Our youngest, Bonnie, had been to five festivals before her fifth birthday.
Due to our largish family, it was always cheaper to do a festi-hol, but by 2014 the elder ones had started to get jaded and wanted to do ‘normal’ holidays. We did like the masses and had a couple of short trips to Spain and a drive through Europe.
Then Camp Bestival announced Fat Boy Slim and Tears for Fears were headlining for 2016 and I couldn’t resist.
So here we are again, blazing sunshine, our trusty 20-year-old Japanese Bongo van and an awning propped on a windy hill in Dorset.
So far we’ve watched the kids make a den in the Dingly Dell, shoot crossbows with the Tudors, stuff their faces with posh ice-cream and organic salad (and chips) and enjoyed acts as eclectic as Turin Brakes and Mr Motivator.
Two days to go, so far, so good!
Category Archives: Parenting
Our youngest, Bonnie, had been to five festivals before her fifth birthday.
Festival fever – after Glastonbury, here’s your round-up of festivals for summer 2016 in Northants and beyond
(Originally commissioned for Northants Herald and Post)
THE British weather is as unpredictable as ever, which can only mean one thing: it’s the start of the festival season.
As the mother of all music festivals, Glastonbury, has just taken place in all its muddy glory, we bring you a round up of some of the hundreds of UK festivals in Northamptonshire and beyond and some advice for those thinking about going for the first time with the family.
If you’re travelling with babies and toddlers, festival camping can be daunting, but a couple of fun days in a festival field can be easier to handle – and cheaper – than having to fly abroad in school holidays.
You need to accept that everything might not be operating-theatre-sterile for a couple of days, but there’s little that can’t be sorted with a multitude of various wet wipes.
A travelcot may seem like a heavy thing to lug to your campsite but it will allow peace of mind if your smaller offspring are prone to wander.
Take a tent that you KNOW how to put up in advance and if possible, invest in your own small trolley or wheelbarrow. Days can involve a lot of walking and it’s easier to entice a squealing toddler into a blanket-lined barrow than an unwieldy buggy that’s lost a wheel. Pack a set of warm clothes for evenings as it can get chilly (all-in-one rainsuits for kids are worth bringing) and give loads of time to get to stages for a favourite act.
Inevitably you won’t see everything on the line-up – sometimes you’ll just need to chill out with the kids and listen from a distance for your own sanity’s sake. Letting your bigger kids off the leash to wander without you may feel like a worry, but it’s an essential part of growing up and you should make sure they have a watch and regular meeting points. Don’t rely on phones as signal and battery life are usually limited.
Rucksacks and bumbags work better than handbags, cashpoints will be on site but be prepared to queue and pay fees, and you’ll probably survive with lots of socks but just two pairs of footwear – trainers and wellies.
If you’re bringing food, but only want to cook with minimal effort, a camping stove and kettle, cereal bars, tortilla wraps and noodles weigh little and can save you a fortune on festival food. Disposable barbecues are great if allowed and packet bacon will last a couple of days in a coolbox. Tea bags, coffee and UHT milk will feel like luxuries and you’ll be glad you invested in that multipack of earplugs from Boots.
Festival line-up for summer 2016.
Glastonbury, June 22-26, Pilton, Somerset. SOLD OUT.
Featuring: Muse, Adele, Coldplay, Foals, Beck, ELO
FOLD (Freak Out Let’s Dance), June 24-26, Fulham, London.
First year of this Chic and Nile Rodgers curated weekend, with Beck, John Newman, Alison Moyet, Thompson Twins
Love Supreme, Lewes, July 1-3
Featuring: Grace Jones, Burt Bacharach, Lianne La Havas, Kelis
British Summertime with Barclaycard, Hyde Park, London, July
This sees various big names for all music tastes play throughout the month, including Massive Attack, Kendrick Lamar and Jamie XX, Patti Smith, Carole King, Florence and the Machine, Take That and Olly Murs, Alabama Shakes and the Mumfords.
Northampton Town Festival, Racecourse, Northampton, July 2-3. FREE.
OK, so not strictly a music and camping festival, but the first year the town show and hot air balloons have been on the Racecourse for some time. A huge festival of family fun over two days.
Tannerfest, Loddington, Northants, July 9.
A firm fixture on the Northants music scene, this small but perfectly formed event is a laid-back day out for all the family.
Wireless, Finsbury Park, London, July 8-10.
Featuring: Calvin Harris, Chase & Status, Jess Glynne, Disciples, J Cole, KYGO, Boy Better Know. wirelessfestival.co.uk/
Electric Daisy Carnival, Milton Keynes Bowl, July 9
Massive dance music event featuring headliners Avicii, Axwell, Martin Solvig.
Lovebox, Victoria Park, London, July 15-16.
Featuring Jack Garrett, Major Lazer, Diplo, Kano, Stormzy, Jungle, Chet Faker.
Secret Garden Party, Huntingdon, Cambs, July 21-24.
Featuring: Primal Scream, Air, Caribou
Camp Bestival, Lulworth Castle, Dorset, July 28-31.
The little sister of September megafest Bestival and a favourite of our clan, this is a great place to kick off the school holidays and start festivaling with the family, and you’re quite likely to see former music stars chilling out with their own young ‘uns as well as the world’s largest bouncy castle. This year’s line up features Fatboy Slim, Tears for Fears, Squeeze, Katy B, Bananarama and Jess Glynne, with turns from Dick and Dom and Mr Tumble.
Green Man festival, Brecon Beacons, Wales, August 18-21
Featuring Belle & Sebastian, James Blake, Warpaint and Laura Marling
V Festival, Staffordshire and Chelmsford, August 20-21
H&P Ed is feeling very old; he attended the first one of these back in ’96. The big names are flying in for this year’s V Festival with Justin Beiber, Rihanna, Sia, David Guetta, faithless, the Kaiser Chiefs, Little Mix and All Saints on the list.
Atomic vintage festival, Sywell Aerodrome, Northants, Aug 20-21
This 1950s-themed festival features music, pre-1963 cars and hot-rods, lots of food ideas and stalls, set in the aerodrome and surrounds over two days.
Reading and Leeds festivals, August 26-28.
The traditional after-exam-results experience for teens, this year’s line up across the two cities includes The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Fall Out Boy, Foals, Disclosure, Vaccines, Eagles of Death Metal and Biffy Clyro.
Shambala, Kelmarsh Hall, Northants, Aug 25-28.
This is a lovely family festival with a real eco-ethos and a huge sense of humour. Dressing up is encouraged and while the stages usually feature less-well-known but excellent musicians, they’ve brought in the 80s soul divas Sister Sledge to headline on Friday. The circus and arts fields are always amazing.
THIS week I was asked to talk about whether it was right that a mum, whose 16-month-old toddler was throwing a full-on tantrum, was asked to leave a John Lewis store after a complaint from a customer. No, of course it bloody wasn’t.
Apparently, a customer complained about the crying noise to a member of the menswear department who then asked the frazzled new mum to leave.
I’m pretty sure this was a one-off by a member of staff who was either inexperienced, having a bad day, or simply moronic. What he should have done is walk the stupid moaner off the premises, not the mum.
Oh yes, I know it’s pretty irritating when a kid cries in a public place. It’s MEANT to be annoying, to get grown-up human beings to pay attention to a child who might be in peril. But this wasn’t in a restaurant, or a bar, or a library. No one goes shopping for the peace and quiet.
So hey, Mr John Lewis customer, why don’t you walk away for a few minutes and come back when the tantrum’s over rather than throwing your toys out of your pram and COMPLAINING? Clearly when you wanted your own way as a kid, your parents must have pandered to your every whim, instead of leaving you to bleat and cry until you realised it was pointless, and did what you were ruddy-well told.
Yes, I’ll happily admit to bribing and threatening my offspring to get them to stop them kicking off in public, but a 16-month-old? Too young to understand I’m afraid.
The only thing you can do as a parent with a screamer is ride it out, or carry them bodily somewhere else to distract them. I did have a particularly effective hard stare that would silence my older sons (not Bonnie, she just didn’t care), but not at this age. You can lose a finger trying to strap a wriggly, screaming pre-schooler into a buggy, or get kicked in the face by flailing feet. Parenting the under-fives is like an extreme sport. Done daily.
Trust me, most parents are also swearing under their breath when toddlers throw a paddy in public. It’s not a situation anyone enjoys.
So get over it, shoppers-without-babies. Walk away, put your headphones in, have some empathy. Because it’s these screaming kids, mine included, who will be working all hours to prop up the economy in a few years time, so you can have a pension in your old age. Move on tantrum police, there’s nothing to see here. . .
MY 12-YEAR-OLD son is looking simultaneously horrified and delighted. His eyes are saying, “Get her off me!” while his mouth is showing a wide smile. His cheeks are being held adoringly by someone who could pass as his granny, but who is actually a complete stranger.
This mild-mannered mugging in the supermarket is not unusual for my children. They were once the subject of a weekly newspaper column, which detailed their early years and my often chaotic parenting. And unbeknown to them, they still have fans. Readers who saw them appear in print as chubby babies, naughty toddlers, and mischievous teens who still recognise them, although the column stopped when the paper ceased being a daily a few years ago.
“Look how you’ve grown!” beams the friendly stranger, leaving Billy unsure whether to thank her or correct her; because in his head he’s not grown enough, being one of the oldest but tiniest in his year at school.
Meanwhile the lady has moved on to ruffle the hair of eight-year-old Bonnie, now looking like a fully-formed human being rather than the wobbly toddler the reader remembered. “And don’t you look like your mum?” she asks. Bonnie has become used to this observation and doesn’t yet see it as the worst thing on earth (although no doubt that will change). I chat to the lady a little longer, filling her in on what our older two are doing and thanking her for keeping track of My Bloke’s career as editor of another paper.
As we bid our farewells to carry on shopping, Bill and Bonn start to question me along the lines of: Who the hell was that and why does she know so much about us? (They had been much younger when the columns ran and possibly thought that all children had their photos taken on a weekly basis.)
We carry on the discussion back at home with the elder sons, Jed and Dougie, now 18 and 16 respectively, who make sure the younger two understand that THEY were FAR more famous in their day, as they had their tantrums, birthdays, school applications, parents’ evenings and every other form of embarrassing scenario detailed to the public at large on a weekly basis for more than a decade. Cheek-tweaking by strangers was a weekly occurrence for us, not just a one-off, they claimed.
But how would they feel now if I’d kept writing about them? My change of job from full-time journalist to university journalism lecturer meant that I didn’t really get to discuss parenting mid-range teens. It would have been just as they hit the door-slamming years, and I would have had perfect source material for a parenting column, with topics like girlfriends, puberty, under-aged drinking, learning to drive, going abroad on their own or, critically at the moment, exams. But is it fair to expose the lives of your children as a paid job?
Social media would possibly have exacerbated their embarrassment even more, because ten years ago they wouldn’t have been so ‘shared’ via Twitter and Facebook, although they were online.(They don’t have their own social media open to us, quite wisely.)
Feedback was generally pretty good on the column, readers wrote letters and emails sympathising or sharing their own stories, and often it would be grandparents as much as parents who read it, because they could see how attitudes and styles of bringing up kids had changed so dramatically.
Unlike the plethora of parenting advice books, the column wasn’t there to lecture anyone about the best way to bring up kids, but to share experience and tips. Well, that was the intention anyway. I did get relatively regular letters written by someone claiming to represent the entire population of a nursing home who apparently detested me and spelled this out in no uncertain terms. Then there was the mother who wrote to tell me that she was so appalled that I didn’t give out party bags at one particular birthday that she was GLAD her children did not know mine. Ouch.
I’ve always found it curious how hate-mail tended to be from women, who you’d think would be more supportive of the sisterhood. But no, I’m afraid the most zealous critics were female. At least I can say they were engaged enough to be bothered to actually write, buy a stamp and take it to the postbox. Today we’d call them trolls.
Is writing about your own children in advice columns over-sharing? (And yes, of course I’m aware that I’m sharing their lives again, as I’m writing this right now). Is there a difference between parenting advice columns and the ubiquitous Facebook posts of the landmark events (or otherwise) of proud parents?
OK, so I did sit up in bed and write a column for the newspaper about the arrival of our new baby daughter on the day she was born. But because readers had spent nine months following the saga of my fourth pregnancy it seemed only fair to give them the conclusion. And to be frank, I was so pleased that having a home birth had been such a monumentally better experience than going into hospital, I wanted other people to understand there was nothing to be scared of. Plus, I was slightly off my head on post-partum painkillers.
If there was a story in the news about a particular parenting issue, like childcare, or health issues, I’d usually have experienced it one time or another, and knew how lonely, confusing and demoralising those early years as a mum can be. Jed and Doug are only 19-months apart in age, and like chalk and cheese, so I’d had a pretty intensive apprenticeship as a working parent, at a time when you were only allowed 3-6 months maternity leave. By the time Billy and then Bonnie came along, I had four children under ten and had given up caring what people thought of me.
I just wanted to tell people all the things I wish I’d done differently. Or even, and we probably don’t do enough of this, detailing parenting tips that had actually worked.
Today the urge to write about the offspring is somewhat offset by being able to share pictures and updates to family and friends via Facebook (which I try and use just for personal stuff). I will occasionally get asked to write the odd thing for a parenting site or magazine and happily rant away on BBC Radio Northampton whenever they are short of a guest with forthright opinions on bringing up baby.
Jed is now 18, just coming up to his A Levels, learning to drive, playing rugby, going out on the town and looking at universities. yes, terrifying, I know.
Dougie is almost 17, in the year below, doing AS Levels, playing first-team rugby (his team are in the Nat West Schools final at Twickenham in nine days time, and he’s fighting to get back from his first ever injury).
Billy , now 12, has started ‘big school’, also plays rugby, and does street dance, loves to cycle like his looky-likey dad, has successfully ingratiated himself with the sixth form at school, despite being a year seven.
Bonnie, now 8, doesn’t seem the slightest bit bothered that she’s the only one left at primary school, where she does gymnastics, yoga, recorder, ocarina, swimming and unlike her brothers, has never had a bad report. She’s girlier than you might expect (so much for nature/nurture) and somehow rules the roost. They are often hilarious and sometimes idiotic and make us incredibly proud.
Meanwhile, if you see my kids out and about, don’t be afraid to give them a tweak of the cheeks. They love it, really.
This is galanthus ikariae Bonnie Scott, a snowdrop named after my daughter when she was a baby in 2008.
It was grown by famed snowdrop guru Jim Leatherland in Northamptonshire, and I thought I’d lost it. But buried among some overgrown hardy geranium, with a couple of flowers and its stripy leaves, there it is, nearly eight years on and still alive!
I must split it and move it once it’s G finished flowering, this time writing down where it is!
Review of Cinderella, with John Partridge and Cbeebies’ Sid, at Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2015
Cinderella Review, Derngate theatre Northampton.
THERE’S a tradition with many families at Christmas that shows more faith than going to midnight mass – and that’s booking a year in advance for the Derngate panto.
Lots of Northamptonians do it – after all, the Derngate pantos are fairly traditional and you should reasonably expect something with a famous face, some sparkly costumes and the requisite number of ‘He’s behind you!’s.
They are always Qdos productions, a vast entertainment group who put on commercial, traditional pantos, usually with at least one celebrity turn, up and down the country. Next door at the Royal you’ll find something a little less panto and a little more ‘Christmas play’, and this year it’s the Snow Queen.
If it’s dames and double entendres you’re after, Cinderella has those in abundance. Ben Stock and Bobby Delaney as the Ugly Sisters give it the full-on panto dame routine, with amazing costumes and good comic timing. But they get rather pushed into the chorus by ex-Eastender and rumoured Big Brother contestant John Partridge as Prince Charming, whose stripping and whooping and winking make you think that Cinderella would be furiously swiping left on the fairytale version of Tinder.
When Partridge started singing, and he can certainly carry a tune, my 7-year-old turned to ask: “Is it the interval soon?” She and her 8-year-old friend fidgeted far more than they usually do at the theatre while our 12-year-old, trying his hardest not to sound un-cool, asked if some of the jokes were really suitable for kids, “as it isn’t even like you have to work out what they really mean, it’s just rude stuff.” Then he went back to playing games on his phone.
I’ll admit I was watching through gritted teeth through quite a lot of Cinderella, as young actress Rachel Flynn battled to be heard above her braying prince and the whiney Buttons, played by Britain’s Got Talent semi-finalist Danny Posthill, whose main talent was rapid-fire impressions.
There was a big cheer from the audience when Cbeebies favourite Sid (Sloane) appeared, and he made the cheerful most of his role as the prince’s servant and sidekick Dandini. The beautiful glittery costumes and athletic dance moves of the girl dancers got our seven-year-old back watching and the audience seemed to be whooping along with it all. Either that or they’d been wise enough to have a proper drink beforehand.
There is an intended ‘wow’ moment involving a mechanical horse, some bubbly snow and some stage flying work, but I’m afraid I couldn’t stop laughing at the horse’s gammy leg.
I’ve been to a lot of pantomimes over the years and despite the jokey reputation for it being a long way from high art, the writing has to be good to carry the clichés and flamboyance that comes from having to recycle much-loved stories and carry slightly-famous non-actors.
With Cinderella I got the feeling that the production bosses just couldn’t be bothered this year. Stick some faces up there, work some good dancers into a few routines, call the local dance school for some sweet kids for the chorus, find someone off a TV talent show that at least the teens will recognise and shove in some fart jokes. Work them all solid for a couple of months and take the cash that people effectively pledged without knowing what they were really going to get.
If you’ve already got tickets, or were thinking of going, don’t let this put you off. But if you can, make sure you drop into the theatre’s new Bar Hygge beforehand, for a ‘quick stiffener’. There you go Qdos scriptwriters, you can have that one for next year.
THERE’S a bunch of four and five-year-olds running up and down the steps in the bar area of Royal & Derngate, completely oblivious to everyone around them. The game escalates quite quickly into Slide-Down-The-Steps-On-Your-Tummy.
Oh, and they are all girls, most dressed in very sparkly dresses.
Our seven-year-old Bonnie has settled herself up onto a bar stool and is looking down on them, literally, while shaking her head: “Ah, reception kids,” she sighs, sounding more like a pensioner than her own grandparents. She’s read the blurb about the show we’re waiting to see and seen that it’s for under-fives – and she’s seven.
We’re here, Bonn and I, to see one of the Royal & Derngate’s famous ‘immersive’ shows for children. These are often linked to the Royal’s annual Christmas show and this year it’s Oh no, not snow! which references The Snow Queen, playing to rather larger audiences upstairs.
Oh No, not snow! (which will become ONNS for the purposes of word count) is being held in the Underground at R&D, an innovative space that allows directors to make sets as ‘rooms’ which the audience can walk through as part of the show.
The story has already started as the audience of kids and carers walk through to put away their coats. Sam (played by Max Gallagher) introduces himself and gets the smaller members of the audience to rip up paper to make snow.
Then his mum arrives and tells him to take his ‘friends’ (that’s us) to help tidy his bedroom.
What follows is a journey through a couple of self-contained rooms (I don’t want to spoil the surprise with too much detail, but there is a ‘wow’ moment) with the audience of parents and pre-schoolers in tow.
Director Chris Elmer-Gorry has created a delightful introduction to the fantasy world of theatre for the under-fives in ONNS, and I think it’s a real strength of R&D that they create these ‘tasters’ of theatre for the very young.
There are moments where the tiniest tots, oblivious to the fact there is a story being told, get involved in the action, and the actors, particularly Kate Hearn as Polly, do well to manage and ad-lib around their impromptu cast members. Sometimes the children are invited to help the cast in certain tasks, and sometimes they just join in anyway, and it’s up to the skill of the performer to manage the situation without breaking the flow, as there’s already no ‘fourth wall’ of traditional theatre.
I’ve reviewed several of these immersive shows over recent years and in this case Bonnie, aged 7, was totally engrossed in the action and the story.
There are a couple of songs that went on marginally too long for some of the kids, who I watched chucking ‘snow’ in strangers faces instead. I think the age of the children, set at under 5, could go up to six or seven, but I’d also put a limit on the number of adults coming with each child, because at times it seemed that there were just too many big people in the room closely stalking their offspring, rather than sitting back and letting them join in the action with the other children.
Oh No, Not Snow runs in Derngate’s Underground until January 3, with limited tickets available from the Box Office on 01604 624811.
I’ve been needing a deadline to get my lardy backside shuffling a little further than just once around Northampton’s Racecourse. What better excuse than joining several hundred people – and dogs – dressed as Father Christmas?
The Northampton Santa Run is to be held on Sunday December 13 at 10.30am, for a short 3km jog or (for those of us who plod) walk. You can enter with your kids and even enter with your dog – the aim is to raise much-needed cash for Northants-based charities.
The six charities who will benefit are the Cynthia Spencer Hospice, St John Ambulance, The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, Rotary Club of Northampton, The British Red Cross and Northamptonshire Health Charitable Fund.
The entry fee is £18 for adults and £8 for children and includes a Father Christmas outfit that you can take away with you and a finisher’s medal. Or you can raise even more by getting sponsorship for your run.
Organiser Chris Dolan said: “We’re hoping to see thousands of red and white bearded participants run, or walk, two laps of Becket’s Park, raising as much as possible for the six Northants charities. We’ll be doing lots of things to get people to sign up as Santas in coming days, so keep an eye out for us!”
If you sign up online you will be able to collect your Santa suit and race number from a pop-up shop in Northampton Town Centre before the race event on December 13, to avoid any queues on the day.
Anyone wishing to take part can apply online by visiting the event’s official website northamptonsantarun.com or for more information email firstname.lastname@example.org
Once upon a time in the very distant past, I wrote regular restaurant reviews for the local daily paper.
We’d be allowed to claim £30 on expenses (for two, with drinks!), and always went incognito, so we’d be treated the same as any other paying member of the public.
Restaurant reviews were good ‘talkers’ for newspapers, as readers would like to share their opinions, especially once the Internet arrived and made commenting on stories far easier.
Anyway, in my reviewing days, I’d sometimes take Bloke, father of my children and fellow journo, who unfortunately considered food reviewing an almighty pain in the arse. He would prefer the Just Being A Normal Punter aspect to include Not Bloody Reviewing Everything.
Therefore my favourite restaurant reviews were with another journalist, Jess. For several years we’d use sporadic restaurant reviews as an excuse to catch up. We were both working full time, having babies and generally being rubbish at staying in touch. Restaurant reviews also meant we ate proper food rather than picking at the kids’ leftover fish fingers or eating nothing but crisps while driving from one job to another.
Reviews are not as easy as you might think. They can be utterly tedious to read if the writer insists on something along the lines of ‘we went here, we had this’ using words like ‘nice’ and ‘tasty’.
Reviews should paint a picture of the experience, even if the only picture published is a GV: a general shot of the restaurant from the outside.
They should ultimately tell your reader whether it’s worth handing over your hard-earned cash. Usually we were pretty happy with our experiences. Restaurateurs would display framed cuttings of reviews behind their tills. Sometimes they weren’t so happy: one threatened to pull their advertising from the paper because I’d said the service was slow. Another establishment, that had served us raw chicken, then served me, the editor and the newspaper group with writs claiming defamation in the review. It later transpired the place was being run by a crook, who had run out on other restaurants and debts around the UK, and he’d finally been caught.
Time moved on. Jess and I had yet more kids, our lives went in different directions, we were still good pals, but without the regular meals.
Then we met up again and made a date to meet for lunch, at Academy Coffee Haus, tucked away behind Debenhams in College Street Mews.
For once I wasn’t late, and even cycled there instead of driving (nearest parking would be in Marehold or on street on Bridge St). But Jess was poorly and couldn’t make it.
I decided to stay, and in the spirit of our previous culinary adventures, I’d review my lunch experience.
The cafe is small, it has around 30 covers, simple wooden chairs and a couple of padded benches. Ceiling fans add character and I presume some air in the summer months.
There’s a loo that is small and probably not wheelchair accessible, but which had a changing mat and emergency nappies and wipes, something I’d have appreciated when wrestling four children aged under ten around town in the past.
I had a couple of good cappuccino coffees, in a decent sized cup with a biccy on the side, and a huge chicken and sundried tomato salad, with olives and pinenuts.
I think the menu did say it came with pesto bread, but I didn’t get any, and to be honest I totally forgot about this while eating, so it clearly wasn’t needed. The chicken was well seasoned and hot, and was delicious with both fresh and sundried tomatoes, pinenuts and black olives.
Eating alone was actually a pretty sociable experience. I chatted with a young artist who had just moved back to Northampton from London after realising she just couldn’t go on simply earning money just to pay the extortionate rent. An old journo contact who now works in PR by coincidence arrived to have a coffee and cake lunch just to escape the office, and joined me for a chat too.
One waitress had to escape outside for five minutes due to an attack of the most entertaining hiccups I’ve ever heard, like a tiny puppy yelping. On another table a girl was telling her friend how desperately unhappy she was at work, and vowing to leave, while her pal tried to talk her round.
The staff were friendly but not intrusive, and my total bill came to £9.45, pretty good value for a warm and well fed couple of hours, with free WiFi.
If you’re in Northampton I’d recommended it, whether meeting friends or not. It’s far from a lonely experience.
IN the semi-conscious blur of an early, school-morning wake-up, I could swear I heard John Humphries tell me the BBC was going to fund a pool of 100 reporters to help local papers.
I jolted awake.
Humphries, rather than standing shouting at the end of my bed, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, being typically bombastic, appearing not to have read the story he was discussing live on air.
Media pundit Steve Hewlett filled in the gaps: The BBC, the state broadcaster, funded by taxation via your licence fee, was proposing to fund 100 reporters across the country to cover public affairs stories (that’s anything involving councils and court) and share their content with regional newspapers.
Hang on, I hear you ask, surely court and council stories are already covered by local papers; in fact, aren’t they the bread and butter of regional news? Isn’t that what every cub reporter spends their early years covering, honing their shaky shorthand and getting shouted at by angry relatives of defendants, or councillors who have opened their mouths without thinking (again)?
No. Those days are gone. In reality, apart from the papers based in bigger cities, and those who are still producing a daily print run, the chances are that your local paper (which you probably read online rather in print), will no longer send a reporter to council meetings unless there is something particularly sexy on the agenda, (and I use the word ‘sexy’ purely because it stands so uncomfortably alongside the word ‘council’).
Instead, the paper might cut-and-paste a press release written by a communications officer at the council (who probably used to work at the paper but now earns twice the salary without having to cover evenings and weekends).
Chances are, the taxpayer-funded press and communications office for your local council or police force will have more staff than the combined newsrooms of all the media outlets in the area. But I digress.
Would you, as an editor of a regional weekly paper and associated website, with one and half reporters available on a given day, 30 pages of editorial to fill and a target from management of several thousand web hits, then send a reporter to cover a council meeting or court case that may take hours to get to the interesting bit? Oh, and then give them time off in lieu for working late? Or would you use the press release version with its already-sourced quote instead and get on with the other stuff?
Similarly, you will probably have seen your local papers publish slightly out-of-date sentencing results of court cases, sent by HM Courts Service in an attempt to show they do manage to drag some wrong-uns through the archaic justice system. It’s as popular these days to trawl the lists of convictions for people you might know, as your parents would have scanned the Births, Marriages and Deaths section of the paper in its print heyday.
But is there a regular court reporter, either for a paper, a broadcaster or as a freelance, actually based inside your local magistrates or crown court? Are cases covered in full if they don’t involve rape and murder? Again, highly unlikely unless you are in London or a large city.
Many would argue that unlike in past decades, this means the Fourth Estate is failing in its duty to demonstrate democracy and justice being seen to be done. And I’d also argue that some cracking tales, the ones that inevitably crop up buried in a weighty council agenda, or during a full day spent in court, are also being missed.
And all this at a time when there is a gigantic audience, a massive thirst and an enormous platform, via smartphones and tablets, for genuinely interesting stories. Think no one is reading papers? Imagine that all the people you saw today reading smartphones were actually reading newspapers – chances are they will all have clicked at least one news site.
Anyway, back to the promised 100 new journos, armed with their sharpened pencils, ready to throw themselves into the farthest reaches of council chambers and crown courts from Carlisle to Truro,. (There are 91 Crown Courts, 330 magistrates courts and 400 odd council chambers).
In his speech today (7/9/15) BBC Director General Tony Hall (a former BBC broadcast journalist) stated: “We’ve been working with our local newspaper partners on an exciting scheme.
“Local democracy really interests me. I’ve seen for myself how important our local radio stations are, and I’m really proud of the way they serve their communities. But I now want us to go further. So, in future, The BBC would set aside licence fee funding to invest in a service that reports on councils, courts and public services. And we would make available our regional video and local audio for immediate use on the internet services of local and regional news organisations.
“In my view, that’s good for audiences, good for the industry but we look forward to hearing the views of others. Together with our partners we look forward to consulting on this scheme and adapting it as we learn from the consultation.”
Naturally, the immediate reaction about the proposal was pretty one-sided (of course it’s far easier to vent on news stories these days via the comments section, rather than having to find a pen, write a letter, buy a stamp, go to the postbox…).
The initial general reaction online could be nutshelled as follows: Why should taxpayers’ money be used to prop up large commercial media organisations who have asset stripped the newsrooms of once popular regional papers?
And this is before the big newsgroups got involved. By the afternoon they were venting via the Guardian.
In the detail of its proposal the corporation says the operation would have to be “run by the BBC” and that any news organisation, “as well as the BBC itself”, could compete to win reporting contracts.
“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BBC’s proposal … [is] anything other than BBC expansion into local news provision and recruitment of more BBC local journalists through the back door,” said Ashley Highfield, the vice chairman of the News Media Association and chief executive of regional publisher Johnston Press.*
John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, was equally scathing, describing the plan as a “Trojan horse” and a “further expansion of the BBC’s encroachment”.
“It’s a Trojan horse because under the guise of being helpful, the BBC would end up replacing independent local news and worse than that would replace local news agencies,” McLellan told Radio 4’s World at One. “”It means the BBC effectively replaces local newsgathering.”
*[…and former BBC employee who dreams of being DG one day, I reckon…]
Back again to my unexpected news alarm from John Humphries.
I pay my BBC licence fee and think overall we get pretty good service. But you want to save some money in your charter renewal Mr State Broadcaster? Here’s some ideas:
- Stop putting half a dozen reporters and presenters on a story that only needs one. Stop doing expensive live OB reports in front of darkened buildings, especially Downing Street.
- Help your regional TV reporters by pool-sharing jobs with papers or hyperlocals – your broadcasters are stretched by the huge areas they cover. Let them be journalists.
- Stop equating the success of your local radio stations to their Facebook likes. Good stuff will be shared anyway.
- Invest in your local stations. But let them cover features and long form investigations and stop wasting time and money repeating what the papers already do better.
- I love BBC4, but I think a lot of it could be on BBC2. Keep the content, just move it and make room by binning all of those ridiculously expensive lifestyle programs with ‘celebrities’, especially home-makeovers and chefs (except Bake-Off, keep that). Let the commercial channels do them, where they can ‘product place’ to their heart’s content.
- BBC3 is more important than you think and should stay as a terrestrial channel (seeing as it is the only youth channel available).
- Get over your obsession with ‘Talent’ and hire people who know what they are doing.
- Have fewer meetings, make quicker decisions and implement stuff faster.
Feel free to add your own, as I’m in a post-news story ramble.
Apart from being interested in this stuff as a journalist, journalism academic (I lecture in journalism to university undergraduates) and better-half of a local newspaper editor, it bothers me as a member of the public too. We should be getting more impartial coverage of public affairs. And there are some really essential stories we’re not hearing enough about.
OK, it’s a universal truth that newspaper journalists have always liked to bitch about BBC journalists (they get paid more, they nick our stuff without giving credit or links (I’m looking at you Radio 4), they actually DO talk like they are in the spoof W1A, they might be posh/public school/Oxbridge, they still get expenses, and they get better reception from punters simply by saying ‘I’m from the BBC.”
But that’s just banter. There are some really fantastic, dedicated regional BBC reporters and presenters who work their backsides off to get their programmes out for their non-Londoncentric audience and they will be wondering what this latest idea will mean for them.
The real reason Humphries woke me with a start this morning is because I’ve actually been sitting on the consultation panel between the BBC, regional publishers and hyperlocal media organisations for the past year. We’re supposed to be having a further meeting and more detailed feedback session next week.
Early on in the discussions, in the ‘blue sky thinking’ phase, I raised the idea of the state broadcaster staffing council or court in areas where court and council wasn’t already covered, and sharing content with everyone else, similar to what happens during visits involving the Royals via the ‘Royal rota pool’.
The idea was deemed too expensive to do properly, and politely shelved.
Or so I thought . . .