Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Harry Patch - Great Britain has lost a great Briton

(This is the leader column I wrote for the Bath Chronicle fot its July 30 edition about Harry Patch, the 111-year-old ex soldier from Bath who died at the weekend)

The remarkable outpouring of respect and love for Bathonian Harry Patch, who died at the weekend, is an example of the best of British reactions to the best of British people.

The former Combe Down soldier – who was the oldest man in Britain until his sad passing – was a man whose humility and generosity of spirit touched millions throughout the world.

It is a telling example of the influence he had that the tributes were led by the Queen, Prince Charles and the Prime Minister who all saluted this modest but exceptional man.

The death of Harry marks the end of a sad chapter in British life. He was the last surviving Briton who had fought in the First World War but he was never a “gung ho” type of serviceman and, indeed, the challenging words he said about the whole issue of war and peace should remain as his most important legacy.

We also believe there should be a physical legacy as well.

We must never forget the incredible sacrifices our fellow countrymen went through in two world wars and as the last survivor of that first conflict, we must make sure there is a permanent tribute to Harry in the city he grew up in.

It was for this reason that we came up with the idea of having a street named after Harry – preferably in the new SouthGate centre which will open in the year he passed on. We were delighted to see that many civic leaders immediately responded to our call and although SouthGate’s street names may already be cast in stone, we still hope there may be an opportunity to do something there or elsewhere within our city or in his beloved Combe Down.

To have a street named after Harry – or even a statue put up in Bath – would not be to celebrate war but would be to honour all those who fought in the trenches or latterly on the beaches of Normandy to try to keep our country free.

Harry did not go to war to seek glory and he never sought the acclaim that followed him in his latter years but he truly deserves our public thanks now.
Rest in peace Harry – for no-one has earned that rest more.

Social kissing = social embarrassment

Sometimes I find it very awkward being a British male.

Take kissing.

I’m not talking about romantic or family kisses – I am talking about social kissing. Do you or don’t you?

Before I came down to Bath, nearly four years ago, this wasn’t an issue – they just don’t ‘do’ social kissing in my part of the Midlands. Or at least they didn’t do it with me.

In this city, however, I soon saw that kissing is far more common in social occasions but the problem I have is I never know when it is right to do so.

Will the ‘kissee’ be offended if I do – or offended if I don’t?

At the start of my adventure into lip-puckering contact, I probably looked horrified as people came towards me face-to-face. I guess I thought at times I was going to be head butted rather than have a smacker on my cheek and that is somewhat off putting.
I did, slowly, get into the drift, but last week, after socially kissing at least three charming ladies and wondering afterwards “Oh blimey, should I have done that?” , I started to think I would retire my lips from social occasions again.

I put my dilemma on Facebook and received a number of not terribly helpful responses, which showed that nobody really understands these things, so I did a bit of internet research to try and see if there was an official etiquette for the embarrassed UK male.

The most amusing site I found – which provided such fascinating nuggets as the history of Paris ‘four kiss greeting’ and the fact that in Belgium, if someone is at least 10 years older than you, you can kiss them three times as opposed to the traditional one, there was a lovely description of the awkwardness we Brits find in these situations.

It said that as a nation we are shy of physical contact and would prefer to opt for a handshake or a nod.

It also wisely told foreign readers to remember that if a British person says “How are you”, they absolutely do not want you to tell them.

So I’ve therefore decided that I’m going to return to my British stereotype and avoid PDA (that’s public display of affection, to the uninitiated) to all apart from a couple of people for whom such non-contact would be impossible (hello Lorraine).

Of course, I then face the ultimate horror of going in with my manly handshake and being greeted by an outstretched cheek and not knowing what to do with it.

My, oh my, aren’t these things confusing? I blame the French.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Did they 'lie me to the moon' all those years ago?

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Some people can answer this question instantly and often seem to recall in great detail staring up out of a pram or, in one case that I read, being in their mother’s womb.

I call these people fantasists.

For me, sadly, my earliest memories are only around the age of 5 or 6.

The first was being chosen to be one of the three kings at my school’s Nativity and wondering, in my own infantile way, why the baby Jesus wanted this thing I gave him called ‘Frankincense’ (pictured here) when I was sure he would have preferred toys.

I can also recall saying to my fellow two kings (Nigel Postings and Lawrence Green) that we would one day live in a house together – as you do at that age. I barely ever spoke to ‘King One’ Lawrence again but Nigel went on to be best man at my wedding, so our early Royal connections clearly worked.

Anyway . . . my second earliest memory is being got up out of bed by my parents to watch the first moon landing – the 40th anniversary of which we are celebrating this week.

For somebody with a vivid imagination, this was a source of great wonderment to me. I remember for years afterwards thinking how on earth could a man walk on that little ball in the sky when to me a trip into town on the bus was an epic journey.

Of course, as childhood wide-eyed innocence gives way to latter-day cynicism, I then went through my “it was all a giant hoax phase”. Now I’m not a great believer in conspiracy theories, be they about Princess Diana, JFK or even Michael Jackson (although I did say even at the time that it wasn’t MJ at that O2 press conference pictured left) but the more I tentatively investigated the moon landings the more I started to have my doubts.

Fuelled no doubt by that highly watchable 1978 movie Capricorn One about a faked trip to Mars, I started to wonder whether the whole thing was just a political stunt to get one over on the Russians during the height of the Cold War.

I quoted the evidence about the flag not moving, the mystery of the shadows and the fact that the ‘moon rock’ was apparently identical to material found in Antarctica, to query the whole mission. And it seems I’m not alone – this is a ‘biggie’ in the hoax/conspiracy movement.

Well, I’m pleased to say, that my doubting Thomas phase is now over. Although science and scientific discovery is not usually high on my agenda of interest, I’ve watched a number of TV programmes about the moon landings of late and experienced much of the wide-eyed naivety I felt as that five year old.

Yes, I could still argue with some conviction that $30 billion would have been far, far better spent on ending world poverty but the truth is, I think we as a planet should have oodles of pride in this amazing achievement. Will it ever be repeated? Will man ever walk again on the surface of the moon? Maybe not – but at least we can say “been there, done that” about it.

One final point about the whole expedition was raised by the splendid Nicky Campbell who I wake up to every morning on my beloved Radio Five Live. He said he remembered as a child watching the moon landing pictures and being disappointed by the ‘photo quality’. He thought Star Trek did interplanetary exploration films much better than the real thing!

This actually got me thinking the opposite. After I’d heard him talk I pondered on just how incredible it is that we managed to get pictures from the moon at all. After all shouldn’t we impressed (or depressed?) that we managed to get live moon pics and yet half of Bath can’t even pick up Channel Five or Freeview?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Book me into the book clubs

Tuesday turned out to be one of those manic, ‘where-did-the-day-go’ days when I never got to leave the office until after 7pm and, even then, I knew I had left behind me a lot of work that I should have really completed before heading out.

In normal circumstances I would happily have done so but I was determined on this night not to leave late as I had a very important date. It was a date for the second official meeting of the new book club I had recently signed up to join.

Although I hope I could never be considered “bookish” (although isn’t it strange that this should be considered an insult)? I am a greedy, almost insatiable, reader and I love to lose myself in a good book. (Or even a bad book if there are none other available).

However, unlike a TV programme or a film, which you often watch with other people, one of the frustrating aspects of reading is not having people consuming the ‘product’ at the same time to discuss it with. And that is why I was so keen to take the plunge and join a book club.

The one I have signed up for has been tentatively set up in the village where I live and although there were only four of us the first time (and this crashed by a whopping 25 percent on Tuesday!), I already feel that this new chapter in my book reading journey is one that I’m going to happily stick with until ‘The End’.

When they first formed, book clubs seemed a strange idea, to me – a sort of extended English A level tutorial and something I didn’t think could work. But, I’d heard enough people say how much they enjoy them that I thought I would give one a go . . .

The first thing I can say after these two meetings is that such clubs really do broaden the (reading) horizon. I like to think I have an eclectic taste in reading matter but the truth is most of the books I read tend to be what could be described as modern fiction, particularly that designed for the adult male. In all honesty, they are mainly ‘sophisticated’ comedies or thrillers that often invol+ve destroying Nazis.

I do read a fair bit of non-fiction as well but once again the subject matter is quite similar with football, Nazi-bashing, music and male angst featuring heavily!

But, the two books I have so far consumed in my new club have not had a single swastika in sight.

Both, (the first a teenage novel by Jennifer Donnelly and the second, an Orange Award winner by Rose Tremain) are books I probably would never had picked up off the shelf but I’ve certainly got something from each of them – not least the fascinating talks they provoked with my fellow book club members at the end of the process. I enjoyed the debate as much as the book (even more in the case of the not-that-great Jennifer Donnelly one to be honest) and I guess that is the point.

We’ve already chosen another book that I’d previously never heard of for next month and this, if anything, is making me read even more of my own choices now too so I too will have something to bring to the party.

As a further bonus, on mentioning my entry to the world of book clubs to my journalistic colleagues here at Bath, we’ve now decided to form our own (obviously highly-intellectual) club which kicks off next week and which means I will have to read another book I would not have chosen before. They say reading broadens the mind – well it seems book clubs are set to do the same.

There are already a number of clubs in and around Bath for fellow potential readers to sign up for and if my experience is anything to go by, I would say just go for it. This is a great way to meet new people, meet new authors and discover new fictional treats.

Oh and if you want a recommendation of a good men’s-orientated book about Nazis, then I’m your man!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Bath may hate the gulls - but I love brainy pigeons

As regular readers of the Bath Chronicle's letters pages will know, there are many things that make the good people of this fine city very angry.

Issues around transport, planning, cycling, litter, rugby or even God divide our letter writers totally and many debates can go on for months.

There is, however, one victim of Chronicle letter-writing-rage that rarely gets any support at all. And that is the city’s famous (or rather infamous) gulls.

The latest edition of the Chronicle (July 9) for example has two different letters on the subject and it is fair to say neither writer exactly recommends the gulls for local citizens of the year. These poor feathered chaps seem about as popular as well, bird flu, with most inhabitants of this city.

My main problem with them is not that I'm woken up at ridiculous hours by these birds (as many people are), but that I suffer from what appears to be the city’s
11th commandment, the one that reads:

'Whenever thou washeth thy car, within 30 minutes one of the flying squad will have depositeth their load on thy bonnet'.

It is uncanny how they know that I’ve been to the car wash. But they do. They really do.

Now, I’m not about to defend these gulls (and please note they are not actually seagulls for we have no sea) but I did get thinking at the weekend that one of their nearest cousins might possibly just be the most intelligent creature on this planet.

Now allow me to explain . . .

Let’s imagine that I ask you to meet me at 9am tomorrow at Bath’s new bus station. All I will tell you is that we are going on a bus journey to an unknown destination. I will ask you to bring no money, no maps, no compasses and no other form of navigation.

I will then fill the coach with hundreds of other people, black out the windows then drive you to the coast, put you on a ferry and then travel deep into Europe. At some point I will then throw open the doors and say: “Now find your way home without looking at any road signs or talking to anyone. And do it quickly because we are timing you.”

It would be a pretty hopeless task, wouldn’t it? But not, oh reader, if you are a homing pigeon.

Probably because there is no football on at the moment, I’m spending far too much time thinking about odd things and having seen a few pigeons fly over my house on Saturday, I got to wondering how on earth these gull-esque types can be routinely dropped in the middle of nowhere and still get home for tea?

I did a bit of research which made me even more confused (it talked about them using the ‘Earth’s magnetic field’ or the ‘spatial distribution of atmospheric odours’, whatever the heck that means), but it seems nobody really knows how a pigeon does it. Especially as we all presume they have a very small brain (i.e. if anybody calls you bird-brain it is not usually a compliment.)

So is it just possible that Jack Duckworth was right all along and pigeons might just be more intelligent in their own way than the average Nobel Prize winner?

Apparently not everyone agrees with my latest bizarre thesis about these underrated flying machines because I saw an authoritative list of the top 10 most intelligent animals/birds and it was dominated by monkeys and the odd dolphin and pig.
Birds were nowhere to be seen and only the African grey parrot seemed to pass the animal IQ test – but, hey, I sure would like to see them fly back to their continent . . .

So the next time you, or I, curse the sticky deposit of a gull or indeed a pigeon, maybe, just maybe, we should think again. They must just be spreading some genes of the most incredible intelligence on Earth.

Or am I just gull-ible?

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

My top ten acts from Glastonbury

Here is the top ten bands I saw over the Glastonbury weekend (as printed in theBath Chronicle and Somerset Standard and Guardian of July 2...)

Glastonbury is many things to many people but it is, and always must be, about the music first and foremost. Here, then, is my opinion of the top 10 acts that really got my wellies wobbling . . .

1 Bruce Springsteen. I know this is a bit obvious, but he really was magnificent. For my full review of a peerless set from a peerless performer see elsewhere.
2. The Gaslight Anthem. This is a band everyone should get into – and probably now will. They hail from Springsteen’s New Jersey home and combine his gutsy rock passion with a Clash-style musical approach to make for a brilliant cocktail. They were sensational – even more so when Springsteen unexpectedly turned up on stage for their greatest song, The 59 Sound. Check them out. Now.
3. Hugh Cornwell. A truly stunning show of great solo and Strangler material from Box’s finest. The old fella went down an absolute storm with a far rockier set than the ‘acoustic stage’ position suggested. Top class.
4. Glasvegas. I love this band and they really delivered their dark, feedback-dominated sound in style to the delight of their fans. Truly the next headlining big stadium act. You read it here first.
5. Echo And The Bunnymen. Faced with Blur or The Prodigy on the two main stages as Sunday night headliners, I instead chose to go to the John Peel tent to see indie heroes Echo And The Bunnymen – and I definitely made the right choice. They were brilliant, doing the whole of their Ocean Rain album from start to finish and then a clutch of singles. The Cutter was possibly THE song of the weekend for me. Amazing.
6. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s. A real discovery for me. I had only heard a couple of their tracks but decided to check them out – and they were pure quality. I don’t listen to nearly enough bands with female-singers but I will make an exception here. A pleasant surprise.
7. The Specials. As good as you could hope for despite front man Terry Hall still looking like the most miserable man in music. I thought Ghost Town would be the song we would all remember but even that was eclipsed by A Message To You Rudi and Do Nothing which were both wonderful.
8. Bloc Party. A punchy, original band who produced a great, uplifting set late on Friday night.
9.F****d Up. My son Oli, recommended these and they were great fun. Part of the semi-screamo enclave but with a sense of humour most of them don’t possess and a superb front man.
10. Friendly Fires. One of the joys of a festival is taking time out to see a band you have vaguely heard about but wouldn’t normally watch. This was such a case – and I am glad I made the effort. Funky, modern pop with attitude.
11 Spinal Tap. I know this is a top 10 but anyone who knows anything about Spinal Tap would know you are ALLOWED to go up to 11 with them. OK, they weren’t that great but I am just pleased to have seen Nigel, David, Derek and a nameless drummer (!) in the flesh as well having the chance to sing along about pink torpedoes.
Sam Holliday

Bruce Springsteen - my review of a show that was born to win

You may want to attempt reading this - but you may need a strong stomach if you don't like New Jersey's finest. This is my review of Glastonbury headliner Bruce Springsteen as printed in tomorrow's Bath Chronicle et al...

When you are a rock star as big as Bruce Springsteen you only ever usually play to the converted. Every time Springsteen normally takes to the stage on one of his many epic tours he can be confident that everyone there has paid large sums of money because they want to watch, listen and sing along with The Boss. They are on his side – they are his people.

But, as it is for everyone else, Glastonbury is oh so different.

As all the tickets were sold before Springsteen was even confirmed on the bill, he must have known he was facing something very rare for him – the musical equivalent of a sporting ‘away match’ where not everyone was necessarily a worshipper at the altar of Bruce.

Could he cope? Could he entertain and delight a crowd who, for the most part, wouldn’t even know any of his material?

Could he heck.

Springsteen was simply magnificent on that balmy Saturday evening and for the 160 minutes he dominated the Pyramid stage, he gave a performance of passion, exuberance, exhilaration and musical majesty. I am certain he will have satisfied all his true fans (and I speak as someone who has been a devotee for 30 years) and, I imagine, he will have converted many more ‘newbies’ in both the park and in TV land with a staggeringly energetic show that belied the singer’s 59 years.

One of the things that really impressed me was that he also produced a totally uncompromising set. He could have easily relied on better known tracks such as Born In The USA and Hungry Heart to help him through but Springsteen ignored them and gave a fully rounded performance which included not only some of his traditional toe-tappers but a few of the more delicate, challenging and less well known moments from his amazing repertoire. A repertoire remember, that spans nearly 40 years and has yielded 120 million album sales worldwide.

As an example of his approach, on his brilliant new studio album Working On A Dream there are many wonderful, poppy singalongs (This Life, Kingdom of Days, Surprise, Surprise) but Bruce ditched them all and instead played an 11-minute version of the more complex and less immediate Outlaw Pete from that same album. It took guts in a way – but Springsteen has always had those.

So, acknowledged classics like Thunder Road, The River and a delightfully elongated Dancing In The Dark sat alongside lesser known beauties such as Waiting On The Sun and The Ghost Of Tom Joad, and there was even a stunning unreleased track, Hard Times, written in the mid-19th century no less which resonated about the economic situation that we live in in a typically Springsteen-esque socially aware way.

With Bruce it is not just about the songs however. It is about the whole performance and once again he showed what an amazing front man he is. Out of the words of some, his powerful exhorting of the crowd to mirror his musical passion might have sounded cheesy, but with Springsteen you sincerely believe he sincerely believes it. The man does not have a cynical bone in his body and the way he struts across the stage with a smile on his face and a burning spirit in his soul, shows that this is a man at the very top of his game.

OK, I’m sure not everybody ‘got it’ and that’s fine. But for those who did, I’m sure they came away knowing, as I did, that we had been in the presence of a truly great and inspirational man who is, was and always will be the embodiment of the very best that rock and roll has to offer.

Put simply, Glastonbury saw why many of us believe that Bruce Springsteen is the greatest living American.

The Boss bossed it.

A born again Glastonbury believer! How I saw the event . . .

This time last week I wrote about the mixture of excitement and trepidation I had about facing my first ever Glastonbury festival.

Was I, despite my immensely youthful appear, too old for all this palava? Would I get my tent up? And would I need to spend the entire weekend with my legs crossed to avoid the toilets from hell?

Well, the answers to those questions in order are no, I wasn’t too old, yes, pop up tents really do pop up (but are strangely reluctant about popping down!) and no I did manage to use the ‘facilities’ – and I’m still alive to tell the story.

Oh but what a story it was.

Put simply, I discovered what thousands have already done in that Glastonbury is a truly remarkable experience which I could recommend to music fans and non-music fans alike. I have now become one of those boring people who discovers things years after everyone else and then waxes lyrical while they’re silently muttering ‘yes we know, in fact we’ve known for 30 years’.

Yes, I have gone from being a Glastonbury virgin this time last week to a born again Glastonbury evangelist today. Hallelujah, praise the Lord – and praise Michael Eavis.

I have been in many large gatherings – sporting, musical, cultural, political etc. – but never have I felt such a sense of community with strangers as I did last weekend.

It was the kind of place where no-one cares how old you are, what you do, what you look like, what race or background you come from or what your views are on politics, religion or David Beckham’s haircut. It is an incredible leveller – a classless community with hardly any sense of hierarchy or corporate awareness and it all feels like an unreal, almost Utopian gathering.

It is hard to pinpoint my happiest memory of the weekend but I think the general sense that a wide diversity of people can come together in often uncomfortable circumstances and form a special bond is what impressed me the most.

Also getting a big thumps up is the peacefulness of the event – I’ve never felt safer or less intimidated among strangers in my life. As an example I was with my son Oli, just 15, and having quickly established the vibe, I felt no qualms for his safety and let him disappear for hours on end on his own. I can genuinely say I have felt more intimidated in a pub with two chavs at a nearby table than in a series of fields with 180,000 strangers.

And what also brought a smile to my face were the huge amount of examples of British eccentricity on view. It was almost impossible to look silly and almost impossible to hear anybody ‘tut’ because there was a real sense of live and let live. You felt that no-one was judging you because everyone was paddling the same oddly-shaped canoe.

Coming away from Glastonbury I started to feel what millions must have felt in the past – a strange sense of anti-climax. It was a magical weekend with unbelievably good music and to return to the harsh reality of the real world was something of a let down.

Still, at least in the real world, the toilets flush.