Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Why I'm close to giving up on Newcastle Utd

Here is my latest football article for the Irish Examiner. It's a heartfelt piece on why, after 50 years, I am on the verge of giving up on Newcastle United and, indeed, on football itself. The Examiner does not put its pre-season supplement online so if you can't read the page, the article is below. 

My 50-year affair with football is going through a sticky patch. In fact, it may be the end. It has been going wrong for years but last season things came to a head.
The affair started in 1964, when Newcastle United were in the second division. My brother took me to my first games, Newcastle were promoted and I was smitten. I was nine. The train journey from Whitley Bay, the walk through the narrow lanes up to Gallowgate Hill, the singing in the Leazes End, the closeness of the players, all heroes, gave me a sense of belonging. I went to all the home fixtures and, as I grew older, many away games. I went to every home game in the glorious Fairs Cup victory of 1969. I bunked off school to see Bobby Moncur bring the trophy back to St James’s Park. Lately, I have taken costly corporate tables. My three sons have sported every kit the club has thrown at us. If I counted how much I have spent over 50 years, I could have bought a villa in the South of France.
I played too, for my school, college and workplace. When I stopped I set up a boys' club and took my coaching badge.
So what went wrong? The unease started with the players, using the club to get a Premier League foothold. They were no older than my kids and were swaggering around in flash cars, behaving badly. There were other irritations. Two club directors called Newcastle’s women ‘dogs’ and laughed at the fans for paying over the odds for shirts. It was an early indication of the lack of respect for the city.
Then along came Mike Ashley. In his seven-year tenure the high street retailer has fallen out with those we hold dear, specifically Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, sold Andy Carroll, appointed Joe Kinnear, who made the club a laughing stock, and changed St James's to the Sports Direct Arena.
And then came last season - getting into bed with Wonga, banning the local newspapers and Alan Pardew headbutting a player. This is behaviour I would condemn in any other walk of life. On the pitch the team were the first Newcastle side to lose five consecutive Premier League games and were beaten twice by Sunderland. The club also made it clear, to fans desperate for silverware, that cups were of no interest. Premier League survival is the limit of the ambition.
So, watching a lack-lustre parade around the pitch after the last home game, I decided I'd had enough. I have no respect for the management, its business methods or its money-motivated players. I deplore the disdain the club has for the supporters. The only thing I admire is the history and the shirt.
My lack of respect isn't just for Newcastle United, but for football itself. I fear it is rotten to the core. Bribery, corruption, the fixing of bids, the selling of favours and greed hover over the game like a toxic cloud. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a joke. And any organisation that has the preposterous Sepp Blatter at its head, does not deserve my support. That's not to mention, the racism, a man who regularly bites people in the workplace but is feted as a hero, the diving and absurd ticket prices.
Last season, football and me were through. I thought the World Cup would reaffirm my stance. But England and Luis Suarez aside, I enjoyed it. Newcastle's close season signings have also been promising. Nine players, including Remy Cabella, who I have seen at Montpellier, and Ajax captain Siem de Jong, have joined. The outlay, while not in the same league as Arsenal. Liverpool or Chelsea, has been more than €33million. Of course they are mainly players looking for a lucrative ride on the English gravy train and Ashley will be looking for big profits. But at least there are new faces. I am also receiving calls from friends asking which games we are going to. 
I was wavering … but one event changed my mind. It was the deaths of John Alder and Liam Sweeney, blown up on flight MH17 as they travelled to New Zealand to watch Newcastle play. The reaction has been remarkable. Rival Sunderland fans have raised €40,000 for the Bobby Robson Foundation and the Marie Curie Hospice in Newcastle. John and Liam will be commemorated at the opening game against Manchester City next Sunday. An Alder Sweeney memorial garden is being built at the ground It took me back to 1964 and why I fell in love with the game – a sense of belonging. So whereas every rational cell in my body says walk away … I will be giving football, and Newcastle United, one final chance. Even though I have no doubt they will let me down.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A memorable day with the great Norman Cornish

Norman Cornish: Self Portrait
Norman Cornish died on Friday. He was 94. He worked as coal miner before becoming a professional artist, part of the Pitman's Academy set up in the North-East in the 1930s. He, and his extraordinary work, featured regularly in The Northern Echo and on one occasion, features editor Brian Page went to his home in Spennymoor to interview him. After Norman's death, I asked Brian to write a piece on his meeting. Here are his words:

I arrived at a modest terraced house in modest Spennymoor. Passersby trudging down the street stared with open curiousity, in that County Durham way, before then nodding and giving me an “all reet”.
There was a wind whisking cast-aside sweetie papers and bits of newspaper up into the air and the threat of a damp drizzle in the sky.
I took a deep breath. Knocked on the door. A slight shiver of anxiety sweeping from head to toe.
They say you should never meet your heroes.
And yet here I was. At the door of the house of Norman Cornish.
“Are you the lad from The Northern Echo,” a friendly voice answered my knock. “Howay in, pet, Norman’s upstairs, he’ll be with you in a minute. Would you like a cup of tea?”
Sarah, Norman’s wife, beamed a smile. “Come on in and sit down a moment,” she said. And smiled again.
A moment later an unsmiling Norman Cornish arrived. He shook my hand and looked in my eye. He was a lean man, smartly dressed, swept back hair, dark eyes, watchful. He sat silently down and waited.
I blathered for England. Or at least for The Northern Echo. We wanted to do a major four-part series based on the newly published book on his life and work, the first part would be our interview, the other three based on the book itself and…
“Do you know anything about art?”
Er, no… not really. I mean I, that is, er, well, no, not really…”
A long pause. A fixed look.
“But I can tell you this Mister Cornish, I would have beaten half the newsroom to death to get this interview…
He looked at me. Waited. And then nodded. “It’s Norman,” he said. “Norman will do just fine.”
And that’s how it started, an interview that was meant to last an hour but ran to most of the day, with an interuption only when the wonderful Sarah insisted I stay and “have some liver and onions for your dinner”.
(For the non North-Easterners among you, dinner in County Durham is the proper term for what other folk call lunch).
Once Norman had worked out that I really did know his work, from early days to the latest paintings about to go on an exhibition tour, he warmed. And behind the shy and self-effacing exterior Norman Cornish was a warm man.
He spent long moments explaining to me about the sweeps and the curves and the geometry and the lines and angles of a painter-draughtsman’s craft.
And then he would look at me keenly. “Do you see,” he would say.
And I did. I think.
One painting, in particular, had always fascinated and, in some way horrified me, I told him. It was of miners making their way over a bridge, the pit wheels looming and a string of wired cross-head pylons pointing the way forward.
“Ah,” he replied. And for the first time smiled. “Calvary.”
And it all dropped in place. The pylons were there like a line of crucifixes, leading the way to the dreaded pit and the deep descent into an underground world…
At last there was a glimmering of understanding, of knowing.
And the day stretched on, cups of tea and more moments of insight. More glimpses of the wonderful world of the artist who had once been a miner.
When it was (long past) time to go, we shook hands at the door. Sarah smiled and Norman nodded. And then he, too smiled.
It was one of the best days…

You can view some of Norman Cornish's work on his website here.

A book of condolence is available at Northumbria University Gallery or by email to condolence@normancornish.com. An illustrated memorial lecture and appreciation of Norman’s life and work by his biographers, Bob McManners and Gillian Wales, will take place at Spennymoor Town Hall in September. Details will be published at www.normancornish.com/lecture and members of the public are welcome to attend.

Brian Page is a former deputy editor of The Northern Echo and an award-winning feature writer. He now runs his own freelance company, Page One Publications, based in York. He is the author of Still Lives, a novel based in the newspaper world and has a new book, Divided We Fall, due for publication in the autumn.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Regional papers happy to mention the war

The national newspaper front pages are torn between the Commonwealth Games finale, Gaza and the anniversary of World War I today. The Sun and The Times both lead on the war and The Independent uses it as the main picture. Others put the war in the blurb ... promoting some some very good supplement inside. Some, including The Guardian and Metro, don't mention it at all on Page 1. The regional papers, though, are in no doubt about what is the story of the day. Although there aren't many people alive who can still remember the outbreak of war, the local papers know what it means to their communities. The Bournemouth Daily Echo, The Sentinel in Stoke and the Hull Daily Mail opt for impressive wraps. Here's a selection. If you want yours included, please email it to me at petersandssms@gmail.com.

There are some interesting supplements too, with many papers reprinting their front pages from 100 years ago. Here are a few:

Don't forget to turn your lights out and light a candle from 10pm-11pm tonight.

Friday, 1 August 2014

A fight to the death over use of grammar ...

After I commented on Weird Al Yankovic's Word Crimes (if you haven't yet watched it, you really need to),  I received a message from Tobias Hector.  He pointed out that  Weird Al would get his pedantic ass kicked at Grammar Rumble and sent a link. It's a video in which gangs fight to the death, using knives and the Chicago Manual of Style, over grammatical disagreements,  Watch it here. It makes Weird Al look positively normal.   

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Christina Lamb at war: watch and be inspired

Ever wondered what it is really like to be a war correspondent? This short film, Bringing the World to Britain, leaves you in no doubt. Sunday Times foreign correspondent Christina Lamb talks vividly of her experiences in the war zones of the Middle East - why she does it, what she takes with her and her most harrowing moments. I love the quote 'There is nowhere I haven't got into. No is a starting point for me'. She also tells of the most frightening experience of her life, trapped in a ditch in Afghanistan with the Taliban throwing mortars at her and bullets flying over her head alongside soldiers who all thought they were going to be killed. "I really, really didn't want to die in a muddy field in Helmand," she says.  Watch it ... and be inspired. 

The film is part of the excellent Sunday Times Unquiet Film Series. All of them are worth watching, especially those on Times New Roman and on Photojournalism

Weird Al's Word Crimes - flawed but very funny

Eleven years ago Lynne Truss's book Eats Shoots and Leaves encouraged people to talk about grammar again. It even became a popular Christmas stocking filler. I remember being asked to arbitrate in a tipsy Boxing Day dispute between two women, both having received the book, who had opposing views on the possessive apostrophe when used with names ending in s. You must be joking I said, sneaking off to watch the football.
Now the video Word Crimes by Weird Al Yankovic has pushed grammar back to the fore - this time with the kids and the online community. The parody of Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines has clocked up almost 13 million YouTube views and been requested in clubs instead of the politically incorrect original. It has also had linguists taking to their blogs, some in support and some pointing out that Weird Al hasn't got all his grammar rules in order.
My only view is everyone should watch it. It isn't the definitive guide on grammar. It's just a good song, a clever video ... and it's very funny. And if it gets people talking about contractions, pronouns, homophones, dangling participles, syntax and less v fewer, that can only be a bonus.

Herald video puts the fun back in newspapers

Hats off to the Pembrokeshire Herald for this video to celebrate its first anniversary. Local newspapers can sometimes be too po-faced ... so nice to see the editor and staff raising a smile. Really nicely done too.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Scottish Daily Mail looking for trainees

The Scottish Daily Mail in Glasgow is looking for a trainee reporter and a trainee sub-editor.  The successful applicants will probably already be on a post-grad journalism course and have a fair amount of newsroom experience. They will join other trainees on the Mail's graduate training programmes which start in September. The training will be followed by placements on regional newspapers and agencies. If you are interested send CVs and six examples of your work to Sue Ryan at sue.ryan@dailymail.co.uk by July 16. The subbing scheme has been running for 12 years and many of the senior subs on the paper - in both news and sport - are graduates of the course. The reporting course has been running for seven years. Its graduates include Matt Sandy, who won young journalist of the year in the British Press Awards in 2011, Simon Murphy who was nominated in the same award this year and Fay Schlesinger, joint winner of the investigation of the year award at the British Journalism Awards in 2012. If you are applying you might want to take a look at my advice on how to prepare for an interview. Good luck. More details on Hold The Front Page.