Sunday, June 27, 2010

Germany 4 England 1

It’s tough enough playing a sport against the world’s finest; having an entire nation screaming at you must require the utmost mental discipline.

Sometimes I wonder if we ask too much of our young sportsmen. Nearly-fully grown men, whose only talent in life is to kick a ball in the right direction, find themselves the objects of derision and hate, or can be raised to god-like status, in the twinkling of a goal net.

My eldest son is becoming a film director. He’s training himself by making commercials. He’s young, fresh, and in demand and hopes to become the Rooney of his industry. Every now and then he pitches an idea to a client, competing against other directors at the very top of our advertising industry.

I try to think what his life would be like if, every time he writes a script, 10 million people were sitting in pubs watching him type, drunkenly criticizing every line.

“That’s a rubbish strapline; why on earth did he pull focus there; he should have cut to the girl three seconds earlier”. Imagine his mental state if he knew the newspaper hoardings would scream Ben’s Blunder when he fails, or Ben’s Blinder when he succeeds. When he goes onto a film set, perhaps the youngest and yet most senior member of a 50-man crew, what if his producer roared out instructions and obscenities from behind the camera, echoed by 60,000 cheering, jeering spectators? No 20-something could cope with that kind of pressure, so it’s no wonder our England players haven’t had the easiest of rides.

Despite being a Scot, Andy Murray must have been saying prayers for England to keep on winning. As long as they survived, he’s been playing his games in a sideshow, relegated to the back pages. This England defeat means, once the nation has sunk its gloom in alcohol and recrimination for a few days, the pressure will turn on him. We love sporting heroes. We have so few of them, sadly, that when an event comes around where we can get behind someone, we do it with such passion, we often forget that the object of our support is a real human being.

They say the most valuable item in a sportsman’s kit bag is the ability to overcome fear of failure. Being able to control that fear is as important as maximising skill. The moment fear begins to manipulate the mind, confidence folds, the service ball hits the net, the open goal becomes a fortress. And once the fear of failure leads to failure itself, something we became only too familiar with at St James Park just over a year ago, then losing becomes inevitable.

It’s one of the reasons I was never any good at any sport at school; that and arrant laziness. My father was a professional football referee and played cricket for Surrey. There’s no way I could kick a ball or pick up a bat without it becoming some sort of professional trial. I know I was a bitter disappointment to him and I can still recall my fear of his frustration. Today I still can’t throw, catch or kick a ball, but boy can I shout at our national team.

It’s a big ask, but we, the fans, can help. Our honour’s list of sporting heroes hides many tales of depression and mental illness. Their fear of letting people down; their fury at a body which, through injury or fatigue, fails to fulfil overblown expectations; their lack of support from the pundits whose only advice is “pull yourself together”, has often led to serious problems, particularly for young men trying to live up to headlines and hyperbole.

Come on Rooney, we shouted today over our beer bellies. But at the end of the day, he’s only human.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bringing Me Down To Size

Tighten your belts. That’s the message from our Chancellor tomorrow. After decades of overindulgence, we’ve all got to pull them in by a couple of notches.

Well, I’ve got news for you, Mr Osborne. I’ve tried – oh how I’ve tried – and I simply can’t get mine any tighter. Not without asphyxiation. You see, I’ve so overconsumed during the last 20 years, I’m now plain obese.

It came to a head in LA. There I was, optimistically pitching a show for young people to the relentlessly trendy MTV, when it came to me that I wasn’t convincing anyone in my black shirt and Ferragamo loafers. To these bright young things I could only have looked like an old, grey, fatty.

To make it worse, my mother-in-law has published pictures of me and Izzy on Facebook. I used to be embarrassed by my own father, who was also a considerably overweight man in his fifties. Last week I found a picture of him proudly holding me when I was 18 months old. I was appalled to see that he undoubtedly weighed less than my current 15 stone 5 lbs.

So I’ve resorted to drastic measures. Woman’s Hour has offered me a solution. The other day they featured a Frenchman called Pierre Dukan who has a revolutionary weight loss programme claiming 1.5 million devotees, including Gisele B√ľndchen and Jennifer Lopez. Apparently they’re all enjoying the ultimate dream: eating whatever they like in a permanent state of slimness. Dukan’s diet offers permanent weight loss despite consuming limitless amounts of proper food. You start off with a few days of eating only protein, then add in some vegetables for a month or two, and, bingo, belts tightened forever. In fact, you have to buy a new, smaller belt, because you’ll never need the big one again.

Normally I’d pass this off as another fad, but the BBC, in their unrelenting quest for balance, felt they couldn’t just give Dukan a free puff and paired him against a killjoy from the British Dietetic Association. She burbled on about the dangers of a protein-only diet and how nothing was as good as controlling calories and exercise.

What utter tosh. We’ve all been trying that for years. Our trained dieticians refuse to accept that people like me will never have the gift of willpower. We’ve been putting on a pound a year since we were 25 and no amount of advice is going to change us: we need a long sharp shock. Her smugness made me so cross, I vowed to give Dukan a go – but not till I got back from LA. Nothing was going to stop me enjoying the French toast, barbecues and wonderful red wine at my brother-in-law’s house, with portions as big as a house.

I started the diet on Thursday. After three days, I can report that it’s absolute hell. I’ve had nothing but plain meat, fish, water and fat-free yoghurt. I endured our World Cup disaster down the pub with a diet Coke (do you know how disgusting it tastes?), eschewing, not chewing, the chef’s fantastic fish and chips. On Saturday night I watched a lot of happy people getting wondrously drunk and gorging themselves at a neighbour’s party. I’ve even started a new blog,, to record the whole ghastly experience. Dr Dukan says my ideal weight is 12 stone 13 pounds. The way I’m feeling right now, I’ll be dead long before that.

Fortunately my resolve was strengthened by my darling wife’s clever Father’s Day present: a gift certificate for a local photographer, who’s coming to the house to take family portraits. The sort of pictures you hang on the wall and enjoy for years to come. I’ve got three weeks to transform myself. And buy a new belt.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Visit To The Dentist

It started wobbling last Friday afternoon. Like a child’s tooth awaiting the imminent arrival of the tooth fairy, I could easily wiggle it to and fro. I implored the fairy not to come too soon: the tooth was near the front and I was in the middle of a series of pitch meetings with important television executives.

It was during one of these when I first noticed the problem. I was trying to sell a show to a man with no hair but impossibly shiny molars, which appeared to fill his suntanned face every time he smiled at my idea. I think he must have liked the concept, because his smile kept flashing at me across the room. Suddenly I became aware of my tongue catching on the side of my tooth, and I distinctly felt movement. And the more animated I grew, trying to raise his excitement in my must-have project, the more the wretched thing quivered. My tooth appeared to be loosening with every sentence: I spent the rest of the meeting trying to speak without opening my mouth. I would have made a lousy ventriloquist.

I hadn’t really noticed quite how bad my teeth were, metal lined and yellowed from years of red wine and coffee, until ten years ago when a broken filling forced me to an emergency appointment with a Hollywood dentist. The chap starred into the abyss of my mouth and said with undisguised pity, “You British, you’re all the same. Where would you like me to start?”

In California, where every mouth is a gleaming array of neat white perfectly spaced porcelain, my teeth stand out like Stonehenge: grey, neolithic standing stones set at odd angles, fighting themselves for occupancy of the overdeveloped gum space. British teeth, magnificent examples of 50s neglect.

Apparently it would take him three months and tens of thousands of uninsured dollars to rectify my smile. Just fill the tooth, please: but it was too far gone to save. Instead he fitted a rather neat crown – so neat, in fact, that I completely forgot all about it until this week. How that crown-maker must have sighed when he saw the order form – less pearly white, more the colour of macadamia nut. But when it joined its new neighbours in my mouth, it blended in like a local. There it lay, undisturbed, for ten years, chomping happily away, until last Friday. Sure enough, when I looked in the mirror the Hollywood Crown was the source of my wobble.

I spent the weekend fretting. Do I leave it alone, and hope it lasts till I reach the safety of the National Health Service, or head off to a dentist first thing on Monday morning and have it glued back in? Having no medical insurance in the United States, my wallet was praying it would last. But the thought of it coming out in the middle of a meeting with the president of NBC was just too awful.

The decision was made for me. At a barbecue on Sunday, in front of a group of complete strangers, it suddenly made its break for freedom and popped into a glass of rather good red wine. Suddenly I looked like the victim of a mugging. The people at the barbecue, some very nice friends of my brother-in-law who’d invited us to watch the Lakers game – were very sympathetic. Our host provided me with a little plastic bag to hold the tooth in and everybody pretended not to stare, even when I laughed.

So it was that on Monday morning, my crown and I headed off to be reunited at the Thousand Oaks Dental Practice. For those of us accustomed to the British version, American dentistry takes a bit of getting used to. In Britain, you book an appointment with a dentist, he says hello, sticks your crown back in, hands you a bill and you’re on your way in about five minutes. The American process took nearly an hour and a half.

On the face of it, the surgery was incredibly well organised. First I had to fill in my details online (“to save time registering”). Then when I arrived, the receptionist made me check the form I’d filled in. I sat in the waiting room for a while until a young woman dressed like a surgeon in a gown and a mask came to get me. She made me lie down on a couch and was about to set to work when, upon showing her the contents of my plastic bag, she paused and frowned. She had to consult Doctor K.

Five minutes later she returned, and took an X-Ray of my gap. In the old days you had to stick a piece of card in your mouth, which always hurt your gums, and then come back in a week to get the result. This was instant, and on a television screen in front of me. It caught two or three other teeth surrounding the gap where my crown had been – they had clearly been in a fierce battle for supremacy in my jaw as the roots had been pushed in all directions.

I was waiting for her to pop the crown back into the gap when she said I had to stand up and go to another room to see Doctor K. I guessed she was only the X-Ray taker. I think she was disappointed I didn’t need a full set.

In the next room she lay me down on another couch and left me for what seemed an age. I’d nicely nodded off when I was awakened with the jolly shout of “Hi, Tom”. Why is it that American doctors are so – friendly? None of the polite formality of the British dentist/customer relationship. Instead, it was like being in a sports bar with a rather loud basketball supporter.

“Let’s have a look at it then, Tom”, he went on brightly, looked at my gap and said something to the effect of “It’s a Goner”. He told me the roots were wasted away and that I needed a bridge or an implant. I had no idea what either were, but they sure sounded expensive and there was no way it could be done that afternoon. I asked him if he could do a temporary fix-up and he agreed, then promptly left the room again.

Five minutes later, a lady in a suit came in clutching a clipboard and sat down. She spoke like a divorce lawyer, quietly, sympathetically, but deeply serious and with perhaps an undertone of disapproval. She studied her notes. Your treatment will cost $90, she said. Did I have insurance? When I said no, she frowned. I thought she was going to ask me to leave. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to negotiate, but $90 was actually far less than the $200 or so I’d expected it was going to cost, particularly as I’d already been there nearly an hour. “It’s OK, I’ll pay cash”, at which point she relaxed and left.

Another long pause, and this time I had completely fallen asleep, when in bounced Dr K with a loud “Right, Tom, let’s get this moving”. It took him just a couple of minutes to smear on the cement and pop in the tooth. Then he left again.

This was getting very tedious, and I sighed when Miss X-Ray came back in the room, unwrapping one of those spiky metal things. Why is that, in 2010, dentists still use instruments that look as though they were invented in Victorian times?

She scraped away, I tried not to bite her finger, and she unglamorously scraped pieces of stray cement off my tongue. Then she left again.

It was another ten minutes before Dr K bounced back in. It took him just ten seconds to finish the job – removing the last bits of cement, flossing the gap, and telling me, Tom, it was all over.

All in all, it was a curiously long-winded way to pop a crown back in. I guess Dr K had half a dozen clients on the go at the same time and that this was the most efficient way of handling them all. But I’m afraid conveyor belt dentistry is definitely not for me. Mind you, at least I can smile again till the next wobble.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why Americans Don't Get Soccer

My friend Matt held his six-month old baby daughter proudly aloft. “Look Ella: that’s your national team. You’re watching England beating America, like they should have done in 1776”. The Americans in the room all jeered.

The baby stared blankly at the television. England players were hugging each other after Steven Gerrard’s goal. Ella may be half American – her mother Marla is my wife’s best friend – but to Matt, an ex-pat history teacher here in Los Angeles, there’s only one team she will ever support. Forty minutes later, Ella, still staring at the screen, silently changed her nationality back to American. Green’s goalkeeping gaffe was all too shocking. Even she could have held onto that ball.

It wasn’t our finest hour-and-a-half. Matt and I were the only English in a roomful of Yanks. We were still patiently trying to explain the offside rule to our ex-colonial friends, who were only really interested in talking about the Lakers game, when disaster struck. We spent the rest of the match shouting at our manager Capello.

How could we only tie with a country that doesn’t even understand the meaning of the word “draw”? Apparently real sports, like baseball, always have a winner. You just go on playing until there’s a result. In 1981 one minor league game went on for 33 innings. Mind you, they also don’t understand why Beckham can’t play for the USA (“But surely he plays for LA Galaxy?”) and they don’t get the concept of league tables at all. “So this means nobody won, right – so who goes through?” Oh, forget it. Matt and I glumly opened another bottle of Newcastle Brown.

During the game we worked out the fundamental difference between Americans and the rest of us. I reckon it’s all down to attention span. In America all sports have a series of repetitive events occurring roughly every thirty seconds. Baseball: Man throws baseball at bat, bat hits ball and Man runs; or not. Football: Lots of Men with padding get ball forwards by ten yards; or not. Basketball: Very Tall Man pops a ball through a hoop, then another Very Tall Man with a different tee-shirt takes a few steps and pops it into another hoop; or not.

You can join a game at any moment and there’ll always be someone about to succeed or fail. No wonder they find soccer boring. “So the aim is to get the ball in the back of the net, right? OK – I get that, so how come nobody’s doing it?” Americans are delightful, friendly, open, passionate, honest people, but when it comes to the big things in life, like football, they might as well be Martians. And now we can’t even beat them at our own game?

You'll gather I know nothing whatsoever about American sports. Tonight my friends are putting that right: I’ve promised to sit through their Lakers basketball game. They say they’ll convert me, but somehow I doubt I’ll have the patience for balls popping through hoops 150 times in one sitting. Not without a lot of Newcastle Brown, that is.

After the World Cup fiasco I was taken to see a phenomenon that could only happen in America. In a Hollywood recording studio hundreds of proud parents were craning their necks to see their children in fully-formed rock bands – with a stage, lighting, roadies, stamps on the wrist to get in, the lot.

The children had been coached by real live rockers with names like Muddy and Slick. They were actually rather good. Star of the night for me was 8-year-old Max in his band called The Rockaholix. As Mom beamed and Dad videoed from the wings, tiny Max, complete with dark glasses, peered over an enormous drum kit hammering away like Keith Moon. He was brilliant. I suspect it will make Izzy’s first school play – which I’m already excited about even though it’s still four years off – seem rather tame.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Lessons From a Screeching Child

Oh no, here it comes again. One deep breath and suddenly the Sunday lunchtime hubbub in the Ox Inn is cut to silence by a scream so blood-curdling, you’d swear someone had seen a ghost. Cutlery is dropped in shock, elderly women tut their disapproval. The sound is beyond loud: it’s earsplitting. Sheep four fields away stop their chewing and bleat in alarm. Izzy has dropped a carrot.

I’m not quite sure where she learnt this new technique. I don’t recall my first four children expressing themselves this way. At 16 months Izzy has discovered the voice of a diva, and boy does she like to show it off. The busier the restaurant, the louder she screams. Then, carrot replaced, she magically transforms herself back to an angel.

I guess advanced age has tempered my memories of child-rearing. My wrinkled brain will only recall images of quiet babies politely chewing their rusks as the grownups debate politics and football over long social lunches. Of course, it was probably never like that: I guess you just erase the bad recordings. Or maybe I was so engrossed in my obsession with career-building, I never really took enough notice of my children growing up.

The changes are arriving thick and fast now. This week I’m going to Los Angeles for some meetings with broadcasters about a new programme idea; I’m not looking forward to it, partly because I’ll have to watch England play the United States in the wrong country, but mostly because I’m scared I’ll miss some crucial new Izzy development.

Yesterday she had her feet measured for her first proper pair of shoes. She now runs as well as walks, but always in the opposite direction to where we need her to go. Our formerly open-plan living area is now a maze of child prevention barriers; coffee tables and low shelves lie empty, waiting patiently for the end of toddlerhood.

Izzy’s language is now so advanced she reels off whole paragraphs of gobbledygook. She’ll stumble up with a big grin on her face, stare at you with her big blue eyes and reel off a passionate lecture of totally coherent gabble. She’ll wait patiently for you to answer her, and then nod her head in approval before toddling off to tell her extraordinary story to someone else. But not a phrase of it uses any human word I recognise. It’s a wonderfully sophisticated private language known only to her, and my stubborn attempts at humanising it, by pointing at Truffle and endlessly repeating the word “dog”, have been completely ignored.

Headstrong doesn’t begin to describe my daughter. “And where do you think she gets that from?” asks my wife.

Watching a child grow is like tending a Northumbrian garden. Every day brings a new wonder and, because our seasons are so short, you can’t bear to miss a single flower. You want to freeze in time each new scene, but sadly there’s no still-frame facility. For the last thirty years, my timetable of life was dictated by projects and paydays; now there’s something immensely satisfying about sitting back and watching the natural order of life unfold.

After all, if there’s one thing that the appalling news from Cumbria this week will have taught us, it’s just how fragile and transitory human life can be. If simple, innocent lives can be taken away so easily and unexpectedly, if the security of the safest, happiest community can be destroyed by one hour of madness, the least we should do is to taste and treasure every single moment we have left.