Cambridge’s street communities on complex local public services

Summary

Spending an evening listening & learning with homeless & vulnerably housed people in at Wintercomfort in Cambridge

I was commissioned to do a short workshop on democracy and registering to vote for the local charity for homeless people Winter Comfort. It was one of the toughest but at the same time one of the most worthwhile workshops I have run. I stuck around for an extra hour to listen to what people had to say about their experiences of local public services.

“Where do you start with something like this?”

Neither I nor Wintercomfort had run one of these. The aim was to get homeless & vulnerably housed people engaged in democratic processes as part of getting their voices heard. The challenge for me was figuring out how to persuade people to go to the laptop with Emily from Cambridge City Council ready to register them to vote.

“This sounds familiar”

A couple of years ago, I wrote how lots of things needed to be done before organisations and campaign groups went out to encourage people to vote – see https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/why-the-debate-on-whether-to-vote-is-starting-at-the-wrong-place/. The challenge for me was to put some of this into action. What did I need to do in order to persuade people to get to the stage where they might be vaguely interested in registering to vote? The first thing I realised was that I knew absolutely nothing about the experiences of Cambridge’s street communities. So I asked them to ‘map’ their communities – in particular the people, organisations and activities they had day-to-day interactions with.

IMG_1561 IMG_1562

The above-two photographs show just how complex and diverse their day-to-day lives are. This made me realise that if someone like me was unfamiliar with this, what was it like for the rest of the general public? It was also a wake-up call for things I took for granted when one of the participants asked me:

“How do you spell comfort?”

Yep – check my privilege.

Starting like this prevented me from walking straight into the elephant trap of coming across as over-patronising – even though a couple of the men there said that this exercise was a complete waste of time. It was only when I said this was just as much for my benefit and those of my social media followers in local politics as it was theirs. It also nipped in the bud any risk of ‘sugar-coating’ all things democracy.

A sceptical and unpredictable group of participants – with good reason

With some groups I’ve run workshops for, I’ve come across people whose view is very much the less ‘state interference’ they get, the better. The participants in this workshop are in a position where the state has a large impact on their lives – but is not delivering (for whatever reason) in terms of solving their problems of homelessness and the other problems often found linked to it. Everyone I listened to that evening had been failed by public services one way or another. The experience of that – which left them without a roof over their heads – understandably is going to influence how they viewed public services.

The personalities of people who were there were incredibly diverse. You had people who were very confident speakers with very strong opinions, and you had those who quietly huddled in the corner – unbeknown to me but who were taking in absolutely everything. There were also some people who were drinking too – though this did not disrupt the event.

Differing views about the role of central and local government

Interestingly, participants saw it as the role of central government to intervene and deliver services directly when local government failed. This is what happened in the early days of Tony Blair’s government, where new agencies were set up reporting directly to Whitehall and ministers because the view then was that local councils could not deliver the public services needed. It was only about a decade later that decentralisation became a theme, picking up speed under Hazel Blears when she was Communities & Local Government Secretary.

Strong views about governance and transparency

Participants were absolutely red-hot on failures of governance and transparency both in local government and on non-state providers such as charities. They questioned whether the staff at some state-funded providers were qualified to do the jobs they were commissioned to do, and asked why the costs of procuring some goods and services cost so much – asking where the money was really going. Given the information, I could imagine a few of them giving some senior managers at both a local and national level a really good grilling!

Services not joined up at a local level

The strongest message coming back was for Cambridge City Council to have a much more regular presence at Winter Comfort – in particular housing officers. The same goes for organisations that deliver health services. The most popular idea was having a ‘super social worker’ who would be part-employed by the police, health and local council so they could ‘sort things out’ as they said. What struck me was how similar this was to an idea I blogged about several years ago, but how they had come up with the suggestion independently. It’s more compelling coming from them because they are the ones that use the services more regularly than me. From my blogging perspective, it’s a piece of applied public administration. It’s one thing saying ‘Yes nice blogpost but…’. It’s quite another having to respond to a vulnerable member of the public who is dependent on those services and who is being failed by those services.

Their ideas for Cambridge’s politicians to consider

Emily from the council and I wrote down their questions, concerns and complaints on a big sheet of paper.

IMG_1565

One of the things that chimed with me was when people said public services should go to where homeless people are, rather than expecting homeless people to have to shuttle from office to office. In public service social media circles we often talk about going to the social media platforms that people are using, rather than creating new ones and expecting people to come to us.

I asked Wintercomfort staff to invite local MP Daniel Zeichner to spend an afternoon/evening listening to the community, and asked them to invite a panel of councillors and political party representatives to allow people to put their party political questions to those at a local council level. Interestingly, the councillor who got the most praise from participants was Cllr Gerri Bird, Mayor of Cambridge for 2014/15. When I asked why, they said it was because she listened, visited regularly and spent time with them rather than rushing off after 15 minutes. This was my experience of Cllr Bird during her mayoralty. (We have ceremonial mayors in Cambridge rather than executive mayors – the Leader of the Council – currently Cllr Lewis Herbert, is primarily responsible for policy & strategy).

Assuming all goes well, I’ll be feeding all of this back in person to Cambridge City Council’s full council meeting on 22 October. (See http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=116&MId=2795 for details).

IMG_1560 IMG_1559

 

Parties report rise in membership after Conservatives win general election

Summary More thoughts on the next five years – including training, development and support for those with desire and potential to stand for election

I mentioned to a friend earlier today that in Whitehall & Westminster, the traditional big offices of state are:

  • Prime Minister
  • Chancellor of the Exchequer
  • Foreign Secretary
  • Home Secretary

Boss, money, outside stuff, inside stuff. Looking back at the general election result, Labour had Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Yvette Cooper in those roles. I’ve mentioned to a number of people in times gone by that if a party is going to resemble ‘a government in waiting’ in the run up to the general election, the people in the shadow ministerial roles need to be extraordinarily talented individually, compensate for each others’ weaknesses and collectively look & feel like a competent team. Did that team of four have that? Did they have the dynamism, energy, competence and people-friendliness to inspire those outside the party? The fact that both Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander lost their constituency seats speaks volumes. If they cannot inspire their constituents to vote for them, how could they be expected to inspire the rest of the country? Similar applies to the Liberal Democrats – on the receiving end of a nationwide pounding. Their nominal ‘shadow quad’ of those roles (Scroll to the end here – Lib Dems, is the final row correct?) were Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Tim Farron and Lynne Featherstone. Alexander and Featherstone lost their seats.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats blown wide open – for new talent to step up

There are eight Liberal Democrat MPs left. (Should someone be sacked inside parties for these results?) Clegg’s resigned as leader, which means it’ll be one of seven men (including Tim Farron, Norman Lamb & Greg Mulholland) who will become party leader. Their party rules say the leader must be in the Commons. (Which means it won’t be a woman as the party has no women MPs left). The ejection of Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander also creates two huge voids within the Labour Party at the very top. I’ve found watching the Twitter chatter from both parties to be interesting – as well as the numbers of people joining/rejoining both parties.

“Was 2015 the general election no one wanted to win?”

From a political commentator’s viewpoint, perhaps – given the state of the economy, the world and public finances. But that’s easy to say if you’re not dependent on public services. For those dependent on public services, the prospect of even more public service cuts or job losses is quite frankly frightening. It’s all very well saying that Cameron will have a tough time keeping his Euro-sceptics in line, & that after 5 years of that an alternative centre-left party will come in & sort things out. It’s all very well saying that any other party would have struggled, leading to an even more harsher alternative in 2020, but in five years something that might have been thought of as extreme can then become the political norm. Think tuition fees. What will be the 2015-2020 policies brought in that cannot be reversed by any incoming government?

“So…why have thousands of people started joining/rejoining political parties?”

The Liberal Democrats are claiming over 3,000 since the election, The Greens over 400, and Labour claiming ‘thousands’. (None of these figures have been independently verified, so it’ll be interesting to see if the numbers hold true). I’m going to try and get a sense from the local parties in Cambridge over the next few weeks. My sense is a combination of fear and opportunity. Fear over what’s about to hit us over the next five years, and opportunity because with such a defeat and a clearout of long-standing senior politicians, now is a once-in-a-generation chance to make an impact on political parties from within.

“What will they do with all of these new members?”

The Green Party also faces similar issues regarding new members – as does the SNP & UKIP. One of the things that’s struck me attending local council meetings in Cambridge is how few members of the public who are members of political parties come along to take an active part in those meetings. Much is left to the sitting councillors, few of whom seem to have any desire to change systems & processes to make council meetings more appealing to the general public. While there is a time & a place for formality – especially given propriety & accountability, what we currently have seems to suck the life out of what could otherwise be interested & energised gatherings. Given the further looming cuts to local government, I simply cannot see how the existing models in & around Cambridge are sustainable. (The amount of administrative time spent on working out how to fill in a pothole or how to get cycle racks installed is unreal).

If anything, there’s no time like now to invite people to step forward as potential candidates for the local council elections in 2016. In my ward in recent years, all of the candidates bar myself & Simon Cooper had stood before, and the incumbent this year who was re-elected first became a councillor here when I was doing paper rounds in this ward in the early 1990s. (Phil Rodgers has the lowdown on Cambridge’s election results here).

“What would you like to see on the back of these membership surges?”

Some new faces, some new activists, and perhaps some longer-standing community activists putting themselves forward for elections (whether as party or independent candidates).

But that involves parties and civic society helping prepare and support people to stand.

I keep on saying that Democracy is not a spectator sport – so don’t expect to be spoon-fed. A number of politicians have mentioned to me how they have found the presence of me and Richard Taylor with camcorders filming as intimidating or off-putting. That was one of the reasons why I deliberately made things easy for the candidates with the interviews I did in the run up to the elections – & will continue to do afterwards. Essentially I ask ‘Daytime TV-style’ questions about their human experiences of being in local politics rather than on specific detailed policy issues. My aim is to get local politicians feeling comfortable in front of camera, and the viewer to be able to decide whether the politician being interviewed is ‘a nice enough person to have a conversation with themselves’.

Formal training matters too

After various hustings and public debates I attended, I spoke to a number of candidates and party activists advising them of who needed what training & coaching to improve their performances in the set piece debates. Poor public speaking had a direct impact on the footage I filmed because it meant that I had to edit the audio to artificially amplify some of the voices of the speakers. I could have simply left the footage as was, but chose not to because I felt it was important to ensure the viewer could hear what was said by whom, and not feel the desire to cut off before the following speaker. A number of people have said they found the video footage really useful, but I don’t know of anyone who changed the way they were going to vote as a result – yet! Nationwide, the organisation I recommend is the charity The Media Trust. As local parties there is nothing stopping you from hiring them to do workshops for your activists & potential candidates on:

  • media interview training
  • public speaking
  • social media
  • making short video clips
  • effective newsletters

The above isn’t about turning new members into clone-town politicians.

“What about activism outside of political parties?”

Because there’s a place for it, that’s for sure. A couple of long-standing Twitterfriends who have been longstanding non-party activists have commented that independent political organising had been put ‘on hold’ in the run up to the election. See @MediocreDave here. Given the experience of 2010 when Labour spent months deciding on a new leader & having an internal debate, the Coalition hit the ground running, brought in austerity, shaped the narrative/line of ‘Labour spent too much/all their fault’ which, supported by a sympathetic print media & an uncritical broadcast media meant that it stuck. By the time Ed Miliband had started to get things together, it was too late. We saw that when the Leeds’ audience for the leaders’ TV appearances tore Gordon Brown’s record to pieces in front of Ed Miliband without a response that seemed credible in the minds of the people asking the questions. Clegg and Cameron also struggled on that show to be fair. Campaigns I’ve seen gathering some steam via social media have included:

  • Keeping Britain in the EU – an acceptance that we’re going to have a referendum by 2017
  • Saving the Human Rights Act – given the Conservative policy of replacing it with a British Bill of Rights (and the recent appointment of Michael Gove as Justice Secretary)
  • Reforming the voting system on the back of millions of votes for the Greens & UKIP but only 2 seats to show for it
  • Protecting people with disabilities and wider anti-austerity demos.

I wouldn’t be surprised if something kicked off should tuition fees rise again either. It remains to be seen what, if any interfaces these and other campaigns have on established political parties.

Encouraging women into local democracy – featured examples

Summary

Featuring some of the women I filmed & interviewed during the general election campaign 2015.

Here’s Amelia Womack, Deputy Leader of The Green Party with an appeal to students & young people in Cambridge

In terms of student activists:

I also featured regional and national volunteers, such as:

I also covered existing holders of public office prior to the general election too.

I featured candidates

And even a national party leader

Feel free to share.

Why the battle between Daniel Zeichner & Julian Huppert matters for Cambridge

Summary

Some thoughts on what either might be like as MP for Cambridge.

The bookies have Julian Huppert of the Liberal Democrats slightly ahead of his rival Daniel Zeichner of Labour. We know what Dr Huppert will be like given the past five years. In the grand scheme of things, Dr Huppert has been an excellent constituency MP. The number of constituency cases is testament to that. He’s also been a hard-working MP on the high profile Home Affairs Select Committee and an almost single point of call for the various national science campaigns. If Dr Huppert doesn’t get re-elected, then those in Cambridge in the science communities who support Dr Huppert  will only have themselves to blame for not matching the buzzing ground campaign fought in particular by Labour students. While there are a growing number of scientists engaging in public policy, more need to make the jump from policy to politics & stand for election. Otherwise too much falls onto the plate of too few MPs with an understanding on science.

What would Daniel Zeichner as an MP be like?

I can’t help but feel that people are underestimating Mr Zeichner. As a non-party type whose spoken to Mr Zeichner on a regular basis during this campaign, I don’t completely buy the idea that he will be the stereotypical ‘New Labour clone’ who only breathes in & out when Peter Mandelson tells him to. People have generally commented to me that Julian has come out stronger at the hustings as a public speaker.

Part of the problem Mr Zeichner has is that he has no record of public office in Cambridge – hence it’s harder for him to recite a list of achievements & successful campaigns other than ones inside the Labour Party. At the same time, with no immediate record in government to defend, he’s been able to go on the offensive in this campaign in the way he could not in 2010.

Daniel Zeichner as a minister?

Mr Zeichner is extremely knowledgeable on public policy, as well as being a negotiator for a trade union. With his degree from Kings College, Cambridge and along with his strong connections with Labour shadow ministers, should Mr Zeichner be elected I strongly suspect he would be offered a junior ministerial post should Ed Miliband become Prime Minister. Think of Mr Zeichner as a sort of Labour equivalent of David Willetts – the former Universities Minister in the Coalition for the Conservatives. Mr Willetts is softly spoken like Mr Zeichner, incredibly cerebral but is not the sort of person who comes across as someone who relishes the rough & tumble of party-political brick throwing. (That’s not to say they cannot do it – more that they’d rather be involved in the public policy problem solving side of politics than continually berating their political opponents).

Ed Miliband will need MPs with the disposition and talents that Daniel Zeichner possesses in his administration

You normally have about 100 ministers in a government in Whitehall. Not all of them will be the limelight-seeking media-friendly types. You need within your cohort of ministers the more reserved, cerebral types who are quietly effective behind the scenes. I get the sense from Mr Zeichner that he’s one of the latter. I can picture the scene where he’s able to use ministerial offices to bring people together and unpick some very complex problems. That’s how I think he would operate in that role.

“What would that mean for him as a constituency MP?”

This for me is what makes the choice interesting between Dr Huppert & Mr Zeichner. Should Mr Zeichner be elected for Cambridge, & should he be appointed a minister, he would need to be responsible for a transport/housing/infrastructure portfolio where what’s happening in Cambridge informs his ministerial work & vice-versa. In the latter case it would be as simple as saying to a non-co-operating local authority that he’ll put his ministerial hat on to deal with the infrastructure issues Cambridge faces.

Being a minister though means two things:

  • The ministerial convention of not being able to speak on the floor of the Commons on constituency issues – and having to toe the government line on ****everything****
  • Having to spend at least four days a week on ministerial work – which is massive.

Dr Huppert has been able to be an effective back bench MP because he’s dedicated himself full time to the role. Being a minister means you’ve got three days max on constituency issues. It also means you can’t go to all of the constituency-related events held in the evenings during the week. This means a significant burden will inevitably fall on sitting councillors in Cambridge. Are they ready to take up the excess workload?

Dr Huppert has also used social media incredibly effectively during his time as MP. Should Mr Zeichner become both an MP & a minister, he simply will not have the time to use social media in the way Dr Huppert has. He’ll be stuck in ministerial meetings, signing off decisions and running his policy area instead. That would inevitably mean he would be less accessible. How would Mr Zeichner and his team compensate for that? Should Mr Zeichner get elected but stay as a back bench MP, it would be interesting to see if his approach to social media evolves from a broadcast approach to one that’s more conversational in the way Dr Huppert has used it.

So…to summarise the similarities?

Both are talented men. Be in no doubt that whichever of the two gets elected (if the bookies are right that it’ll be one of these two), Cambridge will be very well served. Both are intelligent, cerebral, hard-working and are passionate about making our city a better place. They just happen to have different dispositions and slightly different policies and approaches on how to achieve it.

…and the differences?

With Dr Huppert you’ll get a politician who is content to speak out against his party when it goes against what he believes. You’ll get the social media savvy, well-connected and scientifically literate communicator and public speaker who will continue to raise the profile of the city in the media & beyond. Will Dr Huppert’s party be in a position to form a new coalition or will they find themselves in opposition? Either way, I think Dr Huppert will still be able to influence either way. Cambridge is too important an economy for Whitehall to ignore – & Whitehall knows it.

With Mr Zeichner you will get the lower profile but quietly effective influencer working behind the scenes to get what Cambridge needs. Should Mr Miliband become Prime Minister, Mr Zeichner (if elected) could have a significant influence on how a Labour administration deals with Cambridge & the challenges our city faces. While Mr Zeichner might be less likely to speak out against his party, he might argue that it was on his party’s platform that he is campaigning on, so why would he want to rebel against it?

…And so…?

That’s the choice between the two if you choose to frame the election in Cambridge as one between Dr Huppert & Mr Zeichner. I’m not going to tell you which one to pick. You’ve got to decide which assuming you think it’s a straight fight between the two. This post highlights the similarities and differences between the two and how this might impact on Cambridge over the course of the next Parliament. Which one works for you? Because what works for me might not work for you.

Personally I think the framing goes beyond it given the 12,000 votes that UKIP & The Greens got in Cambridge last year in the European elections. The interface between the top two parties and these two newer arrivals is a huge factor in this election. Will the smaller parties be able to hold onto their gains? Will tomorrow set a new local baseline for the health of the smaller parties in Cambridge? Finally, given the leftfield interventions of two Tory-supporting national tabloids calling for Conservative voters to tactically switch to Lib Dems in Cambridge to keep out Labour, how much of the 2010 Conservative vote will hold up? How much will switch to Lib Dems or to UKIP? My guess is that the number and proportion of the vote share for the Conservatives will fall, but not enough to put deposits at risk.

Democracy is not a spectator sport – so don’t expect to be spoon-fed.

Summary

Some thoughts on the bare minimum people can do in order to cast an informed vote – should any of the candidates impress them.

This post is mainly targeted at people in & around Cambridge, but the sentiments apply more widely. I’m not going to go off in a lecture about how it’s your public duty to vote, or to make a recommendation of who to vote for. Even now, I am still torn between the various candidates in Cambridge. Whoever I choose to vote for, it won’t be because the other candidates didn’t bother. By & large they’ve worked their socks off and have taken huge risks to stand up and be cross-examined by the general public repeatedly. That takes a huge amount of courage – as many of the first-time candidates can testify. (I found out the hard way last year with Puffles).

“Well I’ve not received anything from the candidates or from the political parties!”

Most activists & candidates ***do not get paid*** for what they do. Those that don’t get paid are effectively providing you with a free service. For whatever reason the number of grassroots party activists has fallen over the decades. At the same time, our ability to access our paid-for politicians in national public office has significantly increased. Compare the caseload of what MPs used to have to deal with in times gone by (when they would seldom return to their constituencies) with the 30,000+ cases Cambridge MP Julian Huppert dealt with between 2010-15. Many of us have access to the internet, so it’s not beyond us to do the most basic of searches to find candidates, manifestos & policies.

“But it takes ***soooo long*** to search for each party and candidate!”

Type in your postcode to https://yournextmp.com/ and you’ll find the links to candidates standing, their websites, email addresses, social media pages & leaflets they’ve delivered that you may or may not have received.

“But I haven’t met them! I want to see/hear them in their own voices!”

You could have done what thousands of other people have done & gone to a hustings/public debate, or alternatively you can see some of the video footage that people (such as me & Richard Taylor) have uploaded for anyone to view. For example:

All of the above cover all but two of the candidates standing for Parliament in & around Cambridge.

I’ve interviewed as many of the candidates as I can get my hands on, plus a series of activists and visiting politicians. See my video playlist here. Clearly more than a few people are watching the footage – since 01 April I’ve had over 10,000 minutes (over 166 hours) of video footage viewed. That’s before the recent final few days of footage. My view of ‘success’ for each video equals more than one person viewing the video who was not able to attend the event concerned. For the interviews, success for me = people being able to decide whether the individual was someone who they could have a reasonable conversation with. Success for me isn’t about voting generally or about voting for a specific party. That’s someone else’s metric; not mine.

Ask your local candidates and activists questions.

It could be something as simple as a statement – such as:

“I think all politicians are the same. Convince me they are not. Inspire me to vote and vote for you.”

…and give them a chance to convince you otherwise. It’s also worth recording audio/video of candidates with a high chance of being elected to national public office – especially if they are promising things. Locally in and around Cambridge, candidates know that being filmed at debates and being interviewed by local community activists is now the norm – despite the fun & games me & Richard Taylor have had. (See Richard’s example here). To be fair, most of the candidates have welcomed the presence of us filming – some proactively inviting us to events to get them on video for wider audiences to see.

“So…who should I vote for?”

For incredibly busy parents, you could do what some parents in Cambridge have done: Get your children to come up with a short list of questions, put them to the candidates & say you will vote according to your children’s recommendation following their analysis of the candidates’ answers.

In 2010 I sent 10 questions to all of the candidates. Everyone bar Daniel Zeichner responded. When Daniel collared me at the station asking me to vote for him, I had already voted & told him that I could not vote for him because he didn’t answer my email – despite all of the other candidates having responded in full. Hence I excluded his candidature by default. It’s up to you whether you choose this route in 2015.

“No, really, who should I vote for?”

It’s more ‘what do you want to vote for?'” Do you want to vote for:

  • The person you think will best represent the place you live in?
  • The party whose values you most associate with?
  • The party whose policies/manifesto you like the most?
  • The individual who you think will make the best prime minister?
  • The individual who has the best chance of keeping out the party/candidate you dislike the most?

What weighting/prominence do you want to give to each of the above?

“So…why have you done this? Why do lots of filming & … let’s be honest, asking lots of soft interview questions to the candidates & activists?”

My interest is in getting more people into local democracy. I’ve been to too many council meetings where big decisions impacting on our city have been taken with very little external scrutiny. I’ve seen elections where too many paper candidates are ‘recycled’ time after time. I’ve tried numerous approaches over the past few years. From offering (& delivering) free social media training for Cambridge councillors, to assertively challenging them at council meetings, to finally standing for election myself. All of the above had a very limited impact if I’m brutally honest.

Hence for the general election I’ve run around Cambridge filming as many candidates and activists as possible with the following aim: To show them in the best possible light so that the general public feel that they can have a reasonable conversation with them. It also changes the previous dynamic between me and the local politicians: instead of having to convince someone who eats, sleeps and breathes politics, they have to convince the wider public. I’ve also deliberately disabled the comments on the videos too.

I’m not too bothered about the discussions people have about the content of who said what. That’s for the person being filmed/speaking to account for, not me.  I don’t need, nor want to be part of every conversation. My role is to help stimulate conversation informed by what people see and hear from the candidates. How the public holds the candidates accountable is entirely up to them. In most cases the videos give a social media link for them to do so.

Life after the election

Whoever gets elected for your area, my recommendation is to follow them on social media and stay informed about what they do in your area. Once they are elected, they are then responsible for everyone who lives in the area they represent. Make this a start of an ongoing conversation with those elected to represent you. In the meantime…choose wisely!

‘Tory turmoil as ex-council chief quits amid social media firestorm’

Summary

A busy day for Cambridge Conservatives 

They say 24 hours is a long time in politics. Earlier on, former Conservative councillor & leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Mr Nick Clarke, switched allegiance to UKIP. Around the same time, Cambridge Conservative candidate Ms Chamali Fernando found herself in the middle of a social media firestorm following remarks made at a recent health hustings. See the full transcript here recorded by Jon Vale of the Cambridge News. Then do a Twitter search for “@Whereis007” (Ms Fernando’s Twitter handle) and compare your judgement of the transcript with responses from across Twitter.

From Richard Taylor's tweet to front page of the national papers.
From Richard Taylor’s tweet to front page of the national papers. Screenshot via @CllrRJohnson (Lab)

Note too that this story has now hit the national newspapers. This piece on the BBC News was put out presumably by Conservative Central Office to help clarify things. From my perspective, this episode underlines the importance of recording these debates on video/audio.  Note the Twitter exchanges here on the accuracy of the tweets.

My original thoughts reading the tweets from those there was that Ms Fernando’s was trying to articulate where people could choose to wear a discrete piece of jewellery that contained information that might be useful to emergency services when responding to an emergency call. Hence posting a few links & asking if this was the case – but otherwise left it at that as the Twitter storm gathered pace.

At the same time, I can also see how through the spiralling of social media exchanges how vulnerable people wearing bands identifying mental health conditions would inevitably be seen/visible, and could lead to further discrimination against people who already (like myself) struggle with mental health issues. Note the context of the latter is disability hate crimes – see here.

As soon as it became clear Mr Vale of the Cambridge News had recorded the entire debate on a dictaphone, I took the view that this and any further clarifications from the Conservative Party would deal with any issues of who reported what/accuracy.

The final straw for ex-county council leader Nick Clarke?

Here’s Mr Clarke in his own words on his blog, and here’s his interview on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. What’s noticeable in both is his dissatisfaction with Conservative Party leadership at the very top – focussing on the issues of immigration and the UK’s relationship with the EU. It’s worth noting that Mr Clarke’s views on climate change are also more in line with UKIP – the party he’s rejoined, than those of Ms Fernando. In 2012 Mr Clarke & Dr Huppert clashed over climate change – see here.

The timing of Mr Clarke’s switch is interesting – the day of the Conservative Party’s manifesto launch. Given his remarks in the radio interview, Ms Fernando hardly gets a mention – certainly not by name. To what extent was it the party’s national manifesto that made him think in his heart of hearts that he could not publicly campaign with those policies? Remember that at the time of posting (& at the time of Mr Clarke’s switch), UKIP had not yet published their full manifesto.

How are the campaigns going in Cambridge for the Conservatives?

It depends which part of town you’re in and who you ask.

Certainly on my side of town (mid-south Cambridge) the Conservatives are much less visible than their Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents. Labour on one side, the Liberal Democrats on the other, & in between 89 votes for Puffles. Even in some of the most expensive houses in the city, Labour and Liberal Democrat (and even Green Party) posters/boards are conspicuous by their presence.  It’s one thing looking down a road full of 3-4 storey town houses or quiet roads with expansive detached houses without any party banners if you’re a Conservative activist, but quite another if you see them full of banners of your political opponents. Where do you start?

Remember that the Conservatives barely have a presence on Cambridge City Council. This means between elections, they don’t have a presence in grassroots city decision-making. Add to this that displaying posters/boards may indicate a long term friendship with (or even the address of) an elected representative of the party concerned. Note Cambridge has more than a few former Labour ministers who have returned or retired to the city too.

At the same time, general election time could be the time where the higher turnout boosts their chances in their target wards such as Trumpington (where they have one councillor) and Queen Edith’s ward – where Andy Bower (who’s also my webmaster) is standing again. That said, Queen Edith’s ward as far as the Parliamentary constituency is concerned sits outside Cambridge City. Will the more visible presence of Heidi Allen in the ward compared to her predecessor Andrew Lansley help Mr Bower? If the Conservatives are going to revive their long term political fortunes in Cambridge, they need to be winning wards such as Queen Edith’s & Trumpington.

One day like this a year…

Summary

The cost of a bus ticket: £4.10. Entrance to the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Free. Outselling some of the big-name bands from the mid-1990s that I saw at the Corn Exchange: Priceless. The Dowsing Sound Collective don’t make beers…

Oh, and we got to sing this number to over 1,000 people in a packed out Guildhall too. Not only that, just before the gig I handed over a cheque for £250 to The Dosoco Foundation from some of the sponsorship we raised for Be the change – Cambridge.

It was one I wanted to give a go myself a few months back, but when I read the music I realised it would be out of my vocal range. Which was why I was more than relieved for our Lungjam gig on 1st April 2015 we had Cambridge’s Trevor Jones to do the lead vocals for us – and a splendid job he did too!

Blown away by the audience. Again.

Funnily enough, it was a group of teenagers from my old sixth form college who had turned up to see one of their friends on guest-lead-vocals for us that helped electrify the rest of the audience. Being in & around Cambridge’s local music scene means I get to see & hear my fair share of up-&-coming talent. This time around it was Daisy Hill – who is in the same cohort/age bracket of students as Grace Sarah, Rachel Clark and Ellie Dixon. (What would a collaboration by the four of them be like?)

@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange.
@Debsmoreyx and friends taking a selfie from the front row of the Corn Exchange. (Pic – Dee Morey)

From where I was perched at the top of one of the chorus stands, most of the energy in the audience was coming from Daisy’s crew – Dee Morey and friends. Whenever they started singing or moving, most of the older adults around them started to do the same – even the new chairperson of the Cambridge Live Trust – who’s launch we were there to celebrate. (Some of you eagle-eyed watchers may remember my original idea for a ‘Cambridge L!VE’ back in 2012 – see here. My mental health crisis of April 2012 sort of put paid to running with that project in a big way. It was to be another three years before Be the change – Cambridge took its place.

Watching with pleasant astonishment fellow singers deliver commanding performances. Have a flick through the photographs by @KimberlyOhBrien here and you’ll get the feel. What our musical director Andrea Cockerton is really good at is rotating lead vocalists. Yes – even I had a go last summer in Bury St Edmunds!

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)
Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds in July 2014 – Photo by Mike Oliver (http://photography.bymikeoliver.com/)

Silence, a stunning performance and the loudest applause of the night

The photo below by Mike Oliver (who took the above one of myself) speaks more than a thousand words.

Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver
Daisy Hill at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, 1st April 2015. Photo, Mike Oliver

Daisy’s also got an album on iTunes here.

There was a big ‘hush’ before Daisy sang a cover of ‘Stay with me’ by Sam Smith. Andrea had auditioned about 15 incredibly talented local singers before selecting five to sing with us. As well as Daisy and Trevor, we had Shakila Karim, Steve Linford and Katey Grant, all of whom were brilliant too. All five guest vocalists stood out for different reasons – whether it was Steve for getting everyone going with ‘Let me entertain you’ by Robbie, Shakila covering Amy Winehouse or Katey with Paloma Faith. The three high-profile musicians with very distinct voices were not easy to cover by any means.

This meant that Daisy’s challenge was to deliver an alternative to the bright lights/high energy performances that the others gave. And she more than did that…along with the added pressure of friends and family in the audience too! (I still can’t cope with the idea of family being in the audience at music gigs I’m on stage for.)

Slaying a demon or two from the past

There were a few tracks we sung that gave me very mixed emotions – not that the organisers would have known. With quite a few numbers from the mid-late 1990s – ie my teenage years, I was a little nervous about how I’d react. But my place on the stage (ie not at the front) and with Erin McAlister next to me as this stabilising presence, I needn’t have worried. The most emotionally powerful performance of the night for me was by Rachel Hanna (below) covering ‘Don’t look back in anger’ by Oasis.

Rachel Hanna singing 'Don't look back in anger' - photo by Catherine McDonnell
Rachel Hanna singing ‘Don’t look back in anger’ – photo by Catherine McDonnell

Funnily enough, it’s one of the Oasis tracks I like the least because commercial radio overplayed it in 1996. I was a massive Oasis fan at the time but by the time I got to sixth form college, they had ceased to be ‘trendy’ – to the extent that I got abuse for my troubles. It was also the beginning of the end of a number of childhood friendships as I both grew apart from people I had known for almost half my life (if not more), while struggling with as yet undiagnosed mental health problems in the final few years before the internet became mainstream.

So my emotional mindset was: “I can’t sing this song without someone absolutely belting the f–k out of this number on lead vocals!” Step forward Rachel who, in incredible alto tones went and did exactly that. Interestingly enough, I don’t think the song would have had the same emotional impact on me had it been a male vocal lead. So, even though Rachel hardly knows me, she somehow managed to slay a demon that had been around me for a very long time. ***Thank you!*** (It’s one of those strange things in life: you can never predict where or through whom you are going to find inspiration from – & to be grateful when you do).

By this time the audience applauses were getting louder & louder after each track – Daisy’s mates finding the energy from I have no idea where. Now that was music therapy!

In the audience for Dowsing Sound Collective’s London group

I made my way down to the first London performance of our Camden and Hammersmith collectives at the end of March at the Union Chapel up the road from where I used to live in central London. Click here for photos of the venue: It has a *****Wow!!!***** factor – not least because it’s over 100 years old and an octagonal church – part of the congregationalist tradition.

The last time I had been in an audience for such a Dowsing gig was in late 2013 – shortly before I joined them. At that gig the only familiar face I had for company was Puffles. No one else I knew was interested. For this gig, we had a ***party train***

There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie
There were more of us on this carriage than in this selfie

Now, the last time I had been on a party train down to London was when Cambridge United went to Wembley at the end of the last decade…and lost. We hadn’t drunk enough to break out into a flashmob like we did in 2014 when we occupied two-thirds of a restaurant between performances.

A sizeable group – over 20 of us – made the journey down from Cambridge to see our new musical siblings take to the stage for the first time. Remember quite a few of them came to see our Christmas gig a few months earlier – see here. Given the emotional state I was in prior to that gig, and the emotional pick up I got from what I can only describe as this ‘wall of positive energy’ coming back, I sort of knew that repaying that favour would be in order for the London groups’ first gig. Being surrounded by so many familiar faces, along with more compliments than I’ve ever had in one night for choice of outfit (including being hit on by a very friendly camp waiter to add to the comedy value) lightened my mood immensely after an intense time with all things Be the change – which concluded only a couple of weeks prior.

We didn’t need to got nuts with applause for the hell of it. It was a superb performance – with noticeably different musical nuances compared to the Cambridge group that I am part of. For a start, having two extremely talented multi-percussionists rather than just one – Paul Richards for Cambridge, meant they were able to do more with the rhythms. On the other hand, they didn’t have a small brass or string section. There wasn’t enough space on the inevitably crowded stage in any case.

I filmed the above clip testing out a new app on my phone. Bear in mind a number of the people singing probably haven’t sung on stage in public ever, a gig with over 600 people in the audience is quite an achievement. The most important thing I felt was that those on stage proved to themselves that they could do it, and that those in the audience who were ‘curious but non-committal’ until that gig would have been firing off emails asking to join having experienced that performance.

And if you’re in London on Easter Monday…

The Dowsing Sound Collective’s London groups will be at the Royal Festival Hall – see here for details. Happy Easter!

Apps ‘n’ gadgets for community reporting

Summary

Some ‘not just for boys toys’ that I’ve become lately obsessed with – useful in the run up to the general election

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages, so here goes.

Modern smartphones – powerful things: but do we get the best out of them?

My old eye-fone (sorry to avoid the spambots) 3S for me is still by far the most comfortable smartphone I’ve had. It was what I used to film this timelapse (with phone clipped onto this gizmo)

But that was long after I had upgraded. It’s only been in recent times that I’ve started using smartphones for recording video & audio. An example of an audio recording is Julian Huppert in a Q&A session to Transition Cambridge activists from 2014. Again, this was on the 3S attached to a lapel microphone.

Hardware – how can you make your smartphone record more stable footage?

A mini tripod. I bought this one by Manfrotto which I use with this Joby Tightgrip. Not only are both light enough to carry, they are comfortable to hold and can be set up in under 30 seconds. Furthermore, the design of the clip means you avoid the risk of recording video footage while holding the camera vertically. The clip only works if the phone is horizontal!

A smartphone with a telephoto lens?

Apparently so – though it takes a bit of time to get used to. I got hold of this one quite recently. If anything, the nicest thing about it is the case, which feels well made. In itself, that alone makes the package almost worth buying. Add the tripod & the clip, which although less pleasing on the eye & hand is more stable, means even without the lenses it’s quite a nice purchase. I can’t pretend to have gotten much out of the mini lenses. The zoom lens doesn’t allow you to zoom in & out – something that I’ve gotten used to with my camcorder. But then for the price, what do you expect? It does however give you the option of a manual focus. This can sometimes cause problems if the smartphone is in auto-focus mode.

Third party camera apps being better than the ones the phones come with?

It’s counter-intuitive, but the FiLMiC Pro app (£6.99) is one that is far more powerful than what my phone came with. The most useful aspect for me is the ability to align footage filmed using this with the settings on my camcorder. At events this means I can set up a main tripod and camera, press record & leave them running, while I film other more interesting shots from around the room. I’ve still not got the best out of the app – nowhere near in fact. I tend to compare such things to high performance motors: You’ve got to be extremely skilled in order to get the best out of them. That requires knowledgeable delicate handling.

For still photos, I have the Pro Camera App. As with the above, I am nowhere near getting the best out of it. However, the quality of some of the images I’ve taken feels better than using the normal camera app.

Field reporting – one I want to experiment with

I’ve got the lite version of the Hindenburg Field Recorder, because when it comes to recording, my quality of audio hasn’t been great. But because I’m shooting so much video (& uploading them to my Youtube channel here, or to my Vimeo page here), I’ve not really done much podcasting. Finally, I also want to experiment with the iRig setup.

All that reporting – but is anyone watching?

As it turns out, quite a few of you!

YouTube Analytics March 2015
YouTube Analytics March 2015

Given that most of the footage I have on my channel of late has been from Cambridge election debates, the above statistics are pretty good. (I think so anyway!)

I’m putting the election debate videos into event playlists – see here. Local parties can then pick from the videos and promote the ones of their candidates to their audiences, while party-neutral organisations can share the entire playlist by subject being discussed.

“Is it worth it?”

Because none of this as yet pays the bills!

A number of locals have said to me & tweeted that we’ll only really know its true value after the election – ie when we can compare who said what with what they delivered. It’s also a safe environment to learn how the various bits of kit & the apps work best together.

Finally, it’s an historical record. The local historian in me quite likes the idea of people viewing this footage in decades to come to see what the 2015 general election campaign was like.

There are also stacks more debates to come – see the list here. I’m not going to get to many of them – I’ll have to pick & choose. Alongside the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, health & housing are the two issues I feel I need to cover as far as the city is concerned. On faith group-specific, or international campaigning organisation debates, I’m happy to leave that to those who are more passionate about those issues or who are part of those communities. After all, I cannot be (nor should I be) everywhere!

Easter & Summer filming projects – community action

Following Be the change – Cambridge, I’ve had a number of conversations with various people on what might be useful for me to do between now & the autumn. One idea came up in conversation with my friends Angela & Dave. They both came up with the concept of ‘the time poor, passion rich citizen’. This concept is very very different to ‘clicktivism’. Clicking a ‘like’ button ain’t gonna save an additional life. ‘You get what you give’ and all that.

Think of it like this: You have a resident who is extremely skilled in a niche area, and who has perhaps an hour a week at home that they can devote to ‘something’ that can help make an impact on the city. How do you make it easy for such people to:

  • Identify the issues they are most passionate about?
  • Identify the functions/actions that they have the right skills sets for?
  • Identify where their input will have the greatest impact?

…and in a way that means they do not have to read through hundreds of sheets of paper? The concept I often use is the filters used to book hotel rooms. How about using the concept for:

  • Booking community rooms
  • Finding regular activities
  • Finding one-off events
  • Finding charities or local causes to support

…but instead of having to go from one website to another working separately in silos, have them co-ordinated? Hence some have come up with the concept of the ‘City Dashboard’

Films to bust myths & explain who does what

There’s only so long you can pester people & organisations before you end up having to do it yourself. Hence not long after I got my camcorder, I stuck Councillor Richard Johnson (who had just been appointed executive councillor for communities at Cambridge City Council) and asked him some very basic questions about local area committees in Cambridge.

Jeremy Paxman I am not. (As this short clip with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury shows).

The reason for my approach is I’m of the view that the general public don’t see politicians as people like them. My experience of working with politicians at a local and national level has been somewhat different: I used to work for ministers (& in one or two policy areas, meeting them quite frequently) during my civil service days. Therefore if you want to see their human side, don’t talk to them about politics (or rather policy). Hence asking Danny Alexander (along with Jo Swinson, his ministerial colleague here, and their Labour shadow opponent Lilian Greenwood here) about what got them interested in politics originally. Notice their face & body language compared to what you normally see on telly.

Other than that, between now & the election, I hope to get a couple of mythbusting videos online.

 

Trying to prioritise in the constraints of not great mental health

Summary

Wanting to do everything, but not being able to.

The past few weeks have been incredibly intense from a personal perspective. Yet had I had sound mental & physical health, all of this wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. A decade ago I was managing the equivalent of all of this hours-wise on top of a full-time job.

‘Someone has to film it because ****democracy****’

I’ve uploaded at least 10 videos in the past week from a number of different events – events that would not otherwise have been recorded or scrutinised at people’s leisure. (See videos here). I don’t ‘have to’ do this. I don’t get paid to do this. I do it because something inside of me tells me this is an important function of our (local) democracy that’s not being fulfilled. This isn’t just about organised debates between candidates at elections (noting this article), but about some of the important public policy debates that take place in Cambridge too.

On the future of Cambridge – there’s lots happening, but how do we bring the conversations together?

There were over 100 people at a Q&A session with Cambridge general election candidates and with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander MP. (See my video playlist here). There were also over 100 people (a noticeably different audience) at a Cambridge Science Festival event on the connections & flows of future cities – see my video playlist here. Then finally there were 200 people at the Cambridge Carbon Footprint/Transition Cambridge debate on Friday. See my video playlist here.

The analytics tell me that over the past seven days, people have watched over eight hours of my video footage. So…there’s clearly a demand for what I’m filming – even though this doesn’t pay the bills!

Filming, editing and uploading is exhausting. But so too is travelling to and from venues

Only by taking tranquilliser medication at a frequency I’ve not had to since my 2012 crisis did I manage to stave off another breakdown this weekend. Something eventually had to give – and in both cases it was skating this and last weekend. A school governors’ strategy workshop followed a sleepless night. (Eclipse to blame?!) It was only a parental lift to/from Anglia Ruskin that got me to the Friday night debate. The funniest part of the evening was one of the student volunteers being told by the host of the evening, Dr Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute at ARU that the big cuddly creature I was carrying with me was not a llama or a kangeroo, but Puffles the Dragon Fairy.

When the dragon gets an invitation…

In 2014 it was recording a music video. In 2015 it was recording an EP

But such was Saturday’s brainfog that I could not haul myself out of bed in time for the morning recordings with Dowsing Sound Collective at Jesus College Chapel. But I managed to make it through for two of the three tracks we recorded – using some state-of-the-art kit courtesy of ARU’s music department.

The view from the back - Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective
The view from the back – Recording with the Dowsing Sound Collective. Can you spot the floating grey head?

I wanted to join everyone for post-recording drinks. But I couldn’t. And not for the first time. This has been the first year I’ve really begun to notice that I cannot do things I want to do because…of my disability. While I’ve described on ‘official forms’ in years gone by as my mental health issues being a disability, 2015 is the first year where I’ve really ‘felt the disability in my heart.’ Even more so because it feels like there’s nothing I can do about it.

Trying to articulate this in a way that someone in better health could understand

Imagine that instead of 40 hours per week, you only had 14. Go over that limit and you’ll have even fewer hours the following day or week. Or ‘Spoon theory’ as articulated by Christina Miserandino here. In the case of ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ the week before last, and all of the events last week, I’ll need to recharge batteries for most of this week. Not least because I want to be in a state where I can enjoy Dowsing’s London gig at the Union Chapel.

Losing spoons at the Cambridge environment debate on Friday

The ‘Spoon theory’ link – and the idea of losing spoons (or energy/capacity) along the way also hit on Friday night after the hustings but before Saturday’s recording. The only point of fact I recall the chair, Dr Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin, challenging any of the panellists on was on who came up with the policy of all new-build homes from 2016 having to be zero carbon. The Conservative candidate for Cambridge claimed it was the Coalition, Dr Jones said it wasn’t.

For those who don’t know, I used to be a policy adviser on sustainable new homes in DCLG’s climate change & sustainable buildings division in 2007-08. In what were 10 of the most intense months of my life living & working in one of the most pressured political & policy environments I’ve ever been in, I couldn’t let that point rest. See the Storify here. (In this case I’m stating that Ms Fernando was misinformed, not lying. No frontline campaigning politician is going to know the policy detail unless they were reasonably well-read in that field).

Local government in Cambridge had definitely been informed about this policy by 2007. How do I know this? Because it I was the one who told them about it. Here are the slides from my talk at Newnham College attended by developers too. ***It’s got my name on them***

“Hang on – I thought you were only going to be the cameraman in this election campaign?”

That’s my intention, but where there is an issue of fact on a policy area I worked in, & where candidates continue to argue an incorrect point, I reserve the right to step in. On this occasion, it was a shame about the timing given the state of my health.

There are lots of debates between four of the five candidates between now & election day – helpfully collated by Cambridge Conservatives. See their calendar here – scroll down. I’ll try and get to the larger ones that cover a range of issues too.

Stopping on rollerskates

Summary

Week 2 of training with the brilliant Romsey Rollerbillies

If you scroll to the last five seconds of the video below, you’ll see an expert’s example of how to stop on rollerskates in style

I signed up for the Rollerbillies’ Fresh Meat program having filmed them last year (see above). Having gotten into the filming swing of things, I’m now experimenting with a variety of non-conventional camera shots – in particular where me & the camcorder are moving. But I don’t think I’ll be getting anywhere near the standards of this clip below.

Joining a club run by and made up of mainly women members

[For those of you interested in sport & feminism, the paper Sport, Gender and Power : The rise of roller derby may be of interest.]

I’m really grateful for being given the chance to learn how to skate with them. The only lessons I’ve been able to find for skating have been in London. Not living in a single place for long enough – and thus not settling meant I never took up the option while I was living there in the late 2000s. Despite turning up in week 1 with the wrong kit – blades rather than skates, a cycle helmet rather than a more substantial crash helmet, and leisure pads rather than rollerderby pads, the welcome I got put me at ease. Quite something for someone with an anxiety disorder!

Safety first – and in more ways than one

The focus on safety was at the heart of everything they taught. A ‘tick-box’ culture this was not. What struck me was how similar their focus on health and safety was to the teacher training I did at Cambridge Regional College in late 2011. Straight from the textbook and communicated very well. I knew I was in good hands.

Furthermore, Shona the lead instructor on the first week and Rachel in the second reinforced the concept of the hall being a ‘safe space’ – and in two ways.

A safe space to make mistakes

The first was that it was safe to make mistakes, get things wrong, fall over and take time to learn things. For me this was like the opposite of school and church as a child. Do badly in an exam at school and all hell breaks loose with family and family friends. Make a mistake in life and you have to go to church and confess your sins and feel guilt and shame. Here was the opposite. What I also noticed was how some of the more experienced skaters read my body-language on skates like a book: I was incredibly tense – fearing the pain I might suffer if I fell over and having everyone pointing & laughing at me. The only time I saw people laughing at someone falling over was when one of the very experienced skaters did so.

A safe space for everyone – irrespective of your size or shape

The week I started skating with the Rollerbillies seemed to coincide with the #ThisGirlCan campaign to get more women into sport. I picked this up from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (who I met in Parliament a couple of years ago) tweeting about it.

I knew I was throwing myself into this while being very out of shape. What I didn’t realise until the end of the second week was just how much of a workout I had got. Having bought some new upgraded pads, I was astonished to find how soaked in sweat my wrist pads were. We were on our wheels for a good couple of hours. The exercise you get isn’t so much a sprint or a distance run, but more related to the pressure your muscles are put under – or so it felt. Being in ‘derby stance’ where you are effectively standing in a squatting position while skating around the track is something that requires an incredible amount of stamina – something that I’ve seldom had!

Just as with my days dancing in the 2000s, people of all shapes and sizes demonstrated incredible skill, talent, stamina and co-ordination. For all the body-shaming in the media, here were a large group of people in my home town comprehensively busting those negative messages.

At the same time given the nature of the activity & the level I’m at, I’m in listening & concentrating mode. Break that concentration & you fall over. Hard. I’m in listening mode because the people giving me advice have all been where I have been skating-wise. Their advice without exception has been constructive, friendly, reassuring & encouraging. With all of us newbies they have taken several of us slower learners aside for 1-2-1 short sessions to work on specific pieces of technique. For people who might be low on confidence and/or have an anxious disposition, the impact this approach has is huge.

Quite a commitment just to get a few seconds of dynamic film footage?

It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But remember back in 2012 I blogged how I wanted to learn how to stop on rollerblades? (With a view to skating regularly – somewhere). My mindset as in that linked blogpost is that I’m past my physical peak. (I’m in my mid-30s now). Therefore if I want to avoid middle-aged and elderly years full of regrets about not doing more physical activities, it really is now or never. That I can combine it with filming is even better. Even if I’m not able to capture the sort of footage I have in mind, I’ve still learnt a new skill, met some nice new people and improved my fitness.

Personal styles of learning – alone or in a group? One off or repeated over time?

An alternative style of learning to this could be looking online at some digital videos and going out somewhere to try things out myself. Another might be a one-day crash course. The former I find procrastination a huge barrier. With the latter I find I need to have been a practitioner and know the basics before going along somewhere to break through a glass ceiling. I found this out when I was a Freedom of Information Officer in the civil service during my early/mid 20s. The Act had been in force for just under a year and we had got a few things wrong – as you inevitably do with interpreting a new piece of legislation. Having booked myself into a seminar that I thought would have dozens of people with a senior barrister (I think it was Sue Cullen) on FoI & data protection – the latter of which I couldn’t get my head round on its application. In the end, only four of us turned up. Thus we had a whole day with a senior barrister to go through all of the issues at work we had with the two pieces of legislation. Following that session, I re-wrote the guidance on FoI & data protection for our office to make it fit for purpose.

In a nutshell, learning in a group over time is what works for me. Not just with skating but with music too. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the experienced skaters, Meg, at our first Sunday music rehearsal for the Dowsing Sound Collective this year – having joined us a couple of weeks prior. Which reminds me, we have a musical year that looks like it’ll be just as exciting as 2014. And if you’re in London, get yourselves down to the Union Chapel on 28 March. The London collectives are up and running…