I want to bring you all together

You could say that this is the next step from Peter/@PME200 ‘s earlier People blogpost, as well as being a little attempt to end 2011 on a reasonably high note. It’s been a bit rubbish for more than a few of us has it not?

Throughout 2011 I organised a series of “Puffles pub lunches” at a pub between Kings Cross and Russell Square close to where I used to live during my London days. Here’s Puffles at one of them with a birthday gift from Frances Coppola. In the middle part of 2011 we would meet once every month, with the number of people coming along being anywhere from 6 to 18, though occupying two picnic benches with six to a bench became the norm during the summer days.

The fluid nature of Twitter as a conversation/social medium was that most of the people already knew each other before they had even met. This reduced the number of awkward “Here’s my life story” explanations that often happens at otherwise seemingly random social gatherings. When I moved to London a few years ago, I found myself in a neighbourhood where I didn’t really know anyone. Hence why I threw myself into every other thing going. The transient nature of London’s population gave some entrepreneurs ideas for “social clubs for busy professional people” – such as the IVC group. The basic business model is that you pay a monthly membership and the people who run the company organise gatherings which you can choose to attend. They sort out the venues, reserve the tables, welcome you and introduce you to new people. You also have the option of organising your own events and inviting people within the network to them.

Although I’ve met people in real life who I first interacted with on things like internet forums, 2011 was the first year where such gatherings more self-sustaining. What was really nice to see was new people that others were familiar with swelling the ranks of those that became regulars, as well as people finally getting to meet those that they had said they wanted to meet in person for some time – such as the female football followers who know more about the beautiful game (and who can link the problems within it to issues within wider society) than many of their male counterparts (especially on the telly) might give them credit for. At such times there can be just as much joy from sitting back and listening to the conversation as there is in joining in. We were given two ears and one mouth in those proportions for a reason!

The Sunday pub lunch gatherings will kick off again in early February 2012, allowing people to replenish wallets after what can be an expensive Christmas for many. For those who travel in from outside London, the cost of coming along to these gatherings can end up being double what you spend in the pub. Suddenly that “day out” is setting you back £50. When I had a season ticket, that cost didn’t even register as the ticket covered weekends as well. But being on a much more limited income now means that every penny counts.

When, where and how?

In 2011 there were three sorts of “Puffles-related” gatherings. The pub lunches I’ve mentioned above. The second was the ad-hoc coffee gatherings with individuals, pairs or small groups of people mainly in Cambridge or London, but sometimes as far afield as Bristol and Liverpool. The third one was PufflesCamp in Brighton – which turned out to be a nice weekender for all those who came along. I hope that the first two will continue in 2012 and that we will also be able to do PufflesCamp again.

On top of all of that though, is the event that in my heart of hearts I want to do – a nice evening reception somewhere, where you can all meet Puffles, myself and most importantly, each other. Maybe it’s just me but I like the idea of going to events and occasions where there is the obligation to dress up smartly and make the effort. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but that in part is a reflection of the diversity of people who follow Puffles. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the first few months of 2012. I’m skint at the moment and venue-wise wouldn’t know where to start. It’s also something that I’d want to save up for, putting money aside for an event that for me reflects the amount of time and effort that I and many others have put into building this phenomenon known as Puffles. I also want it to be an event that also reflects the enjoyment I’ve had in the process – something that would stand it out as being a ‘special event’ for those coming along to it.

In terms of where such an event would be, London is the most likely venue as that is where most of Puffles’ followers live and/or work – hence more straight forward for more people to get to. I have flagged up the possibility of having a smaller more informal event in Cambridge, though the challenge here is slightly different as many of the people locally that I am familiar with are either in the field of politics or creative and digital media. There is also the option of tying something in and around the Culture Hack East event in February 2012 – which I blogged about earlier on some suggested improvements on the back of its autumn event.

Why do all of this?

Because we’re human and as human beings I’d like to think that we are social creatures. I don’t want digital and social media to replace human interactions, I want them to enhance them. One of the biggest buzzes I got this year was watching people getting to know each other at the offline gatherings and seeing how this enriched the exchanges that  we all subsequently had online.

Building a fluid community of interests/communities of interest/communities of interests also builds their resilience as well as the resilience of individuals – whether it’s people suffering from depression going through a bad patch in need of pick-ups from their friends, to where people have been physically hurt and/or in need of help while out and about. I said that there was a diverse range of people that follow Puffles. Some of them sit in Parliament while others want to overthrown it. Some of them arrest people while others have been arrested. One received a gunshot wound while abroad, while others may well have treated those who have received such wounds. Most followers have two legs though a few have four and some of those have wings and breath fire. Some followers have the opposite political views of those they share the same religion as, while others share the same political views of those they have opposite religious beliefs to. Some support different political parties to each other while supporting the same football teams – with just as much passion. Some work for the mainstream media, others want to smash the mainstream media. Some hold professorships at universities and are eminent in their fields, while others are still at school, preparing for their GCSEs.

What do all these lovely people have in common? They all started following a baby dragon fairy on Twitter! Actually, it’s far more than that. Pretty much every single follower that I’ve interacted with through Puffles I think has the desire to make the world a place better than it currently is. Wanting to bring as many of those people together to meet each other in once place can only be a good thing…right?

 

The ghost of Christmas future

This blogpost goes beyond future Christmases and covers some of the issues I raised in The curses of isolation and loneliness – something that Frances Coppola covers in her post on loneliness at Christmas. It is also the third and final instalment following The ghosts of Christmases past and The ghost of Christmas present.

One of the recurring features for me since the millennium has been my failure to form close, meaningful longterm friendships with other people. A combination of my own personal failings, struggles with mental health problems, bad luck and life choices that took me from place to place. Hence a Christmas this year largely spent on Twitter because one of the best things to come out of this year for me has been the formation of closer friendships with people from all over the place, closer than I’ve had for years. Peter  (@PME200) went into further detail on meeting great people on Twitter in his post on People.

In The ghosts of Christmases past I touched upon how the children I was at school with were to varying extents part of the same ‘out of school’ institutions that I was – whether local football clubs, cub scouts, church etc. Actually, church was a strange one for me. Being brought up a Catholic in Cambridge meant not going to the local church at the time informally attached to my primary school, but going to what I now see as this isolate enclave far away from anywhere. Thus there was this strange situation of one group of kids going to the local Catholic schools and churches, another group of kids going to the local Church of England churches (and the schools attached to them), a completely separate group of kids who played football on Sundays and thought church was what softies went to, and finally me who was sort of caught between all three. My complaint isn’t particularly with my parents – more with those institutions whose power games do more to divide communities than to unite them. Regular “interfaith” meetings cannot make up for artificially dividing communities – especially children – on lines of their parents’ faith.

But that’s all in the past. What about the future? Christmas was fairly straight forward as a church-goer. Essentially your schedule is worked out for you by virtue of when the various mass times and carol services are on. What do you do if you are (for whatever reason) not or no longer a Christian, don’t like the consumerist frenzy that Christmas has become and don’t feel part of a (geographically local) community of people? This is where I find myself today. Hence in part a Christmas on Twitter this year, because the people that I’m closest to as far as a meeting of minds is concerned, are on Twitter.

I don’t see Christmas on Twitter as a sustainable future though. It can’t be. I’ve always liked to think of myself as a social creature that values human contact and interaction. Take that away and I implode – which is pretty much what happened during my university days.

Unlike the integrated communities that I spoke of above, I have the opposite of that. Someone even wrote a book about it – the rise of the “portfolio career”. 1 day a week here, 3 says a week there, half a day somewhere else and a couple of mornings a month helping out elsewhere. But therein lies the problem: The only person such a career is integrated to is the individual – not the community. In the ten years of volunteering that I’ve done for a range of organisations, I struggle to think of the long term long lasting deep and meaningful friendships I’ve made. Not because of the fault of any one person, but actually because of the nature of the lives that so many of us live. The people who I have worked with have not been the people who have joined me at the evening classes or the weekend events and gatherings that I have been to. The places that I’ve lived in, the organisations I’ve worked in, the institutions that I have been enrolled in have all been very transient in nature. When the topsoil is continually shifting it is very difficult to put down stable roots. At the same time, the desire to put down those roots and/or get to know people better in the face of all of this can and has put people off – and understandably so.

I’m lucky in that Christmases spent alone in an apartment in front of the telly while eating microwave meals are unlikely to to be a reality in future years. The expanding next generation of my family mean that the responsibilities of being a doting uncle kick in. The presence of ‘in laws’ has already changed the family dynamic – fortunately for the better, and I hope that this is how it will be in the future. (Everyone seems to be more relaxed in the presence of the partners of my siblings). With nothing else happening this year, this arrangement leaves me content – grateful for what I’ve got compared to others, but not ‘happy’ – in terms of doing things that I would otherwise really enjoy.

I’ve had glimpses of this in the past – in particular the three Christmas/New Year’s balls in Cambridge in 2002, in Zurich in 2005 and in Vienna in 2007. All are things I’d love to repeat again in future years. The same with music – some of you may be aware that I have a bit of a background as an on/off violin/viola player. I’d love to get back into playing music for pleasure and get back into the buzz of performing. It’s not something that’ll come back overnight – it’s something that will take time, patience, effort and dedication. Yet those are some of the essential ingredients that make the buzz of the musical performance so much more enjoyable.

The common strand that runs through all of this seems to be being part of an integrated stable community. At the moment I feel like the proverbial bee without the hive. I could spend the next section going off on one about how ‘flexible labour markets’ destroy the very stability that communities need and that having transient populations come with a financial as well as a social cost…but I won’t. Not yet anyway. For now, like Puffles & the homeless bees, I’ll keep buzzling.

 

 

A good day to bury bad news? On Lansley’s NHS reforms

Puffles’ Twitterfeed went into overdrive this afternoon as I made my way back from  Christmas in Bristol. The outrage was over the plans to increase the limit of income NHS Trusts can generate from private work from 2% to 49%. I have two issues with this. The first was the timing and manner of the announcement, and the second is with the content. Both of these issue for me go to the heart of why politicians and mainstream politics are so distrusted by the people at large – a situation all political parties bear responsibility for.

Timing & manner

Just before Christmas – a time of year when people are pre-occupied with many other things (or are so inebriated that they are in no fit state to respond properly on the back of hangovers from Christmas parties). Towards the end of parliamentary sessions – in the run up to recess sessions there is a rush within departments to get announcements out before politicians go off back to their constituencies. Accordingly, five secretaries of state tabled written statements on the last but one day before Christmas recess followed by written statements by six secretaries of state on the day Parliament broke for recess.

This does not allow for proper publicity of the issues raised nor does it allow for proper debate. Everything gets buried in the avalanche of ‘news’ – yet by the time Parliament is back, it’s all ‘old’. Whatever drives the news agenda moves onto something else.

In terms of accessing the original source of the news item, I’m struggling to find it. The Telegraph hasn’t (at the time of blogging) picked up on it, while the BBC, The Guardian and the Independent have all managed to find quotations from the Secretary of State (Andrew Lansley) that I’m struggling to find on the Department for Health’s website.

All three news outlets make references to an amendment tabled by the Government’s Health Minister in the Lords – but I can’t find the text of that amendment in the papers associated with the reported amendment.

This is the opposite of transparency. This stinks of ministers and policy advisers wanting to avoid detailed scrutiny of their plans. An announcement like this which could have significant impacts on the functioning of hospitals and healthcare facilities across the country irrespective of its merit should be made in person by the minister responsible for the decision in the form of an oral statement to Parliament. It should not be buried under an avalanche of other announcements in the run up to a period where parliamentary politics switches off for the fortnight.

Merits or otherwise of the policy

I’ve not been following the detailed policy debates, but the failure to meet even some of the most basic principles of sound public administration is quite frankly horrifying:

This whole debacle of a Health and Social Care Bill runs the risk of becoming a model of the failure of parliamentary politics and public administration in the same way that the Poll Tax was for Thatcher.

As for the proposal to allow NHS trusts to increase the amount of income it can generate from 2% to 49%, where are the impact assessments? Where is the evidence base? Which are the facilities that will be used for private sector patients? What will this mean for patient care for NHS patients? How will managers divide healthcare professionals’ time between private and NHS patients? Will we see a ‘financial apartheid’ within our own hospitals with the spruced-up private wards getting the investment at the cost of the NHS wards? What will people’s reaction to this be?

During the early-mid 1990s I used to do a paper round where I delivered the local paper to what was the private Evelyn Hospital in Cambridge – now the private Nuffield Hospital. I saw in layman’s terms the differences between what it was like in a private hospital vs what it was like in an NHS hospital on those occasions where I found myself up at Addenbrookes. What will the impact be on patient care as some NHS trusts inevitably try to upgrade their facilities for this private market? Will they have to borrow money? Who from? What if the income from private patients ends up not being enough to repay the loans plus the interest? Will public funds be diverted for this? What will be cut as a result?

These are just a few ‘off of the top of my head’ questions from someone who isn’t particularly knowledgeable about these things – which is why I follow on social media people who work in healthcare day in day out.

What of Labour’s response?

The challenge for Labour isn’t just about picking apart the policies of the Coalition – they’ll never win the parliamentary votes due to the current nature of the Coalition. But what is their alternative – both in terms of its vision for the NHS and its detailed policy solutions to the problems that any organisation the size of the NHS will inevitably have?

I’d like to think Andy Burnham is one of the more talented of Labour’s senior politicians. No time like the present to prove it. 2012 will demonstrate whether or not he can meet that challenge. Will he succeed or will he be found wanting?

Will the NHS look something like this?

The ghost of Christmas present – Christmas on Twitter

…which is sort of what it’s been this year.

I can’t imagine I’m the only person who has backlashed against the religion of their upbringing to find themselves in a more-than-awkward situation or three at the annual religious festivities. Wave after wave of (in my view, compromised) clerics in the media telling us what to think are difficult to avoid at this time of year. Just like the retail corporations, this time of year is one of the biggest revenue-raisers for churches as people understandably return to church for carol services and the annual reminder of childhood Christmases. This arrangement of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! by Charlotte Church still sends a nice shiver down my spine.

This was the first year in nearly a decade where I was not in employment of one sort or another in the run up to Christmas. With hindsight, being in work took out some of the stress and anxiety of this time of the year due to the demands of the day job. It was a useful distraction. No work distraction this year though – only the thought of job-hunting in the new year & the hope that there will be a flood of vacancies coming up in the New Year that were put on hold in the run up to Christmas.

This year has been my first ‘social media’ Christmas – where I’ve spent most of my time following Twitter feeds and blogging. In previous years it was the mixture of Christmas works drinks and lots of sleeping to recharge batteries run down due to the commutes and/or London living. What I’ve picked up via Twitter has been an interesting spotlight on humanity – both the best and the worst aspects of it. There have been those who have used social media to support those who might be spending a lonely Christmas this year at one end, vs those who have used social media to abuse those who did not get them the present that they wanted for Christmas – the latter being suitably lampooned by Twitter’s finest.

The other common feature has been the intergenerational and familial differences that have come to the fore. Some of you have described teens trying to explain dubstep to grandparents, while others have described young children being given books only to try and ‘scroll the screen down’ rather than turning the pages. Some of you have also described the challenges of trying to hold your tongues while ‘politically incorrect’ relatives blame the latest voiceless scapegoat for the world’s ills. Some of the people I follow through Puffles have also had to deal with some real family crises this year – something that puts into perspective my own feelings about family Christmases and having a different disposition on a number of things to those who I grew up around. I am Lisa Simpson in disguise!

New additions – whether through births, adoptions or new relationships change family dynamics at this time of year. I’ve been very lucky thus far, the only challenges being logistical ones for other people who do the organising – i.e. who goes to which family gatherings on which day. The more people at such gatherings, the easier it is for me to be a wallflower, letting others who want to make a bigger thing of these seasonal celebrations do so while I remain inconspicuous. Relations with the partners of siblings are inevitably going to be different compared to your siblings themselves – I grew up with the latter, not the former. Getting used to the role of being a brother-in-law and an uncle is not something that happens over night. Just what is the role of the “unattached adult male” at such family gatherings? I’ll leave that one for the politicians and preachers. I’m not quite yet to take on the ghosts of Christmas future

 

 

 

 

Puffles’ Twitter Lists – Civil Society

…as opposed to “uncivil society”? Not quite – it’s the Government’s new term for the VCS – the Voluntary and Community Sector.

Much as I’d like to have a vote on who our next head of state should be, and much as I have issues with its over-friendliness with vacuous celebrities, the first recommendation goes to the people at The Princes Trust. I was a bored underemployed post-graduate in need of a challenge almost a decade ago and threw myself into one of the Prince’s Trust Team programmes. University was a walk in the park in comparison. If you are under 25, unemployed and in need of a challenge, get yourself on one of these. For the time that you are on the programme (three months) you can still keep your JSA payments. Looking at wider employment/unemployment issues is Will Hutton’s Work Foundation.

I’m also throwing in The Student Room – oh how I wish we had something like this at school and college in the mid-late 1990s! I used to be a volunteer moderator for them, though most of my posts have been in their public sector careers forums, along with a small bunch of current and former civil servants.

Closer to Cambridge is Flack Magazine, a project run for and by homeless people. In a similar vein are CrisisUK, Centrepoint and Shelter who are charities that have been going after housing and homelessness issues for quite some time. Paul Palmer has gone after a particular aspect of the homelessness problem, the scandal that is empty properties. The Priced Out campaign has been going after the issue of high housing and rent prices. At a more ‘institutional’ level on housing issues is Abi Davies at the Chartered Institute for Housing. Those of you living in social housing may want to keep an eye on the National Housing Federation – the trade association of housing associations.

Some of you will be familiar with Dr Christian Jenssen and his public health TV programmes – in particular “Embarrassing Bodies”. We still have a long way to go to break a number of taboos on health issues. Moving onto mental health, I keep tabs on AnxietyUK, Mind UK and Time to Change because I still have my anxiety demons to put back in their boxes.

On disability issues The Creative Crip is where I get a huge amount of updates – mainly on things like welfare reform, disabilities rights and all the things that ATOS are doing. Contracting a foreign IT company to deal with health assessments…what could possibly go wrong? Sue Marsh could write a book about it. By the way, has anyone done a comprehensive research report finding out when and where contracting out the provision of public services provides better services in terms of prices, outcomes, costs people-satisfaction and value-for-money for the tax payer? Just a thought…you know…evidence-based policy-making and all that.

On a campaigning/protesting side, I keep tabs on Libcom in part because they have some really useful guides for grassroots activism – the most useful of which I think is their media and publicity guide. Staying with the activism theme, there is also the Open Rights Group who keep tabs on people’s rights in a digital age. Ditto the Government Accountability Project (which is US-based)

In previous tweets through Puffles I’ve mentioned the impact that London’s pollution can have…on your bogies. It turns them dark & sooty. (Ick). Hence Clean Air London and Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity – of which Eleanor Besley is one of their number.

When things go wrong or organisations have disputes, ACAS are normally there to try and sort things out. We normally only hear of them when a trade union threatens to go on strike but they do much more.

On the ‘developing countries’ agenda is the work that the Department for International Development’s research unit does. You pay for it, you can use the data and research. I can’t pretend ever to have been happy with the definition of developed and developing countries. An economy that consumes far more resources than its environment can provide isn’t really an example of ‘development’ in my book. Hence why on the flora and fauna side are the WWF – which I always thought stood for World Wildlife Fund rather than World Wide Fund for Nature. Sort of linked to this is Compassion in World Farming – because I don’t like animals having miserable lives only to be slaughtered to appear on our plates. Hence why early on I got into the habit of buying organic/free range or not at all. On the ‘people side’ of things is Alex Cobham of Christian Aid, who has been going after issues such as international debt in poorer countries.

The recent economic crises have brought about a much greater focus on transparency and accountability. If transparency and accountability is so good for governments (greatly helped by the Campaign for Freedom of Information), why not the large corporations too? FACT go about asking such questions, as does Transparency International UK, Open DemocracyOpen Corporates which is doing a very interesting data project on big corporations, and Aid Transparency – which sort of goes without saying. Corruption has hit the heart of the beautiful game, which is why the people at ChangeFifa want to do something about it. At a closer-to-the-consumer level, Which? go after shoddy products and services. The results of transparency can be seen at Leveson’s inquiry, of which the Hacked Off campaign is watching closely. The people at MySociety on the other hand are keeping an eye on, and have developed a host of really useful tools to help you keep tabs on what’s happening in Parliament such as Write2Them, WhatDoTheyKnow and TheyWorkForYou.

Libraries are one of the most visible signs of a civic society (I think) and the big one on these islands is the British Library. Its sister organisation is the National Archives who, years after stuff has happened gives you the inside track of what was really going on inside the corridors of power. (Assuming records were made at the time). Another one for historians is the BBC Archive. London-based historians may also be interested in London Historian too.

Investigating stuff that those with power don’t necessarily want you to find out about is Channel 4’s Dispatches.

At a closer-to-Whitehall-charity-engagement level is Fiona Sheil of the NCVO. Ditto Toby Blume and Urban Forum. Charity Sector and The National Community Activist Network periodically send out tweets and updates about who’s been doing what and facing which challenges. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is the mother of all foundations on social policy. When they publish major research, people listen. The British Humanist Association are one of the few voices campaigning against the moves for faith groups to be further involved in the delivery of wider public services. My personal view is that public service delivery should be secularised, but also acknowledge that it is unlikely to happen in my lifetime.

Trying to do things around innovation and startups is NESTA – formerly a government body it was spun out not long after the election. They do splendid seminars for those of you in and around London. On London talks there’s also the Bishopsgate Institute and the Hansard Society – the latter keeping an eye on Parliament.

On the crime and disorder side of things are the Police Foundation and the Howard League for prison reform…because since I took my GCSEs in the mid 1990s, prisoner numbers have doubled. Is this rise sustainable? In a sort-of related link, LibertyLegalAware, The Frontline Club, The Media Standards Trust and City Journalism are also useful at keeping an eye on similar issues – especially with propriety and not breaking the law.

On the history side of things, we have the quango English Heritage – because it’s our heritage too. (Their chief exec is also on Twitter). We also have the National Trust and the RSPB for bird watchers. The Science Museum also falls into our heritage too. Moving sideways on is the Wellcome Trust. I like the Trust but I’m not a fan of big pharmaceutical companies.

On the education side of things is Teach First – which aims to get talented graduates from top universities to spend a few years in teaching before going into corporate world. The amount of talent that has been sucked into the world of investment banking is depressing…and look where it has helped get us.

And on general citizens’ advice is…Citizens Advice!

The ghosts of Christmases Past

Having been brought up having to go to church every Sunday during childhood, the religious aspect of Christmas is something that will never be far away from me so long as I am still alive. In my first three years of primary school, I recall the school having close links with the Church of England church at the end of the road – which I also recall had close links with the local cubs, scouts, brownies and guides. At the end of my three years in the ‘infants’ section (what would now be known as reception & years 1 & 2) our former headmistress retired. She had been at the school for so long that in a local history project we found photographs dating back from the Second World War that featured her…as a teacher.

Those years in the mid-late 1980s are ones I still see through a surreal lens. In those days, the early years at my school had a number of children stayed around until the age of around seven when they all seemed to leave for one reason or another. As it turned out a number of them either moved away or were transferred to local private schools. The moving away of those friends at such a young age in part adds to the mystique of events that today I can only recall glimpses of, or the first names of people whose names are but echos of a distant past that gets further and further away as each second passes.

Some of the venues where we had those infant school Christmas parties no longer exist – a community hall that once served the school as part school dining hall, part sports hall and part theatre is now a series of apartments. The links between the school and established church & other related institutions such as cubs & scouts also diminished under the auspices of a new headmaster – who lacked the musical background of his predecessor. Less the teacher, more the administrator, less the traditionalist, more the moderniser…with a bit of PC gawn mad. (The ban on felt-tipped pens & the ban on bubble writing being the most colourful of examples).

In my final years of primary school we were lucky to have a couple of musically-trained teachers and volunteers who between them managed to organise memorable Christmas concerts. I have no idea what they sounded like from an audience perspective as being both a violinist and a recorder player (pestering my way to getting hold of a tenor rather than the dog whistle that is a plastic descant) I was one of a handful of children who had to jump from a seat with my classmates to a seat with the recorder group to a seat in the orchestra. (Kids and attention…)

The ghosts of Christmases as secondary school were as harsh as the run down buildings that have since been demolished. The bubble of primary school was no longer there and the differences between what church and those within demanded vs the realities of the world outside.

Leaving Cambridge for university put me in an environment where the barriers and boundaries of ‘home’ were no longer there. A philosophical and emotional awakening as well as the onset of the mental health problems that I’ve referred to in previous blogposts. It was at this time that I came to the view that:

  • I did not subscribe to the church’s interpretation of ‘the first Christmas’
  • I had come to despise the commercialisation of Christmas
  • I was of the view that neither myself nor those around me could afford the above
  • I’m not particularly partial to traditional Christmas roasts
  • As far as music and television is concerned, same stuff, different year

On the first point, there’s only so far a person can pretend to believe in something that in their heart of hearts they don’t. Breaking away from a lifetime of ‘belonging’ to an institution is never an easy one.

On all of the other points, the issue is one of enjoyment. As an adult, I asserted the point of not wanting to take part in stuff I no longer enjoyed. I can’t pretend that the alternative was particularly better – isolating myself from the outside world in those early years to living as if it were any other time of year. This included asking people not to buy me anything for Christmas and saying that I was not planning on buying Christmas presents either – and telling them early on. (Managing expectations y’see).

The only occasions during my ‘roaring 20s’ I recall doing anything vaguely Christmassy all involved going to ballroom balls. The first is described in my blogpost Ballroom – with no “strictly” anywhere. The second was when a small group of us went to Switzerland to the Polyball in Zurich about a year before I took the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. The final one a couple of years later was where a larger group of us went to Vienna for the New Year’s Kaiserball at the Hofburg – the old imperial palace of the former Austro-Hungarian Emperors. On each of those occasions, I was doing something that I enjoyed that was also not burdened by ghosts of times gone by. Those Central European winters were noticeably different to the crass commercialisation of what I’m used to. A bearded two-legged mouse with big ears and a red coat bringing gifts of carbonated sugar water laced with alcohol?

Throughout the last decade, I’ve been of the mindset that there’s nothing materially that anyone could give me for Christmas that I did not already want for or need. That still remains the case today – though I’m still partial to a bargain in the January sales. The difference being that I don’t feel particularly tied to the selling cycle of the high street. I’m cool with that. I don’t feel particularly tied to what TV or radio says is entertainment. Again, I’m cool with that – and anyway, ‘on demand’ services and digital media means that people are no longer tied to the schedule-writers.

Now that a new generation within my extended family, family dynamics have altered. I may be a bit of a Scrooge/Bah! Humbug type when it comes to the details of Christmas, but for me, Christmas isn’t about receiving stuff, buying stuff, going to church or overindulging. It’s about giving to each other in a manner that makes the short time we spend on this planet that little bit better for those around us. Giving can be about where we are and what we do – not just about the passing over of gifts purchased on the high streets.

And that’s what it is for me.

Merry Christmas.

On the Greens and the Liberal Democrats

One of the things I’ve been pondering over is the long term impact that being in government will have on the Liberal Democrats – and to a smaller extent, the Greens in Brighton which are leading a minority council there.

For as long as I can remember, the Liberal Democrats have been…well…’there’ as far as national politics was concerned but never seemed to make much impact until very recently. During my early childhood I remember echos of old men in grey suits talking about “Doctor David Owen” and “Doctor David Steel” in slow monotones about “The Alliance” – something I’m now reading a little more about in Shirley Williams’ autobiography.

People often forget that the Liberal Democrats are a coalition in itself – The Liberal and Social Democratic Party, formed from a merger between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party which was formed in the early 1980s when some of the ‘moderates’ within the Labour party split off to form a new party as Labour veered off to the left following the 1979 election. Thus you could almost say that the 2010 Coalition is a coalition of three parties rather than two.

Now that the Liberal Democrats are part of a coalition in government, they are having to take responsibility for things that perhaps they’d rather not – for example tuition fees. One of the big policies that for many years has stood the party out from the Conservatives and Labour is the issue of voting reform. The reason why this issue is particularly crucial is because moving to a system of proportional representation would increase the likelihood of future governments being coalitions of existing political parties – similar to what we see in Continental Europe. With our current system, it is ‘winner takes all’ (assuming they get a majority). It is because of this central platform of voting reform that the pressure is on for the Liberal Democrats to make the Coalition work. If they cannot make a coalition work, then their entire premise for voting reform is undermined. Why would we want to move to a system of unstable government after unstable government similar to those in say Italy in the years prior to Berlusconi?

There’s also the issue of the Coalition implementing as many of their unpopular policies as possible as early as possible – tuition fees and NHS reforms being the big ones. Will the voters have forgotten about those unpopular policies by the time the next election comes along? I remember the first election I followed reasonably closely – that of 1992, fully expecting a Labour victory given the coverage. It never materialised. 18 months after the poll tax riots of 1990 and the fall of Thatcher, when the Conservatives seemed to be in absolute disarray to victory in the polls. Given where the Liberal Democrats are in the polls, do they need to keep the Coalition going as long as they possibly can in the hope that the economy will recover and with it, their fortunes?

David Cameron for his part is under pressure from some on the right to dissolve the Coalition and call for a snap election. This may suit the Conservatives in having a chance of winning an election outright at a time when the Liberal Democrats are unpopular and at a time when Labour are still recovering from the defeat of 2010 & their leadership election. We’ve seen perilously few co-ordinated policies or anything near a coherent alternative from Labour – hence Peter Mandelson’s recent comments.

Fast forward to a post-2015 election and the big assumption that the Liberal Democrats don’t form part of a coalition government and end up in opposition, what could we expect? For one, those that served in Cabinet or at higher ministerial office may well find themselves with a higher media profile than normal. It may also make for far better scrutiny within the Commons of the government of the day. One of the things I notice when former cabinet ministers ask questions of ministers in the Commons, ministers tend to be far more respectful of those MPs. This is in part because ministers acknowledge that those MPs have been in their shoes before having to wrestle with difficult decisions – experience of which often results in far more targeted questioning. But how many of the current ministerial cohort of Liberal Democrats will remain in the Commons after the next election?

There is then the impact of having all of those volunteers, party apparatchiks and special advisers that have been drafted in to advise ministers. Julia Goldsworthy, a former MP and Question Time regular disappeared off of the face of the earth until I realised that she had been appointed as a special adviser to Danny Alexander in the Treasury. I imagine it will be people like her that will form the cohorts of parliamentary candidates at the next election, where experience of seeing how government functions may well help them scrutinise it properly and hold it to account. But again, how many will make it to the Commons at the next election?

On a smaller scale, similar challenges face the Greens in Brighton, where Puffles’ Twitter feed is picking up Labour going after the Greens much more strongly than of late. Caroline Lucas has been a beacon for the Greens having won my old stomping ground of Brighton Pavilion. I’ve kept tabs on the Greens’ growth since 2000 as Keith Taylor contested the constituency in 2001 and 2005 picking up nearly 4,000 and then 10,000 votes respectively prior to Caroline Lucas’ victory in 2010. I lived in Hove at the time of the 2001 election and would regularly stumble across Anthea Ballam, the candidate there who has since gone onto become an interfaith minister and priest.

Now that the Greens are running a minority council in Brighton, it means having to defend a record in office just as the Liberal Democrats have to. What both the Greens and the Liberal Democrats face is constraints and burdens that are not necessarily of their making but ones that they have to take responsibility for – or at least explain to people that they really do have their hands tied. In the case of the Greens it is slightly easier because only a minority of local council funding comes from council taxes and business rates. This makes it easier to say “It’s someone else’s fault” – which is exactly what Lambeth did, to much controversy. Irrespective of whose fault it is, running a council means having to take the decisions – which will inevitably make some people feel that you are going along with unpopular policies.

Just as being in Coalition is a steep learning curve for the Liberal Democrats, I guess that the same is true for Brighton Greens – one where the cauldron of running a council will show where potential talent may emerge as well as the realisation of those found wanting.

As with the Liberal Democrats learning about life in national government, life running a council provides a huge opportunity for the Greens to educate its other campaigners and elected councillors about the day-to-day running of a local authority. In the long term it will be interesting to see what impact this has both on the effectiveness of those Greens elected to public office as well as on their general electoral fortunes.

 

Would these adverts kindly get out of my face?

“But Pooffles! Don’tcha wanna follow the latest clone from Zed-Factor?!?”

Umm…no thanks.

There were two things that drove this blogpost. The first was two visits to the cinema. The second was changes to a number of social media platforms that have led me to switch off from their standard social media clients and onto new ones – ones that mean I don’t have to put up with their “promoted stuff”.

As the adverts at the cinema kicked in, I could almost feel myself becoming a zombie…a consumerist clone as the bombarding of products that I had no desire for were thrown relentlessly at me. First time around I tried to read a magazine but could not drown out the sound. Second time around, it was noise-cancelling headphones plus music plus magazine/Twitter. Result!

I’m not very good with adverts and the advertising industry. I find many of the adverts of today bland, patronising, intrusive, annoying and at times a damn sight disruptive. But then in the grand scheme of things I’m not exactly their target audience. I don’t think I ever have been. I can’t think of the last time I saw an advert that made me think **Oooh! I want to buy that!** Maybe it was becoming aware of all things Adbusters back in the late 1990s with their iconic posters.

The problem I have with advertising is that, as with social media it is very difficult to switch off. The internet is full of reports on the impact of advertising on children. This was also an issue The Government looked into back in 2009. I can’t imagine much came of this – in part due to the general election the following year along with none of the mainstream political establishment wanting to take on such a vested interest such as the advertising industry and the big businesses that bankroll them. Make what you will of the Key Principles of the two advertising codes of the Advertising Standards Authority, along with their funding model. While people may be able to complain about individual adverts, we can’t complain about intrusive saturation advertising.

In the cinema you are a captive audience waiting for your film to start. On TV I can’t help but notice how many of the TV channels that have programmes normally 30 minutes long are scheduled to last 40 minutes – just to get more adverts in. Some of us are in the habit of channel surfing, while others have taken to putting the mute on when the adverts are on. I currently have a bad habit of watching TV while my laptop is open, so switch from social media to TV and back again. (New year’s resolution is to break this bad habit as it means I can’t sit still for five minutes without wanting to be distracted by something else).

On social media, a number of recent updates seem to have been made for the benefit of advertisers – one where it’s much easier for the social media platforms to demonstrate to advertisers that their adverts are getting through to people. I see it regularly on normal websites too – where adverts for specific websites that I’ve purchased goods from or browsed through in the past are there in all their glory, saying “Hi Pooffles, buy our mokkollokkollokkolate!!!”

Free lunch vs subscription

The problem firms face is that in social media world, people like having a free lunch – a lunch that they both like and have gotten used to. Subscriptions mean paying up and/or handing over personal information, which does not make for the free flow of information. Advertising helps pay the salaries of those who put together the useful information, but saturation advertising potentially kills the geese that lay the golden eggs. I’ve already flagged the issues of the carbon footprint of SPAM and the sharp demise of previous social media platforms such as FriendsReunited and Myspace. There’s no reason why the current market leaders of social media platforms should remain at the top. Twitter’s “brand friendly” revamp along with the huge investment from an oil billionaire makes me think that the pressures to generate returns on that investment will only become greater.

The “free lunch” mindset stands in stark contrast to the scene during my school days. Who remembers the days of paying £15 for CDs in the mid-1990s or £40 for 8bit/16bit games in the early 1990s? (I can’t bear to think what that would be at 2011 prices).  The music ‘offline retail’ industry has since imploded as a result of the advances in digital media.

Who pays?

The problem as many media platforms find is with funding streams. Do you go for the funding-through-advertisers model or do you go for the subscription model? Rupert Murdoch made a very shrewd decision in the early 1990s when going after the broadcast rights for the new FA Premier League – something that ITV in my view has never recovered from. In order to persuade people to subscribe to his new satellite TV network, he and his team presumably asked themselves what things on TV are people particularly brand-loyal to. The sales of football shirts despite their high prices during the early 1990s was an indication of this loyalty at a time when football was coming out of the image doldrums of hooliganism of the 1980s – especially after Italia ’90 and “Gazzamania“. Fans felt a strong enough loyalty to top flight football that they were prepared to pay that bit extra for the football, along with the concept of all these new TV channels. With the twin income streams of subscriptions and advertising, ITV both looked and felt clumsy, clunky and dated in comparison. I dare say that it still does as far as football coverage is concerned.

One of the reasons why I like the BBC is because of its lack of adverts. Essentially it’s at the opposite end of the advertising vs subscription spectrum. Sky is in the middle with both, ITV remained with advertising following its ill-fated adventure with OnDigital/ITVDigital. The BBC has its faults – perhaps the subject of another post, but being the recipient of what is in effect a compulsory subscription model, it doesn’t have to worry about advertisers.

How to go about reining in the advertising industry?

You only have to look at the problems health campaigners face with alcohol. It took a long time to put big restrictions on tobacco advertising. This isn’t about individual adverts, rather the established practices of an entire industry along with the other industries that they work for.

Given that advertising employs a huge number of people, is a key sector to the economy and a growing export earner, politicians will inevitably be wary of wanting to go after an industry that seems to be one of the few ‘successes’ in the current economic climate. Given that advertising is amongst other things the art of persuading people to do stuff (or buy stuff), chances are advertisers will be quite good at persuading politicians of the merits of their cases too.

Dealing with saturation advertising is not something that can be dealt with in isolation. It involves looking at the problem of income streams for the providers of information and services we like that we currently get ‘for free’ (or in return for being advertised to) as well as looking at the relationships between advertisers and firms that employ them, and the politicians that regulate them. With that, I don’t even know where to start.

In praise of mentors

It seems strange to praise something that I’ve never really had. Perhaps it’s because of that void that I somehow appreciate what I never had along with the positive impact it could have had. I’m talking about mentors.

One of the things that seems consistent throughout my years in education and in the civil service was the lack of a long term mentor. At school, college, university and in the civil service I can only think of one, maybe two occasions where I had a tutor/line manager in post for longer than a year. The only way I can describe the impact of having to go to church during childhood was that it poisoned my mindset, something that I’ve spent over a decade trying to overcome. Hence why my disposition towards large organisations trying to avoid transparency isn’t exactly “positive”.

So…mentors…what is a mentor? I could pull out a million-and-one definitions from cyberspace, but I prefer to go with the definition of “a person who provides support, advice, counsel and help to another person/s over an extended period of time.” That’s my own definition that I made up.

One of the things I’ve pondered on is where I’d have ended up if I had had a mentor or mentors throughout those formative years. On some days I may have ended up in a different place, while on others I end up in the same place – just having had perhaps a little bit more fun, endured life’s challenges more successfully or perhaps having achieved more in the process. The latter in particular because I say to myself that everything that happened throughout the 1990s would have been different if the internet had taken off in the early 1990s rather than the late 1990s. Earlier today I was watching archive coverage of England vs Tunisia from France 1998. At the time that match was being played, I was in an A-Level geography statistics exam, thus only caught the first five and the final ten minutes of the match. In part it still only feels like yesterday, while in others it feels like another world – a world without websites. The other aspect is the financial crises of 2008 onwards. Such is the scale that whatever path I would have chosen to have gone down, I could not have avoided the impact.

Where would the differences have been made? In part with music – I mentioned in the fifth-from-last paragraph in the blogpost I am the music man… that there was no one fighting for the cause of music at a time when perhaps I needed it the most. One of the things that strikes me about my school and college days was my insecurity and how I was strangely dependent on the views and opinions of those who, in the space of about five years would have disappeared off of my radar for good. What impact would the words have made of someone who was watching dispassionately from a safe distance who had been there, done that and had a few of life’s scars too?

The only time I recall of the authority of ‘school’ ever being challenged by other adults was when people from the world of ‘business’ came in to spend…about an hour or so with us. I think I managed about two hours or so in about…five years? We were sort of prepped by the teachers before being sent to face these people from the world of work, but as the teachers concerned were to retire in a couple of years and as this was before the major changes in education that came with Labour’s election victory in 1997, the difference between what we were taught at school about the world of work and what the people actually IN the world of work were huge.

Over 15 years later I ask myself whether having a cycle of students going through school, college, university, teacher-training and back into school is actually a good one, or whether just like my moaning about the Whitehall bubble, this is another one that could do with some external input into the day-to-day activities of schools beyond what governors do.

I say this not to kick sand in the face of teachers. Having just completed a course of teacher training in the post-16 sector, I now have an idea of just how much preparation and planning teaching actually involves. How many people think that teaching involves being able to rock up at 9am, teach and go back home at 3.30pm having had a much shorter day with longer holidays than everyone else? Chances are a good teacher will spend just as much time planning and evaluating as they do teaching. Such is the intensity of that job that I can see how it leaves precious little time to look at their students as rounded individuals with their own hopes, fears and dreams. Combined with government incentives that reward/penalise you on the performances of students in your subject and yours alone, who has the time for the ‘softer’ side of mentoring when every academic year feels like a firestorm?

I had no idea of what lay ahead in terms of post-16 education until long after beginning year 10 – by which time some of the work that I was doing was counting towards my final grades for GCSE. Within the first couple of weeks of starting sixth form college, talks were already being put on about what we were going to do when we left (in particular oxbridge applications) – whereas my mindset was “Hang on a minute, we’ve only just got here!” The college was already thinking about how many people it could get into oxbridge. But that was the final two years of free university education as the economy was coming out of recession. I cannot imagine that in the current climate of higher fees, the greater promotion of apprenticeships and the economy in the longterm doldrums the mindset of ‘university at all costs’ holds nearly as much water. Which for me makes it all the more important that for today’s generation of school leavers that sound mentors are available to them. Making a decision that they later regret – such as an unsuitable course at an unsuitable university is something that will carry a greater financial cost amongst many other costs.

Being a mentor seldom carries a financial reward. I’d like to think that people do it out of the goodness of their hearts. I’d like to think that helping someone develop, grow, learn and overcome challenges is a reward in itself, but in a world where costs of living are reaching unsustainable levels for many of us, those rewards don’t pay the bills. Being a mentor isn’t easy. For a start it requires a time commitment. It also involves dealing with people’s problems – quite often deep problems. That takes a huge amount of patience amongst other things.

The challenge is finding those with the experience to nurture young people while at the same time not having the vested interest (parents who judge themselves & their social group on the achievements of their children, religious institutions who don’t want their flock to leave) or who is not subject to targets and reporting from the state. The closest I’ve got to mentoring in recent years is online correspondence via student message boards to young people with careers advice – especially the civil service. It’s raged from myth-busting (“Is it true that you have to have gone to oxbridge to get onto the Fast Stream?” No.) to reassuring people who have been in a complete state after some lower-than-expected  exam results (despite hard work) combined with parental outrage.

Young people get enough of a kicking from life as it is – whether the general economic situation to screaming headlines from tabloids about knife-thug-hoodies to literacy and numeracy problems with school leavers and graduates. Rather than complaining about young people and trying to live in a bubble where they don’t exist, shouldn’t those older & supposedly wiser be more proactive in engaging with them through mentoring and other programmes? After all, you – we – might just learn something and become inspired by them rather than fearful of them. Isn’t that a better future to work towards?

If you have experience of mentoring and/or working with young people, feel free to add your comments/share your experiences below.

2011 – a review (of sorts)

Around this time of year I normally go through a process of looking at what has happened over the past 12 months from the mindset of:

  • Where was I this time last year?
  • Where did I want to be at the end of the next 12 months? (In this case, the present)
  • Where do I want to be this time next year?

During school, college and university years this was fairly straight forward. It was less so after university, but it did mean that I had far more flexibility rather than ticking all of the Life on a piece of paper boxes. The year that preceded joining the civil service Fast Stream out of all of those years was the one I looked back on with…sheer incredulity that I had crammed in so much into such a short space of time. It was one of those “If someone said at the start of the year I’d be doing all of that and achieving even more, I would not have believed them” years.

Where was I at the end of 2010?

2011 was never going to be one of those years. In part because the Coalition were really beginning to show their teeth as far as public sector job cuts were concerned throughout the preceding autumn. The department I was in wanted a 40% headcount reduction in the space of less than two years. In an organisation of several thousand, such a process inevitably becomes a bloodbath for all involved. My original plan was to fight tooth and nail – sticking to the principle of staying a civil servant until they kicked me out. A number of things happened that late autumn that changed my mind.

The first was whether I wanted to spend the next two years of my life eeking out a miserable existence waiting for someone else to decide my future, or whether I wanted to take some sort of control. I chose the latter

The second was whether I had any confidence in the policies that the department I was working for was charged with delivering, as well as the ministers in charge of them. I felt that I did not have enough confidence in either the policies or those at the top responsible for delivering them for me to meet my obligations as a civil servant.

The third was social media. What happened to Sarah Baskerville horrified me, and the thought that newspaper journalists could start hounding family and friends because of a misplaced tweet or social media message was one I wanted to avoid. Given that I seemed to be getting more interested in social media and its potential use, I wanted to explore this field further. The problem was that I found the restrictions in the civil service prevented me from really exploring this field. I felt that I needed to be outside of the civil service to comment on what was going on inside it.

The fourth one was the impact on my workmates. There were lots of people there with family, mortgages, children and other commitments who needed the stability and security of a full-time job far more than I did – as I made clear in one of my opening blog posts back in August 2011. Being in my early 30s with an interest in a growing field, I felt that I stood a far better chance in the wider world than those who had perhaps spent the past couple of decades in a similar administrative role and who felt that – and with good reason – their long experience in the public sector would not be seen in high regard by private sector employers.

The final one was the financial impact. The redundancy settlement that was calculated had the potential to clear off all of my outstanding debts – a millstone that had hung around my neck for over a decade and one that at times caused some considerable anxiety. The thought of not having to watch the overdraft limit or having to keep watch that I was keeping up with various payments was one I could not afford to ignore.

The downside of all of that though was the prospect of not being in a job, and potentially throwing away a career that I thought was going to last for far longer. But weighing everything up, I decided to jump. In the run up to Christmas I made it clear to my bosses that I was going to put my name forward for the voluntary exit programme.

I was fortunate that the programme I was working on came to its natural end in April 2011, leaving residual programme closure for the remaining months. Thus I had some sort of a focus – tying everything up and ensuring that ‘lessons learnt’ were properly documented and fed into the programmes of the new government. Public administration lessons learnt apply irrespective of who is in office. (Even more so now that there is so little difference policy-wise between the three main parties).

I also started turning up to a number of social and digital media conferences in the first half of the year. Sometimes it would cause a bit of friction because while all of these gatherings had a strong public sector/civil service focus to them, there was the tension of needing to be there for the day job versus me having an eye on trying to work out what I was going to do post-civil service.

Around the time of leaving the civil service I also began the process of coming off long term medication. I wanted to move towards a non-medicine-based method of managing my mental health problems – essentially a generalised anxiety disorder. (I go into further detail in the post Going beyond a pill). I started taking the medication just before starting the fast stream and had been on them for five years. The summer seemed to be the best time to go through the inevitably difficult process of coming off long term medication. Hence between June-July 2011 I was a bit of a zombie. At the time it felt like lots and lots of sleeping.

During the later summer, I started getting hold of some of the hardware and software that I thought would be either useful or that I would need to familiarise myself with in a future social and digital media world. I also booked myself onto a number of courses that I thought were going to be useful too. But for all of the expenditure, I can’t pretend to have got value for money from those courses or the spending of the late summer and early autumn. This has been one thing that has been incredibly frustrating but in part I only have myself to blame. I needed to be far more proactive and self-starting in the way others perhaps have done.

The extended courses – the teacher training and the engineering courses have been more successful. On the former I’ve scored a provisional pass. Assuming moderation does not throw any spanners in the works, as soon as I get the certificate I’ll be qualified to teach any subject that I have an A-level equivalent qualification in. My first two-of-five assessed assignments for the engineering module with the Open University have been returned with 89/100 and 90/100 respectively – though there is an examination at the end which I need to see through.

Finally, there has been the take-off (in more ways than one) of Puffles the dragon fairy. I had no idea that Puffles was going to be as popular as Puffles currently is. (Third person gender-neutral singular that is more ‘personal’ than “it”?) It involved playing around with photoshop, pens and paper and finally searching and finding a micro-business that would manufacture prototypes. As far as the cuddly toys are concerned, I’ve been stupendously lucky with everyone who has bought one and with the manufacturer.

Then there is the “people” side of Puffles – that’s most of you who found this blog via Puffles’ Twitter account. One of the things that has been a source of personal frustration over the past ten or so years is not having found people where I have multiple common interests with where lasting friendships have endured over the years. Through Puffles I seem to have overcome that barrier – in particular through some of the regular “off-line” gatherings that I have had with a number of you over the past year or so. Being able to interact with so many people from so many different backgrounds has opened my eyes to so many different things. I’ve learnt so much from so many of you and have finally found outlets to discuss and debate things that for whatever reason people I was meeting elsewhere at other social activities or occassions were not really interested in.

For everyone who has made time to meet for coffee, who has come along to a pub lunch, who has met for drinks and/or who came to PufflesCamp, a big ***Thank You!*** from me for being the bright lights in what has been an otherwise miserable year for so many people.

Where am I now?

Free.

And yet paradoxically still imprisoned…within my own mind. Not in a mental health capacity, but rather in a “what do I do now?” sense. I’ve been applying for jobs – unsuccessfully thus far. I’ve also completed my initial teacher training, something that has helped significantly in terms of widening my options as well as giving me ideas for what to do for 2012. Breaking out of that ‘imprisoned’ mindset (which for the most part is associated with having to move back in with my parents post-London) is the biggest challenge.

Where do I want to be this time next year?

Not here.

I’m part of the ‘Boomerang Generation‘ of people who have moved out of home only to move back in later on because of financial pressures. Much as it’s nice to be close to my family and much as I am grateful for their support, I want to be able to stand on my own two feet. Ultimately that means being back in full-time work and having my own place. When I was living and working in London, I just got on and did stuff. Being back at home seems to have had an impact on my ability to be like that – a sort of ‘mental block’ that I can’t quite yet figure out.

Where I end up working and living will impact on everything else. One of the things that I found with the one-off training sessions I did on digital and social media in 2011 was that there was a lack of continuity with it all. I quite like doing courses – my disposition is of someone who has an ongoing desire for greater knowledge. I don’t particularly want to do exams in them – life on a piece of paper and all that. But what I am able to do is dependent on where I end up. During my London days I was fortunate to be close to places where I was able to keep up an active social life, even if with hindsight it wasn’t particularly emotionally fulfilling. The nature of the area was that the population was ever so transitory that the people you were meeting were different every week and after a while it got boring having to re-introduce yourself over and over again knowing that you were probably not going to see them ever again.

The two things I’d like to do outside of a day job are around art and music – basically creative stuff. On the art side, I almost don’t know where to start – although I do have ideas about what I want to create. The two biggest barriers are not having a suitable environment to work in nor people to bounce ideas off on a regular basis. On the music side, you could say similar.

On the digital media side it boils down to spending less time tweeting and blogging, & more  on longer term more detailed projects that will allow me to learn by doing. Essentially the size of my digital media footprint needs to be bigger than the sum of its parts. If people want more dragon fairies, it means setting up a smooth ordering process for people and ensuring that I have enough ‘stock’ rather than waiting until I have enough interest to order new batches. I would like to host some sort of an event (or two) that brings together as many people as possible that follow Puffles on Twitter – if anything so that you can all meet each other as well as myself. Something for the early summer perhaps? It also means coming out from behind the mask that is Puffles’ Bestest Buddy. I’m not there yet, but I will be soon…hopefully!