Thursday, 22 March 2012

Print is safe! How we 'beat' digital in the great D:BATE

Like many people in this city full of ideas and opinions, I just love a good debate.

Whether it’s about sport, politics, religion or any of the other facets of life that potentially divide us, I always enjoy witnessing and being part of the cut-and-thrust of lively and engaging verbal battles.

Therefore, I was delighted to see that a new debating forum has started in Bath – called, simply, D:BATE. The organisers of this forum want to create a way for Bathonians to take part in open and passionate discussions about some of the issues that affect us all both locally and nationally.

The winning team - Mike, myself and Robert. Pic: Matt Cardy
They kicked off in impressive style on Monday by tying in with Bath’s excellent digital festival to have a debate on the motion: “Digital is killing the print industry – the presses will stop running in ten years”.

Now, as most of you are reading this in print (although I know some will be reading it on my blog), you can imagine where I stand on the “will print survive” concept and so I was very pleased to be asked to join the team defending and promoting newspapers, books, magazines et al.

The nature of the debate meant that three of us (I was joined by the dynamic duo of Mike Goldsmith from Future and Robert Topping of the wonderful bookshop that carries his name) were each given seven minutes apiece to voice our arguments. These were interspersed by seven minute bursts of the opposite opinion from three equally committed speakers – local digital whizz kids Richard Godfrey and Chris Book and the flamboyant and entertaining author Julian Gough.

The idea was we would all give our opinions, take questions from the floor and then the audience would vote to see which team had won.

The excellent opposition. Above Julian and Richard. On the right is Chris Book.
Pics by Matt Cardy 

I’m delighted to say that we did (so keep your subscription to the Bath Chronicle going until at least 2021!) but I believe it’s not about the winning, it’s about the taking part.

In saying that however, I must confess that, on balance, winning is rather the better option.

The great thing about the night was that although the debate itself was seriously conducted, it was also great fun and I think all of us managed to mix the facts and stats we’d brought with us with a little bit of energy and wit to ensure that the very impressive sized audience in the glorious surroundings of the Pump Room enjoyed every minute.

In the wake of the demise of the Better Bath Forum (which did an equally important job last year), I think D:BATE will fill the gap nicely – and indeed offer something different to what we’ve seen before.
D:People behind Lightful D:BATE.
Some of the organsiers - Pic by Matt Cardy

The bright and breezy team led by Dom Moorhouse are not scared to tackle controversial issues – their next one on June 13 is about whether we need a monarchy right in the midst of the Jubilee celebrations – and there is an zeal and vitality among everyone involved which makes me think this could grow into something really special for the city.

You can find out more about the group at and I hope
that anyone who enjoys a good, healthy debate in a relaxed environment will keep an eye out for their future endeavours.

 Oh and finally, thanks to all of those who voted for our ‘side’. As I say it’s not about winning – but if you believe that then you will believe anything.

Like, for instance, that the presses will stop running in ten years time . . .

Friday, 16 March 2012

Taking a comic turn in pursuit of the write stuff

Let me share a little secret with you.

Many journalists on newspapers secretly fancy themselves as writers of fiction or non-fiction.

The fact that we are, in effect, paid to write makes many of us believe that this obviously proves there is an important book or TV series lurking within us that one day simply must be unleashed on the wider world.

I realised this fact once when I was interviewing an author who told me that he used to work on The Sun.

He said he had handed his notice in when the novel he had written in his spare time was snapped up by a publisher and he decided to devote all his time to writing more books.

When he told his colleagues about this they were all amazed that he had found time to even write a book alongside his “real” work with many also saying they couldn’t understand why he would want to waste his time “messing about” with books anyway.

But then, within the space of a few days, half-a-dozen people, including a couple who had loudly decried him, came up alongside and quietly offered their own manuscripts to pass on to his new-found publisher.

The Sun “Secret Writers Group” was clearly a thriving one.

Seriously funny comedies   
Well, I make no secret of the fact that I would one day love to see a book of mine on the shelves and the fact that a former PA of mine – the lovely Moira Young, author of award-winning Blood Red Road – has already done so merely whets my literary appetite even more.

But could I actually write a novel or do something for TV or radio?
Well, I’m not sure so on Saturday I took advantage (as I said I would in this blog many moons ago) of the fact that the City of Bath College was hosting a one-day course in how to write a TV sitcom to go and find out a bit more about the “write stuff”.

There were only a handful of us on the course but as one woman had travelled all the way up from Plymouth to be there it showed me how lucky we were to have such an unusual seminar on our doorstep.

Top tips - our tutor David Lassman
We were also very lucky to have an excellent tutor – David Lassman, a key player in the Bath Writers’ Group – who stoked all the writing fires within us as he talked about what made a good sitcom, how to develop ideas into making one and what we can learn from the successful shows that have already defined the genre.

All of us on the course came away, I think, feeling encouraged that this is something that we could possibly do and that is why I really admire the college for putting on these kind of courses as part of their excellent Love2Learn programme which give you a taste for something that could readily develop into a full-on craving.

Of course, I’m often reminded that just because everyone can write a book doesn’t mean they should and to the old adage “there’s a book in everyone” I always say the phrase “yes, but it’s probably a bad book”. However, I do think if I did get to the end of my mortal coil having not at least had a go at writing something that could be on the WH Smith book shelves rather than its paper stand then I will be disappointed. Wether it will be a comedy or not I'm not sure - after all how funny we are is like how good we are at driving or how talented we are in more 'intimate' circumstances we probably don't see it as others do! - but I know I will write someday and Saturday may well be the first step in the 'write' direction.  
So, thanks to Bath College and Mr Lassman I will now spend more time thinking about the writing game. And, yep, you read it here first.

Monday, 12 March 2012

'Oddball' Coriolanus reminds me of the joy of learning

A cracking movie
Another very impressive and eclectic Bath Literature Festival has just come to an end and it makes me ponder again on the sheer joy of reading – not only purely for pleasure but also for the educational benefits it brings.

Ever since I dusted off my shoes as I walked away from my college, I have said that I would like to do an Open University degree at some point. That is not for career reasons but it is due to my strong belief that we must never give up learning - or realising the benefits of lifelong education.

The link this has to the joy of reading is that last Monday evening I went to the Little Theatre, in Bath, to see a superb modern day film adaptation of Coriolanus.

For those that don’t know – and don’t worry the vast majority of people don’t – Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser celebrated works about an arrogant soldier who despises being the politician his role requires and ends up turning on the people who attack his proud nature. It is not, by any means, one of Shakespeare’s easiest plays but the film works extremely well by changing its setting to the modern world, truncating its length and truly bringing the text to life.

Shakespeare 2012
The sole reason I was watching it is because I had done Coriolanus for my A-level. While other students at my school had been given much more famous texts such as Hamlet, Othello or King Lear to study, I felt somewhat cheated to have been left with this rather oddball work and after an initial read through I thought that I would never get to grips with it. But, crucially (and thankfully) I did.

And that is because I had to.

As I was forced to study the book, I read through it a number of times, got involved in plenty of class discussions about it and genuinely began to admire everything about it which is why I was very excited last week to see an adaptation of it on the big screen for the first time.
I took some persuading to like this

But the truth is that I would never have even bothered to read this work had I not had the loaded gun of the A-level exam pointing at me and that is why education is a joy – it stretches you beyond your comfort zone and makes you work at something that you may otherwise dismiss.

Indeed, I had a similar feeling about our very own Jane Austen whose book Persuasion I also initially treated with contempt but soon grew to love as my studies developed leaving me with a Miss Austen appreciation which has stayed until this day.

Your never too old to learn 
So, if you’re a student reading this faced with the equivalent of a Coriolanus that doesn’t initially appeal then please stick with it and revel in the fact that you’re being given a chance to challenge yourself.

As the cliche goes, education really does broaden the mind and it definitely broadened my appreciation of works that other people had realised were great while I was all too keen to sneer at them.

Oh and just in case you’re thinking viewing such high-brow films like Coriolnaus will means you will spoilt from enjoying everyday movies, then you’ll be pleased to know that a few days later I went to see The Muppets.

Yes, from Kermit to Coriolanus in just 48 hours. Now THAT’s an all-round education.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Stranglers - a band with a stranglehold on Bath

The great survivors...The Stranglers (left to right Dave Greenfield, Jet Black, Baz Warne and JJ Burnel) 

The news we revealed last week that Bath is to stage a three-day punk festival (see post below this one)  as an alternative to the Jubilee celebrations in June, means the city is getting ever more associated with that particular nice ‘n sleazy musical genre which swept through the nation in the late 1970s.

For, just a couple of miles away from where the festival will be based at the Bath Racecourse, is a house which has become the semi-permanent home for one of punk’s great survivors – The Stranglers.

The band have rented a house in the Lansdown area for the best part of three years and it is there that they have written the material that makes up their critically-acclaimed new studio album Giants which was released on Monday.

And, as further proof of the unlikely connection between the city and the band that brought the nation such memorable moments as No More Heroes, Peaches and Golden Brown, the closing track on the new  album is about the city of Bath – and more particularly the rented house that the Stranglers often call home.

“Yes, the song 15 Steps is about the house I’m actually sat in right now,” said singer/guitarist Baz Warne.

Honorary Bathonian Baz Warne

“We’ve had three years of fun here in Bath getting this album together and we’ve had some proper rock and roll, tear-the-wall down parties here as well as some really heavy sessions of song writing. After such epic nights I used to go upstairs and count the steps to the salvation of my bedroom – it was 15 steps in all so I wrote a song about it”.

Despite originally being from Sunderland, Baz has really found an affinity with Bath and the south-west in general. After joining the band in 2000 – alongside three of its four founder members, Jet Black, Dave Greenfield and Jean Jacques Burnel – Baz found that the band spent a great deal of time in the south west as their management and rehearsal studios were based in Norton St Philip.

He spent some years living in Frome before making the move to Bath where he shares a house with the other three Stranglers when they get together. And he can’t get enough of the place.

“I do love Bath,” he mused. “I absolutely love it.

“I feel I’m going to end up here in my old age as I really have an affinity with the place. It’s big enough to be a city but not too big that it’s an urban sprawl.

“There’s just a nice vibe to it – it makes me smile and I love the west country way.”

As well as enjoying many places to eat and drink in Bath (15 Steps refers to how close the town is for a “spot of libation”) the city has given the band a place to think and write and given them the inspiration behind their new 10-track album which has already earned rave reviews.

The Stranglers fans are famous for their loyalty. This is  a group pictured at one of their tours last year.  
A number of the very varied tracks that make up this powerhouse of an album are set to be showcased alongside an equally eclectic mixture of ‘golden oldies’ on their current lengthy tour which includes a trip to the Bristol O2 Academy on Saturday, March 17.

The album has been a long time coming – it is the band’s first for five years – but Baz believes it is well worth the wait.

“The interest in Giants has just been unbelievable. I honestly do believe that it’s because we’ve made a very good record. When you are so involved in an album at some stage you have to sit back and listen to it objectively and I’ve reached the stage now where I can listen to the album in its entirety and just appreciate it. It takes a while to do that – but I’m there now.”

Although this is the band’s first release since the excellent Suite 16 in 2006, they have certainly not been idle and despite a collective age of over 240 years, the quartet have toured consistently in the interim period playing regualr tours and becoming firm festival favourites. And now they are in the midst of one of their biggest British and European tours for many years. Not bad for a band whose oldest member was elligible for a bus pass eight years ago....  

“You can’t beat live music and there’s been a real upswing in the gigging scene again,” enthused the ‘baby’ of the band Baz ( a mere 47).

Me and The Stranglers. I am the one in the suit!

"There’s no better way of informing people about your music than by just going out there. We like to just chuck our stuff in the back of the van and reconnect with people. For a band like us, especially the three old lads, it’s all in your psyche – the record is out so you go on tour because that’s what we’ve always done.  And the reaction is always great.”

As a band that has continued to defy their critics and are still together 38 years after first registering their name, The Stranglers see no reason why they should ever consider hanging up their famous bass lines and keyboard solos so we can expect to see them strutting their stuff through Bath for many a year to come....

“The Stranglers have survived because they never split up and they now have legendary status. Even the diehards that I’ve seen at 50 gigs down at the front, they’re standing around with their mouths open that they’re still seeing the Stranglers. And that’s brilliant,” said Baz.

Giants is available now and for details of the bands trip to the Bristol Academy – and the rest of the dates on their extensive British tour – see

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A 1977 punk festival in Bath? Damned right...

Bath, as we all know, is a city of festivals. Last week, for instance, we had our fantastic LitFest kicking off and throughout the year there are many other great festival events to look forward to celebrating all aspects of culture and business.

However, I’m sure one newly announced festival this week will raise a few eyebrows.

For a three-day festival to celebrate that peculiarly English musical tradition of ‘punk rock’ has been pencilled in to take place at the Bath Racecourse at the start of June.

It is designed to be an alternative way of celebrating the Jubilee because, as every pop musical historian will know, 1977 – which was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee – was also the year that punk rock really took over the nation to provide an unforgettable contrast between the pomp and circumstance of royalty and the rough and ready excitement of a glorious musical genre which genuinely frightened the establishment.

Now, as some of you who are regular readers of this blog will know, I am an unabashed child of punk and to me the news of this new festival is like three chord manna from heaven.

I can genuinely say that just as ’50s rock ‘n’ roll defined the life and lifestyle of many people who grew up with it and the ’60s pop culture left an indelible stain on all those who lived through it, the advent of punk and its gentler sister, new wave music, changed my life forever.

I was a spotty 13-year-old in 1977 when I first heard the strains of this new musical movement through my tinny (and decidedly non-digital) radio. To say it was love at first sight (or rather first aggressive note) would be an understatement and I went on to be an ardent fan (to this day) of many of the greatest exponents of this particular musical art form – including of course Bath’s own Stranglers who I’ve managed to see the best part of, ahem, 100 times.

The thing about the whole punk era was not just that I think it produced some stunning and challenging music at a time when pop really was in a pretty bad state but it also brought with it a sea change in how music should be perceived. The punk ethos was that bands shouldn’t be aloof, distant figures but everyone should be encouraged to pick up a guitar, learn three chords and form their own band.  And that is exactly what me and my small but proud bunch of punkified-teens in my hometown of Tamworth, Staffordshire, did and music took over our life and has stayed central to it ever since.

As I look at the line up of Bath’s three days of punk prowess at the racecourse (The Buzzcocks, The Damned, The UK Subs, Rezillos, 999, The Lurkers et al)  I know it will be a wonderful if bone-creaking trip down memory lane for both fan and artist alike and should be a loud and timely reminder of a truly unique and exciting period of music which really rocked the nation.

And the fact that the city is hosting such an event is amazing. What other cities could enjoy Mozart and Jane Austen festivals alongside one featuring bands like The Anti-Nowhere League and The Vibrators?

I always said this was a fantastic and eclectic city for music but even I didn’t expect to see a celebration of all things punk right at the same time as our legendary international music festival. 

So crank up the volume – and bring it on . . .

Performing a vital role for us all

Last Friday I had the privilege of hearing a lullaby of Broadway. No, I didn’t need to go Stateside to do so, I just needed to pop up to Kingswood Theatre, in Bath, to watch a truly uplifting performance of the hit musical 42nd Street played out by the enthusiastic youngsters of the Zenith Youth Theatre.

Zenith – originally called the Bodlets – have been providing high quality youth theatre for youngsters in Bath for nearly 50 years but this was the first time I’d actually seen the team in action for myself. And I came away thoroughly impressed by the sheer energy and excitement this splendid organisation generates.

I was impressed with every aspect of the show from its high production values to the efforts put in by the youngsters who sang, danced and acted with sheer gusto to leave everyone with a smile on their face and a tune in their head.

I think organisations like Zenith do a wonderful job. There are so many youngsters now who want to go on the stage and become stars of screen or the theatre but groups like this remind youngsters that you really do have to put the legwork in and, by so doing, you greatly enhance your chances of becoming that next ‘overnight sensation’.

But to me groups like Zenith and the many others who provide opportunities for youngsters to take part in the performing arts offer far, far more than just the chance of being the one in a thousand who can become a major star.

I suspect the vast majority of those in the troupe I saw on Friday probably don’t ever want to go down that stardom route, but they want a hobby that will be fun, will enhance their ability to work as a team player and will give them the chance to develop their personalities so they can be stronger and more confident in the wider world.

I can still recall watching with a tear in my eye when I first saw my daughter appear on stage doing ballet at the tender age of three. She danced enthusiastically for many years and eventually joined a youth theatre group herself that led her to perform with other youngsters in the chorus of some big shows in the Midlands. But even when she finally hung up her tap shoes and put down her scripts, what stayed with her was a confidence, self-belief and positive outlook on life which she’s carried with her ever since.

In my experience encouraging youngsters to take part in the performing arts – whether it’s singing the Lullaby of Broadway, playing in a rock band or learning to dance –- provides a sense of both fun and comradeship but also encourages discipline and a real sense of purpose and commitment.

I came away excited by what I’d seen on Friday and if some of the genuinely talented youngsters I witnessed go on to be stars, then that’s great. However, if being part of a group like Zenith just makes the majority of those youngsters, better, more confident and happier people in the future, then that is every bit as important as seeing their names on the real Broadway.

So well done Zenith – and well done also to every other group that gives our youngsters a chance to shine under those bright lights.