Monday, 31 December 2007
About this time each year, some newspaper normally publishes a list of mishaps that have required admittance to a casualty unit in the UK. Everything from Christmas tree lights (don't water the tree with them switched on) to jumpers (don't try them on whilst smoking a cigarette).
This DIY peril, however will hurt you more in the wallet than anyone else.
On 22nd December, the Tour company, Travelscope collapsed, leaving many families stranded both home - on their way to a Christmas holiday, or abroad - returning from a pre-Christmas break. Up to 10,000 holidaymakers have been affected according to BBC News.
Whilst it is not the first one to collapse and undoubtedly will not be the last, its timing left a lot to be desired and the effects go beyond the 10,000. There is the staff, their families and the families of the holidaymakers to consider.
This all seems to make a good case for pulling together your own holiday package ('dynamic packaging'). However, the opposite is probably true. If you go to the Travelscope website and read the Administrator's letter, you can read the following (paraphrased) "For those travelling by Air, the company was bonded with ATOL - the Air Traveller Organisers' Licensing System. For those not travelling by air, it was bonded through ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents). In both cases, full refunds seem to be available".
If you pull together your own package, you do not get this protection, you are reliant on your own travel insurance coming to the rescue. That is, assuming that you have appropriate (or, indeed, any) insurance. If you pull together your own package, it will be up to you to take the steps to obtain your money due. Again, from the Travelscope Administrator, "AITO and ABTA are endeavouring to send claim forms out within 7-10 days of an administrator being appointed". They know what to do - they have done this before; this is the raison d'etre of the Bonding system - to protect the traveller.
DIY Holidays are all the rage. We're not bothered if we spend whole evenings surfing the Internet putting together our ideal package and patting ourselves on the back when we end up with a tailored and cheaper alternative to the Travel Agent or Tour Operator.
This trend will only continue and will eventually see the demise of the High Street Travel Agent. It is good for Internet-savvy travellers, but do bear in mind the hidden benefits of using an Agent. If it goes pear-shaped, you have someone to contact to sort out the mess. Assuming that they are Bonded, then you should get a near-100% refund of the holiday cost should the worst happen. Imagine that you are lying on a beach on Lanzarote and happen to read in your overpriced paper that the airline that you travelled with has just shut shop. Where would you even start to sort out the mess? How are you going to arrange flights back?
If you want to DIY, then take out appropriate Insurance from the start - unexpected things can happen to force you to abandon or cut short the holiday. Annual policies are great value for money in this respect.
There is room for those wishing to DIY as well as leaving all the hassle to an Agent. It's very unlikely that a Company will go bust, but ticketing mistakes do happen and hotels that look like Sandy Bay in the Brochure turn out to be Fawlty Towers on closer inspection. I'm not trying to teach anyone to suck eggs, but a phenomenal number of travellers do not buy Insurance and many flights and rooms are booked through unbonded Agents ('bucket shops') or Direct with the Hotelier who may have shut shop the week before you arrive. Just make sure that you know who to call when it does go Pete Tong. Ghostbusters probably cannot help this time.
Monday, 26 November 2007
Well, I was once.
Even in the Folk world, Morris Dancers are viewed as the ones at the shallow end of the gene pool. What male in his right mind would dance around with flowers in his hat, hitting others with a pig's bladder or waving hankies about? Female dancers have a certain grace about them and are, in the main, photogenic. Morris men? Well, they have as much grace as a hippo in a tutu.
This was my opinion for a long time. I used to be having a whale of a time dancing at Ceildhs with my 'dos si dos' and my 'boxing of the gnat' when suddenly the dancing would stop and a Crash of Morris Dancers would emerge, do their stuff and shuffle off again. A Good Time to fill up or empty was the general opinion from the dancers.
Anyhow, for a number of reasons, this happened to me at one particular Festival and I got chatting to the boss man (the 'Squire') whom I knew from a previous life and suddenly found myself a week later in a village hall in Hurst in Berkshire 'just to see what it was like'. A series of winter evenings later, a bit of help with the costume (the 'kit') from a sympathetic female (sewing not being one of my strong points) and I was let loose on the public the following spring. Believe it or not, it was good fun. The healthy aspect of 45 minutes cardiac exercise was somewhat mitigated by the obligatory tankard or two of something cloudy, but we toured the pubs, we got invited to festivals around the country, to an Army Barracks to entertain Officers in their mess (with the fine dining and drink that that brings) to Killeshandra for the Folk and Powerboat festival (interesting combination, but Guinness helped blur the confusion) and, after I left, the side even went to America following an invite.
One of our invites and, very memorable for me for not quite the right reasons, was Broadmoor. Broadmoor is a High Security Hospital in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Peter Sutcliffe, the so called 'Yorkshire Ripper' is arguably the most famous detainee. One of our team worked there and she arranged the visit for us where we would perform some dances for the residents.
We were given very specific instructions about behaviour, looking after the equipment, staying together so on and so forth and were looking forward to it.
Unfortunately, I had to be on business in Manchester that day, so kit packed in readiness for later and an early start had me up there working to get the job done. These things, however, take longer that expected and by departure time I was already late. A blat down the M6 from Manchester got me to Birmingham. No M6 Toll road then, so I crawled round Birmingham at rush hour. I finally clear and put my foot down along the M40, drop down to the M4, across to and through Bracknell and into Crowthorne, checking my scrap of a map and finally finding the signs to Broadmoor and hareing into the car park.
Out of the car, strip off (your need for preservation of dignity disappears as a Morris dancer, changing in all sorts of places) and a brisk walk across to the massive security room. Through the toughened glass window you can see enough keys to keep the most enthusiastic guard happy.
"Yes, sir. Can I help?" "I hope so, I'm with the Morris Dancers.." "So I see, Sir" "...and I'm supposed to be dancing with them". "Sorry Sir, I can't help, you need to be escorted across to where they are performing and there's no-one available, they are all watching the display and keeping an eye on the inmates". Whatever I said, he couldn't help and wouldn't budge.
So, there I am, banging on the door of Broadmoor Hospital, saying "Let me in, I'm a Morris Dancer". Now, if there was any justice...
Wednesday, 7 November 2007
In this day and age with bands 'creating' music by sampling previously recorded tracks and lip synching to their tracks on stage, it is good to know that there is a revival in performers that can actually sing and play.
Once upon a time...
There were no computers, there was no way to record music and it was passed on to subsequent generations by word of mouth. Musical annotation came along together with the ability to read and write and thus music was able to be preserved. Two Centuries ago, Thomas Edison came along and, starting with his efforts, we are now able to record music to be played back at our convenience.
The dark ages
From the 1960s to the 1980s, rock and pop music started to take off and a multitiude of bands were formed, from the behemoths such as Queen, the Who and the Beatles to, latterly, Artists and Bands churned out by Promotors such as Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
A lot of these bands were successful, feeding on the enthusiasm of teenagers and pre-teens to leap on the latest craze. However, the traditional Artists - Folk, Country, R&B and so on were sidelined somewhat.
These new singers did not necessarily need to be able to sing, nor play an instrument. Electronic wizardry to tweak the voice and lay down the backing tracks coupled with fancy videos meant that all they had to do was bounce around on the Top of the Pops stage, lip synching to the music. If anyone's seen the Simpsons episode where Bart gets a Recording Contract will know exactly what I mean.
One pop group (you know who you are) provided the catalyst for change when they admitted that none of them could sing and that their records were recorded by other musicians. Up until then, Top of the Pops had allowed artists to mime on stage. Now it was decreed that they should sing live.
The second revolution came with classical music becoming more accessible. Singers such as Lesley Garrett started the ball rolling, then Charlotte Church and more recently Katherine Jenkins were amongst those showing that you could make it popular for all ages. Nigel Kennedy and Vanessa Mae have brought instruments to the fore with their youth and exuberance as well as visual impact.
Thirdly, Fok music, once seen as only suitable for blokes with beer guts, a pipe, a pint of something cloudy and his finger stuck in his ear singing a dirge about some early century tragedy has had a facelift. Fresh young blood has taken and shaken the Folk world. Kate Rusby, Tickled Pink, Kathryn Roberts and the Poozies have all gone down a storm. In addition, events such as WOMAD have youth appeal whilst festivals such as Towersey, Sidmouth, Wallingford and Broadstairs all have great family appeal. Kate Rusby, Katie Melua and Norah Jones are bridging the gap between Folk and Popular music, whilst the likes of Robbie Williams are also showing how it can be done.
In their own way, the Internet, IPods and downloadable music are bringing the world of music to our PCs and our ears. Cheap flights are bringing world musicians to our doorstep and our events.
..is looking good for Live music, certainly from the listener's point of view as there is so much choice. It is harder for new musicians to make it big - they are up against well-polished PR machines as well as the growing mass of talent out there. Musicians need to get their music accessible and played as widely as possible - creating your own sampler website, or using a portal such as Higher Notes is a good start. Hopefully, however, talent will shine through and those that can sing or play will win over those that cannot.
Get out there this summer and take in a bit of Live music. There is a huge choice of events. Check out our calendar for an event near you. If you 've not been to a gig for a few years, you're in for a pleasant surprise!
Tuesday, 30 October 2007
Hallowe'en, the night of Ghouls, witches and warlocks. A time for kids to dress up, go out and demand, if not money, then gifts with menaces.
Let's face it, that's what it is. "Give us your pocket money or we'll make you suffer". From eggs and flour to overturned dustbins and 'keyed' cars, one way of another they will make you wish you'd paid up.
Halloween (and other celebrations') origins can be found in the pagan festival of Samhain, celebrating the end of the Harvest. However, dressing up and going from door-to-door can be traced back to wassailing in the Middle Ages where the poor folk would beg for food on All Souls Day.
It took the Americans to combine the two into one event early on in the 20th Century. We can thank them for that, along with 'Have a Nice Day', 'The Dukes of Hazzard' and Jerry Springer.
When Children are small, it can be fun to dress them up. When Children are small, it can be fun to go carol singing. However, once they reach a certain age - say 8 or 9 - then the whole concept changes and householders can feel intimidated by a group at their door.
It is also my experience that the older ones come around earlier on the 31st October or come carol singing earlier and earlier in December in order to get the fresh pickings, leaving later groups to be told 'Oh, we've had the Trick or Treaters / Carol Singers around already - sorry.'
You can fight them at their own game. Closing the curtains, turning out the lights and not answering the doors is one option, as is going out. I've offered fresh fruit as the treat before now. That confuses them. The Addams Family had the right idea with a vat of boiling oil from the rooftop although of course, in the interest of health and safety and litigation, I am in no way recommending nor condoning it, just quoting it as an example. Cold water should have the same desired effect.
Responsible shops have posters up stating that they will not sell eggs or flour to anyone under 16 years old. Oh good. That should be just as effective as the smoking and alcohol notices then.
If you are concerned, contact your local Police Station or Neighbourhood Watch Coordinator as you should be able to get hold of a 'No Trick or Treat' poster to place by your front door.
Finally, I heard of one person who placed a notice on the door. "Dear Trick or Treater. My bell is not working, so please help you to a treat from the basket on the doorstep. First come, first served". He then placed an empty basket on the step, shut the door and settled back into his armchair.
Thursday, 11 October 2007
That notwithstanding, I (and a hundred or so others) won a competition recently. Radio 2's Ken Bruce features an 'Album of the week' and this week it is Katie Melua's latest offering - 'Pictures'. A bit of mutual back-scratching (I think Ken got the better deal, there) meant that she performed Live for the show at the BBC Radio Theatre. Competition entry involved filling out a form on t'interweb on his Home page, or sending a text via mobile 'phone. The skill element was completing my details correctly, which I managed with a bit of head scratching. A week later, I was contacted to say I had won and this morning, the alarm went off at 6.30 in preparation for the journey. I'll gloss over the journey except to say that there are charities out there caring for animals that have a better life than the intercity commuter.
BBC staff were efficient, if numerous at getting us into the building and our 'green room' and soon after 9 a.m. we were shepherded into the studio. Ken himself was the warm-up act, completely at ease despite being away from the comfort of his studio, facing a live audience and having a floor manager counting him in. After the banter between him and Terry Wogan he did the necessary introductions, played a couple of tracks and then introduced Katie, who proceeded to open with her latest single. Ken then hot-footed it back to his studio, but kept a beady eye on operations through a video link as well as chatting to Katie before and after each spot during the rest of the morning.
Although Katie only performed five numbers, she rehearsed each with her musicians and the BBC Symphony orchestra and chatted to the audience between.
There was a lot of waiting around as her spots were spread over the 2 1/2 hour show, but it provided a fascinating glimpse into the operations of a Live performance. I counted three sound desks - hers on-stage, one at the back of the auditorium and one in the glass Control room at the back. They may not all have been in use, but at least two were and if anyone can explain why more than one was needed I am all ears.
The BBC, for all its criticism, liquid lunches and overpaid chat-show hosts, does know how to patch a broadcast together from multiple locations; the Symphony orchestra was excellent at picking up a number with (presumably) no notice and making it sound good and Ken proved that you don't have to be a trendy young gift-of-the-gab DJ type to get an audience onside and produce a slick operation whilst giving out an air of casualness.
This was a free competition, but BBC TV and Radio recordings in general are free to go and see - all you need to do is apply for tickets for the show of your choice You'll be well looked after and get a glimpse of what goes on.
Oh and one final 'thank you' to Katie Melua who seems to be unaffected by new found stardom unlike certain other primadonnas of her generation and was more than happy to sign autographs and chat afterwards. I classify her as a folk rather than pop singer and this is a visible trait on the Folk Scene with very few pretensions around.
A day out of the office, some great music and afterwards a pleasant lunch at a Turkish restaurant a couple of doors down (recommended). Lovely jubbly. Shame about the trains.
Sunday, 23 September 2007
Having heard of the coloured sands at Alum Bay and The Needles, we planned a trip there towards the end to the week. This proved to be the low point of the week for me - every other place we visited in the rain proved to be more pleasurable.
Having negotiated the South Coast Road, descending to Ventnor seafront by the Isle's equivalent of Lombard Street and then braved the South Coast Road * we had great expectations for a good time.
As soon as you enter the area, your heart sinks. It is just one mass commercial amusement park, designed to extract your money for the lowest cost they can get away with. The main area is a dreary amusement (ha!) park with tatty rides, bits not working and insufficient staff so that you have to hang around expectantly until a ride gets opened (This was mid-August, hardly a slack time). The souvenir shops are worthy of any street trader hanging around the tourist traps of London.
Alum Bay is still there although you are not officially supposed to collect sand from it 'due to the risk of landslides'. Instead you can purchase a tacky placky shape and fill it with Alum Bay sand from the trays scattered about the shop. Once you have fought your way around this you can join a queue to have it 'finished'. The 'finishing' staff, to give them their due were competent, no slouches and not fazed by answering the same inane questions day in, day out. Shame that there weren't enough.
We went down to Alum Bay, eschewing the rickety chairlift that looked recycled from one of the first ever ski resorts and instead descended the wooden steps down to the sea front. There was plenty to see. The Needles - at a distance, the bottom of the chairlift, 10 metres of coloured rockface with tourists scooping sand samples into plastic bags like detectives hunting for evidence of a long-lost idyll. Oh, and detritus - bottles - glass and plastic, bags, wood, bits of clothing, the odd shoe, all contributing to the 'je ne sais quois' of the area.
It's a shame. It's an historic site and if they can get it right at the Zoo or Dino World or, in fact, anywhere else on the island, then you ought to be able to expect a better standard at somewhere as full of history as Alum Bay.
From Wikipedia: "Guglielmo Marconi moved to Alum Bay in 1897 to experiment with radio. He set up a 40 meter radio antenna outside the Needles Hotel in Alum Bay. He was able to successfully transmit to the Haven Hotel in Poole 20 miles away." I wonder if that chairlift was causing interference then?
*The South Coast Road welcomes careful drivers.
Thursday, 13 September 2007
"The European Commission has tired of waiting for the UK to give up imperial measurements, and now says it can use some of them for as long it wants.
The pound and the ounce can continue to be used alongside the kilogram and gram, in markets and delicatessens, for an indefinite period.".
Hands up those who think that this is a Good Thing? One, two...three, fifty...Oh, most of you. Why?
OK, quick quiz.
Question 1. How many inches are there in a foot? Feet in a yard? Yards in a chain? Chains in a furlong? Furlongs in a mile?
Question 2. How many ounces in a pound? Pounds in a stone? Stones in a hundredweight? Hundredweight in a ton?
Question 3. How many fluid ounces in a pint? Pints in a quart? Quarts in a gallon?
Question 4. How many millimetres in a centimetre? Centimetres in a decimetre? Decimetres in a metre? Metres in a decametre? Decametres in a kilometre?
Question 5. How many grams in a kilogram? Kilograms in a tonne?
Question 6. How many millilitres in a centilitre? Centilitres in a decilitre? Decilitres in a litre?
Now, all those of you that are nostalgic for pints and inches, which of those tables do you think it would be easiest to learn from?
I am old enough to be brought up learning ounces, feet and tons, but young enough to also be conversant with grammes, metres and tonnes. Anyone younger will struggle with the former and anyone older will consign the latter to the same bin as the Video remote.
A system based on just one number - 10 has surely got to be better than one based on average lengths of thumbs or feet. Guess which unit comes from the Latin 'mille passus' - one thousand steps?
In the same way that if tobacco was to be discovered today, it would be classified as a Class A drug, no-one in their right minds would get away with inventing the Imperial system of measurement today. Everyone would run 1.609 kilometres.
The 'Last Night' is the evening most people associate with the Proms, trotting out perennial favourites such as 'Jerusalem', 'Land of Hope and Glory' (Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1) and Wood's 'Fantasia on British Sea Songs'. Admission is very much oversubscribed and to get a ticket nowadays, you have to have attended some of the others during the season to stand any chance.
It is a testament to the Proms that it has evolved over the years. Classical music is not everyone's cup of tea and the Proms could have withered away to an inconsequential annual gathering of music anoraks or even died out totally. However, with the support of the BBC and the rise in popularity of Classical Superstars - Leslie Garrett, Vanessa Mae, Katherine Jenkins, Nigel Kennedy et al, Classical Music has become 'Cool'. To this end, in 1996, Hyde Park had a screen and stage and many thousands picnicked and watched and sang. This year there were five 'Proms In The Park', each with their own programme, but all coming together for the Finale. The parks were packed with people of all ages out to have a good time. It wasn't just classical music - each Park played on its Nationalistic origins - I particularly enjoyed the Irish music from the band Beoga - complemented by an Irish dancer at the end. Fireworks added the finishing touch.
One day I hope to make one of the Park Proms and, weather permitting, it will be a good way of soaking up some classical music. Anyone else up for it? As I've nearly said before - 'You've got to try everything once'
More info at Wikipedia and the BBC website
Thursday, 23 August 2007
Shame about the weather.
Sunday was nice, Monday was superb. Everyone knew the weather was due to break and were making the most of it. The beaches were busy. Blackgang Chine on the South Coast reported 3,500 people through the door. We went the next day.
I'm pretty certain that the staff outnumbered us that day. As it is on the clifftops, it is totally exposed to the elements. However, with the Isle of Wight being as far South as you can get, it was actually OK. The kids wore raincoats. I don't feel the cold so I had a jumper and an umbrella to keep me dry but overall we had a very good day. No queueing, rides for as long as we wanted without returning to the back of the queue and an empty restaurant.
Whether it was feeling like Royalty - opening the park especially for us - or the Dunkirk spirit kicking in I don't know, but it is possible to enjoy yourself in adverse weather in the UK and even benefit from the experience. If you are planning a trip and the bad weather kicks in at the last minute, my suggestion is to go for it. You'll enjoy it, you won't be harassed or jostled and you should feel good by the end of it. But then again, I'm an ex-Morris dancer so am used to 'the Show Must go On' whatever the weather.
Now, the Needles. Don't get me started. I'll tell you about that later...
Monday, 6 August 2007
In our garden we have a problem with toadstools. There is a clear path along the grass showing the route that the spores have taken. My efforts to remove them started off with half-heartedly picking them. This was to no avail as they just grew back. Secondly, I made a concerted effort one year to pick them as they popped their grey heads up. This resulted in a lot of toadstools in the bin but next year they were all back again.
Last year and this, I have bitten the bullet and each time some cropped up I dug them out, complete with the grass down to 3-4 inches and with a 2-3 inch exclusion zone around the patch.
Although this year they are still growing where I haven't dug and I am repeating the exercise, the areas where they were dug out, apart from the odd one have been totally toadstool free.
The areas are actually better off as I planted with new grass seed, which is thriving.
All this has parallels with the F&M outbreak. Last time around, there was a lot of mushroom management by the Government and a very belated approach. It culled wherever there was an outbreak, but failed to stop mini-outbreaks and it was only eventually that a mass slaughter was ordered to try and contain it. The result was the devastation of many farmers' livelihoods, and enduring images of cattle funeral pyres across the country.
This time around, it seems to have learnt and, like my toadstool problem, is starting with a ring of steel and moving in, rather than micromanagement of each pocket of cases, moving the ring out each time. I almost feel a twinge of sympathy for Gordon Brown. He's photographed on his patriotic holiday in the South West yet less than 5 hours later his holiday is over as he's off to London to chair COBRA - the committee set up to manage it.
Shows across the Country and cattle farmers have all been affected again, but let us all hope that the Government has learnt its lesson from last time. I do feel that the current Prime Minister will handle it somewhat better than his predecessor - someone who definitely subscribed to the Mushroom Management cookbook.
Wednesday, 1 August 2007
Well...Yes we do have Ambulances, but not one at every street corner. Where I live, for example (a good sized Town), there is one plus a Rapid Response vehicle. We're near the motorway and one accident there, or one serious incident in Town will leave us potentially uncovered - or at least covered by a vehicle several miles away. Our local Accident and Emergency hospital is not local - it's a 20-30 minute drive away at the best of time. If it gets backed up, the ambulances cannot unload, so are not free to respond.
Now, if you are having a Stroke or the start of a heart attack, you need treatment asap and one of the best treatments is Oxygen. If you are having a Cardiac Arrest (when your heart stops) you also need a defibrillator and you need it now. Realistically, if you have a Cardiac Arrest, you need defibrillating the sooner the better, but within 4-5 minutes to stand any chance of a decent recovery.
Enter the Community Responder. The Responder lives or works locally, will go mobile the same time as a crew and will try to legally (no flashing lights, no speeding, no privileges) get there before the crew and commence treatment. Minutes and seconds can mean life or death to a patient, or at least a better chance of a full recovery.
So what does this have to do with British Visitor? Well, whether you are a local or a Tourist, should you call 999 for an ambulance, it is possible that you get a Community Responder first. He or she will always be followed by an Ambulance and are fully trained in the use of Oxygen and a defibrillator. It's not a 'dumbing down' of the service, it is an add-on, a supplement to the normal course of treatment. In Tourist-centric areas they are kept very busy during the summer months.
If you want to know more, click on the link on the left. If you use the Contact form to contact the scheme, it will come through to me and I will endeavour to answer any questions that you may have.
This has been a Public Service Broadcast on behalf of the Responder Party.
Tuesday, 31 July 2007
Anyway, I digress. Folk music, song and dance has long been an interest of mine and I have visited a large number of Folk festivals in my time. When some of my colleagues started a brand new one in Wallingford a few years age - "Wallingford Bunkfest" - I supported it where I could - with setting up, stewarding and even a trade stall. Naturally I made sure the beer tent was profitable too.
It's been running a few years now and gained a good reputation in the Folk world and was all set for another weekend this September.
Unfortunately, these things rely on a lot of goodwill, volunteers and grants/sponsorship and it seems that the grant and sponsorship side has not been so forthcoming this year.
Couple that with the floods and the committee/Directors have announced that they have had to pull the plug this year.
It's a great shame, all that effort coming to nothing and my heart goes out to the committee members.
There will be a fund-raising event 1st September - presumably to cover costs incurred so far, so if you are in the area, try and make it. I certainly shall. Live music is undergoing a renaissance at the moment and we should nurture it and appreciate the effort that goes into organising events such as this.
For more information, take a look at the Bunkfest website here
Wallingford once had a railway link called 'the bunk'
On this Blog I plan to chat about what's going on around Britain and share my and my family's experiences as we explore this wonderful place.
Please feel free to comment and leave feedback - I'll try and read it all!