Monday, 22 December 2008

Crunch time for culture

The Audit Commission have found that local authority directors of finance will wield the axe at their culture and leisure services before anything else.

I'm not surprised, but given the likely severity of this recession, and the already huge hole in the public finances which will need to be filled, the gains of the investment of the last ten years are at real risk.

Local providers need to be creative in providing access to culture in tougher times, and central government should bite the bullet and prioritise local services over national institutions. If we want our society to remain healthy while our economy recovers, then we have to invest in the those things that give meaning to life and bring people together.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


For the third time in a decade, Bristol Rugby Club's future is uncertain. Many long term Bris fans are greeting this with weary resignation rather than indignant outrage. It's not that our affection for this fantastic old club is any less, but twice now we've seen this to and fro of rumour and denial and it's depressingly familiar.
Depressing, because we know that with our rugby heritage and the massive rugby community that is the greater Bristol area this club could and should be one of the most successful in the country.
It's almost impossible to pick out fact from fiction at present. Certainly, Bristol did not help themselves with their appeal for investment. So far none has appeared, and it seems to have done no more than power the rumour mill.
The club admit that they are suffering in the current economic climate, but that they are not in immediate danger. This is not the spin that the media are choosing to put on it.
It's easy to dismiss rumours as rumours, but the last time Bristol were in trouble, five years ago, rumours about the club being potentially moved to Oxford or merged with Bath were initially laughed off. Both turned out to be to be true.
I suspect Bristol's position is worse than they are letting on. The recession will hit them harder than many clubs because of the simple fact that your average Bristol fan has less disposable income than his or her equivalent at Harlequins or Wasps. On top of the fall out from the Memorial Ground debacle of the summer, income for this year will have dropped considerably.
But are they about to go to the wall? I just don't know. What can be said for certain, though is that action needs to be taken now for Bristol to get through this period.
Firstly, professional rugby as a whole needs to make sure it is sustainable. It is easy to write Bristol off as a basket case, holding the others back, but that view is naive. Earlier this week it seemed like the rest of the Premiership clubs were looking to ditch Newcastle and Bristol for a ten team premiership. Happily, that view has not prevailed, and Premier Rugby are looking at measures to help the poorer clubs, starting with a reduction in the salary cap. This is sensible. Professional sport is not immune from recession.
Secondly, Bristol need to exploit the strongest resource that they have. The rugby community and people of the Bristol area. This has always been the strength of the club, and the reason why it prospered for so long. The club should not cease the search for further corporate and private investment, but now it needs to bring in the local community in a wholehearted and long term way. Happily, moves seem to be afoot in just this direction.
The state of the economy poses a major challenge to the future of Bristol Rugby Club, certainly in terms of whether it can continue as part of the elite, and possibly to its very existence.
As Bristol supporters, we would appear to have two choices. The first is to roll our eyes and await what would become the inevitable. The second is to remember what a wonderful club Bristol is, and take advantage of adversity to build an ownership and investment structure that finally bridges the tension between the community rugby club of our memory and our aspiration, and the realities of professional sport.
Other challenges remain. The ground situation needs to be resolved, and everyone associated with the club needs to pull together for the rest of the season to keep us in the Premiership, but we can build a club worthy of our history and our potential. Times might well be tough now, but this could we the opportunity for us all -club, supporters and city - to put Bristol on the sure footing it deserves.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Ladywell Fields: what no water; what no trees?

Saturday morning found me ambling behind T as I pushed him along on his new trike. T was more interested in watching the men cutting down the trees by the path next to the railway than he was in going on the swings. It is a shame to see them come down, but at least we knew this was coming.

Not so the absence of water in the new stream that has been cut from the Ravensbourne. There was no running water in it, and no obvious reason why. The dam which diverts the water looks like it may have need breached, but if anyone knows whether this has happened through accident or design, then I'd really like to know.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Across the Levels

I am a sociable person, blessed with friends and family, and I like living in London more than I have ever done, but when I return to the West Country things change. I need to get close again to the places I grew up in.

So it was that early on an October Sunday I borrowed a bike and headed out over the North Somerset Levels. The flat and watery land, crossed by rhynes and lonely roads, feels a million miles from the rest of the world. It was what I wanteed. On an Autumn day, the wind gusting in from the sea, it has a freshness and a cleanliness that calms and restores you.

I headed out along Claverham Drove. A few other early morning cyclists nodded cheerily as I skirted round Nailsea. When I headed across the moors, though, I was alone.

A sparrowhawk impassively observed me struggling over a railway bridge. As I went on I saw buzzards overhead, and a particularly large and impressive one sat in a tree by the road. Likewise, numerous herons stalked the ditches and streams. I don't remember seeing so large birds when I was younger. Is the countryside a better place for them now?

Crossing over the M5 I headed into Kingston Seymour, and continued through the village out towards the sea. Even though you are within yards of the shore at some points you don't get to see the Bristol Channel. The land is so flat and the sea itself is hidden behind banks stopping the salt water reclaiming what was once its own.

The lane followed the coast for a mile or so before turning inland. Following the road, I crossed over the motorway again, traversed Kenn Moor and was back in plenty of time to get the 13.00 to Paddington.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The first year

T is a year old tomorrow. I have just finished putting together his trike (present from both of us), and wrapping his mini Bristol kit (the first stage of indoctrination from me).

At exactly this time last year, I was sat, a month earlier than anticipated, in Lewisham Hospital, reading out chunks of Peter Ackroyd's biography of Chaucer to my wife as we waited. Eight hours later I became a dad.

Has this year changed me? Certainly, but I'm too close to it to know how. It's been a great year, though.

I hope he likes his trike.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Library debate - hints of sense

Andy Burnham has kicked off a debate on public libraries which has been characterised by lunacy. Of all the issues, it is that of silence and whether people can eat and drink as they read that has caused people to take sides.

And of course, they're all missing the point. My comment on this has produced a small response (i.e. one) but out there in the real world, there are at least the shoots of recovery.

As the blogocracy and literary commentators rail against a presumed end to Carnegie's vision, a Guardian editorial finally strikes a balanced tone.

Maybe we can have a sensible conversation after all?

Friday, 10 October 2008

Boris, Blair and the rest of Britain

I was awoken this morning by the sound of the blond buffoon pontificating on the Today Programme. He was upset at being questioned on the issue of his role in the resignation of Ian Blair, rather than having the chance to talk about falling crime rates on London's buses.

The question of the mayor's influence over the removal of the holder of a post with national responsibilities for terrorism is a legitimate matter for the BBC to pursue. Boris's failure to consult the members of the MPA raise serious questions about the accountability of his direct power and indirect influence.

His unfortunate behaviour also highlights one of the the many loose ends that need tying up in the Greater London Authority Act. Who should the Commissioner of the Met be responsible to? The nation or the city, or both? And if both, how do we make it work? Because in the face of someone as arrogant and partisan as Boris the potential for it all to come unstuck is painfully obvious.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Library review

Andy Burnham has announced a review of England's public libraries.

Already, a sensible conversation has become impossible. Debate has centred around the red herrings of whether libraries should be places of silence or chatter, with claims that the government has "proposed" that they should be places for coffee drinking and video watching (no such proposal has been actually been made).

Meanwhile, the blogocracy is buzzing with the usual smattering of writers (producer interest) and elitists bemoaning the dumbing down of a once great institution.

Singer Rosie Bell buys the media's line that these are proposals, not a review and tells us, "Every time a cultural minister opens his or her gob, I reach for my gun"

"The Wife" admits to being, "an intellectual snob".

JuliaM sees it as "cultural vandalism".

The media and the bloggers have already defined this debate as the clash of the defenders of our cultural inheritance and the dumbers down and levellers. Only Belinda Webb appears to realise the essential futility of this debate, but even she sees the two sides as essentially opposed. Never has so much air been expended by those who know so little.

A false dichotomy has been set up, and sensible debate becomes impossible - it is this that will be the fundamental cause of the death of the public library.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Poor season start

Bristol's tally for the first weeks of the season is played five, lost five.

This has been accompanied by ongoing complaints from the club that they cannot afford to match the spending power of other teams in the division.

Of course, the collapse of the redevelopment of the Memorial Ground punctured Bristol's financial and on-field planning, but the noises emerging from the club are that Bristol are in some way elementally and fundamentally ill-equipped to compete with the current elite.

A rhetoric very different from 2003 when the current regime took over.

Bristol is, and remains, a huge rugby area with unmatched potential and a heritage in the game that is second to none. It still astounds me that you have to explain to people why teams such as Wasps are comparative minnows if you cast your eyes over the last century or more.

So, the questions need answering. Why is it that Bristol can't attract the finance? And, are we doomed to being a second rate side?

Bristol, as a city and a rugby community, should expect the best, and certainly deserves better.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Ill child

T is ill. He was a bit funny on Sunday, had a rash on Monday, and the doctor advised him to stay home. Mrs C stayed at home on Monday, and I had him on Tuesday. Tonight it's obvious he's got some sort of stomach bug and I'l be home again with him on Thursday.

This is the first time he's been properly ill, and the first time that I've had that parental thing of not knowing what to do. Doc said it's not serious and I'm sure she's right, but T is unhappy and obviously doesn't know what to do with himself.

Meanwhile, I'm uncomfortable with the fact that we've got to ride it out and, beyond cuddles, there's not much I can do.

Interesting reactions from colleagues, though. Very clear that the unspoken assumption from some is that it is my wife who should stay home and not me.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Street drinkers

You put up with street drinkers in Ladywell. We're near a town centre, a hospital and the council offices. We've got parks. Sad to say, but it goes with the territory.

I am loath to judge. I don't know what brings people to this pass, but it is an issue that needs acting upon. Of course the health service and the local authority are doing things.

But do others have a responsibility? One of the shops on Ladywell Road keeps a bottle opener under the counter so that drinkers can have their super strength booze opened for them before they leave the shop. This means they are drinking immediately as they walk down the road.

Is this acceptable? Is it any less acceptable than selling Special Brew in the first place? Or am I completely over-reacting?

I'd be interested to know what people think.

Monday, 8 September 2008

The end of the sporting summer

I marked the return of winter sport with a trip to see Bristol Rugby lose at home to Bath. Any derby defeat is depressing, but with Bristol tipped for relegation, there was no encouraging defiance. Excluding, of course, the David Lemi wonder try which was easily one of the best in my two seasons on the Memorial Ground terraces. Scant consolation, though.

The summer has been much more enjoyable. Although England lost the test series to South Africa, the Pieterson era promises much - certainly excitement, if not success. I was at the Oval for his first game in charge and saw him batter that century. Since then the Proteas have convincingly been seen off in the one day series, and I'm looking forward to the Ashes with a renewed optimism.

Of course, the Olympics was fantastic, and I'm suspending all personal concerns and looking forward to 2012. It will be London's Olympics, but the lesson of Beijing is that its heroes are as likely to be from Mansfield or Edinburgh as they are from the capital.

We need to ensure that the Olympics are Britain's games, no matter what face we present to the world.


In case you've not seen it, there's a kestrel living on Hilly Fields. I saw it swooping menacingly over the uncut meadow area this morning, and then it helpfully sat on a lampost and allowed me to take a rather poor photo.
Apparently, they're not unusual in the middle of a city, but this is the first time I've seen one.
Obviously, the support for wildlife is paying off. Good stuff.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Just who are you to say that?

Of all the poor benighted cultural institutions in this country, the one that attracts more ill informed comment than any other is the humble public library. Last weekend saw another classic of the kind, as the Observer's Hephzibah Anderson added her complaint.

I don't rely on, but I do use Lewisham's libraries. They're nothing special, and do provide me with access to the information and books that I need when I need them. Like the time my broadband fell over and I needed to get online, or when I needed a travel book, or that text for my evening class.

But it's since my little boy has come on the scene that they have come into their own. T so loves his trips to Bounce and Rhyme at Lewisham that he goes for a second helping at Crofton Park. In doing so he's learning to communicate and to engage, and he's learning to be at home in the library, which I hope provides a foundation for him to help him learn and to have fun throughout his life.

I'm a fan of libraries, no question, and (as regular readers of this blog now) as a committed localist I have an understanding of the role they play in local communities.

Which is why I get so upset when I read articles like Anderson's. They want to kick T out of the library and replace him with a mini-Bodleian. They just don't get where libraries are now.

Libraries are about providing access to information and to literature in settings that are appropriate to the communities that they serve, and this goes completely against the 1950s views of Anderson et al.

The public library exists so that those who would otherwise be unable to access the information and literature they need can do so in a setting that is social and communal. That vision needs to be constantly refreshed as technologies, society and places change.

Libraries never were about being palaces of books, but the argument that they were and that they should be again is sadly dominant in our broadsheets and amongst our cultural commentators. They drown out the voices of those who actually understand libraries and know their role in national and local life.

Anderson as good as admits this:
Like plenty of people who count themselves supporters of public libraries, it had been a while since I last stepped inside one.
So, who is Hephzibah Anderson? If she's not been in a library for years, what else qualifies her to pontificate on what they should be about? According to Jewish Quarterly, she is:
deputy fiction critic for The Observer, Fiction Editor of the Daily Mail, and a visual arts writer for the Evening Standard. She sits on the editorial board of the Jewish Quarterly, and writes regularly for the Jewish Chronicle, the New Statesman and Zembla Magazine. She also reviews for BBC Radio London and BBC Radio 2.
So, we can safely assume that she knows nothing about what libraries do and what they are about. Sadly, this doesn't stop her or her colleagues in the arts pages, or novelists (now, there's a producer interest!) lecturing the rest of the world.

Such people are the only obvious participants in what is a very one sided debate. Let's hope local councils listen to their communities, not the siren voices of the Sunday papers.

Popularity or otherwise

I have got hold of a piece of kit that tells me how many people are reading these ramblings and where they hail from.

By far and away the most popular page on this blog is the one that somewhat controversially described the incumbent London mayor as an idiot.

People from all over the globe alight on this entry, stepping off from Google searches, of which the most common is "Boris", "Johnson" and "idiot".

I'm not sure what this proves, if anything.

Friday, 22 August 2008

New Ladywell Tavern

The new Ladywell Tavern has been done out in the style of the boozers of Crofton Park, but has been done so without the expected ethnic cleansing of the locals, which is welcome.

I have been there more times in the past month than in the past two years, and I have been impressed by the more extensive range of drink. I will go again, and more frequently.

I'm especially pleased to see bottles of Thatchers, one of the food and drink highlights of the West Country.

Sadly, to get Thatchers into a London pub it has to market itself to a demographic who, in the past few years, have been browbeaten into thinking that it is somehow normal to serve cider with ice. This is not a normal activity, and people who put ice in cider should live in shame.

More worryingly, the Thatchers' brand in question is 'Pear Cider' - a nice tipple, but as anyone with half a brain will tell you there is no such thing. Fermented pear juice is 'perry'. You might as well call beer 'hops wine'.

Great to see Thatchers in this neck of the woods - sad to see it can't be here on its own terms.

I will probably blog at length about this bizarre prejudice in the future, but for now, I draw your attention to the Facebook group.

Lost: one ladybird and one snail

T has an arch from which hang toys which we stretch across his buggy to entertain him when we're pushing him about.

Earlier this week he returned from a stroll round Hilly Fields without the ladybird mirror and the snail that plays 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'.

If anyone finds aforesaid snail and ladybird, then do let me know here at Non-Provincial Lives.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

The next Tory Government and the Arts

The Tories are waiting in the wings, and every part of public life is beginning to wake up to what might be a new reality. Culture is no different.

In recent months, debate on cultural policy has focused on how the money is spent, with (and I paraphrase somewhat here) artists and cultural practitioners and their cheerleaders in the arts pages of the press (Charlotte Higgins being the latest) complaining that the cultural bureaucracy is somehow bringing arts and culture in this country to a nadir.

The opposite is in fact the case. Public spending on arts and culture has skyrocketed over the last decade. The Government has - quite rightly, in my view - put an emphasis on this money being spent efficiently and in delivering public good. This has led to the wholly exaggerated debate over "targets" and the self-defeating and meaningless debate over "intrinsic" versus "instrumental" value. It is the bureaucracy that secures efficiency and that public good against which the artists, critics and now ministers are turning their fire.

Dominic Cooke points out that even if the Tories don't turn out to be vicious cutters the slowing economy means that arts and culture cannot expect to receive the largess that they have come to expect, and whichever Government we have they are damn well going to want to see a return on their investment.

Artists should be careful about attacking the Arts Council and other cultural agencies - you might just get what you wish for.

Burchill versus Monbiot

I'm not really a fan of the Today programme. Too much heat, not enough light. Burchill versus Monbiot this morning was a case in point. Take one controversialist self-publicist and one self-righteous humourless green, add a healthy dose of class prejudice and stand back.

I've always found Julie Burchill a bit tiresome, and it worries me that the older she gets, the more Bristolian she sounds, despite having left the place decades ago. Does this fate await every exile? Are my declining years to be spent sounding more and more like a member of the Wurzels?

Monbiot, meanwhile, is someone I can claim to have had a minor run in with. Many years ago I invited him to come and speak to a student society. He sounded faintly bored with both me and my request, and dismissively palmed me off on an acquaintance of his, who is nowadays given over to propagating the wildest of fantasies.

So it was mildly diverting to hear these two thrash around the thesis that greenies are posh and preachy. Most commentators seem to think that George won, and he was so enraged he immediately went home and penned a piece for the Guardian.

The sad thing is that George went a very long way to proving Julie right. On the issue of the environment, he's of course absolutely correct, but he's so desperate to be seen to be absolutely correct that he's found himself arguing with someone who is adopting a controversial position for the sake of a controversial position.

In tilting at this particular windmill George was wasting his time (and the BBC was wasting mine, but that's another story) but you got the sense that if someone, anyone, is going to disagree with him, then he isn't going to let it go.

And, sadly, in doing so, he gave credence to Burchill's contention that greens are just posh people who like bossing their inferiors around.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Labour leadership

To David Miliband, Harriet Harman, or anyone else thinking of challenging Gordon Brown, a question.

Why now?

Why not a year ago?

Monday, 28 July 2008


Tragic news from the old country as Weston's Grand Pier was destroyed in a fire.

Anyone brought up in the Bristol area will have day trips to Weston hard wired into their very essence, and any visit to Weston involved a trip to the Pier. I was never a fan of the arcades or chip stalls, but I did enjoy standing at the end and looking out over the Bristol Channel. The last time I saw the Pier was at the start of this month when I looked back from Brean Down towards Weston.

From this vantage point it was the main feature of the town, and it loomed as large visually as it does in my memory. It's blackened bones will now scar the town.
While Weston isn't as bad as some seaside towns, it's definitely seen better days. I fear that the loss of the Pier is a significant blow to Weston. Unless it is repaired it could define the place.
Sadly, it may be too expensive to do so.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Urban rain

This evening has been depressing. The rain has continued to lash down and I have not had a chance to plant the beans.

London rain - at any time of the year - beats you down.

How different to the exhiliaring thunderstorm that we got caught in on Brean Down last weekend. As it whipped in suddenly from the Bristol Channel it actually tasted of salt. After it had passed, we watched another move up the Somerset Levels, with some very impressive lightening as it moved towards Glastonbury.

T loved it. He was in the backpack and ended up under my coat and was so excited he shrieked. When he really gets caught he'll learn.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Ray Lewis and Mayoral Advisers

Boris, like Ken before him, is getting some serious flak because of allegations about one of his advisers.

The mayor is allowed to appoint a number of individuals to posts such as these. They are in a nether world between paid public servant and political appointee.

They attract a partisan press attention so that they cannot fulfil the role of paid public servants, and yet they do not have any accountability other than to the mayor who appointed them, which raises serious concerns about their political responsibilities.

The Greater London Authority Acts should be amended. The mayor should be able to appoint a cabinet, but he should do so from the members of the London Assembly.

If the Mayor wants particular people to particular jobs, he should be able to appoint them, but political and democratic responsibility should reside with the elected mayor and a cabinet drawn from the members of the Greater London Assembly. Operational responsibility should reside with officials.

The same system as set out in in the 2000 Local Government Act. Use this, not the failed mayoral cabinet experiment.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

A London of villages

The past week has been spent in the New Forest. I have tramped miles of forest and heathland paths (with T in a rather impressive new backpack), cycled to the coast and wandered around small towns and villages.

Once you got outside of the real tourist traps, I was taken aback by how polite people were. Civility has become quite important to me in recent months. I am getting sick of seeing people spit in the street, toss litter in the park, or leave their pit bull lying across a shop doorway. It's the one thing that makes me regret where I live. A nod and a 'good morning' from a passerby, then, was a stark contrast to some of the interactions I have with those who share my particular patch of SE4.

Civility - treating people with respect and decency - seems to me to be an ultimate foundation of a good neighbourhood. It's a quality somewhat underplayed by many of the writers on what makes for a successful city.

Perhaps, then we need to conceive of the successful city not in terms of its totality, but more as a collection of smaller communities - akin to the small towns, villages and neighbourhoods of the non-urban and suburban bits of the UK. We are continually told that disappearing pubs, schools and post offices are ripping the heart out of such communities, and I wouldn't want to romanticise, but noticeboards on village halls and the banter in pubs where I stopped for a pint told of places where people had ample opportunity to interact with each other, and to do it at a level which is meaningful to them and their lives.

Such thoughts recurred to me as I wandered around yesterday's Blythe Hill Fields Festival. People came together in their area to do something with each other, and the effect, from what I could see, was fantastic. People were happy in each others company and were having fun. We need more opportunities to do this, and while festivals have their place, it needs to be embedded in the core of what local places have and what they are about.

When I say we need to look at making successful places to live in terms of thinking of cities as a conglomeration of villages, I'm not saying that we need to import some bucolic vision of a pastoral idyll. We don't want to make places that crush diversity or are small 'c' conservative, restricting people to their allotted role and preventing them reaching their full potential. What I mean is creating a space where people live that they know is theirs, and where they have opportunity to interact positively with those around them, and where everyone is aware of their shared interests and works together to secure them.

What attracts me to this idea is that it creates and supports communities of interest by place, and thus is supportive of diversity. Your neighbours are the people around you, no matter who they are. It is a way of breaking down barriers of race and class.

So, how to do this? Firstly, you need to make sure that people have the spaces to interact. You need to invest in high quality parks, libraries and public places - and not to see them as an add on. You need to take a robust line on school admissions so that schooling becomes social as well as educative.

Then you need to make sure that people have the motivation to interact, so it has to be in their interest to do so. The only way to achieve this is to make local communities themselves responsible for their quality of life. So, devolve as much power as possible to the lowest possible level and support people to be involved in using this power.

Finally, you need people to respect each other. Civility is vital. No man is an island, and if our interactions with our neighbours are blunt, negative and coarse, then so are our lives. If you you create spaces for people to come together and you make sure it is in their interests to work together than you promote better relations between people. If we treat each other decently then we have the essential building blocks for us to work together, and then we can make the successful villages that can make a successful city.

Civility, though, is the one thing that government cannot legislate for. So the onus is on us to treat each other better.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Cultural Olympiad

What's the point of the Cultural Olympiad, asks Rupert Christiansen?

This is an issue I have pondered myself, having seen a large amount of hot air being expelled to what seems, so far, to be very little purpose.

But, I've stayed tight lipped, as it's still four years away, and we don't want to peak too soon. Or even have a peek too soon.

After reading Christiansen's diatribe, I have become an evangelist for the Cultural Olympiad, rather than a luke warm casual observer.

Once again, the metropolitan elite dictate to us what the priorities of cultural policy should be, and access to them and enjoyment for the majority came way, way down the list.
I mean that [the Games] should not be blighted by any more horrors like the hideous and illegible logo; that the opening and closing ceremonies are fun and fabulous in the noblest British tradition of parades and processions, and not a Millennium Dome-style mishmash of steel bands and spluttering fireworks; that the best of British architecture, design and craftsmanship is evident in the stadia and the village, finished without the usual pennypinching tattiness which has become a national disease; that any music accompanying the games is a well-composed, dignified tune rather than some ghastly nul-points banality warbled by Katherine Jenkins and aimed at the lowest common denominator of juvenile taste; that the competitors wear a uniform that doesn't make them look like they're employees of a budget airline; and in sum, that elegance rather than a quick buck should be the watchword.
Christiansen fears that the Cultural Olympiad will be tasteless, and he also fears that the games will "rob Peter to pay Paul" by diverting lottery money. His critique reeks of snobbish dismissal of cultural activity that widens access and misunderstands what the Olympiad could achieve.

There is the usual ill informed and ignorant condemnation of any cultural policy that is not just giving artists some free money.
Basically, a lot of money will be doled out to anyone who can tick the access/disability/ethnic diversity boxes.
The Games will be a one of event, and they will as much focus British minds on who we are and what life here is like as international ones. By using the games to widen access to cultural opportunity we can bring people together to take part through culture in that positive debate. We can make people feel part of the Games, and part of the nation, if these cultural opportunities are used to broaden engagement with the Games beyond London and the few other 2012 venues. We can create a route into culture for people who wouldn't otherwise access cultural opportunities.

In short its a chance to get people participating in culture, enjoying themselves, interacting with others and having better lives.

Christiansen's obviously not interested in that, but I can't think of a better justification for spending public money on art and culture.

So, bring on the Cultural Olympiad, and two fingers to the London intelligensia.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Where is the wildlife?

ladywell fields river
Originally uploaded by

The changes made late last year in Ladywell Fields were impressive, and I've really enjoyed walking and running and cycling by the new arm of the river.

Speaking as someone who spent a lot of his childhood messing around by the edge of or on rafts on top of rivers and ponds (and a lot of time in them too), one thing disappoints me.

I have been enthusiastically awaiting the growth of water plants and the consequent arrival of dragonflies, whirligig beetles, and maybe the odd heron.

So far, nothing.

I wonder why? The old course of the Ravensbourne seems fine, so it can't be the water. I saw a shoal of small fish in there for the first time on Sunday, and there's always a wagtail or two to show it's clean enough.

Still, it's a nice place to be, and is refreshingly free of litter.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Boris Johnson is an idiot

You knew that already. Unless of course you voted for him.

Anyway, did you see him on BBC London News tonight?

Well briefed on community safety issues, but other than that an idiot. Shown to be ill informed and impractical over the Routemaster issue.

And then I think he promised to make the Pensioners Freedom Pass valid over 24 hours by January 2009. I'm not sure he meant to do this (he started off by saying that it would happen "this year"), so I hope it was heard by more than me, and he gets held to it.

His opposition to the congestion charge as currently constituted wasn't based on any kind of alternative, so he's trying to come up with an alternative now.

Oh, and since coming into office he's learnt how to turn the lights on and how to put rubbish in the bin.

Aren't we lucky?

Who on earth voted for this idiot?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

When people vote BNP, they tend to mean it

An excellent article by Lynsey Hanley in the Guardian last week. She makes several points very well indeed.

Firstly, that BNP voters are not passive sheep with nowhere else to go, they have made a choice.

Voting for the BNP is a deliberate decision: you are not "driven" to it any more than a car drives itself. It is a decision to allow self-pity to influence your vote and to disguise it as righteous anger.
That it is dangerous to assume that BNP voters are a monolithic block, and not a significant one in national terms.

Contrary to the claim made in another newspaper that votes for the BNP are "a cry of white working-class anguish" (thereby letting middle-class BNP voters off the hook), the vast majority of voters refuse to vote for a fascist party because they know what it means to do so.
Ouch. She also gives a useful illustration.

The estate on which I grew up, just outside Birmingham, has had a BNP councillor since 2006. The estate which adjoins it, of near-identical social and economic makeup, has just elected a Green councillor. Interestingly,there has been little hand-wringing over residents of the latter estate being "driven" into the arms of environmentalists, rather than fascists. What motivated "the white working class" there? Are they, as one, "victims" of climate change just as voters in the next ward are "victims" of an unthinking liberal elite?
A turn away from established political parties is almost always a local phenomenon, and has to be understood in terms of the political choices and the people making those choices in a locality. I am not for a moment lumping together the Green Party and the BNP, but I am saying that their vote is often localised and related to local issues.What is needed is for more of the academic research in this area to penetrate public debate (like the 2006 JRF report). But even when it does the accepted metropolitan elite discourse means that such research is used to shore up the metropolitan elite view of a passive white working class rejected by Labour falling into the arms of a grateful and lucky BNP.

Hence the headlines surrounding the JRF research were of "25%" who "might" vote BNP, not an exploration of the more knotty issues, such as why UKIP's decline - a party obsessed with the EU - seemed related to the rise of the BNP - a party obsessed with immigration. Related issues, but still different.

I'd be interested to know whether the rise, such as it is, of the BNP, can be explained in the same way as the turn from mainstream to other "fringe" parties, like the Greens. Or whether it is part of a trend which has seen the Liberal Democrats make massive inroads in previously rock solid Labour cities such as Newcastle, Bristol and Liverpool.

When people are in a polling booth, they make a choice, and they have reasons for doing so. Claiming they do it out of some unconscious urge gets us no nearer understanding what is happening in our villages, towns and cities.

Politics, particularly local politics, is in such a state of flux that we have to look at it from many angles to really get a handle on what is going on. I’m not pretending I’ve got the answers, but I think Lynsey Hanley's done a good job in busting one of the lazier myths.

Staying put

So, my slightly pretentious goodbye to the Memorial Ground has turned out, thanks to the credit crunch, to be premature.


What this means for Bristol Rugby, Bristol Rovers, Newport RFC, Cheltenham Town FC and a patch of ground that used to be Buffalo Bill's in Horfield we'll have to wait and see.

My gut feeling is not good, though.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Fuel protest

The truckers are out again, and it's being portayed by the media (ITN tonight being the best example) of how circumstances are both interlinked and combining against Gordon Brown.

Closer inspection, though, tells a different story. While Brown's current travails may well be caused, in part, by tax issues, the fuel protests do not add to the evidence of a groundswell of opinion.

Since the first fuel protest in 2000, the numbers of protesters and their impact have diminished significantly. This time around, 1000 lorries were expected to stop us London residents going about our daily business, but less than 300 turned up.

The story is not that fuel protests are another nail in Gordon Brown's coffin. The story is that the fuel protests are a damp squib.

Sadly, our metropolitan elite aren't interested in this, perhaps the only salient fact to emerge from today's 'protest'.

Springtime Sport II - a score draw

Bristol City lost to Hull in a poor game, but England snatched an unlikely win against New Zealand in one that turned out to be a bit exciting.

The new Wembley, I can report, is very impressive indeed.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008


18,000 tickets sold out in 20 minutes.

By some miracle I was one of the lucky ones who managed to get my hands on one, and I'm on my way to Wembley.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Springtime sport

DIY day yesterday, which I meant to spend in the company of Test Match Special, but the weather saw to that.

So, my sporting weekend was dominated by the FA Cup Final. It's not the end of the winter games for me, as I hope to be at Wembley next weekend as Bristol City strive for the Premiership (if I can get a ticket).

I enjoyed the match. It felt like an occasion, and you got a real sense that it was about Cardiff and Portsmouth as places, as cities. Much more so than if it had been one of the 'big four'.

Sobering, then, to read that rugby risks the same differential between haves and have nots - and to see Bristol being used as an illustration of the poorer end of the scale.

Boris's "Director of Policy, Arts, Culture and the Creative Industries"

Munira Mirza is London's new Director of Policy, Arts, Culture and the Creative Industries.

Two points to make - firstly, I have no idea what this means for cultural policy in London. Mirza certainly hasn't done much and hasn't run anything. She's on secondment to the Tate as part of the Cultural Leadership programme - hardly a track record of high level strategy or delivery. But she's got some odd friends, which helps her kick up a stink and get noticed.

So, what does this mean for cultural policy in London? Haven't a clue, but from a position of ignorance let me suggest that Mirza will make the occasional trite statement, write the occasional policy paper and take home a nice salary, while the real powers behind Boris's throne continue the process started by Ken of hoovering up power and occasionally institutions.

Finally, I'd raise the issue of cronyism. Ken's was distasteful and I suspect Boris will be better. He's appointed councillors to the big jobs so at least they have some legitimacy. But it's still not good enough. The boundary between political adviser and officer is too fluid. Is Mirza an adviser to the Mayor or will she have some say over the budget for the Museum of London?

It was issues such as these, arising from the peculiar structures of the Mayor and GLA, that led to some of the problems around Lee Jasper, which Boris and the Standard exploited to the full.

They will have to be very careful not to be hoisted by their own petard.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Big, scary dogs

This post isn't about whether Staffordshire Bull Terriers are nicer than Pit Bull Terriers. I can't tell the difference, and to be honest, I'm not that bothered if there is one.

People have always had big, scary dogs to make themselves appear bigger and scarier to other people.

What's worrying me is that the people I see with big, scary dogs are getting younger and younger, and they are increasingly obviously owning these dogs as a status symbol, and one that is meant to intimidate.

I don't know whether this is a national trend, but to my eyes, it's certainly a local one.

It's a common sight to see groups of kids hanging around by the shops on Ladywell Road. That's fine. I don't want to be one of those who asks for kids to be swept from our streets, far from it.

But if a group of kids has one or more bull terrier-type pooches then my immediate reaction is not a positive one - to the kids, the dogs or where I live.

What concerns me is that this is exactly what the owners of these dogs want. You don't get a bull terrier, stick it on a chain, and leave it across a shop doorway if you want to get on with your neighbours.

Not sure what the solution is, but I'd feel a bit more cheerful if there was one.

I don't blame the dogs. I like dogs.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Artists' Parliament

Mark Ravenhill - generally one of the most sensible of the luvvies - thinks he has the solution to better involving artists in decisions about arts funding. His 'parliament' idea involves getting the great and the good together where artists can debate the future of culture - and inform Arts Council choices.

Once again the discourse is privileging artists in decisions which should not be about allocating resources on the basis of artistic merit or aesthetic judgement, but on the basis of how best to deliver the public good.

I'm all for involving practitioners more closely in decision making, but sometimes the money will have to go to the amateur dramatics club and not the National Theatre.

Ultra-utilitarian perhaps, but if you do give the luvvies the veto, then you risk access to cultural opportunity by the many.

Please, can we shift the debate onto one of public value? It might even help us find the proper place for excellence as a judgement criteria.

At the moment, we appear to be living in cloud cuckoo land.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Last day at the Mem

A sad day with a disappointing result. Bristol were a point down at the death, but there was to be no repeat of Jason Strange's drop goal heroics as his kick was charged down a the final whistle.

So, the Mem is now consigned to being a part of my history.

I got quite a few snaps of the last day, and there are plenty more on Flickr.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Mayoral Election

I was no fan of Ken, but it wasn't until I got into the polling booth and saw the name of that portly, blond posh buffoon that I realised how much I didn't want the Tories to win the mayoral election.

That they have done so has excited a visceral tribalism within me, the like of which I haven't felt since 1997.

The way I feel now, I'm not far off committing whatever it takes to keep the Tories out in 2010.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Goodbye to the Memorial Ground

So, it's definitely happening. The Memorial Ground is to be demolished. Two years from now a new all-seater Mem will arise, far removed from the Ground that I have known and grown up with.

There's regret that T will never stand on the terraces and watch Bristol with me as I did (and still do) with my Dad, but I know things have to move on.

Be that as it may, now seems an apposite time to recall the words on the Memorial Gates which I have passed hundreds of times on the way to and from my place on the terrace, and which, for me, has always made this more than a rugby ground.


Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Ken and culture

Ken Livingstone is trying to draw clear blue lines between him and Boris, this time on culture.

I'm voting for Ken, reluctantly, and one of the reasons why I'm doing so unenthusiastically is the policies he set out today.

Ken's approach to culture is trite, made for the easy soundbite, and while it has a veneer of coherence, really says nothing at all.

Ken's only major initiative has been endless festivals, the important of which are dubious. London's cultural vitality comes from the preponderance of great cultural institutions (the British Museum, Royal Opera House, etc.) and several important pockets of flourishing local and neighbourhood cultural production, a lot of it community and voluntary based.

The mayor has had little impact on either. The whip hand on London's cultural policy is held by institutions of national and international importance, which have no business being told what to do by the mayor, and the boroughs, which look on him with suspicion.


Something bizarre came through my front door. A free newspaper, sponsored by The Mirror, imploring me not to vote for the BNP in the upcoming London elections. Its back page announced that the BNP would remove black footballers from the Premiership, and its centre spread presented recipes from Aynsley Harriot and Jamie Oliver, the cooking of which apparently will combat facism.

My biggest concern is that we give the BNP an inflated sense of their actual worth. The freebie sheet announced that if 5% of London's voters gave their vote to them, then the BNP would claim an assembly seat.

Of course this would be no good thing, but the occasional nutter, loon or even Nazi is the price you pay for proportional representation.

More to the point, when elected, BNP councillors have either failed to perform even the smallest part of their duties as elected representatives, or time after time condemn themselves out of their own mouths as, given a platform, they cannot resist making ludicrous statements.

Yes, we need to fight the BNP, but let's not risk encouraging them by making this bunch of two bit lunatic Nazis seem in any way credible.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Wednesday, 16 April 2008


I have been noticed by a fellow chronicler of Ladywell life.


T is five months old and is growing and changing all the time. It was only in January that he first started to smile, but now he has this wonderful little giggle that he does when I play with him. I love the way that, when presented with something new to see, he goes quiet and his little head sweeps slowly from one side to another, and then back again, as he takes in whatever is the object of his fascination. Every day something is new, and it is fantastic.

I'm not sure that I have changed that much. That's not to say that I haven't, just that I'm still too close to whatever change has occurred to really understand it. It is odd, though, to think that only a few short months ago it was just the two of us and now there are three. Strange to report, but I have difficulty remembering just what life was like without him.

It all feels very much of the moment, and although we are already booking nursery places, future days seem a very long way off. On the subjects that the Sunday papers say I should worry about, I have not given any thought to. Which school and university is not a concern as yet. I am also not boring people with trivial statements about how I will disown him if he doesn't support Bristol. I'm not, if the truth be told, thinking about markers that have to be reached in the short, medium or long term.

The reason is, I'm sure, that my overwhelming ambition for my son is just that he is happy. How he achieves that is something I will have a huge part in, but, ultimately, it is down to him. I need to help him find the way, not show him a path and, anyway, I'm just enjoying T being T too much at the moment to think of anything else.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Keep Luvvies and Hacks out of Cultural Policy

I have written before about the dangers of privileging aesthetic criteria in cultural policy making. The people that would disagree with me would be artists and arts critics. In the past week or so we have had two excellent illustrations of why these people need keeping at arm's length from cultural policy making.

Firstly, the Arts Council took a hit because its funding forms ask questions about a potential recipients' representativeness - in particular, board members' sexual orientation. Yes, it's a bit overkill, but my understanding is that this is part of the equalities monitoring process, and not part of the hated target culture that so exercises our creative colleagues. That didn't stop the Telegraph peddling the view that money would be allocated on the basis of whether you are gay or not, and it didn't stop no less personages than Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Frayn bemoaning this seeming bureaucratic irritant.

That many organisations - public and private - use equality monitoring forms to see just who applies for jobs or, in this case, grants, is obviously irrelevant.

The second example saw Margaret Hodge complain about the small number of women in senior arts positions. Laura Cunningham shot back in the Observer with some examples of women at the top of the arts world doing great things, but she didn't let the facts get in the way of a good story. Hodge wrote to The Observer this Sunday pointing out that only 33% of arts board members are women.

Cummings' anecdotes, like the opinions of McKellen and Frayn (and many of the reactions to the McMaster report earlier this year) prove a golden rule of cultural policy - the luvvies and the critics don't actually know very much about the way things really are.

So we should be very careful indeed if we are thinking about giving them a privileged position in cultural policy making.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery and Spring

A small baby is a wonderful thing, but it does mean that you can't get out and about as much as you did, so long walks or cycle rides in the countryside are on hold at present.

Time spent in Brockley and Ladywell Cemetery, though, is bringing me close to nature and ensuring that I am not totally overwhelmed by concrete, litter and the outpourings of the internal combustion engine.

Dodging showers, T and I wandered through today at the end of a walk that took in Hilly Fields and most of Brockley. In the short time that we were there I saw a green woodpecker, a jay (I think) and watched some rather confident robins watching me. The sound of birds singing dominated all. There were bluebells and primoses. One grave was covered in primroses of different colour, and I wonder if some mourning relative planted them years ago, and even now they are blooming though whoever planted them is long gone, and whoever they were planted for long forgotten.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Londoners for Peace

Getting off the train at Ladywell this evening, I was confronted by Londoners for Peace campaigning for Ken Livingstone.

I took a leaflet which tells me that Ken is opposed to the invasion of Iraq and Trident's replacement, while Boris is in favour of both.

Great - interesting background, I'll agree, but I vote for a mayor to sort out London's problems, and I vote for a government to sort out our foreign policy.

This is a local election, and I don't like people bringing in spurious and irrelevant issues and telling me that I should vote on that basis.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Ladywell Tavern

My local is getting a facelift to go with its new landlord.

I say "my local" with two qualifications. Firstly, I'm not that much of a local compared to many of those who drink there regularly. Secondly, I've not actually been in that much.

True, I've been there to watch football, rugby or cricket when it's been on Sky, but I don't have any drinking partners in the immediate vicinity, and it has to be admitted that it can be an intimidating place for a woman to go, so it's not exactly the haunt of choice when the wife and I nipped out for a swift pint. To be honest, it has been quite unwelcoming on occasions.

So, on the face of it, I'm glad it's getting a new lease of life, but I have a few nagging doubts. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but it is for a lot of people, and they have every right to expect to have a local boozer that reflects them and who they are.

The Ladywell Tavern is in dire need of a revamp and to be more welcoming to more than its regulars, but I would be sad to it become just another trendy boozer indistiguishable from those of Brockley, Honor Oak Park or Crofton Park.

It's a tough balance to strike, but I hope they make a decent pub that can a nice local for the people round here.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Liverpool - Capital of Culture?

To Merseyside, to stay with the in-laws (T's first trip north).

Some discussion of Liverpool's status as Capital of Culture. Maybe it was the Scouse demographic I was conversing with, and my survey was less than scientific, but there was almost universal cynicism.

It has had it's problems, but it would unfair to read failure into the year from this alone. Especially if the city is shrewd enough to use it to change perceptions. However, it's off to a loser from the start if it can't sell the vision to the locals, even if it successfully convinces the outside world that Liverpool has changed.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Leopards and spots

I see that the Tories have put up a Chris Philp as PPC for Camden.

Is this the same Chris Philp that I remember debating for reformism against revolution on behalf of the Labour Club against the SWP?

Friday, 28 March 2008

"This is the Memorial Stadium, home to Bristol Rugby"

It was in 1990, as a fourteen year old, that I first went with my dad to the Memorial Ground to see Bristol play. Eighteen years later and I'm still going. Less frequently these days (T has put paid to my season ticket), but it remains one of the most important locations in my own personal map of the world.

My lifetime has coincided with a decline in Bristol's playing prowess, so the good days at the Mem have probably been outweighed by defeats, but it is the good times that loom largest in the memory. I have seen personal heroes like Paul Hull and Derek Eves in their pomp. I hold dear the memories of derby wins that banished previously cocky Bath fans before the final whistle. I've seen the odd game, such as against Saracens in 1999, when the quality of the rugby has been of the very highest calibre.

So, it is with nostalgia and regret that I anticipate the proud old ground's impending demolition. We Bristol fans can't afford to be too precious. It was our own club's mismanagement that brought us to be tenants in our home, and we need to modernise the facilities if we are to prosper in the future.

So, I accept the need to rebuild the ground, but I am fearful of the two years it will take for the new Memorial Stadium to emerge. It's looking increasingly likely that Bristol will spend this time playing over the Bridge in Newport.

I love the Memorial Ground because it speaks to me of Bristol. It nestles into Horfield because it's part of the city, and when you go there you feel part of the city. That's why the Ground is special - and that is why the club is special. And to my mind it's a return to that heritage that has been at the heart of our mini-revival over the past four seasons.

If to Newport we must go, then we could put this in jeopardy. Sport is an unforgiving environment, and it won't wait for us to get back on our feet again simply because we've become temporary nomads.

Over the next few days the facts about the future will emerge, but we must not forget that Bristol Rugby prospers when it stays true to itself. If we have to leave the city temporarily then we have a fight on our hands to stand still, let alone stop ourselves falling back.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Council

I am increasingly impressed by our local councillors. This comes as surprise to me as I didn't vote for them, mainly because as a student I spent too much time with members of that Party, and their sanctimony, self-righteousness and frankly middle class arrogance knew no bounds. I am very glad to have had this prejudice gently removed from my shoulders!

They are doing exactly what they should be doing. They act as community leaders, bringing people together to talk about the issues that matter on this patch. They represent opinion in the neighbourhood so that it is taken into account by the local decision makers. They challenge the local executive over their decisions.

In short, they are doing precisely what government policy towards local decision making is supposed to be about. The 2000 Local Government Act split the Executive and Scrutiny arrangements in local government to improve the visibiliy of decision making, to hold it to account and to improve local leadership.

I think my local councillors are holding to their side of the bargain very well indeed. The point is, though, that this is a bargain, and the other side of it is visible and accountable local leadership. I was a late convert to the cause of elected local mayors, but I now think they make a real difference. There's a lot that needs to happen to make executives function better, but by any assessment the current system with divergence between those making the decisions and those holding them to account on behalf of the neighbourhoods they represent is far, far better than the old committee system, and its illegitimate child, the leader and cabinet model.

In France mayors are an accepted part of the political landscape. I hope that becomes the case here too.

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Nice Sunday

To the Village Taverna in Lee for a very pleasant lunch in the company of friends. Ostensibly to celebrate my birthday, this was more of an excuse to catch up with people over a surprisingly non-boozy lunch. It was just the right place to be, as it wasn't crowded and people could pop in and out as they pleased.

A year ago this would have been a very different gathering. Now there are three new people (including T) who didn't exist twelve months ago, and from our lunch companions there will be two more new arrivals by the start of the Autumn.

It was a good time to pause and take stock. Our lives are entering a new phase, events this week might herald my job moving in a more positive direction, and, when we got home, we found out that Bristol had won at Newcastle - the first time they have recorded two away wins on the bounce since March 2006.

A good weekend.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Brockley, SE4

We have an SE4 postcode. This means, for postal purposes at least, we live in Brockley (although the wrong side of Hilly Fields for the conservation area). I quite like it here. The parks are nice. Thanks to ante-natal classes and my rugby club we know a few people now. Our neighbours are pleasant. I may have been shot once, but it was with an air rifle by an eight year old, so I don't think I can really claim to have been the victim of a drive by. If we have to live in London, then I think we've chosen a nice enough spot.

Brockley is also the name of a village a couple of miles south of where I was raised. I have, in very idle moments, mused on whether this represents anything meaningful. Sadly for the reader seeking portentious pretension, it doesn't.

I will, however, quote in full Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, May 1795 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Brockley Combe is to the south of the Somerset Brockley, and STC captures well what spring is like in that rather pretty part of the world (given global warming, I suppose our March stands in for his May).

If you try very hard, you might agree that the sentiments of the romantic poet apply equally to ascending the wooded slopes of this West Country valley as they do to climbing the paths of Hilly Fields on a fresh morning. Just.

With many a pause and oft reverted eye
I climb the Coomb's ascent: sweet songsters near
Warble in shade their wild-wood melody:
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o'er precipices browse:
From the deep fissures of the naked rock
The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs
('Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white)
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest: -and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Random acts of kindness

Today is my birthday. I have had a book on cooking fish from my wife, a Bristol Rugby shirt from my parents, and a DVD from T. Even my brother remembered and sent me a tenner.

My good humour was tempered somewhat, though, as after a pleasant morning's annual leave I had to go to work, and deal with public transport crowded with people who quite frankly don't give a toss whether they tread on you or barge you out of the way.

It was, therefore, a surprise and a joy to be stopped from buying a travelcard at Ladywell station by a woman who only wanted to give me hers which she had finished with for the day. It felt incongrous given my usual travel experience, but helped me maintain my morning positivity throughout the afternoon.

Whoever you are, thanks.

Oath of Allegiance

Much sound and fury over Lord Goldsmith's suggestion that young Britons take the oath of allegiance.

The reactions were predictable and generally boring. The Tories think Labour is putting a sticking plaster on a problem of its own politically correct making while the metropolitan liberals whine about swearing allegiance to the Queen - and it is these latter people I spend most of my time with.

I'm at best a luke warm monarchist and one of the reasons that I like being British is that we don't wear our nationality on our sleeves. That said, I think that I'm with the former Attorney General. At the moment, it is only new British citizens - immigrants - that have a citizenship ceremony including the Oath of Allegiance. This is unfair. It's like a hoop that they have to jump through that the rest of us don't. If citizenship is equal and truly based on civic values then this seems unfair. So yes, on leaving school and taking up their place as citizens then young people should go through the same ceremony.

As for the fact of swearing allegiance to the Queen, well, the last time I looked this was still a monarchy, so it is entirely appropriate. If you think that the monarchy needs to be change (as I do) or that it needs to be abolished, well, that's actually a separate debate.

But it is a debate that a lot of people seem to want to introduce into this one. It's the way that they do it that I find interesting.

"I'm a republican, I'm not swearing allegiance to any queen", they say. Orwell's essay The Lion and the Unicorn is illuminating here, "In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the Europeanized intelligentsia are really immune to it . . .it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box."

There is strain in left liberal thinking, particularly amongst the London middle class, for whom having the right opinion and being seen to have that opinion, is more important than anything else. Though it values collectivist thinking and community values, in the final analysis too many of the metropolitan elite care more about what people think about them and refuse to compromise these for notions of the greater good.

Their problem with the oath is expressed in terms of 'I'. 'I don't want this', 'I'm not a royalist', 'I don't believe in God'. There is no engagement with how citizenship ceremonies could make us a more cohesive and happy 'we'.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Hilly Fields

Radio 4's Today Programme included a bit this morning about Hilly Fields, and a project by Natural England to put "everyone within 300 metres of nature". I am frequently to be found here, running laps of the park in a desperate effort to stay fit for rugby, or taking T out for weekend walks. I had seen the meadow area, but I had no idea that there was so much going on here. To my mind, this is fantastic. Rising above the city, Hilly Fields feels like a resurgence of the countryside that you can see far to the south and which is buried beneath the suburbs that sprawl around it.

Sadly, today saw some of the worst weather of the year, so the outside broadcast by the BBC was curtailed, but well worth a listen. It'll be on their archive soon enough.

Friday, 7 March 2008


During my time in local government I worked on a couple of projects with libraries. Now, I'm not a librarian, but I do know a few, and I know something about what they do and the numerous ways in which they make a real difference to communities.

Sadly, this contribution is lost beneath a mountain of ill-informed comment that, as far as I can tell, completely distorts and renders meaningless library debate.

Take Thursday's Guardian. Author Naomi Alderman is outraged by the appearance of a coffee shop in her local library. She thinks this is somehow symbolic of the death knell of the public library.

Sadly, from the point of view of a sensible discussion on libraries, Naomi hasn't got the faintest idea what she is talking about. Hyperbole replaces fact. Assumptions stand in for reasoned debate, and lying behind it all is a vacuous and dated view of what public libraries should do. She might have a point on the cut in opening hours (an issue for the councillors of the London Borough of Barnet and their electorate - this is still a local service, remember), but her overall view of what libraries do and how they do it is deeply reactionary and elitist.

Naomi is saddened that the periodicals room has been been replaced by a "computer learning zone". How can she possibly view this negatively? Surely the libraries mission is to provide access to information that supports learning? If the learning needs of the local community are best met through ICT provision, then the library is still meeting its historic function in a way Andrew Carnegie would recognise? In the past the provision of books (an information resource) supported learning. Books are now cheaper. The internet is increasingly important but there remains a stubborn digital divide. Providing computers and internet access (an information resource) bridges the digital divide. What on earth could be wrong with that?

Yet Naomi cannot accept this as part of the core purpose of a library, and the reason is depressingly familiar. Naomi has a hidebound view of the role of the public library: "Hendon library was my temple, my treasure house, the place that inspired me to read and then to write. As an adult, I wrote a lot of my first novel there."

No doubt libraries played an important part in the intellectual development of this novelist, but not everyone can be a novelist, and the interests of the novelist (Susan Hill has similar rants) should not dominate public debate over libraries.

As conceived in the 19th century, public libraries supported education and learning, enjoyment and access to information necessary for citizenship - particularly amongst those unable to purchase this for themselves. That mission remains current today. It would be stupid, therefore, in a world in which the end of the net book agreement, the advent of Amazon, and the fact that so much information is now online, for the debate about public libraries to be led by novelists with an entirely inaccurate view of what libraries are for and how they should do it.

Not only do they misunderstand the role of libraries, but they also misrepresent reality. Now, I've never been to Hendon library, and Naomi may well be telling the truth, but to conclude that, "if we keep on the way we are going, one day they will be gone" is ludicrous.

Naomi will no doubt be unfamiliar with things as mundane as public satisfaction surveys, but they tell us that people are generally happy with their library service. Naomi has generalised from the basis of her own experience and analysed that experience on the basis of a misconceived view of the value of public libraries.

Having no knowledge of public services is of course no barrier to having your opinions published on them - especially if you are happily ensconced in the metropolitan elite. Observer journalist Rachel Cooke is another for whom the delight of having a regular column must be tempered with the demand to fill it. Sadly, for libraries, they make for easy copy that you don't have to think too hard about.

As for those of us who might actually have something to contribute to the debate - welcome to the furthest reaches of the blogging universe.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Sand Point and Woodspring Priory

On our last full day in the West Country before returning home I was anxious to go somewhere very different to our life back in London. I wanted to go somewhere quiet, clean and lonely. The weather was windy and sharp so I knew that my best chance was by the sea. So, it was to a finger of land jutting into the Bristol Channel, Sand Point, that we headed on Monday. My parents drove us, and it gave T his first experience of the geography of his paternal heritage. Not that he paid much attention, spending most of the time wrapped up tightly and sleeping in spite of the chill March winds.

To the best of my recollections, I'd not been here before. Yet, it is just this sort of landscape that I consider emblematic of home. Like the Levels to the south, the land has been reclaimed over centuries from sea and marsh and is cris-crossed by rhynes, ditches and rivers flowing slowly to the Bristol Channel under broad and often stormy skies. Although, particularly near some main commuter routes, the villages are becoming less tatty with their desirable houses and new estates, the closer you get to the sea the more lonely and separate the land becomes, the keener the winds and the sharper the sense of solitude.

The other motivation for coming here was Woodspring Priory. I wanted to see this place, and it didn't disappoint. My first impressions were of small site, huddled against the eastern end of Sand Point, but, on the southern and seaward side, exposed to harsh storms from the Bristol Channel. As we parked the car my mind's eye could see the monks, battered by winter storms, living a tough existence at what must have felt the edge of the land. A punishing life befitting an institution set up to atone for the murder of Thomas a Beckett.

This may have been how it was at its 1210 founding, but as I wandered around the site it was obvious that communion with nature and solitude were not the only things to inspire its former inhabitants. Now surrounded by a disused cider orchard and some unperturbed sheep, it was clear that this was not necessarily the last resort of the ascetic or penitent seeking hardship. This was reflected in the structures they put up. Agricultural use after the Dissolution obviously saved much of the priory's fabric. In the small museum there is enough archaeological evidence in the form of delicate carved faces and colourful floor tiles to show that there was more than bare stone walls to keep out the cold. The impressive vaulted ceiling in the tower was a particular delight.

Leaving the Priory, we drove to Sand Point. My parents, my wife and T remained in the car while I braved the elements. I wanted to be outside and breath good air, and I wanted to be close to the sea for the first time in months.

I climbed the hill from the car park, and to my surprise found myself alone. I followed the footpath along the ridge. To my left, a steep slope led down to Sand Bay, and in the sky above me a kestrel used the upward draft of the sea wind hitting the ridge to stay aloft. Rabbits hurtled across my path and took refuge in the brambles. To my right I could look up the Severn Estuary, to the Severn Bridges and the towns and industry of South Wales. Yet where I was felt as far as it could be from dirty air, traffic and people. The further I went along the ridge, the more steep slopes gave way to rocky cliffs battered by waves. The path now dropped dramatically with the decline in the ridge and soon the sea met the land. On three sides of me was water. To the north, the calmer estuary leading to Bristol and the Severn. Ahead of me clouds scudded across the sky and the sun broke through and illuminated the sea between the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. I looked down the Bristol Channel and I could see that the sky to the west was clearing. The hills of Exmoor rolled down to the sea in the far distance, and glancing across to the extremities of Wales I ascertained the mouth of the Channel and the open ocean beyond.

I remained there for a few moments, breathing in the salty air and feeling the spray on my face, then turned back the way I had come.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Derby defeat

A very disappointing day at Ashton Gate. Bristol were exceedingly poor, Bath better (but not by much) and a cold and increasingly dark day did little to lift the spirits. This picture captures the atmosphere as well as it does my mood.

Bristol's rationale for shifting this fixture from the Memorial Ground to Ashton Gate has been that its significance as the biggest West Country match of the year befits the biggest stadium in this part of the world. In addition, you also get the crowd and increased gate receipts that go with it.

Fair enough if the event lives up to this billing, but this one very definitely did not. Not every Bristol versus Bath derby is of the same magnitude as that in 2003, and Richard Hill was right to acknowledge that Bris risk ceding home advantage by moving across the city. Especially so if it is always the same opponents you get here. Sure, there were 16,000 there, but did extra revenue justify the game at the Gate?

I'm not sure it did.