Sunday, 1 August 2010

Quick notes

A few quick notes about things I've read today, since it's a Sunday afternoon and the weather's not very nice. There's lots of excellent Russia coverage around today, led by a piece on Comment is Free by Stefan Berger, a German academic, summarising the fallout of a report in Der Spiegel, which claimed that Gorbachev had offered the West Germans the city of Kaliningrad (Königsberg to the Germans) in 1990 during the German re-unification talks.

A bit of background: The city was the capital of Prussia for centuries and a major German cultural centre until 1945, when the Russians levelled the city, drove out the Germans and moved in Russian settlers to Kaliningrad, a concrete workers' paradise named after one of Stalin's henchmen (less gloriously, Königsberg had also been a fervent focus for Nazism). The interesting part in Berger's piece is this paragraph:

"But what about the Kaliningraders themselves? All survey data indicates that the vast majority see themselves as Russian, but Russian with a difference – more European. Kaliningrad intellectuals have been spearheading a rediscovery of the enclave's German past. Many are proud of their few German architectural remains and there has been vociferous support for the rebuilding of the German castle, destroyed by the Soviets. Some even support the renaming of Kaliningrad to Königsberg."
 This is a big difference to how the region is usually portrayed in the media, as a hotbed of belligerent, uncomprising Russian ultranationalism of the sort usually reserved for enemies in computer games whose writers are determined to find a way of letting the player fight the Cold War. I haven't been myself, so I can't give an opinion on this, but I'd love to go there and find out more. It seems fascinating.

Elsewhere, glancing at Der Spiegel I noticed a very incisive English-language piece on the situation in Russia's restive, Islamist-leaning republic of Dagestan. A friend of mine in Moscow travelled there to interview the family of one of the bombers from the Moscow metro suicide attacks and corroborated a lot of what Schepp has to say here (my reflections on arriving in Moscow shortly after the attacks). Also, Anna Matveeva, previously all too often the Guardian's resident mouthpiece for Putin-style "sovereign democracy", is quite good on the subject of Kyrgyzstan, although studiously refusing to admit any hint that Russia may be doing a lot behind the scenes.

In the Times, which I can't give you any links to because of the paywall and the fact I read it on some dead trees, Caitlin Moran kicks AA Gill's arse on the subject of the excellent Sherlock, while Christina Lamb is very informative on Pakistan.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The return

I'm finally settled in one place for the first time since leaving Moscow for Siberia (full story once I've sorted out how I want to write it). I'll be off up to Edinburgh soon to review at the Festival Fringe for Fest magazine, meaning that my Moscow test review passed muster.

In the meantime, here's a piece about vuvuzelas I wrote for Rob Marrs at Left Back In The Changing Room during the World Cup but haven't remembered to link yet. Enjoy it, there will be a bit more football coverage soon, looking at a great abandoned stadium, racist hooligans and the language of football reporting.

On a wild tangent, since getting back from my travels in Buryatia, I have read about a fascinating place, the world's best location for travel, a Bond villain's lair or the setting for an adventure novel sold in airport bookshops.

It's Bir Tawil, the only place in the world outside Antarctica that no country claims (h/t Strange Maps). If you look below, it's the little red trapezoid shape on the Egypt-Sudan border, next to a much bigger triangle which stretches to the coast. Both Egypt and Sudan claim the triangle (Hala'ib), using different sets of borders, each of which assigns Bir Tawil to the other side. As a result, either country claiming Bir Tawil would automatically have to yield Hala'ib, which is more valuable. Unfortunately, there are no reports of anyone using the little trapezoid, about the size of Singapore for nefarious world-controlling schemes.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Reaping Stalin's whirlwind

A very quick post before I go to watch the football. Today, The Economist has an excellent article on the background to the violence in Kyrgyzstan. Stalin drew borders between the then-Soviet republics in central Asia, which were set in stone after they gained independence, ratcheting up ethnic tension. I don't know whether this is a case of the borders being simply arbitrary, like the imperial-era one that give Egypt a perfect right-angle in the middle of the Sahara, or whether this was intentional.

Soviet leaders had a record of gerrymandering borders to split up populations and hinder national sentiment, while Stalin deported vast numbers of people to central Asia on the basis of ethnic ancestry. As a result, Uzbekistan's national football team has the star striker Alexander Geynrikh - the Russian transliteration of the German Heinrich, after the Volga Germans were sent east in 1942. Khrushchev gave the mostly-ethnically-Russian Crimea to Ukraine in the 1960s to dilute Ukrainian national sentiment, with the result of rows over naval bases and linguistic divides that continue to this day, sometimes violently.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Russian Music Wednesdays #3 - Yanka Dyagileva

This week's RMW choice is Yanka Dyagileva, a troubled talent from the depths of Siberia. Her style was a folk-influenced punk with soaring vocals, dark lyrics and some veiled attacks on Soviet Communism (she also featured in the more openly critical band Civil Defence). She often fell victim to bouts of depression, especially after her close friend Alexander Bashlachev committed suicide in 1988. On May 9, 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart, she went for a walk along a river near her rural home, and was found drowned eight days later, aged 25. Shortly before her death, she had recorded a four-song EP "Styd i Sram" (Shame and Disgrace), which ends with the song "Pridet Voda" (The Water's Coming).

Dyagileva never produced a professional album, working in improvised studios and performing in friends' flats. Her music only became nationally popular after her death, despite scratchy recordings being the only ones available. The song featured here is "Gori-gori yasno" (Burn-burn brightly) from the album Anhedonia. Lyrics in Russian here, my translation underneath. If you want to hear an electric recording, this one is excellent.

You don’t chase, you won’t understand, you didn’t chase, you didn’t steal,
Without work you won’t knock out your teeth, won’t sell, won’t fuck...
This song you won’t stifle, won’t kill,
This song you won’t stifle, won’t kill.

The house is burning – the wanker doesn’t see
The house is burning – the wanker doesn’t know
That it was born into the world with the wanker
Too to answer to the wanker

Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out,
Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out!

On the road I hung about, mud diluted with tears:
They tore up a new skirt, yes they shut up her mouth.
Hail the great working people,
The invincible, mighty people!

The house is burning – the wanker doesn’t see it,
He got drunk and started a fight,
He won’t understand who
Called whom a wanker first

Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out,
Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out!

Flow, song, in the open, fly across the chimney pipes,
The little mouths and feet of the black house on the beautiful ground.
The sweet sun laughs with a loud red laugh,
Burn-burn bright, so it doesn’t go out!

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Squeezing lungs and inhaling fluff

A couple of photos from last week in Russia:

First up, here is one of the more extreme anti-smoking adverts I've seen in Russia. Two hands squeezing a lung (or sponge) so that tar (or muddy water) drips into a beaker to give a clear example of What Will Happen To You If You Smoke. They really do the lung-squeezing thing, by the way - a mate of mine had it as a summer job, and it was rubbish.

And here, thanks to a picture from the excellent Secret Moscow, is what the locals call the city's "summer snow". This is pukh (literally, "fluff"), the pollen from the poplar trees that can be found all over the city. It gets in your eyes, nose, mouth and pretty much any other exposed orifice, and, if you're even mildly ticklish, is a complete pain. Walking around the city during the two-week pukh storm gave me a vague idea of what hayfever sufferers must go through every summer. Poor bastards.

And finally, here's a timely and sanguine reminder of the industry I'm trying to get into, thanks to the Onion.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

A taste of things to come

I've been a bit busy recently, so I thought I'd give the blog a bit more structure with a taste of what's coming up in the two weeks before I head to Siberia. This has the useful side-effect of forcing me to actually write the bloody things.

- A terrifying chat with a football hooligan

- Trespassing in an old, abandoned football stadium

- Crippling bureaucracy and corruption

- The frankly ridiculous pollen count

If you're wondering what happened to Russian Music Wednesday no.3, the answer is that I've decided to make it fortnightly because quite a few of the acts I want to feature aren't as mainstream and I'll need to translate the lyrics myself.

The Cherry Orchard

Applying for work at Fest, the award-winning Edinburgh Fringe magazine mostly run by former staff of the The Student, they had the dashed cheek to ask for three sample reviews. I only had two published ones lying around, so I had to write up this gem quickly (I had actually been to the play, and it was amazing). The reason I had no time is that my old section editor Hannah Carr had demanded I ride the longest escalator in the world and give her a quote about it. It was basically just like one you get in M&S but longer and with more flirting Russians. Anyway, here's the review:

The Cherry Orchard

Chekhov Theatre Festival, Lenkom Theatre, Moscow, May 31, 2010

Unpublished (just for you, you lucky people)

The cliched criticism levelled at Chekhov's plays, and Russian drama in general, is that nothing bloody well happens. But even the most dogged champion of this approach will have to agree that the Lenkom's production of The Cherry Orchard is the most riveting, risque, even sexy, two hours of nothing happening that you will ever see.

The text blossoms, treating Chekhov's sympathetic portrayal of misunderstanding, relationships breaking down and a society in flux with full respect for its myriad of subtle meanings. This is helped by the liberal sprinkling of stardust in the cast, which contains four actors with the honour of 'People's Artist of Russia' - in effect, officially mandated national treasures. And they shine. 84-year-old Leonid Bronevoi is particularly outstanding in the role of Feers, the ancient butler who symbolises the aristocracy's slide into irrelevance with his out-of-touch mumblings about decade past. Bronevoi inhabits the role with a genuine pathos and a fine sense of comic timing.

It can be easy to forget that Chekhov intended his plays to comedies, and this is sometimes lost in favour of a po-faced inherent-sadness-of-the-human-condition portrayal. Here, director Alexander Zakharov reminds his audience that Chekhov can be hilarious. The German governess brought back by aristocratic lead Lyubov from her time in Paris is a groteque figure dressed like a can-can dancer, there to distract the rich from the realities of life. Recognising the humour in this figure and playing to it has the added bonus of allowing the audience to empathise with the characters - their amusement amuses us too.

And then there's the sex. The relationship between Lyubov and brash young businessmen Lopakhin is given a whole new meaning as she breaks her boredom with explicit fantasies of him, the old firting with the news. It's heady stuff.

While the Lenkom production could be a bit more polished, especially in the slightly sagging second act, this is Chekhov on fine form. It will also be a fine tonic for anyone who saw the festival-opening production of Three Sisters, where half the audience left at the interval after director Frank Kastorf attempted to "break down the structure of meaning" by having every line delivered in voices like pneumatic drills. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Not quite warts and all

Just came back from getting some passport photos for an ISIC card. Turns out that the process is a bit different here in Russia. No automated booths here spewing out endless recorded messages (if you've ever worked in a shop containing one, you will have experienced a powerful rage to smash it with a hammer).

Here it's a man in the back room of a pharmacy with a camera - and Photoshop. After taking the photos, he then wordlessly proceeded to remove every pimple, ancient acne scar and even most freckles and a mole, while leaving a shadow behind both my ears that makes me look like I have a mullet. Since I'd also had a shave just before going out, the result leaves my face looking smooth, plastic and barely inhabited. The general impression is Madame Tussaud's. Or David Cameron.

I would put the photo up here, but I'm a bit cowardly on the issue of identity theft, so I won't. If you know me, though, I'll show you if you ask nicely (and show me yours).

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Russian Music Wednesdays #2 - Kino

It's been a while since the last Russian Music Wednesday, chiefly because I've been a bit lazy. To make up

First up is Viktor Tsoi, probably the biggest Russian rock star of all time, with his band, Kino (Cinema). Originally an underground band distributing their music on scratchy copied tapes in early 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg again), Kino became huge as the loosening of censorship under Gorbachev allowed them to reach a wider audience, and songs with barely-veiled political messages, like "Khochu Peremen" (I Want Change), became hits. The band broke up after Tsoi was killed in a car accident in 1990, but the songs are still widely recognised.

Here's their song "Zvezda Po Imeni Solnce" (A Star Called The Sun), which has a catchy tune and poetic lyrics (available here).

And, as a sign of their continuing popularity, here's a recent cover of Kino's "Kukushka" (Cuckoo) by Russia's ruling pop-rock artist, Zemfira (lyrics).

Next week, something darker.

Siberia trip (hopefully not too boastful)

(click to zoom in)
I can't wait for June 20. It's then that I'll get on a train which will take me out of Europe for the first time in my life. I'll get off the train 83 hours, 3,500 miles and five time zones later in Ulan-Ude, the capital of the Russian region of Buryatia, on the Mongolian border. Here's a rough idea of mine and my friend Sophie's basic but very, very cheap train accommodation:

Ulan-Ude, Wikipedia tells me, is not only Russia's biggest centre of Tibetan Buddhism, but also contains the world's biggest sculpture of Lenin's head and is twinned with Berkeley, California (not sure if there's a link there). There we'll meet up with another friend of mine, Dasha, who will come along with us and hopefully boost our rubbish haggling skills. We'll then go to stay on an island in the middle of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world, which looks like this. Not too bad, I hope you'll agree, and a spectacular end to my time in Russia.

I'll blog it if I get the chance, too.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

What I've been up to

I've been quiet recently, and this has, to my surprise, actually caused some people to complain. It's always nice to be needed.

I have a bit more time on my hands now, so I'll rectify this mistake by writing regularly over the coming weeks about my experiences in Russia (and hopefully for even longer than that, since I'm currently trying to get my visa extended). Living in Moscow has shown me I made the right move in choosing to study the language and culture of this amazing country, and I want to grasp as much of it as I can.

Anyway, here's a short summary of what I've been up to.

- Working at Feature Story News. I've been writing and voicing daily radio reports on Russian news for various radio stations. If you're a regular listener to Voice of Nigeria, Vatican Radio, FM4 Austria or Radio New Zealand, you may already have heard cutting-edge reporting in my Worcestershire lilt. If not, my pieces are pretty often on the FSN World News Podcast. I also do research and investigative work for TV features, and write for FSN's reporters' blog, where my latest piece contains a truly awful pun at the end of the second paragraph. Don't look, whatever you do.

- Writing for NewsBase. I'm a regular stringer, mostly covering Germany but starting to write about Russia too. Should you be lucky enough to be a subscriber to the EurOil European Oil and Gas Monitor, my latest market commentary makes German refineries sound incredibly exciting. If you produce petrochemicals, I am rocking your world.

- Planning a huge trip to Siberia. More on this soon.

- Teaching English. I approached this as a way of making a little extra money but I've started to really enjoy it. Mortified last week when my 'advanced' group started to correct my spelling.

- Immersing myself in Russian culture. It's what I'm here for, and it's been going well. My knowledge of the language is slowly improving, although I haven't used it as much as I'd like. I'm trying not to be too stereotypical an expat, although I'll admit a weakness for one pub here that sells finest Suffolk cider.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Russian Music Wednesdays

New idea: a bit of Russian music each week. I'm starting with something a bit unusual - Russian-language reggae. See what you think. By the way, the band's actually Ukrainian, but they sing in Russian, so they count under my rules.

I'm a soldier
I haven't slept in five years
And I have dark circles under my eyes
Haven't seen them myself
But so I've been told
I'm a soldier
And I have no head
They have beaten it off with their boots
Yo-o-o, commander shouts
Commander's mouth is torn open
Because a grenade...
White cotton wool
Red cotton won't heal a soldier

I'm a soldier
Unborn child of war
I'm a soldier
Mom, take care of my wounds
I'm a soldier
Soldier of a country forgotten by God
I'm a hero
Tell me of which novel

I'm a soldier
It vexes me when I have only one bullet left
It's either me or him
The last wagon
There are millions of us
In the UN
I'm a soldier
And I know my job
My job is to shoot
So that the bullet doesn't miss
The enemy's body
This reggae is for you Mother-War
Are you happy now?

UPDATE: video seems to have broken the blog a bit, will try to fix this.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Why bother?

Lighter subject today: pointless work. Since it's pretty cheap to employ someone for manual work in Moscow, a lot of jobs get done that you wouldn't really think needed to be. Such as painting lines between the bricks on the Kremlin wall (which looks perfectly fine without them). Since it's a mile and a half long, this will take a while.

photo: James Ellingworth

Monday, 26 April 2010

Blood and roses

Today is the four-week anniversary of the Moscow metro bombs. Images went around the world of shrapnel-scarred marble and weeping parents of students killed on their way to university.

But by far the most powerful TV image was of the memorial to the victims in the station. A pile of neatly-laid roses, carnations and candles, not an ostentatious shrine heaped with soft toys - because unlike, say, Londoners after the death of Princess Diana, Muscovites are used to public grief. The bombers have struck before, and they will strike again.

Lubyanka station, site of one of the bombs

I arrived in Moscow a fortnight ago today. As I was blearily lugging my suitcase around the ring line not long after dawn, it hit me that I was in the Metro two weeks to the minute since the bombs. I'll admit that for a short while I was terrified, with an irrational focus on the 7/7 and attempted 21/7 London bombs, one attack two weeks after the other. But then I noticed the people around me. Not a single wary face, not a single pair of wary, darting eyes.

In part, this is due to the fatalistic attitude shared by many Russians - the belief that if something bad is going to happen, it will happen, regardless of whether or not you worry about it. This isn't always a good approach; at its worst extent it is often blamed for the huge rate of deaths of people who are either drink-driving or killed by someone who is. But in the face of terrorism, it can lead to an admirable stoicism and resilience. When your country's recent history includes the Nord-Ost theatre siege (at least 129 civilians killed), the Beslan school siege (at least 385 civilians killed, mostly children) and a string of lesser-known attacks on the Metro, in ordinary apartment blocks and at packed concerts, this resilience is essential.

Unfortunately, there is another side to Russians' suffering. While ordinary Muscovites face the bombers' hatred, there is a strong case for their government taking a sizeable chunk of indirect responsibility. The brutality of the army-led 'counter-terrorist operations' in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan mean that civilians have continued to suffer long after full-scale war ended in 2000. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya documented the frequent kidnapping, rape and murder of ordinary civilians in the Chechnya run by Kremlin-sponsored warlord Ramzan Kadryrov. She labelled him a "Chechen Stalin", while he told her she was an enemy "to be shot". Politkovskaya was then herself murdered in 2006, in a case that has raised more questions than answers.

Without excusing the atrocities Russia has suffered, it is easy to see how a message of hate might become more attractive to people who have faced such brutality, especially the young. Take the example of 17-year-old Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova, who blew herself up in Lubyanka station a month ago.

Metro bomber Dzhennet Abdurakhmanova with her husband Umalat Magomedov

The picture above is of a defiant teenager. She survived her husband, a Dagestani militant killed last year. Her face shows her pride - in her twisted ideology, he is a rock star to her. Her final act of rebellion was extreme and obscene, but it was not divorced from her surroundings.

This girl was born in 1992 in the Russian Caucasus republic Dagestan, in the midst of ethnic clashes as the Soviet Union collapsed. When she was two, war broke out in neighbouring Chechnya, and spilled into Dagestan, bringing the full might of the Russian army to bear against well-armed and funded separatists. She shared her first name, Dzhennet ('paradise' in Arabic) with a Dagestani militant group formed around this time, as the conflict became more about religion than nationalism and foreign jihadis arrived to exploit the situation. The Second Chechen War of 1999-2000 brought yet more chaos before her tenth birthday, followed by simmering insurgencies and sporadic government brutality.

Had she not embraced an ideology that worships death, we would undoubtedly see her as a victim. While the horrific way she ended her life and those of many others makes it impossible to feel sympathy for her, there are thousands of girls who have suffered like Dzhennet Aburakhmanova in Russia. The link between repression and terrorism is clear.

Memorial, one of Russia's most prominent human rights organisations, describes the behaviour of the security forces in Dagestan:

The suspects are oftentimes being taken to Chechnya to be tortured, because there people can be tortured with impunity, moreover, one does not have to deal with the interference of defense lawyers. Those, who are cruelly tortured in Dagestan subsequently, as relatives put it “get lost”, i.e. they disappear without a trace.

It seems that in this way the security servicemen try to secure themselves from possible revenge by the victims of torture. According to lawyers and relatives of the kidnapped, in order to make an interrogation with torture easier, security services illegally detain or abduct their suspects. Unlike Chechnya and Ingushetia, where the kidnappers arrive to houses heavily armed, in masks and detain their suspects in front of numerous witnesses, in Dagestan these abductions seem to be carefully planned, take place without witnesses and other “unnecessary fuss”: the person gets out of the his house and never returns back.
Against this background, it is hard to be surprised that people are driven to the Saudi-funded hate preachers. A journalist colleague of mine who has recently returned from Dagestan tells me that terrorism pays well (around $2,500 a month for a martyr's family), and is often the only path available to young men. With the cycle of brutality and violence against innocents unbroken, the blood and roses in Russia's stations will continue.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Meet the neighbours

A week in and I've settled well, thankfully avoiding a lot of the bureaucratic hassle you can get as a foreigner in Russia, and starting my new job tomorrow. Here's a quick guide to my neighbours:

1) The Ethiopian embassy. It's next door and it has guards, which makes the area very safe. Back in the day when Ethiopia was ruled by some particularly brutal Marxist nutcases (the Derg), they were of course very close to their Soviet brothers, so it's probable the embassy dates from then.

He makes lights levitate too

2) The traffic police. Notoriously corrupt, but they seem to have a weakness for sentimental crap, such as this statue outside their HQ. Looks like the slightly small-headed traffic cop will faint at one flap of this teensy sparrow's wing.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Arrival in Moscow

I left Heathrow on Sunday night, thereby missing the Biblical plague that Iceland has visited upon the world, arriving on Monday at 6.30am Moscow time, knackered and barely able to speak a word of Russian. Got on the elektrichka, a sort of suburban electric train that goes at about 30mph if you're very lucky. Elektrichka drivers have their own way of doing things, mostly based around opening and closing the doors for no apparent reason. This works best when done about 10 minutes before the departure time from the airport, leaving a gaggle of exhausted arrivals to stand there confused as the train then waits, doors shut, for another 15 minutes. Another rule of Russian trains is that they're never late. This is achieved by the simple method of setting the timetable so that the train can trundle along at walking pace. Never late, but not very useful either.

Eventually got to my flat after negotiating the Moscow metro in rush hour with a suitcase (not easy). And here it is, Bolshaya Pereyaslavskaya ulitsa 9:

This is actually its more attractive side. The reason it looks a bit manky is that it's pretty rare for tenants to team up to work on communal areas. I'm lucky since the stairwells are fairly pleasant, but it's not uncommon for nice flats to be surrounded by squalor.


I'm in Moscow now! Since I've been looking forward to this since I started at university, this has the side-effect of making me feel really old (helped by my 21st birthday being on Saturday). I'll be doing a three-month internship at the Feature Story News agency here, so I'll be learning the language and hopefully getting a bit of journalistic experience too. I'll be blogging throughout my time here, barring accidents.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The beginning of the end of the EDL. Good.

Excellent news. The racists of the English Defence League (EDL) are on the way out. It might be a bit risky to make predictions like this off the cuff, and they probably won't fall apart immediately, but the EDL has reached its high-water mark today, April 3. Here's why.

Photo credit: rubberdreamfeet (Flickr, Creative Commons licence)

Before its protest in Dudley today, the EDL was looking ever stronger. Two thousand people turned up in Dudley - the sort of number that indicates a group is breaking out of its niche. There were rumours that more 'mainstream' groups like the UDA in Northern Ireland wanted to join in. Unite Against Fascism and various (understandably) angry local Muslims guaranteed photogenic chaos at each rally, fitting the EDL's narrative of radicals causing chaos on the streets.

But in Dudley today, the UAF were kept away. The racist ex-football hooligans were on their own, with only the police for company, and they happily reverted to type. As the Telegraph reports:

Some of the protesters broke out of a pen in a car park, breaking down metal fences and throwing the metal brackets at officers, who were armed with riot shields and batons. Members of the demonstration started fighting their own stewards who were trying to calm them down as they attacked the fences penning them in.

Fighting their own stewards. That would be the slightly smarter thugs charged with making the whole thing look family-friendly then. It's hard to see how the EDL can look like a respectable mass movement now, and not just a collection of frustrated middle-aged men with beer bellies and football banning orders.

Nick Mainwood, 42, from Oldbury, West Midlands, said he tried to help an elderly woman who suffered a panic attack during the protest. He said: "I came down here for a peaceful protest but it was horrible, absolutely horrible."

Nick Mainwood symbolises the EDL's brief respectability. His reaction to seeing its thugs up close shows why they won't last.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Luton, city of dreams

Imagine you're tasked with promoting a town to investors. It's biggish (over 200,000 people) and fairly well-known. It may not enjoy the best reputation, it may indeed have previously been voted Crap Town of the year, but it's got excellent transport links. It should really sell itself. That is, unless you're blindingly incompetent.

Step forward the "Regenaration Team" of Luton Borough Council. Yes, that's right, they can't even spell their own name. Here's the advert I saw while bored on an Easyjet flight yesterday:

Want your investment to take off
think Luton think success....
Whether you're an expanding or re-locating business or a potential development investor, why not find out how Luton can be a part of you future success.
For more information please contact The Regenaration Team

Let's count the mistakes:

1. The slogan. Impolite (they should have added 'do you' to the start because it reads like a threat - invest in Luton, or we'll make sure it doesn't take off).
2. Slogan again. No question mark.
3. Needless capital letter on "Investment", since it isn't in German, so it's silly to capitalise nouns.
4. No comma in "think Luton think success"...
5. and a pointless ellipsis afterwards.
6. Daft council jargon. What's a "potential development investor"?
7. "A part of you future success". By this point, it's like they're not trying and have hired a semi-literate five-year-old to finish off.
8. No question mark to go with "why not".
9. No comma after "For more information".
10. Unimaginative , generic background.

Luton - home of lazy, illiterate bureaucrats. How attractive is that to "potential development investors"?

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Would you trust these people with your money?

Slightly unbelievable, but Portsmouth FC have a financial services operation. That would be the club with five different owners this season, then. The club that decided paying John Utaka £60,000 a week was a prudent financial move.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

World's dodgiest press release

And this from a team hoping to muscle their way into Formula One. Chiefly, it appears by sending a box to the Middle East and getting Phil (whoever he is) to pick up his jacket. The sport's first Serbian operation clearly has deep pockets to afford the postage on that box, but I hope they attached a return address.

Stefan Grand Prix writes history! SGP becomes the first team in F1 history who did send a 40 foot container full of equipment to the race in Bahrain without having entry for 2010 season!

On Friday 29-th January we showed our spirit, and how serious our management and our employees are when they say that we are pushing to get the entry, and that they want to race in 2010 season.

Anyway we are proud of us, and on our power of will, so we will keep going and show some new people belong in F1.

Also, this way we would like to thank our dear friends for the level of their professionalism and spirit. So: Phil, Johannes, Mike, Markus, Dirk, Guido, Theresa, Ruediger, Markus, Juergen, and everybody else THANK YOU! You make our dream come true!

P.S. Phil, pick up your jacket

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Fake photos and fake poetry

There's a poetic irony in the news that a photographer used a tame wolf in the picture that won him the title of National History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year,as well as a handy £10,000. The lupine stunt double is apparently called Ossian, the name of a fake ancient Celtic bard whose poetry took Europe by storm in the 1760s before it was revealed it was all the work of a deluded Scottish poet, James Macpherson (and a bit rubbish). In his Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe uses Werther's growing love for Ossian's work to show he's going a bit mad.

The wolf photo is obviously copyrighted, and all the pictures of Ossian I could find are mawkish, hideous things. But, thanks to a tip from Jonathan Jones, here is a very impressive faked photo from Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldai of a shellshocked reindeer during the siege of Murmansk in the Second World War. As this page describes, the reindeer was there, but the explosion and planes are added. Incidentally, the planes are British - Murmansk is in north-west Russia, close to Finland, so British forces helped to defend it.

In other news tenuously related to photography, coffee-table-book publisher Taschen is having a sale at its Berlin store, which means I now have a few wonderful books and a big headache about how to get the bloody things home in my luggage.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The answers

Here they are, read them and weep:

General knowledge:
1. The Oval (bet the groundsman loved that)
2. George Best
3. They're all nicknamed The Iron
4. Jimmy Hill
5. Ipswich Town
6. Hull (BoothFERry pARK)
7. Andrei Kanchelskis
8. Lewes
9. Rochdale
10. 1965 - Kilmarnock won it

Kilmarnock v Real Madrid in the European Cup after their title triumph. They managed a solid 2-2 draw at home before getting hammered 5-1 at the Bernabeu.

Daft corporate names:
11. The Abbey Business Stadium - Cheltenham Town, otherwise known as Whaddon Road
12. Playmobil-Arena - Greuther Fuerth (a little bit obscure, I know)
13. Signal Iduna Park - Borussia Dortmund, better known as the Westfalenstadion
14. Fitness First Stadium - Bournemouth, Dean Court
15. Home Depot Center - LA Galaxy and Chivas USA

Continuing the stupid corporate names theme, here's Histon's beautifully glazed GlassWorld Stadium

World football:
16. Rubin Kazan, Zenit Peterburg and Spartak-Alania Vladikavkaz
17. David Moyes on Yakubu Aiyegbeni
18. 15 players were chucked out
19. The Anglo-Italian Cup
20. There were still three winners of the Intertoto, but the team that got furthest in the Uefa Cup got the trophy. Since this was usually determined several months after the Intertoto had finished, no-one cared. The last trophy Newcastle won, incidentally.
21. Dario Simic
22. Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade

Kiddy Harriers round:
23. The first full England game was a friendly against Brazil (1-1), but I accepted the U21 game against Italy (3-3)
24. He was serving time for causing death by dangerous driving. It says something about the relationship between professional sport and basic morality that Oldham offered him a contract while he was still inside.
25. 1955


Tie-break: Very funny contributions, but so as not be libellous, here's a flavour of the best ones. Put them together and create your own: Karaoke, Thaksin Shinawatra, rescuing girls from precarious situations, hairy chests and red faces.

The winner, with a very impressive 21, was Rob Marrs. I should really have expected that, seeing as how his excellent quiz gave me the idea.

I'll be blogging a bit more about football in the near future. Being in Germany has cut me off from the Premiership a bit, but expect a piece about German fans as soon as I remember to get some Union Berlin tickets. Hertha have the better stadium, but watching them is miserable at the moment - nine points from 18 games so far. In the meantime, here's one of the great goalscoring goalkeepers, Jose Luis Chilavert:

Saturday, 16 January 2010

+++Quiz answers going up on Thursday afternoon+++


A couple of suitably red-faced corrections to the quiz after people pointed out some howlers. Since I've received a few answers already and I'm a fair-minded bloke, I'll discount the questions when deciding the winner, so these are strictly for fun.
9. Which English team has not played outside its current division since 1973?
Obviously there are sides who've never been relegated from the top division, so I meant to say it is a league side outside the top divison. That should make it a lot simpler.

18. How many of Nigeria's under-19 squad were thrown out in the run-up to last year's under-17 world cup after tests revealed they were under age? (answers within 2 either way accepted)
This is just daft. It's the under-17 squad at the under-17 world cup. My input makes an already complex question completely unworkable.

Thanks to the people who pointed these out. In the meantime' I've been plugging the quiz on my Twitter account, putting up a couple of extra questions to tempt people over to do the whole thing. These DON'T count as part of the quiz, but feel free to have a crack at them.

There have been a couple of interesting (and some frankly disturbing) contributions regarding the Thai vice den tie-breaker too...

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Football trivia quiz

In the spirit of Rob Marrs' excellent Christmas quiz at Left Back in the Changing Room, here's a burst of football trivia questions. Answers to, winner gets a bottle of something nice (if you're in Britain, I'll get it to you when I'm back at the end of next month). Don't bother googling the answers - for quite a few of them, there's no point anyway.

Section 1: British football

1. Where was the first FA Cup final played?
2. The Kinks' song "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" is allegedly about which footballer?
3. What links West Ham, Scunthorpe United and Union Berlin?
4. Which British pundit first proposed awarding 3 points for a win?
5. Which team's players bulked out the squad in the film "Escape to Victory"?
6. Whose dilapidated and now partly demolished former ground became known as "FER ARK" because these were the only letters left on the sign?
7. Who is the only man to score in the Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow derbies?
8. Which team plays at the Dripping Pan?
9. Which English football league side (so outside the Prem) has not played outside its current division since 1973?
10. What was the only year in which neither of the Old Firm finished in the top three in Scotland? (bonus point if you can tell me who took the title that year)

Section 2: Grounds with rubbish corporate names
- For each one, give me the name of the team that plays there. Bonus point for the real name of the ground, if it has one.

11. The Abbey Business Stadium
12. Playmobil-Arena
13. Signal Iduna Park
14. Fitness First Stadium
15. Home Depot Center (2 teams)

Section 3: World football

16. What are the only three teams outside Moscow to have won the Russian Premiership? (3 points)
17. "He's only 25, albeit a Nigerian 25, and so if that is his age he's still got a good few years ahead of him." Who said this, and who was he talking about?
18. How many of Nigeria's squad were thrown out in the run-up to last year's under-17 world cup after tests revealed they were under age? (answers within 2 either way accepted)
19. Swindon Town, Blackpool, Newcastle United, Sutton United and Notts County were the only English winners of which defunct European competition?
20. Between 2006 and 2008, it was possible to win a trophy in the Intertoto Cup. How?
21. Who is Croatia's most-capped player?
What are the only two teams from Communist countries to have won the European Cup? (two points)

Section 4: Things loosely linked to Kidderminster Harriers

23. Harriers played in the first competitive match at the new Wembley, losing 3-2 to Stevenage in the final (and breaking my heart when they choked a 2-0 lead). Who did England play in their first match there? (bonus point for the result)
24. Harriers' record sale was Lee Hughes to West Brom for 200,000 in 1997. Why was his football career put on hold between 2004 and 2007?
25. Harriers played the first ever floodlit FA Cup match. When? (answers within 3 years either way are fine)

Tie-break: Which premiership manager do you think was most likely to have been caught by The Sun in a "Thai vice den" in December? Most entertaining answer will win, although it will almost certainly be too libellous to publish here.

UPDATE: Questions 9 and 17 have been corrected, see why here. To be scrupulously fair, I'll discount them when working out the winner.

Here's a video to keep you entertained and hopefully show that German football can be (occasionally) exciting. 1984 and 1993 are particular highlights.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Belarusian tiger

A pretty drab Belarusian parade to mark the new year. It's the year of the tiger, obviously. (HT English Russia)

World's laziest email scam?

I just received this. No attempt whatsoever to chat me up with a sob story, just an opportunistic stab at naked greed and, apparently, national pride.
250,000.00 Pounds has been awarded to you From the Queen
Elizabeth's Foundation ,send us your:-

How to attract German football fans

On the advertising for the German version of EA's Fifa Manager 2010:
"Look after the food in the stadium, the fanzine, the public transport, the VIP treatment and the state of the changing rooms."
It's the world's first prawn-sandwich simulator.