Thursday, 12 April 2012

Humour: It's a funny subject

Humour is definitely a funny subject, and one that is very personal to the individual. One person can be found rolling around the floor in hysterical laughter, while another person, seeing or hearing the same thing is left totally unmoved.

I like a good laugh though don't you? I'm not the laugh out loud sort of person; more the quiet inward chuckle, but I enjoy it just as much as the person who's laughter volume is turned up to 10. Television and radio laughter can be real escapism, and be the antidote to all of the serious things that happen in life - at least for a little while.

The other day I was walking past a charity shop in town, and noticed in the window a copy of the book "The Last Hancock Scripts", priced at £3.98. I couldn't resist, and I bought it.

It started me thinking about my favourite radio and TV comedies. I had fun in my mind going back to the 1950's, and I realised that there is little that I really enjoy today, and that my love affair with comedy is steeped in my history. Don't get me wrong, there are individuals today that I enjoy listening to and watching, but most, in my opinion, don't compare with the greats of the past. I decided to try and come up with five of my funniest favourites on television and radio. I'll mention them in roughly chronological order.

In 1951 an explosive event happened on British radio; a new comedy show burst on to the airwaves, called The Goon Show. It was mostly written by and starred Spike Milligan, ably supported by Harry Seacombe and Peter Sellers, with Michael Bentine involved right at the beginning. It was maniacal with its funny characters, funny voices, funny scenes and funny noises. It was a revolution in British radio comedy.

From 1951 to 1960, there were ten series of the show, roughly one a year, and a total of 223 episodes. Spike Milligan was involved in writing most of them, which when you think about it, was on average writing and performing in one show every two weeks for ten years. I loved that show and I still do, even 60 years after it was first performed. I have about 80 of the shows on old cassette tapes, and they are as fresh as they have ever been.

Also in the 1950's, to be exact 1954, what is now called a "situation comedy" was aired on BBC radio. It was called "Hancock's Half Hour", starring Tony Hancock. It was brilliant writing and performance that followed the life and views of one Anthony Hancock, a Londoner from East Cheam (though he did live elsewhere in some episodes). The radio series ran from 1954 until 1959: a total of 6 series covering 102 episodes.

Hancock's Half Hour was one of the few programmes that have been hugely successful on radio, and also when it was transferred to television. While it was still being broadcast on radio, the television series began in 1956, and ran until 1961. There were 63 episodes over 7 series, and history records phenomenal viewing figures at the time. The final series, series 7 broadcast in 1961 was simply called Hancock, because the programme's length had been reduced from 30 to 25 minutes. Series 7 was responsible for some of the best known of all Hancock's programmes. I've tried to refresh my memory over the episode called "The Lift", where I believe that Tony Hancock starred alone, and was trapped in a lift. It was a masterpiece. Two other episodes in this last series were "The Radio Ham" - and who can forget the immortal line, "It is ah not raining in Tokyo", and perhaps the classic of all in "The Blood Donor".

I'm laughing to myself as I'm writing this. My first comedy LP had The Blood Donor on one side and The Radio Ham on the other. I can still hear Hancock as he's looking at hospital posters sing, to the tune of the German National Anthem, "Coughs and sneezes spreads diseases". And who can ever forget, "Rhesus, they're monkey's aren't they?". "A pint? that's very nearly an armful". What a tragedy that as far as I can research, only 37 of the original 63 television scripts exist today. Tony Hancock may have committed suicide in far away Australia, alone and troubled, but what laughter he brought to millions.

Hattie Jacques and Eric Sykes
Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques in 1960 starred in a comedy sit-com called "Sykes and A ..." with the object that was to cause havoc in their lives inserted in the title. (eg "Sykes and A Plank", which incidently was so popular that a silent film was later made called "The Plank" starring Eric Sykes and Tommy Cooper - it was wonderful).

Eric and Hattie played brother and sister with various mishaps occurring in their lives. The programme ran for 60 episodes until 1965. It returned in 1972 under the title "Sykes", and ran for a further 68 episodes until 1979. It was extremely popular, and would probably have gone on longer, but for the sudden death of Hattie Jacques in 1980. I loved it, and it is best summed up by one TV reviewer who wrote, "Simple, yet  richly observed and consummately performed, both series successfully managed to maintain a winning 'child-like' innocence in its central characters that endeared both it, and its core group of actors to the entire nation". 

In 1975 we were treated to the first sight of a maniacal Torquay hotel proprietor played by John Cleese in "Fawlty Towers". That year, five more episodes followed, with a further six in 1979. A total of only 12 episodes of what became a classic series, which is still revered today. I have them all on DVD, and I love them as much as I did when I first watched them, and they still make me laugh.

Finally, something from America, that had an even shorter run than Fawlty Towers; it is Police Squad! starring Leslie Neilson. You really need to have seen this to appreciated it as its non stop visual and verbal gags, delivered dead pan had me in stitches. It spawned the later Naked Gun series of films. It was shown on the American TV network ABC in 1982, and after four episodes had been aired in March, ABC announced its cancellation. The final two episodes were broadcast in the Summer of 1982. A total of six episodes for one of the funniest and creative of TV programmes. Why so few?

The reason for cancellation has become almost as famous as the series itself. The then ABC entertainment president said, "Police Squad! was cancelled because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it". This has been interpreted as meaning that the viewer had to actually pay close attention to the show in order to get much out of the humour, while most other TV shows did not demand as much effort from the viewer. You can still watch episodes on YouTube, and I adored the visual and quick-fire jokes.

I'll not say which of the above is my favourite, as it changes from time to time, and they are all masters at making people laugh. We'll all have a different list, but the important thing is to place the need for laughter high up on our list of priorities. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

There's life in the Library yet

West Bridgford Library about 1939
The 1st March 2012 was 'World Book day', and something special was happening in West Bridgford. We were going to get an improved library.

My eldest son started his library career stamping books behind the counter, and has now reached the prestigious position of Director of Senate House Libraries at the University of London.

In his view, (which is also the view of others who have been in library services for a long time) they have always had to live with the question of the future of libraries, and their potential imminent demise. There are certainly many articles on-line which over the past twenty years have been discussing these matters. But like Mark Twain, after hearing that his obituary had been published in the New York Journal, libraries could say that, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated".

Nottinghamshire County Council is one of the largest education authorities in the country, and in addition to supporting 358 schools, it runs over 60 libraries as well as seven mobile libraries.

In the Borough of Rushcliffe, there are nine key libraries, of which one is the West Bridgford Library. Work has started on a major £5.3 million re-development programme, which by the Spring of 2013 will see a vastly improved library service, and a brand new young people's centre. It was on the 1st March 2012 that the turf-cutting ceremony took place. According to the County Council's web site, "The flagship West Bridgford library development is the latest in the county council's plan to continue to invest, develop and remodel its existing libraries to be able to continue to serve traditional library users and meet the demand for digital services and reach out to new audiences".

There is sound judgement here in recognising that traditional users are important; that digital services are part of the present, and that libraries will only flourish in the future if they attract new audiences. The current library building was built in 1938 or 1939 (depending on who you read), which makes it contemporary with The Test Match pub. (Irrelevant I know, but it's my local, so it's worth a mention). I was so pleased to see that the new service will retain the original building, while having a brand new, modern young people's centre built on the back of it. From the sketches that are available, the two designs seem to fit well together. Too many fine historic buildings have been lost in Nottingham over the years, so it is a tribute to the county planners that they have kept this fine 1930's building. If I sound like Prince Charles I don't care; I believe it.

In reading blog comments elsewhere, some people seem to be afraid that new library space will be taken up with children's areas, DVD's, CD's and computers, leaving less space for actual physical books. If this was the case, I too would be concerned.

However, at West Bridgford we are promised "two floors filled with books". Yes there will also be a dedicated children's area as well as increased "free use of computers, internet and wi-fi". 

In addition there will be a new Shopmobility service, and the Registrar's Office will move from Bridgford Hall into the building. In keeping with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act, the whole building will be fully accessible.

I like the sound of it, and it will bring people in through the doors for a range of reasons, which will help to legitimise its presence. Throughput (or footfall) is everything, and it is not inconceivable to think of people coming in for Shopmobility or the Registrar, who also find themselves viewing the books.

I also think that it's very creative to build a modern two-story young people's centre at the rear of the present building. The Council say that this will include:

  • a fantastic meeting place
  • recording studio
  • performance area
  • dance area
The strapline for Rushcliffe Borough Council is, "Great Place - Great Lifestyle - Great Sport". While this may border on hyperbole, the new young people's centre will be a great place for West Bridgford's creative young people to develop and showcase their talents.  

I've been critical of Council in the past, and I stand by that, but credit where credit is due. The re-developed site on Bridgford Road is very exciting, and shows that there's life in the library yet. It's down to us residents to make sure that we use it. I for one have my library card at the ready.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

No-touching Physiotherapy

Just when you began to think that ideas couldn't get any barmier, along comes health commissioners in Rushcliffe. It seems that NHS patients will no longer get hands-on treatment, but will simply be given "advice and guidance". The aim, according to health commissioners is to help patients to "self manage their condition ... and to take control of their condition and get better quicker". 

Let's have a look at the background here. In the Government's Health and Social Care Bill, Clinical Commissioning Groups will take over from all Primary Care Trusts in April 2013.

Nottinghamshire is ahead of the Government's timetable, and has already devolved budgets to new groups. In the Borough of Rushcliffe, which is where I live, the new clinical commissioning group is called Principia, and is responsible for planning and buying healthcare services in the Borough.

This group are responsible for the no-touching rule for physiotherapy. A spokesperson said that the change in service had not been a cost-cutting measure, and that "costs were broadly the same as before". Now call me cynical if you like, but I don't believe it, and what the hell does "broadly the same" mean anyway?

There's no more of this
Today's Nottingham Post says, "For many patients suffering from chronic back, neck or joint pain, physiotherapy is an essential step on the road to recovery". Statistically, 80% of the population suffer from lower back pain at some stage in their lives, which if applied to Rushcliffe gives a figure of over 96,000 patients.

Previously under the NHS in Rushcliffe, if you had problems, you were offered one assessment and up to four treatments for physiotherapy. The clinical commissioning group has reviewed its services, and changed from being a treatment service to an advice and guidance service. As the Post says, "This means the physiotherapists are no longer allowed to touch patients, and instead give advice on what exercises they should be doing and information on how to manage their condition themselves".

Even before you can get a referral to a physiotherapist, you have to visit your GP on two occasions, six weeks apart. If you can navigate that hurdle, all patients in Rushcliffe can expect is a maximum of two physiotherapy appointments a year, and that for advice and guidance.

Following a survey of all Primary Care Trusts in the country, The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy has said that Principia was the only group not to offer a hands-on treatment to physiotherapy patients.  Commenting on the new service, the Society's Chief Executive said, "They seem to have invented a new form of physiotherapy that no one has heard of - do-not-touch physiotherapy". Patient's group are equally concerned about the new service. A spokesperson for the Local Improvement Network in Nottinghamshire said, "I think it is just awful. If you need physiotherapy, you need the treatment, not just advice". 

As someone who suffers from back pain, and has benefited over the years from physiotherapy treatment, I share the concern of many at the withdrawal of hands-on services. Even after getting advice, not everyone is in a position to access online information, and many people need practical demonstrations to ensure that they are doing physiotherapy exercises correctly. My treatment was private as I could afford to pay for it; I can though no longer afford to pay around £40 - £50 for a thirty minute session, and I expect many other people are in the same boat. So, many residents in Rushcliffe who cannot afford to pay for treatment (yes, even in this affluent Borough, there are those struggling with cash flow), knowing that there is no hands-on treatment available on the NHS for them, will probably not do anything, except suffer.

Commenting on the new service of advice and guidance instead of hands-on treatment, The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists said, "It is a completely barmy form of treating people". I agree, and I hope that the day will come when the clinical commissioning group will reverse the decision and allow the residents of Rushcliffe to receive hands-on physiotherapy treatment when they need it.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Fallacy of Social Control

Hogarth's 18th Century portrayal of drinking
Never in our history has there been so much state intervention in individual lives as a form of social control. The present Prime Minister came into office with a pledge to fix "broken Britain". The latest "moral crusade" is to deal with "binge drinking".

To do this the Government is proposing a minimum alcohol price of 40 pence per unit of alcohol, and to ban the sale of multi-buy discount deals in supermarkets, to come into effect by 2014.

The Government seems to have been persuaded by evidence from crime and health experts, who say that the 40 pence a unit minimum price could mean 50,000 fewer crimes each year and 9,000 fewer alcohol related deaths over the next decade. History does not necessarily back up the alleged promises of such interventions. This is an attempt at a "quick fix solution" to an age old problem, and in addition, it seeks to punish the responsible majority, while trying to address the problems caused by the irresponsible minority.

About four years ago, BBC News carried a report on a paper published by Professor Peter Borsay of Aberystwyth University called, "Binge drinking and moral panics: historical parallels?". His paper looked at the "gin craze" of the early 18th Century and the similarities with today. He argued that direct comparisons with drinking behaviour have been over-stretched, saying, "it is not drinking behaviour that merits the comparison, but the moral panics that characterised both periods, fuelled by pressure groups, the media and perceptions of government complacency". In my view we have this moral panic today, and a Government that feels that it has to be seen to be doing something.

But what is binge drinking?  It's often described as "drinking alcoholic beverages with the primary intention of becoming intoxicated by heavy consumption of alcohol over a short period of time". The problem for me is how 'heavy consumption' is defined. The 1995 Government report called "Sensible Drinking" redefined binge drinking as drinking twice the recommended daily limit in a single session. Martin Cornell in his blog highlights the concern with this type of definition when he says, "Since 'twice the recommended daily limit' could be as low as three or three and a half pints of beer for men and two and a half medium-sized glasses of wine for women, this suddenly put an awful lot of ordinary people's ordinary nights out into the 'binge' category". This is important when you are talking about the scale of the problem, and actually determining how many people are causing issues for the police and health services.

It's hard to get accurate, consistent figures and this is why we have such moral panic setting in yet again. Only a small minority of the population, 18% ever binge drink, which means that 82% don't. Can it be right that the 82% get punished for some misdemeanors  by the 18%? (Don't forget, not all classified binge drinkers are a drain on the police or health services). I also think that it's important to remember that binge drinking and anti-social behaviour is not a modern phenomenon; it is steeped in history, and ingrained into the mindset of many. As for supermarket offers, it is worth noting that a South Wales publican in 1836 was offering three drinks for the price of one as an early morning special offer. As for youth drinking, the novelist Daniel Owen in 1891 complained that pubs "were now filled with empty-headed youths, not old enough to shave, drinking like animals and going home in a worse state than any animal". It's also interesting to note that in relation to binge drinking, members of the Ebbw Vale Temperance Society, were allowed in the 1930's two pints of beer a day, similar to the current recommended maximum for men of 3 - 4 units per day. However, problems arose when some members of the Society decided to save up their weekly beer allowance in order to knock back 14 pints at the weekend. Needless to say, the Society soon moved to the view of total abstinence.

One final example.  In the late 1930's, Tom Harrison wrote "The Pub and the People", in which he refers to the 1854 annual report of the Worktown (Bolton) Temperance Society, which said "That drunkenness is painfully prevalent in the Borough a thousand facts bear most painful testimony. Men and women staggering along the public streets, fights brawls of the most barbarous character". So there is a long history of binge drinking and associated anti-social behaviour, but how is the cause of it described today? It is claimed that people are consuming cheap alcohol purchased in off-licences and supermarkets before going out to pubs and clubs, meaning that they are well on the way to being drunk before they drink further on their night out. I'm sure that this happens, but what is the solution?

One thing that I'm sure of is that setting a minimum price for alcohol in the belief (hope) that it will address the problem of binge drinking will not work. The wealthy will just absorb the cost, and the poor will cut back on other things. What makes people think that this will work? Has high taxation and fuel costs driven people off the roads? No. Has escalating tobacco taxes and smoking bans brought about a dramatic decrease in smoking? No. Has bringing in greater punishment for those caught using their mobile phones while driving brought more responsible driving? No. In fact, reports suggest that the use has increased since the legislation became stronger. So why think that alcohol price control will have the desired effect? It won't. So what is the solution?

An accurate picture with less drama would help, so that we can understand the level of what we are talking about. There may well be a number of options, and one of those is rarely talked about. One of the sanest comments on this matter that I've read in a long time was to be found in last Monday's edition of the Leicester Mercury. There a retired policeman wrote about pubs and clubs accepting people who had already been drinking in their homes. He said, "Unless the law has changed with the new licensing arrangements, I understand that it is an offence to sell alcohol to someone who is drunk or for someone to purchase alcohol for such a drunken person". From his experience as a policeman, he says, "There is virtually no enforcement of this legislation". David Cameron talks about giving licence holders greater powers, but they're not needed, but even if they were, the current legislation is not enforced, why should we have any confidence that new legislation would be?

The local authority responsible for the granting of the licences has the power to revoke or just suspend the licence of premises. To the retired policeman, if premises are visited regularly and action taken against the licensee if alcohol is sold to people who appear to be drunk, the trade would put its house in order. "There would then be no point in drinking before your night out as you would be refused alcohol in the pub or club if sales were prohibited to someone already apparently drunk". If this was operated seriously, there would be fewer drunks on the streets (those who just drink cheap alcohol at home would stay at home), resulting in fewer drunken accidents and assaults, less treatment required in hospital and no need for police officers being required to ensure safety of hospital staff and patients. Isn't this worth a try before using prices as a form of social control? It has the benefit of targeting those who are perceived as being the problem, rather than thrashing those who are not.

I agree with our retired policeman. "I find it abhorrent that we are all to be punished because of the lack of enforcement of the existing legislation". 

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A Last Farewell

Last resting place
Two days ago I journeyed to North Wales to fulfill my sister's last wish; she wanted her ashes to be scattered in a beauty spot not far from where we were brought up, called the Panorama.

This was a special place as we were growing up, and as six of us drove up from Penycae for the little ceremony along the narrow, winding road, I marvelled at how many times in our youth, our mother had walked this route with us.

When you arrive at the Panorama, you are met with breathtaking views in all directions. To the left you can see extended views to the Shropshire and Cheshire plains; immediately to your right is part of the Eglwyseg Mountain, which is an outcrop of Carboniferous Limestone which stretches from World's End to Trevor. The Panorama road and walk follows this mountain. Look down and you see the Vale of Llangollen, with its broad valley floor, which is between 300 and 450 feet below the top of the Eglwyseg Mountain. You can see the River Dee, as well as the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. Looking across the valley you can see Ffynon-las-Wood and Tyn Celyn Wood. When looking to your right, you can see the beautiful town of Llangollen nestled in the valley, and high above the town on as isolated hill can be seen Castell Dinas Bran (or Crow Castle). Just out of sight is the remains of the 13th Century Valle Crucis Abbey, which was largely destroyed by Henry V111 during his purge of the Monasteries. A slight hop further along brings you to the famous Horseshoe Pass.

Llangollen from the Panorama
It's little wonder that Sue chose this spot for her last resting place. As I stood and gazed across the valley, my mind went back to over 50 years ago and the many times that mum and her two children would walk from Penycae, along the Panorama road, sometimes up the steep hill to Crow Castle (sometimes taking the road around the hill) and down the other side to Llangollen. I'm getting weary just thinking about it.

My sister's last wish has now been fulfilled, and after a difficult last twelve months for her, I hope she now has some peace. Though very emotional, it was a joy for me to be back on the Panorama, and in the Llangollen area; who knows whether I might ever see it again. Let me flesh out a few details, so that it explains why this area is so special.

Castell Dinas Bran
As previously mentioned, Castell Dinas Bran or Crow Castle in English sits high above the town of Llangollen, and is reached by a long and steep climb. It is steeped in myths and legends.

It has been said to be the possible burial site of the Holy Grail of the Arthurian legends. It was the 13th Century home of Madoc ap Gruffydd Maelor who founded the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey, and is also believed to be the stronghold of Eliseg, Prince of Powys in the 6th Century. The views of Llangollen and the Dee Valley are stunning.

The town of Llangollen dates back to around the 7th Century, and in keeping with so many ancient Welsh towns, takes its name from its founding Saint; Collen was a 7th Century Monk. The story goes that St Collen was instructed to find a valley by riding a horse for one day and then stop and mark out a "parish", a place to build his hermitage, with tiny Church, hospice and outhouses all enclosed within a wall. The word Llan means Church or village, and Gollen is after the Saint Collen, so Llangollen means "Village of Collen". [Some say that Llan means "fortified Church yard"]

Autograph 1958
The town has a population of just over 3,000, but every July this swells to over 120,000 visitors as they flock to the world famous Llangollen International Eisteddfod.

Many of the surrounding towns and villages play host to competitors from across the world, and my village of Penycae was no exception. In sorting out my sister's effects, I came across a long lost autograph book of mine from 1958. It has a number of signatures and messages from around that period which I'd forgotten all about. It is now part of my treasures.

The Railway in Llangollen was opened in 1862, and though it's hard to imagine now, at one time it was possible to board the train at Llangollen Station and travel to London without a single change. Don't anyone tell me that the rail network is an improvement today. The railway was closed to passengers in 1965, and to goods in 1968, and it was seven years before railway enthusiasts could reopen part of the line. Steam trains now operate along part of the Dee Valley, giving a glimpse of what it must have been like to pass through this wonderful scenery in its heyday.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Majestically running across the valley floor is the Llangollen Canal. Today, from Llangollen Wharf,  you can take a 45-minute horse drawn trip, or a two hour trip on a traditional Canal narrow boat.

The journey takes you through the Vale of Llangollen and across the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain. Completed by Thomas Telford in 1805, and standing 126 feet above the River Dee, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece of engineering.

For over 100 years pleasure boats have been operating from Llangollen Wharf, and they seem to be as popular today as they have ever been. The town, castle, railway and canal all add to the beauty of this part of the world, and help to make the Vale of Llangollen a very special place.

Monument to I.D. Hooson
Let me finish by going back to where we began - the Panorama. Just a short distance from where we scattered Sue's ashes; up a short path further up on the Eglwyseg Mountain is a monument to the Welsh poet Isaac Daniel Hooson (who was always known as I.D. Hooson).

His grandfather was one of a group of lead miners who left Cornwall and settled around Holywell in Flintshire. Later I.D.'s father, Edward moved from Holywell to Rhosllanerchrugog and set up his own grocers and drapery shop in the village.

I.D. Hooson was born in Victoria House, Market Street, Rhosllanerchrugog in 1880, and lived in the same house until his death in 1948. He was a solicitor, and from 1920 to 1943 was Official Receiver in Bankruptcy in the Chester and North Wales area. He was a patron of Urdd Gobaith Cymru (which translates as "Welsh League of Youth", and is Wales' largest youth organisation, with over 50,000 members today). He was also a member of the council of the National Eisteddfod. In 2007 a new Welsh school was opened in Rhosllanerchrugog and called in his honour, "Ysgol ID Hooson". He was a very proud Welshman.

Undoubtedly he is best remembered for his poetry, though as I don't speak Welsh, I haven't had the joy of reading it, but have had to rely on the comments of others. He is recognised as one of Wales' premier poets. During his lifetime he published only one collection: "Cerddi a Baledi" in 1936, but a second collection, "Y Gwin a Cherddi Eraill" was published shortly after his death in 1948. Those that know his works reckon that he is best known for his poems written for children.

I.D. Hooson is looking down over where Sue's ashes were scattered, so she has good company on the Panorama, and you can't ask for much more than that in life or in death, can you?

Friday, 30 March 2012

Turning a rumour into a crisis

I don't own a car. I can't afford one, and quite frankly I don't need one. Where I live, public transport is perfectly adequate for my daily needs. If there's something really special that I need to do away from my area, then I hire a car. This is cost effective, and only happens two or three times a year.

This weekend is one of those occasions. I picked up a rental car this morning for a four day hire, so that I could collect my sister's ashes from Lichfield, and take them up to Wales over the weekend to scatter them, according to her wishes, in a well loved beauty spot. So far so good. I began to worry a little bit when on my way to the car hire place I saw a Nottingham Post headline outside a newsagents which said, "Notts petrol stations run out of fuel as panic hits the forecourts". What on earth was going on?

The car had about a quarter tank of fuel, so I obviously needed to get some more. In touring around (wasting valuable fuel), Sainsbury's and Tesco's had run out, one or two smaller garages were restricting customers to a maximum of £5 of fuel, and those garages (for example Asda) who seemed to still have an adequate supply also had horrendous queues waiting to get in. I decided to make my way to Lichfield in the hope that everywhere wasn't as mad as Nottingham. At the Donington Park Services there was plenty of petrol, and no queues, but of course the price is exorbitant. Beggars can't be choosers, and I filled up, then made my way to Lichfield. Tomorrow I will have enough to get up to Wales which will allow me to do what I have to do. I'll worry about getting back on Monday. Why on earth was all of this so difficult?

We know that tanker drivers have voted for industrial action, but here are some key points;

  • There are no dates set for any strikes
  • The UNITE Union is currently in talks with ACAS, which may bring a resolution
  • The Union says that even if there are any strikes, they won't be until after Easter
  • If there are strikes, there'll be at least seven days notice of them happening
So why the panic? The Government has not helped here. One Minister, Francis Maude gave the advice that people should fill jerry cans with petrol to prepare for a fuel tanker strike. This has caused apoplexy in the Fire Brigades Union, who have warned that it would "massively increase" the risk of fires and explosions. The maximum that you can legally store in appropriate containers is 30 litres, and these must not be in domestic dwellings or buildings attached to domestic dwellings. So people without a garage, or have one attached to the house are in trouble. David Cameron has distanced himself from Maude's advice, but has said that it is "sensible" to keep the car topped up. Neither men are being particularly helpful here. But there's something else.

In yesterday's Telegraph newspaper, Dan Hodges had an article with the headline, "Petrol panic: it's hard to tell who's stupider, the Government of the governed". And he goes on to say, "If you filled up your car today because Francis Maude told you to, you're an idiot. Sorry to be so blunt about it, but you are. In fact, anyone who has taken any action over the past seven days on the advice of ministers in this Government needs their head examining. Don't get me wrong. Francis Maude - acting like Corporal Jones after a posting to the Desert Rats, with his order not to panic, but break out the jerry cans just in case - is an idiot too. But seriously; if he went on television tonight and told you to put your hand in the fire, would you?" 

I agree with Dan Hodges. Do other nations panic as easily as the British? Are others as daft, as when we see a queue we must join it? We don't even know yet that there is going to be a strike, but even if there is, why panic now? There's time. Oh to heed the words of AA President Edmund King , who said two days ago, "It's vital that people do not turn a rumour into a crisis".  But I guess that too many people actually love a crisis.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I believe in: The equality of man

Westminster Hall, London
Yesterday, the Queen, as part of her Jubilee Celebrations addressed members of both houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall.

It was of course covered by the BBC, and I watched the first half hour of the programme, but switched off before the speeches, for reasons that will become evident.

What a marvellous building this is. To quote from the Westminster web site, "Westminster Hall is the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate. What makes it such an astonishing building is not simply its great size and the magnificence of its roof, but its central role in British history. Closely involved in the life of the nation since the 11th Century, a journey through the Hall's past is a journey through 900 fascinating years of our history".

While I marvelled at the magnificence of the Hall, what was going on under its awesome ceiling filled me with nausea. You see, I don't believe in a monarchy, and never have, though I do remember once, in support of the organisation I worked for attending a Royal Garden Party at Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland. I did escape a line that was waiting to shake hands, as that would have been too much, but I must say that the strawberries were wonderful, but as it was the season for them, they would have been great anywhere. I'm not an aggressive anti-monarchist, or a rabid republican: neither to I want to reintroduce the guillotine, imprison royalty or banish them to some far off island. It's the institution that I object to not the personalities. I'm sure that the Queen is very nice, and that Prince Philip, in spite of the occasional blunders is no worse than anyone else.

Thomas Paine
The reason why I am not a monarchist is because I believe in the equality of man. (I use man in the generic sense to denote man and woman). You cannot have equality when you are described as "My loyal subjects". If you are a subject then you are inferior to the person you are subject to. Superiority or inferiority have no place in the equality of man.

I'm currently reading "The Works of Thomas Paine" - and this man could write. Though born to a Quaker family in Thetford, Norfolk in 1737, he went to live in Philadelphia around 1774, where he began a new career as a journalist. In 1776 he published a short pamphlet (though the definition of a short pamphlet in the 18th Century is very different from that of today) called "Common Sense". He quickly gained a reputation as a revolutionary propagandist. As one of his biographers said, "He attacked monarchical government and the alleged virtues of the British constitution, opposing any reconciliation with Great Britain. He also urged an immediate declaration of independence and the establishment of a republican constitution".

He rested his case on the moral basis of the natural equality of men (in the sight of God). The statement about natural equality is true whether you are religious or not. If religious, then we are all created equal; if not religious then we are all born equal. In the same year as Paine published his pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson was responsible for writing the United States Declaration of Independence, which declares, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Eighty seven years later, Abraham Lincoln in his famous Gettysburg Address, referring to the Declaration of Independence, opened with "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal".

There have been those who have pointed out that this equality was fine as long as you're not black or a native American Indian. This comment has not been made with the benefit of hind sight, as in the year that the Declaration was written, the abolitionist Thomas Day said about its hypocrisy, "If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves". One hundred and eighty seven years later in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr was still waiting for this equality, when in his famous 'I have a dream' speech, he said, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal".

The fact that men are imperfect, and have imperfectly followed through on this equality does not negate the belief that all men are born equal, and remain equal. Monarchy is incompatible with equality. Monarchy says that some are better than others, that the majority should be subservient to the minority, that the few should be fawned over by the many. The equality of man does not allow for subservience; for fawning obedience; for bowing or scraping; for allegiance. Socialism believes in the equality of man, and therefore I don't believe that a Socialist can also be a Monarchist.

In Tony Benn's blog of June 2002, at the time of the last Jubilee, he wrote, "In Royal Britain we are expected to confine our loyalty to someone at the top rather than express it in solidarity with our fellow men and women, and this is the basis of the feudal class system within which our duty is to those put above us, know our place and keep it out of respect for our betters. The feudal class system is still a very powerful force in Britain, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the socialist definition of class which identifies very different economic interest between those who work to create the nation's wealth and the handful at the top who own that wealth". He also said in a Guardian article in 2003, "Above all, the existence of a hereditary monarchy helps to prop up all the privilege and patronage that corrupts our society; that is why the crown is seen as being of such importance to those who run the country - or enjoy the privileges it affords". 

The equality of man is not just some fancy philosophical statement; it has to be seen to work out in practice. As far as I'm concerned, Monarchy has no place in a modern, so-called democracy, because there is no equality of man with it in place. The alternative to monarchy is an elected First Citizen who would be fully accountable to the Parliament that we also elect. Was this what Lincoln was saying in his Gettysburg address, when he concluded with the words, "... that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". But that's for another discussion.

At the last Jubilee in 2002, Tony Benn wrote words that are still relevant. "The Jubilee has provided them (the people at the top) with a marvellous opportunity to put the clock back more than a hundred years by providing bread and circuses for the peasants and allowing the powerful to celebrate their new found sense of security". 

I've tried to be reasoned and reasonable here; avoiding personal criticism of the present royalty, as it is the issue of monarchy and not the personalities that is important. Let me leave the final word with the Monarchy, in the shape of Prince Charles. "Something as curious as the Monarchy won't survive unless you take account of people's attitudes. After all, if people don't want it, they won't have it". Well I for one don't want it, as it is an affront to the equality of man.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A Great Day to be Welsh (in sporting terms)

Champions Wales 2012
Yesterday, being St Patrick's Day was a great day to celebrate being Irish. Or if Nottingham was anything to go by, an opportunity for hundreds of people with no Irish connection at all to don silly Guinness shaped hats; pretend to have an Irish accent, and get drunk.

I missed the St Patrick's Day parade; actually I avoided it. I haven't been to a parade since Belfast in the early 1970's, which put me off them totally, though I have no desire to prevent others from experiencing this strange form of enjoyment.

I do like my sport though, and with apologies to the Irish, and English, and Scottish, and Italian, and French, yesterday was a great day to be Welsh. Wales won the Six Nations Rugby championship by beating the five other nations over the last few weeks. At the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, they beat France 16 - 9, and so achieved the Grand Slam. This is the 3rd time in 8 years, and the 2nd time in the last 5 years that they have achieved this, which had Jonathan Davies talking about them in terms of the great sides of the 1970's. I'm not so sure that they're at that level yet, but they're still quite a young side, so who knows. They have however matched the achievement of 34 years ago by winning three Grand Slams in eight years. I remember Welsh Rugby in the 1970's, and the video below gives a glimpse of the magic of those days.

This was the golden era of 1969 - 1979 when Wales won four consecutive Triple Crowns, with players whose names still trip off the tongue: Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, J.P.R. Williams, J.J. Williams, John Taylor, Mervyn Davies, (known as Merv the Swerve, and who sadly died just 3 days ago), Gerald Davies, and the Pontypool front row of Graham Price, Bobby Windsor and Charlie Faulkner.

Some people (mostly from outside of Wales it has to be said) are begrudgingly giving praise to Wales, but saying that the real test of how good they are is when they play teams from the Southern Hemisphere, such as Australia and New Zealand. Oh come off it. People don't say that when England win. Let's just acknowledge that as far as the Six Nations is concerned, Wales are the best team in the Northern Hemisphere, and that as far as Rugby is concerned, it's a great time to be Welsh.

But it's not just rugby. Yesterday, for the first time this season I watched Match of the Day. There were only two Premiership matches played, so there were some decent highlights shown.

First on was Fulham verses Swansea from Craven Cottage, with the result, Fulham 0, Swansea 3. This lifted Swansea to 8th position in the league, which is a remarkable achievement for a team who have just come up from the Championship.

But it wasn't just the score that impressed me, as good as that was against a very decent Fulham side. It was the manner in which Swansea played the game. I've read a lot of the plaudits that they have received for their style of football, and I was looking forward to seeing this for myself.

In the analysis of the game afterwards, they showed a marvellous clip which they had speeded up. It was a sequence of 30 - 40 passes lasting nearly 1:40 seconds, and it was a great example of possession football. And all of it was played on the grass, which reminded me of the great quote from Brian Clough, "If God meant us to play in the clouds he would have put grass there". Gary Linecar felt that Swansea were almost "Barcelonaesque" in the way that they played football. This is the kind of hyperbole that I would have been proud of. There are no "stars" in the team, just players who are comfortable on the ball, and know how to use it well. They are a credit to football, and another reason why yesterday was a great day to be Welsh.

But enough of this Welsh love-in. Yesterday also showed that football and rugby are just games, and other things in life are much more important. This was brought home by the collapse of Fabrice Muamba from a suspected heart attack while playing in the FA Cup for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur. Muamba is a former England under 21's player, and is young, fit and wealthy, but this didn't stop his heart from giving out, and at the time of writing this on Sunday evening, he remains in a critical condition. There really are no guarantees in life are there. I do hope that he pulls through OK.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Same-Sex Marriage

I was determined to keep out of the "Same Sex Marriage" (Gay Marriage) debate, as to be honest, all I really want is a quiet life. However, I am so angry, even apoplectic at the level of debate, that I've got to get it out of my system.

On Thursday, the Government launched a 12-week consultation on allowing gay couples in England and Wales to marry. The full consultation document can be read here. We've known this was coming for quite a while. In September 2010 the Liberal Democrats at the party's conference endorsed same-sex marriage. In February 2011 the Government expressed its intention to begin a consultation to allow both religious same-sex ceremonies and civil marriage for same-sex couples. In September 2011 the Government announced that it would introduce same-sex civil marriages by the next general election (2015). It's important to understand the scope of this consultation; the Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone said, "The essential question is not whether we are going to introduce same-sex civil marriage but how". It will happen before 2015.

What exactly is the Government proposing? In summary, they are;

  • to allow same-sex couples to marry in a register office or other civil ceremony
  • to retain civil partnerships for same-sex couples and allow couples already in a civil partnership to convert it into a marriage
  • to allow people to stay married and legally change their gender
  • to maintain the legal ban on same-sex couples marrying in a religious service
Lynne Featherstone couldn't be clearer on the last point, "We're not looking at changing religious marriage, even for those that might wish to do it". The Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper has said, "Churches who want to celebrate gay marriage [should have] the chance to do so". Not to do so is for Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, "... not only homophobic but also an attack on religious freedom. While no religious body should be forced to conduct same-sex marriages, those that want to conduct them should be free to do so". But it's not going to happen yet. 

However, the proposal to "redefine marriage" has brought down a torrent of invective and Armageddon like prophecies. The campaign group, Coalition for Marriage has said, "Marriage is so much a part of everyday life. If we change its meaning in law, it will have a knock-on effect in everyday life". What in god's name will this knock-on effect be? Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland has called the plans "grotesque", and if implemented would "shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world". Don't you just want to scream? The Church of England says, "Arguments that suggest religious marriage is separate and different from civil marriage, and will not be affected by the proposed redefinition, misunderstand the legal nature of marriage in this country". But it's this status quo that is being addressed. It's being redefined and broadened out; there is no misunderstanding.

The other Sunday, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the most senior Roman Catholic cleric in England, wrote a pastoral letter to be read at mass across the country warning about the proposed changes. He said, "There would be no recognition of the complementarity of male and female, or that marriage is intended for the procreation and education of children". So does this mean that those male and female married couples who have failed, for whatever reason, to have children have failed in their marriage? 

I have read scores of articles, blogs and comment boards on the Government plans, and frankly I'm appalled by some of the language used, which I cannot bring myself to copy here. Of course, as a fervent believer in freedom of expression, everybody has the right to express their opinion, but what they don't have is the right to express that opinion in a way that becomes almost a hate crime. When this is done in the name of God, it is reprehensible. Thankfully, there are those within the Churches who do not share the views of their 'leaders' or support the bile from fellow communicants. Following the Roman Catholic letter read out across their Churches, one communicant wrote a letter to the national press. I'm happy to reproduce one paragraph of it here. "I walked out ...into the fresh air ... I am ashamed to call myself a Catholic today. I am heterosexual and I have a solid marriage and have two beautiful and amazing children. But I am astounded at the bigotry that was read out at mass last Sunday. My adrenaline was pumping and heart was palpitating, and I was already sweating. I could not sit in that room. To ostracise a whole group of people, to demonise them, to exclude and deem them a laughing stock and not real human beings with human feelings is an outrage, an atrocity and unbelievable in this modern age. And what I was reeling at most was the hatred. Religion is about love, surely?" 

Equally, not all "religious groups" are closed to the subject. The Quakers at their 2009 Yearly Meeting decided to recognise opposite-sex and same-sex marriages equally and perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. They have asked the Government to change the law so that such marriages in their Meeting Houses would be legal. I do love the Quakers.  

It's those who claim to have a religious persuasion that are making the most noise about same-sex marriages, but why should we take any more notice of them than anyone else? The answer we're often told is because we are a Christian country, and our values are Christian. But I beg to differ. Britain is an increasingly secular society, with only a small minority regularly taking part in religious rites. In the question on religion in the 2001 Census, 37 million people said they were of the Christian faith (there were around 54 million people living in England and Wales), yet in the British Social Attitudes Survey run most years from 1983 to 2008, the percentage of respondents reporting religious affiliation was down from 70% to 55%, and respondents who said that they attended Church at least once a month was down from 21% to 15%. So in 2008, the survey shows that those who do not attend some Church at least once a month was 85.1%. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Britain being a Christian country.

The religious campaign group, Catholic Voices commissioned a survey which was reported in The Telegraph today. The results of the poll showed that 70% of people were opposed to same-sex marriage, and so the Government were completely out of touch with public opinion. Now I don't have a lot of time for opinion polls, but lets play along with it. So Catholic Voices says that 70% are against same-sex marriage, but a poll conducted by YouGov a week ago showed that 43% were in favour and a further 32% supported civil partnerships, with only 16% opposed to the recognition of homosexual relationships all together. If we go back even further we find a Gallup poll in 2004 having 52% of people agreeing with same-sex marriage; in 2008, ICM Research had 55% agreeing; in 2009 Populus had 61% agreeing, and in 2011, Angus Reid Public Opinion had 43% agreeing with same-sex marriage and a further 34% for civil partnerships. Rather than the Government proposal being out of touch with public opinion, it is fully in line with it, and the trend has been for increased support over the years. 

It is worth noting also that about twice as many Britons now marry in secular, civil ceremonies than in religious rites. When Cardinal O'Brien said that same-sex marriage "would shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world", it was as if the UK was the first to go down this route. As far as I can tell, the list of countries that allow same-sex marriage includes Spain, Canada, Argentina, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and Belgium. Hardly a list of back-wood countries is it? 

Since civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, there have been around 50,000 of them, and who knows how many same-sex couples will want to get married. I haven't canvassed the gay community, or spoken to those that I know are gay, because how many is not important. Whether there's one couple or one hundred thousand couples, the issue is the same. Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights charity Stonewall, has said the issue was neither about religious freedom nor party politics. And I agree with him. For him, "Ultimately it's about the freedom of a small group of people to be treated in exactly the same way as everyone else". 

I leave the last word with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams who said, "The law should not be used as a tool to bring about social changes such as gay marriage". What an extraordinary statement. The law has been used to bring about social changes for generations, but gay marriage should be exempt. Just pick and choose what social changes you want the law to bring about. Incredible. It really is time for the Church of England to be disestablished. 

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Moving into e-books

For nearly twelve months I've been dithering over a decision, but last week I took the plunge - I bought a Kindle.

The reason that I dithered was because I didn't want to be a 'traitor' to the hard copy books that I love to handle, and see on my shelves.

I've been a small customer of Amazon for a while, and I think that I have been eventually worn down by their regular emails recommending further reading, in line with books that I'd previously ordered.

Every email was also advertising the Kindle, and eventually, my admittedly tenuous resistance was broken. So last week, I clicked "Order Now", and within a few days it arrived. I don't want to see the end of printed books that I can hold in my hands, but that's not going to happen in my lifetime, and after all, this is the 21st Century, so why can't traditional printed books and e-books go hand in hand?

A practical reason for buying a Kindle is that I'm getting on a bit now, and while I love to read in bed, my arms have started to get tired of holding rather large, heavy and cumbersome books. Now (courtesy of Amazon information), my Kindle weighs less than 170 grams, fits in my coat pocket, and holds up to 1,400 books, which will do me for a while. As an aside, I was struck by Amazon's vision for Kindle, where they say, "Our vision for Kindle is to have every book ever written, in every language, available in 60 seconds from anywhere on earth". Now, I've written a few vision statements in my time, but nothing so awesome as this one.

My reader will no doubt be asking how on earth did I get on setting the thing up, knowing about my aversion to setting up anything. Well, all I had to do apparently was link it in with my wi-fi; how hard can that be? It turned out that in spite of me being stupid, it wasn't very hard at all, and I was already to go. Now was the time to download (or is it upload? I can never remember) some books. Being the big spender that I am, I decided to see what I could get for £10, and I ended up getting five books (which I'll come to in moment).

Because I've ordered from Amazon before, all of my details are on file. Being still a bit awestruck by technology, I was amazed by their "one-click to order" button. I selected the book, clicked the button, and I swear that within 10 seconds I had an order confirmation email, and the book on my Kindle. This happened with all five books. I was well impressed, though I did exceed my budget by 28 pence. So what did I purchase and why?

  1. Crap MP's by Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Dr Geoffrey Hicks(99p) -  This is the authors' choice of 40 MP's from the 16th Century to the present day, but there's nothing really that hasn't been said before.
  2. The Prince & The Art of War by Niccolo Machiavelli (77p) - I've read about Machiavelli before, but never something by him. I'm interested to learn from his own words how the word 'Machiavellian' came into our language.
  3. The Complete Works of Thomas Paine (77p) - This radical political figure of the 18th Century, active in England, America and France, as well as a powerful advocate of Deism, has long fascinated me.
  4. The CIA World Factbook 2012 (£1.30) - No idea why I bought this. I think I just got carried away in the excitement.
  5. More Time for Politics by Tony Benn, Diaries from 2001 - 2007 (£6.45) - I've just finished his 'Free at Last' diaries from 1991 - 2001, and as he is one of my political heroes, I wanted to read more. 
So what do I think of my three days with Kindle? Marvellous; now I wish I hadn't waited nearly twelve months to get it. I now of course spend even longer sitting on a bench in the middle of the day. 

Monday, 12 March 2012

Hopes, Aspirations, Dreams, Plans

Boots Library, Goldsmith Street, Nottingham
Yesterday, the warm air hit you as soon as you opened the front door. As usual I was dressed for winter, but the warmth wouldn't last would it, so I didn't change. What a mistake.

Layers started to come off as soon as I left the tram at the Premier Inn, opposite the Boots Library in Goldsmith Street. That meant carrying a jumper and heavy top coat - will I never learn? The Premier Inn also houses a Costa coffee house, and I sat outside with my cappuccino watching part of the student world go by.

What will this generation of students achieve, or what will they be allowed to achieve? When I was watching those go in and out of the library; others having coffee with friends, and still others in groups large and small making their way into town, I wondered what hopes, aspirations, dreams, plans they had. I hoped that they had some, rather than just waiting to see what happens. These would be part of the next generation of scientists, educationalists, politicians, lawyers and whatever was their chosen field, and while university is also a time to enjoy yourself (or so I'm told), it is also the time to prepare for the future. No pressure there then.

How embarrassing
In making my way to the Arboretum to finish my coffee, I found scores of students (I overheard some conversations) who obviously preferred a sunny afternoon in the park, rather than an air conditioned library.

If I had the body for it I would have sun-bathed myself, but I don't so I didn't. I'm always afraid that some concerned citizen will ring up the authorities and say that somehow a whale has beached in central Nottingham.

You almost needed a ticket system to find a park bench, but I eventually found a free one overlooking the Chinese Bell Tower; it was worth the wait for its comedic value. There was a mixed group of about a dozen students sprawled over the tower having their lunch. Some of the lads were stripped to the waist showing off their six-packs, and obviously trying to get the female attention. They were like peacocks without the plumage. The funny thing is that the girls were paying more attention to what was on their mobiles, than anything that the lads got up to. With damage done to the male pride, some of the lads seemed to admit defeat, and did what many of us have done when we've been rejected, they had a game of football.

As an old man I was beginning to find all of this very humorous, but then I remembered that there's nothing new in this. Men have always postured to get the attention of others; always used their bodies as part of the mating rituals. I remembered that I was a bit of a poser myself in my youth, as the embarrassing photograph above of me shows. Girls were driven wild by my slim and cool exterior (Oops! Apologies, I've slipped into dreamland again; just like those on the Bell Tower cannons, I was more ignored than acknowledged).

The students were certainly having fun, and that's part of life. I also hope that they have dreams and plans, and that those come to fruition, not only for their benefit, but for the country also.

While still on the subject of students, I went into town today, and while walking down Bridlesmith Walk, I noticed a photographic exhibition by second year students from Nottingham Trent University, so I went in to have a look. Bridlesmith Walk is not exactly the mecca for "foot fall", but the exhibition had taken over an empty shop.

I was interested because a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the town centre (yes, I know I do a lot of that), when a young lady came up to me and said she was a photography student who was taking photos of people in town, and would I mind if she took mine. I should have asked, "Why me"?, but I didn't, so I just said yes. I don't think that it was my physique that impressed her; I just hope that she doesn't put a caption like "Lonely old man on a city bench". But I wasn't in the exhibition.

I love photographs, and the student exhibition was very good. My eldest son is keen on photography, and you can see some of his latest pictures of London here. That's worth a pint by anyone's standards.  Good photography for me seems to be all about the eye; good equipment yes, but it's the eye that sees the image you want to capture. The NTU students had this, and the exhibition showed it.

Hopes, Aspirations, Dreams, Plans - what will the future bring?

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Why have a Directly Elected Mayor?

Currently there are fourteen directly elected mayors in England, and in addition, Liverpool will elect their first mayor in May 2012.

Up to now, there have been 37 referendums on whether to establish an elected mayor in English local authorities. Twelve have been passed and 25 rejected by the voters. A Government press release last month, said, "The Coalition Agreement proposed the creation of directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities outside of London, subject to confirmatory referendum and full scrutiny by elected councillors". Of those 12, Leicester elected its mayor last year, and Liverpool will do so this year. The remaining 10 cities are Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle Upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. As these cities have not voluntarily chosen to go down the route of having elected mayors, as the Local Government Act 2000 and 2007 allows them to, and as they have also not chosen to hold a referendum, the Government has decided to force the cities to hold a referendum, in the name of Localism.

The historic position in local council's is that Councillors are elected by the people at Ward level, and then those Councillors elect someone to be the leader of the council. A cabinet is then formed, which reports to the full council.

An elected mayor need not be a Councillor, and cannot be removed by Councillors; only the electorate can do that every four years. One question that has been nagging away at me is what is the difference between a leader and an elected mayor? I suggest that you look at Nottingham City Council's web site here, where I think you will find some helpful answers to the question. So, on the 3rd May 2012, Nottingham and nine other cities will hold a referendum so that the people can decide whether they want to go down the route of having an elected mayor.

The Government's View
According to their press release, the Government believes that elected mayors can provide cities with a strong, visible leadership that will help them prosper nationally and internationally. The Minister for Cities, Greg Clark said, "Out greatest cities can benefit from the prestige and international standing a mayor can bring, helping them to achieve their full potential. For Britain to be successful our cities need to be successful. An elected mayor with a strong voice can seize the opportunities for their city to compete on the world stage".

In the House of Commons Library Standard Note published on the 10th February, it says, "As regards mayoral powers, the Localism Act allows for the delegation of 'local public functions' to 'permitted authorities'. The Government is taking a 'bespoke' city-by-city approach to the decentralisation of powers". 

Nottingham City Council's View
The city council are opposed to the introduction of an elected mayor, and have been consistent with that view since they passed a resolution in July 2011.

In the Council's opinion;

  • The Government's Impact Assessment identifies that a mayor would cost around £1 million over five years. Government estimates show the costs of the referendum as £300,000, elections in 2012 and 2017 as £384,000 in total and average additional salary costs of an elected mayor over Council Leader as £70,613 a year. 
  • It has been suggested that some of the costs could be covered by reducing the number of councillors, but this would reduce representation at a neighbourhood level. Elsewhere, ward councillors' work has shifted to the mayor, undermining their role.
  • Nottingham City Council's current strong leader and cabinet model requires the Executive to recommend the budget and strategic policies to Council which may approve, overturn or amend them by a simple majority. Under a mayor and cabinet, the Executive submits the budget and strategic policies to Council which ultimately may only amend or overturn them by a two-thirds majority. This seems to diminish the role of council by making it harder to overturn a mayoral decision. 
  • The Government's move to instigate a change of governance arrangements should be a matter for local councils and is not compatible with 'localism'. 
So Nottingham City Council are at war with the Government (not for the first time I might add), but it's the people who will decide on the 3rd May. I'm not eligible to vote as I live just outside the city boundary, but if I was, how would I vote? The Guardian, in an editorial on the 27th February came out in favour of directly elected mayors. Two days later they published a very interesting series of letters on the subject. In carefully considering the matter, I find myself with four concerns that lead me to the view that I'm opposed to the introduction of a directly elected mayor. 

As I've already mentioned, the Government is taking a 'bespoke' city-by-city approach to the decentralisation of powers. This means that different mayors may have different powers, and we don't know if it will be up to those mayors to negotiate those powers for their city. Here's a major problem for the referendum, voters are being asked to make a decision about whether to change to the mayoral model without having the full information on what powers a mayor would have. I find this to be totally unacceptable.

Also, the Government's view that "elected mayors can provide cities with strong, visible leadership" seems to be part of a belief in the power of super-personalities, and as one of the Guardian letters says, "leads to the foolishness of celebrity worship and the obscenity of million-pound payments to City fat cats". (If a recent letter to the Nottingham Post is to be believed, this is happening in a neighbouring City with a newly elected mayor who has proposed to increase his salary from £44,000 to £100,000 a year). I think that there's enough cult of personality in central Government without introducing it into local Government as well. And who is to say that a new system will be better than the current one? Who is to say that the right person will be elected, "who can provide cities with strong, visible leadership"? The Guardian is correct when it says that "such an outcome is by no means certain". It also points out that "some elected mayors have struggled to be effective, sometimes on competence grounds and especially if elected as protest candidates against the town hall establishment". 

I have a real problem with the imposition of a referendum in the name of localism. Another letter in the Guardian draws attention to an article written by Professor George Jones and Professor John Stewart, where they say that the Localism Act 2011 "imposes referendums on local people and local authorities, not sought by either", and "is not based on a logic of localism, but on a logic of centralism". Nottingham Council, elected by local people, are being forced to go down a route dictated to them by central Government. I cannot be happy with this.

Finally, something that is far more important to me than any of the above. No system is perfect, and mistakes will happen, but Matthew Huntbach in a letter to the Guardian has encapsulated very well my thinking here, so I quote from him. "The committee system of local government, with wards small enough for personal contact, is still a key aspect of winning, and offering a career path into politics to those who don't have the fortune to run a city-wide campaign, is a glorious part of Britain's heritage. (The Guardian's) claim that all power in the hands of one person is more effective than power shared by representatives of various opinions echoes the line used in the last century in favour of a similar system of governance, though at a national level than local level, that it 'makes the trains run on time'". 

I hope that Nottingham votes NO to having a directly elected mayor. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

What now for Peaceful Protests?"

Occupy Nottingham
So, Nottingham City Council are to go to court to evict the "Occupy Nottingham" camp from the Old Market Square. This is in line with other authorities across the world who have removed protesters from their areas.

The "Occupy the Cities" movement began in Wall Street, New York in September 2011, and swiftly spread to cities across America and the world. Occupy Nottingham began on the 15th October 2011, so in a weeks time it will have been in the Market Square for six months. The Occupy movement was largely a protest against the international financial system, with particular UK focus on unfair banking practices resulting in the near collapse of the banking system. Many banks were rescued with taxpayers money, resulting in debts that all of us are expected to pay for. Have lessons been learnt, as even largely taxpayers owned banks are still paying immoral bonuses to senior executives. The Occupy Movement's slogan of "We are the 99%" is a message that the 1% should not destroy the lives of the rest of us. The camps have been a great way of drawing attention to the greed of capitalism, and the iniquity of government cuts. I have supported the protest 100%, because they are presenting a message that needs to be heard.

Occupy Nottingham Common Statement
I have read and heard a number of people who do not support the protest, criticize those who are involved for not providing details of viable alternatives to the system that they are criticizing. 

This is grossly unfair. There is a "Occupy Nottingham Common Statement" for all to see at the camp. There are good points made as to what should be done. For example, point 5 declares that "We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate". Without this, it's like an old boys network.

Also, why should protesters who may well largely be ordinary working class people be expected to come up with all of the detailed answers? Isn't this what we elect our politicians for? Isn't this what we pay senior executives for? The Occupy Movement has rightly pointed out what is wrong, and what needs to change. If enough people agree with this, then it is up to our representatives in Parliament and local government to bring about the changes that are needed to ensure a fairer society for all. So, what now for the we are the 99%?

In considering all of this, two issues come to light. One is the right to peaceful protest, and the other is do protests have a shelf life? (I may address the latter in a future blog).

Where does Nottingham City Council's aim to evict the Market Square protesters stand in relation to the right to peaceful protest? The Council's Corporate Director of Communities has said, "We've got an increasing number of businesses and members of the public who have raised concerns about the camp". We're not told how many people have raised these concerns; is it 10, 100, 1000? What was the nature of these complaints? Do such complaints allow the rights of others to peaceful protest to be denied?

The Government's own website, Directgov says, "The right to peaceful protest is a vital part of democracy, and it has a long, distinguished history in the UK. Taking part in a demonstration, rally or protest is a high-profile way to take a stand on issues important to you. Protests can make a real difference - leading to changes in governmental policies and laws. Peaceful protests allow people to come together and stand up for what they believe in, and can be a very effective way of promoting change".

The Human Rights Act protects freedom of expression and freedom of assembly - these form the basis for our right to gather with others and protest. The Act forbids governments and other public bodies, including the Police, from violating those rights. There are of course limitations on these rights, but these are designed to prevent unrest, violence and crime, and for the protection of the rights and freedom of others.

Let's look at this in relation to the Occupy Nottingham camp. For nearly six months this has been a peaceful protest; as far as I'm aware, there has been no reports of unrest, violence or crime. As for protecting the rights and freedom of others, I can't see the problem. Some may claim that it's unsightly, but I feel the same way about some of Nottingham's buildings, but I wouldn't dream of asking for them to be pulled down. The camp is tucked away in one of the corners of the square, with still plenty of space for people to walk by. It is not affecting anyone's freedom, and as such, I fail to see why legally they don't have the right to peaceful protest, and to stay in the Square for as long as they wish.

On its Facebook page, Occupy Nottingham said, "We have collectively decided, so far, not to move from Market Square and through civil disobedience and lawful rebellion we will stay". As a believer in democracy, liberty and the right to peaceful protest, I applaud their intention, and support them 100%.

Keir Hardie
What is a disappointment to me is that it is a Labour controlled administration that is seeking to evict the protesters. Disappointed, yes; surprised, no. Long ago Labour forgot its roots, and turned its back on those it was set up to represent.

Keir Hardie, who founded the Independent Labour Party, and became the first Leader would be turning in his grave. He was a giant, when most others who followed him were mere pygmies.

The Council will undoubtedly have its way; protesters will be evicted, the camp will be cleared, and those 'nasty' protesters will go their way. Perhaps the protesters will be denied their right to peaceful protest in Market Square, but this may well be the start of a new phase of "lawful rebellion", as I've a feeling that they won't go away that easily.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Cycle of Life

Arboretum 6th March 2012
Having been preoccupied with other matters for a number of months, I've realised how much I've missed my walks in the park.

Today was a beautiful day: blue sky, bright sunshine, and quite warm, so I decided it was time to get back to the Arboretum.

After queuing behind too many students with too much money to spend (that's a bit judgmental isn't it? I apologise), I picked up my coffee from Costa's on Goldsmith Street (ideally placed for where I wanted to go), and headed for the park. My favourite bench was free, so I sat down and watched the world go by (actually this was about six people as the park was surprisingly quiet). Basking in the early afternoon sunshine, my mind turned to thoughts on the philosophy of life. Being me of course meant that none of these thoughts were particularly original.

Springing into life
The park was coming to life: bits of blossom here, a few buds there, and flowers poking their heads through the grassy slopes. How different this was from just a few weeks ago.

Where once there seemed only death, now there is vibrant life, and it will only get better. A young couple walked past with a visible glow on their faces. They were pushing a brand new pushchair, with a baby inside who couldn't have been more than a few weeks old.

My sister would have passed on about the same time that this baby was born, and so the cycle of life continues. None are exempt from being part of this cycle: our time is up, and we are replaced on this earth by someone else, and so it has ever been. Tragedy for some, and joy for others.

Sitting on that park bench and pondering the meaning of life, I thought how truly "classless" birth and death really are. Life sometimes can be dominated by class: does it exist, and if it does, where am I on the class ladder? But in birth and death none of that matters. The poorest and the richest persons in the world all appear in the same way; where they appear is of course very different, but the physical act of birth is the same for all. Similarly with death; where we die, be it a mansion or a gutter is of course different, but the physical expiration of life is the same. We are all united in birth and death, so don't you think that it's a great shame when this equality in between these two events is forgotten?

Philosophers have written much over the centuries about the essence of life, with most of it being incomprehensible to the ordinary person. Others, however have captured something that is understandable.

The singer/songwriter, Seasick Steve wrote, "I came into this world with nothing, and I've still got most of it left". I think that he had a good perspective on life. For Reba McEntire, it was, "To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone". While to Albert Einstein, "If A equals success, then the formula is: A = X + Y + Z, where X is work, Y is play, and Z is keep your mouth shut". 

How we live between the cradle and the grave is important, and as Mae West says, "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough". Human beings have many views on life, and often it's not related to one's social condition. Some are upbeat even when they're suffering in life, while others are downbeat, though they seem to have everything that others crave.

In my favourite TV programme of all time, The X-Files, the dialogue goes, "Life... is like a box of chocolates - a cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that no one ever asks for, unreturnable because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So, you're stuck with mostly undefinable whipped mint crap, mindlessly wolfed down when there's nothing else to eat while you're watching the game. Sure, once in a while you get a peanut butter cup or an English toffee, but it's gone too fast and the taste is fleeting. In the end, you are left with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts, which, if you are desperate enough to eat, leaves nothing but an empty box of useless brown paper". How terrible it is to view life like this.

In 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone', J K Rowling wrote, "It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live". That's it isn't it? The part between birth and death is life. We can't do a lot about the beginning and the end, but we can about the piece in the middle. It too is part of the cycle of life. There is joy in birth, and sadness in death, but in a recent bereavement, I've learnt the comfort of Dr Seuss' words, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened". 

Having just re-read this blog, I'm sure that my reader is asking, what the hell is he talking about? Hey, it's "philosophy", you're not supposed to understand it.