Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Land of my Fathers

Is it age that brings on feelings of nostalgia? Or is there something more deeply psychological that brings on yearnings to go back to one's roots? Maybe it's because that in retirement, I don't have that much to do, and 'thinking' takes up more of my time. In my professional career, I often debated, both formally and informally, the subject of nature verses nurture. What has made me the person the I am?

Nurture, means that our personality has been affected by our upbringing and surroundings, while Nature means that there is something in our genes or family history that explains the type of person we are. Whatever is the cause, I find myself increasingly looking back to the land of my birth, Wales. This can by seen in the number of blogs dedicated to My Village, My Home, My Life, and to references looking at Eisteddfodau and Welsh Male Voice Choirs. I'm in such a reflective mood today; thinking about the scenery, the history, the language and the people. But funny enough, I'm not thinking about moving back to Wales. Perhaps this shows that there is a great flaw in my character, that detracts from the pride of coming from Wales.

I also don't speak Welsh, but according to a Welsh Language Board survey in 2004 (the results of the 2011 Census are yet to be produced), 21.7% of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh. So I'm actually in good company with the other 78.3% of the population. Not that I say this with any pride.

So, enough of my rambling. Here's some thoughts on Welsh Rugby and the Welsh language.

Wales Rugby Team 1905
Rugby has a strong association with Wales. The current game is pre-dated by the game of Cnapan, which is thought to have been played in Wales since the Middle Ages. There is a wonderful description of the game here. It largely died out in the middle of the 19th Century, with the coming of Rugby Union.

It seems to be generally accepted that Rugby came to Wales in 1850, when the Reverend Professor Rowland Williams brought the game with him when he moved from Cambridge to St David's College, Lampeter. The expansion of interest in Rugby went hand in hand with the growth in industrialisation in Wales. The railways brought new workers from the main cities to the new steel and coal towns of Wales. Places like Merthyr (1876), Brecon (1874) and Penygraig (1877) all adopted the new sport.

While Wales has not always been dominant in Rugby Union (I'm going to forget the fallow years), there has been two recognised 'golden era's' of Welsh Rugby. The first is 1900-1919 because of the success of the national team. The Triple Crown (beating England, Scotland and Ireland) was first won on 1893, and between 1900 and 1914 the team won the trophy a further six times, and three Grand Slams when France joined the competition in 1908 and 1909. Wales began to transform for ever, the way that the game would be played. This was partly done through the introduction of what was called the "Rhondda Forward". The Welsh front row was now to be made up of men who worked all day and every day in the coal, iron and tin mines; who were chosen for their strength and aggressive tackling. During the 1970's (which we'll come to), the most famous front row of all was the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner. They were all manual workers, and some have put forward the theory that when Welsh industry declined, and players started to be drawn from 'soft jobs', the team suffered.

The success of Welsh Rugby in the first two decades of the 20th Century is all the more remarkable when you consider a number of external circumstances. The valley areas in particular were part of a strong Nonconformist Baptist movement that saw Rugby as "a wicked temptation to the young men of the mining and steel communities, leading to violence and drink". The religious revival of 1904 saw communities completely reject Rugby, and local clubs such as the famous Senghenydd disbanded for several years. In 1913, five members of the Senghenydd team were killed in Britain's worst colliery disaster, and many other teams, including Welsh internationals lost their lives in the First World War.

In England, the game of Rugby was generally seen as a sport for gentlemen of higher learning, but I'm very proud of the fact that in Wales, it was fast absorbed into the working class areas, and the link was severed of Rugby as a sport for middle and upper classes.

The second golden era, perhaps the greatest of all, was the 1970's. This is the period that I remember, with players such as Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett and JPR Williams. The video below is a collection of some of the greatest moments from that period. On this occasion, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Wales won four consecutive Triple Crowns during the period, playing a type of free flowing Rugby that had rarely been seen before. In 2003, Gareth Edwards was voted the greatest player of all time in a players poll. He also scored what many believe to be the greatest try of all time in 1973, when playing for the Barbarians against the All Blacks of New Zealand. You can watch it on You Tube.

Let's move on to language.

On the 7th December 2010, the Welsh Assembly unanimously approved a set of measures to develop the use of the Welsh language within Wales. On the 9th February 2011, this measure received Royal Approval and was passed, so making the Welsh language an officially recognised language within Wales. What does this mean in practice? The measure;
  • confirms the official status of the Welsh language
  • creates a new system of placing duties on bodies to provide services through the medium of Welsh
  • creates a Welsh Language Commissioner with strong enforcement powers to protect the rights of Welsh speakers to access services through the medium of Welsh
  • establishes a Welsh Language Tribunal
  • gives individuals and bodies the right to appeal decisions made in relation to the provision of services through the medium of Welsh
  • creates a Welsh Language Partnership Council to advise Government on its strategy in relation to the Welsh language
  • allows for an official investigation by the Welsh Language Commissioner of instances where there is an attempt to interfere with the freedom of Welsh speakers to use the language with one another
As I mentioned earlier, The Welsh Language Board indicated in 2004 that 21.7% of the population of Wales were able to speak Welsh. This grew from 20.8% at the 2001 Census; the growth in absolute numbers is around 35,000.

Welsh is therefore a growing language within Wales. The map opposite shows the strongest Welsh speaking regions, and while some may have assumed that this would be in the former mining valleys of South Wales, it is actually in the area of North West Wales.

I guess that a national language goes along with a national identity, and no doubt Welsh will continue to flourish with the new recognition of the language within Wales.

As long ago as 1977, a greeting in Welsh was one of 55 languages chosen to be included on the Voyager Golden Record as representative of Earth in NASA's Voyager programme. 'Is anyone out there?'. If there is, they may well be hearing the Welsh greeting, but translated as "Good health to you now and forever".

I may be a Welshman in exile, but I have an increasing fondness for the land of my birth. Rugby and language seem to be two of a number of things that sum up the country, and how I feel about it.

I'm going to end with a video of Max Boyce, the Welsh comedian, poet, singer/song writer, and former coal miner. He's been performing for 40 years now, and has performed some magical songs about Rugby and being Welsh. Many pieces are extremely funny, while others are very poignant. The piece I've chosen is about the closure of a coal mine, which has the refrain, 'The pit head bath's a supermarket now'. The song is called, "Duw it's hard". The slides add to the poignancy of the song.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Face of Evil

Anders Behring Breivik
There is no doubt about it, opposite, is the face of evil. He is the Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, who last Friday exploded a bomb in Oslo (undoubtedly to distract the police), then went about 25 miles away to the island of Utoeya to shoot and kill scores of innocent youngsters who were attending a summer camp.

There are already people saying that he must be mentally ill to have carried out such attacks, particularly as his lawyer said that "his client felt he had done nothing reprehensible". I'm tired of mental illness being used as an excuse for every type of atrocity, and given the fact of the lengthy, detailed planning that went into these attacks, he knew exactly what he was doing. Reports indicate that during the weekend interrogation, he admitted that the attacks were 'cruel' but 'necessary'. This is not a man who seems to be suffering from mental illness.

Before the attacks, Behring Breivik wrote a 1,500 page manifesto. In it he boasted that he was one of up to 80 'solo martyr cells' recruited across Western Europe to topple Governments tolerant of Islam. He is reported to have said in court today, that he was "saving Norway from a Muslim takeover". He has been described as a 'Christian fundamentalist', and in his Manifesto, Breivik calls himself a justiciar Knight, a rank within the Knights Templar. He also makes a call for believers to spawn as many children as possible in order to generate a pool of future fighters in a Christian war he likens to a medieval crusade.

The image of Breivik above, shows him in a uniform with a white and red cross of the Knights Templar. These were established around 1119, during the period of the Crusades. Ten years later they were officially sanctioned by the Church of Rome. Even from the very beginning, there were those who criticised the concept that religious men could carry swords. The leading Churchman of the time, Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a major treatise in support of the Order, and defended the idea of a military religious order by appealing to the long-held Christian theory of 'just war', which legitimised taking up the sword to defend the innocent and the Church from violent attack. He wrote, "A Templar Knight is truly a fearless knight, and secure on every side, for his soul is protected by the armour of faith, just as his body is protected by the armour of steel. He is thus doubly-armed, and need fear neither demons nor men". Little wonder that they went about massacring 'infidels' by the thousands in the name of God. Anders Behring Breivik, as a self-styled Knight Templar was carrying on this work, but why choose to massacre these particular young people at a summer camp has yet to be determined.

Is this attack religiously or politically motivated? Those who ask this question speak as if there is a clear line between the two. In my mind there rarely is, particularly when the history of religious fundamentalism shows that nationhood and belief often go hand in hand. How often have we heard President Obama invoke the name of God when America seems to be under threat? To him, God is on the side of the United States. God is on the side of those going to war against the 'infidel'. Christian fundamentalists think nothing of bombing the workplaces, and murdering those who carry out abortions, and all in the name of God. There have been people in most religions throughout history, and throughout the world who have carried out atrocities in the name of their god or gods. "God is on our side" has been the call from so many quarters. I can't help but think how many fewer wars there might have been, if there had never been religion.

The Middle East has a long history of faith and territory, of religion and politics. Northern Ireland has a similar history, particularly with the phrase, "For God and Ulster". This was the motto of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), formed at the height of unionist opposition to Home Rule in 1912-1914. This paramilitary force became part of the British Army in the first world war, and who were decimated on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. The motto, "For God and Ulster" was taken up by the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV), who were active during 1966-1969 and aimed to prevent the introduction of equality reforms in Northern Ireland. They were a loyalist and extreme Christian paramilitary group, and its political wing, the Ulster Constitution Defence Committee was established by Ian Paisley in 1966. The UPV launched a bombing campaign to destabilise the Northern Ireland Government, and also took part in most of the counter demonstrations organised in response to the Catholic Civil Rights marches of the late 1960's.

"For God and Ulster" was thundered from pulpits and streets at religious/political rallies for the next 30 years. To one historian, "for God and Ulster implies divine favour, a special relationship between God and Ulster Protestants, and a loyalty to Britain sealed in blood on the battlefields of Europe". This religious belief has caused the death of thousands. It's not just Islam that is fervent in its determination to subjugate the masses to its will. Christianity has shown over the last two thousand years that it is as capable as anyone of committing atrocities in the name of God. How I wish that religion was dead.

Those that know me will wonder how I can say such things with my background. For thirty years I promoted a Christianity that encouraged intolerance - that was not my aim you understand, just the effect. I believed in what was right with a shameful dogmatism, and those who disagreed were simply wrong. I came to despise this until I could take no more. I was defending the indefensible, promoting the unpromotable. I could no longer answer the question, 'Why does God allow ...'. I could no longer believe in a being called God. This God was being used for unholy ends, and I wanted no part of it.

But, some will say, what of the good things that in particular Christians have done over the centuries to improve the lot of their fellow man? It was their belief in God that drove them to bring about changes in child labour, slavery, prison reform or working conditions. This shows what good 'religion' has done. I'm the first to acknowledge the fantastic work that reformers have done over the centuries to improve the conditions of fellow human beings, and they deserve great credit for that. But, you don't have to have 'faith' to be a reformer, and without a religious belief, these people would probably still have done great works, for they were good people, intent on doing good things. It's not only 'religious' people who do good things, for if you look here, you will see a long list of atheist social reformers and activists, who have worked for improving the lot of their fellow man in various parts of the world.

Religion of course will not disappear. Wars will not cease. Atrocities in the name of 'god' will continue. Religion and politics will continue to be linked. I for one am happy with my condition, but if you must have 'faith' to sustain you, let it be of the highest order, and is something that treats your fellow man in ways that you wish to be treated yourself. The face of evil above, and what it stands for, has no place in this world.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Is Bigger Always Better?

This is the question posed by South Nottingham College. On the 1st July 2011, they took over the running of Castle College, who had run into financial difficulties. (The official description is merger). Being one of the smaller colleges in the area, I guess that they are always competing with others for student intake. The above sign can be found outside the former Castle College campus on Maid Marian Way, now one of a growing list of South Nottingham College (SNC) buildings.

The question is an interesting one. Are those colleges which are bigger than SNC, better than them, just because of their size? Purely from reading press reports around the 'merger', the expected size of the new college is a bit confusing. In the Guardian of the 7th July we read, "A 2011 merger will see South Nottingham College grow considerably in size". Later saying that "the total number of higher education students for the two colleges in 2010/2011 was 350, but future capacity has yet to be confirmed for the merged institution". However, in the Independent newspaper, on the 1st July it said that the college was "expecting 43,000 students in its first intake after the merger". I've no idea how these figures compare on the size scale of further and higher educational establishments, and to be honest I can't really be bothered to check; it however, just doesn't seem that small to me.

Bruce Lee
Let's take for granted that one size doesn't fit all. But to answer the question, we have to delve a little bit deeper, and ask what do we mean by 'bigger', and what does 'better' mean?

Take this scenario, as unlikely as it may seem. I'm out on a dark night, and I'm confronted by a group of 6 foot thugs, who are out to engage in mayhem. On the surface, bigger is better. Beside me is Bruce Lee, the martial arts phenomenon, a much smaller man, and he's on his own (there's no good looking to me, as I'd be useless). I know it's unlikely, as Bruce Lee died in 1973, but please stay with me.

The group of thugs would not stand a chance, and would be routed in no time. Under these circumstances, bigger is not better. I base this scenario on one of Bruce's party pieces. He would have a man stand in front of him holding a coin in his outstretched hand. Bruce would have his arms down by his side, and would take the coin from the man, and leave a penny in its place before the man could clench his fist. That's the sort of friend I want with me in the unlikely event of being confronted by a group of large thugs (any size really) in an alley, on a dark night. Better, is more appropriate than bigger, under these circumstances. You've probably detected an underlying love of martial arts films here, and you'd be right - guilty as charged.

But let's get back to the real world.  Are we asking is bigger better for sustainability or service provision? South Nottingham College is now bigger, and should therefore be better equipped to sustain itself financially, as core costs can be spread out across a greater range of income sources. This is often called economies of scale. Financial sustainability though, does not mean that the educational process is better. The former Castle College had as its Motto, "To unlock potential, raise aspirations and deliver excellence". Size on its own will not achieve this end. So in this case, 'Is Bigger always Better?' evokes the answer, not necessarily so.

In a way, it depends who's asking the question, and why? In a recent interesting survey of 2,900 workers in Australia, 73% wanted to work somewhere else. Where? Google stole the top spot, with Virgin coming in second. Apple took fourth place, followed by Qantas, The Walt Disney Corporation, Sydney Water, Getaway and Coca-Cola.

To these workers, bigger was better, as brand recognition was cited by 41% of them as a factor pushing them towards their choice. The survey conducted by Insync and RedBalloon commented, "Do people honestly believe that bigger is better, or do people like to hide within a large corporate business, rather than be accountable within a Small to Medium Enterprise (SME)?" My employment has always been with SME's, but my involvement with others has often been with large public or private bodies. Is bigger always better? There is of course no definitive answer to this question, as we must always say, it depends. There are pros and cons, though I do tend to like the view of Voltaire, who said, "God is not on the side of the big battalions, but on the side of those who shoot best".

In my view, 'shooting best' means that the end product is better. If bigger has a better end product, then bigger is best. If smaller has a better end product, then smaller is best. Let me give you two examples from my experience, which will highlight why I say, in answer to the question, it all depends. One is from the Public Sector, and the other from the Third Sector.

During the early to mid 1990's, my organisation worked with the East Sussex Probation Service to provide accommodation and support for those clients who were under Probation supervision in a small geographical area. It worked well. The Senior Probation Officer responsible for the contract worked down the road, and we were able to meet regularly to discuss the work, solve any problems and make quick decisions. A few years later, it was decided to merge the East Sussex Probation Service with the West Sussex Probation Service to form the Sussex Probation Area. There was the inevitable 'rationalisation' of their services, as you no longer needed two of everything. Some senior posts disappeared, along with some finance and back office staff. A new structure was in place, which meant that local contact was diminished. Problem solving and decision making took longer, with the result, in my opinion that the end product was tarnished. In this case, bigger was definitely not better. Since leaving the work, I have learnt that Sussex and Surrey have merged to form the Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust. It's now therefore, even bigger.

For about twenty years I worked closely with a Third Sector organisation in Sussex, which grew to become one of the foremost organisations in England and Wales, working to provide safer communities and healthier lives. With around 200 projects; 2000 staff and a budget of over £50 million, it could so easily have been caught up in the corporate gravy-train. But it hasn't. Growth has enabled it to have a strong infrastructure, with sound HR and Finance departments, which has allowed excellent opportunities for staff training and staff progression. Working with so many contracts, has also allowed it to keep its management costs low, so enabling it to present very competitive bids. Its philosophy in working with 200 projects is exactly the same as for when it was working with one. This has meant proven success with the client group, which is the main aim of any service delivery. The end product was good. In this case, bigger is better.

What do you think? Is bigger always better? Will the answer be different for Government, Education, Business, Third Sector, or any other field? Or do you feel like me, that the question needs to have an autopsy performed on it, to examine the pros and cons? You may well come to the same conclusion, and say, "It all depends". Over to you, Is bigger always better?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Jean Genet - controversial writer and activist

Jean Genet 1983
I've visited the new exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary called, "Jean Genet Act 1 & Act 2". I'm not going to comment on the exhibition, as I didn't understand most of it, and the parts that I did understand, I didn't particularly appreciate.

I've mentioned before that I've tried really hard to overcome my 'puritan' and 'philistine' background, and try to get an appreciation of modern art displays. I find myself though, failing miserably, as to me it is often too clever for its own good.

The language and descriptions used seem to be for those who are 'in the circle', rather than to encourage a new breed of adherents who are currently 'out of the circle'. Some might call it pretentious twaddle, but that might be going a bit too far. Of course, the reality might be that I'm just not intelligent enough to appreciate it all. On the other hand, nothing is appreciated by everyone, and the old adage is promoted by some; "I know what I like, I see what I like, and I like what I see". Taken to its extreme, this approach leaves you closed to new ideas and opinions. I however, will keep going back to Nottingham Contemporary's new exhibitions, as you never know, do you?

While the exhibition itself may have left me lukewarm, the subject of the exhibition - Jean Genet - positively fired me up with determination to know more. Anyone in my book who is described as 'controversial' has got to be worth a look. To be honest, I knew very little of Genet - don't be too harsh on me, as I've spent too much time with the likes of Spike Milligan, Stephen Fry and Robin Hood.

Genet in Stained Glass
Jean Genet was a French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and political activist, who was born in Paris on the 19th December 1910.

His Mother was a prostitute who gave him up for adoption at the aged of one. This abandonment had a profound affect on his early life. He spent much of his youth in institutions for juvenile delinquents, and at the age of ten he was accused of stealing. Although innocent, having been described as a thief, he resolved to be a thief. He wrote later, "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me".

This set the pattern for the coming years. At 18, he joined the French Foreign Legion where he gained his first experience of the Middle East. The Nottingham Contemporary exhibition notes says that he deserted, but the reality was that he was given a dishonourable discharge on the grounds of indecency (he was caught engaged in a homosexual act). He was never ashamed of his homosexuality, or ever tried to hide it, saying, "I'm homosexual. How and why are idle questions. It's a little like wanting to know why my eyes are green".

Between 1930 and 1940, he wandered through Europe living as a thief and male prostitute, eventually finding himself in Hitler's Germany, where he found himself out of place. Why? "I had a feeling of being in a camp of organised bandits. This is a nation of thieves, I felt. If I stay here, I accomplish no special act that could help me to realise myself. I merely obey the habitual order of things. I do not destroy it". As his later life shows, this 'destruction' came from his view that "the main object of a revolution is the liberation of man - not the interpretation and application of some transcendental ideology". He returned to Paris in the late 1930's, and was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, being a vagabond, homosexuality and other offences. While in prison, he wrote his first poem.

After being imprisoned for theft in 1943, Genet began to write very seriously. In fact, many of his most influential novels and plays were written during periods of incarceration. One of his biographers writes, "Ignoring traditional plot and psychology, Genet's plays rely heavily on ritual, transformation, illusion and interchangeable identities. His experiences in prison would inform much of his work. The homosexuals, prostitutes, thieves and outcasts of his plays are trapped in self-destructive circles. They express the despair and loneliness of a man caught in a maze of mirrors, trapped by an endless progression of images that are, in reality, merely his own distorted reflection". Genet himself said, "I recognise in thieves, traitors and murderers, in the ruthless and the cunning, a deep beauty - a sunken beauty". This is undoubtedly reflected in his literary output, and is part of the reason why he is seen as being so controversial.

The Maids
By 1949, Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems.  In the early 1950's, his work was banned in the United States because of his explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality. I can't help feeling that this didn't bother Genet one bit, as it only added to his notoriety and mystique.

Genet's five main plays seem to revolve around an examination of the oppressed and the oppressor. In Deathwatch, he experiments with a murderer in the role of hero. The play shows three inmates who struggle for domination of a prison cell, while a fourth, unseen prisoner looks on. In The Maids, Genet portrays a ritualistic act of two maids who take turns acting as 'Madame', abusing each other as either servant or employer. The ceremony reveals not only the maids' hatred of the Madame's authority, but also their hatred of themselves for participating in the hierarchy that oppresses them. The Balcony was first staged at a private club in London because it was considered to be too scandalous for Paris audiences. It is set in a brothel of 'nobel dimensions', a palace of illusions in which men can indulge their secret fantasies. Outside the brothel, the country is caught up in the throes of revolution, and these false roles become confused with the real roles, until nothing is certain. In The Blacks, a troupe of coloured actors enacts before a jury of white-masked blacks the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. The last play to be produced during his lifetime was The Screens, which is Genet's comment on the Algerian revolution.

To one reviewer of Genet's works, "These plays are grotesque, sometimes bewildering, savage and haunting. Simultaneously cultivating and denouncing the stage illusion, they exude a strange ritualistic, incantatory quality that successfully transforms life into a series of ceremonies and rituals that bring stability to an otherwise unbearable existence".

From the late 1960's, Genet became very politically active, particularly after the student riots in France in 1968.

Among many areas that he involved himself with, there are three that stand out for me. The first was his participation in demonstrations drawing attention to the conditions of immigrants in France. He particularly protested loudly against police brutality of Algerians in Paris, where since the Algerian War of Independence, beaten bodies of Algerians were to be found floating in the River Seine.

In 1970, the militant civil rights group, The Black Panthers invited him to the USA. He must have sneaked in to the country somehow, as with his criminal record, there was no way to obtain a legal visa. However, he far from hid away, as he gave lectures, published articles in the Black Panther journals, and attended the trial of the Black Panther leader, Huey Newton, who was facing the death penalty. He wrote of this experience, "What I did not yet know so intensely was the hatred of the white American for the black, a hatred so deep that I wonder if every white man in the country, when he plants a tree, doesn't see Negroes hanging from its branches".

In the latter part of 1970, Genet spent six months in Palestine refugee camps, secretly meeting with Yasser Arafat. Spending most of 1970 in the USA and Palestine had a profoundly moving effect on Genet, which he chronicled in a final lengthy memoir called, 'Prisoner of Love', which was published after his death. The plight of the Palestinians continued to exercise his mind and time until his death. While in Beirut in 1982, the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. His response was to write 'Four Hours in Shatila', an account of his visit to Shatila after the event.

Jean Genet developed throat cancer, and was found dead on the 15th April 1986 in a hotel room in Paris.

I started this journey knowing very little about Jean Genet, but was intrigued by his controversial reputation. I have learnt much about the man and his work. He went his own way, and the only time I can find when he was affected by what was said about him by others, was when Jean-Paul Sartre in 1952, wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development from vagrant to writer. Genet was so affected by this analysis that he did not write for the next five years. Words used to describe Genet's works, such as explicit, provocative, grotesque, bewildering, savage and haunting may all be true, and would fit in with Genet's comment on his childhood, "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me". His period of political activism shows a man very much on the level of the oppressed, and revealing an implacable hatred of the oppressors. He once said, "What we need is hatred. From it our ideas are born".

Jean Genet was an artist of the spoken word. It has been often asked, What is art for? Though when this was asked of Ezra Pound by a lady in 1913, his reply was, "Ask me what a rose bush is for". It's perhaps too simple a question, but I suspect that for Genet, his work was to shock and make people think. In the Guardian 2002, Jeanette Winterson tried to answer the question. "When you take time to read a book or listen to music or look at a picture, the first thing you are doing is turning your attention inwards. The outside world, with all of its demands, has to wait. As you withdraw your energy from the world, the artwork begins to reach you with energies of its own. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the artwork begin to cross-current into you. This is not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a holiday, it is about being charged at a completely different voltage".

Let's leave the last word with Jean Genet. "Worse than not realising the dreams of your youth, would be to have been young and never dreamed at all".

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Farndon, Friendship and Favourites

The Riverside pub and kitchen
What's one of your favourite words? A bit of a silly question really, because it all depends on the context. I like the word 'friend', as it speaks of common likes and dislikes, and enjoyment of another's company.

It's extremely pleasant when you can feel that you have made a new friend. Tony and I have been blogging for about the same length of time, and found that we have many views in common. He also lives around Nottingham, and after a few months of communication, we decided that it would be good to meet up.

What better way to do this than to meet for a pint and a sandwich at some country venue. For me, it turned out to be a more than pleasant few hours. We drove down the A46 out of Nottingham towards Newark, and stopped at the village of Farndon. I'm sure that there are more modern descriptions of the village, but I like the one given in John Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales of 1870-1872.

"Farndon, a parish in Newark district, Notts; on the River Trent and the Fosse Way, near the Newark and Nottingham railway, 2 miles SW by W of Newark. It has a post office under Newark, Acres 1,710. Real property, £5,915. Pop. 692. Houses 152. Many of the inhabitants are stocking makers. The church is good, and there are chapels for Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists".

The Fosse Way
The A46 running past Farndon is also known as the historic Roman Road, The Fosse Way.

This is probably one of the most famous Roman Roads in the country, that linked Exeter in the South West to Lincoln. You may not share my fascination for this road, but to me it is remarkable for its extremely direct route. From Lincoln to Ilchester in Somerset, a distance of 182 miles, it is never more than 6 miles from a straight line. Having travelled through much of England, I can't help wishing that subsequent civil engineers had copied the brilliance of the Romans.

For the purists among you, and I know how much you love details, I quote the following. "The word Fosse is derived from the Latin fossa, meaning ditch. For the first few decades after the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43, the Fosse Way marked the western frontier of Roman rule in Iron Age Britain. It is possible that the road began as a defensive ditch that was later filled in and converted into a road, or possibly a defensive ditch ran alongside the road for at least some of its length". Interesting or what?

The River Trent
It's this road that Tony and I travelled on to the village of Farndon, and The Riverside pub and kitchen. The pub sits by the side of the River Trent, with the sugar beet factory in Newark seen in the distance.

The Riverside pub was formally known as the Britannia Inn, which was originally built in 1763, and was a favourite stopping place for the Trent barge operators.

It has undergone extensive and beautiful restoration, along with the name change. Any place that sells 'Old Speckled Hen' beer is OK by me, and we enjoyed the beer and sandwich in very comfortable surroundings. I really do sound like a reviewer, don't I, but I want you to get a feel for the place, and you can learn more here.

Landing Stage
Opposite the pub, until recent years, there used to be a ferry across the Trent from Farndon to Rolleston. It is now a landing jetty for pleasure craft, taking people up and down the Trent on trips.

I liked this newspaper story from August 1948 which said, "The title of Little Hero of Farndon was bestowed on 12-year old Ronnie Ward, after he rescued a child from the river by the Farndon Ferry on Thursday. Seeing the four year old boy in deep water, Ronnie swam out to him and pulled him to the landing stage from where he was carried back to his mother. Amazingly, Ronnie's parents knew nothing about the rescue until they heard the story from eye-witnesses, because their son was too modest to tell them". You really can't beat a good human interest story.

Mark Ainsworth 1963
Before we had our lunch, and in case it started to rain later, Tony and I went for a short walk along the banks of the Trent, and then a circular walk around the fishing lake.

The walk was flat, and all done in about 20 minutes. It started and finished by the Farndon Marina, which is a joy to behold, and far more picturesque than many other Marina's that I've seen.

To show how the Marina started, I can do no better than quote from the Marina website, history page. "It was a cold day in 1963 when Mark Ainsworth, a passionate sailor and a man with a vision, discovered the old gravel pits at Farndon, near Newark. Mr Ainsworth managed to purchase the 25 acre site which was owned by a local firm of architects in 1964. Thus began the creation of Farndon Marina". It's still a family run business today, and is very impressive to look at.

Farndon Marina
It was just as well that Tony and I went for a walk before lunch, because after it, it started to rain. We were out less than three hours, but in that time I experienced many of the things that I love: friendship, pubs, food, rivers, lakes and marina's. So much enjoyment in so little time. Life at times is very sweet.

"Life is full of surprises and serendipity. Being open to unexpected turns in the road is an important part of success. If you try to plan every step, you may miss those wonderful twists and turns. Just find your next adventure - do it well, enjoy it - and then, not now, think about what comes next". Condoleeza Rice

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Power of Written Words

I've spoken before about the power of oratory, and how important it is to carefully choose our words. I want to take this subject a step further, and look at the power of the written word. We know that the spoken word can move the soul and bring about profound change, but so can the written word, if we give it a chance.

The above video is a beautiful example of the power of words. Changing the words on the piece of cardboard was simple and subtle, and shows that you don't have to be 'complicated' or 'clever'; just using the right words in the right way is sufficient. There is power in the word. The written word throughout history has been used to express personal thought, comment on specific situations, and promote a variety of ideologies.

I'm currently dipping in and out of a book of poems called, 'War Poems', edited by Brian Busby. The poems are all about peoples' view of war, or their personal experience of war throughout the centuries. There's power in the word. One such powerful poem is by Leslie Coulsen, called "Who made the law?". Leslie Coulsen was a respected Fleet Street journalist before he enlisted in the First World War, and he died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While on active duty he wrote this poem, the first verse of which reads;

"Who made the Law that men should die in meadows?
Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains?
Who made the Law?"

Don't you think there's power in words?

Some of the finest pieces of written work have come about because the authors have been incarcerated, and therefore prevented from pursuing the spoken word. Any list of favourite, profound and influential works coming while the writers were in prison, has to be a personal choice, and I won't argue with anyone who has a different list. But the following are my favourite examples of the power of the written word.

Long Walk to Freedom - for striving for equality in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his friends were imprisoned. After a 27 year sentence, he published his autobiography, most of which was written secretly while in prison. The book details his early life, adulthood, education, time in prison, and rise to power. There's power in his words, as the iniquities within South Africa are laid bare. Nelson Mandela would also be in my list of all time heroes.

Letters and Papers from Prison - Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a participant in the German resistance movement, and a Church leader during the period of Nazi Germany. In 1943 he was arrested in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and was executed two years later. These letters and papers remain influential in the role against tyranny and genocide, and the book can be read through Google Books.

De Profundis - Oscar Wilde was an influential poet who lived in the late 1800's. He was arrested for indecency with other men and sentenced to two years hard labour. During this time, he wrote 'De Profundis', a letter to his then lover. For its haunting words and lyricism, this is one of the most famous works that was written in prison. You can read the letter here. The final paragraph reads,

"All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature,whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole".

Letter from Birmingham Jail - Martin Luther King Jr wrote this letter from prison on the 16th April 1963. He was the most influential of civil rights leaders in America. After planning a non-violent protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, he was arrested and imprisoned. The American Constitution upheld freedom for all, unless you were black, and this is what King fought and died for, equality. This letter, which you can read here, is a passionate and reasoned response to the criticism of others that the protests were 'untimely' and that they should 'wait'. King wrote the historic phrase, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". The letter also includes these moving and powerful words.

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you go forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience”.

Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan - you may, or may not be religiously inclined, but in its day, this was one of the most famous books written in prison. John Bunyan was a 17th Century non-conformist preacher, born in 1628 and died in 1688. At a time when the power of the Anglican Church was at its height, John was arrested for preaching without a licence, and sentenced to a few months in jail, which was later extended to 12 years because he refused to stop preaching. It was while in prison in Bedford that he wrote Pilgrim's Progress, which chronicles the progress of the Christian everyman from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. This is a powerful piece of imagery, as I say, whether you are religious or not.

The Purgatory of Suicides -  born in 1805 in Leicester, Thomas Cooper, in the early 1840's became a leading light in the Midlands for Chartism. This was a belief in the need for political and social reform in the United Kingdom. He came strongly to embrace "The Six Points of the People's Charter" which was published in 1838. He travelled extensively to promote the need for reform. After speaking around Stoke on Trent in 1842, a riot broke out, which Thomas Cooper was blamed for, and he was charged with 'seditious conspiracy', and sentenced to spend over two years in Stafford jail. While there, he wrote what must be the most epic of poems to ever come out of a prison, "The Purgatory of Suicides - a Prison Rhyme".

The poem is in 10 books, with well over 900, nine line stanzas (called Spenserian), where he seeks to outline the cause of Chartism, and embodying the radical ideas of his time. A remarkable piece of work which you can read here. But a warning, you'll need time and patience to read it - but it's worth the effort. A few years after it had been out of print, he was asked for permission for it to be re-issued. At first he was reluctant, because his life had changed, and he had the fear of being reminded of past errors. However, in the end he did agree, and in the 'Address to the Reader', he spoke of those things that were still important to him.

"I hold that the great cause of Human Freedom and Human Right demands that I do not help to consign my 'Prison-Rhyme' to oblivion. The oppression of the Poor drove me to champion their cause, and consigned me to gaol; but the power of Oppression could not subdue me, and I must take care that the fact is preserved as a lesson to Oppressors in the Future". Speaking of the poem, he says, "It does not contain one line of aspiration for Liberty which I would destroy - for my heart, thank God beats as strongly for Human Freedom in my age, as it beat in my youth". Don't you just love the power of words?

So there you have it. People with something real, meaningful and powerful to say will not be stopped by prison walls or anything else. I may well be guilty of harking back to an age gone by, but I can't help feeling that in this present age of sound-bites, speeches and articles made for an impatient media and public, that we have lost something. I hope I'm wrong, and that we haven't lost the belief in the power of words to bring about change. The above people, and many others, are examples of what can be done through the power of words.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Band Stand Treat

Nottingham Arboretum Band Stand
I received a text this afternoon from a dear friend of mine, who was taking a break and enjoying the sunshine in their garden. I was asked what was I doing? I was sheltering under a tree (non too successfully by the end) in the Arboretum, while listening to a brass band concert from the Band Stand. There were other hardy souls sitting on provided seats, sheltering under their umbrellas. Picture above to prove it. My friend texted back to tell me to go home, and stop being an eejit by being out in the rain (eejit is Irish pronunciation for idiot). Only a true friend can get away with that. But, my friend was not taking into account the fact that we music buffs are prepared to suffer for our art. Though to be fair, after an hour of being rained upon, eejit, may be a reasonable description.

According to someone sharing my tree (we music lovers are a gregarious lot), the band playing was the Kirkby Brass Band. I didn't ask, but I'm assuming that this is Kirkby, Ashfield in Derbyshire, and that the full name of the band is the Kirkby Colliery Welfare Band.  There's been a brass band in Kirkby since 1897, when its members consisted mainly of surface workers and office staff from the local mine. This band broke up in 1924. In common with many other bands it has seen highs, lows, closures and new beginnings. The present band incarnation, though not necessarily its members, was born in 1949, and it had great success in band competitions during the 1990's. They were very pleasant to listen to this afternoon, playing a mixture of traditional marching music; music from the shows and arrangements of songs from the likes of The Carpenters.

According to Nigel Horne on his website, "How to write for Brass Bands", the basic brass band has 25-26 brass players with 2 or 3 percussionists. They are, 1 Soprano cornet; 10 Cornets; 1 Flugelhorn; 3 Tenor horns; 2 Baritones; 2 Tenor trombones; 1 Bass trombone; 2 Euphoniums; 2 E Basses; 2 B Basses and Percussion. For the musical purists among you, here's a quote from another website, "With the exception of the trombones, all of the brass are conical-bore instruments, which gives the British-style brass band its distinctive bright, mellow sound (as opposed to a dark symphonic sound). All parts apart from the Bass Trombone are now written in Treble Clef".

Black Dyke Mill
Let's move on to others in the world of brass bands. The Black Dyke Band was formerly known as the Black Dyke Mills Band, and is one of the oldest, best known and, with due respect to Kirkby, finest bands in the world.

The original name was after the Black Dyke Mill in Queensbury, West Yorkshire, a company owned by John Foster. He was a French horn player, who joined with others to form a small band in 1816. This folded after a number of years.

In 1855, Foster and other musicians established the new mill band, and kitted it out with uniforms made from the mill's own cloth. Most of the musicians in the band also worked at the mill, and this is the band that has remained active to this day. The band has been hugely popular and successful over the years, not only in brass band circles, but also in the popular music field.

The band has made over 300 recordings, including one of the first brass band recordings in 1904. In addition to working with Peter Gabriel and The Beautiful South, they released a single in September 1968 on the Beatles' Apple label. The A-side was an instrumental composed by Lennon and McCartney called 'Thingumybob', (the theme to a Yorkshire Television sitcom starring Stanley Holloway), and the B-side was a brass band instrumental version of the song 'Yellow Submarine', and was one of the first four singles released on the Apple label. In 1979, the band again worked with Paul McCartney on a track for the Wings album 'Back to the Egg'. In brass band circles, 1985 was undoubtedly their finest year. They won the Yorkshire regional; European; British Open and National Championship contests, as well as being voted BBC Band of the Year. The band have always been hugely versatile in their choice of music, and for those who may be unfamiliar with them, here are three examples out of many that show something of that versatility and musical perfection.

The first sees the Black Dyke Band playing 'Wedding Dance' at the European Championships in 2002.

The next is a fabulous arrangement of 'When the Saints go Marching In', with Paul Duffy on solo cornet, recorded at the Black Dyke Brass Festival in Leeds Town Hall on Sunday, 15th May 2011, and I defy you not to want to dance.

Lastly, the '1812 Overture', again at the Leeds Town Hall with the Yorkshire Youth Band and two other bands. The video is a bit shaky, but the music isn't. We know that the Overture has a fabulous climax, but this version is just awe-inspiring. As an aside, do take note of the magnificent pipe organ in the town hall.

Happy listening.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

A Challenge to Charities

At this moment, there are 161,848 registered charities in England and Wales. They have a combined worth of £53.2 billion, with investments of £77.7 billion.

Charities of course come in all sizes, and seek to address a vast range of issues. You have the small charity that just works in a local community such as a housing estate; those who concentrate on issues in their village or town; others who cover a larger region, on either single issues, or multiple issues; then there are the charities who cover the whole of the country. The very small charities often have no paid staff, and rely solely on volunteers, while the very large charities will have thousands of staff, and hundreds of buildings. Here's a rough idea of the breakdown by size of registered charities in England and Wales.
  • Small: income under £10,000 = 52% of charities 
  • Medium: income £10,000 - £99,999 = 31% of charities
  • Large: income £100,000 - £999,999 = 13% of charities
  • Largest: income £1 million + = 4% of charities
The vast majority of charities fall into the category of having income of less than £100,000 a year. However, whatever the size, all charities have a number of things in common. They all have a Board of Trustees who oversee the charity, and they are all required to report on their activities and financial position to the Charity Commission, under the terms of the Charities Act 2006. The ultimate responsibility within charities lies with Trustees, and not paid staff. In the last couple of weeks the Charity Commission has published two important documents. One is a research paper on public benefit, and the other is the content of a speech by the Chairperson of the Charity Commission on the subject of charity overheads.

Sheffield Hallam University were commissioned by the Charity Commission to assess how well registered charities were reporting on public benefit in their Trustees' Annual Report.

For many years, Trustees have been required by law to produce an annual report of their activities (called the Trustees' Annual Report), to accompany a statement of their annual accounts. Since 2008, there has been the requirement to report on public benefit in their Trustees' Annual Report, and for charities with over £25,000 income, these are made available for public scrutiny on the online Register of Charities.

In its analysis of the research, the Charity Commission notes that overall, charity Trustees have made progress with the new requirement. Charities with income of over £500,000 were particularly successful, with 94% partially or fully addressing public benefit in their Annual Reports. However, the research also showed that there is room for improvement, and many smaller charities are still not meeting the reporting regulations. A breakdown of the figures shows that for charities with an income of over £500K, 26% had prepared Trustees' Annual Reports (TAR's) which were awarded the highest scores of four or five, out of a maximum of five; this fell to 10% of charities with an income of between £100K and £500K; 2% of those under £100K and 2% of those under £25K. A higher number of charity TAR's were awarded a score of three or more, which meant they had at least met the basic legal requirements, but lacked clarity in some areas. This accounted for 67% of charities over £500K; 36% of those in the £100K to £500K band; 15% of those between £25K and £100K, and 13% of those under £25K.

But what is public benefit reporting? Put simply, it is about explaining:
  1. What a charity's aims are, and what it has done to carry them out
  2. Who it seeks to benefit
  3. How people have benefited
Charities are good at explaining the 'what' and the 'who', but not so good at explaining the 'how'. The 'how' outlines the impact of a charity's work.  People mostly give to charity because they believe that the charity will make a difference to peoples' lives. The public is becoming more questioning; with less money available to donate, people are looking more closely at the work of charities. Research has shown that trust in charities is not what it once was, and many more people are looking for charities to demonstrate full accountability and transparency. And this is the right thing to do.

The question to ask charities is not what are they doing, but what are they achieving? This is the 'how' people have benefited. It is easy for a charity to write down its Aims and Objectives, and to say who it seeks to work with. It can also fairly easily describe what it has provided (Outputs) to achieve those Objectives. So there is a short list of Aims; a longer list of Objectives, and a still longer list of Outputs. BUT, what difference has all of this made to the lives of the charity's beneficiaries? (Some call this Outcomes). Public benefit reporting helps to show this to the wider society. Charities can only do this, and prove it, by having a good record keeping system.

As an example; you're a charity working in the field of social care. A client turns up with a number of issues that are affecting their life. There needs to be an assessment done, so that those issues are clearly noted. This is followed by setting up a Support or Action Plan, that shows how the client, will address those issues. There needs to be regular reviews of the Action Plan, so that progress can be measured, and any other actions agreed. At the end of an agreed period, you are able to see where the client is now; where they started from, and the journey they took between the two points. Not only is this good for the client to see the progress they have made, but it is good for the charity to be able to show the difference they have made to individual lives. Donors are more likely to support a charity if they can see the outcome of the charity's work for themselves. These are the things also that can go in the Trustees' Annual Report.

As the Charity Commission says, "The Trustees' Annual report is not only a statutory requirement, it is an opportunity for charities to 'tell their story well'. As most charities will already know, funding bodies in all sectors take great interest in the impact of charities' work. Evidence of this often needs to be provided in application forms and tender bids. A clear, concise report will make this job easier for charities and their Trustees". So the message to charities, particularly the smaller ones, is that although you are required by law to show public benefit in your Trustees' Annual Report, don't see it as a burden; see it as an opportunity and a valuable exercise, that will allow you to keep the focus of your charity on your original aims. I say this as a retired Charity Chief Executive of a small to medium sized charity, who has helped Trustees to write scores of annual reports. Here's a question to sum up this subject. How would you articulate the contribution made by a charity to the lives of beneficiaries and to the wider public?

Dame Suzy Leather
On the 6th July 2011, Dame Suzy Leather, Chair of the Charity Commission spoke at a charity conference at Westminster Central Hall, where she urged charity Trustees to help the public to understand why charities can't operate on 'thin air and love alone', and that most charities can't make an impact on their beneficiaries lives without spending money on overheads.

She said that Trustees have a responsibility to educate the public about the realities of charity work, to explain how, why and with what effect the charity spends its money. But she said that many were reluctant to speak out.

"I think it's fair to say that charities sometimes feel uncomfortable about this issue. Many worry that the public simply doesn't understand how modern charities operate. Charities worry that people just don't want to understand that, for example: you can't provide effective support to young offenders without having well-qualified, full-time professionals on board. You can't provide sophisticated healthcare in remote parts of the world without accruing transport costs, security costs or paying doctors. Its not helped when charities claim that 'every penny donated goes to the cause'. Not knowing that means the administration is simply paid for in another way. The public is encouraged to believe charities can live on thin air and love alone. But here's my view: the public will never understand why charities have 'overheads' unless Trustees themselves have the courage to talk about them. Overheads are part and parcel of being effective. The public and funders aren't going to suddenly 'get it' unless it's explained to them. Charities have to construct that narrative both about effectiveness and the costs of delivering impact".

I experienced the difficulty of this over many years of work. It was not always easy to get money to go towards 'administration', because people expected that their donation would go directly to the beneficiaries. That view still prevails, and Dame Suzy Leather is correct. Without overheads there would be no organisation, and no service to beneficiaries. Without it being shown by charities, and acknowledged by the public and funders, how is the likes of rent, utilities and salaries etc going to be covered? As Dame Suzy said, "Overheads are part and parcel of being effective". Most charities that I have known over the years have kept their overheads to a minimum; they have not been an excessive percentage of overall costs, but they are part of what it takes to run an organisation for the benefit of its client group. Trustees in their work and in their reports should not be uncomfortable about this.

Dame Suzy Leather had made a suggestion a few weeks earlier that an index could be developed that shows people at a glance, what charities spend on administration, and what they spend broadly on the 'cause'. A poll run in Third Sector magazine revealed that 42% voted in favour of the suggestion, and 58% voted against. Some in the no camp, apparently felt that by raising the issue, the Charity Commission was stirring up trouble. I disagree.

There's work to be done by charities and the public alike. Charities receive both public money and money from the public, so they therefore have a duty to explain what happens to that money. The public and funders need to be in the real world also, and understand what it takes to run an effective charity.

What do both the above issues have in common? The need for charity Trustees to demonstrate full accountability and transparency to supporters and the public. While I believe that some charities have taken on the work that should have been provided by Government, there is no doubt that the world would be a poorer place without the charity sector.

Friday, 8 July 2011

What's your perfect evening?

Paul Ricard
A perfect evening for me is a night of music in a pub, with a good pint of Robin Hood Ale, followed by a quality single malt. If that music is jazz, then so much the better, and if that jazz is played on the piano and sung by a gifted musician, then 'beam me up Scotty', I'm ready to go where the angels fly.

Such a night was last night at the Test Match pub, listening again to a solo performance from Paul Ricard. It was also a night of celebration for Paul's wife, as it was her birthday, and she'd just won a major research grant from the University. As I was with someone who knew them well, I was included in the round of champagne, which is not my favourite drink, but hey, a free drink is a free drink - I actually ended up drinking two glasses, so I can only assume that I must have nicked a drink belonging to someone else. Shame on me, and my apologies.

I've posted a comment about Paul and the Midland Jazz Connexion here before, but dare I say that I almost prefer the solo performance, though I love the trio as well. The choice of music covers a range of era's and genre, but all given an unmistakable style. There's standard jazz classics, blues, latin and arrangements of the likes of Eric Clapton songs. I was particularly moved by songs sung in French - what is it about the French language that can produce goose pimples? Paul also writes his own pieces, and I was glad to hear again his 'Paris Blues'. Talking at the interval about McCoy Tyner, I was delighted that Paul said he would play the solo piano version of Tyner's 'Contemplation'. I also so much enjoyed his arrangements of 'St Louis Blues', 'Ol' Man River', and 'Summertime'. If you're unfamiliar with Paul and his work, make a start by clicking on the video below, where he plays his 'Paris Blues', and is being interviewed in Nottingham.

Coming home at the end of the evening, I couldn't help but think about some of the songs that Paul played, and their place in musical history. The choice of favourite versions and performers from the past will always invoke debate, but that's what free speech and free thinking is all about. So, let me give a brief comment on four pieces played by Paul, and post a clip of my favourite version and performer.

St Louis Blues is one of the oldest Blues pieces (arguably having almost started the Blues genre), composed by W.C. Handy and published in 1914. The list of performers who have included this piece in their repertoire is a veritable who's who in the music industry. My favourite version? This has got to be Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong from 1925.

Contemplation by McCoy Tyner is the second track on his 1967 album, "The Real McCoy". Tyner took up the piano at the age of 13, and in his later teens befriended the legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. By the age of 20 he was the first pianist to join Benny Golson's Jazztet. He introduced African rhythms and unusual scales to his improvisations, and in the view of many, he revolutionised the jazz world. The clip below is just wonderful.

Ol' Man River was written for the musical, 'Showboat' in the second version of 1936, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. The musical was about racism and love, and the theme has endured to this day. While the version of the song by William Warfield is extraordinarily powerful, I have to pick Paul Robeson as my favourite performer. He was already a well known singer and actor when he played the main role in the musical and later in a film. That rich voice just ouses pathos as he sings about the life of a slave. Try to listen to the words, some of which were changed from the original version.

Summertime is a song from the 1935 opera, Porgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. For years, this has been my favourite song of all time, whether as a song or instrumental piece. As a song there can be no better performance than that given by Ella Fitzgerald. However, my favourite of all is an instrumental version that brings moistness to my eyes just writing about it. It's by Larry Adler (harmonica) and Itzhak Perlman (violin). This was a performance given on the Michael Parkinson show in 1980 - incidentally, Parky was the finest chat show there's ever been, and I still miss it. Marvel at the exquisite playing of these fantastic performers.

I've given you a lot to listen to, but you don't have to do it all in one go. I'm sharing with you some of my passion, and what's the point of having passion if it can't be shared with others?

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Where are the jobs?

Nottingham Post Wednesday 6th July 2011
I wouldn't like to be living in Nottingham today and looking to find work. Yesterday, the Nottingham Post ran an article on unemployment in the City, which to put it mildly was depressing. This is at a time when the Coalition Government seem determined to demonise the unemployed, using the mantra, "Off benefits and into work". There are threats to peoples' benefits if they don't get a job. But, where are the jobs?

I was fortunate to have started work in a different age. In the 1960's I moved to Birmingham without having a job first - can you imagine doing that now? I went to the Labour Exchange (forerunner of the Job Centre Plus) the day after moving, and a week later I'd started work. I was told of two vacancies and asked which one I wanted. There was no interview; I was just told when and where to start work. Halcyon days indeed.

But what of now? Professor Bruce Stafford of the University of Nottingham said that unemployed people today were worse off in real value, than they were in the 1970's. "For a single person in 1971, the benefit that they were receiving was worth 21% of average earnings. In April 2009 it was worth 11%".

With Job Seekers Allowance paying £52 a week, this is why people are looking for work. But where are the jobs? The Post article is about numbers of vacancies at Job Centre Plus offices, and the numbers of people actively seeking work. To put this in context, it should be noted that vacancies on the Job Centre database is about one third of current vacancies (so we're told). Even so, the Job Centre comparison is valid to getting an overall picture of the jobs position in Nottingham.

The national picture is that for every job advertised in the Job Centre, there are 6 unemployed people looking for work. In Nottingham, the average across the City is 9.5 people, which when compared to last years figures (4.8 people) shows that Nottingham's job market has deteriorated faster than places such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool. It is also currently considerably higher than Newcastle, Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.

The average figure in Nottingham is high mainly due to the figures for Nottingham North (27.9 people for every vacancy, compared to 11.8 last year), and Gedling (19.1 people for every vacancy, compared to 6.5 last year). Amber Valley and Bassetlaw are the only two areas out of 13 districts that have shown an improvement on last year. As the Post says, "There are a number of possible reasons why some areas have more unemployed people per job vacancy than others".

Low skills and lack of qualifications, the collapse of public sector jobs, as well as a lack of vacancies at big companies and in the construction sector are some of the reasons put forward. Almost 25% of residents in Nottingham North have no qualifications, and lower skilled jobs are often the first to go in a recession. The area also has a much higher than average proportion of the population claiming Incapacity Benefit, some of whom have been transferred to Job Seekers Allowance following Government reassessments. Some single parents have also been transferred from lone parent payments to Job Seekers Allowance. All of these reassessments contribute to higher levels of people now claiming Job Seekers Allowance.

Gedling is another good example of how to interpret some of the figures. The number of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance has only risen by about 300, but the number of Job Centre vacancies has dropped by more than 50%. The ending of the Future Jobs Fund has affected figures throughout the country, even though this Fund only created temporary jobs. This will be replaced by the Work Programme, but as this seems to be payment by results, organisations taking part in it will probably not gamble on those who have been out of work for a long time, but focus on those that may seem to be a safer bet to get into work. Another of the problems, particularly in the public sector, is that employers such as the borough and county councils, police and fire service have a recruitment freeze on to save money.

Let's take a closer look at the figures. According to the Post, in May 2010 there were 2,384 unfilled positions at Job Centres across the City, compared to 1,379 in May 2011. On the surface this looks good. However, the number of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance has also increased by more than 1,200 people over the year, bringing the total across the City to more than 13,000 in May 2011. Even if it's true that Job Centres deal with about one third of the vacancies, we still have 1,379 x 3 = 4,137 vacancies, with 13,000 people actively seeking work. I agree with Nottingham North MP Graham Allen when he says, "These figures are both shocking and damning in equal amounts". He is also right to say that for each person competing for the vacancy, there is a whole family that will be struggling to just get by.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that behind every statistic, there is a human being. For every one person who misuses the system, there are thousands who simply want to get a job, to earn money, and have the freedom that this brings. It is typical Government action, when to deal with corruption by the few, they punish the innocent majority, instead of going after the few. The Post highlighted the stories of three people in their search for work. All were qualified in one way or the other; hairdressing, childcare and libraries. All send off about 20 applications a week, for any job going, and all say that they never hear anything back, not even a rejection note. As one said, "It makes you feel like giving up and just forgetting about it, but we won't do it, we can't do that, but it's very frustrating". Well done to her for that attitude.

This highlights one of my grievances. I was involved in recruitment for many years, and though it costs money and time, the one thing that I always insisted on is that every one who applied for a job, should get a reply. It's how I would want to be treated, so that's how we should treat others. Not to do so is disgusting and unprofessional, even if it is standard practice. The Government are getting rid of Local Development Agencies, which is not a good sign for future prosperity, even if they are replacing them with something else. Here's another example of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Some LDA's have not worked, but Nottinghamshire's has, so why get rid of the successful ones along with the failed ones? This drives me mad.

The future doesn't look great for jobs, but I hope I'm wrong. Through no fault of their own, thousands of people in the City of Nottingham are without work and receiving Benefits. This is the reality for Government to understand, and to ensure that unemployment benefit is at a level that people can live with. Stop demonising all unemployed people; the vast majority want to work, but where are the jobs?

Debt? - no debt

In an earlier blog here, I mentioned a demand from BT, through a Debt Recovery Agency for £78 on an alleged unpaid telephone bill.

In the middle of March I challenged this demand, proving that the bill was for a period after I had left my previous address on the South Coast.

Nearly four months later I had heard nothing, and being the sort of person who doesn't like loose ends, I wrote to the Debt Recovery Agency last week to ask what was going on.

I received a reply in the post this morning which said, "We confirm that we are no longer instructed in relation to the above account and our file has been closed".

Yes.Success. Shame that I had to chase up the decision, but very pleased none the less. To all those people who were originally in touch with me over this, I thank you, and it's with you that I share this result. To others who may get into a similar position, if you believe you're in the right, don't ever give up.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Thought and Exploration through Books

"A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear that it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy". - Edward P Morgan

I have enjoyed reading other Blogs when the contributors mention books that have been of interest to them, or have been influential in their lives. I thought that I would indulge myself by mentioning a number of books that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading. They have either been recently read by me, or are currently being read. Be not afraid, my comments will be brief.

The Likes of Us by Michael Collins is a study of the white working class, particularly in and around Southwark, South East London. It was first published in 2004, and though I've had it for a number of years, it was only recently that I decided to read it. I thought that it was going to be one thing, but it turned out to be another.

Collins believes that the white working class have been demonised over the years, and this book seeks to correct what he sees as slurs and caricatures. The book is Collins' journey into his family history in South East London, and he discovers that social researchers and religious missionaries from other classes have always descended to study, influence, patronise and politicise the white working class.

Collins is unsympathetic to those who descended among them and only spent time focusing on squalor, hooliganism and crime. He is supportive of studies such as 'Across the Bridge' by Alexander Paterson in 1911. For Collins, the white working class is about family, work and community, not gang warfare, murder and flute-playing philosophers. He agrees with Paterson that the riches to be found within these districts lie in the natural goodness of most of the inhabitants. It is a controversial book in many ways, but it is quite an original examination of the past, present and future of London's white working class. It is a subject that should not be ignored.

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming is a novel. It takes its starting point the story of the Cambridge Five; Kim Philby, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and John Cairncross, who while studying at Trinity College, Cambridge in the 1930's were all recruited by Moscow Centre as agents of the Soviet NKVD.

To quote from the book's dust jacket, "Hard-up Russia expert Dr Sam Gaddis finally has a lead for a book that could set his career back on track. He has staggering new information about an unknown sixth member of the infamous Cambridge spy ring - a man who has evaded detection for his entire life. But when his source suddenly dies, Gaddis is left with the shreds of his investigation, and no idea that he is already in too deep. He is threatened, betrayed, hunted - and alone. To get his life back, he must scour a continent still laced with lies to find the truth behind the Trinity Six".

Charles Cumming, in 1995 was approached for recruitment by the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), and is well placed to be talking about spies and dark secrets. The book is wonderfully enthralling, and had me on the edge of my seat, not wanting to put it down. As someone said, "It is a brilliant re-imagining of events surrounding the notorious Cambridge spy-ring". If you like Le Carre and Deighton, you will love Charles Cumming.

Seamus Heaney selected these poems himself. He was born in 1939 in Bellaghy, Northern Ireland, and has lived in Dublin for many years. The list of awards he has received is truly astounding. To many, he is "the most important Irish poet since Yeats", and that he is "the greatest poet of our age".

The critic W.S. Di Piero said, "Whatever the occasion, childhood, farm life, politics and culture in Northern Ireland, other poets past and present, Heaney strikes time and again at the taproot of language, examining its genetic structures, trying to discover how it has served, in all its changes, as a culture bearer, a world to contain imaginations, at once a rhetorical weapon and nutriment of spirit. He writes of these matters with rare discrimination and resourcefulness, and a winning impatience with received wisdom".

Heaney's books make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in the UK. This book of selected poems was first published in 1990, and is a great introduction to the work of Heaney. I love what might be called his raw power, and I'm always impressed by his 'strikes at the taproot of language' as he addresses the issues of Northern Ireland. One of my favourite poems in the book is from his work, "Whatever you say say nothing". (page 78). The final stanza of which reads,

"Is there life before death? That's chalked up
In Ballymurphy. Competence with pain,
Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,
We hug our little destiny again".

Bedlam by Catharine Arnold, will not be to everyone's taste. It is a history of London's treatment of its insane through the centuries. It is a fascinating book. I am interested in the subject because I spent 25 years working with people with mental ill-health, some very severely so. I have not worked in Institutions, but I have visited patients in many of them. My involvement in mental health was in the community, following the disastrous policy of Care in the Community in the late 1980's, where Mental Health Institutions were closed down, and patients disgorged onto the streets. As Catharine Arnold says,

"The mad have always been with us. Bethlehem Hospital, or 'Bedlam' as it became in cockney slang, is the world's oldest psychiatric hospital. Founded in 1247 it developed from a ramshackle hovel to the magnificent 'Palace Beautiful', where visitors could pay to gawp at the chained inmates, through to the great Victorian hospital in Lambeth, now the Imperial War Museum".

The hospital was featured in a 1940's horror movie called 'Bedlam', starring Boris Karloff. The book is really well written and documents treatments, horrors and the reforming zeal of many. As Catharine Arnold says to close her introduction, "Mental illness is no respecter of persons; we are all vulnerable, ourselves and those close to us. This is why this book is for all whose lives are touched by madness".

On a much lighter note, Thanks for Nothing by Jack Dee is the story of part of his life. If you don't know, or like Jack Dee, then this book is probably not for you. If like me, you adore his style of comedy, it is an absolute delight.

You get a feel for what's coming by reading the Acknowledgments. For Instance: "No thanks to the following, My editor Susanna Wadeson - God, what a pain she was. The photographer - forgotten his name already. Anyway, he was rubbish. Made me look like I'd put on weight. Pete Sinclair - worse than useless. Next time don't bother. But most of all, I must fail to thank my wife and children for their total lack of patience and understanding while I was writing this. Without them I would have got it done miles quicker".

In the book, Jack answers the question, "So how did you get started in comedy then?" He reveals the highs and lows of his early life and disastrous day jobs.

As the cover to the book says, "You don't just wake up jaundiced and bitter; it's taken years of dedication and commitment to brew his unique cocktail of disillusionment and bile". This is a book that gave me many laughs.

The Man Who Invented The Third Reich by Stan Lauryssens tells a story from a perspective that was new to me. When we think of the Third Reich, we think of Hitler, but we are not always aware of the events that led up to Hitler's rise to infamy.

The man who invented the Third Reich was in fact one Arthur Moeller van den Bruck.  He was a prolific writer, historian, art critic, translator and publisher. In the turbulent years that followed the end of the First World War, he became politically active as the leader of the young conservative revolutionaries in Weimar Germany. He expressed his ideas for a German authoritarian state in his major work Das Dritte Reich (The Third Reich), which was first published in 1923.

Adolf Hitler was profoundly influenced by the ideas in the book, and regarded himself as the activist who would implement them. As Moeller van den Bruck watched Hitler become the personification of the violent dynamism he had recommended in his book, he anticipated the horrors to come and saw no way out but to commit suicide.

This is a remarkable biography that gives compelling insight into the tragic life of Moeller van den Bruck, and uses personal testimonies from contemporaries such as Kafka, Edvard Munch, Marlene Dietrich, Nietzsche and Hitler himself to explore the political and artistic whirlpools of Weimar Germany in which they lived.

Beauty & Atrocity by Joshua Levine. I have read many books over the years about the troubles in Northern Ireland, and I can say without hesitation that this is the most interesting, and satisfying of them all.

Joshua Levine had never been to Northern Ireland before he flew into Belfast in the autumn of 2008 to begin a journey. To quote from the first page, "I was in Belfast to try to discover what the Troubles had been about. I wanted to find out the history behind them, and in order to do that I wanted to meet the people who had lived through them, those who had suffered, and those who had caused the suffering.

I wanted to know why people had behaved as they did, how representative they had been, and whether they now try to justify their actions. And I wanted a sense of the future, of whether Northern Ireland is moving beyond the Troubles".

In the following 354 pages we are taken on a journey across both sides of the divide, listening to the stories of many people. It is their stories that make this book so special. There really is Beauty & Atrocity in the story of people, politics and Ireland's fight for peace. There is still a minority who cling to the view that they have to bomb the British out of Ireland and bring in a united Ireland, and the sobering truth is that it only takes one to plant a bomb.

However, what comes over very clearly in the book, is that the vast majority of people, whatever their political aspirations, are determined to make the peace process work, and that there should be no return to the days of violence. This is a gripping and moving book; one which I heartily recommend.

"If you resist reading what you disagree with, how will you ever acquire deeper insights into what you believe? The things most worth reading are precisely those that challenge our convictions".

That's enough about books for now. I must get to bed and start reading a biography of Chopin by Adam Zamoyski.