Tag Archives: writing

My postcode has a brand new blog – thanks to The Archers

fuckyeahstirchley homepage

Is it local journalism? Probably not but it was amusing to see how The Archers* triggered a chain of events resulting in a new hyperlocal blog and a deep funk theme tune for my own small but dear postcode in south Birmingham. How it happened in a minute, but first, please welcome:


And a round of applause for my B30 neighbour @graphiquillan who set it up, and the various contributors and curators who have made Stirchley look rather interesting if not downright pretty.

How B30 was reborn online on the night of 10 June 2010:

  • A London chum of mine texted to say Stirchley had been mentioned on The Archers* that day. Kudos for Stirchley from Radio 4 and the longest running soap opera in the world!
  • I duly sent a message to Twitter to alert the Birmingham massive (well, a few Twitter followers).
  • Graphiquillan suggested there should be a tribute site called ‘fuckyeahstirchley’ and before my train had pulled into Birmingham from London, she had set it up and invited several contributors.
  • FuckYeahStirchley then went live with the tagline: ‘Stirchley. You know, the one that got a mention on The Archers.’
  • The content flowed in: recent pictures, old images, reminiscences… who knew there was so much out there on little old Stirchley.
  • There was Cartland Road in a rainstorm, shots of the cream-and-blue 45 bus, a Co-op milk float (the Co-op dairy is no more), 70s actor Robin Nedwell who was allegedly born here, the now-closed public baths, the DIY stores, and much more.
  • Someone else from Twitter then grabbed the audio from the show and the original Archers Stirchley namecheck was posted. Here’s the infamous line: ‘I think Jack liked having another Brummie in the village – someone to reminisce about Stirchley with.’ [Insert your own unknown suburb in here to imagine just how exciting this is.]
  • Then @PeteAshton, also of B30, went one step further and put it to music – posting ‘The inevitable Archers Reminisce About Stirchley megamixmashup thingy. With beats.’ – listen all the way to the end for a lovely TeamAmerica-Stirchley-Archers signoff flourish.
  • It got picked up by a writer on the show and distributed to The Archers community on Twitter at 6am the next morning: ‘Peggy Woolley mashed up by the Stirchley massive: http://bit.ly/arjMaj via @peteashton#archers‘.

And so the circle was complete. That’s how we roll in Stirchley (non-marina end). Fuck yeah.


*The Archers (from Wikipedia): The Archers is a British soap opera broadcast on the BBC‘s main spoken-word channel, Radio 4. It was originally billed as “an everyday story of country folk”, but is now described on its Radio 4 web site as “contemporary drama in a rural setting”. With more than 16,000 episodes, it is both the world’s longest running radio soap and, since the axing of the American soap opera Guiding Light in September 2009, the world’s longest running soap opera in any format.


Birmingham, meet Birmingham!

Birmingham welcome sign at the Amtak stationThe great thing about not having a traditional print commission is that:

  • you can publish the end article in a format of your choice.
  • you can don’t have to write for a set demographic.
  • you can have an altruistic motive because, let’s face it, payment for travel features is so 2008.

So, last month I spent a day in Birmingham, Alabama. Being from Birmingham, West Midlands, I thought it would be a funny stop-off point and that Brummie folks back home might like to read about their namesake.

But the traditional print idea of ’24 hours in Birmingham, Alabama’ for a regional Midlands audience didn’t do it justice. And, for the three reasons above, my travel feature has transmuted into more connective material.

To answer the three bulletpoints above:

  • Chosen format: a theme blog
    I picked this because there were so many overlaps and connections, and fun stuff – from the entertainment districts of Five Points vs Five Ways, to Malfunction Junction vs Spaghetti Junction, to discussions over their version of Benny from Crossroads – that a single blog post wouldn’t have done the content justice. Similarly, a series of posts here would have been diluted by general musings on travel journalism. The end result is that a tale of two Birminghams is now a blog unto itself. Well, a Tumblr, because it was easier. It is currently named Birmingham, meet Birmingham – and I have around 32 connections just for starters.
  • Potential readership: Brummies and Bhammies
    So the potential audience is 1,250,000 – that’s the sum of two Birmingham populations, although the figure would be more like 5,000,000 if counting the Birmingham metropolitan area and Greater Birmingham, rather than just the cities themselves. The readership is not tied to a demographic but to a subject of interest – our two hometowns and how we benchmark with each other.
  • Altruistic aim: foster connections
    Travel journalism is a happy field. We present aspirational destinations and stories about those places that people want to travel to. At best, travel advertisers hope that readers will book their product off the back of reading a published feature. However, as I connected with Bham natives via the internet and then IRL, it seemed to me that there were more interesting outcomes than tourism. What if, for example, like an aunt at a singles party, I could introduce Birmingham to Birmingham? What if Alabama’s coworking space could connect with my local coworking space in Moseley, or Birmingham Museum of Art (AL) could talk with BMAG (UK) – could they share connections, swap ideas, learn from each other, have fun? Could businesses even start to trade, offering pathways into international expansion?

Ok, so the idea took off in my head and will probably have nothing to do with how users actually consume the content.

But at the same time, why the hell not? At the tweetup they held to welcome me to Birmingham Alabama, I discovered they’d heard of Birmingham: It’s Not Shit – one of the more well-known (and irreverent) guides to Birmingham UK. They also knew that Birmingham City Council had used the ‘other Birmingham’s’ skyline to illustrate a recycling leaflet. An easy mistake in some ways – after all, we get each other’s search results all the time. We had also nearly organised a Skype linkup last year as their BarCamp was on at the same time as ours.

So perhaps we could do something with this. Like the British Airways-sponsored MetroTwin, which connects places, sights and entertainments in London and New York, and also now London and Mumbai.

But the connections don’t just have to be limited to the touristic.

Why not ‘metrotwin’ Birmingham with Birmingham on many levels?

The information is out there on the Birmingham Match Tumblr, or will be by degrees. What people do with it is another matter.

Travel journalists! Ditch the fancy writing and just give me your travel notes…

Visual notes

© Len Kendall

Does anyone actually read those lengthy travel narratives in newspapers anymore? After all, travel features are really just a vanity in that the travel section is not written for you, the consumer, but for the advertisers who desperately need content on which to hang their product. This in turn funds the news part of the editorial mix – as Paul Bradshaw from the Online Journalism Blog reminds us in this Audioboo about the Times paywall.

I’ve been wondering what kind of travel writing/journalism a reader might actually want to read, now that the advertising imperative is pretty much defunct and traditional travel supplements on their way out.

As a consumer of travel writing, what do you actually want from a feature? Do you just read the first few pars of a lengthy travel article and then scan for the relevant bits? Or do you enjoy the poetic telling, wrapped up in a narrative, inside one particular (and privileged) writer’s experience?

Or perhaps you may just want to cut to the quick and see the summary or the travel notes? (I’m sure I’m not the only one who skips to the end of a feature to get the lowdown on whether the writer liked a place or not.)

In the interests of experimenting, as is the will of this blog, I was interested to come across Len Kendall’s series of visual note sketches taken at SXSW Interactive this year, a festival I also attended and struggled to write up because of its enormity and huge downloads of information. Above are Len’s visual notes on how to take visual notes – or you can visit his Posterous if you want to see the whole sketchnotes series.

I think they are cute but also show a mixed bag of results – some of the sketches make life very easy indeed, while others leave you hanging and full of questions. And yet…

I’m wondering if this could transfer to travel writing?

After all, travel journalists are trained to observe, collect and note experiences on a destination. And The Times has already got in on the travel sketching act in the form of George Butler’s Sketch Travel Blog –  of course, after June, the paywall means you won’t be able to see it, for free anyway.

I have a trip coming up soon to Paris. If my hands aren’t dead from taking notes at the conference I’m attending, then I might attempt to do create visual notes rather than write up a feature. I imagine it will look kind of like an ‘essay plan’.

We’ll see. Any further suggestions on how to ‘do’ travel writing differently, I love to hear ’em.

Tourist vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

How important is it to record your travels? This is the question I put to the explorer and Unbreakable tough guy Benedict Allen at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London this Saturday. I’m also interested in other people’s takes on this, and why they keep personal travel diaries?

Firstly, though, here’s Benedict Allen’s response:

It is crucial to record. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that a traveller simulates that experience (for others) and records it.

Explorers like travellers are in the business of reporting back and, increasingly, this is a justification for going. We can no longer see the world simply as a playground (I was pretty self-indulgent when I started out). I feel better looking back that I recorded my expeditions: through writing, filming and photography.

You have to remember that is it s privilege to travel – many can’t do it (for financial and other reasons) – but by sharing it you give others a chance to get out there.

Of course, Benedict Allen has been on some pretty unique and far-flung trips. He added that the Niowra tribe he stayed with knew that their way of life was disintegrating and wanted him to record their Crocodile Initiation Ceremony for posterity.

But is there much value in the rest of us contributing our travel writing to others, especially if we aren’t adventurers but say backpackers following a well-trodden trail – or playground as Allen calls it? Is there anything for the world to learn from us?

Are we breaking down prejudices through our travel writing or are we just underscoring them?

And why are we so driven to record our experiences beyond the tourist holiday snap? Why, for example, do I have around 40-50 travel diaries locked up in a trunk in my house!?

(Aside: I did it so that I would have my best memories in writing for if I ever lost my memory. But also there were ideas of having published books, being the new Anais Nin, and let’s not underestimate the sheer habit of it.)

Finally, is ‘recording the experience’ really a difference between tourists and travellers? Or is it just that travelling types are often on long journeys with hours to kill so out comes the diary/blogging platform – or do you think you can you still be a ‘traveller’ on a weekend in the Lake District?

Of course, the irony of staying up late to blog my weekend of travel writing isn’t escaping me. I’m also reminded of Jack Kerouac who recorded the beat years while Neal Cassidy was the person who fully lived them.

So my finally question I’m pondering is how would my travels have been if I hadn’t stopped to record them – would I have live more fully in the moment, or is it worth saving some back to relive them later on?

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: See the list that keeps Benedict Allen alive

Girl with diary

A (wannabe) travel writer takes notes in a leather-bound diary at the Travellers' Tales festival, London (Feb 2010)

The list that keeps explorer Benedict Allen alive

Benedict Allen is a pretty experimental traveller – known for heading off into the remoteness with not much more than basic kit, some porkscratchings and a handheld camera.

Over the years, he’s had run-ins with everything from venomous snakes to blood-letting head-hunters.

But sometimes it gets really, really bad…


Eating with the Mentawai tribe in Indonesia /cc Wikipedia

He’s written many books about his adventures and posted his list of kit and survival tips on his website, but I was fascinated to see his list of last resort at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London at the weekend [20 Feb 2009].

It turns out that Benedict Allen carries a piece of paper in his kit that keeps him alive as much as anything in his survival or first aid kit. The scrawled list contains several bolds, underlines and scribbled asides – you imagine done in desperation at some treacherous point in his journey – and reads something like this:

  • A way out. Exit.
  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened.
  • Clear goal.
  • Morale.
  • Break down impossible objectives.
  • Adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Work with forces bigger than you.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless /unpopular.

(Bulletpoints are mine.)

Royal Geographical Society theatre

Benedict Allen at the Royal Geographical Society theatre for the Travellers' Tales festival

At least that’s as much as I could note down as speed before the slide on the big screen shifted to something else and Allen, solo explorer, survival expert and ‘pioneer of adventure television, started to elaborate on how, especially in the worst of times, he still shaves and maintains discipline, to keep up morale.

Of course, the extreme nature of his Boy’s Own adventures, has led to a number of times when the shaving routine has been dropped. And that’s when the list comes into its own.

For example…

The Amazon Basin can kill you in myriad ways.

Allen used his piece of paper several times on the last 300 miles of an Amazon Basin expedition from a bit of Ecuador and Columbia (‘the boring bits’) across the widest and most dangerous expanse of the basin and into Brazil.

This is a region of earth that can kill you in myriad ways, says Allen, and after experiencing three near-death experiences on this trip alone, he knows what it is like to see hope fade and die.

The worst was when, after being rescued by illegal loggers after stumbling across their camp, he was later betrayed by them when they ostensibly escorted him on his way, only to rob him and leave him to die in the middle of nowhere with no route out.

‘Self-pity flooded me.’

‘It is rather bad when you are going to die,’ adds Allen, drily.

  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened – tick.

‘The reason I did survive was the people back home waiting for me. But also there was this incredible sense of liberation. If I was going to die anyway, I had nothing to lose. So I decided to steal one of my bags back.

  • Adapt to changing circumstances – tick.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless – tick.

‘I used tracking skills taught to me by Lucy [an eight-year-old girl he’d met earlier on the trip who had saved him from her five-year-old assassin brother], and tracked the two men. Then under cover of darkness I stole one of my bags.’

  • Play to your strengths – tick.

‘But I still had 100 miles to go – through dense rainforest. I had a survival kit and compass but no map. I thought, I can’t do it. I can’t do 100 miles.

‘Then I thought I could do 100 paces. So I got a stick and walked 100 paces. I notched it on the stick and it wasn’t long before I needed a new stick.

  • Break down impossible objectives – tick.
  • A way out. Exit – tick.

‘I began to believe in myself again.’

‘I wasn’t alone as there were all these people in my head – the Niowra tribe from New Guinea, the little girl, all those I had learnt from.’

  • Morale – tick.

Finally, he shows a slide of him walking barefoot and ragged out of the Amazon, wearing trousers that have rotted away into shorts and his girlfriends t-shirt. ‘Her t-shirt just kept looking better and better.

‘Never underestimate the power of women’s clothing.’

Benedict Allen shows the ladies his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea

Benedict Allen shows his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea - he survived that but will he survive the circling pack of lady travel writers?

Once again he had survived.

A fan once called him a cat who has used up six of his nine lives but Keyboard Cat isn’t playing him off just yet. Yet what keeps him (and people in general) going is what he is talking about at the Travellers’ Tales festival.

In fact, he makes sure to announce that he’s not just talking about survival instinct but that moment when your dreams disappear, things seem hopeless or death itself seem inevitable.

He also mentions depression: ‘Did you know 1 in 10 men suffer from depression? In fact, I can see some pretty miserable people in the audience right now.’

And, what is really good about Benedict Allen’s speech at Travellers’ Tales, is that here is someone who has faced the absolute worst of times and not someone who is there to brag about having been there and done that.

And when you look at his list, it seems a pretty wise and useful one, not just for extreme survival, but for life in general. My advice? Nick it!

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: Tourist Vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

Travel articles remixed?

Could there be a trend for releasing journalistic research or unused data for others to ‘remix’ – as I suggested when I released the ‘behind the scenes’ source material for two of my online travel features?

It’s been happening in music for a while with the likes of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails releasing downloads of his music for fans to remix – check out Remix.nin.com. [Thanks to TTV Pete for the heads up.)

Digital journalists like Joanna Geary have bookmarked source material in Delicious and shared them at the end of their features for transparency. Meanwhile more and more people are uploading their research and original writings to Scribd.

But reworking traditional journalistic product ? With a growing DIY culture online, why not.

After writing up my ‘Behind the scenes of a travel feature‘ series and opening out the source material, I was interested to discover that I’m not the only one testing the water of transparent research with the additional invitation to create something new from it.

The BBC has just released footage from its series on The Virtual Revolution, inviting viewers to make their own documentary from the film:

We are providing unedited professionally filmed footage from the series, for you to use. This includes interviews, aerial shots, graphics and music. Download them for free under our permissive licence, and mix them with your own ingenuity.

I wonder if tech journalist and presenter Aleks Krotoski was behind the decision? She writes on her blog that she wanted to ‘keep the process as transparent as possible’ and agreed to take part in the series because it was a multi-platform event. In fact, she released her interview rushes with the web elite back in November 2009 and invited readers to ‘Steal this!’ In her post, she says:

Each link below takes you to the Digital Revolution page that hosts the video. On that page, you can watch and – crucially – download the content to keep for your very own. No, really. So when I say ‘Steal This!’ in the headline, I mean it (obviously with caveats…). With this content, you can mix it up, mash it up, create your own story of the Web. More on that in a forthcoming post. For now, I will leave you with the goods.

People share their creative endeavours with each other online all the time. It’s interesting that working journalists are now (finally?) doing the same. I’d love to know if anyone know any other examples of this, particularly in the travel genre. And I’m wondering could this be the start of a trend? What are its possibilities? What are its limitations? And how can we experiment with this stuff?

Behind the scenes of a travel feature – pt 5: 101 romantic places around the world

Well, allegedly. Here, finally, is the source material that more than 100 PRs created via the TravMedia/Google Docs experiment. You can dip into it for reference or use it to create a whole new feature – just leave a link to your stuff in the comments so I can see it. (Also, scroll down for links to the rest of the series and the published articles):

The features

The deconstruction