Posted in Updates on Saturday 22nd August 2015 at 10:08am
I first visited the Tropicana on a school trip – probably sometime in the late 1980s. I wasn’t a swimmer, so joining a small number of sick, limping or otherwise unpopular kids, I skulked around the margins of the site. There was a model railway, a café, and plenty of space to sit and ponder how much more fun the other kids were having in the pool. Even then there was a sense of gloom about the place: beyond the huge fibreglass pineapple that dominated the site – and which gave it perhaps it’s only truly ‘tropical’ credentials – the plaster was already peeling, the colourful murals of palm trees and blue skies flaking under the pressure of a spending crunch. After an interminable day that was perhaps remarkable only because it didn’t involve being in school, I was glad to leave the place. It is miraculous that it struggled on as long as it did after this, finally closing its doors in 2000, outdated and outpaced by tastes and time. Left behind – a portent of things to come for Weston-super-Mare perhaps?
However, as the last fifteen years have proved, the Tropicana is privileged space. It occupies a slot in countless thousands of memories. It has figured in the summer holidays of locals and visitors alike – and thus it is recalled in that special way that childhood summers always are. It never rains, the colours are brighter than reality, the days longer, food tastier. These memories have been trampled by the steel toecaps of reality for long enough for the site to be almost mythical, and for a town prone to almost terminal apathy, the public can be easily roused by even a perceived threat to the hallowed quadrant on the sea front. For years though, it has only truly existed on the pages of Council Executive reports and architects drawings. The site has variously sprouted huge hotels, cinemas, towers of housing. Always with those shadowy sketch-people milling around them which proxy for reality in these artist’s impressions. Developers have come and gone. Opportunistic local bruisers have tried to make political capital from the ruin, while simultaneously proposing to raid the public coffers. Eventually we reached the point of no return – the Tropicana was to be demolished. It felt like a necessary exorcism. But still it is attached, decaying and prone to infection. Weston’s ever-grumbling appendix.
The reaction to Dismaland has been both entirely surprising and utterly predictable. The surprise has largely centred on the miracle that this most scrutinised and picked-over over of sites could be transformed so completely yet so secretly before us in plain sight of the town. Indeed, that the much maligned Council could have allowed – sponsored even – something of this nature has bewildered people. Their normal knee-jerk reactions stopped in mid ascent towards the collective groin of the elected members. The – entirely accurate – story that only four people in the organisation knew the whole truth is equally astounding in the leaky rumour-mill of the Town Hall. But there are more predictable voices at large – many rehearsing the bizarre belief that the Council is stupid enough not to see the double-edged swordplay it indulges in by inviting an event called “Dismaland” onto its prized promenade – indeed onto this most sensitive of local sites. Rolling eyes and folding arms, they tell me that the event will pass in to history with the momentum not seized. That it’s all a bit rubbish because they don’t get ‘art’ anyway – and probably wouldn’t get tickets if they tried. After all, Weston is a bit crap right? For a few days, this low-pitched drone has surrounded the place, cloaking it in the very miasma of gloom that the curator is trying to foster. If anyone has been gamed, it’s these very doubters who are now playing a key part in the set-piece on the sea front.
I’ve written and talked a lot about the seaside resort problem – and on one of its many levels Dismaland taps right into this. It reminds me of a family I saw tumbling out of an Eastbourne café one Saturday morning a few years ago. As they picked the stringy bacon fronds from their teeth they summed up the issue in a single question: “What the fuck are we going to do until dinnertime?” The disappointing attraction, the underwhelming spectacle and the hours of time killed between cheap food and beer binges are summed up in the premise behind Banksy’s installation. The venue is also perfect. Seaside towns are different to ‘towns by the sea’: they’ve chosen not to change and have resolutely stayed on rails laid in the late 19th century. The family seaside holiday of guest houses, fish and chips and beach-hogging is the preserve of a now itself nearly mythical working class. Fortunes dwindle, buildings peel, capital retreats – and now these towns regularly appear at the top of child poverty ratings and unemployment figures, suffer disproportionately from addiction and crime and oddly rank highly in their negative responses to immigration despite being some of the most resolutely white parts of the nation. That fear of the incomer, that disparaging view of those who arrive in town – the tendency to bite the hand of the ‘grockles’ that feed them is burned deep into Weston and it’s natives. They are about to suffer the biggest influx of incomers for many, many years – it’s going to be entertaining to watch.
The other equally gloomy if somewhat quieter voices are those from neighbouring towns, decrying the desperation which leads a place to accept Dismaland as its defining moment. There is a touch of green around their gills for sure – it’s a ludicrously good coup, and a glance at the economic benefits from Banksy’s Bristol exhibition a few years back rightly makes them seethe with jealous rage. Their prime concern is the town’s brand – how it can recover from this shock to its system without suffering the sting in the tail of the term “dismal”? But they miss a point here – the town simply doesn’t have a brand. It’s one of those reforgotten resorts which has been at this crossroads for years – Stag venue? Retail centre? Dormitory town? The options are unedifying at best – but this offers an alternative. As the world was griping about the ticketing website failing and the early-invitees smugly sharing their pictures of the site yesterday, the Chief Executive of North Somerset Council was changing tack – pop-up shops in town would be encouraged, creative events and industries promoted. This is tremendously significant – the received wisdom before was that if we wanted to attract big High Street names, it was always better to have an empty shop in town than some scruffy little independent cluttering up the place. The truth is perhaps the opposite: another Poundland or charity shop is a much bigger disincentive, while the major chains watch successful independents like vultures waiting to swoop. Let them do the hard work before we arrive. There is finally a bit of coherence to the vision for the town. It remains to be seen if it plays out as they hope – but I think the textbook regeneration doom-mongers are a little more spooked than they admit.
I’ve yet to visit Dismaland – but I’m excited to have this opportunity on my doorstep. Quite apart from the playful, irreverent fun of the pieces Banksy has assembled, the sense of event and the sheer oddness of revisiting a childhood haunt transformed completely, there is a more substantial edge to this. The exhibits play into the concerns we should all have about our public spaces – privatisation of access, spiralling security measures, domination by faceless brands and franchises. I’m also excited by the debate that seems to be emerging: the ideas about what local government is for, what public spaces should host, and what kind of vision we should develop for that most difficult of places – a fading seaside resort on a muddy estuarial reach. I hope too that in time, the doubters are at least quieted by the success of this enterprise – but I know they won’t be. After all their lemon-sucking cynicism and their desperate clinging to irony are as much part of the show as the crumbling Disney castle silhouette.
Posted in Updates on Sunday 10th May 2015 at 7:05am
Last Thursday, I arrived at a tiny and rather musty church hall at 6:15am, expecting to have a fairly quiet day. I’d brought a couple of books along – and I was even mildly concerned I’d manage to finish them both. As we tied signs to fences, posted official notices and erected the rather wobbly wooden polling booths we noticed people were already outside, waiting for 7am to arrive. We let them in, testing out on these first few voters the patter we’d need to use many hundreds of times during the day to explain the multiple ballots. The tide of voters didn’t stop from that moment on. It slowed to a trickle a little after the school run, but soon picked up as the pensioners strolled over from the nearby Sheltered Dwellings. It calmed a little around lunchtime, but then surged once school finished. During the early evening, we had a constant queue of mostly good-natured people. We also saw a lot of first-time voters, eager but nervous, needing explanation – and terrified of doing it all wrong. Simply put, it was one of the most inspiring days I’ve spent working in a very long time indeed. Seeing, and later - as I tried to straighten up after almost fifteen hours of sitting over ballot papers and Corresponding Number Lists - feeling democracy in action is a rare and rather special thing to experience.
On the way home, I got the first inkling of an even more surprising outcome via text message. The Exit Poll was wildly different to the previous predictions. Throughout the campaign, the two major parties’ lines had bounced along the middle of the graph, mirroring each other’s miniscule peaks and tiny troughs almost exactly – but now they’d separated markedly and a Conservative majority seemed possible - almost likely in fact. I sped up my walk home – a late night of amateur psephology ahead, wondering whether we’d get any of those “Portillo” moments when a top flight politician has to stand, ungainly and stoic, while someone else gets the cheer and the chance to address the audience. I’ve always loved election night.
The rest is now recent history. And the thing is, I voted Conservative.
I don’t need to justify my vote to you – or indeed to anyone – because that’s one of the wonderful things about Britain. While there might be numerous flaws in the practicalities of our democracy – and even someone who supports a major party can see that, I promise – it is still a functional democracy. We generally tolerate others without too much concern about their political orientation and it’s still considered extremely impolite to pursue a discussion of politics which is unwanted. That frustrated me as an idealistically young reform-minded Labour voter of course, and it has been equally frustrating at times as a world-weary Conservative voter trying to stave off Sir Robert Peel’s “perpetual vortex of change” while UKIP appeared to be plumbing the utmost depths in their selection processes for candidates. Sometimes you want to shake people, to yell at them and ask them what on earth they’re thinking. But you don’t. We’re British, for goodness sake.
Friday dawned with an utterly unexpected outcome. One which of course, I was happy with. Keen to see what the world was saying, I naturally turned to the internet. Now, I’m very cautious about what I post about politics. I have a job which is not restricted, but which is close enough to politics to make it much easier to avoid too much talk about it in public. I also know that many of my friends don’t agree with my views on these matters. I made special exception for mentioning some of the more appalling UKIP gaffes – as I’ve written before their policies were a fundamental threat to my family life, so I make no apology for pointing out these flaws. I abhor the racism and isolationism that party engenders and I wanted their unpleasant underbelly exposed so that people could make up their own minds. Generally speaking though, it wouldn’t have been easy to discern how I felt about the new government. But a little after lunch, as David Cameron made his way to Buckingham Palace, the temperature on Social Media began to change. People I considered generally reasonable and liked a great deal despite having rather different views, began to use some of the most ugly terms to refer to people because of how they’d exercised their vote. Notably, many of these terms played on outdated and archaic notions of mental illness and learning disability – “moron”, “retard”, “imbecile”, “brain dead”, “mong” – I could go on, but you no doubt get the picture. The idea that the electorate was somehow mentally unstable became something of a meme during the afternoon. I found it profoundly distressing to see some of my most liberal-minded friends who would normally – and rightly - rise up in anger should someone use those words, posting and sharing intemperate articles which did exactly that. I am passionate about issues around mental health and disability, so I posted my own concerns – in as unpartisan a way I could – because it felt important to draw a line and remind people they were talking about ten million people who’d had the same right and responsibility in voting that they had, and using terms they’d normally reject outright to do so.
The mechanics of disappointment are strange and unpredictable. We’ve all felt them. I felt them when I voted for the first time in 1992 in very similar circumstances to this, and I remember feeling powerless, sad and frustrated and having little in the way of an outlet for these feelings. Had Facebook and Twitter existed then, I like to think I’d have avoided being quite as vicious – but I’ll never know of course. I know that if I had succumbed, I’d feel pretty foolish and embarrassed afterwards though. As Friday wore on, and the realisation dawned on people that this wasn’t a dream – good or bad – I noticed a trend to share articles about things the nascent government had “already done”. By about 3pm it seemed that Cameron – despite not having a Cabinet or a Commons to make any policy had cracked down on support for disabled workers, repealed the foxhunting ban and cut the tax rate for his rich cronies. Closer examination of these articles showed publication dates in 2010 or 2011, or turned up consultation documents prepared by the departments of government but not even nearly on the statue books. What this ill-informed trawling did though was to further raise the temperature of debate – and I fear that those very first-time voters who’d shuffled into the Polling Station, nervous but inspired to vote, were being drawn most deeply into the brewing storm. One of the stranger things about Social Media is how it allows people to edit themselves into a bubble of people who think almost exactly the same way as they do themselves. To narrow their experience of alternative narratives to the point it becomes simple to just discard connections which don't match the pattern. Seeing that working in real time was dizzying and unpleasant.
By Saturday evening, after a pretty awful day visiting a very unwell relative, I was feeling particularly raw-nerved and vulnerable when one of my friends, someone who plays really wonderful music in a band I love very much and who I’ve written about and travelled miles to see in their native Glasgow, sent me a message. To paraphrase it said “Please delete our songs or throw away the CDs. We don’t need the support of Tory Scum like you”. Almost simultaneously that same phrase “Tory Scum” was being daubed on the Women in World War II memorial on Whitehall. There was also a growing Twitter campaign suggesting that people should use violence against “all Tories and their supporters” wherever they found them. Disappointment had taken an ugly twist. That powerlessness and frustration which I’d struggled to articulate or dispose of in 1992 was finding its outlet in the most ugly and sad of ways. I felt a mixture of fear and revulsion, but I felt the urge mostly to explain to people that even though they now knew how I’d voted, I wasn’t any different to the person who’d blogged about their music, traded stupid puns by email or shared a photograph of a misspelled sign. I wanted to tell them that the world wasn’t ending – it was just changing – and most of all it was everyone’s opportunity and responsibility to remake it and influence the change.
I opened the browser intending to write just that, but I read another message from another musical contact who told me his small hand-to-mouth independent label didn’t need the money or support of a “fat fascist wanker”. There were others too, but I decided not to read them. I deactivated my account and went to sleep.
So what is this? Special pleading from me? A whine that the playground just got too rough? I don’t think so. This is an expression of concern from those of us caught in the middle-ground. Those of us who thought long and hard about how to vote, and did so on the basis of that consideration. We didn’t necessarily indulge in the public mudslinging of the extremes on either side so you didn’t know our minds, but now our hands are declared we’ve somehow become the target of the anger. Are we really the stupid, sleepwalking wider electorate who can’t be trusted to do the right thing? Let me just remind you that the people suggesting this are liberals, supporters of community and inclusion, those who believe on any normal day that people together are much more powerful than people divided. They may even recall that I share those views despite thinking rather differently about economics. Yet they divide and demonise in the very way that they claim to abhor. Watching this disbelief and disappointment play out has been truly worrying – but there have been some notable exceptions. People who – although they felt confused and hurt - have advocated calm and kindness in the days ahead. I’m thankful for some of those voices today. I also want to reject the idea that I’m against people showing passion for their political views. I am absolutely not. If you want to hear a passionate plea for Welfare Reform because the current complex and divisive system is the very root of the demonization of the poor and disabled, give me a call – I will happily indulge you. At length. Probably for too long. I don’t reject passion or want to crush anti-establishment views and actions. I don’t want to erase those white-hot moments of rising hope or anger – they’re an essential and fundamental part of being human. What I truly want is for people to realise that when you advocate a political view you speak both to and for the polis – that wider body of citizens. You can never hope to speak for them all outside a totalitarian state, but to vilify them or turn them into your enemies is a poor strategy in the long-term if a change in society is what you truly seek.
Posted in Updates on Tuesday 16th December 2014 at 9:09am
Regardless of how it might sometimes look, I'm not a public transport advocate. I really don’t worry too much about how other people get around, aside of course from wanting people generally to think about the effect they're having on the rest of the planet wherever they can. It’s true I love rail travel and railways, but that’s more of a passion and an interest than any serious political pursuit. It’s also true that I'll get involved in campaigns about things happening to transport locally, but that’s not really borne of a political agenda – more just a wish to ensure those of us who need transport, still have it to use. My relationship with public transport is far simpler than most people think in fact – I use it because I need it. But having done a stint on the fringes of the transport industry, I can sometimes see inside in ways perhaps others can’t, or where they just can’t be bothered to navigate the arcane syntax and traditions. I can sometimes see how the convoluted, contrary workings of the system misalign and cause unintended problems – most often for us, the users. Because I can generally see how the system has unintentionally conspired rather than been deliberately sabotaged, I'm usually a fairly good natured correspondent with the transport companies. I want people to see the problems I do, acknowledge them and fix them. I rarely want blame or redress. A working transport system is worth much, much more to me than a refund or a half-hearted apology after all.
So, this story begins in October. My wife had just landed an interesting job with huge potential for future developments. The only drawback was that it was on the Blackbrook Business Park in Taunton. It’s easy to get to Taunton from here. A short walk to the station, less than half an hour on the train, and aside from a walk or a quick bus into the centre, you’re pretty much there. Blackbrook is another matter. Situated near the M5 motorway on the eastern outskirts of the town, there is little else there. A strip of office buildings on a road which peters out in fields, where the recession is marked by the physical edge where development stopped in 2007. That said, there are a lot of people working out here now. Blackbrook is served by a fair number of bus routes, but the most frequent is the Park and Ride service which crosses Taunton and calls at the end of Blackbrook Park Avenue. We researched the travel options carefully. I do that sort of thing. Past experience and personal geekiness means that I have a pretty thorough grasp of rail ticketing. Bus ticketing though is a mess of local variations and schemes, and we wanted to be sure we were getting the best deal. The winner was PlusBus - the national scheme that bolts unlimited bus travel on to rail tickets in selected towns and cities. It can be added to a Season Ticket so in essence you need only one ticket to make your entire journey – even to an outpost like Blackbrook. For Londoners or other city-dwellers this might sound odd – they generally have a well-integrated ticketing product (such as Oyster or Orca) that makes all this possible – but out here in the provinces, this is a much more unusual prospect. Experience led me to be a little suspicious that PlusBus might not be accepted on the Park and Ride service – these services are often arranged or contracted via different means. But all seemed fine – no exclusions listed on the national PlusBus site, no mention of it on the Somerset County Council leaflet about the Park and Ride, and on the local First Group website the Park and Ride was treated as just another service. We’d found our solution – but even then I checked with First's customer service team. They agreed it was fine. All went well for the first day, but on day two my wife got the almost inevitable "you can’t use that on here" talk from the driver. I’d prepared her for this. Drivers get used to seeing the same tickets day after day, and are very risk-averse when it comes to accepting things they've not seen before. Ticket fraud is a real problem – and drivers have correctly been trained that the little bits of fraudulent travel here and there add up to more than the big fraudster. So they checked. She persisted and got to work. The next evening however, the driver had consulted with his manager who told him that they didn't accept the ticket. A ridiculous scene ensued where he was prepared to leave a female passenger stranded at a fairly remote, dark location which all but shuts down after 5:30pm. Naturally, we complained. Bitterly – at first to First Group. Their email service didn't even provide acknowledgement or the ever-necessary complaint reference number so I turned to Facebook and Twitter. I was persistent and irritating, continually pointing out how long things had drifted since the issue arose, and how much additional cost we'd racked up. They lost the complaint, asked me to send it again, wanted more details – endless delaying tactics. They always promised a response but none came. Eventually, one of the local Operations Managers messaged me. He had seen the situation developing and wanted to resolve it. Initially I think he was worried that customer services were getting the heat for someone else's problem. It was he said, a feature of the contract with Somerset County Council that they couldn't accept any concessions or special tickets. I pointed out that there were no exclusions listed and he agreed to check for us. I was impressed with this persistence – he really did seem to want to run a decent, integrated service which made sense to passengers. But, a few days later the response from the Council was that they did not want to accept PlusBus on the Park and Ride. He said he would try to get us a refund on the PlusBus part of the ticket as we’d been sold it under false pretences but that was the end of it.
But I was determined it wasn't. Firstly, PlusBus is clear – participating operators have to expressly explain any exceptions, and there were none listed. The Council's information was specific about OAP and Disabled Concessionary Passes not being accepted on the service, but nothing else. I figured that at very least I could get the information situation improved perhaps? I started with an email to Somerset County Council. Again, no response at all. So, I did the thing all disgruntled busybodies everywhere turn to in the end. A Freedom of Information request. I was very, very specific in my questions – a little experience in the Local Authority transport world has taught me that vagueness is the currency and obscurity is the ever-present excuse where FOIs are concerned. I asked a mix of general questions which drilled down to specifics, and I asked about the Council's commitment to sustainability and integration. At least if I couldn't immediately change the situation, I could make their policy look illogical. Most specifically, knowing this was a contracted service, I queried the ticket acceptance arrangements in the contract. You can see the FOI request here. The answer took a long time. They missed the statutory deadline and I was geared up to make a complaint to the Information Commissioner just for the hell of being annoying and persistent when a response rather unexpectedly arrived late on a December afternoon. It was a disarmingly simple response to the main question: the contract didn’t exclude any specific ticket types at all. I decided to make it personal and picked up the 'phone. After a long slog through the automation of the Council's new "improved" switchboard I was finally put through to the Assistant Director responsible for Public Transport. I explained the situation and he agreed they didn’t accept PlusBus tickets, but he'd gladly check on the FOI response for me. I was on hold for a long time. It was after 5pm. I thought I'd been left to hang up and likely not get through again that day... but then he returned. And for the first time in all this ridiculous saga he said “sorry.”
He had checked the contract and I’d been given the correct information in the FOI response. They hadn't ever excluded PlusBus at all. In fact, the Council had novated this contract in an emergency from an earlier one with a poorly performing Operator who didn't participate in the PlusBus scheme at all. Naturally, there had been no consideration of ticketing issues in the urgency of the switch over. Subsequently the contract had been won in competition by First under the same specification. It wasn't a deliberate exclusion – or even an accidental one – it was just a complete failure to have any regard to it. He conceded that they would in fact have to instruct First to accept the ticket. He was kind enough to send an apologetic email confirming this. I printed it and gave my wife a copy to take with her on her travels. Of course he stressed that ticketing is reviewed regularly, with the next such update in January and it "may not stay the same". I read this as Local Authority code for "fine, you caught us, so we'll make it official and stop accepting it." That change will have to be subject to a public consultation however, and I think it would look pretty poor to start refusing a ticket which is rarely used anyway, and which adds to the integration of the network in Taunton. Time will, of course, tell.
Since then, things haven’t been without incident. The message hasn't spread fast through the depot and drivers who have been on leave have continued to question the ticket. The email I supplied has been flashed, scrutinised and questioned on several occasions. One particular driver who had caught the beginning of this saga then been off work for a while tried to pick up where he left off with an aggressive and belligerent morning rant. It was swiftly addressed by our friendly local manager of course – but it shouldn't have happened. In fact, none of this should have happened. Public transport, if it is to be successful at all, needs to be easy to access. That’s not just about low floors and wheelchair spaces – it’s about simple, clear ticketing which makes it easy to know what to buy and when. It's about being able to complete whole journeys with one ticketing product, and it's about linking rail to bus and onwards to good walking environments. Of course, some ardent drivers will ask why they should care about any of this – well, I've some sympathy in the reverse of course, but an affordable, accessible and joined-up transport system will ease the flow and improve safety for everyone.
That's a huge claim for a little victory on ticket acceptance I know, but it's a start.
Posted in Updates on Thursday 30th October 2014 at 11:10pm
Nowadays, there really aren't too many mysteries left in the media. When every DVD comes with an extra 'making of...' documentary, and reality TV exposes the inner workings of the industry - albeit mediated through a sheen of entertainment - everyone is an armchair expert on how things are done. But one show, more than any other perhaps, has always fascinated me. The BBC's "Question Time" has had an unbroken run since 1979, and despite the flagship BBC1 channel broadcasting little in the way of political commentary nowadays, manages to cling to a prime late-evening spot each week, pulling in just under three million viewers as a result. The format, where the audience questions a panel of politicians and gets to respond directly - and often vociferously - to their answers never gets tired, and the way that the show moves around the country ensures at least a little local colour and diminishes the sense of London calling the shots - just for a while at least. After years of yelling at the TV, I was persuaded a couple of weeks back to submit an application to be in the audience. I'd never have done this on my own - and perhaps this reveals another huge advantage of being married - I have someone who will always test my boundaries and push me, gently and supportively of course, forward. So I found myself waiting with a coffee on a pleasant Taunton evening, watching the bustle of the town closing up for the night and pondering, perhaps a little nervously, the journey behind the screen which was about to begin...
I couldn't resist reading up a little on the show before we headed for Taunton tonight. There were, unsurprisingly, a number of blogs about the experience of being on the show. They broadly followed the same arc - and comfortingly all echoed our experience of being picked to be in the audience. Everyone who has seen the show has, at some point, wondered about this - especially if there appears to be a particularly weighted audience sometimes. But they are extremely careful to avoid accusations of bias and ensure a fair balance. This involved a call earlier in the week from the Producer who wanted a question on the spot, along with details of our work, voting intentions and political allegiances. One selected we were issued with an email to bring along with photographic ID. They are very careful that only the people who have applied and been selected show up - and an incursion of Badger Cull protestors on the site meant even more stringent measures tonight too! Once security checked we were ushered into a sports hall with large TVs showing the day's news and drinks on hand. Here we were asked to write out a second question, as topical as possible. A sheet of A4 also provided the credentials of the panelists tonight. Seeing Baroness Kramer on the list, I couldn't resist a question about railway franchising, but doubted it would get chosen as there were far more pressing events just now. As we chatted to neighbouring tables about questions a hush descended and suddenly I looked up to see David Dimbleby beside me. A little shorter than I expected, remarkably dapper and much jollier than his on screen persona, he talked us through the way the show worked. More than anything he stressed that this was our show - and our reactions and responses would be what made it happen and drove it forward. He was keen to ensure that we felt able to contribute and didn't let the politicians off the hook. Afterwards he also took a few questions from the audience, and managed to spin a few humours anecdotes from his twenty-year tenure on the show.
Finally we were led - in small groups due to the badger people still being on site - over to the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre. A fantastic new building which seems to have incredible facilities on hand, perfect for the show too with steeply raked seating and a generous stage area. Immediately I was struck by the set - that familiar backdrop and sweep of desks with the host town name curving around the front. Close up, it is much more clearly a kit of parts, TAUNTON spelled out letraset style and carefully placed on the stage front. The whole thing is reassuringly low tech - and as a bunch of audience members took the panel's seats for a practice debate, led by the dry witted and sharp Stage Manager, Stan, the camera men ducked and weaved to get the sweeping shots we see at the start of the show, their helped scurrying behind unravelling cable. The practice debate was surprisingly good fun, but seemed to go on for a while before things were ready. During this, all of the writers of the questions which the production team had selected were called forward and given a card with the question printed on it. They were also located in the audience for the sake of the camera crew, and returned to their seats looking not a little nervous! Rather suddenly, with Dimbleby back on stage and the panel queued along the stairs, we were ready! The recording is, rather amazingly, done in a single 59 minute long take. This perhaps explains the immediacy and the edge the show manages to maintain, and it also attests to the skills of the chairman! The first question is asked off camera to get everyone warmed up, and we were encouraged to get involved early. Then, once the link to BBC Glasgow - where the show is now based - was established, we were off. Dimbleby uttered his familar welcome, the camera men did their swoop around the set, and the theme music played. Straight into the first question about today's report on harsh penalties for drug possession, and already Owen Patterson is on the ropes. He admits he hasn't read the report at all and Dimbleby gently plays him on this. Suddenly I see a hand up next to me, and I realise my wife is about to speak. Dimbleby winks and nods that he's seen her. Time slows down. I'm suddenly aware of three million people out there later tonight. Patterson dodges her point about personal choice and relative harm, but not until he's fixed a steely glare on her for a moment for daring to question his Conservative principles. He dismisses it with a glib point about "dangerous drugs" but Dimbleby pushes it home "What about alcohol she said?" Patterson squirms into a point about it being OK for well-off middle class people to take drugs because they have the resources to deal with the issues. It sounds bizarre as delivered - and I think he meant to speak about the disproportionate burden on disadvantaged communities, but this opens up a frankly odd debate on things. It's left to two unlikely champions to bring things back on track - Caroline Lucas of the Green Party who talks eminent sense on policy, and author Anthony Horowitz who presses the point on this being a public health issue, not a criminal justice one.
With our brief moment in the spotlight complete, I relax into the debate. While Owen Patterson manages to shift each response from a reasonable start into a weird, ill-informed finish, Tristram Hunt fares little better. He simply cannot resist the urge to make party political points from even the most unlikely material, and when challenged he faces the audience with knitted brows and a strange disbelieving gurn which turns him into a rather pompous public schoolboy figure. This is all played out particularly on a question about the EU's demand for £1.7bn - which Baroness Kramer dismisses as something which won't be paid and will blow over. Hunt decides to try to blame the Government for not knowing it was coming up. Almost everyone points out that it was the last Labour government who signed the terms. Hunt persists, claims that the deal is secret and only the government can know the details. It's bizarre and almost uncomfortable to watch in person. The stars of the night clearly remain Lucas and Horowitz, who stay on track, don't stray into ill-informed speculation and manage to mostly avoid party lines. Baroness Kramer comes in a close second - smart, well-read and reasonable. The two boys from the big parties come across as hired help - dull-witted and easily led into foolish speculation. It's not a good night for the mainstream perhaps.
All too soon the hour is up and we're filing out into the darkness, badger protesters still yelling. In an hour, the show will be beamed across the country, streamed across the globe and just for an hour, we'll be part of that again. The team that does this, almost every single week of the year, manages to keep it fresh and interesting, balanced - mostly - and representative. It's a pretty amazing feat. The logistics owe more to a touring rock band than a TV show, and that this happens again and again, almost always without hitch is testament to the behind-the-scenes crew too. I left thrilled to have been involved despite my question not being asked, and if possible even fonder of this British TV institution.
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.