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August, 2011

Gadgets, Stephen Fry and me!

I can’t help but watch this Channel 4 programme about Stephen Fry’s 100 gadgets.

I’m falling for this latest in a long line of ‘Top 100 this or that’ and I can’t help it.

Does someone as intelligent as Stephen Fry like the same gadgets as me, does that make me intelligent too? I don’t think so!

 

Our ages are only a little different – less than a decade – so I can be nostalgic with his permission.

What is it about Mr Fry that makes him so full of gravitas – if he says it, it must be true.

 

What gadget stands out for you?

Yes, I do follow him on Twitter in the vain hope that one day he might be bothered to tweet back. Perhaps then I can be smug in the knowledge that I must have said something vaguely interesting. Then I might write that book I’ve been promising myself.

 

Don’t cringe, I recognise that it’s mad to measure myself against someone I don’t know other than by their public persona. Yes, even journalists have their icons, even with a strong pinch of cynicism.

So far in this programme, I’ve agreed with so many gadgets – scissors, the garlic press, the iPad, the smartphone, the transistor radio, the lawn mower, the tin opener. I’m amazed how many great gadgets are in fact so old, but oh so brilliant.

There are also a few that I hate, one in particular –  the soda stream. When I was a kid, my friend’s family had one.

It always made something still,  taste fizzy and odd at the same time. It never tasted quite right to me. I can’t imagine what would possess anyone to buy one now. In fact watching Heston the scientific chef pretending that his ‘soda streamed’ wine actually tasted okay – well, let’s just say I think my instinct is right.

The one thing I don’t like about the programme is the comments by the celebs who’ve lined up to comment.

 

Once again it’s subjective, I love some, bring on Suzie Perry, Jason Bradbury, Krishnan, Gok Wan but please go away Rufus Hound, some woman who looks like an over-the-hill model and a woman with stripy hair. I don’t know these people but why should I care what they think any more than Joe Bloggs on the street. In fact….

 

Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have comments from John Smith from Swindon, or Fred Bloggs from Basildon. Ordinary people who’s views are just as interesting, or not, as celebrities. John Bishop does it on BBC1 and it works. Probably cost less too.

But here we are at 10.45pm and I’m waiting for the top five – do I agree with the choices?

Five – Typewriter – I agree, I passed my typewriting exam in the 1980s and it’s the one exam that I’ve done that I’ve used almost every day of my life ever since. The exam I did was secretarial course (and I was never going to be a secretary) but how strange that my somewhat random choice to do a course that none of my peers were doing, has worked out so well. It was a morning a week at a local tech college with me like a fish out of water. A lonely experience but extremely worthwhile.

Four – Television – how could I not agree. I watch, love and work around tv land. It’s the ultimate in entertainment, education and is full of information. The choice now is amazing compared to the three main channels when I was a child – black & white, and the test card. Now it’s unthinkable that there’s nothing on the tv. But of course, that doesn’t mean that everything is good – but at least there’s always choice. You can always turn off or turn over.

Three – iPod – not sure. It’s great but would I put it above tv and the typewriter. Not for me. I love music, I love its capacity, its size but for me personally, it’s not as great. Also I use my smartphone for music so my iPod is rarely used. I feel its days are numbered.

Two – wristwatch – of course, don’t you feel undressed without it. Doesn’t it control our day, our thinking, our schedule (yuk!). People love wristwatches and there’s a huge snobbery around watches – Breitling or Rolex?

One – cigarette lighter – brilliant to have fire at your fingertips but if it’s truly a way of harnessing the power of the gods, I don’t have it.

I’ve never smoked so I’ve never carried one. If I knew I needed a light a fire I suppose I would.  So his number one is a lighter – I understand it, I get it, I can see it’s value, it might even save a life. It’s the intelligent choice but for me,  I don’t feel it.

 

Exam results lead to a mistake which spirals out of control

More exam results for 16-year-olds today. Many congratulations to all who passed their exams, deep breaths for those who didn’t.

 

The whole furore over results and the pride of parents reminded me of a lesson learned many years ago when I, as a journalist, came up against a proud father who…well, you make up your mind. What would you have done in his shoes?

 

It all came down to this – what should you do if a journalist makes

Have you ever made a mistake at work? Were thousands of people told about it?

or on them. Not a mistake – bad luck – but not a mistake.

The following is a mistake which I made many years ago – the consequences show how ridiculous it is when things get out of hand.
I was writing for a weekly paper and a father wanted a small write-up on his son having got into Oxford University. By mistake in the article I stated that it was Cambridge University.
For some days I hadn’t even realized that I’d made the mistake until my mum said she’d had a weird telephone call from a man trying to track me down (my maiden name wasn’t very common) and he was ‘Mr Angry’.
Annoyed that he tried to call my parents (and subsequently he’d called my uncle who also had the same surname) and not telephoned the office, I did call him back. Clearly he’d gone through the phone book (blimey, doesn’t that sound archaic) to try to find me at home.
On the phone, he explained in no uncertain terms my mistake, I apologized and arranged for the very short item to be repeated, this time correctly.
A few weeks later, flicking through a local ‘parish pump’ freebie magazine I came across a letter from a reader slagging off the town’s local newspaper reporter for making an error, calling this person incompetent.

This letter was at least 100 words long. This letter didn’t name me, but as I was the only reporter working on the local newspaper I was identified by default.

 

This was a serious defamation of my profession and character. All from one simple, silly error.

I took legal advice and was told I had a water-tight case against this little publication as they’d not told me about the letter or offered me a right of reply. Even if they had, my lawyer said, it was still a defamation as the letter was so over the top given the nature of the mistake (which was corrected).
I went to the publication’s editor, who, clearly after speaking to his lawyer, fell over himself to give me a right of reply – which I provided. They even sent me over a copy of what the page would look like and, I guess, they hoped for the best. The damage was done for them – they’d printed the letter without telling me. Even with my right of reply, I could sue them and they were exercising damage limitation.
However I realized that I would not win with this father. For some reason, pride I suppose, he was livid over this mistake. Responding with my letter, would only lead to a letter-writing campaign and a mud-slinging match.
So I called the publication, told them to drop my right-of-reply letter, said I acknowledged that they’d offered me full right of reply and I was happy to end the matter there. I bowed out gracefully.
Tip: for me, it was to check, check and check again, people are not always predictable in how they react even to an honest mistake, the kind of error we all make from time to time. Having said that, don’t be afraid to defend yourself if things get out of balance. None of us is infallible – not even proud fathers of sons who’ve got into Oxford University.

Hotel maid apparently not able to take on powerful money man

You all know the case in America to which I am referring.
A hotel maid claims that she is sexually assaulted by a high ranking person in the world of international finance.
He denies forcing himself on her, she claims a crime was committed against her. Her word against his. His word against hers – just who to believe?
The case has been dropped by the prosecution based upon the victim’s credibility – she changed her story about her movements after the alleged assault. She lied on an asylum form. The case is likely to be dropped. Probably unable to prove a crime happened, beyond any reasonable doubt.

Clearly we don’t know the details, but are these two things so great that this woman’s account doesn’t deserve to be examined in court?

What about this man’s past would make him completely reliable or otherwise?
Hardly a case which encourages women, or men, to come forward with claims of rape or sexual assault.
Doesn’t it feel like the victim’s past has been rifled through to see what can be found to discredit her and we don’t know exactly what those things are!

 

Is this a woman who has dollar signs in her eyes? Did she realise who this man was and think – this is my opportunity for a cash windfall? Possibly.
Our record of dealing with sexual assault and rapes in the courts is not great in the UK – a tiny percentage actually make it to the end of the road. Guilty or not guilty.
This is one case where you can see why a woman might think twice? Don’t you think?

 

Some stranger assaults me in the street and I have to hand over my medical records, reveal my sexual history, lay out my private life for all the world to see. Tell the world things I would rather forget or which happened years ago.
And if the case is deemed to be unsuitable, people can find out why ie. my dubious past – but the alleged defendant walks away with no stain on their character.
Rape and sexual assault should not be a question of what’s the chance of success? – evidence should be examined in an open and transparent fashion. The end result might be a conviction or not, the end result might be that a woman or victim is found to be lying.

Reporting a rape or sexual assault can be a ‘pig’ of an ordeal….

Victims of assault often just want one thing – they want their day in court, they want the best chance of justice.

What to talk about today? Riots, the economy, or exam results?

What a day today, the rain in Swindon hasn’t stopped for a minute and it’s been a momentous day for many young people awaiting A level results.

Five minutes ago that was me.

Turning up at my school as early as possible.

But I wasn’t one of those who stood there crying with joy that I’d got As or even Bs. I was one of the many who hadn’t quite flunked the exams – but as near as dammit. I got a C, D and an E.

In spite of working hard and achieving As or Bs in all of my course work, I’d flipped out in the actual exams and scored really badly.

In my favourite subject, English Literature, I got a D. I completely failed one paper.

Just one four-hour period and that was my legacy to English – that’s how it felt. My only saving grace was that I’d taken an extra English exam – which doesn’t exist now – called an S level and in that I’d got a distinction.

In a few seconds my dreams of going to Hull University were snuffed out. I had to get on the phone and try to find an alternative through UCAS. I didn’t even have good telephone skills at that time.

However I never even considered not going into higher education – it was just a question of how to achieve that with poor results.

Somehow the then lowly Bath College of Higher Education, now Bath Spa University, was doing a fairly new course and they offered me an interview. It was then known as a teacher training college and I experienced a lot of ‘sniffy’ comments when I mentioned it. ‘It just wasn’t the same as university, you know”.

The interview went well, with a wonderful lady who became a mentor for me, Dr Mara Kalnins. I immediately felt at home, was offered a place and thus began three very happy years.

I learned that it’s okay to fail – it doesn’t mean you are rubbish and it doesn’t mean there aren’t other opportunities. It means you have to open your mind.

Some weeks later, results were published from my school in the local paper. The school, unsurprisingly boasted about those who’d got into Oxbridge and other well-respected institutions. The last sentence named me and said I was going to ‘Bath’.

 

That was it.

I immediately felt that that ambiguity might suggest that I was going to the University of Bath, which is highly regarded rather than the college of higher education across the city.

 

I don’t know what was more pathetic – me for caring or the school for doing that. It felt like a slap across the face.

I’ve got no regrets about the path my life took – I met wonderful people, did a fabulous course and have watched as Bath College of HE has grown in stature.

It’s fabulous to succeed, to work hard and to get where you want to be – but it’s even more fabulous to fail, and fail again but to get up, get on and still succeed in the end. I’m sure success is all the sweeter if you’ve had to experience failure along the way.

 

Take a deep breath and find another way!

We all know how excruciatingly annoying is that person who’s always seemed to succeed at everything – watch the Apprentice to find out about those types.

 

So to all the A and AS level students out there – well done for your hard work. If you got the grades you wanted, brilliant.

 

If you didn’t, look for the other path and don’t lower your expectations just because you may have to take a less obvious route.

By the way, on a completely different note – anyone who wants to see my latest documentary for ITV Wales on OCD you can now – http://www.youtube.com/user/mumsinmedia

WHAT ABOUT THE RIOTS?

Watching the news tonight and I listened to the mum of 13-year-old boy justifying why her son went to the riots with a hammer strapped to his leg.

He wasn’t rioting, but he was there. The hammer was for his own protection. She was lamenting the injustice of it all.

Police worry about some children who are out of control

 

Would you let your son out with a hammer strapped to his leg? Would you even let him out with friends where he felt the need to carry a weapon?

I just don’t get that at all.

I don’t have the answers when it comes to preventing riots. More intelligent minds than mine will look for reasons for the unrest.

 

I do feel very uncomfortable when politicians talk about our society being broken, families being without responsibility, gang culture is rife and we have to stop it. All of these reasons may be true – but let’s see in time just who was rioting. It just feels too easy to blame those on low income, from poor backgrounds, social housing, living on benefits, no jobs.
Lots of people in our country have poor starts, bad parenting, terrible experiences – and they’ve used that positively for the greater good.
What I can say, as a mum, that my teenage children would not be out with a hammer strapped to his/her leg. At age 13, they would not be out roaming around with friends, especially if I knew that there was trouble.
While peer pressure is a powerful thing – it is not more powerful than having good parents. If I had to sit down with my child all day to prevent them doing wrong, then I would do it.
I’m no perfect mum but there are some basic things that I can control. I can control whether or not my child has a mobile phone, access to the internet, access to money.
These are all privileges which are removed in my home if rules are broken. These are punishments that older children really get – oh, the horror of having no access to a computer, or even worse, a mobile phone.

And I’m unmoved by protests – I grew up without any of those things and I survived!
Of course, I know as a journalist that’s it’s easy to pick those alleged rioters who are very young – when many more may have gone through the courts who are over 18, might be in work, or, in one case, received looted items but were not part of the actual riots.

Equally I know that police officers often show concern about the behaviour of certain children. It takes just a few individuals in a town who come from extremely troubled backgrounds to cause huge amounts of anti-social behaviour.

Here in Swindon, I’ve been told of so-called ‘feral’ children whose parents aren’t concerned about their whereabouts, their safety, their criminality. They often sleep rough, and move around the town. Their movements can often be tracked by the amount of low level crime that is being carried out.

If that’s true, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, how can you connect or engage with young people who have been abandoned so badly by their parents. Their boundaries are simply not the same as ours. What a sad,sad situation.

 

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a child with no hope? I have – and it will stop you in your tracks. There’s no answer to it, there are no platitudes that they will hear or respond to.

For parents of those children, they should be brought to book, they should face up to their dereliction. I’m not saying the children who commit crimes should not be punished – but they should also know that those who let them down, must also face justice.

WHAT ABOUT THE RIOTS?

Riots - have you seen mob mentality up close and personal?

I’m listening to Question Time talking about riots as I’m writing this.

Here in Swindon, for three evenings in a row there has been rumour and counter-rumour about trouble in the town centre. To my knowledge, nothing’s happened.

 

Shops closed early, the police officer numbers were out in force. There was just a feeling of fear, of flames being fanned. Even my kids picked up on it. It’s been ridiculous, it almost feels like we are tempting fate by creating fear of something that’s just not there – thankfully.

 
Clearly other places have had terrible scenes and there has been much loss. My heart goes out to the families of the three men killed for trying to defend their street in the Manchester area.

But who or what can we blame? Is there anyone to blame? Is it our social ills?

And now there’s something else to blame now – social media.

 

I’ve just listened to someone say that the speed of social media made the police’s jobs impossible. What? Social media is for everyone and is used by millions, including police officers. Social media is simply a tool that anyone can use and the police need to get to grips with it along with everyone else.

 
Let’s get real here.

 

People were behind this trouble – not the police, not social media, not the business people and individuals who were under threat, or who had businesses wrecked.

Individuals decided to break the law and others piled in and took opportunities to thieve and be destructive. The same happened with the student demonstrations. The same happened in the demos in the 1980s etc, etc.

A young black man died – was shot by police. We don’t know the circumstances for sure. But what part of the riots will make his family feel better? What part of the riots will cure the problems in which he may have been involved?

The police have come in for considerable flack and that will continue. I know many police officers and not one of them is incompetent, or ridiculous, or violent or lacking in dedication to my knowledge. All of them are men or women with families and the same hopes and fears as all of us.

Even with the best clothing, shields, helmets, truncheons etc facing a screaming mob is absolutely terrifying. This is something I do know about – because it’s happened to me.
Years ago, in a small Somerset town, I was out with the police as a newspaper journalist when we attended a disturbance outside a pub where there had been lots of trouble.
When we arrived, there were a group of about 50 people, many had been drinking heavily, and they were wound up. When the police arrived, I was told to stay in the car. The noise was so loud, bottles were thrown at the car. Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice.
Some of these people I’d been to school with – I saw the mob mentality in action, some knew me and it made no difference. At one point a group grabbed the car and started rocking it up and down with me in the back. I’ve rarely been so terrified.
The whole thing probably only lasted moments, but it was all in slow motion – I can’t remember how we got out of it. I suppose they were dispersed.
I’ve often been told that individuals are reasonable but mobs are without reason – and I think that must be part of it. That night, in a sleepy backwater town, I saw the mob in action very briefly.
And it’s that memory that stays with me when I see what’s happened. I don’t know the answers but I do know what it feels like to face violence without reason.

Hidden businesses who don’t realise their worth

I’ve just spent a week in Scotland combining work and pleasure with a trip to various places from Edinburgh and Scotland.
It’s been over a decade since my last visit so I really enjoyed the chance to travel around and enjoy the beauty of the scenery – wow, Edinburgh is wonderful.

One of the places I stayed was the Leny Estate near the small town of

Callander, about an hour from Glasgow.

I had stumbled across it on the internet and the idea of a log cabin on a Scottish mountainside appealed to me.

I didn’t know what to expect from this booking – although this business has an internet site, it’s little more than a brochure, and most contact was through leaving phone messages and trusting that a receipt would arrive for money paid.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy trust, it’s so important. But usually it’s something that’s built up over time.

Although the vibe from this company was good, its social media standing is close to zero in a market place that’s bursting at the seams with similar offerings.
But when we got to the Leny estate it was simply breath-taking – beautiful, private, secluded, a small stately home (five-star), six small log cabins which were perfect (four star) and elsewhere on the site some small cottages for hire.
In the four days we were there, we had everything we needed, we were not bothered by anyone, the scenery was beautiful, I cannot praise it enough. The only small problem we had was an ill-fitting sheet for one of the beds and once reported, a new sheet was on the door step within the hour.

I could not believe that only two cabins appeared to be occupied in the first week in August. Why, oh why, is this business not shouting about itself from the rooftops?

In these times of economic woe, can any business of this kind afford to have empty rooms? empty spaces? Perhaps they can.
As we travelled around, it was clear that there are log cabins, holiday homes, cottages, B&Bs all over the place. All the more reason to stand out from the crowd.

 

All the more reason to invest in some good PR to make sure you are head and shoulders above the rest.
Did I leave my business card? Am I hoping that the owners read this blog? Yes on both counts.
Even when something is exclusive, it’s important to shout about all of those positive factors about your business. Be proud, ask for endorsements, ask for recommendations.

 

It’s not enough to hope that people will stumble across your website,

now is the time to be proactive – it’s one of the keys to survival.

leny estate – great place to stay, where’s the pr

Safe cycling in the city

Would you let your child cycle on this road?

News that Bristol City Council is encouraging schemes to help children play out in their local street is heartening.

It seems that the Council are going to make it easier to temporarily close a road to all but residents cars by reworking the legislation that is used for street parties. I shall be watching this with interest – think of the difference it could make to family life.

Cycling is particularly difficult for kids in the city as to get them somewhere safe to practise riding on their bikes requires transporting them and the bikes in a car. On Sunday we did what many parents in our area do, we packed three bikes onto a rack on the back of the car and drove to a safe local park where they could cycle. Its fine when you’re there, but what a hassle to do something that was so easy to do many years ago.

It’s so different now to when I grew up. As a child I played in the streets around the estate I lived on and was sent outside to play with the instruction to come in when it was dinnertime. There was never any idea that my parents would take us somewhere special to ride our bikes. It was unheard of. If there was a dangerous road to cross we cycled on the pavement – something that is frowned upon now.

The big difference is the sheer amount of traffic on the roads and the safety implications that brings. It is quite understandable that no parent would let their young child play or cycle near dangerous levels of fast moving traffic. So if there is a scheme that can help with providing an environment is which kids can easily play outside and on their bikes without danger, I think it’s time to support it.

Imagine the impact it could have if it were made a national scheme.

Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone

It’s official – the world economy has tanked!

I woke up this morning to the news that stock markets have taken a serious dive overnight and that it’s going to continue all day.

But, there’s good news! The leaders of Europe are in control. They are going to deal with this worldwide catastrophe by…wait for it…having a telephone conference call!

Do they seriously think this will instigate progress?

My experience of what you get when you have 10 people on a conference call is very different. The person hosting it will be busy talking and maybe one other who has a vested interest in driving an agenda forward. And the other 8…they go on mute and eat their sandwiches.

I don’t believe I’m alone in having this experience. Do you find it a helpful modern technology? Let me know if you do. To me it is the perfect meeting for those who like to turn up and do little.

You can’t see the facial expressions, whether people are discomforted or engaged. A conference call may get people talking together quickly but what it achieves as an outcome is rarely worth it. There is a serious economic meltdown happening worldwide that needs the FULL attention of our elected prime ministers and presidents.

Maybe the collective sound of European leaders munching won’t be the only upshot of today’s meeting. Here’s hoping. There’s a lot to sort out!

Now, put me on mute while I have a croissant.

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