Scottish independence: sleepwalking to the end of Britain?

Scotland decides

Scotland decides

Could this be the summer that sees the end of Britain? Scots could choose independence on 18 September. Yet the Great British Break Up is getting less attention than the Great British Bake Off, at least outside Scotland. Amazingly, the first TV debate between SNP leader Alex Salmond and Better Together’s Alistair Darling wasn’t even shown on TV south of the border. 

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The Great War, 100 years on

To war, Gare de l'Est, Paris

High hopes and hidden fears: to war, Paris, 2 August 1914

It was meant to be the war to end all wars. It was the conflict that went global. And it killed millions, leaving families across the globe grieving lost sons, brothers, fathers – and lost womenfolk and children. 

The Great War has left a deep scar across Britain, France, America and the Commonwealth, not to mention Germany and her allies. The photo at the top of this post captures young Frenchman leaving Paris for war as France mobilised the day before Germany declared war on the country. Britain and its empire entered the fray the following day. This was one of a moving open air exhibition in Paris’s Avenue des Champs Élysées. By a curious coincidence, I photographed the photo 100 years to the day after it was taken.

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D-Day remembered

Omaha beach, Normandy, France

Into the jaws of death: the Americans land, Omaha beach, 6 June 1944. Photo courtesy of the Nationals Archives & Records Administration, USA

The D-Day Normandy landings were awe-inspiring for countless reasons: the bravery of young men who risked everything. The sacrifice made by those boys a world away from their homes in America and Canada as well as Britain. The courage of French people resisting a brutal enemy to support their liberation. And the unimaginable scale of the assault on Hitler’s European fortress – one of the greatest feats of organisation as well as arms.

This week’s 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day was humbling and inspiring. Not for the inevitable array of heads of state and government, but for the sight of hundreds of ageing veterans of Operation Overlord visiting the landing beaches for the last time. My generation can hardly imagine what they went through. Next time you’re fretting over a PowerPoint presentation or a cancelled train, think of Normandy 1944.

My mind went back to my mother-in-law Aline’s account of growing up in Sussex during the second world war. Here’s her graphic description of how she and her family found out that D-Day had begun:

“There appeared on the horizon day after day more and more objects; we didn’t know what they were. They covered the horizon as far as you could see, right the way along. And then one night the tugs were going – all night long you could hear them ‘woop-woop; woop-woop’. And my father, who used to go out about seven in the morning came back and said, “You’ll never believe it, they’ve all gone. And we found out later they were the Mulberry harbours.” These were extraordinary prefabricated harbours the size of Dover docks, built in Britain and towed at 5mph to Normandy.

Britain was known as the unsinkable aircraft carrier at this stage in the war because of the millions of troops of many nations stationed here ready for the great invasion. Aline talks about how she and her older sister were befriended by a Canadian solder who was part of the Commonwealth forces encamped near Bognor. Her sister nearly missed an 11 plus exam because a convoy of tanks was passing as she waited to cross to the exam hall. One tank stopped to let her across – stopping the whole convoy! Then one day they discovered the Canadian soldier and his comrades had gone, like the Mulberry harbours, across the channel to France.

Back in 1998, I got the ferry to Ouistreham (Sword beach) and cycled along the D-Day coast to Arromanches. As I freewheeled down the hill towards the town, I could see the remains of the Mulberry harbour in the bay. It was a bleak scene in the rain, but my discomfort was nothing to that experienced by the seasick liberators of 1944, wading ashore to deadly gunfire. I was sorry I didn’t have time to visit the excellent D-Day museum at Arromanches, with the story of the harbour that handled 4 million tonnes of supplies and 500,000 vehicles in the 10 months it was used.

D-Day echoes down the years. Nearly 40 years after the liberation of Europe began, the British carried out another audacious landing at San Carlos in the Falkland islands to begin the end of Argentina’s occupation of the islands. On Friday 21 May 1982 I listened to Radio 4’s PM programme’s account of the invasion. Growing up on memories of the second world war, I never imagined that Britain would once again be sending men to war in assault ships. The echoes of the 1944 operation were evident – just weeks after Britain had sunk Argentina’s Pearl Harbor survivor, General Belgrano. The war may have been controversial, but the courage displayed was timeless.

Weymouth D-Day memorial

D-Day remembered: Weymouth, Dorset

Back to 1944. England’s south coast was the launchpad for the invasion. Weymouth in Dorset was a key location, and the American rangers who suffered such a toll scaling the cliffs of Normandy embarked here. In 2010 I was moved to see a British veteran paying tribute in Weymouth to those who died in the D-Day ‘Tiger’ training exercise in Lyme Bay.

Weymouth Lyme Bay D-Day memorial

Paying tribute to the fallen

You can see a US tank recovered from the Tiger disaster at Slapton Sands in Devon.

We all owe a huge debt to the men and women who risked everything for our freedom.

Goodbye to Guardian’s Media Talk podcast

The Guardian Media Talk podcast

Media Talk silenced

Fridays will never be the same again. The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast has ended after eight years.

It’s not a huge surprise. The Guardian has been losing money – like most newspaper groups – for years and has been making cutbacks for some time. (The venerable separate Media section of the print edition was merged with the main section in 2011.)

I’ve been a regular listener from the beginning. I loved the mix of wit and insight into the changing media scene from the likes of Matt Wells, Emily Bell and Maggie Brown in particular, as well as final presenter John Plunkett.

Media Talk has chronicled one of the most dramatic eras in media history. The digital revolution has led to what many see as print’s terminal decline. Rupert Murdoch introduced a paywall – the opposite approach to The Guardian and Mail Online – then was laid low by the phone hacking scandal, which the Guardian played a big role in breaking.

Media Talk was off air when the paper’s revelations about the News of the World hacking Milly Dowler’s phone became a major scandal in 2011. But I was there a week or so later when Matt Wells recorded a special edition on the subject with a panel including Guardian editor in chief Alan Rusbridger.

Ironically, Emily Bell herself said in the farewell podcast that there are signs that podcasts are enjoying a revival. All is not lost: John Plunkett and team are hoping to revive the show as an independent production. Please subscribe to make this happen.

PS: Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff writes critically about the Guardian’s US expansion in GQ.

 

 

The Ordnance Survey map addict

One of the joys of browsing in a real, rather than online, bookshop is coming across a brilliant book on a subject you’d never think of reading about. So I was chuffed to discover Map Addict by Mike Parker, published by Collins, during a holiday visit to Waterstone’s in Dorchester, Dorset.

OS metric 50:000 map Rhondda

Ordnance Survey goes metric: the Rhondda, 1970s

I’ve blogged before about my love of maps and the map’s evolution from a printed sheet to an icon on a smartphone. Parker’s book brought back many more memories – such as the lack of any photo on the cover of the original Ordnance Survey maps that replaced the much-loved one inch series. And the fact the 1:50 000 series index map, showing which map covered which part of Great Britain, was cut by a line across the country indicating that the northern maps would only appear two years later, in 1976.

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Dorset delight

Jurassic Coast

Dorset’s Durdle Door

We’re enjoying a holiday in Dorset, one of England’s most attractive counties. It’s our third family holiday here, and the first since Owen was a toddler.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of what Thomas Hardy’s Wessex has to offer. Here are some of our favourites – with the health warning that this is a personal choice rather than an exhaustive list.

Best museum: The Tank Museum, Bovington Continue reading

Think tank: Dorset’s wonderful tank museum

Display at the Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset

The Great War dawn of the tank age

We never imagined a tank museum could be such a moving and fascinating day out. The Tank Museum, Bovington, Dorset bills itself as the home of the tank. We lost count of the number of tanks and other armoured vehicles at the museum.

But this is no dry display of long silenced fighting vehicles. We were really impressed by the videos telling the story of the tank, and the audio interviews with tank men from the Great War to the current Afghanistan campaign.

Great war tanks at the Tank Museum, Bovington

Tanks for the trenches

For me, the first world war displays were the highlight of the visit. I was amazed by the number of Great War tanks on display. We’ll be commemorating the centenary of the war to end all wars this August, and it’s poignant to think about the sacrifices of my grandparents’ generation in those desperate days. Britain invented the tank to try to break the deadly stalemate on the western front.

At first, serving in a tank would have seen like a blessing compared with life as an infantry soldier in the trenches. But tank men soon realised this was no safe option. According to a Tank Museum podcast, second world war tank veteran Jack Baker felt far more comfortable armed with a rifle & shovel than being confined within a turret. It must have been similar to serving in a submarine, living and fighting in a cramped tin, knowing that you faced a grim death if your machine was hit. No wonder veterans refer to tanks ‘brewing up’ when struck by enemy fire.

Long ago, I learned how Britain sent its men into battle in the second world war in desperately ill-equipped tanks. Tank crews in Normandy feared coming face to face with the deadly German panzers. They found their ammunition bounced harmlessly off the Nazi tanks. No wonder the breakout from the D Day beach head was so slow and costly.

The final section of the Tank Museum is devoted to the current campaign in Afghanistan. This is surely one of the most unlikely story in the British army’s history. How could we ever have become entangled in a 21st century occupation of Afghanistan that lasted twice as long as the second world war? (Clue: political folly.) As ever, the British army has had to cope with the foolish decisions of our political leaders.

Great War memorial, Richmind

We will remember them

I close this post with a detail from the war memorial at Richmond, Surrey. I don’t know if any tank men are immortalised here. But it captures perfectly the determination of a grieving nation to remember the young men who went to war and never came back. Tragically, Britain and countless other countries went through similar horrors barely 20 years later. I am very lucky that my generation was spared the terror of total war.

My iPad, four years on

iPad 1

Falling in love with iPad, 27 May 2010

Four years ago today, I got my first iPad – the day before it was released in Britain. It’s the first time I’ve ever been an early adopter. And, as I blogged at the time, it was love at first sight.

The joy of the iPad was getting online almost instantly, thank to its flash memory: no need to wait for a computer to start. And being able to carry a decent but incredibly light computer with me in a rucksack or John Lewis messenger bag was a bonus. I’ve never regretted opting for the cheaper wifi only version, especially after discovering Three’s Huawei mifi.

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Cardiff Bay before regeneration

Cardiff Bay before regeneration

Atlantic Wharf, Cardiff, January 1986

(This post was inspired by www.wearecardiff.co.uk)

Cardiff has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. It’s hard to imagine how different the old Tiger Bay docklands looked before the Cardiff Bay redevelopment and Cardiff Bay barrage was announced by Margaret Thatcher’s Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards in 1986.

Dad and I visited the docks regularly and took these photos on a bitterly cold day at the start of 1986. We liked the look of the imposing warehouse on the right (east) bank of the Bute East Dock.

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In praise of David Abbott

The Economist management trainee advert

Simply brilliant: classic David Abbott

Back in the 1980s, many people said the best thing on British television was the adverts. It was a tribute to the work of adland legend David Abbott, who died this week.

Abbott created some of the most memorable, wittiest ads ever conceived. It ranged from the clever – the brilliantly simple Economist ads quoting the 42 year old management trainee who never reads the paper – to the tender “Good Old Yellow Pages” TV commercial featuring elderly author J R Hartley using the directory to track down a copy of his book about fly fishing. He also overturned the assumption that only sex and sexism sold cars by brilliantly selling safety to as a benefit of buying a Volvo. Continue reading