Tuesday, 30 December 2014

In the News?

  Every now and then I take the time to analyse the visits that this site receives and to try to form a picture of where the interest is coming from. Broadly speaking that means building up a profile of which posts and articles are the most popular, which inbound links are attracting the most hits and from which sources. All anorak stuff, but useful if the object of the exercise is ultimately to reach a wider audience.

This week I have noted a good amount of traffic coming over from a site called News360. Naturally I knew nothing of News360, so curiosity dictated that I would take a look and see what the site was about.

News360, it appears, is a smart app which analyses a user's behaviour whilst online and from this information takes a view on what that particular user might be most interested to take a look at on the web.

For whatever reason News360 believes this humble blog and sundry of the articles contained herein to be of interest to certain of its own subscribers, and has published a recommendation accordingly to its customers. This is of course most welcome as it leads to more visits, and more interest in the blog.

Whether or not this will catch on I don't know, but even now it certainly demonstrates the importance of writing and posting good quality material. I'm hoping that in its own very modest way this blog is fulfilling this objective already.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Plane Speaking - A Simple Aspiration for 2015

One thing I really enjoyed doing as a teenager, believe it or not, was visiting airports, jotting down aeroplane registration numbers and marking them off in a purpose-bought book.

It might seem a million miles away from radical politics, rock music and getting drunk, but everybody needs a benign release from the challenges of a confrontational existence and for me it was the simple practice of spending a day - whether it was at a remote airfield, a major air show or at the local park under the Heathrow runway with a pair of binoculars - ticking off numbers from my CAM* or my JP*, or my various disjointed and semi-official records of military aircraft resident in the UK.

My plane spotting "career" began in 1976 with a dedicated visit to London Heathrow with a couple of friends. The object of the exercise was quite simply to "spot" as many individual aircraft as was possible, recording their "reggies" (Sp?) and then crossing them off neatly in the relevant book. Once a particular aeroplane had been spotted once it was henceforth rendered superfluous. No second spot was necessary.

HEATHROW

Of course Heathrow had its own aircraft fleets, and so the persistent spotter would in the fullness of time collect the full list of, say, British Airways aircraft, which were virtually all based there. Then there would be those aircraft which were based elsewhere, primarily from foreign airlines, but which would visit Heathrow on a regular basis on their scheduled flights to London. And then thirdly, and most excitingly, there would be those which did not visit as a matter of course but which were making unexpected or (to us) unexpected calls - private or "light" aircraft, unscheduled airlines, flights diverted from other airports, long-haul aircraft from close neighbouring countries sent in place for whatever reason of the usual short-range vehicles, or even the occasional military visitor (the USAF Starlifter and the Hercules from the Royal Saudi Air Force were two which made a number of appearances if I recall correctly). Then of course there were the Soviet airliners of which, although they were scheduled, the State airline Aeroflot had so many of that one never seemed to see the same one twice.

Such was the law of diminishing returns that each visit to Heathrow (or to the local park) tended to bag less new spots than had the previous one. Pretty soon all that was to be had from such expeditions was the occasional unexpected arrival. When that scenario had begun to become the norm visits to every airport and airfield other than Heathrow rapidly became the order of the day.

A day out at Gatwick with my friends was always an enjoyable experience. Not only did it host its own fleets of aircraft (British Caledonian, Dan Air, the equally ill-fated Laker Airways and the BA-owned British Airtours among them) and receive its own regular visitors from usually lower league foreign airlines, but it was also a very short and handy train ride from Redhill aerodrome (alight at Salfords station, not Redhill, and follow a long country lane), which was home not only to Bristow Helicopters but also probably a hundred or so very small privately-owned machines. Ordinarily such airfields were out of bounds to the public, with all manner of diabolical disinducements threatened to those who might be tempted to breach the instructions which shouted out from stark notices atop the barbed wire fence, but being mere youngsters we were always welcomed whenever we arrived cautiously at the hangers beyond and were even permitted to walk around them unsupervised. This in fact was the case at most of not all of such airfields around the South East - Booker, Denham, Elstree and Blackbushe to name but a few.

MILITARY BASES

Less accessible, perhaps understandingly, were the military bases. RAF Northolt was for me not very much further away from home than Heathrow. It was where the Queen's Flight British Aerospace BAe125s were based, and the sight and sound of a Hercules roaring over my head at the perimeter fence at a hundred feet or less was to die for.

But the best days out were always to be had at the air shows. I could never decide whether I preferred the military shows and the plethora of never-to-be-seen-again modern fighters, bombers and air trainers of sundry European and international air forces that they featured, or Farnborough, the king of air shows, which always showcased the latest designs in civil aviation as well as the more eccentric regular turns such as the Lockspeiser LDA-01 Land Development Aircraft and the car-sized Bede BD5, as well as sundry "old faithfuls" including ever-present civilian-registered Harriers, Hawks and sundry World War Two models.

As useful exercises go collecting aircraft numbers must rank alongside sweeping up leaves in a windstorm or standing on the hard shoulder of the M1 counting cars, but it is so strangely therapeutic. I'm not sure I could ever find the time or the patience to return to it as a scientific endeavour, but one thing I am determined to do sometime in 2015 is visit an air show and savour that ambience once more.

*Civil Aircraft Markings published annually by Ian Allen, and JP-World Airline Fleets

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Merry Christmas Everybody

Here's wishing all my visitors a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Is Zero Hour Approaching for the Royal Mail?

As an employee of the Royal Mail I would assume that I am under some kind of contractual obligation not to discuss the workings of the company, and I’m cool with that.

Not that I am privy in any way to its inner dealings or the strategies being followed by those whose job it is to set the direction of the business, of course. Indeed many of my colleagues would probably argue that they are usually the last to know anything that is going on, but upon that I couldn’t possibly comment. I am, presumably, entitled to express a view on those things that are in the public domain, and to have an opinion on where the mail service in the UK is likely to be headed over the next few years or so.

UNIVERSAL SERVICE OBLIGATION

The Royal Mail, uniquely, is committed by the terms of its charter to honour what is known as a USO, or Universal Service Obligation. This compels it to undertake deliveries to every address in the United Kingdom six days a week, no matter how remote or difficult to access they may be. In doing this it must operate a common charge to all customers, whether a letter is being sent to one’s next door neighbour or to a hermit living on the top of a Scottish mountain or in a tent in the middle of Dartmoor. That is the deal, from which the service is not permitted to deviate.

It would seem the political establishment has decided, in its wisdom, to introduce the principle of competition into the world of mail delivery. On the surface of it this may not seem unreasonable; competition can be a healthy thing which challenges the complacency that comes with monopoly and offers the customer a choice. Competition can bring out the best in the provider of a service and ensure that it ups its game.

The problem with what is being offered in this particular instance is that that competition will not be operating on a level playing field. Unlike the Royal Mail, potential rivals such as TNT/Whistl are under no obligation to deliver to less profitable destinations, but rather will be able to pick and choose where they deliver, and when, and at what cost to each particular area. Whilst the Royal Mail must use at least some of the profit it generates from the service it provides in the more populated regions to subsidise the losses it will inevitably make in more remote parts of the country, competitors will have the freedom to operate in the more lucrative areas whilst leaving the rest to the Royal Mail. The outcome must inevitably be that the Royal Mail will lose income in the towns and the cities, making it more difficult to provide the necessary subsidies to rural destinations.

EFFICIENCIES

This case has been put, thus far unsuccessfully, by Royal Mail’s management to the government. In rejecting the case, the government is insisting that there remains scope for the Royal Mail to introduce more efficiencies into the service it currently provides.

There is always, of course, room for improvement in any organisation. I am sure there are ways yet to be discovered in which the current service can be redesigned and realigned to provide more bang for its buck. But to achieve the massive changes that will be needed to allow it to compete on anything approaching level terms with the newcomers who are being given every encouragement to enter the field the service will need to be completely transformed on an absolutely fundamental level. Thus far all concerned parties have steered very well clear of any mention at all of this particular elephant in the living room.

The Royal Mail is an industry which has developed organically over a period of almost 500 years, having first appeared in an admittedly primitive form under Henry VIII. Today it employs over 150,000 staff, is unionised and pays its workers a reasonable wage as well as offering holiday and sick pay. Inevitably there are grumbles from the shop floor from time to time about the treatment of employees - some justified, others less so - but anybody who has worked in the “hire 'em, fire 'em” environment much favoured by successive recent governments, as I have, will know just how reassuring it feels to enjoy some kind of protection in the workplace. Under the present conditions it is very likely that competitors will be minimum wage employers, possibly operating zero-hours contracts, and under terms which sidestep the requirement to provide even the most basic of employment protections and benefits. When the Royal Mail is being told it has room for further “efficiencies” which will enable it to compete with all comers, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where the powers that be are looking to take us.

REDEPLOYMENT

My guess is that once competition opens up, possibly as early as next year, the Royal Mail will be forced into a position where it will need to try to compete on similar terms. The unions will not - cannot - accept the redeployment of their current members on vastly inferior terms so it is perhaps inevitable that a large-scale diminution of its current workforce will follow, initially and hopefully solely through the use of voluntary redundancy payments, accompanied coterminously by the redesignation of those who remain, and the simultaneous employment of new staff (possibly sub-contracted) with different job descriptions, different uniforms but essentially a replacement for the traditional postie.

For those who think I am being sensationalist, I have seen this happen before - indeed I have been part of the project. As a Duty Manager at Skycaps at London Heathrow Airport I was paid considerably less than the shop-floor former porters whose jobs the company had replaced, and who had been reassigned to other duties. It happens.

Just how much dedication and loyalty these dispensable, ten-a-penny, untrained (some untrainable), high turnover, completely unmotivated employees will have for the company I will leave to the imagination of the reader. But old King Henry must be turning in his grave.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A Class War is Raging in Britain, But Only One Side is Taking Punches

By John Wight

Go into any supermarket in the run up to Christmas and you will likely see a shopping trolley by the door designated for donations to your local foodbank. For many of us the idea of walking past it without donating jars, forcing us to wrestle with a conscience that is particularly sensitive to poverty and need at a time of year when excess and greed is encouraged in advertising campaigns which leave no stone unturned when it comes to manipulation and mawkish sentimentalism.

Foodbanks are an abomination, an insult to the very word progress and nothing if not a symptom of a society that is headed over a cliff. They constitute proof that Tory Britain in the winter of 2014 is the last bastion of cruelty and inhumanity, where to be poor is regarded as a badge of personal and moral collapse rather than an inevitable by-product of an economic system which breeds poverty and its attendant social maladies - crime, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, etc. Those unfortunate enough to fall through the increasingly widening cracks in this race to the bottom are not regarded as victims of blind economic forces, but authors of their own despair and as such undeserving of anything excepting punishment.

THE FREE MARKET ISN'T FREE

The free market isn't free. Its cost is measured in human despair and truncated lives. That we have a situation in one of the richest economies in the world where people, including children, do not have enough to eat, is nothing short of a crime. And only those who have had their humanity surgically removed would seek to justify this crime on the basis of cutting a deficit that has risen rather than fallen under the present government.

Not only our basic humanity but also economic stability and efficiency dictates that the overriding purpose of any economy must be to serve the needs of society. Yet we currently operate on the basis that society must serve the needs of the economy. This by definition means an economy set up to serve the needs of the rich and connected, its success bound up with ever larger and more obscene executive salaries, bonuses, shareholder dividends, and rising property and asset prices.

An economic crash caused by the inherent weaknesses of the current economic system should have resulted in it and the philosophical and ideological foundations upon which it rests being completely discredited and discarded as unfit for purpose. Instead, and by dint of a propaganda campaign unleashed by the right, society's guns have been turned on the poor - the low waged, the unemployed, benefit claimants, and migrants. Walk into any Jobcentre and you could be forgiven for thinking that you'd made a mistake and instead walked into a courtroom, where people are routinely punished by those hiding being the the mantra of just doing their job.

Being sanctioned for such grievous infractions as turning up for an interview 5 minutes late is as easy as pressing a button on a keyboard for the one doing the sanctioning, but for the human being sitting on the other side of that desk it triggers a downward spiral of mounting despair, not to mention degradation and humiliation.

FOOD BANKS

The Trussell Trust, the largest provider of food banks across the country, has identified the spike in demand for their services as directly linked to an ever-tougher and brutal benefits regime, as has an All Parliamentary Inquiry Into Hunger across the UK. It leaves little doubt that what the victims of this benefits regime are living through is akin to a mass experiment in human despair.

This is bad enough, but with more and more incidents of suicide directly related to that despair, we have surely reached the point where enough is enough.

The economic logic behind austerity remains as flawed now as when first embarked on. Rather than understand the deficit as a consequence of a global recession decimating demand in the economy, with a sharp fall in tax revenues due to a sharp rise in unemployment, the government is intent on deepening the same cycle by introducing drastic cuts in spending in the forlorn hope that the private sector will invest and create new jobs to replace those lost. The jobs that have been created, trumpeted by the Coalition as proof that austerity is working, are largely low waged, part time, and/or temporary. A crap job is a crap job, no matter how you try and dress it up, with the fact that the majority of people claiming benefits in work a damning indictment of the yawning chasm between the haves and have nots in 2014.

BACK TO THE 1930s

As we approach Christmas we live in a country where 4 million people are at risk of going hungry, half a million children live in families that cannot afford to feed them, and 3.5 million adults can't afford to eat properly. We have been dragged back to the 1930s by a government whose conception of progress is to eradicate the poor rather than poverty and the hungry rather than hunger. If this is not a call to arms then what is?

The Tory response to this mounting despair came recently in the form of a Marie Antoinette-like declaration from Baroness Jenkin that, "Poor people don't know how to cook".

Yes, there is a class war raging in Britain all right. The only problem is that up to now only one side has been taking punches.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to the Huffington Post.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

What if the Machine Stops?

I first became familiar with the Internet back in 1996, thanks to a forward-looking ICG supporter who took the trouble to treat me to an hour-long demonstration of its potential, and Caroline and I purchased our first fit-for-purpose computer (all 1.5 Gb of it) a year later.

Realising the inevitability of it becoming the primary means of mass communication within a matter of years, I was reminded at the time of a short story that I read at school called The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, written as a nod to H.G. Wells, in which the whole of mankind became dependent upon a solitary machine into which everybody connected and through which all social interaction took place.

Recently I found myself revisiting the book through Wikipedia, which gives the following account of its plot, which I quote at length: "The story describes a world in which most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each individual now lives in isolation below ground in a standard 'cell', with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge. The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand 'ideas'.

"Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitised, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with 'Homelessness', that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son's concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

"As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, there are two important developments. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as 'unmechanical' and threatened with Homelessness. The Mending Apparatus – the system charged with repairing defects that appear in the Machine proper – has also failed by this time, but concerns about this are dismissed in the context of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine itself.

"During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti's. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and tells her cryptically, "The Machine stops." Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. But the situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost. Finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing 'civilisation' down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti's ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realise that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated."


Considering Forster wrote the story in 1909 it would appear to have been remarkably prophetic. We are not required to live under the ground (yet!), but apart from that the similarities with modern life and our dependence upon the World Wide Web are really quite staggering.

Just how would we cope if one day we were all to log into the Internet and nothing happened?

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Ballymore's "Anytown" Design for Brentford Waved Through by LBH's Planning Committee

Despite the meeting having inexplicably drifted on for several hours when Ballymore's bland design for Brentford High Street was discussed, the application was waved through as expected by majority party councillors on the London Borough of Hounslow's Planning Committee acting dutifully upon officers' recommendations. Few if any meaningful concessions were made to the Community Vision which had been painstakingly drawn up by residents and councillors. Typically the assumption was that the officers and planners understood the complexities of the planning process, whilst members of the Brentford community didn't.

Of them, only Councillor Mel Collins (Brentford) had the courage to break ranks, expressing the view that more could be done towards making the application acceptable to local people and proposing deferral pending more work on the design. Sadly he received no backers and was destined to remain the lone abstention amongst the majority party (Labour) councillors.

DISAPPOINTMENT

Some 200 local people in the public gallery made their disappointment known, with comments such as "Shame on you!" being directed at the unrepentant Committee members.

Although this outcome is a setback for the people of Brentford, there is still much to play for. Only approximately 40% of the design was approved outright with the remainder being outline approval, with full approval still to be given. With a concerted effort residents and traders still have a chance to limit the damage.

It is worth noting that very recently a former Hounslow Conservative councillor who had been a party to approving the infamous 2009 Mogden planning application by Thames Water, which resulted in a predictable (to us) increase in odour rather than the claimed reduction, made an unsolicited intervention on a local community Internet forum to scoff about the fact that he and his family had now moved away from the area and therefore no longer had to live with the consequences of his decision. One wonders whether the Labour councillors who so nonchalantly imposed this appalling eyesore on the people of Brentford will in a few years be similarly in a position to taunt their victims from a faraway country retreat.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Ballymore's Bland Proposal: a Letter from Andrew Dakers - Chair, Brentford High Street Steering Group

Dear friend,

As you will know, since 2006 I have chaired Brentford High Street Steering Group, the town centre regeneration charity.

Tomorrow night is without a doubt a milestone in our town's history. Fifteen years after the last plans were presented, Ballymore's proposals go to planning committee (7.30, Civic Centre, Hounslow). On one level I am glad to see a scheme with many of the elements needed to move forward. However, I am bitterly disappointed that so many of the ideas put forward by the community for less density and more beautiful buildings (respectful of the town's historic waterside location) have been ignored.

Brentford is a suburban market town, not Oxford Street!

You can watch a video produced by Cat Berry and Tom Keane here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FpRVquj12Ww (It's had over 1000 views in just 5 days!)

My personal view, and the steering group's, is that more work should be done on:

* the 'Design Code' and the aesthetics of the detailed scheme over the next six months;

* clear plans should be set out for how and when Watermans will move into the town centre; and

* independent traders should be supported through the transition.

Ballymore and the Council have time that can be used constructively to make these improvements: it will take at least a year to complete Compulsory Purchase Orders on some parts of the site, and raise the funds to move the scheme forward.

Local residents' concerns are well expressed on: Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Brentford-High-Street/153798158085687 Twitter: https://twitter.com/brentfordhighst

Whether or not you can make the meeting please email the members of Planning Committee in the last few hours to remind them of the importance of getting these details right. You can get their fifteen (!) email addresses from http://tinyurl.com/lbhplanning

If you can make it tomorrow night - we need all the support possible to make sure that the regeneration keeps moving forward, but with the attention to detail that our wonderful town deserves.

With best wishes,

Andrew

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Delivering for the People

Somebody with a sense of humour sent me the above message - a job advert issued by the London Borough of Hounslow. It seems LBH are looking for two Community Engagement Officers, and are offering a salary starting at £31,296.

I wouldn't be so arrogant as to assume that I could walk into a job such as this under any circumstances. All the same I might not be considered unreasonable for thinking that with decades of commitment to community building behind me - including having been a founding and organising member of a large community group, a community councillor, LBH's Lead Member for Community Safety and initiator of multi-million pound community projects - I might under other conditions have been in with a shout. And it would certainly represent a substantial pay rise from the work I am currently doing.

Will I be applying? Will I heck. Because with the track record of Hounslow's ruling party when it comes to working in partnership with the community I can be confident that Hounslow's concept of community engagement and mine are no more similar than a stick of chalk and a mighty slab of Camembert.

Be in no doubt that these posts will be political appointments. Any engagement will be limited in its scope and strictly on the local authority's terms. You read it here first. As for me, if my destiny is to deliver for the people then my vehicle for doing so for the forseeable future is likely to be this one:

Can We Love the '70s and Still Outgrow its Attitudes?

It broke my heart when certain now universally-known facts first emerged about the 1970s glam superstar Gary Glitter. To those of us of a certain age Glitter personified everything that was fun and sparkly about that unique period in our recent cultural history.

He was no musical giant, of course. But his songs were audacious and bursting with braggadocio. He gave us a laugh, and made young men like me feel mightily good about ourselves.

Needless to say it was less of a laugh for the victims of his sexual abuse. Less too for those of the astoundingly prolific pervert Jimmy Savile. And in the wake of the shocking revelations about the literally hundreds of inappropriate liaisons that Jim managed to fix came news of so many others in the world of seventies music and popular culture who, albeit on a thankfully smaller scale, also seemed to have groped and molested their way through the decade with impunity.

SELFISH

It seems a tad selfish then to remark that the discoveries of the erstwhile antics of Glitter, Savile et al were like daggers to the hearts of '70s-worshippers such as myself. For all the soul searching it has caused the likes of me, and for all the worry and heartache that accompanies the thought that we may for so long have been living a lie, the experience cannot begin to compare with that of those who suffered directly at their hands.

By comparison with what was going on in music the world of seventies comedy would appear to have been relatively untouched by the hand of scandal. However recent documentaries and television features have served to remind us that the sitcom and stand-up that passed for innocent entertainment in those days had an intrinsic shock value all of its own.

Jokes of a racial and homophobic nature were for a very long time at the root of much if not most of our comedy. Along with, of course, laughing at people with disabilities and generally adhering to negative stereotypes of all kinds of people. It is only fairly recently that this long prevalent culture has been successfully challenged.

UNTHINKABLE

Furthermore it wasn't only those sitcoms which had racial adversity at their core, such as Love They Neighbour and Till Death Do Us Part, that were guilty. Even one famous episode of Fawlty Towers, written by the impeccably liberal John Cleese, contained the words "w*g" and "n****r" - terms the use of which would rightly be unthinkable today.

Stand-up was probably more tainted still. Stupid Irishmen, tight-fisted Jews (or Scots), smelly Asians and criminal West Indians were the foundation stones of a goodly proportion of what was more or less universally accepted as good comedy in those days. And if we're being honest, how many of us could truly say we did not find Manning funny?

Thankfully our perceptions have changed. Much of what I used to laugh at now makes me squirm with embarrassment. I hate Political Correctness, but subconsciously have probably taken on board 90% of its fundamental premises.

MAGNETISM

So how can it be then that so many of us still so love the 1970s? What, precisely, is to celebrate about a decade of sexual abuse, racial stereotyping, industrial unrest, Cold Wars, impractical attire and vomit-inducing bubble gum?

The answer is, I think, that all our shortcomings were trumped with love. There was a magnetism, and an overriding self-deprecating humour, which if it did not make all the ignorance and the prejudice okay at least relegated it to something less serious, less integral to what made that society tick than might suggest itself to somebody looking back at the 1970s today. We fought on the football terraces wearing loon pants and butterfly collars, for goodness' sake. We said and did some very dumb things but nothing was meant too literally.

If you think that sounds like an excuse then probably you have a point. But nothing will take away from me the affection I had for that glorious, golden decade, from which my soul has held onto everything that was pure and conveniently rejected everything that was hateful. There's no going back to Love Thy Neighbour or Gary Glitter, but I still had my gang and it was mine.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Reunion (Part Two)



The long, and impatiently, awaited reunion of us former pupils of Worple Road Primary School took place on Saturday night at the Victoria Tavern in (appropriately) Worple Road.

In fact it was more than a reunion of Worple Road old boys and girls, as several notable locals and good friends who had had the misfortune not to have been among Worple's golden generation but instead attended the Blue School, Isleworth Town, St. Mary's or Chatsworth also joined the party, and a truly fantastic time was had by all.

I approached the venue with a certain sense of trepidation, fearing that I would immediately be descended upon by some long-lost friend whose name I could not remember and whose face I could not recall, but who would regale me with recollections of old adventures upon which I would be expected to add pointed reflections. How would I handle such a situation? Would I blag it, politician-style? Or would I come clean and deflate my old buddy by asking who he (or she) was?

Fortunately en route to the Vic I happened upon my friend and one-time classmate Sharon Rowles, who joined me on walking into the Vic so that we could at least be embarrassed together. Once we were in there though I knew I need not have worried. It felt instantly as though I had undergone some imperfect time transhipment to a grey, slaphead and wrinkles version of a school Assembly, although in place of Fanny Kingsnorth and her piano was another friend and one-time classmate Jerry Shillingford and his turntable, thankfully with tuneful '70s chart ditties issuing forth in place of Onward Christian Soldiers.

What had seemed a surprisingly modest gathering to begin with quickly filled out and before very long both bars were bustling and the diligent and hard-working staff at times had to go some to cope with the demand, whilst all the time remaining mindful of the expectations of the small group of pub locals who were also there.

Probably a majority of those who attended were from "higher" years than myself, although there was a good range of ex-pupils involved, probably aged from about 45 to a little over 60. It was a veritable convention of the Isleworth kids who refuse to grow old.
I could make a fairly audacious attempt at a roll call of all those who came along but I would inevitably forget a few and that would come across as disrespectful, and that would be the very last thing I would want. The whole evening exuded real magic and I am deeply indebted to those whose initiative the whole thing was - in particular to Rob Campin, Katrina Mortimer and Penny Waldheim Graham - as well as to all those who simply turned up and shared the experience.

Jerry's music was thoughtfully tailored to the occasion too. Seventies disco (natch), some glam, late '60s tunes which even I, and certainly some of the older ones, would associate with their time at Worple Road School. The sounds helped everyone to feel the occasion in every possible way. With the school just along the road, albeit now knocked down and rebuilt at an adjacent site, at times I could almost smell the old school hall.

Some of those with whom I enjoyed a drink and deep and meaningful conversation were people who have never ventured far from home and whom I see on a fairly regular basis anyway. Others came up from the south coast, down from the north and across from some very exotic locations around the UK and beyond. For me having taken a ten-minute stroll from my Isleworth abode I felt strangely unworthy, although in another sense proud to have remained a custodian of the old town and of that which after all had brought us all together on this wonderful evening.

At the end of it all, needless to say, remained the dilemma of where it all goes from here. I think it was decided that we would do it again next year, and I can't see the numbers dwindling if the spirit that pervaded the Victoria Tavern on Saturday 22nd November 2014 was anything to go by. Those who for whatever reason were unable to make it along will, I am sure, welcome the opportunity to be a part of it next time around.

There is possibly no better way to conclude this story than with a short film which was actually recorded in 1965, before I began at Worple Road, but of the existence of which I had been unaware until very recently. By a pleasant coincidence the star of the film is one Sue Bowles, a good friend who was there on Saturday and with whom I was really pleased to have the opportunity to touch base.

This was Worple Road Primary School.  Enjoy.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The Great Fixed Link Debate - Where Do You Stand?

The Isle of Wight is currently engaged in one of its most potentially explosive debates for many years over the prospect of a Fixed Link connecting it to the mainland.

The trigger seems to have been the launch by two residents of an online petition, to be followed shortly by a formal survey, calling for a bridge across the Solent or a tunnel. Carl Feeney and Kevin Price are hoping the momentum created by the petition will lead to a referendum on the issue to replace "old fashioned ferries", and claim that £6 million of government funding would be available to support the initiative. The pair also claim to have the support of local MP Andrew Turner for a referendum, although this would appear to be disputed.

Opinion seemed to be divided when Isle of Wight Review sought out the views of local people. Maria Scovell said: "No, we shouldn't have a Fixed Link...makes it easier for thieves etc to come over here and get away".

Karen Webster countered: "The Link would open up so many opportunities for people and would improve the amount of people visiting the Island. I know I would be over visiting family and friends more if there was a Link, I can't afford to at the moment with Wightlink's and Hovertravel's prices".

Bev Allen told us: "If the ferry services weren't so greedy by exploiting the public by changing the costs to suit the seasons and gave a fairer priced service this debate wouldn't be needed, their greed will be their downfall".

Rosemary Grimaldi is completely opposed to the prospect of a Fixed Link. "No way, we have enough traffic now," she insisted. "The Island would lose its charm, it must not be joined to the mainland. If people don't like the boat journey they should live on the mainland".

EXPENSIVE

Former resident Ann Hulme seemed to see both sides of the argument, telling us "I had to leave the Island to get my first proper job, not much choice even years ago. I feel the ferries were much better then but were expensive, nothing changed there! Plus everyone has friends and relatives on the North Island, it's hard to visit each other because of time and expense. I never wanted a bridge, I feel it would destroy the uniqueness of the island and make it too easy for the wrong kind of visitors, but maybe I am wrong? These same difficulties prevent me from returning again, it's a hard choice".

Rebecca Keenan is all in favour. She remarked: "Definitely need a bridge.. future generations are screwed. Worst schools in the South, no prospects, poor economy - something needs to be done!", sentiments which were echoed by Steven Staff: "I think the Island would benefit from a Fixed Link. I imagine it would be like the Wales bridge with a toll and security which would be great. The Welsh bridge is £6.20...I'd be on and off the Island constantly then. I think this would be a great decision for the Island to make and would boost a lot of things. It would also put Wightlink and Red Funnel out of business again due to their greed. Yes to a Fixed Link".

Louise was another who felt the prices charged by the ferries was prohibitive: "Cost me £98 to get to my dad in hospital - it was an emergency. We were told they would get us on come what may, there were eleven cars and a handful of trucks, exploitation I'd say. It's cheaper to get a day return from the mainland".

Kerry Constable is concerned about the security risks. "It would be a lot easier for the prisoners to escape," she told us.

Rival petitions for and against the suggestion each run into thousands of signatures. One of the most frequently recurring grumbles is clearly the cost of the Island's ferry and hovercraft services. The Solent is said to be mile for mile the most expensive water crossing in the world. Some opponents of the idea are nevertheless hopeful that the re-emergence of the debate will force some kind of positive action over fares.

The debate looks set to run and run. What are your views?

Reproduced with acknowledgements to Isle of Wight Review.

Brentford High Street Steering Group Raises Awareness for Meeting

The community-led Brentford High Street Steering Group has produced a leaflet reminding locals that the big meeting of the Planning Committee to decide the fate of the disappointing Ballymore application will take place at Hounslow Civic Centre this Thursday.

After years of discussion and input from the community it would appear the developer has determined to press ahead with an application which has been described by locals as "too high, too dense and too ugly". The plans include eighteen bland 6-11 storey blocks and 929 residential units crammed onto the land south of the Brentford High Street. The proposed development is clearly out of sync with the existing character of the local area and contains no clear plan for community facilities or small businesses.

Unfortunately there is a widespread belief amongst the community that Hounslow Council is determined to rush this through without the requirement for any meaningful concessions to local people.

BHSSG Chair Andrew Dakers commented: "For, against or wanting modifications to Ballymore's proposals for Brentford town centre, this is a community that cares. But does everyone know that the critical decision is about to be made?"

"If you want to help make sure that local residents - your neighbours - know that the key planning decision will be made next Thursday 27 November, 7.30pm at Hounslow Civic Centre".

The leaflet can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking this link. The meeting takes place this Thursday, 27th November 2014 at Hounslow Civic Centre from 7.30 pm.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Battle of the DJs - Fantastic Isleworth Event Raises £1500 for Macmillan and Princess Alice

Battle of the DJs at Isleworth Working Men's Club (left to right) John, Steve Platt, Percy Fullicks, Benn Butcher and Kevin Green (acknowledgements to the Hounslow Chronicle)
Several local disc jockeys staged a mock "Battle of the DJs" at a packed event at Isleworth Working Men's Club last Friday to raise an incredible £1500 for Macmillan Cancer Support and the Princess Alice Hospice.

Many local commentators have reflected upon the way in which the local community came together to support this well-organised marathon of music. Community activist Paul Fisher commented on Facebook: "This is what makes Isleworth the best place to be".

The event was part-organised by local girl Jo Manwaring, whose partner Kevin Green was one of the DJs on the night. Jo has previously featured on this blog as the organiser of successful annual local coffee mornings, also in support of Macmillan.

One of those in attendance last Friday was popular Isleworth councillor Lynn Green, who donated £50 in cash as a raffle prize.

Following the enormous success of this community event talk is now rife of turning it into an annual bash. I say go for it.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Escape to the 70s Reviewed

I promised author Rennie Hand a couple of weeks back, after he had posted comments on a '70s nostalgia Facebook site, that I would write a short review of his website Escape to the 70s. It's a pleasure to do so.

I first came to the site via an article about the Glam Rock band Mud. Experiencing as I am a period of melancholy yearning for the simplicities of my early adolescence, it first provided me with a sense of reassurance that I am not alone in remaining connected with the powerful spirit of a bygone age. Memories so powerful that neither adulthood nor life experience nor technology have ever been able to eradicate them.

What I had expected to be a page or so of cheesy hankerings for a lost youth was actually a veritable museum of glam culture, not just music but everything from toys and fashion to films, sweets and games. Everything, in fact, which combined during the 1970s to make the decade special and unique - a stand-alone moment in time which has never been surpassed in its honest innocence nor seriously rivalled for its imagination or for its cultural derring do.

Escape to the 70s is not a technically sophisticated website. No flashing lights or bells. It is honest and basic to the point that if a website could have a 1970s look, it would look something like this. But I challenge any '70s enthusiast to spend ten minutes at this site and not ask him or herself, as I did, "Why didn't I think of doing this?".

There are dedicated pages to Opal Fruits, Raleigh Choppers, Bolton Wanderers and the Austin Maxi 1750. There are libraries of hit singles and popular films, and a scrapbook of random photos and record middles, each of which tells a familiar story without any need for words. There are some retro experiences (not enough in my view), and an appeal for interactive participation which deserves a wider response.

Suddenly the 1970s is news again. It is as though all us forty-somethings and fifty-somethings, who have been forced to sit and be grey through an era of music and culture that we can see to be second-rate and trashy, have suddenly decided that enough is enough and have resolved to move the world a little, back to where it should rightfully be. Pay this website a visit and fill yourself with righteous anger that the seventies ever left us.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

People Fought and Died for the Right Not to Vote Too


I have never understood the case for compulsory voting. Except to say, that is, from those with a personal stake in the system who are entitled to feel threatened when that system is undermined, as inevitably it is when a significant number of people fail to take it sufficiently seriously.

People are becoming seriously disengaged from our political system, these people tell us. Turnouts at elections begin in the region of 60% or so when we are deciding who will be running our country for the next five years, and drop to 20% or less at local council by-elections and polls to determine the identity of the next police commissioner. How to tackle that disengagement? Simple - we just threaten people by telling them if they do not vote they will be fined or locked away. Suddenly 100% of the adult population is actively interested again. The disengagement problem is solved.

But no argument for compulsory voting would surely ever be complete without the old chestnut about people "fighting and dying for the right to vote" being dragged up?

Well I'm sorry, but freedom-loving people did not fight for the right to vote. They fought for the right to choose. And every bit as much as the right to choose from amongst the names of sundry talking heads on a ballot paper that must imply too the right to say NO if none of the options is what the voter really wants. That is the essence of democracy. The right to disagree.

An electoral contest which inspires 25% of voters to take an interest is relevant to just that many people - one in four. As somebody who always votes and who has actually participated in numerous elections as a candidate I wish it were not so. But absolutely nobody will be converted to system politics down the barrel of a gun. I'm afraid if you want them to be excited, you need to do something to excite them.

As much as I would hate to win an election with the support of one in ten people of voting age, I have far less desire to win one on the toss of a coin.

But of course, there will always be an option for voters to cast their votes for "none of the above", we are reassured. But only if "none of the above" is a meaningful option - that is if in the event of "none of the above" getting more votes that any of the named candidates none of them is elected - is the inclusion of this not a deliberate act of fraud against the voter who might be inclined to give of his or her time to express a view only for it not be listened to.

What it boils down to is that for many within the system compulsory voting has represented an attractive opportunity to force ordinary people to acquiesce. They may be allowed freedom of choice from amongst a finite range of permitted options, but by obligating them to vote for one of those options they are obligating the voter to recognise the validity of a system which he or she may not wish to recognise.

RUSSELL BRAND

Which brings us neatly onto Russell Brand, the outspoken comedian, actor and radio host who has recently invoked a stir by declaring himself of the view that the current crop of establishment wannabes who infest our system are not worthy of our votes and that for as long as they are in the ascendancy we should boycott the system and seek revolutionary change.

Brand seems to have quite successfully polarised opinion amongst those who want to see some form of change. Interestingly in my experience it has been the "plastic radicals" - those who squeak loudly about the inequities of the ConDem government but who already have committed to the colours of the establishment-provided "opposition" party - who seem the most put out by Brand's stance. The notion that a little change is better than no change at all runs as a common theme throughout all the criticism that he has received, not least from John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) who referred to him as "bum face".

But Brand points out that he is not anti-voting per se. He says he'll vote when there's a party which will take on the "financial economic elites and corporate entities", although he notes such a party would be difficult to create because of "global trade agreements which prevent that kind of thing happening at a national level".

"It’s a complicated issue," he adds, "and I can see why John Lydon might have trouble to get that in a tiny little interview space particularly when he’s got to promote a show about bugs."

For me Russell Brand is bang on the money. He may for all I know be a self-publicist, or an attention seeker, or a man with half an eye on the main chance to promote his book. But nobody else of note is saying these things at all, and until they do he deserves our undivided.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The British Left is Janus-Faced on Remembering our War Dead

Having finished a stint of poppy selling at a local(ish) supermarket today I felt moved to approach a stall that had been set up by three young* lads (*it needs to be said that most people are young to me these days) in support of the Socialist Party. This of course is the socialist party which was once the Militant Tendency within the Labour Party, but is now a separate entity very much outside of same.

The trio were collecting a petition for a £10 minimum wage in London, as well as selling their newspaper "The Socialist".

Feeling cheerful after a fairly successful sale I signed the petition, bought a paper and made a small donation to the cause. One of the lads thanked me and engaged me in conversation, first about the petition he was collecting but then about the poppies he had watched me selling. Generally it was small talk, but he asked me how well I'd done and wished me luck. In a separate short conversation one of the others expressed his solidarity with those who had given their lives in the fight against fascism during the Second World War.

It struck me that probably not much more than half an hour earlier I had been finger-pointed and shouted at by another young chap of a roughly similar age who had seemed to assume from the fact that I was selling poppies that I was pro-war and ipso facto supportive of the military interventions instigated by recent Labour and ConDem governments. Something was said as he walked away to the effect that I was a murderer and a fascist.

The shouter had no connection to the Socialist Party activity but it occurred to me that he would probably have considered himself to occupy a roughly similar place on the political spectrum. And yet their respective views on the whole concept of remembrance could not have been more opposite. An interesting dilemma for the British left to try to resolve.

Incidentally, for the benefit of anybody who is interested my position is generally anti-war, although I am not a pacifist as I acknowledge the case for military action in self-defence. Only very tenuously can this card be played in respect of recent offensive actions in the various Middle Eastern theatres of war in which we've been engaged. My policy is to mourn the victims, respect the service personnel who risk and sometimes give their lives under orders and detest the financiers and politicians who send them to their deaths under sundry nefarious pretexts. Clearly not everybody shares my view.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The 1970s: Golden Years, or should we Look Back In Anger?

I’ve been spreading some nostalgia about the place on Facebook over the past week or so. In particular I have busied myself by designing memes, essentially through the simple expedient of adding thoughtful slogans to photographs which have either been lifted from the web or borrowed from my own hard drive.

As I’ve said many times before I have a real weakness for the 1970s, in particular for the period around 1976. But as well as giving pleasure to many my recent activities have aroused hostile emotions amongst some, who seem to look back to that decade with an extraordinary sense of bitterness.

Perhaps not entirely without reason, the unbelievers point to the ignorance of its social attitudes, its political extremism, its violence, its hijackings, its industrial unrest, its shortages, its Cold War fought all across the globe by proxy, the absurdity (to many) of its fashion and culture – and, more recently, of the unspoken sexual depravity of too many of its key personalities which was not to emerge into the gaze of daylight until, in some cases, 35 years or so later. Looking back, I’m rather relieved that I didn’t join Gary’s gang.

POWER OF ROMANCE

Nostalgia’s beauty and its weakness both lie in the fact that we tend to see the past through rose-tinted spectacles. The power of romance is so immense that for many of us it trumps any amount of adversity. Although like any other teenager I spent much of the 1970s in a state of fear, in anxiety, in conflict and in sorrow the simple fact is that I remember nothing about that period that was not steeped in pure joy. At least, that was, until the last few years of the decade, when I completely went off the rails and lost touch entirely with the spirit of the ‘70s while others were enjoying its final throes to the sound of the Bee Gees or post-Pistols New Wave, according to their fancy.

It is pointless trying to make the case for the seventies over modernity on technical grounds, far less on diversity. Television was three channels (although the dial on our TV sets always seemed to have about thirty settings – futuristic or what?) and they all finished at around 10.30 in the evening when the more traditionally patriotic of viewers would stand to attention for the National Anthem. The service then continued with a small spot of light on the screen and a white noise for the benefit of those who couldn’t be bothered to get up and switch it off.

The telephone was fixed to the wall and to speak to another person involved a multi-part operation in which the dial was turned several times (assuming the neighbours who shared the party line were not on the ‘phone) and the person on the other end, if at home, would then answer. No mobile telephones, no texting, no voicemail, no saved address book, and certainly no e-mail. If you didn’t know the other person’s telephone number though help was close at hand, with a telephone directory the size of an encyclopedia containing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of more or less everybody in the hemisphere.

PLATFORM SHOES

Then of course there was the telephone box, at least one of which was always only a short walk away, and the (also bright red) post box for sending letters, a far more important medium then than today in the absence of home computer technology.

Out on the street, whilst the gun crime that we see today was almost non-existent and confined where it did exist to discreet closed-door gangland feuds, small-time violence was always in the air. Platform shoes did not deter any lad from kicking seven bells out of another upon the slightest provocation, and yet nobody ever seemed to get seriously hurt. Football thuggery was on every spartan, overcrowded terrace, but had not yet achieved the sophistication of the besuited and post-adolescent knife gangs of the 1980s and beyond. One could walk around a football ground in pursuit of “aggro” – little silk scarf tied to the wrist, flares flapping in the cold winter wind. Much swearing and pointing, against a sumptuous backdrop of heavily fried onions amassed upon cheap hot dogs. Everybody went home in one piece.

In the wider world everything seemed to have broken down. Strikes and more strikes, refuse piled up in the streets, power cuts and three-day weeks due to lack of fuel. Wars were being fought in Africa, in Asia, in the Americas – always the same, with regional quarrels fought over regional issues but with one side inevitably being “Russian backed” and the other “US backed”. Two superpowers, each too cautious to confront the other in open combat, using their little brothers to settle their playground squabbles.

But it was in film and music that the 1970s stood out for me, and much of it was pretty simple stuff. There was some hugely creative material around too – Mike Oldfield had unleashed Tubular Bells upon an unsuspecting but unexpectedly grateful public and Bowie was setting every trend for the decade and beyond. But the glam era was innocent, lots of fun, flamboyant and competitive. I recall the unspoken contest that seemed to be taking place between Gary Glitter and Elton John, when each would appear on Top of the Pops in a more highly-stacked pair of platform boots than the other had done on the last occasion. In any other era they would have seemed ridiculous, as indeed would we in our multi-coloured loon pants and tank tops, luminous socks and wide-awake butterfly collars, but it was a flippant dress code for a flippant age. Nobody could parody us or our musical heroes, for we parodied ourselves.

Alongside glam came disco, but as befits the 1970s it was a different type of disco to anything that came before or since. George McCrae, Van McCoy, Candi Staton, Barry White – each played their part in leaving a lasting imprint on that magical age.

WILD EXTREMES

When the music I loved and from which I drew comfort did take its bow as the decade ploughed relentlessly on towards its dotage, young people began to turn to wild extremes, marching and counter-marching. Politics seemed to define everything in the later seventies once the musical and cultural pack had been shuffled and the new bands had stepped up to take their turn in the limelight. There was an ugliness about the whole thing, and a sense that the magic spell was soon to unravel forever.

The critics go so wrong when they sneer upon the values – part innocence, part ignorance – that informed our 1970s way of life. The humour was unsanitised, our trust in our cult figures naïve, our empathy with the less fortunate patchy and incomplete. But we weren’t being serious. We were just having fun. The whole ethos of the 1970s was, for us, about not taking ourselves too seriously and having loads of fun. And we did it in a way and in a style that has never nearly been rivalled by any subsequent generation.

The 1970s had a cast and a playlist that reads like a veritable Role of Honour. Long hair, Pan’s People, Mivvi lollies, Stewpot, Concorde, glam rock, Look-In, Steve Harley, Georgie Best, Green Shield stamps, platform shoes and loon pants, the Capri Ghia, Rollermania, Morecambe and Wise, CB radio, Chopper bicycles, Dial-a-disc, lollipops and candy cheroots, Angel Delight, Ziggy Stardust, Oxford Bags, milk machines, The Hustle, Starsky and Hutch, pinball, Cadbury’s Crème Eggs, The Goodies, Pomagne at the fairground, tank tops, Top of the Pops, Radio Luxembourg, Evel Knievel, watch out there’s a Humphrey about, Candid Camera, the glorious summer of ’76. The streets were dark but we strutted them without fear, the youth clubs were church halls with table-tennis tables and paint that crumbled. It didn’t have to be smart, practical or politically correct. It didn’t even have to make any sense. It was raw, it was barren, at times it was bleak. But it was our time.

For those of us who are of a certain age the spirit of the seventies came not from what was provided for us. It came from within us. It came from the age we were at the time and the experiences we all went through together. That is why it is futile to look down upon it with disdain from the ivory tower of the age in which we live today.

Those who truly feel the spirit of the seventies will understand me when I say it never leaves you. Periodically something is said in conversation or posted on the web that invokes that inner sense which cannot be put into words. For those who look back to the 1970s with sadness I feel pity. For good or for bad, there will never be its like again.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Why "A Community In Action"?

I have been asked this question more than once, bearing in mind that many of the articles, particularly the more recent ones, have focused on issues of national and even international import.

The short answer is that when this blog began I was a community councillor for Isleworth, and the majority of my material was based upon my experiences in that role. Now that I, although still a proud activist with the ICG, have effectively moved on from matters local electoral, it could be said that there is a case for changing the name.

I have resisted the temptation to do so. We are all part of a community, indeed in most cases we are probably part of more than one community. As well as our local neighbourhoods there are also communities to be found on the web - not least on Facebook, communities revolving around work and communities centred on our individual social and sporting interests. Indeed, cliché though it may be, we are more than ever a global community.

It is my hope and aim that readers and users of this blog will become something of a community in their own right. What binds all communities is a common interest and common action. Let's leave it as it is.

Incidentally this blog now has its very own Facebook Page. If you get a moment please click here and like us. Many thanks.

Hounslow Animal Rescue Table Top Sale - ROWE Centre - Saturday, 18th October

There will be a table-top sale this Saturday, 18th October at the ROWE Centre in Unwin Road, Isleworth to raise funds for Hounslow Animal Rescue.

Opening times are 11.00am till 1.00pm. Refreshments will be on sale, and I believe a nominal entrance fee will be charged with all proceeds going to the charity.

Please come along and give this worthy cause your support.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Leaders’ TV Debates: Middle-Aged, Rich, White Men Telling Us What’s What, Again

Excluding the Greens and other parties in favour of Ukip will leave the election debates devoid of even a modicum of diversity

by Alex Andreou


Broadcasters yesterday announced their proposed format for televised election debates. Sky and Channel 4 are opting for a presidential style, David Cameron v Ed Miliband head to head; the BBC will repeat its 2010 format which included the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders; and ITV will have the same three, plus the surprise inclusion of Nigel Farage, probably holding a pint of bitter.

This structure has caused much reaction from the four parties involved about the inclusion of Ukip. Farage – displaying the same sort of one potato two potato mathematical complexity that yielded “29 million Romanians and Bulgarians” – reckons if one MP means inclusion in one debate and Ukip wins the Rochester byelection, then surely two MPs means inclusion in two debates. The other leaders have expressed anger at Ukip’s elevation.

What is less clear is what any of them believe should be the position regarding parties that hold the remaining 28 seats in the House of Commons and their exclusion from the debates. The Green party has threatened legal action over its leader Natalie Bennett’s omission. Good on them.

COMPLETE NONSENSE

The inclusion of Ukip to the exclusion of others is complete nonsense whichever way one cuts it. If one goes by number of MPs, questions regarding the exclusion of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parties loom large. The answer is, I suspect, that these are not national parties, followed by the non-sequitur that they must therefore have nothing to offer to a national debate. For a triumvirate that only a month ago was pleading with Scotland not to break up this “family of nations”, relegating all non-English parties to the children’s table is unfortunate in the extreme.

If one goes by how parties did at the last general election, then the exclusion of the Greens – who had an MP elected – in favour of Ukip is irrational. Perhaps convincing a constituency that electing the same MP wearing a different rosette represents real change is a magic trick worthy of TV. And how about the Social Democratic and Labour party that has twice the number? The broadcasters have cited the recent European election as a measure of Ukip’s popularity and irrefutable evidence of its worthiness for inclusion. But if that is the criterion, one must question the inclusion of the Lib Dems, who polled lower than the Greens on all measures and came a joint sixth with a host of other parties in terms of MEPs.

The only way to justify the inclusion of Ukip in these debates is by somehow extrapolating its future popularity in the next election by looking at meaningless opinion polls. Essentially the broadcasters are saying, “We think they will do well, so we are pre-emptively including them”. It is not up to a TV executive to be making any such subjective assessment. If you want to open the debate, then do so properly. Make it a panel discussion that includes genuinely diverse views.

I am certain that the expectation the inclusion of Ukip might make for salacious TV has also not been far from TV executives’ thoughts. It is the natural extension of the bizarrely dominant idea that if you include a person saying something sensible in any debate, you must also include the polar opposite, even if inflammatory and illogical, “for balance”. Which is precisely what has secured Ukip its popularity in the first place.

MONOCHROME PALETTE

However, the exclusion of parties such as the Greens, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru has another deeper effect. It excludes anyone who could lend a modicum of diversity to these debates; who might challenge the status quo on the environment, on devolution, on constitutional change, on free-market economics, on gender politics. What we have ended up with – again – is a platform of two, three or four rich, privileged, white, straight, middle-aged, male, career politicians from a tiny part of south-east England telling the rest of the country what is what.

This monochrome palette, this disturbing example of what Grayson Perry recently described as “the default man”, is bad for political engagement and grossly unrepresentative of the country. It ensures that large swaths of the voting population will flick on to the debates, see a pictorial representation of the same dull grey suits talking in soundbites and switch back to Britain’s Got Talent, secure in the knowledge that, if Britain does indeed have talent, politics is carefully sealed from any hint of it.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to The Guardian

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Reunion (Part One)

Next month I will be going along to a reunion with some old friends and acquaintances from Worple Road Primary School at an Isleworth pub (the reunion is at the pub, not the school). I am really looking forward to it.

Most of those who will be attending weren't in the same year as me, and I probably didn't spend a great deal of time in their immediate company even when I was at school. Nevertheless there is something about the distant past, almost like a gravitation pull of some indescribable kind, which draws me to places and people with whom I spent my formulative years. It's like when I made certain fateful decisions towards the end of the 1970s which were to take me along an erroneous and destructive path for such a very long time a part of me stubbornly refused to join me on this hellish adventure, opting instead to sit back and wait for me to make a safe return to the sanity and security of my childhood days when I had compassion in my heart and the tuneful ditties of the day in my mind and in my soul.

It was one of those friends (who was in my class) who remarked on Facebook recently that there is something uniquely special about the friends we grew up with, and that is so true. As children we see things differently - colours are more vivid, shapes and textures more pronounced. We also "learn" things together which the adult world takes for granted. Innocent things have their own importance and the absence of the cares and concerns of adulthood help us to truly absorb the beauty of all that is around us.

There is a lump in my throat as I write this, so pleasantly unsettled am I by the thought of this impending coming together late in November.

I attended reunions from Isleworth Grammar School in 2001 and Worple Road again in 2002 and they were fantastic and memorable events, but there is something about this one which promises even more. Maybe it is the urgency of the situation that we all feel as we race relentlessly through our fifties. Let's face it, some of our number are now almost within touching distance of retirement!

The only thing that compares with it for me was a series of reunions that I enjoyed with some old friends from my Church youth club back in 1990/91. The down side of those - even those, in the company of my dearest and most treasured friends from the most unique and wonderful period of my life - was the feeling of raw emptiness they left in their wake when the evening was over and everybody had gone their separate ways. We coped with this only by organising repeat reunions, each with less novelty appeal than the last, until one day we all simultaneously kind of dropped the idea.

I don't think that will happen this time. We are a spiritual diaspora, spread around the UK and even the world. We cannot get together every month or two on a whim, even if we wanted to. But neither, I hope, will we leave it another twelve years.

The Tattle

The Tattle is an excellent 16-page magazine published by a group of residents living in properties owned by Isleworth & Hounslow Charity Ltd., a local provider of affordable housing for people in need who meet certain criteria laid down by the Trustees.

As a former Trustee myself (until I developed my own financial difficulties on a scale which rendered my status with such a charity something of an oxymoron), I recognise the fine work that I&H does. Indeed my wife Caroline still serves on the Board and so I hear enough to convince me of the dedication and hard work of all those involved. The charity manages a number of properties in the local area, with the recently-built Tolson House, in Parthenia Drive off North Street in Isleworth, being the jewel in the crown. Activities provided for residents include a film club, craft sessions, yoga, aerobics, tai chi and regular outings.

The Tattle is independently produced by residents, albeit fortified I believe by support from the charity itself, and even boasts an editorial board of eight people spread out amongst the various properties. The layout is extremely professional, revealing an obvious acquaintance with Publisher technology on the part of the Editor.

Features include articles both about the activities of the charity and its residents, and the local area in general. In the latest issue this is complemented quite interestingly by an informative memoir from a German resident about living with the Berlin Wall.

It is initiatives like this from within the community which come together to create a bond between local people and to define what we are. I wish The Tattle continued success, and hope that other local people might take inspiration from it. Let a thousand flowers bloom, as somebody famous once said.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Clacton, Rochester and the Challenge of First Past The Post

I had always been certain the United Kingdom Independence Party would win the by-election in Clacton. Every factor that could point in the party’s favour did so:

1. First of all Clacton was, as it happened, UKIP’s most winnable seat in the United Kingdom to begin with, at least according to the people who have ways and means of calculating these things.

2. It was a by-election, which meant voters did not need to have any fears (or hopes) about who would be running the country the next morning. The “Vote UKIP – Get Labour” mantra much beloved of the Prime Minister David Cameron did not apply here.

3. Being a by-election all media attention was focused on Clacton rather than upon a country-wide contest as would have been the case in May next year.

4. The contest was all about UKIP. It was about a sitting Member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, who had resigned his membership of the Conservative Party and joined the Eurosceptic group amid a blaze of publicity. Try as the establishment parties might to focus the discussion on the NHS or the economy, this by-election was never going to be about anything other than the United Kingdom Independence Party and its political programme.

5. Carswell was always going to gain kudos from the fact that he had resigned his seat and reverted to the electorate, to give voters a chance to approve or disapprove his decision to change party mid-term. Let us be in no doubt that as a decision it was tactical rather than courageous. Carswell was smart enough to understand that sitting as an anonymous backbencher for the remainder of his elected term was a sure-fired way of courting defeat at next year’s general election, where conditions would favour the big parties. By raising his profile and winning back his seat by a huge majority he has given himself a good fighting chance of retaining Clacton next May. Nevertheless he and his party were able to make much of the fact that he had been willing to incur a certain amount of risk in going back to the electorate to allow them to have the final say on his decision.

For these reasons a UKIP victory was always on the cards. But the magnitude of the win (with some 60% of the votes cast), considered alongside the fact that an unfancied UKIP candidate in the former Labour stronghold of Heywood & Middleton in the North came within a whisker of also being elected on the same night, has persuaded me to reassess my previously held view that the forthcoming contest in Rochester would prove a by-election too far for UKIP. I now believe, as indeed do the bookies, that Mark Reckless will be back in the House to keep his new colleague company when the votes are counted in Kent.

So will Carswell’s victory be the death knell of two-party system as we know it? I suspect not.

Whilst I would expect UKIP to hold Clacton next year and also possibly to gain South Thanet, where Farage himself will be standing, in the total seats stakes the party will still be languishing some considerable way behind the unfashionable Liberal Democrats, in spite of the fact that it is likely to win more votes. The reason for this is because the Lib Dems cottoned on to the fact many years before UKIP did the same, that disproportionate power can be gained by concentrating all available campaigning resources in a small handful of areas.

UKIP, of course, are talking up their chances of scoring well in May 2015 because, frankly, they have to. The ball is rolling. If they are going to have any chance at all they must at the very least create an air of confidence. The task before them though – the discontinuation of the endless dreary ritual engaged in by millions of voters of voting against the party they dislike the most every bit as much as for their party of preference – is a massive one. Cameron knows what he is doing when he tries to frighten Tory-leaning UKIP voters with the prospect of a Labour government. Expect a significant chunk of the UKIP-friendly vote to revert to the big parties when the real election comes around.

Unsupportive though I am of UKIP’s main policy planks I nonetheless rejoice at the implications for the old system of the results in Clacton and Heywood & Middleton, because there are few evils in modern politics to match the ongoing fraud perpetuated against the voters by the Con-Lab duopoly. But I do fear we have a long way to go yet before we will see, as one day we certainly will, the replacement of the rotten old system by something more open and inclusive.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Scottish Independence: Has Westminster Bitten Off More Than It Can Chew?

Although I’m not Scottish and I don’t live in Scotland I found myself captivated by the recent referendum campaign, and deeply disappointed by the failure of a majority of Scottish people to reach for the stars when the opportunity was within their grasp.

As a free-thinking activist with a lifetime of experience of fighting against the system under one guise or another I was unsurprised by the manipulation, the dishonesty and the sheer nastiness of the Westminster campaign for a No vote. Not only was no stone left unturned by the three UK establishment political parties and their controlled media, but no stone was not crawled from under as Team Westminster set about its business of trying to frighten, browbeat, cajole and bully the Scottish people out of claiming what was rightfully theirs. The elderly in particular were identified as being vulnerable to warnings that they would be left with no money, no oil, no NHS, no pensions, no hope and no future without the protective arm of the Union wrapped tightly around them.

To begin with, Team Westminster persisted with the pretense that it was actually three teams, each individually fighting the good fight for their own selfless, altruistic reasons. The truth was, of course, that the Tories were a party beholden to a unionist fanbase whilst Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood to lose politically from the loss of their Scottish parliamentary seats. Party before people as always.

Then, shortly before the big day, when a rogue opinion poll bucked the trend by placing the Yes campaign ahead, the three stooges turned up all at once in the obvious belief that their combined celebrity would impress the Scottish people where all the fallacious arguments and threats about currency and EU membership apparently hadn’t. A joint promise of sorts was made, with Scottish people being taken to the Hadrianic equivalent of Mount Hermon and told that all this could be theirs if only they would renounce the credo that is independence.

FEAR TRIUMPHS OVER HOPE

Sadly, on the day fear triumphed over hope. Around 55% (2 million) of the Scottish electorate voted against their own independence, with 45% (over 1.6 million) in favour. This, so the beaming BBC pundits told us, was a death blow to the romantics and the dreamers who had campaigned for self-determination.

What followed next was quite extraordinary. Membership of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which had been a little over 25,000 on the day of the referendum, rose to 57,000 within a week of the poll. The SNP now has three members in Scotland for every two the Liberal Democrats have in the whole of the UK.

Radical socialists, greens and other pro-independence groupings have urged fellow Scots to support the SNP at the 2015 general election and in the Holyrood ballot a year hence, to demonstrate for once and for all a decisive mandate in favour of independence.

Representations have been made to the appropriate authorities by Yes campaigners who believe there to have been serious malpractice in the conduct of the counting process on September 18th. And social media groups, forums and online chat rooms have veritably exploded with activity, with thousands of otherwise very ordinary and typical Scots (and even a few non-Scots) beginning to discuss the mechanics and logistics of revolution.

As any fool could have predicted, the promises made to Scottish voters by the Unholy Trinity very quickly transpired to be so much hot air, as the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties immediately embarked upon an unseemly squabble about what it really was that they had (literally) signed up to. For the Tories, concessions to the Scots had to be accompanied by similar powers granted to the English so that Scottish MPs would no longer be able to vote on English-only issues, just as English MPs are not currently allowed to vote on Scottish-only matters. The so-called West Lothian question.

PLOY

Typically this was a ploy. In the event of a future Labour or Labour-led government being elected throughout the UK, an English-only parliament with a Conservative majority could basically ignore it on most issues and treat it with indifference. Labour protested, not unreasonably, that there had been no mention of this in the agreement they had hastily signed up to on the eve of the poll.

Labour strategists oppose the question of an English parliament being made into a condition of pledges to the Scottish people being honoured. But then they would, wouldn’t they?

Meanwhile Scotland sits and patiently waits. Assuming the result is not declared null and void, Scotland remains a part of the UK for now but with seething, festering resentment brought forth by righteous anger. The SNP, transformed overnight from local political party to a potential liberating army, bides its time. And Labour, who treacherously led the No campaign in the belief that the continuance of the Union would increase its chances of forming the next Westminster government with the help of Scottish seats, now faces the very real possibility that come next May it might not actually have any.