Thursday 28 May 2009

No Sympathy for Newcastle, but respect going out to Barca!

With the end of the football season drawing to a close, I've watched 2 matches in the last couple of days. Firstly on Sunday I managed to find an Irish pub in Chicago (full on Man U fans!) and watched Newcastle get relegated at Villa, and then yesterday back in England, I watched Barcelona put on one of the best displays I've seen in a European final to beat Man Utd and win the Champions League. If you compare the state of the two clubs it was like going from the ridiculous to the sublime!

Following Newcastle's relegation the BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce talked of how cruel and heartless the Premier League can be to teams. I thought, 'here we go again, another ridiculous statement about Newcastle Utd from the Media'. Newcastle's relegation has been in the making for the last 3-4 seasons and they got exactly what they deserved due to the fact that they are such a badly run club. Yes they might be a 'Big Club' but if you can only pick up 34 points in a season then you don't deserve to be in the Premier League anymore. To be fair it wouldn't have been unjust if both Hull and Sunderland had joined them and we had 5 clubs go down this season.

The media have some strange obession with Newcastle. The way they're perceived by the media you would think they were one of the biggest clubs in Britain if not Europe, but they haven't won a domestic trophy since the mid 50s. Newcastle are part of a group of clubs in the Premier League in what I would consider the second tier after the Big Four. This would include Villa, Spurs, Everton, and now potentially Man City. I would previously have included Leeds in this group, but we've all seen what's happened to them in recent years.

They all have big support and history, and are looking to break into the top four. The thing they all have in common is that with the money involved in the modern game none of these clubs should ever really find themselves fighting relegation or getting relegated if they are run well and run properly. It's no accident that both Everton and Villa have finished 5th and 6th for 2 seasons running. Everton are arguably the best run club in the Premiership.

For this reason I have no sympathy for Newcastle at all, maybe going down will be the best thing for them and they can start all over again, and perhaps look at changing the whole ethos and mentality of the club.

Compare Newcastle to Barcelona, who really are a true giant of the game, who also represent their local region. Their performance last night was amazing! They looked nervous for the first 10 minutes in which Man Utd looked like they were going to dictate the game, but following the first goal there was only one team in it.

Clearly Utd were below their best and some people have been harsh on them saying that they never turned up, but they did come up against the very very best in world football last night and there's nothing to be ashamed of in that. How often if ever do we see Utd struggle to get hold of the ball, and when they lose it go minutes without seeing it again? The speed, touch, and movement of Barcelona was superb to watch. The played the kind of football that reminds you of why we love the game so much.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

US Customs - What's their problem?

I’ve just spent the last 4 days State side visiting Chicago for the first time. Having checked out the East and West coasts by visiting New York and San Francisco, I thought it would be good to visit the capital of the Mid-West.

I have to say Chicago is a fantastic city, which I would recommend to anyone, but once again my initial first impressions and experience of the country was somewhat clouded by the now obligatory rude, suspicious and slightly aggressive form of interrogation that you can expect to receive from US Customs when trying to enter the United States.

I really don’t understand their attitude on why they insist on treating you as a potential criminal, based purely on the fact that you actually want to enter their country!

Having filled out the necessary forms and handed over my passport to the Customs Officer, the following conversation took place:

Customs Officer: ‘Do you know anyone in Chicago?’

Me: ‘No I don’t know anyone’

Customs Officer: ‘Why would you visit somewhere, where you don’t know anyone?’

Me: (Feeling slightly confused by the question) ‘Er…because I’m on holiday’

I thought what a ridiculous question, as if you need to know people to visit a particular destination. I know they can make life very difficult for you in these situations so it's important to remain polite and calm and answer their questions, but I did feel like saying:

'Just because you lot never travel anywhere beyond your own state, doesn’t mean to say that the rest of us around the world have to act the same.’

Following more questions regarding my job in England which the officer didn’t even seem that interested in hearing about, I was asked for further I.D in the form of a business card, this despite having my passport and a print out of my flight and hotel booking.

None of this was clearly good enough, as I was then asked to step aside from the desk where I had to wait for a few minutes before being escorted to another waiting room.

After a few minutes there, I was questioned again by two more Customs officers who proceeded to ask me exactly the same questions as the first officer. I thought it was all a little excessive. When asked how much money I had brought into the country, I replied:

‘Around $95 Dollars. You can count it if you want?’

Customs Officer: ‘95 Dollars! (In a tone of shock) Do you not have a Visa card?’

Me: ‘Yes…I have a Visa card!’

I thought ‘Of course I have a Visa card, as if I'm going to travel with the equivalent of only £60 pounds or so. I’m just going to use my card to take money out of an ATM machine, what’s the problem here?’

Eventually I was given back my passport and allowed to leave, but the experience was over the top and frustrating, particularly when you’re being asked questions which you consider to be stupid and na├»ve. Then, when you try and answer you find you haven’t given enough information, or they can’t understand you because of your British accent, so you have to repeat everything a second time.

During this interrogation I was thinking that as a UK citizen I should at least expect a slightly easier ride, we are after all America’s closet ally, have they never heard of the ‘Special relationship'? In addition to this, we’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with them in their misguided ‘War on Terror’. The least we can expect back is some appreciation of this, reflected in a slightly less aggressive form of questioning.

In the end it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of what is a stunning city, but I shall be more prepared to deal with US customs when I next visit the United States.

Monday 18 May 2009

Not convinced by Twitter!

I seem to have been reading more and more stories recently about the social networking phenomenon Twitter. For those not in the know, Twitter allows you to post messages of no more than 140 characters, which are known as tweets. These tweets can be described as a combination of someone emailing, texting and blogging. People can follow you and your messages, and you can also follow other people.

It’s very similar to the status updates that you get on Facebook, where people tell you all kinds of exciting and interesting things they are currently doing or thinking, such as the update I found on my Facebook profile yesterday which read: LC… Has done absolutely nothing all day..... What a waste of a Sunday!!’ What a wast of a comment! Thank you for sharing that with me!

Apparently all kinds of celebs are now on twitter giving you constant updates of every little detail of their lives. At the moment I’m struggling to get the whole point of Twitter, and I’m not sure I want to get it!

Although I’ve not joined Twittter, and currently have no intention of doing so, I am on Facebook and get their Twitter equivalent of updates from people. Admittedly I do like to hear want close family and friends are up to, and some updates can be very amusing, but what you do get is a lot of boring and banal comments.

The sort of comments from people I went to school with, who I haven’t actually spoken to since 1993! The idea that I would join Twitter to follow other people, whether they be celebs or friends so that I can follow every little detail of their day to day life is too much!

What amused me this week was reading the blog of Hip Hop superstar Kanye West. He had a bit of a rant at those people who had set up a twitter profile impersonating him. On his blog he wrote:


I know Kanye is never shy of telling the world how talented and creative he is, but I think he does have a point. I personally don’t have the time nor interest in posting constant updates on what I’m doing, and I’m sure most people aren’t interested in hearing every little thing I’ve done in an average day.

What I find quite worrying about aspects of Facebook and Twitter, is the amount of people who seem to want to live their entire lives in the public domain. It’s as if people have to share everything about themselves to the world, in order to validate who they are or to confirm that they actually exist.

I occasionally put up my own posts on Facebook, but I don’t feel I need to live my life in public. The argument for sites like Twitter is that it allows greater interaction, and that people can share their lives, thoughts and feelings more, but I still feel that people should have a public and private life.

I’m quite happy to share lots of personal thoughts and feelings with family and friends, but I don’t need to include the rest of the world.

Add to this I’ve always had a deep distrust of the ‘Big Brother’ state, I don’t want the world to know everything that I’m doing or to know that there are people following me. For the time being I’m sure that Twitter will continue to become more popular, but for now you can leave me out of it all.

Our democracy is alive and kicking

This week you couldn’t pick up a newspaper or watch the news without another revelation about another MP and their dubious expense claims.

I can’t think of a time when public opinion on MPs has been so low, and rightly so. There is real contempt and disgust at the behaviour and actions of many of our MPs, which I actually think is a good thing, in that it shows that we have a healthy democratic process working effectively.

It feels at the moment like we’ve entered some sort of watershed moment in British politics in which things may never quite be the same again. Our MPs know this and so do the public.

I’m hoping that in the long term the fall out from the last couple of weeks events will have a real lasting positive affect on the conduct of our MPs and how we view our political representatives.

There are occasions where you need major events to shake things up, to act as a purge on bad practices and conduct, to bring about some sort of renewal and change, and this is something which I optimistically believe will occur following recent revelations.

Clearly the actions of some of our MPs has shown a certain arrogance in which they believe that they are above the law, and that the normal rules of conduct that apply to the vast majority of us are of no concern to them.

With the investigation and scrutiny of the press and public anger combining to condemn our MPs it demonstrates that we have a healthy democracy, one whereby we have managed to remind MPs that they are working on behalf of the electorate and that they are accountable to us. This surely must be a positive thing.

This is something that our politicians need to be constantly reminded of. I’m not interested in tarnishing all MPs with the same brush, there are over 600 of them, and it shouldn't be forgotten that there are many of them that do a commendable job representing the views of their constituents, and adhere to the principles of the expenses system.

What I do believe is that it’s easy for politicians to become cocooned in a Westminster bubble where people can become detached from the realities of day-to-day life and public opinion. I think this partly explains one of the reasons behind the expense scandal.

It's certainly been a major wake up call not only for current politicians but also for those people who may consider a career in politics at some point in their lives.

One thing that does bother me is the amount of career politicians that are now emerging at Westminster, people who are going into politics in the their 20s and then spending the rest of their careers in this political bubble.

I’m not saying that this is always necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also important that we have MPs who have other careers and other life experiences behind them, before they look at standing for parliament.

If only in order that they still have some real connection with the lives and concerns of the general public that they are representing. Too many of our politicians have become cut off from the public.

In regards to how I believe some of the problems of MPs expenses should be resolved, I’m of the view that MPs should be paid more and that the amount that can be claimed in allowances should be drastically reduced. I know that many people would argue that MPs already get paid enough, but I think that despite public anger we still need to encourage the brightest and the best talent to enter politics as the country will be poorer for it.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Does anyone want to be middle class?

Last week during a flight back from Belfast to London, I was reading a free copy of the Daily Mail, and I came across an article by Dylan Jones, editor of GQ magazine. The feature was entitled ‘The New Endangered Species’ and was one of a number of essays appearing in the paper on the subject of Britishness.

The title was in reference to the opinion that being middle-class today in Britain is something that is seen as being unfashionable and slightly embarrassing for people to admit to. I couldn’t help but smile to myself as I started reading, as I thought ‘He does have a point here’.

The previous week, there were many reports in the press on the actress Kate Winslet, who claimed that her background was never middle-class, and that she came from an impoverished working class background. The argument presented by Dylan Jones was that it was time that people started appreciating and valuing traditional middle-class attitudes and aspirations instead of constantly being embarrassed about them. I thought about my own background and upbringing and also my current status within the social classes, and I had to admit I’ve been as guilty as anyone of denying parts of my middle-class status.

Looking back my own upbringing I'd say it was working class, I grew up in a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Birmingham, full of what I would call aspirational working class people. Many of my parents generation worked in skilled manufacturing trades like the car industry, or they were tool-makers, builders, plumbers, electricians etc. Not many people had formal academic qualifications.

Like myself many of my school friends went on to do A-Levels and go to university, usually being the first in our families to do so. As graduates we’re now working in what you might call more traditional middle-class working environments, and I have to admit there have been times when I’ve felt slightly conflicted by it all.

A few years ago I was in the office at work, and a conversation started amongst a group of temp workers. A few of them began discussing learning Latin at school. Although I thought I went to a decent school, the idea of learning Latin was unheard of. It soon transpired that everyone in the office had been to private school which explained why they’d all been taught Latin. The exceptions were myself and my mate sitting next to me.

I remember sitting at my desk listening to this conversation and shaking my head, thinking to myself; ‘When did my life become so middle-class that I now work in an office surrounded by people who all went to private school?'. There have been other occasions like this and sometimes it hasn't bothered me, but on this occasion was I wasn't happy about it at all!

This is one of the reasons why I liked this article because Dylan Jones really does have a point here. So many people don't want to admit to being middle-class. Why is this? And why is it so uncool to admit to being so? I except that today in terms of my education and career that I am now middle-class, but to be honest, depending on the question, the mood that I’m in, and the time of day, I might call myself middle-class, and then I might call myself working-class.

I just seem to chop and change, I drift between identifying with both classes. I do meet other people though who are completely conflicted by the whole idea of what class they are. My work colleague who I sit next to is a classic example. Despite the fact that he has a First Class degree from a Red Brick University, is currently studying for a Law conversion degree and works in a legal background, he refuses to except that any aspect of his life and social status is now middle-class.

I’ve told him he’s conflicted, which he’s taken this onboard but still refuses to except that he is anything but truly working-class. His attitude amuses me, but he’s not the only other person who I’ve met who thinks like this.

I suppose that being in the Daily Mail, this was a great piece to write as so many of the Mail’s readership is typically middle-class and Dylan Jones was championing their aspirations and attitudes which is fair enough. But then I thought that although you can argue that people don’t want to identify with being middle-class, being working-class is hardly that much better. Personally I think traditional working-class culture has been dumbed downed and ridiculed also. These days to be working-class you are seen to be a ‘Chav’ or part of an uneducated, unsophisticated underclass.

It seems that in this country we hate everyone, regardless of what class they belong to. Class politics in this country is so complicated and complex. It must be totally confusing for anyone born outside this country to get their heads around it all. Class in Britain is so much more than how much you earn and the job you do, it’s also tied in with your upbringing, attitudes, beliefs, life style choices, your accent, fashion sense, and political views. I could probably go on as the list is endless.

Maybe we just need to learn how to start appreciating and valuing everyone a bit more in this country regardless of their background, so that we can move away from these class prejudices, but somehow I think that this is a long way off. Politicians have previously spoken about how we now live in a ‘Classless’ society, but I think we’re a million miles away from this. If this was really the case there wouldn't be a need for articles such as the one in last week’s Mail.

*Click on the title heading to read Dylan Jones’ full article in the Daily Mail

Monday 4 May 2009

The Championship has its moments!

It was the end of the regular football season in the Championship yesterday, and it was a relief to watch my team Birmingham clinch promotion back to the Premier League after suffering relegation last year. In the last 4 seasons we've been relegated twice from the Premier League and promoted twice from the Championship. We must surely be the ultimate yo-yo club!

Blues are one of those clubs that at the moment seem to be suffering some form of identity crisis, West Brom are another in the sense that we don't really belong in any league; too good for the Championship, not quite good enough for the Premier League. But the question for clubs like Birmingham is; What do they want to be? Win lots of games in the Championship and go up, or play in the Premier league and battle relegation season after season.

I remember last season following relegation, one Blues fan mentioned on a local radio phone that he didn't care about being in the Premier League, at least in the Championship, Blues could look forward to a good promotion campaign playing entertaining football and winning matches on a weekly basis. Well we managed to win games on a regular basis but it certainly wasn't entertaining to watch most of the time!

I have to admit it does feel great to be promoted, even if most of the season has been an unispiring slog, but one of the positives about the Championship is that it's a genuinely competitive league with a more level playing field then the Premier League where anyone can beat anyone.

There were plenty of games this season where I saw Blues play against mid table opposition in which you could hardly tell the difference in standard. I know critics will argue that this shows how poor the division really is, but it certainly makes for an exciting league where 3 clubs still had the opportunity of going up automatically on the last day of the season.

You can't always say that about the Premier League, the top 4 are the usual suspects and this season its the relegation battle that's proving to be really exciting particularly with a club like Newcastle seriously facing relegation.

I suppose that now my team are out of the Championship I can talk about what 'fun' it is being in the Championship, but if the financial implications of dropping out of the Premier League weren't so great, surely their would be teams in the Premier League who occasionaly wouldn't mind swapping lower mid table mediocrity for the odd relegation followed by a successful promotion push!

Middlesbrough's crowds have actually gone up this season as they find themselves in a serious relegation battle, clealy this has galvanised the supporters in a way that finishing 14th every year didn't. I suppose it can go the other way though. Charlton fans got fed up with finishing in mid table safety every season and yearned for something more exciting, well 2 relegations in 3 seasons has certainly spiced things up for them!

Instead the Championship has increasingly become a graveyard for former Premier League clubs. Who would have thought a few years ago that Southampton, Norwich, and Charlton would all be relegated to to the Third tier of English football.

Next season I'm hoping that Blues can give it a real go at staying up, and put an end to this yo-yoing, but I'm sure that after 4 or 5 years of finishing 12 or 13 I'll want something more exciting to shout about, like a few end of season relegation 6 pointers or a last day promotion win, away at somewhere like Reading!

Up the Blues!