Friday, May 17, 2013
MAYBE it's the modern world, perhaps it is the increasing pressure we are all facing, but sometimes I sense we're a lot less smarter than we used to be.
Initiative seems to have become a thing of the past, as we've given up thinking to become a tick-box society.
Here's an example. I set, mark and moderate exam papers for journalists. It's a small step outside my normal job working in a newsroom, yet rewarding and challenging.
The latest bunch of sports journalism papers have been marked and were recently sent to me for moderation. Unfortunately, even though I moved home from Hampshire to East Sussex a year ago, the exam marker was given my old address and so sent the exam papers to Portsmouth by registered post.
That's okay, because surely when the package turned up at my old address the current tenants would ensure that the papers were returned to sender. But no!! They signed for the package even though they later told me they'd lost my forwarding address. Why, oh why?
So last weekend, I drove round to my former home, left a note since no-one was around and received a phone call 24 hours later to say that the package were passed on to the landlord. They had no explanation for why they signed for the registered package in the first place.
A call to the landlord discovers that like a game of pass the parcel they passed the package onto a third person who has now gone on holiday to Turkey for two weeks!
Total muppetry in motion.
The end result is that the exam papers are currently lying on a table at this person's home while he is sunning himself abroad - so the students won't be able to discover their exams results for another two weeks.
A total catalogue of errors which makes you despair.
Journalism lost a good man this week.
Neal Butterworth was a former editor of the Bournemouth Echo who died of bowel cancer aged just 55. He was editor in Bournemouth between 1998 and 2011, and had just begun a new life with his wife Julie in Spain when he was diagnosed with cancer last summer.
I never worked directly with Neal, but we would speak and meet up on quite a few occasions when I was deputy editor with the Southern Daily Echo in Southampton. Whenever I popped into the Echo on Richmond Hill, he would always spare the time for a chat to catch up on the latest gossip.
He was the first to congratulate me when I took on my first editorship in Swindon and Neal was always very generous with his advice. Editing a newspaper can be a lonely place, but always go with your instincts, he told me.
We had exchanged quite a few messages since he left Bournemouth when, ever the optimist, he admitted that despite the challenge of cancer, he was going to battle the cancer head on.
Neal was a fantastic editor who held the respect of the newsroom and the community at large. He produced wonderful newspapers, had a vibrancy and energy about him, and as a person he always had time for you. Neal was a really decent man.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
THE News Centre in Portsmouth would not win any architectural awards for beauty. It's a concrete edifice right next to the bus station in Hilsea on the northern edge of Portsea island and which has been home for 43 years for the city's newspaper, The News.
Next month, the paper is due to move to a new home in Northarbour, plush new offices at another out-of-town site near IBM.
The move was inevitable. When I visited the offices yesterday for a meeting, it was like a ghost building with staff rattling around half-fillled newsrooms, and walking past darkened rooms now shut up for good.
When I last worked at The News as sports editor some 13 years ago, the place was humming, teaming with people. But as technology has moved on, economies of scale found and the recession has bitten the newspaper industry harder than most on the butt, so staff numbers have drastically dwindled.
The no-nonsense compositors have gone, the print room is run by just a handful of people, and the number of journalists has declined too. You could have heard a pin drop when I walked through the newsroom yesterday afternoon.
Some of the editorial guys I used to work with back in the 90s are still there; Mark Acheson, Simon Toft, Chris Owen, Malcolm Wells, and good old Eric, the chatty inputter with his famed cardigans and chamois leather!
They were great days of a razor-sharp six editions a day evening paper under the much-respected editor, Geoff Elliott; early, Fareham, Gosport, Waterlooville, Havant and a city final. For the sports guys, we also had the small matter of the Sports Mail to produce every Saturday afternoon and for one year we even tried to publish a Midweek Mail.
In the mid-90s, The News was one of the first regional newspapers to push forward a website closely allied to the newspaper - it was controversial at the time with plenty of teething problems, but the sheer professionalism of the journalists embraced the new media.
What a team we had then. journalists who were right at the top of their game. Even the trainees had to be on the button from the off. There could be no passengers in the newsroom, and there was no expectation among the new recruits of writing a front page splash in their first week - they would have to bide their time to suffer the slings and arrows from the hard as nails news editors.
Our sports team alone was a formidable bunch headed by the Pompey legend Mike Neasom, a total workaholic who didn't suffer fools gladly but was the best sportswriter I have ever worked with.
When I joined the sports desk as a sports writer back in 1991 we had Colin Channon as sports editor, Calvin Shulman deputy editor, alongside the top desk of seniors consisting of Mike Neasom, rugby/golf writer Alister Marshall and horse racing expert, Mike Allen. Simon Parker and Danny Griffiths completed one of the strongest sports teams I have known.
What set all these guys apart is that they could write, not just the big stories in mainstream sports, but across a plethora of pastimes. They all knew their sports, had unrivalled contacts books, they could interview to get the most out of their subject, they would work a story right to the end, and their prose was a joy to read - and easy to sub (well, except "fat boy waffles on about Bognor" Danny, maybe!).
It's a mark of how much esteem Mike was held within the sports world, that when he died in 2004 at the age of 69, tributes poured in far and wide from across the sporting world. He was held with enormous respect by the likes of Jim Smith, Alan Ball, Lawrie McMenemy and Robin Smith.
We live in a far different newsroom in 2013. The demands and pressures are much greater now as journalists are expected to be multi-disciplined across an ever-changing media.
At Johnston Press, now the owners of The News, the talk is of the 2015 journalist capable of writing for paper, on-line, to shoot and edit video, while using Twitter and Facebook effectively during a breaking story as well as having a sustainable presence on both platforms - which includes blogging!
It's a great time to be a journalist, far different from the halcyon days of Neasom, but exciting nonetheless.
I'm unsure how Mike would have fared with Twitter and Facebook, or even the increasing demands of in-paper and the website - no doubt a few expletives would have been uttered - and as for video, don't even go there!
Monday, May 06, 2013
THE knob-end of a slice of bread, a tin of baked beans, a small sack of sugar and a teabag - what's that all about?
It was a gift from a 50th birthday celebration at the weekend when my oldest and greyest of friends gathered at a swish golf club just outside of Watford to mark our collective half centuries.
The present was a pleasant reminder of our childhoods.
We had all gone to school together at a posh grammar school in Northwood Hills, Middlesex - the last of the 11 Plus brigade and, in fact, the grammar school became a comprehensive midway through our secondary school years when, heaven forbid, we mixed with girls for our 'O' level classes! So, the six of us; Kevin, Nigel, Eric, Paul, Andy and myself became close friends.
Free-time was sometimes spent at my parents' home in South Ruislip. We'd play football and cricket, or spend the days out riding our bikes. I had one of those old-style reel-to-reel tape recorders, a collection of microphones, and we would occasionally set up a studio in the lounge; recording music, singing badly and editing the tapes - one year we actually won the British Amateur Tape Recording Contest with one of our ropey Parkfield Crescent productions.
Heady and happy times during an age of total innocence - no internet, no mobile phones, no satellite TV, no spectre of drink or drugs, we made our own entertainment and enjoyed those teenage years without the weight of the world on our shoulders!
And during those mad-cap days, lunch was always beans on toast with a fine brew to boot - hence the amusing 50th birthday gift. My mother used to have one of those old-style cookers with a grill at the top. You needed to use a match to light the grill which would spew out a tongue of flame which would sometimes threaten to singe our cat. Still, it made perfect toast every time and before the age of the microwave, the beans were perfect!
When we left school aged 18 to go our separate ways I went to journalism college in Harlow, Paul went to university in Bath, Kevin started work in the computer department with Taylor Woodrow in Greenford and Andy and Eric started at the motor spares business in Kensal Rise run by Andy's brother, Nick. I was unsure whether those friendships would be life-lasting, but they have.
There is no great moral to this tale, this is not absorbing story with a tear-jerk ending. In fact, it is its unremarkableness (is that really a word?) which makes this yarn worth telling.
We don't meet up as a group of six very often, but we have walked across life's stepping stones together - weddings, the birth of our children, christenings, landmark birthdays, been on holidays, sharing the joys as well as being there for the lows - with an unbroken thread of friendship. When we do meet I regret that we don't gather more frequently, but maybe that is the secret of its longevity.
Saturday night at The Grove, with sleek Ferraris lined along the driveway and plush surroundings of an exclusive golf club once graced by Tiger Woods, was wonderful. We were there with our wives who pander to our eccentric whims, understand the childish behaviour and who have become good friends themselves. The time passed all too quickly in between the most amazing culinary fare. We laughed, we reminisced, we caught up with each other's news.
Maybe we were a little greyer, carrying a few more wrinkles, but the passage of time hasn't dimmed this special bond, the truest of friendships which I know will remain for a long time until the fat lady starts singing.
Saturday, May 04, 2013
ONE of the perks of a career in journalism is that you get to meet your heroes, especially those who you have admired and respected, maybe even looked up to as role models.
The dilemma is that sometimes these meetings prove to be a crushing disappointment.
What you might see of a personality on television may be all veneer and sheen.
Up front and personal, that toothpaste smile quickly disappears amid a myriad of time-sensitive publicists and a coterie of parasitical hangers-on.
Early in my journalism career, I interviewed the legendary singer, Max Bygraves, the crooner who was the granny's favourite. Perhaps I caught him on a bad day, but he was foul and bad-tempered looking at his watch throughout the interview which was swiftly ended.
I once had a pretty open spat in front of other media with the then Southampton manager, Gordon Strachan, who was livid about something I had written about his players.
On TV, the wee Scot might seem calm and softly-spoken, but he was always a feisty character to interview - never throw a dumb question his way or he'd chew you to pieces - and at this moment he demanded I followed him to the player's changing room to tell him who was the source for my story. I told Strachan to get lost, and ironically from that moment on we actually got on during future interviews.
Perhaps he respected that I'd stood up to him.
Matthew Pinsent was someone I'd always admired as a rower and when before the 1992 Olympic Games I interviewed him at the family home in Portsmouth, he was a delight. We had tea in the family garden and chatted at length about the Barcelona Games. He was charming and personable.
Gold that year with Steve Redgrave suddenly raised his profile and when we arranged an interview before the Atlanta Games in 1996, suddenly I was working through public relations agents. I had to go to Henley for the interview and I had 15 minutes. It was dull and the charm had gone.
Ironically, I caught up with Steve Redgrave afterwards for a chat as we looked out from the balcony of the Leander Club and he was brilliant and so interesting to chat to.
I've not exactly chosen an A-list of personalities as examples, suffice to say that over the years I've interviewed personalities from the world of sport, entertainment and politics who have changed my perception of them overnight. Meeting Harriet Harman at Downing Street a few years ago was an absolute pleasure, Gordon Brown was brief and business-like.
Which leads me somewhat carefully to Stuart Hall. Our paths have crossed a few times at football grounds. In the press room we've spoken, compared notes, no great earnest conversations. I don't know him at all.
But as a journalist and broadcaster, he was a man widely respected and in a different league.
I admired Stuart Hall from a far. Like the children of my generation, we grew up with "It's A Knockout", "A Question of Sport" and his sports reports on the BBC. In later years, I have loved listening to his brilliant football reports on Radio 5Live, and only a few years ago was wrapped to hear the tributes at an 80th birthday celebration in honour of the great man.
I once read this quote about Stuart Hall, which is a fair assessment of the man as a broadcaster:
"Stuart Hall can bring a game alive in a one minute summary, making you feel like you were actually there and experiencing it with him. His voice has a nuance, prosody and natural rhythm that you just don't find amongst the modern ego-sodden bombastic football broadcaster."
How the mighty have fallen. It is hard to imagine how his victims must feel right now. Justice after all this time will be seen to be done. The gravity of the offences is unimaginable.
When I listened to that 80th birthday tribute, there were the likes of Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee paying tribute to a man who has fallen from a national treasure to an opportunistic predator in a matter of years. It is so, so sad.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Facing the might of the Women's Institute can be a tormenting experience - they're certainly not all Damson jam and Jerusalem.
Remember the then Prime Minister Tony Blair being heckled, jeered and slow hand-clapped by these formidable guardians of Middle England when he addressed the WI conference back in 2000 to speak about Labour's traditional values?
The only time I've been on the three underpant trail with the WI was a few years ago when I had to audition for the good ladies in order to speak at their meetings. I auditioned with my friend Sally Hillyear, who was then the fund-raising manager for the Hampshire Autistic Society.
On the back of my fund-raising running adventure around the British Isles in 2007, we thought it would be a great idea to roll out a series of talks to WI's, Rotary clubs, business groups, schools and other organisations to boost the profile of the charity, autism and to promote the book which I had published.
I'll cut to the quick, and here's an extract from my book, "Around the British Isles in 80 Races":
A few days after the Harlow run and the day before my trip to South Wales, I had a tough gig to attend in aid of the running project. I had to audition before the Women’s Institute, the same trusted organisation of fearsome ladies who once gave Tony Blair a torrid time at their national conference a few years back.
This was the Hampshire WI who, a few times each year, hold auditions for speakers wanting to talk to their members around the county. You could describe it as the WI does X-Factor. I even paid a fee for the privilege of attending the audition and then £10 for an entry in the WI handbook if successful. Fellow WI members were invited to attend the auditions, and for this outing 43 ladies had turned up to the headquarters in Winchester to hear four speakers talk on a variety of subjects from press photography and the world of gastronomic delights, to adventures in Borneo and my subject…autism and running.
I was there with Sally from the Hampshire Autistic Society. As we were greeted by a lovely lady called Cherry, offered tea and small talk, I was bricking it. So too was Sally who admitted later that if we could have made a dignified exit then she would have – and I would have joined her. We could hear the laughter from upstairs where the Fleet Street photographer was in full swing. We didn't have too many laughs in our half-hour ditty.
At the appointed hour, a petite, silver-haired lady called Fearne met us and led us into the room where the fearsome-looking 43 ladies greeted us. It was intimidating. We had five minutes to set up, so Sally and I busied ourselves putting up a display, plugging in a computer and a projector for a five-minute film which we wanted to show at the end.
I am never normally edgy with public speaking, but it was the sight of those ladies clutching their pads of paper and pens and the fact they were judging us which was unnerving. They were no Simon Cowell, but this was so bizarre. When the lady in front row started scribbling some notes within seconds of Sally talking I thought “uh oh, we’re dead in the water!”
In truth the talk went well as the ladies warmed to us. We got a few laughs; we also got some tears at the end from the video which I had put together with a friend from the BBC telling the story of autism through the eyes of Ross. It was an exhausting half hour, I was sweating badly by the time we left the room to make way for the talk from the flame-haired speaker about life in Borneo.
How did we do? Well, amazingly we got accepted, and during 2008 Sally and I have been doing a few WI talks in Hampshire.
So since then, I've given a fair few talks with Sally, who has now moved on to a similar job with the Fire Fighter's Charity, and it was a blast. People were always very generous with their donations and the WI are a lovely organisation with endearing values of fellowship, along with care and compassion, essential values which are too easily forgotten in today's sometimes selfish and greedy society.
In recent years, I've tended to give talks on journalism, and the other week I caught up with the Polegate WI, just outside of Eastbourne for their Thursday monthly meeting. The talk went well. It was chatty and conversational with a group of 30 ladies, and afterwards I made a beeline straight for the cake stall for a cup of tea and a piece of cake!
The point of writing this particular blog was partly to mention about the relevance of the WI today - it is very much an anachronism of a bygone age, but listening to the ladies talk about issues in their community (in this case they were thinking about protesting over the closure of Polegate's public toilets) and that fellowship for one another, this warms the heart.
One wonders whether organisations like the WI and Rotary, for example, will still be around in 50 years' time. As its stalwart members pass away, will these community organisations wither too? I hope not. I hope there will be future generations to carry the torch, otherwise where will all the great cake-making go?!!
These aren't sleepy, docile organisations. There is an edge to them. I was caught aback when the WI chairman at Polegate talked about using Facebook and silver surfing to promote what the organisation is doing and to engage with the local community. The WI and Facebook, what next, Twitter?!! But why not?
Both of my parents who are in their 70s use social media and the website - my mother to research her family tree and my father to pursue his love of stamps, as well as keeping in touch with the family.
For my next blog, I will write about the social media conference I attended last week at MSN headquarters in London which, to me, painted a very frightening and worrying future for unchecked journalism through the rise in citizen journalism with social media and the web.
But for now, here is the WI embracing social media and the web in the way it should; an exciting doorway which opens up whole new vistas.
I believe if we ever lose the likes of the WI or Rotary, then we will have lost our sense of community. We’ll also have lost some of the best cake-makers too with not a soggy bottom in sight!
Sunday, April 21, 2013
AS London Marathon runners today remembered the victims of the Boston bombing, so we can only hope that in time we may discover what exactly prompted the deadly attacks.
Interrogators are waiting to question Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who lies in a serious condition in hospital after being captured on Friday following the massive manhunt when two women and an eight-year-old boy were killed in blasts close to the finish line of the marathon.
Older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev died during a gunfight with police in Boston on Thursday night, and the motives for the attacks are endless - a premeditated, well-organised attack, or a smaller, isolated deadly assault.
One report has suggested the FBI were apparently aware of Tamerlan's radical support of Islam since he had been interviewed in the wake of the September 11th attacks. However, the FBI decided not to pursue the case any further.
As the finger of suspicion predictably, though not necessarily accurately, pointed towards Islam, NBC News reported that Tamerlan made six visits to what is described as "a known Islamic militant" in a mosque in the Russian republic of Dagestan. Of course, time may show that religion had no part to play in this dreadful crime which caused shockwaves because of the killing of innocents in such a public arena.
The outpouring of solidarity among London Marathon runners, with the 30-second silence and the wearing of black ribbons, only demonstrated the special bond which unites runners, whatever their sex or age, whatever their nationality, whatever their skin, whatever their religion.
I was in church this morning listening to the running-mad vicar of Christ Church in Swindon, Simon Stevenette, extol the virtues of our wonderful sport. Wearing a ropey pair of well-worn running shoes for the beginning of Holy Communion, the vicar spoke about the disciplines of marathon running in his address to the junior congregation and what Christians could learn from this single-mindedness in pursuit of their faith and their love for Jesus.
We even sang the best running-based song in the hymn book, Sydney Carter's "One more step along the world I go....from the old things to the new....keep me travelling along with you."
Assuming religion, and that still remains a huge assumption, had a part to play in the Boston attacks, I wonder sometimes whether the Islamic world would have demonstrated the same restraint and tolerance had a radical Christian terrorist committed an atrocity in the Arab world in the name of their religion. We saw the outrage and protests prompted by the uploading of an anti-Islam film on YouTube and the publication of Muhammad cartoons in French and Danish magazines to recognise instantly the deep-rooted passion.
And I am then reminded of a quote by Richard Dawkins, the Oxford author famed for his popular science books on evolution, along with his views on religion, atheism, and cultural evolution. This quote was pointed out by my friend Jenny, a newspaper cutting stuck to her kitchen mirror to serve as a constant reminder about the futility of religious extremism.
Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense.
Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that.
Revealed faith is not harmless nonsense, it can be lethally dangerous nonsense.
Dangerous because it gives people unshakeable confidence in their own righteousness.
Dangerous because it gives them false courage to kill themselves, which automatically removes normal barriers to killing others.
Dangerous because it teaches enmity to others labelled only by a difference of inherited tradition.
And dangerous because we have all bought into a weird respect, which uniquely protects religion from normal criticism.
Let's now stop being so damned respectful!
Whatever our beliefs, or not, revealed faith, as Dawkins describes it, is extremely dangerous. Revealed faith may not necessarily be the seeds of the carnage which was reaped in Boston seeing dozens of innocent people maimed - 176 bystanders and runners were injured - yet as an uncontrolled entity, which we have seen tear apart communities across the world, from Sri Lanka to Syria, from Karachi to Kenya, it is absolutely lethal.
Those who carry out such acts are not believers, but patently psychotic.
They do not carry the courage of their religion, more the folly of their own personal beliefs - whether it is Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist or a murderous act perpetrated in the name of their nationality, tribal belonging or sexuality. Instead they merely insult the purity of their beliefs.
They are an invidious poison for which there is no place in our society and for which there is seemingly no antidote either.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
THIS is 78-year-old Bill Iffrig lying on the floor close to the finish of the Boston Marathon, stunned and dazed after being caught in the horrific explosion which killed three people.
Watch the video, and he is the grey-haired man in the orange vest who felt the full force of the blast's shockwave and was seen crumpled to the ground on the Tarmac.
Initialy when I saw the TV footage, I thought he had died. Instead, Bill, who comes from Lake Stevens in Washington State, suffered nothing more than a scrape to his knee, picked himself up and courageously finished his third Boston Marathon in little over four hours. www.heraldnet.com/article/20130415/NEWS01/704159868#Lake-Steven-runner-just-feet-from-blast-in-Boston
As my running friend, Gary O'Brien, neatly wrote on his Facebook page: "He got up and finished. Yet another one the terrorists failed to beat." Spot on Gary!
As I went for an early morning run over the South Downs this morning, I revelled in the spectacular view of the grassy slopes on a windy, drizzly morning overlooking the English Channel - sharing the freedom which the spineless and cowardly terrorists would deny us.
Thoughts turned to Boston and what those amazing runners went through - many of whom unselfishly ventured to hospitals in their running kit afterwards to give blood. We are a special breed - not unique - but in our own way we share a spirit and determination, as well as a steely resolve, which is not necessarily shared by others.
Runners enjoy a kindred spirit, even in the heat of battle. For marathon runners, in particular, everyone recognises what those around them have endured over the past four or five months of preparation and training; the hard miles run, the sacrifices made, putting their body and mind on the line to complete 26 miles.
And for thousands of runners, whether it was Boston yesterday or in London this coming weekend, they will also have used whatever reserves they have left, in the midst of their punishing training schedules, to fund-raise countless millions of pounds for good causes.
I love runners and I love running because of that special cameraderie. Over the Downs this morning I passed a couple of runners setting out as the sun was rising. In silent, respectful acknowledgement with a raised hand and a nod of the head, we set off on our own little journeys. You don't necessarily get that in other sports.
I have run three marathons and written before how if you don't believe in God, running those 26 miles is the nearest thing to a spritiual experience you will enjoy. It is that sheer goodness of mankind which sweeps over you like a warm wave as the crowds cheer you on unashamedly, and fellow runners pull you through this Holy Grail of the sport.
Thank heavens I was wearing dark glasses at my most recent London Marathon when I felt tears as I ran down Birdcage Walk - it was raw emotion and relief at having completed this epic journey. There is no feeling close to the ecstasy which sweeps your body when you cross that finish line.
And now I am thinking about the possibility of running the Amsterdam Marathon this autumn!
|Relief at finishing the London Marathon|
So why did terrorists choose the Boston Marathon and set off the bombs, not when the elite runners were passing and when the television cameras would be fully trained on the finish, but on those runners finishing in four hours - almost two hours after the men's winner?
Because that's what really strikes at the core. This was a bombing of the innocent.
There are initial reports that an eight-year-old boy is among the dead. There is a quote from a police source saying: "We started grabbing tourniquets and started tying legs. At least 25 to 30 people have at least one leg missing, or an ankle missing, or two legs missing." But why?
Why choose a marathon as a backdrop to a terrorist outrage is simply unbelieveable. It is surely the lowest of the lows.
To capture the perceptive Facebook words of another friend which so strike a chord: If you can't run a marathon without a terrorism risk, the world is in a dark place!