On Thursday, Scotland will decide whether to become an independent country. This time next week we might be coming to terms with the end of Britain. I’ve blogged a few times about the independence vote, starting with the 2012 Edinburgh agreement between the UK and Scottish governments to hold a referendum. More recently, I voiced concern that the rest of the country was paying more attention to the Great British Bake Off than the Great British Break Up. That has changed at the eleventh hour as the British establishment finally realised that the union was in deadly peril.
Not many cities can claim to have hosted a Ryder Cup and NATO summit within four years. Newport, South Wales is in a very exclusive club.
I have affectionate memories of Newport as it’s the place I started work in 1986. I was one of the few who commuted from Cardiff rather than the other way round.
It was good to see the sun shining this week as world leaders gathered at the Celtic Manor, in contrast with the rain that blighted the opening of the Ryder Cup in 2010. (I jeered those who asked who decided to hold a golf tournament in Wales – as if it has never rained at Wimbledon, Lord’s or Wembley…)
Some in South Wales have complained about the disruption – but it’s a small price to pay for the priceless publicity Wales earned this week. We have long been in the shadow of Ireland and Scotland, and we must grab every opportunity to be centre stage.
I remember the shock of Bill Shankly’s resignation. I was 10 years old. I’d been to just one league football game. (Cardiff City 0-1 West Brom.) Yet even I realised this was an important moment.
My mind went back to that summer 1974 bombshell this week as I read David Peace’s book about Shankly, Red or Dead. Forty years ago. It was the summer I became truly interested in the game. Travelling back from a family holiday in Dunoon, Scotland, I was intrigued by Shoot magazine’s league ladder. I used it to track Carlisle United’s brief spell at the top of the first division. (I recounted this in my blogpost about the closure of Shoot magazine in 2007.)
It’s the ultimate British bike ride: from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats on Scotland’s far north coast. The End to End. I did the ride in 2002. I’m now starting to dream about doing it again with my son when he’s older.
To feed that dream, I’ve just read two books about other riders’ End to End experiences. My favourite was Ellie Bennett’s Blood Sweat and Gears. Ellie clearly loved and loathed the experience, a contrast most End to End riders will recognise. The sinking feeling as you see yet another West Country hill looming ahead of you. The dread at the number of miles and hills before that night’s destination. And wondering if the rain will ever stop.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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