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 Â£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.
Posted in Updates on Sunday 26th May 2013 at 8:07pm
I've never used this blog as much of a spot to impart personal news. Which is odd really, as the various dull records of my walks and trips hint continually at the personal, at what is happening in the foreground of my life. But somehow, making this the background and placing the commonplace centre-stage has been curiously rewarding, almost therapeutic perhaps? As I've trawled around the UK - and more recently the US - taking imprints and recording little snippets of found existence, I've been almost pushing my own realities back out of picture. Years ago, the Daylog recorded the dull, everyday things because it was a new way to do just that. I was blogging before the verb was coined in some senses. Then, it became a frenzied travel journal - the railway map providing structure in a world that often had none. The real life of financial troubles, romantic disappointments, work struggles replaced with a neat but sometimes illogical web of lines and stations. This all culminated last summer in a series of almost demented dashes around London - I often picked the hottest, driest days in the midst of Olympic or Jubilee fervour to make these insane pilgrimages. Something had to change...
And it did... The astute will have noted that 'unmarriageable' disappeared from my profiles and About pages. I got married to the most amazing person. Just like always, it wasn't simple - and in some senses it appears to have been against all the odds. But, if this site has seen sparse updates of late that's exactly why. Life is busy with complication, and time is preciously spent elsewhere. But there is a sense of place evident in the very arrangements for this seemingly - to some - unlikely wedding. On a sunny Friday in glowing sandstone buildings in the Old City of Bristol, then a scud across green valleys to Wraxall, with wonderous views across the wide flat plains of North Somerset. Then south again, by rail naturally, in wonderful summery weather to Devon. We paused at a familiar pub in Newton Abbot and read an old Bradshaw's guide which alerted us to the dubious "Daddy Hole Plain" and after fine beer, pressed on to Torquay. Passed endlessly on trips to Paignton at the end of the line, but never quite visited. The riviera tag proven - palm trees and acres of stucco shining in the sun. The taxi climbed to Wellswood village and our hotel - The Gleneagles!
This period piece from the 1960s could be a distant cousin of the Edgewater - and though the rooms are a little tiny and dated, the sea-facing balconies provide wonderful views across Lyme Bay. It had one other draw - it was the inspiration for John Cleese and Connie Booth to write Fawlty Towers. The character of Donald Sinclair, the former military man who ran the place back then, is contested - but nonetheless it led to a comedy which had played a weirdly big part in the proceedings which led to the wedding. We had a superb meal and relaxed watching the sun setting over Anstey's Cove, the little private beach path leading down to the shimmering water. We took to water ourselves the next day with a boat ride to Brixham, still active as a fishing port, but tiny and rather surprisingly preserved. A statue marked the spot where William of Orange set foot in the UK to set aright the monarchy and destroy Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come. The day got hotter, so we retired to Paington for beer and sunshine before heading back to Torquay.
It seems unlikely - almost undeserved in some uncertain moments - that life has changed quite like it has. But, pinching myself awake in the morning proves that it has indeed. Times are challenging - there is much to do, and resources are tight. But not facing things alone feels so very, very different. This blog will change along with life here. But I'll never ever lose the urge to travel. After all, look where it got me...
Posted in Updates on Thursday 28th February 2013 at 12:38pm
I've written elsewhere about how I ended up on my voyage of discovery across the UK... An early US trip based around music took me to places which were, it's fair to say, off the beaten track for most transatlantic tourists. But, as a result of making that epic - and in retrospect, pretty brave - jaunt across the sea I realised that I knew little of my home country despite poring over maps since childhood. So, twenty years later I found myself with a strange, unexpected connection to the Pacific North West - an area which had always intrigued me, and which was now important in so many ways to my future. Having visited twice before, this trip was a mixture of the comfortable assurance of knowing my way around Seattle to some extent, and discovering new things entirely. One of these discoveries was to be a jaunt into the eastern reaches of Washington - beyond the Cascade Mountains, into the dry and sometimes bleak hinterland which stretches endlessly inland. The area dominated by the mighty Columbia River - until now little more than a romantic notion in folk songs and dustbowl ballads. As ever, it started with a train ride...
Departing King Street Station heading north was a new experience, and once out of the tunnel the tracks swung onto the waterfront alongside Alaskan Way. The grey afternoon reflected in Puget Sound, giving the scene a quiet, wintry beauty which oddly reminded me of Scotland. It was strange - and more than a little emotional - to look on this scene which had signified so much which was new and different about these past few months, and to consider how things would soon be changing again. The tracks hugged the coast through Ballard and Mukilteo before swinging inland at Everett and starting the long slow climb into the Cascades. The scenery shifted - a rural patchwork of farmland not dissimilar to home in Snohomish County which became sparser, tougher country as we climbed through Monroe and Sultan towards the Cascades Tunnel. Suddenly, in the darkness outside the dining car there was snow beside the line. Deep, thick, virgin snowfall which was unlike anything I'd seen before. I was entranced. As we curved and twisted through the mountains, navigating Stevens Pass at ear-popping altitude, we chatted to a family heading home from a week in Seattle. We told them our plans, and once again we found a genuine happiness in strangers' responses which warmed the heart despite the cold outdoors. Our destination was Wenatchee, and we alighted at Columbia River station late in the evening. As the car drifted along the city's streets I recalled my first evening in the USA, looking out at the passing strip-malls and eateries of Granite City, Illinois - this was oddly similar, save for the looming mountains on the horizon. I felt comfortably familiar with this middle-American scene.
Waking to sunshine and mountains was a surprise after the usual slate skies in Seattle, and as I began to make sense of the surroundings I also began to rather like this little outpost of a city. Yes, it carries all kinds of emotional burdens for people close to me - and it shares my own former home town's ability to wind me back in time to a bored, ill-fitting teenager at a moment's notice. It's also an oddly conservative colony - a distinct contrast to things west of the Cascades - but in its little eateries and dusty corners, there is something here. History, events that were inconsequential at the time, but lead up to now - and my own entanglement in the story.
A day or two into the trip and we head out in the car to Yakima. It's a three hour drive across the plains of central Washington, largely following the valley of the mighty Columbia River and it's dams. The mountains loom on both sides of our route, but here between them it is flat, dry and empty. The river snakes in and out of view, running slow between its reservoirs now. Appropriately, the scene opens out at Vantage - the river a long, broad lake between steely ranges of rock. The highway swings west, across a low bridge which leads towards another climb. The sky feels closer here somehow. I'm moved to silence, taking in the broad-angle view. I've never seen anything quite like this before - never appreciated scale in quite this way. The midwest is a bit of a distant memory now, but it lacks the reference points which the mountains offer, and which dwarf the tiny strip of highway rising into the western sky.
At Columbia River station absurdly early and just a few mornings later, we're boarding the train back to Seattle. It's not been an easy visit for many reasons, but it has placed more markers in my mental map of the state, and in the timeline which stretches back. I think of my historical links to the area - the endless letters launched overseas to obtain music, the curious kinship of the low-tech labels. It's truly strange how the strands of the story should re-entangle here in this little gap in the mountains...
Posted in Updates on Tuesday 25th December 2012 at 9:22pm
It's become almost customary to write a little update at this time of year. Partly because, despite my cynicism and dislike of many aspects of the festivities, the time spent with my family over Christmas is often a calm, quiet and pleasant interlude nowadays. It has been fun to watch two excited boys, both now more able to fully appreciate the occasion, looking forward to the day's events. I'm also usually anticipating getting back to my travels after a hiatus forced by the closure of the railway system. But this year is a little different...
So, I find myself scanning weather reports and trying to determine just how badly the floods will affect travel when the network grinds back into action. With two days of almost no trains, it's impossible to gauge the disruption as there are no reports to evaluate. I'm anxious, nervous almost - the worry about getting to Heathrow on time tumbling into the concern about a first visit to the UK and what impression it will make. This past few cold, wet weeks have been hard going - separation and distance becoming acute and painful to bear. Looking forward there are travels - as ever at this time of year - but they'll have an entirely different significance of course.
At this time when people are coming together and I'm normally standing disdainfully off-camera, perhaps I suddenly understand all this a little better?
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.