Who took the fun out of Cambridge? (& how do we get it back?)

Summary

On regular events and nights we used to have but no longer do

I’ve had a number of conversations with local residents and activists in recent weeks about all things leisure in Cambridge, and a number of things have come up as a result.

What happened to the regular club nights at The Junction?

The Junction, as well as being a major entertainment and arts venue is also a big part of our civic history – especially for teenagers and people in their 20s. Why? It was that generation of teenagers & young people who got it built in the 1980s.

Plans for The Junction music/arts venue. )4 Nov 1986

The above from the Cambridgeshire Collection’s newspaper microfiche archive is the Cambridge Evening News of 04 November 1986. Looking at it now, the underpass in the centre of Elizabeth Way roundabout would make for an awesome public space – whack a dome over it!

Yet the club nights that were regularly sold out in the late 1990s are no longer there. The old 70s and indie nights at The Junction are now at the much smaller Q-Club on Station Road Corner, which makes me feel that as a city we’ve gone backwards somewhat. That’s not to criticise The Junction as a venue or their staff. One of the things that they’ve struggled with – one that crosses more than two generations, is under-aged drinking. It’s a problem that goes far beyond Cambridge and one that we don’t look like solving anytime soon. I’ve seen secondary school children negotiating with street drinkers to buy alcohol from local supermarkets thinking “Yeah – why didn’t my generation think of that?!” while noting still that it’s easier for under-18s to get hold of illegal drugs than it is alcohol – just as it was for my generation growing up in 1990s Cambridge. I shrug my shoulders at those that squeal for the police and local councils to do more while voting in politicians that repeatedly vote for cuts to their budgets and/or refuse to vote for the necessary resources to enable public officials to carry out the duties they demand of them.

Cambridge’s population has grown by size of the town of Haverhill since 1990 – but has our leisure offer matched that growth?

I asked this question this time two years ago. The answer is still the same: no. Between 1990 and today, Cambridge should have built the equivalent of what Haverhill has, plus more given the improvements in transport access that the guided bus has given to the villages and towns in West Cambridgeshire.

What do we mean by “Cambridge is wealthy”?

People and politicians talk about the profitability of various firms (eg ARM Holdings), the number of tourists that visit Cambridge (while not considering the negative externalities of the model of mass tourism) and the amount of money Cambridge City Council returns to The Treasury from business rates. The problem is the municipal authorities don’t have the means to channel more than a fraction of that wealth into the functions that a city needs to function. Why does ARM holdings pay for a diesel shuttle bus from the railway station to its campus in Fulbourn rather than paying to re-open the railway station and upgrade the railway line that goes past its offices? There’s even a campaign to get it reopened for crying out loud!

“What’s that got to do with fun?”

Everything – people need to get to and from the places concerned – as I wrote in this blogpost. Finally – finally work as begun on our new ice rink on Newmarket Road. Flooding fenland fields in winter – which used to work in decades gone by no longer does in an era of climate change. If all goes well and the main bus route extends to the rink, I have an almost point-to-point bus link to said rink. Which is splendid even if the route is quite a long one. I get on, I sleep for 45 minutes, I get off, I get my ice skates on.

Land prices making some activities much more expensive

Some indoor activities inevitably need large amounts of indoor space. Basketball and rollerskating are two examples. One of our city’s best sports clubs, the Cambridge Rollerbillies needs a permanent and affordable home but is dependent on the availability of the Kelsey Kerridge Sports Hall. Cambridge United Women’s Football Club doesn’t even have a home ground inside the county, let alone the city. A disgrace to our city that needs rectifying. That two of our top women’s sports teams don’t have permanent homes in our city with decent facilities is a reflection of the institutionalised sexism in our city and in sport in general.

Where are the activities that mix young people studying at the city’s private language schools with young people at our secondary schools?

There are two things that worry me here. The first is that activities put on for visiting young people are inaccessible to young people that live here. The second is that visiting young people form friendships and future networks in our city that our young people are inevitably excluded from, while the private firms run off with the profits giving nothing back to the young people who call Cambridge ‘home’. It is not beyond the business networks in this city to do something about this if Cambridge is as innovative and forward thinking as we are told we are.

Is classical music about being beyond grade 8 or nothing?

Some of you might remember me jumping up and down about a new concert hall (and ideally, grand ballroom) for Cambridge in this blogpost. i.e. the one I’ve told several of you that I plan to name after the Mother of Modern Cambridge, Florence Ada Keynes.

florence-ada-keynes-portrait

Hero: Florence Ada Keynes in the 1880s before she transformed our city.

We have the guildhall in Market Square because of her. Unfortunately, in the large hall built in Victorian times behind it, the organ in there is broken and needs the best part of £500,000 to repair it. That plus some serious work to improve the very poor acoustics in there. Not that it stopped Mrs Keynes aged 74 from facing down 2,000 angry people inside said hall in 1935 who were complaining about design issues with the then proposed guildhall. While this was going on, her son, John Maynard Keynes (the economist) was busy building The Arts Theatre (which he underwrote for what was £20,000 in 1930s money when King’s College refused to stump up the cash). When he was bored or needed a break from economics in the evenings, he could sometimes be found in the box office selling tickets – because it was his theatre and because it was fun for him!

On the music side, my take for the past decade or so has been that Cambridge needs an adults’ late starters orchestra. East London has one, and Cambridge is full of music teachers and music scholars. So what is stopping Cambridge’s classical music scene from making this happen? After all, you have a big music school in our city and it’s not as if classical music doesn’t have an accessibility and image problem re diversity. (Although the point is often made about how tickets to football matches can be just as, if not more expensive than a classical music concert – which then makes us wonder whether the problem is ticket price or something else).

Lots of summer activities for older people and younger people – but what about that gap in between?

I was talking to a few people who like me, fall into that group and also happen to be single and childless. What is there that is specifically organised for this demographic (late-20s to early 40s) in and around Cambridge? I was looking at some of the things put on for the summer in Cambridge thinking: “I’d ***love*** to do that but I’m not 13 anymore.” I’m also not old enough to qualify for the Mayor’s annual day out to Great Yarmouth – but am more than happy to campaign for the re-opening of the railroute that used to exist so that we can all go to the seaside by train like we used to in the olden days!

Can our larger institutions think beyond their own memberships?

Cambridge University on social housing:

This from the top two councillors in Cambridge City – Cllr Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council and Cllr Kevin Price, executive director for housing and Chair of the Greater Cambridge Assembly.

I agree with both councillors – it is unacceptable for Cambridge University and its member colleges to behave in this way, pricing out the people who do the cleaning, bedding and catering inside their institutions. Astonishing that those on the college finance boards cannot see the positive impact that having such staff living in walking distance of their work places would have both on their work and on the health and lives of their employees. But as they are all too often outsourced to third parties, all too often the responsibilities go with them. For me a massive false economy.

Have some of our larger organisations stopped putting on some of the fun stuff of old?

I asked that question in this recent blogpost. The local archives make for fascinating reading in this regard. Given that they didn’t have TV or the internet 100 or so years ago, people had to find other things to keep them busy. In those days, some organisations built their own premises and hosted events in them. The Cambridge & District Co-operative Society was one such organisation. One Cambridge hero – Save The Children founder Eglantyne Jebb predicted shortly after the outbreak of the First World War that co-operation was the future. Read her full remarks from December 1914 here. Alas it was not to be, and the huge premises that were on Burleigh Street were sold off to the Grosvenor Estate Group and now host that symbol of low-cost-high-turnover turbo-capitalism, Primark.

“Doesn’t fun mean different things for different people?”

Yes – and dare I say it, we’ve lost our imagination and self-belief to build those things that could make our city much better than it currently is. I’ve been ridiculed enough over the concert hall idea. Note that we were told by 2016 we’d need a 50m swimming pool, a rowing lake, a community sports stadium and more – I read through old documents so you don’t have to 🙂 (Page 16 if you’re interested – the summary box at the end).

Yet as the 1986 newspaper article demonstrated, teenagers and young people came up with the idea of turning the big underpass by Elizabeth Way bridge into a venue – something that I’d never have had the imagination for. With not nearly enough diversity in local democracy nor a critical mass of the people that make up our city involved in how to make it function properly (not a new problem by anymeans), we miss out on the genuinely radical and imaginative ideas that could really make a difference. It’s one of the reasons I want the Cambridge Connect Light Rail to work. I’m still astonished that out of all of the candidates who stood for county mayor this year, it was the Conservative candidate James Palmer (who subsequently got elected) who pinned his manifesto to the mast of underground light rail. None of the others would back it.

“What about the free stuff?”

Wide open spaces matter.

Cambridge Crusaders vs Trumpington Tornadoes!

The pitch wasn’t nearly as nice as it is today, but we won 4-1 away in what was my first competitive football match as a centre-back. I was petrified…because I was 10.

But something as simple as removing the grass clippings from the open spaces actually makes a huge difference – especially to hayfever sufferers like me. Unlike my local park Coleridge Rec, the King George V playing fields in Trumpington had the clippings removed so I didn’t break out into a sneezing fit when I popped over on Saturday to see the Trumpington Youth Festival that was funded by Cambridge City Council’s South Area Committee allocation.

“Shouldn’t the city council be allocating some of this funding to each state secondary school to put on a summer festival in their local parks?”

Now there’s an idea.

The question is whether the schools would have the capacity to deliver it. These things are always easier said than done. Years of repeated cuts means that the capacity to deliver community events has fallen more and more onto volunteers. This inevitably means only those with the desire, the time and capacity to deliver such things take them up.

Talking to council officials, it was a group of young people aged 9-15 who put on the event in Trumpington. They went through the process of applying for funding and got it. I mentioned that learning how to apply for the money was an important part of the learning process, but also that there must be a simplified system we can put in place for the firms to donate funds say to the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation knowing that it will be used for such events. That or making a much better go of publicising the one that is already in place here.

And finally…

The *Wow!* factor.

Compared to where they were, Cambridge University has significantly improved its public engagement work in recent years. You could say that given that it used to treat the public like The Plague, an improvement isn’t hard. But many of the people who have been at the public-facing end that I’ve met have been utterly inspiring, and shows what we are capable of when we work together and put our minds to it.

Musicians in Cambridge working together could create not just a late starters orchestra but a new musical movement in Cambridge.

Dance groups in Cambridge working together could create the equivalent of a ‘May Ball’ where you had music and dancing of a different dance style in each hall/room/marquee.

Arts and college investment funds working with private donors and the local councils could give us that larger-than-the-corn-exchange concert hall (doubling as a conference centre that the business community regularly tells us we need). It’s not like we don’t have the technology to create a flexible but inspiring internal space.

At an even more basic level, we don’t need to sell out to developers all the time and leave pokey little patches of green in our new housing developments. Provide people with large open parklands like we used to. Let’s not become like London where we lose those open spaces as this report from 2006 shows what London lost.

What are your ideas?

You could say that ‘organised fun’ is a contradiction in terms – like planned spontaneity. There’s always been room for some sort of municipal provision for events ever since the Romans came up with the concept of bread and circuses to keep the people content…allegedly.

What are the things that as a city we’ve not even thought about? What are the things that could easily be put on and/or have low costs? What are the things that stop us from organising these things? Money? Poor transport links? Problems with publicity?

It reminds me of the criteria I wrote at the end of this blogpost on school sports: available, affordable, accessible, enjoyable, sociable. Do these apply to your ideas? Comments on a postcard please. (Alternatively in the comments box below on on Twitter & FB).

 

 

 

 

 

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