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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“HEY BUDDY!” came a shout. “WHAT’S YOUR RECORD ON THE SEASON?”

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.

The Birmingham Bullet

As my Facebook and Twitter followers may have gathered, I’ve been hard at work on behalf of Speedo in the last couple of weeks, marveling at the efforts of supreme athletes such as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin and their contribution to an incredible summer of sport.

Today, for entirely unrelated reasons, I decided to go swimming myself. Never, ever let it be said that I’m easily led.

In preparing to hit the water, I’d fooled myself into thinking that a week or so of careful study of elite swimmers’ technique might improve my own performance. Armed with this sure knowledge, I jumped in, and immediately attempted a proper, head-in-water, Freestyle stroke which, in my defence, I did quite well for about ten metres before happening upon the realisation that I wasn’t sure how to breathe whilst doing it.

As I tried to figure it out, I was casting envious glances at the person swimming next to me. Man, he looked the part. Cap, goggles, aquashorts, head in the water, perfect technique, breathing on the third stroke. How dare he show me up in this way? I was at the Olympics last week, where was he?!

So I decided. I was going to race him. That would show him.

And so I finished my length. I waited for him. And then, with an imaginary starter’s gun in my head, off we went.

It was an epic battle. He with his almost effortless front crawl versus me, having reverted to my usual, peculiar, head-above-water Breaststroke, albeit a particularly lungbusting version of it.

Somehow, against all the odds, I was head-to-head with my rival as we approached the wall that marked the end of the 25-metre length and, according to my rules, our race. “You’re Michael Phelps, you’re Michael Phelps”, I told myself.

It was tight, and for a moment I was worried that he might pip me at the post. But, with one last desperate lunge at the wall, I sealed my victory and celebrated wildly as my opponent sadly accepted his abject failure.

OK, that’s not actually what happened. I touched the wall first, that bit is true. But I was simply too tired to celebrate, which is good, because I suppose, what with the other lad not actually knowing he was in a race, it might have looked a little weird.

Let’s also ignore the fact that he then went on to swim at least three lengths in the time it took me to recover from the exertions of our momentous battle.

I won, that was all that mattered. And as I swam away, the theme to ‘Chariots of Fire’ reverberated in my head.

Keep on running…

Blogs, ‘eh? You go more than six months without writing one, then two come along at once. It’s no coincidence. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions as a rule, but I’ve resolved to be more resolute and one of my aims is to write for pleasure more often. So here I am.

The second resolution is a little more difficult to achieve. I’m aiming to shed three stones in weight before seeing in 2013, which I realise is a big ask given my genuine love of pizza and curry and pies and crisps and that, but I’m doing my damnedest to stick at it.

To that end, I’ve done something fairly drastic – I’ve started to run. Well, I say run, it’s more of an awkward, wheezing stagger around the block at the moment. But, it’s a start.

Those who have only known me in adulthood will understandably struggle to picture me as a runner. Something to do with the aforementioned pizza, curry, pies and crisps, I’ll bet. Those who’ve known me a little longer will know differently, though.

Y’see, as a teenager, I was quite the promising middle-to-long distance runner, following in the footsteps of my dad, a former Birchfield Harrier in his own right. The plan was for me too to develop my talent, join a club, and perhaps enjoy a lifetime of competitive athletics. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that I’m pretty much made of glass as various injuries took hold. A knee complaint saw me housebound for an entire summer at the age of around 13, and near constant ankle-knacks eventually led to me calling it quits a couple of years later. Shortly afterwards, I began to gain weight, and the rest as they say, is history.

So, why have I started again? Well, it’s not quite the sudden epiphany some have when they take up a new fitness pursuit. Nor is it any sort of desire to try and recapture past glories. It’s more a matter of practicality.

Just under a year ago I began, along with my colleagues at S&X, to look after PR for New Balance (the world’s finest purveyor of athletic footwear, I’ll have you know). One of the perks of this was being gifted with a few pairs of trainers, including some of their lovely fashion-led shoes which quickly became acquainted with my everyday attire. However, there was one pair of shoes which remained firmly in the box – a pair of shiny, top of the range running shoes.

Frequently I would see them peering out at me from the wardrobe, almost pleading with me to try them on. “Come on, Tom. We’re worth £95, for God’s sake! Wear us!” And it was tempting. But knowing that I’d become so unfit that sprinting for a bus left me fairly breathless, I felt sure that my running days were over forever.

That was until I read about a new iPhone app called Run5k, an ingenious little system which builds you up from running in bursts of just 45 seconds to begin with to, hopefully, being able to run for half an hour non-stop by the 8th week. It’s early days, but I’m at least getting out and doing my bit and setting out on that road to being three stones lighter. And, touch wood, none of the old injuries have flared up just yet, which is promising.

So, why am I writing about this? Well, it’s quite simple – I want to make sure I stick at it, and I feel that by announcing my intentions as publicly as possible I’ll be extra motivated to, y’know, actually go ahead and do it. The logic is simple – if I tell you all now that I intend to lose the weight, I feel obliged to do it so I don’t sound like some knobhead who’s full of good intentions but not willing to put in the effort. And it also means that if we get to new year’s eve and I’m still a fatty, I’m giving you a free pass to direct a ginormous torrent of abuse in my direction. Win-win, in a way. Sort of.

Here’s how it will work – my progress will become a regular topic of discussion here and on my Twitter feed. I’ll keep you up to date, let you know how far I’m running, and how much weight I’ve shed. I’ll be open about when I’ve done well, and honest when I’ve done badly. And a little encouragement would be appreciated too, if you feel at all inclined to offer it.

And in the spirit of openness and honesty, if you saw this message earlier, I have to confess – I didn’t go. My dinner was ready when I got home and it looked so ruddy delicious that I couldn’t wait a minute longer. But I’ll endeavour to get up early in the morning…

You know I will. I really will.

My name’s Tom… and I’m a karaokoholic.

The best part of The X Factor each year is invariably the audition stage, and without fail it tends to boast some poor bloke who assures the judges that he’s ‘brilliant’ at karaoke before the inevitable tuneless drone is met by the boos and jeers of the baying crowd.

I fear the day will soon come when that poor bloke is me.

Last month my mate Perksy arranged a night at the Tap and Spile karaoke in Birmingham as a pre-Christmas gathering. I sang a couple of duets, had a laugh with friends, and looked on in amazement as Rachel New stole the show with a frankly magnificent performance of White Lines by Grandmaster Flash. It was wonderful.

That would have been that, except it awakened something in a few of us. Perksy, Kerri, Sarah and I went back. And then again. And this weekend we racked up our fifth trip to the karaoke in little over a month.

We’ve developed significantly in that time. Kerri and I have finely honed our performance of ‘The Bad Touch’ by The Bloodhound Gang, I’ve shed the initial nerves to the point where singing several songs without copious amounts of Dutch courage doesn’t particularly concern me, we’ve become well known enough that we were entrusted with the compering of the midnight countdown on New Year’s Eve, and ‘Karaoke Richard’, our master of ceremonies, has bought us drinks.

However, amid all the considerable fun we’re having , I must confess that I do have a lingering concern that we could be becoming those karaoke people. The ones who show up every week, the ones who take it really seriously, the ones who develop a high opinion of their own ability… the ones who end up getting carried away and audition for X Factor. Oh God…

While jovially I’ll always steadfastly insist that my singing is worthy of any stage, the truth is that my limitations mean that I’ll generally perform something between spoken word and parody opera. Only, I must be honest, there have been occasions recently when I’ve tried to actually sing. Y’know, properly, like. I know that Perksy has too. What is becoming of us?

Kerri and Sarah, on the other hand, are perfectly accomplished singers, so I’m less concerned that they might end up embarrassing themselves. However, their in-depth summits during the process of song selection suggest that they too might have been afflicted with the mindset of the regular karaokist, let alone the occasions when they’ve continued to sing the refrain of a song acapella long after the backing track has finished. Milking it, obviously.

Our most recent visit, though, made me think that we may seriously need to take a look at ourselves and work out if things need to brought under control.

You see, midway through the evening, spots of water began to drip through the ceiling, which soon gave way to several significant streams of water. As beer buckets were brandished to catch the errant liquid, I realised that it kind of looked like piss. And it kind of smelled like piss. And it kind of… WAS piss. Real life, genuine human piss, coming from a flooded toilet upstairs. With that in mind, spare a thought for Karaoke Richard who, in the initial confusion as to what could be causing the leak, had decided to TASTE the mystery liquid. Bless him.

At this point, you may imagine that with the bar covered in significant puddles of human waste, the pub would have closed immediately due to environmental health concerns. You’d be wrong. As fairly cultured and intelligent people, you might imagine that we would have made a collective decision that a pub with piss literally raining down from the ceiling wasn’t the place where we should be spending our Friday night. Sadly, again, you’d be wrong. We just bloody love karaoke so much, and if it takes an inadvertent golden shower to do it then that’s just something we have to put up with.

It’s time to admit it, we have a severe problem, and we can only get through it with your unwavering support.

Until then, I would like to sing ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, please.

You know I would. I really would…. BABY BABEH!

Here’s a little bonus feature for you, dear reader.

After reading this blog, you’re probably anxious to go and do karaoke now. It’s OK, I don’t blame you.

As a self-appointed expert, though, I do have some tips for you to follow. Take heed of these, and you too could become a world-class entertainer.

1. Only sing songs you actually know

It may seem like a very obvious thing to say, but there’s an incredible amount of people who get up to sing a song without seeming to have the first clue how the song goes. Yes, we all know the chorus of ‘Especially For You’, but if you don’t know the verses you can eff off, tbf.

2. Only sing songs everyone else actually knows

Some lad a couple of weeks ago got up and sang some obscure death metal song that was eight minutes long and which nobody else had ever heard of. Everyone was bloody well pissed off.

3. If you want to feel like a rockstar, sing Oasis

There’s something about Oasis songs which makes everyone want to sing along with you. Feels nice, man.

4. If you’re not a great singer, just make it funny

A humorous ad-lib has saved many an average singer. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than somebody getting on the mic and thinking they’re hilarious when really they’re just a loud annoying pisshead. All about balance, isn’t it? Needless to say, I’m ALWAYS hilarious.

5. Don’t be shy

At the end of the day, it’s a laugh, and nobody is going to think any less of you for taking part. Well, they might, but they’ll have forgotten about it tomorrow. Just have a drink, grab the mic and have fun.

All Aboard! – Adventures on the No.11

If you’re a friend or follower on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably got one question for me: WHY?

OK, OK… I realise it’s not conventional behaviour to spend two and a half hours on a bus before alighting at the very spot you boarded, but there is method behind the madness.

Birmingham’s No.11 Outer Circle is something of a local legend. At 27 miles long, it’s Europe’s longest urban bus route, giving you the option of travelling either clockwise or anti-clockwise through many of the City’s suburbs. Much of its legend comes from its circular, everlasting route. If you were among the few who watched this summer’s series of Big Brother, for instance, then you may have noticed that the bus stop in the garden was marked up as the No.11, symbolic of the near never-ending journey the housemates found themselves part of.

While I’m aware of the sentimental attachment of many Brummies to the route, I cannot claim it has any special significance to me. Having grown up in Aldridge, I’ve mainly travelled routes such as the 997 or the 367 – and all they’ve done is led me into a fervent hatred of Travel West Midlands’ unreliability.

So, what was it that prompted me to board the 11 for the very first time today?

For me, intrigue is often far more compelling than actual desire to do something. I won’t lie, when I woke up this morning, I did consider whether I really wanted to go ahead with this. Boarding the ‘peasant wagon’ when you’re going nowhere in particular isn’t exactly my idea of a good day out. But, John Bounds’ brainchild had intrigued me, and I needed to satisfy that curious itch.

The idea prompted my mind to journey back almost a year when I travelled alone to Birmingham’s twin city of Chicago. After a long flight and an arduous passage through customs, the last thing I wanted to see after hailing my cab was an endless expanse of traffic keeping me from the sanctuary of my downtown hotel. Luckily, my amiable driver was in possession of ‘The Knowledge’, and took me off the beaten track in order to ensure a speedier arrival.

He was almost apologetic as he took me through what he ominously described as ‘the bad neighbourhoods’, but unwittingly, he’d awoken something of an urban explorer within me. Travelling to somewhere like Chicago, you prepare yourself for hustle, bustle, and lots and lots of skyscrapers. Heading off the beaten track, however, offers a cultural experience that isn’t mentioned in any guidebook. Small, lived-in, and functional, there was something appealing about this snapshot of reality. A wise man in radioland once told me that there’s nothing more interesting than real life, and it’s become something of a mantra to me. It might seem odd, but I was fascinated by those ‘real-life’ neighbourhoods, people’s homes and businesses, away from the glistening tourist traps that modern city centres inevitably have to be, and, ultimately, just as interesting as any of the more traditional sightseeing destinations I visited that week.

As well as having a fascination for non-conventional ‘sightseeing’, I’m also baffled as to why we so often venture further afield in order to see the world when there’s plenty to be discovered on our own doorsteps. For instance, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some amazing places in my life, taking in sights such as the US Capitol Building in DC, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Coliseum in Rome, and the Holy Land in Israel to name only a few… however, I’ve never popped up the road to Stratford-Upon-Avon, proof if ever it were needed that we so often ignore what’s within easy reach of us. One thing was certain – the ride on the 11 would take me to places I’d never been before. Sure, mainly places that are unremarkable, but, just like that taxi ride through the outskirts of Chicago, the ordinary can often be extraordinary if you allow it to be.

And there it was, happening before my eyes as I travelled along, the good, the bad and the ugly. Within five minutes of leaving my starting point near to Villa Park, I saw the Police making an arrest. Over an hour later, I saw a second person being taken into custody. The use of retail space was also fascinating. About 80% were local independent traders, still going strong in the face of opposition from big business. Some carried slight imperfections – two with prominent spelling mistakes on their signage (one a hair salon called ‘Glamerous Ones’, another a newsagent with an electronic sign boasting their ability to ‘Unclock Phones’). Conversely, a huge number of stores had the shutters pulled down permanently, their dilapidated premises remaining as testament to the sad failure to remain as a going concern.

The beauty of the 11 is that while it goes all the way around Birmingham, it avoids the City Centre entirely, showing, one might argue, the REAL Birmingham. This is where people live; this is where families are raised. Real communities, real stories, real life. There’s nothing more interesting, after all.

As the bus entered Witton and Villa Park loomed back into view, the completion of a lap marked the denouement of my No.11 adventure. I’d presumed before setting off on my road to nowhere that I’d be relieved when my two and a half hour journey came to an end. But, do you know what, honestly? I actually felt quite sad that it was over, that there was no more new ground to explore. And that, I’m guessing, is the whole philosophy behind today.

And so, dear reader, here’s a plea of my own: If you ever find yourself with nothing to do, get on a bus, a train, in your car, and head somewhere you’ve never been before – even if somewhere is nowhere in particular. You never know what you might find!

You know you should. You really should.

Thomas T. Parker.

How was it for everyone else? Follow the Twitter conversation here.