AM_706x264_happiness_bottle

Joy at the behest of Coca Cola

Adverts have promised many things down the years. They promised me that if I smothered myself in the latest Lynx Compost then I would be first in line to sleep with thousands of beautiful women, all beating down a path to my heavenly-smelling armpits. They promised me that Morrison’s was renowned for its “fresh produce” when in reality, my local store looks like the quality control manager at the abattoir had a fortnight off sick, an illness which all the livestock contracted too.

They even promised me, through cunning use of an animated family, that banks like Lloyds TSB are friendly, welcoming, pleasure domes of endless credit, despite every branch having a solitary game of Guess Who? with half the pieces missing as their lone concession to being a place for all generations and not just a glorified ball pit for Russian oligarchs to sink their blood money into.

But happiness? Not many adverts promise happiness, perhaps with the exception of the Asian lady in the free local newspaper who apparently charges “moderate fees”. Adverts traditionally promote lifestyles. Look at this woman drinking a Danone yoghurt. Not only is she gorgeous, but she’s in a shiny, crystalline, minimalist mansion, sitting at a breakfast bar and sipping her raspberry-flavoured pot of nonsense. You never see a middle-aged, harassed-looking mother of three, swigging down a probiotic drink in between cleaning the dishes and extracting various toys from her children’s various orifices, before turning to the camera and saying: “It’s the only thing that keeps me sane”. You can live a life free of stress – the only difference between you and the gorgeous mansion-dweller is the mini receptacle of bacteria she’s gulping down with a satisfied smirk.

Or recently, as mobiles have accelerated to become a catch-all device, where every task will conceivably be controlled by Motorola in twelve years’ time, the phone advertisement has begun to resemble a self-help DVD. Instead of showing you the features or the internet speed, you just see people walking along beaches, taking photographs of sunsets and hugging a suspiciously attractive loved one, while some Mumford-alikes bash away tunelessly in the background.

You see people at festivals having an amazing time, texting each other and larking about with mates. Everything is perfect. The sun is shining, the weather is sweet. If you’re Bob Marley, you’re a rainbow too. Yet they’re not even off their face on drugs to enjoy themselves, or if they are, they’re hiding it well for the cameras. Without doubt, this is concrete proof that the only thing that stands between you being popular and your current sad state of affairs is the shitty device in your pocket with a smashed screen that doesn’t let you type the letter ‘m’ or phone people with a Portsmouth area code because you dropped it down a bog.

Promising happiness is an altogether riskier business, perhaps more so than giving the Asian masseuse in your free-sheet a call and asking if she requires you to wear protection. Nevertheless, one company has decided they can promote happiness with their product. So what is this innovation that will bring joy to the masses and gather everyone together like a Woodstock for 2014? That’s right! Hot off the press, Coca Cola will be offering a 1.75 litre bottle which, according to the tagline of the advert, will bring “happiness in a new size”. I happen to get spam emails promising something similar but this is an internationally-renowned company we’re talking about here and there are billboards all over the place telling the world about this astonishing innovation.

Who, in the history of human communication, from cavemen warning other cavefolk about scary bears through etched sketches to Linda McCartney telling you that buying her vegetarian sausages are the only way to avoid purgatory, has ever expressed a desire for the seismic gap between a 2 litre and a 1.5 litre bottle of Coke to be addressed? Are there people, serving drinks at a house party, wondering aloud why they always get too much or too little mixer? You’d have to be on a heavy cocktail of something illicit to find exultation or sorrow in that extra 250ml.

And you know that some advertising hack, wearing a Don Draper suit and pointing at people shouting “get that on my desk by Tuesday!” will have been paid gazillions to come up with that line. Then again, I suppose if someone suggested “Obesity and diabetes in a new size” they might find themselves unemployed.

The industry are not happy though. It’s the greatest wholesale controversy since they refused to bring Wispa back until a few years ago. Previously, this new-fangled size was only available at small stores, the sort of place where you get bacon for odd prices like £1.73 with more fat than meat and an assortment of randomly selected vegetables in cellophane wrapping. Now, Coca Cola’s whole range is switching to the ‘contours’ of the 1.75 litre bottle, which are apparently more appealing to consumers than the straight-up-and-down 2 litre variety, in what the company describe as its “biggest shake up” in years. I’d respond by telling the story about the time I swung a bottle of Coke Zero in a carrier bag all the way home, turned the lid in my kitchen and felt like I’d just won a Grand Prix, such was the velocity of the biggest shake up I’ve ever experienced.

For the non-thick amongst you – this is the internet so that number is microscopic – this is simply a marketing exercise to make more money. Shave off your material costs and watch the profit margins leap upwards. You’ve seen it with chocolate. What happened to that sixth bite you used to get? Why is a Mars Duo nearly the same size as an old Mars bar? It’s because they don’t want you to feel like you’re getting less value for money, they want to give you an illusion of choice. Or an illusion of happiness.

Either way, it’s another method of shovelling more harmful sugar down the population’s traps and then having the brass neck to sponsor sporting events and such like. It’s almost as if their human rights record, questionable attitude to producers in third world countries and chemically-imbalanced glucose streams are not enough to inspire loathing.

The inner sanctum of Hell is reserved for landlords

Landlords, eh? *mimes rolling of eyes* They nab a quarter of your wage packet, fail to meet any kind of polite standard of discourse and when they do deign to communicate with their tenants, it’s like being visited by the dead, as such a lengthy period of time has elapsed since their last hurried scribble of communication you wonder whether they’ve slipped from this mortal coil into the lower reaches of hell (a place they’d describe in a letting agent’s window as being “warm and cosy”). What do we get in return for our hard-earnt millions? A dishevelled cardboard box with a Fisher Price hob, a damp chill that could keep an ice-skating rink in fine fettle and all the grace and gratitude of an angry four-year-old protesting about eating greens and spitting broccoli over the kitchen table. I fucking hate them.

I try and reserve my hatred for special occasions nowadays, my vitriol compartmentalised and deposited in a Big Yellow Store Space of rage. There are too many bastards and corrupt idiots and charlatans out there for my hatred to be equally split between members of the FIFA International Committee and the rest of the world. But landlords? They make me reach into the murky depths of the reservoir of my hatred, pulling forth a grotty kernel of abhorrence and flinging it post-haste in their general direction.

In January, following weeks of near-biblical rainfall, a large chunk of soffit fell from my roof on to the pavement below, leaving an excrement-like splattering of brown sludge over our street. The falling debris smashed my housemate’s car windscreen and left us mopping up bricks and mortar for a few hours. We were a high-visibility jacket away from doing Community Service, or whatever they call it now – is it Civil Payback or Public Persecution or Humanity Humiliation? Only a desperately unpopular Home Office Minister looking for cheers from the cheap seats and nursing a stiffy seems to know what it’s called these days.

My landlord lives in Cyprus, a destination which (according to my crinkled Ordinance Survey map) is quite far away. Despite this, he felt able to diagnose the problem (wrongly) from thousands of miles away. We told him of the emerging situation and he helpfully responded by saying that we hadn’t cleaned the drains, leading to a blockage and the subsequent rotten roof. We pointed out that the rotten drainpipe, which looked how Jackie Stallone’s face must feel, was a superior guesstimate of the issue. Furthermore, a rotten drainpipe doesn’t just burst into fruition within five months, it’s the result of continued neglect. We even had a video of it, with rainwater pouring through the gutter at a rate which would shame a power shower. No, Landlord Clutserfuck replied, we were responsible. Never mind that our neighbours said they had our gutters cleaned a few weeks before we moved in. Forget the fact that a tenant’s responsibilities do not include climbing a rickety ladder and scooping sycamore leaves from a drainpipe. Landlord Arsewipe still maintained that he would claw back the costs of repair from our deposit, which now looks as secure as a Siberian gay pride march.

In the meantime, our property was in a very bad way. Do you remember when Britain was the “sick man of Europe” ‘cos we couldn’t run a bath let alone an empire, and we had something called a ‘ha’penny’ for currency, which is one step above using goats for the exchange of goods? Well, our house is the sickest in Europe. There are post-earthquake tower blocks in Asia which provide better standards of living. The walls are soaking wet, with moisture seeping in everywhere. The bedrooms, bathroom and kitchen are covered in little black spots of damp. I don’t know whether our walls are radar monitors or suffering from gangrene.

To remedy this, our landlord promised us a series of works which would haul the house, limping and spluttering, past a health and safety inspection. When we were signing our tenancy agreement, his eyes glowing with dollar signs as we filled in the paperwork, he promised that just weeks after moving in, our modest three-bed place would be transformed into a palatial, opal garden of delights, a treat for all the senses. As soon as we were handed the keys, nothing happened. During the summer, we didn’t notice a thing. I was too busy celebrating leaving home with a glass or three of Pimm’s on our patio and watching Miranda box-sets. But as the wild weather came in from shores afar, the house took a battering.

Whenever we pointed out a mishap or emergency, our landlord was lackadaisical at best. I’m not asking him to come round and share a spliff on the chintz sofa we purloined from the streets. I don’t want him to turn up for a night out with a bottle of Captain Morgan’s and wake the next morning, cooking us a fry-up to flush out a hangover. But I do expect human decency. Our shower would pack up for days at a time, while he would send emails effectively asking if we had turned the boiler off and on again so he didn’t have to call a plumber.

Halfway through our tenancy, he finally got round to doing something about the damp-ridden living room. “Two to three weeks” he said it would take. Today marks the commencement of the third month of works. Our kitchen is caked in dust so think you could hold a long jump competition on the breakfast bar. For eight weeks I have given up cooking food, eating a diet solely consisting of Co-Operative meal deals, which after the umpteenth chicken and bacon sandwich, wears a bit thin (somewhat predictably, my waist size if far from wearing thin).

Couched in the nicest possible language – the Queen could have penned the missive – we asked for a rebate, some small compensation for having burly chaps blaring Radio 1 from 8am every morning and for them not knowing the difference between a draining board and a bin when disposing tea bags. Our request was rebuffed with the words “There will be no compensation”, like the bit in a film when a pleading captive begs for mercy, while their accosters look on, laughing.

And that’s what renting a house feels like in modern day Britain. We are tied to the train tracks, desperately scrambling to break free but the oncoming train of a landlord’s shameful neglect looks set to carve us a new skin.

Drinking cherryade in Dublin

“Whisky please” I said to the barman, who noted my English accent and allowed a faint sneer of mischievousness to enter his world.

“I’ve got this brand here” he said, gesturing towards a dusty bottle full of amber liquid taking pride of place in the centre of the bar. “The oldest whiskey this side of the Liffey” he continued, his sales patter working its magic on two inebriated softy, shandy-swilling southerners. For the record, this pair of imbeciles were myself and good mate Chris.

“Go on then” I slurred, coughing up twenty-four euros.

I decided to get away from the stresses of the professional workplace by leaving for Dublin on a 48-hour quest to discover the Irish way of things, which turns out to involve copious amounts of alcohol. Flights and hotel were a steal at £70 so we ventured to Gatwick Airport to board our scheduled Ryanair flight. Before heading to the boarding gate, we took the time to check out Duty Free. We quickly stumbled across a posh alcohol shop. I knew it was posh because I couldn’t see a resigned-looking Pakistani shopkeeper behind the till, restocking Frosty Jacks cider and serving Bacardi to acne-ridden teenagers.

There were two gentleman behind the counter and in-keeping with the store’s Scottish theme, one was wearing a kilt, a fully-blown affair with tasselled sporran and everything. After looking at the prices of a decent bottle of whiskey, easily upwards of £50, we winced and feigned interest for a few more seconds so we didn’t appear rude. Then the kilted gentleman spoke and an Eastern European voice came forth, a throaty Polish or Lithuanian rasp, the kind you hear asking if you would like any salad with your Subway. There I was thinking his kilt was a proud, outward emblem of our cousins north of the border, where in fact he was being forced to wear it to sell brandy to tourists. It’s a flawed business model. Who purchases alcohol based on the vendor’s clothing? “Oh yes, I’ll spunk £100 on a bottle of Jameson’s Irish Best ‘cos some crop-haired Czechoslovakian looks like Michael Flatley”.

A seamless transition from Dublin Airport to Gardiner Street later and we were standing outside our hotel, looking up at our home for the next two nights. The night before we left, I made the classic mistake of Googling “Where not to go in Dublin”. According to the good people of the internet we were staying in a drug-addled, crime-afflicted hotspot, and we could count our-selves lucky if we get non-violently mugged. A number of people mentioned that the north side of the city was a no-go area, the pit of humanity, the puss-filled boil of Ireland’s capital.

On the plane, I was therefore wondering whether dropping into the Irish Sea might be preferable to a night in Beelzebub’s den of iniquity. The reality was thankfully more pleasant, even if the two blokes standing at the hotel’s entrance were giving menacing looks to everyone that passed, their eyes following us into reception with a pained expression I previously associated with haemorrhoids.

Hotel security consisted of the receptionist taking your key when you left and giving it back upon your return. Any Paddy, Murphy or Seamus could have rocked up, said the magic words “214 please” and be handed the keys to our passports, spending money and condom stash (packed more in hope than expectation). Although it would have been a blessing in disguise if they had it off with Chris’ stupid hat.

Our Ground Zero was O’Connell Street, the main thoroughfare north of the river and Europe’s widest street, an interesting fact which nearly glossed over the continuous rain falling on it. From here you could plot days of entertainment. Irish gift shops lined the sidewalks, selling a gawdy mixture of leprechaun-embroidered materials for brain-dead tourists. Slap bang in the middle of O’Connell Street was a huge metal cotton bud, 200 metres high. Quite why this was the focal point of the area is beyond me, as there was nothing else to it, just a tall sliver of silver.

Needing to taste some Irish nightlife, we cannily purchased a bottle of whiskey for our hotel, which was hastily despatched. The accompanying movie to our drinkage was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Chris and I are serious Harry Potter geeks. We can sustain days of conversation over some minor plot point, when the usual topics of natter run dry. This viewing experience was somewhat different, being broadcast on Irish state channel TG4, which provides terrible Gaelic overdubs. Harry Potter sounded less like the saviour of the wizarding world, more a bored train conductor relaying safety information to passengers. The rest of the ensemble seemed to be voiced by the same person, presumably because only six people still speak Gaelic. The subtitles were little better. Halfway down our bottle of Bushmill’s whiskey, we kept having to look at each other, asking “Did you just see that as well?” as another dodgy translation appeared on screen. “My want Harry. Pass me my want”.

The weather was atrocious so we weren’t too fussed that the film finished at 8pm. Eventually we trekked to O’Shea’s, a pub on the corner of our street. I was decidedly wobbly at this point, so I did the sensible thing and ordered a Kopparberg Mixed Fruit, which went down like a lead balloon with the barman.

“One pint of gay Panda pop for the lady” he said, delicately placing the drink on a quilted napkin with a camp flourish. He relished Chris’ laughter at my humiliation, before turning to him and snorting “I haven’t even started on your fecking hat yet”. The telly was showing Stevenage v Everton in the FA Cup, an uninspiring affair of the highest order. At least it made us drink up and move on, dodging thunderstorms and torrential downpours in the process.

We crossed the river and headed to Temple Bar, the ‘it’ place in Dublin, where you need to be seen, heard and sprawled across the pavement, dribbling vomit into the nearest drain at 3am. I saw a decent looking pub and we had another drink. Still recovering, I went for another pink cider. At the next watering hole, we took our afore-mentioned twelve euro medicine and at this point, my faculties shut up shop.

The next morning, Chris mentioned The Six Nations, adverts for which were adorning every billboard in town. “So that’s what you were talking about last night”.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“With that barman, you talked for ages about playing England or something”.

“Crikey” I replied, noting that I must have made an enormous bosom of myself because my rugby knowledge is minimal at best, extending to the playing equipment – a ball that looks like Will Self’s face and a set of football goalposts with a couple of O’Connell Street cotton buds sticking up from the posts – and the extremely hench players wearing gum shields.

At last knockings, we went for something to eat. Chris opted for a cottage pie, which he repeatedly told the waiter was “the best cottage pie I have ever had in my life”.

“Christ on a bendy bus mate, it’s pastry, meat and some bloody potatoes. The Michelin star might have to be put on hold” I said, sarcasm getting the best of me. By midnight we were full and in no state to go clubbing or even pubbing, so we tramped back to our hotel, thanked the heavens that the drunkard doorman hadn’t stolen our belongings and climbed in to bed for a long, long sleep.

Never thought I would see the day

Technology rarely impinges on my parent’s lives. They are simple folk who genuinely once thought that Appletiser was alcoholic, leading to breathless concern when I bought a six-pack at the local newsagents when I could barely reach the counter.

You might think that the internet has penetrated every nook and cranny of our society. For the vast majority, this is indeed the case. Only last week at work, a schoolboy who couldn’t be older than thirteen told me about how he moonlights as a ‘brony’, a male fan of kiddywink telly programme ‘My Little Pony’. He described how he frequents brony forums to discuss the equine happenings and horseplay (ba-dum-dum-tish) of talking, multi-coloured ponies with fellow fans.

I am still amazed that whatever fanciful whim you wish to indulge is there, blinking back at you within 0.01272 seconds of a Google search. But I still found it extraordinary that a young lad could unashamedly announce his love for such a feminine show, knowing there are others out there like him. He might have looked like a normal teenager, with a haircut, skinny jeans and a belief he was somehow important. Yet he has managed to find his niche and feels empowered enough to tell relative strangers something so personal that might open him up to ridicule.

Twenty years ago, he’d have had to pretend he liked Transformers or Power Rangers in order to conform with notional perceptions of what masculinity entails, namely blowing shit up and being a badass. For all that the internet has helped young people like him, my family home never went broadband. It hardly even went Nokia. To them, the internet was a mythical hellish place for paedophiles and porn addicts, not the concern of a parochial Amish dwelling like mine.

It’s not just the world wide web, either. It’s all technology. I receive a voicemail from Mum every six months concerning her new phone. “I can’t work this bloody thing” I hear her mutter, before the connection is lost and I can’t get through for weeks, hearing only a feint bleeping noise when I dial her digits. I once had to watch my Mum texting someone, an agony which really shouldn’t be inflicted on anyone without recourse to the European Court of Human Rights. She was stamping each button at a snail’s pace and hadn’t yet worked out how to turn the sound off, so with every thumbed letter came a noise like a baby angrily stamping on a xylophone.

Mum and Dad came home once, proudly announcing they had begun a course in basic computing. “I just Googled for the first time” Dad said, with wide-eyed wonder, as if he’d just been bungee-jumping in New Zealand. “Although I got a bit of a shock when I searched for your brother’s Christmas presents and typed in ‘Action Man’” he continued.

“I bet you did” I replied, while Mum recounted her first Facebook experience, which didn’t seem to go as planned. “Your Auntie Sarah left me a message but I didn’t know how to reply. When I finally worked out what to do our hour was up” she said, unabashed that it took a full sixty minutes to understand the basic principles of Facebook Chat.

When we got Sky+ I spent countless hours trying to teach them about the recording facilities. “All you do is press this big red button and it will record” I’d intone, directing them to the planner where they could watch recorded shows. “Don’t get all technological on me” Mum would say, reaching for her glasses and asking for a step-by-step diagram and a video tutorial.

Half the reason we never had an internet connection was because they had a teenage boy in their house and knew that giving him free license on the internet would only end in more laundry. To be fair, they had a point. The only X-rated material I could get my hands on were those adverts at the back of magazines with a pouting blonde instructing you to dial her chat line. Either that or a painfully slow mobile browser which loaded one page every twenty minutes when it wasn’t raining. There was never enough time to look up anything on a search engine, so I had to type in a guessed website and hope that I’d be directed to the good, proper biological stuff.

Therefore, it was quite a shock when I arrived home for Christmas and discovered they have Wi-Fi. I entered the living room and there it was, atop the cupboard, shimmering away. “How do I connect?” I asked, knowing it was a lost cause. Mum and Dad looked blank, pretending they didn’t hear me. Besides, they were too busy looking for the fast forward button on the DVD remote control, as they were halfway through an episode of Nordic crime drama ‘The Bridge’. Eventually finding it, they skipped too far ahead, leading to more frantic searching for the rewind option. It would have been quicker to hire a film crew and re-enact the final twenty minutes. “You’ll have to wait ‘til your sister gets in” Mum said when pressed, continuing to cook the Christmas dinner by candlelight and washing my clothes in a mangle.

I suppose I have inherited some of their unintentional backwardness. I’m a huge fan of physical products, shelling out thousands of pounds a year for music I can touch, DVDs I can handle, books I can destroy while reading them in the bath. As I said, the internet is a wonderful thing, giving voice to disenfranchised voices the world over but words on a screen, music as binary code, television box sets watched with a tinny set of laptop speakers, are not for me.

When I picture my life in twenty years, my first wish is for an entertainment library, an extravagant room of alphabetically listed CDs and vinyl and a bookshelf overfilling with things I will never read recommended by people with more cultural capital than me. I envisage walking in, surveying the space and declaring “I’ve made it”. The beautiful, nymphomaniac, Latino wife, the perfectly well-adjusted daughter and son, the fulfilling job doing good in the world… they can wait. I want to pluck a dusty old seven-inch single from my shelving unit and play it on a crackly old gramophone.

So I guess I ‘get’ modern technology because it has been part of my life since I remember, bastard Microsoft Word paperclip included. I still yearn for something physical though, instead of a string of computer code. You can see why my parents getting Wi-Fi is such a life re-evaluating moment for me. It was the one place I was sure I could go without the modern world crushing me from all sides. Now even my haven of medieval values has been usurped by the unstoppable forward march of technology, all for the purpose of watching a YouTube video of a funny cat.

Albums and tracks of 2013

What a marvellous year for music. As ever, I am supremely grateful for the opportunity music gives me to ignore other people on public transport. When things are getting a bit rowdy on a late train – the kind of journey where you know that any girl in a short skirt will attract the leering advances of drunken wankers who think they can enchant the fairer sex, when all they can do is knock them cold with Carlsberg breath – it’s always a joy to whack up the MP3 player and let the masses have it out amongst themselves.

There were some big comebacks, all good except for the Daft Punk album, which was a non-distinct fart in the vicinity of my headphones. Bowie returned in good health and armed with enough songs to release one of those ‘Deluxe Edition’ albums which were previously cordoned off to silicone-enhanced teeny-boppers who couldn’t sell a second album, so fix a few tunes to the end of their first. The Arctic Monkeys finally became the best band in Britain, following the excellent ‘Suck It And See’ with the even-better ‘AM’. The public seems to agree too, and the Glasto set proved to be their crowning glory.

I’ve moved in with a couple of queers so that explains why Lady Gaga is on my top tracks of the year (although I always thought ‘Bad Romance’ was a stonking tune). I found myself tapping along to fucking Cher when she was on Graham Norton the other night… I lay the blame fully at the feet of my housemates. ‘I Hope You Find It’ finished just outside my Top 40 at a credibility-restoring 41.

Now, here’s to an amazing 2014. In music and in life, although the two do seem to get muddled up.

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

1) Arctic Monkeys – AM

Sexy, glammed-up and the dirtiest thing this side of Josh Homme’s laundry basket, ‘AM’ is the sound of a band continuing to live up to the hype with their best set yet. Impeccable basslines, slinky vocal hooks and a further sharpening of Alex Turner’s eye for lyrical majesty make this the album of the year, if not the decade. Masterpiece.

2) The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National are the kind of band for whom ‘business as usual’ means something special. Yes, ‘Trouble Will Find Me’ is preoccupied with its own shoelaces, casting an occasional wary eye upon the world’s ills and coming to the conclusion that a stiff drink might sort it out. Four fantastic, beautiful records in a row.

3) Biffy Clyro – Opposites

Double albums can give bands the opportunity to bullshit and fuck around with a winning formula. But the Biff’ keep things simple. The ballads are more affecting than ever (‘Opposite’), the rockers rock harder than ever (‘Little Hospitals’) and things stay consistently excellent across twenty tracks.

4) David Bowie – The Next Day

No grand classic from The Dame, but ‘The Next Day’ is a great LP nonetheless. A fine collection of raw, sometimes caustic rock ‘n’ roll, plus a few gorgeous slowies (‘Where Are We Now’, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’) make Bowie’s return a marketing triumph and a musical one too.

5) Everything Everything – Arc

Previously under the impression that you had to be cerebral (code for “above everyone’s head”) to be noticed, Everything Everything keep the smarts on their sophomore album but dial up the tunes, led by the effervescent ‘Kemosabe’ and the impossibly rhythmic ‘Cough Cough’.

6) Pet Shop Boys – Electric

A couple of old geezers go back to the dancefloor. This could have been an almighty mess but the resulting nine tracks are never short of joyous, an ode to spending a life on the dancefloor. Men in their fifties sound re-tooled and re-booted for a 21st Century welcoming them with open arms.

7) Manic Street Preachers – Rewind The Film

The Welsh boys rein in their anthemic tendencies for an all-acoustic affair. They have found a whole new way to express themselves; ’30 Year War’ still rocks out but tender acoustic tracks like ‘Running Out of Fantasy’ and ‘This Sullen Welsh Heart’ are the ones that stand out.

8) Johnny Marr – The Messenger

In the year of Morrissey’s annus horriblis, Johnny Marr emerges victorious with a buoyant collection of pop rock gems, replete with his trademark shimmering guitar.

9) Suede – Bloodsports

2002’s ‘A New Morning’ was a catastrophe. To come back over a decade later with glam-pop gems like the ones on ‘Bloodsports’ has rescued their reputation and made them deserved stars again.

10) Surfer Blood – Pythons

Weezer-ish melodic rock, moving on well from the decent ‘Astro Coast’ to cement Surfer Blood as a band to look out for.

11) Arcade Fire – Reflektor

It’s a great concept and notionally great idea; it’s just a shame that Arcade Fire going disco doesn’t quite live up to its potential. Still marvellous though.

12) Franz Ferdinand – Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action

Back after the unfairly lampooned ‘Tonight’, the Scottish quartet bring their twitchy guitar pop to the fore once more, winning back hearts and minds that should never have been lost in the first place.

13) Deaf Havana – Old Souls

A rallying from the British Gaslight Anthem. I was always gonna love this and so it proves to be – a fist-pumping collection of emotive rock with canyon-sized choruses.

14) Deerhunter – Monomania

On the title track, you just hear the title being screamed at you for three minutes. At other points, there’s dream-pop of the highest order. A record of extremes but they all come together nicely.

15) Janelle Monae – Electric Lady

She should be bigger than Beyonce. She has the swagger, the moves (check her out on Jools Holland) and she’s got funk-pop spilling out of her black and white corset.

16) Kurt Vile – Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze

A dreamy haze of gently plucked guitars, always moving in forward motion but somehow trapped in time. Ten minute bookends ‘Goldtone’ and the title track get lost in their own mindspace.

17) Smith Westerns – Soft Will

Substantially more subdued than 2011’s terrific ‘Dye It Blone’, ‘Soft Will’ still brings the mesmeric textures and longing vocals – they’re just a bit sadder this time round.

18) Kanye West – Yeezus

I haven’t listened to ‘Yeezus’ substantially but every time I do, I think it’s a majestic tour de force. ‘Nuff said.

19) Splashh – Comfort

A radiant, summery garage rock record, outrageously lo-fi at times but the sugar rush tunes still come through.

20) John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

Lyrically stunning, John Grant’s second album sees him throwing out the 70s rock nostalgia in favour of icy electronics, which by and large works a treat, especially on should-be-hit ‘Sensitive New Age Guy’.

TRACKS OF THE YEAR

1) Suede – Snowblind

Well, against all odds, Suede have not only returned to life with the excellent ‘Bloodsports’. They also create their best ever track. Yes, better than ‘Trash’ or ‘Everything Will Flow’ or ‘Still Life’. It swoops and snarls like their classics before ascending to an astonishing vocal turn from Brett Anderson. In one fell swoop Suede return to the top table of modern rock. Three and a half minutes of ecstasy.

2) Daft Punk – Get Lucky

The robots have created a monster. ‘Get Lucky’ can be played at a nightclub and everyone dances their face off. ‘Get Lucky’ can be played in the car and soundtrack a journey. ‘Get Lucky’ can be played at your Nan’s wedding reception and will be the highlight of the evening. ‘Get Lucky’ can be played on Radio 1, 2 or 6. ‘Get Lucky’ can be covered by a ten-piece jazz band in a Brighton pub and still sound magnificent. It’s an all-time classic. You’ve heard it enough times to know that.

3) Fall Out Boy – The Phoenix

From the abyss, FOB return with a proper rock ‘n’ roll, hands-in-the-air stormer. Faintly ridiculous and over the top, any cheesiness is immediately vanquished when that killer chorus comes in. Set to slay festivals for as long as they exist.

4) Pet Shop Boys – Vocal

Closing ‘Electric’, ‘Vocal’ would be a massive hit single if we lived in an age when bands like the Pet Shop Boys could have massive hit singles.

5) Enter Shikari – Radiate

Hellishly raucous, ‘Radiate’ manages to make a political point (“so to keep us all from falling apart, we’ll write songs in the dark”) while also delivering a stonking tune, blending their already pummelling guitars to some whirling dervish wob-wob electronics.

6) Arctic Monkeys – Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?

Three quarters of ‘AM’ could have been a track of the year, such was the quality of this track’s parent album. A meaty bassline meets more falsetto vocals and magic ensues.

7) The National – Graceless

Ignore the title, this is The National at their most graceful and evocative, all swooning and gloriously downbeat, even with lyrics like “Graceless… Is there a powder to erase this?”

8) Johnny Marr – New Town Velocity

Penultimate track of Marr’s solo effort, ‘New Town Velocity’ sheds the power indie of the rest of ‘The Messenger’ to deliver one of those effortless and mesmeric guitar lines that will ring out through the ages.

9) Los Porcos – Sunshine

A gorgeous summer anthem, riding on the coat-tails of the disco comeback.

10) John Newman – Love Me Again

A massive number one single and deservedly so. It’s like Plan B went back to being your Mum’s favourite but even better.

11) Disclosure – White Noise

With help from Aluna Francis, ‘White Noise’ proved a club smash with its propulsive house groove.

12) Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Sacrilege

‘Mosquito’ was a disappointment. Nothing came close to this gospel-tinged mammoth.

13) Kanye West – Black Skinhead

Kanye goes glam rock! Ish! With a lyric of fulminating bragging and much panting, Jay Z’s heir to the throne stakes his claim.

14) Placebo – Too Many Friends

“My computer thinks I’m gay”, “The applications are to blame”… something tells me Brian Moloko isn’t too keen on the modern age of the interweb. I can’t help but partially agree. Whilst watching it on YouTube, texting a mate and playing Angry Birds. Good point well made, Placebo.

15) Franz Ferdinand – Right Action

Yet more A-grade twitchy indie pop.

16) The Orwells – Who Needs You

Chicago punks hit the ground running with a Dave Sitek-produced slab of prime Strokes-y guitar thrills.

17) Arcade Fire – Reflektor

The Fire go disco with a seven minutes plus joyous epic.

18) David Bowie – The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

A simple but stunning track, Bowie sounds grand for a man apparently on the edge of death last year.

19) Icona Pop – I Love It

No-one can deny the visceral pop thrills of ‘I Love It’.

20) Merchandise – Anxiety’s Door

American punks Merchandise continue to burrow the 80s indie rock canon with ever-improving results.

21) Chvrches – Gun

22) Foals – My Number

23) Deerhunter – Monomania

24) Everything Everything – Cough Cough

25) Empire Of The Sun – Alive

26) The War on Drugs – Red Eyes

27) Still Corners – Berlin Lovers

28) Breton – Envy

29) Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines

30) Queens Of The Stone Age – Smooth Sailing

31) Surfer Blood – Say Yes To Me

32) Lady Gaga – Applause

33) Haim – The Wire

34) Tegan and Sara – Closer

35) Drake – Just Hold On, We’re Going Home

36) Two Door Cinema Club – Changing Of The Seasons

37) Justin Timberlake – Mirrors

38) The Killers – Shot At The Night

39) Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes

40) The Fratellis – She’s Not Gone Yet, But She’s Leaving

It might be different this time

Watching England play international football is like competing badly in the Commonwealth Games – you know you’re there purely to make up the numbers. In the same way that being able to walk in a straight line without falling in a ditch gets you a place in the St Kitts & Nevis athletics squad, England always perform just well enough to make it to big tournaments. It’s a bit of a let-down, really. After all, we have the Premier League, a glitzy, orgiastic bonfire of money and talent, a rum illumination of what petulant twenty-something millionaires do at the pinnacle of club soccer. Then, come dark autumnal evenings, we are left to watch the dregs of Norwich City’s second XI poke a nervy singular goal beyond a despairing Macedonian goalkeeper, while a weather-hardened manager looks on in despair, ageing at fourteen times the natural rate.

The build up to big England games is a blood-letting, size 52 font, Capital Letter howl of demented anguish asking “WHY?” Why are we not good enough to compete against the likes of Brazil, Spain and Bosnia-Herzegovina? Why can’t we string three passes together, let alone employ tiki-taka? Why is it that we created the game, codified it, professionalised it, took it round the world, only for street kids in Africa to end up beating us into submission while pasty-faced Liverpudlians conform to the school of football which dictates you run after the ball willy-nilly and tactical nous is a dirty concept? Why is it that we put so much pressure on our lads to perform when it matters, so that instead of playing with verve and dynamism, they play like a pub side on the piss? Why is it that we moan about this pressure, while also getting really bloody angry when things go even slightly awry, enacting a witch hunt to hound every player and manager that fails to meet the ludicrous expectations of fans who are wider than they are tall?

I’d like to think I’m a realistic England fan, which puts me in a select group of patriots that could easily fit inside a lift. I hear people – let’s not mince our words, morons – regularly regurgitate the roll-call of dishonour of recent tournaments. “Quarter-finals, lost on penalties, Last 16, Quarter-final, Semi-final, lost on penalties” they whine on, spitting in your face as they do so, while actually not understanding that getting to the quarter-final of a World Cup indicates that you are among the finest eight teams in the world. And are we any better than that, really? There are two-hundred nations on this planet. Fair enough, some of them are just a few trees and a confused looking primate. Some have been changed so often that a once vast geographical region (and damn tricky football side) like Yugoslavia is now separated into dozens of enclaves and sub-countries, due to a civil war or an argument about the correct way to make goulash.

But an unceremonial quarter-final dumping still puts us in the top 5% of footballing nations on the planet which isn’t bad going. I watch highlights of teams like Holland and Germany, who just bulldoze opponents with nary a thought for the opposition’s feelings or confidence. Sometimes I think the England squad have been pulled to one side and told in hushed tones that the other team have just been given some very bad news, so they should try and spare their feelings. There’s a supreme arrogance when the Dutch are lining up to sing their national anthem, proud and comfortable, as opposed to the English choirboys who look on the verge of vomiting.

For the first time since the 2012 European Championships I watched an England game last week. It was a crucial tie against Montenegro, and a defeat would condemn the Three Lions to a play-off spot. I chanced my arm (and most of my body parts) by watching the game at The King & Queen in Brighton, one of those watering holes with screens the size of planets and a mob of drunken men clutching Carlsberg, yelling at the telly. The sound you could hear more than any other, above the din of chatter and the twinkle of glasses, was the well-worn subdued moans of disappointment. Every time England gave the ball away – you rarely have to wait longer than a few seconds – the gathered supporters will emit a “gnahr” sound, sometimes accompanied by the thrashing of arms and spotty cries of “Oh for fuck sake Gerrard”.

Then there’s the people who shout advice at the telly, as if Roy Hodgson is likely to say at his next press conference: “I was going to play James Milner on the right but when Bobby, the fulminating pisshead in The Thumb & Forefinger, suggested he was the worst player to ever don the sacred kit, I recalibrated my formation to include the ‘hungry youngsters’ he babbles on about because talented youth players who can step up on an international stage grow on fucking trees. I chose to ignore Bobby’s assertion that I was a useless female body part and an embarrassment to the managerial profession. Despite what he says, his Nan, who’s apparently dead, could not do a better job”.

In recent years there has been a marked shift in the clothing choices of England’s fans. Where once the heaving masses would sport a good old-fashioned Umbro kit from the 90s (and this was before retro became cool), now people attend the pub in comfortable knitwear and Converse. I peered around The King & Queen and not a single Gazza-crying-into-his-shirt doppelgänger could be seen. I remember having a few England tops in my time but in 2013, I cannot envisage a time when wearing one would improve anything. When I see two-year-olds in prams wearing their first diddy England shirt, I don’t inwardly smile and think “how cute”. I think “you’ve got decades of misery to come, sonny. All of the disappointments and tragedies to come in your life will mean nothing compared to seeing the country you love lose on penalties. Your heart may be broken by some vuluptuous temptress, you might not get everything you want. It may be hard to make your way in the world but the England football team will always be there to clasp its grimy paws around your shoulder and deliver crushing lows like you’ve never experienced. They won’t win anything in your lifetime, let alone mine”.

Happily, England beat Montenegro 4-1 and turned in the kind of performance which, if it didn’t fill me with hope, at least avoided filling me with despair. Andros Townsend capped a great debut with a superb goal. Time will tell if he lives up to the hype and vacates the list of one-time star performers, but every dog has its day. This week, Poland were beaten to book our ticket to Brazil 2014. It was a standard nerve-shredder and as I listened to the remnants of the match on the radio with us 1-0 ahead, I could hear the “gnahr”s of the Wembley crowd and I was thankful that I didn’t have the visual accompaniment, or I’d be reduced to throwing my arms around and pulling my eyes down, as only an England fan knows how.

When the World Cup comes around, I’ll be excited. Some may even think it’s our year because we thrash a bunch of Tajikistani farmers in a friendly. But when you sign up to watch England, you know you’re on a rollercoaster ride – the uncomfortable lurches, the overwhelming nausea, the feeling you’re falling, falling, falling. It brings us back to sup from the bottomless well of hope.

It’s not grim oop North, I promise

“On a scale of zero to five plums” Damian began, supping generously from a double vodka with mixer and reclining on a Travelodge bed, looking at peace with the world and the contents of his plastic glass. “How plum on it are you?” Sam, a few miles away in Leeds city centre, shouted back: “SEVEN PLUMS!!!”

Back in the Travelodge, we fall about laughing, knowing full well that the night’s entertainment ahead would indeed be a seven plums sort of evening. Maybe even a few apricots. I was in Leeds for the snooker, an English Ranking Series event. It’s about time I started taking the game seriously and after an unforgettable weekend, spending time on the baize before ending the night in a drunken haze, I have definitely made the right choice.

Just as we were dozing off on Friday night in a Bradford Travelodge that looked like a retirement home, we heard the unmistakeable sound of drunk girls. Our ears pricked up and we sidled over to the window for a closer inspection. There were three young women standing by reception, presumably awaiting a taxi to town, cackling mischievously and looking like they were up for good times.

“Say something Chris” Zack whispered, as we witnessed one of the girls stumble forward and nearly skittle her mate.

“Why don’t you?” I retorted, fearing the musky stench of rejection. This to-ing and fro-ing continued for a few minutes until Jamie, bored of our cowardliness, leaned out of the window and hollered “Y’alright girls, where are you off to tonight?”

It was a brave move and I wasn’t prepared, so I did the manly thing and hid under the sofa bed. Immediately there was a gale of laughter and the trotting of high heels. One girl, Lauren, had come dashing over like Usain Bolt. She was nice enough, although her black dress failed to disguise she was packing some weight. General pleasantries were exchanged and we discovered our rooms were diagonally opposite each other. As she spoke through the now wide open window, she kept sinking slightly because of the grass and her high heels, so it was like talking to the captain of a sinking ship.

“Why ain’t you coming out tonight?” she pleaded in her violently Essex accent. “You come all this way from Brighton and you wanna stay in together and bum each other off”.

“Make sure you knock on our door when you get in” Zack implored, half-jokingly, as we were all due to play at silly o’clock the next morning.

“OK we will” Lauren said, with a little too much certainty.

Sure thing, come 3am, I’m awoken by a barrage of knocks and slurred voices, camped outside our door. We left them to it for a while, thinking the receptionist would surely scoot along soon and pack them off to their rooms with a cup of Horlicks and a night cap. When no one came to save us, Jamie rolled out of bed and opened the door a fraction of an inch. Lauren, Rachel and Chloe then performed the greatest tactical invasion this side of Poland and barged their way into our room. Rachel passed out on the sofa, Chloe, the good looking blonde who was just humouring her mates, sat at the table, bemused. Lauren meanwhile, had planted herself on the bed between Zack and Jamie, legs spread akimbo, detailing her sexual preferences.

“I do like a good paaaaaanding” she giggled, subtly convulsing her body with her legs writhing in the air in case we thought she meant she enjoyed a few rounds of boxing.

“I will shag one of you lot tomorrow night” she continued, before adding, “But I don’t want you to think I’m a slut”. Not at all. Girl chats jovially outside hotel window for ten minutes, trollops off into town and returns four hours later promising one of three strangers the opportunity to paaaaand her rigid. Definitely not a slut. In an effort to get them moving, we promised we’d be on it – seven plums on it, in fact – the next day, so they finally left us in peace and we got a precious few hours more sleep.

The snooker didn’t go too well and I lost to a bloody tweeny. He looked about eight but he beat me in the decider. Zack, Sam, Damian and Jamie didn’t fare better either, so we went on a booze cruise and returned to our digs. We turned the lock of our room and I noticed a tatty envelope on the floor, which I bent over to pick up. Inside was an invitation written on scrap paper.

“Dear contestants” it began, and the scribbled message formalised the arrangements made the previous night – one of us would ride her like a bucking bronco. “Please look your best so I can make a final decision” she ended. Unfortunately, she didn’t practise what she preached. We caught sight of her in the hallway and she was wearing an unflattering layered pink dress which made her look like a tacky wedding cake. Instead of spending half an hour in front of the mirror pulling every hair into place, I was tempted to shave off my eyebrows and smear my jeans with excrement so I didn’t win the competition. Still, there was more to come.

An application form was shoved under our doors, asking for personal details such as “size of cock” and “favourite position” to which I answered “practically non-existent” and “left-back”. Jamie entered under the alias ‘Jermaine’ because “Jermaines always have big dicks”. With a little fire in our belly – Smirnoff – we knocked on their door and ‘hanged out’, an expression taken a little too literally by Lauren, who was coming on stronger than a mature lump of stilton.

Drinks were shared and the party was heating up. Lauren was panicking about her hair – she didn’t know whether to have it up or down. Either way she still looked like a giant raspberry with a haircut. “I just wouldn’t bother going out” I said, deadpan, and my sliver of a chance of winning the competition was snuffed out with a line of banter that would be considered innocuous by most standards. When Damian asked aloud whether he should ‘Confirm’ Lauren as a friend on Facebook or press ‘Not Now’, I asked if there was a “Not Now, Not Ever” button. She loved that too. We were practically BFFs.

Unbeknownst to me, Jamie was thoroughly rotted by the time we were getting the taxi to Leeds. He was doing that thing where you repeat things four times, getting louder each time. “And then, and then, and then, AND THEN!!!”

Jamie joined the cashpoint queue, hips swinging like a chorus line of ‘New York, New York’, looking one request away from performing his famous breakdancing moves. The bloke behind him, built like a brick shithouse, was just shaking his head and saying “dick”. Ten minutes later in Players, he’s causing an entire bar to disperse. He was even trying it on with a granny. I don’t mean that she was a bit older, so looked out of place. I mean granny. A generous soul would say she had just hit retirement age, but Jamie was there, throwing his arms around like an over-familiar octopus, leading to a mass exodus of any female within three hectares of land.

A messy night ensued. Me and Damian lost the others and ended up necking shots in the disco room and trying it on with a couple of face-painted army girls. They seemed to be smiling and having a laugh with us until they realised we were straight, then they gave each other meaningful looks and departed without a backwards glance.

The hours sped by and I got off with Sophie Ellis Bextor’s fat cousin and Lauren appeared to have made her decision with regards to the competition. I returned to the main group to find Jamie, still pissed enough to think Lauren didn’t look like a Bertie Bassett’s Allsorts, dancing and snogging her. Even when she proudly announced she shagged her way through eight boys in eight night on a girl’s holiday, Jamie was still ready and willing, even if she’s had more dicks inside her than the Big Brother house.

During the taxi ride back to the Travelodge we encountered the surliest taxi driver I’d ever met. He ordered us to get some more money, so he stopped at a petrol station and practically kicked Damian out of the passenger seat. For three hilarious minutes, Damian was scouring the perimeter of the BP garage for a link machine, until he returns to the cab, exhausted, and the driver says he forgot this garage didn’t have one. Safely home, without giving the driver so much as a penny for a tip, I conked out in my room, while the others began paaanding away like good’uns.

Sex, sin and snooker, we give in to your pleasures once more.