‘Mayor of Cambridge gets soaked opening mini-water park’ – Thoughts on community reporting


Want to see a short video of Cllr Gerri Bird getting soaked? Of course you do! But what is the role of a community reporter that the likes of Shape Your Place are encouraging? And how do you manage the risks?

Here’s Cllr Gerri Bird, the Mayor of Cambridge getting a drenching from one of the new water features recently installed at Coleridge Rec.

(Note the schoolboy error of forgetting to turn the phone horizontally!)

I picked up a reminder on my phone that this was happening while I was having a coffee around the corner at Balzano’s. (No, I don’t get a free coffee for that link). Hence wandering up to see what was going on. Despite the clouds and then the rain, there were dozens of people there. I also recorded this short interview with The Mayor in the pouring rain.

Jeremy Paxman I am not

Should I be? What is the role of a community reporter? Should I be asking the difficult searching questions that you’d expect from a local government reporter such as Chris Havergal of the Cambridge News? What should the relationship be between local bloggers/tweeters that follow local democracy in a small geographical area and elected politicians – or even public officials such as council officers?

As you can hear from the interview, I’m not asking difficult questions. For me, context matters. If it is a community event, then councillors are at the event to meet people in the community they otherwise seldom meet. As I turn up to council meetings fairly regularly, I don’t think it’s right for me to monopolise their time on council business. Rather, I think it’s better for councillors and the community to run short interviews that get councillors to explain what brings them to a given event and to comment on what they observe. And that’s it.

“Why is that it?”

Because the moment someone with a reputation (good or bad) starts asking about contentious issues at a community event, the instinct for councillors is to get all defensive. That doesn’t help anyone. If there is something that needs raising – and a couple of families spoke to me about commuter parking by the park (Cambridge railway station is in walking distance) then I tip off councillors that I’ll be raising it at a future area committee meeting.

“That’s making it easy for them, isn’t it?”

Yes and no. Yes because it means they have time to prepare a full answer, no because they can’t get away with a ‘holding reply’ if the issue is otherwise in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. Having put awkward questions to councillors without notice at area committee meetings in the past, I’ve found you don’t get substantive responses. They’ve had no notice to do any research. The more notice you give them, the more substantive the response tends to be.

At the same time, councils & councillors know that if I want to ‘get on my high horse’, I’m more than capable of doing that. (Though to what impact is debatable!) In one sense, standing for election involves standing up on and for something – not that I want to stand for election again in the near future. The general feeling not just in myself but with others is that I made lots of good points well – so let’s start working on them. Hence preparations for Be the change – Cambridge – of which we’ll have some exciting news formally announced early next week (including tickets).

Safeguards – especially at events with young children attending

Today was a textbook case – the opening of a mini waterpark in a residential park in Cambridge. As a child we’d sometimes go paddling in what was effectively a paddling pool with a few boulders thrown in. Although the pool is now half the size, the other half has a host of water features and fountains making it much easier for the little ones to cool off in the hot sun.

Although there was an official photographer there taking photos of everyone (see the Council’s official photo on Facebook here) I was more than a little uncomfortable taking photographs in that environment. Hence I restricted my photos and videoclips to that of The Mayor getting soaked and the official ribbon-cutting.

Ask nicely first – the responsibility I have

In the case of young musical performers – such as Grace Sarah and the young musicians here, or with buskers such as Tom Korni at the end of this blogpost, the responsibility is on me as the person filming to ask for consent to film rather than assume consent has been given unless someone comes up to me telling me otherwise. Even with adults it’s at least polite to ask first, & not go off in a huff if consent is not given.

It’s also made me think about having some copies of consent forms with me at all times just in case. Over-cautious? What are your views? The difference between me as a sort of ‘digital community reporter’ versus a national news journalist is that I live in the neighbourhoods that I’m reporting on. Hence it makes sense for me to proceed with caution. I don’t want to get the wrong side of everyone in my childhood neighbourhood. On the other side, I don’t have to be responsible for a national news brand.

‘I’m not a natural for journalism, so why do this?’

For those of you that like the term ‘comfort zone’, I’m way outside of mine doing all of this. The problem for Shape Your Place in Cambridge is that so few people are doing this sort of digital journalism. Despite backing from local councils, the SYP team simply do not have the funding to run the sorts of training courses that could get people going. I’ve taken the ‘Be the change you want to see’ viewpoint and started doing this sort of filming and reporting to show to other local people what can be done with technology more than a few of them already have.

The past few years have taught me that calling on other people to do things you are not already doing yourself can only go so far. It seems to count for a lot more when you go out and do the thing yourself, then return having the experience (and footage) from which to speak from. It reminds me of the second half of this blogpost – posted the night before polling day 2014 with Puffles on the ballot paper. The now deputy leader of Cambridge City Council, Cllr Carina O’Reilly challenged me to do some street canvassing. In the week before the election, me and Ceri Jones did exactly this. Hence the above-linked blogpost talking about the learning from that. Afterwards I felt I could look the other councillors in the eye. I also noticed that current and past councillors commented positively on standing and campaigning publicly vis-a-vis those with strong opinions but who don’t stand themselves.

Separating the role of community activist and community reporting

Publicly in my view it’s essential to separate the two. About 15 years ago, The Independent Newspaper when it was a broadsheet tried to do this. It had one section for news and a separate section for comment and analysis. Today its detractors will argue it is anything but. That said, with newspapers generally what they do not cover is just as important as what they do cover (and in what tone).

With the out-and-about reporting, my aim is to report rather than ‘preach.’ Listening to one of the residents talking to me about problems of commuter parking and the risks to children, there was a little bit of me that wanted to explain some of the constitutional niceties of two-tier councils and its relation with national government. But I held back because at the end of the day people just want the problem solved, rather than be given a complex explanation as to why their problem hasn’t been solved.

“How does community reporting help?”

Familiarity with ‘local civic people’ for want of another term. Digital audio means people can hear the voices of people being interviewed, and digital video means you get to see and hear them. With cuts to mainstream journalism and news reporting over the years, there are fewer opportunities for people to get themselves into mainstream local news. At the same time, with more people using social and digital media more regularly, it’s easier to share digital content that you might otherwise miss if you didn’t buy the paper that day or came home late from work and missed the local news show. In that sense, it generates a level of familiarity.

By showing what can be done, I’m hoping that others will be thinking: “Well…we can do that too!” (And better!) At the same time, and in particular at community events I hope it will also show a more ‘human’ side of councillors. Because with news you generally tend to see councillors in a party-political or campaigning context. You don’t get to see some of the complex casework they have to deal with, or the input they have in helping organise community events. If through community reporting more local residents feel they can have a reasonable conversation with their councillors, hopefully more will get in touch – not just to have problems solved but also to see what they can do to improve their local area.

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | Leave a comment

Grace Sarah leads the musical line in Cambridge


A stunning musical set by one of my favourite musicians – a humbling experience to have watched her grow over the past 18 months

I first heard about Grace when she was featured on BBC Look East in late 2012/early 2013.

Not long after, she invited me and Puffles to a gig she was playing at – which I blogged about here. Fast-forward 18 months and Grace has not only completed her GCSEs & enjoying a well-earned break, but has grown musically and is really blossoming. This was the fourth time I’ve seen Grace play. The first at the Portland Arms, then for Oxjam at The Emperor Pub and also in London where she supported English Sporting Defeat (also on the line up at the Portland Arms gig earlier) at a club on Denmark Street, not far from where I used to live in London.

What’s lovely to hear in her music is how over time she’s taken her earliest songs and experimenting with them. With her new songs, she is now stretching her vocal chords – noticeably hitting some glorious highs (as her cover of ‘Pianoman’ reveals), as well as some moody low alto numbers.

One song, three film versions

Rory from MusicNetEast was filming for the Acoustic Sounds Project, and had a much better camera than me so he’s probably got the best footage. My camcorder and phone were tested to their limits by Grace – an incentive for me to get some much better filming kit. Both my devices struggled with the light. That said, the footage is reasonable and gives a glimpse of just how good Grace is as a musician.

The above track was filmed on my 2011 vintage camcorder that I bought for PufflesCamp 2011 in Brighton. Without an optical zoom (it’s digital only) I’m pleasantly surprised how well it came out given the distance we were from the stage. (i.e. on the back row of the J2 auditorium).

Same track filmed at the same time, but with my camcorder recording as much of Grace’s set as it could before the memory card ran out (schoolboy error), I was able to move down to the front with phone and external microphone. Interestingly, I found the acoustics to be much better in the performance at the front of the gig than at the back with the main cameras. The wind noises you can hear every so often are coming from fans at the side of the stage.

There’s lots more footage of Grace and other performers, including:

Ellie Dixon above. She played a lovely track called ‘Going Places’ – one which made me want to see her play it supported by a big band/orchestra because it has that much potential.

Although the video didn’t come out well – cameraphone at the back of the hall, the audio did.

Hazel Meades above – who going by her Soundcloud page has an incredibly diverse musical portfolio. Although her performances this evening were acoustic guitar/vocal, there’s a rebellious streak that comes through with her stage presence between songs.

I’ll add further things in future posts, but as it’s 2:15am and as I have to be at Rock Road Library for a Transition Cambridge-backed event in the morning (i.e. this) I should call it a night.

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Pondering on an emotion that I fear I’ll never feel in the way that I wish I could.

Socrates scores for Brazil against Italy in a titanic clash between two footballing giants in Spain 1982

Socrates scores for Brazil against Italy in a titanic clash between two footballing giants in Spain 1982

You’d struggle to find a scene of such chaotic euphoria and its opposite at a 21st century major football tournament – not least because of the all-seater stadia. Supporters of both sides mixed together on the terraces. In this photo, one side is ecstatic at Brazilian striker Zico turning one of the toughest defenders of the era Claudio Gentile inside out before setting up Socrates (see the video of the goal in the latter’s obituary here), and the other the opposite.

As far as football goes, it was either Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in France ’98, or probably the goal-feast at Euro ’96 between England and The Netherlands that I felt any sense of euphoria in a football match. In both cases a childhood of football played a huge part. Yet this side of the millennium…well…it simply no longer excites me. As far as sporting events go, probably the Paralympics 2012 (which I took Puffles along to – twice) is probably the only time I’ve got anything more than moderately interested in international sporting events in recent times.

2012 was probably one of the worst years of my life – not least because of a big mental health crisis, the impact of which I still feel every day. Not being able to work full time hours means in this economic climate I’ll never be able to have a place of my own – which then has a knock on impact not just on what you can & cannot afford, but on your own self esteem & even things like going out socialising or even dating.

The curse of depression lingers on…

Things have been rubbish for a lot of us for a very long time. Think back to the economic, political crisis of the late 2000s and ponder to what extent things have improved for the many. This isn’t a party-political point. You only need to look at the media & wonder what would happen if everyone decided they were going to put their weapons down for the day. The wider global context isn’t something anyone can be content with…unless they are an arms dealer perhaps. My point is even if something is going well personally, the mess that is the wider world puts a dampener on it. Is our personal happiness limited by the unhappiness of the world around us? In my case it most definitely is.

Yet I’ve somehow learnt how to grind through the depressive symptoms that crushed me during my teens and early 20s. Only now am I getting some sort of a feeling that I’m emerging from it all while at the same time avoiding the ‘pretend to be confident and it’ll be all OK’ approach. The latter ‘worked’ to some extent – in that it got me to places and events that with hindsight I’d have never have got near, such as going to grand balls full of ballroom dancers – whether locally or in a palace in Vienna. My first ballroom ball (described in this post) was one such euphoric experience – one where you can forget about your past & future & simply enjoy the moment for what it is. Yet so much of what was good in those days never lasted. Why? Because the mindset wasn’t one of being true to myself and the sort of person I wanted to be.

“Be part of it!”

It’s as if every marketing company is trying to tap into our innate desire to be part of a wider collective that achieves something greater than the some of our parts. “We sell niknaks – be part of it! We sell expensive properties! Be part of it!” One of the big new developments is inviting me to be part of it – not that I have the hundreds of thousands spare to be part of it. Inviting people to ‘be part of it’ – ie being part of something positive puts an onus on the person doing the inviting to remove as many of the barriers as possible. As far as music goes, in Cambridge this is what The Dosoco Foundation is helping support. You’ll be hearing more about them in future blogposts.

Talking of London 2012 earlier, there’s this photo much talked about at the time in the media.

Just for a moment Cambridge’s ducal couple were able to forget there were lots of photographers there not interested in the sport but in photographing their reactions. Yet on the part of the former, it’s understandable how they felt very much part of London 2012 in the way that others perhaps felt differently. Remember the run-up to the Olympics wasn’t good. I blogged about it here. What made the Paralympics more exciting for me was seeing the achievements of people who could do more despite their disabilities than most of the general public. When going to see professional artists, one of my criteria over the years has been: “Are they doing something inspiring that I could never do/hope to achieve?” During my dancing days I was incredibly critical in my mind of performances that didn’t meet that standard, even though publicly I acknowledged that for first-time watchers they would have been inspiring for them.

Becoming part of something takes time and effort – and success in your endeavours isn’t guaranteed

If I’m honest with myself, since 2001 the groups, organisations and societies I did long term regular voluntary work for were ones that I never really felt the sense of belonging. This was despite on some occasions spending more than 10 hours a week outside of a full-time job doing unpaid work for them. For me to feel the sense of ‘euphoria’ that I’m looking for, I need to feel that sense of belonging first – sharing both the failures and successes. That was one of the things that struck me about Cambridge Labour Party’s victory in the 2014 city council elections. The people celebrating the hardest were those that had taken the electoral kickings in 2009. I dare say the same will be the case for the Liberal Democrats post-2015.

Close friendships and relationships

Both of which generally have eluded me over the years. (I’ve blogged a few times on the curses of loneliness in a variety of contexts from personal to public policy). There are times that stand out for the right reasons though. For example when I had my own place in Cambridge, having friends round to watch England vs France in Euro 2004. Seven of us – all blokes in a stereotypical beer & junk food scene in front of a big telly talking football. My house, friends from different friendship groups with a shared interest watching & discussing the same event.

In a lover/relationship context, having just had a messy split which again caused my mental health to implode, I found myself with two opera tickets going spare that I had got a month previously. Fortuitously – and at my lowest point I was whisked off my feet by someone new – just when I least expected it. I had never been to an opera so when I found out there was going to be a performance of Bizet’s Carmen I thought it would be nice to see what an opera is like – one where I’m familiar with at least one of the musical pieces. The latter, being more than familiar with all things choral and classical music chose to come with me even though she had actually sung some of the parts in performances. Having her as my ‘personal guide’ whispering a combination of brief explanations of what was happening (despite the text-LED translations above the stage) along with sweet nothings that you do in the ‘besotted-with-each-other’ stage marks that out as one of the most romantic and euphoric moments of my life.

The next generation 

Having arrived back in Cambridge earlier than planned from a training workshop I was delivering in Suffolk, I popped into the Cambridge Botanic Garden for one of their ‘summer sound’ events. The Yorkshire band ‘Steppin Out’ were playing.

The above filmed on a cameraphone due to battery running out on camcorder. What you don’t see are the hundreds of people behind me and the camera enjoying the evening sunshine and the music. Primary school children where conspicuous by their presence. I spotted one parent taking a photograph of four nursery-school-aged children beaming from cheek to cheek. A memory that makes even the coldest heart melt. It’s the sort of experience that every child should have.

It reminded me about the next generation of my family, which I see regularly as they live close by. With my niece now walking and learning to talk, she’s at the stage where she can recognise and distinguish between individuals. Recently when I popped my head round the door after being out, she ran up to me and gave me a big hug – completely spontaneously. I didn’t see it coming. She’d not done anything like that before. Even though she’ll never remember it when she’s older the emotional power of that hug was immense – to the extent that I felt almost paralysed by it.

“Welcome to the new age, to the new age, to the new age” – Euphoria in music

Here’s the Dowsing Sound Collective missing the 2014 World Cup Final

Bonus points if you don’t spot me in the video above.

It’s not for me to say what makes people tick musically. It’ll be different for different people. If there is something in common though, it’s scale. Lots of people in a packed big venue with a love and familiarity of a similar type of music – or alternatively an open-enough mind to embrace a new style of music. The biggest proper music festival I’ve been to is probably the Cambridge Folk Festival – on numerous occasions. It has been taking place in my childhood neighbourhood since before I was born so is a permanent feature.

I’ve not been to any of the ‘mega-festivals’ or the large classical or stereotypically middle-class ones. Much as I’d like to experience them, I don’t have the close friendship group to go with that would make it meaningful to me. It’s strange when I see acquaintances on Facebook posting pictures of them at such events. My reaction isn’t: “I wish I was there with them” – because I’ve not met the other people in the picture. Rather it’s more: “I wish I could feel similar emotions with a close group of friends at a similar event.”

Facing down my own demons

On the back of a timely and powerful article by Louise Kidney, published in The Guardian here, I’m in this continuous battle against my own mental health demons. One of the reasons Louise’s article is so powerful to me is that so many of her experiences sound similar to mine.

“Underneath all of this, of course, is the bubbling narrative of failure. I failed. I let every one down. I was supposed to be kicking ass and instead I was quietly dying, all the systems going off line, giving up, giving in, all the fight sucked out of me by cognitive absence.”

This was how I often felt when I was on the Fast Stream. ‘Work hard, play hard’ is fine when things are going great, but when they are not it crushes you. It crushed me. Hence looking back on my days in London, I can’t think of many – if any – euphoric moments. The bubbling narrative of ‘not failing’ (along with the financial pressures of London living and pre-existing mental health issues) sapped the energy I needed to enjoy my time down there. That’s not to say I regret the London move. It was both the breaking and the making of who I am today.

Euphoria is temporary, is hard work, but ‘oh!’ the life memories! 

The concert with the Dowsing Sound Collective? Two days of sleep and general inactivity for the rest of the week to recover it took me. Worth every minute of it, but that’s the nature of mental exhaustion. It takes years to recover from the sort of mental health crisis I went through in April 2012 (see blogposts from the time – I blogged through it!) That and collective music is part of my solution of facing up to those demons. Re-living past bad stuff in therapy/counselling has sometimes had the opposite effect. In my case 2014 has been as much fighting those demons with positive experiences rather than over-analysing the past. As far as the first six months of 2014 have been concerned, two things stand out that are Puffles-related:

  • Getting your dragon fairy to appear in a Basement Jaxx-produced music video (which Basement Jaxx told me via FB will be released ***very soon***)
  • Having nearly 100 local residents consciously voting for your dragon fairy in local council elections ahead of four political parties – and getting an article in The Guardian (despite a ‘we don’t want to win’ message)

Recently, it’s been all Dowsing Sound Collective and Be the change – Cambridge. And with good reason. Both are long term commitments on my part, including time, emotions and financial. This brings me back to my first radio interview I did for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire in the mid-1990s on the day of my GCSE results. A hot sunny day, I had just opened the envelope with my results and was shaking as they were far higher than I had expected. Some bloke then grabbed me, shoved a microphone in front of my face and asked:

“How do you feel about your results?”

A family friend recorded the interview when it was played on the radio. The reporter said in his report that the common theme was: “All that hard work paid off”. This picked up on one of my comments, which was along the lines of:

“So many people have worked so hard to get the results that they deserve”

Euphoria? In that case there was something that involved lots of hard work over an extended period of time in partnership with lots of people too. The amount of work that went into the Dowsing Sound Collective’s gig at Bury St Edmunds on 13 July 2014 is also testament to this. My favourite track from that gig was ‘Every Teardrop is a Waterfall’. Here’s Coldplay’s version – live. I’ll leave you with tat.


Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Mental health, Music | 1 Comment

Playing with digital audio


Digital video is only as good as your sound. So getting to grips with what you film means ensuring you have a good sound too

I’ve been playing with digital audio ever since I got my last laptop – mainly trying to get various songs to play at a tempo that you could dance ballroom or latin american dances to – with mixed success. Even though I don’t really do much dancing these days, my mindset towards music is one forever affected by dancing. I’m always asking what steps go with any piece of music that has a reasonably regular percussion beat to it. It seems strange to think my first blogpost on ballroom dancing was nearly three years ago, and my first lesson in Cambridge nearly 12 years ago. Must be getting old!

Learning the basics of what makes good sound in the face of complicated software

I’m talking about the editing process here – something that brings the talents of a skilled sound engineer into their own. It’s not just a case of turning up the volume by any means. Being part of the Dowsing Sound Collective these past four months has given me insights into what ‘good sound’ is – and how you go about achieving it. Take ‘Reality Checkpoint’ composed by Andrea Cockerton about Parker’s Piece in Cambridge here:


I was one of the many voices in the background singing on this recording. The ‘recording’ in my memory is different to the one on this recording for a variety of reasons – not least my position in the collective when we were singing it. Editing inevitably takes something out of the performances we hear. Audio professionals will be able to explain why this is better than me. In non-technical terms, the bass and piano had a vibrancy that moved my ribcage – you could feel the rumble of the low frequencies as well as the energy of being in a room with over 100 other people singing co-ordinated parts from the same song sheet. (The HistoryWorks team took some photos of us – see here).

Transferring vinyl to digital

I had my first go at this with a record I bought for my very young relatives. We had this many moons ago in my childhood but it disappeared in a clear-out. Hence getting hold of an even older copy that’s now about 40 years old & is so hard to find that there are also no digital copies of the album – this being Tom Paxton’s Children’s Songbook. Paxton’s a Vietnam-era folk singer, and critic of war. When I posted a link to the lyrics to a track called The Thought, a number of you were struck by its power.

DJ Puffles on the wheels of steel

DJ Puffles on the wheels of steel

Spending a humid Saturday afternoon experimenting with electrics, I managed to hook up some of my brother’s very old decks to my laptop and play about until something seemed to be transferring. Here’s the result.

I’ve not worked out how to get rid of that low level hum/buzzing noise that you can hear – even though the software I have seems to have an option that allows you to do this. The problem is when I activate it, it zaps the rest of the track with it.

Filming on Friday at The Junction

I’ve been granted permission to film the brilliant Grace Sarah at The Junction in Cambridge later this month. (8pm this Friday 25 July, free tickets – details here). I’m tempted to simply place my existing camcorder on a tripod & press ‘record’, leaving it at that. I have neither the knowledge nor the kit to try anything that’s synced up with the lighting and sound at the venue. I also don’t want to be one of those camera-people who wanders in front of the audience trying to get the right shot.

Preparing to film but then not filming at all

I was going to put up another vlogpost last week. The problem was the noise from the neighbours playing loud music next door to the cafe I was at. Incredibly frustrating when you’ve carried your kit there, but that’s part of the deal with photography & filming. You don’t get everything working out spot on first time and every time. Despite everything that I had there, there was no point in filming because a messed up audio would have ruined it.


Apart from an ‘Oooh! This is actually more than quite interesting’ perspective, the footage I’m filming seems to fall into four themes:

  • Vlogposts – me talking to the camera about things on my mind
  • Interviews or filming others speaking to the camera
  • Musical performances
  • Documenting who has said what and when at given events

Now, in one sense all of the above could be done without the visuals: It’s the sound that really matters content-wise.

Being multi-skilled

With professional productions, you have different people doing different things, specialising in them and being good at them. When you do what I do, you’ve got to do all of what they do and try and get it to a standard that makes it watchable/listenable. It’ll never be professional broadcast standard, but that’s not my aim. It just needs to be of a standard that allows whoever is in front of the camera to get their message across to a wider audience. That’s why I find the collection of videos on my vimeo page as a personally interesting ‘documentary’ of my own journey playing with digital video.

Having the patience to research and read

If the content of all the books I’ve bought over the past 15 years were in my mind I’d be a very well-read chap indeed. But I’m not. I need people around me in order to get me started on things. Hence why the digital film school was just what I needed for the summer term. That’s just my personal learning style. Others are independent starters. On my side, I look out for the people & organisations who I can work with and provide that impetus to do things.

The changing world of digital audio – away from copyright and towards collaboration?

Basement Jaxx’s Power to the People Project is but one example of a high profile group releasing the master copies of a track and inviting people to do things with it. Pop Will Eat Itself did the same with Reclaim the Game (Funk FIFA) – see here and note both the instrumental version and acapella/vocals only versions. I blogged about the track here. We still want our game back.

Talking of world cups, despite the best attempts of various institutions to restrict online footage of past tournaments, some of the compilations of commentary and football. My favourite one is this one featuring Brazil’s 1982 team & commentator Luciano Do Valle.

Then there’s this one featuring Mexico in 2006. Mexico were my work sweepstake team that year. Football-culture-wise, they’re a bit like England. Passionate fans, demanding media, One or two superstars, qualify well then crash out to the first half-decent team they encounter, normally at second round or quarter finals stage.

“Your point?”

As in this NESTA infographic, we’re going beyond being passive recipients. I like the idea of being a co-creator and co-operator with others when it comes to making things. It’s the opposite of the mass-produced blandification of the high street that we see these days. Coming back to the point about editing songs to make them play at a tempo that you can dance ballroom to, the challenge there is having the major creators making things in a format that the rest of us can do things with, and having a legal framework that facilitates rather than impedes this.



Posted in Education, training and exams, Law and legal issues, Music, Social media | 1 Comment

A public accounts committee for every town hall?


Could Ed Miliband’s new policy for local government energise local democracy?

The reports are at the end of this page -> summary and full. It was featured in The Guardian here. The report covers a number of things, but the bit I’m interested in is establishing local systems of scrutiny and accountability across what is a fragmented public sector.

‘That’s not a city council issue, that’s a county council issue’

This was a phrase I heard incumbent councillors explaining to members of the public while on the campaign train with Puffles. In the grand scheme of things most members of the public couldn’t care less which public body is responsible, so long as it is done well. One of the most frustrating things for the public and councillors alike is the structures and systems don’t work for them. The structures are complex and take time to understand and navigate – time that most of the public don’t have. At the same time, they prevent local councillors from taking action on issues the public would like them to take action on because it’s outside the scope of the organisation they are elected to. The comments posted here by Cambridge City Council Leader Cllr Lewis Herbert, and the Communities portfolio holder Cllr Richard Johnson explain this in more detail.

Local institutions ignoring councillors – will this become a thing of the past?

Because when it comes to ignoring council committees, some of Cambridge’s taxpayer-funded institutions have got form – as the minutes and matters arising item here show in one case. There are several others that have been ignoring correspondence from councillors and council committees. I’ve gone on public record calling such behaviour ‘a contempt for the council’ at the first full council meeting of the current administration. (See item 14/36/CNL here).

Some of the significant policy questions will be answered should Miliband’s Labour Party win the 2015 election. Page 32 of the full report (titled ‘Stronger accountability for public services’) does not state for example which institutions will be subject to local public accounts committees.  This is where civil service teams take the main principles of a policy and start working through the detail. For me, any institution receiving taxpayer funding beyond a minimum level in return for delivering a public service should be subject to such committees.

What powers should committees have? For me, I’d like to see something along the lines of public duties to co-operate in the now defunct local area agreements. The text in Part 5 Chapter 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 indicates how such duties could be drafted into law, rather than having the need to give committees powers of summons. That said, giving committees powers of summons could be a last resort if such duties were ignored.

What would the impact be?

For a start it would force local public bodies to start working together more co-operatively. Councillors could look at a particular problem and call the responsible organisations to appear before them. The sights and sounds of the heads of organisations squabbling in front of councillors and the public is something the former have an incentive of trying to avoid. The Openness of Local Government Bodies Regulations 2014 (very recently approved by Parliament so the website needs updating!) – in particular Regulation 3 gives the general public the right to film and report such meetings using social media. (See the explanatory notes at the end of the regulations in the link above).

A combination of proposed and recent changes in the law, with digital media

The way local media and independent community reporters are using digital media to open things up is helping people find out about things happening in their area. That’s been my experience anyway.

For me, it only needs one person viewing my digital film footage who was otherwise unable to attend a meeting to make turning up and filming worthwhile. The data on downloads and views is showing an even more interesting picture. Since I started uploading lots more digital videos, more people are viewing my vimeo page. It’s not been anything spectacular on my part. In the grand scheme of things I’ve sat there holding a camera and filming. The talent is with the people in front of the camera & the makers of the tech.

Take the Cambridge Lakes meeting in my previous blogpost as an example, the data shows over 50 views in 24 hours. (The ‘downloads’ are showing ten times that figure, but I’m treating that variable with a pinch of salt). Note the context of the two clips I uploaded is ‘hyperlocal’ – they apply only to a minority of wards on one side of Cambridge. They are not ‘big news stories’ that would have people flocking to them going viral. But that’s not the intention. If the impact can get a handful of interested and motivated people involved in a local project, then that’s good enough for me.

Thinking digital

This is where Cllr Dave Briggs‘ short document Thinking Digital (which is a superb read for local democracy types) indicates how this could be done in terms of changing systems and structures. My favourite parts:

“Hire for attitude, not skills or experience. Both skills
and experience can be learned. Not so with attitude.

What are the attitudes [local government should be] looking for [in potential new staff]? Curiosity, willingness to learn, cooperation, openness.

No organisation can do everything on its own. It needs  to work with others, in a grown up way.

Many partnerships involve organisations doing what they were doing anyway, separately, then meeting up to talk about it every so often. That’s not collaborating.”

The last quotation from Cllr Briggs’ slides speak volumes to me. How often are public sector staff barred from attending cross-body meetings because they are the wrong grade? It was only the senior staff during my civil service career that had the regular cross-organisational meetings. The more frontline and junior staff (who were a hive of ideas & awareness more often than not) were stuck in the silos. Social and digital media users are breaking down those silos. Good.

But…Ed Miliband, Tristram Hunt and Education Policy

They both talk about local directors of schools’ standards – see the press release here and a BBC comment piece here. It’s always difficult for politicians to let go! I understand why Hunt’s gone for this: schools and hospitals are two of the most politicised issues in public service delivery. Therefore if as a future education secretary he’s going to get blamed for any bad stuff happening, he’ll want to have the levers of control to do something about it. Hence having local directors outside local council control and directly accountable to Whitehall. Again, the devil will be in the public policy detail. Think of the number of local council areas affected. (Over 100 with an education/schools remit). Then think of the support staff needed. Then think of the relationship with OfSted. This could get messy.

As I’ve stated before, the centralisation of education policy in recent times reflects successive administrations’ failures to deal with failings in local government. My take is central government simply does not have the organisational capacity to manage schools from the centre. Far better to strengthen local councils as institutions & give them a greater encompassing role in the delivery of public services generally rather than artificially breaking them up into little bits.

Posted in Education, training and exams, Law and legal issues, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

Uniting East Cambridge – with a lake or three


How a former quarry and current ‘problem area’ could be turned into something for the community in a part of town not brilliantly served with things for people to do 

The website for the Cambridge Lakes Project is here. Their Facebook page is here. Every summer we get stories like this. So rather than keeping people out, how about turning the old quarry lakes into a facility that people can have access to? I went along avec camcorder and tripod at the invitation of the project group to a meeting at St Martin’s Church Hall – in my home ward where Puffles and I stood for election in May 2014.

Unfortunately I arrived just after the presentations started, so wasn’t able to film the very interesting history of the site. I managed to film the second and third presentations though.

The above video – apologies for the not great quality (I’m still learning!) featuring an in-depth presentation by Andreas Mitchell is the first time I’ve seen anyone really explore the issues beyond a scoping phase. Hence I’m glad I was able to get it on film for others to see. The team is also asking people to complete a survey which Amy talked about in the next video below.

The survey is now available at http://www.camlakes.co.uk/home/community-survey/

A project big, exciting and radical enough to bring together the wards of Coleridge, Romsey, Cherry Hinton and Abbey?

In a word: Yes.

(Even though the lakes and the path of the brooks and streams don’t sit so easily with the city council’s area committee setup).

I remember when Steve Turville, the chairperson of the group, first mentioned the project to me. This was back in 2012 around the time it was featured in the local paper. Knowing what I knew of local council systems and processes, I thought the idea was splendid but could not see how it would get through local government, let alone getting the funding to make the project a success. So to see it get to this stage is testament to the huge amount of work Steve and the team have put into it.

Over fifty people came along to the meeting – mainly from Cherry Hinton but a handful from Romsey and Coleridge too. The local Lib Dems and Labour parties were represented by Councillors Kilian Bourke and Dave Baigent, which was good to see. I wonder whether at such events our elected councillors could wear the name badges they have, so that people less familiar with the council and councillors can easily spot them. Amongst other things it would help combat some of the views about the visibility of councillors.

‘Yeah – where’s Puffles?’

A couple of people asked me where my dragon fairy was. A fair question given that Puffles was on the ballot paper in the most recent elections in the ward where the meeting was taking place. But here I was in ‘community reporter’ mode. As with the Mill Road depot meeting (see here), my focus was on digital content. ie ‘Get stuff on film, do some quick edits to improve sound and stabilisation, get it up on my vimeo page and share’. A sort of ‘Richard Taylor for South Cambridge‘ if you like. (Richard films lots of local council meetings).

In my case it’s fewer ‘strong opinions’ from me (as that was what the election campaign was for) and more filming what other groups are presenting – enabling them to reach a wider audience. It chimes with my Be The Change – Cambridge projectThere’s only so much you can talk, plead, persuade, encourage and ‘threaten’ (not in a malicious way – but in an ‘I’ll stand against you at the ballot box’ sort of way) people and parties to do the things you want them to do. Sometimes you simply have to set the example yourself. ‘Be the change you want to see’ as I am often heard saying.

A city of civic pioneers?

We’ve got more than a few. But as a city we’ve not given them the support we need over the years to make what they do something great. Andrea Cockerton and Dowsing Sound Collective along with the Dosoco Foundation, Mel Findlater and the You Can Bike project, Andrew Entecote and the Net-Squared social media surgeries, Jennie Debenham, Anna McIvor and friends in Transition Cambridge – as well as those in  Cambridge Sustainable Food City and Food Cycle Cambridge. Neil Prem’s Future Possibilities (& his 30 day challenge). Also the Cambridge Science Centre. We have our civic pioneers. For those that want to, the challenge – as NESTA in London state – is how to make them big.

Are we reaching a defining point in Cambridge’s history as a city?

More than a few things tell me that we are. Interestingly, several of the local politicians from the four main parties active in Cambridge have indicated similar. (The Greens being number 4 rather than UKIP being number 4 – having secured over 5,000 votes in the recent local elections to UKIP’s 300 or so.) You won’t see that reflected in the party political debate locally. The focus of those debates are defined primarily by the structures and constraints imposed by Westminster and Whitehall. For example councillors have to debate then formally vote on a budget. If they don’t do this, your bins don’t get collected.

What makes this era interesting and challenging for Cambridge and the surrounding area from a civic pioneering perspective is we’re getting towards a critical mass of people and organisations that want to be part of the solutions. This may not be reflected in voter turnout or engagement with councillors, but it is reflected in many other ways. It’s as if people and groups are doing things despite [national] party politics rather than because of it. This has a noticeably different feel to what things were like in 1996/97.

Be the change you want to see

This is what I’m unleashing in the autumn –  and yes it will remain work in progress. (eg Website updates and logo not yet sorted).  I’m still recovering from an awesome weekend singing with the Dowsing Sound Collective in Bury St Edmunds. Here’s the collective in Ely in 2013 if you missed it.

(See the second half of this for my write up of the Bury St Edmunds performances). On the community reporting side of things, a few of us have tried to encourage people to do community reporting and make digital videos for Cambridgeshire’s Shape Your Place website. – with very little success. This is one of the reasons why I’m making digital videos as part of community reporting. My blogposts go up on this blog, and the digital videos onto my Vimeo page (see here) which I then embed into blogposts as I have done here. Where I can’t film, sometimes I record an audio version of speeches – such as here.

“Why do this?”

Accessibility & a permanent record.

I’m not really interested in debating who said what at which council meetings. I’m more interested in filming presentations and performances and making them available to a wider community audience. Having paid for an upgrade, I now get detailed data on the digital videos. Put it this way, the short digital videos of others presenting seem to be more popular than my recent blogposts!

But then, I like this. For a start, it takes the focus off me. The digital videos are a much better way of bringing other people and their ideas & talents into the conversation. On social media pages of local groups, they can have conversations about the content that I filmed. One of the reasons why I’ve disabled the comments on my Vimeo account is that I want the online conversations to take place elsewhere (ie on the pages of the community groups rather than on a page I would then have to moderate).

The feedback I’ve had so far has been splendid – mainly on the accessibility point. People have expressed appreciation at being able to see and hear who said what. While social media makes it easier to share, someone still has to go out there and create the content. For now at least, that’s what I’m experimenting with – even though I’m still a beginner with the camcorder.


Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Puffles, Social media | Leave a comment

Communicating beyond the written/spoken word


A wander through through things that unite people in the context of the World Cup and some recent things I’ve experienced

I’m typing this having just watched the Rio in Rio documentary by the former Manchester United and England defender. The documentary shows Rio Ferdinand as being a much more deeper thinker than what we normally see in the media – especially when you look at previous programmes he’s made. It also got me thinking about ‘academic stereotypes’ – in particular around charity and development fields – & empathy. Given Rio’s childhood growing up in Peckham, there seemed to be an instinctive connection between what people in the favella he visited with what was his childhood borough. That plus the footballing route out that he took along with musical, artistic and ‘being on the receiving end of the wealthy & powerful elites’ were common across continents.

A connection through football

When I was at primary school, we had a couple of children from Brazil who joined our class for a term (in the late 1980s). Such was the lack of support they got that I don’t know how much English they actually learnt. It was only when we had a PE lesson that involved football that one of them really came out of his shell. I still recall one of my friends at the time running up to me and saying: “Have you seen Dimas play football? He’s brilliant!” And he was. Then I thought (and I must have been about nine years old) “He’s from Brazil so that doesn’t surprise me”. Even though verbally we could hardly communicate, when given a football it was a completely different story. At a time when my school had relatively few children from other countries and cultures, football was a great unifier. In the late 1980s when Careca (Brazil) and Michael Laudrup (Denmark) were at their peaks, it made sense to us nine-year-old football fans that two of the best football players in our year group were from each of those countries.

In the ‘Rio in Rio’ documentary, it was clear Ferdinand was more comfortable playing street football than doing pieces to camera. That said, you got a sense of Rio’s sense of “That ain’t right!” when he was told about people being made homeless as a result of development for the 2016 Olympics, also in Brazil. As Rio said himself in the documentary, doing pieces to camera is not easy – as I’ve found out myself.

During the England vs Italy match in the World Cup, there were a number of occasions where players on one side going down with cramp were helped by players on the other before the physios came on. It was then that one of my Twitter friends says that many of the players knew each other and liked each other – therefore were not interested in being nasty to each other despite it being the World Cup. They may not have a common fluent spoken language, but they have the common bond of playing football at the highest level under a global media spotlight.

A connection through dance

I was watching a documentary about Brazilian ballet on BBC4 and remember a quotation about people who ‘could not speak a word of English’ being able to understand each other through the language of dance – in the context of international ballet. It reminded me of a couple of times I went ballroom dancing in German-speaking continental Europe. My German wasn’t particularly good and neither was the English of a couple of the people I danced with. Yet the instinctive connection we had as dancers was something that far exceeded our linguistic abilities.

Take a dance like the waltz – with the assumption that both sides know something of the basic steps. The choices you have when trying out a new series of steps is to try and explain it to your dance partner, or dance with them through them. If you don’t have a common spoken language, dancing with them through it far easier & far more enjoyable.

Football and dance in the words of Dr Socrates

This interview fascinates me – not least because I missed the opportunity to meet him in London before he died (I chose to go home straight from work because I was shattered – a decision I’ll regret forever), but also because it reflects both the talents and the flaws of this unique human being.

“Footballer, intellectual, doctor and democrat”

This from his obituary on the BBC (click on the link in the quotation). It’s his flaws that for me make him human too. The toll that cigarettes and alcohol took on his body are all to visible in the youtube clip earlier. This blogpost by Tony Seed has more on his legacy.

It works in politics too

The friendship between Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy first hit the political mainstream when both were finance ministers of their respective countries. Even though neither had a common language, they still got on. Not long after the latter became President of France, the media on both sides of The Channel made hay with his private life. Commentators were saying how ‘distinctly unpresidential’ this seemed. Within weeks, Gordon Brown (who had become Prime Minister) pulled out the stops to arrange a state visit to the UK for Sarkozy with all the trappings (eg an address to both houses of Parliament, state banquet and major business conference) that go with such occasions. Because the UK convention is that a head of state from a foreign country is allowed one state visit and one official visit during their term of office, a state visit from the President of France is a big deal. The photo opportunities (such as these) as far as Sarkozy’s political team were concerned must have felt like gold dust. Wall-to-wall coverage of a president being presidential in one of the most influential capital cities of the world.

…and even in music…

Think the friendship between Italian footballer Alessandro Del Piero and Noel Gallagher of Oasis – Del Piero’s side here, and Gallagher’s side here. (I saw Oasis live at Earls Court back in 1997).

I’ve blogged a fair amount about music, and the weekend just gone was the one of the World Cup Final. This was the first final on TV that I’ve missed since 1990. A milestone breaking the habit of a lifetime. But it was more than worth it – because I was performing as part of the Dowsing for Sound Collective in Bury St Edmunds. Here’s what the local press said about it. It was also the first time as an adult I found myself singing a solo bit on stage in front of hundreds of people in a public performance.

There was a bit of dancing on my side too!

Having listened to comments online and those from people in the audience that spoke to me after the shows, the two things that strike me are:

  1. Not only did people in the audience want to come back and see future shows, they wanted to join the collective (which is a ***massive*** achievement)
  2. For the much appreciated plaudits I got for my bit, music is a team game too

On 2), it was not a confident kid that joined Dowsing for Sound in spring 2014. Our musical director Andrea Cockerton has unleashed something positive in me that I did not think was possible. This is despite the fact that I’m not the easiest person to handle – even at the best of times. (A combination of personal character flaws, life history and mental health issues).

Yet having a supportive team of people who ‘want you to do well’ (& vice versa) makes a massive difference. I benefited from having Angela Jameson next to me on Alto as this stabilising ‘rock’ next to me on the main stage. Because for the first part of the first performance, I could feel myself all over the place. It seemed to take an age for my vocal chords to warm up. That plus whether I would remember the subtle differences between the first and second solo sections of my bit of the ‘octet’ of men performing a stomping electro-swing number by Disco-bob (a number that has vocal noises but no words). With my bit in the octet, I had to be on the front row of the main collective to get to and from the front microphones. When you’re on the front row, you can feel very alone and exposed. No one is in front of you, and I felt very self-conscious about looking in any direction other than at the audience. It was only when I looked around that I was reminded that there were about 100 other singers on the tiered stage behind me & Angela next to me.

‘Commanding’ an audience

To be honest without the feedback from the audience, I’d have had no idea as to whether as to whether they enjoyed our performance. But when you get people from pensioners to teenagers who you’ve never met coming up to you – as well as staff commenting positively on your part of the song, something went right. Not least because I completely messed up the sound check – my mind went blank for the second bit so I made it up. Hence the nerves. Then I thought: ‘Take inspiration from the lead singer of ‘Extreme’ at Wembley in 1992′.

Eyes, face language and body language. Let the band do the rest – they are the professionals. There was a bit of me that said: ‘Free the microphone’ that was in the stand. So I did. I also recall being angry with myself at something in the run up to the piece, so chose to channel that anger into the microphone for that piece.

Music: This one’s a team game

& I’m not just ‘saying’ that. Without the support & encouragement of the other seven soloists in the rehearsals (& the rest of the collective in our Friday and Sunday rehearsals) I wouldn’t have gotten near that concert hall. (Without Nicola giving me a lift to Bury St Edmunds and back, ditto!) Again, I recall a documentary on football, with Andy Cole reportedly telling new signing Fabien Barthez that at Manchester United they ‘win as a team and lose as a team’. It was an observation I wanted to make prior to the 2014 World Cup Final once it was clear it would be Argentina vs Germany. The pundits were saying Germany had the strongest team but Argentina has Messi. My take was that Argentina’s other high profile players (in particular those playing regularly in Spain, Italy & England) needed to step up & take the pressure off Messi.

My point is that we are all looking out for each other. A community: A group of people with something in common who also look out for each other? 

What’s even better for Cambridge is that the collective as a community is looking out for our wider community. All of the profits from the Dowsing’s performances go to the Dosoco Foundation. Sunday’s performances raised over £400 for it – helping fund projects across Cambridgeshire such as these announced earlier in 2014.

“Do we get to see videos?”

Hopefully – for we had a photographer there. I’ll see if I can get permission to post some photos, audio & video footage to share once it becomes available. In the meantime, have a listen to a clip of the music, and of what people thought of the 2013 Ely Cathedral performance.


Because even if you can’t always get what you want, you might get what you need!

Also, between the two performances a few dozen of us decamped to a restaurant for food – some in family groups, others in sort of singing parts. One of the waiters said to one of our number that if she could get the rest of us to sing a song ‘flashmob’ style, they’d give them a free dessert. Price of my drink? £2. Price of my food? £7.95. The look on the faces of the locals as we broke out into song? Priceless.

“Dowsing Sound Collective Concerts: More fun than every world cup final since 1990″

- And you can quote me on that one too. :-)


Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Music, Sport | 1 Comment

A day digital filming in Cambridge


Living and learning with my introduction to digital filming class

For Cambridgeshire-based people, Hills Road are running an Introduction to Digital Film Making on Weds evenings from September – see here. It also sits nicely with An introduction to social media for social action that Ceri Jones and I will be running in the same term but on a different dayAs far as the local community website Shape Your Place is concerned, I hope both courses will increase the number of people contributing to the site and experimenting more imaginatively with social media.

Jumping on the tour bus

Due to the bumpy drive – a combination of roads and old vehicle, the footage I was hoping to film never materialised. That combined with a cloudy start meant that the ‘filming while in motion footage that I got with the wind turbines from the train was simply not going to happen. I had similar problems with placing my camcorder on mini-tripod in basket effect. A journey that felt smooth on two wheels came out on film much more bumpy and nauseating to watch.

We’re all at very basic stages of filming, so much of what we have been filming has been experimental, artistic, transition or filler material rather than things for a specific purpose. (Eg an interview for a news report). Hence part of what we were doing involved taking day-to-day views and trying to approach them from different angles – eg filming footage with the camera close to the ground, or from angles other than straight on.

Multiple protests at the Guildhall

I planned on heading over to the Guildhall to cover the demo about the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership that the World Development Movement amongst others were organising nationwide protests against. At the same time Amnesty International had a stall, as did demonstrators against the recent escalation of violence in the Middle East – the latter marching around the centre of Cambridge passing even more demonstrations on King’s Parade nearby.

Campaigners from the local GMB trade union branch, Cambridge People's Assembly and the WDM Cambridge protesting against #TTIP

Campaigners from the local GMB trade union branch, Cambridge People’s Assembly and the WDM Cambridge protesting against #TTIP

Things got fiery (verbally) on one or two occasions (I don’t like that sort of confrontation – hence shying away) but the thing that struck me with the TTIP demo was how there was such a huge awareness/political literacy gap between the general public and the nature of the partnership being negotiated at international levels.

Given that I’ve moved my focus towards many things local, I thought that now was the time to record two short clips of people representing organisations that were there. My remit/premise was simple: Explain who you are, who you represent, why you are important (to the community) and how people can get involved. Steve Sweeney of the GMB Union went first:

Steve’s also involved in the Cambridge branch of the People’s Assembly. In his case, my take was that many people (in particular young people) don’t know what a trade union is, let alone why they are important (esp to low paid people in industries with a track record of exploitation of workers). Given Steve’s been a union rep for a long time, he kindly agreed to be on film. Any questions or comments about trade unions in Cambridge should be put to Cambridge Trades Council who are the local umbrella group for trades unions. As with the local election campaign, my viewpoint has been to be a signpost – like with the posters.

I also filmed a piece for Cambridge Rebel Arts – with Jill Eastland

Again, similar purpose but for a group of community activists (mainly women in this case – they have a radio show on Cambridge 105FM). The way I’m doing community reporting at the moment is trying to stick to some basics: Being non-confrontational and allowing people who are trying to do positive things in the community to have a chance to use digital media to show what they are doing.

Buskers between the throngs of tourists and day trippers

And they were there in their thousands – to the extent that even the tour guides got confused as to who was with their group and who wasn’t. It’s at this time of year more and more local residents avoid the historic city centre like the plague – not least because of things like this. But as things stand, Cambridge has neither the resources or the civic infrastructure to manage the millions of tourists that visit the city – the powers & finances are locked up in Westminster and Whitehall. (The responsibility in my view lies with the political institutions, not the tourists).

But it’s not all bad news. More tourists amongst other things has meant a significant improvement in the standard of buskers in town. Old hands will be able to tell you what some of the bad old days were like. These days, the quality of some of the buskers is very high. Part of it has been technological. For example Jack Man Friday beatboxing here:

At our rehearsal for the Bury St Edmunds gig with the Dowsing Sound Collective (this blogpost being written before the two performances on Sunday 13th July – yes, the first World Cup Final I won’t be watching live on telly since Italia ’90) we had Skilly Skillz beatboxing for us. This is him doing ‘vocal percussion’ on our collaboration with Basement Jaxx. Watching/listening to him warm up was quite something.

I then spotted Warren Daniel performing one of the tracks that with Dowsing Sound Collective we had sung on Parker’s Piece the previous weekend (see my blogpost here). Here’s the former’s version.

What strikes me is how different the various interpretations of the same song are. This was the thinking behind Basement Jaxx’s Power to the People project. I’m still waiting for permission to share the video with you – Puffles features in it. Yeah – you know you’ve made it when your dragon fairy has featured in a Basement Jaxx video AND got nearly 100 votes in a local council election! In the same year.

I then heard 16 year old Tom Korni singing a superb version of ‘Come Together’ by The Beatles. He’d gathered a huge crowd – one of the biggest I’d seen for a busker outside The Guildhall. A massive step-on from the one-man-band that used to play his stuff on in Petty Cury, Cambridge during the 1980s. Not Tom’s leg movements in this superb medley – they’re hitting various electronic and acoustic percussion instruments while he’s playing. Far easier said than done.

International sixth-formers give their take on Cambridge

On my way back, at the bus stop I overheard three international sixth-formers studying in Cambridge complaining about the city. Being in ‘community reporter mode’ I politely asked if they wanted to do a piece to camera for Shape Your Place – Cambridge. At first they declined – understandably. Bloke in his mid 30s comes up to you and asks for you to put your opinions to camera, most people would say ‘no’. I assumed that this was par for the course of being a normal journalist & left it at that. 10 minutes later they came back and asked if they could change their mind. I was also mindful in another conversation I had with a couple of other students recently that young people were sometimes frightened to speak up on political issues because they don’t want to be criticised or ridiculed in public/online.

What they said was eye-opening because they were all from different countries with very different backgrounds yet had similar perspectives on Cambridge as a city and their experiences at one of our state sixth form colleges. Having had conversations with students and parents from schools and colleges across the city, the picture is becoming even more clear about the challenges faced by institutions in Cambridge. What’s worse is the institutional structures and cultures across the city are too close-minded to deal with what are common challenges. Other students in further education that I’ve met recently have also said things along similar themes – which makes me think the problem is at least city-wide (if not nationwide). The bit that I’m working on is what our city’s response is.

Hence this

It’s work in progress, but progress has been significant over the past couple of weeks. Watch this space.



Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Education, training and exams, Events I have been to, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

My new Twitter account


A new account for a maturing social media age

I’m running with @ACarpenDigital, which will be conversational and very much ‘Me’ – with @Puffles2010 evolving into a news aggregator. This is part of a long term project Ceri Jones and I are working on under the Be the change – Cambridge banner.

More to follow later this week – in particular on the Change Cambridge event scheduled for Saturday 13 September 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge. For those of you on Facebook, you can add it to calendars here. I’ll be publishing updates soon with a brochure and details of tickets (paid and free).

Some of you may also be aware of experimenting with digital video. I’ve been trying to take footage that captures movement while moving (while not putting self at risk!), in the hope I’ll get footage that I can use in future digital videos. Hence being quite pleased with how this one came out: Fenland wind turbines from a fast moving train.

(Bonus points for those that spotted Puffles’ avatar on my Vimeo page!)

Posted in Cambridge, Puffles, Social media | 1 Comment

Giving Puffles a long rest as new social media projects take off


As Ceri Jones and I prepare to teach a new series of evening classes about social media for social action for Cambridgeshire County Council, it’s time for the next stage of both of our social media journeys.

My new Twitter handle is @ACarpenDigital – matching what Ceri at @CJonesDigital is. Ceri and I are working together on a long term project which we’re calling Be the change – CambridgeIt’s an evolution of the main theme of Puffles’ election campaign in Cambridge during May 2014: encouraging people to be the change they want to see in Cambridge.

Asking for feedback and acting on it

This is what we’ve both done, which also helps explain why we’re changing our approach. Think of it like graduating from university and going into your first job. It’s a little bit like that. Actually, it’s a lot like that. For me, the evolution has been long planned. That said, at #CommsCamp earlier this week I got the sense of ‘relief’ from people that I didn’t have Puffles with me – along with the reasons for that.

On anything that you’ve spent years using, and working on and with, it’s easy to get defensive – especially something like Puffles on my side. Just as there were times say in 2012 where I felt comfortable carrying Puffles around town, today I don’t. The hardest decision when having worked on or in something for an extended period of time is knowing when to stop. In my case, I probably should have wound down Puffles last summer rather than this one. That said, doing so would have taken me back towards a London-facing route. Instead, I’ve ended up going down a much more local route, attempting to apply learning from my London years back home.

Asking for feedback has also meant asking for criticism too. In my case it’s meant been told things that have been blows to my ego and that have even hurt. Yet trying to be liked by everyone risks actually being liked by no one. One thing I’ve learnt from recent months is that I cannot be all things to all people. Much as it would be nice to, I can’t keep the Puffles persona going while at the same time trying to carve out a new niche in the world of social media training and community activism. Maintaining Puffles’ Twitter-feed has been a full time job. Mental-health-wise, I cannot maintain this while at the same time taking on new projects

Two accounts – two personas?


My @ACarpenDigital will be conversational with me (for some reason @antonycarpen is a suspended account/not available!) – not ‘Puffles the persona’. There will be far fewer tweets coming from this account, but it won’t be a dormant one.

My @Puffles2010 account will become like a news aggregator site with fewer conversations. I’ll use this account for retweets, statements of stuff happening and live-reporting from events.

“No more Puffles?”

The story/narrative for fans of the Puffles persona is that Puffles is going off for a very long sleep, with a big ‘Do not disturb’ sign. How do you disturb a sleeping Puffles? As far as Cambridge is concerned it means making very little progress on digital democracy and getting young people involved in decision making in their local area. I made my point with Puffles standing for election – and to be fair to Cllr Lewis Herbert (my local councillor who Puffles stood against), he’s already working on getting young people from Cambridge’s secondary schools more involved. I really don’t want to have stand for election again – whether as me or Puffles. I’m not cut out for what it involves. But in the very unlikely event that zero progress is made, the dragon could return.

Living in a post-Puffles world

I’ve mentioned the ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project. I’ll give more details about my thoughts on this in future blogposts. 2011-13 with Puffles was very much about sharing learning and analysis from my Whitehall days, along with listening and outreach. What I wasn’t doing much of was overt actions – certainly not until late 2013. That’s the difference. It’s one thing tweeting and blogging about things you’ve done, but it’s quite another to organise, do and deliver.

Be the change you want to see

I mentioned this to a number of local residents that expressed interest in standing for a couple of the local parties here. They asked what standing for election involved, and what I recommended they do in order to get to a place where they would not be a paper candidate. My simple advice was to start behaving like the person they wanted to become. In their case, it’s becoming a local councillor. What do good local councillors do? Amongst other things, they help local people solve local problems and also attend public and community meetings – & even organise their own events. If an incumbent councillor isn’t doing something that you think should be done, what’s stopping you from setting an example to them? (In my case it was using social media for social action in my neighbourhood). Again, be the change that you want to see – or find & support someone who has the potential to be that change if that person can’t be you.

Be the change – Cambridge: Saturday 13 September 2014 at Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge

I’ve mentioned this to several of you online and in person. Our Facebook landing page for the event is here. I’ve got a few further meetings to have before we’re ready to go live with the Eventbrite tickets, which will be a mixture of free tickets – at least 25% of them (eg under-21s and people on low incomes) and paid-for tickets. I published a very rough draft of the event format a couple of weeks ago – see here. Thank you to everyone who have given comments on the content already. Ceri is already working on a properly typeset and designed brochure. I’ve got to this stage with the support and encouragement of Dr David Cleevely CBE, and Anne Bailey – the Employer Links Co-ordinator for the Cambridge Area Partnership. Also I want to thank Andrew Limb of Cambridge City Council and Liz Stevenson of Cambridgeshire County Council for their advice and generally sticking with me – even when I’ve been at my most unstable.

Also, a big thank you to Steph Gray and the UKGovCamp team for being the first to give a grant to support the event. This means the world to me – it really does. Having been inspired ever since my first UKGovCamp in 2011 (in my civil service days) I’ve wanted to host a similar event in Cambridge. The challenge has been synthesising what UKGovCamps are all about with the unique challenges of Cambridge. Also, a big thank you to those of you who have already agreed to take part in the event – especially those of you coming from outside Cambridge with your ideas, energy and providing us with a much-needed critical challenge. Also, thank you to the local politicians who have shown interest in this event and for those that want to take part.

A new series of autumn evening classes

Ceri was the driver for this. A conversation over coffee turned into her turning some of my ‘open thoughts’ into a scheme of work for this evening class, which Parkside Coleridge and Cambridgeshire County Council are funding us for. We went to a meeting with over 50 other tutors in Cottenham, a village north of Cambridge earlier on. This gave us a feel of where and how we fitted into Cambridgeshire County Council’s overall plan for adult and continuing education. So far as we know, no one has tried the approach we’re going for in this autumn term. Again, in the next week or so we’ll have a course description to share. In the meantime, the course catalogue for Parkside Coleridge’s Adult & Continuing Education Programme is here.

There’s still more work to do as I update or discontinue other things on digital and social media. These things won’t happen overnight, but it’s nice to have a target date in sight.

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