Category Archives: Breaking News

When the boot’s on the other foot

“So would you grass them up then, Yes or No?”

It was the second time I’d heard the question and a killer punch answer was proving elusive. My forehead was dotted with beads of sweat while my legs were shaking so hard I could’ve sworn that everyone in the room could hear the bones rattling. For my young interrogator, who had all but given up the pretence of hiding the larger than life smirk that had exploded across his face, my discomfort was grist to his mill. I had agreed to be interviewed for a student television project and it should have been a walk in the park. Yet here I was being placed on the back foot by someone old enough to be my son:

“It’s not a matter of Yes or No”, I replied, “It’s a bit more complicated than that!”

“You’re wrong”, he countered aggressively “It may be a hypothetical situation we’re discussing here but it’s still the legalities that count! Your mate’s suing a magazine for libel and then tells you the story’s true. Don’t you think you have a duty to report that to your editor?”

“I’m not suggesting you break the law, I’m highlighting a dilemma ”, I retorted, “Supposing it was your Mum and Dad who’d owned up? Would you expose them knowing they could be prosecuted for perjury?”

A glint of mischief lit up his dark eyes, “Do you know in the end I probably would” he said after a deliberate pause, “Because you can’t cherry pick the bits of the law that suit you best, otherwise what’s the point of it?”

I was about to respond with examples of ordinary people who’d broken the law for the good of the majority, but his lecturer ended the session before I could even blurt out a syllable. After I’d congratulated him on an interview technique that almost left me checkmated, we smilingly shook hands. I had narrowly avoided a humiliation of sorts, unlike the countless others who haven’t fared so well! I have never deliberately gone out of my way to trip somebody up on air, but I can now understand the sheer terror a guest must feel when they’re interviewed by a journalist with an axe to grind. The mind goes into overdrive whilst words are spoken with a monitored caution, as there’s always the danger an innocent remark can be turned into something incriminating. Is it any wonder that TV interviews are sometimes compared to being wrung through a contraption invented by the Spanish Inquisition?

But I must be a glutton for punishment as a fortnight after my encounter with the man who would be Jeremy Paxman, I agreed to do another interview, this time on Twitter. I didn’t really think that much about it until the event was less than a handful of days away and I was desperately trying to anticipate the areas where I was likely to be questioned.

“Don’t worry”, one of my journalist friends assured me, “You’ll breeze through it!”

“And you’re tempting fate”, I replied disconsolately, “After what that kid nearly did to me the other day I’m not so sure about anything!”

“Treat it as a one-off”, she laughed, “At least you won’t have a camera pointed in your face!”

Of course she was right but that wasn’t enough to take the edge off my caution. I’ve always been fairly comfortable with newspaper and radio interviews, but Twitter is in a different league altogether. Suppose I wrote something that was unintentionally disrespectful about a person or a place? And how could I stop the cyber flow if I accidentally forwarded a wrong message? But I needn’t have worried as the Twitter community was great, and apart from one slightly awkward question about a former work colleague, nobody asked me anything that was potentially compromising.

So having survived the experience, would I do it again? In a word, Yes! I enjoyed being in the hot seat because I actually felt I had some control over the situation. That’s important as most television interviewees, (with the exception of politicians who are media trained), are normally powerless and that makes them vulnerable to a mauling from a skilled inquisitor. I should know because I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve bypassed the blood on the carpet en route to a studio. Since I don’t fancy the prospect of being another of tomorrow’s victims, then Twitter is definitely the safer of the two options.


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Watching the crowds…yet again!

Hurrah it’s over for another year and I can finally breathe again, after what felt like a week of oxygen deprivation without the prospect of a last-minute rescue. Yet no matter how much I complain about the crowds, the traffic snarled roads, or the debt I’ll run up in the search for something fashionable to wear, I know that I’ll always be drawn back into the irresistible, crazy madness that is Royal Ascot.

So given my obvious cynicism why do I always get edgy with excitement when spring gives way to summer and May switches to June? And why do I put myself through the delicious agony of looking for a standout hat that might get me photographed by a newspaper, or ridiculed by fellow race goers? Because Royal Ascot is to me what a zero fat meal is to a calorie obsessive dieter. In other words it’s the closest thing one can have to an obsession minus the side effects of an addiction.

“Big Brother without the vulgarity but with all the pretentiousness,” is how a close friend of mine once described it, and I’m inclined to agree with that. Okay so there isn’t a house with hidden cameras that’s crawling with back biting contestants, but Ascot has plenty of people worth watching since not all of them are necessarily there for the racing. Were the bonneted cougars tottering past my table in sky scraper stilettos and gravity defying minis genuine horse lovers, or were they prowling the scene for well-heeled, chinless wonder males? Similarly were the young bucks in their grey morning suits, patterned waist coats and silk banded top hats really throwing admiring glances at the women, or were they hoping that the lecherous drool of an undersexed stud would help them score?

Crowd watching at Royal Ascot is a surreptitious pleasure and I appraise my targets with careful discretion, even though I know that what I’m doing violates the rules of etiquette.  As children we’re taught by our parents that it’s rude to stare yet it’s hard not to in an environment where people will stop at nothing to get themselves noticed. Hence the endearing absurdity of Ladies Day or the lengths to which some people will go to challenge the strict code of dress. During a trawl through the Guardian website I came across a 1971 photograph of a man wearing velvet shorts, a matching waistcoat and white knee-high socks, cleverly getting around a ruling that barred women from wearing hot pants in the Royal Enclosure.

I’m the first to admit that what I know about racing cover’s an area of a postage stamp, unlike my husband and the majority of Ascot regulars who share a genuine love of the turf. My winnings at the Tote are usually small, although that’s nothing compared to the size of my observational skills which have grown considerably in the seven years since I first attended. Ascot will always have the comforting déjà vu of a battered old pair of slippers, and as long as it stays that way and doesn’t lose the social climbers, hangers-on or attention seekers who’ve unwittingly entertained me over the years, then I’ll definitely keep on going.

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Filed under Breaking News, Mayoress of Surrey Heath

The Big Reality

What happens when 750 children are let loose onto a rugby pitch while the adults stand by and watch them get on with it? Unbridled chaos is the inevitable conclusion although in reality nothing could be further from the truth. The 750 special needs youngsters I recently encountered at The Army Rugby ground in Aldershot, were anything but disorderly. They were lively, friendly and full of incessant chatter, often driving the grown ups to near distraction with their unstoppable outpouring of energy. No one could begrudge them their joy since it was a day dedicated to fun, with all the entertainments laid on by the local Rotary Clubs. And among the day’s highlights?  The Mayor of Surrey Heath running a partial lap of honour around the pitch, after scoring two goals against a group of football loving seven-year-olds, in what could only be described as a rather one-sided contest. He insists that both goals were from 20 metres out in the style of Steve Gerrard.

Events like this clearly illustrate how community groups are at their supreme best when everyone works together. But they’re also a pointer to a much bigger phenomenon that has been largely under-discussed in the national media. Recently I’ve come away with the growing conviction that in the current climate of fiscal belt-tightening and dire warnings of economic hardship, voluntary organisations will find themselves assuming a much greater social welfare role. This probably seems all the more extraordinary when applied to well-heeled, commuter territory like Surrey Heath. But even affluent boroughs have zones of poverty and Surrey Heath is no exception. How else does one explain the presence of the Camberley Community Store, which provides household goods and furniture to families or individuals needing emergency accommodation? The shelves and floor space are heaving with stock and will likely stay that way as long as there’s no let up in-house repossessions, family dislocations and rising unemployment.

There’s no suggestion that the voluntary sector is being consciously groomed for taking over some of the key welfare roles traditionally performed by local authorities. But there’s a growing awareness that times are changing and that old certainties are on their way out. The likely scenario is that many organisations will have to merge if they’re to cope with the increasing demands on their services, and if they’re to stand any chance of successfully accessing whatever money is available in the government kitty.

Maybe it’s another step towards the so-called “Big Society”, of which much has been written but not necessarily in a way that’s understandable. Yet regardless of how it’s interpreted, voluntary and community groups will have a heavier workload to look forward to, along with difficult choices as to how they’ll re-position themselves to meet their ballooning responsibilities in an age of cuts and austerity. “We’re all in this together” is the message from Westminster, although it’s anybody’s guess as to who will come out of it alive. At least the 750 youngsters can look forward to another fun day out in 2011, even if for the rest of us there might not be that much to smile about.

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The (lonely) journey of a first time writer

Its been two months since I dotted the closing sentence in the final paragraph of my novel Breaking News, with a big full stop and a resounding “hallelujah” screamed at the kitchen wall. I can honestly say it’s one of those moments in my life that I’m not likely to forget in a hurry! Writing a novel isn’t easy, especially when it’s a first time effort done without the guidance of an editor, or the luxury of working with a ghost writer!

You may also be wondering why I chose to write it in the kitchen. Well quite simply it seemed the most logical place to continue and finish an enterprise that had consumed the best part of three and a half years of my life. After all the kitchen looks onto a well-kept, restful garden, (a useful and neutral retreat when the going get’s tough!), and it’s also the place where endless supplies of herbal tea are on hand, along with the junk food comforts that one can turn to when writers’ block threatens to impede the flow of words.

I am more than satisfied with the finished product yet at the same time sad at having to say goodbye to it. In the time it’s taken me to complete my book I’ve not only grown to understand my characters and what makes them tick, but I even feel an element of protectiveness towards them. It’s a curious emotion since they’ve been concocted from my imagination and are anything but real people. Yet parting company with them has been a bit like saying goodbye to an old friend that you know you’ll never see again. That’s one of the reasons why writing can sometimes be a lonely, maddening and occasionally heartbreaking experience.

When you’re deeply involved with your characters it’s almost like sharing a personal journey in which your life runs parallel to theirs: you make decisions that shape their destiny at the same time as assessing the choices that will impact on your own. Very rarely are the outcomes ever identical! Worryingly, I even started to dream about my characters, to the extent that in my sleep their parts were performed by some of the acting world’s finest talents. Perhaps it’s no wonder that a girlfriend gave me the telephone number of a psychiatrist when, in a moment of insecurity, I told her there might be something wrong with me: “Honey”, she said to me earnestly, “You’re two steps away from a straight jacket. You’d better give him a ring!”

As a writer you learn to keep the outside world at bay, while personal priorities are ruthlessly placed on the back burner in order to hit that all important publication deadline. The really surprising bit is that when the novel is finished and you finally surface for air, your friends and family greet you with the refrain: “I haven’t seen you for so long I thought you were dead!” That’s when you know the fiction/reality trade-off is well and truly over… unless you’re planning to pick up a pen and start a sequel!

So bearing all that in mind, do I regret the trials and tribulations of the last three and a half years? Absolutely not! Had it not been for having the freedom to choose my working hours and determining exactly how much time I can afford to have on my hands, I don’t think I would ever have got around to fulfilling an ambition that I had nurtured since I was a child.

Too many people say “I’d like to write a novel”, but too few actually get around to doing it. In spite of the loneliness, the frustration when my brain felt as if it was drying up, and the final sadness of parting company with Breaking News’ characters Sally Wozniak, Gerald Hewitt, Tree Salmon et al, I finally got around to starting and finishing my novel: and in the end that’s all that really matters.


Filed under Breaking News, Writing