It would be a rather easy round on Family Fortunes. ‘We asked 100 people to name something associated with the sport of Cycling’. ‘Our survey’ would surely come up with ‘doping’ or ‘drug use’ as the top answer. This reputation is by no means undeserved.
A case in point is 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis, who confessed in 2007 to doping at the time of his victory. Correct justice followed; he was struck off the race’s record books. Bizarrely, less than a year later he was reinstated, with just a footnote detailing the tainted nature of his victory. More widely in cycling, it appears that drugs offences are little more than footnotes in the long term; minor transgressions to be casually swept under the carpet by the authorities. Riis remains a highly regarded member of the cycling community and up until the end of this season he managed the Luxembourger brothers Frank and Andy Schleck. Why would two of the sport’s biggest stars not consider it at least a little unseemly to be so closely associated with an individual with this particular baggage?
The year before Riis’ confession, 2006 champion Floyd Landis failed a drug test. He initially and bizarrely put it down to whisky, before coming up with a whole reel of other excuses. Meanwhile the American has raised over a million dollars for a “Floyd Fairness Fund” dedicated to fighting for his innocence. Innocence that, in 2010, after four years of lies and legal procedures, Landis admitted was fabricated. He confessed to doping and confessed to lying and came out with a slew of accusations against other cyclists. As yet the Tour de France have yet to apply the ‘Riis Rule of Remorse’ to him and he is not included in the official Tour winners’ list – but who knows what the forgiving world of cycling might come up with in the future.
Is there any hope for cycling? Well, one of the sport’s rising stars, Roman Kreuziger, has a tattoo proclaiming ‘I’m free from doping’. Mark Cavendish, Britain’s all time leading stage winner at the Tour, has said that drugs testers should be able to test anybody at any time of the day without warning. So there are beacons of hope, but they have difficult shining through when so many riders in the professional ranks have doping offences against their name. The Tour de France should be one of the greatest shows on earth, a supreme celebration of athleticism, teamwork and determination. Instead, it is a twisted soap opera, rotten to the core. While many people in the cycling world whinge that this image is mere media construct, it is very clear that the drugs problem in cycling is self-perpetuating. The media is not cycling’s worst enemy; cycling itself is.
Since being introduced to Belle & Sebastian at the age of fourteen by my “first love” they have become my favourite band, yet their, admittedly infrequent, live shows have always eluded me. So it feels a lot like fate when, upon finding my way to my seat up in the Gods at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, said “first love” is sat directly behind me. We share a friendly catch up, surrounded by other, equally friendly, B & S fans until support act, comedian Daniel Kitson, strolls on stage. Tonight Kitson, who hails from Yorkshire’s “Pie Village” Denby Dale, has chosen to eschew stand-up and instead to Write About Love: delivering a tale of two schoolboys, separated by generations but equally “trapped between courage and cowardice” in the pursuit of their first loves, or the choice not to. My summation cannot do the story justice, which is made as funny as it is touching by Kitson’s naturally comic way with words.
By the time Kitson has wound up his yarn, the auditorium and the excitement palpable. Having made the British public wait years for a full tour, Stuart and co., along with the impressive London Contemporary Orchestra who are also joining the band on Belfast date, are pleasingly prompt. The set begins with a spotlighted Stuart Murdoch and a beautifully stripped-back rendition of ‘I Fought in a War’, which, thanks to the addition of the full band and orchestra soon becomes great enough to fill the “plush surroundings” that the once tiny indie band now find themselves in. What seems to be a less than obvious choice of opener sets the tone for a set that never allows the band to rest on their laurels, big-hitters such as Funny Little Frog and recent single Write About Love are notably absent. Rather, it is a set that attempts to give a truly varied selection from the band’s extensive back catalogue, indeed one that proves so extensive that both Stuart and second in command, Stevie Jackson, forget their own lyrics on more than one instance.
There is also a huge effort on the part of the band to maintain a ‘gig’ feel, despite the decidedly ‘concert’ surroundings: Stuart invites members of the audience to apply make-up to his face for ‘Lord Antony’, capers excitedly throughout the auditorium during a triumphant rendition of ‘If You Find Yourself Caught in Love’ and, in inciting a mass stage invasion for ‘Boy With the Arab Strap’, B&S have the entire thousand-strong audience on their feet, many jiving in the aisles. Only three tracks from new album ‘Write About Love’ are featured, of which ‘I Want the World to Stop’ is the stand-out. As Stuart jokes, for a band known for their lack of choruses, when they do include one they like to “HAMMER IT HOME!” and, here, the orchestra is put to good use. The set proper ends, unexpectedly, on a super-amplified version of another personal favourite, the luscious ‘Sleep the Clock Around’, which, along with an impressive light show, reaches almost stadium proportions, but is kept delightfully balanced by the irrepressible sweetness of Stuart and Sarah’s vocal harmonies.
Technical difficulties prevent the band from playing their planned encore, and Stuart disappoints a few audience members whose requests for ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’ have to be refused on account of him being “likely to forget the words again!” Luckily for me, they opt for the perfect pop of ‘Another Sunny Day’, a track I was worried I wouldn’t hear, and finally they tear into the fast-paced ‘Me and the Major’: the sentiments of this trick and the concert’s opener seeming somehow apt for the current climate.
So, was it worth all those years of waiting? A resounding yes, from both myself and that “first love”. “I can’t believe they played that EP track, the one about the break up. I haven’t heard that in literally years”, he says to me as we leave.
“’I’m Waking Up to Us’?” someone offers. Oh, yes. “First love” and I share a knowing glance, both knowing that the other listened to that song continuously after our childish fall-out: funny how we both ascribed such serious emotion to what was really no more than an innocent summer affection. But this is why I love Belle & Sebastian. Their back catalogue has been a constant throughout my formative years, providing my naïve self with a soundtrack to every significant event of the past six years: whether there was a true relevance never really mattered. Tonight’s performance confirms that they will continue to do so.
Mark Watson could have been an Academic. At any rate, with a First from Cambridge in English Literature, the long path to a Doctorate seems to have been a more natural option than a career in comedy. While Mark rejects the first statement (“I couldn’t see much fun in spending even more years in the University Library producing dissertations which were almost identical to ones that already existed”), he does agree that where he ended up was never the long term plan: “it was almost a whim at the beginning, but it became my career”.
A whim that ended up surprisingly well, some might say. Host of the new sports based panel show Mark Watson Kicks Off on ITV4 and BBC4 quiz show We Need Answers, and now in the middle of a UK tour, Mark’s comedy career is flourishing. A visit to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival when he was 20 years old sparked the Bristolian’s interest in stand-up, and since then he has endured a roller coaster eleven years. From the lows of an appearance in a Pot Noodle advert in 2006, to the highs as host of the NME awards at Brixton Academy in 2009, he has seen and done a lot. Nonetheless, Mark is rather modest about his success: “No matter how well you’re doing, you always tend to set your sights slightly higher”.
Having been a member of The Cambridge Footlights, Mark is adamant that university is the best time to try stand-up comedy: “The key to everything is to do as many gigs as you can”. That said, Mark believes himself to be as much writer as comedian, and his desire to be a writer with “some sort of connection to comedy” as a student meant that stand-up was the quickest way of going about it. Writing, he confesses, is “the most satisfying part” of what he does. In fitting with his down-to-earth, ‘Mr Nice Guy’ image, he admits sometimes “it’s just nice to make people laugh, too”.
Is there room for ‘Mr Nice Guys’ in comedy these days? “There’s no glory in being offensive unless you’re saying something interesting”. With the likes of Frankie Boyle coming to the fore in the UK stand-up scene, some fear that comedy is heading in a darker, radical and more offensive direction. Jim Jeffries’ Edinburgh show Alcoholocaust received criticism for his ‘sexist’ vitriolic rants and mockery of Lesbians and Christians. Mark agrees that comedy is becoming darker: “I think there is more leeway for ‘offensive’ comedians now than ever before, and more place for them on mainstream TV than ever before”. However, he makes it clear that the trend is more superficial than real: “This doesn’t mean that the majority of people who claim to be ‘edgy’ or ‘radical’ actually are. A lot of them are doing pretty ordinary material while preening themselves for upsetting people”.
Upset people, Mark does not. He has received vast praise for his appeal to broad audiences. Mark contends that being popular with “an exclusively young, hip crowd” should not be “some kind of badge of honour”. It is this attitude that has helped lever him onto the TV screen (Never Mind The Buzzcocks, amongst others) and into the public eye. Of course, panel shows such as Mock the Week have been panned as pre-packaged and brash. While Mark believes that panel shows have their advantages in their ability into “bring comedians quickly into the public eye”, and that “they’re funny in a slick disposable sort of way”, he admits that the panel show can be “constraining” for comedy. “As part of a TV show, you’re only a cog in a complicated wheel; you’ve very little control over what happens and what it ends up looking like”, while live stand-up means “you have pretty much complete control. The whole product is yours and what people see is up to you. I find that much more creatively fulfilling than being in a TV studio”.
In the future, we can expect to see Mark unleashing these creative energies in another novel, and more live stand-up. It appears that the dreams of the young Cambridge undergraduate of 1990s are coming true, and the UK comedy-scene is all the better for it – maybe nice guys don’t always finish last.
Whenever anyone mentions Christ Church Formal hall, the standard response always involves Harry Potter. Obviously, learning that this is the location of Hogwart’s Great Hall was a pretty exciting discovery, and I went into the meal with high expectations. Unfortunately, however, my experiences were far from magical.
I eagerly paid my fiver and filed into what was a surprisingly small room, and was presented almost instantly with a bowl of soup. I say bowl, but that’s an exaggeration. It was about a tablespoon’s worth of liquid butternut squash. It wasn’t unappetising, but equally, it wasn’t the most exciting starter I’ve ever had either. The serving was so ungenerous that when I added a sachet of pepper, it took up more space in the bowl than the actual soup. I was pretty desperate for a more substantial main course.
I don’t know whether the economic crisis has really hit Christ Church’s catering department, but the piece of salmon that appeared next probably could have done well to be served with its own magnifying glass. Again, it was nicely cooked but for the price I was paying I felt it could have been a bit more adventurous or just a bit…bigger. The sides were the standard potatoes and an odd courgette mixture which tasted as though a tin of plum tomatoes had just been tipped over it. Which in fairness it probably had: the Christ Church chefs had already proved they weren’t really standing on the cutting edge of culinary invention.
Pudding was a chocolate tiffin slice, and the highlight of the meal. It was decadent: just the right mix of soft chocolate and crunchy biscuit. Christ Church didn’t permit us to have any cutlery for this course (another symptom of the cuts?), prompting a fellow diner to ask exasperatedly: “do we just have to eat with our hands?!” And that we did.
All in all, Christ Church was a fairly underwhelming dining experience and certainly not worth the money, which is on the higher end of the formal price range. But you can basically say you’ve had dinner at Hogwarts, which can always be chalked up as an invaluable win.
Seeing the Blues go through their paces at a deserted Iffley, on one of the coldest days of term, you would not have thought anything special was taking place. But this was no ordinary opposition for the University football club; they faced a multi-national team of United Nations workers, travelling under the banner of S’porting Lives, a social action group committed to eradicating the stigma of people with HIV/AIDS in sport.
Comprising 14 different nationalities, the UN Workers team come from countries as diverse as Suriname, Serbia, Cameroon, and the Netherlands. All are UN workers, who have funded their own trip, which is the first under the S’porting Lives banner. Their tour kicked off at Iffley, and went on to include fixtures against Cambridge, the TUC and an MPs XI.
Their manager, Rick Cottam, explained the purpose of the tour: ‘in the small townships and even bigger towns in places like South Africa, people with HIV/AIDS are being shunned from sports grounds and not allowed to participate. This is about highlighting that stigma, raising awareness and putting together a leadership programme for the future. That’s why we’re coming to Oxford and Cambridge, where we see potential future leaders….We want to help show people with HIV/AIDS can participate in sport as part of a full and fruitful life.’ The aim of the programme is less about the problem of preventing the disease than dealing with the issues which arise from living with it: ‘we feel that it is not about treatment. Treatment research is going well, it’s about people with HIV/AIDS having social engagement.’ Originally planned to coincide with the World Cup in South Africa, the launch of S’porting Lives has instead come in the slightly less seasonal English autumn; one of the players, Jochen Krueck, from Germany, reflected that ‘it’s maybe not what we first thought it would be. It was a bigger thing in the Hague when we left, with lots of people waving us off. But from small things bigger ones can grow.’
Also present at Iffley were Alan Irwin, CEO of the Educational Sports Foundation, and Andy Harvey, Chairman of HIVsport, a British foundation which raises awareness of sexual health issues in sport. They suggested that HIV/AIDS ‘is not as high a political priority [in the UK] as it used to be, but infections are still rising, partly due to the fact that people have become less aware.’ Both foundations, along with high-profile institutions such as the Professional Footballers’ Association, FIFPro and the League Managers’ Association, are backing the S’porting Lives campaign: ‘sport is a great medium for highlighting any issue…we need to use high profile sporting figures to get the message out.’ One means by which this is done is HIVsport’s ‘Badge of Hope’, a pin which has been on the lapels of a number of Premier League managers in the run-up to World Aids Day on December 1st. It is a cause which is at once much bigger than sport, but at the same time very much caught up in it. As Movember ends, and December brings with it a more sombre reflection on World AIDS day, the sporting world should not fight shy of a cause which still struggles for the publicity it badly needs.