Sankha Guha: Man About World

The Arctic comes in from the cold. Even at -50C
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The Independent Travel

I am just back from a family holiday in the Arctic. Roll over Amundsen, and tell Sir Ranulph Fiennes the news - modern polar explorers get on a charter from Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham and jet straight into Kittila 200km inside the Arctic Circle in Finland.

I am just back from a family holiday in the Arctic. Roll over Amundsen, and tell Sir Ranulph Fiennes the news - modern polar explorers get on a charter from Gatwick, Manchester or Birmingham and jet straight into Kittila 200km inside the Arctic Circle in Finland.

Right from the off, expectations are challenged. The airport is not your average frontier affair - this is no tin shack on the edge of nowhere but a purpose-built hub which processes 400,000 visitors a year. And 10 per cent are Brits. We now make up the highest number of foreign tourists - opting in our thousands for the polar winter twilight in preference to sunny skies further south.

The Arctic is not what it used to be. Yes, temperatures can drop to -50C, and the frozen tundra is every bit as cinematic as you like. But for us, accustomed to the idea that one inch of snow means essential journeys only and Wales being closed, the real shock is the sheer normality of life in the freezer.

Everything works. Not just tolerably - but very well. Mercedes well, Swiss watch well. In the ski resort of Levi, served by Kittila, there are supermarkets with groaning displays of fresh citrus fruit. mobile phone coverage is miles better than central London (we are in the Land of Nokia). Buses run on time, hotels are scandi stylish and toasty warm, there are spas and indoor tennis, the village disco turns out to be a 1,500-capacity superclub and the kids' activity centres/crêche facilities are superb. So not quite where the pack ice groans, and the polar bears play. The Arctic has a reputation for many things - being child-friendly is surely a new one.

* Glasgow is re-branding itself. The city is obsessed with its image. It had the Glasgow's Miles Better campaign in the 1980s. It was European City of Culture in 1990. In 1999 it was UK City of Architecture.

Back in 1990 I was there to make a Rough Guide TV programme, and our pre-filming agenda was set by local researchers. Arrayed before us was a slick metropolis of wine bars, glitzy shopping malls, galleries and of course Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Working-class Glasgow was mysteriously absent - the noisome relative no one wanted to mention. They're at it again. Under the slogan City of Style the new blurb promises "seductive shopping, achingly hip hotels, ice-cool watering holes" and, of course, Rennie Mackintosh.

Here are some alternative slogans. Glasgow - city of doo fleeing (a local form of pigeon fancying), city of Old Firm rivalry and sectarian passions, city of loan sharks and declining life expectancy in its poorest areas. These are not entirely facetious. Wouldn't we all prefer to have a fuller picture of the cities we may be planning to visit? Who needs another City of Style?

* Most of us use photography to record significant events in our lives, especially our travels. For us the camera is a means of reliving cherished memories - and of recreating the world. But David Hockney says he'll never trust photography again.

He blames digital, and harks back to a prelapsarian world of film in which Henri Cartier-Bresson defined what the camera recorded - and that, according to Hockney, was unvarnished reality. He bemoans the rise of digital photography because now, in lesser hands, the image is too easy to manipulate and what we see is not reliable.

Not only is this simplistic but, as any happy snapper knows, precisely the opposite is true. Photography has suddenly become easier, cheaper, more fun and crucially, more reliable. Now with auto focus, programmed exposure and instant replay any fool can be Ansel Adams.

Say goodbye to the sunset shot which comes back as a blizzard of white noise. No more portraits of Aunty Pat on the beach sans legs and head. We are our own picture editors, consigning mistakes to the bin before they have left the camera.

Furthermore, we no longer have to count the cost of film. So we are free to experiment and to try new ideas. This year digital cameras will outsell film cameras worldwide, and inevitably the mighty Kodak empire is in trouble - their product as obsolete as black and white television.

Hockney's argument is as Luddite as it is élitist. He would no doubt prefer a closed (photo) shop - where proper photography should be left to the professionals. But the awful truth is out - anyone can take a great photograph. Digital has breached the lines. We are all pros now.

* The Olympics in Athens this summer will see an unprecedented security operation. The Greeks are to ask Nato for back-up to make sure the first games since 11 September 2001 run without terrorist incidents. The US 6th fleet will be around, and the Czechs may be called to assist with their WMD expertise.

Nevertheless, I am delighted their constitution doesn't allow foreign troops to be stationed on Greek soil. I am hoping we will see a lot of the legendary Evzónes in action. These are the crack troops who guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Their uniforms look like one of Brian May of Queen's rejects; all swirling bat sleeves, a skirt over gartered tights and shoes which sport a big hairy pompom where the steel toecap should be. Their drill is thought to have inspired Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. Terrorists will die laughing.

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