Monday, 29 August 2011

Support your local ......

Up the alley on the left
What are your views on local, independent retailers? It struck me again the other day, that apart from the Hockley area, the centre of Nottingham seems to have very few of them left. In my area of West Bridgford, we lost our one independent bookseller last year.

Two things have made me think again about the place of local, independent retailers. A few months ago another Tesco Express shop opened, this time on Maid Marian Way, and in the last ten days, a new Sainsbury's Local opened on the edge of the Lace Market, just a few yards away from another Tesco.

The second thing that made me think was a visit to the Classical CD Music Shop on High Pavement, just opposite the Pitcher & Piano Pub. I'd set aside a few pounds to buy some Chopin music, and for that money I was delighted to come away with three CD's, at very reasonable prices, which I'm playing as I'm typing this. One of the CD's is Chopin's 24 Preludes, played by Arthur Rubinstein, which according to the man in the shop that I spoke to is the best interpretation of the Preludes in existence. That's why you should use local and independent shops - friendliness and knowledge of the subject.

I wonder how many people visiting Nottingham (or indeed live in Nottingham) and walking up and down High Pavement will know of this shop's existence? As can be seen from the picture above, it's situated down a none too pleasant alleyway, but at the end of September it will be moving a few hundred yards into the shopping area of Hockley. They also provide an Internet ordering service. I was pleased to hear that their future looked bright. This however is not the case with many local, independent retailers up and down the country in rural and urban areas.

The issue has been of concern for a number of years, but the problem has yet to be resolved, and around 2,000 local shops are still disappearing every year, with the British Retail Consortium saying that up to 12% of high street shops are currently vacant for a variety of reasons. In preparing this blog, I have read a number of interesting reports and campaign documents, such as 'The London Small Shops Study 2010';  the House of Commons All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group report called, 'High Street Britain: 2015'; the Evening Standard's 'Save our Small Shops' campaign from 2007, and the Friends of the Earth campaign launched in the same year, 'Shop Local First'.

In support of independent retailers, The Independent Retailers Confederation says that they "provide added value which goes much wider than the purely economic. For example, small local shops allow many people to shop locally on foot, reducing carbon emissions created by driving to distant out-of-town stores; the services they provide are crucial to their local communities, often allowing the elderly to remain in their own homes rather than having to move to residential accommodation". To the Retail Enterprise Network, "small retailers are especially important to the disadvantaged consumer. In deprived areas where private and public transport links are poor, the local community relies on local shops to cater for their needs".

Friends of the Earth listed the following benefits;
  • Local shops are more likely to provide local food that hasn't been flown halfway across the world
  • Local shops offer a much m ore personal service than big supermarkets
  • Local shops keep money circulating in the local area, so they support other local businesses
  • Local shops and street markets often offer better value than bigger supermarkets for fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Local shops are more energy efficient than huge supermarkets
  • A diverse range of local shops provides more choice than the big supermarket
In addition, small shops can add distinctiveness to town centres. According to the Retail Enterprise Network, "On many of the UK's high streets they add diversity to what is becoming an increasingly bland retailing landscape for shoppers. Town centre are beginning to replicate each other with identical retail brands emerging in every major district". The British Consortium of Shopping Centres agrees with this, stating that niche retailers from premium to local value shops "add real colour to the retail landscape benefiting entire shopping places".

So there is a huge groundswell of support for the presence of local, independent shops in our communities. If this is the case, why are so many still struggling or going out of business? No doubt the reasons are many and complex, and Government studies, as well as independent ones focus on addressing some of these reasons.

Various investigations have tended to focus on;
  • planning
  • crime
  • retail competition from large chains
  • parking and transport
  • local taxes and rent
Keeping the giants out has been the decision of Rutland County Council, where they have refused a Sainsbury's planning application for a new store in Oakham. The leader of the Council says that he doesn't want this thriving market town to lose its local identity, and become a 'ghost town' like Grantham just twenty miles away. This is one way to address the issue. Ensuring that there are affordable rents for small outlets, and adequate, affordable parking are other ways. However, in all of the reports and campaigns I read, there is one thing that is rarely highlighted, or talked about in depth. It's as if its a given, and doesn't need mentioning. I'm talking about what retail analists call 'footfall'. That's people (you and me) actually visiting, and spending money at local, independent shops. If we don't, we have no right to lament their demise.

I understand that when money is tight, and budgets are small, that every penny counts, but perhaps there are times when believing in something necessitates small sacrifices. Some will remember a few years ago when Post Office's were under threat of closure, there was a well known slogan that went, "Use it or Lose it". It unfortunately didn't save that many Post Office's that were ear marked for closure, but the slogan's principle was correct. If we don't use local, independent shops, then there is the danger of losing them.

I've tended to use large retail outlets in the past for convenience, and much of the time for price. Quality has been a secondary consideration. Relying on public transport, and carrying heavy goods means that it's not always easy to 'shop around'. I understand the difficulty. But I don't want the 'Tescoisation' of our high streets, whether in city, town or village. I'm going to try my hardest to do as much shopping as posssible in my local, independent shops. These will have to provide goods that have quality, and are by and large reasonably priced (even if a bit dearer than the chains). The shops should offer a friendly and knowledgable service, for if they don't, why should anyone go to them?

Let's join with those who buck the trend, and "Support your local ......", and save our small shops.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Obesity - a big problem

The media, and health professionals are in full Armageddon mode following a recent series of articles in the Lancet medical journal on the subject of obesity.

The BBC, and all of the major daily newspapers have extensively covered the subject. For the sake of anyone who has been away from TV, radio, phones and newspapers for the last 20 years, let's remind ourselves of what obesity is, and how it is calculated.

It is basically carrying too much body fat for your height and sex. The system used to calculate it, and which is accepted across the world, is what is termed, your Body Mass Index (BMI). This is your height to weight ratio, which is calculated as a score. Any score of 30 and above means that you are classified as being obese. Now let me put my cards on the table here. In a recent, regular health check, my BMI turned out to be 31.32 which classes me as obese. I should resist the temptation to say that I feel my problem is not being overweight, but under-tall - but that is far too flippant, and unworthy, but I couldn't resist saying it. I need to lose about one stone to take me out of the obese category. The rest of my health check was fine, but statistically I am in the obese camp.

Nobody, walking around any village, town or city in the country could fail to see that too many children, young people and adults have a weight problem. In the Guardian last week, Peter Walker commenting on one of the Lancet studies by Claire Wang, said that "based on around 20 years of historic data, the study says that by 2030 as many as 48% of British men could be obese, as against 26% now, and for women, the figure could rise from 26% up to 43%". The future forecast is an extrapolation of the past, and may not be quite as bad, but if the historic trend continues, the UK could have 26 million obese people, up 11 million on the current figure. Whatever the actual future figures may be, nobody can be in any doubt that obesity is a major health problem in our society - as it is in many other parts of the developed world. Many British people have historically taken great delight in making fun of the size of many Americans, but we now have nothing to laugh at, as we have the same problem on our own doorstep.

An area highlighted by many health professionals is the health consequences of obesity. These cover type 2 diabetes, heart disease and a shorter than average life expectancy. The consequences are serious, but somehow the message is getting lost in all of the rhetoric.

In an on-line Daily Mail article last week by Daniel Martin, the headline read, "Obesity crisis in UK drives up the price of diabetes drugs by 40%". It went on to say that diabetes drugs now account for 8.4% of the NHS medicines bill, costing taxpayers £725 million, which is 41% up on that which was spent in 2005/06. According to Daniel Martin, "most of the rise is down to the treatment of type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity and unhealthy lifestyles". Apparently, one in every 25 prescription items now dispensed is for diabetes.

To one of the Lancet's contributors (Professor Boyd Swinburn), there is a clear primary culprit: a powerful global food industry "which is producing more processed, affordable, and effectively-marketed food than ever before". He went on to say that an "increased supply of cheap, palatable, energy-dense foods, coupled with better distribution and marketing has led to passive overconsumption". This was perhaps highlighted in a BBC news report where a Mother was being interviewed. She may well have been talking about a well known frozen food chain when she said, "You can buy a pack of oven chips for £1, and a Pizza for £1.75 - that's a meal for my family for under £3".

We don't have to spend any longer on the problem. The question now under consideration is the more thorny one of what to do about it. Some press for the importance of personal responsibility here, while others are looking for Government intervention. Still others see it as a combination of the two. In a Guardian article last July, Denis Campbell took the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley to task on two fronts. He pointed out Mr Lansley's oft-repeated pledge in opposition that he would encourage greater personal responsibility as a form of preventative medicine, but that little has been heard of that promise since. He also questioned whether his reliance on partnerships with industry bodies to voluntarily tackle the problem was sufficient. To Denis Campbell, "Changing people's behaviour requires much more than deals with supermarket giants, healthy food vouchers and pleas for more willpower in people's lifestyle choices".

Those that advocate strong Government intervention will take heart from another of the Lancet's studies by Steven Gortmaker from Harvard University's school of public health, when he lists eight cost-effective policies to deal with the problem. Most of them focus on shielding children from TV advertising, or ensuring they exercise more. At the top of the list is a proposed tax on unhealthy food and drink. How you practically 'shield' and 'ensure' is another matter. Advocates for strong Government action point to Wales and Scotland as examples of pursuing adventurous things. Wales may well ban smoking in cars when there are children present, and Scotland ,with the recent SNP landslide, will look to introduce a minimum price per unit for alcohol. I don't have too much of a problem with the Welsh idea, but what next? A smoking ban in homes where there are children? And how will that be monitored? An army of snoopers, or children encouraged to grass up their parents? The current smoking regulations in vehicles, or the use of mobile phones can't be managed, why should we expect anything different from an extension?

I think that too many people are coming up with ideas without thinking them through. One thing though that I am absolutely against is using taxation as a form of social control. There are two reasons for this, one is that it punishes everyone, and two, it doesn't work. Excessive tax on tobacco has not stopped smoking; excessive tax on alcohol has not stopped binge drinking: excessive tax on fuel has not driven cars off the road. What makes people think that excessive tax on unhealthy food and drink will make people stop buying those products?

In my opinion, Government can do something by working together with people. The current NHS bill for dealing with the effects of obesity is enormous, and as we've seen, will rise exponentially over the next two decades. In line with encouraging better food to be more affordable, why not allocate money to regional pilot areas to work with the worst affected individuals and families to address their 'obesity time bomb'? And please, don't tell me it can't be afforded.

I don't agree with everything that Denis Campbell says in his Guardian article, but I agree with this. "Why are there not, for example, Department of Health funded pilots of teams of visitors, dietitians and psychologists working together intensively with individuals or families to help them to start leading the healthier lives many would surely prefer? That would constitute integrated care and preventative health". Social control through taxation is not the answer, but intensive work as above has got to be worth a shot, and as Denis Campbell says, it "might just work".

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Nottingham Council House

Central Stairway
One of central Nottingham's most iconic sights is the 200 foot high dome of the Council House.

Yesterday afternoon I took advantage of the opportunity to turn up, and have a tour of the Council House. I was the only one there at the 3.00pm tour slot, with a larger group due at 3.30pm. I was offered a whistle-stop tour, or I could wait and join the other group for a longer tour. I chose the whistle-stop option, and set off with my own personal tour guide.

She was humorous, down to earth and extremely informative. Though at times it felt like a supermarket trolley dash, I saw everything that there was to see, and learnt much about this magnificent building. The picture above sets the tone for what awaits you. As you enter the building through large bronze doors, you are met with the 'take your breath away' sight of the main staircase, with its columns and floors made from the finest Italian marble, and the floor being an inlaid mosaic of the city's coat of arms. At the top of the first flight is a statue called "The Spirit of Welcome", which was a gift to the city from Sir Julian Cahn. Apparently, though the dress looks a bit pitted, this is the impact of the finest lace being placed on it as the bronze statue was being finished. In the right hand corner you see the 200 year old Town Bell from Weekday Cross (around where the Nottingham Contemporary stands now) which was rung to announce executions, which took place outside what is now the Galleries of Justice.
Opening by the Prince of Wales
Let's go back for a moment to the time before it all began. Even up to the 1920's, Nottingham had a reputation for having some of the worst slum housing in the UK (Ray Gosling, in a BBC programme about Nottingham and Leicester in 1963 said he was 'shocked' by what he saw in The Meadows, describing it as having "some of the worst slums in the country").

But the 1920's were truly bad, and the area where the Exchange Arcade now stands was a bit like 'The Shambles' in York, only bigger, with retailers of every sort. The regeneration of central Nottingham in the 1920's seemed to encompass at least two main visions. One was a major slum clearance programme to improve the living conditions of residents, and the other was to construct a municipal building of sheer opulence. A new council house seems to be the brainchild of the then Mayor of Nottingham (note, not Lord Mayor, as this title didn't come about until 1928), and was designed by the architect Cecil Howitt. The new building was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1929. Let me mention one thing from each of the four floors that I visited, and which impressed me hugely.

Exchange Arcade Dome
The ground floor of the building is predominantly an upmarket shopping mall called Exchange Arcade, and was included in the building's design to help fund the construction of the Council House. Very forward thinking to my mind.

Looking up into the dome, you can see four murals depicting different parts of Nottingham's history, and painted by a local artist, Denholm Davis. On one of the upper floors, I could look out on to a small balcony and see these murals much closer.

The murals depict the following;
  1. The Danes capturing Nottingham in 868 AD
  2. William the Conqueror ordering the building of the castle in 1068
  3. Robin Hood and his Merry Men
  4. King Charles 1 raising his standard at the start of the Civil War in 1642
The interesting thing about it is that the artist used local celebrities as models. So the building's architect, Cecil Howitt appears in the guise of William the Conqueror's surveyor, and some say that the legendary Notts County goalkeeper, Albert Iremonger appears as Little John. The murals are very stunning. While looking at these, the bell chimed the quarter hour. I was told that the bell was called Little John, was a tone and a half lower than Big Ben in London, and can be heard for up to seven miles away. Now that was new to me.

The Ballroom
The ballroom is to be found on the first floor, and this is the largest, and arguably the most impressive room in the whole building.

Anyone who stands in Old Market Square, and looks at the Council House will see the balcony, from which many famous people have waved to the crowds. Behind that balcony lies the ballroom.

It is alleged to have been inspired by the ballroom at the Palace of Versailles, and is mainly used as a large reception area, and for the great banquets. It has large mirrors which are designed to give the impression that the room is even bigger, and magnificent columns embellished with gilt. From the ceiling are hung absolutely beautiful Art Deco light fittings, decorated with brass tassels. The guide said that these lights are uninsurable.

I stood in one of the minstrels' galleries, looking down on the ballroom with its fully sprung walnut dance floor. One can only begin to imagine what some of the occasions would have been like. This was truly a beautiful room.

The Sheriff's Room
As you're taken from room to room, you're impressed by the magnificent panelled walls. An example of this is the Lord Mayor's Parlour and waiting room, which are also on the first floor.

The parlour is panelled in carved walnut, and the sitting room has beautifully made use of stunning antique oak panelling said to be from Aston Hall in Derbyshire. This was where some of the other panelling in other rooms came from also.

After so much panelled walls, it comes as a bit of a shock when you go to the second floor and see the Sheriff's Room, as picture above. Apparently, the 'feminine feel' to this room has often been remarked upon, and its strange contrast to most other rooms. The answer it seems is that at one time it was the Lady Mayoress' room, and that's why it looks so different. It is officially described as being decorated in the Adams Style, with soft green and gilt. I'd never heard of the Adams Style, so on looking it up when I got home, I found that the Adams' were brothers from Scotland living in the 18th Century, who "advocated an integrated style for architecture and interiors". If I were being pedantic, the proper term for this style of architecture and furniture is the "Style of the Brothers Adam". The room also has the only crystal chandelier and matching wall lights in the building, and they are magnificent. What a room.

Council Chamber
Making our way up to the third floor, which I think is the highest visitors are allowed to go, the guide pointed out in the numerous corridors we walked down, socket attachments in the skirting boards. These were part of the original design, and were there so that carpet cleaner hoses could be attached to them when cleaning was being done, and the dust and dirt was fed through to giant bags somewhere in the building. Now I think that's neat.

We went into the Council Chamber. After spending many hours over the years in the public gallery's of council chambers, trying to keep awake during debates on subjects that were supposed to have been of interest to me (over the years I've come across very few local councillors who are very good at public speaking - Nottingham of course may be very different, as I've not heard anyone yet), I was keen to see this debating chamber.

From the above picture you can see that it is another panelled room. There are seats for 55 Councillors, and no seat is more than 26 feet away from the Lord Mayor who occupies the plush seat in the alcove. Microphones are a fairly new phenomenon, and are mostly used to ensure the accuracy of what Councillors say. The room is a superb design acoustically speaking. There is one further aid to acoustics that I had never heard of before.

Acoustic Panels
Around the room, as in the picture opposite, are fabric covered panels, with seaweed behind each of them.

Every ten years these panels are taken down, cleaned and repaired as necessary, and their quality has been shown to work over the years. Now isn't that neat and innovative?

There's one more fascinating and historical fact that I'd like to mention. When Council is in session, there is a stand in front of the Lord Mayor for his official mace. The Sheriff sits beside him, but in front of the Sheriff, there are two stands for two maces which sit there during Council sessions. All three maces are on display in a cabinet between sessions. But why two for the Sheriff?

In the 15th Century, Nottingham was divided into two boroughs - the French Borough and the English Borough, and in 1449, King Henry 1V granted permission for there to be two Sheriffs. When in later years Nottingham came to have one borough and one Sheriff, discussion took place as to which mace should be retained. In the slightly humorous view of my guide, "With typical Nottingham compromise, they decided to keep both mace's". So that's why two mace's are placed in front of the Sheriff at Council meetings to this day. Don't you just love this city?

Well, I may only have had a thirty minute whistle-stop tour of the Council House, but I loved every minute of it, and if you get the chance to look around, take it.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Shock - unemployment high

Nottingham Post Wednesday 24th August 2011
This was the headline in Wednesday's Nottingham Post. The word 'shock' was also used in the continuing article on page 9, and in the editorial column on page 14. What is it that has 'shocked' people?

It is figures just produced that shows the Nottingham city council area with an unemployment rate of 14.8% for last year, when the national rate is 7.8%, and that for the East Midlands as a whole it is 7.6%.

These figures have been produced by the GMB union, and are based on those produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). They reveal that Nottingham has the worst unemployment rate in the UK. I can't work out whether the 'shock' relates to the level of unemployment, or to the fact that we are the worst in the country.

There should be no shock in the unemployment figures, as anyone who studies these things could see a trend from quite a way back. The ONS produce monthly statistics that are available on their website.

In May 2011, those claiming Job Seekers Allowance was at the highest level since 1997. And in the City Council's own reports it admits that "since July 2010, Nottingham has consistently performed worse than the national average". They go on to say that since January 2011, "unemployment in the City has increased by nearly 9% while nationally there has been an increase of less than 1%".

Going back to the period July 2009 - June 2010, the local authority with the lowest employment rate in Great Britain was Nottingham with a rate of 55.5%. Within the East Midland region, Nottingham is the only area to see a large increase in unemployment in the last year. It doesn't take a genius to work out that there is a problem. Some, while admitting that the figures are not good, are already trying to say that they're not as bad as they are made out to be. The deputy leader of the City Council has said that the figures may not tell the whole story. He is quoted as saying  that, "Figures for Nottingham City and the three adjacent districts - Broxtowe, Gedling and Rushcliffe - give an unemployment rate of 10%, the same as Salford in 42nd position". No, I've no idea why this comparison is being made either, as it's the city figures that are being discussed.

The Editor of the Nottingham Post is certainly trying to 'talk-up' Nottingham (I don't blame him there). To him the figures are 'disappointing', and goes on to say, "But today, we publish in the Post hundreds of local job opportunities and thousands more are available at job centres across the city and county". However, just a quick glance at these adverts shows the level of skill and experience that employers are looking for, which makes them unavailable for the majority of those who are unemployed. This is confirmed in the same newspaper by the Chief Executive of the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce when he said, "The crucial element here is skills and training. While businesses are still keen to take on more staff, many are reluctant to employ people who are not equipped with the right skills, qualifications and - crucially - attitude to work". Those last three words are very telling, 'attitude to work'. Skills can be taught, experience can be gained, but how will this 'attitude' to work be addressed?

Reasons given for high levels of unemployment may well have some truth to them, such as high public sector presence in the region, and subsequent job losses; the large number of students may also have an impact. But these are also true of other areas that are not suffering in the same way. The bottom line is that Nottingham has lost too many jobs, and not created enough to replace them. Some are pinning their hopes for the future on the Government's Work Programme, which is a short term scheme to replace the Future Jobs Fund. However, it does not guarantee a job at the end of it. Others are excited by the new Apprenticeship Scheme. Now, I'm an ardent supporter of apprenticeships, as I had one myself in the 1960's, but I was guaranteed a job at the end of it. As I understand it, the new scheme will provide 250,000 apprenticeship places over five years. This is 50,000 per year for the whole of the country, with no guarantee of a job at the end of it, for employers will be looking very carefully at the situation once the apprenticeship subsidy has been removed. Now, I support these schemes, even if they are flawed; some work is better than none at all, but they are trying to address decline with short-term measures. I have yet to see a ten-year strategy to bring meaningful and acceptably paid jobs into the city. If I've missed it, no doubt someone will tell me where I can get hold of it.

Karl Marx 1818 - 1883
But, are we really trying to fight the inevitable here? Are we modern day Canute's trying to hold back the sea? We are no longer a big manufacturing nation, and the demise of high staffing industries such as coal, steel and shipbuilding, has robbed us of opportunities to employ thousands. Full employment is a dream never to be realised - that is the harsh reality.

Why would I say such a thing? Now let me make it clear, I am no communist, but I do believe in a brand of socialism that is no longer a political choice in this country. I am no follower of Karl Marx, but I do find that some of his theories on unemployment are close to the mark, and resonate with me. His 'Communist Manifesto' (1848) and his 'Theory of Surplus Value' (1863) have words that are worth considering. Even 150 years ago, to Marx the battle was between Capitalism and Socialism. Capitalism is described as an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and operate for profit, usually in competitive markets.

In Marx's 'Theory of Surplus Value' he says, "It is in the very nature of the capitalist mode of production to overwork some workers while keeping the rest as a 'reserve army' of unemployed paupers". According to Marx, unemployment is inherent within the unstable capitalist system, and periodic crises of mass unemployment are to be expected. "The function of the proletariat (working class) within the capitalist system is to provide a 'reserve army of labour' that creates downward pressure on wages". To Marx, this is accomplished by dividing the proletariat (working class) into surplus labour (employees) and under-employment (unemployed). This 'reserve army of labour' fight among themselves for scarce jobs at lower and lower wages. Things have changed of course since the mid 1800's, as we now have a minimum wage, but I have always argued that this is not a living wage, and the battle still rages with people as to who will work for the minimum.

Marx held the view that unemployment is profitable within the global capitalist system because it lowers wages which are costs from the perspective of the owners. But it does not benefit workers, as the system unfairly manipulates the market for labour, by perpetuating unemployment which lowers labourers demands for fair wages. In the 'Communist Manifesto', according to Marx, the only way to permanently eliminate unemployment would be to abolish capitalism and the system of forced competition for wages, and then shift to a socialist (or communist) economic system. Modern Marxists see the existence of persistent unemployment as proof of the inability of capitalism to ensure full employment.

While any real job creation scheme is to be welcomed, most of those in existence (Work Programme, Apprenticeships) are Government sponsored, and as I've said previously are short-term solutions. Capitalism may be the preferred choice of the electorate, but this political choice of "the means of production" being in the hands of private ownership and operated for personal profit does bring some social consequences, and one of those consequences is unemployment.

By now you might be thinking of me as a 'rabid red', but you'd be wrong. However, I hope that the above is worth thinking about as a contribution to the unemployment debate. Successive Governments have poured billions of pounds into well-meaning, but ill-fated employment schemes (and for 25 years I ran employment schemes that tried to make a difference), without any long lasting effect. Perhaps it's time to consider another approach and stop being 'shocked'. I agree with the Nottingham Post when it says:

Monday, 22 August 2011

Three Little Words

No, not 'I love you', though those are of course very nice three little words which perhaps should be used far more often in appropriate circumstances.

The three little words that I'm thinking about are, "Easy to Install". You see them everywhere, and they throw the fear of god into me if I have to buy anything and 'install' it.

I like to think that I'm reasonably intelligent, though I don't particularly want to take an IQ test, just in case it shows up my self belief to be delusion. But something always seems to go wrong when I try to install, or programme some equipment,

For many people, "Easy to Install" is just that, but for me, I know that I'm beaten before I start. I don't know what part of the brain controls these actions, but short-circuiting takes place, and I'm left feeling depressed, inadequate and with something that I can't get to work. "Easy to Install" really are horrible words, and over the years, the mere sight of them has brought on palpitations, and caused me to run the proverbial mile. I'm thinking of setting up an on-line campaign to have the words "Easy to Install" banned from public advertising, on the grounds of human rights (well, everything else seems to come under human rights), as my human right to be equipmentally (yes I know there's no such word) challenged is being infringed. Also, the Advertising Standards Agency needs to be brought on board, as the claim, "Easy to Install" may well infringe their code of ethics. Let me give you some case studies.

What seems like aeons ago in another galaxy, I purchased a "self-assembly" conservatory from Wickes. This "Easy to Install" kit could be erected by two people over a weekend.

To show how easy it would be, the advertising blurb had a picture of a retired man and women erecting it. On seeing this, I thought, How hard can it be?

A few days later, the conservatory arrived - there seemed like hundreds of bits which was a touch daunting. On having a quick look at the instruction manual, my first thought was, never in a month of Sundays will I be able to erect this. Actually, this was also my second, third and fourth thought. I decided to contract the work out, and it took these professionals four days to erect the thing. "Easy to Install" be damned.

We've all known about the digital switchover for ages. To be fair to the authorities, they've been very clear for months.

In the Nottingham area, we've known that on the 17th August, the analogue signal for BBC2 would be switched off, and that on the 31st August we would lose BBC1, ITV 1, Channel 4 and Channel 5. We would therefore need to be digital ready.

I don't have a digital TV, so knew that I would have to get a Freeview Box, and tune it in to the new signals. The box would be "Easy to Install" and would self tune. I however, have put it off, for fear of this technology, and I can no longer get BBC2.

Today I bit the bullet and wandered down to Curry's to buy their finest (ie cheapest) Freeview receiver. Earlier, I spent half an hour working out which lead goes where (yes I know!), then trying to get the remote to work. To my shame, I'd missed the instruction that told me to insert batteries into the thing. With the TV switched on, I began the process of getting digital signals to my TV. But something happened. The instruction windows coming up on the screen didn't all seem to correspond with the diagrams in the booklet, and I didn't know what to do. I still don't, and I've left it until tomorrow, hoping for inspiration. Have you noticed that there's never a young child around when you need one? I know what some of you are thinking; all you need to do John is carefully read the manual. Listen, to me, that is the equivalent of telling someone suffering from severe depression to pick their socks up. I'm not thick, but something happens to me when faced with an instruction manual, particularly if it is accompanied by the words, "Easy to Install".

My bank is upgrading its Internet banking security. I knew this was coming, and that a new keypad would be sent out to me, which would replace the old system.

Today it arrived in environmentally friendly packaging, which took me ages to get into. The accompanying letter informed me that I had 30 days to set up the secure key, after which the old system would not operate (a bit like analogue switching to digital).

I started to worry a bit when the Bank's letter said of this Secure Key that "its intuitive design makes it easy to use". As this was a day for biting bullets, I decided to set up the new system.

No doubt the finest minds at HSBC have been hard at work to keep my meagre account safe from thieves, and I'm grateful to them. Thankfully no batteries were needed for the key, and though sweating profusely, I slowly and agonisingly made my way through the instructions. Please don't cock it up John, as you'll have to own up to the helpdesk, who probably get more than enough laughs at the expense of customers already. Halting only through indecision over what security questions to ask, and then what answers to remember in the future, I was finally set up. I am now fully secure, that is until some criminal finds a way around this latest security, and we have to begin the process all over again.

So do look out for my forthcoming on-line petition to get the words "Easy to Install" banned by all manufacturers.

However, there is one "Easy to Install" instruction that I have left for my family in the event of my demise. It's a really "Easy to Install" coffin - it's made of cardboard. Greetings to all fellow sufferers. 

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Monuments, Graves and School

Samuel Morley
Within a half mile of each other in north Nottingham, are three areas of wonderful beauty and interest. Yes, I'm on my travels again visiting some places I've been to before, but seeing features I'd not previously seen or commented upon.

When you enter the Nottingham Arboretum by the Waverley Street entrance, you cannot fail to see this monument to Samuel Morley. The inscription describes him as MP, merchant, philanthropist, friend of children, social reformer and christian citizen. Why is he so remembered in Nottingham? Samuel was born in London in 1809, to a Father who founded the family's knitting business with warehouses and distribution bases in London. The firm of I & R Morley became a significant player in the knitting industry, being responsible by 1844 for 6% of the industry's output.

Samuel is certainly not remembered in Nottingham for his time as the city's MP, for though he was elected in 1865, winning a narrow and acrimonious victory over Sir Robert Juckes-Clifton, the election was declared void the following year. He served as MP for less than a year, and there is no record in Hansard of any contribution, let alone a contribution to Nottingham. In 1868, he would become MP for Bristol and remain so for the next 17 years.

It was as a merchant and social reformer that I'm sure he will be best remembered. Samuel took over the firm's Nottingham operations in 1855, and the whole company in 1860. He opened new sites on Manvers Street and Handel Street in Nottingham, and showed himself to be very supportive of the working man. He founded the Warehousemen and Clerks' Association to provide friendly society benefits and health insurance for the firm's staff. The early 1800's were a difficult time for framework knitters, as mechanisation was driving them out of work, but in 1865 Morley's still employed 50,000 framework knitters. They retrained knitters to bring them into factories, and paid older knitters small pensions. Morley's grew to become one of the largest companies of its kind in the world. He was also a strong abolitionist, who worked hard for the end of slavery. He created endowments for colleges and churches, and was a strong Dissenter (Congregationalist). A contemporary biographer said that he would be remembered by posterity as, "one of the leading merchant princes and philanthropists of the century". I think that he deserves to be remembered in Nottingham.

Arboretum looking towards Addison Street tunnel
Leaving Samuel Morley's monument, and passing the ice cream van - yes passing it without buying - I decide to leave the Arboretum by the Addison Street entrance and make my way to the Church (Rock) Cemetery, which I have commented upon before.

Rock Cemetery
There was an area of the cemetery, that though I'd previously looked down upon it from above, I had never actually taken a closer look.

The area is called St Ann's Valley, which is accessed by a sloping path on the Forest side of the cemetery. There is another access through a tunnel from another part of the graveyard, but this is now closed off by locked gates.

In the late 1800's the valley was created by moving loads of sand and filling up other areas. Catacombs were created, some of which can be seen today. It really is a beautiful spot.

As can be seen from the photograph, about half of the area is laid out with large, flat slate slabs. Each one has many names recorded on them, with dates for different years.

What fascinated me were the number of slate slabs with children's names and ages on them. The one in the picture opposite had a list of 30 children's names, with ages ranging from 2 days, to 10 years old, with the year 1913 at the bottom.

To be honest, I'm a bit unclear as to what this is all about. Some say that these are paupers mass graves, but I've always thought that paupers graves were not marked by names. Others say they are the mass graves of children who died in an epidemic, but I haven't been able to find a record of a major epidemic in Nottingham around 1913. Still others speculate that in years gone by you could, at the cost of one guinea pay for a name to be placed on a gravestone, and that perhaps some benefactor contributed to the cost, which would have been considerable, as there are hundreds of names.

I confess to being intrigued by this very emotional place, and would like to explore the origins of the graves when I get some time. If any of you know the answer, then do please let me know, as I have acquired an insatiable appetite for information. I think it's a good job that I live on my own, or I would drive anyone else in the house quite mad.

Nottingham High School
Leaving the Rock Cemetery I decide to make my way back to the Arboretum to listen to the second half of the Brass Band concert.

I turn in to Arboretum Street which I had not been down before, and imagine my delight when I come across this magnificent building in the picture.

Being a lover of ancient buildings, it took my breath away. What was it? I was so captivated by its beauty that I hadn't noticed the sign declaring it to be Nottingham High School.

It was founded as a "free school" by Dame Agnes Mellers in 1513. Free meant that some benefactor would contribute to the cost of schooling. It's unclear whether this was a new institution or a refoundation or endowment of an existing school, as records exist of one as far back as 1289. It is now a boy's independent school with around 900 pupils, aged between 11 and 18. There is also a Nottingham High Junior School, and the Lovell House Infants School, so that now boys can be educated at Nottingham High from ages 4 to 18.

All former members of staff and pupils are known as Old Nottinghamians, and are entitled to use the letters ON - for what purpose I have no idea.

Given the nature of the school, it will come as no surprise to learn of the illustrious careers of many. In Arts and Broadcasting: Kenneth Adam - BBC Controller. Michael Bywater - writer and broadcaster. Jonathan Charles - BBC Foreign Correspondent. Leslie Crowther - comedian and quiz show host. Christopher Hopwood - classical musician and conductor. D.H. Lawrence - writer. Nicholas McGegan - classical musician and conductor. In Academia: The Very Reverend Dr Eric Abbott, KCVO - Warden of Keble College, Oxford, and Dean of Westminster. Dr Robert Macfarlane - fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Professor Frank Nabarro FRS - solid-state physicist. In Politics: Ed Balls MP. Kenneth Clarke QC MP. Edward Davey MP. Geoff Hoon MP. In Commerce: Jesse Boot - founder of Boots the Chemist. John Player - tobacconist (John Player & Sons). In Science and Technology: J.P. Knight - inventor of the traffic light.

So another interesting day in Nottingham, and by the way, the Brass Band were very good.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Frederic Chopin - a man and his country

Photograph of Chopin taken a
few months before his death
"On the 30th October 1849 a large crowd gathered at the Church of La Madeleine in Paris, and hundreds of carriages clogged the surrounding streets, causing a jam that stretched as far as the place de la concorde. The front of the enormous temple-like Church was draped with panels of black velvet bearing the initials 'F.C.' embroidered in silver. Entry was by ticket only, and those who had not manged to obtain one thronged the monumental steps".

This is how Adam Zamoyski begins his brilliant biography of Frederic Chopin. He continues by quoting from the French La Presse newspaper of the 5th November 1849, "At noon, the grim servants of death appeared at the entrance to the temple bearing the coffin of the great artist. At the same time a funeral march familiar to all admirers of Chopin burst from the recesses of the choir. 'A shiver of death ran through the congregation', recalled the French poet Theophile Gautier. 'As for me, I fancied I could see the sun grow pale and the gilding of the domes take on an evil greenish tint'".

Zamoyski relates that Mozart's Requiem was sung (requested by Chopin), with the legendary mezzo-soprano Pauline Garcia-Viardot and the famous bass Luigi Lablache supported by the orchestra and choir of the Paris Conservatoire, the finest in Europe. During the offertory, the organist of the Madeleine played two of Chopin's preludes. The coffin was borne from the Church to the cemetery of Pere Lachaise, and the mourners were led by Prince Adam Czartoryski, widely regarded as Poland's uncrowned king, and the pall-bearers included the most famous operatic composer of the day, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and the painter Eugene Delacroix (a great friend of Chopin). Thousands of friends and mourners followed the long cortege, and at the cemetery, the coffin was lowered into the grave without a homily, and the mourners dispersed in silence.

I've given this rather lengthy account of Chopin's funeral, so that a picture can begin to be formed of the greatness of the man and how others felt about him. I recently finished reading Adam Zamoyski's biography of Chopin, where his aim was to cut through the mass of anecdote and myth, in search of the real Chopin. Zamoyski draws the reader into the private world of this most complicated and reticent of men, and shows the real passions, suffering and ultimate tragedy of his life. On finishing the book, I realised that I would have benefited even more if I'd have had a better understanding of the history of Poland, and the political climate in Europe, particularly in the early 19th Century. Fortunately, Adam Zamoyski has also written a book on the history of Poland which answered all my questions, and gave my subject context. They are two wonderfully written pieces of work, which I highly recommend.

House where Chopin was born in Zelazowa Wola, Poland
Frederic Francois Chopin was born either on the 22nd February 1810 (the date on some official records) or on the 1st March 1810 (the date given by Chopin), and died on the 17th October 1849.

He was born in the small village of Zelazowa Wola, Poland, 29 miles west of Warsaw and with a population of 65. There's now a museum and statue dedicated to Chopin. However, he did not live there long, as in October 1810, when Chopin was seven months old, the family moved to Warsaw.

His Mother, Justyna was Polish, and his Father, Nicolas was French, and the move to Warsaw came about as the result of Nicolas accepting an offer to teach French at the Warsaw Lyceum. Chopin's school days were a credit to his parents who ensured that their son's prodigious talent would not go to his head, and that school work was not neglected. It seems that Chopin neglected no opportunity for fun, and I like the description from Zamoyski, "Chopin had an irreverent wit and keen eye for the ridiculous. he drew incisive caricatures and satirised Poles speaking French or foreigners speaking Polish. He fooled about on the piano, making musical jokes or providing an accompaniment to stories. But it was his gift for mimicry that really astonished people. He could transform not only his expression, but his very appearance, and was barely recognisable when imitating one of the Lycee masters or some public figure. Many years later, the celebrated French actor Pierre Bocage was to say that Chopin had wasted his talents by becoming a musician".

Chopin's first published work was the Polonaise G Minor which was written in 1817, when he was seven years of age, and his first major concert took place on the 24th February 1818. Chopin's fame spread throughout Warsaw, and demands to hear him play grew exponentially, but he remained grounded, I think thanks to his Father. As Zamoyski says, "Chopin's was an unusual upbringing; from his sheltered home with its middle-class atmosphere, he was propelled into some of the most elegant drawing rooms in Europe, where he performed before the greatest personages in the country, was spoilt by their wives, and played on an equal footing with their children. He quickly acquired polished manners as well as an ability to feel at ease in the most exalted company and mix with any kind of person, and while he was sociable and a little precocious, he was not, by all accounts, conceited".

Let's take a little break from the narrative and listen to some Chopin. This is his Heroic Polonaise op. 53 which was composed when he was aged 32. The polonaise is a slow dance of Polish origin, and is still often used at carnival parties. I've chosen this recording by Maurizio Pollini because of the beautiful images of the Polish countryside.

As a result of his success as a composer and performer, professional doors were opening to him in western Europe, and on the 2nd November 1830, he headed off to Italy via Austria, and he was never to see Poland again. He was 20 years of age. His departure from Warsaw was timely, for later that same month, the Warsaw November uprising broke out.

Polish Commonwealth in Mid 17th Century
What was the political situation that led to this uprising? For centuries, Poland had been a dominant force in Europe. The map opposite shows the extent of Polish territory in the mid 17th Century, which was known as the Polish Commonwealth.

Within 150 years, Poland would be virtually wiped off the map of Europe. She had three main enemies that eyed her territory. Prussia, Austria and Russia in 1772 completed the first partition of the land. The second partition accurred in 1792, and the final, and most brutal partition occurred in 1797. I could not summarise this better than Zamoyski, "No nation's history has been so distorted as that of Poland. In 1797 Russia, Prussia and Austria divided the country up among themselves, rewriting history to give the impression that Poland had never been a fully sovereign state, only a backwater that needed civilising. In fact, the country they had wiped off the map had been one of the largest and most richly varied in Europe, embracing a wide variety of cultural and religious traditions, accommodated within one of the boldest constitutional experiments ever attempted. Its destruction initiated a series of struggles that culminated in the two world wars and the Cold War".

Poland may have lost its boundaries, but its people never lost their Polishness. Its Government may have been crushed, but its people were not. It's this that inspired the Warsaw November uprising of 1830. Chopin's great friend and travelling companion, Tytus Woyciechowski left him in Vienna to enlist in the fight for their homeland. Chopin was now alone in the capital of one of the countries that was so oppressing his beloved homeland. The writer Jachimecki observed, "afflicted by nostalgia, he was disappointed in his hopes of giving concerts and publishing his music, nevertheless he grew into an inspired national bard, the present and future of his country. Only now, at this distance, did he see all of Poland from the proper perspective, and understand what was great and truly beautiful in her, the tragedy and heroism of her vicissitudes".

It was while travelling from Vienna to Paris in September 1831 that Chopin heard that the uprising had been crushed. He kept a little journal which remained a secret until the end of his life. In this he poured profanities and blasphemies in his native Polish language, and expressed fear for the safety of his family and other civilians, especially the women at risk of outrages by the Russian troops. He damned the French for not coming to the aid of the Poles, and expressed dismay that God had permitted the Russians to crush the Polish insurgents - "or are you (God) yourself a Russian?" As one historian has noted, these outcries of a tormented heart found musical expression in his Scherzo in B minor, Op 20, and his Revolutionary Etude, in C minor, Op 10, No 12.

George Sand
Chopin arrived in Paris in late September 1831, still uncertain about his future, but it would be France in general, and Paris in particular, apart from travels abroad, where he would spend most of the remaining 18 years of his life. He became a French citizen in 1835, travelling on a French passport, but rather than this being a denial of his Polish heritage, it was to avoid relying on Imperial Russian documents. Though it was said that he never did fully master the French language.

He did not come from a wealthy background, so he had to earn money. This he did in a number of ways, namely, income from the sale of his compositions, concerts that he gave, playing at the homes of wealthy families and from teaching piano to affluent students from all over Europe, including England and Scotland.  It is estimated that before long he was earning a handsome income from teaching piano. This enabled him to rent fancy apartments, eat at expensive restaurants and to attend the theatre and opera on a regular basis.

George Sand's house at Nohant
Around 1837 Chopin formed a relationship, or it was the other way around with Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, a feminist French writer who used the pseudonym, George Sand. She dressed as a man, and was well known for the number of lovers she'd had before meeting Chopin.

During the following ten years, she and Chopin spent a lot of time at her house in Nohant. Early on Chopin began to exhibit serious illness, which a number of doctor's disagreed over as to the diagnosis. It does seem though that it was the beginning of tuburculosis, as this was the cause of death on his death certificate. A new review by Steven Largerberg has just been published in 2011, called, "Chopin's Heart - The Quest to Identify the Mysterious Illness of the World's Most Beloved Composer", and it seems that the most likely cause is pulminary tuburculosis.

Chopin was in considerable pain and discomfort for many years, and George Sand took on the role of nurse and mother, as in some of her letters to friends, she describes Chopin as her 'child'. Historians have questioned the benefit of the relationship with George Sand, and whether Chopin would have been better without it. In fact, Count Wojciech Grzymala went as far as to say, "If Chopin had not had the misfortune of meeting George Sand, who poisoned his whole being, he would have lived to be Cherubini's age". This was a friend of Chopin who died in Paris at the age of eighty-one, while Chopin died at the age of thirty nine. Just for interest, the two composers are buried four meters apart at Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

One of the reasons given why Chopin did not give many concerts in large venues was that his light-handed keyboard technique did not lend itself to those large spaces. He preferred the more intimate spaces in people's homes, which has to be said could still hold a few hundred people. This was also one of the reasons why he insisted on having a Pleyel piano, which went with him wherever he went. He was greatly in demand, but as his illness worsened, it became harder and harder to give lessons, and even harder to perform. It is recorded that at times Chopin had to be almost carried to the piano, so weak was he, but after a few nervous moments he would come alive and play like noone else, perhaps for an hour or two at a time, only to collapse exhausted after it. How wonderful is the strength of the human spirit when faced with pain.

When I was reading the life of Chopin, and looking at particularly Paris life in the 1830's and 1840's, I was thinking about how many people were coccooned from the turmoil that was going on all around them. I was also thinking how magical it all must have been. Concerts and soirees galore, with some of the world's greatest musicians present. Chopin became friends with Berloiz, Hiller, Mendelssohn, Bellini, Paganini, Hummel, and although they didn't hit it off at first because of their contrasting styles of playing the piano, and their contrasting personalities, with Franz Liszt. Can you imagine how wonderful it must have been to hear Liszt and Chopin play together.

Chopin was always ill at ease about letting anyone get close to him, except a tiny number, and as his illness progressed, this reticense increased. I think that Zamoyski sums it up well, with the help of Liszt. "The discrepancy between Chopin's apparent ease with people and his fear of letting anyone approach too close, noticable during his last years in Warsaw, had become more pronounced. When he left Poland and found himself surrounded by foreigners, he withdrew more and more into himself and became increasingly suspicious of any intimacy. Everyone was struck by this reserve, some were put off by it: after his death Liszt would echo the general feeling when he wrote that Chopin 'was prepared to give anything, but never gave himself'. Liszt also noted that Chopin could hide his feelings under a cloak of composure and serenity. 'Good natured, affable, easy in all his relationships, even and pleasant-tempered, he hardly allowed one to suspect the secret convulsions which agitated him'".

Painting of Chopin on his death bed painted by
Kwiatkowski and commissioned by Jane Stirling
A month before he died, Chopin took a very beautiful apartment at Place Vendome 12.

It was a second floor, seven-room apartment that had previously housed the Russian embassy. Chopin could not afford such luxury, but his one time Scottish pupil, the wealthy Jane Stirling rented it for him. He had been to Scotland at the invitation of Jane Stirling, and wowed everyone there as he had every where else.

On Wednesday, the 17th October 1849, just after midnight, the physician leaned over him and asked whether he was suffering greatly. "Not any more", Chopin replied, and he died a few minutes before two o'clock in the morning. So we're back to where we started this post.

Poland has played a pivotal role in European history for centuries; none should forget that in more modern times the heroic contribution made by Polish forces in World War 2. Neither should we forget the brutality of Russia against Poland after the war, while the West largely stood by and watched. Like every nation they were, and are not perfect, and the story of the Gdansk workers strike in August 1980 led by Lech Walesa; the forming of the union Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in September 1980, and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 are stories worth telling. I feel that I now have a little understanding of the history of my Daughter-in-Law's homeland; the modern picture may be different, but the Poland I've come to see over the centuries is a land that promoted democracy (albeit a form of it), equality, tolerance and suffrage (albeit not total) well in advance of most other countries.

The music of Chopin has been well known for the last two hundred years, but the man behind the music was a bit of a mystery; not any more. I respect and admire him even more for producing some of the finest compositions for solo piano, when his emotional and physical life presented so many problems. Zamoyski finishes his biography with two quotes. One is from Chopin's great friend, the artist Delacroix, who considered "the incomparable genius for whom heaven was jealous of earth, and of whom I think so often, no longer being able to see him in this world, nor to hear his divine harmonies". The other was from Solange, the daughter of George Sand who remembered Chopin as, "The soul of an angel, cast down upon earth in a tortured body in order to accomplish some mysterious redemption. Is it because his life was a thirty-nine-year agony that his music is so lofty, so sweet, so sublime?"

For those interested in the books I've mentioned, here are the details.
  • Chopin, Prince of the Romantics by Adam Zamoyski. Published by Harper Press 2010
  • Poland, A History by Adam Zamoyski. Published by Harper Press 2009
Let's finish with another piece of Chopin. This time the Funeral March movement from Chopin's Sonata No 2 in B flat minor, Op 35-3, played by Maurizio Pollini. This movement has been described as "One of the most beautiful pearls in the history of music".

Thursday, 18 August 2011

People of Influence

Orangefield Baptist Church Belfast
My Son has just written here a wonderful Blog about Ronald Lee who had been a major influence on his musical, intellectual and personal life. It was a very moving piece that set me thinking about the importance of the influence of others in our lives.

I refuse to use the term 'role-model' as it has been so de-valued today. Why on earth actors, models and professional sports people should be seen as role-models is beyond me. They live in a different world to the ordinary man and woman in the street.

There are of course many people who have had an influence on my thinking through their writings, speeches and way of life. People such as Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and more recently Jean Genet. However, these are people who have influenced from a distance; what of those I have known personally, and been influenced by them?

Before coming to that, I wonder whether I, after a life-time of work, have had a positive influence on the life and work of others? Only others can answer that of course, and it would be rewarding if the answer was yes, but disappointing if the answer was no. The truth is that I'll probably never know.

It has been a humbling exercise to try and come up with names of those who have been influential in my life, and perhaps not surprisingly the list is very small. There have been those I've met who I have admired and respected greatly, but this is different from having a personal, positive influence on me. In the end I've settled on one person, Minnis Mills.

Stormont Parliament Building Belfast
In 1970, I moved to Belfast with my wife to study theology at the Belfast Baptist College, and we started to attend Orangefield Baptist Church, which was the nearest Church to where we were living. (Picture at the top of this Blog).

The Pastor (Minister) was Minnis Mills. As far as I can tell, he was born in Belfast in February 1904, and became an Accountant. I believe that he may have founded the Orangefield Church, but I'm not clear when.

The Belfast Telegraph has a wedding notice saying that Pastor Minnis Mills conducted the service at Orangefield Baptist Church in August 1947. So it was at least in existence just after the war. The current building was opened around the middle to late 1960's, and its design was in stark contrast to the rather bland Baptist Churches in existence at that time. I was later to become Pastor of this Church for six and a half years from the late 1970's to early 1980's.

Minnis Mills was a short, thin man, who was always immaculately dressed. If he wasn't in a suit, it would be a jacket and trousers, and always with a tie. Even when dressed up, I could never look as dapper as him. His manners were just as immaculate. The academic year 1971 - 1972 was one that I'll never forget; not because of the constant threat from bombs, bullets and street unrest in Belfast, but because I worked with Minnis Mills.

During the second year at theological college, everyone who was training for the ministry was allocated a Church placement to spend the whole year working with the local Pastor, in addition to college work. I was allocated (in fact I strongly insisted) Orangefield Baptist Church under the guidance of Minnis Mills. It was a wonderful year in many respects. Here was a man with over 40 years of experience to draw upon, and after listening to some of my fellow students recount their experiences of placement, I realised that I'd fallen on my feet.

Minnis Mills was friends with Ian Paisley, and Ian's Father, who had also been a Baptist Minister. He was not a demonstrative preacher; did not shout or walk around like a caged lion; he chose carefully when to raise his voice for maximum affect, and his hands and eyes could tell a story all on their own. He held people's attention by the quality of his words, not through volume or physical activity. He was a kind man who had time for everybody, and though he held to very strong theological views, and could very forcibly put those views over, it was never personal, and was hard to take offence at. As he was immaculate in dress, so he was in words and performance. This was a man worth listening to, and worth following. My privilege was to get to know the public figure, in a personal way.

My fortune was also his mis-fortune, as he took quite ill during the year, which eventually led to his retirement. I'd given some thought as to how the year might work out. Occasionally leading and speaking at services on a Sunday and during the week; visiting the sick and meeting with the Pastor to see how things were going. It turned out however to be quite different, and for me, the best experience anyone could hope to have. The arrangement was that Minnis would take a service if he felt up to it, and on occasions he did. However, on many other occasions I would get a call an hour before to say that he was not well enough, and could I do it. It was here that I learned to think on my feet, and to keep a few ideas up my sleeve, just in case.

Getting to know him personally was mainly through visiting him at his home, and talking to him for perhaps a couple of hours at a time. During every visit you were accorded the traditional Belfast welcome from his wife, with the finest cups and saucers, and plates of sandwiches, cakes and tray bakes. I've no idea what his politics were, as we never discussed it, though I suspect he was strongly for the Union. From him I learnt about humanity, and the importance of every human being. I learnt about dignity and humility, though I haven't always manged to live up to those lessons learnt. About three years after leaving theological college, and following a none too successful stint in England, I became his Pastor at Orangefield Baptist Church, a role I felt unworthy to perform, and there's no false modesty intended here. Though a small man, his legacy was huge, but he couldn't have been more encouraging and supportive. He died in 1982, and the loss was immeasurable.

What he would think of my current position on religion is anyones guess, but though he would no doubt be disappointed, he would not condemn; he would simply and calmly try to persuade me back to the 'truth'. His eyes would also say it all. My gripe with religion is not to be equated with having a gripe against everyone who holds to religion. People like Minnis Mills show all that is good about mankind, and it was my privilege to have known him, learnt from him, and to have been personally and positively influenced by him.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Can Anyone Help?

Like millions of other people, I'm currently absorbed in my family research. Having now got a tree full of branches and leaves, I'm back to filling in a lot more of the details. One such detail is my grand fathers first world war record. To be able to access those records, I think I really need to have an idea what regiment he may have served in. And this is where I need your help.

William Gronnow First World War
This is a post card picture of my grand father either during or after the war. I have the original. Can anyone hazard a guess as to the Regiment from the picture? Or does anyone know how you go about trying to identify military uniforms?

His name was William Gronnow, and he was born in Farndon, Cheshire in 1887, and died in September 1952. He married Miriam Gronnow (nee Valentine) in December 1920. As he was brought up on the English/Welsh border, he could well have joined a Cheshire or Welsh Regiment. If any one has any advice or help to offer, I'd be very grateful. My email address is in the 'about me' section.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Antidote to Cretinism

Just when you begin to despair of the darkness, someone shines a light. The Metro newspaper reported yesterday, "They came brandishing brooms and some were even wielding riot shields - but only to use as makeshift trays for cups of tea. This is the 'we-can-fix-it, yes-we-can' army in action just hours after violent mobs had appeared to symbolise broken Britain". Many were heard to say, "More broomsticks than Hogwarts" as teams swept up around Clapham Junction railway station.

I read this as I was listening to a BBC radio interview with two 17 year olds in Croydon, who thought the riots were 'fun'. You can listen to the brief interview here. It was 9.30am, and the girls were still drinking stolen rose wine from the night before. They said,

"Everyone was just on a riot, going mad, chucking things, chucking bottles - it was good though. Breaking into shops - it was madness, it was good fun. It's the Governments fault. I don't know. Conservatives, whoever it is. It's the rich people who've got all the businesses, and that's why all this happened". They hoped that further crimes would follow. By the way, these two said that they had jobs.

There have been over 1500 arrests so far, with nearly 700 already brought before the courts - in Nottingham the youngest is an 11 year old girl. I await to see what 'tough' action will be meted out as promised by the Prime Minister in Parliament today.

Enough of the rioters whose aim was to destroy, let's give thanks to those dubbed the "Riot Wombles" who have turned up in their hundreds across devastated cities to help re-build. They came to work, not just to sympathise; brushes, pans and bags in hand. Parts of Britain may be broken, but these volunteers have shown that other parts are alive and well, and cares about the communities they come from, and the suffering communities further afield.

The debate has started (even though we've been there before); why did all this happen? What can be done to prevent it ever happening again. Some say it's poverty, others that it's the effect of the cuts, others that young people have nothing do. I was wondering, watching so many young people dressed in designer shoes, designer jeans and designer tops whether this was poverty. The one thing that I will say though is that the debate should focus on how to get people engaged in their local areas. Whatever the logistical problems, this has to include the young people, parents, schools, members of the local communities, central and local government, Police, the Churches and anyone with an interest. It may have been tried before over many years, but it's worth trying again if we are to have a future society that is safe for all to live, work and play in.

There is no desire on my part to demonise young people, but as they have been at the heart of every riot, it is right that the spotlight of attention is shone onto them.

I finish as I started by being grateful for the community spirit that has mobilised so many 'helpers' when the community needed them most. It really is an antidote to cretinism.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Reading the Riot Act

I wasn't going to comment on the riots sweeping London and other major cities, because the blogosphere, TV, radio and newspapers is full of little else.

However, two things have made me change my mind. One was listening to comments on the TV and radio from leaders on politics and the community, and the other was seeing that Nottingham had become embroiled in it all. I felt myself getting angry, frustrated and depressed, the more I listened to, and saw events unfolding. I just had to get some thoughts out of my system, and down in print.

I'm sure that we're all aware by now of the events over the last three nights in London, and which last night spread to Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool and Nottingham. This morning's Nottingham Post had the above headline, describing the events of last night and five pages of coverage. It also had as sub-headlines,
  • St Ann's police station firebombed
  • Looters target Victoria Centre
  • 100 police out on city streets
It's not all bad news though, as the final sub-headline was, "Forest v Magpies game will go ahead" - god forbid that civil unrest should affect a professional football match.

The London riots followed a peaceful protest about the killing by the Police of a London man. I have no idea whether this man was carrying a gun or not, and listening to his partner speak on TV this morning, I'm none the clearer. She said he would walk away from trouble, and was a good man. It reminded me of a known thug in a town I lived in who was also shot during a Police raid on his home. To listen to his family and friends, you would think that he was to be nominated for sainthood, when it was well known how he terrorised the local community, and very few mourned his death.

I also don't know whether the riots were co-ordinated, or simply each subsequent riot is just copying the other. Perhaps there is something in what the Chairperson of Hyson Green community group BOBS says, "I could sense it was coming. Young people do not seem to have the sense that you have to work for what you want. They think that they are entitled to it and can just take what they want. They have no scruples and no morals".

What is it all about? This morning, a BBC newsreader was still calling the rioters, 'protesters', but protesting about what? They interviewed an inarticulate youth, who with his coat covering his head, in answer to the question what was he protesting about, said, "It's the Police, innit?" Well thank you for that piece of enlightened journalism. He then went back to his rioting and looting. The peaceful march was a protest, but what followed was nothing less than mindless, thuggish criminality.

So who is in control of this situation? TV pictures have shown fire-fighters standing by while buildings burned as it was too dangerous to go in. Police lines have stood firm while watching buildings being looted. The Prime Minister has returned early from holidays, and his big decision is? To re-convene Parliament. Oh good, more hot air to add to the flames. The Home Secretary has declared her disgust, and promised that the perpetrators will be brought to justice. But the Police can cope, and there's no need to bring the army in. Our own Assistant Chief Constable in Nottinghamshire has said, "Faces have been captured on CCTV. Forensic evidence has been obtained. There will be absolutely no hiding place for these criminals responsible and they can expect to be arrested for their actions". The Deputy Leader of Nottingham City Council has said, "There is a message to parents that it is very, very important that you talk to your children, you know where they are and you take a proper adult responsibility". Come into the real world sir. There is no responsibility or control from thousands of parents - they lost it, if they ever had it, years ago.  I'm sorry, but none of this is good enough for communities worrying about another night of riots in their areas. Who is in control? And what is going to be done to bring a halt to night's of violence and mayhem?

I was listening to a London community worker on the radio this morning, who was saying that part of the reason for the disturbances was that young people's 'dreams and aspirations' were not being realised. Excuse me, but I've worked with many young people from disturbed, deprived and disaffected backgrounds, and for many the problem was that they never had any dreams or aspirations to begin with, let alone to realise them. Many of those that did have, worked hard to realise them, and clawed their way out of the slough of despond. And it's many of these people who have suffered through the night's of riot, looting and arson.

Aaron Biber in his Barber's Shop, Tottenham
I apologise to Archbishop Cranmer for nicking this photo from his blog site. It was one of the most moving and symbolic of the effect of the riots on innocent people.

Take Aaron Biber opposite. He's 89 years old, and has been running his Barber's shop in Tottenham for the last 41 years. Rioters trashed his shop, and stole his equipment, including his kettle. In Croydon, a family owned department store which had been run by them (five generations) for over 100 years was completely destroyed by fire. Small, independent shops in many high streets in London had been ransacked. Many of these owners had come from the very same communities as the rioters, but had made something of themselves, and the only good thing about it is their determination to re-open as quickly as possible. Of the St Ann's riots in Nottingham, the Assistant Chief Constable said, "The most appalling, and incomprehensible aspect to last night's events, is that the majority of those involved, we believe, live in the very community they attacked. It was their neighbour's home, their neighbour's car, their neighbour's peace of mind that they violated". Who is in control? And what is to be done?

The politicians and police promise arrests and court action, but I remain sceptical. I anticipate a slap on the wrist or a small fine. The courts would much prefer to send the likes of 85 year old Norman Scarth to prison for six months. His crime? He illegally recorded a court hearing. Yes, he broke the law, but six months? The rioters, looters and arsonists with get off much more lightly. So what should happen?

What isn't needed is more legislation, as what is currently available is more than sufficient, if only it is treated seriously. The days have gone when we can take seriously the words of the East Midlands MEP, Roger Helmer, who wrote on Twitter, "Memo to COBRA: Time to get tough. Bring in the Army. Shoot looters and arsonists on sight". So what is the law relating to rioting and arson?

In 1715 the Riot Act was brought in to deal with civil disturbances. Specific wording from this act had to be read out before the crowd. If the crowd did not disperse after the act was read, lethal force could legally be used against the crowd. This act was removed from the statute book in 1973, and later replaced by the Public Order Act 1986. Section 1 of this act refers to the offence of Riot. This offence of Riot requires there to be at least 12 people present, and if less than 12, the lesser offence of 'Violent Disorder' is charged. It is patently clear that in the latest riots, more than 12 people are involved, so the serious offence of Rioting can be brought against every single convicted individual.

The worrying thing is that this serious charge of Riot has rarely been brought. Why? Did you know that the local police service are statutorily liable to pay compensation for losses and damage caused by Riot? Many of you will remember the Poll tax demonstrations of 1990, where nobody was charged under Section 1 of the act. All were charged under the lesser 'Violent Disorder' offences, as though a collection of these offences had just happened to take place in one location. This was justice driven by money, not by law. Riot is an indictable offence under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, and is punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. Currently over 600 people have been arrested in London, and I'm sure that each one qualifies to be charged under Section 1 of the Public Order Act 1986. Send each to prison for the maximum period of 10 years. That's one powerful statement to say that public disorder in the form of rioting will not be tolerated. The power is there to do it, but I fear that what we will get is, "You've been a naughty boy. Go away and don't do it again".

Arson comes under The Criminal Damage Act 1971, and comes under different levels of seriousness. I've had a number of convicted arsonists as clients over the years, and each one were loners who liked to set fire to things for the thrill of seeing the flames. Each was different in the seriousness of their crimes, and in their mental state, and this was reflected in the different sentencing they received. The morons who rioted and set fire to cars and buildings are a different breed, but are none the less guilty of arson. Looking at the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines to Judges, and examples of case law, the average length of prison term for those convicted ranges from two to six years. However, the law allows for sentencing for serious arson attacks to be life imprisonment. Will those convicted rioters and arsonists be dealt with seriously? I very much doubt it.

Please let there be no more enquiries, no more studies, no more reports into the lives of certain city dwellers. We've had social condition reports coming out of our ears. We've had millions poured into deprived communities. We've had endless initiatives on employment and activities, and as one Residents' Association local Chairperson said on the news tonight, "We've provided so much for our young people, but they won't use it, I'm banging my ahead against the wall".  Please, no more.

Many will disagree with my hard stance, and my views have no doubt changed over the years, but if the full force of the law is not to be brought down on the heads of convicted perpetrators, I ask again. Who is in control? And what is to be done?