If I had another lifetime I would be a journalist. Radio or print, definitely not TV. I would love to do Jenni Murray’s job. She gets to interview interesting folk and, like all skilled people she makes it sound effortless. She is ruthless interviewing politicians, and sensitive with the grieving, such as Doreen Lawrence and Kate McCann. Jenni and I are of the same ilk. Except she is a posh Northerner and I am not.

When I first interviewed people professionally I would over prepare, always concerned that the conversation might end prematurely. In reality that doesn’t happen. I still read what I can but I don’t record any questions. Except maybe the first one. After that the conversation flows. Given the opportunity most people love talking about themselves and don’t need a lot of prompting. Fearful of forgetting what they said I would take many notes. I do neither now. Being spontaneous helps me to be focussed and authentic. If I write, head is down and I don’t listen. Offensive and potentially irritating. I never use a recorder as it inhibits most interviewees. And it takes ages to transcribe what’s been said.


Today I interviewed a hospital director. He was gracious enough to give me two hours on a busy Friday afternoon. The time passed quickly. I was fascinated by his job and the challenges it presents. He’s running a multi-million pound business, as CEO, balancing this with the care and clinical demands of patients. When I find that most interviewees are quite humble. You can enjoy talking about your job if you love it. Yet still be self-effacing. From the most senior to the lowly I have never discovered a job that demanded no skill. The depth and degree vary, of course, but jobs tax their holders in different way. Every role involves interaction and people are unpredictable, of course. Handling them with empathy and care demands skill. Once I interviewed roadside service drivers who pick people up after accidents. They explained to me how important it is to know when to speak and when to remain silent. Some people want comfort; others peace. A good driver will recognise the difference. I expect it’s a kind of intuition, based on experience. This organisation changed their recruitment criteria and took on more women whom they trained to be be mechanics. Now they were fascinating to interview.

A working class hero

The Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester is my favourite theatre and the one I know the best. I used go regularly with my teaching friends and we saw some great productions. So good I cant remember any of them. The school where I taught developed some real acting talent. The English Department, run by my friend Stuart, was particularly strong and many of the kids went onto the Oldham Theatre Workshop that spawned a number of TV actors, including many of the Coronation Street cast. So it was good to see that the play I went to see yesterday was directed by one of these comprehensive kids from Oldham to whom I taught French. Matthew Dunster was one of those well-behaved pupils with neat handwriting and a cute face that teachers love. He developed a love for the theatre after being chosen to lead in ‘Kes’. Apparently he has written and directed a number of plays; ‘Saturday night and Sunday morning’ is the latest, the iconic play by Alan Sillitoe. The Exchange is a theatre in the round, like Shakespeare’s original theatres, and you feel that you are part of the action. Props are few and actors seem to be constantly on the stage. The fairground and factory scenes were really well stylised. The abortion scene was harrowing, a credit to the acting.


The main character, Authur, is a hero, working class but not poor. He has plenty of disposable income to spend on fancy suits, Christmas presents, boozing and going out. He’s despicable but the girls love him. I wanted to shout at the women who competed for his attention. The ending when he (almost but didn’t) proposed was particularly depressing. I loved the 50s music that provided the backtrack. Buddy Holly, Conway Twitty and the like. But it also reminded me of the impending doom we lived under: the Russians might drop an H bomb on us at any time. That was a palpable fear. Maybe that was why people lived for the moment and tried to ensure that ‘the bastards don’t grind us down’, as Authur would say. He was one of them, but in a different way. His factory mate, Jack, (a recent murderer from Coronation Street), wore the same brown overall that my Dad wore in his factory job. I remember it because he wore it for gardening after he retired. And the women wore the same 50s fitted waist, floral dresses that I remember my Mum wearing when I was small. It was a nostalgic viewing. A depressing portrayal of the working class, at their most violent and desperate. Living for the weekend with its attractions and addictions. Perhaps some things remain the same.

Reading dissertations

It has been my pleasure, over the last few years, to read university dissertations before they are submitted. I may not know a great deal about the subject matter but I can comment on structure, flow, grammar and general readability. My enjoyment lies in learning something new that I probably never would have explored of my own choosing. One of the first I read was a Chinese student’s essay for her MA. Her English was fractured and ungrammatical but the topic was riveting: the censoring of the Internet in China. The student worked in PR and her activities were restricted because of heavy Internet censorship. She used all manner of means to get round it. I never heard from her again when she returned home and often wonder what became of her. Another one for a Textiles student focussed on ‘subversive stitching’. Apparently women over the ages have used embroidery and other sewing arts to air their views about life and their condition. I think Tracy Emin used the same to create a quilt featuring abortion. I saw it on display at the V&A alongside quilts with prison slogans produced by prisoners from Wandsworth prison. The nimbleness of the needlepoint was at odds with the harshness of the messages.

More recently I’ve been reading about the sexualisation of children across the media. Not just the blatantly provocative images of Brooke Shields and Miley Cyrus, amongst others. But also the potential ‘exploitation’ of cuteness by Anne Geddes with her greetings card images of babies in plant pots and the like. I’ve bought such cards myself without thinking much about it. I wonder what the babies, when grown, will think.

Finally, one of the most interesting essays read recently focussed on the portrayal of the working class through the decades and generated much debate about the meaning of ‘working class’ and its interpretation today. ‘Working class’ was never used in the same pejorative sense as say ‘chavs’. The photographs of people shown in the street show a people who were proud of their class. One of the social documentary photographers, Roger Mayne, tried to capture the vitality of people in the street. The children are playing; women in turbans are shown chatting on doorsteps; there are no vehicles. Streets were safer. People spent more time outside. The title of the essay is ‘Shooting the poor’. It’s hard to explain to younger people that the working class did not regard themselves as ‘poor’. Perhaps because the people we knew were all in the same boat. In fact we felt fortunate because of our education, healthcare and homes. Life was difficult for most people but it was visibly improving in those post war years. And those of us who benefitted from a higher education were able to fulfill our parents’ aspirations for a better future. As I read the dissertations I hope that students today get chances.




Skint foodies

Watching Masterchef is an exercise in masochism and makes me want to shout at the TV. I suppose contestants subject to themselves to the trials for their 15 minutes of fame but some of the crazy combinations they concoct, in an effort to impress the judges, are too fanciful for ordinary home cooks to try. Surely? I mean … pannacotta with pink grapefruit. You’d never get that in an Italian restaurant and we shouldn’t try to improve on the way Italians combine food so naturally.

So what a pleasure it was to find Skintfoodie. This isn’t an affluent chef telling the rest of us peasants how to manage a budget in a recession. This is a guy who was once conventionally corporate and successful before coming down with a bump, losing his family and home, ending up in a hostel and suffering from mental health problems. Reported in the Guardians G2, 1 March, he describes how a love of food has been his salvation. Except that he’s managing on a fraction of his previous budget. Read his blog to discover endless meals to make with a chicken. And he’s articulate, funny and original. Wish the Observer would commission him and get rid of Nigel Slater. Their loyalty to their journalists would be admirable were it not for the fact that after so many books, TV programmes and columns Nigel can’t surprise me anymore. Well, there was this recipe last Sunday for pea and ham soup but I think it’s the same as my Mum used to make. A childhood favourite that nourishes the body and the soul.

Two onions, chopped – I get Spanish ones from the Market. Supermarket ones are rubbish
A ham hock – a good butchers should have one
450 grams of split peas
Stock – any, enough.

Soak peas overnight in cold water. Bring to boil and skim off foam. Simmer for about two hours.
Roast ham hock slowly til cooked. Remove fat. Slice off meat.
Chop onions and fry slowly.
Put all together with stock and simmer for an hour. Or in slow cooker.
Take meat off hock. Put half in soup and save rest to eat later.
Blend soup.

I looked at Good Food online but their version is from John Torode. Aarggh! (Is he the greengrocer or is that the other one?) Does anyone ever use the cook books piled up on their shelves? It’s so much easier online. Debating whether to get rid of mine. Well except Delia, Nigella and the Daily Dairy Cookbook from the milkman…



Hidden Loughborough

I met a wonderful woman called Dettie last year. A qualified nurse, parent of five adult children and all-round wonder woman she runs a charity for the homeless here in town. Many of the people she looks after are suffering from alcohol or drug misuse, some have been released from prison, others have been thrown out by their parents or partners. All of them need the basics that most of us take for granted: shelter, food, comfort and love. Dettie and her small team find people a place to live and support them to develop skills to aid their recovery and build their self esteem. They do all this work without any government financial support, relying on benefactors and local churches.


With the assistance of my young friend Dave we are making a video to help promote the charity. And so yesterday, on one of the coldest days of the year, well wrapped up, we went to a local park so that Dave could film Dettie as she told her story. As we wondered through the park to find a good spot to sit Dettie told us of homeless people who sleep in the park. Under the bandstand, even in the bushes. Because there is no night stop in Loughborough, nowhere for them to go. Sometimes an uncaring police officer will move them on. Apparently it’s illegal to sleep outside. I could not imagine how anyone could survive the current freezing temperatures. One of the homeless is a 67 year old man and he was without a sleeping bag until Dettie gave him one.

Loughborough is quite an affluent town. I understand that it has one of the¬†wealthiest student populations for a university town. Perhaps because of the elite athlete students whose parents have paid for sport tuition. Many of the Olympic athletes are training here. But like most towns it has a side that is hidden if you live ‘on the right side of town’. Dettie told us that homeless people are not always identifiable. They try to keep themselves clean and generally feel ashamed of their predicament. The problem is likely to get worse as the cuts bite.