Tuesday, 31 December 2013

A look back at 2013

As we approach the arbitrary line-in-the-sand which marks the end of 2013, the beginning of 2014, and the deafening placebo effect of hundreds of shallow individuals convincing themselves they're "turning over a new leaf", many people take time out to reflect on some of the key moments over the previous twelve months and wonder what on earth they are doing with their lives.

Hating to be the exception to any rule, here is a quick summary of my most significant moments from the past year...

  • I have been to five different continents - mostly on fact-finding missions, but once just to see if I'd be able to get back.
  • I broke the sound barrier using just the power of my mind.
  • I've been married twice (but, curiously, divorced three times).
  • I won the Turner Prize for my mixed-media piece 'Evaporated Weltschmerz', which is now on display in Latvia's biggest and most well-ventilated art gallery.
  • I invented a new pizza topping, which goes on the bottom.
  • I built a fully habitable igloo out of only what you can buy in the 'Reduced' aisle in Waitrose, and lived there for two months (during which time I paid no Council Tax, but my heating bills went through the roof).
  • I discovered a new species of wasp and a new species of ant - and have since cross-bred them to form a new species of want.
  • I bought a new shirt, but so far haven't worn it out anywhere.

Here's hoping that 2014 proves considerably less eventful...!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The Suárez Redemption

Liverpool's star striker Luis Suárez is absolutely on fire this season - he has a staggering nineteen goals to his name in the Premier League already this season, and regular viewers of Match Of The Day will know that the manner in which he's scored some of these goals has been truly spectacular.  But that isn't the most impressive thing about Suárez this year...

In previous seasons, I think it's fair to say that Suárez wasn't the most popular character in English football.  No one could deny his talent on the field, and his goal-scoring pedigree was plain for all to see, but his attitude and his demeanour came in for a lot of criticism - and rightly so!

Suárez' actions gained him a reputation for diving and cheating (most notably biting and stamping on other players), and he was perhaps most (in)famously involved in a racism scandal with Patrice Evra of Manchester United.

Over the summer, there were persistent rumours that Suárez would be sold, and that he wanted to leave Liverpool in search of a club where he could win trophies, and qualify for European football.

In the end, though, Suárez stayed at Liverpool, and began the 2013/14 season with the remnants of a ten-match ban for the biting incident still hanging over him.  Since he's been back in action, though, the transformation which I, for once, have seen in him has been remarkable.

The Suárez I have watched on Match Of The Day in recent weeks has the same wonderful skill and mercurial touch as ever - but he seems to have a vastly improved attitude, and a new maturity which is just fantastic to see.  Suárez has scored some amazing goals, but he has also been working hard for his team, he has been very unselfish at times, and he's been making every effort to stay on his feet at times when, in the past, he might have gone down under soft challenges.

Following a recent injury to longtime Liverpool Captain Steven Gerrard, Suárez was asked to Captain his side - many people questioned the judgement of manager Brendan Rodgers in giving the Captaincy to a player with such a chequered past, but having seen Suárez in action on the pitch as Liverpool's Captain I think Rodgers made the right call.  As Captain, Suárez has been authoritative, leading from the front with his performances and his work ethic - but he's also been keen to support and encourage his teammates, especially those who are younger and less experienced, and who are just coming through into the first team.

Thanks in no small part to the influence of Suárez, Liverpool currently sit top of the Premier League. Whilst it's not out-of-the-question that they could win the League this year, I personally think that's unlikely - but a Top Four spot is not, and should Liverpool qualify for the next year's Champions League (as well they might!), they will have Suárez to thank.

If there's one thing we can guarantee in the world of football it's highly entrenched opinions, and there will undoubtedly be people who made up their mind about Suárez during his troubled times and will refuse to change it now - but I think that is unfair on a player who is certainly well on the way to proving many of his critics wrong this year.

Suárez is still the same man accused of racial abuse.  He is the same man who bit another player on the arm during a game.  But he has served his punishment for those (and other) transgressions - and if, as it seems, he has returned to the game as a reformed individual, that is to his credit.

"It wouldn't be Christmas without..."

Of all the crass and ridiculous things people say around Christmas time (and there are many), I think the expression I detest most is the saying "It wouldn't be Christmas without..." (narrowly beating people who describe the Christmas period as "magical", and people who talk about "feeling 'Christmassy'").

Even outside of the unrealistically schmaltzy and saccharine world of television advertising, I hear people saying "It wouldn't be Christmas without..." all the time.  The range of things without which Christmas simply couldn't happen gets wider and wider all the time - and more and more unnecessary.

It wouldn't be Christmas without roast turkey!  It wouldn't be Christmas without a Christmas tree!  It wouldn't be Christmas without crackers!  It wouldn't be Christmas without mulled wine!  It wouldn't be Christmas without knitted sausage rolls!  It wouldn't be Christmas without Eastenders!  It wouldn't be Christmas without Monopoly!  It wouldn't be Christmas without third-degree burns!


The fact is, actually, it would still be Christmas.  It would still be Christmas even if you spent Christmas day doing your tax return and eating pickled onions.

You might think this is little more than quibbling pedantry, but I would beg to differ; the real problem with "It wouldn't be Christmas without..." is that it perpetuates our society's insistence on defining Christmas not by anything meaningful but by all the needless trappings of the season - the hype, the peripheral stuff.

Everybody has their own little rituals around Christmas time, but these are largely incidental and quite arbitrary - Christmas itself is not defined by how you do (or don't) usually celebrate it.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Can Arsenal win the League?


I could leave it there, but that hardly seems worth it.

Arsenal can win the Premier League.  Will they?  Well, that remains to be seen - but I don't understand why everyone's been so quick to write them off.

Arsenal suffered a big defeat at the weekend, when they lost 6-3 away to Manchester City on Saturday.  I'm not denying that this is a setback for them, but is that really the big, season-defining moment people seem to think?  I'm not convinced it is.

For a start, Manchester City have been famously impervious on their home ground this season - Arsenal are not the first team to be given a serious hiding at the Etihad Statium, and they certainly won't be the last.  In the end, was it a huge surprise that Manchester City won at home?  No.

But most importantly of all, this was just one game, in a whole season of Premier League football.  In my opinion, so-called 'big games' between so-called 'big teams' are always over-hyped and are never all they're cracked up to be.  Remember that the same number of points are on offer no matter who you're playing; what makes winning this match any more urgent than winning any other game - especially at this point in the season?

Sure, being the first team to beat Manchester City on their home turf would certainly have sent out a strong message, and that would've been a big boost to morale as well - but to suggest that losing this match means Arsenal's title challenge is already over is surely nonsense!

Premier League titles aren't won just because you beat your closest rival (or lost because they beat you); ultimately, it is consistency which shows through, over the course of a full season.  With thirty-eight games to play, it is highly likely that even the strongest teams will probably lose one or two - the team who comes out on top at the end of the year will be the team who's dropped the fewest points overall in that period.  It doesn't matter against whom you get those points - just that you have more than anyone else.

At the moment, Arsenal are the most consistent team in the Premier League; in sixteen League matches so far, Arsenal have lost just three times.  As I said before, it was unsurprising (even expected, perhaps) that Arsenal lost to Manchester City when they travelled to the Etihad - but for me, that doesn't automatically make City the favourites for the title.  The Manchester club may have an impressive unbeaten home record in the League this season - but, unlike Arsenal, they have been shaky on the road, and they have dropped points to several teams lower down the table (losing to Sunderland, Cardiff and Aston Villa, for example, as well as drawing eminently winnable games against Southampton and Stoke).

It may yet prove that Arsenal will falter, all the critics and pundits will proved right and Man. City (or Chelsea?!) will win the Premier League this year.  People might point to this game (or Arsenal's match with Chelsea next week, depending on how that goes for them) as a turning point in the season.  But in the end, winning one game (any game, against anyone) does not win you the League - winning lots of them does.  If Arsenal can carry on doing that, I think they'll be OK.

And, for the record, I hope they do!  Since it now seems unlikely that Norwich City will be Champions come May, I am backing Arsenal to win the Premier League this season - if only to confound and frustrate everyone who seems so completely sure that they can't possibly win it.  They can.

Dotty #SPOTY

I have never understood the idea of the BBC's annual Sports Personality Of The Year award.

It's the word 'personality' which confuses me.  If you want to show me twelve sportsmen and ask me which one I think the best, fine - go ahead.  (For the record, that's easy - that's Sir Ben Ainslie, all day long.*)

But the BBC aren't asking me who is the best sportsman; they are asking me which sportsman has the best personality.  How am I supposed to know that?!

You can't know somebody's personality unless you know that person really well.  And you can't choose the best out of twelve people based on personality unless you know all twelve of them really well.  Do you know anyone who knows all twelve of these nominees really well?  Nope, neither do I.

* You may not agree, but you're wrong.  Objectively (ie. without taking 'personality' into account), Ben Ainslie has achieved more than any other nominee - but because he didn't do it in a 'popular' sport, he never gets a look in.  Just another reason why democracy sucks.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Twelve Adverts Of Christmas

These are twelve of the television adverts you are guaranteed to see this Christmas; here I have distilled the essence of each one's message, so you don't have to.


Buy a console game which 'all the family' can play, so none of you actually have to look at each other over Christmas.


Fool everyone into thinking you can cook by spending a whole £5 on a mixed platter of bland, nondescript 'party food'.


Create a personalised calendar with pictures of your family on it, in case you're in danger of forgetting what they look like as well as when their birthdays are.


Can't think of anything to buy for someone?  Get them a turgidly predictable stand-up comedy DVD.


Enjoy a plastic tray of chocolates in the shape of something which loosely relates to Christmas - the gratification is fleeting, but the shame stays with you.


Buy a tiny amount of a very expensive perfume, and instantly make yourself the most attractive person in the world with the most glamorous, exciting, edgy lifestyle imaginable.


You may have coped for the other eleven months of the year with a vastly inferior sofa - but everyone knows Christmas is the time when a sofa really comes into its own.  Buy one now.


Convince yourself you 'couldn't possibly live without' some totally unnecessary piece of plastic tat.


This item of food is better than a similar, but much more expensive, item of food from a different company.


Become so hopelessly caught up in the misty-eyed nostalgia of ersatz 'home video' footage (made to look like it was shot in the '90s) of a stereotypical family smiling and laughing together as they create Christmas memories to cherish forever that you can't help yourself but buy something from our shop.


Instead of sending meaningless platitudes to people you only talk to once a year in a Christmas card, send meaningless platitudes to people you only talk to once a year in a personalised Christmas card.  Nothing softens the blow of being only a casual 'Christmas Card List' acquaintance like the 0.3 seconds of extra thought it takes to 'personalise' a Christmas card on a website; if you personalise the card with a picture of yourself, maybe the recipient will even remember who you are!


Become easily the most hated person in your neighbourhood with an ostentatious display of decorative festive self-aggrandisation.

Enjoy the season of giving, everyone!