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.