The Obscurer

Month: August, 2006

Any Port

It was a bit of a false start, really. Abandoning my City season ticket in May after umpteen years, the new season saw me attend my first pre-season friendly in ages as City took on Porto. I never had any intention of going to the match, but when my parents offered to take my lad to what would be his first City game I just had to be there; to witness the event, and to lend the folks a hand.

And I am delighted to report that he had a great time, eating Smarties and Pringles with his back to the pitch, while “fixing my seat” with a stone he had picked up from the floor; so he showed more imagination than anyone in the City team that day. Fair’s fair, it is a bit much expecting a 3 year old to remain interested throughout a 90 minute match; but then it is tough on anyone who isn’t in a yogic trance to sit through a pre-season friendly at City, so I think he did really well.

Then Wednesday saw me sat back in my old seat to watch the Portsmouth game – well, it was one of the few home matches before Christmas not to be televised, and I always thought I would probably go to our first match of the season – and while at the start of the match I wondered if I would miss my jaunts to the City of Manchester stadium, by the second half of the nil-nil draw I was convinced of the rightness of my decision. By full time I was desperate to get home.

So yesterday truly marked the start of the new regime; perhaps fittingly, while last season’s home fixture against Arsenal was my last as a season ticket holder, yesterday’s home match against the same team was the first where I chose The Weavers over Eastlands.

It will be interesting to see how becoming an armchair fan affects my viewpoint. When I was someone who attended every home game I could I hated the 5:15 Saturday kick-offs; they were a real pain in the arse, completely buggering up your Saturday night. Now, however, I think they’re great. I pop to the pub, have a few pints, pick up a take-away pizza on the way home, and we are tucking into our Thin-Crust Sicilians with extra jalapenos while others are stuck on the match bus, or in a traffic jam. Certainly it seems a far more painless way to watch a somewhat fortuitous victory.

So I don’t know when I will grace a City home match again, not while Sky give me every opportunity to go to the pub instead. The next home game that is not on telly and where I am available is Bolton on the 23rd of December, and that fixture hardly sets the heart racing. Christmas shopping and an impending new born may scupper any chance of me going to that game, even if I want to. But after Porto and then Portsmouth, perhaps for the sake of neatness I’ll wait to see if we ever play Port Vale, either in the cup or even in the league, before I once again watch a City match in the flesh.

I may be in for a long wait.

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Pushmi-Pullyu

A few months ago I wrote about the “pull economy”, or more specifically about Lulu; a self-publishing website where you are able to upload your novel or whatever to their server, and if (perhaps a big “if”) someone wants to purchase a copy it can be printed off on demand and shipped out to your Mum, or whoever has actually stumped up the hard cash for the book.

Fine for self-publishing I thought, but I went on to wonder if

it could also show the way forward for more general book publishing in the future. For as long as people like me enjoy browsing in bookshops then I imagine there will always be a need for long print runs in order to fill up all those shelves in the stores; but on the face of it I can see no reason why a company like Amazon will in future need to hold any stock at all if technology is able to allow each book to be printed on demand as and when a customer orders it. In addition, theoretically no book need ever be out of print again, indeed the very term “out of print” could become an anachronism; just so long as they are held on file somewhere ready to be printed then all books, no matter how old or obscure, could be available whenever a potential customer wants to buy a copy.

Well, yesterday I read an article in The Economist concerning the future of Amazon.com. What do you know but towards the end of the article it states that

Amazon subsidiary, BookSurge, is busy courting publishers to have their works scanned into digital files. Modern printing techniques allow books to be printed relatively cheaply on demand, “whether it’s one copy or one thousand”, Greg Greeley, head of media products at Amazon, said when BookSurge was acquired last April.

On-demand printing is particularly suited to lower-volume books and those that would ordinarily be “out of print”. Amazon already sells print-on-demand books, although that is “invisible” to consumers, Mr Bezos (Amazon’s CEO) has said, because they look exactly like any other books.

That’ll be me then; speculating and dreaming of a bold and exiting future, while unwittingly already being way behind the curve. There’s clearly a reason why I’m not in business.

PostScript: Yes, I know, I know. I will try to stop writing posts concerning week old Economist articles; but if you ever wanted this blog to be innovative and topical then I’m sure you would have abandoned me long ago. I hope the fact that you’re still here means that you know what you’re getting.

Immigrant Song

I was never entirely convinced by the Tories’ conversion to “green” policies, so it was encouraging that with their “Damian Green” policy they sounded like they were right back on track.
I’m talking about them talking about immigration, of course, and it is always fun to revisit the subject, especially in the light of the twattish John Reid stating that “we have to get away from this daft so-called politically correct notion that anybody who wants to talk about immigration is somehow a racist.” He is right, of course – I’m talking about immigration right now – but I think it is also valid to say that often, when people complain about immigration, racist is indeed exactly what they are.

Times change. Not that long ago all asylum seekers were castigated as bogus felons who were really just economic migrants. Now the bandwagon has moved on and everyone is having a pop at the economic migrants themselves, especially in the light of Romania and Bulgaria’s impending accession into the EU.

The figures from the Home Office regarding the number of migrants from the recent accession countries certainly appear to have caused a stir (perhaps 600,000 rather than the expected 15,000), but why? If you feel there is a problem with immigrants, what difference do the actual numbers make? If you think foreigners are causing you a problem, then were you to discover that in fact only 500 Poles had entered the country that would be irrelevant. Similarly, if you feel that we have absorbed recent migrants brilliantly, if it were revealed that in reality over 5 million have entered the country it still shouldn’t matter. What is the right number of immigrants anyway? Don’t ask because no one can answer, save for a few hard-line racists who tend towards the zero figure.

Recent complaints from places such as Southampton and Slough have made the point that recent arrivals have put a strain upon public services. But have they? Latest figures show that 94% of recent immigrants are working and paying taxes to provide for those services, quite possibly paying additional bus and train fares for empty seats on public transport while “native Brits” (copyright Laban Tall) sit in their cars. But Manchester too has recently complained that the large increase in the city’s population since the last census is not reflected in the grant they receive from central government, but their increase is largely a result of internal migration rather than an influx of foreigners, due to increased housing in the city centre. If local government grants don’t take account of recent population increases, then that is a fault in the formula in funding local services rather than with immigration per se. What’s the difference in essence?

What about the complaint that recent migrants depress the wages of, say, plumbers? Apart from the fact that evidence for this is often thin on the ground, are we saying that plumbers should be a protected profession where their supply is limited so that the rest of us have to take a day off work for the pleasure of waiting in all day for a plumber to fail to turn up, and then pay an artificially exorbitant call out charge when he finally does arrive? Perhaps while we are at it we should cut the number of places at college for trainee plumbers so we can further cement the existing plumbers’ market power? I don’t think so.

But regarding immigration, things have been getting a little bit weird. Traditionally the “left” have favoured immigration, while the “right” have largely opposed it; but recently, certain bloggers’ favourite whipping girl Polly Toynbee has been arguing against open borders within the EU, as has the well-respected Labour MP Frank Field (I say well-respected, I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a tit, but there you go). In which case I think this is all a useful reminder of what I have argued for ages; that stated differences between right and left are overwhelmingly silly and pointless. For one thing, there was always the fact that while you could define the right as racist and the left as internationalist, you could also point to the right as being for free markets (and free movement of labour) while the left supports government intervention (including immigration controls). This is still a generalisation, however, and I prefer a simpler definition of the argument; that it is not between right and left, but between right and wrong.

Strip away the surrounding arguments and I think most people fall back into a default setting. Some start from the point of view that immigration is wrong; their liberalism, so to speak, comes from the practical, grudging acknowledgment that some newcomers may be required to push around hospital beds, or diagnose cancers, but really they are against immigration. On the other hand there are others who say that ideally anyone from anywhere can move to anyplace, that we should have full freedom of movement; that regrettably this is may not always be practical – for example, we may not currently be able to have totally open borders for people to emigrate to a country just to claim state benefit unless we are determined to bankrupt the country – but the onus should be on proving how a new immigrant can damage our economy. I know that you should respect others’ points of view, but in my opinion it is clear cut; the latter are right and the former wrong.

You may say that most people are somewhere in the middle, but at heart I think people fit into one of the two camps. Many may sound pro-immigration, arguing for greater numbers into this country; but if they stress the fact that it is simply for the good of our economy, and that immigration is in our gift rather than an inalienable right, then they fit into the first group. Meanwhile, some of the recent left wing converts to the anti-immigration line may lie in the latter group, that they support open borders in principle but genuinely feel recent immigrants are doing harm; but as with their right wing brethren their evidence seems more anecdotal than factual.

I don’t think there has ever been a time when some people haven’t said “okay, I’ll admit we’ve handled previous immigrants well, and they have contributed to society, but this time enough is enough, we can’t handle more, we are full up”. I suspect that following the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, if there are no restrictions placed on movement and when the British economy has failed to implode as a consequence, the arguments will move on to Turkey’s attempts to join the EU. However, I start from the viewpoint that a Manchurian and a Mancunian have exactly the same right to be allowed to live in Liverpool if they so wish; and if the debate is between right and wrong then I am happy to be on the right wing.

Update 28/8/06: My wife has just pointed out that the line “I prefer a simpler definition of the argument; that it is not between right and left, but between right and wrong” is a corny load of old toss worthy of Tony Blair; and I have to agree. Criticism noted. I will try not to do it again.

Update 12/11/06: Speaking on this morning’s Sunday AM, and discussing immigration, shadow home-secretary David Davies said “this isn’t actually about whether it’s right or left, it should be about whether it’s right or wrong”. I feel physically sick.

It's A Polenta Jungle Out There

There was an article in The Economist on the matter of “class” last week, reporting the findings of their YouGov survey on the subject (you can read the article here, free from subscription – yippee!; survey pdf can be found here).

According to the poll, 48% of people aged 30 or over say they expect to end up better off than their parents. But only 28% expect to end up in a different class. More than two-thirds think neither they nor their children will leave the class they were born into.

What does this thing that people cannot escape consist of these days? And what do people look at when decoding which class someone belongs to? The most useful identifying markers, according to the poll, are occupation, address, accent and income, in that order. The fact that income comes fourth is revealing: though some of the habits and attitudes that class used to define are more widely spread than they were, class still indicates something less blunt than mere wealth. Being the sort of person who “buys his own furniture”, a remark that Alan Clark, a former minister and diarist once reported as directed at Michael Heseltine, a self-made Tory colleague, is still worthy of note in circles where most inherit it.

It’s a funny thing, class. Perhaps it used to be simpler to figure out who belonged to which class when there was a clearer divide between a blue collar manual worker with keys to a council house and a white collar office worker with keys to the executive bathroom. Today the office worker could be a minimum wage slave scraping by while the manual worker is a self employed builder or tradesman employing an accountant to audit his vast income.

Did I say I find class funny? I think I prefer silly. Is it really anything more than an excuse to indulge in and to justify basic snobbery, be it inverted or the original, genuine article? I couldn’t care less which class I supposedly belong to because I don’t think such a thing exists as such. I don’t mind others considering me to be part of one class or another because I think it is more a reflection of someone else’s attitude and prejudices; this may count for something to some people, but I don’t knowingly move in the sort of circles where it does. However, it appears that I am writing about class; so, for the purposes of this post, which class do I belong to?

If you were to look at where I’ve come from you would probably conclude that I am middle class, at least if you were to consider many of those clichéd status symbols of my youth; my parents’ jobs were solidly middle class; they were home owners (of a detached property and all!); we went on foreign holidays (and I don’t just mean to North Wales); bought shares in the privatised utilities; my brother and I went to university. Other than going to private school, I don’t know what else we could have done to be middle class.

Having moved out of the family home and been left to my own devices, however, and things are not so clear. That university degree hasn’t been relevant to any of the jobs I’ve done, none of which you would describe as middle class; I live in a ex council semi; I’ve flogged all of the shares that have fallen into my lap (except my sentimental ones for Manchester City); I haven’t paid to go on a foreign holiday since my honeymoon four years ago.

In my penchant for eating chips and curry in the street you could consider me working class, while my penchant for using the word “penchant” could mark me out as middle class. So where do I fit in?

Well, yesterday, as I was about to pop out to the shops, I asked my wife if there was anything we had run out of that I could pick up along the way.

“We just need some balsamic vinegar and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil,” she replied.

Did you get that? She said we needed balsamic and olive oil, not for some special, specific recipe or owt, oh no, but because we had run out of those essential household staples. We needed them, just to have in! In my book you can forget “occupation, address, accent and income”, you can place them in any order you like; if my shopping list* doesn’t tell you that I am middle class, then I really don’t know what does.

* and then I go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like shopping at Morrisons rather than Sainsburys; but I prefer Morrisons, and as I’ve said I don’t actually care which class I belong to, so that doesn’t matter anyway. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realise that with this post I’ve just gone and wasted everyone’s time. Again. Soz.

Lakeland Reflections


Last Wednesday, after we’d pulled onto the car park of the Water Edge Inn at Ambleside, the wife and boy grabbed a table by the lake while I went to the bar. About to order a Stella for myself I noticed the beer pump for Kronenbourg Blanc, and being on my holidays, decided to live a little and give it a go. As the barman tilled in the price of £3.40 I decided Kronenbourg Blanc would have to be something pretty special for me to have another pint.

In fact I had two more. One swig and I was hooked; it was bleeding gorgeous. I’m not a stranger to white or wheat beers; I’ve had the occasional Hoegaarden for a change, and have whiled away many a happy hour in Sinclair’s Oyster Bar with a pint of Sam Smith’s beautiful Ayingerbrau Hefe Weizen, but this was nicer still. A clearer looking pint than I expected, with a sharp, fruity, citrus tang without being too sweet. Delicious.

The only fly in the ointment was the slightly disconcerting feeling that I’d been suckered into a marketing wheeze; that Kronenbourg Blanc is not a revival of an old classic but a recent launch dreamt up by a committee tasked with brand stretching, its fine flavour the result of extensive market research, and that I was really drinking little more than an expensive and cloudy lager and lime.

It was though merely a minor discomfort that passed with the numbing of the senses as another beer was imbibed, and I decided that I was more than happy to be a willing dupe. Mine’s another pint.


We awoke in Bowness on Thursday to the same news as everyone else; that there had been a string of terror suspects arrested and that the airports were in chaos. We watched the news for a bit then set off, as planned, to the rather splendid South Lakes Wildlife Park. I’m familiar with Chester Zoo, a fine place to be sure but a bit overwhelming; you can lose the will to live there before you are even half way round. At South Lakes Zoo though we seemed that bit closer to the animals, and it was far more compact, as I imagine London Zoo to be (perhaps; I’ve never been but it looks neat on the map. Last time I was in Regent’s Park I kept seeing signs for the zoo but I couldn’t track it down; until, strolling up The Broad Walk I looked to my left and started when I saw an ostrich, keeping up with me, pace for pace, just the other side of a fence, and I realised I’d found it).

So we had a great time, and it wasn’t until we were sat having a drink in the Hole Int’ Wall pub that we thought again about the morning’s news, and that for all we knew the plot may not have been foiled and thousands of people could be dead.

Of course, we know now that that didn’t happen, whether because of excellent police work or because there was no such plot. I think some scepticism is understandable, after the ricin, red mercury and chemical vest plots that apparently weren’t; but until we find out for certain what the quality of intelligence was this time I’m prepared to give the security services the benefit of doubt.

Some of the conspiracy theories expounded have been pretty outlandish; I can’t see the entire aviation network being buggered just to manipulate public opinion, or to put the squeeze on Blair when he is out of the country. Some questions disappear into thin air the moment you have thought of them. Why, for example, keep the terror threat level at critical if the plot has been disrupted and the suspects detained? Simply because perhaps we can’t be certain all the suspects are in custody, and if those at large are no longer under surveillance they are free to regroup. That said, I deny anyone not to have experienced a shudder when they first viewed that hideosity John Reid making his horrible, horrible address to the nation from his Home Office bunker. There really was a chilling coup d’etat vibe about the whole thing, if not a full-blown “we have commandeered all your puny Earthlings’ broadcasting frequencies” feel to it. Thankfully, our Deputy Prime Minister’s address later on brought some welcome, if unintentional, comic relief.


Our last day in the Lakes was Friday, which brought the sports news that “Hatchet” McClaren had swung into action, axing David Beckham from the England squad for some pointless midweek friendly in the next week or is it the week after against oh-I-forget.

I think it is fair to say that even Steve McClaren didn’t want Steve McClaren to be the England manager, but we are all stuck with him now as he tries to make the best of bad job, the first act of which obviously has to be to make the visible break from the ancien regime, to appear the daring and decisive new broom rather than just the same old damp and tired mop as you move into the top job; and dropping Beckham surely proves it.

Or does it? After all, Beckham laid the groundwork himself by resigning the England captaincy after the World Cup, and getting shot of him is something the media and supporters have been crying out for for ages. If I had a penny for every time someone has said to me “Beckham’s not played well for England for four years” then I’d be halfway to affording a bag of crisps by now (I don’t have the widest circle of friends) but most people would probably have enough for a down payment on a Maserati, or could buy a Kia Pride outright, if you allow a discount for cash.

So I don’t have a great deal of optimism about the McClaren reign; even when he apparently stamps his authority by telegraphing a brave and bold decision, the reality is that he has made the obvious, plodding and unimaginative move. But while the Beckham “sacking” has taken the headlines, I think a more telling decision has been buried in the small print.

When Beckham gave up the captaincy battle raged over who should replace him; John Terry or Steven Gerrard. In this regard, McClaren has completely bottled it, by making Terry captain but giving Gerrard the consolation prize of the vice-captaincy (and a colouring set). Now, we all know that, unlike in cricket, football captains do fuck all really, other than clapping their hands together a lot and shouting “come on lads” (which Terry is very accomplished at); so what on earth does a vice-captain do? In this case it appears he lets Steve McClaren off the hook; it is an administrative weaselling that means he doesn’t really have to choose between two players from different well-supported clubs, coached by vocal managers who seem to have an enmity for each other. It doesn’t bode well; even on a basically irrelevant decision McClaren has chosen the road of timidity, or at the very least the timorous politician’s path.

We’ll see how things develop from here on in, but rest assured that following any successes for the England football team under McClaren’s stewardship this post will be radically rewritten in the Stalinist style; but I’m not anticipating any such action.