marcussteaduk

Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Free Speech versus the New Repression, a Small Victory for Liberty, and Righting a Wrong from Long Ago

leave a comment »

By MARCUS STEAD

I read with interest an article on Peter Hitchens’s blog in which he details a recent visit to Liverpool to debate what he rightly describes as a non-existent ‘war on drugs’.

Peter Hitchens.jpg

Peter Hitchens

Mr Hitchens, a Mail on Sunday columnist and a skilled, passionate debater, was invited to the University of Liverpool by Tom Willett of the Politics Society, but in accepting the invitation he would have been obliged to agree to the provisions in the university’s policy and code of practice regarding freedom of speech, and the Guild of Students’ (just a pretentious name for the students’ union) equality and diversity policy, which, evidently, put significant constraints on freedom of speech and stand in the way of rigorous, robust debate.

Undeterred, Willett, to his credit, risked his own money by hiring a private hall which was not part of the university. But when the caretaker failed to turn up, Willett and Hitchens decided to hold the meeting outdoors on an open hilltop area in Hope St, which links the city’s Roman Catholic and Anglican cathedrals. As the article suggests, it turned out to be a positive experience, with a more alert audience and sharper questioning than had the debate taken place in a stuffy room.

This brought back vivid memories of a time, nearly 15 years ago, when I tried, and regrettably failed, to get Mr Hitchens to debate a different issue at the same university, but was blocked on similar grounds to those Willett experienced.

It is important to put the story I am about to tell into some kind of context. The world has changed considerably in the 15 years since it happened. You are about to be taken back to a world where Anthony Blair was still at the height of his popularity, and almost all university lecturers and most students were still more-or-less in love with him (though NOT me). The Iraq War had not yet happened. Anyone seriously proposing that gay and lesbian people should be allowed to marry would have been considered eccentric.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube did not exist. Mobile phones were used only for calls and texts, which were expensive. Phone calls to family and friends back home were strictly rationed and conversations abrupt and to-the-point. Keeping in touch with friends from your home town, or even with those who had moved to different halls, required a degree of effort on both sides.

WhatsApp and Facetime were still many years away. The main means of free, instant communication was MSN Instant Messenger, and even that was blocked on university computers. The internet was far less developed. Broadband was still unavailable in many parts of the country, and even if you did have access to it, ONE Mb was the standard speed.

DVDs were increasingly common, though many people, myself included, still preferred to use videotape. Most people still listened to music via CDs or cassettes. Radio was listened to on FM, MW and LW (I am aware many teenagers will not even be familiar with these terms). I was considered quite ‘cutting edge’ when I bought a Freeview box for the TV in my bedroom, pretty soon after it launched at the end of October 2002.

Coffee culture did not exist. Gassy lagers and alcopops were the drinks of choice for students. The majority smoked cigarettes, a packet of which cost around half their price in 2017, and it was perfectly acceptable to smoke in pubs, bars and cafes.

At the University of Liverpool, the Sydney Jones Library (the main library for arts and humanities) was outdated, dingy and badly in need of investment. Most of the lecture halls and seminar rooms hadn’t been updated since the 1970s. Some students did not pay tuition fees at all. None paid more than £3,000 per year. University itself was cheaper, and student expectations were lower than today. Some lecturers and tutors barely hid their view that teaching was an irritating but necessary distraction from the research work they’d rather be doing.

The students union (rather pretentiously called the Guild of Students), was easily the least impressive of any students’ union building I’ve ever been in. The meeting rooms all had paint peeling from the walls. The smell of damp was everywhere. It was stuck in a 1970s time warp, large sections of it lay semi-abandoned, the food was nothing to write home about, and the cloths on the pool tables were bald. The main hall was turned into a night club on Saturday and Monday nights. There were occasional nights of comedy, drama and concerts, but it was often a rather quiet building during the daytime, with two small bars, a tiny cafe, a shop selling newspapers and snacks, and not much else to see. There was never much sense of ‘community’ about the place.

Liverpool itself was also a very different place. It was still suffering a sort of hangover from the Derek Hatton years of the 1980s and the decline of the docks. The city was packed with remarkable and beautiful architecture, but it was dirty and unloved, with many splendid buildings boarded up and abandoned.

The legendary Cream nightclub had closed for good a few months before my arrival. The bars of Concert Square and a shabby club called ‘The Krazyhouse’ seemed to be the venues of choice for students. I noticed a very gradual revival in the city’s fortunes in the months leading up to my departure in the summer of 2005, but the main regeneration came about around the time of the city’s year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, which saw the construction of Liverpool One shopping precinct, a large concert arena and a major revamping of the area around the Albert Dock.

Hope Street Liverpool.jpg

Hope St, Liverpool

I cannot say I can relate to Mr Hitchens’s experience of Hope St. In my three years there, it contained two theatres, the Philharmonic (where my graduation ceremony took place in 2005) and the more ‘alternative’ Everyman, which was looking outdated but contained a rather good underground bar.

There was a bar containing big screens showing sports which appealed to students, but there wasn’t a huge amount in the way of places to eat and drink around there, aside from the takeaway outlets on the adjacent streets leading towards the city centre. From memory, the Philharmonic Dining Rooms didn’t have the impressive façade of today, and it operated primarily as a hotel. It never occurred to me to go in there, but having seen pictures of the spectacular interior, I very much hope to enjoy a meal and a few beers in there some day.

The street lighting gave off a dim, orange glow and it was advisable to keep your wits about you if walking around there at night, particularly as you got closer to the Catholic cathedral and the area around Brownlow Hill, which had a reputation for prostitution and drug dealing.

I agree with Mr Hitchens that there is some interesting Georgian and Edwardian architecture in and around Hope St, especially at the end nearest to the Anglican cathedral, but a quick look on Google Maps proves beyond doubt that he would’ve been able to eat and drink far better than if my proposed debate had taken place 15 years ago, and I can’t say that holding a debate on drugs in the open air around the ‘Case History’ sculpture would’ve been particularly feasible or safe back then. There were probably worse places to be a student, but I strongly suspect those attending the university today have a far greater variety of things to see and do.

This context is important because, although 15 years may not feel like a long time in the grand scheme of things, for the students of today, the world would have felt like a very different place. In the story below, I cite several examples of people taking days, if not longer, to reply to emails. Back then, this was not unusual. It was not possible to access emails via your mobile phone. You required a computer with a wired internet connection to do so, and it was therefore quite normal for many days to pass between people checking their email accounts.

The story began on the morning of Monday 9 December 2002, when I, as a first year student of Politics and Communication Studies, having recently turned 19, attended a politics seminar under the tutelage of Chris Lenton, now a city councillor, and a prominent member of the Liberal Party, a small party founded in 1989 by members of the original Liberal Party opposed to its merger with the Social Democratic Party to form the Liberal Democrats. The reformed Liberal Party, which is Eurosceptic, has never had much success nationally but has maintained a significant presence at local council level in Liverpool.

The seminar discussion somehow came around to Alan Duncan, who had ‘come out’ as homosexual some months earlier, and had made remarks about homosexuality being increasingly acceptable in the Conservative Party. In the previous day’s Mail on Sunday, Mr Hitchens had written an article with the headline, “I’m sorry Mr Duncan, if you’re gay you’re not a Tory.”

At that time, Mr Hitchens was still a supporter of the Conservative Party, albeit not a very enthusiastic one, and held the view that a person could not be a conservative if they were openly gay, and that comprehensive education had played its part in brainwashing a generation into accepting Mr Duncan’s standpoint. Hitchens’s view was that while he believed homosexuality should be legal, it was not moral, and that if Mr Duncan had kept his sexuality private, it would have been his own business, but by making it public, he could not legitimately call himself a conservative.

In the seminar, Lenton remarked that he did not think Mr Hitchens truly believed the things he wrote, and a number of the dozen-or-so students present nodded in agreement. I kept quiet – I had had a small number of dealings with Mr Hitchens via email in the previous few years, and did not doubt for one second that he absolutely believed the things he wrote.

As soon as the seminar ended, I headed straight for the IT room so I could email Mr Hitchens to tell him what happened. Two days later, he generously replied that he would be willing to come up to the university and debate the issues raised, under a fair chairman. His only requests were for somewhere clean and quiet to stay, and for his expenses to be paid.

Unlike Tom Willett, I did not have the backing of the Politics Society, of which I was not a member (I saw enough politics in my course and in my non-university related activities), so I was very much a ‘lone wolf’ in this venture.

I wasted no time in contacting Lenton, who responded by saying it would be a great idea to bring Mr Hitchens to the university, and suggested Cllr Steve Radford as an opponent, who is today the leader of the Liberal Party. I was delighted and proceeded to get the wheels in motion. However, the university was by now winding down for the Christmas break. Most of January would be taken up with examinations and ‘student life’ would not really resume its normal pace until late January or early February.

At some point soon after ‘student life’ resumed in 2003, I sussed that to make the debate happen, it would be a good idea to get support from the homosexual community at the university. The LGBT society (just the four letters in those days, or maybe even three – my records show it was called the ‘GLB’ society, though that may be an error on my part), had a small office in the Guild of Students.

I knocked on the LGBT office door with a copy of the newspaper article in my hand, and passed it over to one of the small number of people present, and can clearly remember saying, slightly tongue-in-cheek, “Are you as angry as I want you to be?” The young man replied ‘yes’, and all those present said they would support me in my bid to get Mr Hitchens to come to the university.

My email records show that the next significant activity came on 14 March, when Anne Fuell, the General Secretary of the Guild of Students agreed to help publicise the debate. I then emailed Mr Hitchens to see when he was available in late March or early April, with a view to holding it before the Easter holiday.

I am relying on email archives from that time to piece together the exact order in which events unfolded after this, so minor details in chronology may be incorrect. Incidentally, I find it interesting how little the process of composing and sending an email has changed in the last 20 years. The main innovation being that higher upload and download speeds mean it is far easier to send and open attachments than it was even 10 years ago.

We appear to have hit some sort of snag in late March with regards to whether Mr Hitchens’s views were compatible with the Guild of Students’s ‘no platform’ policy. On 4 April 2003, I received an email from Deborah Lowe, the Guild’s Welfare Officer, which read:

Hi Marcus
because this is such a controversial issue, I need to consult my executive
before i can say whther it goes aheda. i think it is a great oppurtunity
and personally feel it can only fuel LGb awareness and the camapign to
accept it rather than fuel Peter Hitchens views as they should have gone
out with the dark ages. i will get back to you as soon as I ahev spoken to
relevant people but I assure you you ahve my backing and I will do my
utmost to get everybody elses.
Debbie.

Five days later, I received another email from her, which read:

Hi Marcus
I took this issue to the executive of the guild on Monday and it was a much
debated topic. The decision of the executive was that we did not think it
was appropriate to give a man with such homophobic views a platform within
our building, that prides itself on equality. I hope that you understand
the position that we are in on this matter. Please keep us informed of
whether you are still planning to have him speak in Liverpool as we would
like the chance to attend and challenge his homophobic views.
Thanks for your time and for trying to orgainse this event, I hope you
understand why we cannot host the event.
Debbie.

I emailed Mr Hitchens immediately. This had become a matter of principle for both of us. The following day, he replied, suggesting that I take the matter to the student newspaper. I did so, pretty much straight away, though the university’s Easter holiday was now imminent and we would return towards the end of April for a few more weeks of teaching, followed by a period of examinations, after which the university would shut down until late September.

On 21 May 2003, I emailed Mr Hitchens to tell him that I had not yet received a reply from the paper’s editor after all these weeks. They could be excused for not replying during the Easter vacation, though this had ended a week or two earlier so they had ample time to respond. Mr Hitchens suggested I pay a personal visit to the editor, as an email can be easily ignored, and nobody would know whether it was indolence or rudeness.

I then came up against another obstacle when the student newspaper abruptly closed down. The publication was a joint effort between the city’s three universities – The University of Liverpool, Liverpool John Moores University and Liverpool Hope University. The latter two lost confidence in the newspaper, causing it to collapse and its offices to close. The University of Liverpool announced plans to launch a new paper at the start of the new academic year in September 2003, but until then, there was little I could do.

The long summer break followed, and on 6 October 2003, I emailed the editor of the newly-launched student newspaper, who happened to be the very same Anne Fuell who was General Secretary of the Guild of Students in the previous academic year. I had a hunch that her appointment would not be good news for my quest to expose the actions of the student council. She responded by asking for my phone number so she could call me for more details. I provided my number but the phone call never came.

I went to visit her office in person some days later. Fuell claimed that she was coincidentally about to phone me when I visited, so we had the conversation about the story there and then. She seemed mildly embarrassed by my presence, but asked for some time to think as to how to proceed. On 27 October 2003, I received the following email from her:

 

HI Marcus,

Hope you had a fine weekend. Sorry to not get back to you sooner but as
i’m sure you can imagine it gets very hectic here in the newspaper
office.  Thank you for your correspondence.  After careful
consideration  i have decided to not follow up your lead for a story as
i feel it may negatively affect a number of our readers.

Regards,

Anne Fuell

Editor
Liverpool Student Newspaper

A few days later, I emailed Mr Hitchens for what would be the last time on this matter, to tell him of this development. He sent me a short reply, in which he said he did not know what else to do, before signing off by saying that this bodes ill for the future of British newspapers.

And that is pretty much the end of the story.

Fortunately for us all, Anne Fuell did not pursue a career in journalism. Her LinkedIn profile she now works in ‘business marketing’ for London and Partners, the Mayor of London’s official promotions company for the capital.

Deborah Lowe went on to work for the BBC in ‘development’, and is now head of development for Wild Blue Media.

What conclusions can we reach, and what historic can we learn from this story? First of all, that this is an early example of ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe spaces’ on university campuses. But who were the student council, and indeed the student newspaper trying to protect, and from what? The LGBT society was ready to welcome Mr Hitchens to the university to debate the issue. They did not stand in the way of the debate taking place. Others felt the need to protect them on their behalf. And did those running the student newspaper not understand that it was their duty to inform their readers of the stance the student council had taken?

I admit to being shocked at the time by this curtailment of free speech on campus. My Eurosceptic views were firmly established by the time of my arrival at university, and I was undoubtedly in a minority among the students in my belief that Britain should leave the European Union. But at no time did any professor or tutor try to prevent me from saying so or stop arguing my case.

Many students seemed to regard my anti-EU views as an eccentric curiosity. A tiny number chose not to mix with me outside classrooms and lecture theatres, but none tried to stop me from openly and freely expressing my opinions. That said, I do think there were occasions where I was marked down in essays and examinations for not conforming to the prevailing pro-EU, pro-Blair mindset of the university.

But not once did any student feel the need to escape to a ‘safe space’ because of anything I said, nor did any burst into tears and claim I had hurt their feelings. I wonder whether the same could be said if I was a Eurosceptic undergraduate student 15 years later?

If Mr Hitchens had called for homosexuals to be killed, or persecuted, then there would have been a case for him to be banned from speaking at the university. But these were not his views. He believed that homosexual acts were immoral, and that by openly declaring yourself as a homosexual, you could not be a Tory.

I should point out that I am certain Mr Hitchens would not offer to come and debate the issue today. He says he now regrets ever getting involved in the debate around gay ‘marriage’ and the rights and wrongs of homosexuality, now regarding it as a very small and largely irrelevant sideshow in the story of Britain’s decline. Within just a few years, he had withdrawn his support for the Conservative Party, rightly believing it to have been captured by Blairites and broadly accepting vast swathes of New Labour policies.

Liverpool Anglican Cathedral

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

I warmly congratulate Tom Willett on succeeding where I failed. I am glad Mr Hitchens enjoyed his visit to Liverpool, and yes, I share his view that it’s a pity more people do not go there. All too often, British people go to great lengths to see far away splendours such as the Taj Mahal and the pyramids of Egypt, while neglecting to spend a few hours on a train to visit the equally magnificent Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool or Lincoln Cathedral.

Had I been just a year or two older, I would have had the self-confidence, experience and tenacity to keep fighting. Faced with such a situation today, I am in no doubt that I would have done whatever it took to make the debate take place.

Within a year or two, I became aware of speakers being refused a platform at universities up and down the country for daring to believe that Britain should not be a member of the European Union, or that radical Islam was a major threat to our Judeo-Christian culture. In students unions, certain opinions are compulsory, and others are impossible to express. The sphere of acceptable opinion becomes more and more narrow with every year that passes, with unpleasant and inaccurate labels like ‘racist’, ‘bigot’ and ‘homophobe’ placed on dissenters.

Fifteen years on from my experience, we appear to have bred a generation of university students who all too often believe they have a right to be protected on campus, not just from violence and danger, but from opinions they personally don’t agree with. What will they be like when they enter the workplace, or worse still, the House of Commons? This should be of major concern for all those who cherish and value freedom of speech, thought and conscience.

 

Advertisements

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2017 at 5:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Novice Rowers are All Star Champions!

leave a comment »

By MARCUS STEAD

A TEAM of novice rowers defied the odds to become All Star champions at the annual Llandaff Rowing Club Regatta, which raises money for Velindre Cancer Care and Keep Wales Tidy.

Rowing 2017

The Love Dem Oars winning team (L-R): Richard Phipps, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary and Robert Gordon.

Last year, Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards and Stephen Cleary, now all aged 33, formed a team called ‘Love Dem Oars’ and, after just four weeks of training, they were joined by established rower Richard Phipps for the Splash and Dash Men’s Regatta, where they saw off competitors in three races, which included a comfortable victory against a more experienced group of firefighters in the final.

The team’s victory made them ineligible to enter the Splash and Dash this year, but they were invited to enter the All Star category where they were pitted against a team of previous winners, and won the best-of-three race series 2-0.

As with last year, they were trained by accomplished rowing instructor Arthur Williams, 70, but they only began their preparations five weeks before the regatta. Robert said: “I entered this event a few years ago with other people, and last year I formed a team with my old school friends Stephen and Daniel, because it raises money for good causes and there’s a decent party afterwards at the club.

“We entered as a bit of fun last year and went on to win it. This year, we knew we’d face a tough challenge against a team of previous winners, and again we upset the form book to become All Star champions. It’s incredible, really!”

Velindre is a specialist cancer treatment centre located on the perimeter of Cardiff that provides services to more than 1.5 million people across South East Wales and beyond.

Each year, the centre treat more than 5,000 new referrals and around 50,000 new outpatients.

While the treatment itself is paid for from general taxation, charitable donations allow the centre to provide valuable extra facilities to patients and their families. For example:

* £10 could provide a family with a children’s story book to help adults explain their cancer journey to young family members.

* £25 could provide a memory box to help children keep memories of their loved ones.

* £50 could provide an hour’s complimentary therapy to help patient’s well-being (acupuncture, reiki etc).

* £300 could provide a tablet computer for patients to use whilst in hospital.

* £10,000 could provide a scalp cooler to help prevent hair loss in patients who receive chemotherapy.

 

Keep Wales Tidy is a charity working across Wales to protect the environment now and for the future. It also provides environmental education, training, business services and environmental solutions across Wales.

Robert, Daniel, Stephen, Richard and Arthur would welcome further donations to these two excellent charities. You can donate by clicking here.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

September 27, 2017 at 5:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Can Wimpy Have a Future to Match its Glorious Past?

leave a comment »

By MARCUS STEAD

MOST PEOPLE over the age of 40 will have vaguely nostalgic memories of a time, long before global giants McDonald’s and Burger King arrived, when Wimpy was the one and only place to go for fast food.

Yet for the majority of today’s under 30s, Wimpy may not mean anything at all. What was once a mainstay of every town centre in the country has been shrunk to a rump of around 70 smaller restaurants in provincial and coastal towns, mostly in southern England, with Essex a particular hotbed.

Wimpy - Mr Wimpy

Mr Wimpy, the company’s mascot, who had a computer game named in his honour in 1984.

Those youngsters that know the name will never have seen its TV commercial or been to a children’s party where a staff member dressed as Mr Wimpy was the star attraction. Instead, they are more likely to think of it as a modest cafe along the seafront, in between the amusement arcade and the souvenir shop.

The original ‘Wimpy Grills’ was created in the USA by Edward Gold in 1934, and in 1954 he sold a licence to J. Lyons and Co to use the name in the United Kingdom. The first ‘Wimpy Bar’ in Britain was opened in 1954 at Lyons Corner House in Coventry St, London. It was originally a special fast food section within the more traditional Corner House chain of restaurants, but its rapid success quickly led to the establishment of separate ‘Wimpy Bar’ outlets serving only what we now call ‘fast food’ meals, blending American-style eating with a distinctly British image.

Three years later, Gold’s Chicago-based company formed a joint venture with Lyons called Wimpy International Inc, to operate the brand in the rest of the world. The company eventually grew to 1,500 locations worldwide, and Gold later sold his share to Lyons prior to his death in 1977, which formalised Wimpy as a British company.

Growth was rapid, and by 1970, Wimpy had 1,000 restaurants in 23 countries. In July 1977, the UK business was acquired by United Biscuits and Bakers SA bought the South African division of the company, splitting the empire up, for now.

One of United Biscuits’ first actions was to open ‘counter service’ restaurants in response to the arrival of McDonald’s in the country three years earlier, but Wimpy remained far more prominent than its slicker American rival on British high streets. Even in 1983, there were only 100 McDonald’s ‘restaurants’ in the whole UK.

The turning point may have come in 1986, which was a pivotal year in the rise of McDonald’s in the UK, for it was then that the first franchise-run McDonald’s opened in Middlesex. The same year brought the Happy Meal, and the first ‘drive-thru’ opened in Fallowfield, Manchester, which was quickly followed before the end of the year by others in Dudley, Neasden and Coventry. Wimpy was beginning to lose ground, and was no longer the obvious choice for people seeking a fast food fix.

At 33, I belong to the in-between generation. I can just about remember the days of the large town centre Wimpy competing alongside their more brash American rivals, until the sad, gradual process of their disappearance from the high street in the early 1990s.

The most significant development came about in 1989, when United Biscuits decided to divest its restaurant division, and sold Wimpy, and its other brands (Pizzaland and Perfect Pizza) to multinational giants Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo). At that time, there were 381 Wimpy restaurants in the UK.

Grand Metropolitan had acquired Burger King the previous year, which was already a major brand overseas, but only had 30 UK outlets at that time. It saw the purchase of Wimpy as an opportunity to aggressively expand the global giant’s presence in the UK, and soon began to convert the ‘counter service’ to Burger King.

In February 1990, the remaining 216 ‘table service’ Wimpy restaurants were purchased by a management buyout, in addition to 140 franchised locations outside the UK. These ‘table service’ restaurants in the UK were in locations considered less desirable by Grand Metropolitan and were often franchises, licensed to their managers.

The events of 1989 and 1990 may have been a major blow to the prominence of the Wimpy brand, but it was not a fatal one. Pushed out of the big cities, but not from the sea front, Wimpy stubbornly stuck to its format of fast food with a British twist, with menu offerings including the innuendo-inducing ‘Big Bender’ and the quaint toasted teacake. Ash trays remained present on tables years after smoking had been prohibited in most fast food outlets, right up until it was outlawed in enclosed public spaces in the late 2000s.

I recall one smaller table service Wimpy that lived on for a few years in the centre of Cardiff into the 1990s. My parents seemed to like taking me there during shopping trips, possibly as a sort of compromise between allowing me to eat fast food, while still being expected to use a knife and fork.

Wimpy - Horrible Logo

The misguided logo which took Wimpy away from its roots.

Some ill-devised attempts at ‘modernisation’ were made during the 1990s and early 2000s. The iconic ‘red and white burger’ logo was replaced by a red-on-yellow emblem with the ‘w’ in lower case. There was a gradual retreat from many of its locations as franchisees closed their restaurants, but Wimpy was far from finished and small, takeaway ‘Express Units’ became a growth area in theme parks, leisure venues and food courts.

A second management buy-out took place in 2002, and by the mid-2000s, the nearest Wimpy to my home was a small restaurant on the narrow high street of Caerphilly, a town best known for its world-famous cheeses and the home of Tommy Cooper. I ate there on a small number of occasions, and while the food was still of excellent value for money, the misguided attempts at ‘modernisation’ via the tacky rebrand meant lacked the magic of the Wimpy of old.

Wimpy Logo

Back to the future with the revival of the classic Wimpy logo.

In February 2007, Famous Brands, owner of the South African franchise, acquired Wimpy UK, reuniting the empire that had been split up in 1977. They adopted a ‘new’ logo, which was actually a return to the red-and-white ‘classic’ frontage of the 1970s and 80s. Famous Brands very gradually began to upgrade the remaining 170 locations in the UK to resemble American-style diners, though crucially, they retained the elements of the menu that made it characteristically British. Wimpy began to feel like Wimpy again.

The same year, I visited a Wimpy for what was to be the last time in nearly a decade. That September, I began my formal journalism training at Highbury College, Portsmouth, and on my ‘patch’, in Cosham High St, I discovered a Wimpy franchise, managed by Alex Lardidis. It had all the classic elements of a Wimpy, decent fast food at an affordable price, and yes, ashtrays on every table. It was reassuringly old-fashioned. It made for an interesting college newspaper piece, and I can clearly recall Alex telling me he was optimistic for Wimpy’s future under their new South African owners.

Sadly, the Cosham Wimpy didn’t last much longer for reasons I do not know. A ‘Wok ‘N’ Walk’ fresh noodle bar now trades where the Caerphilly Wimpy once stood. Yes, you read that correctly. The Wimpy restaurant in Caerphilly was so small that it’s just the right size for a takeaway.

A year after the Famous Brands takeover, just 16 Wimpy branches had been upgraded to the new, ‘retro’ look. Perhaps they were too slow in playing catchup during those years when coffee shop culture and a vast array of chains offering fast food from across the world were expanding rapidly.

By 2014, there were just 93 Wimpy restaurants left in the whole UK. Three years later, that figure is down to 70. To provide some perspective, McDonald’s and Burger King both have around 1,300 branches each.

In July this year, I visited a Wimpy just two months short of the tenth anniversary of my last visit. On this occasion, during a work/pleasure visit to London, I called in to one of the capital’s few remaining outlets on Streatham High Road, slotted between a Vodafone shop and a New Look clothes store.

Both the sign on the outside and the décor of the restaurant felt reassuringly familiar. The revamp which the South African owners began in 2008 had long since been implemented, helping to give it the ambiance of Wimpy’s golden age.

The Streatham franchise is owned by Kemal, an affable Turkish-Cypriot who moved to the UK from Paphos, Cyprus in 1975 to escape the tensions that had heightened following Turkey’s invasion of the island the previous year.

Kemal initially went into business with his older brother, who had bought the Streatham franchise from Wimpy International several years earlier, but he soon took sole control and replaced existing staff with family and friends.

When I arrived in the early evening, I was the only customer in the restaurant, but this turned out to be a mere lull between the afternoon and evening rushes. It remains open until 10pm every night because the demand is there.

This is a restaurant in rude health, situated in a diverse and close-knit area. It, and indeed Kemal, are very much a part of the community. The police hold a drop-in session there once a month, and local MP Chukka Umunna is a regular customer.

Kemal knows 80% of his customers by name. The loyalty is a two-way street. McDonald’s opened a branch on the same road in 1979, but it closed around 2002, a fact that brings a wry smile to Kemal’s face.

Wimpy Menu

The Wimpy menu I ordered from during my visit to their restaurant on Streatham High Road.

A TV broadcasting Sky News hung from the wall, and I scanned the menu, which, though enhanced since my childhood, still contains all the old favourites. I decided to order cod, chips (NOT fries) and peas, priced at a very reasonable £6.35, and a glass of Pepsi.

Within 10 minutes, Kemal returned with my meal, which more than lived up to its billing. Wimpy’s current strapline is ‘Enjoy Every Moment’, which is apt. I have eaten cod and chips in modern, fashionable restaurants and paid far more for the privilege, but I am not exaggerating when I say that the generously-sized and perfectly-cooked meal I ate at Kemal’s Wimpy that day was far superior to most of them. You’ll certainly struggle to find better value for money in London.

What sort of a future does Wimpy have in the UK? Famous Brands have done their bit, by both returning Wimpy to its roots and dragging it into the 21st century.

It appears that most, if not all of the 70 remaining Wimpy restaurants are franchises, meaning the onus is on the manager to ensure the food is cooked to the right standards, and that high levels of hygiene and maintenance are upheld.

Online reviews suggest there is a real inconsistency in the levels of customer satisfaction from one branch to another, with complaints ranging from dirty tables to meat turning up on a plate when a vegetarian dish had been ordered. On the other hand, reviews of some restaurants suggest most customers are as happy with their experience as I was in Streatham.

The sad fact is that in 2017, most of the population don’t live anywhere near a Wimpy. There are just four left in Scotland, three in northern England, and one in the whole of Wales (in Porthcawl).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who knows of an empty, suitably-sized outlet on any high street and has a spare £220,000 to spend on the franchise and set-up fee can open a Wimpy in their area. Kemal’s restaurant should be considered the blueprint as to how to make a Wimpy franchise a success, with his enthusiasm, attention to detail and engagement with the local community. With more people like him, Wimpy can, and deserves to have, a future every bit as glorious as its past.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 9, 2017 at 6:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

On Tuesday 4 July, I visited the Grenfell Tower site. This is a detailed account of my visit. It was an experience I will never forget.

leave a comment »

Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower, taken from outside Kensington Leisure Centre on Tuesday 4 July 2017

By MARCUS STEAD

THE FULL horror of Grenfell Tower has to be witnessed to be believed. No pictures I have seen in newspapers or on TV came close to preparing me for what came into view as my train approached Latimer Rd tube station.

To say the burnt out shell looks like a something from a war zone does not really do it justice. The tower is surrounded by peaceful, orderly streets, with obvious signs of wealth, where upmarket terraced housing sits alongside what we used to call ‘council flats’.

That’s not to say this is an area without problems. The Lancaster West estate, where the tower is situated, has a complex, troubled history. The area experienced racial tensions over many decades from the 1950s onwards. In an attempt to bring residents together, the then-Archbishop of Westminster, Basil Hume, personally led the Good Friday service in the shadow of Grenfell Tower following a period of unrest in 1979.

In the 1990s, the estate also suffered from gun violence and drug wars, and a police patrol was shot at after using Grenfell Tower’s underground car park in February 1993.

During my visit, it was not easy to gauge the extent to which the area had been gentrified in recent years, but my overall first impression was that it was a pleasant area in which to live.

As soon as I stepped off the train, a recorded announcement was played on the station intercom asking us not to take photographs of the tower, as it may upset local residents.

My short walk towards the site was calm and eerie. There were not many people about. Two police officers chatted to each other as they guarded the sealed-off quickest route from the station to the tower.

The short diversion took me past St Francis of Assisi Primary School, where I could hear infant-aged children cheerfully playing at morning break time. Other buildings, trees and hedges protected children from the sight of the burnt-out tower. To what extent are they aware of what has happened? How are grief-stricken teachers answering difficult questions about where their missing classmates are? I can only guess.

A left turn took me to St Clement’s Church, where the hundreds of messages on the railings offered some clues as to the mood in the area, nearly three weeks after the fire. There were many posters containing pictures of the missing with requests for information as to their whereabouts.

There were flowers, candles, and cards containing messages of condolence for those presumed dead. The tone of the written messages varied hugely. Some were of a religious nature – it was clear that members of the Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish faiths perished in the fire, and that by and large, this was a close-knit community where people lived together in harmony.

There were poems, general messages of support, and some expressions of anger broadly aimed that the political classes for allowing this situation to develop, and for Kensington and Chelsea Council’s crass handling of the aftermath to date.

There were also notices offering various forms of practical help, including a poster from Royal Mail informing Grenfell Tower residents that their post was being held for collection at a nearby sorting office.

There was information about an upcoming church memorial service, which would begin with 20 minutes of silence, followed by music and prayers, and also a large notice saying that they could not accept further donations of money or clothing, but that people were welcome to leave flowers.

A right turn took me to the courtyard of the Clement Jones Centre, a community facility which normally offers information, advice and guidance, English classes and employment support. For the time being, this is a place that provides practical help as well as being a place for quiet, contemplative thought.

It was a sunny, if slightly hazy day, and the information desk situated in the courtyard was staffed by a delightful young black lady with a strong London accent. I asked her if there was a book of condolence I could sign, to which she replied that they operated a system by which people could write on cards and drop them into a box, which would be checked and posted onto the railings by staff later on. She then kindly walked me around the corner, back to the side of the church, where I left a personal message on a card and placed it in the box.

A four-storey block of flats shielded my view of the tower while I paid my respects, but I was now ready to get as close to the site as I possibly could.

I walked along Treadgold St, a row of quaint terraced houses, window boxes, trimmed hedges and pseudo-Victorian street lamps. But a closer look reveals that this was a sad, angry street. I spotted several strongly-worded window posters demanding the Kensington and Chelsea council leadership resigns immediately.

Treadgold St bears left, and then a right turn took me on to Bodmore Rd, where I walked towards the plush, recently-refurbished Kensington Leisure Centre.

At the front of the leisure centre was a patio, to my left were several large trees in full bloom, and as I walked past, the exceedingly grim sight of the tower came back into view.

A long row of temporary boards sealed off the grassland and footpath that would normally link the leisure centre to the tower. On one of the boards was an A4 sheet of paper with a notice reminding visitors that this is a community in mourning, to behave responsibly, and that if they must take pictures of the tower, to refrain from taking selfies.

Incredibly, quite a few people had been treating the burnt out tower as a tourist attraction in the previous few weeks, turning up in bright clothing and taking selfies with big smiles on their faces. But when I was there, it was just me and one other man quietly paying our respects and taking pictures, he with an old-style camera, me with my smartphone.

A walk along the boarding brought me to within a few yards of the tower. This gave me a new perspective on the sheer scale of what had taken place. There was row upon row of empty window frames with bent, twisted metal, which seemed increasingly severe the higher up I looked.

In the bottom left of the tower was a small section unaffected by the fire, with its window glass and fancy cladding still intact.

In each of those burnt out boxes in the sky was a story. In many cases, it will be of lives lost. The fire burned for at least 24 hours, which will mean that in some cases, identifying people will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. We can broadly assume that the registered occupants of the flats who are thus far unaccounted for have perished. But inevitably, sub-letting will have taken place, which will swell the numbers of the deceased.

But that is not the end of it. The whereabouts of others are far less certain.  It’s entirely possible that people currently on the missing persons register had been visiting someone in the tower that evening, but there are no remains, and their families will never know for certain whether they were there, or are still alive, somewhere.

The survivors escaped with their lives, but will have no possessions left. They will need help in the months ahead, long after the news agenda has moved on. We would all do well to remember them if we are clearing out old furniture or clothes for many months to come. Finding them clothes and furniture will not be that difficult, but some things cannot be replaced – family photos, items of sentimental value, and a lifetime of memories. But they are the lucky ones.

There were some signs of life carrying on at the leisure centre. The café was open, though I spotted just one customer, and I could hear music from one of the upstairs rooms, in what was probably an aerobics class.

With the short walkway to the tube station blocked off, I had little choice but to make the same journey in reverse to get back to Latimer Rd. When I reached the Clement Jones Centre and the church, I took one final look at the flowers, cards and notices. This time, a male about my age stood alongside. We said nothing to each other as we gathered our own thoughts.

As I reached the primary school, I again heard that innocent sound of young children playing, largely unaware that their lives have been changed forever. Sooner or later, they will come to realise that missing classmates and other people they saw in their daily lives have gone, never to return.

When I returned to Latimer Rd station, I read several A4-sized posters containing strongly-worded, but incoherent attacks on the political establishment, written in pure anger. They did not seem to know who or what exactly they were blaming, but they knew this situation should never have been allowed to happen.

There were other notices, including a poster inviting youngsters distressed or affected by the fire to attend a free boxing training session, where they would receive coaching from professionals, one of many small, kind gestures that will bring a degree of comfort to a distraught community.

I stood on the platform for some time while waiting for my train to arrive, and the recorded message asking people not to take pictures was replayed every few minutes.

Later in the day, I was stood on a platform at Wood Lane station, just one tube stop away from the tower, opposite the famous BBC Television Centre (currently being redeveloped), not far from Loftus Rd football stadium and close to the Westfield Shopping Centre.

The north-east bound platform of the station provides a striking, unobstructed, especially bleak view of the tower from around half a mile away. This vantage point also provides a unique sense of perspective.

There I was, surrounded on one side by the biggest shopping centre in London, full of high-end fashion stores. On another side was the iconic Television Centre, home of many classic TV programmes, which is currently being redeveloped, partly as modern TV studios, and party as luxury apartments, yet straight in front of me was a burnt-out giant filing cabinet in the sky, where unknown numbers of less well-off people died because insufficient regard was paid to their safety by those in power.

Which brings us on to where we go from here. Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s appointment as head of the inquiry has not been universally welcomed. Labour MP David Lammy’s characteristically stupid remarks about a ‘white, upper-middle class man’ being chosen for the job, like so much of what he says, are best ignored by all sensible people, but other concerns are more legitimate.

As a Court of Appeal judge in November 2014, Sir Martin, along with two other judges, ruled that when Westminster City Council offered housing 50 miles away in Bletchley to Titina Nzolameso, who, with her children, had been evicted from privately rented local housing, it was not necessary for the council to explain in detail what accommodation was available within its area.

Instead, it could take a broad range of factors into account. The decision was subsequently reversed by the Court of Appeal, but the tenant’s solicitor in that case, Jayesh Kunwardia, said, following Sir Martin’s ruling, “It gives the green light for councils to engage in social cleansing of the poor on a mass scale.”

This, in itself, suggests that Sir Martin’s appointment is insensitive to say the least. We do not know enough about his personal life, but his CV and career path suggests it is likely he attends the same dinner parties and mixes in the same social circles as those close to power.

Governments of all colours do not have a good track record in appointing those to lead wide-ranging inquiries or setting the terms under which they work.

The late Lord Justice Taylor did not seek to deceive or mislead in his inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster in the early 1990s, indeed football stadia around the country are a great deal safer because of his recommendations, but he was severely restricted by the set parameters of his investigation (the 3:15pm cut-off point being the most obvious), which meant that families had to campaign doggedly for 30 years before the full truth began to emerge.

Similarly, as Home Secretary, Theresa May went through a series of wholly unsuitable appointments for the inquiry into alleged historical child abuse by establishment figures. First of all, Baroness Butler-Sloss stood down because she believed her position to be untenable. Her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s. The fact that she was 81-years-old at the time and was taking on a complex task that would have taken several years to complete would probably have been a factor as well. Yet, absurdly, she was Mrs May’s first choice.

Mrs May’s second choice was Fiona Woolf, who resigned a month after being appointed when it was revealed that she lived in the same street and mixed in the same social circles as Leon Brittan, one of the accused.

It was another four months before, Mrs May appointed a New Zealand High Court judge, Dame Lowell Goddard, to take charge, only for her to resign 18 months later, citing, among other reasons, the inquiry’s ‘legacy of failure’.

By the time of Goddard’s departure, Theresa May had become Prime Minister, and Alexis Jay was appointed to continue the inquiry’s work, but not before the group, ‘Survivors of Organised and Institutional Abuse’ formally withdrew cooperation, saying the investigation is ‘not fit for purpose’.

The Hillsborough and historic child abuse inquiries are just two examples of the establishment investigating itself that have been unsatisfactory. There are plenty of others. Lord Cullen was a key figure in the investigations into the Lockerbie fight and Dunblane massacre, and I am not satisfied with his work into either, the most pressing question being: Why is there a 100 year ban on his Dunblame report, and who is it protecting? (I think I know, but can’t prove it).

I wish Sir Martin well. I hope the Nzolameso case was an error of judgement on his part from which he has learnt, and that he will put any personal friendships with those in positions of power to one side as he seeks to get to the truth of what happened, but the precedents are not good. I have a horrible feeling that the community in and around Lancaster West estate will have to show the same stubborn, tenacious qualities the Hillsborough families have shown over nearly 30 years to find out what happened.

So what is likely to have happened? No one single event or individual is likely to be held solely responsible for the fire, but two key developments offer major clues:
First of all, dangerous alterations to entrance and exit points were made long ago in a bid to combat crime. These changes possibly took place as long ago as the late 1970s, though it could have been as recently as the early 1990s.

Prior to these changes, there were two means of entrance and escape from the Grenfell Tower, but subsequently, this was reduced to one, that led through a cramped lobby.

The second, and most obvious, was that cheap, flammable cladding was put on the exterior of the building during renovation work that was completed in May 2016.

Other factors did not help. Prior to 1986, all buildings in London were subject to the London Buildings Acts, which stipulated that external walls must have at least one hour of fire resistance to prevent flames from spreading between flats or entering inside.

But those rules were replaced by the National Buildings Regulations and the vital time stipulation was scrapped. Instead, materials on the outside of buildings only had to have met ‘Class O’ regulations, to show they did not add to the heat or intensity of the fire, but they did not have to be non-combustible.

A recent London Fire Brigade investigation into the fire at a tower block at the nearby Shepherd Court in August 2016 found that external cladding had helped the fire to spread.

They discovered that when exposed to high flames, the metal sheet of the cladding had melted away, which in turn set the inner polystyrene from on fire, allowing ‘flaming droplets’ to fall onto lower floors while helping flames to spread higher up.

Fire chiefs wrote to every council to warn them of the dangers, but no action was taken.

Furthermore, a fire safety expert warned Government advisers three years ago that a tragedy such as this was likely to happen unless they changed the rules to ban the use of cheap, flammable insulation, which was already outlawed in Germany and in the USA.

Arnold Turling said the Grenfell blaze was “entirely avoidable” and that a gap between the panels acted as a ‘wind tunnel’, fanning the flames, and allowing the fire to spread to upper levels.

Mr Turling, a member of the Association of Specialist Fire Protection, said: “Any burning material falls down the gaps and the fire spreads up very rapidly – it acts as its own chimney.”

The cladding used on Grenfell Tower was sold under the brand Reynobond which comes in three different varieties: one with a flammable plastic core and two with fire-resistant cores. It is very likely the cladding used on the tower had a polythene or plastic core.

Reynobond’s fire-resistant panel costs £24 per square metre, just £2 more expensive than the plastic/polythene version.

In the Grenfell Tower, there was no central sprinkler system, which members of the Fire Protection Association said would have ‘undoubtedly’ have saved lives. In 2014, housing minister Brandon Lewis stopped short of forcing builders to fit sprinklers over fears it could discourage house building. Yet in Wales, all new homes from 2016 have to be fitted with sprinkler systems.

Furthermore, it seems possible that not all the front doors in the block were fire-proofed. Official fire brigade advice to stay put in the event of a fire is based on there being fire-proofed doors to stop the fire spreading rapidly through the building.

Regulations state that all newly-built tower blocks must have fire doors on the flat, the stairwell and the riser doors, which provide access to the pipes.

Building regulations are not retrospective, so cannot force the installation of modern equipment on old buildings, but Richard Brownlee, Managing Director of Surrey Fire and Safety Ltd, said that it would be expected that fire doors were installed as part of any refurbishment and installation would be recommended as part of any refurbishment.

Routine safety checks did not take place. According to information released by Kensington and Chelsea Council under the Freedom of Information Act, the last time that Grenfell Tower was subject to a full Fire Risk Assessment was December 2015.

There is no law that specifies the frequency of such inspections, but industry experts say they should take place every 12 months. However, there is a legal requirement to have a fire risk assessment carried out if there is a ‘material change’ to the building, but they do not specify a timescale. Needless to say, an inspection had not taken place in the period since the cladding work was completed in May 2016.

Building Regulations from warn developers that they must install systems to prevent flames from leaping from floor to floor, which in the case of cladding such as this means firebreaks ie gaps in the external envelope to prevent the continual burning of material.

However, this is only guidance, not regulation. There may or may not have been such firebreaks in the cladding, and they possibly wouldn’t have been much use due to the highly combustible cladding material, but it would be useful to know if the guidelines had been followed.

In 2013, the Grenfell Action Group published a 2012 fire risk assessment done by a tenant management organisation Health and Safety Officer which recorded safety concerns. Firefighting equipment at the tower had not been checked for up to four years; on-site fire extinguishers had expired, and some had the word “condemned” written on them because they were so old. It is clear that fire safety at the tower had been treated as an afterthought by the authorities for some considerable time.

Was the recent renovation and installation of cladding partly motivated by ‘climate change’ dogma originating from our EU masters demanding insulation at all costs? Probably. Was the cladding carried out on the cheap and in haste to make the view better for those living in more luxurious accommodation nearby? Perhaps. Have you heard of many (any?) instances of refrigerators exploding before? No? Me neither. Therefore, are modern fridges safe? Should there ever be a gas supply in such buildings?
More pressingly, why, in a supposedly rich and safety-conscious society, are human being forced to live in tall buildings which no fire-fighter’s ladder or hose can reach?

We live in a country of absurd health and safety regulations that too often emphasises all the wrong things. The council employee who maintains your local park is forced to wear high-visibility jackets and goggles while trimming the hedges, before going ‘home’ to a flat hundreds of feet in the sky with a single entrance, no sprinkler system, and highly flammable cladding on the outside.

Political figures like the repulsive Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, are seeking to make political capital from the fire by saying the victims were ‘murdered by political decisions’. Such language is stupid and irresponsible, but I would expect nothing less from a nasty little Marxist who twice ‘joked’ about the duly elected former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, being murdered by the IRA.

Similarly, his boss, Jeremy Corbyn, has said that the fire was a ‘terrible consequence’ of ‘austerity’. He has conveniently ignored all the evidence I have listed about decisions taken long before the supposed ‘austerity’ of recent years. Corbyn, too, is a cheap opportunist who plays on people’s emotions for his own ends.

An appropriate long-term legacy would be to leave the burnt-out Grenfell Tower standing, as a reminder to us all, visible from miles around, of the crass incompetence and neglect that led to huge numbers of utterly needless deaths.

It should be fenced off, and an annual televised memorial service held on the grassland outside, to which all major political figures and senior members of the Royal Family feel obliged to attend.

Unlike other remembrance ceremonies, where we spend quite enough time congratulating ourselves, this should be about humiliating and chastising ourselves for the complacent, self-satisfied society we created. The only ‘heroes’ of this are the fire service and medical personnel who worked on the night and in the days that followed.

Written by Marcus Stead

July 9, 2017 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Stephen Rhodes Obituary

leave a comment »

stephen-rhodes-this-morning-3

Stephen Rhodes presenting ‘This Morning’ during the 1990s.

By MARCUS STEAD

Stephen Rhodes, who has died aged 66 following a battle with motor neurone disease, was a journalist and broadcaster who became a household name in the 1990s as a regular cover presenter on ITV’s ‘This Morning’, but it was his feisty, belligerent, yet good-humoured handling of consumer affairs during his long spell as presenter of the mid-morning show on BBC Three Counties Radio that brought out the best in him as a campaigning hack.

Born in Dublin and the son of a dentist, Rhodes, whose real name was Tommy Keenan, was a restless, noisy child, who frequently irritated his parents by arguing and challenging everything from a young age.

Shortly before his mother’s death, she said to him: “The trouble is, we just didn’t have a name for it when you were little.” He never found out what she was talking about, but he assumed she was referring to his hyperactivity.

Rhodes was educated at St Conleth’s College, a fee-paying Catholic school in Dublin, and the Irish Retail Management Institute, after which he worked for six years in sales and marketing at Mackey’s Seeds in Dublin.

In 1978, Rhodes sent a showreel to Alternative Radio Dublin (colloquially known as ARD), a pirate station that had a strong following in the city, as well as along the west coast of Great Britain, where the 1161 MW signal could be received at night, and his radio career was born.

He rose through the ranks quickly to become station manager, and supplemented his income by lending his voice to TV and radio commercials.

A migration across the water to Birmingham station BRMB followed in 1980, where his ‘Yes-No Quiz’ quickly became a hit with listeners, and by in middle of the decade he moved up the M6 to Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton.

Rhodes’s Irish lilt and intense delivery meant he was much in-demand as a voiceover artist, which led to many TV commercials, and his relationship with Central Television saw him being given the chance to become the voice of ‘Family Fortunes’ in 1987, a role he continued for the next 12 years, spanning most of Les Dennis’s reign as host of the programme.

During the early 1990s, Rhodes migrated to Beacon’s ‘oldies’ sister station WABC, and within a few years he had moved on to BBC Radio Shropshire as the breakfast show presenter, where he won the first of seven Sony Radio Academy Awards.

stephen-rhodes-central-weekend-live

Stephen Rhodes presenting ‘Central Weekend Live’.

It was around this period that Rhodes’s career in front of the TV cameras began to take off. He presented a number of editions of audience debate show ‘Central Weekend Live’ in the Midlands, where the adversarial nature of the programme was an excellent fit for Rhodes’s tenacious personality.

Rhodes’s talents gained the attention of Granada TV, who made him and his then-wife Alison Keenan the main cover presenters for Richard and Judy on ‘This Morning’ between 1994 and 1998, a role in which he appeared at ease, but years later, he said of it: “I never really liked being on television. I didn’t enjoy This Morning because I hated cooking – there were lots of things I just didn’t like about it. But I enjoyed the money – it paid off the mortgage! I much prefer the spontaneity of radio.”

In mid-1995, Rhodes began his 15-year association with BBC Three Counties Radio, then based in Luton. Following a brief spell on the drivetime show, he began his long stint as presenter of the mid-morning consumer affairs programme, as well as hosting topical phone-ins.

From the outset, Rhodes was determined to bring his own style of championing consumer journalism to the show, where he would open the phone lines to listeners in need of help, and take on all manner of wrongdoers from individual rogue traders to major corporations on their behalf.

Challenging and forthright, yet personable and possessing a mischievous sense of humour, Rhodes was perhaps at his best when making special in-depth reports for the programme, which led to many memorable moments.

With his reputation as a skilled interrogator firmly established, Rhodes became the face of the BBC’s regional political and current affairs TV programmes in the East of England, where he presented ‘Inside Out East’ and the region’s Sunday politics slot, though he claimed he was forced to step down from the latter when he found that he couldn’t get into political meetings because he’d rubbed too many local politicians up the wrong way.

In 2008, Rhodes moved to the breakfast show on BBC Three Counties, but his tenure came to an abrupt end on the afternoon of 16 March 2010 when in characteristically maverick style, he announced to the press that he was resigning from his radio job with immediate effect to stand as a candidate in Luton South in the general election due to the expenses controversies surrounding the constituency’s outgoing Labour MP, Margaret Moran.

The subsequent contest saw Rhodes face a challenge from another media personality, Esther Rantzen, and they gave vastly differing accounts to the media as to what motivated the other to stand. It was not to be either of their finest hours. Neither candidate fared well, with Rhodes receiving a paltry 463 votes to Rantzen’s 1,872, both falling massively short of the 14,725 of the successful Labour candidate, Gavin Shuker.

Rhodes quickly bounced back from this embarrassing episode with typical dynamism by setting up Bullet Point Media, a company specialising in making marketing videos, and he continued to be an active campaigner on local issues in Eaton Bray near Dunstable, where he lived with his Filipino wife Greggy, who he married in 2012.

Having suffered with back problems for some years, a water skiing accident in 2013 left Rhodes requiring an operation to repair two vertebrae. In the months that followed, he found himself becoming increasingly weak in his legs, and in October 2014 he received the devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

After coming to terms with the bleak prognosis, Rhodes threw himself into campaigning tirelessly, to be, in his own words a ‘noisy old geezer’ for better support and treatment for MND sufferers, and leant his name to fundraising efforts for research into the condition.

By late 2015, Rhodes was dependant on a motorised wheelchair and his voice was already weakening, but on 28 December that year, he returned to BBC Three Counties for a farewell show, where he looked back on some of the most memorable moments from his long spell at the station.

Rhodes continued his work with characteristic vigour for much of 2016 despite increasing physical frailty, which included a meeting with MND Association patron Princess Anne, and on Twitter, he kept followers entertained with his blunt assessments of leading politicians in a turbulent year. He also managed one final trip to Ireland to see family and friends.

Away from work, his hobbies included tennis, cycling, water skiing, and buying beaten up old Land Rovers, which had a habit of breaking down at inopportune moments, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

 

Tommy Keenan, known professionally as Stephen Rhodes.

Married broadcaster Alison Keenan, divorced.

Married Greggy Lluz, 2012.

Sons: Nick, 37, Sam, 27, Jack, 24.

Daughter: Beck, 35.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

ExtraOARdinary Victory for Novices

leave a comment »

L-R: Richard Phipps, Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary, Arthur Williams

By MARCUS STEAD

A team of newcomers who had been in training for just four weeks were the surprise winners of the Splash and Dash Men’s Regatta at Llandaff Rowing Club.

The team of Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary, all aged 32, and last-minute replacement Richard Phipps formed a team called ‘Love Dem Oars’ and saw off competitors in three races, including a comfortable victory against a more experienced group of firefighters in the final.

The event was held last Saturday as a fundraiser for Velindre Cancer Care and Keep Wales Tidy.

Robert, who works as an accountant for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, said: “I entered this event a few years ago with other people, and this year I suggested to my friends that we should take part, because it raises money for good causes and there’s a decent party afterwards at the club.

“I meant it as a bit of fun and a chance to raise money for local charities. I certainly didn’t expect us to win it!”

The original quartet began training in August under the guidance of Arthur Williams, 69, an accomplished rowing instructor, who was equally surprised by their win. He said: “I have to give them credit. They were a pleasure to work with because they were keen to learn and they have a good sense of humour.”

The team were dealt a blow just two days before the race when their most athletic team member, daily gym-goer Robert Kinsella, was forced to withdraw after being called into hospital for a hand operation, and he was substituted on the day by established rower Richard Phipps, who took part in eight races for different teams during the day. He said: “It’s been a very long, tiring day for me though it was a pleasure to step in and help ‘Love Dem Oars’. They’re a great bunch of lads and we’ve raised money for two good causes.”

The team are still accepting sponsorship money and anyone wishing to donate can do so by visiting: goo.gl/CbPTLS

Written by Marcus Stead

September 29, 2016 at 2:25 am

Posted in Cardiff

The Day I Met Owen Smith

with one comment

Owen_Smith_2013_(cropped)

‘Where’s Wally?’ Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith

The context was the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent following the death of independent MP Peter Law from a brain tumour.

I was doing a week’s work experience at the BBC Wales Political Unit (a MUCH bigger operation in those days than it is today), and spent quite a bit of time shadowing Owain Clarke, who is now BBC Wales’s Health Correspondent.

At the previous year’s general election, Law, an established but outspoken Labour Welsh Assembly member, had fallen out with the party over its policy of all-women shortlists. He quit the party and stood as an independent candidate at the general election, despite having recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour. He won the seat, and remained both an MP and an AM for the remainder of his life.

Following his death, Law’s widow, Trish, and his election agent, Dai Davies, set up Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice. In the subsequent by-elections, Trish contested the Assembly seat and Davies the Westminster seat. Both won their respective elections.

I found both Trish and Davies to be delightful people, really down-to-earth types. They later fell out, but Davies was a decent, hard-working MP between 2005 and 2010.

Owen Smith was the Labour candidate for the Westminster seat, in what was an increasingly dirty campaign. The then-Welsh Secretary, the odious Peter Hain, told people they ‘ought to think very carefully’ before voting for Law and Davies. The implication was that the area wouldn’t get public grant money spent on it if they didn’t elect official Labour representatives.

Smith looked, sounded and behaved in exactly the same way as he does now – slippery, opportunistic, on-message. There was one comical moment when we were trying to interview his agent on the street. I was wearing a shirt and tie (though I probably looked a bit scruffy) while Owain Clarke was even more casually dressed.

As Clarke was setting up the camera, she assumed I was the interviewer and Clarke was my cameraman – in fact, Clarke was both interviewer and cameraman, I was ‘observing’. She turned to me and asked, “What questions will you be asking me?” I gave her a sharp rebuke, “I am not the interviewer – Owain is, but if I was the interviewer, you can be sure I wouldn’t be telling you my questions in advance.” 

A bit later on, we interviewed Owen Smith outside the house of an elderly Labour supporter. As we, and other assembled press gathered, the resident, an old woman, began shouting by her front door about how all working people had a duty to support Labour candidates no matter what, blah, blah blah.

Clarke interviewed Smith, and I stood by and watched. He was as ‘on message’ as ever. The interview ended, and Smith spent a few moments talking to other people stood around us. The old woman started shouting again, and then she fell over, and appeared injured. I’ll never forget what happened next:

Clarke and I had spent several minutes chatting to each other after the interview with Smith ended, and this delayed Clarke dismantling his camera equipment. When the woman fell, the first thing Smith did was turn around to see that our camera was still up. Then, and then only, did he go to assist the woman.

Smith’s instincts in that split second were to see that our camera was still rolling, then and then only did he go to assist her.

That tells you a LOT about the sort of man he is.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 29, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized