Stand-up for what you believe in

I turned 30 last year, and while I’m not generally one to get too bothered about growing older, there was something about this one particular landmark which led me, almost subconsciously, to take stock of life.

As much as I despise it when people take to social media to pen a lengthy self-mythologising review of their year, there’s no doubting that 2014 was marked a period of seismic change for me. I met a girl. Started a new, brilliant career. And biggest of all, I finally moved out from the home of my relieved parents, and into a house with said girl. Whirlwind.

And yet, amid the new responsibilities of paying bills whilst maintaining a relationship and a home, there was still an itch that needed to be scratched. I wanted to do something I’ve never done before. I wanted to scare myself.

For some, this might mean something like a sky dive, or a bungee jump. Not me. I’m far too over-cautious for all that. A triathlon, or a marathon? Nope, far too lazy.

Instead, I decided to have a crack at stand-up comedy.


I first met Birmingham comedian, James Cook, in the studios of Trent FM in Nottingham in about 2007 or 2008. Which was unusual, given I worked for their biggest rivals, Heart 106 at the time.

As seemed to be the done thing in those early, heady days of Facebook whenever you became even faintly acquainted with somebody, a friend request was fired off, and despite not meeting again in the years that followed, we remained connected via the social media platform.

James’s Facebook posts always seemed to grab my attention, whether it was one of his sharp one-liners, a piece of spot-on political analysis, or merely just a grumble about the fortunes of Aston Villa. One post, however, that stood out, was an article that he wrote about the merits of a stand-up comedy course he was teaching. Initially, I thought this was posted about a year ago, although a quick Google search tells me it was actually in 2010. Time flies, I guess.

It was memorable because I’d never contemplated that comedy could be taught. I think I always imagined that it was a natural gift. That  funny people just somehow found themselves, organically, taking to the stage without a second’s thought or a leap of faith.

I’ve always loved comedy, in all its guises, and I’d be particularly in awe of stand-ups because, to my mind, it seemed like one of the bravest endeavours I could possibly imagine. The thought of public speaking in any form is enough to strike fear into the hearts of many people, that’s without taking into account the pressure of having to be funny, or to offer value for money to a paying audience.

It was something I’d never even contemplated doing, that I never imagined I had the skillset or the sheer balls to attempt. But then, at the back of my mind, was the knowledge of James’ comedy course. And despite having no desire to subject myself to what I was sure would be a humiliating experience should I ever attempt stand-up, I was intrigued by the idea of it.

It was my growing fascination with American late night TV which prompted me to take the plunge, as I became captivated by the process of putting together a one-hour long daily topical show, and by the perceived glamour of the writers’ room.

My fixation with this genre of TV led me to read The Late Shift, the story recounting the 1993 tug-of-war between chat show greats David Letterman and Jay Leno, which recounted the importance of stand-up comedy clubs in honing the skills of the late night personalities.

With that, and my newfound desire to test myself, the calling became too strong. Fear be damned, I was signing up to the course.

Arriving on night one was surreal. From walking up to the reception desk at the Midlands Arts Centre and sheepishly telling them I was here for the stand up comedy course, barely wanting to say it out loud as it sounded so ridiculous. As I strolled up to the small room that would be our comedy dojo for the next twelve weeks, I found not the unbearably wacky bunch I’d been bracing myself for, but rather a group of people standing, silently, in a corridor, not daring to make eye contact, let alone talk to one another. Well, of course… they MUST be the funny people!

Slowly, with James’ guidance, we emerged from our shells. Although, in many ways, I wasn’t sure at all what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised at just how structured and useful the course was. I suppose I’d expected nothing more formal than to be sitting in a room with a group of people and trying to make up jokes, but found myself fact taking part in properly planned out lessons aimed at helping us to develop the writing and performance skills required, in readiness for the gig before a paying audience that would mark the culmination of the course.

Ah, yes. The gig. At the start of the course, it seemed so far away that it was almost as though it would never happen. And then, as these things tend to, it crept up on us, and before I knew it, I was standing in a dingy little staircase at the side of the stage at the Mac’s Pentagon theatre, my heart almost bursting out of my chest, and with one question bouncing around my head repeatedly. “What are you doing? What in the ACTUAL F*** are you doing?”

And then, my name was announced, and as soon as I walked onto the stage, something changed. I went from nervous wreck, questioning his own sanity, to feeling superhuman. I’d imagined that the performance would be a blur, but I have incredibly vivid memories of my set.

I remember spotting my colleagues, who had graciously given a night of their time to support me. I remember the face of the man in the front row, with whom I found myself making eye contact, and whose laughter was reassuring me that my stuff might actually be slightly funny. I remember looking in the crowd for Anna and not being able to spot her (she was sitting at the back on the left hand side). And I remember the wave of relief and excitement at the end, tempered by disappointment that it was all over.

The feeling of exhilaration, the rush of performing was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I came off stage, and felt like I was floating through the venue. I stopped for petrol on the drive home, and simply wanted to tell the surly man behind the counter about the night I’d had. Then I lay awake all night long, unable to quell the excitement that was coursing through my veins.

A new term of James’ course has begun this week, and I’m incredibly jealous of the period of self-discovery and new found belief that his new students are about to embark on. Of the feeling of accomplishment they’ll no doubt feel after their showcase, their first live performance. Of how they, too, will progress from being a nervous soul standing in a corridor.

From doing the course as a one-off means of testing myself, from being certain that my first stand-up gig would undoubtedly be my last, I feel like I’ve awakened a new passion. I’m keen to perform other gigs in the near future, and I’m also set to continue learning the craft of comedy by taking an improv class, starting on January 22nd.

It’s an experience that I can’t recommend highly enough. So, if you’re thinking it might be interesting, I’d just say don’t overthink it. Don’t put it off. Just do it. I believe there’s a couple of spots left on the Tuesday session…

You know there is. There really is.


Justice for the 21

Two things in life I’m fiercely proud of are my Irish heritage and my Brummie roots, and it’s always been heartening to see the city I call home embracing the culture, history and valued contribution of my ancestors.

It wasn’t always like this.

40 years ago, on this day, bombs planted by groups purporting to represent the Irish people tore through two pubs in our city, resulting in the senseless slaughter of 21 predominantly young people who were simply out to have fun. Ordinary folk enjoying their lives.

They weren’t the only victims. There’s the six falsely accused men who spent 16 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, of course. But let’s not underestimate the impact on Birmingham’s Irish community, who despite unanimously denouncing the horrors that unfolded, suddenly found themselves treated as outcasts in their own city.

Mercifully, tensions eased and wounds healed. The bombings occurred ten years before my birth and I’ve grown up in a region where Irish culture is celebrated, as demonstrated by the fact that Birmingham now hosts an annual week-long Irish festival culminating in one of the world’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Nonetheless, there will never be closure while so many questions remain unanswered. Us Brummie folk are the sort to keep our heads down, to accept our lot and carry on regardless. Public grief or impassioned campaigns for justice don’t really sit too easily with our psyche.

But until we achieve justice for those people whose lives were so abruptly ended on that night 40 years ago, the cloud over our heads will never clear.

It’s time for Birmingham’s Irish to stand up once more and say ‘not in my name’.

It’s time for us to maintain our united front whilst finding our voices.

It’s time for Justice for the 21.

You know it is. It really is.

Farewell old friend.

I’m off to Snobs in a bit.

If you’re a Brummie, you’ll know.

If you’re not, allow me to explain. It’s dark and dingy. Hot and sticky. An underground sweatpit, frequently overcrowded with hordes of monumentally pissed people. A shithole. A complete and utter shithole.

Oh, I nearly forgot. It’s also one of my favourite places in the entire world.

I’d never been hugely into nightclubs. I’m still not. Dresscodes, crap music, pissed up twats, all that jazz. But the moment I walked into Snobs, it was like an epiphany. I fell in love. I was home.

I was 22 that first night, and ended up there after an afternoon of drinking whilst watching England getting knocked out of the World Cup. Hearing that the plan was to hit a club, I popped into Tesco to buy the cheapest pleather shoes and collared shirt I could buy, assuming fully that the usual restrictions that typified my city centre nightlife experiences would be in place.

What I found instead was a utopia of people dressed how they wanted, and not like a walking advertisement for Burtons’ smart casual collection. “This is promising”, I thought.

Then there was the music. My word, the music. A smaller room, a little emptier, playing sweet sixties soul, with a dash of The Who, The Kinks, things of that ilk. Moddy. The stuff my dad played for me as I grew up.

Through the mirrored corridor was the main room. A hedonistic temple of indie rock’n’roll, a catalogue of the genre, journeying from the Stone Roses to Oasis to Babyshambles, and everything in between. A place to sing along, loudly, even though you didn’t know the words. A place to lose yourself. A place to forget about the fact you were wearing a truly terrible shirt and shoes combo.

I wish I could say that was the start of an era where I became a regular visitor. Lamentably, that’s not the case. Thinking about it, I’d estimate that I’ve certainly been there more than 10 times, but probably fewer than 20.

Why so little? I’m not sure. There’s certainly been occasions when I’ve wanted to go there, but found myself in the company of people who refused point blank to accompany me. Weirdos.

In many ways, I’d compare Snobs to the blue Gap hoody that’s been in my wardrobe since I was about 16. Something that I could go months, perhaps more than a year forgetting about, before slipping it on and enjoying its warmth and comfort.

It’s a place that never changes, that’s exactly the same now as it was when you first set foot inside. Somewhere that you feel eternally young, because, after all, if nothing around you is any different, then neither are you as a person. Does that make sense?

One thing that’s certain is that tonight marks my final ever visit to the old place. This weekend, it closes its doors forever, making way for some development of a hotel, or offices, or some crap like that. I don’t even know.

By pure coincidence, this is happening at a time of seismic change in my life. At the age of 30, and I’m sure to the delight of my parents, I’m finally moving out, and going to live with a real life girl, as if I’m an actual functioning adult human being, or something.

As for the blue gap hoody? It’s currently sitting in a recycling bag, ready to go to the charity shop. Essentially, I’m in the midst of waving goodbye to my youth. It’s like fate is saying “Snobs is gone. Time to be an adult now”. And there, by the grace of God, go I.

Of course, I should point out that the spirit of Snobs goes on, and it’ll open the door of its new home next week. And while it would suit the purposes of this coming of age narrative to declare that I’m done with it, I’m certain that, in time, I’ll squeeze into my skinniest jeans once more and pretend I’m a man in my early twenties. In the main, though, it’s time for the young’uns to create a new legend.

Before that, there’s still tonight. So I suppose I’d better go and get ready. And to retrieve that hoody from the bin liner…

Snobs is dead. Long live Snobs!

You know it is. It really is.

P.S. The brilliant pictures above have been stolen from Jack Spicer Adams. Click the link for more. Here are some bonus pictures of me snogging the wall of faces – my personal Snobs tradition.

The Bite – A PR perspective

At work today, I was asked to write a short piece analysing the fallout of the Luis Suarez biting incident from a PR perspective. I got a bit carried away, wrote too much, and had to cut it down. Which is good news for you lot, because it means I can use the unabridged version as a blog. Reduce, reuse, recycle, as Bob The Builder might say…

You know he might. He really might.

They say there’s a fine line between genius and madness, and there’s few better examples of that than the case of Luis Suarez.

The full scale of his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character came into full focus this week when, fresh from demonstrating his brilliance in effectively dumping England out of the World Cup, the mercurial Uruguay forward hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after sinking his teeth into the flesh of the Italian defender, Giorgio Chiellini.

Amid a widespread outpouring of shock and condemnation as Suarez became the centre of a storm of controversy for the umpteenth time, there was also room for some quirky creativity from brands who quickly capitalised on the incident.

Serial stunt specialists Specsavers leveraged its iconic ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ line by alluding that Suarez may have confused his opponent with the popular Italian dish, cannelloni, while Snickers referenced its ‘Eat a Snickers’ campaign with the slogan ‘More satisfying than an Italian’.  Official World Cup partners also got in on the act, with Budweiser pointing out the virtues of its twist cap Bud Light bottles, while McDonalds in Uruguay were keen to stress that biting on a Big Mac is preferable to chowing down on Chiellini.

However, while some brands reveled in the limelight, there were others left scratching their heads as they pondered their next move. Suarez’s boot sponsor, Adidas, has announced that it is to review its relationship with the striker, and with a four month ban from all football activity now in effect, he has already been dropped as the worldwide ambassador of 888 Poker.

Most fascinating of all, though, will be the response of Liverpool Football Club.

With its questionable PR activity surrounding some of Suarez’s previous controversies still fresh in the minds of the powers-that-be at the Anfield club, including the disastrous t-shirts stunt after he was charged with racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra, its reaction to this incident will require careful consideration.

While there will be a temptation for the club to rid itself of a player who has once again dragged its reputation through the mud, losing somebody of his unquestionable quality would without doubt reduce its prospects on the field.

In this case, the most fascinating clash for Liverpool this season is the brand versus the team. What will the outcome be? Now there’s a debate to really get your teeth into.

Lessons Lern-ed as Villa sale looms

I’ve often marveled at the human mind’s capacity to eliminate memories of humdrum events, leaving our brains filled largely with moments of happiness and contentment. Having just completed my 23rd year as an Aston Villa season ticket holder, I’m particularly grateful for that.

You see, it’s this capacity that allows me to forget the countless turgid performances I’ve seen from the boys in claret and blue over the years, whilst maintaining happy thoughts of those all too rare moments of delirium that make it all seem worthwhile.

Saturday 19th August 2006 will always fall firmly into that category.

I love the smell of a new season. New kits, new signings, hope and anticipation. It was particularly palpable as the curtain rose on the 2006/07 season, thanks in no small part to the sparkling new Emirates Stadium, which would host its very first match that day. However, that was only part of this story.

Villa marched into North London with a swagger that hadn’t been seen in a number of years. Amid a summer of tumultuous restlessness and drama, the deeply unpopular David O’Leary was ousted as manager, before the club’s much maligned octagenarian owner, Doug Ellis, finally gave in to public demand and sold up.

In their place came the revered former Celtic boss, Martin O’Neill, to take over team affairs, while the arrival of a new American billionaire owner in the form of Randolph D. Lerner brought a sense of unbridled optimism to the long suffering Villa faithful.

The ‘New’ Villa demonstrated remarkable verve and vigour that day, coming tantalisingly close to playing the role of party-poopers on Arsenal’s first day at their new home. It took a late Gilberto strike to earn a draw for the Gunners after Olof Mellberg made history by becoming the Emirates’ first ever goalscorer.

ImageVilla celebrate after scoring the first ever goal at The Emirates Stadium to kick off The Lerner Era

But, despite the disappointment of the late leveller, the carnival atmosphere among the travelling Villans couldn’t be abated. Players tossed their shirts into the celebrating crowd, as chants of ‘There’s Only One Randy Lerner’ filled the air. We had our Villa back, and it was wonderful.

Fast forward eight years, and we’re back in North London. Again, disappointment on the pitch did not abate a party atmosphere in the away end. But, unlike that day at The Emirates when it was the anticipation of a new beginning that excited the fans so, at White Hart Lane, as Villa lost 3-0 in an abject display, it was more a sigh of relief that it was all over.

This time, it was chants of “We want Lerner out” that echoed across the stadium. From being hailed as the saviour of Aston Villa, the very mention of Randy Lerner was enough to provoke disdain, disappointment, and even disgust among a number of the Holte End faithful.

Where did it all go so wrong?!

Let’s rewind back to the start. From that opening day at the Emirates, the wave of optimism continued in the early stages of 2006/07 as Villa went unbeaten in the first 12 games. Things would level out over the season, with Villa securing a solid, if unspectacular, 10th place finish.

The final weekend marked the 25th anniversary of Villa’s European Cup triumph, and a reception for the heroes of 1982 ahead of a 3-0 victory over Sheffield United. The weekend also saw a series of events which acted as a statement of intent for what was still to come, with the unveiling of Villa’s new crest and the opening of a state-of-the-art training complex at Bodymoor Heath. As Villa Park rocked to the sound of over 40,000 delirious fans, full focus fell on the slogan which was woven into the free scarves they each twirled above their head: ‘Proud History. Bright Future.’

And so the work truly began. Villa Park was carefully restored to former aesthetic glories with the £4m renovation of the Holte Pub, and the installation of the fine Roman mosaic work, mimicking that which once sat on the Trinity Road Stand, upon the frontage of the Holte End. A mammoth five year partnership with Nike was seen as a major sign that Villa were ready to step into the elite, while the stadium’s corporate hospitality facilities were overhauled in readiness for the movers and shakers who would no doubt be seduced by the team’s compelling play.

Lerner helped restore the stately aesthetic of Villa Park

Most importantly though, for the fans, was the significant investment in the playing side which saw Villa become one of the Premier League’s biggest spenders as Martin O’Neill shaped his forces into his vision.

Everything seemed positive for the three years that would follow. O’Neill built an effective, if at times rigid, unit, and mounted campaigns which saw Villa mount serious challenges for the promised land of the Champions League, falling just short every time as they recorded three successive sixth place finishes. A few minor gripes aside, not least the debacle surrounding a 2009 visit to Russia, all seemed rosy in the Villa garden.

Behind the scenes, though, little did we know that all was not well. Having invested millions in going for Champions League or bust, the money was starting to run out. August 2010 saw O’Neill, the poster boy of the Lerner era, walk out in dramatic fashion on the eve of the season. And thus began a catastrophic series of decisions which saw the goodwill towards Villa’s owner dissipate rapidly.

Gerard Houllier was the unexpected choice to replace O’Neill, and despite his likeable demeanour and admirable philosophy on how the game should be played, somehow he never quite seemed to fit in at Villa. Among the chief concerns was that regarding his health, given the heart attack he suffered whilst managing Liverpool a few years earlier. Despite his protestations that he was in fine fettle, it was with a degree of inevitability that he failed to see out the season on health grounds.

If Houllier had been a surprise appointment, the arrival of his replacement was positively mind-boggling, and marked the major turning of the tide against Lerner. For Aston Villa to target Birmingham City’s manager in any circumstance would be worthy of a raised eyebrow or two. To do so immediately after the relegation of the traditional Second City rival, amid much criticism of his style of football, beggared all rational belief.

A dark and toxic cloud enveloped Villa Park during that season, and despite glimmers of sunlight breaking through as Paul Lambert seized the helm, the situation never fully recovered, and eventually became yet more desperate.

Still suffering from the folly of offering long and lucrative contracts to players of limited ability and low sell-on value, a philosophy of bringing in talented young players from overseas or lower leagues has failed to propel Villa to become anything more than a perennial relegation struggler – and that’s simply not good enough for a fan base which still expects the club to challenge the upper echelons of the top flight.

randy lerner_0Moving on: Lerner prepares to leave Villa

And so, it seems, that the Lerner era came to its likely end at White Hart Lane, the early promise and excitement giving way to weariness, resignation and, in some cases, anger. The biggest shame, for me, is the fact that so many fans seem unable to disassociate between the need for change and their perceptions of a person. In my view, much of the personal abuse and criticism has been out of line.

Has he been the perfect owner? No. Has he been outright incompetent on occasion? Absolutely. But is it fair to say that Randy Lerner doesn’t care for Aston Villa? Even when this sale is done and dusted, I’m sure he’ll be able to point to at least a hundred million reasons as to why that’s not true.

While the on-field state of the club is undoubtedly not where it should be, Lerner does leave a legacy in that he has respected and restored the traditions of the club. He has frequently described himself as a custodian of the club, and has performed this statesmanlike role with aplomb.

In the statement announcing his intention to sell, Lerner referenced the McGregor tradition of the club, and this philosophy has been apparent throughout his tenure. A spirit of philanthropy was one of the major pillars around which McGregor built Aston Villa, and the club’s relationship with Acorns children’s hospice is rightly viewed as a pioneering partnership. The decision to forego a shirt sponsor in favour of displaying the charity’s name on Villa’s shirts for two seasons, together with the untold great work done by the club with Acorns, is something that must remain a great source of pride for all Villa fans.

Villa’s pioneering Acorns partnership will serve as Lerner’s biggest legacy.

Lerner’s custodianship also heralds comparisons with another great Villa leader, Frederick Rinder, who served the club between 1881 and 1925. He is best known for a famous quote, in which he said: “Finance is important, but we should never forget that we are not talking about a mere business. This is the Aston Villa football club, and it deserves nothing short of the best.”

Lerner embodied this by, both physically and metaphorically, removing the slap-dash corrugated metal, plastic and plasterboard facade of Aston Villa, and replacing it with red brick and mahogany panelling. He re-established the ideals of tradition, philanthropy and honour which for so long were its very foundations.

More than anything, he GOT Aston Villa. He understood the club, its history, and its values. Put short, he got the ‘Proud History’ part spot on, but the ‘Bright Future’ was harder to come by.

Just as Frederick Rinder was in 1925, it seems that Randy Lerner is to be hounded out of Villa Park in ignonimous fashion. But also like his predecessor from almost 90 years ago, I’m certain that, in time, Villa fans will look fondly on Randy Lerner – the honourable man who tried manfully, but ultimately failed, to make Villa great again. Of course, that’s a process that could be expedited depending on the owner he chooses.

It’s going to be an interesting summer. Whatever happens, here’s hoping that the first day of next season will remain as memorable as that day at Arsenal eight years ago.

You know it will. It really will.

ART REVIEW: Chiharu Shiota, The New Art Gallery, Walsall.

This is a blog about modern art.

I know, what a pretentious twat.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be an art expert, or even that I know the slightest thing about the subject, because I most certainly do not. I just like looking at it.

Modern art is much maligned, and I can understand why. After all, I leave my bed unmade most days, and there’s nobody queuing up to come and look at it. But modern art makes me think, it challenges me, and it makes me want to understand what makes it art, what was the artists’s inspiration, and how it came to be.

IS THIS ART? – Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’

I just don’t get this with traditional portraits, landscapes, sculptures and the like. I mean, I completely appreciate the immense talent involved in the craft of it. I certainly couldn’t do it myself. But I’m largely unmoved when I look at them. Essentially, I find a strong reaction infinitely more entertaining than no reaction at all. Even if that reaction is just ‘What the hell is this crap?’

Put it this way: I’ve never heard a piece of classical music I really dislike, whereas I actively despise the work of many current artists. Yet, given the choice between listening to Classic FM or Capital, I’m going for the hit music station every time.

During my recent trip to New York, its renowned Museum of Modern Art was right up there on my list of places to visit. I spent a hugely enjoyable couple of hours ambling around its famous galleries, a journey which brought feelings of awe, confusion, intrigue and, at times, sheer bewilderment. It was good. It was very, very good.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Soup Cans’ at MoMA, New York

 Fast forward a couple of weeks to yesterday. The excitement of my adventure in The Big Apple all but a distant memory, it was back to the mundaneness of real life as I dropped off my car for its MOT. Little did I realise that this would be the gateway to one of the most breath-taking interactions with art I’ve ever experienced.

The New Art Gallery in Walsall has always stood out in a town which has for a long time been pretty rough round the edges. Upon its opening in 2000, despite its largely drab surroundings, the eye-catching building would quickly make its mark, winning several architectural awards, including a nomination for the prestigious Sterling Architecture Prize.

Needless to say, the building divided opinion. From a purely aesthetic point of view, there were those who questioned whether such a modern and striking building was in keeping with Walsall, if a more modest construction may have been more appropriate. Many queried the cost of the building, and whether the money would have been better spent elsewhere. Many simply wondered if the project was something of a white elephant, if an industrial town like Walsall could sustain such an ambitious cultural project.

The New Art Gallery, Walsall

Since then, a sustained regeneration project in the area surrounding the gallery means that today, it looks altogether more at home in its environment, and the sheer quality of its exhibits has established its reputation as a widely respected gallery, and a genuine jewel in the crown for the town.

As I say, I know nothing about art whatsoever, and my occasional visits have always come at times when I’m wondering around the town with not much else to do, rather than any pre-defined appointments to visit.

And so, with an hour or so to kill before my MOT was complete, off to the gallery I went. And boy was I satisfied with that choice.

After ambling around the more traditional artworks on the second floor, I made my way up to the modern art mecca where the gallery’s guest installations usually reside. As the lift doors opened (these days sadly lacking the accompaniment of Noddy Holder’s voice, much to my chagrin), I was greeted by two things: firstly, the smiling face of my friend Zaynul, who works at the gallery, and hilariously seemed almost to be expecting me despite the spontaneous and unannounced nature of my visit. Secondly, behind Zaynul, was the most visually stunning cascade of battered and worn suitcases, each one suspended from the ceiling.

I would soon find out that it was part of the gallery’s current Chiharu Shiota exhibition, showcasing a host of the Japanese artist’s dramatic and spectacular work.


Before even contemplating the artistic nature of the piece, the sheer scale and craftsmanship of the installation was absolutely breathtaking. The installation became all the more fascinating as Zaynul explained that it is made up of over 400 suitcases, each of which tell the story of a different person. From the places they’ve visited, the things they’ve experienced, and the belongings they took with them along the way. It sums up journeys and the individuals behind them, the loves, the losses, the adventures and the new beginnings. The nature of the installation means you are able to walk all around, and even underneath it, enabling you to explore the art from every angle, and become fully immersed in it.


We ventured into the adjoining room, where we were greeted by – and please forgive this uncouth comparison – what looked to be a giant spider’s web of pubic hair, arranged into a tornado shape surrounding its focal point.


Naturally, it wasn’t. The structure is made of unraveled balls of black wool, painstakingly arranged to surround hundred of handwritten letters sourced from Japan, again containing a wealth of thoughts, feelings and experiences from a host of people unknown to us. The piece allows you to walk around its focal point, again resulting in a fully immersive experience to be enjoyed and explored from all angles. It’s a truly visually stunning piece of work.


It’s funny sometimes how you can ignore what’s available on your own doorstep. I traveled to New York and went out of my way to experience to MoMA’s assortment of works. Yet, it was just circumstance and time to kill that led me to venture into Walsall’s New Art Gallery yesterday. Who knew that it would be there that I would see art that left me truly inspired?

Shiota’s installation will remain in place until March 30th, and it’s absolutely FREE to visit. If you’re shopping in Walsall, or just have some time to kill, pop in and have a look. Pictures cannot do it justice – it just has to be seen.

You know it does. It really does.

The Fairytale of New York

statueI made my long-awaited first ever visit to New York City this week, arriving amid a hubbub of excitement concerning a shift-change in the USA’s iconic late night chat show schedules.

22 years after landing the gig for the first time, Jay Leno has relinquished his hold on ‘The Tonight Show’, which will instead be held under the custodianship of Jimmy Fallon, returning to its original home of The Big Apple in the process.

Of course, it’s not the first time Leno has handed over the reins. In a notorious 2009 palaver, Leno initially passed the torch to Conan O’Brien in order to launch ‘The Jay Leno Show’, which aired on NBC during prime time.

True to many commentator’s predictions, however, Leno’s new show quickly bombed. Yet, bizarrely, O’Brien was the man to take the fall. After weeks of speculation, Leno returned to his old ‘Tonight Show’ chair, while O’Brien was unceremoniously removed from NBC’s schedules, albeit with several million dollars’ worth of severance safely banked.

Whilst hosting his final show, O’Brien delivered what was one of the most impactful speeches I’ve ever heard, maintaining his dignity when many lesser mortals would have hit out at the shoddy treatment he received.

It was one part of the speech in particular which stood out for me, which I will reproduce for your reference, dear reader:

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favourite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

I often come back to that speech whenever I have some soul searching to do. I try hard not to be cynical, really I do. But often, in this world where the actions of others can shock and disappoint you, it’s easy to slip into a ‘glass half empty’ point of view.

So, with that in mind, it’s always nice to rediscover your faith in the generosity of human spirit.

I was in the States to watch Ice Hockey, supporting my Edmonton Oilers in back-to-back away games against the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.

Following an NHL team away from home can be a strangely isolating experience. Unlike football in the UK, the sheer distances between teams in North American leagues means that there’s no real tradition of away support, and any visiting fans are dotted disparately around the arenas.

Sitting among the fans of the home town favourites, supporting a Canadian team in the USA, no less, the feeling of being an outsider is always there at the back of your mind. For me, being an actual foreigner all the way from the UK, that feeling is heightened.

Prior to heading to New York and New Jersey, I’d watched the Oilers on the road in Chicago, Calgary, Los Angeles and Anaheim, and the best experiences were the couple of occasions when lady luck had intervened to ensure I had a fellow Oiler, a brother in arms, beside me.

Until now.

My first game of the trip took me to the legendary Madison Square Garden, a venue oozing history and prestige. Walking around the concourses, there was the usual dotted assortment of away fans, and the customary high fives and nods of acknowledgment that come from your fellow outsiders. Inside the arena, no such luck, as I was surrounded by myriad New York blue shirts.

As the man sitting next to me took his seat, there was the usual awkward banter that goes on when you discover an away fan seated next to you. “Hey, you better sit down and be quiet, you’re getting nothing here today!” nudge, nudge, wink, LOL, etc. etc.

Yet, despite our opposite leanings with regard to the sporting spectacle going on before us, I found myself enjoying the company of my seat companion, whom I knew only as John.

Conversation flowed despite the nail-bitingly close nature of the contest, albeit with a few inaccurate cultural generalisations thrown in… “So, have y’ever been in a soccer riot?”

The prompt for John’s random act of kindness, though, came when I divulged I’d been unable to whet my whistle at the game. This was thanks to Madison Square Garden’s strange policy to only accept passports as a valid form of photo ID for foreign visitors, a fact I’d only discovered when I’d hopefully presented my driver’s licence at the concession kiosk. The surly assistant duly rejected my futile advances, seemingly genuinely angered by my audacity to want to buy a Bud bloody Light for the princely sum of $10.

John disappeared during the intermission, and I enviously eyed the tall, frosty lagers he brandished as he returned to his seat, only for him to quickly thrust one into my clammy palm. Immediately I moved my free hand towards my pocket to reimburse John for his kind gesture… but he waved it away. “This one’s on me”, he said. “Welcome to the States”.

I was slightly taken aback. It seems like a small gesture on the face of it. But again, consider this – we were there as adversaries, supporting opposing teams, with nothing in common other than the fact that fate had placed us in adjoining seats in an arena of almost 20,000 people. Yet this man had taken the time to part with his money, and buy me a beer, a gesture of nothing but pure kindness and generosity of spirit. Human beings being nice to one another. What could be lovelier?

But that’s not where it ends.

The following night I crossed the river to Newark to watch the Oilers take on the New Jersey Devils. I was particularly excited about this one, as I’d splashed out on second row tickets, the closest I assumed I was ever going to get to the hockey fan’s holy grail of a front row spot – the prohibitive cost usually putting pay to any ambitions I ever had of securing such a position.

That was, until, the man in front of me gestured to the empty seat next to him, and invited me to take it. Again, it seems like a small gesture. If the seat was empty anyway, then of course he should have asked somebody to take it.

But it was the significance of it that struck me. There I was again, a foreigner, an adversary, supporting the other team. Yet something had made him reach out with an olive branch to ensure that my experience was a memorable one, offering me a seat worth several hundred dollars to boot.

frontrowWhere’s Wally? (On the left, in the blue and orange top!)

If that wasn’t enough, he ventured up to the concourse at the intermission and returned with chicken nuggets and chips for me, which I was entirely grateful for, albeit not in great need of, having earlier filled my gut on what was a nominated $1 hotdog night.

Two cities, two rival fans, two acts of incredible kindness, two people I’ll never see or hear from again. That’s a shame, really, isn’t it?

I was reflecting on that as I boarded the train to Manhattan when, finally, I found myself sitting next to a group wearing the same orange and blue jersey as me. As we discussed the game, whilst also inevitably establishing exactly why a lad with an English accent was supporting a Canadian team in the USA, they invited me to join them as they headed out into the city that never sleeps to paint the town red.

That night, the conversation flowed as freely as the beer and scotch we poured down our necks, while my stomach, already bulging with hotdogs and nuggets, was lined further with chicken bites, potato skins, and enchiladas as I savoured every moment with my fellow Oilers. Diet be damned.

And it was here that I received my third incredible gesture of human kindness in little more than 24 hours. For as our sizeable bar bill was delivered, I was informed that I was not to pay a penny. It was all on my new mates.

Facebook ‘adds’ were soon exchanged. New friendships with folks from thousands of miles away, forged purely based on the logo we wore on our chests. Marvellous.

Let’s not be fooled into thinking the world’s all candy canes and happy smiles, though.

Cast your mind back to my first game in New York. You know, the one where I sat next to kindly John who bought me a beer?

I got a little excited at the end. A late Nail Yakupov goal meant the Oilers recorded an all-too-rare victory at The World’s Most Famous Arena™, and despite my position as the sore thumb among a group of Rangers fans, nothing was to prevent me from roaring my approval.


The Oilers currently stand 29th out of 30 NHL teams.

“WHAT’S YOUR RECORD ON THE SEASON?” he repeated, almost as if he wasn’t already completely aware of the answer.

“It’s shit, mate.” I replied. “But I’ve come all the way from England for this.”

Suddenly the man’s face, previously etched with pure apoplectic fury, gave way to a forgiving smile. Off he went, confrontation avoided.

So, the moral of this story: Generally, you can rely on human beings being quite nice. If they’re not, all it takes is a Hugh Grant-esque display of British fopphishness to get you out of a tight spot.

And sharing that wisdom is my gesture of kindness to you.

You know it is. It really is.

An ode to Louis Tomlinson

I ruddy love Gabby Agbonlahor. And who wouldn’t?

There’s the endearing stupidity. The last minute goals. His short-lived flirtation with Twitter before he got shut-down, thanks to the aforementioned endearing stupidity.

But one thing that I love about him more than most things is the fact that he’s a world-class wind-up merchant.

‘Shushing’ gestures to opposition fans. Applauding red cards. You’d maybe hate him if he wasn’t one of your own. But he is, so I don’t.

Today, though, Gabby has excelled himself. He’s gone and incited pure, unadulterated rage among millions of teenage girls across the world. And frankly, I couldn’t be more excited about that.

For, at Celtic Park, was a benefit game for the Villa and Celtic legend, Stiliyan Petrov, commemorating his recent retirement following his brave battle with Leukaemia. A team of all-star legends, including our Gabby, up against a team of Celtic legends which included One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson for reasons unknown.

Every touch of the ball from the 1D popster was greeted by a loud chorus of girlish squeals and boarish booing, while everyone looking on was secretly thinking to themselves: “Wouldn’t it be funny if he got clattered?”

Cometh the moment, cometh the man…

It would soon get worse.

After being floored, Tomlinson immediately demanded to be substituted and then, to compound his humilation, promptly vomited as he made his embarrassing exit.

Now, before I incur the wrath of any mental #Directioners, let me be clear: I don’t dislike One Direction. I secretly quite like One Direction. It’s just that I have a bit of an obsession with pro-amateur football, and the bizarre scenarios it can throw up. Think Boris Johnson taking out a German, or Woody Harrelson scoring the winner past Jamie Theakston in front of 76,000 people at Old Trafford. Just so strange, so unlikely, and so very, very brilliant.

Our Gabby, Villa’s Gabby, taking out a global pop sensation could hardly fail to appeal to me, could it?

So, I thought I’d commemorate the event in a fitting manner, by writing a little song.

It’s to the tune of One Direction’s fabulous pop hit, ‘What Makes You Beautiful’. Here’s an instrumental version if you fancy some impromptu karaoke.

Are you ready? Then we’ll begin:

He’s on the floor,
Don’t know what for,
He got knocked down by a lad named Agbonlahor.

His number’s up,
He’s getting subbed,
It’s pretty clear that he just isn’t good enough.

Everyone else in the ground can see it…
Everyone else but you…

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And now the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football…
Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football!

So c-c’mon,
You got it wrong,
Should be on stage singing your very catchy songs.

We don’t know why,
You’re in green and white,
Regurgitating your half time pie-ie-ie.

Everyone else in the ground can see it…
Everyone else but you…

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football…
Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football! 

Na na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Na na na na na na na na na na
Na na na na na na

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

Louis, we don’t know why you’re playing for the Celts,
And the pace of the game’s got you overwhelmed,
Since you fell on the ground, you’re not very well…
Now you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football!

You’re only doing this for charity,
Playing against all the boys from the Premier League.
Right now we’re looking at you and we all believe
That you know… oh oh,
That boybands shouldn’t play football… 

Oh oh,
Boybands shouldn’t play football…

Oh oh,
So sing your songs, don’t play football!

I just spent far too long on that.

You know I did. I really did.

BOOK REVIEW: Richard Bacon’s ‘A Series of Unrelated Events’

Minor celebrities. You name ’em, I’ve probably met ’em.

From each individual member of Blue (but never Blue as a collective) to the Sugababes (both pre and post Mutya), from pre-meltdown Steve Brookstein to pre-break-up Jordan and Peter, I have exchanged cursory pleasantries with them all in my time, mainly during my previous life in the radio industry.

Thing is, you probably didn’t know about that, in the same sense that you don’t know about the press release I amended after some client feedback earlier this week. After all, they were just people that I met in the course of doing my job.

That’s why I sometimes allow myself a smirk when various PR peers or commercial radio salespeople post photographs of themselves with whichever C-lister they’ve encountered on a given day. The smirk often turns into a genuine LOL if that person tries to dress up their chance meeting by claiming that they were ‘just casually hanging out with’ said celebrity, as if they genuinely believe that they’re now mates or something.

You see, loves, we all know – no, seriously, WE ALL KNOW – that they were only interested in whatever book/film/show/perfume they were promoting, and they’d forgotten all about you in the few seconds it took for you to excitedly Tweet the photo. Sorry to break it to you, but it’s true.

That said, I have been known to join the ranks of the hapless celeb spotters on the occasions that I’ve been presented with somebody that I actually have some level of respect or admiration for. While I was happy to spurn the opportunity to be photographed with Dane Bowers or Liz from Atomic Kitten, the very sight of such luminaries as Chris Evans, Noddy Holder, Michael Phelps, Keith Chegwin and then-Villa-midfielder, Gareth Barry, was enough to have me gurning for the camera without a second’s thought.

While discussion of celebrities I’ve met isn’t something I tend to indulge in too often, pretty much for the reasons outlined above, one question I’m usually asked is ‘Who’s the nicest one you met?’ – and the answer, always, is Richard Bacon.

Anyone who knows me will be able to tell you about my near obsession with The Big Breakfast, and the fact that I’ve never particularly managed to get over its demise. It was this level of fixation with the early morning show which led me to be invited to appear on its final ever episode, its producers confirming my status as one of six Big Breakfast ‘Superfans’.

I was 18-years-old, and getting to visit The Big Breakfast house was pretty much one of the best things that had ever happened to me at that point. Actually, it probably still is. But the enduring memory of that day was the kindness afforded to me by Richard Bacon.

Richard BaconJust casually hanging out with Richard Bacon

In hindsight, now, I realise what a nuisance I must have been to him that day – the gawky teenage fanboy hanging off his coat-tails when all he probably wanted to do was hang out with his workmates on their final day together. Instead, though, he posed for photos, signed autographs, pleaded with the security guard on my behalf to allow me to get all the photographs I wanted, chatted to me for ages, even chatted to my mates on the phone, and essentially just went out of his way to make sure I had a great morning.

Some years later, I’d bump into him again, this time at a Radio Academy event in Nottingham, which saw Richard hosting his late night Five Live show from a pub just by the city’s castle. This time I greeted Richard, no longer an irritating teenage fan, but as his industry peer, and thanked him for the generosity and kindness he demonstrated towards me that day.

Again we enjoyed a lengthy chat, sharing our memories of the day, and I was again struck by what a genuinely ruddy nice bloke he is, something that can’t be said about every one of my heroes I’ve encountered (Johnny Vaughan, I may be talking about you).

And so, 673 words into this, I will now mention the book I’m meant to be reviewing.

I didn’t know Richard Bacon had released a book until Thursday evening. I found out about it, as befitting of the digital age, when Gary Lineker Tweeted about it. Continuing the theme, within seconds I was reading it on my iPad, and less than 48 hours later, I sat down to blog about it.

‘A Series Of Unrelated Events’ in both name and nature, the book begins with the incident that propelled Richard Bacon to stardom.

During my Freshers’ Week at university in 2002, Whigfield performed a gig within the University of Lincoln’s sports centre, and made the questionable decision to open the show with ‘Saturday Night’. The audience went wild. Only, the rest of her set was then made up of some shit nobody knew or cared about. Whigfield, exasperated by the declining level of interest being shown by the audience, eventually gave in an played ‘Saturday Night’ once more.

That’s an odd tangent, I know, but by opening the book with a chapter entitled ‘Cocaine, and lots of it’, I feared my mate Richard may have made a similar mistake. Thankfully, that fear was unfounded.

Dealing with the issue with grace, humility, honesty and humour, it immediately creates a sense of ‘now that’s out of the way…’, leaving readers to enjoy the rest of the book without wondering, as you probably would if it were written in the conventional sense, when he’s going to stop with the early days crap and get to the bit where he’s fired from Blue Peter.

From there, we’re taken on a journey which focuses mainly on one man and his frequent embarrassments, from being bollocked by Bill Nighy in front of an audience, to a Christmas arrest for reading a text on the radio, and, of course, being named as NME’s ‘Most F***ing Useless Person In The World’. Best of all, though, speaking as an official Big Breakfast Superfan, is the chapter about the legend that is Plate Spinning Bob and his fateful trip to Vegas, something I’d forgotten about until reading this.

An admirable self-deprecation exudes throughout the book’s 194 pages, with detailed footnotes perhaps acting as a subtle nod to the Alan Partridge comparisons which have been levelled at Richard throughout the years. Above all else, though, the book is funny. Really, really funny.

So, I say buy it. Buy it right now. Not just because it’s good, but because he’s a thoroughly bloody nice bloke, and he deserves your money.

A triumph.

You know it is. It really is.

How people find my blog…

Just a quick one – one of the things I find most interesting about blogging on WordPress is the fact that I can see the Google search terms that people entered in order to come to be here.

Normally, I’d like this list to comprise of several terms which indicate that my visitors come in search of insightful, witty and beautifully written content.

Here’s the list for the last three months:

Search Views
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