“What if that person struggling is…me?”

Summary

On one of the seasonal social media memes going around.

It reads something like this:

“For everyone struggling with grief or unhappiness, especially at this time of year, Some thoughts as we enter the holiday season. It is important to remember that not everyone is looking forward to Christmas.

Some people are not surrounded by large wonderful families. Some of us have problems during the holidays and are overcome with great sadness when we remember the loved ones who are not with us. For many it is their first Christmas without a particular loved one and many others lost loved ones at Christmas. And, many people have no one to spend these times with and are besieged by loneliness.

We all need caring, loving thoughts right now. Please support all those who have family problems, health struggles, job issues, worries of any kind and just need to know that someone cares. Do it for all of us, for nobody is immune. Samaritans are there for everyone 24/7 every day of the year if you need someone to talk to call free 116123.”

Five years ago I wrote this blogpost about past Xmas’s in Cambridge. The ones in my most distant memories – the ones of the mid-1980s feel like from a completely different world to the one we’re living in now. Now, I wrote that blogpost prior to my mental health crisis of 2012 – the one that left me in a state unable to function as normal to the extent of being able to work in a full time job. If it had been as simple as taking a six month breather from everything before heading back into the world of work – most likely London again, I would have done. Ages ago. But my latest 10 minute GP appointment has again left me none-the-wiser about what my long term prognosis is.

But when someone does step up to look after you…

The first person who really stuck by me when my mental health was really debilitating me was Tim Fitches during the late 1990s. He doesn’t know this yet, but he was the only person who accompanied me in nights out to meet other friends from college in town. Prior to that, just the prospect of going out was a non-starter. He’d call round, we’d head into town and he’d make sure I got back safely. How do you even begin to repay that debt of gratitude to someone who enabled you to step outside of your front door? And this was in the days before the medical profession and the political world was even talking about mental health in a way that we perhaps take for granted today.

“‘Tis the season to be jolly!”

To which my initial emotional response to such sentiment is normally :“No! Feck-off! Leave me alone!” The problem with that is such sentiment gets reciprocated if you start telling people where to go – which is why hiding away from it all is the easiest response. It uses up far fewer mental health spoons that way – something that can be put to much better use for some other activity…such as making community videos!

But…there was a problem while I was filming the footage – one that the camera could never pick up: although I met lots of people, spoke to lots of people and filmed lots of people, what I didn’t tell anyone at the time was just how disconnected I felt to what was happening around me. Yet at the same time I ploughed on even though in my heart of hearts I wanted either to go home and cry (even though the last time I cried about anything was in…2005, and before that 1996, and before that 1993), or just to have someone embrace me and make it all better. (In the end I did neither – I had to stick around due to a rehearsal later that day).

The other thing I was mindful of is that the Mill Road Winter Fair videos are also a useful marker of how much I’ve progressed with video making over that previous year. One of the ways I dealt with it on interviewing was picking out for interview those people that looked the most friendliest and who I felt would have the most energising effect on camera. (Hence having to hold my tongue when said people backed out and suggested someone else on basis of things like seniority in the organisation who all too often had neither the confidence, presence and general ‘aura’ to come across well on camera. When it comes to stuff like this, video can be brutal).

At the same time though, as far as video medleys go, the Mill Road 2016 video is the best one I have produced for a very long time. The two big differences of note being:

  • Filming from radically different angles – note the ‘filming from above’ effect stemming from holding a light, extended tripod up in the air, making it look like I am filming from 3m above the subject.
  • Synchronising dance moves with the background music – which requires some music literacy to get that right.

Yet if I want to get more out of it for 2017, I’m going to need a different approach – one that feels fulfilling to me but perhaps more importantly one where the interviewees have more of a sense of control rather than just me rocking up.

Being carried over the line by your collective

One of the things that happens in the run up to any big stage performance is the intensity of rehearsals ramps up. We had about five in seven days for the gig at the Cambridge Corn Exchange. Oh, and if you missed that one, we’re back on 10 Feb at the same venue for the launch of the brilliant e-Luminate festival 2017. It was in the final dress rehearsal that in our small quartet piece – our cover of Glam by Dimie Cat that my mind went blank. How could I just ‘forget everything’ knowing that 48 hours later we’d have to face 1,000 people at the Corn Exchange?

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A snapshot of what being carried over the line looks like

The above screenshot is from part of one FB exchange shortly after I had got back in an exhausted sulk. Again, what people didn’t know was how close I was to pulling out of the whole thing that evening. I was originally 50/50 about doing the small group piece, being wracked with internal self-doubt anyway following my spell in hospital and the inconclusive outcome. But I also didn’t want to turn down Andrea again on a small group piece. Often you need other people’s belief to push/bridge you over the gaps (or in my case, chasms) of self-doubt.

It was Lisa (part of our quartet, in the final comment above) who seeded the idea that the performance was ‘ours’ rather than just four of us singing someone else’s track. In that short, intense space you get to know people much better than even in a terms-worth of short rehearsals. Interestingly that important bonding happens in the breaks between the sessions – just as happens at work conferences.

“It’s good to talk, but it’s also good to do other things together as well”

The message doing the rounds up top talks about giving support to those who need it. But what does that support realistically look like? Also, bear in mind at this time of year, people have enough burdens on them without needing more. That said, some of those burdens are self-inflicted…

“What do you mean you haven’t got anymore home-made organic cranberry sauce?!?! Don’t you realise you’ve just ruined Christmas?!?!?”

It almost makes me tempted to stand by a customer services desk with a smartphone and record any pompous customers going off on one and then getting it featured in Angry People in Local Newspapers who are currently running a ‘Christmas is ruined’ series.

‘Support’ will mean different things to different people. For some it’ll mean popping round to check everything’s alright. For others it might be the opposite -getting them out of the house. In the month of December I like being involved in something big and special – something that we have to work together over a period of time towards a specific event. In my dancing days it was the annual Christmas balls – up to 200 of us taking over the Burgess Hall in St Ives.

“But…don’t you want to talk about things?”

The way I see it is the stuff I need to get out of my system is very long-term deep seated stuff that should only be handled by people trained to deal with it – counsellors. The reason being it requires detailed follow-ups. It’s a hell of a burden being on the receiving end of such exchanges, and I don’t blame anyone from my distant past effectively saying ‘this is too much’. One of the reasons why I’m much more cautious now about ‘mind-dumping’ on anyone. I’ve lost too many good people & potential long term friendships from my life in years gone by. The best counsellor I ever had took six months to get to one of the roots of my then deep-seated unhappiness back in 2002-03. (Hence why the short 6-12 week stints through my GP don’t work – it’s not nearly long enough before everything is cut short. And even then they push you towards a type of counselling (CBT) which is not suitable for everyone).

More generally, the support that makes a difference for/to me is being involved in things that mean people don’t have to go particularly out of their way for me. A sort of ‘Oh, Antony might be interested as well – shall we drop him a line?’ sort of thing as opposed to blocking out time in a diary for coffees & catch-ups, much as I do appreciate them. At the same time, it also means cutting a little bit of slack when things get tough with mental health – as inevitably happens. The worst bit is wanting to be out and about with people but not being able to because you’ve run out of spoons. I’ve lost count the number of times this has happened.

Looking to 2017, my take is if it doesn’t involve me internalising bad stuff or getting all intense about what’s wrong with politics, and involves movement or music it’s probably a good thing.

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Above: I’m getting this one made for Puffles sometime soon.

 

My 2016 – in videos

Summary

Video highlights of my 2016 in and around Cambridge.

January: Tattersalls in Newmarket – Dowsing Sound Collective concert.

Video by Silvia Marson

February – E-Luminate Festival.

Worth staying out in the cold for.

Visiting the Cambridgeshire recycling plant with Claire Meade

…the scale of the plant is mind-blowing

March: Asking young people about Cambridge’s transport issues

…while taking planning issues to the county council

…only to find one councillor out of nearly 70 had bothered to watch the video I had prepared for them…!

April: Brexit campaigners come to town

…while my singing friend Sophie Barnett announces her candidacy for Cambridge City Council election in Romsey Ward

…which she went on to win!

May: A proud mother introduces me to her little ones…

…before meeting the UK’s biggest bird of prey…

June: Taking a break from singing, but not from filming

…followed by my reaction to #EURef.

…having stayed up all night to watch the results come in.

July: Turning my focus away from national politics to local democracy and local history

…but not before filming this for South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen.

August: Making a new documentary about the history of the borough of Cambridge

…and singing with friends in the crowd to Imelda May at the Cambridge Folk Festival

September: Walking around the neighbourhood of Cambridge wartime diarist Jack Overhill

…and finding out about how to improve buses with Cambridge Paralympian Georgie Bullen

…and more Cambridge local history with Shelley & Hilary

…and filming a short play about degrees for women in Cambridge

October: The first major anti-City Deal protest

…as Parliamentarians got involved, from Heidi Allen MP in the Commons…

…to Baroness Cohen in the Lords

November: The Women’s Equality Party relaunch in Cambridge and announce plans to stand candidates in 2017

…while Cllr Ashley Walsh lays into misbehaving developers…

…and Larry Sanders, brother of US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders visits Cambridge

December: Mill Road Winter Fair – my third video for them in 3 fairs

…and I find myself in a quartet facing a thousand people at the Cambridge Corn Exchange – singing in French, for We are Sound – the new name for the DSC.

…while the anti-City Deal protests keep on coming.

It’s been an eventful year.

 

“Parents – lend your children your vote”

Summary

On raising transport issues that students, young people – and the rest of us face in the upcoming county council elections on 04 May 2017.

A date for your diaries – 04 May 2017 as it is local elections day across Great Britain. For those of us in areas that have district and county councils, this means that our councillors on our county councils (which are responsible for local transport policy) are up for re-election. This happens once every four years.

Recently I met up with a Cambridge PhD student and a young woman on her year out who went to school locally here. We had a chat about what sort of local projects and actions they could get involved in, ranging from self-starting ones to existing projects being run by organisations such as Transition Cambridge and the Cambridge Hub. We also talked about the ideas coming from groups such as the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, The Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign, and Cambridge Connect – the underground light rail plan.

Actions within a short time frame

I mentioned the Cambridgeshire County Council full council meeting scheduled for 14 Feb 2017, stating that it might be one of the last ones before the councillors are up for re-election on 04 May 2017. (The final full council meeting is on 28 March 2017). This means that there are very few opportunities for residents to raise concerns in public forums about transport issues. This got us thinking: What could the three of us do between now and the 14 Feb?

We talked about the rules and requirements of what the county council demanded of people who table public questions and present petitions – and at familiarising people with the inside of Shire Hall.

We also noted the differences between tabling a public question (which gets a single response from one of the executive councillors) vs a petition (which gives the presenter more speaking time, and allows backbench councillors the chance to comment). See below for an example of a petition being presented to the county council.

The above relates to proposals by the Greater Cambridge City Deal on new bus lanes down Milton Road. See http://www.miltonroadra.org/city-deal. This is an example of local residents getting together to try an influence a proposed transport scheme.

“Can you rely on lots of people doing lots of work in a very short space of time?”

No.

That’s why we talked about keeping things as simple and straightforward as possible, and achieving the bare minimum first before thinking beyond.

“What is the bare minimum?”

The three of us rocking up to the county council meeting on 14 Feb and asking the public questions that council rules require us to have sent into them by 07 Feb. (A full list of rules is here).

“What would the reaction be of three of you asking questions about traffic, buses, cycling & transport?”

Probably something along the lines of

“Oh – crazy dragon dude has brought a couple of friends to ask the questions he wasn’t allowed to ask last time around”

Not all councillors like social media and not all councillors like Puffles either, as this video shows.

Fortunately those councillors seem to be in a minority – but they are there. Bringing a cuddly dragon into the chamber is one thing, but bringing in current and future voters with their own views and experiences is quite another. And that’s the aim of this proposed action: To help people use their civil and civic right to ask questions of the council and councillors elected to represent them. The big thing for me is that people get the chance to enter Shire Hall and get a feel for asking a public question. Because once you’ve done it once, repeating the action becomes much much easier. And if you are there with your friends, councillors tend to take a more conciliatory tone. If you are there with friends and they are filming the whole thing, councillors also tend to behave better than they normally do in the chamber. Some of the behaviour I’ve seen over the past year has been diabolical.

“Outside of asking questions, what else is there people can do from the comfort of their laptop?”

Via https://www.writetothem.com/ we’re encouraging people – especially school, college and university students, to email their county councillors with their experiences of using the roads, using buses, and on cycling in and around the city. In particular those students that come in from outside of the city to get to their place of work or study. The reason being rural public transport has taken one hell of a hit in recent years.

We’re also encouraging people to ask a question of their county councillors at the same time – one related to the experiences that they have had. It’s not for me or anyone else to tell them what that question should be – or to have a ‘copy and paste’ question that people can mass-spam the councillors with. The reason being is we want the councillors’ responses to be considered and personalised.

“And the petition?”

That depends on what people want. The county council has an under-used petitions scheme at https://cmis.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/ccc_live/ePetitions.aspx. The three of us talked about how specific the petition call should be. For example: “This petition calls for the council to build the light rail underground scheme as set out by http://www.cambridge-connect.uk/ ” …will probably get the response of “Nice idea, but we have no money”. At this stage though, activists don’t need to be specific – they just need to get councillors to acknowledge the problems and their impact. For students and young people this might involve a petition calling for the council to work with bus companies, students, schools and colleges to improve the provision and punctuality of bus services across the county.

The most important thing is that it’s the young people that lead on this, not me. I’m just the guide helping them navigate the labyrinth that is local government systems and processes. The email exchanges that happen between councillors and those that contact them in the grand scheme of things is none of my business. Once the contact has been made, that’s my job done. It’s up to them to decide what to do with any response they get back from councillors. For some that might mean further email exchanges. For others it might involve joining a local campaign group such:

Others may want to start school/college/workplace-based campaigns, inviting councillors and MPs to speak to everyone there.

The most important thing is that people take action at a time when politicians are most likely to be listening: election time.

“But we are too young to vote!”

One idea that came up was getting under 18s to persuade their parents and/or trusted adult friends to ‘lend’ them their vote. The idea is this:

Under 18s read through the manifestos of all the candidates/parties standing for election, and email questions to the candidates. The parent/voter then promises in return to vote whichever way their child recommends. That way, candidates automatically have to address the concerns of young people who otherwise cannot vote.

Any thoughts? Could this work with youth organisations?

 

We are Sound people – honestly!

Summary

On overcoming mental health issues to face 1,000 or so people at the biggest indoor venue in Cambridge – singing to a fast-tempo electroswing number. In French. And that was just my bit.

Just a small snippet filmed on a smartphone from the sound booth at the back by Meg who was one of our two stage managers on 10 Dec 2016 at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

…You’ll have to wait for the official video medley by the excellent Paul Cook.

For those of you who are interested, this was my experience of the run-up to, and the Christmas Cocktail gig of 2014

It’s not been the easiest of terms for a lot of us – not least our music director Andrea Cockerton. “We are Sound” is the new name for what was the Dowsing Sound Collective – re-born following a legal dispute that meant the latter brand had to close. Fortunately the music did not. Cambridge is a place full of singing – I just didn’t realise how much until I had a look on The Big Sing’s website. Which makes me wonder if this supports the case for some more better and acoustically sound concert venues and affordable rehearsal spaces – something which I touched in an historical context in my Lost Cambridge blog here.

Being crushed by declining mental health

I wish I report that it has been getting better throughout 2016, but I’d be lying. I had an overnight stay in Papworth Hospital a few months ago to see if the cause of it was sleep-deprivation-related…

…but the study that saw me wired up like a circuit board proved inconclusive. Essentially it looks like an anxiety-based fatigue. I did ask for a further referral to a mental health specialist at my GP, but with nothing forthcoming so far, I’m back there tomorrow to ask again. Andrew Lansley’s botched reforms have meant that since my last GP retired – only my third GP in what was then 35 years, I’ve not seen the same GP more than twice as this ‘new model’ seems to mean I’m seen by one temporary/locum GP after another. i.e. lots of continuity errors.

This year, something with Cambridge’s air pollution has also broken my breathing – I now have to use both blue & brown inhalers just to step outside of my front door. Hence why a few of us are going to be taking this issue to Shire Hall on 14 Feb 2017 for a meeting of the full council of Cambridgeshire County Council: What legal powers do they have to deal with traffic pollution and air quality in urban areas, and which legal powers have they used to take action on this issue? We’re also linking it to poor level of bus services to young people at school and college, both in terms of quantity and punctuality of – the latter especially impacting on class attendance outside of their reasonable control. (Click here if you are interested in taking part – or forward the link on to anyone who is).

I’ve been fortunate this term to have one of our music group – Natasha, giving me a lift back from rehearsals. A couple of years ago, walking to and from rehearsals was fine. Not today – I have to catch a bus into town, walk to the Burleigh St towards Anglia Ruskin University’s music therapy school. As a venue it’s lovely. In terms of accessibility by bus, it’s awful. (It doesn’t have to be that way – many years ago you could catch a bus from my house that would go down East Road and stop outside the Working Men’s Club which is a 2 minute walk from the venue – but for whatever reason the Grafton Centre is being slowly starved as far as bus services go).

Crashing & burning at the dress rehearsal – in front of 100+ people.

F–k me that was painful.

It was exhaustion that contributed to my mind going completely blank – me not properly pacing myself in the run up to that rehearsal. I’d been commissioned to film 2 local council meetings in 2 days by my local democracy filming sponsors, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations. As we have been finding out recently, the videos have helped local residents immensely to hold elected representatives to account, as this [*relatively – as far as #localgov meetings go] explosive clip demonstrates. It was shortly after filming that I had to rush back from Cambourne (who decides to schedule meetings that are ages away and off the public transport track?!?) to get to the dress rehearsal. The evening prior to that I was commissioned to film at a meeting covering issues in and around where the Corn Exchange is.

A chance to raise the issue about concert venues in Cambridge as well as plugging the gig too.

Having crashed and burned at the dress rehearsal at St Columba’s Church on Downing Street, I promised myself I’d get some proper rest before the gig.img_5780

Cambridge historians, the tablet below this large window is dedicated to Dr Alex Wood – a former Cambridge Labour Party councillor who has the current Cambridge Labour Party’s HQ named after him. A teetotaller and a bit of a firebrand preacher (who found himself in court in the run up to WWII) I found it interesting to note the wooden plaque given the presence of former and current elected councillors within our music collective’s ranks.

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St C’s is one of Cambridge’s hidden gems which is just waiting for a refurb similar to that done to St Paul’s on Hills Road and Emmanuel URC on Trumpington Street.

‘Get some sleep, idiot!’

You know when you’re too tired to sleep and also when you’re too angry with yourself? That. Fortunately lots of people sent messages far more supportive and optimistic than I felt at the time. I simply went into video-editing autopilot to get the meeting footage up online as a means of forgetting what happened earlier that evening. The only way I was going to ensure a night’s sleep before the gig was with a sleeping pill – and I hate those things for obvious reasons.

What was frustrating was that the run up to this gig was the first time in ages I’d felt the positive nerves of anticipation – the ‘butterflies in your tummy’ combined with strange electric pulses in your chest. I didn’t want to be half-asleep or zombied out on medication. I wanted to feel something like this first rehearsal in Bury St Edmund’s in 2014 (Cambridge, we ***are*** going to get a concert venue with acoustics as awesome as The Apex!). The other thing sort of on my mind was the sheer exhaustion I felt at the 2014 Christmas gig – which I blogged about here. The reason why I rocked up at 4pm rather than 1pm was that I knew all day at the Corn Exchange would crush me. In my case with a chronic (ie long term) anxiety disorder, my brain continually reassesses everything and over-thinks everything to the point of exhaustion. The one thing that takes more out of me than most is…transport. In this condition, the most calming thing anyone can do for someone with my condition is to offer in advance to get me there, take me from A to B to C, and to get me back. Recall that for people with an anxious disposition, being out and about alone in [any] town late at night is not a nice place to be. That includes waiting for a bus or a taxi. I’ve lost count over the years of the nights out I’ve turned down simply because of transport issues. What I find interesting is how more and more people are raising similar issues – it’s now a matter of public policy.

“What about the gig itself?”

I made sure I properly slept off the sleeping pill so didn’t get up till about 2pm – by which time it was raining cats & dogs. But it also meant I could eat properly before setting out rather than tanking up on sugars during the afternoon. So I was much more calm about what was coming up than I’ve probably been for any musical performance I’ve been in during my adult years.

Our drummer Paul Richards posted the above photo on FB just before the start of the final run through. I was on the second row on the right, standing closer to where Paul was rather than towards the audience.

The photo above doesn’t do justice the scene that greeted me as I walked into the main concert hall – the collective in full voice to the opening number: “Kiss the sky” in the final run through. It was positively ***thumping***. I jumped up to join them in a final, essential but tough final run-through.

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My view of some of my fellow singers – I was left-of-centre looking from the audience to the stage. The reason why being here was important was that in an emergency I could make a relatively sharp exit without many people noticing. Ever since being diagnosed in 2001, one of the banes of my life has been working out where best to sit in public places that allow for the quickest and quietest of exits.

For our quartet bit, I had in my mind: “Don’t f–k it up like last time” going through my head, and could feel that scowl etched on my forehead. It was only after the gig that I realised why the track (have a listen here) was so difficult to master:

  • Foreign language
  • Very fast tempo
  • Complex arrangement (but one that made it more fun to sing)
  • Relatively short time period to learn that alongside lots of other tracks

But that’s what makes taking on and overcoming such challenges so much more enjoyable. As a male tenor I’d been invited to join other local choirs & groups when they found out about me being part of the We are Sound group. The reason for declining those ones fell into themes of:

  • Too religious: – I had a bad experience going to church in childhood so now can’t stand religious music, no matter how exquisitely performed. Too much dogmatic baggage.
  • Too small scale: – As with my dancing years in the last decade, I wanted something that had a real ***wow!*** factor – an energetic buzz pulsing through the veins of the people taking part.
  • Too complicated: – The groups that require you to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of music along with the exam certificates to go with them. My finals were called finals for a reason.
  • Too simple:– Too unchallenging a repertoire.

Fortunately for a city like Cambridge, there is room for all of us. (Have a look at the range here – which we’re not listed in). With a civic history that we have, there will always be religious-based choirs – not least because several of the college chapels were designed with music in mind. There will also always be room for community choirs – some of Cambridge’s having roots in the history of areas that in centuries gone by were villages outside of the centre. Given the intellectual talent in the city, there will always be those pushing the boundaries of musical complexity. And given the growing city, there will always be a need for groups to be a gateway to people who have never sung collectively before. It just took me a few years to find one that suited me, that’s all.

“So, what was the performance like?”

Euphoric.

I’m going to let the official videos do the explaining as and when they come out, but my highlights included:

  • The start – Kiss the Sky. Not a fan of the lyrics but musically it’s wonderful, & set the stall for the rest of the gig
  • Matt Moss’s “Blue Christmas”
  • Lauren Thompson taking on a Bassment Jaxx number from the late 1990s
  • Winter got lost by our Tuesday section (I’m part of the Monday section)
  • The cover of Shake sung by the men
  • The cover of It’s oh so quiet by Bjork, sung by the women. (How is that song over 20 years old?)

We were blessed with the support of one of the best sound designers in the music business – Bobby Aitken. Have a look at http://www.mamma-mia.fi/en/the_show/creative_team/bobby/

And he liked us 🙂

As did Alessandra Caggianno who supported me on Be the change – Cambridge in 2014/15.

…as did Sue Marchant of BBC Cambridgeshire.

Of our quartet, it went by in such a blur. One second I was walking on, another second I had this big white light shining at me, and then suddenly it was over.

Comparing the audiences of 2013 (when I was in the audience), 2014 (on stage) and 2016, the middle one was clearly the most raucous and loud. 2016’s was more subdued – but understandably so because everyone got soaked by the rain before they got indoors. It was only with our final track (A combo of “Go Back” by Darlingside and “I will wait” by Mumford & Sons) that I sensed we had broken the ‘reserve’ of the audience to get them as loud as the 2014 audience, but we did it.

“And after?”

One of Cambridge’s other problems is that it hardly has any venues that cater for an over-30s audience. There’s still anger in the city in some quarters over this planning refusal – essentially those of us in favour didn’t have our s….tuff together to fight for it. I dare say that if such a proposal was resubmitted, there would be enough of us willing, able and organised to drive it through.

The only place available for an after-party was one of the city’s over-priced trendy bars that insisted on scanning everyone’s ID irrespective of their age. (I’m 40 in a few years time). Then charging people for entry. What struck me other than being like a fish out of water in such a place (I stopped going to trendy bars in 1999) was how men’s fashions for a night out on Friday/Saturday night in Cambridge had not changed in 20 years. Where are the futuristic garments we were promised in Back to the Future II?

Other than a great performance and a happy audience…?

All of the profits from our concerts go to The Dosoco Foundation – this event probably raising several thousand pounds for them. Have a listen to Andrea here:

So a big ***Thank you*** to everyone that got me through this term and the past few days.

We’ll be back again in late spring/summer 2017. See you soon.

On being moved by music

Summary

Following hearing/seeing one of the most powerful musical performances I’ll ever hear.

I’ve just got back from our last-but-one rehearsal before our show at the Cambridge Corn Exchange with We are Sound – so if you want to see me singing in a very small group piece to a fast-tempo electro-swing number, tickets are at http://www.we-are-sound.com/gigs – oh, and the track is in French.

When it comes to anthemic arrangements our musical director Andrea Cockerton is more than good at them. I was on stage when we sang this number in December 2014 at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge – our city’s largest concert venue which we sold out. You’ll need to play it through a decent sound system to get anywhere near the full impact of what I felt/heard/experienced in the middle of the collective.

Oh – and the loud applause of well over 1,000 people in an enclosed space all facing you is…electric.

I was going through an old DVD of ours from just before my time joining what was the Dowsing Sound Collective – now rebranded as We are Sound. They played a wonderful set in Ely Cathedral in summer 2013 – a gig I wish I was at. Will Cramer and the wonderful Cathy Elks were the lead vocalists in this clip, which left me blown away, speechless and feeling…kind of vulnerable yet inspired too. Have a listen.

I can’t put into words what it must have felt like for Will and Cathy to have been performing that to a packed out county cathedral with over 100 vocalists behind you – many of whom are your friends, booming out that anthem.

The track itself reminds me of this time a quarter of a century ago. At the time my older brother was in a band at school. I was in year 7 at the time – very emotionally dark days where I struggled with the transition from primary to secondary school. Not least because when I tried to talk about them to adults and teachers, my concerns were brushed off. I felt so strongly about it that I included it in my personal statement in my end of year report – something that my form teacher said she couldn’t see what the problem was because I got 3 commendations that term.

At that time – very late 1991 was also when the great Freddie Mercury died. My older brother and his band were big Queen fans. They covered a number of their tracks as 4-piece all-male guitar-based bands inevitably do. Funnily enough it was some of their less-played songs that stuck in my memory – one of them being ‘Save Me’ – written by Brian May.

I barely remember in 1991 what I now see as an incredibly well done music video for this song.

“Save me, save me, save me I can’t face this life alone;

Save me, save me, save me I’m naked and I’m far from home”

Given what I saw in Cathy & Will’s performance at Ely with the DSC, there’s a bit of me that would love to do the above number as a duet (assuming I don’t freak out in the quartet of us that has to face the biggest concert venue in my home city).

…And that’s my worry.

Or rather one of many given my current health which isn’t great. The biggest longer term one if I’m honest is expressed in the chorus quoted in the grey box written by Brian May. Although he was writing about a relationship break up, in my case it’s more about emotional connections that mental health problems simply suck the life out of. It also makes people like me harder to ‘read’. At a single event – whether rehearsal or council meeting for example, I can switch from being this ball of intense activity (filming or tweeting), to delivering a hard-hitting speech/intervention, to being half-asleep, to being a bundle of fun. On the first one, the solution is remembering to breathe. (I’d love for someone to do a study on people’s breathing patterns when using social media – or computers generally when focussed on the work at hand). On the feeling half asleep, for those of you who have read the Harry Potter books, imagine a dementor has just swooped into the room to feed on my soul. It’s a bit like that.

Note, I’m posting this after having decided not to post a previous blogpost which has a theme something along the lines of: “What if I told you that…?” – with one statement after another beginning with those words.

In writing it, I’m acknowledging that paradox that as personal and unique as these experiences and feelings feel, it’s just like everyone else with their own personal and unique feelings. Just as I read through the tweets and status updates of various friends, acquaintances and online correspondents posting about their own life struggles, I – like them – struggle with knowing where the balance is between wanting to call out for help but not wanting to have your social media taken over by it or being seen as a burden on others.

I’ll leave it here for now, but there’s more on the mental health/long term anxiety side of things that I’ll need to return to.

 

 

South Cambs MP Heidi Allen in mayoral bid

Summary

Five Labour candidates have put themselves forward, along with independent candidate Peter Dawe. Heidi Allen MP now joins them.

From the outset, I declare that I spoke out against the proposals for devolution when they were initially launched. Have a listen to this interview with Dotty McLeod of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire at an event in Newmarket.

I also concur with many of the concerns former Cambridge MP Prof David Howarth pointed out in this presentation in Cambridge

Ms Allen was on the radio this morning – a link to which is in her website statement here.

Cambridge tech entrepreneur Peter Dawe – who has written and campaigned about many things to do with Cambridge’s infrastructure, has also confirmed he is standing. He sold his local TV company, Cambridge TV in order to do so. Have a listen to one of his ideas below.

I still don’t know why South Cambridgeshire councillors didn’t take him up on this regarding Northstowe. Mr Dawe’s site is still under development, but expect something soon at http://www.dawe.co.uk/

Local blogger Phil Rodgers (now back in the Lib Dems fold) spotted several Hunts Labour candidates:

Cambridge housing chief Cllr Kevin Price has also put his name forward – being one of the people that negotiated the Cambridge housing element:

A more detailed interview with Josh Thomas of the Cambridge News is at http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/news/cambridge-news/cambridge-city-councillor-kevin-price-12273878

At the time of posting, I’ve not been notified of anyone else standing. It remains to be seen if the Greens and the Liberal Democrats put candidates forward. Less likely with the former, more likely with the latter – simply because of the stupendously high deposit required for this election – which also rules me and Puffles out. £5,000 is just too much. A deliberate ploy to restrict it to parties and those with independent wealth. No other reason for it. (£500 would have been enough – or even £100 to have allowed crowd-sourced independents to stand without a free-for-all).

“So…are you going to boycott the whole thing?”

Quite the opposite. Hopefully through the likes of The Democracy Club we’ll be able to get a group of us together to makes sure people across the county and in Peterborough have easy access to clear and impartial information about what the elections are and are not about. (In particular the limitations – managing people’s expectations and all that). Fortunately it looks like these elections will coincide with the county council elections. I expect I’ll be filming various short videos and extended hustings as I did with the 2015 general election.

“And all candidates given the same offer?”

Exactly – just as with the general election and local elections in 2015. The way I see it especially with the short videos is that people get the chance to decide whether they want to have a conversation with the candidate concerned. Thus with each video clip I state the questions in advance so as to put them at ease, offer retakes and give them clearance before publishing should they desire it. All I care about is getting decent video footage of as many candidates as possible. The content of what they say, and what they do with the videos once they are up online…well that’s up to them.

“And you’re going to do all of that despite being opposed to the policy?”

Yeah.

“Why?”

***Because democracy!!!***

Also, no one else is going to do it. No one else would be as nice/foolish/desperate as me to give candidates such an easy ride. (Having stood for election with Puffles in 2014, I kind of have a different perspective to other community reporters, bloggers or journalists, having faced audiences able to ask questions on what is important to them, rather than what I think should be important to them. Here’s a speech from my second ever hustings, taking Qs from members of King’s College Cambridge’s politics society. They didn’t pull their punches either.

…a hustings that was also live-tweeted.

See my blogpost here on my first thoughts on being grilled.

“Have you got a wishlist of things you’d like candidates to commit to?”

Yes – but none of them will be in a position to commit to things they cannot deliver. Whereas if they had allowed me and/or Puffles to have stood, we would have talked about whatever we wanted, unencumbered by the limitations of faded and failed politicians that came up with this policy. (For the record, I’d like to see a unitary authority with significant revenue raising powers for Cambridge and the surrounding wards and districts, and a similar one for Peterborough. The Government’s policy is a fudge).

“What are the immediate challenges?”

For me the two big ones involve powers and alternative sources of funding.

Will the mayors need more powers, and if so how will they go about first of all identifying them and then secondly lobbying ministers for them?

The second is about funding: How will mayors be able to raise revenue from other sources without constantly handing out a begging bowl to Treasury ministers?

Only once those two are dealt with can you get involved in the details of which plans to back and building working relationships with other organisations. Note that the public sector is notorious for turf wars. Expect some parts of the police, health, job centres/social security institutions to try and ignore the mayors by saying their line of reporting is to their Whitehall department. This goes onto wider policy risk management. What are the things that could go badly wrong with being a county mayor and how will you manage those risks? We know this is an important question because me and Puffles gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee in 2013, and they put this point at the top of their recommendations here. That was after we had stung the cabinet minister responsible for the policy.

Finally, as with all big county-wide infrastructure, what is the historical context? These two books contain a wealth of information – even though they date from 1950.

The maps alone being works of art

Cambridge Map of Roads Holford 1950 HiRes

So…yeah…read up on your county planning history ladies and gentlemen. We’ll be asking you questions about what didn’t work in times gone by and why.

Tabled Qs for Cambs County Council on 13 December in Cambridge

Summary: The deadline for submitting tabled questions for Cambridgeshire County Council’s full council meeting on 13 December, is 1:30pm on 06 December. 

The deadline of 06 December gives council officers a week to brief the executive councillors of the responses to public questions tabled for the meeting on 13 December at Shire Hall – it starts at 1:30pm if you’re interested. The meeting details are here.
I have just tabled the following questions to democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

1) What legal powers does the county council have, and what legal duties does the county council have regarding poor air quality in Cambridge and towns in the county?

2) What plans does the council have to bring in a smart ticketing system that works for all bus and/or public transport providers?

If you are at college and are free that afternoon, the campaign for lower fares for 16-18 year olds by the Campaign for Better Transport may be of interest. You could table a question to councillors about that. Alternatively, email them via https://www.writetothem.com/
On air quality, this stems from the bumper-to-bumper traffic in my neighbourhood that is becoming more frequent far outside of rush hours. This seems to coincide with me now having to use inhalers because it is having a bad impact on my breathing. Furthermore, the alerts in London today from the Mayor of London tipped me over.
The second one is sort of related – all day and season tickets between different bus firms are not interchangeable in and around Cambridge. Oh the efficiencies of privatised bus companies. With the Cambridgeshire County Council elections coming up in May 2017, my thinking is to get as many issues onto the public record and on video so as to help stimulate and inform debate across a number of areas that the county council has responsibility for. That might help concentrate the minds of the parties standing candidates in the elections.
Anyway, if you’ve not seen what asking questions is like, I made a guide below:
If you want to ask a question in public at the meeting on 13 December, you need to email your question to democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk by 1.30pm of 06 December.

Are big developers building in Cambridge oblivious to those of us that live here?

Summary

On the yawning gap between big developers and their agents selling ‘the city’ abroad and the residents that make the city what it is

I was keeping an eye on the UK Property Forum event being live tweeted by various people on the hashtag #Ceepf this morning. The head of the National Infrastructure Commission, Andrew Adonis addressed the meeting. In the grand scheme of things, he was one of the ministers in Gordon Brown’s administration who I rated as Transport Secretary – an indication why George Osborne appointed him to lead the NIC. (Remember Osborne and Brown didn’t get on – but did agree on Adonis).

Now, there have been numerous events, workshops, talking shops and seminars on all things Cambridge growth and the future of our city. I remain of the view that the biggest underlying root cause of Cambridge’s current and future problems is governance. The city is still governed by a large market town. Until it has the governance arrangements that can match what the money-men says it is (and it is nearly always men) – ie a small city with an international profile, it will always be subject to the whims of over-burdened low calibre here-today-gone-tomorrow ministers in Whitehall.

Having worked in Whitehall I learned that no minister or senior civil servant will ever have the information needed in order to take the decisions that cities need to take for them to run efficiently and effectively. There is simply too much going on. As a result, you end up with policy paralysis with local areas waiting for permission to go ahead with schemes and actions that really should be conceived, developed, funded and delivered locally. The way local councils are extremely limited in how they raise revenue solidifies these arrangements. Everyone in local government is looking towards The Treasury.

As far as the developers’ billions are concerned, that world of finance is light years away from the people that make Cambridge and other cities what they are. The controversial CB1 development around the railway station has made the developers a fortune. Yet despite their gushing PR in the Cambridge News in this article, scroll down to read the comments and there’s hardly a good word to be said. I remain a strong critic of the developments in and around the railway station mainly because of the missed potential. Interestingly, Historic England have offered to meet me and some local residents around the lessons learnt from this case. Note too the engineering problems as filmed by Richard Taylor below:

You’d have thought spending £1billion on the site, and £4million on the square alone they’d have got the basics right.

“How big should the voice of business be?”

Note this quotation attributed to Lord Adonis

Note recently, Sir Stuart Rose, the former M&S chief said the following after being on the losing side in the EU Referendum campaign.

“…to be honest, businessmen should stick to business and politicians to politics.”

In my experience, the voice of business is not a monolithic single voice. I’ve seen firms specialising in sustainable building and manufacturing arguing for stronger sustainability standards in the face of resistance from other firms lobbying to undermine them. Secondly, the voice of businesses that are genuinely at the heart of the communities that they operate in – ie they re-invest and spend generated profits in those communities rather than syphoning them offshore to tax havens, are more likely to have a different view of what their town/city should become vs a jet set chief executive who switches from apartment to five star hotel room to luxury villa at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, just because someone may own or run a business does not mean that this is the only lens that they view the world through. They too feel similar emotions, passions and fears that the rest of us do. In the same way that Cambridge transport is not all cyclists vs motorists – I’ve lost count the number of times car drivers write in to newspapers in the face of someone complaining about cyclists saying that as a car driver they also cycle too.

Local residents not involved in decision-making processes early enough

Tom Foggin of the Cambridge Association of Architects gave a splendid exposition of the design and planning process at a recent event co-organised by the conservation organisation Cambridge Past, Present & Future and the business organisation Cambridge Ahead.

In the seven stages of development Mr Foggin took us through, it seemed to me that the public is only involved from the fourth – at which point it is too late. (Mr Foggin contacted me to assure me that this wasn’t the case, and that RIBA guidance for developers is to get local communities involved as early as possible).

Essentially our planning and urban design system builds in adversarial relationships rather than ones where we undertake shared problem-solving. One of the reasons I believe so many of the developments around Cambridge railway station have been so controversial locally is because developers and ministers have not been interested in framing such opportunities as shared challenges, but rather as a means for someone to make as much money as possible within whatever minimal social requirements they can get away with.

“Does this mean developers and ministers are evil?”

No.

“Why not?”

Developers are doing what the system incentivises them to do – to make money. In the same sense, similar with career-minded ministers. Don’t rock the boat and you might get promoted. And all that. It’s not unique to Cambridge, but our governance, systems, processes and controls don’t incentivise developers to encourage and inspire local people to get involved in the designs of developments that they ultimately have to live with. Hence why all too often it feels like developers and their financiers impose big and locally unpopular developments on unsuspecting communities then run off with the money leaving communities to foot the bill when the design flaws become apparent.

161003-sam_in_cam_policingsoutharea

Yes…in the developments by the railway station such was the poor design on all things crime and disorder that the area is now a local police priority. The area is probably stuck with this for the next half century.

And finally…

I’m still of the view that events looking at the future of Cambridge are too segregated and are lacking in diversity. (Where are all of the young people at these events?)

Until Cambridge’s governance can be overhauled (and I’m extremely sceptical about the county mayor proposals that Cambridgeshire’s councils approved this week), and until institutions start hosting events that bring together the communities that make up our city of Cambridge, we will see many more speculative developments that prioritise profit-making for investors that have no stake in local communities ahead of the needs of the people that make up our city. (By ‘the people’ I mean people who live, work and/or study in our city, along with those that need to visit regularly).

 

Asking questions at council meetings in Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire

 

Summary

Some guidance & links on getting involved in local democracy through local councils

Thank you for your continued support on all things filming & Cambridge/South Cambs community action. For those of you interested in supporting my work, please click here.

December council meetings – if you need a break from festive shopping

Cambridge City Council:

What are such meetings about? Have a listen to Cllr Richard Johnson.

Never been inside the council chamber at The Guildhall? You are more than welcome to attend public meetings here – have a look at this video below:

Any questions? Contact the council’s democratic services officers:

Read more at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/get-involved-at-your-local-area-committee

Cambridgeshire County Council

The list of council meetings is at https://cmis.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/ccc_live/Meetings.aspx & is regularly updated.

Their rules on public speaking are slightly more restricted, meaning you have to give a week’s notice of questions (ie email them in advance (democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk) of the question you are going to ask). The public can still attend meetings. See my video below.

Any questions? Have a read of http://www4.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/info/20087/councillors_and_meetings/283/decision_making/3 or email democraticservices@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

Greater Cambridge City Deal

Events & meetings are listed at http://www.gccitydeal.co.uk/citydeal/ with contact details at http://www.gccitydeal.co.uk/citydeal/contact-us – again, you need to give notice (this time 3 days) of questions you want to ask at public meetings.

The video below is an example of public questions being asked at a city deal assembly meeting inside South Cambridgeshire Hall.

I’ve not yet found guidance notes for South Cambridgeshire District Council (I’m sure they’ll inform me in the comments below or via Twitter – several of their councillors & officers follow Puffles), but their lists of meetings is via https://www.scambs.gov.uk/services/council

[UPDATE] – South Cambs tweeted back to Puffles:

South Cambridgeshire District Council also has a youth council – while Cambridge City Council does not. Unfortunately this means Cambridge City is not represented in the British Youth Parliament that meets in the House of Commons. Cambridge residents, if you have an issue with this, write to your city councillors at https://www.writetothem.com/

Campaigning through local campaign groups

You can campaign through residents associations (declaration of interest, the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (@FeCRA2 on Twitter) financially support my filming of city deal and local plan meetings) or through local interest groups. Some that regularly ask public questions include:

Cambridge Cycling Campaign – campaigning not just about cycles but on urban design and making Cambridge & surrounding areas more pleasant to live and travel in.

Cambridge Past Present and Future – campaigning for a more sustainable future for Cambridge – and against unrestricted urban sprawl.

Unite Cambridge – The Cambridge branch of the community union, often seen campaigning on affordable housing and social justice issues in Cambridge

Cambridge Council for Voluntary Service members – have a look at their members list here.

If you don’t want to stand up and ask a public question at a meeting…

…you can always ask one of your local councillors to ask the question on your behalf. Contact them via https://www.writetothem.com/

Keep an eye on what all are doing on Facebook click on the links below:

 

Cambridge’s councils have sound issues

Summary

How can we improve the ability of councillors to make themselves heard, and how can we improve the audio set up in council chambers? Because I’m getting too many complaints about poor quality audio that is outside of my control.

Have a watch of the video below – which I’ve processed as a HD video rather than a standard large video that I normally do for long council meetings. (The latter means a smaller file size).

I’ve used multiple examples of the audio issues I face as a community cameraman and reporter. I’ve also provided examples of good microphone technique as well as poor technique. I’ve also commented on the limitations of each chamber in the video. The councils featured are:

  • Cambridge City Council – The Guildhall’s council chamber
  • Cambridgeshire County Council – Shire Hall’s council chamber
  • South Cambridgeshire District Council – South Cambridgeshire Hall’s chamber/function room

Both The Guildhall and Shire Hall were built in the 1930s. South Cambridgeshire Hall was built in the much more recent past. Due to the nature of the chambers, they all struggle with audibility – strange given that their prime functions is to host public debates.

“Hardly anyone watches local council videos, so why does it matter?”

ytube-stats-aug-nov-2016

Over 11,000 hits in the past three months, with spikes in early Sept and mid-Oct 2016. The first relating to a demo outside The Guildhall and the second pair relating to meetings on local planning and transport issues. People care. Note that nearly all of my videos related to local democracy issues in and around Cambridge. The videos therefore appeal to a very small geographic audience – and only a small section within that geographic audience of not much more than 200,000 people.

“What are your recommendations for councillors and public speakers?”

For the councils as institutions:

Please review your existing audio-visual facilities in your council chambers and consider upgrading your sound systems so that community reporters can record audio footage directly from your sound systems using flash drives.

Please consider upgrading your chamber audio speakers so that the frequency has a greater range and a warmer/more comfortable-sounding sound.

Please consider upgrading your chamber microphones so that councillors and speakers can extend/retract the microphones depending on whether they are standing, sitting or can adjust according to the height of the speaker.

Please consider whether you should invite new public speakers to rehearse their public questions so they get used to using a microphone and used to hearing their voice played back on a modern sound system.

For councillors

Please learn the basics of how to use microphones properly.

Please undertake regular public speaking training/coaching/mentoring – in both cases think accessibility of your constituents.

For readers/watchers/local residents

If you would like the audio in my videos to be improved, please email your councillor via https://www.writetothem.com/ – you only need to know your postcode. Because I don’t have the spare money needed for a professional broadcast standard microphone plus sound system to compensate.

Thank you.