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From Forest to The Mash Report (with a nod to cheeseburgers)

I'm looking forward to BBC Two's new show The Mash Report which begins a ten-week run next Thursday (July 20). 

The programme is a spin-off from The Daily Mash, the satirical website that was launched in 2007 by two former journalists, Paul Stokes and Neil Rafferty.

I must declare an interest because when he launched The Daily Mash Neil was also working for Forest.

We hired him in January 2005 after he left the Sunday Times and for three years he was our spokesman in Scotland. He also deputised for me when I was away or on holiday.

I mention this because Scotland on Sunday featured a lovely piece by columnist Euan McColm who wrote:

I first met Neil Rafferty when he was a 22-year-old university drop-out, managing a pub in Edinburgh and publishing a tiny, and hilarious, magazine called The Smear.

Unlike most funny men in pubs, Neil was actually funny - properly, cleverly, originally funny - and we quickly became friends.

When he decided to enter journalism, I wasn’t at all surprised that he became a success, reporting on politics for a number of national newspapers.

And, knowing how utterly bored he had become with the whole business, I wasn’t surprised, either, when, a dozen or so years ago, he packed it all in and moved to the country to raise chickens.

After a couple of years of fannying about, trying to grow rocket in the Borders, Neil and another pal – Paul Stokes – cooked up a wheeze. They gambled £500 each on a new website.

You can read the full piece here (Jealous hack tells pal to 'break a leg' on TV).

As it happens those "couple of years fannying about" were also the years Neil represented Forest.

I knew from the start it wasn't his dream occupation. Nevertheless he did a great job for us, appearing regularly on TV and radio and rarely complaining, even when forced to stand outside the ICC in Birmingham handing out flyers in the cold and rain.

That said, I shall never forget the look on his face. You've never seen a man more desperate to return to his home in the Borders.

I remember too attending his wedding in a converted barn in an extremely rural location near Stirling. After the ceremony guests gathered for champagne in the garden of his inlaws' farmhouse next door. This was followed by dinner (and dancing) in a marquee.

Neil's forte was of course writing and looking back at the mountain of email correspondence between us I had forgotten just how much he contributed in the form of press releases and articles.

His time with Forest came to end in 2008 when he decided he needed to devote all his time to The Daily Mash, which was beginning to take off.

Subsequently he and his wife Amy also moved to France.

Oddly enough, and despite the success of his comedy creation, I never thought of Neil as a 'funny man'.

Modest and self-effacing, he had a sense of humour that could best be described as dry. Occasionally this even infused his work for Forest, as this piece for the Edinburgh Evening News (March 2008) demonstrates:

I've never been a huge fan of cheeseburgers. Yes, they're not the healthiest food you can buy and, unless you've just arrived on Planet Earth, you may be aware of an 'obesity epidemic' that is slowly devouring our ancient land. But I don't really care about any of that. The fact is, they're just not my kind of food. I like pies.

That said, I've got no problem with anyone else eating cheeseburgers. If that's what you're into, then crack on. As long as you know what you're doing and you're not bothering anyone else, then what business is it of mine?

I certainly wouldn't go around demanding fast food restaurants be banned from displaying the different types of burgers they have on sale or that the burgers be sold from under the counter. I wouldn't demand those little cardboard burger cartons carry a picture of a swollen heart plucked from a recently deceased burger fan.

I wouldn't demand that burger bars be forced to apply for a special 'burger licence', nor would I demand that an 18 certificate be slapped on all films that depict gratuitous burger eating. In fact, if I did do any of those things in order to try and stop people from eating burgers, you'd probably think I was a nutter.

Similarly, if I called for bottles of Chardonnay or Martini to be sold in brown paper bags - like a hard-core pornographic magazines - and carry a picture of a diseased liver, you'd probably advise me to take some time off, or have a few drinks.

When it comes to smoking tobacco, however, all of the above are either already happening or being seriously considered by our government.

Apparently they want to 'protect the children' - the classic excuse from those who want to take away your freedom. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for protecting children, but not only will none of these measures actually do that, but those who say they will are lying through their teeth.

The reason they support all these measures is because they are part of their rather creepy campaign to 'denormalise' smoking. They want to turn smokers, the vast majority of whom are normal, law-abiding, devastatingly attractive people, into lepers. They want to bully them and shame them into doing as they are told.

It is all rather nasty of course, but Scotland's smokers are getting used to it. It's the rest of you I feel sorry for. They are already trying to 'denormalise' driving a car or going on holiday by plane. They'll soon be trying to 'denormalise' drinking, cheeseburgers and, yes even pies. After that, how long before they denormalise the books and films that you like? How long before they denormalise words and ideas? How long before they denormalise you?

(And, by the way, while they're doing this, rebellious teenagers will be finding new and innovative ways to get their hands on tobacco, and all because the adults keep telling them not to. In case you're wondering, the best way to prevent kids from smoking is to actually enforce the existing age limit, instead of just talking about it. Go on, give it a try.)

So if you want to team-up with the denormalisers, then the very best of luck to you. They seem like a fun crowd. But while you're being re-programmed, the rest of us will be out in the beer garden with a drink, a fag and something with cheese on it, enjoying our abnormal lives and minding our own business.

The Mash Report starts next Thursday, July 20, on BBC Two.

See also Who's on The Mash Report? (Chortle).

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