Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve

So farewell then 2007, the year when I got divorced without lifting a finger, became an FE lecturer and summer school celebrity (and thrashed the ex-junior champion of Oviedo City 21-19 at badminton), swam three lengths of a 25-metre pool without stopping once (well ok, maybe once), choo-chooed my way around Central Europe and stumbled up Scotland's fifth highest mountain.

Happy New Year.

Going Missing

After accidentally getting in the way of the ball during the Chelsea defeat, Newcastle captain and midfield clogger Alan Smith was kept in hospital overnight with suspected amnesia. Tests revealed he had no memory of taking part in the game and only a faint recollection of being on the pitch in the first place. Newcastle fans have had a similar problem for most of the season.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Free Rice

Give your brain a work out and feed The Starving Millions for free. Now, if only I could remember what propitious means...

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Assignment 9.1

Halfway there, and this one's a whopper.

Next up's Assignment 9.2 and 2,000 words on course planning. It's a struggle to keep my excitement in check, but I'll manage somehow.


(noun) the practice of visiting as many football grounds as possible.

The final total came to ninety-seven (seventy with Newcastle). I'm only counting grounds where I've actually seen football played, which rules out anywhere I've broken into through open turnstiles or gaps in fences (Slovan Bratislava, Viktoria Plzen, Nice), photographs of building sites (Osaka, Jeju and Incheon World Cup stadiums) and grounds I've been to for non-footballing reasons (the Asian Games at Busan World Cup Stadium and an REM concert at Huddersfield Town's McAlpine Stadium). Controversially, I'm also discounting places I've seen from plane (Allianz Arena, Bayern Munich), train (Stark's Park, Raith Rovers) or taxi (Hongkou Stadium, Shanghai Shenhua) windows.

English League Grounds (48)

Newcastle United; Manchester United; Manchester City (Maine Road); Arsenal (Highbury) Chelsea; Liverpool; Everton; Aston Villa; West Ham; Blackburn; Spurs; Birmingham; Bolton Wanderers (Burnden Park and the Reebok Stadium); Middlesbrough (Ayresome Park and The Riverside); Sunderland (Roker Park); Derby County (Baseball Ground and Pride Park).

Stoke City (Victoria Ground); Bristol City; Charlton; Ipswich; Crystal Palace; Barnsley; Southampton (The Dell); Sheffield United; Sheffield Wednesday; QPR; Coventry; Norwich; Leicester City (Filbert Street).

Nottingham Forest; Leeds United; Tranmere Rovers; Swindon Town; Hartlepool; Oldham; Luton Town.

Peterborough United; Bradford City; Notts County; Grimsby; Lincoln City; Wrexham; Darlington (Feethams and the Darlington Arena); Bury.

Non-League (11)

Oxford United; Stevenage; Rushden & Diamonds; Bishop Auckland (Kingsway); AFC Murton; Hebburn Town; Jarrow Roofing; Gateshead; Ramsbottom United; Holker Old Boys; York City.

Neutral (1)

Wembley (1996 Charity Shield; 1998 FA Cup Final)

Scottish (4)

Berwick Rangers; Hearts; Celtic; Rangers; Ayr United.

European (18)

Barcelona; RSC Anderlecht; AS Monaco; FC Metz; Ferencvaros; Halmstads BK; Dynamo Kiev (Olympic Stadium); Dinamo Zagreb; PSV Eindhoven; Bohemians; Royal Antwerp; Slovan Liberec; FK Jablonec; Catania; US Siracusa; Crusaders; Lansdowne Road; Windsor Park.

Asian (14)

Daejeon Citizen (Hanbat Stadium and Nonsan); Suwon Bluewings(Suwon Sports Complex); Busan Icons (Gudeok Stadium); Anyang Cheetahs (Anyang Sports Complex); Seongnam Ilwha (Seongnam Stadium); Ulsan Tigers (Ulsan World Cup Stadium); Daejeon World Cup Stadium (South Korea vs Italy, 2002 World Cup); Suwon World Cup Stadium (South Korea vs Australia, 2001 Confederations Cup; Spain vs Republic of Ireland, 2002 World Cup); Gwangju World Cup Stadium (South Korea vs Spain, 2002 World Cup); Seoul World Cup Stadium (South Korea U17s vs Argentina U17s).

Yokohama World Cup Stadium (Yokohama Marinos vs JEF United); Saitama World Cup Stadium (Urawa Reds vs Sanfreece Hiroshima); Omiya Park Soccer Stadium (Omiya Ardija vs Kyoto Purple Sanga).

Friday, December 28, 2007

Culture Shock

Marie, a Parisienne I worked with in Barnard Castle, is flying over for New Year, bringing foie gras and Sauternes, a fancy dessert wine from Bordeaux.

South Shields (typical party food: Pringles, lager, flavoured peanuts, pickled onions and mini-sausage rolls) might come as a bit of a shock.

Fitba Daft

I came across this site trying to decide between seeing Queen of the South, St Mirren or Hamilton Accies (an all too common quandary at this time of year). And that, plus the fact that I had an assignment I really didn't want to start, got me thinking about how many different football grounds I've been to.

After some hurried scribbling down and crossing out on the back of an envelope, I came up with ninety-four grounds in seventeen different countries, including the Nou Camp in Barcelona, the Stadion NSK Olimpiyskiy in Kiev (capacity: 100,000 dodgy leather jackets), the old Wembley and seven World Cup stadiums in Japan and Korea (Suwon, Yokohama, Saitama, Seoul, Daejeon, Ulsan and Gwangju).

A full list might eventually follow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Real Meaning of Christmas

Christmas, the time of peace and goodwill to all men, when we stuff our faces, run up ruinous debts, and celebrate the life of a young asylum seeker born in penury in a stable, surrounded by sheep and donkeys.

Those free council houses must have come later on.

A Family Christmas

Up at eight o'clock, but awake an hour earlier, stuck in bed till you hear "He's been". Three sacks in the living room, one in each corner; fruit and shiny new coins at the bottom of a stocking. Afterwards we drink mugs of tea, eat full English breakfasts and spend the morning lounging across the sofa with Christmas books and chocolate.

Lunchtime comes, and the table's set in time for the two o'clock toast, to absent friends and family. We eat seconds and thirds, a different plate for each kind of meat, clumsily spooning vegetables out of the once-a-year china. For what's left of the afternoon there are board games and heavy stomachs, paper crowns flattening your hair as you start the washing-up.

Teatime cakes and bottles of wine are polished off at six, spread across the Father Christmas placemats, now stained with gravy and bucks fizz. We pull supermarket crackers and pack saucers with pickled onions, posh cheese and biscuits, lettuce leaves and Christmas cake, with marzipan top and red cardboard sides. In the evening, after a special episode of Doctor Who, we sit in the front room with a DVD game, drink cans of beer still cold from the porch, and finally fall into bed.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

A forty-minute run to Temple Park and back, wrapped up in a scarf; two hundred and fifty pages of a Rebus novel; a couple of lesson plans; the first paragraph (first draft) of a short story about Christmas in Daejeon; cups of brandy and mulled wine, heated in a saucepan.

Minority Pursuits

Some unseasonal squabbling from the Anglican church, disputing head-count figures that threatened to make Britain - land of Armada routs, Good Queen Bess and the Glorious Revolution - a Catholic country. But with the number of people regularly attending church services now well below two million (a number only twice as high as the worshippers' average age), isn't this all a bit like arguing whether Men in Toolbelts or Garden Police is the most watched programme on Discovery Home and Leisure?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

At the Match

A dire two-all draw, salvaged by an overweight Australian with three minutes to go. I hadn't been to St James's for three years, and the only reason I was there today was because the ticket came free. Now I'm all grown up (and am not quite daft enough to blow £400 on a day-trip to Kiev, or take overnight buses to pre-season friendlies in Brussels) there are many things I'd rather do with £25 than watch eleven prima-donnas huff and puff their way around a pitch for ninety minutes.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Iced Up

Things to Do Today

In descending order of likelihood:

1. Watch Arsenal vs Spurs.

2. Drink lots of tea.

3. Water the Japanese Onion sets.

4. Tweak Assignment 8.1, sticking curriculum reference links on all the reading texts (next time, read the course handbook before you hand it in).

5. Wrap the Christmas presents using less than half a roll of sellotape.

6. Run off two days' worth of Christmas Party booze.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

End of Term

Ye olde Christmas tradition: on the last day of term, after an hour ticking off ILP targets, take your students down to the computer room and let them mess about on

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The State of Play

David Conn nails the malaise of modern day football - the game that ate itself.

Assignment 7.2

Six pages on Theoretical Frameworks: using a dictogloss to teach Narrative Tenses. I gave up on life after the second paragraph. It gave up on me after the third.

How to Win At Rock, Scissors, Paper

Perhaps the world's best-known form of diplomacy, Rock, Scissors, Paper is to hand based games what Coca Cola is to fizzy drinks. In Burma they call it General, Gun, Surrender; all over Korea you'll see kids gai-bai-boing their way up staircases; Mongolians play a complex version involving finger hierarchies; the Japanese have even developed regional variations.

Note to self: never start with paper, especially when drunk.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Spot the Difference

Same report, same headline, same news story: a full-toss from the Telegraph and an outrageous piece of spin in the Daily Mail.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

History Lessons

"When I refused to provide any information, the guards grabbed me and dragged me out of his office. After taking me down into the hallway they laid me out on a stretcher and strapped me on. The stretcher was then stood on end with my head almost touching the floor and my feet in the air. They then began pouring water over my face and at times it was impossible for me to breathe without sucking in water. The torture continued and continued."

The testimony of John Henry Burton, an American witness at the Yokohama War Crimes Tribunal. His torturer, a Japanese officer named Yukio Asano, was sentenced to 15 years hard labour on charges that included the use of waterboarding described above, an interrogation technique whose use Dick Cheney calls a "no-brainer" - "We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.
Two and two makes five.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Things To Look Forward To

As my working week increases so does the energy I put into planning holidays: a week and a half in Morocco - the high Atlas mountains, Sahara sand and Atlantic beaches - over Easter, followed by seven days' hiking in the Slovak Tatras and a week in Spain to tide me over the summer break.

But first comes the six months of work I need to pay for it all...

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Big Switch Off

Spotted in the Telegraph:

One in three employees - an estimated nine million people - will ''mentally switch off'' for Christmas at 5pm on Friday and do virtually no work next week. Instead they will pass the nine to five routine on office gossip, long lunches, shopping trips and looking for holiday destinations for next year.

It's a wonder anyone can tell the difference.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Not Proven

It's been a bad week for Jacqui Smith. Reporting earlier today, the home affairs select committee found "no evidence that there was a case for extending the pre-charge detention beyond 28 days" - not the first time this government has mistaken pigheadedness for strength in attempting to push through a grossly illiberal measure. Worryingly though, Keith Vaz chose to parrot Smith's nonsense phrase "pre-charge detention" in his judgement - we obviously haven't heard the last of this one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Them and Us

So, the use of waterboarding in 'enhanced interrogations" (or torture, as it's called when people we don't like are doing it) is "a policy made at the White House, with concurrence from the national security council and justice department."

To use the methods of terror against terror suspects is not only a moral capitulation - making us no better or worse than them - it's also the surest way of recruiting the next generation of jihadis to the cause.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Not A Day Longer

From Amnesty and the Liberal Conspiracy, a campaign against the charade of 42 days detention without charge.

Hagwons Not Happy

Lifted from the Marmot's Hole: new Korean visa regulations in not really thought through properly shock!

Under the new rules, Canadians - who fortunately only make up around half of all the foreign teachers in Korea - will have to fly home every year to get their documents renewed. This might, I imagine, prove to be a bit of a disincentive when it comes to signing up for another twelve-month contract.

Or is that just me?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bolt from the Blue

An email from my ex-wife, a seven-sentence bombshell. She's pregnant, and under Czech law unless I send an officially notarized document (at my expense!) explaining that I haven't laid eyes on her for well over a year, I automatically go down as the father on the birth certificate. It's absurd, in this day and age, for the law to assume paternity on the basis that a child is born fewer than nine months after two people get divorced. Hopefully, this will finally be the end of it.

A Dull Weekend

What a weekend! Gale-force winds, rain and slate grey skies. Except for Newcastle's last-minute winner, the most excitement I've had is when it started lashing down with rain while I was cleaning out the greenhouse guttering. I used the miserable weather to catch up on some overdue work: the brain-numbing task of copying and pasting curriculum links to a scheme of learning, checking ILPs and listlessly ploughing my way though another assignment - a thousand words on using authentic materials to teach English.

"I don't regret a second of it".

Whatever else you may think of her, you've got to admire Gillian Gibbons' positive outlook on life: locked up in the Sudan just for naming a teddy bear and still not a bad word to say about the place. Next stop on her world tour of authoritarian hotspots is China, where she'll be hoping to get more use out of the Dalai Lama play mat, Guangdong Army Monopoly and Tiananmen Square flashcards.

Power to the People

The peerless Henry Porter on what happens to power without accountability.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Pick a Number

Ninety, twenty-eight, fifty-six, forty-two - after losing the debate for a second time, the government tries a bit of haggling to up the limits on detention without charge.

What next, ID cards two for a pound?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Good News Story

From the website of the Daily Mail (I just moved the words a little closer together):

The number of drivers slapped with a speeding fine by 'Mad Mullah' Richard Brunstrom's police force has soared eight-fold in less than a decade, shock figures revealed last night..."we have reduced deaths on the road by 21 per cent, serious injuries by 51 per cent and slight injuries by 22 per cent".

You don't think the two could be connected somehow, do you?

Nah, me neither.

It's That Time of Year Again...

The Guardian's top ten ways to avoid a Christmas overspend.

It's simple, really: this year, don't buy lots of shit that you don't actually need. Hey presto, an instant money saver.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Deja Vu

Breaking news from the BBC:

"New intelligence saying Iran may not be developing nuclear weapons is nevertheless a "warning sign", US President George Bush has said.
Mr Bush stressed that the National Intelligence Estimate said Iran was still trying to enrich uranium, and could restart its weapons programme."

Or, of course we know they're not doing it, but until they can prove they're not doing it, we'll act like they're doing it anyway.

Now if only I could remember where I'd heard all this before...

Blaming the Little People

"Staff at Northern Rock have been handed bumper pay rises and a £200 Christmas bonus, even though the bank owes the taxpayer almost £30billion," flaps the Daily Mail. The pay rises are "disgraceful and entirely inappropriate" scream shareholders, "Why should employees, who have good pay packages anyway, be rewarded when we lose money?"

Funny isn't it? For years directors awarded themselves millions of pounds in bonuses without a peep out of shareholders as long as the dividends - all dependent on a high-risk business model - kept rolling in. And now listen to the screams when people who stand behind counters all day get a few hundred quid extra. Not for them the luxury of playing the stock market: they're more concerned with feeding their kids and keeping a roof over their heads. Let's either nationalise this wreck or flog it off to anyone prepared to guarantee taxpayers' money and 6,000 jobs. If the shareholders don't like it, tough - any fool knows markets can go down as well as up.

Albert Hakim

From Iran-Contra to English teacher. TEFL attracts all sorts of refugees - of one kind or another.

No ID - The Pledge

As we blindly edge nearer the introduction of compulsory ID cards, the campaigners at NO2ID have started an online pledge, "a personal and public declaration that you will refuse to comply with government control of your identity". You can sign it here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Damned Utd

"Gentlemen, I might as well tell you now. You lot may have won all the domestic honours there are and some of the European ones but, as far as I am concerned, the first thing you can do for me is to chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest fucking dustbin you can find, because you've never won any of them fairly. You've done it all by bloody cheating ..."

Brian Clough says hello to the players of Leeds United.

I've just finished The Damned Utd by David Peace, possibly - probably? definitely? - the best book ever written about football. Mixing fact and fiction, internal monologues and real events, there's a chapter for each of Clough's 44-days at Elland Road, interspersed with flashbacks to Derby, Hartlepool and Brighton, players' strikes, boardroom bust-ups and bloody-minded genius. A Shakespearean tragedy in a stream-of-conscious rant, it's almost as good as Old Big Head himself.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Assignment 11.1


To Standard

That's another observed lesson out of the way, an hour of Narrative Tenses based around an interview with Paul McCartney.

It's all downhill from here on. Possibly in more ways than one...

A Selective View

South America is "sliding into dictatorship," warns Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. "Ten years ago, every country in South America, with the arguable exception of my native Peru, was a liberal democracy. Not any more." No mention, you notice, of the decades before that, when tens of thousands were disappeared under brutal right-wing dictatorships, unless you count the sole laughable smear against Iran, whose "diplomats have been implicated in a terrorist attack in Argentina that killed 80 people."

The School of the Americas; Operation Condor; Pinochet and Stroessner; Jose Velasco and Arosemana; Joao Goulart replaced by Branco's death squads; Dan Mitrione; Iran-Contra. "The poor are as poor as ever," says Hannan. Not quite.

Not quite.

Bali: The Last Chance Saloon

Ten years after Kyoto, greenhouse gas emissions hit a new record high. With every small step forward, governments take a larger step back. That's not an excuse for giving up: as history shows, every positive change ever made has come upwards from the people.

Dodgy Dealings

More spin and muckraking in the Mail on Sunday's join-up-the-dots exclusive: "SECOND donor Iranian-born car dealer who is not even entitled to vote in general elections". Mahmoud Khayami, a French citizen who is entitled to vote in both local and European elections, has given over £800,000 in just eight months, starting just "24 hours after becoming legally allowed to do so". It gets worse: "Had he made the payment 48 hours earlier both he and the Labour Party would have been committing a criminal offence."

Let me run through the evidence just one more time: there's no suggestion that Khayami has broken any rules in either his business dealings or party donations, he pays UK taxes, is a legal resident, and is listed on the Electoral Roll. The only allegation that could possibly stick is that the Labour Party gave him advice on how he could go about making donations legally. It's hardly Asil Nadir, is it?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Devil Beats Darwin

Apparently nearly two thirds of the population of the USA think Hell is a real place, and four in five believe in miracles. They must've all been watching the news from Iraq these past four years - and hoping.

Bigmouth Strikes Again

This morning's back pages are dominated by £45,00 a week Joey Barton's bleating about the "vicious" atmosphere at St James' Park. It makes a change to see Barton in the news for something other than fighting with teenagers, using a youth team player's face as an ashtray or beating up a team-mate on the training pitch, but he'd be better off concentrating on what he actually gets paid to do: the only productive thing I've seen him manage in a black and white shirt is to leave a set of studmarks on a Sunderland player's chest.

Not that I was complaining at the time.

Caught Out

Ex-New York mayor and Tony Soprano wannabe Rudy Giuliani's in trouble again, this time accused of getting the taxpayer to fork out for eleven official trips to the Hamptons home of his mistress.

Giuliani denials are conveniently lacking in detail, citing "security" while refusing to explain a $34,000 bill for travel expenses. Maybe what this case needs is a little intensive questioning...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Three Years for Murder

Well, what else would you call it?

Life's Little Ironies

A government complicit in the slaughter of thousands arrests a teacher for naming a teddy bear. In a more enlightened part of the world, Christians campaign against a children's film that "bashes atheism and promotes Christianity. To kids". A deliberate misquote, but what difference would it really make if I swapped those two words back?

I guess some people just don't like competition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

There May Be Trouble Ahead

According to a new survey, two million British people have run up debts they can't afford to repay, eight million are "stretched to breaking point" and another nine and a half million are just a mobile phone bill or two away from their credit limit - and yet one in ten plan to borrow more to pay for Christmas.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Only in Japan

I can't imagine this catching on around here: you'd only end up getting smacked about by some ten-year-old in hooped earrings, a stripey jumper and a pair of knock-off trainers.

And deserving it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Korean Crackdown

In their ongoing campaign against the scourge of "native English teachers who disrupt social order with taking drugs, committing sexual harassment and alcohol intoxication" the South Korean government have come up with more stringent visa application procedures, including face-to-face interviews with consular staff, criminal record checks, and medical examinations before and after arrival. I doubt the latest crackdown will last: at the first teacher shortage it'll disappear as fast as a bottle of soju down a salaryman's throat.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Open Goal

This looks interesting. And published in Newcastle too.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


An utter shambles from start to finish. Predictable tactics that failed from the first minute of the game, no leadership on or off the pitch and barely a scrap of passion all afternoon. Is Allardyce the last expensive blunder of Freddy Shepherd's time in charge? On today's performance, we're no better off than we were under Glenn Roeder - or even Graeme Souness.

False Sense of Security

Just wait until we all have biometric ID cards: no more fretting about computer disks gone missing in the post and identity theft a thing of the past.

Or maybe not.

Friday, November 23, 2007

John Pilger's The War on Democracy, Palestine is Still the Issue and Stealing a Nation, the complete series of The Trap, and Robert MacNamara talking through The Fog of War. All free - which is more than be said for most of the people they portray.

After the Snow

When I woke up it started to snow: brief flurries continuing on and off for the rest of the morning, turning to water the moment they hit the ground.


Remember the bad old days when Tory governments sold off national assests for a pittance? They never went away.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

In These Times

"I am a man without a country, except for the librarians and In These Times." High praise from the late Kurt Vonnegut. In this month's issue, Billy Liar Rudy Giuliani digs himself a hole.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Going Nowhere

Did I say that England would get found out next summer? Obviously, what I really meant was next week...

Nuclear Free

"It is dangerous in the extreme that in the cauldron of animosities we call the Middle East, one nation has armed itself, ostensibly, with stockpiles of nuclear weapons, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and that inspires other nations to do so."

The words of General Lee Butler,the commander in chief of the US Strategic Command, quoted as long ago as 1994. The nation in question? Not the future whipping-boys of Iran or Iraq, but Israel, that client state par excellence.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Something to Hide?

Paul Gray, chairman of HM Revenue & Customs resigns after a major breach of security involving taxpayers' personal details. At the same time, the government presses ahead with plans to make taxpayers hand over more of their personal details: a compulsory ID card system with details spread across existing databases; credit-card details and personal information collected everytime you book a flight.

The innocent have nothing to hide? Tell that to an identity fraudster.

More on Benefit Reforms

Lots of talk in this morning's papers about the 2,000 Incapacity Benefit claims from obese people, the sixty people unable to work due to nail disorders, the 50,000 alcoholics, and the million plus who, acording to the Daily Mail's Edward Heathcoat-Amory (brother of Tory MP David), "say they suffer from back ache or mental problems, which conveniently are the two most easy conditions to fake".

What you won't hear so much about, of course, are the hundreds of thousands of people like my dad, who put in forty years of backbreaking manual labour straight from school, handling heavy machinery outdoors in all kinds of weather, and ended up with Vibration White Finger and chronic lower back problems. Or the workers who got stuck in asbestos-ridden or otherwise dangerously polluted workplaces for decades before anyone stopped to think - or care - about the lasting effects on their health. "Make life tough for the idle," Heathcoat-Amory says. As if he even knows the meaning of the word.

In The Right Direction

Tough talk from Gordon Brown in his first major speech on the environment: UK carbon emissions down 80% on current levels by 2050, 20% of all energy to come from renewable sources in 2020, door to door energy efficiency advice in Britain's fifty poorest areas and moves towards a total ban on the 13-billion single use carrier bags handed out annually, most of which end up hanging from tree branches and clogging up landfill sites.

The question remains, (how) will all of this be put into practice? As Arctic explorer Pen Hadow says, "Nine out of ten to Gordon Brown for talking the talk - but now is the time to walk the walk."

Monday, November 19, 2007

Benefit Reforms

British benefit claimants becoming British workers into British jobs. At last, South African Peter Hain, the work and pensions secretary, comes up with a soundbite the BNP would never dare use. Too many syllables, see?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sign of the Times

Fun and games in South Korea, where a government-run boot camp uses military drills to treat some of the country's estimated 250,000 internet-addicted teenagers.

Thanks to Reza Akhlaghi (who's obviously still spending too much time online himself) for the link.

Lucky England

I guess that's why so many Scottish people really hate the English football team: they get stuck in by far the toughest group, play out of their skins to beat France home and away, stuff the Ukrainians, and then fall bravely (I won't the use the word unluckily because Ferguson was offside and Di Natale wasn't) at the very last hurdle, having pounded the World Champions for forty-five minutes. England, meanwhile, get drawn in a group they arrogantly deride as 'easy,' play like total knackers, and yet still look like scraping through thanks to the efforts of other teams.

If it's any consolation Scotland fans, you know Lampard and co. will get found out again next summer. Until then, it's probably best to cover your ears.

Planting Out For Winter

I came over all traditional the other day and got myself a Poinsettia for Christmas. It's very red, as these things often are. I picked up this Skimmia Japonica Rubella - just £1.49, a steal! - at the same time, to add a bit of winter colour to an otherwise drab corner of the garden.

Talk is Cheap

"I'm not a nationalist," says ex-Wigan boss Paul Jewell, "but I believe that if you're good then regardless of what language you speak and however you speak it, you should be judged on your results."

"The problem we have is British managers don't seem to be given opportunities. I'm not saying I should be manager of a top club, but we need to be judged on our merits. If Mourinho was manager of Derby, would they be second or third in the league? I guess not."

And if Curbishley, Allardyce, Jewell or any of the other moaners had been manager of Porto, would they have won the UEFA Cup and Champions League in consecutive seasons? Judging by their results, unlikely: the closest any of them got to a trophy was a Carling Cup final.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Joined-Up Thinking

With the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about to deliver its latest damning report, Britain prepares to cut the budget of the department fighting - you guessed it - climate change.

In Go The Tulips

Detention Without Charge

The director of public prosecutions hasn't asked for it, the last attorney general is flat against it. Which begs the question, who apart from the Prime Minister is in favour of raising the limit from 28 days? Ian Blair, the discredited chief of the Metropolitan Police, for one, who's informed the home affairs select committee he would like an extension to between 50 and 90 days. Very specific.

Blair also revealed that since July 2006, when the limit was increased to four weeks, 11 terror suspects have been detained for between 14 and 28 days. Eight were subsequently charged. No need to raise the limit for them. For the other three, released without any charge being made, would the situation have been any different if the police had kept them locked up for another month or two? How long does it take to admit that you're wrong?

Out Again

A meaningless exercise on a freezing night in Vienna, five days before potentially the most important game of the year. Now Michael Owen's out for another month, this time with a thigh strain. What exactly was he doing on the pitch anyway? He's been playing regularly for over a month so he hardly needed the extra match practice, and it's well-known that players coming back from a serious injury are prone to extra knocks and muscle strains. Besides, with Rooney out for the important business on Wednesday, last night should've been used to audition the understudies, not risk the leading man.

For Newcastle, at least we have Obafemi Martins. In the meantime, I hope the FA will be picking up the bill.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Flip Side

The British have always been susceptible to wanderlust, a trait that helped create an empire and has given the globe its common tongue. Even today, we remain the most dispersed nationality on the planet. There are 41 countries where at least 10,000 Britons reside and a further 71 with British communities of more than 1,000 souls.

Another thought on the latest set of immigration figures.

Xenophobes United

There are so many strands of irony to this story, I barely know where to start. Maybe with Ashley Mote, ex of the UK Independence Party, now banged-up for benefit fraud...

Habeas Corpus

Wise words from Shirley Williams.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Food / Air Deal

Overpopulation is the elephant in the room of the climate change debate. But Chris Davies is coming at the problem from the wrong way round. It's not families in the developed world that need to cut down on having children - the UK birthrate long ago dropped below two children below women; a few years ago, before the latest round of immigration scares, we were even facing the prospect of a declining population.

Therein lies the answer: as people get richer and better educated, so birth rates begin to fall. Fair Trade, more aid and extra classrooms - we don't lack the solution, only, as usual, the will to implement it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Learning Fast: Detention without Trial

So is he convinced or isn't he? Security Minister Lord West says he's just a "simple sailor" and not a politician - just as well, seeing as he has never been elected to office - but he's already had the most important lesson: never speak your mind; and if you do, backtrack fast, hunker down, blame the media, and issue a clarification.

Which reminds of a quote from another kind of sea lord, Winston Churchill, as apt today as it was half a century ago: "The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgement of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist." A bit long winded, but you get the point.

Railway Rhymes

To mark the opening of of the new St Pancras, here's the ten best railway poems ever written.

Putting On The Brakes

"The tabloids throw up their hands in horror at every other species of crime. They praise the police and demand that the forces of law be given greater powers and that lawbreakers serve longer sentences. But on this issue alone, the tabloids take the opposite position. Richard Brunstrom, the North Wales police chief who is waging war on speeders, is denounced by the Daily Mail as the "mad mullah of the traffic Taliban". The Sun calls him "barmy" and "a politically correct prat". So much for their demands for zero tolerance."

The great George Monbiot on the junk science, hypocrisy and twisted truths of the anti-speed camera lobby.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


This afternoon, after I'd finished raking over the lawn and shaking out compost bags, I started planting in the garden for spring. Snowdrops and Alliums in containers by the wall, Muscari and Ixia for the wheelbarrows under the tree, a mixed bag of Crocuses to be dotted around the border, and three types of Greigii Tulips to fill the holes in between.

Counting the Cost

Another bout of puritannical ravings from the anti-alcohol fanatics at the Nuffield Council for Bioethics. Binge drinking's a serious problem, but the answer lies in better alcohol education starting from an early age, not a blanket punishment for every drinker: it's no coincidence that alcohol abuse in Southern European countries, where children are brought up to drink small amounts with meals and adults aren't flogged to death at work, is much lower than in Britain. And while there's definitely an argument for clamping down hard on under-age drinking, our taxes on alcohol are already among the highest in the EU - much higher than in problem countries such as France, Italy or Spain.

The Dustbin of Europe

Statistics, statistics, statistics: 17.9 million tonnes of waste dumped in landfill in 2005, another 16.9 million in 2006; 58% of all municipal waste is now buried in the ground; recycling and composting account for 30.7%, up 3% in a year. The figures are improving, slowly, but so are everyone else's: France, with an almost identical population, dumps just 12 million tonnes a year; in most categories, Germans recycle around twice as much as we do.

A small pat on the back, then, but much more work is needed, and fast: we've already dedicated an area the size of a small city (109 square miles) exclusively for landfill, and we'll run out of space altogether within the next decade at our current wasteful rates. The days of throwing rubbish away without a thought are over - the only question is has the government left itself enough time to cajole, or merely to coerce?

Coming soon, a football club run by internet, with twenty-thousand owners deciding on everything from day-to-day expenses to Saturday afternoon's starting eleven. I suppose it was only a matter of time.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Winter Sunset

Roger's Profanisaurus

It's long since past its best, but The Viz hasn't completely lost its touch. From Roger Mellie's Magna Farta, the annual edition of foul-mouthed lexicography:

Abra-kebabra - An illusion performed after a night on the raz whereby a kebab is made to disappear down the performer's throat, only to reappear a short time later on the back of a taxi driver's head.

Alcofrolic - A regrettable act of carnal knowledge embarked upon while drunk.

Bee Gees Bite - The first mouthful of extremely hot food that forces the eater to perform the falsetto "ah-ha-ha-ha" intro to Stayin' Alive.

Giraffiti - Graffiti sprayed very high up.

Hotel Toast - A woman who used to be hot.

Nagasaki Tan - A sunbed induced glow of such ferocity that it appears the owner was present at the detonation of an atom bomb.

Peemale - A man who pisses while sitting down.

Sicasso - A colourful bit of pavement art in which can be seen figurative elements of diced carrots, peanuts and crisps.

UB40 Winks - Mid-afternoon nap taken after a hard morning at the telly face.

On The Leash

While Gordon Brown reigns in public sector pay for teachers, nurses and fire fighters, there's still plenty of room at the trough for some. Clearly, the best way to get a whacking great pay rise is to be very, very bad at your job.

Fighting for Democracy

Having got their fingers burnt trying to increase the limit on detention without trial to ninety days, the government's being very coy this time round, though the expectation is they'll push for fifty-six days, double the current limit. As the Guardian reveals, that's already the highest of any major democracy: Australia comes next at only twelve days; the USA, Germany and South Africa make do with two; even the Russians think five days is enough. What message does this send out to the world? As we fight for democracy abroad, lets's not abandon it at home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

All Set For Spring

I've been eyeing-up bulbs this weekend: English bluebells for underneath the crab apple tree and some yellow tulips to go in a set of glazed plant pots, currently stuffed with newspaper and stored under plastic in the cold frame. Early sweet peas, sowed last month for overwintering, inch upwards in the greenhouse, almost empty now the last remaining tomato plants have been tipped in the compost.

TV Heaven

A new series of The Street and Smiley's People repeats on BBC 4. Almost worth the licence fee on their own.

Lessons From The Past Few Weeks

1. If a player's carrying an injury, like Claudio Cacapa against Portsmouth, and you have a fully-fit option in reserve, play the reserve. Likewise, don't throw half-fit players straight into the team, especially if, like Joey Barton, they play as box-to-box midfielders.

2. Play the man in form, not the one with the superstar name.

3. Unless it's absolutely necessary, never play anyone out of position. This leaves your side unbalanced, and people playing against their instincts. In extreme cases, it results in moments of frustration like Joey Barton's yesterday (Stevie Gerrard used to do exactly the same, only TV pundits didn't draw attention to it half as often).

4. If a player is not putting enough effort in, name and shame him publicly. If, on the other hand, a player makes a genuine mistake in the course of a game, never criticise him in the media: keep everything in-house. All you end up with is a demoralised player, making even more mistakes.

5. Play to your strengths. If your best players are attackers, gear your side to giving them service. If you rely on the weak link in your team, and it buckles, then the blame lies with you alone.

6. When you move from one club to another, unless you bring your whole playing staff along with you, be prepared to adapt your tactics.

7. When the opposition is rocking, go for the jugular. It only takes a second's play in your penalty area - as happened at Reading, and almost again yesterday - for you to lose what you're trying to hang on to. Take advantage of the opposition's weakness; if you don't, they invariably end up taking advantage of yours.

8. If you play every away game looking for a draw, you'll lose more often than you win.

Murdered Abroad

The story of poor Meredith Kircher gets more grotesque by the day, but at least her parents have the scant consolation of seeing her killers behind bars. In Japan, the murderer of Lindsay Ann Hawker, strangled and left to rot in a bathtub, is still on the run more than six months later.

Same Old Tories

Jobs for the boys: a convicted perjurer, back in the fold. Green David Cameron and a private jet flight home from Paris. The man who bankrolls the party won't say whether he still lives in tax exile or not (the Tories don't mind that kind of immigration). And yet another bout of soul-searching over the legacy of Enoch Powell...

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is right, we need to be very careful about stigmatising Muslims, unless we want to play into the hands of the radicals. That's why I'm so strongly against indiscriminate stop and search, politicians stoking up fear, and the holding of people for months without trial. But his misguided analogy between the tube train bombers and the IRA smacks of a head in the sand refusal to accept reality: we didn't call the Provos Catholic terrorists because they murdered in the name of politics, not religion. The Jihadists won't lay their arms down if we redraw the borders or pull our troops out of Iraq: their holy war won't stop until the world is shaped in their warped image. They have no demands that we can meet. Dr Bari misses another point too: integration never works equally from both sides; for better or worse, it's always the job of the incomer to adapt. When he calls for more morality, people covering up in public and homosexuality being "unacceptable from the religious point of view," I think of Muslim women killed by their families for falling in love with the wrong man, and Saudi religious police leaving teenage girls to die in a blazing school.

A Nothing Game

The big difference between last week and this is that we weren't playing against a decent side. Allardyce displayed the same worrying failings: half the team played out of position, the same old favourites on the pitch, and negative stick with what you've got tactics when the opposition were clearly there for the taking.

On the bright side, that's now seven years undefeated, and a whole decade longer since they last beat us at the dark place.

Right Here, Right Now

Over at Curly's Corner Shop, photos of a damaged sea wall and coastal erosion by the pier. People talk of climate change as if it's something that might possibly occur in the future when, in reality, it's already with us, and has been for some time. Take rising sea levels, for example: it's not just your grandkids that should be worrying.

Derby Day

The swerve of O'Brien's free-kick on the way to eleven-in-a-row. Going to school the morning after the play-off game: exterminate all the brutes. Two-one down at home - in the rain, and off to Korea in a few weeks' time; two-all in the return, listening in a PC Room in Busan, on the edge of Gwangalli Beach. In the home end with my brother and my dad, jumping up and down when the equaliser went in. A 2-1 win in the last game at Roker Park, away fans 'offically' banned. Shearer's penalty miss at night in Daejeon, and Solano's going in on the World Service in Siracusa: the sound of static and the Ionian Sea. Up and down a street in Goa trying to find a bar, while Emre scores the winner from thirty yards at the Gallowgate End. Listening to Shearer's last ever goal on the radio, and thumping them four-one.

Come on Newcastle.

Friday, November 09, 2007

What can they know of England...

...who only England know? The always interesting Coming Anarchy has kicked-off a discussion on how living overseas helps you discover more about your home country. (A side note, amid all the hoo-ha about immigration, we should never forget that it's a two-way process: countless British people make their living abroad).

Even me: I spent the bulk of my 20s overseas, first in South Korea, then Sicily, the Czech Republic, Japan and, finally, China. I learnt a lot about myself, and about Britain too, looking in from the outside. Especially, I often felt more in touch with my fellow Europeans than with many of my trans-atlantic, Anglo-Saxon cousins: in truth, we're divided by more than just a common language nowadays. On the other hand, it seems ridiculous to think of people in terms of national borders. To paraphrase James Connolly, there is much more that unites rather than divides us. Coming home, it's always struck me as risible to be lectured on Englishness by The Sun reading Benidorm brigade. We were all of us immigrants once upon a time.

Citizens of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our passport stamps.

Or something like that.

Big Sam Out?

As some of you may have gathered, I'm not Sam Allardyce's biggest fan: his tactics are one-dimensional, he favours certain players over others, and he spends too much time whingeing about foreign managers (Juande Ramos won the UEFA Cup twice and took Seville within a whisker of the title on a budget one-tenth the size of Real Madrid or Barcelona. Show me an English manager who's done anything remotely similar). I'll even own up to labelling him a fat Glenn Roeder in the wake of last week's disaster. Still, it's utterly ridiculous to talk about sacking him after just thirteen games. We've been down that route too many times already.

Just Another Tax

Today's Guardian has more details on the latest cost projections for ID cards. "The report to parliament admits that the estimate is likely to change...the tendering process, with eight private firms bidding to run the scheme, has just started." Better make that, the estimate is likely to change significantly. And guess who'll end up footing the bill?

I've carried ID cards before, when I lived in South Korea and Japan. The cards had a photograph and very basic personal details, and were issued free of charge at the local Immigration Office. I only ever had to produce them in banks and government offices: nobody ever stopped me on the street; most of the time they were left sitting at home anyway. I wonder why our system has to be so much more complicated?


The perfect cold night pick-me-up: a twelve quid Amazon voucher courtesy of Igougo for posting my travel photos online. I ordered Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky, Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari, and Congo Journey by Redmond O'Hanlon, then chucked in a couple of Christmas presents to make up the free postage.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Liberal Conspiracy


A Thought On Detention Without Trial

In this country we like to pride ourselves on learning from our mistakes. We don't do hysterical reactions to terror attacks, or countenance the erosion of our fundamental rights and freedoms. And if we do, we soon row back. So here's a warning from the past: from 1971 to 1975 the British government practised Internment on members of the Provisional IRA. The policy was a complete failure, contributing to the imposition of direct rule, the radicalisation of thousands of young Republicans and, in the words of one serving officer at the time, it "increased terrorist activity, perhaps boosted IRA recruitment, polarised further the Catholic and Protestant communities and reduced the ranks of the much needed Catholic moderates."

Sound familiar? It soon will.

The Health and Safety Mantra

Whatever you may think of Norman Bettison's attack on "the armchair perfection" of "the health and safety Taliban," his timing - just days after the Jean Charles de Menezes' verdict - stinks. We know where the old certainties led us: to a blameless man dead on a tube train, eight bullets pumped into the back of his head.

The Cost of ID Cards

Now only £5.612 billion for the next ten years. And that's just the estimate: have you ever known a government project that didn't end up with a massive cost overrun?

A Windy Day

Yesterday's leaf piles are scattered all around, racing crisp packets, fast food cartons, cigarette ends and newspaper inserts along pavements and across roads. Plastic bags flap like tattered flags in the branches of a tree; underneath, the leaves lie as thick as a snow drift. One street down, under flashing Christmas lights, inflatable Santas bob around on a concrete drive; next door's For Sale sign pounds against a fence post.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Rail Revolution

The new Eurostar teminal is finally open. Time to sketch out those overland trips to Venice and Morocco...or maybe just a weekend in Lille.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007


A couple of weeks ago I applied for a job by mistake. This afternoon I smartened myself up and gave some highly perceptive, and only moderately rambling, answers to questions about ESOL, myself, diversity, and our place in a Further Education context. I'd better make the most of what's left this side of Christmas: from January till July I'll be teaching full-time.

Terror Control

Like ID cards, the government's attempts to increase the limits on detention without charge smacks of bone-headed desperation: an inefficient battering ram approach that will prove more of a hindrance than a help to the fight against terrorism. As Shami Chakrabarti eloquently argues, these laws strip away important freedoms with very little tangible return in terms of safety. New challenges, tired old solutions.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Delayed But Not Forgotten

Bad news in The Guardian, the introduction of compulsory ID cards is only being delayed while the government frets about yet another expensive IT fiasco. Plunging feet-first into the controversy, Security Minister, and ex-head of the Navy, Lord West maintained, "Identity cards, for all the debate about other things, in a purely counter-terrorist role will be of help."

That's cleared that up, then.

Bonfire Night

The fifth of November. Coming home from work it sounded as if the city was being shelled; the enemy had taken up positions in a thousand back gardens, armed with Roman candles and multi-coloured rockets. Wrapped tight against the cold, children weave tracer-bullet patterns in the night air; above their heads, rockets burst and fade away -the sparks dropping slowly like parachutes over the yellow streetlight glare.

Post-Observation Blues

Not everyone passed their first observation. There were more than a few glum faces about on Friday afternoon, including at least one person who'd put a whole week's preparation time into a sixty-minute lesson. If you ask me, it's completely self-defeating to spend any more time on an observed lesson than you would on an ordinary one: no matter what happens, any observer worth their salt will be able to tell you where you're going wrong and, more usefully, give you some hints on sorting things out. Teaching an ESOL lesson's not like running a restaurant: nobody ever gets put out of business after one bad inspection. Which is probably for the best.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Without a Paddle: Nova

Five thousand foreigners out of work and unable to pay the airfare home; in public parks, teachers offer language lessons in exchange for food. Evicted from their flat, two Canadians find they'd been paying their school 60,000 yen a month each for a property that cost just 70,000 to rent. Even that hadn't been paid for the past two months. Meanwhile, journalists tour the ex-president's office, complete with hot-tub, sauna and private bedroom; the Daily Yomiuri reports he'd been using money from the schools to prop up failing business interests elsewhere.

It's no surprise English First have appeared on the scene, offering free flights and year-long contracts in China. The lower end of the Japanese ELT market is saturated right now, and most Nova teachers don't have the qualifications to get work higher up the TEFL food chain. It can be a nasty business, English teaching.

A Change of Tack?

On an inside page of the Sunday Mirror, a small but significant exclusive: compulsory ID cards, now for foreign nationals only.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Reality Bites

I got to the pub a few minutes after kick-off; we were three down before I'd taken the head off my first pint. What does Alan Smith do when he's not fouling people? Why play Joey Barton from the start when he's only half-fit? What's Owen done this season that Oba Martins hasn't?

Bring on the Mackems, eh?

Friday, November 02, 2007


Unless your lesson turns to mush, getting feedback from an observer can be a little like a first confession: you tease out all the small sins in the hope of being excused anything worse. This time I passed, easily enough as it turned out. One down, five to go.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I woke up in the night, sweating. I'd been dreaming of lesson plans.

Monday, October 29, 2007


The Module Two work keeps on coming; tonight, the first of six official observations. It went, I think, reasonably well: there was lots of scribbling going on in the corner but not too many perplexed looks, the students seemed to be having fun, and by the end of the lesson they were producing everything I expected of them. Back in the free and easy days when I taught English abroad that would've been enough to guarantee a pass. Here, I'm never quite sure.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


The tomatoes are finished for another year: dying plants untied, uprooted and chucked in the compost; the last of the crop stuck in a kitchen drawer to ripen off.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

An Unwelcome Visitor

When I came in from the garden a piece of paper from the BNP was hanging out of the letterbox; the front gate had been left wide open (whatever happened to controlling borders?). I scanned through the policies on the way back to the compost bin: hike up the mandatory sentence for the possession of knives; bring back corporal punishment for anti-social behaviour; don't trust postal ballots; don't believe the lies...

The Cinema Before Noon

Three men and a careworker, a pair of giggling teenagers in a corner at the back, a man with his mother, unbrushed hair and a knotted bag of sweets brought from home. The end of a drink gets slurped through a straw, a wrapper's torn open and a polyphene bag pops as the adverts come on, loud and incongruous in the empty cavernous dark. Outside, in the primary colour bright, a line of people builds by the popcorn concession, waiting for a children's animation to begin.

Friday, October 26, 2007


I came out of Michael Moore's latest film feeling very grateful for Nye Bevan and William Beveridge. For all its faults (and there were plenty of omissions in the film: no mention of patients pulling their own teeth out because they can't afford to see a dentist, old women dead of MRSA, or the postcode lottery of cancer drug provision), the NHS provides an immeasurably better service than most of us could expect to receive in the US, a country where tens of millions have no health insurance whatsoever and corporate dividends come before human lives.

The Eleventh Hour

Twenty years on from the wake up call to end all wake up calls: the planet's health continues to worsen, the privileged few get richer and richer, and the warning signs stack up like logs in a newly felled forest. For one hundred thousand years of pre-industrial history, Medieval Warming Period and all, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere never reached more than 300 parts per million. At the start of the Industrial Revolution the figure was 280 parts; by the end of World War II it had gone up to 300; in 2003 it had risen again, this time to 360; Tim Flannery predicts that the next set of data will show us passing 455 parts per million. Whatever the truth of that, the figures are heading in only one direction. All part of the natural cycle, no doubt.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

A Walk In The Woods

Chopwell Woods on a late-October morning, the leaves just beginning to turn. I walked the green marked path from the car park down to the banks of the Derwent, then back along the wooden-sculpture trail. Even in the middle of a school holiday there were more squirrels than people.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Frosty Morning

The first real frost of winter. That's the marigolds done for, then.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Coast Is Always Changing

Half-term holidays: an early morning bus from Haymarket to Northumberland and the tiny cement harbour at Craster. The weather was perfect for walking: long, streaky skies, cellar-warm air, and a washed-out sun the colour of peach, poking wanly through a hole in the cloud bank. I headed up the coastal path, past the ruined mouth of Dustanburgh Castle, Newton-by-the-Sea, and the long, white curve of Embleton Bay. Turning round at Beadnell, I caught the bus home by way of Alnwick, stopping at a second hand bookstore to pick up a fiver's worth of Graham Greenes.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Raise a Glass

You couldn't make this up (or perhaps you could): apparently, the guidelines on safe alcohol consumption are nothing more than guesswork, and - wait for it - later studies show that men drinking between 21 and 30 units a week actually have the country's lowest mortality rate.

I'll drink to that.


An interesting, disturbing or just completely stupid analogy from our former prime minister? Beyond the name of the country there's very little new in Blair's rhetoric: despite all the facile Bush's poodle talk, he'd been making the case for intervention in Iraq as long ago as 1999 (post-Kosovo), and had already put his words into action in Sierra Leone. In fact, one outcome of the mess the Allies caused in Iraq was to make humanitarian interventions in places like Darfur or Zimbabwe almost impossible to stage or justify to the voting public. Hopefully, a more positive effect will be to nip the economically-driven Let's invade Iran clamour in the bud, and quickly.

The Classless Society?

Ten years of New Labour and still Britain remains a nation dominated by class. I guess the 8% who disagreed have enough money not to let it bother them.

One interesting finding: Scottish people are just as snobbish as those in the South-East (47% describe themselves as middle-class). And one glaring ommission: how many people calling themselves working-class have actually fallen, often through no fault of their own, into an underclass of sink estates, poor education and benefit dependency? Too many people around here, for a start.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Module Two

Module too much more like. After a whole day of input sessions - three hours on teaching listening before lunch aand then another three on differentiated learning straight after - I've just spent half the evening finishing off a presentation for tomorrow morning - supposedly the start of my week off work.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Something's Catching

This really does beggar belief. Time was when the government screwed over public services, you could at least comfort yourself with the thought of voting in someone better...

Disaster in Moscow

Ok, so it was never a penalty (foul or no foul, it wasn't even inside the box), but if England don't make the European Championships it won't be because of anything that happened last night - it'll be because they weren't good enough to beat Macedonia at home or take a point off Croatia away. When all's said and done it's a simple game, football: you pick the best team, not the biggest egos.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


It's my younger brother's 29th today. We're off to the bright lights of South Shields to watch the football and get blind drunk.

The Truth About Immigration

Or one of them anyway. Guess which part the Daily Mail concentrated on?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fat Nation

Is it really possible to equate the challenge posed by obesity and climate change? I suppose it could be said the government has waited much too long to deal with the consequences of either; and both problems are almost entirely man-made. On the other hand, most people already know the solution to obesity - eat less junk food, do more exercise, and use up more calories than you take in - and no matter how overweight the population of a few rich countries gets, it's hardly likely to threaten world peace or lead to environmental disaster, is it?

The TEFL Trap

Sadly, shocking as it is, this story doesn't altogether surprise me. Not everyone teaches abroad to make money, experience life in another country or broaden their cultural horizons. In South Korea the only special qualification you need to get a job with children is a university degree, and even that is easy enough to get around: a crooked boss; $30 to an internet site. There's no criminal record check, rarely any taking up of references, and often no control whatsoever over what happens in the classroom (the only advice anyone ever gave me was to stand up when teaching). Let's put it this way, I didn't need to read any newspapers to know that this kind of thing goes on.

Monday, October 15, 2007

And Moving On

As you can see, the fenugreek's coming along nicely indoors. I also sowed some early sweet pea seeds, to be overwintered in the cold frame and put out at the start of next spring.

Taking Stock

What worked?

Basil's easy-peasy.
After a few false starts, I got enough French beans for two whole Sunday dinners.
Tomatoes. Again.
Radish: much more next year.
Spring onions.
Last year's courgette seeds. Quality, not quantity.
Dill, although it went to seed faster than an ageing boxer.

And what didn't?

Carrots, but only because I didn't space them out properly.
Beetroot: all shrivelled up. Not enough water?
Chives - a total, inexplicable, flop.
Garlic, forgotten and left to dry-out.
Aubergines. Unless I get lucky, I left them a little too late.

Britain's Top Ten Wits

Wit. Something most of the respondents to this poll were sadly lacking in. Having Liam Gallagher at number ten is a bit like including his brother in a list of the greatest ever lyricists. And Jeremy Clarkson? The only way to make sense of that one is by replacing the W with another T.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Stephenson's Works

I had a tour of Stephenson's Works - the remains of the world's first locomotive factory - earlier this afternoon. Now buried behind public artworks, a casino, and a Royal Mail delivery office, it was here Stephenson designed the historic Locomotion and Rocket, as well as some of the first ever engines to run in Australia, the US, Egypt and continental Europe. This too, don't forget, has been one of the centres of the world.

Small World

What is it with Guardian Unlimited and lists? Barely a day goes by without a top one hundred foreign films beginning with the letter A, or the best fifty songs about unrequited love. This time, from the Observer, twenty of the world's best-kept travel secrets.

Rugby World Cup

I watched the England - France game in the Chichester Arms: the barmaid's lottery numbers took preference to the first six points of the second half, and Johnny Wilkinson's winning drop-goal was acclaimed by the thwack of a miscued pool ball and a drunk stumbling noisily through the side door.

The last time England made the final I watched it downstairs in Balon, by the bus terminus in Liberec. I was the only English face in a Saturday morning smattering of Czechs, placing bets on the afternoon football, drinking twenty-crown lager, and playing at roulette. There wasn't much time for celebrations: no sooner had the game finished than I was on the tram to Jablonec to see the locals hammer Sparta Prague.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

A Tidying-up Exercise

Speaking as I was of the garden, I spent a large part of this morning tidying mine up. I gave the thyme a short-back-and-sides, uprooted dead tomato plants, picked French beans, spread some home-made loam compost around the front of the house, gathered chocolate bar wrappers and dog shit from the bare borders, dug-out summer bulbs, and raked up fallen leaves for the compost heap.

Nobel Prize

I bet this sticks in the craw of all those still clinging to medieval warming periods, Holocene maximums, sunspots, and free-market fairies at the bottom of the garden.

New Dawn Fades

Terror and despair in the dark night of Burma.

Friday, October 12, 2007

A Still Inconvenient Truth

Trust the Daily Mail to decide that climate change is news the day after An Inconvenient Truth was "slammed" in court for making scientifically unproven claims. To put the judgement into context, although the work was described as being "broadly accurate", in Justice Burton's opinion nine out of the hundreds of assertions made by Gore could not be fully substantiated by current scientific knowledge (though, as the wording of the judgement makes clear, none can be fully disproved either). I wonder what would happen if the same strict approach was applied to the teaching of religion in schools...

A Wild Leaf Chase

Our damp summer had one benefit: the display of autumn colours promises to be spectacular over the next month or so. The Japanese have a special word to describe the act of viewing autumn leaves - momijigari, or red leaf hunting: something I plan to do a lot of during the half-term holidays.

One In Ten

Done and dusted. It's not much cop, but there you go.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Assignment 6.1

The night before deadline day and I'm (almost) halfway through my first assignment: Educational policy and its impact on practices in the learning and skills sector. Harking back to university, I've re-discovered a talent for long-winded, verbiose but essentially meaningless sentences, which can be prolonged indefinitely by way of commas, dashes and brackets (as displayed here). A job offer from some government department or other is surely just around the corner.

Profit or People?

I've blogged about the postal workers' strike before, I know, but here's a timely reminder of the issues at stake from an unusually succinct Tony Benn. There are worse things in life, after all, than an uncluttered doormat.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Armenian Question

When is a genocide not a genocide? When it's an historic mass killing, of course.

On A Bridge of Scarlet Leaves

Autumn's here; winter follows in the wind. The turning leaves take me back again to Asia: the flaming maple leaves at Mount Seorak and Naejangsan, whole hillsides ablaze with colour; an arching bridge at Nikko and the sound of water brushing against the rocks; crunching through chestnuts and gingko leaves; the smell of persimmon and hot red peppers drying in the breeze.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Ministry of Fear

On the subject of paranoid despots, here's that rarest of things: a Peter Hitchens article that I actually agree with.

Talking Heads and Psycho Killers

Only weeks after the slaughter on the streets of Burma, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators as "abhorrent and unacceptable". Meanwhile, special envoy Ibrahim Gambari expressed his "great concern" at the mass relocations, arbitrary arrests and disappearances still being carried out in the wake of his four-day visit. As the UN pontificates, hampered by splits in the Security Council, the international community pins its hopes on the same Chinese suits who sent tanks into Tiananmen Square and suppressed the monks in Tibet. One day we might start learning from our mistakes...and other people might stop having to pay for them.

Kettle Chips Boycott

So Facebook does have its uses after all. There's more on the multi-billion dollar anti-Trade Union industry here - definitely one American import we could do without.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

In Defence of Freedom

Looks like Gordon Brown really is into the politics of conviction...

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Money Won't Save You

Coming over all vogue and edgy, the Tories have gone for Jimmy Cliff's You Can Get It If You Really Want as the official song of the on-off, will he or won't he? election campaign. After sitting through David Cameron's conference speech I would have thought Struggling Man was more appropriate.

Going Missing (For a While)

I'm off to see Maximo Park at the Manchester Apollo. Back tomorrow, when I have an assignment to start and (unless I pull my finger out this morning) Monday's lesson plans to finish.

Friday, October 05, 2007


The last of the Gladiolis, withering in a sheltered corner. Next year I'm going to group the bulbs together in containers, mainly to save me the bother of having to dig them up out of the garden every autumn.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Journey Without Maps

Across a continent and back with nothing more than a torn bit of paper, a train ticket, and a sprinkling of proper nouns. Of course, guidebooks come in handy sometimes, but almost all of my most memorable travel experiences have come from just 'winging it', even if things don't always turn out the way you expect...

Gone To Seed

I had more basil than I knew what to do with this year, a lot of which went to waste while I was gallivanting around Central Europe or trapped for a month in the Barnard Castle bubble. I'm going to try a couple of plants indoors over winter; hopefully they won't be too badly affected by the lack of daylight once the clocks go back.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Starting Over

I started back at college this morning, teaching Bangladeshi takeaway chefs, a Thai woman who cleans pubs for a living, a Somalian mother-of-four, and a smartly-dressed couple from North Korea. We went through telephone numbers and the spelling of names, intonation in basic questions, personal introductions and the pronunciation of /f/ and /p/ sounds. Repetitive, but fun.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Digging Around

I've been busy in the garden this morning, collecting sweet pea and Godetia seeds to be kept till spring in little brown envelopes; turning over the compost heap and shovelling it between bins; digging up Gladiolis for dry winter storage; pulling out weeds, clumps of grass and dried-up flowers; damping-down the greenhouse floor to help out the aubergines; emptying hanging baskets; and planting daffodil bulbs ten-centimetres down along the back-garden borders.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thursday, September 27, 2007


I am, officially, a free man.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Poll Blames People For Climate Change

Now there's a surprise.

Morning Calm, Fear and Loathing

I'm not really sure this qualifies as a brief history, but it tells you at least half of everything you'll ever need to know about teaching English in Korea. (I have to admit, strip away the hysteria and the Korean netizens sometimes have a point.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Self Destruction

If any of this is true then Chelsea could be about to implode. I can't say I'll be too upset. Or surprised.

Fruit of the Sea

I had the Coal for supper last night, shallow fried in olive oil and served with greenhouse tomatoes and freshly picked garden radish. The rest's gone in the freezer.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

When The Boat Comes In

Leaving North Shields just before eight, we motored out to sea past The Groyne and Tynemouth Pier while tying up our Mackerel hooks and cracking open the beers.

Casting off a few hundred metres from the mouth of the Tyne, I caught four Mackerel before the line had even hit the sea bed, and nine more in the next two reels. We cut most of them up as bait for the bigger fish further out.

After many tries, my first non-Mackerel was this Coal fish, from a WWII wreck a mile or so off St Mary's Island, which I almost lost when my line got snagged as I reeled it up from under the boat.

The beady-eyed Coal fish and my second catch, a long-bodied Ling lying across the top.

We got as far up the coast as Newbiggin, then came back by the offshore wind turbines at Blyth. In towards land, near Seaton Delaval beach, I hooked a Haddock and a few more Mackerel.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Beneath Us The Waves

When I was a kid my grandad would sometimes take me stickleback fishing in the foul smelling dene near Boldon Colliery. We used plastic nets tied to bamboo poles, stirring the dark water like teaspoons in a cup-a-soup and throwing whatever miniscule fish we caught straight back into the fast moving slurry. Tomorrow morning I'm going fishing again, this time several miles out in the freezing North Sea with a proper boat, bendy rods and cool bags full of beer. It won't be a pretty sight.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Son of Samurai

I've just got back from seeing Son of Samurai at the Customs House in Shields. It's the tale of a shoe salesman from Byker who discovers he's the descendant of a legendary Japanese warrior, played out in the form of a live radio show, with a three course meal chucked in beforehand for just £15 a head.


I was sure I'd left it too late for the aubergines this year, but one out of the six plants has finally flowered. Now I just need to stick some marigolds nearby to keep the aphids at bay, thin the plants out into separate containers and keep my fingers crossed for a bit of autumnal sunshine.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tampering with The Mail

The interesting thing about this story is not so much what it tells us as what it doesn't. On the one hand we know - or are at least told, which isn't necessarily the same - that Romanians were responsible for 1,080 offences in the first six months of 2007 compared to 135 in the same period of 2006, that the Mail believes this constitutes an "explosion in crime in this country", and that "in an ironic twist" a Romanian mayor thinks the number of offences committed in his town might have fallen since the country joined the EU.

Needless to say, the article never stoops to reporting facts, either by explaining what the offences were or whether they took place in one small town - where the word "explosion" could be justified - or nationally, in which case the choice of noun would be patently absurd. Have Romanian migrants started a littering epidemic, straining the resources of the police and the Keep Britain Tidy campaign? Are hundreds more East Europeans parking their cars on double yellow lines, shoplifting bars of chocolate or smoking in enclosed public spaces? If I've never seen a Romanian committing any of those crimes in South Tyneside does that anecdotally cancel out the mayor's evidence?

Try this for an ironic twist, Mail readers, a journalist who's Slack by name as well as by nature, and still you swallow every word.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Magic of the Cup

I don't suppose it's much good boycotting big money football if you're going to sit on your arse watching the Champions League on TV. So while Liverpool drew in Porto and Celtic lost in Donetsk, I walked fifteen minutes across the burn to see Jarrow Roofing take on Horden in an FA Cup first qualifying round replay. Under the floodlights, in front of a few dozen fans, Horden went through by two goalkeeping mistakes to one.

The Melting Pot

This year my students include one of the priests from the local Sikh temple, Poles with post-grads in several different -ologys, a Kurdish teenager, office workers from Naples and Shanghai, young Czechs and Dutch-Angolans, thirtysomething Pakistanis and a middle-aged Iranian woman in a full-length coat and headscarf. I'm not yet sure of all the paths that brought them here, to an overcrowded classroom at the furthest edge of the world.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Disappointment Once More

I got back late from work to find Newcastle one-nil down to Derby and Shola Ameobi mis-kicking the ball after lumbering through on goal. That was about as good as it got. For all his innovations off the pitch, Sam Allardyce doesn't seem able to alter his tactics whenever Plan A fails: his substitutions changed nothing, and the little and large pairing up front - understandable when Mark Viduka's fully fit - falls apart when it relies on the over-rated Ameobi. It's early days of course and not always easy to judge a team while players are settling in, but a performance like this has been on the cards: too many square pegs in round holes - Alan Smith wide left? - and not enough width, pace or penetration through the middle.

Big Night Out

I went to see Rachel Unthank & The Wintertons at the Sage last night. As the great Larry David would say, it was pretty, pretty good.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

If you can keep your head...

For the second day running British high streets looked more like Harare or Buenos Aries as panic-stricken savers queued to get their money out of Northern Rock. My reaction is defined as much by parochialism as by personal circumstances. On the one hand I've always been with Brecht - "It's easier to rob by setting up a bank than by holding up a bank clerk" - when it comes to the global banking system, added to which my money's safely tucked away in building societies and it's about time binge borrowers and house prices had a reality check. On the other, Northern Rock donates a lot of money to important causes in the region - I can't see Barclays or Lloyds TSB doling out grants for art exhibitions in Ashington or refuge shelters in Redcar - and thousands of local jobs will go if, or more likely when, the business fails.

One Small Step

Wind-powered lighting in pedestrian subways, one of South Tyneside Council's infrequent good ideas. It's a shame their domestic recycling record is so hopeless - the top performing councils are already exceeding South Tyneside's stated recycling / composting targets for 2020 - meaning schemes like this have all the effect of a charver's hockle against a North Sea gale.

Sipping with the Enemy

I was going to write more scathingly about the Brown - Thatcher meeting but Marina Hyde's done a pretty good job of it already. In Jarrow, voting Labour is as instinctive as jerking your knee when somebody smacks it with a hammer. Nowadays it's almost as painful, too.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Now that the runner beans and potatoes have been dug up, I've bought a set of fifty Japanese Onions to fill the bare spaces in the vegetable patch, in the hope that the winter will be mild enough for a decent harvest come March. In the greenhouse, I've decided to grow thyme and fenugreek once the aubergines and tomatoes are finished. The basil will have to come indoors to be grown on the windowsill, possibly next to some cress.