Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Opinion: The Grand National 2012

Like many fans of National Hunt Racing, I was looking forward to the Grand National from Aintree last Saturday. Beforehand in the parade ring, I was particularly taken with the beautiful Gold Cup winner Synchronised and shocked and saddened at his tragic end and that of the much-loved, home-bred According to Pete.

Experienced horsewoman and commentator, Clare Balding's reported remarks that Synchronised "did not look up for it," and "I don't think he fancies it much," when he was shown the first fence by his jockey after unseating him before the start, were sadly shown to be prescient, as was the view of pundit, John McCririck that racing should review whether horses should be allowed to take part in a race if they get loose and run free beforehand.

Neptune Collange's winning performance was superb, as was that of Katie Walsh in finishing third, but as a racing fan I still find it difficult to get past the question of whether the race is worth the death of even one horse. The race will go ahead next year, but racing needs to consider improvements. In particular, I would like to see the following THREE changes:
  • Horses should be withdrawn from the race if they have unseated their rider or become loose and run free,
  • the number of runners should be reduced to say, thirty, to increase room for safer manoeuvre, and
  • further safety work should be carried out, such as making fences such as Becher's Brook less demanding.
I know risk is implicit in the sport and that both horses and their jockeys are brave and talented athletes, but none of these changes need rob the Grand National of its spectacle or fascination for the sporting public and status as the world's greatest steeple chase.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Verse: Morning Cresta Run


Friday, April 13, 2012

Opinion: Civil Partnership and Equal Rights - time to take off the rose-tinted glasses

Remarks recently reported to have been made by Ben Bradshaw, described in the press as the first MP to enter into a civil partnership, prompt me to review the position regarding the equal treatment of gay men and women, nearly seven years after the the Civil Partnership Act came into force.

I watched David Cameron announce on television his intention to introduce gay "marriage." I was surprised and pleased. I was also amused by the sceptical and rather disapproving expressions of some in his audience of Conservative supporters on hearing the news. They did not seem to welcome it at all, let alone enthuse. This did not bode well.

Recently, Mr Bradshaw was reported to to have dismissed Mr Cameron's plans to introduce homosexual marriage as "pure politics" and was quoted as saying that homosexuals "had already won equal rights with the introduction of civil partners and had 'never need the word marriage.'"  He was also reported to have told the Washington Post that Tony Blair's decision to introduce civil partnership had given same sex couples all the legal protection they needed.

Subsequently, press reports indicate that the proposal to extend marriage has been criticised by the senior figures in the Church of England, Catholic Church, Muslim and Sikh faiths and Conservative party and more than 400,000 people have signed a petition opposing the change.  The future of the proposal seems at least uncertain.

By the time that the Civil Partnership Act came into force, I had lived with my partner for 26 years. We were secure together and hadn’t felt any urgent need for the validation of an officially-recognised status for our relationship. From that perspective, I have to admit that "marriage" was not something that I particularly wanted.

However, the new law offering civil partnership seemed to reflect a degree - albeit belated - of social acceptance of couples like us; it would almost have been rude not to take advantage of the opportunity it offered.

One thing that caused us to hold back from becoming really early civil partners was the tendency of commentators and the media to present civil partnership as gay marriage. We didn’t feel any need to dress our relationship up as if it were a marriage.  Like many gay people at the receiving end of conventionally dysfunctional family life, we were apprehensive and did not aspire to marriage – as a social institution, let alone a sacrament.

Far from being attracted, we were oppressed by the prospect of an ersatz straight wedding with its focus on clothes, catering, fertility and the family. Many gay people have experienced some of their unhappiest and most self-conscious times at what felt like tribal weddings and would not willingly inflict it on themselves.

From a practical point of view, fortunately, once the media interest on the earliest or celebrity civil partnerships had abated, it proved remarkably straightforward to arrange our ceremony in the form we wanted.   Our civil partnership day was touching, tastefully low-key and fun. We were keen to avoid the hoopla of a traditional wedding and found the experience entirely positive.   Members of staff at the Registry Office were flexible and helpful.   
On the positive side, dealing with officialdom, government departments and organisations like banks about being a civil partner has been consistently un-embarrassing (if there's such a word) and stress-free. Officials have been pleasant, professional and seem to have been well-trained.

However, even though the law now supposedly prohibits discrimination in the supply of goods and services on the basis of sexual orientation, it is surprising how inept some (and I stress only some) establishments in the so-called "hospitality industry," such as hotels and restaurants, remain at welcoming and processing same-sex couples.   Even some five star hotels can seem surprised and uncomfortable to be confronted by two men requesting to share a room. and, dare I say it, a bed. Their stuttering hesitancy creates embarrassment where none need exist and makes checking-in a repeated nightmare. 

I suspect that on occasion some hotels still continue to try to foist inferior accommodation on men sharing, perhaps on the basis that they will be so eager to get through the painful process of checking–in that they will not object to being allocated the dark, small and dingy room next to the lift and facing a brick wall. 

After our very happy partnership ceremony and memorable hotel reception and following too many decades of not sharing all one’s domestic arrangements, it was personally challenging to register a Civil Partnership and effectively out oneself.

Also, at this point, I mistakenly assumed that on becoming a civil partner, my partner would enjoy the same pension rights as a spouse in the event of my death. This was not a correct interpretation of the law as far as a survivor’s pension based upon rights accrued before the Civil Partnership Act is concerned.  
In this context it is wrong to state categorically that homosexuals have won equal rights.  An exemption in the Equality Act 2010 allows employers to treat married couples and civil partners differently as regards pension rights attributable to service prior to 5th December 2005 (when the Civil Partnership Act 2004 came into force).  This means that if you are in a civil partnership and your partner has an occupational pension, and they retired before 5th December 2005, you are not entitled to spousal benefits under the pension when they die. A married person in exactly the same position would be entitled to that benefit (which is normally half the value of the pension).

What this means in practice for me is that that if I were not a civil partner and tomorrow married a lady met over the Internet and then died, my new Internet bride would receive about fourteen times more pension than my exclusive male partner of  more than three decades.

For rights accrued after the new Act, the position is equal, but it doesn’t help many older civil partners. Nor does it help to be told that the problem will "eventually disappear" - in other words it will go away when surviving civil partners, who have been discriminated against and suffered financial hardship, die.  If the law remains as it is, it will be several decades before same sex couples achieve real equality in relation to pension provision.

In the meantime, the pension scheme and employer do not recognise the fact that same sex couples function  in the same way as husbands and wives.  Unlike a conventional spouse, the years of loyal support given to an employee, and therefore indirectly to the employer, by his or her same sex partner which helped him to carry out his job throughout his working life are disregarded in terms of pension provision for the survivor; effectively, because the employee is gay, his partner's support is neither acknowledged nor rewarded.

Liberty has argued that this differential treatment of  like claimants may place the UK in breach of both the Human Rights Act 1998 and EU law and has been working to secure equalisation.  Liberty has already succeeded in persuading Foster Wheeler, a major multi-national company, to give civil partners of its employees the same pension benefits awarded to spouses. In that case, the couple had lived together for 40 years and had entered into a civil partnership in 2006. Under Foster Wheeler’s  pension scheme surviving spouses were entitled to 50% of a member’s pension upon their death, but, relying on the exemption in the Equality Act, civil partners were originally excluded. After filing an action on behalf of Liberty's clients in the Employment Tribunal, the company changed its policy.  
Since this change would affect only a small percentage of workers, and since pension funds’ liability towards surviving spouses is incredibly speculative, it seems unlikely that a change in the law to bring about equalisation for surviving civil partners would have any significantly detrimental effect on admittedly hard-pressed pension funds.  The exemption in the Equality Act 2010 seems to be out of step with the many areas which have been reformed to ensure that all couples are treated equally under the law and its repeal would be a significant step forward.

Clearly the Civil Partnership Act then has not brought about equality in this area and, despite favourable decisions in test litigation like the Maruko Case in Germany, there is no sign of the introduction of equal treatment. It will take a change in the law to achieve that. Other than the good work being carried out by Liberty, I'm aware of no campaigning with any visibility being currently undertaken by other lobbyists. Sadly, I’m certainly not holding my breath until equalisation arrives

It doesn’t appear that the Civil Partnership Act reflected any major change in attitudes of most employers regarding the case for treating those in long-term same sex relationships equally with married couples.Those lucky enough to be employed by enlightened employers, such as the RAC, have found that all pension rights of civil partners and spouses are equalised.  Those not so unfortunate will have to await a change in the law which forces schemes to treat surviving civil partners equally with spouses.

Even when an employer has published an equal opportunities policy providing that it would not treat any employee less favourably on grounds of marital status or sexual orientation, one should not assume that it will be legally obliged to use its considerable powers and discretion as principal employer and ultimate funder of the pension scheme to treat civil partners the same as spouses as far as rights accrued before the Civil Partnership Act. Some employers have responded that it is unclear as to how such obligations are supposed to interact with benefit provisions of pension schemes or simply denied any linkage altogether.

Whilst the law in this country may theoretically prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, in the board room, office and shop floor actual attitudes and habits don't appear to have changed that much. Gay employees are obviously a minority and its is apparent that perceptions and treatment are only gradually becoming more tolerant and accepting. There does not appear to be much evidence that such acceptance as there now may be fast becoming either universal or ungrudging.

The norm in the competitive world of business, commerce and the professions still remains heterosexual and all that this implies in terms of the vital part played by preferred perceived lifestyle and mindset in gaining and retaining employment and promotion. In Britain, it appears that the ideal company employee continues to be a family man with a conventional stable spousal relationship and children. This normality is still deemed to provide the stability preferred in a reliable employee or colleague. To check this view, consider how few outwardly gay men or lesbians are known serve on the boards of public companies or are partners in major professional firms. This seems to apply even more so in smaller concerns and those more distant from London. Put simply, few business meetings, dinners and golf-days of, say, Midland engineers or northern firms of lawyers or accountants seem normally to feature many openly gay men or women. Those present are the same as they have always been; the laddish banter and the bourgeois assumptions are unchanging and it is just presumed that you must be married with children.

This heterosexual conformity applies in spades at the local golf, tennis and rugby club, in the gym and squash court and at the lodge and networking brunch. This is a fact, no matter how many statements to the contrary are made by metropolitan-based politicians that equality has arrived.

The Civil Partnership Act was a worthwhile and constructive step towards equal treatment of gay men and women, but its effect and implications should not be overestimated. It is inaccurate to assert categorically that the underlying views of society as a whole have mellowed across the board and will continue to do so. The attitudes of many employers and pensions schemes remain unchanged. Challenging economic conditions and worsening pension funding have also provided a useful smokescreen for the refusal of some firms to countenance equalisation.      
Sadly in 2012, many families still consider the prospect of a gay child as problematic. Bullying still occurs and homophobic attacks still take place on our streets. Progress has been made over the last decade, but these problems continue to exist and cannot be whitewashed by complacent assertions that equality has been achieved.
So, whatever the spin doctors may have inferred, although the Civil Partnership Act represents a tremendous advance, it does not equalise the rights of many surviving civil partners to match those of spouses.
Realistically, there seems no immediate prospect of this changing. Despite its benefits, we should not view the Civil Partnership Act through rose-tinted glasses.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Verse: David dreams

David dreams of Connemara
Safely by his mother's side,
Playing tag amongst his brothers,
Buck and frolic, seek and hide.


David dreams of misty mountains
Grass so green, so lush and high,
Soft rain falls from sacred fountains
In a never-ending sky.


David dreams of dizzy gallops
Bounding through the sweetest air,
Sunny carefree bliss of summers,
Ignorant of hurt or care.


David dreams of days beforehand,
Without harness, wire or wheel,
No-one shouting, no bones broken,
No legs cut by tangled steel.


David dreams of home in Ireland
Before ferry and the road,
Before terror, cold blind panic,
Made his gentle mind explode.


David dreams of Connemara,
Simpler days when home was best,
Safer days beside his mother,
Kinder days of peace and rest.

copyright: Deryck Solomon 2012


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Opinion: Thoughts of a Real History Boy

The most memorable line in Alan Bennett’s History Boys is spoken by Posner, one of the pupils aiming to achieve an Oxbridge scholarship from a northern grammar school:

I’m a Jew. I’m small. I’m homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I’m f**ked.

As someone who trod the same path from the sticks to Oxford, I related to Posner and at the same age could equally have thought:

I’m working class with a Jewish name. I’m fat. I’m homosexual. I go to school in Redditch. I’m f**ked too.

Like audiences all over the world, I enjoyed the original production of History Boys: it was insightful, witty and humane. It cast light on ambition, relationships, education and the unique perspective of particular ages.

Recently, I revisited the History Boys by way of the DVD of the excellent film version. I appreciated the play even more, but found that the gulf between what it presented and my own experience seemed wider.

Some elements of the play mirrored my experience precisely. As a precocious sixth former I displayed the same single-minded ambition, intellectual arrogance and competitiveness. Each day was marked by an internal excitement about the limitless opportunities ahead. Suddenly after the conformity of academic life up to and beyond O levels, the wide reading and scope for self-expression given by the scholarship exam papers was liberating. One felt like an undefeated boxer preparing for the big fight. Until failure one was respected. It boosted the ego of a shy adolescent.

The play also accurately picked up on the kudos for the school in sending pupils to Oxbridge and the jaw-dropping impact of the colleges on the boy going-up for interview.

My reality had some practical differences. My school was co-educational. In 1971 I took the scholarship exams in the first term of the upper sixth - before A levels. In the early 1980s I gather the system changed altogether which is why the play was set just before the alteration.

In other ways my experience was radically different. Although more than three quarters of a very talented class went on to university, only a handful tried for Oxbridge. There was no scholarship class of history boys – just me. I did not experience the camaraderie of a scholarship group and studied in isolation.

My preparation did not include any training in general studies or advice on quotable gobbits to memorise. I just read voraciously.

My teacher was helpful and encouraging. He prompted wide reading and a scholarly approach but never groomed in flashy exam technique. I had no tuition in journalistic fakery and forced individualism. It was self-apparent that it would be necessary to think for oneself and argue confidently. It was simply understood that to stand any chance of getting in one had to display powerful reasoning and an original line of thought.

I’m still not clear whether any of the history boys actually loved their subject. Although Posner seemed to love music and literature, the general approach to history appeared mainly pragmatic: a means to an end and not an end in itself. They were admirably clever, articulate and ambitious. I wasn’t that sharp or canny but, at the risk of sounding to good to be true, had truly loved my subject from the age of ten. I wanted to read history at Oxford because it would give me huge pleasure, not just to beat everyone else or use it a stepping stone to be a wealthy tax lawyer or TV presenter.

I envied the sheer tolerance of the history boys and the way they accepted Posner’s love of Dakin, albeit with wry amusement. It was so cheerful and good-natured. In 1971, whilst I worked on in my bedroom, some of my classmates spent evenings together at Astwood Bank discos or afternoons down the Villa. I did not find the lads accepting or inclusive. In my isolated experience, life did not anticipate or imitate art.

The role of the parents of the history boys was presented with a light touch. Akthar’s family seemed most hands-on. We are left to assume that they were all involved to varying degrees, perhaps pushing but probably supporting and understanding the process.

In my world the desire and ambition was mine. The real prize and its implications was only clear to me. I was given a quiet and comfortable place in which to work, but never driven. I was the first in my family to try for university, let alone Oxford. My parents were happy I was having a go but were not really concerned as to whether or not I got in. They worried more about their studious son working too hard and not having friends, rather than failing an entrance exam. They sensibly persuaded me as a teenager to take a Saturday job and go to watch football to stop me studying 24/7.

Twenty or so years later, I was alone with my father after he had sunk too much scotch on a Christmas Day evening. He confided that at a parent’s evening when I was twelve, my history teacher said that I had a real talent in the subject and if your son applies himself, he could well read history at Oxford. Dad casually admitted that he had laughed out loud at the suggestion and thought no more of it.

Warming to the topic, my father then described one Saturday morning after my scholarship examination and interview. He had been repairing something in his shed and I walked in to show him the letter from Oxford containing an unconditional offer of a place. Somewhere between bitterness and regret, he said: It was the only time in your life I ever saw you truly happy.

For me, those remarks illustrate two of the greatest happinesses and sadnesses of my life.

So, in his clever way, Mr Bennett told the story of those history boys brilliantly, but it wasn’t the whole story and it certainly wasn’t my story.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Opinion: So You Wanna Be A Paperback Writer?

In these hard times, fond farewells to work on redundancy or early retirement often prompt the brave assertion I always wanted to write.

Sure enough, with cheaper computers and convenient internet access, it’s never been easier to express oneself and self-publish in free weblogs.

Writing can seem a road to wealth and celebrity. In some ways it's the new rock and roll with the J K Rowlings and A A Gills mingling with the rich and famous and even becoming bestest friends with Jeremy Clarkson.

Although there are now many books and magazines instructing one how to make it as a freelance writer, it still remains fiendishly difficult to get published - especially for money.

It’s quite straightforward to have a go and enter the fray, since no-one can stop you switching on your Compaq fresh from PC World and churning out thousands of words on your chosen topic, but successes are few and far between. Here are a few comments by way of reality check:

It pays to have contacts: However good your features article, review or novel may be, publishers are disinclined to pay any attention to a novice without a track record. Normally they won’t even look at material unless there’s a real reason to do so or unless you have contacts and they know you.

The son also rises: whilst talent may be needed to forge a long-term career, it does seem that the sons and daughters of established writers, novelists, journalists or actors find it easier to secure that crucial initial entrée. The same applies for virtually any celebrity from politics, sport, the arts or media. A well-known name, rather than pure talent or insight, prompts newspaper editors to request 500 words on topical issues ranging from underwear to infidelity – and nice little earners they must be.

Beware the rottweiler at the gate: the first point of contact at many publishers, magazines and newspapers is the junior staff member – often an ambitious young woman – who is diligently trying to labour her way up the corporate ladder and waiting for her own big chance to excel and go on to become a star. This person does not take kindly to being asked to facilitate the progress of any freelance interloper who in her eyes may take what should have been her once in a lifetime opportunity and consign her to further years of photocopying and making excuses for the interminable absence at lunch of her boss.

Be careful with your ideas: if you pitch to a publication with a concept for a brilliant new series, tread carefully and record your proposal rigorously. You may be shocked to find a close approximation of your idea subsequently appears - but not necessarily under your by-line. You may learn that it was, after-all, a common-place concept and that it was inconceivable that it could have originated from an unknown like you. Remember that copyright actions are potentially costly for an individual dealing with wealthy publishers with high-powered lawyers.

Avoid threatening the Editor’s perks: However witty and thrillingly perceptive your skills as a restaurant reviewer may be, do not forget that the current holder of the post may value it beyond rubies (curries or otherwise). On some publications, where pay and status are low, free trips to review local restaurants may be the highlight of the week, particularly if the reviewer is permitted to take along his or her lovely spouse. So, if you suggest that you be appointed restaurant critic and threaten to usurp the one perk that makes an otherwise grim existence worthwhile, do not expect to be welcomed with open arms.

Comply with publisher’s instructions precisely: Some publishers helpfully say on their websites that they are prepared to consider unsolicited manuscripts. Many will not entertain them at any cost, so to avoid wasting everyone's time, check this out first. If a publisher is willing to receive your magnum opus, make sure you comply with their instructions to the letter. If they say your letter should address specific issues such as plot or intended audience or only cover a single page, make sure it does. If you need your manuscript back make that clear and enclose an addressed envelope stamped with the correct postage. The harsh reality is that many of those who now say they will consider your work will not keep their word.

Don’t expect them to read your manuscript without prodding: If not binned immediately, your unsolicited manuscript will, in all likelihood, be plonked on a pile on someone’s desk and gather dust. Realistically it is far from certain that an unsolicited piece will be read at all. After a sensible period – probably of several months - it is not unreasonable to telephone to enquire briefly and politely if they have had a chance to read the piece and ask that it be returned if not of interest. This will probably result in the immediate return of your SAE with its precious contents, but at least will save more costly photocopying at Prontaprint. Sadly, many publishers who say they will return manuscripts if you supply a SAE do not do so.

Don’t expect large fees on publication: if you are able to secure publication of an article in local magazines or newspapers, the payment is likely to be staggeringly modest, particularly when compared with the time and effort taken in preparation. This is a fact of life and must be accepted as a necessary step in building up a portfolio of published material. When eventually this becomes too frustrating, it’s time to give up and start that novel, which in turn brings its own problems.

Beware the polymaths: the journalistic and literary world seems to be stuffed with well-connected individuals who have attained a senior editorial position on one or more publications and also prolifically contribute features and reviews to a wide range of others. Such ravenous polymaths are adept networkers and benefit from their reputation and energy: in doing so, they clean up. They do make it even less likely that a freelance will succeed in getting any opportunity or break.

Develop a thick skin: as a freelance, particularly if you are provincial, middle-aged and without useful connections, you are increasingly a sitting duck to be patronised, insulted and most often ignored. That’s simply the way it is, so get over it.

Consider getting an agent: A good literary agent is said to oil wheels, open doors and no doubt many other metaphors for facilitating budding authors. It is comforting to have realistic advice and in-put on what can otherwise be a lonely journey. In the unlikely event that a new writer succeeds in getting an agent, it still probably won't work.

Celebrity, even the sort amounting to notoriety, is increasingly the only qualification for publication: putting it simply, if you're not famous you won't be published and if you're not published, you won't be famous.

If, despite all this, you do succeed however, try to remember what it was like getting there and try to make things fairer for beginners trying to achieve what you have done.


Monday, April 09, 2012

Opinion: A Foreign Country Worth Revisiting?

A personal computer can introduce many past the first flush of youth to some surprising new territories.

After the initial burst of prosaic activity including e-mails and updating the Christmas card list, the vista of the internet opens up with the capacity to Google anything under the sun, bid on eBay and plumb the variously-informed depths of Wikipedia.

Sometimes the effects of unfettered entry into a huge new world are more complicated than just fun or interesting

The impact of consulting Friends Reunited or similar sites may be greater than anticipated. It is so easy to look up your year at school or university or check on various employers or the forces.

Unless you have total recall, on first doing so you will come across names you may have long forgotten and re-live memories lost or deliberately discarded. The process has many plusses and possibly a few minuses.

You will note that some from your past give a full account of the intervening years and their current circumstances. As a rule, the fuller the details the happier that person is with their lot.

Other cooler folk are more discreet and don’t care to share any information other than their names. Some regard school days as the best years of their lives. Enviably, they don't much focus on bullying or school life punctuated by the sarcasm of games teachers and the stomach-churning apprehension preceding a Monday morning maths test.

For some, the site jogs memories of adolescent isolation. Normally, time passing smoothes the rough edges of recollected unhappiness, even if it does not completely erase it. I wondered to what extent a healing oblivion was actually a natural process to be valued and whether, for certain people, it was entirely healthy to seek 100% accurate playback.

Taking use of the Internet a little further, it is no longer necessary to be ignorant of the lives of former classmates or colleagues. It is so easy to Google them and quickly apparent to what heights they have soared – from promotions and wealth to publications and honours. It may pay, however, to remember the saying, every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies a little. Search engines soon show up those discouraging pages of your old friend's best sellers on Amazon - when previously you might have continued in happy, if under-achieving, ignorance.

Facilities like Wikipedia mean that memories of no part of one's past need fade away entirely. If you look up a location on the farthest side of the world where you spent time years ago, there is likely to be an informative update. Quite possibly there will be an amazing satellite-generated aerial shot on Google Earth which one can pan down and check out one's old house and see what’s now growing in your old back garden.

The proliferation of eBay has meant that the meaningful detritus of the past can be accessed and delivered, making recollection so much more vivid - from post cards to bric a brac of every kind. The unlocking of a flood of memories by obtaining menus from voyages on P & O liners of the 1950's is only one bid away.

There is no denying that it is hard to resist revisiting one’s past now so vividly on line - particularly when it can be done with such ease.

The question is, however, is it entirely beneficial? Is it sometimes healthier to allow the passage of time to take its natural course and soften any harsh memories? 

Are we really meant to have such comprehensive recall of past places and faces? 

Is forgetfulness or dimming memory like sleep, a necessary refresher, relaxant and reliever of pressure? 

Alternatively, is a photographically accurate recollection of the past necessary to achieve a true understanding of its meaning? 

Is it always a good idea to revisit the past? L.P.Hartley once wrote, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there. As in so many other areas, nowadays it is much quicker, cheaper and convenient to make that trip online. 

Although it is undeniable that the past is a fascinating foreign country, I’m still not clear whether we should place more value on the actual benefits of the natural, old-fashioned memory loss or delusion that we used to be permitted. Aren't we meant to forget and forgive and, by doing so, gain peace of mind and acceptance of things past? 

It's only natural to want to revisit this foreign country, but maybe it's worth remembering that, as well as being enlightening, travel sometimes entails some discomfort - even on-line.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Recollection: When David met Julie

Like many riders, I am fascinated as to how horses talk to each other and how humans can communicate with them. This has led me to read widely about horse psychology, behaviour and “language”.

Recently, I have enjoyed reading Julie Dicker’s “What Horses Say” (Kenilworth Press) which demonstrates that horses have particular concerns and communicate with each other. Rather than being a psychic or clairvoyant, Julie seems to be able to see into horse’s minds and understand what they say. She also combines this insight with a power of healing. There is a valuable additional underlying message for all of us about the need for respect and compassion in dealings with horses and the power of unconditional love.

Once I had finished reading the book, I wondered if it would be possible to arrange for Julie to meet my 12 year-old cob, David. I had no information about his younger years or past experience. He had scars on one hind leg and, according to the physiotherapist, had undergone a major trauma some time ago, which had displaced his pelvis and which still made him un-level behind.

I wanted Julie to talk to David and find out about his past and particularly whether he was happy in his current lifestyle. I sent an e-mail asking if private consultations were possible. Julie replied thanking me for my interest and referring me to her web-site http://www.juliedicker.co.uk/ , which explained that she was able to establish contact telepathically and look at problems from a holistic perspective. This contact could be arranged by sending a sample of hair with details of name, age and gender and a cheque for £30.

On reading this, I was disappointed since I had been expecting a conventional face-to-face consultation. I felt embarrassed to be contemplating such an apparently fringe approach. As time passed, however, I became frustrated that concerns about what others might think would be depriving me of whatever insights Julie could give. I decided to send the sample, short details and payment.
A few days later, early on a Monday morning, the ‘phone rang. A soft Devonian voice announced that it was Julie Dicker. She had “spoken to David the previous evening” and could now report back to me. I grabbed a pen and made notes.

On David’s early years, he had no unhappy memories. His first home was “quite nice”. He had found it easy to be backed. He had done “some showing in his earlier years”. I did not know this; it may have explained why David performed so well in a double bridle as opposed to a snaffle. David liked jumping and would be happy to do more. He was not unhappy with his current schooling.

He had found his walk “restrictive” in the past, especially behind the shoulder blades, which may have been due to a badly fitting saddle. Coincidentally, a saddler had visited the previous week to deal with a major slippage problem, but David was not saying that his present saddle was causing discomfort.

Julie stressed that David was gregarious and “loved company”. He was stubborn and strong-minded; he felt he was “often misunderstood, but his face-pulling and ears

going-back didn’t mean anything”. He admitted he was “very nosy” and “liked to know what was going on and get involved in everything”. He was usually happy.

David “hated things approaching him too fast from behind, since his peripheral vision was not brilliant.” He often needed to turn his head more than other horses on account of this. He “hated too much noise, since it made it difficult for him to think straight”.

Julie then confirmed that David had been driven in harness. This came as a great surprise to me since his previous owner made no mention of it. Strangely, in the few days between posting the letter to Julie and this ‘phone call, a well-respected instructor had ridden David for the first time and commented that he might have been in harness. Sadly David had “not really been comfortable in harness” and may have “tipped over”. This led me to wonder if this had been the cause of his pelvic injury rather than whatever caused the scarring on his hind leg, as I had previously assumed.

As to the way I ride, David commented that I “tipped slightly to the left” and asked that I rectify this and particularly relax my stiff shoulders and tight lower back. I found this a very concise description of my major problems with riding position and style. Given my inadequacies as a rider, I was pleased that David confirmed that he was “quite happy to do the kind of activities I wanted.” David stressed that he “loved praise” and really wanted to be told what we were doing together. David asked that I “please talk to him even more”. I was glad about this since, in any event, I liked to give him a running commentary about what was going on - which already made me seem a bit eccentric around the yard. Julie said how nice it had been to contact David. We were suited and he “really was a lovely horse”. She concluded that “it is so important to me that these animals have a voice as they are so intelligent: it is my belief that they are there to teach us, if only we listen”.

So where does that leave David and me? I take pride in not being gullible or given to flights of fancy but do believe that there is a channel of communication between humans and horses that is not yet fully understood. In this case I was careful not to supply additional clues to disclose too much about David. I appreciate that some of what was said about him matched the commonly perceived nature of cobs, but I would confirm that the character analysis regarding stubbornness, inquisitiveness, sociability and friendliness were spot-on.

The information on peripheral vision, noise aversion and face pulling was not disclosed or hinted at by me and is accurate - as are the comments on my riding position. The suggestion about past showing ties in with his actual abilities and the possibility of experience in harness might answer questions that have been concerning me about David’s way of going and the cause of his pelvic injury. I have already started to try to comply with David’s request about relaxing my style of riding and communication. We both seem to benefiting from it.

In short, since David met Julie we do seem to be much better off. My understanding of David has improved and I feel more confident that we can go forward and enjoy our riding together.

*this article first appeared in Central Horse News


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Profile : A.L.Rowse Revisited

As an isolated and bookish only child, I resolved - unilaterally - at the age of twelve that I would try to go to Oxford and read history. Being "the first in one's family to go to university" now seems to be regarded as a cliche to be routinely sneered at by the "Daily Mail" and the process leading to my decision need not detain us here.

Once embarked upon this enterprise, which absorbed most of my conscious and probably sub-conscious thought for the next seven years or so, I was on the look-out for role models and validation. Examples of anyone who had trodden the same path were rare.

It was opportune that in my first year at grammar school in 1965, I came across the newly published "A Cornishman at Oxford" by A.L.Rowse. This led me to it's forerunner, Rowse's "A Cornish Childhood", published in 1944.

Try as I may, I now only have a dim recollection of my reaction as a first former to both volumes of autobiography. I recall I sympathised most of all with his huge ambition and need to express himself against the odds. I empathised with his loneliness and sense of isolation and felt sorry for the bullying he suffered, as someone so different. I already knew how strong his fear of failure must have been, but was shocked at the unkindness of his often superior attitude to his parents and phrases such as "Everyone is a fool in this house except me." Driven and insecure, Rowse certainly hated his working class origins. He may even at times have hated his family.

I related completely to his fascination with books and my strongest impression was of the total immersion in reading required to broaden the mind sufficiently to face the entrance exams and final Schools. My enduring image from the books is Rowse sitting alone with a blanket over his knees reading daunting texts whilst the gnawing pain of an untreated duodenal ulcer made life miserable.

So for a twelve year old, Rowse's autobiographies helped a little. They showed an all-absorbing ambition to enter the portals of the world's best university was not entirely foolish - although it would obviously be difficult and require sacrifices. They demonstrated that fascination with a subject did not make one a freak. It was also apparent that immersion in books and ambition gave a respite and shelter from other more painful issues -loneliness, isolation, inhibition and the pain of not really being like anyone else. My general recollection of the books was dark but reassuring: they gave some grounds for optimism.

Fast forward: study, examinations, Oxford Entrance, interview, College et in arcadia ego, Schools, articles,  earning a living, career, houses, cars, holidays, life partner,   retirement....forty years later. Now in looking back I decided to revisit Rowse's books to see what impression they create now and how much I had changed in the interim.

Of the two books, "A Cornish Childhood" is now much the more interesting. As well as the narrative autobiography there are sketches of village and family life. Rowse describes the customs of his youth, the local rivalries, the high jinks of the drunken "shivaree" on many a wedding night with the detachment of Alan Whicker talking of tribesmen up the Amazon.

Tregonissey in those days seems wilder and more pagan than Nonconformist. Perhaps this is the first of the contradictions that become apparent in Rowse's life and character and that his biographer Richard Ollard later focused on in summing him up a "A Man of Contradictions".

The descriptions of Rowse's uncle - Cheelie - a charmer destined to die tragically young, cast some light on Rowse's mentality and perhaps his sexuality. Cheelie seems to be everything that Rowse was not : good-natured, outgoing in a natural and relaxed way and comfortable in his own skin. That gregarious and talented free spirit seemed to strike a chord in Rowse and was perhaps the only person from his own family or even class that he ever truly respected and loved. Those like Quiller-Couch and Churchill whom he admired could hardly be said to share his background or class.

Here lies another contradiction. The brilliant but touchy Rowse is disdainful of the small-minded philistinism of many of those surrounding him. On the other hand, he recognises the hardships they endured and the qualities he regarded as "Cornish", combining the Celtic and Nonconformist heritage with a native intelligence of those on the margin, which some might call "cunning". One ends up with his view of the Cornish mindset and the way things worked then, including the deprivation that drove many to seek better lives abroad, as it did with so many Scots and Irish.

As ever, he contradicts himself in praising Cornish culture and history and the fortitude and enterprise of its people. On the other hand as a talented egocentric he finds his birthplace stultifying and provincial. Like some Mafia don returning to Sicily, however, he was drawn back to Cornwall throughout his life and attained the large house, that others might come to look at through its railings. Perhaps he had to prove something to those he had risen above or even to himself.

The Rowse's cottage might have been picturesque, but the life he describes there does not have any of the cosy appeal of Flora Thompson and Larkrise. The sanitation is rudimentary and the open drains smell. The poverty is accompanied by a narrow-mindedness that is not appealing and does not encourage rose-tinted nostalgia. One is left with a clear understanding of why Rowse felt like a fish out of water and wanted to escape. In childhood, he often looked through the locked gates of the Cornish gentry and wished he lived there instead, but that world that could never be his either. In some ways this encapsulates Rowse's personal tragedy: from birth he was a lost soul unfitted for his own world but never to be accepted in the world to which he aspired.

Strangely, the scene appears even more depressing when the family decamps from the cottage and shop to a newly built council house nearby. The bathroom facilities were no doubt better but one senses that, for Rowse, being stuck in a row of identical humdrum council houses was infinitely mediocre, isolating and sad.

"A Cornish Childhood" and to a lesser extent "A Cornishman at Oxford" is particularly strong in its descriptions of the Cornish countryside and Rowse's solitary tramps there. We are left with vivid pictures of Luxulyan Valley that meant so much to him and the fine houses against whose metaphorical window panes the young man pressed his nose with longing. The adult reader now knows that in later life Rowse achieved his early ambition of a fine property in the area.

Rowse's autobiographies leave one with a clear picture of his origins in the Cornish working class. We come to understand a good deal of his motivation, insecurities, sensitivities, resentment and drive. His tendency to boast is plain and as are the reasons for it. Rowse admitted "I am too sensitive" and that he had "one skin too few" and was correspondingly "vulnerable". This aggressive streak led him to accumulate numerous enemies amongst many already predisposed to find fault. Thus, he was regarded by many as a misfit inclined towards self-drama and self-indulgent wallowing in working class disadvantage. Some considered his energetic cultivation of the great and good as one of the few things that put a momentary stop to the flood tide of his insecurities.

On a more personal level, there is some evidence of affection for his own sex and strong boyhood bonds, but nothing definitive. This is particularly surprising in a man subsequently described matter-of-factly as openly gay. Since both volumes predated Wolfenden this discretion is understandable, if somewhat misleading.

We do see evidence of his strong self-righteous or petulant streak as exemplified in his spat as a Sixth former with his teacher Miss Griffiths over a letter to a local newspaper. He admits that, like similar incidents, it had an effect out of all proportion and "undoubtedly gave me a complex. I harboured the resentment and a sense of injury and for years I used to dream about that woman". In this case, the child is most certainly father of the man and Rowse developed a positive flair for vicious argument, deeply-felt hatred and bilious grudges. Rowse never forgot or really forgave Miss Griffiths for crossing him at grammar school and his unforgiving anger formed a sad template for later life. It made him capable of memorable, but ill-judged bon mots such as "I don't like other people. I particularly don't like their children."

Against his choleric side we see moments of tenderness revealed when Rowse seems off guard. He refers affectionately to Neddy, the inventively-named, family donkey for whom he seemed to care genuinely. This predisposition towards donkeys is reflected in his liking for R.L.Stevenson's book on travels with his donkey. It struck a chord with me since in the past year I enjoyed and been moved by Andy Merrifield's "The Wisdom of Donkeys" which told the tale of his slow pilgrimage around the Auvergne with his tender and intelligent companion, Gribouille. This affecting book shadowed in many ways Stevenson's treck in another part of the region one hundred and thirty years earlier with his donkey, Modestine. In my view, anyone naturally simpatico with such tranquil and enlightened beings as donkeys cannot be all bad.

At one point he also speaks of always doing up his father's stiff collars in a way that is human and gentle and quite appealing. He also worries about making a contribution towards family finances during vacations in a way that does him credit and is at odds with the stereotype of the vain son always critical of his ignorant family.

"A Cornishman at Oxford" was interesting but written in quite a pedestrian style. Sadly, even his account of the General Strike made for dull reading. Perhaps the real thrill had been been in getting to Oxford from Tregonissey. Rowse desperately needed to succeed in getting a First and obtaining a Fellowship to forge an academic career, but to the reader this was not the same matter of life and death that so damaged Rowse's health. The strain upon him in achieving his end is clear and well-described, but his walks, tea parties and office in the Labour Club do not set the pulse racing. The undergraduate that emerges from these pages is rather a prig and not entirely plausible or sympathetic.

Slightly disappointingly, Rowse's conventionality extends to being quite a tame "House man" upholding and revelling in the quaintnesses of its ritual and tradition. Someone from so far on the wrong side of the tracks might have been expected to have felt some antipathy towards the class-ridden smugness of the place and to seek to puncture it. Instead we have a Scholar who conformed, sought office in the Labour Club and participated in earnest undergraduate discussion and hoped to become a don - like so many of his contemporaries. Whether this working class boy adopting the mores of the upper class with such complete conviction and comfort smacks of Uncle Tom, I really don't know. It might have been strange for someone who fought so hard and long to reach a place to do anything but revel in it. On balance, I think I would have expected a man of his intellect at least to see the issue and feel some unease - even if he then chose to disregard it. To mix metaphors dreadfully, in Rowse's case he seems to have achieved his goal, seen nothing wrong with it, pulled up the lifeboats and sailed blissfully on.

We hear nothing material regarding his sexuality or anything remotely daring during his Oxford career, although there is a dreary sub text of not-very-subtle innuendo regarding such things as what he calls his "feminine side" from which one can wearily conclude where his preferences lay. By this time one doesn't care awfully much if he was homo-, bi-, a-, Ray or Fay.

Rowse seemed to like to convey a sort of a-sexuality with wistful remarks at the end of paragraphs such as that "excitement is reserved for my inner life" and that "the answer is to live it as an inner exile". This pure and abstemious vision is slightly at odds with later accounts of a roving eye and an energetic fascination with young policemen and sailors. In his later years a respected journalist speaks of using a hefty file to ward off "the octogenarian's groping attacks on his modesty", so I think it safest not to assume complete abstinence from carnal pursuits.

Having strived so diligently to get there and having the financial support of his hard-won scholarship and benefactors like Quiller Couch must have placed Rowse under a moral obligation to apply himself conscientiously and certainly not to be sent down in disgrace. This is more or less what he seemed to do with the odd light relief from the Labour Club and literary reading which was strictly speaking off-syllabus and writing of poetry for pleasure.

So Rowse's Oxford is no creation of Evelyn Waugh: no quail's eggs, teddy bears or punting in the Parks sipping champagne and eating ripe strawberries. In Rowse's world we have no instances of anyone declaiming Edith Sitwell's verses through a megaphone out of an open window over Christ Church meadow.

Nor do we see Harold Acton teaching Rowse how to tango and bickering with girlish laughter over who should lead. The odd friend is described in virtually romantic terms but disappointingly, there is no trace of the louche, decadent or unnatural - by way of vice or otherwise. Rowse lunches with the famous - the Masefields at home and Lady Ottoline Morrell out at Garsington - but emerges from the pages of his autobiography as chaste and unsullied by any impurity of thought or deed, like a dreary curate.

Nor should one forget that Rowse's Fellowship was the first election to All Souls from the working class and, as such, was written up as a news story in the "Daily Mail". Given that Rowse appears more than somewhat affronted that he was not born to the station his brilliance and hard work enabled him to attain, he must have had very mixed feelings about this rather patronising coverage.

As time passed, Rowse's anger and personal bitterness accumulated. His personality did not have the healthy capacity enjoyed by many to overlook or forget past slights. Rather than be put into perspective or simply forgiven they were amplified and fretted over. They were never filed away in a drawer and forgotten, they were dusted off and brought out for review at regular intervals. It seems he applied his oft repeated mantra "Never give up, never give in" to feuds and grievances.

As he went through life, Rowse's collection of slights, inane jealousies and perceived failures grew. He was "only" proxime accessit in the Newdigate poetry competition, he failed to be appointed to the history lectureship at his old college Christ Church, and failed in both parliamentary elections and in the contest to be Warden of All Souls.

In later life he deeply resented that he was not knighted or awarded the Order of Merit. When the historian, Veronica Wedgwood replaced G.P.Gooch he venomously remarked "She has my OM".

In many ways these disappointments weighed more heavily with him than his successes. They seemed to demonstrate that he did not entirely fit in -with his family and class in Cornwall, with academia in Oxford or in the world of letters as a whole. It might be argued that he felt more comfortable on the lucrative lecture circuit in the United States where he could more often rely upon being taken at his own very lofty estimation.

Such a fragile ego was extremely vulnerable to criticism. He was decried as "an impossible figure tarnished by lunatic self importance". The rejections upon which he placed such enormous weight seemed to become the basis of his entire view of himself, not unlike the defective body image of the anorexic or bulimic.

Rowse's self-image thus seems to have comprised a sequence of negatives whilst all around him inferior persons were preferred. Perhaps Rowse's most obvious weakness was an inability to cope with the ordinary disappointments of life - like the rest of us. When from your earliest years you have felt yourself better and cleverer than everyone else, this may however be different.

So where does that leave the prickly and difficult Alfred Leslie Rowse? Is he anything more than "a deeply unpleasant man"?

We come to hear of his agonizing uncertainty over his own paternity and wonder what effect his own musings over the long distant sexual encounters of his allegedly cold and egotistical mother had on his own sexuality. Was he then son of Dick Rowse, poor china clay worker, feisty Fred May the Tregonissey butcher or a scion of the local gentry?

Views of Rowse's academic standing vary. He was thought brilliant by some and by others erratic or simply someone who courted popular fame and failed to fulfill his promise of the greatness he so desired? Many called him "a gifted memoirist", some "an indifferent poet" and several "a first class prick."

I admit to having some reservations about the work of Rowse's chief biographer Richard Ollard. Whilst I do not think it is necessary to go into prurient detail regarding Rowse's personal life -"to make windows in mens' trousers" as Queen Elizabeth I did not say, I do think the delicate area needed to be touched upon more frankly, if we are to have a rounded and indeed truthful impression of the subject.

A biographer cannot really be excused such a key facet of his subject's psyche, just because he finds it distasteful or unfamiliar territory. If that's the case, leave it to someone better fitted to the task; it is not really something that lends itself to be excused from with a note from mother, like games at school.

Be that as it may, I find the rest of Mr Ollard's analysis scholarly, balanced and thoughtful, including what appears to be his overall conclusion. He saw Rowse as a man of great underlying kindness whose vanity and animosity ("deutero-Rowse") as distinct from the more likable "proto-Rowse" were a pose, allowing him to camouflage his vulnerability and manipulate a world which he despised and feared.

A gifted individual like A.L.Rowse struggled to achieve his ambition from an unpromising background. He did so by virtue of hard work and unremitting dedication to his task. The world in which he moved was daunting and difficult and Rowse did not always succeed as he thought he should - as witness the "failures " listed above.

Rowse's mechanism for coping with this unwelcoming world was extreme bluster, self-importance and aggression, but let us accept that this was often a front for a much nicer man.

The obituary of A.L.Rowse in the "Pink Paper" on 10 October 1997 noted "He was openly gay and despite a brusque and blustering disposition was well known for the habit of calling all-comers 'sweetie'." I find it hard not to like someone like that and, with all his "contradictions," am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.


Friday, April 06, 2012

Travel: a personal view of view of Ayers Rock

You don’t expect a maul so forceful it would halt the All Blacks, not here at Ayers Rock. This is supposed to be the spiritual heart of Australia, the stepping stone to the dreamtime. Instead there’s a scrum around the tours desk inside the small airport building more like Oxford Street in the January sales.

Before collecting luggage, a feeding frenzy develops among new arrivals. “Are we booked on the sunset trip to the Rock?”, “What time is the pick up for the Olgas Sunrise Experience?” and “Is there an age limit for the Harley Davidson Tour?” The siege of the tours desk is a set piece battle, which follows the arrival of every planeload of tourists. They rarely stay more than two days, but demand to see and do everything.

Having booked people visibly relax and settle back into their seats on the complementary coach that takes them the short distance to the resort.

Ayers Rock resort is in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the red centre of Australia. It is an ecologically friendly, designer creation with accommodation ranging from the deluxe Sails in the Desert Hotel to the Ayers Rock Campground of Lindy Chamberlain fame.

There are few amenities other than the visitors centre, shops, takeaway and tavern. Surprisingly, in view of the fantastically high temperatures for most of the year, there is a jogging track. Quite what proportion of visitors is capable of rising above an amble in such conditions is difficult to imagine – unless it’s part of the final training for the ascent of the Rock that seems to be the foremost ambition of most.

Next to the shopping mall there is the amphitheatre where resident aboriginal band Indigeny combines electric rock with didgeridoo nightly under the stars. Unlike Alice Springs, you don’t often see aboriginals about the resort. Signs prohibit entry into their living area. Do not intrude: you will be as welcome as a dingo in the Ayers Rock Mothercare and risk a heavy fine.

Clearly it’s not the Resort but the Rock that the tourists come to see. One of the world’s largest monoliths, Ayers Rock is the exposed tip of a six kilometre deep mass of coarse sandstone. With the nearby Olgas, it dominates the desert landscape, and puts on a special show at dusk and dawn of changing colour and light. In addition it houses many aboriginal sacred sites.

Since 1985 the rock (Uluru) and Olgas (Kata Tjuta) have been jointly managed by a committee of aboriginals (anangu) and white Australians. Tourists or “mingas” (literally “ants”) are allowed into the Park on payment of a fee for a three day ticket, but the anangu have said that they would prefer that mingas do not climb Uluru.

The thinking visitor therefore has a dilemma: “Do or don’t I climb?”

A.A.T. Kings is the climber’s choice. Kings is the largest and most popular tour company in the Outback with an impressive fleet of air-conditioned executive coaches.

Their English passengers tend to be middle-aged. Dressed in Marks & Spencer sports casual or fake Gucci from the barrows in Bangkok, they are ticking off the touristic wonders of the world, like twitchers or train spotters. The rest are young Japanese and Korean couples in complimentary designer clothing ranging from Adidas to Armani. There is no conversation or getting-to-know-you amongst the couples. Whilst Dire Straits plays, most sit in silence with Pentax poised and the fixed look of marines on the way to the Normandy landings.   

A burly ocker driver in blue shorts and safari shirt shepherds the large group “doing” the Red Centre. No dilemma is evident, only the need to fit in the prescribed number of unique Rock, Olga, Valley of the Winds, base, climb, sunrise, sunset , breakfast and barbecue experiences each day.

The drivers are very good at what they do in a detached sort of way. The mixed nature and size of the groups plus the relative shortness of the trips prevents any kind of relationship developing between driver and group. On releasing his passengers to climb the Rock, our driver stayed alone in the air-conditioned coolness of the coach smoking and listening to the Brisbane Broncos game on the radio.

Climbing the Rock is a dual experience: part photo-opportunity and part ordeal. Tourists come to the awesome Rock throughout the day, but it’s at dawn and sunset that the changing colours are breathtaking. They photograph it in close up, from a distance, from every angle and in every conceivable light.

At dawn a row of ten or more coaches disgorges several hundred visitors. Each finds a place to view sunrise over the Rock and to take the snaps that constitute one of the two reasons for visiting the place.

The other reason is to climb the Rock. Seventy percent of visitors of all nationalities, ages and states of fitness make the strenuous ascent which begins with a 45 degree chained section. At cooler morning and evening peak times the experience will be shared with many hundreds of fellow climbers. Not everyone makes it back!

The role of the resort’s preferred eco-tour operator is filled by Uluru Experience. It claims a special interest in the desert and covers the same ground as Kings, but in much smaller groups... The main practical difference between the two is that Uluru Experience will not take you to climb Uluru.

Instead you are picked up in an air-conditioned mini–bus with a party of half a dozen or so. On a trip to see the Olgas and Dunes our group consisted of an elderly French couple who spoke no English and whose bewilderment grew to irritation as the tour wore on, three unsmiling, crew-cut German women in their twenties and a jovial retired BBC administrator from Solihull. Leading this challenging cross section of the EU was a tall kiwi in his early thirties who managed to look ascetic as well as dashing in khaki safari shirt, shorts and bush hat. He had studied art in Glasgow and, as well as eco-guiding, was looking to interest the anangu in ceramics.

Uluru Experience guides try to pass on information rather than just drive you around. After entering the Park we stopped by the roadside to be given a demonstration of anangu objects, tools and weapons. We threw a spear and boomerang and learnt how they were made, as well as examining desert plants such as spinifex. At one stage a dingo approached tentatively and allowed himself to be photographed.

The main point to the trip was of course the Olgas – described in the brochure as “mysterious domes..contrasting with the desert plains”. The view from a distance was magnificent as was the closer perspective from the Olga Gorge. As dusk approached we reached the viewing pint for the sunset and stood around clutching our plastic flutes of chilled Australian champagne.

Sunset over the Olgas is special. The light reflected over the strange round domes does change and there is a magical quality in the rising of the moon in front of you. With Uluru Experience you stand idly, feeling very right-on nursing your drink and listening to the guide’s stories of the Dreamtime.

Meanwhile you watch scores of Kings customers straight from the descent of the Rock tottering off their coaches proudly clutching their free certificates. They too will soon be enjoying their complimentary champagne and barbecue before joining in the communal viewing of the moonrise. Next morning everyone will fly out. As yet, neither tour company has succeeded in obtaining exclusive rights to the dawn or sunset.

Travel details - please check for changes:
I visited Ayers rock on the Australian Outback and Reef Tour with Kuoni Travel (Tel: 01306 741111) and stayed at the four star Sails in the Desert Hotel (Tel: 56 22 00)

Tours from the Resort:
• A.A.T.Kings (Tel: 56 21 71): Rock Climb and Sunset; Sunset only; Rock and Olgas Sunset and Breakfast Tours
• Uluru Experience (Tel: 1800 803174): Olgas/Dunes/Sunset; Uluru Walk
• Sunworth Taxis (Tel: 56 21 52) : Ayers rock and Olgas return trips
• Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (daily 6am to 7.30pm) ticket for three days entry

* a version of this article appeared in the Sunday Mercury


Thursday, April 05, 2012

A profile - Dave Willetts: Birmingham's Star of the Musical

Dave Willetts is recognized in Britain and internationally as a major star of the musical theatre. Amongst many other achievements, he was the first person in the world to play the leading roles in both “Les Miserables” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Relaxing at his home in Warwickshire, Dave spoke to me shortly after his successful concert appearance at Birmingham’s Alexandra Theatre. “I have appeared many times in Birmingham at the Alex and Symphony Hall and always find audiences there generous and enthusiastic”. He was touched by the warmth of his reception by his home town audience on the last date of a six week tour and pleased to talk about his career and its roots in Birmingham.

Born in Marston Green in 1952, Dave spent his childhood in the family home in Acocks Green. The Willetts were close knit. His father worked at Rover. Dave’s background was not theatrical or musical; the only musical member of the family was his mother. He was given a guitar at ten and now plays it in concert performances. Modestly, however, Dave still doesn’t consider he has mastered it.

He first went to school in Yardley at Cottersbrook Infants and later to Sheldon Heath Comprehensive. Dave ritually points out his old school to his daughters, now in their mid twenties, when they drive past. At school Dave was “sports mad” and enjoyed rugby, cricket and football more than academic subjects. Music and drama didn’t feature prominently until later.

On leaving school, Dave joined Girling Brakes as an apprentice and in 1972 moved to work as a quality control engineer in South Wales with his new wife, Lyn. He remembers being asked by workmates to go to a production of “No, No Nanette” by the New Venture Players, an amateur group based in Newport. That night he was hooked by the “theatre bug”. This prompted him to audition for their next production, although the director wasn’t particularly impressed when Dave admitted to never having heard of “The King and I”. Told to go away and learn two numbers, Dave came back and auditioned and became second lead in the show. Like many professionals, this was the start of Dave’s grounding into the world of theatre, although at this point, he had no idea of where it would eventually lead him.

Dave returned to Birmingham to take up a managerial post after ten years in South Wales and joined the Leamington and Warwick Operatic society to star in “Music Man”.

Dave spoke with fondness and gratitude of his solid grounding in several years of “am drams” and its importance to the profession. As well as learning the ropes, he loved the music and camaraderie amongst cast, “especially going to the pub after rehearsals”, he quips.

After this “apprenticeship”, Peter McGarry, the theatre critic of the Coventry Evening Telegraph gave a rave review of Dave’s performance in “Charlie and Algernon”. This led to an audition from the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and an offer to appear in their professional production of “Annie.”

This offer marked a major turning pint in Dave’s life. He and Lyn decided that Dave should give the stage a try for three years. It was a huge leap of faith to give up a managerial career, pension, private health care and company car at the age of thirty with two children of five and four, to take a job in the theatre. He was supported wholeheartedly in this decision by Lyn, who to make ends meet, took on work as a childminder, whilst Dave worked as a waiter. Both Dave and Lyn felt that, provided their children did not suffer, it was important to go after their joint dream and “give it 100%.”

After the run in “Annie”, Dave fell ill with glandular fever and was out of action for several months, but recovered and went on to appear in “Grease” at the Belgrade Theatre. At this time he had also signed contracts to appear in “South Pacific”, but saw auditions were taking place for a new show, “Les Miserables” at the Barbican in London. Dave attended just for the chance to audition in front of the great RSC Director, Trevor Nunn, who would be directing “Les Mis.”

Dave was amongst the last to be auditioned and only a year after turning professional, was invited to join the production as a member of Thenardier’s gang. Within a further twelve months Dave was playing the lead role of Jean Valjean, when the production transferred to the Palace Theatre in London’s West End.

After his acclaimed lead in “Les Miserables”, Dave moved down Shaftsbury Avenue and the Haymarket to Her Majesty’s Theatre to take the title role in “Phantom of the Opera”. Again, this was a great success. To his surprise, his first night curtain calls were shown live on TV on News at Ten.

Dave has created many major roles, including Major Lee opposite great friend Petula clark in “Someone Like You” at the Strand Theatre, Zero Janvier in the British premier of Tim Rice’s “Tycoon” and Tom in Trish Ward’s “Lonely Hearts” directed by Stephen Rayne.

Further critical praise followed for his portrayal of Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Barbican and also throughout Europe. He created the role of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley and portrayed Old Deuteronomy in the Twentieth Anniversary production of “Cats” at the New London Theatre.

Dave is closely associated with the works of Kander and Ebb and Stephen Sondheim. He played Ben in the Irish premier of “Follies” in Dublin and the title roles in “Sweeney Todd” and “Sunday in the Park with George”. Dave recalls Stephen Sondheim commenting backstage that his Sweeney Todd was definitive: a true highlight in any stage career.

In 2002 Dave played the lead role of Adam Pontipee in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” for the national tour. He also particularly enjoyed working in the intimate surroundings of the Kings Head theatre in London, where he created the role of Vladimir Vysotsky in the world premier of “Let us Fly”. He also created the role of Father in the European premier of “Ragtime” at the International Festival of Musical Theatre, which was shown on BBC TV and broadcast on Radio 3, and subsequently transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre in London’s West End. He has even ventured into the world of pantomime, playing Captain Hook in “Peter Pan” opposite Toyah Wilcox.

When asked about the pressures of long runs, Dave responded emphatically: “appearing in a long run is never a grind or pressure. Working on a production line all day, every day, or having to do a job you don’t enjoy could be a grind, not appearing before an audience and being paid to do what you love.”

In addition to musicals, concerts and cabaret, Dave has presented his own shows on national BBC radio and made many guest appearances on radio and TV including a memorable evening as the subject of “This is Your Life.”

Dave has had a prolific recording career with several solo albums and many show albums, including “Wuthering Heights” as Heathcliffe with Lesley Garrett and “Evita” with Marti Webb.

As well as creating stage roles, Dave has headlined concerts throughout the UK and around the world in venues as diverse as the Ahoy Stadium in Rotterdam, the concert halls of Monterey and Mexico City and London’s, Royal Albert Hall. He has performed at galas in Los Angeles to honour James Stewart and Lauren Bacall and in Munich in tribute to director, Hal Prince.

Despite his fame, Dave considers that he is still learning and on occasions will stand in the wings to watch other artists and learn “what not to do – and sometimes more importantly – what not to do”. This has now come full circle, with performers standing in the wings watching Dave perform. He admires many artists such as the gifted Sammy Davis Junior, whom he met on several occasions, and the talented Alun Armstrong.

Given the roles he has played, Dave has little time for any blinkered distinction between musical and dramatic performance, commenting: “In the role of Valjean, for instance, music and acting are inextricably linked. The performer must bring both elements together to make the part live; music takes over where the spoken word cannot go.”

Despite his glittering career, Dave remains approachable and down-to earth. He is modest and epitomises the term “grounded”: “I don’t have a master plan for my career, but I am a great believer in fate and have happened to be at the right place at the right time. I have loved every minute of it so far and am as excited about doing the job as I was twenty years ago”. He is grateful for the strong foundations of his family and has “had a very good life in the twenty odd years since giving up a ‘proper job.’”

Dave Willetts’ story to date is all about seizing the day. It’s about staying true to yourself, working hard and making the most of real talent. It would make a really good musical.

*a version of this profile first appeared in Birmingham Life magazine


Wednesday, April 04, 2012

A profile - Jonathan Owen: from Triangle via Corrie to Teapots and Superglue

Good character actors are like fine wine; they mature with age – and often benefit from laying down for some time! Accomplished examples include Peter Sallis and Alistair Sim. Birmingham actor Jonathan Owen is a member of this distinguished British breed.

Following a varied career on stage, TV and radio, Jonathan has recently branched out into writing. He talked about his life as an actor and new role as an author at the Crescent Theatre after the Midlands premier of his play “Teapots and Superglue”.

Jonathan has kept close to his family and roots in Birmingham. Born in Hockley in 1956, he lived in Mayfield Road in Moseley for some time and still lives close to the city centre. He trained locally as music and drama teacher at St. Peter’s College, Faculty of Education at Birmingham University and taught before becoming a full-time actor. He still retains a strong foothold in education, being a member of the examination panel for speech, drama and music at Trinity College, London.

Jonathan earned his crucial Equity card singing in clubs and “masonics” around Birmingham whilst still a student. His initial break into the theatre came after open auditions at the Belgrade Theatre for the Coventry Mystery Plays.

Another early breakthrough came with the part of Terry Barford in “The Archers”, in which he played for a decade. A conversation with Robert Hardy in the Pebble Mill canteen led to an invitation to appear in “All Creatures Great and Small” and then to more television exposure in 26 episodes of the BBC serial, “Triangle”. Jonathan looks back on this series filmed on location aboard a North Sea ferry, as “an incredible learning experience” working intensely with great professionals such as his screen mother, Kate O’Mara and Nigel Stock.

Other TV work has included “Doctors” on BBC and “Emmerdale” and “Heartbeat” on ITV. Most recently, Jonathan has enjoyed two comic appearances on “Coronation Street”, first as The Great Orlando, the psychic hypnotist and latterly as Rev. Ashbourne, who tried to make sense of Rita, Norris, Roy and Emily when they were high on cannabis and subsequently officiating at the chaotic christening of Tracey Barlow’s baby.

In London’s West End he has appeared in “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Call Me Madam”, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Ziegfield” and “Having a Ball”. He has appeared in musicals, plays and pantomime in most major theatres around the country. Engagements abroad range from a run in “Singin’ in the Rain” with Tommy Steele in Tokyo to residency as a writer and director for Bermuda’s annual pantomimes between 1995 and 2000.

Finding himself increasingly leaving plays at the interval and not returning for the second half, Jonathan was prompted to write a piece where the audience could care about the characters and be drawn into their story. Jonathan considered his play” a simple attempt to go back to the roots of the theatre – to tell stories, entertain, celebrate life and hopefully make you laugh and cry”.

Another inspiration for the piece was Alfred “Freddy” Frankl, who was a citizen of Birmingham until his untimely death in 1991. Jonathan wished to remember the quiet and unassuming work of the City’s “Schindler of therapy which healed the lives of thousands”. The tribute is reflected in the original surname of one character.

The play focuses on an “outreach course” held in a community centre. Over six months we monitor the lives of seven very different members including a bawdy working class housewife, a snobbish Hyacinth Bucket type, a solitary widower, an angry single mum, a withdrawn civil servant, a Pakistani student and a sensitive teacher. Although Jonathan stresses that his play has no intellectual pretensions or an agenda to preach, he does hold firm views on many social issues such as the legacy of the Thatcher Years. Various concerns stemming from the characters’ lives are addressed such as race, sexuality, religion, and the diverse impact of the past on the present. The audience follows the group as they change and ultimately flourish.

Jonathan has been pleased with the warm reception from audiences and critics. The Birmingham Post commented that “‘Teapots’ (as it will clearly become known) will obviously be pouring out its contents for a long, long time, particularly with non-professional companies”. It seems that playwrights, like character actors, can also be late-flowering. We can look forward with interest to the blossoming of Birmingham’s multi- talented Jonathan Owen.

*This profile first appeared in Birmingham 13


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Nostalgia: Memories of Moseley Institute

A search for Moseley & Balsall Heath Institute on the internet leads to the illustrated price list of Gibbs and Canning Limited of February 1900. It refers to the building’s ornate Victorian décor, including heads of William Shakespeare and Michaelangelo on the exterior and Macbeth on the interior. For many local people, however, the Institute is important for a different reason: many courtships, marriages and even families in Moseley had their beginnings at dances held there.

I talked about the Institute between the 1930’s and 1950’s with Bill Knee, a sprightly and dapper 89 year old, now living in Solihull. Bill recalls that he started to arrange “select dances” to raise funds for the Moseley Amateurs Football and Social Club. The first dance was held at St. Anne’s Parochial Hall on Saturday 22nd December 1934.

This was a great success and prompted Bill to organise dances at the Institute “near the tram depot” which boasted a spacious ballroom with a beautifully sprung floor and stage. Bill hired the ballroom and laid on the band and refreshments. He put on his dinner jacket in which to act as master of ceremonies and was ready to go.

A ticket for the Grand Carnival dance in1935 featured Teddy Thomas and his six piece band, a running buffet and dancing continuous from 8pm until midnight. It cost 1/6d with 2d for the cloakroom. A Grand Coronation Night Gala Dance in May 1937 ran until 1.30am and cost 2/6d. It featured not only the Ambassadors Dance Band but a demonstration of the latest dances and judging of a slow foxtrot competition with Alex Hooper and Mary Millin “including their famous Tiger Rag Quickstep”.

Over the years Bill hired many excellent dance bands, including Nat Gonella’s famous band. Others appearing were Stan Hurley and his Embassy Boys, Sid Yates and his Melodance Band and the Imperial Players Seven Piece Band.

On one memorable night, the Squadronaires were appearing at the Hippodrome in Birmingham. After the performance, they decamped en masse to the Institute and sat in with Bill’s band late into the night and enthralled the dancers in Moseley.

As well as dance competitions and demonstrations by couples such as Dorothy Betteridge and Billy Bocker, the World Open Champions in 1935, the Institute hosted crooning competitions and comedians.

From the outset the dances were very popular. Bill mad a point of ensuring value for money. Music was guaranteed to be continuous with the sessions from the band interspersed with dance music from the organ.

After small beginnings, weekly dances increased to three nights a week. Numbers were strictly limited to 300 dancers each night. Bill comments: “some evenings it grew so warm on the dance floor that the cloud of perspiration rising to the ceiling of the ballroom returned as a gentle rain.”

Before a licence was granted, dancers had to make do with non-alcoholic refreshments. Although gallons of lemonade were consumed, many customers felt the need for alcohol. Pass out cards were handed out to enable some of the male dancers to obtain lubrication in the local pubs and return for more dancing.

Dances continued for some time during the war and Bill was even given some extra petrol coupons to make journeys connected with arranging this essential morale-boosting entertainment.

After the war Bill’s dances resumed and continued to be well–received. People were eager for entertainment in a time of austerity. The local newspaper referred to the Monday night dances at the Institute as “drawing the largest crowd outside the City Centre”.

Naturally the dances reflected changes in society and popular taste. It has always been necessary to find ways to enable ballroom dancing to co-exist with be-bop. As time passed in the 1950’s, there was more demand for jive and rock and roll and a portion of the dance floor was cordoned off near the band so that early “boppers” didn’t get in the way of the strict tempo dancers.

Bill ran the dances at the Institute until about 1955 and from there moved on to other venues around the City. He juggled his full-time career in engineering, raising a family with wife and dance partner Sylvia, running dances and teaching, demonstrating and adjudicating dance. He still looks back on many happy evenings at the Institute and is pleased to have helped bring so much pleasure to many hundreds of dancers in Moseley.

On many occasion in far-flung places strangers have stopped bill saying: “I’m sure I know you from somewhere. Oh, yes, I remember you in your DJ on the stage at the old Moseley Institute dances. They were happy days.”

*With thanks to Mr Bill Knee, a real gentleman. This piece first appeared in Birmingham 13.


Monday, April 02, 2012

Verse: Patrick in the buttercups

I loved that horse
Big ears swivelling
Back and forward
Often one pointing each way.
Dangly lower lip
and elegant whiskers,
Mad for mints
Imperious and bullying:
A big copper shield
Shining in the sunshine
With four white socks on
Dainty giraffe legs.
A lively lad
Bored with schooling
Living and longing
To jump as high as the sky,
To gallop and fly
And snort and plunge
Just for the living of it,
To bound and buck
Just for the joy
Of breathing the breeze
And sailing
Through the blue and green.
Innocent in repose
Apt to shy at dragons in
Dock leaves and pose,
Like heroes do,
Distant and proud.
Good without thinking
Bad without malice
A joy and terror:
Patrick in the buttercups.
I often caught my breath.
I loved that horse.