Sunday, 21 March 2010

In praise of the lesser-known sportspeople

For some time I have been following the career of Chrissie Wellington.

Heard of her? No? That is a shame, for she is probably one of the foremost sportsmen or women out there at the moment. She had broken a host of records in an exceptionally hard sport - ironman triathlon (a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a marathon run) - after having only started in the sport in her late twenties. She had never even ridden a bike until she was 27.

Since then she has set a world record for the ironman distance of 8 hours, 31 minutes and 59 seconds; won her first three ironman world championships (the first less than a year after having turned professional); and remains undefeated at the ironman distance. She deserves much more attention (see James Cracknell's piece in the Daily Telegraph).

Just think about that for a moment; I would find it hard to swim 30 lengths, yet alone 2.4 miles. After that, it is a 112-mile bike ride (the most I have ever done is London to Cambridge at about 55 miles - it took me all day). Then, finally, a marathon. Anyone who completes an ironman triathlon deserves congratulation; it is an amazing feat. Yet Chrissie Wellington won her first one!

Quite frankly, she is an inspiration. Yet I have never seen her mentioned on BBC News; the only TV coverage I have seen of her has been on the sports programmes that are on Channel 4 on Sunday mornings. Her name deserves to be as well-known as most Premiership footballers.

It is terrible the way the media focus on certain sports - for instance football, rugby, snooker, athletics - at the expense of other events. I even include my beloved Formula One in this. The mainstream media focuses far too much on a narrow range of sports. True; these sports tend to have the biggest viewership, but it becomes a chicken-and-egg situation; if it is on TV, then it is more likely to have a higher profile than if it is not!

Some sports lend themselves to TV broadcast more readily than others - a football match is usually 90 minutes long, sometimes 120 (with extra time), and only in rare conditions longer. This means that a nice 2-hour TV slot can be allocated. The same thing occurs in Formula 1 - the race is limited to a maximum of two hours (a limit that was reached in the rain-sodden 2009 Malaysian GP last year).

An Ironman Triathlon, however, would be over eight hours long - far too long to maintain a viewer's interest. For this reason, webcasting may be the best way forward for such sports. However, this does excuse the broadcasters for not mentioning these sports in their summary broadcasts. Chrissie Wellington in particular deserves much greater praise and attention than she currently gets.

An interesting exception to this is Trans-World sport, which is broadcast on Sunday mornings on Channel 4 in the UK. The owners, IMG, also broadcast a similar program worldwide. This gives short snippets of all the sports news of the previous week - a typical episode will detail everything from golf, motorsport and skiing to extreme sports. It also interviews up-and-coming sportsmen, and has segments on rare or unusual sports, such as Turkish Oil Wrestling. It is an excellent programme, as it gives an overview into sports without going overly into them. Even Sencan seems to enjoy it. Unfortunately it has recently been changed from a one-hour to a thirty-minute timespan, and many of the interviews and unusual sports have been removed.

Sometimes people do break through into the mass media's attention for some reason - Mark Beaumont's record-breaking cycle ride around the world (and his recently-broadcast trip down America), or cancer-sufferer Jane Tomlinson. Both did amazing things and managed to get mainstream publicity. Lance Armstrong's seven victories at the Tour de France was made even more remarkable after his recovery from testicular cancer.

But these people are the exception. Mark Beaumont is an interesting case - he was not particularly a hardcore cyclist before he decided to go and smash the world record for cycling around the globe, yet he had the mental perseverance to go for it. Hundreds of thousands - or perhaps millions - of people in the UK could have done it physically with a little training. The difference is he had the mental willpower and bravery to actually do it.

So what I would like is to see the broadcasters (and especially the BBC) giving publicity to more obscure sports, especially where there is a great human-interest story behind it. The vast majority of people in this country could do amazing things in sports and activities; mostly it just requires the sheer mental determination to do it. In this way, Chrissie Wellington is an excellent role model.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Three new walks.

There are three new walks on my website:

Walk #844: A linear walk from Milford-on-Sea to Christchurch
Walk #845: A circular walk from East Meon to Butser and Old Winchester Hills
Walk #846: A circular walk from Swanage to Corfe Castle

The end of light, the start of darkness.

It is with some sadness that I watched this report on BBC News. It discusses the fact that Trinity House, the operator of most of the lighthouses around the English and Welsh coasts, is thinking of closing some of their lighthouses. Ones earmarked for potential closure include Orford Ness and the iconic Beachy Head.

Whilst it is true that a certain amount of romance left lighthouses when they were automated in the nineties (it meant the end for grizzled, windswept and bearded lighthouse keepers), they are still utterly evocative places. I always looked forward to seeing the next one as I walked around the coast, and can remember many of them well. There are the gleaming white ones; the ones with red and white stripes, the tall ones and the short, stubby ones. The ones that stand on lonely rocks out at sea, and the ones converted from existing buildings. Each one necessarily unique and distinctive.

A couple of years ago I sailed from Southampton to Dublin on the Jeannie Johnston. There was something magical about being on watch at night near the bowspit and seeing the flashing specks of light in the distance. They were an indication of land, of home and family. Sometimes four or five Welsh or Irish lights could be seen whilst sailing up the Irish Channel.

Technology has marched on, and GPS now means that it is possible to position yourself accurately virtually anywhere on the surface of the Earth. This had led to the closure or scaling back of some LORAN services (LORAN was a predecessor to GPS using radio waves to position ships).

So the question should be asked: Are lighthouses necessary? The truth is, the only people who can really answer this are the people who use the sea. GPS is susceptible to atmospheric disruption, or even to being switched off in times of war; LORAN is only useful if you have the correct apparatus and the knowledge of how to use it.

Yet if all else fails, the dependable lighthouses will still be there, their regular flashing lights guiding sailors to safety. So I call on the Government: provide Trinity House with the funds to keep them going. Trinity House's funding has been slashed over the last ten years; perhaps it is time to reverse that trend. After all, those flickering lights may be the only thing to stop another Sea Empress or Braer disaster. Or perhaps, just perhaps, they will guide a cold, storm-lashed fisherman to port, just as they have done for over two hundred years.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Another coastal walker

I did a superb walk yesterday, a short one (under fifteen miles) along the eastern range of the Purbeck Hills between Swanage and Corfe Castle. It was a superb walk in so many ways, from the sunny weather to the expansive views over Dorset and the sea. Even better, I have been suffering problems with my feet this year (which is why I have been doing shorter distances), yet yesterday they hardly troubled me at all.

When I got home I found an email in my inbox about Amy, who is walking the coastline of Britain to raise money for Kidney Research UK. She has a facebook group that she posts updates in, and there is further information on the Kidney Research UK website. The plucky lady is planning to walk 6,824 miles in eight months, which rather casts my own 6,266 miles in twelves months in the shade!

Amy set off from London on the 1st of February, and is already in the south of Cornwall. She has managed to keep up a good pace, despite some rather snowy and inclement weather in February. So may I all encourage you to have a look at her facebook group and contribute a little to this woman's superb charity event.

I must admit I get conflicting emotions when I hear of people walking the coast. I am full of admiration for every one of them: from Louis, who completed the coast at the young age of 18, to Douglas Legg's rather more erratic and eccentric amble. They are all amazing people.

Yet another feeling assaulted me as I looked at Amy's beautiful pictures of our wonderful coast: jealousy. How I would love to be back out there, walking for day after day in both good weather and foul. My heart strives for it, and I wonder if I have the mental strength to complete another trip around. Personally I doubt it, and Sencan would probably kill me if I tried!

At the end of yesterday's walk I strode through the surf on Swanage beach, letting the little curling waves wash over the toes of my boots. It was a beautiful moment, and I was filled with a desire to just walk on and do another loop. Yet my life has moved on in the last eight years, and now lies firmly with a wonderful lady in Romsey. Perhaps I can persuade her to walk the coast with me...

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Book review: "Come and be killed", by Sally Spedding.

This murder-mystery story is slow to get going, yet builds up a a pace that keeps you turning the pages to the end. Frankie, a young woman obsessed about discovering the indentity of her true parents, murders her stepsister Shannon, then turns up as a carer for wealthy spinster sisters Evelyn and Merle.

The book has two converging strands; one involving Frankie, and the other Martin, a young man who has lost much of his future. A series of coincidences brings together Frankie and Martin in sleepy Malvern.

Although some of the coincidences appear slightly contrived at first, the pace of the book quickly picks up. It is well written, and there are some pleasant descriptions that evoke a place without getting too heavy.

The twist at the end was good, and at least partially explained some of the 'coincidences' earlier on in the story. Without the twist, the plot would have seemed much more contrived.

The two main characters, Frankie and Martin, are both very well drawn. Frankie in particular drew me in, so much so that I actually felt sorry for her at the end, despite her heionous crimes. Martin is a much more sympathetic character, although he does seem to wallow a little in his misfortune.

Sally Spedding specialises in writing creepy, dark crime stories, and this one is no exception. Indeed, there are more murders and deaths than feature in most crime books. Yet this is to the book's advantage.

I would give this 3.5 out of 5 stars. Recommended.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Top tips from Authors.

The Guardian has a couple of webpages outlining ten points of advice about writing fiction from famous authors such as Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, PD James and Margaret Atwood. Some are concise, others more detailed. All are worth reading if you write fiction.


I do not agree with some of these, but then I'm not a famous published author. The process of writing is as individual as the pieces that are produced, and what works for Margaret Atwood may not work for you, and vice versa. Some are downright contradictory.

For instance, one piece of PD James' advice is:
'Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious',
whilst AL Kennedy's is:
'Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won't need to take notes',
and Will Self's:
'Stop reading fiction – it's all lies anyway, and it doesn't have anything to tell you that you don't know already (assuming, that is, you've read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven't you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction)'.
There are some real gems in these two articles. If you are writing fiction, read them. At the very least it is an impressive insight into the mind of some famous authors.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Book review: "The Olive Route", by Carol Drinkwater

In her earlier books (such as the excellent 'The Olive Farm') Carol Drinkwater details her rather impetuous purchase of a decrepit olive farm in southern France, and the gradual restoration of the farm and the surrounding olive groves. In the process, she fell in love with the history and lore of the humble olive.

In this book, she attempts a journey around the Mediterranean on a quest for the oldest olive tree. The trials and tribulations of her journey, and the characters she meets, makes this book a vivid read. She displays a rather cavalier attitude to her own safety as she visits countries as varied as Turkey, Lebanon, Libya and Israel.

My own relationship with the olive is far from positive. I can scarcely walk past the olive counter at Waitrose without feeling nauseous from the sickly-sweet smell. I hate the smell and the taste. Part of this is undoubtedly due to lack of familiarity; as far as I can recall, olives were never around our kitchen when I grew up as a child, and my tastes are remarkably plain. Perhaps the delightful olive is a little too exotic for my northern European taste buds. As can be imagined, this causes a few problems with my Turkish wife, who enjoys wafting them under my nose just to see the reaction.

Despite this, the book was a real eye-opener. I remember reading the story of Noah and the dove bearing an olive branch, and the fact that the olive branch is an international symbol of peace. The book reveals aspects of history that I had never considered. Carol Drinkwater details this very well. Her journey reveals a rich history stretching back nearly as far as civilisation itself.

In some ways the book attempts a view of the history of civilisation through the history of the olive tree; an interesting idea that is not quite pulled off in totality. Yet it does show that the olive tree has had a massive effect on Mediterranean cultures, and therefore on world history.

I give this book four out of five stars. Read it with an olive resting in your favourite drink.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

North Korea

For some time I have held a slight fascination for North Korea, one of the few countries in the world that is trying to remain true to Communist ideals.

Although I am by no way a Communist, I find the way the politics moulds Communist countries fascinating. When I was growing up in the eighties we were told stories of the problems existing within the USSR - lack of basic human rights, no free speech, food queues, and so on. It became obvious after Chernobyl and the fall of the Berlin Wall that these concerns had, if anything, been underplayed.

Yet that same system produced great technical advancements - after all, they got the first man into space, humiliating the capitalist US. Therefore, in some ways at least, Communism could be seen to work. As history showed, it was also doomed to fail. It failed in Russia, and even China has been forced into a weird capitalist economy / totalitarian state hybrid.

Therefore it was with great interest that I found a section on the Wandering Camera website that details the experiences of a Russian staying in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is particularly interesting as he manages to compare and contrast the situation in North Korea with the USSR in the the eighties.

One of the things that struck me most was some of the architecture in the public areas. The pages on the Pyongyang underground shows some truly superb structures, beautifully lit, that puts the stations on the Jubilee Line extension of the London Underground to shame. In some ways, it is reminiscent of images I have seen of stations on the Moscow underground. I have an abiding love of detailed architecture, something that has gone out of fashion in many Western countries. We think the grand is fine, but detail is too often seen as being expensive frippery.

Another thing to note in the photographs is the utter lack of advertising. I am so used to advertising that it took me a few minutes to realise why the pictures of even so-so streets looked so uniform - there were no adverts to spoil the monotony / beauty. Also, there was no graffiti. Are these minor advantages to a totalitarian system?

The tourists were not allowed to travel without guides. This led to what appeared to be a slightly surreal situation, with only the best side of the country being presented. In one place, the author suspected a fountain was switched on specifically for their visit. Foreigners go to special markets, and not to the ones frequented by the general population.

Although there is cellular coverage in the country, a mobile would cost what the average person earns in about a year. This is a staggering statistic, and one which shows that even in this socialist state, money is spent on projects that advantage the few, not the many.

At the end of the day, that is perhaps the most damning thing I can say. Although capitalism is far from perfect, the way it is practiced in the west means that at least the people are (relatively) free within loose bounds. People can work hard and gain advantage from their hard work. And, in most European countries at least, there is a welfare system to help those who fall through the cracks. Perhaps our admittedly imperfect system is the best of both worlds.

However, I would still like to see a truly beautiful station on the London Underground...