Newport, Town Planning and How to Win the World Cup

Newport (Ymerodraeth State of Mind) is the latest viral YouTube sensation. It’s an excellent production of an excellent idea, very nicely done. If you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll have to have a poke around the internet as it’s now been removed from YouTube by EMI. It’s a parody of Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, a duplicate of that song and video but with all references changed to Newport and Wales. The result is very funny. The humour comes from the fact that it is so self-effacing. In that most British of ways, it appears to celebrate the shortcomings of Newport alongside its triumphs in a way that is so subtle that it walks the line between being straight, being ironic and being sarcastic. The result is that there is no ‘nod to the camera’, no explanation of what is really meant (as in the American trend of confessing sarcasm by adding ‘not!’ to the end of a sarcastic statement). It’s very funny.

It’s difficult to explain why the line ‘access from the A4042’ or references to leeks and shopping centres are so funny. It’s due in part to that juxtaposition in the lyric of we would expect to be profound, poetic or meaningful with the mundane and everyday. It also professes a lack of pretension on the part of the singers as they reveal their ordinariness. This sort of humour has been a staple part of British comedy as far back as we can trace. Charlie Chaplin perfected and personified it; the ordinary man with whom we can laugh with and at his ignorance (and of course our own). Laurel and Hardy continued it with dialog (Stan Laurel was the main writer and British). The Goons moved it into radio and Morcambe and Wise and Monty Python perfected it on television. Acts like Vic Reeves and the League of Gentlemen continued this idea of ordinariness, the lack of glamour and being ‘a little bit rubbish’ as being very funny. Today you’ll find it in sitcoms like ‘The IT Crowd’ and at the core of new Zealand’s ‘Flight of the Conchords’, the struggling inept novelty folk duo.

So while we in Britain and other similar like minded places like New Zealand and of course Ireland, are so keen to laugh at ourselves, which is such a good thing, it also has a possible dark side. Unlike the general attitude of the US, we are quite able to settle for second, third or even last place. Just think about the nation’s attitude to the World Cup and the Eurovision Song Contest. We’d love to win, but don’t really expect it and are almost relieved when we fail.

Let’s return to Newport. The songwriters choice to replace New York is inspired not just because of the similarity of the words and the syllables. Newport can be thought of in many ways as the antithesis of New York. Where New York is big and impressive, important globally and culturally, Newport is perhaps a bit obscure and ordinary. It’s the same reason that Slough was chosen as the setting for the sitcom ‘The Office’ and that the other town mentioned in that show is Swindon. Both towns are unrelentingly uninspiring and unimportant compared with Britain’s larger metropolises or cathedral cities.

And here lies the rub. How did Newport (and Slough and Swindon) get to be so architecturally random, sprawling and lacking in cultural or historical character? I wonder if it’s the other side of this ‘acceptance of mundanity and failure’ coin. All towns have town planners and yet almost all British towns that have had new building work since the 1950s seem unplanned, ugly and disconnected. Towns like Basingstoke and Bradford, once attractive market towns have been ripped up, flattened and totally re-built twice since the mid 1960s (although in Bradford they still haven’t put it back together again yet) with all original character lost.

Like other nations, Britain had a brief flirtation with ‘Modernism’ that replaced rather than renovated Victorian slums in the post war era. Many of those concrete tower blocks have themselves since been pulled down and it seems Britain’s planners have even less of a plan and identity now.

Knowing what a desirable and beautiful town is not as subjective as you think. If it was we wouldn’t have the same kind of towns listed as British or World Heritage Sites such as Saltaire in Yorkshire (right next to Bradford incidentally) and Bath in Somerset. We have all agreed what a good town is, so why don’t we build new towns, or renovate towns in that same way?

Let’s widen that statement. Why don’t we build ‘World Heritage Sites’ instead of looking at the glories of the past that have miraculously survived?

Do we have, just as the Newport song suggests, a low expectation of what’s possible in this country? If this is the case nationally, it’s very likely that it extends to how we feel and think personally, on some level. When it comes to our own work, our own creativity, our own businesses and all our own projects, do we have an in-built criteria of ‘that’s good enough’, ‘I’m not worth it’, ‘we don’t deserve any better’, ‘we can’t really succeed’, ‘don’t aim high then we won’t be disappointed’?

I believe it can be traced back to the end of the First World War and the despair, debt and depression that followed it and the dismantling of the British Empire. Suddenly we weren’t number one and were now reliant on other nations for help and support.

As a nation I think it’s time to create a new paradigm. There is no Empire to fall back on to create old fashioned Saturnian paternal and militaristic pride, but there is our broad and complex and wonderfully multi-faceted culture, our freedom, our rich history, our shared struggle and our achievements, to create a new kind of national pride.

When I wrote a song about the World Cup and the psychic octopus that correctly predicted the outcome of the matches, I was asked why did I think that England didn’t just not win, but got placed lower than ever in World Cup history. Were the players to blame? Were they too affluent and arrogant? Was it bad management or poor coaching? Was it because the players were too old? Are their too many foreign players in the Premier League hence supplying a smaller pool for the nation team to chose from? What was it?

I believe that the core reason is the same reason that I’ve been alluding to in this article. This nation is no longer programmed to win and we are resigned to that. Children are not educated to win at school. We don’t have a success ethic in business. We’re ashamed to make a lot of money. We’re frightened that competition means that it labels someone else as a ‘loser’.

If we want to win the World Cup, trying to pick better players and intensive coaching is too late in the process. That’s just trying to treat the symptoms not the cause. If we want to win we need to learn how to win again. We’ll need to encourage players at the very youngest age. We’ll need coaches and great players training the next but one generation, children who are starting school now. And it’s not just about football. The same techniques of success need to be applied to tennis and cricket. They need to be applied to music and painting. They need to be applied to languages and writing. They need to be applied to maths, the sciences and engineering. Possibly most of all, they need to be applied to creativity and attitude. If we can teach our children confidence in their creativity, we will have taught them how to be successful without arrogance. We will have taught them pride without vanity.

Why shouldn’t we aim high? Why shouldn’t we build ‘World Heritage’ works in whatever project we are working on?

And of course we shouldn’t worry about losing our comedy and humour. We can always laugh at how useless we all USED to be.

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I’m Having a Laugh

All humans in all recorded cultures have the ability to laugh, to find something ‘funny’ and have what is generally called ‘a sense of humour’, that is the faculty to perceive comedy. It’s part of being human.

Some people are nervous about putting humour or comedy in their presentations. There’s a joke in the public speaking world that says you should only use humour in your presentations if you want to get paid. This reminds us how important it is in a presentation to appeal to the audiences emotions. Comedic elements are more memorable than dry facts and that use of comedy in education aides retention of information. This could be borne out by the way teenage children are able to recall word for word comedy routines from television comedy sketch shows and sitcoms (like Monty Python, the Fast Show or Blackadder) but are not so able to do so with dry drama and struggle to remember anything from more formal presentations.

But comedy is totally subjective and its success depends on a variety of factors such as the setting, culture, language, delivery and context. This is why in most cases ‘jokes’ should be avoided as few jokes transcend all barriers to appeal to others without extensive translation or explanation. For comedy to work a shared history is also needed between the comic and the audience.

An excellent way of increasing your creativity and lateral thinking capabilities is to analysise what you find funny (or what you find unfunny where others are laughing!). Take a joke and break it down, see how it works, what does it play on, what information is needed to ‘get the joke’?

There are a few key concepts that categorise comedy which include incongruity, repressed desires or fears and an establishment of superiority.

The concept of superiority is perhaps the most primordial form of comedy with humour derived from failures, weaknesses or deformities or either the comedian or another group. This also forms the basis of ‘slapstick’ (physical comedy and clowning) where the audience laugh from relief at someone else’s misfortune or idiocy. Repressed fears and desires have been a common feature of both the sexist joke (such as jokes about ‘the wife’ or ‘mother-in-law’) as well as homophobic and racist jokes which play on peoples fear of the unknown.

It’s clear to all but an idiot not to use possibly offensive material in your presentations. The rule is – if it’s possible an interpretation could offend – leave it out. The same goes for using profanity. Although a staple diet in most stand-up clubs, big business deals have been lost because most people do not want to hear rude words in a business context. One story goes that when a speaker was turned down for a training session he explained that he would obviously take out the swearwords from his material for that particular client. The client replied that they wanted to book a trainer who didn’t have swear words in there in the first place.

Incongruity of either language or action involves the surprising, illogical or unexpected juxtaposition of ideas or situations which are often referred to as ‘surreal’. The comedian Vic Reeves is possibly the ultimate expression of this type in his UK 1990-91 television programme ‘Vic Reeves Big Night Out’ which was so incongruous that it divided the nation into those who gave him comedy god status and those that thought it was shoddy rubbish. Witnessing ‘Noodles the Comedy Duck’, an obvious glove puppet regurgitating prawns when one of the ten commandments was recited or listening to a man with a stick wearing a paper helmet covered in complaints to his local ombudsmen about coloured lights coming out of his taps requires a certain lateral thinking mindset in the audience. One of Reeves’ catch-phrases was the interesting “very poor” which confessed the obvious shoddy nature of the presentation which added an extra ‘in-joke’ to the faithful which drew them in even more.

Memory plays an important role in comedy. The comedian Harry Hill’s trademark routines involve setting up an enormous number of running gags with seemingly no point to them, only to refer back to them much later in the act. An example is he would mention that he saw three bunches of roses available for sale for a pound. Much later he would say, incongruently, in the middle of another story, “great big bunches they were” and then much later, again out of the blue, “three bunches for a pound? Where’s the profit margin in that?”. The comedy comes from the fact that the audience feel pleased to have been able to be ‘in’ on the joke, having remembered the references from earlier. This works because Hill is imprinting each chunk of gag using deep processing by getting the audience to question its meaning and look for a correlation with something he may have said earlier. He’s playing on the shared history concept.

Humour is useful because it allows the audience to relax into behaving as a single unit were laughter can become contagious. In many ways the comic works a form of hypnosis on the audience. Being a group, the audience will take greater risks and may even feel comfortable ‘heckling’ or participating where they would not in a non-comedy or less collective group.

As mentioned earlier, humour enhances creative problem solving. Other claims have also been made of the physiological effects of observing or listening to comedy such as the strengthening of the immune system, increasing pain thresholds and reducing stress. It has even been found to reduce ageing.

All good reasons to look into livening up your presentations with humour or going to see some stand up yourself – for the sake of increasing your income and improving your health!

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