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.