Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Standing room only: the 18:14 from Kings Cross to Kings Lynn

Get to the train at 18:10, 4 minutes before its departure, and for only the third time in 3 months I don’t get a seat. I’m immediately relegated to third class status, as like a tramp looking for food out of a bin, I scan the train for a seat.

For the next 45 minutes, as the train speeds through the Hertfordshire countryside from King’s Cross to Cambridge my backside will be parked on an uncomfortable luggage rack. Then when 90% of the passengers on this train get off, I’ll take my pick of the seats, like a tourist in front of an all-inclusive buffet.

Fortunately for me this is not a regular occurrence but the reality is that this fate is shared by millions of commuters every year across the country. With that in mind train companies should perhaps make their luggage racks more comfortable, however they will of course never do this, as doing so would be to admit that their trains are overcrowded.

Perhaps all commuters should carry their own portable seat as part of an emergency kit that would cover all elements of travelling on a train in Britain in the 21st Century. Also included would be alcohol gel, wet wipes and tissues (in case you have to go anywhere near one of the train’s toilets), an inflatable pillow (because even if you manage to get a seat they are often very uncomfortable) and earplugs (to block out the noise from neighbouring passengers headphones).

Britain’s trains should be a pleasure to travel on. However, for me and countless others they are often a pain in the arse.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

4 attempts to get my pre-paid train ticket from the station today:

1. booking reference not valid

I had been given the wrong one, so I eventually got the right one and went back but...

2. The ticket office was closed temporarily

So I went back a bit later and...

3. Was told that the ticket hadn't been paid for

So I made some calls confirming that it had been paid for and went back but...

4. A very unhelpful new ticket office person said that the reference didn't come up on his system

So I made some more calls and it turns out the original ticket office person managed to print it off after I left for the 3rd time. He locked the ticket in the safe and took the key with him.

Hopefully 5th time lucky tomorrow!

Monday, 16 August 2010

London Loves Lunchtimes: 2-13 August: From the Houses of Parliament to St P...

London Loves Lunchtimes: 2-13 August: From the Houses of Parliament to St P...: "A fortnight ago I found out that with immediate notice I was going to be working full-time in London. I was naturally both excited and nervo..."

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The State We're In

"The people have spoken and we don't know what they've said"

- Ed Miliband
We are used to results in Britain. We are used to winners and losers - glorious victory or heroic defeat. That is why nobody, especially not the politicians themselves, is sure what to make of the results of the 2010 UK General Election. Six months ago the Conservatives were expected to walk the election and win a massive majority - all they had to do it seemed was to turn up and they'd win. Then Nick Clegg was being lauded as the new Churchill after a good performance in the first TV debate and some predicted that the Liberal Democrats might even win. Labour were expected to suffer a humiliating defeat and many high-profile MPs were expected to have a 'Portilio moment' and loose their seats.

But none of the above predictions happened. Instead every party lost, yet they also won. The Conservatives lost because despite Lord Ashcroft's millions, despite backing from nearly all of the UK's media, despite Labour's 13 years in government, despite Gordon Brown's unpopularity, despite the expenses scandal and despite a supposed national apathy with politics they did not win the outright majority that they expected. Yet they won because they gained 97 new MPS and got more votes and seats than any other party. Labour lost because after 13 years in power they lost their majority in the House of Commons. Yet they won because they didn't do as badly as was predicted and the Conservatives did not do as well as was predicted. The Liberal Democrats lost because despite the 'Nick Clegg effect' they had 5 fewer seats than in 2005. Yet they won because more people voted Liberal Democrat than ever before and they are now in unique but agonising position where they hold the balance of power - do they accept David Cameron's deal or support a losing Government?

It is a tough choice because whatever the Liberal Democrats decide it will affect the whole country. If they back the Conservatives and the Tories pass through unpopular cuts to public services then they will bear the brunt of a large part of the public's anger. If they take Gordon Brown's carrot of electoral reform then they will be propping up a losing government and not delivering the change that they promised to the 6.8 million people who voted for them. Perhaps the best thing for them to do would be the most Liberal Democrat thing to do - sit on the fence and don't back either party. Because if the Conservatives form a minority government and start trying to pass unpopular cuts to public services then there will soon be another General Election and the outcome may be very different. Indeed, some have predicted that because of the cuts to public services that will be made, the party that forms a government may be out of power for a generation.

But whatever happens there is still hope for Britain. Turnout at the election was higher than expected, electoral reform is now a serious national issue and everyone seems to be interested in politics again, which can only be a good thing. For years apathy has ruled Britian, this is dangerous because it gives minority parties like the BNP the chance to influence people. Thankfully we are finally realising that politics is important and it is an issue for all of us. This is important because it is only when this happens that ordinary people can start having an influence in politics again and make the politicians do what they're paid to do - work for us.

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Brown vs Cameron (vs Clegg) Round One

“The purpose of politics is to give people tools to make the most of their lives.”

- Bill Clinton
And so it begins. Today Gordon Brown confirmed the worst-kept secret in British politics by announcing that the next General Election will take place on Thursday May 6 2010. All political parties will now spend the next 4 weeks trying to convince us that they will be the ones who will give us the tools to help us to make the most of our lives.

For the first time in a generation the Conservatives are favourites and they certainly have the financial backing - notably the millions from tax-exile Lord Ashcroft, enabling them to spend millions on advertising. They also have the backing of The Sun, the best selling newspaper in Britain, who infamously 'won it'  for the Tories with their anti-Labour headlines and stories in 1992.

But it's not just the traditional mediums of billboards, leaflets and tabloid newspapers that will influence the result of the General Election. For the first time the online world is set to play a big role as voters discuss the pros and cons of all parties across the social media of Twitter and Facebook. And in the 21st Century it's not just media-savvy 20 and 30-somethings who use the web to discuss and debate the issues of the day. Political parties are aware of the influence that sites like netmums.com can have and political activists have even been rumoured to have tried to infiltrate the message boards of such sites to try and influence voters.

The 2010 General Election will also see TV debates for the first time. An idea borrowed from American politics in an attempt to help reconnect the nation with politics again. Whether it will work will remain to be seen - the many rules and regulations are likely to prevent any real excitement over these political debates. But if  X-Factor, I'm a Celebrity... and a whole host of other reality TV shows have told us anything, it's that people love to vote - if you give them enough encouragement to do it. Perhaps Ant and Dec should be hosting the election - "If you don't want your favourite politician to loose the chance to win the keys to the Number 10 house then vote now. Gordon really doesn't want to leave the house. Remember every vote really does count!" 

Whilst they won't be enlisting the help of two Geordie TV presenters, because the election is set to be so tight, all political parties are likely to try almost anything to get us to vote for them. The Conservatives may be ahead in polls but it doesn't mean that a Tory victory is inevitable. The Lib Dems were once seen as wasted vote but the prospect of a hung parliament means that they may have important role to play in the next parliament. But at the end of the day it will be up to us to decide. That's the beauty of democracy and that's something that we seem to have lost touch with. Hopefully the prediction that this election will be genuinely close will help to get us, the apathetic docile masses, to be interested in politics again. Because whatever the outcome of the next election, a national reconnection with politics can only be a good thing.

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Friday, 26 March 2010

My Dreams of Being in a Band

"If you don't have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?"

- Happy Talk, South Pacific

1990 World Cup was when I fell in love with football - as a young boy I was captivated by the emotion and the magnitude of the achievements of Linker, Gazza, Platt and co. I called Chris Waddle a dickhead when he missed the final penalty in the semi-final against West Germany, screwed up my poster of the England team and cried. Essentially I had the experience of being a football fan condensed into a few weeks. From that summer onwards I wanted to be a footballer. Like many young boys I played football all the time and believed that this would be what I would be doing for the rest of my life.

I wasn't exactly a child prodigy when it came to the Beautiful Game - a few seasons at left-back for the 3rd Ipswich Boy's Brigade Junior team was the highlight of my footballing career. I can't remember much from the games, only that I tended to kick the ball out of play when it came near me. What I enjoyed most were not the games themselves but the act of being a footballer. I felt immense pride in pulling on my team's shirt, great enjoyment in singing songs in the minibus on the way to and from games, pleasure in banging the mud out of my football boots and satisfaction in admiring my mud-stained legs in the bath at home. Then I broke my arm and missed my final season playing for the team.

I continued to play football whenever I could but never again played for a representative side. My passion for football was as strong as ever but then I found a new love in life - music. If Italia '90 was my football awakening then the 1995 Brit Awards marked my musical epiphany. Blur cleaned up and what struck me about them was how much fun it looked like they were having - from that moment on I wanted to be in a band. The following Saturday I went out and purchased my first album - Parklife - bought on cassette from WH Smith for £10. I started off by listening to the hits but the rest of the album quickly grew on me and I was hooked. Not only had I discovered a great album but I had found what felt like a key to a whole new world - the world of the music fan. Melody Maker, NME, Steve Lamacq and indie club discos all became important influences in my life.

Like the child who dreams of being a footballer because he plays football all the time, I dreamed of being in a band because I listened to and read about music all the time. Whilst I couldn't play a musical instrument I felt that if I listened to as much different music as possible then I was bound to absorb some of it. Whilst I wanted to write songs, what I dreamed about most was actually being in a band. I watched Starshaped (early 90s film about blur) repeatedly and what I loved the most were not the live performances themselves, but the footage of the band just being a band. Singing on the tour bus, messing around at service stations, jumping into rivers together - that was I wanted to do.

My icon for who I wanted to be when I was 16 was Alex James. I studied every word of his tales of drunkenness and Soho life in the mid-90s - it was the template for how I wanted to live my life. I had 2 pictures of Alex on my bedroom wall - one was the above one of him looking like the coolest person in the world, the other was of him drinking champagne out of a bottle. It was the champagne one I liked best - highlighting how I wanted to be in a band as opposed to wanting to be a musician. I first saw blur live at V97 and my first thought was 'oh my god I can see Alex James'. Damon was great, leading the performance, but Alex was faultlessly cool throughout.

Three years later I finally made the leap into the world of the band when I started creating music with my 2 closest friends. I played keyboards because they seemed like the easiest instrument to play - all the notes are in order and you can create interesting sounds relatively easily. Like many unsuccessful bands we spent far to much time arguing about unimportant things - band names, what type of record label we'd sign to, would we write credits on our first album sleeve - than doing the important things - learning how to play our instruments better and writing more songs together. Looking back it was because I was trying to live the dream rather than make the dream a reality. The band disbanded after just over a year and while I spent the next few years dreaming that we'd re-start our musical careers, it never happened.

Last year I found the original 4-track recordings of our demos. Listening back to them I'm immensely proud of what we did create - 10 years on the songs haven't aged and if anything they sound better than I could remember. It's because of this that I regret that we never pursued it further - if we had applied ourselves better, practiced harder and more often, then something might have become of it. The Stone Roses and Blur are two of the best bands of the last 25 years and are packed full of once-in-a-generation musicians but they only achieved their success by being incredibly dedicated and practicing constantly.

In the early 2000s my brother was the drummer in a pub-rock band and his band did practice hard - to the point where they could perform most of the pub-rock classics to perfection. I was frustrated with them because they had the talent that I lacked but did not have the ambition that I had. Looking back they only had the talent because they practiced at it. Still I was proud to be associated with them and took great pride in loading and unloading his drum kit from the car before and after gigs and practice sessions. However small it was, I enjoyed the 'I'm with the band' feeling that all roadies must get - that's probably why they hang about on stage so much.

My brother's band eventually went their separate ways and he gave up drumming - something I have had a go at him about ever since. Last November he finally said that he'd take up drumming again if I learnt to play the guitar - something that I had never managed after 2 unsuccessful attempts in my teens. So I bought the best value beginner's guitar on the market and now I practice whenever I have some spare time. I can only play few chords clearly, but it's more than I could do before. Whether I get to the standard that I could actually play in a band will depend on how much time I devote to it but just playing a musical instrument again will do for now. It won't stop me dreaming though.

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Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Why I Write

"We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act but a habit."
 - Aristotle. 

I started this blog in 2006 when I was halfway through a Communication Studies degree and wanted to write for the web. I took a module which was taught by a Cambridge web design company and called, appropriately, 'Writing for the Web',  and this blog was born. My last post was over 2 years ago when I was unemployed and had just lost my first paid writing job - I was unsure of my future but used my frustrations with the job interview process as a creative force for writing something that many job applicants could relate to. I was fortunate enough that my endeavours paid off and I got another writing job - just like my first, it was for a website. While I'm incredibly grateful to be get paid for something I like doing, I seem to have lost the enjoyment of writing and have lost touch with why I wanted to write in the first place.

Like many writers I write because I want to communicate what I think about the world and writing is the most effective means I have found of doing this. I would love to be a musician  - to write thought provoking songs that have an emotional impact on people. I would also quite like to be an artist and to be able to communicate without rules. But I'm not skilled enough for either. However, I can write and I haven't been doing it enough lately.

When I was an aspiring writer I dreamed of writing for NME or a Sunday broadsheet and writing the odd best selling non-fiction book about society - the brand of writing I would specialise in would be what I call social commentary. But you don't need to have a contract to be able to record, create or write anything. The web has democracised creativity. Anyone can record a song, create a piece of art or write an article and publish it to an audience of millions. That's why I was so interested in writing for the web in the first place.

The best way for a writer to improve is to read lots, write lots and share their writing with other writers. I haven't had much time for any of these lately and as a result have lost confidence in my writing ability. I have also lacked inspiration - nothing has driven me to force myself to write something, anything. But I have missed writing creatively and recognise that is something that I need to do.

I think of the writers who inspire me most and I can only marvel at the dedication they had to their craft - they all became excellent writers because they wrote all the time and were completely obsessed by it. I love the passion and sheer bloody mindedness of Charles Bukowski who never compromised his artistic integrity. I love the creativity, horror and dark humour of Irvine Welsh, who for me is the best fiction writer of the last 25 years. But for sheer writing ability, structure and effectiveness I admire George Orwell - creator of 2 masterpieces of fiction and countless excellent observations of the world he lived in - from The Road to Wigan Pier to Down and Out in Paris and London. For me, there is no better writer.

Poetry is not a form of writing I have particularly explored but Paul Sarrington (a writing friend of mine) is, in my opinion, a very good poet. I would like to end this article with one of his poems about writers:
I’m a writer.
Writers write,
Fighters fight,
Losers fight,
Fighters lose,
Losers win,
Winners fight,
Fighters write,
Writers fight.

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Sunday, 3 February 2008

Temporarily Vacant

“I don't work 'cause I don't have to, I don't have to work there's no work to do.”
Nite Club, The Specials.
Ah, the joys of doing nothing. Get up when you like, get dressed when you like, drink when you like, do whatever you like. There is much to say for being unemployed; not working does everyone the world of good – that’s why weekends and holidays were invented.

All you workers out there are invariably suffering from one or more of the following ailments: tiredness, overweight due to poor quality lunch, microwave dinners and lack of exercise, and bored because you never have time to do what you want to do. Not working gives you the chance to have as many hours sleep as you bloody well like, spend more time cooking a meal than it takes to eat it, and doing everything else that you have been putting off for months.

Sounds great but there are a few problems with the being a new member of the UK’s 1.65 million unemployed. Firstly, not having a job essentially means that you are your own boss. Whilst this is undoubtedly a good thing, it is quite likely that your first decision as your own boss will be to give yourself the day/week/month off. Why bother doing all the things you’ve been wanting to do today when you can sit on the sofa and drink beer and eat crisps instead?

Secondly, once you’ve got off your lazy arse and worked your way through your list of things to do, doing nothing suddenly becomes a bit boring. All of a sudden working and all the pains that it may bring seems very appealing. And of course the most appealing thing is being paid for your labour. Not working means not earning, so before you get to the point where you have to sell your kidney on the internet, it is time to look for work.

So there you are ready and willing to return to the world of work and the rigours of job hunting. You have a quick look and there’s nothing there; thousands of jobs, but nothing suitable for you – depressing. So you have a better look and find a few promising vacancies – exciting. You then wait for weeks and hear nothing from the jobs you have applied for – depressing. And then it happens – the scariest and most exciting part of the job application process – the job interview.

Freshly cut, shaved, showered, laundered and polished; you arrive ahead of time at the mystical address of the interview. You are promptly greeted by a banal greeting such as ‘thanks for coming’, before being ushered into a room where your fate will be decided.

It is hard to know what goes through the mind of an interviewer but surely the only thing they should be thinking is ‘can he do the job?’ To determine this they have the habit of asking awkward questions such as ‘you’ve told us about your strengths, now tell us about your weaknesses’. What are they expecting you to say? How about ‘yes my weakness is that I am a compulsive liar, everything that I have told you in the last 30 minutes is not true’. It sums up the unnecessary inconvenience of the job application process.

At the end of the interview the candidate is asked if he has any questions. Perhaps he should say ‘yes you’ve told me about the strengths of the company, now tell me about your weaknesses’.

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Sunday, 29 July 2007

Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover

They say don’t judge a book by its cover; so why do the Harry Potter books have separate child and adult covers?

The phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard series has meant that the Harry Potter debate is no longer relevant. The books are now read by such a large audience that they have become as much a part of contemporary popular British culture as Big Brother.

The debate was that Harry Potter is clearly a children’s book and therefore should only be read by children. ‘Aah, but adults can read it too!’ cried the slightly embarrassed legal drinking age fans of the series. This in itself was a baffling statement; because of course adults can read children’s books. An adult can read Spot Says Woof perfectly easily but it doesn’t make it OK for them to shamelessly display it in public. ‘Well, Harry Potter’s quite dark you know’ they responded. As if to legitimise its adult readership, each book is heralded as being ‘the darkest one yet’. Of course this is all relative – get a Harry Potter fan to read a chapter of American Psycho and them let them say which one is darker.

However, the merits of reading Harry Potter are no longer debatable. Despite a large part of its (mainly young) audience seeing the series as an escape to another world and a symbol of individuality; it is conversely a symbol of conformity. This is why so many readers of the book proudly display their copy of the novel in public. There they sit, on trains or on park benches, proudly holding copies of their new book, like a teenage boy wearing his club’s new home shirt. It is a statement that says ‘I am part of something popular, I am part of something that is now, I am part of IT’.

So why are there separate adult and child covers for the book? The reason for there being alternative covers is, quite frankly, baffling. Yet at the same time it is a stroke of marketing genius. The buyers of the adult cover are, unsurprisingly, adults; keen to display to the surrounding public that what they are reading is an acceptable adult’s book. This of course, totally misses the point.

Everyone knows that it is a children’s book and almost everyone (including this once cynical writer) accepts that it’s perfectly OK for adults to read the novel. Yet the marketing people at Bloomsbury know that the general public cannot help but to judge someone/something on its appearance and this is why the adult covers are published. So buyers of the adult cover are arguably buying the book for its status as much as they are for its content. The very fact that the adult cover may actually outsell the children’s edition says something about our society. It says that it seems that millions of people, quite literally, do judge a book by its cover.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Music as a Commodity

The latest indie rock compilation has declared itself ‘the only album you'll need to buy this year'. So just where does music stop being an art form and start becoming a commodity?

Art and commerce have a very intimate yet separate relationship with each other. Like illicit lovers there is a feeling of wrongdoing, yet they rely on each other for their own existence. Artists pour their creative heart and soul into making an object of art; yet that object (and the future creative life of the artist) is essentially worthless unless someone wants to buy it.

Essentially creativity is measured in terms of commerce; for artists it is the monetary value of their work; for musicians it is record sales. Without a product to sell the music industry wouldn’t be able to function. Without record companies to finance their musical creations, bands would not be able to exist; not in a full-time rock ‘n’ roll way, anyway. Therefore a delicate balance has always been struck between the artists and the companies that bankroll their creativity. Artists naturally want creative freedom and likewise record companies want a large return for their investment.

Now the internet is changing that balance as artists are free to give their music away and promote themselves online. A popular example of the MySpace music revolution is Lilly Allen; yet she was only able to properly play the game by signing for Parlophone, a major record label. Today it seems like everyone has a copy of the Lilly Allen album; her modern and cool take on catchy pop music appeals to NME teenagers and Q reading dads alike.

In the recent and excellent final episode of the Seven Ages Of Rock series, Noel Gallagher admitted that it wasn’t until ‘the squares’ started buying (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? that he became seriously rich. ‘The squares’ are the people who buy one record a year. Lilly Allen has sold so many copies of her debut album because her music has appealed beyond the music magazine reading fans; last year her album was the one that people who only buy one album a year bought.

For the single album buying public there is a hole in the market. If they just buy one album by the year’s biggest “alternative” act then they end up missing out on all of the songs that they hear on mobile phone and car adverts. This hole is filled by the compilation album; the major record label executive’s wet dream: a collection of hits that is directly aimed at the Chris Moyles listening masses.

The latest in a long line of indie rock compilation albums is the simply titled Just Great Songs. Now there’s a product that promises to do what it says on the tin; a collection of 40 songs that all the family can listen to. On the promotional advert Jamie Theakston enthusiastically exclaims that it’s ‘the only album you’ll need to buy this year’. Not that this is a collection of great songs, but it’s the only album that you (the annual solo album buyer) will need to buy this year. Essentially it is a perfect example of music being a commodity; something that is produced on a large scale in exchange for money. Therefore by packaging a song with a group of others as an item for monetary exchange, it ceases to be a work of art. Compilation albums therefore represent the ultimate example of the commodification of music.

But their large sales mean increased funds for the artists on the album, thus meaning that they can carry on creating music that will be potentially loved by an audience of millions. And at the end of the day that’s what every musician wants. 99% of the unsigned bands on MySpace Music aren’t on there so that they can give their music away for free. Like Lilly, they hope that their music will reach a large audience and they’ll get a record deal. Being on a compilation album might not be an aim, but it does signify that you’ve made it.


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About Me

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Website manager, food lover, frequent runner (currently training for the Edinburgh Marathon), occasional blogger, even more occasional guitar player.