Monday, 22 February 2010


I do like a good rest, but I’ve never taken a daytime nap before. New research suggests that you can improve your productivity and capacity to learn by having a 90-minute nap at 2pm. I know that this is commonplace is countries like Spain, where they have a siesta at schools and workplaces, but it’s never something that’s really caught on over here. But can a nap really improve our brain power, memory and ability to retrieve short-term information? Apparently yes, according to the University of California. Interesting stuff.

However, I’m not sure if I’d like to lose one-and-a-half hours of my working day, only to make them up later in the evening. Surely if you were working 9am to 6pm and took out 90 minutes through sleeping, you would not be able to make this up in productivity for the rest of the day. Is it not just better to ensure you get eight to nine hours a night and therefore wake-up feeling refreshed, ready-to-go and not like you want to stay under the covers for the rest of the day? Maybe whilst I’m at university it would be a good time to try out a nap one day. Please let me know if you’ve tried it before!

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Hurrah! After years of campaigning on my blog, we finally hear today that train fares could be set for a big shake-up. Whilst I do not accept full credit for this, it’s good news at least! The Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc) is going to look at the increase in ticket types, price caps and funding balances between taxpayers and passengers. Hopefully this will mean cheaper fares for all. Just this weekend, yet again I exposed the bizarre nature of split ticketing. I went to watch Southend United in Milton Keynes and travelled there from Sheffield by train. A normal return fare would have cost me almost £40, but after splitting my journey at Derby and Tamworth, it ended up being only £19.60 - much more affordable and a nice slice of consumer surplus for me.

Commuter watchdog Passenger Focus says only 45% of rail passengers feel their train ticket represents value for money, and when you look at the cost of walk-up fares on trains from London to Sheffield - which are around £50 to £70 even on a railcard - you can see why. Commuting to London from where I live in Essex can cost up to £20 a day, which is just ridiculous. But that’s not what I’ve been most annoyed about with train fares. It’s the stupidity of a system where if you research it long enough, you can halve your journey cost - yet for people who don’t know about splitting fares (where you buy your ticket in separate segments for the same journey) they will be out of pocket. It doesn’t work like this when you fill up your car with petrol, or take the bus, coach or plane. So I hope Atoc can sort out this ridiculous system and make it much simpler for everybody.

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I might surprise you that visiting Milton Keynes on Saturday provided me with the inspiration of writing an article about the worst football grounds in the country. But whilst Stadium MK [pictured on Sky Sports] is a potential venue for England’s 2018 World Cup bid, the 22,000-seater ground is soulless and feels like it’s just been plonked in the middle of a European industrial estate. When you can’t even half-fill a ground that big, it’s going to make for a poor atmosphere. Whilst I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such ample leg-room (compared to Charlton Athletic’s The Valley, where my knees were squeezed just below my chin, MK was amazing), a ground is all about the atmosphere and feeling inside it. I don’t mind so much about the design, although that’s important to some people too.

So where else have I been that I would rather forget? Don Valley (Rotherham United) and The Withdean Stadium (Brighton & Hove Albion) are both pretty bad, as they’re surrounded by large athletics tracks, which makes me feel West Ham United are unlikely to move to the London Olympic Stadium if fans can’t be next to the pitch. Other awful grounds in the Football League include Hereford United (far away from the pitch, no atmosphere and a generally poor experience), Gillingham (you shouldn’t be allowed to place fans on scaffolding to watch a game), Carlisle United (because it’s so far away from home and the pitch is usually like a sandpit due to the weather up there) and Crystal Palace (because the fans I’ve met there are generally unfriendly, there are massive posts obstructing your view and the away end isn’t even behind a goal). Please let me know if you’ve been to any worse grounds than the above! And don’t even mention Roots Hall...

Monday, 15 February 2010


I love telling a good joke. Even if people don't appreciate it. Tim Vine is a fantastic comedian who I met a couple of times whilst working at Premier Radio and has an incredible joke-telling ability. In fact, I interviewed him once too and can remember thinking what a top chap he was. So it’s fantastic to see him on tour at the moment and getting rave reviews in every newspaper. He once held the record for the most jokes told in one hour and has an amazing ability to fire off quality one-liners that are so quick it’s often difficult to appreciate how technically clever they are. For example: “The banks are doing a sterling job” - or “I went to visit the binoculars shop. They saw me coming.”

I went to see Marcus Brigstocke and Andy Parsons on tour last year and both were very funny, but also very different to Tim Vine’s sense of humour. Whereas Brigstocke and Parsons enjoy poking fun at people and politics, and make their comedy relevant to current news, Vine is better at spur-of-the-moment stuff to keep you consistently entertained. As the brother of a BBC Radio 2 presenter, he’s got stiff competition to become anywhere near as famous as Jeremy, but these are promising signs of a career that could now flourish. Tim has been around for a while - I remember seeing him on the comedy circuit with Adrian Plass many years ago, but listening to his endless repertoire of jokes is both funny and solid proof of his great talent. And he doesn’t swear or use innuendo. There aren’t many comedians as clean as Tim Vine...

Here’s a few he did earlier (courtesy of

“Exit signs - they're on the way out aren't they?.”

“You see my next door neighbour worships exhaust pipes - he's a catholic converter.”

"So I was getting into my car and this bloke says to me: ‘Can you give me a lift?’ I said: ‘Sure, you look great, the world's your oyster, go for it.’”

And Finally - “I saw this bloke chatting up a cheetah - I thought: 'He's trying to pull a fast one'.”

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I think about time quite a lot. 20 minutes to do this, 10 minutes to do that. The Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that our leisure industry is pushing ministers to move the UK into the continental time zone. At the moment, clocks go forward an hour in March and then back to GMT in October to provide more daylight during winter mornings. But estimates suggest the move to bring us in-line with many popular European holiday destinations could bring £3.5billion more in revenue to the tourism industry, which is a phenominal amount for simply meddling slightly with our time system. It’s also claimed an extension of daylight saving would reduce accidents, crime and obesity. Obesity? Will someone please explain that one to me. More time to go running in daylight and less time indoors maybe?

Concerns from the Merchant Navy over this change potentially eroding our history - and the fact that we’re based on the meridian anyway - seem small when you think about the impact this could have on our tourism trade. Those long evenings spent outside in French and Spanish coastal bars could be on their way to Clacton and Margate. Well, maybe it’ll be a bit colder over here, but at least the sun will still be out later. The debate about whether what the time is actually matters was brought up a decade ago when Channel 4 were deciding if they should put a clock up in the Big Brother house. Time is an essential part of life. We could implement the time change and wouldn’t notice the difference, but suddenly when we realise it’s 10pm and still light, we just might. Bring on the summer!

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I know what it’s like to support a club in a financial mess. Southend United are still in talks with HM Revenue and Customs to avoid a winding-up order. Although their £2.1million overdue bill was eventually paid last year, there is now disagreement over an excess payment of £200,000. It could be worse though. Portsmouth’s debts are so big that they are believed to now be dwarfing revenue, which is not a good position for any club to be in. Their very existence is in doubt, so it was nice to see them beat south-coast rivals Southampton in an explosive FA Cup game on Saturday. Letting the football do the talking.

When your football club is on the verge of disappearing altogether, it makes you appreciate the very nature of Saturdays at 3pm that little bit more. Pompey fans would rather be supporting their team in the Championship than not at all and it was great to see them finally have something to cheer about at the weekend. It’s critically poor mismanagement at the top level that has caused this and four owners in one season is about as many managers Newcastle usually get through. This tells its own story, and I only hope that somebody a little more cautious will get them back on their feet. These are worrying times for fans of Crystal Palace, Cardiff City and Chester City too - all have financial problems and there’s one set of people that have spent lots of money on the clubs and simply don’t deserve this. The fans.

PICTURES: BBC London / Stock Xchng / The Guardian

Monday, 8 February 2010


Mandy has finally admitted it. We have benefited from not joining the European single currency, says Peter Mandelson, contrary to what he once believed. Gordon Brown was right to block the move and “no sensible person” can now see the point of adopting the Euro, according to yesterday’s leader in The Sunday Telegraph. The major issue is that countries like Spain and Italy cannot let their currency devalue to make their exports more competitive and diminish their debt. Conversely, we can.

I’ve always opposed Britain joining the Euro as I cannot see the use of rich and poor countries across Europe with such different economies and interest rate requirements being joined at the hip. It’s not a pride in my home country’s currency - more, a realistic view of how we can be more competitive. I remember being asked to debate in sixth-form that we should join the Euro and found it tricky to do so, as I actually thought it would be bad for our economy to become much more interdependent with other European countries. As I still believe now, this would then take us even longer to exit the recession and make us more prone to going back in soon. So, no thanks. For now.

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As a clarinet and saxophone player myself, I’ve taken much inspiration from a variety of musicians over the years. So it’s always sad to hear when a jazz legend dies - and after Johnny Dankworth passed away on Saturday, I decided it would be a good time to look back at his music. BBC Radio 3 said he was a performer of “invention and fire, but with a particularly light and attractive tone” - something that seems a good aspiration for any jazz player. The saxophonist and clarinettist was inspired by Charlie Parker - who better? - and made his name through an avant-garde, yet accesible, style.

Listening to other musicians is a great way of improving your own playing. I find I pick up so much from hearing some of my favourite modern jazz artists like Soweto Kinch and YolanDa Brown, but also playing some more traditional CDs by the likes of Benny Goodman and John Coltrane. Coltrane and Kinch were/are certainly far from the norms of their respective eras, trying out new styles and fusions that not everybody appreciates. But, like Dankworth, they dared to be different and are respected for their originality and forward-thinking musical natures.

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If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know I’m proud to be a southerner living in the north and that the significance of the divide had never occurred to me before I arrived in Sheffield. But whilst the north of England often comes in for some stick from the southern-based media, there’s something that Mancs, Scousers and Geordies certainly have over their counterparts down the M1. They really are passionate about their football. It’s such of way of life in areas like the north-east and Yorkshire and I’ve enjoyed seeing this first-hand over the last few years.

I had the privilege of going to see Liverpool v Everton on Saturday and it was a great experience. Watching 40,000 fans sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and screaming for every ball and tackle showed me how much the beautiful game means up north. It’s not as if this was something new for me - I’ve followed Newcastle for years and they have arguably got the best fans in the country - but you just don’t get the same feeling from London club supporters; even top-four Arsenal and Chelsea. It doesn’t seem to matter as much. I can’t really compare Southend with Premier League sides, but although I do love the Shrimpers, there is something uniquely embedded in the northern football culture that makes it special. It’s a community, a really strong community. Maybe that’s why 70 per cent of this season’s 20 Premier League sides are based above Watford and BBC Sport are heading to Salford soon?

PICTURES: Daily Telegraph (x2) and BBC Liverpool

Monday, 1 February 2010


“Even if you look back now it was better to deal with the threat,” he said. Whether you agree with the Iraq War or not, Tony Blair put in a superbly slick performance at the Chilcot Inquiry on Friday. It was gripping television and reminded me how far the government’s credibility has fallen since he handed over the reins to Gordon Brown. The Campbell-Blair duo were master wordsmiths and able to make anything sound reasonable. Friday’s hearing was a nod back to the days of Labour’s communication strengths in the late nineties and early noughties.

The Times acclaimed his pure image, power dressing and personal grooming, which made him seem strong and authoritative in front of the inquiry panel. In fact, Blair [pictured, BBC] ended up asking the panel questions, such as what would have happened if Saddam had been left in power, and he had clearly done his homework. The difference between Brown and Blair is that the latter knew how to convince people of anything, which made him a strong leader. It’s no wonder Labour were so strong ten years ago, but are now being overtaken by the Tories. Bring on the election...

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“The citizen little realises the vast machinery put in motion for him in exchange for his morning penny,” said Lord Copper in the 1938 novel Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. Now the challenge 72 years on is to make readers realise the value and effort involved in online newspapers, and charge for the content. Occasionally somebody comes up with a great idea for making this happen - so step forward Peter Preston [pictured, University of Sheffield], in yesterday’s The Observer.

He said: “Watch as 10 million Sky subscribers get an offer they can't reasonably refuse. How about beyond-the-wall access to four big British papers [for] as little as 50p extra a month? £6m a month for that is £72m – in a trice the losses on Wapping's more upmarket offerings are turned to profit.”

What a fabulous idea. Sky has already proven it can get customers to buy phone and broadband with televisions, so why not newspapers? News International owns The Sun, News of the World, The Times and The Sunday Times, so a 50p monthly fee to read those online could work wonders. It seems simple enough and could save those four papers. Where it leaves everyone else is another matter, which gives weight to the argument that all newspapers should work together online to ensure their joint survival.

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I do feel a little bit sad for John Terry [pictured, BBC]. We all make mistakes, and - as Tiger Woods knows - a sexual slip-up can have a damning effect on sporting careers. We know why the super-injunction was passed over the media - he wanted to protect himself and his family from adverse publicity - but the use of these in court is becoming a problem. Even the government say they are “very concerned” about it. The fact is that if you are a public role model (and have been voted ‘Dad of the Year’ by a sauce manufacturer), the public have the right to know if you’re not as good a role model as was once thought.

The other issue is of how this affects Terry’s England captaincy. He has been a strong leader of the national side over the last few years, but there are other players who could take the captain’s armband. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard would both be possibilities. Putting both Terry and Wayne Bridge on the plane to South Africa must be causing a headache for the England management, but if they had to choose either, I think Terry will get the nod. But we’ll have to wait and see.