Toby Young

I felt sorry for the Conservative Party, when it got in trouble for appointing Toby Young to a body advising universities. How could they have known he was unsuitable, or might be thought of as ‘sexist’ in some way? Apart from comments such as “Check out the baps on that” and “perfect knockers for an 18-year-old”, on a regular basis over a period of several years, he barely talked about women’s bodies. It goes to show, it’s always the ones you least expect isn’t it?

In any case, these comments were made in private, to close friends such as everyone with access to Twitter or a newspaper. And Toby has pointed out they were said in the past, so it’s not fair to judge him now on things he said back when we had different values, in 2016.
During the week in which he was under scrutiny, he deleted 46,000 tweets from his Twitter account, and this illustrates how ridiculous the complaints against him are. Who of us hasn’t, in our youthful forties, made the occasional 46,000 public comments that we might regret later. We’re getting to a point where no one dare say anything.

One of his articles complained about the disruption caused by the politically correct practice of installing wheelchair ramps in schools, and you can see his point, they are a major nuisance. They may make life easier for wheelchair users, but to cater for them, the silent majority who quietly walk without making a fuss, now have to walk down a three inch slope that would have been a step, just to accommodate the disabled. There might be a step as well, but that might be over there, and now I’ve got to suffer the inconvenience, of walking five or six steps over there, should I prefer a step to a ramp, and the sort of person prepared to point out the injustice of this is who we need in charge of educating kids.
I became fascinated by Toby Young when he wrote a review of the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’, about a builder trying to claim disability benefit after a heart attack. The difficulties the builder faced in the film “didn’t ring true”, he said, because although he didn’t know anyone who claimed disability benefit, “none of the characters gambled or smoked.”

And it is generally accepted, the person who knows most about something is the one who’s never experienced it. There should be a television show called ‘Toby Rings True’, and he can tell Usain Bolt what it’s like to break sprinting records. If Bolt says ‘it not like that’, Toby can correct him, saying ‘no it is because your story doesn’t ring true’.

Then he can tell Stephen Hawking what it’s like to study stars and finish by complaining ‘Now there’s a ramp in this studio because of you’.
I was honoured to be the subject of one of Toby’s irritation, when he complained that I’m on the BBC, despite “Supporting regimes that killed 110 million people.”

It might seem picky on my part, but I asked if he had any evidence for this, or whether it was alright to accuse anyone of anything you like, in which case it’s also a disgrace he’s on the BBC, seeing as he supported an attempted invasion of earth by the Daleks.
It’s fairly serious, to accuse someone of supporting the murder of 110 million people. It’s not just saying someone supported the murder of 105 million people, which can be easily brushed off.

So I asked him what he meant by this, but he hasn’t said. Maybe it’s taking so long because he’s writing out all their names.
Or maybe if it rings true that someone supports genocide, that’s enough, and to ask for details is political correctness gone mad.
I suppose he’s attributing to me all the deaths that took place in countries calling themselves communist, which is fair enough.
The only point in my defence is I always opposed and campaigned against the Soviet Union, and Communist China, and described their regimes as amongst the most ruthless dictatorships ever, but it would be easy to interpret that as support.

But how was he to know that? He hasn’t got time to check on Google whether someone did or didn’t support the murder of 110 million people before saying they did.

Because for Toby, facts don’t really matter, the main thing is to state things, and checking whether they’re right is over-rated. This is what makes him ideal to influence schools and universities. Then instead of being restricted, as they are currently, to teaching things assumed to be vaguely accurate, they will be free to teach stuff like ‘a fridge is a kind of aeroplane’ and ‘The Second World War started because Hitler wanted to marry Judi Dench but she wouldn’t let him’.

Maybe the main issue with Toby Young is how someone like that attains any influence. Possibly it’s because we’re in a time when posh stupidity is seen as refreshing maverick thinking.

You can shout the most ignorant abuse, made up statistics, wild accusations easy to disprove, but if you’re connected to the Spectator magazine and the Foreign Secretary, and use a few long words, you’ll be invited onto news programmes and placed on government boards.

There should be an app for drunk blokes who yell in parks, that translates their gibberish into posh maverick language, so instead of screaming ‘SEE him he’s a MURDERER he killed MILLIONS but we’re NOT ALLOWED to say because of the RAMPS it’s the fault of the RAMPS for the WHEELCHAIRS oy LOVELY tits darling’, it comes out as a Toby Young article, and alcoholics would be on Newsnight and on the board of the Bank of England.

But now we’ve been robbed of Toby’s expertise, such as when he set up a free school that collapsed, and became a Labour supporter to vote for Corbyn, as this would guarantee a huge majority for the Tories.

So he should be given more jobs. He could narrate wildlife documentaries, insisting ‘that lion hasn’t got a chance in a fight with a wildebeeste’, and commentate on the snooker ‘The winner was the one with the white gloves who kept saying the score’.

But his real talent is not just to be taken seriously by the establishment in spite of being devoid of any idea about anything, or the apparent ability to look anything up. His true contribution is despite being immensely privileged, he manages to retain such embittered malice, embroiled in perpetually foaming anger. He may be exceedingly comfortable, and connected to power for no discernible reason but it’s still NOT FAIR, because of the people who don’t like his tweets and the lesbians and people who are probably Communists, and unnecessary wheelchair ramps, that are a WASTE, because although I’ve never been in a wheelchair, I know wheelchairs can go down steps because it just rings true.
So he’s a perfect symbol for modern power, and deserves to be on the board of all our institutions.

Mike Marqusee – It’s Not Just Cricket

We may all be unique, but few could be as unique as Mike Marqusee, who died last week, as it’s hard to argue that what the world has too many of is American socialist cricket fanatics.

Usually described as ‘writer and activist’, for Mike this phrase was nonsense, as each activity was meaningless unless they combined with and enhanced the other.

His life as a glorious mix of disparate cultures began on his first day, born in New York in 1953 to white Jewish parents, who became civil rights activists travelling to Mississippi to oppose segregation, and one day he came home from school to find Martin Luther King in the living room.

His attitudes were shaped partly by a youth spent in 1960s New York, when defiance of authority moulded every corner of culture. So as well as organising campaigns for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, he was embroiled in the battle for fun. He was captivated by the music, poetry and occasional spliff of the times, and developed a special affection for sport.

All aspects of this background landed with him, when he came to live in England in the nineteen-seventies. He joined the Labour Party, becoming a prominent supporter of Tony Benn, and more fundamentally became obsessed with cricket.

One product of this fusion was a book that helped to transform sports writing, Anyone but England, an account of the game that lauded its beauty while raging against the snobbery and racism that had spewed from those who’d controlled it throughout its history.

This was a blasphemy that must have burst a million arteries amongst those in charge of English cricket. Books about cricket were supposed to depict glorious summers and splendid figures and never stoop to ask grubby questions such as why the MCC supported apartheid, or why the odd England captain admired Hitler, because this was cricket. Anyone but England was cricket’s equivalent of a scientific breakthrough that smashes all previous laws. And he was American! The impertinence!

The book was shortlisted for the William Hill Sportsbook of the Year Award, and praised around the world by figures such as Pakistan captain Imran Khan. But its greatest effect was in enabling thousands of cricket fans, who’d always felt uneasy about English cricket’s   imperial image, to proclaim a corner of their peculiar game.

For Mike, cricket was probably the ideal spectator sport, because it allowed time to dwell. A day watching cricket with him was an extraordinary education, as he’d discuss which province in India the batsman came from, then the role that region played in winning independence, its architecture, the poetry the batsman read, then why all this contributed to the reason he got out to spin bowling.

His next book on sport analysed the figure that did most to unite the defiant culture of his youth in both sport and politics. Redemption Song – Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties ricochets between Vietnam, Alabama and knocking people out, each strand shaping the others, culminating in the thrilling scene in which Ali stands in a military office, refusing to cross a yellow line as his name is called out to be drafted into the army, declaring “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

He employed a similar combination of admiration and enquiry for Chimes of Freedom, on Bob Dylan’s influence on the sixties. Then he confronted an institution arguably even more challenging than the cricket authorities; the state of Israel. ‘The Story of an Anti-Zionist Jew’ flashes between a personal account, and a history of the Middle-East that manages to embrace the prophet Amos.

It begins with his shock as a schoolboy at a Jewish Sunday School, when a young soldier who’s fought for Israel in the 1967 war is introduced to the class.

“He told us the Arabs are ignorant people, who go to toilet in the street. I’d heard this language before, from bigoted white Southerners towards blacks. I raised my hand and said this seemed to me, well, racist. Angrily the teacher turned to me and said there would be no discourtesy to guests in the classroom.”

This incident began a lifelong tussle with Zionism, never as raw as when he was accused of being a ‘self-hating Jew’ for opposing the ethics of the Israeli regime. He enjoyed quoting the Jewish son of a friend who was accused of this, and replied “No you misunderstand, it’s you I hate you bastard.”

Throughout each project he played prominent roles in campaigns such as Stop the War, and in local groups opposing cuts in his area of Hackney.

In 2000 he left Labour, assessing the radical change he supported was unlikely to be advanced by an organisation led by Tony Blair.

His partnership with Liz Davies, who he’d met when they were both in the Labour Party, was much more impregnable, and the constant pride they exuded for each other was almost implausibly heartening.

In 2007 he was told he had multiple myeloma, a cancer diagnosis that created a new subject for enquiry. Amongst the articles he wrote on his illness was one called The Bedrock of Autonomy, describing the multitude of characters that led to his treatment being possible, written while on an IV drip. It includes “all who contribute to the intricate ballet of a functioning hospital, the Irish physician Frances Rynd who invented the hollow needle, those who built and sustained the NHS… the drip flowing into my vein is drawn from a river with innumerable tributaries.”

One of his most frustrating times was when he was in a ward for 3 days with only one other patient, who appeared to have no interest in any subject at all. Eventually this chap noticed a headline in the newspaper about the Chinese army shooting at Tibetan monks and said “That’s terrible.” Mike thought ‘at last I’ve got something to discuss with this bloke’, until the other patient said “I mean, you can’t just let monks run all over the place like that.”

Despite this, throughout his illness Mike continued to write, speak about and be fascinated by William Blake, Kevin Pietersen, Indian poetry, the campaign against the Bedroom Tax, ways to confront UKIP and the corporate nature of the Indian Premier League, and how they all collide with and impact upon each other.

And he could convey his thoughts in a manner so inspiring they could make you thump the table and yell in public.

Because what seemed to drive him above all, was the idea that it makes no sense to have fun in this world, if you’re not prepared to insist that fun should be equally available to all of humanity. But there isn’t much point in contending for a fairer world, unless in the process you’re not prepared to have an enormous amount of fun.





Israel, you rascals

In recent years most of humanity has become proudly more tolerant of groups who once seemed to be on the margins of society. But until now it’s still been seen as acceptable to be offensive about one minority, which is the child murdering community.

At last it seems the mood is changing, and finally we’re beginning to hear the child murderers’ point of view.

For example one brave soul, prepared to speak out, is spokesman Uri Drome, who explained on Radio 4 yesterday that although the Israeli government bombed a school that several children died in, the deaths are clearly the fault of the people who live in the areas being bombed.

What a refreshing change from that tired old thinking that always blames murder on the murderer.

Mister Drome, once a spokesman for the Israeli government said the Israelis were “lured into a trap, now Hamas sheds crocodile tears about the dead.”

If only more of us understood bombed schools in this way. We always rush to judge some poor kid in an American town who mows down his classmates, without even pausing to consider the dead kids probably tricked him into it, and now to make it worse their parents are all pretending to cry.

Even more imaginative was Michael Oren, ex-Israeli ambassador In Washington, on Channel 4 News. He explained that Hamas was to blame for all this death, because “They are booby-trapping toasters and fridges in their houses.”

It goes to show you should never make up your mind too quickly. Many of us see pictures of buildings reduced to rubble with a bomb sticking out, and hastily conclude the bomb had something to do with the explosion. But look carefully and it becomes obvious the cause was the silly sods have blown themselves up with an exploding toaster.

I bet if we went back to Hiroshima and checked what happened more thoroughly, we’d discover the blast was nothing to do with an atom bomb, and was caused by a booby-trapped kettle.

I hope consumer programmes in Gaza cover this issue, to warn people of the dangers. The Gaza edition of Watchdog this week should start “We’ve received several complaints from those of you who bought one of these toasters from Hamas, and were surprised when it caused your entire street to explode.”

Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out for child murderers’ civil rights by informing us the Palestinians deliberately arrange the “telegenically dead” to be filmed, to attract sympathy. So it seems Hamas stroll round bomb sites, placing the prettiest corpses on view for film crews, otherwise we’d all think ‘it doesn’t matter that the Israelis killed that kid, he was an ugly little bastard anyway’.

Other spokesman have repeated this line, and maybe soon they’ll take it to the next stage, claiming the Palestinians we see howling with anguish about their dead children have been trained at a special Hamas acting school. Directors yell ‘One more rehearsal everyone, now as soon as we’ve blown up our toaster we want all the cast kneeling and sobbing, give it everything loves, everything, then we’ll go for a take’.

As the bombing continues I expect we’ll hear more reasons why the Palestinians are to blame for being bombed. An Israeli minister will say “These people in Gaza are always complaining that they live in a densely populated area, so we’re trying to help them out by reducing the population as much as we can to give them more space. But they’re STILL not happy. Some people are never satisfied.”

The Israelis insist they give warnings before bombing somewhere, and in general we all forgive someone bombing a school as long as they let you know they’re doing it five minutes in advance. Given how crowded the area is, and the scale of the bombing, any warning might seem fairly useless unless it gives you instructions on how to fly or escape into another dimension like Doctor Who, but at least the intention is there.

Now they’re calling up another 16,000 reservists, but if they don’t think they’re managing to do enough damage already, a better strategy might be to scrap their F16 bombers that clearly aren’t up to the job, and replace them with some booby-trapped toasters as apparently they’re far more effective.

In less enlightened times, those responsible for such murder would be snarled at in the street and their pictures displayed on newspapers under inflammatory headlines. But thankfully we’re growing more liberal, and can only regret that more thought wasn’t given to treating murderers kindly in the past.

Poor Fred West, for example, instead of barely being given a chance to make his case, could have sat in TV studios saying “Of course I regret the deaths of civilians. But you have to understand these people I murdered could be a bloody nuisance. I was lured into killing them, and I’m not even sure I did kill them until I’ve carried out my own investigation. Some of them kill themselves to get sympathy by booby-trapping their ironing boards you know.”

As times change, maybe Netanyahu and his spokesmen will become even more forthright, and organise ‘Child Murderer Pride’ in which child murderers can get together for a procession and carnival, where they can at last feel safe, and no longer feel looked down on, for carrying out their basic human right to bomb a school to bits.



Here’s a town that’s an idyllic cocktail, of stunning Cotswold soothing stoniness, and yet reviled by much of Oxfordshire as its ‘chav’ town. It fuses its two images with attention to detail embodied by its shopping centre –


It even has a canal, with a lock and everything, that goes through the middle of the pedestrianised shopping centre.



Travelling at one mile an hour on a pretty green canal boat past WH Smiths in Banbury is such a splendidly pointless activity that everyone should be made to it once, like a pilgrimage.

But it’s also famous for its role in a nursery rhyme, on account of Banbury Cross not quite rhyming with riding a white horse.

But Banbury is much more than this, which is why it doesn’t make a scene about its place in the rhyme. Apart from this statue in the middle of the town



And tiny references to it in the museum, such as here


And here


They hardly mention it.

But Banbury has much more to offer than this. For example there’s the beautiful scent, mentioned recently on the BBC news website –

“A bad smell in Banbury will be discussed at a public meeting this week after residents kicked up a stink. Pam Driscoll, who lives nearby, described it like a ‘tomcat had sprayed’ saying: ‘It really reeks. It makes your throat sore; it makes your eyes water’.

Not everyone agrees, and on a forum called ‘Trucknet’ for lorry drivers, one of them wrote “My favourite smells on the road are the Weetabix factory on the A14, and a smell from Banbury that I’m not sure what it is.”

But Banbury has a rebellious tradition, in the heart of sixteenth century rebellion, when small farmers and tradesmen rejected the religion that justified a natural hierarchy, for a Puritan one that insisted we are all equal before GOD.

Out of context this can sometimes appear to be slightly mental, such as when Banbury’s Puritan preacher was in full preaching flow as a fire began to destroy the town, and proclaimed “The fire rides in triumph due to God’s displeasure for our sinners.”

In his defence, by sinners he meant the nobility rather than gays, as suggested by a certain UKIP councillor, though while he may be excused from homophobia it would be hard to back him up on grounds of rational thought.

Banbury was so gripped by Puritanism a poem of the time went “To Banbury came I, O prophane one, where I saw a Puritan hanging a cat on a Monday, for killing a mouse on a Sunday.”

However smug the Puritans were, and if they had a flaw it is that they could be a little Puritan at times, there’s no doubting their selfless commitment. Oliver Cromwell once boasted (I think at the battle of Cropredy Bridge, just next to Banbury, though I’m not sure)  “Our army has the virtues of prayer, godliness, integrity, solemnity and honesty, whereas the King’s army can offer only vice, drinking and wenching.”

Surely at least a few Puritan soldiers must have heard that speech and gone “Really? Do you mind all that much if I swap sides, just for a weekend.”

Something must remain of these fiery times. There’s the Cromwell pub, a huge stone hostelry in the centre of town, though remembering him with a pub suggests maybe they haven’t grasped all the Puritan’s policies. And the football team is known as the Puritans. Presumably when they’re in a huddle at the start of the game the captain reminds them “Remember, our side has the virtues of prayer and godliness, whereas Aylsebury Rovers can offer only vice, drinking and wenching.”

But not in Banbury, which is now relegated in the league of politically important towns behind Chipping Norton, home to such nationally important statespeople as David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Clarkson.

But the Cotswolds is never one-dimensional, so author Dominic Sandbrook, who lives in Chipping Norton, wrote in reply to someone who suggested it was power-hungry, amoral and louche,

“You want louche? Try Stow-on-the-Wold. Amoral? Then go to Bourton-on-the-Water. Power-hungry? You don’t know power-hungry until you’ve been to Moreton-on-the-Marsh.”


At first glance Didcot isn’t easy to love.




In a way it’s Oxfordshire’s grubby neighbour, and you can imagine Abingdon pops round at the weekend to say “Would you mind popping down to Berkshire for the night, only we’ve some very important guests coming round and they’d rather not hear your racket.”

But one of the most lovable sides of Didcot is that so many people love it. Local historians wrote a book called “A History of the Railway in Didcot”, and while it’s marvellous that anyone should write a book with that title, even better is that the opening line reads “This book is in no way a history of the railway in Didcot.”

Even that was trumped, when I mentioned in the show that I’d come across a book called “The Long Years of Obscurity. A History of Didcot, Volume One – to 1841.”

I asked if it was possible that anyone had ever read that, presumably thinking ‘I prefer the obscure years of Didcot. 1841-1867 Didcot is a bit too pacy for me’. And someone called out that they were reading it at the moment, and even said “Is that the one by BF Lingham”, which it is, unless there are two book called “The Long Years of Obscurity. A History of Didcot, Volume One – to 1841.” And the two authors are no doubt bitter rivals, like the two groups that still go under the name of Bucks Fizz.

Didcot is fascinating because it was created by the railway, as a site for a junction between the line to the west of England and one heading to the Midlands. Hundreds of labourers arrived in the 1840s to build the junction, and this didn’t endear the place to travellers.

A chap called JE Vincent, in ‘The Highways and Byways of Berkshire’, wrote “Except for some mining villages in South Wales, there is nowhere as bare and depressing as Didcot. Its scenery is as dreary and monotonous as anywhere, and it is unlikely to become a popular resort, as it is so ugly.”

All these years later it’s reputation hasn’t improved. One of the messages I was sent on twitter read “You can always tell on a train to Oxford who’s from Didcot, from their morose demeanour.”

It also turns out there was once a character in Eastenders who ‘confessed’ to being from Didcot. That isn’t flattering, to be considered a subject of trauma in Eastenders, presumably with dialogue that went “We’ve gotta talk.”

“What is it doll?”

“Look, this ain’t gonna be easy, but I’ll come aht wiv it, I’m from Didcot.”

“Oh no, that explains your morose demeanour you slag.”

But Didcot isn’t morose. Despite it appearing to be a cluster of houses nestled beneath the cooling towers of a power station, as it’s been built as the set for a remake of The Hills Have Eyes, it seems to be one of the cheeriest towns in the country. Comics love playing there, and the local pride embodied in the books about the place was matched once by someone calling out to me “I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned this was where someone first marketed watercress.”

So I’d vote for Didcot to be made capital of Oxfordshire, maybe by royal decree, though from the other messages I was sent on twitter, maybe not everyone would agree.

Dylan Mitchell wrote “It wasn’t originally meant to have a train station, but the snobby twats in Abingdon didn’t want one.”

Alphonso Mango added “When I lived in Abingdon 30 years ago, Didcot was rumoured to have the highest per capita STD infection in UK.”

Noposhsports said “The locals think the power station is actually a dragon.”

Then the comic Paul Sinha informed me “I have frequently taken my boyfriend up the Didcot Parkway,” before a local person, Alan Flanagan, completed the comment with a perfect Didcot outlook, asking “Did you Park and Ride?”

Bless Didcot, I say.


Ivybridge is as aptly named a place as you’re likely to find in South Devon.

Because its main bridge is covered in ivy. This displays an almost Germanic level of linguistic efficiency, as if Birmingham was called Unfathomableunderpasses or Grantham was named Dragonbirth.



But Ivybridge has other charms. As well as streams and hills that smell of wet grass even when it’s not rained for a year, it has a slightly industrial corner, with a couple of pubs that seem like on certain nights they can be heard in Plymouth. And it has a boast, which several people mentioned and is also on its website. It goes “Ivybridge was recently the fastest growing town in Europe.

I considered this claim as I was walking down its High Street, and took this photo, to confirm it is indeed a place that’s hurtling towards the size and bustling chaos of Tokyo.


Even when you go out of the centre of town, as much as a whole mile away from the High Street, there are still the sprawling shanty towns you find in any rapidly growing city, and the residents of this ghetto permitted me to take this picture there.




As you would expect, Ivybridge’s stunning growth has become a magnet for youth, and some days there are as many as five young people seen in the city centre, with their youthful catchphrase ‘we got on the wrong bus, we meant to go to Plymouth’.

Inevitably this has led to an increase in crime, which is why the police station has a charming notice on the door that says “There is no reception at this police station. Access is by appointment only.”

This is a much more efficient method of policing than the normal one, as you can book an appointment for when you think you’re going to be burgled, saving time all round.


Amongst its other boasts are that “Ivybridge has ‘Walkers are Welcome’ status”, which is such an improvement on the old system in which they’d shoot the bastards with an arrow.

The ‘Community of Ivybridge’ project informs us “Ivybridge now has apopulation of 15,000, brought about by this rapid growth and change in population. The town council held an open day, unfortunately only one person turned up and they were not from our town.

But despite all this, I shall always remember Ivybridge because I was there on the night Crystal Palace were playing Liverpool. It was the first home game I’d missing for seven months, and didn’t seem to matter all that much, as Palace were safe from relegation. It did matter to Liverpool though, as they need to win to still have a good chance of winning the Premier League.

Palace were at the end of an unimaginably glorious season, predicted by everyone to come bottom but finishing in eleventh place, and every home game was played through a volcanic roar, borne of a combination of jubilation and disbelief.

During the interval I put my radio on, to hear Palace were 3-0 down, and the commentators were suggesting Liverpool should try and score six or seven. I turned it off so I could concentrate on writing bits for the second half. But when I turned it back on it was 3-1, then it became 3-2.

A lad from the theatre popped in to say we were ready for the second half, so I waited at the side of the stage, radio pressed against my ear, and as I was about to go on I heard a shrieking voice squeal ‘And it’s 3-3’.

I walked on, and could only splutter ‘Palace have come back from 3-0 down to Liverpool’, and to my delight a good section of the audience gasped. I said “I can pretend to concentrate on the show but we all know we’d all be living a lie”, so I fetched the radio and placed it next to the microphone, just in time for the full time whistle to go, completing what is now hailed as one of the greatest ever nights at Selhurst Park.

So I will be forever grateful to Ivybridge, for being not only a delightful town prone to absurd exaggeration about its status, but also for indulging my emotions regarding easily the fastest rising football club in the history of the universe.

Much Wenlock

It doesn’t matter how meticulously you travel round Britain, carefully picking off every single town, you’ll still to be sent to places that make you think ‘where the bloody hell’s that’?
It turns out Much Wenlock is in Shropshire, but not the bit of Shropshire you go to every day like Nantwich, it’s past Telford and down a lot of lanes, and no one has ever said about Much Wenlock ‘you can’t miss it’.
It’s a place of such size, it has a sign telling you how many shops it’s got.


There must be people who live there who assume this is normal for every town, and as you approach Berlin there’s a sign that says “24,540 quality shops.”
As there are ‘only’ or ‘blimey as many as’ 30 shops, depending on perspective, they have to cover all the essentials between them, which must be why almost all of them sell jars of chutney with pieces of cloth wrapped round the lid.
There is a square, that has a plaque informing you “This square highlights Much Wenlock’s modern status as a tourist destination.”


And it’s hard to believe so much can be packed into one square that will attract the modern tourist. You can spend a morning admiring the clock, then in the afternoon enjoy one of over three quality benches, before going on a stroll to admire a different face of the clock.
Another claim made by the tourist website says “It’s possible to do all your weekly shopping here, although sadly there is only one remaining blacksmith.”
So if your weekly shop includes two sets of horseshoes, each made by separate blacksmiths, it’s not quite true that it’s possible at all is it?
Much Wenlock seems to combine its idyllic setting and quaintness, with an attitude that it’s not going to creep and fawn over you. The Guild Hall boasts a collection of Tudor paintings, but when I tried to go in, a man with a bdge told me he was shutting early and shut a vast wooden door on me, before closing nine or ten vast bolts, as if he was worried I might try to scale the place with an army of Saxons.
But Much Wenlock has had an immense global on the life of almost everyone in the world.

Because a Victorian Much Wenlockian, called William Penny Brookes, in the spirit of self-improvement of the time, organised an early version of the Olympic Games there.


It’s hard to imagine how you could have an Olympics in a place of this size, as the 200 metres would involve three laps of the entire town, and the discus would almost certainly go through someone’s window.
But the events were so successful they attracted athletes from around the country, and only a few of the sports, such as wife-carrying, seeming a bit dated.
They then came to the attention of Pierre de Coubertin, who met Brookes, and they discussed setting an international Olympic Games on the Much Wenlock model. In honour of this, the mascot for the London Olympics was called Wenlock, and one day it’s hoped the modern Olympic Games could almost reach the size of the event that took place in Shropshire.



I’m sure everyone in the world is as ridiculously fascinated by the quirks of towns as I am, so here are the tales of my most recent journey around Britain. Because Captain Scott and Marco Polo may have got about a bit, but they never went to Much Wenlock or Coalville did they?


The first night of my latest tour was in Cranleigh, between Guildford and Horsham in Surrey, that claims to be the ‘largest village in England’.



As a village it’s a perfect, with parish notice boards and a community notice board in the High Street and it’s probably permanently ‘in bloom’, and you can get tea and scones but not a kebab, and half way through my scone, I noticed a man of about seventy with a very straight back, making tutting noises while reading a newspaper. Eventually he harrumphed, which is to say he didn’t make a harrumph noise, he actually said “Harumph”, and disgustedly put the paper down. Then said out loud to the room “Hah. The Daily Mirror, I might have known.”

That’s how perfect a village Cranleigh is.

But its finest qualities, like anywhere that perfect, are its glorious imperfections. For example, the BBC website reported recently “Smash-and-grab raid at Cranleigh furriers. A large quantity of fur clothing has been stolen from a specialist retailer in the second such raid in four months.”

This seems a fitting heist for Britain’s largest village, and the Town Guild is probably delighted that local thieves have the taste to rob fur and not hold up an off licence like the common Labour-voting villains you get in Woking.

More impressively, there are one or two hotels in the village, and one of them has as scathing a set of reviews on Trip Advisor as you can imagine, culminating in this splendid prose: “Stayed here for one night on business as everywhere else in Cranleigh area was fully booked. Well, no wonder. It was a dirty, dank and smelly room, the sheets had a blood stain on them and there were pubic hairs in the sink.”

The big issue currently agitating the village, I was told by everyone I spoke to, was the opening of a branch of Betfred in the High Street. I can only imagine this was done as a joke, as no one would dare be seen going in, and in any case Betfred would have to train the locals, such as the man with the straight back, to shout ‘GO ON GO ON GO ON GO ON BAAAA FUCKING NAG’ then screw up the betting slip and complain ‘That’s the tip from the Daily Mirror, I might have known’.

And Cranleigh has a hidden radical past. According to ‘The History of Cranleigh’, In 1829 the villages around Guildford such as Cranleigh witnessed the spread of riotous marches and destruction of machinery. The mill at Allbury was burned to the ground.”

Then in 1838 “A great many of the labouring men are apt to get drunk. They go into the street and do things they are ashamed of and fall out of the wagon and sometimes kill themselves.”

But their finest moment was maybe in the weeks prior to the 2012 Olympics, when the nearby roads were set to stage part of the road cycling event. Because the local paper had to report that, to the village’s shame, this graffiti appeared one morning on the route –


The crime was seen as so serious it attracted the following comments on the paper’s website:

Great! Now I know what I have to do get some of the local roads resurfaced, although I’m sure my artistic talents don’t match up to those in the picture!



Right now I’m actually welling up slightly at the sheer level of patriotism and national pride shown here for the 2012 Olympic Games. The artist’s daring juxtaposition of raw human sexuality and the thrill of competitive sport implores all of us to look deep within ourselves. Stevie Wonder


Note to Surrey Police: This was definitely done by a man. If a woman had done this it would have been much smaller!

Mike B, Epsom


In any case, it seems to me the whole raison d’etre of Cranleigh is founded on a marvellous fraud, as it’s only the largest village in England because they’ve called themselves a village. There’s no definitive way of telling one from the other, so Manchester could declare itself a village and Cranleigh’s claim would be in ruins.


Among the comments sent to me about Cranleigh on twitter were –

“Cranleigh wants to be Godalming, but it doesn’t know how.” Sadly I lost the name of the person who sent that, then


“For bonfire night they have a torch lit “march” down the Main Street. It looks like they are going to start burning crosses.” From Martyn Hutchby


“Snotty public school. Played S African side at rugby. RFU sent black referee. Look on SA faces when he set scrum priceless.” From Charlie Addiman.


And “Massive local scandal, Bet Fred opened in the high street, locals fuming it was not sushi bar.” From Richard Hillery.








Comedy is Rarely as Funny as When it Goes Wrong

Sometimes a comic will have a dream, in which they’re doing a show but not only is the audience not laughing, they’re looking at you with utter bewilderment, a mass of expressions proclaiming ‘what IS this?, as if someone had placed an octopus on the stage. Then you notice surreally notable figures in the crowd, such as Terry Venables and Mike Atherton, and the audience mutters, reads their texts, their indifferent bemusement so thorough it would be progress if the bald man in a bow tie in the second row launched a kung fu kick at your chest.

This week I can declare I’ve been living the dream.

I was asked to do a show during the Sports Journalist of the Year Awards, in the Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden. Gigs like these are always tricky, as the audience isn’t there to see you, so you’re an interruption, and they all share a profession in common making you the outsider.

John Inverdale was presenting the awards, so I decided my first line would be “What a marvellous presenter John Inverdale has been this last twenty years. And it must have helped to motivate him that he isn’t much of a looker.”

Clink clink went the cups and saucers.

I suggested theirs was an odd profession, where they’re allowed to be twenty-three stone, half way through a third bottle of wine and write “The trouble is they simply weren’t fit enough.”

I heard a cough, and saw Sir Clive Woodward get up to go to the toilet.

I carried on with material about cricket, tennis, football, as if eventually I might find the right sport and exclaim ‘ah, so it’s fencing you want to hear jokes about’, before doing twenty minutes on those ridiculous epees from the seventies.

It occurred to me that Mike Atherton, interviewed briefly in the moments before I went on, had got a bigger laugh than me. Mike bloody Atherton, not only a cricketer but a batsman known for a dour dogged style almost deliberately resistant to displaying any shot containing a whisker of flamboyance, a man who sets out on a mission not to entertain and he’d got more fucking laughs than me.

I noted that Terry Venables was in the room, adding “So I hope someone’s keeping an eye on the cutlery, or that’ll be in Ilford Market by tomorrow afternoon.”

I could hear an individual slurp of coffee.

16 minutes I was on apparently, and there’s not one of those minutes
I wouldn’t gladly swap for a week in Guantanamo Bay. If I’d been made to carry on for another 10 minutes, by then there’d have been a delegation from Amnesty International stood outside with placards and pleading for my release.

There all sorts of reasons why a comedy gig becomes a disaster, some of which are beyond your control and some of which aren’t. It can’t have helped that John Inverdale introduced me with the words “He’s just completed a sell-out tour of Croydon.”

But maybe it’s fitting that sport, with its inbuilt uncertainties and fluctuations, should provide such a stinking 16 minutes.

And just as the most viewed sporting clips on youtube are disastrous goalkeeping errors, shambolic run-outs, and athletes tripping over, in its way this night was funnier than if it had gone to plan. The image of Terry Venables frowning with part derision and part extreme bafflement is comedy at its purest.

So I suppose afterwards I should have done an interview in which I apologised to my fans, promised I would get back to the training ground to prepare for the next gig, insist I wasn’t even considering resigning, and then blame everything on the referee.

Tributes have flooded in

I wonder if it was like this two thousand years ago. If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on Sky News moments after the cross was taken down and said “The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honour to have known him, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, and that shows what a great figure he was.”

On the BBC the newsreader would say “With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas, what memories do you have of Jesus?”

And Judas would say he always displayed dignity and humility, and most importantly forgave those that betrayed him, and finish with an amusing anecdote, about how pernickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.

On Radio 5 live the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have thrown over the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, but said he was sorry for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing, then every newspaper would tell us “Tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod who said ‘It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome’.”

Many of the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from David Cameron, have emphasised his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary. But the reason his capacity for forgiveness towards the rulers of apartheid mattered, was that he’d organised opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn’t, if his notable side was forgiveness, he would simply have been a kindly chap who’d passed away with no one outside his family taking much notice.

Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time or it wouldn’t have been such a nuisance to destroy. Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervour that actually made her look drunk, that she’d rejected sanctions against the regime, as the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation.” Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher who said “we play our rugby where we like”. There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts.

I visited Robben Island prison, where Mandela had been incarcerated, in 2003. To get my ticket I visited an office in Cape Town, with glossy posters on the wall, covered in flowery lower case jolly African writing, exclaiming your trip to South Africa wasn’t complete without taking the unique opportunity of a trip to the famous island. I got on a catamaran with Americans and Germans, who smothered themselves in sun cream and took pictures of each other as they held out their arms and giggled.

Had they turned the prison into a theme park, I wondered, maybe with a water-canon-slide, and a helter skelter shaped like a giant Desmond Tutu?

But tours of the prisons are conducted by ex-prisoners. As we wandered round the cells our guide explained how he and fellow convicts had been allotted different amounts of bread according to their race, and how they were made to work sixteen hours a day on the land.

“One day”, he said, “As I was digging, on the day of the month my father was due to visit, a guard called my name. I stood before him on that spot there and he said ‘Your father won’t be visiting today as he’s been shot. Now get back to work’.”

His father lived, it turned out, but never walked again, and the guide told us the three responsible for the attempted murder were free under the rules of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and were now wealthy businessmen.

To my left a woman in shorts and a bright silk top, put her camera away and started sobbing onto her sun cream.

On another day I was taken around Soweto, by a friend of the family I was staying with. We toured the roads from which its residents hadn’t been allowed to leave without a pass, met countless children running along dusty tracks selling water, as if auditioning for a film that Morgan Freeman will probably be in, and went round the museum built where the schoolchildren were massacred.

My host was fascinated by England and cricket and the Premier League, and overflowing with tales of his youth, of plantains and preachers, and pondering why after apartheid there were still hundreds of thousands living in squalor, in the camps outside each town.
“What a memorable day”, I said when I got back to the people I was staying with. “Marvellous”, they said, “but you were lucky today. That lad you were with was arrested in the 1980s, and tortured by the police in the station at John Foster Square. He made such a noise they called him The Screamer, and whenever they brought in new prisoners, they would torture him again, so his screams would terrify them and make them talk. Sometimes he’s still a bit jittery but he was on good form today.”

So it was indeed remarkable that Nelson Mandela endured this regime and yet displayed no malice. But the real reason he was remarkable is that he took on its wealth and weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its air of impregnable authority, he became the figure of a global movement and he beat it. The kids of Soweto not legally allowed past their street, the protestor throwing flour at rugby players, the student taking their twenty quid out of Barclays, the pensioner leaving South African grapes at the checkout, The Specials, the prisoners and the screamers and Nelson Mandela were united in opposition to this heavily armed barbarity and they won.

During the campaign against apartheid Nelson Mandela was a distant figure, locked away but a name on mugs, posters and student union halls, barely more real than Batman. But the De Klerks and Bothas were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers.

Now the hazy figure is revered above all, and the defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him, and the people they helped to torture.

The precise nature of his legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn’t surprising if that’s emphasised by some paying tribute, rather than his role in overturning inequality, as they’re now arranging inequality of their own.

Because surely his most important achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown, against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.