About Rob Skinner

I'm Rob Skinner. My family know me as Robert. My wife calls me Ert. (The part of 'Robert' that I don't always use...) I've been working in PR since 1987, mostly in financial services. In my spare time, I enjoy cycling reading, editing videos on my computer and practising my Welsh (dwi'n dod yn wreiddiol o Gaerdydd). And blogging. Do please post a comment! NOTE: this is my personal blog. It does not represent the views of the organisations I work for.

Goodbye 2020: a cycling resolution

Cycling to Cardiff Castle, July 2020

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?

Completing my coast to coast ride, Tynemouth, May 2017

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.

Near Lancaster: the River Lune floodwaters, August 2019

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.

Dining at The Mill, Conder Green

Here’s to 2021’s adventures.

The coronavirus Christmas

Christmas Day Zoom call with Dad, 94

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.

Britain, Wales and Europe, 25 years on

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.

The Senedd in Cardiff on Brexit day.

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 [1995], 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

British Airways outrages Wales by backing England rugby in Llanelli clash

British Airways lost a lot of goodwill in Wales today by tweeting support for England in the autumn nations cup rugby international at Llanelli.

The airline may be a sponsor of the England team but a moment’s thought should have revealed that such a tweet would upset a lot of Welsh supporters – like me.

Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething put it well: “Good way to annoy 3m potential customers. BBC News at Ten presenter Huw Edwards tweeted, “I love @EasyJet.” The super-active YesCymru independence campaign was quick to draw attention to BA’s blunder.

Some have countered, saying that BA’s tweet was understandable as the airline sponsors England rugby. But that misses the point. For a UK brand to choose one nation over the others is ill-judged, especially today, when the union is under pressure and national consciousness is stronger than ever in Scotland and Wales. Nationwide Building Society was wiser, sponsoring all four UK football nations, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, earlier this century.

Other brands have been less sensible. I got so annoyed by emails from O2 urging me to cheer on England’s rugby team that I blocked all marketing emails and then moved to EE. I should add that I have nothing against others supporting England rugby – just that brands need to understand national identity.

To end on a positive note. To its credit, British Airways quickly deleted its tweet and apologised, saying it had strayed offside. Let’s hope that it has learned its lesson.

PS: Wales lost – but it’s unlikely that BA’s support for England made any difference.

Remembering Harold Evans, the legendary newspaper editor who exposed the Thalidomide scandal

Hands on editor: Harold Evans at the Sunday Times. Photo: Sunday Times

There’s a two word reply to anyone who doubts the good that journalism can do: Harold Evans. The legendary campaigning editor of the Sunday Times and Northern Echo, who has died aged 92, fought for justice for the Thalidomide victims, exposed countless other scandals and won greater freedom of information in notoriously secretive Britain.

Harry Evans was proud of his northern roots, and his parents. In his autobiography My Paper Chase, he talks lovingly of his parents: how he was ‘bursting with pride’ when by chance he witnessed his engine driver father bringing a busy train into a station in Manchester. Later, Evans senior drove the royal train. He also described how his mother kept a flourishing corner shop, beating off competition from a new Co-op through dedication to her customers and canny pricing. (She spotted a few items that were cheaper in the rival store, and lowered her own prices to match.)

His interest in the press was stirred by a holiday encounter with soldiers who had been rescued from Dunkirk in the great evacuation of the remains of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. His father asked the haggard men on Rhyl beach what had happened. Their harrowing stories contrasted with the newspaper headlines proclaiming Dunkirk as a victory. At the time, young Harry was embarrassed by his father’s keenness to talk to strangers. Later, he realised that Evans senior was doing what any good reporter would do: asking questions and finding out what happened. It inspired him to become a journalist and, in time, one of the greatest editors of the twentieth century.

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Books and their readers: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham

A bookish read

I’ve loved books for half a century. I remember the moment the love affair began: my grandmother giving me an Enid Blyton tale featuring a wooded island. (The Secret Island?) There was no turning back. My reading status changed: in a relationship.

Martin Latham has made books his working life as well as his passion. He has sold books for 35 years, and has produced a book of his own, The Bookseller’s Tale, that is full of intriguing stories and authors I had never heard of. Even his dust-jacket is revealing: it reveals he was responsible for the largest petty-cash claim in Waterstones’ history when he paid for the excavation of a Roman bath-house floor under his bookshop.

Latham opens by talking about ‘comfort books’ – books we love, and keep buying and reading. They may, or may not, be literary masterpieces. The author recalls the novelist AS Byatt buying a copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld book in his Canterbury bookshop and admitting she couldn’t be seen buying it in London.

Latham never quite defines a comfort book. A book you read in difficult times? A volume you loved when you were young, and which gives you a heady draught of nostalgia every time you re-read it? A book that moved or inspired you deeply and which you read time and time again?

The definition may not matter. Most of us have books that we remember vividly and which we will happily read again. Here are some of mine.

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In praise of Terence Conran

A Conran legacy

I was a big fan of Habitat in my twenties and thirties. I loved the clean design of the furniture, kitchen wear and dinner sets. I’m typing this blogpost on the 23 year old Habital dining table (now my working from home desk) seen in the photo, while drinking from the pictured 31 year old coffee cup from the store. Somewhere I still have a Habitat fondue set and towel rail.

It’s all thanks to Terence Conran, who has died aged 88. Conran was one of the entrepreneurs who changed the face of Britain, bringing fresh, modern design to the high street and the home.

“It is hard to overstate how uninteresting London was then,” Conran later said. “You could go along a terrace of houses, and every living room you looked in was the exactly the same, with the same extremely dreary furniture.” (You can see a glimpse of that world even today in many chintzy guesthouses.) Design was a hugely under appreciated discipline, as a glance at almost any household product would show. Conran opened the first Habitat store in 1964, and the stores quickly became a symbol of the Sixties. Over time, Habitat made the duvet (or continental quilt as my parents and grandparents called them), beanbag, wok and fondue part of everyday life.

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David Walsh and Lance Armstrong: truth to tell

It was all about the cheating

Almost 20 years ago, I was enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. His best selling book, It’s Not About the Bike, told the extraordinary tale of the cancer survivor who returned to win the world’s toughest cycle race, the Tour de France.

Back then, I was a modest cyclist (I still am) with dreams of cycling the length of Great Britain, Land’s End to John O’Groats. I was inspired by Armstrong’s story, especially his dedication to training. Yes, I knew all about cycling’s sordid relationship with drugs, notably the 1998 Tour de France’s Festina affair. (Paul Kimmage lifted the lid on this culture in Rough Ride.) But I believed the Armstrong line: he was the most tested cyclist in history. And every one had shown him to be clean. Karen and I followed Armstrong’s annual progress in Le Tour. I wore the US Postal team kit on several cycling holidays.

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Poundbury: Prince Charles’ model Dorset village, 30 years on

Poundbury

As you approach Dorchester from the west, you see a dramatic sight: a fire station that looks like a design from the era of George III. The royal connection is real: this is Poundbury, the model village created by Prince Charles to bring to life his dream of building new communities using traditional architectural styles.

Charles famously campaigned against modern architecture in the 1980s, describing a proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He made those comments in a 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects – and incidentally compared the design to that of a municipal fire station. We now know what Charles would like a fire station to look like. The speech killed the proposed design.

Charles later said that he didn’t intend to drag Britain back to the 18th century, or to begin a style war. “All I asked was for room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism.”

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Coasteering: Dorset delight with Cumulus

Coasteering with Cumulus near Swanage. As amazing as it looks

Owen, 12, was thrilled when I booked a coasteering adventure with Cumulus Outdoors, a company specialising in outdoor adventures and residential programmes. We’d hoped to go coasteering in West Wales but Storm Ellen sank that plan. We arrived at the Cumulus base in Langton Matravers, just outside Swanage, with a sense of excitement – and, for me, a few butterflies.

Our guides were welcoming and patient, which was good as we took time to get into our wetsuits. (Karen, as a former guide leader, would have hurried us up.) We began the trek to the starting point, the stunning Dancing Ledge on Dorset’s Jurassic coast, England’s only natural world heritage site.

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