shut up and don’t think

sunsetSome things you never forget. Like riding a bicycle, or mixing the perfect vodka martini. It’s the same with Transcendental Meditation, TM for short; the simplest and most effective way I know for, well for lack of a better description, getting rid of the crap.

Simply, once learnt the TM technique is never forgotten. Decades passed since the last time TM’s curative effects are invoked it’s always there, and as rejuvenating as a new day.

vodka martini, once mixed never forgotten

vodka martini, once mixed never forgotten

I mention this consciousness altering technique – a grand and often misunderstood phrase for feeling relaxed and better equipped to handle the stuff that modern life throws our way – for two reasons: The first is I have returned to TM these past few months after a good many years away; the second is because the 21st century’s most celebrated adherent, film maker David Lynch, the guiding light of his own transcendental meditation foundation, is back in the news.

Searching for something to clear out the synapses I’ve taken to quiet rooms, closing my eyes and entering the world of emptiness revealed to me as a teenager. The method remains the same, but I have discovered that the passing of time has the same effect that years of patient waiting has on Rhone wines.

Looking back I think I had it all wrong. Encouraged by the celebrity appeal of TM (its supporters included The Beatles, some of The Beach Boys, Britain’s Dylan, aka Donovan, and gamine movie star Mia Farrow) my friends and I attended a sort of TM clinic in a comfortable mansion flat close to the Thames, at Richmond, Surrey. The inductees spoke in hushed voices  of calm pools of consciousness. One man said his wife had become more genial.

To put it into context this was a time when everyone was looking for something,  defining;  some sort of inner meaning. While contemporary disciples are primetime news for queuing up overnight to buy the latest smart phone back then people sought a more spiritual dimension, and TM, whilst not having any religious, quasi-religious, was part of that scene.

The key to TM, practiced twice daily for 20 minutes, is the mantra. Once given I was advised not to divulge it to anyone as then it would no longer be unique to me. While suspecting every TM practitioner has the same one as me I have never divulged it. Described it variously as either a word or a sound (and certainly not ‘om’) it’s a sort of mental key. I suppose if every TM user does have the same mantra,  so what? But I don’t know if they do, and frankly I’d rather not know. Your mantra is your own and you might as well keep it that way.

The mantra is repeated, silently during the course of 20 minutes, in a method designed to clear the mind and focus purely on a sort of emptiness. As thoughts and events drift into view the mantra is reasserted thereby pushing any distractions away.

Initially, perhaps poorly instructed who knows, I’d rattle the mantra off like a camera shutter on motor drive, never feeling any different when my 20 minutes were up. I stuck it for four or five months, and I’ll admit I wound up thinking it was all a load of baloney, agreeing with Lennon when he dedicated Sexy Sadie to TM guru, and spokesperson The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. With his long grey beard, and cartoon laugh – a gift for a sceptical media that loves a good caricature – the Maharishi is thought to have trained over 40,000 TM instructors worldwide, and until his death in 2008 oversaw an organisation with an eye watering income. Estimates claim there are five millions TM practitioners worldwide.

But a lot of things were different then. I was different, and my recent return to TM  has been a much more fulfilling experience. As Lynch, promoting the boxed set of his Gothic television soap, Twin Peaks,  told the Guardian’s Jeremy Kay this month, “…more happiness in the doing…” You bet.

Instead of blitzing the mantra I now take things much slower. Making the mantra more, well, emphatic, a more resolute barrier for the distractions to penetrate. The effect is to make the self induced cognitive calm, the state of consciousness where there is nothing but (I know this sounds loopy) the here and now, actually very enjoyable.

There’s the warm rush in the arms, and sometimes – I know not why – a sudden twitch or shift and a sort internal gasp in the solar plexus. Funny things happen when you’re mind stops thinking.

Strangely the second 20 minute session is proving the superior. Perhaps those more able to concentrate than me can enjoy both sessions. But I’ve always been easily distracted: my primary school end of term reports said as much. I can’t even read a newspaper with the radio on. It’s as if by the the second 20 minute shift my concentration is honed, more concentrated.

I put all of this to a lifelong friend who yelped with untrammeled delight as though his pal had finally thrown off a lifetime’s blindfold to really see for the first time. “Write that, right there, write that,” he implored.

My friend was never taught any accepted method of meditation. A former child actor, professional dancer (he’ll kill me for this, he was one of The Young Generation), an artist and now mariner, he nevertheless instantly recognised the physical effects as described by me,  before claiming to have enjoyed an altered state himself, that very day, in the car, on route to the supermarket. I tell you, you learn something new every day, although I’m not sure I’d readily accept a lift from my friend if I thought for a second he was enjoying an out of body experience behind the wheel.

With his Stan Laurel hair, buttoned up white shirt and fixed expression, David Lynch has just the sort of cookie look to make anyone unacquainted with TM run the other way. I like his website ( It goes out of its way to demystify TM. No Holy Men or intergalactic space cadets here.  There are soldiers and vets discussing the help TM gives them, and regular people from all walks of life with one thing in common; they each want to find some space in which to function. For each the bottom line is stress, and if TM can do away with that, without resorting to Prozac or the couch, then ok.

We all need a hobby. It’s just that mine, and that of the other five million, is quieter and cheaper than most.

Lynch sums it up: “…when you start diving within and infusing that pure consciousness: happiness, intelligence, creativity, energy, peace, love. It’s like gold coming in, garbage going out.”

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It’s A Family Affair: Twenty years of Robert Elms shows.

Robert - suited and booted for his birthday

Robert – suited and booted for his birthday

What does it take to get Sir Paul Smith, Gilbert and George, Nick Lowe, Gary Kemp, and very nearly Rod Stewart, into the same Soho jazz club at the same time? The answer, were you not tuned into Radio London 94.9 on Friday, is the 20th anniversary of Robert Elms’ Monday to Saturday lunchtime show.

To celebrate, what by any reckoning is a milestone achievement – two decades unearthing the capital’s secrets, giving voice to its musicians, artists, writers and creative forces, and generally doing for London what its corpulent politicians can only dream about –  the BBC team chose to broadcast  the anniversary show live from Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, that iconic venue that has played a major part in shaping Robert’s lifelong affair with London’s underbelly.

Robert with Sir Paul Smith

Robert with Sir Paul Smith


In fact, our Ronnies seats (his and mine), on stools, our backs against the bar, directly in front of the stage, are, along with my season ticket seats at Fulham, are my most cherished seats on the planet – and believe me I’ve sat on a few gooduns.

Cuing the show in with George Benson’s Breezin’ Robert, suited and booted for the occasion,  observed “I’ve never seen Ronnie’s in the morning before, except in the early hours  when I’ve been heading in the other direction, and very drunk.”

He explained that when he’s started the show, on June 20 , 1994, for what was then Greater London Radio (GLR), it had been as a temporary stand-in. His intention was to turn London back on itself, engage with his listeners at every opportunity, and throw the spotlight on those creative Londoners who in the old broadcasting order would have remained unsung and unheard. To assist those tentative and uncertain early days he recruited some of his pals. Spike was arguably radio’s most eccentric film reviewer. He once reported live from a telephone kiosk in Cornwall, and on another occasion was offered the keys to Cartagena by an art house film club in Colombia.

My own weekly slot was Secret London. A twenty minute segment broadcast live – using a mobile phone the size of a shoe box –  from, well anywhere a bit quirky. I began with the house in N1’s Mackenzie Road that is festooned with decorations each Christmas; the owner, a hospital porter, builds a santa’s grotto above his fish pond. Another broadcast was from the top of Canary Wharf (literally outside as it was being built), and my own favourite, Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields.

The three hour birthday broadcast, with an audience of regular listeners – ‘Pete from Acton’ as he is known was photographing the event as a favour – and family and friends – Kim and I sat with Bob’s wife Christina and our godson Alfie – was an affectionate, often funny, and sometimes moving collection of London anecdotes.

Sir Paul, who shares with Bob a passion for cycling, gave a condensed history of his company from the initial four story building in Floral Street, without stairs, that opened  in October 1979 when I recall Covent Garden being derelict with homeless people and open braziers on many corners. He said he doesn’t know how many stores he has today, but that there are 265 in Japan.

Of course Bob is known for naming Spandau Ballet (he confessed to stealing the name from the wall of a public convenience in Berlin). He and the band’s leader and songwriter Gary Kemp have been friends for years, going back to the fashion excess of the New Romantic era. The Spandau frontman paid his respect with a stirring acoustic version of Chant Number 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On). Gilbert and George, whom Bob and I know from our frequent meals at Dalston’s Mangal ll restaurant, were tweedy and effusive:

Robert with Gilbert and George

Robert with Gilbert and George

“Go on, said Gilbert, the short one, “tell him your joke.” Upon which George, the tall one, related an encounter with a “skinhead lorry driver”, who upon leaning out of his cab called to London’s tweediest artists, “my life is an effing moment – your art is an eternity.”

Rod Stewart, along with Queens Park Rangers, Savile Row suits, and lager tops, is another one of Bob’s life essentials. He often plays Rod and Faces tracks on air, the singer from Archway listening on the internet from Los Angeles. Rod called in from a traffic jam on the Embankment to apologize for not being able to attend – “I gave it my best shot” –  explaining that he was due in Blackpool that evening for a concert and was concerned he wouldn’t make it if he made a detour.

He did reveal though that he would be moving back to the UK shortly. “So my kids can grow up here.” Thanking Bob’s listeners for buying his music “and keeping my children in shoes and pencils.”

Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe, whom Bob has championed for as long as I remember, introducing the singer and songwriter as the ‘Bard of Brentford’, performed two songs, Love Is A Battlefield that he wrote for Diana Ross, and an achingly spellbinding Alison that first saw the light of day on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True album. I like Nick Lowe on record a lot, and live and unaccompanied at Ronnie Scott’s he is immense. His voice resonating longer and deeper than any other matinee singer I know; a craft he has being honing these past ten years or so.

Between the songs and the jokes Bob reminded us of how his show handled with the events of 911 and 7/7, a tornado in Kensal Rise, the Olympic Games, and in a tearful moment the day his late mother Eileen telephoned the show to wish her son a happy fiftieth birthday.

And that’s what twenty years of the Robert Elms show is all about; a family affair – for all of London.




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Dispatches to Sir Kev 15.6.14 – Dressing The Part

Journalists likes to think they have the power to influence. It’s part of the appeal of the job; mass coercion. Shaping opinion goes with the territory, and by and large readers keep to their side of the bargain.

It’s why Kim insists, every time we encounter a group of holiday-makers tap tapping past our Cornish home, their fingers wrapped around polished aluminum walking poles, of the kind Sir Ranulph Fiennes uses for assaults upon far away wastelands, that I am responsible. But there aren’t any glaciers around here, and the pavement isn’t in bad shape either. Nevertheless, says Kim “your readers”  (‘my readers’) “have read your columns and bought the gear.” She has a way of turning praise into mild condemnation.

The gear they’ve bought on the basis of ‘my columns’ doesn’t start and finish with those poles (I am particularly taken with the Leki Photosystem that doubles as a camera monopod). Gore-Tex waterproof over-trousers are popular (you can hear them coming a ways off), stormproof cajoles too, and boots imbued with more technology than smart phones.

You were there Sir Kev. You photographed many of the items I wrote about in The Sunday Times, so – persuasively. Do you think I should slip in a caution to the effect that unless ‘my readers’ on being a laughing stock they should just go to the seaside in what they’re wearing? You know, normal shirts and trousers and comfortable shoes.

Frankly, I’m not sure such a caveat would have had any effect. As a nation we are gripped with the desire to surround oursevles with appropriate gear. I recall David – who is the man, an old friend who sorts out my cars –  upon learning I was spending increased amounts of time in the west country, suggesting I buy a 4×4. I had to assure him that there are surfaced roads in Cornwall; a regular car would do.

It is easy to make a mistake. Some time ago I accompanied shoemaker Oliver Sweeney on one of his favourite Dartmoor hikes. At the time he spent his weekends in a converted chapel in Devon. I arrived, dressed to the nines in high tech walking kit provided by one of those outdoors companies favoured by BBC foreign correspondents expecting Mr.Sweeney to be similarly attired. He was in shorts and a t-shirt when I arrived and when I suggested he get changed into something suitable for the hike he rubbed his eyes and told me he was going as he was – with the addition of a pair of his own Oliver Sweeney derby shoes. I learnt a lesson that day, I almost never forgot.

evidently local

evidently local

I say almost because as I think you know I am partial to a spot of Ralph Lauren. We all have our weeknesses, yours being expensive bicycles. After a visit to the Ralph Lauren store in upper Manhattan (described by a musician friend as the Eighth Wonder Of The World) I have picked up items at good prices wherever I can. Nevada’s Death Valley is an unlikely place to find a Ralph Lauren wax cotton sowester hat, it being one of the driest places on the planet. But that may explain why the green sow ester (pictured) – think designer trawlermen  – was so heavily discounted. A little something to wear with the also discounted Ralph Lauren wax cotton coat bought previously. I wore the sowester with pride the day I returned to Cornwall only to be met with “you can tell you’re not local,” by one of the dog walkers on Harbour Cove. There was a similar reaction the day I stepped outside in my Mark Powell tweed suit: Leather golf ball buttons, twin vents and lapelled waistcoat; every inch the country gent. I hadn’t got further than the front door when one of the local fishermen – the real deal –  said something unprintable.

People around these parts don’t do appropriate clothing. But holidaymakers do, perhaps in the belief that they will seamlessly slip into their new surroundings, and possibly be mistaken, if not for someone born and raised in these far away parts, then at least someone accomstomed to the rough and tumble of life in the teeth of the Atlantic Ocean.

First there were wax cotton, calf length, storm shouldered Barbour Australian drover’s coats. Very sensible you might think Sir Kev. And you would be right. But few around here can afford them. Proving perenially popular are white sailing anoraks with huge (we’re talking billboard dimensions) numbers on the backs so that yachting  events marshalls can identify the wearers from several miles. To this panapoly of seaside attire add walking poles, usually used in pairs, as opposed to the single walking stick, and often employed by entire families and their friends. Plus a number of sub-genres: Crocs sandles, wax cotton biker jackets, sleeveless gadget vests (of the sort photgraphers and fishermen are thought to wear but rarely do), and my own personal favourite – waterproof ankle gaiters, the accessory of choice for enjoying the local park. “More of yours,” says Kim.

Forget the pen being mightier than the sword. In my line of work it’s only tougher than common sense.

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Kid’s Stuff


he's happy

he’s happy – not sure I am

You want to know the worst thing about the roller-coasters in Disneyland?

No, it’s not the white knuckle twists and high velocity turns, or the stomach wrenching plunges into an abyss. It’s the banks of photo screens as you leave each one where the terror you’d rather forget is there for all to see.

“Look at him,” shrieks a nipper beneath Mickey Mouse ears, as I stagger off Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest, with its torn up tracks and a section going backwards into a darkened mountain .

“He’s got both hands over his eyes,” he screams. They say the camera never lies, and the fear is etched across my face. I move away before he realises I am stood next to him.

A retired couple, friends of mine, come to Orlando most winters: “We like the sun.  We love the food. But most of all we love the sheer excitement. ” And they’ve got a few years on me. I resolve to try harder, and not be such a wuss.

Arriving at Mission Space – Rocket To The Red Planet fearless kids, and professional cowards like me, are inducted into a NASA space training programme. Four of us in harnesses and given on-screen instructions by actor Gary Sinise, who assigns each a role: I am to be ‘commander’, which feels about right. I am directed toward two yellow control buttons that Gary will instruct when to implement.

Commander! And you thought Disneyland was kids stuff!

I’d come a long way in the three days since checking into the Animal Kingdom Lodge hotel. Beyond its three storey reception, with a thatched roof held up by vast tree trunks, my room is decorated with batik prints, and African carved furniture. Throwing back the drapes reveals a savannah grassland stocked with real zebra, antelope, wildebeests, and flocks of sub-Saharan birds.  There is a look-out by the pool with military night vision goggles to watch animals close-up in the dark.

Fancying myself as something of a movie buff I head straight for Hollywood Studios, that resembles downtown LA circa 1940, with art deco cinemas and avenues of palms.The short film presentation, Walt Disney – One Man and his Dream is a delight, and puts Disneyland into historical perspective, and sets me up for Star Tours – The Adventures Continue. Upon leaving the in-house photographer uses a computer to transform digitally me into – Obi One Kenobi, complete with lightsaber sword.

avoid digital cameras

avoid digital cameras

Having enjoyed the Duck Two Ways the night before at the Brown Derby restaurant (based on the original in LA) I am not sure how I feel when a larger than life Donald Duck sidles up to me during breakfast at Tusker House, a sort of fast food hunting lodge. Every time I try to put a piece of waffle into my mouth he wraps a wing around me and won’t leave until the ten year old at the next table, with an iPhone, has taken our photo.

For all the advertisements in the US about dieting – it’s not working. Many of the Americans in Disneyland are HUGE, like the meal portions. There is a diner at Kouzzina, in the Boardwalk Resort, with a tummy so enormous it looks as though he is sat at another table from his wife.

I shared a wagon on the Spaceship Earth ride with such a man: legs like hams and a tummy like East Anglia. We were to have enjoyed a tour narrated by Dame Judy Dench. But because I couldn’t reach across my companion (struggling with his backpack)  to select the correct language, we listened to the history of the media from the ancient Egyptians to the moon landing – in Portuguese.

Children understand fast food outlets, but it can take me a while to adjust. Splitsville Luxury Lanes bowling alley a case in point. Food – from burgers to sushi – is served at your lane, but I get into a spot of bother mistakenly helping myself to someone else’s tasty tacos. It’s easily done. A man with moustache, a body-double for a Mexican drug lord, is yelling, “he’s stealing our food”.

I’ve always fancied designing my own sports car – and at Test Track that’s exactly what you do – taking a simulated version of your creation on a overhead test track where the design cues, from engine to suspension, are rated.  On screen my car resembles a Batmobile. A sure winner. Wrong. There are a couple of brothers here, not in their teens, who have designed something with the aerodynamics of a front door. It wins hands down.

To escape their adolescent high-fiving I stop by the place with the least kids in all of Disney,  Senses Spa. It’s a short walk from the Grand Floridian Hotel, a weatherboarded palace in red and white: Over 1000 weddings are held annually in its waterside chapel.

I am welcomed at the recently refurbished, and Victorian themed, spa with a glass of freshly squeezed strawberry juice, and a carrot and coriander cup cake. I opt for the Swedish massage, although after looking in the mirror I think I should have opted for a Revitalizing Blueberry Facial.

Chilled and primed Mission Space – Rocket To The Red Planet turns out to be everything I’d hoped it would be – and more, a bit too much more. I enjoy the thrust of G force of take-off; glad I’d missed lunch. As Commander I press my yellow buttons on cue, but the ‘sling-shot’ around Mars, and the crash landing prove all too much. I feel sick and appreciate a helping hand to the fresh air from my young engineer.

Later I console myself at the the California Grill on top of the high-tech Contemporary Hotel, an upscale restaurant where the food is euro/asian fusion and quite delicious. It’s  the best grub at Disney,  and with a wall of glass has an unmissable bird’s eye view of the nightly fireworks display at Magic Kingdom.

My roller-coaster days may be behind me, but I still know a great creme brûlée when I see one.

as published in the Sunday Express May 4, 2014.


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Dispatches to Sir Kev 21.04.14

rendlesham forest

rendlesham forest

Dear Sir Kev,
I hope you won’t object but I thought of you the other day as a peloton of rangy cyclists in brightly coloured branded Lycra wear sped past the house where I was spending the Easter weekend. And at an ungodly hour before breakfast, with the sun still low and flickering through the conifers. I know you are a keen cyclist yourself, I think you said you recently pedalled to Paris, and I must say that Suffolk’s inordinately flat landscape, being able to see for hundreds, possibility thousands of yards in each direction, in the outer reaches of Suffolk where a chill wind rolls in off the North Sea, had me wishing I’d taken my vintage wheels with me, and joined the fun.
I spent many weekends in Southwold and Wablerswick in the eighties but with my home in Cornwall, diametrically at the other end of the country, it has been some time since I have made the long journey to the east coast. The invitation came from Di, whom Kim and I met on our honeymoon in Majorca. She has very recently shipped out of south London to a fine red brick house, with a garden large enough to play a test match upon, close to Woodbridge. She is as keen on lengthy woodland hikes as you are about arduous bike rides, but also being an enthusiastic and talented cook I suspect the sheer enormity of her new Suffolk kitchen, overlooking that magnificent garden, persuaded her to make the move.

rendlesham forest

rendlesham forest

The house is close to Rendlesham Forrest and as our sunset drew near I spotted a herd of maybe a dozen deer pushing through the bracken and conifers close to the house. While overhead a WWll fighter plane wheeled across the magenta sky lining up for a landing at either RAF Woodbridge or Bentwater. My good friend Rob Ryan would have known which of the two aircraft it was being an author of many excellent First and Second World War novels. He may also have known about the UFO sightings thereabouts in 1980, when both airfields were used by United States Air Force personnel. ‘Mysterious lights’ in the woods witnessed by dozens of military personal over a three day period has put the Rendlesham incident up there with the infamous ones at Roswell, USA. Locals hereabouts put it down to beams from Orford Ness lighthouse, or unusually bright stars. I am sure it is an easy mistake to imagine strangers from another world after a few USAF cocktails; with the land so flat and the sky so vast light here does seem to travel further and brighter.
Kim, Asta and I arrived late afternoon with the kitchen surfaces already cluttered
with ingredients for the first of several memorable meals: that evening it was fish pie, with purple sprouting and a hefty slab of Suffolk Gold cheese, the colour of that evening sun with a tangy aftertaste. Due to work another friend, Eleanor, couldn’t get away from London earlier and so joined us just as we were settling down to the log fire and Crosby, Still, Nash and Young.

asta awaits stick at ramsholt

asta awaits stick at ramsholt

This part of Suffolk is bisected by the River Deben, an estuary running from Felixtowe to Woodbridge, a distance of some 12 miles, with low lying rapeseed fields fanning out on either side, punctuated by Norman churches and water towers. Kim and Asta and I walked part of it to Woodbridge passing communities of houseboats, some of them former military craft. Judging by the bulk of the boat skeletons jutting out of the water the Deben cannot be very deep here. There were ducks and swans and reed beds shifting in the breeze.
Woodbridge is a pleasant enough town. The Southwold brewery Adnams has a wine and beer store here, near the river, and up the hill, passing red brick and flint homes, the town centre has many estate agents, possibly sign that the property market is as brisk here as it is in London. Before returning to Di’s we took an aperitif at the Angel pub boasting 198 varieties of gin. I know, impressive. I was told they used to stock far fewer but because so many customers insisted having a shot of each, and were subsequently completely hammered, the owners, Chris and Sarah Mapey, decided to vastly increase the range so as to render drinking the lot impossible. Di and Eleanor joined us and had gin and tonics made with Ish, a London gin in a pink bottle, served with a tincture of juniper. It was by any measure, sublime. Lightly perfumed velvet with the kick of a mule.
That night Di served a game pasta dish. Venison, partridge and other beasts of the field, in a sturdy brown sauce and tagliatelle. She and Eleanor share a competitive streak in the kitchen and while Di wrestled with the game Eleanor knocked up a lemon meringue cake, that being a Nigella Lawson recipe utilised most of Suffolk’s Easter weekend supply of cream and eggs and sugar.
Turning left upon a road as straight as a laser beam took us to within yards of the North Sea. We had lunch at the Ramshold Arms, at the end of Duck Road, just feet from the Deben. While I ate a homemade hotdog, and nursed a pint of pale Mermaid ale, yatchs plied the choppy waters to Woodbridge, families spread out blankets, and dogs chased after sticks in the foreshore. There is a footpath walk past major earthworks, a sign that the area took a hit during the winter’s torrential rains. Overlooking the scene is All Saints Church. Inside the Norman flint rendered church there are rows of wooden box pews and a notice listing – according to the calendar – the dozens of wild flowers to be found in the church yard. You should take your camera there.

the gate all saints church ramsholt

the gate all saints church ramsholt

Further east at Bawdsey, the site of a passenger ferry to Felixstowe, is the remarkable Bawdsey Manor. This overdressed confection of Flemish, Tudor, Jacobean, French Chateaux and Oriental design, with mullion windows, red bricks and slate, and onion domes, was a top secret research centre during WWll, the location of Britain’s first radar defense station. The iron radar tower remains and there is a museum.
Yesterday more friends arrived from London. There was a strange veiled light and a hint of sulfur in the air. As yet more cyclists hurtled past I was seconded to secrete chocolate eggs around the garden; hidden enough that Asta wouldn’t find them yet visible enough that Eleanor’s infant grandchildren could. Before lunch there was just time for a half of Black Shuck, a malty, twice matured ale, the young barman at the Shepherd and Dog Inn, at sleepy Hollesly, insisted was “very dark.”
After another good meal – locally produced lamb and a chocolate cake so rich it gives me the vapors just thinking about it – Richard (also from London) and I repaired to the garden for our Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure Especials, while Asta led the others across Rendlesham Forest.
I had only intended on being away one night, two at most. In the event it was three and nearly a fourth. I suppose that’s what friends, good food and a wonderful garden on the edge of a forrest where UFO’s have been sighted will do for you.

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How Much Will You Pay For Your News?


All news content on the internet will be paid for in ten years. 

Broadly speaking that was the outcome of a high level debate sponsoured by YouGov and the London Press Club, held at London’s British Library last night (March 18), and chaired by Andrew Neil. The prediction takes into account YouGov’s own research that asked over 1000 members of the public, and a shade fewer ‘UK opinion formers’, what they thought about digital ‘pay walls’, combined with the result of a straw poll at the end of the debate  that caught me at odds with the majority who clearly believed paying for news/current affairs/magazine content, on line, is the way forward. 

The panel of experts – with job titles so hefty I wish I was paid ‘wordage’ – comprised News UK’s chief marketing officer Katie Vanneck Smith, the managing director digital of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, Zach Leonard, the digital strategist at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Nic Newman, and the co-global president of Havas Worldwide (advising corporations on digital advertising) Kate Robertson.

To keep it brief Katie from News UK said all content should be paid for – no ifs or buts – and that when her customers (100,000 to date signed up for the Sunday Times) are behind the pay wall, both she and News UK, knowing all there is to know about their subscribers, can work with advertisers to tailor online ads, especially those on the ‘free’ App versions of News UK’s publications. Softly spoken Zach Leonard said that the Standard and Indy are experimenting  with a mix of ‘soft’ or ‘metered’ and ‘hard’ pay walls, meaning that readers may access a certain amount of material for free, but any more they must pay for. Nic Newman, whose time is spent researching the issue, said that times were changing (which most people there agreed with). Adding that Facebook and Google were making more money than most media outlets because they’ve been quicker and more ruthless to exploit the data they hold on their customers. In other words they have years of experience at making it easy for advertisers.

The most interesting take on the issue came from the woman from Havas (repeatedly alluding to her age and that things are different to how they were) saying that if anyone in the audience had children or grandchildren who are thinking about becoming journalists – they should think again. She said they should study mathematics and data management, because then they they could “rule the world”. She said they could go into journalism as a hobby.

Andrew Neil was a fine chairman and quick to pick up on a comment from a member of the audience who proposed that if we are not careful the media could soon find itself driven more by the data supplied by its subscribers than the issues: “We could have the tail wagging the dog,” he said.

“Could we be in danger then of giving the reader what they don’t want,” posed Neil, “until they want it?” 

“You’re right to fear it,” said Robertson. “I fear it too. I can tell you the plus value of the person who goes through the opay wall.” As an advertiser “we will pay more beyond the pay wall.”

Personally don’t know anyone under 25 who either buys or reads a daily newspaper, except those who pick them up casually for free on the London tube, and toss them away having glanced at them. Youngsters don’t make the time for newspapers, and they don’t see the value in them. As the panel agreed, they get the headlines and bare bones of current affairs from a number of free sites including the BBC, Mail and Guardian. 

Katie Vanneck Smith said that that the majority of subscribers to The Sun’s recently launched pay site are under 25, which is impressive if true.  There was also general enthusiasm for the number of young people reading longer articles on the BuzzFeed site. Although I suspect this latter endorsement has more to do with middleaged people wanting to appear hip with unvarnished enthusiasm for another primary coloured lightweight youth site.

The debate looked soley at ways in which publishers can earn money. It did nothing to address the quality of journalism and avoided the controversial issue of personal data –  what it is used for, and where it is passed around, and sold on?

I can’t be alone when I say I wouldn’t mind paying for digital content, with the proviso that I do not have to provide information about me other than my credit card details. When I buy my newspaper at the corner shop each day I do not have to complete a form with questions about my age, where I live, my ethnic background and interests. I buy my paper the way I buy my milk and potatoes: IE I hand over the money and the retailer says thanks, enjoy, have a nice day. End of story.



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Nantucket – The Heart Of The Sea

Nantucket Harbour

Nantucket Harbour

Nantucket’s Jared Coffin House isn’t as macabre as it sounds.

The red brick Georgian hotel, the oldest on the island, has white door columns and dark green louvered windows. It stands at the top of Broad Street, a reminder of the 19th century Quaker endeavour that put this spec of land, 30 miles east of the USA mainland, on the world map – forever.

Inside there are oil paintings of whaling ships and stern men with thick sideburns, the air thick with the scent of furniture polish and warm scones.nantucket harbour pink sky

Broad Street has barely changed since those whaling days; a cobbled avenue of merchants’ homes and dry goods stores with a wharf at the foot. There you’ll find sea captains, like James Genthner, who’ll charge £15 for a turn around Nantucket Sound, passing the lighthouse at Brand Point where good old boys use heavy lures to land strip bass. Nearby are ferries to Cape Cod and Hyannis Port

When oil from the luckless sperm whale fuelled this nascent nation the Coffin family enjoyed some influence out here in the teeth of the Atlantic. What is now a hotel was their home, and only those with some knowledge of whaling, and the fate of the whaler Essex, that included a young Owen Coffin among its crew, may have a different perspective.

But that was a long time ago. Today Nantucket is a living museum for an old money elite, and those politicians, Masters of the Universe, and celebrities, who eschew what they see as the over commercialisation of nearby Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. This is an exclusive club for those who wish to preserve the island’s history, appearance, and biodiversity.  A ready escape from the pressures of Boston and New York, just a short and breathtaking flight across the eastern archipelago. Here a modest apartment can cost over $1 million and most homes come in at ten times that. The Heinz ketchup family, and the Frisbees who invented the flying disc  and designer Tommy Hilfiger have homes, and a raft of Democrats from the Kennedys to the current vice president, Joe Biden, come here for r&r. Actors Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman, Meg Ryan and Mark Wahlberg have been spotted too.  I know because there is a celebrity list pinned up inside the First Congregational Church’s tiered white spire. Five bucks for a view of the entire island.

nantucket landscape

The beaches are endless (five miles is common). There are few trees, and everywhere the squat homes are covered in cedar tiles turned slate grey by the winds that pummel Nantucket throughout winter. Weather that causes tourists and residents to flee to the mainland, reducing the population from 40,000 to 8000. It’s a palette shaped island with moorland rich in low growing pitch pine, bayberry and scrub oak. Salt marshes with shifting phragmite reeds and bean topped black grass, and peat bogs and ponds formed by sand dunes sustaining rare mosses, and tiny purple orchids. In the centre the red swathes of cranberry beds for the juice industry.nantucket harbour on stilts

My first couple of nights are at the Wauwinet Hotel. A homey, isolated place, with a lawn dipping to the water’s edge, where you can imagine F Scott Fitzgerald pondering the social mores of east coast society.  Buttermilk walls, pictures of handsome sail boats, log fires, and lobster at every meal, and a snug sports bar where it gets rowdy when the Red Socks play Fenway Park.

from Wauwinet Hotel

from Wauwinet Hotel

The hotel takes its name from an Indian chief who once ruled here, and is located at the foot of a four mile sand spit. Only a pair of heron, some piper plovers, a shoal of 40 or more seals, and the Great Point Lighthouse at the tip. Think north Cornwall on a scale of the Grand Canyon.

To the east is Nantucket Harbour, about the size of Loch Ness, and beyond that Nantucket Sound where Ted Kennedy often sailed his 50’ schooner, MYA, and to the west the lumpy North Atlantic. My only company fishermen in puffa jackets and baseball caps with grim expressions surf casting for bluefish, and albacore, watched closely by roseate terns, their black forked tails silhouetted against the murky sky. By any stretch, it’s a magnificent spot. A place to clear the mind.  Deep and elemental.

Devoid of any significant gradients the best way to enjoy Nantucket is on bicycle. There are more hire shops than bars in Nantucket town. Nowhere is far, and there are cycle tracks to separate inexperienced peddle pushers from the handful of cars. I take the Polpis Road to Siasconset, a village of wide grass verges and modest homes, straight out of central casting: You couldn’t imagine a more perfect village, with an old oak tree and general stores at its centre. It’s where retired whaling captains came to live out the rest of their days in contemplation.

Then I set out along the Milestone Road, bearing left to Surfside and Nobadeer Beach. It’s like that beach outside Diane Keaton’s home in Something’s Gotta Give. You got it; to die for!nantucket hut

The Nantucket Conservation Foundation owns a third of the island and is on a mission to stop virtually any new development, and preserve the natural environment. It doesn’t like chain stores or designer logos either. The only branded store is a Ralph Lauren, naturally.

Impregnable building regs, and the fact that most people keep themselves-to-themselves in fabulous holiday homes, means that hotels are thin on the ground. It’s why one of the most beguiling accommodation options are the 24 weather boarded self catering Cottages and Lofts on wooden piers, inches above the water in the Boat Basin; downtown Nantucket just moments away.  There’s a supermarket, and the world’s strangest off licence: Current Vintage, on Easy Street, combining classic wines with used clothes (wine tastings every Friday).  There’s also Murray’s Toggery Shop, the original Macy’s, specialising in Nantucket ‘reds’ – hats, pants and shirts the colour of Breton sails.

There’s a lot of sushi too, portions pumped up on steroids like most things in the US, at places like Lo La 41o and Pearl, the latter being one of those high roller joints where women with faces like Joan Rivers’ date boys like Ryan Gosling. Or you can do what I do and go local. Straight Wharf Fish Store does takeaway clam chowder, soft shell crab, and lobster rolls at sensible prices.

Best of all is the Whaling Museum, in a red brick building opposite the harbour, not dissimilar in style to the forminable Jared Coffin House.

Inside is an original whaling boat, the complete skeleton of a sperm whale, and cabinets of intricate and elaborate ‘scrimshaw’, carvings completed whalers upon the bones of their prey. And therein also resides the grim truth about young Owen Coffin and the sacrifice he made when the shipwrecked and starving crew of the Essex resorted to cannibalism. Memories of time when life for Nantucketers was much tougher than it is today.

It promises to make one heck of a film when Ron Howard’s film In The Heart Of The Sea – based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In The Heart Of The Sea – The Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex – makes it to the cinema at some time towards the end of next year.

Recommended reading: In The Heart of the Sea – The tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin US $15).

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