Thursday, 23 September 2010


It's been a while! I'd love to pretend that there's lots going on, but truthfully, I just have a bit more money in my pocket and a new project, so this blog has fallen by the wayside a bit.

I hope those of you who have been reading this will indulge me - the sports have already moved off and I'm now moving politics to a new professional blog under a pseudonym - essentially, despite what the quality here might suggest, writing a blog does take time and it would be nice if, to a greater or lesser degree, the time I spend writing could be made to pay for itself.

If anyone has been waiting for comments, updates, etc. I do apologise. This is not the end - while the sky is blue, birds fly and fish swim, there will still be things that amuse me or just downright piss me off, and I will be returning when they do!


Sunday, 22 August 2010


I am fortunate to have a wide ranging group of friends with a wide set of interests and surprising talents, and one of the primary attractants for me in other people is intelligence. I am always keen to meet talented people who can teach me new things, and introduce me to new experiences. Of course, it helps too if they share my interests in politics, public policy and world events, and one of my friends recently shared with me his beliefs on the Illuminati.

The Illuminati - for those not familiar with the term - refers to a number of groups, but specifically the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society formed in Europe in the 18th century. My friend was keen to show me videos purporting to demonstrate how an illuminati-like group of politicians, bankers and other shadowy figures of influence are currently manipulating the world financial markets and world governments to increase their influence over the rest of us.

This is a feasible enough idea, though I am politely sceptical as to why politicians and wealthy businessmen would spend their time trying to expand their already significant powers over wage slaves like myself when they could be doing fun stuff, like having sex with their attractive mistresses on the decks of their luxury yachts moored in places like Barbados and St Tropez. But each to their own. I did notice that a European hedge fund recently purchased 8% of the world's cocoa supply, fuelling newspaper fears of a massive price hike in chocolate just before Christmas. But any excuse to not sit and eat Quality Street may be beneficial to a growing lad like myself anyway.

Then the videos moved onto naked human beings in cages, and I became openly doubtful. Social change takes a while, and until I start seeing these things on the streets of Surrey, I figure I don't have too much to worry about. But like it or not, oligarchs and nagging doubts persist, and I was duly concerned when I saw that Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and all-round suspicious egg, was bidding $7 billion for complete control of BSkyB.

Murdoch is an unpopular figure amongst the scruffier observers of the business world, and with good reason. His ruthless approach engenders all of the worst aspects of capitalism and those who remember headlines like 'It Was The Sun Wot Won It' will only be too aware of Murdoch's ability to influence the typical British tabloid reader. He simply cannot be allowed to expand his media empire without a public debate and a thorough enquiry as to whether it is in the public interest to allow him to do so.

The difficulty is that the current government is a fragile coalition and potentially cannot stand the kind of negative headlines that could result from sustained resistance to Murdoch's plans. For this reason, organisations like the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom are more vital now than they have ever been. I would encourage you to read more about their work, and to join if you care about the freedom of the press.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

A Foursome or More(some)

It's been a momentous fortnight for the County Hall poker fraternity - we managed to get four of us (count 'em, four) on a single 1c/2c table one midweek night last week and could even have played some decent poker, if we hadn't spent the time shouting hilarious abuse at one another on MSN messenger. It was especially heartening to hear Matt refer to Scottish Dave as William Wallace during one good-natured rant ('We may take your chips, but we'll never take your freedom!' - okay, so you probably had to be there to fully appreciate it.)

The fact that this non-event is the central focus of my first blog entry for weeks should tell you everything it needs to about my life just now, but that isn't perhaps the whole story. I was recently saddened to hear news of the tragic death of an acquaintance and I am also currently embroiled in the personal difficulties of at least one other person that I know well. But these are not stories I want to tell, or indeed dwell on for any significant amount of time. While joy remains in the seemingly insignifcant detail, I'll stick with that, thank you very much.

I've found an aquatics shop very close to my house which sells live food, and today my fishies enjoyed only their second-ever live feed. Having several hundred bloodworm dropped into the water is the tank equivalent of a food fight at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and it makes for riveting viewing. I swear I could have watched the tussling between the guppies and the dwarf frogs all night without ever getting bored.

The other thing that makes me massively proud is that while all my friends have long since lost the novelty of being parents to real human beings, I am a fish daddy for the first time! I have seen a single fry floating near the surface, starting out a few days ago at barely 2mm long, and this evening I have seen a tiny guppy, perfect in every detail except for being about 1:20 scale of its counterparts.

I am overjoyed by this development - there is at least one other pregnant female in the tank (she's swollen like a tiny barrel, bless her) and I have no idea if this single fry is the lone survivor from a previous birth, a miraculous lone birth in its own right, or is simply one of a group hiding in the tank. Either way, I'm thrilled to be a guppy daddy. An observant friend of mine pointed out yesterday that she saw a shoal of them hiding under a plant - I have yet to catch sight of them if they are there, but I'm eager to see what they will grow up to look like. As the females were most likely pregnant when bought from the shop, the offspring could be any colour, and a splash of something rare and exotic would be another welcome addition to the tank.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


Ugh...can it really be that the last time I posted on here, the Raoul Moat saga was still unravelling? By now the t-shirts with the slogan 'Harder Than Moaty' are already kitsch items. I'm going to post today about the day I met a potential future leader of the country, but that day was ten days ago now, and I really have no excuse. I apologise to both of you.

Monday last I took a train ride to London, fast becoming my second home-from-home in these days of post-apocalyptic financial meltdown. UNISON, my fair trade union and sponsors for the day, wished to send support to sister union NASUWT (the teaching union that isn't the NUT) who stand to see planned improvements to buildings and infrastructure under the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project cruelly denied by the coalition government and its incompetent representative, Michael Gove.

What they needed was numbers, vocal support, people with stories to tell about how the cuts were impacting on real lives. What they got was me. And I didn't even have a placard.

As I said earlier, I must confess to becoming something of a Londophile of late. I have reached the point now that I can actually connect the geography in my head and name the Underground lines simply by looking at the colour. This won't be much to regular city-dwellers but it's huge for me, a man born with an innate fear of the Oyster Card. Regardless, it's good to know where you're going without having to seek the advice of the giant coloured wallcharts. It also makes it much easier to be righteously offended when every single line seems to be simultaneously closed.

Several of my friends have suggested that I should go into politics, and I would have readily agreed if it were not for a closet level of sexual deviance and a passing contempt for the average man on the street. However, having now met the Shadow Secretary of State for Education and some of his more enthusiastic entourage members, it is clear to me that in Parliament, I would be a minnow amongst sharks.

It was Labour stalwart and outside bet for the Labour leadership Ed Balls who held the podium at the rally, and commanded the attention of every camera in the room. Balls! He of the booming rhetoric and psychopathic eyes, a man who claims to have visited three hundred British schools in the last twelve months. I only went to one in my entire life, and that was fifteen years ago.

It is immediately clear to even the casual observer that Balls Believes In Himself. Note the capitals, for they are significant. And it's no bad thing. Speaking as one (admittedly less successful) professional about another, you need to have a certain pomp to get anywhere in life once the average grunts fall away. But there is something of the Vladimir Putin about Mr Balls. Unfortunate surname notwithstanding, he definitely strikes me as the kind of man who would have you killed and then tell your corpse that it was for your own good.

It was after the rally, in the gardens near the Houses of Parliament. We had marched en masse from Methodist Central Hall, tripping over photographers eager to pap the politician. Balls marched at the centre, radiating that aggressive confidence as he did so. His eyes bulged from a space above jowls that seemingly met his shirt collar without bothering to stop for neck. Several of my more media-conscious UNISON colleagues saw an opportunity and descended upon him for photos. I was dragged along for the ride as political self-interest met political self-interest, and somewhere out there, there is now a picture of me waving a giant purple solidarity flag above a large collection of gurning unionites.

This would have been surreal enough had the crowd not suddenly parted, leaving me face-to-face with Ed himself. He raised his chin, looked me directly in the eye and boomed, 'I thought that was a really good turnout, don't you agree?' I was suddenly aware of flashing cameras on all sides and dozens of pairs of eyes focused on me, and I blinked a couple of times while I searched frantically for an appropriate answer. Mercifully, after what seemed like an eternity, I squeaked, 'Yes.'

It was Balls' turn to look somewhat nonplussed. When you are used to political dialogue and the subtle complexities of intrigue, it is perhaps somewhat disarming to encounter banality. We sized each other up for a few seconds, before his staff swarmed around him and hustled him away to meetings with genuinely important people.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Ending Badly

So the Raoul Moat story is over, but for a few investigatory ends which have to be tied up. Accusations are beginning to be made that police were the aggressors in the final stand-off, that not enough was done to negotiate with Moat, but the 49-page letter that he sent to police threatening to 'shoot them until he was dead' gave every observer a fairly clear indication of how the manhunt would end.

The news is rife at the moment with different psychologists, eyewitnesses and media outlets analysing the final stand-off and events in the days leading up to it, and as you'll know if you've read my last few posts, I have an interest in the psychology of killers, so I'm officially jumping on the bandwagon. However, I am going to use a different analogy to look at the psychology involved - that of a poker player.

Caught on CCTV with his new mohican hairstyle, trained physique and bright orange clothing, Raoul Moat clearly liked to stand out from the crowd. In that respect, he was no different from a million other wannabes, simply waiting for an opportunity to distinguish himself. However, a man with Moat's ego was never going to be able to cope with the daily frustrations of an ordinary life, and he clearly demonstrated this in his violent actions towards his family and those who he felt had crossed him.

I have no idea if he played poker, but if he did, Moat would have liked to boss the table. He was clearly a man who loved to feel in control of a situation, which will have been necessary to him to compensate for the lack of control he felt over his life. His angle would have been aggression, pure and simple, raises on top of re-raises, and speech play to intimidate his opponent.

As is often the way with wannabes, they get themselves into trouble by biting off more than they can chew. Moat liked to be thought of as a hard man with links to a shady criminal underworld, though that image will be challenged somewhat by eyewitness reports, who had heard him say to police negotiators at the end that he 'didn't have a dad' and that 'nobody cared about him'.

It is an important maxim at the poker table that all successful players are aggressive, and this is definitely true. However, aggression alone will only get you so far, and you must employ it selectively or more techincally-gifted players will play back at you and leave you (to use poker terminology) drawing dead.

Likewise, if the police seemed inactive in the days up to the final events in Rothbury, this was a calculated slow-play designed specifically to trap the unwary. Rumours flew that they had drafted in armoured cars from Northern Ireland, that half of the UK's armed response units were in the immediate area surrounding the town. The message was clear. We are not messing around. All the best poker players know when to fold.

If the shooting of his ex-girlfriend's new partner was a poorly-timed raise, there was still a chance for Moat. He could have handed himself in, served his time under the label of a crime of passion, and possibly begun to rebuild his life. However, shooting a policeman was his suicidal bluff-raise into a player holding unbeatable cards and from that point on, events started an inevitable slide downhill as his chips sailed into a pot he could never hope to win.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

A Quickie...

Just a quick update tonight, it's all I have time for.

I've been concerned that the content of my blog is becoming increasingly sport-oriented - perhaps understandable given the world cup is on, but it's not what I wanted the blog to be about. Fortunately, in true Smashy and Nicey style, I've acquired a writing buddy and we've created an entirely separate sporting project right here.

So there will no longer be any sports posts on this blog, unless they directly relate to me. And somehow, that just doesn't seem very likely :)

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Forget It, We're FIFA

In honour of FIFA's stance on recent refereeing decisions during the world cup, I have written them a new, unofficial world cup song, which I'd encourage you all to sing (to the tune of Bobby McFerrin's classic 'Don't Worry, Be Happy'.)

Forget It, We're FIFA

If your shot goes over the line
We'll get to it in our own sweet time
Don't push us, we're FIFA

It seems like the ref just didn't see
Cry goes out for technology
Forget it, we're FIFA

If the assistant flags you offside
Doesn't matter, we'll let it slide
Make decisions? We're FIFA

Doo, doo doo doo do do do do do do do di dooo (Hey Seppy)
Doo do do do do di do (stay merry)
Doo di do di do
Forget it, we're FIFA

The players may not like the ball
But the sponsors' money will make the call
Muhahahahahahahahahaha (now pay FIFA)

Surely it's the game that matters?
Just try asking Joseph Blatter
All bow down, to FIFA

It might be all politics and intrigue
But at least we're less dodgy than the Premier League
Lord love us, we're FIFA

(c) K Holt 2010.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

How the Don was Done

Like many other England fans, I like 'Don' Fabio Capello. I respect his managerial record, as anyone who has won leagues in every country he has managed in deserves respect. I don't agree with that rot about managing at international level being a whole new level - it's different, and you can't just buy your way out of trouble in the transfer window like whoever is managing Real Madrid at any given time. But respect him or not, he has made several key tactical errors at this world cup that have cost England dear.

As is always the way in key England defeats, there has to be a scapegoat and calls are already being made for video technology to prevent incidents like the Lampard 'goal' that would have pulled England level before half-time. Not that this addresses the glaring issues that England have technically, but we'll come back to those in just a moment. 4 - 1 flattered Germany, but they were deserving winners nonetheless and we cannot allow the goal that wasn't to distract us from England's obvious failings during the game.

To begin with, England have an over-reliance on key players who have a knack for not performing in the national shirt. Rooney has previously carried the England team single-handedly, but in this tournament he has been little short of a liability, and when he is not scoring, England do not score. Lampard and Gerrard in England shirts are shadows of their club selves, and their frequent no-shows stymie the attacking instincts of Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole.

The lack of width on the pitch is a disappointing factor in England's failure. The best England teams have always had flying wingers, and the goal against Slovenia on Wednesday came from interlink between Johnson and Milner on England's right wing. Against Germany, Milner was withdrawn early for Joe Cole and Gerrard pulled inside, meaning that England effectively had no wingers at all. Milner crossed at will in the first 45 minutes as Jerome Boateng seemed uninterested in closing him down, but in the second half, even with momentum, England never looked like breaking through packed German defences.

Commentators always suggest that Gerrard should play behind Rooney in a 4 - 4 - 1 - 1 formation - though it is worth suggesting that Liverpool employ him in this way and they certainly didn't look much this season, even with a world-class forward up front. Gerrard does not look to me like an inspiring captain. John Terry at least looks the part as a leader. It is a shame that he doesn't look the part as a defender.

Terry's positioning was poor, and the naivety of his defensive partner Matthew Upson was repeatedly and ruthlessly exposed by Germany's incisiveness. Playmaker Mesut Ozil was not troubled by the man-marking of Gareth Barry, and indeed probably should have scored himself before Germany's opener.

That opener - a tragi-comic effort from Klose which resulted from a simple run onto a bouncing goal kick, followed by a dip of his shoulders that shrugged off a challenge made almost as an afterthought and ended with an inevitable touch beyond the keeper. The BBC commentators described it as a typical Sunday pub-team goal - and in terms of the ability shown, it was probably a generous comparison for England. Sluggish defending followed again minutes later as Thomas Muller's deft touch set up Lukas Podolski for a second. The Germans are hard enough to beat anyway, without giving them a two-goal headstart.

It should have been so different. Unlike many times when England have struggled in the past, this was not due to their inability to get the ball, in fact quite the opposite. Germany sat off and allowed England to have as much of the ball as they wanted. They did not press at all until England got within thirty yards of their goal, so there was really no excuse for England's lacklustre passing and utter wastefulness in possession.

Don Fabio made several critical errors in his assessment of England's ability against quality opposition. He also made bizarre substitutions, taking off Defoe at a time when England needed goals and finally bringing on a winger for a defender when the game was already lost. There will be talks with the FA about where the England team goes from here - as I write this, it seems likely that Fabio will stay on to honour his contract, but 24 hours is a long-time in football. Should the Don decide to step aside, you can rest assured that I am immediately available for the vacant post, and my analysis of England is as follows:

Goalkeeper: England went for their best option in selecting David James, but this tournament was undoubtedly his swansong. While I am a keen fan of Robert Green and know he is a much better shot-stopper than his gaffe against the US would suggest, on the evidence I have seen Joe Hart is the future of England goalkeeping, and bearing out injury, should be assured of his place in the next Euro Championship qualifiers.

Defence: Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson are capable full backs, and they should be encouraged to maraud forward for England at every opportunity. If we cannot defend, we may as well try to score more than our opponents, and in tight matches attacking full-backs can make the difference. Look at Maicon for Brazil.

The central defensive partnership is more troublesome. Terry will probably be good for one more European competition, but both he and Jamie Carragher are now clearly on the wane and cannot offer the reliability that they once did against fast strikers. Ledley King is frequently unfit and that leaves Upson to forge a partnership with a up-and-coming youngster, such as Huddlestone.

Midfield: It's been analysed to death, but whether they can or can't work together, history suggests that Lampard and Gerrard simply won't. Perhaps they are too similar, perhaps they are both attack minded and England would work better with a defensive midfielder, if a suitable one can be found. Barry is hard-working and a better player than many people give him credit for, but he is not the world-class puller-of-strings that England so desperately need. Gerrard is absent on the left-hand side of a four man midfield, a spot which should naturally fall to Joe Cole or youngster Adam Johnson. It will be interesting to see if he develops more swiftly than Theo Walcott, who will probably regain his place in future at the expense of the unfortunate James Milner.

Attack: Rooney...such a world-class talent when he is fit, a sulking shadow when he is off the pace. Above all, coaches have to realise that anyone, even Rooney, can be dropped when he is not playing well. Heskey holds up the ball and wins free-kicks but England simply cannot afford the luxury of a forward who doesn't score, and therefore Jermain Defoe will probably cement a place up front. Crouch looks out of his depth sometimes in the England side, but his goalscoring record is good and he is worth so much more than simply being used as a lightning rod for England when they run out of ideas and choose to lump balls forward instead.

Another disappointing feature of the current England setup is the lack of genuine young talent coming through the ranks. It is difficult to name a 20-year old Englishman playing regularly in a Premiership side, and therefore it becomes a struggle to see who the saving grace will be for England in Brazil 2014. But then, I guess we have to qualify first, which will probably be a story on its own. There's one piece of good news for the 2018 event, which will hopefully be staged back here in Blighty. England's Under-17 side have just won the European Championship at their level, meaning there should be plenty of bright emerging talent ready to step up to the plate when football comes home again. Now that, my friends, is a thought to savour.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Better in Our Day

I never know how to begin these things. I don't even blog that often but I'm becoming acutely aware that my blog entries are haphazard and on occasion, utterly disjointed. This is a source of perturbation for me. I have postgraduate qualifications in creative writing, but not only have I not yet written a best-selling novel, I can't even construct a coherent blog entry within an hour of starting. Proof if it were needed that Coke Zero is not good for the little grey cells.

Okay. I'll try and focus now.

England won. You know this already, if you care. I allowed myself a little smile as Don Fabio gurned his way through an ecstatic post-match press-conference talking about how beer was the secret to England turning round their form in the World Cup. If this is true, the great unwashed that I shared the pub with on Wednesday afternoon could probably win the event themselves without even trying.

The last few weeks have seen a number of the couples I know splitting up. I mention this only because it's a backdrop to a sea change in relationship dynamics that I've noticed and feel is worth mentioning. The older women at work comment on this a fair bit, smug as they are in the comfort zone of marriages that have lasted longer than I've been alive. Nonetheless, they have a point, and it goes like this.

Young people can't communicate. It's a human instinct, but basically, we're becoming increasingly awful at it. Sure, I can blog, and you can reply to me via Facebook or even text message if I really piss you off, but the chances are that you're not going to confront me in person. I could spend the rest of this blog entry pointing out how ugly your mother is, and at worst you're going to ignore me. We have lost the ability to talk to one another, and with it go essential life skills such as the ability to empathise and compromise. What interaction we do have tends to have little to do with actual communication and instead apes the overly-dramatic scenes in Hollywood and Eastenders. We are all attention-seekers now.

There are many peculiar side-effects to this insidious aspect of modern life. We have fewer friends, and are not as close to the ones we do have. We share less, care less, and know nothing at all about our neighbours (apart from the fact that BNP Man across the road owns a labrador I refer to as BNP Dog, for want of a better name, and is always being arrested for being drunk and disorderly at 5am.)

This puts a particular strain on our personal relationships. I know a number of people my age who have simply given up on the likelihood of ever finding a long-term partner (generally, they are the ones who decide that cats and dogs argue less and therefore make better companions.) However, we still yearn to bond with others and typically find this bond in a single uber-close friendship, the kind of which seems to transcend gender and sexuality.

What does this mean for the future of our generation? Are we in a hopeless position, like my colleagues seem to think? Hardly, I feel. People still meet, fall in love, decide to have children and commit their lives to one another. Yes, we are more cynical about our future, and more prone to outlandish gestures at the expense of genuine feeling, but time is on our side, and we can look to learn from the example of those in the older generation who have withstood the pressures of untold years growing together. Above all, we should look to embrace the way that modern technologies allow us to stay in touch with the people we might otherwise lose, while being smart enough to do more to show we care for the friends we see every day.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Anyone want to watch the Footy?

Anyone who says there are no easy international football games clearly hasn't played Honduras lately.

Yes, I think it's time for a World Cup post. I've resisted the urge, watched enough stale football matches in the last couple of weeks to make even the most ardent fan gag on his vuvuzela and I'd really like to write about tomorrow's budget...but let's face it, financial reports are only really going to make England's climate seem cheery in comparison.

So then, time to move from fiscal self-destruction to football self-destruction...and Fabio had better find a big selection to back up his big words against Slovenia on Wednesday. He rightly tore into John Terry for his disgraceful press-conference earlier this week, describing his decision to do so as a 'big mistake'. Terry should remember that while he might still think of himself as the captain, that distinction was removed a few months ago when he proved himself unable to demonstrate behaviour in his personal life appropriate to his professional position.

That said, it is surely time to sit down with senior players and get their opinions on a starting formation for the Slovenia game. Terry should not be demanding the inclusion of his former team-mate Cole - it is certainly not his place to do so - but it cannot be denied that Cole would add some much-needed width against a Slovenia side who will have watched the Algeria game and will surely come prepared to park the bus against England.

Fortunately, when we need someone to take the media spotlight off our beleaguered national team, there are many other sides and individuals vying to do just that. While world champions Italy were only able to scrape a narrow draw against minnows New Zealand and European champions Spain decided that they really didn't fancy it much against a spirited Swiss side, France have apparently decided that the 'hand-grenade' approach to teambuilding is the way to ensure success.

Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka has been sent home amid allegations that he told manager, Raymond Domenech, 'Go screw yourself, you son of a whore', while Fabrice Evra was pictured scuffling with the fitness coach during training. In true French style, the squad is now boycotting training in protest against Anelka's explusion and may even do the same for tomorrow's match against South Africa, conveniently avoiding the chance of suffering yet another defeat. The French Football Association could have saved the cost of Le Sulk's ticket, given that the rest of the squad will be joining him on the flight home by the end of the week.

North Korea were found wanting against Portugal and cannot now hope to qualify for the knockout stage. The same is true of Cameroon, who threw away a comfortable lead against Denmark over the weekend. In fact, all of the African nations have been mediocre at best, with the much-hyped Ivory Coast set to be eliminated from the Group of Death and South Africa odds-on to become the first host nation to fail to get beyond the group stage of their own tournament. At least in Siphiwe Tshabalala's strike against Mexico, they have given us one of the moments of the tournament so far.

Germany may have lost to Serbia but have looked dangerous in front of goal, while Holland have been quietly effective and Argentina devastating, Lionel Messi's trickery laying on a hat-trick for Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain. Question marks remain over their ability to defend against better sides, but I am hedging my bets and saying that with the excellent performances seen from Mexico and Uruguay in addition to the usual suspects, it will be a South American hand that raises the winner's trophy at Soccer City, Johannesburg on July 11.

I found the little gem below doing the rounds on the internet. I don't know if it's a genuine picture, but if it is, it's true genius. England for 2018!

Sunday, 13 June 2010

World Cup? Wimbledon? Pah, I just bought a fish tank

So I've been away from work for a few days, preparing for my final AAT exams, which (thank Christ) will be finished this time next week. I'm preparing myself for a massive sense of anti-climax (which won't be difficult for me to deal with, given the life I've had) but it will be nice to get them out of the way, as I've been feeling a dose of pre-exam adrenaline for days now, and if it goes on for much longer I fear I may just have an aneurysm.

A shout to Kev and Corinne, who came over earlier this evening and entertained me massively by bickering over which of them was the greatest attention seeker and then proceeded to prove the point by taking lots of pictures of themselves eating scotch eggs and so on. Thank you both, and there, I've blogged about you now. I hope you're happy :)

I bought a fish tank! I've wanted to own one for as long as I can remember. My parents owned one when I was very little, and I would come downstairs at night and press my nose against the glass as tiny neon tetras zipped around the plants inside the tank. Furthermore, to my eternal pride, I have paid for the tank, the stand and most of the peripherals entirely with my poker winnings. It'll leave a big hole in the account where several hundred dollars used to be, but if I really am a good player I should be able to put it back there in time. Plus I won't be playing any poker in the near future, what with revision time and work commitments.

I have a very thorough book on how to prepare a working fish tank, and there is more science to it than first it seems. You cannot just add water and fish, because the water needs to be dechlorinated first to make it safe for the fish. Then you have to get the water temperature and pH balance right for the species that you want, add substrate and plants to create the right aesthetic conditions, and run a filter through a cycle of bacteria that convert ammonia to nitrite to nitrate. And this is all before you even begin!

It's silly but it's exciting. The tank looks great, though I'm having some issues with plants dying due to the lack of light in certain areas of the tank. I'm certain I can remedy that. I also have a regular chemistry set of water testing tools that show the filter process is underway, though it's still too early yet for fish to survive. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

My best friend Erin is very excited about Wimbledon because she loves Rafael Nadal. I hope he wins, because it will make her happy.

Blah blah blah, World Cup...England, USA, Rob Green...blah blah blah.

At least Emile Heskey played well. Perhaps it's something in the water.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Mass-Killing Most Foul

It started innocently enough. A friend posted on his Facebook status that the popular TV series '24' starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, was coming to an end, and that during the 8 series (each of which supposedly represents one day in Bauer's life) he had killed 266 people.

I have never seen the TV show, nor do I particularly have any interest in the premise. I think that Kiefer Sutherland is a solid, unremarkable actor. I didn't know whether my friend had literally watched every episode and kept a running total or simply read the number in TV Weekly, but either way, my maths brain kicked in and I made the following simple calculations.

266 people over an eight-day period equates to 33.25 killings per day, and because I'm guessing the show doesn't take a prolonged hiatus every time Bauer has to pee or takes a nap, this works out at approximately 1.38 bodybags per hour. I don't know if Bauer has an admin who deals with the paperwork on his behalf after these events, but if he does, the admin may just be the only person who has a higher-pressure job than Bauer himself. You can imagine that his relatives run America's most successful funeral business. Similarly, his senior officer has a lot of responsibility on his shoulders. Every time Bauer requests a week's leave, the chief has to weigh up the time lost by the department against the average saving of 166 lives.

Why is this worth a blog entry? On the off-chance that this blog is read by anyone from outside the UK, in the last week we have seen our third mass-killing in the UK within 25 years.

Details of events are still in the process of being patched together, but certain facts seem to be agreed upon. A Cumbrian taxi-driver, Derrick Bird, turned a warm sunny day in Northern England into a veritable bloodbath, avenging slights by targeting a number of people including family members, local businessmen and a former boss before rampaging at random through a number of small towns with a shotgun and a sniper rifle. He killed 12 victims, injuring many more, and it seems likely that most of those killed fell within a very narrow timeframe.

It pains me to admit it, but I can't deny that I'm interested in incidents of this nature. Those of you who know me well will already be aware that I have an analytical brain obsessed with maths and probability. This manifests itself in questions like, how many victims? How many shots? the % likelihood of it happening again on any street, anywhere, tomorrow? It's ghoulish, but I can't help it. It's how my brain works.

In addition to the maths involved, the random element of the Cumbrian shootings held similarities with other events of this type, incuding the Hungerford massacre in 1987, and Dunblane a few years later. This is where the psychology of mass-killers comes in, and like it or not, it is a fascinating subject.

Unlike Michael Ryan, the gun-obsessed loner who opened fire with automatic weapons in Hungerford town centre 23 years previously, or Dunblane's Thomas Hamilton, the unemployed former scout leader with a seemingly unhealthy interest in young boys, Bird seems to have been a popular man with a regular job, hobbies, friends and a close family. However, the reasons for his spree may never be known, as in common with the other two, he killed himself in the immediate aftermath. All three perpetrators held guns legally, and much debate is still to be had over proposed restrictions on gun ownership within the UK in future.

Mass-killers are always men, and men typically prone to anxiety and depression. They exhibit difficulties in communicating with others, and an exaggerated interest in violence. They fit the profile of Stephen Pinker's cross-cultural reference point, the 'amok', a male who revenges his lack of status in a suicidal murder spree.

As a final note, there appears to be correlation between the way in which violent events have been reported and the likelihood of copycat events following. In short, the more coverage and attention that is given to mass killers, the more likely it is that copycat events will occur (this can be evidenced in the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, only a few weeks after Dunblane. The killer, Martin Bryant, upon being apprehended, reportedly asked if he had 'broken the record' for most people killed in a massacre at one time.)

I'll have a few more posts on psychology in the future, but for now, just in case any of you are attention-seeking impressionable types, I'm going to have an evening of mass TV-watching. If I look angry, it's just because 24's about to come on and I've left the remote slightly out of reach.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Say No More

A fitting title for what has been a lousy week for at least one person close to me while my own week has been up there as one of the happiest I've had in ages. Mostly this has been due to the positive experience of a UNISON Tackling Racism course, which has made me think a whole lot more on the subject.

The single biggest thing I took from the course is how much of the insitutional racism in today's educated world tends to be an unwitting and unintended side-effect of not thinking through policies and comments, rather than being due to direct prejudice. Of course, it would be foolish to think that such prejudices no longer existed and either way, the divisive outcome still needs to be tackled. However, I am hopeful that this is symptomatic of a cultural shift whereby the racism we do see is a product of thoughtlessness rather than malicious forethought. It is not yet the sea change that black and minority ethnic people deserve, but at least we can hope that things may be moving in the right direction.

The real topic of this entry is about talking. It might have been good to talk in BT adverts a few years ago, but recent experience teaches us that it might be even better to shut up. In the last ten days, we have seen Lord Triesman, head of the English Football Association and chair of the England 2018 World Cup bid stung by the Daily Mail into making unwise comments to Melissa Jacobs, a lady he considered to be a personal friend but who was actually armed with a tape recorder and a requisite amount of silver.

Triesman suggested the possibility that Russian referees at the forthcoming world cup in South Africa might make preferential decisions towards Spain in return for Latin American support in deciding the outcome of who would host the event in 2018. So far, so ill-advised - but Triesman was clear that this was a private opinion only, and that he had no evidence that supported the possibility. Regardless, the sting became front page news and Triesman duly resigned, sagely noting that he was foolish to entrust his opinions to a former colleague. The England bid team have worked hard to minimise the damage, while much of the fallout has been attached to the odious Daily Mail, who have already blotted their copybook by supporting the Nazis in the run-up to World War II. In fact, I love to tell that story so much, I've decided here and now that that will be the topic of a future entry. Watch this space.

In the same week, US waitress Ashley Johnson became briefly famous for being sacked by pizza chain Brixx. Her crime - posting a Facebook entry criticising customers for being lousy at tipping. She has joined the less-than-illustrious ranks of those to put jobs at jeopardy by not thinking through the consequences of their actions.

And as for me? Kettle, this is're black. One of the hardest lessons my career has taught me is that there is a time and a place for being honest and critical with opinions. It frustrates me sometimes when things are not done well and I know that they could be done much better. However, there is also a way to make this point and much to be said for leading by example, rather than being cynical or using that horrible phrase, 'I told you so.'

Would I criticise my employer in this blog if I felt that the criticism was justified? Yes, I have always struggled to lie and I suspect that my principles would win out in the end. However, I feel it is also important to acknowledge that I and my colleagues work very hard and are often underappreciated by the general public for the things that we do well. More than ever, it is something well worth remembering.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Hot Air

From blossom to balloons in the space of a week...

Hurrah for bank holidays. Whenever would I get my chores done if not on these spare Mondays? Of course, it's not a chore to update my blog, but then I've mostly been concentrating on R & R for the last few days and I'm off to London shortly...maybe I'll write a piece on Kew Gardens or sushi when I return.

I have been poring over the news and noted balloons featuring in three pieces on the BBC, so I thought I'd write a short piece about balloons. I've always wanted to take a hot air balloon ride, they seem such a simple, quiet alternative to modern aircraft, as though they were somehow an idea dreamt up from a children's book. Bristol and Thailand have both held balloon festivals recently, there are some wonderful pictures on the web and I encourage you to have a look if you get a spare minute. The Bristol fiesta is held annually, and will definitely be going in my diary for a time when I have some spare cash to enjoy.

Of course, balloons are about more than frivolous colours and soundless summer days in the sky. This week in South Korea, another country I would love to visit, a number of defectors from the North have been sending currency, external media and messages of hope over the border to their countrymen in the North. The giant balloons are rigged with timers so that they will burst at different times, meaning that the cargo will hopefully be distributed across the stricken country.

News that Chairman Kim Jong-il is rumoured to be in China seeking a financial package that will stabilise his country in the wake of last year's unsuccessful currency revaluation will lead some to hope that the isolationist nation can be brought back to the table for talks on nuclear disarmament. However, the unexplained sinking of a South Koran naval vessel earlier this year has led to high tension in the region while investigators continue to seek a cause.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Getting the Message

One week to go before election day! If I wasn't such a stiff-upper-lipped type, there's the chance that I might just have weed myself with excitement. Tonight sees the last of the televised leaders debates but there have been two pieces of news in the political spectrum - the first that anyone British will have had to have spent the last 24 hours under a rock to miss, and the second which has been slipped under the radar in most of the mainstream press, which is a shame, because it's much funnier than the first.

The Bigot of Rochdale has of course dominated the news, with Gordon Brown's ill-timed vent about a widow concerned with immigration being caught on a Sky News microphone. It is clear Mr Brown is not keen on face-to-face contact with voters and finds the touchy-feely approach of this campaign uncomfortable to say the least. But then, not all great men are people people. As long as he can keep the economy stable, I'm with...oh.

In a hilarious event which has been mostly skipped in the press as a result of Bigotgate, Nick Griffin will be in the High Court today defending the BNP's use of Marmite in election campaign material. Like the love-it-or-hate-it yeast extract product, voter opinion is torn on Mr Griffin, but with an opportunity to get his party's central policy as the focus of national discussion, a genuine bigot will instead be in the dock defending a vigorous legal action from Unilever. Oh, irony, thou art more delicious than Marmite.

Monday, 26 April 2010


Spring is here!

I'm in the mood to celebrate the warmer temperatures and longer days. I also noted that the most popular blogs on this site tend to employ pictures far more than I currently do, so I'm bringing some colour to the season.

My favourite thing about spring is cherry blossom. I love the way that the flamingo-pink flowers are so wonderfully contrasting with England's usual green and brown backdrop. So I took some pictures of blossom on my trusty digicam, and uploaded a couple here for you to see.

I would love to visit Japan, and their national interest in the cherry blossom is one reason why. The Japanese cherry blossom variants are almost pure white, and their progress is reported in the daily news as it sweeps northward across the nation from January to May, marking the changing of the season as it does so.

One of those things that I miss about the gardens from my childhood is an absence of colour, smell and sound. We just don't seem to have the aptitude or work ethic for gardening in my generation. It's a great shame, because a beautiful garden is a joy to behold. What a difference it would make to England if we all planted one tree, or one flower, each. It might bring back the bees, for a start.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Going Down

For the benefit of those of you who like to know these things up front so that they can stop reading now, this post is about football. Well, that and the emotions it stirs. For those of you who are already familiar with Nick Hornby's 'Fever Pitch', you've probably got some idea of where this post is going. Nonetheless, there is still something here to add, because Hornby, being an Arsenal fan, will be very used to glory and attractive football whilst I, being a Norwich City fan, am more used to a rollercoaster ride up and down that ultimately ends in soul-crushing disappointment.

Over the last few years, Norwich City have moved up and down the top three leagues of English football with the grace of a bored toddler in a lift. Some years there are heroes, names that are carved on fans' minds as passes connect, goals are scored and point-blank saves made. Some years there are only villains, and time passes as they move through the club like ghosts at a time of bad harvests.

I am a moderate fan. I don't have a season ticket because I can't afford one and generally struggle from weekend to weekend knowing where I will be at any particular time. However, I do go to games on at least a semi-regular basis, I can sing all of the words of the club song and I have been known to occasionally shout insults at referees where I feel it is justified to do so. I have never rung CanaryCall or 606 to insult a player, a manager or a board member, but I listen when I have the chance because the occasional fen-dweller rant on Saturday evening radio raises a smile and reminds you just how much worse life could be.

The memories that stick at football games are charged ones. I have been pelted with coins in Wolverhampton, come within inches of serious violence at West Bromwich and Blackburn and watched a tide of yellow and green engulf Cardiff as my side took possession of the city for the day of a play-off final. I have seen Thierry Henry destroy a defence single-handedly with his cultured first touch and clearly remember getting a front-row ticket for a Tuesday night game in December years ago against lowly opposition and being first soaked and then frozen in front of a tawdry 0 - 0 draw.

It is despair that for me epitomises what I love about football. Before anyone sees fit to challenge my use of the word despair, believe me, I picked it specially for this occasion. It is the only word that will do.

On the day of that Cardiff final, I had seen a superior Norwich City team dragged to a penalty shootout by a lacklustre, uninspired Birmingham side, and ultimately fate smiled on our opposition. I had known all along that this would happen, of course, that it did not matter how many opportunities we had or goals we scored. We were simply not destined to win on the day. I remember sitting numbly, unable to find any words to say as my fellow supporters applauded the players at the end (and deservedly so, for they had really given it everything that they had.)

Don't ask me about the game. I know the facts, who scored, who missed, but I don't really remember anything about it. But I remember Cardiff's amazing Millennium Stadium, which from the inside with the roof closed was like a giant, bubble-shaped alien spacecraft. I remember being the only Norwich fan who couldn't sleep on the torturous eight-hour coach trip home. I remember the Birmingham fans, who were without exception dignified winners, shaking our hands as we passed, praising our team and assuring us that we would join them soon in the league above.

In my lifetime, Norwich City have been relegated three times. Each of the three times I have experienced the same funereal emotions, which can only be compared to losing love or walking towards the electric chair. There is the simple, desperate loneliness. There is the clawing sense of injustice, even though you know the league table cannot lie. There is the gut-wrenching and entirely visceral feeling of physical sickness. There is the knowledge that the opposition are indifferent to your plight, and in some cases, are even delighted to be the cause of your demise. There is the feeling that the world is happening somewhere far far away, and you are no longer a part of it.

Yesterday Norwich City defeated a spirited Charlton side in London to confirm promotion back to the the second tier of English football. In one of those little quirks that the game throws up from time to time, Norwich were promoted on the same ground that saw them relegated the year before, and the irony is not lost on our long-suffering fans. If, as seems likely, Norwich win the title next week at home to Gillingham, there will be no overwhelming sense of elation for me, for I am clearly the masochist of the piece. Instead, I will allow myself a wry smile and enjoy three months of cautious, tempered optimism before the unwinnable fight begins again in September.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Food for Thought

Ah, so many things to write about...a general election campaign thrown wide open by a stylish podium performance from a liberal, the entire UK airspace frozen for days by an Icelandic volcano, the country's first case of corporate manslaughter which could see directors being imprisoned for negligence. I wonder how I ever coped without a blog. Presumably I just used to read about these things and have private thoughts.

No, it's no good. I want to talk about all those things but the sky is blue, the sun is shining and I just feel too good to wax lyrical about something so thoroughly indigestable on a Saturday morning. Instead, I'm going to talk about something very close to my heart. I refer, of course, to TV chefs.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the UK is obsessed with celebrity chefs. It goes far beyond simply watching their television programmes and buying their cookbooks. These days they can be seen dating models, backing political figures and fronting national campaigns about healthy eating. The most famous and loudmouthed ones are even exported so they can be famous and loudmouthed in other countries.

I am no different from anyone else in this regard. Indeed, such is my love of cooking and food in general that I am far more interested in the regular comings and goings of TV chefs than I am in, say, Premiership footballers. I recently came up with the idea of filming myself in my kitchen, a ten minute skit of me messing around with chicken breasts and chili flakes, and posting it on FoodTube. After suggesting the idea on Facebook, I received 15 comments (some complimentary, some less so) in as many minutes.

Regular readers of this blog will know my fondness for the Hairy Bikers, but I regard them (perhaps unfairly) as enthusiastic amateurs, much like myself. I like to watch Nigella Lawson and Sophie Dahl for obvious reasons, and while I like their programmes I do not regard them as chefs in the truest sense. Who then, are the UK's finest for me?

Four names come to mind...I have a favourite, but I'm not going to say which. Rankings are for football teams and schools under Labour governments. Here then are the UK's four best TV chefs and why...

Love him or hate him, I'm a huge fan of Gordon Ramsey. He is a talented and passionate chef with an excellent grasp of fundamentals. It's this grasp of detail that makes Kitchen Nightmares such a compelling show. Gordon is the only chef who could march through a menu of goujons and jus and yell, 'WHERE'S THE FUCKING PIE?!' It's a shame, all considered, that he is more famous for being rude than for his ability as a chef - but perhaps he's happy with that...

Padstow's Rick Stein has made his name primarily as a seafood chef, and his enthusiasm for the genre is intriguing at a time when the UK seems to be very much out of love with fish. As a sushi fan, I was always going to love the multi-course sushi meal that he cooked for the Japanese Ambassador but perhaps what attracts me most to his shows is the way that they always make me think of blue skies and warm evenings, simple dishes cooked to perfection and enjoyed in good company. At his best, Rick reminds me why I like food so much.

Finding a category all of his own, Heston Blumenthal is more food scientist than chef, but anyone who can charge people to eat snail porridge and egg'n'bacon ice cream has got to have something about them. Having survived rumours that his Fat Duck restaurant poisoned as many as 400 people in 2009, Heston remains charismatic, innovative and totally bonkers. The thing I love most about him is the way that he looks for influences for his show and pushes borders at every opportunity. The Christmas idea was excellent, the Hansel & Gretel house was inspired, but for me the edible garden was the pinnacle. Genius.

Heading the list of lifestyles I would love to emulate, the entirely self-sufficient Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is another chef who has become synonymous with the part of the world in which he lives. He is the owner of River Cottage in a small corner of Devon and as well as growing his own fruit and veg, making his own cheese and cider, he is probably Britain's most famous smallholder, champion of the allotment and organically-grown produce. He even single-handedly stormed a Tesco AGM and tried to get shareholders to change the company's chicken farming processes. If I had a few million behind me, I would be Hugh.

Who's your favourite?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Tie Your Ribbon To The Right Tree

Three days of the four-day weekend have gone, and I have to admit that I've had a wonderful time so far. Norwich City might have been cheated by some truly awful refereeing decisions on Friday, but my poker game has been going well, the French Market has supplied me with some top-notch food and I've spent my time in excellent company.

I want to take this chance to shout out for BBC2 as well. While other channels continue to commission pointless reality TV and Z-list celebrity shows, BBC2 leads the way for quality broadcasting. This evening alone sees Simon Reeve studying religious tension along the Tropic of Cancer and Professor Brian Cox in his quite excellent show about how the laws of nature apply throughout the solar system. Turn off the phone and get on iPlayer now.

I promised that my blog earlier this week would not be about the general election...but it turns out that I'm more eager to talk about it than I thought at the time. I have no secret line to Government, but the hustings have been cleared and it seems likely to me that on 6 May 2010, one-third (or thereabouts) of the population of the UK will make a choice of government that will hopefully see an end to the economic recession.

At this point I believe I should point out that the suggestion that only one-third of the population will bother to vote is entirely my own estimate. Nonetheless I would imagine that even the most optimistic observer would struggle to believe that the turn out will be in excess of 50%. This is a sobering thought, as it suggests that half the country either cannot decide or don't care who will lead them for the next four years. It would be easy for me to sceptically suggest that contained within the set of '40 million people who do not vote in general elections' there will be a significant subset who also fall into the '20 million people who do vote in Pop Idol' category, but this is perhaps missing the point.

The low turnout is critical for the UK, as numbers have dwindled in successive elections and the reducing turnout weakens our democracy. This is beneficial for extremist parties such as the British National Party, who rely on a small but dedicated hardcore of supporters who are frustrated with the perceived failings of the main political parties. If for no other reason, we all have the responsibility of voting to deny extremists the chance of benefiting from such opportunism.

Low turnouts also suggest a high degree of apathy within the electorate. Of course, with the ongoing MP expenses scandals, it is hard to be critical of those who don't vote because they feel that politicians are all crooked and self-serving. Despite the stories, I really feel that this is little more than apologism for laziness. I simply do not believe that all British politicians are in it for the perks of the post. This is not to say that there aren't individuals who are, of course, but I would imagine that most MPs are dedicated and hard-working individuals who really want the best for this country and for their constituents.

Compared to the average British voter, I would consider myself to be an intelligent and knowledgeable person with a high degree of political awareness. Among my friends, there are many keen political observers and I am fortunate that their opinions and knowledge ultimately challenge and enhance my own. However, even after watching the news and studying the literature, I openly admit that I have struggled to find what the main parties these days actually stand for. The political billboards are all about image and media capital - primarily, the content tends towards mocking the opposition parties rather than championing the success of one's own. One notable friend, coincidentally a candidate in the last local election, describes it as 'the usual bunch of public schoolboys teasing each other in the playground'.

I'm thankful then, that there are sites like Rather than decide where your vote should go based on personalities, you can read summaries of half a dozen manifestos, broken down by subject, without knowing which one belongs to which party. You then select which policies you like for each subject, and the site then tells you which party you have supported with your choices. I would actively encourage anyone who will be voting in the forthcoming election to give the site a try, and you may just be surprised - a lifetime Labour voter, my preferences matched a measly 1 in 9 of their policies this time round.

The results overwhelmingly pointed towards one party at the expense of the others, and on polling day I will therefore be flying the flag for the Green Party with pride. It makes me wonder just how the different the outcome might be if all voters were asked to complete the survey at the link above rather than just being given a voting slip.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Got to get it right

The great thing about the forthcoming long weekend is that it will give me a chance to catch up with those tedious jobs, the ironing, the general tidying, that I normally allow to go undone for long periods when I'm at work. After all, I hardly ever get visitors, so whether my books are in their allocated positions on the shelves or spread over the floor is not particularly relevant. More importantly, it frees up time for me to write blog entries, particularly when there is something well worth talking about.

One of those things caught my eye today - a political headline which will go largely unnoticed in the entirely unwarranted media frenzy that is kicking in already even though a date for the general election has yet to be set (so who do you want? That sadistic Scottish bully who took the economy down the toilet, the far-too-smooth public-school educated Toff who looks so earnest on interviews, it's as if his head is about to explode, or that...what's his name? The other guy.)

Okay, so my analysis of the situation is more than a little crude, and this entry will not be about the election. Regardless of who gets in, there will be tough decisions to be made, and the only thing that seems certain is that things are likely to get worse before they get better. Furthermore, if you work in the public sector, it's probably best to look away now, because we are the chief target for private sector media agitators, who see it as our responsibility to 'share the burden' (did we share the boom?)

Earlier today, for the second time in five months, the British judiciary have made a ruling that it is illegal for a trade union in Britain to strike. As before, the devil is in the detail, and as the union supporting the BA cabin crew were forced to reballot on the basis of a number of votes taken from workers who had already been made redundant, so now the RMT have had their noses bloodied for apparently collecting more 'yes' votes than there are workers in key areas, and balloting a number of signal boxes that don't exist.

I am sympathetic towards the trade union sides, particularly when you consider the sheer size of a national ballot and the organisation that must go into co-ordinating the voting. There are hundreds of thousands of ballot slips, to be delivered on time to the correct addresses, the response must be swiftly counted and the outcome delivered in a way that fully supports the media goals to be achieved from the outcome. It is an operation akin to a tap-dancing comedian delivering a long-winded joke to the most sceptical of audiences.

Even so, if the media stories about the RMT vote collections are true, it is vitally important that such things are not allowed to happen. As well as making all trade union supporters look like fools, it allows the management of companies like BA to undermine the efforts of those involved and use obfuscation to distort the true message that is being sent out.

It is little short of scandalous to see representatives of the main political parties criticising trade unionists for exercising their democratic right to strike. In these difficult financial times, low-paid workers do not desert their posts for days at a time for frivolous reasons. They do it, as the BA crews did, because they believe that cutting crew numbers leads to reduced safety for those on board and lower standards of service. They do it, as the RMT surely will when their members are re-balloted, because reduced maintenance could lead to more scenes like those at Hatfield and Potters Bar. It's worth remembering that while strikes may affect your holiday or travel plans in the short-term, it is the last resort option afforded to those who are there to deliver the service without the support of their own intransigent management.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

A City Lost to Tulips

A simple conversation with a work colleague today stirred a memory of a story I heard long ago that had been lost to me, and suddenly sprang back when I least expected it. The best stories are not those created by the fantasy of fertile minds, but rather those that are so fantastical in their truth that even the most inventive of minds could not have made them up. This is the story of a city lost because of tulips.

As already touched on in previous entries, I am something of a history buff (albeit one with a very bad memory for dates, and thus glad that Wikipedia is my friend) and this story begins in the 17th century, not long after the magical time of pirates and privateers in what was then called the New World. It is the story of a Dutch colony, the fine city of New Amsterdam.

In those times, governers of settlements were very rich men, and rich men spent their money on tulips. A single botanist was charged with the frenzy for the flower and he grew many unique varieties, the creation of which has since been credited to the unwitting introduction of a virus to the plant that caused explosively-colourful variations in the petals. So prized was the humble tulip that individual bulbs were bought and sold for ten times the salary of a skilled craftsman.

The tulip market was noted even then for its extreme volatility and in what may have been the world's first example of a credit crunch, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam was badly affected when the market collapsed in 1664. At the time, his country was at peace with England, but in a perfidious manner typical of the colonial powers at the time, the English sailed a number of frigates up the river into the settlement. The governor, unable to raise the funds to pay soldiers, had no choice but to ignominiously surrender his city to the English. New Amsterdam became New York, and the rest is history.

Of course, like all good stories, there is a certain amount of poetic license. Less than ten years later, the Dutch recaptured the city and renamed it again, only to cede it back to the English in return for the territory of Surinam. But in this instance I don't want fact to interrupt narrative. There is a certain wonder to a tale simply told, and I find this to be a wonderful story indeed.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

A way away

Well, it's been a few weeks since I was last on, and I'm blaming this squarely on the knee injury I picked up on the first day in Bulgaria. It's...ahem...far too painful for me to be sitting on a comfortable chair in my own front room and type. (This would actually be a good excuse not to go to work as well.) I'd also like to pretend that it's been because I've been so busy since I got back, but even though I made it to a fantastic showing of Les Miserables on Thursday evening, I haven't even had poker as an excuse.

Bulgaria...a strange country. In fairness, I saw only a very small part of it (mountains and ski resorts all look the same after a while) and my expectations were a little coloured by the things I'd heard and read. The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, which is fast becoming my bible of things I'd like to do and places I'd like to go, had an interview with one of those tedious Pop Idol types who had rated Bulgaria as the worst country she'd ever been to. Likewise, my work colleagues were warning me that on leaving Sofia airport, I could expect the bus to drive through a massive gypsy encampment. Scenes from Snatch ran through my mind, though the combination of a dreary day and delayed flight meant that I conspired to forget to notice it, if indeed it was there at all.

In terms of its landscape, Bulgaria had much in common with Britain, or any other northern European landscape. Sofia at night looked much the same as any former Eastern Bloc city, which is to say gunmetal gray buildings at perfect ninety degree angles, and half-scared people hiding behind small curtains in endless rows of flats. The way in which it differed greatly from the familiar is when you swap the city for the country, where dilapidated towns and villages seemingly composed entirely from rust are sinking into swampy marshland while signs for luxury apartments (not yet built) tempt canny foreigners into investing their hard-earned Euros.

The Bulgarian currency seems robust, the tourist trap mentality of those living near the resorts was plainly alive and well and the people we met seemed genuinely friendly and pleased to have us there. Overall, travelling abroad fills me, as it always does, with a surge of pride for blighty. We may moan about the bureaucracy, the climate and the way that things always seem worse than they were a year ago but I honestly could not imagine leaving the country of my birth for ever. I'd miss the drizzle, the low quality newspapers and those strange people who hang around the Tesco Metro after 9pm for no good reason. Yes, it's good to get away, but it's even better to get back. As long as it's not a weekday.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Not So Forward

Following in the recent trend of other people's writing and in the spirit of looking back, I discovered these comments about nostalgia in Vicky Coren's excellent poker memoir, 'For Richer or Poorer'.

"I think nostalgia is a primal emotion, like fear and anger and (maybe) love. It just seems otherwise , because it has a long name and is tricky to define out loud. So you might mistake it for one of those fiddly , sophisticated feelings like schadenfreude or low self-esteem. but nostalgia is simple, basic, instinctive and it was always there. You can see it in the face of a zoo monkey that once lived in the wild. Or even one that never did. It still knows that it has lost something."

Poker is something of a bittersweet pleasure for me at the moment. My lack of money means that I am playing far more than usual, and I am bonding with my poker friends more than usual. I have a regular Sunday night and Thursday night game, and have just had to turn down an invitation to a £10 rebuy event at a friend's in Attleborough (I really would have loved to go, live play is where it's at, after all, but I can't face the multitude problems of trying to find a new house, inevitable late night and ridiculous amounts of cigarette smoke all at once just now.) I am getting unlucky and playing badly, though I am doing enough not to lose money - I am just finding it hard to gain, which is frustrating in itself.

Despite enjoying my poker a lot, I am feeling a slight sadness at my own shortcomings at this time. My weekends should regularly consist of more than football scores and the odd push/pull dynamic at a loose 1c/2c table on Pokerstars. In less than two weeks, I will be 31 years old. In modern parlance, this is no excuse to stop acting like a teenager. Plenty of people I know do not own houses, do not have massively successful jobs or relationships. But unlike some, I have no excuse. I have the time, the intellect and a modicum of social awareness - I am simply too lazy to push myself for that better job, unwilling to spend those spare hours learning new things or going down the gym to work off that spare tyre. I am not a lonely man. I have learnt to enjoy my own company, have purposely chosen that this year should see no big celebration. Even so, I expect that I will have a busy week and getting to the pub, cinema and restaurants will require a bare minimum of browbeating. But I should be doing more, and it irritates me that I am still writing this instead.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Rocky Road to Dublin

In the merry month of May, from me home I started
Left the girls of Tuam nearly broken hearted, saluted father dear
Kissed me darlin' mother, drank a pint of beer
Me grief and tears to smother, then off to reap the corn
And leave where I was born, cut a stout blackthorn
To banish ghost and goblin
In a brand new pair of brogues
To rattle over the bogs, and frighten all the dogs
On the rocky road to Dublin
One, two, three, four, five

Hunt the hare and turn her
Down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin

In Mullingar that night, I rested limbs so weary
Started by daylight, next mornin' light and airy
Took a drop of the pure to keep me heart from sinkin'
That's the Paddy's cure, whenever he's up for drinking
To see the lasses smile, laughing all the while, at me curious style
'Twould set your heart a-bubblin'
They asked if I was hired, and wages I required, till I was almost tired
Of the rocky road to Dublin
One, two, three, four, five

In Dublin next arrived, I thought it such a pity
To be so soon deprived, a view of that fine city
Then I took a stroll
All among the quality, me bundle it was stole
In a neat locality
Something crossed my mind, then I looked behind, no bundle could I find
Upon me stick a wobblin', enquirin' for the rogue
They said me Connacht brogue wasn't much in vogue
On the rocky road to Dublin
One, two, three, four, five

From there I got away, me spirits never failin'
Landed on the quay just as the ship was sailin'
Captain at me roared. Said that no room had he
But when I jumped aboard, a cabin found for Paddy
Down among the pigs, did some hearty rigs, played some hearty jigs
The water round me bubblin'
When off Holyhead, I wished meself was dead, or better far instead
On the rocky road to Dublin
One, two, three, four, five

The boys of Liverpool
When we safely landed, called meself a fool
I could no longer stand it, blood began to boil, temper I was losin'
Poor old Erin's isle, they began abusin'
"Hurrah me soul," says I, my shillelagh I let fly
Some Galway boys were by and saw that I was a-hobblin'
Then with a loud hurray they joined in the affray, quickly cleared the way
For the rocky road to Dublin
One, two, three, four, five.

- Words and tune traditional

I heard this tune for the first time since my childhood only a couple of weeks ago. It brings back memories of my own father, not to mention the wonderful Irish family who did so much for me when I was living in Dublin all those years ago. I don't know what a shillelagh is, except that I wouldn't want to be hit by one. Plus it has the line 'Whack-fol-lol-de-ra' in it, and yet still rocks. The Dubliners version of this song is available on iTunes, and I heartily recommend it.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Why looking back is where it's at

So now I see why those bloggers I follow only manage to get something on their blogs once every few months. Turns out it's not just laziness...composing your thoughts takes effort! This is the first day I've felt coherent in a couple of weeks, so I suppose it doesn't matter that it's taken this long. It helps to have exams out of the way, to have the flat (relatively) clean, not to mention being rid of the fugitive from the law that I've been harbouring here for a week. Pleasant as her company has been, it's nice to have my own space back again.

The last couple of weekends have seen me at a pie festival in St Albans (yep, a figure like this takes work, believe it or not) and sampling sushi in Bristol, and I am now the proud owner of a heated mattress cover that makes getting out of bed in the mornings all that much harder. I have also tried to revitalise my poker game somewhat, which was proving very successful till a major dose of tilt yesterday evening undid a week's good work in an hour. Lessons, as they say, are indeed extra in this cruel game.

Cinema too has been inherently unreliable - I have finally seen two films (Daybreakers, 500 Days of Summer) that I have been trying to see for ages, only to find them both mediocre and disappointing. Paradoxically, I went to see Sherlock Holmes with a heavy heart, expecting a staple from literary history to be dragged through the mire of Hollywood saccharine, and was amazed to find myself enjoying it immensely. Robert Downey Jr portrays a younger Holmes than TV might have previously done, but perfectly balances his burgeoning genius with a strong sense of whimsical melancholy. I look forward to seeing Holmes' arch enemy, Moriarty, in the inevitable sequel.

Poring over the BBC magazine for intersting articles this week, I came upon a major piece about nostalgia. I am not a fan of Take That and was never gifted with a Rubik's Cube, but I was always keen on Angel Delight, and would love to see it still available on our shelves. Scientists have proven that nostalgia can be a very healthy feeling that evokes youthful exuberance and provides us with a sense of belonging. This will probably not be news to you any more than it was to me, but I was amazed to find out that for years, scientists have viewed nostalgia as a bad thing.

Nostalgia, taken from the Greek 'nostos' (return) and 'algos' (pain), has been a concern for the psychological establishment for several years, with a 2006 report from Psychology Today magazine suggesting that 'overdoing' reminiscence leads to a failure to derive joy in the present. But then, were things in the past ever all that good? Now, in these days of economic recession and terrorist threat, are they really all that bad?

The Standard Life report that brings about the article suggests that you can complete a 'Nostalgia Workout', focusing on the positive memories that you have, listing them in your mind and expanding the images as a reminder of how life was at that time. Call me cynical, but this seems a little too much like effort to me. Instead, I'm going to enjoy a Wispa bar in front of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The original, of course.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Obligatory Sports Blog 1

It's finally over.

I closed another chapter today, and am 4000 words nearer to that elusive AAT qualification. I hope the job market will be supportive when I finally arrive. Either way, the wine-and-adrenaline kick I've been riding since Monday has finally washed itself out and now the heavy cold and the exhaustion can fight it out with the copious amounts of lemsip coursing through my system in order to see which of them is in charge of the Friday ship.

Incidentally, the City College have earned themselves an honourary mention on my blog for the extremely poor standard of IT in their business premises. I love the way they can make a massive fuss at me for wearing jeans, but on deadline day it's okay that it takes the better part of an hour to find a working printer. Seriously guys, get your priorities in order. It's a bit early in the piece for this blog to start a 'Turkey of the Month' award but I'm seriously tempted, and let's face it, this blog is evidence that I already have too much time on my hands, so best not to push me.

So I'm doing my best to write some content that appeals to all my readership (and let's face it, so far I have a regular readership of 2, and they're only reading to make sure I'm not saying something rude about them.) One comment I had suggested that the blog could be livened up by resorting to man's lowest common denominator, which for the benefit of all the ladies in the house, is sport. So I have bowed to peer pressure and am unenthusiastically trying to find something to say about the state of English cricket.

At the best of times, writing about cricket is best left to the experts, like Haigh, Martin-Jenkins, Boycott, Atherton and Agnew. It gets ever tougher for me to have informed opinions, given that I am no longer in possession of a working Sky box and my enthusiasm for the game has been crushed under the weight of the 20-over plankfest that now passes for a one-day game. There were green shoots in the recent test series as England came close to snatching an entirely undeserved series victory in South Africa, but even as a fan, it's comforting in the end to note that the right result came about.

Paul Collingwood has been one of the rare positives in a poor series for England, and one in which the tail has frequently outperformed the openers with the bat. Collingwood has been an object of derision in the press for a bewilderingly long time now, despite his traditional English qualities of grit and delivering substance over style. He is also accused of negative play, but anyone who saw his joyful six over the head of Dale Steyn at the Wanderers when the game was already well out of England's reach, will surely know better.

Likewise, I am not about to jump on the 'Drop Pietersen' bandwagon. The batsman has had a poor series, but he is one of several. Stuart Broad, for example, would do well to button his lip and do his talking with the ball occasionally. Pietersen is the one player that offers something that no-one else does, and when he is at his best, he is a colossus, pure and simple. As a bowler, how do you plan an over when you know that whatever you do, you're going to be creamed? The anti-Pietersen brigade may do well to ponder his Ashes-saving 158 at the Oval in 2005 and wonder why we in England are so afraid of genius.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

An interest in why

After yesterday's fairly heavy subject, I'm going to veer wildly today from the imponderable to the inconsequential. That is, if I can tear myself away from Bejewelled Blitz long enough. Apart from anything else, I need to leave this chair soon to buy biscuits.

Haiti is still on my mind, and there are still thankfully stories of survivors coming from the buildings in and around the capital. Each story has a certain poignancy attached, and they are all worthy of a read. However, I've been branching out today and looking at other news in and around the subject of disasters and came upon a story in the BBC online magazine that echoed something I'd considered myself in the interim - namely, why does God allow disasters to happen?

Please, don't panic. I have not suddenly rejected my atheist roots, and I still love to watch Richard Dawkins pin down fundamentalists and thrash them with irrefutable scientific evidence (if you've never seen him in action, I recommend it as compulsive viewing. The man is like a bad-tempered mongoose with a doctorate and a grudge against the universe.) But those of you that I have imparted a little bit of personal knowledge to will possibly be aware that I have a burgeoning interest in theology. Or perhaps, less religion itself than the history of religion, where they were formed and by whom, and the paths they took as they travelled across the old world via the spice trade routes.

Whatever my reason for finding this interesting, it was still fairly spooky to come across a BBC article immediately afterwards with the same sentiment, and it's written far more intelligently and succintly than I could do myself. The url, if you're interested, is: Despite the stance of the article, some of my best friends over the years have been staunch Christians and Catholics, and as followers are currently an easy target for ridicule, it's a good time to point out that I respect their position, even if I don't share it. I also have some comments to make about Buddhism, but I'll save those for another time.

Nearly finished here for today. Just a quick final word, which is an advert for the Hairy Bikers new show, which is on every Tuesday for the next few weeks at 8pm on BBC2.

Yes, it may be taglined 'Mums know best', they may spend all their time hanging out with members of the Womens' Institute and I would cheerfully nominate them as the Queen Mothers of the TV Chef set. But thanks to a considerate friend, I have a copy of their latest cookbook, and I think it's fantastic. They were filming in Norwich for a while shortly before Xmas, and I'm gutted that I didn't find out about it in time to go and see them.

Monday, 18 January 2010

I have no skills, but I really want to dig

I have had a very slow day.

Perhaps it's the knowledge that I'm not in work for the next three days that makes each hour that I have been there tick along with agonising slowness. Despite myself, there is something more than that, though. I'm a great reader of news in all shapes and sizes, and it will have escaped no-one's attention that the news for the last few days has been focusing on the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and this news inspires a little more attention from me than most.

Bear with me here. I'm keen that this blog will be a positive and light-hearted look at the world, rather than another means to vent my myriad frustrations about things. But this quake has been described by UN officials as the worst humanitarian disaster that they have ever had to deal with, and it is a subject that touches me for a good reason.

I am my local trade union branch's International Officer (I especially love the ironic way that I type the capitals there.) It would be fantastic if this was a highly responsible post that resulted in James Bond-style adventure and plenty of exotic foreign travel, but in practise, it means that I get my own in-tray which is filled monthly with letters from different charities from around the world. It falls to me to research these charities, pick out the worthiest and then attempt to persuade a large number of sceptical union stewards to make small donations towards them from a central fund.

Make no mistake, it's a worthy job and I enjoy it very much. I may not get paid, but I constantly learn new things and I like to think that in some small ways, the money that we donate makes a difference. But as I crawled through my day job today with my usual listlessness, it occurred to me that with each passing minute, the chance of finding live people under the rubble of Port-au-Prince dwindles. An incident of this magnitude really brings home our impotence in the face of the world, and in that context, no donation of money really cuts to the quick for me.

I know that conducting rescues in itself is a highly skilled job, that it requires specialised equipment and training or the would-be rescuer is at best a hindrance and at worst a danger to themselves and others. But this isn't a rational feeling, one that reflects common sense and good judgement. I joined my trade union for no more reason than I wanted to help people, and I am feeling that same way now as I look at the pictures on the TV. I may have no skills, but I really want to dig.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A new blog!

It's amazing what I can find to do as an alternative to something unpleasant.

Against the advice of at least one friend, I have decided to start writing a blog. I have no idea, frankly, if I have anything interesting to say, but there are a couple of reasons for my decision.

Firstly, I have an accounting essay to hand in on Thursday of this week, and therefore anything is currently looking preferable to sitting down and composing a risk matrix. Yes, it has to be done, but I have study leave on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week and I can probably justify spending at least some of that time finalising my dull, fictitious account of the team that I work with.

Secondly, I have several friends who write occasional blogs on various topics, and while I always knew that they were intelligent and interesting people, it is still surprising to me just how knowledgeable and observant they are. This isn't intended in any kind of condescending way, but when you spend your time with friends drinking too much and making jokes, it's easy to forget the massive range of bizarre experiences and talents that make them who they are. This will only drift further from the point the longer I go on, so in short, having smart, interesting friends makes me want to be smarter and more interesting, and I strive accordingly.

Thirdly...and this is shameful to admit, but I love blogs. It's like having a diary that's a bit (but only a bit) secret. In addition to the friends above (who individually do such interesting things as work with prison inmates, love animals, are interested in morris dancing, play far too much poker than is healthy, are writing books and so much more) there are a million different blogs out there.

Before I created this, I was worried about whether I could find enough material to write about in a blog. Testing the water, I came upon the blog of an obese American family who seem to have made it their life mission to test out and rate every small town diner in their fine country. There are even pictures of the eternally grinning, rotund couple and their adorably chubby children, giving thumbs up to the camera while sweetcorn relish dribbles down their respective chins. I suspect that you haven't fully appreciated your life until you realise that other people really sit down in their free time and write their opinions on chicken fingers and chilli dogs. I should probably stress that this isn't sarcasm on my part. I'm going to bookmark them, because their smiling faces make me feel a little bit better about the world. Also, a ready made diner guide will probably be very useful if I ever get around to visiting America.

Well...this is it. Post one, I guess it was always going to be the hardest. And now, maybe no-one will ever read it and even if they do, they'll probably realise that everything they ever thought about me is true (and distressingly, it probably is.) Either way, I've actually surprised myself. I really could have written much, much more.

Oh, one more thing. When I was setting up this blog, I was given the option of filtering adult content (i.e. should I allow myself the luxury of an occasional swear word.) It may lack class in so many ways but I wouldn't be me if I didn't abuse this privilege. So here goes. Fuck arse cunt shit bollocks. There.