Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A look back at 2014

Today is the last day of 2014, while tomorrow will be a 2015.  Nothing will change, of course, as we cross that imaginary line in the sand, as the calendar is simply an arbitrary construct, as are all ways of organising time.  Nevertheless, it customary at this time of year to look back over the past twelve months and reflect on the good times, and what one has achieved, with an air of smug self-satisfaction, and I would hate to be the only person on the internet not joining in with this self-congratulatory tradition.

  • I left the radiators on all year 'round, because I wanted to see what it would be like to live in the Seychelles (where they worship radiators as demigods).
  • I briefly spoke on the phone with the Pope but we got cut off when he lost signal.
  • I won three rounds of 'Uno' in a row.
  • I invented a new way of peeling vegetables which extracts the inner part of the vegetable through a tube rather than scraping off the outer layers in the old and inefficient method.
  • My friends all chipped in to buy me shares in the World's Largest Cucumber.
  • I rowed from Britain to Ireland across the Irish Sea in a boat made entirely from elastic bands.
  • I ate over 19,000 chips.
Another successful year!  Thanks for being a part of it – and here's to 2015.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Breakfast radio

Sitting in a van at six o'clock this morning, having traveled all night from a gig in Plymouth back to the East Midlands, I became more and more irritated by the banality and forced joviality of the presenter we were listening to on BBC Radio 1.

As this constant stream of inane babble, interspersed with regular pleas for listeners around the country to text the radio station and stick their oar in too (who actually does that, thinking 'yes, my life and what I'm doing right now are so interesting that all the other people listening to national radio will want to hear all about it'?!), seeped into my brain, I hosted my own little breakfast radio show on Twitter…

Thursday, 25 December 2014

#KITmasDinner 2014

If you didn't know, I planned and cooked all of our family Christmas Dinner this year.  It was pretty hard work – but also lots of fun!  I wanted to let you know what menu I chose, and what recipes I used here.

Roast topside of beef

1.85kg – oven roast at 200ºc for roughly an hour for a medium-rare joint of beef.  I was really pleased with how this ended up, it was perfect.

Chestnut Bourguignon pie

I simply followed this BBC Food recipe by The Vegetarian Society for a fun and interesting vegetarian alternative to the beef joint which still works with the same vegetable dishes and trimmings.

My pastry wasn't the best.  That is to say, the pastry itself was fine, but it wasn't quite the right shape for my pie dish (you can see a few gaps around the edges in the photograph) and I didn't have the confidence (not being hugely experienced with pastry) to adjust the shape properly.

Roasted chips in goose fat

This roast potatoes/chips hybrid potato dish of my own invention was really the only part of the meal with which I was disappointed.  Something went wrong during the cooking, and they didn't really crisp up fully all the way through.  They were quite enjoyable nonetheless, but didn't turn out as I had hoped.  The idea was to roast the chunky potato chips in goose fat at 200ºc for around an hour – I think, another time, I will use slightly less goose fat, and try par-boiling the chips for about five minutes first.

Creamy parsnip & horseradish gratin with Red Storm Lancashire cheese

This is a recipe I adapted from the 'Potato Bake' recipe in Rose Elliot's New Complete Vegetarian Cookbook – I used parsnips instead of potatoes, and layered horseradish sauce between the layers of parsnips in the gratin instead of using milk, so as to tie the dish in with the beef joint I was doing.  The Red Storm Lancashire cheese is a strong, creamy cheese which I bought in a local delicatessen.  I was really pleased with the way this dish turned out; it was cooked just right, and the balance of flavours between the parsnips and the horseradish was perfect (I had been a little worried that the horseradish would be too strong and overpowering) – but if I were to do this again, I'd use slightly more cheese, as there wasn't quite enough to cover the top of the dish fully, in the end.

Sautéed Brussels sprouts with black peppercorns

Fairly self-explanatory – sprouts peeled and cut in half, sautéed in olive oil in a frying pan with a handful of peppercorns for about twenty minutes.

Sweet & smokey 'pigs in blankets' (pork sausages with Bramley apple wrapped in streaky bacon) in Jack Daniels BBQ glaze with thyme

Pork sausages with Bramley apple chunks tightly wrapped in streaky bacon rashers and drizzled with Jack Daniels 'Sweet & Smokey' BBQ glaze and sprinkled with thyme, then baked in the oven at 200ºc for half-an-hour.

Roasted carrots

Roasted in goose fat at 200ºc for forty minutes.

Red wine gravy

After taking the beef joint out of the oven half-an-hour before serving, so it can 'rest' a bit (being roasted is exhausting work, after all!), I removed it to a separate dish and used the same roasting tin to make the gravy in order to catch and use all the meat juices and flavour.  I put the roasting tin over a gas hob and added half a bottle of red wine, some hot water and some (whisper it) Bisto gravy granules.  Easy!

Spiced ginger, Speculoos and dark chocolate cake

This recipe by Joy The Baker came to me via Twitter, and was recommended by a friend.  It sounded so delicious, and so festive, I thought I had to give it a go!  I always prefer cooking savoury food – baking cakes and other desserts always strikes me as something of a 'dark art' by comparison – but this recipe was actually pretty easy to follow (once you got over the American measurement sozes all being in 'cups', as if you're shopping for a bra instead of making a cake).  The 'Speculoos' topping is a wonderful caramelised biscuit spread from Belgium – I had to order this from Amazon in order to get hold of it, as I couldn't find any regular shops in the UK which stocked it!

Rory's famous Christmas Pudding

This is the only part of the meal which I didn't do, so I have no idea how to make this!  The picture came out well, though – and it was dark, fruity, boozy, and very tasty (all the things one looks for in a traditional Christmas pudding).

Everyone enjoyed the meal very much, and I had a great time cooking for everybody.  There are things I would change if I were to do it again, but overall I was pretty pleased with how it all turned out.  Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

'Anonymous'? Who even are you?

The hacking group Anonymous have given Australian music artist Iggy Azalea forty-eight hours (less, now, as this story broke yesterday) to apologise to American music artist Azealia Banks for alleged racist comments.  If it sounds like I'm making this up, I'm not – read this piece in The Telegraph for more.  It's real, and frankly, it's very disturbing.

What's disturbing is not the details of the Azalea/Banks feud, which I gather has been rumbling on for some time now, but the face that Anonymous have seen fit to get involved.

Anonymous are 'a hacking group'.  As I joke in title, we don't even know who they are – and that is a problem, when it comes to an issue like this.  Allegations of racism are serious, but they are a matter for the police – for real law enforcement agencies who have at least some level of accountability and transparency.  It is not for 'Anonymous' to take matters into their own hands and appoint themselves as some sort of 'world police' of the internet, especially not when it comes to matters so sensitive as this.

Drawing the line between protecting freedom of speech and being aware of racial sensibilities is a tough balancing act indeed – and an interesting discussion to have in its own right (one which I shan't be having here).  The way Anonymous are acting is tantamount to 'mob rule'; there is no due process here, and no accountability – there is a knee-jerk reaction to alleged comments, resulting in demands, and threats if those demands are not met.  That is not justice.  That is extortion – extortion carried out by a group against whom there can be no appeal, should you feel they may have acted unfairly.  This is the opposite of the way justice should work in any civilised society.

I'm not aware of the details of what Iggy Azalea said – or is supposed to have said – but I do know that the idea of the parameters of acceptability, and the punishments for perceived infringements, being decided by a shadowy, unaccountable group of people who are good at using computers is one which I find deeply unsettling.  Whatever the ins-and-outs of this particular incident, we should all be very wary of allowing ourselves to descend into a situation where 'Anonymous' can sit in judgement of us and mete out punishment with no recourse.

Monday, 22 December 2014

#Zzubwords – Taxpayer funded

Everybody knows what political ‘buzzwords’ are.  Words which have become so ubiquitous simply to mean ‘a Good Thing™’ - empty words which convey a feeling, rather than a meaning.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’; everyone means slightly different things when they say them, but that doesn’t matter - they don’t need qualifications or explanations, because they instantly connote a vague feeling of positivity, and ‘being on your side’. 

I have noticed, however, an opposite group of words - words which are used interchangeably without context, to mean a vague, generic ‘Bad Thing™’.  I am calling these zzubwords, and I am hoping to compile a small dictionary of some of the more common ones, and to make this into a semi-regular feature on this Blog. 

Taxpayer funded

Used mainly by the press, anything can be described as 'taxpayer funded' to make it seem venal and self-serving.  A story in a newspaper about the Prime Minister going to negotiate with the European Union in Brussels won't excite much of a reaction; a taxpayer funded trip to Brussels, on the other hand, sounds like the greedy bastard is just going off on a jolly and letting someone else (you and me!) foot the bill.

"The Chancellor Of The Exchequer eats some cheese on toast."  Well, fine.  The guy's got to eat!

"The Chancellor Of The Exchequer gorges himself on an enormous plate of taxpayer funded cheese on toast."  How dare he?!

See what I mean…?

Unless we privatise Parliament (can you imagine the rumpus that proposal would cause?!), of course politicians' pay, diplomatic trips aboard, etc. will be paid for with public money.  Using the phrase 'taxpayer funded' to smear politicians as greedy even when they're not being greedy and just doing their jobs is hardly in the public interest, and only serves to drive a wedge further between politicians and the public.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Sandwich review: Roast chicken salad with black pepper mayonnaise and juicy tomatoes by deli2go

The official description for this sandwich is:
Roast chicken breast, curly lettuce, free range black pepper mayonnaise and tomato on malted wheatgrain bread
Although this sandwich was perfectly serviceable, I felt a little let down by its lack of flavour.  The 'black pepper mayonnaise' was intriguing, and a large part of what drew me to this sandwich in the first place – in the end, though, the black pepper never really made itself known, and I would've been hard pressed to tell the difference between this and ordinary mayonnaise.

Unfortunately, this rather set the tone for the rest of the sandwich experience – whilst perfectly edible, this sandwich and all its ingredients fell a good way short of 'spectacular', landing instead in 'disappointingly tame'.  I would not buy this sandwich again.

Sandwich review: Two cheese and red onion chutney on malted wheatgrain bread by URBANeat

The official description for this sandwich is:
Cheddar and Red Leicester cheese with mayonnaise, caramelised red onion confit, spinach, red onion and chives on malted wheatgrain bread
This sandwich came highly recommended by my friends and colleagues in The Ultra '90s, so I was intrigued to sample it, and put some thoughts down on this Blog.  Thankfully, it did not disappoint!

I confess I had been slightly nervous about trying this sandwich, and about the possibility of having to tell those who spoke so highly of it that I hadn't actually been that impressed.  Luckily, this was never an issue, as this is a very enjoyable sandwich indeed; cheese and onion is a classic flavour combination which it is difficult to get wrong, but in this instance URBANeat get it very right – the biggest triumph here is the red onion chutney, which is brilliantly executed with the perfect balance between sweet and tangy flavours.

My only criticism of this sandwich would be that I might have preferred a slightly more mature cheddar cheese.  I often feel that the cheeses chosen by sandwich manufacturers are a little blander than I might like – I guess sandwich companies want to appeal to as wide a range of customers as possible, and URBANeat are no exception here as they err on the side of caution with a mild, creamy cheddar.  My tastes are for stronger, more full-bodied cheeses, and I would love to try a version of this sandwich with a more mature cheddar – nevertheless, this is a minor point in the grand scheme of things, and this is still a very well executed, enjoyable sandwich, which I would have no qualms about buying again.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Nigel Farage vs. Russell Brand on Question Time

Last night, UKIP leader and MEP Nigel Farage and comedian and political activist Russell Brand both appeared on the BBC's flagship political debate programme, 'Question Time'.  There were three other people on the panel too (Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt; Labour MP Mary Creagh; and Camilla Cavendish, a journalist for The Times), but no one seemed too bother about any of them – the programme was billed as a big show-down of Brand vs. Farage, left-wing populism against right-wing populism, and promised plenty of debate and (perhaps more importantly for viewing figures) controversy.

Personally, I don't like Nigel Farage or Russell Brand.  They are both snake oil salesmen who offer easy 'answers' to complicated issues, playing to the gallery and telling people whatever they want to hear.  In both men's simplistic world view, there are clear 'bogeymen' – scapegoats, at whose feet the blame for all the problems of the United Kingdom can be laid.  For Farage, immigrants and the European Union can be blamed for all our ills, whereas Brand can't see a single issue which isn't the fault of bankers, large corporations and rich businessmen.  Quick to apportion blame, and slow to proffer any meaningful alternative solutions, both men despise the 'out-of-touch' political èlite, think the mainstream media is 'out to get them', and seem themselves as the only saviour of a Britain which is going to hell in a handcart.

At this juncture, I am going to insert a disclaimer: I watched this episode of Question Time in a van late last night, on an iPhone with a rather intermittent internet connection, whilst traveling from a gig in Caerphilly, South Wales, to a hotel in Thurrock, Essex.  I was very tired, cold and wet during this time so I may not have the most accurate memory of everything which happened during the programme.

I have been very critical of UKIP when I have written about them in the past.  I am not going to vote for them at the next General Election, and I would implore you not to either.  However, I genuinely felt that Nigel Farage came over better on Question Time last night than did Russell Brand.  At one point, I even felt a rare moment of sympathy for the UKIP leader, when, quite late in the programme, he answered a question on Grammar Schools from a member of the studio audience – Brand was then asked what his views on the topic were, and he immediately launched into personal attack on Nigel Farage, barely mentioning Grammar Schools at all, choosing instead to focus on the specifics of Farage's own education and upbringing.  What Farage's schooling had to do with the question I never could work out, but Brand seemed intent on making this a personal fight when the question had been on educational policy in general and its affect on social mobility.

This lack of genuine content, and fixation on attacking Farage personally rather than on points of policy (which was not confined just to the Grammar Schools question), made Brand look petty, aggressive and small-minded – an accusation which he (and many others) have levelled at politicians in the House Of Commons.  More importantly, however, it showed that he had come to Question Time with 'a gameplan' – to attack Farage, knowing that the UKIP leader would be an unpopular figure, and thinking he could win praise and applause from the studio audience and viewers watching at home simply by insulting Farage rather than by making any worthwhile points of his own.  This showed his complete contempt for the members of the public asking the questions, as Brand had obviously already made up his mind to take this approach no matter what issues came up during the debate – the kind of behaviour he would decry from any politician, but which he has no qualms with exhibiting himself, if he feels it suits him.

The most telling moment of the programme, however, was when Brand was challenged by a member of the audience to stand for Parliament himself – to put his money where his mouth is, and stand up for what he believes.  Brand did his usual trick of retreating to an "I'm just a comedian, mate!" position of safety, having demanded to be taken seriously politically, but I thought the audience member made a strong point.  Nigel Farage and UKIP have particular views – many of which I don't agree with – and a particular direction in which they want to take the United Kingdom.  They are giving people the chance to vote for that, or to vote against it, by standing for election next May.

Farage believes that the majority of 'ordinary people' (whatever that means) agree, broadly speaking, with much of what UKIP has to say.  If he is right, this will be reflected in their share of the vote at the next election – if (as I suspect), he is mistaken about that, this too will be shown up at the election.  But he has at least had the courage to put himself up for election, and give people the chance to reject his poisonous, simplistic and divisive ideology at the ballot box.  Russell Brand has no such courage – like Farage, he believes most people agree with him (and that if they don't, that is because they have been duped or misled, which is incredibly insulting and patronising), but he is not willing to put that to the test.

I think there are two reasons for this: he doesn't want to risk his ideology being rejected by the public, and he hasn't the stomach for any actual work if he were to be elected.  Whatever you stand for, and whatever your views, actually trying to be a real difference in politics is hard work – but standing on the sidelines shouting and jeering is easy.  Russell Brand has chosen the easy route.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

#Zzubwords – Sold off

Everybody knows what political ‘buzzwords’ are.  Words which have become so ubiquitous simply to mean ‘a Good Thing™’ - empty words which convey a feeling, rather than a meaning.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’; everyone means slightly different things when they say them, but that doesn’t matter - they don’t need qualifications or explanations, because they instantly connote a vague feeling of positivity, and ‘being on your side’. 

I have noticed, however, an opposite group of words - words which are used interchangeably without context, to mean a vague, generic ‘Bad Thing™’.  I am calling these zzubwords, and I am hoping to compile a small dictionary of some of the more common ones, and to make this into a semi-regular feature on this Blog. 

Sold off

'Sold off' is a phrase which really just means 'sold' – but the addition of the 'off' always makes it seem somehow a little sordid or shameful.  People don't say that IKEA 'sell off' flatpack furniture, just that they 'sell' it – but if a government puts public sector assets up for sale, their opponents in other political parties will almost certainly decry the government's 'selling off' of this important national treasure (which, up until now, nobody had cared about).

The judgmental overtones of using the expression 'selling off' are clearly designed to imply that the sale is in some way shady – possibly even faintly corrupt! – and probably at a dreadful, rock-bottom price.  It's a way of tarring your opponents with the colourful brush of dodgy dealing and cronyism, taking the moral high ground, and painting yourself as a defender of the nation's interests against the ravaging forces of sleaze and avarice.

Friday, 28 November 2014

What has Christmas become?

Christmas is changing.  I don't think I really recognise it any more.  There are so many things that it wouldn't be Christmas without – but half of them have only come into being at all in the past five years (or so it seems)!

Today is Black Friday.  I don't really know what that is.  It's like the after Christmas sales – but, weirdly, before Christmas.  I remember people talking about it last year, and I'm pretty sure somebody died (really?! Somebody check that for me…), but before last year I'd never heard of it, and I'm still not sure where it came from.  There are so many sales, seasonal events, one-day brand events, or whatever, now that the really special occasion is when the products are full-price – most products spend more time on special offer than at full price, and shops should really give up the pretence and just admit that the 'reduced' prices are actually the real prices.  Whatever the price is, though, it's pretty unedifying to fight someone in a supermarket over who gets the last George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Grilling Machine on the shelf.  What are you people thinking of?!  It's madness!

Christmas adverts have evolved until now there's an obligation to make an advert which doesn't just shamelessly flog worthless tat to Christmas shoppers but is practically a miniature motion picture with a raft of characters with complex backstories, an unexpected plot twist and an uplifting yet thoughtful moral message.  A few years back, adverts were just a thing which happened when you were watching TV – a good opportunity to get up and make a cup of coffee or find the cat.  Now, people eagerly await the smug, kitschy Christmas adverts the way they look forward to the next episode of their favourite television programmes.

For some reason, supermarkets have now entered into a competition to see who can stuff as many animals one inside the other.  The lower budget the supermarket, the more different animals they try to cram in there.  When I was growing up, you had your roast goose or your roast turkey, with potatoes, vegetables, gravy, whatever – these days, you can head down to your local Nisa Today and pick up a gorgeous roasted goat stuffed with a monkey stuffed with a turkey stuffed with a chicken stuffed with an otter stuffed with a partridge stuffed with a shrew (serves 4) for only a tenner.  I suppose the next step is to start doing the same thing with vegetables?  Roast potatoes stuffed with parsnips stuffed with carrots stuffed with sprouts stuffed with peas?

We don't even call it Christmas now, do we?  It's the holiday season – or, worse, the party season.  Y'see, we have to give the impression that the entire period of time after the end of the Bonfire Night celebrations up until the bitter, throbbing regrets of New Year's Day is one long string of end-to-end parties and social occasions – each filled to bursting with laughter, jollity, scintillating conversations, exciting sex, memories to cherish forever, and tiny little cocktail sausages which other people have touched.  The party season, where everyone always look incredible, and no one is ever unhappy.  Yeah, right!

Christmas used to be a time of worship – for those of a particular religious bent – or else a time to see family, catch up with old friends, relax, and enjoy yourself.  Recently it seems to have become a parade of saccharine clichés, each rooted in hollow, mindless consumerism instead of anything meaningful or personal.

The changes I've written about are all very, very recent.  But Tom Lehrer summed up the spirit of it all, long before 'Black Friday' or any of this other stuff existed:

Christmas!  What happened to you?

Friday, 21 November 2014

The political Richter Scale

UKIP are keen to tell us that there is a 'political earthquake' underway.  That the party is gathering momentum is not in doubt – but is it really an 'earthquake'?  No.

Last night saw Mark Reckless (re)elected as the MP for Rochester Strood, to become the second MP to be elected under the UKIP name.  His majority of close to three thousand over the Conservatives was comfortable, but not insurmountable for the Tories at a General Election, where polls show voters do tend to approach things slightly differently.  Nevertheless, it was a good victory for UKIP and they are quite understandably celebrating the result.

However, I don't believe this result is quite as momentous as the UKIP types on the news and on social media would have us believe.  Sure, it's a good result for them – but how earth-shattering really is it?

As in last month's by-election in Clacton, UKIP's candidate was a defector to the party from the Conservatives, and the incumbent MP in that seat.  Incumbency brings with it certain benefits, and when we look at other recent by-elections in Heywood & Middleton and in Newark – where UKIP have not been 'helped along' by the defection of a local MP already known to the people in the constituency – UKIP have polled fairly well, but not won the seat.  Really winning a seat is a different proposition from holding a seat (even under different party colours), and that is something UKIP are still yet to do.
What is certain, though, is that the General Election next year is looking set to be very interesting indeed!  It will be fascinating to see how UKIP fare with their 'homegrown' (for want of a better word) candidates – those dyed-in-the-wool 'Kippers who haven't crossed over from another party, taking with them a certain level of local support and a preexisting record of achievement in parliament which they can use on the campaign trail.

Personally, I think it's quite unlikely that we'll see any further defections to UKIP before the General Election.  So, when we come to May next year, UKIP candidates will stand or fall on their own merits – and although the party is on the rise, I don't think we will see the huge numbers of UKIP MPs some of their activists are hoping for.

My personal feeling is that they'll be extremely lucky to get into double figures with the number of seats they win.  That's a tremor, but is it truly an earthquake?  Not really.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Comment on this

Do you write comments on newspaper articles online?  You shouldn't.

I very rarely get comments on my Blog posts – and for that, I am very grateful.  The problem with online comments is that no one is listening, and everyone is talking; it is a world where people scream their opinions into the abyss with an obstinate certainty they would never display in real life – there is no persuading anyone of an alternate point-of-view because everyone's positions are already so entrenched, and ad hominem is the default approach for making any point.

No one can ever 'win' one of these arguments (read: shouting matches).  I don't think anybody is even trying to.  There are plenty of comments on this critique of Russell Brand's latest book by Michael Moynihan, most of which are pretty hostile – and yet there are precious few attempts logically to refute the arguments the author makes, and instead the commenters' points are almost all "you're jealous of him!" or "you're just a stooge of 'the establishment' anyway!"

I've lost count (OK, I was never really keeping count) of the number of times I've read an excellent article, followed by a bunch of moronic comments from people with no interest at all in debating the issues raised in the piece with an open mind.

So, let's all try to  restrain ourselves, and stop posting comments – the world will be a happier, nicer place for it.

Thursday, 6 November 2014


I've just watched the new John Lewis Christmas advert.  If you haven't seen it yet, here it is:

According to the response on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, people have actually been crying at this.  Genuinely shedding real life tears.  Can you believe that?  It's a television advert.  And you're crying at it?!  Pull yourselves together!  You'll find you get a lot less emotional watching it if you bear in mind that it's been cynically calculated to make you spend as much money as possible.

Even worse, however, is John Lewis' appropriation of Christmas.  This article in The Telegraph declares that "today sees the start of the countdown to Christmas: the launch of the John Lewis Christmas advert".  No, it doesn't.  We already have a 'countdown to Christmas' – it's called Advent, and it begins four Sundays before Christmas Day (this year, that's 30th November).  And with its traditions of lighting candles, singing songs and baking cakes, Advent is considerably more festive and more community-spirited than an unashamed attempt to squeeze more money out of consumers by tugging on their heartstrings.

I shall be expanding on this at a later time, but when my political party sweeps to power next May in a landslide election victory, our flagship policy will be to double corporation tax on any company who puts out a Christmas advert before the last week of November.  If John Lewis decide to pass that increase on to their customers, they may find their Christmas marketing campaign doesn't bring it quite so much profit any more.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Taylor Swift and Spotify

Taylor Swift has been much lauded for her decision to take all her music off the Spotify streaming service.  I can understand why she has, and why people think this was a good decision – but I worry that setting precedents for a music industry 'business model' is not such a good idea.

Comments like 'Taylor Swift is doing it right!' imply that other musicians, who have made different choices for their own music and their own careers, are doing it 'wrong'.  And that is not cool.  As I ruminated on Twitter earlier, one of the most exciting things about a career in music is the way everyone can do things their own way…

Off with his head!

Off with his head! they are screaming on the Norwich City football forums, like the Queen Of Hearts in Alice In Wonderland, following an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Middlesborough last night.  As the blistering start to the season fades and gives way to the grit and slog of a 46-match campaign in the SkyBet Championship, more and more people are starting to espouse the view that manager Neil Adams should be let go.  The fools!

I have said before that Adams was not my first choice as a permanent manager, following relegation from the Premier League at the end of last season.  I stand by that.  But he's there now – and, at this stage, sacking him will almost certainly do more harm than good.

Far too many football fans see sacking the manager as a 'silver bullet' – an instant solution which will wipe away all the problems of a struggling club, as if they were never there.  It isn't.  It never has been, and it never will be.

(It is worth pointing out, at this stage, that Norwich are not a 'struggling club'.  We are seventh in the Championship, as things stand, and only four points off the top two clubs.  It is easy to throw around 'soundbite statistics' like only two wins in the last ten games; it's just as easy to express the same statistic as only three losses in the last ten games – either way, it's relatively meaningless.  It cannot be said firmly enough: this is not a crisis.)

Sacking the manager is, in many respects, the easy bit.  You tell him you don't want him any more, and he's gone – and, in doing so, you slake the disgruntled fans' baying for blood.  The tricky part is what happens next.  You have to appoint a new manager.  Who?

Who is there who's available, and not already at a club?  Who is there who's going to want to come and manage a Championship side like Norwich?  Who is there who's going to be a guaranteed step up from Adams (if the guy you get in next isn't going to be a guaranteed step up, what was the point of sacking the last guy, if the new one's not going to be any better?!)?

Nobody has any answers to these questions.  People don't consider the 'afterwards' – just as those who call for revolution don't have any coherent plan for what will replace the ancien régime.  All wrongs will be righted, 'come the revolution'.  How?  Nobody knows.  Managerial changes are messy, tumultuous upheavals, which have huge affects on a club; if you're going to put the club through that turmoil again, there had better be a bloody good plan for 'afterwards'!

As I have written before, the way to become an established Premier League club (which is, after all, the aim) is to have a long-term plan.  It is also worth stating, at this juncture, that stability is more important than timescale; that is to say, if promotion this season meant relegation again next season, whilst waiting for promotion until the season after next would more likely yield a prolonged stay in the Premier League, I would choose the latter every time – I want long-term success, not to become a 'yo-yo club'.  A managerial 'merry-go-round' is the opposite of all of this – it is a quick fix; it is short-term thinking; and it is very, very stupid.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

#TheApprentice observations

I have been watching the latest series of BBC businessdrama The Apprentice (now in its tenth year) with a growing sense of despair.  These candidates are, surely, the worst group of self-styled 'businessmen' and 'businesswomen' ever to grace Lord Sugar's Boardroom!  Everything which can go wrong has gone wrong, and I'm left wondering whether these sorry individuals are really the best and brightest business minds in the UK – if they are, we are all royally screwed.

That said, the floundering candidates are not the most frustrating thing about The Apprentice – that particular accolade falls to the show's star, Lord Sugar.  Brilliant business mind he may be, but the more I see of Lord Sugar the less I like him and the more convinced I become that I would never want to work in partnership with him.

It is easy – indeed, it is practically mandatory – to make fun of the Apprentice candidates for some of the ridiculous lines they come out with when they're trying to 'sell themselves' on camera.  The terminally verbose Steven Ugoalah (fired last week) described himself as 'perfect in every way' – and then went on to say 'I'm not arrogant, because everything I'm saying is all true'.  Wow.

It is telling, therefore that the worst thing you can do in the Boardroom, as a candidate on The Apprentice, is not to lose a task, lose money, or even attack another candidate personally, but to compare yourself to Lord Sugar.  This is the one thing which really makes Lord Sugar bristle.  'You're not like me.  Don't ever compare yourself to me!' he will snap.  Well, why not?  There's no doubt that Lord Sugar is a very successful man, but he's not so special and wonderful as to be completely unique!  Somebody is going to be like him - and, for all he knows, it could be one of these young wannabes sat across the table from him.

It is in moments such as this that Lord Sugar's own arrogance shows through.  He has little time for the candidates' bizarrely hyperbolic self-aggrandisement – and rightly so – but he is not immune to this puffed-up mindset either.  The irony is, of course, that he may be more mature, and more experienced – and he may have earnt those bragging rights, to an extent – but by putting himself on a pedestal in this manner, Lord Sugar reveals that he is actually quite a lot more like the candidates whose comparisons he abhors than he might like to admit.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Help! I was attacked by a road!

According to the Daily Telegraph, the 'most dangerous road in Britain' is a stretch of the A285 between Chichester and Petworth.

What a load of nonsense!

A road is not, in and of itself, 'dangerous' at all.  There is no such thing as a 'dangerous road'; there are only drivers who don't drive appropriately for the road, the weather conditions, the age of their tyres and brake pads, the visibility, the levels of traffic, and their own alertness – and, therefore, cause accidents.

Drivers are responsible for accidents, not roads!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Bonfire Night, not Bonfire Week

Bonfire Night in the UK is on the 5th of November.  Remember?

Despite the rhyme that every schoolchild learns, to Remember, remember, the 5th of November, some people apparently find this very difficult.  Bonfire Night celebrations these days are often on the weekend closest to the 5th of November instead – which doesn't exactly scan so well in the rhyme, but at least ensures people are able to go out to a fireworks display and have a jolly good time all evening without the worry of having to get up early the next morning for work, school, or the invasion.

This year, the 5th of November is a Wednesday – which is about the worst day it can be.  It falls smack-bang in the middle of the so-called 'working week', meaning that the weekend before and the weekend after – and all the days in between – are considered fair game for Bonfire Night parties, community fireworks displays, and general Guy Fawkes-based hijinks.  As a result, Bonfire Night celebrations will drag on for anything up to nine days – terrifying cats, dogs, and gang members of a nervous disposition for miles around for over a week.

Well, bollocks to it, I say.  When I was at primary school, many moons ago, at the school in the village where I live, the then headteacher made it very clear that the school's fireworks display would always fall on November 5th, whatever day of the week that happened to be.  And if we turned up tired, grumpy and tinnitus-ridden at school the next morning as a result, we just had to cope.  Or, if we couldn't cope, not go to the fireworks display.

'Remember, remember, the seventh of November' has too many syllables!

I am more than happy for people to detonate miniature explosions in their back gardens, and set fire to their neighbours' sheds, for one night each year.  It's a tradition which marks a very important event in our nation's history.  However, when this is stretched out over a week, or a fortnight, or a month, it becomes a bloody nuisance.

Hold your Bonfire Night parties on 5th November, people, or don't hold them at all!  And if that date happens to fall on a day which, for whatever reason, is inconvenient for you – well, that's just tough.  If celebrating Bonfire Night means that much to you, make a note to make sure you keep the date free next year.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Throw away your television

As Douglas Carswell returns to parliament today as the first ever UKIP MP to be elected to the House Of Commons, the issue of whether UKIP leader Nigel Farage should appear in the party leaders' television debates in the run up to next year's general election is once again in the spotlight.

It's easy to think there's no simple answer to this conundrum.  Some people say the debates should be restricted to those party leaders who have a realistic chance of becoming the next Prime Minister - in which case, should Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg even be included, since the next Prime Minister is likely to be either David Cameron or Ed Miliband?  Other people, however, say that UKIP have a right to be included, now that they have parliamentary representation, and can therefore claim to be a serious political movement - but in that case, shouldn't the Green Party, who've been represented in the Commons by Caroline Lucas since 2010, also be involved?  And how about parties like Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the DUP, etc. - all of whom have more MPs sitting in Westminster than either UKIP or the Greens?

However, there is a simple answer, and it is this:  scrap the television debates.

That's right.  Let's get rid of this clunky, unnecessary, counter-productive political device which has been imported from America and shoehorned into our vastly different political system with practically no alterations.

In America, voters have a straight choice between candidate this guy and candidate that guy - the television debates can help to set out the difference between each candidate's vision, and allow people to make a more informed choice when they go to vote.  Here in the UK, we have a multi-party parliamentary system; very few of the people watching the debates will actually be voting for David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage - and with many parties competing for representation in the House Of Commons, looking to influence policy, the choice facing British voters is not a simple 'this or that' decision.

The televised leaders' debates serve to make our electoral system seem more presidential, and in doing so, diminish the link between local MPs and their constituents.  They oversimplify politics in a way which doesn't serve the country at all.  It's time to admit that they were a mistake in 2010, and we'll be better off without them in 2015.

As for UKIP…?  They have one narrative - an attempt to frame political discourse as a simple case of UKIP and their supporters against the world (because all the other political parties are the same), and whether they are involved in the television debates or not, this too will be twisted to fit this narrative.

Exclusion from the debates will prove that UKIP are victims of an 'establishment' conspiracy to keep them down - whilst inclusion will give Mr Farage the chance to show how the other party leaders are all 'ganging up' on him, proving that there's no difference between the main parties, and that UKIP is the only credible alternative to a Westminster consensus which is only looking out for itself and not the interests of the country at large.  Once again, we're better off without the debates altogether.

Friday, 10 October 2014

It's all a conspiracy!

My brother has, in the past, postulated that government agents may be engaged to combat conspiracy theories which threaten the ruling order, by inventing and disseminating fake conspiracy theories so patently ludicrous that their sheer absurdity serves to discredit the entire sphere of conspiracy theories. It’s an interesting thought. (He also reckons he might be rather good at this job - he’s probably right, but I can’t image how one would embark on such a career!)

Personally, I’ve no time for conspiracy theories, or those who propagate them. They are fascinating - and yet often so tortured and tenuous that it amazes me just how many people seem to take them seriously. In many cases, it feels as though the theory is not a conclusion reached after examining evidence but a twisting of correlations in order to fit the narrative which the theorist has already decided he wants to tell. In other words, conspiracy theorists know what they want their theory to be in advance - then they go out and look for evidence to support their hypotheses. This is the opposite of an evidence-based scientific process.

It is this dogmatic adherence to principle, often in spite of evidence, which makes me so suspicious of conspiracy theorists in general. Indeed, the absence of evidence supporting the conspiracy theorists’ stance - and sometimes even the presence of evidence directly contrary to it - is more likely to be presented as further evidence in their favour than taken as a sign to reconsider the position (ie. the lack of evidence is, in itself, ‘proof’ that something is being suppressed by ‘the establishment’).

Conspiracy theories can become almost cult-like in nature. And this is exactly why they are nonsense. Anything which has a basis in truth is not advocated solely by hysterical zealots screeching on the internet.

How many times do you see someone on Facebook posting a link to an article claiming to have uncovered some great ‘truth’ about the world in which we live, which is oh so obvious when once your eyes have been opened to it; and yet, if you comment to question the premise - not in a hostile or offensive way, but simply in the spirit of having an open debate on the topic - the original poster instantly becomes defensive, and highly personal? Anyone who can back up their position with facts doesn’t have to resort to such tactics, but is happy to enter into a reasoned discourse and present their side of the argument in a rational, logical way. Conspiracy theorists do the opposite of this, and the great irony is that these people who delight in telling the rest of us among the common herd to ‘open our eyes’ and ‘wake up’ and ‘see things for what they really are’ are actually some of the most closed-minded people one is likely to encounter.

Which is why none of what I’ve written here will make any difference to people who actually believe conspiracy theories - of that, I am certain. “Oh, but of course, you would say that. You’ve been taken in!” they will say. “Of course there’s no evidence to support conspiracy theories - it’s all been carefully removed or covered over by the ruling establishment, to keep you in the dark!” (And thus, as I’ve mentioned, a lack of evidence to support a conspiracy theory becomes, in itself, evidence supporting that conspiracy theory.) But this is precisely the problem I have with conspiracy theorists - the unwavering faith in their own agenda, the twisting of facts to suit their narrative, and the absolute point-blank refusal to countenance anything outside the confines of their own world view makes it supremely difficult to take any of what they say seriously.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Make the month of October fun/exciting/charitable/healthy/aromatic by taking part in Portmantober! Take the Portmantober challenge, and for thirty-one days find ever more annoying and self-serving ways to mash up the word ‘October’ with another word of your choosing, all in aid of charity/fun/personal development!

How to participate:

  1. Choose your word or phrase: for example, you might want to dedicate the entire month to the teachings of Swiss Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  2. Write a smug Facebook status informing all your friends that you’re doing ‘Jean-Jacques Roussober’ this year. (Don’t forget to include a good dollop of subtext designed to make your ‘friends’ feel bad if they don’t also join in!)
  3. Tweet with the hashtag ‘#portmantober’ at least once a day, but preferably much, much more often than that.
  4. Convince yourself you’re doing something profoundly worthwhile, while actually just being a tremendous nuisance to everyone you know (and quite a few people you don’t know).

Have fun out there, Portmantoberists!

Good by-election

Douglas Carswell - former Conservative MP for Clacton, and now UKIP candidate in today's Clacton by-election - is almost certainly going to retain his seat in Parliament, and become UKIP's first MP.  Which I find a little odd.

The thing is, voting UKIP is a protest - a kick in the teeth to the corpulent, self-serving, disinterested complacency of the political establishment.  It is a vote for change.  A vote for a different kind of politics - not for 'more of the same'.  Which is why it is a little strange, then, to cast this anti-establishment vote for somebody who, until only a few weeks ago, was as much a part of the ruling elite as any other politician in the mainstream parties.

Mr Carswell is clearly popular with the people of Clacton; at the last general election, he achieved a majority of over 12,000 votes.  But to be so disaffected with 'business as usual' in politics that you vote to maintain the status quo is a bit unusual, isn't it?

Mr Carswell's highly probable re-election in Clacton is likely to owe as much to the benefits of incumbency and local voters' familiarity with him as a candidate as it is to UKIP's rising popularity as a party.

Much more interesting, as a barometer of the political mood, will be the concurrent by-election in Heywood & Middleton.  Following the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin in September, this is a by-election campaign with no incumbent fighting to retain the seat - it is expected that Labour will hold this constituency, but UKIP's progress here will tell us a lot more about their fortunes ahead of next year's general election than the 'coronation' of an already popular defector could ever hope to.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

#Zzubwords - Westminster

Everybody knows what political ‘buzzwords’ are.  Words which have become so ubiquitous simply to mean ‘a Good Thing™’ - empty words which convey a feeling, rather than a meaning.  Words like ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’; everyone means slightly different things when they say them, but that doesn’t matter - they don’t need qualifications or explanations, because they instantly connote a vague feeling of positivity, and ‘being on your side’.

I have noticed, however, an opposite group of words - words which are used interchangeably without context, to mean a vague, generic ‘Bad Thing™’.  I am calling these zzubwords, and I am hoping to compile a small dictionary of some of the more common ones, and to make this into a semi-regular feature on this Blog.


Although not exactly first in our Dictionary Of Zzubwords alphabetically, in the wake of last month’s referendum on Scottish Independence, this seems an apposite starting point for my collection.  Westminster, of course, is actually just an area of Central London - but those who prey on the prevailing disaffection with mainstream politics to advance their own aims and agendas have realised that an association with politicians and traditional political processes can make almost anything seem sleazy and corrupt.

By perpetuating the idea of some great, expansive divide between ‘ordinary people’ and ‘professional politicians’ - two apparently separate species, who simply cannot understand each other - it is possible to make people suspicious and mistrustful of almost anything, just by associating it with ‘Westminster’, the by-word for self-interested, out-of-touch politics with nothing to offer.

Twitter for business

If you do it right, Twitter is the perfect customer support tool for your business.  It's instant, it's convenient, it's free, it's twenty-four hours.  If you own a business, train your staff to use social media well, and it will pay dividends - and the bigger your business, the more important it is to harness the power of Twitter to keep your customers happy!

Why do I bring this up?  Well, we (as a society) are always very keen to complain about poor service - I think it's good to recognise when service is done well, too.  With that in mind…  I Tweeted about an issue I was having with Barclays' online banking, and I received a very prompt, helpful response from Barclays' official Twitter.  Simple, painless - and fixed my problem straight away.

See?  Customer service is easy!

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

May I take your order?

Anyone who's watched Match Of The Day regularly has probably complained about Match Of The Day almost as often.  Almost all football fans seem to be convinced that the BBC's flagship football programme is biased against their team - and one of the most common complaints is about the order in which the matches are shown.  When Norwich City were in the Premier League, we always seemed to be the last game on Match Of The Day, and supporters felt this was being done deliberately.  Well, I know how to put this issue to bed, once-and-for-all…

Instead of leaving the running order up to a real person, whose judgement can be called into question, there should be a formula for deciding this, based on nothing but cold, hard facts.  The best way is to link the order to position in the league table at the time.  I have done a mock-up of this for last Saturday's Match Of The Day, so you can see how this would work.

There were six games played on Saturday:

  • Manchester City vs. Aston Villa
  • Hull vs. Crystal Palace
  • Leicester vs. Burnley
  • Liverpool vs. West Brom
  • Sunderland vs. Stoke
  • Swansea vs. Newcastle
And this was the Premier League table on Saturday, as Match Of The Day went on-air:

So, my formula would take an aggregate league position (ALP), by calculating the mean average of the two teams' standings in the table.  (For example, if the top two teams in the table were to play each other, their ALP would be 1.5 [1st place + 2nd place, divided by two] and so this would be the first game shown.)

Under this system, Saturday's Match Of The Day running order would therefore be as follows:
  • ALP 4.5 - Manchester City vs. Aston Villa
  • ALP 9.5 - Liverpool vs. West Brom
  • ALP 11 - Swansea vs. Newcastle
  • ALP 11 - Hull vs. Crystal Palace
  • ALP 13 - Sunderland vs. Stoke
  • ALP 14 - Leicester vs. Burnley
(As you can see, two games have identical ALPs - of the four teams involved in these two games, Swansea are the highest in the table, so their match with Newcastle gets shown first.)
Oh, but what if a game between two teams lower down the table is really exciting?!
…you might be saying.

Well, that doesn't matter!  When the formula is in control, the order is what it is - it isn't affected by subjectivity, and the teams whose matches are shown first have earnt that right through their previous good results, so there can be no complaints.  And besides, if the 'exciting' games aren't always right at the start, there's more chance of everyone watching all the way to the end.

The BBC need to implement my system of ordering matching matches now.  They will thank me.

Monday, 6 October 2014

#F1 - Keep fighting, Jules

This is about the time I would normally sit down and write my Formula 1 column about the weekend's race - that's quite difficult to do on the back of the news about Jules Bianchi's crash and surgery for head injuries, though.

There were plenty of talking points from yesterday's Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, and lots of off-track drama to discuss, too - including the news that four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel will leave Red Bull, the which gave him such extraordinary success over the last few seasons, at the end of this year.  However, none of this is quite as important as the health and wellbeing of our drivers.  It was poignant to read reports that the other drivers - such fierce rivals on-track - were all at the hospital with Jules after the race.

Now is not the time to analyse, to evaluate, to speculate, or to blame.  Now is the time for the entire world of motorsport to send Jules Bianchi positive thoughts - and hope that we will see him race again sooner, rather than later.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Don't cry for Jeremy, Argentina

One doesn't haven to be a fan of Jeremy Clarkson to condemn mob violence.  Clarkson and the Top Gear team were recently chased out of Argentina by an angry mob hurling bricks and rocks, after locals took exception to a vehicle number plate which they thought was a jibe about the Falklands War.  (The BBC denies that this was the case, and insists the number plate was purely a coincidence.)

Clarkson is a controversial figure, and not without his critics.  However, to be seeing comments on Facebook and Twitter about this incident supporting the actions of the Argentinian rioters, or even offering to supply them with more rocks to hurl at the presenter, is pretty disgraceful.

Condoning and supporting this sort of 'lynch mob' rioting is never OK.  Not even if the target is somebody you don't like.

Freedom Of Bin-formation Act

This piece originally appeared in my FLiCK Magazine column in June 2014.

I was recently informed that I would have to be more careful when throwing things out.  This isn’t because I’ve been launching empty food packaging and used matchsticks across the room, and missing the bin.  Nor is it because I have been piloting my wheelie bin so violently up and down the drive that I have received a ticket for dangerous driving whilst at the helm.

No, I have to be careful because I have occasionally thrown food waste into the general rubbish bin, rather than the special food waste bin - out of, I admit, laziness - and that I have now been ‘caught’ by the bin men.  The bin men, it seems, have spotted food waste in the regular bin, and they are not happy about this; apparently, if you get ‘caught’ too many times, you may have to pay a fine.

Now, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I don’t have an issue with the concept of recycling, or of being careful with your rubbish for the sake of the environment.  If you’re the sort of person who believes passionately in this stuff, then good for you - I really mean that.  But I definitely do have an issue with the idea of being coerced into behaving in a certain way (in this case, an environmentally conscious way) either through threats or rewards.

The thought of agents of the state (the bin men are employed by the council) sifting through my rubbish to check up on whether I’m being a ‘good citizen’ is like something out of Stalinist Russia, and is frankly rather sinister.

Maybe you think I’m being melodramatic - that comparisons with totalitarian regimes are unnecessarily hyperbolic, bordering on preposterous.  Perhaps you’d be right.  But personally, I find the idea of anyone being legally allowed to invade my privacy, rifle through my things on my property and report to the state on how I am living (who can then levy ‘corrective’ punishments to encourage me to change my ‘behaviour’ if it is deemed not orthodoxy), like some kind of Securitate informer, deeply disturbing.

There will, I am sure, be those who argue that this self-important government interloping is ‘a price worth paying’ for a better, cleaner, more responsible society - but I’m afraid I cannot agree.  The state should exist to protect individuals’ freedoms, not to ride roughshod over them in the name of one ideology or another, and this sort of invasion of privacy is something of which we should be very wary indeed, even in the name of a ‘good cause’ - in fact, especially in the name of a good cause.  Once we accept one pretext for government making life choices for us, we are on very shaky ground indeed.

I don’t ever want to live in a world where the state is peering into our homes to makes sure we are living the ‘right way’.  It may start with our bins - but where will it end?

We are the dead.


In the wake of new Tory proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act, and replace it with some bungling alternative, it becomes ever more important to make people aware of the growing reach of the oppressive arm of the state.  Far from repealing the Human Rights Act, we need to enshrine more individual freedoms in law - including the freedom to dispose of our own property without the state rummaging though our bins to check what we've been up to.  We could call this the Freedom Of Bin-formation Act.

Friday, 3 October 2014

#NCFC season comparisons

Norwich have now won four away games this season – twice as many as we won in the whole of last season. Which is great. But also completely meaningless.

Comparisons between last season and this season have very little worth because relegation to the Championship has made any cross-season analysis inherently uneven. Is it any surprise that a team will win more games in the lower division than in the top flight?

Of course, it’s brilliant to see Norwich doing well, scoring goals, winning games, and (at the time of writing) topping the Championship table. But holding up these facts as proof positive that the manager and/or the squad are an improvement on last year’s is to misrepresent the relative levels of the Championship and the Premier League; I’m not saying that Norwich haven’t improved from last year, but it is foolish to ignore that the opposition have got significantly easier also.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

#F1 Singa-Poor joke in the title

I suppose it was about time Lewis Hamilton had the rub of the green, so-to-speak, in terms of reliability issues.  With Nico Rosberg in trouble from from the formation lap, Hamilton drove a faultless race from pole to capitalise on his rival's woes, bringing home twenty-five points to edge ahead of Rosberg in the World Drivers' Championship standings.  Talk of the race in Monza two weeks ago being 'a turning point' was not entirely misplaced, it would seem.

At least we get a chance to knock some of the nutty conspiracy theories on the head.  Earlier in the year, a few people were convinced Hamilton's mechanical issues were being orchestrated by the Mercedes team because they decided Rosberg would be a 'more fitting' World Champion.  Patently ridiculous though that is, it echoes the sort of nonsense we got used to hearing from some fans of Mark Webber who were convinced Red Bull were deliberately sabotaging Webber's car in order to favour Vettel.

Mercedes aren't deliberately going to fix one of their cars to have to retire from the race - costing their team, and one of their drivers, a decent haul of points.  They weren't 'sabotaging' Hamilton earlier in the season, and consciously favouring Rosberg for the title; I'd have thought that was obvious to everyone - but just in case it isn't, the issues on Sunday show that, more often than not, these issues do 'even out' over the course of a season.

However, this Championship is still wide open.  The momentum may have swung Hamilton's way; having taken the lead, he may well be the favourite for the title now - especially given his performances in the last two races, where he has looked absolutely unbeatable.  One statistic I'm not overly fond of seeing, however, is the comparison in the number of races won - Hamilton has won seven races this season, against Rosberg's four.  However, you don't win Championships by having more race victories than your teammate; this is a race series, not a one-off event, and Rosberg understands as well as anyone the importance of consistency over the course of an entire season.

What's going to be interesting now is Rosberg's response.  He seemed calm enough in the immediate aftermath of his retirement in Singapore, but this is the first time the reliability issues within the Mercedes team have really hurt his side of the garage, and with Hamilton inching ahead in the title race it will be fascinating to see how Rosberg handles the pressure.  I think he has the mental steeliness to cope well.

Ultimately, it could be the mechanical reliability which decides this Championship.  Is that fair?  Possibly not.  But Formula 1 has always been about designing ultimate racing machines - about technical prowess, as much as driver skill.  To say that the quality and durability of the cars shouldn't play a part in the competition is to misunderstand the sport.  Whether Hamilton or Rosberg ends up being crowned 2014 World Champion - because it will be one of those two drivers, whatever the Red Bull team say - can you really say whichever one of them wins it in the end won't be a worthy Champion?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Who is asking 'The English Question'?

As you probably know by now, Scotland voted 'No' to independence from the rest of the United Kingdom in yesterday's Referendum.  (If you didn't know, and you're now annoyed with me for posting 'spoilers', you can get stuffed.)

Much of the post-Referendum talk today, however, has been about England, and the so-called 'English Question' which now has to be answered (apparently).  My question, however, is this: who is asking this English Question?!  So far as I can see, it's mainly politicians and and political commentators all asking each other.

As a brief summary of what this English Question (also often known as the West Lothian Question) is supposed to be, consider that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland means that any issues which affect only those countries are handled by their own devolved legislatures - the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies - whereas, with no regional legislature of its own, issues affecting only England are still handled by the national Parliament in Westminster.  This means that only members of the Scottish Parliament debate and vote on issues which affect only Scotland, but issues which affect only England are debated and voted on by MPs from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in Westminster.

Yeah, I get it.  It's 'unfair'.  But it's difficult to get worked up over this stuff.  I mean, really?  I find it difficult to believe that there are people all across England furious that Scottish MPs are voting on things.  Honestly, I do.  After all, as the always astute Hopi Sen explains, the inherent asymmetry of the United Kingdom means that this issue is considerably less problematic in practice than it is in theory.  How much does this 'problem' actually affect people's day-to-day lives?

I understand the theory behind it.  I just think politicians who are desperate to show England that we won't be getting a raw deal in the post-'IndyRef' world are barking up somewhat of the wrong tree.

I like to think I'm fairly engaged with politics.  I'm already planning my all-night 'General Election and Curry Party' for next May (contact me for an invitation - seriously, you're very welcome).  I don't find politics off-putting.  But I struggle to get excited about the idea of an English Parliament, or devolution to Regional Assemblies, or any of the other suggestions which have been put forward as potential 'West Lothian Answers'; they simply don't inspire me.

Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe there is a burning desire across England for devolution, and I'm just not 'getting it'.  But I somehow doubt it.  I think we'd know.  I can't help but feel that the political classes have got themselves worked up into a lather over a topic which a considerable proportion of the general population aren't that fussed about.  At least, I'm not that fussed about it.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland decides

Scotland decides. But we're all affected.

As the people of Scotland go to the polls today to vote in the Referendum on their independence from the United Kingdom, we're all eagerly awaiting the results. I'm certainly not going to be so foolish as to stick my head into the gaping, toothy jaws of the 'IndyRef' - which has chewed up and spat out far better writers than I - by proffering my opinion on the various issues surrounding the vote here.

But I do struggle to understand the attitudes of some of the people of the rest of the UK. The idea that this is "Scotland's vote", and the rest of us should just keep out of it, is a nonsense. (Of course, this stance isn't exactly helped by the rhetoric of some of the more extreme Nationalists in Scotland, who are keen to tell the rest of us that this is nothing to do with us, and we should stop trying to get involved!)

This sort of isolationism is sheer delusion. English, Welsh or Northen Irish people who want to wash their hands of the whole affair and pretend it's nothing to them are kidding themselves; whatever the outcome of the vote today, our country (and by that I mean the whole of the United Kingdom) is going to go through some pretty major constitutional changes, and that's going to have an impact on everyone.

We can't just disengage from the whole thing. The vote may be confined to residents of Scotland, but the repercussions won't be. Like it or not, we are all vested interests.

Monday, 15 September 2014

I got a free album, and U got one 2!

There has been a considerable backlash at the news that, along with launching the new iPhone 6 the the iWatch (more on those to come) and killing the only version of the iPod worth having, the iPod Classic (the heartless bastards - more on that, also, to come), Apple have given every iTunes user a free copy of the latest album by U2 - Songs Of Innocence.  But I can't, for the life of me, think why.

There has been such a tremendous fuss about this that I've found myself wondering whether there's some nasty small print detail I've missed which allows Apple and U2 to harvest your organs if any of the band's members need a transplant at any point in their lives.  There isn't.

You're being given something free-of-charge.  Something for nothing.  It may not be something you wanted, or something you like, but you'd have to be a serious churl to claim that owning it diminishes your life in any way.

Claims that the album is being 'forced upon' you are, of course, hyperbolic nonsense in every sense; you don't have to listen to it - you don't even have to download it, if you don't want to!  The choice is yours.  That makes about as much sense as saying you're being 'forced' to use a stopwatch because your phone came with one as one of its set of 'stock' apps - or saying you're being 'forced' to eat raspberry jam because your housemate left a jar of it in the fridge before going away on holiday.  It is complete rubbish, in other words.

As for the album itself…?  I actually didn't mind it.  I know it's 'fashionable' to disdain U2 - as it is Nickelback, Coldplay, Jamie Cullum and Justin Bieber - but if you care more about whether it's 'fashionable' to like a band or not than whether their music is any good then you're an idiot.

Instead of instantly feeling aggrieved at the whole incident, I actually downloaded and listened to Songs Of Innocence before deciding how I felt about it - and I found it not in the least bit objectionable.  Who knows?  I may even listen to it again.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

#F1: Where now for Ferrari?

Following the news that Ferrari boss Luca Di Montezemolo has resigned after twenty-three years in charge, I am once again left pondering the uncertain fortunes of this veteran Italian marque in Formula 1.  Ferrari are synonymous with Formula 1; of the eleven teams currently competing in the sport, only three names have been a constant presence on the grid throughout the whole time that I've been following the sport - Williams, McLaren, and of course, Ferrari.

Steeped in history, romance and Italian passion, Ferrari's presence in Formula 1 may have been consistent over many decades, but their performances of track have been anything but.  For anyone who grew up, as I did, during the period of great Ferrari dominance in the late '90s and early '00s, and for whom a Sunday lunch still doesn't quite seem complete without the inevitable strains of the seemingly never-ending Italian National Anthem emanating from the television, Ferrari's recent period of misfortune has been rather difficult to fathom.

So, what is to be done about it?  Di Montezemolo has paid the price for the past few years of Ferrari malaise, but now is the time for the team to look to the future, and start to rebuild.

When all-time great of the sport Michael Schumacher arrived at the team in the mid-'90s (having already won the World Championship twice at Benetton), Ferrari were in a mess.  Together with technical chief Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne (who followed Schumacher to Ferrari from Benetton), Schumacher transformed the team; the rigour, the passion, the point-blank refusal to accept anything less than the absolute best which Schumacher and Brawn brought into Ferrari dragged the team back up to the sharp end of the grid, and the culture of winning this attitude instilled within the garage eventually (after a series of setbacks including a broken leg in 1998) brought Schumacher - and Ferrari - a further five consecutive World Championship victories.

The Ferrari team of 2014 is a pale shadow of the slick race-winning operation of ten years previous.  They are crying out for another Brawn, another Byrne - and, above all, another Schumacher.  But where will they come from?  The Formula 1 paddock isn't exactly awash with the kind of people capable of shaking Ferrari out of their current malaise.

Ferrari's current driver line-up of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen is, on paper, the best on the grid.  But in practice, whilst they are both great drivers, Räikkönen is cut from very different cloth when compared to somebody like Schumacher - his 'iceman' persona is the opposite of the seven-times World Champion's zeal - and Alonso, whilst fiery and passionate in his own way, can seem a little petulant on occasion.  In truth, there are maybe two, or possibly three people currently in Formula 1 who would be able to rise to the challenge of kicking Ferrari back into shape - the task of convincing them to leave their current teams, however, would be nothing short of gargantuan.

The only other option, then, is to look outside the current Formula 1 sphere.  A few years back, there was speculation that hugely successful MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi could make the rare switch from two-wheeled racing to four-wheeled racing, and join Ferrari as a driver.  I was excited by this left-field prospect at the time, and a little disappointed not to see it come to fruition.  Maybe something similar might emerge as this season starts to come to a close?  If so, at least that would show Ferrari's ambitions to be moving in the right direction.

Monday, 8 September 2014

#F1: Monza Bonanza

It has been my goal for a while, now, to post a short write-up of each Grand Prix in the days following it (or, at least, before Qualifying for the next race starts!), even if nothing truly remarkable has happened, as some kind of 'regular feature' on this Blog.  Although, in all likelihood, it is doubtful whether I shall successfully be able to navigate this small, dreamlike coracle of prose between the Scylla and Charybdis of work commitments and laziness, I am going to attempt it nonetheless - and therefore humbly set out my thoughts on yesterday's Italian Grand Prix in Monza herein…

Hamilton back to his best

I wrote here after Monaco about how important it is for Lewis Hamilton not to let himself get dragged into a downward psychological spiral of victimhood, and to carry on racing his way rather than always comparing his fortunes on-track with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg's.  It was clear that Hamilton was not happy after what happened between himself and Rosberg on the first lap in Belgium two weeks ago, so I was very pleased to see that he seemed to have put that behind him as he came to Italy.

Hamilton was too much for Rosberg in Qualifying in Monza, and took a brilliant Pole position.  His start was poor, and he ended up chasing the race in fourth place; it would've been easy, at this point, to get disheartened again, and to turn into Mario Balotelli - "why always me?"

Thankfully, Hamilton didn't let this happen - he put the disappointments of the start behind him, knuckled down and set about the task of reeling in Rosberg's lead.  After the first lap, Hamilton was flawless; he didn't do a thing wrong as he hunted down Rosberg, and it was one of the most dominant and complete performances I have seen from him recently.  (The speculation that Mercedes 'ordered' Rosberg to give way to Hamilton as 'punishment' for the incident at Spa is so inordinately stupid that I shan't address it here.)

If Hamilton goes on to win the Championship this year, this race at Monza will be looked on as a turning point in the season; I hope his new positivity continues as we go to Singapore in two weeks time.

Rosberg not a bad egg

The booing of Nico Rosberg on the Podium - both last time out in Belgium, and again in Italy yesterday - is simply not on.  He is a racing driver, paid to deliver results for his team, and at the moment he is leading the Championship - fair play to him.

Personally, I do think it would be brilliant to see a British driver win the title again, and there is no question that Hamilton has the means to overhaul Rosberg's lead in the remaining races.  However, if Rosberg is crowned World Champion after the final race in Abu Dhabi, he will have won the title on merit and he will be a worthy Champion.

Penalty precedents

Another talking-point after yesterday's race was the five second time Penalty given to Kevin Magnussen by the Stewards after they deemed he had 'forced' Valtteri Bottas off the track while defending his position from Bottas' overtaking manoeuvre into the Turn 1 chicane.  I disagreed with this decision, and took issue with the Penalty for two reasons.

Firstly, the Penalty was issued as a 'Five Second Stop/Go Penalty' - ie. to be taken in the Pit Lane - but it was decided that, as no further Pit Stops were planned (Monza is traditionally a one-stop race), the five seconds could simply be added to Magnussen's overall finishing time.  In my view, this changes the nature of the Penalty - and, therefore, changes the nature of the race.  The Stop/Go Penalty is about more than just the time you lose in the Pit Lane - the time you spend stationary puts you at a different place on the track, possibly amongst different cars also fighting for position.  The result of this is a different type of race.  Simply adding the time on at the end of the Grand Prix removes this element of uncertainty, and turns the race into something of a time-trial event for the cars involved; Formula 1 has never been about that.

Secondly, the Penalty itself was overly harsh on Magnussen, who was defending his line from Bottas' oncoming Williams.  Neither car was driving dangerously (unlike Esteban Guttiérez' weaving around on the straight when he hit Romain Grosjean's Lotus and gave himself a puncture), it was simply a 'racing incident' - the sort of thing which is perhaps to be expected when cars are fighting for position on a race track.  I worry that the Stewards will set a precedent for giving Penalties for ever more minor incidents, thus making the drivers more cautious in their approach, reducing overtaking and on-track battles and sterilising Grand Prix racing.

It is, perhaps, ironic that this creeping trend towards risk aversion comes at the same time as a whole new slew of ridiculous proposals to 'make the sport more exciting'.  I have almost lost count of the number of time I have written about how moronic it is to try and 'engineer' and 'create' drama in motorsport, and how making the racing more artificial is an insult to the fans.

We were treated to some fantastic on-track action at Monza yesterday, from the likes of Bottas and Magnussen, as well as Jenson Button, Sergio Pérez, Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo - that the powers-that-be in F1 could seek to discourage this sort of wheel-to-wheel racing through ever more petty Penalties, while at the same time hoping to manufacture more fake 'excitement' is mind-boggling.  The racing we saw yesterday was raw and real, not 'created for our entertainment' by titanium skid-blocks and tyres which barely last five laps; I would hate a situation to develop where the only overtaking moves we ever see are DRS-assisted in specially designated zones, and racing instinct has been neutered by the fear of incurring punishment for being too bold.

Ricciardo a rising star

Each time I see Daniel Ricciardo race, I am more impressed by him than I was the last time.  He is a master at seeing space on the track, reading situations and picking braking points, and he is a joy to watch in the car.  Given the right car, he will go on winning races for a long time to come.

I confess I entertained the possibility that Ricciardo's appointment at Red Bull (a 'promotion', if you like, from the junior Toro Rosso team) was in order to provide four-time World Champion and apple of Helmut Marko's eye Sebastian Vettel with a compliant teammate, already well versed in 'the Red Bull way' of doing things.  Various rumours had circulated last year about the possibility of Fernando Alonso or Kimi Räikkönen stepping into the second Red Bull alongside Vettel, and speculation was rife that Ricciardo was eventually chosen because Vettel had been reluctant to have his status as Red Bull's de facto Number 1 driver challenged by another word-class former Champion.  Given the way the season has gone for him so far, perhaps Vettel is now wishing he did have Räikkönen or Alonso as his teammate, after all…?

The Pit Lane brain drain

If this season has taught us anything, it is the importance of high-ranking technical staff within a Formula 1 team.  Any team which has enjoyed periods of dominance within the sport would not have been able to manage that without a visionary heading up the technical side of the operation - Ross Brawn at Ferrari (and, later on, at his own 'privateer' team), and Adrian Newey at Red Bull are perhaps the best examples in the modern era of Formula 1.  If further proof were needed, however, we need only look at the fortunes of two teams whose fortunes this season could scarcely be more different from their results last year.

Williams have had a dismal time in recent years, and hadn't really produced a car capable of challenging for Podium finishes for ten years.  This year, however, they have reemerged as a serious force in the paddock, and yesterday they overtook Ferrari to claim third place in the Constructors' Championship (that this happened at Ferrari's home race could only have added insult to injury for the veteran Italian marque who haven't been able to produce a decent car since 2009).  The decision of the Williams team to switch to the Mercedes engine for this season was inspired (the Mercedes is easily the best engine in the field), but when it comes to designing a car the capture of Pat Symonds as a technical director is huge, and with him on board Williams have shot back up the standings as a result of his influence.

Contrast this with Lotus, who were, this time last year, the closest challengers to the dominant Red Bulls.  Last year's Lotus was a very well-designed car, even on a much tighter budget than that available to most of the top teams in the paddock, and was particularly remarkable for how kind it was to its tyres.  This year, however, the Lotus team has seen an exodus of talent, with highly-rated designer James Allen leaving to join Ferrari, and star driver Kimi Räikkönen following suit, and team boss Eric Boullier jumping ship to McLaren.  Lotus now find themselves adrift at the back of the field, with a car which looks about as easy to drive as a ride-on lawnmower, and considerably less enjoyable.  In yesterday's race, Romain Grosjean - who finished on the Podium more times than any other non-Red Bull driver in the second half of last season - found himself fighting for most of the race with the Caterhams and Marussias which are generally referred to as the 'back teams'.  How the mighty have fallen!