Conference organization is pretty much the same the world over.


Choose a city. Find a venue. Invite speakers. Notify prospective delegates. And so on.


Most conferences will have a number of keynote speakers: Well-known figures from the field, acknowledged experts, leading-edge movers and shakers.


Other speakers will be less well-known: Newbies, fringe thinkers, toe-dippers, less magnetic luminaries.


At some point, rooms will be allocated to speakers. As a rule, keynote speakers are obviously given bigger rooms to accommodate larger audiences. Fairly basic logistics.


You’d think.


Here’s where Canada may verge from the norm.


At a certain conference in the Atlantic provinces this past week, a different mindset prevailed.


Industry gurus were assigned closet-sized spaces. Complete unknowns, however, presenting on less than compelling topics, found themselves in huge auditoriums – amphitheatres of proclamatory vastness.


Upshot 1: Hundreds of delegates from far-flung corners of the second largest country on the planet were unable to hear the keynote speakers. Speakers who were their sole reason for attendance in the first place.


Upshot 2: Keynote speakers delivered presentations in intemperate claustrophobic closets. Vowing never to return.


Upshot 3: Unknown speakers stuttered through sparsely-attended rambles and workshops in silent amphitheatres. One speaker found herself facing eight individuals scattered about the benches like a scale model of the solar system.


Upshot 4: Angry mobs of ordinarily civil Canadians demanded some semblance of an explanation.


The official explanation was that the committee felt that, in the interests of equality, B-list toe-dippers should have the monster rooms. This way the crowds would be more evenly spread and

lesser lights would not feel embarrassed beside the enormous halls granted to the stars of the show.


So they mixed it up a bit.


No doubt those poor soporific souls in huge halls facing a dwindling audience of six people were comforted in the knowledge that the committee was doing all it could to minimize their shame.


Striving not to cause offence can sadly provide ample incendiary matter for a gleeful offence-taking frenzy.


“There’s enough material there for an entire conference.”




Tomorrow marks Barnsley’s return to the semi-final of the FA Cup. They will meet Cardiff City at Wembley.

Except that it doesn’t really feel like a return. The last time they progressed to this stage was 1912. So, unless any ageing Barnsley fans also have dim and distant memories of seeing the Titanic sail tragically forth from Southampton, this is the first time for all of us.

You might then call Barnsley’s appearance in this season’s FA Cup semi-final a once-in-a-lifetime event. Except, of course, that most people don’t see their 96th birthday. We’d better make the most of it.

After a cup run including stunning victories against two of the Big Four, Liverpool at Anfield and Chelsea back home at Oakwell, Barnsley have suddenly achieved global recognition. In FA Cup terms, this is our Halley’s Comet year. Not every Barnsley fan gets one.

The big question is this: FA Cup glory or Championship survival?

Barnsley are currently flirting dangerously with relegation to the third tier of English football. This has provoked the customary debate for teams in such a position. 

Which would you prefer? A day of historically-etched  glory in the final at Wembley or surviving the drop to fight for another season in the Championship.

For me, it’s simple: Take the run and cup.

I understand the view that Championship survival is the pragmatic option, that this would maintain the club’s financial stability, and that Barnsley have undergone enough monetary turbulence in the past decade thank you very much.

But I couldn’t give a proverbially flying one.

This may seem short-termist and blinkered. But I don’t believe it is.

The FA Cup is the oldest football competition in the world. Since its inception in 1871-1872, only eight teams from outside the top level of English football have won the competition. Three of these occasions (including Barnsley’s sole victory) were before the first world war. The last time “an outsider” won was 28 years ago when West Ham beat Arsenal.

More ominously, since the Premiership began in 1992, the FA Cup has been dominated by the so-called Big Four of English football: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea. Only Everton, hardly minnows themselves, have broken the monopoly.

In other words, to hell with relegation. This will not be happening again for a long long time. Enjoy the ride. Carpe diem. Mañana is mañana

So, I say: Take the run and cup.

An FA Cup final appearance, let alone a victory, would solidify into Barnsley memories and folklore as an immense cultural monument.

Mere Championship survival falls well short of epic cultural significance. In the long term, Barnsley would likely return to the Championship within a few years. After all, no other team has spent so many seasons in the second tier. So, fear not, relegation is not the end of the world. In any case, many of us fondly recall the days when a mere couple of thousand people turned out in the early seventies for Division Four entertainment.

But what’s this talk of cultural importance? Time was when I might have subscribed to the view that the world of football constituteth not art and culture. But I was wrong. You want drama, grandiose opera, blasted-heath tragedy, or the soul of a people laid bare? It’s right there: down on the pitch and high in the stadium.

The town of Barnsley has a population of 72, 000 people. This Sunday afternoon, 33,000 Barnsley fans will converge on Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final against Cardiff City. It will be an unforgettable occasion. They will remember it for the rest of their lives. Football is not really about the players, who come and go, but the fans, who stay through thick and thin. For Barnsley fans, this generally means more thin. But, as art also shows us, the greater the agony, the greater the potential ecstasy.

Witness this momentous cellphone clip as Barnsley score the last-ditch winner at Liverpool during the three minutes of stoppage time.

Cut to 1:55 minutes for the ungiven penalty kick reaction. Then at 2:11, a lone voice urges “Go on Brian”, followed by a split second of mass silent disbelief. Next, incredulous delirium kicks in at the sight of Brian Howard’s strike barelling into the Liverpool net.

It’s a cracking night out, but you never ever get this at La Scala.

We’re going to Wembley. Come on you Reds.

In 1982, an army of 17,000 was mobilized over the mist-clad Pennine mountains to be deployed in Anfield, home of the mighty Liverpool Football Club. The fans of Barnsley FC were rewarded with a gutsy 0-0 draw.

Fifteen years later, Barnsley had reached the top level of English football for the first time in their history. The home and away games with Liverpool that season were both momentous occasions for the South Yorkshire side, who had caught the nation’s affections as they did weekly battle with the big guns of the English soccer aristocracy.

Astonishingly, Barnsley caused a major upset by beating Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield, despite remaining under siege for much of the match. The game at Oakwell early in 1998 was an altogether different affair.

After languishing at the foot of the table for several months, Barnsley staged a revival in February and March of 1998.

Fans began to believe that their team’s  samba-style football and their shamelessly optimistic theme song “It’s just like watching Brazil” (to the tune of “Blue Moon”) might just be enough to ensure survival for one more season.

They had not bargained for the home game with Liverpool and match referee Gary Willard.

Much has been written about this game. For Barnsley fans, it is difficult to discuss the afternoon’s events without foaming at the mouth.

Needless to say, Barnsley lost the game. At 1-1, the referee sent off two Barnsley players. Liverpool went ahead 2-1. Unbelievably, the nine men levelled the scores at 2-2. Mr. Willard then sent off a third Barnsley player.

In the last minute, Liverpool grabbed the winner. A darker mood was never witnessed at Oakwell. Mr. Willard required a police escort from the pitch. The team’s league form never recovered from this game, and they were relegated before the end of the season.

Barnsley’s tilt at the Premiership is documented by Mark Hodkinson in the book ‘Life at the Top’. He is not a Barnsley fan, and therefore offers a more balanced view of that afternoon’s events. Here is an excerpt from the book:

Willard chose precisely the wrong place to stage his three-card trick. Barnsley does not suffer fools and it has a historical mistrust of authority. While, like most clubs, Barnsley has undergone what sociologists call “embourgoisement” – you know, serviettes supplied with the pies, toilets that flush, fans that applaud David Seaman because he is the England goalkeeper, etc… – there remains a mass of support based on fierce parochialism. They are ex-miners, and sons of ex-miners, once the aristocracy of the working class, now left with too much time on their hands to ponder Barnsley’s next match.

Back in the 1970s, they saw through the smoke and mirrors and detected that the National Coal Board had a secret agenda. They were patronised, told that too much time underground had made them over-fond of baseless conspiracy theories. In the 1980s the pits duly closed and their frustration was played out against lines of policemen.

The resentment, institutionalised now, still exists in Barnsley. The football club has become a focus for regional pride and naked passion; a two-fingered wave back to a country that they believe has consigned them to afternoon television and twice-weekly trips to the job club. Their nemesis arrived last weekend in the shape of a divorced father-of-two civil servant with a Saturday job as a football referee. There are “honest” fouls in football – a clip of the heel, a shift of weight to slow up an opponent’s run – and there are dishonest ones, too. Willard permitted the cynical, the puerile and the snide but gleefully punished the trivial.

After this injustice had been reinforced beyond the point of tolerance, ill-feeling spread through Oakwell like a malignant Mexican wave.

For a longer excerpt, see here.

Tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. GMT, the FA Cup fifth round match between Liverpool and Barnsley will kick off at Anfield.

Barnsley are now a mid-table Championship club. Getting a result at Premiership Liverpool tomorrow would be touted as a giant-killing. Realistically, the best most of us hope for is a draw or a hard-fought defeat with predictably sympathetic “Battling Barnsley” headlines.

But tonight, hope remains. At 10:00 in the morning, with five feet snow banks lining our driveway, our family will settle on the sofa to watch the game live on Fox Sports World Canada. Ritualistically, my sons and I will don our replica Barnsley shirts and, as the game kicks off, let optimism soar.

I will ask them to scan the hordes of Barnsley fans. And try to spot Grandad.

The distance between home and abroad, past and present, hope and reality, their childhood and mine, will shrink.

By half-time, the game may well be as good as over.

And, should Barnsley lose, they will handle the pain of defeat less well than me. And part of me will feel guilty for having subjected them to this. Even though they can’t wait to watch.

But I also know that they will always remember this game.

And that’s important as well.


Addendum: Guess what. Score level with 30 seconds to go, then this happens.

Brian Howard’s glory strike in Arabic.

Or in French:

Cue household delirium.

They will definitely remember this game.

Full match report here.

And this is how the shocked pundits saw it unfold:

Match of the Day highlights:


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Notes from New York

 The recent Toronto snow storm put paid to my Friday night flight, so I was on the first Saturday morning hop to La Guardia. My 4:00 a.m. cab driver was just finishing a twelve-hour shift. Hurtling north on the 427 to Lester B. Pearson Airport, he pointed out the spot he’d done several 360s during the November snow storm. Then, he recounted the hour earlier in the day stuck in a snow bank. “Ever thought about going into PR?” I wondered.

In New York, where my wife had arrived two days earlier, we had tickets for the opera: Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Seviglia. I called The Met in the hope of pre-ordering intermission drinks. I was officiously informed that “only members of the Guild” would be served drinks in the “Decidedly Huffy Room” at the intermission. “Enjoy the line-up, sir.” was the main idea. I thanked her for taking the time to patronize me so effectively, and found myself looking forward to more brazen snobbery.

deep in shallow thought

Since I needed an afternoon nap, we were late having dinner, so took a cab from lower Manhattan. Unlike Monaco’s annual event, New York boasts a daily Grand Prix of “F1 and all” taxi drivers. With the lighter traffic of February, this made for an exhilarating dash up to the Lincoln Center.

The jockeying for pole positions does not end at the curbside. Sidewalk blasts of abuse and more refined over-the-shoulder “tuts” are a Manhattan art form. On the sweeping staircase of the Met itself, a haughty opera type attempted to cut me off en route to the water fountains. I opted not to brake and cede passage. Big sniff in my direction.

The lead performers could sing Rome into ruins. Even we, plain unseasoned opera runts as we are, could see that. Despite this stunning artistry, the classic operatic warble of Jose Manuel Zapata was humorous enough to provoke the odd giggle fit from my wife. This meant we both suffered from bouts of shuddering shoulders at inopportune moments. Slightly embarrassing as this was, at least we didn’t break our chairs, unlike the oversized German lady on our left after an intermission snack or three. Luckily, the warble and the lurching clunk failed to coincide.

Elina Garanca, playing Rosina, has a voice crafted by angels. I couldn’t hit a note if it grabbed me by the ears and blew a raspberry in my face, so, to me, voices like hers just defy comprehension.

A night at the opera demands a hearty breakfast to follow. Luckily, New York is one of the great breakfasting cities. We settled on the relaxing atmosphere of French Roast, whose Mexicana omelette was superb: think fresh herbs, salsa, and just the right amount of egg liquidity.

best mexicana omelette

After a stroll around Chinatown, we stumbled into the immaculately scrubbed streets of Little Italy. I wonder what level of coercion is needed to keep up that level of cleanliness. At least, you don’t worry about sullying your dropped cannoli.

the master

Ten degrees of warm spring-like sunshine, a day at the MoMA, and a night at the Met. Still, it’s always good to get home.

bowed boughs

Having a decent vent

Fighting a blizzard as you forge a pioneering passage from the driveway to the front door is what being Canadian is all about. Partly, anyhow.

After your fumbling mittens have chipped the key into the ice-encrusted lock, you shoulder the front door inwards,  beating back the swirling white gale.

The door is vaccuumed shut behind you. Warmth is all around. But you’re not home and dry just yet.

In winter, our entrance gives onto an obstacle course of mats and boot trays.

If you fail to arrive home first of an evening, the mats will be soaked with melted snow, presenting a hazard to over eager socks, newly released from boot captivity. To the unwary, a carefree step to the right can sink you sock-deep in the icy water of a gaping boot tray.

In January, the cheery Hi Honey, I’m home! is replaced by Aw %$(*#! – I’ve been socked!

Uncharacteristically, blame is never apportioned. It is a truth domestically acknowledged that we all share the burden of sodden guilt.

Having negotiated the maze of boot trays and other sock perils, your next trial is to divest yourself of your winterwear and seek heated sanctuary for your outergarments: hat, gloves, boots, scarf.

Here, a primitive mist descends. Vent. Must have vent.

Sadly, all the vents in prime heated areas will have been seized long ago, so the downstairs bathroom is out of the question. Likewise, vents in the proximity of first floor entrances are all doubtless occupied.

There is a small chance that careless children have failed to leave mittens directly atop a vent, leaving the potential for sneak-in-ability by more deserving adult garments.

If all exit vents have been bagged, you must venture deeper into the house in search of vacant grilles.

This is a dangerous strategy.

Finding an inner vent, say in a second floor bedroom in the north wing of one’s abode, may seem like the logical approach.

Next morning, however, when the thrills of the vent hunt have abated, you will be clueless as to where your beloved bobble-hat is steaming in silence.

Despite the nagging voice in your head, you will doggedly begin your search in the downstairs bathroom, moving on to other vents in areas of prime real estate.

Fifteen minutes behind schedule, having risked a besocked morning by venturing close to key exits, you will stumble into the north wing, a faint memory of recognition pawing at your outer brain.

There, with joy within grasp, you will see the woolly scamp of a hat over in a far corner.

Chances are it will be sitting in a small puddle of its own making, glistening several feet to the left of the newly available grille.

Brimming with warlike fury, you look around for a handy child to admonish. You catch sight only of a cat, looking oddly sheepish, rolling around with its favourite scrag end of fabric. The cat is purring happily, a warm, blow-dried look about its well-vented coat.

Warm cat. Shifted hat. Vacant vent. Lightbulb of truth pings above head.

At the end of your own bit of rag, a chilling vow aimed at the cat comes forth unbidden – It’s the wicwoc for you tonight, pal. That’s right, the wicwoc.

But you’re just venting. You’ll get over it.


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Blogging has taken a back seat over the past couple of weeks, as I’ve been busy meeting deadlines for a number of (ta-da) paid writing assignments.

Meanwhile, topping the in-tray of bloggable topics has been this meme, which filtered forth from Beth at the inestimable cup of coffey site.

The meme criterion is straightforward enough: seven unknown facts about yourself.

Since this meme nomination hailed from Beth, major blogosphere source of musical knowledge, I’ll stick to this theme.

1. First single bought

Meme etiquette demands that I reveal hitherto suppressed memories of actively purchasing the following vinyl embarrassments:

‘Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool’  – Little Jimmy Osmond

‘Name of the Game’ – Abba (which, of course, is now rightfully considered a classic)

‘Follow You Follow Me’ – Genesis

Ordinarily, the first single I would proudly admit to buying is “Start!” by The Jam.

2. First gig attended

As the ska/mod revival continued to sweep the UK in 1981, I saw The Beat (aka The English Beat stateside) at Cornwall Coliseum, St. Austell. I remember little of the gig other than a shambolic ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ and the stirrings of a political awakening during the encore of ‘Stand Down Margaret’.

Has Margaret Thatcher inspired more songs than any other British PM?  Renaud’s ‘Miss Maggie’, Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, Morrissey’s ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’, and Billy Bragg’s ‘Thatcherites’ spring to mind – there are doubtless dozens.

3. Last CD bought 

The last tangible CD I bought was Tom Waits’ triple offering of ‘Orphans’.  Another stunning addition to the Waits’ canon.

4. Best gig attended

In terms of raw excitement and crowd/band rapport, it has to be The Jam in 1982 at the Top Rank in Sheffield. The first five notes of Pretty Green was all it took to get the entire audience rocking in unison. No let-up for the duration.

5. Worst gig attended

Two obvious contenders spring to mind. In the mid-eighties, a Pop Will Eat Itself gig at Trent Polytechnic was cancelled mid-way through the first song. The NME later reported that a riot had occurred. In reality, a scrawny drunken student had exchanged a few unpleasantries with a female “security officer” – a member of the Poly Ents committee. It was a long drive home.

The other disappointment was The Jesus and Mary Chain at Brixton Academy in 1987. Apart from a blistering version of ‘Kill Surf City’ as an encore, the rest was a woefully sub-par event.

6. Best stadium gig moment

Has to be the Wembley Live Aid teddy bear in 1985. While Madonna was being beamed to the big screen from Philadelphia, the entire Wembley crowd was cheering the repeated launchings of a small brown stuffed toy. Whenever anyone held on to the grubby little cubby for longer than a nanosecond, 70,000 people would boo in their general direction.

7. Best R.E.M. gig.

Beth’s nomination makes an R.E.M.- free post out of the question. I’m still kicking myself for a mid-eighties decision to buy tickets for Martin Stephenson and the Daintees at the Town and Country Club instead of paying a fiver at the same ticket agency to see R.E.M. at the Hammersmith Odeon.

Still, other than an oddly soulless concert at The Hummingbird Theatre, Toronto a couple of years ago, I’ve witnessed several stellar R.E.M. gigs since then, topped by one at The Manchester Evening News Arena in 1999.

Accelerate to the next.

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Fairytale of New York

My two dabblings in transvestism were both very public events. The first time, I was supreme.

More accurately, I was a Supreme, being one third of a trio of ten-year olds miming a choreographed routine to the pop classic “Baby Love” at a school Christmas concert. Sadly, no footage has survived, and I’m disinclined to organize a reunion.

A decade or so later, working at an international summer school, I was persuaded to (fail miserably in a shambolic bid to) impersonate the much-missed Kirsty MacColl in yet another mimed and choreographed rendition of a timeless pop classic: “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues.

This Pogues song hit the headlines in the UK again this Christmas when BBC Radio One temporarily censored the song, by beeping out the words “faggot” and “slut.”

Of course, there are far worse injustices going on in the world right now.

However, when your favourite anti-carol gets bowdlerized during the season of joy and merriment, it does give you pause for reflection.

The song is a beautiful depiction of hope refusing to die amid a relationship ravaged by alcohol and heroin abuse. In the “offensive” mid-section of the song, the evening turns ugly as the protagonists exit the warm hazy glow and descend into hurling abuse at each other. “You cheap lousy faggot” and “you’re an old slut on junk”, whether we like it or not, are exactly what we’d expect to hear at this point.

Writing in The Observer, former NME scribe Sean O’Hagan wrote a wonderful paean to the song, paying tribute to the “great anti-carol, a blast of dirty realism that cuts a swathe through the po-faced piety of the more traditional Christmas song.”

Meanwhile, Peter Tatchell, co-founder of Outrage!, took a different view.

Mr Tatchell is unhappy about the public broadcasting of a song that includes the word “faggot” as an insult. He goes further and states that:

I challenge those who defend the use of the word faggot in these lyrics to state publicly that they would also defend the right of white singers to use the n-word as a term of abuse in a song. They won’t and that makes them cowardly homophobic hypocrites.”

Hang on a second. The song is a depiction of two fictional characters. The insults are part of a traded slanging match as the characters stagger around New York late one Christmas Eve.

By defending the song, no one is condoning homophobia here. Likewise, the use of the n-word as a term of abuse might be entirely apposite if it were part of a dialogue between two bombed-out revellers. Writing offensive dialogue doesn’t make a songwriter, author, or scriptwriter complicit in their characters’ drunken ravings.

Mr. Tatchell attempts to equate any defence of the lyrics with the type of reasoning that defends the right of people to incite murder and foment racial hatred.

I can’t make this mental leap. The song, however much it might be rooted in personal experience, is presented as a work of fiction, not as a political diatribe against a societal group.

For me, Peter Tatchell makes a telling set of points about media hypocrisy, but I think he was woefully off target with “Fairytale of New York.”

The BBC revoked its decision– I think Mr. Tatchell should do the same with his views on the song.

Happy New Year everyone. Hope you all get on a lucky one.

Here’s the song:

Further blogospshere reading on this topic can be found at: Fora, Bod’s Blog, Tracey Crouch, and Adventures and Random Brain Waves


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