Wednesday, 31 August 2011

How I faced the Tebbit test when Bath faced Tamworth

On Saturday, in Bath, I was asked by two different people, if I was struggling with the ‘Tebbit test’.

For those who don’t remember, former Tory hard-liner Norman Tebbit said that all those people who move to a new country should, in effect, support their adopted home in sporting terms as a sign of commitment to their host nation.

I always thought that this was hokum as I have friends and relatives in countries such as Australia and America who love their new abodes but are still fiercely pro-British. And so if they are allowed to ‘fail’ the test why can’t those people coming into the UK?

However, the question of split loyalties was what I still faced in a sporting sense on Saturday when the wonders of football saw me attend a match featuring the team of my adopted community, Bath City, against the team from my home town who I have followed for decades – Tamworth FC.

It has been said that men are more likely to change their wives than their football teams but I’ve always believed that when you arrive in a new area you should at least try and support the local clubs – without, crucially, abandoning your original ones.

It meant that on arriving here I immediately became a Bath Rugby follower (although that is easy as I didn’t have a rugby club before) and I duly adopted Bath City as my local football team.

But, on Saturday, as Bath ran out against Tamworth, I realised that you can’t change your heart and although I stayed as neutral as possible throughout and cheered chances at both ends, I knew that ultimately you can’t ever leave your true sporting love.

What I also realised – as I’ve always passionately believed – is that football at non-league level really is a joy and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Twerton Park as much for the camaraderie and fun amongst both sets of supporters as for the action on the pitch.

As someone who began his association with non-league football by selling programmes at Tamworth FC’s ground and then spending more than a decade reporting both home and away on the club for my old local paper, I had the pleasure of travelling all around the country and meeting so many people whose main passion for their home town was manifested in their local football team.

The grounds weren’t always beautiful (and the football certainly wasn’t) but there is a real spirit about grassroots sport that makes all the shenanigans of the multi-millionaires in the Premiership seem like a different, and far less pleasant, world.

So, my overriding thoughts about Saturday’s game were all positive. I realised how much I liked and admired Bath City and their fans and I realised again that, once the seed of love for a team is planted inside you, that love never dies. As the chant goes Tamworth FC 'I'll love you til I die...'

You’ll notice, incidentally, that I haven’t mentioned the score of Saturday’s game and that is because I genuinely think I was the only person in the ground who didn’t care who won. Put simply, I just didn’t want either side to lose.

So did I fail the Tebbit test? Possibly.

But did I remember again how much I love non-league football? Definitely.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

A-level and clearing stress - and that's just for the parents

Today, Thursday, August 25, hundreds of thousands of children will be receiving their GCSE results and I truly hope it is a triumphant day for as many of them as possible.

And what I also hope is that even though some people may be disappointed with their results, they don’t feel quite so stressed as many of us did last Thursday when those A-level results became public.

If using the word ‘us’ seems puzzling when you know that I am, ahem, 30 years older than the average A-level student, then that is because, as many thousands of other people will testify, getting GCSE results (and even more so A-level ones) can be just as stressful for the hapless parents as for the youngsters themselves.

Allow me to explain my story as I’m sure it is one that was mirrored throughout the UK last week.

As I mentioned in my column/blog last time, my son picked up his A-level results this time last week. He would have preferred to do a traditional gap year but despite the powerful arguments against worrying about the increase in tuition fees next year, he just didn’t want to face the extra debt. So, if he got his grades then he was going away next month.


Or so it should have been.

For, sadly for him, although he got very good results, he missed out by just a single grade for his chosen course and it meant last Thursday was about as stressful a day as he has yet had to deal with in his tender years as we entered the minefield known as 'clearing' .

The problem was there were thousands of people like him who wanted to try and apply for one of those clearing (i.e. 'spare') places available - far, far more than ever before because of that tuition fee angst - and every single one of these students needed to get advice about alternative courses from the same UCAS website.

But as the demand was unprecedented the site duly crashed. Big time.

For many anxiety-ridden hours no-one could get on the site and thousands of youngsters around the country – some of whom of course were also trying to deal with the disappointment of not getting their first choice – had to battle with both their emotions and their computers to try and find a solution.

In the end, he got a solution thanks to older technology (The Daily Telegraph listing available courses and then the use of the humble telephone) and he found a great alternative course. I then watched relieved as I saw the wounds of earlier gave way to a new excitement about a different course in a different part of the country.

But of course the stress didn’t end there. On being told he had his place he was then told there was no accommodation left so we then had another scramble to find somewhere for him to live which is always, in my opinion, a fairly important part of student life.

By Saturday it was all tied up and I took him on a seven-hour round trip to see his new university for the first time and sort out his accommodation. It was a stressful, hectic but triumphant few days.

So, I say congratulations to all our successful students and give advance warning to all parents of 17-year-olds. Take the day off on the Thursday of the A-level results next year because you just might need it.

Oh and have whiskey handy.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Is old the new young? What is the 'golden age'?

What is the best age to be? What truly is the ‘golden age’ of life?

In the past, I suspect, this would be a question where most people may have come up with roughly the same answer – the optimum age to be would probably be your late teens/early twenties when you are at your fittest and strongest and you have your whole, exciting adult life ahead of you.

But, nowadays I’m not so sure people would say the same because the things that we do at different ages are changing all the time – and so are our attitudes to the numbers on our birth certificate.

In the Bath Chronicle of August 18 alone we featured the remarkable George Harding who, at 75 years of age, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, hiked along the Great Wall of China and ran the London Marathon in recent years. And a couple of pages on we featured the brave Hattie Minch who did her first-ever sky-dive at the tender age of just 83.

In years gone by such feats from the older members of the community would never have been considered and it backs up a new perception concerning age that, as Marie Dressler said, “it’s not how old you are – but how you are old”.

And what about the other end of the scale – those apparently golden years of 18-plus? Is it really that great these days?

On August 18, my son who was 18 just a month ago, nervously collected his A-level results which will have a huge impact on his future. In truth he would have preferred to go to university next year when he felt more ready to cope, but because of the change in the tuition fee structure, he decided to apply ahead of his preferred time to avoid the huge debts he would otherwise take on.

He was stressed and not sure he was ready – but he didn’t feel he had much of a choice. And let’s face it, he’s one of the lucky ones to even have a possible choice. I wouldn’t defend any of those involved in the rioting and looting last week for a second, but there is no doubt that there are thousands of young people in this country who don’t feel they have the opportunities available to others and see very little to cheer them on the horizon. To them, youth doesn’t seem so golden at all.

If I think back (and it isn’t that long, honest) to when I was in those envied years things were very different. I got on to the college course that I wanted without any of the hassle that today’s students face – and with a full grant to help. When I started work I was quickly able to buy a four-bedroom terraced house with a 100 per cent mortgage for just £23,000 which meant I had a foot on the housing ladder and a genuine stake in my community. Now, people would need £23,000 as an absolute minimum deposit and it’s no wonder we’ve created what has been called the ‘Y’ generation – young people who ask ‘why’ should they bother saving for unattainable mortgages, why not just live life to the full in the meantime and see what happens next?

So for those people bemoaning their lost youth then maybe, just maybe, the situation has shifted now and the real golden years are now 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and above. Has ‘old’ actually become the new young?

After all, getting older is now seen by many as a blessing, not a curse. Billie Burke said “age is something that doesn’t matter – unless you are a cheese”, while Garson Kaning said “youth is the gift of nature but age is a work of art”. And while we’re in a quoting mood here’s another couple that might help you to feel better about whatever age you are. Jack Benny said “age is strictly a case of mind over matter – if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”, while Charles Shultz optimistically said “just remember, once you’re over the hill you begin to pick up speed”.

Perhaps most poignantly of all, a nod of appreciation to the unknown writer who said: “Do not regret growing older, it is a privilege denied to many.” Exactly.

The golden years? They may just be the years you still have to come. No matter what age you are now.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

A letter from America - or how I came to love the States

I love this country. Always have, always will. And in light of the extraordinary events this week expressing a love for Great Britain is probably something not many people will be doing today.

However (and in light of the last few days this has never seemed more apt to say) we all know that Britain is not perfect.

No country is, of course, but most have something to offer and that is why travelling abroad is such a wonderful thing. It gives you a great insight into other cultures and helps you to reflect on your own nation and maybe question some of the things we take for granted.

I have just returned from a memorable holiday in the USA and it has had a profound effect on me and my attitude to both our nations.

I was staying with my partner's lovely family in Michigan - not exactly a tourist magnet state - and it gave me a chance to see America as it really is. And I have to say, I came away very impressed.

I suppose like many British and European people I have had a love/hate relationship with the United States. Perhaps more accurately in my case, I used to think that I hated it but now I love it. And the reason for my Saul on the Road to Texas conversion was that I actually went there and shattered some of the myths I had always held dear.

My early anti-Americanism came from being a pseudo-rebellious teenager who was happy to ignore the fact that many of my cultural icons were based stateside (Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, the Ramones and Marlon Brando for instances) to harbour the belief that the Americans were basically not a force for good. Indeed, in my old band days (long live The Classified Ads) I even penned the lyrics of an anti-US song with a somewhat ironic title of Brilliant America and I was happy in my safe European home to feel rather superior to our former colonial cousins.

However, having now visited the States three times, I do wonder about what really caused my anti-Americanism because there is so much that is surprising and illuminating about the way they live that I think we could learn from.

For a start, I now really do believe we live in what I can only call 'rip-off Britain'.

Having spent a couple of weeks in American supermarkets and small independent stores, I found countless, depressing examples of how we pay so much more for the same goods as the Americans for reasons that are hard to fathom.

It is not only petrol - which is way cheaper but for which there may be green arguments to say this is not a good thing - but practically everything else on the shelves including brands we know and love which are less expensive and often better quality over there.

All I can ask is - why?

And if you think costs on the high street are cheaper, you should look at the houses on the high street as well. American house prices were always much cheaper than British ones but that gap has widened incredibly because the recent economic crash has virtually halved the value of most US homes. As such the sheer size and quality of a house you could buy for a reasonable sum where we stayed was bewildering. I would estimate you could buy a house in our piece of Michigan for a third of the price of what you would pay in most parts of the UK for a property of similar size.

Another pleasant surprise in the parts of America I was lucky enough to visit was how remarkably clean everything seemed compared to some British cities.

Bath is far cleaner than most places - and I hope the Chronicle's anti-litter campaign last year helped the cause - but in the US towns and cities I visited everything seemed spotless compared to the UK. Public toilets, for example, were by and large incredibly clean and it was a jolt to the system to return to England and use the airport loo to see how different they were from the ones I'd encountered across the pond.

Another intriguing thing was how well-mannered people seemed to be. The Brits have a reputation for being very polite and courteous but in the American stores and particularly the restaurants, the level of attention was as good as anywhere you'd find in the world. People genuinely seemed keen to talk to you, help you and serve you and no matter how complicated your food order, they seemed to take it all in their stride. That was truly refreshing.

As well as being impressed by some of these things, I was also shocked at a few aspects of American life. On one especially memorable evening, my partner's niece, Shae, drove us home from an event on a two hour journey. That is hardly shocking until you realise that she is only 15 years old! Yes, you can drive at that tender age in this part of Michigan but this comes with some interesting restrictions - there must be adults in the car, you can't have more than a couple of teenagers with you and there is a curfew as to when you can drive. It is an intriguing concept and all a far cry from the UK where a 15-year-old driver is a joy rider . . .

Of course as I said in my introduction, no country is perfect and there is certain aspects of American life which didn't appeal. I wasn't keen on the gun culture and seeing the rows of magazines about which weapon you can by for your home 'protection'. And I also found a lot of Americans talked rather too much about people's race and racial background for my liking. In addition many people seemed self-obsessed with the US and had only stereotypical views of other nations. But I shouldn't complain about that last thing. After all I did the same about the Americans - before I went here.

But that apart, my overall impression is that we can learn a lot from our American friends and we are far closer to them than we sometimes care to admit.

The only real sadness I feel this week is that having spent my time praising the UK to our hosts, they will have seen the images of Britain this week and may well wonder if I had been telling the whole truth.

I think I saw the real America while I was away. I just hope they realise they're NOT seeing the real Great Britain this week.

Brilliant America? Not quite. But not far off.

Howdy partners.

A delightful DVD dip into Bath's history

This first appeared in the Bath Chronicle of August 4

As you may have seen in these pages in recent weeks, a new DVD about Bath's history has been released.

Using the words from the Chronicle's archives as its soundtrack, it features some fascinating photos and remarkable cine film to provide an interesting whistle-stop tour through many of Bath's modern historical events.

I was intrigued watching many of the stories unfold and I was particularly absorbed by the stunning and moving footage of what happened to the city during Hitler's aerial bombardment here. The full colour footage of the wrecked streets of Bath really brought the stories I've read about in our pages to life and I truly felt some of the pain that the city still feels to this day about those tumultuous days of 1942.

I was similarly absorbed by some of the other excellent film footage of a far more peaceful time - the 1960s.

The DVD includes some lovely film around the city in those early days of the supposedly swinging '60s when life actually seemed far less hurried and chaotic than it appears today.
The camera takes us all around some of the streets and areas that we love but what genuinely amazed me was not only how few cars were on the road but also the places where people were allowed to park.

You can practically play a game of 'spot the place where you wouldn't get a ticket today' and, trust me, there aren't many.

What this footage showed was why the subject of transport in and around Bath has been such a hot topic ever since the first automobile hit the Bath streets - and yes, that is featured in the DVD too.

I have no doubt that in those days when the 1960s film was being made, there were letters to this paper about the terrible state of the traffic and yet the roads then seemed about as busy as they would be at 3am in the middle of the week now. The frightening thing is if we've gone from that to what we now see in less than a generation, just how much more clogged up could our roads become in years to come? So if you ever want to understand why people get so het up about transport and transport schemes in this city, then this DVD gives you a real clue.

What is also nice about this new addition to Bath's historical archive is that although it clearly shows that much has changed in Bath over the years, we should be very proud that a lot of things remain untouched and unsullied.

Yes, we had the Sack of Bath but this film shows the city still looks and feels much as it did in years gone by and although there will be times when you will watch the DVD and wish that some things hadn't changed at all I suspect, like me, the number of things that look reassuringly familiar will also gladden your heart.

The film is called Bath The Way We Were.

Are you ready yet for Olympic jamboree?

This first appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, July 28.

Today, is July 28, 2011 and I wonder if you have any idea what you may be doing on this exact date 12 months from now?

If you haven't a clue, then perhaps I can give you a few hints?

You could, for example, be at Eton watching rowing. You could also be at Lord's Cricket Ground watching . . . . no, not cricket but archery. Or if you're so inclined, you could be at Horse Guards Parade in London watching beach volleyball.

For yes, whether you like it or not, this time next year all the hype will be at its peak and we will all be engulfed in a full day of action at the start of the London Olympics.

The sheer variety of those sports mentioned above are, to me, what really makes the Olympics so special. If none of those three appeals, then on the same day you could indulge in a spot of fencing, judo, cycling, tennis, boxing, equestrian, gymnastics, volleyball, handball, football, weightlifting, table tennis or swimming. And that's all in just one day.


It's only when I actually looked at that typical day schedule that I realised just how excited I am about the Olympics hitting our turf.

I've always loved the feast of sport that occurs every four years and I love it as much for what it represents as the sport itself. We say that the world is a divided and divisive place but by and large all of this is forgotten when the world comes together for this remarkable jamboree.
Of course, the problems of the world don't go away and the tensions between countries are never far from the surface - whether they are friendly local rivalries or something far more sinister - but over the course of a few weeks it is who wins a running race rather than who wins the arms race that becomes most important to us all.

So I, like many of you who probably also missed out on tickets, will be there next July 28 staring at a TV screen watching sports I don't watch more than once in every four years and cheering on the Brits whether they are handballers (do we even have a team?) gymnasts, boxers or even beach volleyballers - a sport, I hasten to add, that I like purely for the high volleyball content.

And if you are one of those who feels horrified at the thought of your TV screens being dominated by all these weird and wonderful sports for a few weeks then regard this column as doing you a favour. It gives you fully 12 months to book your holiday to run away from it all.

But be warned. I suspect, you won't be able to go anywhere in the world where London 2012 won't be visible. Like death and taxes the Olympics will be impossible to escape from.

Yes, even the handball.

You're hired Tom - but I doubt I would be

This originally appeared in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, July 21, the week after former Bath student Tom Pellereau won the Apprentice...

Like I'm sure a lot of people with Bath connections, I let out a hearty cheer on Sunday night when one of our own scooped the The Apprentice title.

Tom Pellereau, a former University of Bath graduate, defied all the speculation to win the top prize and become a business partner with the enigmatic Lord Sugar.

The combination of Tom's brains and inventiveness with the 'good' Lord's famed business acumen should make for a winning partnership and it is certain we'll be hearing a lot more from our former graduate in the years to come.

But it wasn't only because of his local connections that I'm sure many people were pleased Tom had won the contest.

In among the usual collection of ego-driven, cliche-ridden candidates, Tom stood out as being a decent and honourable chap who, unlike some of his fellow colleagues, probably wasn't prepared to sell his granny and all her possessions to win. He had a steel that he revealed when needed and never lost his dignity en route. So well done to our Bath grad.

One of the things I like about The Apprentice is that it is the one (and I think only) television programme that truly unites our editorial office. Even people who would normally rather put the proverbial pin in their eyes than admit to liking reality TV seem to really warm to The Apprentice and it is for that reason I've long regarded it as the middle class Big Brother. It is reality TV for those who don't like reality TV.

In our office if you come into work on a Thursday morning the first thing you do is pick up a copy of this excellent newspaper (of course) and the second thing you do is discuss the previous night's Apprentice You can feel like a bit of a social pariah if you missed the edition and there seems to even be a pecking order in terms of your credibility about whether you watched the follow up You're Fired programme as well. Your kudos goes up if you watched The Apprentice but dips slightly if you didn't watch Dara O Briain's excellent sister act show. It's just that kind of television programme - you have to watch it with the same commitment as the candidates.

Inevitably perhaps, because it is a show we all seem to like and talk about at our office, you do wonder if you and your colleagues and friends would do well in it.

Personally, I have to admit, I don't think I'd be a very good candidate. I like to think I have a few ideas, I can work well as a team member and will happily project manage, but I'm not sure if I would really score with some of the practical tasks that are required. In saying that, however, I am pretty certain that unlike in the programme this year, I would know that the concept of popcorn being the new biscuit is ludicrous, that the French do indeed love their children and that you don't impress people who love their pooches by urging them that they want to give their pet a food called Every Dog.

So I'll stick to watching, I think. After all, if I don't I might not be allowed in the office of a Thursday.