Tuesday, 30 June 2009

In Defence of Trident

"The recession” seems to be used as an excuse for everything these days. Everyone seems to want to be charged less for everything or get special “credit crunching” deals. While this might make sense as a short-term marketing strategy, given that suppliers of goods and services have the same bills to pay, it’s not something that can hold up in the medium to long term. I can’t afford to charge clients less for what I do, irrespective of general economic conditions. Frankly, I don’t want to become Woolworth’s.

And so, to link my charges for tourism services to the cost of a nuclear deterrent for Britain…….

I find it truly bizarre, that we are even considering abandoning the UK’s nuclear capability. Future generations would marvel at ours’ naivety in maintaining nuclear weapons for half a century and then abandoning them just at the time when unstable, dangerous countries such as North Korea and Iran are apparently on the road to getting the bloody things.

We may not be the USA, Russia or even China but I feel safer for the deterrent and think its (hefty) price is one can can’t afford not to pay.

I think I might search out a “Keep the Bomb” sticker for my 2CV.

God Save the Queen

I see the debate about the cost of our Monarchy has been kicked off again by the revelation that they cost the country £41.5 million last year, not including the cost of security.

“They” is an interesting pronoun here, though. What the media never make clear is that these costs are not the personal “wages” if you like of Mrs. Elizabeth Windsor; they are the cost of running the institution of monarchy, the cost of actually having a Head of State.

For example, Royal Palaces are not the personal property of the Queen but instead belong to the Crown (a subtly different institution). In effect, they belong to the state, so all the arguments about who pays for their upkeep are actually rather fatuous. We wouldn’t be surprised at the government paying for repairs to the “Palace” of Westminster, 10 Downing Street, or an office block full of government workers. The same applies to Buckingham, Saint James and Holyrood Palaces, as well as Windsor Castle. (It does not, though, apply to Sandringham or Balmoral, which are the private property of Mrs. Windsor.)

Costs for security would not be any different if we were providing it for an elected official.

The Queen is 83 and still working a full schedule. How anyone can’t admire that amazes me.

So yes, I am a firm supporter of the monarchy. This is not out of some forelock-tugging subservience (as those who know me will attest!). Nor is it because of some perceived benefit to tourism. (I don’t consider that having a monarch causes people to flock here wanting to see her; and frankly I should know! After all, people flock to Versailles and that’s not had a resident monarch for some time…….)

Instead, my enthusiasm for monarchy is fuelled by its giving our country a sense of continuity and identity. In an era when such things are often unfashionable, I am proud to be a Briton. And an Englishman. And a Brummie! (And a European, too, for that matter.) None of these things is exclusive of another. I like the trappings of government and power, symbols and traditions which tell the story of rights wrested by the people through the centuries in a process of evolution rather than revolution. Indeed, these things tell the history our our country far more effectively than, ahem, any tour guide could. Ours nation’s is a story of hard won rights, now guaranteed by a delightfully British system which perhaps shouldn’t work but does.

Republics always seem deeply artificial things to me. They are the Milton Keynes or Bracknells of nations, as opposed to our being a Stonehenge or Canterbury! I know a lot of people like the idea but are the Nicolas Sarkozys or Barak Obamas of this world any more “of the people” than the Queen? I would consider not. They may come from a variety of backgrounds but they end up in the same rarefied atmosphere of power and seclusion. At least ours are born for it.

Long may they continue.

Not So Cynical For Once

I saw one of our neighbours yesterday.

She’s just gained an NVQ related to her work and she was absolutely delighted. In fact she was so delighted, it rubbed off on me and I was delighted, too!

In an era when it’s possible to see so many certificates, diplomas and so on that they get devalued, it was a salutary reminder that often they not only provide the holders with useful skills and training, they also boost confidence and give people the “will” to go that bit further.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Keeping You Posted as Promised

Well, following a series of phone calls (fitting them in between the minor matter of doing two guiding jobs today), I'm happy to report that Mum's cancelled hospital appointment is now miraculously "uncancelled".

Firm but polite works.

Sunshine, Doctor Who and the NHS: a varied weekend

I know we’re always supposed to be delighted with the fine, sunny weather and I confess I do like to be able to walk around in some sunshine without a coat.

However, this weekend has seen the sort of temperatures in which I can only really survive in a swimming pool. And certainly not in a collar and tie walking around towns explaining relevant and amusing tales to people…….

On Saturday, I spent a whole day showing a group various sites around London associated with Doctor Who. It was necessary to leave my long woollen scarf behind, although I did take the sink plunger. (Yes, really.) Fortunately only after I’d finished for the day and was enjoying a rather pleasant pizza in Borough High Street did the heavens open and the rains come! It reminded me of the sort of weather you get in Northern Queensland, where a spectacularly hot day in followed by a “late storm”. Actually, Borough High Street isn’t that much like Northern Queensland, to be honest but I can dream.

Yesterday I ran a brand new tour in Wantage, the birthplace of Alfred the Great and (more importantly for me) long-time home of Sir John Betjeman. Again, it was bright and sunny and pleasant. It’s just that I wanted to be at the beach or in the garden having a barbecue and instead I was in a collar and tie working.

I’ve two jobs today, too. However, they’re in the afternoon and evening, so am I enjoying a morning off? Oh no. Mum has had a hospital appointment for tomorrow (TOMORROW!) cancelled. The same department did the same thing with the same lack of notice last December and I had a long and protracted discourse with the head of department who said they’d put in new procedures to stop this happening. Plainly this was drivel, so she’s getting a phone call at 9.00am.

I’ll keep you posted!

Friday, 26 June 2009

A Pleasure to See

We went out to get a take-away last night (it'd been a long day for both of us) and saw something we thought rather charming in the queue.

There were a considerable number of children there (I'd say aged about 10), all apparently on their way back from a sports practice. Although they were loud and plainly just having fun they were:

  • well behaved
  • of both sexes
  • of three separate races.......and above all
  • happy and content in each other's company.

In an era when these things aren't taken for granted, we both remarked how pleasant, refreshing and hopeful this was. Quite made our evening!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A Question of Tourism

I’ve had some strange things happen to me on tour over the years, to the point where you think that every situation you encounter will have arisen before.

I had a new one today, though.

Towards the end of a very full afternoon tour of the Cotswolds, the people at the back of the coach sent a note to me at the front containing a list of questions about things they’d like me to answer about the day. Well, sort of about the days.

Along with questions about Oolithic Limestone and crops, I was asked about location filming for the Benny Hill Show and Monty Python.

I’ll leave you to work out which country most of them were from! :-)

Monday, 22 June 2009

Mobile Upgrade

Although going through what is generally termed a “busy patch” at the moment, I managed to find time yesterday to change my mobile phone.

My previous one was starting to develop some minor hiccups and – as I’ve been using it more and more to access the World Wide Web on the move - I thought it was about time I upgraded.

My initial enquiry in a mobile shop in London resulted in a Spotty Youth [TM] managing to patronise me about how old my previous model was (“like two whole years, man”) and to try to blind me with technology. The latter at least, I had some defence against. When a phone’s “HD TV” capabilities were pointed out, I felt it necessary to point out firstly that “HD” would be a bit pointless on a 3” screen and secondly that, er, no, mobile TV isn’t HD at all. His defence to that was that “HD just means it’s digital”! Yeah, right…….

Anyway, after finishing a job yesterday, I visited the Orange Shop at Merry Hill (don’t these shopping places get busy at the weekend?!) and found the epitome of a helpful, clued-up shop assistant, called Lee. He went through several options, explained stuff clearly and sold me what looks like a fun piece of kit which goes under the name of a Nokia 5800. To be fair, it can do all manner of things I don’t understand but then every mobile I’ve owned since about 2002 has been able to do that. This one provides music, TV (poor old standard definition), GPS and a camera,; and those are just the things I’m not likely to use. It wouldn’t surprise me if there was a setting that enabled it to rustle up a quick casserole for those unexpected guests.

I’m especially impressed though that it can synchronise with my diary, send texts and even allows me to make phone calls.

“Whatever will they think of next.”

Friday, 19 June 2009

Damning With Faint Praise!

I was working in London on Wednesday, doing a short afternoon panoramic coach tour for a mostly US and Canadian group. Very nice peopel and an enjoyable day.

Coming over Southwark Bridge, I said that – when we were training – we were always told that of you go over Southwark Bridge it means you’re lost.

“You mean,” said one of the passengers, incredulously and without a hint of irony “you train to do this?”

Oh dear!

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

From Good Day to Bad Day

Long day today but a very enjoyable one.

I did a panoramic London tour today for a mostly American group. (Memo to self…….don’t do irony, it’s not transatlantic.)

Then this evening I had a two hour walking tour of Maidenhead of all places. It’s not superficially a town to promise much but in fact it’s a thoroughly enjoyable place to show to people. Happily, it was a really responsive group, too. When I hear someone saying “I’d never thought of that before” or “I come this way all the time and I’ve never noticed that” it makes everything, the preparation, the travelling, the learning, all worthwhile. It made me feel just great.

Off to Oldham tomorrow (Thursday) for Grahame’s funeral. He came down here to see us marry; we think it’s the least we can do to go North for him one last time.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Grahame Collinge RIP

I want to write a few words about my friend, my colleague and my mentor, Grahame Collinge, who passed away very suddenly on Wednesday 10 June 2009.
I meet a lot of coach drivers in my life but Grahame was truly unique. He became a close and true friend, both to me and to Louise and we both miss him very, very much.

Paris and Beyond
The first time I ever worked with Grahame was on a Paris tour.
Upon arrival at the hotel, while getting the luggage out of the coach, my copy of the Rough Guide fell out of the briefcase and landed in a puddle, ruining it.
Grahame was really distraught, as I think he thought I’d be relying on it for the tour. When I managed a tour without it, I don’t know if he was relieved or what but he always used to tell me I did the best tours of Paris. He might have said that to every guide he worked with but he did sound awfully sincere and he did my confidence no end of good.
Certainly, when joining a tour en route, I could always be sure he’d told everyone what I’d be doing and assure them that they were in good hands. He’s the best warm up act I’ve ever had!
I’ve lost count of the places where I’ve worked with him: London, Paris, Cologne, Norwich and Milton Keynes all spring to mind, but there were many others. With Grahame, it was the company you remembered, not the destination.

Grahame in the Culinary Capital of the World
Working with Grahame in Paris was always a pleasure.
It’s not an easy city for coach drivers, with difficult routes to negotiate (especially when being navigated by me) and draconian parking conditions.
When taking the group for an evening meal up in the Latin Quarter, coach parking was virtually impossible, unless the driver remained with the vehicle, ready to move it if the police appeared. To make up for this, I would always get the restaurant to plate up a meal for the driver and take it on foot up the hill for him to eat while we were all in the restaurant.
Well, on one occasion, I took the meal up as planned and quickly returned to the good food and music back down in the restaurant. Later in the evening, walking the tired but happy (ie “merry”) group back to the coach, we settled in for the ride back to the hotel, for Grahame to pop up on the microphone and explain how I’d provided him with a lovely meal of beef with all the gravy and sauce and vegetables, just as they’d had…….but with no knife or fork!
Undaunted, he’d improvised by cutting up and eating the whole meal using a teaspoon from the drinks servery on the coach!
On another Paris trip, I ended up translating a French television news report about the Oldham riots. I confessed that I was having trouble with one word, which sounded like “glodique”. To Grahame’s intense amusement, this turned out to be the French pronunciation of Glodwick, an area of Oldham, apprently. Grahame trotted that story out to groups in my presence for years afterwards.

On another occasion in London, I was telling the group all about the beheading of Anne Boelyn and how as queen she had the right to choose the axeman who would behead her. Without missing a beat, Grahame chimed in to say that, in her place, he’d have chosen David Blunkett!
Shortly after I met Louise, Grahame and I worked together on a London tour.
One day was completely free and – as we were staying in Central London, - we went for a walk.
Grahame was suffering from gout at the time and “couldn’t do much walking”. I, however, had just met Louise and was determined to tell Grahame all about her. So I suggested that we go for a “short gentle walk”. While listening patiently to me, we walked right across Central London, from Marble Arch to the Tower! All the time, Grahame listened intently and made all sorts of encouraging noises about how I might “play things”.
He must have said the right thing as Louise subsequently became my wife and Grahame was an honoured guest at our very small wedding. And not once on that fateful day in London did he complain about his gout!

More memories
Laughter just abounded with things that happened to him.
He took a group to an hotel in Reading once, where the receptionist allowed everyone to check into rooms…….only for the manageress to then come to Grahame to tell him that it was the wrong hotel! Everyone then had to pack up again and move down the road. This was caused by a mix-up, not Grahame’s fault. But no group could have blamed him for anything anyway. His personality was so friendly and lovable that you couldn’t have disliked him if you’d tried. No one ever did.
It was as varied as hearing him talk about losing his glasses in the River Seine, or being stranded at Dover with half a coach of Chinese who were refused entry to France. Relying on less-than-professional tour managers was another source of stories, all told with the Collinge sense of style. There were three hotels in Brussels called "The President”, he said once about such a tour, “Guess which two we went to first!”
He was always going on to me about being educated in “Northern things”. This often seemed to centre around getting me to sample a “Holland’s Pie”…….a delicacy unknown in the Midlands. When I eventually found one for sale and ate it, in Blackpool, I had to ring Grahame straight away to tell him!
When he applied to get a cat from a rescue centre, the officials deemed his home too near a main road for a cat. They did, however, say that he was eligible to adopt a goat, which wasn’t quite what he had in mind!
At one time, Grahame was the proud owner of a BMW.
On one trip away, he received a slightly frantic call from his coach company to say that a “steam roller” (sic) engaged on work in their yard had “run over” his car. He said he expected to go home to find the said vehicle 60 yards long but two inches high. Fortunately, it turned out to be a minor collision!
Improvising seemed to be a speciality of his.
On another occasion, bound for foreign parts where kettles in rooms are a rarity, at a motorway service area he bought a “Travel Set”, consisting of a travel kettle and a steam iron.
Upon arrival, he found that the kettle didn’t work…….so improvised for the duration of the holiday by boiling water for his tea in the steam iron!
One night, I found myself in Manchester, trying to get from Piccadilly Station to my hotel. There was some problem with taxis, so I decided to walk but wasn’t sure of the way.
I called Grahame, who was indeed able to help me…….but who was having problems of his own at the time.
He was in Blackpool, having taken a football team from Manchester’s Chinese community to play a match. Unfortunately, the so-called “friendly” game had proved to be anything but and a fight broke out with the opposing team during the match.
Again, Grahame’s legendary story telling abilities enlivened the tale, as he recounted scenes of flying leaps culminating in Kung Fu style kicks!

Family Affairs
Grahame always spoke with great love and affection about his family. They were all people who – although I never met them in his lifetime – I felt I knew so very well!
Grahame would always regale me (and others) with tales of his late mother, who remained fit and active into her eighties.
A favourite story of his was to tell how – upon seeing television pictures of prisoners rioting on the roof of Strangeways Prison – she commented that these people “wanted locking up”! As told by Grahame, though, this was a much better story. He had a comedy timing which went very well with his accent (I always thought he sounded exactly like Les Dawson).

Last Words
As it turned out, the last time I was ever to see this special, special man was just a few weeks ago when he brought a group to Stratford-upon-Avon and arranged for me to do a tour for them.
It was – like every job with him – a pleasure from start to finish.
He’d prepared the group for me (the best warm-up act in the business, remember) and we had a great time, with lots of laughter with the group during the whole tour.
At one point (and bearing in mind I’ve been guiding in Stratford for 18 years), he managed, in true Grahame fashion, to misunderstand what I’d said and took the coach down the wrong road, taking us through a residential street, to the amusement of everyone on board.
“Eighteen years I’ve been at this” I yelled at him in mock frustration “and still you’ve managed to get me into a road I don’t know”!
As it happened, Louise wasn’t working that day and she came along and met us at the end.
She and Grahame laughed and hugged and he joked to me that he was taking her back ‘Up North’ with him.
We laughed and waved goodbye and said we would indeed come back ‘Up North’ to see him next time.
We were never to see him again. Louise and I were very honoured indeed to have known this kind, jolly and wonderful man; we truly will miss our dear friend Grahame.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Bristol Bus Station

On Sunday I was in Bristol so went for a look around the new(ish) bus station. (I do like my cultural sights, don't I?)

On passing the National Express counter, I heard the lady on duty there saying in a distinctly fed up voice "Why do people keep coming here for local bus information?"

"Yes," I thought to myself "I bet they get a lot of that. People don't read signs, do they?"

However, a few metres further on I found the FirstBus Information shop.......which was closed being Sunday! No wonder people head for National Express!

I know that not everything can open 24/7/365 and that these things have a high (labour) cost. However, at such a major (and busy) bus station, there really ought to have been somewhere to get local bus information, even on a Sunday.

This is one of the things that makes public transport the resort of the desperate and always makes me a bit sad as I think it should be a good solution attractive to everyone. That said, I was very impressed not so much with the design of the bus station but its cleanliness and the fact that it felt "pleasant", with none of the sometimes slightly threatening, down-at-heel fee you get in a lot of them (have a look at Redditch Bus Station sometime!).

Yes, there are LED displays but these are only of limited use for people who aren't familiar with local geography, being a bit short on detail.

Still, maybe I'm just old-fashioned. Enquiry offices, like timetable books, are just so twentieth century, aren't they?

Tower of Strength

I've just been dealing with the Tower of London, booking a group in for the autumn.

This is of course a huge and busy tourist attraction which, frankly, doesn't have to be extra nice, at least in the short term. People will go there anyway.

So what a pleasant surprise it was to be dealt with in a friendly, co-operative manner by the lady on the telephone who was there, who had all the answers, who knew what she was doing and who above all, sounded as though she was pleased we were going.

Some (not all but some) attractions in the Midlands that I've had dealings with under similar circumstances might do well to learn from their colleagues at the Tower. At some of them, large and small, I've had problems with being made frankly unwelcome with groups in the past year. I hope it's not a trend.......

(To praise the Midlands for once though, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust deserve a mention here for having improved their welcome immeasurable over recent years.)

Monday, 8 June 2009

To Tour or Not to Tour

I usually rant to anyone that will listen about unruly French schoolchildren on walking tours in places like Stratford. They don’t want to be there and – money aside – I don’t want to be working with them.

Let me therefore tell you about a group of 14 year olds I encountered there today…….

They were due not only to have a walking tour of the town but also had to be walked from Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery to the town centre and then have a walking tour (for complex logistical reasons I won’t bore you with here).

Well, they arrived two hours late because they’d encountered severe traffic on the motorway. They had a picnic (sorry pique nique) lunch and then were remarkably attentive for their tour of the Cottage. You’re 14, you’re abroad for the first time, do you really want some eccentric Englishman telling you about wattle and daub? (Actually, I liven it up with pre-marital sex and cow shit but that’s another story.)

Then we walked into town and did the tour – over two hours in total – and they remained happy and polite and interested all the time. Yes, they looked a bit worn out but it was a long day.

Only towards the end did I discover that they’d come straight here from, er, La Rochelle, leaving at 6.00pm the night before, travelling across France overnight, leaving Calais at 6.00am and then throwing themselves onto the mercy of the M25. No loo stop (coach driver’s hours rules) and straight into me doing my Bard of Avon routine.

These kids deserved the legion d’honneur. I record my thanks to them here in Cyberspace!

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Virtute et Industria

I've been working in Bristol (left) today and that seemed as good an excuse as any to practice uploading a photo to the Blog for the first time.

It's always been one of my favourite cities but somehow today I was really in the mood to do it. Nice responsive group, too which helps. Even the rain held off, which is certainly a bonus.

My work is just great sometimes. Not always.......but sometimes!

BBC Radio 4: Americana

I’ve been listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme called Americana.

It’s not easy to follow in the footsteps of the legendary Letter From America but this both managed to do so and kept me riveted to the radio. Young Republicans debating David Cameron’s inspiration, the building of an Eco Town in tornado-wrecked Greensburg, Kansas and a Country singer who takes his inspiration from Islamic poetry were just some of the items featured in this compelling programme.

I am thankful to have the BBC. And I am especially thankful to have BBC Radio 4. Fascination at the touch of a button.

Long may it continue.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Local Small Businesses: the Pros and Cons

We hear a lot these days about the horrors of globalisation and the way in which big chain stores and brand names destroy local businesses and create “clone towns”.

Well, in an attempt to do a little to avert this and so that any post-sale problems were only a telephone call and a short ride away, we have for many years patronised a local electrical shop. To this end, we have a house full of their AV equipment; so does my mother; and so does my mother-in-law.

Last week, we bought a new freezer from them and everything seemed to be going well. Until Wednesday that was, when the thing suddenly started sounding an alarm and flashing its lights like R2D2 on Ecstasy.

A quick call to the shop connected me initially with a sales assistant who eventually gave us instructions to turn off the alarm and then promised to organise an engineer.

“Great,” I thought, “this is why it’s better to use a local firm.”

Ten minutes later, a woman calls me from the regional service agent for the large manufacturer of said freezer. Sounding monotone and automated and sprinkling her conversation with jargon, she ‘informed’ me that they would send an engineer (great)…….next Monday (not great with a freezer full of food).

Being me, I told her that this wasn’t acceptable and she flatly (and without a hint of regret, sorrow or apology) said Monday it is. I told her that this was “one stage removed from ‘Computer says no’…….and she hung up.

It is an increasing technique in what passes for a service industry in this country that people being challenged or criticised hide behind the “I don’t have to take rudeness” excuse when no rudeness is given, merely disagreeing and asking for something better.

Needles to say, I called straight back (no they didn’t withhold their number) and spoke to the manager. Indeed, he turned out to be the owner of the company, or so he claimed. Perhaps realising that I wasn’t going to be deflected from getting what I wanted, he became very defensive. To be somewhat immodest, he wasn’t much of a match for me in the verbal reasoning department, trying the same “you can’t talk to us like that” tack when all I was doing was telling him what he needed to do. In particular, I was worried about the contents of the freezer, a subject he deliberately tried to avoid; sadly for him, I am very good at posing “closed” questions and trapping people into saying things that are (a) true and (b) not what the questioner wants to admit. Realising this was going nowhere, I ended the call and returned to dealing with the shop.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the shop tried very hard to deal with the problem, including making a very apologetic call before closing time to say they were trying to get another engineer or to arrange a swap. (Annoyingly, they insisted on using the jargonistic term “uplift” when “swap” or “replacement” would have been better.)

Problem for the shop was…….they didn’t have engineers skilled in the subject of freezers. Television, DVDs: yes. Freezers: no.

So the moral of this story? It’s all very well to use a local shop…….but when something goes wrong, they themselves might not be able to solve the problem because they don’t have the knowledge or the resources. Yes, if I’d gone to a chain store I’d still have been dealing with Computer Says No woman and Puffed Up Little Businessman with their “we do it like this attitude”; but at least I’d have paid less for the appliance in the first place.

After further pressure from me first thing, they did eventually send out a member of staff from the shop (the salesman himself) early this morning. Within seconds he identified the problem (to do with where the freezer is located) and the difficulty was resolved. If only they’d done that the previous afternoon, the shop wouldn’t have lost all their future business from us. Pity that. For them.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Something for the Weekend

Having spent today doing all the sort of domestic stuff "normal" people do at the weekend, we're off out for a meal tonight with freinds to one of our favourite restuarants before I settle down to a weekend of, er, work.

Still, it's all stuff to look forward to. Tomorrow I have a tour of Birmingham's iconic Number 11 Outer Circle bus route for a private group. Although following a bus route - and one through suburbia at that - might not seem a particualrly attractive option at first sight, it is in fact filled with all sorts of points of interest from a Roman road to Birmingham's oldest pub and people from a fictional policeman to a "White Ogre".

Then on Sunday I'll be heading west to the lovely, lovely city of Bristol, one of my favourites. I'll even be looking up the home of my Great Great Grandfather which I think is still standing.

All I need now is a few hours of dry weather.

Have a good weekend, everyone!

Female Non Verbal Communication

I am apparently supposed to work out that the presence of an empty laundry basket at the foot of the stairs is some mysterious code for “when you next go upstairs, don’t just step over it, take it up”.

I’m happy to do so, but it’s no substitute for verbal communication.


Lawn to be Wild

Okay, I’ve mowed the lawn, used an electric rake and strimmer and pierced holes all over it with a fork. It still looks a bit rubbish.

I’ve decided that I am to gardening what Gordon Brown is the Britain’s Got Talent.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

A Load of Old Ballots

Tomorrow, we go to the polls to elect our Members of the European Parliament (and for those out in the sticks, County Councils, too).

Politicians and indeed politics have certainly been getting something of a drubbing lately but between all the talk of toilet seats, duck islands, moats and soft-porn cable downloads, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we are lucky to be able to vote at all.

In our country, over a period approaching a thousand years, there was a steady (very steady) rise to democracy. And – although our system may not be perfect – that we are able to choose who governs us and how they do it is a cherished right.

For this reason, I become very upset at people who don’t vote. It always feels to me a betrayal of the struggle by those that went before us: the Chartists meeting at the foot of Newhall Hill in Birmingham; the Suffragettes (and their many male allies) in their varied protests; the introduction of secret ballots; and not least the military and civilian sacrifices necessary in the last century to preserve our freedom and independence. The least we can do is vote to participate in the system. Voting is compulsory in Australia and Belgium and the UK would be a better place for it, too.

All this misty-eyed admiration does not absolve politicians from their wrongdoings, though, which is why I have always had a healthy disrespect for them. I never lose sight of the fact that they are there to serve us, not the other way around. I often feel the need to point this out when some puffed up little prick (sorry but they really can be) is preening himself as though he were God when in fact he is a “Cabinet Lead Member for Paper Clips” in the Metropolitan Borough of Nowhere-that-matters-very-much. And it’ll have “Beacon Status” you can be sure.

I am also a believer in single-member constituencies and first-past-the-post voting because I believe it concentrates responsibility and service in one individual. Yes, I know that the make-up of councils and indeed Parliament does not in such circumstances reflect the proportion of votes cast. I also know that the smaller parties would like PR…….basically because it makes them more powerful.

For the European elections we have these vast constituencies covering whole regions and where no-one feels that their MEP is in any way “theirs”.
But I believe that the party system is not the root of our democracy, whatever the parties like to think. Our elected members are. We should look to our individual representative, not think in terms of voting for his or her party or indeed his or her leader. This is not a Presidential country and should not be. I feel that I elect an individual to represent me, not to toe the party line. To this end, I believe that ballot papers should only list candidates’ names, not their parties. Furthermore, in exchange for forcing people to vote, I also want an additional box on the bottom of the ballot paper marked “None of the Above”.

If they did that this week, I suspect that the None of the Above Party might well have a working majority.

Happy voting.

Back to the Nineties

I was musing in my previous post about how like the 1990s it's been feeling over the last day or so.

One notable feature of that period was that we had a government in effective "meltdown" (albeit in that case with "sleaze" rather than financial impropriety) and a Prime Minister who - whatever he tried to do - was dogged by one scandal from his Ministers and MPs after another.

So in some ways, little has changed.

I wonder if a General Election is in the air?

A Bus Tour Down Memory Lane

For logistical reasons I won’t bore you with, between jobs yesterday I needed to get from Anne Hathaway's Cottage at Shottery to Stratford-upon-Avon

For those of you that don't know the area, it's not far; indeed, it's a pleasant walk across fields in places. It was just too bloody hot to walk any more than necessary.

So, spotting one of the open top tour buses loading up, I blagged a lift.

I’d not been on one of those in Stratford for years and it was a slightly odd feeling. I cut my professional teeth on those things and – rather like the Birmingham Tour press call earlier in the year – it was a bit of a trip down memory lane.

Not that I could hear a commentary. It’s taped nowadays and people listen through headphones which I didn’t have. But for a few minutes it was 1992 again, I was a mere youth of 28, the Olympics were in Barcelona, John Major was Prime Minister and Thames Television was in its last days on air.

Slightly scary to be all nostalgic for something that feels like, er, yesterday.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

"Are you the one that talks about haemorrhoids?”

I often joke about younger French groups and the chaos that they can cause but today’s were for the most part both interested and well-behaved.

Indeed, talking to a member of staff at Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, we both agreed how French schoolchildren’s behaviour has improved over the years. I always try to put myself in their shoes (even if they’ve nicked them from Dolcis – only kidding) and think how I’d react to being placed in a foreign country at that age and forced to listen to some local eccentric talking about a writer who died just short of 400 years ago.

So I try to liven things up with the odd ghost story and some other stuff. And thus a German tour operator booking me on the phone once asked if I was “the one that talks about haemorrhoids”.

As you might imagine.......I was.

Monday, 1 June 2009

I’ve been to Bilston today

Not immediately the sort of thing you’d choose for a particularly warm and sunny day off but the Dowager Mrs. Jelf wanted to go to the Market and – truth be told – I rather like the place.

It’s not for historical or aesthetic reasons, you understand. Yes, I’ve taken people on walking tours of the place but at first sight anyone visiting Bilston will surely think of it as a post-industrial town with an abundance of cheap shops and pierced and tattooed inhabitants. However, appearances can be deceptive.

Unlike its ludicrously over-hyped near-neighbour West Bromwich, it does not labour under the misapprehension that it is the shopping equivalent of Milan, Paris or even Oxford Street. It gets on with doing what it does.

Stan’s does the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted (not that we went there today).

It still has a lively market with real bargains and friendly stallholders.

And there are real, useful things on sale. Birmingham or Solihull might have more high fashions and trendy coffee bars but in Bilston you can still get a washing up bowl for 50p. It’s like Poundland on acid.

It has a sense of being an old-fashioned “real town”, with a focussed High Street, free parking, lots of bus (and tram) connections and – if you look carefully – some interesting old buildings.

Since 1966, Bilston has supposedly been part of Wolverhampton. It certainly doesn’t feel like it, for the very good reason that it is not. It is Bilston. The town’s old coat of arms carries the motto Fideltitate et Industria Stat Bilstonia, “By Faith and Industry, Bilston endures”. Long may it continue to do so.