My 25 years online

It’s 25 years this month since I got online for the first time. I’d had a computer for years – an Amstrad word processor in 1987 switching to a PC in 1994 – and had been following the growing excitement about the ‘information superhighway’ as the web was called back then.

The web looked very different back then. Pages were light on graphics, as they took ages to load on the slow 56k dial up connection most people used. (Broadband came later.) And you couldn’t use the (landline) phone at the same time as it used the same line. You also paid your internet service provider for online access as well as the cost of dialling up to get online.

The web might have been made for me. I have an incurable curiosity and was soon addicted to finding out about anything and everything online. During the 1997 general election, I found out my local winning candidate from the BBC website. (The Tory candidate – unlike in so many places during Tony Blair’s landslide victory.) Soon after, Dad and I pondered the age of the prized cricket bat that his father had bought him in the 1930s. Because it had been signed by the England and New Zealand teams, we were able to date it based on the signatures. Curiously the website we used for our research was from India.

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Cycling The Way of the Roses with Peak Tours

High Hill Lane, Settle – well named!

Not another hill! I was struggling. It had been a very hilly day, and I was climbing yet again. Even in my lowest gear, the wheels barely seemed to be moving. The Yorkshire Dales are stunning, but far from flat.

I was cycling along The Way of the Rose, a coast to coast route from Morecambe on the Irish Sea to Bridlington on the North Sea. The name refers to the famous symbols of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although most of the route is in Yorkshire. More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was ready for a cycling adventure, and the Way of the Roses in three days was ideal. Best of all, it was run by Peak Tours, the company that so impressed me with its Land’s End to John O’Groats tour in 2019. I originally booked for May 2021 but Peak Tours happily transferred me to the June tour when lockdown prevented the original taking place.

Eric Morecambe in his hometown

I drove up to Morecambe the day before the tour began, and enjoyed walking along the seafront to see the statue of Eric Morecambe, the comedian who with Ernie Wise was one of the best-loved names in British television when I was a child in the Seventies. (He certainly brought us sunshine during the tour, in contrast to torrential rain and flooding in the south.) At dusk, I walking back from dinner with the tour guides and fellow cyclists, I was thrilled to see horses galloping across the sands. It reminded me of legendary 1970s Grand National winner Red Rum, who was famously trained on Southport sands.

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Climate crisis: the train must take the strain

What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.

Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.

Family travel – at a cost

Cost

Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.

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London calling: to St Paul’s

St Paul’s dome

It was an odd feeling, stepping onto a London train for the first time in 19 months. This was my life for many years, yet old habits ended when the pandemic gripped Britain in March 2020.

We were heading into London for Merchant Taylors’ School’s triennial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. Our son Owen is in the Merchant Taylors’ choir and chamber choir, so we were lucky enough to be given seats under the dome. It was very moving to hear the voices from so many traditions and cultures resonating in this historic cathedral.

The choir at St Paul’s. Photo: Merchant Taylors’ School

The service reflects Merchant Taylors’ School’s heritage. It was formed by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, one of the City of London’s 12 historic livery companies. The school moved out of the City of London to Northwood between the two world wars but still cherishes its City roots.

St Paul’s Covid memorial

This triennial service should have been held a year ago but was delayed, like so many events, by the Covid pandemic. It was moving to see the cathedral’s memorial to those who lost their lives in the greatest healthcare crisis in a century.

After the service, I told Owen the remarkable story of how St Paul’s survived the Blitz during the second world war. I dug out a book I bought over 30 years ago: London Before the Blitz, by Richard Trench. The author described the cathedral as a fireman’s nightmare. There are actually two domes: inner and outer structures. The fear was a fire in the gap between the two, which could spread undetected until the whole structure collapsed.

St Paul’s survives the Blitz. Photo: Herbert Mason, IWM

The fear almost came true on the terrible night of 29 December 1940. The Germans planned their aerial assault with brutal efficiency. It was the greatest bombing raid ever at that time. In the lull between Christmas and new year, the City was empty of people. There was a very low tide to impede fire fighting efforts.

At 6.40pm the call went out: St Paul’s dome was on fire. An incendiary bomb had pierced the lead covering the outer dome. It looked like Wren’s masterpiece was ablaze. American broadcaster Ed Murrow told the world that ‘The church that means most to Londoners is gone. St Paul’s cathedral, built by Sir Christopher Wren, her great dome towering over the capital of the Empire, is burning to the ground as I talk to you now’. Happily, as he broadcast the incendiary burnt through the timbers and fell onto the floor of the great church where it fizzled out. Herbert Mason’s iconic photo caught St Paul’s in its moment of crisis. Richard Trench’s book graphically illustrates how miraculous the survival of St Paul’s was: almost the whole of the City around the cathedral was in ruins.

Merchant Taylors’ pupils and staff at St Paul’s

After the moving service, we headed back to Marylebone, following our old footsteps along Wigmore Street and Marylebone Lane, popping briefly into Daunt Books, the most beautiful bookshop in London.

Rush hour, 2021

We took our seats on the 1724 from London Marylebone to Gerrards Cross. The train was earily quiet for a rush hour – even on a Friday. I reflected that I’d once have struggled to reach for my bag from the overhead rack amidst the rush hour passengers. It made a much more enjoyable trip, but I do fear for the economics of rail travel when the climate crisis should be making railways the obvious means of transport into our great cities.

We relished our return to London. We shall be back.

Mourning David Amess – and yearning for a kinder politics

Britain was horrified by yesterday’s murder of Sir David Amess – the second member of parliament to be killed in five years, after the tragic loss of Jo Cox in 2016. Police are treating Sir David’s killing as an act of terrorism.

In the meantime, I yearn for an end of the climate of hatred that has developed in British politics in recent years. As I blogged a week ago after the death from cancer of James Brokenshire MP politics has always been a rough trade. But calling your political rivals scum (as Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner did recently in referring to Tories) and enemies of the people and traitors (as populist right wing papers labelled the judiciary and MPs who didn’t support Brexit) is undermining democracy and the rule of law. All amplified by the poisonous echo chamber of social media, which circulates hate speech and lies.

This rancid mix may not have been the spur to the person who ended David Amess’s life. But it makes reasonable debate on crucial but sensitive topics almost impossible.

Britain’s parliamentarians – in Westminster, Cardiff Bay and Holyrood – serve the people tirelessly. A friend recently praised the new MP for Chesham and Amersham, Sarah Green, for her superb support on a family matter. Our friend is not a natural Lib Deb voter – but Sarah, like all MPs, is dedicated to serve and help all her constituents, no matter how they voted. MPs, MSs and MSPs have become a social service, far removed to their predecessors years 60 years ago who had far less contact with their constituents. They deserve our support especially when they live in fear after two of their peers have been struck down in the service of the people.

Fifty years on: converting to North Sea gas

From town gas to North Sea Gas

Back to the Seventies. That has been a theme of the past few weeks as a fuel crisis looms, with rocketing prices and supply problems in Britain.

Few people will remember, but the early 1970s also saw one of the biggest changes in British domestic and industrial history. The discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965 led the nation to switch from town gas, which was produced by heating coal. As a result, around 40 million gas appliances in Britain had to be converted to burn natural rather than town gas. Britain used to have over a thousand local gas works, but North Sea gas made these manufacturing sites redundant, with gas now being stored rather than made locally.

Our family was very unusual as our gas cooker was converted not once but three times. We were living in Whitton, Twickenham when London converted from North Thames town gas to North Sea gas. But soon after, we moved back to Wales – which had not yet switched. So we had to convert the cooker back to run on town gas, before switching yet again when Cardiff converted. The change had another legacy: a huge banner advert for High Speed Gas across the front of Cardiff Central station, which hid the legend ‘Great Western Railway’. (On display again since 1985.)

It wasn’t our only big fuel switch. When we moved into our house in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside, in 1971, we inherited a coal burning central heating boiler. I remember a frightening drama soon after. The pressure gauge on the boiler was moving into the danger zone, and Mum and my sister were getting worried it was going to blow up. (Dad was in Japan at the time on a coveted Winston Churchill fellowship.) My uncle Bert came to the rescue, and I think they poured water over the furnace to put the boiler out and end the crisis. Soon after, we switched to gas central heating, and the coal shed became a storage room.

The Oval gasholder. Photo: JGUK via Wikimedia Commons

Gasholders like the famous one behind the Oval cricket ground in London were a familiar part of the urban landscape for years. Originally they were part of a town’s gas works, storing the gas produced there. For the past 50 years they have stored gas from the North Sea, but from the 1990s onwards they were condemned as unnecessary and few now survive. How ironic that Britain’s acute lack of gas storage capacity is such a feature of the growing fuel crisis. (The country has storage for just four or five days’ winter demand; Germany has 16 times as much.) The government’s decision allow the closure of the Rough storage facility in the North Sea in 2017 now looks like an act of self harm. Maybe we shouldn’t have pulled down all those iconic gasholders.

PS: I played a very minor part in the privatisation of British Gas in 1986. I was a management trainee for Nationwide in Newport, Wales, and gave a presentation to British Gas employees in Cardiff explaining the sharesave account used for the staff share purchase scheme.

PPS: we even had a gas fridge when I was very young, but got rid of it before gas conversion.

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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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.