Saturday, September 29, 2012

Because you wouldn't want The Daleks every week

Barry Levinson's comedy Tin Men brilliantly pitched a feud between rival 'aluminum siding' salesmen Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss that erupted out of nothing. Literally nothing more than an accidental, innocuous and minor clash of car bumpers.

As the film progresses, the feud snowballs into all-out war between the two, a dispute made all the funnier by their ever-increasing, cartoon character-delinquent attempts to get one over the other. In real life, however, such feuds are anything but.

Twenty years ago I saw something similar develop between two news presenters at a national television station. What started as a clash of egos, accompanied by light banter, ended with the pair rolling down a newsroom corridor, like a (thankfully) clothed version of Alan Bates and Oliver Reed's drunken wrestle in Women In Love. The tussle ended with one newsreader going to hospital, both ending up out of work, and one or two others on the periphery posted KIA through collateral damage.

The saga of John Terry and Anton Ferdinand has anything but an innocuous origin. It's where the whole shabby mess ends up that matters now. The FA's verdict on Chelsea's never-say-die skipper is anything but conclusive, and has left the faultline that emerged almost 12 months ago at Loftus Road still fizzing away, the threat of steaming magma periodically bursting through the Earth's crust remains.

Since the intial incident between Ferdinand and Terry, the affair has surfaced and submerged again with similar consistency to the Daleks in TV's Doctor Who. Its writers know they can't be in every episode, so they hold back, introducing them like sink plunger-equipped pantomime villains when their entry will have the greatest shock value. As a result, when I was a child, a Dalek Doctor Who episode was always a bonus, like discovering the green triangle in a tin of Quality Street. You'd have weeks of 'ordinary' baddies and then - they're back! To which you'd scurry behind the sofa. It was an event, long before some fool invented the phrase "appointment television".

The difference between the Daleks and the Terry-Ferdinand saga is that the recurrence of the latter has never been met by people scurrying for the protection of living room furniture. I don't know about you, but the way it has dragged on has just become tedious, not helped by the fact that the original contretemps was a case of two players who should know better, getting into the kind of rival sledging that takes place on every football pitch and at every level of the game.

The matter should have been addressed and solved as soon as it occurred, especially by the FA, who - typically - farted around while the police investigated, the Crown Prosecution Service prepared charges, the England manager walked out, a criminal court acquitted Terry, the Euros took place, and then the opening qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup, only to then haul in Terry, fine him a week's wages and give him a four-game ban.

Which means that the FA's pursuit of disciplinary proceedings against Terry smacks, if nothing else, of extreme bumptiousness. John Terry has become the FA's own Al Capone, Public Enemy No.1, English football´s adminstrator a pathetic version of Elliott Ness, vowing, Boy Scout-style to bring down Capone come-what-may and then only doing so on tax charges, punching the air like Tim Henman in pumped-up self pride: "now we've got him!".Well, no they haven't. Terry is now preparing for martyrdom and the faultlines continue to hiss away.

I'm a Chelsea fan, as most people know, and I've had my doubts and suspicions from the very beginning. Is Terry racist? No. Did he address Ferdinand with a racist word? Ferdinand and YouTube-watching lip readers say yes. Did Ferdinand use the word in the first place to provoke Terry? According to Terry, yes he did.

Verdict? You try working it out. A criminal court failed to reach a guilty verdict and the FA, by the sounds of it, couldn't really, either, but had to act. Mainly because they'd done bugger all so far, more than 11 months since it all began. If stamping out racism is as important to the FA as they keep saying it is, they should have been on Terry's case on October 24 last year, not trying to seek their pound of flesh almost a year later.

While Terry considers appeals and a possible High Court review, Ferdinand continues to fight for his corner via Twitter - the Ferdinand family mouthpiece of choice - by saying "the footage don't lie". Ignoring the less serious charge of grammatical error, Ferdinand should just keep quiet now.

Yes, Terry's punishment is lean (for once, I find myself agreeing with Sir Alex Ferguson on something...), but punishment it is. For the good of he game, both Ferdinand and Terry need to drop it and try and move on.

Anton Ferdinand and John Terry will never be friends. John Terry will never be the most popular footballer in England. He never was, why should he ever be - whether acting as a lightning rod for Chelsea's wealth or the money flooding football in general, or for his various misadventures (including one involving Wayne Bridge's ex). Few though can or should deny JT's sterling contribution to the Chelsea and England defence, boot-defying contributions that have at times defied logic.

We Chelsea fans are regularly - and, I've got to admit, quite justifiably - accused of myopia when it comes to Terry, or indeed anything else this team commits. Nothing new there: Manchester United fans all believe the clocks at Old Trafford are tuned to Swiss perfection, and many Arsenal fans share the selective vision of their own team manager.

Terry, though, will be forever regarded a racist. Some stains can´t be removed. But if he is, surely he'd be using the sort of "industrial" language he became charged for on a regular basis. In this Twitter age there would be dressing room tweets about Terry calling so-and-so a such-and-such, interviews in French newspapers surfacing in which a Chelsea player complains about Terry's offensive attitude towards the club's black players. Odd, then, that we haven't read any of this.

I deplore racism, but I'm equally ill at ease with people exploiting an issue for a cause. If Terry used a racist word in his exchange with Ferdinand, then he should have been punished immediately and with the same weight as that meted out to Luis Suarez.

I'm not blaming the FA to deflect attention away from Terry. I'm blaming the FA because of their bureaucratic ineptitude in installing anything resembling consistency in the game that we can all recognise and all who play the game can adhere to. In giving JT nothing but a slap on the wrist, they're admitting that they had nothing to impose a heavier sanction with, or they realised that this far out from the original incident, this is the best they can do.

What will it have achieved? Nothing. Football will still be perceived as a festering bed of simmering, bile-dripping inter-player, inter-team and inter-fan hostility.

Little more than a month ago I posted about how, following our glorious summer of running and jumping, football was back like a snarling attack dog wearing the chavviest, flashiest diamond-studded collar. Some critics felt that I'd over-simplified the differences between football and the Olympic spirit that beautified London like a fragrance over the summer. Well, I stand by my statement. The feral beast is showing no sign of going away.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's called Rocktober, and don't you forget it

Even though it is many years since I last touched a cigarette, I am still saddled with the piety that all ex-smokers suffer, largely from being able to climb a flight of stairs in one go.

It is, however, exactly this sort of smugness that turns the phrase "ex-smoker" into a pejorative term. Reformed junkies, alcoholics and gamblers are merely celebrated for their heroic abandonment of their particular addition, but a declared former smoker is to be avoided, lest they come out sanctimonious guff about their own epiphany.

Hard-core smokers, in particular, unrepentantly see nothing wrong with their habit, and make a point of enjoying it. The brilliant Bill Hicks was a zealous smoker, before dying at the age of 32 from liver and pancreatic cancer, and devoted vast tracts of his stand-up routine to the subject ("I go through two lighters a day, dude!").

Prowling the stage like a caged tiger, Hicks would belligerently puff away, exhaling to emphasise a point or simply to get up someone's nose. "People say to me, 'Bill, Bill, give up the cigarettes - you'll get your sense of smell back'. And I'll say 'Why the fuck do I want my sense of smell back - I live in New York City?".

In Paris - the capital of a country in which smoking is constitutionally enshrined - I have frequent reason to wince at uninvited smoke wafting my way. In France, smoking is as much of a fixture as the sky above and the dog turd-coated ground beneath. Over time, though, you grow used to it.

Smoking out in the open, with Nature's chimney evacuating the tarred vapors, does not bother me, either. Entering an elevator after a smoker has just left, on the other hand, is a different matter. Those of us with a sense of smell have all walked into a lift to be met by the fug of tobacco left by the clothing and breath of a recently departed passenger.

Still, I will not make a fuss. Apart from being the height of hypocrisy I am British and therefore terminally unconfrontational.

Which raises questions over a measure by the British government - that institution run, according to the wonderfully acerbic comedian Rich Hall, by "a pair of gay antique dealers" - has announced that the month of October has been renamed "Stoptober". According to the official website, it will be "a new, exciting 28-day challenge to stop smoking".

Firstly, October has 31 days in it, so presumably by renaming it Stoptober, three days have been lost deliberately as a part of government austerity measures. Secondly, devoting an almost-complete month to persuading smokers to quit, in order to see how their lungs, sinuses and clothing feel, is the sort of dumb-arse PR stunt only politicians come up with.

Rarely are these stunts fully thought through (as TV's The Thick Of It will mercilessly exploit). At some point during the month a high profile member of the government or a senior figure in the National Health Service, which is fronting the campaign, will be caught enjoying a crafty butt by the prying camera lens of a photographer who would otherwise be snapping topless royalty.

Thirdly and finally, October isn't up for renaming. Sorry, but the month has long been appropriated by America's fine collection of FM rock radio stations as, simply, "Rocktober".

And if ever that was a licence to carry on smoking, that would be it. Keep on rockin' in the free world...

Thursday, September 06, 2012

The only way is...

At the dawn of my illustrious career as a "journalist", I went to live in the media capital of South Shropshire - Ludlow.

Today, this quaint, Tudor-timbered market town on the Welsh Marches is famous for having more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than Paris. Then, alas, the culinary choice was considerably thinner. As, indeed, was I.

The options, then, seemed limited to the chippy opposite my digs, a vegetarian cafe, a tourist-baiting tea 'shoppe' and more pubs than you could shake a shepherd's crook at, mostly serving doorstep-sized sausage sandwiches.

For occasional departures into the exotic, there was the Shapla curry house. The Shapla also served as the rallying point for evenings out that would exclusively end in one of two 'nightclubs', the unnervingly sticky-floored Starline and the equally salubrious Cagney's, a pub that may have doubled as a cage fighting venue, minus the cage.

All that aside, Ludlow is a beautiful town, and its annual festival of food - which purposefully celebrates a slower pace of life - owes much to the town's former mayor, the late Graeme Kidd. A lovely fella, Graeme was, at one point, editor of the first magazine I worked for before launching his career in local politics (to which I helped deliver his first batch of council seat campaign leaflets).

Ludlow's olde worlde environs aside, the town hosted many a rite of passage, including my first exposure to superfluous exclamation mark usage. On most days, the splash headline of the local evening paper, the Shropshire Star, would be an exclamatory bellow such as: FIRE ENGINE CALLED OUT!, MAN BARRED FROM PUB - AGAIN! or FARMER: HEFFER WAS LIKE FAMILY! No event was deemed unworthy of the punctuational shriek.

E-mail and social media have made the exclamation mark a social trap door. In its basic form, the phrase "I don't think I will" is merely a statement of declination. Add an exclamation mark and it becomes easily misconstrued as either sarcasm or irritation. Add a smiley emoticon, however, and an afternoon of grovelling e-mail back-and-forth can be avoided. On the other hand, accidentally leave the caps lock on, and then add an exclamation mark, and you will have just dispatched the phrase at the written volume level of one of Adolf Hitler's speeches.

Which in no way leads me to Volkswagen and its new city car, the UP!. Yes, with an exclamation mark. Quite why this baby VW needs such a shouty name is beyond me. VW's other cars don't shout like this (although my Golf does: when sensing the fuel tank is near empty its LED display impertinently screams BITTE! TANKEN!). Sometimes cultural stereotypes just land in your lap.

Anyway, the good people at my holiday car rental company have deemed me appropriate to drive what appears to be the only UP! on Sicily, passing me over for the fleets of Cinquecentos, Pandas, Puntos, C1s, 107s and other hatchbacks and superminis that fly about this island like lane discipline-disregarding insects.

But before we get into anything about how the UP! drives, there is that name. Clearly the product of a marketing department offsite in some German forest, you can hear the conversation which, for comedy purposes only, must be relayed in Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent, even though he is Austrian:

Otto: "So, Werner, what shall we call our new baby city car?". 
Werner: "Well, we've named our cars after insects [Beetle], dull sports [Polo, Golf], winds [Scirocco] and even nomadic Arabian tribes [Tuareg]. We also came up with 'Phaeton', and no one still knows why." 
Otto: "What's left?" 
Werner: "Something aspirational, glamourous?" 
Otto: "Maybe we need a change of direction." 
Werner: "Now we own Porsche, what about just a number?" 
Otto: "No - a change of direction, like 'Up' or 'Down'." 
Werner: "Hmmm…. Up. The Volkswagen Up. Not sure - it's a small car so the name needs to shout." 
Otto: "Add an exclamation mark then." 
Werner: "Eureka!" 
Otto: "No, UP!".
Werner: "Brilliant. Sauna?"
Otto: "Why not?!"

VWs are, by nature, somewhat staid Teutonic chariots. Generally reliable, they are solid cars with unfussy, clean lines, dampened by the slight chip on their shoulder that they're neither a Porsche, Audi or BMW. Their doors really do shut with a satisfying 'clunk', just like they do in the commercial. The UP! is no exception.

But that's not the only satisfying feature about the UP!. Thrown around hairy Sicilian backroads, the on-paper limited, 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, performs admirably, with a throaty note as you change up through the gears. Like the two VWs I've owned and others I've driven, it sticks solidly to the floor, even when taking death-defying corners on some of this island's more lawless strade stateli, which aren't so much governed by a highway code as rules of engagement.

On motorways - and Sicily only has two - the UP! flies along perfectly (or at least the 74bhp version I have does - can't say the 54bhp would do the same), easily getting north of the 80km/h speed limit laughingly advertised. And with overtaking on dangerous sections of road part of the Italian driving experience, the UP! copes with most slower-moving traffic, even with a seemingly limited number of gee-gees under the bonnet.

As a city car - the UP!'s designated brief - it is a smooth and spacious ride, with uncomplicated dodgem car steering that makes navigating narrow Sicilian streets fun, rather than a blood curdling experience that induces moist secretions from places you'd forgotten you had sweat glands.

It's comfortable, too, with a clever interior design that would easily fit four people and one large suitcase in its 250-litre boot. This is the result of placing the wheels at the most extreme corners of the chassis, and making the engine fit into a compact compartment reminiscent of the original Renault Twingo - my first ever holiday rental and still a much loved little island runabout.

Don't expect much in the equipment department, mind. As, it seems, with all German purchases, you buy a chassis and then the salesman runs through the list of extras - steering wheel, gear lever, doors (the UP! offers a choice of two or four) and so on.

If you're so congenitally lazy that you're now accustomed to one-touch electric windows, then the UP! is not for you. You have to press and hold the button to lower or raise the window. Sorry, that may be a developmental retreat for some.

Equally, if you are driving alone and fancy fresh air from both open windows, the driver has to lean over to the passenger door to press the opposite-side window button. On a Hummer you'd need to be Mr. Tickle to do that, but on the UP! it's relatively effortless.

As a holiday rental, the UP! is brilliant, but I wonder whether the liveability factor will be there after two weeks' use.

It's pleasing to look at, but not to the extent that you attract second looks, with a nice shape, if a variation on the supermini box adopted elsewhere. But then Volkswagen would have had to really let their hair down to come up with something to rival the Fiat Cinquecento.

The Cinq is an outrageously illogical piece of design that just works, ranging from the camp nightmares of some options to the bantamweight machismo of the Abarth versions.

The UP!, on the other hand, will appeal to the somewhat more conservative urbanite, one who appreciates a pleasing shape, comfort and practicality while leaning on the VW reputation for reliability and good residuals. Like all other city cars, it will park with breathless ease and blend in without attracting the attention of hooded types.

The UP! may have a baffling moniker, given what it is competing against, but it is no surprise that Volkswagen's new kind has won a slew of 'Car Of The Year' awards. It really is that good to drive.

Sorry, it really IS that good to drive!

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Staying out for the summer

As summer hands the baton to autumn in the seasonal 4x4 relay, WWDBD? is inhaling the aroma of freshly grilled pesce spada Siciliana on the large volcanic Dorito perched on Italy's big toe. 

It has become my tradition of heading off to the sun when everyone else is back at the coalface (the product of practical considerations), and it has a number of benefits, notably sunbed availability. These late holidays also have the psychological effect of extending summer, a feature you only recognise when returning to a northern European airport on a cold and wet evening, dressed in T-shirt, shorts and sunburn.

As I departed Paris in the dappled sunlight of early September I learned that, according to officials, this year's British summer has been the wettest for 100 years. Strange, as I distinctly recall the same officials issuing a "weather warning" in March foretelling that the summer of '12 was going to be as dry as a bone.

With immediate effect parts of Britain imposed a hosepipe ban, even though some winter snows were still melting. Collectively, the middle class groaned a heavy sigh at the prospect of unwatered lawns and unwashed cars. The Army was called in, though no-one quite knows why: in times of crisis - firemen striking, rubbish uncollected, Olympic venues needing filled - the boys (and persons of non-specific gender) in green get called in. It's just how it is done.

The prospect of taps being turned off and standpipes being installed in cracked streets set off alarm bells. Things in Britain were going to get so bad that Bob Geldof put himself on immediate standby, Midge Ure dusted off the chord charts for Vienna, and Dire Straits gave very serious consideration to reforming. Not good.

So, imagine the surprise when, come the end of August, the UK Met Office announced that the summer of 2012 had been the second wettest since records began, with the receipt of 366.8mm of rainfall along with flooding, mud, tornados, locusts and frogs. Apparently it was also the dullest summer on record, though that has been measured in terms of hours of sunshine (just 399) as opposed to how many weeks you can spend kicking a football against a wall before you get bored and set fire to a shopping centre.

The big deal about this summer is that, when the chimes of doom began clanging in March, it was going to be as hot as 1976. In the summer of '76 Britain suffered a drought of, apparently, near-biblical proportions. Well, biblical in the sense that everyone's gardens turned a light brown colour, roads melted - yes, melted - and being the 1970s everyone went on strike to protest about it. Or least that's how I remember it, but then again I was only eight.

The lack of water was certainly disappointing, seeing as most people had been avoiding water altogether since the previous summer when Jaws came out. I say lack of water, but there was one exception to the so-called and understatedly-described 'dry spell' of 1976: the Welsh enclave that my family had chosen to stay in for our summer holiday that year. Because it rained. Every day. Hard enough to send Noah to a timber merchant for a bulk purchase.

To worsen the effect, every evening my parents, my sister and I would cram ourselves into a roadside phone box - in front of a solitary horse who clearly thought us insane - to ring my brother for a nightly garden update from home. "Still dry. Getting browner". Same report for 14 nights in a row. I presume he was talking about the garden.

So, while I endured a fortnight of mostly indoor pursuits - museums about coal, museums about steam trains, museums about lace, museums about museums, and endless games of Monopoly - my friends elsewhere were zipping about on Raleigh Choppers and Space Hoppers getting heatstroke. I, on the other hand, went through some sort of genetic change, becoming impervious to water and developing flesh like a seal's and webbed hands like Patrick Duffy in The Man From Atlantis.

Despite all this, 1976 - summer and all - has been described as the best year to have been growing up in the UK. Research, earlier this year, by a brand of chocolate biscuit, for reasons best known to themselves, found that all that sunshine and outdoor fun made my ninth year the best.

From a kid's perspective, the economic gloom of Britain in the mid-70s went somewhat unnoticed. In the hottest summer for 350 years, we were all outside (save for those two weeks in a mid-Wales phonebox…). We were rushing about the place, doing what kids did then before concerns about being outside forced them indoors, where they develop the eyesight of a pit pony due to their addiction to Xbox and Sky+ recordings of X Factor that today's children have succumbed to.

In any case, television was rationed. Aye, we were t'poor. We had just one set in our house, with only three channels to choose from - Channel 4 opened the floodgates in 1982 by adding one more… - so spending the summer indoors watching telly wasn't an option either.

The transistor radio - the "tranny", as Radio 1 DJs would call it, before the name became adopted for an alternative lifestyle - was the main form of entertainment for us kids. In the summer that punk was stirring, Top 40 radio was soundtracking with The Wurzels' Combine Harvester, Elton John and Kiki Dee's Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and a campfest of disco hits and ABBA fluff like Tina Charles' I Love To Love, The Real Thing's You To Me Are Everything and the Swedish foursome's Fernando.

Which meant that, like Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider we took to the streets on our bikes. Pedalling for hours around the neighbourhood without anyone considering it unsafe, because it wasn't. The crime rate in the UK was half of what it is today, and with fewer cars on the roads - I can't think of a single family I knew then who had two - my London suburb was an altogether safer place.

No doubt being an adult in the summer of '76 wouldn't have been much fun. With inflation in Britain at 27%, the country was in the grip of an economic malaise worsened by constant industrial action and the need for an economic bailout of the kind Greece, today, would be saying "Ναι παρακαλώ!" to rather heartily.

Inevitably, the long hot summer of 1976 came to end. This was obviously the fault of the government, who appointed a dedicated minister - Denis Howell - to deal with the drought. No sooner had he taken office than Britain was deluged with flooding. At the end of August, simmering tensions in London's black community exploded at the Notting Hill Carnival where rioting broke out.

Even that year, the end of August symbolically marked the passing of an idyllic summer. Which is why I'm hanging on to this one and, in the process, ordering up another bottle of the hefty local Syrah.

To be drunk responsibly, of course.