Sunday, 31 January 2010

To Cardiff and Back

I did a job in Cardiff today.

Wales' capital is a stately place, every inch a capital city and - despite all the bilingual signs - an entirely "British" city.

Its Civic Centre, a collection of grand public buildings makes it feel an even more important place than it is and is probably my favourite thing to show off. But as ever on an Ian walk there are lots of hidden places to show people. Today, I've had them gawping at the ground floor of a multi-storey car park, a set of wheelie bins, a subway with a tramp in it and the hotel where Gene Pitney died.

They weren't quite as much into the Doctor Who locations as some groups I've had and I was actually quite disturbed by how few people seemed to know what Aneurin Bevan was famous for; but then I suppose that's my job, isn't it?

They were such a pleasant group that we ended up having lunch together. bizarrely this was in a pub called the Owain Glyndwr.......named after a 15th century Welsh leader who, er, burned Cardiff to the ground. Interesting what you have to do these days to get a pub named after you, isn't it?!

Then I drove home listening to The Wurzels. Pretty good day! :-)

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Australia Day

Today is Australia Day, which prompts me to Blog up a few words about one of my favourite countries.

I don’t think anywhere suffers more from an unfounded image problem in Britain than Australia. It conjures up for so many people images of people wearing hats with corks dangling from them, drinking Castlemaine XXXX, Rolf Harris playing the Didgeridoo, low budget television soaps and culture being spelled “Kulcha”. Attributes like this are rarely accurate and in Australia’s case are just downright nonsense.

“Kulcha”? How many other countries are principally known around the world for having an Opera House, for goodness’ sake?

In any case, Australia’s culture actually goes back between 40,000 and 60,000 years (no-one is quite sure). Far from being savages in need of civilizing, Australia’s indigenous people seem to have been the world’s first mariners (by a considerable margin) and have kept and preserved their history in a way unrivalled elsewhere.

As is usually the case, the British, least of all Captain Cook, didn’t “discover” Australia at all. Man had known it to be there for centuries and the Chinese, the Portuguese and the Dutch all made cursory expeditions to the North, as did an English privateer called William Dampier, who left behind his name.

It was the British though that first properly surveyed the beautiful and (importantly) fertile East Coast (under Yorkshireman James Cook)…….although they waited some 17 years before actually founding a colony. (Yes, it was a penal colony. No, that doesn’t mean that all or even many Australians are descended from convicts. Yawn.) Indeed, they did so only a matter of days before a French expedition under Jean-François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse, arrived. A few weeks later and Australia could have been French…….

But those early colonists did something that Australia has consistently been good at. They worked hard; and then they worked harder still. And they grew. By 1859 there were six separate colonies which quickly assumed what is called “Responsible Government". Perhaps following the federation and Dominion Status of the Canadian Colonies in 1867, talk began of Federation in Australia, too, encouraged by the Premier of New South Wales, the Coventry-born Sir Henry Parkes.

Parkes never lived to see Federation (then as now political negotiations were difficult and slow) but with the dawn of the new century on 1 January 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia became the second independent Dominion within the British Empire, sharing a monarch but assuming the running of its own affairs.

There is a tendency to describe India as being the Empire’s "Jewel in the Crown". But for ordinary Britons, I’ve always thought that Australia really had this position. It was somewhere many of them had family, has always been one of the more familiar outposts of empire and – even today – is a place that seems to “matter” to the British public more than the others. (You can see that whenever the press gets its knickers in a twist about Australia becoming a republic. They never bothered about Trinidad or Malta doing that, for example.)

Australia’s growing up and rise to full independence was rather like that of a child going through adolescence and into adulthood, gradually gaining more powers but still helping mother when she needed it. And goodness me, did she need it in the two World Wars, when Australia’s sacrifice in the service of Britain was tear-jerkingly loyal. (I once had to admonish someone for saying that they “didn’t know Australia was involved in the war”. Idiot.)

Today, despite constant attempts to look more towards South East Asia and those periodic rumblings about becoming a republic, Australia still feels (take a deep breath and wait for the flaming, Ian) more-or-less British to me. It certainly has more in common with say Coventry than Kuala Lumpur or Birmingham than Bangkok. I do sometimes say (and this is true of Canada, too) that it’s like the best bits of Britain and the USA rolled together and with the worst bits of both taken out.

But it isn’t really about “which country is Australia most like"; it’s most like Australia.

The things that make me admire it so much?

  • The egalitarianism, above all. That you can rise to do anything irrespective of background or – as far as I can tell – money.
  • The concept of service to the public (which leaves the US with its “have a nice day” culture standing).
  • The bluntness of people in what they say (a very Jelf trait, that!).
  • And finally the one legacy of once being British which will endure long after Australia becomes a republic, changes its flag and stops over-cooking vegetables: that of Fair Play.

I could go on (!): Melbourne, one of the most beautiful cities on this Earth,; Judith Durham; Tim Tams; Paul Kelley; the Blue Mountains; the Whitsundays; Lamingtons; the ABC; Taronga Zoo and the Indian Pacific Train. But this Blog is already ridiculously long and I only sat down to pen a couple of paragraphs for Australia Day.

It’s been a privilege to visit it and we are always looking forward to going back.

Happy Australia Day

Those We Have Lost

Today, my Dad would have been 77, had he not been taken suddenly from us nearly 14 years ago.

We have a tendency to eulogise those who have gone, putting them on pedestals and claiming that they were faultless and saintly. Well, obviously I’m biased but he really was like that.

He seldom talked about his younger years as – plainly unlike me – he had something of a disregard for the past, living for now and looking ahead. Equally unlike me, he was quiet, calm and often (though I didn’t realise it at the time) a calming, steadying influence on me. Everyone he met (and I really do mean this, too) liked him. I suspect my rating is somewhat lower than that!

I hope I share some of his attributes, though. He was limitlessly kind, very wise and above all “Good”.

I still miss you…….and Happy Birthday, Dad.

By a strange coincidence, Dad shared his birthday with his mother-in-law. She would have been 112 today!

I never knew her (or indeed any of my grandparents, which has always been a source of regret to me. My mother has always been very good at letting me about them all, though; again, something about which I’m very glad.

Amelia Green was born Amelia Smith, in Wednesbury. By all accounts she was one of those ladies who was always busy, not only bringing up six children but losing one of them in infancy. She was again very kind (and would give anyone her last penny), loud, determined, opinionated and always right.

There is something in this genetic make-up stuff, isn’t there? J

Monday, 25 January 2010

The Light Touch

I had to put together a new floor and reading lamp for my mother-in-law yesterday.

Now although pretty large, this was no bargain basement affair, coming from Rackham’s (sorry “House of Fraser”) at a price for which I would want the house re-wiring.

Now I pride myself on not being at all bad with self-assembly furniture. I know the instructions can be, er, “vague” sometimes but I thought with a high-end item like this that surely wouldn’t be the case.

How wrong can you be? The instructions were in plain English and they didn’t seem to have been translated by Babelfish from Korean. They were just rubbish. They didn’t explain things clearly, they missed out vital pieces of information and indeed actual steps and the item itself has various nuts, bolts and washers already attached in (the wrong) place, a fact not mentioned in the “instructions”.

Some 45 minutes later, Louise and I were fixing and then unfixing various burnished brass poles, trying to work out how to thread wires and generally "discussing" with one another about the best way to do something!

When we next need a light (which happily we won't, as mother-in-law gave us her old one!), we’ll get one more cheaply from Ikea!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sunday City People

I'm used to being in Birmingham City Centre (or lots of other City Centres, to be honest!) early on a Sunday morning.

This morning, though, while waiting to meet a group to do a tour of Birmingham's famous Outer Circle 11 bus route, I found myself idly wondering what all the other people (and there were many) arriving in the City that early were on their way too. It was too early to be shop workers arriving for Sunday trading so who were they?

Was Birmingham getting torrents of other people arriving for witty, offbeat panoramic double decker tours with other witty, offbeat tourist guides?

Were they all hurrying to take up jobs in 24/7 call centres which used to be done overseas but which have now been relocated to Birmingham as our economy picks up?

Were they council administrative workers, eager to catch up on the backlog of things they couldn't get done when they were prevented from getting to work by the snows a couple of weeks ago?

Or was there some other more sinister reason?

I think we should be told!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010


I've been meaning to do a piece for the Blog for ages about caffs.

Yes, I do mean "caffs", not "cafés". I mean what are sometimes unfairly called "greasy spoons". Twice lately I’ve found myself having really rather splendid English Breakfasts (something we English hardly ever have!) in two of them at opposite ends of the country and thought they deserved a plug here.

The first, nondescript looking place was in Manchester. It's called the "OK Café" (!) and it's at 77 Piccadilly, between the Station and Piccadilly Gardens. It's ordinary, friendly and very popular and served me a huge steaming hot bap (they call them "barms" in the North West, apparently!) and a mug of tea for les than a price of a Latte in.......well, you know where!

The second is the misleadingly-named Gino's Coffee Bar, directly opposite Marylebone Station in London, on the corner of Melcombe Place and Great Central Street. Full breakfast or just elevenses, just setting me up for a hard day in London!

English cooked breakfasts are always a bit of a challenge for me as I don't like eggs and finding something without is sometimes a bit hard. I used to get places refusing to serve them without an egg, "unless you pay for each other piece individually", which is much more expensive. This doesn't seem to happen now (last time was in a place called Hawthorn, in Australia in 2001, I think!)

I know we're supposed to have lighter things now, not some artery-clogging fatty fry-up. But since I hardly ever do so and life isn’t a rehearsal, I reason that it's a pleasure I can indulge occasionally and am happy to recommend the two said establishments here.

I wonder if there's anywhere comparable in Birmingham.......?

Kids in Museums

The other night I was listening to an edition of Front Row when a piece came on which had me in a complete rage.

An organisation called "Kids in Museums" was on complaining about museums not being sufficiently child-friendly. What? Virtually every museum I visit these days positively brims with things aimed at younger visitors (I dislike the term "kids"), sometimes to the detriment of other groups and indeed to the detriment of the story the place is out to tell. To me, they already *are* family friendly. (Indeed, I often buy any guide books intended for younger visitors as they often give the information in a form more readily digestible when you need, as a guide, to interpret things succinctly and quickly).

I put up with places sometimes heaving with families and school groups (eg the Natural History Museum, Ironbridge or the Black Country Living Museum) because I tell myself (a) that's good for them, their finances and their long-term future and (b) it's partly what they're for.

But Kids in Museums seem to have a manifesto that implies that younger visitors are somehow more important than others. I want younger visitors, I really do. Get them early I say. I grew up with such places and it shaped my life, education and career for the better. But younger visitors are just one group and their enjoyment shouldn't overshadow everyone else's. Several times I've been prevented from taking groups to attractions "because we usually have school groups in at that time" (even though we're booking first). On other occasions, things seem aimed only at children, a loss to those looking for something more.

If you read KiM's manifesto, among much sensible stuff, it contains some really quite ludicrous demands.

  • Having flexible family tickets ("Don’t dictate the size of a family. Families come in all shapes and sizes."). Great, let someone bring 8 children in as one family. There has to be some sort of definition. Why do they think they are more entitled to concessions?

  • Having "big open spaces for children to let off steam". Better to educate children that sometimes they can let off steam and sometimes they can't because they have to treat environments and other visitors with respect. Being quiet and well-behaved isn't somehow "restrictive"; it's a lesson for behaviour in life.

  • Asking "families to describe the best bit of their visit, either in words or pictures. Respect these responses and act on them. Invite them back." Why should this commendable aim be the preserve of families? Why not ask everyone about such things?

  • "Use positive remarks like, ‘Isn’t that a great painting! Let’s look at it together from further back.’". Patronising or what? Pass the sick bag.......

Now I don't want anyone interpreting what I've written here as being anti-child. As I've said, nothing is further from the truth. But this demand for something more than other people get is typical of many of today's parents, who want others to do their job for them. They are, folks, your children and looking after them, explaining and stimulating them and ensuring their good behaviour is your responsibility.

Kids in Museums? Twittering classes.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010


So the news has broken this morning that Cadbury's board have apparently advised shareholders to accept Kraft's offer of 840p per share, which makes Cadbury's worth £11.5 billion.

Maybe I'd do the same if I was a shareholder. But you know what> Actually I don't think I would. I regret us selling everything off and whatever promises are made in the medium term, the company's presence at Bournville will change eventually, I'm sure.

Our city is littered with take-overs that were supposed to have no effect. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I give you Rover and LDV. Beyond I give you BSR in the Black Country and Terry's of York. And who bought the latter and moved production overseas? Oh yes, it was Kraft.

I don't think for a minute that Cadbury's will "close down" the Bournville works; but I suspect that things (ie jobs) will just "trickle away" over time.

We are sleepwalking into our own destruction I sometimes think.

Still, at least it'll be an excuse not to eat chocolate anymore!

Monday, 11 January 2010

Verbose Media

The many friends I have in Melbourne keep me informed that Australia's "Garden State" is a bit parched at the moment, with temperatures "soaring" up into the 40sC.

Interesting that in media speak temperatures never seem to merely "rise" and "fall"; they "soar" and "plunge" or even "plummet". We seldom get "high" winds; rather they are "gale force" and rain is never "heavy" but the more diluvian "torrential".

So I'll give this media language a go describing my day. Hope it impresses you all and leads to me being offered a sub-editor's job somewhere.

I flew from my bed at the very crack of dawn this morning, rapidly making a bee-line for the bathroom. After some vigorous teeth-brushing I wolfed down a high-fibre dose of sustenance (well, okay, muesli) before navigating the slush-filled Edwardian thoroughfares of Metroland and then plunging to a subterranean voyage on the Northern Line.

A fact-packed morning of studious endeavour followed, my fingers flying across the pages of a notebook like a swallow soaring through some alpine valley.

A traditional East End hostelry served to me some of its best foaming ale before I privileged to see the London of the twenty first century truly rolling Eastwards towards the site of the XXX Olympiad, beyond Bazalgette's effluvial temple.

A secondary subterranean projection brought me back to the bosom of my hostess (eh?), where a sumptuous supper ushered in the opportunity of a somnorial interlude.

Think I'll stick with the tour guiding. Goodnight!

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Olympic Pause

I’m currently half way through a course in London studying the venues to be used in the 2012 Summer Olympics, staying with friends in North London and being Northern Line commuter for a week or so. Great, I'm getting to admire some splendid Charles Holden architecture twice a day!

Anyway, despite the weather and “unpredictable” road conditions, I’ve been home for the weekend.

Weekends off are a strange experience for me, as they’re obviously among my busiest days for work. However, Louise and I popped into Birmingham yesterday morning (I needed to find a copy of “Chariots of Fire” on DVD as material for my course!) I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: what a horrible experience shopping in major centres is on Saturdays. I get spoiled by being able to indulge in such things on – say – a Tuesday morning!

The media do tend to get their knickers in a twist about the weather, though, don’t they? While I admit it’s been a difficult spell with the very low (sorry, “plunging” temperatures), as far as motoring on main roads goes, there have been no huge problems for us. Side roads are a different matter but the thought of local councils ploughing narrow residential streets lined with parked cars is really a non starter.

The press do love to do their “the glass is half empty rather than the glass is half full” routine, don’t they? Actually, in recent reports for “glass” substitute “salt depot”.

Anyway, in between all this I’ve been typing up notes (my handwriting is appalling; it’s so long since I’ve taken longhand notes) and just generally relaxing.

Just about to enjoy a “proper” and very late breakfast before setting off back South this afternoon. Now, what do I know about Theodosius I…….?

Monday, 4 January 2010

Some Treasured Christmas Presents

Belatedly, then, Happy New Year!

Well, with the festivities of Christmas over and the decorations (almost) all down, time to catch up.

I’ve been a bit remiss on Blog Writing, mostly due to work (I had some really interesting bookings for walks and coach tours over the festive period).

I do want to talk about some of the presents I was lucky enough to receive, though.

I love presents. I know that Christmas has a reputation for saddling people with unwanted gifts but I treasure the stuff I get!

For one thing, I have yet another new lens to lug around with me on the Occasions When I Set Out To Take Photographs (as oppose to when I take photos merely incidentally). I do enjoy photography but I get very little chance to practice it as much as I would like.

Then there were the The Books. I’m an avid reader and the house is stacked full (too full) of the things. Three of this Christmas’ library were related to transport in the Midlands, a subject which has always occupied more of my time than perhaps is good for me!

I’m actually going to do mini-reviews of the three, not because I think that that many of my Blog followers are into the finer points of Midland transport history but because they all convey so much more than that: the photos and texts give a fascinating record of the past of the area, often including material which is either different from that published elsewhere or which presents it in a different, more entertaining fashion.

City to the Black Country: A Nostalgic Journey by Bus and Tram by David Harvey was the first. David Harvey now has a welter of local transport-related books to his name and they are always enjoyable. This one looks at the tram and later bus connections from Birmingham out to Wednesday and to Dudley, via both Smethwick and via West Bromwich.

The routes concerned both have long pedigrees and they provide as varied a ride now as they ever did. Pictures of trams (even Birmingham’s oft-forgotten cable trams) are interspersed with the newest generation of Wright Gemini buses.

The captions give a great deal of background information and are plainly written by someone who isn’t regurgitating stuff but who understands it and is enthused by it.

A shame it’s all in black and white but that can’t really be avoided in most cases, given the subject matter!

The other books are both in colour and are both penned by another “great” in the local transport world, Malcolm Keeley.

West Midlands PTE Buses and Trolleybuses reminds us that the creation of an integrated transport authority for the West Midlands is actually a far from new idea, dating from 1969. The book, with some lovely colour illustration, most of which I’d never seen before and including some splendid vanished street-scenes, covers the period from the PTE’s creation in 1969 until deregulation of bus operation in 1986.

It is easy to forget today, when the powers that be keep striving to “integrate” transport, that we achieved that pretty much more than three decades ago. A single organisation running all the buses and controlling rail operations, with a single Travelcard to cover everything, bulk buying locally built buses, building bus stations and transport interchanges and ushering in a renaissance in local rail travel. We had it all and it was largely thrown away in the interests of “ competition”. It made me feel distinctly nostalgic.

The Colours of the West Midlands was the second of Malcolm’s books in the Jelf stocking on Christmas morning. “Colours” is descriptive, too, a quality, large, hardback book filled with yet more never-before seen pictures of pre-PTE buses. And what a colourful period it was, too!

Midland Red, quite rightly, is dealt with first, its bright red (obviously!) buses seeming to cover the length and breadth of the Midlands. And having one of their D9s on the front cover just guaranteed that I would like it! However, the book has a distinct Birmingham City Transport bias, with their fleet of cream and very-deep blue buses looking distinctly pristine. This impression is only enhanced by the pages that follow of the other municipal bus fleets in the area. West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton successively show increasing signs of scruffiness in their various buses. Not that they weren’t of interest. Far from it.

The whole of the book is absorbing. And if those of you reading this who find what I've waxed lyrical about distinctly geeky, then I promise you the backgrounds and settings of many of the pictures are truly absorbing, reminding us how much our towns and cities have changes, not always for the worse, either.

In conclusion, one picture really stopped me in my tracks. It’s a mid-sixties shot on page 29 of The Colours of the West Midlands and ostensibly shows a Birmingham Daimler CVG6 at the Hamstead terminus of the 15/16 service. But there, right by the classic huge Birmingham bus stop is 372 Hamstead Road. This was the home of my honorary Auntie Kath and Uncle Bob (actually friends of my parents) with whom we used to spend weekends when I was small. It was at he front of that house as a toddler that I spent hours watching the buses turning around and – my family believe – developed the fascination in the subject I've had ever since.

The picture was utter joy to me and brought back some of the happiest memories I have.

If you’ve persevered this far…….thanks for reading!