Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Tourniquet in a manger: An unusual setting for a cracking Christmas

Drug addict Bubbles: May or may not have been one of the three wise men I encountered

The walk from Brixton Tube station to my home down the road never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Whenever I journey down the high street I am amused by the juxtaposition of two groups hawking contradictory yet equally omnipotent wares to a crowd of commuters who would rather be left well alone.

These commodities? Religion and drugs.

First you encounter a megaphone-wielding, sandwichboard-sheathed preacher extolling the power of God and the futility of life (or just repeating the word "redemption" over and over).

Then, just as these noises ebb away, a cacophony of whisper-shouts* uttered by dealers promoting skunk outside KFC begins to flick at your ears.

Each opposing promotions posse seems oblivious to the heads-down lapels-up attitude adopted by everyone in the vicinity and carry on regardless.

But rather than a nuisance, I bracket these rather awkward throat-ramming sales tactics as a characteristic 'liveliness' that can usually be kept at arms length by moving speedily on.

But last Friday the liveliness was unavoidable.

My girlfriend and I were finally staging our flat-warming party, a whole four months after we'd moved in. To give it a sense of contempraneity we also christened it an 'end-of-term' bash and a 'Christmas' do but in truth we just wanted an excuse to get pissed.

We have a one-bedroom place situated among a fairly new block of twenty similar apartments and as such felt inclined to warn the other residents of our forthcoming event. This we did by distributing hand-written notes cunningly disguised as invites that very morning.

Surprisingly, one couple actually turned up with wine in hand but soon left as the crush of bodies escalated.

Flash forward to 4am. As the dregs of the party drained away I shoveled all the rubbish I could find into a bin-liner and went outside to the dumpsters.

As I approached the double-doors guarding the big bins I noticed a light shining from within.

I opened the door to see a guy and two women setting up all the paraphernalia required for a spot of serious socialising.

Which specific drug they were about to enjoy I couldn't say (as in I don't know whether it was crack cocaine, heroin or some potent mixture of the two, not that I'm too squeamish to utter such names) but they were using spoons and were most likely addicted to it.

I surmise you must really love something if you're willing to share an intimate space with rotting food and broken bottles - at a time more disposed to sleeping in a comfy bed - just to score a hit.

Taken aback, I said a startled hello and, in a clear case of carry-on regardless (echoing the dealers and preachers of the high street), proceeded to try and open the lid of the dumpster.

Soon realising my doing so would spill their well-prepared items on the floor I stopped and looked kind of lost.

Then: "Give 'em here," one of the girls offered, "we'll put them away after we're finished."

And so a strange exchange ensued where it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to be assisted with the disposal of trash by a trio of addicts who were probably only being obliging so they could get high sooner.

We uttered a few words by way of conversation (I resisted the temptation to ask the knee-jerk "Having a good night?" though). When I tried to hand over a semi-full can of lager the woman returned it to me with the guidance to empty its contents down the drain, ever mindful of the destruction such fluid can cause to a mountain of solidified garbage.

I found her environmental awareness endearing.

"You from up north?" The other woman asked.

"Yeah. Stockport," I answered, warming to this bizarre interchange.

"Me too," she said. "I come from Preston."

"Oh really? My dad worked in Preston for a long time."

"Yeah. Bit shit in't it."

"I believe so," I laughed. With that it was time to leave them to it.

But a thought flashed in my mind: how are you supposed to end an encounter as unusual as this? With a sort of disarming, please-don't-kill-me-I-won't-report-you-promise: 'Lovely to meet you?' Or a buddying-up kind of self-parodying jostle: 'Don't do anything I wouldn't do?'


What I said instead, while slowly closing the door behind me, was the cringing: "Have a good time!"

It was like I was a parent gawkily telling my offspring to enjoy a new computer game I have absolutely no idea how to play, as I edge out of the living room to avoid further embarrassment in front of their friends.

The whole thing gave me a glimpse of the kind of feeling I'll get when I actually am a parent. And that thought scared me more than anything else.

*I feel that while appearing paradoxical it perfectly encapsulates the sound emitted. Namely something mumbled at an ironically large volume.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Odyssey to college proves fruitful – in more ways than one

The moment I chose the capital as the location for my postgraduate studies I knew I would soon be doing much more travelling.

Even though I’d never spent more than an afternoon in London (usually for a match at Wembley) the size of the brown blob representing the city on Google maps gave me an accurate impression of its scope.

By bus or by train, by walking or Tubing, I anticipated that ‘getting around’ would take up a lot of my time. What I hadn’t bargained for was just how much.

I live in Brixton and go to Goldsmiths College in New Cross. Two spots in South London which are relatively close in the scheme of things. Yet it still takes me up to an hour and two buses to journey in. (Incidentally, it took me a couple of weeks to work out the most effective route after had recommended I take something like three trains, seven buses, five Tube lines and a 30 minute walk to do the same trip. I’m told it has a habit of throwing out such ridiculous suggestions.)

Spending two hours a day sitting in isolation being transported to my destination is something I’ve never had to do before – school, college, and undergrad university were all within easy walking distance. And the prospect of such an arduous daily migration was not an idea I relished.

But rather than eating valuable time out of my week I’ve found the voyage of enforced fixation the perfect opportunity to do a lot of the things I all too often put off when at home with a healthy internet connection. Quite simply, when I had other options.

As an aspiring journalist doing a masters in the subject this list is fairly long. I must read the national and local newspapers everyday; I must practice my shorthand (yes it’s still required, to my delight) everyday; and I must read the assigned text books (including the usual one written by the course leader) everyday.

And if all these practical applications were not enough I have recently discovered that bus journeys are also a fertile ground for blog material.

Take an incident last week. Immersed in the scrawlings of shorthand on the top deck of the 177 at 10 in the morning a voice boomed out behind me: “Oi!”

I ignored it.


I ignored it again.

“Excuse me?” he changed tack.

I turned around to see a clearly inebriated gentleman peering in my direction.

“You got a light?” he asked.

“I don’t smoke, sorry,” came my automatic reply before turning back using the logic that ‘If I can’t see you, I can’t hear you.’

Moments later: “Hold this a second brother.”

The guy had walked over to my seat and was thrusting a recently-opened can of Red Stripe into my hand. Reluctant to share in his pre-noon party, I held back from taking it.

“C’mon man, just one second.” His plea mixed with my conceptions of social politeness convinced; I accepted the lager.

He waddled downstairs while I consulted the text book.

“Yo! Has anyone got a light?” The guy had decided to broaden his quest for cigarette ignition and was now petitioning the poor passengers on the ground floor.

The next ten minutes seemed like an eternity as I tried to distance myself from the can – fearful of its possible illegality – while trying to keep it from spilling – fearful of its intoxicated owner below. I decided the best idea was to delicately balance it between my feet.

Intermittently, I could hear him ask new boarders for a spark and tell the congregation that he had a “mate upstairs keeping his beer safe.” I had hoped he might keep our little arrangement fairly secret.

When my stop finally arrived I made my way downstairs and gestured for the drunkard to take it off me.

“Cheers brother,” he said through a beaming smile. (I could only imagine the looks of disgust on everyone else’s faces.) Then he held out his fist for a parting knuckle touch.

“You’re alright man. ‘Ave a good day,” were his final words in what was the weirdest interchange with a stranger I’ve ever had. It was also the most peculiar - and most guilty - sense of satisfaction I’ve ever gained from giving someone in need a ‘helping hand’.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The fun in Brixton

Below is a little narrative from one of the more bizarre encounters in my life. It demonstrates how looking for a house in a new city is always an adventure.

“Do you like the smell of fish? Raw meat? The stink of rotting veg?” a round of verbal bullets sprayed from the woman’s mouth with an intensity intended to petrify. Her face contorted to such a level of disgust that anyone passing by might have thought I’d just declared an admiration for Alesha Dixon’s critiquing approach. I had in fact made the mistake of asking whether a two-bed flat advertised in the agency window was still available for rent. “‘Cause that’s what you’ll have to put up with every time you step awt your front door; a God awful stench,” she concluded as I dived for cover behind the nearest brochure.

As a postgrad fresher and London novice under pressure to find an abode I was a walking pay cheque ripe for the cashing. But Collette the Letting Agent was apparently oblivious to this. Rather than the hard sell she was giving me a hard time. (“I don’t bullshit ya,” was her preferred way of putting it.) And yet bizarrely her disregard for usual salesman spiel was refreshing to the point of sparking a curiosity within me: I wanted to see this horrible flat.

“Oh right,” she responded clearly taken aback by my ludicrous decision. “Well, err, I shouldn’t really do this but…” She threw a set of keys over to me. “There’s only me in here and I can’t leave, so you can just show yourself round,” she said while offering directions with a flick of her index finger.

Throughout my brisk search for shelter I had been treated to a kaleidoscope of customer courtesy from all manner of would-be letters. From feeling like I was auditioning for a role as an extra in a house share (“We’ll let you know our decision”) to being driven round nearly all of South London at a moment’s notice, the styles employed have been as varied as theories on Derren Brown’s Lotto trick.

And Collette’s renegade method was the one I found most endearing.

As it happens the flat was let down more by its dilapidated state and reportedly reluctant landlord (“What do you mean will he do it up? He already has”) than the exotic aromas coming from the market on its doorstep. But Janine’s style got me thinking; it sure would’ve been a whole lot easier if that Dubai-based landlord I found on Gumtree had trusted me to look round his flat on my own too. Rather than demand a scanned Western Union receipt be emailed as proof of finance and seriousness of intent before he would fly over to guide me himself (“I’ve had my fair share of time-wasters”). Oh well, I guess some people just aren’t very accommodating.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Premiership Prophecies

My thoughts on all twenty teams as well as predictions on who will win what, who will lose what and which item off a McDonald’s menu each club represents.

Arsenal – With a totemic striker and a seven-hearted defender off to join the revolution in the North it’s finally all over for Arsenal’s Champions League run, right? Wrong. There will be no royal beheadings at the Emirates this season. With the sublimely talented Eduardo back (and looking sharp in pre-season), the phenomenal impact of Andre Arshavin for whole season, and the signing of a steely-eyed Thomas Vermaelen the Gunners first team looks as full of potential as ever. The likes of Ramsay, Gibbs and Wilshire will make further strides too, inevitably becoming integral parts of the passing machine. It was a horror tackle on Eduardo which shattered his ankle and their title dreams the last time they made a serious push for the title and much will depend on injuries this season, with the return dates of Nasri and Rosicky crucial. But that charge came at a time when everyone was writing them off, much like now, and I feel this season could turn out to be a similar rebuttal.

Final Position: 3rd, FA Cup winners

McMenu: Grilled chicken salad – looks nice but not too filling

Aston Villa – For much of last season it looked like Martin O’Neill’s side would be the one to finally break into the Top Four vault but their end of season plummet highlighted their Cheryl Cole thin squad. Stewart Downing will replace Barry nicely when he returns from injury and Fabian Delph looks a great coup – indeed the last time O’Neill took a large punt on a young English player with only a season in the public consciousness the pay off was instant and spectacular. Whether Delph makes the step up as seamlessly as Young will factor largely into how their campaign pans out. Bringing in Habib Beye has partly plugged the big Scandinavan gap that emerged with Mellberg’s departure and Laurson’s retirement, but we have to wonder whether a defender with Newcastle on their CV will be enough. I predict another season of fluid, attacking football to ruffle a few Big Four peacock feathers but without quality buys at the front and back of the team they will once again fall short.

Final Position: 7th

McMenu: Fries – been around for ages but always needs something more

Birmingham – A strange feeling of anticlimax surrounded Birmingham’s promotion in May, the kind inevitably brought about by years of yo-yoing between divisions (been there, done that, bought the replica shirt) and I worry about their desire to scrap for survival with every sinew. They were unlucky last time round when a remarkable surge in form from Fulham lead to final-day relegation and I feel a similar nail-biting showdown awaits them this year. Ultimately, a lack of any real star quality will see them unable to pick up enough points.

Final Position: 18th

McMenu: Apple slices – no one wants them

Blackburn – For the board at Blackburn last season was like a big money poker game. Employing Ince was a risk that could have worked brilliantly but could also have cost them relegation and untold millions – much like a bluff after the flop in high stakes Texas Hold’em. When immediate gains failed to materialise and tension grew they lost their nerve and retired to the security of betting with a made hand rather than going all in with nothing. Installing Sam Allardyce was a failsafe plan but it also style-proofed their football for the foreseeable future. The game is all about percentages for Big Sam, as any good poker player knows. On both the green felt and green turf relying on statistics secures you winning steadily if not spectacularly. The goal-gorger Kalinic could be a great find and should provide a focal point for a team of organised grafters. A season of rhythmical progress beckons.

Final Position: 11th

McMenu: Quarter-pounder with cheese – full of non-descript substance

Bolton – Despite saving the club from relegation – and Little Sam’s hilariously woeful attempt at impersonating his ‘Big’ brother – in 07/08 and building further to secure Premiership safety comfortably last season Gary Megson isn’t held in the highest esteem at the Reebok. A feud between fans and manager arose after a less than impressive second half away at Blackburn and post-match booing wasn’t something to let slide for Megson, who seems easily irritable. Sensible, though, is the word that resonates most strongly with a man who consistently buys PL veterans to create a solid team spine. Must hope Johan Elmander can do a better £8m striker act, they can’t rely on Kevin Davies repeating his anomalous 08/09 goal-scoring heroics.

Final Position: 13th

McMenu: Plain burger – cheap and nasty

Burnley – That 30% of Burnley residents are match-going Clarets is a truly astonishing fact and having the entire town’s vociferous support throughout the campaign could prove all important in inspiring the players to superhuman efforts, much akin to Stoke’s Britannia success. They may well be about to embark on their maiden PL voyage but with wins against Fulham, Arsenal and Tottenham, as well as a victory on penalties over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in the Carling Cup last season it’s hard to imagine repeated matches against these kind of teams will prove daunting. Owen Coyle is one of those fiery-voiced Scots in the Ferguson/Moyes mould who commands respect from his charges and if he’s half as effective as either of those archetypes Burnley will stay up without a worry.

Final Position: 16th

McMenu: Mozarella Dippers - new and quite popular

Chelsea – They have a new enigmatic foreign manager, without a strong grasp of English or experience of working in this country, in charge. They are looking to strike back after a season of bitter disappointment, having been knocked out of the Champions League at the death. Their strong squad of players has been added to over the summer with only one medium money signing previously untested in the Premiership. Are you getting a feeling of déjà vu too? I could have written exactly the same thing last year and the same questions arise. While Chelsea’s power and talent is unquestionable their temperament over the course of a season can be. Can Ancellotti succeed where Scolari failed and lead the dressing room? Can he deliver the consistency of performance required? The fact he only brought the Serie A title to Milan once but the European Cup twice in his eight-year reign suggests the big stages of the knock-out tournament may be where he, and his team, really shines.

Final Position: 2nd

McMenu: McChicken Premiere – big and full of quality

Everton – It always seems like Everton succeed in spite of things. Be it injuries, enforced transfer frugality or injuries they manage to prosper and challenge the wealthier members of the PL elite at the top of the table. Their success must be attributed to David Moyes’s – a man I tip as Ferguson’s eventual successor – skill as a man-manager, able, as he is, to distil the very best out of his players. Who’d have thought that Phil Jagielka and Jolean Lescott would be commanding England places and big-money interest when Moyes signed them from Sheffield United and Wolves respectively? The return of Yakubu and Arteta from injury will provide a big boost around September time but Everton look light at the back, the foundation for their formidable mid-season spurt, until Jagielka comes back in November. It looks inevitable they will lose Lescott, in January if not now, so a replacement will be essential. Other teams’ progress will lead to a static Everton dropping down a few places.

Final Position: 8th

McMenu: Chicken nuggets – well established but needs some sauce

Fulham – For my money Roy Hodgson should have claimed the manager of the year gong for his remarkable achievement with Fulham last season. Taking a misfit team of has-beens and never-weres and morphing them into an accomplished outfit capable of out-playing any team in the division when at their best is on par with any transforming skills exhibited by the eponymous heroes in Michael Bay’s recent blockbuster. The intelligence of the manager is evident throughout his side and they play with a verve and vigour that is refreshing to see. He may have unearthed another Norweigen gem with Bjorn Helge Riise and Damien Duff will be a nice addition – you get the impression the Hodgson effect will prove invigorating for the one-time PL champion – but with Europa League commitments, such is their squad depth, domestic form will surely suffer.

Final Position: 9th

McMenu: Sweet Chilli Chicken Deli – full of interesting ingredients

Hull City – It was amazing how quickly my appreciation of Hull’s forthright football turned to loathing of the man who propagated it. But such was the ugliness of Phil Brown’s egocentricity the shift was impossible and the way Hull limply accepted defeat to Manchester United’s second string in the last game of the season, and Brown’s ensuing karaoke session, only compounded matters. By the second half of the season Hull’s surprise attacking element had vanished and they will need to find another way to win in their second outing. Getting better players might be a start but that’s easier said than done as the ever growing list of rejections exemplifies. A real goal threat is essential but I doubt Negredo is the answer.

Final position: 19th

McMenu: Carrot sticks – made a surprise entrance but quickly discarded

Liverpool – The reason most Liverpool lobbyists are voicing as the one why their team will finally win the title is the exact same reason why they won’t. ‘Gerrard and Torres’ has been uttered ad nauseam by those tipping the Merseysiders to break their Premiership duck, with understandable motive – between them the duo have scored 65 league goals since the Spaniard’s move. But there is simply too much reliance on the pair – without them the goal threat is almost non existent. The back-up strike force of N’Gog and El Zhar mustered a total of two goals in 29 appearances last year and there is a distinct lack of top-end quality all over the team beyond the first eleven. The loss of Alonso will be irrevocable, not only for his skill as a generator of attacks but also as a magnet for drawing opponent red cards – a staggering six given for fouls against him last year. (It was piquing to hear Benitez question Alonso’s loyalty during Madrid’s pursuit after he’d vigorously tried to replace the player with Barry the previous summer.) I can’t see a repeat of the late comeback goals, collection of penalty awards, and number of opposition red cards and without these Liverpool will struggle. Throw in Benitez’s erratic temperament and transfer policy and not only will the title wait continue they will slip further behind the eventual winners.

Final position: 4th

McMenu: Apple turnover – never comes first

Manchester city – The parade of fans (and people who happened to be walking past Eastlands at the time) put on camera by Sky Sports News to answer the leading question ‘Why can city win the league?’ were predictably laughable (since when do stadiums win football matches?) but their unbridled optimism is understandable. Yes, these fans have got giddy about the smallest of upturns in the past but never before have they been in such a position as they now find themselves. Hughes (the right manager to keep the millionaires in line) has bought proven Premiership performers and – despite the perceived splurge on strikers – has amassed a balanced squad both in terms of positions and ages. Should Lescott arrive, the defence – city’s Achilles heel for years – suddenly takes on a very solid appearance to mirror the frontline. There will be the inevitable comic meltdown at some stage in the season but on paper (the only guide we have for this unprecedented experiment for the moment) they look able to pick up wins anywhere.

Final position: 5th, Carling Cup winners

McMenu: Summer BBQ Beef – pretty fancy all of a sudden

Manchester United – The figure of 56 has been much mooted this close season. It’s marked out as the number of goals that Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez contributed to the team last year and one which will now be lacking with their departures. Yet while the loss of Ronaldo will be seismic – no player can come close to his ability to convert skilled showmanship into the solid product of goals – Tevez’s absence will be shrugged off without a worry. His name has merely been latched on to beef up the Portuguese's stats. When big players have left United have always motored on, not by replacing them like for like, but by morphing their method of play (after van Nistelrooy moved to Madrid United’s strike force became more fluid and interchangeable) and this time will be no different. Rooney will be colossal as the focal point, finally free to influence games as he should be and Berbatov will perform consistently and effectively. Youth will course through the team, with wing backs Fabio and Rafael as well as Macheda and Welbeck my picks for particular impact. Whether Hargreaves can manage to return from his cruelly chronic knee problems will be massively important, his talent at tirelessly harrying opponents is unique for the team. Much will also depend on Owen’s goal contribution but I wonder whether his arrival was based more on necessity than desire – Fergie’s claim of an over-priced transfer market papering over the chasms of club debt. The proximity to 19 titles will provide the inspiration for triumph.

Final Position: 1st

McMenu: Big Mac – the favourite for years

Portsmouth – Who actually plays for them anymore? The rapid exit of so many players (from big names to big lames) recalls the final days of the Woolworths chain and its ensuing rapid fire sale – everything must go. Pompey’s squad is thinner than the hair on Paul Hart’s head – and judging by the sheen on it in recent interviews that’s clearly saying something. What’s left is a team devoid of creativity and goal-scorers, worse still it’s lacking in any signs of spirit, a prerequisite for any team looking to fight off relegation. Last season the goals of Crouch and the sheer poorness of other teams kept them up – without these hope looks distinctly Awol. By the time Distin switches to Villa and Kranjcar to Sunderland come January it may well have disappeared completely.

Final position: 20th

McMenu: Small Fanta – goes down quickly

Stoke City – Last year Rory Delap’s long throw-ins provided endless goal opportunities for Stoke City and pundits with endless opportunities to say the word ‘trajectory’ for the first time in their lives. But Delap’s robot arms masked the real cause for the team’s potency – strength, organisation, and relentless work ethic not only makes the team incredibly difficult to create moves against but also wears down the opposition leaving them susceptible to attacks. It took a red card, 85 minutes, and all the members of Manchester United’s attacking quartet for the champions to break them down – to claim what Ferguson called their most important win of the season – and Pulis’s side will not be pushed over by anyone. Second-season syndrome will strike but won’t prove lethal.

Final Position: 15th

McMenu: Cheeseburger – fairly minging but gets the job done

Sunderland – The chaos of at the end Keane’s whirlwind tenure left Sunderland in tatters back in December and rest of their campaign felt like a waste recovery mission. With the amount of money made available for transfers profligacy reigned supreme and some of Keane’s buys were baffling, especially considering stance as a disregarder of ego – he never quite practised what he preached. Bruce has already shown his acuteness in the market and the installation of yet another United old boy (S’Bragia was a coach there) should provide the club with a period of stable improvement. Bent, unfathomably unwanted at Tottenham, is a fantastic signing guaranteed to grab them upwards of 15 PL goals. If Bruce can sort out their clueless defence they’re my tip for a top-half surprise package.

Final Position: 10th

McMenu: Strawberry Cornetto McFlurry – backed by big money, should do well

Tottenham – Harry Redknapp is a wily Premier League operator. Without doing anything too inventive after being instated at Spurs last October he brought positive results to the Lane, perhaps most impressively by solving the defensive riddle that befuddled many of his predecessors. He undoubtedly has a formula for success in this league and usually only splashes money on players he already knows well, which, due to his longevity, is a fairly extensive address book. With (a quietly assembled) quality strength in depth across the whole team and no European distractions (despite my better instincts I use this word because of the way the competition was treated by the club last term – surely it’s just the type of trophy Spurs should be gunning for) I can see them leapfrogging the more slender squads of Fulham, Aston Villa and Everton.

Final Position: 6th

McMenu: Double Sausage and Egg McMuffin – not good for your health

West Ham – It’s hard not to warm to Zola and the way he inspires his players to perform the game as he did, with a creativity free from the burden of boardroom turmoil. His confidence in promoting youth paid dividends last year and Noble, Collinson, Tomkins will improve further to become the heart of the side. Despite possessing the ox-like Carlton Cole they look lightweight up front and should he develop similar injury problems to Dean Ashton goals will be hard to come by. Another decent season of fluid football to entertain without much positional progress come May looks likely.

Final Position: 12th

McMenu: Fillet O’ Fish – prone to causing illness

Wigan – New man Martinez must worry that the Latics’ alarming dip in form last season, after obtaining 40 points early, might develop into one of those hangovers which come about after a serious night on the tiles – lasting longer than expected and becoming difficult to shake. His Swansea side played an admirably attractive game in the Championship but it was not enough to earn them a play-off place and I wonder whether we will see a repeat with Wigan; first-touch passing winning plaudits not points. Martinez is an exciting young manager and his appointment at this level is refreshing – he must now be given more time than another in a similar position this time last year. Despite departures he has inherited a decent squad to which he has added the prolific Jason Scotland but I fear it may take a season of consolidation before the manager can marry his style with results.

Final Position: 14th

McMenu: Little Chorizo Melt – experimental

Wolves – The Premiership doesn’t hold fond memories for Mick McCarthy. As manager of Sunderland during two record-breaking stints in the top flight he presided over just two wins. As a club Wolves haven’t fared much better and their only season in the PL saw a bottom of the table finish. Getting an early victory may prove vital in instilling a sense of belief and belonging, liberating the players to repeat the kind of football that got them promoted. With a young, exciting array of attackers Wolves could upset a few of the established teams and I think the balance of the side and the manager’s previous experiences will be enough to keep them up. Just.

Final Position: 17th

McMenu: Happy Meal – just enough

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Things you secretly dread

FHM's list page, coming at the end of each monthly mag, is often a treat of irreverant comment yet acutely perceptive insight into the male psyche. July's (labelled the August - I always wonder why magazines christen their publications a month ahead of when they come out) edition focused on masculine fears usually hidden in the relative comfort of our brains. I thought they missed a few and have decided to share these with you. Read on...

Ringing the takeaway to make an order
It’s a mystery why a straightforward phone call fills you up with such a sense of unease but you’d rather starve than converse with the stranger on the other end of the line. “I don’t mind doing it, it’s just that you’re better at it than me,” is a statement that echoes round the room as the decisive moment looms.

Negotiating bouncers on your own
A carousel of questions rotate in your mind: Will they make some sarcastic comment about my new belt? What if they remember my vomit exploits from last Saturday? If I have my hand poised on my wallet will they be more or less likely to ID me? Should I look at them in the eye? Slight nod? Say hello? Oh fuck it, I’ll just turn around and go home.

Playing football with a lone prepubescent
There’s always one on the field, a youngster stood alone doing kick-ups religiously in preparation for a career in the game. Shun his request to join your breezy kick-about and you’d be crushing his dream. 10 minutes later you’re wheezing like a whoopy cushion and trying to break his foot-long legs as he’s rounding you to score his double hat-trick.

Going to a fancy dress party
On the outside you’re saying: “Oh how crazy, so much fun!” On the inside you’re thinking: “Why the hell do people insist on adding a sense of foreboding to a perfectly good party by enforcing a themed dress-code?” You can only think of four things beginning with P, all of which mean constructing an impossibly elaborate costume that you have neither the time, money nor mental capacity to carry out. As everyone else shows off their peacocks, Pantheons and Peter Mandlesons the only thing you’re displaying is a woefully inadequate creative ability. By being dressed as a poo.

Watching porn with your girlfriend
The moment she agrees to your bravado-fuelled proposition to “get tips from the pros” you begin to shit yourself at the thought of the love of your life getting off seeing a more muscular, better looking, bigger-cocked stud screwing the brains out of some poor hillbilly blonde. “But darling, you don’t like it when it’s that rough… Do you?” Displaying too great a knowledge of certain starlets, accidentally revealing you picked up that trick with your tongue from some jock in College Whores 7, and letting slip your fondness for the ‘mature’ genre are also worries circling your mind like a hamster on speed.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Federer forges legend but public sympathy lies with Roddick

Federer's ecstacy was contrasted by Roddick's despair

And so it was with a miscued forehand that Roger Federer became the greatest Grand Slam player of all time, surpassing the previous holder of that title under his very gaze, which was somewhat shielded from the sight by a pair of sunglasses. The errant shot came from the racket held by the tired hand of Andy Roddick and provided the Swiss with his first break of the match in the last game of the match. As it always is with things timed as such it was the one that mattered and just as the man who he has now overtaken in total Grand Slam titles arrived late to proceedings (inviting a warm round of applause from those in attendance) so too did Federer’s best play and match-winning break.

Seeing Federer’s hands raised in victory come the end of the final was a sight predicted by nearly every pundit, pro, and man in the street prior to events at SW19. What no one could have foreseen was that by that time most observers would have been acquiescent to, if not wholly willing for, the reverse taking place. Such was the unwavering endeavour and relentless talent exerted by Roddick over the previous record-making 77 games that he achieved the impossible and shifted the support of those who had gone (or tuned-in) to see Federer make history over to the American’s side of the net. “I can wait a tournament, or even a year, for Federer to do it. And he will do it. Roddick’s time for Wimbledon triumph may never come again,” was the sentiment expressed by this onlooker.

The roar that greeted Roddick as he collected his silver shield was undoubtedly merited (unlike so many other times when the British public warms to a loser). That in cruel defeat he could joke, “I tried to hold him off for you” by way of an apology to Pete Sampras, after all the exertions, both mental and physical, he’d put himself through, was unbelievably admirable. Indeed he could have won in four had he put away just one more point when 6-2 up in the second set tie-break. On this most crucial occasion Roddick’s divine strength became his Achilles’ heal as a 2009 breaker record going into the match of 26-4 became 26-6 in consecutive sets allowing Federer the cling on and then forge ahead when it looked for all the world that he would be swamped by Roddick’s perpetual energy.

That Roddick battled so hard and was within touching distance of the golden trophy at numerous points throughout the match is what makes his accumulation of an unwanted hat-trick of Wimbledon runner-up places (all to Federer) so heart-breaking to see. These facts were what made Federer’s attempts at condolence sound almost galling. While comparing Roddick’s current emotional state with that of his own from 12 months ago, after losing to Nadal in another epic final, and stating that he had now returned to win was an attempt to reassure the American it jarred on the ears. “Yeah but you won it five times before that!” Roddick retorted holding back the tears, before visibly shaking his head in disbelief at the contrast.

“Federer’s a stud,” the second-best player in Grand Slam history purred in a differently toned post-match interview, before going on to speculate that Federer could win 17 or 18 by the time he’s done. The thought of future Majors inevitably brought to mind the image of Nadal, Federer’s roadblock to earlier Roland Garros success, and the man who has beaten him in five of their seven Grand Slam final contests. Federer looked irreparably broken just five months ago after the Australian Open defeat and we were left wondering whether he’d ever be able to overcome the Spaniard again and make the history he was destined to. That he has equalled and gone beyond Sampras’s record so swiftly, in the process claiming his maiden French Open title, is invigorating and astonishing in equal measure.

But you get the sense that in not facing his irrepressible rival in either tournament the achievement lost some of its sheen, both for Federer and his many fans. How fitting would it have been for him to reach 15 and reclaim his Wimbledon crown by beating the player who had taken it from him? Yet while some of sports minor sub-plots have by chance been perfectly scripted the longer arches are never written without fault and nothing can take away from Federer’s continued brilliance over so many years. 21 Grand Slam semis in a row, seven Grand Slam finals in a row, now 15 Grand Slam titles; the stats are simply mind-boggling. Just the fact that Federer has managed to stay fit for such a long period deserves our admiration. That we are blessed to be living in a time of such legend-making should never be forgotten.

However, great duals enhance the best myths and it must be hoped Nadal can permanently recover from his knee injury, both for his and Federer’s sake. To have two great champions fighting it out for the biggest prizes will secure this period of tennis as the most memorable and remarkable ever, raising each players’ reputation to sacred status in the process. And Federer will surely want to prove he still remembers how to beat his thorniest of foes on the grandest stages.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Punch drunk: Hull and Newcastle both deserved relegation for their dire last-day displays

Brown's Got No Talent: Phil's attempts at entertainment (and logic)
would have received the buzzer straight away from Cowell and co.

Has there ever been a more lacklustre relegation fight? Of the four teams still realistically in it with six games to go only eight points were won out of a possible 72. Where was the heroic scrapping? The to-and-fro of Premiership places? The extra-time goals? The goalkeepers coming up for corners? No one seemed particularly bothered.

The tame way both Newcastle and Hull succumbed to defeat on the final day, without any barnstorming-every-man-forward-in-a-last-ditch-attempt-to-salvage-Premier-League-status-and-zillions-of-pounds-in-tv-money finale, inevitably took some of the sheen off seeing Shearer’s devastated countenance (incidentally not too dissimilar to his expressions of ecstasy) at the final whistle.

In the climaxing round of matches last season Birmingham defeated Blackburn 4-1 and Reading thumped Derby 4-0 to do everything in their powers to stay up. That each result was ultimately in vain, as Fulham won 1-0 at Porstmouth to avoid the drop, will have hurt those clubs involved but validated all neutral fans’ belief that the Premier League was full of committed professionals with a desire to perform at the highest level.

Newcastle and Hull’s limp efforts were equivalent to an undercard bout between a pair of down-and-out boxers who traded the softest of sparring jabs before each comically stumbled over with one just about managing to stagger to his feet one beat before the ten count.

Unfathomably, Boaz Myhill even wasted time taking a kick as the final minutes ticked away.

But the way Phil Brown spoke after the final whistle helped us understand the managerial motivation behind Myhill’s time-wasting. In a post-match interview a beaming Brown left logic back in the same dressing-table drawer as his razor. “Both one nils went the right way for us,” he explained. His efforts to extract some sort of reason from his baffling statement proved slightly unconvincing. “It didn’t matter what we did, as long as the result at Villa Park went our way.” Err, no Phil. Even those who see Crayola crayons as edible treats could work out the Hull manager’s maths skills were lacking, and establish that a win for his team would render events in Birmingham irrelevant. With any luck the self-satisfied, look-at-me, wanabee pub singer will employ the same ill-thought-out tactics and take the club down next season.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

To gig or not to gig: Paddy Considine interviewed

Rock n roller: The man famous for Dead Man's Shoes
is now taking his career down a musical path

"Before I had a band I called myself Riding the Low," Paddy Considine growls in his elusive midlands accent, explaining the genesis of his recently-formed group's moniker. For a man who made his name in film - perhaps most famously as Richard in Shane Meadows' 2005 classic, Dead Man's shoes - this switch to music will come as a surprise to many. Yet Considine is at pains to impress that the area of artistic expression to which he has now turned his focus was within him all along. "After my wife bought me a guitar about 15 years ago I just started writing songs. I didn’t know how to play guitar but I learnt and started putting things together and ended up writing about 50 different songs and sketches, different bits and pieces. Now I'm at a point where I just wanna do what the hell I want."

History is littered with actors who've turned musicians with just as many singer/songwriters making the reverse journey; from Russell Crowe's 30 Odd Foot of Grunts to Keanu Reeves' Dogstar and back again with Madonna's numerous cinematic attempts. For the most part these film/music translations are failed - or at least short of the heights climbed in the initial profession - with only a few maintaining credibility in each domain. With this less than successful track record behind others like him, Considine reckons he's fighting a battle for recognition.

"People come to these shows and think, 'Oh it's Paddy Considine. It's the guy from Dead Man's Shoes, let's go'," he says. "Let's be honest, actors who say they're in bands, you know, the bands aren't very good. You know nine times outta ten the band ain't good."

While the motivation for people to attend Considine's musical performances may be rooted in his success as an actor, and not how the band would essentially want to attract fans, it unavoidably grants them a ready-made following nonetheless. But is this predicament a gift - with a level of interest acquired before any songs are played - or a curse - with a stigma attached that is difficult to get away from?

"It's inevitable people do come along for that reason," Considine concedes. "I'd be lying if I said people didn't come through the door at first and think, 'Here's the guy, will you sign this? Can I get an autograph? We've done a gig before and someone used a picture from Dead Man's Shoes on a poster. I said, 'Dude, you gotta get rid of that picture because it's the wrong message: we're a band. Don't kinda use that film angle because it's not there. It's non-existent when we play and sing all together," he says before struggling to verbalise the difficulty of coming to terms with some of the crowd's pre-gig expectations. "There's quite a satisfaction... It's like they're all dumbfounded when they say, 'We didn't expect it to be'... I honestly don't think they expect it to be any good; they think it's gonna be crap!"

It seems quality is the only way to persuade observers of his authenticity and generate a more genuine backing: "Now we're getting a following cause people are getting past that thing of 'it's an actor in a band' they actually just think, 'Fuckin' hell, we really like these songs.'"

Hailing from Burton-upon-Trent in Staffs, Considine made his name through a string of stirring - and at times disturbing - performances in highly-acclaimed movies. He starred as an Irish immigrant in 2002's Oscar-nominated In America; a psychotic killing-machine out to avenge his retarded brother in Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (which he co-wrote); and a born-again Christian in the 2004 film, My Summer of Love, which was set and filmed entirely in West Yorkshire. He has also appeared as a Guardian journalist in Hollywood blockbuster The Bourne Ultimatum; as a comically inept small-town cop in Hot Fuzz and; and interestingly, due to its musical significance, as Rob Gretton, Joy Division/New Order’s manager in the fantastically trippy 24 Hour Party People. This year he played the police officer in charge of the 1980s hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper in the grim Red Riding trilogy. It was a performance which was sure to send a chill down the spine of anyone who lived in Leeds at the time.

At various times in his career Considine has also starred in a handful of music videos, most notably for The Arctic Monkeys' track Leave Before the Lights Come On and Coldplay's single God Put A Smile Upon Your Face. According to the actor these ventures came at a time when he hadn't worked for a while and was "skint, sitting around doing nothing." After receiving the treatment for Sheffield band’s video Considine decided a new one was in order. He wrote it and the whole thing was shot in a day or so. “It just gets you out of the doldrums a bit,” he says. “I've been offered a few stints but I wouldn't do any more unless they were for Riding the Low.”
While these projects came about through circumstance and weren't linked to his own musical efforts they still publicised his involvement with the industry. So, now that he could be required to act in his own band’s videos soon, what is their music like?

"I just think it's quite immediate,” Considine states laconically. “We did a gig the other week and a guy came up to us from the support band and said, 'You sound like you're some sort of American based rock aesthetic'. But that 90s indie rock place, that's where it comes from. It is lo-fi but it's not kind of twee. What we are basically is a rock 'n' roll band. Chris [Baldwin, guitar] likes the Smashing Pumpkins and Justin [Chambers, drums] like Metallica. All these influences seem to come in the room and, I don't know, it seems to work."

Considine says the initial spark of creation came from listening to American indie rock band Guided By Voices. "I really started to get into [songwriter] Robert Pollard's work. That was really the main inspiration for me getting up and wanting to start a band. It was like the punk thing. In 77 when people were saying, 'Man, I can be in a band. I don't have to have been playing guitar for years and know all the scales.' It gives you the courage to get off your ass and go and do something."

As well as starting the band Considine christened it. In fact the name can be seen as a symbol of relief from his films, a reaction against his acting career yet inextricably entwined with it.

"The name is from a fantastic book about Lee Marvin, written by his wife,” Considine says. “Marvin was an amazing, amazing actor. Reading it I found I was having similar symptoms to him. He would do a movie and when he finished he'd find it quite difficult to get back into normal life. Just because of the characters, just because film sets are not very normal environments to be in - it's quite concentrated. You're under the microscope for a couple of months and the rest of the world don't exist. You've got people around you all day then all of a sudden you go from that to being back at home again. You're relived but somehow there's an adjustment period where you start to feel a little depressed.

"I got it really bad after doing my first film, Romeo Brass [in 1999]. I remember reading this book and Lee Marvin having this same thing. He was talking to his psychiatrist who said, 'You should call that period in your life 'riding the low'.' It's when you should go out and do the things you wanna do. I just remember reading it and going, 'That's the name of my band', despite not having one at the time."

Considine seems fuelled by a desire to spread his talents, unfettered, across a variety of platforms, with originality and creativity being the driving factors. Yet this uninhibited abandon is something that, for him, public stereotypes can limit.

"I think there's too much pressure on people, there's too many restrictions. It's only other's cynicism that doesn't allow for people like myself to say, 'I wanna write this year. I wanna direct. I'm gonna be in a band.' I think people kinda see it like all this stuff's done on whimsy. Riding the Low's a part of everything. It's a part of anything I've ever done, anything I've ever written or anything I'm ever about to direct." He explains before adding categorically: "If something happened with Riding the Low and it took off tomorrow then I would have no regrets about never making a film ever again."

It’s intriguing to contemplate the comparisons between acting for a director in front of a lens and delivering a song on stage to a crowd of revellers; each is a performance requiring varying degrees of persona and characterisation. For someone who has done both, is there any overlap between the two?

"We're a band and it's truthful. I think that's the only thing that overlaps. When I act I try and find something truthful. It doesn't always make for spectacular acting all the time but it's truthful. It’s the same with the band. We're not bullshitting; we're there cause we mean it. I'm not in a band because I fancy bein' a rock star for the weekend and I get an ego buzz. It needs to be done.”

"Someone saw the band once and thought that I was acting. And then someone said, ‘You should do more acting on stage.’ And someone thought that I was doing it because I was gonna do a film where I play rock star. It's none of those. It's not an act. It's me playing these songs. Paddy Considine singing these songs. Just putting across some of the vibes about how I feel about these things. It's just myself, within this rock n roll package.”

Riding the Low come to Leeds to play The Cockpit on Saturday May 30 and Considine is anticipating a clued-up audience who will give as good as they get. "We're really looking forward to it. We've played a few times up in the North and the crowds have never had any inhibitions. We’re hoping Leeds is the same."

In terms of physical product and the band hitting the mainstream, Considine is uncertain. “We'd love to have something people can go away with at Leeds. We’ve released our own label and put together our first EP made up of gigs and that'll be available in shops but we haven't got a release date yet. We've got that creative control which is important. All we need is someone who can record us well. But we can do whatever the hell we want. We want the freedom. We don't want a record label to tell us to tick boxes.”

Can he see it becoming his profession?
"If the boys wanna quit their jobs and I wanna quit my job then we need to make money and that's the catch 22. I'm married with three children and I'm not gonna sacrifice the roof over their heads because I'm in a rock n roll band. I'm watchin’ my ass like everybody else is.
“We'd love to play these songs to big audiences if they caught on. Selling out is a teenage notion. We just wanna be a band. We've just gotta roll the dice on it a bit and see where it goes."

Originally published in Leeds Student on May 15 2009

Friday, 15 May 2009

Library fines still mounting

The University library continues to rake it in from slack borrowers and still tops the national table of fine collecting, Leeds Student has learnt.

In March we revealed how Leeds collected a staggering £360,000 from late returners in the academic year 07/08, about £12 for every student. Comparable nationwide data from a year earlier showed that Leeds beat closest rival Manchester to the top of the fines table by over £100,000. Manchester students would be handing over just £5 each on average.

We can now expose how the gap between the two table-topping unis last year grew to a whopping £160,000.

Claims that the cash flow from borrowers had fallen this year were met with sums that remained sky high, with a fall of just 9.5 per cent. The total fund from August to February still stood at a shocking £144,415, four times the amount fined by neighbouring uni Sheffield over the same period.

University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection Margaret Coutts defended the fees in our original investigation, saying that decisions made over fines were “student led”.

The original spike in fines from 06/07 to 07/08 was put down to a threshold rise, which allowed borrowers to obtain higher fines before having lending privileges removed.

“The threshold was originally introduced in consultation with students to prevent their borrowing being blocked too rapidly when using our self-service lending facilities in the evening,” Coutts said.

While the figures for the current year have dipped, they still represent a significant income from students who are already paying £3000 a year tuition fees with the results once more calling into question the fining system. While the Library maintains that “the sole purpose of Library fines is to prevent individuals from keeping books for unreasonably long periods and so disadvantage others who need to use them” the significant amounts repeatedly collected suggest the deterrent strategy is not working, with Leeds collecting far more than similar sized unis.

Leeds Student placed Freedom of Information requests with nearly all Russell Group universities, asking for the total amounts collected in fines by their libraries for 07/08 and for August 2008 to the current date. The responses saw Leeds clearly out in front.

For the academic year completed last summer Leeds received £359,229 in fines, followed by Manchester with £198,286.11. Nottingham, which houses the same number of students as Leeds collected just half as much in fines, with the total standing at £172,446. After this came Sheffield with £110,919; Liverpool received £106,059.93; Bristol collected £102,115; York took £99,331; and Birmingham claimed £98,357.93.

Leeds’ figures for the current year are equally as eye-opening. From August 08 to February 09 Leeds received £144,415 in library fines while from August 08 to March 09 Manchester collected £109,174.44 - 30 per cent less. Over the same period Nottingham took £74,893; Liverpool, £58,334.54; Bristol, £47,463; Birmingham, £47,115.84; York, £38,531; and Sheffield, £33,490.

The University of Southampton, the establishment Leeds University VC Michael Arthur attended as an undergraduate, failed to respond to the request and is now the subject of an internal review.

Originally published in Leeds Student on May 15 2009

Friday, 8 May 2009

The house that Zaman can't build

Demolition job: Residents were in uproar over Tariq Zaman's 'grand' designs

News that the landlord who legally owes thousands in unreturned deposits has been told he can't build his own palace is music to the ears of his former tenants.

Rogue landlord Tariq Zaman, former director of Providence Properties, has been refused planning permission to build a new luxury home in Adel due to the grand scale of its design.

Zaman, who currently has 17 County Court Judgements against his name, had applied to Leeds City Council for the go-ahead to demolish an existing four-bedroom dwellling on Dunstarn Drive and replace the 70s construct with a five-bedroom detached property complete with triple garage.

Zaman has been attempting to erect a new building on the site since 2006, having five different designs either rejected or withdrawn over the period.

According to Council public records obtained by Leeds Student, Zaman’s would-be palace was refused planning permission by the Local Planning Authority on the grounds that it “fails to have sufficient regard to the character and appearance of its surroundings”. The papers also detail how the proposal’s “innapropriate volume, scale, massing and design” would make the finished building “incongruous in its setting” leaving it the “dominant” feature in the area’s landscape and therefore “detrimental to the streetscene”.

It appears a resident backlash helped guide the Council’s decision, with 23 letters of objection from those living nearby being lodged. The complaints aired included suggestions that the proposed house is “out of character” with the area, that the scale and proportions put forward are “too excessive” and that the new build would result in the loss of an “attractive habitat, mature shrubs, hedges and trees”.

In an ironic twist, the house next door to Zaman’s property had its own planning permission granted a week after his latest bid was rejected, with construction work already underway.

Tariq Zaman’s dealings have been under the media spotlight since 2007 when he and Providence Properties - the letting agent he was listed as a director of - were accused of unfairly witholding an estimated £70,000 worth of students’ deposits.

17 separate households have taken him to court and won their cases, with judges ordering Zaman to pay the money back. In an episode of Watchdog aired in November last year Zaman brazenly dismissed the court’s rulings as ‘meaningless’ and to this date nothing has been returned.

Zaman was also in the headlines in February when he was implicated as being involved in the opening of the Student Property Shop, a new letting agent located in the same premises as Providence Properties, despite the owner denying any knowledge of who he was.

Tariq Zaman was unable to be contacted for comment.

Rob Damaio, Community Officer at LUU and campaigner for the return of deposits, was pleased with the decision, however it came about. “Having his planning refused is great news,” Rob said. “Though it was done for reasons of aesthetics, it does mean that Tariq is not going to be able to live a grand lifestyle, in a five bedroom mansion, whilst many tenants are still owed hundreds of pounds.”

Meanwhile, the Student Advice Centre has closed the book on Rory Aitken, the landlord who initially refused to pay back £30,000 worth of deposits to tenants. Aitken, dubbed ‘The Ginger Conman’ by the Daily Mirror, was the target of numerous campaigns and Leeds Student articles over the previous academic year.

Andrea Kerslake, Housing Specialist at the Advice Centre, was pleased with the figure eventually secured. “I have just closed the final Aitken deposit case and we obtained £37,464.08,” said Kerslake. “All but a handful of people got at least something back from their deposit. We would have liked the figure to have been higher but it is some £37,000 more than he was preparing to give back at the start. Thanks to everyone who helped highlight the issue.”

The news on Zaman and Aitken comes as The Association of Residential Letting Agents (ARLA) announces it is introducing a licensing scheme for its UK members and a code of practice for letting agents.

Espe Fuentes, a lawyer for independent advice group Which?, said: “We receive many calls from tenants who have issues with their landlords. Most are about poor living conditions and problems with landlords still not putting deposits into the deposit scheme. ARLA’s licensing system is certainly a step in the right direction to offer greater protection for tenants.

“At a minimum, we’d like to see all letting agents and landlords required to join a compulsory complaints scheme. Many people have suffered for too long at the hands of unscrupulous landlords and letting agents - it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Originally published in Leeds Student on May 8 2009

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Irish PM legal battle causes resident woe

The Prime Minister of Ireland is at the centre of a dispute over the management of Carr Mills, the Leeds University halls of residence, which is having an effect on maintenance repairs at the complex and causing distress to residents.

Brian Cowen, the Taoiseach, is a member of an Irish consortium that owns apartments in the complex, which has become embroiled in a legal wrangle with the freeholders of the site located in Meanwood.

Among the accusations levied at the Irish owners, The Carr Mills Partnership, by Adderstone Group, the freeholders, is that they are illegally sub-letting the properties to the University. Adderstone are also threatening to take Mr Cowen and his fellow investors to court over non-payment of £100,000 in rent and management fees.

Over Easter a clutch of Irish papers reported on the developments with the Times revealing that Adderstone Group has written to Mr Cowen and his colleagues informing them: “Contrary to the terms of your leases you have sub-let without authority to the University of Leeds.”

According to the paper, Adderstone see this as “an irredeemable breach of covenant” and have told the investors legal action and repossession of property is a real possibility.

The Irish consortium bought the apartments from the developers of Carr Mills in 2005 with a view to sub-letting the apartments the University, maintaining management rights during this time. But formal written consent to go ahead with the letting was not recorded.

When the developer then sold to Adderstone in 2007 this discrepancy quickly became apparent.
Importantly, the new freeholders also took over management rights from the consortium. The Irish owners were keen to keep hold of this aspect of their investment, as it can be quite lucrative with managers charging high fees to residents for the upkeep of communal areas.

In late April, The Sunday Times reported how a student became trapped in a lift in one of the blocks while the emergency phone used to dial for help was dead. When Adderstone sent workmen out they discovered the Irish owners had changed the locks.

The inability for the freeholders to get into the property they manage proved the catalyst for the legal case launch, with the dispute becoming public in the last few weeks.

The company says that it has been trying to recover £100,000 in unpaid management fees and ground rent from the 38 investors who own the 48 apartments in the development, accumulated since it began managing the complex in late 2007.

Throughout this time the two companies have been arguing over who should maintain to buildings, leading to delays in repairs and upkeep. The disruption has been concerning for dozens of people living there, with one student telling Leeds Student of her plight.

Joanne Slack a fresher residing at Carr Mills said maintenance issues had plagued her first year living away from home. “The hot water first went off on a weekend before the Christmas holidays,” the Cultural Studies student said. “There’s no on-site office at weekends so we rang one of the wardens. Maintenance didn’t come until another couple of days after and because they couldn’t fix it straight away we were without it for quite a few days. I didn’t know why there was a delay.”

“It went off again when we came back after Christmas,” she added. “It meant we couldn’t wash up or clean ourselves for a week as we came back before term started.”

Problems for Joanne escalated before Easter. “The lighting in the stairway was off for a week. Every night that we came in we walked up the stairs and it was pitch black.”

“People went to the site office straight away to complain but it still took quite a while for it to get fixed.”

Residents and staff have since confirmed that the lifts were out of action for a large part of the holidays while the problem was being located and mended.

While any halls housing large groups of students is likely to attract problems, the length of time taken to fix issues at Carr Mills in the current situation is unique.

The legal case will be yet another headache for the University over the Halls, which opened in September 2006. In November Leeds Student investigated a series of muggings in the area around Carr Mills, which prompted the University to launch a bus scheme to transport residents home.

The difficulties throughout the year have led to Joanne questioning her choice of Halls. “I don’t think these are the best halls,” she said. “We’re paying a lot of money for them. There are things wrong with the halls that mean we shouldn’t be paying as much as we are.”

Joanne told us she is paying £3790 for her year tenancy. The accommodation website states that prices for the next academic year range between £4100 and £4250, representing an increase of approximately eight per cent.

The University has guaranteed its Carr Mills residents that their tenancy won’t be affected by the legal conflict.

“The University of Leeds leases a number of student flats at Carr Mills from the Carr Mills Investment Partnership and we currently have more than 200 students living there,” a spokesperson said. “Whilst there has recently been a dispute between the Carr Mills Investment Partnership and the property company the Adderstone Group, which owns the freehold of the site and also provides some facility management services there, we understand that both parties are working to resolve their differences.

They added: “Residential & Commercial Services manage and maintain one large building at the Carr Mills Site and respond to all maintenance issues that are reported or found during inspection as quickly as possible.

“We want to reassure those students presently living in the building we lease, that recent
disagreements between the University’s landlord and the freeholder pose no threat to their ongoing residence at Carr Mills.”

Speaking to Leeds Student yesterday a representative of Adderstone said that discussions were ongoing and that he was “hopeful the situation would be resolved quickly”. But he added that when lawyers were involved in a dispute of this nature time was often inestimable.

Originally published in Leeds Student on May 1

Friday, 1 May 2009

Hyde Park Picture House stages BBC first

The Hyde Park Picture House played host to Radio 5 Live’s Simon Mayo show, the first time it has been broadcast away from the BBC’s London headquarters.

Almost 300 people queued for nearly four hours for the chance to be in the audience for the programme’s Film Reviews segment, headlined by the popular critic Mark Kermode.

Airing every Friday, Mayo and Kermode’s dissection of the latest cinema releases has developed a cult following, regularly attracting over six million live listeners, while the podcast version is the most downloaded movie show in the country, hitting on average 134,000 subscribers each week. The pair are famous for jovial bickering and inventive games.

Kermode, who is also resident movie critic for BBC2’s The Culture Show and regular Observer contributor, was thrilled with the turnout:

“We didn’t really know how well it was going to go as we’ve never done the live thing before,” he said. “But it was incredibly successful and we were absolutely thrilled that so many people, with such a wide range, turned up.”

The pair, who had earlier been interviewed by LSRfm, were initially sceptical at how performing in front of a crowd on stage, rather than alone in a studio, would be received.

“It’s completely different when there’s just two of you sitting in a studio with a microphone in the middle talking to each other,” Kermode said. “You’ve got no real sense of how many people are listening.”

Throughout the hour-long output the audience were asked for their opinions on the highest grossing films that week. The quality of analysis offered was no surprise to Kermode.

“People were funny and witty and had intelligent things to say,” he said. “There was no delay; we trusted the audience and assumed they were up to speed.

“I’ve always been fairly knocked out by the standard of contribution from listeners’ emails. The idea of dumbing things down to be populist has absolutely no merit.”

Kermode, as famous for his opinions as his quiff, thought the listed building was an excellent choice of location for the inaugural roadshow event and advocated the wider consumption of art house cinema:

“It was a lovely place to start. The Hyde Park has a real sense of history and theatre – it’s such a fabulous building.

“I do think there’s something about in art house cinemas. People forget they used to call them picture palaces; they were a little bit like going into church.

“People didn’t go into them and treat them like they do now and just talk all the time and use their mobile phones; they treated them a little more respectfully. I think the place you watch a film actually affects your reaction to it.”

Show producers revealed to Leeds Student that the next outside broadcast would take place in Edinburgh in June, to coincide with the city’s famed film festival.

Originally published in Leeds Student on May 1 2009

Media turning a blind eye?

Wilson Palacios is a very lucky man. Or rather Cristiano Ronaldo is. Each player’s good fortune centres around a two-footed tackle the Honduran midfielder launched in the direction of the Portuguese’s knee-caps in the recent blockbuster at Old Trafford. The latter because he skilfully avoided contact; the former because he less-skilfully avoided any punishment from Howard Webb. A stern ticking-off for what can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to injure an opponent was all Webb deemed necessary.

That the man in charge thought it a minor offence is outrageous. That the player in question has avoided further condemnation in the mass media is even worse. Heaven knows headlines gave enough focus to another refereeing decision. The brilliant, title-defining comeback by United was to an extent overshadowed by a debatable penalty which provided the spring-board for the memorable turnaround. Webb was even forced to admit his 'mistake', saying it “wasn’t the best” decision of his career.

Why, if the media are intent on analysing every move a ref makes were they blind to Palacios’ potential career-ender? Just as Redknapp claimed the penalty changed the game irreconcilably, the lack of a red to Spurs’ most effective midfield player produced the same effect, earlier on in proceedings.

Ronaldo was rightly sent off for a similar tackle on Andy Cole in 2006’s derby match at Eastlands. Journalists churned out a massive amount of column inches of condemnation in the immediate aftermath. The reaction is notably muted on this occasion. We are left to wonder why that is.

In an interesting footnote, Paul Scholes wasn’t so blind. Within minutes of coming on as a sub he’d introduced himself to Wilson with the only way he knows how. Multiple times. If the man in the middle wasn’t going to enforce the rules, the Ginger Assassin was.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Researchers can't get 'essential' texts

Postgraduate students desperate for new books critical to furthering their research are being told by the Library “we must not order books that are not on reading lists,” Leeds Student has discovered.

Bertie Russell, a Geography PhD student, has been unable to use a book “essential” to his research because the library does not stock it and his purchase suggestion was rejected.

After Bertie placed a proposal for ‘Deleuze and the Social’ he received an email reply from Sara Thornes, Faculty Team Librarian for the Edward Boyle library which read: “Unfortunately the fluctuation in the exchange rates that has come with the credit crunch has hit the library budget hard, and we have recently been told that we must not start any new subscriptions or order books that are not on reading lists.”

Bertie was dismayed at the response: “It is one of only two books that have been written on the issue – so, it is essential that I have access to it. It costs £20 but I can’t get the book, as there are no funds available.”

He explained that the only way for him to obtain the book is if a sympathetic lecturer were to place it on a reading list. “But that means research is largely being determined by the remit of what is already being taught,” he said.

“It’s quite illogical if research is supposed to be producing something new. There is not much precedent for my subject area within Leeds Uni, so the Library is particularly scarce on the newer books.”

“The recent fall in the value of sterling has hit the Library, as some of our purchases are made in dollars and euros.” Margaret Coutts, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said. “Subscriptions in US dollars are currently costing an additional 37%, and those in Euros an additional 19% above the anticipated cost.”

Thornes was on hand to explain the Library’s reasoning. “Texts on reading lists are used by large numbers of students, typically a single copy of a reading list book would be used by around 20 students,” she said. “Books requested for research, tend to be used extensively by only one individual.”

The Library’s current stance is at odds with information provided at start of the year. “I was informed before starting my PhD that the Library appreciate the suggestions of research students as it means less work for the faculty librarian.” Bertie said. “The books a PhD student recommend are also likely to be at the ‘cutting edge’ of research, helping to open access to these topics for students in all cohorts.”

An article in the Times Higher Education highlights the problem as a national one. THE reported that the fall in the value of the pound is having a ‘crippling effect’ on the budgets of UK university libraries with Glasgow University estimating that every time the pound went down either a euro cent or a US cent over a year, it would cost their library £12,000 and £7,000, respectively.

“This is indeed a national problem and all university libraries are experiencing the same,” Coutts explained.

The Library say that the block on orders will be in place until May, after book costing has been reassessed. For the time being PhD students should be offered alternatives, such as document supply or inter-library loans.

The Vice-Chancellor Michael Arthur was open in his assessment of the cash flow problem. “We’re facing quite a bit of financial turmoil,” he admitted during a recent question and answer session with students. “I’ve been putting the Library under some pressure by asking for an extra five per cent efficiency as a way of coping with the economic downturn.”

Arthur added: “We’ll try and ensure that material for students is affected least; the research side might be affected more.

“Library costs actually inflate at way above the rate of inflation – about 6 per cent per annum. When I arrived here we were actually spending about £8m in the library and we’re now spending £12m.

“The library is not suffering a cutback in funding, we’re talking about not increasing it by as much as we had planned.”

Originally published in Leeds Student on March 13

£360,000: Fine for some. University library pockets record sum in fees

Leeds University libraries took £360,000 in fines in the last academic year, figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act have revealed.

The total is up £60,000 from the £295,000 charged in 2006/07 – a rise of more than 20% in one year.

The charges levied in 06/07 themselves represented a significant increase, up £25,000 from the year before.

In all, the University has amassed £925,919 in library fines over the last three academic years.

The figures reveal that the average undergraduate pays around £9.30 in library fines for every year of their degree, totalling £28 for the last three.

Exeter student paper, Exepose, reported last year that the University of Manchester collected the highest amount in fines of those libraries that responded to their enquiries.

Manchester, the largest university in the country with over 39,000 students, charged £190,388 in 2006/07. The figures obtained by Leeds Student show that Leeds exceeded this total by over £100,000, even before the 20% increase that occurred last year.

The figures come as part of a response to a Freedom of Information Act request sent to the University by Leeds Student earlier this year.

Public authorities are legally required to respond to requests submitted under the act, and subject to a number of conditions they must supply the information within 20 working days.

The response from the library came after 21 days, one day over the legal maximum.

The University has moved to justify the record sum collected.

“The significant rise in fines charges between 06/07 and 07/08 was because the overall fines threshold was raised from £10 to £30,” Janet R Jurica, Senior Assistant Registrar at the University explained. “Whilst before students had to clear their fines at £10 they can now accrue higher fines before their accounts are suspended.”

Margaret Coutts, University Librarian and Keeper of the Brotherton Collection, said the decision was student-led. “The threshold was originally introduced in consultation with students to prevent their borrowing being blocked too rapidly when using our self-service lending facilities in the evening,” she said.

However, Katie McDougall, second year Theology and Religious studies student, thinks the change was for the worse. “I don’t think the threshold increase was a good thing,” said Katie. “It means people will keep books out for longer meaning others can’t because I don’t think fines deter people that much.”

To many students, however, the fines represent a hidden charge for using what are regarded as essential facilities.

Penny Walker, in her third year of studying English, said: “I’m shocked at the figures. It just seems so much money.” Penny thinks that incurring fines is ultimately inevitable. “If you’re using the library regularly it is unavoidable to rack up charges, she said. “I took out a primary text at the start of the year to use for my assessed essay and renewed it each time I was required to. But a week before deadline someone put it on hold and I was unable to renew it again.

“I desperately needed it for the essay so had to keep it and incur the charges. I was also blocked from taking out any other books.”


Aled John, another third year English student, reckons the large total is slightly misleading. “The grand total, in its accumulated form, sounds horrific,” he said. “It seems one ostensibly reminiscent of the sort of miserly and loveless revenue generation endorsed by councils all over the UK in the form of parking tickets we all have grown to despise.”

“Roughly speaking though, the current figure for the library fines works out at an average of 11 quid per head, deflating the shock of the hike in thousands that the statistics show.”

Aled says charges are necessary: “As long as the library’s punitive policy is relatively comparable to the costs of running such an institution, and at the same time feasibly repayable, I don’t think it is that problematic.”

Coutts explained the role of the fines. “The sole purpose of Library fines is to prevent individuals from keeping books for unreasonably long periods and so disadvantage others who need to use them,” she said. “We set the rates to make them a deterrent only, and not an opportunity to make money from our customers.”

Coutts added: “The money from fines goes into the Library’s general revenue account and is used to support collections and services for students.”

Universities such as Birmingham, Manchester and University College London adopt a similar approach when it comes to library fines, charging daily rates along the lines of those set by Leeds. Each institution levies around a 40p tariff for a seven day loan.

Ryan Mole, 4th year Physics student, suggested that the reason for Leeds’ huge lead over other universities might involve more than just the scale of the charges per day.

“As a physics student, I find that all the books I need are always in seven day loan, but there are always a dozen copies of each book and there is only ever one or two out on loan,” Ryan said.

“The higher charge per day for seven day loans, as well as the higher frequency with which they must be renewed, means I find it much easier to accrue large fines. The standard loan section for my subject seems to feature books that have very little to do with the modules taught, and they definitely aren’t on reading lists.”

Course matters

Rachel Garrard, a final year Accounting and Business student, thinks students doing courses dependent on loaning literature are more at risk:

“People that do subjects where you tend to take out a lot of books are penalised more. I’ve only taken out out three books all year, whereas friends doing Arts degrees have taken out doz­ens.”

Penny questioned why students received fines for books not on reserve: “Having to renew books that people haven’t asked for is irritating. Getting fined for not renewing them on time when no one else wants them seems unnecessary, especially if the fining system is only in place to act as a deterrent. You are clearly not being of inconvenience to anyone else.”

Aled saw the system as fair though: “My personal tracklist of fines has held rather steadily at around £27 for the last year or so. As long as there is no favouritism, and the rise in monetary retribution for slack students (like myself) gets injected back into the system and not the pockets of the ‘suits’, then more power to it.”

No fines at all

Other UK universities have adopted what many cash-strapped students might regard as much fairer approach to late returns. The University of Southampton doesn’t charge their users fines at all, instead suspending users’ borrowing privileges until late books are returned, and simply charging for the replacement cost of a new book if it is not returned within 56 days.

Coutts­ said that this year more students were returning books on time. “The drop in fines for this academic year is currently approximately 10%. Of course, we won’t know the final figure until the end of the year.”

She added: “The Library does carry out regular checks on the level of the fines charged, and this happened most recently in 2007.

“Currently, we are planning to introduce online fines payment next year. We believe that this will make it easier for students to settle their fines promptly, and not run up large sums which cause problems for paying back.”

Originally published in Leeds Student on March 13

Saturday, 14 February 2009

My first sex test

Who knew getting the all-clear for HIV could be so quick

Getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases is often a mythologised process loaded with rumour and falsehoods. As a member of the male population, about to embark on my first sex test, I inevitably worried about having something Mary Poppins would float from the sky with inserted in a place only a nanny like her should see. Memories of my housemate’s rather crass warning that, “They shove an umbrella up your cock,” circulated in my mind like a hamster on speed.

So it was with trepidation that I walked to Oxford Chambers, an archaic-looking building home to the Terrance Higgins Trust (THT), an HIV and sexual health charity that specialises in fast-track sex tests for students and under-25s. Situated opposite The Light (there’s an analogy in there somewhere but bugger me if I can find it) on Oxford Place the THT runs free sessions twice a week for people who want to be checked for STIs quickly and confidentially. The clinic is famed for its ability to test for HIV in just 15 minutes with only a pinprick of blood.

Naomi, manager of the THT in Leeds explains the ethos behind the clinic: “It’s what we call community testing. So it’s very informal, relaxed environment, separate from NHS clinical services. Your records will be kept completely confidential. It’s a drop-in, with no appointments. You just turn up.”

Once you have just turned up and into the building there is only one route down to the level the THT occupies, via a small lift. The six-foot square space forces a few moments of awkward silences should you be squeezed in with another human pincushion looking for sexual peace of mind – a situation that befell me later in my visit – you can’t really make small talk about HIV.

Any anxiety is offset as soon as I walk through the entrance though. The atmosphere of the THT is very different to NHS services and is one designed to put you at ease. Carpet replaces rubber floors, t-shirt and jeans are worn instead of smocks and radio music plays in place of tannoy announcements.

“The THT in Leeds is unique for people under 25 and students, who are identified as the ‘at-risk’ group,” Naomi tells me later, “It’s very simple for those kinds of people to come along here so the more complex cases can get seen at the GUM clinic.”

“It was set up as a pilot two and a half years ago because the waiting times at GUM were so long. So it’s really for people who haven’t got any symptoms but are concerned about sexual health just because they’re sexually active.”

Without wanting to be too candid it transpires I fall into the group the clinic is specifically aimed at, which helps with the authenticity of this trial run. I ask for a test at the desk and am handed a self-assessment questionnaire determined to work out how much risk I’d put myself at. After liaising over my answers with nurse Laura I was told I was a ‘low-risk’ patient – sigh of relief.
As I enter the consultation room I ask Laura if any dialogue between nurse and testee has ever caused any raised eyebrows: “Nothing shocks us any more! We’ve seen and heard most stories.”
“If people don’t want to disclose information it’s up to them. Sometimes it helps though as they don’t have realistic view of sexually transmitted diseases and talking can help that. People may have false concerns.”

Laura’s easy humour coupled with a warming Yorkshire accent encourages open speaking. Our discussion leaves me feeling fully informed when opting for my tests: a pee-in-a-pot for Chlamydia and the Abbott Determine for HIV.

The latter comes first. “You must be clinically dead,” Laura jokes after feeling my cold hands. A moment of rubbing commences before she braves the jab – a very small scratch – which leads to a few minutes of squeezing blood from the tip of my icy finger before we have enough to dab onto the paper gauge. “It is usually a lot quicker than this,” she offers in mock apology.
15 minutes later and I’m called back for the results. “You’re negative!” I’m told gleefully. A miniscule line in one section of the paper strip compared to another is apparently the difference between being given life-changing news. This quick test can only indicate a positive result and would need to be confirmed by three separate blood tests but it is still a stark illustration of the thin line we sometimes tread in our mission to get laid.

The THT’s other main aim is to reduce the spread of Chlamydia, a disease that’s on the rise in Leeds. According to oft-quoted stats (from a 2007 survey) one in ten under 25s in the UK currently has Chlamydia without being aware, while those in the 16-24 age bracket account for nearly half of all STI diagnoses.

“Part of the reason Chlamydia is so widespread,” Laura explains, “is that most people with the infection have no symptoms, and it only takes one sexual encounter to pass it on. If left untreated Chlamydia can lead to serious health problems, including infertility.”

I gulp in anticipation. “We ask that you haven’t been to the toilet in the last two hours as it takes that period to allow the bacteria to develop – it can give a false negative if enough time hasn’t elapsed.”

Luckily my bladder hadn’t moved in the last 120 minutes so I could produce a sample in full knowledge that the results would be accurate. Delivering into the small cylindrical container is a bit of a logistical challenge - ‘How to hold? When to release?’ - but one managed after only the briefest of struggles . I chirpily drop the package off at reception afterwards.

On the clientel of the THT, Laura says: “We often get couples in, who’ve just started a sexual relationship and want to get a full scan together. We also get groups of friends come in together, which is great because it gets people talking about sexual health.”

“Last year Valentine’s Night fell on a Thursday and it was packed!” she says, “Ther­e were couples, groups of girls and boys. Freshers’ Week is always a busy time, we usually get through 25 tests a night during that period.”

As I make my excuses to leave I’m offered bountiful condoms, lube and a C card, a bit of merchandise that entitles any under-25 to free condoms and morning after pills at certain outlets. Useful.

At the time of going to press my mobile remained eerily silent on the matter of Chlamydia. By the time you’re reading this I will hopefully know though, buy me a drink in the Old Bar if you’re intrigued.

The THT operates on Mondays and Thursdays, 4pm till 8pm. They ask people to try to arrive by 7pm as the whole appointment can take up to an hour, after waiting to be seen and getting your results.

There is a special Chlamydia Screening on Briggate, Friday 13, look out for the big tent. Visit for more info.

Originally published in Leeds Student on February 13 2009