Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year

I'll be more brief than in the Christmas Message! :-)

To all those who've touched mine and Louise's lives in 2009, many thanks and here's wishing you all, wherever you are in the world, a happy, healthy, prosperous and above all a healthy 2010.

All the best.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Worcester by Park & Ride

I used the new Park & Ride site at Sixways in Worcester yesterday.

The County Council had a special promotion allowing you free travel if you downloaded a voucher from the Park & Ride website. Did this and presented it to the driver.......who of course knew nothing about it! To his credit, though, he persevered about issuing us with a ticket and did eventually do so. Glad there wasn't a queue behind us though. And it was worth it as we had free parking and free travel for two in a city notoriously difficult for motoring.

Unlike most Park & Ride schemes, though, this one is actually the extension of two "normal suburban bus routes, so the journey to the City Centre was actually through a series of 20th century estates of various vintages and quality. Nothing if not a slice of life, though.

On the return journey, one bus appeared in the bus station ,was parked up and then the driver just "vanished". No idea if it had failed or if a driver wasn't available or what. Various members of staff appeared, chatted on mobiles and disappeared but no one thought to tell the ever-lengthening queue what was going on. It was also noticeable that no-one seemed bothered by this. Do Worcester's public transport users just casually accept poor service? Is it par for the course? Why didn't an inspector just come over and chat to the queue and explain what had gone wrong and how the issue was being resolved?

And don't get me started about the service in the woefully-understaffed Slug & Lettuce in Worcester. That was beyond crap! Avoid at all costs, despite it being in a delightful 18th century converted church.

Good job Worcester is lovely to make up for it!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Death Penalty

Sad to hear today of the execution in China of UK Citizen Akmal Shaikh.

I am firmly of the belief that when in a particular country you should - must - obey that country's laws. (Indeed, part of my reasons for supporting Gary Mckinnon in his campaign not to be extradited to the Us is because anything he did, he did on British soil.)

This does not, however, excuse the use of the death penalty, to which I am always 100% opposed. Whether it acts as a deterrent, rids society of scum, thins out the prison population or simply provides society with revenge, taking a life is always morally wrong. I am sometimes in favour of life sentences, which mean lifetime imprisonment. If this was done more often then I don't think there would be the public clamouring for the death penalty that there is from time to time in the UK.

But it is always wrong to kill and China is quite simply wrong to do so. Even more bizarre to me is the way in which liberal, advanced democracies like the USA and Japan practice it.

The issue is moral, simple and just. Punish but do not kill.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Wow!

Hey, my Blog has been quoted in another Blog.

Does that make me Officially Famous?!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Back to work!

I did a tour in Clerkenwell today. For those of you that don't know, this is an area of London just beyond the fringes of the mediaeval City and one with a lot of stories to tell people. I was able to fit in Elizabeth I, Hercule Poirot, Hugh Grant.......and a Musical Coalman!

It was a really agreeable group, too, which always makes the job that much more civilized. We all ended up in a pub afterwards and one of the clients even confessed to having read my Blog, which is reassuring. (Hello John!)

It's a funny period between Christmas and New Year, isn't it? Some people are at work, some not and it always seems to me to have that not-quite-a-holiday feel to it. Still, that means that more people are free to enjoy themselves.......like taking the odd guided walk. (And mine are odder than most, I'm told.) This week I have the delights of Worcester and Stratford-upon-Avon to show off, as well as a wintry ghost tour in Birmingham.

In the meantime, though, Louise and I are alone together for the first time over Christmas and are about to enjoy curried turkey, so I'd better leave the Blog alone and pour the wine!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Ian's Christmas Message

Can I send my sincere Christmas greetings to everyone who reads my occasional ramblings here.

To those of you who have booked tours with me throughout the year, to those of you who have given Louise, Mum and myself friendship and support and to those of you who are far away but of whom we think often: “thank you”.

To those of you with religious or spiritual beliefs, may the spirit of Christmas shine all around you…….and to those of you without, well, just have a jolly good time and enjoy the seasonal festivities anyway!

Merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Enemy Within

I may well turn a few heads with this but I’m going to write it anyway because too often it goes unsaid.

No-one who read any of yesterday’s reports following the guilty verdicts in the Fairfield Post Office raid case can fail to have been moved by the testimony of Craig Hodson-Walker’s mother and fiancĂ©e. To hear his mother telling of how she saw her son shot in front of her eyes and to hear the fiancĂ©e Lisa say that her “whole world has collapsed” was heartbreaking.

How can anyone do this? Well, I can’t profess to understand why at all. However, perhaps a closer look at the defendants’ backgrounds might say something?

One of them had not only already raided a Post Office (in King’s Norton in 2002) but had been convicted, given a gaol sentence and was out and able to do it again. Another had three convictions, two for Post Office raids and a third for robbing a security van. So much for the system punishing, rehabilitating and protecting there, then.

They all came from areas on the fringes of Birmingham which are – effectively – vast zones where crime, both serious and minor, is accepted by too many people as “normal”.

It is a stark, unfashionable but unassailable fact of life that our towns and cities are surrounded by areas where the basics that much of society takes for granted simply don’t apply. Criminals may not be the majority of people in these areas but they are sure as hell a sizeable minority. The Frankleys, the Druids Heaths and the Castle Vales of Birmingham, Bristol’s Southmead, Newcastle’s Killingworth and Leeds’ Seacroft are all examples of places where decency and mutually-respectful behaviour is simply not a consideration for many people. You have only to see the way they keep their houses (and feel even more passionately sorry for the poor sods who live there and who do play by the rules and try to do things properly; life must be hell for them).

But the offensive, out of control, unorganised mobs that inhabits these places are terrifying. They give us the graffiti, the metal shutters on shops, the burned-out litter bins and the broken windows. Communities which look unloved and where such damage is caused by those who live there. And it can become more serious. Look at the case of Fiona Pilkington, who took her own life after yobs tormented her and her daughter in Hinckley. She called for police help 33 times, without any discernible effect. The police, it seems, simply accept this type of behaviour as normal for such areas.

Indeed, having mentioned these yob-rule areas in big cities, it’s worth remembering that the same applies in plenty of smaller places, too. In the beautiful, civilized cathedral city of Lichfield, Michael Eccles was beaten to death on his way home from a shop in the notorious Dimbles area. And you can find the same estates, effectively abandoned by their inhabitants and those in power, everywhere from Weston-super-Mare to Carlisle.

For most of us, like the Hodson-Walkers in Fairfield, you study, you get a job, you work hard and support your family and get some of the things you want in life. We all makes mistakes – me included – but for the feral shit which exists on the edge of of society, this normal life progression does not apply and is never thought of. We are now into second or even third generations who have never worked in the conventional sense and who don’t understand the work ethic that is the basis of our society and its achievements. “I want that, I can’t afford it, so I’ll take it anyway.”

Craig Hodson-Walker’s mother Judy described the raiders as “the dregs of society” and how right she is. These people do not have the values that the rest of us have and they could destroy our society as easily – if not more easily – than climate change or terrorism.

These people are truly the enemy within.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Into Town

Following on from my recent rant about the pros and cons of shopping at Merry Hill, I ventured into Birmingham City Centre yesterday to do some more (theoretically last minute!) shopping.

Although by no means perfect, I have to say it was a much more pleasant experience and underlines my belief in shopping in “real” places.

Yes, there were a few undesirables hanging about but there was a much bigger choice of places to shop and things to buy (they have an Ian Allan for starters!). It might be different if you're interested in buying clothes as a leisure activity but I'm not so that doesn't count.

It was very sad though to see Border's Bookshop having their closing-down sale. I first encountered the Borders brand on a visit to Glasgow a few years ago and at once hoped that they would one day open a Birmingham shop. As well as an “intelligent” selection of books, they have the best range of magazines on the High Street and their staff always (always) seemed happy with their jobs and happy to be helping you. Seeing the place strewn with books looking like a slightly upmarket jumble sale was therefore especially sad but I suppose their “intelligent” market is the one most likely to use Amazon which has perhaps been their downfall. It was even sadder than the demise of Ottakar's (at least that and its staff lived on as part of Waterstone's).

City Centre shopping is evidently not dead, though, whatever the media might try to have us believe from time to time.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

In the Steps of Doctor Foster

I’ve been working in Gloucester today and travelled to and from the job by train.

I’d like to do that more often but a combination of often extortionate fares, lack of left luggage facilities at stations and the unreasonableness of wanting to travel early on a Sunday often conspire against it for my jobs.

Today, though (being a Saturday) I managed to get a good deal (cheaper than the petrol and parking) and trains ran “just right” from one of my local stations, so the train it was. Well done again, Cross Country. Oh and their online ticket booking site doesn't charge a booking fee, even for journeys with other railway companies,so I'm happy to give it a plug here.

The journey was actually rather lovely. I was a little surprised (and pleased) at how busy trains were at 7.00am on a Saturday and then speeding through the Worcestershire countryside as day broke was very civilized. It was helped by a largish coffee on board for the princely sum of £1!

I always enjoy Gloucester jobs. The place has loads of good stories to share with people: nursery rhymes, murder, Roman retirees, seventies BBC costume drama and a curious juxtaposition of both Beatrix and Harry Potter! Today’s enjoyment was helped somewhat by a group of regular clients, some of whom I’ve seen more of this year than some members of my family.

Coming back, the Cotswold and Worcestershire countryside was bathed in a lovely golden afternoon light and felt distinctly satisfied with the day. (Although the coffee had gone up: it was £1.50 on the return leg!) I also noticed that he train took the famous Lickey Incline, once such a barrier to steam-hauled trains, as though it wasn’t even there.

Warwick tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Digbeth Coach Station

I would consider taking National Express coaches from time to time. Okay, they don't have the ability to cruise past traffic jams in the way a train does but they can be pretty comfortable these days and the prices can be very competitive. The only problem with that being based in Birmingham is the location of the coach station.

The much-vaunted new Digbeth Coach Station is due to open on Monday but it (like its temporary replacement) are that little bit “out” of the City centre in a still-not-very-brilliant area. If I arrive in Birmingham by public transport, it will be in the Corporation Street area, a fair haul (and an unpleasant one at that) down to Digbeth. Although I'll put up that in the day, it's not something I'd contemplate at night and it's not as if there's any reasonable parking nearby either.

When Digbeth was replaced, the opportunity really should have been taken to relocate the coach station somewhere more central. The Snow Hill site would have done. All other towns seem to have their coach stations in the middle, usually in a place used by local buses, too. Why not Brum?!

That said, I do look forward to seeing the new coach station. I hope it manages to match the similar fine facilities now in Manchester and Bristol (for example). I just wish it was more central!

Chiltern Railways

Chiltern Railways is again becoming something of a victim of its own success. Travelling on a morning trip from The Hawthorns to London yesterday, I was amazed at just how full the train was, with people standing from after we left Banbury.

It's good to see so much more use of trains generally these days. I'm aware that I seem to have been using them much more lately, not just to and from London, either. Unfortunately, if people's experience of rail journeys is negative (“I had to stand all the way to London”) then they will just head back to their cars, leaving public transport back in the status of being a “distress purchase”. In particular, although I'm used to Chiltern providing only a trolley service (and then only at peak times), I'm surprised that there's no buffet car on Cross Country Trains between Birmingham and Manchester.

But despite all this, rail still has much to commend it. Certainly, I prefer to relax, read, write and watch the changing panorama from a train than to slog up and down the M40 or M6 in the car, which is the ultimate alternative. If there's a station near when I'm going and if there's a train when I want it (two big “ifs”, those!) then as long as the price is roughly comparable (another big consideration) then I'll take it.

Birmingham: A London Point of View

It was good to see advertising posters at Marylebone station yesterday extolling the virtues of some of the things that make a trip up to Birmingham worthwhile for a Londoner. Instead of the usual meaningless pictures of happy, upwardly-mobile couples staring into one another's eyes with feigned sophistication, the very real “draws” of the Birmingham Christmas Market and Aston Hall by Candlelight were being promoted to a metropolitan audience.

These are what make coming to Brum worth the effort and dispel any myths about Birmingham and I hope they encourage people to come and see the place for themselves.

Well done whoever went ahead with this campaign.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Advent of Advent

Just back from our first carol concert.

Yes, I know, it’s only 7 December and it isn’t really Christmas. But it was in the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham so any excuse really (one of the perks of having a wife who works for the University).

Sir Aston Webb’s Great Hall is a superb building, one of the finest “indoor spaces” of Birmingham and something which was intended to convey a sense of “greatness” to the then new University. It does that just as effectively today!

The University Singers (processing in by candlelight) were a joy hear, everyone was suitably uplifted by readings, a sermon, prayers and – of course! – some rousing singing.

I feel Christmassy for the first time this year.

Dark Mornings, Dark Nights.......

Up in the dark, home in the dark. For the first time ever this year, I’m finding winter depressing. I’ve never really felt like that in previous winters so I’m not sure what’s causing it this year.

Still, I’m about to write and send out a series of invoices, which will make me feel ever so much better! (Yes, I know, unacceptable face of capitalism and all that. Still, I could have worked for a bank…….)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Salisbury

After my rather negative musings on Dudley today, I though I’d had my cumuppance this morning as the weather en route to Salisbury was truly dreadful, with driving rain and – more treacherously – lots of standing water. I had visions of taking a bedraggled and slightly miserable group around Wiltshire’s great cathedral city.

In the event, though, the rains cleared in time for the walk and Salisbury was in fact bathed in a truly delightful golden light. It was everything I had hoped for. Alot of water had come down, though; the Avon was in spectacular form on the site of the old City Mill, while the local branch of J. D. Wetherspoon’s seemed to have been on flood alert earlier!

Funnily enough, Salisbury Cathedral is home to one of the four surviving Exemplar Copies of the Magna Carta. One of the others in in Lincoln, to which I took a group only a couple of weeks ago. I seem to be becoming a bit of a Magna Carta groupie!

The group were a pleasurable lot, too, which helps somewhat. I love it when they can give me a laugh. Upon showing them Mitre House, an old building where new Bishops are traditionally robed before their enthronement and which is now a ladies’ clothes shop, they came up with a lovely image of the Bishops coming out of the ladies’ changing rooms in cope and mitre. I added the inevitable “Does my crozier look big in this?”!

A weekend of contrasts, Dudley and Salisbury. My work is nothing if not varied…….

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Dudley

I did a guided walking tour of Dudley today.

Okay, as is so often the case with my walks, it's perhaps not a town to promise much. But of course it's stuffed full of stories. I managed to fit in Saxon Chieftains, Duncan Edwards, a couple of breweries, the inventor of Oxygen and Laurel & Hardy. The group were fun and it even stayed dry.

Unfortunately - and there's no escaping this - it was a terribly depressing place to be. The town just looks so drab. Discount shops, messy signs, litter, broken statues and just a sense of being second rate were everywhere. Beattie's, its last department store and now part of the House of Fraser Group, is closing down. The phrase "last nail in the coffin" keeps coming to mind.

Few towns' fall from grace has been as spectacular as that of Dudley. A combination of a more mobile population and the opening of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre conspired to rob the place of all but its most poverty-stricken shoppers. Yes, I realise that that sounds very snobbish. But poorer shoppers don't spend much and it puts the town into a downward spiral from which I can't easily see an escape.

Certainly, Dudley has a heritage background unmatched in the industrial West Midlands. The view of the Castle on its dramatic hilltop which appear unexpectedly between buildings are a joy to behold. But the heritage industry is hampered by the general grottiness of the place and nice views alone don't generate money.

I've spent years trying to talk up the West Midlands, for much of that time in a professional capacity and it's an honour to do so. I've enjoyed showing people the most unpromising towns and taken great pleasure from seeing the looks of surprise on their faces as you make them interested in Bilston, Halesowen, Wednesbury or Tipton.

But for some reason today in Dudley, I had a little twinge that I was wasting my time.

I hope it's a passing phase and I'll be enthusing about the place here very soon. I hope so. But don't take any bets just yet.......

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Our Friends in the North

I'm spending two days working in Manchester. Not doing guided tours (definitely not my area) but chairing study days for A and AS Level students.

It's interesting work. Today was a study of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Tomorrow it's the Russian Revolution.

I seem to be spending a lot of time in Manchester doing this lately and I'm actually becoming rather fond of the place. I've never really subscribed to this Birmingham v Manchester rivalry stuff. It is (shock, horror) possible for two cities to be "great"; it's not something exclusive.

Okay so Manchester has some pretty grotty bits even in the centre (but then so does Brum). A lot of the new developments of which Manchester is so proud are actually pretty bland and don't stir me in the least. (How can people get so excited about a bloody Arndale Centre?!) And their German Christmas Christmas Market isn't a patch on the real thing (ie Birmingham's).

But they have a decent and growing tramway system and Piccadilly Station is an absolute credit to the place. Especially if you compare it to New Street! (Although it's not nearly as well sited as the latter.) And the old addage is true: people are generally friendlier the further North you go.

I wish I had more time to explore, though. The Art Gallery is splendid (not the Lowry, over in Salford; the Art Gallery which - Brummies take note! - also has a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelites). And being a mercantile city, some of the Victorian commercial buildings are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

We are lucky in England to have so many wonderful cities and I count myself lucky that I get to visit so many and that I'm blessed with the interest to get so much joy out of "experiencing" them.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Merry Hell

Took Mum Christmas shopping to Merry Hill today. Sorry, "Westfield Merry Hill". Does anyone ever call it that?

Anyway, if there is a recession on, there wasn’t much sign of it there, judging by the full car park and the crowds inside.

Mum still isn’t terribly mobile (although much improved over this time last week) so it was a car job, which of course added to the congestion approaching the place, even on a weekday. Dudley Council appear to have been digging up the same stretch of Saltwells Road in Dudley Wood since before the Norman Conquest.

It also struck me that the centre really isn’t a brilliant place to reach by public transport, despite not really being “out of town” but embedded within the built up area of the West Midlands. Yes, it has a large network of bus services; but when the roads get congested, they get held up, too. It really needs a segregated rail (well, Metro) connection. I know that Midland Metro’s Line 3 is supposed to serve the place one day but at the current rate of progress on that, I’ll travel on the first tram free of charge as I’ll be a Senior Citizen by the time it gets built.

So, although Mum liked it and we managed to get a lot done…….it’s not really my sort of place. Rather than a "real town", it looks like Paradise with a Frontal Lobotomy. In any case, it doesn’t have enough bookshops!

In Support of Gary McKinnon 2

Back at the end of July, I blogged in support of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker threatened with extradition to the US for hacking into sensitive American computer networks from his home in North London.

The UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson halted extradition proceedings temporarily in October to study new medical evidence (Gary has Asperger's Syndrome) before approving Gary's right to appeal to a European Court.

Well, on Friday last the Home Office said that "The Secretary of State is of the view that McKinnon's extradition would not be incompatible with his [human] rights", which makes it look as though Gary will be sent to the US. All that stands in the way of that now is a judicial review of the Home Secretary's decision.

Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of this, whether or not Gary has Asperger's, whether or not the US is looking for a "scape goat", whether or not what he did was wrong, whether or not the US system is fit to try him are all questions I won't dwell on here.

Suffice it to say that the concept of sending a UK citizen to another country to stand trial FOR AN OFFENCE COMMITTED WHILE HE WAS IN BRITAIN is simply unjust. As far as I can see it, offend here = try here. End of story.

You can read more about Gary's case at http://freegary.org.uk/ .




The Queen II

I was very intrigued by last night's second installment of the Channel 4 drama-documentary "The Queen".

It portrayed the end of the sixties and the early seventies as a time of rampant republicanism which - although young at the time - I really don't remember. Yes, there were the occasional rent-a-quotes from anti-monarchist MP Willie Hamilton, who became famous for his views on the subject but this wasn't something I remember of the time. The population seemed more concerned with power cuts and industrial unrest between the government and the miners.

I think that Channel 4 are being quite brave with this series in choosing actors and actresses to communicate what was going on, rather than becoming obsessed with them looking exactly like the characters portrayed. Samantha Bond (normally thought of these days as Miss Moneypenny!) did bear more than a passing resemblance to HRH of the time but the actors playing Wilson and Heath were plainly there to communicate the respective PMs' roles rather than to do an impression. It worked.

I'm not at all convinced by the scenes of HRH turning to brush away a tear. I'm not saying she doesn't cry but I very much doubt she'd do it in the presence of a Civil Servant or a politician!

Looking forward to tonight's portrayal by Susan Jameson.