Thursday, 23 December 2010

BBC's "The Nativity" Reviewed

Well, I've now watched the last of the four episodes of the BBC/CBC production of "The Nativity".

I thought it was a splendid, straightforward telling of one of the best known stories in human history. It didn't try to be clever, it didn't try to rationalise and significantly it didn't try to preach. It simply - yet with breathtakingly vivid "colour" - told the story pretty much as we've all seen it in a thousand school nativity plays. Great television great storytelling.

Not that the Daily Express seems to think so. They have somehow convinced themselves that it's insulting to Christians, which rather suggests that they've either watched a different production to the one I've seen or else they're being sensationalist for the sake of it. I couldn't possibly comment on which of these possibilities is the more likely.

Although I don't often talk about God, I am indeed a Christian and - despite a few, very few, differences with the Gospels in the narrative here - I wasn't even remotely offended. Indeed, I was distinctly moved by it (not to mention entertained) and pleased to see it go out as part of the Christmastime schedule.

If you wonder what it's all about and you're in the UK it's on the iPlayer. If you're in Canada, it's on CBC Television as a single two hour film tonight at 8.00pm.


Wednesday, 22 December 2010

What Has Sky Ever Done For Us?

Apparently, in an interview with Broadcast Magazine, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, described himself as a "cheerleader" for Rupert Murdoch and said that "he has probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person".

Now is this an incorrect attribution (BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12059950 ) for the record)? Or is Jeremy Hunt occupying some parallel universe where the BBC, Lew Grade and Jeremy Isaacs never existed? Or is he just stark staring bonkers?

Answers on a postcard, please.......

What Has Sky Ever Done For Us?

Apparently, in an interview with Broadcast Magazine, Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, described himself as a "cheerleader" for Rupert Murdoch and said that "he has probably done more to create variety and choice in British TV than any other single person".

Now is this an incorrect attribution (BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12059950 ) for the record)? Or is Jeremy Hunt occupying some parallel universe where the BBC, Lew Grade and Jeremy Irons never existed? Or is he just stark staring bonkers?

Answers on a postcard, please.......

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles

I very much enjoy the Sherlock Holmes stories and at the risk of being populist and predictable(moi?!) my favourite remains The Hound of the Baskervilles.

I’ve just watched the 2002 BBC production which – while being very good in many ways and more-than-usually scary – seemed to have a spectacularly topsy-turvy bit of casting. However did they cast Richard E Grant in the role of Stapleton when he’s the most glaringly-obvious Sherlock Holmes since Jeremy Brett?

Nice to see some splendid Isle of Man scenery doubling for Dartmoor, though!

Monday, 20 December 2010

BBC: The Nativity

I've just watched the first episode of the BBC/CBC co production The Nativity.

What a splendid bit of telly. Whatever your views or beliefs, catch it on iPlayer or whatever if you can (and there are three more episodes this week).

It was visually very pleasing (it looked like I was watching a moving version of a Pre-Raphaelite painting) and it dealt with religiously-rooted events in a very stylish and measured way.

Finally, it did what all good books, films or television should do: it moved me. The Annunciation has the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.

Looking forward to the rest now.......

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Fact Emulating Fiction

Last night we watched the hugely enjoyable film "Love Actually".

Today, I went to get some Christmas presents and emerged heavily laden from the shops to find people carrying Christmas trees and snow coming down in rather large flakes.

For a moment, I thought I was back in the film!

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Amassed Junk


I've been clearing stuff in preparation for Christmas. Amazing the stuff you find "filed away" in the letter rack and a box here and there. This has so far included:
  • A plastic disposable camera neither of us recognises
  • A bus map for the Wirral
  • A 35mm film canister (goodness knows)
  • A Bristol Zoological Gardens key ring
  • A (blank) postcard from Paphos
  • A 1977 guide to Stonehenge
  • An "Oxfordshire Ancestors" CD-ROM
  • A packet of 40 anti-static computer wipes
  • A copy of "Latin Can Be Fun"
We live in a very strange house. And I wouldn't have it any other way!

Literary Interlude

Things have suddenly become very busy. Not just the preparations for Christmas (don't remind me!) but a flurry of bookings for 2011. I think offices across Western Europe are full of people desperately trying to clear their desks before the Christmas break. Still, it's all welcome.

Anyway, in an attempt to relax (something I'm always being told to do) I've decided to force myself to read a classic novel, so I'm tackling Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca.

It's a bit heavy going.......but I'll keep you posted!

Monday, 13 December 2010

Circular Thoughts on Radio

As I've said here before, I'm sometimes accused of being a Radio 4 Bore, one of those people who endlessly goes on about what a varied, stimulating thing the BBC's national speech network is. I'm not a "bore" at all. I'm just discerning.

In contrast, I'm not much of a telly person these day (not like in The Golden Age of Television When I Was Young [TM], oh, no.......) but we sat through tonight's Ian Hislop's Age of the Do Gooders on BBC 2. Now at he risk of being simplistic, ithis was BBC Televisoin managing to be BBC Radio 4 with pictures.......

The Age of the Do Gooders reminded at how off the wall telly can be when it's done with a bit of thought and intelligence. (Mind you, having sat through The Apprentice the other evening because it covered tourism, anything else would have seemed stimulating!)

I was interested to see him cover the Victorian illustrator George Cruikshank, whose house I include when I do tours in Camden. It lies at the end of Mornington Crescent, a Tube Station which has its own special place in Radio 4 lore.

And with that circular bit of thinking, I'll take my leave of you again!


Friday, 3 December 2010

Working From Home

I'm working from home today. And I when I say that, I really do mean work from home; I've a great pile of preparation to do.

It seems that in this age of electronic communications, for some jobs at least, this is now much easier. There's been a lot of coverage in the last year or so of what the media seem to call "shedworking", ie building an office in a shed at the bottom of the garden and working from there.

Well, we haven't run to that. We've acquired a summer house this year but it's emphatically not connected to anything. It's a refuge from all that.

No, for me working from home means a spare bedroom converted into an office. And that leads me to the subject of this Blog post:

In this weather, having an office just at the bottom of the garden is great in that you don't have to worry about roads, public transport, etc., in this sort of weather.

However, unless these "sheds" are extremely well insulated (!) I think I prefer my former-spare-bedroom-turned-office with a radiator on one wall, thank you very much!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Snow: The End of British Civilization. For a Couple of Days.

There's some snow. It's earlier than usual but it is December tomorrow and we've 200 years of tradition of illustrating Christmas with snow scenes, so it's not that amazing.

Yes, some areas have had a lot of it and rural life can be disrupted. But here in the urban West Midlands we have barely enough to cover the ground and even our road, a fairly minor one, has no snow on the carriageway. So it's not the end of the world.

But guess what? There are lists of closed schools and cancelled events everywhere. Why on Earth do we do this in Britain? Are we afraid that if someone hurts themselves, "we" as the organiser of an event or the opener of a school will somehow be liable? And if you want to tell me that the heating is off, that begs the questions *why* is the heating off? Or is it that teachers now all live in barn conversions 40km from where they teach?

Basically, we're all namby-pambies who think that a few centimetres of snow represents the onset of a new ice age.

Get out there. If only to build a snowman!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Morning Thoughts on Australian Politics








Ian: If we were in Victoria, instead of me freezing doing a walking tour of Lichfield today, we'd be voting today and enjoying a "Sausage Sizzle".

Louise: What's a "Sausage Sizzle"?

Ian: Apparently, it's a sort of sausage barbecue they have for people queueing to vote.

Louise: What a great idea. But what if you're vegetarian?

Ian: Don't be ridiculous. This is Australia we're talking about.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Winning Friends and Influencing People, Among Australians


Ian: So Where in Australia are you from?

Client: Sydney

Ian: Oh great. Loved it there. I always feel a bit of empathy with Sydneysiders, as I come from a second city, too.

Client: We don't tend to think of Sydney as being the second city, really. Canberra is a bit of an artificial place, very small and full of politicians!

Ian: I didn't mean behind Canberra, I meant behind Melbourne.

The conversation ended at that point.......

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Just a Reminder that it's still November. Honestly.

In the last 48 hours I've seen three houses decorated for Christmas and with their Christmas trees up.

Not commercial premises you understand (ie shops where "Christmas" seems to begin in late August) but ordinary, domestic houses. In November.

Good grief!

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Last Chapter

In the fading sunlight of the afternoon, we've just sprinkled Bobbie's ashes in her favourite sunbathing corner of the garden.

I penned some words for the occasion.......

We loved to stroke your jet black fur

We loved to hear your contented purr

To tickle your belly or just sit with you

That’s all we ever needed to do

We see you still, just waiting there

To be fussed and teased, on your favourite stair

You came to our lives by accident

But – goodness! – how much to us that meant

We watered, fed and cared each day

But ten times over did you that repay

With your companionship and care

From dawn ‘til night you were always there

No more shall we brush you, nor clip your claws

Nor play with your ears, nor hold your paws

No more can we cradle and comfort you

Though we know we’ll still always want to

So stretch out and rest in everlasting sunshine

Until we see you again in the course of time

Farewell dear friend, evermore to rest

You were our Bobbie…..the very best!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Bobbie


Our beloved cat, Bobbie, died very suddenly today.

We never acquired Bobbie; she acquired us, having previously lived with a neighbour. She gradually wedged herself firmly into our affections and became – in all seriousness – part of the family.

She’s been here as long as Louise and I have been together and she’s had several health scares, always fighting through them. She was, despite her small size and delicate nature, a real battler.

She enjoyed simply “being with us”, not necessarily doing anything, not being excessively fussed but just being there, sitting quietly, indoors or out, with us. She wasn’t usually one for playing with cat toys but a long piece of fabric Louise bought in a pet shop in York did become a real favourite.

Like all family members, she had her routines, even if she did have to get used to “parents” who have wildly-variable times for getting up. Be it 4.00am or 8.00am, she was there, at the top of the stairs waiting for morning fuss. Then she would follow down four stairs and stop, with her head through the balustrade, so that she could be fussed from one of us as we arrived in the hall below. Then – and only then – was it time for breakfast.

She was there to provide company for us both when we were down and happiness for us when we weren’t.

When we were away, she too enjoyed going on holiday “to grannie’s” and even when she developed health problems, she was always impeccably behaved for her “Australian friend” (ie the vet!).

I’d rather dwell on Bobbie’s life than her passing, so suffice it to say that it all ended suddenly and painlessly this evening.

Thanks for letting us share your life, Bobbie. You were an integral part of “us” and we’ll miss you!

XX

Monday, 15 November 2010

As Others See Us

There is an interesting phrase employed by Robbie Burns in his “Ode to a Louse”: “to see ourselves as others see us”.

Inspired by this, I always keep a look out for coverage of UK affairs in overseas media outlets. One of my favourites is Australia’s ABC, basically the only real rival in terms of quality for the BBC, I’d say.

But their coverage of UK affairs is incredibly, overwhelmingly, scarily, bizarrely dominated by what’s going on in the world of sport. And not just the stuff you’d expect, like cricket and Rugby, but even football, a game Australians don’t really even play that much. You'd think that nothing happened here other than sport.

Don’t take my word for it. Have a look!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Euromania!

I've just noticed that Vicky Leandros is opening Birmingham's Frankfurt Christmas Market.

You can't beat a French-speaking Greek who represented Luxembourg in the Eurovision Song Contest and now lives in Germany to open a Christmas Market in England, can you?

Friday, 5 November 2010

Some Work News

I’ve a bit of an announcement to make.

Not many people have been aware of this but…….for the last 18 months or so I’ve been studying away and sitting exams to qualify as a Blue Badge guide for the South West of England.

Well, today’s post brought the news that I’ve passed the final one, a bit of news I was hoping for but – shall we say - not confident about.

My new region overlaps a little with places where I’m already qualified (notably Gloucestershire, Salisbury and Stonehenge). But it opens up some places that are very special to me indeed. Briefly it comprises Somerset, Bristol, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Some of you will be aware that I’ve been working in some of this area for some time. One of the reasons for taking these exams was to formalise that arrangement somewhat. Thank you to all those who’ve booked me and been on walks in much of this area. Your work and tolerance helped me get to this point and my gratitude is very real. (I even managed to weave subjects like Stonehenge and Australia in to the practicals!)

So here we are.

If you happen to know anyone who would like to book slightly off-the-wall tours in any of these areas, do send them my way!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

London Midland's "Great Escape"

It's usual for anyone with children or anyone to work in education to complain about the way in which prices for holidays, etc., go up in school holidays. All attempts to explain to them that they don't go "up" in holiday time, they go "down" in term time fall on the deaf ears of those who do not wish to hear. It's also called demand-pull inflation.

So it's unusual to hear of something whereby a special, heavily discounted offer in only available during school holidays.

I'm talking about London Midland's "£10 Great Escape" offer. You download a voucher from their website, present it at the station and can get a full day's travel on their network for £10. bearing in mind that that stretches from London to Liverpool, that can be a very good deal indeed.

The only downside (for us childless ones) is that it causes trains to be packed out with families! :-) Now that can plainly be a Good Thing.......but I do wonder how many of those journeys would have happened anyway (maybe not many, I don't know?) but why don't they try the (occasional) offer in term time, when presumably there are many more empty off-peak seats to fill?

Just a thought.

And overall it really is a good idea. I've now availed myself of it a couple of times and - apart from tiring myself out - can pronounce myself very happy with it!

Bedford

Taking advantage of London Midland’s £10 "Great Escape" Rover Ticket offer, I went to (among other places!) Bedford yesterday.

I’d only ever been there once, in the 1980s and that was to look at the ex-London Routemaster buses that the local company put into operation on one route there at the time. Other than that, oh and knowing that it was the birthplace of John Bunyan, that was about it.

Now I pride myself that I can find interest and fascination in the most mundane of places. When you’ve concocted walks around Solihull and Basingstoke, Bethnal Green and Walsall, you learn to “sniff out” interesting stuff.

Well, although I could see some interesting buildings, especially a fine church, Bedford simply defeated me on this score. The walk from the station could be marketed as “The Scruffy Trail” (and some meaningful signs might help!) and even by current standards there was an above-average number of shops to let.

The markets looked large and busy but somehow I just couldn’t warm to the place and I spent an hour less there than I’d intended.

Rare for me that.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Ever Forward

On 28 July 2008 the historic pavilion of the Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare was destroyed in a spectacular fire that made headlines around the world.

The following day on Facebook I wrote:

“If……. they do a good restoration job, it could be in the long run a good thing, raising the profile of [Weston] and allowing it to be better than ever.”

Well, skip forward just over 800 days…….and here we are. After a remarkably quick rebuild (and despite some delays), on Saturday 23 October 2010 Louise and I were lucky enough to be present for the re-opening of the new Grand Pier.

With a new pavilion designed by the Bristol architectural practice of Angus Meek, the Pier is back bigger and arguably better than ever. Yes, I miss the design of the original and part of me wishes that it had been rebuilt as a replica, a la St Kilda, Victoria. However, the new building is considerably larger (same footprint but taller), so there’s more inside, not just rides but bars, restaurants, conference facilities, even marriage rooms! This all makes the Pier a bigger attraction. And – significantly – that makes Weston itself a bigger attraction.

The English seaside has been through some difficult years but is not-so-slowly reinventing itself these days. Even before the era of recession, staycations (ugh!) and carbon footprints, people were re-discovering their “home” seaside. Weston in some ways was poorly-placed to attract “specialist” tourism (as the Isle of Man does with transport and motorcycle racing, Padstow with gastronomy or Southwold with simplicity and nostalgia). But Weston does have some significant things going for it.

  • It has a splendid beach with firm sands. The famously receding tide frankly means there’s lots of space for everyone! And it’s a lot nicer than Bondi, believe me.
  • It’s not that far away from major centres of population (day trips from Bristol, the West Midlands and South Wales are easy).
  • Lying in the shadow of wooded Worlebury Hill, with sublime stone terraces tumbling down towards the bay Weston has a truly magnificent setting. Its only real rival in that department is Torquay (and that’s spoiled a little by too many post-war apartment blocks nowadays).
  • And the Grand Pier rebuild is just one of a series of improvements. The need for flood defences (that sea does come in!) has been seized to create a much improved new Promenade which is almost finished. The traffic-choked junction opposite the Grand Pier itself is also being transformed, into a new “Pier Square” which will improve the setting no end.

There is a “buzz” in the town at the moment caused by the amount of inward investment.

Yes, there are some “bits” to deal with. The buildings of the central sea front aren’t yet a credit to the town. The Northern end of the Promenade needs some tidying up, especially now that the Royal Pier Hotel is no more and that could go hand-in-hand with the restoration of the “other” Pier, at Birnbeck. And don’t get me started on the Tropicana (the former Open Air Swimming Pool whose fate is easily Weston’s biggest shame).

But the town is on the up. The motto on its coat of arms (borrowed from Birmingham!) is “Ever Forward”. Seldom has it been more appropriate.

Friday, 22 October 2010

"Forward"

Some 18 years ago, I started my tourist guiding career working on the open top double decker buses run by the much-missed “Guide Friday” company in Birmingham.

The concept of guided tours of Birmingham was something of a novelty then and the small team that worked on them in that first season was really instilled with a sense of pride and excitement in a City which for too long had been the butt of jokes.

Well, fast forward. Almost by accident, I spend years tour managing all over Europe, qualify as a Blue Badge Guide in the Heart of England and then London and carve a small business for myself doing specialist tours of all sorts of unusual places for more “discerning” clients.

But - among my peers at least – I’ve always been thought of as a “Birmingham Guide”. Despite this, in recent years Birmingham has rather reduced in importance for me and the number of tours I do of it as a proportion of my total work is nowadays quite small.

So this last week has been something of a change for me, as a party of US musicians booked me for five consecutive and identical days entirely in Birmingham for successive groups. Their itinerary was great, too: a coach tour, a City Centre walk, lunch at the Old Joint Stock and afternoon visits to the woefully-unvisited Saint Mary’s Handsworth and the splendidly renovated Aston Hall.

And do you know what? I’ve rediscovered my wonderful, impressive, unequalled home city. People are stunned by the greenery, the housing, the historic characters, the cultural heritage and the welcome. The staff at Saint Mary’s and Aston Hall have been so fabulous to deal with they’ve been like a breath of fresh air (after the sort of characters you get “welcoming” you at places like Blenheim).

Service isn’t always geared to international visitors and I wish shopkeepers in suburban strips like Stirchley and Bournbrook would tidy up their premises. But the coach driver (from Chauffeurs of Birmingham, a new firm to me) was exceptional.

Yes, it it’s not actually all that bad at all. I’m proud to be a Brummie again!

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A Word in Defence of London Underground

Many people will have seen, or rather heard, the recordings released for the first time at the inquest into the 7 July Terrorist Murders in London.

If you haven’t some examples are at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11518501

and

http://www.itv.com/news/77-bombings-inquest07608/

As so often happens with the media, journalists in search of a sound-bit type quote get emotionally charged friends and family to become angry and to use words like “shambolic” which are succinct but frankly inaccurate.

I think the staff of London Underground are getting very unfair treatment here. The "confusion" was very soon after the explosions (of which there were three at disparate locations within 90 seconds) and I think that no organisation could realistically have reacted differently. It may be that people would prefer staff to react in an excited frantic and dramatic way, they way we see on television or in the cinema. In fact, people remaining calm might not make a “good story” but it is the best way of dealing with a situation.

Indeed, some of the stories which have emerged about help, compassion and heroism from some of the station staff deserve a higher profile than this.

There were a lot of heroes that day. And I defy anyone to have reacted better, other than with that wonderful thing, “the benefit of hindsight”.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Arse v Elbow in Stratford-upon-Avon

I had a job in Stratford-upon-Avon this afternoon.

Whenever I work there, I endeavour to use the Park & Ride service, preferring to pay £1.50 to be taken in in luxury to searching for a parking spot and then having to take out a mortgage to pay for it.

I knew that the service doesn't operate on Sunday in the winter so before leaving checked the website to see if today had a service or not. Apparently it didn't. Okay, at least I know (even though parking restrictions aren't somehow eased when there's no P&R, which seems a bit like wanting to have your cake and eat it).

So I drove down there and was surprised and delighted to see the matrix on the A3400 just north of the bypass proudly flashing "For Stratford Use Park & Ride", so I headed off to the car park to use it after all. I signalled into the car park.......and was immediately met by locked gates because indeed the service doesn't run on Sundays at this time of year.

Turn the matrices off folks, eh? It makes a bad impression. And if visitors didn't know better, they'd think the town didn't know what it was doing.......

Monday, 27 September 2010

Thoughts on the Labour Leadership

I might just be getting old but I don't like these metric politicians, like the Miliband.

I preferred the old Imperials ones. Like Michael Foot.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Another of the Great Questions of (Retail) Life

Why is that when I actually want something in a camera or mobile phone shop I can never find anyone to serve me becasue they're too busy.

However, when I just want to have a look around and be left alone, I have to fight off assistants with a stick?

The Mysteries of Railway Time

I wonder what the point is of telling passengers that a train is "expected at 1853" when, er, it's already 1854?

(Sorry about the poor image. Camera Phone and all that. I suppose I was lucky not to be challenged for taking photographs on railway property without permission!)

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Cycling and Cycling Facilities

A recent discussion on the excellent Blog of my friend Daniel in Australia regarding cycle facilities and the compulsory wearing of cycle helmets there prompted me to reply to the ensuing discussion from a UK point of view.

I don't cycle anywhere near as much any more as I used to, although I'm the proud owner of a Brompton. However, I have strong views on the subject of cycling as a means of transport and many factors, from the behaviour of cyclists, pedestrians and road users to the attitudes of planners usually get me a bit hot under the collar.

Anyway, I thought that my contribution merited reproducing on my Blog, too. so here it is:



The view of the general public here varies from outright hostility to cyclists (from motorists and pedestrians who only notice the many cyclists who ignore zebra crossings and red traffic lights) to well-meaning paternalism.

The latter sees both helmets and cycle paths as Good Things. In fact, I've seen as much evidence that helmets make things worse as I have that they make things better. Badly fitted helmets are a particular problem.

Cycle "facilities" are often very poor and frequently (and I mean FREQUENTLY put cyclists in more rather than less danger. Specifically, they confine cyclists to the extreme left hand side of the road, making them less visible and they create far more conflicts with other traffic flows, both regarding motor vehicles and pedestrians.

My view is that cycle lanes and paths do have a function but usually only at extremely busy grade separated junctions or to allow cyclists to avoid complex and lengthy one way system detours.

The problem is that few people seem to regard cyclists as what they are: traffic. Motorists think that "in this day and age"......."they shouldn't be on the road" as "it's too dangerous". Planners think that cycle paths "make cyclists safer" and cyclists themselves weave between being "traffic" and "pedestrians" when it suits them.

I can't offer a solution but I do think there's a lot of merit in treating bicycles as "traffic" just like anything else.

(Incidentally, I would draw a distinction here between cycling as a means of transport and leisure cycling, often involving young children, families and people going especially slowly. In such cases, scenic cycle paths like the Camel Trail which we recently sampled in Cornwall have much to commend them. Even there, though, the conflict between faster cyclists, slower ones and *very* inexperienced ones sometimes led to some hairy moments!)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Railway Rant

I’ve been trying for some time to use public transport to and from jobs whenever possible. I’ve always preferred trains and buses but they don’t always coincide with where I need to be when. Throughout 2010, though, I’ve made much more of an effort than before in this direction, even at the expense of taking longer to get to and from places.

Sometimes this is great. Sometimes, it isn’t. Today was one of the latter.

After an “unusual” day in Stratford-upon-Avon, I needed to return by train from Stratford to The Hawthorns. There was a 1727 train from Stratford, sue at The Hawthorns at 1830.

Having finished with my group, I arrived at Stratford station with 40 minutes to wait for the next train. Not the railway’s fault that I arrived there early, although an hourly frequency isn’t that brilliant for a route which isn’t exactly the back of beyond. The train was advertised as running 5 minutes late. The 12 minutes. Then 15. We actually left 13 minutes late at 1745. I’d then been at Stratford station (not an especially attractive site, though I’ve been to worse) for roughly an hour.

On the plus side, rather than stress with driving, I watched the lovely Warwickshire countryside and even had a snooze.

I awoke in Hall Green and decided to check if we’d made up time. In fact, we were later still, now 20 minutes down. At Birmingham Moor Street a rush hour sea of humanity descended on the train. I’m not sure what these trains actually are on the Snow Hill lines but I find their seats amazingly uncomfortable.

A few minute later we roll into Snow Hill station where more people pack in. Then came the clincher of the day. The guard announced that – as the train was running so late – it was going to run non-stop to Stourbridge Junction. Suddenly I (and much of this sea of humanity, some of whom had only just boarded) had to scramble to get off. We were also told nothing more than to “wait on the platform”.

The next train, er, terminated at Snow Hill and eventually the 1743 train, “due at 1753” arrived at, er, 1800. I arrived back at The Hawthorns 40 minutes later than I should have.

More significantly, I arrived there over two hours after I had finished my work in Stratford, a journey which by car, even with rush hour traffic, would have taken not much more than an hour and probably less.

And there’s the railway, nay the “public transport” problem. People like me want to use it but as long as it’s not providing a service where passengers feel “cared for”, where you get uncomfortable rides in delayed and crowded trains…….people will reach for their car keys.

A couple of weeks ago I tried a journey in the opposite direction. I arrived at The Hawthorns in plenty of time, only to find that the Stratford train, an hourly service remember, had been summarily cancelled.

Railways of Britain, do you hear me? YOU CAN’T JUST CANCEL THINGS AND ASUME THAT TELLING PEOPLE IT’S CANCELLED SOMEHOW MAKES IT ALRIGHT. I can’t just ring ahead to people who’ve booked me and say “sorry, I can’t come along today”. And you know what? You can’t either.

Two additional points:

  1. The problem on both these occasions was “signalling problems”. I wonder if that means someone’s stolen a cable again? That caused me problems twice on trains from Manchester and Liverpool earlier in the summer which missed out stops at my local station with literally seconds notice.
  2. To end on a positive not, one thing that London Midland trains really do seem to excel at is station booking office staff. The two chaps at The Hawthorns and the lady at Langley Green are always so happy, so friendly and so pleasant that I walk away from their ticket office windows feeling on top of the world. What a pity the managers who “manage” the line and the drones who reply to customer feedback don’t approach things in the same way.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Mixing Politics and Religion

Stephen Fry has made a verbal attack on the right of Pope Benedict XVI to be accorded a State visit to Britain.

Stephen, I usually agree with and admire you very, very much. But I can't agree with your assertion that the Vatican isn't really a real state because of "an accident of words" and that it is a "rump of history". If you think about it, you could say that about *all* states!

Of course, you might not agree with the system or values of said state.......but again, that applies to many, many places.

It is a state and the UK has welcomed far, far dodgier heads of state (and lavished them with pomp, respectability and awards) than Pope Benedict. Look who was so very welcome at the Palace in 1978, for example.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Value of Nothing.......

It's very hard to earn a living out of doing something that other people seem willing to do either free of charge or for amounts so small they might as well be.

Local History societies offer free or dirt-cheap walks, we're all expected to "volunteer" to make the 2012 Olympics a success, people with a language are "recruited" to help with major events like the major conferences or sporting events.

And Ian Jelf is suddenly made to feel like the unacceptable face of Capitalism.

"Oh we don't normally pay."

Go and find someone else, then! Oh, they probably have.......

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Savings, Fences and Ostriches

It’s interesting to note how many different organisations, undertakings and interest groups are popping up all over the place to say that they ought to be spared in the forthcoming round of spending cuts because they're a "special case".

The problem with this is that everyone’s doing it…….so if everyone’s budget is ring-fenced, we won’t actually make any savings.

I appreciate that there is a point of view that we don’t need to make savings at all. People saying that are probably barking nutters but at least their logic holds water (ie we don’t need to cut so we won’t) and they’re not guilty of selfishness.

It’s this “we must be spared but everyone else can suffer” attitude which I find most reminiscent of an ostrich and a quantity of sand…….

Monday, 13 September 2010

Crop Names

One of those minor “linguistic hiccups” between British and American English when I’m working in the countryside is the American name for the crop “Rape”, which they call “Canola”.

Well, thanks to his always excellent and absorbing Blog, my mate in Australia Daniel has now taught me not only that Australians call it “Canola” too but that the word is actually an acronym for “CAnadian Oil Low Acid”.

You live and learn…….and thanks, Daniel!

(Mind you, it’s part of the creeping Americanisation of Australia. They’ll be using Dollars next…….)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Captain Flack & Company.......

Many – many – years ago, as a summer job, I did some administrative work for the West Midlands Fire Service. As work experience goes, it was pretty dire but one long lasting legacy was that it left me with a deep and abiding respect for fire fighters. More than any other emergency service they seem to be regularly in danger and we can all sleep safer in our beds for what they do for us.

Notwithstanding this…….

Memo to the Leicester Fire Brigade…….

If you’re going to act up and show off with your big red fire engine on a non-emergency call by interferinge with me trying to do my job:

(1) Don’t choose me. I do repartee for a living

(2) Don’t choose me when I’m with a SPICE group; they tend to join in and play along and

(3) If you’re that bothered about references to Trumpton, you’re probably in the wrong job.

Second City

My friend Maeve featured this week on an Australian travel programme called “Getaway”, showing the presenter around Bath.

So far so good.

Unfortunately, while watching the programme, they then went to Manchester…….which they proceeded to call “Britain’s Second City”.

Lose 100 points, Channel 9…….

For the record, this is what the 2001 Census had to say on the matter. (And I don’t want to start hearing things like “Greater Manchester, of I’ll have to start quoting “West Midlands”!):


1 London 7,172,091

2 Birmingham 970,892

3 Glasgow 629,501

4 Liverpool 469,017

5 Leeds 443,247

6 Sheffield 439,866

7 Edinburgh 430,082

8 Bristol 420,556

9 Manchester 394,269

10 Leicester 330,574

Thursday, 9 September 2010

At The Pelican

I quite often find myself moaning about overnight accommodation. Dim staff, non-functioning facilities and a feeling of being treated as though you're on a conveyor belt reign.

So it's a real pleasure to be able to wax lyrical about a small place I stayed on Tuesday night.

It's supposedly a "pub with rooms" but my room was rather more pleasant and certainly better looked after than many I've stayed in in large hotels. The staff were friendlty and intelligent and young (which is normally only the case in Britain if they're Australian, which these weren't!) and the breakfast delicious.

And where is this place? I salute you The Pelican Inn, which is on the A4 in a village called Froxfield, between Marlborough and Hungerford. Jolly handy for Avebury, Stonehenge, Salisbury and so on.

(But I wish the information pack in the room did'nt tell people that Stonehenge was "Druid Stones". Oh dear! Lose a point!)



Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Travelling Contrasts

Some friends of ours are back from a fabulous honeymoon on the QM2 and a visit to the US.

I’m back from Wiltshire. It was lovely…….bit it’s not quite the same, is it? ;-)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Back on The Road

From 1995 until about 2002, I was pretty much full time tour managing. This is markedly different to tour guiding, involving taking people on short or extended holidays and - frankly - dealing with all the hassles that inevitably crop up.

The guiding, that's to say actually telling people things and keeping them entertained, was very much a side issue, although one I both enjoyed and apparently did well at. I like telling people about buildings. I don't like them telling me that they can't flush the toilet or that the waitress only speaks French (not unreasonable in Paris).

But after a period of time, the concept of living out of a suitcase starts to pall and - coupled with having met Louise - I gradually wound down this aspect of work in favour of "proper" guiding.

But it was a learning experience, I met some fabulous people (far outnumbering the bad ones) and it was a good period in my life.

The reason for writing this down here now is that I'm about to do a couple of days touring with a group down in the South of England. The suitcase is packed, the hotel fixed up, I have wads of paperwork and the itinerary is planned.

It will be quite like old times and I confess.......I'm actually rather looking forward to it!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Far From Best Western

I'm usually quite a fan of Best Western Hotels, a chain of independently owned "real" hotels run by "real" people in contrast to the usual anonymous corporate groups.

Sadly, one of their staff at an hotel in East Anglia lost them a booking today by being offhand in the extreme and trying to tell me I'd misread something. Of course, that might have been true (I don't think it was but we all make mistakes). However, her triumphalist mocking of me for doing so reminded me of the way a teacher might talk to a pupil at primary school.

Plonk! One lost booking, quickly replaced by something which has turned out to be better.

One of Life's Little Questions

Why is it that only ladies with really terrible hair-dos wear those funny clear plastic rain hoods?

BBC Radio 4 Strikes Again

As if I needed proof that BBC Radio 4 justifies trhe licence fee on its own…….

I drove back from Oxfrod this afternoon with the ever varied Radio 4 keeping me company. In the space of an hour it gave me a remarkably well-dramatized account of the escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, an item on the political beliefs of Jimi Hendrix and a heart-rending account of a woman who gave up her baby for adoption in 1963 to have him track her down decades later.

The miles just fly by with this t9o keep the old grey matter going. It was almost one of those periods when you don’t want the journey to end. Try challenging that sort of stuff BSkyB!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Time Shift Television

One of the more useful (if not exactly the greatest) inventions of the last 30 years has probably been the video recorder and its modern day successors the DVD recorder and PVR and HDR.

The ability to watch something later than it goes out, at a time convenient for you and not the programme-planners is one of life’s minor satisfactions.

But I sometimes find myself wishing for an additional convenience. I wish you could “time shift” recordings the other way and watch them before they’re aired. That way I could have seen tonight’s “Grumpy Old Men” when I wanted to. And before I fell asleep.

Clerkenwet!

Last night I did an evening walk in the lovely, atmospheric Clerkenwell area on London. It’s a genuinely fascinating area, home to such varied delights as the New River (not new, not a River), the Finsbury Health Centre, Saint John’s Gate and some K4s and K6s thrown in for good measure.

But oh, what an evening for weather! It just just bucketed it down for the whole two hours and the legendary Ian Jelf Umbrella was actually of practical use for once. Now, despite our country’s reputation for bad weather, this is actually a surprisingly rare occurrence I find on walks. Traditionally, I recall two such occasions, one in Rugby and the other in the Moseley area of Birmingham. But this one definitely goes up into that category, I’m sad to say.

Luckily, I had an extremely tenacious group whose desire to learn more about the place left me staggered!

Thank you, dear member of SPICE Adventure London!

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Democracy and the Sausage Sizzle

It’s Election Day in Australia today (Saturday).

Australia has spent 109 years throwing off the British Imperialism and has now developed sufficiently to give its voters a choice of a Welsh-born woman or a London-born man as Prime Minister.

More intriguingly, I’ve just discovered that queues to vote are apparently equipped with – and I’m not making this up – a “Sausage Sizzle”! Now if we could do that I’m sure it would to much to reduce British voter apathy. People would also probably not notice when the polling stations closed before they'd had a chance to vote.......

Thursday, 19 August 2010

The Bear Facts of Life, Marriage and Everything

Some friends of ours are getting married tomorrow and it’s set me thinking about the institution. I came relatively late to marriage but - although this sounds corny - I can thoroughly recommend it!

On the train last night I read an article by a woman journalist that said she’d been told by men friends that they avoid women who collect teddies or cuddly toys as it makes them “unhinged” and therefore suspect. Hmmmm.

It so happens that I’m married to a decidedly level-headed, well-“hinged”, intelligent and fun loving lady who has a vast collection of bears gathered over the years. Some are valuable for reasons of scarcity, many more are “valuable” as they remind her (and nowadays often me, too) of happy times and visits. The camel I won at Blackpool Pleasure Beach; Heinrich from the Rhine (named after Heinrich Heine, whose Lorelei was nearby); the giant Charmin Bear won in a raffle at Sainsbury’s; and the koala from…….well, guess!

It seems to me that “normal people” (ha!) do love this idea of everyone conforming. We all should lead the same “normal” lives. We’re supposed to clean the car on Sundays, spend Thursday evening in Sainsbury’s, worry about new curtains clashing with the futon or engaging in one-upmanship about everything from flat-screen TVs to baby buggies.

I’m glad that I can share my life with someone decidedly not like that (but actually rather like me, with my eclectic collecting habits). Someone who – although perfectly able to have fun, a lot of it, too – doesn’t regard throwing up in the gutter as the objective to a night out and with whom I can have engaging, intelligent conversations and an engaging, intelligent fun life.

She’s pretty good at sorting out computer problems, too. ;-)

I know that Nicki and Dave - tomorrow's happy couple - are on course for similar happiness. Wishing you both lots and lots of it, too!


Sunday, 8 August 2010

"Day Off". Ha!

I've virtually always had jobs which involve weekend working and - although I love what I do - it does sometimes pall to be working when those close to you aren't and vice versa.

However, today was a day off which proved to be arduous beyond words. Hedges trimmed, the ever-present lawns given TLC, more clearing out and various other preparations.

I wish I'd been working "properly". At least someone would have been paying me at the end!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Shed Loads of Hassle

For reasons I won’t bore you with, having come back from a job this afternoon, we decided to clean out the garden shed.

This was a job of truly herculean proportions and within 20 minutes the back garden looked as though a small nuclear explosion had taken place.

Where does all this stuff come from? Actually, we’re afraid to admit that some of it came from the previous occupants of the house. We have no idea what some of the things in jars were but we’re pretty certain that some of them would probably have been of interest to the weapons inspectors in Iraq.

To our surprise, though, we did manage to make it all reasonably tidy. Eventually. Just one question remained, though. It’s one we’ve had posed before and wonder if anyone else has, too?

Why is it that you clean somewhere out, throw loads of stuff away and still struggle to get all the stuff you’re keeping back in?

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Farewell, Old Friends!




After a job working in Moseley on Saturday morning, I was lucky enough to be able to get over to Acocks Green in time to watch the last ever operation by MCW Metrobuses.

For those "not in the know", the Metrobus was a late seventies design of double decker, born out of a collaboration between Metro Cammell Weymann (MCW) in the UK and Scania in Sweden. The resultant bus (called a Metro Scania) seemed especially popular on the streets on Newport and Reading for some reason! But they allegedly rusted quicker than they could be built!

So, an all UK version, the "Metrobus" was born. Manufactures in vast quantities at MCW's Birmingham factory at Washwood Heath, they found buyers all over the country. But local loyalties ensured that they would become the mainstay of West Midlands bus operation.
They proved surprisingly enduring and "last Metrobus Days" were held successively in Walsall, Birmingham and finally on three routes running from Acocks Green on Saturday.

Although not in the league of seeing off the last regular Routemasters in London, the event did attract quite a bit of attention from the enthusiast community. Actually, they themselves attracted a fair bit of attention from passing motorists!
video

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Just a Thought


I am not usually a fan of Scottish Nationalism. A party dedicated to breaking up the country I love into constituent and bickering bits seems to lean too much towards Balkanisation.

However, I have to admire the attitude of the Scottish Government’s Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill in refusing to appear before a US Senate Committee to answer questions about the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber.

The Lockerbie bombing – although it involved a US aircraft – occurred over the UK; specifically over Scottish soil. Therefore, any questions regarding Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi are matters for Scottish jurisdictions, possibly with some UK involvement as international relations are a reserved matter, ie one of concern to Westminster. It does not involve the USA.

America is a wonderful country, a land of freedom and decency and one which has stood by us (as we have stood by it) through the centuries. I am glad and proud that we are friends, in equal measure. But it does not rule the world, the writ of its law does not extend beyond its borders and other jurisdictions are not at its beck and call like ancient colonies or forelock-tugging servants, to be summoned to account for their actions at their command.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi should have been released. He showed no compassion to his victims and to be spred the death penalty for taking life is – in my view – sufficient reason to imprison people for the rest of their lives.

Furthermore, there seems to be an opinion that he might be innocent. I cannot claim to know or understand enough about the case to have a view on that.

But it is worth saying that he was tried and convicted by a Scottish court and that really is the end of the matter. It is a Scottish decision and it certainly doesn’t involve the US.

I wonder if George W. Bush would consent to come and be questioned by the Chilcot Inquiry to account for his actions?

Just a thought.

I Need a Rest!


I worked in Tamworth, a lovely and interesting old Staffordshire town which deserves better than the "chav-filled hell-hole" reputation it has among some people. Mostly ones from Lichfield and Sutton actually but I digress.......

The days work done, we came home for a "spot" (ha!) of gardening. It's nearly two weeks since the lawns were done and we're unlikely to have much chance to do a "heavy" garden session in the coming days. So, off to work we set. and what fun it was:

  1. The grass was so long that the lawn mower struggled to cope. It took forever and it will still need another "trim" in the next few days.
  2. The hedge trimmer - whose cable was cut by Someone [TM] on its first use and subsequently repaired - has somehow managed to get its cable cut again. This was presumably during storage but means that we still don't have a trimmed hedge.
  3. During the lawn mowing I was stung or bitten by something on the leg. I was however Mummy's Brave Little Soldier and Louise attended me with full first aid kit. Well, a tube of Savlon.
  4. While raking the compost bin I disturbed a nest of bees which decided to mount a fairly serious assault.
  5. The strimmer keeps losing its thread (I know how it feels)
  6. And finally (as they say on the News) some "neighbours are having what sounds bvery much like a Blues Party in the next street. Goodness knows what it must be like actually living over there because it's a bit deafening for us.
I wish I was back at work!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cycling and Bike Share Schemes

I used to be quite a keen cyclist. Not the lycra or £2,500 bike, etc. but I did cycle quite often and am the proud owner of a Brompton folding bike, a splendid piece of British-built kit which you now see more and more on the streets.

One of the beauties of Bromptons is that they make multi-modal journeys easier; you just fold them up and pop them on the train, in the boot of the car or even, apparently, on the bus (not that I’ve ever tried the latter).

I’ve always meant to take the Brompton to London for the day but somehow never managed to get around to it. Something else is about to happen, though, which might bet me on two wheels in the capital from time to time: Transport for London’s new Barclay’s Cycle Hire. This scheme, similar to Velib in Paris or Melbourne Bike Share in, er, Melbourne, sees a large number of bicycles for hire at special docking stations around the capital. Basically, you go along to one, pay a hire fee by credit card and cycle away! (It’s actually rather more complex than that with an “access fee” and so on but you get the idea.) You can return the bike to any docking stand and the charging system is designed to encourage shorter term use.

One thing the scheme won’t have though is cycle helmets for hire. Unlike in some countries, the use of cycle helmets in the UK is not compulsory. But the absence of them (and who’s likely to just ”have one on them”?) may well put some people off. It will certainly cause at least some negative comment in the press, I think.

Not everyone thinks that helmets are a good idea, though. It’s sometimes said that safety features in cars, like air-bags for example, make people more reckless and that the same applies to cycle helmets. I’ve also heard it suggested that they can compound injuries in certain cases, especially if poorly fitted.

That said, when I cycle (which as I say is all too infrequently nowadays) I always wear one. I feel safer - a bit safer - with it and always take as much care as possible. On a more mundane note, it's saved me from being hurt by overhanging branches on off-road routes a couple of times!

But “safety” on two wheels is often at odds with “perceived safety” by the Great British Public. For example, a bigger gripe of mine is cycle paths and lanes. Beloved of planners who like to Do Things To Encourage Cycling, these often put a cyclist at much more of a disadvantage and in more danger. They introduce far more conflicts and junctions, are generally poorly maintained and swept and give motorists the latent belief that bicycles somehow don't really "belong" on the road.

That said, many (MANY) cyclists make life hard for themselves and the rest of us by blatantly flouting the rules of the road, using footpaths when it suits them and ignoring red lights. This means that as soon as you stick up for cycling as a means of transport, people throw the behaviour of cyclists back in your face.

Anyway, despite that homily, I’ll be watching Barclays Cycle Hire with great interest, though. If I ever get around to trying it out, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to report.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Shops (Interesting Shops, that is!)

It might surprise those here who know me to find me penning a Blog entry on the subject of shopping. It’s never been my favourite pastime (bookshops expected, of course) but these days with every town having basically the same shops, it’s more dull than ever.

Occasionally, though, there are shops which somehow manage to buck the trend and remain perpetually the same, despite the onset of globalisation.

The most timeless of these A Oakes in Langley. In business since 1905 it was a regular haunt in my childhood, from visits to see Father Christmas (none of the “Santa Cklaus” business!) in the days when Father Christmas really was an old man and hadn’t been (or needed to be!) CRB checked. As I grew up it became the shop for my school uniforms and perhaps that’s why when I escaped from the hell that was my schooldays, I never went near the place again. Then, about a year or so ago, I was out driving with Mum and we thought we’d go in and have a look to see how much it had changed. Basically, it hadn’t! The place was almost exactly as I remembered it, with wooden draws full of socks and underwear stacked around the walls and – unusually, on reflection – a huge stock of model railway equipment for sale. A quick Google search has revealed that Oakes now even have an internet presence and seem set to continue for ever.

So timeless was it, I expected a Midland Red D9 to go past the door on a 215…….

Another of these time-warp stores is Walker & Ling in Weston-super-Mare. This has also been in business since the year dot and - although they’ve obviously had the decorators in more than Oakes, they still seem to thrive selling stuff that you’d expect most people now to buy from Debenham’s or M&S. The fact that they don’t and that they thrive as a locally-owned small business in a sea of retail mediocrity is a delight. I was very happy to buy myself a jacket there last week to help keep them going!

For sheer size, though the greatest of these shops I know of is Jackson’s, the old retailing lady of Reading. Unlike the others, Jackson’s really is a department store. Like Oakes, though, it will forever be associated for people of a certain age with stocking school uniforms. Whenever I’m working in Reading and have any locals on tours (which does happen), you can see everyone recalling an era of blazers, striped ties, sew-on name labels and football shirts. And, for all their history and conservatism, not only do Jacksons have a website, they have a Blog!

If you get a chance, go and support these businesses and other like them. Long may they continue to thrive!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Tidying Up

Louise suggested tonight that we spend Friday tidying the house.

Tidying our house doesn't require "Friday"; it required "August"!

We Do Remember Them


I once encountered someone at an event I was running who asked incredulously “Er, was Australia actually involved in the war?!”

It is perhaps as well that I don’t recount here my reply. :-(

However, as one Briton that is profoundly grateful for the role played by Australia in protecting my country’s freedom, I humbly direct readers to the following news items from today.

We really, really do “remember them”.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10679715

http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/19/2958313.htm?site=news

The perpetual remembrance of these men is the splendid and remarkably little known Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Anyone that’s ever done a tour of Maidenhead with me will recall their headquarters there, They are not a UK government agency but are funded jointly by the governments of the Nations involved in the First World War. They too are worthy of investigation and recognition.

http://www.cwgc.org/