|Thursday 30/10/2014 23:35|
I couldn't resist reading up a little on the show before we headed for Taunton tonight. There were, unsurprisingly, a number of blogs about the experience of being on the show. They broadly followed the same arc - and comfortingly all echoed our experience of being picked to be in the audience. Everyone who has seen the show has, at some point, wondered about this - especially if there appears to be a particularly weighted audience sometimes. But they are extremely careful to avoid accusations of bias and ensure a fair balance. This involved a call earlier in the week from the Producer who wanted a question on the spot, along with details of our work, voting intentions and political allegiances. One selected we were issued with an email to bring along with photographic ID. They are very careful that only the people who have applied and been selected show up - and an incursion of Badger Cull protestors on the site meant even more stringent measures tonight too! Once security checked we were ushered into a sports hall with large TVs showing the day's news and drinks on hand. Here we were asked to write out a second question, as topical as possible. A sheet of A4 also provided the credentials of the panelists tonight. Seeing Baroness Kramer on the list, I couldn't resist a question about railway franchising, but doubted it would get chosen as there were far more pressing events just now. As we chatted to neighbouring tables about questions a hush descended and suddenly I looked up to see David Dimbleby beside me. A little shorter than I expected, remarkably dapper and much jollier than his on screen persona, he talked us through the way the show worked. More than anything he stressed that this was our show - and our reactions and responses would be what made it happen and drove it forward. He was keen to ensure that we felt able to contribute and didn't let the politicians off the hook. Afterwards he also took a few questions from the audience, and managed to spin a few humours anecdotes from his twenty-year tenure on the show.
Finally we were led - in small groups due to the badger people still being on site - over to the Tacchi-Morris Arts Centre. A fantastic new building which seems to have incredible facilities on hand, perfect for the show too with steeply raked seating and a generous stage area. Immediately I was struck by the set - that familiar backdrop and sweep of desks with the host town name curving around the front. Close up, it is much more clearly a kit of parts, TAUNTON spelled out letraset style and carefully placed on the stage front. The whole thing is reassuringly low tech - and as a bunch of audience members took the panel's seats for a practice debate, led by the dry witted and sharp Stage Manager, Stan, the camera men ducked and weaved to get the sweeping shots we see at the start of the show, their helped scurrying behind unravelling cable. The practice debate was surprisingly good fun, but seemed to go on for a while before things were ready. During this, all of the writers of the questions which the production team had selected were called forward and given a card with the question printed on it. They were also located in the audience for the sake of the camera crew, and returned to their seats looking not a little nervous! Rather suddenly, with Dimbleby back on stage and the panel queued along the stairs, we were ready! The recording is, rather amazingly, done in a single 59 minute long take. This perhaps explains the immediacy and the edge the show manages to maintain, and it also attests to the skills of the chairman! The first question is asked off camera to get everyone warmed up, and we were encouraged to get involved early. Then, once the link to BBC Glasgow - where the show is now based - was established, we were off. Dimbleby uttered his familar welcome, the camera men did their swoop around the set, and the theme music played. Straight into the first question about today's report on harsh penalties for drug possession, and already Owen Patterson is on the ropes. He admits he hasn't read the report at all and Dimbleby gently plays him on this. Suddenly I see a hand up next to me, and I realise my wife is about to speak. Dimbleby winks and nods that he's seen her. Time slows down. I'm suddenly aware of three million people out there later tonight. Patterson dodges her point about personal choice and relative harm, but not until he's fixed a steely glare on her for a moment for daring to question his Conservative principles. He dismisses it with a glib point about "dangerous drugs" but Dimbleby pushes it home "What about alcohol she said?" Patterson squirms into a point about it being OK for well-off middle class people to take drugs because they have the resources to deal with the issues. It sounds bizarre as delivered - and I think he meant to speak about the disproportionate burden on disadvantaged communities, but this opens up a frankly odd debate on things. It's left to two unlikely champions to bring things back on track - Caroline Lucas of the Green Party who talks eminent sense on policy, and author Anthony Horowitz who presses the point on this being a public health issue, not a criminal justice one.
With our brief moment in the spotlight complete, I relax into the debate. While Owen Patterson manages to shift each response from a reasonable start into a weird, ill-informed finish, Tristram Hunt fares little better. He simply cannot resist the urge to make party political points from even the most unlikely material, and when challenged he faces the audience with knitted brows and a strange disbelieving gurn which turns him into a rather pompous public schoolboy figure. This is all played out particularly on a question about the EU's demand for £1.7bn - which Baroness Kramer dismisses as something which won't be paid and will blow over. Hunt decides to try to blame the Government for not knowing it was coming up. Almost everyone points out that it was the last Labour government who signed the terms. Hunt persists, claims that the deal is secret and only the government can know the details. It's bizarre and almost uncomfortable to watch in person. The stars of the night clearly remain Lucas and Horowitz, who stay on track, don't stray into ill-informed speculation and manage to mostly avoid party lines. Baroness Kramer comes in a close second - smart, well-read and reasonable. The two boys from the big parties come across as hired help - dull-witted and easily led into foolish speculation. It's not a good night for the mainstream perhaps.
All too soon the hour is up and we're filing out into the darkness, badger protesters still yelling. In an hour, the show will be beamed across the country, streamed across the globe and just for an hour, we'll be part of that again. The team that does this, almost every single week of the year, manages to keep it fresh and interesting, balanced - mostly - and representative. It's a pretty amazing feat. The logistics owe more to a touring rock band than a TV show, and that this happens again and again, almost always without hitch is testament to the behind-the-scenes crew too. I left thrilled to have been involved despite my question not being asked, and if possible even fonder of this British TV institution.
|The Honeymoon Effect|
|Sunday 26/05/2013 20:07|
And it did... The astute will have noted that 'unmarriageable' disappeared from my profiles and About pages. I got married to the most amazing person. Just like always, it wasn't simple - and in some senses it appears to have been against all the odds. But, if this site has seen sparse updates of late that's exactly why. Life is busy with complication, and time is preciously spent elsewhere. But there is a sense of place evident in the very arrangements for this seemingly - to some - unlikely wedding. On a sunny Friday in glowing sandstone buildings in the Old City of Bristol, then a scud across green valleys to Wraxall, with wonderous views across the wide flat plains of North Somerset. Then south again, by rail naturally, in wonderful summery weather to Devon. We paused at a familiar pub in Newton Abbot and read an old Bradshaw's guide which alerted us to the dubious "Daddy Hole Plain" and after fine beer, pressed on to Torquay. Passed endlessly on trips to Paignton at the end of the line, but never quite visited. The riviera tag proven - palm trees and acres of stucco shining in the sun. The taxi climbed to Wellswood village and our hotel - The Gleneagles!
Lyme Bay from the Gleneagles
This period piece from the 1960s could be a distant cousin of the Edgewater - and though the rooms are a little tiny and dated, the sea-facing balconies provide wonderful views across Lyme Bay. It had one other draw - it was the inspiration for John Cleese and Connie Booth to write Fawlty Towers. The character of Donald Sinclair, the former military man who ran the place back then, is contested - but nonetheless it led to a comedy which had played a weirdly big part in the proceedings which led to the wedding. We had a superb meal and relaxed watching the sun setting over Anstey's Cove, the little private beach path leading down to the shimmering water. We took to water ourselves the next day with a boat ride to Brixham, still active as a fishing port, but tiny and rather surprisingly preserved. A statue marked the spot where William of Orange set foot in the UK to set aright the monarchy and destroy Anglo-Irish relations for centuries to come. The day got hotter, so we retired to Paington for beer and sunshine before heading back to Torquay.
It seems unlikely - almost undeserved in some uncertain moments - that life has changed quite like it has. But, pinching myself awake in the morning proves that it has indeed. Times are challenging - there is much to do, and resources are tight. But not facing things alone feels so very, very different. This blog will change along with life here. But I'll never ever lose the urge to travel. After all, look where it got me...
|Roll On, Columbia...|
|Thursday 28/02/2013 12:38|
Departing King Street Station heading north was a new experience, and once out of the tunnel the tracks swung onto the waterfront alongside Alaskan Way. The grey afternoon reflected in Puget Sound, giving the scene a quiet, wintry beauty which oddly reminded me of Scotland. It was strange - and more than a little emotional - to look on this scene which had signified so much which was new and different about these past few months, and to consider how things would soon be changing again. The tracks hugged the coast through Ballard and Mukilteo before swinging inland at Everett and starting the long slow climb into the Cascades. The scenery shifted - a rural patchwork of farmland not dissimilar to home in Snohomish County which became sparser, tougher country as we climbed through Monroe and Sultan towards the Cascades Tunnel. Suddenly, in the darkness outside the dining car there was snow beside the line. Deep, thick, virgin snowfall which was unlike anything I'd seen before. I was entranced. As we curved and twisted through the mountains, navigating Stevens Pass at ear-popping altitude, we chatted to a family heading home from a week in Seattle. We told them our plans, and once again we found a genuine happiness in strangers' responses which warmed the heart despite the cold outdoors. Our destination was Wenatchee, and we alighted at Columbia River station late in the evening. As the car drifted along the city's streets I recalled my first evening in the USA, looking out at the passing strip-malls and eateries of Granite City, Illinois - this was oddly similar, save for the looming mountains on the horizon. I felt comfortably familiar with this middle-American scene.
Waking to sunshine and mountains was a surprise after the usual slate skies in Seattle, and as I began to make sense of the surroundings I also began to rather like this little outpost of a city. Yes, it carries all kinds of emotional burdens for people close to me - and it shares my own former home town's ability to wind me back in time to a bored, ill-fitting teenager at a moment's notice. It's also an oddly conservative colony - a distinct contrast to things west of the Cascades - but in its little eateries and dusty corners, there is something here. History, events that were inconsequential at the time, but lead up to now - and my own entanglement in the story.
A day or two into the trip and we head out in the car to Yakima. It's a three hour drive across the plains of central Washington, largely following the valley of the mighty Columbia River and it's dams. The mountains loom on both sides of our route, but here between them it is flat, dry and empty. The river snakes in and out of view, running slow between its reservoirs now. Appropriately, the scene opens out at Vantage - the river a long, broad lake between steely ranges of rock. The highway swings west, across a low bridge which leads towards another climb. The sky feels closer here somehow. I'm moved to silence, taking in the broad-angle view. I've never seen anything quite like this before - never appreciated scale in quite this way. The midwest is a bit of a distant memory now, but it lacks the reference points which the mountains offer, and which dwarf the tiny strip of highway rising into the western sky.
At Columbia River station absurdly early and just a few mornings later, we're boarding the train back to Seattle. It's not been an easy visit for many reasons, but it has placed more markers in my mental map of the state, and in the timeline which stretches back. I think of my historical links to the area - the endless letters launched overseas to obtain music, the curious kinship of the low-tech labels. It's truly strange how the strands of the story should re-entangle here in this little gap in the mountains...
|A Flood of Festivity|
|Tuesday 25/12/2012 21:22|
So, I find myself scanning weather reports and trying to determine just how badly the floods will affect travel when the network grinds back into action. With two days of almost no trains, it's impossible to gauge the disruption as there are no reports to evaluate. I'm anxious, nervous almost - the worry about getting to Heathrow on time tumbling into the concern about a first visit to the UK and what impression it will make. This past few cold, wet weeks have been hard going - separation and distance becoming acute and painful to bear. Looking forward there are travels - as ever at this time of year - but they'll have an entirely different significance of course.
At this time when people are coming together and I'm normally standing disdainfully off-camera, perhaps I suddenly understand all this a little better?
|Saturday 24/11/2012 22:47|
From our temporary home on Stark Street, Powell's World of Books is not far away. A city-block sized store across four floors and several crazily confusing sub-divided areas, this is a truly remarkable place. With used and new books filed alongside each other, there is a wonderfully Portland-like sense of being offered a fair deal here. The selection of books, the range of subjects and the surprising depth of the range is astonishing. We set out with a basket which increasingly filled - not just with books but with smart, well-chosen arty cards and suchlike. Eventually, after several hours here we paused and common sense descended. We had to weed out our purchases carefully. We found a spot and showed immense restraint in selecting a few choice things to purchase. Oddly, here in this mecca of books, it didn't feel painful to have to surrender a title or two - being surrounded by books you could never hope to purchase seemed to assist in that.
Voodoo Donuts, PDX
The remainder of this short visit seemed to involve lots of food and beer - both of which Portland is pretty good at supplying. But a special place will always be reserved for Voodoo Donuts. We'd talked about this place and it was an essential visit. Forget the antics of Heston Blumenthal - this place has been making giant donuts for years, and has dabbled in the absurd by including pepto-bismol fillings and crushed aspirin for the badly-hungover. With the rain blown away by a Pacific wind, it was a bracing but perfect walk down Burnside towards Voodoo. We'd been warned off walking this way at night - and while it was fair to say this was a colourful neighbourhood of adult cinemas and empty lots, it felt no worse - and far less menacing - than many cities I've passed through. Finally we found Voodoo by virtue of it's line - even this early on a weekend morning there was a queue around the block for this local institution. The gaudy pink building with it's Alice-in-Wonderland like diorama of giant donuts and paraphenalia was hot, dizzying and smelled strongly of melting sugar and hot dough. Our purchases in hand we slipped over to the adjacent coffee stand which was doing equally brisk business with the sugar-sodden masses. The return walk was via the outdoor market and Chinatown, the iconic ironwork of the bridges in the background. The older buildings in this neighbourhood had achieved state protection - perhaps a rarer status here than at home, but welcome. It seems that here, redevelopment is at least a little bit more sensitive than elsewhere in the US.
One last trip before we left the Ace, and indeed Portland, was to the line of tiny boutique stores along the street adjacent. Among these was Tender Loving Empire - a record label, distributor of local artists' work, and generally surprisingly packed with strange and wonderful items. The store was busy, bustling with people - and not just hipsters. We browsed the music - listened to Loch Lomond which completed a circle right back to Song, By Toad in Edinburgh, my blogging exploits and Scottish links. In fact we almost missed the train back to Seattle in our leisurely browsing. But finally after a haphazard cab ride to Union Station we settled into the seats and watched the Columbia River slip by as we began the journey north. For me, it was the beginning of a longer journey home too in some ways - and with the novelty of just $14 between us, we celebrated with overpriced beer and watched darkness fall on the Pacific North West. The couple of days we spent in Portland were an eye-opening, intriguing rush through a city that I'm certain I want to revisit.
|Thanksgiving on The Cascades|
|Thursday 22/11/2012 23:26|
The train to Portland is a new experience - fusing the frustration of air travel with the familiarity of railways. We check in and get assigned a seat, then wait in the booking hall which only hints at the grand opulence of the under-reconstruction King Street Station. When called we shuffle out to the train - a strikingly modern Talgo set hauled by an EMD locomotive which yings just like their products do here in the UK. It's a comforting sound in some ways, and reminds me I'm about to hit the rails for the first time in this vast continent. Sure, I've done light rail systems all over the place, but this is my first intercity journey. It's a strange sensation at first to be travelling on the 'wrong' side of the formation - but I'm soon distracted by the novelty of double-height containers in stockyards, endlessly long trains of soy bean hoppers, and more immediately the luxury of settling into my seat in company - something which has almost never been a feature of my travels. Certainly, it's never been like this - and I don't want the journey to end. The route turns west to call at Tacoma, then hugs the coastline of the Sound under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge - veteran of science documentaries about harmonics, the iconic image of it swinging and bucking now replaced with a sense of awe at its fragile grace in the half-light. As we approach Olympia we retire to the Dining Car to sip beer and look at the water shimmering under the silver sky. Rakes of evergreens march up the hillsides away from the tracks, as we turn south again and head inland.
Inside Union Station, PDX
Between here and the Columbia river is something of a haze of warm, comfortable travel in rare company. It seems all too soon that we're clattering over the gridirons and bridges which dominate the northern flank of Portland, passing into previously uncharted Oregon in the process. It's early evening - a little before six - but it's dark and the city twinkles invitingly beyond the illuminated tower of Union Station. Crossing the tracks to enter the building, we're the last passengers to leave because we've been taking photographs. The grand hall of the station is a surprise - a marbled palace of generous proportions, with remarkable similarities to some of the stations back at home. We head out into the chilly, dark evening and line up for a cab to the almost painfully hip but cleverly decorated Ace Hotel - and what will be my first ever Thanksgiving. I can't help but think our way of celebrating, a long way from everything which is usually associated with this resolutely un-British occasion, will be far from traditional. As we shudder our stop-start progress through the traffic lights of Burnside and Stark, and catch the first sight of the exterior of the old hotel I recall reading that it was once The Clyde. I'm never far from Glasgow, even when I'm truly a long way off. I can't help but hope that we get to cross the other Clyde very, very soon indeed.