Sunday, 15 November 2015

A change in platform

I write a column each week for the Herald Express and have been posting that there. For the while, mainly because of time or the lack of it, I will simply use the online Herald Express site for my mostly pointless rhetoric.......

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Those troublesome scam emails, phone calls and letters!

The other morning I joined around seventy people for a Torbay Business Forum breakfast at the Riviera Conference Centre. The guest speaker was Kevin Foster MP and his topic was the first one-hundred days in the House of Commons. As I am sure you are aware these are difficult times for a politician and I found his grasp of core issues refreshing. I rather suspect that he will keep the faith regardless of political pressure but of course only time will tell.

Kevin Foster MP speaks out
Kevin Foster

As I say his theme was the first hundred days and I must admit with a title like that I did look around for the executioners block and axe! But this was not a scene from Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ although he did say that one his first day the new cohort were shown where to leave their swords! What also interested me was the fact that the audience at the breakfast event did not use this gathering as a platform for launching a series of prickly questions. In point of fact there were very few questions and that did actually make me raise an eyebrow.

For the past eighteen years the local MP was Adrian Sanders. The period immediately after the May election will have been a curious road for Adrian as he adjusted to a very different landscape. Before becoming an MP Adrian spent twenty-one years working in the public and private sectors. That is a considerable amount of knowledge and experience. You may be interested to know that Adrian is still very much in business offering public relations, government affairs and lobbying services ( He is very keen to help smaller organisational locally and his fee structure is user friendly.

Adrian Sanders

I have a huge amount of respect for both Adrian and Kevin. It is all too easy to look for the negative and indeed too often people seem to gain enormous pleasure from criticising others. Kevin will certainly need support from the community in the challenging days ahead and it is pleasing that Adrian’s wealth of experience is still available.

One point made by Kevin Foster during his ‘first hundred days’ talk was the nature of communication and how that has changed. He pointed out that not so many years ago if you had something you wanted to tell your MP then it meant picking up a pen and writing a letter.  Of course you didn’t just write a letter you then had to stuff it in an envelope, stick a stamp in the top right hand corner and pop it in a letterbox.

These days that has all changed. Of course many people will still write letters and to be quite honest I find that very exercise quite cathartic. The advent of social media means that that an email can be dashed off in seconds. There is also the facility for the use internet based sites to simply write a quick note to an MP and press send! So easy to do and of course too often the source emails that lack any thought.
I think that Kevin said he had something like two-hundred emails immediately after winning the election. That comment made me shiver because I suspect that quite important messages may have been lost in an ocean of rhetoric. It is also true that too many email communications should really be saved for a period of time and then read again before pressing send or indeed deleting. That is certainly true when written in anger. As the blood pressure rises we tend to lose the ability to reason.

One topic that might interest both of them, Kevin and Adrian, is the rise in spam communications through the letterbox, email in box, telephone calls and text messages. You may have read in the Herald Express recently of a lady who lost thousands of pounds to a telephone scammer. These nasty people are very clever but lack any integrity. We live in an age where personal information is so easily available and it takes little effort to find huge amounts of data about a person.

What really worries me is that whilst numerous people will report scams many others will be too embarrassed to admit falling for these malicious attacks. All this is not helped by isolation and we must look out for the vulnerable. We need to put pressure on the decision makers in the hope that there will be a more serious attempt to weed out these nasty people.

Keep the smile!

from my Herald Express column 9th September 2015

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

How ‘Socratic’ is the debate?

Doctor Bettany Hughes is a clever lady and so it was interesting watching her ‘bump’ into the power of the Socratic process whilst chatting to a Greek writer in an Athenian café. I don’t know whether you watched her three television programmes on the great thinkers but if you did then hopefully, like me, will have been pushed out of your comfort zone! That Athenian café conversation may make you want to debate with friends over a cup of coffee.

Doctor Hughes has tracked the lives of The Buddha, Socrates and Confucius. All three lived so many years ago at about the same time. That fact is curious in itself. The dominance of their thinking is still so very powerful today. Two comments during the programme on Socrates made me think quite deeply. The first was about the need never to be thoughtless and the second was about how little we know!

Oh yes, there is also one more important point. Never drink hemlock!

For most of us the name Socrates is associated with ancient Greece and the birth of democracy. Churchill (the politician rather than the nodding dog!) reportedly said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been used from time to time.
I suspect that we all believe that we have some control over the political landscape and not so long ago many of us joined the May 2015 queues at polling stations. Sadly quite a few of us didn’t and that has to be a worry. Of course the fact that worries me doesn’t mean that it worries you!

My understanding of the democratic process is that we elect fellow citizens to represent us in the various places of powers. They become the decision makers on our behalf and hopefully those decisions represent the will of the community that elected them. You might want to think about that.
I have little doubt that most of us are aware of the changes happening daily on the English Riviera. Sometimes those changes raise an eyebrow and from time to time may trigger an emotional tingle. That tingle may be of pleasure because what is happening brings joy. Of course the tingle may be a feeling of being somewhat uneasy and less than happy.

Paignton’s Matthew Clark wrote about the Torbay Retail and Tourism Business Improvement District in last week’s Herald Express and worried, it seemed to me, about the democratic process.  Do you have a business related to tourism or retail in Torbay? If you do then how much do you know about it (the BID) and what do your local elected councillors think about it? How ‘Socratic’ is the debate?

Coincidentally I bumped into another local councillor unexpectedly the other evening. My family had given me a voucher for an evening meal at the Harbour Kitchen and so I hopped on a bus with my wife for the short trip to Torquay’s busy harbour. I love the upstairs front seat because the views across Torbay can be stunning. Also sitting on a front seat was former mayor and now local councillor Nick Bye. Nick is a clever man with a brilliant sense of humour and hopefully he enjoyed the short journey as much as we did. His update on what is happening politically gave me hope since there appears at last to be a little unity.

The fact that Nick Bye was on a local bus was for me significant because you may remember me waxing lyrical recently about Kevin Foster MP also using local busses. I see the local bus service as the life blood of a community and it is a worry that so many services seem to be disappearing. Sadly those that suffer when that happens tend to be people who can become too easily isolated. That is something perhaps to debate with your local councillor.

Whilst debating issues with your elected representatives you might also ask what is happening to Oldway Mansion. Sadly it seems to me to be a little like my own house in that it is deteriorating without the money to support the upkeep! We were promised a bright new future for it a few years ago but little seems to be happening. The gardens however have been tended and look beautiful including this iconic palm (pictured) which will bring a smile to our elected mayor Gordon Oliver’s face. 

Keep the smile!

from my column in the Herald Express 1st September

An Endless Green Tapestry That Catches The Eye

Buses, boats and leafy pathways somehow for me capture the essence of South Devon. Even though the local area seems to be a sprawling urban landscape it is the almost endless green tapestry that catches the eye when viewed from the sea.

A week or so ago I hopped on a Western Lady ferry for the return trip from Torquay to Brixham and back. The day was sunny and the boat crowded. It is the first time in a long while that I have had the opportunity to look at Torbay in a very different way.

It was interesting to compare the cost of the ferry trip and then a bus journey. The return trip on the Western Lady was only £3 which seemed far too cheap. The bus fare from Torquay’s Pavilion to Manor Corner in Preston was £2.40. The new high speed ferry has a £6 return fare which also seems very good value for a fast trip. Fine weather does make people want to play on boats but when waves are rough and the rain falls numbers inevitably drop.

I did have a chat with the lady staffing the Torquay kiosk for the Western Lady who told me that this month had been busy and the boat I boarded was full in both directions. At £3 return it is ridiculously cheap given that it’s a lovely way to travel across the bay offering stunning views of the South Devon Coast. Almost a mini cruise!

As we chugged into Brixham the new high speed ferry service was heading out. Sadly the new ‘super-duper’ high speed craft has yet to reach Torbay and for the while they are using the Silver Sea charter boat. This Paignton based twelve seater boat is a very fast way to skip across Torbay.

So many cities around the world now use water transport to avoid traffic congestion and I was very excited when it was announced that a new high speed craft would offering a brilliant commuting route between Brixham and Torquay. The operators say on their website that “Brixham Express Ltd operate an all year ferry service between Brixham and Torquay. The custom built twin screw catamaran is suited to the beam seas of Torbay and we hope to deliver a service that can weather the east winds and swell. Travelling to work by sea, across beautiful Torbay, is a new innovative way to both start and finish your work day. Stagecoach 33 will link with the ferry at Beacon Quay, Torquay to deliver commuters to their places of work.”

As yet this innovative craft has yet to appear and Mary O’Discoll from Brixham Express tells me that she is pulling out her hair out in frustration! Bureaucracy and administrative hiccups seem to be slowing the process. Hopefully within the next month this exciting new boat will reach Torbay. It must be very annoying for Mary and her people that they will not have the benefit of a busy summer season. Mary says that she simply keeps smiling! I like that of course.

I have a certain empathy with them because years ago we had a running battle with Torbay Council in attempting to operate a commercial aqua-sausage business off Paignton beach. At one point the whole elected council was at a standstill debating the future of an inflatable toy on a sandy South Devon beach. Hmm. The main concern apparently was the number of objections received. This was before the Freedom of Information Act and getting detail as to who the complainants were was almost impossible. We did find out eventually after ‘ambushing’ a councillor and it seems that it was a case of numerous objections from one person!  

The latter part of the week was dimpsy and so my woodland walk to Occombe Farm was along dampened leafy pathways. My two year old grand-daughter needed a damp weather activity and Occombe offers endless fun in the converted barns and hard standing outside the popular café. Watching the young ones racing toy tractors around the barns and yard is it seems to me a quintessentially Devonian activity! Dimpsy actually means getting dark or twilight but I’ve always used it to describe those soft soggy days when the mist rolls in from the sea. By the way I have to say that Occombe’s home made beef burger is a sensation and very welcome by this hungry grand-dad!

Keep the smile.

From my column in the Herald Express on the 26th August

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Join in the fun and tingle too!

I remember years ago sprinting along the harbour wall on the east quay of Paignton Harbour and leaping out into the rough easterly sea. Sailing through the air and sinking deep beneath the waves was so exhilarating! At that time there used to be a ladder at the end of the quay and we would wait for the next big swell and excitedly clamber back up onto the harbour. It was high summer of course and the water was almost warm.

Those years ago Paignton’s lovely little harbour seemed to tingle in the summer as hundreds of tourists wandered happily around the quaysides. We used to run a windsurfing school from here and provided endless entertainment for tourists as luckless aspirant windsurfers bobbed on the board briefly before tipping headlong into the ocean.

At that time Paignton Sailing Club had a very active windsurfing section and on Thursday evenings over fifty windsurfers would race around buoys off the harbour. During Regatta Week thousands of people would watch windsurfers sail along the edge of the beach in fancy dress! Where else would you see a giant carrot sailing a windsurfers being chased by an overstuffed rabbit complete with large floppy ears?

Over recent years the harbour rather lost much of the once famous ‘mojo’ as it adjusted to changing social trends and the economic roller-coaster that turned into a white knuckle ride for many. Various ‘plans’ offered all sorts of possibilities for the harbour estate. An eclectic mix included the Mayor’s Vision, a Port Master Plan, various town plans and more latterly the Torbay Retail / Tourism BID. The Harbour also seemed to have lost direction as the local council attempted to balance recreational and business development.

BUT having said all that next Saturday something quite special is happening on Paignton’s picturesque harbour. A small group of dedicated harbour people have been planning the first ever HARBOUR FESTIVAL DAY! Much of this is due to the endless enthusiasm of Paignton’s new harbourmaster Simon Pinder. Simon is a sailor with many years’ experience and natural enthusiasm for making things happen. He has also managed to unite the community and must be congratulated for that.

You can learn how to splice rope with our local expert Andy Ricks. He will be with Mike Cornish the local supplier of commercial fishing and yachting supplies demonstrating how modern pots are made. Come and see Dave French construct a traditional Withy Pot from scratch. The pot will be auctioned later with proceeds going to the Fishermen's Mission. Bidding will be brisk for what will be a beautifully crafted potential Christmas present!

The Oarsome Buoys Shaun Pedley and Ryan Barter will be on hand to tell you about rowing across the Atlantic. Their boat will be on the harbour for the day and so you can actually touch the craft and feels its spirit. In December they will be competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge rowing from La Gomera to Antigua! That is a tough challenge and makes me shiver just thinking about it! Do have a look at their website and the ‘countdown clock’ telling you how long there is left before the start of the race.(

There will be live music from The Back Beach Boyz and Fabulous 59 Ford, wonderful ‘Billet Doux – Lino Prints’ by local artist Emma Higgins, a traditional Punch and Judy show and so much more! This has to be one of the best events of the summer locally and I am really looking forward to spending the day there.

This is Regatta Week in Paignton and that brings the whole town to life. It is so easy to bang on about all the things that appear not to work and for reasons I still don’t understand people seem to wallow too often in self-imposed negativity. With so much good stuff happening locally South Devon really should be tingling so why not join in the fun and tingle too! You know it makes sense.

I’m almost tempted to have another crack at leaping off the harbour wall when the tide is high and the east wind tumbles the sea toward the beach.

Keep the smile.

Words from my column in the Herald Express 12th August 2015

Saturday, 25 July 2015

To be at the mercy of the machine!

I seem to spend a huge amount of time walking the local roads these days. That is partly due to the curious state of being semi-retired and partly due to a conscious decision to be a pedestrian rather than a motorist.

In the past time seemed critical and the need to get between two points quickly made a vehicle essential. Ditching the car and keeping to the pavement for local trips hasn’t really taken that much longer because previously unknown shortcuts provide new horizons. I have discovered parts of Torbay that I simply didn’t know existed: fascinating stuff!

This new lifestyle choice partly explains why the other morning I found myself walking down a steep hill into Paignton. As I walked three young men emerged from a house ahead of me. They were in their late teens and probably students. As they walked I found myself drifting back down ‘memory lane’ to another world. That slip was partly due to the sound of church bells from the beautiful Paignton Parish Church in the distance.

They walked in single file with heads slightly bowed and hands clasped in front of them. Through half closed eyes they looked like Benedictine monks answering the call to communion! I’m sure you can recall those images of holy men in prayer walking silently in single file.

My walking speed was a little faster than the silent trio and I soon passed them. Glancing sideways I could see that all three were thumbing smart phones or mobile devices! It would have been rude to stare at the screens but from the speed of thumb movement I suspect that they were texting. Texting for those that don’t know is a method of chatting with friends in silence via a mobile device!

Increasingly I find this obsession with mobile devices quite fascinating. As I walk my daily Torbay pilgrimages I am increasingly aware of the number of people using smart phones, tablets and other ‘toys’ as they travel. Sadly as a pedestrian I am also increasingly aware of the quite large number of people texting whilst driving. That is of course illegal but is also incredibly stupid.

Little groups of people seem not to notice each other as they sip hot drinks outside coffee shops whilst playing with smart phones. The apparent silence masks the huge amount of cyberspace chatter as they connect to other worlds. I say other worlds but that is perhaps a truth since whilst sipping a cappuccino in Brixham you can be having a real time conversation with a friend on the beach in Bali!

I make no judgement about this modern phenomenon but simply want to raise awareness. Fiction writers, including the enigmatic Philip Pullman, have allowed characters to move from one world to another. In point of fact Philip Pullman, in the Dark Materials trilogy, talks of the ‘Subtle Knife’ that actually cuts a slit in the fabric of time allowing movement between worlds or realities!

Philip Pullman : Dark Materials

My silent trio walking down that steep hill into Paignton the other morning had in many ways done exactly that. They were walking in one reality and yet living in another ‘virtual’ reality. It made me think of those monks over the centuries doing quite something similar as they walked in silent prayer. Their belief had them communicating with a divine being using prayer. Hmm.

If you have the time over the next few weeks do take a look at your fellow citizens as they navigate the day. You might become a little more aware of the large number swapping one reality for another by using mobile devices. Check out the number of drivers doing exactly that! That will send a shiver down your spine since as a pedestrian you are at the mercy of the machine. It is also quite shocking when you realise that the awareness of that immediate community in which you exist doesn’t appear on their landscape at all!

Keep the smile.

From my column published in the Herald Express 22nd July 2015

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Black Pudding and Bacon Rolls - or a cup of tea at St Andrew's in Sands Road!!

Saint Andrew's Church in Sands Road - just down the road from Paignton's historic harbour!

I’ve always been a supporter of business networking because it brings like-minded entrepreneurs and support professionals together. We all lead busy lives these days and so many networking occasions tend to happen in the morning. Recently I have started to worry about the health of those networking trailblazers because of the proliferation of business networking breakfasts!
Last week, for example, I was aware of at least three gatherings. Two of those provided a large cooked breakfast complete with black pudding and the third offered endless bacon rolls. Perhaps it is time to provide a cholesterol test as part of the offering! So, having said all that, I still like the idea of these gatherings because they do allow an easy exchange of news and knowledge.
Most also have a theme speaker who will offer insights that quite often become a catalyst for innovation. Let me just expand upon that a little. I have always been an enthusiastic gatherer of knowledge and over the years one thing has become very clear. That is the fact that I know so very little! It also seems to me that each day I become aware that I seem to know less and less.
There is an old saying that goes something like it’s not what you know but who you know. Sadly that has too often been used to explain why someone has inexplicably got a job or position that might have been best awarded to another less well connected person. But it is more than that. It seems to me that it isn’t necessarily what you know or who you know but more a case of what you know about them. That can be a very positive scenario because it encourages a social connectivity that can work for the greater good.
I happened to bump into a community engagement worker the other day and floated the idea of community networking events. Of course we already have community partnerships, focus groups and numerous other social engagement platforms but it seems to me that there is still something missing.
We’ve stripped out so many community hotspots in recent times. I have in mind the popular visits to the local Post Office, the once crowded churches, numerous public houses et cetera and planted the idea that we now engage via the Internet whilst drifting through cyberspace! That paradigm change, if that is what it is, worries me.
So where will we find community hotspots where easy social networking can happen? I suppose your first question might be seeking a meaningful definition of community! One starting point could be the location of local parish churches because they tended to be slap bang in the middle of traditional communities. Many of these older buildings seem to be little used or indeed not used at all. Of course the immediate reaction of many these days is that ‘They don’t do God!’ Yet one of the core values underpinning religious thought is the business of loving thy neighbour and perhaps by using these older spacious buildings we might start doing exactly that.
Oddly enough this community engagement or neighbourhood networking is actually happening locally. The other day I dropped in at Saint Andrew’s Church in Paignton to visit the Craft Works. St. Andrew’s is not far from Paignton’s picturesque harbour and is a lovely old red sandstone building. Traditional services still happen in the church on Sunday and Wednesday but on the other days a wide range of community based workshops meet. Have a look at what they do by dropping in for a cup of tea!
Kick-starting community action usually requires external funding and these days that can be hard going. Many of the funding ‘pots’ have become much smaller and are being sought by increasing numbers.  A bit of a ‘Catch 22’ situation because if you make something happen you didn’t need the funding and yet too often things don’t happen because they lack funding! Hmm: a paradox perhaps.
Keep the smile.