Anne Campbell (Lab – Cambridge, 1992 – 2005) speaking to Mill Road History Society. 08 Jan 2019.


Listening and learning from Mrs Campbell’s time as our MP. But before that, my own experiences of Cambridge in the 1990s as context.

Let me take you back to a time when the main Cambridge was a very different place politically and socially.

Chesterton was a Conservative stronghold, Labour ran the council but with a wafer-thin majority, and the Liberal Democrats as a political party had only just been invented. The Member of Parliament was the Conservative Historian Robert Rhodes James. And I was at primary school, making the transition to go to Secondary School. It was this Cambridge that former Cambridgeshire County Councillor for Petersfield division (in the news today) Anne Campbell secured the nomination for Labour at the 1992 General Election.

According to school and church, sex was something not spoken about in polite society, and was something only parents did if they wanted to have a baby. Sex outside marriage didn’t exist – and neither did anything outside the strict teachings of the church because of Section 28. Hobbies were things that you had to take exams and medals tests in, or perform in front of parents and their friends. And this chap was responsible for the system of social security.

The whole of my childhood up until a few months before my 18th birthday were spent with The Conservatives in Government.

And as I became more politically aware, the more I began to hate the Tories. Because at school our buildings were so bad that even the Tories had to find money to replace all of the buildings lest any of the students got killed by crumbling pieces of glass and masonry.

Hedonism being one of the few escapes

That summer of 1995 was the one where I started drinking with friends – just before we went into year 11. Think teenage drinking and drug taking is a new phenomenon? It isn’t. This generation, my generation, the ones of the 60s & 70s (See Warren Dosanjh’s book about Cambridge music in the 1960s) through to Cambridge during WW2. Even Eglantyne Jebb in the run up to WWI talks of a Cambridge with so many pubs down its main roads that it’s a wonder that we got anything done or made given how drunk we all must have been!

The irony for me is that Labour councillors in the 1990s were put under huge pressure from the college masters to do something about underage drinking – especially with pubs serving teenagers, that it drove many teenagers into the hands of drug dealers. It got to the stage where it was easier for teenagers in the 1990s to get hold of controlled narcotics than it was alcohol (because dealers don’t ask you for ID).

Caught between two worlds.

I was caught between two very different worlds – ones which contributed to my mental health problems of today and the fallout of which are some things local councillors have to deal with today whenever I rock up to a council meeting to ask questions. There’s decades of baggage behind some of the questions – baggage that could have been dealt with had successive governments provided proper mental healthcare for teenagers and young adults at the time, amongst other things.

The two worlds were the sort of fantasy that some Remain campaigners accuse some Brexit campaigners of wanting to take Britain back to – where the church was much more prominent in public life, along with its strict morals, where Britain had an empire and where fiction books in schools were full of dashing young White boys on colonial adventures while girls knew their place. The other was a world backlashing against authority, one full of cigarettes, alcohol, dope and music. Oh – and all the portrayals of the figures of Christianity were of White Jesus and White disciples. Like in this spoof.

“I was born in the Middle East 2000 years ago – it’s pretty clear about that. It should be pretty obvious I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes.”

Yes – the Cambridge I grew up in was very White Middle Class, socially conservative, and politically fragmented, as reflected in the election results in those two decades. Which was a strange place to be as one of about a dozen or so children from mixed-heritage backgrounds in a year group of 250 children at secondary school.

And finally: No internet.

“Why is all of the above important?”

Other than my blog, my rules, the city that Anne Campbell became politically active in during the early 1980s was a very different place to the city of today.

Cambridge under the crushing thumb of Margaret Thatcher’s Government. 

One of her most vociferous critics from within her own party according to Mrs Campbell was her predecessor, the historian Robert Rhodes James – who apparently couldn’t bear to be in the same room as the former Prime Minister on some occasions.

A big economic problem Cambridge faced in the 1980s was unemployment – and alongside that, low pay. The colleges were notorious for low salaries for working class Cambridge residents – and this was in the days before the national minimum wage. It was this lack of a national minimum wage that meant my first wage was £2.65 an hour at the local Budgen’s Supermarket – since closed, on Cherry Hinton Road. I am just old enough to remember what it was like working under what was an incredibly unpopular government – one that ultimately delivered the worst general election result for the Conservatives since the Great Reform Bill of the 1830s.

Tuition fees part 1

Not long after Labour turfed the Tories out of power, Tony Blair brought in up-front tuition fees. My year group was pencilled in as the first year to pay them – along with the scrapping of maintenance grants.

Tony Blair himself admitted to being taken aback by the hostility over the introduction of tuition fees and the scrapping of maintenance grants, one of the first major decisions of his new administration in 1997.”

This meant that my older brother – who had just started university – received a grant and didn’t have to pay fees, while me, a couple of years younger than him, got no grant and had to pay fees. I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair for this. The question I put to Mrs Campbell was about the impact this had on young people and the Labour Party. Because my experience when I went down to Brighton in the late 1990s to go to university myself was that it made brand Labour absolutely toxic. The long term impact of this was that it turned the newly designated city of Brighton and Hove Green – politically. The then Cllr Keith Taylor made a breakthrough with the largest Green vote in the 2001 general election with over 4,000 votes, which doubled to 8,000 in 2005, before Caroline Lucas finally took the seat in 2010.

Yet according to Mrs Campbell, there was strong working class support for fees because as far as workers could see, students were simply drinking away taxpayers’ money on their grant. A follow-up point from local historian Allan Brigham, a council roadsweeper for many years, showed that there was a massive class divide even back then between students and working class communities. (I wonder to what extent this was driven by TV sitcoms as well as a failure by universities to bring together students and local residents for joint events and activities).

In the 2004 when Labour brought in higher but deferred fees, it was (along with the Iraq war) that cost Anne Campbell her seat when she abstained rather than voted against the legislation – a bill that needed the support of Labour MPs in Scotland to bring in fees that only affected students from England. The Tories at the time opposed the rise in fees, only to do a tyre-screeching U-turn a few years later in the Coalition of 2010-15, the effects of which still plague the Liberal Democrats. (My blogpost from ages ago on University fees covers the history of the policy that none of the political parties that should shame all political parties). Mrs Campbell said that they knew a long time in advance that Labour was going to lose Cambridge from information in the canvass returns.

The Iraq War – and Mrs Campbell’s resignation from the Labour Government

Mrs Campbell was asked a couple of questions about this and international intervention. In the initial run up to the war in autumn 2002, local peace campaigners presented a petition to her with over 2,000 signatures on it. She also received a similar amount of correspondence arguing against going to war.

“What persuaded her to resign as an aide to Patricia Hewitt in Government?”

Mrs Campbell explained that compared to other MPs, she was effectively a loyalist – very very rarely rebelling against the Labour whip. Voting against a Labour Government on anything was a very big deal for her. She said that it ultimately came down to the United Nations and the second UN resolution. If the United Nations explicitly authorised military action to get rid of the Weapons of Mass Destruction, she would vote with the Government. No resolution, she would not, and would resign. Which is ultimately what happened. (I’ll try and dig out the front page of the Cambridge News of this). One person she spoke very highly of when discussing whether to resign or not was the late Robin Cook – one of the first Labour politicians I remember from childhood because he was always on TV.

I remember at the time being furious with Patricia Hewitt for criticising Mrs Campbell over her considerations and ultimately her decision to resign, describing it as “self-indulgent.” But note the language Ms Hewitt used as a minister is identical to that of the current Prime Minister Theresa May on ‘working flat out’ to achieve an otherwise unachievable policy objective that everyone knows is unachievable. And thus dismissing hypotheticals that they don’t want to get drawn into – no matter how likely said hypothetical is. Today, Ms Hewitt has a role at the University of Oxford, and is on Liam Fox’s new Board of Trade – which feels very far removed from the Labour Party of today led by Jeremy Corbyn.

Back to 1992 – a front row seat on some huge political moments

Robin Cook made this speech on the Arms to Iraq Inquiry debate following the report published by Sir Richard Scott.

“Ministers changed the guidelines on defence sales, and did not tell Parliament or the court.”

The big accusation – which should have led to the fall of the government of the day, was that ministers were prepared to allow innocent men to go to jail to save their faces.   This not long after Mrs Campbell’s maiden speech in the Commons. Note how few women MPs and MPs from minority ethnic backgrounds there are in that 1992 House of Commons.

Campaigning against inequality – comparing the early 1990s with today

Mrs Campbell said that unemployment and low pay were two of Cambridge’s big problems, and that Cambridge University and its colleges were one of the major forces dragging down average pay across the city. It was only with the growth of supermarkets – Tesco in Milton and Fulbourn in particular opening in that period – that put upward pressure on pay with Cambridge University because they were paying more than the colleges were. I remember a number of people from my local supermarket moving to Tesco in Fulbourn because it paid over £1 an hour more – which was the equivalent of a 50% pay rise for some of them just for switching employer. Could you blame them?

You saw the demonisation of single parents by the former Secretary of State for Social Security. One of the things Mrs Campbell she campaigned on was to make work financially worthwhile for parents – especially single parents. She gave the example of a former county council employee who had to give up her job in the early 1990s after a relationship breakdown which meant that she was spending more on childcare than she could afford staying in her job. It was more affordable for her to be on benefits even though she wanted to stay in her job. The policy that Labour brought in on Working Family Tax Credits would ultimately result in nearly 100,000 fewer workless families with children, and no doubt had a positive impact on reducing poverty across more low paid families too.

Yet we still see homeless people on the street today as we did in the 1990s. So what has gone wrong? The big problem is not unemployment, but high costs of living and a lack of affordable housing – as one homeless person in Cherry Hinton was recently quoted in the Cambridge News. In retail, catering and other low paid but essential jobs needed to keep cities functioning, Cambridge has shortages. Yet employers say they cannot afford to pay more because of things like high rents and business rates. Given Cambridge’s ‘clone town’ reputation, franchise fees may also be an additional cost.



So how was your 2018? This was mine.



Writing a blogpost because creating a video medley feels like too hard work.

Remember that a couple of days before the start of the year, I was in a hospital bed recovering from exploratory surgery at Papworth Hospital (now Royal Papworth) following a suspected heart attack.

…hence starting this with a thank you to all who looked after me during that trial of life.

I wrote about it in this blogpost, which in the grand scheme of things says you come out a very different person from the one before. As a result, I ended up dropping things like hot stones – in particular anything political and community action.

Keeping Cambridge Special in the face of massive expansion – but special for whom?

Filming at a joint event at the start of the year – I wonder how these events will look to future historians in say in the year 2065 or 2200? Or will future historians be more interested in what delegates are wearing, the accents they speak in, and the set up of the conferencing facilities?

More Qs on the proposed metro system for Cambridge

When I tabled this question, I had no idea how controversial things were to become in the year ahead. From my perspective looking at things over a 100 year+ time horizon, Cambridge’s future transport has to involve tunnels along with something other than buses transporting people around and beyond town: i.e. it has to connect surrounding towns and villages too. Just before the end of this year, the Greater Cambridge Partnership *finally* published a video that should have been launched at the start back in 2014.

Had something like the above been commissioned and published back in 2014, they would have saved themselves a huge amount of work and aggravation.

Top economist Kate Raworth visits Cambridge for Imagine2027

An important series of events this was – Imagine 2027 by the Cambridge Commons & the Equality Trust brought together a number of top progressive thinkers to get them to set out their visions for life in 2027.

The centenary of some women being given the vote

Surely the politicians of the day were told that this would be a ***really rubbish headline*** in a hundred years time. But we’re stuck with it. The leader of the non-violent law-abiding suffragists, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was honoured with a civic blue plaque, unveiled by Cambridge’s first woman MP Anne Campbell (Lab – Cambridge 1992-2005).

Anne Campbell at the Cambridge Guildhall.

I was also invited to film a large conference on Women’s Suffrage in February 2018 – the videos are in this playlist with a number of top researchers and institutions in a field that hasn’t had nearly the attention its achievements deserve.

2018 began with protests too

The University and Colleges Union on pensions, which became something far greater than they had expected – turning into a wider campaign about imagining a better university that serves the many, not the few. Cuts by the Conservative-run county council were opposed by Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors. The structure of local government remains a sore point as it has done for over a century.

Clashes between developers trying to wriggle out of legal requirements on air quality versus new residents who quite understandably wanted to hold them to it

The ever-controversial CB1 development led to this confrontation at The Guildhall making the developers and their agents even less popular than they already are.

This made the Cambridge News in March, at

We had more familiar faces from politics TV (and the centre left/liberal press) in Cambridge with Imagine2027 including

The history of Cambridge the town had its profile raised

Not only through my efforts but those of others too. Tony Kirby gave a crash course on the history of housing in Cambridge.

For the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History

..while in South Cambridge, locals protested against the loss of one piece of local history. Queen Edith’s doesn’t have the grand historic buildings of the centre of town so we need to be careful with what we have. But ‘the market’ as structured works differently.

The County Council announced it wanted to sell off Shire Hall.

So I enquired about turning part of the site into an expanded Museum of Cambridge.

Governance issues

In the meantime things got heated between the county mayor James Palmer and the leader of Cambridge City Council Cllr Lewis Herbert and the newly elected leader of South Cambs District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith. This would only be the start of an eventful autumn.

In the meantime, the protests continued – this time on climate change.

While experts in the local building industry asked what sort of communities Cambridgeshire should be building.

The CFCI (who gave me a grant for a new camcorder) hosted this event which gave a series of scenarios that politicians really should have included in their consultations and publicity to local residents.

The Pro-EU campaign rocked up to Cambridge

…and TV and radio comedian Mitch Benn opened fire. Politically.

…Followed by Sir Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats, along with short summaries from county reps across East Anglia.

Spending a long hot summer in an air conditioned archive

It was the only way to cope I found. Turns out the archives is full of historical gems. The public may complain that they don’t know who their councillors are, but in the 1930s people were so familiar with them that they were easily caricatured. Here’s Dr Alex Wood of Cambridge Labour Party (PPC 1931 and 1935 in Cambridge) depicted as a carrot, and Albert Stubbs as an onion.

360919 Ronald Searle Alex Wood Carrott vegetable show Cartoon

…as Ronald Searle illustrated in the run up to WWII.


Turns out they had heatwaves in the olden days too.

Talking of olden days, Clara Rackham also got a blue plaque. This is her re-dramatised during the 1926 General Strike.

Above – Clara Rackham dramatised at a celebration event at ARU. Below, a colourised photo of Clara Rackham by Palmer Clark and Photo Restoration Services that I commissioned the latter to undertake from an image in the Cambridgeshire Collection.

181010 Clara Rackham Palmer Clark HiRes colourised Low Res.jpg

Clara Rackham, original image the Cambridgeshire Collection from the Palmer Clark glass plates

My favourite image from the glass plates, although a damaged negative, is the one below of Eglantyne Jebb, co-founder of Save the Children, and former local resident.

Eglantyne Jebb Palmer Clarke High Res_1.1 colourised before after

Eglantyne Jebb, original image the Cambridgeshire Collection from the Palmer Clark glass plates. Restored by Photo Restoration Services.

Finally, I purchased a wonderful vintage British Rail poster from the 1950s and gifted it to the Museum of Cambridge.


I presented some of the images from the archives, and the poster above, to Cambridge City Council’s full council.

Cllr Anna Smith (Lab – Romsey) for Cambridge City Council.

I also gave my first presentation on the Women who made Modern Cambridge for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. Around the same time I launched a new local history Meetup Group.

Finishing the year with more protests.

Climate change again, followed by the anti-Brexit bus

Extinction Rebellion forms in Cambridge

A big yellow bus arrived in Cambridge.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Madeleina Kay in Cambridge, with Boris lookalike @FauxBojo.

And finally…

Cambridge Live – the local civic entertainments charity taken over by city council


Outsourced a few years ago, the charity could not make ends meet so the civic entertainment and events function will now come back ‘in house’. But a £750,000 bail out is not cheap. There are also some wider issues with revenue streams – including transport.

The story is covered by the Cambridge Independent here.

The charity was launched to a big fanfare at the Cambridge Corn Exchange with a massive sing-a-long session called Lungjam. I remember it well – precariously perched at the top of one of the stage blocks wearing that red blazer that caused a mini-storm when Question Time came to town.

Spring 2015 – Lungjam at the Cambridge Corn Exchange.

I wrote about the event above at the time in an earlier blogpost.

Signs of trouble – a request for half a million

This came about at the meeting of Cambridge City Council’s full council back in July 2018. (See the minutes here). I went along to that meeting to test what sort of mood executive councillors were in regarding raising money for some big heritage projects. I asked about:

  • Establishing a permanent ‘Mayor of Cambridge’s Fund’ to raise money for large civic infrastructure – like a permanent museum of the city’s history, a concert hall even bigger than the Cambridge Corn Exchange, and so forth,
  • The costs of commissioning two statues on the plinths either side of the main entrance to the existing guildhall
  • The cost of repairing the old music organ in the large hall

to which the answers weren’t exactly positive

It was only when I started finding treasures in local archives, and spending my own money on acquiring visually striking historical items such as this vintage British Rail poster from 1957 below, that I have gifted to the Museum of Cambridge, that I started seeing some movement from local politicians.


Above – an original British Railways poster advertising Cambridge that I bought from an art dealer and I donated to the Museum of Cambridge in mid-2018.

Above – Cllr Anna Smith (Lab -Romsey) on seeing examples of large scale prints from glass plate negatives of the women who made modern Cambridge, that I took along to the county council in Autumn 2018.

“£750,000 … could have gotten an expanded Museum of Cambridge on Castle Hill for that money.”

That depends on what happens with Castle Hill – which the County Council (separate to the city council, the former being under Conservative control) want to dispose of. This is the latest on the Shire Hall site. Personally I hope they can come to some agreement with the existing Museum of Cambridge – which in the grand scheme of things still functions as Enid Porter’s Cambridge and County Folk Museum, rather than a place that tells ‘the history of a city’. As a sum though, they’d need more to rebuild the old courthouse that I think should be rebuilt to house an expanded museum on such an historic site.

Shire Hall Court House 28543 PhotoCambridge Castle Hill from air southwards

Above – the old Assizes Court House on Castle Hill – from the Museum of Cambridge’s archives and Britain From Above.

“Has Cambridge Live told anyone yet?”

Not at the time of blogging – 21 Dec 2018. But with the city council as guarantor, it’s business as usual for the rest of the financial year by the looks of it.

The next full council meeting is not until 21st February 2019 when the opposition Cambridge Liberal Democrats will be throwing more than a few questions as indicated by their group leader Cllr Tim Bick (LD – Market).

The Charities Commission registration for Cambridge Live, including documents and submissions, is here. Their Companies House registration and documents are here. Make of them what you will. The Board, Trustees, and staff of the organisation are here.

“Are Heritage, Arts and Civic Entertainments always loss-makers?”

They don’t have to be. But it’s no different to other sectors that have proportionally small number of well known people & institutions who make fortunes, while everyone else scrapes on by. Even in a city like Cambridge, the leisure offering has simply not kept pace with the growth in population. In fact, in some parts it feels like it has gone in reverse – The Junction used to put on a number of club nights aimed at teenagers, students and young adults in the 1990s, but these have all but disappeared. Both the Kelsey Kerridge and the Cambridge Corn Exchange used to have club and disco nights, but no longer do. Warren Dosanjh’s book on Cambridge in the 1960s shows what we’ve lost.

It’s also not the first time that the Corn Exchange has been called into question over its finances. Over the decades there have been cases where expenditure on it has come into question. It was only overhauled and turned into an arts venue in the mid-1980s after all of the other attempts to build a new concert hall in the Lion Yard fell through. Both the Masonic Lodge and the YMCA – as Warren’s book shows – were live music venues that were lost. Ditto the old Alley Club.

Buildings need maintaining, and that doesn’t come cheap

Ditto running costs. Go into any cathedral and you’re more than likely to see a donations bowl (and/or smart screen for card donations) stating how much it costs to keep such a place open daily. Trying to get local councils to set up facilities for online donations (such as Cambridgeshire Libraries here – it’s work in progress) has been more of a struggle than it should have been. For that I lay the blame at the door of the politicians that run the organisations, esp given the financial pressures.

“Are Cambridge’s civic venues too small?”

In 1996/97 I went to a number of gigs around the time of ‘peak Britpop’, and the Corn Exchange was one of the venues that a number of groups in the music charts would visit and play at. If you go backstage you can see the timeline of groups that have played at that venue. Funnily enough, the most famous person ever to headline at the Cambridge Corn Exchange wasn’t a musician or a professional artist. He was a politician. Winston Churchill – in 1939.

When you take a look at recent line ups as far as popular and contemporary non-classical music is concerned, there are three themes that stand out:

  • Tribute acts to huge but long gone names
  • Partially reconstituted groups that were once famous
  • Individual performers who are on their way down after peaking several years ago

In 2012 both The Junction and Cambridge Corn Exchange made it into the UK’s top 100 venues for the PRS. Or rather, scraped into the top 100 behind The Apex in Bury St Edmunds (which as I found out is a splendid compact concert hall with a razor sharp acoustic) and the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage, and The Square in Harlow. I’ve named those as they are geographically the closest of those listed to Cambridge.

If we look at capacity in this otherwise incomplete list on WikiP, to break out the themes that now seem to make up much of what’s on offer at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge needs an even bigger venue – and just as importantly one that has a public transport interchange. Hence why the redevelopment of Cambridge Railway Station and the old Cattle Market were two huge missed opportunities for Cambridge’s art & music scene.

“Getting to and from venues – is one of the secrets to the sustainability of Cambridge’s entertainment venues a decent transport plan for the city?”

In the 1990s I was astonished at some of the distances some of my fellow gig and nightclub goers would travel to get into Cambridge – in particular those that came from out of the county. Party politics has failed generations of public transport users. In an ideal world you’d want your public transport access for large entertainment venues to be ‘across the square’ or a very short walking distance from the exit that didn’t involve walking past aggressive drunk people en route. (The state of UK housing policy being for another blogpost).

It’s one of the things that’s ever so easily forgotten by all concerned – even councillors with teenage children who tell me about life as a taxi for them. But as the public transport function does not sit with the city council, it’s not straight forward to synchronise their leisure and entertainments functions with a county council/combined authority function based even more remotely than ever before.










Greater Cambridge Partnership step it up a gear


This is what they should have articulated back in 2014.

The new video from the Greater Cambridge Partnership/City Deal.

…even though some things can be easily lampooned by those of us who have followed the rollercoaster for the past four years.

Now, a lot of credit has to go to local campaigners and campaign groups who have spent a huge amount of time and effort on getting the partnership to this place. Although the map below is a later iteration, Dr Colin Harris of the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project did a huge amount of research before presenting a map that included where stations could be, and examined comparative costs and methods of financing with other light rail schemes in Europe and beyond.

181214 Cambridge_Connect_Light_Rail_Map.jpg

See for more details.

There was also the Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Rail Haverhill, the Federation of Cambridge Residents Association, and an alliance of campaign groups in and beyond West Cambridge amongst others who kept on campaigning and persisting – demanding something far better than what was being presented to the city and county.

A very rocky first two years

To be honest, it was painful. I won’t go into details in this post, rather I’ll leave it to the Smarter Cambridge Transport campaign who articulated the issues back in summer 2016.

Part of the frustration I had with everything led me to launch something called “Be The Change Cambridge” in early 2015 to try and articulate some of the issues and get a critical mass of people together to start finding solutions to those problems. One of my biggest criticisms of the general approach to local government in the county was the very weak use of social and digital media in the face of the budgets that they had – and the access to some of the best practitioners of it that I tried repeatedly to introduce them to.

It’s a little painful to watch now, but one chap and a 2010-era mini-camcorder and some very very basic training later and I made the video below.

From February 2015 – Be the change Cambridge. 

With a far bigger budget and professional specialist communications brought in, you can see the difference in impact the most recent Greater Cambridge video has, even if you may have issues with the content and schemes they are promoting.

One slick video and documents pack won’t solve the problems of content

Two years ago, campaigners in and beyond West Cambridge were protesting against one of the more controversial schemes, the Cambourne-Cambridge ‘expressway’ for want of another term.

All these people turned out on a cold December day to protest in 2016.

They had cross-party support as well.

Julius Carrington (Cambridge Conservatives), Cllr Bridget Smith (South Cambs Lib Dems), Stuart Tuckwood (Cambridge Green Party) in December 2016.

They were back again in the autumn of 2017

Another protest against the West Cambridge plans – a video medley..

The party political fallout was brutal – the following year in the 2018 local council elections for South Cambridgeshire, which happen once every four years, the incumbent Conservative Group was crushed by the Liberal Democrats, who took three quarters of all of the council seats on the back of disquiet with the Greater Cambridge Partnership of which at the time the Cambridgeshire Conservatives had the majority of voting seats on the GCP Board. And thus the blame that went with it. Today the seat for South Cambridgeshire now rests with the Liberal Democrats, & Cllr Aidan Van De Weyer.

Closer alignment between the Greater Cambridge Partnership and the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority

You can see that some incredibly difficult conversations have been had between politicians and officials over the past year – and the working relationships remain as tense as ever given finance and personnel issues with Mayor James Palmer that have been in the news recently. That was before budget issues with Cambridgeshire County Council exploded onto the front pages a couple of days ago.

Finally getting the Greater Cambridge Partnership to agree on the concept of tunnels under the city of Cambridge as part of solving the congestion problem

Originally the message from the early team of officers seemed to be ‘more buses’ was the solution. When the Conservative Government pre-EU-Ref came up with the concept of a county mayor first for East Anglia, and then for Cambridgeshire, there were more than a few concerns on how this would align with the GCP. There still are. But what is a relief from my perspective is that the GCP have come round to agreeing to the concept of tunnels under the city as proposed by Mayor James Palmer during his election campaign of 2016.

With the above, it was the Cambridge Connect Light Rail plans that finally caught the imagination of the people of Cambridge & District (I’m more comfortable with that term as I grew up with it) when it came to ideas for solving the congestion problem. For a lot of us, myself included, we were like: ***Yeah – we want *That* [pointing to map of proposed light rail network]***

I’m still behind Dr Colin Harris’s concept of a light rail underground for Cambridge – one that ultimately extends out to the market towns of Haverhill, St Neots, Newmarket, Ely, St Ives, Chatteris, Sawston, Comberton, and so on within the next 75 years or so – thinking along much longer timescales than many politicians and officials. That’s the historian in me. I’ve examined the history and have noted where decisions taken decades/centuries – even a millennia ago still affect us today.

The financial deadline from The Treasury approaches

Back in June 2018 at a time when political relations were still tense, the Communities Secretary James Brokenshire warned that the next and vital tranche of funding – £400million of it was “Not Guaranteed”, in the face of political disagreement at a local level. (See the report here). I’d like to think that this helped concentrate the minds of all involved. But my criticism remains that historically, Cambridge and actually the whole of England is long overdue a restructure of local government. They used to happen once every decade or two, but we’ve not had one for over 40 years, and many towns and cities have changed significantly since then. In the case of Cambridge, it continues to do so at a very fast pace to the extent that in my view, a unitary authority for Cambridge and District/Greater Cambridge is justified. The party political disagreement is where to draw the boundaries. Conservatives will want enough rural districts that traditionally vote Tory to be included so as to swamp the Labour/Liberal majority that dominates in and around Cambridge.

The Oxford-Cambridge-Arc

Too much of the marketing of both the ancient university cities of England pretends that you’ll have views of the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College Cambridge or the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Private educational institutions in my experience tend to be the worst, pretending that Cambridge has this magic pixie dust that gets sprinkled on you if you just happen to do an expensive course within a given distance of Senate House and King’s College Chapel. But I have to say that this is probably the most laughable example of trying to jump onto ‘brand Cambridge’ – not even in the same county (Clue is in the IP – Ipswich postcode) and taking no account into the traffic jam that is the A14. So once the planned Oxford/Cambridge motorway is built and/or the much needed East West Rail (which I hope goes beyond Oxford westwards to South Wales, and onto Norwich and Great Yarmouth beyond Cambridge), expect to see things like “Oxbridge/Camford college is ideally placed between the two great university cities and benefit from both of them – we’re based in Bedford/Milton Keynes…”

“You’re a cynic you are”

I know. It comes with age. I’m 40 next year.

Note that in the next couple of years, a number of important schemes – in particular cycleways – will have been completed. The Chisholm Trail for me is the big game changer, which I think will not only take more cyclists off the main roads and onto a much safer segregated cycleway travelling north-south through Cambridge next to the railway line, but also generate a far greater number of cycle journeys currently not taken. So it is essential that as soon as the cycleway is opened that the evaluation process is begun very shortly afterwards.







Isabel Hardman at the Cambridge Literary Festival 2018


National politics far too early for a Saturday morning. But I wasn’t going to miss a masterclass from one of my contemporary political heroes.

Several years ago, my jaw metaphorically hit the floor when I got a notification that Isabel Hardman of The Spectator had started following Puffles on Twitter. I had been keeping an eye and ear out for her journalistic output as one of the top political journalists and commentators on the circuit in Westminster.

Political journalism isn’t easy, but to be honest a number of mainstream journalists and institutions have been getting their reputations called into question of late – and understandably so. My persistent call has been for media organisations to be far more transparent about which stories they select to run with, and how they select them. The BBC, given the accountability via the licence, comes in for particular criticism on this front. Interestingly I have found that support staff and journalists the commercial broadcasters have been far more interactive with their viewers than their BBC counterparts.

Too much testosterone in politics and the media

In recent years I’ve started automatically switching off from the long established programmes and personalities in the field. Messrs Humphries and Marr for example are two that I will switch radio or TV channels over. Never having ever been positively disposed towards alpha male aggression in life generally, those sort of confrontations put me off politics – whether at a local, national or international level. Party-political phallus-waving and faux outrage is particularly tedious. Cease with this oxygen thievery!

At the same time, subconsciously I’ve gravitated towards women politicians and journalists in terms of reading their output and listening to their reports – and watching their contributions in the Commons and council chambers. (I’m one of those sad people who goes to council meetings…someone’s got to keep an eye on things).

Stage presence and the ability to ‘command’ an audience or ‘hold the room’.

Very few develop this ability to command the attention of an audience just by being there, or just by speaking a few words. Stella Creasy (pictured below with Puffles in Trafalgar Square several years ago) is one of them.


I’ve seen Stella speak at conferences, in the Commons (on TV) and also at a local workshop she ran in Cambridge a few years ago. There’s something about her tone of voice, pace of delivery, body language and content of what she’s saying that when put together can be extremely powerful and moving.

There are others in the field of politics who also have that presence – Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party is another – I’d love to see her get elected in the not-too-distant future. Her party co-leader, Sian Berry is another – and she’s finally getting some of the national recognition in politics that her hard work over the past couple of decades has merited. Caroline Flint, when as a minister I worked for her in the civil service, was another excellent public speaker who could hold an audience. Jo Swinson for the Lib Dems is another – someone who, for the sake of the Lib Dems in my view needs to step up to the leadership of their party.

Three men and a lady

The lead sponsor of the event was the New Statesman Magazine, which meant half the spaces on stage went to them. For the other two spaces, both David Runciman of the University of Cambridge, and Isabel, are recently-published authors.

Isabel’s book called Why we get the wrong politicians is of particular interest to me because I still haven’t figured out what the best methods are locally of encouraging people to get involved in local democracy, let alone stand for election. I set up the Democracy Cambridge FB page as a means for local people to receive ‘passive updates’ on things that are happening in the hope that people will pick up on things of interest to them, but in the grand scheme of things even a city like Cambridge has huge room for improvement. My take still remains that Cambridge needs to adopt a city-wide approach on a whole host of things. But given how fragmented our public institutions are – all too often for party-political reasons, it’s difficult to see how this will change in the near future.

“What did Isabel have to say?”

Lots – and with good reason. I live-tweeted the event so you can pick up some of the quotations here.

University tuition fees are a classic example of the above. In 1997 the Dearing Review that led to the first tuition fees (that were up front – my A-level cohort being the first generation to pay them) is something that I still haven’t forgiven Tony Blair and New Labour for. (I can carry grudges for a ***very long time*** – and financially at least this was particularly painful). The 2010 Browne Review which brought fees up to the level they are now was a continuation of the theme. Everyone knew what was going to happen: Minister (in this case David Lammy on behalf of Gordon Brown) commissioned Lord Browne of BP-fame to do a ‘review’ – or rather, provide cover for a political decision to raise fees significantly further, and report back just after a general election so that there is maximum time for the electorate to get used to it. Which is what happened. Only the Tories and Lib Dems implemented it.

Having seen one of my younger Twitter followers posting a snapshot of the total amount she owed to her old university being over £50,000…if that were my old undergraduate university sending me such a bill, I’d probably have gone back and burnt the place down &/or had a complete mental breakdown, such was my experience there.

MPs get sent emails from their party whips offices telling them the votes that are happening on a given day, and which way to vote. When the voting bell rings, they trundle through the voting lobbies in Parliament, many without a clue on what they are voting for or against.

…with the inevitable consequences. When in 2010 furious Labour MPs complained about the rise in university tuition fees was being done through a statutory instrument – a much faster procedure, too many of them forgot that they were the ones that had passed the enabling power in an earlier Act of Parliament enabling their political opponents to act in this way in a sleight of hand by Tony Blair’s government in 2004 – one which they used MPs representing Scottish constituencies to get the majority in the Commons to push the vote through, even though Scotland was not affected.

The nature of the system which is so archaic and crafted in language beyond the reach of most people. The rules of Parliamentary procedure – Erskine May is not even available online for free. You need to pay over £300 for your own copy. An attempt to get it published through a Freedom of Information Request failed.

The politicians who have been at the forefront of getting this system changed, from my viewpoint have predominantly been women – in particular Caroline Lucas MP (Brighton Pavillion) and Stella Creasy above.

Isabel has some answers

But you’ll need to read her book to find out what they are.

One thing I’d have liked one of the speakers to have done at the end was to have challenged all of us in the audience to do one small one off action or small behaviour change to help make a difference to the situation that we all find ourselves in. The reason being is that we weren’t the most diverse audience in the world, to put it mildly. It certainly wasn’t a reflection of Cambridge the town, that’s for sure. It was more…

Middle Class is Magical

Because the thing is, if no actions stem from events where we explore a given set of social problems, no difference is made. All that happened is that a group of people from an affluent/connected/academic background had a nice morning session at one of Cambridge’s colleges. And I’d like to think that one of the reasons Isabel wrote her book and took part in the session in Cambridge was to inspire people to take action of some sort to make things better.

Anyway, Puffles is a happy dragon with a signed copy of Isabel’s book – noting that back in 2014 city council elections in Cambridge, 89 people decided that Puffles was not the wrong politician for Coleridge Ward in Cambridge, vanquishing UKIP in the process. (They said they would stand in every city ward, but didn’t. So got zero votes in Coleridge. And got beaten by Puffles).


My DIY results poster for the Coleridge Ward, Cambridge 2014 local council elections

Behind the scenes tour of the Cambridgeshire Collection


It’s worth booking one for yourself to see some of the hidden treasures.

…but you will need to be a small group – ten definitely – possibly five max. Book one here. With thanks to Caroline, Celia and Mary for putting up with me this afternoon!

What percentage of the collection is on public display? Under three percent. If there was ever an argument for expanding the Museum of Cambridge in order to house the collection and city archives amongst other things, that is it. I’d hazard a guess that most competent and passionate archivists would be able to wax lyrical about the hidden treasures of the places they work in and the collections they curate. My argument about the history of Cambridge the town is that too many of our treasures are unknown, hidden away, or lost – demolished in the face of the developers’ wrecking balls.

“The Archive Service is effectively operating at its statutory minimum”

Their words, not mine.

…which explains why there is so little officer capacity to do anything other than run a very basic service. Remember that volunteers and supporters need to be properly managed by permanent staff – which costs money.

Cuts to library services – and protests against them are nothing new

When the first public library was opened in Cambridge, there was no reading room. You looked at a catalogue, picked what you wanted to borrow, the book would be fetched for you and you’d bring it back at a later date.


…which is why supporters of our first borough librarian, John Pink, presented this scroll to councillors pleading with them not to cut the library service in its early days. But with such weak internal partition walls in Grand Arcade/Lion Yard, very little can be hung from the walls. 

Personally I think we should have a big picture of John Pink at the library’s entrance as he was the one who made the service what it is – and why it survives today.

CBG Graphic John PInk Cambridge Library Founder 1900.jpg

Civic legend – John Pink ran the Cambridge Library Service for half a century.

Photographs, negatives and glass plates measured in the millions – digitisation is not straight forward

It’s easy for the likes of David Cameron to say ‘Yay! Big Society!’ but with so much content to go through, you need to have people who know what they are looking for to undertake such a task – and have the time and willpower to actually do it. All too often, one task is dependent on another. Cataloguing is one such unsung task that is essential to researchers. In Cambridge, some noteworthy attempts at this have been done – have a look through to see some examples of photographers in and around Cambridge over the decades. Looking through the chest of draws with the card indexes of one prominent firm of photographers was a sobering reminder of just how big the tasks are of digitising and cataloguing such works.

Gifts from Royalty

“And this was a gift to the library from Queen Mary”

The problem is that there isn’t anywhere suitable to display many of the items on display. As with some of the displays of jewellery at the Fitzwilliam, some items require incredibly specialist rooms, walls and display cases for the public to see them while at the same time protecting the condition and integrity of the items concerned.

Chicken and egg on digitisation

How do you get people interested in something if they don’t know what is in the collection? How do you decide what to digitise and advertise if you don’t know what people will like? It’s a tough one because digitisation alone isn’t the magic wand it can sometimes be promoted as. I learnt about some more better resourced places that had done the digitisation and automated ordering for images, but this had not resulted in a corresponding return on investment. But then a little bit of me was like:

“Yeah – but we’re Cambridge and we have lots of famous people!”

…that plus there are a stack load of images of the colleges from ages ago which, if entries on online auction websites is anything to go by, there’s some milage in digitising the familiar scenes of the big name colleges and chapels.

The hidden histories where digitisation would make a difference on sharing local history

One Victorian surveyor in town took it upon himself to redraw a whole host of historical building plans and present the findings to the Cambridgeshire Collection. Below is one example – the infamous Spinning House.


Police on one side, preachers to the other, there was no escape for the poor women unlawfully locked up in the Vice Chancellor’s private prison.

Clara Rackham’s gift to the library

Clara’s brother-in-law, the illustrator Arthur Rackham, illustrated many a book, including a series of the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Clara, the long-service Labour councillor, suffragist and unilateralist, gifted signed copies of this series to the library and the people of Cambridge.


Above – a snapshot of one of the titles in the set – which don’t come cheap if you want your own original copies.

Show off the colourful stuff

Cambridge, like many other places had adverts like this up all over the place at coronation time. They don’t look big on this page, but these banners are *huge*. It’s only when you see them at full scale do you get to appreciate their size and impact.


Locals to Cambridge and Ely may recognise the Octagon Tower of the cathedral.

For me, it’s the colourful things that are the ones that catch people’s attention. At the same time, it’s got to be part of a strategy of getting people aware of, and invited in to share our collective history. But as I mentioned earlier, a lack of decent shared community exhibition and gallery space is a huge barrier.

And finally….

After over 4 years of bloody warfare on an industrial scale, imagine turning up to work to receive this:


“Huge plans to build metro from Cambridge to Haverhill, Huntingdon and Mildenhall”

…which makes it a public transport system that goes beyond Cambridgeshire – good. But it’s still at the scoping stage. 

The article written by Josh Thomas is here.

Mr Palmer posted the following updates


181106 CAMMetroMapPalmer copy.jpg

Click on the image above to see the additional stops.

I’m still attached to the Cambridge Connect plan.

One of the things that has muddied the picture for over a century with transport and local government is the local government boundaries.


The administrative boundaries of Cambridgeshire County Council from G-Maps show Cambridge, the county town being geographically closer to the likes of Mildenhall, Newmarket, Saffron Walden, Bedford, and Haverhill (the last being one of the largest towns without a railway service) than Wisbech – 40 miles north suffering from economic deprivation for decades with very poor transport links to anywhere.

Addenbrooke’s and the Biomedical Campus in particular need the Haverhill link completed as quickly as possible given the amount of traffic that is on the roads already. How we got to here without the substantial transport investment needed reflects badly on successive national governments and their refusal to provide either resources or powers necessary to have prevented this situation.

Regarding Mildenhall, the future of the airbase is one of the reasons influencing considerations there – alongside the pre-Beeching era railway line (as with Haverhill) long since closed. Discussions on what should be done with the base are already in full flow, and given Cambridge’s housing pressures, following the pattern of building housing on and around former air bases is one of the options.

Mayoral Development Corporations

Looking at the Localism Act cited in Mr Thomas’s article, the Act regarding MDCs only applies to London. Therefore new legislation would be needed to give similar powers to executive mayors in England. Given the time it would take to get a new bill through Parliament, chances are that ministers would look at powers under existing legislation to designate/empower an organisation with the planning powers Mr Palmer speaks of.

Cambridgeshire’s governance remains a mess – and ministers only have themselves to blame


By Smarter Cambridge Transport.

The Greater Cambridge/Greater Peterborough Partnership has since been absorbed into the Combined Authority’s infrastructure. Yet as I’ve said before, Cambridgeshire – and England generally is long overdue a comprehensive restructure of local government, the last one being in the mid-1970s.

Cambridge – close to the borders of Herts, Beds, Suffolk and Essex

When I was at sixth form college in the late 1990s I was struck by the number of students who had to cross county boundaries to do courses at places that for me were within walking distance. They were out of the door before 7am while I could be still in bed at 8.30am even though we both had classes starting at 9am.

Any Mayoral Development Corporation looking at significantly improving transport in and around Cambridge beyond the villages will need to have powers extending to some of the nearby larger towns over the county boundary – Haverhill being one of the more significant of these. At the same time, one of the areas that really needs improved transport links is east and north east of Cambridge – in particular the upgrading of existing branch lines.

Some areas are inevitably outside of the Mayor’s legal competency – such as dealing with Freight on the A14. Not a day seems to go by without reports of an accident on it. It’s also not new.

CEN 19951003 Hunts A14.jpg

Above – from 1995. Nearly a quarter of a century later and we still have similar headlines.

It remains to be seen if the proposed East West Rail will form part of the solution to the A14’s problems. The maps on this web page showing mid-2000s rail traffic highlight thinking around freight-only rail lines – freight being far heavier than passenger trains (which in the grand scheme of things are metal tubes full of people rather than wagons full of materials and liquids) do more damage to rail tracks. At the same time, freight services don’t need to be nearly as frequent as passenger services. Hence different repair regimes/schedules could be possible.

“Will Mr Palmer get the funding and powers?”

Parliament had an inquiry on land value capture – one of the means of funding this – you can read their report here. We await ministers’ responses to this. Otherwise it’s issuing bonds against future fare revenue, or waiting for the Treasury to open its purse strings again. And thus we are back to the same problem of Cambridge not being able to tap into the wealth it is generating for the economy to re-invest in much needed infrastructure.


Cambridgeshire Conservatives to sell off Shire Hall, Cambridge


What will become of this very historic site in Cambridge City, where the Conservatives have no councillors?”


Please note the clarification from the Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, Cllr Steve Count:

The Conservative Party seems to have a love-hate relationship with the City of Cambridge in recent decades. Historically, Cambridge Borough used to be a safe Conservative seat – so safe that they were able to parachute Sir Eric Geddes in as our MP a century ago without so much as a grumble. The high point for borough Conservatives was in the interwar era when the number of people turning up to their summer fete at the Gog Magog Hills opposite Wandlebury near Addenbrooke’s would easily exceed 10,000 people.

380802 Cambridge Conservatives Fete The Gogs Crowds.jpeg

From the Cambs Collection, over 10,000 people rock up to the annual Cambridge Conservatives’ Summer Fete. Note back then, Cambridge County was administratively much smaller – encompassing what is now South Cambs today.

The Implosion of the once mighty Cambridge Conservative Party

In the late 1970s, Cambridge Conservatives ran Cambridge City Council with 24 councillors. By the Millennium this number was down to two. (See the decline in this diagram by the late Colin Rosenstiel). There is a Ph.D thesis/mega research project waiting for a political historian to study and conclude how and why this happened.

In more recent times, a number of public buildings and services have come under threat –

…despite ministers telling anyone who will listen about how important Cambridge is to the national economy. (90% of business rates collected by the city council are surrendered to The Treasury for redistribution to more economically deprived areas – one of the sticking plasters from the early 1990s to deal with the mess of the Poll Tax policy that has stuck with us).

Cambridgeshire archives

The decision to move the archives out of the city was met with much anger in local history circles – not least because of the way plans to move the archives to a new heritage centre by the railway station (that article from 2005) were abandoned in very controversial circumstances – ones that hit the national news not so long ago. The decision to move the county archive out of the county town caused some problems for Cambridge City Council, who moved its archive into the county’s after the restructure of local government in the 1970s meant libraries and archives moved from district to county councils.

Cambridge Magistrates Courts

The Conservatives in government have tried to close Cambridge’s Magistrates Courts – something that South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen opposed (See here) and ultimately abandoned by the Courts Minister, Lucy Frazer MP for South East Cambridgeshire who found herself with this particularly tricky item on her table shortly after being appointed as Courts Minister.

Cambridge’s Crown Post Office

Now privatised although threatened with renationalisation under a prospective Labour government, Cambridge’s main post office (which always seems busy and full of tourists whenever I need to go in there for anything) is under threat. With a strong trade union tradition in the postal services, Labour MP for Cambridge, Daniel Zeichner has backed the campaign to save it. Given that it is such a short distance from nearly all of the major bus routes into the city centre, the accessibility point is well made.

And now Shire Hall

While I think it reflects extremely badly on the Conservative Party as a whole to be moving the county council’s HQ outside of the county town as a matter of principle (the same would apply to any other political party doing the same), my main concern now is what happens to the Castle Hill site.

I’ve made the case repeatedly that the site should remain in council ownership, but if they really wanted/needed the income, to sell a long term lease to a hotel company to create a historically-themed hotel along with additional office accommodation.

[Updated to read:]

As per the clarification here and at the top, it is still the intention to lease the site – though a complete disposal of the site has not been ruled out.

However, there is nothing on official Cambridgeshire County Council’s website, or social media feeds clarifying that it was a long term lease available. Ditto on Strutt and Parker’s website – the agents appointed by the County Council. Hence making it harder for anyone to know the difference – all the public are seeing is the risk that a very historical site where Cambridge was near as dammit founded, is being privatised and turned into student flats or something that will bar off the general public – irrespective of whether it is true or not. Read the Cambridge Independent here for more.

“Who’s interested in the sale of the site?”

One firm is already getting excited about the prospect of more student flats.

…which would be the effective privatisation of another public building. The above reaction from Puffles was one of the more polite and muted ones compared to others I’ve seen.

Museum of Cambridge Castle Hill Satellite

The one thing to note is that the two car parks at road side of the site, plus the green, are now protected open spaces in the new Local Plan. Any new owner would be barred from developing/building on them. Then there is the Castle Mound listed historical monument which they cannot touch.

“Does this mean a possible heritage attraction won’t happen?”

For me, the worst case scenario is turning the site over to an ‘apart hotel’ operator – which, along with one web-based brand have become unpopular with local residents as guests are not supervised and can become hotspots for anti-social behaviour. But it would be a minimum cost, maximum profit operation for an unscrupulous developer. None of the hassle of running a hotel, but the benefits of being able to charge per night rather than per term. Note that the Castle Park building – formerly council offices, are already student accommodation.

“What should be done about Shire Hall?”

I’m not going to go into the politics behind the decision – that’s for a separate post at some future date. Note a couple of years ago I made some experimental videos exploring some of the history of the town – and started off outside Shire Hall.

The full playlist of videos is here

For me, it’s perfectly viable to combine a new heritage attraction – in my case an expanded Museum of Cambridge, along with a boutique hotel aimed at the upper end of the market rather than the mass market or student accommodation, while having office and restaurant accommodation incorporated in part of that redevelopment. This could include a rooftop cafe/bar with even better views than The Varsity’s Rooftop Terrace. The views are splendid but unfortunately at huge cost to the privacy to local residents in the centre of Cambridge, and also the terrace ruins the view of St John’s College from Jesus Green.

“Where would the museum expansion go?”

Where the car parks are

“Hang on – aren’t they now protected?”

They are, but it’s easier to make the case for the car parks to be designated for a heritage development in a future local plan if it involves rebuilding something that was already there in the first place. In this case it is the old magnificent Victorian Assizes Court build in the mid 1800s.

Above – models and photos of the old Assizes Court on Castle Hill, Cambridge. From the Cambridgeshire Collection.

“What will decisions come down to?”

For me, it’ll be purely rational and cold-blooded – for all of the emotion that could get thrown into it. Which one guarantees the county council the most money based on the criteria that they come up with for the sale. One of those criteria is about the heritage aspect of it – as they confirmed in a response to a public Q I tabled earlier this year.

“Who in their right mind goes to meetings of the Commercial and Investment Committee of their local council during the working day?!?”

“What might a solution look like that will placate all concerned?”

For me, a partnership between Cambridge City Council, some of the colleges, and a crowd-funding campaign targeting those firms and organisations that have been in Cambridge a long time, along with any philanthropists, would be ideal. That way, both town and gown have a financial stake in one of the most historic sites in the city – from where the Romans and the Normans rocked up, to where much of the river trade passed,  the place where the Great Suffrage March in 1913 marched past – (Sat 19th of July 1913 to be precise – read the report here), and the place where the Cambridgeshire Regiment was to make its final stand against an invading army during the dark days of the early 1940s.

Cambridge Defences WWII

Above – from the County Archive, the WW2 defence plan for Cambridge against the nazi invaders.

Note the boundary between E and A company of the 5th Btn Cambridgeshire Regiment (Home Guard), with A Company guarding the section between the railway line and Newmarket Road. Now you know why the ice rink being built there got delayed.

“Can the heritage be protected and even enhanced?”

My heart says ‘yes but’…and my head says ‘no…but…’

To give such a bid any chance of success, a consortium led or chaired by someone credible (i.e. not me – because Puffles) who can command the confidence of local government, the colleges, the local historical community, and beyond. How we go about putting that group together… I am all ears. Email me if you have any ideas and/or want to be involved in a response – antonycarpen [at] gmail




When nothing edible can fill the emptiness inside me

…and when eating a big tube of jellytots makes things worse!

Following on from my last blogpost – and thank you to those of you who took time to respond, if you remember one thing from this post, it’s not to eat a tube full of jellytots. You get a sugar rush that needs far too much fibre-based foods to combat. Yet growing up I can’t recall times when I was conscious of different foods affecting my mood.

Following a morning of filming Heidi Allen’s Brexit event in Cambourne (videos here) followed by a champagne tea at Homerton College for their 250th Birthday, I came away with the familiar sensations of having been in crowded rooms full of people yet completely and utterly disconnected from them at the same time. The first time I had heard of this as a concept was in the mid-1990s when The Levellers wrote JulieWhat I didn’t know at the time was that a few years later I’d move down to the town where the band formed – in Brighton. It would be a full decade after first hearing their music that I’d see them live – at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2004.

“Oh – it’s Puffles!” 

Heidi introduced me to the packed hall as I brought in my filming kit – telling the audience that the event was being filmed. (Not everyone likes being on camera at political events – even ones that are open to the public, hence why this is important). As I made my way through to the back of the hall, I could hear people whispering in hushed tones:

“Oh! It’s Puffles!” 

In some parts of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire and London I’m more known for the escapades of my tweeting dragon Puffles. The dragon’s not everyone’s cup of tea – but in recent times I’ve been getting more comments about why I’m not taking the dragon out and about.

“How does a person feel disconnected and empty inside, while having ***over seven thousand social media followers***??!?”

Those around in Puffles’ early days have often commented that social media felt a lot more friendlier back then than today. In the early 2010s every so often I’d host pub lunches in London for social media friends who had not met up face-to-face before. What struck me at the time with those was how the conversations seemed to have a natural flow to them – as if everyone had known each other for years even though they had not met face-to-face before.

Eventually I was no longer able to sustain hosting them – a train ticket and a pub lunch in London doesn’t leave much change from £50, and few people were willing to spend that much to make the return journey. While finance is less of an issue now, it’s health and confidence that are my barriers. It’s only when you’ve experienced the sensation of heart-related chest pains that put you in A&E that as a chronic worrier you end up second-guessing every bodily ache or pain. I cannot begin to tell you how draining that is.

Your life through the eyes of other people

In the process of a clear-out of things, I stumbled across a host of photos from my first couple of years at university – mainly of other people long gone from my life who I never knew for long anyway, and a handful of me. All I see of myself in those photos is just how ill and gaunt I looked – something that obviously reflects badly on myself but also of the institutions that should have intervened but never did. Photos of me in pre-social media age are actually quite rare – from my early teens I made it my business to stay out of photographs because of incredibly low self-esteem combined with being horrified at the results of photographs that were actually taken of me.

The really sad thing in all of the sets of photos – most of which will be binned because most were from visits to other places with people who I was only with for a few weeks at most, is that none of the groups of people from one set to another knew each other, and never stayed in touch. The people from the visit to Athens in 2000 were not the same group in Istanbul in 2001, for example. The same is true for everything after I graduated. The people I got to know through one activity or place of employment never crossed paths with another – despite my various efforts at the time. It was like oil and water – you can bring them together but they shall not mix.

Five years ago I made the observation that no one had been through the series of life experiences good and bad from the point of view of being by my side. (See the subtitle A life story through one pair of eyes only). When you’re at school and college, you have dozens of people sharing the same experiences as you in the same classrooms – even though your individual reactions to said experiences are inevitably different.

“I can’t go back – only forward”

One of the responses to my previous blogpost included the above. The nature of Cambridge (the town) today is one that has a destabilisingly high transient population. Thirty years ago this part of South Cambridge had such a lack of movement that it sort of became stale. From one extreme to another.

The response was in the context of being an integral part of a community group but for various reasons moving onto new projects and feeling that trying to go back for that same experience as several years ago wouldn’t be right – and wouldn’t feel right. This is my experience with dance lessons in central Cambridge, where at the invitation of a couple of acquaintances I’ve started once-per week just to get some exercise in. But I’m under no illusions – this is not the same set up of 2002-04 that I’m going back to, despite a handful of vaguely familiar faces. It’s a much smaller operation now – about half the size it was at its 2005 peak.

“You’ve not danced the Viennese Waltz for over seven years? That means you’re really good at it”

…when someone in far better shape than me grabbed me to dance the above on Friday night.

There’s a bit of me that really wants ‘to feel what being physically fit feels like again’ yet at the same time given age and health I don’t know if I could hack such an exercise regime that -given my poor mental health would leave little left for any other activity. But one thing that will always stay with me from the decade that I loathe to call the Noughties, is the sensation of dancing with someone who instantly connects with you on the dance floor. By that I mean you have this unexplained telepathic understanding of being able to lead/follow your fellow dance partner. This side of leaving the civil service I can’t recall ever experiencing that sensation dancing with anyone where you can almost close your eyes and have everything blurring into the background as the two of you move effortlessly around the floor, zero collisions.

When being permanently exhausted seems like a new found shyness

One or two people mentioned this over the years as well as recently. It’s all mental health-related, and in particular the sensation of no longer having the internal strength to fight the incessant worry chatter of what one friend calls her ‘mind weasels’. Or for those of you familiar with Spoon Theory, it’s a bit like knowing you could energetically participate in something knowing it’ll eat into your allowance of spoons for the next day/week and thus you’ll have to pay for it at some point in the future by lying in bed recharging your internal batteries. Back in the day when I did basic social media and public policy consulting, for every day at work I’d need to spend a day crashed out recharging. Two days in a row full on would be three days recharging. Hence I have no idea how people working in schools and hospitals manage on such full-on timetables. So if it looks like I’m taking a bit of a back seat at something, know that this is me pacing myself rather than being an unwilling/disinterested participant.









I never found my tribe


On trying to make sense of my past forty years.

Because next year I hit the big four zero.

The manner in which many of us who left the civil service in 2010/11 in the early years of austerity is something that will stick with me for a very long time. Having politicians tearing your profession to bits while being constitutionally barred from speaking out wasn’t fun. The creation of Puffles the Dragon Fairy on Twitter was one way of dealing with this.

When I joined the civil service in 2004 I remember having a sense of relief from the stability that a full time job in the field I thought I’d spend the rest of my working life in. In December 2006 I remember feeling an incredible sense of pride and relief having been informed of my passing of the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. The only other time I felt anywhere near that sense of pride/relief was with my GCSE results some ten years previous.

But there was no continuity

As a light reader of political and historical biographies, one common theme with many of them is the cohort of people who surround them from a relatively early age all the way through into retirement. Even now, studying the women who made modern Cambridge, Clara Rackham and Florence Ada Keynes had a partnership that effectively lasted half a century.  Yet I never experienced that.

I remember post-GCSEs being told that I had gotten into one of the best state sixth form colleges in the country. In the early days there I wondered who would be the people who would go onto be stupendously successful with their names in the bright lights and in the newspaper headlines. It was only later on that I found out that ‘success’ did not mean what I thought it did, and that as teenagers in South Cambridge, too many of the things we were told by the generation above us were the result of group think and peer pressure.

Life on a piece of paper

It goes something like this:

“Born – nursery – good school – great college – top university – graduate job – marry – children – retire – die.”

…even though I knew I wanted something far more – something that could nourish my soul in a way that going to church every Sunday was doing the exact opposite of.

I could have done something far more productive and beneficial than going to church every Sunday

Paraphrasing what comedian Ed Byrne said with his experience of having to go to church as a child, I take the same view. Yet even in the 1980s churches still had a strong hold – far stronger than today. It’s only looking back now that I can see just how divisive as institutions they were to us as a group of children trying to grow up together.

When I was finally able to break away from religion during my first year at university, no one realised just how difficult a move that was. They still don’t now. Institutionally we have nothing to support people who choose to break away from religion – one that may well have been embedded in the school that they went to. (Hence my opposition in principle to faith-based schools). It’s not simply a case of no longer having a routine of doing the same thing every Sunday morning, but making a substantive break away from a group of people many of whom you’ve know for a large portion of your life. It’s the equivalent perhaps of leaving a political party having been an active volunteer for a long time, or leaving a charitable group or campaigning organisation – a group of people with similar beliefs (or so you assumed) who you spent time with on a regular basis over a long period of time.

Not knowing I was suffering from a medical condition

It was my college years that, looking back, I really could have done with someone stepping in and ensuring I got proper medical treatment for the depression and anxiety I was suffering from. It’s straight-forward for me now to identify particular incidents where I can say ‘Yep – that was my anxiety talking’ or ‘Oh – that was my depression in action there.’ But even as recently as the late 1990s the impact of the failings of a number of institutions and individuals (myself included) is still striking. The direct impact was no longer staying in contact with people who I had known from childhood.

Anxiety makes you needy and intense…and the more friends pull away from you the worse that intensity and neediness becomes…and so the cycle gets worse and worse. And this has been the story of my life for as long as I can remember. And because this wasn’t nipped in the bud when it could and should have been (or – made even worse, in particularly by the rules of some of the institutions), the negative impact has been huge.

Not settling at University

One of the biggest negative impacts on my health at university was instability of housing. It never got anything out of me being there because as an institution we were just numbers. As with many universities in the 1990s, it had expanded its student numbers without building the necessary student accommodation to house them. They also had not put in place the services to ensure all students could find accommodation in the private sector with the minimal of stress. Had I had the courage I probably would have dropped out of university at the end of the first time/start of the second, saying it wasn’t working for me. But I didn’t have the courage. Lack of courage is my biggest moral failing and will remain so for the rest of my life. All the bad decisions I’ve made in life can be reduced down to that point.

The really sad thing with my time at university – especially when compared to that big institution that dominates my home town – is that I never met or made any friends for life. In fact I can only think of three people who I would later meet up with again at a future point. But they are all long gone now.

Trying too hard in the civil service

In the old Government Office for the East of England, the institution had a habit of filling its then annual intake of new civil servants at junior admin level with large numbers of young, talented and restless graduates. For jobs that required 5 GCSEs, about half would be taken by people with degrees. This meant that there was an imbalance between the senior management who started in the civil service of typing pools with a group of people who were familiar with using the internet in an academic, if not a working environment. To give you an example, one senior director insisted his PA printed out all of the emails he received for him to deal with them. (He retired less than a year later following a restructure).

The organisational restructure that decimated the ranks of young junior officers (while increasing the corps of senior managers that would ultimately be scrapped by Pickles and all) did away with what I thought could have become that relatively stable if not particularly exciting work place. I had spent the previous two years having thrown myself into a host of extra-curricular work-based things (because essentially I was under-employed in my comms role that I was paid for, and didn’t want to bum around being useless during the day). Yet in my heart of hearts I knew I wasn’t ‘connecting’ with the people I worked with at the level I really wanted to.

The same happened when I moved to London – trying too hard. I wanted to get to a stage where the people who I worked with were the people who I socialised with. Yet despite the positive disposition and volunteering for stuff, with hindsight I tried too hard. And burnt out.

Trying too hard as a symptom of anxiety and insecurities

One of the things I’ve struggled with for ages is getting to and from places. The only time at a local level it wasn’t really a problem was during my civil service days in Cambridge because I cycled everywhere at a time when I was physically fit – being able to get from the town centre back home nearly three miles away in the late evening in fifteen minutes. Flying through the darkness in the highest gear on my bike with a sense of effortlessness after 3-4 hours of dance classes in the evening following a day at work was normal at that time. I couldn’t do it now.

No long lasting friends despite the years of volunteering and helping out – in Cambridge, Brighton, London & beyond.

That’s one of the things that, with all things taken into account, leaves me feeling empty inside. Other people have come in and found their tribes and settled in whichever group, collective or organisation I happened to be in…but I never did. Why not? Why were they successful where I was not?

It’s too late now to change things or go back

This is sort of where I am now in my mind – a social creature living a solitary life involuntarily. I was people-watching at an event not so long ago, observing who knew whom, conscious in my mind that I didn’t really know anyone there. I was pondering on what the life and career paths of all of these people were, and on what kept them in touch with each other, and how this compared to decades and centuries gone by of their predecessors in this town of ours (Cambridge).

Hitting the big four-zero next year also means being in a cohort that I’m assuming for the many involves settling down and having children. But not for me. I’ve taken a conscious decision on the basis of my health that I could never cope with being a parent. My suspected heart attack of 10 months ago hit me like a ton of bricks, and made me realise that actually I have much less time left than I perhaps had assumed I had. That plus never being able to afford my own place in Cambridge in the short-medium term, and not being able to work full time anymore…you have to make a huge number of adjustments both physical and in terms of mindset.

Hence taking risks (including financial ones) with Lost Cambridge

I’m investing some of the proceeds of the sale of my share in an inherited property into my work on the history of Cambridge – not least because if I don’t do it now, I never will. And if I don’t, who else will? Those of in the field all have our different approaches. Alan Brigham has his tours, while Fonz has his radio show, while Mike Petty is undertaking a huge digitisation program, and Honor Rideout runs the Cambs Association for Local History. To give a few examples. And that’s before mentioning the Museum of Cambridge, and the Cambridgeshire Collection. They have all been around in this field for a lot longer than I have, and have done far more. I’m a relative newcomer.

But what we’re not is this well-supported, well-resourced dynamic team of historians sharing the story of this small but great city of ours, based in a place or building that when people enter into it go ***Wow!***.

It’s somewhere I’d like Cambridge to get to – and maybe one day it will. Just not within my lifetime.