Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Grow Your Own

My first ever radish crop: fresh from the container, straight to my stomach.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Nothing But The Truth

I didn't think Lee Ryder's lamentable blog could possibly get any worse.

I was wrong.

Maximo Park: Evolution '07

Monday, May 28, 2007

The War on McTerror

In Britain the government announces a change in planning laws to speed up national infrastructure projects and ensure our town centres remain "vibrant". Over in Germany, police launch anti-terror raids on protesters against a new McDonald's drive-thru.

I swear I can hear the cogs turning already.

Stop and Search

Stung by the control order debacle, New Labour predictably counters with another set of anti-terror laws, fortuitously leaked in time to make the front pages of the Sunday papers.

Tony McNulty, the counter-terrorism minister last seen voting to keep parliament's affairs secret, now proposes that the police be given powers to stop and question members of the public on their identity and movements, whether they are acting suspiciously or merely popping down to the shops for a pint of milk. Anyone refusing to comply will face a criminal conviction and £5,000 fine.

The police haven't asked for any new powers: Section 44 of the Terrorism Act of 2000 - yes, we were losing our freedoms even before 9/11 - already permits officers to carry out searches without reasonable suspicion in areas deemed to be terrorist targets, which for the last six years have encompassed the whole of London and every railway station and airport in the country. Over 30,000 searches were conducted under these laws in 2004 -2005 alone. To date they have not resulted in a single terrorist conviction.

Instead of legislating for gaps where none exist, this government should start learning to do less, better.

Daejeon: Sounds From A PC Bang

On hot summer nights I would lie on the edge of sleep, a thin sheet thrown down to my knees, layers of sweat coating the rest of my body like a grimy clingfilm. I'd smell smoke coiling upwards from the grey linoleum, past indistinct shapes and latticed windows. Through the mosquito screens the same five notes of the Starcraft theme play on a neverending spool, taunting me as I flip irritably back and forth, drying one side of my body at a time, hearing the clock ticking off the minutes to my early morning lesson.

Which is probably why, seven years on, I still balled my fists reading this.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sunday in Shields


My first harvest of 2007: four stalks of rhubarb plucked from the back garden. I chopped each one up into inch-long cubes, boiled them with some sugar and scoffed the resulting mush on top of a tin of rice pudding.

This Is The Modern World

Whatever happened to our famed politeness? I blame the 1960s, GCSEs, scrapping national service, and using regional accents on the BBC.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bloody Foreigners

Foreigners living in ghettos, hostility to local laws, a refusal or inability to learn the local language leaving them reliant on costly translations, resistance to their host nation's culture, racism in the classroom. It could only be the British in Spain.

The Early Bird

The things you can do with a week off work.

At six o'clock I was upright in bed reading Paul Theroux. An hour later I was frying out-of-date sausages and obtaining the new Arctic Monkeys album. By eight, I'd done some cursory stretching and set out on a run, and forty-five minutes and one quick shower after I managed to get my breath back, I was pedalling my way down to the Viking Centre in Jarrow.

I was just in the nick of time: Wilkinson's had knocked another twenty-five per cent off the price of their bulbs and started selling seeds at half price. I picked up the last of the rhubarb and artichokes and treated myself to some year round lettuce, late sowing spinach beet, some yellow Evening Primrose and yet more bolt resistant beetroot, all for just £1.63.

Complete Control

It seems as if the reclusive Mr Ashley, saviour of Newcastle United and the man who broke up Dave Whelan's grubby replica shirt cartel, may not be whiter than white after all.

Looking down that list of worker complaints, I'd be very worried if my name was Albert Luque.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Trading Blows

A story to warm the cockles of my over cyncial heart.

Eight years after the Clinton administration imposed trade sanctions on the EU for daring to give preference to small scale Caribbean producers over US banana giants, how deliciously apt that Antigua should be the first to take a stand over Bush's latest act of blatant protectionism.

Finding A Soul

What's this, Labour ministers sounding like socialists?

You'd think there was an election going on.

The Slippery Slope

Three men suspected of plotting to commit terrorist acts in Iraq go missing and John Reid threatens to scrap human rights legislation and call a State of Emergency.

Residents of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, 1970s Chile or Argentina, Germany circa 1933 or Stalinist Russia may recall that similar tactics have been used before.

Terrorist suspects clearly require much tighter monitoring than our incompetent Home Office provides - six out of the seventeen subjects of control orders are currently on the loose - but it should be society as a whole, free of political scaremongering or doublespeak from the likes of Ian Blair - "Nobody can be perfectly satisfied that they are not a risk to the public here" - that makes an informed choice on the balance between our civil liberties and collective security.

History proves that it's far easier to lose freedom than it is to get it back.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


Occasionally on Thursdays I play football on the bumps, ruts and dandelion stems of Bents Park, just a toe-punt from the sea. It takes just over half an hour to get there on my bike, up the John Reid Road past Temple Park, straight over the roundabout and on past the shops at the Nook and the white horse, painted on a rock behind semi-detached houses. Then, at the roll of the hill in Marsden, the view of the coast I remember from childhood: pub, tree, roof, roundabout, a grey-blue sea half filling the sky.

Pay As You Throw

Stealth tax my arse.

The beauty of taxing domestic waste by weight is that it's the polluter who pays. The economics are simple enough: Don't waste your money on things you're not going to use + don't mindlessly throw things away that can be recycled = save money.

The proposed new law doesn't go anywhere near far enough on single use carrier bags and excess packaging, but the idea of giving councils the power to reward as well as punish householders, if implemented, sidesteps neatly around the howls of protest from Mail and Express readers who continue to believe that the country is too small to take in persecuted human beings and yet somehow big enough to take another fifty years' worth of their empty pop bottles and pizza boxes.

The New Reality

The inevitable consequence of football becoming a business.

The only way to fight back is to withdraw our support. Without the fans, their sound economics will collapse around their ears.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A new owner for Newcastle United: Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap, charver chain store Sports Soccer. I know virtually nothing about Mr Ashley, and I'll be more than glad to see the back of the Halls - bankrupt businessmen who made a £88 million profit out of the family cash cow - and Freddie Shepherd, but I utterly reject the notion that underpins every football takeover: the game is a business, the fans mere consumers.

Reports suggest that Ashley will invest £25 million on new players. In reality, it's the supporters who'll do the investing, either directly or indirectly. Season ticket prices will go up; those can afford it will be feted with new megastores, hospitality packages and corporate seats; the people who get priced out will be expected to prop up massive TV deals by buying pay TV subscriptions instead.

Until the people get their game back, my money and support go elsewhere.

Big Cup Final

All day long, on every channel, idiots in red shirts parade their sponsors' logos in front of TV crews. Other supporters wander the Athens streets in increasing desperation, priced out of the stadium by greedy touts and corporate packages. Two are in hospital after fifty fans fought over a single match ticket. No such worries for Tom Hicks ,the club's new American owner who this week compared supporters to Weetabix consumers, now basking in a glory he did nothing to earn.

I wonder, does a bit of shiny metal make up for the loss of your soul?

The State We're In

"It is a telling indictment of British culture that more people vote in TV talent shows than for their country's leaders."

The Lonely Planet

According to two new surveys published today, we eat more junk food than the rest of Europe put together, consume more Internet porn than any other nation, and are the world's meanest tippers and fifth worst behaved travellers.

Advance Britannia!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Open Learning

Offers of work are like double decker buses: they always come in twos. This morning was an open learning class in a red-brick building opposite the Newcastle General. I scuttled about like a kitten chasing string, helping Pakistanis to make three letter words out of plastic alphabet tiles, Poles practising extreme adjectives, French-speaking Africans listening to two friends planning a picnic, and Bangladeshi housewives tracing letters on lined paper.

Monday, May 21, 2007

More Work

Almost a year after I passed the interview, I had my first paid work for the Newcastle ESOL Service tonight. The students were beginners, factory workers and cleaners from Poland and Slovakia, Latvia and Iran. The classroom, located so far up Westgate Hill that I started walking past signs for the airport, was a museum piece: narrow wooden tables arranged in schoolboy lines, conjugated verbs on the walls and a tiny whiteboard propped up on a filing cabinet. We studied questions and the past tense. I got home just in time for supper.

Racial Housing

Margaret Hodge's plan to give social housing priority to British-born families priority over economic migrants does nothing to solve the root causes of the problem - a chronic shortage of housing caused by successive governments limiting the number of new build council homes, made worse by rising house prices and unscrupulous landlords - and much to lend credence to the lies and twisted truths pedalled by the right-wing media and the BNP.

Hodge's comments will grab a few cheap headlines and play well with her constitiuents, but the truth is that new migrants have no automatic entitlement to council homes, and aren't even added to the housing register until they've been in the country for more than 12 months. The migrant workers I teach live in overpriced, poor quality private accommodation, mostly in dead-end streets and sink estates. To suggest that people walk straight off planes into council housing is stupid and dangerously wrong.

Mainstream politicians representing working class, multi-cultural communities undoubtedly face a growing threat from extremist parties. The best defence is hard work and integrity, dispelling myths instead of chasing headlines.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Where It All Began

With the sun in the sky and my lesson prepared, I cycled down to Bede's World for the opening event of the Jarrow Festival. Cars blocked kerbs and cycle paths, a square of canvas-roofed stalls sold cheese, cheap jewellery and framed photographs. While Vikings clashed plastic swords in Charlie's Park, children used the monastery ruins as a climbing frame. The air smelt of Mr Whippy and watery onions. Nissan cars were loading one by one down on the riverbank.

Britain's Shame

This story will never make it into the Daily Mail. Just the latest shameful episode in John Reid's incompetent tenure at the Home Office.

In the Age of Extremes

In the week that Paul Wolfowitz joined Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton in the dustbin of history, events in Russia and Iraq provided ample evidence of their failed legacy. Oligarchs and Cold War despotism, Iranian control of southern Iraq, civil war, religious extremism and unremitting terror attacks.

So much for the new American century.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

More Politics

According to, my MP is very strongly in favour of introducing ID cards, Labour's anti-terrorism laws, foundation hospitals and student top-up fees, moderately for gay rights and the smoking ban, and very strongly against investigating the Iraq war.

Good job he only has a majority of thirteen odd thousand.

Democracy In The Dark

From Iraq to Trident and PFI, if we've learned one thing over the past decade it's that when the New Labour and Conservative front benches collude disaster is usually right around the corner. The Freedom of Information Act proposed by the late John Smith had already been watered down by Blair and Jack Straw. Yesterday's vote, supported by government ministers and some of Gordon Brown's most prominent acolytes, shows how low the Labour Party has sunk since Smith's premature death.

At times like this politicians rely on voter apathy. Contact a member of the House of Lords and prove them wrong.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Season Tickets

Great news for Newcastle fans. Renew your season ticket by June 15th and it'll cost you no more than it did last year!

That's right, pay more than fans of the title winning team to enjoy yet another season of mid-table mediocrity, and we'll throw in the chance to buy overpriced drinks, burgers and programmes for free. While you sit in a depressed torpor nineteen times a year, rest assured your hard earned cash will be re-invested in shareholder dividends and sky-high wages for non-committed underachievers who wouldn't be here unless we paid them a fortune. Prices from just £429 for a seat up in the clouds. If it's any consolation, now Sam Allardyce is manager you're likely to see far more of the ball up there.

Pay now or pay extra.

Farewell to Freedom?

"I believe it is wrong. I believe it is against the interest of parliament. I believe we are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute. The House of Commons should set an example to the country of honesty and integrity, not find some squalid little way in order to get out of the law."

David Winnick (Labour)

Virtually unnoticed by the country at large, our members of parliament this afternoon voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act by 96 votes to 25. The small turnout masks a momentous decision: under the guise of protecting their constituents' confidentiality MPs can now hide potentially embarrassing information such as expense claims and allowances. This grubby, anti-democratic, self-serving bill, proposed by a former Tory chief whip and backed implicitly by both the Labour and Conservative front benches now goes to the Lords.

It must not pass.

Hail to the King

"The party was unwilling to give candidates of the far left any space to put forward their views, because they simply don't have support for their views in the Labour party".

Gordon Brown.

Sadly, my previous entry didn't have much impact on the Labour leadership race. John McDonnell got only 29 nominations, 16 short of the number needed to force a contest. In six weeks, Gordon Brown will be party leader and new prime minister.

The coronation isn't unprecedented in Labour's history. In 1931 Arthur Henderson was elected unopposed after the party had been split in two by Ramsay McDonald's decision to form a National Government. The following election saw a Conservative landslide; Labour were left with only 52 seats.

Luckily for Gordon, Tony Blair's other legacy was David Cameron.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Splitting Up: Liberec Town Hall

Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, yesterday was another important milestone in my protracted divorce. My ex-wife and ex-workmate met at the town hall in Liberec to officially submit the papers.

Soon I'll have a new box to tick whenever I fill in a form. Other than that, nothing much changes.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

New Labour, Old Failings

With less than twenty-four hours left before nominations close, it looks almost certain that Gordon Brown will be elected party leader unopposed. For Labour this is one more missed opportunity: no debate over the direction the party is headed in, no chance for the unions, left-wingers or grassroots members to have their views heard, and no accountability, until the next election at least, for the Chancellor's role in the growing inequality of New Labour's Britain.

It's debatable whether Middle England will win the next election for Gordon Brown, but the collapse of Labour's traditional support could well lose it for him. The 50% drop in membership since 1997 is symptomatic of a deep and, for Brown, worrying malaise. A coronation can only make matters worse.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sam Allardyce

Out goes Glenn Roeder, a quietly ineffectual but essentially decent man let down by his own players, and in comes Big Sam and his twenty-one man backroom team, two-way headsets, cheap foreign imports on (allegedly) dodgy deals and £3 million a year contract.

I wonder how long this one will last?

A Neo-Con Bites The Dust?

How could this story not make you smile?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

There Is Another Way

Schalke 04 the German Newcastle United?

Only in my dreams.

Swings and Roundabouts

A rainy weekend. Slug-eaten Delphiniums and an uprooted tree dying in a bucket of soil. Half-price bulbs: Guernsey Lily and Dahlia Franz Kafka. The Three Sisters at the Playhouse, subtitles on TV screens at either side of the stage. United 93 on Sky Movies Premiere. Solzhenitsyn and Le Carre. Computer virus. Spanish wine.


Friday, May 11, 2007

Burying Bad News

While the prime minister was delivering a self-penned epitaph in Sedgefield his government kindly provided critics with one of their own. Delayed by a month to coincide with Blair's resignation speech, the latest estimate on the costs of ID cards showed another £400 million increase, bringing the projected total up to £5.75 billion.

What was that about the innocent having nothing to hide?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

End of an Era

Ten years in ten words. Tony Blair, like Clinton, so much hope, so many disappointments.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

David Conn on FC United

Another spot-on article by David Conn, probably the best football journalist in the world.

Things Are Looking Up

Power sharing in Northern Ireland, Paul Wolfowitz teetering on the brink at the World Bank, John Reid resigns in a huff and Tony Blair is finally about to announce he's quitting.

Perhaps there is a God after all.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007

From Barrow to Blencathra

Despite the gloomy prognosis we just about managed to stay one step ahead of the weather. There was plenty of sun and beer in Barrow before the rain came halfway between Windermere and Keswick, pelting down as we crawled through Ambleside, then gradually petering out as we finally reached the campsite. In the evening we climbed Lonscale Fell, walked around Castlerigg Stone Circle, ate jumbo sausage and chips by the banks of Derwentwater, then sat shivering in the car downing cans of Lidl lager while voices on the radio talked depressingly of Sarkozy's victory and Roeder's resignation.

After half an hour's worth of fruitless messing about on the slopes of Gategill Fell - when will I get around to buying an Ordnance Survey map? - it took me exactly fifty-seven minutes to scramble up to the top of Blencathra this morning, via the grassy, sheep-shit covered mounds of Hall's Fell and the slate knife edge of Narrow Ridge, what Wainwright called "positively the finest way to any mountain top in the district". I lunched on short bread fingers and two-day old tap water before descending by way of Gategill and Blease Fell; Derwent and Bassenthwaite south across Threlkeld Common, Skiddaw and wind turbines to the west, home, the Pennines and my brother asleep in the car below away to the east.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Bank Holiday Weekend

No more work till Tuesday. I'm leaving for Barrow early tomorrow morning, then after an FC United friendly, several beers and a night on a hotel room floor, we're doing a bit of climbing and camping in the Lakes on the way back home. Weather and hangover permitting, of course.

Local Elections In Retrospect

In some ways it was a truly historic night: Labour lost Scotland to the SNP and hung on to Wales by the skin of their teeth. Overall, the Tories shuffled forwards, the Liberals shuffled back, and Gordon Brown can only hope that the Labour vote has now bottomed out. Despite their smiles, the warning signs are still there for the Tories, who once again failed to pick up a single seat in either Newcastle, Liverpool or Manchester. In too many parts of the country Conservative success relies more on hostility for Blair than on enthusiasm for Cameron. Crucially, before the 1997 election people weren't just sick of the Tories, they were also enthused by the promise of New Labour. A better parallel for Cameron is 1992: an undecided voter tends to stick with what he knows. 2009 is still Brown's to win or lose.

Meanwhile, totally unremarked nationally, Maisie Stewart was re-elected as councillor for the Bede ward with a 500 vote majority on a 36% turnout.

Bah humbug.


I finally got down to the polling station a quarter of an hour before it closed, delayed by work and football. It was only then I discovered there were actually four people standing, not just the two who'd bothered to do any kind of actual campaigning.

I guess that's local democracy in action.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Go on Girl

Was that really Nicolas Sarkozy talking about the need to stay calm and appear presidential? It'll never last.

You get him, Segolene.

Election Day

So, who gets my vote?

The incumbent is Labour's Maisie Stewart, whose glossy leaflet is crammed full of bland abstractions and questionable statistics spun like a Shane Warne googly - if 93% of streets in this ward really are litter free, then it's just my luck to live slap bang in the middle of the 7% that aren't. Her photo, obviously meant to radiate warmth and matriarchal concern, exudes nothing but smug complacency to me: I've always been here; I always will be here.

Or do I go for Anita Campbell, the Independent - Vote for a Person not a Party - candidate? Her campaign leaflet tells me very little that I want to know about her and everything I already know about Labour. I can't help thinking the Independents are overplaying their hand here: dissatisfied voters are already clear about why they're not voting Labour, what we haven't yet decided is why that should translate into a vote for anyone else. Do double negatives attract votes, or just increase voter apathy? Should I just scrawl illegibe nonsense over the whole paper?

Enough of the ruminations. Anita Campbell it is.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Danish Girls

Where does Metro get stories like this from? Only in Denmark, I suppose. It certainly never happened when I were a lad.

More's the pity.

Elsewhere, a shocking example of tabloidese in the front page headline - Sobbing Boy: I've Shot My Sister, 12. I'm not sure if that's a verbatim quote, though it would have been an impressive feat of trivia recall given the circumstances.

News Just In: I've accepted a summer job in Barnard Castle, population 5,326.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Where'd Your Quadruple Go?

Can I just take this opportunity to pass on my very sincerest commiserations to Mr Jose Mourinho. First the Premiership, now the Champions League. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one competition is unfortunate. To lose two in a week is just plain careless.

It really couldn't have happened to a nicer person.

Happy May Day

My own small contribution to the inevitable triumph of democratic socialism: I pinned an FC United badge to my shirt pocket and got through another fifty or so pages of Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami's deconstruction of advanced capitalist mayhem.

Beats saluting flags and watching tanks roll past.