Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Venice? It's Bath without the traffic

Where the streets have no can be done
Last week in this column I spoke about one of the issues which you can guarantee British people love to talk about – the weather.

And this week I’m focusing on another perennial and universal theme which everyone in Britain (and it seems even more so in Bath) is happy to debate. And that is traffic.
The reason that traffic has been on my mind a lot this week is that I’ve just returned from a lovely few days away in Venice.
Venice, as I’m sure many of you know, is a truly beautiful city and one which shares many things with Bath – beautiful buildings, amazing places to visit and the lovely hustle and bustle of a living, working city whose population is constantly swelled by enthusiastic tourists.

What it doesn’t share, however, is the traffic problem. For, as even the most basic geography student will tell you, Venice is a city based on the water and the only ways you can get around are either on foot, in a boat or if you’re very lucky, in a gondola.

It is like visiting Bath but with the convenience of no A4 or A36 getting in the way.
It felt quite surreal being part of an area where the car was as alien as the spacecraft, but it did highlight again to me something which has been discussed in these pages in recent weeks and that is just what can be done when you have a large stretch of water to help people move around.

The splendidly-positive Bath Avon River Group recently produced a 120-page report for making the most of our river and having now had my Venetian experience, what they say about using our waterways makes even more sense.

Venetians treat boats as their cars/buses and seem to get about to do their daily tasks without any problem whatsoever so it can be done.

My partner Lin and I on a gondola. Look good in Bath these! 
Of course we don’t quite have the Grand Canal running through the heart of our community but we have so many areas where surely a water bus could work and help create a ‘park and float’ mode of transport as  suggested by Nick Brooks-Sykes, who recently took over the key tourism role in the city.
The truth is we simply have to do something at some point to ease the pressure on our roads because all the indications are that more and more people are going to want to use their cars and we simply don’t have the road capacity to cope with them.

I was fascinated this week to see a survey that showed there are now more than one million drivers with licences over the age of  80 (and an amazing 120 are over 100 years old). As the population continues to get healthier and live longer lives, these figures will only increase and with so many youngsters also wanting to get behind the wheel (and who knows how long it will be before 16 year olds are allowed to drive?) we could end up with almost permanent gridlock – something I definitely didn’t see on the waterways of Venice.

So, having now been given a glimpse of how a city can survive without the cars we regard as our essential lifeline, I hope more thought can be put into what we can do with our waterways.

We need it  before we literally reach the end of the road in terms of the traffic that chokes up our city centres.

It's nice 'ere - but where is the traffic???

There's snow business like snow business

This originally appeared in the Bath Chronicle on February 9, 2012

Let’s face it, we Brits love to talk about the weather.

Due to the crazy fact that our weather is so changeable, we never seem to tire of talking about/moaning about and speculating about what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

And, pun very much intended, the weather is the ultimate conversation ice-breaker.

Forget footy, Simon Cowell or the euro crisis, if you really want to engage a fellow Brit in conversational exchanges then phrases such as “it’s a bit parky out there” or “this rain, hey?” are guaranteed “ins”. We don’t always love our weather but we sure as heck love to talk about it.

As such, last Saturday was manna (or rather snowflakes) from heaven for many. Or indeed a glimpse of hell for others.

That is because snow is the ultimate Marmite in the weather kingdom – you either love it or hate it. And unlike Marmite (which is foul by the way) you may even do both depending on how deep it gets and how quickly it disappears.

Saturday’s one-day snow blitz summed up our mixed emotions beautifully. As we had our first serious flaking locally since last winter we went into overdrive with our fingers as active as our toboggans.

The fingers were playing their part by setting the Twitterati alive as the good folk of Bath and beyond told each other about the size of the flakes, where they were landing and (very helpfully) which roads to avoid, which buses had been cancelled and which supermarkets had already run out of Heinz beans as those believing we were heading for a snowbound Apocalypse started stocking up just in case.

A couple of hours on Twitter and you could get the impression the new Ice Age had begun.

The fear was palpable.

And yet, despite the nervous tweets and urgent radio broadcasts, last Saturday was actually a hoot for many others. For a start it was a weekend and so delighted schoolchildren were able to be out in the snow rather than frustratingly watching it through their classroom windows. Excited youngsters took the opportunity to get out and experience the fresh feel of the flakes on their faces and their smiles were a joy to behold. Memories of last year’s genuinely dramatic ‘snowbusiness’ probably left many disappointed that things weren’t quite as a dramatic as they had first thought but nevertheless plenty still took every opportunity to revel in the fun.

And if every cloud has a silver lining, when those are snow clouds then every one creates a silver lining. I truly believe that practically everywhere looks more beautiful when it has a dusting of fresh snow on it and when you have a city and wider area as beautiful as this, then it is like adding a layer of sumptuous cream to an already glorious pudding.

For every “the world’s about to end – stay in your igloo” tweet there were many other pictures being shared around of the day the snow came to town. Although it was probably not much comfort if your bus was cancelled you just knew that many of this year’s Christmas cards had already been given their images thanks to Mother Nature’s weekend visit . Yes, snow may be dangerous, disruptive and at times downright annoying but it has the unique ability to bestow collective beauty as well – and at the weekend it certainly did that in these parts.

Personally I had my own reasons to look nervously out of the window on Saturday., For, as you read this, I should be in Venice and on Saturday, as I changed my pounds into euros, I was rather too gleefully informed by the lady who fed me my crisp new notes that the Venetian canals were all frozen. It’s like getting set to go to Niagara Falls and being told they had dried up.

So I will check into Twitter today and if you are there send me a note (@samholliday) and tell me what the weather’s like here. And in return I will tell you if I am boating along a lake – or skating on it.

The weather. Don’t you just love it?

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The Holocaust - truth is stranger than fiction

It has often been said that truth is stranger than fiction.

There are just some real-life stories that seem so astonishing, so preposterous and so implausible that they would be dismissed out of hand if we knew they were just the product of somebody’s imagination.

In my experience the Holocaust is the prime example of this.

And on Friday night, in the Guildhall in Bath, we heard another story that no-one would have believed had we not heard it from the lips of an actual witness.

I’ve written before in this blog about how the Holocaust has had a profound impact on my life.

It started when I was about 10 and, while off school ill, I stumbled over a TV documentary about Hitler’s genocide which was aimed ay older teeenagers.

As I watched open-mouthed, I found it simply incredulous  to understand how a civilised nation in my parents’ generation could have tried to wipe an entire race of people off the face of a continent.

It just didn't make any sense.

Of course I saw this through the eyes of a naive, innocent pre-teen but even after all this time  that sense of bewilderment and bemusement about the whole horrible event has stayed with me ever since. My journey to try and actually understand how this uniquely evil event could have happened has taken me to Auschwitz and the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem via countless books, films, radio shows and TV series.

But, sadly, I’m still none the wiser.

And in many ways it makes even less sense now than it did through the eyes of  a stunned 10-year-old.

That is why Holocaust Memorial Day is so important to me and so many others and why I’m grateful that in the Bath area Councillor Sarah Bevan has done so much to make sure the day is marked locally. Her latest initiative was to arrange the fascinating talk we had on Friday from a man who survived being in a concentration camp as an 11-year-old child. Yes, 11. He 'lived it' at the age I was just watching TV shows about it and barely coping.... 

Our speaker was Professor Ladislaus Lob, a Hungarian Jew, pictured left, who admits he’s only here today because of a highly controversial character. And here we truly enter that ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ dimension.

The man in question, Reszo Kasztner, pictured below right, saved 1,700 people – including our speaker – by paying the Nazis to give them freedom. The story of how those on the ‘Kasztner train to freedom’ ended up in the horrific concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen but were then taken from it after a number of months and allowed to go to neutral Switzerland was riveting. It would make a film drama every bit as nerve-wracking as the Spielberg depiction of how Oskar Schindler saved ‘his’ Jews from Auschwitz.

However, after the war while Schindler was generally regarded as a hero, the fact that Kasztner had dealt directly with the architect of the Holocaust – Adolf Eichmann – meant he was a highly-divisive man in Israel. After rising in the Government he was accused publicly of collaboration with the Nazis which led him to face a lengthy, gruelling court case – a case he never saw resolved because he was assassinated by a Jewish group.

An incredible life indeed.

Professor Lob, an elegant, humble and entirely dignified man told the story of the Kasztner train and the man himself beautifully. He helped vividly create a new and unforgettable chapter to add to the the book of an era when evil truly did seem to be in the ascendancy

As we all trooped out of the Guildhall (and how good it was to see the place packed) I’m sure we all felt privileged and honoured to have heard this remarkable story. It is one of thousands of astonishing Holocaust stories but no two are alike and all must be heard to get the best possible overview of this distressing period.    

Of course, tragically, there have been other, smaller, genocides since 1945 but the Holocaust remains in a terrifying league of its own and is a chapter of our history that must never be re-written. Or distorted.

We must never forget. And all credit to all of those who arrange events such as this to try and ensure we don’t.