For We Are Young and Free


It’s been a rather enjoyable summer, all things being considered. If you happen to be a Pom, (which I am) and enjoy your sport (which I do) you find yourself in one of those periods in your life on which you will look back in years to come and wonder how the hell it all happened.

Of the three main sports worth talking about, The British Lions won the Rugby, GB & Europe hold the Ryder Cup, and England won the ashes before Alastair Cook had time to dust off his lucky Bobby Tambling jockstrap. In other fields, a Scotsman holds the Wimbledon Title for the first time since the Reformation, our naturalised Brits keep running, jumping and cycling faster than other counties’ naturalised citizens and, as yet, seem more adept at avoiding awkward questions about pills and blood transfusions than their fellow competitors.

This is all very odd indeed.

I am of an era where the word British was always preceded by “Plucky”, “Gallant” or “Useless”. There was a clear world order of things : 1) The British invented a sport. 2) The British got bored of playing amongst themselves, so took the game to the colonies. 3) The colonies (and anyone else who happened to be passing) beat the British.

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A small boy asks for the autograph of the winner of the 1908 Reculver to Penge Bicycle Race.

And this was how it was since sport was invented. Americans held all the golf and the tennis titles (very occasionally helped by a German, Swede or Strine). The Aussies and W Indies were the best at cricket, New Zealanders won the Rugby. West German men dominated the football (mainly), East German Women triumphed at the swimming (manly) and everyone else won Olympic Gold at our expense (the exception being Moscow 1980 when no-one else turned up). 

Oh yes, of course, there were always exceptions which proved the rule. Occasionally you’d get a Daley Thompson or an Ian Botham who’d become world-beaters, but on the whole we were useless. Our coaches were useless, our stadia crap and all our sportsmen and athletes went to college in Florida because over there they had real grass and something called sunshine.

Leaving us with Torvill & Dean.

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Mr & Mrs Jagger of Dartford, Kent, thoroughly enjoying themselves at a cricket match at The Oval, London 1972. Australia won by 5 wickets. Again.

Somehow this all changed. Somewhere between Shane Gould and Rebecca Adlington, between Mal Meninga and Johnny Wilkinson, since Rod Laver and just before Jock McSour, the British began to win things. Some genius in Westminster had the brain wave of giving money to each individual sporting organisations in the country for coaches, equipment and facilities. Invest in the country’s youth and watch it flourish.

Bugger me it works !

Of course, not all sporting bodies in the country got with the program. Some, like the FA and Football Premiership, reasoned that if we could attract enough mercenary and racist show ponies to our leagues, pay them so much money that, at the first flash of an agent’s instep, they’d drop you for another club. Only by playing against and alongside these players will our own boys improve and therefore, so the argument goes, will the National side improve and become World Cup Winners.

How’s that working out for you ?

But putting soccer to one side (putting it to sleep would be more humane) it does seem like something has worked. Our South Africans bat longer, run faster and cycle further between ‘comfort breaks’ than their South Africans; Our golfers (men and women) regularly pop across the pond to nick their silverwear; the Spirit of Seb Coe is still in the ascendency (in all parts of the land apart from my house) as young men and women who have benefited from our own little version of the GDR approach, run jump and swim faster, higher and longer than anyone else (well more than they used to anyway).

Most gratifying, of course is that this:

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has become this:

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It’s not just money that has caused this turnaround in fortunes, it is of course the attitudes of the Powers at Be. It’s the sudden (!) realisation that sport is great for the young, the soul of youth, and the heart of a nation. Winning is not everything, but is great for the spirit, and allows people like Cameron and Blair to use words like Feel Good Factor, and to jump on that bandwagon, drenching themselves and their political parties in the sweat and toil of others. (The reader will please note that during an Ashes Series, of course, winning is everything— but you get my drift). If school headmasters since Tom Brown’s days realised the importance of sport, why did it take until 1990 for any British Government ?

So as a finale to my summer there could have been no better received call last night than that from an old pal of mine who announced that unfortunately he’d had some people let him down, and he was stuck with two seats for the first day of the Fifth Test at The Oval today. “Would you and the missus like to go?” he asked, hopefully.  Being a good friend, I couldn’t see the poor man left with extra seats to fill. I threw my spirally cap and monocle into the ring.

Therefore this morning like Mick and Bianca before us (though hopefully slightly better-attired) The Incumbent and I shall take our places in the OCS stand for the first day of what promises to be a five-day-long party. Being 3-0 up already it will seem very odd that there is nothing to play for. CORRECTION:  there often used to be nothing to play for by the time we reached the Oval, but because the Aussies had already won the series. The boot with the big toe poking through the hole is definitely on the other foot this morning.

I don’t expect it to be a packed house. I’m looking forward to many a Strine Whine of “Oh look, anyone want 8 spare tickets ?” as I emerge from the Oval tube this morning. Memories of the vast expanses of empty seats at the MCG and SGC from 2009 tell us that your Aussie doesn’t turn up to see a losing side. He’ll have to get use to it. We did for years.

The English have included in their squad 2 relative unknowns — presumably to give them experience of carrying drinks out to the middle. The Aussie, bless them, have included 8 unknowns in their side — although 7 of these have already played 4 tests this summer. The ACB are busy trawling the practice nets and academies of Papua New Guinea, searching for more leg spinners and opening bats before their government pours them back into the sea. Let’s all hope that works out for them (the ACB, that is, not the government: The Government can go fvck itself).

World cricket is poorer for a weak Australian team.

Albeit funnier.

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There’s Only Me in Team.


Get yourself a comfy spot on the sofa in plain view of the Telly and:

Simply print out this sheet and play the game that’s the talk of the town. Why not spend then next three days listening to Colin Montgomery talk about himself while he’s supposed to be commentating on the 2012 Ryder Cup for Sky TV? Get yourself a pen and cross off each word or phrase every time Monty utters one of them (you won’t have long to wait, I promise).

Once you’ve crossed off all the boxes, jump to your feet and shout “Shut up you dull Scotch Fucker !” and, who knows, you could be on your way to our terrific star prize: An hour in a lift with Nigel Mansell and Gavin Hastings. 2nd Prize is a weekend with Sir Nick Faldo and Bernard Gallacher at the Mullett Hatchery, Penge.

Please Gamble Responsibly and Drink Heavily when Asked or Offered.

The Slaughtered Lamb


Fancy a pint ? Yes ? Come on then, I’ll take you down to a little pub I know. It’s just down the road.

Two weeks into my self-imposed exile, we decided last night to take a stroll round the leafy lanes, avenues and alleyways and see what Dartford on a Friday night had to offer. Our route was not a particularly ambitious one. A short couple of miles which would take us by (or rather to) 5 boozers, all of which I’d visited before down the years, some more frequently than others, and being the five closest inns from the Potting Shed each of them stood a decent chance of becoming my new local.

First up: the former local. I’d spent most of my formative years getting ever-so-slightly elephants in a particular pub on the top of the hill, just outside town. Ernie’s had been scientifically chosen, it being the closest one to the school gates and you get still get served wearing your uniform. Many of my happiest memories are from those 15 short years from the age of 16 onwards getting smashed out of my face in one of the less-trendy nightspots in Dartford (and that’s going some). Birthdays, weddings (not mine), funerals (ditto), births, divorces and Ryder Cup triumphs were all celebrated within those walls overseen by the hilariously miserable Mancunian eponymous landlord who scared off as many customers as he attracted with his sledgehammer wit and pungent bodily functions.He’s long-gone now, gone off to live in Spain with his pockets bulging with my hard-earned cash, so I was intrigued to see how the old place was, fifteen years after I’d last set thirsty foot in it.

Within 12 yards of the door my worst fears were realised. Through the several plate-glass windows I saw a pub transformed from the traditional boozer it once was. Where once a horseshoe bar wound its way round the room, manned permanently by assorted punters, postmen and pissheads, there seemed to be a selection of coffee tables and banquettes. Low-slung chaise-longues occupied by even lower-slung shell-suits sat there in deathly silence. I counted eight people in there. And none of them were having fun. The bar had been rebuilt and stood in all its magnificent gloss-white glory along one side of the room. Two of the uglier members from the cast of Glee stood silently behind it, re-arranging the bottles of WKD. The strains of Tiny Talent could be heard emanating from the music system.

“Nope” I announced to The Incumbent who, if the speed by which she changed direction was anything to go by, had already made up her mind that it looked like a shit hole. Fortunately, there’s a pub right opposite Ernie’s so we headed across the road and, without stopping to check it out, ploughed through the door.

Imagine walking one of those shack-cum-bars in Mississippi or Alabama. Where the KKK‘s U19 Soccer team have just held their AGM. And all the bright ones have gone home for their tea. And it’s been free beer for six hours. And the town has just elected a black mayor. And he’s gay. Got that image in your brain ? Well that’s the kind of scene we encountered there in that pub.

Two or three of the knuckle-draggers who still had control of their movements looked up looked us up and down, suspecting that we were either coppers or neurosurgeons. Being neither, but not wanting to have to prove it, I decided on the only course of action open to us.

“Nope” I exclaimed again and we beat a hasty retreat out of the Berchtesgaden Arms back to the now strangely enticing Ernie’s. In the 14 seconds we’d been across the road, three of the customers I’d seen through the window had left, leaving three young asian blokes, slumped at half-mast on their leatherette armchairs, staring wistfully and listlessly at two imaginatively-clad girls sat near the toilets, knocking a decent-sized hole in a bottle of Rose. These were very odd fellows indeed. I ordered myself a pint and a gin for the missus, partly for old times’ sake and partly cos I never like not having a drink in two pubs in a row.

Our drinks didn’t touch the sides. We left. Depressed.

No matter, onwards and upwards. Next up, the previously mentioned Goat and Masturbator which, as the glass bottle flies round here, is the closest to the Potting Shed. It would have been some time during the mid 1980’s when I was last here and it wasn’t that brilliant then.  Now it’s a Harvester. One of those eateries with all the atmosphere of a Hosni Mubarak cabinet meeting. A few groups of half-drunk, fully-fed  20-somethings were placed carefully between plates of rotten and rotting food. The smell of barbeque ribs and Red Bull was quite overpowering.

“Nope!” yelled The Incumbent over the din of an iTunes playlist. We left smartly, missing the chance to indulge in a baked potato with the topping of our choice, washed down with one of two Australian lagers on tap.

Pub number four just had to be better. And, in truth it was. The Liniment and Poultice had never been a favourite of mine back when I had hair, but da word on da street recently was that it’s been taken over, was full of old gits and had gone all boring. Perfect. Well almost. A medium-sized establishment, the first thing you notice that it has both a pool table and a dartboard (both of which are sadly lacking in Blackheath boozers). There were twenty-or-so people drinking inside, most over 30 years old, some over 50, all of them huddled along the bar leaving wide open spaces of emptiness in the lounge. You could have played a game of football on the carpeted area and not bothered anyone, but try to get near the bar and you encountered a sea of elbows, builder’s bums and handbags.Nevertheless, all seemed quite friendly, and the guv’nor poured a decent pint of Stella, and a perfect gin.

Now I know on such announcements economies can boom or bust,  so I have to tell you now that there is goodly supply of both limes and lemons in Dartford. Not only that but on the evidence of last night the bottle of tonic is placed on the bar un-decanted beside the glass of gin, and it is left to you, yourself, to administer the correct measure of mixer. You should have seen my little face light up.

And that would have been that. I would have happily settled on The Liniment to serve as my local for the duration of my stay here in NW Kent, however long that may be. But we still had one more pub to visit on our way home. Which, after a few more pints in The Poultice is exactly what we did.

If you didn’t know The Shovel was there you’d easily pass it in your rush to get to Dartford town centre. (In truth you still don’t know its there, or its real name but, like a Danish cartoonist, The Shovel’s exact and whereabouts need to be kept a closely guarded secret.) This is a teeny tiny little pub. Barely bigger than your average terraced house. When we entered there were 12 people in the bar, all middle-aged (or older) men, one barmaid behind the jump. It was busy. If a half-laden Ford Galaxy emptied it’s passengers into the pub it’d be standing room only. And some of these old blokes couldn’t stand for long.

From the door we took three steps and arrived at the bar. There were three hand-pumps, none of them marked. One Guinness pump, one Fosters and one serving Dark Mild. I’ll type that again: one serving Dark Mild.

“What’s in the hand pumps, love?”  I asked the barmaid, going all Richard Keys on her.
“Courage Best” she smiled.
“What, in all of em?” I asked
“Yep, all of them”

I looked around to see who was having what elsewhere in the pub. Two blokes had pints of stout in their hands. Always worth checking.
“I’ll have a Guinness then, please.” says I, “Oh and a gin and tonic as well please” remembering my manners.

As I waited for my stout to settle I looked around the pub. Behind the bar, beneath the optics, were unrefrigerated shelves of bottled beer: Stouts, Brown Ales, Light Ales, Barley Wines and the like of which you just don’t see anymore. Mainly because no-one drinks them, but all the same… And unrefrigerated. Warm beer. You could ask for a Light & Bitter and not only would it arrive at room temperature but, by the look of the barmaid she’d know exactly how to pour it.

Up above, where the line of optics ended was a calendar. The photo was of a naked girl standing under a palm tree on a beach, sporting an enormous bush. She had big hair on her head too and a lovely big grin. She smiled out at us barflies as she and girls like her used to smile out at us from The Big D peanut cards back in the 70s and 80s, before pictures of naked women in pubs and garages were Andy Grayed into touch. This was the 2011 and she looked completely out-of-place. Pleasant, but out-of-place.

At least I thought it was 2011 but I kept spotting things which told me otherwise. To the right of my naked new friend was a small wooden cabinet containing three piles of assorted 10-packs of cigarettes, a couple of half-ounces of Golden Virginia and a dozen boxes of matches. No cigarette machine here, just a wooden box behind the bar. Come to think of it, there was no jukebox or fruit machine either. The punters entertained themselves by talking to each other (everyone truly knew everyone else and everyone was within ear-trumpet range of each other) or, for the more adventurous, a game of crib was in full-flow. It nearly kicked off when one bloke had 16 in his box and pegged-out, almost literally.

I took stock of the situation:  A quiet friendly pub, with no herberts or wankers; no jukebox or one-armed bandit; a pleasant knowledgeable barmaid; light ale; photos of naked girls; a crib board and Dark Mild.

Admittedly the Guinness was fucking awful, but such was my euphoria at finding such a wonderful little time-capsule that I forgot to complain. Even after my fourth pint.

I was home.

So what do you reckon ? Fancy a stroll down there ? You’re a bitter man, right ? I hope you like Courage Best.  And you don’t mind if I blindfold you, do you ? Can’t have everyone knowing where it is. There’s very little room at this Inn.

Preferred Lies


About this time a two years ago I was in Kentucky trying to find a decent pint. A bunch of selected chums and I had gone over there to lay to rest the myth that the colony had thrown away the recipe for beer when they threw all that tea into the water in Boston a few years ago.

We were also there, of course, to witness one of the world’s great sporting events: The Ryder Cup. A couple of us had been to one before, in Spain 1997, and it was an experience we wanted to repeat. The build-up the matches was electric. Louisville had been invaded by thousands of European fans, including seemingly half of Ireland, and the locals couldn’t have been nicer about it (especially after they realised how much Guinness they were gonna sell that week).

The US fans were passionate about a victory which had eluded them for several years and they did their very best to cheer their team on as American captain Paul Azinger‘s 12 men visited the bars and restaurants down the main drag the night before the match. Every steakhouse and every bourbon house rang to the sound of the American chant:

USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! “USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!”

It was impressive stuff. American fists were pumping, the US flags were waving and, having failed to find a decent local brew, we sank endless pints of Irish stout, soaking up both the alcohol and the atmosphere. One woman tapped me on my shoulder.
“Please tell your friends that we’re not all like that” she said, motioning towards a crowd of jumping, star spangled piss-heads in full rabble-rousing flow.
“Don’t be daft” says I “there’s nothing wrong in cheering for your team. We’re loving it”. It was true, too. I’d never seen this sort of patriotic fervour up close and whatever side you were rooting for, it was pretty impressive.
“We just wish you’d get yourself a better song” I added.”

Our team warm up. That shirt still doesn't fit me.

The whole week’s experience was truly sensational. The golf was mesmerising, especially by US team, and the fans were nothing if not generous, friendly and fair. We’d arrived with the slight worry that they wouldn’t respect either spirit of the competition or the etiquette of a golf crowd. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Yes they were loud, yes they where one-eyed, but they were shouting for the home team, and no-one could have denied them that.

“USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! “USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!”

We tried to join in, but couldn’t remember the words.

One damper on the whole proceedings was when the bars were shut on the Sunday morning (they play God Squad rules over there), but we managed to survive on coke and muffins until the allotted opening time. As we sat there on that final day, perched above the 9th green and witnessed the gradual collapse of the Europeans, our new american friends were truly kind and sympathetic to our plight. They neither gushed nor gloated. I like to think we were magnanimous in defeat.

As we shook hands and said our goodbyes one elderly woman said to us “See you in Wales in two years”
“Sod that!” said our Gary “We’ll see you in Chicago in four”
“You guys not going to Newport?” asked her husband incredulously
“Nah” squarked our Gavin, “It’s a khazi and it’ll be underwater in October”.

I don’t think she knew what “khazi” meant. She gave signs of understanding “underwater”.

I didn’t sleep much last night. So excited about this weekend. Genuinely nervous. I’m spending the whole three days lying on the couch, not intending to miss a shot. Went downstairs at 6 am to make a cup of tea and prepare. Put the fire on warm and curl up on the couch. I can get a decent pint from my fridge when I need one (it won’t be long).

It’s been pissing down on the course all night. The course is sodden. Underwater. They’re playing preferred lies. The rain in Wales in October is torrential. Now who could have predicted that?