Remembering the Somme

I’ve always had what I thought was a weird fascination with acts of remembrance.

Early on I assumed I was drawn to the theatre of death. That may well have had something to do with school chapel choir: all the swishing gowns, the heads hung low, everyone striving for stoicism.

It’s only recently I’ve come to see those acts of school-time acts of remembrance for what they were: educational. From an early age, the Sunday morning church services, the gathering around the memorial, and the wreaths were in fact fulfilling a need I hadn’t acknowledged as a teenager.

It’s obvious to me now. Remembrance and, in particular, those occasions when two minutes silence are observed, offer a collective moment to gain private perspective.

These special moments that have, as far as I can make out, arisen because of the carnage of the First World War, and the trauma it inflicted on the families waiting for their loved ones to return.

But as the years pass so it becomes more and more difficult to find the triggers that help those reflective moments mean something. As a teenager, it was the music of remembrance. John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man still transports me. Good or bad, John Rutter’s Requiem is, as a result of numerous school events, inextricably linked with Remembrance Sunday. All bronzed autumn leaves, a stiff wind, and the threat of rain.

Today marks the centenary since the start of the Battle of the Somme. Two minutes silence at 7.28am and a day of commemorative events in France and the UK. I’m embarrassed to say that work got in the way. Proceedings played out on screens all around me at work, but I didn’t once look at what was going on. Present-day self-inflicted dramas seem to be dominating my thinking. Forgivable, I think.

I suspect I’d prefer to commit to remembering the terrifying loss of life when we commemorate its end. Marking the moment it started brushes up a little too close to a celebration. No one was triumphant. The Somme was folly. Arrogance masquerading  as strategy. Some things haven’t changed.

Britten’s War Requiem – a commission for the opening of Coventry Cathedral  in the 1962 – combines poetry by WW1 poet Wilfred Owen with the Latin Requiem Mass. It is a stunning creation: an unequivocal statement of Britten’s pacifism that still conveys the futility of war in our information-saturated present day world as being reminded of the total number of lives lost – 310,486.

Britten’s seminal work has been lacking from today’s events. Maybe that’s not surprising. The timing may not be right. Might we see it at the end of the 1914-1918 centenary. I hope so.

In the meantime, this performance, of the Britten’s Lacrimosa recorded at the Royal Albert Hall ad broadcast on BBC Two in 1993, featuring soprano Makvala Kasrashvili and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, helps.

2015 / 2016

I like to spend this time of year doing a spot of auditing. Lots of lever-arch files and pointing at things with pens.

It’s a measure of how I’ve come to relax and unwind in late December. The holiday helps free-up some space in my head. The process allows me to celebrate what’s been good in the year, reflect on the less good stuff and think about what next year might bring.

This is an unusually long post, but it is a thorough audit as you would expect somebody with my obsessive tendencies to indulge in.

I’ve separated the post into ‘Blog Content and Number’, things from my ‘Journal’ which have jogged my memory and a few goals for 2016.

The Content and the Numbers

All of the copy from this year’s posts fed into Wordle 

Let’s get the boring numbers out of the way. (If you’re a PR, you should read the footnote to this post – it contains important information which should help shape your expectations.)

I published 165 posts in 2015 (compared to 158 in 2014), not including the live blogs I wrote in the run-up to and during Eurovision, and for the duration of the BBC Proms.

Total page views for 2015 were 30,889 (compared to 30,774 in 2014).

The highest traffic generating post was Eurovision 2015: Can YouTube data predict who will win? (1,245 views). The best performing page this year was the blog homepage (2,779 views).

A good post on this blog can hope to notch up 100-150 views across the year and was, from a personal perspective, worth the effort. (If that’s achieved in a week then that’s a major achievement in terms of timing, content and messaging.)

75.9% of the posts on this blog generated more than 100 page views during 2015. Nearly 50% of posts published this year were viewed between 150-200 times in the space of a week.

What jumped out at me when I looked over the stuff I’d blogged about in 2015? I made a list. Here’s a selection of content highlights from that list and why they’re important to me.

1. Simon Rattle and the LSO

Rattle’s appointment as Music Director at the LSO finally ended months of speculation. It also led to talk of, a feasibility study into and much heated discussion about a new concert hall for London. I’m excited by the prospect of Rattle’s return in 2017.

2. Me and Radio 3

There has been a trial separation between us for a few years now, but one look at the number of times I’ve blogged about Controller Alan Davey’s speeches and interviews and I can see how I’ve buried the hatchet and come back to the network. A lot of that I suspect is to do with Davey himself (see above). His speech at the Voice of the Listener Conference (and at the 2015/16 season launch) was particularly reassuring. Roger Wright was good, of course. Davey is different: he is the personification of Radio 3. He also loves cats.

3. Meeting Alex Larke and Bianca Nicholas

Alex and Bianca represented the UK at Eurovision this year. I got to meet them on a press day in central London a month or so before the contest.

They were both charming people, completely up for Eurovision and totally engaged with fans, wanting to do everyone proud. My meeting really established what turned out to be a really positive Eurovision experience this year, not least because whenever I met the duo after that, they always made a point of saying hello. I felt included by them in a way I’ve never felt before and I really appreciated that.

The song didn’t translate into votes and there as, as I feared there might be, quite a lot of back-biting going on amongst fans out in Vienna. Shameful and embarrassing. But Alex and Bianca have since then maintained their sense of pride in participating in the event and that, as a fan, means far more to me than where they are on the voting table.

The time I spent working with the Radio 2 Team (and the marvellous Alex Grundon producing content for BBC Local Radio) saw me experience an entirely different, considerably more efficient, style of workplace communication too. Direct, clean language needed to accomplish short-term goals for live radio output. I suspect that is where my now unease with email as a form of communication has stemmed from this year.

4. Going to Verbier

Three or four posts mixing reviews, interviews and features about my trip to the Verbier Festival in July this year. I visited the town in the middle of its classical music festival for four days during which time I met Daniil Trifonov, Jan Lisiecki and Gautier Capuçon. 

Verbier was a remarkable location. The clear air helped me gain some clarity on the kind of work I’d like to be doing more of in the future. Put bluntly: more freelance writing involving international travel. My article appeared in Australia’s Limelight magazine.

5. Change

Partly influenced by work, partly by coaching and the self-reflection which follows, the theme of change has cropped up a lot in my thinking this year. I passed my ten year anniversary at the BBC in July of this year – a chance to celebrate the unorthodox path I’ve followed to the role I have now in content production at the corporation.

The threat of job cuts across the organisation also demanded confronting some difficult questions about how ready I was for change, how I wanted to be involved in that change and what my feelings were when change was imposed on me. It was all good work – good mental housekeeping, if you like – but it saw me confronting some difficult personal truths.

One post which really stands after out all of this time, is the OAE’s Proms performance of Brahms 1 which in itself touched on Will Norris’ appointment at Tafelmusik. It’s a post which is reflected in my journal entries too (see later). Lesson learned? Don’t compare yourself to others. Map out your own journey, just as others have.

6. Albert Herring at Royal College of Music

Very little else to say about RCM’s production of Albert Herring other than it was utterly brilliant.

7. Radio 1 Ibiza Prom

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d enjoy this Prom, but hearing a larger-scale orchestral version of many dance classics in the Albert Hall (and hearing the audience there go wild for it) was an unexpected pleasure. It also prompted a heartfelt post as a result.

8. Junior Eurovision

I love going on trips where there’s a certain amount unknown stuff to be discovered. I also like nice hotels, cheap travel and the opportunity to create stuff too. My trip to Sofia to witness the Junior Eurovision met all of those criteria, provided me with an opportunity to write for ESCInsight and reunited me with audio production, something I hadn’t done for seven or years before. Once I was back in the UK, I got thinking about podcasting again.

The trip reinforced something quite powerful for me. Namely, the extent to which we are doing the younger generation a disservice in the way we write about them and the things we think about them. Junior Eurovision, alongside the BBC School Report project I worked on for BBC Communications, demonstrated how well-informed, articulate and insightful young people really are and the extent to which we as adults overlook that.

9. Falling out of love with Facebook

Me and Facebook have parted ways. Or at least, I’m not using it for anything other than messenging people I haven’t got email addresses for and maybe the ocassional posting here and there. The impact of not using it has been dramatic. First, I don’t go back to it checking to see whether anyone has posted anything – a measure of the extent to which I have used it as an approval mechanism. Second, my anxiety levels have dropped tremendously. Third, I sleep better now and I dream when I do so.

10. Meeting Katie Derham on Strictly and Hacker T. Dog at CBBC

I’d never watched Strictly before and the only reason I did this year was because Radio 3 and BBC Proms presenter Katie Derham was participating. Watching the series I felt as though I wasn’t just rooting for a dancer, but also for a brand. By far the loveliest thing about the entire experience was getting the chance to go to Elstree and interview The Derham herself. A blueprint for similar kinds of things I’d like to do in 2016.

The Derham was a joy, but an unexpected and unplanned pleasure was meeting the amazing Hacker T. Dog. Me and publicist Charlotte Martin (she was holding the camera, just so we’re clear) completed this little creation in one take, completely unrehearsed. A really fun little experience.

The Journal

What have I written in a journal that I haven’t included in blog posts? What follows isn’t a complete representation of my journalled year, but the selected highlights.

Sleep

I do my journal writing as soon as I get up. Unsurprisingly, one of the first things I seem to have written about each morning is a reference to how much sleep I got the night before. In my journal I see there are ocassions when its been deep and uninterrupted, and other ocassions when I’m waking up early (usually the sign of stress and anxiety). Part way through the year I’ve found a ways of battling the early wake-ups by forcing myself to stay in bed and drift off again. It seems sleep is very important to me, so too vivid dreams – reliable indicators that things are on an even keel.

Chronic stress and how it leads to ill-health

I knew I had experienced a stressful year dealing with all sorts of different things, but hadn’t appreciated the impact the day to day was having on my mood, outlook and my interactions.

Part way through the year I went down with what at first presented itself as a stomach bug, then a potential ulcer. All tests came back negative. After that the illness seemed to pass. Later in the year I went down with a bladder infection which required a surprising amount of rest to recover from.

It’s only reading over my journal that I come to realise the extent to which stress had an impact on me emotionally (there were some entries I remember writing as a release, which reading over them again today leave me feeling sad, perhaps even shocked, about their intensity).

More reading around the subject leads me to wonder whether these prolonged periods of stress contributed to a lessening of my immune system. I never previously thought of myself as any more stressed with day to day life than the next person. Nor did I reckon on being one of those kind of people whose physical health would be contributed to by stress. Now, I’m more convinced.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t dismiss stress and take a moment to reflect on whether its contributing to our physical health.

Meaningful respectful interactions

Meaningful respectful interactions is a need I’ve identified more and more as the year has gone on. I recognise the value I draw from one-to-one face-to-face conversations too. Various journal entries have had the pernicious presence of email lingering in the background.

As the year closes I am convinced that email is the very worst kind of communication, so too Facebook and to a lesser extent Twitter. Earlier in the year I wrote, “Email constricts the mind, forcing us to juggle with interpretations of tone, motivation and a range of different potential outcomes, making subsequent face to face communication very challenging.”

Meaningful respectful interactions are what I’m striving for in 2016, so too recognising those with whom such interactions are unlikely to happen. Recognising the toxic ones (and avoiding them) also seems like a good goal too.

The BBC in Charter Review

My 10 year BBC anniversary coincided with the Licence Fee settlement, an intensifying of the Charter Review period and an increase in the amount of criticism directed at the organisation for the range and quality of its output.

At various points in my journal there’s an uneasy juxtaposition with me trying to work out what I want to do next professionally (and preparing myself for the possibility of that next opportunity not being at the BBC), alongside a perception that people outside the organisation don’t rate it as much as I do.

The inevitable question arose: just how important is it to believe in and advocate a brand in order to work for it?

Verbier, Sofia and Elstree

A real insight was found first in Verbier (and later reinforced in Sofia later in the year): I thrive on short-term interactions with reasonably media savvy individuals with whom I can build rapport quickly, illiciting distinctive, authentic and sincere interview material. I’d go so far as to say that I’m engergised by those interactions. The blog posts featuring Daniil Trifonov, Jan Lisiecki, the radio package I made for ESC Insight and my video interview with Katie Derham are good examples. I’d like to be doing more of that. It comes easy.

Confronting False Histories

By far one of the most pleasing experiences this year was catching up with old school acquaintances. There’s a picture attached to the mirror on the wall in our living room featuring me, Mike and Emily. Every time I see the picture I smile.

The afternoon we all spent together was easy, putting pay to a lot of false histories I’d established in my mind in the intervening years about what school was like, how I fitted in with people.

An extended afternoon chatting embedded some forgotten fond memories of school days. The picture with Mike and Emily was taken towards the end of the afternoon. I look on that picture and see warmth and happiness.

Learning more about writing

I’ve been using Shaun Levin’s Writing Maps and Amber Lea Starlife’s Year Long Writing Prompts at various points this year. I see the difference in my writing when I do too. All sorts of surprising things emerge from writing prompts that the experience can be really invigorating and self-affirming.

My understanding about how I write has changed too. Very early on in the year I recognised that I had an expectation that everything had to be planned out and plausible in my head before I started writing anything down, especially where fiction writing was concerned.

When I asked myself what would be the most difficult thing to do (bash out a first draft regardless of its quality just so you know you’ve done that), I went ahead and did just that. What I then realised was that the process of drafting prompted all sorts of other ideas I hadn’t previously even considered.

My piano practise – sessions optimised in 10 minute bursts – prompted me to wonder whether the same burst approach might work with writing too. It does. Start with small bite-size chunks and in time you’ll build up the stamina to write for longer more effective periods of time.

Coaching teaches me more and more

I’ve spent some time with a number of coaching clients this year all of whom have unwittingly taught a few home truths about myself. I continue to find coaching one of the most satisfying parts of my career and wouldn’t be surprised if in future years more and more of my time is dedicated to coaching and mentoring others.

2016

So, having indulged in all of this analysis of the past year (more than I’ve done in previous years), what of 2016? What do I want to achieve? What would I like to have crossed off the list come this time next year? Here’s a quick list.

  1. Continue to self-publish but recognise and take action when I’m doing it for approval.
  2. Use email, especially at work, as little as I possibly can and only as a last resort.
  3. Reduce the amount of stress in my life; actively seek out ways to nurture a stress-free existence.
  4. Build on my confidence writing fiction; become more at ease bashing out ideas and returning to first drafts.
  5. Make more audio and get more people plugged in to it.
  6. Blog more, but write less copy.
  7. Continue to focus on classical music, but widen the content opportunities, using events as opportunities to talk more broadly about genre. Each year, Eurovision is my holiday from classical music. I want that to remain the case. I also want to capitalise on a newfound fondess I have for the contest and its many fans.
  8. Find a publisher.
  9. Build on the piano accompaniment I’m committed to for a relative’s violin diploma, and by the end of the year finalise the works I want to play in my ABRSM Piano Diploma.
  10. Identify the areas I want to work in post-BBC (whenever that situation arises) and the kind of work I want to be doing.

Footnote: PRs Beware

This is a personal blog. I don’t expect the figures to be high, nor do I especially value them being high either. That isn’t why I write this blog. 

Thoroughly Good is a platform for my interests, one that gives me permission to say what I want in the way that I want to. Sometimes that means lots of people come and peer at it, other times its the relative close network of people who drop by and plough their way through the copy. It’s those I’m writing for. They’re the people who mean a lot to me. They are the valued (returning) customers.

So, if you’re basing your judgment on figures, you’re doing me a disservice. 

Walking along Aldeburgh Music history

A strong along a memorial boardwalk at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Suffolk

I visited Snape Maltings Concert Hall recently. Whilst I was there, I took a few moments to wander around the marshes. Buried amongst the reeds was a long duckboard stretching the length of the concert hall on which names of notable individuals have been engraved. A lovely walk through history on what was an unexpectedly hot day.

Kieran Cooper. Marketing and Box Office chap at the Aldeburgh Foundation. Spoken of in hushed whispers when I started there in 1995. Now immortalised on the walkway in the marshes, but in case anyone is wondering, Kieran is still very much alive.

David Heckels. Chairman of the Aldeburgh Foundation in 1995. Handsome. Charming. Fine hair combed within an inch of its life. Stalwart supporter of the Festival. Part of the landscape.

Rita Thomson. Britten’s carer. Key player in Red House history.

Alan Britten. Nephew of the composer. Smiley.

Sheila Colvin. General Director at the Aldeburgh Foundation when I was there between 1995 and 1997. Fantastic hair. Defiant walk. Imposing desk in an office with the best view over Aldeburgh HIgh Street. Enviable signature. Called me ‘Poppet’. Until today, I had no idea of her TV background.

An ostrich looking really fucked off

Gripes

Following a rant today on Facebook about workplace everyday-isms which really get my goat, I figured it might be useful to document those things which rub me up the wrong way.

Ta Da.

This blog post will be updated from time to time as more gripes come to mind, and linked to when the need arises.

So, if you want to ensure your communication assistance illicits a ‘yes’, best avoid the following.

Of course, publishing this list may well invite people to use them anyway. If you do, then I’ll know what kind of person you are.

In some cases, I’ve felt the need to offer an explanation.

1. Deffo

Just say definitely. It’s better that way.

2. Happy Days

3. Oh My Days

Just swear. It has far more weight if you actually swear.

4. Exciting or Excited

If you’re using either word you’re almost certainly not feeling either.

5. Exclamation marks

Only use exclamation marks for serious warnings. Using them is trying to force a sense of excitement on the reader and invariably draws attention to the fact that you can’t think of another word to better express yourself. Combining exclamation marks with the word ‘exciting’ or ‘excited’ and the intended effect is diminished.

6. Hope you’re well

No you don’t. You don’t really care whether I’m well or not. If you did care, you’d actually ask whether I was well or not, and you’d use a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Best not ask, because I will tell you in my response and it will invariably leave you wishing you hadn’t asked at all. Real life isn’t peachy and the depressing inevitability of it all cannot be overcome by the phrase “Hope you’re well”.

Just get on and ask me what it is you want me to do. Far more efficient. “Hope you’re well” is widely regarded as an ice-breaker, a tone-setter or a softly-softly way to start an email, based on the falsely held assumption that not using it is somehow abrupt or rude. It is a redundant phrase, however. Getting to what you want to ask is not rude. It’s efficient.

If you must ask how I am, be specific. Don’t be open-ended.

7. Literally

8. Metaphorically

9. Figuratively

10. Telly

It’s television. Or it’s TV. Not telly.

11. Align or Re-align

Eww.

12. Optimise or Maximise

13. Going forward

14. Cut-through or pick-up

15. To be perfectly/completely honest

I expect that anyone I’m interacting with is honest with me. If you’re not, then we shouldn’t be interacting with one another.

16. My Bad

Oh, fuck off. Really.

17. Mad Early

A derivation of ‘stupidly early’ and so technically acceptable. Often used to denote coolness.

Don’t be a dick. Don’t use it.

18. Emoticons or Emojis

Don’t use emoticons in your messages to me. They’re childish, lazy, weak-willed non-communication. If you can’t send me a message without an emoticon then you need to spend a little more time planning what it is you to want to say to me first.

19. “I’ve got to jump on a call at 1230”

The time is irrelevant where this particular gripe is concerned. It’s the verb that infuriates me. You’re not ‘jumping on a call at 1230’. You’re either taking a call, participating in one or joining one.

20. “I’ll ping/shoot you an email.”

Stop using unneccessary langauge to increase the importance of your message and/or yourself. You don’t ‘ping’ emails to people, you send them.

21. “All things … [INSERT WORD]”

A phrase used to denote importance when elevating the status of an event, message, or function. For example, “I’m responsible for all things digital at [INSERT ORGANISATION]”.

Just give us your job title.

22. The ‘super’ pre-pend

Don’t use ‘super’ as a comparator. Far from actually underlining how wonderful something is, you’re actually distancing yourself from the very thing you’re trying to emote about.

Also, you sound like a twat when everything is prepended with ‘super’.

If you’re about to use the word ‘super’ to describe something, then having a long detailed executive board meeting with yourself and come up with some new ideas.

23. To ‘Nutshell’

When seeking to summarise a situation do not use the word ‘nutshell’ as a verb, as in “I’m going to nutshell this.”

2014 / 2015

I’m slacking. Normally I’d have read last years New Years Eve post, made a note of the things I said I’d do and then compare it with the list of things I’ve actually done. I’ve looked forward to the process. Relished it, even. 

This year, I’ve left it late. Hours before the end of the year, I’m still struggling to come up with grand goals for next year (they’re goals, not resolutions – deliberate). Thinking about what I’d like to do isn’t something I particularly want to do either.

So to get the juices flowing, I took off for a mid-morning walk down to Southwold harbour and back along the beach to town. Streets in shadow still had early morning frost on the ground. The chilly air stung the inside of my nose. Passed endless runners – one eye-catchingly buff clearly wanting to prove a point running in a skin-tight vest and shorts. A timely reminder that I’d like to get some regular exercise into my schedule, the kind of exercise that doesn’t bugger my knee and might help me think a little better of myself when I look in the mirror. Spot the homosexual in his forties worrying about how he looks.

Stopped off at the marketplace to post yesterday’s blog. Ended up checking my email. Friend has emailed me the shocking news that a colleague of his has died in a car crash in the US over the Christmas holidays. Far too young. Audibly gasp when I read it. Some people stop and look at me. 

Amble back to the cottage. Have breakfast. Make for Dunwich beach in the car where we do a two hour walk. Dunwich is gorgeous. It’s where I did my GCSE geography fieldwork. Stunning beach of shingle and sand. Aldeburgh’s dated charm pales into insignificance. Stop off at the Ship Inn – stupidly busy but cracking atmosphere. Endless cute dogs. Journey back to Southwold is extended by listening to an afternoon drama, ‘Meet Cute’, on Radio 4. Also drop by to look at the majestic Blythburgh Church.

Dave and Miya arrive just as James Bond discovers his girlfriend painted head to toe in gold paint in Goldfinger. (Sean Connery still vies for the crown of most alluring lead alongside the crushing vulnerability of Daniel Craig.) We play the Really Nasty Horse Racing Game, then head off to the beach around midnight where Southwold residents have congregated to let off fireworks. Lovely atmosphere. Health and safety seems of little concern. Little wonder everyone in the shops I asked about the fireworks this morning was so cagey.

I’d hoped that this wandering around the east coast of Suffolk might help focus some thoughts. It hasn’t. It’s not until I sit down to bash out some stuff on the new iPad mini that the ideas come to my mind. What follows then is the inevitable review of my 2014 with some thoughts about 2015. It’s wordy, obviously.

Executive Coaching

What looms large on the list for 2014 is successfully completing the training to be an executive coach at the BBC. This, by a long way, has been the most transformative experience of my professional life, helping me to understand myself as I learn different ways of helping others understand theirs. The near month-long training course has been incredibly self-affirming. At the same time, the central question used by many coaches – ‘What is it specifically that you want?’ – can now potentially haunt any flight of fancy I might now have. New Years Resolutions seem childish cliches in comparison. Now, if an idea cannot stand-up to the GROW model, then it’s not worth wasting any time thinking about. 

Blogging the BBC Proms

My blogging has changed this year. For many years I’d felt embarrassed by personal blogging, judged by those who wrote for a living that journaling was a sign of failure, that readers weren’t interested in what I thought and still less how I felt and that I really should have given it up by now. Shortly after th BBC Proms press launch in April, I made a conscious decision to return to journaling, first by keeping a diary during the Proms itself and later in the year documenting December. 

During the summer, the process helped me be reunited with the Proms itself, at the same time as helping me understanding how my listening skills had changed. As the Proms approached it’s end, I was reminded through my own personal experience that anyone who still bleats on about there being insufficient young people at classical music concerts either weren’t going to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenments gigs or we’re forgetting that for the majority of the audience, classical music is something they grow into, like listening to Radio 4. Classical music is a lifelong companion for me, something I couldn’t have appreciated at the age of 18. These things take time.

Eurovision

If I was reunited with the Proms, I was also definitely reunited with Eurovision which over time had been sullied somewhat. When you love something there is an ongoing desire to at some level or other feel a part of it, by which I mean more than just watching it on screen and jumping up and down with a sodding flag. 

When Radio 2 asked me to work with their interactive team on the first ever pop-up radio service the station had mounted, I was initially reticent, fearing that it would be another experience which would damage the delicate relationship I feel I have with the event. 

It was a demanding project, but an unexpectedly fulfilling one, not least because the station’s output led by the marvellous Paddy O’Connell out in Denmark felt as though it was tailored specifically for me in mind. I wasn’t the only on who thought it, I don’t think – a great many friends experienced a similar sense of sadness when the station closed-down the day after the Contest. A wonderful thing to be a part of.

Creative Writing

If the way I’m blogging has changed, so too my confidence to writing fiction has improved. This was in part because of attending the same creative writing course I subscribed to when I first joined the BBC. Shaun Levin’s creative writing course introduced me to tools which made the prospect of writing fiction seem easier. The book I’m working on (now at 50,000 words) has seen its greatest splurge of drafting this year, something I’ll return to this January. And there the goal for that has changed: at first it was just about getting it drafted. Now, inevitably. I want to get it published.

2015

So, maybe there are some goals for the year: finish the draft, get the book a publisher, do more writing and get more exercise. But there’s something looming which feels a little more unwieldy. Something a little more fundamental. What do I do next at work? As I mark 10 years at the BBC, 21 years since I started work, and another 23 years before I officially retire, what is the next step? Will that next step be taken at the BBC or elsewhere? Should I continue blogging (I’ve been doing that for 10 years now too) if it’s not really going anywhere? What should I devote my dwindling free time to? Does there always have to be an end goal in order to justify the pursuit of personal interests? And so we come back to the classic coaching question … What is it specifically you want?

I’m in danger of falling into that classic New Year trip of reflecting on things too much. 

Time to pack up the car and head back to London.

2013 / 2014

I adore New Year. I find the opportunity to reflect irresistible. Sure, in the wrong hands there’s a risk of sliding inexorably towards self-pity. But, exercise a little self-discipline, and reflection can be really quite good for the soul. It’s even been endorsed this year by the Queen (or whoever writes her Christmas Day speech).

When I look back, I usually start with my own digital archive for the previous 12 months. For one or reason or another (usually compulsion) I’ll have committed something to a blog post or captured what I thought was an important moment to document, in a photograph. Whatever the chosen medium, each ‘utterance’ are usually postcards from a particular moment in time, often impulsive ones.

From 147 selected pictures for my 2013, there are two pictures of note. The first – undoubtedly the blandest – was taken during a hurried day-long visit to Bury St Edmunds to see my Dad after his rescheduled hip operation. It was the first time I had set foot in the West Suffolk Hospital since he was last in there 30 years beforehand when he’d been admitted for emergency surgery after a serious garden accident. As I suspected it would do, it stirred up many unhappy memories.

I often wonder whether I have a fascination with the negative side of life, for many years concluding that I probably wallow just a bit too much in sad stuff in comparison with most. But as I pick out one other picture from 2013 which strikes me as important, I suspect I’m probably a good deal more positive than I’d previously given myself credit for. This picture taken in Studio 4 at what was referred to as BBC Television Centre (now the BBC has moved out, its just plain old ‘Television Centre’), isn’t the morose, self-indulgent opportunity for wallowing I’d thought it might be when I took it in February.

For years I’d longed to work in TV (up until the point I worked on a TV show and realised that there was far too much collaboration demanded for someone like me) and found the places where TV was made seductive as a result. Studios seemed effectively ‘out of bounds’ to anyone who didn’t work on TV shows at the BBC, so I’d never dared to go in them until March when I set out getting footage for the tap-dancing video. Spending time in these vast empty shells, they suddenly felt lonely places. And with the prospect of the iconic building they were housed in soon to be vacated, they also felt rather sad, perhaps even forlorn places, almost as though they had been callously forgotten.

Now I look on this picture, I see something different: I see the heavy studio doors wide open; light streaming in. There’s hope there in that picture. I rather like that.

The blog post archive shows something a little different. Just as I’d hoped this time last year, there’s been a considerably greater focus on arts and specifically my first love, orchestral music. Eurovision still featured in the posts, and looking at the top 20 posts for the year (below), it appears people still come to the blog for Eurovision stuff. I find that both gratifying, disappointing and also a little bemusing.

Best Performing Blog Posts

1. Correspondence between RNCM management concerning appointment of Malcolm Layfield
2. Eurovision 2013: Quick-fire review of all of the songs
3. Review: Sondheim Inside Out / BBC Concert Orchestra / QEH
4. BBC Proms 2011: How to Prom
5. Eurovision’s 2013 Logo: We are one, apparently
6. Making the BBC staff tap-dancing tribute to Television Centre
7. BBC Proms 2010: Rodgers & Hammerstein John Wilson Orchestra
8. Mitchell and Webb BBC Proms Sketch
9. About this Blog
10. Steve Martland (1959-2013)
11. Reuniting the Suffolk Youth Orchestra
12. Sifting through the BBC Proms 2013 brochure
13. BBC Proms 2013: Prom 4 / Stravinsky Rite of Spring / Francois-Xavier Roth / Les Siecles
14. RCM Fellowships, Honours, Doctorates & handshakes for 2013
15. BBC Proms 2013: Prom 10 / Schumann Piano Concerto / Rachmaninov Symphony No. 2
16. Corduroy at 02 Islington
17. Aldeburgh Festival 2013: Peter Grimes in Concert
18. BBC Proms 2011: Prom 59 Hooray for Hollywood John Wilson Orchestra
19. Vasily darling, a word in your ear if you’d be so kind
20. Reviewing Eurovision 2013 Final

In terms of arts-related blog posts, what’s most interesting for me is how well certain pieces have performed. The news about RNCM string teacher Malcolm Layfield, his trial and the tragic suicide of one of the witnesses violinist Frances Andrade wasn’t something which had been anywhere near my first list of things recalled from 2013, and the post’s appearance at the top of the list reminded me just how big a story it had been.

The review of the Sondheim Inside Out concert performed breathtakingly well (in Thoroughly Good terms) especially given that it was published in mid-November. Similarly, the Mitchell and Webb BBC Proms Sketch, published in early December.

The list also reminds me of the sad unexpected departure of composer Steve Martland, Vasily Petrenko’s really quite unfortunate outburst about women conductors, and just how many former Suffolk Youth Orchestra participants have read the call-to-arms for the orchestra’s 2014 reunion. Additionally, the list reminds me of my three most memorable music moments of the year: Les Siecle’s Rite of Spring at the BBC Proms, the opening night of the Aldeburgh Festival and a blistering Corduroy gig at the 02 in Islington. A cracking musical year.

Reading over the blog now, I notice a few things which have changed. A lot are shorter. There’s considerably less naivety and – it seems to me – impulsivity is on the decline. At the same time, I notice how there’s a recurring theme in a lot of what I’ve written. The one theme which emerges clearly is a reaction against snobbery and general vileness. Two posts which deserve an honorable mention then include ‘In Praise of Classic FM’ and ‘In Defence Of The Season Ticket Holders’. Classical music’s ‘problem’ (if it really has one) isn’t that its austere or elitist, its the snobs who reckon they own the genre in all its manifestations. And that – I discovered only yesterday – isn’t reserved for the older generation either. There are a great many I’ve seen on Facebook who are younger than me who are pedalling some pretty vile views about classical music artists which the rest of us precious little good at all.

Enough though. It’s late. This needs to be published and I have cocktails to make before Big Ben strikes.

What other things of note from 2013?

  1. I’ve worked with amazing people this year. I’ve loved it.
  2. I’ve commissioned and made some great stuff at work and on Thoroughly Good.
  3. I did write a short story. It was crap. I knew it would be. Short stories are difficult.
  4. Tried going to the gym. Didn’t work. So I bought myself a Brompton instead.
  5. Shed nearly a stone in weight before Christmas.
  6. Didn’t pay off more debt as I’d hoped. Did increase my debt a bit.
  7. Observed both my parents increasing fragility and their unfailing spirit.
  8. Didn’t stop biting my nails.
  9. Started reading in earnest again thanks to the purchase of a Kindle Paperwhite.
  10. Saw some brilliant Shakespeare at the National. Theatre is my new favourite thing.

And what are the hopes and plans for 2014?

  1. Write more.
  2. See more Shakespeare.
  3. Read more.
  4. Distance myself from Facebook – its not good for the soul.
  5. Use Twitter instead, but use it less.
  6. Consider a five year plan. It’s boring, but probably quite sensible.
  7. Tackle the garden – its a complete mess.
  8. Shave my beard off when I reach 13 stone in weight.
  9. Achieve bread-making greatness.
  10. Drink less coffee, drink more camomile tea. Its the way forward.

Happy New Year. All the best. Meet you back here in a year, OK?

2012 / 2013

As 2012 comes to an end so the inevitable opportunity to look back on the past twelve months presents itself.

And, in-keeping with a post I published late in 2011, the chance to lay out a few hopes for the next twelve months is too irresistible to ignore.

So, what what were the things which marked out 2012 for me? Here’s the list.

  1. At the beginning of the year I couldn’t imagine getting excited about the Olympics. Within only a few days of the torch relay I was swept along by the euphoria. Yes, the sporting events were unexpectedly compelling (possibly because most were short bursts guaranteed to hold even the most disinterested of TV viewers).
  2. More importantly however, the opening ceremony achieved something none of us realised we collectively needed: the reassurance that when when push comes to shove we can organise things well and those of us who weren’t involved can enjoy it without the usual cynical subtext.
  3. 2012 was the year I did my best multimedia work to date. My trip to Azerbaijan to meet UK Eurovision representative Engelbert Humperdinck was a task of Herculean efforts (financially, mentally and logistically) but the finished product looked as near professional as I think a one-man operation with a compact video camera and Final Cut Express can muster.

    It was a real shame the effort bombed spectacularly. It failed to gain any sort of traction on the Internet or within the circles I’d hoped to influence. No matter. It was good work.

  4. This year also saw me tackle one of my personal challenges. I’ve finally got my current account in order. I can now look at my bank account balance on a daily basis and not fear what it says. I’m not exactly rolling in it (there’s still plenty to sort out yet), but it’s a major achievement.
  5. Back in January I completed on a professional challenge a former boss inadvertently set when he ‘advised’ me that because of my technical background, I’d never make it editorially. I took on editing the About the BBC blog at the beginning of this year, nearly five years after my former boss’ ‘encouragement’ and just over seven after i joined the Beeb as a webmaster. I work with some truly amazing people and feel as though I’ve grown as a result. Raise a glass, if you’d be so kind.
  6. I turned 40 this year. So far, I am loving my forties.
  7. I rediscovered the joy of drinking tea from a cup with a saucer. Not only that, I also discovered that strong tea is the way forward.
  8. Cycling has become part of my daily routine again. I’m enjoying it too.
  9. Learning how stress and anxiety effects me and discovering new ways of managing it has been liberating.
  10. I’ve learnt to love strategies, key messages and statistics. There. I’ve said it.
  11. Although Sainsbury’s foolishly withdrew their Basics range Orangeade earlier this year and failed to give anymore than a weak-willed response to my complaint, a suitable alternative low-calorie drink has been identified: sparkling mineral water mixed with the Basics low-sugar orange squash is the business.
  12. I did succeed in my aim of not getting quite so involved in the BBC Proms – my God, the summer was glorious. So much so in fact that I only got along to one Prom. The best, in my opinion. Peter Grimes. A tear-jerker of a success.
  13. I’ve managed to turn things around in the kitchen. There are statistically fewer monthly disasters at the end of this year compared with at the beginning.

So. That’s all good then. Collectively, a real result.

Cynical journalists pour scorn on the readiness of individuals to set goals for the coming year, reckoning the motivation no more than a knee-jerk reaction to the Christmas excess. Shame. That isn’t how it is at all. Having a plan – or at least, a few tick boxes – makes things a bit easier. It also provides the basis for some copy 12 months from now. Everyone’s a winner. Those cynical journos are lazy thinkers.

What about 2013? What’s the plan for the next twelve months?

  1. Continue to stop wasting money; strive to pay off more debt.
  2. Consolidate this blog around the subject areas I’m interested in and develop its audience.
  3. Develop my coaching skills. It takes practice. Any volunteers?
  4. Get to the gym once a week maybe more (in addition to the cycling regime).
  5. Relax more.
  6. Have at least one trip to the cinema, two trips to the theatre and read one book a month.
  7. Visit Aldeburgh.
  8. Get a radio doc commissioned. A bold goal, but not necessarily out of reach.
  9. Stop biting my nails. It’s boring.
  10. End the year feeling less-defined by my love of my employer than I am at present. Pride is one thing, emotional dependency is something quite quite different.
  11. And finally …Make 2013 the year I finally write the most difficult thing of all: some fiction. One short story, maybe more. That’s all.

Happy New Year. All the best for 2013.

2011

A few days ago I did something I don’t normally do. I ploughed through my blog entries, audioboos, videos and YouTube favourites to see what I could recall from this year. The process threw up some surprises – I collated them.

The one which has stuck in my mind has been this chance interview with former Blue Peter Chieftain Biddy Baxter, a lady who belies her advancing years and demonstrated a canny understanding of what my motivation was for speaking to her in the first place.

It’s a moment in 2011 which I’ve thought about a great deal over the past few days. If there was one aspect of this year I’d to remember it by, it’s encompassed in that AudioBoo.

Biddy Baxter reveals the truth about the Blue Peter Badge at the first night of Company at the Southwark Playhouse (mp3)

Speaking to Biddy was a real joy. It summed up the ultimate thrill I sometimes experience, that of chance encounters and the unexpected thrills which can emanate from them.

Despite not being in front of the camera, Biddy Baxter was part of my childhood. Through her spearheading work in children’s entertainment, I felt part of a family, unwittingly participated in a forerunner of social media (writing letters into the show in the desperate hope for a response) and began my love affair with BBC Television Centre and my present employer (it still hasn’t quite sunk in I was part of the team who was team delivered the Corporation newest corporate website, and yet now I do stop to consider it seems only right I did given my obsessive love with the organisation).

The point about this interview with Biddy is that it sums up everything. It acts as a signpost to the past, a marker for the present as well as being something special to hang on to for the future. I remember the excitement I felt when I received a signed letter from Biddy thirty or so years ago. It’s that same excitement you hear in my voice during that interview.

Similar experiences are to be found throughout the year. And as I recall them here and now, I notice I go all dewey-eyed thinking about them.The most obvious is bumping into Graham Norton on a bike ride from Lewisham to Tower Bridge in London.

The reason for the bike ride was simple: I was at that moment in the year feeling incredibly unhappy. Those feelings had been ongoing for sometime and it struck me as the most obvious and cheapest kind of therapy to get on my bike and get some endorphins charging around my body.

The significance of the piece I ended up editing together for the BBC Proms this year as a result of that bike ride may – possibly – be lost on some people. Let me explain (briefly) here.

First off, the many BBC Proms videos I’ve made stem from one week in April 2007 when I was laid up at home as a result of a bicycle accident. Bored out of my mind, I ended up making a small promotional piece for the Proms. I posted it on my blog and – before I knew what was really happening – a number of people were encouraging me to make more. That work became an important part of my career progression and also a creative outlet which brought a great deal of pleasure.

This year, a different medical ailment prompted me this time to turn to my bike. And in doing so I bumped into someone who was at the centre of my first piece of video production (prior to the Proms work). In March 2007, I spent ten days doing work experience on a new independent show for a revamped BBC Two. The show was the Graham Norton Show. I made a video diary about my experiences then (the team incidentally thought I had been an uncover reporter for the News of the World – the cheek!) which is what had spurred me on to do something about the Proms.

So there was a feeling of delicious synchronicity about bumping into Graham Norton that Saturday afternoon. And, now I look back on that video I can also see – with a spot of hindsight thrown in too – how the message I was giving off was pretty clearcut too. Classical music really isn’t difficult. The idea that we have to make something perceived to be difficult (when it really isn’t) more accessible, is ridiculous. There is only so much those of us who adore the genre can do to encourage those who haven’t considered it to consider it. If I haven’t persuaded you by now, then you’re a lost cause. You’re on your own.


It’s a short hop from the BBC Proms to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. That which I pursued at the Royal Albert Hall ended up falling in my lap (albeit on a considerably smaller scale) courtesy of the OAE.

Presenting the pilot for the OAE Pub Gigs wasn’t necessarily the breeze I had thought it might be, but I did come out of it the other end and – in case you weren’t already aware – that has led on to a fully fledged tour of pubs in the next few months in London. I’m really looking forward to that next year and sharing more about the rather bizarre experience that is .. presenting live events. That is what I would loosely describe as an achievement for 2011, one for which I do rather depend on the likes of Will and Ceri at the orchestra.

While we’re on the subject of achievements – and blowing one’s own trumpet – I can’t let this moment go by without reference to my ‘moment’ on BBC Radio 5 Live (below).

BBC Radio 5 Live – The Next Web Hackathon 2011 by Thoroughlygood on Mixcloud

In radio terms, this wasn’t something I was expecting to make it on to Pick of the Week. It wasn’t in itself ground-breaking journalism. Just a simple series of interviews secured on a trip to Amsterdam during The Next Web Conference, sent back to the editor – Jamillah Knowles – in London with a few scripted links recorded by me in Amsterdam to bring the whole thing together. It was one of those moments when – completely sober – I noted how incredibly exciting the process of radio journalism can be. (And I wouldn’t mind doing it again, despite what you read here.)

If I was to take the crude approach to reviewing the year, it would be analysing statistics. And in case you’re wondering, there is no bias towards classical music. Instead, it’s light entertainment. For the third year running I notice that there’s an undeniable almost distressing spike in my blog statistics around about May. This is only down to one thing. Eurovision.

I still find it difficult to understand why it is that anyone would consider coming by my blog around Eurovision time. I’m neither officially engaged in the Eurovision process, nor anywhere near as knowledgeable as some other blogging fans. Consequently, the inevitable feelings of fraudulence bubble up to the surface. And yet, it’s reassuring. Not least because this year was a very special Eurovision year for me. One I suspect won’t be repeated for some years to come.

Latvia in 2003 was my last visit to Eurovision. Back then my lack of experience bled into the at times overly-emotional response to the childhood dream I felt I was experience. After that personally momentous week I’d held off from going back, convinced that I’d stick out like a sore thumb, that I didn’t know enough and that I absolutely didn’t deserve to be there in the press centre with the other fans and journalists.

This year however, with only a few weeks before the final accreditation date for journalists, I managed to secure myself a pass to the press centre. I went to Dusseldorf for only 24 hours and live blogged my experiences, had a similarly thrilling experience in the UK press conference as I had in 2003, before returning home and watched the final on TV in my lounge.

That process garnered the most hits on my blog I’ve ever had. Something I value a great deal. Even now. Despite the fact that the Eurovision is – in the grand scheme of things – a pointless, meaningless piece of instantly forgettable mainstream light entertainment.

That experience – that 24 hours in Dusseldorf – helped me confront some personal demons. I returned to the UK knackered but euphoric. And listening to this piece from the press centre still results in the hairs on the back of my neck standing up on end.

Blue”s press conference with a question from moi (mp3)

And it’s that feeling – that overwhelming feeling of euphoria mixed with almost disbelief – which helps me explain one blog post I’m both proud of and frightened of. One I wrote this year on a tube journey back from work one day. A post which resulted in a number of people at work taking me to one side and asking me, “Are you OK?”

letters and letters

Aside from the sudden and unnerving attention my blog and I was getting, I was absolutely fine. What I explained about Letter from the Den: Plot 74 was that it wasn’t so much a cathartic experience as an unexpectedly reassuring experience. It really was possible to sit down without a page of notes, without an idea of what it was I wanted to achieve and to write. And to enjoy the process. And to divorce myself from the piece when the final full stop had been committed.

The process is something all who enjoy writing should force themselves to do from time to time. It is exhilarating and very, very self-affirming.

As I come to write that difficult end of year review, it is these elements – and no others – which fill me with warmth about 2011. It is these experiences which propel me into 2012 too, moments which make me look forward to the moment Big Ben signals the beginning of a new year with the potential for new opportunities, new experiences and new thrills.

Raise a glass. Pause to consider your own year. Share it, if you so fancy. Otherwise, think about Tomorrow.

Idina Menzel sings Tomorrow on In Tune on @bbcradio3 (mp3)

Best wishes for 2012.

A stolen moment on the South Bank

The sun is hot. Very hot. There’s the smallest of breezes, but the excitement from the crowd here on the South Bank more than makes up for it.

The Festival Hall is the new must-go-to location in Central London. I’m sitting on concrete benches. Beside me is a lady drawing up her to-do list in her notepad. On my right, two well-spoken thirty-somethings friends sit and chat, meeting for the first time in many months. They share surgery stories. One of them says that a patient at the hospital nearly died today. That was his high point today. Both seem quite happy.

In front of me people lean against the wall, looking out over the river as they knock back the cans of beer they’ve bought at the nearby supermarket. Nobody minds they haven’t gone to the bar. It’s all quite bohemian really what with their long hair, canvas shoes and shades.

It’s lovely to be here. There’s a relaxed vibe about the place. And it’s much needed. The architecture – the concrete – has a surprisingly reassuring effect on me. It’s as though my mother has put her arm around me. “There, there chump. It will all work out.”

Do Mums really know that? Or is that the best they can say? Do they believe in themselves when they say it or are they just offsetting their own insecurities? We believed them when they said it back then. Why does it all seem so unbelievable now?

The South Bank resonates. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve used that word ‘resonates’ this week. I’ve worked on the basis that the bigger the word the more successful I’ll be in securing my place in the big scheme of things. I can’t say I think it’s worked especially. I suspect I’ve ended up feeling more and more out of step with everyone else around me and those I come into contact with. I haven’t changed. So what’s happened to them?

Shit. I’ve digressed again. I’m sorry. I’m shit for doing that.

The South Bank. It’s a key place for me. I love it here. It feels like home. London’s version of style. My own personal version of 1960s Carnaby Street. An opportunity to watch people. To tap into conversations. To feel alive.

I came here for the first time in my early twenties, desperate to establish contacts with players in the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra to bolster my own little black book. Later I used to wander around here on weekend walks with The Chap. It was here I wrote about for my first writing assessment for the correspondence course I began nearly ten years ago. And it was here I was planning meeting up with my cousin I haven’t seen for nearly 20 years over the weekend.

It’s a special place. A moment of exquisite serenity. Something to savour.

Commuter Diary #19

The first completed questionnaire completed and submitted to the GP in pursuit of a referral for CBT

I dropped the form the doctor asked me to complete for a referral back to the surgery on my way in. The moment needs recording. It’s a little odd seeing everything in black and white as you hand it over to the receptionist. Almost like I was handing over my own death warrant. A testament to failure as an individual.

Here’s what was on the questionnaire. I had to mark each statement 0-3 with 0 meaning never and 3 representing nearly every day.

1. Little interest or pleasure doing things 3
2. Feeling down, depressed or hopeless 3
3. Trouble falling or staying asleep 3
4. Feeling tired or having little energy 3
5. Poor appetite or overeating 3
6. Feeling bad about yourself 3
7. Trouble concentrating on things 3
8. Moving slowly/being fidgety 2
9. Thoughts you would be better off dead 0
10. Feeling nervous or anxious 3
11. Not able to control worries 3
12. Worrying too much 3
13. Trouble relaxing 3
14. Becoming easily annoyed 3
15. Feeling afraid as if something awful might happen 3

It was quite a relief to answer statement 9 with a zero. Things aren’t irretrievable at least. But still, I’m caught between looking at the list wondering whether most people think like this anyway and feeling quite sad reading the reality of the situation.

How on earth did it get to this? And of course – in true journalistic style – who exactly is to blame?

What I had forgotten about all of this – compared to my previous experience when I was in my late teens – was to what extent this ‘thing’ a lot of people find themselves suffering from from time to time is a pernicious kind of thing.

A deceiving kind of illness. Bandy the word depression around and people start assuming they have to tread on eggshells around you. That you are somehow completely and utterly disabled. Unable to perform basic tasks. No good to anyone. And that you need to be completely roped off.

And yet it’s not always like that. Sometimes it can exist just underneath the surface, like a pigment in the skin, or a locked colour correction casting a bias across every shot. Difficult to remove because the operator can’t remember how it got there in the first place.

There’d will be pockets of the day when suddenly the ‘layer’ goes away. When it’s forgotten about. Clouds parting to reveal the deep blue sky. It’s not always on the surface. Sometimes it dissipates. Damn it for being so inconsistent.

And then there’s the shame. Should I be so open about all of this? Is there a danger? A massive risk? Most people will be understanding. Some might engage reading about it. But you know there’ll be someone out of touch with reality who judges and scorns. Maybe that’s why it’s good to document the process.