Thursday 4 March 2010

Grasping the Edge

I met some remarkable people this week. You sometimes do in my job. But these folk were the kind of people that never get much attention, and all too sadly, sometimes feel they're not worth any attention anyway.

But they are.

This group of friends have all faced down varying degrees of mental illness, in this case, brought on or exacerbated by traumatic events in their lives, events over which they had no control. But this group has taken action which has transformed the lives of each member. Their coordinator believes it has consequently saved the NHS a fortune in drugs and counselling.

I'd agree.

You see, they wrote. They put it down on the page. They wrote about what happened to them, how they felt about it, how they feel now, what they think about the future.

I only got to hear about it because they've now published their writing in a book called "Grasping the Edge".
Now I need to be honest here. When journalists are told that some people have published their "creative writing" we usually roll our eyes and wonder how we are going to let them down gently. The standard isn't usually brilliant, and the chances of the world being set on fire by their book are slimmer than the book usually is.

But this time I knew the editor, Philomena Gallagher. I knew she has a gift for finding the people who need help, and finding a way of providing it. She knew perfectly well I was more interested in the people and their reasons for writing, than their actual writing. So I waited for a slow news day, fought my corner with "the producer" and set off to meet them.

The stories. Oh the stories! Arlene started writing after her son was stabbed to death - it was either that, or suicide. Olivia had written poems ever since her sexual abuse as a child, but now she doesn't have to hide her work. Agnes wrote about the violent domestic abuse she had suffered, because with the pen in her hand she now had control. They all had such stories to tell.

Each of them has known mental illness, and a real lack of self-worth. Each of them has been helped by their writing. They're even planning to take workshops in Italy later this year, at the request of a school there. I was looking for a story to make a good radio report, a simple job to pass my late shift. So I was embarrassed that they saw my visit as an encouragement and a major boost to their work.

These are not policy makers or opinion formers, these are not powerful people. Our Establishment does not consider them important. But it was a privilege to meet them.

You can hear their stories on the BBC iPlayer for a couple more weeks yet. Listen to Tuesday 2nd March from 1 hour, 13 minutes and 20 seconds in. It's really worth it - and on the upside, I don't speak at all. Take a look at the book here.

As alaninbelfast said to me on Twitter the next day. "Amazing what's out there that we never hear about".

Well now you have.

Friday 26 February 2010

Bin there, done that.

There's a good deal of tension on our street this morning. No one wants to make a fool of himself.

But some of us will.

Our black wheelie bins go out today. But also it's the annual "Is this the week they restart collecting the brown compost bins?" week. These bins are for garden and food waste (in wee degradable plastic bags - what will they think of next?), and they aren't collected for three months over the winter. The collections restart in March, but CAN sometimes begin at the end of February.

By late February most of us are in despair and have been out in our yards with a stepladder. Instructions: Open brown bin lid, climb up ladder, step into bin. Jump up and down. Climb out and descend ladder, worrying about what is now on the soles of your shoes. Add some garden or food waste to bin, since rats and heaven knows what else have been at it. Wish earnestly it was March. Repeat every two days from Boxing Day onwards.

I must congratulate Belfast City Council on a website which aims to answer every question we could possibly have about bin etiquette. I have read it three times and it still leaves me in doubt. I think there's no collection, but there MIGHT be. Writing that kind of in conclusive FAQ section must take some skill. One slip up, and people can be sure what you mean. And just imagine the legal ramifications of that!

On balance I think the brown bin has little chance of being emptied today, but this hasn't stopped 80% of householders on this street putting theirs out in hope. I held out until about 0800 when I finally followed the flock and added mine to the row of "I can't understand the website" shame. Well I mean, if you aren't in, you can't win.

But think of the shame this evening when the black bins are emptied. The brown bins on the other hand are sitting there, neglected and untouched. After dark, one by one, humiliated householders will creep out, and drag their still-heavy brown bins back to the dank waiting area that is the back yard, reflecting on the prospect of two more weeks of stepladder roulette. Within five minutes they'll be re-reading the Belfast City Council website and muttering. "Ah THAT'S what they mean..."

My Dad once told me that the older I got, the more I'd care about everything that my 18 year old mind currently thought was dull and inconsequential.

You see he understood. I didn't.

I do now.

Friday 19 February 2010

Knotty Talk

A singularly new experience this morning - a newstalk radio programme made me laugh out loud and encouraged me out of bed.

BBC Radio Five Live's Nicky Campbell was interviewing Bill Henderson, a representative of the Isle of Man Parliament, the Tynwald. Angry at Gordon Brown's and his Westminster Government's intention to re-examine the fiscal relationship between the two jurisdictions, he put it thus.

"He's saying, 'Look, the umbilical cord's being cut, end of story, get knotted'..."

Was this use of "get knotted" a clever extension of the analogy of the umbilical cord? After all, knots do matter in such circumstances, midwives could tell you about that.

I think not. I think Bill Henderson was simply cross about the way Gordon Brown was treating his community and felt the expression summed up London's attitude to that strong-willed island.

Get knotted! What a great expression! What a delight to hear it in this context. Note to self. Use "get knotted" much more often.

Thursday 11 February 2010

And it's gonna happen

Thanks to my old boss Bill Rogers, Trading as WDR for blogging about, and thus reminding me about the comments by Peter Horrocks (see the Guardian). The BBC's new Director of Global News, has spoken of the need for journalists to embrace the possibilities of social networking sites for finding stories worth reporting on more traditional media. Here's what he said to his BBC staff (that's them down on the shop floor behind him) about the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

"If you don't like it, if you think that level of change or that different way of working isn't right for me, then go and do something else, because it's going to happen. You're not going to be able to stop it."

Now this has interested me for all sorts of reasons - for a start, he has a point. I became aware of the story through Twitter, learned more reading an online blog, and discussed it with a colleague who asked me what the email he'd just received was actually about. Secondly, I use such online media a fair old bit already - and have got several stories worth doing in the past six months simply by watching interesting exchanges on both the sites he mentions. Who was among the first to do a piece on the massive Belfast4Haiti gig and spin offs? Well, it was me, actually. And all because I was looking at Twitter as they began to organise it - all whilst my producer that day eyed me with a look which said "Is he skiving or working I wonder?"

So it can work. I've even spent half an hour tonight fiddling about with Buzz. Why? Well not because of Peter's exhortations, no harm to him. It's because I'm curious, intrigued, and want to know. I hope that need to know motivates most of us a bit more than emails from Big Bosses.

Even so, I'll still read the emails from said Big Bosses and be seen to obey. (Is this the same as actually obeying? Discuss)

Why will I toe the line? Well, you see, I'm also motivated by the need to pay the mortgage.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Caught Out

What do you think of this camera? Nice eh? I bought it on eBay this week, which is amazing, because I didn't really mean to.

Are you an eBay bidder? I'm not seasoned by any means but I've certainly bought a few things on there. One or two were ill-advised, or simply too cheap to be any more than you'd get anywhere for the money. But by and large I've done well there, even selling a few items for a good price.

So I felt I knew the ropes a week ago when I noticed this camera - the discontinued but excellent Sony Alpha 700, offered for sale, with no reserve, from a well-regarded and experienced eBay seller. This camera is sought-after, especially as Sony has yet to come up with a direct replacement for it, the nearest on either side being the Sony Alpha 550, or the full frame Sony Alpha 850.

This looked like a potential bargain. The price was so low, I bid a few times to see what the serious enthusiasts were prepared to pay. And when I bid my absolute limit, I stopped, noticing that with about 72 hours to go, I was now winning. I smiled to myself as I set off for a few days away, because I knew the price would go past me, probably by as much as another £150. I promptly forgot all about it.

But it didn't. So whilst interviewing someone on Monday night I got a text from a friend congratulating me on my new purchase. And then I had to think if I really had the money. Mind you, I've now got a new (to me) camera, and it's brilliant.

I'm glad I bid with such bare-faced cheek. Even if I wasn't really serious. But it did make me think.

Be careful what you strive for. You might win.

Friday 22 January 2010

Otter Know Better than anthropomorphism

I was amused to read the back page of the Daily Telegraph this week. I don't usually do this, the weather maps and related information look rather intimidating, but I do pick it up sometimes when abroad on holiday. This happens usually after ten days of a self-proclaimed and wife-enforced no-news policy. I then give up and stand alarmingly close to Brits on holiday in the hope of reading over their shoulders that the weather is miraculously better in Ireland than it is in Spain.

But, as Ronnie Corbett regularly says, I digress.

Back to the back page of the Telegraph.

Ignoring "the producer", and picking up the paper in the office, I allowed myself to be charmed by the "Nature Notes", something I suspect I'm far too removed from the landed set to read.

"Young otter climbing trees is 'rebelling'" it informed me solemnly. It appears that staff at Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire have been surprised to see a young female otter regularly scrambling up the branches of a nearby tree.

Given that otters do not usually climb trees - at any rate, not in Gloucestershire, they think she may have been "'flexing her teenage muscles' and trying to prove herself."

"'It's the otter equivalent of stomping upstairs to your room and slamming the door.' said Sally Munro, a spokesman for the centre."

Now I like this story. I like the idea of a grumpy otter shoving one in the direction of Mum and Dad, who, bewildered at the stroppy behaviour of their offspring, shrug their shoulders in resignation and get on with trying to catch some fish to feed her little brother.

But in truth, I can't really say I believe this is what is going on. I spent a traumatic afternoon last weekend helping my 12 year old daughter write a poem about the seasons with an example of anthropomorphism in the last line of every verse. I strongly suspect there's an unhealthy dose of it - anthropomorphism that is - going on here. Our young female otter, manifestly not human, is being endowed with human characteristics and motives by the Slimbridge staff.

Otters, I believe, are not especially human. There is no way we can possibly know that one is having a fit of teenage rebellion. But it's fun to imagine, I'll give you that.

Having said all that. Belfast Zoo once reported the escape of a teenage monkey which hadn't been getting on with its Dad. I didn't really mind the anthropomorphism. What I loved about that story was that after a few days of freedom to roam anywhere he wanted in North Belfast, the monkey reappeared at the zoo gates one morning, wanting back in.

Well North Belfast always was a difficult place for Primates.

Monday 11 January 2010

Photo Excellence

Have you ever wondered why your photos never seem to be as good as those other dudes on Flickr? Heck I do. Maybe we need to think about it a bit more. My thanks to photographer, Marketing Manager and my friend, David Healey (no, not the footballer) for permission to pass on his thoughts on some basic steps you can take to achieve better results. Believe me, he knows what he's talking about.

1. Never buy a camera without an eye level (optical preferably) viewfinder, unless you are willing to carry a tripod with you.

2. The larger the film format or sensor size, and the higher the quality setting that you set your digital camera to, the better quality will be the end result – all other things being equal.

3. Never fall for the lie that it doesn’t matter how you take it, you can always sort it out and make it a decent picture in the darkroom/computer: you cannot ‘make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’. Get it right before you take it.

4. Read the manual.

5. Invest in a tripod.

6. Spend money on high quality lenses, rather than exotic camera features.

7. Hold the camera properly: assuming it has a viewfinder, hold it up to your face with both hands holding the camera. For an SLR hold the camera in your right hand, and use the left to support the camera from below the lens with your thumb the left i.e. holding the lens in your palm of your hand.

8. Use daylight wherever possible (…it gives much more natural lighting than flash) and have the subject side lit. Light coming from behind you will lead to boring, shadowless photos, and light coming from in front of you (expect in certain circumstances like sunsets) will lead to lens flare and your main subject will be in shadow.

9. Take photos (in Europe) before 10 am and after 4pm in the summer (or 11 am and 3pm in winter) as the illumination is warmer (so more pleasing to the eye) and shadows longer.

10. Lean to avoid the two (most often confused) basic errors of photography: camera shake (resulting in double images – see 4 and 6) and incorrect focus (possible even with an autofocus camera). Unsharp mask in Photoshop will not solve these basic errors.

11. Before you take the photo, look carefully around the viewfinder (or screen if that is all you have) to see if
- there are things (e.g. road signs) that you do not want in the picture
- the composition is poor e.g. a tree is growing out of the subject’s head
- or the subject is too far away i.e. too small
- or there is something in the foreground of your nice landscape which is visually distracting
Recompose the photo.

12. When pressing the shutter release, there is not need to surprise it by sharply jabbing it. Press it gently first to allow the camera to work out the focus and exposure, and then press it all the way down gently to take the photo, when you and the subject are ready.

13. Use a tripod or other means of steadying the camera in poor light.

14. When taking landscapes or big views turn the auto flash off…it will not help to use flash because the main subject is so far away.

15. Once you get the photos, work out why some did not work: improve your technique by thinking about your photos and looking at other people’s. Bin the bad ones.