It’s difficult to stay silent when you’ve gone beyond what you thought you were capable of

Summary

An evening as part of the Dowsing Sound Collective – even more inspiring than being in the audience. (Followed by some thoughts on what course/workshop providers and institutions can learn from this).

It was turning up to their performance below…

that made me think: “Yep – I want to be part of that lot!” I blogged about it here.

Whether we’ll end up singing this number over the next few years remains to be seen.

(Yes, plug it into your sound system and disturb the neighbours – actually, better not).

“Isn’t this a bit ‘Gareth Malone’s Choir’???”

You mean this? Perhaps, but without the mainstream TV cameras and the pressure that comes with the mainstream media. Just because something is on the tellybox doesn’t automatically make it bad. After all, have a listen to the following:

How many of you have heard the intro to that? (I have Mog & Puffles sitting next to me as I type this – the former seems soothed by it.)

“Why awesome?”

Because I’ve never knowingly sung in G-flat major? Actually, although I could read the music, unlike my viola I had no real concept of whether I was hitting the right or wrong note other than my fellow tenor singer next to me. Having no real choral experience, trying to hold my own with an alto singer next to me was a little tricky. I have a habit of following the person singing next to me.

Being made to feel welcome vs being blessed with bad luck

Funnily enough, that makes a huge difference. When I moved away to go to university, I went along to a choral gathering to see if I could get back into singing in the way I had done at primary, early secondary and early sixth form. At sixth form I lacked the courage to take up the offer from the head of music to join the choir there. I’ve regretted it ever since. At university, the conductor was horrible as was the only other male there – a classically trained tenor. Which in part explains why I found the Christmas concert and their part in it laughable and depressing. In the mid-2000s, I tried again with a local music teacher. But there was no fun in it. It took another decade to get to here.

Fortunately the Dowsing crowd seem to be a friendly bunch – mainly my age and older, which is a different dynamic to what I’ve been used to in recent years. But then so was the atmosphere. There are no exams or performance management assessments in this. (Just a performance in front of many hundreds of people sometime in the future).

Contributing towards something greater than the sum of its parts

Which is what a choir ultimately is – expressed in vocal music. Eric Whitacre has taken the concept further with digital media. Have a look and listen:

The difference here being that all of these people were in their own rooms. A different dynamic when you are in a room with about fifty other people. This was also the first time I had been part of a choral experience in the wider sense. Different people singing different parts of a single piece of music. And it was actually quite moving when we put the whole thing together.

Deconstructing and reconstructing a piece of music

That’s what Dowsing and other musical collectives do really well. They take an existing track, break it down into its component parts, play with the components and add/subtract various bits to it, mix it up and come up with something very different but strangely familiar. What was fascinating for me to see was just how quickly the whole thing seemed to come together. The only thing that initially concerned me was singing in G-flat major. But it turned out not to be a problem in the way it would be on the viola. (No open strings – and I like open strings – it’s a string-players thing).

“So, you’re going to stick with it?”

Looks like it. It has got me thinking again about some issues familiar to regular readers…

Big Society

That old chestnut again?

The thing is, running a choir like that isn’t cheap – and also requires a lot of effort by a lot of people, fun though it is. Rehearsal premises have to be booked out and paid for, as does the music that we use. You can’t just buy one copy and whack it through a photo-copier. Each piece has to be paid for when buying licensed music. It reminded me of a question someone put to me not so long ago:

“Has society reached its capacity for the amount of voluntary work it can do?”

Given the current way the economic and legal systems are set up, along with the current distribution of wealth and power, I get this feeling that we are close to it. That’s not to say things could be better organised where people get far more out of what they put in. For example being able to find the most suitable organisation or activity.

Long commutes shot to pieces the voluntary work I was doing in Cambridge when I transferred down to London in the civil service. The high cost of rent and activities in London inevitably curtailed the number of things I wanted to do in London when I moved down there. High costs of living and long commutes into places where rent and house prices are high have a knock-on effect on the ‘big society’ activities that politicians regularly encourage people to take part in. Dare I say it, it also has an impact on the people who may want to put themselves forward for election. Who can afford the time commitment to be an effective local councillor if the only people that are able to carry out such duties are those with independent wealth and/or one hell of a commitment to their party or local area beyond what most might otherwise have? At a recent event by Cambridge City Council, the weekly commitment expected in terms of meetings and constituency work is over half a full-time job. But the expenses you get in return for the hours put in would barely meet the minimum wage. Finally, for those not in work, the system barely allows for any voluntary work to improve skills, build social contacts and make friends – and keep morale up, while job hunting.

“What do organisations like Dowsing need?”

I get the sense it’s more a case of trying to find out what the opportunities are given the technology and knowledge we now have, that we didn’t have 20 years ago. It’s not a case of simply chucking money at stuff. For me, the combination of technology and knowledge allows us to develop much stronger evidence bases to justify calls for things like new venues and facilities. At the same time, I also think it justifies calls for those that work in, and are paid full-time in the voluntary and community sector (whether through donations or grant funding) to improve their skills on digital and social media (particularly those in management roles). I’m almost tempted to say that any organisation in receipt of state funding/grants should ensure that organisations are proactively using social and digital media – or at least have it as a strongly desired clause when inviting applications.

Several local organisations – Dowsing being one, do a pretty good job with social and digital and/or have some exciting things planned for 2014 which will be a big step on from where they were. Cambridge has a vibrant arts scene – if you know where to look. Yet all too often, I get the sense that not nearly as many people know where to look. Hence too many people are unnecessarily and unwittingly excluded for what to me are utterly avoidable things.

Comparing the 1990s (and/or bad experiences) with the 2010s

This is something I often put to local institutions and organisations when I come face-to-face with them. In particular:

“My experience of growing up in Cambridge during the 1990s was X. What has improved since then, and what has remained the same and/or got worse? With the latter, what are you going to do about it and how can the wider community help you in that improvement?”

Hence why I’ve started getting more than a little angry and irate at some parts of local government in and around Cambridge at some of the slow rates of progress. Not surprisingly, this has ruffled a few feathers locally too. I guess part of that passion on my side comes from a sense of feeling that I ‘missed out’ on the fun with music, art, literature and drama – and that I don’t want future generations locally to experience the same. See my fraught musical journey here. If I was a complete luddite I’d shut down this place. But I’m not. But I find the push for grades and formal assessment to be absolutely poisonous to enjoyment. After all, if you want to take away a child’s passion for something, set them an exam on it. (And then judge them according to the grade/mark they get). To what extent do music teachers (and parents) acknowledge this impact? I’d be interested in a wide-scale in-depth academic study tracking the take-up and drop-out rates of children as they go through school, looking at reasons for taking up and giving up a musical instrument. What would the data tell us?

And getting back into music? Or anything for that matter?

For me it’s more about being inspired and encouraged to do things that are positive and constructive for those around us, as well as being soulfully/spiritually nourishing at the same time. (You don’t have to be religious or supernatural to acknowledge something as being personally beneficial for your heart and mind). At the same time – and this was something I picked up at UKGovCamp 2014, there are many psychological barriers that stop people from doing something they might have done at school. How do you encourage someone to write as an adult when writing lines was a regular punishment at school at a time when a special need was not diagnosed? (I’ve since met a couple of people I was at school with who told me that diagnosis only came after they finished school – by which time the damage was done).

“Why does this matter to local institutions?”

Because they might be spending lots of money on creating and advertising a programme of classes, workshops and events that press all of the wrong buttons. Or in my case with Dowsing thus far, pressing the right ones. Perhaps it’s similar to some of the things I listed at the end of a blogpost on school sports – see here. Available, accessible, affordable, enjoyable, sociable – and to that I’d probably add inspirational and achievable too. Furthermore, perhaps something that provides a challenge – that makes you feel a little uncomfortable as a result of it being something new, or the surroundings and people being new.

Something for local institutions to ponder over as they plan for 2014/15?

Christmas songs – a change from ‘same stuff different year’?

Summary

Having a look around for some different Christmas songs

You know the score: “The bestest crimbo recordz in the world evva evva evva!!!” screams the tellybox. Every year. I won’t list the songs because most of you probably know them already.

Given that this is the case, why has the pop music world been so poor at coming up with anything new? After all, it’s a guaranteed money spinner long after your band has disappeared from existence. And it’s not as if Christmas with swing-along-a-deano (or in that style) is anything other than blandness personified…or am I being too harsh?

Christmas Carols

My personal historical context matters in why I generally despise Christmas carols. This includes:

So…irrespective of any musical issues, the top three bullet points explain why I find Christmas carols hard to enjoy. There are far too many loaded and negative messages within them that I will never be able to escape. Which is a shame because Charlotte Church’s version of Hark the herald angels sing (see here) – especially her arrangement for the final verse is very uplifting.

Hence some of the more ‘high brow choral music at this time of year is something I find very inaccessible because going anywhere near it triggers far too many negative emotions and memories and vanquished hopes, dreams and aspirations for me to cope with.

What about secular ‘winterval’ songs – santa and all that jazz?

‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ has to be just about one of the worst Christmas songs written ever. Awkward phrasing, musically uninspiring and lyrically about a bunch of little brats moaning about Christmas pudding, which like too many ‘traditions’ with Christmas, we put up with even if we despise the stuff. It’s not as if sprouts are best selling vegetables at any other time of the year.

I’ve mentioned the traditional same stuff different year songs. Unfortunately we are also burdened with a new theme of song that has become more regular over the past 20 or so years: The Christmas novelty record – because it’s all for charideee!

No. No. No.

Raise money by all means. Have a little fun by all means but please don’t butcher musical instruments with rubbish lyrics and even worse music for the cause. Some have even gone further and dropped the charity bit altogether, persuading too many people in the industry that it might be an idea to concoct something for a buying public that decides December is a splendid month to buy lots of things that you will otherwise never use or need. That or the inevitable ‘novelty’ Christmas present/song, such as this horror from Keith Allen and friends which sort of gives an insight into ‘lad’ culture of the late 1990s. 

Alternative covers?

How about Rudolph in heavy metal mode? Or even Alice Cooper singing about Santa coming to town? Those didn’t really do it for me, though I like the version of Christmas Wrapping by The Donnas. I like the arrangement for Warm this winter by Gabriella Cilmi too. (See here)

Actually, it takes more than a fair amount of musical talent to transpose a song from one musical style to another. Noel Gallagher tried it with Slade’s famous number. (See here).

Anything ‘original’?

One of my favourites is I was born on Christmas Day by St Etienne (see here). I also tend to hunt for anything I consider ‘danceable’ to. Blackmore’s night wrote a lovely tudor-esque carol Christmas Eve that makes for a lovely Viennese Waltz – see here. When it comes to tracks suitable for a ballroom ball, decent Christmas songs are hard to come by. No, I am ***not*** going to link to strict tempo versions of Rudolph as a cha-cha. You can bounce to Lulu with Chuck Berry’s Rudolph number instead (see here). I also really like Cee Lo with The Muppets (See here).

Non-Christmassy-Christmas-Songs?

The joke goes that if you include sleigh bells onto your sound track or have a bit of fake snow thrown in on the video (SClub7 and ‘Never had a dream come true’ for example), irrespective of the lyrics it becomes Christmassy. I’m sure you can think of your own examples. I suspect few of you will have heard of Still Me by Erkan Ali (see here). It was a slow waltz played at a Christmas ball I went to in the late 2000s.

A couple from my very late university days are Lift the wings from Riverdance (see here – compellingly haunting) and May it be, by Enya – the latter from the first Lord of the Rings film which I went to see on a very snowy day. Both for me are about wandering cold, lonely roads on a long journey towards some point in the future where there might be better days, but where those better days are not guaranteed. Yet at the same time, they also remind me of the need to keep going, and how there is no ‘road back’ so to speak.

You’ve also got some numbers from blockbuster movies – Edelweiss from the Sound of Music, the Harry Potter themes, and Lord of the Rings that I mentioned earlier. A sort of ‘time of year’ they were released thing? Ditto with Heal the World by Michael Jackson, and Paul McCartney’s Frog Chorus? .

But…what about tradition?

I’ll leave you with this little story. While you’re watching (if), what are your recommendations for ‘alternative’/lesser known Christmas songs?

Event review: Cambridge Vintage Night – & some thoughts on future events

Summary

Is Cambridge’s lindy hop and swing dance beginning to reach critical mass? This high-energy event showed its potential – but can the city help groups like these achieve that potential?

Well over 100 people turned up to The Guildhall in Cambridge for Cambridge Vintage Night. I went along for a number of reasons – including liking the live bands of the music’s genre, having an excuse to dress up in outfits that otherwise don’t see the light of day and wanting to get back into dancing but not having found something that ‘clicks’ with me. One of the things I feel about Cambridge is that we have the potential to put on large and exciting events, but a number of things are stopping us from doing so. I congratulate the organisers of this event for taking the risk and breaking down some of the barriers to put on this event.

“What is lindy hop and swing?”

Have a look at this sequence

Now, that’s the dance at a very high tempo to a stupendously high standard. That said, the dancers from Cambridge Lindy and a couple of the other collectives in & around the city were dancing to a very high standard.

Pinstripe Suit Band and Kirsty Jarvis

Just…wow!

Have a listen to them here

Now picture them on stage in the Guildhall.

Kirsty Jarvis with Pinstripe Band at the Guildhall
Kirsty Jarvis with Pinstripe Suit Band at the Guildhall

Now, the acoustics at the Guildhall are appalling. They always have been over the time I’ve been attending events there. Any Cambridge City Council councillors reading this blog – Puffles is going to start chasing after you to get the acoustics in the big hall sorted out. It’s been negatively impacting on events for far too long.

“What was the format of the event?”

As all good dance-related events of this nature do, they always start with a beginners class – and one that has people changing partners regularly. I’ve done about a terms worth of swing/lindy but that was several years ago. That said, the basics were relatively straight forward for anyone who has done ballroom, salsa or ceroc. It broke a lot of the barriers and the tension that was in the room at the start – no one really knew what to expect in terms of those who had never danced before. From those that I spoke to and danced with, they seemed to be more than happy.

That class was then followed by both Pinstripe Suit’s set which unfortunately clashed with a food buffet that was put on. This meant the floor was vacated by all except the high-standard swing dancers. (Ideally you open the buffet after the band have done their first set). There is always the inevitable tension between the high standard dancers wanting to ‘let rip’ on the dance floor vs not wanting to put off beginners there for the first time. In all styles of dancing I’ve done over the past decade or so – ballroom, latin-american, salsa, swing/lindy, ceroc, this has been a common theme running through. I’ve not seen an event (either in the UK or abroad – yes, I’ve travelled to other countries purely for dancing-related events) that’s managed to overcome that tension.

Recommendations for future events?

First things first, in my view the event was a success. I certainly hope the organisers didn’t lose any money on putting it on. Secondly I hope they repeat it. Cambridge Guildhall has a limitation as far as an onsite bar is concerned: There isn’t one. Personally I’d like to see it have a setup similar to to what St Ives just to the west of Cambridge has with the Burgess Hall. (It’s where Cambridge Dancers’ Club hold their seasonal ballroom balls). As a result, organisers for events are left having to bulk-by drinks and sell them themselves. Accordingly, the quality of drinks for sale is ‘variable’.

In terms of publicity, I think Cambridge City Council should throw in a few publicity freebies for anyone hiring out the halls for evening events open to the public. Posters all over the community notice boards, a press release and social media posts should all be thrown in as part of the package. The reason being that more people attending such events makes them more commercially viable – increasing the chances of repeat bookings. At the same time such events bring people together and provide an alternative big night out on a Friday/Saturday night.

Talking of venues, the continued emptiness of this masterpiece in the centre of Cambridge remains an outrageous scandal.

The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible
The old bingo hall that has remained unused for far longer than is sensible

Given that a large size (but not so large as to be Guildhall size) concert and dance venue, it was a tragedy that the plans (detailed here) were thrown out by the council not so long ago. (See here). It’s such a shame that in the city centre we don’t have a non-cram-them-in-and-booze-them-up concert and dance venue that’s available for groups to put on regular performances of the like seen at the Guildhall this evening.

One thing that also got me thinking was an article in a community magazine not so long ago that featured ‘early disco’ events along the lines that these chaps seem to be working on. In a nutshell, something hits you in your late 20s/early 30s that makes recovering from late nights out far more difficult than in your late teens. Remember when you could be out till 3am and not feel the after-effects the following morning? Yeah – I can’t do that now. That plus public transport issues means that for some people, having events that finish in the early hours are not suitable – but there’s little alternative. Some people want to dance, but not all of them want to go to a mainstream nightclub.

Managing the financial risks

This is something my Teacambs collaborator Liz Stephenson tweeted to Puffles earlier this evening about. There are groups who would love to hire out places and put on events regularly, but the costs of doing so (and the risks of making a big financial loss) mean it’s simply not worth taking. This then begs the question: What can the city do to help mitigate the risks associated with putting on these events?

Back to community development strategies again. The Cambridge Vintage Night was publicised almost entirely on social media. I can’t recall seeing any posters or anything in the mainstream print media. Thus we have the issue I’ve raised in previous blogposts (such as this one) of local self-organised social media-based communities doing lots of really interesting things while being completely off the radar of the mainstream institutions. The fault in my view is with the latter as they have the money and the venues. Yes Cambridge University, Puffles is looking at you.

What was lovely about Cambridge Vintage Night at The Guildhall was the event organisers proved a concept that seldom tried in the dancing-related world locally: They were able to bring together people who took part in an activity across a number of different venues, places and organisations to put on something greater than the sum of their parts. Cambridge has a vibrant dancing scene, with courses, clubs, classes and societies dotted around all over the place. However, not nearly enough goes beyond the school, church and community halls they are hosted in – despite the potential. This evening for me demonstrated what can be achieved if such groups can come together. Hopefully we’ll see more of these events in the near future.

On men’s fashion. Again.

Summary

A further blogpost moaning about men’s fashion

This follows on from a blogpost earlier this year on men’s fashion – see here. In part it’s because of further pondering as well as stumbling across some stupendously expensive items that I will never be able to afford.

A wardrobe for an office winter?

That’s basically what I’ve got – having reached the stage of life where garments can last several years. The second dinner suit I ever purchased during my civil service days still looks lovely even though it’s over five years old now. (I grew out of my first one as my routine changed following my move to London – far less exercise meant an expanding waistline!) Many of the dress shirts and waistcoats that I accumulated over the years from various discount and charity shops also still fit – not that I have many formal balls to wear them to these days. During the middle part of the last decade, the number of black tie events I went to during my regular ballroom dancing days (which was with this lot) meant that putting that little bit extra for some nice dress shirts (that were suitable for the office too) was money well-spent. I recall at the time TK Maxx were selling quite a few – certainly far more than now. Also, their variety was far greater than other traditional shops on the high street. One thing to note too was that the formal balls I went to were relatively cheap ticket-wise – about the same price you’d expect for entrance to a nightclub on a Friday night.

What should men wear in hot weather?

While the weather has been hot this summer, it also makes it difficult to work out what to wear. There’s still a part of me that has the ‘you wear trainers with shorts’ mindset from childhood. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pair of non-sport shoes that match anything other than trousers. Also, because of negative body image issues since my early teens, I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the idea of showing too much flesh. My two pairs of pale linen/cotton trousers have seen me through this summer, though one will probably have to be replaced because of the inevitable stains from when I’ve sat down on an outside wooden pub bench.

Making the effort to dress up

I was discussing this with a new social group that is evolving quite rapidly in Cambridge. Basically the website Meetup has a number of self-organised groups around a number of different interests and demographics. A number of people there seemed to find the idea of only meeting up for alcoholic drinks and nothing else a little bit tedious. Hence several have come up with a whole series of ideas and events – such as seeing some of the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival plays to days out in other towns.

I’ve also been to a couple of other events this summer where a number of people have expressed a desire to…well…have a reason to make an effort. That’s not to say such events need to have a rigid dress code. If anything, the dress codes are more rigid for men in terms of what we can and cannot wear – though the ‘expectation’ for women to bare more flesh is just as (of not more so) oppressive on them as far as codes are concerned. Men are covered up to their necks while women’s ballgowns often have bare shoulders.

Do social lives end at 30?

Nearly 600 people in and around Cambridge have responded with an emphatic “No!” if the number of people signed up to this online collective is anything to go by. Yet one of the things I learnt in my late teens was that I wanted more from events generally than going out and drinking coffee or alcohol. Throughout my 20s, I was also fortunate to go along to a number of events that, in years prior to that I could only have dreamt of. Many of them were dancing-related and were with familiar faces at the time. One particular highlight was going to a New Year’s Ball in Vienna in 2007/08. I’d be lying to say I didn’t miss events like that.

As I mentioned earlier, there are people in and around my home town that want to do group activities – such as team sports – but don’t really know where to start. Only this weekend when, following a fairly regular exercise walk, I heard some people in the pub saying how they’d like to play football again, but didn’t really have anyone to play with. It’s one of those things where perhaps we take for granted the impact of educational establishments to bring people together. I’ve kept hold of a couple of football tops from years gone by, but I can’t think of the last time I actually wore them to play a game of football. Much as I’d love to play football again, I’m in a similar situation: who to play with.

Dress codes for occupations

I remember for our teaching assessments at Cambridge Regional College’s Preparing to Teach course that we all ‘dressed up’ for the workshops that we ran and were assessed on. The chefs dressed the part, as did the art instructors. So when I ran a workshop introducing Parliament and Whitehall, I dressed all suited and booted. It was something a number of people commented on – saying that it added greater impact to the content of my workshop. In my first full-time job in a in the late 1990s, the expectation was that we’d all wear suits. It wasn’t until my second month that I was able to buy a suit. My first suit. The worst suit I had ever bought. A horrible 3-piece blue wool/polyester mix. But hey, we live and learn. There’s something about learning the things you don’t like as well as the things that you do. Which is why I try to avoid polyester in formalwear like the plague.

At the same time, I can’t help but feel that in workplaces, the workers should have a say in what the designs and materials of workwear should be. If anything because they are the ones that have to work wearing these things. During my banking days, I remember one former colleague complaining that back office staff having to pay for workwear they were compelled to wear was an additional cost – given that frontline staff were provided with uniforms (and the bank was making billions in profits). During my supermarket days prior to the civil service, I remember not having to worry too much about day-to-day wear. For just under half of the week, it was the uniform of the supermarket.

Pride in what we wear – especially in the work place

You could say it’s nostalgia for an age or a mindset that may not have existed, but I’m still fascinated by the frontline public sector workers that had all manner of logos, emblems and badges on their uniforms. In particular, those that worked on public transport in years gone by – you can still see examples in the London Transport Museum. It’s something that in part transfers over to the very ornate logos and emblems of trade union branches that date from decades and decades ago.

The flip-side of all of this is a mindset of the ‘militarisation’ of society – something that, anecdotally historians spoke of about for former Soviet Bloc. i.e. everyone having a uniform of some sort. Or perhaps the school uniforms where those that rebelled against authority would try to push the boundaries as far as they could get away with.

The historian in me quite likes the idea of wearing a smart military-style uniform. The pacifist in me on the other hand finds the concept quite horrifying. I’m a civil servant by training, not a soldier. When the UK goes to war, it automatically shows that both politics and the civil service has failed – i.e that we have to resort to the highest form of violence due to the failure of negotiation and diplomacy. The idea that we have to ‘dress up’ for it…exactly.

Dressing up – a right of passage?

The school/college prom has received it’s fair share of criticism from those who say it’s an additional burden on those that can least afford them. For the three sixth form balls I went to, I hired the dinner suits. For university, I went to a local charity shop to buy an ill-fitting number that I ended up never wearing because my university didn’t really do formal events. It was only during my post-graduate and civil service days that I made up for this – attending the May Balls at St John’s, Jesus and Darwin College over the years despite having never studied at Cambridge. It just happens to be my home town.

It’s a difficult balance between ‘right of passage’ in a community, and a sense of ‘shame’ that some might feel if they cannot afford to dress up for the occasion. One of the advantages of school uniforms is that they are a great equaliser. My days during the sixth form were an example of the opposite. There are a couple of fashion brands and/or types of clothing that to this day I refuse to wear on principle because people I didn’t like were slaves to those brands.

If we were to re-design what formalwear for men entails…

Because in the grand scheme of things, mens formalwear hasn’t really changed for the past 100 years. It comes back to the futuristic boilersuits that predictions from years ago said we’d be wearing today. What would formalwear for men look like if we said to designers to disregard past conventions and come up with designs in the context of: ‘Make an effort’? For example one that showed effort in the sourcing and manufacturing of the materials used. One that showed effort and craftmanship in the tailoring process. One that at the same time showed creativity and design flair…what would that look like?

Because in the grand scheme of things, ties are pretty random things for us men to wear around our necks!

Bland

Summary

From Westminster politicians to rabbit-hutch identikit homes to faceless footballers and even to bedlinen and menswear, why is everything so bland?

This is not a new phenomenon. Back in 1990 – which was a sort of strange ‘golden age’ for me, Spitting Image were complaining about the blandness of everything.

Westminster – scrap the lengthy summer recess

One of the things that really strikes me having given myself some social media time-off, is how MPs were complaining they had little to do legislation and scrutiny-wise because ministers had made a complete mess of the timetabling. (It happened in 2012 too). Soon after MPs went off for their summer break, all hell broke loose with the Home Office – but without any formal mechanism to hold ministers to account for what had happened. By the time MPs return, the storm may have passed but the issues will still remain – as I’ve outlined in previous blogposts. If lengthy summer holidays are bad for children’s learning, isn’t there a similar case for lengthy summer recesses being bad for politics and for the scrutiny of ministers in general? At the moment, scrutiny by soundbite feels deeply unsatisfactory.

Now, not all Westminster politicians are bland. In one sense I should know having met more than my fair share. The ones that stand out from the crowd for me are the ones that you can have more than a half-decent exchange with on social media (thus making them more accessible to constituents & the people in general, while showing a human face at the same time) while also campaigning successfully on specific issues. Robert Halfon for the Conservatives on fuel duty stands out as probably having achieved more on the back benches than many of his colleagues holding junior ministerial posts. Dr Stella Creasy (she has a Ph.D) too has shown a huge amount of courage in the face of tackling internet abuse. I’ve mentioned my local MP Dr Julian Huppert (who also has a PhD) on several occasions, and this latest funding announcement on cycling in Cambridge will have a massive impact locally. No, really, funding for the Chisholm Trail will take a significant amount of traffic off city centre roads that I use both on the bus and as a cyclist. All three of these MPs for me stand out as being community champions – especially through social media. But what about the rest? Westminster: Look and learn from these three.

Comedy

I bought tickets to see the lovely Lucy Porter (who I saw at the Bloomsbury theatre several years ago – she was awesome then) and Mark Thomas who is the sort of protester lots of us want to be but probably don’t have the courage combined with the sense of humour to get there. These two are definitely ***not bland*** – so why do the likes of Mock The Week constantly give us week after week of #DiversityFail? All too-often it comes across as a bunch of posh boys laughing at each other’s farting jokes. Come on Hugh Dennis, let someone else have a go!

Channel 4’s Ten O’Clock live was onto something in principle, but failed in the execution. Personally I think they should have scrapped the ‘group debate’ which ended up descending into shouting matches between newspaper columnists, and kept the 1-2-1 interviews with politicians. Also, I’d like to have seen David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker as the ‘anchors’ with a different pair of new up-and-coming female comedians each week to provide a much-needed ‘showcase’ for female stand-ups. My general feeling about comedy on TV is that producers are no longer willing to push the boundaries – except perhaps when it’s the boys competing to be the most sexually vulgar. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I prefer female standup comedians generally: They can be as explicit as all the rest, but having been on the receiving end of far too much sexist & misogynist abuse in life anyway, they have a different perspective. When Kate Smurthwaite came to Cambridge recently, as well as being rip-roaringly funny with her anecdotes I also felt – as I did with the likes of Tiff Stevenson, Shappi Khorsandi and Lucy Porter (all of whom I’ve seen on stage live) to be on the side of the oppressed rather than the oppressor.

Football

I’m going to write a longer piece someday soon tearing into FIFA and the FA, lambasting them as symptomatic of the wider problems of the global super-rich and the polarisation of wealth. I am able to ‘follow’ football matches having been brought up on the beautiful game, but I have zero empathy for the footballers of today. When the seemingly infinite resources of today’s game produces the captain of his country who, before that qualified as a medical doctor, goes onto complete a Ph.D and publicly incites the overthrown of the military dictatorship ruling his or her homeland, then I’ll listen. Until then, I’ll consider the game stolen from the people. Football and the fans deserve far better than the parasites that are FIFA and the FA.

Rabbit-hutch housing

I was cycling past some of the many new ‘apartments’ being built today. There are a number of developments where it looks like the architects and the developers are genuinely taking the proverbial out of the people that are going to buy them. Boxes unceremoniously stacked one on top of the other identikit style that actually make them look like rabbit hutches – but ones that you wouldn’t want even your rabbit to live in. One group of campaigners locally are struggling to prevent a Victorian terrace from becoming another box by the station. The developments around Cambridge railway station are striking in their architectural vacuousness and complete lack of imagination from the architects, designers and developers.

Menswear

I’ve got a follow-up blogpost coming up about this too. My most recent post on men’s clothing is here. In a nutshell, men’s clothing hasn’t really changed that much since the end of the first world war. Interesting given what people in futuristic film clips from ages ago thought we’d be wearing today. Yeah, I’m still waiting for news on the hoverboards from Back to the Future II. They’d better be ready before I’m too old or too dead to ride one!

Compare menswear outlets to other shops – or rather the high street in general & on how things have changed over the decades. Men’s clothes shops – whether in department stores or otherwise, seem to be the ones that have not evolved at all. Have a look the next time you are in one of the big department stores. Have a look in the menswear section and ask yourself in terms of products and layout how different it is to the department stores of 30 years ago. Two of the biggest changes over the 30 years has been the demise of the record/music shop and the camera/photographs shop, and the rise of the mobile phone/communications outlets.

Wardrobe-wise, there are about 3-4 ‘dream items’ that are on my radar, after which something inside me is saying I won’t want to spend much on big-item purchases (such as a new coat or new suit) for the best part of a decade. When I joined the civil service back in 2004, I made the conscious decision that shopping for brand new clothes was more of an investment rather than consumption. This changed my mindset towards clothes quite considerably. For a start, quality mattered. Does the quality of the garment match the price attached to it? Secondly, labels should be on the inside, not the outside. The information on the label (where it’s made, of what material, and yes, washing instructions) indicates whether it is value for money. The brand alone does not. Finally, does it make me that little bit more noticeable from the crowd, and for the right reasons? On that last point, I can’t pretend to have made this call right every time – though I reserve the right to be the only person in the world that liked me in a designer cream suit reminiscent of Liverpool FC’s ‘Spice Boys’ of 1996.

Bed linen – made for the “Middle class is magical” songstress

You know the lyrics:

“Middle class is magical, a safe world free from strife/ Let bad things happen to other folk!, while you read Country Life.” [Have a sing-song here with Nelson]

I went on a hunt for a new duvet cover – sort of in the hope that changing some things around in my bedroom would somehow help with my sleeping problems. There’s something strangely satisfying getting rid of old stuff – especially I find when I take it to charity shops. My preference is to go for the local ones rather than the big-branded ones, but either way it means I’m less cluttered, someone else gets something they need at a knockdown price and money can be ploughed into a project doing some social good. (Cambridge people, next time you do a big clear out, take your unwanted things to the shops down Mill Road (east side of the railway bridge) or Burleigh Street by the Grafton Centre! My serious point here is I spent about five years of my life being dependent on charity shops for clothes. When you’re on a very low income (as I was in my undergraduate days then for 2 years after until I joined the civil service) such shops can be a financial lifeline. Interestingly, in Brighton (where I was for over half that time) what was in the charity shops was far less bland than what was in the department stores.

“But isn’t charity becoming bland too?”

Looks like Spitting Image from 1990 were ahead of their time once again.

But back to bed linen, it’s as if everything in the shops was straight out of a magazine aimed at a particular demographic – gender, income, occupation of spouse, even political views!

“Nothing too ostentatious Harold, remember we have standards to maintain!”

It was bland designs everywhere. Oh, and my general bugbear of too much polyester. There are those who for medical reasons will need polyester sheets. For example allergies. Personally I find any clothing that has polyester in it means my skin cannot breathe. My skin, like my lungs likes to breathe. If my skin isn’t allowed to breathe, then it says:

“I’m gonna make you sweat!” [In that 1990 techno-rap voice from back in the day]

There are other phrases that have me running for the hills. ‘Non-iron’ is one of them. I once had a non-iron shirt that I quite liked – completely oblivious to the impact it was having on me at the time, or the fact that it didn’t have much of a defined shape to it. It was my late grandfather, who was in the army, who taught me how to sew on buttons & how to get a shirt or trouser crease ironed so sharp you could cut steel with them. To this day I’ve not yet got to the standards that he reached.

The search for the unique ‘you’ – just like everybody else

There was one clothing company that tried this sort of slogan…and it didn’t work. It was around the peak of the anti-globalisation protests in 2001 – remember them? Then there’s the lampooning of the “I’m just going off to find myself” slogan as said individual walks in front of a mirror and gasps: “Oh! There I am!”

Looks like I need to get a mirror then. And look in front of it. Preferably before I walk out of the front door? I’ll let you be the judge of that🙂

 

On men’s fashion

Summary

A moan about blandness

In the grand scheme of things, men’s fashions as far as the Western world hasn’t changed that much in the past 100 years. The historian in me has never quite fathomed out why, after the First World War, menswear seemed to stagnate as far as how clothing evolved. What happened to all of the space-age jumpsuits that the futuristic movies of old promised us we’d be wearing in the 21st Century? (I’m still waiting to see who’ll make the technological breakthrough that will allow hoverboards that Back to the Future II promised us would be coming back in the 1980s).

The basics of suit, shirt, tie, shoes have remained broadly unchanged as far as formal menswear is concerned. Ever since my first office job back in the late 1990s, one of the things that struck me was just how few colours there are in formal menswear – especially on the high street. For over the past 10 years I’ve wanted to explore some of those boundaries – sometimes getting things embarrassingly wrong while other times standing out for the right reasons.

But why do this? Doesn’t it just attract ridicule?

It has done. But then perhaps it’s just my little rebellious streak that says ‘I don’t want to conform’ in what is otherwise a generic office workplace where conforming is the norm. There is an element of insecurity combined with a ‘look at me’ stream in all of this – perhaps more so in my immediate post-university years when I still felt I had something (I’m not sure what) to prove, but less so now. Also, in those years of experimentation with what works & what doesn’t, I’m much more sure in my choices and much more thorough in my research than in years gone by.  At the same time, it’s meant bypassing the high street, all of whom seem to be cloning each other.

Clone town Britain

Back in 2010 Cambridge was labelled as the worst clone town in Britain – and it’s hard to disagree that it’s got too many clone brands that you see elsewhere. In part, Cambridge University is the town’s worst enemy because it owns much of the land in the historic centre, thus controls the rents which have been jacked up in recent years so that small independent shops are unable to make ends meet. That plus the model of franchising takes some of the core worries of running a business away, making it an easier model to work with day-to-day. (The problem with that is you have a lot less independence on things like what stock to sell). Until those barriers to entry are reduced, Cambridge will be a difficult place for independent firms to do business – as a recent closure of one testifies to. Is there a place for smaller firms with a lower turnover to do business?

“So, when & where do you go to get your clothes?”

When? I guess I now subscribe to the ‘fewer, better’ theme. Better to spend a greater amount of money on an item of clothing that will last than smaller amounts on something that will come apart at the seams after the first few washes, or that will shrink till it no longer fits. I no longer have the washboard stomach of my dancing days that makes the skintight top look suitable. Most of the clothes from my regular dancing days are now gone – having expanded from a 38/32 to a 40/34 suit size.

Where? Online or in London mainly. The one shop in Cambridge I save for special purchases is Anthony Menswear. About once every six months/a year I’ll buy something from there. Over the same time period I’ll make a journey to Bury St Edmunds which seems to have more independent menswear stores (such as Six Whiting Street, set up and run by a very talented young team) than Cambridge.

In London, the TK Maxx store on Charing Cross Road seems to get first picks on the discards from the top London fashion boutiques. Certainly the top end stuff there never seems to find its way to Cambridge. I also keep a regular check on Duchamp – mainly for their sales to kick in. Then once every few years I’ll head down to Savile Row to see what’s on offer there in their January sales. In a nutshell I found that if you look hard enough in the sales, you can find an off-the-peg suit made from fine wool and with silk lining for about twice the price of a standard high street suit. It’s still very expensive – hence a once-every-few-years purchase. But the quality of the fabric and the tailoring is noticeably different to what you find in normal shops.

Charity shops

What strikes me about what I currently have compared say to my university days, is how long I’ve had a number of items for – several for nearly five years. But then there was no way I could have afforded such items back then. But what my student days did teach me was the joys of charity shops. In those years, most of my clothing was second hand, taking the view of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ at a time when the bad practices of high street shops were in the public eye over poor working conditions. This was before the time online clothes shopping really took off too.

I still have a look in charity shops for accessories – ties, cufflinks etc. But these days I’m more of a donor than a purchaser of clothes. I also try and vary which shops get which donations too. Some donations I’ll take along to the Romsey Mill in my neighbourhood. Others might go to Oxfam or the Red Cross. The point being here is that I know what it’s like to be dependent on people donating good to charity shops for me to buy clothes to wear. Remember in those days you couldn’t get a t-shirt for £1.99 from anywhere else. On such a tight budget in those days, there was little other choice. Thus I hope the things I donate and have donated in the past help those who are buying clothes on an extremely tight budget.

Online shopping

With online shopping, I tend to be extremely patient as well as avoiding the high street stores like the plague. Much of the time I’m looking around for inspiration and ideas rather than for direct purchases. There’s no way I’d be able to afford any of the items that catch my eye in FarFetch or MrPorter. For Duchamp and Six Whiting Street, I keep tabs to see when it’s worth visiting in person because I like to get a feel for what I’m buying if it is that expensive. At full price, I cannot afford much of what they sell. Yet I also know when their sales are likely to be on, and at what point the prices will come tumbling down by half. I’m patient, I can wait. That patience paid off recently when I got hold of a suit at high street prices rather than at new in designer prices.

The other place I spend too much time looking is Yoox. It’s like Asos but more expensive. Other than price, what I look out for here is the material the garment is made from. Comparing this with the price gives me an idea if something is a complete rip-off or whether it’s a bargain. The one fabric I try to avoid like the plague is polyester. In part because it’s a cheap fabric but also because it doesn’t let my skin breathe. On public transport & being out and about, it’s not a comfortable feel and not a good look either. I’m also not so keen on cotton in suits either.

In more recent times I’ve also paid much closer attention to combinations of items – basically giving a more diverse wardrobe. That as well as trying to work out which things suit my hair and skin tones and which ones don’t. Pale pinks and greys I avoid like the plague. Again, I have a softer spot for bolder colours, despite the dangers that wearing things like red and purple can come with.

Being able to say “No” to the salesperson

During my late teens I was too easily led on too many things. On clothes shopping there were many things which I should have just said ‘no’ but didn’t have the courage of my convictions. I’m convinced to this day that the first suit I ever bought was one I should never have purchased in the first place. A horrible scratchy dark blue 3 piece number that was a wool and polyester mix. Horrible, always static, didn’t suit me and very difficult to find shirts that would match it.

These days, I’m not very good with shop assistants unless I really know what I want and can get to the specifics. Otherwise I prefer to be left alone. Hence the massive headphones with the noise cancelling switched ‘on’. (Even these ancient pieces are still going after five years). In conversation though, one thing I have learnt is to be able to articulate sensibly why I don’t want to buy something. A kind of ‘informed rejection’ – expecting a fabric to be softer or a fit to be more comfortable or the colour not being quite what I was looking for. The big one these days with suits and ties are the micro-thin lapels with ultra-skinny plain ties. It’s just too dull for me. What surprises me is how no mainstream designers have given much thought about lapels being a canvas for individualised designs.

So…yeah…that’s a description of what does and doesn’t work for me. At some stage I’ll put together some photographs of some things to help illustrate some points.

 

Digital video project – the editing – and publishing the Twitter guide

Summary

One down, one to go. [Updated to add that we will be re-recording the audio for both on better equipment this week, and adding subtitles following useful feedback]

Dana worked her socks off today on the editing of the Twitter digital video guide, which is now available for you to have a look at and share with Twitter newbies and sceptics alike. I also want to thank Michelle, Ceri and  Alice for their contributions too.

What was interesting today was to see someone familiar with the principles of digital video editing getting the hang of, and mastering a more complex piece of software. What’s particularly pleasing with this project – and with the first digital video projects is that the laptop and software I bought some 18 months ago is now being stretched to its limits. It seemed to take forever for for the final exporting and conversion of the finished version to complete. At the same time I also got a feel for a whole host of new things that we can put into action for future digital videos.

I’m not going to claim it’s a sparklingly smooth all-singing all-dancing guide that flows seamlessly. These guides are not meant to be like that. Part of the fun with this sort of work is that you can create these things at home. You don’t need an expensive studio. For Michelle, Dana and Ceri as well as myself, this has been an experience in the art of learning what is possible – as well as trying to get round some fiddly, some difficult and some challenging problems that you don’t face every day. Why weren’t the file formats as interchangeable as we wanted? How do you convert file types to get them consistent? Why is the screen all fuzzy? Why won’t it export in a sensible format? How do we get the sound to a consistent level? What will we need to do to improve the sound for future digital videos?

Learning points?

Well, we’re all more familiar with the editing side of things on a complex piece of software. In each of the guides, there are different numbers of people involved: one for blogging with WordPress, two for Facebook and three for Twitter. Two people per guide feels like the best for me – especially if using them on a public platform. It’s strangely comforting to hear two other familiar voices coming from a presentation when you’re up there all alone or only with a dragon fairy for company. Three people as a number seems to make the editing process that little bit more complicated – though not having a suitable microphone didn’t help. Note for the future.

Did we need more time? Obviously for this one, but then we, or rather I, didn’t anticipate the problems that we came up against. I’ve got a final day of editing with the aim of getting this one up by Sunday evening. One of the things I need to consider is the familiarity of people with the screencasting and editing software that we have. Yet as Dana tweeted, having separate days for planning, writing and editing really helps. There’s also something good about having a couple of days where you’re not stuck in front of a computer but where you are talking about how you’ll go about solving a problem. When faced with a group of people that have either not met or are less familiar with each other, this really helps. In each of the two case studies, individuals in the group had not met each other face to face or had only met once or twice before.

“Can I/my organisation use these guides?”

Absolutely – so long as you attribute who made them. I’ve plonked a Creative Commons licence (Attribution sharealike 3.0 unported) label on the guides accodingly, and I’ve put them on the resources section of my work website too.

It’s less so about me and more for those that worked so hard with me to make them. The people I commissioned to work with me on this at the time were un/underemployed and are all still young. I’m sure by now you’ve heard the stories about how young people are being disproportionately affected by both the cuts and the recession. This is my bit for doing something to give even a few of them that extra fighting chance in a highly competitive jobs market. Given that all of them have, through their following and Twitter exchanges have helped build my Twitter and social media profile up, it’s the least I can do in return. So if you are going to use them in your organisation, please flag up the names of the very talented groups of people that were essential to producing them.

Thank you.

Digital video project 2 – the screencasting

Summary

Now we really are behind schedule!

…but it’s not the end of the world. Dana has kindly agreed to help out for an additional day due to the complications we’ve had using Adobe Premier across two different operating systems. “Mac vs PC. Why U no talk 2 each other?!?!” (Think 3 year old’s voice).

It’s difficult to put a finger on why this set of digital videos has taken significantly longer to produce than the other ones. It’s certainly not due to a lack of talent or discipline. Actually I think it’s due to the impact of looming workshops that I am due to deliver, where these two guides will form the central pillars. Hence I have taken a bit more of an active role in influencing the script and content than I perhaps would have done – certainly with the Twitter guide. There’s also the mood music of people in niche areas I’m in being more interested in Twitter than they are with Facebook or blogging. There is also a fair amount of lesson-learning that I took from the first project and am applying to this one – which has meant it has taken slightly longer.

I certainly get the feeling within various parts of the economy there is a growing movement of people moving onto Twitter as a social media platform – not least the civil service. When I launched Puffles onto Twitter, the only people that were using it in anything remotely work-like were those who were passionate about public sector social media – the pioneers if you like. They took a number of hits so that you didn’t have to.

Populating the guide with images as well as screencasting

The longer the guides became timewise, so the amount of effort we had to put into them seemed to grow exponentially. Not only that, this was my first experience of using Adobe Premier, the platform that Dana – my editing expert for this project – is most proficient in using. Katie and Nyika were more familiar with iMovie, hence using that tool for the previous guides. Yet part of the remit for these projects is that we try out a variety of programmes and platforms, learning as we go along. As Dana tweeted and as Michelle tweeted, this has been a new experience for all of us.

One of the barriers we came across was trying to get files into a consistent format. Dana is familiar with a Windows operating system while the screencasting software that I purchased is on a Mac. Hence the fun and games of trying to get files converted – which has been a bit of a nightmare. Blurred and fuzzy footage were just a few of our problems. But solving them is part of the fun.

Unleashing the #Pufflesmassiv tweeple into the world of work

 

What was perhaps new to the group around me – which also had Ceri joining us, was that this was a completely different working environment. Just as with the previous group, working on a project like this made them think that the world of work shouldn’t be just about applying for dead-end admin jobs. Having real world experience of working with digital and social media in a commercial setting has broadened their horizons – and I hope will encourage them to challenge those in workplaces they find themselves in. (It does require a few lovely employers to have confidence in taking them on though!)

As I mentioned to one of them, one of the many things I want them to take away from this project is a rich and varied experience from which they can draw a huge amount from when applying for jobs and when facing an interview panel. It’s one thing producing a piece of work for a college course – useful as a learning exercise as they are. (Don’t you dare diss media studies! Katie & Nyika’s study of it was integral to the first two digital video guides). But once the course is complete, the work all too often risks gathering digital grey dust on a seldom-visited web page. With this content, chances are that lots of people will see these guides – people who will never meet the people that I have worked with to make them.

“So, what’s left to do?”

More than I’d like at this stage, but I can live with that. The scripts and storyboards are complete. The audio for the Twitter guide is complete and we’re already populating it with the footage. We need to record the audio for the social media analytics, but this one is likely to be shorter and have a greater amount of animated footage rather than the switching from screenshot to screenshot as with the Twitter guide. Therefore the amount of fiddly editing that is required is likely to be a lot less. Hopefully we should be done and dusted with the additional day.

 

Digital video project 2 – the writing

Summary

How do you turn a set of ideas into a story board?

This is what we spent much of today doing – something that took longer than I had anticipated and made me appreciate more the work that AliceDaveKate and Nyika had put into the first two digital videos. With only one pair of people to watch over compared to the two pairs last time, I was perhaps more involved with what was going on than with the first group.

At the same time, I began to feel more at ease with the idea of being a ‘project manager’ in the better sense of the phrase. ie. letting Dana and Michelle get on with what I had commissioned them to do and not feel bad about not ‘being seen’ to be doing stuff – rather listening and observing, and providing a steer or suggestions as and when necessary. It seems to have worked thus far. My view is that when working on something creative with talented people, you can’t micromanage them without squeezing the life out of the project you’re working on. All too often in my experience, managers have ended up doing this because of the lines of upwards accountability and the number of tiers that are in the system. Yet as I have noticed with these projects, there is a completely different feeling when you are working with other people on your project that you are paying for directly.

Moving from planning to script and storyboard

This is where we are now: We spent yesterday scoping the problem and deciding what we wanted to include and exclude from the digital videos. Today overran by more than I had planned, but with good reason. Turning the ideas and running order of things into a line-by-line script is not nearly so straight forward. There’s also the challenge of deciding which screenshots we want to use too. What will be the most suitable for the prospective audiences?

For the social media analytics digital video, the audience is likely to be much more specific than that of the other digital videos. It’s unlikely that I will use this guide for personal users, but far more likely for a corporate audience in a large organisation. Actually, it was a new commission from an organisation that led me to decide to prioritise this and the Twitter guide ahead of the other guides that I had in mind. Those I am putting back for later in the year.

The Twitter guide is likely to be slightly longer than the Facebook and blogging introduction guides. The simple reason being that a number of potential and existing clients have shown an interest in Twitter – and its pitfalls. How do you decide what to include and exclude? It was during today that we decided we’d need to make a follow-up guide later on – tackling problems and issues that are not always addressed in such guides. When we read through the script, it was clear we would run over the 5 minute target I had originally set. Rather than reading through things quickly, I made the decision to relax the limit and have things explained more slowly but more clearly.

Working environment

One of the things I’ve found is that ‘working from home’ and working alone is not something I’m particular fond of or thrive in. Which seems strange from a single freelancer’s perspective. Hence why we’ve spent some of the planning and writing time in local cafes for a change of scenery. Something that I’ve been pondering on & off for some time is the conduciveness of working environments to what organisations actually want to achieve. It’s no accident that some of the top creative companies have tried to be innovative in terms of trying to create relaxing, open and friendly working environments for their top talent. It’s one of the things I noticed when I first went into the Government Digital Service‘s offices as well as those at Yammer, when Mia Day invited Puffles and I for a visit. If people don’t feel comfortable in their working environment and who they are working with, getting the best out of them will be a problem.

Working with a team as both ‘team leader’ and commissioner

Actually, I don’t really see myself as a team leader in this role. It’s three friends working together to produce a specific set of products – ‘virtual’ as they may be. Working with the six people who have joined me so far, I’ve noticed the difference between how they are for example as friends at a pub lunch, as ‘Twitter personas’ and working professionally and diligently on projects. The only difference with the last of the three is that they were all working to create something that I commissioned them for. In that sense, it’s a rare privilege to see the many sides to their personalities. Quite often we only see people in a single context. How many of us see our parents or siblings in a working environment? How many of us engage regularly with the majority of our workmates on social media?

In a strange way, it’s a little insight into the sort of working and living environment that I aspired to work in during my college days: One where the people you worked with were the people you socialised with – only in those days I guess I aspired to live in this nice little upper-middle-class bubble, far away from the problems of the world in a nice part of town.

I guess it’s made me think more about where I want to go in the future, what I want to do, who I want to work with, for what purpose, where and how. I’m fortunate that I’m in a field where there is a strong enough demand for what I offer, given the limitations and barriers I currently face health-wise. At the same time, I’m glad that I’m able to work with some very talented friends to overcome those barriers and substantially improve what I can deliver to prospective commissioners. For me, part of the ‘growing up’ process is acknowledging that I don’t need to do everything myself. In previous blogposts I mentioned about wanting to become significantly more skilled in a whole host of different areas. But life’s too short for me to cram all of those competencies into me – certainly to the level that I would want to get to. Yet for the things that I want to achieve with creating these guides, I’ve found I don’t need to. Working with others is far more enjoyable for me. (Hence why I don’t think I’m cut out for a PhD!)

Learning thus far?

One thing that has made a significant difference is spending time with people in a professional working context. The expectations are slightly different from say meeting up for a pub lunch – lovely as they are. One thing I have been fortunate with is that the people I’ve chosen to work together have gotten on splendidly and have been ever so supportive of each other. They’ve continued to be ever since. As is the nature of being un/underemployed, we are in an environment that’s different from the institutionalisation of formal education: We are not in large groups with the same familiar faces every day. That in itself was a culture shock for me upon leaving college in the late 1990s – something I never really came to terms with and quite possibly never will.

In terms of timing, the next commission I do, which I hope will be next month depending on future commissions that I receive, may well be over four rather than three days. Day 1 for planning, day 2 for script writing and making storyboards, day 3 for screen-casting and audio recording, and day 4 for editing. I hope it will be with two pairs too. For both projects we have worked five hour rather than eight hour days. Health-wise I cannot manage more than this. It also increases the flexibility during the day of when we start, what breaks we want to take and when, and when we finish. While I could do 3×8 hour days, I also like to leave time for relaxing and socialising too. For the first project, on the night before the final day we all went out for a curry. With this project, six friends joined us for dinner this evening – which was lovely. Broadening and deepening our social community.

If all goes well, the actual recording won’t take long at all because of the time spent planning – thus allowing us to concentrate on the editing. Fingers crossed we’ll complete the guides for the weekend!

 

 

Happy New Year!

Summary

A few things I want to do this year

I found it telling that the BBC’s highlights of 2012 in the run up to Big Ben’s Bongs, the only thing that seemed to feature were the Olympics and Paralympics. What’s it going to be like in 12 months time when we don’t have the Jubilympics taking place?

After a series of ranty shouty moany posts, I’ll try and refrain from starting the New Year in a similar manner. Being ‘on edge’, like a powder keg ready to go off at any minute is incredibly draining. I dare say recent days’ food and wine consumption haven’t helped either. [*Note to self: Drink less alcohol this year. [*Note from Puffles: Put it in the jelly instead*]].

Being more organised and being more disciplined

That doesn’t mean being less spontaneous and more boring. When we think of the word ‘discipline’ visions of corporal punishment arise for some of us. Discipline is something that is done to us rather than something we do to ourselves for the benefit of ourselves and others. Simple things such as getting out of bed at a certain time so that I can fit more things in during the day, or co-ordinate visits in advance so as to get to see and meet more of you – that sort of thing.

New projects

Actually, I got an insight into what being organised and more disciplined meant for me in my ‘free spirit’ lifestyle when AliceDaveKate and Nyika came over for my first digital media project. It’s one thing doing project management for an organisation where they take the financial hit. It’s quite another thing when it’s you. Later on this week, I have Sally, Dana and Ceri joining me to help make some further digital video guides on social media, with more day-long gatherings for an additional group later on this month.

As I’ve stated on my work website, the purpose of these digital videos is varied. From a working perspective they enable me to demonstrate the basics of various social media tools, while breaking up the monotony of my voice in a presentation or workshop. It also showcases the skills of people in my social community who are otherwise un/underemployed. It’s also a safe environment for all of us to learn within too. Finally it adds to and strengthens the bonds of friendship that exist within my community. Alice, Dave, Kate and Nyika came from different parts of my community, had not met up before yet worked splendidly both individually and as a team.

Just a note for those of you who have expressed an interest in taking part in one of the commissions, part of the ‘deal’ is engaging constructively with Puffles and my social media community. Through your normal social media use I’d like to see evidence that you are likely to get on with not just myself but others working on the projects. I have very limited resources and would like to prioritise them towards those that have invested their time and personalities in my social media community. This is also all at a very experimental stage too – we’re learning as we’re going along.

Existing projects

Liz Stevenson and I launched Teacambs just under a year ago, and it has been trundling along quite nicely as the daughter of the mother ship in London. Now having established it as something that happens at a regular point at the end of each month, I want to step things up a little bit in terms of co-ordination and outreach. One of the big ‘lessons learnt’ for me this year has been just how far ‘behind’ Cambridge and the surrounding area is in terms of using digital and social media in a corporate setting in a manner that isn’t simply just an additional marketing channel. One of the other things we don’t have is a stable group of ‘regulars’ (if I can call them that). While there has been a wide number of people who have come along to various talks – often influenced by who is presenting on which issue, I’d like to establish a wider ‘core’ of people to get some momentum going across the public sector locally.

There was also Eva Amsen’s blogpost about Cambridge which illustrated some of the problems the city has – and for me pictured perfectly some of the things that I want to tackle through a wider longer term project I’m currently calling CambridgeL!VE. Over the past year, the attending and listening that I have been doing has made me alter both my approach and my original timescales for what I want to achieve on this. Basically it will take longer, involve much more face-to-face time and a lot more effort. It’s not a case of turning up with dragon and saying “Hi! This’ll work! Let’s do this thing!”

Training and workshops pay my bills and enable me to do other things too. For me, they are also fun, which is why I like doing them. At the same time, there’s also a duty on me to continue learning – especially in the fast-moving world of social media. On the voluntary side of things, I’m exploring with a couple of people the option of running some free workshops in my local community – in particular for parents and teachers. It’s one of the things that for me goes hand-in-hand with being a new school governor. Which reminds me, my first training course for my new responsibilities is in a couple of weeks time.

Broadening and deepening my community of friends

In the grand scheme of things the offline meetups have been pleasantly popular. There were a couple of ones over the summer that crashed and burned – but this was due to the awful weather more than anything else. There was also a lesson for me about not trying to look backwards for something that is no longer there, or is only a shadow of what it once was.

At the end of 2011 I visited Twitter friends in Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool. Poor health and little money meant that I didn’t venture far in 2012. In 2013, things have changed again. Hence taking Puffles on what will feel like a tour of the UK. A number of you have kindly offered to welcome Puffles and I to various parts of the UK that I’ve either never been to (eg Northern Ireland) or haven’t visited for ages (eg Scotland). My intention for these visits is to link them to an existing event or gathering of interest. A concert, festival, exhibition, or conference – something that allows me to do several things while in those parts of the country, and thus extending the time I can spend outside of Cambridge. The other thing I want to do in all of this is bring together those of you that live and work geographically near each other too. But that involves having an idea of who is based where. Hence needing to do some work on this before putting people in touch with each other. With 4,400+ followers, a mixture of data crunching and hard graft lie ahead. (For some reason I quite like the idea of getting a huge paper map and sticking lots of pins into it the old-fashioned way!)

Politics – local and national

Puffles in Hansard? On BBC online? Is Puffles getting too big for Puffles’ boots? [*Note from Puffles: Dragons don’t wear boots – and if they did, they’d be very expensive!] On a more serious note, I’ve got a balance to strike here. While I believe it’s my duty as a citizen to help hold government and Parliament to account, I also need to be mindful of the manner in how I do so. Hence updating Puffles’ House Rules. What might get praise in some quarters may lose potential commissions in others – and we all have to make a living.

One of the things that has concerned me is the number of (mainstream grassroots) political activists who have told me that their party political activities is something disapproved of or not thought highly of by potential, current or past employers. There are a couple of things within this context locally I want to have a look at sometime this year. For example are local political activists allowed to canvass and deliver leaflets in gated communities? If not, is this yet a symptom of the crisis in our democracy? I put this because two large developments of apartments are very much ‘gated’ communities. Why you’d need to build such things in South Cambridge I have no idea.

I’ll continue to blog and tweet about what goes on in Parliament, paying particular attention to the Public Administration Select Committee. Apart from it being the area I’m genuinely most interested in – they scrutinise all things Whitehall social media too – it’s the area that is the least party political. In principle. While I have my own political disposition and views on individual policies, what I look for are the gaps in the policy-making process. If something in Whitehall goes wrong or is made worse because due process has not been followed, it is more likely to interest MPs from across Parliament, not just those that might share my opinions.

Locally, I might turn up to a few full council meetings just to see what they are like. I’ve not been to one before. May take Puffles too. Keep them on their toes.

Happy New Year!