CHEAPER to fly to SPAIN?

The Daily Mail reports:

Two friends living in Newcastle and Birmingham met up in Malaga because it was cheaper to fly to SPAIN than getting the train to see each other

The Sun:

Two pals living in Newcastle and Birmingham flew to Malaga for a catch up because it was £25 CHEAPER than a UK train

I could list all the other august publications that have picked up the story: the Daily Star, Metro, indy100,, the Mirror and the Telegraph. Oh, I have done now. Well done to the sort of PR agency responsible – excellent work! (I think the Mail’s piece might be the best, because they’ve gone to the effort of making an annotated map.)

From all that journalism, you’d think it were cheaper to fly to Spain than to get a train from Newcastle to Birmingham. But is it?

Certainly, you can fly to Malaga from Birmingham and Newcastle as cheaply as the press releases suggest: £75.27 for the two return journeys, apparently. Airlines’ crazy yield management pricing means you do have to be cunning and flexible about when you travel – if you need to go somewhere at a peak time, you’ll have to pay a lot more – and you have to studiously avoid accidentally reserving a seat or buying travel insurance on the Ryanair website – but maybe that’s OK.

But is going by train really that expensive? I cynically assumed the £105 price quoted must apply to a stupid walk-up “anytime” ticket. If you book in advance – which is a bit fiddly, but no harder than jumping through hoops to get a cheap flight – it’s much cheaper, right? Actually, no: the cheapest return fare I could find from Newcastle to Birmingham was indeed £105.80 for two inflexible advance singles.

If you have a railcard, the cost drops to £69.80. But that’s no help if you’re travelling alone and are neither “senior”, nor disabled, nor in the armed forces, nor aged 16–25. Even if the conventionally attractive 27-year-old Newcastle resident had bought a three-year 16–25 railcard on the day before her 24th birthday, she’d now be too old to use it.

So here I am with egg on my face. I’d hoped to expose some lazy and inaccurate journalism, but actually Viscount Rothermere was telling the truth.

But, but, but – what about buses?

You can go on a Megabus coach between Newcastle and Birmingham for about £7 each way. If you’re offended by the garish colours and the mascot who looks like Dara Ó Briain, there are National Express coaches, too (but they’re more expensive). The journey takes a long time, but because only one person needs to do it – in contrast to two people flying to Spain – it works out at the same number of person-hours. And I’ve charitably not considered the time spent waiting around in airports.

There’s also the small matter of carbon dioxide. I’ve included some back-of-a-fag-packet numbers in this table. They’re a bit less dramatic than the person on Twitter’s – I think the distances he used are based on trains going as the crow flies, which they don’t – but the differences are still clear.

 Flights to MalagaTrain to BirminghamCoach to B’ham
Travel time6 hours × 2 people6½ hours × 1 person12 hours × 1 person

So it’s complicated. Megabus is definitely a competitive option, but doesn’t make for a very glamorous newspaper article. It is a bit nuts and surprising that flying to Spain isn’t such a bad idea.

Of course, the Brexit effect means flying to Spain will probably become more costly and difficult – and the bus will become relatively more attractive. Thanks in part to some lies written on the side of a bus.


You could be forgiven for thinking people’s responses to planning applications tended to consist of nimbyistic complaints about onshore wind turbines. But no – see the many great objections to a beleaguered retail park’s plans to chop down some trees. My favourite:

I do not believe the poor performance of retail outlets is due to trees. I disagree with destroying what little is left of habitats for animals and wildlife to ‘improve views’. I can tell you why I dont shop at Clifton Moor. Its because its hard to get to if you dont have a car & because internet shopping is now my main way to shop. You can chop down as many trees as you like. Everyone will still shop with Amazon. You will simply attract dislike and become unpopular. Please keep the trees. Thankyou

Yes! Via York Stories (qv).


Peter Mandelson’s yoghurt

From Mandelson: The Real PM? (2010):

Sam Wollaston, the Guardian:

It’s the yoghurt pot moment that stands out in Storyville: Mandelson – The Real PM? (BBC4). Peter Mandelson has finished his yoghurt, after spilling a spot on his tie (“how annoying”), now he wants rid of the empty pot and the spoon. So he holds it up until someone called Marie takes it from him. He’s not handing it to her, there’s no “would you mind?”. Both would be too much effort on his part. He simply holds it up in the air, like Julius Caesar. And then when she takes it, he gives her a withering lizardy look as well. Poor Marie, she probably thought she was getting into politics, but it’s turning out to be more about yoghurt pot removal. She’s going to have to run the spoon under the tap too, to rinse away any residue of Mandy-lick. Does he have a forked tongue I wonder – is that what caused the spillage?

Rachel Cooke, the New Statesman:

I could watch him eat yoghurt all day; a stoat devours a field mouse with less menace.

Michael Hogan, the Telegraph:

[Mark] Gatiss mimes Mandelson spooning yogurt into his mouth. “There’s this lovely old clip where he’s eating a yogurt and drops a bit on his tie. He looks down at it and says, ‘Oh,’ holding out the yogurt pot with a monarch’s expectation, just knowing someone will appear to take it. Such a fascinating character.”

(Gatiss mentions it again in an interview in the Independent.)

What is it about Mandelson and yoghurt? There is another story, from 2008, which the Daily Mail has. A bit like what John Selwyn Gummer’s daughter did with some beef, Mandelson “gulped a glass of Chinese yoghurt” to show confidence in Chinese dairy products after a food safety incident. “I shall continue drinking my favourite milk product, which I enjoy and which does not make me nervous.” Ten days later, Mandelson just so happened to become poorly with kidney stones, which might or might not have been caused by his lactose-based stunt.

From ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ (1999)

You may read in bed for ten minutes. No longer.

Oh, and if you need to use the convenience, remember… it isn’t shameful for a young man to sit. It’s quieter that way.

I’ll try to keep that in mind.

Sound advice. (Like the difference between a dish-cloth and a tea-cloth, something I’d dimly remembered for years but wasn’t sure of the source of, might even have thought I’d entirely imagined, if it wasn’t for one of those legally dubious online subtitle repositories – so hooray for them.)


After some bungling by the Associated Press, journalists Andrew McGill and Caitlin Dewey made @she_not_he, “a bot politely correcting Twitter users who misgender Caitlyn Jenner”. Dewey explains:

“Misgendering,” as this practice is known is the LGBT community, isn’t just a style error in violation of AP’s own rules – it’s a stubborn, long-time hurdle to transgender acceptance and equality, a fundamental refusal to afford those people even basic grammatical dignity.

Being ignorant, I’m still not quite sure who Jenner is, but clearly the aims of the bot are good and so well done to McGill and Dewey. People are tweeting (often horribly) erroneous tweets, and the robot is tweeting corrections back at them.

Like Caitlyn Jenner, FIFA’s Sepp Blatter has been in the news recently, but for entirely different reasons, and news organisations are encountering a somewhat more trivial pitfall. Here is an addendum to a New York Times article:

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a headline with this article misstated the name FIFA’s president goes by. He is Sepp Blatter, not Seth.

Now, let me be clear: misstating Sepp Blatter’s name is not a long-standing hurdle to any kind of acceptance or equality, and there’s nothing to suggest he’s being afforded less dignity than he’s due. But still, I took the @she_not_he source code and made @sepp_not_seth, an unimaginative remix that even uses the same fun onomatopoeias (“Breeepbeep!”, “Beepbopbeep!”, “~ROBOT CLANKING NOISE~”). So now, when people tweet about “Seth Blatter”, they get corrected by something with Blatter’s smiling face and nice scarf:

.@instakaytor Beepbopbeep! It's Sepp, not Seth.

— Sepp not Seth (@sepp_not_seth) June 3, 2015

A cep

It turns out that tweets calling Blatter “Seth” are much less frequent than tweets calling Jenner “he”, or even misspellings of “Caitlyn”. That makes this bot’s workload much lighter, and the nature of the tweets makes all sorts of “false positive” less of a problem. I could look for other misspellings, like “Cep” and “Platter”, but too many of those are in fact deliberate, hilarious mushroom- or crockery-based puns which are hard for computers to identify.

The responses to the corrections have been fine – certainly more positive than those to @she_not_he. Some have said thank you, and some have quietly deleted their tweets (making it look like the bot was replying to thin air), but no one has dared try to argue back that “Seth” was in fact correct. I like to think people been helped by being spared the potential embarrassment of repeating the mistake somewhere else.

But it’s really not going to change the world – and although @she_not_he won’t really either, at least it’s aiming more in that direction.

Of course many more bots like this already exist, or might exist in the future. One correcting the charming mistaking of “pedantry” for “pendantry” would be quite profound. Better, the comedian Richard Herring’s heroic work every International Women’s Day – informing oafs that International Men’s Day does also exist after all (it’s in November) – could be made much easier. That one is a particularly good balance between being hard to argue with and being something to do with equality, but perhaps part of what it makes it so noble is the sheer effort of replying by hand. I’ve simply achieved something a bit pointless, and lazily automated it, using a tool I didn’t even write – but never mind.

Sandwich board

(Or: “Fuss Islands Retail Park”.)

Months have passed since the beleaguered supermarket chain Morrisons did a capital wheeze, projecting a picture of a baguette between the wingtips of the Angel of the North. Interestingly, it wasn’t the first time it’d had ideas about a tall structure in the north of England.

In 2007, work was underway to turn the site of an old refuse “destructor into a retail park. One prominent relic of the site’s previous use was to remain: a grade II listed octagonal chimney…

Naturally, such a development necessarily entails lots of planning applications – and, wonderfully, the poorly scanned evidence of this is available online. So we can read the planning application entitled “Display of externally illuminated individual letters to south face of chimney”. It’s not a classic of the form, there’s no gloriously stiffly written literature to read (there often is), but there is a drawing.


The status of the application is “application refused” and the sternly critical “delegated report” is available to read – a small sop to fans of that prose style.

I’m heartened that brave development control officers are there, ready to stop big corporates pissing on pieces of industrial heritage. A small part of me wonders what it would have looked like, but the local newpspaper has a mock-up.

Having a big chimney next to one’s supermarket still comes with some advantages, a certain gravitas, whether or not one is permitted to strap a logo to it. “It’s now known to many as ‘Morrisons Chimney’, perhaps giving the erroneous impression that the supermarket recently built alongside incorporates a very large fireplace.” They could have projected a baguette onto it.

Also, a man flew an unmanned aerial vehicle around the chimney, and there’s a video. The pictures are frankly a bit disappointingly lousy – shaky and pasty-faced – but for heaven’s sake he flew a consumer-grade remote-controlled miniature aircraft, with a tiny video camera on it, in the sky. Isn’t that impressive?

‘Building Sights’

“For this collection, Janet Street-Porter has selected programmes about post-war architecture” is a bit of a startling sentence at first, but it really needn’t be.

Some highlights: Jools Holland going about Canary Wharf in a vibrant blazer, Norman Foster climbing on a jumbo jet, and a bit about the visually arresting house Street-Porter herself got designed.

(Isn’t it cool of the BBC to make available things from their archives like this? Brilliant.)


Lord Young is not young at all – in fact, he is quite old. And he has something of Professor Lazarus about him, don’t you think?

From @Number10gov

From @Number10gov

But let’s not hold that against him – many people are old, and almost as many resemble Doctor Who villains. Let’s not even consider his role in privatising British industry. Instead, let’s zoom in and enhance to admire the iPod nano (6th generation) he wears on his wrist:

In this photograph, taken to promote a “twinterview” (!) about some supply-side measures more than two years ago, the device appears to display on its screen the artwork for the podcast of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time radio programme.

An article in the Times from some months prior – a length of time that suggests a quaintly long attention span – also mentions the Tory grandee’s wristwatch:

Lord Young of Graffam, the bow-tie wearing former Trade and Industry Secretary, who is 80 next month, has rigged up his own wireless network and Bluetooth keyboard for the iPad in his No 10 office. Recently he has taken to wearing on his wrist an iPod Nano converted into a watch, using a special strap purchased from a crowd-funded inventor’s website.

(His own wireless network, eh? Cutting-edge! Although I do wince at most people’s complaints about the speeds of Wi-Fi and 3G in crowded public places – it’s a bit extraordinary that we can send information through the air at all – so don’t let’s complain that it’s sometimes a bit slow, and so maybe let’s not scoff at this either.)

When I bought a similar iPod nano (6th generation) and special strap, was it a secret longing to be like the bow-tie wearing former Trade and Industry Secretary that made me do it? I cannot say.

One’s youth should be a time of experimentation and things, so maybe it was some of that. Needless to say, wearing a portable media player on your wrist makes you look like a ninny, and I quickly gave it up – sold the information pod to another mug, and rather wastefully let the special strap collect dust on a dressing table somewhere.

Ninnyishness wasn’t the only thing: it turns out that, if one listens to podcasts, the luxury of having a network connection – as offered by modern information phones – is hard to give up. This makes me sound like the worst kind of person imaginable, but these days who gets out of bed for something that necessitates plugging in a USB cable? It’s so much civilised to suck bits into your device wirelessly.

Since the iPod nano (6th generation) stopped being a new thing, many shimmering new “wearables” have been shown off, and all of the more ambitious kinds continue the rich tradition of looking quite daft. Of course, early mobile telephones made you look like a prat, even though you didn’t have to wear them, and we should be grateful to the pioneers who for years slowly forced society to acclimatise.

But until we can enjoy the presence of a future in which the physical size of today’s bulbous battery packs has shrunken down along with the stigma associated with strapping one to your head, all we can do is speculate and jeer – and that’s OK.

One thought I had: although, for example, the sleekest “Android Wear” devices are still all far more ostentatious than the old digital watches that terror bombists reportedly tote, wouldn’t the current technology make an impressive bike computer?

On second thoughts: probably not. Another thought: would the motor car–targeting gewgaws in fact be a better candidate for the metal things with wheels that bicycles usually are? Then: no, don’t be ridiculous. And: although there’s a drive to encourage cyclists to buy some amount of often oil-based plastic accessories to smother fears about things, thank goodness it rules out any conceivable attempts at selling the kinds of handlebar-mounted distractions I briefly imagined. (Don’t go getting any ideas.)

Professor Lazarus from Doctor Who, of course, craving immortality, built a “Genetic Manipulation Device” which made him younger. Then it turned him into a sort of giant scorpion. There is no implication that Lord Young of Graffam is a scorpion.

‘The difference between a dish-cloth and a tea-cloth’

From chapter 7 of The Phoenix and the Carpet:

Everything was nicely washed up, and dried, and put in its proper place, and the dish-cloth washed and hung on the edge of the copper to dry, and the tea-cloth was hung on the line that goes across the scullery. (If you are a duchess’s child, or a king’s, or a person of high social position’s child, you will perhaps not know the difference between a dish-cloth and a tea-cloth; but in that case your nurse has been better instructed than you, and she will tell you all about it.)