Friday, 30 January 2009

A trip to Downing Street.....

This is an updated version based on my Bath Chronicle column of January 28.

On Wednesday night I had the supreme pleasure of walking through the door of the most famous house in Britain - 10, Downing Street. And also, while I was there, the rare chance to meet and talk to the man who calls it home.

Like most newspaper editors, I am very fortunate indeed that I get invited to represent the paper at a wide variety of events.

In a city such as Bath where there is just so much going on, I’m normally only able to accept about one in three of the invitations I receive but I am always incredibly grateful that the paper is considered so important to local life that I find myself on a lot of invite-lists to community events big and small.

I try not to get too blasé or complacent about any invitations I get and to treat each one with equal respect but the one inviting your humble Bath Chronicle editor to a regional media reception with the Prime Minister was one that definitely made me smile.

As I’m sure many people will be aware, the local newspaper industry like so many others, is having rather a tough time at the moment and so I was very pleased that Mr Brown had got together a number of members of our profession so we could talk about the regional press. After all our problems are very similar to that of many companies and we as editors were there to represent not only our own profession but also the cities and communities we passionately serve.

I got to chat to the 'Big Man' for about five minutes along with a couple of other editors and he came over as someone with a real weight on his shoulders but with a genuine sense of commitment to see the country through its difficult times. Occasionally he went almost into a public speech mode even though these were private conversations (i.e he declared ‘we are in the midst of a global banking crisis etc…)’ but I still felt he had integrity and he listened to, and cared about, our various concerns.

He also wasn’t alone amidst the ranks of the regional press. During the night we also saw Alistair Darling (who looks far younger than he does on TV), Margaret Beckett, Jacqui Smith and various other senior Labour-ites including the somewhat unmistakeable figure of the ever smiling Hazel Blears.

Just as exciting for me was we had got chatting to a number 10 press officer before GB arrived and she took on us an on exclusive tour of all the state rooms and then (even better) the cabinet room. That was fascinating to think of the decisions (life and death, war and peace etc) that have been made in that room and it was also interesting to see the quirky thing that while every other chair is placed firmly under the desk, tradition demands that the desk the PM sits in is always out and at a specific angle. Curious.

On the way out we managed to get a quick snatched pic with our mobile outside number 10 but as you can see it was so dark and it isn’t a great pic.

Still, I will dine out on on my 'ten out of Number 10' trip for some time!

Thursday, 22 January 2009

History at school, history on TV and embarrassing my kids

This is a version of my column from the Bath Chronicle of January 21.

Like every parent, I’m aware there are times when I embarrass my children.
Of course I don’t mean to do it (indeed I desperately try to avoid doing it) but I guess it is just something in the ‘job spec’ of being a parent.

In my case, the most recent example of leaving one of my children with a red face came at a school parents’ evening. Such was the embarrassment factor apparently that my son duly declared I was banned from ever attending a parents’ evening again – a wish I’m afraid he may be disappointed to discover will not come true.

The problem I have at such evenings is that like everyone I had my own favourite school subjects and having a chance to talk about these lessons now and see how they have developed is always fascinating as you compare it to your own school experiences.

For me the biggest problem area is history. For some reason, which I no longer understand, I never studied history after O-level and I’ve always regretted this because I absolutely love history and I can’t get enough of it these days.

So, just like the parent who always wanted to be a footballer and now transfers that ambition to standing on the touchline screaming at his children so they can live his dreams, I really want my children to take the same interest in history as I do and I love hearing about what they’re studying. And that, apparently, is very embarrassing.

The thing I’ve always drilled into my children is that history is not, despite its title, a thing of the past. Nearly every major historical event that is studied at school or beyond affects the way we live today and that is why I feel an understanding of history is essential in trying to find answers to modern-day problems.

Of course, what can help make history even more relevant to youngsters is when they feel they are actually ‘living in it’ – and trust me that is exactly what they are doing now.

In 50, 100 or 150 years, youngsters will, I guess, still be studying the rise of Hitler, the impact of Henry VIII on our religious make-up and the causes of the Russian Revolution, for example.
But, I suspect they will also be looking into the great economic crisis of 2008/2009 and, of course, the reasons why the greatest power on earth (at the time) elected an African- American President just 40 years after that same nation had visible pockets of apartheid still operating.

You know when you’re living through history when people stop what they’re doing to follow an event. Many people in the generation older than me will say they can remember exactly where they were when they heard JFK was shot and I’m sure the same will apply to my generation when we are asked in the future about the death of Diana, the dreadful events of 9/11 or the day that Barak Obama became President.

In our office we have a number of TVs to keep up to date with breaking news throughout the day but they are normally on ‘mute’ as we let the pictures and the subtitles tell us the stories. But, on Tuesday, the volume went up, pens were put down and people listened to an Obama speech that will have been watched with equal fascination in Beijing and Beirut as it was in Baltimore and Boston.

It was one of those rare collective experiences borne out of the fact that we all knew something special was happening and we wanted to share in a genuine historical event.

And that, of course, is why I find history to be such a living subject. What is happening in the Oval Office, the banking industry and the Middle East at the moment will all be major chapters in future history books but what makes the future study of the subject even more exciting is that the sheer scale and variety of media available to us now means that the next batch of students will have an incredible wealth of information to help them.

So, history is as much a part of the future as it is of the past – and that is why I just can’t help myself from talking about it when I meet my children’s teachers.

Sorry guys.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Using Big Brother to solve all our problems

This is an edited version of my column in the Bath Chronicle of 15 January.

I came to the surprising conclusion this week that there may be a very simple way to solve the majority of our problems - be they local, national or international. And bizarrely, perhaps, it was reality TV that gave provided that Eureka moment.

OK, reality TV isn't to everyone's taste (although have you noticed that many people who pooh-pooh Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here for example still enjoy the likes of Strictly Come Dancing or The Apprentice which are cut from the same cloth?) but it just may help the world too...

It was while watching the admittedly rather dreary ‘Celebrity’ Big Brother this week that it struck me just how incredibly boring it must be for those who are caught up in this curious jail without bars. Each night we are shown an hour’s worth of ‘highlights’ which are supposed to be the best bits of 24 hours of conversations, tasks, debates, arguments and philosophical discussions. And yet many of these so-called highlights are mind-numbingly trivial which begs the question – what were the other 23 hours like?

The reason that the people involved find it so hard to keep their own pulses racing (let alone ours) is because life inside such an environment lacks all the ingredients that normally make life interesting and challenging. Most of us find our source of debate and conversational interest is centred around the things that all the housemates are deliberately deprived of – their families, their friends, their hobbies, their jobs, sport and, of course TV, newspapers, films and all other forms of media and entertainment.

But what if it was different? What if that free time was used for what they called in Hot Fuzz - “the greater good”?

There are so many issues in our city, our country and the world as a whole that need the sort of full and undivided attention that the equivalent of the Big Brother house could offer, that I can’t help thinking that the Big Brother concept is wasted on the Big Brother contestants. Just imagine if we threw out all the fading pop stars, wannabees-who-will-neverbees and has-beens-who-were-never-really even ‘been-beens’ and put into this locked, distraction-free house a group of experts with a real, important task – one where they would not get “voted out” until they had solved it?

Imagine, for example, in a local sense, if we were to put all the key players in the city involved in transport into the Big Brother house, switched off the TV cameras (so they were not playing to them) and not allow anybody out until they got a workable plan for the city’s transport future? Perhaps they could find a way of avoiding the traffic pictured here....

And if we can do it with transport in Bath then we can do it with everything from world peace to why can’t Gerrard and Lampard play in the same team together.

The idea has certainly worked before. In the 1970s, when unions and bosses were forever at each other’s throats, I can remember that all-powerful organisation called Acas being used to find compromises, and they worked round the clock to find them.
More recently, I recall reading Alistair Campbell’s diaries about the Blair years when he talked about the historic agreement in Ireland which was forged in similar circumstances where people locked themselves in a room and didn’t come out until they had something tangible. He refers to former president Bill Clinton being asked to talk to people in the middle of the night to keep things on track. and that is exactly the kind of “no -one gets outta here until we’ve achieved something” policy that I think could have some legs.

So, as you look around the world and see problems, why not join me in putting forward the idea that a possible solution lies within the most talked about reality house in Britain?

Could it work? As Big Brother would say - you decide!!!

Friday, 9 January 2009

Reasons to be cheerful - 1,2 ,3

This is an edited down version of my column from the Bath Chronicle printed on January 8.

I don't know about but I am getting fed up reading all the doom and gloom that is out there at the moment. I am a generally pretty positive 'half glass full' kinda guy so I wanted to try and look on the bright side of life today and find reasons to be cheerful for 2009.

But trust me - it ain't easy.

Every day our newspapers and televisions give us more and more gloomy economic news about the demise of everything from big banks and those crucial high street chain stores to small independent businesses.

What probably makes things worse is that we have all just finished a festive period where we still probably spent too much money and where we encountered friends and family from all over the country who had similar tales of woe about the economy in their patches.

I don’t know many people who feel 100 per cent secure in their employment at the moment and it has come to the point where the only person in Britain with a guaranteed job for life is the Queen. (Pictured here visiting Bath a few years back)

So, amid all this doom and gloom, what can we actually look forward to in 2009?

Here are just 'three reasons to be cheerful' (thanks for the phrase Mr Ian Drury!) but I truly hope you have plenty more of your own...

  • Barack Obama. In some ways it seems ages ago when he won the right to be the next President but in less than two weeks that is exactly what he will become. So cast your minds back to the general sense of elation and optimism his election created and it may help to get you through the next few weeks. True, he may have the ‘inbox from hell’ when he takes over, but he has the goodwill of a large chunk of the world’s population and that has to count for something. And one other reason to be cheerful about Obama? It will mean no more of George Walker Bush.

  • The weather. This may seem bizarre as we are all currently freezing our wot-nots off, but advanced forecasts have indicated we could be having a serious heatwave in the summer. This is good news on two counts. First, we haven’t had a good summer for a number of years but second, the rocketing price of European holidays due to the falling pound means that more people will be holidaying in the UK this year and it is nice to know they might be able to take sun cream rather than Kagools to the beach. If more people are staying in the UK, that can only mean good news for a tourist spot like Bath, which should benefit economically as a result.

  • Sport. There is no denying a bit of sporting success can raise the most fallen of spirits. Although we don’t have the Olympics this year, we do have an entirely winnable Ashes series (despite the shenanigans this week) and there is a lot of evidence to say that even though he is about as miserable as the economy, Andy Murray might finally break our Wimbledon duck. Oh, and under Mr Capello, expect even greater things from England’s football side, too...

OK, I accept that having a new American President, better weather and the chance of seeing a dour Scot as a tennis champion might hardly balance the bleak world scenario, but at least I’m trying.

2009 can only be the year from hell if we let it!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Praying for Bath in 2009....

On Tuesday night I had the pleasure of attending the Bath Mayor’s 'Call To Prayer' at the Guildhall which attracted a large and appreciative audience despite the arctic conditions.

The event is an annual opportunity for local Christians – and indeed those without faith – to come together and seek spiritual guidance for the city for the year ahead.

It may sound “heavy” but it certainly isn’t and it turned out to be a relaxing and thought-provoking evening.

The Mayor himself, Tim Ball, spoke very well and with real passion during the evening and his Chaplain, the Reverend Melanie Reed, was also extremely impressive. She explained what prayer was and why she believed that you could pray into any situation – she admitted she prays for things as big as peace in the Middle East and as small as finding a parking space when she drives into Bath! – and she certainly made everybody feel comfortable and involved on the evening. I really feel she is a major asset to the local faith community.

It was also a night where we were able to see what a musical household the Reeds must be. I’ve already been dazzled by the drumming expertise of their son Toby in the past, but tonight I also got to see Paul Reed (the father of the house) in full throttle as part of the wonderful City of Bath Male Choir and the incredibly impressive Rebecca Reed who sang quite beautifully during the evening at the piano.

As well as the spiritual side of the evening, I was also greatly impressed to hear of the work of two of the local charities that the Mayor supports – his own Relief Fund (whose work was highlighted with enthusiasm by Nik Browne, the operations manager of the Drugs & Homeless Initiative) and the Southdown/Whiteway Community Project.
Reverend Ian Souter spoke eloquently about this project which is a splendid organisation for the area and one deserving of support.

All told it was a very enjoyable evening, the highlight of which for me was getting to sing (for the first time ever in my case) the hymn Abide With Me. To those of us who are football fans, this is an incredibly important song as it is lustily sung just before every FA Cup final and always produces floods of tears from hard-bitten footi fans.

There wasn’t too many hankies in evidence on Tuesday night but, hey, it was still a belting tune!

Monday, 5 January 2009

Saluting Bath's people of 2008

As readers of the Bath Chronicle will have seen in our New Year's Day edition we have just unveiled our first ever 'People Of The Year'

The idea was to honour the people, companies and organisations who we felt had made the most dramatic impact on Bath and the surrounding towns and villages during 2008.

Of course it would have been impossible to salute everyone from our great community but we think the 70 individuals, eight events, eight companies, 11 arts shows, six sports teams and six local bands we featured represents a pretty good snapshot of just some of the 'best of Bath' in 2008.

The initial reaction to our mini ‘New Year Honours’ from nominees implies the idea has been well received so our planning for the 2009 awards begins now. And the great thing is - every single citizen/company/sports team/band etc has a chance to be nominated!

For the record, the winners of our two biggest awards – the man and woman of the year – were Grenville Jones for his work in taking the City of Bath Male Choir to TV stardom and his fantastic achievements with the Golden-Oldies and Gitte Dawson for her brilliant leadership of the King Bladud Pigs project. They are pictured here.

Elsewhere we chose winners in various categories such as Bath Rugby, Ben Rushgrove, Great Western Wine, Carol Spalding, Mike Whitaker, Susie Wright, Nicholas Coombes, Ann Garner, Martin Tracy, Paul Mattausch-Burrows, The Volt, Charlie McDonnell, Dan Biggane and the irrepressible and much-admired Loraine Morgan-Brinkhurst.

There is no room to list all the runners-up but you can find them in the Chronicle or at our website ( and we truly believe all our 100 plus nominees were fully deserving of cheers.

The 2009 awards nominations are now open!