Wednesday, 27 January 2010

This is a day we SHOULD remember

It seems these days as though every worthy charity – and quite a few less worthy commercial groups – have their own awareness months or weeks. Sometimes these are very important ways of helping to remind us of issues and concerns – but at other times they are just very silly and rather throw-away.

However, today, Wednesday, January 27, we are having an awareness day that was anything but silly. And it is one which truly does matter as a way of offering a chance for collective reflection on a hugely important subject.

For today is the day that the world recognises Holocaust Memorial Day. January 27 was chosen because it was the anniversary of the day in 1945 when the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated.

Even in a world which has a very bloody history, the Holocaust stands out as being an almost uniquely evil event.

The scale and the methodical process by which a politically-warped movement attempted to systematically destroy everybody that didn’t fit into their perfect world should be the stuff of mad science fiction or extreme horror fantasy. And yet this was (despite attempts by contemptible revisionists to say otherwise) not a work of fiction.

This ‘story’ was tragically all true and ended with the death of six million Jewish people and millions of other political prisoners, disabled people, homosexuals, gypsies and anyone else that fell short of the Nazi ‘ideal’.

As regular readers of this column/blog may recall I visited Auschwitz myself last year and wrote about it from my hotel the same night. I said then that I was struck by the sheer banality of the place and its unremarkable features considering it was about as near the earth has come to creating a living hell.

As I walked around the Polish camp I just could not imagine the suffering that took place on that soil and that is why I felt it was vital that we all kept this in our consciousness. After all if I found the Holocaust hard to believe when I was standing in its epicentre, how much harder is it for new generations to get to grips with what happened in the early 1940s?

The idea of the memorial day is two-fold. One is to remember the victims and the other is to focus our minds on making sure that whatever our political or religious views we never allow anything as catastrophic to happen again. Sadly, however, it seems we may be failing. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust believe it is vital not just to focus on the Nazi horrors but to use the day to highlight and remember the suffering in more modern genocides including Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. That list, tragically, remains open....

So, while we can all have a smile at genuine events such as Sneakers at Work Day, World Hello Day and even Be Kind To Editors and Writers Month (it is September!) let’s hope they never take attention away from the really important days for us to think about a certain issue.

And for me nothing can be as important as remembering the Holocaust.

Never forget.

Friday, 22 January 2010

My Downing Street 'sporting' adventure

I know this makes me something of a rarity (or some may call me something far worse) but I really, yes really, like politics. I always have, I always will.

As a big sports fan I just see party politics as another form of great sporting drama. In this case you have a number of sides competing for the big prize but they are kicking around ideas instead of footballs to win it. It is all wonderful theatre to me and what makes it so intriguing is that the players make moves that affect our everyday life.

It is all simply irresistible and the most under-rated sport in Britain.

It was for that reason that I was thrilled, for the second consecutive year, to have been invited last week to the Wembley of the political world – 10, Downing Street – for a regional media reception.

The Prime Minister and his wife hosted the event which attracted members of the regional press from all over the country for an intriguing couple of hours. It was last Wednesday – the day when the snow came back after a temporary ceasefire – but that didn’t stop any of us travelling because we didn’t want to miss the chance to chat to some of the most influential people in the country and talk with enthusiasm about the areas we represent and the concerns of the communities we serve.

To be honest, the first surprise for me, was how relaxed Gordon Brown seemed on this occasion. Last year, when he was in a probably stronger position in terms of the opinion polls, he looked as though he had the world on his shoulders but on this occasion he seemed far more buoyant and even a bit rejuvenated. Maybe he is more determined to hang on to the top job than we think?
Elsewhere I had the chance to chat to the likes of Alistair Darling, Hilary Benn, Jack Straw and Lord Mandelson. All of them had ‘something’ about them but I have to say it was the ‘Lord’ himself who really exuded power. When he walked into the room virtually all the heads turned and I got the impression that after the PM he was the one we all wanted a quick word with.

There’s just something about him . . . (I will pause so you can all say exactly what you think that is!)

The idea of the reception is not to make political capital – I am proud of the fact that editors of the regional press are passionately non-partisan when they are in official mode – but it was a good opportunity for those at the top of Governemen to get a feel for what is happening on the ground throughout the UK. As such, I was happy to talk about the forthcoming elections in the seats of Bath and North East Somerset – both of which are very much on the radar among the powers that be.

As I left Number 10, looking back at that famous front door, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would get another invitation next year. And, indeed, who it would be that would be doing the invitations. Will Mr Brown defy the odds and still be there? Is David Cameron a nailed-on cert? Should we be looking at Nick Clegg?

Or even, dare I say it, could it be a ‘Lordly’ invitation . . .

Friday, 15 January 2010

And the verdict on the snow is....

Judge: Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today at the Court of Natural Fairness in bath to discuss a prosecution case. It is: “The snow and ice has been a disaster for this area.” Can I ask the prosecution to outline their case?

Prosecution: Thank you m’lud. Your honour, this is an open and shut case. This bad weather has turned many roads and pavements into ungritted death traps, people’s gardens are resembling recycling sites because no-one has picked up their rubbish and businesses have lost millions. The snow has been a total disaster. End of story.

Defence: And what about aesthetically?

Prosecution: I beg your pardon?

Defence: It’s the beauty of the whole thing. You can’t deny that everywhere looks wonderful in the snow. Every time you walk round a corner you spot a potential Christmas card for next year. And it’s not just the usual Bath beauty spots – every single estate, every suburb and especially every village looks utterly glorious at the moment. And all of these sights are improved further because they tend to have happy smiling children’s faces illuminating them as well.

Prosecution: That is all very well but you mentioned there about ‘walking round a corner’. Have you tried to do that? Have you seen the people falling over, skidding and being forced into the road to face cars that are also skidding? I don’t think that people would see much beauty in that.

Defence: No, you are right, getting about hasn’t been easy for people – but many have still managed to do so. This weather has really shone the light on some local heroes and put Bath’s community spirit back to the fore.

Prosecution: Heroes? What heroes?

Defence: Well, apart from the emergency services who have been brilliant as usual, if you scratch the surface you will find heroes on every street in the area. People who have been helping others to move the snow and the ice from their drives and paths, people who have been doing extra bits of shopping for those on their own and people such as milkmen, newspaper delivery boys and girls and local shopkeepers who have done their very best to keep their communities alive and kicking.

Prosecution: That’s all very well, but try telling that to the businesses who have lost money, children who have missed vital schooling and people living on ungritted roads with overflowing bins. I doubt you will find much ‘community spirit’ among those people.

Defence: Of course, this has been a difficult period but I still believe it has shown some of the “Best of British” and if we see this as a bit of a war with Mother Nature, the evidence is that after a war there is an upsurge in optimism and businesses can, and do, bounce back in style. Just watch and see.

Judge: OK, OK, enough. I have heard all the arguments but I just cannot make up my mind. I, therefore, will ask the people of Bath to be the jury on this one. Has this been a week we will remember with affection or with sadness? Answers on a postcard etc, etc...

Friday, 8 January 2010

I am not laughing at snow/Mother nature now

OK, I admit it – it was all my fault.

Two weeks ago, in a column in the Chronicle (which I didn't reprint here thankfully), I wrote a somewhat ‘sniffy’ article where I bemoaned the OTT British attitude to the snow.

I wondered why we all made such a fuss and treated the minor inconvenience of a few snowflakes like a national emergency. ‘Get a grip’ was the upshot of my comments.

Well, now I have paid the price for my flippancy about the power of nature.

For on the 'Big Bad Wednesday' I was forced to work from home as I was well and truly snowbound. My car was abandoned in the middle of my road having gone forward all of three feet after 30 minutes of clutch-bashing effort and public tranpsort was cancelled too.

Two days on and my car is where it started - in fact it has gone backwards. I managed to move it a little bit last night but it got stuck again so I had to reverse a bit downhill. And so now it is even further away from the Holy Grail of the clear road at the top of my cul de sac. I have literally gone six feet forward and nine feet back. I know what Gordon Brown must feel like now.

In truth, not a single car has been able to get out of my road since Big Bad Wednesday and so it has been public transport all the way since for me.

To be honest that hasn't necessarily been a bad thing. I have discovered, shock horror, that it IS possible to use public transport and realised just how wedded I am to my car. In the past couple of days I have done a fair bit of walking (30 minutes to the railway station for instrance) used a train, a replacement coach when the return train had the line closed and a bus. It has meant I have had to plan things better and think like a 'normal' non car-hugging commuter. That to be honest has probably been good for me in way - but I do miss that old car of mine.

Of course, there is still a British tendency to look for someone to blame when events like this happen but the truth is that is a fairly pointless exercise. Local councils really do try everything in their often limited powers to sort out the problems but Mother Nature is a powerful adversary. Sure, one can look enviously at countries like Sweden and Norway and say 'well, they cope all the time with this' but that is not comparing 'like with like' - they cope because this is a permanent part of their lives and they pay (literally) a heavy price to do so. Is this sort of 'whiteout' frequent enough to justify a massive financial outlay and a complete restructuring of the way we live? The answer is clearly no.

All we can now hope is that this snowy period ends quicker than it has done in other parts of the UK (it doesn't look like it though). And if it has done nothing it else it has taught me a powerful lesson – never, ever underestimate the elements.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Insomnia: a cruel night-time mistress

This week I once again had a very unwelcome guest in my bed.

She (because I am convinced this ‘person’ is female for some unfathomable reason) is an occasional visitor and is one that always leaves her mark and makes the whole bedroom experience very distressing.
Her name is insomnia.

And she’s a pain.

This unwanted lady has been a visitor to my bedchamber for many years and tends to come unexpectedly and without warning and usually sticks around for a couple of weeks.

So, three times in the last week she has dominated my night-times and left me feeling completely shattered the morning after. And, frankly, I no longer know what to do about her.

Take Monday night.

I went to bed at my usual time, read a few pages of my favoured book (Robert Harris’s latest novel on the Roman empire) and then I closed my eyes at about midnight expecting to sail into the land of nod until I was woken by Radio Five Live at 6.45 the following morning.

But insomnia had other ideas.

For the next 3-4 hours (the last time I checked the dreaded alarm clock said 3.42), she left my mind in a total state of turmoil which meant that in the battle for night-time supremacy (which she had instigated) she was victorious

Although my mind wasn’t particularly active, when you are alone with your thoughts in the middle of the night you notice everything. The normal melodic humming of my heating system suddenly sounded as loud as if Motorhead were playing in my living room and the slightest sound of a distant car sounded like a Formula One race.

Everything was amplified, everything was exaggerated and everything combined to leave me more awake at 2.30am than I usually expect to be at 2.30pm.

So, like everyone who suffers from insomnia I tried all the usual ‘cures’. I got up, wandered around, read some more of Mr Harris, popped a DVD on at 2am (an old Seinfeld which was very funny but sadly didn’t leave me very sleepy), had a quick drink, changed my position in the bed dozens of times and even resorted to the totally pointless activity of counting sheep. The latter is the singular most ridiculous way of getting to sleep I can imagine but, hey, it works for others so I was busy counting them cotton-picking lambs at 3am.

But all to no avail.

Eventually I must have drifted off (and again I have no reason why – perhaps even Mrs Insomnia had got bored) and the day after I felt as if I had been out at an all-night party. Without any of the benefits of having been at an all-night party.

So if you have any ideas of how you can help me to defeat this bed hopping irritant, I would greatly welcome them here or at the usual address or at I have also set myself a new year target of trying to ‘Tweet’ more (you can find me at @samholliday) so pop in and say hi – but preferably not at about 2.30am. After all at that time I am usually watching Seinfeld and dreaming (or rather not dreaming) of sleep, glorious, sleep.

Night night.