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The right side of the tracks

Monday, and it seems that more people want to use the train today than my previous encounters with North America’s rail system.

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Seattle’s King Street terminal is bustling this morning with two popular services. The first is heading all the way to Los Angeles. It’s one of those grandiose double decker units, complete with an Observation Car. I travelled on one of these between Memphis and New Orlando last year, so when the rather less grandiose Cascades service to Portland arrives, I’m not too disappointed. In fact, Business Class reminds me of British Rail circa 1983.

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It’s spacious enough, but fifteen minutes into the four hour journey, disaster strikes. It seems I’ve mistakenly been issued with a  Business Class seat, but my actual reservation is in Coach. I know that the train guard is in the right and reluctantly move – but at least he lets me keep the $3 voucher to spend in the buffet. It buys me half a cheese plate.

Regular readers of the blog may know I travel with my trusty mascot, the dog known as News Mutt. He normally keeps himself to himself but at the Rose Hotel he’s greeted by some in room competition.

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I have no idea what the second dog is called, and I’m not sure they should be left alone, but in the lobby I notice a couple of guests with real pets. It’s just one of a few nice quirks about this place, including high quality sound systems, nice coffee and free cupcakes.

I have a good feeling about this city, and I’ve not even stepped outside yet.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

What the puck?

i know nothing about hockey, or ice hockey as only the English call it. But I know that the guy winning the interval competition shouldn’t really be scoring more goals than the home team. In fairness, I should have warned the Vancouver Canucks that I was coming. Whenever I casually book a ticket for any sports event, the side I’m meant to be supporting invariably loses.

  
Though the performance doesn’t put off the midweek crowd, the Canucks really do suck. For the first period, the certainly have the possession but lack the ability to finish it off and score. That is literally all I can make of the rules. Apart from a bit of fighting thrown in for good measure.

But despite the score, this is still a national institution. The loud, young French speaking (shouting) woman to my left ensures that spirits are kept high, while the bored blonde to my right barely says anything for the whole game, including an apology for kicking over my $16 beer when I pop to the bathroom. (Goose Island IPA, imported but still way overpriced).

Another institution in this town is the Railway Club. The guidebook promises that I’ll feel at home immediately in this friendly locals’ bar. Sadly it s closed, with the Jazz band Imwas looking forward to seeing decamped elsewhere. Without the actual guidebook with me, I end up in the Morrissey Bar.

  
Disappointingly, this isn’t a tribute venue to the Smiths frontman, but it does have a warming fore and bicycles on the ceiling. You know, that whole fire/bike connection? No? Never mind – it’s still a great place to kick back and relax.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

A touch of class

I’d been hoping that, for some bizarre reason, nobody would want to travel between London and Vancouver on Easter Monday, and I’d be offered a cheap, if not free, upgrade from Air Canada. Business class had been available – but at more than £800 I didn’t think I could justify the cost versus the amount of champagne and cheese I could eat during an eight hour flight.

Even Air Canada’s business lounge at Heathrow was maintaining standards : “I’m sorry, we don’t allow economy passengers in, even for a fee.” They were less choosey at the United lounge, where anyone could come in for $50US. Given I’d checked in three hours before the flight, I did a quick currency conversion in my head, looked at the piles of pastries and free drinks around the corner, and concluded : “Sod it. I’m on holiday.”

  

Stuff for free is always good, even if you know you’re probably paying for it. Take, for instance, the daily free wine tasting hour at the Listel Hotel in Vancouver. It was a nice surprise, having just checked in, to be told that the big event was just about to begin. Though to start with, it was just me, the roaring fire and the rhino.

  
I’m soon joined by a couple who are having a quiet night away from home; home being a suburb just ten miles from downtown Vancouver. They like to just “get away from it” – whatever it is – and enjoy a lazy evening on the town. And stepping out onto Robson Street, it’s easy to see why. Unlike many places in the United States, this major city’s downtown area consists of roads that are no more than four lanes wide, making them easy to negotiate.

Although it’s officially only night one of the trip, the eight hour time difference means I’ve effectively been awake for about 24 hours. And after a couple of glasses of British Columbia’s best, there’s only one place to regroup my mind, body and soul. The nearest Irish pub.

  
Doolin’s just off Granville Street isn’t originally, quirky or clever. But it does have a fine selection of  beers and a menu that’s as familiar as any Irish bar in any city. And it also has an extremely welcoming and polite staff. 

Roger is also happy to be there. He’s a businessman from Nova Scotia, doubling up as an insurance agent for the shipping trade (and with the port of Halifax that’s a lot of shipping) and what he himself described as “succession planning” – or to you and me, what to do with your old money if it’s tied up in a small business.

“It’s a generational thing,” explains Roger. “You have these guys with really successful family companies, but kids who want nothing to do with it.” His job, it seems, is to provide timely financial advice for those needing it. And, naturally, taking his own cut. Along with Roger are two local girls who work as bartenders. It’s Monday, the quietest night of the week. So they’re spending their night off in someone else’s bar.

It’s still relatively early but I’m beat. And tomorrow promises a busy day involving totem poles, a brewery and ice hockey. In that order.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Judge and Jury’s

“Ahh know you frem somewhere,” says Ken.

It’s not exactly the kind of welcome I was expecting in Edinburgh. But Ken is convinced we’ve met before. It’s unlikely as we live in completely different cities and work in different trades. Yet somehow he recognises me in the cosy bar of the Jolly Judge, a hidden gem just off the Royal Mile, which has an ope fire and a fascinating ceiling.

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For all the weirdness of our introduction, Ken’s not said it in a threatening way, and before too long Ken and Jerry (who really should launch an ice cream brand) are chatting about the relative merits of different pubs and beers. I know virtually nothing about the subject, so follow them to the Bow Bar.

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This is one of Edinburgh’s most famous and traditional bars. No music or gimmicks, just good banter.

Walking along the Royal Mile on a cold January evening, the city seems deserted, perhaps hankering after the millions who come during the Festival ssason. But its buildings stand proud, including the impressive St Giles Cathedral.

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Not everywhere pays such reverence to the past. Just around the corner is a church which has been turned into a German beer keller. Frankenstein. See what they did there?

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It’s tempting enough, but tonight I’m on a mission to find a traditional Scottish music session. And it doesn’t get much better than Sandie Bell’s on Forrest Road.

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It may look modest enough but this place has a worldwide reputation, demonstrated tonight by a father and son from Alaska. Junior works in IT in Reading (of all places), but when the folks visit they head off to somewhere more interesting.

A group of young guys join the party and Rory – who can only be about 20 – sings a song as old as the hills. I ask his friends why they think this kind of music endures, and whether it would die out if it weren’t for places like Sandie’s. The consensus is that folk songs are built into the DNA of Scots. It’s just something that happens, without prompting or trying to sound like Mumford and Sons.

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It’s late when I leave Sandie’s,  knowing full well there’ll be a hangover to cope with tomorrow. And I’ve got a Castle to explore. I’m thankful for the rather pleasant view from my room at the Jury’s Inn.
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Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Child’s Play

Like many children who grew up in the 1970s, my after-school TV viewing consisted of an hour or so (at best) of programmes I wanted to see, followed by a short cartoon (Paddington or Roobarb), then it was “out of the room, dad’s watching the news”. Kids today have never had it so good, with a whole raft of channels dedicated to their education and entertainment. So it’s absolutely right that the BBC plays a part in the mix. And you may have thought offering them a couple of extra hours a day would be welcomed. After all, surely you’d rather your youngsters watched a bit more Blue Peter than whatever Nickleodeon is offering?

  
Well, the answer, according to the Daily Mail, is a resounding “no”. Among other things, there are apparently widespread fears that the move will “lead to sleep deprivation” with “the nightly stand off” set to get tougher.

The Mail claims that the proposals have prompted “fierce opposition” from parents and teachers. But as usual, Media Editor Katherine Rushton has been somewhat selective in her conclusions. It’s true to say that many respondents to the BBC Trust’s public consultation raised concerns about extending CBBC’s hours from the current 7pm closedown to 9pm. And – perhaps surprisingly – over 11,000 people took part. So a scientifically significant sample.

But many of those people were also responding to a parallel consultation on plans to move BBC Three online, with the spare broacasting capacity being handed over to CBBC. Many of those were more upset that they be losing a channel, rather than keeping children up way past their bedtime.

The Mail goes on to quote a psychologist from Happy Sleepers, who is so outraged she says : ‘9pm is too late,’ she said. ‘Getting even one hour less than the optimal sleep recommended for a child has a significant impact on daytime behaviour and cognitive learning.’ And she might well be right – as is her company which charges parents up to £365 per hour for private consultations to help their children sleep better. No conflict of interest there then. 

The BBC really isn’t the demon here. It’s pretty obvious that the Mail would prefer it if perfect nuclear families still existed in their 1950s bubble, respectfully gathering around the communal TV set for but a few precious minutes each day. Has nobody told them that children today have laptops, tablets and smart phones, partly fuelled by a middle class aspirational society – in itself promoted by the likes of the Mail?

As the BBC Trustee Richard Eyre has rightly pointed out, the relationship between the TV set and the viewer is a partnerhsip. Parents have the right to use the “off” button. Crucially in all of this, there are no plans to extend the hours of CBeebies, the channel aimed at the youngest viewers.

Splashed alongside this article in the print edition is another, bemoaning an “invasion of yoof TV” as some shows currently on BBC Three are likely to be shown on BBC One and BBC Two, which will apparently “alienate” the over 50s. I take it, therefore, that nobody over the age of 49 has ever watched Being Human, Glastonbury or any of the other shows which have originated on BBC Three?

Once again, the Mail puts the BBC in a no-win situation. Indeed, Katherine’s bullet points – below the headline – helpfully signpost you to an in-site search engine which lets you find all of its BBC coverage.

I’ll save you a job – almost none of it has anything nice to say.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Music To My Ears

The headlines are rightly focussing on the Government’s deal to make the BBC pick up the tab for paying the Licence Fees of the over 75s. But yesterday also saw a smaller, yet significant announcement that could ultimately shape one of the services the BBC provides to you. And it’s personal, because it happens to be the bit I work for.

The BBC Trust announced a review of the Service Licence covering Local Radio – though this time around it will also encompass local TV and online; a significant chunk of the workforce. While Service Licences don’t exactly dictate the content, they do provide a fairly rigid framework for what you hear. Obviously, any future arguments may end up being irrelevant due to huge cuts. But – if you will – please indulge me.

I’d like to propose a 50% cut in peak time speech.

You might find this an odd notion, coming from a journalist and trade union rep. But for too many years, BBC Local Radio has been hamstrung by what are known in the industry as “speech shoulders” – the all speech format required for much of breakfast and (supposedly) one hour of drive. The result is often a running order rammed with content. Some of it is good content and some (speaking frankly, and including some of my own material) is pure filler.

It puzzles me that during holiday periods we sometimes drop the rigid format and – heaven forefend – play music in breakfast. Does the audience implode with incredulity? Does Ray in Lenton moan because he’s not heard another phone in on your favourite kitchen gadget? I think not. And I only partly jest in my selection of stories here.

And while we’re at it, let’s bust a few myths about what might happen if we cut back on speech.

1. You can halve the size of your overstaffed newsroom.

Or, you could have more journalists doing what they should be doing – gathering the news and creating better and more original content – which could be spread across the daytime output and fed in to local TV and online services.

2. You’ll stifle the competition from commercial radio.

Apart from LBC and TalkSport very few commercial stations bother with the level of speech coverage provided by BBC Local Radio. Where news content is given extended airtime, it’s to sections of a tightly targeted audience demographic. The BBC would still be providing distinctive output.

3. You’d threaten the very existence of local newspapers.

An old argument, peddled recently by George Osborne and before that by Theresa May. And demonstrably untrue. Local BBC news sites are now giving more prominence to local paper websites than ever before. Despite most of them being horrendous to navigate thanks to pop up advertising, and many being badly subbed – if indeed they are are subbed at all.

4. You’ll lose key elements of public service.

A controversial one here. What exactly counts as public service in 2015? Should Local Radio really be reading out a list of closed schools during bad weather, given that every parent now gets a text message? There are still times when local radio can connect like no other medium – providing a sense of well being to audiences which might otherwise be isolated or excluded. But public service has to move with the times. And in some places, it hasn’t for 30 years or more.

5. You’ll open the door for more networking.

A few years back – and one of the very reasons for this blog’s birth – the BBC proposed daytime sharing of programmes with Five Live. A huge campaign followed and – largely – stopped the idea in its tracks. The one change was the evening Mark Forrest show – which mostly replaced regional content anyway. Let’s be clear, future cuts will have an effect somewhere. But strong original content can and could cross some local boundaries.

Obviously I’m out to protect my own job and those of my colleagues. I recognise that these views may not sit comfortably with all. But I also believe that reassessing the core format of Local Radio will provide a game plan for survival. 

 

Purdahtory

So the election is over, and thank goodness for that. Not that it hasn’t been an entertaining experience. As ever, I was tasked with trying to make an everyday constituency sound interesting – and I did by bit. I also juggled with the dilemma of promoting “non political” stories beyond their usual station so we didn’t have to include candidates. And I did my bit.

So, too, did the press officers – constantly quoting “purdah” as an excuse to avoid stories. For those who don’t know, purdah is the period once an election is called whereby public bodies refuse any broadcast interviews – on the grounds that they may somehow influence the election.

This is all very well on politically sensitive or controversial stories. But for the past few weeks it’s seemed like a game of double standards to me. For instance, a hospital trust refused to talk about transplants after a wonderful story of someone having their life saved. The Highways Agency said “no” to my simple request to talk about a new bridge opening. And Public Health England wouldn’t provide anyone to explain the truth about health tourism.

Pretty consistent, you might think. Every journalist will have similar stories. But in recent days I’ve seen senior civil servants seemingly playing by their own rules. One council Chief Executive (and a Returning Officer to boot) was tweeting about plans to change some services for children with special needs, complete with a link to a public consultation. The same returning officer was tweeting on Election Day itself encouraging people to use their vote.  Another Head of Service called for a significant change in drinking laws. When I challenged this, he said he was speaking as an individual after experiencing a relaxation in restrictions abroad. And a communications officer I know constantly posts messages against austerity.

Now, I’m the first person to bang the drum for personal views being just that. Long may they continue. But at the next election, don’t preach purdah to me on stories which are anything but political. The existing rules surrounding purdah are not only archaic, but legally questionable. As is the blanket use of those rules because it suits a civil service which likes to play it safe.