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20 January
Football fixture feast and famine

It’s almost certainly a computer that comes up with the League football fixture lists for England and Wales, but the rules that it follows are set by people. And many of them are sensible. You don’t, for instance, get cities or areas with two neighbouring and rival teams – Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, north London etc – playing at home at the same time on League football days. And you try to schedule local derby fixtures and, conversely, matches between far-distant teams – Carlisle v Exeter, for example – with some sensitivity about travel.

But sometimes it seems to be arbitrary. And if you look at it through the eyes of the uncommitted football-watcher – ie, me – very arbitrary indeed.

I was puzzled, for example, last weekend when I went for the first time ever to see Ipswich Town play at home to spot, a dozen or so miles away from Ipswich, that Colchester United were also playing at home. Of course, neither of them is likely to cause a breach of the peace or vast traffic congestion. But if you’re just a football-watcher from that area, you might perhaps want to go to both.

This coming weekend in London is almost the converse of that. There are three Premiership matches, two of them at exactly the same time on Saturday in west London (QPR and Fulham) with the third match, at Arsenal, on Sunday. All right, having three west London sides in the Premiership (with Chelsea) is awkward, and I can’t afford to go to QPR anyway. But it seems strange to put on two games within about three miles of each other at the same time when Sunday is an option. Then lower down the leagues, West Ham are at home and Charlton are playing a top-of-the-table probable-sell-out match against Sheffield United. And that’s it in London.

London has three clubs in League Two – AFC Wimbledon, Barnet and Dagenham & Redbridge – and they’re all away. In League One, Brentford and Leyton Orient are away and Championship teams Crystal Palace and Millwall are away too. For good measure, not far out of London, Watford, Stevenage, Crawley and Brighton are all playing away. Wycombe Wanderers are at home, but that is oddly placed when you realise Reading are home as well (all right, Wycombe can’t avoid both Oxford and Reading, so I suppose it has to take its turn).

Anyway, the gist of this is that people like me, who like going to football matches but aren’t too bothered about who or where, alternate between almost no choice at all or lots of it. And that seems a bit silly. Computer, sort it out for next season, please.

18 January
Shooting the messenger

As a journalist, which I pretend to be, I know that “shoot the messenger” is a pretty standard procedure. The woes that have been blamed on the press are many and varied, and in a world dominated by spin and presentation, it’s very easy and often convenient to place responsibility for bad news on the bringer of the message, rather than its subject. Not, of course, that journalists are blameless: selfless characters motivated only by a burning zeal for the truth and a devotion to the common weal. We wouldn’t be having the Leveson inquiry if that was the case.

And don’t get me wrong. There is a strong market for “bad news stories”: we all like a bit of vicarious gloom. Journalists wouldn’t write downbeat stuff if readers didn’t want it. In the absence of a feel-good factor, there’s always a perverse satisfaction to be gained from measuring the depth of misery and comparing yours to that of others. In some areas, there appears actually to be a self-flagellation kick to be got from tales of woe.

Anyway, I’m going to do my best here, but I fear there will be elements of shooting messengers in what follows. For over the past couple of days, a pair of very large international companies with big UK businesses have come out with some “research” about engineering and industry – areas that seem to need little incentive to look on the dark side.

One of the twosome surveyed a lot of young people about their attitudes towards careers in engineering and found that stereotypes about geeks and grime were still very prevalent: in fact, there doesn’t seem to have been much progress from… I won’t go on; you get the picture. It wasn’t good news for my mates in engineering and manufacturing. The other one had a different take: it had surveyed countries around the world to measure where it was that innovation was being encouraged, nationally, the best and, surprise, surprise, the evidence was that the UK was doing less well than others and perhaps less well than it had done itself in the not-too-distant past.

The question that popped into my head when these two unrelated items plopped into my inbox was perhaps a slightly unworthy one for a journalist, so I’ll perhaps disguise it a little by putting it in Latin: Cui bono? Who benefits from knowing these things?

Actually, of course, individually and collectively both these bits of research are justified: it’s better to know than not to know, and both professions and nations are better off knowing how they rank in relation to others than remaining in ignorance. So if the engineering profession isn’t doing the business with young people, it’s better that it knows, and if the UK isn’t doing the business with entrepreneurial types, then again it’s better to know it.

But in both cases it’s a bit dispiriting. Lots of people have put lots of effort into trying to make things better on both of these fronts: to be told there’s still a long way to go may be necessary. But it isn’t welcome. We probably shouldn’t shoot the messenger, but we can hope that there might be a better message to be brought along later.

12 January
Tying up loose ends

Don’t you just hate those articles where they pose a question at the end and then don’t follow up later and tell you the answer? Or leave a story half told? No? Oh well, this is just a few of the loose ends that I’ve scattered around this place tied together for the purpose of tidiness.

The last word on my Christmas deliveries that were exercising me so much in the week before the event, for example. The gadget company iwantoneofthose.com produced the thing I ordered back in November on Tuesday this week: a small keyring sized USB card reader which apparently necessitated a very large box for delivery. I can’t now remember why we wanted it and in any case it’s missed the Christmas stocking filler role it was due to have. I’m still being bombarded by emails from the company promising 24-hour delivery… but of course I know better than to believe that kind of thing.

The other delivery that was problematic was the Christmas pudding and brandy butter from Fortnum & Mason, and the pud did just manage to arrive before Christmas (and pretty good it was too). This morning’s post has brought a second delivery from Fortnums. It’s not addressed to me, so I haven’t opened it. But I kind of assume it’s the brandy butter, for which there isn’t a lot of use in mid-January. Or, perhaps, a hamper-sized compensation for the earlier failure? Probably too much to hope.

Another follow-up I ought to record is from my post earlier this week on HS2, when I worried that the original London & Birmingham Railway terminus at Curzon Street in Birmingham was looking in danger of dereliction. Well, apparently as part of the HS2 scheme the old station is due to be incorporated in the new Birmingham terminus for the high-speed line and the older building is meant to be safeguarded: it got a ministerial visit as part of the announcement promo. We’ll obviously keep a watch on that and hope it happens: it’s 50 years since Hardwick’s Euston Arch and the other architectural delights at the southern end of the route were swept aside in the kind of brutalist act that was commonplace on the railways in the 1960s and for which we’re still paying. If the same architect’s work in Birmingham can be part of the future, that’s got to be good.

10 January
The train now arriving...

The UK government has today announced that it is backing the HS2 high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham and I for one am pleased. I’d have been even pleaseder if they’d done it a few months or even a few years ago, when other countries were planning new lines, many of which are now working. But that is merely carping. It’s the right decision.

It’s right because you can’t go on squeezing ever more marginal gains out of the current rail system. Robert Stephenson, who built the London & Birmingham Railway’s mainline between Euston and the Curzon Street terminal at Birmingham (of which more at the end), did a remarkable job in creating a railway that’s withstood 150 years of improvements and modifications and upgrades. But there are limits to this, and we’ve reached them. You can mourn that the old Great Western line from Paddington to Snow Hill got relegated to a bit of a backwater in the sad years of Beeching and of later neglect, though recently it seems much improved.

But what’s really needed for the 21st century is a 21st century railway, and while the 19th century ones can continue to do a good job, they need help. How people afford the current rail fares is a mystery, but they do and in increasing numbers as the reliability of rail has risen just at the time when our roads have clogged up and car journeys have become a lottery. In terms of logistics, in environmental cost, in efficiency, rail wins over road and modern rail wins over old rail. That’s not to dismiss the concerns of those directly affected by the new line, but there’s a greater common weal here.

I do, though, have some misgivings. One is to ask why, when this is an eminently sensible thing to be doing, we have to wait until 2026 before it’s done. Why so long? And then, even worse, “other lines”, which currently include extensions to Leeds and Manchester but which ought also to include a link to the Channel tunnel line across or round London, will take up to 2033. That’s far too long. If it’s worth doing, and I think it is, it’s worth doing as a priority. (Parenthetically, Crossrail, on just as strangulated a timescale, strikes me as not a priority at all: maybe we could put that one off and get HS2 done faster.)

Equally, I’m pretty certain that you shouldn’t be building HS2 if you don’t make some other basic decisions about future transport provision. Like airport capacity. Or road pricing. Or rail fare subsidies. If we believe, as I think we must, that travel for business or pleasure will continue to be a basic part of the way we live, then we need a whole raft of decisions that make it less burdensome on individuals, on infrastructure and on the environment. Having me sitting solo in my car in a jam on the M42 isn’t doing anyone any good. So it’d be good if this rail decision was followed by others that will make me and people like me think about the way we travel.

And Curzon Street? Well, I noticed a few weeks back when I was in Birmingham that the old station, Grade I listed, I think, is boarded up and looking a bit forlorn, surrounded by the new buildings that have gone up in the area down from the inner road just off Digbeth. It looked for all the world like a bit of benign neglect: maybe if it’s left, you suspect, it’ll just fall down of its own accord and that’ll be that problem out of the way. I hope not. And maybe someone can reassure me that that’s not the case.

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