The Shorts of God

PLUS: Nicole Kidman's face, Tier 2-upmanship, vaccines, fags and much, much more.

Speaking as a former rugby union legend, whose silky skills are widely considered to  have transcended the sport, I was not surprised when Diego Maradona dropped dead of a heart attack last week aged 60.

Genius is a fickle mistress and her touch is fleeting. One day you have the world at your feet, the next you are over the hill – and many elite sportsmen are unable to handle it.

Maradona, the greatest footballer of his generation, sought solace in cocaine, booze and air rifles when his career ended. George Best, the greatest of his, hit the bottle and drank himself to death at 59. Some fear Gazza, the greatest of mine, is heading the same way.

It’s now 10 years since I hung up my golden boots, so all things considered it’s a miracle I’m still around.

Of course, all sporting greats are defined by a single moment of genius. Since his death, Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in 1986 has been played on permanent loop – but aficionados of the game know that the goal he scored four minutes later, when he dribbled through the entire England defence before impudently beating Peter Shilton, was the moment when he was truly touched by the Almighty.

Like Maradona I too was world class at avoiding tackles – especially when opposition players were running at me with the ball. Just as high jumper Dick Fosbury became synonymous with his “Flop”, so the “Brownlee Sideways Leap” is now the standard manoeuvre for all lily-livered fly-halves.

The pinnacle of my achievements came in the 1992/3 season when, despite the wettest of winters, I managed to complete 32 matches for Novocastrians RFC without once getting mud on my white shorts - a club record to this day.

It was all downhill from there, of course. Professionalism ushered in a new breed of tackling Tens like Jonny Wilkinson, and overnight nimble-footed contactaphobes like myself were consigned to history. I soldiered on, of course, but like Maradona my career ended in ignominy – carried off just 12 minutes into a veterans’ match against West Hartlepool 5ths, ironically with dirty shorts because I’d been felled by cramp.

Retirement was hard to take, and I admit I considered easing the pain by spending my remaining years in an orgy of coke, booze and floozies.

But I am a firm believer that, just like Patek Philippe watches, you do not own genius, you merely look after it for the next generation. If I were to die tomorrow, bloated with self-pity, what sort of example would that set to kids who dream of rugby glory? To kids everywhere, for that matter? So after six months in the wilderness I got my act together.

Now I intend to stay alive for as long as possible – a symbol of what is possible, when others around me fall.

Meanwhile my pristine shorts are still kept in a glass case in the Novos clubhouse, next to shirts worn by former internationals. I’m told that on Sunday mornings youngsters from the minis section often stare at them in open-mouthed wonderment, while eating their chips.

If only Maradona had been so selfless.


IT’LL END IN TIERS

To the county border at Gilsland, where a large crowd from Tier 2 Cumbria has gathered to taunt residents of Northumberland, who are in Tier 3.

It’s childish, I know, but highly satisfying to make beer-drinking gestures at folk whose pubs will remain shut until Christmas. To rub it in, we also mime eating a substantial meal.

A note of caution, though. Northumbrians traditionally have more money and resources than Cumbrians, and my fear is that when the vaccine kicks in they will exact terrible revenge by invading Brampton and turning the Nag’s Head into a gastro-pub and the bookies into an artisan delicatessen.

I’m also worried that, although I have lived in Cumbria for 20 years, I am a Northumbrian by birth and may be hanged as a traitor by either side.

Such is the divisive effect of this dreadful virus.

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POWERS OF PERSUASION

But will you be taking the vaccine when your turn comes? Too bloody right I will, and to hell with possible side-effects! I’d risk growing a second head if it meant I didn’t have to wear a mask or be tutted at for going the wrong way round the Co-op’s one-way system.

Some people are understandably wary of the jab, of course, and it will take a concerted PR offensive by the government to win them round. But the government are good at that, when they put their minds to it. Remember not wearing seat belts? Remember smoking indoors? Me neither.

And what of the hard core of fucking imbeciles who believe the antivax conspiracy theories? My instinct is to let them take their chances, in the hope that they end up on a ventilator. However I suspect even they can be persuaded it’s in their best interests to be inoculated.

This will depend on two things: vaccine passports, and not being allowed into any public place unless you’ve got one. Being a disciple of David Icke is all very well, but it will soon lose its appeal when you’ve got to stand outside in the cold and rain, nose pressed against the pub window, while everyone else is inside having a good time.


MUG SHOTS

In the last newsletter correspondents had plenty to say about the new series of The Crown, so I thought I’d better tune in to see what all the fuss is about.

It’s pretty so-so, to be honest, and I can’t imagine fans of the Royals are particularly pleased. My favourite line came from rabidly republican Aussie PM Bob Hawke, when he described Prince Charles as a “jug-eared bonehead”.

This may have been artistic licence by the writer, Peter Morgan - but if the Windsors are even half as dysfunctional and entitled as they are portrayed here then Hawke would have got my vote every time.

Meanwhile did you watch The Undoing? If not, I won’t tell you whodunnit, but I advise you to do so. Even if you aren’t intrigued by the murder mystery, I guarantee you’ll be gripped by Nicole Kidman’s face.

I’m no expert on such things, but I am advised by those who are that she has “had some work done”. According to the Mirror, this includes rhinoplasty to narrow her nostrils, dermal fillers to plump up her cheeks and lips, and Botox injections to erase the lines in her forehead and around the eyes.

The cumulative effect is strangely immobile features, reminiscent of a china doll or the 1980s DJ Gary Davies – but in the age of HD television and extreme close-ups this has unfortunately become a necessity for beautiful women of a certain age, like Nicole Kidman. And who can blame them? The thought of viewers poring over your every wrinkle and crevice on their 60-inch sets must be horrific.

Nicole’s co-star Hugh Grant clearly doesn’t care, mind. Once beautiful and smooth-skinned himself, his face now resembles a hi-def photograph of the Himalayas taken from space. The perfect look for a brutal murderer? I couldn’t possibly say.

Incidentally I was thrilled to see that buried at the bottom of the hundreds-strong list of crew members credited for their contribution to The Undoing were “Parking Co-ordinators” Steven and Javier de la Rosa.

It just goes to show that you don’t have to be a star to make it in Hollywood. At this difficult time, when ballet dancers are being advised to retrain as call centre operatives, the artistic community would do well to follow the example of the de la Rosas.

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LEAVE THE BOOK BEHIND

Leave The World Behind, the new novel by American author Rumaan Alam, has been getting rave reviews, so I thought I’d better read it.

It’s about a Waspy Manhattan couple and their two children who rent an AirBnB villa on Long Island for their holidays. No sooner have they arrived than some unspecified major disaster hits the US, knocking out all communications, at which point the villa’s owners - an intellectual black couple - turn up on the doorstep, having fled stricken New York. Some weird unexplained shit happens, people’s teeth fall out, and, erm, that’s kind of it.

According to the critics the book is a cross between Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out and Cormac McCarthy’s bleak post-apocalypse novel The Road. And I suppose it is, at a push - but only in the same way as Get Out is a cross between Love Thy Neighbour and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and The Road is a cross between The Iliad and Sean of the Dead.

My main problem with the book is that it’s a 41-page short story stretched to a 241-page novel. And the majority of those 200 extra pages are filled with the sort of tedious inner-monologue-and-cod-philosophical diversionary tactics that American authors excel in.

Don’t get me wrong: in moderation this is fine - necessary even - but man, this was hard work.

For this reason Mr Alam reminds me very much of Stephen King, whose novels make great movies but are so stuffed with extraneous bullshit written in italics that I find them unreadable. If, like me, you love Stanley Kubrick film of The Shining, try the book and you’ll see what I mean.

Leave The World Behind will make a great Jordan Peele movie, and I can’t wait to see it. For now, though, I require a stiff dose of Jack Reacher to recover from reading it. After all, who needs inner monologue when your fists can do the talking?


ON A ROLL

Years ago I took up vaping to wean myself off the fags. I have now taken up the fags again, to wean myself off the vape.

I know, I know - but my theory is that puffing on five rollies a day is better for my health than sucking on an e-cigarette 24/7, which is what it had come to. Some days, particularly when I was on deadline, it was a miracle I did not keel over with nicotine poisoning.

The main advantage of rollies - and I’d never go back to Marlboro Lights - is all the paraphernalia involved. Since making the switch I have been able splash out on a baccy pouch, a rolling machine, several assorted types of filter, Rizla papers, a Zippo lighter, lighter wicks, lighter fluid…all the crap that makes a man truly content. Indeed I find the time spent assembling a rollie far more satisfying than actually smoking it.

All I need now is a smoking shed at the bottom of the garden, a stick to whittle and a long-wave radio tuned to Test Match Special, and my happiness will be complete.


THE WAIST DELUSION

The demise of Debenhams is a bitter blow, not only to its 12,000 employees but to middle-aged men like me who buy their clothes there in an effort to remain reasonably fashionable, if only in our own minds.

Now, with the high street in freefall, it seems I am being pushed ever nearer to the dreaded Marks & Spencer Menswear Department, with its comfortable cardigans, grey flannels, and overpowering stench of death.

Facebook seems to know this. Recently, as well as the usual ads for Tena Men incontinence pads, I have been targeted by a succession of trendy online retailers offering cool retro clothing at affordable prices.

As a result I have just bought a pair of 60s-style stripy bell-bottoms and a tie-dyed hippie shirt. The shirt’s great – but unfortunately pride came before reality when it came to the waist measurement for the trousers. Unless there’s been a mistake, it would appear that I am no longer a size 34in.

The mark of a man is to face up to his failings, however, and rather than exchange them for a more comfortable 36in I have embarked on a diet. My aim is to impress my mother-in-law by unveiling my new trousers in all their glory on Christmas Day, or failing that Easter.

When I last looked, the hole had crept at least two millimetres nearer the button and I could get the zip nearly halfway up, so my hard work is definitely paying off. But there’s a long way to go, requiring a lot more iron self-discipline.

I shall, of course, keep you informed of progress.


NEWSLETTER NEWS

Due to a combination of technical problems and bone idleness, I am unable to bring you either the robots or correspondents’ letters this week.

However, due to popular (ish) demand, the newsletter will be dropping into your inboxes every Friday from now on, which is nice.

Thanks again to everyone who has subscribed. Have a great weekend, y’all!


PLOT SPOILER

It was Hugh Grant.