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Alas Myth and Cones: Counting the Costa traffic jams in a city of red lights

18 Jul

I am lucky enough to have two homes. One is a sunshine villa 30 minutes’ drive from Alicante airport, the other a modest semi 18 miles north of Manchester’s three flight terminals.

An airport trip at the English end is subject to an electrifying hazard in the form of 50 sets of traffic lights. The consolation is that no more than 47 tend to be stuck on red at any given time.

If you are lucky enough to actually catch your flight, you do at least face a delightful evening discussing traffic lights with the Spanish cabbie driving you to Guardamar on the N332.

Mention the super-hazard of every street corner in Britain and the taxi driver’s conversation is likely to consist of a quizzical look and the words ‘Que es trah-fick-lie-eat?’

Odds are he won’t know what you are talking about because, believe it or not, there’s not a single set of the things between Alicante and my Costa Blanca home.

At the Manchester end one can, of course, avoid the red-light menace by heading for the airport via the city’s Park-And-Don’t-Move service, otherwise known as the M60 motorway.

That trip is no fun either, aRoadworks on the A21nd unless you give yourself at least two days to get to the airport, a couple of hours with your head immersed in 50 Shades of Red may well be less stressful than counting traffic cones.

Either way, both routes to the airport provide ideal material for a ‘100 Reasons to Escape Manchester’ publicity blitz.

What sort of voyeur gets a kick out of watching traffic cones breeding on the M60, for heaven’s sake? Last time I used the so-called ring road I counted 428 million giant ice-cream cornets during a six-mile crawl to the Trafford Centre. The 14-hour trip was marginally quicker than taking the car but my knees didn’t half hurt by the time I reached my destination. And I was suffering from orange-and-white colour blindness into the bargain.

One of the few perks of driving to Manchester airport via the city centre is that you can stop off for a coffee and a bacon butty. The down side is the £60 parking fine you’ll inevitably get in addition to burning off eight gallons of unleaded in a desperate attempt to park sideways on the single metre of kerb untainted by double yellow lines.

I appreciate that comparing the Costa del Salford with the Costa del Sol is akin to confusing Bury Market with the London Stock Market. But that’s a bourse-case scenario.

There are, in fact, many leisurely compensations for those who choose not to drive in what must surely be the wettest part of the UK. One is enjoying a morning swim to the office in downtown Mancunia’s high-street ocean, known to the aquatic community as the Sea of Umbrellas. The rush hour is so busy that there’s no choice but to do the crawl, and not only because the breast stroke is illegal and a butterfly as rare as an English Mark Spitz.

Which brings me on to football or, for the gob-fearing amongst us, the mouths of Wayne Rooney and Kompany.

Manchester is of course home to two top football teams, namely Bury and Oldham Athletic. Fortunately I don’t support Man United or Man City either, which is a bit of a relief since I don’t speak German (heaven help whoever puts the names on United players’ shirts) and with my flight back to Spain only 24 hours away, I’m pretty low on Sterling too (boom boom).

Oh, a geeky friend just called to say there are actually 49 sets of traffic lights between my Whitefield home and Manchester Airport. Using the bacon-butty route, that is.

I believe there are also 49 million traffic cones between Anfield in Liverpool and Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.

All paid for in Sterling, of course.

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Bigger than Manchester United: Two-faced Ferguson’s ego trip

11 May

I’ve met Sir Alex Ferguson on a couple of occasions (well, been in his company ) and I have to say it was a pleasant experience. Even if the Manchester United boss’s red-nosed jollity had been inspired by a glass or six of vintage vino.

So why do I find it so pleasant to see his 27-year reign at Old Trafford finally come to an end?
It’s not that I’m anti United — how can I be when half my family are dyed-in-the-wool Reds? It’s just that I have no time for two-faced people. And I’m afraid Fergie is a classic example of a split personality .
You can’t argue with the Scottish super-boss’s record as a football club manager. He has no peers in terms of success over more than two decades. What I find disgusting is that Mr McMighty has become bigger than Manchester United—and that his employers  allowed him to do so.
Fergie’s press conference bans on newspapermen who dare to criticise  him or his team  have become folklore in Fleet Street. One agency reporter felt the full weight of Fergie’s wrath  a while back just for asking a question about Ryan Giggs. But it was nothing new. Over the years, Fergie has slapped ridiculous sanctions dozens of journalists who dared to write or say something he didn’t like.
Sir Alex is vindictive with it, too. Not for him the “let bygones be bygones” approach. His ludicrous vendetta against the BBC went on for almost a decade—fuelled by a Panorama programme which investigated the business activities of his son Jason, who was then a football agent.
Another example of his petulance was the recall of two players on loan from United immediately after Preston North End sacked another of his sons, Darren.
The fact is that Sir Alex became the victim of his own success. He seems convinced that he is even closer to the Almighty than Jose Mourinho and the late Brian Clough.
And the United board are entirely to blame for the situation. Quite simply , they lacked the bottle to tell Ferguson ‘‘Either talk to the BBC along with the other broadcasting companies, or find yourself a new job.’’
OK, we all know what would have happened. United would have been looking for a new boss many years ago. That has been the problem at Old Trafford for a long time. Quite simply , the board were just as scared of Fergie as the frightened media rabbits who bowed and scraped to his every whim.
They humbled themselves in the eyes of the Mighty Dictator,  which makes me suspect that few of those who cover United matches on a regular basis always write exactly what they think.
And I find that very discomforting.

BIG BROTHER, BIG STAR? THE REALITY OF CELEBRITY

6 May

ASK any youngster what they most want most when they grow up and there’s a good chance the words ‘’to be famous’’ will be near the top of the list. And sadly, reality TV rubbish like ‘Big Brother’ has made that dream easier to achieve than ever before.

The problem is that talent and fame no longer go together. These days it’s a case of the bigger and louder the idiot, the better the chance of hitting the headlines.

Only in the world of 21st century television can moronic lunatics locked away in bizarre goldfish bowl become the idols of millions of brain-dead couch potatoes. And for what? Being able to say the F-word more times than anyone else? I despair.

There used to be a time when fame was a natural development for those blessed with a special talent. Were you not remarkably gifted, your only chance of achieving celebrity status would be to take the notoriety route. And anonymity has always been a much better option than spending a lifetime in prison.

 

It mystifies me why today’s ‘celebrities’ are worshipped like gods. Particularly those who have achieved that celebrity via the reality TV route. Perhaps it is the fact that the average person’s 15 minutes of fame amounts to the time they were pulled from the sea by a lifeguard at Clacton after swallowing a lump of seaweed in two feet of water.

Anyone who actually KNOWS a celebrity (a real one, not a Big Brother berk) will be aware that they are as human as the rest of us.

They eat, sleep, breathe, laugh, cry, have families, age…and ultimately they die. Just like the rest of us. Unless they are themselves the children of celebrities, they also begin life as nobodies. They go to school, they grow up…and NOBODY ever asks for their autograph.

During my youth, I knew at least two nobodies who later became somebodies in a big way. Today their names are instantly recognisable but when I was 19, they were simply men trying to build careers in their chosen professions. Both were ambitious, so was I. But while I went on to be relatively successful as a writer and editor, these two guys reached for the stars….and grabbed them with both hands.

Tommy and Linda Woodward as I remember them in 1962.

The guys I am talking about are Sir Tom Jones and the BBC’s John Humphrys. Tom – then plain Tommy Woodward – would wander into the Pontypridd Observer office almost daily to tell me about his latest attempt to break into the big time. His work ethic regarding anything but singing was, shall we say, questionable.

But he clearly had talent … and was happy to provide me with some decent stories about his latest vocal exploits for my weekly pop column. He had lots of rough edges as a person – but with a voice like his, it was only a matter of time before his career took off and my personal name-dropping list got its first illustrious entry.

Humph was a classmate at the National Council for the Training of Journalists day release course in Cardiff each Friday.

Then working as a reporter for the Western Mail, John was a quiet, even shy guy…the last person you would pick out as a future BBC foreign correspondent, news presenter and Mastermind chairman. But like TJ, he clearly had a special talent which the BBC soon recognised.

The rise and rise of both sons of Wales taught me one huge lesson which today’s hero worshippers simply cannot identify with For all the glitz and glamour, celebrities are just ordinary people.

Goodbye Daily Sport – you never were any good at figures!

9 Apr

Weren’t you gutted to hear that the seedy Sport Media Group founded by David Sullivan had gone into administration? Neither was I – apart from great sympathy for the 80 people who lost their jobs.

I detest the tackiness of the Daily and Sunday Sport so I’m glad to see the back of their smut. But I also have some unforgettable memories of the days I worked for the Daily Sport myself – and became the only journalist to be involuntarily pushed out of the door TWICE.

My career in journalism has embraced well over 30 years in what is still fondly called Fleet Street – mainly as a sub-editor but also as a writer and columnist.

I worked under charismatic editors ranging from the awesome Sir John Junor at the Sunday Express to the booming bullying of Kelvin Mackenzie at The Sun and the bloated arrogance of Piers Morgan at the Daily Mirror.

I also had both the pleasure and pain of twice working for Peter Grimsditch, the launch editor of the Manchester-based Daily Star in 1978 who some years later became inaugural editor of the Daily Sport.

Grimbles, as we called him, was simply brilliant with the Star’s launch team of journalists. By the time the paper first hit the news-stands, he had called every one of us into his office individually for a drink and a ‘meet the boss’ chat.

My chinwag lasted fully half an hour and sealed an instant bond which, long after we had both moved on to other newspapers, led to Grimsditch invitingme to join the Daily Sport team in its early days in 1991.

With virtually every national newspaper production team at this point operating exclusively in London, as someone whose heart was in Manchester, I actually jumped at the chance to sink into the gutter. After all, I was joining the paper’s one decent department – the sports desk, whose staff included some highly talented journalists.

And to avoid any embarrassment, I proceeded to hide my shame from my friends by telling them I was now freelancing rather than working for any individual title.

Most of the journalists on the Daily Sport were experienced national newspaper subs who simply wanted to stay in the North. It was much, much more than Sullivan deserved – but the fact is he had a captive market.

Anyway things went well until the pressure of trying to keep the title afloat started to get to Grimsditch. We all laughed when he suddenly issued a warning over staff using the office computer system to store private files, something we all did and which caused no harm whatsoever.

It all came to a head when he called me into his office one day and accused me of committing a criminal offence by using the office system to store minor details from a sports book I was writing. It was all trumped-up nonsense and I exploded.

It was like something out of a movie as I stormed out of Grimbles’ retreat and in a dramatic scene watched by the entire staff, yelled theatrically ‘‘I quit’’ before slamming his office door as hard as I could .

I swear the entire building shook and by the time I got home, a dispatch rider had already delivered a quickly dictated letter from Grimsditch accepting my resignation.

Two months later, sports editor Steve Millar phoned to tell me the Grim news that the Editor had himself been dismissed. ‘’Will you please come back – we need you,’’ he pleaded.

So back to Great Ancoats Street I went with a quiet snigger that the person responsible for my departure had himself been booted into oblivion.

A year or so later, Sullivan – dissatisfied with the economic state of his print empire, ordered a redundancy exercise which involved the sports desk being trimmed by three.

Unfortunately Sport Newspapers’ naïve management team failed to realise that certain procedures must be followed regarding redundancies and when Millar refused to single out three people, they took it upon themselves to do the job for him.

It was a mistake that ended with their representatives being ripped to shreds at an industrial tribunal. I and the two sports-desk colleagues who got the old heave-ho were awarded almost £30,000 between us, with the chairman intimating the figure would have been higher had he not be tied by a legal maximum.

I look back on it all today with some amusement – particularly at the memos the less-than-articulate Sullivan would circulate about his beloved Birmingham City. Indeed, I’m sure I still have copies of a couple of them somewhere.

At the time, the Blues were playing in the second tier (now the Championship) and the chairman was keen to put his players in the shop window at every opportunity in the hope one of the big clubs would come calling.

‘‘Whenever you mention our star striker Paul Peschisolido, please make sure you say ‘’£2million-rated Paul Peschisolido’’, he instructed the sports department. ‘‘And for all other Birmingham players, please put ‘‘£1million-rated’’ before their name.’’

I could throw in an anecdote or two about Sullivan’s protégé Karren Brady, who also put her oar in once or twice. But I’ll leave that for another day because I’ve kind of warmed to English football’s first female managing director over recent years.

So I’ll leave it to the men to moan about women ruining the game. Andy Gray, where are you?

Headline news: Who Cares What Katie Price Did Today?

25 Feb

I spent nearly 20 years working for The Sun, Daily Mirror and Daily Star – but I rarely read Britain’s red-top rags these days.

It’s bad enough that they cost four times as much here in Spain as they do in the UK. But seeing the rants of a talentless ‘celebrity’ plastered all over the front pages day after day is enough to make me wish I was blind.

You know who I’m talking about – and I shudder to even mention her name. Every day without fail there is a new ‘‘story’’ about Katie Price and her latest husband/separation /lover/divorce/motoring conviction/attempt to pick her nose.

There’s no story at all really – it’s just publicity for publicity’s sake of someone whose only assets are a distorted set of surgically-adjusted boobs. As for her over made-up face, I sense a new Jackie Stallone or Donatella Versace in the making. (God, those two actually make me look pretty!),

Whilst I quite like Peter Andre – and he does have a decent voice (well, decentish!) – we all know his appearance on the reality show which led to his romance with the aforesaid Ms Price was orchestrated to revive his flagging singing career.

Rather than I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here a more appropriate title for the show would have been I Used To Be A Celebrity – Get Me In There! OK, the romance that subsequently developed in the Australian jungle was a story of sorts. But how on earth did it develop into the current interminable TV and tabloid soap opera?

Have news values really sunk to an ebb where the day-to-day movements of a mouthy model heading for botoxville are more headline-worthy than events that change the world?

The tabloid press has gone crazy to the point that when Price and Andre inevitably split up, any man who moved in was destined to become a celebrity whether he liked it or not. As well as contracting foot-in-mouth disease from the irritation once known as Jordan.

Enter a transvestite cage fighter (anything for publicity) called Alex Reid, whose biggest claim to fame was that he was once a contestant on the Gladiators TV show. Cue an instant red-top revolution as the back bench eyed a new target to continue the obligatory promotion of Betty Big Boobs with the Thick Lips and Too Much Slap.

Anonymous Alex was suddenly Awesome Alex, albeit a multi-talentless addition to the growing volume of Z-list nobodies.

Andre had Priced himself out of the picture (and conveniently into his own fly-on-the-wall series. But for his successor in the love-hate stakes, the ‘‘Reid all about it’’ headlines were more than enough reward for Alex’s self-sacrifice as Caring Katie’s new puppet.

I have long since stopped reading the titillating trivia, though it’s virtually impossible to avoid catching glimpses of headlines that highlight Price’s latest publicity-fuelled tirade.

I’m not sure whether the obsession with the lives of so-called celebrities is the fault of the media or just an example of the diminishing intellect of the UK public. It’s not as if one needs any particular skill to become a celebrity. The fact is that in 21st century Britain, ANYONE can become one.

At times, it really is a case of the less talent the better – as portrayed by the late Jade Goody, whose only assets were her ignorance, big mouth and a Big Brother with the frightening ability to change people’s fortunes forever.

Looking at the seedy background the poor girl emerged from, it’s encouraging to think that someone like Goody can be turned at the drop of a switch into a celebrity with millions in the bank.

But I find it uncomfortable that the media has the power to create instant celebrities – and then destroy them just as quickly.

There was a time when the essential ingredient to become a celebrity was talent. Whether you were an actor, singer, comedian, sports star, you name it, there was no way into the public eye unless you possessed genuine talent.

When I was a teenager, I had a friend in South Wales who spent years performing around the clubs in the hope of making it as a professional singer. In the end, Tommy Woodward made it bigtime as Tom Jones – because he had genuine talent.

But it was a case of anonymity for life for most of us – including those with a lot more talent than the vast majority of today’s reality show ‘celebrities’.

Had she been born 30 years earlier, Katie Price would no doubt have made a living as a model. No more than that.

But at least she wouldn’t have knocked the Bay of Pigs and Watergate off the front page of the Daily Mirror.

Six areas where sports writers go wrong – the inside story

19 Feb

Having edited the work of leading British sports writers for more years than I care to remember, I can tell you that their articles are not always as well-written as you might think.

That is because, certainly in the tabloid world, the readability of a newspaper article is often down to a sub-editor’s fine-tuning rather than the author’s literary gifts.

In my early days as a Daily Express sub, we had a football reporter on the staff who regularly came up with great exclusives. But although he’d type up the news as an ‘article’, it was usually little more than a clumsily-written fact sheet.

Nobody cared, though, because the only thing that mattered was the story itself – and turning it into a back-page lead was usually a routine job for an experienced sub-editor.

In more recent times, one or two of Fleet Street’s top sports hacks had a reputation in the business for churning out pure gibberish rather than acceptable copy. And whilst I am not going to name the paper or writer concerned, I had the misfortune to be saddled on several occasions with subbing the investigative reports of one of the best known drivellers.

All I can say is that reading the final flowing version of his ramblings in the following morning’s edition was for me just about the ultimate in job satisfaction. Even if I still wasn’t sure what it was all about!

Sub-editors are what I call ‘desk reporters’ – journalists who work in an office environment editing and honing the work of those out in the field (or in the press boxes, to be more accurate).

Almost without exception, the subs have spent lots of time out there reporting before moving on into the sub-editing arena. It is rare indeed for someone to START his or her journalistic life as a sub-editor.

More often than not, the changeover is a conscious decision by writers with particularly high grammatical skills and a desire to work office hours rather than be farmed out on stories at all hours, day and night.

So what advice can I give to embryo sports journalists? What is the perception of someone who has been there and done it all towards the errors made by young writers developing their skills out in the big wide sporting world? Where do the reporters go wrong?

1/ Not checking the facts: Many writers just churn out copy off top of their heads and THINK they remember accurately. In the old days, reporters used reference books – it is so easy these days to carry out a quick internet search to establish the facts, but how many people actually bother to do it.

2/ Over-estimating the reader: Another common error is for the writer to assume readers know more than they actually do. I have edited match reports where the reporter hasn’t even included the score! So always think when you are writing whether you are providing everything the average reader would want to know.

3/ Spelling: This is usually the big difference between a reporter and a sub. With the sort of back-up subs provide, it doesn’t usually matter too much if a reporter can’t spell too well, as long as he or she is not completely dyslexic, of course! However, a sub who can’t spell would be as useful as a lifeguard who can’t swim. So if God hasn’t given you the gift of being able to spell (and word recognition IS a gift, not something that can really be learnt), then forget about ever becoming a sub-editor.

4/ Grammatical errors: Most people are aware that the infinitive and the verb should never be split, but how many people use expressions like ‘to brilliantly save from…’ or ‘to angrily remonstrate with the referee’? Those variances with correct grammar don’t really matter because few people realise it should be ‘to save brilliantly from’ or ‘to remonstrate angrily’. However, some expressions do grate – for instance, I find the phrase ‘‘in the back of the net’’ ludicrous. I mean, if the ball is in the back of the net, where is the FRONT of the net? The ball is in the net, end of story.

5/ Getting too technical: You’ll often find people writing about a football match as if it’s a game of chess – presumably to convey the impression they understand its complexities as well as those who coach and play at the highest level. Basically, football is a very simple exercise, though from reading what some of the so-called expert journalists churn out, you’d think it was rocket science.

6/ Amateur experts: Following on from the previous point, some writers think they know more than the REAL experts – namely the managers and the players. A writer is in a privileged position but if he has never played the game, is he REALLY qualified to slag off players for making mistakes? You can make an argument for saying ‘yes, anyone is qualified to criticise’, but it’s a debatable one. This is presumably why the TV channels use former professionals almost exclusively as their critics and summarisers – be it for football, rugby, cricket, tennis or whatever.

The above article, part of which I wrote during my time as managing editor of the Sportingo.com website, embraces my thoughts after 35 years of reporting, editing and headlining hundreds of sports stories for newspapers like the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, The Sun, Daily Star, Sunday People and News of the World. I just hope it helps the next generation of sports writers in some small way…