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Wednesday
Feb272019

Travel sickness

I am currently at Geneva airport waiting for my flight to Gatwick.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed because on my two previous visits to Geneva last year my return flights were both delayed by two to three hours.

On each occasion EasyJet was the culprit and this time I was going to go with British Airways until I compared the prices - £160 with EasyJet, £500 with BA.

How ironic then that Alex Deane, who I bumped into in a pub in Geneva on Monday evening, should have had the following experience a few hours later, and all thanks to BA and its contracted airline Stobart Air.

Alex posted the full story on Facebook and I hope he won’t mind me reprinting it here:

Tonight, even boarding the flight from Geneva to London (9pm Geneva time, 8pm UK time) was delayed by over an hour; once on the plane we sat in it on the tarmac for another half an hour.

In that time, I learned that the lady in front of me dealt with her fear of flying by vomiting copiously into a series of paper bags. She was both tidy and extraordinarily productive in this regard. The smell was overpowering. The flight was overheated. The little blower thingies overhead didn’t work.

This was whilst we were still on the ground. Only once we were belatedly airborne, 90 minutes late for a 90 minute flight, was it revealed that there was no alcohol onboard.

The significant delay in departing meant that the pilot and crew knew we wouldn’t possibly make it to London City before it closed (at 10pm UK time), but they still kept up the charade that we’d make it and didn’t say we’d been diverted until just before we landed - at London Southend.

It was announced that we weren’t to worry; there would be transport outside the terminal for us to go into town. Then it was announced that there wouldn’t be transport for us, but that we should get the train into town and claim the cost back. The last train, it was announced, would leave at 11.15pm.

We got off the aircraft at 10.50 and entered a customs queue to end all customs queues. To say that there was no chance of getting a train is to state the obvious. To say that the tempers in this absurd queue were short is generous. But it moved at a better than expected pace and no fights broke out. Not to spoil things but this good old hardy spirit of the Brits no matter how late it is and how much vomit we’ve smelt is the highlight moment of the account.

So thereafter, in hope of a cab, I queued again, this time in the dark outside Southend airport at some time after 11.30pm, two hours after I was supposed to be home, waiting on a process which seemed wholly dependent on, controlled by, and significantly slowed down due to, a maniacal high vis vest wearing clipboard wielder who, when I ultimately had my audience with him, insisted on me taking a big taxi and the family of four with a pushchair in front of me getting into a diddy one because that was the order in which we had presented ourselves. There was no arguing with him and that’s how it was.

And so, for the merest fixed price of £140, I find myself rattling towards home in a cab-cum-removals van as it nears midnight. Home is yet some way off.

Compared to that tale of woe a two or three hour wait is nothing to complain about. Indeed, in terms of flight delays and the knock-on effect, I’ve lived a fairly charmed life.

I do remember a six-hour delay at Bologna in 2015 which was annoying because the Ryanair flight was due to leave at 6.30am and we’d arrived at the airport two hours in advance.

I recall too an eight-hour delay caused by a combination of snow and ice at Heathrow. My flight to Glasgow was due to take off at 2.30pm but we didn’t board until 8.30 because of the weather and a backlog of aircraft waiting to take off.

Even then we sat on the plane for the best part of two hours while ground staff ‘de-iced’ it, a practice that seemed to involve a man with a broom vigorously brushing the top of each wing.

I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times so that didn’t help but having waited that long I was grateful simply to take off.

The most frustrating delay I’ve experienced took place in Toronto. I was flying to New York and checked in, as always, in good time.

Thereafter we waited, and waited, until eventually we were told that the scheduled flight was cancelled and we would have to transfer to a later flight.

The problem was, every item of luggage that had been checked in had to be sought out and reclaimed and we had to go through the whole process - including security checks - all over again.

Hours later we boarded our new flight and noticed the aircraft seemed a little hot and stuffy. Having taken our seats we were then told there was a fault with the plane and we would all have to get off.

This time we were told our luggage would be sent on to New York on the next available flight - not necessarily the one we would be flying on - and we could pick it up there, should we ever arrive.

Eventually, some eight hours after we arrived at the airport, we bid farewell to Toronto by which time I was regretting not going by train, a slow and laborious journey of eleven hours that nevertheless had the virtue of being punctual. (Thankfully our luggage was indeed waiting for us when we arrived.)

As for fellow passengers vomiting, I’ve been spared that horror - while flying, at least. One day I may write about my experience on the Scrabster-Stromness ferry that connects Scotland with the Orkney Islands. That was a truly stomach-turning experience.

But now, I’ve got a flight to catch.

PS. My daughter, who was with me in Bologna, has reminded me of the far worse delay she endured when flying home from New Orleans for Christmas 2017.

Booked on Norwegian Airlines for the second leg of her journey, a two-hour layover in Boston became a two-day ordeal that included an overnight stay and a lot of waiting. At one point we thought she might not make it back for Christmas at all.

By coincidence she is flying to New Orleans tomorrow for Mardi Gras 2019 which is on Tuesday (March 5).

I wish I was going!

Monday
Feb252019

Planes, trains or automobiles

Last year I commented on the state of the rail service between Peterborough and London.

Noting that it had been largely trouble free for the 19 years I had been using it, I wrote:

The current operator is Govia Thameslink Railway which runs the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise.

A few weeks ago the company introduced a new timetable and to say the service has gone downhill is an understatement. Delays and cancellations on what was previously an excellent service are now commonplace.

An interim timetable is due to be introduced in a couple of weeks while they sort out the mess but my question is: 'Why can't they revert to the old timetable which worked so well?'

Fair’s fair and I can now report that everything has settled down and the new timetable appears to be working as well as the old one - which is to say, very well indeed.

The notable difference between old and new is that during the week most trains from Peterborough no longer finish their journey at Kings Cross. Instead they stop briefly at St Pancras International before continuing their journey to Horsham in Sussex.

For those who don’t know, St Pancras is just across the road from Kings Cross so the change makes very little difference. It does however make things a lot easier if you want to travel to several destinations in south London and beyond.

A significant advantage is that one of the stations en route to Horsham is Gatwick so I can now travel direct from Huntingdon - the nearest station to where I live - to the airport.

The journey time - two hours - is the same as by car but it avoids the unpredictability of the traffic on the M25 that can add an hour, and countless grey hairs, to that time.

Anyway, I’m flying to Geneva today and with options to fly from Heathrow, Luton or Gatwick I chose Gatwick. Watch this space.

Update: The journey from Huntingdon to Gatwick via St Pancras was exactly two hours.

Better still, as it crossed London the extended route went via Farringdon, City Thameslink (close to Holborn and St Paul’s Cathedral), Blackfriars (ideal for the South Bank and Festival Hall), and London Bridge.

If you’re unfamiliar with London you won’t appreciate how good this is in terms of getting around the capital when you live in Cambridgeshire.

Hats off then to Govia Thameslink. Whatever Southern and Northern Rail commuters might say, I think you’re doing a great job!

Not such good news about Gatwick, I’m afraid.

Until the look and feel of the existing terminals are improved I can’t for the life of me understand how anyone can take seriously its long-running and hugely expensive campaign for an additional runway - unless, that is, a significant rebuilding job is part of the project.

Sort it, Gatwick! (Rant over.)

Sunday
Feb242019

Clive Turner and me

I’ve just received a lovely email from Clive Turner.

Clive who?

According to a profile published in PR Week in 1996 shortly before his retirement:

Turner, 64, has been in the tobacco industry since 1962 when he became deputy PR manager for WD & HO Wills. Other than an 11-year stint as Texaco public affairs chief, he has been with tobacco ever since.

As well as fronting the UK industry he also carried the torch abroad, setting up international PR divisions for tobacco company Carreras Overseas and working as MD of the Hong Kong-based Asian Tobacco Council.

I first met Clive in 1989, long before I worked for Forest. I was director of the Media Monitoring Unit which monitored TV current affairs programmes for political bias and I decided to set up a side project called the Centre for Media Research and Analysis.

Clive was working for the Tobacco Advisory Council (later renamed the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association) and was frequently on television and radio. I contacted him with the idea of writing a report about media coverage of the smoking debate.

In those pre-internet days press cuttings were delivered every morning to PR companies, NGOs and bodies like the TAC where they helped inform executives of relevant news stories and were filed for future reference.

Clive gave me access to the TAC's library of cuttings and for several weeks I worked from a small room at their office in Stag Place, Victoria, drowning slowly in a sea of paper.

Aside from popping in every day to say hello, Clive never once tried to influence me or comment on the progress of the report which was just as well because I found the process far more difficult than analysing a television current affairs programme.

‘Smoked Out' was published several months later and we've stayed in touch – intermittently – ever since despite the fact that he’s spent the last two decades in Cyprus where he moved with his wife Diane following his retirement.

Now in his eighties he writes a regular ‘Expat View’ column for the Cyprus Mail, the local English language newspaper.

One article, published in August 2017, will sound familiar to anyone who witnessed Clive’s media appearances all those years ago:

Undoubtedly there have been tens of thousands of people around the world who have been victims of tobacco, but then there are also huge numbers of even very heavy lifetime smokers who have suffered absolutely nothing at all.

This inexplicable fact infuriates the quite rabid anti-smoking brigade such as the UK’s Action On Smoking and Health – ASH – whose neurotic and extreme swivel-eyed health fascism has been a feature of the anti-smoking culture for many years.

Here in Cyprus we have one of the highest smoking incidence figures in Europe, yet one of its lowest lung cancer statistics. Nobody knows why this is. But again, it infuriates the anti-smoking activists.

“We do not attack smokers or condemn smoking,” says ASH on its website, which has to be one of the most explicit pieces of double-think imaginable.

As for those media appearances, he wrote:

I must have done hundreds of always hostile live and recorded radio, television and print media interviews. Following these, I could expect unspeakable and anonymous messages, not excluding death threats. You name them, I got them.

I can remember one interview out of town which involved the then ASH director who refused to share a cab with me back into central London “on principle”.

And on another occasion, I shared a live interview with the author of the excellent book The Easy Way To Stop Smoking. The author, Allen Carr, who later died of lung cancer, described me in the studio as “a slug, someone who should be stepped on and disposed of” – at which the interviewer invited me to respond.  

I said to Allen Carr that his book had sold millions and made him extremely wealthy, but it probably wasn’t the prime reason why smokers quit when the cost of their habit was unquestionably the deciding factor.

I added that rather than get further worked up and red faced, he might be better off having a cigarette and a lie down – which brought loud and prolonged laughter from the studio audience.

See: Smoking debate more complicated than you think (Cyprus Mail).

I was hoping he might be able to attend Forest's 40th anniversary dinner in June but he rarely visits the UK these days so we’re unlikely to see him.

Nevertheless it’s good to know he’s in fine spirits and as combative as ever!

See also ‘From the archive: Clive Turner’s Big Breakfast’.

Friday
Feb222019

Geoff Norcott is Taking Liberties

Conservative-leaning comedian Geoff Norcott has a new show.

It's called 'Taking Liberties'.

Tour dates will be announced next Friday.

For 48 hours' advance notice, including priority booking, register here.

Meanwhile the first episode of his new podcast, What Most People Think, is available now via iTunes.

Click here.

Monday
Feb182019

Welcome to Harrogate

Currently on a short break in Harrogate.

Yesterday we had lunch at the Coach and Horses, an award-winning pub a few yards from our hotel.

The pub (above) has a very clear identity. No music, no televised sport, no games machines and no kids:

We are a traditional pub for adults ... We don’t cater for children and therefore do not allow them in the pub at any time.

I can also recommend the Sunday roasts.

Photo: Welcome to Yorkshire

Wednesday
Feb132019

Shaming smokers doesn't work, say researchers

Interesting report on the BBC News website yesterday:

Mothers-to-be who smoke or drink could be hiding their habits in private - because of negative reactions, a study has found.

You think so?

The study claimed women who smoke or drank during pregnancy said they had "awkward" relationships with their midwives and would receive health advice in a "judgemental tone", making them less likely to seek support.

Dr Aimee Grant, from Cardiff University's Centre for Trials Research, said:

“Moral judgements are commonly directed towards mothers through reference to health behaviour in pregnancy, and working-class mothers are particularly subject to this criticism, ignoring the challenges of living on a low income.

“Our study shows that these looks and comments - including by members of the public - irritate and alienate pregnant women, making them less likely to seek help. No one wants to be judged and shamed."

Dr Dunla Gallagher, also from the study team, said smoking is a "coping strategy" for some low-income, expectant mothers.

She said: "Rather than stigma, women need empathy and a recognition of the challenges that pregnancy can bring in terms of women's independent choices."

Empathy for smokers, pregnant or otherwise, has of course been in short supply for years.

In 2004 the Labour health minister John Reid argued that for a young single mother living on a sink estate, a cigarette might be one of the few pleasures she had.

According to the Guardian:

Mr Reid said that the middle classes were obsessed with giving instruction to people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and that smoking was not one of the worst problems facing poorer people.

“I just do not think the worst problem on our sink estates by any means is smoking, but it is an obsession of the learned middle class," he said. "What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother of three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette."

A former heavy smoker who was member of parliament for one of the poorest constituencies in the country, Reid almost certainly knew what he was talking about, but it didn’t stop the middle class puritans in public health venting their fury at his heretical statement.

Since then successive governments, egged on by those same joyless campaigners, have embarked on a relentless campaign to denormalise not just smoking but smokers as well.

They have shown not a jot of empathy or compassion for people who choose to smoke, not even those for whom smoking offers a brief moment of respite from life’s daily challenges.

Every increase in tobacco duty, for example, is applauded despite the fact that it's designed to make life harder for the less well off in the hope that it will force them to quit.

If they continue to smoke anti-smoking campaigners then have the nerve to argue that smoking is forcing people further into poverty, washing their hands of any responsibility for this shameful state of affairs.

Current targets include pregnant women and hospital patients who smoke. The aim is to stigmatise both groups until they too succumb to the pressure to quit.

I’m pleased therefore that the Cardiff study highlights not only the lack of empathy for mothers-to-be who smoke but also notes that the 'negative feedback' from midwives and anti-smoking partners doesn't seem to have much impact apart from irritating and alienating them.

There’s a reason for this and it’s called human nature. People don’t like being nagged or bullied and the natural inclination is to rebel, in this instance quietly and in private.

Of course, driven by their innate sense of superiority, anti-smoking zealots are unlikely to change their strategy any time soon.

Meanwhile another report currently doing the rounds blames budget cuts for eroding ‘the support (sic) pregnant women need to stop smoking’.

Recent headlines include ‘The shocking number of pregnant women smoking in Liverpool’, ‘Thousands of pregnant Brummie women are STILL smoking’ and ‘A sixth of women in North East still smoke when they give birth’.

The aim of this campaign is, I imagine, two-fold:

One, it maintains the pressure on pregnant women to stop smoking; two, it politicises the issue by turning it into a debate about money.

According to Elizabeth Duff, senior policy adviser for the National Childbirth Trust:

“Smoking cessation support is now being funded under local authorities as opposed to public health.

“We know that local authority budgets cuts have eroded the support that women need and that’s why we’re seeing little progress.”

There's a simple reason why councils are cutting budgets for stop smoking services and it's this.

Since 2010 the number of smokers using smoking cessation services to help them quit has dropped by over 50 per cent.

This is partly because there are fewer smokers who want to quit, and partly because many of those that do are doing it for themselves – by switching to vaping, for example.

Instead of bemoaning the reduction in funding, tobacco control campaigners should look closer to home and stop demonising smokers because it's clearly counter-productive.

Better still they should show some empathy and allow adults to make their own choices without fear of stigmatisation or worse.

Sunday
Feb102019

Smoking: pathetic addiction or lifestyle choice?

The cover of the current edition of The Oldie features Lionel Blair.

The well-known dancer, choreographer and broadcaster turned 90 in December and last month he was awarded the title Oldie of the Year.

Many years ago I had a chance encounter with Blair (Lionel not Tony) when we shared a table while waiting for a train at Kings Cross.

Clutching a cup of coffee, he caught my eye and asked, very politely, if he could smoke. “Of course,” I said.

A number of things went through my head but I didn't want to invade his privacy so I kept quiet, finished my drink and eventually stood up to leave.

Before I hurried away however I thrust my business card into his hand. It read: 'Simon Clark, director, Forest, voice and friend of the smoker'.

The following day I contacted his agent, explained what had happened, and asked if we might interview him for the Forest magazine Free Choice. (I had the headline already: 'Blair's Britain'.)

“Sorry,” I was told. “Lionel feels guilty about smoking. He doesn't like to talk about it.”

That was 19 years ago. In 2017, discussing his health, he told the Daily Mail, “I know that I shouldn’t [smoke]” so he clearly hadn’t given up.

However, apart from being treated (successfully) for prostate cancer a decade ago, he’s remained in good health. The key to his longevity, he told the Mail, was a balanced diet.

“I eat very little red meat and I’m strict about having my five a day.”

He keeps fit by using a power plate and walking daily.

A keen tap dancer, his only niggle is that he has a weak back but admits he is fortunate not to have had a knee or hip replacement.

“My doctor has said that my spine is a bit weak because of all the dancing that I have done. But I love dancing still.”

Smoking, then, may be Lionel’s 'big vice' but it hasn't stopped him staying fit and living to a grand old age.

Sadly he's not the only smoker who feels guilty about his habit.

I first met journalist Tom Utley at a soiree sponsored by Forest and organised by Auberon Waugh at the Academy Club in Soho.

That was in 2001. Since then Tom has attended a number of Forest events and written several must read articles on the subject of the smoking ban and the supposed threat of passive smoking, which he rightly describes as 'a lie'.

See, for example, ‘I resolve not to be a shameful smoker' (2004) and 'Why my smoking habit proves you can't believe a word the b******s tell you' (2007).

On Friday, in the Daily Mail, he took aim at the proposal by Democrat politician Dr Richard Creagan to eventually prohibit the sale of tobacco in Hawaii to anyone under the age of 100.

However, as with most of Tom’s articles about smoking, it came with a caveat, the sort of self-loathing I can only put down to decades of relentless anti-smoking propaganda:

Before I end, I must make clear that if I had my time again, I would never have smoked that first cigarette five decades ago, which set me on the path to the pathetic addiction I’ve suffered ever since.

It’s a disgusting habit and there’s not a shadow of doubt that it’s very bad for us indeed (and I don’t just mean for our wallets). Though there will be no diseases in heaven’s imaginary pub, smoking causes plenty here on Earth.

So I strongly advise non-smokers to resist any temptation to take it up. But as for those of us who are hooked already, I just pray our legislators won’t pick up any ideas from Dr Creagan in Hawaii. All I can say is that if they do raise the legal smoking age to 100 any time soon, I’ll be first in the queue for fake ID.

In contrast, in the Mirror today, we got a rather different take on smoking that didn’t involve phrases like ‘disgusting habit’ or ‘pathetic addiction’:

Life coach Paul McKenna has told how close pal Simon Cowell has given up on hypnotism as a way to quit smoking – so he helps him unwind by playing Twister instead.

X Factor boss Simon, 59, has tried hypnotherapy more than once but admitted he failed hands-down.

And Paul, who has sold millions of self-help books, says he knows the music mogul too well to even try persuading him to kick the habit – because he does not really want to quit.

Paul, 55, said: “Simon will do what he wants to do and I haven’t given him any hypnotherapy to stop.

“My take on smoking is, if someone wants to smoke then it’s a lifestyle choice – the last thing I want to do is to lecture people on these things.

“Simon hasn’t asked for my help to quit, I think he’s quite happy as he is.”

Bravo!

As it happens, I bumped into McKenna once, several years ago, while we were waiting to be interviewed on Radio 2.

We weren’t on together because he was there to promote a new book about something else but we nevertheless had a short chat outside the studio.

Knowing he helped people stop smoking I expected a negative reaction when I told him what I did for a living but his response was consistent with what he told the Mirror.

In fact, he was extremely personable and I liked him immediately. His latest comments make me like him even more.

Friday
Feb082019

Happy birthday, Boisdale!

Further to my previous post, Boisdale is celebrating its own anniversary this year.

London’s leading Scottish-themed bar restaurant was founded by Ranald Macdonald in 1989 (not 1988 as I had always thought).

When it opened the Belgravia restaurant was half its current size. It expanded when Ranald bought the property next door and a conservatory and snug bar were added.

In 2007, to accommodate patrons who wanted to smoke after the introduction of the indoor smoking ban, Ranald spent £40,000 on a covered, heated terrace on what was previously a section of the roof.

By then a second restaurant, Boisdale of Bishopsgate, had opened. Canary Wharf - with its large smoking terrace overlooking Cabot Square - was launched in 2011, and a few years later a much smaller restaurant opened in Mayfair.

To call Boisdale a restaurant probably understates its appeal. You can pop in for a drink at the bar, for example, or spend an afternoon on the terrace without being compelled to eat.

There’s also live music - mostly jazz - at all four venues with the larger stage at Canary Wharf attracting some well-known names.

The Forest office in Palace Street, Victoria, wasn’t far from the Belgravia restaurant but I’m not sure I was aware of it until I read a comment by Ranald in the Evening Standard (circa 2004) complaining about the prospect of a smoking ban.

I wrote to him, he didn’t reply, so I rang him and we arranged to meet. I liked him immediately, although we are very different. A successful businessman with a laidback almost bohemian air, he calls me “Mr Grumpy” - with some justification, it must be said.

He’s also the son of a clan chief but aside from a shared dislike of excessive regulation we do have something else in common - we both studied in St Andrews. I went to school there and a decade later he was at the university.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, Ranald quickly became one of Forest’s leading supporters, playing a starring role in one of our most successful events (Bournemouth, 2006) as well as facilitating a series of dinners, receptions and parties at Boisdale (Belgravia and Canary Wharf).

Best of all, perhaps, he was the person without whom we could not have pulled off our most ambitious event ever - a gala dinner for 400 people at the Savoy Hotel shortly before the introduction of the smoking ban.

He even persuaded broadcaster Andrew Neil - a member of the Boisdale Jazz and Cigar Club - to be the principal guest speaker.

A few years ago Ranald invited me to join the club’s annual jaunt to the Havana Cigar Festival in Cuba. It was an experience I’ll never forget. If you’re interested you can read about it here.

More recently he was a contestant in our 2017 Balloon Debate (‘The most pleasurable nicotine delivery device in the world’) when he advocated the cigar. Not for the first time he supplied the wine for that event at cost price, a substantial saving.

He has also been generous with his time and I’m delighted that this year we are working together on two events - Forest’s 40th anniversary dinner in June and a smaller, more intimate event later in the year when we will pay tribute to those who have supported or made a notable contribution to Forest during the past four decades.

In the meantime, happy birthday, Boisdale!

Below: Ranald Macdonald

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