Friday, 20 February 2015

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph, travel writing and Queen of Retreats

So, following Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph there has been a lot of debate about whether there is any form of independent journalism left.  He said:  ‘It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart.’  Absolutely.  I remember, when I started in journalism at City Limits magazine, there was an absolute insistence that advertising could not, and must not, influence our writing.  Since then it has all become blurred to the point of illegible.

There have been dark mutterings about travel writing too – about how it’s rare now to find negative reviews in magazines and papers.  Why?  Because the writer’s trip has been funded by the hotel or tour company (who may well be taking out advertising too) so the water becomes very muddy.  But this is nothing new.  In an ideal world, the paper or magazine would fund the writer for the whole trip – this still happens on a rare few papers (the New York Times comes to mind) so the writer can be totally, truly independent.  But no UK paper has the budget.  So, unless a writer has personal wealth, one has to rely on freebies from the hotel, resort or travel company.  And that is why you will see the same old places being reviewed all over the shop – usually glowingly.  I don’t like that.  What I do like is Queen of Retreats.  I came across this outfit a few years ago, when I was looking for independent recommendations of great spas.  Someone on Twitter put me in touch with Caroline Sylger Jones, who runs the site and she was great – hugely knowledgeable, highly discerning, full of integrity.
Caroline at HHH in Greece.
Queen of Retreats is different from other online retreat, spa and healthy holiday websites.  It’s not a travel company and it’s not a listings site.  It features in-depth reviews of places its writers have visited and experienced (not just for a sample day but for the entire programme).  Said writers are all highly experienced: they know their Trager from their Thai massage and they can gauge whether a yoga teacher is good, bad or off with the fairies.  So many reviews in magazines (and even in papers  now) are written by someone who has no experience or knowledge base – without budgets for freelance experts, publications have to rely on staff doing the trip as a perk.  Fine if you get the health editor, not so fine if you get the intern who has never set foot inside a spa before.  Read QoR's mission statement here.  

Anyhow, what I really love is that the reviews are honest.  If something isn’t quite right, they point it out. If it’s not ideal for a certain kind of person, they say it like it is.  Although retreat venues do host the writer, they understand from the get-go that there is no guarantee of a shining review.  Obviously reviews are subjective – how could they not be?  But the reviewers are experienced enough to gauge if a place would suit others, even if it didn’t suit him or herself.

"It’s not smart or ritzy and you will need to turn a blind eye and a forgiving heart to the less than shiny bits. The decor isn’t inspired – if your idea of a retreat is all about contemporary interiors, fluffy bathrobes and spa ‘journeys’ look elsewhere."

Yes, it covers some of the big spas and retreats – the ones that have PRs, the ones you will read about everywhere, but it covers them honestly – not because an ad manager is hanging over the editorial team’s head.  However it also covers small retreats, the ones that have no budget for advertising or PR, the ones that otherwise wouldn’t get coverage, and that’s why I really love it.
Serenity Retreat in gorgeous Greece
So.  Bottom line.  If you’re thinking of going on retreat, if you fancy a spa break or a healthy holiday, do check out the website.  You’ll find a fair few of my reviews, including my beloved Serenity Retreat, The Body Retreat, Yobaba Lounge, Hellenic Healthy Holidays, and The Pause, rubbing shoulders with reviews of the big guys, SHA, Clinique La Prairie, Canyon Ranch and the Sanctuary Thailand (of The Beach fame).
Canyon Ranch
Do spread the word.  Because, in a world where advertising and editorial are all mixed up and muddled up, it’s refreshing to find a place where good old-fashioned editorial ethics still remain.  I think these places need our support.  Don’t you?

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Thursday, 5 February 2015

What type of ice-cream are you? And other questions you might get asked at a job interview

I can’t remember the last time I went for a job interview so I was amused, and somewhat puzzled, by the kind of questions that are now being asked by potential bosses.  None of that old ‘And what do you think you’d bring to the job’ stuff – apparently now it’s all ‘What dinosaur would you like to be?’ or ‘Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?’  Or ‘If a hippo falls into a hole how would you get it out?’ Or even, ‘What type of ice-cream are you?’

WTF?  According to the Association of Accounting Technicians (no, I have no idea who they are either) the questions are designed to see whether you’ll freeze or flourish when confronted with the unexpected. 

Aimee Batemann, spokeswoman for the AAT said, ‘The best way to maintain composure and reduce the chances of embarrassment is to try to prepare for every possibility.’  Oh, get real Aimee!  How the hell can you think of every possible weird or downright barmy question you might get asked?   

Anyhow.  I thought the questions were rather good fun so, in an idle five minutes (waiting for a hippo to extricate itself from a hole) I answered the ones that are apparently doing the rounds of the, er, accounting world.

Q: If you were a fruit or vegetable, what would you be and why? 
A: A tomato – unable to decide exactly what I am.

Q: Who is your favourite Doctor Who? 
A: Pass.  Can we talk about my favourite James Bond instead?  Or better still, just look at him?  By the way, if you Google 'naked Daniel Craig' (as one might do) I should warn you that there's some very bad Photoshopping out there.  
Q: What would you do if you caught a member of staff kissing the boss?
A: Tap my nose at the boss and start taking very long lunch breaks.

Q: Is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit?
A: Neither.  It’s an abomination.

Q: Would you rather know a lot about a little or a little about a lot?
A: Knowledge is overrated.  However much you think you know, you can never really know.  I hope I have learned the wisdom (and hopefully the humility) of having a beginner’s mind.

Q: Do you like to sing in the bath? 
A: No.  I like to bathe in the bath.

Q: Which three celebrities would you like to join you for a night out?
A: Hell would freeze over before I a) voluntarily had a night out and b) asked celebrities to join me.

Q: What would you do if the sun died out?
A:  Moon bathe (in furs).  

Oh, the other ones?  If I had to be a dinosaur I’d go for velociraptor (Jurassic Park did a fine job on their PR).  Superman, doh (though if it were a question of which one I’d snog, it’s Batman all the way).  The hippo?  Call Hippo Rescue, I suppose. And the ice cream?  What kind of stupid bloody question is that?  

Did I get the job? 

Okay.  Your turn.