X-Box, YouTube edits, Minecraft? Sorry, I’m just not game.

I’m starting to think I’m living in the wrong house. The more I hear the shouting, the stamping and watch the levels of concentration and frustration that go into looking at a mobile phone, the more I feel like an alien in my own home.

So what’s the problem? Has lockdown found us out? Are me and the wife no longer compatible after 25 years together and has everything just run its natural course? Have my children decided they want a cooler, younger dad and have I decided that, in fact, I just don’t really like them? Have they been mixing with the wrong crowd? Do they all resent my accent, my north-east roots and my football team?

Well, although my daughter especially would like a younger, cooler dad, the answer is no. In fact, it’s just a question of creativity and a difference of interests. There’s no major crisis; a marriage won’t end, there’s lots of love still to share and I’ll be dadding around these parts for a while yet. It’s just that I don’t understand all this gaming and YouTubing!

While I don’t live in a house of what you’d call obsessive gamers it’s fair to say that the other three occupants (wife and two children) play their fair share of games. My son especially, is worryingly keen on his X-Box. He’s ten and into things like Minecraft and Roblox, as well as being a fan of FIFA. My wife, while also enjoying the odd game on X-Box, is far more likely to be found scrolling around and tapping away on her phone playing Hay Day or word games, while my daughter is obsessed with making video edits. None of this makes any sense to me.

I think I probably gave up all things game related in my twenties. At that time I was hooked on Football Manager and would gladly spend hours buying and selling players and taking teams from non league through to European glory. I would spend so long playing, sometimes into the early hours, that it would cause arguments. And it became a real bone of contention in my relationship. So I stopped. Simple. I still have the odd urge to play, especially when a friend mentions the game, but I know that the demands on my time really won’t allow. And dabbling with such addiction is a dangerous game to play.

It’s not, however, the act of playing the game or making the video that I don’t understand. It’s the games and videos themselves. I don’t know as much about the kind of video edits that my daughter makes, so can’t really comment in any detail. I will though, of course! I’ve watched them and they made me feel unnaturally old! Images were cut together so quick that I couldn’t really tell what was going on, let alone see the point. The gaming however, is another matter.

The first thing that strikes me when I watch my son playing Minecraft or Roblox is just how primitive it looks. In an age where computer graphics look like scenes from life itself, these games are put together with blocks and they look like the kind of graphics and games I grew up with. But I can get over that. The thing that really puzzles me is what he’s actually meant to be doing.

Socially, it’s a nice thing, really. He’s there, headset on, controller gripped tightly, conversing with several friends and rampaging through some kind of landscape. But why? From what I can gather, on Minecraft if he’s not building something, he’s killing something. Unless of course he’s just running away from something that’s trying to kill him. And then there’s the fact that sometimes one of his friends might just try to destroy the thing he’s built, because that’s funny right? Nope, you’ve lost me. It’s like getting some IKEA furniture, but with added – and made up – jeopardy.

Then there’s Roblox, which seems to have several hundred different varieties of game to it. Sometimes he’s in a world – building, of course – while trying to find other gangs’ eggs and break them. Egg Wars, apparently. No, really. He’s just running around trying to smash eggs. He’ll be simultaneously trying to keep his own eggs alive. At other times he’s earning money to buy cars and then drive them down a hill, in what seems to be a huge garage, and crash them into the wall at the end. His character will just bounce out of the wreckage ready to do it all again. I’ve stood and watched this, transfixed, for a good quarter of an hour, and nothing changes. Drive, crash, drive, crash ad infinitum. I don’t understand. I watch, waiting for something to happen and yet it just doesn’t. And he keeps on doing it like it’s the greatest thing man has ever discovered. Weird. I usually walk off feeling like I might be going mad.

And then there’s the noise. The gaming noise. We have a wooden floor in our living room and when he’s playing X-Box the noise is just incredible. He doesn’t seem to be able to stand still. If his character is moving then so is he. Literally bouncing around the room, thudding off the floor with every step. While he’s doing this he’s invariably shouting nonsense into his headset’s microphone. Sometimes it’s sentences, commands, sometimes it’s just words, but more often than not it’s simply tortured noises. Like someone’s invited a zombie or a bear into the house. Or a zombified bear. Recently I made a video – a poetry reading – and while it wasn’t something deadly serious that I was doing, I didn’t want peoples’ main reaction having watched to have been wondering about phoning Childline because someone in Graham’s house was torturing a child or an animal. But despite the fact that I was in another room, and the fact that he’d been asked to try and keep the noise down for just a few minutes, there he was “Nnnnnghhhh”ing and “Aaaaaarrrgggghhhh”ing on in the background.

My eldest child also baffles me with her gaming choices. She’s a fairly avid player of the game BitLife, a life simulator where the aim appears to be to become a model citizen. Because of course actual life – not a simulation – is simply not enough when you’re thirteen. Again, I just don’t get it. She seems to spend her time on it aiming to become anything but a model citizen. If she’s not telling me that she’s got eight children by seven different dads, then she’s declaring that she’s lost her job or some other worryingly negative achievement, like having mudered someone. This is literally always accompanied by a huge grin.

I suppose some of the attraction here comes from the fact that teenagers need to feel more grown up. And we all wanted that when we were younger. Maybe BitLife should add a paying your Council Tax section or a ‘the top of the tap’s come off in the bathroom and there’s water everywhere’ bit. Add some more of the humdrum of actual real life in and let’s see how attractive it all is then!

Her other obsession is with video editing. Now I totally see the point here. It’s creative, it’s a skill that may well be useful in later life and given that she’s quite artistic it serves to sate some of that appetite. But then I watch some of her videos and I’m absolutely lost. When she was a lot younger they used to just be her dancing and flicking her hair to music. Not exactly interesting, but harmless all the same. And also ones to use during the Father of the Bride speech at any future wedding that she may have.

Nowadays, she seems to specialise in pictures of celebrities edited together with captions and music. People actually watch them! She’s also edited stuff together about celebrity news stories. And when I say celebrities, I mean absolute talentless nonentities. I watch them and, as well as being disorientated by the speed of the edits, I’m utterly puzzled as to who these people are. I never recognise anyone! My daughter just laughs at her middle-aged dad, face screwed up in concentration and failing to see the point, once again.

Lastly, we come to my wife; also a bit of a gamer. Now some of the time she plays what she calls ‘educational games’; things where you have to make words or do a bit of maths. She’s also topping up her German language skills via Duolingo. All fair enough. However, then we come to some of the other games that she plays. (And reading this back, that’s quite the terrifying sentence about one’s wife).

Now, to be fair, she plays each of the following games with one of our children. So, it’s a nice thing to do. A parent playing with their children. No problem. Until of course you look at the details.

I shouldn’t have a problem with this gaming. I could easily go somewhere else and do something else. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But in our house, that’s impossible, because gaming tends to take the form of sitting in the front room, using the big TV, clutching a controller while shouting at the other person in the room. Teamwork, in our house, certainly does not make the dream work. I have never heard arguments like these. Just the other afternoon, I had to stop making a series of work-related phone calls such was the noise below me in our front room. At one point, as one player let the other down and probably got them into a position where death was the only outcome possible, there was the most blood-curdling scream I think I’ve ever heard. I gave it a few more minutes and then just gave up. No one’s actually listening to what you’re saying when there might be a serial killer at work in the background.

The games have no appeal to me whatsoever. One of them is a Jurassic Park game – I have no idea which one. I watched them play a little bit of it just the other day and after a while just had to walk off bewildered, as usual. For a good ten minutes all they did was manoeuvre a jeep around a landscape – probably called Jurassic Park now I come to think of it – before stopping to take pictures of dinosaurs. It seems to be that these photos could be ‘sold’ for money in the game, but as far as I could tell no one had any idea what constituted a good photograph and thus the value of them just kept coming up way short of what was needed. What a waste of time and effort.

Next, we have two more games – Plants vs Zombies and Garden Warfare II. (I had to ask for the names, by the way – as if I would’ve known about the existence of Garden Warfare, let alone the follow up!) Now, I’ll confess, I don’t know what the latter one is. But a part of me hopes it’s the battle to get plants in to the garden in order to annoy your neighbours. The other one is simply plants fighting zombies. They seem to just take a side and then shoot at each other. Again, it usually involves my wife and son and again, more than anything, it seems to just be a case of screaming at each other for doing it wrong. Meanwhile, a zombie has just killed one or both of them. Now maybe I’m too practical, but when I see them playing it I just can’t get past the fact that plants can’t run around and zombies don’t actually exist, and that even if they did I’m not sure they could fire a gun.

I suppose this just shows that, in terms of games and gaming I’m very much a fish out of water. This often leads to our front room being very much a no-go zone for me. Really, I shouldn’t criticise as in a way the gaming that goes on in my house is just another form of creativity. It could be worse. The rest of them could all hate football or music and then I’d be truly lost. So, I can be thankful that it’s just a small difference. That said, I don’t think it’ll ever be a world that I really set foot in. And that includes as a plant, zombie or a strange figure made up entirely of squares.

More middle age gigging: Embrace at Leeds First Direct Arena

IMG-20200315-WA0005It’s 2.31am. My ears are ringing and my head is full of songs. Sleep, at least for a little while, is no longer an option. So I get up to write some thoughts down to go towards this blog. Given the current climate it’s best to point out that I’ve not come down with the dreaded virus and it’s not worrying about the toilet roll and paracetamol stocks that’s woken me up so soon after getting to bed. No, I’ve got another bout of middle age gigging to blame. Clearly, the excitement of two gigs in 5 months is just too much to handle for this particular 48-year-old.

Around mid afternoon it didn’t look like this gig was going to happen for us. My wife is feeling ill and despite the fact that she’s doing her best to just soldier on through it, it doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. We’re going to drag ourselves into Leeds (I say drag; it’s a whole 6 miles or so!) and there’s a distinct possibility that we could be heading home before the first support band is done. I’ve said it before here and I’ll say it again; going to gigs in your middle age is not the experience that you would have had in your teens or twenties. Now, we have a whole load of other factors to consider.

One of these factors is the babysitter and having not heard back from ours for a while we were beginning to worry that they’d forgot. Sure enough, a mid afternoon text confirms that, yes, they’d forgot! A little while later though, they confirm that they’ll be here and it’s all systems go, but at a lot more relaxed pace than ever before. In fact let’s call it all systems slow.

Before I know it though, we’re heading out of the door, having said a fairly straightforward goodbye to our kids, who are normally a great deal more fretful than this. On reflection it’s clear that having had another night out just a few short months ago our children are becoming more accepting of our gallivanting. Considering that this is probably our second night out in the last calendar year it’s indeed very accepting of them to not be hanging off our legs and crying as we head down the hallway. On reflection though, given the global pandemic that we’re experiencing, it’s best that we don’t get used to this going out lark. I mean, I can always turn all the lights off in the kitchen and ask Alexa to play Embrace every so often and just jump around a bit, while having someone else in the house occasionally stand on my feet. I’m sure it’s much the same. Maybe this going out is actually overrated.

So tonight we’re off to see Embrace at Leeds First Direct Arena. Embrace are easily one of our favourite bands, if not the favourite, and in the car on the way we find ourselves discussing just how many times we’ve actually seen them live. We settle on somewhere near 30 times, so tonight is kind of a big deal.

As usual when we get in there I’m reticent to move too far forward. I’m a big fan of my toes and none too keen on other people’s elbows. Never have been. My poorly wife however has other ideas and in what seems like seconds we’ve snaked our way through the crowd, levitated a bit – as mentioned before, it’s one of her super powers – and hovered into a space about 5 yards from the front without anybody else batting an eyelid. Being the rebellious type these days, I haven’t even apologised to any one of those we’ve stood in front of either. Rock, and indeed, roll.

We take our place just in time to catch the last bit of local Leeds indie Legends Cud’s set. Having not particularly been a fan back in the day, it’s no great shame to have missed them, but there is just about enough time to realise that these days, singer Carl Puttnam is quite the ringer for Swiss Toni off The Fast Show. So while he’s throwing a few shapes as the set draws to a close I’m listening closely for any lyrics about ‘making love to a beautiful woman’ or any mention of junior salesman Paul. Sadly, it seems we must have missed that particular tune.

With a bit of time until main support Starsailor take to the stage I have a little look around me. It’s still a little bit weird to see genuine grey-haired folk standing around at a gig, especially so far forward. They’re usually stood around the sound desk just nodding. But then reality bites and I realise that although I’m not completely grey – more a rather suave salt and pepper sort of look these days – I’m very much one of this middle aged gang. And as much as I kid myself that I’m still physically fit for my age, I’m going to feel this in the morning. I would certainly hate to think that I’d done it on a school night and was faced with a day at work the next day.

As Starsailor arrive and launch into their first song, something incredible happens. I’ve said before that I’m terrible with lyrics and will frequently either forget them or just sing my own version with an inane grin on my face. I kid myself that this tactic will convince people that I’m high and therefore incredibly cool, rather than just quite old and forgetful. One day, you’ll find me right at the back of an Embrace gig, just doing my ironing and humming along, looking incredibly pleased with myself. Please dear reader, have a look at the address on the tag around my neck and have someone at the venue stick me in a taxi if it happens. However, tonight as the band play Alcoholic I’m transported back 19 or so years. Suddenly, I know every word. Every one of them. No really, all of the words. I have no idea where this gift comes from, but it’s a lovely feeling. Maybe Starsailor hold the key to eternal youth or something. I resolve to ask James Walsh about this should I ever bump into him in either of my favourite haunts, Asda Morley, or Sainsbury’s at the White Rose Centre. I’m sure it won’t be long given everybody’s current obsession with panic buying hand sanitizer and beans. See you Wednesday, James.

Starsailor’s set is fantastic. James’ voice is as powerful as ever and the band are wonderfully tight. They streak through some of the classics – Four to The Floor, Poor Misguided Fool and Silence Is Easy sounding particularly good – before ending with a fantastic version of Good Souls.

However, by 9.15, whatever has gone before is, in the nicest way possible, forgotten. For two reasons. One: my middle aged feet are killing. I’ve chosen to wear Converse boots and in return they’ve chosen to make me feel like I’ve got the swollen feet of an ultra marathon runner. I resolve to contact Hush Puppies about producing a special middle-aged gig-goers shoe. Something a little bit trendy, yet above all, comfortable. And featuring Velcro so I we don’t have to bend for too long fussing with laces. My legs hurt as well, and my back doesn’t seem to be enjoying my efforts at dancing along.

Then the house lights go down and the stage lights go into overdrive. There’s dry ice rising at the same rate as the tension. And then, we’re off. It’s Embrace.

The opening three songs – ‘All You Good Good People’, ‘My Weakness Is None of Your Business’ and ‘Come Back to What You Know’ – are amazing, as well as making for a shit-hot Scrabble score. In particular, the opener brings back some particularly simple but happy memories. I’m transported back to living in our first flat in Leeds and hearing someone leaving the pub next door singing the song at the top of their voice and being sat smiling at the fact that there were others who’d fallen in love with this still relatively new band. And, super special middle age bonus time; I also know a lot of the words! ‘All You Good Good People’ always makes me feel like I’m part of something, like I’m one of the people that it’s for. Maybe after all of these years I am. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Despite the sore feet and creaking knees, I’m smiling along, happy to be here.

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In amongst a section of songs from the album ‘Out of Nothing’. ‘Someday’ stands out. It sounds great and like everything in the set tonight, it simply soars. By the time we’re singing along to the line ‘a light is gonna shine, for you and I’ I’m in my own little world and probably screeching at the top of my voice. I might even have my arms stretched up in the air like I’m having a Polyphonic Spree moment. Awkward. I’ve said this in middle age gigging blogs before, but apologies if you read this and realise you were standing near me.

Alongside ‘Someday’ there’s ‘A Glorious Day’ which is another one that brings the memories flooding back, especially here in Leeds, where Embrace’s own mini festival of the same name took place some years back in Millenium Square. We attended both days and then, while watching the DVD of it (remember them old folk?) some months later we noticed a familiar face could be seen repeatedly in the crowd – me! It’s now known in the house as ‘my gig’, often prompting the tired old line of ‘Have you seen Embrace at my gig?’ and is my very own claim to fame, albeit it a pretty poor one!

The pace of things picks up again as the band play ‘Last Gas’ and ‘One Big Family’. During both we’re guided through a bit of a singalong by Danny as we scream out the ba-ba-ba- sections. All of a sudden there’s something of the Bruce Forsyths about him as he motions and mimes to us when it’s ‘our turn’. Little does he know that in my head I’m fulfilling something of a lifelong ambition singing back-ups for the band!

During ‘Higher Sights’ and ‘Retread’ I think I manage to put myself in some kind of trance. It’s possible that this is a middle age thing. It may not actually be a trance, more that it’s just way past my bed time and I’m not used to being out of the house. However, for the sake of the music, let’s call it a trance. Both are songs that I love. Coincidentally and somewhat improbably, given my lack of memory for lyrics, both are songs that I know the words to. Hence the fact that it’s not long before I’m back to screeching at the top of my voice. I may have even closed my eyes for few seconds at one point during ‘Retread’ for the refrain of ‘Will you fight?’ later on in the song. The point is that the gig has reached some kind of peak at this point. This is why we love music, why we follow bands and, in terms of the blog, why we’re still hauling our tired bodies off the settee to go and throw ourselves around in rooms full of like-minded souls in our middle age.

After my trance/impromptu middle aged nap, I find myself checking my watch. I’ve staved off the yawning so far, but my body is telling me that it’s late. More middle age flagging than middle aged gigging. Oh for the days of being a teenager or in my early twenties again when I would leave the gig sweaty and shattered, but then continue on with the evening until the sun was coming up.

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I’m perked up somewhat by the sound of ‘Gravity’. This was the first dance at our wedding and – ridiculous as it sounds – we even invited the band. It genuinely felt like the right thing to do given how much Embrace meant to us. We didn’t think for a second that they’d show up, but having met them we knew that our invite and accompanying letter would at the very least raise a smile. As it turned out the band sent us a congratulations card which was read out at the reception much to our delight. ‘Congratu-fucking-lations’ it said and the person reading out the cards just read it word for word, like Ron Burgundy on the autocue! As ‘Gravity’ begins I wrap my arms around my wife and we sing and dance along together – any excuse for a cuddle! It’s another wonderful moment in yet another wonderful Embrace gig.

And then, Danny says a few sentences that are equal parts thrilling and terrifying to me and probably every other middle aged gig-goer in the room. ‘We haven’t asked this once yet, but we will now. We want you to go mad, jumping up and down for this next one.’ He advises us to settle back down during the verses, like some kind of health advisor who’s all too aware of the creaking joints and aching muscles in front of him. But it’s with some trepidation that we go along with the notion of going mad during the more up tempo section. It’s time for Ashes.

In what is now time-honoured tradition as the song starts Danny leans forward towards the audience and implores us to pogo by waving his arms and shouting ‘Up, up, up, up.’ And up we go.

Brilliantly, I find I can bounce for ages – a boast that I should only really share with toddlers and Tigger, but I’m pretty pleased with myself all the same. As always, the song is immense and the atmosphere in the crowd lifts another few notches. But it’s over all too soon. I resist an ever-growing urge to check my heart rate via my watch and concentrate on applauding the band as they leave the stage, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be back for an encore.

Sure enough, in what seems like no time, Embrace are back. It’s very much a sing-a-long encore ending with ‘Fireworks’ and ‘The Good Will Out’ and ensures that the whole night ends at very much a late forties friendly kind of pace. Even then though, there’s time for one last personal moment of magic. As he walks across the stage towards the end of the final song Danny is eyeing the crowd and giving thumbs ups. As he approaches my section of the audience, I swear I catch his eye and then, almost in slow motion he aims a thumbs up in my direction. In fact, not in ,my direction, more straight at me. My arms are already raised and I give an instinctive thumbs up back, he nods and in the blink of an eye the moment passes. But it was our moment. Even as a middle age gig goer, it’s a thrill.

Shortly afterwards the music stops, the band assemble at the front of the stage and there’s a last bow before they’re gone. Danny, Richard, Mike, Steve and Mickey, thanks. You’ve made an old man very happy indeed for around about the 30th time!

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The lengths we go to: A review of ‘A Christmas Carol’ as performed by the English Department (and a Maths teacher) of Thornhill Community Academy

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Bob Cratchit’s sideline as a gangsta rapper was clearly of no interest to Scrooge who much preferred grime.

Labelled as ‘Laura’s Ridiculous Idea’ and granted its own Facebook Messenger group in order to get things organised this version of a Christmas classic was always going to be a tall order to pull off. But boy, did they manage it!

Late last year and indeed last decade, following a casual phone conversation, the idea was put to staff that the English Department at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury should attempt to put on a version of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. The usual avenue of getting an outside theatre group in had proven far too expensive, but we still wanted our kids to have some sort of theatre experience. In a school that prides itself on doing things our own way and constantly striving to go the extra mile there was nothing else for it. We’d do it ourselves.

A wild idea? Yes. A bridge too far? Well, given that this was the famous ‘Educating Yorkshire’ school, then surely nothing was impossible. Needless to say, following several meetings and conversations as well as a few begging requests for props and costumes on social media, an ensemble cast was put together and a play began to take shape. A script was found, music and scenery arranged and staff put themselves forward for several roles each, some with a great deal more enthusiasm than others *coughs* Mrs Sinclair. (Episode 3 of Educating Yorkshire if the name rings a bell. Believe me, she’d want you to know).

Our production was to be put on twice in one day. A morning performance for the whole of Year 11 – and any staff that could make it along – and then a matinee performance, if you will, for Year 10 during the last hour of a busy day.

By the day of the performances the cast had managed to run through a whole two (count ’em) rehearsals. After all, any English department is a busy one, but let me tell you, the work we do here at TCA takes up an extraordinary amount of time. And thus, rehearsal time was at a premium. However, everyone in the camp – and also a lot of the pupils who would be in attendance – were excited and showing no signs of nerves on the morning of the performance. I say everyone, but personally I was terrified and all I had to do was work backstage and press a button occasionally.

Now although ‘A Christmas Carol’ is quite a serious play it was evident from the time the curtain went up (I mean, we have no curtain, but when writing about theatre, dahling…) it was clear that the objective of the whole cast was to have some yuletide fun. And so, while Scrooge (TV’s Matthew Burton) made his entrance he was roundly, and in an exaggerated fashion, snubbed by those making merry on the stage before we cut skilfully to his counting house – a beautifully prepared couple of desks and a different backdrop.

The pre-Christmas merriment continued as the play went on. The undoubted star of the show, Mrs Sinclair, brought out many a laugh, not least with her portrayal of Scrooge’s charwoman. Bent double, moving like some kind of hunchbacked Mick Jagger and in possession of what can only be described as a hybrid regional accent it was hard to keep a straight face as she asked, “Warm yer bed, sir?” Of course, this was a moment that one wouldn’t find in the novella, but it kind of set the tone for the rest of the action.

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Emma, Laura & Bryonny proving that for actors sometimes words just get in the way.

Other highlights would include the whole cast – those on and off-stage – gesturing furiously towards what we’ll laughingly call the mixing desk – in a vain attempt to get our ‘visual technician’ to change the background when Scrooge tried to talk to Marley’s face in a door knocker that hadn’t yet changed to a door knocker from a street scene. Our ‘visual technician’ was me, left in charge of the clicker for a screen with a PowerPoint on. It had taken me mere minutes to relax and enjoy the performance so much that I forgot my job. A little like my role in the school nativity as one of the three wise sheep (probably) about forty years ago when I got so distracted by concentrating for my prompt that I forgot my one line – ‘baaaah’ – entirely.

Personally, I enjoyed watching the sheer glee on the faces of my colleagues every time they took to the stage. I don’t mean that they were grinning like idiots, but their enjoyment of what they were doing was all too obvious. As a very shy bloke I wouldn’t have dared attempt to act and so the brilliance of the performances in front of me was a joy to watch. The play was worth an imaginary admission fee for the ad-libs alone, but the approach of our actors was just brilliant. Another thing to admire about our talented department.

Later, and much to the astonishment of the audience – and the audible delight of Mrs Bell – Mariah Carey showed up at Fezziwig’s party and the English department gave a master class in how not to dance and how to avoid the actual rhythm of the track. As Scrooge watched on accompanied by a ghost that appeared to be wearing a christening gown on her head, Fezziwig’s Christmas party fairly rocked to the sound of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. Nearby, the all female section of the cast involved at this juncture did their best dad-dancing and all of a sudden it wasn’t so clear to see why Scrooge missed his days with Fezziwig so much. Sadly my request that ‘Horny’ by Mousse T be playing was rather criminally ignored. I mean, what kind of party doesn’t feature Mousse T? And what kind of adaptation of a Dickens classic is complete without teachers dancing to ‘Horny’? Oh, hang on…

Further highlights included Scrooge talking like a parrot – and apologising for doing so – the appearance of a child’s unicorn in place of a horse and carriage and a veritable cavalcade of accents, none of which seemed appropriate and some of which seemed to morph from region to region as the lines went on. Mrs Stylianou in particular, with her hybrid Welsh/Carribbean/Glaswegian accent, brought a certain mirth to proceedings that made it difficult not to laugh from the sidelines. Well accustomed to her bad accents, this reviewer just shook his head. Getting back to the appearance of the unicorn by the way, I have no doubt that one will also appear in a student’s written response about ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the near future, just as guns and cars are referred to in essays on Romeo and Juliet as a result of the Baz Luhrmann film. Fingers crossed it’s not a GCSE exam response!

As the curtain went down (we still didn’t have an actual curtain) and the players re-appeared to take their bow there was rapturous applause from those in the cheap seats. The assembled staff and students had clearly enjoyed their hour’s entertainment.

There was a special and deserved round of applause for our director, Dr Laura Price (not an actual medical doctor; a fact we have to confirm at our school on an all too regular basis) who had worked ridiculously hard to make this all possible, as well as taking on at least three roles too.

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And therein lies the ‘thing’ about my place of work. This play was the epitome of what has become our mantra over the years – work hard, be nice. I’ve worked at schools where staff would gladly put on a show, but all too often these could turn into a vanity project. The staff panto at a previous school, for instance, was clearly always just a chance for the head to feed her ego by playing an overblown villain. This was anything of the sort. The people involved certainly didn’t need any more work. In amongst the planning, teaching, exam marking, after school lessons and other extra curricular work that we do, the thought of putting on a play was indeed a ridiculous idea. But the people that I work with will stop at nothing to help our kids. And so, vanity and in some cases dignity were put to one side, in the name of education and in order to give our pupils an experience that they otherwise would be very unlikely to have (and by that I mean a theatre visit, not just a chance to see their teachers dressed up and messing about). As I said, work hard, be nice.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this show was a triumph. It wasn’t slick or enormously polished, but it was a whole world of fun and I have to say my admiration for the people that I work with, already sky high, went up another few notches. The play was put on a day before the end of quite a brutal half term and yet my colleagues couldn’t have been more enthused about the whole thing. Me? I put the nerves to one side, scaled a flight of stairs off stage and pressed a button occasionally, but heroically.

I fear that the performance will now become an annual thing, meaning I’ll feel the pressure to get out there and perform. But, given what I watched at the end of term in December, I reckon my colleagues would carry me through. And if it’s got me thinking of taking the plunge on stage then it must have been a success.

Sniff the air folks…that’s the smell of a BAFTA!

More middle-aged gigging! The Bluetones at Leeds Stylus.

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Picture the scene. Tea time in an ordinary three bedroomed semi in suburban Leeds. The telly’s on. A family – mine – are sat around watching a bit of post football television.

“You’re not going out again? Really?”

“You’re always going out! It’s ridiculous. What about me?”

Now if you’re thinking that this is perhaps my middle aged reaction to my teenage daughter heading out on some shopping trip or hanging about with ‘the girls’, then you’d be wrong. Horribly wrong. This is in fact the kind of dialogue that my kids hurled my way on Saturday evening when, without warning – unless you count the many warnings that they simply didn’t listen to – me and my wife headed out to watch The Bluetones at Leeds Stylus.

The sense of outrage is palpable. The sheer horror undisguised. The grief is multiplied by the fact that it’s Uncle Richard babysitting and not fun loving, just out of his teens cousin, Martin. Thankfully though, it’s mostly put right by the simple fact that we’re having pizza for tea. This serves to calm the nerves and rationalise the fears of what might happen should your parents have the brass neck to go out for the second time this year, for a few hours. Kids eh? Possibly the simplest and most complex things ever to walk the face of planet Earth.

As I’ve documented in a previous blog, middle aged gigging is fraught with tension, pitfalls and problems. The first of these is brought to light fairly quickly this evening when we realise that we don’t know where the gig actually is. Well, we know where, but we don’t recognise the name of the venue. And this was never the case when we were young and cool. A Google search allays a few of our fears, but even when we’ve parked up, we don’t really know where we’re going. For a start it seems to be part of the student’s union and sadly, it’s been a long time since either of us were students.

And this brings into play another fear. Will there be actual students at our gig? Are we about to have to watch an entire gig from one of our favourite bands while simultaneously hiding in a corner trying to disguise the fact that we’re the oldest swingers in town. And by ‘swingers’ I mean people attending a gig, not people conducting illicit sexual relations with the partners of other middle aged folk. I mean, even the image of me naked, let alone other more out-of-shape-forty-and fifty-somethings is enough to prompt you, dear reader, to be sick in your mouth. So come on, pull yourselves together: stop picturing me naked and read on!

Thankfully, our first element of tension, is dissolved when after a relatively short walk I find memories of my PGCE at the University of Leeds come flooding back. I know – sort of – exactly where I am and before we know it we’re heading into the building and down the stairs towards the Stylus. We don’t have a ticket though and instead are relying on picking them up on the door, so there’s an anxious wait while the girl scans the list before finally finding our names and highlighting them. She stamps our hands and we’re in. However, here’s another potential crisis point if you’re a middle aged gig goer. How can you preserve the memory in the time honoured fashion if there’s no ticket? What do I put in a box of memories that’s destined for the loft? What do I frame with other tickets in order to attempt interesting artwork that the wife will not allow on our walls?

Overcoming this tiny existential crisis we go into the gig. It’s early and the crowd is sparse so we head to the front. Sort of. I’ve always been too polite at gigs. It’s got worse as I’ve got older. So now, in middle age, while I’ve got a bit bolder in moving forward I’m still unlikely to stand straight  in front of those people who’ve left a gap. Don’t get me wrong, it’s their fault if they’ve left a gap and someone’s inevitably going to stand there, but it most likely won’t be me. So we stand and ponder for a couple of minutes. My wife is a lot shorter than me – a clause that will undoubtedly get me into trouble – while retaining her status as an intellectual giant – a clause that might just get me out of jail – so she likes to be as far forward as possible. So we’re caught between two stools, so to speak.

I’ve been going to gigs with my wife for a very long time. It’s a wonderful thing. We like much of the same music and it helps us get on. I’ve noticed my wife has certain mystical powers that only come out at gig time, but I’ll only let you in on the one in case you’re ever at the same gig as me and we need to use her power’s for the greater good. She can levitate. Genuinely levitate. And as such, while I’m worrying about standing in front of a couple near the front, she levitates into the space, forcing me to follow. I’ve let slip that she does mind control as well now. But she’s levitated and I’ve not even noticed her moving, which in turn helps me overcome my middle aged gig politeness. We’re now just three people from the front of the stage. If this was someone like Take That I could reach out and touch Mark Owen’s testicles as he gyrated in front of me. But it’s not and I doubt Mark Morriss would enjoy such over familiar fandom. Anyway, we’re no longer between two stools. Just metaphorically within touching distance of Mark Owen’s scrotum. It’s been quite a journey in a very short space of time.

As a younger man I had a reasonably encyclopedic knowledge of music, especially with what was new at the time. So during what are referred to generally these days as ‘The Britpop Years’ I knew my stuff. And of course, this is where my love of The Bluetones came from. Nowadays however, my grasp of things has slipped. Having a career, a marriage, children etc; these commitments will get in the way of any kind of interests and my knowledge of bands has suffered. Hence tonight, even though I’ve read who they are, I still have no idea who the support band are. In fact, there are two support bands, but being middle aged these days, the temptations of having a proper tea and staying in the warmth for a little bit longer meant that we weren’t out in time to be queuing at the doors and being two of the 23 people who may have watched the first support.

We make it in time to catch the second support though, although due to middle aged hearing and a lack of annunciation on the singer’s part I couldn’t tell you what they’re called. However, I can furnish you with a few observations. Firstly, they sound and dress a bit like Joy Division. There are hints of The Fall in there too. Secondly, they swear quite a bit. ‘Fuck’ this and ‘fuck’ that and no doubt ‘fuck’ the other as well. Risqué. Thirdly, they’re quite brave. Why? Well they follow one song that has a chorus of ‘this in not a joke, not a fucking joke’ with another that asks ‘Can I speak to a manager please?’ If you think about it there’s a certain level of confidence there, right?

Once they’ve left the stage a glance at my watch tells me that we’ve got about 25 minutes until our heroes, The Bluetones arrive. They’re touring their album Science and Nature, released in 2000, which for fans is a bit of a classic. Not only that though, having played the album through in its entirety, the lads would be back with a second ‘Greatest Hits’ set afterwards. This is great in theory; a real treat. However, given my age, it actually throws up another middle age gigging problem. By the end of these two sets, while I may experience a certain euphoria, to misquote Khia, my legs, my back, my everything is going to hurt. It’s bad enough having to stand still for this long, but tapping a foot, raising the odd hand, arm, pair of hands to clap, actual dancing, well of this is going to take its toll. And that was never a worry when I was a younger gig goer. And this is before we even give a thought to what state we’ll be in the next day.

Age is a constant concern at gigs these days and as such I find myself turning around to check the rest of the audience. I scan both balconies – although their more like ledges in the Stylus – and have a good look at everyone behind me and I’m more than a bit pleased to see so much grey and white hair, as well as many a bald head. We’re all middle aged gigging together and as far as I can see there’s not a hipster student type in site!

There is one more slight problem of a middle aged nature, however. It’s cold out tonight and I’m feeling the cold a little bit more these days – another reason to revoke my Geordie membership as well, I know. So I’m wearing a jacket. It’s not quite sitting at the football with a tartan blanket round my knees, but I feel that it marks me out as old. It reminds me, once again, that middle age has well and truly hit, but there’s nothing else for it. The days of being cool are sadly long gone.With a two hour set ahead of me I’m going to get hot, but there’s no way that I’m tying my jacket round my waist. I can’t avoid feeling like a bit of a twat though. That said, I’m surrounded by middle-aged gig goers, so I can afford to relax a little bit and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find more jackets knocking about. As long as there are no gilets, eh?

Whatever my age, the pre-gig excitement remains the same. So as 9pm approaches, I’m watching the door at the side of the stage like a hawk. And when it opens a fraction, letting in a tiny bit of light, my heart leaps a little bit. Seconds later and our heroes are taking to the stage. Without checking I’d say it’s around 24 years, maybe more, since I first saw them live, but just the sight of The Bluetones walking onstage still makes me smile. In fact, as I get older and especially as a few years ago we attended their ‘farewell’ tour and I thought I’d lost this forever, I think it makes me smile a whole lot more. It’s widened a little bit more tonight as well as the lads are resplendent in white jeans and white lab coats – Science and Nature, you see?

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The gig is an absolute triumph. Frontman Mark is on top form, regaling us with tale after tale of life in The Bluetones over the years. And the songs don’t sound bad either! First up it’s Science and Nature and we’re treated to a number of favourites. It’s an album I’ve always loved and the sound of opener Zorro immediately lifts my spirits a little bit more. Suddenly the self consciousness of the middle age gigger is gone. I don’t feel like a mature student or in fact a bloody English teacher and I’m shuffling from foot to foot in something that resembles at least a kind of rhythm.

We’re quickly in to ‘The Last of the Great Navigators’ and Mark is crooning the line about believing ‘there’s something good around the corner’ and do you know what, he’s never sounded more convincing. The beautiful ‘Tiger Lily’ is next before drummer Eds takes centre stage – kind of – with the ‘Ch-ch-ch-ch’ refrain from ‘Mudslide’. We’d been listening to this round the tea table before we came out and bizarrely none of the family can actually do it, apart from me. As I’m the bloke who always sings the wrong lyrics this is quite the achievement, believe me! As the song kicks in and I’m doing it – obviously – my wife turns around with a knowing smile. A knowing smile that says, ‘Yes, you can make a noise, but face facts love, when it comes to actual words you’re like a four-year-old.’ I don’t care and I’ll take any victory I can get, even if it is that I make noises better than anyone else.

Perhaps the last time I heard ‘Blood Bubble’ live was when we saw this album toured originally, although given my age and my memory, I could be wrong. But it’s sounding great tonight. I’m a sucker for an instrumental. And then we’re into the wonderful run of ‘Autophilia’ and ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’. By now I may well be singing – loosely – at the top of my voice. This makes me a little self conscious as you don’t want to spoil anyone else’s night, but gig after gig after gig I can’t help it. I suppose after all these years these songs just mean a lot and I rationalise my brief worries with the thought that the band’s amps and mikes might just make them a bit louder than me anyway. If you’re reading this and thinking you were stood near me as I yelled along and it spoilt your night, I’m sorry. And I’ll extend my apologies for getting the words wrong so much as well. I was in my element though!

The set ends in frankly remarkable fashion, even if it was completely scheduled and not a surprise to many present who simply know the album. I’d like to think I speak for a lot of Bluetones fans though when I express my total and utter undying love for ‘Slackjaw’, the band’s humble, beautiful and wonderful ode to lost love. It’s a song I could listen to again and again and not ever tire of, with the added bonus that it’s short enough even for a perennial lyric loser like myself to remember all the way through! And with that in mind, if you’re reading this Mr. Morriss (either of you) I’m available for back up vocals on this one in the future.

A brilliant set is ended with the wonderful ‘Emily’s Pine’ and the band are off stage as quick as a flash. We’re into what Mark has referred to as an interval for the benefit of an ageing audience and he’s even given us permission to retire to the foyer to purchase drinks and locally sourced ice creams, but apart from a few middle age bladders being emptied, as you’d expect, we’re going nowhere. (And I hope you appreciate the lack of a ‘never’ in there to avoid using an awful pun, Bluetones fans).

Before there’s time for my joints to seize up the boys are back on stage and we have the second half of the show to look forward to. This time it’s a ‘Greatest Hits’ set and we’re treated to a few that aren’t always played, like ‘Freeze Dried Pop’ – revealed by Mark as a potential top 27 hit that never happened – and ‘Fast Boy’.

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But it’s the old favourites that dominate and put the perfect glaze on tonight’s gig. ‘Bluetonic’, ‘Never Going Nowhere’ (with Mark chanelling The Eurythmics), ‘Solomon Bites The Worm’ and many more, as they say, are played to the delight of all in the crowd. We end with ‘If’ and a brilliant moment of Bluetones magic as Mark asks for the phone of the woman in front of us in order to film the whole thing for her. There are cameo appearances for the rest of the band including a lingering shot of Adam’s crotch before it’s handed back. Tomorrow, the video will ‘go viral’ as they say, albeit on a smallish, Bluetones sized scale and thousands will view it on Twitter. I will spend much of the day ruing the fact that it could have been me and thinking about the benefits it would have had for this blog! I gather myself, forget the blog – knowing my luck Mark wouldn’t have pressed ‘record’ anyway and look to the stage. After a well deserved bow The Bluetones are gone and it’s almost time to head home. But what a night!

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We end the night with a visit to the merchandise stall to make some apt age-related purchases, including a tea towel and some fridge magnets. Never has gigging felt so middle aged and yet so bloody brilliant. I’m shattered, my feet hurt, my ears are ringing and I know that Sunday is already even more of a write-off than usual, but boy am I happy! The Bluetones are a band to be cherished and thankfully – and you promised, Mark – they’ll be back again in 2020. And there are new songs to look forward to as well. Can’t wait. The battle for renewed gig fitness starts now for this middle-aged gig goer!

 

 

 

Craft Beer: I can’t be the only one a bit puzzled, can I?

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The past 6 or 7 years has witnessed a bit of a change in beer as those of us of a certain age used to understand it. We’ve gone from satisfying our pallets with things like Guiness, Boddingtons and other smooth brews to slowly discovering the birth of craft beers. I’ve seen them described as ‘a global phenomenon’, ‘a revolution and ‘a bubble’, all of which seem to mark them out as something quite mystical and exclusive. I’ve also seen them described as ‘a perfect example of the J curve concept’, but that just sounds a bit ridiculous and like someone’s making up a concept to make themselves sound clever. That way lies madness, as well as blue sky thinking, helicopter views, getting all your ducks in a row and more of the kind of corporate nonsense that makes me want to swear and throw things around rooms. Or stop watching The Apprentice.

Despite not being in my twenties, or in possession of an artisanal beard, skinny jeans or vintage brogues, I have still somewhat immersed myself in the phenomenon of craft beer. I’ve hurtled along with the revolution and floated with the bubble. However, unlike those who we may see in a ‘taphouse’ twiddling their freshly waxed beard and smoothing down their skinny jeans, I can’t just blindly go along with the hype for fear of saying the wrong thing. So here’s some thoughts on my odyssey through craft beer.

First and foremost, I think it’s great. For me, beer’s never been so tasty, varied and creative. It’s a wonderful thing to watch people with passion take a basic idea – beer – and run with it into a whole new world. And I can count myself very fortunate in being able to go along for the ride.

As craft beer reached my neck of the woods I was often left scraping around a bit in order to find it. Here, on the outskirts of Leeds there wasn’t a great deal of choice. Out in the studenty badlands of Headingley there was the brilliant Beer-Ritz, but a trip there would often take well over an hour and the thought of sitting in traffic either way was off-putting to say the least. There was also a fantastic place called Beer Huis in Ossett, but in truth I hadn’t heard of it and in fact it was my wife who introduced me to it when she bought me some birthday beers. So I’d shop local. This meant Asda where pickings were sparse, Morrisons where things got a little better or Sainsbury’s at the White Rose Centre where every so often there’d be a new beer to try or if you got really lucky they’d have a beer ‘festival’ that would showcase beers from smaller brewers from around the country. Now this doesn’t sound much compared to the way things are now, but I’ve got to be honest and say that I quite enjoyed the hunt for something different.

And then, a revelation. A breakthrough. I heard a rumour that our local B&Ms was sometimes a place that stocked craft beer. At a bargain price, of course. And suddenly there was more choice and different, more interesting beers to have a go at. But still not a huge amount of choice.

My sense of puzzlement with craft beer started, albeit in a small way, with the first type that I tried. As someone who’s go to beer was bitter, varied taste wasn’t always that high on the agenda. Until that is, the day that I spotted a bottle of Innis & Gunn Original Ale. I was fascinated to read that it might have a hint of a vanilla flavour to it and delighted that, when I tasted it, it actually did! Amazing, a beer with a hint of ice-cream! And so the journey into craft beer began in earnest.

But as my ‘journey’ advanced, so did my sense of bemusement. What were all of these hops that were being used and why did they make a difference? What was with the daft names for beers? Why did it cost so much? And why did all feel just a little bit conceited and a tiny bit of a closed shop?

I even puzzled myself a little bit. Never one to get overly obsessive about anything, I actually started to keep a log of the different beers that I was trying. I’d note the price, where I’d acquired it and make notes about the taste, before finally awarding it a mark out of 10, often deliberating for a while before awarding something ridiculous like a 6.8 or a 7.3. This wasn’t like me. And yet when I thought about it, it was actually just like me; only when I was about 12. You see around that age I was obsessed with Subbuteo (a table football game, if you don’t know it). So obsessed that I got beyond playing with real teams and instead disappeared into my own world, making up teams, creating whole squads of fictional players, recording results, scorers – you name it, I did it. I know, ‘Hello ladies’, right?

And now, here I was logging beers. I must have logged around 70 different beers before I realised that I was cheating myself. The truth is I’ve got terrible taste buds, so I’d be swilling beer round my mouth tasting little but beer, really. No hints of fruit, no sense of peat bogs, no oakiness…just beer. But it didn’t stop me writing tasting notes, because all I did was furtively look at the label and add a couple of things I saw on there to my notes. So if the label told me there was a hint of elderflower, then so did my tasting notes. Truth is, I don’t actually know what elderflower is! A wise, old flower maybe? I was only really kidding myself though and so I just gave it up as a bad job and a waste of time.

My confusion continued as I encountered proper beer shops. Now there were places that just seemed to specialise in craft beers, unlike the off licenses of my youth and the likes of Bargain Booze. However, I’d go into these establishments and feel under pressure. Should I have known exactly what I was looking for? I tended to browse, taking my time to look for something just right before taking my purchases to the till. But I always felt as though I was being scrutinised, judged even. I’m sure this was just my paranoia, but I would approach the till feeling wholly self conscious about my choices.

On my first visit to a Leeds store that I’d heard about I was asked, in a perfectly friendly manner, ‘Are you Ok there?’ and this immediately ramped up the pressure. I was fine. I just wanted to select some beers in my usual way, looking for eye-catching labels, reading the description and checking where it was from, but now I just felt stupid. Did I look like someone who drank Carling? Was that the problem? Like I say, the bloke was perfectly friendly, but I took his question to be some sort of ‘dig’ at my craft beer inexperience.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that the problem here is more than likely me. It’s not the beer shop’s fault that I have such terrible search perameters when it comes to choosing beer. And if they stood there in silence while I looked around I’d probably be just as disturbed as if they spoke to me. But I’d maintain that in 75% of the specialist beer shops I’ve visited I’ve felt a bit of an atmosphere, almost as if the person behind the counter is sneering at my choices. And therein lies another of my problems with craft beer. There’s definitely a certain snobbery, of which I’m part. I’m not exactly vocal about it, but if I’m out and someone’s buying a Carling or a Budweiser for instance, I’m encountering a feeling of disappointment! So, with that in mind, if you work in a beer shop, with all your specialist knowledge, and someone like me walks in and chooses a selection of bottles or cans by looking for nice labels, while taking a good ten minutes to do so, then you’re probably entitled to have a little bit of a sneer!

It was on one of these visits that something else left me puzzled – the price. Now this is a problem I have with craft beer and it’s a problem that continues to grow the more I look around. The other day, in a beer shop, I spotted a can I liked the look of, by a brewer that I knew as having a good reputation. This was going to be mine. And then I saw the price. £8 for a can! £8! Eight of yer actual pounds! Now call me stingy, but £8 for a can of beer just seems a bit daft. I’ve paid less for t-shirts, for goodness sakes and probably a decade or so on, I’ve still got the t-shirt! In all honesty – and possible a little bit of ignorance as to what actually goes into making it – I cannot understand some of the pricing that I see. I mean, I like a bottle of wine and I’m not averse to paying double figures for that, but I can’t get my head around a similar price for a can of beer. When I look around the shelves at craft beer it’s becoming more and more rare that I see prices within an understandable bracket (for me) and a lot more likely that I’ll be looking at a can or bottle that’s going to cost me upwards of £4.

Before things get too negative I’ll re-affirm my feeling that craft beer is great. We even have a craft beer shop – hello Beer Thirty – in Morley now, meaning I can call round every so often to stock up or experiment a bit without any hassle whatsoever. It’s actually right next to my youngest child’s school, making it handy when picking him up, even if that is a little bit mercenary! More often than not though, a beer is more of a taste experience nowadays, rather than an excuse to hunt out the Gaviscon. With every new beer I discover I unearth a new taste and it really is a fantastic thing. I don’t tend to drink the same beers over and over again, preferring to experiment when and where I can. Beer drinking is fun again, in a different way. Where in my youth the fun tended to be found in the light-headedness that made me quite the smooth talker, but not the best walker, nowadays the fun is all in the taste. As a beer drinker of a certain age and with a bit of a health concern getting in the way, I tend not to drink to get drunk anymore. So the fun is limited to the taste buds, but it means I can wake up the next day and function. And although to some that might sound like no fun at all, I’d rather I was limited to one or two craft beers than one or two lagers or Guinesses.

Another craft beer ‘problem’ – for me, only for me, – is the types of pubs that are now cropping up. Sorry, did I say pubs? I meant taphouses. And this is where I look a bit weird and very old fashioned. You see – and to those who know me, this really isn’t news – I’m quite anti-social. I’ve covered this before, suffice to say that it’s not necessarily a dislike of people, but more a lack of confidence. Thus, I don’t really go in pubs anymore. I don’t have a local, partly due to the demands of my job and a lack of time and energy, and as such I’m limiting my craft beer ‘journey’. I must admit these taphouses look brilliant, but they’re just not for me. Nowadays I just have an aversion to pubs. Something in me seems to stop my legs from working when I get the chance to go in one and so, although handily positioned for going into Leeds where many of these new craft pubs are found, I just can’t do it. And as a result, I feel a bit left out with craft beer, despite my love of it.

I’m not entirely sure that one gets solved either. I’m now possibly a little too stuck in my ways to indulge myself and this is a real shame. I imagine that such modern bars – sorry, taphouses – are the absolute antithesis of the kind of places that I readily frequented as a younger man. Friendly, no air of threat or violence and with lovey beer to boot too. As opposed to the kind of place where you had to watch your back all night and listen to appalling music while drinking beer that inevitably left you so full of gas and air that you’d fear you’d burst! So in terms of the title of this blog, then yes, sadly I’m puzzled as well as missing out on something! Perhaps until the day I push myself a little bit more, I’ll remain puzzled. Whatever way you look at it, it’s clearly me that’s got the problem!

I’ll leave you with something I read in a magazine article about craft beer. The writer was indulging himself in a trip to Manchester – a homage? – to visit various ‘legendary’ craft pubs and sample, if I remember rightly, some quite mythical beer. It was a great read. But the best – and in a cringeworthy way, the worst – thing was when someone in the know told him the following.

“We’re nowhere near peak beer yet.”

I have to admit that this makes me puzzled and excited all at the same time. Still occasionally I’ll open a can or a bottle and have a sip and be absolutely blown away by the taste. I’m not sure I understand how it gets better, let alone how we’re nowhere near peak. But it’s sure to be exciting finding out!

 

 

Middle Aged Gigging

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As you get older everyday things will either get a bit more difficult or you’ll find that, having gained knowledge over time, you’ve become quite the expert. So for instance, as I’ve got older running has become harder. My knees aren’t what they used to be and out of nowhere I’ve developed a bit of a paunch that I now have to haul around as I run. However, as the years have gone by I’ve got better at sexy time. If you’ll pardon the pun, this comes with experience. I’ve become a passionate and considerate lover. Honestly, my passion can be measured by the fact that my wife can often no longer cope with its intensity. Lots of the time nowadays, unable to handle my passion, she’ll shout, ‘Get off me!’ because she knows that at my expert level, sexy time will almost be too much.

But enough of that. A man can only bare so much of his soul. I really hope that has been one of the most difficult paragraphs some of my friends have ever read though!

One of the things that has definitely got more difficult as I’ve got older is also one of the things that I seem to have spent most of my life doing. Going to gigs. Concerts. Watching a live band. Or, if you’re my dad, jigging. Whatever you might call it, it’s something I’ve been doing since I was about fifteen. The first band I saw live was Europe. That’s right, Europe of ‘Final Countdown’ fame. They of the big hair and leather trousers. And I can’t lie and tell you it was regrettable. It wasn’t. That gig made me fall in love with live music. I watched in awe as they completely commanded the audience and saw a potential future career as I watched ladies’ pants being thrown onstage at Joey Tempest. What was not to like about this?

While my musical tastes have changed over the years, my desire to go and watch bands has not. But what has changed is that my ability to watch bands has declined. In short, I’ve got worse at going to gigs. And it’s not as simple as retiring from being down the front and moving back towards the sound desk either. If anything I’ve got better and began to move further forward as the years have progressed.

Going to a gig can be an exhausting experience. The 15-year-old me left that Europe gig like a typically sweaty teenager having jumped around – and quite possibly indulged in some gentle head banging in order to get my long locks flowing a-la Tempest and co – like a proper metal-head for an hour or so. I wasn’t really a proper metal-head; I probably just got a bit carried away. But my point is this: getting carried away at a gig can be an exhausting business and this is OK when you’re under 30. In fact, if you’re fit enough, it’s probably OK if you’re under 40. However, at my age things have changed, gig-wise. Anything even slightly up-tempo, anything that represents a bit more than just shuffling about, and I’m faltering.

But a lack of energy isn’t the only that’s changed about going to gigs in your forties. Let me talk you through my most recent gig experience to illustrate my points.

On a recent Saturday I went to see the band Embrace at the 02 Academy in Leeds. This would be the final gig of a tour to promote the 21st anniversary of their debut album, The Good Will Out. Now Embrace are easily one of my favourite bands, I’ve followed them since they started out, written articles about them, bought their records and merchandise and attended too many of their gigs to mention. We even invited them to our wedding and received a lovely card from them politely explaining that they were out of the country and couldn’t attend. Our first dance was to one of their tunes. If all of that seems sad, then I guess you have to know the band, but believe me there’s a genuine bond between the band and their fans.

On the morning of the gig I just felt tired. I’d done a week at work and coached my football team on the Thursday night. A night out was not top of my list of priorities. That’s middle age for you, right there. Put simply, I was too tired to be bothered about something that I should have been genuinely excited about. I was too tired to be interested about something that I genuinely love. To give further context, this was and is an album that I truly love. There are so many songs on it and so many lyrics within those songs that mean something to me. I was 26 when it came out and pretty much starting to make a life for myself having moved away from home. It would have been around this time that we were planning to move back north from the Midlands and I would have been considering my career options, having not really had a ‘serious’ job after university. ‘The Good Will Out’ made a huge impression on me.

Tired or not, by the time we’ve got to around 5pm the privilege of babysitters has cost us around £200, so I’ll be going to the gig. In case you’re wondering, that’s not the going rate for babysitters, but these ones are my parents, meaning they need a hotel and we took everyone out for a meal on the Saturday; so £200. The doors open tonight at 6pm due to the fact that there’s a curfew in place, so by about 5.50 we’re heading off, safe in the knowledge that the curfew should mean we’ll be home early. How times have changed!

It has to be said that the main worry of this middle-aged couple on approaching the venue wasn’t the choice of clubs to go to afterwards or the ensuing hangover. No, the main worry was parking. I choose to drive nowadays, having left the wild days of drinking behind once children came along. Now we know there’s parking by the venue, but whether we’ll get a space is another thing entirely. This also leads to worries about clothing – it’s not cool to be going out in your coat, but it’s not warm in England in March either! If we get a space in the right car park it’s a very short walk, so at least we can retain an element of cool by not looking too concerned about the weather!

Inside the venue we head straight for the bar. For water. No, really. In fact, I don’t even want a drink of any kind for fearing of having to go to the toilet! Us middle-aged fellas don’t have the bladders that we used to have! But for all the practicalities, the absolute shame of going to a bar and ordering a bottle of water is almost too much to take. The shame is made worse as we’re told that it can’t be served in the bottle; it must be poured into a pint glass. Said shame is then multiplied when it looks like you’re the kind of bloke who takes a girl out and makes her share your pint of water. It’s all I can do not to explain myself to the girl behind the bar, but I stop, knowing that she doesn’t want to know about my bladder or my wife’s problems with dehydration. I leave the bar safe in the knowledge that she’ll find it all out in about 20 years anyway. This is neither the time nor the place for education.

It’s early and the crowd sparse as a result. We stand out like a beacon with our pint of water so we huddle round it just to keep it reasonably well hidden. At this point in time I’ve never felt so old. And this brings us to the next feature of going to gigs in middle age; the chance that you’re the oldest person there. We quickly establish that we’re not. Or at least we don’t look anywhere near as old as some. Some of our contemporaries this evening have actual white hair, so they must be older than us. But it’s still a genuine worry. No one wants to be the oldest swinger in town (and not that type of swinger, by the way).

Just when we’ve calmed our worries on this score though, we spot something that both unnerves us and sets us off in fits of giggles. Over to the side of the now ever-increasing crowd are three fellow gig-goers, who themselves stand out for all the wrong reasons. But they’re not huddled around a pint of iced water. Oh no. They stand out because their combined age can’t actually be a lot higher than mine alone. In fact, their combined age might actually be younger than me! And while their undoubted youth is one thing, it’s their attire that really catches my eye. All three are dressed in jeans, t-shirts and trainers. But it’s the kind of jean that makes it almost impossible for me to look away. Skinny jeans that sit way too high above the ankle. As my dad used to say, it’s like they need to put some jam on their shoes and invite their trousers down for tea. And as if to draw attention to the fact they’ve coupled their jeans with white sports socks. So you have jeans at calf level, followed by an inch or two of pale skin and then some bright white socks. It really makes for quite the sight.

This relates directly to being a middle age gig goer as well. On reflection, I realise that they were simply kids being kids. Who am I to judge their look? Perhaps they would have laughed at my attempts to look like Ian Brown when I was their age. And perhaps they’d have been justified.  But for now, given my own middle age insecurities, it’s easier just to giggle a bit.

After a while, I feel more settled. We’ve taken turns holding the water, partly to lessen the impact on our image and partly because due to the amount of ice in it it’s too cold for our fragile middle-aged hands! The lights dim further and the support band enters the fray and it becomes clear that we have another middle age problem. It’s all too loud and too bright! The band is ‘Land Sharks’ and they feature two of tonight’s headliners, Embrace, so it feels rude to be behaving like a pensioner who wandered in through a side door by mistake. But it really is too loud and too bright! I’m beginning to question whether I can actually look in the direction of the stage when I realise I’m quite enjoying them. ‘Land Sharks’ are undoubtedly rocky (and that’s easily the most middle age clause I’ve typed in a long time), but it’s likeable; there’s a tune and a bit of a groove. And the singer is a proper old school frontman too. He commands the stage in a part Jagger, part Plant way and this means that I forget about the lights and forget how loud it is in favour of simply enjoying myself. I’m starting to feel a lot less out-of-place. I’m relaxed and although I can’t sing along, I’m definitely smiling.

By the time Land Sharks leave the stage I’m completely comfortable. Maybe they can add that type of thing to their posters – Land Sharks; relaxing the middle-aged since 2019. My thoughts turn to Embrace and I’m now genuinely excited by the prospect of seeing them again. But there are other middle-aged problems to contend with yet.

Firstly, my feet hurt. I mean really hurt. To use Geordie parlance, they knack. I’ve probably been standing here for less than an hour, but my feet are screaming that they’ve had enough. They’re telling the grown up section of my brain to go home and watch telly.  I’ve opted for Converse footwear tonight and given their very flat nature, I think that they’re the problem. Mind you, I’ve had forty odd years of being able to stand up as well, so it’s no wonder my feet hurt. I decide to shuffle a bit from foot to foot to try and combat the ache. It doesn’t work – and I must look like an idiot – so I try to relax and shift my balance subtly to different sides of my feet in order to help. Whatever I do must be making me look like I’ve got bladder problems, which is unfair. I’ve got at least another decade before they strike. I have no option but to stand still and put up with it. I think of Land Sharks again and try to just relax.

As time creeps on yet another middle age gig problem arises though. Now I’ve never had the best of memories. However, if we bring spoken language into it, I’m lost. Lyrics, catchphrases, funny sketches from comedy…I can rarely remember it. At least not in any complete kind of form. So here I am, about to watch one of my favourite bands play their first album again in its entirety, and I can’t be sure that I’ll be able to sing along. I feel like my mother. As a child and later as a teenager, I’d be around the house while she was ironing or cooking and would be able to hear her singing. However, it was a distinct style that she had whereby she’d be able to sing actual lyrics for a short while, but it wouldn’t be long before she was just reduced to humming or other noises. Let me give you an example.

Picture my mother – short, dark, of average build for a lady – doing the ironing. It doesn’t matter what she’s ironing. She’s singing along to ‘Walk on By’ by Dionne Warwick. It goes like this.

If you see me walking down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by

Dee, dee, dee                                                                                                                                      Dee dee de dee dee dee dee                                                                                                                 dee dee deee                                                                                                                                         De dee dee                                                                                                                                                De dee dee                                                                                                                                            Do doo doo                                                                                                                                           As you say goodbye                                                                                                                           Walk on by

My mother can’t remember lyrics either. And she solved this by simply replacing them with noises when she’d forgotten. It seems it’s hereditary too. Although with me I don’t make noises; I just sing the words that either I think it is, or the words I think it should be.

Tonight though, as Embrace play through The Good Will Out, these are songs I’ve known – or maybe not known as well as I thought – for 21 years. Songs I can’t listen to without singing along to, after a fashion. It’s a genuine worry for me that I’ll forget the words to everything and look like some middle age civil servant on a work’s night out. Worse still, I’m about 5 metres from Danny’s microphone, so he’s bound to see me and wonder why I’m at his gig getting all the words wrong. Surely I should be off watching Scouting for Girls or something else equally shite? In my head the whole band are going to see me singing my own words and hate me!

As it happens, I surprise myself. I’m almost word-perfect in my singing along. Pitch perfect? Not so much. But who cares! I probably look a little too lost in the music to appear cool, but it’s an amazing gig. Embrace are, incredible and the songs still mean as much as they did when I first heard them all those years ago. As ever with Embrace it’s a bit like watching a group of old friends up on stage and there’s that wonderful feeling that the band are with us, rather than just artists performing for us. Songs like ‘One Big Family and ‘Retread’ are precious to me and they just sound immense tonight. Middle aged or not, I’ll never get bored of this band or these songs.

By the time the encore comes along though, I’m tired. I’m probably right when I say that I’m too old for this. However, the band play ‘Gravity’, the first dance at my wedding, and with my wife stood in front of me it’s an emotional few minutes and I think I’m safe in saying that it means the world to both of us. And then Danny McNamara has one last surprise. He starts by telling the crowd that he’s not asked us to be jumping up and down tonight and confesses that it’s partly because none of us are getting any younger. He’s not wrong! But then, he asks if we can jump around just once for the song ‘Ashes’. Now, while I adore this song, I’m not sure how long my legs have got left tonight, but I resolve to give it a go. About 5 minutes later, I’m elated, but I feel like I’ve run a marathon. I’m more sweaty than I’d like, but I’ve survived! My feet hurt, my legs ache, but there’s life in the old dog yet.

Let’s do it all again soon, lads! As long as I’ve had a bit of a rest. And if someone could remind me to wear sensible shoes next time, that’d be grand.

 

 

 

 

 

The Apprentice – bikinis or nut milk?

As the dust settles on this year’s Apprentice we can reflect on what should have been a vintage week for television. But has Sugar been sweet enough or have we been left with a slightly bitter taste in our mouths?

Following the interviews we were left with two choices. Nut milk or bikinis? What a choice! And as it is, Lord Sugar seems to have gone for the more unusual of the two. But did it all add up to a good week’s viewing?

We started, in the time-honoured fashion with the interviews. For the uninitiated here’s what happens. The last remaining candidates are put through four interviews with some of Lord Sugar’s most ‘trusted business associates’. Only it’s not quite that simple. These are not the kind of interviews that you or I – because we don’t profess to be business typhoons or sales sharks or any other ridiculous things – would have to go through. This isn’t ‘Why do you want to work here?’ or ‘What would you bring to the role?’. This is generally more like ritual humiliation and brutal interrogation that ultimately ends with all candidates looking stupid. Or stupider. And every year it follows the brilliant Apprentice formula of allowing halfwits to say a little too much before allowing the audience to watch them unravel before our very eyes.

At the start of this year’s interview episode we were presented with The Final Five, as if their presence in our lives was pretty much the only thing worth living for. It wasn’t. But watching them squirm for an hour or so was undoubtedly quite a lot of fun.

‘I’m not some kind of pervert who enjoys watching women cry.’

My ears pricked up as the candidates prepared for their day from Hell in the Leadenhall Building and not one, but two of them announced that they weren’t going to cry. While what was to come became a little predictable at this point, I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t half looking forward to it! And this isn’t a regular thing for me. I’m not some kind of pervert who enjoys watching women cry, which is a good thing given where I work. But given that one of the two here was Khadija…well this was going to be funny and it really made me sit up and take notice.

What unfolded before us then was actually not as brutal as previous years, but I certainly wouldn’t call it boring and I was never tempted to switch off. At every turn and with almost every question I was left squirming at the sheer ineptitude of the candidates. I mean, what was Daniel thinking when telling everyone who visits the Amazon page of his product that there were ‘One million already sold’? I scraped a grade C at GCSE Maths, but still I’d find it hard to not notice the difference between what he’d actually sold – 70,000 units – and what he was claiming on one of the biggest shopping websites on the planet! And still he tried to worm his way out of it, telling Mike Soutar things like, ‘That wasn’t me’, then ‘I could have had something to do with it’ before finally, after what felt like an hour of toing and froing, ‘OK, it was me’!

‘Is Australia in Asia?’

But just when you thought his suffering was over, the interviewer proceeded to give him a Geography lesson after Daniel had claimed to be selling on several continents. To cut a long story short, it wasn’t quite true – quelle surprise – and Daniel was left asking, ‘Is Australia in Asia?’ I’m not a twisted man, but I do love seeing an ego cut down to size and having watched Daniel standing in the lift telling himself ‘You got this!’ it more than raised a smile in our house when it turned out that he hadn’t got this at all. What he had got though was an ever decreasing chance of £250,000 heading his way.

Further eye openers then came in the form of Linda Plant’s shoes and Sabrina’s slightly bizarre suit and neck tie. Linda’s shoes were certainly eye-catching, looking as they did like they had bows on them that had been made out of hundreds of ladybird wings. Mind you, if you can’t parade your ladybird unfriendly shoes on telly, where can you parade them? And was Sabrina trying to nullify the ditzy blonde image by dressing like a card shark in the Wild West? Perhaps she should have skipped the interviews, got on her horse and headed down the saloon for a root beer then.

Other highlights were numerous. Camilla being told, ‘You’ve got 3 months experience. What expertise have you got?’ was particularly poetic. And Claude just repeating ‘no’ at Khadija as she desperately tried to convince him that she was right about something…anything – well that made me laugh. If you’ve ever seen the film Sexy Beast, it was a bit like certain scenes from that, but without the budgie smugglers. And then, near the end, perhaps feeling euphoric at the end of an exhausting day, Camilla almost danced out of the lift before greeting a clearly ambivelant Claude with a ‘Yoo-hoo’! Predictably (except maybe to Camilla) his face was a picture!

‘…Daniel was ‘bloody untrustworthy…’

And there were more cringeworthy episodes with Daniel too. Again though, the best of them had to be attributed to Claude who firstly declared that Daniel was ‘bloody untrustworthy’ before smiling sweetly and announcing ‘anyway…onwards and upwards’. For that few seconds worth of telly the BAFTA surely awaits. And if not, Claude can definitely expect a thank you card from me! Either way, if Daniel still thought he was in with a chance of progressing he was clearly barking up the wrong tree.

Before we knew it we were back in the boardroom and Camilla and Sian – who’d earlier been criticised for her marketing ideas, being told ‘You’ll want to piss the money up the wall on some woman from Love Island’ (wrong on any number of levels) – were being declared this year’s finalists.

So Sunday brought us an unlikely final. Camilla v Sian. Nut milk v swimwear. Carry on Eco-Friendly Milkmaid vs posh pool parties. All of it quite the conundrum for a 71-year-old Lord to wrestle with. All of it quite the conundrum for a 46 year-old English teacher to wrestle with, come to think of it. As we said in our house, who goes to pool parties? And as I said in my head, I don’t understand what nut milk is.

In the time honoured tradition many of this series’ candidates were brought back to help out. And other former cadidates were left out, begging the question, were they told they weren’t needed (fired again?) or did their ego, fuelled by a fleeting appearance on telly, refuse to allow them to appear?

‘…imagine the shame of being picked after Kurran…’

The teams were picked in much the same manner as a school PE lesson where the captains chose which people they wanted on their teams. You had to feel sorry for Sabrina, who having made the final five, was ignored by both of the finalists until the last pick. I mean, imagine the shame of being picked after Kurran, who while still sporting ridiculous hair had at least got rid of his sling. The poor girl must’ve been mortified, yet she still simply carried on giggling, seemingly unaware of the shame of having been picked for a team post-Kurran.

The cult of Kurran continued as Sian picked him as her sub-team manager, much to the surprise of the other team members who at this point were clearly doubting her sanity. They say that the most successful people are mavericks (well I say this, for the purpose of this part of the paragraph, anyway), but surely with a £250,000 investment in your business idea at stake, this was just a maverick step (or several leaps) too far? Thankfully, the reactions of her team said it all and Sian quickly changed her mind, putting Jasmine in charge instead. Kurran or no Kurran though, her team let her down and Sian was left in the embarrassing position of trying to be complimentary about the social media ad created when really – as she did later on – all she wanted to do was say how terrible she thought it was.

On Team Camilla it seemed like Daniel had missed the bit where he got fired and instead decided he was in charge. Off he went, making every decision going while somewhere in the background Camilla sat and agreed with him while trying to make it sound like it was what she was going to say anyway. He then sat shouting out puerile slogans that they could use to promote the brand because, you know, nut milk. Get it? Nut milk, you know milk from…yes we understand. Yet still it felt like somewhere, at the back of her mind, the sex obsessed Camilla actually agreed with him. Not an enormous surprise when you remember the imagery she was trying to use to promote her nut milk during the interview episode, but alarming when you sit watching, secure in the knowledge that she had been warned to avoid such tactics.

‘Cue the entrance of Tom, Jackie and Kayode…’

Thankfully common sense won the day and Daniel’s juvenile suggestions were confined to the file marked ‘Stop being a tw*t’. The packaging and the general idea behind the brand seemed to be working and at that point you’d have been forgiven for backing Camilla for the win. Cue the entrance of Tom, Jackie and Kayode, who managed not only to make a shockingly bad advert, but also one that ran more than a minute over their allotted time. Frantic editing ensued which only served to make a bad advert even worse. It was starting to look like the best result would be if both of them could lose.

Adverts filmed, GIFs made and prototype products designed it was down to the business of the pitch and the burning question which we all must have at this point every year. Why do they make them have such a long and awkward walk on? It must take the finalists a good 40 seconds to get into position as they strive to negotiate those steps while retaining some sense of confidence and diginity. The applause gets ever more strained while the finalists struggle with what appear to be the worst designed steps in history. As for the ptiches themselves, Sian was cool, calm and collected, while Camilla fell apart when faced with reading her own Powerpoint slide about figures.

Having viewed some brief feedback and another bit of a challenge for the contestants in the form of a ‘can they all walk in a businessy formation?’, we were into the boardroom, where a grilling or to was, as ever, expected. This also gave Lord Sugar the opportunity to conduct some gentle mocking, mostly at the expense of Kurran and Daniel, which as a viewer, was obviously more than welcome. On Planet Kurran, however, he seemed to genuinely see a time when he’d be sending Lord Sugar a ticket to his premier in Leicester Square, and the mocking of his qualities as a director drifted gently over his bouffant with Kurran leaving the boardroom for the final time no doubt dreaming of his future as the next Spielberg.

As Lord Sugar asked questions of Karren and Claude I couldn’t help but feel like he’d hire Camilla. Not because of her business acumen, but just because given the choices of area for investment nut milk seemed like the one he’d go for. I could see him drinking a MLK It, but couldn’t imagine him having an interest in pool parties, let alone wearing a bikini.

And then the finalists were invited back into the boardroom and the rest as they say is history. Or business. Sian’s ‘unbelievable talent’ for drawing patterns won the day over Camilla’s ability to sexualise cartons of milk. Vintage telly? Not particularly. Boring? Definitely not. Let’s settle on the fact that The Apprentice has given us another series full of memorable moments that have once again left the majority lost for words, while giving hope for halfwits everywhere.

 

Watching television through my fingers: The Apprentice

It’s that time of year again. The weather is getting colder and soon we’ll have our first frost. The leaves are falling from the trees and our Autumnal hues are disappearing. It’s dark at about 5pm. Oh, and Alan Sugar has once again assembled a cavalcade of halfwits for our entertainment. The Apprentice is well and truly back!

I have a love hate relationship with The Apprentice. I’ve watched it for a while now and would happily describe myself as an avid viewer. A fan, even. It can be genuinely entertaining television, and for that, I love it. However, I can also say that I genuinely hate it too! Even though I’m well versed in its nuances and know perfectly well what to expect, this year’s ‘introductions’ brought the same resigned sigh from me as every year.

With the annual splash of tabloid press coverage and the first couple of episodes generally devoted to introducing us to this year’s candidates, you find that you can’t avoid these people and if you hear or read anything of them you probably can’t avoid coming to the conclusion that this year’s halfwits are not a great deal different from any of the previous year’s. So just what is it that makes The Apprentice both compelling and cringeworthy in equal measure?

The most obvious port of call in seeking an answer would be to look at the people involved. And the least obvious way of looking at them would be to start by tackling the experts: Lord Sugar, Karen Brady and Claude Littner.

“what makes Claude so very watchable…is his wide array of facial expressions.”

Claude Littner is a fascinating character and who undoubtedly makes for compulsive viewing. Even the smallest bit of reading via Wikepedia gives you an amazing insight into his life. He was born in New York to Jewish parents who had fled the Nazis in the 1930s. He was the Chief Executive of Spurs, is a multi millionaire and at one point was diagnosed with Non Hodgkin Lymphoma and given 6 months to live. However, what makes Claude so very watchable on The Apprentice is his wide array of facial expressions. Despite the possession of a fantastic poker face, Claude’s feelings are frequently given away by the kind of facial expressions that suggest he’s either desperately hoping that the Immodium will kick in or is about to break into an almost certainly faultless impersonation of Kenneth Williams. Ooh, matron indeed. One minute we’re watching yet another hopeless pitch or a poorly thought-through idea and the next the camera will cut away to a clearly squirming Claude looking like he’s just ingested a bag full of Tangfastics in one go. Brilliant editing and definitely a dark horse in the race for the answer as to why we watch the show. And if you’re not hooked on Claude in the early weeks, then just wait until you watch him in the interviews!

Then there’s Karren. Baroness Brady, the vice-chairperson at West Ham United. Not a personal favourite of mine, but still the possessor of a fine selection of disgusted facial expressions as well as a woman who instinctively knows the value of a perfectly timed put down. She comes across as a bit of a ‘teacher’s pet’, always ready to tell tales to Lord Sugar when yet another hapless contestant is backtracking on their involvement in the latest monumental failure. If it was all about Karren, then the viewing figures wouldn’t be anywhere near what they are. However, she’s a vital cog in the whole Apprentice machine.

“You’re fired. You should be if you’re writing those gags.”

Lord Sugar himself is a fabulous reason to watch The Apprentice. But again, the reason for this, in my opinion, is not altogether obvious. In fact, when Lord Sugar is on screen, I’m often left cursing my eyes and ears. The reason for this is his seemingly inexhaustible range of puns and put downs. You’re fired? You should be if you’re writing those gags. Year after year they seem to get worse. And year after year, I continue to watch…and wince. I mean, look at this for a selection.

“I know the words to Candle in the Wind – it don’t make me Elton John… You think you can second guess or play me? Well let me tell you, I’m as hard to play as a Stradivarius and you lot, I can assure you, are as easy to play as bongo drums.” 

Figure that out then. I mean, the first bit…well being Elton John makes you Elton John pal. And you’re very definitely not him. In fact, you’re unmistakenly Lord Sugar off The Apprentice. But imagine the week he turns up in the boardroom doing Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting. TV Gold, right there.

And then there’s, “How do you send people to a brewery that don’t drink? In Zee’s case particularly, he is as dry as a cream cracker in the bleeding Sahara Desert!” Now, I’m no expert, but does a cream cracker get drier because it’s in the desert? You could call it dry wit, I guess, but then again it’s not actually funny.

But it seems that being funny isn’t a really requirement in the world of Lord Sugar’s put downs. This next one is straight out of the playground and in fact, in telly terms, was last heard in a slightly different guise being uttered repeatedly by Jim Bowen back in the 80s on Bullseye. One contestant was genuinely told, “Fair? The only fair you’re gonna get is your bloody train fare home.” Face it, if that’s the way you’ve been fired then you’d probably be willing to pay him the £250k just to get out of there. And he could keep his train fare. How long though, before the £250k is withdrawn in favour of a caravan on a revolving stage with Lord Sugar telling the person fired, “Hey, look at what you could’ve won!”

And then finally, who could forget, “Call yourself an ice-cream man? Well I’ve got you licked, mate!” Having trouble remembering? No wonder. I just made that one up, but you have to admit that you could hear him saying it and it certainly doesn’t look out of place. The put downs continue to be terrible and yet, we still continue to watch.

Undoubtedly though, the reason for our avid viewing will always come back to the talent vacuum that is the candidates. In the interests of staying current, let’s have a gander at this year’s line up.

First out this year was Sarah Byrne, 29 apparently, although let’s just say that there’s more than a hint of a showbiz age. Sarah seemed to have imagined that being loud and Northern was exactly what Lord Sugar would be looking for in a business partner. Unfortunately though, she’d seriously underplayed the necessity for any business acumen and/or personality and as such just came across as an annoying gobby Northerner – and I say this as what some might call an annoying gobby Northerner. As far as I could tell she was one of those people who live their lives believing that they’d make good viewing for others. In fact, even an hour’s air time was too much. There are an endless amount of different reasons as to why Sarah was first out, but the less said about Sarah, the better.

“Sadly for David it turned out to be a case of going, going, gone.”

Next to face the firing finger was David Alden, a tax advisor from Yorkshire. A cross between Elmer Fudd and, well, a tax advisor from Yorkshire, he said that his friends called him the Duracell Bunny due to his boundless energy and tendency to ‘just keep going’. Sadly for David it turned out to be a case of going, going, gone. He has also said he had the ability to talk to anyone about anything. A shame then that ‘anything’ didn’t seem to stretch to ‘anything to do with business’.

Third to be fired was Frank Brooks who had claimed to be ‘brutal in the boardroom’. Strange then that when confronted with the boardroom he magically transformed into human jelly. He’d told the press that he was ‘two steps in front’. And he was right. He was two steps in front of the first two losers to be sacked. Just a shame that there were so many people still left in the competition, who as it turned out were at least a week in front of Frank.

After Frank, we lost Alex Finn, a 21 year old IT analyst from the Wirral who claimed to have the gift of the gab, but then insisted on asking the inventor of some fitness equipment whether it was insured in case it got lost in the post as part of his bid to be able to sell the product. The bloke decided against Alex as an option, as did Lord Sugar not long later.

A few weeks in and we were saying goodbye to Rick Monk, who’s name has to be rhyming slang for something, although I couldn’t possibly think what. Rick was the classic Apprentice candidate who doesn’t really seem to do anything, other than occasionally talk rubbish. Ultimately these candidates always get found out, either by being forced to become the Project Manager or being forced to answer a really simple question that they really simply can’t answer. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rick who at least seemed to have the good grace to accept that when it came to business he made a very good halfwit.

So who else has me watching the telly through almost closed eyes? Well if you watched week 1 the name Khadija would surely spring to mind. Khadija managed to be pushed into being Project Manager in the comic book task, leading her team to produce the comic featuring an MC who rapped their way around the world learning different languages. They opted for French for their first comic. The snag was that neither Khadija nor her team knew more than ten words of French. So, smart move then.

“In terms of leading, this was much more dictatorship than democracy.”

Khadija, who considers people skills to be her most valuable business asset then proceeded to bark orders at her team, talked over them and basically made them feel like their ideas weren’t welcome and that they should just do exactly what she herself suggested. In terms of leading, this was much more dictatorship than democracy. And of course this inevitably led to her being compared to Kim Jong Un. Harsh? Not in Khadija’s eyes when she told us that if everybody was talking about this Kim Jong Un fella, then he must be doing something good! And of course, she’s correct. I mean that’s why we’re all talking about Donald Trump. And Hitler, Piers Morgan, Negan and Satan, right guys? Guys? Maybe not, eh Khadija?

Another ego seemingly functioning sans brain seems to be Daniel Elahi who describes him as the owner of a lifestyle brand. Now this always happens with The Apprentice. The tendency to talk bulls**t about what it is they do. Firstly, I don’t want my lifestyle branded – it would be called ‘Incredibly Dull’ if it was branded, but secondly I don’t have the foggiest idea what he’s talking about. Luckily though, he gets infinitely clearer when he talks about himself, describing himself as being like Daniel Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street. Good call, Daniel. Inspirational.  A bit like saying, ‘In terms of being a bloke, I’m a bit like the Yorkshire Ripper’ when actually what you should have said is, ‘I’ve got a beard’. In truth, the only Wolf you can compare to is Wolf from Gladiators, mate.

Brilliantly though, Daniel didn’t seem to think that his ‘Wolf’ comment went far enough and went on to describe himself as having  ‘beauty and brains…I was blessed with both in abundance.’ Daniel there, a man in love with mirrors, but unable to clearly see his own reflection. See you this time next year, on Celebrity Petrol Station pal.

Having watched for a few weeks now there are still a number of candidates who I still don’t really know. You know the ones. You watch them for weeks but can’t remember which one they are. Two such characters this year are Camilla and Sarah Ann.

Now, I think Sarah Ann has been a project manager, but I genuinely can’t remember on what task. I’ve been too busy trying to figure out other things about her. The first thing was whether or not she was a mackem (that’s someone from Sunderland, for the ill-informed or those just lucky enough to have never heard of Sunderland). Turns out she’s from Teeside, which is better, but in reality, it’s just a bit like being from Sunderland. Next I found myself captivated by her eye. Not eyes. Eye. In terms of, ‘what’s that thing near her eye?’ It seems she has some bizarre piercing, like a bolt near the corner of her eye. Now I’m no fashion expert, but I never thought I’d see the dawning of Frankenstein chic. Sarah Ann obviously had different ideas though, which in a way is a good thing, because I can’t think of any other reason why viewers would notice her on The Apprentice.

Camilla has blonde hair. That’s all I’ve garnered from watching her for the last few weeks. A bit of reading tells me that she considers herself to be a ‘serious adrenaline junkie’, the kind of label that always sends a shiver down my spine. It’s the kind of thing that people seem to say in order to make themselves sound more interesting. But why should I feel interested in the fact that you enjoy feeling scared? Tell you what, next time I see you heading my way I’ll hide and jump out as you pass screaming ‘BOO!’. Deal? Good. Now could you just get off my telly, please?

“…he seems like a decent enough bloke.”

While there are always characters that you barely register are there, there is always at least one dark horse when watching The Apprentice. For me – and I’ll regret this when he stumbles his way through the next pitch, insults a major retailer and spectacularly loses his team the task – Tom is my dark horse. Now Tom is a tree surgeon which doesn’t immediately strike me as the type of profession that we associate with an Apprentice winner. However, when it comes to his credentials as a bona fide knobhead he’s severely lacking. And this can only be a plus point when you look around at the numerous knobheads he’s working with. It seems to me that Tom is active in all tasks, talking common sense, but staying just about low profile enough to survive. And he seems like a decent enough bloke. Now, I’m no business expert. In fact I really don’t know the first thing about business. But I sense, in Tom, someone who might just have the credentials to win it this year. Unless of course his big business plan is revealed as investing £250,000 in just chopping down more trees. I’ll be watching with interest.

From the sanity of Tom to possibly one of the most absurd idiots ever to appear on the show. Kurran Pooni. Kurran is a 22 year old law graduate who, before appearing on the show told the media that, ‘I’ll be honest, I don’t eat, sleep, breathe business, but I do eat, sleep and breathe success.’ Now, I’d struggle to believe that even without the ‘success’ bit at the end. It strikes me, having watched him for the last few weeks it’d be far more accurate of Kurran to say something like, ‘I’m dead lucky that I’ve got a rich mam and dad’. He seems to have spent almost all of the last few weeks simply strolling around the place. While others get on with the task at hand, Kurran seems to just go for a wander. He might have a little look at himself in the mirror, or the window of a shop. He might ruffle his hair a bit, play a bit of pocket billiards, but the nearest he gets to the actual task will be to mutter some kind of comment either disagreeing with the idea or giving some spurious reason as to why he’s doing nothing.

“You’re not exactly Stormzy are you?”

His performance in the shoe task beggared belief as he disagreed with the design concept and went for a wander. But the best was yet to come. The concept of the shoe was ‘urban heel’ and it seemed to be working (although the team would later lose). Not good enough for Kurran though who simply wandered about claiming to understand ‘the street’ and everything ‘urban’. Really though Kurran? Your dad founded an airline mate. Hardly the beginnings of some kind of urban legend. You’re not exactly Stormzy are you? And I’m not sure a double breasted suit is a style choice made by those on the street. Unless it was a homeless bloke who found one in a bin.

Kurran survived by a whisker in the boardroom and mainly because Lord Sugar made the extraordinary decision of dragging the whole team back in order to fire the person he wanted, rather than anyone that Jackie had brought back. However, forced into the position of Project Manager this week, he finally bit the dust. His failure – and, to be fair, that of his team – was spectacular and he was forced to walk, ill fitting clothes, sling, bouffant and all. On exiting the boardroom he simply sat down, smiling inanely and no doubt thinking that Lord Sugar didn’t know what he was doing, that he’d live to regret his decision and that the hilariously named ‘Jet Pop’s’ promotional video was in fact a work of genius. Whatever he thought, I feel that in the great tradition of these type of shows this was very definitely the last we’ll see of Kurran.

Speaking of Jackie brings up a lot of questions. She seems to be the candidate that you can’t work out. Do we like her or hate her? Is she rude and arrogant or just a bit forward and someone who actually knows what she’s talking about? And where is she from? Is she American, Canadian, a little bit Irish? What is that accent and when will it settle down? So far she seems to have performed fairly well, making thousands of pounds worth of sales as the Project Manager on the last task, albeit in losing the task and generally working hard at everything she’s been faced with. Her performance in the shoe pitch, as some kind of representative of ‘the street’ was totally cringeworthy, but let’s just thank the lord that she didn’t do anything as stupid as try to rap. Let’s face it, it’s the kind of thing that’s been done before and left you wanting to disappear down a hole on their behalf. She followed this up with another terrible performance in the airline pitch, which you imagine is marking her down in Lord Sugar’s estimation.

The final word on Jackie has to go to focus on one of her pre-show publicity quotes. “I’m not intimidated by anybody, or anything.” Seriously though? I think we have a candidate for next year’s ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ Bring on the fish eyes, crocodiles bollocks and kangaroo wangers! Let’s see you front up to those bad boys!

“Wow. Where to start?”

Perhaps the polar opposite to Jackie would be 22 year old, Sabrina Stocker, the owner of a tennis events company. Now hang on. Tennis events? Does that just mean playing tennis. Does she own a company that organises tennis games? Sabrina seems to be a bright, bubbly blonde. She describes herself as ‘a mix of Willy Wonka drinking an espresso martini…classy and sophisticated on the outside; inside, a little bit crazy and wacky but full of brilliant ideas.’ Wow. Where to start? Sabrina sounds like just my type of person. Indeed, there’s nothing I like better than someone who describes themselves as wacky and has to point out how much fun they are. It’s good that she’s reaching out to the common people though with a reference to an espresso martini, a drink that I’d never actually heard of. And there’s something not quite right about a 22 year old who describes themselves as classy. When I was 22, it would have been a fairly kind to describe myself as ‘a bit of an arsehole’ or ‘still acting and dressing a bit like I’m 14’. I was fresh out of university, with out of control hair and attempting to corner the market on the look that could only be labelled ‘Primark Stone Roses’. In short, I was probably a bit of a mess. What I definitely wasn’t was classy. And at 22 year, neither is Sabrina. Classier than me, definitely, but essentially just posh.

Sabrina was, however, the winning Project Manager in the latest task. It’s safe to say though that this was very much a team effort, with the likes of Jasmine, Tom and Kayode holding things together. In fact, Sabrina’s insistence on including ACDC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ as the soundtrack for an airline launch very nearly cost them the task and showed her up as naïve, rather than classy. That decision, in fact, was classic Apprentice. A shining example of a candidate with so much self confidence and arrogance and such a desperation to be responsible for a decision, any decision, that they simply ignore the blindingly obvious fact that they couldn’t be more wrong, because they couldn’t be more convinced that they couldn’t be more right.

Another young candidate is Kayode, who in my opinion has missed a trick in not labelling himself a business Jedi and temporarily re-naming himself Kayoda. I mean, this is The Apprentice after all, where previous candidates have made claims such as, ‘as a salesperson, I would rate myself as probably the best in Europe’, ‘Everything I touch turns to sold’ and ‘I am the champion thoroughbred that this process requires’. So being a business Jedi named Kayoda isn’t even that outlandish. Like I say, the lad’s missed a trick.

“…another attention starved candidate begging for attention.”

Kayode has actually proven his worth at times during this series. He’s sold well, pitched well and never hidden from a challenge. Certainly, he wouldn’t be a surprise as a winner. In the grand tradition of the show though he’s proved that he has a natural ability to act like a d*ck. His insistence on including what was a tedious and misplaced joke in the airline video was nothing short of stupid. Again though, it was classic Apprentice – another attention starved candidate begging for attention. Any attention. And hang the consequences.

Finally this year, we have Jasmine and Sian. Both are proving themselves to be strong candidates, but once again both are proving themselves to be more than capable of coming across as clueless and completely lacking in any sense of self awareness. The perfect recipe for making you watch television through your fingers. Sian – the owner of a swimwear brand that no one’s ever heard of, or surely she wouldn’t be on the show – has already declared herself to have beauty and brains, which of course are two of the toppermost ingredients that Lord Sugar looks for in a business partner. Meanwhile Jasmine, who has the job title of Learning and Development Manager – me neither – has told us that ‘All is fair in love and war…and business is war’, which when you actually think about it, doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.

As it stands we’re down to the final ten candidates. Incredibly, again, one of these people will benefit to the tune of £250,000 in terms of an investment in their business idea. All of these people will, at some point or several points over the run of the show, be shown up as the kind of person you probably wouldn’t fully trust to boil your kettle. And yet, year after year, one of them will invariably shine through and prove themselves as a worthy winner. Now given the profile of some of the field of competition, there’s not always an awful lot of shining needed, but still, it’s some achievement. And it’s the kind of achievement that has millions watching year in year out. Even if it is through their fingers and very often – especially in my case – while machine gun shouting expletives at the telly.

 

 

 

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