Monday, 30 March 2009


Whatever Jacqui Smith's husband was getting up to when she was away, the Home Secretary was always going to find out. But Richard Timney probably didn't want it to happen like this - revealing his midnight Television X expenses [right] in a Sunday newspaper. The secret is out, and well done to the Sunday Express - a paper I often criticise for its boring content and abundance of errors - for a quality piece of investigative journalism. Expenses have been exposed as a rather murky world amongst politicians over the last year, and this is just another example that could not be more embarrassing for everyone involved. The government spending our money on banks is a strange enough concept, but the idea that taxpayers are funding Mr Timney's pornography habits is quite bizarre.

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More than half of Britons think the countryside is boring, according to a Travelodge survey. This is a great shame - I live in an urban town back home (Leigh-on-Sea) and a very urban city at university (Sheffield), so it's nice to get away to the countryside every now and again. But we seem so obsessed in this country with going abroad to a sunspot, that hopefully this summer people will stay in the UK because of the credit crunch, and go to a nice little country cottage. Unlikely, however, when easyJet and Ryan Air can get people to some tacky Spanish resort for a fiver, and they'll end up drinking until dawn with exactly the sort of people they'll find on a Saturday night back home. Well, if that's your choice, then so be it - but I was once told holidays were for relaxing, so surely Herefordshire is a better idea than Mallorca then.

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I think I got an A* in GCSE Science primarily because I found I was reasonably good at remembering lots of facts and regurgitating them in an exam. I can hardly remember anything I was taught, and if I had to sit the paper again tomorrow, I would probably struggle to even pass it. So I was pleased to hear Andrew Baker, the headteacher from my secondary school and sixth form, Westcliff High School for Boys, say: "I think that some of the papers in science do not adequately challenge more able pupils. I am sorry the interests of those pupils have not been fully reflected in the exam system, and not for the first time." However isn't this the case across many other subjects as well? I could list Maths, Geography and Business Studies for starters as subjects which were designed to prepare you for an exam and not much else. Things need to change in exams, and the government's got to sort it out soon.

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So there we were - five of us armed with cans of Strongbow in a friend's bedroom with a laptop each. Reading Festival 2009 here we go! Well I hope so, as long as a) my friend's credit card can handle it before I pay him back tomorrow; b) the confirmation screen we saw was actually real; c) the tickets don't get lost in the post; d) it doesn't get cancelled because of the rain; and e) we weren't duped. I don't want to end up on eBay and pay an extra £100 than I wanted to, in order to get in! Buying tickets is a stressful business at the best of times, but this is ridiculous. How can so many people want to spend £175 on spending a few days camping out in a Berkshire field? The answer: Arctic Monkeys, The Prodigy, Maximo Park, Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party, Radiohead... the list goes on. It's going to be a great summer.

Monday, 23 March 2009


When I decided to study at the University of Sheffield, I didn't imagine there would be many southerners here. After all, I thought most people stayed reasonably near to their hometown. Apparently not. I recently put in a Freedom of Information request on admissions data as part of my work with Forge Press (the University's student newspaper), and discovered that over a third of Sheffield students from England come from the south [see graphic, right, for proportions]. Read more here: Another third come from Yorkshire, with the last third obviously coming from the rest of the north. The proportion of southeners is growing too, increasing by 15 per cent over the last three years. So why do southerners like to study in the north?

One of my friends from Exeter said it's because the north is cheaper and there are bigger cities which are more set-up for students. Another one from Southampton mentioned that there's a good mix of students from the north and south - although the middle-class limitations of universities mean you don't meet many 'raw' northerners (don't worry though, you just need to pop down to Sheffield Magistrates Court if you want to meet some of them!). I've certainly found it an eye-opening experience to study in the north. To be honest, my hometown, Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, makes Sheffield look depressed - then I visited Barnsley and Rotherham, which could best be described as even worse! So I suppose living in Yorkshire has made me appreciate what I've got back home in the south, and I simply wouldn't have got that experience going to London or Oxbridge to study.

This may be completely wrong, but I expect lots of other southern students headed up north just to experience a different culture. I could never see myself staying around in Yorkshire after graduation because I've got much better prospects living back home in the London commuter belt, and feel that I come from a much nicer area. But Sheffield is a brilliant place to study, and the locals certainly make you feel welcome wherever you come from. I've met people from every county across the country here from various backgrounds, which has opened up my eyes somewhat to the world around me! That's just the sort of experience you often miss out on if you're a southerner and stay in your protective southern bubble. The north/south divide still exists for all to see, but at least I've now had a taste of both sides of the border...

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"The credit crunch is having a big effect on shoppers," said comedian Andy Parsons at Southend's Palace Theatre on Saturday evening. "Those who shopped at Waitrose are now going to Asda; those who shopped at Asda are going to Lidl; and those who shopped at Lidl are rummaging around in dustbins." It seems that supermarkets are a good indicator of your social standing, which is somewhat reminiscent of The Two Ronnies famous sketch 'Three Men on Class' ("I look down on them because I'm upper class" / "I look up to him but I look down on him because I'm middle class" / "I know my place").

It seems that Waitrose prides itself on being a posh brand - sponsoring Reading FC, known as 'The Royals', and some Classic FM programming. Tesco and Asda, however, will put money-off vouchers in the pages of the Daily Star and News of the World. But they've all done much to bridge the gap - for example, Waitrose are launching an 'Essentials' range; and you can often buy 'Tesco Finest' for a little extra charge. These are most probably equivalent products, although John Lewis doesn't have to panic yet - there will always be people who shop in certain stores as that's where they feel they belong.

When I walk into a big Tesco near where I live in Sheffield, it's full of chavs and teen mums - but in Canary Wharf Waitrose it's a whole different story. I'm not sure where I belong - I'm certainly not a bonus-taking banker, but then again I don't hang out on park benches drinking Corona quite yet. Supermarkets like Tesco are trying to attract as many customers as possible from across the socio-economic spectrum, whereas Waitrose are maintaining their highbrow image. Whoever said the class system was dead and buried in this country?

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I often get abuse from friends who argue that supporting three football clubs just isn't right. To explain, I began following Newcastle United in 1996 in the aftermath of Alan Shearer's great performances at the European Championships in England. Then I began going to watch my local club, Southend United, with my grandpa around 10 years ago. And over the last year I have seen quite a few Sheffield United games, simply because it's a local club that's cheap to watch and plays good football - in fact, I've seen the Blades more times in my life now than Newcastle!

My three clubs have all avoided each other in the cups for the last few years and have been in different leagues. But with Newcastle currently in 18th place in the Premier League, Sheffield United 4th in the Championship, and Southend 9th in League One, they could all end up playing each other in the league next season (or not at all)! I've often been asked who I would support if my clubs played against each other, and my answer is simple: the underdog.

Now I've been following Southend and Newcastle for some time, I know what it's like to support a side who you hold no hope in - and then they go and beat Manchester United or something. That's what football is all about. I suppose I'm a football addict to some extent - I just love watching live matches (I've seen around 35 already this season) and have a passion for the beautiful game. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?

Monday, 16 March 2009


I don’t like paying more than £2 for a pint of beer - it just doesn’t seem right. In a supermarket, it’s obviously much cheaper, but I rarely buy alcohol in Tesco because I’ll usually go out to a pub/bar with friends rather than pick up a can of Fosters and drink it at home. The one exception I remember was just before Sheffield Wednesday v Sheffield United last October, when I found myself outside a Hillsborough off-licence drinking a can of Carling on a street corner and thought this is it - I am definitely a student now.

But when the government announced it was considering plans to introduce minimum alcohol prices, my heart sank. Why penalise the people who drink to socialise rather than drink for the sake of it? And also why penalise the poor who can’t afford the major brands so buy the cheaper ones instead? In France you can often buy eight bottles of beer for the same price as one in the UK, and our binge drinking problem is much worse than theirs. A culture change is what’s required - it’s nothing to do with the price.

I was on a train on Saturday evening between Worcester and Birmingham, and a group of youths got on, obviously drunk off their heads and it made me laugh when they tried to buy an under-16 ticket from the conductor - slightly contradictory, perhaps! Anyway, I thought to myself if you put up the minimum price of alcohol then that will not stop them - they’ll just ask their parents for more money. The youth culture in E4’s Skins might make for an entertaining programme and interesting case study, but the portrayal of alcohol as being a sexy and rebellious thing is the route cause of the problem - that’s what needs to change.

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On Saturday I picked up a copy of The Sun someone had left behind on a London Midland train and was shocked to see a picture of my former school in an article about a radical Muslim! I attended Westcliff High School for Boys in Southend-on-Sea, Essex [right], for seven years, just like Maajid Nawaz. But the most radical person I ever met there was either the Year 7 lad who circulated pornography around the classroom one day, or maybe the Year 11 who threw a flour-bomb at the deputy headmaster.

This isn’t a patch on Mr Nawaz, who got involved in radical group Hizb ut-Tahrir, even though most of his friends (like mine) were "white and middle class" and "supported Liverpool". Fortunately he reformed in time and is now speaking out about the dangers of fundamentalism: I remember his mother coming to speak in assembly a few years ago when he was in an Egyptian prison for belonging to a banned political party. I specifically recall that assembly because I remember her mobile phone going off whilst she was being introduced, which was most amusing.

Anyway, she talked to us about the former Westcliff pupil and how he was being allegedly badly treated in prison, and asked us if we could pray for him and remember him. She broke down in tears at the time, and it was one of the most emotional assemblies I’ve certainly ever seen someone give. But not to worry as he is out of prison now and has turned from his bad ways. All’s well that ends well. Lesson learnt: don't annoy the Egyptians - next time you might be mummified.

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Eight wins in ten games and only five goals conceded. Not bad in my eyes. But with only 14 goals scored in that time, it shows Southend United are a team building from the back. The arrival of striker Theo Robinson from Watford and Dorian Dervitte from Tottenham Hotpsur at the end of January on loan have transformed the side by injecting it with someone who can score goals and someone else who can defend to avoid conceding goals. It might seem pretty simple, but the previous ten leagues games up to the current run comprised of one win, two draws and seven defeats - so it would be accurate to say there’s been a change of form!

This just goes to show how important the loan market is to Football League managers at the moment. So far this season, Southend manager Steve Tilson has brought in some fantastic young loanees from the likes of Chelsea, West Ham and Portsmouth, and they have helped the side shoot up the league when they’ve been here. The obvious problem is that they will most probably leave never to be seen again, and then you have gaps to fill. This seems to have been the problem between November and January this season, and could cost us a play-off place. But with four points to make up in nine games, even if we don’t make it into the top six, at least it’s a bit more exciting. However, I’m not looking forward to totting up my total football expenses at the end of the season - as I believe it may already be over £500... oh dear. Ah well, at least I’m enjoying myself. (By the way, I also have no idea what the footballer/pilot in this picture is doing, but at least he's enjoying himself too - that's what it's all about really.)

Monday, 9 March 2009


Our government doesn't often receive complimentary coverage in the British press, so credit where it's due to home secretary Jacqui Smith. She has ordered an new review to look at the "sexualisation" of young girls through clothes, videos and music lyrics, and how this links to sexual abuse. The basic concerns are that much music is encouraging a more sexual culture and that, for example, 11-year-olds are buying Playboy t-shirts, making them appear sexually available at a younger age.

Far from attempting a Daily Express-style rant on my own blog, I would just like to point out that we have a big problem in this country if 11-year-old girls are wearing Playboy-branded merchandise and it's readily available on the high-street. In essence it's a bit of fun, but sex and the consequences of it are real. Parents need to ensure they bring children up in an environment where they understand the implications of sleeping with somebody else, schools need to ensure the parents ensure this - and the government needs to ensure the schools ensure the parents ensure this. Better sex education might be the answer, but Jacqui Smith is right to suggest that a whole culture change is needed if we are going to get anywhere.

The case of 13-year-old Alfie Patten becoming a father was splashed all across the papers last month as a demonstration of teenage pregnancy issues and the lack of understanding youngsters have about relationships, children, sex and marriage. But historically, young people often got married just after becoming a teenager - especially in Biblical times - and this was just the culturally correct way of doing things then. Perhaps we're on course to go back to this, but I hope not. I'm often concerned at how many people my age (20) get married, thinking that's too young, but surely marriage at 13/14 is just ridiculous. Therefore why bother getting children if you don't want to bring them up inside wedlock? It's thinking about your best interests - not theirs.

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The Apprentice is back this week! It's Comic Relief Does The Apprentice this Thursday on BBC1 at 21:00 and I can't wait. The line up is fantastic - from Alan Carr and Ruby Wax to Gok Wan and Jonathan Ross (not forgetting Jack Dee, Patsy Palmer, Carol Vorderman and Fiona Phillips) and they will be competing in a battle to create a product for Comic Relief. It should make for superb television and provide a good curtain-raiser for the full new series of The Apprentice, which starts in just two weeks.

Sir Alan Sugar has had phenomenal success with the series already, and it's certainly my favourite television programme as it makes business and finance entertaining in a way that only Dragon's Den has emulated. According to the show's website, contestants in the new series should make for interesting viewing. Someone's role model is Hugh Hefner, another candidate comes from 'a long line of aristocrats', there's a child chess prodigy and someone who left school to play football. Interesting...

I like to think I know a good programme when I see one, and the BBC are certainly doing a good job of making business and finance interesting at the moment, following their City season which included Million Dollar Traders and The City Uncovered with Evan Davis. This is proper public service broadcasting and makes the licence fee seem far more reasonable to pay!

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In the run-up to the Hillsborough disaster's 20th anniversary next month, this seems a good time to chat about terracing at football grounds. A campaign called Stand Up Sit Down has been running for a few years now, aiming to encourage football clubs to have a standing area as well as part of the ground where fans can sit down. I have visited 34 grounds out of 92 in the Football League, and at only at six of them, or 18%, I have been able to stand up (Brentford, Chesterfield, Peterborough United, Bristol Rovers, Colchester United and Dagenham & Redbridge).

Unsurprisingly, these were six of my favourite grounds in the country as they all have so much character. The other thing these share in common is that they have been used by sides mostly confined to League Two during their recent history, showing perhaps that they have always had a terrace and have been unable to finance a redevelopment to an all-seater stadium like the Allianz Arena in Munich [right], with the exception being Colchester. The atmosphere at the last Southend United game I went to at Peterborough was so much better because of the terracing, as people had more space and could move around to easily stand with who they wanted to. I'm going to Hereford United this weekend, which is also terraced, and am expecting more of the same...

So my plea to football clubs is that although all-seater stadiums might be seen as a safer idea, there are many fans who just love to stand up during games as that's their way of watching football. It creates a better atmosphere, is much more fun and is completely safe from my experiences. Fair enough, some fans will just want to sit down all game, and that might be because they aren't able to stand or would simply prefer not to, but football and entertainment just feels far more active standing up. I would call on more football clubs to recognise this, please!

Monday, 2 March 2009


Sometimes I read an article in a newspaper and just think, in the words of Lee from The Apprentice (cue rough Essex accent): “That’s what I’m talking about!” So when I heard researchers had found train tickets from the UK to the continent (Zurich station, right) take twice as long to book as flights, although hardly surprising, I was delighted to find somebody had picked up on this. But what about domestic train tickets? They are expensive, the websites are difficult to use and confusing, and woe betide you if you try and book by phone or at a ticket office. That’s even more confusing.

As an example, I give you the Sheffield to Hereford route, which I will be using in a fortnight when I go to watch Hereford United v Southend United at Edgar Street in Football League One. A standard walk-up return on a Young Persons Railcard is £38.10. However, after a whole hour researching this, I managed to get a walk-up return for £21.45. Using the route of Sheffield to Hereford via Birmingham New Street, I purchased return tickets from Sheffield to Derby (£5.40), Derby to Birmingham New Street (£7.75), and Birmingham New Street to Hereford (£8.30). Although the Sheffield to Birmingham New Street route is direct and does not require me to change, I can buy two tickets in a legal process known as split ticketing. But it's not widely advertised, as that would of course lose the train companies money, and so many people pay more than they should.

So I’ve saved myself £16.65, although it did take me a whole hour to research this as the cheapest route, as I also attempted going via Stockport, which eventually worked out as £24.10 advance. Yes, it gives me a sense of satisfaction when I make a good saving, but spending a hour doing so is not as fun. So will somebody please make train tickets a lot less confusing to purchase! We’ve got a lot to learn from Europe...


Community sentences are under fire, which interests me considering the number of court cases I’ve been to over the last month for reporting on my course. King’s College London found one probation officer thinks those subject to the unpaid work or rehabilitation orders leave court “laughing their heads off”. This is an important issue, as crime levels will continue to rise if people think they can avoid jail. In fact, some men or women might happily exchange 50 hours gardening for beating up their ex-partner.

But community orders do have their benefits, as they can stop people’s lives becoming a circle of crime. For example: arson (right). I was in a Crown Court case last week where an 18-year-old Sheffield lass was said to have set fire to another girl’s home and an elderly man’s car and mobility scooter. She caused a total of over £6,200 damage to a council house and three cars over a period. But Judge Keen QC only imposed a two-year community order including compulsory attendance for an offenders and alcohol rehabilitation programme, saying: “It’s a choice between a substantial sentence or seeing if something can be done with you.”

If ‘something can be done’ with someone through a community order, rather than putting them behind bars for a good few years, then the justice system has given someone a chance and done its job. But some people would argue that the girl committed an imprisonable crime, so she should automatically be sent to jail. If the majority of people feel like they get ‘let-off’ when given a community sentence, which the King’s College study suggests, then the system is not working and needs to be changed. If the prisons are full, then that’s a problem we need to sort out by building more prisons - you don’t sort it out by letting people get away with things as they won’t learn their lesson.


Reviews of Margaret, shown on BBC1 last Thursday, are obviously going to be influenced by a newspaper’s political stance, so at least be honest about it. When an Observer columnist begins a review on a BBC drama about Margaret Thatcher by saying: “This isn’t a predictably lefty rant-in-waiting”, alarm bells start to ring. As expected, by the end of the damning report, Kathryn Flett reminds us “how far we have moved away from Thatcher’s dour drag act”.

I watched the programme on the BBC iPlayer, and thought it was an interesting analysis of how the Iron Lady fell from grace at 10 Downing Street (right) - reduced from a powerful animal in the House of Commons to a crying wreck in her last Cabinet meeting before she resigned. Thatcher presents an interesting psychological study of such a strong woman in a male environment, and Lindsay Duncan certainly had no problems conveying this idea to the viewer.

I only wish they hadn’t kept switching back and forth by 15 years because it made the programme very hard to follow and incredibly confusing. One moment, she was getting elected in and the next we saw Geoffrey Howe plotting her demise. I applaud the programme makers for being inventive, but perhaps a more simple chronological account would be better next time. However it was a pretty good attempt.