Cycling to Oxford’s dreaming spires

Oxford

I’ve always liked the idea of cycling to Oxford. It’s just 40 miles from home, making it a realistic adventure. Yet until yesterday I’d never made the journey, despite enjoying the annual Bike Oxford sportive.

It nearly didn’t happen. The forecast was ominous – I was going to get wet. But after a lazy day in the sunshine on Saturday, I shrugged off the easy option, packed a rain jacket and headed to the city of the dreaming spires.

I’d barely gone seven miles before I felt raindrops. I confess I briefly considered cutting the ride short. But today was a day for determination in the face of precipitation. If I’d been riding the London-Wales-London audax (whose route I was largely following to Oxford) I’d have had no choice. So I donned the rain jacket by the Two Hoots sign above between Amersham and Hyde Heath and continued. I was glad I did as the rain wasn’t that heavy, and didn’t last long.

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Going the extra 1.61 kilometre

When inches ruled Britain

Britain has been happily using a mixture of metric and imperial measurements for half a century. So yesterday’s headlines that the government plans to overturn EU restrictions on selling goods in pounds and ounces are far more symbolic than real. A sop to Telegraph readers. Inevitably, that paper called it a Brexit triumph. The more mature and modern Times called imperial a dead weight, adding the plan should not go the distance.

The current rules themselves are pretty mild. They say that traders have to display metric as well as imperial weights when selling goods – something sensible sellers do anyway, given the nation’s children have been taught metric measures for 50 years.

Like many British people born in the sixties and seventies, I switch effortlessly between metric and imperial. If I’m cooking, it’s millilitres and grams. (Why would anyone punish themselves by cooking in ounces, fluid ounces and the rest?) If I’m making anything, the simplicity of metric makes that the natural choice. But I measure my bike and car journeys in miles, my beer in pints and my height in feet and inches.

People often say Britain’s switch to metric has taken a long time. Parliament first debated going metric in 1818. But the real change came in the 1960s, as metrication began in earnest at the same time Britain prepared to ditch the shilling for decimal currency in 1971. I had a few lessons adding up in ‘old money’ (that must have been in 1969 or 1970) but I never remember being taught about imperial measures. Education in Wales had gone metric. So too had the BBC’s Blue Peter: I remember baffling the owner of Lendons model shop in Cardiff in 1974 when I tried to buy craft materials in millimetres, following the presenter’s instructions!

I doubt many traders will take advantage of the new freedom to sell only in pounds and ounces. But the move will do no harm. While I opposed Brexit, I do share the unease at unnecessary regulations that restrict everyday life and business. Ironically, however, UK governments have been a past master at this. When turning Brussels regulations into UK law, they often made them even tighter.

If Telegraph readers want to celebrate this modest freedom with a pint of warm beer with a restored crown mark on the glass, let them. But the rest of us will barely notice or care.

Surfing at Fiftysomething

Rob tries surfing

For 10 years, I’ve looked admiringly at the surfers cresting the Atlantic waves at Mawgan Porth on our regular Cornish holidays. Watching the groups led by KingSurf surf school heading down the beach, I though I’d love to do that, but feared that at my age I’d only embarrass myself by trying.

Last week, I put my doubts aside and gave it a go. 13 year old Owen and I had two lessons with KingSurf and loved it. We did better on the first lesson, as there were more waves and we had more practice. On the second lesson, we had the benefit of a particularly good instructor, seen in the yellow top below. He noticed that I was instinctively putting my wrong leg forward – something I hadn’t even noticed. Had we had better surf, I think I’d have made more progress. (During the first lesson, I stood up several times – something I never thought I’d manage.)

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Women in journalism: my mother’s view from the 1940s

My mother’s article about journalism as a career for women

We got a precious glimpse into attitudes to women in journalism in the 1940s this week when my father Bob Skinner gave me a handwritten article my late mother Rosemary Skinner (nee Preece) wrote over 70 years ago as part of her journalism training.

I could hear Mum’s voice as I read her talking about rude awakenings, and advising women reporters to dress quietly but with distinction. (Her point being that you may be present at an inquest and a fashionable reception on the same day.) Intriguingly, she comments that ‘the old saying “women are the unfortunate victims of sex prejudice” is rapidly dying’, given that there were more openings for women workers on a newspaper at the time. I suspect that may have been a little optimistic!

Rosemary Preece as a young reporter

Mum’s own career in journalism was short lived. She put down her reporter’s notebook for good after my sister was born in 1953 when she was just 25. (It was common for women in the Fifties to give up their careers on starting a family, in many cases because unenlightened employers insisted on it.) Reading her article today, I can’t help thinking she could have done very well, with her determination, her way with people and her unique personality. She wrote all those years ago that ‘most women reporters soon learn to add a small amount of charm, and larger amounts of persuasiveness, even persistence’. Mum had all those qualities in abundance.

You can reads Mum’s article below: click continue reading.

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Pandemic! Dad’s Care Home Diary on Kindle

In March 2020, as coronavirus took hold in Britain, my father Bob Skinner started a blog to record his day to day experiences during the pandemic. We have now published the diary as a Kindle book.

Bob has a true reporter’s eye for the events of the year that changed our lives for ever, explaining how he recovered after three weeks in hospital with coronavirus. He also recalls his first reunion with his family, shown live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Moving and often amusing, Pandemic: My Care Home Diary gives a unique account of what life was like for Britain’s care home residents during the worst pandemic for over 100 years. It was a pleasure and a privilege to edit the blog and prepare it for publication. We think Bob’s book will be a lasting tribute to the carers who risked their own lives looking after their vulnerable residents.

Here are a few extracts from the book. You can buy it at the Kindle store here.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Silent bells

It’s Sunday. It’s chilly but the sun is shining, a rare, welcome sight after dark weeks of wind and rain. A normal Sunday in Cardiff? No, it is unique, historic. Looking out of my window in Cyncoed Road, the city is strangely quiet. Far fewer cars, no buses, just the occasional dog walker and young jogger. Not an elderly person in sight. 

Last week it was busy, with nonstop traffic, people going to work, children off to school. Last Sunday, the bells were calling people to worship. Today they are silent, and the church doors are firmly shut. Members are no doubt fervently praying at home for normal life to return soon. How many centuries ago was it, I wonder, when people were banned from leaving their home?

Friday 3 April

On Air

No trouble finding something to write about today. I made the news myself.

Yesterday, I was having an after-dinner cup of tea in our bistro when Virgil, the deputy general manager, came over with a message from Sunrise headquarters. They had seen my coronavirus diary entries and asked if I would go on ITV to talk about our carers. I agreed.

So it was a new challenge. Was I too old, too rusty? I would see. Later in the evening came instructions on how the makeshift operation had to be done in lockdown. My living room became a studio. What a difference. No camera or sound equipment, just a laptop on my coffee table.

‘Are you ready, Bob?’ ‘Yes, fine,’ I replied. I was on air. It was all over in minutes. I remembered most of my key words, did not move, and think I made the tribute to carers that they deserve. A lot of phone calls and emails today. Fame at last – and it’s only taken 93 years. 

Sunday 12 July
Reunion with Robert

Yesterday was a special, memorable day. My first visitor after four months – my son Robert. He spent the day, five hours of driving, to have just an hour with me.

It was more than a happy reunion after those unreal months: proof that brighter days lie ahead. It was far from normal. We old people are being carefully looked after – guarded – and that made the difference. I had been looking forward for so long to today and was standing by the window watching for him to arrive, but I had to wait. 

He first had to be ‘made safe’ by being kitted out with apron, gloves and face mask by a carer. Then he was taken to the gazebo set up in front of the building. Inside were two seats, the regulation two metres apart. I was taken out to join him. No hug or handshake allowed. After a wave and a laugh we lost no time in getting down to chat, making up for lost time.

The unusual visit ended with us being filmed and briefly interviewed as part of a planned ITV Good Morning Britain broadcast on Monday morning for which my grand-daughter Ria has been invited to Sunrise.

Sunday 16 August
A forgotten army

The Welsh government’s advice to vulnerable people to shield to reduce the risk of coronavirus ends today. They can resume as normal a life as possible. Good news for them and their families after a debilitating five months of loneliness and worry.

But there is another, larger section of the community that is waiting for signs of release from lockdown – we care home residents. I am beginning to think that, like the men who fought in Burma, we are the forgotten army. Reacting, reasonably, but belatedly, the government clamped down on us. And we are still in a vice-like grip.

While the rest of the country starts to experience the pleasures of normal life, our freedom is still very limited, and, worse, there seems little prospect of change. 

And who is thinking of us, speaking up for us?

Saturday 26 September

I have coronavirus

This is one diary entry I did not expect to make but the Sunrise luck has run out. I was at the art class this morning when a few of us were asked to return to our rooms. That sounded ominous, and it was.

I was told that five residents had been tested positive. I had expected to find that I was one of them as I have not been feeling too well for a few days; a bad cold and a cough. A few hours later I was told that I had indeed tested positive for coronavirus.

So it’s all change. We are all confined to our rooms with a carer looking after us. 

Sunrise has almost shut down, the restaurant closed, activities suspended. What a shame. I feel sad after all the effort they have put in over the months, but there it is. We have to put up with it. I am feeling pretty good which I hope will continue and I will make the best of the temporary new life style. 

Being alone most of the time does not worry me as I still have plenty to keep me occupied. And it is no use worrying. Everything has been so uncertain for so long that a little more uncertainty will do no harm.

Monday 26 October

Recovering in hospital

Seven months ago, coronavirus cast a cloud of uncertainty and fear over the world, affecting the lives of billions of people. Despite all the efforts the cloud still hangs over us.

My life changed again when I was one of eight Sunrise residents tested positive and I obviously wondered what form it would take.

For the first week or so, it wasn’t so serious. It was like having a bad cold. But then I started feeling much worse, with nausea, swings from being too cold and too hot, sleeplessness and even delusions. A fall in the bathroom early one morning proved disastrous. I was rescued by two carers who got me back into bed via a hoist. My condition worsened and I was taken to hospital with a broken ankle as well as coronavirus.

After three weeks in hospital and some very difficult days the nursing and treatment is now working. Progress was slow until a few days ago when I was given some new tablets to stop the pain and enable me to sleep. There was an immediate effect. I asked for an increase and there was a remarkable effect. The pain is less than for months, I can get out of bed and am starting to walk again and manage to look after myself. What a difference from being helpless and reliant upon others.

Thursday 12 November

Watch out Lewis Hamilton

After giving up driving a car after more than 70 years, I thought I would miss being behind the wheel. But I have found the answer – my shiny blue and silver electric scooter. With its headlights, direction indicators and even a horn, it is ready for the road, top speed 8mph, or 4mph on the pavement.

This week it became my lifeline. With my heavily strapped broken ankle making movement painful and difficult, the scooter came to the rescue. Now I am driving again all day, indoors. It’s my mini Monte Carlo circuit. Top speed indoors is about 1mph across the 30 foot living room with detours into my bathroom and bedroom – watch that chair! 

Tired after a day ‘on the road’, it’s time for bed. My last journey. Into the dark bedroom, driving straight for the bed. Headlights blazing, I tumble in. Hard work driving, but exciting.

Watch out, Mr Hamilton.

Monday 21 December

The shortest, saddest day

Today is the shortest day of the year, the darkest of the winter. This day, 21 December, in 1942 was one of the saddest days of my life. It was wartime and we were facing a stark Christmas. The war news was grim, there was rationing and shortages. It was the day my father, Frank died.

At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.

Like this year, it was an unusual Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour.

Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad. Two days before war was declared our family separated, never to be all together again.

Christmas Day 2020

A Christmas like no other

Christmas Day. A day so different this year from any other. A strange day, with most of us missing the usual family gathering, and millions with no family, unable even to give their elderly parents a hug. A day to remember, and to forget.

My day started with Christmas greetings by Zoom from Robert, Karen and Owen (plus dog Rufus), all three resplendent in Christmas jumpers, Owen’s a spectacular Welsh one. Nadolig Llawen!

I was sporting my first ever Christmas bow tie. After trying to tie it for nearly an hour last night one of the carers managed it in a minute this morning. Then it was downstairs for the get together and to receive our gifts from Sunrise. I was patient, opening my presents under my Christmas tree mid-morning. 

The festively dressed carers and Sunrise team were as cheerful as ever, making it another happy day although I would love to see those masks and visors removed. 

But thank you, everyone, you made it a special day, again.

Friday 22 January 2021

Vaccination Day

It’s vaccination day at Sunrise. A day of relief, and celebration. Mass vaccination.

As usual, the care home got it right. Organised to the minute. Calm and relaxed, just right for us old people. And, a happy touch, flags and balloons to cheer us – a bright idea. Having a jab is never fun but today it was relished, welcomed with open arms.

The troops were on parade, with our sticks, walking aids, wheelchairs, ready and willing. The long wait was over. When the call came we went into the temporary surgery, rolled up our sleeves. It was over in a flash. I did not feel a thing. Then into a lounge for a rest and a glass of orange juice. To mark the historic day we had our pictures taken and then it was time for lunch, happy that a milestone in the long, arduous pandemic road pointed the pathway to safety.

Well done, Sunrise, and the NHS!

Wednesday 10 March

Freedom in sight

Sitting looking out of my window onto the sunlit street below, the world looks inviting. Normal. Not exciting. People driving cars and vans, riding bicycles, pushing prams, jogging, walking. Across the road a man is working in his garden. Beyond, I see the lighting towers of the university training ground.

A typical suburban scene on a typical afternoon, but it is deceptive. Almost a mirage. I cannot go out to join it. Like countless millions throughout the world, I am a prisoner in my own home. Trapped. For a year, because of the plague stalking our planet, creating a living horror story.

The world has seen many fanatical leaders, dictators and despots who have held their subjects in thrall, but this is Britain in the 21st century, beacon of democracy. Over 60 million of us can no longer call our lives our own. Leaders have changed the rules and laws. Unlike heroes of the past, we have not rebelled, risen up in anger to break the chains. We have agreed with our leaders, followed their dictats and changed our whole way of life – voluntarily.

But freedom is nigh. Human ingenuity, courage and patience are winning the battle. Apprehension and danger receding, we hope we face only a few more months of isolation before we will be free to resume normal lives.

And I will happily ride my scooter out onto Cyncoed Road and rejoin the real world out there.

Elections 2021: London media ignore Wales again

For Wales, see … nowhere

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.

No such thing as the Welsh Assembly

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.

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Don’t insult Wales: Iceland sacks PR chief Keith Hann

Welsh supermarket chain Iceland has sacked its PR director Keith Hann after he repeatedly insulted the country and its language.

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.

Dyson: endless wait to replace faulty Pure Hot+Cool heater

Warning: a £550 Dyson Pure Hot+Cool heater that never works

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.

The faulty machine, four weeks after it should have been collected and replaced

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.

Update, Thursday 4 March

The replacement finally arrived today.

Goodbye to the shilling: decimalisation, 50 years on

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.

My childhood money

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.

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Review: The Valley of Lost Secrets

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.

The great exodus: children arriving in Devon, 1940. Photo: IWM

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.

Before the war changed everything: my father and grandfather, Margate, 1938

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.