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.