Monday, April 30, 2007

The Daddy

By a quirk of Czech law, unless I get a shift on with the divorce I'll end up being listed as the father of Katka's baby. She hopes, but is not really sure, that I can understand what this means.

I couldn't work out if she was pregnant already or merely possessed with a manic urge to be in the family way. I only have myself to blame for this carelessness: I never did get round to teaching her the conditionals.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Red Weekend

I spent the entire weekend in the suburbs of Greater Manchester, watching FC United in Bury, scoffing big plate fry-ups in Stockport and drinking my way through a day's salary worth of beer at various places in between. Next week it's Barrow-in-Furness, where we'll be doing it all over again.

Thanks to Steve and Elaine for the hospitality. The two-seat sofa with anorak blanket was solely my own doing.

Who's Watching Who?

Still don't know if you're going to bother voting on Thursday? There's more at stake than you think.

Use your vote.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Alcohol Concern

In common with most northern Europeans, the British have an enduring, and some would say unhealthy, obsession with alcohol. The Victorian temperance movements were no more than a blip in over a millennium of hard drinking, which is why Alcohol Concern's latest attempts to foist their revisionist morality on the rest of society stand absolutely no chance of ever becoming law.

The anachronistic, mollycoddling attitudes of groups like Alcohol Concern do more harm than good to young people. Across continental Europe, children who are taught to use alcohol responsibly grow up with far healthier attitudes than British teenagers, who drink only to get drunk as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

In moderation - and for many of us even in excess - alcohol is a normal and enjoyable part of life. If we're serious about tackling alcohol abuse, we need to start teaching more and prohibiting less.

Cricket World Cup

What a shambles this World Cup has been. I didn't even realise they were still playing until I saw a preview of tomorrow's final hidden away in a newspaper. The tournament has gone on longer than the average pregnancy, and was every bit as painful for England supporters.

I know they have to let the likes of Canada in to make the numbers up, but next time out how about a straightforward knock-out competition from the quarter finals onwards? Failing that, even a second group stage - first place in groups A and C playing the runners-up in B and D - would be preferable to all this Super Eights nonsense.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Free Banking

Over the past decade, while the base rate of interest has fluctuated between 4 and 7%, interest rates on current accounts have remained almost entirely static: Barclay's, HSBC, Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock all pay a pitiable 0.1% interest, regardless of how much you deposit.

The banks make far more out of 'free' accounts than the miserly returns most offer in exchange - the Big Five alone posted profits of £35 billion last year. The truth is, with few exceptions, you're already paying for your current account whether you realise it or not.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


"We have become a heedlessly dirty people. Britain needs not merely a campaign, but a crusade, to make the rubbish-rats, the people who care for nothing and nowhere outside their own space, change their ways".

Max Hastings, The Daily Mail.

A much more logical take on the Mail's bin revolt in today's paper. Meanwhile, 83 comments have been added to the original article, all in support of the campaign. Needless to say, my own contribution didn't make the cut. Does the paper that rails against New Labour's control freak tendency, the nanny state and political correctness gone mad practise censorship on its own website?

Surely not!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Mail's Rubbish Revolt

Why all the fuss about fortnightly bin collections? Not for the first time, the Mail is guilty of making cheap political capital at the expense of the truth. Landfill sites are not a renewable resource and, as the same paper is all too quick to point out when talking about immigration, Britain is a small and crowded country. UK households throw away 6.7 million tonnes of food waste each year, around a third of everything we buy. Rather than making excuses for "householders (who will be forced) to burn their rubbish on the quiet," the Mail should be encouraging its readers to show more civic responsibilty, to buy only what they need, and to compost as a form of patriotism.

The government is legislating against greed and stupidity, not personal freedoms. In the words of Jennie Price, the chief executive of the Waste & Resources Action Programme, "Our research has found that about half of the food we throw away could have been eaten. There is a real opportunity here for us to both save some money and help the environment by making a few small changes. The striking point which emerges from the research is that only 10% of those asked realised they were throwing much food away."

It's not too difficult to accomplish: when I lived in Tokyo I had to sort my rubbish into three different bags - food waste, recyclables and others. In Tochigi Prefecture my local council classified waste into seven groups, each with its own transparent bag and collection day. You'd be surprised how quickly people can adapt, even if they do need a bit of coercion to get them started.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Out running tonight, I came across South Tyneside's latest public artwork: a spray painted Arbeit Macht Frei on the underpass by Boldon Lane; the letters had run down the concrete wall like egg yolk. I couldn't decide whether the author was an admirer of Lorenz Diefenbach, an advocate of using Weimar Republic public work programmes as a panacea to South Tyneside's continued unemployment problems, a confused Nazi, or just the same bloke who'd pissed in all the nearby bus shelters.

Stop Sarkozy

From Pandora's Box to Thatcher and Bush, the lesson's always the same: vote for Nicolas Sarkozy and you might end up getting a whole lot more than you ever expected.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Two Days Off

My weekend so far: a date with a Scouse solicitor; a cheque - at last! - from the Inland Revenue for one hundred and one pounds and ninety one pence; putting plants in the coldframe; five hours and a bottle of tinny wine trying to get a barbecue started; phone calls to Croatia; falling asleep in front of Match of the Day; waking up dehydrated at half past five with blankets half-fallen to the floor.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Under Observation

Wednesday was my first official observation. I thought the class was satisfactory. The head of department disagreed and said it was very good. It didn't take me long to come round to her way of thinking.

Observed On An Evening Run

Kids dropping footballs into puddles, and riding bikes over daffodil stems; white blossom on the crematorium grass; municipal planting schemes: gravel and cordyline; dandelions where the crocuses used to be; flowers wrapped in cellophane tied halfway up a lampost: an epitath to doomed youth; a broken streetlight, on before dark; strip lights in hospital windows; trainers on damp ground, the wind chilling my knee caps.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

MayDay For Nurses

An interesting expose in this morning's Mirror. The idea that professional footballers are selfish and greedy comes as no surprise, though a couple of things struck me as odd. Is Nigel Reo-Coker now so unpopular at West Ham that he can't persuade a single one of his clubmates to dip their hands into their Armani pockets? And given the abject performances of the Newcastle team this season, shouldn't we be asking most of them for more than just one day's pay back?

The Virginia Tech Massacre

"It's people who kill, not guns," go the voices in support of Americans' inalienable right to bear arms. They may have a point but, in the wake of Columbine, it simply beggars belief that an uncommunicative loner whose creative writing was described as "like something out of a nightmare...with grotesque, twisted violence" could walk into a shop and, with only a few cursory background checks - ever heard of a psychpathic killer who didn't come from a normal family? - buy a deadly weapon with as much ease as he could have obtained credit for a washing machine.

Massacres will occur as long as people who want to kill have easy access to guns. Otherwise the only thing that will ever change is the names of the dead.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

I Didn't Mean To Hurt You...

The fall-out continues after Bryan Ferry's interview with Welt am Sonntag, in which he praised Nazi Germany's aesthetics, including Hitler's mass rallies, as "just amazing. Really beautiful," and revealed that he calls his studio the Fuhrerbunker.

Whatever your thoughts on the nurture versus nature debate, stupidity is clearly hereditary. Ferry's son, pro-hunt campaigner and Tory poster boy Otis, escaped a drink driving ban last year despite downing at least seven shots of vodka and being nearly twice over the legal limit. Fined £500, he bleated: "I don't think I've got away with it. I've got to pay a huge fine." Otis, you may remember, also escaped with an 18 month conditional discharge after storming the House of Commons. Two members of Fathers For Justice, charged with a similar offence, were fined £600 and given a two year suspended jail sentence.

I never liked Roxy Music anyway.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Rod Liddle

A lazy, largely inaccurate piece by Rod Liddle - who should know the importance of research after the Gilligan affair - in this morning's Times, though he manages to work in an impressive number of religious references. I did spot one salient point: taking out Chelsea, the success of Premier League clubs can be measured in almost exact proportion to the size of their attendances. The glaring exception is, of course, Newcastle United, currently trailing far behing the likes of Bolton, Reading and Portsmouth thanks to the comical ineptitude of Freddie Shepherd.

Killing The Golden Goose

For years, rapacious, self-serving executives have been telling us that football is primarily a business and no longer just a sport. At last, it seems as if the fans have got the message. It's no surprise that three out of the four FA Cup semi-finalists failed to sell their ticket allocation: why should forty thousand Chelsea fans pay exorbitant ticket prices and travel all the way up to Manchester for a Sunday teatime game when they could stay at home and watch it live on TV? Increasingly, supporters are cherry picking which games to watch, saving their money for important league fixtures at the expense of cup ties, televised or not. The greedy, short sighted chairmen who still believe they can still charge inflated admission prices after signing the latest TV deals are in for a surprise. Blind loyalty is a commodity that few can afford nowadays.

The Royal Break-up

One Royal Insider sneered: "She is pushy, rather twee and incredibly middle-class. She uses words such as 'Pleased to meet you', 'toilet', and 'pardon'."

The Mirror, April 16th.

Let me make one thing clear: I have absolutely no interest in what happened between Billy Windsor and Kate Middleton. The real story is the utter irrelevance of the Royals to contemporary Britain, and the absurdity of hereditary elites in the modern world. How does this archaic institution benefit our country? It is, after all, the trappings of royalty, not the dull, aloof Royals themselves, that visitors come to see, hence Paris, not London, remains the world's most popular tourist destination. As far as cultural or business ambassadors go, David Beckham gets far more publicity than our next king ever could.

Vive la Republic!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Northumberland Photos

This England

There's something dangerously wrong with a society in which nurses, teachers, fire fighters and police officers can no longer afford to live in seven out of every ten towns. The relentless rise in house prices, exacebated by New Labour's fixation with statistics and school league tables, is a threat to the very fabric of British life. The matter is simple: if the market doesn't cool down substantially and soon, the government must manipulate prices to ensure that key and poorly paid workers can get on the housing ladder.

And I'm not biased at all.

Some Thoughts On Spring

By retaining one's childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.

George Orwell 'Some Thoughts On The Common Toad'

A glorious, glorious morning to round off my two week holiday. I've been busy in the garden, putting two Delphinium Pacific Giants into the back border, transplanting marigolds and godetias, sowing some more radishes, finishing the packet of spring onion seeds, and playing a bit of badminton under the sun in the side garden.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Portsmouth Away

Needless to say, we didn't stuff them. If Redknapp's the most overrated manager in the Premier League, then Glenn Roeder's surely the nicest but most ineffectual, a real soft touch. A decent manager would have given his players a kick up the arse and not a pat on the back after scrambling a win against a poor, out of form Sheffield United team and then playing out a passionless bore draw with an Arsenal side that were THERE FOR THE TAKING. If you give this team an excuse to fail, you can't really blame them for taking up the offer.

Harry Redknapp Is A Fraud

Has there been a more overrated manager in Premier League history than Harry Redknapp? He traded on youth team products and the odd good result against Manchester United for years at West Ham without ever achieving much, took a half-decent Southampton side down, and would have done the same to Portsmouth if the Russian millionaire hadn't bailed him out. This season, with big money to spend on wages, he's scraped into the top half of one of the worst leagues in years. I hope we stuff them this afternoon.

Friday, April 13, 2007


I started for Alnwick on the half nine bus from Haymarket, fog closing in on either side of the road so that all I saw were endless rows of daffodils along grass verges. I spent an hour wandering narrow, cobbled streets and taking photos of the castle, a dark smudge against the skyline, then took another bus down the coast to Amble, where I searched in vain for a chip shop before heading back along the roadside path to Warkworth. As the fog, if not the temperature, finally began to lift, I jumped back on the bus for the short hop up to Alnmouth, a one street village above an estuary and miles of flat sand. Back in Alnwick I browsed for second hand books in the bibliophiles' paradise that fills the old train station, and meandered around the town, killing time before the bus ride home.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Last Word on Iran

For those of you who didn't see the headlines in The Sun, a summary of Faye Turney's time in captivity:

I thought I was going to be raped, but I wasn't.
I thought they were measuring me up for a coffin, but they weren't.
I thought they were going to put me on trial, so I told them everything.
They made me sit in a cell in my underwear and forced me to wear a headscarf while I smoked cigarettes.
When do I get the money?

I bet there are plenty of people in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib who wouldn't mind a swap.

Hadrian's Wall Photos

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hadrian's Wall

Not wanting to miss out on the unusual correlation of long holiday and fine weather I bought an Explorer North East ticket for £7 and took the 9.45 bus from Newcastle to Greenhead, a miniscule village on the very western edge of Northumberland. I joined Hadrian's Wall by the Roman Army Museum, a few hundred metres north of the bus stop, then followed the dips and folds of the countryside past Walltown Quarry and Crags, abandoned milecastles and Cawfields Lake all the way to Steel Rigg. Turning south off the wall at Once Brewed, I wandered the twisting minor roads near Vindolanda as far as Bardon Mill, arriving four hours and ten miles after my walk had begun. From there I took the bus to Hexham, enjoying the last of the sun in a park by the abbey before coming back home.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Summer in York

It might not be quite as far flung as Xiaoshan but it looks like I'll be spending the first half of summer in York this year. The woman I spoke to this morning seemed very impressed with my interview patter and the structure of the course suits me down to the ground: teaching in the morning, activities in the afternoon, day-trips to Leeds and Scarborough and one Saturday in every two kept free.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Price of Doing Your Duty

Nothing but greed and a mindless cult of celebrity justifies Faye Turney and friends hawking their stories to the highest bidder. Every one of them knew the risks they were paid to take when they chose to sign up; the only exceptional circumstances surrounding their capture is that they eventually got off so lightly. On the day their ordeal ended, physically unharmed and wearing new clothes for their final TV appearance, four soldiers were blown up in Basra. There are some thing that money can't replace. For everything else there's Rupert Murdoch.

FC United

I woke up at half seven, my phone rang at eight, and by half past nine we were on the motorway heading for Ramsbottom to see FC United get promoted out of the North-West Counties League.

We were outside the bar by the railway station, drinking Boddingtons out of plastic glasses, as the East Lancs football special arrived in a cloud of steam. There were flags and scarves and shirts with a badge, not the name of a company, across the front. When the game kicked off at three the sun was high above the stark mill town chimneys. I stood at the back behind the goal, sheltered by a narrow tin roof. Sport above business, community above commercialism. How it was always supposed to be.

A football team may struggle without money, superstar players or a stadium of its own. Without supporters, it has no reason to exist at all.

Friday, April 06, 2007

No Easter Getaway

We were meant to be going to the Lakes tomorrow but, as usual, people dropped out one by one, pleading lack of money or minor illness or alternate, previously unmentioned, plans. I'm more disappointed than surprised: repeated too often, unreliability becomes boring, mundane and predictable.

Telephone Interview

Even with the ten-minute grammar inquisition - How many tenses are there? What's the difference between the present perfect and the present perfect continuous? What would you say if a student asked you why I've done it this week is correct when we don't use specific times with the present perfect? Can you use the present simple to talk about the future? - I think the interview went pretty well. They said I'd hear back within the next two weeks, though I've already decided I won't be taking the job. As keen as I am to see the west coast of Ireland, there's no way I want to be starting work at a summer school the day after I finish at the college. Besides, it would mean that I wouldn't see Milan and Hanka, who are coming over from Liberec for a few days in early July.

In the afternoon I sent my CV off for the job in York. The interview's on Tuesday morning.

Thursday, April 05, 2007


The last time I played football was the day after my wedding. It's hard to say which was the most disastrous choice. I only played last night to make the numbers up, and because I thought it would make a change from running, but within five minutes of stomping up and down Temple Park's rock hard surface my thighs felt as if a baby elephant was using them for a mattress. Eventually taking refuge in goal, I dived to make a save and cracked my elbow square off the ground, before banging both knees while trying to make tackles. I jogged home at half-pace, drank a bottle of Tsingtao beer and lay across the coach watching The Apprentice. Next week I think I'll just stick to the last two.

Trouble on the Terraces

The violence at last night's Roma game was hardly a shock. No doubt there were plenty of English fans just waiting for an excuse to kick-off, and a lot of drunks too stupid to see what would inevitably happen when they started throwing missiles back across the perspex fence, but judging by the TV pictures the only difference between an Italian football thug and a policeman is that one carries a knife and the other wields a baton.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Eternal Radgies

When in Rome, watch your back. Predictable histrionics from the Italian media after Manchester United advised their fans to avoid areas associated with the Roma Ultras. The mayor of the city summoned the British ambassador to complain and threw out a non-sequitor about the city being safer than London, newspapers alleged racism and referred accusingly to drunk English football fans, and the coach of the football team talked at length about his club's passionate, correct, non-violent supporters. No mention then of the fans who had to be dispersed with tear gas during running battles with Lazio thugs, the ultras who caused the abandonment of another derby game after a false rumour that one of their number had been killed in a pre-match fight with the police, the three Middlesbrough followers knifed in the Campo de Fiori or the innocent Liverpool supporters stabbed and battered in a coach park. The truth is that every city has its no-go areas for travelling supporters, especially on important match days, and anyone who pretends otherwise is indirectly encouraging the violence that follows. As Catania proved, of the many things that are ignored in Italy's culture of disobedience, football hooliganism is now perhaps the most dangerous.

Things To Do When the Sun Comes Out

Today felt like the first day of summer, which of course means it'll be freezing cold and bucketing down with rain by the time I set off for the Lakes on Saturday morning. In preparation, I bought a pair Craghopper Kiwi trousers with my birthday tenner, popped flower seeds into little black trays, and buried some spuds in the corner of the garden.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Notary's House

The notary public's house was at the leafier end of the street, set back from the road and hidden by a trellis fence, round-topped shrubs and stunted beech trees. The door was already ajar but I'd pushed the bell for a second time before I heard the first soft noises from inside. He stood straight-backed in shiny black shoes and a dark blue suit; over his shoulder I made out the beginning of a bannister and a portrait of a woman I mistook for the Queen. The air smelled like a suburban dentist's; furniture polish mixed with tightly closed windows. We sat at right angles across a large oval dining table while he looked over the documents, the only sound a faint tick-tock from the hallway. He spoke slowly, as if he were selecting his words from a far greater store, turning each one round in search of defects as other people might pick ripened fruit from a market stall. He stamped the four pages in turn, and placed them face up between us. I asked how much I owed. "Thirty pounds," he replied, crisply. I'd been dismissed.

Summer School

In spite of the wind and rain it hasn't been a bad start to the day. I've fixed up a phone interview with a summer school in Sligo, Ireland for Thursday morning, and have been asked to send off a full CV for a month-long residential course in either York or Barnard Castle by another company. At lunchtime I have an appointment with a notary in South Shields to offically sign my divorce papers, then tonight I'm starting badminton once again.

No point in standing still, is there?

Monday, April 02, 2007

On the Straight and Narrow

Today I started working off the weekend: three nights of beer and a diet of leftover pork pies and chicken legs from my sister's engagement party. I loafed around the garden, planting a couple of shrubs and an azalea, walked up and down Jarrow shopping centre, and took my sagging, over-filled stomach on a forty-five minute run along Shields' seafront.

Going Down

Snigger all you want at Glenn Roeder's increasingly surreal public statements, but he's right to insist that his comedy team is not in a relegation fight. Without a league goal in a month and a half, and full of so-called senior players who use each new low as an excuse for the next, it's more like a surrender than a struggle. We'll probably stay up because there are three or four sides who somehow manage to be even worse than our gutless wonders, still hiding behind injuries to mitigate their lack of pride, heart or tactical guile. What difference would mercenary Michael Owen make when there's no-one to give him the ball?