Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Another lengthy absence...

Blogging is a tricky thing to fit into life. Well, it is for me. Mostly because I'm quite lazy. It's also very hard to motivate yourself to write, or even sit in front of a computer screen, when you've spent your entire day doing both of those things. Despite my best efforts, I have yet to persuade any managers in my office that writing my personal blog makes a significant contribution to the production of a weekly newspaper, but I live in hope.

But all those things are pathetic excuses for someone who repeatedly states her biggest passion in life is writing. The man sitting next to me has a very black-and-white view of my ambitions in this field - he is frequently heard to mutter, "Just get on with it" whenever I complain about the fact I am not yet a best-selling author. If I examine my feelings about it too closely I fear the main reason for the lack of progress will probably be fear of failure; if you don't start, you can't get it wrong. So I put it off eternally.

But this evening I made real progress: I wrote three sentences. Now, this may not sound much, but I have spent months (in fact it's probably years now) coming up with ideas for books, writing them down, planning out the characters, the plot lines, the significant incidents... and never actually writing a book. Never even starting. So three sentences is real progress for me.

My helpful other half has found me a way of saving my work via the internet, allowing me to work on it from other computers, such as at work (during lunch breaks, naturally) and when we're visiting boring relatives. I've got a notepad filled with plans for my current book which will be fairly essential to the plot and character development, but even if I don't have it with me, the main thing is to get into the habit of writing, right? To stop planning, reading articles about writing, reading other books for 'research', making cups of tea, staring out of the window - and actually write.

It takes a lot for me to discuss my ambitions to be a novelist - up until quite recently I didn't share them with anyone, worrying I might sound completely ridiculous. But some people do get to write books for a living - and some of them are manifestly awful at it - so why shouldn't I give it a go?

I'll keep you updated with the progress - I'm even confident enough to think there will be progress now! - and hopefully might inspire you to persevere with something you've been putting off. It's time to stop procrastinating and start making things happen.

Wish me luck!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

A ghost keeps switching channels on my TV...

Let me start this post by saying I'm not afraid of ghosts, because I don't believe in them.

Logically they don't make any sense, much like alien abductions, the Bermuda triangle, love at first sight and the moon landings.

But that doesn't stop me getting scared when I think there is one in my house at night - particularly when I'm in on my own.

I've always been fairly interested in odd happenings, which I think stems from a childhood enjoyment of ghost stories. The Yorkshire Evening Post recently did a series of visits to famous landmarks around Leeds, which was very interesting until it turned to its own offices in Wellington Street which I occasionally have to spend time in. I stopped watching.

So when strange things started happening in my own home, my irrational fear overcame the voice in my head telling me there must be a reasonable explanation. It all began when I was home alone last Wednesday night. I was wandering around the bedroom with the BBC 10pm news on in the background. Suddenly, the channel changed. I was confused, but put it down to the cats standing on the remote control on the bed, and put the news back on without thinking about it too much.

A few minutes later, the channel changed again, going up several stations. The remote was sitting in front of me, well away from any interfering cats. "That's very odd," I thought, and put it back on the news again. Almost immediately, the main menu came up and it started scrolling through the channels, settling on Sky Three.

The way our television is set up in the bedroom is that it can be controlled via the Sky+ box from either upstairs or downstairs. You have to watch the same thing in both the living room and bedroom, but you can change the channel in either location. So, when it started appearing to behave independently, my first thought was that my other half might have come home without me hearing him. I looked out of the window - sadly, the car was not there, so he must have still been out.

When the channel continued to change, I went downstairs - perhaps the remote had a book or something else resting against it and pressing one of the buttons. But on entering the living room I saw it there, plain as day, sitting untouched on its own on the arm of the sofa. I went back upstairs carefully, checking around each corner for ghosts on my way.

Luckily, my other half did return home not long after. Unluckily, he was out the following night when it did it again. It happened a few times over the following days, but never when he was in the room - so naturally, he pretended to believe me while subtly trying to ascertain how the buttons had been accidentally pressed without me realising. Twitter was similarly helpful, with various friends either accusing me of sitting on the remote or making unnerving jokes about ghosts having a penchant for Sky Three.

Finally, after days of very nervous television watching on my part and sceptical, tolerant sighing on my husband's, it did it in front of him on Monday evening. The channels changed, the menu came up, it scrolled through and suddenly we were listening to an Irish radio station. Success. He finally believed me - and was equally baffled.
After a couple of days, we decided the reason behind it was probably some sort of interference from our neighbours' television with our digital sender, which allows us to change the channel from upstairs as well as directly in front of the Sky+ box. All cleared up and not a ghost to be seen.

Still, if it happens when I'm on my own for the night in a few weeks' time, I'm decamping to my parents' house. One hundred miles away.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My name is Vicky and I'm a bonnetaholic...

Regular readers of this blog might be forgiven for thinking I'm a cynical, miserable soul, filled with hatred for everything and everyone.

I'm not; I think it's just the way I write. Or the fact I tend to blog when something has irritated me to such an extent that only the written word is a sufficient outlet for my fury.

But this time I've decided to write about something lovely: Lark Rise to Candleford. I love it. I can't get enough of it. It's very, very sad that, as a young woman, I look forward to a nice evening in watching LR2C (as it is known by... well, me), preferably under a duvet and with some chocolate.

I know nothing ever happens and quite often the episode is filled with the kind of sugary, sentimental fare that, while being sweet at the time, leaves you ultimately unsatisfied and having an energy crash an hour later. But I can't help it. I think it's an actual addiction - when the current series comes to an end, there will be support groups set up all over the country for those experiencing bonnet withdrawal.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what is so appealing about the programme. Olivia Hallinan is charming as Post Office assistant Laura Timmins, while Julia Sawalha makes a fascinating Dorcas Lane (she may only ever purse her lips and raise an eyebrow, but wouldn't you have wanted her as a guardian when you were young?). A brilliant supporting cast, including Claudie Blakey and Brendan Coyle as Laura's parents who are forever arguing and making up (if I ever get to Lark Rise the break-up may be a little more permanent...), makes for a heart-warming, community feel to the programme.

But I think my favourite element of the show is little Minne, the housekeeper, whose misunderstandings and confusions lead to some of the funniest moments in the programme. Recent observations include: "Your hair don't suit your face" and "They say he eats his own hair" (much funnier when said by her).

If you're not already addicted, I would certainly recommend giving it a try - if nothing else, it's a good way of reminding yourself of the lighter things in life on a Sunday evening before subjecting yourself to another week of work.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

At the risk of sounding rather more like Terry Wogan than can ever be advisable,is it me?

I've noticed a growing trend in recent weeks that whenever I spend any time in the company of females, the talk turns to diets. To put this in context, none of the women in question is above a size 12 and certainly none of them could be classed as over-weight.

In fact, the woman I know who is the most obsessed with what she does or does not consume on a daily basis is probably the skinniest of them all. She recently lost half a stone and I can't even imagine where it came from - her clothes already hung off her as it was.

Aside from the debate about the ideal image of women projected by the media, fashion industry etc, I think this kind of obsession raises and important point: nobody cares.

It might just be me, but I'm just not interested in hearing the ins and outs of other people's dietary habits. I find it boring and, in the worst cases, far too graphic.

Don't get me wrong - I'm all for a healthy lifestyle and when people I know are getting in shape by eating carefully, I'll encourage them as much as I can. But I am getting so bored with the daily office discussions about exactly how many cups of tea or coffee we should each be drinking, how much water we consume, how many pieces of chocolate can be allowed each week and whether bread should ever be included in anyone's diet. Perhaps it's something unique to working exclusively with women - there are three of us in my office and the topic comes up at least once every day.

But when we work from our head office, where there are plenty of men around, the conversation always seems to come back to food at some point. So perhaps it's not women generally - just some of the ones I work with. One of them is so bad, she once confessed to feeling light-headed as we left the office for the day and then revealed she had had nothing but a salad since breakfast. Was she really surprised?

For most people. food is just a normal part of every day life. But for the women I work with, it is an obsession. They think about everything that passes their lips and the impact it might have on the rest of their body in the most ridiculous detail. Surely it takes all the pleasure out of life?

The ironic thing is, if they spent less time thinking about food, they would probably find they ate less and enjoyed their food more. But, since it would mean another conversation about diets, there's absolutely no way I'm going to point that out.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A lesson in dealing with the press

As a journalist, I'm used to dealing with my fair share of disagreement and confrontation. I don't like it, but I take it as part of my job. Receiving complaints about your own work serves to make you a better journalist - only if you know you have done the best possible job, been thorough and accurate, and your work is important to the local community, can you confidently defend yourself against complaints.

Unfortunately, sometimes it does not matter how well you write, nor how good your intentions are. Some people are simply determined to find fault; to see you in the same way they see a ruthless, uncaring hack from a national tabloid. Despite the fact that local papers are clearly different in their approach, their tone and their coverage, there is sometimes nothing you can do to change people's fear of - and even anger at - journalists.

This week provided a prime example in our office. There are just two of us working on a weekly paper covering a very large area. In recent months, we have been covering a story about changes to the way one of our local high schools is run. This week, my colleague had arranged to go up to the school and speak to the headteacher for an update on the progress, so we could keep the community informed.

When she got there, the headteacher had called in her deputy head, the chairman of governors and the guy in charge of the school's business contacts. My colleague sat down ready to hear about the school's progress - and was immediately subjected to what can only be described as a tirade of abuse.

The staff accused the newspaper of having grudge against their school. They said we worked actively to try to discredit the school and to promote the three others in our district instead. My colleague - who has run the office for the past two years - pointed out that, due to the restrictions on resources now facing all newspapers, the schools which are best at promoting themselves will be the ones which are most frequently featured in any publication. It's a shame, but journalists simply don't have the time any more to be able to call or visit every school every week and ask if they have anything interesting happening. We rely on the schools keeping us informed - by telling us of individual stories, or even just sending us their newsletters or magazines so we can pick out anything of interest.

However, this was, in the view of this particular high school, simply a cover-up. The real reason was clearly that we had set out to ruin them - and they had proof. They claimed someone "close to the school" had been in our office and overheard a conversation about where in the newspaper we would put a particular article about the school's success - ending with us saying we would bury it as close to the back as possible.

There are two problems with the school's story here. Firstly, it's absolutely not true. That conversation never took place because we would never say that about any school, and if we were ever to have such a discussion about anything we would certainly wait until there was nobody else in the office. Secondly - and most ridiculously - the article in question appeared on the front page. When my colleague pointed out this inconsistency, she was shouted down with more cries of bias and agenda.

At one stage, my colleague said she was not prepared to be bullied when she had set out in the hope of writing a positive, informative story, and she intended to leave. The headteacher's response? "Now, that wouldn't be very productive, would it?" I wonder how productive she thought the meeting had been so far.

Through the whole discussion, the newspaper was accused of bias, of having an agenda against the school, of only ever printing negative stories about the school while printing positive stories about all its competitors (aside - since when did schools turn into businesses?). At one stage, the deputy head said: "I find your newspaper very woolly, actually. I'm an English teacher and it's very badly written."

The meeting lasted an hour and a half, most of which involved my colleague trying desperately to defend the newspaper against a barrage of hatred while also hoping they might listen to her advice about promoting themselves more effectively. Eventually, she escaped and almost ran back to the office.

The whole thing completely baffles me. We wanted to do a good story in consultation with the school and the headteacher therefore invited us to come up for a chat. We were greeted by abuse, criticism and completely irrational allegations. What on earth did they think it would achieve?

The most ridiculous part about it is this was the second time they had done it to us. Last time, we had run a story about the school potentially being merged with another school nearby. The story was based on a press release from the local authority which said in plain English the merger was a possibility and we had confirmation from a local councillor, who was also a governor at the school. It had been run by several other newspapers nearby before we went to print and, naturally, we included comments from the school - which were so vague as to be absolutely useless.

Following publication, my colleague was summoned to the headteacher's office where she was met by the head and about six other members of staff and governors. She was told exactly how wrong the story was, despite her attempts to explain the laws of journalism in relation to printing information from local authorities. Having invited her up initially on the pretext of trying to improve links between the school and the newspaper, they kept her there to endure their anger for four hours.

The upshot of these two meetings? We will continue doing exactly what we have been doing up to now - with one major difference. We will print whatever we have, about any school, based on its news value. We will continue to publish stories which are important to the community and act responsibly in our positions.

We will not, however, be visiting Unnamed High School again. Ever. Congratulations, Ms B.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Apologies for absence

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I have been unable to upload anything to the blog for a while.

However, things appear to be back on track now and I hope to resume normal service as soon as possible.

Please keep reading!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back to the streets for strikers

Well, it's all over.

As of this week, bin collections in the Leeds City Council area will - hopefully - be getting back to normal. Great news for all residents, who can expect an end to the piles of rubbish on the city's streets.

And great news for the refuse collectors who will have a few weeks of regular pay before Christmas. They may not all be happy about the terms of their return to work, but with more than two-thirds voting in favour of accepting the council's offer, residents can keep their fingers crossed things will not deteriorate again.

Information on what the agreement means in terms of bin collections is available via the council's website. Apart from some slightly conflicting information released over the past 11 weeks, I have to say the bin strike has had little impact on me. My street has not had the dozens of bin bags spilling their contents onto the floor that have been seen elsewhere. We've had no rats (unless you count the one dead one the cats left in the middle of the floor a couple of weeks ago, but given that they also deposited what looked like the remains of a pigeon in the same spot, I'm not putting that down to bin strikes). I tended to side with the strikers anyway, which perhaps increased my willingness to make a few adaptations during the strike action.

But what struck me the most was what I found out about the attitudes of some residents to waste and recycling. After my green recycling bin filled up, I made several trips to the local tip in Harehills. I spotted quite a few other people doing the same, dropping off cardboard and tins and old newspapers in the clearly-labelled "green bin waste" skips.

The incredible thing was the number of people who simply empties whatever was in the back of their cars into the nearest skip, not even looking at the signs showing what kind of waste went where. During the busiest periods, such as Sunday afternoons, there were council employees on hand to clear full skips and direct people to the correct skip. Despite this, I saw someone pulling up, dragging a three-piece suite out of their van and chucking it into the "green bin waste" skip while a frustrated yellow-jacketed man watched in amazement. He called to them to throw the furniture into a different pile, but by then there were only a couple of cushions left. Cue two yellow jackets half-climbing into a skip to retrieve the sofas as, supervision being momentarily absent, six other people took the opportunity to throw in a broken stepladder, old dog bed, half a tree and what looked like the contents of a fridge.

Perhaps it's just me, but I find behaviour like this incredibly arrogant. It's like people who knock something off a rail in a shop, turn round to look at the crumpled heap on the floor, then walk off, leaving it for a lowly shop assistant to pick up. Having worked in several customer service roles, I might be more sensitive to this kind of thing than others. There are things, for example, which I know people leave in cinemas which would make your stomach turn if I listed them here.

But whatever my reasons, I can't be the only one who thinks dumping your unwanted goods in any old way is rude. The council provides a thorough facility for everyone to get rid of rubbish quickly and easily, and employs people to help anyone who can't read the massive signs at the tip. The least people can do is make the three extra steps to put everything in the right place.

Or perhaps they're just so busy and important, they don't need to bother.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Review: The Men Who Stare at Goats

Welcome to review two, in an irregular series of... well, two so far. Depends how many times I go to the cinema and see something worth writing about.

Anyway, this week's choice of film was The Men Who Stare at Goats, starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney and Kevin Spacey, among others. I was not particularly enthusiastic about seeing the film in the first place, having not heard a great deal about it, but I was certainly glad I gave in to the nagging and agreed to go.

It begins, as all good films should, with a journalist - in this case, one whose wife has just left him for another man. Faced with sitting in the same office as his ex and the man she fell for, he instead decides to prove his credentials and head for the dangers of reporting in Iraq.

Having seen a plot summary before going to the cinema, I did worry this film might attempt to make some sort of political point about the war, leaving me thinking harder than ought to be allowed on a Saturday evening. But it never came even remotely close to doing so, except through ridiculing the more bizarre approaches of the armed forces.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is a truly silly film - it is pointless, lacking any real climax and does rather labour some of its jokes. But I found it delightfully daft. I even understood some of the Jedi jokes, despite having never seen a Star Wars film. The entire concept is completely bizarre, but if you stick with it, it's well worth the perseverance; I haven't laughed as much at a film in a very long time.

Although it will never be a classic, The Men Who Stare at Goats is an entertaining watch and a fun way to spend 90 minutes (a good length for a film, I always think). Don't go expecting Saving Private Ryan - but do go expecting more than a few Jedi-related jokes as McGregor looks on innocently. And, as you leave, remember - this film is adapted from a book. That book was based on a true story. Scary.

Find out more about the film here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Seven days on the breadline

Picture the scenario: four celebrities are sent to four families in underprivileged areas of Leeds. Each has to live for a week with their new family, surviving on the normal budget for the household.

On paper, it sounds like a typical reality show - which is probably why I didn't watch it to begin with. But I was prompted to catch up by colleagues who had seen the first episode.

The four celebrities - Mel B, Trinny Woodall, Keith Allen and Austin Healey - were indeed dropped into the lives of four Leeds people living on very low incomes. They had to survive a week on just a few pounds and attempt not to kill their housemates, some of whom were a more challenging prospect than others.

Keith Allen, for example, was living with a family of seven in a three-bedroom house in Lincoln Green. With six new "sons" to deal with, one of whom was distinctly uncooperative, I was expecting him to be among those who failed to see out the week.

Similarly, Trinny Woodall spent her seven days with a pensioner in Harehills more interested in gambling than Gucci, leading me to predict plenty of straight-to-camera pieces about how depressing this kind of life was and how sorry Trinny felt for the woman.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise. Well, 75 per cent of a pleasant surprise, anyway. Three of the four celebrities seemed to take a genuine interest in the futures of their families.

Austin Healey was determined to help the two teenaged boys in the family he was staying with. The eldest already had a tag checking he was obeying his court-imposed curfew - but underneath that, Austin saw a young man who cared for his family and wanted to make them happy. He seemed to be making headway by using sport to encourage the boys to be more positive and pushing them to think of their future.

Keith Allen, meanwhile, was setting about trying to get his enormous family a more suitable home. He was aghast to find that, although mum Michaela had made inquiries about moving, she had done nothing further to make it happen. He used the meagre budget to get new trainers for one of the kids, whose feet were blistered from ill-fitting shoes, and he took the youngest boys to his mate's recording studio for a treat.

Trinny Woodall was probably the biggest surprise. She really got stuck in with the various tasks her pensioner housemate needed done and went above and beyond the call of duty. Among her achievements was helping disabled Christine take advantage of shop mobility and encouraging her to remember the fun she had had as a younger woman. The series ended with Trinny (aided, no doubt, by producers) taking her new friend to a 70th birthday party and putting up some photos of Christine in her younger days.

The only real let-down of the programme was Mel B, which was particularly disappointing because the programme was filmed in her home city. Every time things got tough, she either screamed, shouted and banged doors, or took off to the gym. At one point, following an argument with unemployed 18-year-old Tyrone, she even bagged up a load of clothes and threw them down the stairs - I'm still not quite sure what she thought that would achieve. Similarly, the trip to Asda in a taxi was unrealistic and unproductive for the family in the long-term.

In terms of life lessons, the families in the programme - or some of them, at least - will hopefully have been given some inspiration by the efforts of the celebrities. After months and years of nothing changing, perhaps the programme might be a catalyst for some of the youngsters to make the most of themselves.

But, in reality, seven days is nothing compared to a lifetime of struggling to make ends meet and bring up a family on a tiny income. Although it has highlighted the issues of hopelessness and the vicious circle of poverty, the programme has provided nothing more than a window into their lives.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

English pride in Leeds

Two major demonstrations were held in Leeds this weekend.

The first was set up by a fairly new group, the English Defence League, which claims to be protecting the country from Islamification and defending our culture.

The second was a counter-protest by Unite Against Fascism, a group which has come to more prominence in recent months as certain far right groups have made some political gains.

The two were being kept separate by police, who prevented them from marching as planned and instead allowed them to congregate in one area of the city centre each. It meant most shoppers could get on with their day without much disruption, unless you count watching several helicopters hovering overhead.

While UAF was kept to the art gallery area, the EDL was corralled around City Square, right outside the train station. Anyone wishing to catch a train was almost inevitably drawn into the edge of the crowd, while surrounding shops and businesses were forced to close their doors for at least part of the afternoon.

Plush Magazine comments that this is the "ugly face" of English pride, and I couldn't agree more. The EDL was primarily made up of white, young-to-middle-aged, shaven-headed men in varying degrees of intoxication. There was nothing to be proud of in their behaviour on Saturday afternoon - picking fights with bystanders, screaming abuse at anyone who dared to disagree with them and surging through police lines in an attempt to cause further disruption.

The protest has, of course, been allowed in the name of free speech. It is everyone's democratic right to stand up for what they believe in. But there must be a line drawn somewhere.

Saturday's protests required officers from nine police forces to be brought in to Leeds city centre. It is expected to have cost more than the September protest in Manchester, which itself ran up a bill of £800,000. Local businesses - even the ones which were not forced to close - will have lost money as a result of the protest, which acted as a fantastic deterrent to anyone thinking of venturing towards the City square area.

We should, of course, protect the rights of everyone to express their views - but surely only when they do so in a reasonable fashion. Why should ordinary members of the public be subjected to abuse, have their day disrupted, perhaps even fear for their own safety - and then have to foot the bill at the end of it?

Leeds is a multi-cultural, modern and exciting place. That is the kind of Englishness I choose to defend - not the rights of thugs to contaminate our city.