kenny hodgart

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Climate change and other matters cut and dried

This article appeared in The Herald

Channel 4 is to celebrate the start of the World Cup by screening a Come Dine With Me special featuring four Wags. I read about this in the hairdresser’s the other day. As you’d expect, all the Wags are either married or affianced to footballers, some of them reasonably famous, although clearly not famous enough for their Wags to be getting on with, hence their desire to go on television.

There was a Wag in the hairdresser’s too – the strangest thing, reading about them in the paper like that and there’s one sitting there, her lump of a footballer waiting in the corner, giving the game away somewhat.

Not a player who does it for me on the park, I have to say and, by all accounts, not half as bright as a pork pie, but she seemed happy enough. And why not? One in four girls wants to go out with a footballer, I read a while back. It’s probably more than that now.

A bit of a mouth on her this one, though. Yak yak yak. If she had been his missus, I’m not entirely certain John Terry would have had the balls to mess around on other manors, as they used to say round where he grew up. “I wanted to go to Dubai but he didn’t fancy it, but anyway my friend says it’s not all that good and it’s too hot.”

“It’s getting hotter out there, I heard,” said the middle-aged woman next to her, in an idle sort of way.

More stuff about Cheryl and Cashley in the paper. Posh has done something with her hair. Some other stories not about Wags. Give it time, though. In a fortnight there will be stories about Wags going shopping, and there will be stories about Wags whose menfolk have been messing around on other manors, and there will be nothing else.

The Wag shows off her new all-white iPhone, then remembers her sister has just given birth and proceeds to tell everyone about it. Lancashire: that’s where she lives, the Wag’s sister, but not the bit where all the immigrants are.

The demure, attractive Polish girl having her fringe chopped sits demurely and attractively. The footballer grins as though he’s just remembered how much free money he gets paid every week.

Some schoolboys walking past recognise him at the open door. One of them blows a raspberry at him. Bit lame, I’m thinking; but then, just for a second, he looks genuinely hurt.


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An Highland fling

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

It was a beautiful morning in Dingwall yesterday, the kind of morning that sends city dwellers scarpering up mountains and the like in pursuit of solitude and unspoilt vistas.

And after about 9am it will have been quiet, too – quieter probably than at any time, not counting Sabbath days, since the old king chucked it. The Scottish Cup final kicked off in Glasgow at 3pm, but an exodus of military efficacy had been put in train on Friday with a bag-piped send-off for the players of Ross County that would have done the region’s martial ancestors proud.

Their mission ultimately failed, but few from the Ross-shire town were ever likely to miss the occasion for all the Highland sunshine of a dozen summers. It is no exaggeration to suggest that almost an entire community made for Hampden Park yesterday: the population of Dingwall is about 5000, but more than 18,000 “Staggies” – young and old, very young and not-so-very old – found their way to the south side of Glasgow.

In Dundee United, First Division County were up against a team who, by dint of not being one of the Old Firm pair, would ordinarily be underdogs themselves at a cup final. As I mixed with the County fans, I was reminded of that great novel about Scottish football by Robin Jenkins, The Thistle and the Grail, in which a small-town Lanarkshire club makes it to Hampden, uniting rich and poor, friend and foe along the way. But this was the fairytale romance of the cup made real and updated for the 21st century – Ross County diehards are as likely to be women as they are men with war-wounds and bad chests from smoking roll-ups.

There was a buzz in Dingwall – a buzz eagerly stoked and taken measure of by local and national media – that built to a crescendo all last week but which began the moment County knocked Celtic out of the tournament in last month’s semi-finals.

The May 6 general election and its aftermath didn’t get a look in: the town had special pies and cakes to bake, shop windows to dress, processions to organise. There was also a record out, a version of a Proclaimers song by a local band called Torridon. It was a missed opportunity for someone to form a duo called Ross and Cromarty – along Flanders and Swann lines – and shut the Reid twins up for good.

Cakes and pies are thrust in front of television cameras whenever a provincial club achieves any degree of success in the cup, but there’s nothing stage-managed or fake about Ross County. “It’s a community club, a family club, all the way,” according to Lynn Lonnen, a supporter I met on Friday night in the Mallard, a pub on the very platform of Dingwall Railway Station. “We’re a small town, people know one another, we don’t lock our doors. You see the chairman about town, or the players, and they’ll speak to you.”

County, in other words, are a nice football club, the antithesis of, say, a Millwall. They can’t not be nice even when they try: one of the songs in the fans’ repertoire makes it clear to opponents that they will be left “crying in their mammy’s soup”.

They even have an amicable relationship with their local rivals, Inverness Caley Thistle, who yesterday hung out a banner emblazoned with the words “ICT wishes Ross County all the best”. “There’s very occasionally fisticuffs with some of the younger supporters, but usually it’s because of the drink,” Arnie, Lynn’s husband, told me.

He also told me County play “probably the best football in Scotland”, and it’s true that in 2007 they did – despite topping Division Two at the time – get rid of Dick Campbell as manager because the football his team were playing was insufficiently attractive.

Sadly, yesterday they had an off-day in a game that never really sparked to life as a contest. Maybe the supporters were too nice about their team’s failings – certainly, the accustomed choruses of disapproval at misplaced places were conspicuously absent from the West Stand.

It was for the “buzz” and the much-vaunted Highland hospitality – the drink, essentially – that I was in Dingwall. Unfortunately the drinkers seemed to have been headed in the other direction as I journeyed north.

I know this because I saw what a Friday night out in Glasgow had done to them as I made my way to the National Stadium before kick-off. Our rigid laws against drinking on supporters’ buses meant, on the other hand, that there was no-one making a proper fool of himself to be amused at on the road down.

It is reassuring to report, nevertheless, that the feeling in the aftermath of defeat was that the party simply had to go on. County’s manager, Derek Adams, and their director of football, his father George, are tee-total for religious reasons and the local Wee Frees had decreed that an open-top bus parade in the event of victory wasn’t to go ahead until Monday (this in an area of the country that elects the renowned toper Charles Kennedy as its MP), but celebrations planned for last night were not being cancelled.

One woman from Dingwall told me before the game that if County won, “the town won’t sleep for a week”. Afterwards, a man confided he was merely planning on “a wee dram.” Katie MacKenzie and Jilly Murray were unwavering in their intentions, however: “We’re staying out in Glasgow tonight, without a doubt”, said Katie, with a grin that sadly I hadn’t the chance to misinterpret as an invitation. For with that, they were off into the dusk, “family final” done and dusted and mammy’s soup not even on the menu.

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Let’s be nicer about Spanish tarts

This article appeared in The Herald

An odd injunction from the Royal Horticultural Society this week. The body, somewhat revered on the subject of flowers, has advised gardeners to go about rooting out certain species of bluebell, specifically Spanish ones, on account of their being now almost as common as native British varieties.

If you are into botany, you may well be out there already with a shovel, happily beating Spanish bulbs to a pulp. You will, at least, know that the bad ‘uns have straighter stalks and more blossoms than their besieged cousins, who, incidentally, seem remarkably resilient for all the grim forecasts – every couple of years – of their imminent extinction.

Now, I’m all for calling the Spanish to order over their shameless fish-plundering ways, but I stop short at being spiteful towards their flowers simply for being more winsome than ours. The Royal Society’s position seems to be that the invaders are tarts, which really won’t do. We may not have been allowed to vote on the last round of European integration, but if we carry on like this, our Euro friends won’t even invite us along to hum and haw about the next one.

The problem with conservationists of all stripes is that they believe fluctuations in species of wildlife are always either the fault of man or his responsibility to redress. The good health of the grey squirrel is a perennial disappointment to them, but this week a spokesman for something called the Mammal Society went gunning for mink, which, it transpires, have been doing the water vole population of Skye no good ever since activists started “liberating” them from farms. “As a non-native invasive species,” said a man named Roger Cottis, “mink need to be removed from our environment.”

Last year, there was a great fuss about bees dying off, with the usual suspects blaming it on GM crops and global warming. It later emerged that this was tripe and that while bee numbers in Europe have fallen, globally there are more of the blighters than ever. Perhaps a similar story will do for the panic about water voles, whose welfare, to be sure, would improve incalculably if there was a cull of domestic cats.

At any rate, there is now doubtless some directive or other in motion to increase the numbers of bees in the EU. But will the British bee know in future which bluebells to pollinate and which to shun? Nature is remarkable in its powers, but this is probably asking too much.

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Lessons from Zippy

This article appeared in The Herald

For some years I have been plagued by a recurring nightmare in which I am laid up in bed and forced to eat sausages by an insanely large woman who looks like the famed narcissist Julie Burchill.

It has its origins, I am inclined to believe, in an episode of the children’s television programme Rainbow in which the character Zippy, a furry orange Jamie Oliver on uppers, is put on this regimen for a week, albeit without a famed narcissist to administer it.

Zippy eventually tires of sausages and pushes his plate away, sick as a dog in a car on a hot day. But not all of us are capable of Zippy’s self-disgust. Joanne Ettienne wasn’t: she never tired of sausages; or chicken nuggets, or stuffed-crust pizza or anything else vaguely fattening or sugary or gelatinous.

You may have read about Joanne this week. A truly sad figure she cut in the tabloids, all 40st of her, like three quite fat people rolled into one. And you may have stifled a childish urge to snigger, remembering that we are enjoined to be compassionate nowadays – but the thing that stuck in my personal craw, like an obstinate piece of gristle, was the suggestion of victimhood. Firemen had seemingly had to knock down two walls at Joanne’s home in order for her to be taken to hospital and treated for an infection; but only, understand, because her carers had fed her unhealthy foods.

And therein lies the problem that comes from allowing obesity to be regarded as an illness, a condition that might suddenly afflict any of us if we’re not careful to cover our faces in the vicinity of pies. Willpower in the face of temptation, the ability to defer gratification – these are deeply unfashionable concepts. Anyone who denounces obesity will take care also to denounce poverty, although clearly not the kind of poverty that prevents people from buying curries and kebabs. And I’ll wager a bucket of fried chicken that nobody has ever been shamed into setting down the fork on hearing the news that he or she may be socially impoverished.

Alas, the wilfully overweight are becoming ever-more energetic in defence of their condition. My sausage lady-in-waiting, Julie Burchill, was at it this week, lambasting Chris Moyles, an obese disc jockey who had made some remarks to the effect that the lardy pop singer Beth Ditto, was, um, uh, you know, a bit lardy. The fat DJ almost had my sympathy.

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Must-see sporting events. No 18: An Old Firm match

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

WHAT IS IT? There is a lot of misinformation put about regarding the Old Firm. First of all, there are those who will tell you that the Celtic-Rangers (or is it Rangers-Celtic?) fixture is mired in religious and political animosity, but this is wide of the mark. Any religious element is of the most benign order, and matches tend to feel almost like hippy love-ins from the 1960s. There can sometimes be violence away from games, but this is only because the people of the west of Scotland are very demonstrative in expressing their love for one another. Also, there are never refereeing controversies, matches are played in a spirit of goodwill redolent of a bygone age of amateurism, and Rangers are one of Scotland’s best examples of financial probity and good governance.

HOW TO ENJOY MATCH DAY: Tuesday evening’s match (7.45pm) is to be played at Celtic Park, in the vicinity of which there are a number of great bars and restaurants. Many Celtic supporters like to take some refreshment in nearby Bridgeton, but if the rain stays off, it is often pleasant to stop off at Lidl and buy a few cans to drink on the 20-minute walk from the city centre.

WHO WILL WIN THIS ONE? Nobody really bothers about the result so long as it is a good game of football, and often, if the early exchanges are a bit one-sided, the referee will ask one of the players to leave the field in order to make it a fairer contest. Neil Lennon, a man who brought the city of Glasgow closer in appreciation of his flair in midfield when he played for Celtic, is currently the club’s interim smanager, and there is no doubt that everyone at Rangers will wish him well.

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Abroad travels the mind

This article appeared in The Herald

The BBC’s Saturday night gameshow All New Total Wipeout is very popular, if the people who go on about these things are to be believed.

Not having seen the old Total Wipeout, I cannot say what is new about this series. But, my friends, though modesty compels me to admit it was no arduous task, I believe I have deduced how it so absorbs viewers.

The answer has something to do with the fact that the programme is made in Argentina. Not that there is anything especially germane to Argentina about it – the contestants might as well be in Cyprus, or Burkina Faso, or Cambodia; anywhere, in fact, except Britain, because abroad is where danger and unpredictability reside for the modern Briton.

Danger exists at home – have you been to Paisley Road West? – but in the main it is considered rude to mention it. Programmes like this respond, therefore, to impulses unsated by our culture. Total Wipeout shows us people negotiating obstacles and coming off second best, endeavouring to avoid being punched by robotic arms and falling headlong into great filthy pools of mud. And it is not sadism which holds us gripped – but atavism.

Older Herald colleagues speak of a game they used to play – loosened up after a few refreshments, the better to meet evening deadlines – the object of which was to get from one end of the office to the other without touching the floor. Nowadays, we must ensure our lumbar vertebrae are in line before we even lift our notebooks.

And in all the land, it is the same story. New Labour’s greatest legacy is that it put 4,300 new criminal offences into statute, and where we are not at risk of transgressing one of those, we are being told we cannot have a bonfire, or stand up at the football, or imitate Clint Eastwood by taking an orangutan for a drive. In 2010, packets of peanuts come with the warning “May contain nuts”, railway announcers tell us that platform surfaces may be slippery when wet and a woman who fell into a moat whilst trespassing at Carlisle Castle at 2am was recently paid £52,250 in damages.

Argentina does seem a very long way to go to fall into some mud, especially if you are largely indifferent to adventure in the first place. But I will say this: if ever I impale myself on a coatstand at work, it will have been my own stupid fault.