13.12.08

To what extent do people sacrifice comfort for value?


Published by Qmunicate

When considering travel, to what extent do people sacrifice comfort for value? Important essay titles aside, this question has been ping-ponging around my brain recently – and here’s the conclusion I arrived at: Megabus.

Megabus holds the monopoly over short-distance city-to-city travel, with fares usually remaining at £1 whether in advance or not, from London to Oxford, Edinburgh to Glasgow, Manchester to Liverpool, Leeds to Sheffield. These cheap, short services are popular among most demographics; commuters, students and night workers, but their long-distance journeys are much less popular.

It always surprises me that despite that their ‘£1 fares to and from anywhere in the UK make them far-and-away the cheapest budget travel provider’, people are petrified of climbing aboard. Recently, after I’d giddily announced to some friends that Megabus had just added two new destinations to their network – Pitlochry in the Highlands and Oxenholme in the Lake District – and suggested a trip during the Christmas break, an eerie silence filled the room. Someone swiftly changed the subject to: “so, that Obama guy got in…?” and the idea was suffocated at birth.

A few months ago, I was booking return Megabus tickets to Liverpool from Glasgow for a meagre £4.50, albeit at the sacrifice of twelve hours of my time. In fact, the cheap journey also offered a nice helping of glamour – I picture myself with a battered old suitcase, scribbling on a dusty notepad, meeting interesting Beat characters on the way (or so goes ‘On the Road’). And like a modern-day Kerouac, I would be travelling the length of the country to find the dream. I get carried away.

But with the glamour came a reality check; personified in friends who’d had recent Megabus experiences: “When I went to London it was thirteen hours there, and twelve hours back, without a working toilet,” said a former flatmate who’d taken a £5 return Glasgow to London journey a year before. “I was hungover, and had a guy sat next to me who would not move, who had a nervous twitch and kept elbowing me. Good luck.” Another friend told me that he’d lost all feeling in both legs during a bumpy £1.50 ride from Edinburgh to London, because the seats were ill-fitted for his six foot frame. Another said she’d heard of drivers who ask passengers for directions, though the worst that happened on her Megabus journeys to Manchester was that the toilets didn't work.

Despite the recurring themes of inoperable toilets and physical discomfort, I still had a smile on my face when my bus pulled into Stand 7 at Buchanan Bus Station at eight in the morning. My battered old suitcase was a sports bag, and my dusty notepad was a piece of revision, but – minus the comfy departure lounges and handy laptop-charging points – I got from A to B with no problems whatsoever.

Speaking for many, comfort or convenience is rarely sacrificed for value, and that’s why Megabus often isn’t included on the travel menu. As things go, I’ve no qualms with pins and needles, long journeys, weird passengers, or wailing toddlers. Just give me a good book and a packed lunch, and let me suffer the cheapest possible journey.

2.12.08

An enlightening Couchsurfing experience

Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's nomadic columnist on his alternative travels around the world.

“The best way to find yourself,” said Gandhi, “is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Arranging to stay with a complete stranger in their town or city, anywhere in the world, makes a similar point. During the summer, I took a leap of faith into the phenomenally-popular travelling network Couchsurfing.com.

Couchsurfing put simply: You sign up, host a traveller in need of some crashspace in your town or city (or just show them about a bit if you have no space to offer), and other travellers reciprocate when you’re on your own adventures.

I'll begin with the image of my girlfriend and I, emerging from Bremen train station at 5.36am. We'd spent the night travelling back from Berlin, a journey usually accomplished in under three hours by day, but with a wait of four hours in Hamburg station by night. Being quite the budget traveller, I'd insisted upon the latter to avoid paying another night's accommodation. After a long, sleepless night, we couldn’t wait to find the flat of our Couchsurfing host, a girl named Isis, which wasn’t far from Bremen station.

“Just call me at 6am and I'll open my door,” Isis had assured us, her words comfortably echoing as we staggered through the empty streets. We were tired and needed to sleep, but we didn't know whether or not to feel daunted or excited – after all, in how many different ways could this go wrong?

Taking reassurance in Couchsurfing.com's own statistics – 99.7% of surfers report 'Positive' experiences – we arrived at Isis' flat just after six, and she greeted us with an exhausted embrace. “I'm getting ready for work,” she told us, leading us upstairs. “You need coffee?” She showed us round her flat, and into “our room” – not a dingy cellar with an old mattress and a couple of dirty airline blankets thrown on the floor, which had entered the darker side of my imagination – a well-kept, clean, three-person apartment in the shade of a local park, with a marvellous home cinema.

“I told my friends you were coming – they want to go out with us tonight and meet you!” Isis enthused. Her hospitality seemed surreal yet normal, and all I could do was keep thanking her, before she prepared our couch and we sank into it without any grace.

725,000 couchsurfers represent 48,000 towns and cities in 231 different countries around the world – not just Europe and the United States, but spread over all continents. Even in the earth's most unpopulated areas there are couches available, cluttered among far eastern Russia, Saharan Africa, even the North and South Poles.

So when Isis returned from work that evening, I decided to grill her on her experiences as a Couchsurfing host. “You are the first,” she told us, to our surprise. With 700 couches available in Bremen alone, to stumble upon another first-timer seemed a coincidence – but it also showed just how fast Couchsurfing.com is growing.

“But I've already turned two people down,” Isis admitted. “A 45-year-old guy sent me a request – but from his profile I could see from his age and his personality that it wouldn't have been very comfortable having him stay here.”

Browsing the profiles of other couchsurfers can be a dark and unpredictable affair. As with most social networking sites, you can find seedy, bare-chested males with taglines such as “I have the ability to synthesise some compounds and I can separate drugs from bile, plasma and urine” going unpoliced, but the site does offer some safeguards.

Before negotiating a stay with some stranger, you can read how previous surfers or hosts have referenced them, and take comfort in the ‘vouching’ facility (similar to eBay’s rating system). The extent to which users fill out their profiles can also give you a good idea of who you’re dealing with.

“When you sent me a request I could see from your profile that we would get on fine,” Isis told us, as we awaited her friends.

They arrived soon after, and warmly greeted us with a bottle of Becks and a handshake. We went to one of the city's Irish bars, and before long we were downing pitchers of beer as if in a student union with our flatmates back home. It was a truly exhilarating night, bantering about everything from books to boyfriends, gaining an insight into local habits and – albeit briefly – trading the familiarity of seeing the world through tourist maps and Google for a far richer experience. In the morning we caught our flight, disappointed to be going home.

Growing up in a world far more likely to place safety before adventure, I used to believe that the well-documented 'Golden Age' of travelling – thumbing lifts around whole continents and crashing in generous strangers' homes, personified by Kerouac and glamourised by his sixties children – was only something to read about. Concluding from a thoroughly enlightening stay with Isis, it is making its resurgence.

(A longer account of my stay with Isis can be found here, and here .)

13.11.08

An Ode to Coppaccino


Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's sensitive columnist struggles with the loss of his place of work.

Readers, I am grieving – Coppaccino has closed down. If not a business familiar by name, it is surely one familiar by sight; the trio of police boxes – one on Buchanan Street, one near Kelvinhall and one outside the Botanic Gardens – which were converted into booths used for selling coffee? Yes, they’re gone – and only their rusty, graffiti-laden corpses of metal remain.

For six years they stood a bold 9ft tall and 4ft wide, but high above any of their rival cafés in the west end or the city centre. Its employees sat in the box and operated a hissing, spluttering machine which churned out a variety of £1.30 coffees and 80p teas, with a range of cold drinks and snacks hiding underneath in a small fridge. Its architect Gavin Wright served his last caramel latte in September, when he turned out the light and locked its door in pursuit of another business.

Coppaccino was my first job in Glasgow. Needing to make ends meet as a lazy first year student staying in Winton Drive, I’d dropped off my CV at the Coppaccino outside the Botanics – simply because it was the closest possible place of employment. Gavin called me a few nights later and arranged me an interview. It took the form of me standing outside the box, while a girl sat inside grilled me on my customer service experience. After a short trial shift that same day, I got the job. “Any advice?” I asked the girl, who was resuming her shift. “You’d probably better bring something to read,” she replied.

She was right. On rainy days outside the Botanic Gardens, I’d serve perhaps six people in as many hours. Over the next few weeks, I did all my exam revision and essay plans in the box. I even wrote some poetry and started a novel. The only problem was that the rain often blew in, and in such a case a mangled umbrella was provided to hang from one of the door hinges. There was also a small heater and a radio by my feet, and we were allowed hot drinks from the machine so long as we noted it an old 1980s till. At the end of the shift I’d just clean up and wait for Gavin – the man with they keys – to come and lock up.

Coppaccino was unofficially The Smallest Workplace In The World, but Gavin could never get it recognised by Guinness Records. As more people filled the streets when Glasgow got dryer, working within such an enclosed space prompted every second customer to ask: “Do you get claustrophobic in there?” to which I tried to reply differently every time. The customers themselves were a mixed bunch; loyal regulars, curious passers-by – occasionally bemused strangers would just stop and stare for uncomfortable stretches of time.

Ultimately, that’s why working in Coppaccino was the best job I’ve ever had. It was the perfect place for people-watching. On any given day I would serve bleary-eyed students still high from clubbing, wealthy businessmen rushing off to conferences, Big Issue sellers exhausted from selling all day on the streets, junkies demanding sachets of sugar, inter-railers urging me to pose for photographs, Polish workers needing directions, opportunist Jehovah’s witnesses making the most of my inability to escape...


The fantastic contrast of Glasgow was painted on a giant canvas right in front of me every time I stepped inside. I don’t feel like I’ve lost a café; I’ve lost a window – however narrow and rusty – to this city.

8.11.08

On Dr Rowan Williams' visit to Glasgow...

Published by Qmunicate

Taking a coffee break from the mammoth task of pasting together the largest split in the Anglican Church for centuries, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered a free public question and answer session in Bute Hall last month.

The format of the evening also included an open discussion with British Muslim academic Mona Siddiqui, a Professor of Theology and Religious Issues at Glasgow University. The Archbishop confronted a range of topics, witnessed by 700-strong audience.

2008 has been a struggle for the Church of England and Williams himself – his comments on Sharia law in February created a prolonged media hysteria, and the historic Lambeth Conference was marred by a boycott by conservative bishops over the issue of homosexuality in June. “Anything I say here tonight isn’t just to the audience sitting in front of me,” he recognised.

In spite of this, Williams was composed during the whole event, and his input to the discussion was remarkably frank. He spoke candidly about sectarianism and secular politics, and a sense of realism washed over everything he said. Any form of sermonising was thankfully absent; the Archbishop certainly proved his worth as an intellectual with a broad understanding of modern life, as opposed to a one-dimensional religious zealot – leaving points of intrigue even for a militant atheist like me.

One notable point came when Williams admitted that, “religious language often seems hollow in the context of great human suffering,” and that, as any human being would, he questions his faith amid the worst of natural and political atrocities. However, he affirmed, “I’ve never thought of giving up, as I’ve never felt that nothing’s out there.”

The Archbishop even dared comment on Islam, despite the controversies in February, when provoked by Professor Siddiqui. “I think more Christians need to understand Jesus in the context of Islam. There are certainly many similarities.” Referring to Muslims and Jews as “our brothers and sisters”, Williams also stressed the importance of seeing his job as a pragmatic “listening process”.

Questions from the audience were mixed – one man wanted him to come up with a solution for religious divisions between Catholics and Anglicans, to which he responded by saying that he couldn’t do anything but to “hope to foresee a unity one day.” Another woman wanted to know if Williams be supporting Barack Obama or John McCain at the then-imminent Presidential Election. “I know better than to give you an answer to that,” he joked.

I left the room with a profound respect for the Archbishop. He demonstrated a deep theological and intellectual knowledge that made him appear more in touch with modern life than you’d probably expect. Yet, his affiliations with the ‘liberal wing’ of the church certainly don’t render him less religiously passionate as his conservative critics.

3.11.08

Swapping seats at The Jeremy Kyle Show

Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's cutting-edge columnist goes to the source of one of TV's most provocative talk shows.

What would you do if a middle-aged woman confided in you this: that she used to be a man who took to binge drinking to combat the frustrations of not being female, and that the hormonal confusions surrounding her subsequent sex change had led her to further alcohol abuse and to regularly fly off the handle in violent rages. Most of us would run a mile, but how's this for advice? “You were a binge drinking man – now you're an alcoholic woman.” Meet Jeremy Kyle, whose daytime show on ITV reels in 1.5 million of us every single day.

This is where it all begins. Huddled together down a damp, dark avenue outside Granada Studios in Manchester on a wet and windy evening, queue The Jeremy Kyle Show studio audience and I – waiting impatiently to put our own problems at bay so we can enjoy Jeremy exploiting other people's.

His guests, raked from the broken homes of Britain's working-class families, are wheeled out every day before him to have their wounds ripped open in public. Kyle's mantra dramatises the negative effects that drugs and alcohol abuse, parental neglect and unemployment have upon Britain's families, and particularly children. His show was this year publicly criticised by a court judge, who, in summing up a case of GBH on the set of Kyle's show, described Kyle's method of counselling as “human bear-baiting”.

I feel underdressed. Everybody around me is caked in make-up and dressed to kill – but why? Perhaps some of them are taking hope from the fact that Jeremy's wife, Carla Germaine, he met on one of his radio shows. Nevertheless, everyone is soaking wet, so it doesn't really matter.

After bearing the rough edge of the rain for half an hour, we are led inside and nudged politely into a seating area, where a clipboard-carrying woman lectures us about the show. She has the enthusiasm of a Butlins redcoat, but sadly one who is now prostituting her services to the daytime talkshow-watching demographic. “On today's show we have DNA results!” she enthuses, to the giddy murmurings of the eager crowd. “You must all show your most extreme emotions together,” she says, “because the other audiences today didn't cheer or gasp much, and Jeremy was very upset. Jeremy likes it when you cheer for him.”

I read my admission ticket – a yellow slip of paper choked with bullet points such as: 'Remember without you there wouldn't be a show. Use body language to help get your points across – it looks better on TV!' For a few minutes we practise in unison our gasps, cheers and boos, and I take a mental note of a group of five women who seem to be taking this far too seriously as we are led into the studio itself.

Does this man really need an introduction? Where Kyle once lurched in the long shadows of Springer, Kilroy and Trisha, he now marches triumphantly. His cut-the-crap attitude, together with his black-and-white understanding of human relationships, along with his ability to identify The Abuser and The Victim in almost every circumstance imaginable, strike a moral chord with the British public.

With all this in mind, I clutch my plastic seat anxiously as I see a black curtain quiver to the side of the stage, and the man himself emerge. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Jeremy Kyle!” The audience goes wild. Understandably so, as they've been waiting another half hour for this. Kyle doesn't blink, and walks slowly towards the familiar stage, sitting down on the chair he'll be yelling at in about ten minutes time.

“My daughter came from school today,” he smirks, “and she's started saying a new word: boys. Well I'm alright with that, because which boy in their right mind will ever want to go near JEREMY KYLE'S daughter?” The crowd cheers and applauds. He turns to the floor manager: “You alright Will, you twat?” Kyle slowly turns towards his audience again. “Listen everybody, Will needs a girlfriend. His last girlfriend was quite rough, so he wants someone a bit more classy.”

It continues like this for about five minutes, Kyle picking people at random, telling them to “Get a fucking job!” or asking them “Are you pregnant? Who's the father!?” and revelling in the laughter and applause. He seems to enjoy caricaturing himself and referring to himself in the third person for a while, before he suddenly goes off stage, and surrounds himself with a TV crew and a couple of make-up artists, preparing to shoot the promos they use for GMTV's ad breaks.

I find it hard to believe that once, Jeremy Kyle was not on television. His ned-bashing career began on radio, where he presented Jezza's Confessions on various frequencies, in the early noughties. A woman once called into his show and, rather shaken up, confessed to having at least two affairs because of her husband's drinking problem. How did Jezza sum up her problem sensitively? “You're a whore and your husband's a drunk. You need to stop sleeping around and your husband needs to stop drinking.” Exactly Jeremy. Fast forward a few years, and his show is a ratings-winner by miles during the day, as well as being repeated around the clock on three ITV channels.

The success of the show must be partly owed to the moral demise of the past kings and queens of daytime television. A gap in the talkshow market had opened up, and Kyle squeezed himself in. He is slightly more abrasive, “Are you a scumbag? YES OR NO?”, than even Kilroy was, yet he still provides more professional support than Trisha did with his much-referenced “backroom team” and of course “Graham”, the show's psychotherapist.

“So let's bring out Kevin,” Kyle announces. In this episode, Kevin is finding out if he is the father of his ex-girlfriend Tasha's unborn child. Tasha, who admitted that she “might have slept with someone on New Year's Eve” while they were still together, is confident that Kevin is the father, and that they could still have a future together. Kevin, still in love with Tasha and willing to forgive her, is hoping that he is the father too. Their future is printed in ink on one of Kyle's cards as he wanders calmly behind the filming cameras. “Kevin,” Kyle pauses as the audience prepare to go live on their gasp rehearsals, “is NOT the father.” Kevin storms off stage, punches the wall, and Tasha begins to cry. It turns out that Tasha had slept with six or seven people that night. Kyle offers some banal advice about “using protection in the future” before quickly cutting to an ad break, and Tasha is ushered quickly off stage.

Back to Kyle bathing in his own self-importance, again. “That was very good,” he says to himself. He doesn't need to be told. “Hey, Dom!” he shouts across the studio, and a man fiddling with camera wires looks up. “Don't you feel like you owe your whole career to me?” Kyle disappears for a few minutes, before re-emerging for two more episodes.

A few more gasps, cheers and boos later, and the whole thing is finished. The TV crew pat Kyle on the back, and he grins. That's a day's work for Kyle, so it's no wonder he has all the time in the world to spend with his kids. I suspect that the people he riles against, those who live in crumbling council estates in the poorest areas of Britain, those who face a glass ceiling when it comes to education and decent work, those who are merely 'bad parents' because they weren't brought up to be any better, those who live only fifteen minutes down the road from the Studios, where I was born, in Moss Side, Manchester, couldn't care less if an uppity talkshow host with a supermodel wife told them his opinions. But still, it makes great television.

If you've watched the show, you'll know that at the beginning, Kyle enters to a cheering, whooping, applauding audience and shakes a few hands. That must be Kyle's favourite part, because after all, “Jeremy likes it when you cheer for him.” Just as the TV crew are about to let us leave, Kyle speaks up over everyone. “One more thing, guys,” he says with a smile, “can we just do the beginning bit again?”

As we are finally led out of the studio, I see again the five women I remember from the beginning of the show. They are laughing, not at the absurdity of the man I have concluded, but at how lucky they all are in seeing Kyle in the flesh, and they were not alone that day. However, to my surprise, there are also those who seem disillusioned with him, perhaps because of his off-camera comments. We wander out into the rain again, and I begin to think about how in popular culture today lies an exclusive clique of celebrity, occupying a unique position in the public mind. Its members generate so much admiration, but also an equal measurement of loathing among the public, that it is impossible for anyone to have a completely neutral opinion of them. Thatcher is one. Pete Doherty is another. Jeremy Kyle is the latest member.

16.10.08

Assessing 'Smart Drugs'

Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's controversial columnist investigates smart drugs.

Procrastination. Hmm – it's strange that even writing that word almost slips me into Useless Mode; gazing into the most unusual corners of the World Wide Web and choking my ashtray with dozens of twisted cigarettes stubs. It's a part of our academic lives which we're all frustratingly used to. However, in May, I decided that these I'll-do-it-later binges were becoming ridiculous and must stop. I had an exam the following afternoon, and despite surrounding myself with a dozen books and a few mountains of lecture notes, I hadn't read a word since settling down to do so four hours before.

It was then, in that moment of procrastination, I stumbled upon an article which seemed to suggest its antidote. The article held my concentration for longer than any YouTube video or Wikipedia page had that evening.

It said that there was a huge debate about the increasing use by students of 'smart drugs', which were, they said, “Viagra for the brain”. Modafinil was originally designed in the seventies to treat narcoleptics and later for sufferers of ADHD. However, in clinical trials, the article said, scientists had discovered something odd: if you give it to non-sufferers, it just makes them smarter. Their memory and concentration levels improve remarkably, and so does their academic performance.

Modafinil doesn't work as an amphetamine or a stimulant – it doesn't make you high, or wired – it simply works by limiting the brain's natural tendency to become sluggish or sleepy, so you can maintain a heightened line of concentration all day, and all night, or all week if you want.

I always felt sympathy for Medics who moaned at their 8-hour days and exams that ran deep into June, but was this their best-kept secret? It sounded perfect. “I get up at 5am, take a 200mg tablet, then go back to sleep for an hour. Then I get up feeling completely refreshed, and can work flat-out until 1am the following morning – I did that for a whole week,” said an undergraduate from Oxford University of a typical Modafinil day.

When my exams were over, I decided to look into getting hold of some Modafinil ahead of the new academic year. I'd heard from friends that you could get a supply by coercing someone with an irregular sleep pattern (a night-shift worker for example) into getting a prescription on your behalf. I'd also been told – to my amazement – that by feigning ADHD you can pick up a prescription of Ritalin, which works in a similar way. But after a few clicks online, they were in my shopping cart – just £30 for a month's supply, from an Indian pharmacy.

It was only at this point, the cursor hovering over the Proceed To Checkout button, that a powerful yet inconvenient wave of morality engulfed me. I was watching the news, and Dwain Chambers was on. Chambers was unable to join Team GB at the Olympics this year, because drug tests had proven him guilty of taking banned 'performance-enhancing' substances at the previous Olympics. So what's the difference between Modafinil for students and steroids for athletes? I thought.

It would also be silly to try the drugs without medical opinion. So when I returned back to Glasgow, I called Matthew Walters, a former senior lecturer in Medicine and an Honorary Physician at Western Infirmary, to arrange a discussion. While he admitted that “there is evidence that Modafinil promotes wakefulness, preserves one's attention and advances specific memory cells,” Matthew expressed a doubt on the health implications surrounding students taking them. “Even if it works for an exam or two, it can affect a person's mood or behaviour, and in the long-term, brain damage is a huge, huge risk. The Modafinil you can buy online is unlicensed and mostly untested. It could be contaminated, and, most dangerously, is supplied in compounds so strong that people who don't need it would struggle to shake off its short-term effects.”

Matthew also said that there isn't much knowledge regarding Modafinil in the medical profession – very few studies have actually been performed recently – and he attributed the popularity of 'smart drugs' to the pressures placed on university students today.

I began to think how dull the West End would be if everyone managed to obtain Modafinil – nobody wasting time, ever. The parks and the bars would be empty. University Avenue would extend to Byres Road and the library would need to grow at least six times its size to cater for the huge demand in computers and desks, in front of which all students would be huddled, each upgraded to Version 2.0s of themselves.

In the end, it's the lack of knowledge about what it could do to my brain that was a deal-breaker for me. Matthew's strong discouragement rang through my rusty, sluggish brain as I made my way back to a room full of books I intend to read, and essays I intend to write.

9.10.08

The Couchsurfing Chronicles: Sofa, So Good.

Published by The Skinny

Steve Clarkson is the latest to nestle up on someone else's settee.

“The best way to find yourself,” said Gandhi, “is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Arranging to stay with someone you've met on the internet, who is willing to host you and others in their town or city, anywhere in the world, makes a similar point. The travelling facility Couchsurfing.com, also known as 'The Couchsurfing Project', will be celebrating its official 5th birthday in January, and I, as one of its 725,000 members, will be celebrating.

I'll begin with the image of my girlfriend and I, weary-legged and bleary-eyed, emerging from Bremen train station at 5.36am. We'd spent the night travelling back from Berlin, a journey usually accomplished in under three hours by day, but with a wait of four hours in Hamburg station by night. Being quite the budget traveller, I'd insisted upon the latter to avoid paying another night's accommodation. Catching half an hour’s sleep among the homeless in the station McDonalds, we couldn’t wait to find the flat of our Couchsurfing host, a girl named Isis, which wasn’t far from Bremen station.

“Just call me at 6am and I'll open my door,” Isis had assured us, her words comfortably echoing as we staggered through the empty streets. My girlfriend and I discussed what we were about to undertake and the fragility of the situation – in how many different ways could this go wrong? Despite being active travellers, we were complete virgins to the community and the practise of Couchsurfing. We were tired and needed to sleep, but we didn't know whether or not to feel daunted or excited.

I took reassurance in some of Couchsurfing.com's own statistics: 99.7% of surfers have reported 'Positive' experiences, with around half of these experiences resulting in permanent friendships. A few of my friends were also about to experience it for the first time themselves, in Estonia, Russia, Argentina and Peru. So, it was a blend of my friends' willingness to do it themselves, the encouraging statistics and my own curiosity and principles that inspired us to take this leap of faith ourselves.

We arrived at Isis' flat just after six, and she greeted us with an exhausted embrace. “I'm getting ready for work,” she told us, leading us upstairs. “You need coffee?” She showed us round her flat, and into “our room” – not a dingy cellar with an old mattress and a couple of dirty airline blankets thrown on the floor, which had entered the darker side of my imagination – a well-kept, clean, three-person apartment in the shade of a local park, with a marvellous home cinema.

“My flatmate is sleeping, but she is excited to meet you,” Isis enthused, “and I told my friends you were coming, they want to go out with us tonight for a drink and meet you too!” Her hospitality seemed both surreal and normal at the same time, and all I could do was keep thanking her, before she prepared our couch and we sank into it without any grace.

As the birds sang outside, I began evaluating the different forms of accommodation available when it comes to travelling – each owed their own merits, as well as perils. One choice is to take night buses or trains – something which would save money, but an option not always comfortable, possible, or safe. Then there's the comfort of hotels, the most expensive option and entirely anonymous, giving you all the comforts of your own home and delivering you nothing of real cultural value or experience. Hostels can be fun and sociable for meeting other travellers, but they don't take you much further towards really understanding a location and its natives – perhaps they just add a few more pages to your Lonely Planet guide or a few new Facebook friends when you get home.

It were these frustrations that led a web consultant from New Hampshire to provide the world with a fundamentally different way of travelling itself. “I decided to take a weekend trip to Iceland one May,” Couchsurfing founder Casey Fenton writes on the website. “I'd gotten a web-special from Boston to Iceland on Monday and would fly on the Friday. Only one problem though. What would I do when I got there? Stick it out in a hotel? A hostel?” He managed to get hold of the University of Iceland's student directory and promptly emailed 1,500 of its students, telling them of his trip to their country, and asking them for a place to crash.

“Within 24 hours I had between 50 and 100 saying 'Yeah, come stay with me!' So I stopped with [a girl named] Yoa and her friends. They showed me 'their' Iceland. Great stories, great fun, and amazing friends were discovered on that weekend in May. When I was on the plane back to Boston, I thought to myself, 'That's how I want to travel, every time.'”

Casey was clearly not alone, as now 725,000 couchsurfers represent 48,000 towns and cities in 231 different countries around the world – not just Europe and the United States, but spread over all continents. Even in the earth's most unpopulated areas there are couches available, cluttered among far eastern Russia, Saharan Africa and, incredibly, the North and South Poles.

So when Isis returned from work that evening, I decided to grill her on her experiences as a Couchsurfing host. “You are the first ones to stay here,” she told us, to our surprise. After all, there were 700 couches available in Bremen alone, so to stumble upon another first-timer was a coincidence – but it also showed just how fast Couchsurfing.com is growing, with an average of 1,100 new members registering to offer their couches every single day.

“I joined the site about a month ago,” Isis continued, “you are the first, then a couple from St Petersburg arrive next week.” She then explained how one of the reasons she registered herself as a host on Couchsurfing.com was to improve her language areas. “My grandparents live in Moscow, so I'm able to speak some Russian but I'd like to know more, also English is always important to know.” On their profiles, most users add which languages they speak and to which level (Beginner, Intermediate, or Expert). However, Isis won't always approve requests from those who speak languages she'd like to learn.

“I've already turned two people down. A 45-year-old guy from England sent me an email requesting to stay on my couch – but from his profile I could tell from his age and his personality that it wouldn't have been very comfortable having him stay here.”

Inevitably, browsing through the profiles of other couchsurfers, as a host or as a surfer, can be a dark and unpredictable affair. As with most social networking sites, you can find seedy-looking, bare-chested, middle-aged men with taglines such as “I have the ability to synthesise some compounds and I can separate drugs from bile, plasma and urine” going unpoliced, but the site does offer some safeguards, which are taken seriously.

Before negotiating a stay with some stranger you can view references other members have left on their page, and there is also a 'vouch' system, similar to eBay's or Amazon's. Hosts can also prove their whereabouts by receiving mail from the site admin which earns them a higher 'Verification level', and last known log-in locations are posted for all to see, making them more attractive hosts to the couchsurfing newbie.

Similarly, surfers are encouraged to describe themselves in depth on their profile page in order to make it easier for their potential hosts to find out what sort of person they are. “When you emailed me requesting to stay here I could see from your profile that we would get on fine,” Isis told us, sipping from her glass of wine as we await her friends.

It was ten o'clock before Isis' friends arrived, and we were warmly greeted with a bottle of Becks and a handshake. They took us out instantly to one of the city's Irish bars, and before long we were downing pitchers of beer as if we were in a student union with our flatmates back home. Isis and her friends explained Bremen's bar and club scene and offered us advice as where to go and where not to go – as well as describing its thriving industries, its student life, its local habits and lifestyles, popular films and the German arts scene – and of course, we were more than happy to correspond with their eagerness to understand the British, too.

After a truly exhilirating night, we bid our new friends guten nicht, and went to bed, disappointed that we were getting our flight home in the morning. We'd traded in the familiarity of seeing the world through tourist maps and Google for a far richer experience – understanding the world through its people.

Growing up in a world far more likely to place safety before adventure, I used to believe that the well-documented 'Golden Age' of travelling – thumbing lifts around whole continents and finding places to sleep in generous strangers' homes, personified by Kerouac and glamourised by his sixties children – was only something to read or reminisce about, and had been confined to the dustbin of culture. Concluding from a thoroughly enlightening stay with Isis, it is making its resurgence.

6.10.08

A short review of Latitude Festival 2008

Published by Qmunicate

Stretching my legs on yet another local East Anglian platform – it was my fourth change since York – I had the feeling that giving Latitude the nod over a closer Leeds option was already a regrettable decision.

Not so. This year – its third birthday – played host to headliners Interpol, Sigur Ros and Franz Ferdinand… but Latitude is of course “more than just a music festival” as it claims to be, with the Cabaret, Literary, Poetry and Theatre tents creating a vibrant fusion of the arts. In many ways it was like the Fringe, but set in the leafy Suffolk countryside.

The lineups featured both established and upcoming acts across the various stages, attracting fans of culture in all its diversity. It seemed remarkable that break-dancing fans, Bill Bailey lovers and Radio 4 listeners had all squeezed through the same entrance gates, prompting the Independent on Sunday to review that “One day, all festivals will be like this.”

15.9.08

Why are we waiting so long on album releases these days?

Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's irreverent columnist finds it hard to keep up with all this new music.

I have to admit something. I can’t keep up with the pace of today’s music world. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stuff – but adrift in what seems like an ocean of marketing for this ‘music by numbers’, I’m drowning. No, I don’t know the name of the song that goes “La La Oh Ohhh”, although it does sound familiar. No, I haven’t looked at where The [insert noun]s are gigging this summer. Yes, I was force-fed a myriad of flyers about album launches – but no, I couldn’t possibly visit them all. And yet, how could anyone in my position actually accuse today’s bands of being too slow at making music?

The fact is that bands simply aren’t making music as much as they were. Let’s take two popular British groups from the sixties, and two from the present day. (If you don’t trust Wikipedia, look away now). In the sixties, The Kinks recorded ten studio albums in their first six years; The Beatles managed thirteen in their seven-year existence. Both bands managed to put out two albums a year on a frequent basis. Today, The Futureheads, in their eight-year existence, have recorded three studio albums; Muse have churned out four albums since 1999. So about one album every three years, then.

The differences are stark, but surely it should be more possible to record, produce and supply albums even faster now than they did forty years ago – with the internet, digital technology, and arguably a more greedy, disposable music culture.

However, the long, lengthy, formulaic process of recording-promoting-touring has become so ingrained in music culture that it is almost unthinkable to dismantle.

In 2004, Justin Hawkins ironically predicted the fate of The Darkness. “We’ll win awards, tour this album to death, then never make any more music” he told Q. Two years after they headlined Leeds and Reading Festivals, The Darkness’ last single collapsed into the chart at No. 39. Martyrs don’t usually wear spandex, but this cry-for-help showed that he was conscious that the band’s over-saturation in the media was leading to antipathy, and he was just about right.

It’s nothing new to conclude that the music industry is more reliant upon record-breaking, platinum-selling debut albums than it is with creating legends here in the noughties. Nor is it to suggest that the distance between album launches and tours are fixed to spread the source of profit out over as long a period as possible.

What I wonder is, are the events of the past year signalling a change in this silly equation? Aspects of the way the industry works are being questioned, when Radiohead, Prince and The Charlatans all circumvented the traditional ways of supplying music to their own fans last year.

So is the pendulum finally swinging the right way?

21.7.08

Defining 'Travel' in the narrowest sense of the word

Published by The Skinny

Jack Kerouac once wrote: "No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength."

It's true. Travel, in the narrowest sense of the word, as I know it, is a challenge. It's a challenge which spits you out into an alien civilisation, then tries to drown you in the perhaps murky waters of other cultures, and finally, when you resurface, gasping for breath, it gives you only foreign air to survive. Travel is the cultural equivalent of the bends; but from the departure lounge, to the check-in desk, from the goodbye drinks, to the foreign greetings, the challenge offers an incomparable lust for adventure.

One crucial element of travel is, for me, the interaction with other travellers. Two years ago, I met some American backpackers at a hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. One day, we visited a the small town of Lauterbrunnen, in the Alps, and that day I recognised that despite being complete strangers, we all shared something in common – an invisible string which bound us together, and to every other traveller in the world.

I came to realise that those seeking to escape a community - those who travel - create a community of their own in doing so; a thread connecting people striving to do things differently, one which makes tracks over any national and cultural boundaries, and embraces the most relentless passion for discovery - not just of other places, but of other people, and even ourselves. The experience of interaction between travellers is one that changes your perception of humanity for life, where the artificial walls of nationality crumble in one benevolent, inclusive, global collective.

The community is one which embodies a few different traits and characteristics – one, the most important of which, is based on empathy; the passion and enthusiasm to explore a patchwork of different peoples, and in doing so, adding width your own global consciousness. As the American travel author Mark Twain chronicled in 'The Innocents Abroad': "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

A second characteristic draws a line between itself and the holidaying community, and despises those who spend lots of money on package holidaying, only to check into somewhere with all the comforts of their home – with the designer suitcases, the sunscreen and the ignorance to boot.

Connecting the travelling community is a camaraderie, which is riddled with cooperation and respect of all kinds; exchanging maps, recommending or condemning places, cooking together, talking over bunk beds until the sun rises… however, an interesting aspect of the interaction is the lack of permanence – the checking in and the checking out, the coming and the going – which is where it stops short of friendship. Because the inclination of the community to keep moving on and discovering, this is silently accepted. Kerouac, in the traveller's Bible 'On the Road', summed it up beautifully: "What is the feeling when you're driving away from people, and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? it's the too huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."

But what is most important to travellers? The belief that no matter how much time spent submerged in the swamp of alien cultures, you'll always feel cleaner when you come out on the other side.

22.6.08

Taking issue with the Big Issue

Published by Qmunicate Magazine, 9 April 2008

You've probably seen Jamie around. He sells the Big Issue on Byres Road, and whether you're heading for your eleven o'clock lectures, some shopping or a cup of coffee, he's probably the one you either walk straight past or give £1.50 and some small talk to. As far as Big Issue vendors go, he's quite eccentric – known for his leather jackets and his quiff – and he often seems less subdued than the students he's selling to. “Doing this job can be a laugh,” he says, wiping the rain off his forehead as we dodge a crowd of umbrellas. “But there is a certain input of ignorance in the west end, people can be quite patronising and ingenuine – they sometimes ask questions to be polite, but then don't listen to the answers I give. Selling the magazine can be good though, most people in the west end are friendly.”

It's around eight o'clock when Jamie sells his last Big Issue of the day, and after often twelve hours of selling, he catches the subway to something like home. He currently stays with a friend in Townhead; a grey, concrete paving slab of redevelopment near Cowcaddens, from which he commutes daily.

Jamie's life reads like a Hollywood script with the wrong ending. He was born and raised in the Drumchapel district of Glasgow, and left school when he was 15. “I think that so many young people from areas like that face a glass ceiling when it comes to education in their chances in life,” adding, “so I spent ten years travelling the world. I lived in lots of different places in Europe doing odd jobs, just making enough money to move on again – Munich, Istanbul, Morocco. It just became my life.” When he returned, Jamie then began studying for a degree in social and economic history as a mature student. “I was the first person in my family to go to university. Nobody suggested it, nobody expected it.”

However, when he was in his early thirties, he found it difficult to find real work, and spent years in low-paid jobs. But he shared a flat with his girlfriend, where they both paid their share of the rent, and he got by. Then one day, his girlfriend left to visit her family in Dublin, and never returned. At around the same time, Jamie's landlord wanted to redevelop the area and then let rooms out to the new Polish workers. “I didn't really mind,” says Jamie, taking a drag off a cigarette. “I've been a guest worker in lots of other countries so I know what it's like to come to a new place and look for somewhere to stay. So I lost my flat, and the rest is history.”

Jamie's been without a permanent home for over a year now, and he got the idea of selling from another homeless man. “Before I knew it, I had my own badge and it's a good opportunity, but selling the Big Issue should only be a stop-gap in between different circumstances. I know people who've been selling for fourteen or fifteen years, since the Big Issue began in 1991, but I'd feel very cheeky if I was still doing this for another five.” He's optimistic for the future, but admits that it's difficult to progress with so many barriers. “There are all sorts of obstacles, the main one being the lack of a permanent address, which immediately prevents you from getting beyond an application form for most jobs. No fixed address, no chance of a job; no job, no chance of a fixed address.”

“I've tried to find work in restaurants, hotels, but I'd much rather be learning again. Still, an address is needed by most educational institutions, which is why I've applied four times for teacher training. I think I'd be a good teacher because of my outlook and life experience. I'm not giving up,” he adds.

On our way down to the Tennents bar, Jamie greets another seller, and tells me that “there's no professional rivalry at all, all of us are in the same boat and have either temporary homes or live in hostels around the city. We help each other out where we need to.” The Big Issue sellers in the west end share a camaraderie, exchanging pointers on new housing incentives, job opportunities and occasionally, going out for drinks just as students do. “The only problem lies with,” Jamie adds, “the Romanian sellers.”

Jamie reflects a recent tide of disgruntlement which has been seeping into the change bags of Glasgow's local Big Issue sellers. Ever since Romania and Bulgaria entered the European Union in January 2007, a new demographic has crash-landed on Glasgow – and in this case, our Big Issue sellers are feeling its tremors. “They give the Big Issue a bad name,” argues Jamie. “They can't engage with the public because they don't speak a word of English and they're not local.”
Another Byres Road vendor added, “we try to take it up with the [Big Issue] office, but it's dismissed as racism. Political correctness? Political crap.”

As many people understand, the Big Issue serves to give local homeless people the chance to work themselves out of poor conditions, but as the Big Issue Scotland national sales manager Michael Luby describes, it's homelessness in general they are trying to find a solution for. “When the EU expanded its borders, in many ways they left us to pick up the pieces. Over 7,000 Romanians have arrived here in the past year. They expected the streets to be paved with gold, but they aren't, and a lot of them found quickly found it difficult to find a home, just like the local sellers did. In that way, the Romanians met our criteria, and nobody who meets our criteria will ever be turned away. If their only other options are begging or stealing, I'm proud that we've given them a chance.” But Michael concedes that the Big Issue has attracted negative publicity for doing so.

This isn't the first time the Big Issue has been vulnerable to criticism. In Oxford, there were around ninety registered Big Issue vendors – quite a large number for a relatively small city. For the local vendors, it was difficult to sell effectively because of the disproportionate number of sellers to streets to sell on, and they found this to the detriment of their own profits.

Michael also admits that there's an increased number of “blaggers with mags”, or fraudulent sellers, since the European enlargement. “This is something we work with the police on. We have an outreach team who check badges and who stop people begging whilst selling, which is against our rules. We have a very rigid code of conduct, but there will always be a minority of rogue sellers.”

Oddly, when Jamie was giving his interview, there wasn't a single Romanian seller on the street. Apparently, some members of the Big Issue's 'outreach team' had come to the west end to check badges that day, so a few of them hadn't turned up. “They didn't want to get caught. They'd been informed by someone,” claims Jamie. “By who, I don't know.”

In a largely depoliticised society where popular culture is more prone to discuss Pepsi v Coke than most wider issues, many people simply pop up their umbrellas to shelter from the drizzly political weather. But if you buy Big Issues – make sure you know exactly where the money is going, or else the meagre profits of many in “homelessness or vulnerable housing” kicked into the long grass.

Totally Tongue Tied

Published by Qmunicate Magazine, 25 February 2008

There are many things to write about in Glasgow – the International Film Festival has just drawn to its end, with the Comedy Festival on the city's damp horizons (the 5-day forecast is still bleak, sorry folks); but there is scarcely a topic so universal in our academic lives that it is any observer's crime not to pay it some sort of attention. So it's within my great taboo -breaking pleasure to introduce a subject which is hardly ever on everyone's lips – the mobile-clicking, room-gazing, paper-rufflingly awkward seminar silences, probably taking place right at this moment just down the road.

I'm reminded of my 'first time' on every occasion I set foot in the first seminars of a new semester. I'd just worked out when the traffic lights would change on the Byres Road crossing, and I was still wiping away the crumbs from the free cake stall when I found the right room, which turned out to be the venue for a scene Harold Pinter never wrote. I think we were actually studying Pinter at the time, but the irony of the situation was lost on us all – the silence stretched out until the tutor arrived, unhindered, for what seemed like an ocean of time.

Week followed week, and the silences were given a bit more depth with the notable creation of inventive silence-slaying tactics. Our class began gazing around the room, aimlessly tapping buttons on our mobiles, ruffling sheets of paper, or prolonging the experience of opening our bags in order to replace conversation with movement and noise, and to appear otherwise occupied – too busy to talk. The ten seconds we were given to introduce ourselves were quickly forgotten, and over the weeks, attendances began to suffer, and people began to arrive late to soften the blow. But by this time, the hanging, visible awkwardness seemed annoying and unnatural.

Despite the fact my seminars were for arts subjects, I felt like I'd walked out of the building with a master's degree in human psychology. Seminars do grow more relaxed from term to term, but they're a clear microcosm of the vast and ugly obstacles that divide one stranger from the next – a cornerstone of any advanced society; one in which work and leisure are rarely mixed, and one in which we're fed individualism to the extent that it becomes blurred with isolation.

Now, if you'll excuse me – I'm running purposefully late for my history tutorial.

A travel writing competition

British Airways Writing Comp - 21 November 2007

This is my entry into the first British Airways travel writing competition. The winner will be commissioned to go on an expenses-paid travel assignment for their 'High Life' magazine, and the resulting 1800-word feature will be published next year.

Write a 500-word feature covering any element of travel.

"Travel – travel in the narrowest sense of the word, as I know it – is a world apart from holidaying. Travel is a challenge that first spits you out into an alien civilisation, then tries to drown you in the perhaps murky waters of other cultures, and finally, when you resurface, gasping for breath, it gives you only foreign air to survive. It is the cultural equivalent of the bends, but from the departure lounge, to the check-in desk, from the goodbye drinks, to the foreign greetings, the challenge offers an incomparable lust for adventure.

The most gratifying element of travel is, for me, the interaction with other travellers. Last year I met some American backpackers at a hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland. One day, we visited a the small town of Lauterbrunnen, in the Alps, and that day I recognised that despite being complete strangers, we all shared something in common – an invisible string which bound us together, and to every other traveller in the world. I came to realise that those seeking to escape a community, those who travel, create a community of their own in doing so; a thread connecting people striving to do things differently, one which makes tracks over any national and cultural boundaries, and embraces the most relentless passion for discovery, not just of other places, but of other people. Without intending to write a utopian hymn, the experience of interaction between travellers is one that changes your perception of humanity for life, where the artificial walls of nationality crumble in one benevolent, inclusive, global society.

The community is one which embodies three different traits – one based on empathy; the passion and enthusiasm to acknowledge a patchwork of different peoples, and in doing so, adding width your own global consciousness, another despising those who spend lots of money on package holidaying, only to check into somewhere with all the comforts of home – with the designer suitcases, the sunscreen and the ignorance to boot.

Interaction between travellers is riddled with cooperation and respect of all kinds, which can take the form of exchanging maps, recommending places to visit, communal cooking, and talking over bunk beds until the sun rises. An interesting aspect of the interaction is the lack of permanence – the checking in and checking out, the coming and going – which is where it stops short of friendship, as because the inclination of travelling is simply not to stop, it is silently accepted.

The third common trait is the belief that no matter how much time spent submerged in the swamp of alien cultures, you always feel cleaner when you come out on the other side again."

In no more than 100 words, review somewhere you have stayed.

"Budapest is a tale of two cities. The two boroughs and the bridge which connects them, are the visualisation of a post-Communism timeline in a history lesson – the developed, and the developing. In Buda, vast office buildings create a modern, business-littered skyline, where western-minded men scuttle around carrying briefcases and sipping lattes. On the other side of the river, in Pest, the homeless lay, begging and broken on the curb outside MacDonalds and chain fashion shops – which comprise the first floor of the grey, Stalinist buildings. It is a city of extraordinary contrast."

Skip Surfing USA

Published by Glasgow Guardian, 7 October 2007
The freegan community across the Atlantic share similar stories, with blogger ‘Madeline’ explaining how “with friends this week, I served Rondele cheese with crackers, followed by a pasta with tomato and eggplant sauce, a lovely big salad, and strawberries with whipped cream for dessert. The following morning I had a big glass of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, then an omelette with shitake mushrooms and fresh sage, accompanied by whole-grain sourdough toast.”

There are freegans all over the world, but New York City has emerged as a freegan hub, boasting a vast community of dedicated followers and volunteers. Earlier this year, following NYU’s class of 2007 graduation, a group of around thirty men and women assembled to take advantage of the end-of-year move-out – and pocketed free televisions, desk lamps and other objects for re-use.

Most were there in response to the NYC-based freegan website (http://www.freegan.info/), which posts details and listings of such events and rendezvous ‘dumpster diving’ points in the city, as well as information for followers across the globe. The site, run by volunteers, has become a database for all things freegan – including a recalled products and food safety alerts list (updated daily), a reuse/recycle directory and even an ‘internship and opportunities’ section. The website also posts a fanzine, a 34-page tirade against capitalism and globalisation, with the occasional quirky cartoon – sort of a bizarre marriage of Karl Marx and Quentin Blake. They claim that there are “at least 400 to 500” freegans living in New York who are part of their network alone.

But Adam Weissman, activist and co-creator of freegan.info, is however quick to dispel the notion that his movement is a brainchild, instead preferring to emphasise the collective nature of society. “We did not begin the freegan movement. The website is simply an organisation that exists to promote freeganism and to teach people how to live as freegans. The term ‘freegan’ goes back to (I think) the 1980s, and the practices and ideas it refers to are even older.” Speaking to the New York Times, he continued, “it has resonated around the world with people who love community, cooperation, and our planet. We believe that the survival of life on this planet requires a shift to the replacement of industrialism, capitalism, and globalism with a society that consumes less and shares more.”

The success of the movement in New York may also be owed by the quantity and quality of New York waste. According to the Environment Protection Agency, 245 million tons of municipal solid waste has been produced by individuals, businesses and institutions since 2005 across the whole of North America, equating to 4.5 pounds per person per day. New York’s equivalent figure is 7.1 pounds. Poverty statistics are just as alarming – one third of the city’s children live below the poverty line, every day 2,500 are turned away from food pantries and soup kitchens and 400,000 New Yorkers suffer from “moderate or severe hunger”, according to the website’s own findings.

Freegan Fighters

Published by Glasgow Guardian, 7 October 2007

They strike in the early hours, while most of the city sleeps; sometimes alone, sometimes in crowds of a dozen. Anyone is a suspect. Put this paper down and have a look at the nearest stranger – could they be? Meet my new favourite community of people – Freegans.

You might think that consuming waste food lies deep in the preserve of the impoverished or daring, but it's also a rather practical alternative to extortionate weekly shopping at Somerfield and Iceland, as many Glasgow students and residents have found. Supermarket waste bins in particular have become free-of-charge vending machines in the last few years, because of the excess amount of unsold food and goods thrown out to waste at the end of the last shift – their lids forced open and their contents raided by night by the munchie-craving. But it didn't stop there. The practise has become so popular throughout Britain that it has snowballed into a phenomenon known as 'Freeganism' – and the ethical backlash against British supermarkets has been rattling teacups in their head offices ever since.

The Freegan lifestyle involves salvaging discarded, unspoiled food from supermarket waste bins – food that has passed its expiration date, but is still edible and nutritious. They salvage the food, not always because they are hungry, poor or homeless, but sometimes as a political statement against the over-disposability of consumerism.

“To be honest, part of the appeal is that it has to be done in the cover of darkness, and it's a lot more exciting than your average supermarket experience,” comments Ailsa Kay, 21, a Glasgow student. “However, the more I frequented the bins, the more food I discovered. It made me determined to undermine huge supermarkets by using their waste and not spending a penny more than I really needed to.”

The Marks and Spencer bins on Ashton Lane in particular served as Freegan youth clubs last year, with sometimes up to a dozen taking anything they liked the look of – giddily burrowing through plastic bags like a bunch of seven-year-olds dizzy on lemonade. At best, you could come out with anything – currys, juice, new potatoes, pies, salads, sandwich fillers, Yorkshire puddings, (including my favourite – two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, topped with a creamy white wine sauce) all hitting their expiration on the day or the day after; at worst, a few loaves of bread to cram into the freezer. So why buy their crap if you can eat their scrap?

“The first time I went I found an Irish soda bread and a chocolate Swiss roll, both still sealed in their packaging and their sell-by date was the following day,” says Ailsa. “It's a great feeling when you manage to feed yourself and a group of friends without spending a penny, and re-using food that would otherwise just be taken to a landfill site. I've come across many characters in the early hours – some in suits, some in kilts, some curious and some who either look extremely confused or disgusted.”

However, the Freegan party has recently been busted by a harsher enforcement of wastage policies. Marks & Spencers have begun locking their bins at night, and are known to now purposely open the packaging of waste food, to prevent people like Ailsa from taking it. “It's common sense to know what's edible. I find it particularly frustrating when you find a bin choked with food, only to discover that an employee has slashed open the packaging, making the food unusable.”

A supervisor from Marks & Spencers claimed that new health rules had been in place for a number of years, but only recently had head offices begun issuing preventative measures to combat freeganism. A moral pulse exists however, in their 24-hour stores, who occasionally have food waste picked up by the charity Rainbow, and distributed to the homeless. This progressive agreement is exempt from such wastage policies as the waste in 24-hour supermarkets is thrown out minutes after being removed from the shelf, when it is left for sometimes a full day at room temperature in stores with opening hours. The Greggs bakery on Byres Road was also until recently partial to giving away a few unsold sausage rolls and on mornings they are collected – but now the delivery driver is explicitly forbidden from giving any food away, on the same health grounds.

After the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, I wrote a long letter to the Co-op I used to work in – challenging the wastage policy of our store and suggesting that some of the waste be sent over to the worst-off parts in East Asia, or at least be put to some other use. One of my points was: “Surely starving people would appreciate countless loaves of bread and other goods, regardless of their expiry dates, and would rather have their lives saved and have a stomach bug than starve to death.” All I received was a chuckle and when I suggested that they send the letter to their head office, my manager said that no-one would read it. The following day we threw away twelve stacks of bread and five full bags of snack foods, all of which had 'gone off' over the Christmas closing period, and all of which was delivered to a landfill site – 34 miles away. And to achieve what, exactly?

When it comes to food waste, shops and supermarkets have two options – one costs something and achieves nothing, the other costs nothing and achieves something. I've not set out to flood these pages with hyperbole, and I've tried to avoid churning out yet another hymn to recycling. The redistribution and availability of unsold food in Glasgow should be given the green light, or even debated in the relevant circles – when it is a glaring truth that our supermarkets cannot contain the issue by simply locking their bins.

Down and out... on MySpace.

Truth Telling E-zine - 9 January 2006
Glasgow University Magazine - 14 April 2006

MySpace may be the preserve of wannabe models and nerdy teenagers (my MySpace name is theunknownsoldier1) but as of January 2006, the number of MySpace-ists hit 47 million. That’s enough people to replace the entire population of Italy. Imagine that - the People’s Republic of MySpace, with spear-gripping indigenous tribes like the 28,000-strong ‘I Luv Pink’ clan and hardline political forces such as the ‘Decriminalise Weed Club’ (population 5,543) and the ‘Republicans Are Better In Bed’ Party (5,996). The State owns the mass media and the arts (‘MySpace Records Vol.1’ is out now) and inhabitants are kept updated by web bulletins from their Head of State/Webmaster – who goes solely by the name of ‘Tom’.

Tom Anderson, the 30-year-old techie-genius who co-founded MySpace, sold the site to media-hawk Rupert Murdock for $580m last July. Afterwards, he sent out a weepy (and very American) bulletin to all of his then-22,500,000 friends declaring: “Many of you have asked about NewsCorp buying MySpace … everyone seems scared that MySpace is going to change. I’m not leaving, I’m still going to make the decisions about the site and I’m not going to let things suck. MySpace has been an important part of my life for almost two years now. I know it’s as important to others as it is for me. I won’t let it get jacked up.”

Click onto MySpace. You’ll find 47 million people with their own profile pages, over 500,000 bands and solo artists (including a 63-year-old Jimi Hendrix?) and almost 2 million discussion groups. I think I’d throw up if I knew how many hits MySpace.com received every day. For those of you who don’t know, MySpace is a web service that allows people to connect with other people. It trumpets itself for “making ordinary people famous and famous people ordinary” (it’s true – pop stars like Ashlee Simpson and Nelly have public accounts). Users can find friends by searching their email address, real names or their MySpace names, and they can create ‘profiles’ filled with their interests, their biography, their top eight ‘friends’ and who they’d like to meet.

It’s an online palace where the vain meet the shy, the lonely meet the culture-vultures and the stars meet the fans. On a typical 5-minute scroll through the mazes of online egos, I found a young female singer humming about her new folk album, a dyslexic narcotic blogging about his concerns with democracy and a young girl with as many spot-the-difference webcam pictures of herself to cover the surface area of Argentina.

According to Tom’s own statistics, the average registered MySpace user spends an hour and a half on the site per week. Some of my friends log on more than quadruple that time per day – but what is the appeal? Can we imagine the hypothetical MySpace island, governed by Tom himself – a society of many different cultures, a society of many different talents, where everyone is nice, eloquent and civilised? Perhaps it’s this notion of utopia that keeps people logging on and blogging on. Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go and reply to my friend from Tokyo.

Does politics matter? Not to some.

Website - 5 January 2006

The closest thing my workplace gets to politics is when old women ask for “fruit not made by Frenchies” or when the mere presence of an asian person generates a sort of visceral racism amongst the till women. Most of the time, people are engaged in one-dimensional conversations about their own lives; what they do today, tomorrow, last week – no one talks about Sharon’s plan for Gaza or Iraq … politics is completely off the verbal menu. I still remember the time when an assistant manager dismissed my letter about how we could help the victims of the tsunami as “unworkable” – and I haven’t forgiven her since. It’s quite surreal to jump from the politically vibrant common room (we once managed to rid our venders of the Coca Cola-made water ‘Dasani’ – purely by flyposting socialist rhetoric on the noticeboard) – to the depoliticised closets of workplaces, where people are more likely to be talking about Pepsi v Cola than Blair v Cameron. I’m getting the cultural bends, but it’s interesting.

Ban alcohol! If you believe in drugs prohibition, why not?

Truth Telling E-zine - 2 January 2006

2005 was a bad year for the drugs legalisation squad. The columns of journalists like Johann Hari are yellowing, the Legalise Cannabis Party’s few remaining ‘No Victim No Crime’ pin badges are being flogged at yard sales and the progressive White Paper on the semi-legalisation of cannabis has been U-turned and amended to death. The resurgent anti-drug tabloid headlines made supermodel Kate Moss and indie-rocker Pete Doherty the inadvertent couple of the year – they began accumulating enough column inches to cover the Great Wall after Kate was pictured – shock horror – rolling up a fiver to snort the white stuff into her skinny nostrils.

But millions awoke to 2006 with a dry mouth and a thumping headache, with a pint (of sweet H2O) sitting by their beds. From the teenagers being carried into casualty to have their stomachs pumped to the vomitathons every Friday and Saturday night in our streets all over the country – we have to accept there is a national problem with booze. But with all these things happening, where are the prohibitionists? Everyone who believes that cannabis, coke and heroin should be driven underground by countless police hours and government initiatives (which comes out of your own pocket, by the way) – why not ban alcohol too?

Of course, everyone knows that, although the effects of alcohol can be real and destructive – prohibition is even worse. In the early twentieth century, a policy of alcohol prohibition was tried in the U.S. – but few people stopped drinking. What it did was hand over a hugely lucrative industry to armed gangsters, who drowned the country with guns, corrupted the police and claimed more victims than the alcohol itself. A prohibition policy was also tried in 17th Century Cromwellian England, with the same adverse effects.

The same truths apply to global drugs prohibition. Ever since the disgraced Richard Nixon unleashed the ‘War on Drugs’ little over thirty years ago, a violent and naïve campaign to “eradicate” drug supply and usage has done nothing but increase usage by a factor of almost 50. At the minute, drug supply comprises a stonking 8% of world trade. In Colombia, 40% of the economy is dependant upon drugs trade abroad; the country has been crushed by the US-imposed constraints on South America – leading to a corruption of both the political and legal systems.

Right now, 2,500 British troops have been sent to secure (or, destroy) one of the only sources of income for some of the poorest people on earth. In the Afghan province of Helmand, opium fields yield just enough to feed the families of the farmers who manage them. British Army Commanders told one newspaper that they expected opium farmers to stage a violent uprising, when their livelihoods are wrecked and they face starvation.

In a recent ICM poll, 69% of the British public agreed that “[drugs] supply should be regulated by the government or other drugs companies” – in a word, legalised. So the next time you are arguing with a prohibitionist, ask them why they are not in favour of banning alcohol. I guarantee they will give these reasons: “Millions of people already use it, it can be used in moderation, prohibition does more harm than good” – and the same can be said for cannabis, coke and heroin.

Facing the enemy - in my home town.

6th Magazine - 6 December 2005

I casually bulldozed through the human traffic that is carried by my town’s Monday market today. I passed the usual medley of men haggling over shoelaces and kids perusing fake Smarties, rounding the pungent smelling fish stall at the end. Except it wasn’t the end. There was newcomer to the usual market stallers – a group of men stood behind a small wooden table. On the table lay dozens of folded newspapers entitled ‘The Voice of Freedom’. Hmmm, I thought. I glanced at a copy of my dusty ‘Communist Manifesto’ that I planned to read on my imminent bus journey to York. But this looked like a worthy read – probably a fanzine or an ‘underground’ journal or something, or so I thought. “I’ll take one, please,” and handed over 50p to a young skinhead. “Better still if you join,” an older man snarled. The penny had dropped – I gazed down at the paper I’d just bought. The beaming red, white and blue of the BNP logo stared me in the face. A woman came from my right and thrusted a leaflet in my other palm. This one read ‘Islamic Terror Labour Failure – How right was Enoch Powell? How right is Nick Griffin?’ I’d had enough. I fled the scene before you could say ethnic cleansing and crammed the diseased trash in someone’s wheelie bin. I needed a fix; I read Marx from cover to cover as though I were a Communist junkie, all the way to York…

My struggle: Two years of double standards on the shop floor

Website - 7 November 2005



I’ve taken some time off from my meagre chores of replenishing the bacon section and slapping half price stickers on oranges to scribble some notes on the reverse side of some advertising for ‘Jumbo Salted Peanuts’. People around me are contently placing own-brand beans on shelves and mopping up wine spills while the 80s-biased radio is humming Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wouldn’t it be good’ for the thirteenth time over the Co-op airwaves. But if you don’t like new wave music, it gets much worse here.

I applied for a job at Co-op when it was a Safeway store just over two years ago. I over-eagerly wrote my details on an application form that bore the shiny, plastic grins of two ‘workers’, handed my form in and then waited. Within a fortnight I was jogging around with milk dollies in a pathetic effort to please my superiors, but within a few months, my enthusiasm was fading like the colour of my lime green uniform. I’d befriended a few other young people in my position – students who had been working just a few months. One of them jokingly remarked: “I’ve got amnesia. I can’t remember why I applied here.”

Working at my local supermarket has also completely reversed some of my economic views. In two years, I’ve gone from being a ‘free-market freak’ – babbling about efficiency and the importance of profit – to a soft Marxist. My political views have also been dragged over to the left and I now have a problem with authority.

So why did things change? Let me explain. Three people call the shots at my work – the managers. Just below them in the hierarchy are the supervisors – the people in charge of particular departments. Finally, there’s me and the rest of the proletariat, or “the bottom of the barrel” as we are described by the Human Resources Manager. We unload the goods that are delivered from the depot, fill shelves with it and then go home, with a few added menial tasks sandwiched in between. The next day we do the same, starting as early as 7am, finishing as late as midnight. If we finish the job before the end of our shift, we do someone else’s job until we are scheduled to finish. We are granted three (unpaid) breaks per day for a nine-hour shift, and I earn around £170 for a 37-hour week.

And the unwritten rules… we cannot chat – to neither workmates nor friends; we are picked up on things like “working with one hand”; people from the same department cannot take simultaneous breaks; we cannot take more than our allotted breaks; we cannot use mobile phones on the shop floor; we cannot chew on gum; we cannot work together – to name a few.

And here’s the day of a manager: they turn up to work no earlier than 9 o’clock, hold a meeting with supervisors, tally up their profits and costs (incidentally as a store we do quite well). They have no allotted breaks – but this works to their advantage as they are not deducted pay from the breaks they do take (as their breaks are unrecorded). One of my workmates spotted one manager take eighteen breaks in one morning. At around 2pm, they begin filling shelves like the rest of us. They always work in twos (what rule book?) whilst they chomp on Wrigleys (rule book…) and check their mobiles. The manager is paid a fixed wage of £3,000 per month and works less than I do.

For people like me, it is easy to spot inequality, double standards and hypocrisy – we are earning disposable income, not a living. But for people who have made a career out of stacking cheese, it is a lot easier to ignore the issue. A woman I work with has been working here for fourteen years – whenever I raise a conversation about this she ponders me for a moment, before shrugging and sighing “I know…” she continues to open boxes of tomato juice while the managers pocket the receipts upstairs.

The people whose careers are made from this place divide into two groups. In group one are the people who ignore these issues and simply want to earn their living, when in group two are those who view the inequality as something they can skew to their own advantage. Patronage has been an active hobby among the staff at Co-op – one woman who supervises her workers on the Delicatessen is given huge amounts of time off work (to share with the managers) in return for her maintenance of the double standards. Other manager cronies call their customer friends over to have a chat, but are quick to separate us from a casual chat, which we are not entitled to.

In a very real sense, they are stamping out the very things that make mundane jobs bearable. A chat with a colleague, a sneaky fag break – they’re fast becoming rights confined to the dustbin of history. And so now we are faced with the very cold ambiance of the smoking room – the break which a workmate and I share with a couple of managers. “No one talks. There is no morale here. To them we are just human resources, not people,” my friend comments as the two managers vacate the scene, chuckling.

Recently, I found myself voicing these concerns to someone above my level for the very first time. I’d been taking a break, defiantly, with a friend (who was a member of a different department) – we were heading back to work when two managers (the only two working that day) objected to us being on our breaks at the same time. I was about to utter “practice what you preach” but instead, like on so many occasions, I spoke to someone else. My Human Resource Manager listened closely. The essence of his argument was based around maintaining and increasing profits, and the basis of mine was the concept of morale, and how it would improve productivity if we gain more respect. At the end of my “rant” he said: “Why have you not told any of the managers about this?” I replied, “I’m a coward and I want to keep my job.” “Well they definitely think it’s a case of you versus them. Do you want me to mention it?” he said. “That would be nice,” I replied.

But why on earth would they listen? In December last year, I wrote a letter that highlighted my concerns with the large amounts of good food we throw away – I was motivated by the terrible scenes of starvation in the Boxing Day tsunami aftermath. I proposed that we try to distribute the food over there somehow, or at least to the British homeless, rather than have it burnt like we currently do. Indeed, one manager did speak to me about this – only to tell me “it’s more efficient this way” before shredding my letter.

I’ve since found comfort by attempting to organise a workers’ revolution, or a coup. The idea is very much pretend – my workmates and I joke about using trolleys as makeshift trenches and pork pies as weapons. But, if I’m honest, I’d love to fly the red flag over this place.

A very British Friday...

6th Magazine - 26 October 2005

A bartender cracks open a bottle of Bud, taking in the rare ambiance of his shift. An ocean of cider, lager and aftershock is being mopped up by red-shirted cleaners, and the smell of tobacco is pungent.

Shapes of broken glass litter the floor – Smirnoff bottles that have been used as drunken weapons blow around in the car park outside, and the clinking of glass is abundant in the post-binge clear-up of the busiest weekend bar in the quiet market town of Pickering – the Bay Horse.

No pubs here have applied for the extended drinking freedoms granted by HM Government, so for the foreseeable future at least, we can look forward to the weekly madness on Market Place that erupts when bingers are churned out of their drinking palaces at around 11.30pm.

Who really planned 9/11?

Truth Telling E-zine - 22 September 2005

It's a fact. Conspiracy theories are emerging from secret chat rooms and dusty book shelves into public circles. Did Paul McCartney die in 1967? Was Hitler hiding in the Amazon jungle until the mid seventies? There’s new Mulder and Scullys investigating everywhere.

According to a MORI poll conducted in 1997, just 19% of the public thought that Princess Diana’s death was no accident. Just a year later, a Sunday Times survey showed that this figure had climbed two-fold. The most recent poll, courtesy of the Daily Express, found that 94% now believe that Diana was murdered. It may appear obvious that those polled were not the same people, but the discrepancies are remarkable.

A similar trend runs through the 9/11 conspiracy, which claims that President Bush and his junta planned and executed the attacks in New York. The tragedy was a gift to conspirators everywhere. Conspirators on www.oilempire.us commented on the events as “the American Reichstag Fire” and the “birth of the Fourth Reich”. A 2004 poll by CNN found that 90% believed that there was some kind of government cover-up, and the mere suggestion of a plot was taboo in the immediate years that followed the disaster (when a similar majority supported the Patriot Act).

Even after the London bombings in July, the British public are beginning to mutter the convenience of Blair’s whereabouts (safe in Gleneagles) and there are unofficial reports that an Israeli minister was warned about the attacks before they actually happened. Conspirators also point to Labour’s unimpressive election win (35% of the vote) as motivation for MI6’s arrangement of 7/7. The consequences – the public back ID cards and detention without trial, and political opponents can hold no popular ground if they continue to disagree. Blair had simply given up on his “imperative for national security” rhetoric, and had taken a leaf from Dubya’s colouring book. Our Prime Minister knew he could reverse his soaring unpopularity in a single day – and within a week he was being praised by Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy on the Commons floor.

The wave of mistrust has developed both sides of the Atlantic. In America: a majority of black Americans believe that the CIA encourages drug dealers to sell crack-cocaine in inner cities, with a third believing that the AIDS virus was manufactured by the U.S. government; Almost half believe that the government withholds information regarding extra-terrestrial life; four-fifths believe that “others” assisted Lee Harvey Oswald in Kennedy’s assassination and four-fifths of all Americans believe that the U.S. militar withholds information about Gulf War syndrome.
Ever since the dramatic Watergate revelations by Woodward and Bernstein, Western society has increasingly viewed our governments as dishonest and self-serving. As a result, election turnouts have dwindled.

The rise in suspicion has been met with a sharp fall in religious belief (and particularly Christianity). The significance? We no longer depend upon an omnipotent being, pulling our strings from heaven. In this mundane, post-religious world we live in, we instead rely on elaborate theories for comfort. What some believers fail to do is face the cold reality of secularisation. That sometimes, horrific things happen, often with no reason at all.

[POSTSCRIPT: It seems a lot of people liked this article, as it can also be found at www.thetruthmagazine.com - as well as the e-zine it was written for.]

James Dean, Marilyn Manson and the Hollywood myth

Website - 11 September 2005

Ever since the days of James Dean puffing on filter tips, observers have always assumed that Hollywood promotes, perpetuates and even glorifies smoking throughout the world. However, recent research suggests the exact opposite to this embedded myth. It is evidence that this popular argument is as the icons who smoked in swanky convertibles.

You could expect such findings to come from biased groups. But, dramatically and ironically, the research is courtesy of the American College of Chest Physicians – and it was published in their annual journal ‘Chest’. Their conclusions are based on all top ten U.S. Box Office movies made after 1990.

According to ‘Chest’, one in five lead characters were smokers (roughly the proportion of smokers in America). Around half of these were from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and the number of “bad guy” smokers outnumbers the “good guys” by 2:1.

Let’s look at some examples. In the film ‘Blade’, the evil vampire, played by Stephen Dorff, smokes, while the film’s hero, Wesley Snipes’ character Eric Brooks, does not. In the blockbuster ‘Face/Off’, Nicholas Cage plays both the good guy, Sean Archer, and the bad guy, Castor Troy, but only Troy smokes. In ‘Mission Impossible’, the villain, Jim Phelps, played by Jon Voigt, smokes, while Tom Cruise’s character, the clean-living hero Ethan Hunt, is never seen with a cigarette.

Dr Karan Omidvari, who led the research team, commented: “Most investigators have concluded that smoking is portrayed as glamorous and positive, but our study shows that the exact opposite is true. Some studies have also found that movies influence minority groups to smoke. We have contradicted these findings as well.” So rent a film, kick back and light up - secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t the silver screen that bought that Marlboro packet.

You can see where they’re coming from. I smoke, and I don’t blame art for my habit. One of my reservations lies in the study’s conclusion. Are people only influenced by the “good guys” in films? Surely some “bad” traits, such as rebellion or risk-taking have appeal with many young people. This glossy new study seems as subjective and parochial as the contrary research it criticises.

To find out if would-be smokers really are influenced by film would require a deep, cogent psychological study, on many people rather than movies themselves. We find ourselves returning to the debates over whether movies, video games or Marilyn Manson directly prompt violence and killing.

Marilyn Manson bore the must of the prejudiced U.S. media following the Columbine shootings of 1999. Critics hung blame on Manson for allegedly “inspiring” acts of violence with his dark lyrics and music. In his defence, he said, “The first few people on earth needed no books, movies, games or music to inspire cold-blooded murder.”

In a “free country” where most media facilities are owned by government sycophants, Hollywood serves to instill an alternative truth. Books, games and music serve the same purpose. If America is “one commercial away from anarchy”, are they only one blockbuster away from complete subservience? And which is most important?

Anti-social behaviour - the national excuse

Website - 4 September 2005

You’ve got to give credit where it’s due. The Government has succeeded in bashing the yob culture that soaks Britain’s streets in Strongbow, but they have inadvertently created a counter-culture similar to that of a Communist state. The new powers given to residents perpetuate great mistrust, bitterness and incrimination between neighbours living on council estates. Except, innocent people aren’t kidnapped by secret police, they are visited by community support workers of the Housing Association.

Of course, the powers can work to an advantage – in extreme cases where people are fed hundreds of decibels every night through paper walls, or where racial harassment affects your personal security. But in the wrong hands, they can make a resident’s life a great misery.
According to the ‘Anti-Social Behaviour – Together We Can Beat It!’ pamphlet that passed through every council house letterbox earlier this year, anti-social behaviour can be defined as “any behaviour that causes nuisance or annoyance to neighbours”. Some examples of this rather vague criteria are identified as loud music, shouting and arguing, harassment, verbal abuse, vandalism etc etc. However, some examples defy logic, and liberty.

Fear not, council residents! The Housing Association will now ensure your protection from “dog barking” and “untidy gardens”. The pamphlet describes what actions the Association can take, including legal action. But it stresses however that, “eviction is always a last resort”. Always a relief for people whose neighbours have the contact number on speed dial.

The war on anti-social behaviour was something that was originally targetted on the drunk and the violent. The concern has since exploded into quiet streets in small towns, where children build dens and draw in chalk. Ordinary people are feeling the shrapnel from this current moral panic.

During the ‘Red Terror’ in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, people incriminated their neighbours as suspected terrorists to the KGB. Innocent men were kidnapped and families were slaughtered – history recognises that personal vendettas and envious families were motives for blame. The KGB bosses actively encouraged incrimination – quotas were even drawn up to appease the paranoid dictator, Joseph Stalin.

The witch hunts are also an apt example of a fear that governments have exploited to divide their citizens, conquering their power as a revolutionary mass. Forget terrorism – anti-social behaviour is dividing Britons indiscriminately, from black to white, from rags to riches, from man to woman, from chav to rocker.

One of the few purposes the American population serves to the British public is its ability to entertain us with shows like 'Judge Judy' and stories about parents sueing their children. Lose the smile. There is a genuine growing concern that the compensation culture in Britain is proportionally on par with our Atlantic buddies. Furthermore, on the front of the anti-social behaviour pamphlet I have used for this story, it makes clear that it is a "Guide to Customers". Not residents. Is this a road we want to head down?

My London blog

Website - 28 July 2005

It was twenty days after the bloody carnage of 7/7, just six following the sequel of the previous Thursday and five days since the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. But as I stepped onto my first of six underground journeys trips (St. Pancras to Oxford Circus), there was very little to tell of all this.

Of course, the undeniable tension around King’s Cross and in the tubes was omniscient, but it seemed to flatten like a balloon as the day continued. The subject didn’t even warrant a passing reference, from what I gathered, despite the armed police presence.

The ambiance on the tubes and on the platforms were expectedly characterised by anxiety and suspicion. People seemed to have dropped their books and Metro papers for bag-spotting, and I was no different. After deliberately avoiding the lunchtime rush hour, I made it to Oxford Circus by two o’clock.

It was stimulating to instantly experience the same London I had two years ago, the minute I got out of the Tube station. People were still sipping coffee in street cafés, struggling from designer shops with countless bags of clothes and market traders were haggling over toilet rolls.

Then I had a bewildering thought. The bombs and deaths of 7/7 had been set in the context of clichéd, picture-postcard images of Britain. One bomber played cricket, the other worked in a Fish & Chip shop, with an ending set on a double-decker bus.

I didn’t experience any overt anti-Muslim feeling, but perhaps I needed to read between the lines. I noticed an Evening Standard newspaper board which quoted the headline of the day: “LONDON MOSQUE LINK TO ALL EIGHT BOMBERS”.

Later in the day, with the rain pouring down, I struggled to find the South Kensington station among the crowded streets. I caught a glimpse of a t-shirt someone was wearing bearing the London Underground logo, with the words “Not Afraid” printed in the blue. A tsunami of fear washed over me once again.

As I stood on the packed platform, I saw a Muslim man wearing a headscarf, dressed smart. He looked focused yet slightly uncomfortable. I was aware it was five o’clock, the evening rush hour. The mad scuttle threw us together onto the same carriage; I was roughly six feet away from him. My heart missed a beat when I noticed wires running from his ears to his black shoulder-bag, and I began sweating when I saw him reach into his inside jacket pocket, midway through my journey.

The next sound was not boom, nor screams. Nor was it followed by a chorus of whining sirens and car alarms. The man probably just had an iPod, and I felt a little foolish but relieved.

My visit to London was not at all one of fear. It’s the city it’s always been; the best capital city in the world, and I’ll be going back again this year.