What does the #ITooAmCambridge hashtag say about Cambridge University?

Summary

The experiences of students photographed in a new tumblr account feel all too familiar to this local resident – me.

The page mentioned above is here.

Background

Ethnicity is an issue I’m ***really uncomfortable*** blogging about – and talking about. In the grand scheme of things, I’d rather not have people asking me where I’m from or about my family background – unless they really know me. I also ***really hate*** people making assumptions about me just by looking at me – even though we all do it. (Which makes me a bit of a hypocrite – well…a lot of one really). The thing is, a Twitter meme that started on the other side of the pond at Harvard then hit Oxford and then hit Cambridge on all things diversity and ethnicity. Hard to avoid when I spend a fair amount of time at events organised by the latter despite having never been a student at Cambridge.

Cambridge – not just a university but a place I call ‘home’ too

Cambridge is my home town – one where I spent my entire childhood in. It’s the only place I can really call ‘home’. In that childhood I was one of the few non-White faces in my year group. Off the top of my head, in a year group of nearly 250 at secondary school, only about 10 of us were not White. It was similar for other year groups either side. I grew up sort of in between communities that straddled affluent professional middle classes on one side, and families living in council houses on low incomes on the other. Yet being ‘mixed heritage’, you could say I am just as much White as I am non-White. So when people and institutions try to put me in a box – whichever that may be, there will always be something about me that they are trying to assume away, or assume into me.

At that time, Cambridge University didn’t do community outreach bar the odd school visit. The University’s admin staff simply did not want to know you if you weren’t a member of the institution. One of the reasons why I’ve grown up learning to hate them as a collective institution – I spent several weeks temping inside the institution in the early 2000s and was horrified but not surprised by what I found.

Does this conversation sound familiar?

Them: “Where are you from?”

Me: “Cambridge”

Them: “No, where are you really from?”

Me: “Cambridge”

Them: “No, what is your family background?”

Me: “Does it matter?/how long have you got because it is a ***very long*** story”

Them: “You’re so rude!” (Or normally something more abusive)

And then I’m the one who ends up feeling like shite even though the person asking those questions doesn’t know me well enough to be asking them. (For the record, me and the immediate 3 generations of my family were born on different continents. 4 generations, 3 continents. Now you tell me where I’m from.) This article explains someone else’s experience.

“Oh but that makes you very exotic and mysterious!”

Which is code for ‘foreign, but in a way that we like.’ Shappi Khorsandi (pictured here with Puffles on stage in Cambridge) came up with that one at a gig in London a few years back.

Feeling uncomfortable reading this already? Imagine how it feels writing this

What the We too are Cambridge account reveals is that something is going very badly wrong with the schools and colleges that many UK-based students come from – something that for whatever reason Cambridge and its colleges are unwilling or unable to turn around. Ditto at Oxford, where the original I too am Oxford meme was responded to in a well-meaning but woeful manner in We are all Oxford.

“Why was it woeful?”

For many reasons, but in the grand scheme of things, it revealed the class & institutional divide between many of the people that go through Oxbridge vs the majority of the people from more economically-deprived parts of the country that never get to see the universities, let alone set foot inside them. Talking to staff recently at some of Cambridge’s state schools, children from some of our most deprived communities haven’t even been down Kings Parade to see Kings College. (It was raised a few years ago – see here).  The thing is, The Manor School (since re-opened as the North Cambridge Academy) is on the doorstep of various Cambridge colleges and institutes – sort of in the same way that London Docklands is on the doorstep of some of the most deprived communities in the UK – in Newham and Tower Hamlets. Why is it then, that we have communities so polarised in wealth that live side-by-side but with next-to-no interaction? (Given the scale of wealth).

Institutions and structures

It’s like with the community activism work I’m doing. If a single one-off approach doesn’t work or an email doesn’t get responded to, maybe there is a problem with an individual in the system, or perhaps the email didn’t arrive. If repeated attempts by various different people using different means across a number of institutions in the geographical area is producing the same result (ie no responses), then the problems go far beyond an individual.

Having a ‘diversity day’ or giving a small grant to a student society isn’t going to change the cultures, systems, processes and structures that have led to the problems in the first place. Just scrolling through We too are Cambridge and more than a few of the quotations are snapshots of what I’ve experienced in life. In one sense it’s a relief to know that I am not alone, while at the same time saddening that another generation is still on the receiving end of mainly ignorance, but in a few cases, hatred too. The schools and the colleges that regularly send lots of students to oxbridge really need to start asking questions of themselves about what they are getting so spectacularly wrong with the social skills of their students.

“Have the institutions acknowledged these problems?”

Well…those that are the decision-makers will know how to make the right ‘sounds’ from a PR perspective, but with very little radical action to deal with the problems. They are good at following David Cameron’s example here – lots of ‘We need to do…’ then doing next to nothing as a result. Bearing in mind Cameron will have been leader of the Conservatives for a decade come 2015, his record on diversity in senior/decision-making posts, for all is words is one of complete and utter failure. The same is the case for Cambridge University as Professor Dame Athene Donald highlighted recently – see here. The same is also the case in professional football. I started following football at a very young age. So why is it, a generation later there are still no high profile top-flight British-Asian footballers getting regular games? Ditto when I was in the civil service. In the lunch queue at the local supermarkets by our offices on Victoria Street, it was a predominantly White customer base being served by low paid shop-floor staff from minority ethnic communities. The only White British faces you would see as staff were the managers in suits.

Separating ignorance from hatred

For me, it’s important that we do this. Like the late Tony Benn, I like to believe in the goodness of people – and of individuals until proven otherwise. The students & young people I meet in Cambridge I don’t see as ‘the finished article’. We never are. Rather I like to see people as having the potential to achieve great things. Just as I am not nearly the same person as I was when I was at university, so I see the same thing with the current generation of students too. The question is how to challenge that ignorance.

Why the leaders within institutions need to take a lead

The We too are Cambridge feed should send alarm bells ringing in Cambridge University circles. The reason being that it’s showing whatever the institution is currently doing is not working. It’s all very well having the documents and strategies in place, but if no action stems from them, what’s the point? But does a predominantly White, male, middle-aged and affluent academic and management class know where to start with something like this in Cambridge? It reminds me of when Baroness Kramer on BBC Three’s Free Speech programme (Series 3 Episode 1) complained to an audience of young people that she had tried lots of things to reach out to young people & get them engaged in politics but none of them had worked. To which the audience told her to try and listen for once.

Acknowledging the problem – and acknowledging it might make a lot of people within the institution feel very uncomfortable

Sort of like when I spotted Oliver Letwin in 2003 going punting, at the same time as I was with a group of friends. His face was a picture – as if he’d never seen anyone that looked like me before, let alone being recognised as a politician by someone that looked like me. It was as if he’d seen a ghost – poor thing. And that was in the days before I had a dragon with me.

Acknowledging that an organisation has a problem with something is going far beyond having corporate equality and diversity statements. That in itself carries huge risks – especially for an institution like Cambridge University that is more and more dependent financially on its international reputation. There also has to be a desire from people to make those changes and improvements too. What makes things challenging for Cambridge University is that every academic year you have a new intake of students. This means that some things will have to be repeated annually for the new intake. It also has implications for how Cambridge University challenges its most successful feeder schools, as well as reaching out to those that historically don’t send students to Cambridge. (Personally I quite like the idea of Oxford and Cambridge guaranteeing interviews for at least 1 student from the poorest performing secondary schools, if anything just to let students from those areas know that Oxford and Cambridge are there, and force the schools to think more about ‘how’ to get students to apply (& how to prepare them for interviews) rather than ‘why?’).

Cambridge University has no choice – social media users have let the cats out of the bag

Scrolling through and reading each account individually sends a very powerful message. These are a series of independent individual experiences put together collectively – with an impact far greater than the sum of their parts. It’s not something that can be dismissed as a one-off. The problem is institutional. The University as a corporate body has to respond.

How should it respond, and why does it matter to residents?

It matters to residents because Cambridge University and local residents share the same city. For those of us that want Cambridge University to share its knowledge, wealth and resources with the wider city, the institution’s failure with its own students doesn’t fill us with confidence on how it treats the rest of us that have Cambridge as a home.

As for how to respond, open it up to the students and the city. Acknowledge the problems, and start a process that will lead to a significant improvement in the culture. Invite people to describe how the problems manifest themselves in terms of behaviour – whether actions or inactions, invite people to set out a ‘vision’ for what success looks like, and invite people to design the actions, systems and processes they think are needed to achieve that vision. Then get the University’s Senate to sign it off and assign someone in very senior management to have responsibility for seeing it through – along with scrutiny from staff and students.

Do I think Cambridge University will respond positively?

Good question – I’ll ask Julian Huppert to forward a copy of this blogpost to the Vice Chancellor and see what his response is. Will keep you posted.

Posted in Cambridge, Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Education, training and exams, Public administration & policy | 1 Comment

Thinking about science at #ThinkCon Cambridge

Summary

When Suzi Gage came to town – and Dr Rupert Read of The Green Party coming back again

The MusicNet East conference left me emotionally exhausted but with a buzzing head – meaning that without medication I’d have not got any sleep. It’s one of the ways I have to manage my internal demons because lack of sleep makes me mentally unstable – as does too much caffeine, processed sugar and alcohol.

Lou Woodley tipped me off about ThinkCon, and finding out that epidemiologist and long-time dragon-fairy-watcher Suzi Gage was coming to Cambridge for this, I signed up. I’d not met Suzi before but we’ve been following each other for over a year on Twitter, so it’s always nice to meet people face-to-face at these things.

Puffles with Suzi in 'the green room' at #ThinkCon

Puffles with Suzi in ‘the green room’ at #ThinkCon

Suzi’s presentation reminded me of was that of Professor David Nutt when the latter came to speak about drugs policy to the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange. (I touched on it in this blogpost). She’s working in and on one of those areas that is ever so politically sensitive. It’s one of the reasons why Professor Nutt got sacked by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson because the scientific advice on drugs was not politically palatable. i.e. just before a general election you couldn’t run with the policies scientific advice indicated lest the tabloids have a field day with headlines such as:

“Minister: I back drugs!”

To which Suzi and the scientists (and anyone with more than a very basic level of scientific awareness) would respond that caffeine and alcohol are drugs. Brian (now Lord) Paddick when he was a senior police officer in Brixton was one of the first users of social media, using it to engage with his local community on the Urban 75 message boards (see here for the history). That was in 2001. Both Paddick – and Mike who created and has run the boards for the past decade and a half were ***years*** ahead of their time. But the tabloids didn’t like it, and he was hounded out of his job in an horrifically homophobic campaign.

Challenging those in power

This was the awkward question I put to Suzi in the Q&A session. Just as Penny Homer told me at the music conference the day before that music and musicians have historically challenged the powerful, so too must science and scientists. Part of the problem is that scientists are (understandably) reluctant to engage in politics – in particular party politics – in the current climate. If Professor Nutt can be treated the way he was by a Home Secretary, why would anyone else want to put themselves in the firing line? I’ll repeat the line again:

“How can you have evidence-based policy with prejudice-based politics?”

How do you combine a dispassionate analysis of the evidence with passion for a cause or policy?

This was an open question Suzi put to all of us. Her point was that – as with the civil service, you’ve got to be objective about the research, evidence and analysis that you do. To become too much of an advocate of that in a political arena could put at risk your impartiality. Hence her observation that there needs to be a ‘something’ that can be an intermediary.

Helping society becoming more scientifically literate

This for me is a big theme. The problem I find is that the scientific and educational communities have not come up with a suitable approach for adults. As I said to Kat Arney in the pub later on, how do you bridge the gap between scientific experts and policy advisers that might have last formally studied science at GCSE? It’s great having things like the Cambridge Science Festival (on now (March-April 2014)), but where are the opportunities for enjoyable, inspiring and structured learning for adults where you are building on previous learning?

Cambridge: When are we going to get those weekly evening classes on science for adults that don’t involve exams at the end?

Because we have come a hell of a long way since I last studied science in anywhere near a lab setting – and that was in the mid-1990s in a mobile classroom. The institutions are here, the people are here, the wealth and resources are here, and the buildings are here. Let’s use them.

 

And…what about Rupert?

Two of the Green Party’s East Anglia European Parliament candidates were in Cambridge earlier on – Rupert Read and Fiona Radic. They hosted a talk on how to make the ‘great transition’ from where we are now to where we want to be as a sustainable economy & society in a Cambridge & East Anglia context. (See here). Former Friends of the Earth chief Tony Juniper was also there – he stood for the Greens in 2010 for Parliament, pulling in an unprecedented 3,804 votes. There were about 40 people there on what was otherwise a gorgeous sunny afternoon in the city.

Kings College Chapel - the view greeting me as I headed from the Greens' gathering to #ThinkCon

Kings College Chapel – the view greeting me as I headed from the Greens’ gathering to #ThinkCon

 

 

There was a strong scientific focus on what they all said too – even though according to some of their critics, science is an achilles heel for the movement. For me, part of the reason is that for some in the environmental movement, ‘big’ science (of the large organisations) doesn’t always sit easily with the small-scale living that some promote and live by. Whether it’s GM crops to planning squabbles with wind turbines, even to homeopathy and ‘alternative healing’ (a few examples here), it’s not an easy balance to strike. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett at her recent talk in Cambridge (see here) described her party as being the political wing of a much wider diverse environmental movement. With diversity inevitably brings disagreements.

Giving people hope

This was something I pressed the three speakers on – using an example from the days when I was a climate change policy adviser in central government. For the first half of my time, people in and lobbyists for industry were constantly questioning the ‘why?’ – remember this was just after Lord Stern had published his epic report The Economics of Climate ChangeAs an economics graduate that focused on environmental economics, I was particularly interested in this report – and was delighted to find that one of my fellow students who by a country mile was the outstanding scholar in our cohort, was part of the team that wrote it. (Step forward Hannah Ryder). I knew Hannah quite well at university and had a huge regard for her knowledge and penetrating analysis of the subject. She doesn’t know this but it was knowing that she was on the report’s team that made me trust it a damn sight more in the context of public platforms when sparring with people critical of the policy responses. I also never forgot in the run up to our finals when we were discussing a paper on the economics of development when she paid me a huge compliment on my own intellect, saying that I should be getting a first for my degree. That was when I told her the impact of my mental health problems and how I was never able to really sink my teeth into the growing field of ecological and environmental economics, as well as that of the interface between economics and human psychology. But my point is that somehow, Hannah gave me hope.

And that’s what Tony said the Greens needed to do. Because in the second half of my time as a climate change policy adviser, a building firm went and built some new commercially viable highly sustainable homes. And got ***lots*** of positive publicity with it. Almost overnight, the conversation in the policy area switched away from ‘why’ to ‘how?’

‘Our message must be more “I have a dream” rather than “We have a nightmare”‘

Not just on climate change issues, but on much more besides – paraphrasing Tony’s words. Because if politicians focus on the negative as all too often in recent times they have done, it’s not surprising that people risk becoming paralysed by fear rather than inspired to take action. With that in mind, in the run up to the 2014 local government and European elections, and for the 2015 elections, I would like to see politicians showing us some positive case studies of what works, why it works and how they plan to expand this to benefit more people. In this digital and social media age, will we be seeing more short digital video clips of good things rather than doom-laden sound-bite-bitten party election broadcasts? Hopefully

Posted in Cambridge, Data, science and statistics, Education, training and exams, Party politics, Public administration & policy, Puffles, Social media | 1 Comment

Musical inclusion in East Anglia – an inspiring yet frustrating experience

Summary

Can an event be inspiring and frustrating at the same time? Yes.

Before I kick off, one of the brightest local musical talents, Grace Sarah (who has got her GCSE exams in a few months time), has got some new songs out. Here’s one.

Appropriate given the event I’m writing about and the challenges facing young people today.

I found out about MusicNet-East after browsing through Eventbrite, noticing that they had an open invitation event at The Junction in Cambridge. With a forests worth of chips on my shoulder regarding all things music tuition, I went along to see what it was all about. To summarise the event, I saw ***lots*** of really inspirational things being done all over East Anglia, but found the format of the event incredibly frustrating – and the panel talks to be utterly soul-destroying.

“What worked?”

The use of digital media by a number of people such as Anna Gowers was brilliant. A simple gadget to record digital video vox-pops (very short interviews) with children on how they were experiencing music gave a clear picture of the positive impact their activities had. It was also nice to see a much wider variety of approaches being tried – with more than a fair amount of success – to engage with young people in ways that traditional exams-focused tuition had otherwise failed.

“What didn’t work?”

There were too many things that I found incredibly frustrating – to the extent where part of me wanted to fire tranquilliser darts at the panel session hosts.

“Crikey!”

It’s not the first time this has happened at a conference at The Junction. Some stereotypical affluent, bland middle-class artsy-type asks lots of long-winded extended questions that fail to illicit focused answers from the panel – with no opportunities for short, sharp Q&As from the audience. The two people concerned (whose names I can’t find so won’t mention) demonstrated complete incompetence in their task and failed to notice that their style of facilitating was sending the audience to sleep.

With the second panel – of which Anna, mentioned above, was on, I was utterly damning.

The fault was entirely the interviewer’s – Anna had superb case studies and he completely killed it. Even the other panellist, Suzi, was trying to inject passion into the talk but the blandness of the interviewer’s responses, comments and questions was soul-destroying. Absolutely not do you say in a soft, emotionless voice in front of a conference audience something like:

‘Yes…and we can clearly see the enthusiasm in…’

…while demonstrating a complete lack of it in your tone of voice and delivery yourself.

“But then, you don’t like interviewer + expert panellist with no audience interaction”

Exactly – get the group in front of a camera, whack it on youtube and get people to view it in their own time. If you’re going to get lots of people from all over the region together, get them to interact. Don’t give them death-by-dullness-facilitators.

An ethnic musical divide too?

Professor Lucy Green of the University of London gave the opening talk. Content-wise it was fascinating but she needed to deliver her speech with much more passion and in half the time. Some of what she covered is in the video below:

The problem was when you use audio musical samples like Shakira’s ‘The hips don’t lie’ (and children & teenagers singing/playing along to it) in your talk and then follow it up with a monologue lacking in energy and passion, it brings to the fore the contrast between the hold on music academia by a White affluent class stuck in their ways (such as the toxic hold the ABRSM and other exam boards have over formal music learning in schools) vs alternative forms of music making.

It was after her talk that I verbally opened fire in the Q&A session

I have a forest-worth of chips on my shoulder over music learning in my childhood. (See blogposts here). Professor Lucy Green just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time to be on the receiving end of such a passionate broadside. But as a member of the music establishment, in front of an audience of music educators at a venue on my doorstep in my childhood neighbourhood, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Hence it was more therapeutic than anything else.

“What did you say/ask?”

I asked her what was to be done about the stranglehold of the ‘exams culture’ in music. But I prefaced all of that with a short bullet-point history of what it was like growing up and learning music in the neighbourhood that the conference venue happens to be in. It’s far more powerful emotionally when you can say to people ‘This is what happened here in the neighbourhood you are standing in, and I lived through it.’

I also told the audience that after giving up the violin in my early teens because of exams culture, I wasn’t able to pick up a stringed instrument for ***fifteen years*** – and ditto trying to get back into singing. I just could not overcome the mental and emotional barriers. Understandably Professor Lucy Green was visibly disturbed as I put the emphasis on the number of years – you could see it in her face and body language. To her credit she acknowledged the points I was making, and responded by saying that the ABRSM (the main musical exam board) are a private organisation with a financial incentive regarding exams. I’m glad she said this as it’s a conclusion I came to in previous blogposts. If she’s thinking this and I’m thinking this independently of each other, how many other people are thinking the same, and of the impact this has?

‘You don’t need to read music in order to play a musical instrument’

This was a point Robert Taylor put to me on his experience with music – saying when he grew up, music theory wasn’t even considered. They just played music. The way too many music teachers in his experience taught music – in particular theory – was a massive barrier to learning, rather than an enhancement.

“Yeah, why are you bashing classical music?”

Bashing the music or the establishment around it? Penny Homer of the Association of British Choral Directors understandably got a little defensive after one to many jabs at classical music in general from the audience Q&As. (In her position I probably would have done the same). The challenge Penny and those like her face is that they are fighting battles on two fronts. The first is with their existing establishments, trying to stop them perpetuating the divisions & barriers that exist; the second trying to convince non-traditional audiences that classical music belongs to them because music belongs to all humanity.

Opera for the posh people, musicals for the masses?

My first opera that I consciously chose to go to was in 2006 – Bizet’s Carmen. My first ballet (Swan Lake – because I rewatched Fantasia the animated film & started getting back into classical music that way, & wanted to see an orchestra perform Tchaikovsky) that I chose to go to consciously was in late 2000. In the case of the latter, I was making a conscious effort at the time to become ‘educated beyond exams’ (you know in the way that everyone wants to be well-read in the classics but without actually having to read them). As it turned out, it was the costumes I was mesmerised by because they had such deep bold colours in a manner that I had not expected. I assumed it would be just prissy things in white polyester prancing about. With Carmen, I bought the a pair of tickets when I was at the end of a short intense relationship with one person, and when the event came around, ended up going with a different partner at the start of another short but intense relationship. As the latter was a choral scholar at the time, she knew the opera inside out and eased me into the operatic audience.

Yet there lies my point about barriers – music, just like human beings, are social

As a result, over the centuries humans have developed various social trappings around different musical scenes. Some of those social trappings will be barriers. The informal dress codes for classical music concerts for example. This was something I discussed when I first went to see Dowsing Collective – see here. At the other end, many-a-movie has been made of the affluent character classically trained in something meeting someone from a class-oppressed background talented in an alternative form of a similar art, and finding a connection in the face of hostility from their parents and communities. (Dirty Dancing 2 being one that, where I was in my life captivated me). My point here is how to make the social trappings part of the fun – and inclusive, rather than becoming a barrier?

How to make things greater than the sum of their parts?

The never-ending challenge for people in and around the interface between the public and not-for-profit sectors. I was guided towards the ‘Music Bridge’ that covers Cambridgeshire – and according to this map there’s nothing going on in Cambridge. Or rather, nothing listed by the organisation. But again this doesn’t mean that ‘nothing is happening.’ It is. The problem as with other areas is that we don’t have this single place/organisation to go to (whether online or bricks-and-mortar) that has all the information of what is going on and where, in a manner that is easy to search and that is run by knowledgeable and passionate staff that are not constantly firefighting against cuts.

Why does this all matter to South Cambridge?

Because from the conversations I’ve been having and from what people are telling me, this part of the city is one that is lacking in confidence. How can we use things like art, dance, drama and music to help turn things around?

 

Posted in Cambridge, Music, Public administration & policy | 6 Comments

When political issues are reduced to acts of charity

Summary

Why do we allow the media to de-politicise very political issues?

Because that’s exactly what the BBC’s programme ‘Famous, Rich and Hungry for Sport Relief‘ is.

“Why are you against charity you horrible rotten leftie scoundrel?!?!?”

For a start, what people define as charity is not set in stone. People’s definition of what charity is, is inherently political. Indeed, I’ve had a number of exchanges with my Conservative followers who take the view that charity should be about what an individual or group of people do/does to alleviate the plight of those less well off than them. And that’s it. Absolutely not in their view does charity involve campaigning to persuade people and politicians to change systems, processes, policies and institutional structures to alleviate the problems.

“And the problem is…?”

In this new two-part documentary series, four well-known personalities…

The two actors I’d never heard of, one a self-made millionaire-turned-TV-celeb and the other a well-connected journalist. But then I guess Channel 4 did the Tower Block of Commons with politicians. What happened to the people and communities featured in that programme?

“Doesn’t that just show how out-of-touch with mainstream celeb culture you are?”

Absolutely.

(Though I had heard & watched a few of the TV shows the actors were on).

The thing is, the TV programme followed a well-trodden path – one that for me was completely unsuitable for the people struggling to get by that were featured on the show. That’s what made me angry. When the cameras have gone, the media spotlight has moved on and the celebs are back in their mansions, the ordinary people featured – and hundreds of thousands like them – will still have their problems staring them in the face.

“What is that well-trodden route?”

Get some celebrities well known by the followers of celeb culture, put them in front of ‘fly-on-the-wall-style’ cameras to get the tear-jerking scenes, followed by a phone number calling for charitable donations. The show ended with a call for such donations to Sport Relief. Having scrolled through the hashtag on Twitter, I noted there were a fair few people that said they were only watching the programme because one of their favourite celebrities was on it – then being unpleasantly surprised by the picture that was presented.

“Doesn’t it raise awareness of the issues?”

It does … but then completely diverts the attention gained towards a direction that does not solve the problems. This was the bit that made me quite angry.

Hunger is a political issue, not a charity issue

As Rick B put it.

Perhaps in the same way Labour were seen to throw money at social problems in the early 2000s, perhaps the mindset is that by donating to charity, we’ll solve the worlds problems – again by giving money to those that work on the front line for charities.

I’ve expanded further on these points in blogposts here, and also here - on ‘I don’t want your charity, I demand my rights!’.

“What would you have liked to have seen?”

Basically the programme snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Having raised awareness of people living in poverty on our doorsteps, they then implied that the way people could make a difference was by donating to charity. At no point did I spot any mention of politics other than when the benefit recipients went off to collect social security payments. This differed from the Tower Block of Commons approach where the MPs at the time helped organise some of the residents to go after the council, and then pulled in one of the ministers responsible for a meeting.

Inevitably the BBC would have been treading on a political tightrope on this one – you can imagine what the print media would have made if the programme had ended with: “If you want to make a difference, get involved in politics – here’s how…” Hence through Puffles I tweeted links to Writetothem.com.

When I give food to the poor, they say “Yay! Charidee!” When I ask why the poor have no food, they say “Boo! Politics!”

The above tweet has shot round Twitter by the looks of things. It’s basically an adaptation of a well-known quotation from Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian archbishop who came up with the quotation:

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

It reminds me of the spats the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith MP is having with the Trussell Trust – the charity that runs many of the nation’s food banks. (See here). Again, the theme of what the role of a charity should be, comes into play. Should the Trussell Trust stay silent and simply collect and distribute food, or should they at the same time be asking awkward questions of ministers?

In Cambridge, some have gone after the food companies directly

I found out not so long ago that food poverty on our doorstep is an issue that has got local Christians and other religious groups active on social justice issues. Some of these people volunteer at the local food bank – one such volunteer being a former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who now lives locally. When a city as affluent as Cambridge has to have a food bank, you know you’re in trouble. When Emmanuel URC in Cambridge hosted an event on food security chaired by Professor Sir Brian Heap (who happens to go to that church), the audience largely made up of regular parishioners did not pull their punches as they tore (very knowledgeably) into the representatives from large food corporations. (Note the comments at the end of the blogpost here).

“So…where do we go from here?”

I think for starters, rather than jumping straight into ‘politics’, there’s something about inviting the public to think about how to resolve the problems other than fundraising for or donating to charity. Having identified the various things people can do, invite them to think about the action most appropriate to their personality and circumstances for them is. For some that might be a donation. For others, it might be something else, such as awareness raising on a street stall, or organising an event through art and drama. For others it might be a demonstration. For others it might be doing something online. For others it might be going through formal political structures. What works for one might not work for another. I’m not good at doing the street protesting. Others are. I’m not good enough on the art and drama side – others are. But I can do the social media activism and working through formal political structures, because that’s what I have knowledge of.

“So the challenge for each individual is…?”

For any social justice issue that you are passionate about, the challenge is finding the actions that you are content doing where you will have the greatest impact. What that actions ultimately are…is for you to decide.

Posted in Campaigning, protesting and demonstrating, Charities and Big Society, Party politics | 4 Comments

The Scottish independence referendum debate comes to Cambridge

Summary

From one political gathering to another in the same evening – what I learnt from four male Scots sparring on independence

The first thing I was asked as I wandered towards the doors of the Cambridge Union building was:

“Are you Dick?”

To which I responded

“Nope – just me and the dragon”

…thinking nothing of it until Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan wandered into the room. Clearly someone had not done an image search before the event had started!

An all-male speakers panel

The event was organised by Cambridge University’s Scottish Society. With what seemed to be all the speakers there, I asked one of the organisers why there were no women on the speakers list. They told me they had invited women to speak, but none of them had accepted the invitation.

An aside – how do we encourage more women to speak on panels, attend and ask questions at politics and policy events?

The reason I ask is because I’ve been going to quite a few of these events locally (to me in Cambridge), in London and elsewhere. All too often, the speakers are majority (White middle-aged or young professional) male. When it comes to the audience, even if it’s a diverse one it’s nearly always the men that volunteer to ask questions first. Having been one of the worst offenders in past times at wanting to ask lots of questions, I’ve now trained myself into the habit of pointing microphone people towards women in the audience indicating when they want to ask questions (or simply passing it on directly if it’s handed to me first) at Q&A sessions. At the event I was at previously with Maria Eagle MP, when she urged women to ask questions, one of the women in the audience responded saying that it wasn’t because she was a woman she wasn’t asking questions, but it was because she genuinely did not have a question to ask. I also noticed at the end of the formalities at the #indyref event (the subject of this post), the conversations in the bar were buzzing. So…any thoughts?

“So, who won what then?”

The speakers were Lib Dem Lord Nicol Stephen – former Deputy First Minister until 2007, David Greig the Scottish playwright, Thomas Docherty MP (Lab) for Dunfermline and West Fife, & Dick Gaughan the folk singer. David & Dick argued for independence, Nicol and Thomas against. There was a sort-of informal vote which was 14-yes, 28-no, but I abstained thinking it was only eligible Scottish voters that were being asked to indicate. But that didn’t matter. What mattered for me was what we all learnt about the nature of the debate taking place in Scotland – one that is not being properly reported at all in the London-based media.

“How so?”

It’s difficult to know where to start. I think it can generally be described as a ‘London bubble’ thing. The institutions in London are living their own lives in a city so very different to every other city in the UK that what goes on beyond the M25 or outside the south-east hardly registers. Think of the recent floods. Somerset had been struggling to deal with the floods for a few weeks and the media didn’t pick up on it in any big way. But as soon as the Thames Valley and Berkshire got hit, suddenly it was all over the media and Greater London had suddenly expanded one county westward. Council estate flooded and no one cares. A couple of mansions flooded and suddenly there’s a souvenir edition print special along with an online slide show to match.

“So…what did you learn?”

That recent political history matters. Big time. 

Prior to Thatcher, Scotland returned Conservative MPs in numbers hovering around the 20s & 30s. That number slumped to zero in 1997 and has been at one ever since (see here). At the same time, there has been a significant decline in both Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats since the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. From 53% of the popular vote & 56% of MSP seats in 1999 that formed the first Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive, that combination in 2011 39% of the popular vote and 32% of the seats. The details of how and why this happened I’ll leave to far more informed people to explain.

That values matter. Big time.

Whenever I’ve gone out and about in the ‘not London and the South East’ bits of the UK, I’ve always been struck at how different the atmosphere is. It’s almost as if we take ourselves ***way too seriously*** in the south east. Dick Gaughan expressed this in words that had some of the pro-free-market-types in the room really scratching at their heads because someone was strongly challenging their perspective and assumptions they had – until the debate – perhaps taken for granted.

A battle of hearts vs minds?

That is how some are portraying the debate. ‘In their hearts, the Scots want independence but in their minds, they cannot see it working properly so best stick to what they’ve got.’ was how one put it. In the debate itself, those arguing for independence were from an arts background, and those arguing against independence were/are politicians. It fitted within that frame. The artists appealing towards emotional heart strings while the toxic politicians sowed seeds of doubt and uncertainty without offering a positive and inspiring alternative.

But you can’t have one without the other – otherwise you’d be dead

That’s what makes – or rather should make politics fascinating. The better politicians are the ones that can inspire others around them to achieve great things while at the same time demonstrating competence in public office. In the grand scheme of things a body with a mind/brain but no heart is pretty much a dead one, as is a body with a heart but no mind.

All of the speakers had interesting points to make, but the policy-wonk and politics-watcher in me was able to pick holes in all of them. (It’s what happens when you work in policy in the civil service: Your job is to pick lots of holes in everyone else’s arguments and policies – including those you are working for – then try to think how to deal with them).

Falling down on the risks

This was probably my second evil question of the evening – to David Greig. He finished his talk acknowledging risks voting for independence, but urged people to run with it because the opportunities with independence outweigh the risks. Regular readers of this blog will know what’s coming.

“What are the top two key risks you see associated with a ‘Yes’ vote for independence, and how would you mitigate those risks?”

David didn’t respond directly, but sort of indicated that the changes the institutions would have to make, along with the Westminster parties behaving in bad faith during the inevitable negotiations would be big challenges.

Docherty’s doubts

Labour MP Thomas Docherty went in for a standard public policy approach rather than a campaigning politics approach. By that I mean he looked at the proposals from his political opponents and tried to make the case why they would not work. An understandable approach but didn’t really set the room alight. Dick Gaughan did that.

Folk fights back

For those of you not familiar with folk music, there’s a strong vein of protest songs throughout it. The Levellers (Sell out and Another Man’s cause) featured regularly in my teens, just as Oysterband (Jam tomorrow and Bells of Rhymney) featured regularly in my 20s. Having grown up with the Cambridge Folk Festival on my doorstep (Puffles went in 2012), the music has kind of always been there for me.

What Dick Gaughan was able to do powerfully was to tell the very dark story about the devastating impact of Thatcher’s government on Scotland – explaining to a mainly undergraduate audience why there are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs. He explained graphically about the impact this had on communities that he lived in, and that how the values of the majority of the people of Scotland were at odds with neo-liberalism adopted by the political establishment. His final main point was that the referendum was a historical opportunity to throw off the unpopular policies imposed from Westminster by governments aiming to please swing seats of London & the south east.

But his points were not met without challenge. Some were from an internationalist perspective of the world ‘as is’ – such as EU laws and regulations. Others were from a numbers perspective – one student comparing London’s population to that of Scotland. (I wanted to respond by saying ‘Look at the institutions and the power structures’ – but refrained).

Nicol Stephen takes on the nastiness in the campaigns

Turns out it wasn’t the former Liverpool player speaking. Lord Stephen started off with a long historical narrative – in particular about the centuries-long links with London, then focused his arguments around the political parties, the flaws in Salmond’s argument and a swipe at nationalism and its dark sides. On the final point, one woman pulled him up for not acknowledging the difference between a nationalism of national liberation, versus that of imperial conquest.

My question to him was that in the case of a ‘no’ vote, then what? Scotland is still left with the institutions that failed it most recently in the past few decades. His response then formed a discussion I had with a very bright Scottish undergraduate called Rebecca, about differentiating politics from public policy – and how to make sense of it in the context of the referendum.

‘Scotland is in the process of renegotiating its relationship with the rest of the UK – and in particular the political establishment based in London. The independence referendum will decide whether it will be a negotiation between two equal parties, or between one senior and one junior party.’

The above in a nutshell is what I’ve learnt from the debate. Before this evening, I was under the impression that a ‘yes’ vote meant Scotland would go off and do it’s own thing separate to the rest of the UK, and that a ‘no’ vote would mean Westminster might give one or two extra powers to Holyrood, but that would be about it. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, this won’t be the end – but only the beginning of a process that will take years before formalities come to a close. And even then, the relationship will continue to evolve as it has done for centuries.

Rebecca and I tried to unpick what we had heard in the debate – and finished our conversation off by asking whether I would vote yes or no in a referendum. That was when the ‘heart yes/head no’ issue came up. How do you unpick that?

For me, Independence for Scotland will not mean building a big iron curtain along the border. We live in an interdependent world as Lord Stephen said. Climate Change and globalisation tell us this. The question for me that the referendum will first answer is ‘where does sovereignty rest in the minds of the people of Scotland?’ Does it reside in the Westminster Parliament as part of the people of the United Kingdom, or does it reside in the Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh? Then the negotiations for which powers and functions can be pooled can begin. Which ones would they want to pool with the rest of the United Kingdom? (This is the storm around the currency issue). Which ones would they want to pool with the EU? (What choice/flexibility would there be? Is the ‘Norway’ model an alternative?) Which ones would they want to pool internationally? (Not just things such as international human rights treaties, but things like the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation).

And finally…

My friends in Scotland said similar things to what Dick Gaughan said about the whole referendum. It’s got people interested in politics again. People of all political parties and none are taking part in debates all over the country – and it has gone far beyond the control of the established political parties.

This perhaps was the point I was making about the poor media coverage of the debates in Scotland by the London-based media. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all Salmond vs Cameron backed by some elder statesmen of Labour and the Liberal Democrats (thinking Alistair Darling and Sir Menzies Campbell in particular). It’s not. I’ve learnt that the independence referendum and all that is going on around it in Scotland, has got a far broader breadth of coverage and far deeper historical roots in Scotland than the London-based institutions assume.

Posted in Cambridge, Events I have been to, History, Law and legal issues, Party politics | 13 Comments

Maria Eagle MP comes to Cambridge

Summary

Observations on the Shadow Defra Secretary’s talk to Cambridge University Labour Club 

I was pondering whether or not to take Puffles with me for both of these, but in the end instinct got the better of me.

Softly spoken, but hitting the Lib Dems where it hurts

This was the first time I’d met Maria. I’ve seen her lots on BBC Parliament & also became aware of her and her sister, Angela Eagle MP during their days as junior ministers under the last Labour Government. The loud, shouty bolshie politician Maria is definitely not. If it was a tub-thumping bash-the-Tories and their Lib Dem conspirators, you’d have probably come away disappointed. That’s not Maria’s way of doing things.

I picked up from Facebook the news that she was coming to visit Cambridge - somewhat at the last minute. What I’m trying to do (as mentioned in previous blogposts) in Cambridge is to spread the news on local notice boards whenever a senior politician of the main parties is hosting a speaking event open to the public. Picking this up late on meant I couldn’t make posters in time. My reason for doing this as well as encouraging people to turn up is to encourage organisers to do the same thing – so that one day I won’t have to. (Printing isn’t cheap either!) Anyway, about 40 of us were there for her talk to Cambridge University Labour Club.

“But you’re not a member – you can’t come in!”

They’ve not barred me yet. (About 18 months ago, the local green party barred me and Puffles from their AGM on the grounds we were not members). It’s a tricky call for political parties: judging when things should be ‘members only’ and when they should be open to the public. Obviously I’m in favour of the latter – the ‘management’ of senior politicians in particular, making them less accessible to the public has helped toxify politics in the minds of people. I remember debating with Clare Short when she visited my university in the 2001 when she asked for my vote. I explained I wouldn’t be voting for Labour that year because of its failure to tackle climate change seriously. We had a good-natured and pleasant debate until her ‘handler’ pulled her away and said:

“Come and meet some real Labour supporters”

Thus began my hostility towards political party managers of the ‘In the thick of it’ mould. In any case, in this social media-equipped age, such micro-management of politicians – and their messages – is now obsolete. Broadcasts and posters of the late-1990s era are quickly hijacked and lampooned online.

Maria’s messages

The first thing that struck me about her was how softly spoken she was. It felt like less of a public speech and more of a conversation. Secondly, there was a complete absence of ‘testosterone’ in both tone and content. Think Dennis Skinner MP in his prime, shouting loudly about how ‘orrible the Thatcher Government was. Maria was much more forensic on the public policy issues – in particular on the lack of representation of women in politics generally. She also made a series of interesting observations about Labour in rural areas – giving examples of how headline policies that have high impacts in urban areas (eg promises to freeze gas bills) have little impact in rural areas (where homes have to buy oil separately for heating, or rely on expensive electricity because they are not on the gas grid). Only recently I picked up Labour making a direct pitch for rural votes on Twitter (see here).

Where I thought she was weakest was on things specific to Cambridge as a city. But then she was speaking to an undergraduate student audience rather than a city audience. To any student political society, whenever you are having a senior representative of your party visiting to give a talk, give them a 1 page briefing note about the village/town/city they are visiting. Population, 3 key characteristics, 3 good things, 3 really big local challenges, name of MP, name of prospective parliamentary candidate standing for your party at the next election, and political control of the local council.

If Labour get elected in 2015 and Maria becomes a cabinet minister, the civil servants there will be fortunate

That might sound a little biased, but Maria (in response to a question from a CULC member about the bureaucracy) clearly demonstrated an excellent understanding about how to get the best out of the civil servants working for them. She listed a number of things that she said civil servants are looking for in a minister – and found myself nodding to each one. She then listed the things that the Coalition has done to alienate the civil servants working for them (and impacting negatively on their policy delivery accordingly). And I nodded again. This wasn’t a party political thing. This was more about how to run a large organisation well. And they don’t come much bigger than the civil service.

At the same time though, Labour had their share of poor ministers in its last government. I remember saying a few years ago that I had to be careful about political jokes as I might end up working for some of them. (I jest! I jest!) So for those in the Labour Party looking to aim for ministerial office in the future, have a work with Maria on how to get the best out of your civil servants. (For the Tories, I’d probably go for Michael Hestletine given his autobiography Life in the Jungle).

The disconnect between Maria’s messages from Labour HQ and Cambridge Labour Party on the ground regarding representation of women in South Cambridge, and on social media

In my exchange with Cambridge’s Cllr Carina O’Reilly (who I rate very highly) in my blogpost here, we debated about the lack women councillors, and the lack of social media use by Cambridge Labour councillors south of Mill Road – basically in South Cambridge. Maria had spoken strongly about getting more women into politics and public office, and on changing the way Labour organised. She commented on the challenge of the refusal of some ‘old school’ types in Labour that don’t like policy crowd-sourcing actions that go beyond the party membership such as Your Britain. Accordingly I picked up on both these.

I mentioned the Coleridge and Cherry Hinton wards of Cambridge & the profile of councillors – you can find them here. (The wards named are two of my three childhood neighbourhoods in Cambridge, both safe Labour wards where other parties seldom campaign). I said they were all male and that none of them used social media regularly. Given the presence of three secondary schools and Hills Road Sixth Form College in/near these wards, and given what she said about getting more women into public office, I asked her what she would personally do to ensure that Cambridge Labour Party selected social-media-aware women to stand in Coleridge and Cherry Hinton in the local council elections in 2015 (it’s too late to influence 2014 local council election candidates) & engage young people.

“That’s an evil question!”

And a hyper-local one that links her core message to what is going on at ground level. In recent times, I’ve tried to make the point to local Labour activists and councillors about the gap between the messages coming from their shadow cabinet ministers and what’s happening in my neighbourhood – with little impact. This time, I was able to put the point to a shadow cabinet minister.

“Her response?”

She said Labour is not a ‘top down party’ and she could not go around ordering local parties who to select – but said that they were serious points which will have been noted by the local party organiser in the audience. (As I was speaking, I noticed she was taking her own detailed notes too).

What I had done was a textbook example of how to escalate something in a large top-down organisation. If you spot an issue that you feel needs addressing – and is one that has been acknowledged by the organisation as an issue as well, you start off low down. If progress is too slow or zero, you go up the next level – and so on, and so on. I did this all the time in the civil service. All I did here was to wait until the next Labour shadow cabinet minister came to town and put my point to them in person. What happens next is ultimately an internal party issue. What matters to me is that I feel I’ve been able to have a positive influence on something that has been identified as a problem across political parties. For now, I can take a step back and see what happens over the next 12 months.

“You manipulative little so-and-so!!!”

Yeah :-)

At the same time, there were a number of young women in the audience. (Though I would have liked to have heard far more of them ask questions – despite Maria’s best efforts to encourage them) This is significant because Cambridge Labour Party has a good history of bringing through young activists to become local candidates in Cambridge for council elections. Could it be that one (or more) of those in the room step forward to become local council candidates in Cambridge in 2015?

Posted in Cambridge, Party politics, Puffles, Social media | 1 Comment

This used to be my playground

Summary

Burying some old demons for good. Spending an afternoon rehearsing on the grounds of my old secondary school – where since I left, over 90% of the site has been flattened and rebuilt.

I don’t know about you, but stuff that happened in childhood – bad stuff – is what drives me to do the community activism I’m doing today. The emotions of many things are still so very raw that it still sometimes feels that they happened yesterday, not twenty years ago. Perhaps too that’s why I wasn’t too fussed when the lady at the dentist reception said ‘Haven’t you been a good boy?!’ when the note from the dentist said to book a 1 year rather than a six month check up. There’s still that hurt child inside me that has too many injustices that need putting right – even though I know they never will be. The institutions responsible are too great and the people within them either don’t care, don’t remember or are dead.

That’s why part of this weekend was a significant moment for me.

I’ve recently joined the Dowsing Collective as a male tenor and we had an intensive four hour rehearsal today. The last time I had a rehearsal of that length on the site concerned for a public performance was over two decades ago. Looking around the site was a surreal experience. Although I had taken a wander around the site during the Easter of 2004, just before I started in the civil service, it was as if this was the first time I had been back ‘as an adult’. (Not all the building work had been completed at that time).

“What was so bad about things back then?”

Both at a macro level and a micro level, we could see bad things happening – and very little being done about it. Or if it was, it was too late for my generation. This ranged from watching helplessly as children with real talent and potential fell in with a bad crowd, through to political institutions allowing the site to get to the stage where it was a hazard for everyone on it. Think of the older series of Grange Hill - it reminded me of that. The crumbling infrastructure was in sync with the divided year group I was part of – one where it felt violence was always around the corner even though I was seldom directly on the receiving end of it. Others were not so lucky. I recall having no sense of pride or ownership of the site. I felt we were stuck out on the edge of town missing out on all of the fun stuff – which was why I developed a mindset of putting absolutely everything into doing well in my exams to get me the grades that would get me out of that hell-hole. That was my way of dealing with it. I recall the loathing was mutual between the different groups. One of the teachers remarked at the time that she had never known a year group so polarised.

At the same time, starved of resources and training by their political masters, the school was never able to provide the support students needed to achieve their potential. In my own comments in a report from the mid-1990s about GCSE geography, I wrote that the work I was being set was far too easy – the stuff of year 8. The teacher in her comments never acknowledged this. When I did A-level geography at Hills Road Sixth Form College, we had a student teacher living with us doing a PGCE at Homerton College – again, both institutions in my neighbourhood. She told me that her friends on PGCE placements at Hills Road for geography said the standard of work we were being set was second year undergraduate level work. Thus I moved from year 8 geography to second year undergraduate level in…a couple of months. In terms of extra-curricular things, my previous blogposts about music apply in particular Music – a personal journey as well as Music makes us one. 

“Why can’t you just let it go?”

Good question. Much of it is simply an innate part of who I am as a person – my disposition. I’ve also spoken before about my biggest personal failing: A lack of courage. Had I had more courage, I would have challenged more things, not followed bad advice or orders and gone down different paths. But I didn’t. Hence here I am.

At the same time (and with the 20:20 vision of hindsight), there are three things that explain the strength and depth of emotions on all of this:

  • I never achieved my potential
  • I wasn’t able to enjoy myself nearly as much as I should have done in the prime of my life
  • No one from those days is part of my life – they haven’t been this side of the millennium

Thus it feels like I have no shared personal history with anyone.

Which is strange for someone who is so passionate about history.

Talking of which, when I got inside the newest part of the building, I spotted a ‘Then and Now’ display of various sports teams. One was from when I was in year 8. I recognised all of the faces in the rugby and netball teams. And that was my ‘Lord of the Flies ending’ moment.

For GCSE English, Lord of the Flies by William Golding was one of our texts – one of the only ones in my entire time at school I enjoyed reading. Richard III was the other one. I didn’t enjoy the rest because I was cursed with utterly uninspiring English literature teachers – and for some reason have always clashed with trainee English literature teachers that I met during my university days when discussing content. For those of you that don’t know the full plot, click on this link. Essentially, a plane with lots of children on board crashes on a tropical island killing all of the adults, but not the children. The children then organise themselves, trying to survive and work out how to get themselves noticed and rescued. As I read through the book at the time, I got the sense that the boys were becoming more and more ‘adult’ very quickly due to the pressures of fighting for survival. And it becomes more and more violent too, culminating in both the slaughter of an animal and finally a fire that rages out of control, laying waste to the island but at the same time catching the attention of a passing ship that rescues them. In the final scene, the adult rescuers look on the pathetic (not in the pejorative sense) group in front of them: Boys. The contrast with the preceding chapters (which what helps make the book so great) is massive.

“The Lord of the Flies moment?”

Realising that all of the bad stuff that happened within our year group – the things that hurt at the time and subconsciously, even consciously have been hurting up till now, were carried out not by men, but by boys. Boys from a bygone age. Boys that have since grown up. Boys that are now men – men that have never been part of my adult life and probably never will be either. And all of this happened on a geographical site that no longer exists. To today’s generation, the crumbling monolith, the ageing science labs built so long ago, the BBC computers…it’s all a fairy tale that never really happened. Accordingly, I can finally bury my demons.

“So…what’s replaced it?”

A futuristic educational complex that, when they first started work on it in the run up to my GCSEs I could never have imagined. The facilities that the students now have are awesome. The part of the site where we were rehearsing was opened in 2010. The building work to transform the site began less than fifteen years prior to that. Yet comparing the mid 1990s to what is there now, you’d have said that the time difference was at least fifty years.

It shows in the students work. Looking at the scale, complexity and imagination of the artwork on display was inspiring. We were not doing anything near as grand and mindblowing as what was on display by their year 9s. Again, I didn’t have the greatest art teachers in the world either, so learnt to despise them too. Art of all subjects should be something that inspires. With me, they completely failed. Hence why trying to get back into anything creative has previously required me having to overcome a huge number of mental and emotional barriers.

“What else was inside the building?”

A massive new performance hall that matches what a number of the private schools in Cambridge have. The audio-visual capabilities are on a level that we simply did not have access to at the time. Rather than the dark corridors, the interiors were bathed in the sunlight of early spring. A new all-weather surface for football, along with resurfaced tennis courts – the latter being one of the few remaining parts of the site that is in its original place with its original function when I was there.

“How does it make you feel?”

I’ve got really mixed emotions. It’s relieving – and will continue to relieve the emotional pain. At the same time, it’s firing up even more passion in me around community activism. (The last thing in the world local councillors want to hear – because they are normally the first people on the receiving end of it – poor so-and-so’s).

It helped it being such a warm day and spending the afternoon focussed on the music. You could almost describe what we sing as secular choral music. Sopranos, altos, tenors and basses split into separate parts – and sub-split further because there are so many of us – something that I found awe-inspiring at my first rehearsal. Singing has also been a regular topic of conversation between me, Penny Homer (who now is the training manager of the Association of British Choral Directors) and Frances Coppola, (part singer, singing teacher, finance blogger and Newsnight pundit). Basically I was looking for a large collective of singers that performed non-religious music. When I stumbled across the British Humanist Choir when I was living in London (I think it was at a picnic), I felt I wanted something bigger, with far more energy and a music director that didn’t have an attitude problem – she got really stroppy with us for not moving over to listen to their performance. In a park. With no acoustics. And a poor selection of tracks.

“Sounds like you are a harsh critic that is hard to please”

I’m not really. (Just to note, The Football League show on BBC1 has just featured interviews with 3 Cambridge United figures from the early 1990s – Gary Johnson (now at Yeovil), Steve Claridge (who was everywhere) and Gary Rowett – now manager of Burton.

It’s more wanting to see continual improvement and positive development more than anything else. That in part is based upon the things I’ve seen, places I’ve been to and even the dance floors I have danced upon in the first decade of this millennium. (2000-2010). In the Hofburg in Vienna on New Year’s Eve 2007, me and a group of ballroom dancers went along and danced Viennese waltzes in here. My point being that (austerity and financial crises aside), these sorts of events are far more accessible to more people than perhaps we think. Hence why when I was helping run the dancing society in Cambridge a decade ago, I was able to point beginners to places like this as something to aim towards. Perhaps it’s poignant given I’ve just got back from the Easter Ball of Cambridge Dancers’ Club.

Knowing that we can do and be far better than this

I look around my home town in particular and think this all of the time. My continued research, outreach and analysis is now focussing on a number of specifics. At the same time, I can’t pretend I’m not finding it difficult. OK, no one said this sort of work would be easy. But it’s been a lonely business. Progress has been painfully slow. Resistance, intransigence, weariness and even apathy from many quarters has come as an unpleasant and unexpected surprise. (Yet all part of the learning process).

At the same time, a number of things have happened already in 2014 that even at the turn of the New Year I never expected to happen. In the grand scheme of things, it felt like they came out of nowhere. Yet as my last blogpost showed, I’m moving away from ‘making noise’ to working on specific things with other people. What the outcome of that work will be remains to be seen. But for now, the emotional burden of the past just got noticeably lighter. And that’s no bad thing.

Posted in Cambridge, Charities and Big Society, Education, training and exams, Events I have been to, History, Mental health | 1 Comment