Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Perambulation of Sherwood Forest

The way it was 1662

In The Nottingham Post on Wednesday, there was an article describing how writer Dave Wood was planning to recreate a walk of Sherwood Forest last completed nearly 350 years ago. How cool is that?

The last walk in 1662 was called the "Perambulation of Sherwood Forest" and was carried out by a team of explorers intent on mapping the landscape around them.

Dave intends to replicate the original journey, noting how the landscape has changed over the centuries and the threats posed to the remaining ancient woodland. He says, "The plan is much more than just setting down the boundaries and making copious notes; it's about alerting people to their own creativity, their environment and having fun with their imagination".

This sounds like an interesting, exciting and challenging walk, and anybody can play their part and be involved with Dave. Sherwood Forest still carries an evocative sound, as does the name Robin Hood, and the two are inseparably linked. (By the way, please indulge me by never referring to the legend of Robin Hood, but always to the story of Robin Hood. This is possibly a bit pathetic, but as I say, indulge my whim, after all there are worse things in this world to believe in than an ancient outlaw).

View of the Forest looking Northeast
Sherwood Forest is a Royal Forest with a long and glorious past. Historians tell us that it has been continually forested since the end of the Ice Age. During the 13th Century it was said to cover around 100,000 acres, or 156 square miles. This represented one fifth of the whole county of Nottinghamshire. Roughly the Forest was 20 miles long and 10 miles wide.

Today, Sherwood Forest is a lot smaller. It covers about 1,045 acres, or 1.63 square miles. Friends of Sherwood Forest often get annoyed when people speak of Sherwood Forest and the Country Park as if they are one and the same thing. The Mansfield Chad Newspaper says that even the Government makes this mistake.

Of the 1,045 acres taken up by Sherwood Forest, only 440 acres make up the Country Park. This Park is managed by Nottinghamshire County Council, and the rest of the Forest is managed by the Forestry Commission. There is a fear that the Government will force the Forestry Commission to sell off much of the Forest that it manages to private companies, with the inevitable loss of access and amenities.

It's true isn't it that we often don't appreciate what we have until it's gone. Sherwood Forest is a beautiful, magical place, and I really hope that the wish of Dave Wood will come true.

"Most of the forest has disappeared, so hopefully my walk will highlight the danger of losing the rest of it".

I echo that; let the beauty, history, leisure and environmental projects stay with us for ever.

The perambulation of Sherwood Forest is going to be some experience.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The NHS - a worrying future

Aneurin Bevan opening Park Hospital Manchester 5th July 1948
Among many recommendations in the Beveridge Report 1942, was one that said, "A new national health service to be established". Six years later, through the driving force of the then Health Secretary, Aneurin Bevan, The National Health Service came into being on the 5th July 1948. It was based on three core principles that have guided the development of the NHS for over 60 years.
  • That it meet the needs of everyone
  • That it be free at the point of delivery
  • That it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay
On Thursday, 27th January 2011, the Government published the Health and Social Care Bill. I have held back on giving my thoughts on it, as I wanted to take time to read as many arguments, for and against the Bill that I could. The Bill itself is far from easy reading (it is available on the Government website), being 367 pages long with 288 clauses, and the jargon (whatever happened to plain English?) makes difficult reading for a layman such as myself.

David Cameron
On the day that the Bill was published, David Cameron wrote an article that was intended to dispel the 'myths' as he saw it, being promoted by opponents of the Bill. He began by saying,

"This month, we published the Health & Social Care Bill, which sets out our plans to modernise the NHS to help it deliver truly world-class care for people. Running right through it is a new deal: we want to give you - the professionals - much more freedom to care for patients in the way you decide is best. ... But in return for this freedom from central control, we want the system to answer much more strongly to patients. By empowering choice, opening up competition and introducing new ways local people can get involved in shaping services, we want to give people, not politicians, the power to shape and improve the NHS".

Doesn't sound bad does it? Freedom + Choice = better services? I couldn't help thinking of Bevan's speech in the House of Commons on the 30th April 1946, when he said,

Aneurin Bevan
"In the last two years, there has been such a clamour from sectional interests in the field of national health that we are in danger of forgetting why these proposals are brought forward at all. ... Many of those who have drawn up paper plans for the health services appear to have followed the dictates of abstract principles, and not the concrete requirements of the actual situation as it exists".

'Paper plans' are what is being conjured with today. The question being asked by an increasing number of people since the publication of the Bill is whether it is opening the door to the privatisation of the NHS. The Government of course would answer no to this question. I have little difficulty in believing that it is not the Governments intention to privatise the NHS, however, intention is not the issue for me here. It is the consequence of the changes that are being made that is the issue. It is not where we will be tomorrow, but where we will be in five years time. Nailing my colours to the mast, I fear that in the future we will not have health care that meets the need of everyone; that is free at the point of delivery, or that is based on clinical need not ability to pay.

Andrew Lansley
In spite of the rhetoric contained in 367 pages and 288 clauses, the focus is money, not need. Andrew O'Hagan, in an excellent essay in the London Review of Books says, "Lansley's proposals borrow the sound of freedom in order to usher them (GP's) into a financial prison". If only the Health Secretary could speak with the clarity and conviction of Bevan, we wouldn't have to put up with,

"To further incentivize improved outcomes and financial performance, consortia will receive a 'quality premium' based on the outcomes achieved for patients and their financial performance. Some of the outcomes from the Commissioning Outcomes Framework will inform the premium - but not necessarily all, since some may not be suitable for translation into financial incentives". - Andrew Lansley

The Government want patients to have more choice and control over their care. This is in line with the mantra, "No decision about me, without me". This is a sound bite, but does it have real meaning? According to Dr John Lister, "The Bill gives the illusion of choice or power". In his view, ultimately, the only patient choice will be pay, or go without. (I'll mention Dr Lister again at the end).

Perhaps the biggest area of concern surrounds who holds the purse strings, and on what this money will be spent. Currently, Primary Care Trusts (PCT) control about 80% of the NHS budget (Around £80 million). All 150 odd of these will be phased out by 2013, and the money will be controlled by GP Consortia up and down the country. Each consortia will be encouraged to secure services from private hospitals as well as their local NHS hospital.

I think it best to let the medical profession speak about their concerns, as it is far more powerful than anything that I could say. It's also important to note that renewal, is, and always has taken place within the NHS, which could be replicated by others.

Kentish Town Health Centre
I've previously mentioned the excellent essay by Andrew O'Hagan on the changes planned through the Health & Social Care Bill. He says that he began to wonder what Britain now would seem like to LLoyd George and Churchill, Beveridge and Bevan who were visionaries of the welfare state. It occurred to him that when some of them sat down to dream about an ideal future, the things that floated into their minds must have looked a great deal like the present health centre in Kentish Town, London. He describes his visit.

"When you walk in, you wonder if you've somehow wandered into a North London satellite of Tate Modern. Unlike most receptions, Reception here appears eager to offer you a decent reception, and the building is full of colour, light, optimism and efficiency. People smile. It's a palace, actually, or a modern church of the common man, and I fancy that half the ailments in existence might be alleviated or cured just by sitting here waiting your turn. The NHS is, and will always be, an idea. It is an idea that requires constant renewal in the face of depreciation, and some of that renewal has clearly happened here. Beside a meeting area is a bank of fold-up bikes for the GP's to use on home visits. Upstairs there is a room where acupuncture can be administered to three patients at a time. There is a gym, a library, several patios with chairs, and soon they hope, a cafe. I'm thinking of moving in".

Kentish Town Health Centre
The centre is the brainchild of Dr Roy Macgregor, who spent over a dozen years bringing the dream to reality. Andrew O'Hagan was there to interview him, and his comments cannot be bettered. On the need for reform, he says,

"My biggest puzzle about these reforms is I don't understand why we're doing them. The GP community hasn't been balloted, they haven't been asked, they haven't been consulted. They've been landed with this role of suddenly holding the purse strings. I have dreaded the day when a patient walks into my room and there's a pound sign in front of them. And if someone comes to see me, in the new world, and they need an endoscopy to see if they've got a gastric ulcer or cancer, instead of meeting that patient's need immediately, I'll be thinking, hold on, in this practice we've sent 22 people this month for endoscopies, so I will think twice. I will think twice about giving this man what he needs and that will affect my clinical care. If I fail to send him for an endoscopy and that man gets cancer, I will have been guilty of giving that man bad care".

Dr Macgregor was asked about Andrew Lansley's statement that GP's are best placed to make judgements about how to distribute scarce resources, because they can assess the need. His answer,

"The need, yes. But not the cost of the need. If they care about our assessment, why are they getting rid of 150 Primary Care Trusts? Because that is how our 'in the room' experience was fed through. So now we'll have, aha, 150 commissioning groups to replace the 150 PCT's abolished. The new groups will have GP's obligatorily involved in costing, but the whole thing is just a route to something much bigger and more damaging".

To O'Hagan the question was 'What?' The answer from Dr Macgregor was, "Oh, the dismantling of the NHS. This Lansley plan is the first step to privatising part of the NHS and forcing people to have 'top-up' private insurance". Later he says, "This Government's commissioning proposals are blind and unthinking. They will destroy, at one fell swoop, the doctor-patient relationship, which has been the most important element in general practice over the last 60 years. It will destroy the confidence you must have that when people come to see me with a problem I will do what is in your best interest. People who don't have insurance, and who generally won't make a fuss, i.e. the poor, will suffer immediately from what can only turn out to be a messy and socially divisive set of changes". A health system that once acted against inequality is now set to enshrine it.

Let me end by recommending you listen to a video on the Health Emergency Organisation website. Click on the link and then start the video. It's a talk lasting about 26 minutes by Dr John Lister, who blows away the slick marketing of the Government plans, and shows that their real intent is to fragment and privatise the health service. If you read or see nothing else, make sure you view this video.

So, in the not too distant future, I believe that receiving health care will be dependent on our ability to pay (whether through savings, insurance or whatever). Those with no savings, or who cannot afford insurance, will once again in life be dependent on charity. Will this mean a return to charity hospitals for the poor? Don't mock, for who knows what the future may hold. If my final paragraph scenario turns out to be true, then it is indeed a frightening prospect. I'm glad to be in the company of Bevan, who said,

"I believe it is repugnant to a civilised community for hospitals to have to rely upon private charity". I still hope that sanity will eventually prevail, and that aspects of the Bill will be changed. However, I have often been guilty of travelling more in hope than expectation.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Chasing Rainbows

I haven't been to the seat outside the Gala Casino for a while as I'm trying to deal with my 'seat obsession'. However, a few days ago I found myself back there. I ended up having conversations with two separate people who had come outside for a break and a smoke.

The first conversation was with a young man in his early twenty's. Just to be friendly, I said that I hoped he was winning more than he was losing. As the conversation developed, I found out that he came to the Casino once a week to play Blackjack, and he limited himself to £20. Apparently, he had a short while before won £100, and went and spent £80 of it on a gold necklace for his girlfriend. He was back to see how he would get on with the money he had left. He seemed genuine in his daily limit, but I didn't have the heart to ask him how much he had lost to win that £100.

The second conversation was with a lady around my age (now don't be nosy). She came to the Casino two or three times a week to play Roulette, and has done so for the last two years. According to her, she never wins, and never has done. She said nothing about limiting herself, or about how much she has lost over that period of time. I can only image that it could run into thousands of pounds. I wanted to suggest that perhaps Roulette wasn't her game, but I didn't. All I asked her was why did she keep playing if all she did was lose? Her answer was typical of a gambler. "One day my luck will change".

Unfortunately, millions of people are doing similar things. The proliferation of Bingo sites and Poker sites advertised on Television, mean that you don't have to move from your own home to lose money. The gambling sites feel that they have satiated themselves as to the morality of their actions by placing the 'gambleaware' web address in small print on their adverts.

Millions of others would resist the description of gambler, as they fill in their Lottery, Euro Millions and an endless range of scratch cards. I've known some people who spend upwards of £50 a week on this winning dream; others of course stick to a pound or two. The fact that the odds on winning the Lottery is about 14 million to one, is not an issue, because "one day my luck will change". I have looked up some ridiculous websites that claim to help people to change their luck. Many are associated with white witchcraft, and advocate spells to get rid of bad luck. Some are just too embarrassing for me to bring myself to mention, but here's one (which if you plan to use, you seriously need professional help).

"Meditate first, then go up to a full moon and chant these words;

'Lady of luck come out of your hidden course,
bless your light upon me as the light of the moon shines above, and in the light of luck
will be blessed I,
when the moon is next to be full'.

Worked for me and I'm in great shape now".

Well good for you, but what a load of old cobblers. Yes, I know that there are people who win vast sums on the Lottery, and that there are those who win in Casinos, but they are a tiny percentage of those who constantly lose, and whose lives are blighted forever. What do all of these people have in common? They are chasing rainbows. Trying to achieve something that is not possible or practical. Too many would echo the words I saw on a T-shirt in town the other week, "I've been chasing rainbows all of my life".

What is a rainbow? It is "a spectrum of light that appears in the sky when sunlight is refracted through rain drops or other drops of moisture in the Earth's atmosphere".

The picture opposite seems to capture the end of a rainbow. It was taken by Jason Erdkamp on the 13th February 2009 after a storm in Orange County, California - but there was no pot of gold. There are myths surrounding rainbows throughout the world, and perhaps the most popular in the English speaking world is that a Leprechaun can be found with a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It hasn't happened because it doesn't exist. Light is not something that you can feel in yours hands, like rain or fire. It cannot be grasped, therefore it is pointless chasing it.

Gambling, as a form of chasing rainbows is an emotive issue to me. I spent too many years working with people who had this 'addiction', and saw its destructive influence on their own, and their families lives. For every winner, there are thousands, if not millions of losers. The Lottery perpetuates this chasing of rainbows through the words, "It could be you". I'm not totally opposed to what some call "a controlled harmless flutter", it's just that it doesn't always stay like that, and the 'harmless flutter' gets out of control, and no one can predict if, or when that will happen.

Gambling in one form or other has been with us it seems forever, and I'm sure that will be the case forever. My aim has not been to preach, but I guess to warn. I can't be a libertarian and then deny people the right to make fools of themselves. Let me leave you with two quotes.

"The safest way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket".
Kin Hubbard

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit".
R.E. Shay

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Census 2011

I have just completed my Census 2011 form on-line and submitted it. I admit to doing it reluctantly, as along with many other people, I find it to be personally intrusive. However, at my time of life, I do not have the strength of conviction to break the law.

The Census paperwork says, "You need to take part so that services in your area - like schools, hospitals, housing, roads and emergency services - can be planned and funded for the future". Sorry, but I don't believe this. It gives the impression that services are planned on the basis of need, when it's obvious to anyone with an open mind, that services are governed by political philosophy and the availability of money.

This Census is costing nearly £500 million, which is around twice the cost of the 2001 Census. With job losses and service cuts infecting the country at this time, the cost is hard to swallow. There has always been some disquiet around the need for a Census. In 1753, Matthew Ridley, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne, told the Commons that the people of the city regarded the proposal (to have a Census) as "ominous and feared an epidemical distemper should follow the numbering". While another MP argued that "a Census would impair the liberty of the individual".

It's this very liberty that opponents of the Census say is under attack today. There are 43 questions for each individual, when the first Census in 1801 had 5 questions, which simply sought to establish the number of people in each household, their sex and occupation. I could live more happily with that. Personal details are supposedly kept secret for 100 years, but the raw material, shorn of the personal details are available almost immediately to 'clients' such as Whitehall departments and businesses who want to target particular groups.

At the last Census, over one million people did not return their forms, and of those who did, you have to question how seriously it was taken,and therefore how accurate the information is.

390,000 people declared their religion to be Jedi, and 7,000 people said that they were witches. Can what they said in answer to the other questions be trusted? Glen Watson, Census Director admitted that people are increasingly reluctant to take part in the official survey because they "just want to be left alone".

But Government will not allow you to be left alone. Refusal to complete the form can bring a criminal prosecution and a £1,000 fine. As mentioned earlier, at the last Census over one million people did not complete their forms, but only 38 people were prosecuted. The Office for National Statistics says that there will be greater enforcement this time. From the 6th April, a field force of 30,000 staff will begin visiting households that have not yet completed the Census "during the day, evenings and at weekends to try and catch people in". And for the first time in the 210-year history of the Census, a separate unit of dedicated 'non-compliance' officers authorised to conduct interviews under caution will visit homes across the country. I can't help but agree with Daniel Hamilton, director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, "It says a great deal about the public's view of the Census that 100 bully-boy legal enforcement officers have been hired in order to harass people into returning their forms".

There's something terribly wrong here. Forget the usefulness of Census data to family historians, there's got to be a better reason than that. Why do we need a Census at all? There is already a mass of information available from many other sources, such as Government databases, supermarket loyalty cards to give a simple population count. Anything else can also be obtained from current tax and benefits records, driving licences and household surveys. The amount of information held on each of us is quite frightening. Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph said, "Why does the state need to know your sexual proclivities or whether you worship Allah or are a Jedi knight?".

The coalition Government has hinted that this year's Census could be the last, but given that they may not be around in 2021, that decision may not be there's to make.

The blog site, was particularly hot under the collar about religious questions (even though this question was optional). It encouraged people to tick other, and to write in the box, "Mind your own business".

Taking it a step further with the whole of the form, Philip Johnston said, "The 27th March would be a more restful Sunday if we had the option to tick a box that read, 'Mind your own business'".

If only I'd thought about this a lot earlier. Ah well, the deed has now been done. I've another ten years to decide my attitude to the next one. Whatever you've chosen to do - well done.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Come Walk with Me

It's now officially Spring. I want you to come with me on another walk in Nottingham. I know you want to.You don't always say so, but I know. We'll stick close to the river, then we'll find a park.

Trent Bridge Kiosk
 We'll start here on the City side of Trent Bridge. I often start my day here with a cup of Cappuccino, and an occasional bacon cob. You can see so many sights from these tables. Nottinghamshire County Hall; Trent Bridge Cricket Ground; Nottingham Forest Football Ground; Rushcliffe Civic Centre and the floodlights from Notts County Football Ground. But I think best of all is that the Kiosk is right beside the River Trent. Fortified with coffee and cob, we'll head west along the route of the river, then turn north to find the park.

The journey begins at Victoria Embankment. I love this part of the Trent. The north bank is the city side, and the south bank is the Borough of Rushcliffe, and more particularly, West Bridgford.

The river is wide, and is reputed to have ten miles of steps. On the opposite bank in front of County Hall, there are canal barges moored, along with a couple of permanent house boats. The Embankment is one mile from Trent Bridge to where we leave it and go in another direction. It beautifully follows the curve of the river for the whole distance.

There are always loads of Canada Geese feeding on the grassy banks, and to avoid constantly watching that you don't step in their mess, I find it best to walk on the upper path for a short distance. Along the banks there are also Swans, Ducks and the occasional Coote, though the last is not easy to see as they're usually near the opposite bank.

Wilford Suspension Bridge

A few hundred yards into the walk and you come to the Wilford Suspension Bridge. This is owned by Severn Trent Water and reopened early last year after extensive repair work. It is the main foot and cycle route between West Bridgford and The Meadows area of the city.

Memorial to two world wars

As you're walking, the bridge is on your left and immediately on your right is the main entrance to the Memorial Gardens with a fabulous archway honouring the dead of the two world wars.

At the side of these gardens you find playing fields full of football pitches during the season, and a large open space out of season, which particularly at weekends is full of families enjoying their day out. There are also childrens play areas.

Victoria Embankment 20th March 2011

Continuing to walk along the river's edge at this time of the year, you are confronted with hundreds of yards of daffodils in mass clumps. The picture gives some idea of what it looks like. Against the back drop of the river and clear blue sky, the scene is a match for anywhere.

Wilford Toll Bridge, Toll House and Statue
We've now arrived at the end of the one mile embankment walk, and reached Wilford Toll Bridge, with its interesting Toll House, which is now a very nice take-away refreshment stop. Beside the bridge, there is a statue in honour of Sir Robert Juckes Clifton. As a light aside, Punch Magazine once claimed that the statue had the "worst pair of sculptured trousers in England". (Never say that I don't give you valuable information).

Sir Robert is an interesting man. His family had been landowners in Nottinghamshire since the middle ages and their estate was centred at Clifton Hall. Born in Nottingham in 1826, educated at Oxford, lived in France for a while and returned to Clifton in 1861, when he stood as an independent candidate for Parliament. One of the main features of his campaign was his opposition to the "permissive bill" which was trying to limit pubs and alcohol consumption. He won. He went for re-election in 1865, and this was at a time when there were no private ballots, so when voting took place, there was invariably trouble.

Election time sounds a lot more excitable than it is today, for it's reported that MP's employed 'rabble rousers' to try and swing the vote - Sir Robert's were known as 'Clifton Lambs'. It turned nasty as his supporters clashed with those of his opponent, Samuel Morley, and a right royal battle took place through the streets, which had to be quelled by the military. Sir Robert lost the election, but won the seat back in 1868. He died of typhoid in 1869, and the history books tell us that 20,000 people attended his funeral at St Mary's Church, Clifton, which he had previously built for the people of Clifton.

He also built the Wilford Toll Bridge in 1870 for the traffic to and fro his Clifton Colliery. Prior to the bridge, the Wilford Ferry had been operating for around 400 years. Nottingham City Council took over the bridge from the Clifton family in 1969, and realising that it was in poor condition, closed it to traffic in 1974. The centre span was demolished and replaced by a narrower foot bridge. It's exciting to note that the Phase 2 of the Nottingham Tram System between the City Centre and Clifton will use an enlarged Wilford Toll Bridge to carry the trams. It will also cater for pedestrians and cyclists. So, Sir Robert's legacy will live on in the 21st Century.

Queens Walk looking up from the City End
Leaving the Victoria Embankment, you turn right into Queens Walk (there's a distinct lack of signage, unless I missed it all). I was now in new territory.

Reading my Nottingham history, I note that the walkway was named after Queen Victoria's visit in 1843 as she passed through the Midland Station on her way from Chatsworth to Belvoir Castle. It says something about the power of the monarchy, that you only have to pass by, to get something named after you. (Stop it John - no more digressions).

Queens Walk is 1Km long and was opened in 1850. The area was susceptible to flooding, and in 1862 trees were planted along its entire length on both sides to help combat this. I actually loved Queens Walk, and will definitely be back, particularly when all of the trees are in full leaf. It was a joy to walk down it in the bright sunshine, and pass by the impressive building on the right which is now used as a community centre.

At the end of the walk, you come across the Queens Walk Recreation Ground. I went in for a much needed sit down. It was very pleasant, with a central grass area, childrens play area, basketball end, sensory garden and bowling green. One of the information boards said that if you walked around the shale track three times, you would have walked 1Km. (I think you're getting desperate with information sharing John). There's a lovely view of Nottingham Castle from one of the garden seats.

Again dipping into my history books, I found that,

"Nottingham town in the 13th Century was enclosed by pastureland, the 334 acres to the south were known as the Meadows. By the early 19th Century the Meadows was built on to provide housing for the growing city. However, an Enclosure Act passed in 1845 ensured some land remained as green spaces for public recreation and walks. Queens Walk and Queens Walk Recreation Ground remains part of the act".

The Recreation Ground was originally laid out as a public cricket ground, and was made available for use between the months of May and September each year. It stopped being used for cricket after 1939. As part of the Enclosure Act, it must be one of the oldest public open spaces in the city. I was certainly glad to find it.

Vat & Fiddle Pub
The walk was nearly over, and as I could see the Train Station in the distance, I knew that there was not far to go. So leaving the Meadows area and crossing one of the main roads, I passed by the local Castle Rock brewery, and their Vat & Fiddle pub. The pub apparently is popular with train passengers, and people attending football and cricket matches. It is a haunt for those who like their real ale, and one day I must test their claim to have 70 single malts available.

Someone has said that the name Vat & Fiddle was given because of its close proximity to the Inland Revenue buildings a short distance away. I do hope that's right, because I love that quirky humour. No doubt if its not, someone will let me know.

To be honest, by this point I was knackered, and there was little walking left in me. It was to be the bus home, but first, a coffee from Greggs, and a sit down by the canal in front of the Magistrates' Court. Half an hour later I was on the No. 6, tired, but well pleased with the day. Another area of Nottingham has been ticked off my list of places to visit.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

My Village, My Home, My Life - part two

Street Map of Penycae
There's nothing I fancy watching on the television, so I thought I'd make a start on the second part of travels through my village and early life.

The birth certificate gives some legitimacy to my life. To corrupt Descartes, "I am, therefore I exist". The certificate shows that I was born at Croesnewydd Hospital, Wrexham in 1947. (Pointless information I know, but my birth came 10 months before the launch of the NHS). I find it interesting that Croesnewydd was recorded, as in 1934 it was one of three medical institutions that came together to form the Wrexham Maelor General Hospital (Ysbyty Maelor). The original name for part of the hospital was obviously still being used 13 years after the amalgamation.

Pentre Mill in 1932
My parents at the time lived at 37A, Hill Street, which can be seen on the map above. Naturally, on leaving hospital I went to live with them.

I can find no photos of the house which was knocked down years ago, and new ones built on the site. It was an old semi-detached two up, two down style cottage which my sister was also born into in March 1951. We shared a room which was the case until I was aged 11.

The house was in an area called Pentre, and less than 100 yards behind the house was an old Mill called Pentre Mill, which for many years ground corn. I don't think it was still operating when I was born, but though run down, it was in a picture book setting, by the side of a small stream which drove the mill wheel, and a small road called The Valley.

The Valley 1932
Edward Schleising wrote a book of poems about Penycae and some of its people, and in 1953 he wrote one about the Mill. The first and last stanzas went like this.

"There's a water mill in Penycae,
Beside a stream that starts so high,
Beyond 'Y Dryll', on Newtown Mount,
A village so small, 'twill hardly count.

The mill is now not used for trade,
No longer is the flour made,
Not even, for tomorrow's bread,
Both the miller, and his mill, are dead ...".

I know it sounds a bit like it could have been written by William McGonagall, but it's sweet none the less. In later years, this area would become an occasional playground. We lived at Hill Street until 1953, when at the age of 5, we moved to a small farm on the edge of the village called Bryn-y-felin.

The Dark Lane
The lane leading up to the farm was only a short distance from Hill Street, and was known as the Dark Lane. It was aptly named. It was only about 100 yards long, followed by another three or four hundred yards of track to the farmhouse. The lane was cut into the countryside, which meant very high sides to the fields above, then trees on either side which met together in the middle to form what was in effect a dark tunnel.

Believe me when I say that I hated that 100 yard walk through the Dark Lane. I confess that I have always had a certain fear of the dark, and walking, particularly from school in the winter months was agony. You've probably seen those  t-shirts that say, "You're not paranoid. People really are out to get you". That's how it felt. There was always someone waiting to jump out of the hedgerow to get me. But of course it never happened. To this day I'm still constantly looking around me when I'm walking in the darkness. I blame that bloody lane.

Bryn-y-felin, I learnt from my sister was owned by my Dad's best man, who also helped me pass my driving test, as mentioned in part one. It was a long, single story farmhouse with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. The toilet was outside, which meant that in winter, you only went when you really had to go. I'm surprised that none of the family ever suffered from bladder disease, through holding it in for so long. God, like so many others, we must have been a hardy lot before 'civilisation' softened us. Bath night was in a tin bath in front of an open fire, but unlike the toilet arrangements, it had the merit of being warm.

Me and my sister
I wasn't a lover of the farm I confess. I didn't mind the open space and the green grass, but the few animals were a different matter. Shock, horror, but to this day I can't consider myself to be an animal lover.

From the picture opposite, it was obviously the job of my sister and I to feed the chickens and collect the eggs.

The only job I think I didn't mind doing was part of the summer harvest. I have a clear recollection of working with other small holdings adjacent to ours, gathering in the hay. I don't know if this was considered to be a cooperative, or that people just helped each other out. I wish there were photos of those times in glorious summer weather sitting on the hay having lunch. It was one of those few occasions when I didn't mind being a "farmer".

There were two small wooded areas next to the farm, and I can still today remember the smell and sight of carpets of bluebells as far as the eye could see. During the bluebell season, I would often take myself off to the nearest wood, and return home with armfuls of flowers for the house. I have no idea if Mum ever tired of them, but I have no memory of them ever being turned away.

Dad, sister and me
This photograph is obviously of a family day out somewhere by the seaside. Within a couple of years my father would be diagnosed with Leukemia. We saw little of him in the last year or two of his life, as he spent so much time in hospital.

I can only imagine the pressure on Mum, as she worried about Dad, as well as run a farm and look after two young children. I only hope that we two children tried our best not to be too troublesome.

Looking back on history, it was apparent to Mum that Dad was not going to be cured, and that we would have to move from Bryn-y-felin and back into the village proper. Dad died on the 27th September 1958, aged 41. This was four days after my 11th birthday. He never did see our new home.

So in 1958 we moved to 1, Cristionydd, where I lived until I left the village 10 years later. My Mother continued to live there until she died in 2005. I apologise for the small picture opposite, but trying to enlarge it only makes it lose focus (I wish I was more gifted). There were two Council housing estates in the upper village. Cristionydd on the right of the picture, and Groesfan on the left. Our house is the one at the top right of the picture. It was a three bedroom, two living room, semi-detached house, with whoopee, my own bedroom, and indoor toilet and separate bathroom. It also came with a nice garden, back and front.

The only drawback was that it was part of a line of houses built over a coal seam, a long way below, but which made it liable to subsidence. In later years the house was underpinned with tonnes of concrete. Apart from that, it was a sound, quality Council house. Long after I left home, Mum succumbed to the offer of double glazing and central heating, but during the time I lived there we made do with one open fire in the living room. Going to bed was a speedy exercise, as the rest of the house was freezing, which Mum never seemed to notice as much as I did. It was a joyful day when I moved into a house with central heating, though that was a few years away. I know, wuss. The bathroom did have an electric wall heater, which today would be condemned as unsafe, and an accident waiting to happen. However, it was used with glee.

My mother lived in that Council house for 47 years, and though the Council offered to move her to smaller property so that a family could have the house, she remained adamant that she was staying in her home. Offers to sell her the home were also unfruitful, as she had no intention of being an owner/occupier. She loved the rent man calling, before that was stopped, and loved telephoning the Council to get repairs done. These were little but important matters. Council housing gave peace and security to so many people.

I was always opposed to the selling off of Council houses and the right to buy schemes. Housing Associations may have taken over many properties previously owned by local Councils, but it is not the same. I still believe that it is the duty of the State to provide adequate housing to those who cannot afford to get them elsewhere. My Mother benefited from this, and so should others, but those days have gone, and young people growing up in the village, with little going for them, have no hope of finding affordable housing. (You just can't resist a political statement can you John?).

Perhaps we'll finish there, and continue the journey in part three at a later stage.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

If Only

Tony Hawks, as the result of a drunken bet hitch-hiked around Ireland with a fridge. He records his adventure in a book, "Round Ireland with a fridge". It is a wonderful, wild and wacky journey.

Prior to leaving on the journey, he hosts a corporate function where Nigel Walker, former Olympic hurdler who gave it all up and became a Welsh International rugby player was the guest speaker. His talk was on the need to adapt, and few are better qualified to speak on the subject. Nigel showed clips of his 1984 Olympic 110m hurdle semi-final where he caught his leading leg on the seventh hurdle and went crashing to the ground. Failing to qualify for the 1992 Olympics made him realise that he ought to change to rugby, as he didn't want to find himself saying at a much later date, "If only I'd had a serious go at playing rugby".

He then showed clips of some of his magnificent international tries for Wales. After the speech, Tony Hawks was required to go on stage to conduct a short interview. He said that "there was one question I simply couldn't resist asking him". "Nigel, was there any point when you thought to yourself, as you were lying prostrate on the Olympic track alongside an upturned hurdle with two badly grazed knees, 'If only I'd jumped a bit higher ...?'" Ah, if only!

I've been thinking about 'if only'. Some people no doubt see this as fruitless; interpreting it as regret for things that you can do nothing about. Please allow me the luxury of thinking about 'if only', for there are others a lot younger than me who can benefit from the lesson.

There are unfortunately many 'if only's' in my life, some of which are too personal and private to record in a blog, but the one area I want to focus on is that of education.

'If only' I'd passed my 11 plus. Would that have meant me gaining sufficient exam passes to go to University and coming away with a degree, instead of leaving full time education with nothing?

'If only' a few years later, when engaged in my chosen profession, I'd taken the opportunity to study for something like a Social Work degree, which would have advanced opportunities for professional development.

'If only' at a later stage when in management, I'd been prepared to study for a relevant management qualification such as the MBA. 'If only' I hadn't kept making excuses about putting all my energies and time into the working day, and thought about the bigger picture. 'If only ...'.

I came into my chosen field with the desire to make a difference. I knew that to make a real difference, you had to have power, and to get power, you had to be in positions of influence. Aneurin Bevan knew this. He was consumed with the desire to make a difference to the lives of honest working class people. He asked the question, "Where does power lie in this particular State of Great Britain, and how can it be achieved?" He knew the answer. He left the mines and was elected to Parliament, and became, in my view one of the greatest politicians of the 20th Century. He had gained power and influence.

I missed the trick. I knew where the power lay, and that power would bring influence, but I could not achieve it, for I had made the wrong choices, or not made the right ones. I could not get into those organisations that could make a difference on a big scale, because I had not taken seriously the subject of my own education. People were fond of saying, "There's no substitute for experience John". To an extent this is true, but when influential organisations are looking for senior people with relevant management qualifications, experience on it's own is not sufficient. 'If only' I'd made the right decisions about educational development.

Please don't take from this blog that I'm full of self pity, because I'm not. I am pleased and proud of what I have achieved with fairly small organisations, and the services that I established that benefited many poor, and broken people. I can look back with pride and see lives that were changed for good. On a very small scale there was success. But, 'if only ...'. Now I have read, studied, researched throughout my working life, but there was no educational qualification as an end result. I felt knowledgeable, but lacked the means to really prove it. It may be true that qualifications are no guarantee to climbing the ladder, but in my view the lack of them is a hindrance to getting to positions of real influence. 'If only ...'.

My excuses for not taking up the educational opportunities that were around, are pathetic when compared with the achievements of others. One of my many heroes in life is the 19th Century Chartist Leader in Leicester, Thomas Cooper. This is not just because of his Chartist work, which was immense, but because of the effort of self-learning that he put in.

Indulge me for a moment while I mention an aspect of his Chartist work. He was speaking one day in the Potteries to a crowd of workers and advocating strike action until the six points of Chartism were agreed upon. Following his speech, and while nothing to do with him, rioting broke out. He was later arrested for political activities, and being poor he represented himself at the trial. I think he believed (with some justification) that the authorities were against him, and he had an enjoyable time annoying the court by making a ten hour speech on his own defence. He was however sent to Stafford jail in 1842, where he stayed for over two years. Remarkably while in jail, he wrote his finest piece of work in defence of Chartism published in 1845, called "The Purgatory  of Suicides". This was an immense poem in ten books, with in all over 900, nine line stanzas. You can find this on Google Books. I have read it, and it blows your mind away.

As for his education, he learnt the basics of reading, writing and mathematics at Sunday School. In his teens he was engaged in amazing self-education. The depth and range of which was phenomenal. He learnt the text of Hamlet by heart when aged 20, and was mortified when his health failed that he had only committed to memory the first four books of Paradise Lost. Professor Philip Collins, in his 1969 Byron Lecture in Nottingham adds to the wonder of the man, when he says, "Apart from general reading in philosophy and theology, he was also at that time leaning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French, rising at three in the morning so that he had four hour's study before sitting down at his stall to work at his cobbling until eight or nine at night".

Cooper recalls, "I was repeating something audibly, as I sat at work the greater part of the day - either declensions and conjugations, or rules of syntax, or propositions of Euclid, or the Paradise Lost, or Hamlet, or poetry of some modern or living author". Professor Collins very poignantly states,

"And the stupendous effort was exerted with a starry-eyed zest that makes one's heart bleed, as he displays a passion for learning, not always demonstrated by students with more advantages".

You see, this is what I mean. 'If only ...'.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Charity Despair or Optimism?

Anyone reading my profile or blog understands that I have a passion for charities. Anyone with even half an ear to the news is aware of the difficulties that charities are facing to their contracted services from reductions in government and local authority spending. Charities who rely on donations from the general public are also expressing concern, as the recession has hit hard and there is less disposable income available to give to charity.

The options available to charities seem to be, give up; "walk on with hope in your heart" as the Liverpool Football Club anthem says, or plan for a possible different future.

Nothing stays the same forever. Those charities who have relied heavily on statutory funding in the past, and who are now seeing it dramatically reduced will never get back to the position they once had. General fundraising for all but the few large charities who appeal to the emotion within us, will struggle even more. In the light of this, will we be driven to despair, or will we be driven by optimism? Undoubtedly there are tough times ahead, but can we not see this also as an opportunity to perhaps review the services that are provided, and how those services are delivered? If so, it requires planning for a possible different future, whilst retaining the values that underpin every charity.

I have just finished reading an address posted on the Charity Commission website given by David Locke to the Citizens Advice Bureau Annual Trustees Conference. It comes at a time when CAB's up and down the country are seeing their grants from local authorities dramatically cut. An example given was that of Birmingham City Council who were planning to cut all of the support (£600,000) it gives to the city's 5 Bureaux. Many other authorities are cutting funds from 45% - 60%.

David Locke in his address was encouraging his audience to think positively and expansively.

"You might feel a little like your feet are being bound, just as you're getting ready to climb a mountain. But I'd like to encourage you not to let those feelings paralyse you. Convert them into positive energy and a fighting spirit. There are things that you can do to bolster your charities' defences".

Now, nothing he said was new. The Charity Commission have been saying it for a long time. I addressed aspects of it in an earlier blog. What he said to CAB Trustees is applicable to every other charity in the land, particularly smaller ones, and it needs repeating time and again until it becomes absorbed into our consciousness. His focus was on three areas.
  1. Collaboration
  2. Diversifying income
  3. Technology
Collaboration - how can you improve the services you provide by working more closely with other charities? This can be done in a variety of ways, from the simple to the sophisticated. It can begin with the very simple principle of sharing. Look at the buildings most charities have, can they not be better used through sharing them? What about administrative functions such as IT and HR? What about bookkeeping and payroll services? I believe that the time has come to ditch the notion that six organisations in an area should all go chasing for money to pay for six finance and payroll people. Why don't the six (or whatever number it is) get together and employ one person to service them all? The costs would then only be one sixth. An example of this is seen in Wrexham, where 70 local charities came together to form the Association of Voluntary Organisations Wrexham. Here membership means access to meeting rooms, photocopying and scanning facilities, computers, administrative support and payroll service. Some areas have good quality CVS's and better use could be made of these.

Another approach to collaboration can see two or more charities coordinating their services to provide the best possible outcome to beneficiaries. The last Charity Commission Annual Report highlighted the example of Thames Reach and Blenheim CDP. One provided services for homeless people, and the other services to people with drug problems. Though coming together initially on one project, this was so successful that they now collaborate on a whole range of projects.

Collaboration can also take more formal, contractual forms such as forming consortia to apply jointly for  public contracts, which are partnerships favoured by many local authorities. I fear that a number of smaller charities are full of their own self-importance, and display an attitude that no other organisation is as good as they are, so there's no one to join with. If this is a true picture, then it must change, for as David Locke says, "I doubt there is a single charity in England and Wales that couldn't benefit in some way from working more closely with others". An increasing number of charities are realising, either out of desire or necessity that the only way forward is that of merger.

Belinda Vernon, Head of Research at New Philanthropy Capital says, "Collaboration challenges the very existence of an organisation - does it primarily exist for itself or does it exist for its beneficiaries? The extent to which an organisation collaborates or competes could be a clue". I for one agree with her.

Diversifying Income - The Charity Commission's latest research suggests that, overall, only 15% of registered charities receive income from public grants and contracts, and only 8% of charities say that public funding is their main source of income. I know intimately a number of charities that come into that 8%. Being in this position makes charities vulnerable to the current wave of government cuts. Those who may have escaped the cuts this year had better plan well, for their turn will come.

Diversifying income streams is a sensible approach to take. One way is to target commercial sponsorship in a local area, whether with small companies or large ones; whether for small amounts or greater ones. I don't pretend this is easy, but it should be looked at. Another way of course is to increase individual private donations. As David Locke says, "Branding is key here". Research has shown that public trust and confidence is a wide-spread issue. If people aren't aware of your status, or what you do, then it won't occur to them to consider supporting you financially. It will be extremely beneficial to have a Marketing Strategy, rather than to believe that everyone knows about you - for the truth is that they don't, or if they've heard of you, is what they've heard correct?

Technology - I know that this is not for everyone, but I think that everyone should take a look at it. There are social marketing tools available such as Websites, Blogs, Facebook and increasingly Apps for mobile phones that can be used to recruit volunteers or encourage private donations. Perhaps commercial sponsorship in kind can help to get these developed. The Internet Advertising Bureau suggests that 61% of charities think their website is underperforming, and they have developed a toolkit to help charities improve their web presence. The Media Trust provides help and support to charities that want to improve the way they use communication technology, either to reach donors or to get their message across to government or local authorities.

What all of the above needs is realistic planning, and the leadership to carry it through. If planning for the future is not carried out, it will be perceived as an act of gross negligence.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Debt or no Debt - a personal odyssey

Excuse me while I get something personal off my chest - BLOODY BT.

This behemoth of an organisation has succeeded in driving me, a loyal customer of too many years to the point of exasperation and annoyance, over an alleged debt of £78 from my previous home.

One month ago I received a letter from a Debt Recovery agency stating that they have tracked me down and that I should call the number below immediately. I have never had contact with such agencies in my entire life, and to be honest these letters can be quite frightening to any of us who have a horror of debt. As requested, I rang them immediately, gave the reference number, proved who I was and was told that BT had passed on my debt to them for collection, and how did I wish to pay. Now, I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to officialdom, but I can image many people just paying up without question.

I would not. I asked for details of this alleged debt, but they said that BT had not sent through any of the paperwork. I questioned the Debt agencies right to send out demands for an alleged debt without evidence to prove it. I would not pay without seeing that evidence. Not unreasonable is it? I could imagine the poor girl on the other end of the phone ticking the box on the computer screen "Difficult Customer". We finally agreed that they would request a copy of the bill from BT, and send it to me. In the meantime the account would be put on hold.

This morning I received a copy of that bill. It was for the period 24th March - 23rd June 2010. I left the property that the bill relates to at the end of January 2010. When I was cancelling that account, I also opened another account for my current address. Both previous and current addresses are recorded on official documentation from BT. In addition, a BT bill in January 2010 said that I was £53 in credit, and that they were giving me a months payment holiday. In my view they owe me money, rather than the other way around. I rang the Debt agency again today and explained all of the above. I might as well have been trying to explain the theory of quantum physics. There was silence on the other end of the phone, and for a moment I thought we'd been cut off.

I disputed the BT bill, as the evidence did not show that it related to me, even though my name was on it. I was not going to pay. What, I asked was the solution? If I sent them a copy of my current Tenancy Agreement proving when and where I was living at the period of the bill, they would discuss it with BT. This I did in the last post today, and in addition, because I get very petty under these circumstances, I copied them a load of other documents to keep them busy. The account would not be put on hold again, and the last thing said to me was that the documents must get to them before the 1st April. Or what? Silence again. Or the account will be placed before the courts. So, if there's a gap in my blogs of a few months in the future, you'll know that I lost the case and have been detained somewhere at Her Majesty's pleasure.

I don't attach too much blame to the Debt Agency, as they were only acting on instructions from BT, but they could have checked a few things before issuing letters. BT on the other hand I hold in withering contempt. They are inept, and I should have been more aware when they cocked-up the installation of my current contract. All I know is that once this current contract comes to an end, a divorce will occur and I'll be prepared to pay anything to a new provider, as there are plenty of them. No longer will my name be linked with that of being a BT customer.

There, I've got it off my chest. This has been very cathartic, but I'm sorry that you have been subjected to it.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Disasters: Unavoidable and Avoidable

Many I'm sure have been watching with horror the events unfolding over the past few days in Japan. An earthquake, measuring 8.9 on the Richter Scale hit the Pacific Ocean near Northeastern Japan, and caused a Tsunami that swept inland and devastated a number of towns and villages.

The latest death toll is said to be 3,400, but this could rise to around 10,000 by the time it all comes to an end. It has been quite harrowing to watch videos of the Tsunami as it built up speed, height and power, destroying everything in its path. Nothing could stop it, and all man could do was wait for it to run out of steam.

This is a disaster that reveals the destructive power of nature. Human beings are often full of themselves, and present an image that there is nothing that they cannot do. But take the combined brains of the greatest minds who have ever lived, and they will be nothing, and could do nothing to stop this destructive power of nature when in full flow. It ought to make us stop and think. It ought to produce respect for the world in which we live. Compared with the potential for nature's destructive power, we are like gnats beside Nature's mountain.

Unfortunately, there have been many disasters before, and it seems that attitudes have changed very little. A little bit more humility that lasts for more than a few days would not be inappropriate.

Aberfan Disaster
I'm not technical enough to know if earthquake disasters can be avoided, but I do know that others can be.

I still remember vividly at the age of 19, working in Wrexham on Friday, 21st October 1966. The music was playing in the background as it always was. At about 9.30am, the music stopped and a news item told us of a disaster in the mining village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales. It was only when I got home and watched the news that the full horror of the disaster became apparent. People were out on our streets, talking about it with tears in their eyes.

At 9.15 am that morning a waste tip had slid down the mountainside into the village of Aberfan. It first destroyed a farm cottage, killing everyone in it. Before the slide came to rest, it had engulfed Pantglas Junior School and about twenty houses. It was the last day of term, and the children had just returned to their classes after assembly. They had been singing, "All things bright and beautiful", and the slide killed 116 children aged 7 - 10 (half of the school numbers), plus 28 adults which included 5 teachers. A disaster that brought grief to a nation.

Rumours abounded in the following weeks that this could have been avoided; that warnings had been given for years about the continuing build up of the waste tip. Others were saying that in their grief, people were just looking for someone to blame. The truth finally came out on the 3rd August 1967 when the Tribunal Enquiry published its findings. It found that the blame for the disaster rested entirely with the National Coal Board. The Tribunal Chairman, Lord Justice Edmund Davies said,

"The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan".

The Chair of the National Coal Board did not cover himself in glory at this time. Following publication of the Tribunal's report, he "offered" to resign, but the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson rejected it. It is believed that he was too important to the government, who wanted to bring about changes to the mining industry without strikes. No senior manager at the NCB was disciplined over this disaster. What price the lives of 144 children and adults? A disaster that could have been avoided.

Avoiding disasters was brought home to me again today on the banks of the River Trent. Though not comparable with what has been written above, it is still an example of preventative action. It is a flood prevention scheme costing £51 million which will be completed by 2013, designed to secure the safety of 16,000 properties largely in The Meadows area of Nottingham.

Wall by Trent Bridge
There have been a number of floods in this area over the past 150 years, and markers on the wall beneath Trent Bridge show the major ones, with the last being in November 2000.

The new flood defence system will aim to prevent this happening again. It would not stop a Tsunami, but this is unlikely to happen given the geographical location of Nottingham.

Credit should be given to The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for looking ahead, assessing risk, and taking action to prevent disaster.