BarceWHOAna – Five Years On

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With the Championship title almost in the bag, Sovereign FC’s golden generation blew off some steam with a whistle-stop tour of Spain. Five years on, former Sovereign starlet and masseuse Sam Lambeth recalls the bacchanalian banter of Barcelona.

A breezy February afternoon in Barcelona can be a breathtaking place. While a few health-conscious chicas take in a leisurely jog down the pristine pavements (however, ironically, they remain in total control of their breathing), occasionally accompanied by an equally athletic canine, the streets are beautifully unoccupied. The only noise is the faint footsteps of townsfolk as they bustle from shop to shop – it’s a near-silent oasis of almost ethereally quiet contemplation. As the city spreads beneath their feet, oblongs of mist are battered by beams of unobtrusive sunlight, just as the pavements are battered by another gang of toned runners. Heavy breeze, light breeze, more breeze.

Into this step the soporific disposition of Sovereign FC, the highly-regarded team of young upstarts rapidly ascending to the top of the football pyramid. The team have injected a mite of masterful maturity into the homely huff and puff of the Championship, not to mention the footballer lovers worldwide who adore an underdog. Their punishing but personable style of play has pounded pussy and mounted Mandem. As a treat for such terrorising performances, manager Neil Jackson – stocky, slovenly, the kind of man who would get mugged for his wallet and take them to his private safe – has treated us to a few days of warm weather training. After being up for 24 hours, though, not even the Vitamin D is helping us.

After a sleepy saunter around the local zoo, the only thing most of us are thinking about is crashing our heads for a long-overdue siesta. Ash Wiley, usually so friendly and forthcoming, has already called me an “upstart cunt”. Frazer Evans’ fatigued vision has gotten his Barca birds all mixed up, as he spends most of the zoo jaunt flirting with a flattered but uninterested peacock. Derrie Catton, the oldest one here by a considerable distance (except the zebu), has paired up with chairman Mitch Jackson – Neil’s pater, who shares the same burly build and distaste for foreigners.

The trip took several hours, but would have been well under one if it hadn’t been for Neil’s unquenchable zeal for zoos. Every time we thought we were heading for slumber, Neil would instead cajole us to another cage. If that trip proved to be meandering, the night was to be worse. As a treat for beating the Shifnal Shitmunchers in our previous game, Mitch was treating us to a delicious supper at a restaurant he fell in love with several years ago.

However, locating the place proved exceptionally difficult. As we plodded along, still a tad tired after a post-zoo power nap, we began to wonder if this elusive eatery was akin to Harry Potter’s Room of Requirements – we began visualising each other as food, Liam Dixon becoming a tough piece of greying gristle and Matt Palmer a plump slice of pork. Eventually, Mitch conceded this restaurant must have either closed or had been in Bridgnorth the whole time. We settled in at a fish joint but we were more interested in shots than sharks – Ash and the rest of the boys flooded the bar, Mitch’s motto “the more you drink, the more you save” echoing around our ears like post-flight poppage.

Ash has endured some dangerous and disastrous relationships over the years, but his blossoming pursuit of paella proved fatal. After disappearing to the toilet for an uncomfortably long time, we eventually found the midfield maestro face-down in his own filth, a frenzied brown stream of pints and Pollock. If that night was drunken, the following day would be sobering for Getafe – the Colonels weren’t in despot mode when they came to the Nou Camp, and we got to enjoy a 6-1 mauling from Neil’s favourite team. Well, we thought it was his favourite team…maybe he was overstimulated, maybe it was the seafood platter still circling his plentiful stomach, but the ‘chant’ he sang sounded like a Medieval war cry than the theme tune of a football team.

It was no secret at the time that Palmer and I were looking for love (I hasten to add not with each other, although years later Palm would become attached to a member of our team). After failing to charm a succession of Spanish fillies, I settled upon a busty but basic casino worker. With junk in the trunk and ex-husbands on the payroll she seemed the ideal type of woman to educate me. I had a few one-liners ready but Palm’s persistence paid off, his complimentary cry of ‘DAYUMMMM’ filling the room and her womanly heart. They married but I believe Palm struggled to raise children that were not his own. I wish them well, respectively, although the marriage and divorce had a devastating effect on the photos he’d taken.

Alcohol proved to be the drink of choice while on the tour, and once we’d finish passing drills we’d move straight on to the shots. Ash, Liam and Frazer never seemed to be shotless but always seemed to be shitfaced, their intake so uncontrollable they even felt cunted on Kaliber. My own flirtations with the Devil’s dew drops resulted in me insulting a vast array of tourists from the top of an open-top bus, as well as gyrating furiously in the face of a clearly terrified and aroused Neil. Even our chairman didn’t behave, Mitch bluntly and brusquely telling a Romanian peasant to “piss off” as she dared offer him custody of her goat.

There were some notable absences from the trip – Jon Giddings refused to board after a transfer request from Legia Warsaw was denied, while Chris Caddick missed the flight and Austins spent the three days in a Spanish jail minding a bull beater – but the boys in Barca stole babes, balls and a whole load of beers.

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Chris Caddick – “At the Frazer’s Edge”

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When it comes to Sovereign FC, Chris Caddick is a national institution – in the sense it’s hard to remember why he’s there, and even harder to work out how to get rid of him. He spoke to Tepid magazine about his three favourite things – ballads, baldness and banter. 

Bournemouth without Eddie Howe, EastEnders without Phil Mitchell, Sovereign with Chris Caddick. These are just three things that the public know probably happened, but can’t necessarily remember. The purists, however, will tell you that these eras were just as exciting, adventurous and, above all, amusing as the glory days that would follow.

Chris Caddick may not have been around for the Sov’s sensational years, after being sent out on loan to Barnet, Braintree and Blakemore’s (where he applied his utility skills to the freezer section), but he is still a much-loved custodian of the club. After joining in 2000 with fellow stalwart Derrie Catton, Caddick was the skirting board in a semi-detached – people could see he was there, but they didn’t really understand why. Whether he be a midfield marauder, defensive deputy or sluggish striker, Caddick – ‘Cad’ to the fans, ‘Banter King’ to himself – always gave his all.

Over his seven-year tenure, he made 134 appearances and, most importantly, 258 bald jokes. The latter were all aimed at young Egyptian upstart Frazer Evans, who was still grasping the language and, out of linguistic confusion, laughed politely. It was all the fuel Cad needed. “I realized then and there that me and Fraz were going to be close,” Cad reveals today, bolting the garden shed as his soon to be wife – Liv, whom he met after buying a novelty wig from Argos – patrols the lawn for his presence. “Once he began speaking English, we began exchanging numerous jokes and videos all about Frazer’s ample fod. His hair began to double up as a helipad, so I wrote a parody song about it.”

Cad’s lament, to the tune of hair-metal horror ‘Living On A Prayer’, garnered rave reviews from the rest of the team. If before the Jon Giddingssss and the Matt Palmers were perturbed by his performances, they were sold by his savagery. “The lads insisted I sing it on the team coach on long away trips,” Cad says. “It was amazing, I was getting so popular it was taking me 10 minutes to reply to Chiz. Even Jon came and spoke to me when before he spat on his boots and made me lick it clean.”

It was this friendship with Jon that formed the reasons for his impending departure. “I didn’t realise the reactions would be so bad,” Cad sighs. “I thought if eight parody videos went down well, surely the ninth would be the best of the lot.” He looks back to that fateful song with regret and uncertainty. “I can remember it well,” he shudders. “I spent all night writing the lyrics. I hadn’t been too sure how to tell Jon just how much I cared about him. I was still worried he didn’t like me, and was positive this would be the tonic he needed.”

The love song bombed. Hard. Several Sovereign players handed in transfer requests, Holly Bush Garden Centre removed their sponsorship from The Mark Williams Stand and manager Neil Jackson made him feed his koi. “I became an outcast,” Cad says. “I tried to save it the only way I knew how – through bald jokes. But even those began to wear thin…like Frazer’s hair! Sorry, I guess I’m still in the habit.” With his strongest suit now his weakest point, Cad organised a loan move elsewhere, but was unable to after failing to turn up for eight different meetings. “I was told it was a different time, plus wrestling was on,” Cad explains.

Jackson drove Cad himself to Blakemore’s, where a positive relationship was bloomed – since joining the side in 2013, Cad has stacked 54 shelves in 112 stores. Now manager of the Ambient Under-18s, he is currently organising his stag do, where fellow joker Chris Edward (nee Austins) will be his best man. “We both have great banter, and we’ve equally been through some hard times,” Cad admits. “I’ve sent Jon and Fraz invites, but I’m not holding my breath. Fraz can’t commit to anything, unless it offers anal.”

With that, he makes a polite exit to apologise for his five-minute absence. “I’m glad Sovereign fans still remember me,” Cad says. “I just want them to know that there was more to me than songs and savage banter. I’m a human being.”

Ash Wiley: “Home is where the heartlessness is”

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His friend(s) call him Boomerang Wiley – he always comes back. But he packs an almighty wallop if you get him wrong. His career has seen him take in the bawdiness of Blackpool and the Catton-ness of Cardiff, before returning back to the Midlands. Wiley tells Tepid about his work in the community, his Sov flatmates and why he’s done crossing the line.

When Ash Wiley last gave an interview in 2015, his career seemed on an upward curve. He was engaged to stripper Anita B Banged, had his own plush Blackpool condo and a range of cuddly bananas. However, a move to Cardiff changed everything. In a few short months of playing for the Bluebirds, Banged’s bags were packed after discovering Wiley had bedded a 17-year-old lesbian vampire. His career at Cardiff stalled to the extent he spent matchdays working in Argos. Worse, his steadfast friendship with fellow curmudgeon Derrie Catton crumbled like the damp ceiling in their apartment. It was no surprise when Karen Wiley opened the door of her home one fateful Friday to see Wiley, banana in one hand and suitcase in the other.

“There’s some issues I need to clear up here,” Wiley tells me, frantically flicking his hair in his Walsall apartment. “First with Anita, she’d gotten too thin. Everyone knows I like a garden with a lot of rockery, if you get me. I kept buying her Flumps but she wouldn’t have it. Secondly, I wanted the job in Argos – I’m a sucker for the pens. And thirdly…” his voice cracks. “Well, let’s just say I had to get out of that environment.”

If Cardiff and Catton were a perfect fit, Wales became a nightmare for Wiley. Months of alleged domestic abuse occurred, whether it be plates left unwashed, food consumed or games consoles switched off. “If Hollywood tried to make a movie of it, producers would call it too grim,” Wiley shudders. His form on the pitch suffered, too – where at Sovereign he was indispensable, at Cardiff the Welsh fans were unforgiving of his scuttling performances, nicknaming him ‘The Crab’, ‘Pinchy’ and, simply, ‘C**t’. The nadir came when Cardiff faced Sovereign, now managed by Walter Zenga, in which Wiley was substituted, the first time he had left the pitch involuntarily for over eight years. “The away fans lapped it up. At Sovereign, I wouldn’t leave the pitch,” Wiley says. “One time we had a home game on the Tuesday, so on Saturday at 5 I just stayed on the pitch for a few days. I just took a sturdy fleece.”

Wiley looks down as he recounts the story, but there has been light at the end of the tunnel. His partner, Matt Palmer, frequently squeezes Wiley’s hand while he recounts his woe and offers plentiful supplies of tea and weed. The two became an item shortly after Wiley’s return to Wednesfield, with Wiley moving in to Palmer’s pad. “I know, you’d think I’d learnt a lesson from living with a Sov player before,” Wiley comments. “But it felt right this time. Next time you interview me I’ll be shacked up with San!”

With his personal life mended, as well as his career – he’s now pulling up trees, sometimes literally, for Walsall in League One – Wiley felt it was the right time to start giving something back. He and Palmer began volunteering at the local hospital, assisting elderly patients with physiotherapy, will rewriting and rectal wiping. “It’s been highly rewarding…sometimes literally,” Wiley comments. “But helping out old people has made me and Matt realise how lucky we are. The only downside is if we argue there’s not a bed for me there…bloody NHS!”

It’s not all being plain sailing since joining the Saddlers, however. After attending the notoriously bacchanalian wedding of former manager Neil Jackson, an extremely zoomed-in shot of Wiley’s limp love gun did the rounds in every tabloid. Former lovers were contacted to confirm if it was ‘little Wiley’, while Paddy Power used the image every time Jose Mourinho acted like a ‘dick’. “I took it for Matt. He was delivering pizza, had his car stolen and needed something to cheer him up,” Wiley says. “I didn’t realise I’d put it in the WhatsApp group. It was everywhere. I’d walk into Sainsbury’s and I could hear people commenting and looking…I guess I should have put trousers on, but still.”

Walsall instructed him to do a series of educational talks on the matter. Wiley’s presentation, The Line, saw him discuss what constitutes as overtly sexual behaviour. “People cross the line every day. Sometimes they’ll talk about crossing the line so much the joke begins to wear a bit thin. Although I don’t think it’s gotten to that stage yet,” Wiley says. “I think a lot of people were touched…but then my talk helped them, ha!”

Wiley now seems in a good place – Walsall. He’s come a long way from the boy that left home, went to Blackpool, went to Cardiff then scurried home again. He’s learnt from his mistakes, but he’s not completely changed. I ask if he still trades blows with Fraz and if he ever regrets it. “Why, it’s not like he’s f**king dead, is it?” he asks.

 

Frasier reviews – ‘Space Quest’

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Space Quest almost feels ironic as an episode – it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that it’s actually the offcuts of The Good Son that they had no, well, space to fit in. While it has some great lines, and explores Frasier’s relationship with his father more, watching it makes you wonder why the pilot episode was not just fleshed out to a 45-minute introduction. The closing argument, and subsequent resolution, with Martin is almost emotionally identical to what closed the prior episode.

However, Space Quest is deceptively throwaway. Its purpose was never to be a classic episode, but more to push the plot forward and let the audience learn more about its central characters. Frasier is a man of refined tastes, but can be curmudgeonly with it – it’s no surprise that he takes great offence to the fact his morning routine has been ruined by his new housemates (Daphne and Eddie are now begrudgingly along for the ride, too). However, he’s not a man to lash out, but rather a man to lecture – throughout the show’s lengthy run, Frasier foolishly thought he could ‘better’ people and educate them. Here, his morning speech is brilliantly denounced by Martin, who glibly responds “get used to it.” Change happens, whether we like it or not, and Frasier needs to adapt.

Things reach fever pitch when Frasier desperately longs for solitude to read a book. Frasier and Martin’s explosive back-and-forth feels a little repetitive, especially coming off the back of the opening episode, but Kelsey Grammer and John Mahoney’s fierce acting propels it. Martin cattily calls Frasier a “hot house orchid”, resulting in Frasier storming off and wondering whether he can ever truly live with Martin.

Maybe it’s me, but in The Good Son I wasn’t quite enamoured with Niles – he still felt a little off-character and underdeveloped. Throughout the first season, he’s mostly a marginal figure, in some episodes only appearing in one scene. It’s like that here, Niles questioning whether Frasier truly has tried to spend time with their father. Thankfully, we get much lengthier screen time with Niles in the next episode, giving us a chance to see his own strained relationship with Martin.

Niles’ advice gives Frasier an idea, and his attempt at conversation showcases both the crucial contrasts and striking similarities he has with Martin. While Frasier favours opera over sport, they both possess a masculine stubbornness and quick wit that make them ideal sparring partners. Space Quest also does a good job of bucking the trend with its outro – Martin knows Frasier wants him and Daphne out, and even though I’ve seen this episode countless times, I’m still surprised by Martin’s matter-of-fact response of “I’m not going.”

His comment that forming a bond takes years not days is our first glimpse of Martin as the show’s voice of reason, decanting sage advice to his more intelligent, but far more impulsive, sons. “It’ll fly by before you know it,” Martin offers. “Either that, or it’ll seem like an eternity,” Frasier responds. To conclude, it was eleven seasons, and while sometimes it didn’t fly by, it never felt laborious.

Stray Observations:

  • I was never a big fan of Frasier singing the parody lyrics to the Toreador song, if only because The Simpsons did it first.
  • I know Frasier describes it, but I have a hard time visualizing what ‘eggs in a nest’ actually is and looks like. Nevertheless, I’d love Marty to cook it for me.
  • We get the first appearance of the boorish but brilliant Bob ‘Bulldog’ Briscoe. He and Frasier have an unusual simpatico throughout the show, and here he’s in brash form as he turfs Frasier out of his booth. We also get what would kind of become Bulldog’s staple – him misplacing something, yelling “this stinks! This is total BS!” before casually retrieving it.
  • Roz is fleshed out a little more this outing, and it’s fair to say her relationship with her mother is…close. “It wasn’t that Gary was bad in bed. He knew where all the parts were, unfortunately most of them were his,” she recalls over the phone. What the reaction was remains to be seen, but Frasier is aghast.
  • I love John Mahoney’s line reading during his exchange with Frasier, who’s trying to read a book quietly. His cheery “thick” comment arrives after a perfect momentary silence.
  • Line of the episode has to belong to Niles. After giving some useful tips to Frasier at their favourite haunt, Frasier kindly compliments his younger sibling. “You’re a good brother and a credit to the psychiatric profession.” Niles’ response? “You’re a good brother, too.”
  • Martin isn’t impressed with Frasier’s choice of conversation topic. “I’m talking about a painful, gut-wrenching experience!” “Other than this one?”
  • Timing is everything. After a barrage of insults, Martin chides: “You know what you are”. Ding. “I’ll tell you later.” Perfect.
  • Next episode is Dinner at Eight. If memory serves, it’s a very, very good one.

Frasier reviews – ‘The Good Son’

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Our pilot episode introduces the central characters in swift fashion, but also announces another prevalent plot – the relationship between Frasier and his father.

I should begin by giving a little personal background onto my relationship with Frasier. It has been an institution in my house for as long as I can remember, and there were many Friday nights where I was allowed to stay up late and watch it on Channel 4. Although I was too young to take in The Good Son, being around one-and-a-half at the time of its 1994 airing, I have grown up with the show, with my mother frequently comparing me to Niles (owe it to my svelte build, sandy hair and slightly persnickety demeanour).

What I always remember about Frasier, though, was that it was an arc that, over time, focused on each character’s journey. However, the characters that are arguably given the most airtime are Frasier and Martin. Over time, Roz, Daphne and Niles would each be given room to develop and evolve, but from the very start it’s clear that Martin’s role is just as integral as the titular character’s. If anything, Martin’s is more vital, seeing him grow from a bitter curmudgeon to a content father happy with his lot in life.

In The Good Son, it’s strange to see Martin quite so belligerent, but it starts an emotional heft that would propel a lot of the early shows. His relationship with both his sons is, politely, strained – Niles and Frasier are haughty and obsessed with high culture, while Martin enjoys nothing more than a sports game, a beer and a hot dog. On Frasier‘s opening episode, it’s those differences that form the show’s catalyst.

Before that, though, we see Frasier at the start of the show wrapping up his radio programme, something that would introduce most episodes. Here, he helps push the story along by providing an adrift caller of his reasons for relocating, getting in a classic quip about ex-wife Lilith (“my wife left me, which was painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating”). Roz, his bolshy but brilliant producer, is introduced, showing her wisecracking fearlessness by informing Frasier of his on-air blunders. Her character, though, is yet to be truly fleshed out, and while the Lupe Valez reference wraps up our story, I never really found it particularly inspiring.

We segue from one Frasier institution/character to another, as the immortal title card announces the arrival of Niles. Of course, originally the writers didn’t intend for Frasier to have a brother, but upon seeing David Hyde Pierce perform in a play, they realised there was a likeness to Kelsey Grammar that had a certain sibling similarity. Throughout the show, Hyde Pierce is a tour de force as Niles, exaggerating his elitism with farcical overtones, physical flair and some exquisite line delivery. His relationship with his brother is the perfect mix of co-dependence and sneaky superiority, and in our first glimpse of their Cafe Nervosa sessions it’s almost there, the back-and-forth banter foreshadowing the sharpness that would come (the choice cut being Frasier remarking “since when do you have an unexpressed thought?”, to which Niles responds “I’m having one now”).

Martin and Frasier’s relationship, unsurprisingly, does not get off to a smooth start. Martin’s two prized possessions, a repulsively retro armchair and his terrier Eddie (who freaks Frasier out with his incredibly focused staring), are enough to drive Frasier to fury, but the last straw comes when Martin favours hiring an eccentric English woman, Daphne, to be his physical therapist. Realising Daphne needs somewhere to stay, Frasier erupts when it means he could lose his study. “You want me to give up the place where I do my most profound thinking?” Frasier asks, incredulously. “Oh, just use the can like the rest of the world,” Martin retorts, and within this riposte is a neat representation of their father-son dynamic – Frasier views his father as being unintelligent and blue-collar, while Martin considers Frasier to be stuffy and superior.

The final conflict – and its subsequent resolution – are delivered wonderfully. As Frasier, Grammar has always seemed somewhat ill-fitting. A visible beefcake of sorts, Grammar yet plays someone with a fragility and prissiness that betrays such a strong build. Yet despite this, we always believe when we hear and see tales of him being bullied or ridiculed. It’s testament to Grammar’s stellar performance that he can admit him accepting his own father into his house is an act of guilt and we, as an audience, only gain more sympathy for him.

John Mahoney, as Martin, would be the pinnacle for some of the show’s most brutal moments of pathos, and their explosive argument is perfectly done. Frasier, on the verge of tears, begs for just “one lousy thank you” from his repressed father, but Martin – his face sombre and listless – can’t bring himself to show any sign of vulnerability. When he eventually does, through the medium of Frasier’s radio show, it’s all the more rewarding and true to Martin’s character, one that is incredibly loving and sweet, but buttoned up in blue-collar manliness.

The two of them will endure further fraught discussions as the show continues, but The Good Son is the perfect introduction to characters who, just when they think they’ve found contentment, are thrown life-changing curveballs.

Stray observations

  • So, settle in! I hope that as many Frasier fans as possible will join me in this episodic quest throughout the seasons. We’ve got so many remarks to review, so many characters to cover and so many dramatic shifts to suffer, but as Frasier paraphrases somewhere in Season Eight, “I think we can.”
  • The two Cafe Nervosa scenes here are there simply to drive the plot along, but it’s a great introduction to what will become a staple of the series – sometimes I could just watch a whole episode of Frasier and Niles exchanging witty remarks and discussing their various pretensions (oh…wait…they do! Can’t wait for Episode 24).
  • Frasier’s overcompensating gets the better of him when he tries to dazzle Martin with the view. “Oh, see, Dad, that’s the Space Needle right there.” “Oh, thanks for pointing that out, being born and raised here, I’d have never have known.”
  • Not sure when Martin’s ubiquitous armchair stopped vibrating, but here it’s in full flow and, in Frasier’s words, “the crowning touch.”
  • While a few of his eccentricities and snobby demeanour are already well-set, some of Niles’ characteristics seem slightly off throughout. By this point, Frasier had been back for six months, but their relationship isn’t as close as it is portrayed in later episodes. Here, they go to the opera separately and Niles vetoes a hug.
  • Martin is unimpressed with the first care worker, despite her illustrious resume. “She worked with Mother Theresa!” “Well, if I was Mother Theresa, I’d check her jewellery box.”
  • I love Daphne, after potentially blotting her copybook with her admission of being physic, makes light of the situation by joking to Eddie – “you’re a dog, aren’t you?” and laughing. It’s a sweet, innocent moment that many of us, certainly myself, do to try and remedy a situation. Even better is Frasier’s sly dig upon Daphne’s exit: “We’ll be in contact, Miss Moon, if not by telephone…through the toaster.”
  • Speaking of Daphne, her belief she is psychic is an early character trait that would, as time progressed, fall by the wayside. Ditto Niles and his rigorous hygienic crusade, as he meticulously wipes down his seat before offering Frasier a go.
  • Another integral character introduced – although not seen, natch – is Niles’ surgery-obsessed socialite wife, Maris. “I thought you liked my Maris,” enquires Niles, defensively. “I do, I like her from a distance,” Frasier responds. “Maris is like the sun…except without the warmth.” I’m pretty sure at this point she was going to be an onscreen character, before the writers’ exaggerated descriptions deemed it impossible.
  • The next episode, Space Quest, continues Frasier and Martin’s bickering. If memory serves, it’s a good one.

Why Toby Young’s ‘reign’ is another groan from a dying Government

The Tory party’s continued lack of touch and grace has once again been highlighted by the appointment of Toby Young to a prominent education board, despite a vast history of sexist tweets and ill-advised egomania. Now out of the frame after just eight days, this farcical folly is yet another product of a Government falling on its own slimy sword.

Let’s get the case for the defence out of the way first. Toby Young – egocentric malcontent, deliberately divisive journalist and Conservative companion – has found himself stymied into resignation from the newly-formed board of Office of Students a mere eight days after being anointed, largely down to a series of sophomoric, sexist and contemptuous Twitter remarks. While he has stepped down, he has still refused to acknowledge he was hoisted by his own profane petard, and simply said he is being judged for things he said “before he got into education…when I was a journalistic provocateur.”

That statement rings slightly true, of course. Furthermore, from St Augustine of Hippo to Liam Gallagher, God and the public love a repentant celebrity. For example, in school, I once dropped someone’s choc ice. It was ill-advised, foolish and downright out-of-line with the behaviour expected of an eight-year-old. I had been tasked with holding the treat, and I failed in that duty. While there’s always been a fear at the back of my mind that such a perilous product of my past would come back to haunt me, must I then spend my life in the frozen section weeping for consideration? Would I not be entitled to a second chance?

Yes, with a but. And, of course, in Toby Young’s case, it is a completely different kettle of fish (or should that be barrel of baps?). I’m not now on a board promoting free, academically rigorous and seemingly exclusive schools for choc ices. I am not indulging in the sugary treat after blasting them for being ugly and inappropriate, as Young had done regarding ramps at schools. I had not branded choc ices “troglodytes”, as Young had done with grammar school pupils. Furthermore, I have not – to my knowledge – repeatedly and repugnantly aired my admiration for choc ices’ breasts. As Young frequently has.

Things we say in the past will always come back to haunt us, but if we acknowledge them and move on, perhaps there can be forgiveness. In Young’s case, however, it was not a mere one-off – it must have taken him the eight days he was in office removing all the incriminating tweets had he posted regarding an MP’s cleavage, Claudia Winkleman’s breasts and the mammary glands of a fellow television judge. Young had frequently posted such vulgar remarks with little care or interest in what others had to think, a frequent pitfall throughout the journalist’s highly controversial career. That he blames it on merely being a product of his past is not good enough – his eerily long and very open degradation and objectifying of women, from through Twitter or his escapades as a New York journo, is not a mistake or the folly of youth, it’s a full-blown character trait that will not stop just because his blogs have.

Young’s appointment casts further calamity on the Conservative party. By its very definition, the Tory party are out of touch, but this appointment is a further groan in the dying body that is our Government. Hiring a boorish sexist and insensitive braggart in such a public-facing role shows a Government complete devoid and dumb of what the public would actually want. While Young has dipped his toe into the world of education, his appointment – over anyone representing the NUS, for that matter – showed disregard for the education sector as a whole, and leaning on the “we need outside opinions” aphorism quite rightly did little to dissuade those signing “Young out” petitions.

The fact he even got into office in the first place is largely down to his Tory chumminess with the Johnson dynasty, who defended him to the hilt and promised he would bring “caustic wit” to the cause. Was he ever fact checked? Did no one consider the perils of hiring a figure second only to Piers Morgan in the hated media figure stakes? No. Worse, he was flung on his own sword just 24 hours after being publicly defended. Theresa May could only yammer while sitting on the fence, promising that if he made one more naughty remark there would be repercussions. Again, like many of May’s soundbites, it felt empty, haughty and completely devoid of any real promise.

The good thing is that the public have spoken and have been rewarded. Young resigning will hopefully allow the Office of Students to try and produce good work without such a negative spotlight (even if the subject of free schools continues to divide opinion in its own right). For Young, it is hopefully a lesson learnt that cruel comments on inclusion and perverted remarks on “baps” will not grant you a serious career in the political sphere…yet.

 

 

 

 

Father? Christmas

Mum had always said the same thing. “He was a crook,” she would sneer, a drool of brandy butter coating her drunken lips. “He was belligerent. He used me for one night and then never even calls. Never wanted to meet you. Hasn’t paid any child support. I’ve got half a mind to take him to court, but what’s the point? No one would ever believe me.”

It was the same every Christmas. Any other time of the year, she would never bring it up. Heck, she never even seemed hurt. She was proud that she’d raised me all on her own. But as soon as December came and I flicked open the first window of my advent calendar, a festive fury took hold of my mother. If she lived alone, she wouldn’t have put up a single thread of tinsel. There’d be no Bonsai tree, let alone a Christmas one. She put bread knives in the chimney.

“God, I can’t stand this time of year,” she’d rage. As soon as ‘Last Christmas’ began blaring out during our Monday shop, she made our next door neighbour go to Tesco for her.

I knew the reason, but I didn’t believe it. She was right – who would believe it? Mum had to get drunk just to tell me. “Have you ever wondered, Natalie, why you’ve never had a father around?” she’d ask. It was the same introductory quiz every Christmas.

“I’ve never really questioned it,” I would reply. And I meant it. Some families had dogs, some had cats. Some had other siblings, some were only children. It never really meant anything to me that I didn’t have a dad. Sometimes I had fantasised about him, thinking he’d left my mother to sacrifice himself in trying to solve world hunger, or he was teaching two tribes in deepest Africa that perhaps religion wasn’t the real reason they were arguing. But, in reality, I just thought he was probably some shady one-night stand.

“Don’t your friends ask you?” would come the response.

“Not really, it’s never bothered them,” I’d respond. I always tried to not give my mother fodder for more questions. She’d prepped them anyway, of course.

“It was Christmas Eve and I was still living with your grandparents,” she’d begin, the swigs of Bailey’s becoming more frequent and frenzied as each memory was unlocked. “It could have even been Christmas morning. I just remember seeing a figure bumbling around in the dark. I’d been out with Karen, Kev and Stu, and I was still feeling pretty buzzed. But before I could reach for the Neurofen I saw him.”

“Go on…”

“Santa Claus.”

That’s when my eyes would begin rolling. Nonetheless, she would continue.

“They should call him that ‘cos he sunk his bloody claws into me,” Mum spat. “He was charming, glowing and incredibly kind. He sat down next to me and started telling me about all the places he’d seen. He loved travelling.”

“He’d make a great Tinder bio.” That was my response last year.

“Of course, I was entranced. I mean, I’d stopped believing in Santa years ago,” Mum would continue. “But here he was, in the flesh. He told me how he and Mrs Claus were not really seeing eye to eye. She was the more stay-at-home type. He told me I’d been good that year and deserved a special present, and that’s when I looked above and saw the mistletoe. Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe he’d planted it there himself. I think he wanted out of that marriage.”

“Right, Mum, well this is all well and good, but…”

“We ended up kissing and, well, one thing led to another,” Mum explained tactfully. By the time I turned 16, she’d joke that Santa didn’t have any suitable “stockings” upon his person.

So that was my Christmas. Every bloody year. At first, I chuckled heartily. I thought she was just trying to make me smile, even if it was a little seedy. But as I grew older, the story would always be told. It was always the same. Little details would be added – the size of his carrot, the feel of his silk, the tickle of his beard – but she was adamant that it wasn’t some drunken dream.

The older I got, the more cynical I became. My main concern was that this ‘Santa’ could have been Uncle Paul and she’d ended up fumbling around with her own brother (he was always a bit incestuous, especially when he’d offer me a ‘giddy-up’). My other fear was it was a randy burglar who couldn’t believe his luck. When I fooled myself into believing Mum’s theory, even then I had doubts – Santa was on his busiest shift. His only shift. In between taking gifts to Greece and Gabon how would he have the time to get his coals off? I’d heard some crazy theories about Santa having the power to slow down time in order to circumnavigate the globe, and that he could do everything he wanted in seconds. But surely if he was visiting a girl’s grotto he’d want to spend hours in there?

“I wrote to him every week after I found out I was pregnant,” Mum sighed. The brandy bottle was about to be unscrewed. “There had been no one else. I let Kev have a feel of my tights in the pub but sperm can’t threw laddered cotton.”

“And did he respond?” I asked. This segment of the conversation must have happened when I’d reached a more quizzical age – I think I was 14 when I began wondering if Santa used his fingers.

“Nope, just the standard Christmas boilerplate,” Mum said. “And then when you were born, I sent him photos and begged him to come and meet you. I knew that he was probably in hibernation, but I thought he’d make the effort to see his newborn daughter.”

“Did you see him again at Christmas?”

“Nope, he made it pretty clear he didn’t wanna see me,” Mum said. “I got vouchers that year.”

“So he didn’t slide down the chimney?”

“No one did that year,” Mum said. “But no, he didn’t even take a sip of the whiskey I left out for him. I thought that would remind him of our time together. Whiskey seemed to pop his belt, if you get me.”

“I don’t need to hear this,” I said. “Mum, are you absolutely sure? You told me to stop believing in Santa when I turned 10.”

“Yes, because I don’t want you supporting your father,” Mum replied. “He’s never supported you. I have to buy and wrap your presents. I have to cook Christmas dinner. I was the one fighting the other mums down at Toys-R-Us. Where was he? Probably burning my letters on his fire, the fat shit.”

“I mean, wasn’t he a bit old for you?”

“He had the gift of the gab,” Mum said. “I wouldn’t usually go for a guy like that but I felt wanted. The way he scooped me up in his arms. I felt safe. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t all gentle, but…”

Mum tried her best. I had a pretty good upbringing. She worked as a supervisor at a hardware store, although had no knowledge of what a hammer did. Her boss, Reggie, had been in love with her since the day she started, and continued to keep her on and promote her despite her thinking an L-pipe meant a dodgy uterus. My nan and granddad always helped out with babysitting, but eleven months a year my mum was working until 6, picking me up, cooking tea, reading my bedtime stories and making sure I never needed a dad. It was only on the last month of the year where things would go a little haywire. The only time where I would have actually favoured having another person in the house.

There had been times when I thought about tracking down my dad myself. On my 30th birthday, I felt a sudden yearning to know. It was like an alarm clock had gone off in my head, that all this time I had been incomplete. That there had been a paternal piece missing. What if I died the next day and I’d never even seen my father? Never even knew his name? Mum had done amazingly well in bringing me up, and ensured that I got a good education and had loads of fun, but I was old enough now to know what happened.

“I’ve told you what happened,” Mum snapped.

“Mum, this isn’t Christmas Day, you can drop that story.”

“Are you implying I’ve been making this story up? For thirty years?!”

“I don’t know what I’m implying, but…”

“Yes?”

“I just think I deserve the truth.”

“You’re drunk, Natalie. Just enjoy the party and we’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

“No, not tomorrow, now,” I said, grabbing her by the arm. A droplet of wine escaped from her glass and Mum gave me a look as if I’d just shot her in the kneecap. “I have to spend every Christmas listening to your tale of unrequited romance with Saint Nick, and every year I have to smile and sympathise. Well, I think I’m old enough now for you to tell me that you didn’t actually shag Santa.”

“I can’t believe you’re bringing this up now,” Mum said. “This is your birthday. Stop embarrassing yourself.”

“You embarrass yourself every Christmas Day!” I said. There was no going back now. Kev looked across, anxiously hiding his hands. “Didn’t you ever think I wanted a normal Christmas? With all the family around? With loads of presents? With my mother sober?”

“Enough! I’m not discussing this anymore. Why would I lie to my own daughter? I’ve spent every bloody Christmas telling everyone what that man did to me. But of course it’s me that’s ridiculed. I’m the one that looks crazy, while he gets to go and see the world and probably impregnate a lonely mother in Moscow.”

With experienced precision, Mum gulped the remains of her glass and strode off into the night.

 

As Mum walked off broken, I realised maybe I’d gone too far. I just wanted to put a stop to it all. To end the nonsense. But it’s been 30 years – how can anyone keep a lie going for so long? Maybe it had happened. Maybe she needed me on her side. She needed someone to believe in her and I shunned her.

“Hope you’ve had a great birthday, sweetie,” Kev said, noticing me deep in thought. “Is your mum okay?”

“Thanks, Kev. Oh…I think so.”

“Look, nothing happened that night,” he said, a panicked sweat protruding from his forehead. “I went to grab my own knee and accidentally grabbed hers. Twice.”

The next day, I left my apartment early and made my way over to Mum’s house. I knew she wouldn’t be expecting me – she thought I was a drunken mess and was blissfully hoping I’d be spending all day vomiting over my cat.

“What do you want?” she asked.

“Can we talk about last night?” I asked, trying to remain calm and controlled.

“Yes, of course we can,” Mum replied. “It was a fantastic party, all the right friends showed up, Paul tried to pull the coat-check girl. Everyone had fun. How’s that?”

“Mum, you know what I want to talk about,” I replied.

“You want to make me look a fool once again, do you?”

“No, I want to help,” I said. “Are you gonna let me in? I bet you’ve still got that Neurofen from that night, yeah?”

We sat down and Mum began Irish-ing up her coffee. I gave her a flat refusal and nursed a glass of water.

“So let’s say Santa is my dad,” I began.

“There’s no ‘say’ about it. He is your dad,” Mum said.

I grimaced as her interjection shattered my skull. “Okay, sorry. So he’s my dad. Is there no way I can get in touch with him?”

“Maybe you could take a two-week vacation to the North Pole. Or Lapland. He’s got properties everywhere.”

“Actually, Santa was born in Turkey,” I said. “He might have a villa out there.”

“Istanbullshit! He didn’t even have a tan when I saw him!” Mum said. “He was as pale as snow.”

“He probably doesn’t spend much time there,” I said. “But I guess it means I’m part Turkish.”

“You’re not much of a delight, though.”

“Haha.”
“I don’t know what to suggest other than wait until Christmas. It’s only a few months away. It seems to come quicker every year.”

“But how would we even see him?”

“We could stay up.”

“He’s probably still avoiding me. He knows what he did,” Mum said.

“Well, I’ll write him a letter,” I said. “And I’ll implore him to see me. I won’t ask for money or weekly visits to Greenland. I’ll just ask that I can meet him one time, just so I can say I have spoken with my father.”

“You can try, but I don’t think it’ll work,” Mum said.

“We owe it ourselves to try it.”

As I began scribbling, I tried to remember who exactly I was doing this for. Was it actually for me? Was it to get the closure I’d wanted for all of one day? Or was it to give my mother some kind of comfort, a kind of reassurance that there was someone else on the planet that actually believed her story. By the time I signed my name, it didn’t really matter.

The next few months segued into December before I even knew it. I was never a big fan of Christmas, mostly down to my mother’s annual outbursts, and at work they were all very aware of it.

“Why don’t you like Christmas, Nat?” Dwayne asked me one day.”

“I just don’t,” I replied.

“Come on, you can tell me. Are you Jewish?”

“No!”

“So you’re just tight.”

“Dwayne!”

He laughed cockily and flashed me a pout. “Sorry, babe. Look try and get in the spirit this year, yeah?”

“Alright,” I said. Before he could swagger over to the photocopier, I grabbed his hand. “Dwayne, can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“Come closer.”

“Babe, not here.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Dwayne. Look it’s a secret,” I said. “I am a little excited this year. I’m actually gonna meet my dad.”

“Oh, that’s swell, Nat,” he said. “I mean, I’ve asked for a new tie, myself, but…”

“You don’t understand,” I whispered. “My dad is…Santa Claus.”

Dwayne burst out laughing. “Oh, Natalie, you’ve got such a dry wit,” he said. “I can see why you hate Christmas now. Your daddy always buying other kids’ presents and not spending any time with you. My mum’s the tooth fairy and she never once gave me a pound coin.”

“Dwayne, I’m being serious,” I said. “Mum tells me every Christmas that Santa is my dad and I always laughed at her. But maybe she’s telling the truth? I mean, she’s told me this every Christmas since I was born.”

“But Santa doesn’t even exist,” Dwayne said. “Who ordered his morning Uber, one of the elves?”

“I knew I shouldn’t have said anything,” I said. “You just think I’m crazy.”

“No, Nat, I don’t,” he said. Even Dwayne realised his jokes were going too far. “But if he is your daddy, what are you going to do about it?”

“Well, for a start, can you please stop referring to him as ‘Daddy’,” I said. “And secondly, I wrote him a letter a few months back and begged him to meet me. I don’t even care if he brings me any presents or not. I just want to meet him, and I want him to talk to my mum.”

“But it was a dick and dash,” Dwayne said. “He won’t wanna carve the turkey now he’s cooked it.”

“Charming,” I said. “It’s more for my mum than me. I want him to see what he’s missed out on.”

“Well, good luck,” Dwayne said, although I could tell he was still sceptical. “Tell you what, I’ll even guard your front door that night. We can have walkie talkies and I’ll let you know when he goes down the chimney.”

“It’s an apartment building so I presume he’ll inform the doorman,” I said. “But that would be very nice of you.”

“But look if he’s a deadbeat I’m not punching him for you, I just had a manicure.”

“Man being the operative word.”

“See you later, Santa lady.”

On Christmas Eve, Mum and I lay quietly in bed together. She squeezed my hand and flashed me a grin. She looked vindicated. Loved. It had been a long time since I saw her smile at Christmas.

“Do you think he’ll even show up?” Mum asked.

“I’m confident he will,” I replied. “Why don’t you have a nap and I’ll let you know if I hear anything?”

Mum cuddled up and closed her eyes. I lay still, my mind racing. One moment I was cursing myself for entertaining Mum’s crackpot theory, but the next I was pleased I finally took a step back and considered her story viable.

The hours passed. Mum’s nap had turned into fully-fledged slumber and I wasn’t far from joining her. All I could hear was the gentle tick of the clock and Mum’s occasional throaty snore. Suddenly, I was woken up by a loud crash. I tried to stir Mum but the drool trail from her mouth suggested she was done for the night. I hurriedly got out of bed and checked through the curtains, hoping I’d see him. Even if he turned and gave me a cheery wink. But there was nothing but two cats giving each other ‘gifts’ by the bins.

I checked my watch. It was nearly 4am. The entire complex was quiet. No movement. It was strange, but part of me thought he’d actually show. That he really was my father. Maybe he is and he’s scared I’ll ask him to teach me to ride a bike or give my ex-boyfriends a sound beating. I guess it would have to wait for another year. I went out into the living room and saw the tree, bereft of presents. When I was younger it was never particularly full. I don’t think Mum could really bare going out Christmas shopping, getting bombarded with Band Aid, tinsel and mulled wine. I decided to give up and hit the hay.

“Natalie, are you okay?” she murmured, before rising suddenly. “Has he been?!”

I sat on the edge of the bed. “Yeah, Mum, he’s been.”

“You’re kidding me?! Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“I…He said seeing you would be too painful.”

“Yeah, well, once I’d kicked him in the balls I guess it would be.”

“He did say he was sorry.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah.” I lay down next to her. “He said he was sorry but he could never raise a child when he’s technically looking after billions across the world. He said he was proud of me, though.”

“And is he going to give me some money? Is he going to be at your wedding?”

“Mum, let’s forget about all of that,” I said. “I don’t need that. I don’t need him. I stopped needing him when I turned 10.”

“I guess so, darling. Well I hope he told you this month’s been a bit tight and you might only get a jumper.”

I laughed. “As long as the jumper’s not tight.”

She went back to sleep and I poked my head through the bedroom curtains. Maybe I’d never meet him, but I’d gone through Christmas Eves believing in him and not believing. This would be the first one where I was caught in between.