DURING THE CORONA VIRUS COVID-19 EPIDEMIC
IN LINE WITH GOVERNMENT ADVICE EXETER FORUM IS SUSPENDING ALL FORUM ACTIVITIES IMMEDIATELY, AND WILL NOT RESUME THEM UNTIL WE ARE ADVISED IT WILL BE SAFE.
SUSPENSION OF EXETER FORUM ACTIVITIES
DURING THE CORONA VIRUS COVID-19 EPIDEMIC
IN LINE WITH GOVERNMENT ADVICE EXETER FORUM IS SUSPENDING ALL FORUM ACTIVITIES IMMEDIATELY, AND WILL NOT RESUME THEM UNTIL WE ARE ADVISED IT WILL BE SAFE.
Recently Forum members heard a talk given by the manager of the Exeter Food Bank, Mark Richardson. A number of perhaps misrepresented facts came out of his presentation. Firstly, instead of being skivers and scroungers, most, if not all, food bank applicants are working or are carers. Secondly, you cannot claim food bank donations simply by walking along to the premises and knocking on their door. Contrary to the impression conveyed by the tabloid media, you must first have been vetted by one of the referral agencies involved in social care. These include the Citizens Advice Bureaux, council housing support officers, children’s centres, GPs and health visitors, social services and some local charities. After they have vetted you, you are given a referral voucher which you take with you to the Food Bank. This they then exchange for 3 days' supply of food.
In 2018/19 the Exeter Food Bank provided over 6800 food parcels (or some 78000 kg of non-perishable food), over 2000 of which went to children. That is an average of over 130 parcels a week. Nationally over 1.6 million parcels were given out last year. But unfortunately demand for the service is increasing. The demand in 2018 was 23% higher than the previous year. And in the first three months of this year the run rate of food bank parcels given out has risen by another 31%.
Much of the rising demand for parcels appears to have been caused by the introduction of the Universal Credit scheme and the requirement for those moving on to it to have their benefit payments held back for 6 weeks. While, in response to criticism the government did reduce the 6 week wait to 5 weeks. that is still too long for those without any savings to survive without any income, and so the demand for food banks continues to rise.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that many of those forced to use food banks are honest, hard-working people doing their best to get by, but are doing low paid jobs that do not pay enough on their own to give a tolerable standard of living. Yet that delay before the receipt of benefits is a built-in feature of the new system despite the hardship it causes. Quite how this state of affairs is allowed to persist in the 21st century in a country which has the sixth largest economy in the world is difficult to fathom.
One might be forgiven for thinking that this is unacceptable in what is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Yet it is difficult to see conditions improving materially soon to the point that food banks will no longer be needed.
Unfortunately, Mark's stated ambition of putting himself out of work appears unlikely to be realised any time soon.
Recently a group of Forum members had a guided tour of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth. The tour guides were two volunteers from a theatre support group, one of whom had been a professional dancer.
The tour started with a brief history of theatres in Plymouth and of the building of the current theatre, which was designed by Peter Moro and completed 1982, when it was opened by HRH Princess Margaret. The theatre was built by Plymouth Council and one of the first questions asked by Peter Moro was what size of theatre did they want and as the Council had not come to any firm decision on size they asked what he would suggest. He responded by suggesting a 1300 seat auditorium, probably influenced by his experience in designing theatres such as the Festival Hall in London, serving an area with a much larger population than Plymouth. As it was unlikely that a 1300 seat theatre in Plymouth would be full very often and in order to avoid performers having to be faced with large areas of empty seats, Peter Moro developed a radical design having the ceiling and top floor of seats mounted on an hydraulic system of supports, thereby enabling the size of the auditorium to be 1300 seats or 800 seats depending on the show and the expected size of audience.
We were guided through the maze of corridors and rooms behind and below the stage area. The corridors are surprisingly narrow, with hardly room for two people to pass each other. It is thus difficult to see how they cope with productions involving performers dressed in large costumes and full skirted women's dresses. The walls and ceilings have no covering over the bare concrete used to construct it, which gave it the feel of the underground prisons often portrayed in films, in total contrast to the magical scenes being produced for the audience. We were shown one of the dressing rooms used by supporting cast members. This was just as bleak, although we were assured the stars of the show had more comfortable dressing rooms, some of them even including an en-suite shower room. It was pointed out that although the accommodation appeared spartan, it was a great improvement on the facilities in many of the older theatres.
In addition to the Lyric, the main auditorium, we were shown the Drum, a more intimate 200 seat auditorium which is used mainly for new plays and collaborations with small production companies. In 2013 an hospitality area was converted into a 50 seat community performance space called the Lab where we met three young people working on a project, with a stuffed fox sitting in the Directors chair! We were then shown the area underneath the main stage. Here there is machinery to raise and lower an area for an orchestra which had required cutting a pit through solid rock. The pit floods when there are exceptionally high tides! When being shown the main Lyric auditorium we were lucky to have the opportunity of seeing the warming up and practice procedure of a group of acrobats who were in the Cirque Macabre show, and met a group of South American stunt motor cyclists in the same show.
The 90-minute tour was excellent in showing the complexity of all the background work involved in providing a wide variety of live entertainment of a very high standard. All in all it was a very interesting visit.
For some time it has been an Exeter Forum tradition for Forum members to organise a members' holiday every two years. These 3 or 4 night trips have in the recent past visited Tenby in South Wales, Chester and its environs, and Constable country in Suffolk. This year's holiday, which ended recently, visited North Wales.
Starting from Exeter, the outward journey took us via the now toll-free Second Severn Crossing into South Wales, then north past the Brecon Beacons and through the beautiful rural scenery of Mid Wales, before arriving in the more rugged landscapes of North Wales, and our base in Llanberis.
Once based in our hotel in Llanberis there were a number of trips included in the basic holiday. On the first day we enjoyed a 2 hour boat trip along the Menai Straits. This presented us with sightings of porpoise, lots of seabirds, expensive homes on the banks of the Strait and views of the contrasting Menai Bridges. Other features of interest in the Menai Straits area we visited included Beaumaris Castle and Plas Newydd, a National Trust property whose principal claim to fame is its 58ft long mural by Rex Whistler.
Our second day was left free, but there were many options available in and near Llanberis to occupy us. One possibility is the Llanberis Lake Railway, a narrow gauge track running along one shore of Lake Padarn. Along its route is the Welsh National Slate Museum, originally the Victorian workshops associated with the vast Dinorwig quarry, and itself a fascinating relic of industrial archaeology containing among many other things a massive working water wheel of over 50 ft in diameter, the largest in mainland Britain.
There is also the option of visiting the “Electric Mountain”. This is the Dinorwig pumped storage hydroelectric scheme. The visit is closely supervised, no doubt for health and safety reasons given the scale and scope of the huge underground caverns visited. This massive civil engineering project entailed blasting some 12 million tonnes of granite and slate from within the mountains to create a massive subterranean turbine hall now housing six huge turbines and pipes and shafts. Its purpose is to faciliate the release of water from a lake up the mountain into a bottom lake, Lake Peris, through these turbines to generate a surge of electricity to cope with instantaneous peaks of demand on the National Grid.
Of course the key reason for staying in Llanberis is to ascend Snowdon. Llanberis is the bottom station of the Snowdon mountain railway some 2 minutes from our hotel, and a number of members availed themselves of the opportunity to visit the summit of the Mountain by this means. It is not thought that any Forum members attempted to walk to the summit; but younger visitors may well do so.
Our final day started with a short drive to Caernarfon where we boarded the Welsh Highland Light Railway. In old-style carriages on wooden slat seats this took us on a winding route through the beautiful landscape of the Snowdonia National Park, passing through the Aberglaslyn Pass to Porthmadog via Beddgelert. Once in Porthmadog the options included staying in the town itself to see what it had to offer, visiting the Boston Lodge railway engineering works, the world's oldest railway workshop, or visiting Portmeirion village.
The homeward journey took us through the spectacular landscape of the Llanberis Pass before a break in Llangollen. We then passed through Shrewsbury and Telford and then onto the M54 and the M6/M5 back to Exeter.
The trip turned out to be a great way of to getting to know other members better, exploring a distant and fairly inaccessible part of our varied country and a very enjoyable – but full-on - experience.
The Forum's talks programme has continued in recent weeks to deliver a series of fascinating and stimulating talks on a wide range of topics. We have heard from the Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall. We heard from the Manager of the newly opened Exeter IKEA store about how the company went about designing and constructing its Exeter store, and the selection process it set up to find those it needed to staff the store. The following week we had a talk from the local agent of the Bank of England who gave us a statistically quite dense presentation of economic data, both nationally and for the local area. She offered some thoughts on how things might unfold going forward, although forecasting is made doubly difficult at present given the uncertainties over Brexit. However what was encouraging as far as the Exeter area is concerned is that we have both the lowest unemployment and the smalest proportion of economically inactive people in the whole country. Indeed the IKEA manager told us that there are 1.2 jobs available for each person seeking work.
Susequently, in a complete change of topic, we were given a literary appreciation of Winnie the Pooh, following which, in another complete switch of subject, we were given an overview of developments in the study of the relationship between science and religion. This thought-provoking talk touched upon Big Bang cosmology and the theology of creation, evolution understood theologically and categorisations of the science-religion relationship. With further shifts of theme in our next two talks, we heard the story of a French woman who, having spent time in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, ended up marrying an Englishman and settling in the West Country, and we were given some background about the local ladies, from all walks of life, who became prominent in Exeter's suffrage movement. We have also had a presentation about the sometimes enigmatic messages found on old postcards. This session included an opportunity for members to try writing their own amusing or poignant postcard message.
Our future programme continues to offer talks on a similarly wide range of subject matter.
After a 12 month hiatus due to falling numbers compounded by the need to resolve concerns over the nature of our insurance cover, Forum's Walking Group has been regenerated and with an infusion of new members is starting to operate as it did in the past.
Two walks were arranged before the end of 2018 to test the water. The first of these started from the Coach House restaurant by Escot House and explored the paths and lanes in and around the estate; the second was a shorter walk around Topsham that included an organ recital in St Margaret's Parish Church by one of our members.
Early in the New Year an inaugural meeting was held to lay down a programme of walks that was to start in earnest in February, and which is now in full swing. The first of the walks on the new programme covered that part of the Exeter Green Circle between Lidl at Wonford and Alphington Church, and succeeded in attracting a good number of participants despite a rather dreary day.
The second walk was around the Powderham Estate. Some members took advantage of their bus passes to travel to Kenton. Again there was a good level of support and those attending enjoyed a very pleasant easy walk through the parkland, along by the Estuary, and back to Powderham Castle Cafe for lunch. Well in evidence on the way round were a number of herons, who were collecting material for their nests.
The next walk started from Colaton Raleigh and took a route along paths, lanes and tracks first northwards past Yonder Hill garden, then towards Hawkerland, through Kingston and Stowford, crossing over the ford and back along a long wooded path to the Otter Inn for lunch. Numbers again were encouraging.
The most recent walk started at Newton Poppleford, some members again using their bus passes to travel out from Exeter, This was again a fairly gentle walk but with one or two short steep inclines. It meandered mostly on paths and tracks to Venn Ottery before a length of raod walking to Tipton St John. Here the road was left by the river bridge to follow the River Otter back down to Newton Poppleford and lunch for some at the Cannon Inn. Again pleasant if overcast conditions were enjoyed by those attending.
Forum's longstanding regular programme of walks has been put on hold for the last year or so over concerns about the nature of the coverage afforded by Forum's insurance policy. That issue has now been resolved. Following a couple of walks undertaken at the end of last year to gauge likely interest, and a scoping meeting held on Thursday 17th January, a new programme is now starting to take shape.
Currently a draft programme has been established that it is hoped will take the group through to June. Currently leaders and general walk locations for the period up to the start of May have been established. This draft can now be seen on this site under the Walks tab. Further details will be added when available.
Forum members and guests were treated to an enlightening, amusing, and apt talk this week. Our speaker was Professor Brian Kirby. Brian qualified as a medic and ended up as a Consultant Physician to the R, D & E. His particular interests included heart and lung disease, and the prevention of disease. His talk was titled "A Lighthearted Look at Longevity", and centred on how to live to a ripe and active old age.
A graph plotting numbers dying versus age reveals that, while most die between around 60 and 85 significant numbers make it through into their 90s and beyond. The oldest person to have lived reached 122, and while she may have been somewhat exceptional, scientists reckon that humans have the natural ability to make it to around 110.
The fact of the matter is that very few people die solely of old age. And very few more die as a result of bad luck - diseases for which no cure is possible. Those two causes together amount to only 17% of deaths, leaving 83% down to other causes. The key message from the analysis Brian and others have undertaken is that some 43% of deaths take place earlier than they need to. They are the result of adverse lifestyle factors such as poor diet, smoking, insufficient physical activity, and excessive drinking. Brian's main message was that the harmful effects of all of these factors can be reduced simply by changes in lifestyle.
The fewer of these premature lifestyle related deaths that take place, then the average age of the population at death rises. Brian did however point out that other factors contributed to longevity in a positive way. These include having a good social life and having an optimisitic, positive attitude to living - a reason to live if you like. It was evident from an hour or so in his company that Brian very much practises what he preaches, particularly in his sunny outlook on life. All in all, an uplifting talk.
The Forum's speaker on December 5th was Hamish Marshall, the Scot who reports for BBC Spotlight South West. His brief was to tell us what being a local TV reporter entails, what equipment he uses, and to also tell us something of how the programme is put on air five nights a week.
Spotlight South West attracts some 300000 viewers each night. As such it attracts the highest audience per head of population of all the BBC evening regional TV programmes, and it also attracts many more viewers than the ITV local news programme. Even so, because of the rapid take up of smartphones and tablets, in common with all other regional programmes and national TV as a whole, its viewing figures have fallen quite significantly in the last 10 years, when they were around 400000.
Hamish had brought along the equipment he used to conduct his interviews, the camera, his smartphone, his tablet, his microphone, his two earpieces, a wind muffler for the microphone on his phone, and his make-up compact. Now that cameras have become much lighter and more portable, more often than not, the reporter films the interviews on location himself. Indeed while BBC Spotlight has 10 reporters, the station only has 5 cameramen.
It is well known that presenters need to have the facility to receive instructions from programme producers in the studio. What may not be as well known is that, sometimes, a south west local TV reporter may need to be in communication with two stations at once. Hence he needs two earpieces - one tuned to the Spotlight station in Plymouth - the other to the BBC South West station in Bristol. While taking these instructions, he could well be simultaneously speaking to the camera, reading off a portable teleprompter (his iPad) that he is controlling with his foot, conducting an interview, and operating the camera. It is evident that to be a successful BBC reporter one needs to be well coordinated.
Another feature of the job is that until he checks in at the start of his shift, he does not know where he will be sent to produce a report for that evening's programme. His normal patch stretches from Ashburton to Tiverton, Exeter and across to Axminster. However, as needs dictate, he can be sent anywhere within the south-west region. There was one notable occasion when he was initially sent up to Chivenor to do a piece about a helicopter there. When he had reached South Molton a call from the office directed him to conduct an interview at RNAS Yeovilton instead. Once he arrived at Yeovilton he was told that the interview there had been cancelled and that he was to go to Chivenor after all. It is a good job that he enjoys driving.
The most memorable trip he had was to Antigua, to interview two transatlantic rowers who had been rescued after getting into difficulties and were coming ashore on Antigua. As the two were based in the south-west, Spotlight editors felt it appropriate to send a reporter there to interview them when they reached dry land. Hamish said that when he checked in at the airline desk at Gatwick the counter clerk thought there must be something wrong with his reservation because the system had got him down as returning from Antigua the following day. Hamish had to confirm to her that that was indeed the case, notwithstanding her belief that nobody went to Antigua for less than a week.
He got his interview and returned the following day having spent the grand total of about 16 hours on the island. He said that on that trip, some 10 years ago, he physically had to bring the interview tape back with him before it could be editted and transmitted. Now, with the advent of smartphones, good internet or satellite communications and high speed data transmission possible from most places, the reporter can do the interview, edit it and then transmit it to the station whilst on location.
As well as being entertained, at the end of the hour the audience was much more informed about all the effort that goes into making that 26 minutes and 30 seconds of local news on BBC TV each weekday night at 6:30 p.m.
It is good to report that the Walking Group has started up again. Having rightly ignored the weather forecast, a group of 10 had a most enjoyable walk from Escot, where the little church was opened up to view, the walk being rounded off with lunch in the Coach House restaurant. The sun shone despite the heavy rain earlier in the morning, It is intended that regular fortnightly walks will start from Thursday February 7th and there will be shorter, more level, alternatives.
These will be a short walk around Topsham on Thursday December 13th, with coffee and an organ recital given by member Lorna Cowdry in Topsham's Parish Church part way round, and lunch in the Lord Nelson Inn at the end.