The Shetland Bus

This is a ‘soap box’ posting. I’m just stepping up onto it now …

Available from Amazon

Available from Amazon

Dark winters provided the perfect cover for missions to occupied Norway during the Second World War, and the closest base was from Britain’s most northerly group of islands, Shetland.

Most Norwegians knew about the “Shetland Bus”, which did not go overland, but across the North Sea, taking supplies and saboteurs into the fjords under the noses of the Germans, and taking refugees to safety on the return journey – journeys in small fishing boats which covered thousands of miles, testing the skills of the Norwegian seamen who risked their lives in hurricanes, fog and darkness to make the crossing.

David Howarth was a junior naval officer who helped set up and operate the base. After the war he wrote a book “The Shetland Bus”, a story of successes and failures, and the courage, skill and adventurous spirit of the men who risked their lives on the Shetland Bus.

If you’ve not heard of this episode in World War 2 then I can thoroughly recommend David Howarth’s book. I’m not a huge fan of wartime stories (fact or fiction) but this one is special and worth reading. It can be ordered online from Amazon at £7.59, or from your local bookshop (ISBN-10: 1898852421), or I’m sure you could order it from your local library (check the online catalogue on their website!).

I am fortunate to have in my possession a first edition (1951) copy of the book. I have read it many times since it first came to my consciousness in the 1970s. And last month I wasparticularly looking forward to revisiting some of the sites associated with the wartime operation during our visit to Shetland last month, in particular Lunna and Scalloway. I rather think Marion was a bit bored with my telling of the story before our visit, but I believe she now shares my own enthusiasm that the tale should be remembered appropriately.

We were rather shocked at what we found in the way of remembering this unique story on the British side of the North Sea, particularly after completing a tour of Lerwick’s splendid new museum and archives at Hay’s Dock which brought together a unique collection of memorabilia which tells the story of Shetland over the centuries, but completely omitted any mention of The Shetland Bus (even in the WW2 exhibit).

So shocked, in fact, that I resolved to contact Shetland Amenity Trust (the local body responsible for preserving and promoting Shetland’s culture and heritage) to lament the lack of an appropriate commemoration in Lerwick and also to highlight that the presentation of such exhibits as are available for public viewing at Scalloway Museum are in a parlous state and, I fear, in danger of being lost if prompt action is not taken to preserve them for posterity.

Twelve days ago I sent an email to the general manager of the amenity trust, copied to the two Shetland Island Council nominated trustees and the Norway’s Ambassador to the UK offering a visitor’s perspective on the apparent disinterest (in Lerwick) of something that I feel deserves to be given a much higher profile.

On 8 May 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of V E Day, a commemorative memorial naming the Shetland Bus men was unveiled in Ålesund, Norway, by HRH Crown Prince Haakon.

Shetland emulated Norway a full eight years later. In 2003 a local body called the Shetland Bus Friendly Society, acting under the auspices of Scalloway Community Council, unveiled Shetland’s not-easy-to-find – and rather more modest – memorial in the village. Someone called Barbara Melkevik officiated. I don’t think she had an HRH monicker

Well, hats off to Scalloway Community Council and hurrah for their memorialisation, but even so it does seem a bit half cock compared to how Norway commemorated the wartime heroism doesn’t it? I mean, why wasn’t this initiated by Shetland Islands Council? Perhaps the community council got nowhere with the council when urging them to do something?

I can’t help feeling that the official Shetland “remembrance” of the wartime mission isn’t regarded with quite the same priority or feeling of Anglo-Norwegian fraternity that still holds in Norway.

I do feel very passionate about this heroic tale; I’ve been thinking of blogging about it since I sent my email. Today I decided to publish the text of my email for posterity’s sake.

“I should like to offer you some feedback on a recent visit I made to Lerwick and Scalloway Museums, which I hope you will receive in the warm spirit with which it is given: constructive rather than critical.

“I was most disappointed to find that the Shetland Bus story does not merit any form of mention in the (Lerwick) museum display areas. I looked very carefully and found nothing. I even enquired of museum visitor services staff in case I’d missed something less obvious – but they confirmed that there are no ‘bus’ exhibits at Lerwick with the singular exception of a model of a Norwegian fishing boat (the ‘Arthur’) at the foot of the staircase in the shop area.

“[A representative] from Visitor Services explained to my companion and I that the Scalloway Museum holds the Shetland Bus collection since Scalloway was the base for the wartime operation. Notwithstanding this, I found it rather peculiar that the islands’ principal museum, a landmark development indeed, made no mention of the Shetland Bus, particular in those exhibits that related directly to the last world war. This seems rather disingenuous to the memory of those who participated in the operation at a local level plus of course the many Norwegians who would have had Shetland connections during, and after, the German occupation of Norway, not to mention the souls who lost their lives during the ‘bus’ operation.

“Earlier the same day we had visited the Scalloway Museum with the explicit intent of seeing the ‘bus’ exhibition. I’m afraid we were rather shocked at the poor presentation and condition of many of the exhibits available to view. There were plenty of original items on display, available to touch. Many precious documents than cannot be replaced were looking – frankly – a bit moth-eaten and frayed at the edges. Such exhibits deserve much better preservation and presentation for the benefit of future generations. The museum staff at Scalloway were most welcoming and very friendly, but we left with the impression that they and the museum itself was a bit of a time warp; left behind by the 21st century. I don’t mean that in any insulting way to the individuals concerned – they clearly have a passion for the artefacts in their care, but I do question whether they have the right resources and skills to both preserve and present the history of Scalloway and the Shetland Bus to best effect.

“Our later visit to Hay’s Dock in Lerwick only accentuated what we had perceived to be really quite significant shortcomings at the Scalloway Museum. A comparison between the two establishments would not be favourable. [We were informed at Lerwick Museum] that there are plans afoot to redevelop Scalloway Museum, and we were heartened to learn this, but I am greatly concerned that swift action is required now to preserve the Shetland Bus memorabilia before it is too late.

“There were quite a number of Norwegians in Shetland last month for Johnsmas Foy. We couldn’t help wondering what they thought of the lack of representation at Hay’s Dock for the Shetland Bus; I’m sure some of these visitors must have known about the Shetland wartime operation (particularly those who had sailed across from Bergen) and have taken an opportunity to visit both Scalloway and Lunna during their stay. I can’t help but believe they would have been disappointed to see the way in which this important element of Shetland’s maritime history seems to have been pushed to one side.

The North Sea Monument in Ålesund

The North Sea Monument in Ålesund

“I should very much like to encourage you to find a way to present the Shetland Bus within the main museum in Lerwick in addition to the existing (or future) museum facility at Scalloway. It is such a wonderful story from the last war, very much a secret wartime operation (not unlike the Bletchley Park/Enigma story in many ways), and I believe that much could be done to improve the telling of the tale to future generations.

“But I believe the most pressing thing is to preserve the memorabilia on display at Scalloway to save it for posterity; it really is quite tragedy that’s unfolding there, and I’d like to ask you please to do something about it. I care for its well-being and I think that many Norwegians will do so too. In the darkest days of WW2, ordinary Norwegians knew that fishing boats were making dangerous journeys across the North Sea on their behalf. That kind of historical connection between Shetland and Norway is well worth celebrating and preserving properly.

“If you can find a way to marry the two museums together to present the ‘bus’ more appropriately I should certainly wish to return and see it for myself.

“Finally, the Shetland Bus memorial on the harbour-side in Scalloway is a lovely monument, but not very easy to locate if you don’t know where it is. I think Scalloway would benefit from a brown tourist sign pointing the way to the memorial!

“I hope you will find this feedback of some use in your exhibit and museum development planning.”

I’d be interested to know what you think of the above. Don’t hold back! If I’m wrong, then please tell me so.

I’m feeling a bit giddy now, so I’m stepping down off my soap box …

Dorset’s churches discovered

Puncknowle Church, near Bridport

Puncknowle Church, near Bridport

Updated 27.07.2009

Pictures from the weekend available here (can’t work out why they’re squashed though!)

This past weekend Molly and l headed west for what has become an annual pilgrimage to Dorset.

We joined a lovely, relaxed weekend course discovering some of the hidden gems of the Dorset countryside, its rural churches.

Every penultimate weekend in July since 2001 I’ve joined a course at The Kingcombe Centre (where TSM is a trustee) to explore a group of historic churches in the county. This was my eighth such weekend attended.

Last year I was actually resident full-time at Kingcombe for the summer, but prior to that I travelled down from Yorkshire or Manchester for the weekend. To travel down the M6/M5 on a Friday afternoon in July was, frankly, plain daft. The route is not to be recommended on a Friday afternoon but I guess the fact I was prepared to go through that motorway hell goes some way to demonstrating my keen interest and desire to attend.

If I’d still been resident in Stornoway I would have travelled down for it too. Back in January I booked the time off as annual leave, but circumstances now mean that taking annual leave to attend has not been necessary. I rather wish that it had been!

The course, which is always heavily oversubscribed, is a very laidback, informative and enlightening weekend organised by Kingcombe and facilitated by Dr Karin Mew, an emeritus professor of medieval social history with a endearing, almost dippy, style of delivery so entirely appropriate for a university professor (I mean that kindly). Armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of her specialist subject to enthrall her willing attendees, Karin is the Queen of Dorset Churches bar none.

This year’s weekend the group visited churches along the Jurassic Coast from Wyke Regis to Burton Bradstock on Day 1, including Buckland Ripers, Abbotsbury and Puncknowle [‘punnel’] (, and then the agenda for Day 2 was churches and chapels in and around Bridport including Allington, Bothenhampton, Bradpole, Walditch and West Bay, but starting off at Toller Whelme which is as off the beaten track as its possible to get in this part of England.

The weather for Saturday was sublime, blue skies and warm(ish) temperatures, but Sunday was rather less clement which much evidence of preparedness for showers visible among the group!

I wasn’t able to travel in the group’s minibus due to my present incapacity, so I followed around in my own jalopy, occasionally losing the party who despite being in a sluggish minibus still managing a fair turn of speed, often assisted by some slowcoach holding me up miles behind on twisting country roads with no hope of overtaking!

This was particularly the case on Sunday morning when we left idyllic Toller Whelme for Allington by Bridport. Firstly I lost sight of the minibus but then made up the gap after overtaking a slowcoach. But where was the minibus? It had disappeared off the face of the planet!

Well I made my way to the next church location and pulled into its car park (empty). Certainly no minibus. I sat for a few minutes and pondered what to do. I looked at the map and came to the conclusion that they’d probably decided to go to the church at Bradpole en route to Allington. So I set off there (about four miles back the way I’d come).

But at Bradpole, there was no sign of a minibus, and no sign of the church being occupied either.

Well I eventually found the party by returning for a second time to Allington. No one seemed to have missed me when I eventually appeared halfway through the introductory chat from Karin.

Of the churches I saw for myself this weekend (I didn’t manage to complete the whole itinerary) my favourite was St Nicholas at Buckland Ripers and my least favourite the ugly and horrid green All Saints’ at Allington!

Check out the photogallery for yourself. I can’t work out why the gallery has squashed the original images and turned some 90 degrees – see

Speculation was rife over the weekend as to whether this would be the last such gathering. Kingcombe has a newly appointed director in post and there are bound to be curriculum changes for 2010 and Karin was talking of either changing direction or stopping altogether.

I share the collective fears of our jolly party that this year’s churches weeekend will prove to be the last. The format works so well which poses the natural enquiry: “If it ain’t broke, why does it need fixing?”.

Where to get your kit off this summer

To avoid disappointment, I am publishing a list of some of the main naked events you may wish to join in this summer (if the weather improves).

Northern Constabulary’s Nude Police Motorbike Formation Team

Northern Constabulary’s Nude Police Motorbike Formation Team

In the first week in August, as part of the fringe of the Caudle Green Literary Festival, you are invited to take part in the “Garden of Eden Experience”. There will be two Temptations a day, three on Saturday. Admission £7. OAPs half price. Bring your own fruit. The organisers assure me that no serpents will be harmed.

The annual mass freefall naked parachute drop to raise money for the Bikes for Botswana Appeal will be on August 19 in the Wymondham area. First-time plummeters are welcome to take part.

Motoring organisations will be issuing warnings on the day and scheduled flights will be diverted. Anyone who still needs counselling after witnessing last year’s drop (or being landed on) should send an sae to the organising secretary.

The Friends of Cellulite are holding their Nude Fun Day Out in Stornoway next week. Clay pigeon shooting, pony rides, face-painting, white elephant stall. Sadly the Hog Roast has had to be cancelled because of difficulties with the insurers. The organisers say: “Candy floss, in moderation, has been sanctioned, but, as far as hot dogs are concerned, negotiations are still ongoing.”

The Association of Welsh Naturist Stamp Collectors is holding an open day next month in Merthyr Tydfil. Raffle for Penny Black. Bring your own tweezers.

There is a chance to join in a naked demo in September as people gather in Taunton to protest about the inadequacy of the changing facilities at the local swimming baths. Do your bit to make an impact as the demonstration ends with a mass belly-flop. Goggles permitted. Disco in the evening.

The owners of the venue for last year’s Nude Calendar Extravaganza have apologised to the organisers for a double-booking which meant that a medieval jousting pageant was taking place on the same field on the same day.

The knight who was injured, falling on his own lance when his horse panicked, has thanked members of the Nude Calendar Society for their messages of sympathy and reports that he is up and about again and has taken up nude bee-keeping.

By the way, this year’s Nude Calendar Extravaganza will feature the launch of a controversial fully-clothed calendar for 2010 made for charity by the Bridport branch of the Townswomen’s Guild. This is likely to lead to an angry nude walk-out by some purists in the society. Or angry nude sit-in, if wet.

The annual awards ceremony for the “Tatties” will take place in Inverness in November. This is the coveted prize for the World’s Most Embarrassing Tattoo. The judges award points for the ingenuity of the location and also for the naffness of design.

Entry forms must be sent in by the end of this week. Please specify if you are entering in the flower, insect or reptile category. Experts say the reign of the small butterfly on the left buttock is definitely over and they are expecting some truly cringe-making entries this year. Interval entertainment will be provided by the Northern Constabulary’s Nude Police Motorbike Formation Team and there will be a display by clipped police Alsatians.

Members of Starkers, the loose confederation of groups of people who jump naked into icy ponds and rivers throughout December, have become increasingly alarmed about the threat of global warming to their traditional way of life. They are organising a march next Tuesday from Newcastle to Carlisle to raise awareness of climate change. Bring a packed lunch, sensible shoes – and suitable rainwear.

Win a swine flu jab today

swine-fluThis is your unique opportunity to enter my exciting new competition to win a luxury pandemic jab for two!!!

You, too, could join the exclusive set whose members are getting a pandemic vaccine as a priority.

If you are the lucky winner, you and your partner will be picked up from your home, then be taken to meet one of the big stars of the TV series ER before being given your jabs by one of the country’s leading general practitioners. Afterwards, you will be whisked by limousine to a luxury hotel for a ten-minute sit-down to recover. You will also receive a special souvenir ribbon to tie round your sore upper arm.

There are a host of fabulous prizes for the runners-up, including a lifetime’s supply of Lemsip, 100 Vivienne Westwood hot water bottles and loads of paracetamol tablets.

All you have to do is answer these simple questions:

1. Place the following in order of seriousness: pandemic; “a lot of it about”; scourge; plague; pestilence.

2. Which of these is not a flu vaccine? Hazchem; Tamiflu; More4; Vodafone; Ofcom.

3. Spot the rogue postcode from: HS2 9DU; ZE3 OPS; H1N1; DT2 0EQ.

4. We have had Spanish flu, Asian flu and Hong Kong flu. Give the date of the last major outbreak of Welsh flu. Describe the symptoms of Cornish flu.

5. Can psittacosis be passed from Gloucester Old Spot pigs to Tamworths?

6. Is it possible to get inoculated against birdwatching? What precautions should you take if you come into contact with Bill Oddie?

7. To what extent was the Black Death “got up” by the medieval media? And just how “great” was the Great Plague, actually?

8. What is the capital of Switzerland? Is it Pfizer, Roche, AstraZenica or GlaxoSmithKline?

9. “Feed a fever and starve a cold.” Or is it the other way round?

10. Name the bug that was caught by all the participants in the 1999 summit meeting of health ministers in Luxembourg. What germ is carried in rotation by the health ministers of the member states?

11. Just how contagious is the United Nations?

12. Name the inventor of the surgical mask. What infectious disease did he die of?

13. Which one of the following can not be transmitted from animals to humans? Swine flu; distemper; brucellosis; myxomatosis; sheep rot; hard pad.

14. Can viruses be passed on from computers to nerds?

15. Which of these should penguins be more anxious about: a) bird flu, or b) global warming?

16. In Greek mythology, the ancient king Kleenex had five sons. They included Sinus, Hedex, Strepsil and Imodium. What was the name of the fifth son, whose sneeze was so powerful that it sank his father’s fleet of warships?

17. Place in reverse order of deserving sympathy – indisposed, poorly, shivery, funny, off colour, as well as can be expected, a bit queer, under the weather, seedy, achy, discombobulated.

18. Discuss the following statement: “A man gets swine flu; a woman gets a heavy cold.”

Send in your answers so that they arrive by first post on the last day of quarantine. All the correct entries will be put together and the lucky winner will be picked out of a hat, using a pair of sterilised tongs.

Green light for Sunday sailings!

calmacI’m delighted to have learnt that Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) have signalled the commencement of Sunday sailings to the Western Isles, despite objections from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) and the Lord’s Day Observance Society.

The development was announced yesterday on Hebrides News.

For those not in the know, Sunday sailings to/from the isles of Harris and Lewis have been an extremely contentious issue for years.

You may agree or disagree with the whole situation but life will go on regardless. Gods can be worshipped by whomever and wherever they choose, a basic freedom of a democracy held dear in this United Kingdom as well as elsewhere.

Personal choice and freedom to choose is so important … parents help their offspring to develop in life with skills that enable them to make informed and good choices. Imposing a will without good reason will likely backfire.

The local authority CnES has always purported to represent the views of the populace but this has never been tested by asking that population whether or not they wanted Sunday sailings. Instead a significant number of councillors, plus the Lord’s Day Observance Society, all with entrenched views about Sabbath observance and island tradition, have prevented the economic development of the islands by stifling any possibility of seven day sailings.  It could all have been resolved so easily by holding a local referendum: ‘do you favour the introduction of Sunday sailings or not?’. A ‘no’ answer would have strengthened the comhairle’s policy position, and a ‘yes’ would have given the comhairle a strong signal that it’s policy was not in line with its residents’ wishes regarding ferries.

The overbearing paternalistic stance of CnES and LDOS has certainly backfired on this occasion, and I – for one – am delighted.

The lack of a Sunday service has meant that, until now, islanders could not get to the mainland for a weekend away without booking additional time off work except if they flew (but flying is not always convenient or suitable), nor could visitors spend a weekend in the islands for the same reason. On the face of it a Sunday ferry appears quite a trivial point, but the economic impact on individuals and the island economy is significant and this decision will bring tangible benefits that far outweigh the entrenched view about sabbath observance (one which is not entirely accurate either).

CalMac said the decision followed extensive consultation.

The new service will initially follow the timetable of the Saturday afternoon sailing – departing Stornoway at 1430 BST to arrive in Ullapool at 1730 BST then leaving at 1815 BST arriving back in Stornoway at 2100 BST.

Chairman Peter Timms said the company had tried to find a way to meet its legal obligations and respect local traditions.

He said: “We believe we can achieve that by operating one return trip a day, departing in the afternoon and returning late in the evening. This will minimise the impact on the culture and amenity of the islands, while at the same time providing economic and social benefits. We remain acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding Sunday sailings, but we cannot operate unlawfully nor fail to provide lifeline services when there is a growing demonstrable demand from the communities we serve.”

The comhairle said it was dismayed by the decision to sail between Stornoway and Ullapool.

In May, BBC Alba reported that state-owned CalMac viewed Sunday sailings to and from the mainland as “inevitable”. At the time the ferry operator said it had been told it would be unlawful to refuse to run a service because of the religious views of just part of a community. Pro-sailings campaigners sought advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

I look forward to being able to return to Lewis and to take advantage of the new, enlightened ferry service opportunities.

“No Kirstie Allsop”

start page

Title page (see download)

“Location, Location, Location but no Kirstie Allsop” was one of the tweets made by an attendee at today’s Council Websites ’09 event held at London’s Olympia.

She wasn’t available today, so I was standing in for her. Must say I was sorry that the individual was disappointed at her absence!

I duly took to the stand at 10.35 this morning to present my take on Find My Nearest (FMN) facilities from a citizen perspective, and was then followed by Dane Wright from the London Borough of Brent who discussed that council’s approach to providing location-based information resources.

I’ve included my speaker’s notes in my presentation which is available to download from Slideshare so that you can glean the gist of the presentation if you weren’t there!

I was not in the best frame of mind this morning. My back was hell this morning and despite having popped copious quantities of painkillers it was a struggle. I needed my crutch for support today, the first time I’ve had to rely on it for some time. Indeed, I left the event soon after my session had completed as I was in too much pain to remain for the day. Very disappointed about that.

During the event many people were tweeting commentaries similar to the Kirstie Allsop remark above. Some commented that I was being too negative about certain websites, that I should be focusing on best practice examples.

But I disagree with these views. My approach today was to take the citizen perspective, what the real end user would experience when trying to use a council’s find my nearest facility (if they could find it).

If you were there you probably thought I was being negative about Thurrock, North Down and North Lincs, but I wasn’t – honest!  I felt it important to build a picture, moving from not so good promotion and usability to better examples of FMNs out there.

Both Thurrock and North Lincolnshire councils provide comprehensive location-based resources, and as I highlighted I was delighted to find Thurrock includes cemeteries and North Lincs’ FMN has cross-selling of other website resources down to a fine art. It’s just a shame that neither site promotes the availability better, particularly on the homepage. To illustrate this, I showed homepage promotion examples from West Oxfordshire, Salford, Eden, Harrow, Torfaen and Brent.

I noted one tweet which suggested a degree of bias towards Salford’s implementation. Well, in my defence, I thought it better to declare an interest up front rather than say nothing.

My all-time favourite remains West Oxfordshire’s FMN promotion (particularly the homepage graphic), integration and level of property detail provided. It is, I think, a benchmark for others to strive for.

I duly handed on to Dane and he did his piece. A couple of questions followed from the audience, none directed at me (was it the pained expression on my face that stopped people from asking me anything?).

I did regret having had to leave much earlier than I had planned, but not before I’d had an opportunity to catch up with my old team from Salford (SM, BM and AG), a happy reunion indeed, and Craig Stevens from Incredibly Useful.

Just before I departed I was very pleased to meet Rachel Davis from Medway Council and have a brief chat with her about their own plans for a website development.  I’d been hoping to meet the great Simon Wakeman today, but Rachel more than made up for his absence!!!

A big public thank you to Dane for his help and support and in putting together today’s presentation!

Location, location, location

This coming Wednesday I shall be standing up in front of 300+ people at Council Websites ’09, an event being held at London’s Olympia Conference Centre.

I’ll be leading a plenary session about the use of location-based information on local council websites.

Salford City Council

Salford City Council

The number of people doesn’t bother me, I’ve done it before and hopefully will do it again in the future. Wednesday’s challenge is rather more fundamental than audience numbers. It’s about getting back some semblance of normality into my life, another step back towards a realistic prospect of employment following my back injury which has plagued me since last Christmas. 

It is not generally well known that local authority websites are rather more complex than your average site. Local authorities provide a mind-boggling array of services to their communities – sometimes this can number around 700 unique service propositions. Compare this to, say, a retail bank like NatWest or Halifax which may have service portfolio of a hundred products at most, and hopefully you can glean that the amount of information a council needs to make available on its website far outstrips your average commercial enterprise.

Organising council websites so that they’re intuitive to use, and making finding information straightforward, plus encouraging the public to access council services online rather than by telephone or in person, is an enormous challenge but the rewards for doing so are both financial and beneficial to an authority’s reputation.

In straitened times, reducing overheads in a local authority can affect the bottom line, which in turn will impact on the amount of council tax an individual householder has to pay each year. Reducing transaction costs for providing services is one way that councils can save money and pass on those savings in the council tax bill.  

Moving services online rather than via traditional channels is key to this. It’s worth highlighting, I think, the sums involved. Average service transaction costs* for face-to-face delivery estimated at £7.81, telephone at £4.00 and web at just 17p, reveal significant scope for efficiency gains through making reductions in avoidable contact in favour of customer self-service online. 

The subject for my presentation is ‘location, location, location’ and examines how successfully (or in some instances, unsuccessfully) local councils are providing location-based information for local residents.

With that mind-boggling array of information resources provided on a local authority website it can be a nightmare for a citizen to find information about relevant local services or to access them.

Many councils are now introducing a Find My Nearest (or FMN for short) facility whereby you can type in your postcode and the site will tell you about council and other service facilities which are available in your neighbourhood. Salford’s ‘Your Council’ facility is a good example of this (I would say that, however … I designed it!). Try it for yourself at (sample postcode = M27 4EA).

My presentation will focus on FMNs from a citizen perspective. How easy are they to use in the first place, and to find relevant information? Some councils are better than others in this respect.  

Many implement a GIS-based mapping system which is very complex to use, and really better suited to an internal audience than a local resident – turning on/off map layers that show historical data (when it works) isn’t necessarily helpful to Mrs Smith who just wants to find her nearest recycling point! A good example of this particular genre (that is, an unhelpful FMN) is Comhairle nan Eilean Siar‘s GIS-based service which was clearly designed without the customer in mind! Try postcode HS1 2BW for this one.

So the general thrust of my presentation is to encourage councils to examine how effective their FMN implementations actually are. Are they genuinely useful resources for local residents, or have they been designed without taking the customer into account?

I’m looking forward to it. I just hope that my back doesn’t play up on the day, that I can stand on the dais and speak without wincing too much. Medication will see me through I’m sure.

If I pull it off, it’ll be a tremendous boost to my self-confidence (which has taken quite a knock this year) and be – hopefully – the first tangible evidence to me that I can return to employment soon.

*source: NWEGG

Butterflies: FAQ

There have been many sightings this summer of people suddenly leaping to their feet, rushing out of the house, darting about wildly for a few moments, then coming back looking disappointed.

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

Yes, because of global warming, there are a lot of lepidopterists about.

These shy, restless creatures, with their distracted air and jerky movements, are on the lookout for butterflies. A A quiet meander in the garden can be disrupted when someone unexpectedly whispers “painted lady” and then tiptoes in an exaggerated theatrical way towards the shrubbery.

It’s quite common now to see red admirals in January or February. Since we are clearly overrun by butterflies, I thought it would be a good idea to deal with some of your questions that have trickled in about them.

Why do they flutter about all over the place with no apparent sense of purpose?

It used to be thought that they suffered from chronic indecision and also had very short memories so they had no recall of which flower they had already visited. Now experts believe it is all due to agonies of guilt. Butterflies have acquired a vague inkling of chaos theory and are under the impression that whenever they flap their wings they could be causing a tornado on the other side of the world. This would be enough to make anybody flit haphazardly.

What is the plural of chrysalis?

Not knowing how to refer to more than one chrysalis has inhibited many people from entering into conversations about butterflies. For some it has actually become a taboo subject. In an emergency, the best thing to do is to say “pupae”.

Do butterflies sting?

The male meadow brown will attack if it thinks its mate is being threatened. The venom can be fatal, but more often it causes hallucinations. The victim is convinced he is being attacked by giant hawk moths.

How do I identify a butterfly?

If in doubt, say “tortoiseshell”, unless it is a cabbage white, in which case you should say “orange wingtip”, because it will be several gardens away before anybody can check.

What do I need to know about caterpillars?

The rule is that the most exotic, garishly coloured, hairy caterpillar with horns at the back and an air of menace will turn into a nondescript, boring butterfly. And the dreary green maggoty one will emerge from the chrysalis as a rare and stunning beauty. It’s a lesson about life, really.

What happens on butterfly farms?

These are places where they breed vast herds of pedigree red admirals or peacocks. As they roam freely over the hillsides, the difficult job of herding them is done by tough weather-beaten men on horseback – known as “butterboys” – who mostly come over from Australia. The annual butterfly round-up is an impressive sight, but you wouldn’t want to be in the wrong place when they stampede.

Because butterflies are so hard to control, some farmers have decided it is better to start training them at an earlier stage in their development. A few people have special gifts as “caterpillar whisperers”, and they can win the confidence of the caterpillars while they are still “on the leaf”. The extraordinary thing is that the very special words used by the whisperers are remembered by the chrysalis and, later on, every butterfly will come when its name is called.

Are there any new species of butterfly?

Yes. Two new species have been recently authenticated by the Antenna Association, the butterfly equivalent of the Kennel Club. One, known as the dinky retro, is small and neatly patterned in shades of mauve and green. It is believed that it adapted itself so that when it settled on Laura Ashley fabrics and wallpaper it would be perfectly camouflaged.

Changes in home-decoration fashions have endangered the dinky retro and efforts are being made to create suitable environments for it.

The other new species is the speckled costa, an urban dweller. As it flits past you in the street, it looks exactly like one of those empty sugar sachets blown on the wind from the table of a coffee kiosk. That is usually exactly what it is.

Summer holiday prize draw

Your big chance to make a difference!

How would you like to run the country for three weeks while Gordon Brown is away on holiday? It couldn’t be easier. I’m offering the unique opportunity for one lucky reader to take command of Downing Street this summer in the absence of the Prime Minister following news this week that the political contenders for the role are causing Gordon Brown a few headaches.

punch judyAll you have to do is answer one simple question to be entered in my Grand Prize Draw. Here is the question: What sort of hat does a cowboy wear? Is it: a) a Datsun, or b) a Stetson, or c) a Simpson?

You can telephone your answer to my premium telephone line or send us a text, costing £30 a time. Remember, you have to be over the age of 16 to enter.

The winner will be picked up from his or her home and taken by chauffeur-driven limousine to Downing Street. On the journey there will be a briefing on the current political situation by the chauffeur.

After being photographed waving, you will be ushered into Number 10 to take tea with the Cabinet Secretary’s PA’s secretary ‘s admin assistant and will be shown the actual sofa where all the important decisions are taken. You will then be presented with an easy-to-follow handbook How to Run the Country which you will be able to keep as a souvenir after your stint at Number 10.

The handbook gives tips on such matters as waving-while-walking, how to check for messages on the PM’s answering machine and what to do if the hotline develops a fault. It also contains a speech saying that you’re monitoring the situation closely – just in case there is an unexpected international crisis and you can’t get Douglas Alexander on his mobile.

I have organised a packed diary for your weeks in office. On the first Tuesday you will be showing a party of schoolchildren round the Department of Work and Pensions then later rushing to Heathrow to greet the Bolivian holiday relief foreign minister on a stopover on his way to Paris. (If the holiday relief foreign minister is not available I’m hoping to line up somebody from a Taiwanese trade delegation. If that is not possible you will have the option of sending messages of goodwill to various countries.)

With a bit of luck, you may be able personally to scramble the RAF to deliver something that Sarah Brown has forgotten to take on holiday. And I’m arranging for you to summon the Secretary of State for Defence to Downing Street for urgent talks. Pressure of work means it won’t be the actual Secretary of State, but a Mr R.G. Higginbottom, who is believed to be 17th in line of seniority at the ministry and is said to be “very big in camouflage”.

The highlight of your time in charge will be Your Very Own Crisis. (See page 86 of your handbook for the illustrated guide on “How to look grave”.)

You will be the envy of all your friends as you come out on to the pavement outside Number 10 to announce to the cameras that the situation is now under control, but as a precaution you are cancelling all leave for the Corps of Commissionaires. I’m hoping to lay on the level of crisis that will allow you to say: “The Prime Minister will not be flying back early from holiday, but I am, of course, keeping him fully informed throughout.”

There will be ample rehearsal time before your big press conference and leading political speech coaches will train you in how to say: “This is just one of those silly season stories and I’m not even going to dignify it with a comment. All I will say is that the Government is getting on with the job it was elected to do.

So, for the experience of a lifetime, just get the old brain working on that question about cowboy hats and you could be the one in the saddle. If you think you know the answer, get telephoning or texting to win your place in history. Or you can enter by post, marking the envelope “Acting Prime Minister”.

I can guarantee that you’ll enjoy yourself so much running the country that you won’t be able to resist writing your memoirs. And for the runners-up there are 100 life peerages to give away. The next 100 runners-up get the chance to enjoy a whole week as head of the quango of their choice. So hurry – a week is a long time in politics!

One final point: when sending in your entry to the quiz please also include your head size.

As Acting Prime Minister, the winner will be fitted with a special safety helmet for being photographed while doing a walkabout at an ambitious building project – details yet to be confirmed.

If the eventual winner ducks out for any reason, Lord Mandelson will stand in for him/her.

Live commentary from SW19

‘We’re going straight over to the Centre Court to see what is happening there.”

“Yes, Sue, this promises to be an absorbing match between the Unseeded Latvian and the Dull American. They’re coming onto court now, carrying gigantic kit bags over their right shoulders. The Latvian’s bag is bigger and heavier than the American’s. Obviously he’s relying on his larger bag to gain a psychological advantage.”

“I’ve often wondered what’s in those bags, John.”

“Laundry, mostly. Players accumulate a great deal of dirty washing on the tour, Sue.”

“So that’s why these players are wearing ill-fitting tops from charity shops. They’ve run out of clean shirts.”

“Exactly, Sue. It’s interesting that the American has gone to Oxfam, while the Latvian’s tactics are to choose a superbly drab number from the NSPCC. Notice how the shirts ride up and expose their navels on the first serve, but the American has also managed some navel exposure on his second serve.”

“Let’s go over to Court Number Two, where there’s an exciting women’s match between Elena and Elena. Somewhat confusing, Mark?”

“Not really, Sue. All the women players this year are called Elena. Except Elena Williams, holder of the tournament’s official misprint and appearing as Serena. In this match, Elena has a slight edge over the other Elena because she can fit three balls into the back of her pants and the other Elena is managing only two. By the way, Sue, we have no fewer than seven idiots among the spectators who have painted their faces red, white and blue.”

“Fascinating stuff, Mark. The Centre Court just has a flash photographer. Let’s find out what’s happening there now. John?”

“Yes, Sue. The Latvian sent a first serve into the net and when the ball-girl, Rosemary Wilkinson, scampered across the court to fetch the ball, the electronic timing device timed her scamper at 94.3 mph, which is her personal best on grass.”

“Now I’m hearing that something is happening on Court One in the match between the Depressed Spaniard and the Exasperated Australian. Barry, what can you tell us?”

“Sue, they’re sitting, having a break between games. As you can see, the Spaniard is now eating half a banana. He may be giving himself a problem. This is a close contest with every game going to several deuces and, by the time he gets back for the second half of the banana, he’s going to find it brown and sloppy.”

“On Court Two, both Elenas have lost their first four service games and I gather there’s something going on. Mark can give us the details.”

“Yes, Sue, it’s been gripping stuff with long baseline rallies. It comes down to a contest between Elena’s disturbingly sexual gasps every time she hits the ball and the other Elena’s tragic sobs. In the crucial ninth game, Elena’s sobs so distressed a line judge that she burst into tears and had to be helped off the court.”

“Thank you for that. Over on the red button you can follow the whole of the match between the Depressed Spaniard and the Exasperated Australian, where I can tell you the Spaniard has not touched the second bit of banana, but he leads on towels. He was mopped himself with seven towels, while the Australian is on his fifth. Here on BBC1 we are staying with the Latvian and the Dull American.”

“Yes, Sue, and there you can see the Latvian’s girlfriend sitting beside his coach. They look very intimate. Do you think they are having an affair?”

“There’s certainly something going on there, John. How will this affect the Latvian’s backhand?”

“And Rosemary Wilkinson has just scampered across at 96.4 mph.”

“What do you think is going through the Dull American’s mind at the moment, John?”

“Well, Sue, he’ll be wondering how he can cope mentally with the Latvian’s much bigger kit bag.”