Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge for the second leg of the quarter final against Paris Saint-Germain, 8 April. Photo: Getty
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David Baddiel: I can’t win when even a bain-marie gag lands me in hot water on Twitter

The novelist and comedian on anti-Semitism in football, a night out in Pocklington and plans for his 50th.

At the time of writing, Chelsea, who I support, are mid-fixture between the two legs of a Champions League quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain. I’m conflicted about Chelsea’s Champions League campaign this year, as the final falls on the week of my 50th birthday and I have already committed myself to something that means I can’t go if Chelsea get there.

And so, when I watch them in this competition, even though I still very much want them to win, if I see them starting to lose (as they currently are, being 3-1 down in the second leg), I can feel a consolation open up in me, the commiserating thought: “Oh well, I can’t go to the final anyway.” It’s a tiny bit like the way I used to watch England under Graham Taylor and Don Revie, when I sort of wanted them to lose in order for the manager to get the sack more quickly.

Mark of the Twitbeast

Following the first leg, a small group of Chelsea fans ran riot in Paris, chanting racist abuse and doing Nazi salutes. This, obviously, is bad enough – although, considering the levels of neo-fascist support in France at present, I’m slightly surprised they weren’t cheered on by clapping hordes of Marine Le Pen worshippers – but it has an added spike for me. Whenever the scumbag section of the club behaves like this, I get inundated by tweets from Spurs fans. Like this one: “Hey @Baddiel, why don’t you go sort out your own Nazi fans before having a go at our club! #tooscared #hypocrite #peopleinglasshouses”.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a few years ago my brother and I made a film for the Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign called The Y-Word, challenging the complacent acceptance surrounding the chanting of the word “Yid” at football matches – a common chant heard at Chelsea, Arsenal, West Ham and Tottenham – and the associated anti-Semitic abuse. These tweets illustrate how far one of the key points – that the film was addressed to all fans who use the word – was not understood. Some Tottenham fans, who feel that they own the word and that therefore the campaign is a direct assault on them, have never realised that the film shows mainly Chelsea and Arsenal fans chanting the Y-word, including a group of Chelsea lovelies who spin off from the chant into: “Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz, Hitler’s gonna gas ’em again!”

So the answer to these tweets is that the whole campaign has always been aimed, first and foremost, at my own Nazi fans. Every so often, I try to explain this. But such is the nature of social media that all utterance is transient. Nothing sticks. I can spend hours explaining what I’ve just explained to 20 different tweeters and then still get 20 new tweets the next day calling me a hypocritical Chelsea wanker. At which point I give up. At which next point I get a whole series of other tweets saying: “@Baddiel strangely quiet about the Chelsea fans’ behaviour in Paris . . . #hypocrite #tooscared #peopleinglasshouses”.

Maybe that’s the nature of the Twitbeast. I remember a tweet I sent during Michael Jackson’s funeral on noticing that the King of Pop’s coffin looked a bit like a bain-marie (a metal serving container that keeps food warm in buffets at hotels): “Is it just me or does anyone else want to lift up that silver coffin lid to see if there’s a full English breakfast warming underneath?”

It got a lot of responses, some favourable, some not. A tweeter called Shirwan said: “Or even a bagel you Jewish prick, you’re not funny.” In the predictable Twitstorm that followed this awful abusive insult – and also he called me a Jewish prick – I had an epiphany. Shirwan may never have seen a bain-marie, I realised; never even, perhaps, attended a hotel buffet, and thus will have thought the fried English breakfast remark just a random image of Jackson’s body in some awful state of decomposition. Such a version, I agree, is unacceptable; it is tasteless; it isn’t funny. None of which excuses his racism, but it did make me want to unblock Shirwan and explain the joke.

I didn’t, because you can’t explain yourself to everybody. We live now with
an almost surreal level of mass communication, far wider and faster than whoever coined the term could have predicted, and the more people you can speak to, the more you’ll be misunderstood, misquoted, misrepresented. This is something that, perhaps, if you’re going to say
anything at all in public now, you just have to accept.

Small-town boy

On a sweeter social media note, I did a gig at the Pocklington Arts Centre in March as part of my tour. It’s a tiny venue, in a tiny town, but the audience was great and the next day I tweeted about how much I’d enjoyed it. Then I discovered that the local paper, the Pocklington Post, had printed an article about it. Not the show. The tweet. “Popular comedian Baddiel tweets about ‘enjoyable’ night in Pocklington” was the headline. Which sets a new bar, I think, for local news coverage. Having just typed that, I look forward enormously to the satirical online comments on the Pocklington Post’s description of me as “popular” and, indeed, a “comedian”.

Still got the Blues

Late-breaking news: Chelsea have beaten PSG. By the end of the game I was completely unconflicted, completely wanting
them to win and completely thinking about rerouting my 50th birthday plans to Lisbon, where the final is.

David Baddiel’s stand-up show “Fame: Not the Musical” is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1, from 29 April

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”