Thursday, 30 December 2010

So how are our Christmas traditions faring up??

This time last year, in my Bath Chronicle column, I wrote about the fact that everything about Christmas revolves around the word “tradition”.

Thanks to the pagan god of tradition at this time of year we do things we don’t want to do, we eat things we don’t want to eat and we see people we don’t want to see. And we justify it all by saying “well, it’s Christmas…”.

And so, because I am at heart a traditional chap, I will do what I did in this column/blog last year and review afresh how well our “traditions” are holding up. So yes, I have created a new tradition. To use this column to review our traditions. In a traditional kind of way. So which tradition is safe? Which is under treat? And have those evil, food-of-the-devil sprouts survived another 12 months? Read on…

Christmas cards – As regular readers will know I was seriously worried about this tradition dying out a few weeks ago. My Christmas card intake had fallen as dramatically as Gordon Brown’s this year and I thought our obsession with “witty” emails full of dancing gnomes with colleagues’ faces on them might be killing this tradition off totally. But in the last week or so leading up to the big day I noticed far more cards flying around. Maybe the fact that many shops were selling them so cheap helped but the cards definitely rallied. Hang in there, cards! Tradition survival rating ** (but looked like a single star just a couple of weeks ago)

Christmas dinner – Still as popular as ever from what I can see despite the obvious drawbacks that:

a) turkeys take forever to cook/thaw/slaughter;
b) sprouts;
c) the average dinner has more calories than four bucket loads of lard;
d) most people prefer curries.
Something tells me this could be one of the last traditions to die out.
Tradition survival rating *****

Carol services/Nativity – I said last year these were doing remarkably well and I repeat that again. From the big high-profile services like the Chronicle’s own abbey service through to the smallest Nativity in the smallest primary school we have been belting out “no crib for a bed” and admiring four-year-olds playing the role of fifth shepherd from the left for many weeks. One thing though – whatever happened to door-to-door carol singers? They appear to have gone the same way as door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen. Were they perchance related? Tradition survival rating ***** (but door to door singers just *)
Christmas presents – The ghost of Christmas present seems to be very much alive and expensive. This year’s big hit, apparently, was The Kindle where you get the chance to read a book on a tiny computer screen. Instead of, err, in a much cheaper, much better presented thing called “a book”. One thing that helped the bank-balance-killing-present-buying-frenzy this year is that many shops decided that they would have their Boxing Day sales in about November – and never stopped. That isn’t to say we won’t all have spent far too much and will be forced to hide from the postman when the credit card bills arrive but it does mean the tradition started all those years ago by three wise men on camels remains strong. Although, of course, that tradition hasn’t been totally kept up. After all, when was the last time you bought your auntie some myrrh?
Tradition survival rating ****

Santa – The old fella had another strong year. He appeared in so many places at so many times (magic isn’t it?) and then proceeded to have a cracking Christmas night by all accounts. Nowadays, you can track his movements online but knowing the fast pace he must have to do on December 25 I hope the speed cameras weren’t also monitoring him. Rumour has it he is now enjoying a well-earned break looking at his Kindle and thinking “how on earth is this better than a book?”
Tradition survival rating ****

Beating the Aussies to win the Ashes – A new tradition but what a fantastic one! Our woeful England football team were a national embarrassment in the summer but our cricketers have put a sporting smile on all our faces. Well done England. And, ahem, South Africa. Tradition survival rating: let’s hope it’s a *****

Christmas TV – Aaah. the biggie. For most people Christmas doesn’t start until you see the festive listings and there is no doubt that many people will have watched more TV over the past few days than they will for the next few weeks. By and large if my office is anything to go by the feeling was one of being “underwhelmed”.
However, there were some highlights.

Upstairs Downstairs was definitely one of them – a sumptuous, feel-good three-parter which looked and felt as good as you hoped it would. Populated by beautiful people in a beautiful setting, it was at times quite, well, beautiful and even though the plot had as many holes as Jim Royle’s vest it was still a triumph. Elsewhere the new David Walliams/Matt Lucas comedy Come Fly With Me had its funny moments, The Royle Family had real charm and the soaps had the usual cheery mixture of fights, break-ups and ludicrous plot lines. So no change there then. Perhaps the biggest festive treat came from an unexpected source – a series of short movies on Sky called Christmas Crackers where well-known comedians were given 15-minute shorts to tell semi-autobiographical stories about the festive period. Catherine Tate’s and Bath’s own Julia Davis were particularly good as was Stephen Fry’s charming recounting of a story he told at the Forum in Bath about the way he tried to get a young, vulnerable boy to take the rap for him for a sweet-buying infringement at his school. Lovely.
Tradition survival rating *** (Still important – but could do better)

Jesus – The reason for the season put in another decent shift this year. Attempts to totally marginalise him from the booze-gifts-and-family-rows frenzy didn’t quite succeed and He remains a key player at this time of year. And I never received a single “winterval” card either. Progress!
Tradition survival rating *****

This column looking at traditions – Well it is now in its second year – and it is going strong. Will it survive another 12 months? Will this become a tradition as strong as the Top of the Pops Special or as weak as the Russ Abbot Christmas Show? Only time will tell.
Tradition survival rating ** (one for each completed year)

Have a great new year folks and I hope whatever tradition you observe on December 31 is one you enjoy. Now where is my myrrh...

Samaritans - it's good to talk, it's better to listen

This special feature appeared in the Bath Chronicle, The Somerset Standard and the Somerset Guardian on Thursday, December 23. It followed a visit I made to a recruitment night for the vital charity.....

Over the Christmas period, phone lines across the world will be buzzing.

People will be ringing their loved ones in far flung corners of the globe every second of every minute of every day.

But here in Bath there will be a number of other phone calls being made to.

On these calls, there won't be instant shrieks of delight as loved ones recognise each other's voices. For the two people talking here will be total strangers.

And for one party the call could truly be a matter of life and death.

Welcome to the world of the Samaritans - one of Britain's most remarkable, if unofficial, emergency services. And one for whom Christmas might, sadly, be among the busiest times of the year.

These calls the dedicated volunteers at the Bath and District Samaritans will be taking will be coming in from people for whom other people's festive happiness only exaggerates their own feelings of sadness, loneliness and low self-worth. These often lonely, confused and sometimes even suicidal people may desperately need someone to talk to and while all other certainties in their lives are challenged they can be assured their call to the Samaritans will be received by people who truly care.

I have long been interested in the work of the Samaritans for a number of reasons.
Primarily, I suspect, it is because two close members of my family committed suicide and various mental illness issues have arisen with others. I know that even as family members you don't always know the depths of people's personal anguishes and so it is a comfort to know that there is one group of trained volunteers who will always be there to provide a confidential, caring, listening ear.

It is for that reason that, after meeting a couple of the impressive people who make up the 100-strong Bath area branch of this famous group, I decided to attend one of the regular introduction evenings to see how one goes about becoming a volunteer and what indeed makes someone take up this role .

After all, it is one that gives them no money and certainly no 'glory' as Samaritans, like their clients, are often anonymous, and not even their nearest and dearest can be given an insight into their confidential dealings.

The local branch of the Samaritans has its base at a typical and unremarkable Bath town house in Newbridge. On arriving at one of the introductory evenings, I wondered whether I would be alone or, if I wasn't, just who would make up the rest of the potential recruits. What sort of person would want to become a Samaritan I wondered?

Well, the answer to that one is simple - anyone. I was both amazed and impressed that the small meeting room was full to bursting (around 20-25 people). The potential recruits were predominantly female (which I had suspected) but also predominantly younger (which I hadn't imagined). Considering the nature of the work, I thought the average would-be recruit would be in their 40s and 50s, people who had 'seen a bit of life' and who wanted to give something back, but there was every age from late teens to OAPS.

And that pleased me because it is a service for everyone so it is right that everyone is represented.

And what is that service?

During the course of an informative and non-pressured 90 minutes three or four volunteers (all of whom had Samaritan aliases in respect of the need for confidentiality) spoke about the work they did, the clients they spoke to (and sometimes met) and the path one needs to tread to become a member of this special group of people.

What became clear is that this is a serious business and so serious training is involved. If the first call you take as a new Samaritan is from someone considering taking their own life the last thing they need to hear is someone more panicked and frightened than they are so there is a long and strictly-observed training period before you ever get to that stage.

Potential recruits would need to be interviewed, to be paired up with mentors and initially to undergo two months of weekly sessions before they get within touching distance of the phones. It is a process designed to make sure of two things: one that the Samaritans is right for you, and secondly (and more importantly) that you are right for the Samaritans.

And it is clear it won't be for everyone. I was a bit surprised to learn that as a Samaritan you are not there to offer counselling or advice (although I was less surprised when I realised later a few months training does not make you a trained counsellor).

You also have to be non-judgmental, and you have to leave your personal, moral and religious beliefs firmly at the door. Despite its name, the Samaritans is a decidedly non-religious grouping and your views and your opinions are simply not important - it is all about the person on the other end of the line. It is the classic case that you have two ears and one mouth and that ratio is the way your phone call should be. Would-be amateur psychiatrists or well meaning evangelists are not needed - this is about people with the capacity to listen. And to care. And then to listen again.

The introductory evening was just that - a quick but thought-provoking insight into what is involved which is probably just enough to let you know if this is really for you. The relaxed, friendly Samaritans who took us through the process didn't make it sound like a bed of roses ( and nor should they) but the love they have for what they do, their obvious camaraderie and their genuine belief that they can and do help by providing an ear for the often voiceless was impressive stuff.

The best advert for being a Samaritan was to see these Samaritans in action and to see what it meant to them. It was a powerful witness.

So, could I be a Samaritan and will I sign up? Well, I'm not sure I am ready, but the truth is I probably wouldn't tell you even if I did sign up. This is not about the person on the receiving end of the call, it is about the person who makes it and so to be a (ahem) good Samaritan you have to make yourself less and your caller more.

You have, above all, to be a good listener and prepare to become an anonymous person so the equally anonymous person you talk to can truly feel confident they can tell you things they couldn't tell the closest person to them in the world.

My final impression was this. BT once had a campaign called 'it's good to talk'. What my night with the Samaritans showed me is that sometimes it's even better to listen.
  • If you would like to attend the next Samaritans introductory evenings they are on Thursday, January 6 and Tuesday, January 11. To find out more about the recruitment process call 01225 423540. If you need to talk to the Samaritans call the local Bath branch on 01225 429 222 or the national number 08457 90 90 90.
    For more information on the aims and ethos of the charity go to

It wasn't a was MAN FLU!!!!!

This was originally published in the Bath Chronicle on December 23

For the first time in soem five years my regular weekly column didn't appear in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, December 16.

Considering I have managed to do my column while I was on holiday (and even once when I was a couple of hundred yards away from Auschwitz) it was going to take something pretty spectacular to stop me waxing lyrical for the entertainment of, err, both of you.

Well I had that spectacular thing and it was ... MAN FLU!

The term 'man flu' has been invented by, I suspect, women to explain how men exaggerate when they have a minor cold. But, boy oh boy, was this not a cold...

It had begun a few days before when I had the traditional 'coldy' elements of a bit of a cough, a runny nose and a headache. All annoying but all copeable, too.

During last Tuesday, however, I started to notice that these elements were going but they were being replaced by a thumping headache, aches and pains and a sense that my usual 'get up and go' had got up and gone.

The best cure, I thought, was to head home early and go straight to bed but, as nearly 1,000 of you will know, last Tuesday night was TheBath Chronicle carol service where I was due to do one of the readings.

Prior to that the mayor had kindly invited myself and others to his parlour and I remember pointing out to one of his guests (hi Muddy!) that I thought I had 'man flu' and she said 'if you had flu you'd know about it and you wouldn't be able to get out of bed'. Twelve hours later I knew exactly what she meant.

Somehow, I did manage to get through Tuesday's lovely service but to be honest I started to feel a bit doolally, which is never a good feeling to have when you have to read one of the important lessons. But I survived somehow, raced home to bed and then ...

The next three or four days were pretty horrendous. When you have a stressful job the thought of being able to do nothing can seem quite appealing but when nothing really does mean nothing (i.e. you haven't the energy to even pick up a paper or switch the TV) the reality is more appalling than appealing.

I don't think I am a particularly patient patient either and I also always feel terrible if I'm not able to get into work but for those few days I suffered, as I know many of you have (and perhaps some are now as you are reading this), with the kind of lurgy which seems a million miles away from those almost pleasant minor colds which are normally sorted out by a Lemsip or a Tune.

So, it was with some relief that I headed back to work lastn Monday feeling a million times better than a few days before. I say some relief, however, because someone up there with a sense of humour had decided that my reward for finally getting out of bed should be to find my car unable to move because of the snow. And to make in even 'funnier' I then faced week which even people in Iceland would describe as 'a bit dodgy weather-wise'

So that's man flu. It's not funny. And it's not for women. They just invented it.

So is it me or is the Christmas card?

First publishe din the Bath Chronicle on Thursday December 9

I have had to come face-to-face with two possibilities this week - neither of which are very palatable.

One, is that in the space of the last 12 months I have become very unpopular. And the other is that the great tradition of sending Christmas cards is virtually dying out.

Usually, at this time of the year (and we are only 16 days away from Christmas remember) my office is festooned with a wide variety of cards sent by individuals and organisations as a way of saying 'thank you' for what we as a apaper may have done for them over the last year.

At this point, however, I have a mere four - so few in fact that I can publicly thank them all. So, it is the thumbs up to Bath Building Society, Sam and Wendy Farr, John and Gill McLay and the team at The Mission Theatre. I love you all.

Of course, I may have fallen into a huge depression wondering where all the other cards have gone were it not for a couple of pieces of research that have just come out - and the evidence of my own eyes.

In the latter case, I have been amazed to see how many shops are already selling Christmas cards at half price. Surely, I wonder, that is what you do in January? If you can't sell Christmas cards in December at full price then when on earth can you?

And then there are two pieces of research - the main one being from Oxfam - which indicate that we may indeed be falling out of love with our Christmas cards. Oxfam reckons a third of people this year will be sending far fewer cards than they have in the past with many opting out altogether. And they estimate that this could account for a whopping 141 million less cards being sent than five years ago.

A second survey reveals similar figures and also says that a third of stingy men are planning to send not a single card this year. Weird.

Some of the reasons given are the high price of stamps (but wasn't it always thus?), the hassle of buying cards (ditto) and, more likely, that instead we all now send 'hilarious' e-cards full of dancing gnomes with our heads attached to them. And yes, I have done this (and will probably do it again sadly).

The serious part of all this (apart from the fact that it is sad to see any tradition die off) is that the charity Christmas card market has been really badly hit and the aforementioned Oxfam reckon the trend away from cards could cost them £100,000 alone this year. When you add in all the other charities that rely on cards as an important part of their revenue, it adds up to an almighty sum of money that won't be going to help people this year.

How many people who used to receive a charity card in the post, will just sit stoney-faced at their computer screen as the 15th 'hilarious' dancing gnome with a red hat arrives in their inbox?

To end on a positive note, even with all this doom and gloom, it is still predicted that over 800 million cards will be sent this year.

If that is the case, then I am afraid I must go back to my original point and wonder what have I done to upset all but four people during the course of 2010...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Bath Spa - a place of real magic

It is often said that when you live and work in an area you tend to overlook the things that attract many other people to where you are based. And that is why I decided last week to pay a return visit to the Thermae Bath Spa – my first trip for at least three years – and one which I decided I really ought to make to familiarise myself again with this iconic city attraction.
I arrived in Bath in September 2005 when you couldn’t say the word spa without putting the word ‘troubled’ in front of it. It struck me that local people had been following the financial shenanigans to do with the spa for so many years that many of them had probably lost sight of what it was there for and why.
I won’t pretend that all the costs involved and the subsequent legal battles weren’t important and serious but now they are all (for the most part) behind us, I hope people can now just look at the spa for what it is – which is what I did last week.
And I’m delighted to say, that I loved every minute of my somewhat delayed visit.
We decided to go on the night of the opening of the Christmas Market which turned out to be the first of the very cold nights we have all experienced this week. In many ways that was perfect because to be on the rooftop pool in the freezing air at around 5pm as you watched Bath turn from day to night was a truly magical experience.
The contrast between the cold air on your face and the warm waters below was a sensual delight and I can genuinely say that by the time we left we felt as relaxed as if we’d been in a deep, deep sleep for many hours.
What was also impressive was to see just how busy the place was. Even at what I thought was a relatively unfashionable time, the place was buzzing – but not in such a way as we ever felt like sardines in a particularly well-lubricated tin.
The range of people also impressed me. Yes, it is still very female orientated but there were still plenty of men and all adult ages were well represented. Young romantic couples, groups of students, older couples with friends as well as partners and a high number of single people all contributed to a lovely, friendly mix and an atmosphere where no one seemed stressed, no one was moaning and the only fear anybody had was how they could get from the rooftop pool to their dressing gown without catching a severe chill.
Of course, I accept that for some people the whole mess about the spa’s finances will mean they will never be able to fully enjoy the experience as I did – and that, I think, is a shame.
To not use the spa because of these sorts of objections is like not going to see your favourite club at the new Wembley stadium because it cost too much to build. I just wish those people who still feel that way could try to put it behind them and just enjoy what thousands of people from all around the world are now discovering – that the Thermae Bath Spa truly is a jewel in Bath’s crown.
Troubled spa? No, I’ll go with ‘glorious spa’ instead, thank you.

Taking on the Roundheads

First printed in the Bath Chronicle on November 26

It has certainly been an interesting week for royal watchers both nationally and locally.

Within the space of just 48 hours last week we saw the wedding announcement of Prince William and Kate Middleton and then we enjoyed having The Duchess of Cornwall switching on our Christmas lights and charming many who had the pleasure to meet her.

It all meant that from Twerton to Twickenham and from Widcombe to Wycombe people could once again join in the old Monty Python-style debate “so what have the royals ever done for us?”

I nailed my royal colours to the mast in a column here a while back when I admitted that after being a punk rock inspired ‘non-believer’ in the 1970s as I got older and saw the royals in action first hand I started to realise the special appeal they had, and the amazing way their presence lifted people. I have been lucky enough to attend a number of royal functions and quite a few big political ones too and there is no doubt which group have the most impact on people. You may remember the odd word of a meeting with a major politician but I guarantee you would remember every word The Queen said to you if you met her.

I was, however, in somewhat of a minority among a group of my colleagues when I expressed my interest in the wedding last week. It led to a spirited, passionate debate but, whereas I sympathised with many comments from these latter day ‘Roundheads’, I just couldn’t find one killer point of theirs that could lead me to rejoining the ‘off with their heads’ team.

‘They cost us too much’ was a frequent argument (last I heard it was the huge sum of 67p a year for every taxpayer) and ‘they represent elitism and cause class division’ was another (but would abolishing the royals remove such distinctions or just make oil barons the new aristocracy?). I also heard on a radio phone-in someone say ‘they have lost their magic because of their failed marriages’ to which I would reply with a couple of sentences that may well include words such as pot, greenhouse, kettle, stones and black.

I think my main arguments against the naysayers is that the royals represent something which is truly unique to Britain’s appeal and, quite frankly, that our lives would be so much duller without them.

They are one of the primary reasons people travel to the UK for tourism (£500m a year was a figure I heard for the money generated by the ‘old firm’) and, when The Queen in particular travels away, the goodwill she generates is incredible. I remember watching a documentary which showed President Bush practically quaking in his boots at the thought of meeting our monarch. Would a US president be nervous at the thought of meeting messrs Cameron, Clegg or Miliband? Sorry fellas, but no chance.

Of course I do understand the reasons why I shouldn’t ‘get’ the royals. Why should a person assume the head of a country by birthright alone? It is madness. And, if we were starting a new country now such an idea would be as daft as, I don’t know, giving massive bonuses to bankers. But we are not a new country. We have 1,000 years of history behind us in which we have had a monarch and I can’t believe our modern day lives would have been enriched, made more colourful or indeed more egalitarian if we had decided to ditch that legacy in recent years and instead have elected a President Thatcher or Blair.

No, the British monarchy is not perfect but then again we are not a perfect nation either. What the royal family is, however, is something to inspire and enthuse millions of people worldwide and which is seen as a great and original asset to this country on the world stage.

Not bad for 67p.

Friday, 19 November 2010

It's a wonderful life - and it was for Tony

My favourite film is – and has been for many years – Frank Capra's 1946 masterpiece called It's A Wonderful Life.

To those who don't get it, this is just a whimsical American fantasy piece about a man who is given redemption by an incompetent angel. However, for those who do truly understand it, this is a truly uplifting film which shows how one man's life touches so many others and how no man who is truly loved can ever feel their life has been anything but a triumph.

This film kept coming back to me on Tuesday when I attended the beautiful funeral service of Tony Morgan at St Swithun's Church in Bathford.

I got to know Tony a few years ago when he was consort to one of his five beloved daughters, Loraine Morgan-Brinkhurst, when she was chairman of Bath and North East Somerset Council. Every time I met him he had the ability to make me feel like I was the most important person in the room, and his warmth, kindness and genuine love of life shone out of his eyes.

On Tuesday I realised that this quiet and unassuming man had the ability to do the same to everyone and I can honestly say I've rarely ever been as moved as I was during this quite remarkable service.

As well as an inspired and inspiring speech by Loraine herself and some beautiful words from nephew Kevin Moore and sons-in-law John Fry, Paul Allison and John Davies, the moment that really struck me was when Tony's many grandchildren went to the front of the church and paid their own incredibly moving tributes.

For someone from a relatively small family it seemed like there were dozens of these grandchildren but what really touched me was the way all of them spoke as if they were the only grandchild Tony had ever had because he clearly loved and delighted in every one of them.

Their loving words would have been heart-breaking – if they weren't completely inspiring.

As I left the service I thought again about my favourite film. It's main character George Bailey is given the chance to see what life would have been like had he not been born and when he realised the impact he'd made on others, he saw that it is, after all, a wonderful life.

For Tony Morgan it was exactly the same. As I looked around the packed church it was almost impossible to find a dry eye but this was a mixture of tears of sadness, tears of joy and tears of pride.

That is the impact that this humble man had on all around him and having not known him terribly well before the service, I felt I really knew him by the end. And my admiration soared.

It showed to me, once again, that we should not judge a man by the size of his bank balance or his home but by the size of his heart and his capacity for love.

In that context, Tony Morgan was truly a man amongst men.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

This was Hitler's favourite song. Or rather it wasn't.

Last night I was due to climb every mountain – well, head down the Lower Bristol Road – and go to Bristol to watch The Sound of Music onstage.

It was amazing to me the effect this had on some of my colleagues when I casually mentioned the news. As it is not the sort of music that people usually associate with me, I expected to be ribbed mercilessly but within minutes of mentioning it several hard-bitten hacks were heard to be singing about lonely goat herds and troublesome nuns.

It is just one of those shows that seems to ‘get’ everyone.

Having thought I’d done well to keep my credibility intact, however, I then completely ruined it with a chance remark. Someone said that their favourite song in the film was Edelweiss and I retorted: “Well, you may like it less when you realise it was Hitler’s favourite song”.

“Are you sure?” said someone.

“I am,” I replied. Firmly. Ish.

Two minutes later I was peeling egg off my face when I realised (or rather Wikipedia proved to my ‘doubter’) that the song was actually written in, err, 1959. I then weakly tried to regain my wrecked credibility in the ‘things-you-don’t-know-about-Hitler’ stakes by saying: “Ah well, did you know he designed the Volkswagen Beetle?”

Wikipedia – which you soon realise can be your biggest enemy as well as your best friend – found that this was nonsense too. The dictator had asked in 1933 for a ‘people’s car’ to be designed but his pencil never touched paper.

So once again I’d fallen for an urban myth.The truth is we can often fall of these and that is why Stephen Fry’s QI is an invaluable way of stopping us from repeating “truths” which are actually nonsense.

So, can I stop all of you from making similar mistakes by assuring you, for example, that Humphrey Bogart never said “Play it again Sam” in Casablanca, Sherlock Homes was never quoted in the novels as having said “elementary, my dear Watson”, Captain Kirk never uttered the line “beam me up Scottie” and Darth Vader never said the phrase “Luke, I am your father”.

And, to save you wasting a good ten minutes of your life hearing a long, urban myth story, can I assure you that David Beckham NEVER paid off somebody’s mortgage so his son could have a party at Alton Towers. If the elements of that story sound at all familiar then I’m not surprised because I’ve been told it in three different offices over the last few years or so by sincere people who claim they even know whose house was paid off by the generous footballer. But it never happened.

Trust me. I’m a journalist.

The only problem with de-bunking urban myths is that they do take some of the fun out of life. I love the story of how NASA apparently spent millions trying to develop a pen that would write upside down in space while the Russians just used a pencil. But, sadly, it wasn’t true.

Just like the moon landings, in fact.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Time to get the old band back together again?

One of the many things that I love about Bath is that it really is a city that respects and reveres music. Whether your tastes are for the Mozart Festival or for Moles, there is something in this city for everyone. It truly is a community paved with melodies.
But it is not just the opportunity to get out and hear lots of different styles of music that makes Bath come alive – for this is a city that positively encourages people to make music all of their own. So, if you are in any length of queue with locals in Bath, the chances are at least one of them is in a choir, gospel group, rock band, jazz outfit et al.
Yes, this is a city of music.
It is for that reason that I am particularly thrilled this week to launch our Song for Bath competition to try to encourage people to write a tune that will encapsulate the city as it is now.
Inspired by the very enthusiastic brains behind the project, Paddy Doyle, it didn’t take long for us to see this as a wonderful opportunity to turn the creativity that is so evident in the Bath musical community into a fun competition. So, whether your tastes are for light orchestra or, err, the Electric Light Orchestra, we hope you’ll think about creating a tune which could lead to some great prizes as well as the chance to perform in a grand final.
It seemed apt to me that we should be running this competition right now because I am personally thinking about doing that classical middle- aged thing – yes, I’m thinking of “getting the old band together” again.
As I grew up in the punk era where the ethos was “don’t go and watch bands, form them and do it yourself”, nearly all my friends and I found ourselves starting bands – and having a fantastic time doing so.
Some of those bands didn’t last very long – I once fronted a group called the Vatican City Dance Band which went no further than coming up with a spectacularly good name – but my longest-serving band was called The Classified Ads (somewhat apt considering I’m now in newspapers!) who were together for the best part of my secondary days.
It was a thrilling time – we only played to youth clubs and relatively small venues in our home town area but, if I say so myself, I think we penned one or two pretty good tunes along the way. Now, some 25 years since we split (millions of teenage girls were NOT heartbroken) there seems to be a yearning among us to do something again.
Inevitably, the five of us have gone down very different paths but we’ve sort of discovered each other again and now have set ourselves the goal of doing a one-off something in the year 2011.
Of course, there are many reasons why this could be an utter disaster – but whatever those fears, even the thought of getting back together again and seeing four of the most important people in my life is enough to get us somewhere.
So, if a jaded old punky “singer” from the ’80s is thinking about bashing out a tune again, there is no excuse for all of you out there not to enter our Bath song competition.And, to make it easy, I promise The Classified Ads won’t enter.
Or The Vatican City Dance Band.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Cinema + Sofa = a great place for a Facebook movie

Last Sunday night I did what I’m sure many of you were doing at the time – I sat on my sofa and got lost in the online world of Facebook.

But no, I wasn’t sitting at home. I was actually in one of my very favourite places in Bath – the Little Theatre – watching a film about how Facebook slowly devoured the world around us. In a cinema.

On a settee.

For the Little Theatre has introduced a new balcony which allows you to sit and watch a film on a lovely two seater sofa complete with beautifully plumped-up cushions. It feels like home from home – although my own sofa is not nearly as nice as theirs – and I’m sure will be lovely if you were part of a canoodling couple. (Unlike me as I was with my 17-year-old-son who’s never a great one for canoodling, to be honest).

I have to say that opinions between us on the ‘sofa in the cinema’ experience were polar opposites. I thought it was a wonderful luxury because, as I put it, “it’s like watching the film at home”. But that was exactly the problem for him. Even at the tender age of 17 he’s a cinema traditionalist and he said he goes out to the cinema precisely because he doesn’t want to watch a film at home. I’m sure he would feel different if he was in a canoodling mood though ...

As for the film itself, The Social Network, I simply cannot recommend it enough. It is the remarkable, true (?) story of a nerdy young man who had fallen out with his girlfriend and wanted a way of telling the world about it who stumbled on the idea of Facebook. It now has 500 million users and has made our ‘hero’ the youngest billionaire on the planet.

The story charts the rise and rise of the site and the rise and fall of his friends who helped him to set it up and is told in shifting time between court cases and the university days where it all started. It is a great film – beautifully acted and stylishly written by Aaron Sorkin, the genius behind the brilliant West Wing. He is a man that dares to treat audiences as if they’ve got intelligence but want to be entertained as well.

As someone who contributed to a BBC radio debate this week about the rise of the internet and how people shouldn’t be frightened of it, I am fascinated by the whole Facebook story because so many people are obsessed with it, and yet I’m sure we’ve all got items of clothing that are older than this now seemingly universal site.

To actually see how it came together almost by accident proves the point that some of the best ideas come from the most unlikely people and the most unlikely sources. Intriguingly, the man behind it barely saw any financial benefits and, as becomes very clear in the movie, he was never motivated by money and apparently isn’t so today.

That’s why much as I love the current series of The Apprentice, if you’re looking for the future brains in our country, I think you’d be better looking at the unlikeliest kid in the classroom rather than the sharp-suited people trying to impress Lord SirAllunSugar.

So, if you get the chance, pop along and see The Social Network and if you want to enjoy it in unique circumstances then why not curl up on the sofa at the Little Theatre?

The only problem is you may drift off to sleep in that settee. But don’t worry – I can reveal that the man from Facebook did well.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

My (truly) magical mystery tour

Roll up, roll up!!!

What is it that makes Britain great?

Our history, our people, our influence on the rest of the world and, of course, our culture all score highly when you ask foreigners what they like about these islands.
Perhaps the best thing of all about that cultural offering is that it covers a huge, diverse, range of talent – from Shakespeare to JK Rowling. Plus, of course, we can also claim to be the rightful heirs to the throne of pop music. And it is one band above all that gave us that (now prized) cultural crown.
Yes, The Beatles. Go anywhere on this planet and people immediately know who you’re referring to when you say ‘John, Paul, George and Ringo’. Start whistling the tune of A Hard Day’s Night and you could find yourself in a duet in the most unlikely of countries because The Beatles are that rare artistic phenomenon – they are bigger than the genre they represent.

As a serious and very enthusiastic music lover, I always wanted to know more about the ‘four boys that shook the world’ and so it is with a little bit of shame that I have to admit that it was only a few weeks ago that I finally became a day tripper and went on a magical mystery tour to the city of Liverpool to have my Beatles day.
And it truly was a day I shall cherish.

Yes, I had to drive my car four hours each way on something of a long and winding road but it was still a day in the life of this music fan that will never be forgotten.

Not only had I never really ‘done’ The Beatles before (see shame above), but this was also my first real encounter with Liverpool. I had been to Aintree to see the Grand National but that didn’t really count. Indeed it gave me a slightly jaundiced view of the city in that every woman I encountered up there seemed to be, err, well, orange.

Liverpool as a city, however, isn’t orange – but it isn’t black and white either. Parts of it does look deprived and lacking in community ‘TLC’ but other areas are genuinely surprising, unusual and intriguing. It’s probably like every other major city in Britain – you shouldn’t take it at face value and it is worth learning more.
And that is why I will certainly be back to do so because I came away fascinated by what I’d seen.

But this wasn’t really a trip to discover Liverpool – this was a trip to ‘do The Beatles in a day’ and to see if I could cover all the best bits in a few hours. Well, I think I did and I would happily urge anybody who wants to follow the greatest story in rock and roll history to follow my lead.
Essentially I concentrated on the two major Beatles-orientated attractions for visitors – The Beatles Story museum and the Magical Mystery Tour bus ride.

The museum is situated in the spectacular Albert Dock area which is full of museums, exhibitions, shops and places to eat and drink. I will definitely visit it again because I’m hugely impressed with what the team have done to the docks to make it a brilliant day trip destination in itself.
As for The Beatles Story it is clearly an integral part of the dock complex and is a truly inspiring place to visit.
Let’s be honest, because this band is so loved by people all around the world, you could open any kind of museum in Liverpool, slap The Beatles’ name on it and it would be a success.
You almost don’t have to try.
For that reason, the fact that the museum not only tries but excels and constantly delights is to the credit of everyone involved.
Millions of pounds have been spent to get this just right and the attention to detail and the general feel and look of the museum is first class.

The idea is that you walk through the band’s history listening to an audio guide narrated by John Lennon’s sister Julia which includes other contributions from the band members themselves.

You see never-before-published photos, original memorabilia and lots of other fascinating displays about people the band knew and places they visited. It really fleshes out what life must have been like as four young working class boys suddenly became the most famous people on the planet.
I particularly liked their recreation of the original Cavern and also a thoughtful area dedicated to each of the four members of the band and their own particular interests but I suspect every single part of the museum will have its own fans. Even children have their own sections and special facilities – including a skilful and playful recreation of the inside of a yellow submarine.
The general impression is that the museum believes – as millions of other people do – that this is the best band in pop history and hence they deserve the best possible tribute. And I think they have achieved that goal.
Two or three hours in the museum and we were then ready for the second major part of the day – the Magical Mystery Tour bus ride. This is on an old, well lived-in coach which would probably have fitted very nicely into the sixties movie it’s named after and it takes you to all the key points and places in the band’s history.
The global nature of the Fab Four’s appeal was perfectly illustrated when our charming host asked people to identify where they came from. There were people from just about every pocket of the world and we soon realised we were sitting by people from Iowa to one side and even more remarkably in my opinion, to a family from Siberia on the other. I’d never met anybody from Siberia before but to hear a man talking about our Beatle songs as if they were his own showed just what an impact this band made. For yes, their tunes even permeated through the Iron Curtain and were deemed so dangerous by the authorities they tried to block them. Unsuccessfully.

The tour took us to the childhood homes of all the band members and there was time to pop off and be photographed at iconic places – in front of Paul McCartney’s old home for example, next to Penny Lane and at Strawberry Fields – and it was a truly fascinating journey which brought the museum story we’d seen a couple of hours earlier even more to life.
The bus ride ends in the place which every Beatles fan wants to visit – Mathew Street, the home of The Cavern. Although it was re-developed some time ago, The Cavern itself is still an amazing place to visit and to walk down into the bowels of the building to discover it and think of the history that was created there is an absolute joy.
So, there you have it. With a little help from my friends in the Liverpool tourist industry I was able to enjoy my ticket to ride on a truly inspiring journey into the city where the Beatles are here, there and everywhere.
It is a long journey but this was one long day trip I didn’t mind because there’s a place which every Beatles fan should visit at least once in their life – and that is this remarkable city which really honours and respects the band that helps keep it on the world map.

All you need is love. And a tankful of petrol.

Seeing Bath through the eyes of artists

When you live or work in an area you sometimes become a bit blase about its attractions.

If you walk past the same buildings – however beautiful – day in day out it is easy just to take it all in your stride and not fully appreciate it. It sometimes takes an outsider to remind you of the beauty in front of your eyes.

That was certainly the case for me last week when I had the pleasure, for the second year running, to be one of the judges for The Bath Prize, an art competition designed to get people to capture in art form the spirit of the city as they see it.

Although only in its second year, the competition has already established itself as a major artistic event and more than 400 entries were submitted for this year’s prizes. As judges, we got to see the shortlisted top 200 or so and I was genuinely taken aback at the quality of the works we had to view. It was of a very high standard indeed.

What the selection also showed me is the way people – the vast majority of whom come from outside our area – view Bath and its many attractions. As such we saw plenty of excellent works featuring the weir, Pulteney Bridge, Bath Abbey, The Circus and of course the Royal Crescent which produced the runner-up picture. Beyond that, however, artists found beauty in all manner of other areas of Bath life.

I was particularly impressed that in a rugby-dominated city one of the very best pictures features Bath City Football Club and I also admired the bravery of the artist who, with all Bath’s obvious attractions, chose to paint the gasworks towers at Windsor Bridge. In addition, it was also fascinating to see how many people had been impressed enough by the Bath Lions to make them the centrepiece of their work. Proof, if ever it was needed, of what a successful and admired project this has been.

So, once again I left The Bath Prize judging very impressed with what I’d seen – and, crucially I started to look around me again with renewed appreciation of this city’s beauty.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The link between boxing and a Bath fashion show

Printed in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, September 23

The link between amateur boxing and fashion shows may seem pretty unlikely – but stick with me on this.

What these two very different forms of entertainment have got in common is that they both require (and then instil) confidence in all those who take part in them. And it can be inspiring to see.

First, boxers.

A few years ago when I was a sports reporter in the Midlands, I used to enjoy going to watch my local amateur boxing club (the splendid Tamworth Amateur Boxing Club) have their regular dinner shows. Professional boxing, for various reasons, illicits wildly different reactions from people about its value and its morality but the amateur game is a million miles away from all of that.

When I used to watch the amateur game in full flow, you would see relatively young kids (of all shapes and sizes) battling it out in the ring safe in the knowledge that they were well protected in terms of their head gear and safe in the certainty that they were signed up to the amateur boxing ethos of sportsmanship and discipline.

Instead of bruised faces and bodies, I saw kids exhibiting pride, courage and bravery and, crucially, saw youngsters that may not have much weight on them or much physical presence, grow enormously as they stood in the ring. At the end of each bout I would look at the two lads that had been in action and think that tomorrow they could walk into their school with their heads held high for they had shown a spirit which did them great credit.

And so we fast- forward to last Saturday night here in the city of Bath to a catwalk – yes, light years away from that boxing ring at Drayton Manor Park.

These well-groomed ‘fighters’ were battling it out in the final of the Face of Bath competition to find a male and female to represent our city – and I was on the judging panel. Two weeks ago I had helped to select the finalists at a semi-final where each of the 40 people were required to walk on a makeshift catwalk. Some looked the part but the vast majority looked totally out of place – and quite a few looked simply embarrassed. They couldn’t possibly be turned into would-be models overnight, I thought.

Last Saturday, however, disproved that theory. Just a few hours in the very capable hands of choreographer Wayne Palmer had turned many from casual and often shy individuals into people who had the supreme confidence to parade up and down on a very, very long catwalk.

The transformation was remarkable and some people who looked in the semi-finals as if they could barely put one foot in front of the other, now glided down the catwalk in expensive, unfamiliar outfits and looked a million dollars.

Of course, like our boxers, not everybody could win but what those people showed on Saturday, as did those young fighters from so many years ago, was just how much confidence people can get if they believe in themselves and are willing to put themselves on the line in public. It also showed that you can’t buy confidence – but, hey, you sure can train it and instil it.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

My sad collection of looky-likies!!

The rise and rise of TV presenter Adrian Chiles is very good news for him – but not, I fear, for me.

For, over the last couple of years as the Black Country sports fanatic has risen to be one of the nation’s favourite sofa dwellers, more and more people have said that I either look/sound/act like him.

Somebody I know from going to concerts (hello Baz) actually now calls me Adrian and even my dear old auntie says that every time she sees him on the screen, it reminds her of me.

Now, I shouldn’t have a problem with this – I have liked Adrian Chiles ever since his Radio 5 Live work – but I’m sure when most of us men are told we look/act like someone, we are secretly hoping their surname is Cruise, Beckham or Pitt rather than, err, Chiles.

But I’m afraid in the world of looky-likes I am not exactly blessed with heart-throb comparisons.
It has been said more than once that I remind people of Keith ‘Cheggers’ Chegwin. This isn’t quite so bad as he comes over as quite a cheeky chappie but I could have done without the comparisons when he did that odd nude programme for Channel 5 a while back. . .

If being compared to these two TV darlings isn’t bad enough, I also get a fair amount of “you look a bit like Boris Johnson” these days.

Whether we are compared because of the blond and relatively uncontrollable hair or the fact that we both tend to like getting on political soap boxes or putting our foot in it I’m not sure, but that Boris connection appears to be sticking.

The reason I’ve been thinking on these matters is not just that my Mr Chiles has now secured the breakfast TV spot which makes him more in (or of?) my face but also because on Saturday I, (a man who apparently looks like an amalgamation of a Brummie ex One Show presenter, a man who leapt around on Noel Edmonds’ Saturday morning show and an unkempt blundering politician) is going to help judge the Face of Bath competition to find someone whose looks represent the city.

I already helped to judge the semi-final and I am rather looking forward to Saturday night’s SouthGate event where one woman and one man will earn the title of the Face of Bath and grab a modelling contract to boot.

I’m sure it will be a fun event but I can’t help wondering what the candidates will be thinking as they wander down the catwalk and think: “Just what is that odd looking Mayor of London fella doing judging me on my looks?”

Who really rushes in the rush hour?

As regular readers of this column may have noticed, I get very irritated about phrases that mean nothing. And I realised at around 8.15 on Wednesday morning in the centre of Bath that there is another annoying cliche I should add to my ‘don’t say that’ hitlist.

The two phrases that irritate me the most at the moment are ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ (if so, why bother having the cake in the first place?) and ‘I will give you a taste of your own medicine’ (well, that’s fine because it’s my medicine and why wouldn’t I want to taste it)?
Anyway, to these and many other silly phrase irritants, I would like to add another – ‘rush hour’.

This week, as we know, the vast majority of our school pupils and college students returned to their places of academia. This, inevitably, increased the volume of traffic on our roads but when it is also combined with the gas works taking place on one of the main roads into the city (the A4 from the Wiltshire side of town) it all combined to make the so-called ‘rush hour’ more like ‘might-as-well- be-sitting-in-a-car-park-hour’.

The truth is that over the past six weeks or so all of us who commute either short or longer journeys have been somewhat spoilt. I have long said that Bath doesn’t really have a traffic problem – it just has a school traffic problem. If I’m like many of you, my journey to work in the, ahem, summer ‘rush hour’ has been exactly half what it normally is in the winter. Yes, I know the city traffic is busy at other times but in that crucial hour between say 7.45am and 8.45am the difference between the way the roads move in term time and non-term time is as different as the chaos of say Wayne Rooney’s life to that of, well, anybody’s else's.

The Bath traffic, however, continues to dominate the local agenda. I attended a meeting in the city last Wednesday morning (and yes, I arrived well in time because most of the schools hadn’t yet reopened!) about future transport plans for the region and I was left once more totally convinced that not only does nobody have all the answers to our future transport needs but most people don’t even understand the questions.

The reality of the situation is clear – most of us accept that there are just too many cars on the road and we should all use more public transport but we do so in a totally theoretical way because having complained about the situation, we then jump into the sanctuary of our own private car and lustily switch on the engine.

As I said at my transport meeting (to the odd withering glance) I really want to see traffic in Bath and North East Somerset move quicker and with less stress for all but I can’t help wanting to ensure that it is YOUR car that gives up your space on the road rather than mine. And therein, I’m afraid lies the nub of the issue – many of us want to be part of the solution as long as that solution does not involve us having to give up our car keys.

So, as a dedicated motorist I can’t really complain can I? I guess I will just have to accept life as an A4 car park dweller and do my best to crawl along in the ‘rush hour’.

I wanna tell you a story...or 150

Originally printed in the Bath Chronicle on Sepetmber 2 to talk about the success of the Chronicle's first ever short story competition to write a story in 250 words in line with our 250th anniversary
Sep 2

When you launch a competition in the paper – particularly one that has never been done before – it is always with a certain amount of trepidation.

Will anybody bother entering? Will people take it seriously? And if nobody enters, is there a big enough cloth to wipe away the egg from my face?
ll of these went through my mind when we launched our short story competition as part of our 250th anniversary celebrations.

I came up with the idea of getting readers to write a story about TheBath Chronicle in exactly 250 words – it is not an easy task, not one that wouldn’t require a good amount of thinking and planning and certainly not one we had done before.

Would this be an idea like the Sinclair C5 or playing Emile Heskey up front – ideas that were just not meant to be?

Well, I need not have feared. When we closed the entries earlier this week we totted up that we had received more than 150 – a remarkable figure in my opinion as each entry took time and thought to produce.

What has particularly pleased me is the wide range of ages of those who have taken part. It is said that there is a good book (and presumably a good short story) in everyone and clearly age was no barrier in this context. We have received entries from people of all ages – schoolchildren, students, those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, a big batch from those in their 50s and 60s and then plenty in the 70-90 brackets too.

We deliberately asked for ages on the entry form to get a flavour of who enters and it was amusing to see how many people qualified their ages – ie, hello Dean Gallagher of Odd Down who is nine years AND ten months and also to Suzanna Mead of Southwick who is 41 but was keen to tell me that her son says ‘she looks 35’!

One of the other things we did was to make the subject matter for your story completely open and we’ve been astounded at the variety of subjects covered.

We have seen stories set in the past, set in the future, set on the day of Armageddon and set during a number of major historical events including the Second World War.

In addition we have seen all manner of odd chracters entering TheBath Chronicle newsroom with King George III, Beau Nash, Roman soldiers, talking lions and even the odd gull muscling in as our readers let their imagination run riot.

And now comes the tricky bit. Along with a number of my colleagues (who unwisely agreed to help me judge!) we’ve got to try to whittle down this amazing collection of stories into a shortlist – and it really won’t be easy.

There can ultimately be only one winner but I have been so impressed with the quality and breadth of the entry this year that I’m very tempted to make this an annual contest because clearly we’ve got some very talented story writers out there and it would be great fun to have this battle every year.

251 words next year perhaps?

Lights, cameras...(get into) action if you Love Bath !

Originally printed in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, August 26 concerning the launch of the LoveBath short film competition
Aug 26

As regular readers of this column may have noticed, I am something of a film buff. From an early age I found every trip to the cinema to be a truly magical experience and even now as I sit in front of the big screen and the lights go down, I know that any problems I may have had as I walked into the movie theatre are completely gone for the next couple of hours as I totally lose myself.

It is for that reason that I’m particularly thrilled this week that we are launching a brand new competition to get people to celebrate their love of film – at the same time as celebrating their love of this amazing city.

For we have today launched our LoveBath film contest as part of our 250th anniversary celebrations where we’re inviting people to make a short movie set in Bath & North East Somerset in less than two minutes and 50 seconds. We hope it will inspire a whole lot of people to get out and about with their cameras and let their imagination loose on the streets of the city.

Of course Bath has famously attracted artists of all kinds throughout the centuries. Jane Austen remains our most prized artistic figure but there are so many others who have made their mark in our community via their writing, painting, poetry and indeed physical artworks up to and including the brilliant Pride of Lions which have lit up our city’s streets this summer.

Beyond that, Bath and all the other constituent parts that make up the B&NES umbrella has inspired a number of TV shows and films and it is often a pleasant surprise to spot well-known local places in the background or even very much the foreground on both the small and big screen.

Now we’re giving people a chance to add to that artistic legacy by making a film which is based in our community and which can be on any subject of people’s choosing.

Perhaps you think that the city regarded as the most romantic in the country would be a brilliant backdrop for a short romantic comedy? Or perhaps you would like to set a thriller in areas such as Larkhall, Twerton, Peasedown or Odd Down? Or, maybe you feel like doing a documentary or even a cartoon celebrating local sport, arts, culture or heritage? The choice is yours – the only limits are your imagination and the two minute and 50 second maximum length which we are imposing as part of our 250th anniversary celebrations.

You can find out more details about our competition at

If our film contest is half as successful as our other ongoing anniversary celebration – where we have invited readers to do a 250 word story set in the Bath Chronicle newsroom – we will be delighted.

When we launched this competition we had no idea how successful it would be but we’ve been absolutely staggered at the response as people of all ages have sent us a wide and often weird collection of short stories.

Well, now it is short films we want so what are you waiting for? Pick up the camera, put your ideas into action and you could be part of Bath’s proud film history.

Give our kids a break hey?

Originally printed in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, August 19 - the day the A level results came out

Aug 19

Today, like many parents, I will be eagerly waiting by the phone. For, during the course of this morning, I will find out how my son has done in his AS levels and how my daughter has fared in her A-levels.

I’m trying not to put any pressure on them (hence I will keep them far away from this column!) but I’ve sensed in the last couple of days their tension rising as they prepare to go to school to collect those dreaded white envelopes.

My two are just like the hundreds of others in Bath and surrounding towns and villages who will be collecting their results over the next few days (the GCSE ones are due on Tuesday) and it is on days like these that I’m just so glad I’m no longer a teenager.

Personally, I think that the pressure on our 16 to 18-year-olds today is far more than I ever felt when it came round to exam results collection time. In my day (and yes, I do accept that is a phrase we always swore we’d never say when we were younger!) the pressure to do well in exams normally just came from yourself or possibly your parents.

Nowadays youngsters have to face incredible pressure to do well from not only their school but also, it strikes me, from society as a whole.

The school pressure comes from the fact that not only do our wonderful teachers (for I do have an enormous amount of respect for that profession) want to see their pupils do well for the sake of the youngsters themselves, but also because the school is under enormous pressure to do as well as possible in the league tables.

Personally, I hate those league tables as I don’t think they truly capture the whole essence of a school’s life – I’m sure there must be schools nationally with great exam results but where bullying is rife, for example, so how can that be a good guide?

However, many parents do take the tables seriously nowadays and because they have what I see as the ‘illusion’ of choice they are more likely to send their sons and daughters to schools high up the table. And that means teachers are desperate for their charges to do well to ensure they stay afloat in that artificial premier league.

And then we come to the pressure from society. It is not only in things like league tables that youngsters are judged these days but they also have to face the rather pointless but relentless claims that no matter how hard they work it is all irrelevant because the exams are so ‘easy’ these days.

So, unless something is very different today, most news bulletins will include phrases like ‘record results’ but will be swiftly followed by words like ‘amid claims of dumbing down’. This is poppycock.

It is virtually impossible to judge an exam today against one 10 years ago and even if it was possible then it is not the fault of youngsters – they don’t set the papers.

So let’s please try and give the students some respect if they do well. Let’s not spoil any celebrations our youngsters feel if things have gone well by sneering childishly ‘well, of course, they have, things are so easy at the moment. Just give ’em a break, hey?

Rant over. Phone at the ready.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

How I learned how to....walk

There is not much to be said for hitting the ripe old age of 46. However, you do at least think you’ve learnt a few basic life lessons on the way to your ‘half century’.

It was, therefore, something of a shock last Friday afternoon to realise that I didn’t actually know how to walk.

This shock discovery came when I began ‘training’ for the Bath Chronicle Donor Run which is part of the British Transplant Games which is coming to the city next weekend. This fantastic competition will be bringing hundreds of people to Bath who have had many different forms of transplants and we, as a community, can join in the fun by taking part in a 3k or 5k run/walk to raise awareness of the need for people to donate their organs for future transplants.

Not being one of life’s, ahem, natural runners, I had elected to walk alongside the chairman of the local organising committee of the Transplant Games, the irrepressibly bubbly Loraine Morgan-Brinkhurst. With the daunting prospect of having to walk all of three or five kilometres we obviously needed a training session – and step forward Zoe Jackson, who runs Plan Be (see Zoe is a bundle of pure energy and enthusiasm and so she seemed the ideal person to give us tips on how to walk on the not-very-wild side.

Loraine and I, resplendent in our unmissable yellow Bath Chronicle Donor Run t-shirts, decided to go to Royal Crescent/Royal Victoria Park for our hour-long training session. It seemed like a bit of a jolly jaunt for a Friday afternoon to be honest – but what we were to learn in the next 60 minutes was fascinating and when I woke on Saturday morning with one or two aches and twinges, I realised it had done me some good as well.

Zoe’s basic belief is that if you walk right, not only can you increase your fitness levels and your posture but you will instantly look and feel better and start losing inches in the places where you want to lose inches. She looked at our walks before the session – which as you can see from the pictures here were hardly what you would call ‘power walks’ – and then proceeded to give us some tips which I’m happy to pass on now so we can get the whole city ‘walking back to happiness’.

First of all you should walk through your ‘whole foot’. You should aim to walk through the pad of the heels and push off your toes so you are floating rather than putting pressure on the ground. This, apparently, is very good for something I didn’t know I had – my ‘glutes’ (or buttock muscles for those of you not in the know).

Secondly you should stabilise your hips. According to Zoe the best way to achieve this is to imagine you have a glass of water on each hip and you have to keep them full as you walk. This improves your posture and flattens your stomach. Also good for those glutes too.

Thirdly, lengthen your neck. Try to create as much distance as possible between your shoulders and earlobes. This puts your spine in the right position and reduces stiffness. And finally – possibly the visibly tricky one I think – we should use our arms when we walk to vastly increase our speed.

By the time we’d spent an hour together – and as these are two of the most spirited and fun women in Bath it was a pretty enjoyable hour! – there was no doubt about it, I was walking better and my glutes were in fine fettle. Apparently if we can keep this up we should be able to complete our walk next week with no problems at all so if you are in Bath next week and see a strange man extending his neck and using his arms like a robot walking by, give me a wave as I glide on by.

Right, I am now off to learn how to breathe.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Stourhead - the best of British

Although the appeal of going abroad is something that many people find irresistible, one of the biggest arguments against it is that we don’t realise the beauty to be found on our own doorstep.

In the midst of what has to be one of our sunniest summers for decades, it has been easier to get out and about and truly appreciate what we’ve got to offer. And when you take the time to look you suddenly realise why there are millions of people flying in to visit Britain while millions of us are flying out at the same time.

As an example, at the weekend I popped down the road to Stourhead. For those who know it I can almost guarantee you love it and for those who don’t, it is a wonderful stately home in Wiltshire with the most glorious and awe-inspiring gardens for you to lose yourself in for a few dreamy hours.

Stourhead is one of our most precious National Trust properties and it is a reminder of the beauty that surrounds us which we find easy to forget as we plough through our glossy holiday brochures under the often deluded concept that other countries have so much more to offer than “dear old Blighty”.
What makes Stourhead such a treat is that it has maintained its original and dazzling style while still feeling modern and alive. As all of us who live and work in Bath know, there’s a real tension in this city about trying to preserve what makes us truly unique and special while still developing in a way that reflects our changing needs. Stourhead seems to have got this balance perfect. Yes, there is a shop and a pub and retail units but they are all subtly and deliberately placed out of sight of the main attractions so when you first set eyes on the sweeping vista of the gardens, you just can’t help but be stunned into silence.

Stourhead truly represents the green and pleasant land of Jerusalem. And long may it continue to do so.
The comparison with Bath is also evident in the way Stourhead represents a sort of ideal for foreign visitors. I often wonder how people around the rest of the world see us and I can still recall with a smile the way a charming American I met viewed the UK as a big series of villages. Standing in a queue in Florida this gentleman heard my accent and asked if I knew the city of Sheffield. I said I lived about 80 miles from it at that time, and after a slight pause he said “really – well you must know the Jones’s then”.
I don’t know what other perceptions there are from our foreign cousins about this country although I suspect these days they think we have two royal families (the Windsors and the Beckhams), that we all worship at the altar of Simon Cowell and that it rains a lot here. But beyond that I bet many imagine lovely green gardens and delightful countryside. And they are right – we have both in abundance.

And if you still don’t believe me about how beautiful and green our country really can be then just pop to Stourhead this weekend.

It’s a living, breathing idyll.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Toy Story a kids' film? such thing now!

There is no doubt that over the next few weeks of the summer holidays one of the most frequently visited places will be the local cinema.

Whether it’s Bath’s excellent multi-screen Odeon or my favourite movie house in the world –The Little Theatre – countless parents will be taking their offspring along in the hope of two or three hours of peace as their children remain engrossed and out of mischief.

In the past, I suspect many parents were happy to take their youngsters to what were called ‘children’s films’ so they could have a quiet snooze, safe in the knowledge that their young charges were being royally entertained. Now, however, there is less of a distinction between a children’s film and an adults’ one and as a perfect example of this genre I give you the latest Toy Story film, Toy Story 3.

The whole Toy Story trilogy – the Shrek films are very similar – has helped created a whole new style of film which is aimed (on the surface) at the younger market but which contains so much material and clever writing that an adult can be fooled into believing this film is almost exclusively for them.

On Sunday we, that is two grown adults with no children present, settled down to watch Toy Story without any fear that someone would point to us and say “you’re too old to be in here!”. We did, obviously sit quite close to children so we could pretend we were related if challenged, but the reality is we didn’t need to because I would estimate that half the audience could be classified as adults without families. I saw many couples of different ages and even a group of teenage goths piling in eagerly awaiting to see Woody and Buzz in action.

A kids’ film? Nah . . .

It is, of course, all an example of brilliant marketing – after all, if you can write a film that a six-year-old and a 60-year-old can laugh along with at the same time then you have struck box office gold. Different generations have always enjoyed films together but what makes the Toy Story/Shrek concept different is that the writers have skilfully engineered the scripts so sometimes you are laughing at different lines to your offspring or there are double entendres which means you’re both laughing at the same time – but at different things. (As an example, does anybody else who has seen Toy Story 3 agree with me that Ken isn’t quite, ahem, Barbie’s ‘type’!)

I think what these films show is that, above all, it is great writing that makes a great film and there is something particularly impressive about people who can write a script that has such universal appeal that a wide-eyed four-year-old can be grinning next to a black-clad emo and both of them feel entirely comfortable with what they’re watching.

Incidentally, I saw Toy Story in its 3D form and even this made all of us of different ages feel united in a shared experience. With 3D you all look that little bit silly anyway which puts you in the perfect mood as you prepare to go on a glorious journey to infinity and beyond . . .

Thursday, 22 July 2010

My summers with Casey Jones, The White Horses and Tarzan

They say that youth is wasted on the young – and that will never feel more true than over the next six weeks.
For I am today contemplating the seemingly endless summer holidays that our young people can look forward to. And I do so from a perspective of being incredibly jealous.

I’ve often beseeched my children not to take these six weeks for granted. I don’t think it has yet fully registered with them that when they enter the wonderful world of work they won’t get as much time off in a year as they now can look forward to before heading back in September.
Cherish it, I cry!

However, although I still look back with affection to my old summer holidays I have to confess, I totally wasted most of mine.

I always remember having great plans of how I would spend every day – plans that took up much of my thinking in May and June but were all but abandoned when the end of July and August arrived as I got into that rhythm of doing as little as possible and as often as possible.

The days always began in the same way, however, with the treat of the summer holiday TV. Without sounding all Monty Python, if you tell the kids today that children’s TV was incredibly limited in the 70s particularly, they would not believe you. Now they have endless channels dedicated to their every hobby or whim – we just had Champion The Wonder Horse, Casey Jones and that weird badly-dubbed German/Yugoslavian thing called The White Horses.

These programmes seemed to appear every summer and set your day off to the perfect start, particularly if you were given the bonus of an hour in the company of Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky (that’s The Banana Splits to you). I also recall the morning’s entertainment ending with a black and white film and I particularly loved the old Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller. They were wonderfully unsophisticated movies and, when you watched them, on a daily basis you soon realised they had only one piece of footage of a man fighting a lion or a crocodile and they endlessly repeated them. Me Tarzan, you the same lion.

Of course I don’t want to give you the impression I spent all my summer holidays watching the TV – because the whole point is it went off at about 11 and that was your lot. So, then it was a case of what can we do for the next few hours and in my case, it usually involved a football, a book or spending ages trying to find something more interesting to do. And usually failing.

My worst idea ever was collecting car number plates for a whole afternoon with my mate Gary Hirons until we looked at each other at about 5pm and said ‘what is the point?’

At that point we probably trooped home for our baked beans on toast and started thinking about the important event tomorrow – i.e. would Johnny Weissmuller fight that same old crocodile?


250 words for £250

This appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, July 15, about a competition within the paper. If you live in the Bath area, feel free to enter...

'I wanna tell you a story' . . or rather, I want you to tell me one.

For, as you may have seen if you have read the Bath Chronicle last week we have just launched a special short story competition which we want as many of you as possible to enter.

The competition is part of our celebrations of the fact that the Chronicle will be 250 years old in October. And so, because I am at heart a simple soul, to mark our 250th we have come up with a single prize of £250 and we are asking you to write, yes, 250 words.

That means whoever wins will be paid a pound-a-word and there can't be many other authors that could command such a fee.

The subject of the story is entirely down to you but it must have, at its start, a sentence that we've given you about the Bath Chronicle newsroom. After that it is all down to your imagination and from the entries we have already received, there is no shortage of that out there.

Of course, unless you work in industries such as ours, you may not have a concept of how big or small 250 words is but I suspect many of you will quickly discover it's not nearly as many as you think. This column, for example is around 580 words so I am asking you to come up with the beginning, the middle and the end of an engaging and entertaining story in less than half of this column's length. And trust me, it's not easy.

I know this fact because I have been accused (extremely unfairly in my opinion) of speaking and writing to great excess. It got so bad recently that one of my colleagues looking at the length of someone else's story described it as 'Holliday-esque'. I thought he meant it was a beautiful article full of dazzling insight but it turned out he just meant it was very, very long.

Harsh, very harsh.

Writing in a highly-succinct way does actually take great skill and I always remember being very impressed when I heard that at one time The Sun used to try to have a maximum of 12 words per sentence. Again, that may not sound too scary but just try it. Look at a story in one of our 'heavier' newspapers and try to distill it in Sun-speak into 12 words a sentence with not many paragraphs. Suffice to say you can't be Holliday-esque.

As for our contest, the first entries started to come in earlier this week and I have genuinely been impressed with all of those I've seen although many, sadly, seem to think life is somewhat more exciting in our office than in reality.

So, put your thinking caps on, find a bit of paper (and it doesn't need to be a big bit of paper!) and start weaving your story of an event connected with the Chronicle.

It could be something that has happened in the past, the present or the year 2050 but all you have to do is to make it as entertaining as possible, stick to the word limit and you could find yourself £250 richer.
And that will mean the Chronicle won't be the only people celebrating the number 250 this year...

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Winning the Brain of Bath - by a nose

As a generally quite amiable chap I definitely subscribe to the theory that it is not the winning that counts it is the taking part. However, I have to admit that winning is, on the whole, rather better.

I certainly felt that last Thursday at about 10.15pm in the Assembly Rooms when The Bath Chronicle stormed to victory in the always hugely enjoyable Brain of Bath quiz to raise funds for Julian House.

When I first arrived on these shores nearly five years ago, I was quickly made aware that The Brain of Bath was the big one. The quiz of quizzes in this city. The one to win. And, crucially, one we had never won before – even with the huge advantage of having my fellow blogger Hugh Dixon as our not-so-secret weapon. Hugh, as I opined in a column the first year I tested my brain at the Brain, knows things that no one else knows. He can come up with answers when mere mortals don’t even understand the question, and he is worth his weight in the wine he consumes on the night to help him ‘think’.

And yet even with him and fellow boffin-esque quiz addicts Graham Holburn and Paul Wiltshire in the team, the Chronicle had been continually forced to settle for the ‘it’s not the winning that counts...’ line as we trooped out sadly from yet another defeat.

Well, it all changed in 2008 when we won for the first time. Winning definitely felt rather good and so even though we weren’t able to defend our title in 2009 we went for this year’s event quietly hoping for a repeat success. It was tough stuff though because, if you have ever tasted one of Julian House’s quizzes, you will know they don’t make it easy. Indeed, when a question seems a bit too easy you pause before writing down the answer because you can’t believe Cecil Weir and his Julian House team would give such ‘gifts’.

How many I wonder have not put the obvious answer down because it seems too easy and suffered accordingly. Oh, he’s a tricky one that Cecil.

This year we had the usual rounds such as a picture one (who the heck was that Todd Stephens fella anyway)? a fiendishly difficult science round, a testing sport one and the quiz’s undoubted highlight – the ‘smells round’. This is where you are all given little pouches with smells embedded in cotton wool and you have to let your nostrils do the work. This year we had Chanel Number 5, coconut, Brut and banana, for example, and this provoked some fierce sniffing and often fiercer debate. I think I must have had a bit of a cold to be honest because everything smelt to me like apple or Vim. Weird, I know.

By the end of the night, as Cecil tantalisingly counted down the top places, we realised we had won it – albeit by a tiny margin. As a team we trooped up to receive our prize but tried not to look too smug because we all knew everyone else watching was already thinking either ‘damn them’ and ‘oh well, it’s the taking part that counts...’ depending on their mood.

So, here’s to defending our hard-earned title in 2011. And here’s hoping that next year Cecil will save my blushes by putting both apple and Vim into the smells round.