It’s the same old story. The London media has always ignored and neglected Wales. The Times is a classic example. It has a Scottish edition but never pays Wales the same attention. So I was not surprised to see the Welsh Senedd elections barely reported – and then badly – in today’s iPad edition of the paper. The Saturday news summary above ignores the fascinating and unexpected Senedd election results.
The story The Times did run (above) repeatedly referred to the Welsh Assembly – an institution that no longer exists. The country’s legislature is the Senedd – the Welsh Parliament.
Yet in its obsession with Hartlepool and Holyrood, the London media (with the honourable exception of the BBC and The Guardian) were missing a really significant story. The incumbent parties in government in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Westminster did well. Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford has won plaudits across these islands for his calm leadership during the pandemic. The Senedd results showed that voters rewarded Labour for its steady hand on the tiller. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon looks to be close to an SNP majority. And, as the London media keep telling us, Boris Johnson has dealt a blow to Labour’s UK leader Keir Starmer by capturing another traditional Labour parliamentary seat in Hartlepool. But the story is rather more nuanced even in England.
Iceland said, “We would like to reiterate that these comments in no way reflect the values or philosophy of our business. We are a proud Welsh company, with a long history of investment in communities.” Iceland’s move came as many in Wales said they would boycott the store as a result of Hann’s views.
Some defended Hann. Consumer journalist Harry Wallop tweeted:
Keith Hann is entitled to his views, however tedious and juvenile. He may think it clever and funny to mock the Welsh language as gibberish. Too many English people are proud of their inability to say more than a few words in another tongue. They are unwilling to see the glory of different cultures – even those in their own island.
But that’s not why Iceland sacked Hann. The simple reason is that he was not wise enough to see that mocking the country in which his company is based is not compatible with his role as the director responsible for Iceland’s reputation.
As the Western Mail said in an editorial, Iceland recognised that it didn’t make business sense for one of its most senior executives to insult an entire nation. It went on to point out how jokes that portrayed the Irish as stupid have thankfully and rightly died out. The Times also published a leader explaining why Iceland was right to sack Hann:
“Mr Hann’s comments have cost him his job. It may surprise him that there are hundreds of thousands of Welsh speakers in Britain, along with a small but thriving Welsh-speaking community in Argentina, and they are justifiably unhappy. So far from being gibberish, Welsh, like any other natural language, has a complex system of grammar and can express a full range of meanings. And it is integral to the culture of Britain. It is, in fact, in the form of its predecessor Brittonic Celtic, the oldest language of these isles and long predates English.”
Companies are under constant scrutiny. Those of us in PR have to judge our comments, far more than was the case even a decade ago. None of us is perfect, and everyone should be allowed the occasional mistake. But we also need to take the advice that we’d give to executives. If you make a mistake, say sorry. Treat others how you’d want to be treated yourself. Applaud diversity. Be open minded about other opinions. While it is sad to see someone losing their job, if Keith Hann had been a good head of PR, he’d surely have told himself that insulting Wales was bad news.
I’ve admired Dyson’s electrical devices since I bought one of its early vacuum cleaners in 1998. I love the elegant, clever designs. I also admired James Dyson’s long battle to bring his invention of the cyclonic, bagless cleaner to market.
So when our central heating failed just before Christmas, I was quick to order a Dyson Pure Hot+Cool heater for our large kitchen. It worked like a dream, so after almost a week without heating I bought another. This time, as I turned on the second Pure Hot+Cool for the first time, I saw a stark warning triangle in place of the display:
I called customer service, and eventually got the device working.
At least once a day the dreaded warning triangle would come on again, and while it was displayed the device would not do anything. After a week, the Pure Hot+Cool stopped working for good.
I called Dyson on Thursday 14 January, and was put through to an engineer. I was very impressed that she conducted a video diagnosis of the machine, which led her to conclude this was a faulty machine that needed to be replaced. She arranged for it to be collected, and a replacement delivered, the following Monday, 18 January. She explained that the courier would bring a box for the faulty machine.
Monday 18 January came and went without anything happening. I called a day or so later and was told that the Pure Hot+Cool was out of stock until early February, so there was no replacement available. It looked like I’d have to wait, despite what I was told by the helpful engineer.
At the end of January, I received a ray of hope. Dyson emailed to say ‘Your Dyson guarantee is now active’, showing a Dyson Pure Hot+Cool purchased on 28 January. From our experience with three purchases in December, Dyson sends these registration emails a day or two before you receive your machine. I waited for an email with delivery details, but got nothing.
I called Dyson yet again on Monday 8 February and was told that Dyson would ask the courier company what had happened. The agent said this could take up to five working days. Seven working days later, no one from Dyson has contacted me. The useless machine is sitting in the house, as it has for 30 days.
Needless to say, my view of Dyson has taken a big hit. Having spent £1,400 in 10 days in December on two heaters and a vacuum cleaner, I expected so much better.
PS: fortunately, our central heating was mended in late December.
Fifty years ago today, Britain and Ireland said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence and welcomed decimal money. From 15 February 1971, there would be 100 pence in a pound, rather than 12 shillings. That changeover decimal day in Britain was billed as D Day, no doubt a deliberate echo of the the D Day landings during the war, less than 27 years before.
I’m sure the decimal revolution was a wrench for my grandmothers, who grew up with Queen Victoria’s head on the nation’s coins. For me, it was a relief: as a seven year old, it meant an end to painful school maths lessons adding up in old money. But I still feel nostalgic for that lost world.
I grew up on old money, but was aware that change was on the way. Not long before decimalisation, my great aunt Megan offered my a choice: I could have my pocket money as a 10 shilling note or a 50p piece. I had never seen a 50p piece so went for that. Looking back, it was very generous regardless of the option I went for.
On the eve of the Second World War, around 800,000 children were evacuated from big cities like London to the countryside to keep them safe from devastating bombing attacks. Many of the children had never been to the countryside.
This mass movement of the young has long been fertile ground for writers and dramatists. As a child growing up in Wales in the 1970s, I loved the BBC television adaptation of Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden’s novel about children evacuated to Wales. Years later, I watched it again with my then eight year old son, Owen. He was equally enthralled.
Lesley Parr has followed in Nina Bawden’s footsteps with a superb debut novel featuring two brothers sent to Wales in September 1939. Jimmy and Ronnie arrive at the village of Llanbryn after an endless train journey from London.
The author evokes the tension as the children wait in the miners’ institute hall to be allocated to local families. At first, Jimmy is worried about his brother, fearing that his sulky looks and tears will deter the locals from choosing them as their guests. (This reminded me of the petty humiliation of being the last to be chosen for a team in school games in Cardiff.) But we soon find that Ronnie is quicker to settle and develop a bond with their hosts, Mr and Mrs Thomas. Jimmy resents the way his brother calls Mrs Thomas ‘Aunty Gwen’ and wishes their host wouldn’t pretend that the house in Heol Mabon was the boys’ home. Only in time does Jimmy establish his own sense of belonging in Llanbryn.
Lesley was born in Wales, and has a nice way of showing how the boys from London struggle with Welsh names and words. (In many ways, the Wales of 1939 would have been much more of a culture shock to newcomers than today, as Netflix, social media as well as television have created a common culture across countries and continents.) On arriving, Jimmy is puzzled by the name Llanbryn on the station platform : “Funny word. Too many Ls.” Later, Ronnie thinks they are having cow soup for lunch, mishearing the word cawl, a type of Welsh stew.
The author also skilfully develops the character and back story of Mr and Mrs Thomas. At the meeting to pair the children with local hosts, the couple intended to take just one child, but change their minds and provided a home for the brothers. Had they done it for money? As time goes by, we see that they really care for the London boys. Lesley also shows that Mr and Mrs Thomas are set apart from others in the village, with the Anglican vicar in particular badmouthing the nonconformist Mr Thomas. (“Chapel is low, see. Up at St Michael’s we’re closer to God”, sneers the vicar.) Mr Thomas is a far more agreeable character than the cold Mr Evans in Carrie’s War.
The Valley of Lost Secrets also shows the ebb and flow of friendships amongst the young people. Jimmy was wary of Florence, another evacuee from back home whose reputation had been darkened because she was seen as coming from a bad family. But in time he appreciates her qualities and friendship. By contrast, he becomes alienated from his best friend from home, Duff, who joins a gang that intimidates Jimmy.
The heart of the book is Jimmy’s frightening discovery of a human skull in a tree – the lost secrets in the title. I won’t spoil the surprise here, but I didn’t expect the story to develop as it did! This is a comforting tale of warmth and friendship overcoming fear and prejudice.
My family is familiar with the disruption the outbreak of war caused. My father, Bob Skinner, was 12 when the war began. His school, Emanuel in Wandsworth, was evacuated to Hampshire, but Dad was sent to live with an aunt in Cardiff, and listened to Chamberlain’s famous, sombre ‘This country is at war with Germany’ broadcast in Cardiff on the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939. His sister moved with her school out of London, and his older brother joined the RAF. A few years later, their father died of a heart attack aged just 52. Life was never the same again.
PS: a historical curiosity. Lesley refers to Cardiff Central station in the opening chapter. I presume she wanted to avoid confusing modern day readers by using the 1930s name, Cardiff General. British Rail renamed it in 1973.
In the deep midwinter, it’s too easy to hibernate. The sofa and screen exert a pull that even the most active cyclists can find hard to resist.
Yet it needn’t be like this. As a wise person once said, weather always looks worse through a window. When you’re out on the road, the rain may not feel so cold, so intense. (At least if you have the right clothes and mudguards.)
When the cold, rain and darkness makes ‘real’ cycling intimidating, Indoor cycling is the answer. It is a far more attractive option than when I did my first indoor ride in 1995. On a cold January day that year, I struggled to carry an indoor roller back to the office from a bike shop in Cheltenham. I used it occasionally. Seven years later, I did training for my first Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride on an indoor trainer, but they were empty hours: I wasn’t tested enough for the training to count.
The photo above shows me smiling as I descended the famous seven mile bank on path of the old Brecon & Merthyr Railway towards Talybont on Usk after an Easter Saturday ride from Cardiff with my friend Richard. It may have been spring, but we arrived in a blizzard! My Dawes Super Galaxy was the perfect ride, as I blogged recently.
By contrast, today’s inside cycling can be as testing as any real life hill. When I got my Wattbike Atom in 2018, I found I preferred TrainerRoad to Zwift. I quickly got bored with Zwift, yet I found TrainerRoad’s workouts oddly compelling. There was no hiding place from the effort it demanded. (Apart from dialling down the effort needed.) But this week, I discovered Zwift’s many attractions. Watopia, which I dismissed as a gimmick three years ago, now strikes me as a stunning backdrop for indoor cycling.
Yet the great outdoors still inspires and rewards like no indoor ride. Two weeks ago, I set off on my mountain bike in the snow. It was a pleasure to see families revelling in a winter wonderland – a brief escape from the tedium of England’s third pandemic lockdown. This ride was all about the satisfaction of being in the elements with no thought of Strava achievements. It was all the better for it.
As a result, I am miles ahead of my usual cycling goals. I cycled 508 miles indoors and out in January – over 150 miles more than my previous winter month’s total. I hope to pass 1,000 miles in 2021 before February is over. That will be over six weeks earlier than my previous fastest 1,00 miles, in 2019, when I was training for my second Land’s End to John O’Groats ride. It’s all about habit, and putting in the miles indoors when venturing out is unappealing.
I’ll close this post with an image of an earlier magical winter bike ride. One crisp winter’s day in 2012, I took my original 1994 mountain bike through Hodgemoor Wood above our village. I found joy in exploring the wintry trails, capturing the moment with my digital SLR, which I carried in my CamelBak. I blogged about those pleasures here.
We’re expecting snow again tomorrow. My bike is ready. Here’s to winter riding.
The news that Dawes has axed its famous Galaxy touring bike made me sad and nostalgic. My first cycling adventures featured the Dawes Super Galaxy seen in the photo above: my first weekend tour, my first week long cycling holiday and my debut century, all in a two year period in the 1990s.
I described my affection for the bike in a blogpost about my favourite bikes 12 years ago. Over 30 years ago Richard Ballantine dubbed the Galaxy a classic touring bike – a tribute to its longevity. I found it outstandingly reliable: in the five years I owned it, I didn’t get a single puncture or mechanical failure. It carried four laden panniers with ease – and the low gears meant I was able to climb all but the toughest west country hill on a nine day tour in 1995.
I will always have a soft spot for the traditional touring bike. My decision to buy one (a Peugeot Camargue) in 1989 was the start of my passion for cycling. I’d never had a good bike as a child and so my first ‘proper’ bike was a revelation. I started commuting from Teddington to Holborn on it. I found cycling up hills needn’t be purgatory. A couple of years later, I upgraded to the Super Galaxy.
I will never forget the pleasure of riding the Galaxy down the seven mile swoop to Talybont on Usk on Easter Saturday 1994. My friend Richard and I had found the Taff Trail from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil surprisingly easy (thanks to the easy inclines of the old railways it followed). The climb over the Brecon Beacons was another story and we were relieved to freewheel towards our destination at Talybont. (Although we arrived in a blizzard!) My father was kind enough to bring us and our bikes back to Cardiff the next day.
My greatest adventure on the Galaxy was that nine day tour of the west country. I’d plotted the route one January night, dreaming of warmer times, with OS maps spread out across my living room floor. The first day was a summer deluge, but it was the exception and as the tour unfolded a heatwave arrived. On the last day, we watched the Red Arrows against a perfect blue sky over the M4 near Chippenham.
I sold the bike a year later, but still kept faith with touring bikes, notably the Raleigh Randonneur, on which I completed my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002 and my final pannier-laden tour, from Cardiff to Bucks, in 2013.
Since then, my touring has been on light road bikes, with companies like Peak Tours carrying my overnight luggage. It has meant faster riding. Many cyclists have made the same switch from the traditional touring bike, while others have gone straight to gravel bikes and bikepacking – carrying their stuff in bags that fix straight to the frame rather than panniers fixed to racks. Our individual decisions have played a big part in the demise of the classic touring bike represented by the Dawes Galaxy. I don’t regret my switch, but I will always look back with affection to the bikes that started my love of cycling.
Who knows, maybe one day I will take the Randonneur back on the road for a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of the classic British tourer.
So that was 2020. A year like no other in the past century. We now know the havoc a pandemic can cause – much as my grandparents did a century ago with the so-called Spanish flu. (Sadly, my grandfather’s twin brother died in that pandemic, having survived the Great War trenches.)
Our lives have been utterly changed. We can’t meet our friends. We have to wear a mask when buying a loaf of bread. Christmas may not have been cancelled, but it wasn’t the sociable highlight of the year we’ve known all our lives.
My lifeline, apart from family and the ability to work from home, has been my bike. Or trike. Getting into the saddle has been a joy in this joyless year. In those early lockdown weeks, in the most wondrous spring in living memory, I celebrated the empty roads and vibrant nature – whether the April blossom or the magnificent red kites overhead. I blogged about those magical spring days here.
Today, New Year’s Eve, I passed 3,000 cycling miles in 2020. It was a modest ride of under eight miles, with the temperature barely about freezing. I experienced cycling feast and famine this year, with a very slow start followed by four successive months of over 500 miles in the saddle. But as summer became autumn, I lost my enthusiasm for pedalling the same old local routes. I recorded just 65 miles in October. Yet that milestone of 3,000 miles was a powerful motivator as Christmas approached, and I recorded my highest ever December mileage of 313 miles – with many of these indoors on my Wattbike Atom with TrainerRoad.
In years gone by, I often blogged on New Year’s Eve about my cycling memories of the old year, and my cycling adventures planned for the year ahead. (This example from 2013 is typical.) Tonight’s post may not be as noteworthy. But I do have dreams for 2021. Only time will tell whether those dreams will come true.
Another coast to coast?
Back in 2017, I cycled across England from the Irish Sea at Whitehaven to the North Sea at Tynemouth on the famous Coast to Coast (C2C) route. It was a wonderful experience, despite unseasonal cold weather on the first day, and the struggle of the climb to Hartside on a bike without a low enough gear. As I contemplated possible challenges for 2021, a similar coast to coast adventure seemed perfect. Better still, Peak Tours, which proved magnificent as my Land’s End to John O’Groats tour company in 2019, offered just such a trip in May 2021 along the Way of the Roses, slightly further south, from Morecambe to Bridlington via York.
Will it happen? Will Britain – and especially England – have found, belatedly, a way of controlling the pandemic and rolling out vaccinations, allowing tourism to resume? We will find out. In the meantime, I will get training. I’ve found a combination of TrainerRoad sweet spot workouts on my indoor Wattbike and rides outside on wintry roads is a good way of gaining fitness out of season.
Meanwhile, I will reflect on previous adventures, especially in the region that I will be crossing (with luck) in May. Back in 2019, we cycled through Lancaster on LEJOG, seeing the effects of days of heavy rain, as seen above. I also remember with affection cycling through the northern fell country on my earlier LEJOG in 2002. Perhaps I will get the chance to stay in my favourite hotel of the 2019 LEJOG, The Mill at Conder Green.
Christmas night 2020. This has been the hardest Christmas since the war, overtaking 1973, when Britain was facing a three day week during the miners’ strike. This time the cause is COVID-19, the virus that swept the world in 2020, killing 70,000 in Britain alone so far.
Last Saturday, the UK’s governments made dramatic u-turns, ending arrangements in many areas for families to meet over Christmas. We were due to visit Dad, 94, in his Cardiff residential home just before Christmas. We postponed the trip for a week as South East England went into near-lockdown, and then cancelled it as the UK and Welsh governments introduced even tougher restrictions six days before Christmas.
Yet Christmas wasn’t cancelled. We enjoyed the planned quiet family Christmas Day (the three of us plus dog and hamster) and had a Zoom call with Dad, Bob Skinner, during the morning.
Dad has written movingly this week about his saddest Christmas memory, in 1942. His father died on 21 December that year, leaving 16 year old Bob Skinner mourning a lovely, loving father he barely knew. Dad recalls those muted wartime Christmases, with families apart, food rationed and deadly dangers facing those at home as well as those on the front lines.
Happily, today’s dangers, while real, are modest compared with Britain’s fight for survival 80 years ago. Dad hopes to receive his first COVID-19 vaccination dose in the coming week or so. Let us hope that 2021 will bring the start of better times, not least for the countless people and businesses whose livelihoods are threatened by this deadly virus. Christmas 2021 should be a time when we can hug again.
I will end with the image of my indomitable father, dressed to celebrate Christmas at Sunrise of Cardiff. Thank you to all the carers, NHS staff and and everyone else who has made us smile this unique Christmas and through the year.
I wrote this article early in 1995. As the UK prepares for the possible disaster of a no-deal break up with the European Union, I reflect that I got it right 25 years ago.
Europe – a dangerous obsession
Rob Skinner, March 1995
British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.
No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.
The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.
If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.
The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.
Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.
Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.
None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.
As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.
This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?
The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.
John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?
Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*
If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.
John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.
In this anniversary year , of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.
After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.
Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.
* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994