Following the crowd for a brew

The word mainstream is not good. It denotes average, lowest common denominator fluff. It is Saturday night television, burping out the same-old, same-old to a generation of numbskulls who think Strictly Come Dancing amounts to a shared cultural heritage.

Mainstream is to run with the herd, bask in the reflected glories and failures of the majority. It is easy to forget that people like Gandhi and Mandela, despite being as mainstream as they come, were once considered outsiders. This coincided with their best work – what did Mandela do after single-handedly setting the course of history straight, eh? Waved his hands a few times, allowed Rory Bremner to do impressions of questionable taste and sat in lots of wicker chairs. Hardly revolutionary.

Mainstream is settling down with 2.4 children in a suburban two-up, two-down in Chipstow, with magnolia wallpaper, an avocado-coloured bathroom, a row of scented candles on the mantelpiece and the feint screams of despair emanating from every person within its walls. It entails going to work in a hire purchase car which gives your lumber region a gentle massage and sitting in meetings where you say “let’s match our synergies” without giggling.

I am happy for you to apply the word mainstream to almost anything, with all its pejorative connotations intact. Let others be mainstream while I pretend I’m special or unique and not just a meaningless cyan-coloured dot in the earth’s vast laser inkjet-printed tapestry. However, what I categorically will not accept, to the point of getting all ‘second amendment’ about it, is the phrase ‘Mainstream Tea’.

Idly standing by the deli counter, I sauntered (in my head I sauntered, in reality I probably slouched miserably, like a poorly-structured soufflé falling apart in the tin) over to the tea bar in my local cafe, hoping to quench my thirst. At the front and centre of the fancy tea selections, surrounded by the decadent haze of Blueberry, Raspberry and Blackberry flavour, the citric glory of Lemon and Ginger as well as the earthy textures of Green Tea, was ‘Mainstream Tea’.

How dare they conflate the bounteous pleasure of reclining in an ornate chair with a steaming mug of good ol’ fashioned carpet sweepings, cannily disguised in a Teflon Toblerone, with the less loquacious activities of the common man! You can’t tar me with the same brush as the vacuous parade of bed knobs and broomsticks on shit small screen entertainment. I’m drinking tea, the cornerstone of our previously great empire, the thing we are most known for around the world, each damp brown leaf causing a patriotic swelling of stature. I’m not listening to fucking Coldplay.

The phenomenon is called hipsterification. Do you want to be seen as different and one-of-a-kind? Wanna feel part of a tribe or culture that will use you then thrown you away the second you join the bandwagon because the cause has gone mainstream? Then have some bloody Cranberry and Orange infusion you confused dolt, or you’ll be typecast as another cow in a shit-strewn field, mooing its way obediently to the abattoir to be killed in cold blood by that bloke off The One Show and Dermot O’Leary.

The ‘Mainstream Tea’ (I keep putting it in inverted commas because preserving them might keep it in linguistic jeopardy, whereas full capitalisation indicates frightening reality, like Middlesbrough or Donald Trump) is even packaged ironically. Just a white background and black letters on the front. It’s almost daring you to drink it. So I ripped the sachet, added the hot water, sploshed the milk and hastily despatched the packet in a nearby bin, looking nervously over my shoulder to see whether Ant & Dec were about to pop up and start talking about the new James Bond film.

If there was one thing that I thought might be preserved from hipsterification, it would be the humble British tea. Your Tetley’s, with yer Northern lass getting all homely on the adverts, or Typhoo (which has never made me go “oooh” – what do think they’re selling, a cup of tea or an aphrodisiac?), or Yorkshire Tea, with its idyllic Northern countryside, somewhat at odds with the Indian and Sri Lankan fields where the produce was actually grown.

But no, we have ourselves hipster Mainstream Tea, parading its filthy stench about my nostrils like a bearded Shoreditch arsehole enjoying mainstream sausage and mash with mainstream gravy and mainstream peas. We used to just call it food. Or drink. And we used to enjoy it. Without the pallid disguise of an authenticity dreamt up by advertising folk with no new ideas.


Snooker Loopy in Riga

Twenty-six floors up. Astonishing views over downtown Riga, bathed in late evening Eastern European sunshine. To the right, the river and a high-rise metropolis, to the left Riga’s Old Town, a beautiful mirage of Parisian architecture, leafy gardens and hidden side streets catering for every culinary taste imaginable. In the distance, hectares of lush forest, dotted with small farm dwellings. A waitress drops another round of cocktails at our table with a weary smile, picking up the debris of half-drunk mojitos, absinthe glasses and a bowl of salted peanuts, cunningly deployed to encourage us to drink more.

Despite the splendour and our rising bill, Julian is animatedly explaining his stance. Not on immigration or West Brom’s new centre forward, as is usually the custom by 9pm after a day on the fizzy pop. His snooker stance.

“So I just keep my nose parallel with the ball and where I’m aiming” he says, bent over the table separating the four of us and cueing an imaginary white ball. “And shoot” he adds, with the heated fervour of a particularly joyous gospel choir. It was a surprise he didn’t raise his arms to the heavens and shout “YES BROTHER!”

You see, snooker does this to you. It’s a game of fractions, and the opportunities for psychoanalysis are endless. A player’s stance might separate you from a club player, destined to fish out balls for any bloke who can string four balls together, and a professional like Shaun Murphy, 2005 World Champion, who was sitting four tables away and enjoying a drink with (who I presumed) was his wife.

Having spent years playing the game locally, I decided to take things one step further and enter a big boy’s tournament, a far cry from the tin pot trophies you get around here. Three years ago – the last year I was eligible – I won the East Sussex junior title. I wouldn’t say it was a procession but they had to shut a few roads. Nine players turned up and I think six of them were playing because it was raining outside and there was nothing else to do in Bexhill on a wet Sunday. In the first match, my opponent asked how many points the blue was worth. In my second, my adversary’s Dad had to referee because he couldn’t add up.

Snooker is dying a slow death. I wish it wasn’t but this is not the 1980s. There’s Instabook and Twitagram and hardcore pornography to keep young people amused nowadays. The idea of spending hours on end knocking coloured spheres around a big green coffee table loses out against Grand Theft Nintendo or The Big Bang Theory of Thrones. It requires determination, discipline, control and practise. Precisely the things that have seemingly been destroyed by the internet.

Despite the doom and gloom, there were still 197 players in the European Tour event in Latvia, including 97 amateurs. Anyone can enter for a mere £100 so I treated the event as a holiday with a bit of snooker thrown in.

We flew Wizz Air from London Luton, a surprisingly smooth experience excepting the fact we had to shell out £1 for a plastic bag for our toiletries. Fred and Simon, my travel companions, were suitably aghast, although their emotions were probably heightened seeing that they had just bid farewell to their cues, which had to be processed separately from general baggage.

It was a harrowing separation. I said my goodbyes that morning but Simon was a little overcome with emotion, wondering if he had done the right thing. “Let it go mate, let it go” I said, putting an arm around his shoulder and dragging him towards security, where a string of officers were menacingly putting on rubber gloves with a snap against their wrists. Stephen Hendry’s cue was once lost on a flight and Peter Ebdon’s turned up at the other end smashed to smithereens, although many in the snooker fraternity maintain this was to discourage the boring arsehole from playing.

Our cues are precious babies, which can be traced back to the vast sums of money we have spent on them. Fred shelled out over £800 on his Ultimate cue from John Parris, the premier cue-maker in the world. When shown it, I was somewhat disappointed it couldn’t transform into a laser jet or at least some form of weapon to justify the price tag. I was sensible, spending just £425 on my Superior cue, which also happens to be a stick of wood and has yet to demonstrate any cool combat features. But I have now got eighteen centuries with that bad boy, so I’m guarding it with my life.

On the flight, we quickly realised that all around us were Latvian and Russian voices and as we stepped out of the forecourt at Riga International Airport, the locals all jumped in cabs, caught buses or were met with hugs and kisses from loved ones. Meanwhile, eleven pasty Brits with giant ski cases were looking lost. It was like The Inbetweeners Movie for the boys on the baize.

We eventually got a large cab with two other players, Adam and Ben, the latter a Welsh lad who it is fair to say has been known to enjoy a trip or three to Gregg’s. He had a broad Cardiff accent and was wearing a Manchester United shirt for good measure. We struggled to understand him, let alone a poor foreign cab driver. Watching Ben explain which hotel we were staying at was like overhearing the training for that dog who was sent into space.

“To the inch” he said, as the cab eventually pulled up outside Avitar Hotel, our base for the following four days. The area was residential and a little shabby looking but seemed pleasant enough. Fred and I were due to play on Thursday, so as we arrived in good time on Tuesday evening, we thought we would treat ourselves to a session on the fomented liquid. We went downstairs to meet a few other players, including Sydney, who had turned professional a few months before.

“You’re walking into town” he said, looking horrified, as if we just casually mentioned we were about to jet-ski to the nearest orphanage and set fire to the toy room.

The boys then gave us a run-down of past misdemeanours and episodes in the Latvian capital which suggested the streets at night were like The Purge minus the humanitarian streak.

“Jamie got mugged for his watch and they smashed his face in” Ryan exhaled, returning his gaze to the Playstation 4 he had bought with him and had taken up half his hand luggage. “They don’t like us round here”.

It seemed the six fellas in the room were settled for the night playing FIFA 15 so we stepped outside and decided we would head into town if we could find a reputable taxi service. This was easier said than done – with all the dire warnings of scams and violence mooted by the group in the hotel, we were being cautious. One car stopped and Fred leaned in to the passenger seat window.

“Old Town please” he asked, making to open the door. No sooner had he opened his mouth, the driver turned a shade of puce and shouted “No English!”

“OK, Can you order us a taxi please” Fred continued, miming making a phone call on the off chance that the driver was trying to say he couldn’t speak the lingo, and wasn’t a rude bastard.

With that, he fucked off. Moments later, a taxi pulled up with a giant jester’s hat on the bonnet – ‘Joker’s’ was the company. I whispered in Fred’s ear that nowhere in the travel guides does it suggest you should get in a taxi at midnight with a toothless, bald Bond villain. Give him a white cat and he’d be giving Daniel Craig what for.

“You want taxi?” he said, with a smile that we all knew was insincere. When we hesitated, he leant out of his window and begun speaking as if he was letting us in on the world’s biggest secret – perhaps where his gang lord paymaster was hiding underground, awaiting another pair of unsuspecting tourists. We had no plans to be flayed and dissected on camera for some creeps on the dark web.

“You want to see naked girls” Igor beamed, adding a raised eyebrow into the bargain.

“Well yes” I thought, but not at your behest, Igor. Besides, I had already matched with five girls on Tinder, having re-set the GPS using the hotel’s WiFi. Three of them were called Santa, which momentarily made me question whether my phone actually thought I was in Lapland. One had already responded to my opening line of “Sex, Power, Love or Money?” by saying “You are definitely not Latvian”. Score.

“I take you to titty bar” our concierge service added in one last attempt to render his services. Is that really what the English are known for in Eastern Europe – beer-drinking, pervert louts only interested in booze and girls?

“Not tonight mate” we said, and he drove off abruptly. Soon after we gave up. There is only so long you can stand outside hotels, running after cabs. If we were in high heels and fishnet stockings, we could have been prosecuted.

The snooker started the day after so Fred and I decided to get an early night to give ourselves the best chance the following morning.

We needn’t have bothered. I lost 0-4 and after a terrific break of 13 (!) at the start of the first frame, things went downhill quickly. It didn’t help that my opponent was very good, which if you ask me is downright unsporting. So I watched Fred lose an epic tussle 3-4. With friends and family following the scores back home, I received the following text an hour after my whitewash. “Oh well. At least you can get pissed”.

That we did, heading to downtown Riga for the first time and supping many a beer along the way. What we didn’t realise was the potency of the local lager. There I was, happily downing pint after pint. Then I wondered why I couldn’t lift my middle finger. 5.2% is their standard volume, a hefty dose compared to the usual amber urine back home.

As we were supping a beer outside one of the many watering holes in the city, a promoter approached us and asked if we wanted to be part of a stag do that evening. I would have told him to carry on walking but Simon’s a chatty man and he inquired further. Our promoter friend spilled the beans in that Eastern European way which misses out connecting words.

“Yes, we taking stag and arresting him. We bundle him in boot of real police car blindfolded as friends shout “Leave him, leave him”, then we drive him round city for half hour, bring him back and put him on stage”.

“Are you serious? That sounds like torture!” Simon said.

“Oh yes yes yes. I be doing this six years, I see five stag piss themself and two shit themself. Their friends come on stage and hit them and pretend to be kidnappers. When the stag find out, he not be happy. He go after them and punch them!” he said happily, fists raised. This, apparently, was all to entice us to visit his bar – potential on-stage defecation, borderline torture, questionable ethics, near certain violence and friendship bonds being stretched to breaking point. What more do you want from a Thursday night?

Come 1am, things were finally winding down. Fred wandered off into the night with a girl he matched with on Tinder. I walked back to the hotel (following a strange and frankly ill-remembered episode in a dingy casino, where I had a roulette table open just for myself) and met the boys outside the hotel, enjoying a cigarette between rounds of their FIFA tournament.

“Where you been?” Sydney asked.

“Old Town” I said.

“And you walked back?” he probed, a little incredulous.

“Well yeah” I laughed. “No muggings, no gun crime, no strange people in the shadows. Fred’s back at some girl’s house playing hide the purple parsnip, Simon’s chatting away to an American geezer who works in Moscow doing the accounts of the mega-rich while I just had four casino staff waiting on me hand and foot as I spent precisely thirty euros”.

“So who’s winning the tournament?” I asked, poking my head into their room which was beginning to smell uncomfortably of men. Testosterone was at least the third most common compound in the air. They had barely moved all evening.

The next morning I received a text from Fred. “I’m completely lost mate” it read and his happiness at the previous evening’s efforts were receding as he wandered aimlessly through suburban streets. A mere two hours later (“Ten minutes she said it would take”) he bowled into our hotel room, a healthy glow in his cheeks, but not looking especially fresh. His tardiness meant we missed breakfast but as it consisted of half a teacup of corn flakes, three slices of salami and a hot dish of what might kindly be described as ‘local cuisine’, I wasn’t especially fussed.

The professional players entered the tournament on Friday and I came face to face in the player’s lounge with Mark Selby, the world number one. To be fair, he must have been focussed on his match because he didn’t stop to ask how my game was. It was just bizarre seeing the very people I have spent years watching on telly and reading about in the flesh. And I was one of them! A player, in the player’s lounge. Not a hanger on, not cos I’m mates with Phil on security. But because I’m a player too. Alright, a pretty useless one, but I can hold the stick at the right end.

That evening was the official welcome party at the player’s hotel and that’s where we re-join the action with me, Fred, Simon and Julian pre-drinking in the Skyline Bar on the top floor.

Once we had spent the customary four hours discussing our cue actions we joined everyone in the basement, which also happened to be a casino. Little to my knowledge, it turned out I was playing blackjack with Liang Wenbo, currently in the world’s top thirty. Ken Doherty was at the bar telling jokes and generally living up to the Irish stereotype. All sorts of madness was going down.

This time, the boys from the hotel were out in force and left the hotel in search of Friday night entertainment. Meanwhile Fred and I sloped off as we had a plane to catch in the early hours – no point in sleeping we thought. Half an hour later, Sydney and Simon pulled up in a cab – “what shithole this place is… we couldn’t get in anywhere” Sydney moaned, shaking his head. Out on the cobbled streets of Riga at that very moment, an angry swarm of snooker players, tanked up on the generous measures handed out at the casino to loosen the wallet, were having a wretched time. Their preconceptions were confirmed. The comfort blanket of FIFA 15 was just a cab ride away.

Meanwhile Fred and I were slumped on chairs at the airport, safe in the knowledge that we had seen the real Riga – stunning scenery, some of the best food I have ever had, accommodating and beautiful women, the grumpiest service sector retailers in the world, a continuing cultural battle between the native Latvians and the Russian nationals who outnumber them and most importantly of all, the beginning of our European Tour adventures. Bulgaria awaits in November.

The railway child inside me

Without wishing to bore you into submission within sentence one, trains fascinate me. Let me qualify that… Old trains fascinate me. The new deluxe hybrid spacecrafts that whizz up and down the dilapidated infrastructure of this sceptre isle couldn’t rouse me from my sleep during a blazing fire. Sleek and modern, with push button doors, “train managers” and a high regard for health and safety, they are boring and functional. You cannot have an experience aboard a Virgin Pendolino even if it does sound like something you could get arrested for. I prefer my mass transit to be loud and rattling, preferably powered by the acrid fumes of diesel (none of your electrification nonsense) and doors you can only open from the outside, with the fun and games that you might chop your limb off on a passing signal box.

I used to obsessively collect Thomas the Tank Engine figurines, following the life and times of Thomas’ locomotive friends in Sodor, and get borderline hysterical when Mum said we could catch the iron horse to visit relatives. I believe there was a time in the late nineties when we went on The Bluebell Railway and I nearly died of excitement. The miniature railway in Newhaven’s ‘Paradise Park’ (a somewhat misleading name, given the attendant attractions and the location) led to hours of fun, not least because the driver used to blow a whistle and wear a funky conductor costume.

The allure of trains was put on hold for most of my adolescence as I struggled to think beyond the pair of magnificent boobs at the forefront of my conscience. But now, with my peak years behind me having just turned twenty-three, I can appreciate them for the dazzling, beautiful creatures they are.

I have boarded a train every day for the past ten years, developing a worryingly acute knowledge of the Southern railway operator’s practises and customs. It is all very well having information about the here and now, as it’s there on my National Rail app and emblazoned across train station billboards. It’s the past that really brings out my inner train geek. On a whim, with a spare ten minutes to kill I looked up “disused Sussex railways” on my phone. I soon came to an article about the Volk’s Seashore Electric Railway.

I was already familiar with Volk’s Electric construction, the oldest working electric railway in the world. It doesn’t feel es-pecially world-beating when all you do is trundle from Brighton Pier to the Marina at a lackadaisical pace, seeing nothing more entertaining than pebbles and crazy golf, while paying top dollar for the privilege. It’s an enjoyable enough half an hour but it’s not much more than a decorated minibus with heritage.

On the other hand, the Seashore Railway was out of this world, despite being built in the 1890s. Known as ‘Daddy Long Legs’, the 4-mile track from Brighton to Rottingdean was built entirely at sea, with tracks laid underneath the water and a magnificent vessel atop the giant structure to house the travellers. It’s not stations that were required for the halts and terminus – it was piers. Quite how the finance was raised to build something so ludicrous remains a valid question, especially as they didn’t have PFI in those days.

There were significant problems with the railway. Whenever the tide was high and the tranquillity of the deep blue disturbed by anything resembling a wave, the pace slowed to a crawl. Not exactly known for its all-year-round fair weather, the South Coast line also took a battering from the regular storms that would brew in the English Channel and reign havoc upon the beaches. Disasters regularly befell the Seashore Electric Railway and it soon ceased to operate.

Most importantly, I feel, is that this wasn’t even the twentieth century and yet a bearded man with a big idea planned, constructed and implemented a giant 45 ton monorail in the middle of the chuffing sea! And it worked, and no one died!

I’m supposed to sit in awe at Neil Armstrong’s visit to the moon and his giant leap for mankind – I say that NASA’s assembled team of experts should visit the Rottingdean coastline at low tide and see the remnants of what TRUE ambition means. I’m supposed to be thankful to Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his world wide web, enabling telecommunications on a previously unimaginable scale, changing the way we view the world forever. Yet more than one hundred years before he sat at his desk and said “I’m going to invent the internet”, you could pay one and a half pence to reach the heart of buzzing Brighton from a sleepy seaside community in just 25 minutes, and do so aboard a giant narrow boat on giant legs in the ocean.

I was shocked to discover that such a thing came to fruition so long ago and my sense of awe and wonder has changed my view of the Victorian era, which previously comprised of bleak adaptations of Charles Dickens novels, all misery, death, poverty and cruelty. Basically, I used to think the late 1800s were what Morrissey thinks the modern world is like. The Seashore Electric Railway, for all its eccentricity, vanity and sheer wonder, has made me re-evaluate an era I had defined in my head as belonging to Oliver Twist, child labour and urban pollution.

Jack Daniels, jockeys and japes: Budapest unravelled

As the fat jockey circled the Kincsem Park arena, sporting a bright yellow jersey and whipping an unfortunate horse, Dan and I realised we were watching something special. We were in Hungary, Budapest to be precise, and for the final afternoon of our excursion to central Europe, we decided to join the locals in losing our money to a shady betting syndicate.

It cannot be said that this Wednesday afternoon racing session was proving to be popular. Barely twenty punters were gathered in the enormous stadium, and two were German tourists with silly hats. One had a copy of a Penguin Classics Oscar Wilde book poking through his jacket pocket, the pretentious ‘Gap Yah’ prick.

Kincsem Park lies on the outer edges of Budapest, and a twenty minute walk from the nearest ageing Metro line. One bar inside the cavernous main stand was open, dispensing cans of local lager for £1.30 which tasted like a low-grade Carling – quite some achievement. Naturally, we had about nine each, steadily getting louder as we cheered on our new heroes.

I wanted a photograph at the finishing post but I waited until the races were finished, as I remembered a piece of advice from one of those well-thumbed travel guides that people give you whenever you go somewhere they’ve been, all covered in stars and comments like “Lovely Italian” (I didn’t know whether they were referring to the food or the barman).

I waited for the photo op because apparently most of the men who attend the races are doing so without the knowledge of their other halves, so by taking pictures, you may be outing their forays. I’d have thought any wife would be happy to see their husband spend his time surrounded by other men, losing a few quid, then returning home, tail between his legs. Better than having an affair, I venture.

Anyway, racing can’t be a big deal in Hungary ‘cos the only person they could find to ride one of the poor creatures was a squat, fat bloke. All his horses came last. I could envisage a corrupt stable manager handing the jockey pork pies and laughing maliciously. If these were the finest specimens they could find to ride a horse on a chariot, Hungary needs to get some serious training together.

Betting was proving to be a problem as well. Most places we went in Budapest had a bevy of English-speaking workers. We had taken this for granted before we visited Kincsem Park. Walk in to any cuisine environment and awkwardly reply “Hello there” when a Hungarian waiter gibbers at you in their indecipherable tongue, and he or she will either switch instantly to perfect English or gesture to a supervisor for help. As I approached the tote booth, I had my bet in mind (I fancied ‘Wilde’s Joy’ and not because of the Aryan douche behind me) and confidently bellowed “1,000 Forint on Number 6 please”.

The old woman behind the desk sat there bemused for a few seconds, before a barrage of consonants and guttural sounds hit my eardrums. “English” I said, exasperated, like the worst tourist stereotype, hoping she would point me to someone who might help. Nope, she carried on. I looked around in vain but no one came. So after five minutes of painstaking pointing and waving money, I finally managed to put three quid on Wilde’s Joy. I did fancy a three-way accumulator but there is not the sign language in the world to convey this information. When she realised what number I wanted, I had to give her a thumbs up to indicate I wanted it to win. Of course, when the horses came trotting on to the circuit, Wilde’s Joy was backed by The Fat Controller and my betting stub was immediately made worthless.

Dan had better luck, although he is not quite as persistent as me and only won some money because the old woman put the wrong bet on and he couldn’t be bothered to argue. This was a recurring theme during our five day trip. Dan plays in my snooker team in Eastbourne. He’s rubbish but he’s a trier. He once turned up for league night on his birthday, pissed as arseholes, won his game against an old boy who could barely stand up and proceeded to tell everyone how much his game had improved with the addition of six pints of lager. He also signed up for an Iron Man Triathlon, a punishing mixture of swimming, biking and running that would put the fittest person in the world through physical torture. Dan isn’t the sprightliest of fellows, a paunch unbefitting of his age developing through a fast food addiction. During his first training session for the Iron Man, he did two lengths in the pool then sat in the sauna for an hour. So in short, he’s a bit of a bullshitter. Still a top bloke, mind.

He was definitely worse with the language barrier, or at least worse dealing with it. I asked him to get a pepperoni pizza for lunch. He returned with a ham and mushroom pizza covered in chillies. When I questioned him, he froze up and said he couldn’t understand what they were saying, so just kept nodding. I’m surprised he didn’t sign over his first born child.

Instead of staying in a grotty hostel full of smelly backpackers with packed lunches made by their mothers, I chose an apartment through the Holiday Lettings company. This made me a bit nervous, as the only confirmation that we had a roof over our heads was through correspondence with a chap called Daniel, who didn’t seem all there. Nevertheless, we rang him when we were outside Lazar Utca and he said someone would welcome us shortly. Joseph stumbled through a nearby door and wheezed our names. He looked like one of those talking faces you see on Nazi documentaries recalling the worst atrocities of the war. He carried a dirty dishcloth and had more lines on his face than David Bowie’s had of cocaine. We nodded and followed him, suitcases dragging behind.

“Do you have cigarette?” he asked and we both said no. “Not even one cigarette?” he pleaded, looking crestfallen when we again responded negatively. He led us through the apartment entrance and we stepped into a murky hallway, dark as dusk despite it being midday. Joseph turned right up a wide set of marble stairs and I took a nervous look around. It all seemed so… Soviet. Crumbling paint work, tiling only completed to chest height, a huge clanking lift that was out of order providing a somewhat dubious centrepiece. Dan and I exchanged worried looks. Sharing a hostel bunk bed with a hygienically challenged Dutch hippy was looking like a good shout.

We looked through a grimy window into the courtyard and saw a single metal washing line that made it look like the world’s least equipped badminton court. I mentioned this and Dan emitted a nervous titter, clearly thinking we were being led by Joseph to some drug den on the second floor from whence we may never escape.

Luckily, Joseph got his keys out and let us in to the flat, a cosy if functional abode (I called it “The Abode” and Dan asked “What’s a boad?”) with two bedrooms, a living space and a bathroom. Joseph said he hadn’t quite finished cleaning and went off to do some more errands while we sat in the living room breathing a sigh of relief that we were not being chopped into little pieces for the benefit of some creep on the internet. Joseph poked his head round the corner and asked if he was cleaning both bedrooms.

“Yes please” we said, instantaneously, and Joseph seemed satisfied that he wasn’t putting in all this effort so a couple of grown men could spend their holiday inside each other. After twenty minutes Joseph had finished his cleaning duties and, uninvited, took a seat at the table and started telling us how poor he is.

“I spent most of my money coming across town to be here” he said, despondent. I soon cottoned on to what Joseph was after, namely a few bob so he could buy some cigarettes. I wielded a crisp Hungarian bank note and Joseph’s change of demeanour was extraordinary. He suddenly became the life and soul of the party, even offering to show us the highlights of the city (with a wink and smile that made my genitals shrivel) and cook for us if we wanted. “Better than all that restaurant food” he said, before coughing up his guts and wiping his mouth on his filthy cloth.

With Joseph despatched and happily riding off into the distance with his £4, we ventured out into the city. To catch our bearings on the first evening, we went for something to eat in the centre then walked back to the flat to give ourselves some kind of internal geography.

I was in need of some pampering so the next day we went to one of Budapest’s many natural spas. We chose the largest, Szechenyi, with three huge outdoor pools and dozens of saunas, steam rooms and thermal baths inside. I feared the worst when suggesting we go there, because most of the tour guides say the system for using thermal baths is intrinsically mad. I heard stories about chalkboards and lockers and how you have to remember which locker you’re in even though there’s no number. Then there’s the rules about where you can go (there is often male and female segregation) and how you enter the pool. I heard that if you dip into one of the swimming pools without wearing a swimming cap you’ll be more or less physically assaulted by the guard.

Thankfully, Szechenyi was very much with the times and had a simple system, bereft of chalkboards and the like. It was the most relaxing two hours of my life. Just sitting there, with nothing to do, the warm bubbles gently throbbing against my skin, the not-too-strong sulphurous smell initiating deep, relaxing breathing. No wonder Hungarian unemployment is so high when you can be sitting around in thermal baths all day.

The Budapest Zoo was just around the corner and no matter how much we tried we couldn’t find the kangaroos. Signs pointing to their whereabouts led you back to the same place. I reckon that as most of their marketing material depicts a kangaroo leaping about, they can’t admit that they died or are no longer around. We asked a zookeeper and she said “Follow the signs”. We went past the ostriches for the sixteenth time but still no kangas.

On the final day we visited the other side of the river, or “The Posh Bit” as Dan called it. We were staying on the Pest side of the river, all café bars, nightclubs, restaurants and hookers outside hotel lobbies. The Buda side was more sedate, and contained some of the more cultured areas of the city. For a couple of early twenty-somethings, this meant boredom. Somewhat against his wishes, I dragged Dan to the National Gallery atop the Fisherman’s Bastion, a stunning monument with easily the widest staircase I’ve ever seen.

Dan moodily stomped around the first floor and pointed out of the window to the panoramic view of the city below and called it “The best painting here by miles”.

“Don’t be such a misery guts, you philistine” I responded.

“What did you call me?” he said, “I’m not from the Middle East”.

I ushered Dan downstairs so he could buy a beer while I continued to wander around the fascinating exhibits… Five minutes later I joined him and we were back on form again.

The two nights out we had are a bit of a blur, as is the custom. On the first we shared a bottle of Jack Daniels, which obliterated the rest of the evening’s entertainment in the slideshow of my drunken oblivion. When I returned to the apartment for a kip, Dan said he went on to a few nightclubs, all of which were bonkers. One, only round the corner from our apartment, was modelled on Alice in Wonderland and had mechanical rabbits racing across the ceiling.

On the second night out, I remember considerably more, even though we ended up in a casino for a few hours. It was surprising that even in Budapest, where there was hardly an ethnic face in sight, the casino was rammed with Asian men in suits, looking nonplussed whether they win or lose thousands. When a Mafia kingpin lookalike at your roulette table sticks one million forint (£3,000) on red, I felt like a pauper sticking my five hundred forint (£1.50) on black 17.

Suitably rinsed of cash we went for a few more drinks, which quickly turned into more drinks and ended in Joseph’s immaculately tidied room, ready to return to the normality of the United Kingdom.

Some things change, some things stay the same

Frankly, I found it depressing that I could be old enough to lose the ability to create new mythologies. This realisation came as I reminisced about old times with a pal of mine from my Lewes Football Club phase, a span of four years where I would watch every game, home and away like the obsessive anorak I was.

Radders was down for the weekend having moved to Wales a few years back. As we sat in a Lewes pub, preparing ourselves for another salvo of Rooks football, my first this year, we sat there remembering old times when we were both fully paid up members of the Behind The Goal Boys. Like the story about the first occasion we met at Dulwich Hamlet, and within twenty minutes they were asking if I wanted to go to a strip club. I expressed my concern that I was sixteen and didn’t have ID but they persisted, only letting the matter rest when I told them I wouldn’t be watching naked women for the first time with a bunch of strangers I just met at Dulwich bloody Hamlet.

Then there’s the time I drank three pints of Black Rat before a game. Black Rat was a speciality 8% cider, a cloudy, nonsensical drink that should come with a night cap and catheter. As I stood up to leave for the ground, my legs gave away and I collapsed to the floor, only staying vertical long enough to rush to the nearest toilet and splatter my innards over the porcelain loo.

We laughed at the time we both got legless in Ipswich. We attended the local beer festival and then traipsed along to Portman Road to watch my adopted second team lose 4-0 to Newcastle United. Rather sozzled, we spent the night in a local hostelry called The Dove and tried to chat up the beautiful barmaid who we were later informed (by Radders’ father no less) was a raging lesbian.

As these stories continued, each one entering the conversation naturally in a memory bank timeline, I wondered whether we’d be remembering this day when we meet up in a few years. The answer of course, was no. We were just running through a Greatest Hits compilation, failing to make any new entries in the scrapbook of hilarity. We were not going to have any more stories like the time we went on a pub crawl in London and ended up flinging KFC chicken bones at passers-by in London Victoria station. There would be no more travelling to Surrey for a match, losing 6-0, but still chanting the manager’s name because we had won pro-motion. All we were doing was having a few pints, getting moderately arseholed and then saying our goodbyes.

There’s nothing wrong with this. It can’t be helped. Given the distance separating us and the passing of time, we are not in a position to make new memories. They were a fantastic couple of years but I’m 22 years old. I shouldn’t be a spent force when it comes to having classic experiences.

Thankfully, the following week, our annual jaunt to Sheffield livened things up. Always a calendar highlight, the Steel City provides an opportunity to see just how many more alcoholics live up north. On Sunday morning, at the precise time of 9.05am, we passed the pub opposite our hotel and there were already six punters supping their first pint. On the Sabbath! Five minutes up the road, outside Wetherspoon’s, a woman in tracksuit bottoms asked in a broad (and disturbingly deep) Yorkshire accent: “Are you coming in for a pint lads?”

Usually the journey is the hardest part and this year was no different. However, we were entertained by young Jamie, who was making steady progress through a bottle of Southern Comfort. A 70cl bottle. The sort of bottle that should be shared by four people. Jamie’s a great kid, the youngest of the group and therefore the most naïve. We’re good mates, a bond which was enhanced in Magaluf, where we shared a room. A lifetime’s friendship is cemented when you’ve heard someone’s cum noise.

He was sending me regular picture updates of the bottle which was depleting at a rather worrying rate. I was travelling with Lee, leader of the pack, a seasoned veteran of the snooker scene, who has shoved more pills and powder down his neck and up his nose than he can remember, not forgetting a gambling addiction which cost him somewhere in the region of £100k. In the backseat was Darren and Tommo the Space Cadet, so named because he was recently prescribed anti-depressants which completely zonk him out, leaving our intrepid explorer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a disengaged brain. If those pills are the answer, I fear the medical professional who proscribed them was asking the wrong question.

As the evening warmed up, Jamie was becoming a nause. He wasn’t doing anything particularly wrong but he was speaking 20% louder than anyone else and over dinner, he was accidentally spitting at people and completely unaware of it. Yet the drinks continued in Cavendish for a hotly-contested game of Killer pool and then Players, the famous bar with £2.95 treble vodkas, an offer which twelve months previously helped me on my way to a keypad-guarded hotel, six miles away from our Travelodge, splayed against a lift and missing one sock.

Jamie was continuing to be a jerk and Lee, who takes no shit in these situations, held out a fist which connected plum with Jamie’s nose. Some argy-bargy ensued, Darren being the peacemaker, and Jamie was manhandled out of Players by the bouncers. He then started a fight with a wall, a bout which he lost miserably, the swollen knuckles, blood and pain showing the scars of defeat the following morning.

Meanwhile I was on a good mixture. I felt merry enough that I could dance in Plug nightclub without feeling like a self-conscious twat and they played a couple of indie songs which caused me to pogo about relentlessly, with a grin across my face so wide my face nearly split. I was buzzing my tits off to be honest and my aching limbs the following morning were a price worth paying.

In keeping with the theme set earlier in Players, Tony and Harry decided to have a tiff in Plug too. Tony’s a beanpole, a solid, hard-working considered man, who hates being out of his comfort zone. He usually follows the older boys back to the hotel in time for Match of the Day. But as I was pogoing to The Fratellis, Tony was still there, dancing away, while Harry (a friend for a decade now, but dim as an energy-saving light bulb) kept annoying him. Little punches, little knocks, all on purpose and all accompanied by a giggling Harry. Anyway, Tony decided enough was enough and took him on at his own game. Seconds later, Harry was on the floor, massaging his head, and so was Tony, having been crunched in the shin by another reveller. He was carried out by the bouncers, all 6ft 4” of him. I had exited Plug a few minutes before and was waiting outside. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looked like a still from a WWE match.

The snooker was nothing short of sublime as well. We saw Ronnie O’Sullivan come back with some of his best snooker under pressure and saw another tight encounter between Barry Hawkins and Ricky Walden. For the O’Sullivan game, Damien Hirst was sitting behind me, a friend of Ronnie’s and a very different type of artist. I’m not sure what World Snooker would think if Ronnie started pickling Michaela Tabb for an exhibition.

The final night got off to an auspicious start in the curry house we frequent every year. The onion bhajis were cold and given a recent survey which discovered a quarter of take-away food contains little or none of the advertised meat, I was giving my chicken jalfrezi a questioning look. In the end, I wasn’t surprised that I needed a few comfort breaks but we were in The Walkabout and it was Happy Hour. The toilets were like something out of Apocalypse Now.

The floors were covered in piss, the handwash dispenser looked like it was last serviceable in 1978 and you could hear retching noises from the cubicles, while concerned friends hovered outside, saying “It’s alright mate, let it all out”. From inside you could hear the distant strains of an MC saying “If you buy a £5.95 jug of Sex On The Beach, you’ll get ten free shots”, heralding a tsunami of business at the bar, making returning from the bogs like rowing upstream.

Then there was another shout out from the MC. “Have we got any alcoholics in the house tonight?” A massive cheer went up, akin to what you might find at Hillsborough after Sheffield Wednesday score a goal. And there you have it. A load of softy southerners taking on the northerners and – to a greater or lesser extent – coming off second best. But let it not be said we can’t create mythologies. Jamie’s battered hand, Tony’s swollen tree stump of a limb, the stone cold bhajis and ensuing toilet stops. They will be talked about in years to come. You might as well make your Greatest Hits worth the title.

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.


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’.


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