Friday, 4 July 2014

Happy Birthday to the Bikini!

Declared 'sinful' by the Vatican and banned in many countries, the bikini is now ubiquitous on beaches everywhere.

But when French engineer Louis RĂ©ard first saw women on St Tropez beaches rolling up the edges of their swimsuits to get a better tan and thought of the iconic two-piece, he couldn't find a model brave enough to wear it.

Eventually he hired 19 year old nude dancer Micheline Bernardini from the Casino de Paris to model it for him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It was launched in Paris on this day, 5 July, in 1946 at Piscine Molitor, a public swimming pool. In the months that followed Bernardini received over 50,000 fan letters. Most of them from men...

Monday, 3 February 2014

Should we have gone to war with Germany in 1914?

My latest book is about the end of the war, the period post-Armistice when the pieces - literally, in terms of battlefield debris and unburied bodies, and psychologically in terms of the lives of the men who had served - were being picked up and a broken, shattered world was slowly being reassembled.

But no book on any aspect of the First War can hope to be complete without at least being informed about its causes, and by the debate that still seems to surround them a century later. For those involved, for the families affected, for the industries and economies ruined and not least for the men (and woman, and children - as early as December 1914 British children were being added to the casualty list) who lost their lives, knowing they were fighting, suffering, dying for a purpose, for a just cause, made the hardships understandable on some intellectual level even if emotionally they were scarcely bearable.

It's not unlike the argument that still surrounds the UK's involvement in Afghanistan and the legacy our troops will leave once their mission is complete. We owe it to the 500 servicemen and women killed as well as the thousands injured to make sure their sacrifice was not in vain.

In hindsight, of course, we know that the 'war to end all wars' was nothing of the sort and that many of the millions who died between 1914 and 1918 did die in vain. We know that thousands of men went to an almost inevitable but wholly unnecessary death as the result of the failures and folly of those in command right up through the forces to the War Ministry and the British Government and the aristocracy.

But should Britain have even gone to war in 1914? What would have happened if we hadn't fought? And what would the map of Europe have been like if, at 11.00p.m. on August 4th 1914 Britain had not declared itself to be in a state of war with Germany?

That's the fascinating question posed by historian Niall Ferguson who refers to World War One as 'the biggest error in modern history' in a recent article in The Guardian. Not that he argues that Britain should never have gone to war. Just that, with a relatively tiny army and without much by way of the resources necessary for a major land-based conflict, we shouldn't have rushed into the conflict as early as we did.

Ah, but the treaties - guarantees of Belgian neutrality and verbal assurances that we would support the French. Well, as Ferguson says, it wouldn't have been the first time (nor the last) that pragmatism, realism or merely blatant self-interest had overridden international obligations.

It's a fascinating thought - the notion that we might still have gone to war with Germany - just later when we were better prepared, perhaps, and with a clearer idea both of what we were doing and why we were doing it. Yes, there were at the time vague designs on parts of the British Empire and some sabre-rattling on the Oceans, but Germany in 1914 didn't pose a serious threat to Britain's homeland security and - arguably - might never have done so.

Of course, such retrospective raking over historical coals is a luxury we can afford. Those fighting, those who had fought and those for whom the Armistice wasn't the end of the war but rather the beginning of a lifetime's struggle to return the land and themselves to normal (or as near as possible) hadn't the opportunity to seriously question what they were doing or why they were doing it. They had to believe they had fought the good fight.

It is their story I am trying to tell. And of course it's a story that knows no future beyond battlefield clearances, beyond a halting resumption of family life, beyond the slow and careful creation of the monumental cemeteries designed to stand for eternity as a symbol of a war that was still thought to have been an end to all wars.

Lest we forget!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Hull Named UK City of Culture 2017

I grew up in Hull; I left at the age of nine but returned aged nineteen to study at the city's university. It's a very special city and I know of no other city quite like it.

Philip Larkin liked the end-of-the-line remoteness; as a child I thought the city was the world. It's flat in Hull and so the streets go on forever. When they do eventually give out it's to the gentlest, rolling hills that ever had the name - The Wolds - or to the sea. And the sea is always special.

The sea, of course, is what made Hull. Lining up at the end of break at Appleton Road Primary School if the wind was in the right (or wrong) direction you could smell the fish docks. Fishing, fish and fisherman were the beating heart of Hull.

Until the coronary that was the Icelandic cod wars and then EU quotas. Now, there's next to no fishing out of Hull and - like other cities which have lost their major industry - it's taken time for it to recover. But recover it has, and recover into something of a cultural icon.

Apart from Larkin (and a host of other poets who followed in his wake) there's William Wilberforce, Andrew Marvell, John Godber, David Hockney and many many more with an association with the city and the wider area. It's a place where things are happening and - from today - a place other people will start noticing.

Well done Hull! Or rather, King's Town upon Hull. City royalty at last...

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Calling all budding authors!

Specialist gifting website has launched a new competition to find the next J.K Rowling… under the age of 10!  Budding authors are invited to submit their stories on a set theme, with the chance to have their work judged by award-winning writer Giles Paley-Phillips and leading picture book blogger Emma O’Donovan. The winning author will see their work made into a professionally published book and sold on the Buyagift website with all profits going to children’s wishgranting charity Make-A-Wish Foundation® UK.

With the Easter holidays now upon us, the experience day specialists wanted to encourage young people to stay active. “We’re all about  getting people out and about on experiences, so we wanted to give young creative minds an alternative to marathon TV sessions over the Easter holidays,” said Buyagift CEO Dan Mountain.

Children up to the age of 10 will be able to submit their short stories to be judged by an expert panel that includes famed children’s author Giles Paley-Phillips – the creator of popular stories like The Fearsome Beastie.

“I am hugely honoured to be judging this extremely exciting writing competition, which is set to inspire some budding new writers” said author Giles Paley-Phillips.

All entrants will be writing to a set title of The Unexpected Gift, with Buyagift paying all costs for the winning story to be illustrated and published.  The book will then be made available on the Buyagift website, with all profits going to Make-A-Wish.

The competition will run from April 3rd – June 3rd and the winner will be announced by the end of June.  Entries should be emailed to

Friday, 22 March 2013

Friday, 25 January 2013

Burns night

A modest Sassenach tribute of my own...

Friday, 18 January 2013

Red sky in the morning...

That snow must be on its way...

Friday, 21 December 2012

The end of the world IS NIGH!

Forget obscure Mayan prophesies; forget the apocalypse. Put down those binoculars and stop searching the horizon for four horseman ('you wait an eternity for one horseman of the apocalypse then four turn up at once') and listen to this:

In a matter of, oh... less than an hour the WORLD WILL END. It's happening now, right now, on BBC One. Hundreds of years (well, it seems like it) of this sort of thing... about to vanish from BBC One forever. That's right: no more children's hour (or whatever they call it these days); no more Blue Peter; no more Newsround; no more Cuthbert, Dibble or Grub. (Especially not Grub.) Not on BBC One, anyway No more will the mainstream channels feed the stuff that we parents know backwards. It's over. The end is nigh. It's begun already.

And I, for one, am ever-so-slightly sorry.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Stop! Oh yes, wait a minute Mr Postman...

I suppose it is the busiest time of year, but still...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

My first car

Write a blog post, they said. About your first car.

We'll enter you into our draw to win an iPhone5, they told me.

But hurry! The deadline for entries is 1st December 2012. What are you waiting for?


So here goes.

It cost me the princely sum of £45.

I bought it off a friend.

(He's still a friend.)

It broke down. A lot. At the time I was a student in London and, let's say, I got my money's worth out of AA Relay membership. The neighbours at my parent's house in Brid. got used to flashing orange lights at three a.m. as the car was lowered off the back of the relay truck. Because, however far south I got, I always opted to be relayed home as I thought the repairs would cost less. False economy, I know, because I then had to fork out for a rail ticket to get back to uni.

Ah well. The registration of this lovely little mechanical marvel was NME 420L. That's how old it was. Or how old I am. (Take your pick.)

Anyway, it's also the one and only car I could service myself. (Nb: there is no connection whatsoever with the aforementioned mechanical breakdowns, which were in each and every case caused by circumstances completely beyond the owner's control.) I used to go to scrap yards for parts. I fitted a new hand-brake once. And inertia-reel seatbelts. And lovely 'vanden plas' seats with walnut-lined pull down tea trays for the rear-seat passengers.

I loved that car.

I would show you a photograph but it was before camera's were invented pre-dates digital photography. If I can find the print, I'll scan it. But it looked a little bit like this:

And though I as tempted, I never did give it a Basil Fawlty damn good thrashing.

How could I? It was love.

Here's another picture:

Lovely, isn't she?

The car, that is. Not Valerie. (Although she was quite sweet too, now I come to think about it.)

Ah, first love. Never so sweet; never so painful.

So, what about your first time car?

Let's hope it brings back pleasant memories.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

UK in Double-Dip Recession

So, it's official. We're in recession. Again. In spite of everything that's been said and done, in spite (or should that be because?) of austerity measures a decline on 0.3% in the final quarter of 2011 means we've hit a double-dip recession, we've super-sized the slide and ordered extra fries on the side.

Oh dear. If, like me, you've got a family to run things aren't going to be easy. But there are strategies you can employ and help to be had. One source of money-saving tips, advice and assistance is My Family Club and they're giving away a free e-book packed with advice for balancing the family budget and making what you spend go further. Written by Debbie O'Connor (@motivatingmumuk) it contains strategies for keeping control of your shopping, strategies for saving money by couponing and a host of self-assessment questionnaires and tools to give you a better understanind of your spending habits. And - like membership of My Family Club itself - it's free!

To receive your copy, I'd like to hear your money-saving tips. Leave a comment with just one - your best - piece of recession-busting wisdom and the book is yours. Only, do make sure you don't sign in anonymously as I'll need to be able to email you the book by return.

Let the tipping begin!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Visit Wales