Monday, May 31, 2010

That Capital Outlay Comment Explained?

Newcastle’s hierarchy this week confirmed – in contacting newspapers to deny numerous transfer stories – that the “no capital outlay” referred to in their recent five-year mission statement DOES mean that they will be making no cash signings.

Neil Farrington writing in yesterday's Sunday Sun. If it's true, it's very worrying for our prospects next season. Team spirit and organisation should be just about enough to keep our heads above water, but injuries to the likes of Nolan, Enrique or Carroll would leave us reliant on unproven reserves and Shola Ameobi. Nobody expected Hughton to be one of this summer's few big spenders, but we're crying out for cover at full-back and pace and creativity in the centre of midfield - and have been since the last time we attempted to avoid relegation on the cheap.

Ashley never learns. He just crosses his fingers harder.


Odessits can be very snooty when it comes to any other city in the world Illichivsk. "Why do you want to go there?" my students asked. "There's nothing to do and nothing to see." Not that it stops people moving there. Home to Ukraine's most profitable port, the town named after Vladimir Illich Lenin was recently reported to have the highest per-capita income in the whole country, with a lower cost of living than its near neighbour along the coast. The beaches are cleaner, the beer cheaper, and the local football team lets you in for free. What more could you want from a Saturday afternoon?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The 411 Battery

The 411th Shore Battery formed part of the third and last line of defence for the city of Odessa. When it was attacked on the 8th of August 1941, thirty-four thousand soldiers of the Red Army and the Black Sea Fleet faced a combined force of Germans and Romanians. It would cost them four attempts, ninety-two thousand dead and wounded, and seventy-three days to eventually take the city. For this and the actions of the partisans who retreated underground and fought until liberation, Odessa was named as one of Stalin's original four Hero Cities on May 1st 1945.

Motorised scooters, adventure slides, Hello Kitty balloons and a T34 tank being used as a children's climbing frame: it seemed to be more of a theme park than a memorial site. There was a full-size submarine parked on concrete supports, picnickers sitting by trenches, children playing hide and seek behind artillery pieces, carrying toy rifles, or running around gun emplacements buried in the forest. A crowd had gathered round a dance performance, an Orthodox priest was smoking outside a wooden church, children were drawing pictures in chalk on the ground, and stray dogs lounged around the entrance to the museum.

Fun for everyone.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Reasons to Like Ashley

Part One in a series of one: banning the Daily Mail from St James' for its "irresponsible coverage" of the club. It's a shame that so few people extend the same kind of critical scrutiny to the front and middle pages. Personally, I'd leave the paper as it is - but ban the fools who read it. Newsagents everywhere, please take note.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The World Cup of Beer

After Russia and Ukraine managed to get themselves knocked-out by the respective might of, erm, Slovenia and Greece, local interest in the World Cup is pretty much limited to "Let's go to the pub, get pissed and watch some better teams play." And England too, if they're on.

Unless you're talented enough to actually play the game, it's hard to imagine people kicking a ball around without the involvement of alcohol. And lots of it. "No beer, no football," as one Ukrainian TV ad says, though having tasted that particular foul tasting brew* - only the once, granted - I was happy to find that when it comes to mixing a piss-up with a game of football you can still trust the English to do things properly.

* Chernigivske Light, if you were wondering. The brewery's website describes it as having a "Light straw color, transparent, no sediment and secondary inclusion; forms dense scum." Well, you'd have to be to drink it more than once.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


Feminism never made it to Mykolaiv. Either that or someone's misspelt the word 'slave'.

Another statue of Lenin. I remember when this was a novelty.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On The Road

"What condition is the road in?" asked one of the passengers. "Normal," laughed the driver, "the same as normal." "Are they repairing it?" "They say they're going to."

"You can't call that thing a road anymore," my student had warned me about the state of the route between Odessa and Mykolaiv, two cities with a combined population of over one and a half million. When the road was good it was bad, but when it was bad it was absolutely awful. Cracked, buckled and warped by the sun, the tarmac had been washed away completely on both sides and what was left in the middle looked like it had just been shelled. It was if someone had taken a nine-iron to a putting green, a bucket and spade to a patch of wet sand. It reminded you of India or Cambodia or any of a dozen other places that are nowhere near Europe. There were potholes as deep as manhole covers and cracks as big as furrows. The central line had almost disappeared, and in the worst sections most people simply gave up the pretence of following any rules. Buses crept past articulated lorries, battered Ladas jolted up and down past both, cars turned off the road onto flattened patches of dirt that ran alongside farmers' fields.

The driver held a cigarette in one hand and a mobile phone in the other as he picked his way slowly around the holes. We moved side to side, up and down, until my lower back ached from all the sudden movements. Sometimes we drove on the right of the road, sometimes in the middle and occasionally we just drove on any piece of tarmac we could. It took two and a half hours to get back to Odessa. "It wasn't quite as bad as everyone made out," said the person sitting next to me, "but I really, really need a bath."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tangerine Dreams

Congratulations, Blackpool. Jimmy Armfield crying, Cardiff players slumped across the pitch, Ian Holloway temporarily speechless. On the day, the better team won.

And after seeing the other two promoted teams try and defend this season, the really good news for Newcastle fans is not the prospect of a piss-up by the sea but the fact that all but one of next year's relegation places have already been filled in advance.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Things Students Say

"Here are two pictures showing parents and children," I began. "Compare and contrast them, and say how you think the people are feeling about each other." "The first big difference," said my FCE student,"is that the top picture shows white people and in the bottom one we can see nigg.." He saw me grimace, and stopped for a second. "This one has African-Americans, or some kind of black people."

Balcony Update

Things grow slowly on my balcony - or not at all. My radishes went all stringy for lack of sunlight and had to be thrown out. The basil's suffering from the same problem, though the plants are now established enough to keep growing as long as they get enough heat and a splash of water every couple of days. The two courgette plants are doing a lot better, but are still a long, long way from bearing fruit.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Riding The Gravy Train Part II

"The big problem with our country," said a student, "is that you must buy everything. For example, if I don't want to study for my Maths exam I can pay my professor five hundred dollars and I will get a C. It's like this at every university."

"Not everywhere," her neighbour disagreed. "Maybe only ninety percent."

Riding The Gravy Train

If you think public trust in British politicians couldn't get much lower, you could always try living in Ukraine. "When I worked as finance minister I sometimes told my ministers, 'Have a conscience. Steal five percent because there is no way you can track this money down, but please, don’t steal 50 percent. Show some conscience,'" Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce in a speech last year. With perks like that, it's hardly surprising that politics remains such a popular career choice in Ukraine. Last week saw the launch of For Fairness and Prosperity - the country's one hundred and seventy ninth political party.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Friday, May 14, 2010


Yalta has been Russia's southern playground for almost as long as it's needed one. The Romanovs had a summer house here, Chekhov wrote The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard in a villa on the edge of town, and the Gorbachevs were just a few miles down the coast when they were arrested during the failed coup of 1991. Part Riviera chic, part Old School Sovietism, and part Imperial lament, it has a street named after Marx, pizza parlours and western chain stores, and a statue of Lenin opposite a drive-through McDonald's and a children's toy shop called Bambi Land.

The sea front had a pebble beach, palm trees and flowerbeds, people eating candyfloss, drunks stumbling along with their eyes closed, pensioners playing chess with their backs to the water and old women attempting to sell home-pickled gherkins. There were sushi bars in full-sized pirate ships, street signs in Russian and English, people dancing in the street, and outdoor stalls where tourists could have their photos taken sitting on motorbikes or thrones, dressed up in samurai armour, Mickey Mouse costumes, a Roman centurion's uniform or 18th century ball gowns.

You'd never guess it was twinned with Margate.

Leaving Sevastopol

It was raining in Sevastopol and I got to the bus station to find another slow-moving queue and a two-hour wait for the next seat to Yalta. I sheltered for a while in the train station before hunger and the number of people asking for cigarettes finally drove me back up the hill to a pizzeria. An international word or two and some pointing at pictures got me a capuccino, some milky porridge and banana, and scrambled egg, sausage and tomato served in a lasagne dish, topped, as with almost everything else here, with a couple of sprigs of parsley.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Victory Day

By ten o'clock it seemed the whole of the city had lined up along Lenin Street. The 1945 victory address was pumping out of tannoys, a military band struck up a marching tune, and the admirals of the Black Sea Fleet drove up and down the street taking the salute from each of the units in turn. The mood was entirely celebratory. "For us today is a smiling day," said the Ukrainian couple I'd met back at the hostel. Women held flowers, children balloons, and the men either flags or bottles of beer. There were white-haired survivors of Afghanistan in camouflage jackets and hats and hunched old men with medals pinned to their chests. "Thank you! Thank you!" the crowd chanted as the veterans marched past.

The Ukrainians wheeled left, the Russians to the right. The band played one national anthem then the other, but there were more Russian flags than Ukrainian ones in the hands of those along the road. I saw hammers and sickles next to Hondas, and Stalin's face on a carrier bag in the queue for the Raiffeisenbank cash point.

After the parade everything was in chaos. I gave up trying to reach Balaclava after forty traffic-clogged minutes and walked an hour to the site of Chersonesos, the remains of Ukraine's oldest city, instead. The entrance was like a football stadium. "Good luck," laughed the man behind me as I joined the scrum for tickets.

The day ended with a firework display in the sky above the port. I stood by the Lenin statue, listening to the chants of "Se-va-sto-pol, Se-va-sto-pol" that greeted each explosion. "Is it like this in Britain on Victory Day?" asked the people I was with. "Not really, no," I said in reply.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


Sometimes it's better to arrive than it is to travel. I reached Sevastopol on the half past two bus, passing kick-off at the football ground and an armoured train with Death to the Fascists! written across the front. There were groups of men in flat white hats and black naval uniforms, wild poppies by the roadside, Hare Krishnas dancing at the seafront, and a statue of Lenin on a hilltop, facing out to sea, his right arm pointing forwards in the direction of a huge Russian flag.

At the hostel I was met by a man in a Red Army Officer's uniform, who pulled up on the cobbles in a World War II jeep. "Michael? Sorry about the wait," he said, extending his hand. "Welcome to Crimea."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Know Your Enemy

'A Squalid Day for Democracy,' shrieked the Daily Mail. 'Brown quits but cynically bids to keep Labour in power by guaranteeing two-faced Clegg voting reform'. The Express was slightly more reasoned: 'This Shabby Stitch-up: Labour cling to power in sordid deal with Clegg'. Adam Boulton made a complete arse of himself on Fox News UK while Tory bloggers went into meltdown, drawing hysterical comparisons between Britain, Iran and Zimbabwe.

They'll all change their tune tomorrow, no doubt. Clegg will be a man of integrity, our political system once again the envy of the world, and Sky News the perfect counterweight to the biased BBC. Vote Liberal Democrat, get a Tory government - so that's what Clegg meant by a new kind of politics.

Straight Back Down to Earth

There's no fool like an old fool, or so the saying goes. But that was before Mike Ashley. Embarrassing, clumsy and completely unnecessary, when will they realise that it's best to just shut up?

Translation by George Caulkin.

UPDATE: "Clinching promotion before the middle of April grants them a golden opportunity. While several Premier League clubs are still unsure of what division they will be playing in next season, Chris Hughton and his scouting team can steal a march in the search for that elusive Premier League quality. We are led to believe that has begun already".

The Journal (8/4/2010)

"Hughton is still not sure just how little money he will have to spend this summer after an official club statement from owner Mike Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias last weekend revealed there “will be no capital outlay on new players” before the start of next season. That uncertainty needs to be clarified as a matter of urgency before Hughton can draw up a list of potential targets, although he is still pressing ahead with planning for the Premier League campaign and still has a number of targets in mind".

Same paper (12/5/2010)

If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. Substitute Hughton for Shearer, 2010 for 2009.

Journeys in the Second World

It was just after a thunderstorm and the carriage was in near-darkness as the train pulled out of Odessa. None of the lights seemed to be working, the windows didn't open, and there was nothing coming out of the air conditioning vents but dust. There were three middle-aged women sitting in the compartment, talking between ringtones. I answered their first question in Russian, the second in English. "He doesn't understand," they said, turning away.

The toilet was at the end of the carriage, a rusty metal bowl and a puddle on the floor. When I came out the conductor was pointing to a sign I hadn't seen and screaming something about zones. All I could manage was a shrug in return.

We made our beds at midnight and I jumped up onto a bunk as hard as a police station floor. My head touched the wall by the window, my feet touched the wall by the door. The door didn't close, the train rocked so much you felt you were on horseback, and the woman below had already started snoring.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Clegg's Conundrum

An interesting bit of analysis from the BBC's Rupert Peston on the sticking points in coalition talks between the three main parties.

Meanwhile, prominent Clegg supporter Floella Benjamin looks through the square window and tweets, "The Tories will have to offer much more on PR to satisfy all Lib Dems".

Open to Offers

David Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Liberal Democrats seemed to be aimed just as much at his own party - no compromise on immigration, defence or Europe - as to Clegg's. A committee of inquiry on electoral reform, agreement on pupil premiums, scrapping ID cards and a vague commitment to a "low carbon economy". As Menzies Campbell immediately responded, that's no grounds for a coalition.

UPDATE: Tory on the Beeb says Britain is "days, weeks, months away from being Greece". So that's how desperate they are.

The King Is Dead?

Continuing the theme of my last post, the Tories' talk of getting more votes than Labour did in 2005 (repeated here by The Sun) is particularly disingenuous. In the last election, on a lower turnout, Labour's 9,562,122 votes translated into a 35.3% share of the vote and a majority of sixty-seven seats. In the first-past-the-post system, it's the number of seats, not the number of votes, that matters. The Conservatives have failed to win more than 50% of the vote in any of the countries which make up the United Kingdom. They have also failed to win the three hundred and twenty six seats neeeded to gain a majority of seats.

"It's not a presidential system, it's a parliamentary one," as David Steel rightly said. As things stand, with no outright winner, the incumbent gets first shot at forming a government. What is it about the constitution that the Tories don't quite get?

Hung Parliament

It's official then: Britain has its first hung parliament since 1974. Conservative commentators are already talking about their party winning a majority of seats in England and a bigger share of the vote than Labour managed in 2005, as if either formed a criteria for government. Theresa May told the BBC that Labour had "clearly lost the election", adding:

"I find it slightly strange that, at a time when we're facing such severe economic problems in this country, when there are so many other problems in our society that we need to resolve, that the one issue that seems to be the key for the Liberal Democrats is indeed electoral reform."

Most people would find it strange if the Liberal Democrats - who currently have almost six and a half million votes but only fifty-one seats - didn't want to concentrate on electoral reform. The Tories, let's not forget, have failed to win a majority of either votes or seats, currently running at only 36.1% of the popular vote. As I said earlier, Labour might have lost but Cameron hasn't won.

Election 2010: The Morning After

I woke up to the likelihood of a minority Tory government. Luckily, I live in Ukraine.

First the good news. Griffin loses while Caroline Lucas wins, becoming the first ever Green MP. Tyneside's still a Tory-free zone (and if the Conservatives are going to start talking about a majority for their party in England, let them be very sure of which part of England they're referring to). Nationally, Cameron's still some way short of forming a majority.

Labour and Gordon Brown, two million votes and sixty-odd seats behind the Conservatives, are the losers of this election but the Tories, such tubthumpers for the principle of winner takes all, have clearly failed to win. On a projected turnout of 65%, their ten million votes lag four million behind the combined totals of Labour and the Lib Dems (in England alone, the total's nine million against eleven and a half). They have no mandate in Scotland, Wales or most of northern England. Where does that leave Cameron and his "right to govern"?

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Kiev Tales: Driving

Just about anything is possible on the streets of Kiev. Patched-up, rusty old Ladas sit side by side with sleek SUVs, Soviet-built trucks belch thick black smoke next to spotlessly clean Humvees, and an elderly tramp stands in the middle of the road with a fishing rod, ignoring the beeps and curses. The biggest cars are almost always painted black, the colour of power since the days of the Bolshevik Commissars. Hardly anyone drives a small car if they can afford anything bigger. The only thing that unites them all is their disregard for the law.

Theoretically you should be safe when crossing the road on green, but traffic is still able to turn into and out of the road and not every driver thinks a pedestrian merits a stop. Cars speed up at corners, come through on red, weave in and out of lanes. The pavements aren't always very much safer: some are almost as wide as the roads, making them ideal for use as semi-permanent car parks and occasional short cuts by the more impatient drivers.

Odessa isn't very different. There are just more potholes.

Kiev Tales: Babi Yar

Babi Yar was the single biggest massacre of the Holocaust. On two days in late-September 1941, over thirty-three thousand of Kiev's Jewish inhabitants were marched to the ravine, stripped and beaten, then forced to lie on top of layers of dead bodies before being machine-gunned in the back of the head. The corpes were doused in petrol and burnt.

"Kikes of the city of Kiev and vicinity! On Monday, September 29, you are to appear by 08:00 a.m. with your possessions, money, documents, valuables, and warm clothing at Dorogozhitskaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery. Failure to appear is punishable by death." - Order posted in September 1941.

In the months that followed more than a hundred thousand others were murdered in the same place, many of them Jews. A concentration camp was located nearby. In 1943, before retreating, the Nazis used six weeks and three hundred chained prisoners in an attempt to conceal the evidence of their crimes.

It was ten-minute walk north from the station to the Menorah memorial, erected in 1991 on the spot where the massacres took place. There was a rose on one of the steps and a couple of people swigging vodka in the bushes behind. People walked past with dogs and barbecue skewers, a football training session started on a pitch down below. "Can you take a photo of me here?" a girl asked her boyfriend. "Why?" he replied, "It's only for the Jews."

Service Stories: The Pub

"Lviv..." "No, Slavutych," she commanded before I could get past the second syllable of my order. "And a jui..." "What kind?" she asked with a face that suggested the wrong choice would probably result in a suicide attempt. She disappeared for ten minutes, banged the drinks down on the table and stomped away without a word, returning only to change the ashtray after each of my brother's cigarettes.

I came back from the toilet to find the table cleared. "Have you asked for the bill?" I asked my dad. "No, she just came and collected the glasses," he said, while she stood with her back to us at the bar. We sat and waited. "Can we have the bill, please?" I finally called over. She turned slowly, looked us up and down, then vanished for another five minutes.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Vote Hung Parliament

If you hated thirteen years of New Labour, you'll really hate four of the same old Tories. The NHS is safe in our hands? Remember Dan Hannan? Fairness and equality? Not for Chris Grayling, our Home Secretary-in-waiting, or anyone needing to use public services. Inheritance Tax cuts for the wealthy, Child Tax Credit cuts for the rest. Vote tactically, vote Hung Parliament, vote anyone but Cameron.

UPDATE: The Guardian's guide to keeping the Tories out.

Saturday, May 01, 2010


"I read a story in the internet about your prime minister," one of my students told me. "He called a woman stupid, but I don't understand why it is a big story."

"Me neither," I said. Bigoted woman with Irish name rants to prime minister about immigrants, prime minister calls her a "bigoted woman". Where's the news story in a politician being honest?