First Assignment as a Trainee Journalist – Brighton Half Marathon

After just two weeks of training, this morning I set out for my first day as a working journalist. With my shorthand still slower than my longhand and my mobile phone journalism skills still severely under par, I hit the streets of Brighton with my notepad and my smartphone. A few other trainees and I were sent out by the Argus to cover the Brighton Half Marathon. Our job was to live-tweet the event for the Argus website with quotes, pictures and videos.

The sun was rising over the ocean as I reached the seafront and the horizontal light washed over the pier and the frozen Madeira Drive. Everyone’s chins were buried in their chests and their hands thrust deeply into their pockets.

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We found the marquee at the start/finish line which served as a VIP tent for sponsors, event organisers, charity reps, elite runners and – this is the good part – press! We introduced ourselves to the media organiser who checked us off a clipboard and gave us our press passes. It was the first time I’d been given something that officially identified me as press. It was a very exciting moment!

The Argus team and I pored over a route map and decided where to position ourselves for the race. I was to stand at the roundabout by the Palace Pier to catch the runners as they went through. All the roads on the seafront were closed for the event. The runners would be passing through that junction four times over the course of the race, so it seemed like a good place to stand.

We left the tent to interview the runners and supporters who were beginning to fill Madeira Drive. Most people were happy to say a few words and have their picture taken and the charities were grateful of the media coverage. Everyone was very friendly and the runners were anxious to begin.

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I set off for my spot with fellow trainee Caitlin Webb about half an hour before the race began. There were railings up, holding back supporters, but out on the islands in the junction were stewards and police. That was where we wanted to be to get the best pictures, but we weren’t sure if we were able to go there with our passes. We strolled confidently past the barriers anyway with our press passes round our necks, half expecting to be sent back by the police. However, as we joined them, not an eyebrow was raised. The event managers just said hello and we all grumbled good-naturedly about the cold. The spectators were behind us; we were here as officials.

As the runners came through, we shot some good footage and snapped a few pictures, tweeting them for Gareth Davies of the Argus to collate into a live blog on the website. When the stampede past, the children’s mile run set off and we got some good material of the little ones running up and down the seafront. We continued like this as the runners came through the junction from different directions, until the elites were passing through for the final stretch.

I caught a decent video of police motorcycles leading the way like a presidential convoy, lights flashing against the riders’ tinted visors. The leader of the pack darted past, barely sweating, bearded and skinny. It was a great clip – police, cheering crowds, medic bikes and the runner – but as I uploaded it to twitter, my phone crashed. It had had enough. I was pushing it too far, uploading too many videos and photos to the internet, straining the clogged up 3G and demanding swift performance. It was incredibly annoying. By the time it was up and running again, it was twenty minutes later, most of the elites had crossed the line, and a shot of the leader coming into the final stretch was now redundant. I tweeted it anyway.

Supporters from Young Epilepsy
Supporters from Young Epilepsy

About an hour later, Caitlin and I entered the awards presentation area, flashing our passes, and took snaps of the winners receiving their trophies. It was tricky trying to grab the attention of the men and women on the podium when I was competing with seasoned photographers who were far less bashful about shouting at their subjects to look into the camera. Still, I got some good shots and tweeted them for the Argus.

We joined the other trainees in the funnel beyond the finish line and grabbed a few last photos, including one with Gethin Jones of Blue Peter and his friends who were running for Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. After that, my phone really did die, this time of a drained battery (note to self: buy a spare battery pack!).

It was a great day and exciting to be on assignment for a proper newspaper so early in the course.

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Splitting the Left – Labour or Green?

I’m a 22-year-old, left wing resident of the Brighton Pavilion constituency and a graduate of Environmental Science, probably the very model of a Green voter, yet in the last General Election I voted Labour.

There are a number of reasons for the way I voted, not least being a firm family history of Labour voting, but one of the biggest reasons was my fear of splitting the left vote, and in doing so, allowing a Tory win in my constituency. As it turned out of course, I was one of the left voters in Brighton Pavilion fracturing away from the more popular party. So even if voting Green in Brighton Pavilion isn’t splitting the left stock of votes at the constituency level, electing a Green MP to Westminster does split the left stock of seats in the Commons. But is that a problem?

There is the argument that a single Green MP is worth less in the Commons than an addition to a united party. On the other hand, there is the convincing argument that actually one Green MP is worth far more than just another Labour seat. Caroline Lucas adds diversity to the commons which is both democratically and intellectually healthy. If you are arguing in terms of democracy on a national scale, then it is hard to deny that there ought to be a Green voice in Westminster.

This debate then poses the question – am I voting for a voice in the commons, or am I voting for the party I want in government? The rules of the system, of course, dictate that we vote for our MP, our representative, but in reality, many of us vote for the party we want to rule. Voting this way would usually require asking yourself to make a choice between Tories or Labour, and if that was the decision I had to make, it would be an easy one. But to me, voting this way seems somewhat old fashioned. There can be little doubt these days that we operate in a multi party system and perhaps splitting the left isn’t something I should worry about and actually what I should be concentrating on is electing the most left party I can.

For some reason, I feel loyal to a party that, when I think about it, died out around the time I was born. If Labour loyalists are honest with themselves, their party is no longer the left wing party it once was. With this in mind, I can’t help but ask – is there any longer a left wing to split? In response to this, the argument can be posed that even if the Labour Party isn’t currently left wing, we still might be better off sticking with the established Tory opposition and shaping it into the party we want from the inside, rather than giving up on it completely. But that, of course, requires a lot more than simply voting for them.

So do I vote again for a party whose values do not correspond with my own, and remain hopeful that Labour will shift back to the left? Or do I move on, vote for a party whose policies I more closely believe in, and hope for a radical shift in the national allocation of seats? With Labour, I resign to selecting a better of two evils – a method of selection that has been the order of the day for leftists for almost two decades now, which, in itself, is a depressing thought. And with the Greens, I vote for what is currently a single voice in a very large chamber, but a voice that is nonetheless reflecting my views.

Cutting Off My Dreadlocks

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Recently, I cut off my dreadlocks. It was time for a change.

But the truth is, I was terrified to do it. I was about to remove my most defining physical feature and I was scared that I would lose my identity. There’s no doubt about it, when people see someone with dreadlocks they have certain preconceptions about what the person will be like. I know some of these preconceptions are negative, but many of them are positive, and having had dreadlocks for five years, I had become familiar with the identity people would project onto me.

The scary thing about cutting off my dreads was that I didn’t know how it would change people’s perception of me. (And by ‘people’, I mean strangers. My friends know me – to them I would look different, but I wouldn’t be different). Would it make me more  or less approachable? Would I become less attractive to people. Certain people were attracted to the dreadlocks because they were alternative and interesting. If you are what people perceive you to be – which, of course, you’re not, but you might as well be – then what would I be without my dreadlocks? I began to have a lot of self doubt. Was my personality strong enough for me to interest people even if I looked normal? Was my physical appearance filling in the gaps in my character?

This internal debate culminated in one morning, sitting in front of a mirror, holding my front dread between the blades of a pair of scissors. I sat like that for quite a while until at one point, the blades came together, and the dread fell limp in my hand. After that, of course, there was no going back.

Dreadlocks before the chop
Dreadlocks before the chop

The dreadlocks were far too established to brush out or pick apart, so my only option was to cut them at the root. Remarkably, when I was finished, I still had some hair left. I was worried I would have to buzz it clean and start from scratch. But no, luckily there was enough left to work with. It looked ridiculous of course, but it could be fixed, so I put on a hat and went to the barbershop.

When the guy was finished, I was surprised by how much I liked the new cut. It felt good for a change to have short hair and my head felt light and free. It’s much easier to manage now. Washing the dreads took forever because they soaked up the water like a sponge and took at least a day to dry out. Sleeping is easier now too. It was annoying sleeping with dreads because I would spend half the night pushing them out of my face or off the pillow. So practically, it’s a lot easier, but I also like the look.

All those worries I had about losing my identity have disappeared. I’m still the same person. I like the way I look now and have experienced no difference in the way people interact with me. I was over analysing how different it would make things by cutting my hair, when the truth is, nothing is very different at all. After all, it was just a haircut. I’ve come to realise that people actually pay very little attention to the appearance of strangers, which I suppose is both comforting and a little disheartening.

End result
The end result

Amsterdam

When you book a flight for 7:50 in the morning, it doesn’t, on the face of it, seem too early. Then of course you remember you have to show up two hours earlier to get to the right terminal, go through security etcetera. Then you factor in time to get a train to the airport. Then you realise you also need time to get from your house to the train station. Then you think it would be nice to have a shower and check through your bag before you leave the house in the morning, and suddenly you find yourself setting an alarm for four o’clock in the morning.

Packed and ready to go!
Packed and ready to go!

It was cold and pitch black when I left. I met Will, my travel companion and life-long buddy, on the way to the train station. He appeared silhouetted beneath a streetlamp as I kicked my heels at the end of his street. We had booked the trip just two days earlier when he found out he had an unexpected week off from the Navy.

‘This is too early,’ he said. ‘Did you sleep?’

‘Maybe an hour, you?’

‘Not really. I’ve been watching YouTube. I need to sleep.’

We shared the train with early commuters and arrived bleary-eyed in Gatwick, not quite ready for the electric white light that keeps the place looking the same 24 hours a day. We got through security with ease and passed the sparkling towers of duty-free gin and cigarettes.

The flight itself was fine and I woke myself up a bit with a cup of coffee. The only complaint we had about the flight was an odd one – it was too brief! We were hoping to catch up on a bit of sleep on the plane but found that as soon as we had taken off, we were served breakfast and by the time we were finished with that, we had to race down our cups of coffee in order to finish them before landing.

Only travelling with hand luggage, we were able to slip out of the airport at the other end quickly and get tickets for a train to Amsterdam Centraal. Twenty minutes later, we were there, winding our way along canals and over bridges, down alleyways and past coffee shops. The prettiest canals had trees lining their edges with stone bridges covered in love padlocks and chained up bikes. Some of the façades of the buildings were slanted, lending the place a sort of rakish, thrown-together feeling that was charming and distinctly the Amsterdam I had imagined.

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We were trying to find our hostel without a map. Unintentionally, we wandered through the Red Light district at one point and although it was only about midday at this point, some of the working girls were out in their windows. It seemed shocking at first – the openness with which their business was carried out. I knew we would find this in Amsterdam, but it was still surprising when a semi naked woman tapped her long fingernail on the window at us. Plenty of the windows were empty, of course. This was hardly their busiest time of day.

On the other side of the Red Light District, we found Nieuwmarkt Square and from there were able to muddle together our way to the hostel which was nearby. We checked in, dumped our stuff, and headed out for lunch. We still hadn’t done much research about what to see and do in Amsterdam and so decided to find somewhere with WiFi where we could grab a bite to eat and browse the web. We found a little cafe near our hostel and ordered some food. It was one of those places you find all over mainland Europe that seem to be somewhere between a bar and a cafe.

We did a bit of research and after a few glasses of beer with our lunch, the obvious thing to do seemed to be the Heineken Brewery tour. It was a bit of a walk, but not too bad and we were both full of energy after the beery lunch. The tour itself was a bit of fun. Admittedly, there isn’t much to tell about the process of making beer – it’s really quite simple – and the history of Heineken as a company isn’t enormously interesting. But all the same, it was fun to wander around and peer into the big copper brewing kettles and taste the wort.

Heineken brewing kettle
Heineken brewing kettle

After a brief tasting session of the finished product, the second half of the ‘Heineken Experience’ was almost entirely filled with camera gimmicks, like the kind where you stand in front of a projected image and wave your arms around to create swirling patterns. It’s the kind of thing you might have found in the Science Museum in 2001 but which in 2015 seemed outdated and less than impressive. At the end of the brewery tour there is a bar where you can trade in the plastic tokens that come with the ticket for glasses of beer. Everyone gets two tokens each, but we quickly realised that some people weren’t redeeming both and were leaving them around on the tables. Amateurs. We picked up what we could find and cashed them in for extras until we decided the bar staff were getting suspicious. We left the brewery chuckling like school boys and headed back to the hostel in a warm boozy haze. We made our beds in the dorm and snoozed for a couple of hours before heading out for a pizza dinner.

One of the camera gimmicks
One of the camera gimmicks

Luckily, we had a friend who was living in Amsterdam and who, by a pleasant twist of fortune, was celebrating her birthday that night. Phoebe messaged us details earlier in the day about where they were going to be, so we headed out to an area called Leidseplein and set about looking for them. Leidseplein is an area in the southwest of the city centre full of clubs and bars. We met Phoebe and her friends in a shooter bar on the edge of Leidseplein and were introduced to everyone. The barman spayed a line of alcohol on the bar and set fire to it, giving us marshmallows to roast. It was a strange experience.

Our group hopped from bar to pub to canal to club in a wild and whooping midnight drinking session with dancing and shouted conversations until we all became too hungry to dance anymore and left the clubs around three. However, by then, the food places were all closed so we wandered back disappointed and ate crisps in the hostel lobby.

Leidseplein
Leidseplein

Unsurprisingly, we missed breakfast the next day and only felt well enough to leave the hostel at about midday. The temperature was hovering around the zero mark all the time we were in Amsterdam, and on this particular morning, the sharp chill felt fresh and cleared our foggy heads. We had a steak lunch in one of the many Argentinean steakhouses and then headed to the Anne Frank house.

It was a sombre, pensive experience walking around the exhibitions in the Anne Frank House and climbing behind the bookcase into the Secret Annex which all those years ago was the hiding place of the Frank family along with the Van Pels and Fritz Pfeffer. It was astonishing to think of the two years the eight of them spent in that tiny annexe and hard to imagine what their life must have been like in there. There were videos of interviews with some of those who helped keep the annexe secret, as well as a couple with Otto Frank, the only resident of the Secret Annex to survive the war. At the end, there were a collection of Anne Frank’s original notes and diaries, and they seemed to me to be so fragile. Surely something so important and so influential should be made of something more robust than ink on thin sheets of paper.

After leaving the Anne Frank house, we felt we needed to do something a little less serious, so ventured over to the Sex Museum – a place where, upon entry, you are greeted by an animatronic man in a trench coat who pops out and flashes his rubber genitals at you, and where, as you head up the stairs, a plastic bottom mounted on the wall farts on you. I wouldn’t so much describe the place as a museum, more a vast collection of bizarre porn. When you get over the hilarity of a building filled almost exclusively by genitals, you realise there is very little else there. Still, they only charge you four Euros to get in, so what can you expect?

When you get over the hilarity of a building filled almost exclusively by genitals, you realise there is very little else there.
When you get over the hilarity of a building filled almost exclusively by genitals, you realise there is very little else there.

After that, to continue a seedy theme, we went back to the Red Light District to visit Red Light Secrets, the Museum of Prostitution. This was actually far more interesting and was undoubtedly a museum. The exhibitions were informative, the personal stories affecting and the content justified. There were examples of brothel rooms with signs giving personal accounts of prostitutes, some with positive experiences, others with very distressing ones. There was also a room with a couple of full length windows in front of high stools, exactly like the ones in the brothels, where you could sit and see the world as the prostitutes do. In that window I felt exposed, and I was fully clothed.

We wandered back to Nieuwmarkt past the Jolly Joker coffee shop and smelt the sickly sweet aroma of cannabis floating out of the door. It would have been nice to visit one of Amsterdam’s famous coffee shops, and it is certainly something one does whilst in Amsterdam, but unfortunately for us it was not possible. Being in the Navy, Will can get randomly drugs tested at any time. If he were to be caught with weed in his system he would get dishonourably discharged. He had never actually been drugs tested in all his time in the Navy so, in all likelihood, it would be fine, but the possibility was there, and the potential consequences were too great. As it happened, his ship was tested almost immediately after we returned home.

We had dinner that night in one of those cafe/bar hybrids around Nieuwmarkt. We were trying to find some Dutch food, but failed. Apparently their cuisine has a limited amount to offer. We did, however, drink a Dutch beer with our dinner, so that felt like a triumph. The waitress at first mistook us for being Dutch.

‘That must mean we’re good looking,’ Will said. ‘All Dutch people are good looking.’

We wandered through the Red Light District again on our way back to Leidseplein for another night with Phoebe and her friends. It was a whole lot different walking through the Red Light District at night. Almost every window was filled (other than those that were curtained and in use). Some of the girls stood sullenly texting on their phones, only occasionally looking up to pout at a potential client. Others swayed seductively or smoked cigarettes. The alleyways and roads were filled with groups of tourists and drinkers, and with the occasional single man, clearly looking to buy. A group of boozed up English forty-somethings, dashed from window to window like kids in a sweet shop, shouting at each other and splitting up as some of them stepped inside. I’ve never been to a more sleazy place, but it was fascinating.

Red Light District
Red Light District

We met up with the others in Leidseplein and this time had a much more composed evening pleasantly chatting and sipping a few beers before going for Dutch style chips with peanut sauce. Apparently the peanut sauce with chips is a Dutch thing, so we sort of achieved our goal of getting some Dutch food.

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The next morning, we made it up in time for breakfast and then set out to rent bicycles for the day. It was our last day and cycling around Amsterdam was one of the things we both knew we wanted to do. We both fancied ourselves as the kind of travellers who could blend in seamlessly with the locals by behaving in the same way – a sort of ‘when in Rome…’ mentality. However, if it wasn’t clear by our inexperience with Amsterdam traffic, then the paint jobs on the bikes would have given us away. Whilst everyone else cycled about on bikes with neutral colours, the bikes the rental shop supplied us were bright green – an almost fluorescent shade. Nevertheless, they were great fun.

They took a little getting used to though because the brakes were not on the handlebars, where I instinctively reach for them. Instead, to slow down, you have to pedal backwards, which feels a little weird at first. The bikes are specially designed for flat streets and only have one gear. We cycled out to the Van Gogh Museum, which I’d been looking forward to since arriving in Amsterdam.

Hardly a subtle shade of green
Hardly a subtle shade of green

The Van Gogh Museum was just incredible. At the entrance there is a room full of his self portraits, and then as you go up through the floors you work chronologically through his life. It was strange at times looking at paintings that were so familiar to me. Sometimes you have to stop and remind yourself that this is it, the real thing – this is, for example, the bedroom painting, or one of the sunflower paintings or Van Gogh in his straw hat. You can see the texture in his brush strokes and you can picture him over a hundred years ago standing in front of the canvas, adding the finishing touches.

It was good to see his art arranged into the different periods of his life, and to see the development of his work, from the rural days and earthy tones of The Potato Eaters, to his discovery of impressionism in Paris, to the bright and colourful paintings in Arles, to the flowers and gardens of the asylum in Saint-Rémy, and to the turbulent intensity of Wheat Field With Crows in the last weeks of his life. It is worth going to Amsterdam just for that museum.

We had lunch in a nearby cafe and then went into the Rijksmuseum which is right next to the Van Gogh. If you haven’t been to Amsterdam, you will know it from everyone’s Facebook pictures as the museum with the red and white ‘I amsterdam’ letters outside. The Rijksmuseum is vast and full of all sorts of exhibitions, but is most famous for its second floor. These grand rooms with their pillars and high ceilings are home to the paintings of the Dutch Masters, like Rembrandt and Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen. One room is dominated by Rembrandt’s sweeping Night Watch which covers a whole wall between pillars. Although, for me, the style is not as appealing as Van Gogh’s more modern impressionism, it’s hard not to be taken in by the sheer grandeur and dignity these paintings possess.

You've seen this picture before
You’ve seen this picture before – The Rijksmuseum

After leaving the Rijksmuseum, we took the bikes for a ride around the nearby Vondelpark. The park is a long strip of greenery in central Amsterdam full of trees and ponds. Parts of the ponds were frozen over and herons sat on the edges looking fed up. Wide paths weave around the park and we ambled around on our bikes, enjoying cycling without traffic. Many others were cycling there. It was peaceful and the activity of pedalling pushed out the cold.

As we rode back to the bike shop, it was rush hour and we found ourselves in huge crowds of cyclists. There were very few cars so it felt safe, but there were hundreds of cyclists swarming around and weaving in and out of one another. It felt confusing and exciting. We dropped the bikes off, collected our deposits and went back to Nieuwmarkt for dinner.

Nieuwmarkt
Nieuwmarkt

That evening we went to a bar called Rock Planet. It was a narrow little place full of electric guitars and low light. Ozzy Osbourne was screaming over the sound system, followed by AC/DC, Guns n Roses, Megadeath and Mötley Crüe. We sat at the bar and ordered beers. We loved it there. It reminded us of places that have since died out in Brighton. I slung my leather jacket over the bar stool and felt right at home. As it got later, we asked the girl behind the bar if she knew any good alternative clubs in town. She had a pierced lip and a Guns n Roses tee shirt on, of course she knew.

She recommended a place just off Leidseplein called The Watering Hole which had live music on that night. We trudged over to Leidseplein and found the place. It was heaving and kitted out in the same rock n roll shitkicker style that Rock Planet had had. We drunk half-litre mugs of beer and bobbed our heads to the band. Two female singers were backed up by two guitarists and an incredible drummer who moved the crowd with tumbling licks. The guitarists occasionally beat out squealing solos and everyone in the room yelled. Beer was spilt and hands were raised, and we spent the whole night there.

We missed breakfast again the next day and only just made it up in time for check out. We left Amsterdam feeling sleep deprived, which lent a pleasing symmetry between our arrival and now our departure.