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Snooker

April 23, 2013

I used to watch a lot of snooker. In the late eighties and early nineties, when Steve Davis and Stephen Hendry reigned supreme, and there were only four TV channels, and no Internet, I often found myself sitting in front of the TV on winter afternoon, glaring at BBC2. My dad likes snooker. When he arrived in England from Argentina, he hadn’t heard of the game, although he was obviously familiar with pool, but he grew to like it. After he moved back to Buenos Aires, he’d visit London for a month or so every couple of years and I have bittersweet memories of spending time with him, watching snooker. When I was a teenager, we would sometimes head down to a snooker hall near Wood Green; we  never actually played snooker but we’d have a good few games on the pool tables. Whenever I visit him in Argentina, we wander 10 blocks from his apartment down to a dodgy little café in Boedo and play pool. It’s a typically old-school Buenos Aires café. The front room has a couple of ramshackle pool tables and the vast back room houses larger tables for pool and billiards and in between there is always a table of shabby middle-aged men playing cards. You never, ever see a woman enter the place.

I remember the first time I played snooker for real. I was at university in Leeds and there was a working men’s club a mile or so from our flat. I mostly went for the cheap beer and the occasional game of pool, but together with a flatmate I did play a few games of snooker. I was awed by the sheer size of the tables – a single frame might last an hour as we attempted to pot something; anything. Being short meant half the shots were impossible. Pool was more my style. Still, I may not have played much, but I watched a lot of snooker at university. There were fewer distractions back then. On cold, rainy Yorkshire afternoons when I had no lectures – or had skipped the lectures I was supposed to go to – I would lounge around the flat for hours, eating the crap that students eat and watching Ronnie O’Sullivan prowl around the table. Snooker took on an ambient role; always there in the background; silence punctuated by the cough of a spectator, the clunk of balls and the sensual whispering of a commentator (not John Virgo).

These days I try to watch snooker, out of a sense of duty or nostalgia, but I struggle. There are too many distractions. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, pornography, endless news sites. Certain sports seem incompatible with Internet usage; football slots in well with modern life; ninety minutes of high-tempo action can be a welcome distraction from The Internet. Even cricket works, as long as you accept that it’s a game suited to radio rather than TV. But somehow I struggle to get snooker to fit in. It’s not quite gripping enough to hold my attention and yet I find it distracting as background noise; it’s like working with the window open and being forced to overhear increasingly inane conversation. The players don’t seem as compelling either. I remember in the 1990s there was a “crisis” in snooker. There was the perception that after the heyday of the eighties, there were no longer any personalities in snooker. But I found the drab cast of Nigel Bond and Alan McManus and Stephen Hendry quite appealing; these days the game has younger, more dynamic players but I somehow find it harder to root for them.

Still, I’d always been quite tempted to watch some snooker live; but being lazy I never bothered. It was either in Sheffield (too far away) or Wembley (still too far away). So when The Masters moved to Alexandra Palace, a few minutes walk from where I grew up, I decided to seize the day and buy tickets for myself, my mum and my brother-in-law. I’ve been twice in the last two years, and it’s an odd experience. I suppose any live event, whether it’s snooker, football or a gig, is an odd event for me. I’m accustomed to watching sport on TV, where there’s an immediacy and intimacy that is (ironically) missing in live events. On TV, with its close ups and replays, there’s a sense that there’s a connection between you and the participants; that it’s just you and the “actors”. They are in your face, larger than life. Whereas watching in real life, you find yourself herded into an arena (snooker) or stadium (football) alongside a load of people you’ve got nothing in common with, watching from a distance as the drama unfolds without commentary or replays – without plot or structure or meaning. I remember going to the football for the first time as an adult, having not been for twenty-odd years and realizing that I was just watching a load of men running around, chasing a ball. On TV, every moment is captured, every second of drama paused and replayed; real life is magnified, slowed down and edited into drama. It’s a fiction, in the best sense.

I actually quite enjoyed watching the snooker live, but there was an disconcerting sense that watching it live was second-best to watching it on TV; it was just men wandering about, potting balls. It was like watching a local amateur dramatic society doing a theatre adaptation of Die Hard – I wanted the special effects and storytelling and thrills of TV, not the drab spectacle of real life. I suppose I have always secretly believed that things are only meaningful and important when they are on TV. I have a sneaky, unspoken desire to be an actor – to be onscreen, simply so that I can feel more real; more alive. I sometimes wonder if famous actors feel cheated when they watch themselves onscreen – that whilst their cinematic counterparts lap up the glory, they are still stuck in real life, having to watch from the shadows. Real life often feels like a prelude rather than the main event.

I think this stopped being about snooker some time ago. My mind wanders.

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The Anti-Joke Cat

September 2, 2012

Over the last few years there’s been quite a few interesting (or boring, depending on your patience) debates about the plagiarism of jokes on Twitter and Facebook.

On one hand, you can argue that no-one really “owns” a joke. Jokes have always belonged to the people. People tell each other jokes and change and embellish and improve them as they go along. In the case of 99% of jokes people have no idea who originally came up with them, and quite rightly they don’t really care. When a man tells a friend a joke in the pub he doesn’t pause, explain the origin of the joke and make sure that whoever first thought of it is credited. And at the end of the day it’s only a joke; it’s not someone drunkenly screaming state secrets in a crowded pub.

On the other hand, on Facebook and Twitter, jokes are a form of currency. On Twitter in particular, where the one-liner is king and where a good, short joke can get thousands of retweets and hundreds of new followers, it’s very frustrating when people steal your joke and pass it off as your own. I’m not talking about people coming up with the same joke at the same time as you (which happens constantly, particularly in reference to news stories) or repeating a joke that they’ve known for years where the tweeter has no way of knowing who originally wrote it. I’m talking about people deliberately stealing your work and passing it off as their own.

As a writer who has been clogging up The Internet for well over a decade, it’s curious to see what has happened to some of the things I’ve written. In 2002 I started a page on my website called Sad Jokes. The idea was to take the traditional format of jokes, such as a Knock Knock joke or a Doctor joke but give the joke a logical, cold, depressing punchline. For example:

Man:  Doctor, I’ve broken my leg.

Doctor: I’m afraid it is a very bad break. You will never walk again.

I can’t pretend that I’m the first writer to try to subvert jokes or take established comedy tropes and turn them on their head; but at the time I felt like I was the first person making this specific type of “sad joke”. Who knows, maybe Kafka or Bernie Winters beat me to it?

I enjoyed writing the jokes and added more over the following months. When I wrote my first novel in 2006, I included some of the jokes within it.

Here’s a photo of my book! With the jokes in it!

And of course, the inevitable compliment soon followed, in that I started seeing the jokes appearing (uncredited) on various websites and forums. In 2007 they appeared on the notorious Sickipedia website as German Jokes with a few additional jokes that were nothing to do with me. I didn’t really care. People were enjoying the jokes and no one was pretending that they had written the jokes themselves.

To be honest, as with most stuff on my now-generally-defunct website, I forgot about the Sad Jokes. Until a couple of weeks ago I noticed an account on Twitter called Anti-Joke Cat. It’s a popular account with over 170,000 followers. The jokes within were essentially the same format as my sad jokes. So what. That didn’t bother me – you can’t copyright a format. But then I noticed that some of the jokes were very similar indeed to the jokes on my website. For example:

A man walks into a bar, and his alcohol problem slowly tears his family apart.

Which is almost exactly the same as this joke of mine.

And that annoyed me. Since I’m currently taking a break from Twitter and I noticed that Anti-Joke Cat also has a Facebook page, I left the cat a comment on Facebook noting that his joke was clearly “inspired” by my own jokes, and left a link back to Sad Jokes. I didn’t expect a reply. I didn’t get one. But I checked Twitter a few days later and saw that whoever is behind Anti-Joke Cat had clearly seen my link to Sad Jokes. Because they’d visited the page and nicked a joke of mine from there. Word for word.

What’s doubly annoying about this is that at the bottom of my Sad Jokes page is a link to my Twitter account, so the Anti-Joke Cat could easily have credited me for the joke but deliberately chose to pass it off as their own joke.

I have no idea who is behind the Anti-Joke Cat twitter account. I doubt they see what they are doing as malicious or wrong in any way – and they are probably right. They’re tweeting fairly harmless jokes. I doubt they make any money out of the account and probably just enjoy the dubious ego-massaging pleasure of having a very popular Twitter account.

If you think I’m making a fuss about nothing, you’re probably right. It’s not Watergate; it’s just someone nicking my jokes and passing them off as his own. And as I wrote at the beginning, people have been swapping jokes since before the pyramids were built. In the great scheme of things, it means nothing. In the less-than-great scheme of my life, it doesn’t mean very much.  The people who enjoy Anti-Joke cat’s account and retweet him/her certainly don’t care where the jokes come from, and this whole blog post feels like a man joylessly stamping on someone else’s fun (my favourite hobby).

The irony, I suppose, is that whilst I love writing jokes and I like making people laugh, I tend to take life very seriously. When it comes to my ego, I have almost no sense of humour. I struggle to laugh when I feel wronged or slighted and generally get bitter when I see people succeeding unfairly. Even if it’s a fucking unfunny cat. I don’t expect the cat to be unmasked and then marched into Twitter jail for 25 years of hard labour. In fact, I don’t expect anything to happen. Still, it’s good to write an irate blogpost from time to time – if I am annoyed at anything, it’s less a plagiaristic cat and more the fact that it’s nigh on impossible to create a viable career out of words written on the Internet. And I can’t directly blame a cat for that.

Underlying all this is a debate about jokes and the Internet and who owns words anyway in a digital age. And it’s a debate I’ll leave to people with more brains and energy than I’ve got. It’s late and I’m getting angry about a cat nicking my jokes. It’s probably time for bed.

UPDATE!

Well, the unsightly minions of Twitter have been hard at work declaring war on Anti-Joke Cat, which has elicited a reply from Mr Anti-Joke Cat himself, in the form of a series of DMs to me. Here’s what he has to say:

“Hello, Sir. Firstly, I would like to say that the first time I’ve heard of you was this morning. Secondly, I regularly check what people are saying about me and DM my followers quite often. Whilst looking through these tweets, I saw a few people mention you and this alleged plagiarism. I read through your blog post and I understand fully the frustration you feel, as tweets regularly get “stolen” from me on my personal account. I am one of many anti-joke accounts on Twitter and I would like to draw your attention to @AntiJokeApple and @AntiJokeJamal, both who have a larger following than me. I created a couple of my own anti-jokes for this page (all of which these two accounts copied), but the rest of them came from my only source anti-joke.com. Now, as I understand it, people post their own’ anti-jokes to this page, a bit like Sickipedia. There are several variations of the same anti-joke and looking at your Sad Jokes page, many I have seen before, even if they differ slightly. I don’t know if someone has taken your jokes and posted them on this anti-joke    website or it is merely coincidence, but I did not take them directly from your website. Also, it was only the one joke that was word for word and that was potentially yours. But as I said, they’re all on anti-joke.com. I hope this has relieved some of your hate towards me, I am just an 18 year old boy doing something rather unproductive with his spare time. Regards, Anti-Joke Cat.”

To which I replied, also by DM:

“Hello there. I certainly don’t hate you. I don’t even dislike you. I’m just annoyed that my jokes are appearing uncredited on your Twitter. I appreciate that you’re only 18 and you’re just doing this for fun. I’m now aware that there are lots of other anti-joke Twitter accounts. And I understand that most of those anti-joke Twitter accounts just take material from the anti-joke website and use it. However, you have to take responsibility for the jokes that appear on your Twitter feed. Saying “I took them from another website” isn’t really a good response. You got yourself over 170,000 followers by posting other people’s jokes. That’s not a great thing to do. A lot of people will assume you write those jokes yourself or that at the very least your followers submit them to you. It seems to me that unless you wrote the joke yourself or know for sure who wrote it (and credit them) then you probably shouldn’t put the joke on your Twitter. Because the likelihood is that you’re ripping someone off, and that isn’t a nice thing to do.”

So, the upshot of it is that as I suspected, Anti-Joke Cat isn’t a criminal mastermind, he’s an 18-year-old guy with too much time on his hands. However, he’s not totally harmless. He’s an 18-year-old who has accrued 170,000 followers on Twitter by taking jokes from a website (anti-jokes.com) and passing them off as his own. My own feeling is that he should stop using other the jokes from anti-jokes.com because the likelihood is that most of the decent jokes on that website have been stolen from professional comedians or other people’s Twitter accounts. It’s interesting to note that Anti-jokes.com hosts banner ads, so they’re happy to have make money off the jokes, and they are also selling an anti-joke book (which I suspect contains at least a handful of jokes that I’ve personally written).

On a personal level it’s odd to think that the jokes I wrote 10 years ago now appears in a mutated form across The Internet and seem to have generated hundreds of thousands of followers for the Twitter accounts that deliver jokes to the public. And on a wider level, it’s interesting to see how quickly a joke can be divorced from its original author and claimed as a kind of public domain material that anyone can use. I suppose that as soon as my jokes appeared uncredited on Sickipedia  back in 2007, the cat was out of the bag. People were inevitably going to spread the jokes and no one would give a damn about who originally wrote them. And I don’t blame people for that. Let’s compare jokes with recipes. If I find a good recipe online, it’s rarely credited to anyone, and if I share it with friends, I don’t do an exhaustive search to find out who originally wrote the recipe. I just share it. (Although if I were to set up a dedicated recipe Twitter account, I would probably make some attempt to find out who originally wrote the recipes rather than passing them off as my own). Still, unless you’re a professional writer or comedian, no one really cares or minds who originally wrote a joke. Most of my favourite jokes are old Jewish jokes that have been told a thousand times by a thousand different people.

In terms of the Anti-Joke Cat, I feel silly making a fuss about something as minor as stolen one-liners, but at the same time I know people on Twitter who would sell their mum into slavery for 170,000 followers, and he’s managed to get an awful lot of followers and influence by a) lifting  jokes straight from the anti-joke website b) turning a blind eye towards the fact lots of those jokes are stolen from other people and c) not making it clear that he hasn’t written the jokes himself. I hope he has a think about what he is doing.

UPDATE 2: 

Well, I’ve had further communication with Mr Cat. Here’s some more DMs from him.

“Hello, again. I have now read your blog update. Believe me, I never in a million years expected it to get this big. I remember being excited one day in college when it hit 6,000 followers. I don’t even have an excuse for what is essentially plagiarism, all I can say is, “Welcome to the internet of today.” There are all sorts of quotes/jokes accounts on Twitter, all of them copying jokes from various websites, mobile phone applications and other people. One notable example, @sickipediabot (Not affiliated with Sickipedia, has gained over 500,000 followers by simply posting a selection of jokes from Sickipedia, none of them accredited to the people who posted them to, or to the original authors. And like you stated in your post, it’s very unlikely they even know who the original authors are. There are several accounts with over 1,000,000 followers on here, all posting unaccredited jokes and quotes purely for RTs. I am just one tiny little fish in an ocean of plagiarism. I do disagree that a lot of people would think I write these, even though I have written a few. I feel that I am unfairly being singled out when there are hundreds of others with even more followers doing exactly the same. Mind, they probably wouldn’t have even replied to you the first time. And even people with fewer followers do it. You see a joke on Sickipedia, and within an hour or so, that same joke is all over Twitter, with them effectively taking credit for it. I think most people know it isn’t their own jokes though, and dismiss it. The rule seems to be that if you aren’t a professional comedian, it doesn’t really matter. The chances are, if you try to come up with something original yourself, someone, somewhere has already thought of it. You seem like a genuinely lovely fellow and I’m sorry if this has caused you some frustration.”

Not mollified by his flattery, I wrote a slightly pompous reply:

“I don’t think you are being unfairly singled out. You are being singled out because I found my joke on YOUR account. Not someone else’s. I’m aware that there are plenty of other accounts doing similar things, but it just happened that I found my joke on your site. Your argument seems to be “a lot of other people do it, so why shouldn’t I?” which is quite a weak argument, to say the least. As for the idea that if you come up with something original, it’s most likely already been done before… sorry but no. There’s a difference between being inspired by other writers and simply stealing their work. Amazingly, as a writer I do sometimes come up with ideas or jokes that no one has done before, which is what makes it very frustrating when someone steals my work and passes it off as their own. My suggestion would be that you try doing something useful. Try writing something for yourself. Try building something you can be proud of. Try coming up with a clever, original idea. And if you can’t think of something clever, original and unique, come up with a better excuse for ripping people off than “Everyone else is doing it.” You are not everyone else. Take responsibility for what appears on your Twitter.”

To which Mr Cat replied:

“I originally got the idea from the ‘Anti-Joke Chicken’ meme. I suggest you have a look at it. It’s completely normal nowadays for these memes to be turned into Twitter accounts. I know it’s frustrating when you think someone has stolen your work, but that was not the case. I think of Anti-joke as a resource and don’t think I am doing anything wrong. Therefore, I shall be continuing with what I am doing. If I had bought their book which they sell for $9.99, and wrote ‘All jokes taken from the Anti-Joke book’ in my bio, would it be acceptable then? Under your views, it should be, as long as I credit the author/s of the book and even though they didn’t originally create the jokes.”

And I chipped in with:

“Of course you’re going to continue what you’re doing. You get lots of attention whilst making almost no effort. That’s your choice. But please don’t say you haven’t stolen my material when my joke appears word-for-word on your Twitter account. There’s nothing I can do to stop you taking other people’s material and I doubt you’re going to stop. You seem to think it’s acceptable. You could at least have the decency to delete tweets that you KNOW are taken from other people, but you don’t seem to care how or why the tweets appear on the anti-joke site, as long as the retweets keep flowing for you. That’s your choice.”

It’s exciting doing battle with a cat.

AMAZING UPDATE 3: 

I then asked Mr Cat why he runs the account:

“I’m slightly irritated but more than that I’m puzzled. I’m puzzled as to why you run the account in the first place, especially since, as you have said, you know how frustrating and irritating it is when someone steals your jokes. And you’ve already stated that there are lots of other accounts doing exactly the same thing.”

He replied, purring:

“As I’ve already said, I never expected it to get this big. But I was simply trying to make a Twitter account for the Anti-Joke Chicken meme. However, all of the desirable @ names were taken and thus, Anti-Joke Cat was born. I don’t know who creates the jokes I use. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think they ‘belong’ to anyone. It’s not like they’re copyrighted.”

I countered:

“In my case, the joke is copyrighted. It appears in my book, published in Britain in 2006. My main argument with tweets is that I don’t mind someone using a tweet of mine as long as they credit me for it. In the case of the Anti-Joke website, they seem to go out of their way to remove credit from the jokes. They do this so that they can then claim they “own” the joke, so they can then sell books full of the jokes and sell advertising space on their website. You may or may not make money out of your Twitter feed (170,000 followers will be very tempting to some advertisers) but you’re happy to use the jokes from the website, despite knowing that most of them rip off other people.”

He meowed in reply:

“I may have made the odd ‘quick buck’ from it, but that’s all. I don’t like doing sponsored tweets because I know how much they annoy my followers. I think you’ve rounded it up very nicely in your blog post and it’s now time to put this rather silly issue to bed.”

Rather exhausted by his “I-know-this-is-wrong-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway attitude” I felt I had to make one small point before I unfollowed him.

“It’s not the most important issue in the world, but it’s not silly. It’s about plagiarism. But you’re not going to stop and that’s it.”

So Mr Anti-Cat has now deleted the tweet that copies mine word-for-word, but has said that he’s going to continue tweeting jokes he finds on Anti-Joke.com, despite knowing that they are mostly stolen from other people, because he likes doing it. Fair enough.

Of course, during the course of the day I’ve found myself slightly irritated by the attitude of Mr Anti-Joke Cat, but I still maintain that it’s hardly the most important issue in the world. It’s a tiny mote of irritation in my eye. In some ways what’s interesting to me is that someone can build such a huge following on Twitter simply by copying and pasting jokes from a website, without doing anything creative or writing their own material. I think as much as anything else, my encounters with the Anti-Joke Cat illustrates a certain generation gap. I’m 37 years old. I grew up in a largely pre-Internet age, where text (whether it be a joke, a recipe or a short story) did not change hands quite as freely as it does now. It was an age when publishing something involved putting it in a newspaper or book or magazine, and those publishers would then have to take responsibility for what they wrote and couldn’t easily publish someone else’s work as their own. I assume, perhaps naively, that when you write something, whether it is on The Internet or in a book, that it belongs to you. Whereas Mr Anti-Joke Cat is 18 and has probably never experienced a time when the Internet wasn’t there. He has grown up in an age where if you like a piece of text, you copy it and bung it on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr and soon it belongs to everyone. He’s young and I’m older. I could get angry about his attitude, but I suspect I’d be an old man shouting at the sea.

As a nice postscript to this blog post, here’s a joke posted on the Anti-Joke Cat twitter feed an hour ago, after we had finished DMing each other and nice Mr Cat had agreed to delete the tweet that was copied word-for-word from me:

And here’s a joke from Sad Jokes, written 10 years ago.

Let me take a moment to revisit Mr Cat’s lovely words from his DM: “I know it’s frustrating when you think someone has stolen your work, but that was not the case.”

Goodnight.

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Redknapp vs Levy

August 2, 2012

Last time I blogged it was about Harry Redknapp and whether Spurs would qualify for the Champions League. How time flies. As I write this, Spurs aren’t in the Champions League and Harry Redknapp is no longer the manager of Tottenham Hotpsur.

I’m still not sure how I feel. My last blogpost was all about Harry; about how he plays the media game, how he always looks out for number one, and always manages to shift the blame for his failures. You might think, judging by what I’d written, that I’d be happy Harry has gone. I’m not. I’m ambivalent at best. More than anything else, I feel disappointed. Disappointed because for all his faults, Redknapp was the best manager I’d seen at Spurs in a long, long time and disappointed because I think that had Redknapp and Levy both handled things differently, it could all have been avoided.

First of all, let’s take a look at some of the reasons Harry Redknapp is no longer Spurs manager. The obvious reason is that Spurs failed to qualify for the Champions League. In a normal Premier League season, finishing fourth would qualify a team for the Champions League. And at the beginning of last season, nearly every single Spurs fan would have settled for finishing fourth. But Spurs didn’t have a normal season. We spent most of the season in the top three, and for large parts of it looked like we could even challenge for the title (my apologies for using “we” for Spurs. It’s presumptuous and annoying but I do it anyway). And frustratingly, our fall out of the top three coincided with the long period of time in which Harry was blatantly touting himself for the England manager’s job – a position he clearly wanted (after leaving Spurs he admitted that had he been offered the job, he would have taken it). It became clear to all but the most blinkered pro-Redknapp fan that Harry had taken his eye of the ball. From the moment England manager Fabio Capello resigned, something wasn’t right at Spurs. In addition, it also became clear from April onwards that there was a slim but realistic possibility that Chelsea would win the Champions League and that fourth place would not be good enough. So, being charitable to Harry you could say that he took the team to fourth, which would normally qualify them for The Champions League. Being unkind, you could say that it was clear for some time that to guarantee Champions League football Spurs would have to finish third, and that Harry’s personal ambition badly hampered the team’s chances of achieving that goal. Would Levy have sacked Redknapp if the team had finished third? Judging by his quotes in the press, Harry thinks that he’d have been fired anyway, but I doubt it. It would have been Tottenham’s highest ever finish in the Premier League and Levy would have faced a revolt  from the fans. And I also believe that for all Levy’s faults, he only ever does what he believes is best for Tottenham Hotspur. If he’s wrong, he’s wrong with the best of intentions.

But I suspect that the schism between Redknapp and Levy wasn’t really about the Champions League or Redknapp’s fondness for making indefensible statements to the national press. It was based on the fundamental differences in their approaches to football, which is what I’d like to focus on. Let’s take a look at Daniel Levy.

Daniel Levy is an excellent businessman, who has very sensible and progressive views on how to run a football club. He likes to balance the books and make sure the club is well run and cost effective. The club is in rude financial health, has amazing new training facilities, great sponsorship deals and is exploring a new, larger stadium. Levy has a clear long-term vision for the club.

Now, if you were a progressive young chairman like Daniel Levy, and you were in charge of a top 10 Premiership club, here are some things you might do:

  • You would install a young, dynamic manager (preferably one with European experience, who speaks a few languages and is committed to pretty football, rather than a horrible old English manager who likes long-ball football and drinks the wrong wines). This manager would be part of a long-term plan and would be in charge for decades. He’d leave a legacy of success. Think of Arsene Wenger when he first arrived at Arsenal.
  • You’d get a Director of Football. Directors of Football aren’t very popular in England, but on the continent they’re ubiquitous. They allow the manager to get on with coaching, whilst the DoF can flip through his massive rolodex and unearth hidden talent from New Zealand to Romania. No more buying overpriced players from Everton or West Ham! Now the whole world is your oyster. The Director of Football is the magical svengali who magics players out of nowhere.
  • You would buy young players with a high resale value, meaning that if they did leave the club, you’d have made a healthy profit.
  • You’d make the occasional big money marquee signing to send a message out to the big clubs that you’re a serious contender, and to reassure the fans that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.
  • You’d build a new, bigger stadium to ensure that money coming into the club through gate receipts actually covered the money the club is spending on players. The club would not be dependent on an Abramovich-style sugar daddy – it would be self-sustaining.
  • You’d build new, state-of-the-art training facilities so that the players were always fit and ready.
  • You’d invest in an academy so that rather than always having to buy expensive players, you’d have a constant supply of talented, home-grown players, proud to wear the shirt.
  • You would make sure that the club had strength in depth – that as well as having a strong first-team, there was a big enough squad of quality players to ensure that the team was always competitive, no matter how games and injuries took their toll.

If all that sounds familiar, it’s because  - with the possible exception of the Director of Football – it’s essentially the blueprint that almost any young, ambitious chairman has when he takes over a football club. Whether it’s Newcastle, Aston Villa, Spurs, Chelsea or Liverpool, roughly the same promises are made. Even with clubs like Man City and Chelsea, who are plucked from relative mediocrity by billionaire owners, the same mantra is chanted: “Sure, we’ll invest heavily at first, but in a few years time the team will be packed with cheap, home-grown players”. Even disastrous chairmen who have led their clubs to the brink of bankruptcy (Hello Portsmouth! Hello West Ham!) start their tenures by repeating the same clichés about grass-roots investment, long-term financial stability, investment in local players and endless seasons of sunshine and happiness.

The blueprint above  is brilliant. It’s full of sensible, progressive ideas that should lead to long-term success. The problem is this: the blueprint rarely works. Or rather, it works in parts, but rarely leads to the kind of success that is promised. And when it comes to Spurs, Daniel Levy has done an excellent job in reinventing the club, lifting the team out of the mire of 90s mediocrity, and making them competitive again; but the long-term stability and glory he craves still eludes him.

Let’s take a look at the managers that Daniel Levy has employed. When Levy took over at Spurs in February 2001, his first act was to get rid of George Graham. Graham was not popular with Spurs fans, but we won the League Cup under him, which should not be overlooked. But Graham had a few things working against him: He was always an Arsenal man. And he was old-school. He was never the kind of shiny, new continental manager that Levy fancied. So in late 2001 Graham was booted out and replaced by Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle was a Spurs hero and just the kind of young, progressive coach that Levy liked. He’d even played abroad! And for a short while it worked, but by September 2003 Spurs were once again in the relegation zone and Hoddle was sacked. Levy appointed David Pleat as caretaker manager for the rest of the season and set out to find a new manager who could rebuild the club from scratch.

In June 2004 Levy made his move. He installed Frank Arnesen as Director of Football (a position that was unheard of in English football) and made former French national team manager Jacques Santini his new coach. Levy’s sexy new modern Spurs were ready to roll! Spurs had money and a new continental-style set-up. What could go wrong? Everything. Santini was a disaster and left the club after just a few months. Assistant coach Martin Jol was promoted to head coach (This is important to remember. I maintain that had Jol been hired specifically to be the head coach, he’d have had more clout with the board and wouldn’t have been treated so shabbily and the end of his reign). Still, despite Santini’s departure, Spurs still had Arnesen, right? Wrong.

In June 2005 Arnesen defected to moneybags Chelsea. Levy’s grand plan for long-term success had come unstuck in little over a year. Arnesen was replaced as Director of Football by young, bespectacled Frenchman Damien Comolli. Levy continued with his vision of a Director of Football. Jol would take charge of coaching the team and Comolli would sit above him, signing and selling the players; indeed, it’s hard not to see Comolli as the personal embodiment of Levy’s dream. An articulate, intelligent, bespectacled, business-savvy, pan-European man – shave Comolli’s hair off and you’ve basically got Daniel Levy. The Comolli/Jol combination was a limited success; there were successful runs in the UEFA Cup but Spurs narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the 2005-2006 season and never quite recovered. In addition, there were clear tensions between Jol and Comolli, with the former clearly unhappy with some of the players Comolli signed (I’m thinking of Didier Zokora here). Spurs were supposed to challenge for the Champions League in the 2007-2008 season but started badly. In October 2007 Jol was sacked, undone by the Spurs board. Comolli kept his job. Many Spurs fans felt that the wrong man went.

Still, Jol was history and it was an opportunity for Levy to indulge in his proclivity for progressive, continental coaches. The club hired Juande Ramos from Seville. Ramos, working with a Director of Football, had worked wonders for Seville. Here was a manager firmly in the Levy mould. He ticked all the boxes. How could he fail? To be fair to Ramos, he did lead Spurs to the League Cup in the 2007-2008 season but the club’s start to the 2008-2009 was disastrous. Two points after eight games looked like relegation form. So Levy did something unexpected…

In October 2008 Levy got rid of Ramos. He also got rid of Comolli, scrapping the beloved Director of Football post. He installed Harry Redknapp as manager. Redknapp was given money to spend and told to rescue Spurs. He did so. On the final day of the 2008-2009 season, Spurs finished in eighth position, just missing out on Europe.

The next season, Redknapp did even better, with Spurs finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history. In the 2010-2011 season, Spurs defied all expectations, reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, beating Inter Milan and AC Milan along the way. Tottenham couldn’t quite match that form in the league, finishing fifth and missing out on another season in the Champions League. That brings us up to the 2011-2012 season, which is where we began, all those paragraphs ago.

So let’s take a look at how Harry worked during his time at Spurs, and how it contrasts with Levy’s philosophy. If Levy was always planning for the long-term, then Redknapp was always focused on the present. Redknapp was never interested in running a club; it was all about the first team.

Levy’s philosophy involved signing big names, but was really built on unearthing young gems and slowly developing them into first-team players. It was about ensuring success for the club at every level. In contrast, Redknapp appeared only really interested in players who were ready now, who could slot straight into the team. If that meant signing 32-year-old William Gallas or 40-year-old Brad Friedel, promising them huge wages and putting them straight into the team, so be it. Harry wasn’t worried about whether they’d still be around in a year or two, as long as they could do the job now.  (Redknapp’s history of signing older, experienced players on huge, long-term contracts had a very unhappy ending for his former club Portsmouth. On the verge of liquidation, the club is still paying astronomical wages to players Redknapp signed. He should not be wholly blamed for this – it was the Portsmouth owners who needed to ensure the bills could be paid). Redknapp’s philosophy, certainly when it came to buying players, was always short-term. He wasn’t particularly interested in nurturing young talent or unearthing undiscovered talent. (It’s no coincidence that Tottenham’s most valuable players over the 2011-2012 season were mostly signings Redknapp had nothing to do with: Bale and Modric predate Redknapp and Van der Vaart was a deal brokered by Levy and delivered to Redknapp. Redknapp can take credit for Scott Parker, I’ll give him that).

Harry cared about winning games. He didn’t appear very interested in the youth team or the reserves (very few reserve players ever broke through to the first team and made Premier League appearances). He wasn’t interested in financial prudence. He was interested in who could slot straight into the first team and make a difference. It was an enormously short-sighted, unsustainable model. The only was problem was, largely speaking, it worked.

Conventional wisdom tells us that football clubs should build slowly, plan for the future, have stable management and invest in youth. The “Levy way”. But let’s take a look at which teams finished the 2011-2012 season with silverware. Man City won the Premiership with a team rammed full of ready-made, experienced footballers, all on huge wages. Aside from Joe Hart, the promising youth players of yesteryear were discarded. Chelsea started the season the Levy way, by hiring a promising young manager in André Villas-Boas and planning for long-term success. Then, half-way through the season Abramovich got nervous, sacked Villas-Boas, promoted Roberto di Matteo and reverted back to type. They then won the Champions League and the FA Cup with a team full of old, experienced, highly paid superstars. Chelsea and Man City didn’t win by being sensible, sticking by their managers, investing in youth and having a long-term vision; they won by spending shitloads of money on big-name players, whose egos and salaries were bigger than the manager’s. Football is a funny old game.

Redknapp’s last season with Spurs was an odd one. As I’ve said, Spurs finished fourth, which would normally constitute a success. They also finished with a hugely unbalanced squad, consisting of just one recognised striker in Jermain Defoe. (Redknapp had signed Adebayor on a one-year loan at the start of the season, had sold Roman Pavlyuchenko and replaced him with Louis Saha, also on a short-term loan deal). In addition, Redknapp’s focus on the first team meant that the rest of the squad appeared alienated and frustrated by their lack of playing time.

The bitter irony is that somewhere between Levy’s long-term planning and Harry’s understanding of what makes a good first-team squad, a good balance was achieved. Last season was the closest I’ve seen to Spurs actually winning the league. (From the very first game of the season I was thrilled to see Brad Friedel in goal – of all Redknapp’s signings, Friedel was my favourite. For the first time in years, we had a goalkeeper I totally trusted. He was a short-term solution, but he was marvellous).

Redknapp simplified Levy’s grandiose visions and delivered a winning team, and Levy kept Redknapp’s financial excesses in check and made sure the squad consisted of more than a load of pensioners. For four years, Spurs had a combination of chairman and manager that actually worked, which is why I feel so disappointed that Harry has left.

It also explains why I’m undecided about the appointment of André Villas-Boas. He ticks all the Levy boxes. He’s young, continental, progressive and has a long-term vision for the club. He’s everything that Harry isn’t. I want him to succeed. But in Hoddle, Santini and Ramos, I can’t help but think I’ve seen it all before.

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Harry Redknapp and Spurs; an unravelling season

April 24, 2012

As I type this, Tottenham Hotspur are fifth in the Premier League. With four games to go before the end of the season, there is a good chance that they will finish outside of the Champions League places. Indeed, it’s not impossible that Spurs will finish sixth, behind Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Newcastle and Chelsea. For a team that has spent most of this season in third place, and that was close to topping the table at times, this would a very disappointing end to the campaign. Whether Spurs finish third or sixth; whether the season is a triumph or a failure, only one man is really responsible: Harry Redknapp.

I’ve always liked Harry. Before he came to Spurs, I always admired the way his teams played football and the way he handled players, getting the most out of them. I wasn’t always fond of his wheeler-dealer schtick, but I liked his enthusiasm and irreverence. Since he’s been Spurs manager I’ve managed to take a closer look at him, and some of the shine has worn off. I still think he’s a good manager, although the last few games of this season will determine just how good.

Before I go any further, I’d like to clarify how I see the role of a football manager. It’s different overseas, where there is more of a director of football/coach set-up, but in England, as far as I am concerned, the manager is God. The whole identity of a club is determined by the manager. Obviously, a manager is limited by the finances at his disposal, but beyond that, he has complete control. The manager should be in charge of selecting which players to buy and sell, training the team (alongside coaches), selecting the tactics for each game, developing the players – both mentally and physically, man-managing each player so that they are used to their full potential, picking the team on the match-day and making tactical changes and substitutions when necessary. The manager should have a plan for the long-term, understanding their objectives for the season and how they will use their squad to realise those objectives. If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. The manager has to take control. When Roberto Mancini was criticized for his handling of the Carlos Tevez affair, he found an unlikely ally in Sir Alex Ferguson, who backed the Italian and reiterated his belief that the manager remains the most important figure at a football club. Sir Alex Ferguson is a good example of how a football team is moulded in the identity of a manager. Players (and owners) come and go but every Manchester United team remains defiantly Ferguson. Even when the players aren’t great, the team still reflects Ferguson’s identity and embodies his desire for victory. Mediocre Man Utd teams regularly beat the best Spurs teams.

Harry Redknapp has been in charge of Tottenham Hotspur since October 2008. He has been in control of the team for nearly four years and has done a lot for the club. As he is fond of telling the press, when he joined Spurs they had 2 points after 8 games and were propping up the table. He has done well with the players at his disposal and has been backed in the transfer market when needed. The current Spurs squad is very much a Harry squad, composed of players he has brought into the club (Friedel, Parker, Defoe, Gallas, Adebayor, Saha) and players who were already at Spurs, but who who he has moulded into his style of play (Bale, Lennon, King, Assou-Ekotto). There remain a handful of players who Redknapp clearly doesn’t rate but who he can’t get rid of (Dos Santos, Bentley). But it is very much Harry’s team. When the team plays well, as it has done regularly over the last few years, it is due to good management by Harry, and when the team plays badly, it is because of bad management by Harry. That is how football works. Win, lose or draw, it is because of Harry.

When a team is playing badly and losing games, one of the mantras repeated by football fans and pundits is that the players have to take responsibility – that the manager can’t go out there on the pitch and play the game for them. This is a fundamentally flawed statement. Of course the players have some responsibility, but the ultimate responsibility always lies with the manager. It is his responsibility to pick the right team over the course of the season to ensure that players remain fresh, to ensure all the players understand their roles on the pitch, to motivate players and protect them from pressure, to inspire and lead them. If the players are nervous or tired or flat, this is a failure on behalf of the management.

Which brings us back to Harry Redknapp. One of the reasons I like Harry less now than when he first took over at Spurs is because I understand what motivates him. What motivates him is doing the best thing for Harry Redknapp. In many ways that is understandable, but it is an unedifying sight. I’ve watched countless post-match interviews with Harry and have come to marvel at how he deflects attention away from his own failings. When Spurs play against Man City or Chelsea Harry is quick to highlight how much money these clubs have and how Spurs can’t compete. When Spurs lose to Stoke or Norwich, Harry isn’t quite so keen to dwell on the financial disparity. When a player he brought to Spurs has done well, he will highlight how he had to persuade the chairman Daniel Levy to buy him (see Scott Parker). He ensures that when things are going well, credit goes to Harry and when things are going badly he manages to shift responsibility onto players or other figures at the club – he throws up his hands and claims that he is helpless. He has given almost no credit to Daniel Levy for ensuring that Luka Modric remained at Tottenham after the Croatian attempted to jump ship to Chelsea. In the recent slump Harry has often talked about the failings in the squad, whether it is tiredness or lack or height, as though he’s not directly responsible for those failings. He is the manager. He has been the manager for 4 years. If the players are tired or playing badly it is because he hasn’t managed them properly. If the squad is lacking depth in certain positions, it’s no one’s fault but Harry’s.

In some ways I don’t entirely blame Harry for the way he deals with the press – you don’t survive that long in football management by giving the media and fans enough rope to hang you with.

And despite Harry’s attitude irritating me, it hasn’t really upset me too much because over the last four years, what has been good for Harry Redknapp has nearly always coincided with what was good for Spurs. That all changed in February 2012. A day after Harry was cleared of two counts of cheating the public revenue, England manager Fabio Capello quit his post. Harry was instantly installed as favourite to replace him and a media campaign to appoint Redknapp as England manager sprung into action.

Of course, Harry himself refused to commit himself either way, because being Harry he wants to keep him options open. He could have issued a “come-and-get-me” plea and stated that he wanted the England position. He could have stated that he wanted to stay with Spurs. He did neither. He left as many doors open as possible. And almost immediately, Tottenham’s season turned to shit. Of course, according to Harry, the dip in Tottenham’s form has nothing to do him being linked to the England job. Because, according to Harry, none of his decisions ever have any negative impact on the team. Over and over he has stated that the players aren’t affected by the uncertainty hanging over the club, as though not knowing who the manager will be next season or whether your manager will even last until the end of the season won’t get into a player’s head. A lot of football is mental. The difference between a great player (Fernando Torres for Liverpool) and a poor player (Fernando Torres for Chelsea) is rarely physical. It’s an accumulation of doubts, fears, lack of self-belief and self-confidence. Players are affected by what goes on around them. Of course they are.

I’m not suggesting that Spurs’ recent slump is entirely down to Harry flirting with the FA. There are plenty more issues. But what unites all these issues is that as manager, Harry is responsible for all of them. As I’ve said before: this is Harry’s team.

Earlier in the season, when Spurs were 3rd and making an almost-credible push for the Premier League title, Harry Redknapp repeatedly stated that it was possible for Spurs to win the league – that the club had the players and resources to do it. I suspect, because I’ve heard it so many times before, that if Spurs do finish fifth or sixth, that Harry will swiftly rewrite history and claim that “we can’t compete with the Arsenals and Chelseas of the world” and that finishing sixth is a wonderful achievement. Because that’s what Harry does: he always paints a picture in which he is blameless.

I was thinking recently that Spurs need a leader: not a leader on the pitch, but a leader in the dug-out. Because no matter how good a manager Harry is, he isn’t a leader. Being a leader involves a certain degree of self-sacrifice. It means standing tall and taking responsibility for your actions. It’s not about being liked by the press or players. It’s not about jumping ship when an opportunity arises. It’s about committing to a cause and leading by example.

This article isn’t an attack on Harry. I still like him. I think he’s a good manager. Over the last couple of years Spurs have played some extraordinarily good football. He has done a lot for Tottenham Hotspur. But Tottenham Hotspur has also done a lot for him. Despite a potentially damaging court case hanging over him, in 2008 Daniel Levy gave him the manager’s job and the budget and support to succeed. It was this support that put Harry in the frame to be England manager. As much as Spurs owe a debt of gratitude to Harry, so he owes something to Spurs.

I hope that Spurs qualify for the Champions League. I hope that Harry Redknapp has the skill and experience to pick the right team for the remaining games, and the passion and craft to motivate and inspire the players to victory. I really do. And if he fails, I don’t want to hear his excuses.

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Spurs drawings

April 3, 2012

Over the last few months, when I’ve been bored and there’s been nothing on Twitter to entertain me, I’ve drawn pictures of Spurs players. (Well, I trace photos of them, but I take enough liberties in the tracing that it doesn’t feel like total plagiarism)

I’ve been experimenting with a different style. Sharp and clean and angular, with lots of movement. I don’t know what I’ll do with them, but I enjoy them. Click on the pics for larger versions.

Gareth Bale

Gareth Bale

Rafa van der Vaart

Rafa van der Vaart

Louis Saha

Louis Saha

Emmanuel Adebayor

Emmanuel Adebayor

Younès Kaboul

Younes Kaboul

Aaron Lennon

Aaron Lennon

 

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Masterchef

March 15, 2012

I have spent much of the last few months live tweeting Masterchef. This basically involves me watching a TV programme and writing a series of stupid comments. It has helped to pass the long winter evenings.

I like Masterchef. In culinary terms, it’s very much comfort food. It’s stodgy, predictable, formulaic and very enjoyable. It eschews the worst aspects of reality TV; the need to vilify ordinary people or dwell unnecessarily on mawkish backstories. Of course it’s personality-driven, but the touch is light and the focus remains as much on food as on the “journey”. It’s TV that is forgotten almost as soon as it is over, but that is no bad thing. I don’t want to lie awake at night thinking of burnt Thai fishcakes.

I don’t tweet every series of Masterchef – I only do it when I feel like it. I’m not paid to do it, so if it feels like an obligation rather than a pleasure then I don’t bother. I first started a few years ago, by accident. The show was on and I found myself tweeting about it, and realised that I enjoyed both the show and Twitter more that way. Fortunately my followers seem to agree and over the years I haven’t alienated too many followers by bombarding them with 80 tweets an hour that make absolutely no sense unless you are watching the same TV show as me.

My approach to Masterchef is to focus less on what is happening onscreen -because as I’ve said, it’s often very formulaic – and tweet my own imaginary version of events, bringing in time travel, murder, philosophy and writing my own dialogue. In doing so, I turn the contestants into caricatures. In my version of the show, the presenters, chefs and mentors are villains, heroes, sex objects, murderers, clowns and idiot savants. They are my comedy playthings and I use them as I will. In reality I know that Shelina isn’t a sex object, that Andrew isn’t a sentient field mouse and that Tom isn’t a dead-eyed psychopath.

My tweeting of Masterchef is a good example of how Twitter (or my experience of it) has changed. When I first started tweeting it, I had 1000 followers and none of the participants (other than early adopter Gregg Wallace) were on Twitter. I could tweet what I liked in the knowledge that it never got back to those involved – it was the equivalent of me sitting around in private with a group of friends, all of us watching together. But Twitter is now a part of mainstream culture, and both the presenters and half the contestants are on Twitter. When I tweet something silly or rude about one of them, it’s not uncommon that someone will retweet it and copy them in, meaning that they get to read what I am saying about them. I have no real problem with this as what I’m writing is so obviously cartoonish that I doubt it could cause any real offence. Even so, I worry about some of the tweets being taken out of context. A retweet pulls a tweet out of its natural context and places it into an environment in which it is easily misunderstood.

Still, I can’t have been too rude because I am now followed on Twitter by John Torode, one of the Masterchef presenters. This has probably softened my attitude somewhat. Nothing blunts the edge of satire like being accepted. It’s also changed my attitude in terms of how rude or cruel I am. As I’ve said, my humour tends to be cartoonish and I steer clear of direct insults, but the fact that the objects of my derision are now on Twitter is a good reminder that these are real people, with real feelings, and that there’s no excuse for being an absolute prick about them. Knowing that the contestants might well read what I am writing makes me consider what I put on Twitter and whether I want to take lazy potshots about someone’s face/hair/accent.  When I see some of the hatred and vitriol heaped that is directed towards “public figures” on Twitter, it does make me question myself. Obviously, if you’re appearing regularly on TV you can expect some flack, but the levels of bile directed at some reality TV stars is horrible. They’re just people on TV. They aren’t murderers (note: I have no proof of this. Some of them may be murderers)

No mention of Masterchef can be complete without writing about the show’s lynchpin:  garrulous fruit and veg man Gregg Wallace. When I first started watching Masterchef, I didn’t think much of Gregg. He was a comedy bald man, with dubious foodie qualifications, shouting a lot. But over the course of many series of Masterchef and Celebrity Masterchef and Masterchef: The Professionals, I’ve come to understand his role. He’s not there to be an expert in the traditional sense – that is why he is paired with a proper chef. He’s there as someone who knows a bit about food but is essentially an everyman and a cheerleader, there to revel in the food, dispense words of advice and occasionally utter a catchphrase. And he does it well. Many of my tweets focus on Gregg, because he’s the most obviously cartoonish person in the show, mugging up for the camera, spoon plunged deep in his mouth, eyes bulging in epicurean delight. In my parallel comedy universe Gregg is the deluded sun king, overseeing his court of follies. Of course, the reality is quite different. For the purposes of Masterchef I’ve started following him on Twitter and it turns out that he’s a normal person with the same concerns and vanities and self-awareness of anyone else. He seems to know that he’s seen as something of a loveable buffoon and accepts it as part and parcel of his job. I don’t know if I could ever be quite so relaxed about my public image, which is why I doubt I’ll ever have a career in TV.

Anyway, tonight is the final of this year’s series of Masterchef. I won’t be tweeting it as I have a prior engagement. I hope and expect Shelina to win, but I’m not too bothered anyway. My world of Masterchef isn’t really about who wins, it’s about using it as a starting point for my own imaginary ramblings. And in my imagination, I already know who the winner is.

My Masterchef tweets are all archived here. Looking back at them without the show playing at the same time, they make quite terrifying reading.

EDIT: It turns out that just before the final of Masterchef, The Times did a live webchat with the finalists in which they were asked if they read my tweets. It turns out they do. How odd. How lovely, and scary and odd.

Thanks to Kat Brown for the photo.

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Interview with Rhodri Marsden

February 7, 2012

I’ve known Rhodri Marsden for about six or seven years. I don’t remember how we met. He’s a journalist and ace keyboard player with bands including Scritti Politti. His new book, Crap Dates, is out now. He’s doing a Crap Dates Workshop at the Big Green Bookshop on February 9th.

Crap Dates by Rhodri Marsden.

Crap Dates by Rhodri Marsden.

Here’s my interview with Rhodri, done in the little text box at the bottom of Skype:

Greg Stekelman: Hello Rhodri.

Rhodri Marsden: Hello Greg. Are you OK?

GS: I am ok. Theoretically I am not drinking for a few weeks but I’ve just had a sip of Talisker and I’m quite pleased with it. How are you?

RM: I’m fine. I’m drinking some red wine called Palo Alto. It’s from Chile. I thought Palo Alto had something to do with Californian technology, which shows what I know about shit.

GS: Shall we do the interview? Just typing. I’ll bung it on my blog sometime soon.

RM: I thought we’d already started.

GS: We had. It was a trick question.

RM: I knew that. (I didn’t know that.)

GS: Most people will probably ask you about the crap dates you’ve been on. I’d like to try a different angle. How disappointed are you by England’s series whitewash against Pakistan?

RM: I’d be more disappointed if I’d actually bothered watching the humiliation. I pay god knows how much money each month for Sky Sports and then England go and ruin it all by making me turn off the TV in disgust.

GS: I was a bit disappointed but I didn’t really care. It seemed an odd series. In Dubai or somewhere. I like listening to the cricket on the radio but I don’t really care that much whether we win or not unless it’s against Australia.

RM: I care quite a lot.

GS: Like an English Faith No More.

RM: At one point I convinced myself that I could control the movement of the players using my mind. You must get that with Spurs.  I ended up writing a column about it. It comes out tomorrow. I mention Allah at the end and I’m worried about reprisals.

GS: Yes. I do get that a bit. I like fooling myself that I have control over the players, when in fact I am powerless. I do the opposite in life: I pretend I am powerless when in fact I could change things if I wanted to.

RM: You take your trousers off to affect the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspur. I’ve seen you do it. I mean on Twitter.

GS: Yes. I do it. But now it’s more of a comedy conceit than anything else. I do it to please my followers rather than change the game. I’m a terrible whore.

Rhodri's new beard.

Rhodri's new beard.

GS: So, tell me about your new beard. What inspired it?

RM: The short answer is vanity. Do you want the long answer? Please say yes.

GS: Yes please.

RM: Thanks.

RM: Because I do gigs with Scritti Politti I invariably end up being sent photographs of myself on Flickr and so on, looking like a massive baldy potato head. That’s actually what made me start wearing a hat.

RM: Then just before Christmas we did two gigs in Dalston, and because of the angle I hold my head at when I play the keyboard, I just displayed a massive double chin.

GS: I’m also receding and somehow found myself growing a beard. We cling to hair, wherever it may appear.

RM: As we all know, beards cover up all MANNER of double chin issues. And so it has proved.

GS: Yes. Beards are good like that. I haven’t seen yours so I don’t know where the cut-off point is. Some men let their beards run all the way down their neck. I prefer a straight line just above my Adam’s Apple. You?

RM: I’ve kind of fashioned a graduated approach under the chin. It’s working quite well.

GS: Good.

RM: But the reason I did it now was because Simon & Schuster said that they might end up getting me on BBC Breakfast to promote the book. As far as I know that’s not happening, but were it to happen I wanted a beard to hide behind. Because I’d be terrible.

GS: I think you’d be good on TV. I’m always impressed by your poise when you’re on stage. You snap into Johnny Showbiz mode.

RM: I’m fine talking to rooms full of people, and I’m fine on the radio, because I can REFER TO NOTES. You can’t do that on the telly. You’re just there. I’d panic. I panic on the radio when I don’t have notes. It’s embarrassing. I just laugh nervously and say “Yes, well, there you are then.”

GS: Ok. I thought I might use some the old “dating” questions I came up with last year.

RM: I think you should.

GS: What is your favourite pair of shoes?

RM: Maybe you should explain where these questions originated. Or maybe you can interpolate that into the NARRATIVE.

RM: Anyway, I’ll just answer the bloody question.

GS: Ok. I’ll quickly do the narrative. “Rhodri and I were in a pub full of people and I started randomly interviewing people, asking them silly questions. Rhodri liked the idea of it, and asked me to send him a list of silly questions. I did it. The end.”

RM: My favourite shoes are plimsolls from ASOS. They are £12 each. They last approximately one month of pounding the streets ofLondon. I bought six pairs just before Christmas and I’ve just got through the first pair. Slung them in the bin yesterday, and put on a nice fresh pair.

RM: The reason I bought six pairs is because they were reduced to £6 each.

GS: That’s very good. Romantically, I thought everyone should have a much-loved, well-worn pair of brogues. But you’ve shattered that and shown me that shoes, like memories or love letters, are disposable.

RM: I’m a chucker. I don’t hang on to anything.

GS: I’m a clinger. Like the guy in MASH.

RM: I recently shredded a big folder full of letters I exchanged with my wife in 1995, before we got married.

GS: Golly.

RM: I hung onto them 10 years after we divorced, which is pretty good going for me.

GS: Theoretically, you’re right. It’s good to let go of things. I just find it very hard to do.

RM: Can I tell you why I shredded them?

RM: It’s interesting.

GS: Yes. Of course. I’ll tell no one except the people who read this.

RM: Well, she was (and is) Hungarian. And while her English was perfect, when I was writing to her it was kind of important that the meaning was explicit, you know? I couldn’t slather on layers of stupid irony because she’d have written back saying “Not sure what you mean on page 4.”

RM: So I was reading these letters back, and it just didn’t sound like me. And I got to a bit in one of the letters where we were talking about having to get married, for visa reasons. And I said “I think this is the best chance for our love.” And at that point I decided to shred them. I was wincing more than I was reminiscing. I can never spell reminiscing.

GS: You got the spelling right. That’s quite a sad story… onto the next question: Do you have a nickname?

RM: Not really. A lot of people call me Rhodders. I can handle that. My ex-girlfriend calls me “bobble”, but that sprung out of our mutual loathing for baby-talk and pet names. So of course we ended up doing it.

GS: I have on occasion called you Rhodders, but I feel bad because it reminds me of Rodney from Only Fools and Horses and no one wants to be compared to Nicholas Lyndhurst.

GS: What was the first single you bought?

RM: “Club Tropicana” by Wham!

RM: It meant a lot to a 12-year old boy, this depiction of excess in some sun-drenched holiday resort.

GS: Does the song still mean something to you? Sometimes a song hits you at just the right age and despite not being a particularly great song, it owns you for the rest of your life.

RM: Of course it does, yes. I love it. I can’t think of anything I used to like that I disown now.

RM: There’s stuff I like LESS. But nothing I’m embarrassed about. Guilty Pleasures my ARSE.

GS: I think the first single I bought was The War Song by Culture Club. Or rather, I pointed at it and my mum bought it for me. I don’t think I’ve listened to it since I was 10. But enough about me.

RM: War is stupid. People are stupid. Love means nothing in some strange quarters.

RM: Or something like that.

GS: It’s simultaneously quite profound and fairly shit. Like a lot of art.

RM: Hahah

GS: Have you ever vomited on someone?

RM: No. I had a 21-year vomiting drought, which lasted from 1990 until just before Christmas when I got that bloody norovirus.

RM: I was very proud of not having vomited for 21 years, and now I can’t say that any more.

GS: Still, that’s a very long period. I’m impressed. Most of my vomiting has been through drunkenness. Are you a good drunk? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you properly pissed. Only slightly tipsy.

RM: I’m careful to only drink not-very-strong beer and limited amounts of stronger stuff. I know my limits quite well. I’m quite a jolly drunk, but in bad times I get very weepy. Bawling my eyes out on the tube and all that. Sheesh.

GS: Which tube was it? Do you remember? I bet it was the Northern Line.

RM: Of course it was. I’ve lived in Tooting for 15 years. I’ve spent most of my life on the Northern Line.

GS: Paul Simon wrote a song called The Northern Line, but I don’t think it’s very well known. You should write one. Hang on, I’ve just realised that Barnet to Tooting song of yours is about the Northern Line. I’m a bit thick.

RM: That’s not really about the Northern Line. It’s more about going out with someone that you’re in total awe of. A dangerous business.

GS: Yes. But let’s pretend it’s about the Northern Line.

RM: When I wrote it my girlfriend at the time said to me “Er, that’s not about me, is it?”

RM: I said “No.”

GS: As a writer or songwriter you obviously draw from the people around you and it can be a bit awkward. Both when you’re saying good things and bad things.

RM: Yeah. I do this weekly thing in the Indy about MY LIFE and it’s difficult. I can’t write about the things I want to write about because I know there’ll be a knock on effect. Not because everyone’s reading it – just cos it’s indiscreet and rude.

GS: You’re quite established as a journalist these days. Do you ever yearn to write a novel or a play?

RM: I can’t do it, Greg. I’ve not no imagination. The Indy asked me the other day to write a 200 word fictional scenario to illustrate the concept of online behavioural advertising. I couldn’t do it. I just froze.

GS: I ask that out of misguided snobbery. People sometimes think I’m a journalist and I’m at pains to point out that I’m a writer – as though I’m a tortured artist. Also, I’d be a terrible journalist.

RM: I’m good at observation. And being coherent. That’s about it.

GS: Those are excellent skills. And anyway, a lot of fiction is just observing things and changing people’s names.

RM: I’m totally envious of your imagination, without wishing for this to descend into mutual masturbation.

GS: No. Because we’d have to be in the same room to do that.

RM: And have our willies out.

GS: I think everyone is jealous of what other people can do. Skills that other people have – music, maths etc – seem like magic to me. When I see someone play a musical instrument it’s as impressive to me as them levitating or mind-reading.

RM: DRAWING. People who can draw. I faint. Oh, that’s you again. We should probably just get married.

GS: Yes. They have a place for us these days.San Francisco.

GS: Your mention of the word “willies” made me think. What do men call their penises these days? Have new words evolved since we were children?

RM: I know a woman who went out with a man who referred to it as his “ziggurat”.

GS: Wow. What a twat.

RM: I’ve just looked up a picture of a ziggurat, and all I can say is that I’m glad my cock doesn’t look like that.

GS: It’s like that early stage of a relationship when you and a lady are trying to work out the best words for your bits. Because you can’t whisper sexily “I’m going to put it inside your womblehole.”

RM: That would be difficult to pull off, I agree. Avoid all childish words while engaged in the act of love. That’s my hastily constructed motto.

RM: “Guffed” is another word best banned from the bedroom.

GS: Yes. There’s normally a good six months when farting isn’t mentioned at all. A wonderful period in any relationship.

GS: So, about the book. Shall we talk about the book?

RM: Might be a good way to round off, yes.

GS: Yes. Have you had a good response to it from the people quoted in the book?

RM: Well, I asked everyone if I could use their tweets, and all but three said yes.

RM: 300 yes, 3 no. Not a bad result.

RM: And I’ve written more words for the book than other people have, which makes me feel marginally better about piggybacking on their wit.

GS: Yes, but the whole point of the book is that it’s wide… it’s lots of people’s experience of crap dates, rather than just your own experiences.

GS: After reading it all, who do you think comes off worse in the dating game? Men or women?

RM: Men, by about 3000 nautical miles. Arseholes.

GS: Yes, that was my impression

RM: Oh, maybe I misunderstood the question.

GS: No. You understood it perfectly.

RM: Men are arseholes and women have a great deal of misery to bear.

GS: Yes. That’s probably one of life’s lessons. I wouldn’t patronise women by claiming they can’t be as monstrous as men, but men do seem to me more consistently insensitive and monstrous than women.

RM: Yep. I’d be interested in stats about whether more men dump women than women dump men. But regardless of that, men would do it in a more annoying way.

GS: This is true.

GS: Do you have any last words before we both go to our (separate) beds? Any statement you’d like to leave us with?

RM: I’ve just spent 20 seconds trying to think of something profound, and have failed completely, so the answer is probably “No.”

GS: No. That’s a good way to end.

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