Monday, 27 July 2009


MPs have got it wrong more often than not recently, so credit where it’s due, the committee who brought out a report today on the state of Britain’s railways got it spot on. I have written beforehand on this blog about our ridiculous railways, and although the central issue is of price, the problem is twofold: a) tickets are too expensive; and b) it’s too difficult to buy the cheapest ticket and too easy to overpay. By careful planning and meticulous research I estimate to have saved myself around £500 in the last year when purchasing tickets - and that is no overstatement. I spend around 15 weeks a year commuting to London, travel between Southend and Sheffield about 10-15 times a year, and then go to countless football matches by rail.

Sometimes it’s easy to work out the cheapest deal - when a return from Sheffield to Barnsley is £2.50, or £4.95 to Huddersfield. But I have literally spent hours trying to find out the cheapest ticket on long-distance journeys, and once made it from Sheffield to Hereford for £21; a massive £15 saving, and they were still walk-up fares. The lower price was achieved by split ticketing, where you purchase different tickets for each leg of your journey. This is a good way to get the best value, although a good port of call is also the National Express East Coast website which gives you the cheapest possible ticket combinations for your journey. The future of this online service could be in doubt when that particular line is nationalised.

I’m certainly no train enthusiast, but by building up a knowledge of how the ticketing system works, I save myself around £70 a month when commuting because I know the cheapest method. The system is so ridiculously confusing, however, that train franchises are threatening to halt the superb increase in railway use over the last 10 years. This has been not only down to more green-conscious passengers, but also the increase in advance tickets, which get you a much better deal. It costs me £31 return from Sheffield to Southend, buying around a month in advance, which is much prettier than the walk-up return fare. So what should be done about it? Just make there one price for an advance fare, up until three days before, and then one price for a return fare. And ensure the cheapest way to get from A to B is to pay to get from A to B. Simples?

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I do feel sorry for The Independent to some extent, but after reading possibly the worst typo in the history of British national newspapers this morning, I’m starting to get worried about its future. In ‘Dozens fall victim to side effects of swine flu drug’, underneath Jeremy Laurance’s byline, it said “MUST KEEP FINAL PAR!!!” before going into the story‘s main text. The final par in questions was about some statistics from the National Pandemic Flu Service, which may have been of some importance, but not so that the editor lets the reader know this at the start in screaming bold type. Ouch. It was removed after the first edition went out, I should say.

This all ties in nicely to the fact that I read in this morning’s City AM that “Independent News and Media could go into the Irish equivalent of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection”. Oh dear, it’s not looking good for The Independent, and I very much expect the end may be nigh. It’s been running on an increasingly lower circulation over the last few years like the rest of the industry, but looks to be the first to fall as it simply has not got enough cash reserves and hasn’t raised this sufficiently even through raising its cover price to a whopping £1. I must say it’s the most boring of the ten UK national dailies, although usually well-written, so I won’t shed too many tears if it were to go. But I would rather it stayed afloat for the sake of the journalists working there, and for better plurality in the UK press.

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If you thought it wasn’t looking good for The Independent, then just take a look at the shambles that is Newcastle United FC. I went along to London E10 on Saturday to watch them get utterly smashed at Leyton Orient, 6-1. It was beyond embarrassing - a shock result for sure, but one that Orient merited. The quality is still there in the Toon Army’s side, with the likes of Obafemi Martins, Damien Duff and Steven Taylor still at St James’ Park, but the passion, commitment and effort is not. That was clearly the problem on Saturday - the players just did not want to be there, full stop.

Everyone seems to agree on what should happen - install Alan Shearer as manager, let him buy some new players who actually want to wear the black & white (or yellow) jersey, and just change the atmosphere surrounding the club. Recent months have brought a catalogue of comedy from the Magpies to give football fans a cheer: the ‘deckchair’ yellow away shirt (I did enjoy the ‘bananas in pyjamas’ chant at the weekend), Joey Barton’s indiscipline and 3rd / 4th / 5th chances, not being able to sell a club for the same value as Cristiano Ronaldo, being stopped from travelling to Holland by The FA because Sunderland fans were going too, and then losing 6-1 to a League One side instead. The list goes on. I’m sure you could add your own comedy moments. Relegation’s a funny one too - I forgot that. But whatever happens, I will always stand by the Toon Army. I’ve gone to far with them up until now anyway!

Monday, 20 July 2009


Alastair Campbell is an interesting chap. The former press secretary of Tony Blair is widely renowned as an exceptionally intelligent man who masterminded Labour’s image in the late 90s and early 00s, and this is certainly true. But when I announced to one of my Tory friends that I was reading his book, The Blair Years, she scowled and said: “I wouldn’t touch anything that man wrote with a barge pole.” Fair enough coming from a right-winger, but I still thought his 756 pages deserved my attention.

It’s a great read, no doubt about it, and I now understand much more about how a government and prime minister work behind the scenes. It’s fascinating to read how Blair coped with 9/11, Princess Diana’s death, foot & mouth, petrol shortages and ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland. But it’s Campbell’s tone towards journalists that I’m not so sure about. He was one himself at the Daily Mirror, but the stern condemnation in his book of the likes of Nick Robinson (BBC), Matthew Parris (The Times) Paul Dacre (Daily Mail) and especially Andrew Gilligan (then BBC now Daily Telegraph) is somewhat unnecessary.

It seems that every journalist he mentions is referred to as an awful human being, but the ones I’ve listed above are all excellent in my opinion. Yes, Gilligan may have made a big mistake over the notorious WMD war dossier claims, but he is a very good investigative journalist and has since won awards for his great work exposing Ken Livingstone. Campbell is a hard-nosed man who put in a tremendous amount of good work for Blair, and it’s interesting to read how he was so good at staging events that when things happened like Cherie announcing a baby was due, and the Queen Mother’s death announcement, people thought he had carefully timed them too. I suppose that’s the price of his success, but I just wish he would congratulate some of the journalists he mentions rather than ridicule them.

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I was at The Guardian a couple of weeks ago for a special live recording of a podcast I listen to every week called Media Talk. There was a very interesting discussion on the future of newspapers, with the general consensus being that the internet does everything newspapers do but better - as long as you can get people to pay for it. And that’s the catch. But all of the panellists seemed to be united in the theory that online is better than print. I disagree. The thing is that I commute to London every day and always buy a paper to read on the train. I enjoy getting a different paper every day and looking at the design and pictures as well as the text. You just don’t get that same feel online, and I actually very rarely read newspaper websites.

I listen to lots of radio, watch a bit of television and read newspapers. But I just don’t like reading news online. The web has evolved into something which people use with a very short attention span. I spend 45 minutes reading a paper, but I can’t remember a time when I’ve spent more than two minutes on a single news website. By reading a newspaper from start to finish I get all of my news in one go. And instead of getting early reports that can be conflicting and confusing as citizen journalists exchange facts on Twitter, I can read a properly-sourced and checked report in the newspaper. I would rather wait that extra time to get a better quality output, and that seems to be one thing that the internet lacks. In the words of the Press Association: ‘Get it right. Get it fast, but get it right.’

The Guardian Readers' Editor, Siobhain Butterworth, today explained that someone wrote into her saying: "I know I can go to your website for the information but I want to see it in print over breakfast, and I certainly don't want to bring my computer to the breakfast table." Got it in one - sometimes it’s just better to see things in print.

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I’ve been away for the last week in the Canary Islands - specifically Fuerteventura - and enjoyed the sun, which explains the lack of blog last week. Apologies about that. Anyway I’ve got a bone to pick with Thomson Flights after I experienced possibly the least amount of leg-room in the world on a form of transport. I’ve flown with EasyJet, Flybe, Ryan Air, EgyptAir, Polish Airlines and British Airways in the past - but never have I experienced having to stick my legs out into the gangway for the whole flight! This is the problem when you’re 6”5’, but I’ve never had such a major issue on any train - and I travel on trains a lot - or an aeroplane. So just to warn you, if you’re over six-foot tall, prepare to be squashed if you travel with Thompson! It’s a perfectly good airline, but just needs a bit more leg-room for people like me...

Monday, 6 July 2009


It’s not often on a Saturday afternoon when I get water, beer, cider, toilet roll and vanilla ice-cream thrown at me on a location other than Millwall or Leeds. But when you’re at a festival you’ve got to expect a bit of that, and just be grateful it wasn’t anything worse that landed on you. I managed to get half-price tickets for Wireless Festival through Barclaycard, so it cost just £28.63 for the day, which was an absolute bargain. I’d probably be willing to pay something like that just to see The Streets, so the fact that Basement Jaxx and Dizzee Rascal were thrown in too was a bonus really.

But the great thing about festivals is that as well as seeing the high-profile bands which get people to buy tickets in the first place, you can see bands that you know nothing about but actually end up quite liking them. When I went to see Coldplay and Snow Patrol recently, both support bands were great - Jon Hopkins and Fanfarlo - and I’ve since seen the former at a gig of his own. So I was delighted to see the Phenemenal Handclap Band (what an awesome name!), Delphic, Digitalism and Saint Etienne, as well as trance DJ Paul Oakenfold. Stand out act there was Digitalism, who pulled off an awesome set.

Eight bands in eight hours wasn’t bad, but because I wanted to get my money’s worth, I had some lunch before it kicked off at 1pm, but then suddenly realised during The Streets at about 6:30pm that I hadn’t had dinner - but there was no chance of getting that before 10pm as I had to get back to the main stage for Dizzee and then stay there to get a better position for Jaxx. And once I was there, the only water I could get was right at the front, and when I looked at it, I saw little bits of grass inside which made it less than desirable. But I drank it because there was nothing else, and I’m still here to tell the tale...

I went with my friend Adam but was surprised to recognise nobody else there (apart from my work colleague Lisa), as I often do at these sorts of things. Ah well, maybe I would have known more people if it was in Sheffield! But the beauty of gigs, and especially festivals, is that the majority of people are there for the same reason - to get immersed into the music because they love it. As a result of this, you can meet loads of new people and never find out their name - but nobody cares because you know they like Mike Skinner! It’s a bit like that fact that I’ve sat in the same seat watching Southend United at Roots Hall for well over five years, but haven’t got a clue what the names are of those sitting around me. I suppose it’s nice that everybody is there for the same purpose, as you’re like a community. OK, let’s stop the poetics now...

I also found on Saturday that being 6”5’ makes you a prime target for beer bottles (plastic, fortunately), so you have to be on the constant lookout for airborne missiles. I have been advised that this is unlikely to change at Reading Festival next month, so I should buy that hard hat I’ve always wanted - or I could just put up with it... At least my height led to around a large number of people asking if they could have their picture taken with me, which is a definite advantage. I was wondering whether they’d ever seen someone my height before?! At least in Sheffield I know three people taller than me. But I suppose the other issue with height is that people are constantly asking you to move out the way as they can’t see anything. I often find this is an issue at gigs, as there is a small gap behind me where nobody wants to stand!

So all in all, a really good way to spend a Saturday in the sunshine. Festivals have a unique atmosphere where almost everyone is there to have a good time, and they make sure of that. You pay inflated prices for food, you can’t go to the toilet or you’ll lose your place at the front, you get stuff thrown at you, you drink water with grass in it and end up smelling of smoke as it’s all outside - but who cares?! Not me. It’s all part of the fun.