener a bone, a bit like having Shahid Afridi coming in to bat at number 8. The closing track will be an Epic or a memorable Incongruity (a slow song on a fast album for example). A variation is the use of a murky or quirky opener, with the lead single at track 2. Practically all Britpop albums followed this sequence, so we could call it the Morning Glory, or the Stanley Road or perhaps the Dog Man Star method.

To my mind it’s just plain wrong that the kids of today don’t have to work their way stoically through the filler and can instead gorge themselves on the sweetmeats alone. You need some rough with your smooth; this is why we must lace our Christmas dinner with sprouts. Mind you, a friend of mine did tell me about a friend of his who so loathed one particular track on an LP (Judas Priest or Saxon or similar) that he took a nail and (can this really work?) carefully carved a groove in the vinyl so that the needle would pass directly through it and on to the next number: I don’t want to listen to this song… EVER.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Telescope poem

Up at Clifton Down on Saturday the Suspension Bridge shone in the callow Spring sun, but I had eyes only for the poem which adorns the telescope outside the Observatory. It’s a heartbreaker.

Point the telescope & insert coin,
Turn and fully return knob.
Observe the View and at night the Moon.
Don’t look at the Sun. Hold child on stand.

Coin-operated telescopes are a rich source of found poetry. Who can forget the Yard’s analysis of the shattering Scopepoem at Well-next-the-Sea (“The second stanza makes hot tears spurt.”)?

The Clifton poem can surely claim to be in the same bracket. It hardly needs me to point out the reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the second line’s lyrical flourish (“Turn and fully return”) nor the hopeless ‘optimism’ of “and at night the Moon”. As for the double-blow of the concluding line, if there is anywhere in this world a man cold-blooded enough to read it aloud with dry eye and lumpless throat, I've yet to meet him and I'm not sure I'd want to.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A gift for Barack

Further investigation into the theory that Obama doesn’t like us very much has yielded the following information:

Mr Brown handed over carefully selected gifts, including a pen holder made from the wood of a warship that helped stamp out the slave trade - a sister ship of the vessel from which timbers were taken to build Mr Obama's Oval Office desk. Mr Obama's gift in return, a collection of Hollywood film DVDs that could have been bought from any high street store, looked like the kind of thing the White House might hand out to the visiting head of a minor African state.

This could escalate into an amusing battle. I suggest that the next time they meet (if ever), Brown hands over a bundle containing the following:

A small box of Quality Street chocs
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
The Full Monty (VHS)
Hollyoaks Babes and Hunks calendars
A CD of Classic TV Theme Tunes
Packet of Prawn Cocktail flavour crisps
A well-thumbed copy of Nuts magazine
A fridge magnet from the Guernsey Tomato Museum
Now That’s What I Call Music 11 (one cassette missing)
A pencil
An apple
A satsuma
Three or four Brazil nuts

These offerings should be presented in a plastic Tesco carrier bag (tied with a double-knot as the handles aren’t the strongest.)

Obama doesn’t like us very much

Over at Gaw’s place I mentioned my intuition that Obama doesn’t like us very much. I follow current affairs only in an idle sort of way because I don’t really believe in them, so this was based purely on reading the stars and tea leaves and the fact that I couldn’t remember any nice speeches about The Special Relationship etc. However, yesterday I spotted this article in the ST:

When the Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl asked White House officials to name a foreign leader with whom Obama had forged a personal relationship, there was “a lot of hemming and hawing”, he said. To his astonishment, no one mentioned Gordon Brown. Instead the name proffered was Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president.

The British feel particularly miffed. Within days of becoming president, Obama removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. This, followed by Obama’s odd choice of gift to Brown — a box of DVDs including Psycho and Toy Story — prompted speculation of something deeper. In his memoir, Obama writes of how his grandfather was beaten by British troops in colonial Kenya.

A senior official from No 10, who was in Washington in December for Obama’s big speech on Afghanistan, was horrified that the president did not once mention Britain in the 45-minute address despite the presence there of 10,000 British troops.

We’re not alone though, as it appears Obama doesn’t like anyone much except the Russians, Chinese and Indonesians. The root problem, alas, seems to be that he is basically a bit of a jerk.

If one had been almost anywhere in Europe in the midst of all that cheering when Obama was elected and suggested that within a year or so the new President would have significantly worsened diplomatic relations with America’s traditional democratic allies compared to the Bush era, one would have risked a tar-and-feathering. Yet still people don’t listen when I observe the truism that everybody is always wrong about everything.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Paperblog nutter

Dear Sir or Madam,

Will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look? It’s sort of Martin Amis meets Germaine Greer, with a touch of Steve Bruce and a little bit of something lighter; those are my fave writers. It's the dirty story of a dwarf named Keith, he’s got ‘PFC’ engraved on his teeth. His son plays right-back for Leddersford Town, his wife’s a female eunuch and his mate is a bare-knuckle fighter, a right evil blighter. It's ten thousand pages, give or take a few, though I could cut it down if you need me to. The cupcake section could be changed around; and I’ve been told that the chapter where Jase Rooney goes on an all-nighter could be a bit tighter. If you really like it you can have the rights to any spin-off movies or theme park rides. But you must remember I know where you live, and all I need is some petrol and a cigarette lighter, and the World will be Brighter.

Yours et cetera

The Useful Idiot’s Useful Idiot

Sean Penn has defended Hugo Chávez as a model democrat and said those who call him a dictator should be jailed....

Good old Sean Penn. By the way, could there be a crueller summation of the current status of Failed Academic Noam Chomsky than this line, made all the more poignant for appearing in the Guardian:

Other celebrity endorsements [for Chavez] have come from the linguist and writer Noam Chomsky and model Naomi Campbell.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Local characters

Gaw’s excellent and highly amusing ramble down the rural Welsh lanes of his youth reminds us that there’s nowt so queer as country folk. Is there an evolutionary analogy here? Don’t leave things in isolation too long or, unchecked and unbalanced, they turn very strange. Thus the kangaroos and platypuses of Australia; the giant tortoises of the Galapagos; and the people of Cornwall.

I have in my armoury an anecdote about a mad Cornishman my father and I encountered in a pub in Pendeen about seven years ago during our infamously slow, episodic and pub-interrupted walk “from Land’s End to John O’Groats” (so far we’ve made it to North Devon). It is an anecdote so powerful and irresistibly hilarious that it poses a hazard to the general public. Of the bloggers I’ve related it to at various times, Martpol collapsed into dangerous paroxysms, Nige was a giggling wreck and even The Yard, a man of carefully-honed aloofness and otherworldity, was unable to stifle a loud chortle. Unfortunately I cannot relate it on this blog, partly because you can’t give away all of your best material for free but mostly because it requires the use, suddenly and unexpectedly bellowed, of an Anglo-Saxon expletive – the very worst one in fact – which would contravene Think of England’s Profanity Policy. However, if you ever happen to meet me in real life, remind me and, so long as the proper health and safety measures are in place and everybody is sitting down, I will tell it.

In the meantime we must stick with our more genteel rural folk. Following the Zen Bones post some readers have questioned whether the Local Character really exists. I can assure you that while I made the Zen bit up, the man himself is perfectly extant and he really does have a big horse, and he really does look remarkably like the actor David Bradley, and he really is a former Leisure Centre Manager and he really does own a caravan near Exmouth to which he sometimes decamps for a week when the pressure of ambling around the North Somerset countryside gets too much.

And here, to prove that he isn’t a figment of my imagination, is a picture I took of him the other week after we’d stopped for a tolerably content-free chat, plodding off round the corner on his admirably ancient, infinitely patient, near mummification-ed, marvellous old horse.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Eating animals

Jonathan Safran Foer has written an anti-meat book called Eating Animals.

Personally I find meat delicious and lack the will and/or moral fibre to sacrifice it and I don’t want to read Foer’s book because it will probably increase my feelings of guilt. I’m not proud of this.

Mrs Brit is a veggie and I’ve had to sit patiently with her through enough meals while some Clarkson-wannabe bore wags his forkful of steak and harangues her with tales of primitive man’s mammoth-hunting etc to know all the pro-meat arguments inside out. (If you are one of those people who feels the need to lecture vegetarian ladies you’ve just met, I urge you to desist. They will neither be convinced nor secretly thrilled and enraptured by your roguish forthrightness.) Anyway, it is of course perfectly possible to be vegetarian and healthy (how many obese veggies do you know?) and yes being able to give up meat is a luxury but then so is voting and not having to steal things.

Many of the anti-meat arguments are nonsense too, mind. Militant vegetarians - of which Mrs B is most certainly not one - often demand that meat-eaters should be prepared to slaughter their own animals. This makes no more sense than demanding that people who drive cars or use toilets should be prepared to fix their own engines or do their own plumbing.

On the other hand I find that I’m ever more conscious or guilty about free rangery and suchlike, and it seems clear that this is the direction the western world is going: until we perfect lab meat we’ll increasingly come to despise factory farming.

Moral values change and just as we feel sick at the way our forebears treated penniless orphans or petty criminals or ethnic minorities, so our descendants will be appalled by our battery chickens and many, many other things which we take for granted. We cannot even guess which of our routine behaviours will be the taboos of the future.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

In stark contrast

In the wake of an Amis come Hitchenses. Both Hitchens boys are busy doing the rounds (are they ever not?). Chris is promoting a memoir and Peter has a God book attacking his own brother’s anti-theism. Oddly, or possibly not, I’m with Peter on this one, despite my own deficiency in Faith.

Anyway, you can read an extract from Peter’s new book in the Daily Mail here. One line in particular amused me:

Christopher and I are separate people who, like many siblings, have lived entirely different lives since our childhood.

Oh, absolutely. Whereas Christopher has made a living based on provocative columns, books and public speaking from an idiosyncratic but broadly left-wing position, Peter has made a living based on provocative columns, books and public speaking from an idiosyncratic but broadly right-wing position. Entirely different.

This reminds of me of an excellent gag by, funnily enough, Martin Amis in (I think, but can’t check as the book is somewhere in the attic) Success, which goes something like: Gregory was throwing up in the upstairs bathroom. Terry, in stark contrast, was throwing up in the downstairs bathroom.

This gag has been in my head for years and I keep meaning but forgetting to steal the format. However, I hereby pledge that I will get round to nicking it soon – any reader who spots the usage and points it out in the comments will receive a prize of some sort.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Ask Brit: The origins of sports

It’s always awkward when you’re chatting with an American such as David and the subject of sport arises. One feels badly that the Cousins got stuck with rounders and that fussy, fancy-dress version of rugby. Invariably they will bemoan the ill-fortune that prevented the absorption of proper sports into their otherwise-admirable culture, and demand to know why they too can’t play games such as cricket, ladies’ cricket and tennis.

Well some mysteries are insoluble and even I can’t answer them, but did you know that every single sport or game that has ever been played in the history of mankind was invented in Britain?

Absolutely true. Soccer (or ‘real football’ as Americans call it) was unwittingly invented by Henry VIII, when in stocking foot he kicked the severed head of Anne of Bognor - his ninth but by no means final wife - through a portcullis in a rare act of seriousness. The King's toe was broken and amidst the ensuing howls of agony and regal expletives some wag was heard to remark that His Majesty “might regrette his haste” to “sock her”. Thus a great sport was born.

Archery, meanwhile, was first conceived by Robin Hood in around 1840. He had the idea of adapting the pub game of darts by making the arrows much bigger and aiming them at people rather than a board. When this proved dangerous and unpopular, they simply replaced the people with a board again. When it proved too easy to hit the board now that the arrows were so much bigger, they simply moved the board far away. When it proved too difficult to hit a tiny board, even with big arrows, if it was far away, they simply made the board bigger, at which point they let the thing alone. Golf was invented by some Scottish idiot.

As to so-called “American” sports, there are none. Baseball is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey as ‘a game for ladies of delicate constitution, for whom whist makes too vexing a pastime’; while epic games of basketball are of course a key plot device in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The name “American Football” is derived from “A-Merry-Can Football”- an antiquated Cornish game in which villagers would take turns to hurl oval rocks at each others’ delicates. The only protective equipment permitted was a light tin cup or “Can” strapped over the contestant’s “Merries”. When a direct hit was scored, a group of female domestic servants would signal the event by waving giant balls of wool in the air – and again, it doesn’t take an etymological scholar to deduce that modern ‘cheerleaders’ are the direct descendents of those trailblazing Cornish ‘charladies.’

These days, we British take a certain pride in watching competitors from across the globe come to our shores and thrash us at our own games. For while we’re expert at inventing sports we’re no good at all at playing them. There is one exception. British competitors have dominated the World Cheese Rolling Championships since their inception in 1066. Here are the highlights from this year’s competition. Look out for Price Harry wearing the traditional ‘Royal Thong’ in the second race, and if you stay with it until about the 3 minute mark, you can see Kate Winslet triumphing in the Under-40s Actress or Singer category.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Only Connect, the best programme on television

With the BBC deciding to kill off one of its best bits of expansionism, 6 Music (home of Pavement Panto fans Adam and Joe), we can only hope the cull doesn’t extend to the finest programme on television – by which I obviously refer to Only Connect.

Cunningly scheduled to begin on BBC 4 just as University Challenge finishes on 2, and heralded by a similar diddle-diddle theme maintaining the mood of slightly supercilious, peering-over-spectacles, tea-and-scone civility, much as one might find at feeding time in the Pump Rooms at Bath (though better than the daytime-ish comfort mush that introduces Fry-fest QI), Only Connect is a brainteaser quiz. It’s quite tricky, you have to connect stuff like Tube lines if they were translated into the colours of snooker balls and whatnot - though I get more answers than I do on University Challenge these days (those students seem to get quicker every year…hullo, perhaps A-levels aren’t being dumbed down at all!). I haven’t yet devised a similar drinking game for it. Only Connect’s contestants are not unlike those on University Challenge only older, smugger and arranged in trios with something nerdish in common. "The Steam Railway Enthusiasts" might take on the "Series 1 to 4 of Red Dwarf Fans", for example. The team members always look like each other regardless of age or gender though sometimes the connections between them are pretty weak, such as that they all like quizzes containing the sorts of questions that are asked on Only Connect. It cannot be long before the “Only Connect Would-be Contestants” take on the “Victoria Cohen Coren Admirers.”

I for one would be proud to join the latter team. Victoria Coren is a lovely poker-player, daughter of the late Alan Coren (a witty, likeable columnist and celebrity) and sister of Giles Coren (a columnist and celebrity). She is the presenter of Only Connect. In both looks and in the timbre of her voice Victoria is striking in her resemblance to the actress Joan Greenwood (who was, by the way, surely one of the very worst British actresses to have appeared on the silver screen, her mannered delivery wrecking The Importance of Being Earnest and threatening but not quite bringing down Kind Hearts and Coronets).

Also striking is the lack of a studio audience. Only Connect is a clap-free zone. This makes a refreshing change since most shows, such as Celebrity Family Fortunes or Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Plebian Clap-A-Long consist of little else. (Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment, though, to film Family Fortunes without the audience? The processes of the show – playing or passing, attempting to ‘steal’ - would take on an air of business-like gravitas; the inexplicably daft answers - “Name a Shakespeare play”, “Baa baa black sheep” - would produce just tense sighs and glares from team-mates; best of all, a good twenty minutes would be shaved off the running time.)

The empty studio on Only Connect means that Victoria’s little witticisms and monologues are greeted with nothing but self-conscious chortling and snickering from the Railway Enthusiasts and Red Dwarf Fans. It’s infectious; I find myself self-consciously chortling and snickering along often. But then they are unusually good witticisms and monologues. Viva Vic. Well anyway, that’s Only Connect, it’s very British, check it out. Hang on I probably need one of these (thanks, Outer Spaceman)…

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Horsey women

Well I reckon Spring has sprung, anyway. The sun is out, the birds are tweeting, a hard-hitting reek from the pig farm fills the village. Two women on horseback clipclopped past me in the lane: absolute archetypes with the waxy waistcoats, blonde ponytails etc.

Bit unfathomable those horsey women, aren’t they? Utterly dedicated to the beasts their whole lives. Horses must be one of the few areas where females venture into the masculine world of obsessive, exclusive hobbying.

Kill your idols

One thing that really has gone to Prestatyn is the business of referring to “Tony Bliar”. Ho ho ho. In Standpoint the great Nick Cohen – that uniquely clear-eyed scourge of all forms of cant on both left and right wings - correctly observes that, like Thatcher before him, Blair has now become the cartoon baddie for the liberal media (the BBC and Channel 4 particularly).

Of course they hated Thatcher from the start, she had that advantage; Blair was adored so his former worshippers are like betrayed teenage lovers, flushed and hysterical. He was the Messiah so now he is the man who can do no good and who did no good. Even in Northern Ireland he contributed nothing, it was all Mo. Iraq was obviously the big one but no doubt it would have happened anyway.

It’s not that they say “Of course the removal of a genocidal tyrant is a good thing, but…”; it’s that Saddam doesn’t figure in ‘discussions’ at all. Instead there’s an endless argument from terms and conditions. Blair's “illegal war” has become a truism, as if the big thing about Iraq is that it was a case of white-collar fraud. I wonder what they’ll do to Obama when the last flickers of passion die.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Where have all the Viv Richards gone?

On Sunday the West Indies lost a remarkably inept game of Twenty20 to Zimbabwe. Tellingly, it was not all that surprising.

The West Indies’ 20-year slide from being just about the most formidable, men-against-boys outfit in world sport to cricketing minnow has been one of the more depressing sporting plotlines in my lifetime. For much of that period its inevitability was slightly (though not really) obscured by the presence of Brian Lara, the world’s best batsman, but at the time of the 1984 ‘blackwash’ tour of England it would have been inconceivable that the production line of lanky, terrifying fast bowlers would simply break down, as it did after the retirements of Walsh and Ambrose.

I have strong memories of that Windies tour and the equally one-sided 1988 one. Well, I say strong, they’re largely hazy with strong bits, as is the way of things that happened when you were a boy. Little boys don’t really support teams - partisanship only comes later along with a sense of history and place – but they instinctively latch on to individual heroes. Boys know charisma when they see it. I don’t think I gave two hoots about who won the Test match or even really understood the concept of a series contest in 1984, but I did want to watch and worship Malcolm Marshall and Gordon Greenidge and Joel Garner (and Gower and Botham, I wasn’t biased against my homeland). But especially, the beautiful, brutal Viv Richards, as close to a real-life comic book superhero as cricket has produced.

These days the Windies have Chris Gayle (talented, flaky, irresponsible) and Shiv Chanderpaul (dogged, scratchy, ugly) but no Supermen. This of course was the real value of Flintoff for England, whatever the stats say.

Stats are for geeks; sport needs heroes, or what’s it for?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Cupcake shark jump

Worm brings to my attention the news that the Cupcake Bubble, which saw us through a tumultuous 2009, could be about to burst.

I saw this coming, of course, with the fin de siècle decadence of the $750 cupcake. Instantly I abandoned work on my £14 million art project, For the Love of Christ and Buttercream, a cupcake encrusted with 8,601 flawless diamonds, including a pear-shaped pink diamond representing the ‘cherry on top’.

Clearly, cupcakes have jumped the sh-.. oh God I’m bored of “jumped the shark” as an expression, it’s so past it.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Some blog-based auguries, possibly related to the Ides of March

Unsettlingly, the Yard has once again vanished from the face of the Blogscape. Were it not for the occasional feeble emission informing us that something Appleyardish has appeared in the Sunday Times, we would have no firm reason to believe he still exists in blogform at all. Should we send out a search party or posse?

I thought I’d found a clue in the Tobacco Factory – a trendy pub/café-bar/theatre in the Southville area of Bristol. ‘Aha! Here he is at last!” I said, upon spotting this sign:

I followed its arrow along corridors and through double-doors, fully confident that I would in some nook find the man himself tapping away at a laptop in consoling cowboy boots.

But alas, it was some sort of trick or red herring or diversion or prank, or else the Yard had fled before I got there, because after much walking I found nothing but benches, smokers and concrete slabs.

Blogdreaming, as we know, is one of the first signs of Blogmadness. This is where, in the words of Nige, one’s bodiless blog regulars become ‘shadowily present’ in one’s slumbers. But what happens when Bloggery, unbidden, begins to invade wakeful reality? Is it a tear in the fabric of The Matrix? Are these auguries, or auspices, or anything to do with the Ides of March (which I believe technically just refers to the 15th but which has, since Shakespeare, taken on an elusively sinister cultural significance)?

Imagine, if you can, the icy chill that gripped me as I pulled up on the pavement outside my house and saw this car number plate in front.

What is happening here? If these auguries aren’t something to do with the Ides of March then I don’t know what is. And if they are something to do with the Ides of March then I’m still not sure what is; it’s one of those difficult expressions.