Changing is an inevitable part of growing up, especially if your circumstances alter radically. This could be moving from a rural area to a city, quitting your A-levels to become a pagan, or becoming wildly rich in comparison with your parents. Rock biographies in particular are littered with stories about this - classics such as 'although hungry after completing a 200 date world tour, Marti Pellow brushed away angrily the tripe and dripping sandwiches his mother had lovingly prepared for him as a welcome home present.' I love that type of rags-to-riches success story, and always have done. This stuff isn't merely the preserve of rock stars though - almost all normal people occasionally have cause to think 'wow, I wouldn't have done that ten years ago,' which naturally leads to a period of reflection, unless you're quite thick, in which case you probably don't notice. On a personal level, I have changed over the past fifteen years from small town, acne ridden schoolboy, to modern, city dwelling, urbane sophisticate (hello!). This transition isn't easy of course, and last week the contradictions caused by this change were summed up perfectly to me, during a chance encounter on a train.
In a previous life, many years ago, and before stand up comedy, I spent the vast majority of my leisure time watching Swansea City FC. For any non-football fans who are reading this blog fear not. I won't wax lyrical about the sublime trigonometry of a 70 yard crossfield pass, or how Herbert Chapman revolutionised the game in the 1930s by playing four at the back, but I will say that some of the happiest moments of my life have been spent watching the Swans. In fact, the stars aligned in such a way during the 2004/05 season (no girlfriend, it was before I tried stand up, I had a small amount of disposable income and a 9-5 job), that I watched every home game at The Vetch and about 15 away, which is a personal record I fear will never be broken, unless I decide to go back into doing data entry for a living. I thus feel qualified to say that of all the away games I've attended, the ones that best sum up the mentality of the obsessive football fan, are these two:
Carlisle Utd away, 2008: There's something very special about taking the day off work to watch a game of football that's taking place a few miles from the Scottish border. Especially when it's a Tuesday night, your house is in South Wales, it's raining heavily, and the game finishes 0-0. My friend Andy prepared sausage sandwiches and two flasks of tea for that trip, which I remember just as fondly as the game itself, which to be honest, was quite uninspiring. Brilliantly, we were also given a home made parking ticket at the end of the game. It had no legal jurisdiction over us, but was merely an ornately printed post-it note that said 'Jan and Dave would appreciate it if you never parked here again.'
Torquay Utd away, first round of the LDV Vans Trophy (South), 2005: My flatmate Huw, one of my best friends and partner for every football match I've attended since the age of 11, described me as 'a sad bastard' for going to this. The first round (south) of the LDV Vans trophy is about as important to your football club as your National Record of Achievement is to your career. I have lost my National Record of Achievement - yeah, take that Mrs John! Fuck you! (Mrs John was the moronic teacher at my school who made us painstakingly fill ours in - call me arrogant, but I don't think losing my NRA will hold me back at The Comedy Store). However, I do remember the game at Torquay Utd for a several reasons:
- Torquay Utd FC had wildly over-anticipated how many Swans fans would turn up, and at full time all 89 of us in the away end were given free pies and pasties from the tuck shop 'to save them going to waste.'
- A Swansea City fan with learning difficulties was persuaded onto the pitch by his drunken carer, and was arrested and threatened with a life ban. It's only when he was questioned by police and the stewards realised his condition that he was released. There's actually footage of the whole incident on youtube, but the keywords and title are so politically incorrect I don't feel able to post a link.
- I met my friend Andy (the one responsible for the sausage sandwiches at Carlisle) in the bar before kick off. After buying a pint I settled down to read the programme, and absent mindedly put my left foot on the table. On seeing this Andy's dad whispered ominously in my ear 'take your foot down boy. You're not in Carmarthen now.'
- we won 3-1, and you could clearly see me on the news celebrating the first two goals. In a bid to make the game more exciting, Lewis (the only person I could find who'd go with me) and I tried to 'talk up' the impact of Swansea's Adebayo Akinfenwa's return to his old club. I think by the time we got to the ground we were expecting tear gas and a burning effigy, but sadly the most abuse he got was being called 'a wanker' once or twice whilst taking a corner kick. Something which happily, Bayo handled with absolute aplomb.
Anyway. The fact I enjoyed these trips so much says an awful lot about me as a character (and note how I mentioned two quite shit games, and not the two trips to the Millenium Stadium in 2006, beating Premiership Sheffield Utd in the FA Cup two years ago, winning promotion in Bury...) It's the same part of me that wasn't just willing to drive to Manchester to do stand up on a weeknight for no money and when I already had a day job, but quite enjoyed the masochistic nature of it. In fact, if I'd achieved my tiny modicum of success in this industry without those horrible drives to Tunbridge Wells, where it cost me £45 in petrol just to tell jokes for five minutes, I doubt I would have enjoyed it as much. But anyway, I digress.
Last Sunday I was travelling back from London, having had a weekend of gigs at The Comedy Cafe in Shoreditch. The Swans had been playing that weekend in Southampton, a trip that comedy permitting I would have looked forward to making, and a game that a few of my friends had attended. As I sat on the train, about to read The Observer and tut loudly at how various world leaders have dealt with the current banking crisis, I realised that the train was full of bleary eyed Swans fans, who had made a weekend of it and been out on the piss in Southampton. Excited at being amongst my people, I piped up. '2-2 eh?' I offered, 'did you go to the game?
'Aye,' said the lad on the table opposite. 'You didn't miss much to be honest, if you didn't go.'
'Oh' I replied, and explained that I would have gone, 'but had to work in London.' The men sympathised, at which point I hurriedly added that I'd been to Portsmouth the previous Saturday, for the cup tie at Fratton Park.
'Brilliant wasn't it?' we all agreed, and suddenly we were up and running, discussing the archaic facilities in the away end, and chatting about other games we'd been to. Within minutes we realised that we'd all been to Blackpool on Easter weekend in 2006, Cheltenham for that stupendous 4-3 win in August 2004, and the infamous Mansfield game, called off due to heavy rain two minutes after the Swans fans entered the ground. In short, I was having a great time. We talked about the club, hopes for the future, old players, and I spoke knowledgeably about the current side, as my flatmate Huw still goes on a regular basis and keeps me updated. It was only when they asked me what I did for a living that I began to feel slightly uncomfortable - I was talking to two electricians and a lad who worked for the DVLA, which in my opinion, count as real men doing real jobs.
I started to panic, and thought 'they're going to notice my leatherette fucking manbag* in a minute, in which I lovingly keep a Moleskine notebook for all my comedy ideas, a Kurt Vonnegut novel, 13 pens and some moisteriser. I've had my chips if they see that - shit, they'll think I'm a right fucking plum.' In fitting with the rules of polite conversation, I was eventually asked what I did for a living, and I blurted something about 'working at the newsdesk of a local rag, with lots of meetings...in London.' The men seemed perfectly satisfied with this, and again sympathised that I had to miss so many games. 'Played a straight bat there' I thought to myself. 'Jesus, I should consider writing spy fucking novels - Ian Fleming* never came up with anything that convincing.' I brought the conversation back round to last season's game at Leeds Utd, and our shared experiences of Elland Road, and the ball was firmly back in my court. I turned down the kind offer of a can of Stella, blaming an extreme hangover (I actually had a gig that night in North Wales with Rhod Gilbert, and never drink on the day of a gig), refuting protestations that it would make me feel better. It was only at this stage that I began to feel hungry, and realised that the treat I'd bought myself, a punnet of sushi from Paddington station, and something I'd been looking forward to for ages, would have to remain in the plastic bag under my seat. 'I can't realistically start eating a salmon nigiri with wasabi sauce and ginger' I thought to myself, 'when I've just been lying about fighting with police after Bristol City away at Ashton Gate' (don't worry mam, that was fictional macho posturing). Sigh. I had three options -
1. Buy something rank, but normal and manly from the buffet carriage, which would be an enormous waste of money (Yo! Sushi isn't cheap, and neither is the buffet carriage).
2. I could make my excuses before going to eat sushi in the toilet. This sounded like a cowardly, unpleasant idea though, and would make me appear even weirder if I got caught. Indefensibly weird, in fact. You can't come back from that, no matter how many reserve games you've been to and replica shirts you remember.
3. Bite the bullet hunger wise, maybe get a Snickers, and eat the sushi in my car on the way to the gig.
I opted for option 3, hungrily daydreaming about the nice food I had at my disposal, as we talked about horrible away kits from the early 1990s. I was initially a classic sushi cynic you see, assuming that it would be horrible, give me a stomach ache, or turn me into a wanker (I still can't claim this hasn't happened), but then I tried it and realised that it was bloody lovely, and now have it as a special treat from time to time. As we laughed about QPR being sponsored by Guinness in the late 80s, my mind wandered to the food that was rapidly going off under my seat. 1980s shirt sponsor banter? Old away trip reminiscing? New best friends? I should have been having the time of my life. Despite all this however, and, despite being a sushi advocate, I didn't feel I could eat sushi in the company of actual men. I'm a rational man, and knew I'd put in good conversational legwork early on, and was fairly sure they liked me (I really can hold my own in a football chat, especially if it turns to the period 1988-1995), but whipping out sushi on public transport was a step too far. This whole conundrum wouldn't be an issue usually, and I wouldn't go on about it. It's just that in my haste to conceal my semi-girly manbag on alighting the train, I forgot the fucking sushi under my seat and thus suffered the double whammy of going hungry and wasting seven quid all in one go. Unbelievable. Devastating.
I assume Ray Winstone has experiences like this all the time.
* as lovingly as I attempt to keep my Moleskin notebook spotless (and they are bloody expensive as well as having an intrinsic sentimental value), I am still, ultimately, a bit of an idiot. On my way to London for the weekend's gigs, I bought a big packet of Jaffa Cakes on the train. Unable to finish the Jaffa Cakes but keen to avoid waste (see above), I stored the Jaffa Cakes in my manbag. By the time I got to The Comedy Cafe in East London I'd dropped the manbag, thrown it over some railway sidings, pretended it was a shield in a terrorist siege and used it as a pillow. I then stayed at my friend Tom Craine's house, where of course, I kept it next to the radiator. The next time I looked inside the manbag, desperately searching for a pen to write a shite idea that will never see the light of day, I realised the Jaffa Cakes had come out of the packet and melted over every Moleskine notebook I've ever written in, my gig diary, pens, Kurt Vonnegut novel and Steve Martin book. It doesn't end there though, the Jaffa Cake orange jelly had congealed and sealed the books shut, forcing me to spend an hour waiting for it all to dry before picking Jaffa Cake off some of my prized possesions. It's at this stage my dad would say 'that'll teach you,' and suggest I buy cheaper notebooks from WHSmiths, but I'm not just a sucker - I'm a stubborn one.
P.S In praise of Portsmouth
I mentioned above that I went to watch The Swans play Portsmouth in the FA Cup third round a few weeks ago. It was quite good draw for us, facing a Premiership team with a dodgy manager when we were on a good run of form, and a good draw for me, as I was gigging in Bristol that night, and could make it back in time to pay my rent without having to miss a possible cup upset. Football fans will already know that we beat Pompey 2-0, and it was one of the best games of football I've witnessed for ages. It did strike me however, quite how much my enjoyment of the footballing experience is nothing to do with the game itself, but dependent on extraeanous factors which a non-football fan, or dare I say it, a top four supporting 'fan' who lives hundreds of miles away from 'his club' wouldn't understand. For a start there was a healthy number of Swans supporters, about 3,200. This included most of my football watching friends as well as Huw's girlfriend Anwen, who Huw had misguidedly assumed would enjoy 'the banter.' I had driven to the game alone so I could get to Bristol in time for my gig, whereas everyone else had caught the 8am rattler from Cardiff Central - by the time I arrived in Portsmouth all 3,200 Swans fans were hammered, which was great. A new song about our manager got its proper debut: 'Na na na na na na na na na na na! Robbie Martinez! Martinez! Robbie Martinez!' (to the tune of 1983's 'Give it up' by KC & the Sunshine Band'), and there was a bigger police presence outside the ground than at the last G8 meeting and the poll tax demonstrations combined. Added to this however, it must be said that Fratton Park is a total joy. Not in the sense of adequate legroom and a toilet seat you could eat your dinner off, quite the opposite in fact. It's like watching football in about 1983. The Swans fans stood without question throughout, the Fratton Park stewards realising that people taking their allocated seats was about as likely as inner city knife crime being passed off by Gordon Brown as 'youthful high-jinks,' or GCSE golf becoming part of the national curriculum. This Health and Safety based chaos was quite exciting to the modern football fan, as willfully standing on the yellow lines (the part of the stand serving as the fire exit) is probably the only form of civil disobedience left available to the white, middle class male in his late twenties. The celebrations when we scored the first goal were amongst the most raucous I've ever experienced, and not only did I hurt my leg, but I managed to get meat and potato pie on the inside of both of my shirt sleeves, as frankly I was hungry and Nathan Dyer's sweet finish from a beautiful Jason Scotland pass took me completely by surprise. That to me you see, is football. Goal celebrations that cause injuries and a pie stain that will never come out.
*Ian Fleming is for some reason, buried in Swindon.