Saturday, August 30, 2014

Revolution No.9

I'll admit it. I was wrong. Pretty wrong, actually. When I wrote, in January 2011 (Shut that window, mother, it's freezing out), that Chelsea's £50 million acquisition of Fernando Torres "represented good business", I couldn't have predicted as poor a return on the investment as just 46 goals out of 172 appearances. No excuse from club, player and fan alike can mask the fact that the player simply hasn't delivered on what his £175,000-a-week contract prescribed.

Picture: @Torres/Twitter
As Torres commences his two-year "loan" spell at Milan (i.e. the remainder of his Chelsea contract), it's hard to really equate who the actual winner is. Certainly not the club that shelled out a league record fee for the player, evidently on yet another whim of the club's owner, who'd seen Torres put two past Chelsea for Liverpool in the November and on that evidence decided to buy him two months later.

Though hardly an impulse purchase, it was a foolhardy rush of blood to the wallet that can be implicated in the sackings of Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas and Roberto di Matteo, who failed to wring any noticeable goal-scoring out of the centre forward. Not even Torres' former Liverpool boss, Rafa Benitez, was able to coax the player's once mercurial marksmanship out of him and that, presumably, was all Chelsea had brought him in to do.

In all honesty, the blame for Torres should probably be spread evenly. If the player wasn't up for it, he shouldn't have made the move to London only to spend the next three years moping about. And if the player wasn't right, why did the club go through the due-diligence - including a medical - only discovering after making Torres their staggeringly record signing that he lacked the mental fortitude to deliver?

This might sound harsh, but at an instant, we've seen the difference in Diego Costa. His goals so far - even his attempts on goal - have been swiftly considered and decidedly taken. No last-minute crises-of-confidence and a wasted flick to an advancing teammate. No. Ball at his feet and bam! It took Costa just 17 minutes before scoring his first competitive goal for Chelsea. And Torres?

Picture: @milanello/Twitter
The Spaniard's move to Italy, where sometimes mediocrity can be easily camouflaged by the aura of Serie A, will probably take off him whatever burden was preventing him from shining at Chelsea.

That said, Torres' body language on arriving for his medical at La Madonnina clinic didn't look any different to that with which he has lurched around for Chelsea, resembling a teenage girl who has been barred from going out on a Monday night.

As footballers are prone to do, he's at least talking a good game at the start of his career with the rossoneri. "I can't wait to start the new season," he said this morning at Milan's Linate airport, adding, pointedly, "I have already spoken with coach Inzaghi - he understands what it is to be a striker."

Being the master of political doublespeak that he is, José Mourinho has remained remarkably conciliatory towards Torres' departure (as he was towards Romelu Lukaku's).

"So if he wants to leave", Mourinho said this week, "I believe that [it] is to try to be happier than he was in the last couple of years." That is the first tacit admission by anyone at Chelsea that Torres was anything less than happy, which draws some doubt on Mourinho's following statement: "This is a very human club in the way the club approaches this kind of situation," he said prior to the Milan move becoming public.

From a fan's point of view, Stamford Bridge has been a very compassionate place when it comes to Torres. We have wanted nothing but for him to do well, willing him on in the final third, feeling his frustration when his runs have come to nothing, cheering in encouragement at the mere sight of him warming up on the touchline. Like the club, we have even been prepared to see the likes of Sturridge and Lukaku move on in frustration in the hope that Torres might come good.

It would be wrong to blame the Torres experience solely on the folly of Abramovich's millions. Go back in the history of any club and there will be expensive mistakes. Chelsea certainly made plenty of them long before the Russian came along (Chris Sutton anyone?). But the magnitude of the mistake - this time was in a different class - £50 million in fee and roughly a further £33 million in wages.

For Chelsea, sadly, the only net benefit from the Torres experience is that it should provide the club with an expensive reminder of how what glitters isn't always gold.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Time to throw in the towel on the Ice Bucket Challenge

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease, depending on which side of the Atlantic you hail from, has had millions of people throwing buckets of ice-cold water over themselves for their Facebook friends to gasp, giggle and take a small degree of sadistic pleasure over.

Since July 29, the ALS Association has received a record $94.3 million in donations, fuelled by the flow of freezing water splashing all over social media. Brilliant. But now it's time to stop - the water. Please.

Much like 'Movember', in which men - in particular, those apparently ill-equipped to do so - grow moustaches to raise awareness for the equally worthy cause of prostate cancer, the "ha-ha" social media value of flinging the eau glacée is in danger of being stretched too far.

Social media itself is to blame: every time you go on Facebook, someone is chucking a bucket of the cold stuff over themselves (having first made the obligatory challenge to three more challengees).

As with all charitable acts, credit to them. But at risk of being both a killjoy and treading on topical sensitivities, the Ice Bucket Challenge is now resembling a non-stop stream of jihadist propaganda videos: first the index finger-aloft pontificating to camera, then the grisly act. You know what I mean.

While we will, hopefully, never become desensitised to the truly murderous footage coming from Syria and Iraq, the light-hearted shock value of the Ice Bucket Challenge is starting to dry out.

It doesn't help that, despite the enormous sums of money it has raised for ALS, some are having their frigid 30 seconds and NOT donating to an ALS charity. According to a poll in The Independent newspaper, more than half of Brits taking the challenge haven't made a donation afterwards as required, while another half didn't even know what all these wannabe snuff videos were in aid of. Worse still, over a third of those who responded to the poll said they'd only taken part in the challenge to gain attention on social media.

ALS is a serious condition, but maybe the most humane thing - for the rest of us - would be to spare us the sight of people getting drenched in the name of it, and just hand over a cheque. Privately...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A knee-jerk reaction to air travel

Back in the year I was born, 1967, a year in which everything was supposed to be cool and groovy, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed their Social Readjustment Rating Scale to measure life's most stressful events.

As a result, they compiled the Top Ten causes of stress, which were:
  1. Death of a spouse 
  2. Divorce 
  3. Marriage separation 
  4. Jail term 
  5. Death of a close relative 
  6. Injury or illness 
  7. Marriage 
  8. Fired from job 
  9. Marriage reconciliation 
  10. Retirement
This being 1967, mass air travel as we know it today hadn't been invented. Those who did fly around the world wore suits and ties and smoked pipes. It was possible to carry luggage on to planes without first having to take off your trouser belt and risk dropping your trousers in the process. You didn't have to decant your personal toiletries into a clear plastic bag so that your fellow travellers could see you were travelling with hemorrhoid cream. And you certainly didn't have to worry about radicalised lunatics with high explosives lining their underpants.

I'd imagine, then, that if Holmes and Rahe were to recompile the list today, the number one Most Stressful Thing Of All would be travel and, specifically, air travel. 47 years ago it was civilised. Essentially, the only people who flew anywhere then were film stars and Princess Margaret. The food was served on bone china and the flight attendants (or "stewardesses" - remember that name?) offered you a selection of cigarettes from various brands, which you would then smoke until the plane landed in New York or Nassau, which were the only places any airline flew to.

But today, thanks to airlines making air travel ridiculously cheap, commercial aircraft are now crammed to bursting point. And because of rising fuel costs, they have to go beyond bursting point to cram even more people in to make their so-called budget fares more economical. Planes are now so tightly packed that strangers enjoy more intimate thigh-to-thigh action than most married couples.

In America things are even worse. Ever since 9/11, when domestic air travel stopped being as free-and-easy as hopping on a Greyhound bus, and started being an increasingly fraught affair, airlines have downsized their planes, swapping old gas-guzzlers for smaller, more fuel-efficient planes, and at the same time, cut the costs of managing them. 

Thus, some carriers now charge for all baggage, forcing more people to take more carry-on luggage, causing more delays in planes taking off as long lines form while these idiots try and stuff bags that should sustain a year's worth of travel into overhead lockers. Then there is the smell of brought-onboard pizza because airlines have stopped in-flight catering. Soon we will have to put up with dickhead salesmen spending the entire flight yahing on their mobile phones because airlines figure they can make a buck or two out of that.

All in all, then, joining the jet-set these days is more hell than heaven. Which is why it is perfectly understandable that people will resort to gadgets like the Knee Defender, the $21.95 doobry that caused a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Denver, Colorado, to be diverted to Chicago the other day. 

The device - a small plastic brace, the size of a door key - clips on to an economy class seat-back tray table to prevent the seat in front from reclining. Allegedly it had been installed by a gentleman in Row 12 to prevent the passenger in Row 11 from encroaching on him, his tray table and his laptop. When he refused to remove the clips (after, apparently, requests from cabin crew) the enraged Row 11 passenger chucked a glass of water over him. First world problems, eh?

There will be, no doubt, sympathies on both sides: on a four-hour flight to Denver, some will want to kick back and sleep their way through the journey. Others will want to make use of the relative peace and quiet to get on with work. A compromise must be found. 

Although the two passengers in question were both in 'premium economy' seats - a slight trade-up for cash for a little more legroom - they were still vying for the dwindling amount of economy class space on board planes caused by airlines trying pack more people in. 

Picture: United Airlines
According to TIME magazine senior editor Bill Saporito, domestic airlines in the US - and in other regions, too - are adding more rows to their economy class sections to increase turnover.

This means, he says, the seat "pitch" (i.e. the space between your knees and the seat in front) on United Airlines' fleet of Boeing 737s is 31 inches in Economy and 34 inches in the premium economy section, Economy Plus. The 34-inch seat pitch used to be the Economy section.

Such cramped conditions might be OK for hour-long commuter flights, but planes like the 737 and Airbus A320/321/319/318 family are being used on longer, cross-country routes, as was the case in the United flight to Denver.

Something has to give - and the reclining seat is the likely candidate. Last year the flight price comparison website Skyscanner found that nine out of ten passengers would gladly do away with reclining seats if it meant they could enjoy a meal or watch a video on the tablet without being forced into having their tray table cut them in two. Cabin crew like the idea as well, as they invariably are the ones having to extinguish arguments between niggling passengers. The major US domestic airlines have banned the Knee Defender, but this incident has reopened the debate on flying etiquette - as well as highlighted the fact we're putting up with increasingly inconsiderate fellow passengers. 

Squabbles, or at least passive-aggressive behaviour over reclining seats, middle seat arm-rest ownership and window blind opening (or closing) have long been ever-present barriers to "sitting back, relax and enjoy the flight", as pilots always patronisingly emplore us to do.

With more of us travelling, and most of us flying in economy, with more of a few pounds, 'seat spillage' has become another source of altitude attitude. Southwest Airlines in the US has tried to address this with its "Customers of Size Policy", the hilarious, politically correct attempt to deal with wide-bodied customers "...who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s)" encouraging them to "...proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available". Helpfully Southwest explains that the acknowledged border that should not be crossed is the armrest - "considered to be the definitive boundary between seats". Most importantly, Southwest says, the policy "ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating". Hmmm...

As someone who is, ahem, somewhat less than compact, I am more conscious than most not to encroach. I go to considerable expense, sometimes, to ensure I have a window seat, from which I have some space to lean into and out of the shoulder width of my neighbour. This does, though, render me with back pain and the row itself looking like Picasso's Guernica.

Daily Mirror/East News
But at least it's not life threatening. Earlier this month we read about four-year-old Fae Platten who went into anaphylactic shock on a Ryanair flight from Tenerife to the UK after a passenger opened a bag of peanuts. This was despite the entire cabin being informed before takeoff that nuts would not be available on the flight, and the crew asking passengers not to consume any nut-based food throughout the journey due to Fae having a severe and potentially life-threatening nut allergy.

Still, that didn't stop one passenger a few rows away - who was either stupid or selfish, or both - from opening a bag of nuts, releasing nut dust into the cabin environment and into Fae's direction. After passing out, she had to be revived with an adrenaline injector before being taken to hospital.

All these examples merely demonstrate what I've long felt, that travel brings out the worst in people, and air travel in particular. How often do passengers feign ignorance at being told a plane will board by row number, only to charge the gate like the Pamplona bull run? How often do travellers knowingly take-up all the overhead locker space simply to avoid the relative inconvenience of waiting a few minutes at the other end for their bag to appear on the carousel? And don't get me going about the gentleman last Saturday morning in the row in front of me who spent the entire flight from Paris to London loudly clearing his nasal passages rather than requesting a Kleenex from the cabin steward.

Unless you have the privilege of flying in the posh seats (and for that you must be either minted, have a very generous boss, or have somehow wangled an upgrade), going anywhere by plane has become torture. It is no longer a symbol of glamour, something frequent flyers react to every time someone makes those "aren't you lucky to be flying all over the place!" remarks.

We're not. Trust me on this. It really isn't better to travel than to arrive. The sole objective any air passenger sets for themselves these days is getting it over as soon as possible.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Grace and danger: the Jeff Buckley legacy

You all know about the 27 Club, right? Influential musicians like Hendrix, Morrison, Winehouse, Cobain, Drake and Joplin, who all died at the age of 27. Cut down in their prime by, mostly, rock-and-roll misadventure, only to emerge from death even more greater influence than they applied in life.

Jeff Buckley was 30 when he died in 1997, accidentally drowning, apparently, while swimming fully clothed in a Memphis tributary of the Mississippi. Aside from being older, he differed for the 27 Club by the fact that he had only released one studio album at the time he died.

That album was Grace, which was released 20 years ago yesterday. It is a landmark album, but for all the muso acclaim it has garnered, just one of its songs will ensure Buckley is forever regarded amongst the greatest artists of all time. Incredible. One song. And he didn’t even write it.

The song is Hallelujah. It was written and originally recorded in 1985 by Leonard Cohen, an obscurity on the second side of his Various Positions album. In 1991, the Velvet Underground's John Cale recorded it for a Cohen tribute, stripping it down from the synth-heavy original. In 1992, Buckley was cat-sitting for a friend in Brooklyn and happened to discover the tribute album, coming across the "ode to life and love" that he considered Hallelujah.

His own recording would become a love letter to Cohen, taking the Cale cover and infusing it with an extraordinary soul and emotional heft. Even now, the countless wannabes who choose it as their bid on trashy Saturday night TV talent shows will refer to it as Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah (mind you, there are also those who refer to it as "that song from Shrek"), such was the distinction that effectively made the song his own, and staple of weddings, funerals and break-up mix tapes.

Grace is more than just one song, of course, but that song continues to carry the torch of legacy for the album itself, an album Bowie himself once said was one of the ten albums he'd take to a desert island, an album that has been compared, favourably, to Radiohead's OK Computer (Thom Yorke is said to have been so impacted by seeing Buckley perform in Highbury that he went straight into a studio to record the vocals to Fake Plastic Trees).

Grace's influence can be heard in the careers of Elbow, Coldplay, Keane, Bon Iver, Rufus Wainwright (another Hallelujah coveree), Muse, Arcade Fire and even Jamie Cullum, who covered Lover, You Should Come Over. The irony of all this is that Grace was, initially, something of a commercial flop, only getting as high as 149 in the Billboard chart in the US. Even some reviews were mixed, some noting that in the-then era of grunge, such a disjointed album of styles was indicative of a career debut lacking focus.

It's appreciation since tells a different story. By the end of 1994 it had been named Best Album of the year by Mojo, 9th out of 1994's Top 50 in Melody Maker, and featured prominently in the annual album charts of countless other music magazines. With the benefit of history, Grace has appeared even higher in 'best of' lists,  including Rolling Stone's The Essential Alternative Recordings of the 90s and No.33 in the NME's 100 Best Albums Ever poll, even beating Oasis' (What's The Story) Morning Glory and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures. It has even been chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress.

Jeff Buckley had music in his veins from the start. He also had the heart-wrenched platform to write an album like Grace, too. Born in Anaheim, California - home to Disneyland - on November 17, 1966. In principle, his earliest years should have been surrounded by music, courtesy of Buckley's father, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, Tim Buckley. However, Buckley senior walked out on his six-month-old son and mother when Jeff was still a baby. He died of a drug overdose when Jeff was just nine.  "I knew him for nine days," the younger Buckley would later tell music journalist Ted Kessler. "I met him for the first time when I was eight-years-old over Easter and he died two months later."

In the same interview with Kessler, Buckley said of himself and his father: "We were born with the same parts but when I sing, it's me. This is my own time." Grace clearly was, but behind the variety of songs - a range spanning pop, alt-rock and even chilled-out lounge - sits a bedrock of deep emotion. It is perhaps too easy and tempting to read into songs like Last Goodbye and that much-covered paean to narcotic bliss, Lilac Wine.

But there was clearly something about Grace that suggested a musician full of untethered potential and promise. He was already working on that difficult second album when died. Those who doubt the reverence to which Jeff Buckley has been awarded in the 17 years since his death and the 20 years since Grace appeared see him as a mere interpreter of others' styles. And on the limited evidence alone - just the one studio album - it's possible to see where this perspective come from.

However, the paradox is that there is both commonality and variety at work - Buckley's remarkable vocal range and timbre throughout, and his ability to adapt his guitar playing to enhance the emotion each song on Grace was trying to convey.

One can only wonder what that second album would have given us and, indeed, the last 20-years. We shall never know, of course, but that should not and does not diminish the singular impact of an album that rightfully takes prominent place in record collections as the sole legacy of career that tragically never came to be.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Wish you WEREN'T here

The peace is about to shatter. Next Monday will see many of my French colleagues (and, it would appear, neighbours) returning from the beach, having left for les grandes vacances on the stroke of August 1, vacated desk chairs swiveling, Looney Tunes-style, in their wake.

For the record (and especially if the boss is reading) I have been busy with all the important stuff that doesn't go away. That said, the quieter environment has afforded me the opportunity to fully appreciate what I've missed by not joining the August evacuation (a term I use with apologies to the constipated).

Let's start, then, on a gloomy note: the summer holidays are one of two peak periods each year for relationships to end and marriages to dissolve (the other being Christmas). This is due to couples who only see each other for dinner and weekends throughout the rest of the year suddenly being compressed into each others' lives for a fortnight in the same hotel room or holiday apartment. Throw in azure waters and idyllic sunsets, and thoughts that there could be more to life than this, and before the first layer of skin has peeled appointments with divorce lawyers and relationship counsellors are being made.

Nothing brings out bickering better than a holiday. Travel brings out the worst in people, in general, as anyone who travels regularly will attest, but it also brings out the worst in relationships.

A recent survey by a "relationship care" website (actually, an online sex toy retailer...) found that three-quarters of couples will have a barney within the first two days of their holiday. A large percentage - 42% - of arguments are caused by overspending, while getting drunk represented a third.

Other disagreements were over what to do each day, ogling the opposite sex (or indeed any form of flirtation - e.g. with hairy-chested waiters or push-up bra-wielding receptionists), moaning about being ill, taking too long to get ready, and forgetting to pack something vital. Then there are contretemps about male partners who bloke it out for the first week and go without suntan lotion...only to turn the colour of the Polish flag and need hospital treatment for sunstroke. Or the male partners who get bladdered every night and then wonder why their partners have moved into the inflatable plastic dinghy for the remainder of the holiday. Or the male partners who chose unfamiliar-looking seafood, and spend the first week retching into the Arnitage Shanks. Do you notice a pattern here?

Other niggles include a partner talking too much, being tired, being ill, being old, being unfit, faddy eating and that old holiday dust-up favourite, map reading. Indeed, whether it is Brits clogging up the A303 for a Devon 'staycation', the Dutch clogging up France with their caravans and Volvos, or the Germans clogging up the otherwise empty Dutch roads with their Mercedes and BMWs, road rage is just as commonplace inside the car as outside.

According to different consumer research, navigation is a particular painpoint for holidaying couples. Evidently, when forced to navigate via map, as opposed to GPS, 95% of men would prefer to go with their instincts and getting lost rather than listening to their other half. And, of course, it's never their fault...

It would be all too easy to say that for a peaceful holiday, ditch the car and just go for the simple taxi-airport-bus-hotel-beach/pool operation favoured by those annoyingly smug travellers who also pack everything they need for a two-week break into a bag the size of a 7-year-old's pencil case.

Yes, it costs a bit, but you're paying for some P&Q, not to mention lower blood pressure just at the time you need to enjoy your annual "chillax", as British politicians seem to think it is cool to say (it isn't).

That said, flying is not exactly stress-free, either: security will be a nightmare, you will have that child behind you or, worse, that git in front of you, his finger hovering over the 'recline' button as you take off, and you will feel like you need another holiday as soon as you've touched down from the current one.

However, that's assuming you got away in the first place. Often the first holiday arguments kick off before the suitcase has even been closed. With airlines restricting how much luggage you can take for free, if you're one of those people who has to travel with every shade of shoe from your own, personal Imelda Marcos-style walk-in wardrobe, you're already asking for trouble. The truth is, you can probably make do with just the pair you're wearing.

Assuming you've managed to pack for everyone, the next explosion will be over what time everyone needs to be up. Somee treat airports like a McDonalds - in principle, you breeze in, check-in, and are on your way in a single sequence. But others see them for the necessary evils they are. It doesn't matter what time your flight is, you will encounter a traffic jam; the security line will resemble a biblical exodus, and if you don't check-in online, you will - I assure you - end up in the middle seat no-one wants. With aforementioned child behind, and Captain Recline in front.

Don't, however, for one minute think the ordeal is over when you get to the airport, sans traffic. Because it will only then occur to you that a passport, and not your gym membership card, is the only form of acceptable identification for commercial air travel. Luckily the Law of Averages has determined that for every dimwit traveller in a party there will be a sensible one who remembers these things. Still, that won't prevent the "I thought you had them?" stand-up row in front of that lengthening line of batey-looking easyJet "speedy boarders".

So, then. Car it is. Except that if you're travelling with kith and kin, you are almost certainly likely to have an argument with someone else in the car. Britain's AA, together with market researchers Populus, found that for a start, two out of three cars will befall a row at some point on a long journey. Those aged between 18 and 24 seemed most likely to kick off, with the over-65s learning to sit in silence or suck on a Murray Mint to keep the peace.

Inevitably, the single-biggest cause of disharmony was navigation, with a passenger complaining about the driver's speed being the second most common complaint. Parents in the 35-44 age group were most likely to get wound up by noisy kids. Other moans included the driver shouting at other drivers, driving too slowly, the temperature inside the car, arguments over where to eat and what to listen to. Sound familiar?

From all this it might be tempting to think that there is no escaping rows while travelling with those you supposedly love. Well, yes and know. Experts suggest that a little bit of planning goes a long way: decide where you want to go before you set off, if the "what are we going to do today?" question is a trigger for strife. Likewise, to avoid fights over spending, set a budget and try and limit yourself to only so much each day.

All very sensible, I'll agree. But perhaps there is only one truly sensible way to stay happy and harmonious on holiday. Well, two. One, don't go on holiday at all, although for some people the mere thought of not getting time off will lead them up the nearest clock tower with a high-powered rifle faster than you can say Benidorm; and, Two, go away on your own. I can personally guarantee that holidaying alone cures 99.9% of all known arguments.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ding-ding - end of Round One

Pic: BTRSELLER/Shutterstock
If you can accept the inclusion of a Monday night into the concept, the opening weekend of Premier League season 2014-15 has come and gone and already every pundit is installing Chelsea as champions. So, shall we just go straight to 2015-16 instead?  Well, no.

Because as, literally, all managers and players are saying in disjointed, clichéd unison, "it's a long season" - and they're right: at this stage of the campaign the horizon is as distant as the wisdom is unfounded.

This time last season, don't forget, few pundits were giving Liverpool a chance, and where did they end up at season's end? Some of these same "experts" also predicted a long and fruitful World Cup for Spain...

While it is true that there is already an ominous look of purpose about José Mourinho's side, there is also a look of earnest industry about Wenger's Arsenal, a look of renewed determination about Rodgers' Liverpool, and the same look of calm composure about Pellegrini's Manchester City. You might also note how van Gaal's Manchester United look as ruffled as Moyes' Manchester United did all season long.

But let's not get carried away. As much as it is richly enjoyable for us Chelsea fans to look at the Barclays Premier League table this afternoon and feel flushed by the obscurities of goal difference putting the Blues on top and van Gaal's behemoth not even in the top 13, "Played 1, Won 1, Pts 3" is hardly ranking of any note. There are 37 more games to come.

That said, while it is true that the opening weekend's fixtures are usually never more than an extension of the pre-season friendlies - fitness is still lacking, new positions and teammates still unsure of themselves, the transfer window is still unsettlingly open... - to see everyone in competitive action for real, provides some indication of what lies in store.

Let's start with the defending champions. Manchester City's 2-0 away win against Newcastle was enough to demonstrate, even in their opening game, that their eventual claim of the Premier League title in May wasn't totally by default.

The closing stages of last season were cagey, and one could argue that City only became champions because Liverpool - and Steven Gerrard in particular - handed them the title. But while it is harder to defend a title than take one, City will gain further strength from both a second summer under Pellegrini's calm preparation, the arrival of a few new faces (including Frank Lampard on loan), and the hope that Edin Dzeko will sign a new deal and commit himself to playing in one of the Premier League's most prolific strike forces.

What, then, of last season's unlikely runners-up? Losing Luis Suarez is both a blessing and a curse, but it's something Liverpool simply have to deal with. Splashing Barcelona's cash on what seems like most of the population of Southampton is not necessarily the solution, either, but Brendan Rodgers' primary task now is blending recruits like Southampton's Rickie Lambert's Adam Lallana in with Markovic, fresh from Benfica, often referred to as Portugal's answer to Southampton. Possibly.

Despite their appearance in England's brief cameo at the World Cup, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling will relish the opportunity to ask "Luis who?". They certainly and did so on Sunday against the surprisingly spirited South Coast club, who just happened to be Liverpool's opening weekend opponents. Despite the way last season ended, Liverpool have every right to have their tails up for this campaign. To be achingly close - and with immense credit, too. was tough but shows what this same team is capable of.

And then Arsenal. There is an air of familiarity around Wenger's understated confidence, and I wouldn't necessarily say that was a good thing, as this same emotion hasn't got them very far in recent years. Ending last season with the FA Cup and starting this one with the Community Shield (albeit winning over a markedly depleted Manchester City) will have done their spirit no end of good - when was the last time Arsenal, or anyone for that matter, won back-to-back trophies in consecutive competitive matches?

However, the Gunners should hold a torch up to their performance on Saturday against a managerless Crystal Palace, who still managed to frustrate until very late in the game. The scoreline flattered to deceive. True, Arsenal were missing Theo Walcott and their World Cup-winning Germans, but the big question this season - as with previous terms - is where is their prolific, goal-scoring centre forward? Wenger may exude an almost nonchalant air at times, but history has taught us that his club's supporters are anything but when that nonchalance comes across as miserly complacency.

Which then brings me to Manchester United. I feel certain to speak for many football fans - and obviously those who don't live in Surrey or actually support United - that last season's uncharacteristic bout of sustained disaster was quite amusing.

Yes, I know, a shame to see the dear old beast struggling, but then after two decades of relentless triumphalism with the commensurate hubris thrown in, it was refreshing to see United rendered human, after all.

I didn't, however, wish the public slaying that David Moyes went through, and I wouldn't wish the same on Louis van Gaal, either. The Dutchman can be a monstrous egomaniac, but then for me - as a supporter of a club managed by Mourinho - I can hardly focus the spotlight on that particular foible as complaint.

But to open your Premier League account with a home defeat to Swansea, with more or less every commentator reaching the same conclusion that this was more of the same, could not have been any worse if you'd imagined it. Losing by a single-goal margin is not the worst thing that can befall a team, but for Manchester United, doing so at home on Day 1 to Swansea (with the greatest of respect) will have had even the Brazilians - scorched, still, from their World Cup blitzkreig - smiling sweetly at someone else's disproportionate discomfort.

It would be insane to reach out for a panic button just yet, or even ensure it could be found in the dark, but there are players lacking in Manchester United's squad at the start of this season. And that's not something you could ever say about life under its previous regime...

So, then, what about my own club, Chelsea? Last night's performance at Turf Moor may have hinted at a team boasting the perfect balance of a Romanian gymnast, with a striker (Costa) actually capable of scoring goals rather than merely attempting to, and a playmaker in Fabregas easing the pain of the departed (though not far) Lampard. But at risk of being branded a cynic (oh, go on then), Chelsea have, previously, leaped out of the traps and won the Premier League title, and leaped out of the traps only to flounder after Halloween.

Facebook/Chelsea FC

There was much talk that Chelsea failed to win any senior silverware last season because they lacked strike power. Well that is partly true. But my bigger concern last season was their mentality. Defeats at Villa Park and Selhurst Park lent more to attitude that physical failings. Mourinho also has his work cut out keeping a huge squad happy, in particular Petr Cech as Thibaut Courtois continues to be groomed to be the number one No.1. He also needs to prevent Andre Schurrle from slipping away, as well as the increasingly sulky Oscar - whose club form dipped leading into the World Cup, only to be a part of that humiliated Brazilian team. Last night he looked even sulkier when he was substituted late in the game, even though with the game won it was only sensible to bring on Mikel and short up the defensive base of midfield..

So those are the supposed contenders for Top Four places: what about the rest? Will the relegation zone be exclusively claret-and-blue as Aston Villa, West Ham, Burnley and Crystal Palace all vie with each other for the trapdoor?

You can pundit all you want about who might go down and who might stay up, who might remain in mid-table mediocrity or, to look at that another way, take a workmanlike approach to being a Premier League team. One round of fixtures is not going to determine anything.

You could say that there are 20 teams who could end up anywhere, but you could reasonably expect the likes of Burnley, QPR and Leicester - newly arrived in the top flight - to labour, while the dysfunctions of incumbents like Palace, West Brom, West Ham and even Newcastle may prove telling.

However, let's at least get Round 2 under our belts before coming to any more strident conclusions, shall we?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Do NOT add to cart

If there was one happy aspect to Robin Williams' tragic death last week, it was the excuse it provided to rewatch his work, especially the somewhat prescient performance as emotionally struggling tutor, Sean Maguire, in Good Will Hunting.

But on a more mirthful note, it was Williams' stand-up performances that provided the most gleeful memories of the comedian, including the blisteringly funny A Night At The Met, in which some of the funniest observations came from his own generous experiences as an addict: "I had to stop drinking alcohol 'cos I used to wake up nude in my car with my keys in my ass! Not a good thing: 'Hi, can I help you?' 'No it's just flooded...I'll be OK...' ".

So it is with some amusement that we hear that drink not only creates homicidal motorists, boorish after-hours kebab shop twats, and karaoke performances that should lead to legalised euthanasia, but that it also causes one-in-five of us to make ill-advised purchases with online retailers like Amazon and eBay.

As we all know, operating machinery under the influence of anything from wine gums to Night Nurse is to be avoided, but clearly no such warnings have been extended to computers and tablets. But according to research by the price comparison website, British consumers under the influence are impulse-buying anything from holidays to washing machines after coming home from the pub.

The site's research reveals that a quarter of those who have shopped while they were literally dropping have spent anywhere between £100 and £200 online, while almost a fifth have spent upwards of £500, buying high-ticket items such as holidays, TVs and even washing machines. Amazon appears to bear the brunt (53%) of half-cut surfing, while clothing, rather worryingly, is the most popular item being purchased, along with shoes, which may explain some of the things you see in British pubs to begin with.

Bizarrely, the researchers found that people had bought obscure items as random as lobster pots (ten of), pie makers, diving equipment and folding ladders while drunkenly waving their credit cards about. Not surprisingly - and I can concur... - DVDs, Blu-ray Discs and CDs also figure amongst popular impulse purchases.

With more than three-quarters of the UK owning credit cards, and "Binge-Drink Britain" (copyright - all newspapers) at its merriest, the rather appropriately named, says that more caution is required by those out on the lash: "Alcohol can cause people’s inhibitions to disappear," says the site's head of credit cards Nerys Lewis, "but people need to be aware of how their credit card spending when drunk could affect them in the long run."

Of course one thing the research doesn't tell us is how many people carry on buying their alcohol online while drunk, but with no shortage of wine and beer sites, not to mention alcohol price comparison sites to help, it's only a matter of time before someone develops a breathalyser app that doesn't let you use a mouse if you're over your limit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Send back the clown: Robin Williams - 1951-2014

Picture courtesy of HBO

The Pink Floyd album Dark Side Of The Moon contains, amongst others, a recording of Abbey Road studio doorman Gerry O'Driscoll saying "I'm not afraid of dying....You've got to go sometime", condensing into one soundbite the fact that death is, well, a fact of life.

Which doesn't make it any easier when it happens to a loved one or, simply, someone who made you smile. Robin Williams didn't just make me smile, he made me - and I'm not embarrassed to admit this - shed tears of laughter. Yes, I convulsed so much at his Live On Broadway 2002 HBO special that there were rivulets streaming down my face.

This, of course, may not be everyone's experience of him. That's comedy for you - one man's comic genius is another's annoying clown. Comedy is ridiculously subjective that way. But let's stop and consider Williams for a moment. He was the most exhausting of comics: a chat show appearance wouldn't just be a 'bit' or a plug for the latest movie, but an eruption of inventive improvisation. Like the Pythons' Argument Clinic, you could get five minutes or the full half hour. You got what you paid for.

From his earliest TV appearance as the alien Mork (in Mork & Mindy and Happy Days), through his stand-up shows (including impromptu appearances at improv clubs) to his movies, notably Good Morning Vietnam, Williams as a comic was like the sun - a perpetual explosion of hydrogen, helium and plasma, inventing on the spot, seeing things for their intensely comic value that others might fail to address.

There was, of course, significantly more to Robin Williams than the TV specials he made for HBO, but I'll come on to those other things in a moment. Because his 1986 special A Night At The Met is possibly, probably even, the most complete 53 minutes of comedy you'll ever witness.

It is certainly the most perfect near-hour of stand-up comedy I've ever seen, embracing - in this order - alcohol, drugs, the Cold War, the Middle East, men's genitalia, what men do with their genitalia, pregnancy as a consequence, giving birth and raising the child, culminating with the realisation, that while you may have grand designs for your little one to go to Harvard, "you wake up and he's saying, 'do you want fries with that?'".

There are so many great lines packed into this one show that you have to watch it to catch them all. But let me give you two: [On gun control] "You have the right to bear arms or the right to arm bears, it's your choice!" and [on being addicted to cocaine] "Cocaine's God's way of telling you you have too much money".

16 years later, and with the wounds of 9/11 still fresh, Williams made Live On Broadway to much the same effect. Covering in two hours the zeitgeist of the day, from the potential taboo of airline security ("Why take away nail clippers? It's not like terrorists are going 'This is a hijacking - no one move or the stewardess loses a cuticle!'") to the villain of the hour ("Osama Bin Laden is a six-foot-five Arab on dialysis. Why is that so fucking hard to find?"), Williams brought levity to a country still in pain, in the very city where the pain was felt hardest.

Born in America's second city, Chicago - birthplace of the electric blues and equally electric comedy - Williams' comedy was unashamedly California-adopted liberal, applying a deliriously wicked way of cutting down pomposity and the absurdity of politics. He wasn't, though seeking revolution or even trying to offer scything commentary, Lenny Bruce-style, to the order of the day. It was, simply, straight-forward piss-taking. George W. Bush, in particular, was the richest of gifts:

"It doesn't scare me that Dubya waved at Stevie Wonder; that's OK. Stevie's only been blind since birth...! No, what scares me is that Dubya almost died from a fucking pretzel! They have billions of dollars in national defence, they want billions more, to up the stakes, and the president almost goes down from snack food!

The Secret Service are like 'Game's over man!' 'Gilligan's down! Gilligan's down! His own dogs didn't care! They were licking him for the salt!"

So the routine goes, comedian dies, comedian is declared comic genius, we all move on. Robin Williams transcended even the description "genius". His comedy was comedy on speed, an unfortunate reference, I know, given his own battles with drugs (he infamously shared a few lines of coke with John Belushi during his eventual fateful stay at the Chateau Marmont). But such was the intensity and the rapidity of his wit that it was easy to think, long after he'd become sober, that he was still on something.

Williams' unfettered comic creativity wasn't just limited to the stage of improv clubs and chat shows: most of his performance as Armed Forces Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's Good Morning Vietnam was improvised, also drawing on his immeasurable talent for mimicry.

"Nobody else works with the inventiveness, the quickness and the zaniness of Robin Williams," producer Mark Johnson said at the time. "When he sat down in the control booth to do the scenes involving Cronauer's broadcasts, we just let the cameras roll. He managed to create something new for every single take." Cronauer - who had written the original story but envisaged something far more serious - distanced himself somewhat from Williams' portrayal. Williams, on the other hand, maintained that Cronauer was "pretty much the closest thing to me that I've ever done."

Picture: Esquire magazine

As a film actor, Williams divided opinion. His critics leaned heavily on the saccharine nature of disposable family fare like Hook, Jumanji and even Mrs. Doubtfire, suggesting that his film career drew an over-reliance on such roles. But to his proponents - and I'm one of them - there were moments of cinematic glory in Good Will Hunting, ToysDead Poet's Society, The Fisher King and Awakenings. And let's not play down the comedies - Aladdin, like Good Morning Vietnam, was Williams' film, even if he was represented by a purple cartoon genie.

It's often said that the hardest job for a straight actor is to do comic roles, but I've always argued that it's harder for a comedian to be accepted doing straight parts. Knowing what a manic comedy performer he was, the expectation of Williams making funny turns out of his appearances as creep-ahoy weirdos in Insomnia and One Hour Photo - both released in 2002, incidentally - was dashed by the intensity he applied in both parts. Indeed, the fact he was a comedian made them even creepier.

Arguably, his talent for improvisation added colour to his serious roles. In a 1979 New York Times review of his stand-up show, critic Janet Maslin noted how Williams was "at his very best when he seemed to be trying things out, measuring the audience's response, working in the most exciting way". This was at the height of Mork & Mindy's popularity, when Williams was "usually on view performing his material in a more polished form, and in neat, half-hour weekly instalments," concluding that "it's especially gratifying to watch him live dangerously."

And he did. Robin Williams' death at the age of 63 from an apparent suicide has been met by the media as the ultimate collapse of a struggle against lifelong "demons". The papers will no doubt commit think pieces to examine the rancid old 'tears of a clown' thesis underpinning all comedians.

Depression, however, isn't some convenient counter to a comic's humorous side, anymore than it is for a postman, nurse or any other profession. It just makes it harder to accept that someone who made so many people laugh until tears spouted from their eyes could, themselves, be battling an illness that literally destroyed the soul.

What a sad end to a life that gave so much fun. Shazbat.

Picture: Matt Munoz/Twitter

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Lampard's relationship status has just changed to "It's complicated"

It seems trivial, in this week in which we commemorate the outbreak of World War I, that football rivalries should even be an issue. And they're not.

That is partly because the season hasn't properly begun (any semblance of footballing activity is the result of that annual charade of pointless but neat money-spinning pre-season "friendlies") and partly because, in the scheme of things, the slaughter of a generation between 1914 and 1918, pushes everything else into a very distant background.

But allow us some levity in a week heavied by history. Because if there is one thing football fans struggle to accept more than anything else, it's seeing a beloved, loyal, serial badge-kissing club servant playing for a rival. Any rival - and not just the cross-this-postcode-and-we-condemn-you rival.

If you don't care much for football this might seem particularly trivial and, probably, part of the reason you don't follow football to begin with. Because, yes, it really isn't that important, is it?

But let me frame it differently: you've just undergone an acrimonious split from your former significant other. The pain is still quite raw. The next thing, you see her Facebook status has gone from 'In a relationship' to 'Single' to 'Engaged' with the same sequential speed as traffic lights at a busy road junction. Yes, it's that painful.

I'll cut to the chase, then: no sooner had we Chelsea fans accepted that our 12-year marriage to Frank Lampard was over than he was pitching up in the Big Apple doing that footballery thing of talking about sharing in the vision and ambition of his new club, New York City FC. "OK," we said, "life goes on and so must Frank. Good luck to the fella."

But, then, just as we were sizing up his new club and concluding "nah, not much...", it was announced that Manchester City, New York City FC's parent club, would be taking the 36-year-old midfielder on loan "to maintain fitness" until the MLS season begins next March. This morning Lampard arrived at Carrington for his first training session with the Premier League club. In Joe Jackson's words, "If my eyes don't deceive me, there's something going wrong around here."

The loan means Chelsea will get to play their former vice-captain at least twice before he starts his new American venture properly. David Villa, also signed to New York City FC, will play his preparatory loan spell in Melbourne which, I'm sure, would have suited the Chelsea faithful as Lampard's temporary hangout.

Picture courtesy of New York City FC

Frank is, however, an intelligent player. It's unlikely he'll be tweeting pictures of his American-funded engagement stone and I'm sure we won't be enduring gushing congratulatory messages from his nearest and dearest. He knows his future value in some capacity at Chelsea - Roman Abramovich has apparently said so much - and being the supremely diligent professional that he is, he'll take the wages and get on with his job, no matter who that job is for. People, we have to get over this notion of club loyalty in the modern era - you play wherever someone is prepared to pay enough to keep you in new Bentleys and Ferraris.

So, taking spurned pride out of the equation, rank-and-file Chelsea supporters shouldn't mind, in principle: Lampard is one of the greatest players ever to wear the Chelsea shirt and will always be regarded so. Players leaving and players arriving, however, is part of life - someone has to be disappointed.

There is, though, the small matter of that quote last year when Lampard said that, after 12 years at Chelsea he couldn't imagine playing for another Premier League: "I couldn't do it".  Well, clearly he can. That shouldn't be a reason for resentment, as a chap's got to earn a living. And it won't be the first time Chelsea supporters have seen a hero pitch up in adjacent quarters: 1950s hero Roy Bentley moved to local rivals Fulham, Jimmy Greaves went further a decade later to Spurs via Milan, the King of Stamford Bridge, Peter Osgood, left for Southampton (in the days when they were a buying club...), and both Ray Wilkins and Juan Mata have moved to Manchester United which, at one point in time would have been far more difficult to countenance than a move to Manchester City.

What backlash there has been so far has been tame. Pat Nevin - who himself left Chelsea for Everton, and yet is still held in the highest esteem at Stamford Bridge - says Lampard's loan appearances for City won't be a problem: "It won't damage the way Chelsea fans feel about him long term," he told the BBC. Supporters' groups agree, noting that despite the inevitable trolling from a minority doubting past pledges of loyalty, the majority won't feel slighted. Most grown-up footballer supporters recognise that under-contract players tend to go where their parent club tells them to.

In fact, the strongest words of dissent have come from Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. Doing nothing at all for his 'voyeuristic' reputation in José Mourinho's eyes, Wenger has questioned the legitimacy of Manchester City paying Frank Lampard's substantial wages during his loan spell (there have been murmurings that Lampard coming to Manchester - as opposed to the rumoured Melbourne where David Villa has gone on loan - was a ruse to bypass Financial Fair Play commitments).

Lampard will become one of Manchester City's minimum five homegrown players needed in their Champions League squad to comply with the UEFA rules on financial integrity, something they have bitter experience of failing at, following their fine and restrictions on wages last season under the FFP rules, and having to make do with a 21-player squad for this season's Champions League.

All this, however, is academic. Because the crux of the matter doesn't lie at UEFA headquarters in Switzerland, nor does it lie in the bills section of Lampard's wallet. The location of potential pain lies in Lampard's feet. We've been able to see Chelsea players go out on loan and not bother us - Romelu Lukaku's prolific loan spells as a striker at West Brom and Everton probably did Chelsea a few favours; but when no playing restrictions apply, and a sold player still has the potency to do some damage, then that is when things turn sour.

Lampard is, though, too smart to start kissing new badges, and we certainly won't expect any goal celebrations, should he be able to beat either Courtois or Čech in the games between Chelsea and Manchester City ahead. But that won't make it any easier.