One day like this a year…


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 (
Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds in July 2014 – Photo by Mike Oliver (

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!


Stopping on rollerskates


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…


Turning up the volume for Cambridge’s community of singer/songwriters


What would some of their songs sound like if they had a big band behind them?

I was having a chilled-out chat with Andrea, Jules and George of the Dowsing Sound Collective on a late winter’s Sunday evening in town recently. Amongst the varied topics of conversation were some of the things I touched upon in my last blogpost about concert venues in Cambridge – with the three of them having a far greater knowledge of the challenges our city faces than perhaps I ever will. After all, I’m either just the bloke behind the camera or one of a big chorus. They organise events.

Learning from filming for the Cambridge Buskers Festival 2014

Of all the videos that I made in 2014, this one was the one I had the most fun with and got the most satisfaction from.

The above is the result of what was my first paid commission – which followed shortly after completing Rex Elston’s introduction to digital video evening class in Cambridge. (Linked because he’s running it again in January 2015).

Having learnt lots more about digital video in the four or so months that have passed, I started talking with some of the organisers of the festival – which is back on 12-14 June 2015. (You heard it here first, kids!) The big learning point for me is on how to improve the audio – especially when filming outdoors. Have a listen to some of the performers in the 2014 Cambridge Buskers Festival Album here – in particular Rachel Clark who had to deal with a fair breeze throughout her set. A properly-produced version of Rachel’s above-linked track is here.

Going beyond one person and one instrument

In a sense I’m trying to work out how to encourage the many singer/songwriters to go beyond their normal solo performances – splendid as they are. Some – such as incredibly soothing Melody Causton here, and stupendously talented Grace Sarah here have already demonstrated they can go beyond writing for a single instrument. I’ve not, however, seen them perform live with wider musical/instrumental backing. What would that look like and sound like? What are the things stopping something like this from happening – other than cost? Could we create an event where local singer/songwriters arranged a couple of their favourite tracks for other vocal and instrumental parts for a bigger band to support them?

What sort of track might be suitable for such a big band?

Here’s 15 year old Ellie Dixon at The Junction in autumn 2014

Ellie’s talent, creativity and imagination with music is out of this world – this cover version of ‘I need a dollar’ being one such example. “Going Places” is one track that I think would fit very nicely with a big band and backing vocals behind her.

Essentially, I’d like to see The Junction host such an event. While I can think of a few bands that might be interested, for something like this you’d need a sort of ‘musical director’ who could select suitable backing musicians who could provide both the support and constructive feedback for the main performers. The backing musicians would also need a wide enough repertoire to cover the variety of musicians taking part. For example Dave Holmes here focuses mainly on bossa nova. As the Dowsing Sound Collective demonstrate, it works to have that variety in a line-up, but one that has not just been randomly thrown together. In Dave’s case, what would the track he plays on the video clip sound like if they were commissioned to take that number and ‘give it some attitude’?

And the audio?

In a nutshell, the external mic I got for my camcorder doesn’t cut the mustard. Useful for 1-2-1 interviews but little else. This means getting into some very complicated territory around digital audio – something that I never anticipated would be an issue when I first started out earlier this year. The first time I really noticed this as an issue was with this recording of ‘Car Wash’ performed by Makossa just outside Cambridge. You can hear the bass but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. A shame because in the room it was thumping.

A problem I have though is I pride myself on being ***mobile***. Ie I can get set up and filming in under 60 seconds, and am able to produce footage that goes beyond what current smartphones can. How do you improve your audio without ending up with a van full of expensive equipment? It’s why I’ve started looking at small pieces of kit like this mini sound desk. But that inevitably means more wires & mics. One of the things I need to learn about local venues is who uses which sound desks, and which ones when in use enable the audio to be recorded separately. That way the audio quality will be a significant step up from what I’m currently able to produce.





Cambridge – we need to talk about community & concert venues


Some thoughts following a year of going to lots of venues in and around Cambridge

Being a self-styled ‘community cameraman’ means I get to go out and about filming in lots of community venues. This year I’ve been to places in my home town that I had never been to before – such as the Corpus Playroom. These have often been venues that I have heard of but never got round to going to. This week it was the CB2 Basement – which is exactly as described. You can get about 30 people inside theatre style. Suitable for short performances and sketch shows, or for singer-songwriters starting out. Here’s a sketch from Paul & Izzy’s funky panto on 18 December 2014

“Is there lots of bad news for Cambridge on this front?”

On the venue front, yes – but…

“But what?”

But…the problem isn’t one that can be solved by the venue owners or operators themselves. It’s something that goes far beyond a level that institutions currently consider. It also requires a level of co-ordination & co-operation at undreamt of levels.

“OK – list the problems”

  • Transport accessibility to venues
  • Knowledge of existence of venues & their availability
  • Affordability of venues to people & groups that want to use them
  • An anecdotal but as yet unquantified excess demand over supply

…to name but a few.


Let’s take two very separate case studies: Cambridge United Football Club and the West Road Concert Hall.

Cambridge United

Car traffic on match day is always huge, making it difficult to run a decent Citi-3 bus service because Newmarket Road gets clogged up very quickly. Just as we did during my season-ticket-holding days, the roads of the local industrial estate and residential roads become places where fans try to find any space reasonably close to the stadium to park. During the 1991-92 season, there were games I attended where Cambridge would get double the attendances they get today – in the days when United had Dion Dublin & Steve Claridge up front. Had United got promoted that season, they’d have been in the Premier League for 1992-93. As it was, they lost to Leicester City, who subsequently lost to Blackburn Rovers & the rest is history. My point is that even with a high-flying team, Cambridge United will struggle to get more than 7,000 into the stadium for a match simply because the local transport infrastructure is not up to scratch. Why the local councils have not been able to agree transport improvements or an alternative venue is beyond me.

West Road Concert Hall

With Cambridge University’s main concert hall, as a child we used to go to the classical music concerts here. I remember them being excruciatingly ‘Keeping up appearances’-style events – ones where I felt embarrassed to be there. They didn’t have popcorn during the intervals – they had apples instead! Big shiny red ones! These were the days when my understanding of ‘cool’ was all things Stevenage – where they had a multilplex cinema, a bowling alley, an ice rink and most importantly, a McDonalds. Cambridgeshire remained stubbornly free of the last until 1992/93!

Just as it was then, it’s notoriously difficult to find a parking space nearby. The only bus route that serves the hall is the Uni4 bus service – aimed at students rather than residents. For those students living/studying close by, rocking up to a concert is relatively easy. If you are a resident in Cambridge suburbs, going to a concert requires military precision planning. Again, it doesn’t matter how wonderful the musicians or composers are, you’ll struggle to get people from outside classical music circles going along.

Where are our venues?

I discussed this here – part of the problem is we don’t have all of the information we need in an easy-to-access-and-analyse format. There are many hidden venues in Cambridge’s community silos – such as Save our Space through to under-used school and church halls. My existing challenge to the city is: How can we make the process of searching for suitable venues much less frustrating and time-consuming?

‘We can’t find suitable venues – they are all booked up/they are too expensive!’

I’ve heard these points made too many times for us not to do something about it. What we don’t have is hard data on the number of enquiries made that do not lead to confirmed bookings – and the reasons why. From anecdotes from people across the city I believe there is huge untapped demand for community venues. See the second half of the video below.

But without a more solid evidence base it’s difficult to make the case for greater investment in new or expanded existing ones.


The above was my view from the stage of the Cambridge Corn Exchange – before people filled it for the Dowsing Sound Collective Christmas Cocktail that sold out. What you’re looking at in this picture is 1,000 soon-to-be-filled seats. This was the first time I had seen the Corn Exchange from the stage. My first impression was that it was smaller than I had anticipated. The transport infrastructure around the trio of Cambridge venues – The Guildhall halls, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Corn Exchange isn’t great for pedestrians. The reason being they are strangled by the car routes into and out of the main city centre car park. (Will we get a metro?)

Even students are finding it hard to find venues – their colleges putting corporate interests first

This was one of the complaints by the recently-founded Whose University? campaign. With continued funding pressures, and with the international brand Cambridge has, you can see why conferencing is big business. But how do you balance the demands of conferencing with the needs of students?

If we want to find out what sort of venues Cambridge needs, and then go about building them, where do we start?

My first reaction to looking at the Corn Exchange was that Cambridge needed a venue with double the capacity. The Corn Exchange itself needs a big refurb backstage too – as do many of the other venues I have been to. If anything, the architecture backstage in the older venues feels a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ – splendid at the front where the customers are, but a maze of warrens at the back. Not good if you’ve got over 100 singers or large props on stage! Hopefully with the new Cambridge Live Trust they’ll be able to get some investment into the building.

‘Get me the data, get me the proposals from the community groups’

This for me is where we’re at now. Hopefully the coming together of the Cambridge arts’ communities can be the catalyst that drives the change. Gathering the evidence base is an essential part of that process.

A united arts and culture offer for the people of Cambridge


In the face of austerity, the Cambridge Arts Network is bringing together the diverse & somewhat fragmented arts and culture scenes in Cambridge to try and unite us all in the face of a very uncertain future

The Cambridge Arts Network (convened by Cambridge City Council) had their annual conference at Cambridge University’s ‘CRASSH’ building today. I went along with a series of indirect multiple interests & connections, even though I don’t consider myself an ‘arty-painty’ sort of person that my Mum knows. But then perhaps it’s one of those things where you don’t necessarily have to be good at making something to appreciate it, or to communicate it. A useful comparison can be made between people who are great football players but who never succeed as managers – and vice-versa.

One of the strands that emerged from the Be the change – Cambridge Conversation Cafe was the vision for a single arts and culture offer for Cambridge. Driven by Jane Wilson of Cambridge City Council, she and her team have brought along a large number of people (there were nearly 100 of us today) and organisations to a point where we’re in striking distance of something quite significant.

Bringing the schools on board

Rachel Snape, the headteacher of the Spinney Primary School led a workshop on getting young people engaged – in particular through schools. At the same time, she also highlighted again and again (with good reason) the power of local networking. Good reason because Cambridge is full of stubborn silos that for whatever reason are difficult to break. Longer term readers of this blog will be aware of some of the battles I’ve fought on this over the years. One of the ideas that has evolved in our discussion spaces (whether through BTCC or other forums) is that of bringing the schools together with arts and culture providers in Cambridge in the post-exams summers of each year to ensure teachers and heads are aware of what is on offer ***prior to planning their annual schemes of work*** for the following academic year. It was at this workshop that we got the go-ahead to make the first event of this type happen.

We’re still struggling with this digital thing

The Sidgwick site seems to have been designed as a mobile ‘not spot’ – and I have no clue why. All it does is inconvenience those of us that are not members of Cambridge University. The only person consistently live-tweeting through the event was me through Puffles. The other couple or so that posted were there as co-organisers (mainly Anne Bailey and Alessandra Caggiano, both of whom are part of the core BTCC group too – small world). Yet out of the dozens of people that were there it was left to Puffles to keep open a link to the outside world – thus enabling a few people unable to attend to submit questions to the room. We’re still yet to get to the stage of UKGovCamp’s buzzing social media presence. Cambridge tweeple – next ticket releases are on 11 & 18 December at 1pm ***sharp*** – & they will go like hotcakes on a cold day. Come along & experience it!

We need to talk about community reporting

A few people have raised the issue of me filming putting them & others of from asking questions at events or even from turning up at all. At the same time, I filmed various parts of today’s event because several people unable to attend had asked me to. How do you balance the two? Responding with “The world is going digital: deal with it!” aggressive response isn’t really my style anymore. It may have its time and place in a limited situations, but not this one.

The reason is that the conversations are becoming much more nuanced – and more interesting. It’s also one that brings out the skill of editing digital video footage. Filming in the grand scheme of things is relatively straight forward. Selecting the best five minutes of footage from five hours of film is a hard-earned skill. Selecting a decent sound track and then getting the footage – visuals & audio to synchronise with the music is another skill. Creating a product that is both informative, inspiring and purposeful is another. But that level of editing & production is incredibly time-consuming. Most of what I do – film, download, adjust volume, upload & publicise…well that’s relatively straight forward. Producing a five-minute medley with a separate sound-track takes a great deal longer. But people don’t see that editing process or the thought that goes into it.

“I thought you said you weren’t an artist!”

This sort of links to breaking the cultural inertia in Cambridge. There are generations of parents & grandparents in Cambridge brought up to believe that Cambridge University & its events are not for people like them. That’s because until the 2000s, that was the message that came from the institution & its member colleges & institutes. (During my teens, Cambridge admin staff and academics said it to my face or down the phone on more than one occasion, so you can understand why Cambridge University needs to take ownership of bad decisions & bad behaviour of its members in the past, & make that extra effort today).

That’s not to say there aren’t people inside Cambridge University already working their socks off. There are – I’ve met & worked with lots of them. The problem is changing the culture of an institution – and at the same time changing how that institution’s culture is perceived by the communities around it. If you do one without the other, it’ll fail. This is why for me at a personal level, influencing the institutions were the more interesting discussion points during the day. What is it about their cultures, systems & processes that isn’t currently working for the people of our city? What needs to change? Who can make that change, and how?

“Take me to your leader!”

I don’t know how many people are aware of the Cambridge Art and Culture Leaders Group – I’ve heard positive things, (eg ‘good to see them finally coming together with a united purpose’) to areas of concern (eg ‘how are you accountable to the people of the city for the decisions you take?’). With broad partnerships (count the member institutions here) you inevitably have the problem of co-ordination. Combine that with the fragmented state of local government still reeling from austerity (and there’s even more to come – £20billion by 2020 according to Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude MP) and you begin to realise that the context of this single art & culture offer is not one where there are lots of grants to be had. Not from local government anyway.

This explains why I believe the single art and culture offer for Cambridge cannot be seen as a standalone project or objective. Its success depends on things like a sound restructure of local government. (You can’t have huge cuts to an institutions budget and hit it with a communications revolution & then expect it to have the same structures, systems & processes).

One of the challenges that people expressed frustration over was institutional leadership. With the current structure of institutions in Cambridge, no one institution has the competency to provide that leadership. By that I mean legal, financial and influencing. Cambridge City Council has planning & development control, with some community & leisure funding. Cambridgeshire County Council has control of transport & education. Cambridge University & its member colleges have lots of money, own lots of land and has a significant influence over what happens in our city. What would it look like if Cambridge University behaved in a manner where it believed itself to be responsible for and accountable to all of the people that make up the city of Cambridge rather than just its members?

So…what’s stopping all of this then?

Again, one of my big bugbears is the culture within administrative departments of institutions. Having worked in or for a few of them over the years – even outside the civil service, sentiments from the Whose University? campaign set up recently by Cambridge students is one I empathise with. In whose interests are our institutions acting in? Because if students are feeling that Cambridge University is not acting in their interests, combine that with the town-gown divide, we have a real challenge. It might be that the solution involves a level of transparency and accountability that makes Cambridge University and its colleges feel, in the short term at least, very uncomfortable.

One of my basic campaigning points for Cambridge – one that was a major part of my election manifesto in May 2014’s Cambridge City Council elections – was making basic digital skills and data analysis skills mandatory competencies for all newly advertised management posts in the public sector in Cambridge. (See here). You can imagine how that went down in some quarters. You never know – I could bring the dragon back for the 2015 Cambridge City Council elections and try it again.

It’s not just digital though, is it?

Not at all – and a number of other solutions were raised. Some very familiar ones. A single city-wide events portal that is user-friendly and is acknowledged as the single port of call – such as on the Isle of Wight, came up. Another one was information overload – particularly with schools. How does the Cambridge arts & culture community ensure schools are not bombarded with marketing materials to the extent that the latter simply shut up shop?

The same is true but from a different perspective for potential donors and sponsors. How do we make it dead easy for people & organisations that have very limited time to make quick decisions on who to support? The same goes for employers wanting to engage with schools and provide things like workshops & work experience. At workshops with the Cambridgeshire/Peterborough Local Economic Partnership employers have regularly spoken of their frustration at not being able to get past the school receptionists at state schools, while private schools have trained outreach officers that make the job of organising work experience from the employers’ perspective a doddle.

“This all looks incredibly complicated – I just came along because I agreed with the aims & wanted to help out!”

Let me introduce you to the delights of local government finance policy! Then again. Actually, one of the biggest barriers I noticed was on information (in terms of data sets & evidence bases), and communications.

Information – qualitative & quantitative

Again, I put this in Puffles’ manifesto back in May, calling for us to do a mapping exercise for the city to give us a baseline from which to work with. On community venues for example, I wanted to know the following:

  • How many venues there are
  • The distribution of those venues across the city
  • Accessibility – especially by public transport to the venue but also wheelchair access inside the venue
  • Who owns/runs those venues
  • The capacity & facilities available at those venues
  • When they are available
  • Cost of hiring
  • % of the total available days they are booked
  • Quick-wins investment-wise – what new facilities would venue owners like to add, at what cost and what additional income would they bring in?
  • Audience segmentation – who are the users? Who is conspicuous by their presence/absence?

On the numbers side, it might be things like:

  • How many community engagement officers (FTE and number) have we got in Cambridge irrespective of the institution that they work for?
  • Total spending on community outreach across the city, irrespective of institutions (note we’d need to be careful on definitions)
  • Distances travelled by users to get to venues
  • Can we get some data on our audiences – generic data that can influence & inform decision-making?


Me and Richard Taylor gatecrashed the November meeting of the Cambridge City Deal Shadow Board at The Guildhall. Hashtag #GuildhallGroupies. Hence being able to influence their discussions on communications just by being there. With camcorders. And smartphones. All the more surprising that their official record of that meeting doesn’t include a record of the public questions I put to them.

…even though we have it on video! #Facepalm

Actually, the wider issue is with their communications strategy (which is here). As a city, we need to come to a collective agreement about how we the people of our city communicate with each other and our institutions. What’s the point in saying you’ll use social media if people cannot access it? What’s the point of using print publications if they are struggling to shift copies? The word ‘feedback’ is only mentioned once in the entire document. Mother Nature gave us two ears, two eyes and one mouth in those proportions for a reason. How does that feedback get analysed & influence decision-making?

So…lots of food for thought at an event where…I got a sense that we’re really getting somewhere with a very important part of city life. So ***well done*** everyone who organised & participated.

Now…after all that, have a panto song!!!


Filming a theatrical performance – a big step up


Some thoughts on filming a theatrical stage performance

First of all a big ***Thank you*** to Alex and Laura, the co-producers of CUADC’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge.

The above is a teaser-medley I put together, as most of my weekly allowance of file space was used up for a Transition Cambridge event with Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert. Videos of Julian’s speech, and the feedback presentations are here. I also recorded the audio of the Q&A session Julian hosted – avoiding filming so as not to put off people from asking questions. Click here for the audio – which I recorded on an old smartphone that I’ve kept old of, attaching it to a standard lapel mic clipped onto Julian’s shirt. Note to self, adjust the mic volume before recording!

Going beyond ‘setup and record’

This is the next step for me – going beyond being the static cameraman. Many of my previous recordings have involved little more than setting up the camera and letting the hardware do the work. With a theatrical performance, you cannot do that. If you capture the whole stage, you don’t get any detail of the actors’ face expressions. A lot of the nuance and communication is lost. You run the risk of ‘stick figures moving to audio’ with that approach.

The optical zoom on my camera was powerful enough to zoom in close enough for a decent head-and-shoulders shot. The problem with that is you have to be aware of what the rest of the case is doing outside of your view-finder. When you have multiple characters in dialogue, this is a huge challenge. Even more so if the characters are spread across the stage – as they often are in plays. It takes a huge amount of practice to learn what level of zoom corresponds with what levels of camera movement. The slightest touch of the camera when zoomed in on a distant performer will knock the performer out of shot.

Comparing actors moving across a stage with a single pianist in one place

The above is one of my favourite performances by one of my favourite young musicians, Grace Sarah – filmed at The Junction in Cambridge just after she had completed her GCSEs. This was filmed from the same distance on my old camcorder that only had a digital zoom. In the grand scheme of things, that 2010-era consumer model camcorder did a reasonable job. But it struggled with other performers that evening. It would have had no chance with a theatre performance. The movement and changing light patterns would have been too much for it. Ditto with trying to pick up the music from a relatively large theatre band. Interestingly, there were a number of occasions when even my upgraded camcorder really struggled with trying to auto-focus in on some of the actors – particularly when the light contrasts were large, eg with spotlights.

Improving on the audio

In the grand scheme of things, audio counts for at least 50% of your videos. People can tolerate slightly shaky visuals. Screw up the audio and they switch off – as I found out with a very early digital video project a couple of years ago.

Take this performance below by the Cambridge-based octet Makossa.

You can hear the bass, but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. The same is the case with this performance by Fred’s House from earlier this summer at a pack Alex Pub. (Dowsing Sound Collective friends may recognise Paul on the drums). Again, you can hear but not feel some of the various musical instruments.

As a single operator, I’m faced with the constant challenge of the trying to find a decent place to film from as well as a decent place to get audio from. In the case of the Fred’s House performance, there was neither as the garden was jam packed. In both these cases, the amps were linked up to a professional standard sound mixer. In the case of Makossa, there wasn’t anyone operating the sound mixer during the performance. In an ideal world you’d have someone who knew reasonably well what they were doing & were passionate about it on the sound mixer, with your camcorder plugged in. (I don’t have the kit to plug into such kit, hence relying on an external mic – which I suppose makes me ‘look the part’!)


On theatre performances where you have people moving across the stage, & multiple voices appearing in different places, I can see how rehearsing can make a huge difference. Furthermore, I can see how having a ‘camera script’ of who to focus on and when, being really useful too. The better clips – in particular the face expressions that I filmed from the ADC Theatre earlier were down to luck with anticipation and bloody hard concentration. The last time I concentrated so hard on a screen for an extended period of time was during second reading of a bill going through Parliament that me and my team were supporting ministers for. That was a good seven hours concentrating on every single word uttered by every MP.

In 2015 I’d like to try out filming another show – not a serious play but a light-hearted one, with rehearsal & preparation time. Hard work, but I imagine damn good fun!

Widening and yet consolidating the debate on the future of Cambridge


There’s lots of stuff going on about the future of Cambridge, but how do we connect them all together, avoid duplication and ensure we get as many people involved as possible?

Lots of us took part in the event: ‘Could Cambridge become a smart city?’ in the 2013 Cambridge Festival of Ideas. My thoughts following the event are here. How far have we come since then? The preamble for this year’s event is as follows:

So, for 2014, we’re back for round 2 and this time, Collusion’s live experiment challenges artists, technologists, academics and citizens to work together to find creative solutions to some of Cambridge’s ‘wicked’ problems, aka, problems that are difficult or impossible to solve, e.g. transport, environmental issues, community cohesion.

The first thing that struck me was: “****Eeek!**** They’ve missed out the politicians!”

Fortunately, local government happen to be on board as two of the colluders. Politicians matter, because if we take this model of a smart city, we find one of the key components of a smart city is smart governance. You can aim for smart people, smart environment, smart mobility, smart living and a smart economy, but if you don’t have your governance structures sorted then the rest come crashing down.

“Why so?”

Rule of law. You can’t have a smart economy unless you have the essentials of contract law to underpin it. You can’t have sound laws unless you have sound law-making processes that carry the confidence of the people. With that you need some sort of political framework. Politics might be as welcome to most communities as the bubonic plague given recent headlines, but you need to have some process to define the rules or conventions that shape how people interact with each other. Why is it that cars stop at traffic lights?

‘Let’s get creative and transform how we engage with the city. ‘

This is the title of a new project that Rachel Drury and friends are running as part of the Maker Challenge – see here. This is at the same time as my project Be the change – Cambridge, along with Cambridgeshire County Council’s exploration of alternative governance models announced in mid-October. Then you have Cambridge Ahead who have done some in-depth research, identifying housing, transport and education as the three big issues for businesses in Cambridge. Then there is Cambridge Past, Present and Future’s 2030 vision report. On top of that, we have the Cambridge Cycling Campaign’s 2016 vision for Cambridge. I’ve not even mentioned Cambridge City Council’s budget consultation – see here – it closes on 31 October. Given that the consultation is the first of the new Labour administration that took office last May, they have every right to turn around and say they are the ones with the political mandate for the city.

My take? We have to bring these currently disparate projects and processes together. In the grand scheme of things, I quite like the idea of the Maker Challenge. The bit that is missing is the public administration/political interface. Will the results feed into local government decision-making, or even the general election campaigns?

“Isn’t bringing all of this together what ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ is all about?”

It is – and we are having our first wider post-conversation cafe gathering in Mid-November – details in the next day or so.

We’ve also got to remember the general election of 2015 as well. Political parties have already started campaigning for it. Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna for Labour have all been in Cambridge in the past couple of weeks. The Lib Dems have been leafletting in Coleridge ward, introducing their new active candidate for the ward (Simon Cooper), and the Conservatives have been hitting Queen Edith’s ward en masse for the first time in years. (There were eight of them a few days ago – numbers unheard of by all but the longest-resident of citizens). My take is that we cannot have a city-wide conversation separate to the electoral and political processes.

The above reflects the initial success of the conversation cafe event from September – see videos and the write-up here. We’ve been slightly slow off the mark in the response and follow-up because, if I’m honest I’ve become a little overwhelmed by the scale of the growing challenge. It’s one thing to organise an event, but quite another when it starts evolving into a series of actions and activities that involve co-ordinating some very large local institutions! Managing this will be one of the issues we discuss at the November gathering.

‘How could art and technology help to tackle some of Cambridge’s difficult to resolve problems?’

I can hear the cynics already, sarcastically coming out with things like:

“I am a conceptual artist who specialises in contemporary pottery made out of environmentally friendly renewable and recyclable sources…and I am going to solve Cambridge’s traffic problems…by making a jam jar!”


“I am a mobile phone programmer and I am going to make an app that is going to deal with long term political apathy and low voter turnout just by pressing a button!”

No – it’s not like the above-two at all. I had a chat with local musician Melody Causton about sourcing material from archives. This stemmed from her recent song ‘The Devil Fears Him’ about Jack the Ripper.

Our discussion covered her going to some of the recently-released archives from Bow Street Magistrates Court, to her heading to the county archives as a source of lyrical inspiration. This has been done before – for the Tour de France in Cambridge.

The above was sung by the Dowsing Sound Collective (with me in the backing vocals somewhere!) This was a case of using music to engage people in a city event. The piano and bass arrangement by Andrea Cockerton in my view are awesome. I remember when we sang the chorus for the first time. Something chimed. It really was quite moving. Art and music can be used to get people involved. The challenge is how.

Now, while I’m not inviting anyone to write a song about the technicalities of local government finance in Cambridge, the concept of ‘sketchnoting’ brings art to writing up meetings. One of Cambridge’s finest, Michele Ide-Smith demonstrated this earlier this year at UKGovCamp 2014. See her slides here.

“It’s all very well saying ‘art and tech can solve our problems’ but who is going to pay for it?”


And we know the financial situation is absolutely dire for local government – see here. If your art or tech solution is based around getting a grant from local government, it’s already dead in the water -> unless it involves a greater saving elsewhere in the organisation and/or leveraging in greater amounts through sponsorship or benefactors’ donations. (There is the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation that has a list of local grant funding organisations).

On the art side, things worth exploring are those that inspire, mobilise and influence behaviour. On the tech side, using technology to provide information under tight time constraints to help people come to decisions (as opposed to making the decision for them) is another. Think live bus times (“What time should I leave to go to the bus stop?”) vs the sat nav (“I drove onto the guided busway/cycle bridge because the sat nav told me to!”). There’s also the cyclescape tool.

Another thing worth looking at is using art and tech in the planning system. How can we use both to get developers to engage with local residents at design stage so that people are not needlessly irritated by needless oversights? Here’s a high-profile example of when things go wrong. The view of the building from Hills Road and Cherry Hinton Road are depressing to say the least – hence the party-political controversy.


Coleridge shines on its open day – breaking a generation of negative stereotypes


On how one of our local secondary schools is demonstrating what investment and leadership can achieve – for this was an open evening that busted a number of negative local stereotypes

The signs across a number of houses in my neighbourhood stated clearly:

“Coleridge Open Day – all invited”

So I went along – in part because of my role as a governor at one of its feeder primary schools, but also to see the place for myself. With a public administration hat on, I also wanted to talk to the teachers to hear their perspectives on the challenges they face.

You’ve come a long way in a short space of time

The interesting thing compared to when I made the transition from primary to secondary was the lack of open evenings in the autumn with the local secondary schools – something that was to change shortly after. I remember spending a half-day at the school in the early 1990s and not getting the sense that the school completely dispelled the negative things the community of parents in our part of town were saying about the school. As recently as 2003, the school was in special measures – see here.

One former student of that time – UKIP activist Michael Heaver wrote of his time there in this comment piece. I completely understand his anger and frustration – if anything they are some of the same emotions that I felt with the institutional shortcomings I faced at school, college and university. I also completely understand him blaming the political party in power at the time – just as I did with the Thatcher and Major administrations that starved our schools of much-needed investment in infrastructure. The bit where I screwed up was lack of courage – not speaking up when I knew in my heart of hearts I was not comfortable with the situation or original choices I had made.

“So…what’s changed?”

Although the front of the building remains unchanged, the new structures behind it are unrecognisable from the 1990s. The music and drama facilities in particular were quite breathtaking compared to what I was expecting. Big, spacious, modern, new and well-equipped. The next challenge is matching those facilities with competent and inspirational teaching.

Musical theatre – the first thing you see and hear

The design of the new building helped immensely, as one of the new halls is what you walk straight forwards into. They put it to good use for the open evening, with a series of musical numbers from a joint production of ‘The Wiz’ that will be on at the Mumford Theatre at Anglia Ruskin University. (22-24 Oct – tickets here). Put yourself in the situation of a year six child going into the school possibly for the first time. You walk into the hall and you see several dozen students from years 7-13 dancing and singing a quite-complex choreographed number. Co-ordinating that many people is not easy – let alone performing it. (As someone who has danced, choreographed and sung for public performance in very recent years, I can testify to this!)

The impact? A huge embrace for the year six students. A sense of ‘I want to be doing what they are doing!’. Rather than just having year seven & year eight students, it was across the age range. The impact there? You’ll be able to make friends with people who are older and bigger than you. For anyone worried about bullying – the fear of which cast a dark shadow over my time at school – knowing that you’ll have the support of older and wiser peers can be massively reassuring.

“You don’t have to worry about the bigger students – they are just like you, except taller”

Just after her speech, the principal Bev Jones threw some questions to a handful of year seven students who had come from the main feeder schools plus a few others. In that act alone, seeing students who the year six visitors were familiar with talking about the school must have been reassuring. Bear in mind that twelve months ago, some of the year six students would have been in the same class at primary school as the year seven students on the panel.

Again, the testimony from the year seven students matched that of a couple of year eight students I spoke to with their drama teacher a few minutes earlier. Both the year eight students were part of the production mentioned above, and I asked a series of open-ended questions about the impact being part of such a large musical theatre production had on them. The rehearsal commitment – several evenings per week, was huge. They said this made them much more disciplined with homework. When I asked them what they would say to a small group of shy year six children from my school, they talked passionately about how being part of a large musical chorus brought shy students out of their shells, and increased their confidence. Their drama teacher was delighted – not least as she said she didn’t have to answer any of the questions. The students answered them comprehensively.

It was at the principal’s speech that I found former Labour MP for Cambridge and now chair of governors, Anne Campbell sat next to me. Mrs Jones was appointed fairly recently – in 2012, having worked in schools across the city as well as having been an adviser in regional government across East Anglia. In that regard, she has experience of breadth as well as depth.

In her speech, Mrs Jones didn’t shy away from the school’s historical problems. Instead, she dealt with them head on in particular the Ofsted reports. (See here). If anything, it was a textbook response of how to account for shortcomings raised in an inspection. Accept the report and give a point-by-point response on how you are dealing with each of the main issues, why you’re taking each action, and what impact you expect each action to have. What would have been reassuring to parents is both the focus on progress for all students, along with clear procedures on how to deal with disruptive students in a manner that does not disrupt the education of the rest of the class.

From a public administration perspective, with a respected former MP as your chair of governors and a head who’s prepared to deal with issues head on very publicly, you’re in reasonably safe hands. That’s not to say ‘job done’ – there’s still a huge amount of work to do. But today I got a real sense of momentum that I wasn’t fully aware of until this visit.

Community input

In the entrance to the main hall were two stalls. One was from Cambridge University Press – the school’s business and mentoring partner. They provide mentoring and work experience to students at the school. Put yourself in the shoes of the parent of a prospective student. Would one of the biggest publishing brands in the world want to put its brand at risk by associating itself with a failing school that had no hope of turning around?

On the other side was the Mill Road History Project – and one of the most well-known and respected tour guides in the city, Allan Brigham manning it. This says: “Our links with our local community are so strong that we have the local community represented here on our open day”. Now, when you have a community as diverse as Mill Road on your doorstep, a wealth of teaching and community resources are on your doorstep.

Year six prospective Coleridge students indicating their favourite historical period - taken with the kind permission of the school's history department
Year six prospective Coleridge students indicating their favourite historical period – taken with the kind permission of the school’s history department. Note ‘The future’. There was also ’20th C social policy’ too!

The view of the staff?

When you come into an institution with the job of turning it around, there’ll inevitably be some staff turnover. I’ve seen it in the civil service and in other institutions. Mrs Jones mentioned this in her speech, and I spoke to a number of staff who said they had only been in the school for a short amount of time when I started asking more detailed questions. The reason why this was reassuring was this reflected consistency of action. The new senior management ‘manages out’ the staff that don’t share the vision and sense of purpose, and you bring in new staff that do.

With a number of staff, I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of mutual friends and acquaintances from times gone by. This was along with a familiarity of the school I am a governor at and the children that come from it to Coleridge. What was really interesting for me was the insights they were able to give about the students that come from my school to theirs, and thoughts on how we can improve further the transition process.

Time for South Cambridge to open its mind?

Yes – and more. It’s time for the whole community to start throwing its support behind the momentum that the school and its supporters have now generated. Because it’s going to need that support as it deals with the challenges of serving some of the more economically deprived wards in Cambridge.

A city-wide approach to supporting our schools?

I delivered a couple of large careers workshops for Soham Village College for the Cambridge Area Partnership last week. Rather than running a ‘what job do you want to do?’ workshop, I got their year nine students (13-14 year olds) exploring the sort of life challenges they want to take on, and the life experiences they want to have when they are older. I then got them thinking about how they might go about achieving this and what skills they’d need to learn/knowledge they’d need to acquire as a result. So when one of them said:

“I wanna be a space pirate!”

…I said:

“OK – let’s run with that. What are the skills you are going to need to be a space pirate? How are you going to get from being down here on earth to up there being a space pirate? What are the issues and problems you’re likely to face? Remember there is no repair van in space!”

This was part of a wider ‘careers day’ where the school also invited in the further education colleges and some of their recent past students to talk to college students about what they had gone onto immediately after their GCSEs. Feedback from the teachers was that testimony from recent former students and from people who were practitioners in the fields that students wanted to go into had a big influence.

The big problem? How to co-ordinate all of this.

The goodwill is there from across the city and beyond. What we don’t have – and this was something I discussed with former MP Anne Campbell, was having an overarching structure to oversee and manage that co-ordination – but without it being ‘top down’. This is something the Be the change – Cambridge project is bringing the city together to solve. Have a look at the videos from our first event here. Drop me an email at antonycarpen [at] gmail [dot] com if you’re interested in taking part.



September is normally a time when people commit to something new – especially with a new academic season of evening classes. But the national and global backdrop looks increasingly gloomy.

Let’s start this post with a little bit of Earth, Wind and Fire 1999 stylee

There were only three times in my life where I can recall really looking forward to the future.

  • 1995/96 with GCSEs looming, leaving school and going to sixth form college
  • Autumn 1999 – leaving Cambridge to go to university
  • November/December 2006 – leaving Cambridge (again) to move to London with the civil service fast stream

I can’t recall going into a September when the national and global background to everything was so unbelievably doom-laden. Whether it’s the violence cutting a swathe from the western deserts of North Africa all the way to the Himalayas, to the horrific scandals in Rotherham where the entire public sector seems to have imploded due to the repeated catastrophic collective failure over an extended period years to protect our most vulnerable children. The full official report is here. It’s devastating in its conclusions.

Is it happening elsewhere?

With the latter, judging by Twitter’s response to Panorama of 1 Sept 2014 (watch again here, but with a trigger warning) I’m surprised something hasn’t already kicked off given the anger and rage being expressed. A number of people mentioned that this wasn’t the only place such horrific things were happening and where the responsible authorities were allegedly turning a blind eye. I hope the victims are getting the support they need and the perpetrators brought to justice. At a wider scale, there are a lot of very difficult questions many people need to answer. At the moment, we’re seeing too much denial.

Choosing to become responsible for each other

This was a theme of Puffles’ election campaign in spring 2014, from which evolved Be The Change – Cambridge. Basically I got sick and tired of waiting for the oil tanker of the local public sector to change direction – especially given the inevitable paralysis that austerity brought. You can’t have confident, outward-looking, dynamic and buzzing institutions when everyone is fearing for their jobs, watching talented staff leave and are overwhelmed by increasing demands on the back of problems in the economy. Therefore to expect a public sector alone to deliver what Cambridge needs on the back of such a big hit was never going to happen. Someone had to do something.

Too big for my boots?

It’s one of the accusations been thrown at me. And that was one of the softer ones! But then others have said those who say it can’t be done should stay out of the way of those that are doing it. After ages of nicely asking, and then more assertively asking, it got to the stage where I had to stand up and be counted – and follow that through with longer term actions. First was the election campaign, the second has been putting on this event, and the third has been the vox-pop interviews I’ve been doing. It’s easy to ignore one person who goes on like a stuck record. (I have been known!) It’s much harder when there are dozens of people with lots of ideas, all of which are recorded on camera.

It’s not just the organisations backing Be the change – Cambridge, but have a look who is coming along on Sat 13 Sept. Cross-party representation across local, national and European tiers of public office. We’ve also got another very special guest facilitator who we’ll be announcing this week too! Keep an eye on our website!

Back on the radio again – and doing more filming

I’m back on Cambridge 105FM later this week. Here’s a previous interview where I discuss the new laws allowing greater community reporting at council meetings.

I’m also going to be doing lots more vox-pop interviews, both as part of the ‘Be the change – Cambridge’ project but also as part of learning how to improve my use of video and audio editing software. This set of clips is an early draft that needs lots of improvement

Sing it back, sing it back, sing it back to me!

The above lyrics taken from Moloko, another circa autumn 1999 track. One of the reasons I’m still so angry about my time at university is because my experience was the complete opposite of the hope and excitement I had. I remember at the time that I was one of the last of my ‘year out’ cohort to go to university. Everyone else I had met had gone the previous year or had departed in the days or weeks before. In my mind I saw myself as being on a metaphorical runway waiting to take off – having outgrown my home town (the nest). The early parts of this scene from Forrest Gump reflect how I was trying to psyche myself up for a move to Brighton.

The only difference was that the soundtrack to driving down to Brighton was ‘Danger Zone’ by Kenny Loggins. Even thinking back to how I was feeling back then makes my heart buzz. Unfortunately I the activities I wanted to do at university – in particular the vibrant on-campus music learning environment simply didn’t exist. I remember going along to a musical chorus with one of my flatmates, and it was horrific. I was a first year, one of only two blokes there and went along because I quite liked the idea of a sing-song outside the then oppressive atmosphere of Cambridge. This one was even worse and I never returned. Fifteen years later, Andrea Cockerton arrives to sort things out. The result? This.

The Dowsing Sound Collective in Cambridge are also looking for a few more men to join us. Also, we’re expanding to Brighton, London, Norwich and York. Some of you reading this live in one of those four spots.

One of the things I mentioned years ago that I wanted to get back into was public performance. After the experience in Brighton I never believed I would sing again. Funny how things change.

Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds - Photo by Mike Oliver (
Me at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds with the Dowsing Sound Collective – Photo by Mike Oliver (

The picture on the left was after me and Puffles had appeared with the Dowsing Sound Collective as part of Basement Jaxx’s ‘Power to the People’ project – which has just been released as part of their new autumn album ‘Junto’. We didn’t just appear in one of their videos, I appeared dressed as a vampire – The Count from Sesame Street. And Puffles? As a vampire bat. Think about it: Puffles. As a vampire bat. In a Basement Jaxx video.

From 1m21s if you’re interested.

The plan for this autumn?

I’ve also got a number of things in the pipeline that are all related to the principles of Be the change – Cambridge. The target? The 2015 General Election. Raise awareness, make the contacts and help people get informed and educated in time for when the national politicians come to town.

So…that’s me being the change…

What about you? What can you do to make even a small positive difference round your way? Because given the toxic national and international news backdrop, people could do with some inspiration. Could you be that person to inspire them? Could you be that person who provides that essential support to someone else’s inspiring project?

Are you prepared to run the risk of failure in order to reach your potential?

With just under a fortnight to go, and with a big marketing push this week for next week Saturday, I am staring that risk in the face. And it is a frightening place to be. But an exciting one too. If you’re in Cambridge and are free on Saturday 13th September (or know someone who is), your city needs you.

Many Bridges

One Cambridge

It’s your city

Be. The. Change.

Final version of my film of the Cambridge Buskers Festival 2014


I’m strangely proud of this – for being proud of work I’ve done is an emotion I rarely feel.

Here it is:

Visually it’s not perfect – I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the conversion process that blurred it. I chose to go with the audio from Cobario’s album rather than with the audio footage I filmed. The track is called ‘Showdown’ and is available on iTunes.

“Why proud?”

I think it’s because it’s something I never saw in myself. My early digital video commissions were the result of my lack of digital video editing skills. We didn’t actually do much editing in the evening class I took recently. The focus – and I think rightly so – was on filming good clips. As a couple of the books on the subject have said that you cannot compensate at the editing stage for poor filming/positioning.

At the same time, the whole experience has got me thinking differently – and learning differently too. This was something I hadn’t really comprehended before. In the case of the filming, it’s learning a little and regularly. In the case of editing, there were a number of barriers that I came up against with the editing software that involved various searches to overcome. The perfectionist in me wants to work on the blurring of the footage which seems to have come before the compressing stage but after the filming stage.

The difference this entire project seems to have made is that I’m experimenting with software in the manner a creative type (such as my sister) would do, rather than expecting everything to work first time every time. This one got her nominated for the Next Director Award 2014.

One for owners of four-legged friends? Her other video work is here. Recognise any from telly?