Staring failure in the face, and avoiding its slap


Learning by doing with Be the change – Cambridge

In my previous blogpost, I ended with the following:

Are you prepared to run the risk of failure in order to reach your potential?

With just under a fortnight to go, and with a big marketing push this week for next week Saturday, I am staring that risk in the face. And it is a frightening place to be. But an exciting one too.

The risk was not selling enough tickets or registering enough people for the free places for the large community action event originally planned. That risk materialised. Hence we’re going ahead with a smaller event – a ‘conversation cafe’ from 1pm with numbers around 50 as the first of a series of events, rather than a single 200+ big gathering as a starter. (See the announcement here).

I failed – and school/academia doesn’t teach you how to deal with failure

On the face of it, I promised X and haven’t been able to deliver X. In a school/education system context, think of it as ‘predicted vs actual grades’. You didn’t get your predicted grades so you failed to get into your chosen university. But who is there to help you pick up the pieces? As far as the system is concerned, they’ve washed their hands of you. There’s no obligation for them to help you after that. A very frightening place for any teenager having been institutionalised by the system to suddenly finding yourself on your own.

In my case though, the whole ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project isn’t like an exam. It’s much more fluid and flexible than that. Everything that I and those working with me are doing with this are things that the current system would struggle to model. Why? Because we’re doing things that have not been done before. All things digital and social media are creating such pressures on the existing system that teachers can easily find themselves with less knowledge on a specific area than the young people they are teaching.

Adapting to changing circumstances and new information

One principle I adopted several years ago was that I change my opinions when the evidence in front of me changes, or when I go through a new life experience. In the early stages of putting the Be the change – Cambridge project together in mid-2014, there were a significant number of unknowns. These including people’s appetite for what we wanted to achieve, people’s desire to get involved, interest from institutions and the general feasibility of it all. In an exam, you’re tested in things you’re supposed to know or have been taught. In this case, we didn’t have various things at the start.

In terms of changing circumstances this included a growing number of event clashes. The increasing number of events that have been organised and publicised since we settled on our date is astonishing. In terms of new information, this has also included people and organisations saying they would love to get involved, but cannot do the 13th of September because of a pre-existing event.

Cambridge needs a city-wide events co-ordinating unit – ideally run & funded by the local authorities and our universities

I am putting that in the biggest letters I can find to make this point. Furthermore, people and institutions planning/organising events should have in their processes contacting the co-ordinators before finalising dates. Amongst other things it could reduce event clashes where organisers are reaching out to the same audiences.

There are a growing number of events that are now being repeated annually – which I think is splendid! In particular credit to those that have forced the hand of Cambridge University to make it more accessible to the public. During my teens I still have the voice of ‘We don’t normally hire out our facilities if you are not a member’ from one of the colleges when enquiring about an event I wanted to organise. That was as recent as the late 1990s. They’ve come a long way but still have a long way to go.

Me learning more skills – ***lots more*** skills

In my case, it’s with digital video:

  • Being in front of the camera
  • Filming behind the camera
  • Editing

Here’s another batch of voxpop clips about Be the change – Cambridge

In a nutshell, new camcorder and external microphone are a lot better at handling poor light and background noise than smartphone and older camcorder. Furthermore, I’m also using Premiere Pro for editing footage rather than iMovie, the former being far more versatile but also far more complex. It’s not a case of download, cut & paste, tweak sound, export & upload. At the same time, the increase in video & audio quality along with the change of file type has significantly increased the size of files I’m now working with – my poor laptop groaning under the strain!

With the Be the change – Cambridge website, I have taken the plunge going beyond the basics of ‘type and post’ as with this blog. As David said to me, do & learn little and often rather than in big chunks. It means the road travelled is a little big bumpy, but the alternative is a smooth ride before crashing into a steel barrier and getting hurt. At least with a bumpy road you can go back over it relatively easily to smooth things out. Hit the steel barrier and you’re not going anywhere for a long time. This was me with digital video. I was blogging away quite nicely, even though I noticed fewer people engaging or even viewing my blogposts. The steel wall was my fear about getting into digital video. It was only when I did the evening class that I got over it.

So, who’s coming to our conversation cafe on Saturday 13th?

1pm at the Ashcroft Business School, ARU on East Road in Cambridge. See details here. The politicians have reconfirmed, for which I am grateful for. We’ve got over 50 of us confirmed on what will be a chance for many actively interested parties to meet for the first time. We’ll also be looking at who can contribute what for the big gathering in very early 2015 as well as the essentials of how to run what is an evolving project that is generating an increasing amount of interest from a growing number of people and organisations. ‘Stakeholder management’ in this context has a very very different feel to what I was experienced in the public sector. But again, this is learning by doing.


Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Social media | 2 Comments



September is normally a time when people commit to something new – especially with a new academic season of evening classes. But the national and global backdrop looks increasingly gloomy.

Let’s start this post with a little bit of Earth, Wind and Fire 1999 stylee

There were only three times in my life where I can recall really looking forward to the future.

  • 1995/96 with GCSEs looming, leaving school and going to sixth form college
  • Autumn 1999 – leaving Cambridge to go to university
  • November/December 2006 – leaving Cambridge (again) to move to London with the civil service fast stream

I can’t recall going into a September when the national and global background to everything was so unbelievably doom-laden. Whether it’s the violence cutting a swathe from the western deserts of North Africa all the way to the Himalayas, to the horrific scandals in Rotherham where the entire public sector seems to have imploded due to the repeated catastrophic collective failure over an extended period years to protect our most vulnerable children. The full official report is here. It’s devastating in its conclusions.

Is it happening elsewhere?

With the latter, judging by Twitter’s response to Panorama of 1 Sept 2014 (watch again here, but with a trigger warning) I’m surprised something hasn’t already kicked off given the anger and rage being expressed. A number of people mentioned that this wasn’t the only place such horrific things were happening and where the responsible authorities were allegedly turning a blind eye. I hope the victims are getting the support they need and the perpetrators brought to justice. At a wider scale, there are a lot of very difficult questions many people need to answer. At the moment, we’re seeing too much denial.

Choosing to become responsible for each other

This was a theme of Puffles’ election campaign in spring 2014, from which evolved Be The Change – Cambridge. Basically I got sick and tired of waiting for the oil tanker of the local public sector to change direction – especially given the inevitable paralysis that austerity brought. You can’t have confident, outward-looking, dynamic and buzzing institutions when everyone is fearing for their jobs, watching talented staff leave and are overwhelmed by increasing demands on the back of problems in the economy. Therefore to expect a public sector alone to deliver what Cambridge needs on the back of such a big hit was never going to happen. Someone had to do something.

Too big for my boots?

It’s one of the accusations been thrown at me. And that was one of the softer ones! But then others have said those who say it can’t be done should stay out of the way of those that are doing it. After ages of nicely asking, and then more assertively asking, it got to the stage where I had to stand up and be counted – and follow that through with longer term actions. First was the election campaign, the second has been putting on this event, and the third has been the vox-pop interviews I’ve been doing. It’s easy to ignore one person who goes on like a stuck record. (I have been known!) It’s much harder when there are dozens of people with lots of ideas, all of which are recorded on camera.

It’s not just the organisations backing Be the change – Cambridge, but have a look who is coming along on Sat 13 Sept. Cross-party representation across local, national and European tiers of public office. We’ve also got another very special guest facilitator who we’ll be announcing this week too! Keep an eye on our website!

Back on the radio again – and doing more filming

I’m back on Cambridge 105FM later this week. Here’s a previous interview where I discuss the new laws allowing greater community reporting at council meetings.

I’m also going to be doing lots more vox-pop interviews, both as part of the ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project but also as part of learning how to improve my use of video and audio editing software. This set of clips is an early draft that needs lots of improvement

Sing it back, sing it back, sing it back to me!

The above lyrics taken from Moloko, another circa autumn 1999 track. One of the reasons I’m still so angry about my time at university is because my experience was the complete opposite of the hope and excitement I had. I remember at the time that I was one of the last of my ‘year out’ cohort to go to university. Everyone else I had met had gone the previous year or had departed in the days or weeks before. In my mind I saw myself as being on a metaphorical runway waiting to take off – having outgrown my home town (the nest). The early parts of this scene from Forrest Gump reflect how I was trying to psyche myself up for a move to Brighton.

The only difference was that the soundtrack to driving down to Brighton was ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins. Even thinking back to how I was feeling back then makes my heart buzz. Unfortunately I the activities I wanted to do at university – in particular the vibrant on-campus music learning environment simply didn’t exist. I remember going along to a musical chorus with one of my flatmates, and it was horrific. I was a first year, one of only two blokes there and went along because I quite liked the idea of a sing-song outside the then oppressive atmosphere of Cambridge. This one was even worse and I never returned. Fifteen years later, Andrea Cockerton arrives to sort things out. The result? This.

The Dowsing Sound Collective in Cambridge are also looking for a few more men to join us. Also, we’re expanding to Brighton, London, Norwich and York. Some of you reading this live in one of those four spots.

One of the things I mentioned years ago that I wanted to get back into was public performance. After the experience in Brighton I never believed I would sing again. Funny how things change.

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds with the Dowsing Sound Collective – Photo by Mike Oliver (

The picture on the left was after me and Puffles had appeared with the Dowsing Sound Collective as part of Basement Jaxx’s ‘Power to the People’ project – which has just been released as part of their new autumn album ‘Junto’. We didn’t just appear in one of their videos, I appeared dressed as a vampire – The Count from Sesame Street. And Puffles? As a vampire bat. Think about it: Puffles. As a vampire bat. In a Basement Jaxx video.

From 1m21s if you’re interested.

The plan for this autumn?

I’ve also got a number of things in the pipeline that are all related to the principles of Be the change – Cambridge. The target? The 2015 General Election. Raise awareness, make the contacts and help people get informed and educated in time for when the national politicians come to town.

So…that’s me being the change…

What about you? What can you do to make even a small positive difference round your way? Because given the toxic national and international news backdrop, people could do with some inspiration. Could you be that person to inspire them? Could you be that person who provides that essential support to someone else’s inspiring project?

Are you prepared to run the risk of failure in order to reach your potential?

With just under a fortnight to go, and with a big marketing push this week for next week Saturday, I am staring that risk in the face. And it is a frightening place to be. But an exciting one too. If you’re in Cambridge and are free on Saturday 13th September (or know someone who is), your city needs you.

Many Bridges

One Cambridge

It’s your city

Be. The. Change.

Posted in Cambridge, Music | Leave a comment

Vox-popping for ‘Be the change – Cambridge’


Preparing some of the ground for our event on Saturday 13 September at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge with some thoughts of people in my community – as well as being a one-man-poster campaign.

Unlike my election campaign of 2014 (see the archive here) where it was all about me and my ideas, all things Be the change – Cambridge are about the issues and ideas of the people of Cambridge. And how better to do that than invite people onto camera to raise their issues? At the same time, it’s all valuable learning for me – a process that is very different to the academic-based learning I was brought up on. Here are what four of my friends, all with very different life experiences had to say:

I’ve not explored playing with the credits in the editing software I’ve got. My previous digital video for the Cambridge Buskers and Street Performers Festival was the first time I had properly stripped video pieces of their audio and replaced them with a single track.

The learning point from the vox-pops was all about improving audio. In this case, filming outdoors means an external mic with a wind shield is essential.

Want to say your piece to camera?

Please get in touch!

My template for this is as follows:

Three people recorded separately stating:

  • Name
  • Where they are from
  • What one big change they would like to see in Cambridge

I then follow this with a final clip of a fourth person who has identified the change they want to see in Cambridge and has started taking action to make that change happen – as Steve Turville of Limoncello on Mill Road has done with the Cambridge Lakes Project (See here). The project Steve has taken on is massive: Turning an old flooded quarry slap bang in the middle of residential East Cambridge into a leisure facility for the city. Have a look at this presentation I filmed earlier this year (2014).

There are a number of people I can think of who are also ‘being the change they want to see in Cambridge’. Helen Holmes and Jenny Debenham are two such people who are working across a number of projects to make Cambridge a sustainable food city. See one of their ideas here.

Also see Cambridge Sustainable Food City here.

My point? There are a number of very inspiring people already doing some great things. I see my role as one helping others to get involved in what is already going on, and bringing people together to get their own ideas off of the ground.

The limits of blogging and text-based social media – and the importance of traditional awareness-raising.

One of about 50 'Be the change - Cambridge' posters I have put up across the city of late. This one kindly hosted by Clowns Cafe on King Street

One of about 50 ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ posters I have put up across the city of late. This one kindly hosted by Clowns Cafe on King Street

My thanks to all that have allowed me to put posters up in their windows/on their premises to advertise the event. The only outright refusal I’ve had so far? Tescos in Fulbourn. Postcard-size only they said. Their shop, their rules I guess. Not the same as my local supermarket – a Budgen’s franchise where I used to work. Kris – featured in the video works there & was there when I worked there well over 15 years ago. If anyone has seen how South Cambridge has changed over the years, it’s him.

Ward-to-ward across central and south/east Cambridge

It reminds me of some of the street-pounding I did in the election campaign – only I was a lot more timid then. The printing of posters on my home printer (which hates me for what I’m putting it through – I’m sure!), laminating & displaying of them is something that feels more ‘automatic & zombie-like’. Put on some headphones, turn up the music & sing like the world’s not watching. Yeah – pumping out a Bros double-bill. I have no idea what the international summer school students thought of me as they headed to their end of season parties at the colleges.

When it comes to community notice boards outside the centre, we don’t really have a consistent approach. As it turned out, the Tescos board wasn’t really much of a board. The acres of glass made the display they had look a little feeble. Other supermarkets have done much better jobs, but there is still room for improvement for all to attract a real ‘community feel’. Even a site such as Addenbrooke’s Hospital – which is the size of a small town anyway, has a notice board tucked away from where most of the staff, let alone the public hardly frequent. A huge missed opportunity.

Cllr Johnson and the Cambridge Societies’ Fair

I first blogged about this event back in spring 2012 – see my blogpost here. Richard (as he was then just a candidate standing for election) backed the idea very early on.

In 2014 the idea got into the Cambridge Labour Party manifesto and upon taking control of the council, Cllr Richard Johnson found himself as an executive councillor with the communities portfolio. He’s kindly invited me to be part of a working group to make the event happen – which I’m delighted to accept. And we have a date for that event too!

Cambridge Societies Fair: Sat 28 February 2015 at Cambridge Guildhall

It was published in the Cambridge News here – but not online yet.

The announcement of the Cambridge Societies Fair in the Cambridge News

The announcement of the Cambridge Societies Fair in the Cambridge News


As the article states, if you’re interested in helping organise the event, please contact Cllr Johnson at richard.johnson [at]

It’s also nice that the Cambridge News wrote an op-ed welcoming the fair, even though part of me wanted to shout: ‘Oi! It was Puffles’ idea!’

"It was Puffles' idea! Twitter says so!"

“It was Puffles’ idea! Twitter says so!”

The real news story is the co-operation between several different people to get to this stage. In the grand scheme of things it’s not so much who comes up with the idea, but who are the people that work together to make those ideas bear fruit.

Sequencing things post-Be the change – Cambridge

This event for me is a nice follow-on from ‘Be the change – Cambridge’. If anything, I’d like to see Anglia Ruskin Students Union and Cambridge University Students Union putting on a community action gathering for further education students in and around Cambridge at the end of January 2015. Its purpose? To get them interested, generate ideas & gain some momentum, and then unleash them all onto the Cambridge Societies’ Fair. Can you imagine what this could do not just for community action in Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire but also for local democracy with a general election coming up? Remember that Andrew Lansley MP is standing down, so South Cambridgeshire is guaranteed to get a new MP. Without the incumbency factor, we could have a much more lively general election campaign in South Cambridgeshire than we’ve had for years.

So…things looking bright locally on the community action front?


But we need your help.

Want to help us make it happen? Join us on Saturday 13 September at Be the change Cambridge. Arrive at 9:30 at Anglia Ruskin University’s East Road Campus – volunteers in dark blue hoodies will be there to greet you!

  • Standard tickets £10 + Eventbrite’s £1.25 booking fee
  • Concession tickets – free (with no booking fee)
  • Under 21s  & ARU students – free (with no booking fee)
  • Event volunteers & activists – free (with no booking fee) – and a free hoodie!

Tickets available at

Many bridges. One Cambridge. It’s your city.

Be. The. Change.

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Social media | 1 Comment

Community reporting & political parties / ballroom dancing jumps shark


Insights into community reporting on all things democracy, and on a vanquished dancing dream

A week of editing footage awaits as filming over a series of days comes home to roost. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s just going to take me ages, that’s all.

Throughout this year I’ve been to gatherings of all of the main political parties in Cambridge – somehow keeping hold of my political independence while maintaining a good level of trust. Part of that comes from having worked with ministers from all three parties in my civil service career, part of it comes from having stood as an independent candidate as Puffles earlier this year. Whenever you stand for election, that’s on your political record for all time. In tribal party terms, it effectively means I will never be seen as ‘one of us’ by any political party should I choose to join one.

A well-trodden political path is when a journalist, TV presenter or columnist becomes a politician. Matthew Parris, Michael Gove, Gloria De Piero and Austin Mitchell are all examples of this. There’s also the path of journalist to civil service communications director. Martin Sixsmith and George Eykyn are two examples. But how many go the other way? How many use their knowledge of how large organisations work to report and analyse what happens? The only one that really springs to mind for me is financial reporter Frances Coppola – who I should add is a good friend of mine.

Community reporting and filming for local political parties

One of the things I tried to get local parties to do in the run up to the Cambridge City Council 2014 elections was to produce some digital video materials. The only party that took up my offer to film things was the Green Party – and that was at a national and European level where I gave them film footage of their campaign launch and press conference.

This weekend, Liberal Youth had a gathering in Cambridge in my neighbourhood. So me and Puffles rocked up to do some filming for them. It wasn’t a journalist-to-politician grilling. My view is that there isn’t anything ‘at entry level’ that encourages and inspires people to get involved in politics or local democracy. Hence my approach is filming as many people as possible and asking things like:

  • Please introduce yourself – who are you and where are you from?
  • What got you into politics?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years time in a political context?

On one side I have tripod and camcorder, and on the other I have smartphone attached to handheld tripod/monopod. Apart from trying to compensate for over-sensitivity of the former, I also want to show that most people in party political circles can either afford or already have the kit with the latter in order to make their own digital films. It’s not a question of intellect. Quite often I have found that many people are either not aware of what can be done with the kit they already have or can easily access, and those that do are unwilling to use it. Prior to my intro to digital video making course was in the latter position.

Is there more that unites rather than divides young political activists?

Whatever the stereotype and/or truths about professional politicians, most of the young party political activists are not in it for the headlines or status. Many of the ones I am meeting are and have been campaigning on issues that until recently did not have the highest profile. Online privacy and mental health are two good examples. Go to meetings of Young Greens, Young Labour or Liberal Youth and you’ll probably find in a comparison of the three a great deal of common ground. Mental health, women’s rights, sustainable energy, are all issues where the big principles are very similar.

Dare I say it, but there are also similarities in the personalities of the people that I’ve met as well. Educated, articulate and cerebral people are conspicuous by their presence. At the same time, there is also a level of passion and even ‘intensity of personality’ that comes with it too. This can have positive and negative consequences. Positive in that someone can really go into the policy detail of something that few others would consider (thus being an asset to a team) but negative in that this intensity can sometimes put people off.

Not everyone goes to university

And perhaps that’s what’s missing. I can’t recall meeting the young apprentices, the labourers, the full-time shop workers, the bus drivers, the highway patrol people, the mechanics, the hair dressers etc at these gatherings. What would targeted campaigns about that demographic by the parties look like, and what impact would it have on local parties?

Ballroom dancing jumps shark

I remember nearly a decade ago having really high hopes of what had become a passion of mine sparking something of a mini social life revolution. Having been to Vienna and experienced the formal balls in the grand palaces, along with what was the first series of Strictly, I was hoping that it would create a critical mass of people who would want to replicate the best bits of Vienna’s formal dancing scene in the UK. But that never happened. Instead – and perhaps predictably, subsequent series moved away from the dancing and focused on making celebrities out of the professionals.

With the ex-pros now appearing on other non-dance TV shows (e.g. here), what could have been a renaissance in ballroom – where people from all backgrounds could go to big gatherings and balls in their towns, seems to be over. There are many reasons why it never happened – in the grand scheme of things the non-dance-related media appearances of strictly’s professional dancers wasn’t the biggest by any means. One was a lack of vision and leadership in the governing bodies of dancing, and the other was and is out-of-control land prices that price out many community activities. As a couple of small-business people in the local Conservative Party told me, you could not run a traditional large ballroom venue at a profit in today’s economy. And because of the unstable income that is associated with trying to run a dance school, who can blame the professional dancers for trying to squeeze every penny possible out of their time in the limelight?

I’m still deciding whether to go dancing again this term. I don’t know if I have the physical fitness to get back into it. But for those of you in or near Cambridge who are interested in a dance workout and the option of competing, one of the offshoots from the Cambridge Dancers Club (who are back in October), the XS Latin Formation Team are recruiting new dancers. See here for more details.

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, Party politics | 1 Comment

GCSE Results Day


Comparing then with now.

I stumbled across this blogpost which nails it. Same stuff, different year. Commentators moaning about exam standards not being as tough as they were in the good ol’ days.

Back in the mid-1990s I was ambushed by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire about 5 seconds after opening my results envelope. I was trembling, clutching a slip that told me I’d scored all As or Bs. In the grand scheme of things, this was the biggest deal in my life up until then. I can’t recall having worked for anything as hard as those exams. With hindsight, the only thing I ever really threw the kitchen sink plus more at was my civil service fast stream application – which like my GCSEs I was successful in, in that it got me to the next stage of life as hoped.

‘Aww! My followers just got their results!!!’

A number of long-time Twitter followers received their A-level and GCSE results recently. As you can imagine, many of them are absolutely buzzing – and quite possibly as drunk as I was this time all those years ago. Funnily enough I’m going to be filming three of them as they perform more musical masterpieces in and around Cambridge in the next few days.

Now is not the time to talk about falling exam standards

It really isn’t. It’s not censorship. It’s self-discipline and tact. I remember during my university days a Guardian journalist trying to work out how easy A-level sociology was by enrolling himself to take the exam on deadline day and revising for six weeks before doing the exam and getting an A in it. He was subsequently ripped to pieces for not checking his privilege – in particular:

  • Being older & more educated than nearly all of the other people taking the exam – he had a university degree which most 18 year olds don’t have
  • Only taking one exam, not the three or four that other candidates took
  • Not having the pressure of taking an exam as if your future depended on it

I found out the difference during my year out between college and university, when I did A-level history in an evening class. With my university place secured, I positively enjoyed the exam – something that could not be said for my compatriots in the hall. But because I had been where they were the previous year, it wasn’t something to be all cocky about. Rather it was a case of ‘I know how you feel’.

Collective success vs individual success

Perhaps the difference between GCSE result and the Fast Stream was the latter was a collective celebration, whereas the latter was an individual one. In the grand scheme of things, the talents and successes of young people are criticised more than celebrated. If it were the latter, the political establishment wouldn’t be putting so many barriers in the way of that talent and potential being realised. It’s not just tuition fees but the burden of training and education generally being shifted from employer and state to individuals – at a time where there are fewer ‘jobs for life’ and re-training is now par for the course.

Adults in the wider community have a responsibility to help young people reach their potential

Looking back, one of the things that was never really apparent during my college – or even university years was the desire of the older adults in the wider community around me to take an active interest in my progress (or otherwise) in those years. Certainly not more than any box-ticking system required. The impact probably changed not only the results I got at A-level, but my choice of university and subject too. And inevitably career path. That said, given my health disposition there is every chance I’d have ended up back where I currently am even if I had followed the ‘life on a piece of paper’ path.

This is where organisations such as the Cambridge Area Partnership come in. I’m particularly interested in the way institutions function. The problem I’ve found over the past couple of years is that when it’s one person jumping up and down, institutions don’t listen. It’s only when you get other people involved and put pressure from multiple directions that they start shifting. The other thing I’ve found is continually evaluating and adjusting your approach also keeps institutions on their toes. 2014 has been a case in point as far as my actions are concerned. Almost outspokenly assertive early on in the year, I made my point by unexpectedly standing for election as Puffles. The result of that was repeatedly raising issues that helped influence local democracy and local policies.

Having ‘banked’ that, I’ve switched approach again. Once you’ve stood for election, you know what it involves. Standing for election again is less of a big issue second time around. Although I don’t want to do it in 2015, it’s not something I’ve entirely ruled out. It depends on progress on the issues I care about. My current approach is about setting an example by doing. This ranges from being a community reporter for Shape Your Place (see an example here) to organising events such as the repeatedly-mentioned Be the Change – Cambridge. To see how far we’ve progressed, have a look at the sponsors we’ve signed up here.

Significant progress? I’d like to think so

What’s really good to hear from the sponsors I have spoken to is the importance of young people to the city. That’s one of the big reasons why they are getting involved. A generation ago, such an event like this would not have happened. It really wouldn’t have. The problem then was the mindset of the institutions. This is something that is slowly beginning to change, but only because a critical mass of people challenging that culture is now forming. Not only that, we have the tools, technology and networks to bypass hierarchical and archaic structures that otherwise get in the way. That combined with enough people from diverse backgrounds who are persisting with the pressure.

A very long way to go

I spent much of 2013/14 being rebuffed and ignored by a number of local further education establishments on community outreach. Emails ignored, follow-ups not taken forward – that sort of thing. Hence switching approach and going through local council committees, repeatedly following up actions. For example in Cambridge in the ‘open forum’ items:

Although the minutes have not been published, the new Chair of the Committee Cllr Sue Birtles has said with one of the institutions, she’s going to make a spot visit because 9 months of being ignored is now in my book a contempt for democracy. I put this point to the full council in June 2014 in ‘Public Question Time’.

Furthermore in Cambridge in the open forum items…

The great thing about East Area is that we’ve had significant progress with Parkside Coleridge School. Cambridge City Council and ward councillors are now much more engaged with the school, and are visiting more frequently and doing a greater variety of citizenship-related activities than before. I spoke with the head of Coleridge, Bev Jones not long after the GCSE result were released. She was glowing with pride – and with good reason given the challenges Coleridge has faced over the years.

We’ve shown a glimpse of what we can achieve if we take responsibility for each other

This is the ‘be the change’ approach. We’re asking people ‘what can you do to make the change?’ rather than ‘Can you give a list of reasons why you can’t do anything?’ Hence the challenge at the end of our event (“Buy tickets here!!!”) is for people to make a small behaviour change or commit to one small one-off action. Because if over 200 people do that all around the same, the impact could be just enough to create a momentum that’s unstoppable.

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

On being lonely


I stumbled across this post via Urban75 in a thread about ‘Relate’s report on the state of relationships. It’s on loneliness – something I’ve blogged about previously.

Originally posted on The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive:

I’ve written about pissing into bottles when I’ve been depressed, and yet to me, this is a blog  whose responses I fear the most. Because admitting that you’re lonely seems to be the most shaming thing you can do. We’re meant to be glitzy! Instagramming! Vineing our awesome lives! And this will sound like one long self pitying tract, which it is, really. All I want from it is to get some thoughts out of my system. It is not a plea for contact because as I will explain I must do those things on my own terms and not be forced into them or feel obligated because I find that scary and overwhelming. Like someone who hasn’t eaten for a bit- I’ll be sick and not want to eat again if I have a big meal. I need to have little nourishing small things that I am comfortable with.

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Final version of my film of the Cambridge Buskers Festival 2014


I’m strangely proud of this – for being proud of work I’ve done is an emotion I rarely feel.

Here it is:

Visually it’s not perfect – I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the conversion process that blurred it. I chose to go with the audio from Cobario’s album rather than with the audio footage I filmed. The track is called ‘Showdown’ and is available on iTunes.

“Why proud?”

I think it’s because it’s something I never saw in myself. My early digital video commissions were the result of my lack of digital video editing skills. We didn’t actually do much editing in the evening class I took recently. The focus – and I think rightly so – was on filming good clips. As a couple of the books on the subject have said that you cannot compensate at the editing stage for poor filming/positioning.

At the same time, the whole experience has got me thinking differently – and learning differently too. This was something I hadn’t really comprehended before. In the case of the filming, it’s learning a little and regularly. In the case of editing, there were a number of barriers that I came up against with the editing software that involved various searches to overcome. The perfectionist in me wants to work on the blurring of the footage which seems to have come before the compressing stage but after the filming stage.

The difference this entire project seems to have made is that I’m experimenting with software in the manner a creative type (such as my sister) would do, rather than expecting everything to work first time every time. This one got her nominated for the Next Director Award 2014.

One for owners of four-legged friends? Her other video work is here. Recognise any from telly?



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Cambridge Buskers Festival blows the roof off


Musicians took to the streets and pubs of Cambridge – making young children curious, the beer-drinking lads sing, middle-aged women dance, and some old men cry. Some of the best performances were that powerful.

I’ve just completed a weekend of filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival 2014 – ****Thank you**** to Lulu and Heather for giving me my first paid commission (mentioned in my previous blogpost) and also to all the musicians, their friends and families – and also to the landlords and proprietors in Cambridge that gave me permission to film in their premises. (Six Bells, Earl of Beaconsfield and D’Arrys get honourable mentions – as does Simon Fraser of Hot Numbers Coffee who is always happy for me to film there. Oh, and he’s opening a new coffee house opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum!)

Tom Korni wins the ‘Best Busker’ award

As well as impressing the judges, he blew the roof off of the Earl of Beaconsfield with a superb finale – ably prepared by the trio from Vienna, Cobario. The latter’s final track here gives you a feel of the atmosphere.

By the time Tom’s session came round, my upgraded camcorder (which I’ve nicknamed ‘the beast’ because although impressive, it’s taking time to tame!) had run out of battery power and had packed up my filming kit. I filmed his performance at the Six Bells earlier in the afternoon – one that had little children dancing and old men with moist eyes when he sang a cover of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to heaven’. Such were the quality of his final two tracks – ‘I will wait’ by Mumford and Sons, and his own final track ‘Teenage Lover’ that I recorded the audio. Have a listen.

In terms of sheer energy, those were the two acts that really stood out amongst what was a very talented field. Despite running around filming and listening over the three days, I only got to see about a quarter of the acts taking part – such is the nature of street music festivals. Yet everyone who took part played an important part. It’s like building a bridge with lots of big shaped blocks of rock – you need them all otherwise the bridge collapses.

It wasn’t all energy and passion at 100% though. The artists on the whole were very good at judging mood of the audience as well as the ambience of the venue they were in – as Dave Holmes demonstrates in the courtyard of D’Arrys on King Street.

It was a lazy Saturday lunchtime, and he got the tone just right. Funnily enough, not long after Dave’s performance, Classycool turned up and showed everyone how to make classical music fun and accessible.

Young women conspicuous by their musical presence

Rachel Clark had her work cut out in this expose spot by Drummer Street bus station – just as my kit did with the wind and the background audience. As you can see, Rachel was unfazed by it all.

Like Tom and my other favourite young musical act, Grace Sarah, Rachel has also just finished her GCSEs. Which also reminds me, another brilliant young musician of a similar age is Ellie Dixon, who just uploaded a better quality recording of ‘Going Places’ that she performed at The Junction, supporting Grace Sarah and friends. What’s great about all of them is they are experimenting and pushing the boundaries with music and social media. Have a look/listen to Ellie’s cover of ‘I need a dollar’.

How many of us would have had the imagination to have created percussion that way?

Some really positive lessons learnt for lots of people

Loss of council funding need not be a barrier

Although a blow, the buskers festival this year seemed to have a more noticeable presence than last year. That or I happened to be in a more receptive frame of mind being on the lookout for interesting people to film. Well done to Heather, Lulu and the team for putting together a splendid festival. Personally I think the local mainstream media should be doing a feature on all of you for organising this.

Cambridge businesses: There’s a sponsorship opportunity here. A BIG one.

Given the positive vibes that come from things like this, local businesses should be jumping at the chance to sponsor this in future years. Cafes, bars and restaurants that have ideal spots for buskers could be making them available – even if it means the loss of a table or two. If you’re not full anyway, it’s not as if you’re losing custom – as was the case with one or two of them on Saturday. Giraffe for example should have welcomed Rachel to one of their unfilled outdoor table spaces. It would have given a better acoustic for her, been closer to the benches outside and would have made it easier to record the audio.

Pubs, bars and restaurants

The standard of artists booked for the festival was very high. It’ll get higher. Open your premises to them for next years festival.

Buskers: If you are singing, you need a microphone and an amplifier for your voice

I learnt this for myself earlier on Parker’s Piece with the Dowsing Sound Collective – see my blogpost here. I couldn’t hear myself sing because there was nothing for my voice to bounce off. The same is likely to be the case with you if you are singing in an open space. Furthermore, when it comes to recording, people recording you on smartphones will not be able to hear your voice. Having an amplifier for voice and for your instrument means that the volume for both can be equalised. This significantly improves the quality of audio that your audience listening and recording on smartphones get. If it comes through well on the latter, you’re onto a winner.

Buskers: Make sure you’ve got a laminated poster stating who you are and how people can get in touch online – ideally Facebook, Twitter and a website

It makes it easier for people who liked your music to stay in touch with you – and even book you or buy some of your music. The number of parents of performers who said they had been booked for weddings, family events and other future performances as a result of being heard at the festival was astonishing. Make it easy for new fans to get and stay in touch.

Organisers: Let’s have an evaluation meeting on what worked this year and what we can improve on for next year

Because ***lots*** of things worked for everyone this year. There will always be things that we could do better than we had wished. It’d be worth asking the buskers and the venues that hosted some of them what would make things easier for them. The question that’s worth thinking about for next year is on making digital and social media work for the public and the buskers. There’s huge potential in it for everyone. On the Saturday alone I had uploaded film footage of four of the artists. Tom Korni today makes that five, and it’ll be expanding further over the next week as I edit and upload more footage.

Me as a cameraperson

That was cracking good fun, wasn’t it? I got to meet lots of new people and make some new friends too. I got to meet several people for the first time who I had previously only corresponded with on social media, and also raised my own profile – ironically being behind the camera rather than in front of it!

This was also a big challenge for me. Whenever someone pays you (no matter how small the amount) to do something, it changes the relationship – for better or worse. In this case for both parties, the better. Had I not bumped into the organisers outside The Guildhall on Friday, I’d have probably filmed less than half the number of people I did today and would have missed out on some cracking performances & new friendships. Though the organisers might have picked up one or two tracks I filmed, they wouldn’t have had the stream of social and digital media coming in from me running around town to the extent that I did with the commission.

It was also the impetus to upgrade some of my kit – but not to the really expensive extent the man from the electrical’s warehouse was urging me to get to. Also, several of the musicians and their families said the quality that was coming from my cameraphone was excellent. This makes it a really useful emergency backup when the battery on the main camera runs out. This weekend has been a splendid learning exercise amongst other things.

And you know what?

I came away from the buskers party with a big smile on my face. Now, given that I’m an intense person at the best of times, getting a smile out of me – a genuine one, takes something special. On one side, there was me having lots of fun filming many very talented musicians, and on the other there were people thanking me and genuinely appreciating what I’m doing – filming and sharing. But what really made me smile was watching longtime regulars at some of Cambridge pubs all responding with a heartwarming embrace to the musicians. This wasn’t the ‘polite applause’ you get when a group has finished their performance. This was standing ovations stuff.

On my walk back home, I noticed how the trees were blocking out the streetlights. And for the first time in ages, I could see the stars in the sky.

Reach for the stars – because you might just reach the tops of the trees. And the view from there is just as good. And with that I’ll leave you with Tom Korni’s version of Stairway to Heaven.


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My first digital video commission – and employers overlooking digital skills young people have


It may only be a ‘micro-commission’, but for me it’s a giant leap on all things digital media. But are employers missing out on the skills that today’s school leavers have developed growing up in this internet age?

If someone had said to me in January 2014 that I’d be taking on my first digital video commission in about six months time…exactly. But then I’d have said the same thing about Puffles standing for election (& getting 89 votes – described by polling guru Phil Rodgers as ‘respectable‘) and Puffles appearing in a Basement Jaxx video with some of the nicest musicians in Cambridge. Then there’s all things Be the change – Cambridge where the pace organisationally is picking up, even though ticket sales thus far have been much lower than I had hoped for in the first week since going public with the ticket sales site. But we’ve got a solid plan to turn this around that doesn’t involve me sending out lots of repeated social media posts.

Getting into digital video

Some of you will be aware of the greater number of videos embedded into recent posts – in particular ones that I’ve filmed. Apart from curiosity, watching other parts of England taking to community reporting using digital video while Cambridge remained stuck in the dark ages started to annoy me in early 2014. Cambridgeshire’s community website Shape Your Place has the capabilities to embed Youtube videos but hardly anyone was making any. Finding out the only local evening class on introducing people to digital video got cancelled due to lack of interest didn’t make me any happier. Had it gone ahead, chances are me and Puffles would have got up to far more mischief in the election campaign than we actually did!

"***Hai!*** I iz meejah!" Puffles with Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett in Cambridge for the launch of the Green Party's East of England manifesto for the Euro 2014 elections

“***Hai!*** I iz meejah!” Puffles with Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett in Cambridge for the launch of the Green Party’s East of England manifesto for the Euro 2014 elections


Instead you got me and Puffles learning the hard way just how limited our little camcorder was compared to the stuff the broadcast journalists had. It’s still the case now – the footage on my phone more than matches what the camcorder picks up. This video I filmed for the Cambridge Buskers Festival (who have kindly awarded me the commission) gives an idea of the quality you can achieve with a smartphone.

Actually, this is quite fun!

For a start, it gets you out of the house. It gets you meeting people. It gets you learning by doing. And thus far, people presenting, speaking at community meetings or doing artistic or musical public performance have appreciated what I’m doing for them. After all, it’s not me in front of the camera. It’s someone far more talented! It’s only recently that I’ve started noticing the social side of things.

But how do you move up to the next level without spending a fortune?

The man at one of the larger electrical outlets in Cambridge insisted that to do what I wanted to do involved spending a couple of grand (that I’ll never have this side of 2020) on a stupendously expensive camera not much smaller than Puffles. Without repeating my blogpost on choice and camerasthere is a ****massive**** market failure for consumers. That market failure is the almost infinite amount of choice out there for buyers with a limited understanding of what they are buying and a limited amount of time to read up about their purchases. The market is failing to ensure buyers are making informed choices and know what they are buying.

The one that made me go ***Wow!*** was this one. The pocket battleship of digital video cameras. It was Carl Winberg who pointed me in that direction – someone with far more expertise in this field than me! Now, although I can’t see myself accessorising something like that to the max, the design that merely enables this is phenomenal. Something to aspire to several years down the line perhaps? But not now.

“No – really. How do you move up to the next level?”

I’m still trying to work that one out. Although learning all the time, everything has become very complex very quickly. It’s one thing filming, working out where the best angle is accounting for light, wind and background noise. It’s quite another thing editing – whether the video or (from my point of view more importantly) the audio. The perfectionist in me wants to get this to standards far higher than my skills and equipment are capable of.

Is mobile video the future?

I did a quick straw poll at Model Westminster which I was a volunteer facilitator at recently. (See here). This was an event aimed at students from their final year of secondary school to recent graduates. The way many of them are using social media is much more ‘in your face’ – literally – Snapchat being conspicuous by the number of people mentioning and using it. Most importantly, they are more than comfortable creating their own video content. Shy in front of the camera this lot were not.

The skills mismatch again

This was in the news again. Yet what I’ve noticed – and I’ve spoken to a number of business owners about this – is that too much of the business world is not set up to harness the digital skills that many young people now see as the norm. The tragedy is that the potential of both is being lost. Firms don’t see young people for the skills they do have, but the skills they do not. Despite studying for what the system points them towards, too many young people find themselves turned down for too many jobs.

To help resolve this, there needs to be a significant cultural and attitude change from the generations that are in positions of power and influence. In November 2013 I had a number of exchanges with local councillors about social media skills in local government. You can read some of the councillors’ responses here. That’s not to say these are their views now. People and priorities change with time and new experiences. From a political perspective, the 2015 general election may well see a spike in the number of older people using social media to engage with candidates. As any trainee teacher will tell you, one of the most important part of the learning process is reflection on the journey you’ve travelled down.

As for my path ahead?

If it’s there, I can’t see it. It’s very different to say 2006 when it was crystal clear: An internal civil service transfer to London come hell or high water – a path trodden by a number of my contemporaries before me. But then perhaps that’s the point. This time around with the technology being so new and progressing at a very fast rate, perhaps the path hasn’t been beaten out from the undergrowth.

It reminds me of the cub scout camps we went to when we were little, just outside Cambridge. Upon arrival in part of the woodlands we’d face a wall of stinging nettles taller than us. By the time the camp was over, many a path had been beaten through them. Maybe that’s what I’m doing now metaphorically: beating a path through those stinging nettles – and getting stung or pricked by the thistles and brambles along the way. But it’s only when you stop, look round and reflect that you see the path you’ve created.

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Is social media becoming less sociable and more about broadcasting?


A welcome reality check from a fellow social media trainer – and comparing my own experience of the past year or so with what might be happening generally

Suzy Ashworth is local to me and was one of Puffles’ earliest followers. One thing I’ve found with my fellow social media trainers is that most of us specialise in its application in a given field. For me it started off in public policy before morphing into community action. Looking at my blogstats, the number of Twitter followers for Puffles seems to be inversely proportional to the hits my blogposts are getting. Perhaps a reflection of the fewer party-political/current affairs posts and a greater number of Cambridge-based posts? Perhaps.

Separating Puffles from me

I’m now using @ACarpenDigital for conversations around work-related things. Furthermore, I’m also co-running @BeTheChangeCam for the big event on 13th September. I’ve now rebranded Puffles’ feed as a policy and politics newsfeed. This has allowed a number of users that found Puffles’ retweets overwhelming (understandably so) to stay in touch with me on an account that otherwise posts only a handful of tweets on any one day. Deliberately so. What was nice to hear from Suzy was genuine positive feedback about Puffles’ achievements from someone in a similar field. What I also found interesting was how we were coming to similar conclusions about how social media is evolving and maturing (if you can call it that) from what it was say a couple of years ago.

A torrent of hatreds

In recent months I’ve noticed a sharp rise in the number of aggressive posts being retweeted into my social media feeds. In what has been quite an exciting summer inside Cambridge for me compared to all of the ones since my return from London, news from beyond the city’s borders has been a depressing backdrop. It’s been one that has polarised opinions on a number of conflicts across a swathe of the planet – a firestorm that all the water in the Pacific Ocean cannot quell.

I can understand the sense of anger and powerlessness more than a few of us feel. During my university days, I was that angry emotional firework of a person – my issue being the IMF & World Bank and the global debt crisis that was often in the news in 2000/2001. I wasn’t the easiest person to have a conversation with when in angry mode (who is?), and so shy away from conversations that get too heated. Perhaps I see in such exchanges a side of me that I don’t like. At the same time, are more people shying away because things are getting too noisy?

Fewer shared experiences and observations beyond Cambridge?

Fewer shared observations given that I’m not commenting as much on national/international politics and public policy. On the former, I feel either I’ve said everything I want to in previous blogposts or feel completely powerless to stop bad things happening so refrain from commenting lest I find myself in a social media argument. As the saying goes, if you get into an argument with a fool…exactly. My other feeling is that if all the world’s diplomats can’t sort out these problems, then what impact is little ol’ me and my dragon fairy gonna have? Hence going for my current approach of thinking global but acting local. Aim for a positive impact where I’m most likely to achieve it. At the same time though, why would anyone outside Cambridge who has no link with the place be that interested in the detailed goings on here?

Me, me, me.

Now that I think about it, there’s a growing theme of ‘this is what I have done/seen/been to’ rather than ‘this is my analysis of something happening today that might not have been picked up by the media’ blogposts. At the same time, this feels like a natural evolution of the direction I’m sailing in. I’ve been out of the civil service for more than three years and feel far less qualified to talk about what’s going on in public policy circles than say two years ago.

The fact is I’m not in London nearly regularly enough to have my ear to the ground on what the mood is. There is only so much you can do training and giving advice without refreshing your learning and going back to being a practitioner/do-er in something. I took this away from the Sookio Masterclasses in Cambridge – where Sue Keogh has developed a talent for sourcing social media practitioners (rather than trainers) to share their learning. I.e. the people that run corporate social media accounts. Hence insights from the commercial world have been fascinating.

More diverse content of interest to fewer people?

For example the people at or who would like to have gone to community workshops or to simply see/hear what happened, have given very positive feedback on all things audio and video. With that in mind, it’s less about me and more about whoever is in front of the camera – such as the brilliant Rachael Johnson who I saw earlier this evening.

As you can see, my vintage camcorder was really showing its limitations despite Simon’s best efforts with the lighting! I tried playing around with the audio on some more advanced software to reduce the background chatter and to amplify the bass. Have a listen on SoundCloud to see if it made much difference. Again, I’m still a complete beginner on filming and editing, but with every filming session I go to, I’m always learning something new. (Today it was ‘OMGz – this new tripod is ***wonderful!!!*** – much lighter, more compact, more flexible and can extend further than old one). Normally it’s something very small, but it’s a practical way of learning that I’ve not really been used to: self-learning through unguided experiments. There’s something liberating about that. But at the same time, I’m still an unwilling lone ranger producing content for broadcast rather than conversation.

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