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Dear Wonga.com

Dear Wonga.com,

I wasn’t expecting that I would ever have reason to get in touch with you. How wrong I was.

I’ve been aware of you for some time, of course. I’ve seen your bizarre advertising campaign starring some frankly terrifying puppet pensioners.

I’m also aware that you recently followed Kevin Keegan, Geoff from Byker Grove, Alan Shearer, Ant, Dec, and Shola Ameobi (probably) as the City of Newcastle’s newest messiah following your restoration of the St.James’ Park name.

More than anything, though, I’ve been aware of your questionable business model which seems to prey on the stupid and vulnerable with tantalising offers of cash advances on their wages, albeit with an ever so slightly inflated 4200% rate of interest.

I was, however, prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt. I mean, if people are daft and desperate enough to willingly submit to you, then who am I to say they or you are in the wrong? It’s none of my business after all.

However, you’ve recently demanded my attention, haven’t you, Wonga.com? Because, it seems, your own particular brand of moral bankruptcy (no pun intended) stretches far beyond those who opt in to your ‘service’, but also to those who have enough intelligence to know not to touch you with a fifty foot pole.

You see, on Thursday evening, I logged into my online bank account to conduct my financial affairs. You know, the sort of thing your clientele don’t tend to bother doing, hence why they’re your clientele? Only, I was surprised to see that I was in my overdraft, a situation I’m not exactly accustomed to. Again, quite unlike your clientele.

Now, I will confess, I can be forgetful at times, Wonga.com. Organisation isn’t my strong point. So my initial reaction was that it might be my fault, that there was some outgoing that had slipped my mind. I clicked into the account, and saw a name that I was never expecting to see on my bank balance.

It was your name, Wonga.com. Twice. And that’s where the fun began.

You see, forgetful and disorganised as I can be on occasion, I remained fairly certain that I’d not been in touch with you to top up my funds, seeing as I have, in another account, something called ‘SAVINGS’… again, a strange concept to those you normally mix with. And with that sure certainty that I’d had no money from you in the first place, I was doubly sure that you had no right to remove the near £800 sum that had disappeared from my account.

So, straight onto the phone I went to give my bank a call and report this obvious fraudulent activity on my account, only to be told that the first port of call would be to contact you directly to try and straighten things out.

Have you ever seen the Channel 4 sitcom, ‘Peep Show’, Wonga.com?

If not, you should, it’s really rather good.

Anyway. There’s an episode of Peep Show where one of the show’s main protagonists, Mark Corrigan, is mugged by a gang of youths. They made off with his wallet and Blackberry if I recall rightly. It was funnier than it sounds.

Later in the episode, Mark meets some of his assailants’ accomplices in his local fried chicken emporium in a hopeful effort to retrieve his possessions. Deep down, he knows they have no intention of returning what’s rightfully his, yet he still spends his time and money in the hope that they may come good.

I was put in mind of that scene when trying to deal with your customer services helpline, Wonga.com.

You see, it’s not the best experience. From the almost inaudible menu of options, to your staff’s surly and often rude manner, to your system’s tendency to suddenly cut people off, it’s a veritable cavalcade of misery.

Having finally managed to complete a conversation with your operator, during which I reluctantly submitted my debit card details having been told that my case couldn’t be investigated without them, I was promised that your fraud prevention department would be in touch the following day.

Now, I’m a perpetually single fellow, Wonga.com. I’m well used to waiting for phone calls or messages which never come. But then, most of the time the people involved haven’t stolen a fair wedge of my hard earned, so I’m able to let it slide.

Your call, though, Wonga.com, I was particularly anxious to receive. But it never came. It never came.

So I called you. And again it was difficult. The first time, I was halfway through the conversation when I entered a tunnel and got cut off (I was on a train you see). I’ll let you off on that one.

The second time, I was again inexplicably cut off. The levels of apoplexy were rising at this point.

The third one, in hindsight, was my particular favourite. You see, my call was answered by a gentleman who strangely chose simply to answer the call by saying ‘Goodbye’ before immediately hanging up the phone, a curious event which was, brilliantly, followed by an automated customer satisfaction survey. I’m afraid he scored 1/5 on all counts, and that was only because my attempt to enter a zero on my keypad was rejected.

Finally, I managed to reach somebody, who told me that the promise to contact me that day had never been made (it bloody had), and that I would, in fact, be made to wait ‘at least 48 hours’ and ‘possibly up to a week’ to have my case investigated before my cash could be returned. Quite what there is to investigate about the theft of almost £800 from somebody who has never been one of your customers is quite beyond me, Wonga.com, but it seems that this is par for the course for you, doesn’t it?

Because, as all of this was unfolding, I’m afraid I was complaining about you on Twitter. And through doing this, I was made aware of the ‘Expose Wonga Fraud’ feed (@aloadofWonga), which outlines the staggering amount of people who you seem to be allowing this to happen to.

The press are on to you, too. Yet still, this appears to be happening.

So, why am I writing to you Wonga.com?

Do I want compensation? No. I don’t think I could handle the shame of receiving a payment from you, regardless of the circumstance.

Do I want an apology? It would be nice, but I have no faith whatsoever that it would be in any way sincere. You’ve already stolen from me and then lied to me, after all.

All I want is for you to answer one question. Just one. Do you think you can do that for me?

Why oh why oh why, Wonga.com, do you continue to pay your loans into one account, and then accept your repayment from entirely different accounts which aren’t even registered in the same bloody name?

Just an answer to that. That’s all I want, Wonga.com, because right now it seems that you’re willingly revving the online getaway car outside the online bank that the online thieves are robbing, and it’s just not right.

Oh, by the way. Such was your unwillingness to help, my bank has now, finally, agreed to accept this as a fraud and to reimburse me following your failure to do so. And don’t worry, they’ll be on the receiving end of a few choice words as well.

They did tell me a couple of interesting things about you, though. Reading between the lines, it seems they’re not happy with your fraud prevention techniques AT ALL.

The way you’re going, Wonga.com, perhaps Newcastle United fans could be looking for their next messiah sooner than they think. My money’s on a resurgent Jimmy Nail. Once you give it back to me, obviously.

You know it is. It really is.

Yours sincerely,

Thomas T. Parker.

EDIT 1st May 2013: Updating this following a BBC Watchdog report this evening. Have removed the update from last October which said I was satisfied with their response, because, in hindsight, I don’t believe they were doing anything but trying to shift the blame.

Their excuse, at the time, was that one of my immediate neighbours (those with precisely the same postcode as me) were the only ones who could possibly have been responsible. At first, shocked, I believed this could be true. However, it’s just not the case. My neighbours are largely middle aged/elderly folk on a fairly middle class street. To blame them is crap, I’m not having it.

The other reason that I’ve retracted my earlier statement is their statement on Watchdog earlier this evening, boasting of hassle free resolution payments and quick repayment to those affected.

In my case, as outlined above, the procedure was tedious, painful, dull and unhelpful. The only point at which I received a phonecall from them was when I posted this blog and they spotted it. PR crisis management masquerading as customer service. I’m embarrassed to have briefly fallen for it.

In the end, after days of struggle, it was Lloyds TSB who gave me my money back. Wonga refused to do this, repeatedly.

It was Lloyds TSB who compensated me, it was they who apologised. Wonga just palmed me off, hoping they would get away with it. Let’s not allow that.

Their statement on Watchdog was a laughable lie, and I’m calling them on it. As should everyone affected.

http://www.actionfraud.police.uk/

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An Olympic Encounter

As I boarded a Birmingham bound train in London this afternoon, joining me and my boss Paul on the Virgin Pendolino was a genuine real life Olympian, resplendent in her Team GB tracksuit and lugging three quite sizeable holdalls.

The sight of the homecoming hero led Paul and I to daydream for a moment as to how it must feel to perform on the biggest stage, which naturally spawned speculation as to the sporting discipline which could have propelled us to stardom. It was at this point that I loudly asserted one of the chief observations I’ve made during this epic summer of sport.

You see, as something of a frustrated sportsman myself, I’ve been examining the options which could, potentially, lead to me representing either Britain or Ireland as a 32-year-old in 2016 – and the specific role I highlighted as the easiest in the entire Olympic Games was that of the Handball goalkeeper.

The theory is sort of sound, in my humble, and most likely incorrect, opinion. With teams regularly chalking up over twenty goals per game, it seems somewhat apparent that the goalkeepers can hardly be blamed for poor team performances. While in sports like Football, where a goalkeeping error can be fatal due to the comparative rarity of goals, in Handball, it would seem, you might just be able to get away with being… well… a bit crap.

You already know where this is going, don’t you?

As we exited the train, I eyed up the young athlete once again and managed to clock the name on the accreditation pass that still hung proudly from her neck, resolving to Google our esteemed fellow passenger to discover exactly what she’d been up to in the last couple of weeks.

The name: Laura Innes.

The position: Team GB Women’s Handball Goalkeeper.

You feckin’ IDIOT, Parker.

So, Laura, on the off-chance you’re reading this, and if you heard my ill-informed outburst on the train, I will offer you this crumb of comfort:

While you were representing your country at the biggest show on earth, I sat here, wrote about it, and ate crisps. I think it’s clear who’s the winner here.

You know it is. It really is…

The Birmingham Bullet

As my Facebook and Twitter followers may have gathered, I’ve been hard at work on behalf of Speedo in the last couple of weeks, marveling at the efforts of supreme athletes such as Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin and their contribution to an incredible summer of sport.

Today, for entirely unrelated reasons, I decided to go swimming myself. Never, ever let it be said that I’m easily led.

In preparing to hit the water, I’d fooled myself into thinking that a week or so of careful study of elite swimmers’ technique might improve my own performance. Armed with this sure knowledge, I jumped in, and immediately attempted a proper, head-in-water, Freestyle stroke which, in my defence, I did quite well for about ten metres before happening upon the realisation that I wasn’t sure how to breathe whilst doing it.

As I tried to figure it out, I was casting envious glances at the person swimming next to me. Man, he looked the part. Cap, goggles, aquashorts, head in the water, perfect technique, breathing on the third stroke. How dare he show me up in this way? I was at the Olympics last week, where was he?!

So I decided. I was going to race him. That would show him.

And so I finished my length. I waited for him. And then, with an imaginary starter’s gun in my head, off we went.

It was an epic battle. He with his almost effortless front crawl versus me, having reverted to my usual, peculiar, head-above-water Breaststroke, albeit a particularly lungbusting version of it.

Somehow, against all the odds, I was head-to-head with my rival as we approached the wall that marked the end of the 25-metre length and, according to my rules, our race. “You’re Michael Phelps, you’re Michael Phelps”, I told myself.

It was tight, and for a moment I was worried that he might pip me at the post. But, with one last desperate lunge at the wall, I sealed my victory and celebrated wildly as my opponent sadly accepted his abject failure.

OK, that’s not actually what happened. I touched the wall first, that bit is true. But I was simply too tired to celebrate, which is good, because I suppose, what with the other lad not actually knowing he was in a race, it might have looked a little weird.

Let’s also ignore the fact that he then went on to swim at least three lengths in the time it took me to recover from the exertions of our momentous battle.

I won, that was all that mattered. And as I swam away, the theme to ‘Chariots of Fire’ reverberated in my head.

The price of impending humiliation…

As I said in my last blog, I’m currently doing my damnedest to live a more active lifestyle and have taken up running. Well, I say running… I recently got to a point where I can run for three minutes without stopping, and I’m ashamed to say it’s very nearly killing me.

That’s why I’m fairly bewildered by what I’ve pledged to do in the next ten days. And I’m afraid to say that I’m about to become one of those annoying people passing around the begging bowl for their latest charity endeavour.

The first of the two undertakings within the forthcoming fortnight takes place this Wednesday (i.e. the day after tomorrow). For reasons unknown, I’ve agreed to play in a charity football match over in Dublin. This is an entirely ludicrous idea for the following reasons:

1) I’ve not played 11-a-side football for 17 years.
2) I’ve not played football full stop for nearly three years
3) Running in bursts of three minutes at a time is proving a struggle, so quite how I think I’m going to manage it for 90 minutes is beyond me.

The match is in aid of three Irish charities –  Aoibheann’s Pink Tie, a children’s cancer charity, DPOL, supporting disabled people in Co.Longford and Torun Children’s Hospice.

I realise that many people prefer to support charities closer to home, but I hope you’ll agree that a good cause is a good cause wherever it is in the world, and that if you have a pound or two to spare you may be able to donate.

I’m afraid I don’t have a JustGiving page or anything like that for this – I just have a sponsorship form to fill out. Therefore, if you do want to donate, please email me on ttparker@live.co.uk telling me how much you’d like to give, I’ll pay in cash when I’m in Ireland on Wednesday, and I’ll sort out how you can get the money to me afterwards.

For those of you who do wish to donate to a more familiar charity instead, I’m doing another bit for charity a week on Saturday, and this too involves running around a football pitch – literally.

I’m aiming to do a few organised runs this year as an incentive to keep up my quest for fitness, and the first of them is a modest one miler on 10th March. In the hope that I can be inspired by my surroundings, the mile comes in the shape of four laps of the pitch at my beloved Villa Park, and is in aid of the Acorns Children’s Hospice.

If you’re in the West Midlands, I probably don’t need to say anything more about the amazing work that Acorns does, so it would be great to raise a few quid for this incredible cause. If you’d like to donate for this one, please let me know and I’ll give you the full SP when I receive my fundraising pack later this week.

I realise that there’s a lot of people doing incredibly worthwhile things for charity with regularity these days, and while this is hardly a marathon or a climb up a mountain, it’s probably going to be a struggle for me personally! Therefore, even the smallest amounts would be hugely appreciated.

You are all lovely, lovely people.

You know you are. You really are.

Keep on running…

Blogs, ‘eh? You go more than six months without writing one, then two come along at once. It’s no coincidence. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions as a rule, but I’ve resolved to be more resolute and one of my aims is to write for pleasure more often. So here I am.

The second resolution is a little more difficult to achieve. I’m aiming to shed three stones in weight before seeing in 2013, which I realise is a big ask given my genuine love of pizza and curry and pies and crisps and that, but I’m doing my damnedest to stick at it.

To that end, I’ve done something fairly drastic – I’ve started to run. Well, I say run, it’s more of an awkward, wheezing stagger around the block at the moment. But, it’s a start.

Those who have only known me in adulthood will understandably struggle to picture me as a runner. Something to do with the aforementioned pizza, curry, pies and crisps, I’ll bet. Those who’ve known me a little longer will know differently, though.

Y’see, as a teenager, I was quite the promising middle-to-long distance runner, following in the footsteps of my dad, a former Birchfield Harrier in his own right. The plan was for me too to develop my talent, join a club, and perhaps enjoy a lifetime of competitive athletics. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that I’m pretty much made of glass as various injuries took hold. A knee complaint saw me housebound for an entire summer at the age of around 13, and near constant ankle-knacks eventually led to me calling it quits a couple of years later. Shortly afterwards, I began to gain weight, and the rest as they say, is history.

So, why have I started again? Well, it’s not quite the sudden epiphany some have when they take up a new fitness pursuit. Nor is it any sort of desire to try and recapture past glories. It’s more a matter of practicality.

Just under a year ago I began, along with my colleagues at S&X, to look after PR for New Balance (the world’s finest purveyor of athletic footwear, I’ll have you know). One of the perks of this was being gifted with a few pairs of trainers, including some of their lovely fashion-led shoes which quickly became acquainted with my everyday attire. However, there was one pair of shoes which remained firmly in the box – a pair of shiny, top of the range running shoes.

Frequently I would see them peering out at me from the wardrobe, almost pleading with me to try them on. “Come on, Tom. We’re worth £95, for God’s sake! Wear us!” And it was tempting. But knowing that I’d become so unfit that sprinting for a bus left me fairly breathless, I felt sure that my running days were over forever.

That was until I read about a new iPhone app called Run5k, an ingenious little system which builds you up from running in bursts of just 45 seconds to begin with to, hopefully, being able to run for half an hour non-stop by the 8th week. It’s early days, but I’m at least getting out and doing my bit and setting out on that road to being three stones lighter. And, touch wood, none of the old injuries have flared up just yet, which is promising.

So, why am I writing about this? Well, it’s quite simple – I want to make sure I stick at it, and I feel that by announcing my intentions as publicly as possible I’ll be extra motivated to, y’know, actually go ahead and do it. The logic is simple – if I tell you all now that I intend to lose the weight, I feel obliged to do it so I don’t sound like some knobhead who’s full of good intentions but not willing to put in the effort. And it also means that if we get to new year’s eve and I’m still a fatty, I’m giving you a free pass to direct a ginormous torrent of abuse in my direction. Win-win, in a way. Sort of.

Here’s how it will work – my progress will become a regular topic of discussion here and on my Twitter feed. I’ll keep you up to date, let you know how far I’m running, and how much weight I’ve shed. I’ll be open about when I’ve done well, and honest when I’ve done badly. And a little encouragement would be appreciated too, if you feel at all inclined to offer it.

And in the spirit of openness and honesty, if you saw this message earlier, I have to confess – I didn’t go. My dinner was ready when I got home and it looked so ruddy delicious that I couldn’t wait a minute longer. But I’ll endeavour to get up early in the morning…

You know I will. I really will.

My name’s Tom… and I’m a karaokoholic.

The best part of The X Factor each year is invariably the audition stage, and without fail it tends to boast some poor bloke who assures the judges that he’s ‘brilliant’ at karaoke before the inevitable tuneless drone is met by the boos and jeers of the baying crowd.

I fear the day will soon come when that poor bloke is me.

Last month my mate Perksy arranged a night at the Tap and Spile karaoke in Birmingham as a pre-Christmas gathering. I sang a couple of duets, had a laugh with friends, and looked on in amazement as Rachel New stole the show with a frankly magnificent performance of White Lines by Grandmaster Flash. It was wonderful.

That would have been that, except it awakened something in a few of us. Perksy, Kerri, Sarah and I went back. And then again. And this weekend we racked up our fifth trip to the karaoke in little over a month.

We’ve developed significantly in that time. Kerri and I have finely honed our performance of ‘The Bad Touch’ by The Bloodhound Gang, I’ve shed the initial nerves to the point where singing several songs without copious amounts of Dutch courage doesn’t particularly concern me, we’ve become well known enough that we were entrusted with the compering of the midnight countdown on New Year’s Eve, and ‘Karaoke Richard’, our master of ceremonies, has bought us drinks.

However, amid all the considerable fun we’re having , I must confess that I do have a lingering concern that we could be becoming those karaoke people. The ones who show up every week, the ones who take it really seriously, the ones who develop a high opinion of their own ability… the ones who end up getting carried away and audition for X Factor. Oh God…

While jovially I’ll always steadfastly insist that my singing is worthy of any stage, the truth is that my limitations mean that I’ll generally perform something between spoken word and parody opera. Only, I must be honest, there have been occasions recently when I’ve tried to actually sing. Y’know, properly, like. I know that Perksy has too. What is becoming of us?

Kerri and Sarah, on the other hand, are perfectly accomplished singers, so I’m less concerned that they might end up embarrassing themselves. However, their in-depth summits during the process of song selection suggest that they too might have been afflicted with the mindset of the regular karaokist, let alone the occasions when they’ve continued to sing the refrain of a song acapella long after the backing track has finished. Milking it, obviously.

Our most recent visit, though, made me think that we may seriously need to take a look at ourselves and work out if things need to brought under control.

You see, midway through the evening, spots of water began to drip through the ceiling, which soon gave way to several significant streams of water. As beer buckets were brandished to catch the errant liquid, I realised that it kind of looked like piss. And it kind of smelled like piss. And it kind of… WAS piss. Real life, genuine human piss, coming from a flooded toilet upstairs. With that in mind, spare a thought for Karaoke Richard who, in the initial confusion as to what could be causing the leak, had decided to TASTE the mystery liquid. Bless him.

At this point, you may imagine that with the bar covered in significant puddles of human waste, the pub would have closed immediately due to environmental health concerns. You’d be wrong. As fairly cultured and intelligent people, you might imagine that we would have made a collective decision that a pub with piss literally raining down from the ceiling wasn’t the place where we should be spending our Friday night. Sadly, again, you’d be wrong. We just bloody love karaoke so much, and if it takes an inadvertent golden shower to do it then that’s just something we have to put up with.

It’s time to admit it, we have a severe problem, and we can only get through it with your unwavering support.

Until then, I would like to sing ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, please.

You know I would. I really would…. BABY BABEH!

Here’s a little bonus feature for you, dear reader.

After reading this blog, you’re probably anxious to go and do karaoke now. It’s OK, I don’t blame you.

As a self-appointed expert, though, I do have some tips for you to follow. Take heed of these, and you too could become a world-class entertainer.

1. Only sing songs you actually know

It may seem like a very obvious thing to say, but there’s an incredible amount of people who get up to sing a song without seeming to have the first clue how the song goes. Yes, we all know the chorus of ‘Especially For You’, but if you don’t know the verses you can eff off, tbf.

2. Only sing songs everyone else actually knows

Some lad a couple of weeks ago got up and sang some obscure death metal song that was eight minutes long and which nobody else had ever heard of. Everyone was bloody well pissed off.

3. If you want to feel like a rockstar, sing Oasis

There’s something about Oasis songs which makes everyone want to sing along with you. Feels nice, man.

4. If you’re not a great singer, just make it funny

A humorous ad-lib has saved many an average singer. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than somebody getting on the mic and thinking they’re hilarious when really they’re just a loud annoying pisshead. All about balance, isn’t it? Needless to say, I’m ALWAYS hilarious.

5. Don’t be shy

At the end of the day, it’s a laugh, and nobody is going to think any less of you for taking part. Well, they might, but they’ll have forgotten about it tomorrow. Just have a drink, grab the mic and have fun.

You’re AVin’ a laugh, Britain…

I’m stubborn. And, for that reason, there are few things in the world that irk me more than being told I’m wrong when I’m CERTAIN I’m right.

That’s very much how I feel tonight as it becomes clear that Britain has said a resounding ‘NO’ to the introduction of the alternative vote. Exasperation doesn’t begin to cover it.

My mom often tells stories about how, even as a toddler, I was into politics. I’d sit in front of the TV and, in between episodes of Postman Pat and Thomas The Tank Engine, I’d revel in the activity of the likes of Thatcher and Gorbachev. Turning 18 heralded the magical moment when I could first exercise my democratic right. I was the first through the door at 7am when the 2002 council elections rolled around, and I’ve not missed an opportunity to have my say since.

However, therein lies the problem – I’ve NEVER ‘had my say’ because my vote hasn’t once counted for anything. May 1979 saw Conservative Richard Shepherd claim the Aldridge-Brownhills seat from the Labour incumbent. 32 years on, he remains our MP. And I’m certainly not a Tory.

Some will point out that, having secured 59.3% of the vote at the last General Election, AV would not have been called into play in Aldridge-Brownhills. Obviously, I can’t argue with that. But, I can only wonder whether, under the current first past the post system, there are some who are reluctant to vote for a smaller party because it’s ‘a waste of a vote’? Perhaps some are so resigned to yet another Tory victory that they don’t even bother to head to the booth?

With AV, a fairer system which guarantees that the majority of people get to have their say, I would at least go into the polling station with a bit of hope that something MIGHT happen, rather than the familiar inevitability that it’s all in vain.

While not perfect, I haven’t seen a single compelling case to retain FPTP ahead of AV. The ‘NO’ campaign was based around the vague, the irrelevant and the notion that it was somehow so complex that our mere human minds would explode upon trying to comprehend it. Funded by the same out-of-touch ageing millionaires who bankroll the Tories, the ‘NO’ campaign took the form of one of most spiteful, condescending and morally bankrupt political crusades I’ve ever seen, compounded by David Blunkett’s admission that the oft quoted ‘£250 million’ figure was nothing but a great big whopping lie.

Compare and contrast the promotional material. On one hand we have this wholly logical and eloquently laid out argument from the ‘YES’ campaign. The ‘NO’ campaign, meanwhile, were peddling this clichéd metaphor WHICH DOESN’T EVEN EFFING MAKE SENSE.

And so, why did such an obviously superior system lose out to the current archaic method? There will be an element of ‘the better the devil you know’, obviously. Some will have fallen for the blatant lies emanating from the ‘No’ camp. Some will have voted ‘No’ because The Sun and The Daily Mail told them to. Some will claim they didn’t understand what AV was, which I can only assume means they didn’t bother to try and find out – after all, you’d need to be a total simpleton not to grasp the concept, and none of us are, so we’re all fine.

Most idiotic of all, though, are those who refused to support AV simply because it was a proposal that was forced through by the Liberal Democrats. The anti-Lib Dem sentiment that has existed since the election has puzzled me, purely because many of the arguments against what they’ve done in parliament seem to highlight a fundamental lack of understanding of the situation.

Let’s start with the initial condemnation (no pun intended) of the decision to partner with the Conservatives in the first place, and the constant insinuation that they have somehow ‘sold-out’. The truth is that the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was the ONLY viable option. A Labour-Lib Dem partnership would not have been enough to form a majority. A Conservative minority government would have been unworkable.

Here’s the reality – the Liberal Democrats lost the election. Five seats down on 2005, they hold 57 seats compared to the Conservatives’ 306. And yet, some people seem amazed that government policy is weighted towards the Tory manifesto. A coalition requires some give and take by its very nature. When you barely have one seventh of the stake in the partnership, you need to be prepared for more give than take.

The fact of the matter is that this is as good as it was ever going to get for the Liberal Democrats. If you went to the polls last year on May 6th expecting the sun to rise over Clegg’s Britain on the 7th, you are, frankly, an idiot. A Liberal Democrat majority was simply not going to happen. The possibilities were clear – either being the perennial third party, where none of the pillars of the manifesto would be implemented, or the minority player in a coalition where at least some of your policies will be utilised. As a supporter of the party, offered these two options, there’s only one logical choice – otherwise what’s the point?

Of course, mistakes have been made. The student tuition fees saga was as cringeworthy a political scenario as any I’ve ever witnessed. However it boils down, once again, to the Conservatives wielding the balance of power within the partnership. Clegg’s mistake was not backing the proposals in government, it was signing a pledge whilst in opposition.

And yet, despite all the concessions made to Tory policy by the Lib Dems, they’d managed to secure one of the greatest parts of the bargain of all – the chance to secure a fairer political future for us all, a genuine once in a lifetime chance to achieve a greater freedom of choice, a greater democracy, to make our MPs work harder, and to make our government more representative of the country as a whole.

We blew it. And we may never get the opportunity again. But then, I’m used to being on the losing side of a poll…

Bravo, Britain. Bra-bloody-vo.

Enjoy the Craic. Just one favour…

Hello. It’s been a while.

I make my return to the blogosphere just ahead of one of my favourite days of the year.

St. Patrick’s Day is a wonderful indulgence in Irishness. It was a particular joy at University, when I’d rise, don the green jersey and tricolor, cook a full Irish breakfast for my lucky, lucky housemates, sink a pint of Guinness, then head out where I’d continue to get the black stuff down my neck until the early hours of March 18th. Even lectures weren’t a particular barrier, as anyone who witnessed me staggering into the University of Lincoln’s Cargill lecture theatre one year will testify (it’s not big and it’s not clever).

It’s been a less hardcore affair in recent years, what with pesky work preventing the all day benders,  but I always make the time for a swift couple of pints and a soda farl or two.

Here’s the thing, though (and this is essentially the point of this blog) – Irishness, to me, is far, far more than donning a funny hat and getting royally pissed once a year. And yet, some people remain seemingly hellbent on denying me my heritage.

It’s often jovial, but it occasionally takes the form of sneering derision, people almost hauling me over the coals as to my claims to Irish heritage, before, inevitably, coming to the conclusion that the fact that 50% of the blood sloshing around inside me is Irish isn’t enough for me to justify any significant link to the Emerald Isle.

It frustrates and confuses me in equal measure. Why are they so determined to make light of my roots? I hate to come across all Daily Mail, but a person with black skin wouldn’t have to face a similar inquisition over their claims to have African or Caribbean heritage, because there’s tangible evidence literally looking you in the eye.  As my mom often likes to say when she, ridiculously, faces a similar challenge to her right to claim Irishness: “If Irish people had green skin, I’d be green”.

And she would. My mom was born Helen O’Shea and raised in a distinctly Irish household in Birmingham. My grandparents, Cal and PJ hailed from the small, picturesque village of Kildysart, Co.Clare, before venturing across the Irish sea to make a life for themselves and their children in Blighty.

Life has dealt me a largely lucky hand, but I think the thing that makes me feel sadder than anything else is the fact that my granddad was taken from me far too soon, only a week after my first birthday. All I have are the tales from my family, their recollections of a truly great human being.

Nanny Cal also went too soon. I was 11 when we lost her very suddenly to a stroke, and words don’t accurately describe how much I miss her to this day. She was an enormous part of mine and my sister’s childhood, picking us up from school most nights, looking after us until mom got home, and one of the kindest, gentlest human beings to ever walk the planet – the quintessential Irish lady. I’ve never known a shock like the enormity of her passing, and never a day goes by when I don’t think of her.

It’s the untimely loss of my grandparents which I think makes me cling on to my Irish heritage all the more, a passion to respect their legacy, ensuring their memory will never be forgotten. It’s hard to explain how you can feel such a belonging, such a connection with a nation that I’ve never called home. But it’s something that burns inside me, which should go some way to explaining why I don’t take kindly to somebody questioning it.

This is probably as good a point as any to clarify, for the avoidance of any doubt, that I’m not denouncing my Englishness by any means. Half of the blood inside me is English, courtesy of my dad, and I’m hugely proud of that part of my heritage too. (I just don’t support the English national football team anymore because most of them are dicks, innit?)

Of course, in the eyes of the law, I’m 100% British. Going back to the smug idiots who love to question my claims to be Irish, the one thing I hate to be asked is “Do you have an Irish passport?” – because it’s a question I can’t answer ‘Yes’ to.

My citizenship is British, my passport is British, and, in every official piece of documentation I ever fill out, I’m duty bound to list my nationality as such. It may seem insignificant, but I always do so with resignation – I yearn to write English/Irish, to formalise what I feel I am, my own sense of identity.

I was recently able to do just that when filling out my census form. Thanks to the ‘How Irish Are You?’ campaign, I learned that there’s a difference between Nationality and Ethnicity. And so, while I had no choice but to list ‘English’ under national identity,the ethnicity section allowed me, finally, to list both of the nationalities I feel a sense of belonging to. I doubt there were many people to take as much joy out of filling in their census as I did, I can guarantee you that.

Having done it once, I’m eager to do it again. And thus, I’m currently looking into going through the process of registering my ‘foreign birth’ with the Irish authorities, gaining dual citizenship, and the right to carry both a British and an Irish passport.

It’s a long and arduous process, which costs a considerable amount of money and requires me to submit an almost prohibitive amount of paper work, including the original copies of my parents’ and grandparents’ birth and marriage certificates, as well as my own birth certificate – even surrendering my passport for a period of time.

People may question why I’m going through it. There are no obvious benefits or incentives to do so, but I WANT to do it. I want to honour my grandparents, I want that link to them, I want something tangible to prove what I feel so deeply inside, my commitment to my roots. And, as much as anything, I want that official bit of paper to silence the begrudgers once and for all.

So please, enjoy the Craic tomorrow. Drink, wear a leprechaun hat, do a little jig if the mood takes you. But, please… don’t call me a Plastic Paddy. Because I’m not.

You know I’m not. I’m really not.

A dark day. You know it is…

For around three years now, I’ve finished various status updates, tweets, emails and blogs with a derivative of the immortal phrase; “You know I am. I really am.”

Some like it, some find it irritating, but I’m often asked one thing: “What does it mean?”.

The truth is it’s mere plagiarism of the legendary Frank Sidebottom. Seeing as the famous last line of almost all of his songs tends to figure heavily in my online musings, I was shocked and genuinely saddened to hear of the death of Frank – or, to give the name of the man beneath the papier mache head, Chris Sievey – earlier today.

While I’d heard that Chris was unfortunately battling cancer, I was blissfully unaware that the situation was as grave as it sadly turned out to be. The sad irony behind today’s news was that merely minutes before the announcement was made, news of his next gig had been published on his official Facebook page. It seems that even his management didn’t realise quite how serious things were.

Frank Sidebottom had already enjoyed the height of his fame long before I became aware of his work. I first encountered the act in around 2006/2007 when Frank guested on Iain Lee’s superb former LBC show.

Frank, typically, was loud, brash, arrogant… and brilliantly funny. I wasn’t entirely sure I really ‘got’ what I was listening to – in fact, I’m still not sure I ever did get it, or if there was indeed anything to get – but I liked what I heard. From that moment I became an avid fan and first ‘borrowed’ the ‘You know I am…’ signature shortly afterwards. I’m currently weighing up whether or not I should drop it out of respect, or keep it as a tribute.

It’s almost ironic that as the world of showbiz lost one of its most original and creative talents, my former colleagues at Global Radio were once again going through the harsh upheaval that’s become an all too frequent occurrence in the world of modern media.

I’m no longer well placed nor qualified to comment on the ramifications of  decisions made by my former employers, so I shan’t declare any opinion of whether I think it’s right or wrong. It’s simply not my business to do so.

However, the changes are indicative of the state of broadcast media in general. Factors influencing the changes in the industry are the financial climate, obviously, but also the general dilution of media outlets.

It was easier to take risks and do something different way back when, because there were less outlets to lose your audience to. Four TV channels, truly independent radio stations broadcasting live content 24 hours a day, and that was your lot.  These days, there’s not only multi-channel TV to contend with, but also the user-generated content behemoth that is the internet – and much less opportunity for people to actually make money from their talents.

Of course, there’s pros and cons to that. As somebody who writes blogs like this and presents on internet radio, I pretty much love the fact that anybody can put their work into the public domain. Conversely, as somebody who sees how watered down TV and radio has inevitably had to become in the face of such competition, I do mourn that much simpler time.

It’s understandable, really. I was brought up on formats like The Big Breakfast, TFI Friday, Fantasy Football League, Shooting Stars – shows that weren’t afraid to break new ground, to take chances, to create something truly different, truly memorable, truly entertaining.

Where does the new talent get to shine now? Every programme is presented by the same few people. Dermot O’Leary, Ant and Dec, Davina McCall, Vernon Kay. Stale, unadventurous formats. So frightened are programmers of their new competition that the only option seems to be to play it safe and familiar. That lack of cojones, together with dwindling revenues demanding cheaper production costs, makes broadcast media on the whole terribly boring today.

Take Gladiators, for example. The original series was filmed in front of thousands at the National Indoor Arena and screened to millions on Saturday nights. Resurrected a couple of years ago, the new incarnation was filmed in a small studio before an audience of a couple of hundred at most. Quite evidently made as cheaply as possible, Gladiators v2.0 received audiences so tiny it was eventually withdrawn with no more than a whimper. Television today summed up in a nutshell.

Currently, James Corden’s World Cup Live is being hailed as some sort of second coming of TFI. The fact of the matter is it’s not in the same league… however, it’s undoubtedly one of the most creative formats that’s been on TV in a long time. I find that so depressing I could hammer my head repeatedly against a brick wall in frustration.

Look at Frank Sidebottom. Had the act launched today, its best hope probably would have been to become a cult hit on the internet. No programmer would be brave enough to give him a spot on radio or TV.

Despite that, people who care will never stop putting content out there for the love of it, regardless of how little reward there is for it.

To that end, I’ll be back on Rhubarb Radio tomorrow night from 6…

You know I will. I really will.

Chris ‘Frank Sidebottom’ Sievey
1956-2010

Why I kind of hate the World Cup

Anyone who knows me will tell you of my sheer passion for football. I’ve been a season ticket holder at Aston Villa for 19 years now, and I can’t ever envisage being without it.

And yet, as the biggest feast of football on earth gets underway, you must forgive me if I feel underwhelmed. The simplest way I can sum it up is it’s akin to somebody who spends their life watching proper bands at small gig venues before finding themselves at a Take That concert at Wembley Stadium – everyone loves them, and you kind of have to admit that they are quite good, but somehow it just doesn’t seem ‘proper’.

So, what are the reasons for feeling like this?

It’s supporting a team containing wastes of oxygen like Ashley Cole and John Terry and money grabbing liars like Gareth Barry, led by a cheating thug like Steven Gerrard (football’s own OJ Simpson).

It’s the jingostic hype, generated mainly by people who don’t even follow the game – where patriotism becomes racism.

It’s the stupid songs in the pub. “There were 12 German Bombers in the air…” / “Two World Wars and one World Cup…” / “No surrender to the IRA…” – SHUT. UP. YOU. EMBARRASSMENTS.

It’s the fact that people somehow believe we have a God-given right to win the damn thing.

It’s crap songs like James Corden and Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Shout’ perpetuating popular culture’s myth of what football fans are actually like. (Genuine true fact: In 20 years of going to football, I have NEVER heard the chant ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ – it exists only in bandwagoning pop music)

It’s the fact that I kind of want to see James Milner do badly in order to give Villa a better chance of keeping him.

It’s the fact that when we do go out, somebody is going to have their lives made a misery by The Sun newspaper. It may be an England player, maybe one of the opposition. In recent years, it seems mainly to have been referees. But somebody will face the witchhunt.

Aside from England for a moment, it’s the fact France are in the World Cup and Ireland aren’t.

It’s seeing people who usually have no interest in the game suddenly deciding they’re experts on its finer points. Cue the regurgitation of statistics they memorised from that morning’s paper.

It’s the fact that, if England do win a big game, it’s all backslapping and everyone’s happy. Part of the fun is the bragging rights, the feeling that, when you do succeed, it’s special just to you and yours and not to everyone. International Football lacks the feelings of pride and envy that club football heralds. Euro 2008 was brilliant because England weren’t there, everyone supported different teams, and we got to enjoy some of that division based rivalry these tournaments usually lack.

It’s the fact the hype will get worse if England somehow do win the bloody thing…

More than anything, it’s the fact that given the choice between England winning the World Cup, or Villa winning away at Wigan on a cold Tuesday night in February, I’d pick the Villa every single time.

And yet, I’ve bought my England shirts, I’ll be going in to town to watch the match later, and I reserve the right to be a complete hypocrite when I inevitably get swept away in it all.

All I want is for us to show a little dignity… is that too much to ask?