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?