A tribute to the stuff that makes life less boring.


Can England give Ben Stokes the responsibility he needs?

Notice the classic armpit sniff in the delivery stride.
As a schoolboy, Ian Botham’s friends called him Bungalow, not because of his physique, but because he had ‘nothing upstairs’. Later in life, media commentators had a tendency to portray him as a talented thug. None of this did him any harm whatsoever. With Botham, most people accepted that you have to take the whole package. Being boorish and acting the clown in his case are side-effects of a single mindedness and a clear vision: “I am Ian Botham. The way that I do things is invariably the best way to do it.” This surety and uncluttered mind are key to success in cricket, a game which more than most is played between the ears.

Cricket writers have been quick to notice the similarities between Beefy and the current heir to his throne, Ben Stokes. For one thing, he has a growing reputation for sledging. Most recently he got a little too nasty with Marlon Samuels, earning him a proper telling off from the umpire. If he takes it too far sometimes, this is nothing new to England fans - last year he took out the frustration of a failed innings on a locker. The result was a broken hand, much to the chagrin of the ECB. Not realising that lockers are usually made from metal, I’m sure Stokes would accept, is the act of a man with nothing upstairs.

But like a young Botham, his immense talent is clear. As a batsman, he’s orthodox, pleasing on the eye, and seems to time the ball effortlessly. In 2013, Stokes hit 120 on a cracked Perth pitch against an Australian bowling attack led by Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris at the peak of their powers. His batting was flawless that day, all assured technique and natural timing. A true all rounder, Stokes is currently England’s quickest bowler. Capable of control, and he hits the pitch hard on an awkward length for the batsman. He has shown this quality too rarely thus far though - His bowling in particular looks like it needs more work. His England career has contained a few too many soft dismissals, and inconsistent (and often wicketless) bowling spells littered with no balls. Having not yet turned 24, my hope is that he is nowhere near the finished article.

Stokes has an obvious competitive edge and an intensity which makes him stand out. He’s been in and out of squads a little since his debut, both because of injury and lack of performance. In his defence, his effectiveness has been limited because he hasn’t been given enough responsibility. He’s rarely been trusted with the ball when it’s at it’s hardest, with Alistair Cook tending to bowl Anderson and Broad for sizable opening spells regardless of whether they’re bowling well.

On paper at least, England’s batting is strong, with county stars like Adam Lyth and James Taylor unable to get a run in the Test side. This has meant Stokes has had to bat 7 and 8, a waste of his talents. When in the groove, his innings’ tend to be chanceless, and he has the capacity to dominate an attack over a sustained period. The England hierarchy shouldn’t be afraid to stick him in at 3 or 4 in limited overs cricket, as Australia do with Shane Watson.

Stokes is the most intriguing prospect in English cricket, and has been for a few years. In Grenada last week, James Anderson broke therecord for test wickets by an Englishman, and Joe Root compiled a wonderful 182 not out.  Stokes contributed 8 runs and 1 wicket, and yet he’s the one I’m writing about. He’s a more compelling subject because there’s a danger he won’t achieve his potential. Anderson is an established all-time great entering the final phase of his career, and Root is an utterly convincing world-class batsman with a personality which will carry him through the tough times. I’m not worried about them, but Stokes’ career trajectory is more unpredictable. He could be the best all-rounder in the world in a couple of years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not as easy as all that. History will tell you that being compared to Ian Botham isn’t necessarily a good thing for an English cricketer.


'Thuggin'', Freddie Gibbs & Madlib, 2014

The alchemy of this track leaves Freddie Gibbs plenty of room for dense, relentless verse. Rubba’s 'Way Star', a 1978 soul instrumental, has been masterfully accelerated by the incorrigible master beatmaker Madlib. The luxurious, twinkling guitar sound is mystical, and so far in contrast with Gibbs’ intense, surging flow that it amplifies the darkness in his lyrics. The content will be classified as gangsta, and indeed, 'Thuggin’' tells the familiar tale of an unending, cyclical poverty where crack cocaine keeps communities down, whether that be through addiction or the crime and violence that it gives rise to.

"Selling you the science of the street rap
Every motherfuckin' show I do is off the meat rack
I done been to jail and did my best not to repeat that
I’m tryin to feed my family, give a fuck about your feedback"

Looks like Thuggin’ is hard to leave alone. And finding flow this good is never going to get boring.

The video is explicit in its delivery. Gibbs was formerly a drug dealer, but whether you believe he carried the level of weaponry shown here is up to you.


Comfort food

Comfort food has to be circumstance related. You could be alone, hurting physically or emotionally. You could be exhausted, hung over, or homesick. Therefore it follows that comfort food doesn’t have standards. It could be something which is essentially pure filth, like a Pot Noodle sandwich (Bombay Bad Boy, thick white buttered Warburtons), Findus crispy pancakes (mince and onion), or fish fingers (4, probably in another sandwich).

A subjective idea such as comfort food needs a few rules:

It has to be something you’ve eaten when you really needed it, for reasons over and above the call of hunger.

It has to be woven into your memories; the experience of eating it should be partly nostalgic.

It has to be warm. A salad comforts nobody.

So, here are my contenders. If you’re reading this and you know me, you’ll have already guessed that it’s all carbohydrate:

Mashed potato. It’s the original tummy hug, reassuringly heavy.

Rice. The sacred carrier of sauce, and for filling your belly it’s in a league of its own.

Pasta. Cooked right, it has a glorious chewy quality which you don’t get with anything else.

I also want to give honourable mention to tinned things like baked beans and spaghetti hoops. In this case, it’s a balanced sweet and savoury flavour, but mostly an unctuousness which makes them worthy of praise.

I don’t think comfort food is really involved when it comes to severe emotional trauma. When I remember all the truly bad things which have happened in my life, I’ve no idea what I ate during those times. True grief kills your appetite. Take away food or convenience food is always great when you’re tired or hung over, that goes without saying. But I think that most of all, comfort food means something home cooked by someone that’s looked after you when you were small. For me this would be my mum or my nana. Nobody is better at cooking than them. Heston Blumenthal can shove his bacon and egg ice cream right up his arse.

So with all that said, I’ve come to a decision.

I played a lot of sport growing up, including the best one of all, cricket, for my local team.  In my mid teens I was as serious about playing sport as I ever got. Summer meant Friday evenings at cricket practice, which I think was 5 til 7 or 6 til 8. Most weeks a few of us would carry on after practice, playing until it got dark, ignoring fatigue and hunger. Mum would pick me up, or sometimes I’d walk, dragging my cricket bag through town. She’d always microwave me a massive bowl of belated tea when I got back. I’d leave my bag in the hall and slump on the sofa, sweaty, stinking and just about as tired as I could be, and she’d go in the kitchen and sort it all out, bringing it in on a tray (such a brilliant mum). There were many exquisite meals, but the one that sticks in my mind the most is my ultimate comfort food:

Chili con carne, rice and garlic bread.

A warm, unctuous, spicy, double-carb savoury saviour.


The Great Blog Crossover: Talkin’ Sports

So, Alex Spencer.... Ladies love him, Gents love him... Hell, even small, furry creatures think he hung the moon. Alex, unlike me, is an actual journalist. If he ain’t writing, he’s probably thinking about it. His blog, alex-spencer.co.uk, discusses mainly videogames and films in a level of detail which leaves mere mortals wondering what they did to deserve being so desperately poor at writing. This is the second half of a blog crossover what we done. I’m going to file it in with ‘momentous life events that nobody else cares about’. It’s a big file. What I’m trying to say is, MY FRIEND ALEX IS GOOD AT WRITING SO I’M HAPPY THAT HE WANTED TO WRITE ON MY BLOG.

Considering that I don’t think much thought went in (certainly on my end), an amazing symmetry has occurred. I relieved myself on everything that Alex loves (having favourite things) and now he’s going to take a massive dump on a passion of mine (sport. Pointless, lovely sport).

At some point last week, I remembered that it was a European Championship year. It was a mildly exciting moment, especially given the tedious Olympicmania that has been allegedly sweeping the country for the last year. This was, though, an anomalous moment in a largely sportsless life.

I just don't really get sport. Cohabiting with sporting enthusiasts – including the ocherous overlord of this very blog – I've often marvelled at their enthusiasm. Rising offensively early and pulling all-nighters to catch sports played on distant parts of the globe, entire weekends given over to worship of 22 men kicking an inflatable sphere.

The phenomenon has long puzzled me, but as my dad sat in my living room yesterday morning and translated an F1 race for me, I've come finally to this simple conclusion: I just can't read.

In my brief dalliances in teaching English Literature, trying to convince a room of teenagers to pick subtext and meaning out of the literary devices in poems older than the town they lived in, I often found myself butting up against the same argument. Yeah, sir, but what if he just wanted to do it like that? It's a conversation I've found myself in endlessly in my life as an arts student, journalist, and all round massive ponce. Aren't you just overthinking it a bit? When it comes to sport, oh, how those tables are turned.

Apparently, there's a whole language in the preparations, decisions and movements of these sportspeople – I just can't read it.

With sufficient amounts of lager, I can enjoy the occasional 90-minute stint of foot-to-ball watching, but I don't really understand what's going on between each goal. The way fans of a sports can move from the microscopic to the universal, finding meaning in the tiniest of movements before applying it to the tectonic shifts of entire leagues, just isn't something I'm capable of.

Really, it's the same skillset, of finding meaning which may or may not be there, that I am lucky enough to be able to apply to literature, music, and videogames. You can't be good at everything.

And though the bilingual bastards who can interpret both culture and sports – like our gracious, copper-haired host – are to be admired and feared, it's a though I find comfort in. Occasionally, I've found others' mania for sport frustrating, and wished it would just go away. But knowing that it's just another discipline I'm not talented at, the same way I can't analyse ballet or politics, or speak Mandarin, that all seems rather silly.

So from now on, I'll happily sit down with an enthusiastic friend and watch their sport of choice, knowing they're engaging in the sacred act of pattern-spotting, picking out a narrative in the complex mess of stuff going on, that has has given birth to millennia of culture, discovery, and religion.

But, if it's all the same, I'll just watch for the beer and the crashes.


Sweet and Spicy Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

There is a perfect balance to be found here, with the sweetness of roasted butternut squash, sweet red peppers and mangoes followed by a spicy, savoury hit from chilli, cumin, paprika and chorizo. I used lentils mainly because I have a massive bag of them, but they are great at making something like soup more satisfying. This soup is so good, you wouldn’t be disappointed if you had a bowl with a toastie or a sandwich for your evening meal. And let’s face it, soup is near the top of the list of disappointing evening meals. This one is so versatile, I even had it with rice. It was brilliant with a cold beer.

hmm. looks proper unappetising.
Should serve 5/6 people

1 butternut squash
Olive oil
4/5 cloves garlic
1 onion
1 teaspoon chilli powder
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
2/3 inches of chorizo (ahem.)
½ cup red lentils
1 litre chicken stock
4 roasted sweet red peppers (the kind in a jar)
2/3 teaspoons (preferably spicy) mango chutney


1.       Peel and slice up the squash, removing the seeds, and put it on a baking tray with a coating of olive oil. Put it in the oven at high/full whack until it looks roasted looking. Half an hour maybe.
2.       Whilst the squash is roasting, peel and chop the onion and garlic and cook on a very gentle heat in a little oil in the bottom of your massive soup pot for about 5 minutes, lid on.
3.       Chop the chorizo and throw that in – cook for a few minutes so that the oil oozes out a bit
4.       Chuck in your spices, and cook them for a few minutes
5.       Add the lentils and chicken stock, and stir it about a bit. Bring to a simmer, put the lid on and cook until the lentils are tender. 15-20 minutes should do it.
6.       Stir in the peppers, mango chutney and your roasted squash leave on a gentle heat for another 5 minutes.
7.       Blend the lot. Ideally you want one of those handheld blender things.

Disclaimer: Timings and quantities may be seriously, properly wrong. Use your wits.


A Distinctly Undeadly Arsenal

Arsenal aren’t as good as they used to be. 

The sports pages I read seem to be obsessed with analysing the reasons why. Is it all down to money, or does the blame lay with Arsene Wenger? The recurring theme of the media’s coverage of Arsenal is that they haven’t spent sufficient money to compete. But is this really true? 
……Yes and no. Spending money on players doesn’t necessarily dictate better results on the pitch. Arsenal have sold almost all of their great players because circumstances forced them to. Circumstances being, a fashion among the world’s richest people for buying football clubs as a leisure pursuit with little concern for the club being a profitable, sustainable enterprise in its own right. Arsenal do not possess the cup winning pedigree and alluring mystique of Manchester United, nor the seemingly unlimited resources of Chelsea and Manchester City. So they cannot compete with those teams to recruit recognised, experienced international footballers. 

The only other ways are to ‘grow your own’, or failing that, nab promising youngsters for smaller fees and then feed and water them until they bloom. That takes more time. What Chelsea and Manchester City have done is rapidly shortened the timespan for assembling a world class football team. This has meant that in recent times, they have been at a higher level before Arsenal’s youngsters have had time to develop. Once in that advantaged position, teams such as City and Chelsea can skim off the cream that rises to the top at Arsenal. So, it is obvious that Arsenal now face a much more difficult task to win trophies, due to increased competition that has been driven by large injections of cash.

The media are feeding off Arsenal fans’ disgruntlement. But the fact is, fourth place and no trophies is a very good season for Arsenal in the current climate. 

The real problem to Arsenal is Tottenham Hotspur. With Spurs, it is more difficult to argue that their results are better because they have spent more money. Admittedly, they have often been keener to pay more than £15 million for a player than Arsenal, but reportedly their wage bill is much lower. Spurs have, overall, just made better signings. This has damaged Arsenal’s reputation as the most effective excavators of footballing talent. This is not a case of Arsenal underachieving and Spurs overachieving - Tottenham’s best XI is arguably better than Manchester United’s. With Spurs deservedly in third, Arsenal face a shoot-out with Chelsea for a Champions League place worth £40 million. Chelsea have better players, even though this is a transitional period for them.

A few articles recently have begun to pick apart Arsenal’s tactics. But under Arsene Wenger, Arsenal have rarely paid attention to that side of the game. Their approach to a match is almost always the same, and they either play well, or they don’t. So it is not right to criticise Wenger for a lack of tactical nous when that has never been his bag. 

Arsenal’s decline has been primarily the result of economic circumstances forcing the club into fielding players of a lower quality, as well as some poor scouting. I’ll single out some individuals. Mikel Arteta is too slow and does not look for a forward pass often enough. Sebastien Squillaci doesn’t appear to be good at anything. Arshavin lacks the necessary mental attributes. He displays no effort, no desire and no concentration. Thomas Rosicky is a horrible footballer, I think it’s safe to say injuries have ruined the player who was so prolific for the Czech Republic national team. Aaron Ramsey, having looked the business before Ryan Shawcross snapped him in half, now looks lost on the pitch, too often giving the ball back to the opposition. Marouane Chamakh was impressive at first, but his performance level plummeted and now he can’t get a game. And as for Theo Walcott, he could be a separate article by himself. Along with Arshavin he’s probably the most frustrating footballer I’ve ever seen. Capable of being effective and even spectacular, but more often his low level of technical skill lets him down, often for games in succession.

Arsenal need you to think favourably of them because they haven’t bought their success, but without question Tottenham are now deservedly the neutral’s favourite. Harry Redknapp is, to his credit, outperforming Arsene Wenger. I had been drawn to Arsenal because I enjoyed watching them play, but watching Arsenal recently has been a sad experience. In my opinion this is far more significant than their recent lack of trophies. Arsenal fans should value widespread admiration more than oversized trinkets.