Speed Kings

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For all the trials, tribulations and tearing my hair out, I don’t half get to do some cool things courtesy of my job.

I’ve visited Auschwitz, I’ve seen one of my favourite bands Ash play… in Ash and I’ve set a hot lap at the Top Gear test track.

So it was with no second invitation I gamely joined colleague Tom Smurthwaite at Mercedes-Benz World to meet a rather special guest – that’s him at the top, the bloke in the white top looking 7,373,245x cooler than us two numpties.

Yes, on Thursday, we got to spend an afternoon at Brooklands – and a few fraught minutes with former McLaren driver, three times F1 champion and all round nice bloke Lewis Hamilton.

Lewis thrashed us around the Brooklands test track while we tried to lob a few questions in his direction – and keep our lunches down. Easier said than done.

So what, I hear you ask, did we establish? Well, Lewis has been impressed with new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas’s performance, he’s looking forward to the new season and the 2017 rule changes, and our little sortie at Brooklands, when Lewis was (so far as we were concerned) absolutely nailing it, was the small matter of ‘about 5%’ of what he experiences in F1. Eeesh.

“Any plans to move here [Surrey]?” quipped Tom.

“Nope. It’s the weather – it’s freakin’ cold! Maybe in the future though, when things settle down,” said Lewis.

You heard it here first.

We also had a quick nose round Mercedes-Benz World itself, which is a pretty incredible place too. Besides all the track experiences, the centre is, well, as shrine to all things Mercedes, on and off the track. It’s free all year round so you can drop in when you like. They even show the races live on Sundays in the building’s two cinemas – again, completely free.

There’s even an exploded F1 car – 3,200 components carefully and meticulously strung up from the rafters. It took three months to make. If you’re an F1 fan, it’s kind of awe-inspiring, it must be said.

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You can see our full video package from Brooklands over at Get Surrey.

Top Oh Dear

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Okay, that’s official the worst headline I’ve ever written. But nevermind.

This week, me, and my Get Surrey colleagues Michael Pearson and Georgina Townshend, were revealed as the new hosts of Top Gear.

Yes, really.

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Well, actually, no – not really. Let me explain.

Top Gear has long been shot at Dunsfold Park, just a few minutes drive down the road from our office in Guildford. We loosely cover developments on the show, particlarly filming of the new-look shot post Clarkson, Hammond and May.

And after a bit of badgering, the team down at Dunsfold Park were kind enough to invite us down to experience a bit of the Top Gear magic for ourselves, namely, an Ariel Atom driving experience for Michael while Georgie went out for a spin with The Stig.

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Me? Well the honour fell to me to set a laptime on behalf of Get Surrey and become, for one lap only, the star in a reasonably priced car.

On what Clarkson and co might call a ‘mildly moist’ track, my instructor guided me round a practice lap in the track’s Kia Cee’d and with just that single lap under my belt, I gave it the beans.

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The result – a stirling, dare I say it so myself, 1:52:17 on what my instructor later upgrated to a ‘very wet’ track. Not bad, not bad at all.

Get Surrey; slower than Jonathan Ross and Nick Robinson, but faster than Louie Spence. Bonza.

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You can watch Get Surrey’s full episode of Top Gear here.

Ash… in Ash

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I wrote a little ditty about this earlier this year – essentially, a man from the newspaper patch area I cover won a competition to bring the band Ash to his back garden… in the Surrey village of Ash. It was one of the most fun mornings I can recall, and a real treat for me as a big Ash fan.

So here are some of the pics I took that morning that have been lurking on my phone for quite some time, and a few courtesy of one of our photographers.

Absolute Radio Breakfast Show broadcasting from Ash, Surrey, with the band Ash performing after a competition was won by a local listener. James Chapple with Ash

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Absolute Radio Breakfast Show broadcasting from Ash, Surrey, with the band Ash performing after a competition was won by a local listener.

Dalai Lama, Aldershot

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It doesn’t matter where you work as a journalist, each and every local news patch has its quirks responsible for all manner of weird and wonderful goings on – in my case, Aldershot.

This year, Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, paid Aldershot its second visit in just three years, ostensibly to open the town’s long-awaited Buddhist Community Centre.

Aldershot has long been home to a largely Buddhist Nepalese and Gurkha community, a relationship built on decades of militaristic cooperation. The town still houses the Queen’s Own Gurkha Logistic Regiment, with thousands of its recuits having fought alongside British soldiers in conflict zones all around the world. They are a credit to Nepal, to the British Army, and to Aldershot.

But this relationship has not been without tension, most notably Joanna Lumley’s 2008 Gurkha Justice Campaign seeking greater settlement rights for ex-Gurkha soldiers who have served the Crown, her father having been a Gurkha himself. The result was the arrival of thousands of Gurkha families in Rushmoor borough, an influx many residents believe the borough was not adequately prepared for. I’m not going to tackle the complex ins and outs of this debate here though.

I can only stress it was an honour to cover the Dalai Lama’s visit to the EBB Stadium on Monday where he addressed thousands of supporters.

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Cambridge Military Hospital

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My job opens a lot of doors, in this instance, doors that first opened in the 1870s and shut permanently in the 1990s.

Grainger Plc is currently transforming a swathe of former military land in Aldershot into the vast 3,850-home ‘Wellesley’ development.

The development is named after the Duke of Cambridge, Arthur Wellesley, who has long been immortalised in Aldeshot where a bronze statue of the duke astride his faithful horse Copenhagen watches over the town.

At the heart of the Wellesley development is the famous Cambridge Military Hospital, which opened in 1879 and finally closed in the mid-1990s.

It is as iconic a building as Aldershot will ever boast and canny as ever, Grainger are making the Cambridge a centrepiece of Wellesley – likely to be transformed into desirable flats and apartments.

On Monday, the Aldershot News & Mail was given a rare tour of the now dilapidated hospital ahead of its renovation. You can read my more formal take on that here (images courtesy of my friend and far superior photographer Sophie Garrett).

Below are a few of the pictures I took.

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#AshWednesday 2.0

Earlier this year, I considered myself pretty bloody lucky to land myself a ticket for Ash’s comeback show in London on February 18 (that’s Ash Wednesday, if you hadn’t already guessed).

Little did I expect, three months later, to spend my Wednesday morning in someone’s back garden (in the Surrey village of Ash) watching Ash perform their hits Girl From Mars and Shining Light in front of barely 30 people.

It was a suitably surreal experience. So rather than explain it all over again, here’s my write up for Get Surrey.

Holocaust Memorial Day

Shortly after I started my job here in Guildford, I was offered the opportunity to accompany a couple of hundred teenagers from across Surrey on a trip to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).

Nick Clegg came along too. It was an extremely unusual and moving day, one that will stick with me for the rest of my life, as I’m sure the experience of visiting Auschwitz does for all who set foot there.

I was perhaps only three or four months into my job by the time the trip came around and I still look back at this piece with a degree of pride, if only for somehow managing to collect myself and my thoughts before regurgitating them in a vaguely coherent manner.

Before I wrote this post, I had perhaps cast an eye over this article once since it was published back in October 2012. It’s somewhat strange to read it more than two years later, and arguably, two years wiser.

Today (January 27) is Holocaust Memorial Day. It’s some 70 years since the liberation of the indescribably vast Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland, and 75 years since the town of Oswiecin – then, ironically, something of a beacon of inter-faith tolerance – was so cruelly cemented into the history books.

We’ve all seen pictures of the various Nazi death camps. They are, thankfully, a part of our common conscience in 2015. At best, they serve as a reminder of an atrocity the world simply cannot allow to be repeated. At worst, they hark back to an atrocity the horrors of which echo to this day, having since been repeated in Congo, Armenia, and at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War, among others.

But nothing, absolutely nothing I’ve ever seen, compares with gazing out of one of the central guard towers at Birkenau, the biggest of all the Nazi death camps. It is simply breathtaking. You can’t process it there and then. The fact I can recall it so vividly more than two years later is perhaps an indication of the time is has taken, and continues to take, me to rationalise it.

Fortunately, Times journo Hugo Rifkind has managed to do so in a far more succinct and eloquent manner so I heartily suggest reading his post for the HET, which was published on Sunday (January 25).

Nous sommes tous Charlie

“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees,” Stéphane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier told French newspaper Le Monde in September 2012.

Always defiant in the face of authority, opposition – even death threats – Charb was, until today, editor of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, the magazine responsible for publishing a caricature of the prophet Muhammad in November 2011.

It’s perhaps fitting tributes were today led by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop after Charb was among 12 people, including fellow cartoonists or satirists, who were gunned down at the magazine’s offices in Paris.

“I am appalled and shocked by this horrific attack,” said Hislop. “A murderous attack on free speech in the heart of Europe. Very little seems funny today.”

It is thought the three attackers were Islamic militants. Witnesses said they heard cries of Allahu Akbar, ‘God is Great’, as they stormed the building, reports The Guardian.

French President Francois Hollande was quick to condemn the attack – “no barbaric act will ever extinguish press freedom,” he said.

As I write this, people are gathering in city centres across France and in other European countries to decry this heinous act that many, like Hislop, rightly describe as a direct attack on free speech.

United under the Je Suis Charlie slogan, it’s a reminder of the vast fortune we share living in a society where free speech is overwhelmingly accepted, even when we overstep the mark.

It is a cornerstone of the industry that is, currently, my life – barely a day goes by when a journalist doesn’t have to make a judgement call of one kind of another, often moral or ethical. Occasionally, we get it wrong.

When we do, we expect to be criticised, to be lambasted, to be pilloried – not executed. And I should stress I am not for a moment suggesting Charlie Hebdo should have toned down their acerbic, raucous editorial stance. It should be celebrated.

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At 10.28am today, despite the numerous threats made against the publication in recent weeks and months, Charlie Hebdo posted its final fateful tweet – a cartoon featuring a depiction of the self-proclaimed caliph of Islamic State (IS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“Meilleurs voeux, au fait,” it read, sardonically – ‘especially good health’.

The four Charlie Hebdo cartoonists killed today, led by Charb, consistently swore they lived and worked by no law but French law, while also refusing to be cowed by threats from any extremist factions, Islamic or otherwise.

For Charlie Hebdo; everyone was a target – politicians, religious icons, society at large. Their crosshairs did not discriminate, unlike those of the three gunmen who witnesses, it was widely reported, said went from person to person, seeking out their targets individually.

The thought of my life being at risk for adopting a standpoint that is contrary to or even offensive to others is not one that unduly concerns me; it is the thought of living in a society bound by an ideology that does not tolerate my right to express such views.

It’s been a long, troubling, emotional day and frankly, Simon Jenkins has already articulated most of my thoughts far more accurately.

Clown time (it’s not over)

Now here’s a fantastic blog post and prime example of how to effectively make news out of news by Camden New Journal editor Richard Osley.

For anyone who follows Richard’s blog, you’ll know how keen he is on exploring what journalists can do with Freedom of Information legislation.

This is a prime example. Off the back of the social media phenomenon that was the Northampton Clown, the paper was canny enough to fire off a FOI request to the Met Police to uncover the amount of ‘clown crime’ being dealt with by the force on the streets of the capital.

And the results are staggering, with the word ‘clown’ cropping up 117 times in police reports during the last three years across a range of, in some cases, startlingly severe offences – including robbery, burglary and assault.

Proof, it were ever needed, that with a little considered thought, a seemingly trivial topic can be turned into something with a far harder edge.

Read the whole thing yourselves here.