Monday, 28 March 2011

I went on the TUC march against the cuts, the march for the alternative, on Saturday with my daughter, partner and partner's mother. I haven't been on a big march since before my daughter was born and I procrastinated for quite a while about whether it was really good idea. In the end our desire to go and register our dissent about national and local level cuts to public services won the day and we are all glad that we went. It felt very positive and affirming and it was good to be part of a crowd that understands and recognises that most of us, the vast majority, need public services and that we have a fight on our hands to save them. 

I told my daughter that it would be a lot of fun and she was duly excited. In the event we didn't get any further than Parliament Square (after four hours of marching) and Billy Bragg remained but a distant memory in the mind of a  forty-something protester with a nostalgia for the marches of the Eighties.  The marching was slow and initially slightly disconcerting (but we seem to be going the wrong way!).  The volume of the crowd crossing from the Festival Hall side of the Thames was too great to  be easily or safely absorbed into the body of the march itself. Instead we were directed away from the thronging masses on the Embankment, walking for an hour and a half in the opposite direction until we finally crossed Blackfriars bridge and joined the main event. This march within a march was big enough and good tempered enough to be enjoyable but it wasn't ice-cream and dancing in Hyde Park and in retrospect we should perhaps have stressed the marching in a crowd aspect of the day to my daughter a little more rather than the 'lets all party'  at the end bit. But I had been saying for days that we had to go and our daughter should come too because it would be her first proper march, a 'right of passage'. And of course marching with a small child offers a different perspective on things. My daughter was truly delighted with her UNITE tabbard and flag , a whistle and clacking hand , so much so that she re-enacted part of the march early on Sunday morning with these key props to fill the gap between waking up and Mummy and Daddy crawling out of bed.

And despite the slow pace, the confusing route and at times the challenge of selling the occasion as terrific fun to a six year old with tired legs it did feel momentous. The pace of the march suggested that an awful lot of people were actually marching and the crowd around us, our marching companions for a little over four hours were a diverse  group.  Whilst the main unions were all in evidence there were also family groups such as ours, and people of all ages and ethnicity and from all over the country. One group marched with a cardboard coffin held  high to mourn the death  of a support service for sufferers from Alzheimer's disease in Camden, a victim of the council's cost cutting. Another protested about the loss of funding for the Refugee Council. A woman in the throng told me that Shelter the charity for the homeless was loosing 9% of it's funding nationally. These charities and third sector organizations are reputed to be the bedrock of the David's Cameron's Big Society and there they were marching to protest about cuts, cuts, cuts which will affect the most vulnerable members of our society. A group of students from Nick Clegg's constituency had a smart set of songs and chants on the theme of Nick Clegg's duplicity with which the crowd joined in enthusiastically. Oh Mr Clegg, they don't like you much back in your home constituency! (or any where else for that matter it seems). And there was of course much chanting about Mr Cameron which led to a few interesting exchanges with my daughter who was not only learning about citizenship and participation but also adding  her vocabulary all the time (Yes my darling that song was quite rude, but it was also funny, that's why I'm laughing, but its only funny on this march and we wont be repeating it will we?) 

Together myself, my partner and my  mother- in-law notch up a combined total of eighty years of working in the public sector ( as a teacher and university lecturer, nurses and art therapist). We could have marched under a banner of Save The NHS in recognition of the frightening changes proposed by Andrew Landsley in the commissioning and funding of health care. Or we could have protested about cuts in funding to Sure Start centres, the removal of subsidised public transport for school age children, the closure of Connexions centres for  teenagers which provided specialist help and support for teenagers looking for work or training opportunities, or the cutting of the small amount of money given to poorer students to support then if they stay on at school after the age of sixteen. Then of course there is the reduction in legal aid (one of the four pillars of the welfare state at its inception) which means that, if your GP fails to commission the correct diagnostic and care services for you and you die as a consequence (and bear in mind that the current data on UK cancer survival rates shows alarming disparities in early diagnosis and subsequent mortality rates) your family will no longer be entitled to claim legal aid to pursue a case of criminal negligence. I could go on...

Faced with all of these huge issues we chose to stick very close to home and to our community and we marched with one of our Save Our Libraries banner. As people following this blog will know our local library, Rosehill Library, on Tomlin Road in Ipswich, along with 41 of Suffolk's 44 libraries are under threat of closure by Suffolk County Council unless local communities can come up with new models for running them instead of the County Council whilst also making a thirty percent financial saving. It's all part of Suffolk County Council's New Strategic Direction- a race to the bottom where there will be no publicly run services at all. Many people expressed their support, a reporter from Reuters marched with us for a while interviewing us en route and when, finally we got on our coach to go home I got talking to a researcher and journalist from BBC Suffolk.

Which is why, on Sunday morning, very early (4.45- I had forgotten about the clocks changing when I agreed to be interviewed) I was sitting by the phone, awaiting a call from the producers of the early morning show on Radio Suffolk. When the call came I was interviewed on air and able to talk about my feelings about the march and what good, if any, I thought it would do.

So, what good do I think it did? Well I don't expect David Cameron to be announcing any time soon that the cuts are being made too fast and too deep. But I marched in that crowd and I saw the range of people, the depth and breadth of feeling, the  diversity of age, income and ethnicity. People from all over the country, marching together rejecting the government's agenda. Whilst the government argues that these cuts are necessary a counter discourse was manifesting itself during the march on Saturday. This counter discourse asserted powerfully the importance of the public sector to all of our lives and it proposed a different view of Britain to the orthodoxy driving these cuts. In our Britain, the one of the marchers on Saturday people matter, individuals matter, our communities matter and how we care for, and support one another from cradle to grave matters.  On Saturday we gave voice and expression to those beliefs and values. We spoke truth to power. David Cameron, George Osborne  and Nick Clegg, reviewing the footage of the march with their advisers and spin doctors  will have heard our collective voice. They may cut our services but they cannot silence us. And as they know only too well we are but a few short weeks a way from local council elections.

Next Saturday's march

Friday, 11 March 2011

Thank You Mum

I grew up in a village in Cornwall. It lies on the coast road, midway between Lands End and St Ives. From the kitchen window at the back of our house you can see the Atlantic- an almost indivisible reach of blue sky and sea- except, that is, on the days when the fog rolls in. Of these days there are many. My parent's way of describing this challenging weather (and it is a challenge, both physically and emotionally) was to say that  'it was as thick as a bag'. Fog aside, my Mum never tired of that view down to sea. I can see her now standing in the kitchen, with her half-apron on, looking out the window at the horizon. 
It was my mum who took me to the library as a child. There was neither a library, nor a doctor's surgery, in our village. But both were available at St Just, a small mining town, just further along the coast in the direction of Lands End. The doctor and the library represented opposite poles for me as a child. Suffering from frequent throat and ear infections I was a regular attender at the surgery. I would sit with my mum, a feeling of what? shame or loathing I think, waiting the interminable wait, for my name to be called and the inevitable bottle of antibiotic medicine, yellow and reeking of bananas, to be prescribed. This being the 1970's the spectre of multi-drug resistant bacteria was yet to impact upon prescribing practices.
Having endured the horror of the doctor it was but a hop, skip and a jump next door to the library, the reward, the pay-back for good behaviour. To me, as a child, St Just Library was simply unlike anywhere else. A modern, single storey building, sitting  elegantly at the top of a low flight of wide steps. A million miles away from the  ubiquitous and dour granite from which virtually every other building in the locale seemed to be hewn. And inside? Tucked away, partially blocked from the view of the librarian's desk was the children's section with row upon row of books lining three sides of a square space. And the ultimate in sophistication and elegance  was the central area to sit when reading, or being read to. This seating was unlike either the scaled down, child-sized chairs that we sat on at school or the rough wooden benches at Sunday school. Instead the children's section boasted black vinyl banquettes, with short legs made of square, silver coloured metal, no backs, no arms, utter decadence. That first feeling of exhilaration and excitement never diminished and after a quick sit down I would be ready to start choosing. The books that shine across the years are Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit books with the beautiful illustrations by Margaret Temple and end papers of tall trees, sometimes green, sometimes blue, against a white background, inviting you to peer within. How I loved that rabbit and the squirrel although Hare struggled a little to find a place in my heart. Little Grey Rabbit, so hard working and diligent, ( it is only in reading these books now as an adult, to my daughter, that I understand that that is what she is), a paragon of rabbit-virtue.
My mum understood about Little Grey Rabbit and would always help me search. My mum understood about children and books. She had grown up, one of eight children, in the Nineteen Thirties and Forties when working-class children had little access to books. Once a year there was the Sunday school prize, but that was it for her and her siblings. These books were so precious, she would say,  she was almost afraid to hold them. So my sister and I had a book-filled childhood, many of our own (including our own Sunday school prizes) but always library books to satisfy my insatiable appetite for reading.

After my mother died three years ago I found myself making the same journey after a gap of twenty five years- first to the doctor's surgery to return a pharmacopoeia  of unused tablets and medicines and then to the library to return her library books for the very last time. The doctor's surgery had changed beyond all recognition but the library remained just as I remembered it. The black vinyl and chrome benches in the children's section still looked new and inviting.  Perhaps these were a nod and a wink to Le Courbousier, a fitting modernist touch in a modern library where children were to be welcomed and to be given their own space, not grudgingly or parsimoniously but with  joy and exuberance. So I sat for a few moments before checking, yes, Little Grey Rabbit still had a place on the shelves.   
Later, my sister and I talked over the last few days of mum's life,  spent on an NHS ward, with a bed facing the patient opposite and a windowless wall- no longer a seascape (not much of a view to do your dying to). My sister and I trying to understand the point at which it had all started to go so catastrophically wrong for her. My sister remembered a League of Friends volunteer coming round with the library trolley. She asked Mum what kind of books she liked and Mum had been well enough  that day to say that she liked a family saga- it was always family with Mum. When I was a nurse I must have seen a League of Friends volunteer push the library trolley from bedside to bedside hundreds of times. Sometimes I would ring their office if a patient was particularly in need of something to read, or if somebody needed something specific such as a talking book. I never really gave it that much thought. But now I think of that volunteer with her trolley of books, stopping at my mum's bedside. The choosing and issuing of a book, with hindsight, elevated beyond the mundane, a gesture of humanity, a shared experience, that resonates still. I think of my mum choosing her library book, her very last library book but not, I think, knowing it to be so. The tangible act of choosing a book creating a bridge between her life lived at home with the view down to sea, and her life, now in that hospital bed and a view of the wall, slipping imperceptibly away.
Sometimes now when I take my daughter to our library here in Ipswich and she chooses Little Grey Rabbit or Flat Stanley or Nurse Matilda (all books that mum read to me) I wish that I could thank my mum, for the love of books and libraries  that she gave to me and that I in turn am giving to my daughter.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Keep Our Library How It Is

On Saturday there was another day of action and support for my local library. My daughter and her friend painted a banner and placards for the occasion. The banner bore the slogan 'Keep Our Library How It Is'. This was suggested by my daughter, an unprompted expression of the comfort and security children gain from familiarity and routine, and  a measure of how much the library has become part of the landscape, the fabric of her everyday life.   My daughter and her friend, along with many other children locally, have been taken to the library since they were babies.  They know the librarians by name and are happy and confident selecting books, joining in the craft activities on a Sunday or just hanging out together.
Suffolk Library Services run a wide range of activities for children and their carers, some in conjunction with the Book Start Trust (recently also under threat from the government). For those  children who don't get the chance to experience the joy of a library when they are very small there are many other opportunities to become acquainted with all that is on offer. At my daughter's school a visit to our local library takes place in Year 1- a clear indication of how much the library is valued by the school.  Before the summer holiday last year one of the  librarians  visited the school to talk to all the children about the summer reading challenge. This is an opportunity for children to read six books of their own choice over the course of the summer holiday and to  talk about the books with an interested and encouraging adult. The summer reading challenge is  staffed by volunteers  and the scheme has its own dedicated website.  Such an imaginative and integrated approach to supporting children whilst they learn to read and  develop a reading habit is to be celebrated. It mystifies me why Suffolk County Council, rather than slashing funding, is not shouting from the rooftops about Suffolk's fantastic library service. It should be a source of civic pride, a badge of honour.
Outside the library on Saturday morning a number of us shared the memories of early childhood visits to the library with our parents, a habit developed in childhood that has stood us in good stead ever since.

And as for my daughter, this is a list of the books that she chose (and that we read to her over the course of one week) from Rosehill library on the previous day of action:

  • The Scaredy Cat by Russell Punter
  • The King & The Great Fire by Lynne Benton & Peter Cotrill
  • The Story of Toliets, Telephones and Other Useful Inventions by Katie Daynes
  • Florence Nightingale by Emma Fischel
  • The Pet Shop by Alan Ahlberg and Andre Amstutz
  • I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by Dr Seuss
  • Magic Bunny: Chocolate Wishes by Sue Bentley
  • Magic Bunny: Dancing Days by Sue Bentley
  • Magic Puppy: friendship Forever by Sue Bentley
  • Rainbow Magic: Milly The River Fairy
  • Skating School: Sapphire Skate Fun by Linda Chapman

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Wind and The Sun

In the well-known fable by Aesop the north wind challenges the sun to a competition to establish which of the two is the stronger. The north wind, convinced of his own superiority, suggests that they should see which of them can be the first to remove a man's coat. The north wind begins, puffing and blowing. But the harder the wind blows the more determinedly the man clutches the coat to his person and  at last the wind is compelled to give up. The sun, who has been waiting patiently, shines down on the man, casting her warm rays on him as he walks along. In time the man, warmed by the sun, removes his coat. The sun, much to the wind's chagrin, declares herself the winner. The brutality of the wind is but nothing compared to the warmth of the sun's golden rays.

This fable came into my mind last week after I had had yet another conversation about the future of public libraries in England. There has been considerable coverage of the issue in the media, both locally and nationally,  and in order that balance be achieved defenders of the public library system are juxtaposed with those for whom libraries 'have had their day'. These head-to-heads over which position is the right one are dispiriting beyond language. Initially, listening to people who see no use or relevance to libraries in our contemporary society made me angry, but increasingly it has made me sad, even sorry for them. On the 5th of February library supporters across the country took part in a day of action to raise awareness of the threat to our libraries and also to us as library users. That evening during a news bulletin on Radio 4  one gentleman, a member of a think-tank,  suggested that people now chose to visit bookshops with attached cafes rather than go to libraries and  that the three-for-two tables at Waterstones, cheap books from Amazon  and special deals at the check-out at  Tesco's made libraries redundant.
This man was wrong. He, like many others, seems not to understand what it is that libraries offer their users. So instead of rallying more arguments I have decided to show this gentleman and others, who share his beliefs, what they are missing when they suggest that Costa Coffee has more to offer than a public library. Nobody likes a good coffee more than I do but the two are incommensurate. Libraries offer a world of books, not to mention much more besides. In the coming weeks I intend to share some of the many ways in which I use my local library, the books that myself and my daughter borrow, the Internet resources,  inter-library loans, newspapers, journals, films, music and much more that are available to anybody with a reading card.  Libraries are wonderful places full of potential and possibility, each one different, each one unique, each one a place where dreams can flourish.

Aesop's Fables by Anne Millborne & Lucinda Edwards, available in hardback from Usborne books on line ( at £12.99, P&P £3.50.

Also available from Amazon ( £9.74 new or from £1.83 second hand, P&P from £2.80.

Alternatively log onto and do a key word search for Aesop's fables. This finds 22 matches including:
  • My First Aesop's Fables by Martha Lightfoot
  • The Very Best of Aesop's Fables retold by Margaret Clark
  • Orchard Book of Aesop's Fables by Michael Morpurgo
  • Aesop's Animated Fables Volumes 1 & 2
Books and DVDs can be delivered to the library of your choice. A borrowing charge applies to DVDs.

Heroic Myths, False Dawns and a New Fairy Tale.

When I started writing this blog back in the autumn I had in mind the idea that I was on a quest with all that that implies. It was a noble undertaking-  to seek out truth, to highlight injustice, to hold people to account and other such self-aggrandising notions. I quickly found that my quest was little more than a major source of frustration and aggrivation. It made me angry and I have no real desire to be angry all the time.  My quest seemed to be taking me down a path to self-distruction. Glimmers of light, a thoughtfully worded email (indeed after a while any response at all including an electronic 'out of office notice') began to take on a wholly disproportionate significance. False dawns there were many. And I discovered that in my  self-appointed role as blogger, and seeker of the truth I had to make decisions about how I presented myself to people from whom I was seeking information, and whether or not to use people's names or include things that they had told me in communications. It seemed dishonest to write to somebody, or engage in an email exchange as a 'concerned citizen' and then to use that communication to some other purpose. Ultimately it became very petty, very pointless, very tedious- heroic it was not. It took about six weeks for me to be so utterly disallusioned with local politics that I decided to draw a line under the whole enterprise.

But as the months have rolled on my desire to try and better understand the  myriad connections that I,  as a citizen,  have with the state has not gone away. My mistake was in trying to construct a coherent narrative, a linear account to explain and elucidate, where none exists. There are no grand narratives any more. Our heroes all have feet of clay and there are as many ways to tell a story as there are people who wish to tell it.
So, rather than returning to earlier posts, to tie up loose ends, I will leave them hanging. There may be a point when the mood takes me and then I pick up these threads. Meanwhile I have a much  more fluid idea of what I want to write about. I want to tell a story, of and for myself, to help me plot a course through our rapidly changing world- 'the new dark ages' this 'neo-medievalism' into which we are plunging. In this fairy tale I can be both narrator and heroine, I will describe the world as I see it, and as I wish it to be- let the neo-liberals, the free-market economists, the purveyors of the Big Society slap a price on everything, let them tell their story and I will tell mine.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Monkey Jigsaw or Snow Storm?

When I started writing this blog I said that my aim was to try and find out more about how local democracy works and how I, as a concerned citizen could get more involved. So far I've been less than successful and it is difficult not to be put off by the empty rhetoric of participation that I have heard and read about in the past five weeks. I don't know why this has come as such a surprise to me. There is, after all, something philosophically incoherent about an approach to planning and implementation that makes a claim for legitimacy based upon  grassroots support and participation,  but which has been designed and imposed from the top down. The suspicion  is that Suffolk County Council's New Strategic Direction  is simply  a strategy for  implementing unpopular or overly risky social policies, against a background of stringent cutbacks while dressing them up as the people's choice.
Moreover, at some point the council will have to make some move towards 'engagement' with the public no matter how piecemeal this may turn out to be. However, the terms of this engagement, the methods used, the people chosen to be included, the options presented, the manner in which the information is collected, analysed and (re)presented for public and media scrutiny will all take place within the upper eschelons of the County Council. This is not local participation. It is not a grassroots movement or a bottom up approach to planning. It is top down planning with an insidious agenda to put the blame for cutbacks and reduced services somewhere else.

Why? Because by identifying  Cameron's Big Society as the theoretical basis of the New Strategic Direction,  the citizens of Suffolk are, de facto, implicitly linked to the  processes through which  jobs will be lost, services cut and the apparatus for the deliveryof public services dismantled. Thus as 'good citizens' we may seek to preserve our cultural heritage, for example the libraries and record office, by volunteering our time, by doing for free what was previously the means by which people earned a living. Or we may decide that we will not be used in this way and rather than becoming more engaged actually withdraw our support for Civil Society initiatives. As such the execution of the NSD may signal a diminution of citizenship, a hightened suspicion of the political sphere and of those who occupy public office. To take another example, imagine, hypothetically, that I am asked to engage in the debate about the future of Suffolk's Council run care homes. Presented with a limited range of options about the future of care homes I can a) make a choice from the limited range on offer or b) choose not to take part as a means of protest. Either way, my preference, that the homes remain in Council ownership  is not presented to me as an option. Inactivity, has always been as much a political statement as activity. This approach makes the politicised nature of inactivity tangible and hence it  may needle people into getting involved- but then again it may not. And even if legions of people step forward to participate then the problem remains that the agenda has been set and the terms of engagement demarcated at a different level. It is not true participation- it is participation lite (not the real thing).
Or put another way, when I was little girl my grandmother went on holiday to Blackpool and when I visited her after her holiday she offered mt the choice of two presents- a jigsaw with a monkey on it or a snow storm of Blackpool Tower. I looked at the monkey jigsaw and the snow storm and then I looked at the Diddy-Man that she had bought for herself after seeing Ken Dod in a variety show  and I knew what I wanted. It wasn't a monkey jigsaw or a Blackpool Tower snowstorm. It was a Diddy-Man. I was very young. I hadn't yet learn the rule about being grateful for what you are offered. My embarassed mother tried to convince me of the relative merits of the monkey jigsaw and the Blackpool Tower snow storm. But I went home clutching my grandmother's Diddy-Man. I can remember the feeling very clearly of not wanting what I had been offered but of wanting something different. I suspect it is a feeling that I will be getting used to in the coming months where the choices that we are offered are not really choices at all. These strategies may work for a little while but people aren't stupid and a monkey jigsaw isn't a Diddy-man- no matter how it is dressed up.

So, Anyone For Tea? That will have to wait for next time. 

Anyone For Tea? (Or A Top Down Approach to Bottom Up Planning)

First, before I start a new thread looking at bottom up policy development and the lofty ideal of 'participation' I need to revisit yesterday's blog. In it I wrote that the draft Engagement Strategy Document was being sent to County Councillors and key stake holders yesterday (October 26th). This was an error. Having re-read the email it states that the draft document was being sent to the concillors only. So I apologise for this mistake. I am very sorry, but not as sorry as I am that despite being told that the draft Engagement Strategy for the NSD was reputedly made public this morning I have yet to hear anything about it. Now in fairness, and I am trying to be fair about this, I haven't listened to any local news bulletins today. So it is possible that it has been widely reported on the TV and radio news (although there is nothing on the BBC news home page this evening). There was an interesting report in the East Anglian Daily Times (which I will discuss in a moment) but nothing about the content of this Engagement Strategy. I have spent quite a long time this evening re-visiting Suffolk County Council's website but there is no new information on the New Strategic Direction webpage. The content of this hasn't been updated since the NSD was announced back in September. One could, I think, reasonably expect that emerging  information on the New Strategic Direction, such as the Engagement Strategy, would be posted on this page (assuming that is, that you want that information to be in the public domain). There is however, what looks like a new logo for the New Strategic Direction at the top of the page- branding being the crucial first step in public engagement after all.

Whilst I was exploring the website I did happen upon the 'About Suffolk Council' page which contains the statement 'We now also publish the salaries of senior officials' and a link that you can click to get this information. So I thought I'd have a little look. I'm being disengenuous now. I have been having a 'little look' regularly since the 25th of September and there is no page with this information or at least the page hasn't been acessible on the eight seperate occasions that I have checked over the past month. Perhaps this is an oversight?

So, quickly to today's East Anglian Daily Times and a feature entitled 'The Big Questions. Suffolk: Eight vital issues the county council must address'. This report highlights the lack of information that has been placed in the public domain regarding the NSD and lists eight questions that the East Anglian has put to the County  Council on behalf of the community. These cover the following areas:
  • Impact on vulnerable people
  • Local government's moral and leagl responsibility
  • Linking things together
  • Leadership capacity
  • Suffolks local economy
  • Suffolk county council and the NHS
  • External advice and feed back
  • 'Proactive and wide-ranging engagement'
Obviously the last of these is dear to my own heart and the report  raises some of the questions I have been asking councillors and the council executive for the past five weeks and have also been blogging about. I have had no joy in finding out answers to my questions. However the East Anglian Daily Times has asked for a response to its questions within a week. I will be reading the paper with interest over the next few days because I am still idealistic enought (just!) to expect the Fourth Estate to have some influence where mere individuals have none (The reference for this report is as follows: Hunt, T. (October 27th 2010) 'The Big Questions' East Anglian Daily Times Pages 1,5 & 26. The East Anglian's website is:

I will finish here. More later about Participation and  Top Down versus Bottom Up policy and planning.