Thursday, 18 December 2008

Curiouser and curiouser!

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was always my favourite book as a kid - I wonder if it influenced my career choice?

Anyway, I only mention it because of late I've been puzzled by several things and I'm curious to know what you make of them all.

This clown who drove onto the live rails at Birkdale - how come she didn't get electrocuted?

When did Eastenders get so fantastically fearless? I really hope they win a TV Bafta for the paedophile storyline. Patsy Palmer's proved herself as an actress in my book.

When politicians start blog bitching about your reports what's the best response? Maintain a dignified silence, or put them back in their box with a curt riposte?

Sister Act the musical - OMG! I know! - is opening in May but on hearing the news my first thought was "why has it taken so long?" To which end - can we please see Highway to the Danger Zone -Top Gun the Musical, The Bodyguard - Live!, and Pretty Woman - the stage show in the West End before next Christmas? Although, I suspect that this lot might not approve of that last suggestion.

This is still in beta, but it's such a lovely idea I thought I'd share it - as a pre-Christmas gift, if you will.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Not at all content

I'm a journalist, I like words as a general rule, but there's one I have a problem with: "Content".

At some point, probably while I had my back turned, it became acceptable for this industry that prides itself on plain English to stop discussing columns, copy, video footage, photographs and graphics and instead talk about "content".

If we must have a pointless umbrella term can we at least have a sensible one like, oh, I don't know, "news"?

A friend told me I was being precious when I ranted about this to him, but I disagree.

It's not that I don't understand that one day it's news the next day it's fish and chip wrappings - or some kind of online metaphorical equivalent - but I still think the c-word does journalists and our readers a disservice.

The word means everything and nothing and it's a euphemism of the worst kind that illustrates the muddled, navel-gazing that the industry succumbs to when talking about online journalism.

It's as though someone, somewhere has decided that because the new-fangled interwebnet2pointzero is here we need "content" - not cracking video footage, pics that generate hits or Pulitzer prize prose - to publish on it.

"Content" has a one size fits all ring to it, and the whiff of costs and corners cut and that's my other problem with the use of the term.

Brilliant reports, in any form, require an investment of time, talent or training - it can't be done on the cheap.

You shouldn't go slopping it about like Amy Winehouse trying to pour Sambuca shots, and no decent online editor does, so why use a term that makes it sound like we do?

It's time to relegate the phrase to manager speak and press officer babble where it can take it's place alongside "going forward", "cascade", and "synergy".

Class dismissed.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Blue Peter

Every now and then you read something truly astounding in the newspaper.

Some call it the "FMD factor" - as in "Fuck Me Doris! They've only gone and..."

The news that Peter Reid is coaching the Thai national squad scored pretty high on my FMD scale today.

I don't know where I was in September when this breathtakingly bizarre appointment was made - but the statement from our man in Bangkok that he doesn't want his old job at Sunderland back was the first I'd heard that he was out of the country.

But he's not just out of the country - he's in Thailand, managing their national side.

That's what I love about Peter Reid, he's nothing if not unpredictable. While most of the English football fraternity head to Spain when they decide to quit the UK, Huyton-born Reid has taken himself off to Thailand. Genius.

What's that all about? Does he speak Thai? Is Peter Reid to Thailand what Fabio is to England? There are *so* many questions I need answers to here, people.

I've always loved Peter Reid, ever since his foul-mouthed turn as the irate Sunderland manager in reality TV docu drama "Premier Passions".

What's not to love about the man who was happy to sound off to sports writers with pronouncements like "if I was in a boxing match with Dennis [Wise], I'd be delighted to face him if he goes down that easily" and, after a 3-0 thrashing "it was like Billy Smart's circus"?

Can't you just picture the bewildered faces of the Thai team as the Scouser embarks on an expletive-laden half time rant?

Don't you just wish you didn't have to imagine it, but could watch it fly-on-the-wall-style for yourself?

Don't you think it's time someone commissioned "Premier Passions - in Thailand?

Or is that a very different show?

Monday, 8 December 2008

2009: The Year of Happiness

...on TV.

That's right folks, if you thought 2009 wasn't already looking bleak, then brace yourselves, because I have it on good authority that TV execs are decreeing only shiny, happy stories make it on to our screens.

A friend who works in programme development was today bemoaning the fact that only cheery TV concepts are being given the time of day because patronising commissioners are of the opinion that the masses can't handle misery - or just the truth - during an economic downturn.

Sound a bit Stasi? Or just like your idea of what the ninth circle of hell might look like?

I dread to think what might pass for uplifting telly in the eyes of a programme commissioner - but I imagine that it could well involve Fern Britton banging on about gastric bands and positive body image.

Could this new mantra provide us with an explanation for the heretofore inexplicable appearance of "Hole in the Wall" and entirely unnecessary revival of "Krypton Factor"?

Isn't this a kind of cultural anaesthetic? I'd be quite happy to opt for vodka instead, thank you very much.

At least the cloud has a silver lining (or should that be the other way around?) - in as much as publishers are now ditching all of those endless moaning first person real-lifers as they go in search of a new Jilly Cooper for the naughties.

Giddy up!

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Crash! Bang! Wallop!

Hello blogosphere - it's been a while, hasn't it?

Don't worry, I haven't been depriving the world of my premier league prose while this blog has lain dormant - and to prove it here are the highlights of the past few weeks.

This cast of mad , bad and dangerous to know characters in Merseyside and Sefton has filled up my notepad and kept me (and hopefully the readers) entertained.

The Ormskirk potato farmer was a particular joy - bangers and mash anyone?
It turned out that although he'd given the impression that the "bomb" was safe it transpired he'd put off calling in the MOD to find out for certain until after we took the pics - meaning that I'd sent our snapper out into the field to photograph a potentially explosive landmine.
I probably owe that man a drink.

They haven't all been nuts though - this family will warm the cockles of your heart and make you believe in true love.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Salute to Sargeant

Yes, I've been to the pub - and yes, I've got an opinion about everything - which I concede might have something to do with the goblets of wine they serve nowadays.

Pub, or no pub - it's irrelevant - the hot topic of the day is still the departure of beloved John Sargeant from the lacquered, sequined, sprung and polished floor of Strictly Come Dancing.

Was it wrong?

Was it right?

Yes. To both.

The man has cemented his status as a "National Treasure" by leaving with a slight air of "I was robbed" and fair claim to the lovable underdog mantle.

Yes, he could have won it - but only to have every Tom, Austin, Jodie and Rachael supporter turn against him.

Short term - he'd have been a winner. Long term he'd have been as irritating as the crazy frog or the Mr Blobby single.

He's a canny commentator and he knows the rules better than that - he's built an entire career - as Hazel Blears told Radio 5live, in a moment of uncharacteristic perception - described as "a sense of when people have started to turn against you".

I suppose Hazel is better qualified than most to offer an opinion in that respect.

But, before we all get our handbags out, back to John.

Should he have gone? Yes - because that way he has the last laugh - the lucrative TV deals, appearance fees and priceless National Treasure status.

No - because he was bullied by those judges, and I really would have liked him to have shown downtrodden, bullied people that bloody-minded joyous dancing could outwit a panel of pompous puffs and prunes.

Still, Sargeant shimmied into a place on the dance floor all of his own, opened up the debate and gave us all a laugh - what more could we ask for?

Actually, there is one thing. I truly believe it will be a travesty if he is not asked back next year as a pundit offering expert commentary and analysis on the voting system and predicting the odds and marginal swing each week.

I'm prepared to go one further and say - sack Winkleman and reinstate John on the "It Takes Two" sofa.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Red or dead

December 10 will be a day without a gay.

American queers and their supporters will call in to work "gay" and take a day off to make the point that homosexuality isn't an illness.

Very good, I applaud them, a day without gays would be grey indeed - but what about the redheads?

We are the last stigmatised, persecuted minority being hunted to extinction.

We are a massively under-represented group in parliament (our hopes seem to rest on Blears since Charles Kennedy hit the bottle), our recessive ginger gene is fighting a losing battle for survival and people laugh at us.

And yet we bring such dazzling red and auburn dashes of colour to the world - doesn't that deserve a tax credit? Or at least extra time in exams?

When we redheads are gone (and it won't be long as Darwinian selection marches on apace attracting recessive gened redheads to ballsy genetically dominant blondes and brunettes) we'll leave behind a world of sludge brown barnets and washed out blondes.

In the ugly grey aftermath it will feel like an atomic bomb has detonated, but it will look worse.

Despite this fate we continue to ignore the early warning signs of impending doom - I refer to the red squirrel's battle for survival.

It is obvious that for the red to survive the grey must go - so where is the shoot on sight policy to keep the grey at bay? There isn't one.

In human terms we are just as lax in our protection of the redheads: I'm not suggesting we shoot the blondes and brunettes to protect the them - but where's the harm in a bit of positive ginger discrimination?

Free spray tans on the NHS to stop us from being tempted to sunbathe, three duvet days a year to reduce stress-induced hair loss and toni & guy support groups to keep our spirits up? Would the tax-payer begrudge the gingers that?

It's time to mobilise, comrades, and rally for the cause. America has its first black president, and yet here we are in the UK without a redhead ever serving as Prime Minister.*

Clearly, we must seize the moment and get behind a campaign to install the pleasingly pasty Nicola from Girls Aloud as the next PM. Get to work readers.

*This may be a lie.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Kitty Christmas

Two words: Cat cam.

I've accepted my status as cat slave and sofa and now I'm thinking Christmas gifts for kitty, and clearly I don't have to look very far.

To my mind £37 is a small price to pay to unleash Mister Tim's artistic potential and spy on the neighbours ( - in fact is Cat Cam legal? Don't want to get done for voyeurism...)

Consider your festive feline dilemmas solved.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Danger: Daily Mail at work

I'm slightly worried that not only did the last post on this blog have a touch of the Daily Mail about it, but now I find myself nodding along to Paul Dacre's keynote address to the Society of Editors conference, too.

Whatever you think of the Mail's politics, I think you'll have to grudgingly admit that the man at the top had a point today when he held forth about the NOTW Max Mosley payout.

"The British press is having a privacy law imposed on it, which is, I would argue, undermining the ability of mass circulation newspapers to sell newspapers in an ever more difficult market.
"The law is not coming from Parliament - no, that would smack of democracy - but from the arrogant and amoral judgements, words I use very deliberately, of one man.
"I am referring, of course, to Justice David Eady who has, again and again, under the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act, found against newspapers and their age-old freedom to expose the moral shortcomings of those in high places.
"What is most worrying about Justice Eady’s decisions is that he is ruling that - when it comes to morality - the law in Britain is now effectively neutral, which is why I accuse him, in his judgments, of being 'amoral'.
"Surely the greatest scandal is that while London boasts scores of eminent judges, one man is given a virtual monopoly of all cases against the media enabling him to bring in a privacy law by the back door."

I'm glad to see the Mail using it's mighty voice for good - especially as Max is off to the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to muzzle the press yet further.

There's a danger that I'll end up a DM devotee, sorry, reader, if he keeps on like this - don't even get me started on his criticism of the BBC.

Thirdly, something must be done about my favourite bĂȘte noire: the ever growing ubiquity of the BBC. For make no mistake, we are witnessing the seemingly inexorable growth of what is effectively a dominant state-sponsored news service.
The corporation has all but seen off ITV’s news services, both nationally and locally, has crippled commercial radio, is distorting the free market for internet newspapers and now, with its preposterous proposal for 65 ultra local websites, is going for the jugular of the local newspaper industry. Lines must be drawn in the sand.

Anyone working in regional news will tell you he's got a point.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Losing the will to give

Sign up and save the world - it's really easy - all you need to do is set up a monthly direct debit.

I'm fed up of being charity mugged by vest-wearing drama students pretending to care for whichever cause has its logo emblazoned on their nylon bib that day.

I dislike being followed down the street by a man with a clipboard making comments about my hair in an effort to get me to turn round and direct debit £10 a month to a charity I've never heard of or don't support.

More than that, I object to the guilt trip hard sell that comes next - not because Shelter doesn't do a great job - but because I'm hearing what my £10 a month could do for a homeless single parent family from a bloke who's paid up to £18 an hour to tell me about it.

Maybe I'm naieve to suggest that charity is better conducted at a grass roots level with people giving their time, thought and emotional support to a cause, rather than just their cash - but that's the reaction being charity mugged provokes in me.

I look at the old bloke from the Royal British Legion with his poppy can asking for donations that will help returning troops in his home town, and I can't help thinking his work is more important.

He's passionate about the cause, he's giving his time for free and by doing that he's inspiring respect in the people who donate - they're more likely to take his message home with them.

Of course charities wouldn't be using an aggressive fundraising approach if it didn't work, and in financial terms it obviously does pay dividends.

I suspect this is because once you've set up a direct debit you're likely to forget about it and so don't question if it's a worthy cause and carry on giving unthinkingly.

It means that in the battle for hearts, minds and money the charity bib brigade are raking in the cash but raising very little lasting awareness or real support for their cause.

And maybe I'm in the minority here, but I'd argue that in the long term the sales speil and the "quirky" bouncy twenty-somethings irritating shoppers on high streets everywhere with their boderline anti-social pavement blocking antics actually damages a charity's reputation and standing.

I do hope that wasn't too Daily Mail for you.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

A suicidal silence

Suicide is something I've been thinking about for a while - not as a personal prospect I hasten to add - but the way it's reported in the media.

Or rather I should say the way it goes unreported in the media.

Of course there are very noteable exceptions - and of these Bridgend is the obvious example.

But how well did the press respond to what appeared to be a spate of suicides in a tight-knit teenage community? Badly, I would argue.

Suicide is something the media industry is scared of, we don't understand it and neither do our audience. By definition the person who has ended their life has reached a point of isolation which they felt no-one could help them back from, plus by the time anyone finds out it's too late for questions.

I'm not trying to be flippant about this, I think it's really important, but I also think it's time we changed the tone of the discussion because suicide is frighteningly normal.

The only more "normal" way to die if you're male and aged under 35 is to be involved in a car crash.

According to the mental health charity MIND suicide accounts for almost 23% of all deaths of people aged 15–24 years.

Working on a regional weekly paper I can vouch for the fact that almost every single traffic accident, fatal or minor, we get to hear of is reported online or in print.

The same is not true for suicides. Why?

Certainly we find out about less cases - there's no denying it's easier to spot a three car pile up than it is a paracetamol overdose - but that's not the reason suicides goes unreported.

Post Bridgend it feels as though the issue is one of the last taboos left in the news industry.

The reports about the Bridgend deaths made things worse, not better, because journalists tried to force a sexy narrative that simply wasn't there onto the events and, in doing so, once again reinforced the idea that there has to be an exceptional back story to merit reporting on a person taking their own life.

Bridgend isn't a tiny village, the young people that died did not all know one another, the numbers were worrying - but not that much higher than the expected average, and by now it's clear that there was no suicide pact cooked up on Bebo.

Often the feeling is that unless there's a "news angle" it would be intrusive and unneccessary to report on a "straightforward" suicide.

I think that's wrong: Yes, suicide is a harrowing thing for any family to have to deal with, yes, grief is personal, and yes, mental health issues are difficult to report sensitively and responsibly - but that doesn't mean suicide shouldn't make the news.

If we don't talk about it, then it's stigmatised - and what's more likely to make an isolated and desperate 19-year-old feel like a freak than a total absence of the issue in mainstream culture?

But the British press aren't a bunch of sensitive souls who back down when people get upset, so why does this culture exist?

There are several reasons. For a start I think the industry assumes that there's no public appetite for suicide stories because the issue is depressing and therefore likely to turn readers off. Which is nonsense if you ask me - people have a natural, morbid curiousity in tales of tragic misery - we all know that good news doesn't sell papers.

Then there's the Press Complaints Commission Code 5 ii) which states: "When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used."
Obviously the code doesn't prevent journalists writing stories about suicide, it just asks us to be responsible in the way that we do it - but its very existence (it's a relatively recent addition to the code) gives a nervous journalist or news editor something to hide behind.

And while we're talking about hiding, the coroners court does its fair share of hiding its head in the sand on this issue. Open and narrative verdicts are recorded compassionately to save family members the further grief of a suicide verdict - but I can't help thinking this does a huge disservice to those who might benefit from greater awareness of the issues surrounding suicide.

Mental illness is a killer - the only one that the news industry seems scared of - and yet it's the one we could do the most to fight.

Two excellent charities that know the score far better than I do are:

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Chiuauas and Jimmy Choo-ow-waaas

Small dogs, high heels: A combination fashion statement we can blame on a certain Dorothy Gale of Kansas? Maybe.

But things have changed since Judy was a girl/alive and these days any fashionista worth her size zero skinny jeans has downsized the dog - sorry Toto, you were looking chunky - and upped the ante with the heel.

And when I say "upped" we're talking heels higher than those freaky flying monkeys on Judy's diet pills.

These are statement shoes. Forget WOW factor, these shoes have WAG factor.

They say: "I have a heel like a rapier dagger, and I will use it if you so much as put one acrylic-nailed, french-manicured finger on my man."

They say: "Walk? I don't think so. Taxi!"

They say: "I over-compensate my low IQ with a sky-scraper high heel - is that a problem for you?"

But behind the botox their wearers say: "OMFG the pain! The pain! Amputate my feet!! F!F!F!"

These women aren't slaves to fashion - they're martyrs to it, the condition has a medical name: "Stilettotarsal" damage.

What unsympathetic columnists and men don't understand is that this condition isn't just fashion's frivolity, it's an addiction as dizzying and damaging as crack cocaine.

If these women could walk away from the habit that will leave them crippled and penniless, then of course they'd do it faster than Dorothy could click her Ruby heels and take Toto home.

But they can't, and now they're injecting. That's right, botox for the feet has become a mainstream phenomena.

For a mere £300 you too can inject who-knows-what-crap into the balls of your feet and teeter around without feeling a thing. This week I was offered the chance to test the procedure out, but strangely declined.

Who wouldn't? What would make any sane woman want to pay for the privilege of freezing her feet with botox?

Well, my friend, these shoes are siren shoes, they are crafted by dark lord designers who seek to tantalise, tempt, exploit and torture unsuspecting females with their ever more terrifying footwear ranges.

[I do hope Mr Shoe Fetish isn't reading this.]

They conspire to seduce and then render their wearer paralysed and resorting to poking dubious cosmetic fluids into her feet.

The clue to this, aside from their obvious annihilation-of-all-comfort-aesthetic, is in the name.

"Monolo Blahnik" to those of sound mind evokes the slurred speech of a stiletto devotee botoxed to her eye-balls and raving madly in pain - but to the victim it is the sound of the shoe devil himself speaking in tongues, telling her if she dons this season's spiky orthopaedic prostitute shoes she'll look HOT.

Meanwhile the name "Jimmy Choo" not so subtly foreshadows the involuntary cooing these shoes provoke among the female population.

And make no mistake, they are beautiful: Sublimely crafted, everything about a pair of Choos is perfect, right down to the exquisite pain of wearing them.

At which point the "Oooooos" become "Owwwwwwws".

Saturday, 18 October 2008

OMG more about Julia Allison!!!

I know, I know there's enough already on the internet about the pointless fame-hungry brunette Julia Allison and by writing this I'm playing to her hand, stoking her ego and perpetuating the myth, but I can't help it.

I'm hooked.

She's so irritating, I can't believe she thinks her vapid musings need to be shared, and if I read another bleating tweet about her lack of sleep I'll scream.

For the uninitiated Allison has a self-obsessed form of Twitter-tourettes, a Time Out column and an online TV show. This is what she sounds like:

omg omg omg neighbor's breakfast smells wafting into my studio. I WANT BACON SO BADLY. And I don't even eat meat!!!! I CAN'T TAKE THIS!

Agenda tonight: Soho House Party for "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People," with a very good-mood'd @MaryRambin 1:57 PM Oct 1st from txt

The truth is, part of me doesn't want to go back to New York. I miss this ... This quiet. This family. This LIFE.

Cabbing home in the rain from an EPIC six episode TMI Weekly taping with my co-bunnies @MaryRambin & @MeghanAsha. Xoxo ladies.

You can vomit now.

So why am I writing about her? Because loathe her or loathe her, Allison is no Big Brother 7 contestant.

At first glance she might seem like one;
- Occupation impossible to define,
- Will turn up to the opening of an envelope,
- Shares every aspect of her life with a voyeuristic audience.

But what I find fascinating about Allison is there's no reality TV producer pulling the strings, she's not selling copies of Heat magazine for Emap, she's not a kiss'n'tell slapper and she has no known connections with Max Clifford - in other words she's not part of the establishment.

And yet, she's establishing herself online as a force to be reckoned with.

With a 3,337-strong Twitter following, Allison out-ranks the Guardian's media pundit Jemima Kiss and has graced the cover of Wired but no-one can figure out what she wants beyond celebrity - and if that's all she wants why doesn't she just hire an agent?

Maybe she just likes being in control, maybe she's enjoying it, maybe there's a bit of entrepreneurial flair in there somewhere - and do you know what? If that's the case, I like her for it.

If Allison's only talent, and tireless ambition, is to become a one-woman media mogul - then good luck to her, it sure beats seeing Chantelle's breasts plastered across the cover of Zoo magazine.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Drop the dead hamster

I might retire from the news industry after today delivering the immortal line: "Drop the dead hamster!"

My Monday morning arranged itself into a pear-shaped configuration at 9.05am when I got a call from Harry the hamster's people.

Harry was no ordinary hamster; he was a devil-may-care, daring, dashing rodent who should rightly have borne the moniker "Houdini the hamster".

"Why", you ask?

Well my dears, because Harry escaped his happy cage, romped down two flights of stairs, dodged oncoming traffic to cross a main road, and shimmied into No.47 Sea View Drive, to terrify the life out its slumbering owner, Mrs Smith.

Much screaming ensued from Mrs Smith, but fortunately Mr Smith was made of sterner stuff and, with a cool head, was able to catch Harry and later reunite him with his family, the Peters.

Miraculous!! Hold the front page! Or page 12.

Dutifully I spoke to the family, and they agreed to an exclusive photoshoot at 9.15am on Monday morning.

"And how is Harry now?" I enquired on Friday.
"He's very tired, in fact I think he might not be well," said Mrs Peter.
"Dear me, will he make it to Monday - or should we get round sharpish?" I asked, ever sensitive to the family's feelings.
"Oh, I'm sure it's nothing, Monday will be fine," was Mrs Peter's reply.

Come Monday morning and with the photographer dispatched in pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize winning piece of photojournalism, my mobile rang.

"What's that Mrs Peter - Harry's dead?!"
[In the background I hear the doorbell ring, and realise that this signifies the arrival of my man in the field. I begin plotting ways to escape the office before his return.]

I dedicate this post to Harry, R.I.P.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Football is my church

As another manager is sacrificed at the altar of the beautiful game there's no denying football is the new religion.

Premiership players are gods, chants replace hymns and the cathedral has been abandoned in favour of the home ground.

Worship is held on match days, Kevin Keegan is not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy, and Alex Ferguson is probably the pope.

Phil "the sacrificial lamb" Scolari has found this out the hard way thanks to Roman Abramovich's very convincing turn as Pontius Pilate.

Interesting that at a time when everyone else is apologising - bankers, the BBC, hell even Barack Obama - Scolari was out on his ear before he could even begin to grovel.

That's because the football gods are merciless - think Old Testament meets Rangers fans and you get the idea.

Failure demands action, not words - after all the Champions League is far more important than the global banking crisis, and so it is fitting that the Chelsea manger has been dealt a larger serving of public humiliation in his ruthless execution than Mssrs Goodwin, Hornby, Stevenson and McKillop were served by the select-committee.

The good news for Big Phil is that there's likely to be a second coming with another high profile job in top flight football almost a guarantee before the month's out.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Education, education, stagflation

Tony Blair in his 1996 conference speech to the party faithful, declared:

"Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education."

Twelve years on and we're staring a scary and potentially prolonged spell of stagflation in the face.

"Credit crunch" is the cosy term for it.

I'm not an economist, but in layman's terms even I can understand the basic arithmatic of an extended period of easy credit + rising prices of global commodities = stagflation.

Pushing 50 per cent of youngsters into university is partly to blame for my generation's credit habit.

Without planning or budgeting for it families and 18-year-olds found themselves being thrust into higher education.

Which wouldn't be a national disaster, except that these days an undergraduate degree from a decent university will set you back anywhere in the region of £8,000 to £20,000.

For many people of my generation, adulthood was marked by the taking on of debt, so it's small wonder we're a credit card comfortable lot - personal debt is all we've ever know.

We learnt to borrow before we learnt to earn.

But it wasn't always like that, within recent memory the grant system still operated.

My friend Sarah and her brother James perfectly illustrate how quickly things changed, and how mums and dads had no time to plan, budget, or save for their kids' future.

Sarah is 24, her brother James is 30: He was given a grant and so was effectively paid to go to university, as a result he now owns a flat in London.

On the other hand Sarah was hit for tuition fees, then top up fees and without a grant she had to take out a student loan. Having graduated two years ago she is still paying her debts off and has no hope of owning property in the foreseeable future.

With the benefit of hindsight it is obvious that this change happened too quickly.

We are now approaching a higher education system similar to that of America, which is not inherently a bad thing, unless you introduced it overnight and did nothing to counter the culture of easy lending it created.

What difference does a bit more debt make if you already owe the bank £15k? When you don't earn it and money comes for free and you're 18 it's all fine - right?

Who was regulating the massively lucrative student banking sector?

With education offered up as an answer to all society's ills, not enough of us questioned the validity of our higher education choices.

Which must be painfully obvious now to those who took puppetry, complimentary medicine and media studies degrees and are labouring away in unrelated careers to shift those debts.

Expensive, inapropriate higher education didn't open doors, it shut them.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The GREAT North Run

So about three weeks before the event the training schedule was well and truly out of the window - I fell over and pranged my knee.

The Friday night before the race the healthy eating plan was a distant memory - I was four glasses of wine down in the pub.

The day of the race the music stopped - I realised my ipod was out of juice on the start line.

My preparations for 13.1m had basically turned into a comedy of errors, only with half a marathon of pain stretching out in front of me I was struggling to see the funny side.

Luckily, I discovered that to complete the Great North Run athletic prowess is unnecessary - think of it as a luxury - all you need is bloody-mindedness and a fantastic crowd of mental Geordies to line the route.

In the end I got round in a just about respectable 2 hours 28 minutes.

I say "I" but if I'm honest it was a team effort, and I share my medal with the Newcastle nutters who spend their Sunday cheering on Sweaty Bettys like me, particularly the good people of Jarrow whose welcome banner ("Jarrow welcomes the magnificent 50,000+") made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Thanks to those lovely people there wasn't a moment during the whole 13.1m when I wasn't munching biscuits, drinking juice, eating orange segments or being drenched with someone's garden hosepipe (in a good way).

My only complaints? A toenail that didn't make it to the finish line with the rest of me (too much information? Sorry), a wonky knee for the final mile and a message to the five people I saw running while chatting on their mobiles: If you've got enough puff to chinwag your way round you should be RUNNING FASTER.


Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Good news day

Ok, so today might as well go down in history as "torrential Tuesday" with rain pouring from the sky at almost the same rate government treasury departments across the globe hemorrhaged cash reserves - but at least it was a good day for Michael Jackson.

AFP took a break from updating us on our headlong fall into the financial abyss to bring us the news;
"MIT scientists move closer to 'artificial noses'"

That's right folks, Wacko Jacko could be sporting a new schnoz before you know it - what's not to love about that?

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Bargain hunt

Bootle was a bleary eyed car boot - we were parked up and unpacking our tat by 7.05am.

And by 7.10am the vultures were circling Portia and me as the old hands took one look and realised we were first timers.

Bizarrely, the dress maker's mannequin was the first to go for a respectable £4, swiftly followed by Portia's Royal Dalton Schnauzer dog statue - I know, how could she - for a massive £5.

The dog turned out to be the day's big money, along with a pair of hockey sticks that we sold for £6 to a silent man who wouldn't look us in the eye.

After that we did a brisk trade in wind chimes (£1, frankly as the wind was starting to pick up I'd have PAID someone to take them away), bean bags, bangles and bobble hats.

Next door the bloke painting signs to order was doing a roaring trade - we particularly liked the charming "Dirty Nellie's Knocking Shop". Classy.

Opposite a pair of dodgy matching mullets were selling knock off perfume, I would have shared the image with you all, but Portia wouldn't let me sneak a pic on the grounds that they'd beat us up. She had a point - both Mr and Mrs Rough were wearing matching black leather jackets.

Then we met Bette and her friend, who bought four rolls of pink wallpaper for 80p:
Friend: "Bette will this pink do me downstairs loo?"
Bette: "Ohhhh, like a marvel."

Not everyone was so appreciative - I sold a sports bag to a bloke and said brightly, "you can put your shopping in that now" - to which he replied, "nah queen, I'm gonna put the rubbish in me car in it."

Despite drawing many admirers, the fetching blue and silver Italian leather wedges failed to find a new owner, along with the ski outfit. With hindsight I should maybe have realised that winter sports equipment wouldn't be a big hit in Bootle.

But then who knew that the Schnauzer would be such a success? Today taught me that there really is no telling what people will buy - or what they'll sell.

Our neighbour on the other side swiftly sold off all his stock, then took £500 in cash for his car and walked off.

We came in a bit short of that - making £75 between us, £40 of which was mine and has now been added to the Great North Run fund for Get Kids Going. That, along with generous donations from two good friends, Alan and Catherine, means I'm halfway to my £200 target.

I'm absolutely knackered now, but actually feeling quite pleased with myself: It's far too much work for £40, but it was fun.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Filling our boots at the big Bootle car boot sale

Typewriter: Check.
Anthology of 101 School Assemblies: Check.
Cocktail kit circa 1970: Check.
Dress maker's mannequin: Check.
VHS videos of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Ghost Busters: Check.
Crime against fashion neon all-in-one ski outfit: Check.

These are just some of the highlights of tomorrow's Bootle car boot sale.

An old friend and I are joining forces to get rid of our tat as we take on the bargain hunters of the North West, in what claims to be the region's biggest boot sale.

The pitch is setting us back £9, and in the unlikely event that we make a profit the money's going to the charity that I'm doing the Great North Run for next week - Get Kids Going.

It's a great cause which does a really good job helping disabled kids to get the best out of life, so if you can spare a few quid here's the link:

Having had to face up to the sheer volume of crap I've acquired over the years, I'm now of the opinion minimalism is the way forward.

Frankly, if anyone pays good money for that ski outfit (with matching bobble hat) I will struggle to keep a straight face and will be forced to inform the style police immediately.

I'll blog the grand total raised tomorrow, along with some pics of our exploits.

It's a 6.00am start in the morning - who needs sleep?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Rocking out

********The Soundtrack to this post********

You know times are hard when rappers and R'n'B divas are selling up their bling to make a buck.

The day after the world's biggest diamond was mined in Africa, news breaks that a US auction of hip hop bling has caused such a stir that its date has been postponed while experts catalogue the full gaudy array.

Naturally, all the papers went for it as a picture story:

One angle, though, was left unexplored: Much was made of the cultural significance of the sale in terms of hip hop's standing as an art movement.

The Guardian couldn't help itself and dropped in a mention of "Smithsonian Institution's fledgling hip-hop archive".

So, if hip hop is now high art, and there are real collectors who are planning to pay tens of thousands for the bling rings about to go under the hammer, does this mean in years to come Michael Aspel and Eric Knowles will be pondering the value of the crown ring belonging to the late Tupac Shakur on the Antiques Road Show?

I do hope so.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Palin' into insignificance

Reading about Tzipi Livni, the woman who looks likely to become the next Israeli Prime Minister, makes me cringe for Sarah Palin.

The former Mossad spy, Livni, has earned her stripes and is the front runner in the political contest because people think she could run a country, not just win the votes to: Some American's will be shocked to learn that there is a difference.

Her reputation isn't based on her image and her publicity shots, she's known as a sharp analytical brain.

When you compare the two women the contrast is stark.

Palin's there to pull in the votes, and then sit down and shut up: With such limited political experience how is she going to make herself heard in the big debates?

On the other hand, Livni is a fascinating character.

Whether her past as a member of a state organisation which carried out political assassinations would compromise her in the role of Israeli PM is a moot point, but her credibility cannot be called into question.

Regardless of whether Livni is the right person for the premiership, she's at least in the race for right reason in the first place.

Which explains why she's running for Prime Minister when Palin is settling for second best.

Sunday, 21 September 2008


Public services and PR - is it OK to pay?

That was the crux of the debate in this Times article on Friday:

Unsurprisingly, Elisabeth Lewis-Jones, President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, thinks it is not only OK, but essential that we pay up for PR.

During her lengthy explanation she said: "It is not political propaganda.
"This is about two-way communication, there is complete transparency, and if anyone has a problem with that they can give their opinions.
"This is about giving people information so that they can make a choice and make a decision.
"Public relations is a business activity that should underpin an organisation’s business plan. Public relations professionals work with key people to decide how an organisation will develop, how it can improve and become more successful."

The opening soundbite is text book. But it doesn't matter because her editorial adversary, Matthew Elliott, Chief executive of the campaign group TaxPayers’ Alliance, is coming right back at her.

His one-liner dismisses her: "The best PR is doing a good job in the first place."

Now, at this point I should own up: I worked in PR for 18 months, and I don't anymore, because I'm now a journalist.

But the debate here, is not the worth or ethics of PR in general - it focuses on tax payer funded public relations work for public institutions; the police, NHS, local government.

So why do we employ press officers in the public sector?

Lewis-Jones knows, let's return to her words for a moment: "Public relations is a business activity that should underpin an organisation’s business plan.
"Public relations professionals work with key people to decide how an organisation will develop, how it can improve and become more successful."

Bear in mind that a public relations practitioner is, and I cite my own experience at this point, a person who is not required to sit any exams or hold any academic qualifications in order to do their job. PR is not brain surgery, it's not law, it's not even the possession of business acumen.

We should be worried when Lewis-Jones tells us that PR's see their role as deciding how an organisation will develop, especially if this is a massively complicated concern, such as an NHS trust.

At what point did PR becoming policy making? And when did the public start electing its council press officers, its fire service spokespeople and its LEA PRs?

Back to Elliott and his doctrine of "doing a good job" - he's not talking about PRs - he's talking about doctors, teachers, planning officers - trained professionals, and experts.

I think he's onto something, just imagine letting these people get on with their jobs.

But we don't, because there's a layer of press office guarding them from the public and the media.

I find this insulting, to the public, the press, and the professionals themselves.

It assumes that a doctor can be considered fit to care for a patient in that he can prescribe drugs and carry out life saving treatment, but he can't be trusted to talk about what he does without jeopardising his job.


If he can't speak for himself then should he be out on ward rounds? If he is liable to say something that compromises patient confidentiality does he understand the Hippocratic oath? If not shouldn't he should be struck off?

By inserting this "communications" safety net to save institutional blushes are we not depriving ourselves of a useful Darwinian process of selection? In other words does public service PR protect the professionally weak? Potentially.

Lewis-Jones' next statement is symptomatic of the problem: "If we take the case of Ofsted, the money is unlikely to be spent only on press officers, but also on internal communications so that everyone within Ofsted is aware of what is happening and those that are going into schools are aware of the key messages or key information they need to impart and receive."

If it takes the PR team to tell an Ofsted inspector what "information they need to impart and receive" when they visit a school then, really what is the point of sending the inspector in at all? Why not just send the PR posse down to the school gates with a clipboard?

As for claims of transparency, I'd direct your attention to this inspired Freedom of Information request by the Oxford Mail:

In my short experience I have already worked with public service press officers who think it is their job to defend their institution: It's not.

It shouldn't make a blind bit of difference to them whether the story is positive, or negative, as long as the facts quoted are accurate.

But then, they would just be simply passing on information, and I suppose underpinning an organisation’s business plan, developing an entire borough council's future and making the fire service more successful are all much more lucrative professional pastimes.

*With thanks to David Cushman for this glorious piece of etymology.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


I had no idea The Marvelettes sang the original.

To right my wrong:

I still love the Carpenters, although concede The Marvelettes do this one better.

And she waited...

No brown envelope for me today, so no scandal for you lot.

Never has a Carpenters song felt so apt:

Internal mail = fail.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


I have reached a major milestone in my journalistic career.

The first Echo byline pales into insignificance, the masterly coverage of Britain in Bloom means nothing, and you can forget the live web chat too.

I had my first anonymous tip off last week.

Now, the details of this must remain top secret - so don't tell anyone.

Suffice it to say that it involves the church and a shoe fetish. A brown envelope containing proof of the alleged debauchery has arrived for me at another office, and tomorrow it will land on my desk courtesy of internal mail.

I can't wait, I feel like a kid the night before Christmas.

Already I've got a flavour of what this dossier of scandal might contain, thanks to a cryptic voicemail (number withheld, naturally).

"I don't really want to identify myself but I thought you'd like to hear about Mr xxxx who's running a xxxx from his premises in xxxx.
"If you log onto xxxx you'll find all the info on it.
"Interestingly this man is big in the church and it seems to me that the vicar of this church is in full favour of this.
"I do sincerely hope, Laura, that you will be able to act on this information.
"I hope you got the paperwork that I left for you at your office yesterday - which is all true."

My hunch is the poor bloke's done nothing illegal, my anonymous source is at least 89, and all of the allegations are libellous.

Still, I do love my job.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Pitbull Palin and the Lipstick Lesbians

Surely this is the cat fight to end all cat fights?

In the red corner we've got gun totin' Republican Sarah Palin squaring up to the dyke Democrat tag team of Lindsay Lohan and Sam Ronson.

That's right, first Lindsay goes gay, next she's grown a political conscious - and she's telling the world about it on myspace.

I'll let Lindsay and Sam explain their beef with Palin in their own words:
Is it a sin to be gay? Should it be a sin to be straight? Or to use birth control? Or to have sex before marriage? Or even to have a child out of wedlock?
I find it quite interesting that a woman who now is running to be second in command of the United States, only 4 years ago had aspirations to be a television anchor. Which is probably all she is qualified to be...
Is our country so divided that the Republicans best hope is a narrow minded, media obsessed homophobe?

Overlooking the hypocrisy of an actress who is spouting off about politics criticising a politician who wants to be a TV celebrity, it seems to me that if Obama isn't sunk by his "lipstick on a pig" remark then Lindsay's show of support could be the campaign kiss of death instead.

To be fair, it does get funnier, although not intentionally:
Oh, and...Hint Hint Pali Pal- Don't pose for anymore tabloid covers, you're not a celebrity, you're running for office to represent our, your, my COUNTRY!

But I do have a grudging respect for the writer who is able to find anything quote-worthy amongst the utterings of Pammy:
And in the words of Pamela Anderson, "She can suck it"..

..and skin it, and turn it into a pair of sledding mittens - careful there girls - Palin doesn't take prisoners.

Or does she?

All we hear about her is how she was raised by huskies, can spit 20 miles and will shoot your pets if you don't vote for her.

Only, she's number two on the ticket - and to my mind that doesn't square with her self-styled "Lara Croft storms the White House" image.

If she was so goddam go-getting why didn't she go get herself her own ticket, and stop letting some old bloke ride towards a credible shot at office on the back of her political momentum?

Frankly, Sam and Lindsay know more about more girl power.

Vote Obama.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Separated at birth

Has anyone ever seen Man United's Dimitar Berbatov and Sesame Street's Count Von Count in the same room together?

I only ask because I can't shake the feeling that the pair were separated at birth - see slide show.

It's not just those eye brows, receding hairline, swarthy complexion and penchant for a dark cape that the two share: I imagine that Mr Berbatov became pretty good at counting - the goals and the cash - when his premiership star status went stellar.

I wonder if he sings the songs, too?

Then again, when was football not about counting? For Mike Ashley right now it must be count, count, count: Number of Toon army members, anti-Ashley protest marches, managers likely to come and go, players looking to leave, bids to buy club (sadly for Ashley probably a significantly smaller figure than rest), and column inches written about the whole debacle.

In fact, the only thing he definitely isn't counting is his calorie intake.

Over at Man City I imagine there are many players in the squad whose counting skills can't comprehend the wealth their new Abu Dhabi owners have swept in with.

I wouldn't be surprised to hear that the first team has had to collectively take their shoes and socks off in an effort to work out how much they'll be getting paid by Sulaiman al-Fahim and friends.

Here in Liverpool, counting has been a very simple, satisfying pastime this weekend: Liverpool 2, Manchester United 1.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

A premonition

Yesterday's blog post was clearly a moment of psychic clarity, for today Liverpool Echo columnist Joe Riley has also vented his spleen about the state of our stations.

Obviously, I was pleased to read the Echo heavyweight getting behind the broad message of my campaign to address the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in our underground - but where were the pigeons?

Not a tweet from Riley on the fundamental cause of it all.

Maybe it's time to lobby for "Red Ken - Mayor of Liverpool" - he's clearly the only man with a plan on this issue.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Liver birds

Forget the congestion charge, Red Ken's legacy to London is the falcon in Trafalgar Square.

I lived in London for five years, I worked in Leicester Square, and walked through Trafalgar Square each day - I have endured pigeon horrors innumerable.

But none like the life endangering run in I had with a bat-out-of-hell pigeon that dived bombed down an escalator at Moorfields today.

For those that don't know Liverpool, Moorfields is a bit like Kings Cross in that it connects everything, including the Northern line to the Wirral line by a steep, long, underground, enclosed escalator. That a big fat pigeon lives in.

It zoomed down, clipped my head, then sat stupidly at the bottom thinking about other ways freak me out. Flying straight at me did the trick - I screamed, dropped my paper and almost full down the escalator.

Fast forward four hours and I'm at James Street having a nice chat with the Merseyrail man about the pigeon problem - and more importantly what they plan to do about it.

Nothing is what they plan to about it - apparently, "you're alright if they don't hit you in the face".

It's time for the Echo to start calling for falcons in the city - if it's good enough for the capital, then it's good enough for the capital of culture, I say.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Solid gold

Could 19 gold medals have been 20 if Dwain Chambers had been selected to compete in Beijing?

At the time of the ruling I wondered if the British Olympic Association (BOA) had made the right decision: Chambers had said sorry, expressed remorse, and then let his legs do the talking out on the track.

And they spoke volumes - he qualified fair and square and proved himself the fastest 100m sprinter the UK could pit against Usain Bolt.

I felt sorry for him - it seemed a big price to pay for a mistake back in 2003.

But what would it have mattered? Bolt would have beaten Chambers any day of the week and the BOA deserves credit for standing up to Chambers.

The only thing that could take the shine off what we saw in China is a drugs scandal.

Not that I'm suggesting Chambers isn't clean, quite the contrary, he'd be mad not to be after his high profile battle with the BOA.

The scandal would have been Chambers legal victory over the BOA, had he been allowed to run.

So soon after Max Moseley - another case in which the facts of the complainant's unsavoury behaviour were not disputed, but the letter of the law was used to reward a orgy-indulging married man - it is refreshing to see a judge make the right decision.

The "resort to court" culture that is now part of our national psyche is wrong and it's damaging.

Sometimes people make mistakes that they have to live with forever - there's no court appeal option for them because that's just the way it is - but a litigious society encourages us to forget that.

Dwain needs to grow up and accept he should give up the day job.

Team GB are better off with 19 honest medals than 20 hypocritical ones.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Ronson replies

So, I dropped Mr Ronson a quick email via his website suggesting Joyce McKinney as subject matter for his next documentary, and lo! A reply:

"I agree she would be fascinating! I'm in the process of seeing what I can do."

Do you think that entitles me to royalties?

(N.B. Ronson is a kind of cooler, edgier heir to Louis Theroux's brand of oddball investigative journalism. His book Them will give you the idea. And yes, I did consider asking for a job.)

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Seal scandal!

Thanks must go to Captain Mac for his erudite analysis of Ms McKinney's behaviour:

Manacled mormons, prosthetic ponies, cloned canines - does all this mad chick's craziness have to involve alliteration?
If so then should we be looking out for bagged budgies, zapped zebras and indignant iguanas?
I think we should be told - get on it Laura!!

In response to this call to arms, I want to assure readers that I am, indeed, "on it" and currently following up a hot lead.

I can't reveal too much at this stage, but suffice it to say McKinney's movements cannot be accounted for during the West Kirby sandbank seal scaring scandal - a story brought to you by the Wirral News.

Another link that readers may find of interest, yes, it's prosthetics for ponies, a subsidiary company of Animal Rehab Centers of America:

I am now awaiting with baited breath the announcement that one of my favourite Jewish journalists, Jon Ronson or Louis Theroux is making a documentary about McKinney. I have taken the liberty of suggesting this to Mr Ronson via email and will be sure to share his response.

Right, I think that's quite enough silliness for one night; only serious posts next week.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

News just in

Hello McKinney watchers!

There has been a fresh twist in the ever bizarre tale of Joyce the "manacled Mormon kidnapper" McKinney.

Turns out it's not just Mormons that she's obsessed with, she's got a freaky thing for animals too.

First it was the South Korean puppy cloning, now it's - actually I'll let The Times, who have followed the story so faithfully, take over:

The “manacled Mormon” kidnapper who was exposed after cloning her pet pitbull terrier in South Korea is wanted on burglary charges involving a three-legged horse in the United States.

Joyce McKinney is accused of telling a 15-year-old boy to break into a house in Tennessee so that she could get money to buy a false leg for her beloved horse, her lawyer said.

Prosthethics for ponies - who knew it was so lucrative?

On other business, it has been brough to my attention that there is another possible explanation for the linguistic conundrum that is the phrase "to get caned".

Captain Mac said: "I think caned comes from when drinks like rum were brewed from fermented sugar cane."

I like it.

Meanwhile, the latest news on the future of Cains is that PWC are talking up their chances of finding a buyer "to take control within just a few days" according to the oft over-looked publication The Publican.

PWC said: “We are advertising for interested parties in the Financial Times at the end of the week and that should help us set a timescale for positive offers as early as the week beginning August 18."

Consider yourselves updated.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Friday fun

Maybe I'm going crazy, but I found this hilarious.
It is truly the fail blog of cakes, enjoy!

I'm off for a nice slice of Victoria sponge myself.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Boris Johnston, Kelvin MacKenzie, and now...

Tim Leunig.

The think tank academic who urged scousers to move South because Liverpool has lost its "raison d'etre" has found himself on the wrong end of the city's wrath.

Not since blundering Boris and The Sun's infamous Hillsborough splash has there been such an outcry directed at one man.

Leunig's half-baked ideas have been the subject of acres of coverage, with stirring double page spreads in the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

Undeniably its been great fun to read, but should we be wasting our time on Leunig? By taking a swipe at the proudest city in the UK the LSE economist was always guaranteed to make the front pages.

Which has me wondering if our northern pride had been manipulated?

A friend at the Hull Daily Mail summed it up today when she said: "We fizz up like a bottle of pop when someone has a dig."

And we do. The fact is, far from harming his career this furore is going to make the Bill Gates look-a-like Leunig into a darling of academia.

You only have to look at Johnston and MacKenzie to see that they didn't suffer much for their ill-advised pot shots at scousers. Boris is now mayor of London and MacKenzie is a millionaire.

In a way it's a shame that Leunig went loopy and suggested mass migration as an alternative to making regeneration work, because there are questions to be asked about the received wisdom that "regeneration" is the saviour of our cities.

A week ago The TaxPayers’ Alliance came out with their own paper arguing that regional development agencies have cost the tax payer £15bn and have failed to deliver value for money, at the same time the National Audit Office are scrutinising the work of such quangos ready for a major report in 2009.

Now, there's something worth dedicating column inches to.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Phrase and fable, caned and able

********* *********
Is the soundtrack to this post - there's a reason.

On the way home from work today I was thinking about a pint of beer.

Which is no unusual state of affairs, but this time I was pondering the etymology of the pint in question.

"Does," I wondered, "the verb 'to cane' (most common usage 'we were caned' or 'he's a caner') derive from Liverpool's very own 'Cains' beer?"

Caners are a breed of their own according to The Sun, and just like that other incomprehensible, monosyllabic, dribbling group - premiership footballers - they have their own league. See:

Chugging through Birkdale and Sandhills I tried to get to the bottom of the question: To get caned do you need to be drinking Cains?

Because if that's the case we're all going to be sobering up very soon. Last week the tax man called time, RBS handed the beleaguered brewery over to the receivers and the long hangover began.

Now, there is another school of thought that argues the root of the verb is cocaine, or 'caine if you're really cool.

Which makes me wonder, has the government really thought this thing through? Do they want good sup-standing Cains drinkers to become coke fiends whose nostrils harbour half of Columbia just because there's a £4.2m financing shortfall?

How much did bankrolling Northern Rock cost?

Surely it's time for a private members bill in parliament calling for the nationalisation of Cains before we all end up in a worse state than Ms Winehouse because we've had to swap a nice pint for class A substance abuse in order to carry on getting caned?

Thursday, 7 August 2008

I wish I'd written this intro

"The woman who had her pet dog cloned by South Korean scientists flatly denied early today that she was a bail abscondee accused of sexually assaulting and kidnapping a male Mormon missionary more than 30 years ago in Surrey."

In Surrey! Not in Waco, Texas, but Surrey. Who knew that the leafy green costly-property public school outpost was in fact at the centre of a global movement to manhandle male Mormon missionaries?

As for the dog cloning and the South Koreans, I just don't even know where to begin.

Leo Lewis, Ben Quinn and the sub, I salute you!

Share the love at:

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Big Issue

I just read this story in The Guardian:

"Parents in England will for the first time be routinely informed if a child is clinically overweight under controversial plans to tackle an epidemic of obesity that were announced yesterday by the Department of Health.

"Ministers have ruled that letters to parents should not use the words "fat" or "obese" for fear they might stigmatise overweight children and cause families to ignore the results."

I'd have thought weighing more than a small baby elephant is enough to "stigmatise" a seven-year-old. I can't claim first hand experience on that, but surely being the morbidly obese kid in the class will mean they've heard a lot worse from their playground peers.

Coverage like this is worse than a letter home telling it like it is:

It also crossed my mind that it might be time for action, not words on the issue. As in 20 laps of the playing field action?

Friday, 1 August 2008

Who's the daddy?

"The Child is father of the Man," Wordsworth declared in 1802, and we all agreed.

Since then children have been becoming more and more and more powerful.

Starting with this romantic concept that childhood experiences shape us for life, we have heaped growing importance, pressure and scrutiny on the little 'uns.

Thanks to this new improved childhood we've become terrified of the small tyrants who wield so much power in our culture.

If that sounds like an over-exaggeration ask yourself when was the last time you told a bunch of 10-year-olds on a train to turn their fit-inducing phone music down?

And why not? Because they might knife you. Because being perceived as a judgemental critic of someone else's parenting is now a social taboo. Or because a stranger talking to children is clearly a paedophile.

Either way, it boils down to the same thing: We're scared of children.

There's no doubt they now have the upper hand. We don't know what to do with them, or what to make of them - and they know it.

By giving those years so much significance we've distorted childhood beyond anyone's understanding - theirs, or ours.

Stars are no-longer real stars unless they started their career under the age of 18, see: Britney, Lindsay Lohan, Justin Timberlake, Miley Ray Cyrus, Peaches and Michael Jackson. A line-up in questionable mental health to say the very least.

We want them young forever, and we also want them looking like grown-ups - but paedophilia is definitely a bad, bad thing. No wonder everyone is confused.

Not only have we created some kind of sexualised pre-teen siren strain of child, we now need to woo them. That's because they're a market force of pester powering future consumers who brands need to seduce.

Then there's the matter of parenting. Children are tiny walking, talking status symbols - why else would Posh'n'Becks, Brangelina and even Jordan and Pete have so many of them?

But they need to be the whole package to carry real caché - which is possibly why kids in the UK consistently rank among the most stressed and depressed in the world.

In order to understand this childhood thing we've adopted a scientific approach which seems to have resulted in very little success. If you need proof of this then look no further than the fact that we test our children practically every year of their sad little lives.

We're obsessed by the idea of the child prodigy, as confirmed by the recent series of "Britain's Got Talent" which saw George Sampson, 14, Faryl Smith, 12 and Andrew Johnston, 13 dominate the show.

Even on the news agenda kids pack a punch rivalled by few adults - Madeleine McCann, Shannon Matthews and the Fritzl family all have a claim on the biggest news story of the last 12 months.

Perhaps this obsession with childhood, and our fear of its power, says much more about us than them. In other words: The only thing we're more scared of than the kids is getting old ourselves - last one to book a botox appointment's a loser!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

A self-indulgent post

Would anyone object if I got a few things off my chest? No? Good.

If you are an angry man wishing to shout and swear at a female I would suggest you call the following number, and not my line at the office: 0908 082 9451. Thanks.

Didn't God tell Noah about the flood and give him a chance to build an ark? Where was our heads up today?

Reality TV show producers, and particularly the people behind X-factor, do you know what you've done? I endured a train journey with four school girls who think they've got talent, and exhibited this with a nice Rihanna / Mariah medley all the way home.

Giles Coren: Give the subs a break, try doing their job for a day, get a life and take a pay cut. Not necessarily in that order.

Celebs selling their baby pictures for cash can't be right can it? How are Brangelina going to explain to Shiloh Jolie-Pitt that she's worth less dollar than Knox and Vivienne without denting her self-esteem?

That's better.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Running into trouble

Disaster has struck! Nine weeks away from The Great North Run and I have sustained a bona fide sporting injury.

Predictably it was all my own fault. The reason I've twanged my knee is the same reason I'm running 13m in the first place: I'm fiercely competitive.

When another journalist asked me if I was thinking about doing the GNR I could just have told the truth - which would have been, "No I hate running" - but we'd done our training together and our entire relationship is about bettering each other so I couldn't back down.

On Friday another competitor, sorry, friend said she was running a 10k race in Battersea Park to prepare for Newcastle.

Not to be outdone I decided to match the distance, and bin my training plan.

What do the professionals know anyway?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. I did it in an hour five - but then noticed my knee felt floppy in a ligament-y sort of way.

The result? Two days rest and the gentle jogging for a week. Which puts me miles behind the competition.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Barefaced cheek

Question: What do Sienna Miller and Max Moseley have in common?

Answer: They have both served writs to News International for breach of privacy after The Sun and NOTW published semi naked images of them involved in morally dubious activities.

Nazi orgies and topless husband stealing are not practices I'd be wanting to discuss in a public court - but then again Max and Sienna are very private people, and as such they need to protect their privacy.

Max has already had his very successful day in court, and over at News International they're counting the £910,000 cost of that, so Sienna is probably banking on a nice apology and big out of court settlement.

She's got Carter Ruck on the case - so she's certainly making like she means business.

Birthday presents for boys

What do you buy for a 23 year old guy?

I have a day off because it's my brother's birthday - but I have no birthday gift.

There's just no winning as far as I can see. Girls are supposedly the difficult ones, but I don't know many that would say no to Chanel perfume, or a bunch of flowers. OK, so they aren't original ideas - but they'd always make her smile.

I'm currently refusing to go down the socks and underpants route - but I see a time in the near future when I'll cave in and join the majority of the female gift buying population.

We bought my grandfather a box of liquorice allsorts for his birthday every year until he died, and that didn't seem to do him any harm.

One year I deviated from the strategy and bought a stupidly expensive pair of magnetic teflon oven gloves, which he was thrilled with. Last night I found them in the bottom of a drawer in my grandma's kitchen - unused.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Data disaster

Forget your kids, your kidneys, the keys to your porsche carrera - the most precious thing you own in this world is your Personal Data.

And like Gollum in Lord of the Rings we need to keep the precious safe, all to ourselves, and away from those hairy hobbit-like civil servants at HMRC.

Ooops, too late.

Ever since they popped that disk with 25 million people's personal information in the post to the Bermuda Triangle we've started taking a bit more interest in who knows what about us.

It was back on November 20, 2007 that Alastair Darling had to own up that the data disk had gone astray, and in the intervening eight months there have been a steady supply of information-at-large stories.

This week started with an MOD laptop containing "sensitive information" stolen from the Adelphi in Liverpool and today the spread of data despair reached the shores of the Wirral.

The Wirral Globe's splash warned: "U.S FIRM TO HAVE ALL YOUR HEALTH DETAILS". Presumably this revelation sent sales of shredders at the Birkenhead branch of W H Smith rocketing.

The thing is that while it's a great story, and I read it all the way through to find out how to opt out, no good can come of it. We waved goodbye to our data years ago. The proof of this theory? Two words: Market research.

When I worked in PR I spent a day training in data capture and TGI marketing research. It was a little bit of hell in Ealing Broadway.

What I learnt there is that there are many, many members of the British public who, if you pay them £5, will tell you everything about themselves. The questionnaire they have to fill in to collect their fiver is as thick as the Yellow Pages. It asks how much you earn, where you live, what you do, how many children you have, if you cook with stock cubes, if so how many times a week, and with what meat. It goes on and on and on - and so do the cretins filling it in.

When the results are in the real fun starts - the raw data forms the basis of a software programme that media companies pay a fortune for. It allows them to tell clients that the people who drink their brand of juice read The Times, never use stock cubes and drive their 3 children to school in a Volvo.

So, if we're giving all of this information up for less than the price of a 0845 phone call to cancel our bank cards, how come we're so worried about what happens to the information we give to the government?

It's ok for us to tell everyone on facebook our name, birthday, occupation, educational history and marital status - but if Whitehall were to put it on a disk and lose it without coughing up £5, well we'd be outraged.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Mercury rising

The shortlist for the Mercury Music prize was announced today, with both bands from the Wirral and UCL in with a shout

The massively talented jazz boys Portico Quartet are thoroughly deserving nominees. If you've never heard of them, let this be your excuse to be bewitched by their Knee Deep in the North Sea album. It's jazz, but not as you know it.

They're a UCL group who were knocking around Russel Sq at the same time as me. I'd seen them play before, but had never had a proper chat with them until I interviewed them for The Journal in Newcastle when they played a gig at the Sage. It's funny how things work out.
Here's my interview:

Not to be outdone Wirral's own Miles Kane is in the running as one half of the shortlisted duo The Last Shadow Puppets. Miles who hails from Hoylake, teams up with Alex Turner of The Arctic Monkeys on nominated album The Age of The Understatement but still also plays with homegrown indie kids The Rascals.
I know a few guys who are in with The Rascals, so the first thing on my to do list tomorrow is to ask nicely for an interview with Miles for The News. Watch this space.

And the odds? Portico are the rank outsiders at 16/1 while The Last Shadow Puppets are a safer bet at 7/1.

I'd love to see one of them pull it off.

The Shortlist
Adele - 19
British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music?
Burial - Untrue
Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Estelle - Shine
Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim
Neon Neon - Stainless Style
Portico Quartet - Knee-Deep In the North Sea
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset - The Bairns
Radiohead - In Rainbows
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss - Raising Sand
The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of The Understatement

Monday, 21 July 2008

Joking aside

Right, glass of red at hand it's time for a serious blog post. I'll try to keep it brief.

You see, it's this business of "Can we laugh at Obama?" that's getting to me.

Ever since the cover of The New Yorker crashed and burned the media has been navel gazing, asking itself if it can poke fun at the presidential candidate.

We're talking serious column inches dedicated to this non-issue. Presumably WASP journos are keeping themselves awake at night fretting about whether they've become institutionally racist without even noticing. Please stand up: Joel Stein, LA Times, Jeff Zeleny, New York Times, I won't even go on.

Obviously, they haven't. But they have noticed that something is happening.
The public don't want to laugh - whether the jokes are funny or not.

Facing more crises than the human brain can easily comprehend (just for starters: Iraq, Iran, credit crunch, rising food costs, climate change, Afghanistan) maybe people are prepared to take politics seriously again.

Maybe it's because we seriously need some solutions, and seriously need to lose the apathy. Who else is betting we see a record turn-out at both the next US and UK elections?

Satire just doesn't sit right with the current public mood - there's a real desire to believe in something. For once we're not hoping for another juicy Oval Office scandal, we're looking for someone to give us hope.

Now that we're in a corner we've decided we need the next J F Kennedy and Martin Luther King rolled into one. The fact that we're happily manufacturing a Democratic Presidential candidate who embodies the two biggest talismanic icons of 20th century America suggests it might be time to kill the wise cracks.

Can Obama deliver? Maybe. I'd like to think so, but to this issue that's irrelevant.

What's boring, and what made me write this in the first place, is that the minute a joke about a black guy bombs it's because he's black. No, New Yorker - it's not, it's because you can't let go of the cynicism and key into the mood of your readers.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Open season for seniors

As I write this Greg Norman is at the top of The Open leader board. He's also the hot topic in the gossip columns, accompanied by his new wife Chris Evert in Southport. No-one cares about the footballers, wags and Hollyoaks c-listers popping up in the seaside town - this is a Norman conquest for our times.

What's weird about that? Norman's a hugely talented golfer and, to quote The Daily Mail, "Chris Evert shows off her HUGE wedding ring" - so it's the usual combination of celebrity sportsman, blonde partner and bling. Except they're both 53.

Hold that thought a moment, and let me draw your attention to Helen Mirren. If you haven't seen that bikini pic yet and you're a female under the age of 60, prepare to be shamed:

She looks incredible, natural, healthy and happy - take note Posh.

I don't know what's more refreshing about this sexy senior phenomenon - the fact that their achievements are down to actual talent, rather than having chosen the right plastic surgeon, or that our admiration is genuine. I mean compare Mirren to Madonna - who would you rather look like?

Yes, you have to admit Madonna's body defies gravity, she can certainly still contort into any yoga position you care to name, and she's worked damn hard for it. Good on her. And that's how we patronisingly respond to showbiz oldies who are still out there: "Good on her, she looks great for her age."

This week it's different though, this isn't about congratulating OAPs for not being dead yet - this about actual, bona fide envy. Mirren and Norman aren't doing great for their age - they're just doing great full stop.

I looked at that Mirren pic and felt the same way I do when I see Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet or Kelly Brook frollicking about in her bikini.

As for Norman - he's pulling out all the shots in Southport and even if he doesn't win it, he'll have put on a damn good show at "brutal Birkdale" in what has been one of the windiest Open events in history.

I'm impressed.

DIY dentistry

What do you do when half of your tooth falls out on a Thursday night and you aren't registered to a dentist?
That's the question I was faced with this week. Although an iceberg sized chunk of molar had freed itself from its normal resting place I could only feel a dull ache.
Stupidly, I told the emergency dental people this over the phone, and apparently a dull ache does not an emergency make. If you find yourself in this situation my advice is LIE.
Cry, gnash and beg your way to an appointment by telling them that you've taken so many ibuprofen for breakfast you can see pixies playing hopscotch under the table.
I learnt too late that this is the way to be seen quick-sharp. So facing the weekend, with the pain now getting worse they told me to sort myself out - and I do love this - by buying my own temporary filling kit from Boots.
That's right, for £5 you too can stick a lump of bluetack-type dental product in your mouth and hope for the best.
I have administered my own treatment - but I'd have rather seen a professional. Do I get a refund on my National Insurance?

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Dubai: Burkahs, big bucks and bikinis

Quelle surprise! Dubai has been exposed by The Sun as a hot bed of drunken debauchery. News of embarrassing ex-pat Michelle Palmer exposing herself on Jumeirah beach has prompted the nation's favourite tabloid to investigate. About time too. According to their report it's all burkahs and bonking on the beach over there - and in a Muslim country! The paper reports that Westerners flock to the UAE for their fix of sun, sea and sex.

Cold, hard, cash more like. Everyone's there for the tax-free earning potential. The place is awash with homesick 20 and 30 somethings who have sold their souls in return for getting rid of their student debt or escaping the credit crunch. It's no wonder Michelle and pals are drinking themselves into oblivion - there's nothing else to do. Remember, this is a place where people pay to jog with a fitness instructor around the air-conditioned interior of the world's largest shopping mall because the outside temperature - the desert - would finish them off in minutes.

I was seconded to Dubai for two months last year. I couldn't get out of there quick enough; suffice it to say the Emirate state challenges Australia for the title "The Land that Culture Forgot."

And while the media has been quick to refer to Dubai as the Las Vegas of the Middle East or the next Ibiza it actually has much more in common with Switzerland. Stay with me on this one.

For a start you leave your religion and ethics at the arrivals gate.

Yes, it's a Muslim state - but only just. It's certainly not Saudi Arabia, and in the time I was there I never saw, or even heard, of a woman being asked to cover herself up.

The same principal applies with alcohol. Dubai is definitely not a dry state, no matter what the rules might say. Booze can be served in hotels - not just to guests -which means there are essentially pubs and clubs on every corner.

As for ethics, well if you think that slave labour is an acceptable price to pay for the 24 hour building sites that support the property boom, then fine. But I regret ever having had anything to do with it.

So why are the rules so lax? Well, this is where the Switzerland comparison starts to make sense.

As long as the ex-pats aren't copulating on the beach a la Palmer then the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye to behaviour that would land you in trouble in other Muslim countries - in much the same way that the Swiss don't ask where your billions came from when you open a bank account.

I've also worked in Switzerland, and upon arrival it struck me that Dubai has that same international appeal. It's called money.

According to the FCO the UAE population breaks down as follows: Arab (55%), South Asian (28%), Iranian (8%), other expatriates (9%).
These are 2007 stats, and I'd be astonished if the expat figure doesn't rise when the figures are updated for '08. As for the 55% Arabic population, they're either the eye-wateringly rich who live in Knightsbridge for most of the year, or they're residents of the most traditional of the UAE states, Sharjah.

It doesn't matter where you are in the food chain, the unspoken understanding is that everyone's in Dubai to work. Minimum wage Malaysian waitresses, and well paid Australian engineers alike come to Dubai to get rich quick, and then get out.

Running out of oil, Dubai has taken drastic steps to reinvent itself as the power house of the Middle East. An international hub which welcomes Westerners, and anyone else that wants to do business, Dubai has fast been positioning itself as the region's economic capital with the Dubai International Financial Exchange (DIFX) doing a tidy trade thanks to the runaway success of the Sukuk.

In real layman's terms the Sukuk is a form of Islamic bond which can be traded within Islamic rules - basically it gets around the issue of debt and interest - but has crucially helped to open up the DIFX to international investors. The details of Sukuk trading aren't important here, my point is that it illustrates the extent to which Dubai is prepared to marry east with west to make money.

During my time in Dubai I was shocked by the lack of news reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the complete silence about the Iranian hostage crisis. Dubai doesn't do bad news, and you certainly won't see anything in print that suggests that the Middle East could be an unstable kind of place, because that could scare off those all important investors.

And so the same logic applies to relaxing the rules for foreigners. While I was there I felt that as a Westerner I would be indulged up to a certain point because Dubai doesn't want to go and get itself labelled as 50 lashes kind of state.

Something tells me Michelle won't be spending too long in the clink.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Elvis and I

I met Elvis Costello today, and I was charmed. The man now has one more fan in the world.
We put a note to the residents of the Wirral on the website asking them to send in the questions they wanted putting to him - and they did! Simple things please me.
Anyway, Elvis loved the geek chic of my (ok, their) questions, such as: "Do you plan to release the Wendy James demos?"
I will now write nice things about him because he had twinkly eyes and was an absolute gent.
I did have to resist the very unprofessional urge to ask if I could try on his trademark specs.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Stuck in the world wide web

August bank Holiday anxiety has set in. I'm trying to a) decide where to go and b) book it. Simple. Actually it's not.
I know that in the grand scheme of things it's only three days, it doesn't matter if it's not perfect and wherever we end up it will all work out fine in the end. But I can't help it - I'm convinced that whatever we decide to do we'll have missed out on something better.
I blame the internet. I'm not like this with other decisions, but try to book a holiday online and you suddenly get the world and his wife sticking their oar into what should be a perfectly straightforward decision. Every time I think I've cracked it trip advisor puts me off, or kayak seduces me with another option.
We want somewhere sunny, but not too hot, a short hop away on a cheap flight. So that's us off to the South of France then. Unless we go for Cinque Terre in Italy, or Sicily, or Corsica, or what about Montenegro...

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Them blues

Aren't these lovely? My grandma was stuck in bed today so I took this pic to cheer her up. I like to believe that they are really, truly, without genetic modification, THAT blue.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

A right royal knees up

Birthday celebrations, bubbly and betting at Royal Ascot this weekend. We learnt the hard way that the bookie always wins, but managed to stay dry and cheer the streaker on. Have an odd affection for the Racing Post now.

Thursday, 19 June 2008


I had a day of them today! The Wirral has been "invaded" by a sub-flock of five superlambanas and so I went out to see what the good folk of Birkenhead made of them.

Then I went to get my hair cut over in Liverpool and I just couldn't resist collecting some more.

Turned out my hairdresser was an old PR chum who escaped agency life and the god awful grad scheme we were both part of six months before I did. She's now working at her mum's swanky salon in Lime Street, great girly gossip from her - she put the wag in chinwag.

Then I went and ruined her work with a sweaty gym session - hair now back to it's usual haystack look.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Is it a lamb? Is it a banana? No, it's a Superlambanana!

So, until this week there were 120 Superlambananas in Liverpool, to celebrate '08.
And what better way for Liverpool to showcase its rich traditions, and time honoured customs than by nicking one of them?
Yep that's right there are now only 119:
He took the smallest Superlambanana of the flock. Bless, won't the little lamb be scared without Ma Baa?
Besides which, the Superlambanana rustler has only gone and handed an excuse to smug southerners to resurrect the old "theiving scouser" chesnut.
Today Radio City reckon they are hot on his trail.
Hopefully, as I type there's a swot team of SAS men encircling his Norris Green house, ready to storm the joint on the command: "Go Superlambananas!"

In the meanwhile there's still a flock of 119 on the city streets, so I snapped three today to cheer myself up in the rain.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Bottling it

Summer seems to have arrived, and I'm off to Ascot next week.

These two facts combine to result in one terrifying prospect: I have to get my legs out.
Now, I've never been one for the fake tan - mostly because I'm a very pale red head. Previous ill-advised attempts have left me a Dickensian (daytime telly, not Victorian literature) hue.
And yet I'm back on the bottle once more. Why? Well, because "fakebake" have made fake tan for pale red heads. It is specially made for me, comes with its own pomegranate scrub, latex gloves and cost £22.

What can possibly go wrong? Tune in next time to find out...

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Slavish networking

Subject: tut tut
Have your little fingers been doing some naughty FB untagging? I think they have. Tsk. Photo was fine - you'll always be the most attractive in that line up.

Subject: RE: tut tut
of course i have - it's the only reason i go on facebook Jxx

This email exchange got me thinking - are we slaves to social networking? Have we got caught in a net we can't escape?
Already alarm bells have been rung about the phenomenon of the burnt out blogger:
Are blogs, webs, nets, flickrs, plurks and tweets the perfect zenith of narcissism and neuroticism?
I mean, do we really want to give *so* much away? Was my maths teacher right - do the emptiest cans make the most rattle?
Have I just turned into Carrie Bradshaw?

To put the above email into context: I had tagged an innocent facebook photo of three friends, J (one of the tagged) swiftly undid my work. J has a high powered important persons job. For her FB is something that she signed up to in her student days when it was all the rage, but now it's just a headache.
I should point out at that this stage that J is a clean living, respectable member of society who is a credit to her company.

But what if she secretly wasn't? Well, then she'd be held ransom by FB because at any minute someone could blow her cover with an ill advised pic, post or tag.
It's clearly a jungle. So, thank god that in times of such social crisis Debrett's comes to the rescue:

Then again, we journalists love it when anarchy reigns. Remember the Derek Conway expense scandal? Would have been a lot less fun without Henry's FB ramblings, and pics:

Sadly, it seems like the journo FB free for all might be soon to end. The party pooping PCC have realised that the minute someone dies, gets sacked, or wins the lottery the first thing the press does is log on and harvest their bebo, FB, Myspace, blog etc.

If the PCC get their way J will no longer need to babysit her FB profile - of course the new breed of Js will have been forced to make friends with prospective employers as part of selection. For those poor souls the spectre of social networking will haunt them after every drunken night out.

The day Heat magazine develops the "circle of shame" application for FB users, is the day I commit FB suicide.