Monday, 26 April 2010


It was the sort of gag you might hear a comedian crack. ‘What should the Pope do when he comes to visit?’ / ‘Launch his own condom range, bless a gay marriage or open an abortion clinic.’ It might have got an embarrassed laugh from a theatre audience, but there were not too many grins at the Foreign Office yesterday, when a leaked memo appeared to mock the Catholic Church ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to this country in September.

Fortunately the Vatican aren’t taking it too badly and have said Benedict will still make the first papal visit to the UK since John Paul II in 1982. It’s pretty fortunate that the memo, which came from a "brainstorm" session, did not contain any lurid references to the child abuse scandal raging through the Church at the moment. You only wonder what would happen if similar jokes were made about another state leader or religion that would not take it so well. We all remember the tension and fallout from Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed.

The Sunday Telegraph must be credited for getting hold of the document, as it shows an underlying public sentiment towards Catholicism that is concerning, especially when its leader is visiting in only a few months. The Bishop of Chester, Peter Forster, made an excellent point that it represents a “familiarity breeding contempt in some circles of society about our Christian heritage”. We live in an open society where everyone should be able to practice whatever religion they wish without being persecuted or ridiculed.

The concern here is that the leaked memo is strongly representative of public opinion. I visited the Vatican last month when on holiday in Rome, and it struck me that the Pope seems quite a distant figure in the UK as he rarely visits, despite often being featured in the media. I get the feeling that some people have lost trust in his ability to lead the Church, so it will do him and Catholicism good to visit this September.

* * *

It’s difficult to know what’s happening at the moment, but at least it makes the run-in interesting. Everyone is calling different election results. Will we get a hung parliament? Will we get a Tory majority? Even a Labour majority? Opinion polls concern me as they give a proportional representation of the vote, and you wonder how many people answer them honestly. But they do give the papers something to talk about every day, by giving an idea of who is in the lead. The significance of the polls cannot be taken too seriously, as I don’t feel they properly represent regional variation, and 3.5million voters are apparently still to make up their mind (that statistic, of course, was also calculated from a poll!).

It will be the first general election in which I will be allowed to vote, although I remember the last three pretty well in 1997, 2001 and 2005. They were pretty clear cut for Labour, and the Conservative bounce over the last few years suggested it would be straightforward this time around again. But the Tories have always said they would need a 6.9 per cent swing to gain 117 seats for an overall majority - bigger than the swing when Margaret Thatcher came to power. The polls suggest that’s off reach at the moment, and that we’re heading for a hung parliament, but can we trust the polls?

A great website, UK Polling Report, is even better if you like your statistics. It analyses and tracks all of the polls, trying to make sense of them in context of what is happening in the political field. If I was a political leader (which is not what I’m intending to do with my life!) then I would try not to pay much attention to the polls. I remember speaking to a Tory MP last year who said he was concerned that his party was getting too complacent with their lead. This showed they might have sat back slightly when they started to gain an overall majority. If the Conservatives don’t win, could it actually be because of the polls?

* * *

I can’t say we didn’t expect it. Southend United were relegated back to Football League Two on Saturday after a 2-2 draw at Oldham Athletic. The Shrimpers have been out of the basement division for five seasons, but the fun has stopped abruptly this season after a chaotic year on and off the pitch. Players have not been paid, goalscorers have been sold, the assistant manager was sacked, gates have been falling and performances have been shocking. The Blues haven’t been scoring and we’ve been shipping goals by the dozen. Manager Steve Tilson [pictured] has tried his best, but financial mismanagement has been the major downfall of the team.

I’ve seen some 25 matches this season - an achievement I’m proud of seeing as I live 200 miles away from Roots Hall in Sheffield at the moment - but watching the lads so much has only confirmed to me how much we deserved to go down. One win in the last 20 matches is horrendous form. When Southend were relegated from the Championship in 2007 - a season I remember well for its ups and downs - we at least gave it a good fight and picked up some decent wins along the way. That season we just weren’t good enough at that level. This season we’re simply not good enough at all.

It’s only our fourth relegation in two decades, so we can’t be too sad. But the major concern for next season is getting in players that want to play for the football club. ‘Fancy coming to a relegated club where we don’t pay you on time, have no money to spend on players and have won only one game in 2010?’ I wouldn’t. I only hope some decent wingers and goalscorers take pity on us and come to help out. The key to this season going wrong was Lee Barnard leaving, as he scored so many vital goals. We were pretty average even when he was around, but if you can’t score goals, you won’t stay up. I won’t be too disappointed with consolidation next season... but I'll stand by the lads. It's an addictive bug. Season ticket for League Two, please!

PICTURES: News Advance; Cartoon Stock; Sky Sports

Thursday, 22 April 2010


Brian and Lorraine Howden were meant to enjoy their dream holiday in New York. But thanks to the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, getting back home has turned into a nightmare.

Like many other people stranded in countries outside of the European Union they have had to pay out extra hotel bills with no discounts, along with medication and doctor consultations at full cost.

They have also had to use credit cards that could go over their limit at any time and know there are bills at home that may not be paid on time, so incurring penalties.

The Howdens, from Hampshire, had booked for 10 days and were due to fly back last Saturday with American Airlines. But when they tried to rebook when their flight was cancelled, the earliest trip they could only get Thursday. Many travellers have still to get flights.

Brian [pictured], who is Marketing Manager at Fareham College, is concerned at the lack of help from the government and airlines for travellers who were stranded in non-EU countries.

He said: “Many people are in severe distress with very little help. The issue for travellers is whether there is going to be any help. Most Brits aren't getting any support at all and having to rely on credit cards if they can.

“There's no single point of information, no hope of financial support or leniency from banks or credit cards etc. If airlines like banks get massive financial support, people will be angry if nothing is done to help them.”

The Brits in their hotel are spending breakfast and time in the lobby sharing tales of financial problems during their extended holiday.

“Many have had to pay out extra hotel bills at full rate and some have had to make alternative arrangements to travel paying premium fares,” he said.

“We like masses of people have had to pay out for medication and doctor consultations at full cost with mostly no call on insurance.

“Credit cards are helping people pay bills but many will max out. Travellers will fail to pay bills coming in whilst away, find credit refused if they are over limit and incur bank charges.”

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano and the resultant ash cloud that has spread across Europe has been causing travel chaos over the last week as British airspace has ground to a halt.

Airports have been deserted and British passengers like the Howdens are stranded across the world. Children can’t get back to school and adults can’t get back to work. Most of all, they just want to return home.

“We are stranded here,” Brian said. “Lots of people may not get paid as this is 'unauthorized leave' and employers are not required to pay. There will also be people on contract work who won't be paid.”

Medication has been a big problem for British travellers, who only brought what they needed from home. Now it’s costing them a fortune abroad.

Brian said: “We were both running out of medications so had to see a doctor, which was £70 each. Then Lorraine's medication cost £115 for four items and mine cost £118 for just one item. That's just over £370.

“Insurance is unlikely to cover very much of this as they and the airline say it is ‘Act of God’ so nothing covers it.”

But the situation is starting to improve as the ash clears and more planes take to the skies. Despite all of the problems the Howdens are facing in the USA, Brian still thinks highly of their holiday destination.

“Despite the uncertain situation flying home and my lack of medication that works, we are blessed with this awesome long holiday in the most fabulous New York City,” he said.

“We're trying to focus on seeing this as a gift and enjoying every moment, whilst putting the extra cost at back of our minds.

“I have been to 15 European cities and 13 in UK and nothing comes close to New York. It will be great to get home and see the people who matter to us so much, but I will still be sad to leave Manhattan.”

UPDATE: The Howdens finally arrived home at London Heathrow Airport on Friday morning.


Monday, 19 April 2010


He had his chance and he took it. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg put in an impressive performance during the first leaders’ election debate last Thursday on ITV1 that has left media commentators falling over themselves to compliment him. In a similar vein to Tottenham Hotspur’s victories over Arsenal and Chelsea, an outsider has blown the title race wide open. The Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that the Lib Dems were ahead in the polls for the first time in 104 years, with 32% (Con 31% and Lab 28%). Whilst this obviously doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get in as a majority government, due to the first-past-the-post election system, it is still indicative of a major swing in the election.

The leaders’ debates have been hugely hyped, and whilst they possibly weren’t the most exciting pieces of television you will ever see, they have done a world of good to the man everyone used to make fun of for never having a chance of getting into power. Yes, his chance is still slim, but there are two more debates to go and more viewers than ever before will now be closely examining him as realistic prime minister material. I spoke to former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown last year, and he said the Lib Dems have a good chance of getting into power in May. I didn’t believe him and thought it was just more of the usual ‘this is the era of three-party politics’ talk from the party, but I wouldn’t be so sure he’s wrong now.

I have also had the opportunity to interview Nick Clegg, when he was speaking at the University of Sheffield last year, and found him a very interesting and well-presented person. But I think when most people consider their vote, they should think more about the local candidates and what they will do for the local area (Southend West for me), than the party leaders - although this is also important. David Amess MP currently holds this seat as a Conservative and I think he’s done a pretty good job during his last term. The Lib Dems in my home area are a fringe party that nobody pays much attention to, but if Clegg can use the next two debates to propel himself in the ratings so spectacularly as he has done over the last few days, there could be some strange results come May 6th. Hold on tight!

* * *

Even the Wright Brothers couldn’t have calculated for this. I think my family was pretty fortunate flying home from Rome just days before Eyjafjallajoekull (try saying that after a few pints) caused the airways system to grind to a halt, through a big layer of dust in the atmosphere. Hopefully planes will get back into the air over the next few days and everything will return to normal.

But it makes you wonder - what would we do without plane travel? What if the dust just sits there forever and planes can never fly again? It’s certainly good news for train and ferry companies anyway. Although it will probably mean more add-on fees for Ryanair flights as they try to recuperate their losses. £10 for a lifejacket maybe? Or £5 if you book it in advance online?

* * *

I was at Hillsborough yesterday for the Steel City derby between Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday. The crowd was a gigantic 35,485 and it was a superb atmosphere during the 1-1 draw - as it has been at every Sheffield derby I’ve been to in the past. I reminded me of the importance of football to communities, and how it has such a knack of both dividing and bringing together large amounts of people. The Owls really do hate the ‘pigs’, as they affectionately call United fans, and vice versa. This was demonstrated by some rival supporters’ groups in Hillsborough Park threatening each other, who were eventually dispersed by riot police and mounted officers. The scenes were like something out of Green Street, although it was good fun to watch from a distance!

I’ve been to a few derby matches this season such as Liverpool v Everton and Southend v Colchester, and there’s nothing better. I love the fact that it’s more than a football match - it’s pride in your local area, and that counts for a lot when teams are based close together. Derbies always have more passion, and it’s great to see the first big tackle go in, safe in the knowledge that the players want to win as much as the fans. They can be great days for everyone involved with a club, but also soul-destroying if you get hammered. This seems to have been a habit of Southend’s against Colchester in the last two seasons, so at least the honours have remained more even in recent Sheffield games. And, of course, next season the Magpies will get the chance to pay a visit to the Mackems. Newcastle v Sunderland - where it really does mean more than life or death. Can’t wait.

PICTURES: Combe Down Liberal Democrats, Metro/Reuters, The Guardian

Monday, 12 April 2010


Election fever is capturing the nation. Well, it's capturing those who are thinking about voting at least. Thursday 6 May will see citizens go to the polls for the most tightly-contested election for a generation. But there’s another interesting twist to it this time. Thanks to pressure from three broadcasters, my good friend Prime Minister Gordon Brown has accepted the challenge of live televised leader debates. Nick Clegg and David Cameron will appear alongside Brown on ITV, Sky News and the BBC over the next few weeks, and it should make fascinating viewing.

However, there are concerns it will be dull, with a 76-point agreement document outlining how each debate will be edited and broadcast, leaving little room for spontaneity. Politicians are generally not the most exciting people you will ever meet, but viewers and broadcasters alike are hoping that sparks will fly and arguments will get nasty. That would make good television, and help reward ITV, Sky and the BBC for all the efforts they have put into making this happen. Sky even threatened to organise a debate and leave an empty chair for any leader who would not turn up.

Three televised debates are not going to swing the election. But the point of them is that they have never been done before in Britain, even though it is commonplace in many other countries, and should capture some decent audiences. I met someone at a graduate job interview earlier this year who said they were doing a dissertation on the subject of leader debates, which shows there is lots to say about it. My only hope is that it doesn’t turn out to be a boring pre-planned conversation between politicians who do not clash swords on anything controversial. How about we give them a few challenges like Total Wipeout or Gladiators [pictured]? Now that would be fun...

* * *

I don’t watch soap operas like Coronation Street, Eastenders or Home & Away. I’ve had equal - if not better - entertainment from following Newcastle United over the last 14 years. And sometimes I just have a few moments where I have to enjoy it and remind myself why I became an honorary Geordie after Euro 96. The promotion of the Toon Army back to the Premier League last week was a fantastic achievement for Chris Hughton [pictured] and all the Magpies players. After all of the stress and disappointment of last season’s relegation, it has almost made up for it by doing so well this term. It's another part of the topsy-turvy story at St James' Park. Or should that be the @ St James' Park Stadium?

But the real work starts here. Owner Mike Ashley must ensure the same mistakes are not made again, and Newcastle restore their status as a decent Premier League side. We don’t need to spend silly money on new players this summer. January was a good example of how to do it - buy simple straightforward players who will do a good job for reasonable wages and won’t cost a fortune to buy. Mike Williamson and Wayne Routledge, for example, who have come in and done a great job. Even when Newcastle were going through a dodgy patch in January and February, they were still picking up points that have ultimately got them promoted.

I don’t want the club to be the laughing stock of the Premier League again. We’re in a great position now to go back up and remind people why Newcastle ‘The Entertainers’ United used to be everyone’s second team. Why not again?

PICTURES: The Independent, The Guardian, The Northern Echo

Monday, 5 April 2010


"Of all the people I know,” one of my friends said, “it had to be you. And it had to be on the front page of the paper that everyone reads.”

She obviously wasn’t as shocked as me when I was woken up by a text at 07:54 from another friend, saying: “Seen your face this morning on front page of the Metro.” At this point I promptly got up, ran downstairs to ask my mum - who was just about to drive my brother to school - to pick up a dozen copies from Leigh-on-Sea train station. I then phoned my dad, who was on the train to London, and told him to look again at the front-page of his paper to see if I was on it. There was a slight pause, after which he said: “Yes, you are”. I asked him to pick up as many copies as he could as well. I also looked it up on the online edition: I had a feeling this was going to be a good day.

It has been quite an exciting week really, what with working at The Sunday Times, appearing on ITV News and Channel 4 News ten days ago, BBC Radio Four last Friday and Metro on Wednesday. Lots of people have asked me to explain how I ended up on the front-page of a national newspaper sharing a joke with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, so I thought I’d share the story with you on my blog.

It all started when I saw a competition advertised in the Metro on Friday 26 March where you had to email in your details for the chance to be in a Question and Answer session with 40 people and Gordon Brown the following Tuesday. I knew I was free that day and didn’t think too many people would enter, so went for it. On the Sunday afternoon, I received an email saying: “You have been picked to meet the Prime Minister at a central London location on Tuesday. The event will last from 4pm till 6pm. You will be send [sic] the location of the event on Tuesday morning.” Sounded like the script of a Bond film.

I then got a call and email on Tuesday at midday, saying: “Meeting is at 10 Downing St. Please arrive 4-4.15pm.” Now this was pretty exciting in itself. I’d only ever been to 10 Downing Street once before when I was working at Five News (part of Sky News) in September 2008, and didn’t actually go past the front door - I was in the press area outside. Anyway, I set off for Westminster not really knowing what to expect, and had two questions prepared for Mr Brown - one on whether public money should be spent on supporting local media; and another on the importance of visual marketing in election campaigns.

When I arrived, I was early and it was pouring with rain. I had to wait outside the door for a while under my umbrella until it was time to go in, and then we were escorted through the lobby area, leaving our mobile phones and coats behind. We were then taken upstairs into a reception room where drinks and refreshments were served, and I got to meet the other lucky winners. There were a few students there like me and we got chatting about what to expect, and trying to identify the paintings of the various historical figures around the room. I didn't do that well.

Just before 5pm, we were escorted into another room where chairs were already laid out, and told by Metro’s political editor John Higginson that the Prime Minister would be arriving in five minutes. As we waited, there was a sort of quiet tension that seemed to filter across the room, and then in the distance I heard that familiar Scottish voice. In walked Gordon Brown, and he went right around the whole room to shake the hand of everybody there. As he came round to shake my hand, I could hear the Metro photographer, Gretel Ensignia, flashing her camera wildly, so made sure I put on a nice big smile! More about my appearance in the paper later, but lots of people have asked me just what the Prime Minister said that made me laugh so much. Here is the transcript of the chat he was having with the girl behind me (in the bottom right-hand corner of the front-page photograph above):

PM: “It’s good to see you - it’s very nice to meet you. What do you think of this place then?”
Girl: “It’s lovely - it’s not like my house!”
PM: “There’s three parts to it - one is the rooms for official functions like this, secondly there’s a flat to stay in and thirdly there’s about 200 people working here, so it’s the three things in one. When you’re outside the front-door it looks quite small, but when you’re inside there‘s a lot of people working in the basement. You might see my kids running in to save me during this interview!”

What a joker. I had said to the other people present that the main thing I was interested in getting from the day was seeing what the Prime Minister was actually like. There is only so much you can tell from his appearances on television and radio, but he presented himself to us as a very charming man and interested about the individual person. There are those who will say he should do this as he is a politician after all, but he came across as very genuine to me. Regardless of political views, the Prime Minister is the most important person in this country (maybe after Simon Cowell), and it was a fantastic experience to meet him in person. I won’t go into much of what he said during the Q&A session, as you can read more about it in the Metro ( Talking of which...

I have appeared in national newspapers a few times in the past. One was in 2005, when The Times ran a page three feature on Marble Arch, and I was standing underneath it with my family when a photograph was taken (here is the article, but no picture I’m afraid: and I also had a letter in The Guardian in 2008 ( I’ve also produced and researched pieces for The People, Daily Mail and The Sunday Times.

But none of these were anything near getting myself on the front-page of Metro newspaper - read by around 3.5million people every day! It was great on Wednesday to hear from so many people I haven’t spoken to in ages, who happened to see it on their way to work and contacted me about the picture. Over 100 people did so in total, so Thursday felt somewhat like my birthday! Some of my favourite comments included:

- “I always said you'd be hanging with the celebs - I just didn't know it would be so soon!"
- "My bleary-eyed commute was made much more confusing by you staring back at me."
- "Had you just told him the one about the man on the bus with the glass eye?"
- "You know you have done it when you are on the front page of Metro!"
- "I love how you are admiring him and gazing into his eyes!"

Everyone has their moment of fame and it was quite something to see myself on the front-page of a national newspaper. It was also good to visit 10 Downing Street and meet the Prime Minister. But what was really great about the whole thing was how I received so many messages from friends and relatives who found it just about as hilarious and surprising as I did!