Archive for the 'Friends' Category

On being dirty, southern and a twit

The best kind of nights, I’ve always found, are the ones where you end up in a completely unexpected place. Last night, for me, that unexpected place was a fascinating in-depth discussion of Belgian politics and media, and contrasting it with the UK.

This isn’t normally what I spend my nights down the pub doing, but then it’s also a neat illustration of why I enjoy going to the assorted social media meetups. Or in this case, Tweetup.

Back in December, Lolly and I decided we’d quite like a Twitter meetup that was easy to get home from (The Shoreditch Twit is ace, but for those of us south of the river, it’s a bit of a trek back) and the Dirty South Twit was born.

The first one was a nice chilled evening drinking cocktails in Clapham with a bunch of people who’d never really met before, but were all on Twitter. Then we both got a bit busy, remembered we’d do another one and organised the DST2 at the Roxy Bar and Screen in London Bridge.

It also happened to clash with St Patrick’s Day (completely unintentional on our part) and Guinness were kind enough to help the craic with assorted hats, inflatable pints, T-shirts and other goodies. Oh, and free booze. I’ve now got a few cans sitting in my kitchen needing care and attention. They really were too good to us (well, it was the 250th anniversary of signing their brewery lease in Dublin. Any excuse for a party is good enough by me). You can see photos here.

But one of the joys of these events is, as well as catching up with a few familiar faces, you get a chance to speak to people you’d never normally meet, such as PBizzle, Rufus Evison and Julie Bodart and Pascal. Somehow with the latter two, I got onto the topic of Belgian politics and media (not entirely randomly, given that she’s Belgian).

There’s some fascinating differences between the UK and Belgium. It certainly doesn’t sound as if blogging is as big over there as it is amongst the media in this country. The regional press also seems to thrive, mainly because there isn’t one main national paper. Instead the big papers are split between the Flemish and Walloon regions, depending on their point of view. I’d imagine it’d be a similar thing here if Scotland were larger and really agitating for a split from England.

I’ve taken a mild interest in Belgian politics since they went for around nine months without a proper government in 2007 / 08 and found the political system, basket case though it was (probably outdoing Italy in places), fascinating.

Certainly from Julie and Pascal’s point of view, our government seems a lot more stable. Yes, I probably replied, but it also makes it quite dull. And harder to kick the bastards out, I didn’t add. Certainly I’d appreciate something to re-engage me with the political process and makes it seem exciting and interesting again.

Ok, it may not be entirely fun when you’re living in a country that can barely form a government let alone rule effectively. But at least it makes things interesting. Hell, I’m very jealous of America where, thanks to Obama (and, dare I say it, probably helped by the fact Bush was the previous incumbent) politics has become interesting, cool and sexy again. Go on, try and apply any of those three adjectives to our political system, I dare you. You’ll fail miserably.

I’ve gone a bit tangential here. But that’s kind of like the conversation last night. I met some fascinating people at the Dirty South Twit, had some very interesting conversations (I won’t recount the whole Belgian politics and media chat, partly because I can’t quite remember it all) and had plenty of Guinness. And that’s why I love Twitter meetups.

A slightly more coherent, less tangential write-up, with no mention of Belgian politics, is on the Dirty South Twit blog.


Going south of the river…

Or look what we’ve gone and done.

For a culture, that spends a fair bit of its life working online, social media types are, well, pretty sociable in the real world. For one thing, they throw great parties and hold regular meetups. One of the nicest things about Twitter and blogging meetups, is you can turn up and not know anybody and people will still, likely as not, know who you are. Even if not, you’ll at least have a topic of conversation to get you started, which is ideal for people such as myself who aren’t natural minglers.

One of my favourite meetups is Lewis Webb’s Shoreditch Twit, an informal gathering in Shoreditch for people on Twitter. There’s nothing much to it – Twitter (geeks) meet down the pub, often with some kind of theme (the last involved free games of table football. I rule at table football). The only downside is Shoreditch is in east London and is a bit of a trek to get home, south of the river.

Via a Facebook conversation with Lolly, I mentioned I was thinking of doing a South of the River Tweet up (sorry, that sounds a bit wanky doesn’t it). A couple of Tweets and emails later, and with Rich also offering his services, the Dirty South Tweet was born, for us Southern types who don’t want to have such a long journey home. It is, if you will, the Shoreditch Twit on tour. Or something.

Of course, it’s not just South Londoners who are invited – any Twitterer, be it north, south, east or west or even, God forbid, outside of London (what do you mean there’s a world outside the capital?) are more than welcome to join us to, well, drink. And chat. And that’s about it.

We’re still in the process of sorting out there whens and wheres, but should have something concrete very very soon. In the meantime, there’s the blog and the Twitter stream – show them both some love by Tweeting or linking ūüôā

Any excuse for a drink, really….

What’s really fantastic about this is the idea came from one quick musing on a Facebook post and has already started to take shape just 48 hours later – and the Dirty South Tweet blog is already doing over double the traffic this place does on a good day.

What’s even more fantastic, is just a few years ago, this bunch of people probably would have only known each other in passing, maybe meeting at the occasional event, but rarely making the effort to contact each other via email to say: “Hey, let’s get a group of us together and head out to the pub for a drink.”

Forget your marketing, PR and whatnot for a while. Twitter, Facebook and blogging have made it easier for like-minded people to get together down the pub, without having to utter the words “I’m meeting somebody from the internet,” and having to explain it’s nothing to do with sex.

It’s one of the reasons I love social media. It’s not called social for nothing.

Exeweb: a social media success story (before we even had social media)

My friend Steve deserves many hearty slaps on the back and no small amount of congratulations. Exeweb, the forum he created for Exeter City fans, recently celebrated its tenth birthday.

But this isn’t another Exeter City football post from me – Steve’s site is a perfect example of social media in action, and has been such years before the term social media was ever invented.

Going further, you could put forward a significant argument that Exeter City FC would not exist were it not for Exeweb. More of that in a minute.

One thing that is immediately striking about Exeweb is the sense of community on the message boards. There’s a familiarity between posters you don’t often find on forums. Indeed, many of Exeweb’s users know each other offline but got to know each other through Exeweb.

The site has enhanced the activity that brought them together in the first place – supporting Exeter City. Strangers have met up for drinks, shared lifts to away games and even formed their own football team out of it.

Ideas are exchanged and friendships are made, and for exiled fans, the forum is an invaluable resource. These are not geeks or early adopters – they’re just football fans coming together online to share their passion.

Last May, when Exeter made it to Wembley for the Blue Square Premier play-off final, a London-based Exeter fan, Alan Crockford, hired out a nearby pub specifically for Exeweb users and their families to meet and drink before the game. Many new friendships were formed on that day and created a sense of togetherness that wouldn’t have been present if the fans had scattered around assorted pubs.

But Exeweb has gone beyond adding to fans support of the club. It has, quite literally, helped save the club from ruin.

Five and a half years ago, the club was taken over by businessmen John Russell and Mike Lewis. The previous chairman, Ivor Doble, was in his 70s and looking to sell. Russell and Lewis came into town as the proverbial white knights.

Lewis had been involved at Swansea City, where he’d controversially sold the club to ¬£1 to revilled owner Tony Petty. Such was the force of hatred towards Lewis in Swansea at the time that he couldn’t travel to away games at the Vetch without police protection.

Russell, meanwhile, had been chairman of Scarborough when they were relegated from the League. He also had a conviction for obtaining property by deception. Had the fit and proper owner test been in place at the time, it is unlikely he could have taken over the club.

But at the time the pair talked the talk and promised to take the club to new heights, as all owners do. Were it not for Exeweb, they would have taken the club to new lows.

A few months into their reign, certain Exeweb users – a couple of them local journalists – started noticing a few promises and claims from the pair didn’t add up.

Money promised from a chairty event that, bizarrely, saw Michael Jackson speak at the park hadn’t materialised, and a promotional shot that featured new manager Neil McNab had been taken BEFORE the previous manager, John Cornforth, had been sacked. These were just a small number of the strange stories coming out of St. James Park.

Slowly, but surely, more and more members of Exeweb came to realise Russell and Lewis weren’t exactly the saviours of the club and the site’s message boards started to contain closer scrutiny of the pair’s dealings – scrutiny that suggested the club was in serious financial problems.

At the same time, the club’s Supporters’ Trust had been slowly gaining momentum, again thanks to Exeweb. Originally set up to help the club find funds to purchase striker Gary Alexander, the Trust’s aims had changed to getting fan represntation on the board and ensuring the club survived the financial crisis.

Exeweb gave the Trust a much wider audience thanthe offline world could provide it. Some of the key players in the Trust had their passion for Exeter reawakened through Exeweb, or got to know each other through the site.

At the end of the season, Exeter were relegated from the League and the nowRussell and Lewis were arrested (and subsequently convicted a few years later) for fruad. Exeter City FC was in massive debts and Ivor Doble had neither the money nor the energy to help the club.

In stepped the Supporters’ Trust, with volunteers – many of them brought together through Exeweb – giving up their time to do everything possible to save the club. And they succeeded by the skin of their teeth.

The club was hours away from going into liquidation when the Trust managed to get together a deal for the creditors and ensure Exeter still had a professional football club.

Granted, Exeweb couldn’t take the credit for this. But many of the individuals who helped save the club in the weeks after Russell and Lewis’ arrest wouldn’t have got involved had it not been for Exeweb.

As Damien Mills aka Egg, Trust member and one of the earliest critics of Russell and Lewis said in a recent discussion about Exeweb:

“In the summer of 2003, a series of meetings took place at the Exeter Airport Business Park premises of Ian Huxham’s Potbury Signs. Those meetings were, IMHO, absolutely critical in securing Trust control of the club and, in turn, its very future.

I can’t pretend to speak for all those present, and readily admit my memory isn’t what it might be, but I’m fairly sure that some of the key players within that disparate group of people – think former directors Barry Sansom and Geoffrey Styles to name but two – were brought together by ExeWeb.

Certainly, Terry Pavey, who played a very significant role back then, would tell you his passion for the football club was reawakened by stumbling across ExeWeb while exiled in Kent. Moreover, I’m firmly of the opinion that Russell and Lewis might just have ‘got away with it’ were it not for the opposition to them which, to a large extent, grew out of the site.

In short, I think anyone with ‘a bit of Exeter City in their heart’ owes Steve a debt of gratitude – all the more so when you consider ExeWeb is a labour of love for which, it seems to me, he receives plenty of brickbats and nowhere near enough plaudits.”

The Trust is now the majority shareholder in Exeter City. The fans, in this case, really do own the club. I consider myself proud that I’m a shareholder in the club I love.

For all the talk surrounding internet football venture, it’s got nothing on Exeweb. Steve’s site may not own the club, but many members of Exeweb are shareholders. Moreover, it brought together the fans at the club’s darkest hour, and was able to quickly galvinise them into saving Exeter City FC.

Steve has maintained Exeweb largely with his own time and money, and the help of volunteer moderators. Over the years, he’s had a fair few angry calls from people at the club, annoyed at things that have been posted on the forums – although many at the club know how important the site is.

He’s even had offers to sell up. He refused, to ensure Exeter CIty fans could continue to have an independent voice.

Exeweb’s popularity has spread. It has its own fan page on Facebook and there’s plenty of Exeter City supporters who use Facebook as a supplement to Exeweb. As social media tools expand into the mainstream, expect Exewebbers to filter into them.

Steve probably never set out to create a perfect example of a powerful social media tool. He probably never even envisioned the role it would play in the club’s future when he first set it up. But achieved his aim to provide a place online for fans of the club to chat. And that’s expanded beyond his wildest explanations.

I’ll leave it to the man himself to sum things up:

“As it’s evolved over the years, news sterted to pop up on the forum before I could type it up and if there anything people don’t know, they ask and get answers and opinion. As a model of web usability, that is as damned near to perfect as you can get!

What I’m trying to say is that I think this site is unique. The fact it’s survived ten years is testament to all of you as much as it is me.”

Steve, the web and all Exeter City fans salute you.

So, I was going to write stuff, yeah…

And I’ve got a whole of host posts in my draft folder to prove it.

But then:

1. I got very busy with work.

2. I’ve been feeling a bit run down and not great.

3. I finally had the root canal done. This morning. Thank God for neurofen.

4. Tonight was provisionally pencilled in to do household chores, relaxing and blogging. But then a friend of mine mentioned her new flat didn’t have a working cooker.

If there’s one piece of pain I truly feel after spending three months with a barely functioning Baby Belling, it’s being without cooking space.

Which meant tonight turned into an lovely impromptu dinner party, where the star of the show were Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Guinness and Walnut Dark Chocolate Brownies.

God, I can sill taste them now.

For main course were peppers stuffed with courgette and lemon and coriander couscous, which are ridiculously simple to make. Chop off the top of your pepper and core. Brush down your peppers with olive oil and coriander and stick them in a pre-heated 200 Celcius oven for about ten minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small bit of water (I’m not great with measurements or terms. Some, a bit and lots are about as far as I go) in a saucepan throw in just over 100g of couscous, with a bit of butter and chopped coriander. ¬†Squeeze in juice from a lemon and a dash of olive oil, stir, cover and let it simmer until the cous cous has absorbed the fluid.

Dice a small amount of courgette and chop a couple of medium size garlic cloves. Take your peppers out of the oven and spoon in the couscous. When the pepper is half full, put a layer of courgette and garlic across and spoon more couscous on top.

Put back in the oven for another 7-10 minutes (or until the betters start turning seriously black at the edges). Take out and serve with salad.

Now you can see why I’ve not managed to write anything coherent tonight.

Ma-ma-ma-making your mind up

If, God forbid, Terry Wogan goes good on his threat to quit Eurovision, I’d like to humbly suggest three replacements from the best bits of the blogosphere last night.

First up of the livebloggers was Matthew Hill bringing his own way with words to proceedings:

“I quite like Germany so far, despite the questionable and dubious thieving of Sugababes’ greatest harmonies. Actually I’m now convinced they’re all men? Are they men? My friend’s just chirped up with ‘they put the ‘Man’ in Germany. They have nice facial structures for men. ‘Why did you disappear’? one sings. Well I couldn’t say. Perhaps it’s because you’ve got a bonus sausage.”

Then euroblogger par excellence Nosemonkey does his bit for Anglo-European relations:

“Azerbaijan to win!¬†Brilliantly over the top rubbish, topped off with dancers in g-strings. Result! Give them immediate EU membership to boot! Whether they want it or not!”

And just about the best of the night comes from ultra-music fan John Widdop, who really should be getting paid to do this stuff on a regular basis.

Poland – Given Poland’s excellent pedigree in integrating the culture of Western Europe, you’d expect better than this. This is sung by a bizarre experiment to create the least realistic looking women possible out of wax and clay. The song itself is a power ballad so sweeping it could span oceans, and will probably win. It also sounds oddly like the sort of B side that indie bands with singers with high voices used to peddle in the late nineties.¬†

Next year I’m tempted to say sod the obligatory Eurovision party and keep glued to the internet, which has outdone Terry (although sadly lacking in the Irish whimsy). And if Robin Hamman’s post is anything to go by, then that might not be such a ridiculous proposition:

“What I participated in last night would be almost totally invisible to most viewers. Most people don’t know how to find and track conversations on twitter, other social networking services or blogs. But being part of an audience community is a powerful experience for participants and a valuable brand building tool for broadcasters and other content producers.”

I would have never even thought to turn to Twitter during the show, but given the amount of Eurovision-related texts sent during the night, it makes perfect sense. It’s an immediate watercooler moment rather than one the next day.

It also shows how social media and traditional media can come together for these sort of events – and again, if, as Robin notes, you’ve got a broadcaster who’s prepared to tie all these elements together, then you’ve got an almost unforgettable user experience. Imagine – the traditional eurovision party, but with added interaction from Tweeters around the globe.

That said, even Web 20 can’t salvage the UK’s attempts to outdo itself on the sheer awfulness scale when it comes to submitting our annual crock of shite. Oh, Morrissey, where art thou when needed?

Stevenage: The home of Britain’s Lewis Hamilton and absolutely nothing else

I had been warned. “What are the joys that await us in Stevenage?” I asked Steve, a veteran of many trips to Broadhall Way. “Absolutely none,” came the reply. And the evening before, a colleague who hailed from nearby Hitchin had warned me about the proliferation of chavs around the town. The sense of anticipation was more to do with the match between 4th and 6th in the Blue Square Premier as opposed to spending any great amount of time in Stevenage.

The trip got off to a promising, if frantic, start. I’d just stepped off the Victoria Line and onto the King’s Cross concourse when Tom rang me. “The train leaves in three minutes from platform one. Run and you might just make it!” he yelled.

After approximately 59 seconds of swearing at the ticket machine as my credit card processed, I mustered all the speed that propelled me to victory in the sports’ day 100m 12 years ago and leapt aboard the train just as the doors were closing, much to the surprise of Tom and Steve, who’d been preparing to text me directions from the train station.

Said station had installed barriers – “that’s a new addition” – and was a lot cleaner than the last visit of the Exeter faithful. Visually, it was as good as it got.

The site that awaits the visitor to Stevenage is one of a huge industrial estate-cum-lesuire centre. No popular establishment had been ignored. McDonalds, KFC, Hollywood Bowl, Jumpin’ Jaks nightclub, Liquid nightclub, Envy nightclub, Cineworld (the only place that asks you to “please enjoy drinks here responsibly.”), a Pizza Hut and a venue that the aforementioned battle-hardened Stevenage veterans described as “the best bar in Stevenage’. That bar was better known as Chicago Rock Cafe, Stevenage, and was empty, save for Denzel. Nonetheless, the barmaid had great difficulty processing an order for two Carlings, one Becks, and a Guinness.

The four of us settled into one of the many booths and were soon joined by Stuart. Occasionally, you forgot you were drinking in an empty chain bar with a less than classy reputation nationally. But then the staff placed a blow up doll on an empty chair, and Tom found a balloon with the words “Hen party: no cocks allowed” and a picture of a rooster, and we were immediately brought back to reality.

Nonetheless, the day got better before we departed for the 5.15 Setanta Sports-enforced kick-off, when news flashed on the screens that Plymouth Argyle had lost at home to ten men Charlton. We swiftly toasted the Addicks, then the Grecians, then departed to Denzel’s car for the short drive from the industrial leisure estate to the ground. Aesthetic distractions were thin on the ground in these seven minutes.

I’ve been to the grimly depressing Northfleet, and the run-down and vaguely threatening depressing Grays, and Stevenage is a lot less grim than both. But the lack of run-down council houses in immediate eyeshot are easily compensated by industrial estate followed by dual carriageway followed by industrial estate. There was variation at the last industrial leisure estate-cum-car park we passed: it had a Burger King and possibly a Land of Leather. There are no houses as far as I can see. It’s as if all the commuters, desperate to escape London for somewhere more pleasant than the capital, took one look at Stevenage and thought “sod it, we’ll move to Knebworth. Or even Hitchin.” The concrete leads to a complete lack of soul of any chance. If James Brown were still alive, even the Godfather of Soul would admit defeat to find anything remotely funky about the town, and would slink off, a mournful funeral march trumpet playing behind him.

Thankfully, Stevenage Borough’s Broadhall Way stadium is a lot nicer than many other grounds at this level. They away end is even all-seater, which feels wrong. So wrong, we move to the back and stand for the majority of the game, apart from two brief requests from the stewards to sit down “until we get down to the bottom of the steps”.

Having a group of City fans standing and leading the singing makes for a cracking atmosphere in the away end. The fans spend nearly the entire game cheering on Exeter, which isn’t always the case, especially not at St. James’ Park where almost as many people moan as sing. And there’s plenty of good banter towards the away fans in the songs. “Small town in Hitchin,” is given an early debut while the highlight is a chant that’s quickly adapted by the City faithful.

“You’re just a motorway,” quickly changes to “you’re not even a motorway,” to “you’re just a dual carriageway” before settling on “you’re just a B-road.” Stevenage fans are a lot quieter, although make sporadic bursts of noise.

Not even Setanta escape the terrace humour. Just before half-time, the channel’s monosyllabic pundit, ex-Manchester United full-back Paul Parker, gets his own chant of “Paul Parker, ohhhh-o-woah, Paul Parker, ohhh-o-woah. He works for Setanta. He ain’t got good grammar. Paul Parker, ohhh-o-woah.”

The game itself matches the atmosphere. Both sides know nothing less than a win will suffice. Exeter need a victory to keep in touch with the play-off race, while Stevenage know if they lose, their opponents will be just behind them in the table.

But it’s Exeter who come out of the blocks quickest, deploying an unexpected 4-3-3 formation. Stevenage’s defence is having problems dealing with two strikers pulling wide, with the midfield then running into the gaps left. There’s a feeling City could get an early goal and they don’t disappoint. On ten minutes, Richard Logan nods down a ball into the box and fellow frontman Steve Basham wraps his foot around the ball to send it into the bottom corner. One-nil to the Exeter.


The rest of the half is a more cagey affair, but still decent stuff. Stevenage try to push forward for an equaliser but have difficulty getting anywhere near Exeter’s box, while City have some good possession but fail to turn it into anything significant.


Just before half-time Exeter are hit by a minor setback when Basham’s forced to come off with a calf strain and is replaced with Grays loanee Ben Watson. Even so, Exeter have a decent chance to extend their lead when Stevenage fail to deal with a corner properly.


Half time and Stevenage’s manager, and one-time England caretaker, Peter Taylor rings the changes with an attacking double substitution, and it has an immediate impact as Stevenage enjoyed over five minutes of near-constant possession. But again, bar a couple of wide shots, they create nothing of significance and Exeter start to come back into the game and it’s not long before the home side are pinned back in their penalty area by a series of successive corners.


From one of these corners, chaos ensues. Exeter defender Matt Taylor is tugged back in the box and the referee points to the spot before booking a couple of Boro players for dissent for good measure. Up steps regular penalty taker Richard Logan, only to hit a tame shot that’s easily parried by Stevenage keeper Alan Julian, and he runs towards his team mates to celebrate.


But Julian’s joy is short-lived when the referee blows up and orders the penalty to be retaken for encroachment. Further protests from the Boro players ensue and it takes a good minute for everything to calm down. Logan steps up again. And hits an identically tame penalty that is once again saved by Julian.


It’s at this stage that the game threatens to boil over and a Stevenage defender is booked for a nasty tackle on Exeter left-back George Friend and is cautioned, but slowly the game settles down with Exeter controlling the play without either side really creating anything.


As the minutes tick down, it’s clear City, and the fans, are becoming nervous, and when the board goes up to signal four extra minutes, there’s a few groans. City have been here before and let in a late equaliser. “Corner in the 94th,” says Tom and sure enough, Exeter flap at a couple of balls and Boro get the corner. Up trots teir giant of a defender and connects perfectly with the ball, only for Matt Gill to head the ball off the line. There’s no time for another attack and the away end goes nuts as Exeter record their first victory at Broadhall Way and move to within spitting distance in the table of their hosts.


We trudge from the ground elated, and there’s precious little sign of the chavs who, I’m reliably informed, line the underpass to taunt the away fans on their walk back to the car-park. We’re so elated that a return to Chicago Rock is proposed; it may just be my sense of joy at finally winning at Stevenage, but the place seems fuller and more welcoming. That is until the 40-year-old schoolgirls turn up and I nearly gag on my pint at the truly horrific sight that beholds me.


We leave Stevenage with a parting message from this small group of Exeter fans. Foolishly, Chicago Rock have a service that allows your text messages to be displayed on all the screens in the venue so for half an hour, Exeter-related propaganda flashes up on the screen. The natives barely seem to care about the small, clearly non-local, group of drunks making a lot of noise whenever an Exeter-related texts appear on the screen. Stevenage, it appears, has truly sucked any remaining notion of soul and passion from the concrete industrial leisure park.

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January 2023

Throw letters together and send them to me

Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com