On the importance of ‘safe spaces’ for those of us with mental health challenges


Visiting the Lifeworks occupation protest in Cambridge – care in the community

‘Care in the community’ got a bit of a bad name in the media during the 1990s after a series of high-profile murders combined with inflammatory headlines. I remember at the time wondering why there was a policy of care in the community – why didn’t everyone who was even a slight risk locked up out of sight and out of mind? That seemed to be the media’s message to us. At the time I was completely ignorant of the symptoms of my own mental health issues. It almost seems appropriate that I’m writing this blogpost 24 hours after having taken a fairly strong tranquilliser pill to help give me a good night’s sleep after 2 sleepless nights in a row. (I didn’t wake up until about 3pm, got my dates mixed up and missed the Social Media Surgery – so another apology from me!)

Earlier on my friend Ceri took me along to the Lifeworks occupation (see here), with the responsible authorities on the receiving end of tough questions from Cambridgeshire County Councillors over their handling of it. We got a warm & friendly welcome from the occupiers, & for the first time in quite some time I felt the weight of … ‘stuff’ being lifted from my shoulders. (This happened just before I read and replied to the very important things in my previous blogpost).

What I learnt from the people there is that they are extremely clued up on the issues – and on how ‘the system’ does not work for us. They know far more about local public health than I do, which made me realise the importance not just of ‘communities of interest’ – in this case service users, but the links between the communities and wider societies.

High profile awareness campaigns not matching the picture on the ground

I blogged about this here. Over the years I’ve been treated for my mental health issues, there have been funding cuts after funding cuts. Nothing about any significant increases in resources, or about new treatments or facilities coming on stream. The best treatment I had from anywhere was from the local youth charity Centre33. In one sense I’m gutted that I’m too old to be a service user now, because they got lots right with me.

Something about the structure of our economy and society?

I guess I ‘burnt out’ in some respects. I couldn’t cope with the life of a long commute. I have no idea how others manage. This is where the experiment in Gothenburg, Sweden will be interesting – moving to a shorter working week with six hour days. What would that look like over here if we were able to combine it with people able to live much closer to their places of work, rather than having the high-rise office blocks supported by over-stretched public transport systems.

In terms of the worries associated with insecure employment and costs of living, Nyika Suttie – one of Puffles’ earliest followers, in her first column for The Guardian is spot on here. How can you plan for the long term future if you don’t know whether you’ll have a job at the end of your fixed term contract? Hence perhaps Hannah Fearn’s piece about a citizen’s income (see here). It’s something Ed Miliband tried to pick up in his speech recently talking lots about the lack of ‘middle income jobs’ (see the transcript here). As I’ve seen written elsewhere, technology (and how we use it) has led to the demise of more than a few of these jobs. The people that ran photograph processing shops and record/music shops are just a couple of examples.

As I said to the friendly people at Lifeworks, were it not for support from my family, I would be in a much worse place health-wise than I currently am. They told me how Lifeworks helped them manage their health, and the positive impact that the service has for them. Just as importantly, such services give us the chance to contribute to the wider community in a manner that’s meaningful to all of us – and that makes a real difference. When senior public service managers and ministers look at such services through the narrow lens of a spreadsheet, they inevitably overlook the wider benefits to society that financial models struggle to account for. As the people at Lifeworks told me, removing prevention and support services has a knock-on impact down the line with acute and emergency services.

Cutting community support services might help a short term balance sheet, but – and as the protest sign in the community room said – in the long term, it’s a false economy.


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

“I’m sorry, I got it badly wrong, here’s what I’ve learnt…” A much-needed reality check


Me taking responsibility for my conduct when I misjudge things badly.

This relates to a conference I was at on musical inclusion – which I blogged about here. Just over three weeks after the event, musician Martin Case posted a long and powerful comment really taking me to task over my conduct – it’s worth reading his comments in full here. Because this will explain why I am responding as I am.

Firstly, me apologising not just to Martin but to others regarding my interventions – including the organisers.



I misjudged the event and the audience, and clearly completely failed to show the sort of self-awareness that I like to think is one of my strong points. That fault is mine and mine entirely.

That is why I am publishing this blogpost response (and just as importantly publicising it), and publishing & publicising unedited Martin’s comments in full.

Secondly, how and why did I get this so badly wrong? – A reflection

When I first read Martin’s comments, I felt like I had just been kicked in the stomach very very hard. My friend Ceri was with me at the time and could see that I had read something that had hit me hard.

“Wounded pride? Why not fight back?”

Walking back from town, the phrase from one of my favourite books, Dreadnought by RK Massie was screaming in my mind.

“In testimony before a Royal Commission investigating the errors of the Boer War, a British general had described the marksmanship of the naval gunners sent to help in the defense (sic) of Ladysmith as something “which would have disgraced a girls’ school” [Admiral and Second Sea Lord] Fisher was furious – the more so because he knew it to be true.”

I am furious – with myself. I am angry – with myself because it took someone else who I don’t know to write a well-written and thought-through response on my blog telling me so. And I’m hurt.

How and why?

Martin’s spot on. I went with an agenda all about me and my history. Combining that with what I can only describe as ‘misguided passion to slay some historical demons’ made for me being a ‘toxic delegate’ the very sort of delegate that in other tweets/blogposts  at other events I have probably criticised myself.

Even though there were a number of really interesting and innovative projects, my mindset on the day was all too focused on me, me, me. On reflection, I didn’t do nearly enough of what I try to do normally at events – which is basically to be like this big sponge absorbing as much information, knowledge, energy and inspiration from those there. As a result, I pissed off too many of the very people who Cambridge (my home) ***needs*** the help, guidance and support of. It was utterly avoidable on my part and again, I am sorry.

“So…what have you learnt from all of this? What change of behaviour will you make as a result?”

Again, on reflection (I’m actually finding this more emotionally painful than perhaps I had expected when I started writing it – but that’s part of the learning process), I think I was probably due a ‘dressing down’ like this. Some of you will have noticed the tone of my blogposts have over the past 12 months become that little bit more aggressive. A couple of people have mentioned that I probably want to tone it down a little. Hence seeing Martin’s timely comments as that ‘wake up call.’

In terms of specifics, things I’ve already done include:

  • This post for a start – the response and the publicity of it
  • Getting back into listening-mode again
  • Spending much of the next year in active learning mode as planned
  • Reducing the number and scope of things that I’m getting involved in/following – learning to say ‘no’ when it’s not my time/space to pass comment/judgement
  • Walking away from confrontation – of which there is ***lots*** in the political/public policy sphere.

So, thank you once again to Martin for his piece – in particular for taking the time and effort for writing it. (For those of you less familiar with blogging, it can be an emotionally draining process even on issues you’re passionate about). I hope you’ll accept this post in the spirit it’s been written in.

Best wishes & good luck!


[Updated to add follow-up tweets - apology accepted & all is well and good. A lesson learnt by me.]

Posted in Events I have been to, Music | Leave a comment

Labour’s manifesto for Cambridge 2014


Some thoughts on Cambridge Labour Party’s manifesto for the local government elections in May.

The manifesto is here, and is worth reading. Clearly a lot of thought and effort has gone into it – and sets down a marker for the other political parties to respond to.

“Thoughts overall?”

There are a number of interesting policies and proposals in there. For me it’s nice to see a couple of the things that I have been calling for over the years being included in there. I don’t mean this as a ‘Isn’t it nice that their party is adopting the policies that our party has, showing how wonderful we are over them?’ perspective. I see it as councillors listening to people within their constituencies and taking on good ideas to include in their manifesto. So credit where it’s due in particular to Cllrs Lewis Herbert (who I have been exchanging emails with on this), Sue Birtles and Richard Johnson for turning ideas in this blogpost into a specific manifesto commitment on page 7 – a Cambridge Community Fair.

There are more than a few ‘unknowns’ in there to be aware of. Things that call for reviews and investigations in themselves are not policies. The word ‘review’ appears 29 times in the document. This can indicate many things, such as:

  • either the evidence base isn’t yet there
  • options have not yet been investigated to implement a specific policy
  • politicians are unsure how to proceed
  • politicians want to study the impact of existing approaches, to see if there is a better way forward.

“Anything specific that stands out?”

Under each title heading in their manifesto:

Protecting essential services

Reversing the cut to pest control services is as expected – which is good to see. Personally I felt that this was a false economy by Cambridge Liberal Democrats. At the same time, is there a better way of using data to map when and where pest incidents happen (& publicise this) to help with prevention? There is also a noticeable focus on targeting those in the most economically deprived wards in Cambridge, and/or those that provide services to those most at risk. Again, understandable in the face of massive cuts to local government budgets. At the other extreme, I’d be interested to know what Labour thinks are the things the council does/funds that the public according to them values the least.

Sharing the city’s prosperity

There is a party-political divide here, with Cambridge Liberal Democrats questioning whether there is a town/gown divide, while Cambridge Labour states there most definitely is one. While the divide has been reduced in recent decades, it is still there. It’s one of the reasons why I’m glad that Labour has included a policy on making Cambridge University facilities open to local residents. I raised this at a community consultation event in Cambridge in late 2012 (see my blogpost here). Again, having this in a local party manifesto makes it easier for local residents to go and challenge institutions – both councils and colleges – to respond on delivering this. On the living wage and apprenticeship programmes, while welcome I’d like to see how councillors will bring the rest of the public sector & their contractors on board (noting the campaign of the Cambridge University living wage campaign). Should Labour take control of the council, will they be able to say ‘We have a democratic mandate for a living wage across the local public sector’?

The Housing Crisis

Again, my view on all things housing is that Cambridge is a small city struggling to cope with the vultures of the international property speculation market. There’s only so much local government can do. Policy-wise they seem to have included as much as is reasonably possible. However, they could have included a line in there saying that the real levers of power on this are held by The Treasury.

Safety and quality of life

This is a big issue, but one that I don’t think councillors over the years have ever really got a grip of – in particular regarding ‘soft prevention’. On tackling domestic violence, the hard work of local Labour activist Ann Sinnott has paid off – she attended a number of council meetings in person to raise this up the local political agenda. I also think they need to take a different approach to stopping the already drunk and underage from buying alcohol – a headline approach that doesn’t seem to have changed since my childhood.

“What do you mean?”

When I was in my mid-late teens, some of the councillors (who are still councillors today almost two decades later) pressured the police to crack down on underage drinkers. That put my generation in this strange situation where it was easier for us to get hold of illegal drugs compared with alcohol. (Drug dealers don’t ask you for ID). There doesn’t seem to be anything about engaging with young people about their ideas for tackling the problem of alcohol-related street violence, something that they are even more likely to be on the receiving end of.

Cambridge Labour states it supports the creation of a Cambridge unitary authority. The problem is that creating it requires an Act of Parliament. Labour shadow ministers need to learn the lessons of their botched attempts with Exeter and Norwich in 2010 over attempts to create unitary authorities there. (See here). How to raise it up the agenda? Do what me and Puffles did with the Oxford-Cambridge railway: Next time a very senior party shadow minister (or Ed Miliband himself) visits Cambridge, in the public Q&A (that they always do), state the clause in the manifesto and ask if s/he’ll back the proposal at a national level. (See here).

Making Cambridge Greener and Cleaner

The challenge here for councillors is being able ‘to leverage’ input and resources from the wider community to support what the manifesto proposes. There are community groups there that can help. In terms of the detail, I’m interested in seeing how Labour, if elected would plan, co-ordinate and sequence the various actions they have listed, so that the impact of what they plan is greater than the sum of their parts.

Transforming the council

You can sort of spot the ‘Puffles clause’ in there:

“We will actively engage with social media but are aware that many residents prefer traditional methods of communication.” [P19]

There are a couple of things that chime with some of the things I put in my last blogpost – see here. In terms of ‘traditional’ methods of communications, I would have liked to have seen their manifesto saying something about community notice boards (& their locations), & going to where the people are. Should we have community notice boards at busy bus stops? Should we have consultation events at schools and supermarkets? I agree with the changes to the area committees – though again I’d like to see the proposals go further on bringing other public bodies there for scrutiny by councillors and residents. For example attendance by a senior manager from Addenbrookes should be a given at the South Area Committee because of the huge shadow (in more than one way) it casts over our part of town.

“Isn’t it all a bit…’safe’?”

There isn’t anything that stands out as particularly radical, dynamic and innovative – or anything that has a ‘Wow!’ factor in there. Perhaps with good reason: Given a tightly contested city, why do anything that might risk chances of taking control of the council for the first time in years? Such has been the focus too on the functions of the city council that perhaps it’s limited the scope of vision – a pattern across local government in general?

“What’s missing?”

I would like to have seen the needs of under-18s having a more prominent profile. Although nominally falling under the county council’s remit, schools are not mentioned as community assets at all. This for me is a huge omission – particular in my part of South Cambridge where there is a lack of standalone community facilities. (Queen Ediths’ ward currently has no pub, for example).

On the campaigning and communications side of things, I wonder if the city council will have the resources to deliver on these in the ‘traditional’ manner. Personally I think the council will struggle, which is why planning, sequencing and significantly improved community partnership working is essential. That means significantly improving working relationships with institutions that the council might otherwise have had very limited contact with in the past. One of the other risks that Labour will need to manage if elected is their working relationship with council officials. When one party has held power for so long, it’s easy for the new administration not to want to trust council officials.

“Is the manifesto enough to win the council for Cambridge?”

Yes – but…

But…is it enough for them to keep hold of the council in 2015?

The looming general election is the big uncertainty, which may also explain why this manifesto feels safe rather than radical. I also get the feeling that the current Cambridge Liberal Democrat administration is exhausted. The wafer-thin majority along with the continued pummelling from Labour as a result of Westminster and Whitehall politics left the Liberal Democrats trying to defend things that as individual councillors they had no say in. In one sense, a smart tactical move by Labour as it seeks to build momentum for 2015. On the other hand, it might provide Cambridge Liberal Democrats with a breather, returning refreshed and revitalised for the 2015 general election campaign.

“How will the other parties respond?”

No doubt they’ll study it carefully, and chances are you’ll see a number of similar policies in theirs too. There are a number of specific ideas that would not look out of place in the manifestos of other parties – the Cambridge societies fair being one of them. One thing to watch out for is what the Cambridge Conservatives manifesto looks like under the new look leadership. I’m also interested to see what Cambridge Green Party come up with given the increased frequency of visits by their lead European Candidate Rupert Read this year.

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics | 1 Comment

Digital democracy – beyond the ballot box


A challenge for Cambridge – and perhaps where you live as well. With local civic society structures broken, its systems obsolete and its content though important, discussed in a very frustrating manner, something must be done. But what, and by whom?

Some of you may remember when Puffles appeared in the Cambridge News – see here. That was published on the back of me writing an angry blogpost following a local council meeting – see it here. Item 7 of the open forum in the minutes (click here) illustrates why.

Mr Carpen queried what actions councillors would take in 2014 to inspire young people in local democracy.

ACTION POINT: Councillor Ashton (as Committee Chair) to write to local schools and colleges to invite students to attend future South Area Committee meetings.”

The schools and colleges aren’t helping – so far all the councillors have had back is an acknowledgement that their letters were received. (See item ii in ‘Matters arising’ in the minutes of March’s South Area Committee meeting here). I actually flagged this up with my former history teacher (who is still at one of the schools some 20 years on) in a local coffee shop recently.

“What about residents associations and community forums?”

I can’t recall ever having been part of one in childhood. It was only when I left the civil service that I started attending local council meetings to get an idea of what they were all about. That was in 2011. It was only a few weeks ago that I found out a forum of residents associations existed that covered the area of south Cambridge between my neighbourhood and the city centre. I went to one of their regular meetings not so long ago. It was a learning yet sobering experience.

“The good bits?”

People care about their communities. Furthermore, they have been proactive in community building in the new developments that have gone up. This essential but otherwise unpaid work is probably what David Cameron had in mind when talking about ‘Big Society’. Quite often they are the link between local councillors and residents. In the grand scheme of things, a well-run, well-chaired residents association can make a councillor’s role much easier.

“The challenges?”

Apart from the lack of diversity age-wise – I was probably the youngest person in the room, and I’m in my mid-30s now. Most of the people in the room – about 15 of us in all – were middle-aged to retired. The structure of the economy and society means that the only people with the time, resources and mindset to commit to this type of civic activity generally seem to be people of a certain demographic. Accordingly, I asked the people there to plot on a matrix of community action and online connection where they felt they were. The results are not scientific or statistically significant, but are summarised below

A snapshot of online connectivity of community activists in residential associations in one part of South Cambridge

A snapshot of online connectivity of community activists in residential associations in one part of South Cambridge

One said they were online, but not ‘social’ – and I heard some interesting comments in individual conversations about some of the challenges after the meeting. But I can’t deny that even with such a small sample size, the results are sobering. Given the demographics of voter turnout in local elections, you can see why councillors regularly tell me and Puffles that it simply is not worth the effort investing in social media. The community activists they engage with aren’t really online, already engage through existing structures and feedback the things that councillors feel they can influence. Think the muddy verge, the parking issues (that never go away), the potholes in the road and local civic history – for example here.

“Are you saying that potholes and bins are not important?”

Quite the opposite. At the same time, it’s the stuff we take for granted too. The Green Party in Brighton found out the hard way what happens when you mess around with bin collections. Also, looking after the small patches of greenery amongst other things, when looked at cumulatively, are the things that help make neighbourhoods nice places to live in. Nice people looking after the place and looking out for each other.

“The problem is…?”

The people and the local civic structures did not stand a chance when faced with financial interests measured in billions, with multinational power bases and significant resources to call on. I remember meeting a consultant at a council meeting a year or so ago, sent up to Cambridge on a cold winter’s night in the middle of the week to observe a council debate on housing. She was sent by her consultancy that had been retained to represent one of the biggest development firms in the country. I remember when I was in housing policy in Whitehall, feeling completely outgunned by the wealth of expertise the ‘key stakeholders’ could bring to bear. I wasn’t surprised when the much-criticised ‘help to buy’ policy was announced long after I left the civil service. It may as well have been written by the housing developers. And Puffles’ Twitterfeed exploded with Newsnight recently featured one of the first beneficiaries.

The above is just a tiny sample.

“So…what’s the solution?”

It’s more ‘observations’ first.

Civic structures

As I stated at the start, the structures, systems and processes are broken, obsolete and frustrating to most people – to the extent that all but the most passionate and persistent stick with them.

Too much going on already within existing structures

Most of the councillors work their socks off just treading water with their statutory responsibilities. For example I go home from council meetings when planning items come up because for me I have little influence or impact – or interest on the small items featured. But councillors still have to be there to make the final judgement call on each planning application. Their judgements have a real impact on the lives of the people that submit them, that live in the buildings surrounding the sites and those that may live or use the developments upon completion. Combined with full time jobs and families, that simply does not leave any time for ‘big picture strategic thinking and planning’ – the very thing that Cambridge needs.

Don’t expect the people currently using them to drive the changes

Despite numerous attempts at persuading them on all things social and digital media, I’ve failed locally. Easily caricatured as a Twitter-busy-body, I completely understand why some councillors see me as someone who ‘shouts the loudest’, just online rather than on the phone. There’s only so much one person can do, and I get that feeling I’ve gone as far as I can alone.

“Changes to what, exactly?”

Good question.

As I said to the forum, who are the people in our communities in the top-left corner that are missing? Where are the young families, where are the teenagers and school leavers? Where are the commuters? How are they represented in our civic structures?

“No – really. What is it that you’re aiming for?”

1) A change in the culture of local democracy in Cambridge, which (in part) will be demonstrated by 2) an increase in the number of people casting informed votes at elections, and 3) an increase in the quality and quantity of conversations (whether offline or online) between councillors and their constituents, so that the decisions they take are more informed about the needs and pressures of out communities sourced from a broader range of people. What I want is the title of this post: Digital democracy beyond the ballot box.

“So…you going to stand for election then?”

I haven’t decided – sometimes I’m like ‘Yeah!’ and other days I’m like ‘No…too many risks (not least to my mental health, which would suffer in a campaign).’ It is something I am actively considering, but there are some basics that I need to decide – including in which ward. (Cherry Hinton, Queen Ediths, or Coleridge). Secondly on what platform and for what purpose? Finally, campaigning in what manner?

The thing is, digital democracy beyond the ballot box is not something for me alone to deliver. ‘We the people’ need to persuade local politicians and activists that ‘digital matters’. But how can we do this when the paper literature that comes through our door is not making links between what local parties do online? I’ve got a copy of the latest ‘newspaper’ from Cambridge Liberal Democrats. Not a single reference to their website, let alone any of their social media accounts. And they are the party currently in control of Cambridge City Council. Basic, basic oversight. Or is this an inertia thing or rather something to do with not getting many ‘hits’ or referrals online from offline literature?

Cambridge political parties: Social media snapshots (If you live outside Cambridge, go to Write To Them as your first port of call for councillors/MPs/MEPs).

Cambridge Conservatives

Cambridge Green Party

Cambridge Labour Party

  • Facebook – They are here as a fanpage. While anyone can post comments, only admins can post content. Cambridge Universities Labour Club’s Facebook page (see here) is much more vibrant, and anyone can post content.
  • Twitter – @CambridgeLabour – nothing since 2010! In stark contrast to a wealth of active Twitter users, including deputy leader @CarinaOReilly, @CllrRJohnson and @AnnMSinnott.
  • Website/blog – They are here, but the new-style website based on a centralised template (see similarities say to Harlow, here) needs populating – particularly on campaigns and events.

Cambridge Liberal Democrats

Cambridge UKIP

  • Facebook – None
  • Twitter – None, though the (former) UKIP group leader @PeterReeve on Cambridgeshire County Council has been a regular tweeter for some time, and has a sizeable following.
  • Website/blog – the only one I could find was this one.


“So…who needs to do what to change things?”

This is where I’m calling out people locally to play their part. Can we build some sort of informal online movement that encourages lots of people that already use social and digital media to post questions, comments, suggestions and ideas to local parties? In particular, can we demonstrate to those too young or ineligible to vote that just because they are disenfranchised does not mean they have no voice?

Any takers?

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Social media | 3 Comments

Basement Jaxx press ‘record’


A hard day’s recording a collaboration between the Dowsing Sound Collective and Basement Jaxx – in fancy dress

So I went as ‘The Count’ from Sesame Street – with a vampire’s cowl covered in numbers, and Puffles went as a bat – spider-covered wings and bow tie included. (Paul Little did the face painting)

Any captions for my expression - or that of Puffles?

“What do you mean ‘You don’t like numbers!’???”

Monster #sleepfail didn’t help my mood first thing in the morning. Given our numbers – there were about 100 of us in fancy dress – I didn’t need to be anxious about it. But mind and body when you have an anxiety disorder mean that ‘telling your brain’ not to worry about stuff doesn’t have the desired effect.

Trying to remember the words – and what goes where

The last time I sang for public performance – whether as part of a chorus or solo was in…1996. And that was at sixth form college. So coming up to two decades since. The past four weeks or so that I’ve been part of Dowsing have given my vocal chords the sort of workout they’ve not had since childhood. What made things more complicated for me was that I had very little melody. Much of what I was singing as one of three or four tenor parts was harmony or the bumping underbelly, because our recording was completely acapella. But when our version is released, have a listen out for some thumping beat-boxing by @Skilly_Skillz.

Pop melodies are relatively straight forward to learn. Harmonies – especially when you’ve only got a sample to work from – are a damn sight harder. Even more so when it’s a song that’s not just unfamiliar, it’s not been released. Part of the challenge I found was trying to pick up where our musical genius Andrea Cockerton (who runs and directs us) had extracted which instruments to form our bit of the tenor section. A mixture of bass keyboard, steel pan and trumpet as it turned out.

‘Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sun…shine in…! (Have a sing to this)’

Because let’s face it, it was a lovely sunny day for a weekend in late March. So we flung open the doors for the warm-up and final rehearsals. For those of you that have not seen the debating chamber in the Cambridge Union, the north facing bit has high windows that beamed sky blue loveliness as a cool breeze wafted through the doors on the other side to keep us tenors at the back relatively cool in our fancy dress outfits. Given that I was effectively in black tie with a polyester cloak avec dragon fairy, this was very welcome. It also did wonders for our breathing and vocal chords too – because the Cambridge Union building can be a little stuffy.

Classworks costumes shows its class

In 2013 me and Puffles did a photo-shoot for Classworks in one of their medieval princess outfits, having found out about it through a local Meetup group. Sue, the lady that runs it is a vaguely familiar face from my childhood – one of her daughters being in my class at primary school many moons ago. Classworks provide many costumes for local drama & theatre groups as well as schools & colleges in Cambridge. A shame they had to move from their local premises because they are in the process of being turned into rabbit-hutch ‘studios’ for the London commuter market. Fortunately that didn’t stop lots of people rocking up to their new premises for some sumptuous outfits. (Puffles will tweet the links when the photos are on Dowsing’s website).

Getting the timing right

Not easy when you have a hundred people wearing unfamiliar outfits. Not easy with a hundred people generally. That was probably the toughest part of the gig – trying to keep in time without allowing the tempo to run away with itself. When you hear the track itself, you’ll hear why. It’s got a thumping beat. Yet without percussion support, it’s very difficult to keep time. That’s one of the things that makes acapella singing so challenging: who is the person that ‘leads’?

For the audio recordings, I had my eyes fixed on Andrea conducting us. The thing is, she was dressed as one of my childhood musical favourites: Adam Ant. In particular I ***loved*** this track:

“Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?
Subtle innuendos follow
There must be something inside”

- Something about the media perhaps?

My oversensitivity in the early takes meant that I sort of lost confidence when it became clear we were struggling with the timing. But a number of early singing drills seemed to overcome the major obstacles and it was ‘Happy Andrea’ in the final audio take. After which I breathed a big sigh of relief. The reason being that when I produced by social media digital video guides, the piece of feedback I got (which also chimed with the basic training I had in 2011) was that audio mattered more than the visuals. If you screw up the audio, it doesn’t matter how good your visuals are.

Coffee break – and scaring the tourists

Several of us went out to get coffees from across the road before we recorded the visuals. So at around 4pm that Saturday afternoon, there was a vicious vampire dragon fairy outside the round church with a vampire handler that likes to count…Along with a couple of tudor princesses, a sailor, a pre-revolutionary aristocrat and Sgt Pepper enjoying the fresh air and the curious looks of tourists from all over the world. Yeah – this is normal for Cambridge. Didn’t stop them from taking photographs though. But that was part of the fun! Afterall, when you’ve been wearing face paints for several hours, you forget you’re wearing them.

Basement Jaxx producers in the background

Just as when BBC Question Time came to Cambridge (see here), one of the signs of talented technicians from a performance perspective is that you hardly know they are there, but still produce excellent output. (“Yeah – it better be good!”) This was the case here. I hardly noticed the production and technical crew, even though I knew they were there or spotted the odd camera or microphone here and there.

Recording the visuals – which was effectively another audio take but with @Skilly_Skillz on a mic helping us keep to time & with the focus on enjoyment and movement – was a much more relaxed affair. Hence I’m sure I was singing it back to Puffles half the time. One other thing to add is that the changing of volume in all of our parts meant that you could vary the emotions you were communicating. By no means was it a TV talent-show blast-it-out and hit the audience with 100% number. The variety of volume was actually written into the piece by Andrea’s arrangement – something that I didn’t pick up in the original Basement Jaxx sample bar a short chilled-out segment in the middle.

The genius behind the collaboration

There are a number of other people and groups that are making different versions of ‘Power to the people’. There’s also something counter-corporate-culture with it too. For decades, the recording industry has been fighting losing battles over copyright. Whether it was ‘home taping’ in the 1980s to Napster case of the early 2000s. And it’s been a losing battle. Just look at what has happened to the number of record shops across the country over the past couple of decades.

At the same time, very talented producers making use of much more affordable kit are now producing their own versions of different songs, mixing and mashing them up. Yet this sort of creativity has often been/still is in conflict with various laws around copyright. Digital media law is still an area that is evolving and desperately trying to catch up with the pace that technology is moving in.

Far better then (from a well-known artists perspective) to give the basics of a track, offer to collaborate with very talented less-well-known people, give them the benefit of your production support and see what happens. That way, you come up with a greater range of more innovative work, where those taking part take pride and ‘ownership of the project’ – which at the same time also does its own viral marketing through social media. At the same time, it has far greater potential to reach new audiences than traditional mass broadcast-style marketing approaches.

“So…when do we get to hear the results?”

In a few weeks time so I’ve been told. Basement Jaxx’s Facebook Page indicates the new album by May 2014.

Watch this – or rather their space. In the meantime, ***thank you and well done*** to everyone there for their stupendously hard work.



Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Events I have been to, Music, Puffles | 1 Comment

Hitting the musical highs with the Dowsing Sound Collective


And this was just the rehearsal

Me and Puffles were in Bury St Edmunds earlier, rehearsing with the Dowsing Sound Collective and trying out a potential venue. Although arriving in the darkness, the sense of bland early 21st-century identikit retail/leisure park screamed loudly. But when we got inside, it was a completely different feel.


You know when you go inside somewhere that feels ‘unique’ and has that ‘wow’ factor. This for me is one of the reasons why the Cambridge Leisure Park in my neighbourhood – in a part of town that has had over £1billion thrown at it over the past 15 years – looks and feels pathetic in comparison. Box buildings on the outside, box buildings on the inside. (Personally I’d have given the centre a different name – ‘Apex’ sounds bland and unimaginative to me).

This is a place that screams for people to be inspired to perform in

Puffles (*jumps*) to the grand piano at the Apex Centre in Bury St Edmunds

Puffles (*jumps*) to the grand piano at the Apex Centre in Bury St Edmunds

The acoustics were out of this world.

I’ve moaned about rubbish acoustics before at many venues. Cambridge Guildhall, Finsbury Town Hall in London, the Cambridge Corn Exchange, The Junction… they’ve all to a greater or lesser extent muffled the sound. But with this hall, the several dozen of us singing produced a crystal clear sound with zero echo. Singing and hearing us performing a collaboration piece by Basement Jaxx, and experiencing us coming off at the same time to an eery, echoless silence was a mind blowing experience. Splitting us into two groups on either side of the audience seats, so ‘singing it back’ to each other.

“The buzz of performance…you’ve mentioned that before”

The final two paragraphs of The ghost of Christmas future - which I wrote in late 2011. Not had that performance buzz for years – decades even. I also assumed I would never get anywhere near it again. Yet given the superb support, challenge, mentoring and teaching by and from the splendid Andrea Cockerton (whose ability to get so much out of the piano – even when a piece is in G-flat major – which kind of rules out most of the white keys on the keyboard and the open strings on my viola), we’re closing in on the sort of levels that I thought only very serious musicians could hit.

At the same time, everything’s going against the grain of TV-talent shows where everyone is in competition with each other. Ditto exams culture. We do this because we enjoy it. The moment it ceases to be enjoyable is the moment we stop. As the saying goes, working hard on something you don’t like for someone else is stress. Working hard on something you love for people you like/someone you love and/or for yourself…is passion. Perhaps explaining why at gone 2am I still haven’t gone to bed. I blog because I like to.

“So…this singing for performance thing is ‘for real’ then?”

Very much so.  At the same time, the piece that we’re working on for the recording has come around at a very fortunate time for me and for a number of reasons. It’s a piece that I connect with musically, lyrically and emotionally – perhaps even more so than the original singers on the sample that we’ve been given to work with. You’ll find out why when the tracks are released.

For those of you not familiar with my blogposts, this in part is tied up with my musical journey – see here. There’s a history of anger and heartbreak – one which I dropped at the feet of a music professor when she headlined a conference in Cambridge recently. (See here). The Dowsing Sound Collective for me provides safe spaces to be musical in a place which otherwise has too much history to allow me to. It’s an energy release while at the same time being intellectually challenging reading the music. Again, while you can join the collective without having to read music, having the music papers allows my mind to wander through it.

“The concept of big choruses sounds familiar – has it been on the tellybox under a different brand?”

The Rock Choir – which has been featured on TV – seems to run on similar themes. Take some well-known songs, deconstruct them, tease out & construct the soprano, alto, tenor and bass parts, and weave back together. What makes both this and Dowsing different to other music singing courses I’ve seen (but not joined) is down to one thing: Scale.

Numbers: Make me feel like an integral part of something where I’m contributing towards something greater than the some of our parts. And make it sound good too. Play with it. (Something I was never allowed to do with music as a child – a mindset of being told to perform how the examiner wants it, not how you want it). Chips, shoulders and all that.

Organised flashmob mentality?

I remember a few years ago in Whitehall seeing some adverts inviting people to take part in some corporate flashmob in Trafalgar Square for a phone company – click here. <<– That was it. Nice bit of fun, have a sing-song, get on the tellybox and everyone’s happy. I didn’t go along myself because I looked at the terms and conditions of the whole thing and it looked too much like signing my life away. That, along with my take not liking how the original concept of random flashmobs being actions to highlight how we’ve ended up conforming to things has since been taken over and tightly planned by the very organisations trying to get us to conform to stuff.

The thing is, for someone like me – an individual who is far too intense even at the best of times, those sorts of large one-off organised flashmobs with a musical/dance component – don’t work. (They may for others though). They simply leave me feeling empty – a repetition of a life where too many people have made fleeting appearances before flying off somewhere else. Hence going for something that has far more stable roots.

Positive emotions in uncertain times

Hey – I watch politics all day. (Or rather when my sleep patterns allow). More to the point, what I see from too many political institutions and senior politicians is either an inability to deal with the very real problems that we all face, an unwillingness to accept that the problems exist or are as serious as they are, or complete irrelevance to what the rest of us are trying to do or achieve. Music amongst other things is time-out from all of this. At the same time, what I’m learning from it and from the people around me is to readjust my approach on a number of things.

It’s funny what a dose of inspiration can do. I’ll leave you with this from Eurovision 1997 - with an alternative visual interpretation.

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Teaching a young dragon fairy new social media tricks


Local social media marketing expert (no, really) Mili Ponce shows this social media enthusiast a thing or two, at an evening with JCI Cambridge

I’ve seldom had good experiences with people that have branded themselves social media marketing people. All too often, they’ve taken social media tools as channels to broadcast stuff without any consideration for feedback loops – over which they trip up in any Q&A session. Then there was this horror show in 2012 that had me, Puffles and Sue Llewellyn (who also knows her stuff, coming from a journalism direction) spitting with fire.

“So, what did Mili know that you didn’t?”

By its huge scope, there will always be something on social media that any self-proclaimed social media expert will never know. I said this in a social media workshop at the weekend when someone in the audience pointed out a feature on Facebook I was unfamiliar with. But teaching me things that I didn’t know was just part of it. Values and manner of communication matter too.

“What does that mean?”

Speaking truth to power for a start. She’s spent many years learning and building up expertise in the fields of IT, social media and digital marketing. In a nutshell, clients don’t pay her to tell them things that make them feel comfortable. Quite the opposite – even if it’s at the risk of not getting a further commission. Why compromise your values, your expertise, your experience and potentially your reputation for short-term gain? I noted with interest the number of occasions where she said ‘I can do this for you, but you’re wasting your money if you do.’ (How many times have external consultants said this to senior civil servants over the past couple of decades?)

A kick up the backside that I needed

Self-aware to a fault, but needing someone else to put things starkly to my face perhaps? I’ve mentioned in previous blogposts that 2014 is going to be a year of transition work-wise. Website, branding, how I use social media, and an increased sense of purpose locally are all things that I’ve given much thought to, but undertaken little action on. Those of us at the workshop judging by the Q&As seemed to come away with a much greater sense of focus on what we needed to do in our respective fields.

A different route, but similar experiences along the way

Although we come from very different backgrounds – Mili is from Peru – throughout her presentation I was nodding throughout. Her background is a private sector IT background. My background is a public policy civil service background. Yet many of the lessons on how to use social and digital media in the corporate world were pretty much identical. She also talked about the importance of learning to code, how other countries’ experiences of social media use were not necessarily the same as the UK’s, and how when engaging with professional specialists such as lawyers and accountants, it’s important to get someone who understands and is comfortable with all things digital. The example she gave was with competition giveaways, and how from a marketing and social media perspective they are a waste of time and money – as well as being a legal minefield. With the latter, there’s no point having the most expensive legal advice on competition terms and conditions if it has been drafted by a lawyer who hates & is ignorant of social media.

“What do you know that she does not?”

Again, it’s not a case of who knows what, but more trying to apply social media to whichever area you happen to be working in, while approaching other uses of it with an open but critical mind. In Mili’s case, there is the obvious focus on the drive for sales – and how social media can be best used to support the bottom line. In public policy, it’s much more complicated in terms of what you are trying to deliver. But that complexity doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons and insights to be learnt from the private sector. In particular the relentless focus on purpose and impact really stood out for me. At the same time, Mili also got me thinking about how some of her approaches are also applicable to the voluntary and community sector locally in Cambridge. Even more so given Puffles’ quick response to a tweet put out by our local volunteer centre

…swiftly followed by

…but which then got me thinking about doing something positive rather than ranting. I was in the centre of Cambridge at the time to catch up with the Teachers’ rally on strike day – see Elodie Harper of ITV Anglia here - as well as getting an outfit for this:

Yep – no rest for the wicked!

Anyway, I popped into the volunteer centre and had a quick chat with them about all things social media – and Net-squared’s free monthly social media surgeries in Cambridge (see here). We had an open, friendly, frank but supportive conversation about social media and the local voluntary sector. It was also a learning process for me too as I continue to fill in the jigsaw of where South Cambridge is with social and digital media. As it turned out, in Mili’s presentation there are a whole host of other ‘analytics’ that can easily be manipulated and/or otherwise should be downplayed.

What reassured me was that what I discussed with the CVS was consistent with what Mili was saying – and she has a far higher profile than me and Puffles. At the same time, it’s also nice to know that there are others out there that ‘get’ all things social and digital media locally. Furthermore, some are probably more knowledgeable about the tools, albeit in a different market than me, and are thus potential allies in trying to get institutions in Cambridge as a city to take digital and social media than they currently are. And going by my current experiences, I feel that this requires co-operation and supporting each other, rather than seeing each other as the competition.

Next steps?

Mili re-enforced messages about diversity of content. Some of you may be familiar with my social media digital video guides – see here. I want to move onto making short digital videos on community issues. Hence my interest in Hills Road SFC’s evening class on digital film making (somewhere in here). Lack of takeup last term meant it got cancelled and I got a refund. 10 x 2hr weekly evening classes are ideal for me as a learning style, so if anyone in/around Cambridge is interested in learning how to make short digital videos on community issues, sign up for that course. (Please).


Posted in Business economics and finance, Cambridge, Education, training and exams, Puffles, Social media | 2 Comments