30.8.04

Bye bye Bobby
"We're in a dog-fight, so the fight in the dog will get us through - and we'll fight." - Sir Bobby Robson

I knew Sir Bobby's days were numbered on Saturday when he left St Alan of the Gallowgate on the bench for the game against Aston Villa. Poor, muddle-headed old fella. Didn't he know his Newcastle United history? The faithful had seen it all before.

Wednesday 25 August 1999. Sunderland v Newcastle United. Magpies' manager Ruud Gullit, attempting to settle a score with Alan Shearer, leaves the St James' Park icon out of the first XI for this bitter match against their local rivals. Newcastle lose 2-1 in the pouring rain. Three days later, Gullit is resigned from his post.

Five years and two days later, we're looking for another new manager.

"What he found out on Wednesday night was that football is chalk and cheese, and it will be the same on Sunday. I don't know whether it will be chalk or whether it will be cheese." Bobby on Kieron Dyer.

Things have been going pear-shaped at NUFC for some time. The bad start to the season (two points from four games), the string of poor results that goes back much further, the rows between Bobby and Alan, Bobby and Dyer, Bobby and Robert, Bobby and Bellamy. The bizarre outbreak of conjunctivitis in pre-season. The sale of the club's only top-flight centre half. The ludicrous chase for Wayne Rooney, a trophy player, sure, but not one who'd stop the leak of goals at the back, something that amounts to a betrayal of our world-class goalkeeper. And the chubby chairman, Freddy Shepherd (remember him?), a loathsome man who models himself on Ken Bates and Doug Ellis, and fancies himself as being the real boss of the team. That's Bobby's real downfall. That's where the real story lies.

"Robert said I was picking the wrong team. At the time I was - because he was in it."

For all the fact that we've never been anything other than a top-six also-ran during his time, Bobby was loved by the fans. We were able to forgive him the odd miscalculated South American purchase, the inability to remember his own players' names, the lack of any silverware during his reign. Because he was Sir Bobby. Probably our biggest failing, but one that I was happy to live with - at least for the time being.

Usually there's some sense of closure - often even joy - when a failing manager is sacked by one's club: Dalglish and Gullit being the two most recent examples for the Gallowgate faithful.

Not this time. Not surprise, either. Just emptiness.

It's probably best for the club. The new man will get the chance to buy a couple of players, offload a couple of deadweights, maybe even string a few results together. Who knows, we could even win a trophy - something that's never been done in my lifetime. Whatever happens, I've no doubt that however successful Newcastle is in the future, Bobby will be missed and fans will look back on his tenure as a happy time.

Maybe he had to go now, maybe this time he wouldn't have been able to turn round our traditional poor start, maybe we'd be struggling to stay in the big time come season's end. We'll never find out.

But this much I do know: the grand old man of English football deserved better.

"It's over, forget about it, it's gone. We've enjoyed the ride, brilliant. We've paid the money, got the ride, got off the tramcar - let's go again."

Wise words.

27.8.04

Thomsk and I play a game with celebrities. Actually, two games.

The first one came second, and actually only serves to keep us in touch when we've not seen each other for a while. It's celeb by text. London being a good place to see the odd C-lister and Heat magazine regular, it's only polite to alert one's sibling when such a spotting takes place. The more obscure the better. And only by text message. Verbal reports of sightings are not recognised by the game's official body (i.e. us). My latest score was Liza Tarbuck, actress and daughter of Jimmy, at the check-out in front of me in Oxford Street Marks & Spencer's food hall. Thomas was suitably impressed.

Which reminds me, if anyone wants to see Louis Theroux, I have a spare. Thomsk refuses to swap me one of his (the lovely) Sally Phillips in return, as he says he's already seen Louis. So if you're interested, drop me a line.

The second game, which really came first, is Celeb Mis-spotting. Anyone can be a celebrity. That gaunt, bald bloke pulling a pint? Definitely Michael Stipe. The hefty redhead in the next aisle at the library? Bette Midler. The cute brunette with a squint in Tesco's? Watch out boys, it's Winona Ryder. The mixed-race guy limping towards you down the street? Can only be shamed athlete Ben Johnson.

And the worse and more contrived, the better. Bonus points are awarded for over-extension and derision. Marks are deducted for too much similarity to the named celeb. And the judge's decision is final.

Laugh if you must, but try it, and I guarantee that you'll soon start seeing the rich and famous everywhere.
Housekeeping notice: Not content with keeping this place going, I've just joined the blog collective that is Freaky Trigger. I'll be doing some of the sporty and cultural stuff there, making more room here for the personal, the anecdotal and the polemic. But you can still expect some crossover. And of course, I'll be kept afloat by a crowd of interesting writers.

Choose your poison. :)

25.8.04

I think I may just be reaching Olympic saturation point. A third day of wall-to-wall sport was not what I had planned for my last day off after night shifts.

Following Team Albatross' magnificent second place in Tuesday night's pub quiz (a result I felt we could appeal on the grounds that the winning team shared its name with the quizmaster's newborn daughter), Wednesday was to be my day for getting things done.

There were movies to be seen, potential purchases to be assessed, and general out-and-aboutness to be pursued.

A mis-set alarm put paid to all that.

Perhaps it's masochistic punishment, but anyone who sleeps in until 1pm doesn't deserve to take part in the human race. So rather than escape the biscuit, I've trapped myself with life's athletic overachievers.

And they really are driving home their point that I'm desperately under-achieving.

I really need to get off my arse.

23.8.04

Kelly Holmes wins Gold in AthensThis'll wake a chap up.

Of all the great moments there have been in these Olympics, the one that happened about half an hour ago is my favourite.

Kelly Holmes, Olympic Champion, Women's 800m.

My first standing, yelling, "Come on you beauty!" moment of the games (having been asleep for the Coxless Fours).

And then as she struggled to take in what she'd just done and looked for someone to celebrate with: "Give her a flag! Give her a bloody flag!!"

Enough adrenaline coursing through my veins to let me run the 800 myself.

No consolation for yesterday's harrowing disappointment of Paula Radcliffe (on whom I have a terrible crush, possibly even more now than ever before), but a fantastic event in itself.

Congratulations Kelly. You've done your country proud.
Well, folks, it was short and not that sweet. Once again you've wasted the chance to learn from me.

But it was ever thus.

In the words I let Joni Mitchell use (I'd just jotted it down on the back of a post-coital fag packet, and the girl needed a break) , you don't know what you got til it's gone.

Luckily for you kids, though, I'll be back on duty in a couple of weeks' time, so you've got a little while to perfectly phrase all those questions to which you want answers.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with Ben and his stories of foxes and squirrels spotted gallavanting about the streets of early morning London, interspersed with bouts of anti-Bush polemic.

Don't know about you, but I wish he'd fall for a girl again. It makes far more interesting reading.

22.8.04

Little interest in self-improvement and edification, it would seem. Jim asks:

O Great and Noble Nightshift Ben, I have but this humble inquiry to make of you: Don't you mean "...is in the hizzouse"?

I know what I mean. Don't correct me. Not if you value your livelihood. Or your life, for that matter. Much though it would pain me. You're a friend of Ben's. But I make things happen. And people can't be allowed to get in the way of that. There's a bigger picture to think of. But not everyone has to be in it.

Like the whole Olympic three-day eventing thing. Jen wanted it sorted. I sorted it. Anything you ask, darlin'. Justice is done. The Germans didn't stand a chance. The Court of Arbitration for Sport know which side their bread is buttered. But I'll be having words with the IOC. Don't be surprised if you see a few changes after Athens.

But you don't want to hear about me. You're here to learn. So ask me stuff. If you value your livelihoods. Or your lives, for that matter. Much though it would pain me...

20.8.04

Hear ye! Hear ye!

The honourable Nightshift Ben, oracle to the masses, is in the house. Let all those who wish to drink from his cup of knowledge come forth and boogie.

Represent.

18.8.04

Just a brief break from the football (dull, pointless England friendly) and the Olympics (whoever thought I'd find three-day eventing, archery, or sailing exciting?) to comment on the very fishy Kenteris/Thanou affair.

While there's absolutely no evidence to support any kind of allegation that the Greek pair had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs, it does, in a way, lend support to my idea that the IAAF (the sport's governing body) and the International Olympic Committee should bite the bullet and legalise drugs. Kind of.

There could be two divisions in athletics: one for "clean" athletes, the people who wanted to test their own limits, with the most rigorous testing regime ever seen; and a separate class for the dope fiends. No holds barred - they could pump themselves up with as much stuff as they thought they could take, and then compete in a drugged-up freak show.

Of course, governments and health organisations would call such a sanctioning of drugs irresponsible, but with the amount of business such a move would undoubtedly create (tickets, drugs companies, broadcast rights), such protests probably wouldn't make too many waves.

And anyway, I actually think a lot of people would still want to go down the clean route.

There's still a lot of stock in good, old-fashioned honour.

15.8.04

Five Go Mad in the Barbarian Lands
Sunday
Leave parents in charge of baking biscuit and head north in search of week of sun and fun with Team Albatross and Dr Bob. Traditional British summer pastime of chugging slowly through countryside on train, quietly steaming to death in malfunctioning train carriage. Six hours later arrive in rainy Dumfries. Weather no problem, though, as Lizzie and Joseph meet at the station with promise of adventure. And curry.

Monday
Downpour fails to shake good mood upon waking. Excitement abounds in the little house on the Old Bridge of Urr. This is quite obviously good walking territory. Much to be done when rain stops. First, though, small matter of Peter's arrival to complete the Gang of Five, swiftly followed by thorough investigation of the local brewery and its wares. Used to want my own pub. Now want my own brewery. Hatch plot with Robin, very much banking on assumption that Hugh will become very rich and equally benevolent.

No pressure, kid.

Then home for late lunch, and a stab at Scrabble while we wait for the rain to stop. Pete robs me of a win in the endgame. Still the tiles and ales pass the time, and we look forward to Tuesday and better weather for hope of escaping the house.

Tuesday
The rain is, if anything, heavier. This is starting to get slightly disheartening. Still, it gives me the opportunity to finish my first book of the holiday (On The Road: Desperately want to call it over-rated, dull, pretentious bullshit, but appreciate that may be a little unsympathetic, and from too much of a post-Kerouac perspective. So I'll just settle for over-rated, dull and pretentious).

Then the unthinkable happens: a break in the weather. We decide to stride out over the 2.5 miles to the nearest pub, in Haugh of Urr. It is when we are halfway there that the rain returns. With a vengeance. Rarely have people on so-called dry land been wetter. Still, the ale is perfect preparation for dinner (chef, yours truly) and the home-made pub quiz.

Unfortunately my specialist round on the BBC (which I'd thought fair) proves a little too hard for most, especially my team-mate. Fortunately, everyone else proves equally tricky in their line of questioning. Quite how I'm supposed to know the details of Dirty Dancing and GNU, I'm not sure. Next time I'll set them questions on the finer points of Mary Poppins. That'll learn 'em.

And what follows a pub quiz? Yes, karaoke until four in the morning, of course, courtesy of Joseph's home-made empty orchestra. Particular highlights are Pete doing his Lost In Translation bit with Jealous Guy, and Jos's Piano Man. But my habit of sticking to '80s Madonna tracks suffers a blow when weak voices among the usual stalwarts mean I'm required to perform the Big Finish: We Are The Champions, followed by New York, New York. Despite giving them my all, I'm not sure whether Freddie and Frank would approve.

Wednesday
Waking late, we're presented with a novelty. Not only has everyone survived the night after my chillied eggs, but what's this? Surely not sun. Yes! No sooner are we up and brunched (3pm) than we set off for the beach, eager to stretch our legs in pursuit of featherball and top up on the old rays. But not 40 minutes after our arrival, old faithful also turns up. Truly, it would not be a British summer holiday without the chance to eat ice creams in the rain at the seaside.

Returning to the house, Robin and I create a new game (Sofaball): two comfy seats, two badminton racquets, one foam ball, and one rule - only apologise if the other player has to leave their seat to retrieve the ball. It's collaboration, not competition. And completely addictive. Expect to see it in Beijing in four years' time.

There then follows a hotly contested (and occasionally heated) game of Triv, carrying on far too late into the night as people refuse to win.

The only break from '80s trivia comes in the form of 142-year-old shooting stars, an astral spectacular keenly anticipated as we're nowhere near any major roads or cities, vomiting their light pollution heavenwards.

We see two before it clouds over.

Thursday
Another late and rainy morning. But we decide to bite the bullet and stride out whatever the weather. We've been cooped up long enough.

So it's a nice surprise when we arrive at our chosen walk outside the little town of Gatehouse of Fleet, and the rain stops for the duration of our woodland ramble.

In the evening we dine on haggis, lovingly prepared by Robin, before adjourning to the pub in Haugh again. We have learnt from experience (and benefit from an unfortunate fall for Jos) ordering a minicab, which turns out to be driven by possibly the most trusting and co-operative cabbie in the world. We're not in Kansas any more.

More ale is supped, silly games played, and the concept of the pint portrait is born, before we return home to mark Pete's final night with another karaoke marathon.

I am the walrus. Oh yes, indeed.

Friday
The sun rises well before we do. No surprise there.

The odd thing is old Sol sticks around. It doesn't leave with Peter. It doesn't leave when I want to finish my second book of the holiday in the garden (Being Dead, by John Crace. Highly recommended). It doesn't even leave when we go in search of the fabled Laundry Bay (through the wardrobe, click your heels, third star on the right and straight on til morning - but don't expect to be able to do your laundry), and only gives way to a gentle sprinkling after we start thinking about leaving the beach.

Barbecued mini calzone pizzas, passionate debate, a box of wine and a little single malt ease us to bed for one last time.

Saturday
The regular clear-out rush goes surprisingly smoothly, and we're off the premises by the allotted time. I'm dropped at Dumfries station in glorious sunshine - one last little snook cocked by the British summer - and before parting ways we fortify ourselves for the trip south by indulging in the festival of meat that is the station cafe's Breakfast Plate.

My train crawls back through England, bringing an end to a wonderful - if somewhat wet - holiday. The people made up for the rain one hundred fold and more.

Just don't be surprised if next year's vacation involves a little more sun.

7.8.04

The presence of my parents in London always seems to have a detrimental effect on my ability to waffle online.

At the moment mum's in the kitchen, dad's barbecuing meat and sardines (not at the same time, obviously), and Josh is out at the local Italian deli (new favourite food shop) picking up some fresh ciabatta.

I have a new futon (or rather an old one, inherited from Charles, to replace the one that broke on moving day), a completed desk arrangement, freshly pruned hedge and tree out front, much less cardboard and general rubbish in the house, a Chrysler gargoyle in my living room, and a dog outside my bedroom window.

Sounds like a fair trade.

2.8.04

This is alarming.

The first poll of the US electorate conducted since Kerry's speech to the Democrats, and Bush has got himself a three-point lead. What's worse is that the same polling organisation gave Kerry/Edwards a four-point advantage as recently as the beginning of July.

Dubya and Co didn't even need today's oh-so-conveniently-timed terror alert to The Johns' post-convention bubble.

So what's gone wrong?

It's easy enough to pick holes in the polling methodology. A sample of 763 likely voters in a country where more than 200million have the right to cast their ballot? It's 0.0003815 of the possible electorate. Surely anything they say can't accurately represent the mood of the nation. It's like forecasting the outcome of next year's UK general election based on the opinions of 100 or so people.

But despite the dodgy data, I can't believe this happy few have turned away from Kerry after hearing what he had to say. What speech were they listening to?

Despite the ill-advised, stage-managed, embarrassing and, quite frankly, embarrassed "reporting for duty" opening salute (which would never have got past CJ and Toby), the man staked a powerful claim to Pennsylvania Avenue's most sought-after property.

He said many good things and made many pledges - not only to resuscitate the economy, create jobs, and win back the world's trust, but also to invest in the health and education of the American people.

More than Osama's head on a stick, all the oil in Arabia, or even peace, love and understanding, this is what the United States really needs.

So what if the prodigiously privileged have to pay a little extra tax before they can see the difference? They have to realise it's not about the difference between "the favoured" and "the freeloaders", it's about the commonwealth shared by the needy and the greedy.

It's about whether a citizen wants a better America for Americans, or a better America for themselves. Only one of these can call themselves that most American of words: a patriot.

John Kerry may not be the most charming, charismatic person ever to run for a country's highest political office, but the more I see of winning personalities, the less I trust them. Tony Blair smooth-talked his way onto my voting form twice and now, like any scorned lover, I curse myself for letting him talk me into bed.

Similarly, Bush may have seemed like a pleasant, goofy, down-home kind of guy four years ago (although, I'd like to stress, never to me), but he's been harder on the ordinary American than any of his recent predecessors. And he's storing up more problems for the future, whether he wins a second term or not.

Kerry may be dull, but I'd rather a boring thinker with a conscience was running the world's most powerful country than a Wild West icon of questionable intelligence and morality.

It goes against conventional political thought (as well as being hopelessly idealistic) but voters have to learn there's more to leadership than a smile and a soundbite.

America deserves better, and help is on the way, says John Kerry.

He's right.

Let's just hope someone's willing to let him in.