Thursday, 24 September 2009

Local newspapers are not biased lackeys. Honest!


Every editor of every local newspaper ever will at some point, (and usually quite frequently), be accused of being biased.

Because we live in a world where everybody has an opinion on everything, a lot of people assume that local newspapers (and their editors) are equally one-sided in their views and will do everything in their power to persuade others to follow it.

Well, guess what, – you are half right.

Yes, we journalists are as opinionated and passionate about causes as the next man but we are also a pretty professional bunch in the local media and we all subscribe to the view that the only bias we can ever exhibit is to our readers.

Opinions can be made in columns, blogs like this or in our Comment piece (and we are not shy of launching campaigns on issues we care about) but the news is 100 per cent untainted and totally free of bias.
Period.

I say this today because last Friday Bath (and the Bath Chronicle offices) had a visit from David Cameron.

The visit of the Tory leader provoked a lively debate on our website, www.thisisbath.co.uk, and it didn’t take long for someone to accuse my erstwhile opinion-free deputy Paul Wiltshire for being akin to a Tory lackey.

This, we found particularly amsuing, as a few weeks ago he had been called a Lib-Dem lackey as well. He is clearly therefore a lackey – albeit one who is awfully confused about his politics

I suffered the same at a previous newspaper I worked at in Tamworth, in the Midlands. That was a very tight Labour/Tory marginal seat and I was frequently told by the Labour lot that they knew that I was a Tory while the Tories equally said that they knew I was a Labour man. This to be proved that I was doing my job right – if all politicians think you’re against them, then you’re probably putting the interests of the readers above the parties. And that’s how it should be.

Returning to Mr Cameron, I can’t deny that I was very grateful to our local Conservative hopeful, Fabian Richter, for bringing his party leader into our office where I was able to chat to him about issues of concern in our industry and our community. He was kind, generous with his time and tried to meet and talk to as many of our staff as possible.

Even one or two dyed-in-the-wool Labourites (for yes, shock horror, our office is the same as every other in covering all political persuasions!) were quietly impressed I think.

I then went to hear Mr Cameron address the people of Bath at his very interesting and informative public meeting. He was put on the spot by local people on a wide variety of important issues and he handled himself extremely well to my eyes.

It says a lot, I think, about how politics has become so centerist that I mentioned to my colleague Paul (he’s the Tory/Lib-Dem lackey remember) that I think if you analysed what was said , you would not have heard anything from David Cameron that Tony Blair would not have said. I’m sure both Mr Blair and Mr Cameron would be pretty aghast by that comparison but the truth is there is a consensus in our politics today that means that sometimes it is different suit, different party – but the same words, themes and ideals.

Friday’s visit also showed that Bath is very much in the Tory’s sights. We already have a very good sitting MP I think (oh my God I’m being biased again!) but we also have a very strong Tory challenger too now (oh my God more bias!) and so next May/June's elections suddenly looks very interesting indeed ...

Please send all your accusations of bias in this article to s.holliday@bathchron.co.uk.

Beatles + Dan Brown = the power of the hype

OK, let me be the first to admit that I’m a bit of an advertising man’s dream because I’m a real sucker for a good hype.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, I joined the procession of people who headed for the record stores to buy copies of the newly re-mastered albums by The Beatles on the day of their release.

As is the wont of every serious music fan, I am a real admirer of all things Beatle and so I was mightily tempted by the re-release of all their classic albums in a new improved format. I therefore bought my copy of Revolver (just how good is Here, There and Everywhere?) and was most gratified when the charming assistant in HMV in Bath assured me I was one of many who had done the same on this much-hyped day.

So many others did the same, in fact, that a few days later the official album chart saw no fewer than four of these 60s written beauties in the top ten and a further seven in the top 50 charts. Amazing.

True, these are remarkable albums by a remarkable band and they do look and sound pretty nifty but the actual change to the CD quality isn’t that different to my uneducated ears and yet we have all fallen for this wonderful marketing hype.

But I didn’t learn my lesson for, yes, I was ‘hyping it up’ again the week after.

Along with many thousands of others, I had pre-ordered my copy of the latest Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol. This is the much-anticipated follow up to The Da Vinci Code, that ridiculous piece of entertaining religious hokum which sold more than 80 million copies worldwide.



It is easy (OK, it’s actually very easy) to take the proverbial Michael out of Dan Brown’s somewhat simplistic way of writing but there is no denying this guy is a fantastic story teller and I had been snared by all that advanced hype yet again forcing me to purchase on day of release.

I am sure that part of the desire to get things like this on the day they are launched even if it does mean I have the words ‘hype victim’ tattooed on my brow probably stems from my journalistic desire to always find out something before everybody else.

I love to hear other opinions and read reviews but there’s nothing like discovering something for yourself and sharing your views with others before they do the same to you.

Indeed, returning to music, I think perhaps some of the magic has gone out of buying new material in that tracks are now played on radios and TV stations and YouTube weeks before release to tempt purchasers.

I much preferred the old way when normally the first time you would actually get to hear a record was when you bought it yourself and you became part of the advertising campaign all on your own.

Right, can I start the hype about the next (not even yet written) Stranglers album? Thought not.

Would you want to judge babes or babies?



A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to be one of the judges at the Frome Agricultural and Cheese Show.

You may feel this is because of my expert knowledge about both agriculture and cheese. But your feeling would be wrong.
As a newspaper editor (and in this case it is with my hat on as editor of our sister papers, the Somerset Standard & Guardian), you are regarded as an independent person who can bring something fresh and unbiased to the judging table.

It is for this reason that over the years the words “judges include Sam Holliday” have been applied to a bewildering range of events.

I have judged (among others) dog shows, baby shows, short stories, rock bands, art competitions, firework posters, singers, young business people, newspapers, sportsmen and sportswomen, various personalities of the year awards and a somewhat embarrassing number of beauty competitions.

At each turn I’ve tried to be as independent and as bias-free as possible because I think as editor I am really there representing all our readers and therefore I have to be as impartial as possible and just look for the best in the various categories put in front of me.

I have to say that although it is a great honour to judge, it is not as easy as you think and particularly when you find yourself in the very dubious position of judging people by their looks.

Over the years I have helped to select a Miss Bath, a Miss Tamworth, a Miss Sutton Coldfield and a Miss Walsall. This may make me sound like an appalling letch, but I assure you I’m far from being so.

I’ve always been invited because we’ve tended to publicise such events and our ‘reward’ is a seat on the judging panel. The irony is, I sort of think this thing is all a bit outdated and I’m in the bizarre situation of feeling quite embarrassed at times in not knowing quite where to look . . .


In Bath, of course, all the young ladies who entered tended to be very articulate and intelligent and so we were able to judge people as a whole, as it should be, but I remember with a wince one of the years when I judged Miss Walsall, where, shall I say, there were more tattoos on view than GCSEs with oen or two of the ladies. I can still recall one horrible moment when I was in the men’s toilets during the interval and a very large man with less hair than a snooker ball said to me: “You’re one of the judges aren’t you? My girlfriend never got through the first round – are you saying she’s ugly?” The answer (of course) was I didn’t – but what could I do about the rest of those judges apart from recommend a trip to Specsavers?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Norway - a land of magic where all fjords lead to home



Last week I went on a five day whistle-stop trip to Norway. Here is my lengthy report on a trip to remember. It appeared in the Bath Chronicle's Travel Section on Thursday, September 3.

This may be something of an admission of my lack of journalistic skill but I have to tell you straight away that I’m going to find it very difficult to do justice to the wonderful country of Norway in this one article. However long it is!

If I was to tell you that Fjord Norway is breathtaking, awe-inspiring and unforgettable you may well feel they are just old clich├ęd words but the truth is they perfectly fit the bill for describing this magical part of the world just across the North Sea.

I went on a whistle stop five day tour of Fjord Norway, which is on the western coast of that country, and I saw many sights that will stay with me forever as well as experiencing the sheer majesty of nature.

And all just a couple of hours away from Heathrow . . .

During the course of my somewhat frenetic trip – and I would sincerely recommend that if anyone follows my footsteps you take it at a much slower pace – I stayed in great hotels, saw ‘genuine’ Vikings fight, ate reindeer, goat and large quantities of pickled herring, visited incredible museums and churches, traversed the country by planes, (an unbelievable) train and automobiles and got to know some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met while on my travels.

In addition Norway (unlike many of our Mediterranean countries) is one of those places that still loves the British and British tourists and the one thing I heard time and time again was “if only more Brits were to come here…”. That is not something I expect you hear too often in Falaraki and Benidorm.

The only way I can give you at least a glimpse of my experiences is in a mini travelogue below.

This can only however be the appetiser, if you want the bountiful main course and the sumptuous pudding, you are just going to have to go there yourself.

And, trust me, you will thank me for that piece of advice.

Here then is five days in Fjord Norway through the eyes of a hugely impressed Englishman.

DAY ONE (Planes and Vikings)

We flew from Heathrow to Oslo in a flight that took less than two hours before then taking another internal flight to Haugesund, in the heart of Fjord Norway. This is known as the homeland of the Viking kings and we were taken straight to Avladsnes, which is seen as their spiritual home. It includes an interactive museum and a splendid Viking farm complete with lusty looking Viking fighters who I’m sure would have looked completely at home 2,000 years ago.









Let’s face it, the Vikings don’t get too good a press over here what with all that pillaging and stuff but what we learned on our visit here was how accomplished they were, how intriguing their belief system was and how amazing it was such a small amount of people were able to conquer much of northern Europe.
I tentatively asked one of the many amazing guides we had (they were all, uniformly, superb) if Norwegians could be proud of the Vikings considering they had plundered so many countries in days of old. His reply? “I suppose we are aware of that but we still feel a little bit of pride in their achievements. After all, I gather you did something similar with the British Empire . . .”


Ouch.
Suitably chastened by this, we then enjoyed a splendid meal in a Viking settlement which included a goat wrap and which left us feeling suitably full – which became a problem when we were then put on an extremely un-Viking like speedboat and whisked off at high speeds on the high seas to the first of our many great hotels.


This was the Rica Hotel Maritime in Haugesund, a beautifully-appointed hotel on the waterfront.


From this base we were able to investigate the town a little bit and discover something which everyone needs to know before they go – this is not necessarily a cheap destination. I bought two pints of beer which cost thirteen hundred kroner which translates at about £6.50 a pint.
Suffice to say we didn’t see many drunken people.

DAY TWO (The food was deer)

This was a hectic and very enjoyable day where we saw both the tranquillity and staggering beauty of Norway – often at the same time.

We kicked it off with a visit to the delightful, historic fishing town of Skudeneshavn which looked almost like a toy town as all the houses seemed immaculately perfect and there were hardly any people around. Before we visited a bigger city on our last day it was noticeable how quiet everywhere was and it is like living in a city like Bath where only about 10 per cent of the population use the facilities. There is a beauty in that stillness that struck us all.


From Skudeneshavn we then headed for our first Fjord cruise. A Fjord (in case you’re wondering – as I did) is a large inland water area created by glacial movements hundreds of years ago and what it looks like to our eyes are long, deep, beautiful rivers surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and the freshest of fresh air.
Toddling along on our cruise from Akrafjordtunet we saw some spectacular scenery and the most dramatic waterfall I’ve ever seen in my life (called Langfoss). The water flowed down the side of the mountain at a speed of knots and was so pure our boat went close in and we were able to drink straight from the fall.
Water had never tasted so good.


A splendid traditional lunch of cured meats followed and we then headed to our next major area HardangerFjord which saw us spend our second night in an astonishing hotel, the Hotel Ullensvang in Lofthus.



Our one night here was unforgettable. Apparently Queen Sonja of Norway spends time there every year and everyone else will feel like royalty from the moment they enter. The rooms are great, the food impressive and varied (this is where I tried my first and possibly last reindeer!) but the piece de resistance was the astonishing views over the Fjords which were, to quote our American cousins, “to die for”. You can see the image from my bedroom window on here.








DAY THREE (Cider and Kaisers)

Another day to remember as we travelled through HardangerFjord visiting lovely, unspoilt villages, splendid and consistently surprising museums and then a juice and cider house where, purely out of homage to the south west, I indulged in some magnificent fresh-as-a-daisy cider which certainly made the afternoon very “relaxed”.

As we tasted our tipple we were treated to a folk dance and music by three charming teenagers, one of who I’m sure I will always think of with awe as she spoke better English in a better English accent than any of us. She told me that at school they were given the choice to speak English either with an American or English accent – suffice to say she made the right decision!

On the night we drove high into the mountains to spend time at the Stalheim Hotel, a hotel seeped in history which has burned down a couple of times (90 per cent of the houses in Norway are made of wood so this is no surprise perhaps!) and has the somewhat dubious pleasure of having a monument to German Kaiser Wilhelm who loved the spot. I don’t think there are many things I would agree with the Kaiser on but you can see where the love comes from because the views high up in the mountain over the valley were eye-watering.

DAY FOUR (Train up a mountain)

Every boy loves a good train journey and on this day we went on one of the great train journeys of the world. The Flam Railway takes its passengers on to the steepest line in northern Europe, a journey which takes you 900 metres up to the top of a mountain at a gradient of 55 per cent. It is a train journey which you will never forget and has views that probably no other train in the world can match. At the very top we were allowed to briefly get off the train and stand beneath an incredible gushing waterfall.

Beat that.


We visited a number of other interesting places on the day including the delightful village of Undredal, an authentic working village populated mainly by goats and their herders, one of whom (who appeared to be dressed as Casey Jones) serenaded us as we ate his goat’s cheese. Norway, you see, is as quirky as it is beautiful.


Following our train journey we felt as if we stepped out of one magical world back to harsh normality as we entered the only city stop over on our trip – Bergen. It is a city with only 200,000 inhabitants but it is like going into a different galaxy compared to where we had been – albeit one within spitting distance of the magic lands.

Our night stop off on this occasion was the Clarion Collection Hotel Havnekontoret which as befitted the surroundings was a fantastic modern hotel which was stylish, contemporary and classy.

DAY FIVE (Culture and climbs)

Our whistle-stop tour finished with a highly enjoyable day in Bergen which included an intriguing trip to the remarkable Hanseatic museum (a UNESCO world heritage site) and then a trip on a funicular (a cross between a train and a cable car) to have lunch on Mount Floien and look down on the fantastic vista that is Bergen.


There was still time before we headed to the airport to visit the home of the composer Edvard Grieg for the culture-vultures to lap up and then before you could say “can I have some more reindeer please?”, we were heading home.

Overall, our five day trip had many highlights and frankly if I had to list them all there would be no space in this paper for anything else so perhaps the only thing I can say to you all is that if my words have in any way tempted you then please make your way to the travel agents (or to the computer in the corner of the room if that’s your preferred option) and start to find out for yourself.

To be honest when I told some people I was going to Norway they were a bit surprised and wondered what was there.

Well my friends, magic is there.

Now go and find it.

  • Our trip was organised by Innovation Norway (www.visitnorway.co.uk) and concentrated on the Fjord area and Bergen (see www.fjordnorway.com and www.visitbergen.com).
    The hotels we stayed in were (as mentioned in ‘day one’ above) The Rica Hotel Maritime, Haugesund (www.hotelmaritime.no), the Hotel Ullensvang on day two (www.hotel-ullensvang.no), the Stalheim Hotel (pictured top right) on day three (www.visitvoss.no) and the Clarion Hotel Havnekontoret in Bergen on day four (ww.choicehotels.no).
    Details of the rail journey we undertook is at www.flaamsbana.no while the Viking museum is at www.vikingkinmgs.com. More information on the various areas featured an be found at www.visithaugesund.no, www.akrafjordtunet.no and www.hardangerfjord.com

Heathcliff, Darcy and Fruit and Nut cases

Like I suspect many of you, I spent three very pleasant hours of my bank holiday weekend lapping up the latest television “classics-in-a- nutshell” version of Wuthering Heights. This was a first class production with an excellent script and some superb acting. I enjoyed it immensely.
Apart from one thing.
And that is, despite my best endeavours, I couldn’t stop thinking as I was watching the programme about a somewhat quirky big-haired lady singer from the 1980s.
As I’m sure many of you will recall, the enigmatic Kate Bush had a massive number one hit with the song Wuthering Heights and because that tune is so much a part of my cultural subconscious, I was just waiting for the line “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home, I’m so co-oo-oo-ld, let me in-a your window. ” Which never arrived.
Apart from completely over- romanticising Heathcliff (who was actually somewhat of a bad egg) this song is just one of many examples of what I call P.C.R.C. (Popular Culture Rewriting Classics).
One of the best known examples of this came in the BBC adaptation Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. One of the scenes – described by the Guardian as “one of the most unforgettable moments in TV history” – sees Mr Darcy walk out of a lake with his clothes stuck to his body in a way that finally convinces Lizzie Bennett that he may well be the man for her (well that, and the enormous house she’s just seen that he lives in!)
I can imagine a lot of people – mainly female – who hadn’t read the book then flicking through the pages to see how Jane Austen described the scene in her usual, understated, subtle way. Well, I’m sure they would have been disappointed to find it didn’t exist – it was all in the TV script only.
And of course it’s not just in TV and film. I once heard it described that the definition of an intellectual is someone who hears the classic Italian song Oh Sole Mio and isn’t tempted in the last line to shout “Just one Cornetto, give it to me”.
Equally, Tchaikovsky might be a bit confused sitting on his heavenly cloud if he meets someone from our generation who says, “Oh you’re the guy who wrote the tune for Everyone’s A Fruit And Nut Case”.
And, if you were to ask most people if they know Anton Dvorak’s music, they may say they’ve never heard any of it. Ask them to whistle the tune for the Hovis adverts and they’ll realise they have.
So, Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak may be puzzled for being remembered for things they didn’t realise they’d written, but it’s the same with quotes. The character Sherlock Homes never said “elementary, my dear Watson”, while football star Jimmy Greaves never uttered the phrase “it’s a funny old game”– until, ironically, he did so because people told him that he did!
As for Humphrey Bogart, he never said the phrase “play it again, Sam.” This one is particularly poignant to me because it seems to be the stock phrase people say to me on hearing my name. (It could be worse, however. I used to organise a rock festival in the Midlands and I was once treated to a chorus by a band onstage of “We’re all going on a Sammy Holliday” to Cliff’s most famous tune).
But returning to Wuthering Heights, I do think that even if popular culture does sometimes add just a bit of extra spice, if it helps make people interested in the classics it has to be a good thing. So Emily, say a big thank you to Kate . . .