Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cartoon and Macramé Wounds

Morrisons - the supermarket chain - have been good to me this week. I got a parking ticket in their Northampton centre branch for outstaying my welcome, appealed against it and won. Which was nice. And then yesterday, at the Kettering Road branch I found 7 boxes of my favourite discontinued breakfast cereal! There were 9 boxes in total, but two of them expire in the next couple of days and while my better judgement says that they'd be fine... you know...

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The weather... I've already mentioned the almost immortally stupid words I hear regularly every spring? The 'Oh we deserve a good summer' line? Just to emphasise the point, what kind of complete and utter nonsense is that? Yes, we probably do deserve a good summer, but what we deserve and what Mother Nature throws at us are as different ducks and raspberry tarts.

As it is, the bank holiday weather is its usual cold, windy and potentially very damp. I have, however, planted a bunch of onions, which with my potatoes, should see me through the autumn. The forecast for the next 7 days is pretty much as good as the best bits of yesterday and there's me thinking about all those independent weather forecasters who said we're going to have a summer that rivals 1976. I said at the time they'd been paid off by the politicians to say this year was going to be great, to put us into a good mood for all the misery that is about to descend on us after Thursday...

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As most of you know, I'm a vegetarian, so is the wife (and a damned sight longer than me). We have four dogs, a single rabbit and 6 ducks. Ducks have sort of become the new motif of the Hall family. Once it was rabbits, then guinea pigs, chinchillas, rats, and then dogs - you could always tell what the major animal presence in our garden was by the Christmas and birthday cards we'd receive. So now we get ducks - duck ornaments, cards and comical kitchen utensils. Oh and calendars... My mother-in-law bought us a calendar for Christmas; she was obviously hunting for that one last extra special themed present when she saw the duck calendar.

As much as I try, I'm failing to be subtle about this. The calendar was of antique wooden decoy ducks used in the hunting of real live ducks! I said to the wife at the time, "Why didn't she just buy us a calendar of Britain's 12 Best Abattoirs?"

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Just a quick excursion into the realms of The Passion of Lovers blog entries, but I am really happy that Spurs have finished above Liverpool in the league, for the first time in 43 years, no less. But can I beg and plead with the Liverpool bosses not to get rid of Rafa Benitez. As long as that fat Spanish Manuel stays at Anfield, I can look forward to having my spirits raised every time they drop points. He really is a god like obsessed Shite fans claim - the god of belly laughs and tactical buffoonery!

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My work project has two dates in the coming week, but things will really start to get a bit crazy in July, when for two months we're doing a minimum of 25 dates. There is only one real downside to this at the moment - the amount of mileage I'm doing. There is a very good chance that I'll use up my yearly allowance inside 5 months and that's an arbitrary tax rule that is essentially unfair to someone who drives a lot of miles but gets no financial gain from it. A sales rep needs to drive to earn money; I have to drive to try and improve other peoples lives - should we be penalised the same way?

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Saying this will probably put the mockers on it, but... I might be making a life changing decision on June 1st. Something I threaten repeatedly but never fail to succeed with...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Love Forever

The wife and I have had this long standing joke; it involves products that we 'get into' that either disappear off the shelves or stop being as good - become 'new and improved', which as we all know is an impossible thing, something cannot be new and improved, only new or improved.
It happens all the time and the list is endless and mainly forgotten; but it might have started with the introduction of Marmite (Oxo) cubes - they were great and as a new vegetarian, also very helpful. They stopped producing them. It carried on for many years; things we'd look forward to for dinner or a snack and poof they'd magically disappear, to the point where we came to the conclusion that if supermarkets keep a tally on what their individual customers purchase, they were purposefully cancelling the brands we liked! We were being forced to stop being vegetarian by the oppressive might of market forces! It has become amusingly frustrating; we're almost scared to take a shine to a product in case it gets the axe.

Breakfast and me are difficult. I spent ten years having a mug of tea and a Kit Kat to kickstart my day; but for the last 20 years, I have religiously worked my way through just about every palatable breakfast cereal known to man and growing to loath every single one. Then about 8 years ago, I discovered a Jordan's muesli that didn't contain the dreaded dried fruit things from hell; it was just granola, nuts, seeds and shredded coconut - it wasn't overly sweet - I can't eat sweet breakfast cereal - and I loved it for a full eighteen months before Jordan's discontinued it. I know, I'm a freak, I don't like dried fruit - live with it, I do. My back up cereal is Corn Flakes; I like them, but get bored really quickly.

I can see all of you are completely fascinated by this marvellous account of serial cereal behaviour, so I'll make it quick. Last summer, I discovered Kellogg's Nature's Choice cereal without added organic rabbit turds and I was a happy man again. I bought it with gay abandon, up to 4 boxes at a time, because it was invariably half price and already over £2.50 a box.

The last two weeks I haven't seen them anywhere. I emailed Kellogg's because I was that distraught at the possibility of losing something else I enjoy eating. Nature's Choice has been discontinued, according to their sources only 4 boxes a week were being sold anywhere and they were all in the Northampton area; not really, but you get the message.

Just to extend this yawnathon a second longer - Dorset Cereals do something similar, but at nearly £4 a box they can do all manner of barely possible things to themselves.

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I perhaps should include this in my political blog, and who knows, perhaps I will, but it can start here. I was talking to my mate Tony tonight and he gave me a really good idea - on election ballot papers have a final section which says, quite simply, "None of the Above", allowing a person to register their vote, but not commit to any candidate if he or she isn't up to what you regard as an MP. I think it would encourage a lot more people to vote, knowing that their vote would still be counted and could eventually have a say in how this country should be run.

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I did a really bad thing about a month ago. A really heinous and abominable thing that I shouldn't even admit to, but the wife made me do it...

A number of times over the last few years I've spouted about cable TV, satellite TV, HD, Freeview and various other things, despite having been in one incarnation or another a customer of Virgin Media for getting on for 25 years. To be fair they were never a problem until they 'upgraded' us a few years ago and then suddenly things just went horribly wrong. In fact, we started to have problems with NTL as they were known just as they appeared to be sorting their customer service act out.

A quick example: we've had 11 set top boxes in the last 3 years and that's just the tip of the cock-up iceberg. So when a young whipper snapper came a calling and sold us Sky TV with all the bells and whistles on it for £30 a month less than we were paying Virgin, we rather bit his hand off.

Yesterday, the wife did a deal with Virgin for a far better package than we left them with for £25 a month cheaper and we cancelled Sky. I could do a cereal and tell you all the reasons why, after 25 days of our 28 cancellation period, we opted to cancel Sky, but it really boiled down to one thing - they're shit.

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To many of you the following statement is going to seem a bit random and bizarre, but... who cares?

My first PC had a 20mb hard drive with a drivespace partition that turned it into 40mb. My operating system, Windows 3.1, took up 8mb and ordinarily 12 meg of available space was more than enough for the average computer user. My first Internet connection was at 16kbs and it took about an hour to download a 1 megabyte file.

This morning, I downloaded Lost in a little under 15 minutes; it was 350meg. That was slow because as I mentioned not so long ago, I am running a ZX Spectrum in a world full of Hal 9000s. My mate downloaded the same episode in 4 minutes. His laptop has more hard drive space than all of the PCs I have ever owned, put together. It will also handle 8 or 9 applications at the same time, almost instantly. I can go and prepare my dinner while my PC loads Google Chrome. I can't use Firefox any longer, it uses too much memory. I hoovered it the other day and the mouse stopped working for two hours. It also occasionally comes up with an error message warning that says, "You have to be f**king kidding!" when I'm burning a CD, want to look at a website and have the clock TSR running...

It has other problems, but I'm not at liberty to disclose them.

I need a new computer, but I especially need some new money to pay for it...

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Facebook continues to piss people off at a rate of knots. My mate is up in arms about the new changes to the privacy controls and has virtually admitted that despite being on every other social networking thingy, Facebook is where most of his friends are; giving it up is a bit like cutting off his nose to spite his face, but it is turning into one big social networking nightmare and I've spouted off about it too much already; complaining about Facebook is a bit like picking a fight with God (if he existed).

but, it does appear that my blog entries are not appearing in my news feed; the last one didn't show up at all, despite the fact they often get published about 3 days after they were originally written and while other mates blogs are appearing, mine didn't. If this doesn't then the food curse is now afflicting my social networking habits. You watch, Facebook will whither and die in the next two years and I'll be the only member left in 2013...

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I know I've been harping on about Ulrich Schnauss on here and Facebook, posting links to his songs for weeks and proclaiming this nerdy looking German to be the best thing since dried porcini mushrooms; but sometimes I get obsessed and people suffer as a result. I'm more than aware that Mr Schnauss is a bit of an acquired taste and a bit too Euro for some people, but hey, it's still a relatively inexpensive country (it stopped being free a long time ago).

One of my birthday presents was Schnauss's most recent solo album and on it is a version of a track I already own called 'Look at the Sky'. I cannot find it anywhere on the Internet; it's not available on any torrent I've found, it appears to exist only on this reissued version of 'Goodbye'. The thing is, the version I had, subtitled (the Rod McVey version) is a pretty cracking nu-shoegaze kind of thing with a husky female singer. The 'original' is a completely different kettle of bratwurst, yet still the same song.

But, I can't share it with you the way I'd want. The only version I could find on any of the sites was it being used as the soundtrack for a rail journey from Littlehampton to Bognor Regis at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9CoDTrw4Iw which has very poor sound quality and doesn't give you the depth that the song actually contains. I have no doubt many of you will just think my music taste has got even weirder.

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I warn many of you now; in about 5 weeks I am going to subject you all to an essay about one of the most startling TV series of all time and why many of you gave up on something quite extraordinary.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Can't Explain

The week started badly (depending on what day you start the week on). My beloved Spurs capitulated in the FA Cup semi-final and then Lee Westwood was beaten by a man inspired on the final round of the golfing show piece of the year - The Masters. I went to bed last Sunday night thinking that some days are just best spent under the covers, forgetting there's a world (and a general election) going on.

Monday didn't have the most auspicious of starts. my project, which I have referred to a number of times, is going along swimmingly, but sometimes shit happens and Monday morning I was left with no young people to teach older people how to Wii or whatever it is we do. If it hadn't been for a young volunteer, I would have had even more egg on my face. But from that point on it just started to get better...

In the afternoon, I spent an hour with a group of people in Wellingborough, showing them how to get their bid for funds into shape - the project has now gone from impossible to fund to a must include in the next budget rounds. On Tuesday, I was told that I was doing a really excellent job and to carry on doing what I'm doing. This might sound like great news, but when it was delivered it came as a huge relief. You see, that morning, when I arrived at the office, I was presented with literally loads of photocopies of an excerpt from the previous night's Evening Telegraph - Kettering's own newspaper. The clipping was a news story about my project and its public launch and, well, we're in the middle of a general election, in case you hadn't noticed, and I work for the council and well, the nerves from up high were almost visible. But, the piece was both benign and very positive and subsequently I soaked up the praise rather than wondering if I was going to be a step closer to a P45.

Wednesday was another Intergenerational session and another success, despite some of our equipment being either temperamental or just not working. Wednesday night was a nail-bitingly awful evening that ended with huge elation. Spurs had just beaten the dreaded South London Woolwich Arsenal team at football, for the first time in the league since 1999. Could it get much better?

Being a glass half full kind of person, and a Spurs fan, I tend to look at all the good that is happening around me and then spend the rest of the time I should be enjoying myself worrying about when and how its all going to go wrong. Thursday was causing havoc with my nerves and despite all the good around me, I was a big bag of stress. I shouldn't have worried...

The Intergenerational project I do, to recap for those who missed it or didn't read about it, is taking young people into the community and getting them to show the over 50s how to use all that confusing modern gadgetry that is just an anathema to them all. This, of course, is a front, what it really is doing is sitting these two groups down together and getting them to talk. It has been simple and highly effective; but being me, I take everything really personally and failure isn't an option.

I set up a partnership with Northamptonshire Libraries, whereby I took groups of young people, armed with our cache of modern technology, into libraries around the county and offer to show people how to use the things they're frightened to use; or if nothing else, have a go on the Wii machine. As our funding originated from the east of Northants, we held the first one in the quaint little library in Thrapston (just off the A14 and between Corby and nowhere else in particular). Careful planning and much hand wringing passed and on Thursday it was D-Day. I took along 4 young people and the library got a few of their members in to help, so we had 9 young people in total; we kicked off at 10.30 and within minutes we had an elderly woman asking for help with her new laptop; several men who didn't have a clue how to use their mobile phones and a man who wanted to know how to set a Wii machine up. I stood there with an increasingly wide grin appearing on my face; my two bosses, both in attendance, had the same.

The sight of a 17 year old showing an 82 year old how to play the games on his mobile phone will stick with me until I die.

The grin stayed on my face for the rest of the day, well into the evening and throughout Friday. I was so proud of my young people, they did brill! My project was justified in one fell swoop and the big wigs from the library were all in rapture at the success of the thing. Result - all round!

I could have woken up in a bed of cow shit with electrodes connected to my delicate bits on Friday morning and I wouldn't have cared less. I've had some fantastic days since I started working with people; going into the care industry was the best thing that could ever have happened to me and on Thursday, after 9 years of doing this thing, I finally felt like I had achieved something tangible - something I could say, "Hey, look what I did!" (Except, I could never have done it without my fantastic young people, my brilliant bosses and the support of a lot of people).

Frankly, times like these have to be treasured.

It would be good for this positive time to extend for just a few more days. I have a busy, but hopefully fun-filled, long weekend ahead of me, culminating in that 48th birthday thing. Just so long as the food is good, the result is right and the weather stays warm, I'll be a happy man.

There's one thing that would make it even better, but that's a real long shot...

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Watching You

Hero worship. Not something I’ve particularly done, or, to be fair, not something I’ve been terribly good at. I think the first famous person I remember meeting was black Yorkshire comedian Charlie Williams, at the Tesco Superstore at Weston Favell back in the mid-1970s. I remember very little about that, but I do have vivid memories of the next time I met someone really famous.

I was 16 and I was working as a Saturday lad at the same Tesco. I’d been there a couple of months and I wasn’t doing very well – I was in charge of the pre-packed bacon counter – and was forever being pulled up for chatting my female colleagues up. I was due to go and see Genesis at Knebworth, with my brother, on a Saturday in late June, so I put in a request to have the day off. Everything seemed fine. But, despite not being the best employee, I got offered two extra evenings a week – Thursdays and Fridays and the idea of an extra £10 in my pocket was too good to turn down. So I agreed to do them and therefore my line manager was happy for me to have the Saturday off…

I was sitting in the living room of my parents home the Thursday before Knebworth and my brother Steve turns up, dressed in his work suit, “What are you doing?” I was doing nothing. “Want to drive down to Knebworth and watch the Genesis sound check?” Was the pope catholic? We jumped into his little yellow Vauxhall Chevette and headed down Stevenage way. We got there in no time whatsoever and had zero trouble getting into the grounds and walking right up to the stage. Within 20 minutes there was activity on the stage and amongst loads of technicians stood Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks – the remaining members of my favourite band. I was made up.

They performed a track called The Eleventh Earl of Mar as their sound check and me, my brother and three other guys were the only people standing in a field that could hold 200,000 people, watching one of the biggest bands in the world playing solely to us. I was definitely made up. Then they finished, but instead of leaving the stage, a bunch of different people turned up, with television cameras, sound equipment and lots of people running about busily. I looked at Steve and we wondered what was going on. Suddenly this bloke wanders over to us, “We’re about to do some shooting for Nationwide and the boys are going to be filming some footage for their new single. You guys can hang around and watch if you want?” We did.

Twenty minutes later, the same bloke comes over to me and asks if I can take the clapperboard up to the main stage and give it to the guy who was going to be doing this seemingly pointless task (in my opinion). I ran off to the stage, up the ramp and onto a Knebworth stage that had been graced by legends. I stood there about ten feet from some of my heroes and another guy says to me, “do the honours, chief”, I looked at him puzzled. “You see them guys over there?” He said pointing at the camera crew standing about another 50 yards behind my brother and the three rockers. I nodded. “Clap the board, son, they’re waiting to start filming.” So I did. Did I tell you how made up I was?

I exited the stage and returned to standing next to my brother. I had longish hair at the time, my brother’s short. He had a suit on, I had that late 70s all denim look – we were a quite incredible juxtaposition. The following night on the now defunct Nationwide current affairs show, you could see the back of me and my brother in the long shots of the band sound checking on the stage – except they weren’t sound checking, they had done that already, they were now miming to Many Too Many, the new single. But it didn’t stop the fact that I was on TV with my brother, almost alone in a rock arena watching Genesis. (I searched UTube for the clip and found parts 1 and 3 of the documentary, but not part 2, the bit I was in...) Pretty good stuff, but it was to get better…

Next thing we knew the three band members walked off stage and out into the field. They came over to us and started chatting to us. This was something unbelievable. Phil, Mike and Tony were grateful we’d come to watch the rehearsal, they asked us a few questions and all I could think was – I haven’t got a pen or paper! Then it went a bit wrong and I really only had my age to blame. Phil Collins turned to me and said, “Looking forward to the show at the weekend?” I nodded. “Anything you want to hear?” I nodded again and uttered the infamous words, “I really like Vancouver, off the new single, it would be great if you could play that.” Suddenly there was awkward silence; Phil Collins looked like I’d just punched him in the mouth, Mike Rutherford coughed and looked away and Tony Banks turned to me and said, “I don’t think we’ve even listened to that track since we recorded it, so I don’t think we’ll be doing that.” And with that they thanked us again and disappeared. I looked at my brother, he in turn looked at me – we were both a bit puzzled. What had I said?

Vancouver was written by Phil Collins shortly after he split up with his first wife and she moved to the West Coast of Canada with their two children. It was a deeply personal song (aren’t all of his songs?) that I had no idea had such a profound effect on him. It may have been they were running late on their schedule, but I think I just inadvertently touched a raw nerve.

Then the Gods of poo conspired to throw a spanner in the works. Travelling back up the M1, after getting on at Luton, we got as far as the midway point between Flitwick and Milton Keynes/Bedford, when Steve’s Chevette gave up the ghost and died in the middle lane of the motorway. We found our way to the hard shoulder and sat. Of course, this was 1978, this was a good decade before the mobile phone and as Steve wasn’t in the AA or RAC it hardly mattered. We used the emergency phones along the carriageway to call for help and were towed to a garage just off the M1 on the Bedford to MK road; there was a phone box, I called my mum, told her what was happening and asked her to phone Tesco to tell them what had happened.

We got home after 9pm and the day hadn’t really been blighted. The following evening, I turned up for work and got on with things as usual – that basically meant moving bacon around and chatting up the girls. The clock ticked round to 10pm and my shift finished; I went up to the lockers, got my stuff and told my manager that I’d see him the following Thursday. He looked at me puzzled. “Tomorrow at 7.30 you mean?” I frowned and reminded him that I’d booked the day off to go to Knebworth. “Saturday staff can’t book days off, if you don’t come in tomorrow, don’t bother coming in next week.” I wasn’t up for an argument and went home. I told my mum, who used to work as a supervisor at Tesco and she was appalled and really angry. Monday was a school day – I think I was on exam leave at the time – and while I was there, my mum phoned the manager of the store and gave him a right earful. I never did get my job back, but I received the equivalent of 12 shifts – a month’s work – in my severance pay packet.

The rather deflating experiences with a hero of mine and the subsequent crap that followed somewhat changed my approach and feelings towards so-called celebrities – like me and the Queen; they all take a shit at least once a day. So, whenever I meet someone who is/was vaguely famous I treat them like I would treat you.

The 1980s, when I spent a lot of time surrounded by semi-famous musicians; or in the 90s when I met just about every comicbook writer or artist who had ever made an impression on me – I treated them all like they were just someone I knew (with one notable exception, who we will come to eventually). I remember having the job of chaperoning Simon Pegg at the Bristol Comics thing back around the turn of the century – he wasn’t as big as he is now, but he was still pretty much a famous bloke thanks to Spaced. To be fair, he was a nice guy and we got on well, but I wasn’t overawed by his presence and in fact, when my good friend Jay Eales collared him at the Awards Dinner and the two started to talk relentlessly about 2000AD, I was slightly relieved. Great bloke, but a bit dull in the conversation stakes when you’re not talking about comics, fantasy or TV.

The only person I’ve met in the last 30 years that has taken my breath away and made me feel like a six year old was the day I met Stan Lee. He was a guest at one of the last UKCACs and I’d caught a glimpse of him a few times, but he was surrounded by an entourage of Marvel employees and what seemed to be minders. My then employer, an old acquaintance of Lee’s had promised me he’d introduce the two of us, but he was as pissed as a fart by late afternoon and I figured it would be less embarrassing for everyone if I did it myself. The wife had returned from her day of doing the museums and was itching to either get drunk or go home – the thought of spending more time than necessary with odorous comics nerds was too much for her. I turned to her and said, “Will you do me a favour?” She frowned, but nodded. “Will you come over and meet Stan Lee with me, I don’t know if I can do it on my own.” She smiled, grabbed my hand and walked me over to the Lee entourage. Everything seemed to part – like the Red Sea and Moses – and there a foot away was my real superhero.

“Stan? I have to say that one of my biggest ambitions has been to shake your hand.” I was trembling, but Stan, ever the showman, smiled and grasped my hand in a firm shake that belied his advancing years. “Who are you then son?” He asked and I suddenly realised that I had an opportunity to actually have a conversation with him. “I’m Phil Hall, I work for one of your protégés.” He smiled and remember when I said how made up I was at Knebworth? Well, this made that seem like a ripple on a pond. “You’re the news editor at Comics International; you work for Dez.” He. Knew. Who. I. Was!

To be honest, I can’t remember anything about the rest of the conversation, but it lasted about ten minutes and could have lasted longer, but I got this overwhelming urge not to outstay my welcome. We shook hands again and he told me to keep in touch. I haven’t, but that’s not the point.

Oddly enough, the man who replaced Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, was someone I met in 1994. I spent best part of an evening talking to him about his wife’s small furry animals and how best to groom a guinea pig. We’ve spoken several times over the last 16 years, comics have never been uttered.

Oddly enough, at around the same time, I met Jonathon Frakes – he of Ryker and Star Trek: Next Generation fame. We talked for about an hour about Morris Minors and the hassle of transporting one from the UK to the USA and the logistics of a 6’7” man driving one. Star Trek was never mentioned. Someone said to me after that Frakes would probably remember me should I ever bump into him again. Why? Because I talked to him like he was a normal bloke and not like he was some megastar.

So, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that I’m human about most celebrities. I don’t crave or pander; I don’t follow blindly and I don’t tend to get involved in groups or fixations about them; not even the people involved in music and film that I thoroughly respect and love…

Facebook makes friend suggestions; some of them are people you know, but a lot of the time they’re people that someone you know knows. So imagine my surprise when one of the friends I was offered was Stephen King. Now, I might not think he’s the greatest writer any more, but I like Stephen King. I like reading his stuff and like the Dali Lama he is someone I’d like to sit down and talk to. If we met, I might even get a bit fan boyish around him, because we all have questions we want answering – however nerdy or insignificant they might seem. But Facebook is something a bit different and when I saw ‘add Stephen King as a friend’, I thought, “why not?”

“This User has Too Many Friends” was the rejection reason. I tried several times over several days and got the same response every time. Stephen King has too many friends!? Is this even possible? I’ve been meaning to see if the Pope has a Facebook page…

Speaking of the Pope – are you aware that the Vatican is mega-rich? It’s possibly one of the richest ‘countries’ in the world. Guess who’s paying for the Pope’s visit to the UK later this year? That’s right, we are, even if we aren’t Catholic… Or paedophile priests.

Moving on…

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Good news isn’t that common. Good news about my shoulder has been very thin on the ground. I seem to recall that I have, on a number of occasions, stated that I believe the operation on my shoulder corrected one problem and that another was overlooked. Mr Biswas confirmed this theory when I put it too him on Wednesday evening. He said it was more than possible that the calcifying of my tendons might have started long before the operation and would explain why it is there – making it not so unique.

At the end of the examination, Mr Biswas declared that he didn’t want to see me again. The X-rays showed that the three calcium build ups had dissolved sufficiently to make my life a pleasure again. In fact, one of them had gone and the other two were smaller and a shadow of their former selves. The injection had worked and it would continue to clear up. There is a small chance it might reoccur, but it is very rare and for once, I’m thinking it won’t happen to me, not this time.

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Having just saved myself nearly £30 a month by changing my mobile phone tariff; my money saving exercises continued by finally getting rid of Virgin Media, saving us another £25 a month; this was counterbalanced by my mate Dave telling me that my computer, a 2001 P3 with ½ meg of ram, is essentially a little like using an abacus in a Casio factory. However, when my PC was purchased, it was top of the line and cost me about a grand; now I can buy a base unit that would seem positively futuristic for less than £200. For £1000 I could probably buy a computer that can turn my dogs invisible.

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I actually wrote most of this before Easter Sunday, when I developed a really painful ear infection; subsequently the last few days have not been as good as they could have been…

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Passion of Lovers (Part 7)

The Business End

Normally at this point of the football season, I'm hoping that one of my teams is involved in something good. It usually ends up being a forlorn hope. When I say my teams, I obviously mean Spurs; but I also follow the fortunes of Northampton Town, Rushden & Diamonds, Kettering - all because I live in this county, Stevenage because it is the town of my birth. And good old Stenhousemuir up in Scotland. There are also other teams I keep half an eye on, but that tends to be when none of the above are involved in anything bar a relegation battle.

So imagine my surprise to see that Spurs are currently sitting in the last Champions League spot, with 7 (albeit monstrously tough) games to go; they are also in an FA Cup semi-final, against the financially and physically wounded Portsmouth. Yes, it's not challenging for the league, but so far we're the fourth best team in it - if we can finish in 4th, I'd gladly hand Portsmouth, Chelsea or Villa the FA Cup trophy.

But my main ambition this season is to finish above Liverpool. Hate is a very disturbing word and one usually reserved for Arsenal, but since Rafa 'El Camarero Gordo Espanyol' Benitez took over at Anfield, I've grown to loathe him and his football club with a passion. This is a pretty incredible volte face; back in the 70s and 80s, Liverpool were always my 2nd favourite club - if Spurs weren't winning, then Liverpool, with their iconic players and dour managers were. In Europe, we all became Scousers for the final's night. Even as recently as when Gerard Houllier was in charge; these once mighty giants were still likable and you didn't begrudge them showing a return to winning ways, knocking off 5 trophies in 2 seasons, I recall. Then Rafa came along...

If you look at his record, it's pretty impressive - he took a generally better than average Valencia team and won a few trophies with them. It has been widely reported that both Barcelona and Real Madrid were undergoing massive upheaval at the time, rebuilding after disastrous managers. Recently, The Guardian suggested that La Liga was becoming like the Scottish Premier League. A race between the 2 giants and all the others - also rans! That is not to say that teams such as Atletico, Valencia, Villareal, Sevilla or Deportivo aren't capable of giving our top 8 a run for their money; but you either have to be something special to beat Barca or Real, or they need to be in turmoil.

Rafa came to Liverpool with a huge reputation. He was heralded as the next great Spanish manager - the Red Shite's version of the Portuguese Jose Mourinho. The start couldn't have been much better - despite spending a season moaning about having inherited a poor team, they still managed to turn a 3 goal deficit against AC Milan into a penalty shoot-out win to win the Champions League. The fact that 10 of the 11 starters that day were Houllier purchases is often overlooked or dismissed by Liverpool fans. What they can't deny is that Rafa said immediately after the final that he needed to rebuild his team; they had finished 5th in the Premier League and were only back in the CL by virtue of having won it.
The following year an FA Cup won on the back of Steven Gerrard was all Rafa had to show. He said his team needed rebuilding. After a couple of years of relatively easy CL qualification and another final, Liverpool them did something no other team has managed - they finished 2nd with more points than most teams have won with. Had they not dropped points home and away to newly promoted Stoke City, they would have gone into the final weekend of matches as Champions, rather than not.
Liverpool's season imploded when, unprompted, Rafa took an unprecedented swipe at Sir Alex Ferguson. SAF is not the most likable of people, but you can't deny his ability. Rafa can. Yes, he made some valuable points about apparent favouritism shown to Man Utd; but he did it such a petulant and spoiled child-like manner that it only served to make him even more disliked among the press and the neutrals. I know Liverpool fans who claim the press is racist, which is about as stupid as you can possibly get. The press don't like Rafa because he lacks humility; he has zero charm and he takes everything personally - if he could be even a tad self-deprecating, without it seeming like a dig at someone else, perhaps people would warm to him.
I haven't even got into the transfers the man has done. Argue with a Pool obsessive and he'll say that the press distort the truth, that they lie and make up unscrupulous accusations about Rafa and its really the fault of the owners and former Chief Executive. This, to be fair, sounds pathetic. Rafa must have earmarked certain players. Yet over 80 arrivals and 50 departures in 5 years proves he hasn't got a clue what he's looking for.
Pool obsessives will also tell you that he hasn't really spent that much money; that a lot of deals are shrouded in secrecy and best of all, they have spent less money than teams like Spurs and yet still regularly place in the top 4. Recent Companies House figures show that Liverpool has spent £12m more than Spurs over the last 10 years; however, Spurs have shown a better return on that investment than Liverpool have. We might not have qualified for the big one and have only flattered to deceive in our attempts to break the big 4, but we've made money and are financially far better off than Liverpool - a position that may well begin to get exploited...

This season Liverpool have been great. They have supplied me with at least 10 days of utter joy and many others where they've drawn games they once should have walked. The players looked jaded; the manager looks old and tired and even the die hard loyal Red fans are beginning to call for the head of a man who insists on playing Insua more often than Aquilani - which, to anyone with any football nous will know is a bit like playing Steve Bull up front when you could have Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Yes, I know one is something of a left back and the other is an attacking midfielder, but the point is, only Torres of recent acquisitions seems to guarantee a place in the team; it doesn't matter what you cost, if Rafa goes off you, your time has come - to leave.

They currently sit 6th in the table, they have 6 matches left, but 4 of them are should wins, one is against Chelsea and the other is away to Birmingham - who on the strength of this season and the draw with Arsenal should get a point at least. That means Liverpool could get 13 points to add to their current tally, meaning they will end the season on 67 points. Spurs are currently on 58 points, but can add a virtual point to that because of their goal difference. This means they only need 9 points to ensure Liverpool finish below us and therefore guaranteeing that Liverpool do not play Champions League football next season.
Now those 9 points Spurs need have to come against unlikely opponents. Away at Sunderland, Man Utd, Man City and Burnley; home to Chelsea, Arsenal and Bolton; you'd have to say on previous results it's a tough ask. Wins at Burnley and against Bolton at the lane would give us 6 of those points, but the other 5 games look about as tough as possible, with Sunderland probably being the best hope of a result, as they have nothing left to play for. A point against them, Chelsea and Arsenal would guarantee those 9 points and that would suit me, even if Man Citeh pip us to 5th.

I think Villa's 7-1 defeat by Chelsea could have serious effects on them; they might bounce back, but teams involved in relegation battles will smell blood and that defeat has meant Villa have lost the ability to put fear into lesser sides.

Everton need to beat everyone and hope results go with them. It's too much to expect this late in the season, but they still might have a say in who finishes fourth. I just wish they'd played against Liverpool the way they played against other top 3 teams this season - that would have put the Shite out of the race for Europe altogether.

Going down - perm any two from three: Burnley, Hull or West Ham. I think the Hammers will do it, but not before dropping perilously close to the drop. Portsmouth are down and could go even further down.

Elsewhere - the Bar Codes are coming back to the Prem. The Canaries are coming back to the Championship and The Cobblers hold their own play-off hopes in their own hands. They are the form team in Div 2 at the moment, they just have to sustain it.

In the Conference: Stevenage have virtually assured themselves of League 2 football for the first time and I'm dead chuffed - they've been close or deprived because of sub-standard ground before. Rushden look set for a play off date with either Luton or Oxford - I fancy them to maintain their momentum and join Stevenage.

One more of these to go - sometime around the FA Cup final.