How do you make local history part of local popular culture?


Some thoughts as I go down a road of discovering some of Cambridge’s heroes that our city has forgotten.

Until recently, I’d never heard of any of them:

  • Daisy Hopkins – Castrated (metaphorically) Cambridge University proctors & changed law
  • Eglantyne Jebb – First study of poverty in Cambridge – founded Save the Children
  • Eva Hartree – First woman to be mayor of Cambridge – supported refugees fleeing the fascists when UK newspaper bosses were hobnobbing with them
  • Florence Ada Keynes – Second woman to be mayor of Cambridge, first woman to be a councillor – historian and author of Cambridge the town. You may have heard about her son, John, who founded the Arts Theatre in Cambridge
  • Lucy Gent – Air Raid Precaution’s warden – killed in action during an air raid on Cambridge
  • Petica Robertson – Air Raid Precaution’s warden – killed in action during an air raid on Cambridge

And those are just the few I’ve stumbled across – though I need to write a separate blogpost about Ada Keynes.

NPG x17439; Eva Hartree (nÈe Rayner) by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)

Mayor Eva Hartree – the first woman to become Mayor of Cambridge

I was at a jam-packed meeting of the Mill Road History Society this evening at St Barnabas on Mill Road. It was like a local meeting of the great and the good in local history in Cambridge. Have a watch of Dr Philip Howell’s presentation on sex workers in Victorian Cambridge. It’s about an hour long but it is very well put together, combining personal testimonies with concepts such as data mapping – something worth looking into with other city datasets.

When I mentioned Eglantyne Jebb – founder of Save The Children, it turned out most of the room was familiar with her even though I had only recently stumbled upon her. Not being the first occasion where people with knowledge of local history and local politics had said they were more than familiar with someone who I had only just discovered, it got me thinking about how we get the lives and times of people who I call ‘Cambridge’s lost heroes’ out of the history books and into local popular culture.

Eglantyne Jebb (from the Cambridge Independent/British Newspaper Archive, and Save The Children respectively)  – whom I’m convinced would have made an excellent Member of Parliament for Cambridge had women been allowed to vote and stand for election. But being banned from doing so, she founded Save The Children instead.

“What do you mean by local popular culture?”

My take is that local history generally has got a bit of a dull reputation – and unfairly so. Not least because the custodians of local history generally are doing what they do on a combination of shoestring budgets plus the goodwill of volunteers. You don’t go into local history to become rich.

Yet at the same time, local history is a gold mine because unlike the Michael Gove approved version of history where you have to be able to list important dates, local (to me) history means I can wander over to the places where stuff actually happened. Also, with Cambridge, most of the history written about it has been about the university, its colleges and its academics. We don’t get to hear much about the people – the women in particular, that made Cambridge the city it is today, irrespective of whether they were members of the University of Cambridge or not.

“No – what do you mean by local popular culture?”

I’m talking things like plays, performances, music, films, documentaries, paintings, sculptures, statues and the like.

But achieving the sort of vision that I have in mind isn’t something that is easy to put on. It’s something that, like the Cambridge Folk Festival will take years, if not decades to build up. In one sense, it’s already started with the annual Cambridge History Festivals. The other assumption is that there are suitable venues and that they are available for use. With the exception of my dream 2,000 capacity concert hall on the corner of Hills Road and Lensfield Road, Cambridge physically has the venues, but not the accessibility.

On plays, I remember at school being part of a couple of musicals that for me at the time and age I was at, really did have the ‘wow’ factor. The big thing that did it for me was scale – numbers of people involved in both acting and accompanying music, and the size of the stage. The one I was in at sixth form college I remember being blown away by the imagination of the stage designer, who was the same age as me but who had the imagination to design a scaffold and put a mini orchestra at the top of it. I’d always assumed that the musicians were in the music pit below.

Heading back to my old secondary school – long since unrecognisable due to a major building program shortly after I left, I remember being struck by the scale of one of the art projects in the entrance hall to the hall we were rehearsing in. Compared to a quarter of a century ago, it was a different world. I don’t remember any art project by anyone having that sort of an impact. And when it comes to new public art in Cambridge generally, I’m struggling to think of anything that has that *wow* factor – things like this generally being lampooned more than anything else.

“What sort of thing did you have in mind?”

I’ve mentioned before my long term project about a musical based around the time the Corn Exchange and other buildings were opened – a time of huge historical change as Eglantyne Jebb describes brilliantly in her 1906 study. We also had a number of good things coming out of the Cycle of Songs project of 2014 – though the risk with one-off programs is that they can be easily forgotten soon after, unless incorporated into an accessible archive. (Hence my point about the importance of digitising our archives).

I’ve also got in mind commissioning a super-sized painting featuring all of the women I’ve mentioned above, and more, who shaped Cambridge. That or running it as a competition broken down into age categories. It’s one of the reasons I am desperate to get hold of photographs or accurate drawings of Daisy, Petica and Lucy up top, because I’ve not seen or found any. Petica and Lucy will probably need a wider local public appeal.

I’m also on the lookout for other women…

“Hang on, why women? What about…”

The men? If you wanted to have any control or influence on the various councils or decision-making bodies in Cambridge, until recently you had to be a member of the university. Remember we still have not had a century of women’s suffrage, so the likes of Florence, Eglantyne and Eva will have had to have fought through far greater barriers than any of us could imagine. That, plus others have already written about the men. There are also enough paintings of men across the colleges in Cambridge without me needing to encourage anyone to add to them.

My use of first names rather than the standard surnames also reflects both what feels to me as a growing familiarity with the individuals concerned, plus also finding their first names more intriguing and unique than their surnames. If I went by surname only it feels like I could be writing about male politicians of days gone by.

Are there other women out there?

There are, and I need people’s help in identifying them for a start. Names that I’m thinking about that I need to blog about include:

  • Mary Allan of Homerton College
  • Leah Manning
  • Jean Barker (Baroness Trumpington)

There’s also the case of Bernie Callaghan – former local councillor who could have gone on to become Cambridge’s first Black woman mayor had she not made this huge error of judgement. I remember reading about this at the time and feeling absolutely gutted and disappointed for and by her, because she got so close to the top post. Since then she’s disappeared from public view. I still wonder what happened to her.

“There’s a book in this, isn’t there?”

More than one. What struck me in the library over the past few days is how little there is on the lives and times of our local politicians, campaigners and civic leaders since about 1950. For some of the people in and around Cambridge, they will have lived through these times. But no one has, as yet collected, collated, curated and published the story of how we got to today in Cambridge. The task of doing so looks daunting, and much as I would like to be part of doing that work, I could never do it all alone. I just don’t have the health.

The timeline of events

The other vitally important bit in all of this is the timeline of local, national and international events – and how they intertwine with each other. These include not just the big picture stuff such as the outbreak of WWII, but things that we’ve long since forgotten such as the University of Cambridge and Corporation of Cambridge Act 1894, passed as a result of the uproar in support of Daisy Hopkins. Or the campaign for votes for women (there were numerous public meetings in Cambridge – and if I recall reading, a few outbreaks of arson too). The various reforms of local government, the changes at a national level that changed how public services were delivered, and even the changes and the decline of mainstream Christianity in Cambridge (as reflected by the closure of some notable churches in recent times).

And finally…

I asked Dr Howell a question as to whether Cambridge University and the Church of England had apologised to the people of Cambridge for the crimes against the women of Cambridge resulting from their unlawful activities. The reason for that question is that I don’t feel we as a city (and the University of Cambridge as an institution) have acknowledged the suffering those women and girls endured at the hands of university authorities.

There’s a bit of me that would love to see one of the annual ceremonies that the Mayor of Cambridge has to take part in at Great St Mary’s Church being amended to incorporate the Vice Chancellor (representing Cambridge University) and a cleric from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (It was the Dean of Caius, Rev Frederick Wallis who arrested Daisy Hopkins (as these numerous newspapers of the time testify to)) having to ask the Mayor of Cambridge (acting on behalf of the people of the city) for forgiveness on behalf of their institutions on how they treated the women of Cambridge for so long. At the same time also having the University of Cambridge making an annual donation to a local women’s charity as chosen by the students union and councillors. Note the current postholder of Dean of Caius is Cally Hammond.

“That sounds a bit …far out?”

Yeah – it probably is. But by having something in an existing annual event to commemorate what Daisy Hopkins endured for our city means that more people will become aware of her story.

“Then what?”

This goes for the women I’m researching generally, but this links back full circle to the present day democracy activism I’ve been doing for years: encouraging more women (And people generally) to get involved in local democracy.

“How would that work?”

In a nutshell:

  • These are your predecessors
  • Look at the great things they achieved
  • Cambridge is going through huge changes – we need people to get involved to shape our town’s history
  • It needs a new generation of women to step up like our past heroes did
  • Are you one of that new generation?

Just…phrased much much better than that. But we’ve got to make the inspiring content on our past civic heroes in order to have them inspire the next generation. Otherwise they’ll become forgotten names gathering dust in an archive. Their live stories and achievements are too compelling to be left there.

Floored by a dark January


When it feels like somethings rotting you from the inside – while you’re still being hit from the outside…but still have to put on a happy face

My Twitterfriend, Westminster journalist Isabel Hardman was on Channel 4 News this evening talking about all things #MentalHealth following her piece in The Telegraph here. I recommend reading her article and listening to her comments on health policy in relation to mental health in the Channel 4 piece at:

It followed the dreadful scenes across various hospitals resulting in the Red Cross being called into some hospitals. In other times, this would have been a resigning issue for the Secretary of State for Health.

Being floored by a dark January is not new for me

I’ve been there in the past and have gotten through it, but there was something really intense about the past few days that have left me near as dammit bedbound with a strange combination of exhaustion, sleepiness and depression. Hence getting out of the house today was something of a result – as was filming this vloguary number.

I was trying to be so good with eating at the start of this year but for some reason I just had a craving for pub fish & chips on the way back from town (having had to return as I left phone behind in the library – in the room that says ***no mobile phones***) …and that packet of exploding candy-laced chocolate orange pieces didn’t last the evening either.

For those of you that watched the video, the page that I quoted from is below.


“Generation after generation of young men and women come to an age when they wish to take part in the life of their town, and to contribute their share towards making it a still better and happier place for their successors. But they feel that for all they know about the home of their affections they might as well have been living on the moon.”

Sound familiar?

But it wasn’t this book that hit my mood today. If anything it was just another historical tome with which to metaphorically hit politicians over the head with given that there are so many similarities between then and now – and not for the right reasons.

No. This was deeper.

I was standing in front of one of the bookshelves inside the Cambridgeshire Collection, all wrapped up warm inside while it rained cats & dogs outside. Yet something was bugging me inside. It’s that ‘something’ that has been eating away at me from the inside for almost as long as I can remember…almost to the extent that I cannot even remember a time when that feeling has not been there in the background save for one or two brief moments in my life.

It was this very dark combination of feeling unloved, unwanted, unneeded …and looking both outside knowing that (big-picture-wise) there are much darker times to come, and then looking at those bookshelves and thinking “I can’t take on all of this alone”. This was also the time I got the sense of “I feel like I’m ‘spiritually’ rotting from the inside – in that there’s little anyone can really do about it unless they get to that bit inside me and clear it all out. The thing is, compared to other sensations that have been both consciously and sub-consciously in my head, this one was between my ribcage and belly.

Yet at the same time, it also felt like the sort of internal demon that could be vanquished with the help of a person I could only describe as a lover, life partner, best friend and spiritual soulmate – of which I’ve never really had.

That doesn’t mean the ‘cure’ is to go out there and get dating. Or join a religion for that matter. That would be to misunderstand what I’m trying to describe (very badly). It’s not a sex thing either – FWIW some of the medication I’m currently on kills your drive as a side effect.

Random blasts from the past kicking up long-settled waters

They say never compare how you’re feeling with the social media highlights other people post. In these cases, and I’m not entirely sure through whom or how, but I think on a couple of occasions (I think it was through FB friends being tagged by others) I found my feed showing the weddings of friends long since gone from my life. The people concerned were from about a decade ago and two decades ago respectively. I think what felt like the kick to the stomach was how I saw so many familiar faces from those days gone by, then wondering how or why I wasn’t with them all. Then I thought to myself that, having not seen them for years – decades even, we were all very different people anyway.

But then that reminded me of some of the old photos we’d gathered and put up for my brother’s very recent wedding. There was one where every single person in one photograph from his sixth form days well over 20 years ago was a guest at the wedding…bar one of them. He was the only one out of all of them who I was aware of who had suffered from depression. Yet he was also someone who no one as I recall ever spoke ill of. He just…was no longer in their lives, and made me wonder what became of him in the end. Because he wasn’t the sort of person to fall out with anyone.

Which makes me wonder…how many of you who have kept in touch with friends from school/college/university can identify someone who sort of ‘fell by the wayside’ one way or another – someone you didn’t particularly fall out with but for whatever reason drifted away? (Please don’t see this as a guilt trip to get back in touch with someone you’d rather forget though!)

That’s not to say I’m not in touch with people from childhood.



Yet at the same time as I stood in front of the various histories of our county, there was something inside me that was keeping that flame of hope alive. I don’t know whether it was the dark comic humour of the diaries of the Postmaster at Pampisford during WWI (who illustrated just how chaotic the UK’s approach to the war was – and how it was ***really*** viewed in rural South Cambridgeshire!) through to the sparky young women of the Fens in Fenwomen who faced the sort of #EverydaySexism that left them prisoners in their own villages. Yes, public transport is a feminist issue. (If you can’t get to the Central Library, the book’s available here). This bit also explains my #SmashPatriarchy remark in the vloguary video at the top too.


Missing filming a planning meeting – and wanting to be in three places at once

A kind of FOMO (feeling of missing out) in one sense, but we got sand kicked in our faces over the old Mill silo by the station as expected. Developers refused to budge, but hey, at least we made everyone think for a bit.

You may have seen from local headlines there are a host of meetings and decisions coming up in and around Cambridge over the next few weeks. I’ll try and cover as many as I can, but there are some clashing days and events.


Therein lies the problem. (Not least because half the problem of going for a walk in the countryside is actually getting to the countryside in the first place – public transport, spoons & all that…). But the above comment is right – no one can be the sole superhero for Cambridge. Again, in the archives today I stumbled across activists from decades ago who campaigned to stop a car park extension and tunnel being built on Parker’s Piece. It takes lots of us.

At the same time, things will continue to be a struggle while I continue to feel that chill and the sense of spiritually declining from the inside…

…And that scares me.

But it can be beaten back.

Cambridge’s history meets contemporary local politics


When some of Cambridge’s campaign groups met some of Cambridge’s local historians – sparks flew!

Before I begin, an appeal from me asking you to support my work both filming and publishing videos on local democracy on my Youtube channel at, and also (as this blogpost will explain) my local history research on my Lost Cambridge blog at

If you are able to contribute (and a ***big thank you*** to everyone who already has), please see my appeal for support page here.

A day of two public meetings

The first event was hosted by the local campaign group, The Cambridge Commons, which researches and campaigns on issues around economic and social inequalities. It is affiliated with the Equality Trust.

And it was packed:

Held at Cambridge Central Library next door to the excellent Cambridgeshire Collection (on the 3rd floor) it was standing room only in a room buzzing with both energy & opinions. We were there firstly to hear from the former energy editor of The Guardian, Terry MacAlister. (@TerryMac999 on Twitter). I filmed his speech, which you can watch below.

This was followed by a more extended debate/discussion about what people thought of both the Greater Cambridge City Deal, and of recent housing and construction developments in Cambridge generally. You can watch that video (45mins) here, which also features contributions from Smarter Cambridge Transport*, The Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations*, Save the West Fields* and more. (*See transparency note at the end). One contribution worth listening to is that of John Preston, the former Environmental Heritage Manager at Cambridge City Council.

My contribution to the meeting (other than to point everyone to the Cambridgeshire Collection around the corner – like I said, do have a look),  was to suggest a joint ‘teach in’ event on local democracy and the future of Cambridge. The reason was that a number of people in the room were not aware of some of the basics/essential knowledge on how local democracy and the planning system functions. And why would they given how complex the system of local planning is? It was one of the reasons I posted this archive video of a presentation by former planning manager Patsy Dell at the Be The Change – Cambridge event I organised nearly two years ago.

Above: Planning workshop with Patsy Dell, then of Cambridge City Council.

Having seeded the idea of a ‘teach in’, I hope Cambridge’s civic and campaign groups will gather together to help put this on. Not least because combined with the likes of Cambridge PPF, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign and others, there is a huge amount of expertise in those campaign groups that local residents seem now both aware of, and willing to learn from – and contribute.

Note I don’t see this as a weakness or a criticism of councillors. Actually I see this as a strengthening of local democracy. If all the local political parties are mature in their approaches to this growing awareness and desire to get involved, they could find themselves with new members, new activists, new candidates and in future years, new councillors.

Local activists meet local historians

I very deliberately linked my online publicity for the Cambridge Commons event with the monthly meeting of the Cambridgeshire Association of Local Historians that just happened to be meeting a couple of hours after the end of the former event. The afternoon presentation was topical – all about the history of the Cambridge Preservation Society – now Cambridge Past, Present and Future. It covered primarily how we got the Cambridge Green Belt – have a read of the City Council’s official history.

Although due to the lighting of the slides means that Antony Cooper giving the presentation is barely visible, the audio is clear enough to hear and the slides to view. It is an extended presentation but it covers comprehensively how Cambridge got to where it is in terms of being a compact city, why and who were the key players between the First World War and the 1970s.

View the talk here – it’s 1 hr 08 mins but it’s worth persevering. 

As with my Lost Cambridge project (which I first launched as a Facebook page here), what Mr Cooper’s presentation does is to give an historical context to the issues that the City Deal (also on FB at is now having to deal with.

Sparks fly between Cambridge PPF and FeCRA

One thing that is becoming clear to me is the fault lines between the different community and campaign groups over the future of Cambridge. Some of the fault lines are superficial and arise mainly because someone hasn’t presented something clearly, while others are much deeper and more substantial. The sparks flew between Mr Cooper and Wendy Blythe of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations (and also Stephen Coates of the Save the Westfields Campaign) because Mr Cooper commented that we had not seen a grassroots response to the threats to the Cambridge Green Belt. Mr Coates made the point about the very recent anti-busway march – saying it was the biggest political protest in Cambridge in 2016.

A timelapse of the Save the West Fields protest, December 2016.

Mrs Blythe commented that FeCRA members and member organisations (such as Milton Road Residents’ Association) were focused on issues at a neighbourhood level in response to Mr Coopers statement about Cambridge PPF now focussing on issues at a more strategic level.

What I took away from the exchanges was the growing gap between those of us who follow local government very closely (plus those who follow us on social media) and those who perhaps don’t follow as closely and/or who do not use social media to stay informed on what’s happening in local democracy but who very clearly have a wealth of knowledge and talent to contribute. It re-enforced my view of needing a teach-in event – perhaps along the lines of Be the change – Cambridge, where we can also re-visit what we learnt in two years ago and what has changed since then. This I hope will allow everyone to smooth over what the small differences are and have a safe open space in which to explore where there are real and substantial differences of opinion between the various community and campaign groups. Because they are there.

The exchanges had the effect of galvanising some of the regulars to find out more – they found the exchanges incredibly interesting and exciting, while one or two of the other regulars couldn’t wait to find the door! Understandable if you only came along to listen to a history talk only to find yourself in the middle of a political debate. Yet what made me come away really pleased at the end was that this was the first time I had seen our community of Cambridge local historians face the fact that what might seem like local history is in face contemporary local politics.

I’ve said regularly that the City Deal has lacked an historical context, and that Lost Cambridge is my attempt (amongst other things) to bring that vital historical context not just to the City Deal but to contemporary local democracy and the watching public as well.  There are other sites worth looking at in detail in this field too – longtime former councillor Rosenstiel’s Cambridge Elections site and Phil Rodgers’ elections and data visualisation blog are two that stand out. At a neighbourhood (to me) level there is also Chris Rand’s Queen Edith’s blog.

Going back to the original historical documents

I deliberately brought along original copies of three important historical documents to the afternoon meeting:

  • The Cambridgeshire Regional Planning Report 1934 by WR Davidge (hi-res maps here)
  • The Holford Wright Report 1950 – with maps (hi-res digitised maps here)
  • A guide to the Cambridge Plan 1956 – by Derek Senior

The books and guides clearly caught the imagination of a number of people there – just as they did at the Museum of Cambridge a couple of months ago.

Yes – that is a copy of Tramways and Urban Transit magazine you can see on the table! My take is that as I’m backing Dr Colin Harris’s Cambridge Connect light rail project (I run the project’s Facebook page) I may as well be informed about all things trams and light rail.

One final thing on digitisation

Cambridge has a number of local history groups and activists around. Honor Rideout who is at the start of the video of Mr Cooper’s talk runs the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History. We also have:

As you can see, lost going on – but digitisation is proving to be a very big challenge to all of us. The huge amount of material to be digitised is utterly daunting, hence tabling a question to Cambridgeshire County Council on this. Read their response to me here.

All of this and that’s before we’ve even looked at the new kid on the block – mobile video. I spent part of summer 2016 experimenting with video clips with ‘Cambridge – the shaping of our city’ in the series below.

The concept works, but is there anyone out there wanting to make their own? In particular people younger than me! Because continually conspicuous by their absence (with a few honourable mentions), are young people – and young historians. In an exams-driven era, how do we encourage young people not just to become interested, but to make, record and write their own histories too?

Comments on a metaphorical postcard please.

(Transparency note – members of Smarter Cambridge Transport, The Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations and Save the West Fields have commissioned me to film at a number of local events over the past 12 months including local council meetings and events they have organised).

Scrutinising Cambridge City Council’s budget proposals

Summary: Please can council officers make it much much easier to find the important documents and the essential information, data and policy proposals in them? Thanks

Josh Thomas of the Cambridge News is currently ploughing through the documents that have just been published – click here to see what he’s spotted.

Cambridge City Council tweeted the announcement not so long ago of the budget proposals being published.

This takes us to a summary press release here. Within that press release is a weblink to the submission document from the council’s head of finance (an official rather than a councillor position) to the Executive Councillor for Finance & Resources – currently Cllr Richard Robertson. Under this set up, executive councillors effectively mirror the roles that government ministers have. The executive councillors set priorities and task council officials to come up with proposals on how to deliver them.

The problem with the press release and the weblink to the submission document is that both make references to further information in appendices – which are not linked at all. Thus unless you know where to look, you’re in the dark if you want to scrutinise the detail. Which I do.

All of the really interesting stuff beyond the headlines is actually embedded in the web page for the meeting where all of the issues are to be discussed. See here for the meeting page for the council executive’s budget discussion. Note item 4 – members of the council can table public questions related to the budget, but please give council officers notice if you wish to ask a public question. Please note the following below.

“To ask a question or make a statement please notify the Committee Manager (details listed on the front of the agenda) prior to the deadline.

 For questions and/or statements regarding items on the published agenda, the deadline is the start of the meeting.

 For questions and/or statements regarding items NOT on the published agenda, the deadline is 10 a.m. the day before the meeting.

Speaking on Planning or Licensing Applications is subject to other rules. Guidance for speaking on these issues can be obtained from Democratic Services on 01223 457013 or Further information about speaking at a City Council meeting can be found at:”

The thing is, there is ***so much information*** buried in the papers for the meeting to discuss the budget that you need the patience of an angel and perseverance of a crack detective to find and decipher that information to work out which are the bits that are important. For me it’s page 215 onwards (yes, two-hundred-and-fifteen) on the budget proposals themselves, and page 270 onwards for the 2016-19 corporate plan. Furthermore, page 294 onwards is effectively a policy risk register. Finally, note the equalities impact assessment from page 314 onwards.

328 pages overall…if you can bear it.

And that’s just the budget executive meeting scheduled for 23 Jan (agenda here) – that’s before it has been to full council. But I’m also interested in the news headlines about the proposals for Cambridge’s community centres. Not least because Puffles’ paw prints are all over this policy.

Dragon fairy policy implemented by Cambridge City Council

Have a look at theme seven from Puffles’ manifesto for the Cambridge City Council elections 2014 – scroll down to “My Proposals”. Now have a look at pages 12, 13 & 14 of the Building Stronger Communities Strategy. It’s almost a carbon copy of Puffles’ proposed approach. It took them just under three years to adopt and implement the idea, but hey, we got there in the end. And we did say *Thank You* to the officials for doing so.

Because let’s be honest and fair about this: it’s ever so easy to give councillors and officials a kicking when in the grand scheme of things they are operating within a Whitehall straightjacket commanded by the lower echelons of the ever-shrinking political talent puddle of Westminster. And let’s face it, the direction of travel is away from the ministerial career ladder and towards devolved city administrations. Why would Andy Burnham MP give up his very high profile shadow cabinet role to put his name forward as a candidate to become mayor of Greater Manchester?

That also means that when councils adopt my ideas, I kind of feel at least a little responsibility speaking up publicly *in favour* of what the council is doing, even though in other quarters that same policy might be getting a kicking.

One of the risks with this example of evidence-based policy is that the research and evidence shows the current distribution of community facilities and venues does not match the needs of the city. In some areas provision might be too high and in others too low. Some might have greater provision of facilities run and self-funded by civic organisations outside of the control of local government, while others may find a lack of such facilities. It’s a difficult balance to find. But in terms of policy design, I think they’ve got this one right. By that I mean:

  1. They went out to consultation in a manner they had not really done before – bringing out big maps and sticky labels and inviting the public to list the places and venues they considered to be community venues
  2. They analysed the results and produced a report showing their findings
  3. Local policy officials and executive councillors then used that evidence to formulate and justify their proposals – which again will go out to consultation to see what people think.

The difference between 1) and 3) is that part 1) is asking residents to fill in the information gaps the council has. For part 3), the council is asking residents for their comments on the policy proposals – and ideas for improvements. In this case one of the proposals is to demolish two smaller community centres which in the grand scheme of things are within 10-15 minute walk from each other, and to replace it with one much larger facility – freeing up the land elsewhere for much-needed housing. Given house prices in Cambridge there is a huge opportunity for the city council to build a large community centre covering two of the more economically deprived wards in Cambridge, and given them something to be really proud of – something that children will walk into and think: ****Wow!****



A congestion charge for Cambridge?


Leader of the Lib Dems group on Cambridge City Council, Cllr Tim Bick makes the headlines

which created some debate in the Cambridge News today, though Cllr Bick clarified on Twitter below:

It also came up in the Cambridge Independent too.

At the same time, South Cambridgeshire MP and candidate for the Conservative ticket for county mayor, Heidi Allen, has also called on the public to help her build a picture of the state of public transport in the area.

In the meantime, independent county mayor candidate Peter Dawe (now at ) came along to a gathering of Smarter Cambridge Transport activists to discuss all things devolution, city deal and more. Reaction was mixed – some strongly supporting Dawe as both a long time campaigner and independent non-party candidate, while others taking issue with some of the things he said or had campaigned on. Which goes to show that as with other community and campaign groups, no one candidate or party can automatically assume support from groups even where their interests superficially appear to match up.

“Yeah – what’s your take Puffles? Would you ban cars?”

With things like this my first port of call is Puffles’ manifesto from our 2014 Cambridge City Council election campaign. Note what I wrote in:

Theme 6 – supporting surrounding towns and villages

Theme 8 – a greener city

With those in mind, I also look at what has changed since May 2014. Big picture-wise are the 2015 general election and Brexit. Locally we’ve had the city deal taking shape and the announcement of devolution policy. Since then we have also had the formation of the Smarter Cambridge Transport Campaign and the Cambridge Connect Light Rail Project. Furthermore, the Cambridge Cycling Campaign now has Roxanne de Beaux as a full-time officer (in which she’s made a huge difference in that she’s able to turn up to meetings and face down some of the worst aspects of developer plans. Finally there’s the growth of the Federation of Cambridge Residents’ Associations and associated groups, along with me turning up to many meetings and filming them rather than just live-tweeting, now sponsored by FeCRA for the filming of meetings.

“But would you ban cars?”

I’d ban some of them.

“Freedom-hating tree-hugger”

Not all of them.

“Democracy-hating Communist”

I would ban the ones that pollute the most and that have the loudest engines because they screw up my breathing and sleeping patterns. I’m not having my physical and mental health being screwed up by people who gratuitously mess things up for the rest of us because of their poor car purchasing and maintenance choices and anti-social driving habits. Also, driving in such a manner is an offence.

“Says who?”

The police – British Transport Police in Cambridge. They told Puffles


Section 59 of the PRA 2002 – Full text here, applies. So cease with your crime-supporting line of argument or be condemned as being soft on crime.

The importance of sequencing policies

This is where round these parts we get things wrong – continuously. The manifestation of the failure of central and local government in designing and building a high quality sustainable town is the town of Cambourne, west of Cambridge. (See their parish council’s website at ).

My take? The politicians and planners responsible for not building the infrastructure first for Cambourne should be metaphorically shot. (Not literally – that would be murder). Basically the people of Cambourne deserve so much better than a town that has a rubbish bus service (to the extent I won’t go to South Cambridgeshire Hall for meetings unless someone drives me there because I lose too many mental health spoons changing buses to make the 2 hour round trip). Also it’s become all too much of a dumping ground for social housing overspill because the property speculators in Cambridge refuse to build enough social housing in the city. That plus ministers rewrote the rules to allow developers to get away with repeatedly weasling out of commitments. The result? People end up boomeranging back to their parents (as I did after a decade with my own place) or having to travel longer and longer distances, making the roads even more clogged up.

“So, what should Cambourne have done?”

Built the rail link first, but at the time Cambourne was being planned, Labour were all over the place with transport and rail policy and did not invest in things like East West Rail when they should have done. When Andrew Lansley was my MP in the mid part of the last decade, I wrote to him about reopening the Oxford-Cambridge rail link having read about it on the internet. He wrote back saying ministers were not interested. So that transport policy failure rests squarely at Labour’s doorstep.

My other big criticism of the urban planners (sometime soon I’m gonna start naming and shaming some of them because their names will be stamped all over the plans and the documents will be buried away in a place I know where to find them) is that there is no real civic centre for Cambourne. Have a look at the map here. Why isn’t there a big town square with a big town hall, council chamber and arts centre/community hall as the beating heart of the place? Why are the local council offices stuck at the end of a business park in the middle of nowhere, as far away as possible from the people that actually live there? The people of Cambourne deserve so much better than this shambles.

“What’s the above got to do with a congestion charge and sequencing?”

A heavy or light rail link from Cambourne to Cambridge – in particular to the major employment sites such as the science parks and Addenbrooke’s, would mean that people would have an alternative to using cars. Furthermore, building facilities for small light industry alone would mean a host of firms may have chosen to relocate to Cambourne taking advantage of good transport links to market along with much cheaper rents and housing costs.

The other thing easily missed out is decent cycling infrastructure.

“Lycra-clad cycling commissars? Booo!!!”

Quite the opposite. One of the lessons from the wide cycleway next to the Cambridge guided busway is that people are prepared to cycle much further distances to work/college if there are hardly any interruptions (eg road crossings) and if the routes are separate to motor vehicle traffic.

This is where Dr Rachel Aldred’s presentation last year at a Cambridge transport event at Wolfson College apply. Dr Aldred is a researcher on all things cycling policy at the University of Westminster. Have a listen to what she said.

In a nutshell, start off with the quicker wins of making cycling the preferable choice – where people choose to walk or cycle first before getting into the realms of congestion charging and the like.

Furthermore, in terms of longer term transport policies and projects, this is why I strongly favour the principles of Dr Colin Harris’s Cambridge Connect Light Rail. Note I state ‘principles’ because at the time of writing it still remains a concept. The initial financial and technical feasibility studies have not been done. We don’t know if either will come up with something that means the scheme is dead in the water. That said, my take again is that for a light rail network to function in the way that Dr Harris explained in his talk below, congestion charging and banning day tripper tourist coaches from the city will need to form part of a transport policy to reduce road vehicle congestion and to move tourists in particular (4m people annually visit our small city of just over 100,000 residents) onto the light rail enabling the latter almost to become self-funding. Have a listen to Dr Harris’s talk below.


Bigger and wider infrastructure – train links to the seaside?

Given the timescales of decades rather than years, I’d also be looking at much more extended rail links to spread the wealth & investment Cambridge is getting.


This by rail future, I’d be looking to incorporate large parts of this diagram in as possible – in particular the Wisbech-Cambridge-Haverhill link, having it extending to Sudbury and thus linking up Anglia Ruskin University’s campuses in Cambridge & Chelmsford.

Furthermore, as a means for improving infrastructure and connectivity to Norfolk, I’d consider re-opening the old Cambridge-Mildenhall rail line as below.


The old line is from Cambridge on the left to Mildenhall where the balloon icon is. (Give or take where that line has been built on). From there you build a new line north towards Swaffham then east towards the University of East Anglia in west Norwich. The line could then go underground at UEA, underground in a northern loop connecting to Norwich Airport that has no rail link, then around on the existing Norwich to Great Yarmouth rail line, thus opening up one of the most economically deprived seaside towns in the country to rail traffic coming up from London and/or the midlands. Great Yarmouth might also make an ideal terminus for trains and rail staff too – you’ve already got your short-term accommodation already there.

So…yeah, lots of ideas, but I can’t see any of mine coming to fruition. But hey, at least this way I can turn up to council and political meetings and force someone to say “No!” to the camera and have it as an historical record so that in 100 years time people can ask the question: “Yeah – why didn’t they listen to crazy dragon dude?”

A busy year ahead for 2017 in & around Cambridge


No time to mope around and dwell on how ‘orrible 2016 has been – there’s stuff that needs doing

Various memes have been doing the rounds along the lines of heroes and idols being dead, enemies being in power and the like. The sentiment is understandable. Yet one of the reasons I chose to move my focus away from national politics towards local politics was because I wanted to focus and engage with the sorts of things I felt I could influence – whether directly or through encouraging other people around me to get involved.

“Why not go in the opposite direction and focus on international issues?”

Part of it is an age and health thing. Having done Model United Nations during my student years, and having followed various international campaigns over the years, I feel I’ve done what I reasonably can. At the same time, one of the things that makes such campaigns exciting is being surrounded by and working with other people in a similar situation. When you’re a lone ranger type as I have been for some time, it’s harder to see what impact you have vs when working as part of a co-ordinated collective group. Furthermore, there are more, better people than me working on those issues. Better for me to focus on my niche here than get in the way of others.

It’s time consuming, it’s boring, but it’s essential

Lots of aspects of local democracy inevitably are – and furthermore there is so much of it that it’s hard for most people to keep a track of it to find the needles in the haystacks. With three councils covering the ‘Greater Cambridge’ area, one of the councils, Cambridge City Council has all of these meetings in January alone. (How many of you knew where to look for the council’s calendar of events?) Clicking on one of the more important ones – Planning on 04 January, we see the agenda here. Scroll down to item 5 on the agenda and a click through will take you to a 94-page document. The much-locally-maligned all-White-male Brookgate team have resubmitted their plans for Murdoch House and their proposed replacement for the old mill silo that got me hot under the collar back in October 2016. The developments in and around the railway station were one of the things that led local author David Jones to write his book ‘Hideous Cambridge’ (see the older Facebook posts here – how well have they dated?)

Cambridgeshire County Council has its meetings listed in the links here, and no doubt the City Deal will start populating its meetings here. We also have the local plan process still going – and for every day we don’t have an established local plan for Cambridge & South Cambridgeshire, the easier it is for less responsible developers to push through speculative developments. Even though at the end of the day it’s irresponsible ministers that have written the rules and commissioned the legislation that favours developers’ profits over sustainable communities.

“Don’t your plans sound like keeping Cambridge preserved in amber?”

My take for many years has been the following:

  • The forces being brought to bear on Cambridge are far too great for local people and local institutions to deal with. (I learnt in Whitehall that ministerial policy teams couldn’t cope with such forces so how local government is meant to cope I have no idea)
  • Growth and change is inevitable in the face of the above, so how can we collectively influence those forces so that what we end up with benefits those of us that have to live with what is built?
  • We must define and solve our problems collectively – at the moment the wealth of talent our city has is not being brought to bear on the challenges we face. As a result, it feels that a few people are making a lot of money out of the growth of the city while residents, students and the wider society generally are losing out.

Problems in context

This doesn’t mean saying ‘let’s whine about context and then carry on as before’, but rather looking at an existing issue from a different viewpoint and seeing if that then leads to an alternative decision or solution. For example:

  • How do the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals look if, once complete the local transport authority/local council bans tourist coaches and cars from entering the city centre, and instead providing large out-of-town park-and-ride parks linked to the light rail network, requiring passengers to buy tickets to travel into and out of the city?
  • What would Cambridge road traffic look like if a similar approach was applied to courier/van delivery firms, where for small packages they all had to be deposited again at an out-of-town depot for distribution in the final mile by local cycle courier firms?
  • Haverhill in Suffolk, 14 miles from Cambridge, at the last census had a population of around 27,000. Considering that Cambridge’s population is in the process of increasing by around that much to 2030, is Cambridge getting the equivalent of the extra facilities for a small town’s worth of population growth? i.e. “Where’s my new municipal swimming pool and leisure centre?!?”
  • How do proposed solutions match up to the proposals in the distant past. Do rejected solutions now read better/worse in the situation we are now in?

Who scrutinises the scrutineers?

I think this is going to become a little bit more of an issue for the various charities and community groups this coming year – as it will for me as well. It’s one of the reasons why I’m always clear with videos of meetings where I have been commissioned (ie paid) to film and provide a video record.

We’ve seen more councillors asking questions back of community groups and campaign groups at public meetings asking for information around numbers of members, and processes of forming a ‘corporate policy’ for their organisation. This means asking/answering:

  • Is your organisation formally constituted with a Chair, Secretary and Treasurer (and thus a bank account)?
  • What constitutes membership of your organisation?
  • What is the policy-making process for your organisation?
  • How can members contest/challenge/propose amendments to the policies of your organisation?

Some organisations will have further rules and laws that govern them. As a registered charity, Cambridge Past Present and Future is governed by charity law and has to submit accounts to the Charity Commission (see their record here).

Something tells me that part of this year will involve encouraging and educating local residents to become active citizens through community groups, charities and residents associations – and holding them accountable as well as their local councillors and politicians. At the same time, with such a huge workload we may see more councillors and politicians working more effectively with residents. For example in the run up to council meetings, will we see more councillors posting social media messages with links to papers inviting residents to suggest points to make/lines of questioning at the meetings concerned? I’m surprised more don’t follow the good example set by Julian Huppert during his term of office as MP for Cambridge 2010-15.

Elections, mayoral candidates, and transport as the main issue in Cambridgeshire?

Given how the policy of executive mayors has been made by ministers, and given that Cambridgeshire County Council is the institution whose councillors are up for election, this is one of the rare occasions that young people will have more of an influence in local council elections. The simple reason that they are more likely to be users of public transport – in particular buses. I’d like to think that schools, colleges, youth groups and civic societies across the county can encourage adults to talk to children and young people about all things transport in the run up to the elections – and make the case for those who don’t yet have the vote.

Issues for Cambs/Peterboro’ mayoral election


An early look at what might come up between now & election day – depending on who gets to drive the debate of course!

The political parties are still going through the process of selecting candidates. Four of the five parties represented on local councils have confirmed they will be standing candidates (Labour, Conservatives, Lib Dems & The Greens, with just UKIP to confirm if they are standing a candidate).

Remember past general elections where TV journalists were like:

“Today the election campaign moves to the economy with the Prime Minister due to make a speech to activists outlining A, B and C – while the leader of the opposition will respond with D, E and F”

Lazy journalism reading out press releases rather than engaging with people on the ground and asking them what they thought the issues were that they’d be voting on. In the run up to elections I’m often invited to comment on what’s happening in and around Cambridge – this example is from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with fellow blogger & community reporter Richard Taylor.

Challenge for 2017: Cambridgeshire needs more women taking part in analysing what’s happening in local democracy. If you are interested, please get in touch with:

Essentially we need to diversify the voices that commentate and report on what’s happening at a local level. Even more so given the things that are happening in our county.

“But you stood for election in 2014 – doesn’t that make you a politician? You’re hardly neutral!”

Coleridge Results 2014

Dragon stands for election in 2014…


…and Cambridge City Council install dragon slide at Coleridge Rec in 2015.

Who said standing for election was a waste of time? Next time I might stand under the name of “Giant leisure centre and water park with Olympic-size swimming pool” and see what happens next…you never know!

“So, what are the issues?”

Wisbech (& transport connections between towns & villages)

Actually, to that you can add Chatteris, Ramsay, Cambourne and Soham – market towns in the county (which looks something like this on G-maps) which all struggle with incredibly poor transport infrastructure. Having used public transport to get to three of five of these places for various meetings, workshops and events, the transport infrastructure is a symptom of the failures of party politics, public policy and public administration (amongst other things).

The reason why I picked those places before Cambridge, Peterborough and Huntingdon is that those three places will inevitably command media attention because of population size alone. That’s before considering things like global branding, transport hub statuses and long histories of all three places. In a nutshell, we’re not going to solve the problems of traffic congestion unless we start seriously looking at radical ideas that solve the disconnect between the smaller towns and large villages in the county. With the plans for further house building, roads are only going to get even more congested than they actually are.

So this means:

  • Wisbech Rail needs some rocket-boosters behind it to get it delivered
  • Haverhill Rail also needs some rocket-boosters behind it to get it delivered
  • Cambridge Connect, East West Rail or Network Rail generally may want to look at expanding its plans for a light rail network (and underground tunnels below Cambridge city centre) to link up with the likes of Ramsay & Chatteris in the north, Saffron Walden in the south, and Cambourne & St Neots in the west
  • Lessons from the Guided Busway show that the wide and accessible cyclepath has been an unexpected success, with cyclists willing to cycle much greater distances on an uninterrupted cycleway than a motor traffic-heavy urban road network – can this lesson be applied to current or future lines?
  • Asking if other parts of the county benefit from extended cyclepaths linking up villages and towns, esp in the north of the county?

Missing legal and financial powers

Several candidates have already mentioned further powers that could be devolved to county mayors. To help focus the debate…:

  • What specific legal powers would you like devolved from Whitehall?
  • What specific budgets would you like devolved from Whitehall?
  • What finance-raising powers would you like devolved from The Treasury?
  • What specific public services would you like to see become accountable to mayors rather than through Whitehall?
  • What ‘public service turf wars’ do you expect to come across and how will you deal with them? (To add, ***these will happen*** – how will you deal with them when they arise? “They won’t arise” is not a suitable answer).

Predicting the future – always a dangerous thing!

This isn’t about micromanaging the future. A comms seminar I went to during my civil service years mentioned a speech Bill Clinton made in the very early 1990s about the future of the economy over the next couple of decades. Nowhere in the speech I was told was the internet mentioned. Interestingly, the fact checker in me cannot find the text of said speech, so is it urban myth? But the point remains – how many of us could foresee the internet in the early 1990s? I first came across the concept round a friend’s house in 1995. Turns out one of the first football clubs to have a website was… Stevenage Borough!

So rather than predicting what sort of technology we may or may not have, I want to know:

What’s your vision for the county in:

  • 5 years time?
  • 10 years time?
  • 30 years time?

This isn’t about you or any one person being in office for all of that time, but rather I’m asking what potential do you see for our county, how do you see us going about to meet that potential, and what would your role be as county mayor to achieve that vision?

History! Do you know how our county got to here, what mistakes it made along the way and how you will avoid repeating them?

Some of you will have seen my Lost Cambridge blog at which for my part of the county is trying to fill in some of the missing gaps. In my experience, the historians in the county’s villages and towns have a much clearer picture of their areas’ past (see and on FB at and are a wealth of untapped knowledge. As far as Cambridge goes, I can ask things like:

Why didn’t Cambridge preserve and expand its tram system?

Why didn’t we get this guildhall in the late 1850s in Cambridge?


…or this one in the late 1890s?


…and why was this county hall built in 1913…

160406 CambridgeshireOldCountyHall

…only to be found to have been too small within a couple of decades? (Hence Shire Hall).

Now, I’m sure Huntingdon, Peterborough, Wisbech and the smaller towns & villages have their equivalents. Do you know what they are and what the lessons learnt are? If not, who are you going to find these things out from and how?

And finally…looking out to neighbouring counties

Some of the towns in other counties feel closer to Cambridge, Peterborough or Huntingdon than they do other towns and cities in their counties:

  • Haverhill & Saffron Walden in Essex (to Cambridge)
  • Newmarket and Bury St Edmund’s in Suffolk (to Cambridge)
  • Downham Market and King’s Lynn (to Wisbech)
  • Stamford and Corby (to Peterborough)
  • Kettering and Bedford (to Huntingdon)

How will you decide on allocating funding to projects that link up with/require co-funding from other counties? How will you ensure that the costs are fairly split?

Note I’ve not even mentioned the environment and climate change – lots of other topics will come up between now and election day.


How to make Cambridge better – a response


Some thoughts on John Grieve’s article in the Cambridge News

John Grieve is a local veterinary surgeon in my neighbourhood, and wrote this article in the Cambridge News recently.

In many senses, we’ve been here before – I’ve lost count of the number of ‘The future of Cambridge’ type events that I’ve been to (and helped organise) in recent years. Recall the paper Cambridge 2065 raising a number of competing visions for the future of our city. Some that I filmed include:

Note the above are playlists of videos – with multiple videos in them. People have been busy with ideas – but for what purpose?

The common theme that keeps on coming up again and again with all of these ideas is how the systems and structures of public administration are set up to frustrate anyone who has a positive idea to improve the place. Councillors and even the proposed executive mayor simply do not have the powers needed to make the decisions that people want them to make.

“What sort of powers?”

  1. Powers to raise revenue
  2. Powers over planning and transport – policy and delivery
  3. Powers over regulation of businesses
  4. Powers over major public services – health, education and employment

Essentially, ‘The Treasury says “No!”‘ is a recurring theme – just as it is in many a Whitehall department. Because of Brexit, the civil service simply doesn’t have the capacity to cope with many other policy changes – least of all the restructure of local government which successive prime ministers have put in the ‘too difficult to deal with’ pile. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Cambridge is a city with global recognition governed like a large market town.

When you look at the calibre of the county councillors ***collectively*** on the benches of Shire Hall, you don’t see a reflection of the diversity of skills and talents that our county has. The councillors that are there are a function of the electoral system that they went through to get elected. Given the bear pit that is full council, who in their right mind would put themselves through something like that other than the most dedicated political activists or public servants with both time on their hands and/or money in the bank/a sympathetic employer? The background reading for meetings alone is enough to put off all but the most dedicated of local government watchers. No amount of outreach programmes are going to change the makeup of the council benches while the systems and structures remain as they are.

Essentially, the sort of overhaul local government needs – the sort that recognises the digitally-driven world more and more of us live in, is not the one that can be delivered by local government alone. All the powers are tied up with the executive currently trying to figure its As from its Bs following the gross negligence of not preparing contingency plans for a Brexit vote (as concluded the influential Foreign Affairs Select Committee).

Governance and management

One of the subtitles in John’s piece, as I’ve alluded to above, is where many of Cambridge’s problems stem from. Having to go to Whitehall with a begging bowl over and over again creates a culture of dependency in local government – and infantilises the political cultures across our towns and cities. It also creates an incentive for the larger organisations to bypass Guildhall or Shirehall in favour of Whitehall. Why turn up to a council meeting when you can invite the minister to dinner at high table at one of Cambridge University’s colleges through a college connection? It’s an approach that is familiar to local council watchers for decades – but one that is now obsolete in this era of all things digital – and of demands for transparency too.

Careful with demands for a Greater Cambridge Unitary 

Personally I’m fully in favour of a single council for Cambridge and surrounding districts. All of the candidates for Cambridge in the general election went on public record in 2015 stating the same – their differences being on where to draw the line between Cambridge and the rest of the county. The problem with any unitary council is the risk of internal navel-gazing. I saw this in London when I lived and worked there. Overcrowding on public transport was – and still is a major issue. Thus demanding the huge levels of public transport spending. Yet there was almost zero debate about reconfigurating the transport systems of the south-east to reduce significantly the number of interchange journeys into and out of London. For example for me to get to the wedding of my older brother in the west country recently involved either driving on the M25 or changing trains & using the underground between Kings Cross & Paddington. Assuming we get East-West Rail, the need for people to go into London will reduce. Cambridge’s risk is that it could neglect the needs of people in surrounding rural areas as demands for transport funding grows – even though funding transport in rural areas might have the impact of reducing rural congestion more than spending money in urban areas.

Historical context

The huge and yawning gap in all of this is the complete lack of historical context with the future of Cambridge. I’ve not seen anyone ask and find answers to the question: “How did the city of Cambridge get to where it is today?” For example, why is it that Cambridge currently only has one railway station? And why is it where it is?


Have a look at the above map from the book below that I managed to get a copy of – even though it’s been out of print for nearly 40 years.


And why didn’t we get a footbridge over the railway line by the main railway station?


…because as far back as 1910 councillors were talking about it and we still don’t have one – the cycle bridge being too far along Rustat Road and having the main aim of taking cycle traffic off the main roads into town.

And why are we still not systematically involving students and young people?


Saffron Walden, just up the road was calling for such involvement as far back as 1980. Cambridge City Council still doesn’t have a youth council – even though South Cambridgeshire District Council does. If you want ideas for potential separate cycle routes for children and students to use – away from motor traffic, why not ask them to pick out possible routes? After all, they use the routes every day and know the dangers.

Talking of young people – here’s one young person who changed Cambridge’s history.

My conclusion?

Much as I’d love to have things like the Cambridge light rail (We’re so getting a merchandising range made up – esp if the Cambridge Monorail has one!), we need to get our historical houses in order, and get our systems of public administration in order. The problem is that compared to the scientific and technological advances coming from in and around the city, these tasks feel boring and mundane in comparison. But, dare I say it they are more important if Cambridge is to reach anywhere near its potential.

“What if that person struggling is…me?”


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?

161208 DimieCatScreengrabRehearsalSupport.jpg

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.


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


My 2016 – in videos


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.