Saturday, 29 October 2011

Personal Memories of a Special Place - two

Pevensea Road Congregation Church
In the last blog I outlined something of the history of moving mental health care from a hospital setting to the community. As a result of this shift, the Seaview Project came into being.

Many local charities throughout the country were started by individuals, or a group of individuals who had an affinity with particular needs, and wanted to do something to help meet those needs. So many problems arrived in the community as a result of Government policy, and it was left to local people to try and pick up the pieces.

During the latter part of 1984, a small group of two to three people (I won't be mentioning any names, as I don't have their approval to do so, and if in later blogs I do mention names, those names will have been changed) met to discuss the concerns that they had, particularly for the St Leonards on Sea area. In looking at the fallout from the gradual closing of Hellingly Hospital, they saw former patients who had been moved to Hastings and St Leonards on Sea wandering about with nothing to do, and nowhere to go. They were also concerned about the plight of those that they described as "socially stranded" through unemployment, bereavement, physical and stress related illnesses etc, and felt that something must be done.

Through personal experience of mental illness, either through suffering it themselves, or seeing members of their family suffer, they decided that starting a Day Centre would be the way forward. In talking to one of those concerned, they were reminded of the enthusiasm and energy that they had at that time. There is no doubt that without that, there would have been no Seaview Project.

First Seaview Leaflet
It is worth noting why there were so many socially stranded people in Hastings. There has been a long-term mis-understanding of the South of England, with the general view that everywhere is wealthy. While it is true that much of the area is well-heeled, there have always been pockets, particularly on the coast, of extreme deprivation. Hastings historically has been one such place.

While millions of pounds has been poured into the town over the years, with undoubtedly some improvements to the town's infrastructure, it has made very little difference to the socially stranded who live there. In the latest Indices of Deprivation (IMD 2010), Hastings is the most deprived town in the South East, and the 19th most deprived local authority area in the country (out of over 350). This is a worse position than in 2007 when Hastings was ranked 29th. The town remains the 2nd most deprived seaside town in England after Blackpool. A similar situation would have been facing the group who were contemplating what to do.

So, a Day Centre was opened on the 4th February 1985, to which anyone over the age of 18 would be welcome. According to their first promotional leaflet, the Day Centre would be "a place where people who may feel lonely or isolated can meet other people; have tea or coffee, and join in an activity". It was to be "a friendly environment, where social and creative activities would be encouraged". But where would this Day Centre be? Fortunately, help and support was at hand. The Congregational Church on the corner of London Road and Pevensea Road in St Leonards on Sea made their hall available.

Let me digress slightly from the story by telling you something about this Church. It was founded as a Congregational Church in 1863, and was considered by English Heritage to be "one of the most ambitious Non-conformist buildings in Sussex". The building was subsequently listed as Grade 11 for its architectural and historical importance. In 1972, the Congregational Church in England and Wales joined with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church (URC). While technically at that point the Church became a URC Church, it was always known as Pevensea Road Congregational Church. It has basically stood empty since 2008, and comes up for auction on the 1st November 2011. It was in this Church hall that Seaview Project began, and it wasn't long before it had firmly established itself on the local scene.

Tea Bar in the Hall
No one should underestimate the time and effort required to get such a project up and running. There was furniture to find, equipment to get, and people were needed to run the place.

During most of the first year, the day to day running of the Centre was undertaken by one full-time, and eight part-time voluntary helpers, plus two Community Programme workers, who were funded by the Manpower Services Commission. Having relied on the commitment of volunteers for most of my life in social care, I cannot speak too highly of the work these few people did to get the Seaview Project established.  Within a year, a three year grant had been secured from the Consortium on Opportunities for Volunteering Scheme, which began on the 1st April 1986, and enabled the project to appoint two part-time, paid Co-ordinators.

I think that the picture above gives an idea of how basic the hall was. It wasn't very bright, the furniture was second-hand, and it was filled with smoke. Because the hall was shared with the Church, everything had to be cleared away every night and the hall cleaned. But in spite of its condition, the hall was warm, welcoming and comfortable, and this was all that people were looking for, as this was what they were lacking in their lives outside of the Centre. In later years we would modernise the new place with functional furniture and fittings, but I'm not sure that it could ever have matched the atmosphere of that early place.

Some people imagine that such a Centre as the Seaview Project is a place full of people borne down by their problems, and living a miserable existence. While it's true that the vast majority of people attending the Centre had major issues in their lives, I can say from later experience that I have rarely laughed, or enjoyed myself as much as I did with so many of those clients.

The mix was young and old, male and female, and every form of sexuality imaginable. To those, the place had become home - a home that many had never had before, and it's to the great credit of those early volunteers and paid staff that this was so.

If I was to ask you what you thought was the most important part of a Day Centre, I wonder what you'd say? My view has not changed in over 20 years. It's the tea bar. In the Church hall there was no kitchen to speak of, so a make shift bar was erected "where tea, coffee and light snacks were available at very reasonable prices". This was also the first point of contact for new visitors, so everybody could be given a welcome, and those requiring help could be directed to the appropriate person. It was the place for banter, and for catching up with news. It was the hub, and remains so to this day.

A Client's View of the Centre
Believing that people should be able to enjoy themselves at the Centre, and be stimulated as well, they provided table tennis, a range of board games as well as creative activities such as art, music, poetry and books, either to borrow or buy.

The Centre grew in popularity and usage, with numbers between 40 and 50 being recorded each day.

The vision of those who began the project, of providing a place for those who find themselves to be socially stranded, had come to fruition. In fact the need that was being met, was far greater than they had originally envisaged.

The people with diverse needs and problems mixed together, and often provided mutual support, which evidenced good working class values of the role of community. This was in stark contrast to the Thatcherite vision of the importance of the individual, culminating in her statement that "there's no such thing as community". Yes there was aggression, fights and other displays of anger, and who could blame those who were down trodden, but these were dealt with, and everyone moved on. The Seaview Project was clearly providing a service, and meeting a need, and doing it very well.

After four years of sharing the Church hall, it was felt that if the organisation was to move forward, it needed a place of its own, and the process began to find such a place. We'll pick up the story from there next time, and that's when I joined the Project.

Day Centre Co-ordinator (2nd from right) and Clients

Friday, 28 October 2011

Personal Memories of a Special Place - one

For nearly 20 years, up until January 2010 I had the privilege of being the Chief Executive of a local homelessness charity in the town of Hastings and St Leonards on Sea in East Sussex. Not long ago the organisation celebrated its 25th anniversary, and I thought that it would be appropriate to do a series of blogs about its beginnings, its activities and its clients. Who knows, there might be a book in this.

I'll write about how it came into being next time, but as its origin is steeped in the subject of mental health, and closely linked with the closure of the local psychiatric hospital, I think its important to place it in its historical context. To understand the shift in the treatment of mental health, is to understand why the organisation was born. This shift is about moving from psychiatric hospital care to care in the community, and the problems associated with that.

I'm grateful to the mental health charity MIND for the historical time line, which can be read in full here. In addition I strongly recommend the book by Catharine Arnold, called, "Bedlam: London and its Mad". This is the story of the Bethlehem Hospital, which was founded in Bishopsgate, London in 1247. The book is "a history of London's treatment of its insane". We do well to remember Catharine's opening words in the Introduction, that "the mad, like the poor, have always been with us". She then goes on to briefly outline how the mentally ill have been treated since Roman times. As statistics show that even today, one in four people will suffer some form of mental illness in their life, it is a subject of some relevance.

In 1601, The Poor Law was introduced and clearly defined the responsibility of every parish to support those who were incapable of looking after themselves. Over 200 years later, The County Asylum Act 1808 gave permissive powers to the Justices of each county to build asylums, paid for by local rates, to replace the few psychiatric annexes to voluntary general hospitals. In 1834, The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced which required relief to be provided within institutions only. This led to the construction of a huge network of workhouses. The Lunacy Act of 1845 required counties to provide asylums, and the majority of Britain's psychiatric hospitals were built during the following 25 years. There's nothing new about taking advantage of funding arrangements, and shifting the responsibility elsewhere, as local parishes were encouraged to move the parish poor into asylums, as these were funded by the county councils, rather than the parishes. Little wonder that so many people who did not suffer from mental illness, ended up in asylums. I think that this must have been recognised, because The Lunacy Act was revised in 1891, and imposed rigid procedures and criteria, so that only people with the most severe mental illnesses were likely to be admitted to hospitals.

The Beveridge Report brought into being The National Assistance Act 1948, which stated, "It shall be the duty of every local authority to provide residential accommodation for persons who, by reason of age, illness, disability or any other circumstances, are in need of care and attention which is not otherwise available to them". Together with the introduction of welfare benefits, this encouraged the beginning of the move from institutional to community-based care. By 1954, the resident population of psychiatric hospital beds reached a peak of 152,000, with many of the hospitals becoming extremely overcrowded. An example is given of Friern Barnet hospital which was built in 1851 to accommodate 1,000 people, and by 1950, was accommodating over 2,000.

A report published in 1957 marked the turning point in official policy from hospital-based to community-based systems of care. Called, "The report of the 1954-57 Royal Commission on the law relating to mental illness and mental deficiency", (thankfully known by the shorter name: the Percy Report). One of its many recommendations was that "the majority of mentally ill patients do not need to be admitted to hospital as inpatients. Patients may receive medical treatment from general practitioners or as hospital outpatients, and other care from community health and welfare services". This was taken a step further in 1961, when Enoch Powell, as Health Minister, made his famous 'Water Tower' speech to the annual conference of what became MIND. He envisaged that psychiatric hospitals would be phased out and replaced by care provided in the community. Powell's plan was for "nothing less than the elimination of by far the greater part of this country's mental hospitals as they stand today".

During the next 20 years, a number of White Papers and new or revised Acts came into being, that tried to settle who would be paying for what. The key change was that funding would move from NHS hospital funding to particularly the Department of Social Services for work in the community. However, problems arose, because although the psychiatric hospital population halved between the mid-1950's and the mid-1980's, insufficient money followed those ex-patients into the community. In a scathing report in 1985, The Social Services Select Committee stated that hospital closures had outrun community-care provisions, particularly in relation to people with mental health problems. There were calls for government action and increased spending. In the committee's own words, "A decent community-based service for the mentally ill or mentally handicapped people cannot be provided at the same overall cost as present services. The proposition that community care should be cost neutral is untenable ... Any fool can close a long-stay hospital: it takes more time and trouble to do it properly and compassionately". The following year, the Audit Commission for England and Wales was pointing out that despite the reduction in the number of hospital beds, local authorities had not been allocated the resources necessary to provide alternative forms of care. It was in 1986 that the first psychiatric hospital was fully closed down.

Many of us working in the social care field in the late 1980's and early 1990's were also critical of this lack of money to support those who had been 'turfed out' of hospital into the community. This criticism remained with me until I retired.

Hellingly Hospital Site
East Sussex was one of those areas required to provide asylum accommodation. Originally there was such a place in Haywards Heath, but the county decided that a new asylum was needed because of overcrowding, and this was built at Hellingly, near Hailsham. It was known as the East Sussex County Asylum, but would be referred to as Hellingly Hospital.

Opened in 1903, the hospital was designed by C.T. Hine, described as the foremost asylum architect in England. Those who know Nottingham will be interested to note that this is the same architect who designed and built most of The Park Estate near Nottingham Castle.

Covering over 400 acres, Hellingly was to be one of the most advanced Asylum designs of its time. It had its own railway, principally used to transport coal from the main line to the hospital's boilerhouse. It had a vast laundry, ball room, patients' shop, sewing rooms, nurses home and extensive grounds. In addition to the main hospital there was also an Acute Hospital known as Park House that was designed to hold about 15% of the total patient population. At its peak, Hellingly accommodated just under 2,000 patients. There was also on site a separate isolation hospital, and in the 1980's, the hospital was one of five hospitals to be selected to have a medium secure unit on site, which was called Ashen Hill, and although the main hospital finally closed its doors in 1994, Ashen Hill is still operating today. I spent quite a bit of time over the years at Ashen Hill (not as a patient you understand, but as a visitor), particularly relating to the needs of mentally disordered offenders.

Hellingly Hospital had been discharging patients into the community for a number of years before it finally closed, and many of those found their way to Hastings, without sufficient resources being available through the local authorities to provide the level of support that most of them needed. It was the needs of these, and the plight of others living in the community who found themselves "socially stranded", that drove a small group of people to set up the Seaview Project. That story will begin next time.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

In a World of 7 Billion People

I've just spent an absorbing time on the BBC News World website. In particular, I did the exercise to see where I fitted into the world's population. While fascinating in itself, the resulting projections were quite frightening for life here on earth, if population growth, and the consumingg of resources continues at this rate.

Did you know that the world's population is expected to hit seven billion in the next few weeks? After growing very slowly for most of human history, the number of people on Earth has more than doubled in the last 50 years. All figures that I'll be quoting are based on estimates by the UN Population Division, and all calculations are provided by the UN Population Fund. The exercise I engaged in provided fun and frightening information in equal measure according to my (a) date of birth, (b) country of residence, and (c) gender.

On the day of my birth, I was the 2,465,600,020th person alive on earth. In addition, I was the 75,433,461,990th person to have lived since history began. How cool is that? So in 1947 there was a world population of about 2.5 billion, and now 64 years later it will reach 7 billion. That's some growth.

Living in the United Kingdom, our population today is 62,156,736. Every hour there are 85 births, 66 deaths and immigration is +23. Our average yearly growth is +0.6%. The fastest growing country in the world is Qatar, with 514 people being added to the population every day. The country that is shrinking the fastest is Moldova, whose population is decreasing by 106 people every day.

The average life expectancy in the United Kingdom is 79.6 years, with the female average of 81.7 years, and the male average of 77.4 years. The country with the highest life expectancy is Japan, with 82.7 years. This is put down to a combination of a healthy diet and good public health provision, which includes regular check-ups. The country with the lowest life expectancy is the Central African Republic, with 45.9 years. This is explained by a number of factors, including poverty, conflict, poor access to health care and the high prevalence of Aids.

I was on the website about 30 - 45 minutes, and it told me that in that time,the world's population had grown by 1,799 people. So what's next? 

According to the UN Population Fund the global population will continue to increase, but at a slower rate of growth, reaching 10 billion by 2083. Working-age people will be supporting increasing numbers of older people during the next decades. By 2050, there will be just 2.2 people of working age supporting every person aged 65 or older in the developed world. In Europe, this will drop to just two. It is estimated that the richest countries in the world, which includes the UK consumes double the resources used by the rest of the world. And in a statement that quite frankly staggers me; the UN estimates that if current population consumption trends continue, by the 2030's we will need the equivalent of two Earths to support us.

We hear much about climate change and global warning, but unless I've been missing it, what about the whole matter of population growth, and the consumption of the Earth's resources?

In reading George Monbiot's blog in the Guardian on-line today, I'm apparently one of the group of people who are called "Population Obsessives". Many comments on his blog see the UN statistics and projections as "Population Red-Herrings". To Monbiot, the real baddie is not population growth but consumption. How you get people to consume less in the developed world is not said. Surely in this imperfect world, a much larger population leads to greater consumption. To my simple mind, population growth and consumption go together as problems to explore. Even if UN projections prove to be 10% out, or 20% out, the figures are astounding, and I for one would prefer them to be taken seriously. If that makes me a population obsessive, then so be it.

You may not agree with the whole content of this video, but it is worth considering.

"I'm not superstitious, but ..."

The last few blogs have been a bit intense in subject matter, so I thought I'd look at something a bit lighter - superstition.

Let's get the definition out of the way. Dictionaries define it as, "irrational beliefs, especially with regard to the unknown", or, "irrational belief arising from ignorance or fear". So fear, ignorance and the unknown can lead to irrational beliefs.

Generally, most people want to believe that they are rational beings, and would eschew all notions of superstition, but some things are hard to get rid of.

They may be heard to say, "I'm not superstitious, but ...". Being brought up in small communities in remote parts of the country tends to leave you more open to the influence of superstition. Superstitions can cover almost every aspect of our daily lives, and the interesting thing is that most of them have unknown origins.

Superstitions can be harmless (If you drop a table knife expect a male visitor); bizarre (On the first day of the month it is lucky to say "white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits", before uttering your first word of the day); worrying (walking on the cracks between paving slabs will bring bad luck). How such a person will get on where I live is anyones guess as the pavements are made up of bricks. The worrying superstitions can become a form of OCD.

I wasn't brought up in a particularly superstitious home, but dropping a knife or fork, opening an umbrella indoors, putting new shoes on the table, or passing someone on the stairs would be met with suitable comments. Mother would undoubtedly say, "I'm not superstitious, but ...".

The number 13 has been particularly problematical for the superstitious mind. I've visited a number of tower blocks that didn't have a 13th floor. They just jumped from the 12th to the 14th. I've also lived on a new private housing estate that didn't have any house number 13. I lived once at number 12, and my neighbours were number 11 and number 14. Of course Friday the 13th has brought about almost paranoia in the minds of many. An example of this is the number of films produced about the horrors attached to Friday the 13th. The range of superstitions is enormous, and covers every part of the country, but there were some people who were not prepared to let the notion of superstition go unchallenged.

London Thirteen Club 23rd March 1895
One such group of people formed themselves into the London Thirteen Club around October, 1889 (though others say it was formed in January 1881 - dates are confusing), and was said to mirror one formed in New York a number of years earlier. Originally started by a group of London journalists, it quickly attracted the attention, and membership of MP's and Peers, as well as many of the professional class such as doctors and lawyers. The club had one objective: "To educate people against their tenets and slavery to superstitious notions". I've had on my wall for many years, a framed original page from "The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News", of the 23rd March 1895, and the above sketch comes from that page. The highlight of the club was its annual dinner, and the page describes this event the week before. As I believe that superstition is a load of nonsense, I've always been particularly amused by the antics of these well-heeled 'eccentrics', who carried on their annual dinners for at least twenty four years up to January 1906.

Let me give you a flavour of one of those annual dinners. This account was put together by Paul Chambers from articles in The Times. "On Saturday the 13th January 1894, London played host to a most extraordinary event. No fewer than 169 gentlemen of eminent rank and learning assembled at the Holborn Restaurant. Each diner was wearing a green tie and, on arrival, was presented with a buttonhole that consisted of a Japanese skeleton stuck to a miniature coffin lid. In time, an undertaker arrived and, without word, led the guests through to room number 13. The dining room itself was no less unusual. Inside were 13 tables each of which was laid for 13 people. All the knives were crossed while about the table were scattered various objects such as skulls, mirrors, peacock feathers and upturned horseshoes. Salt had been scattered everywhere and the whole scene was lit by black candles placed inside model skulls and coffins. The diners sat down to their meal which consisted of 13 courses and was served by cross-eyed waiters. While eating, there was much deliberate spilling of the salt.

Their appetites sated, the assembled crowd sat back to listen to an address given by Harry Furniss who, aside from being a genuine funeral director, was also chairman of the London Thirteen Club, the entire membership of which was now assembled before him. Furniss proposed a toast: 'To the memory of many senseless superstitions killed by the London Thirteen Club'. He then went on to give a speech in which he outlined his theory concerning the Houses of Parliament and superstition. After the speech, a final toast was proposed after which the diners were encouraged to give each other knives (but not to pay for them) and to smash the many mirrors that were in the room. Wine was drunk, songs were sung, and in the early hours the sozzled rabble poured onto the pavement and dissolved into the chill London air. A good, if slightly unusual time was had by all".

I think that I could have enjoyed that evening, and helped to lay bare the nonsense of superstition. Of course, not everyone agreed with them, with one detractor calling the club, "an assembly of idiots". Membership invitations to the Prince of Wales and Oscar Wilde were declined, and Wilde's letter declining the invitation was read out at the dinner in 1894. In typical Wilde fashion he wrote,

"I have to thank the members of your Club for their kind invitation, for which convey to them, I beg you, my sincere thanks. But I love superstitions. They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your Society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Do not make us too offensively sane. I love dining out, but with a Society with so wicked an object as yours, I cannot dine. I regret it. I am sure you will all be charming, but I could not come, though 13 is a lucky number".

I'm now torn. I know that superstitions are nonsense, but I also like what Wilde says about, "Leave us some unreality. Do not make us too offensively sane". Ah well, no doubt my reader will come to his own conclusions.

I finish with an appalling link to a song. I was brought up with the songs of Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group (you know, such songs as, "My old man's a dustman", and "Does your chewing gum lose its flavour on the bedpost overnight?"). One of my favourites was a song called "Black Cat" (see the link?), and the version I've chosen is a big band one with Ralph Dollimore and his Orchestra. Superstitious or not, it's a great song, and a great version.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Broken Promises

I'm adding my few words to the millions already written on the subject of an EU Referendum. I found myself closely following the debate in Parliament on Monday, when over 50 MP's spoke for over five hours, culminating in a late vote.

The debate was triggered by an e-petition reaching over 100,000 signatures, and the motion discussed was this.

"The House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom
  1. should remain a member of the European Union on the current terms; or
  2. leave the European Union; or
  3. re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation".
In case you've missed it, this is how the vote went. Those for the motion, 111; those against the motion, 483; Majority, 372. This was not a surprise, given that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition both said that "the time was not right for a referendum", and they would not support the motion. The Prime Minister went even further and issued a three-line whip, which meant that all Conservative MP's would be required to vote against the motion.

What has angered so many people though, and I'm in this camp, is that there shouldn't have been the need for an e-petition, or a vote in Parliament, because the British people were promised a vote, and that promise has been broken; we have been lied to; trust has evaporated. I'm not normally a lover of the Daily Express, but they have strongly led the cry for Britain to get out of the EU.

Their headline today read, "Scandal over EU Betrayal: MP's cheat us out of referendum". They accused those MP's who voted against the motion of being craven cowards. The Government has not only broken its promise, it is dismissing as nothing the views of the British people, and treating us as if we know nothing. The Daily Express petition calling for Britain to leave the EU received 373,000 signatures, and an opinion poll for ITV News at Ten showed that 68% of people want a vote. Democracy I'm afraid has taken another knock. Cameron should know, that from what I've read, the battle will go on, until the British people have had their say. If the three options in the motion before Parliament were in a referendum, it would give all sides an opportunity to present their case, and to trust the people to decide their future.

Stewart Jackson MP
The night at Westminster was not a total disaster though, as it is worth remembering that 111 MP's voted for the motion. You can see the list of names here. There were 79 Conservative MP's who defied the Whip, plus two Tellers who couldn't vote, but said they would support the motion, making 81 in total who defied their Leader in support of the right to simply let the people decide their political destiny.

This was the largest rebellion over Europe since the UK joined the EEC in 1973, and came about because they saw what the blogger Archbishop Cranmer saw, "The political elite are apparently in perpetual collusion to surrender the people's sovereignty to an unelected and unaccountable government in Brussels". The 111 supporters for a referendum NOW, should be applauded. In addition to 81 Tories, there were 19 Labour MP's who defied their Leader, 1 LibDem, 8 DUP, 1 Green and 1 Independent.

I've never voted Conservative in my life, and I never thought that I would speak of a modern-day Conservative hero, but I find myself doing so, and in no way am I begrudging it. The man in question is Stewart Jackson, MP for Peterborough, who probably encapsulated the thoughts of many MP's. Up until Monday, he was the Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In the debate he said, "For me, constituency and country must come before the baubles of ministerial office. I will keep that faith with my constituents and with a heavy heart, I will vote for the motion and I will take the consequences". He was duly sacked. This is the kind of MP I want to see.

While praising the 111, what can be said about the 483 who voted against the motion? They not only colluded in broken promises; they have disregarded the wishes of the majority of the British people to have a referendum. Their decision on Monday the 24th October 2011 will not be forgotten, when the time for the next election comes round.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Snippets That Interested Me

I'm taking a day off from trying to write a serious and intelligent blog, as the brain can only take so much. So I thought that I'd draw your attention to a few things that caught my attention in the last 48 hours. Readers of Friday's copy of the Metro will recognise some of the news items.

Barra the Underwater Sniffer Dog
The headline was: "Barra - the underwater body hunter". There's only ever been one dog in my life that I've adored. She was Dana, a rescue dog who was beautiful.

Apart from her, I haven't really been an animal lover of any description, but I can appreciate the role that some dog's play in the lives of human beings.

It's fantastic the work that hearing dogs; seeing dogs; hearing/seeing dogs and sniffer dogs do, but I'd never heard of an underwater sniffer dog before. That's hardly surprising as there can't be many of them. In fact, Barra in the picture is Scotland's first and only underwater sniffer dog. The English springer spaniel takes to rivers across the country to search for missing people with his handler. Barra can cover in a day, an area that would take a diver a week. What a fantastic dog. This interested me greatly for some reason.

Barra Airport
I make no apology for the appalling link between Barra the dog, and Barra the airport. In some ways they are both remarkable.

Barra Airport is the only airport in the world where planes land on the beach. It is situated on the wide beach of Traigh Mhor, on Barra Island, in the Outer Hebrides.

The airport is literally washed away by the tide once a day, and if you arrive on a late afternoon flight, you may notice a couple of cars in the parking lot with their lights on, which provides pilots some added visibility, since the airport is naturally lit. Official information warns you against hanging about on the beach, and signs can be seen saying, "Keep off the beach, when the windsock is flying and the airport is active". If you're interested, you can read more about the airport and see photographs here.

A newspaper article on Friday had this worrying headline, "Knife crime driven by smartphone robberies". The latest 12 month report to June 2011 by Police forces in England and Wales, showed that recorded robberies involving knives went up by 7% to 14,980. Robberies without knives also rose by 3%, to 76,786. Serious sexual crimes such as rape and sexual assault also went up from 44,415 to 45,498. It's OK though, because the figure the Police and Government want you to focus on is that overall recorded crime was down by 4%, from 4.3 million to 4.1 million.

New figures show that thieves with knives targeted smartphones to steal their owners' identities. Apparently, Samsung Galaxys, iPhones and Blackberrys can be so valuable to foreign fraudsters that they will pay twice the face value to get hold of them. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), "A smartphone owner's contacts, files, internet history, email addresses, bank account passwords and other documents are a goldmine for fraudsters".

ACPO worry that a large proportion of smartphone users still do not have pass codes on their phones, "leaving them vulnerable to possible ID theft and fraud". I'm so glad that I don't have a smartphone; my mobile phone is so out of date and basic, that I doubt even Mazumamobile.com would give me anything for it. It just shows you though how careful you must be when using new technology, and the loss of a phone at knife point, may be the least of our worries.

The Prime Ministers office was asked about the rises in robberies with knives and burglaries. Their reply was, "When you look at the individual categories, some of the changes are not necessarily statistically significant". I would suggest that for those 14,980 people robbed at knife point, and the 76,786 others who have been robbed, that their ordeal is highly significant. Labour's Yvette Cooper does have a point, when she calls on the Coalition Government to "take urgent action to cut crime instead of just cutting police".

John Travolta
On a much lighter note, I loved the headline, "KFC fan Travolta denied grease fix". John Travolta was in London for an annual Scientology event, and fancied something to eat in East Grinstead.

Apparently, a member of Travolta's entourage called the local Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet in advance to ask for a table to be reserved. The KFC worker told Travolta's assistant to join the back of the queue like everyone else. With commendable customer focus, and a knowledge of KFC rules, they said, "To me, customers are customers, no matter who they are". I took an instant liking to this worker.

However, I do hope that they didn't get into any trouble, for a spokesman for KFC later said that if Travolta a wanted to come back, they'd "happily bend the rules ... and in hindsight, of course, we would have reserved a table for him. It's not every day you get a Hollywood star eating in your restaurant".

It's nice to have it confirmed that while all men are equal, some are definitely more equal than others. I wonder if I could try and get a table reserved for me? After all, they do get very busy. We all probably know the answer to that one.

Occupy Nottingham
And finally. The 'Occupy Nottingham' protest site has had to move.

It's no longer directly outside the Council House, but at the far end of Old Market Square. The number of tents seems to have grown, but it doesn't seem as prominent.

I was wondering what was going to happen when the site was needed for the Christmas activities, now I know.

The outdoor ice rink is being built there, and we can't have peaceful protests spoiling people's enjoyment. At least they are still there, but I worry that being on the periphery, begins to negate the impact of their message. It's the age-old problem for long term protests; you become part of the scenery, and you're no longer really noticed. The question still remains for this admirable world-wide protest, "Where to from here?"

So these are the snippets that have interested me in the last 48 hours; I'm sure that there have been others that have interested you. Feel free to let me know what they are.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Gaddafi: Justice or Vengeance?

The picture is of an 18 year old Libyan youth holding aloft one of Gaddafi's famous golden guns, which he had taken from the fallen leader after his capture.

Shortly, Muammar Gaddafi would be dead, shot with a single bullet to the head; the circumstances of which are unclear at the present time, and will probably remain that way. Joyous scenes throughout Libya were accompanied with the cry of "God is Great".

Gaddafi's 42 year reign of state sponsored terrorism, and the systematic brutalising of his own people was now over - a bullet had seen to that. NATO air support through Britain, France and America has been justified, as it has helped to bring an end to "this brutal dictator and his regime".

For David Cameron, this was "a day to remember all of Colonel Gaddafi's victims", which was echoed by The Sun headline, "That's for Locherbie". Cameron continued, "People in Libya today have an even greater chance, after this news, of building themselves a strong and democratic future. I'm proud of the role that Britain has played in helping them to bring that about, and I pay tribute to the bravery of the Libyans who have helped to liberate their country". Not to be left behind, Ed Milliband said, "I pay tribute to the Libyan people for standing up to the former regime, and seeking to define their own democratic destiny. We should be proud of the support that our armed forces have given to that cause".

In the middle of such world-wide joyous celebrations, I have a couple of concerns. To the National Transitional Council (NTC), the uprising in Libya was about bringing in democracy. To Cameron it was  about giving support so that Libya could build themselves "a strong and democratic future". To Milliband, the support was given to Libya to help them "to define their own democratic destiny". To a country that has not known democracy, I wonder what this means? On the 2nd September 2011, 60 countries, that's right 60, met under the "Friends of Libya" banner to discuss Libya's future.  This was a conference hosted by France and Britain, and according to the website, Middle East and Balkan News, "It marks the beginning of normalisation, but also the beginning of a race for Libya's oil".

This is the fear of course lurking behind the congratulatory and supportive statements, that politically and economically, nations are positioning themselves to take advantage of Libya's huge oil resources. Britain has spent around £2 billion so far in support of the NTC's aim for regime change, and they will be looking for some claw back of this money, as well as opportunities for further investment. On the surface, helping the NTC "as it seeks to improve economic and social conditions, ensure order and prepare for elections" is a good thing, but at what future cost to Libya? How does the presence of 60 of the world's most powerful nations in conference help Libya "to define their own democratic destiny"? It's early days of course for the fledgling democracy, and it's hoped that the NTC leadership will be strong enough to plough its own course, and not allow others to dictate their destiny. Westernised models of democracy may not be what is best for the Middle East; Libya needs to work this out for herself.

Of course, getting there will be no mean feat. Until elections are held, there is no clear picture of who wants democracy as we know it. I'm sure that Libya's elite, who form most of the NTC want it, but what of Libya's Warlords? There is historic tension between various tribes in Libya, which I would have thought needed more than a few months of 'transition to democracy' to deal with.

I've just read some fascinating articles on the Al Arabiya News website here (click English if it comes up in Arabic). An article by William Maclean of Reuters begins, "Jockeying for power among Libya's well-armed and fractious new leadership may intensify after the death of Muammar Gaddafi". He feels that the interim NTC is faced with a critical task, namely "getting under control a clutch of anti-Gaddafi militias competing, so far peacefully, for ample share of funding and political representation in a post-Gaddafi Libya". He says this because, "In recent weeks Tripoli has seen an apparent competition for the title of top militia in the capital, where the many armed groups now exercising authority in the city portrayed themselves as the sole legitimate security force".

Gaddafi was a member of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, which has up to one million of the six million Libyan population. The Warfalla, along with two other tribes were traditionally considered the pillars of Gaddafi's rule, dominating the security forces and the ranks of the military. In recent years support for Gaddafi has been inconsistent, culminating in failed coup attempts, but it is thought that numbers still remain loyal to Gaddafi. Getting to grips with tribal Warlords will not be easy, for as Al Arabiya News explains, "The Warfalla are unlikely to act under a unified leadership when the tribe is actually a confederacy of around 50 sub-tribes spread across Libya, each with its own local leaders, local concerns and varying degrees of affiliation or loyalty to the old Gaddafi leadership".

My point is not to be negative; it is just to hope that the immense expectations inside and outside of Libya will be realistic, and that foreign countries will allow Libya "to define their own democratic destiny". I fear though that the NTC will be put under immense pressure in the battle for Libya's wealth.

My final thought disturbs me. So Gaddafi is dead, but it's not so much his death, but the manner of it that disturbs me. Was this justice or vengeance?  Yes he was an evil man, and few will be mourning his passing, but summary execution cannot be so lightly glossed over.

On the BBC 10 O'clock news tonight, Jeremy Bowen said that this was a question being asked elsewhere, rather than in Libya. My views may well be dismissed as coming from a do-gooder, bleeding heart liberal, that should put himself in the position of those who have suffered for decades, then I might understand. But a wannabe democracy has to accept what goes along with that term, and it's morality and law, which is justice not vengeance. Perhaps it's too early for Libya to grasp this, but what about the rest of the civilised world? I've trawled the Internet tonight for comments on Gaddafi's death, and there were some who felt my unease, but there were many others who had no such concerns. This is summed up by one blog comment. "The Human Rights activists are having a Hissey Fit about his killing, but who else cares? He was responsible for the killing of many, many thousands, and I hope he burns in hell. There is now no focal point for his supporters or reason for them to mount terrorist attacks to secure his release, which seems a big plus. I suspect if he had been brought to trial, (certainly if it were under British law) he would have been found insane and committed to Broadmoor or the equivalent, which would have helped no-one. Far better for all of us that he's dead". No doubt this writer would have agreed with the headline in the Daily Star, "Mad dog is Put Down". But I'm no Human Rights activist, and I care.

"God is great" shouted the crowds, and our own history shows that we've been there. Those in the Crusades murdered Muslims in the name of God, and Muslims murdered Christians in the name of God. In the 16th Century we burned people at the stake, horribly mutilated others, in the name of God. "God is great" would have been their thinking, but we've moved on from that, and our laws enshrine the principle of justice, not vengeance. This is part of being a democracy, no matter how heinous the crime or the criminal. Many years ago, Stephen Fry was writing for the Telegraph, and he expressed concern at a picture of an American soldier in Iraq standing beside a wall that had the words written on it, "Burn in Hell, Saddam". He eloquently explored what was behind this thinking, and ended his piece with these words, "I would like to believe, foolishly no doubt, naively for sure, that we are fighting for the same reason - a detestation of fanaticism, fundamentalism and barbarism - and that vengeful ferocity and unfettered machismo will form no part of our strategy. Let's stand up to Saddam in the name of civilisation, not in the name of our own particular brand of savagery".

I've looked in vain today for similar thoughts from our Politicians, but found none. I was not surprised, as who wants to upset a fledgling democracy when so many lucrative, rebuilding infrastructure contracts are up for grabs. Democracy is about justice, not vengeance, or where will it all end? Who will decide when vengeance is acceptable? Who will draw the line? I genuinely hope, along with Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, a Libyan political scientist at the University of New England, that the NTC leadership "heals the country and reconciles people". I may be in a minority, but I care how that is done, as the road of revenge can be a very dangerous one to travel on.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Occupy the Cities

I briefly commented a few days ago on the "Occupy Nottingham" protest taking place in the Old Market Square, and I've decided to return to the subject.

I've received some correspondence from people who have been at the protest, explaining their own personal situation and why they were there. It is clear that people from a variety of backgrounds are suffering terribly in the present climate, and that for them enough is enough.

The Occupy the City "movement" started with "Occupy Wall Street" in New York a few weeks ago, and now there are nearly 1000 venues across the world in over 80 cities. One of the slogans is, "We are the 99%", who are frustrated and angry, that, as Polly Toynbee says, "growth is gobbled up by the greedy 1%". The protests across the world are largely peaceful, with the violence in Rome solely due to the protest being hijacked by groups of anarchists. In Wall Street, sound systems are prohibited, so a kind of 'human microphone' system had to be used, with words being repeated time and time again as the message was relayed to the thousands in attendance.

Outside St Paul's Cathedral
In London, the original aim was to 'Occupy the Stock Exchange', but they had to settle for setting up camp outside St Paul's Cathedral, with the support of the Cathedral's Canon Giles Fraser.

I suppose it's a tribute to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that such an assembly could be gathered in such a short space of time. I do find it slightly ironic that protests against the downsides of capitalism use Facebook, with its almost total dependence on Microsoft advertising directories, and Twitter with its funding from venture capitalists to fight the cause. In a similar vein, many protesters will no doubt have an Apple product, even though protesters in China are campaigning against Apple because only 1% of the sale price of an Apple iPhone finds its way into the workers pockets. Hey, but lets not be petty, as after all we're only at the beginning of something here.

Some may ask, "What do the protesters want?". There is no party line to tow here, and exact wording may differ across the world, but the protesters outside St Paul's did come up with some broad proposals, and agreed this was a work in progress. On agreeing this broad proposal, Polly Toynbee commented, "I watched the laborious process of getting a crowd of more than 500 to agree detailed wording with one feeble microphone, repeating the words to those at the back". This is what they came up with.
  1. The current system is unsustainable. It is undemocratic and unjust. We need alternatives; this is where we work towards them.
  2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities, dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.
  3. We refuse to pay for the banks' crisis.
  4. We do not accept the cuts as either necessary or inevitable. We demand an end to global tax injustice and our democracy representing corporations instead of the people.
  5. We want regulators to be genuinely independent of the industries they regulate.
  6. We support the strike on the 30th November, and the student action on the 9th November, and actions to defend our health services, welfare, education and employment, and to stop wars and arms dealing.
  7. We want structural change towards authentic global equality. The world's resources must go towards caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich.
  8. We stand in solidarity with the global oppressed and we call for an end to the actions of our government and others in causing this oppression.
  9. This is what democracy looks like. Come and join us!
Some may be in broad agreement with the protesters, but ask, "What's the point?", nothing ever changes. But mass movements can bring about change, and for Polly Toynbee in Monday's Guardian on-line, the world is responding. She draws attention to Monday's leader column in the Financial Times. "Today only the foolhardy would dismiss a movement reflecting the anger and frustration of ordinary citizens from all walks of life around the world ... the fundamental call for a fairer distribution of wealth cannot be ignored". The American dream "has been shattered by a crisis brought about by financial excess and political cynicism. The consequence has been growing inequality, rising poverty and sacrifice by those least able to bear it - all of which are failing to deliver economic growth. The cry for change is one that must be heeded". It's expected of the Guardian to say such things, but for the Financial Times to say that inequality is not just socially but economically disastrous, shows that the message is beginning to get through.

Lest anyone is in any doubt that we are in a real crisis that will just magically disappear, note two reports that have just come out.

Figures released yesterday by the Office of National Statistics show that unemployment has hit a 17 year high, with almost 3 million people in the UK now out of work. Jobless figures went up by 114,000 to 2.57 million between June and August this year.

Youth unemployment in the same quarter hit a record high of 21.3%, with 991,000, 16-24 year olds now out of work. To many economists, this is evidence that the economy has stopped growing.

In another report released on Tuesday, official figures show that inflation rose to 5.2% in September. The retail price index inflation registered its quickest rate of increase since June 1991. All of this is important for a number of reasons, not least of which is that the figures are used to calculate benefit increases, as well as the rise in the basic state pension implemented next April. To the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Rachel Reeves, "It's now clear we have the worst of all worlds - high inflation, rising unemployment and a stagnant economy since last autumn. When Britain now has the highest inflation of any EU country except Estonia, families and pensioners feeling the squeeze want out of touch ministers to take some responsibility and take action now".

Occupy the Cities is calling for change. In some ways it's a simple protest at "the gross injustice of bailed-out banks and company CEO's still pouring bonuses into their pockets while everyone else pays the price in cuts and lost jobs". The ball has started to roll in favour of the 99%, and I for one hope that there's enough people out there who care enough to keep it rolling until change is achieved. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

First Hand is the Best Hand

I thought, "Here we go again". I'd bought a roll and a coffee from Greggs, and was sitting on a familiar seat in the city centre out of the wind. A man and a can with his girlfriend sat down beside me. Was this to be more aggression? Would I be tapped up for money? Would I have to listen to them arguing?

I couldn't have been more wrong, and I couldn't have been happier to be more wrong. He introduced himself as Steve (name changed), and was very friendly and talkative. They were going to be married next August, and had a flat in Nottingham. He reminded me so much of clients in the past who hid nothing from you. He was open and honest, with a refreshing assessment of Nottingham. Steve was originally from Derbyshire, but had been in Nottingham for many years. It was difficult for his girlfriend to get a word in. He seemed genuinely interested in me, and what I thought. When he heard about my line of work before retirement, the conversation changed; he opened up about his own life, and his experiences in Nottingham.

He was probably in his early thirties, and said that he'd spent a number of years in prison in his youth, as a result of thieving. He'd been a heroin addict for about ten years, but had been clean for a good few years now. I believed him, as he showed none of the tell-tale signs of a current user. He'd slept rough on the streets of Nottingham, and had also been an alcohol abuser. Though he still drank, it was minimal compared to the past. His skin, eyes and demeanor showed to me that his previous abuse was a thing of the past. He attributed much of the change in his life to his girlfriend. (I never did catch her name). A young fellow rode past on his bike and waved. "That's Billy" (name changed), said Steve, "He lives on the streets, and spends all his day riding up and down town shop-lifting". It was just a matter of fact.

I asked him about homelessness and street drinking. He said that ten years ago you could have 100 people living rough on the streets, and sleeping in doorways, now there are a handful, and most of those "are Polish". The problem is more of "sofa-surfing", where people rely on others to let them sleep on their floors or sofas. This is often called the hidden homeless, because there's no way to quantify the problem. Steve let's some of his former friends use the shower in his flat, but not to stay overnight, as he doesn't trust them. He could wake up in the morning and find his goods stolen. In my previous work I'd heard of this happening time and time again. Many in the homelessness community would look after others, but end up being ripped off for their kindness. He had a good knowledge of organisations that were there to help people, and of the reduction in funding. This now limited the amount of help that could be given, and people were suffering as a result of it.

He understood the needs of those who were alcohol dependent, as he'd been that way himself. It was tragic that the Handel Street centre had to close because of the withdrawal of funding, as it was the only "wet centre" in town. This was a centre where people could go for help, and were allowed to drink there. In his view, this was the best place to go if you had an alcohol problem, to get help. I was hearing nothing that I hadn't heard a thousand times before, but I was listening to someone with no agenda, no axe to grind, just first hand knowledge and experience, and first hand is always the best hand. If only the power brokers and the decision makers would spend more time with people like Steve before they produced their Strategies and Action Plans.

Before he left me, he said, "Do you know what the biggest problem in Nottingham is?" My look asked him to tell me. "It's Domestic Violence". There was no time to explore this further with him, and with a hand shake, they both left.

Now I'm not new to the issues of Domestic Violence (DV), as I've seen too many people who have suffered under it, as well as worked with organisations who have specialised in addressing it. However, I felt out of touch, and needed to refresh myself, as well as get acquainted with the position in Nottingham. I warn you, it does not make for pretty reading, but it needs to be highlighted.

The following information has been gained from reading material provided by Nottinghamshire Police; Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum; Nottinghamshire County Council; Nottingham City Council; Women's Aid, and Relate. It should be noted at the outset, that Domestic Violence, while primarily is men abusing women, there is the lesser known, but none the less significant problem of women abusing men. Some of the facts are best, I think, presented in the form of bullet points, as they stand out more, and are better digested.
  • Every week in England and Wales, two women are killed through Domestic Violence, and about 30 men a year
  • Research estimates that Domestic Violence accounts for 16% of all violent crime in England and Wales
  • Police receive one report of Domestic Violence every minute of every day
  • One in four women, and one in six men will experience Domestic Violence in their lifetime
  • It is projected that every year at least 31,000 women living in Nottinghamshire will experience Domestic Violence
  • At least 10% of women over the age of 16 in Nottingham will be at risk of Domestic Violence
  • Research suggests 250 men in Nottingham will experience four or more incidents of Domestic Violence from a partner in a year
  • A victim of Domestic Violence suffers an average of 35 assaults before they report it to the Police
  • An estimated three children in every class of 30 in Nottingham will be living with Domestic Violence
  • 75% of abused mothers said that their children had witnessed Domestic Violence
  • 33% had seen their mothers beaten up
  • 10% had witnessed sexual violence
  • In 90% of Domestic Violence incidents, children are in the same or the next room when the violence occurs
  • Research is also showing a strong correlation between domestic violence and child abuse. Studies have found these types of abuse occurring together in between 40 - 70% of cases
  • People who experience Domestic Violence are 15 times more likely to abuse alcohol
  • Domestic Violence is the single largest cause of homelessness
  • Domestic Violence is widespread, and persists within all groups in society; it is not just the poor and under-privileged
  • As horrific as these figures are, Domestic Violence is the highest-volume single category of violent crime, and yet one of the most under reported by survivors, and under recorded by agencies
  • The reality is worse than what we even know
Robert Burns
I've been quoting similar figures to these for years, but I've never got used to them. And the words, "man's inhumanity to man" keep coming back to me. My reader will no doubt know that the phrase was coined by Robert Burns and used in his poem, "From Man was made to Mourn: A Dirge, 1785".

"Many and sharp the num'rous ills
Inwoven with our frame!
More pointed still we make ourselves
Regret, remorse, and shame!
And Man, whose heav'n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn, -
Man's inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!"

Monday, 17 October 2011

Life in the UK Citizens Test

I'd never really given much thought to the 'Life in the UK Citizens Test' up to now. After all, I wouldn't have to sit the test, and there were lots more pressing matters to be considering.

This changed when I heard a speech on immigration from David Cameron, where he said that changes would be made to the test. This was part of a list of promises to get tougher with immigration. Every Government announces this, and every Government fails. Words to the party faithful are easy to give, but everyone should know by now that international law makes it very difficult for those words to be followed by meaningful action.

As I've mentioned before, the European Union does not recognise 'foreigners' within its member nations; everyone is a European, and can travel freely within its borders. The case is different of course for those travelling from other parts of the world. Any immigration policy must also show that it is not discriminatory, which I think is an almost impossible task, as something will almost always discriminate against someone. David Cameron wants to reduce immigration to the "tens of thousands"; I'll not be holding my breath.

Having arrived in the UK, if you wish to become a citizen, and to have a British passport, you have to pass a Citizens Test. This is what David Cameron said about the changes that will be made to the test. "There's a whole chapter in the citizenship handbook on British history but, incredibly, there is no question on British history in the actual test. Instead you'll find questions on the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe and the benefits system within the UK. So we are going to revise the whole test ... and put British history and culture at the heart of it".

I was now intrigued; what was the test like? So, along with thousands of others, I took an on-line practice test. Actually, over the space of a couple of days I took three different on-line practice tests, but before I give you my results, let me say something in my defence.

I didn't read the Official Handbook beforehand (cost £9.99); I did no other preparation; I've never been very good at tests, and I thought the whole concept was a load of tosh. There were 24 questions in each of the tests, as there is in the final Citizenship Test on the day. In the first test I got 12 questions right; in the second test I got 15 questions right, and in the third test I got 16 questions right. The passmark is getting 18 questions right (75%), so I failed in all three tests. I didn't know enough about life in the UK to be allowed indefinite leave to remain.

All of the tests were based on the Official Practice Citizenship Test documentation, and one of the tests I took was provided by the Guardian on-line, who did point out that the test contained some out of date information. They were right, as on a couple of occasions I found myself arguing with the site, in much the same way as I used to argue with the computer when it refused to let me play a perfectly good chess move. My downfall in the Guardian test was that I didn't know whether in the 1980's the largest immigrant groups were from the West Indies, Ireland, India and Pakistan was true or false. I also didn't know why recruitment centres were set up in the West Indies in the 1950's. I failed to know in what year married women received the right to divorce their husbands. Also I didn't know the number of children and young people up to the age of 19 who were in the UK, or the percentage of people in the 2001 UK census that were Muslims. How many days a year schools must open also defeated me, as did the difference in the hourly rate of pay for men and women. My option to stop young people playing tricks on you at Halloween by turning a water cannon on them was not available, so I failed that as well.

What to make of it all? Candidates for citizenship will need to purchase, and read the Official Handbook, which provides all the information that is required to pass the test. This is where the whole thing is farcical for me. The test is not a test of knowledge, but a test of memory. But isn't that the same with all tests? I'm sorry, but I've always felt that exams/tests only show the ability of someone to absorb lots of information for a given purpose in time - the test. I accept that my view may be coloured by the fact that I'm generally useless at exams, but have always been very good at course work, writing essays or a true form of continual assessment.

So the ability of applicants for citizenship to memorise loads of facts and get at least a score of 18 out of 24, makes them successful. But why does the fact that they know there are 646 parliamentary constituencies, or that Ulster Scots is a dialect spoken in Northern Ireland, or what a quango is, or that Hansard is the official report of the proceedings of Parliament, or when the first census was carried out in the UK, why does this mean that they will make good citizens?  So if David Cameron has his way and British history will be at the heart of the new test, candidates for citizenship will know the date of the Magna Carta; the wives of Henry V111; the battle of Waterloo, and the role of Churchill in the Second World War, but will that make them good citizens? Conversely, as a BBC poll showed that fewer than half of those under 30 in the UK could identify Sir Francis Drake as the key figure in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or that one third of them did not know that William the Conqueror won the battle of Hastings; does that make them bad citizens? I yield to no one in the appreciation of the importance and value of history, but being a citizen has got to mean a lot more.

I understand that there has got to be some gauge for acceptance into the country, and apart from the ability to speak, or the willingness to learn the language of the country, surely one of the important considerations should be what positive contribution can someone make to life in the UK? But what do I know? I'm not suitable for citizenship myself, as I failed the test - three times.

If you want to finish with a laugh - and god knows that I do, then click here and read some of the alternative questions Twitter users have come up with. I think that one of favourites is;

When does the DFS sale come to an end?
  • When hell freezes over
  • At the end of the year
  • In the next 7 days

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Occupy Nottingham

Arboretum 16th October 2011
Life is full of contrasts, like beauty and the beast co-existing in space and time. One day can be a reminder of this, and today was such a day.

The Arboretum was looking glorious in the beautiful autumnal sunshine. Mallards were frolicking around the fountain in the pond (do Mallards frolic? I can't be bothered to look up the full meaning of the word, but I do hope that they do); members of the crow family were engaged in what seems like a perenial battle with magpies over who should occupy a tree. Of hundreds of trees in the park, there was a battle over this one tree, it was a bit like one of my previous blogs long ago, "That's my seat (tree)". Squirrels in abundance were busy looking for food among the fallen leaves, only occasionally looking up for safety, so used are they to the presence of humans - mind you, dogs see them scuttling up the nearest tree. Nature in the Arboretum was wearing her finest clothes, and it was good to be alive.

Broken down tram 16th October 2011
I know that I'm a creature of habit, and I never pretend to be exciting. Habit provides a comfort zone, where you're at ease with yourself and your surroundings.

When I go to the Arboretum, I catch the bus to Fletcher Gate, then the tram to Nottingham Trent University stop, which is only a short walk to the park. Arriving at Fletcher Gate, an announcement said that there were no trams operating between Old Market Square and the Forest because of a broken down tram.

My equilibrium was disturbed; a new plan was needed; I would have to walk. No big deal, as the tram ride is only about five minutes, but that wasn't the point. Sad as it sounds, this was an irritation, and the cause of the irritation became apparent as I was walking down Goldsmith Street; there was the broken down tram, causing all of the disruption. My reader will be right in thinking that this is all so petty, but hey, there's beauty and the beast in us all.

Do you find that little things can irritate you? Oh do please say yes. Like that fly that is intent on landing on your nose; no amount of swatting will get rid of it; you know that it will win, and it also knows. Or that wasp that has set its heart on landing on your food, and frantic arm waving seems to make it even more determined. Little things, but so irritating, and how useful it would be to be a Buddhist at times like this, but I'm not. So irritation disturbs the equilibrium.

People can be a bit of an irritant at times as well. Sitting on a park bench this morning, idly watching the birds and squirrels in the early afternoon sunshine, a man plonks himself down beside me. There were at least four other empty benches nearby, but no, he had to sit on mine. Fair enough you might say, he had every right to do it, you're just being petty again. Listen, this is what irritated me. He was a drunk young man, and he was still drinking. His body language and vocabulary was aggressive, so I felt the need to put on a hard face, that said, "don't even even think of messing with me mate". Unfortunately, it never works, as I always think that it gives the impression that I'm constipated. I just can't do hard, but one of us had to weaken, so I moved. Such a little thing to throw you off balance.

I don't know what it is about me, but I've really lost count of the number of new clients over the years that started our relationship with asking me if I wanted to fight them. I remember one man who came in and who I felt was slightly psychotic, and he had a machete, which I had to take off him. "Do you want to fight me mate?" This coming from a well built maniac with a machete. Who did he think I was, Steven Seagal? But I did get the machete, without having to fight him for it. But I digress as usual. Today was a day of contrasts, which if my reader is still with me, will see the thread running through this blog.

Peaceful Protest 16th October 2011
Some of the irritants mentioned are pitiful when placed alongside the issues that matter most. Outside the Council House today there was a peaceful protest called, "Occupy Nottingham". I would have been proud of the hyperbole, as the 'occupation' only covered a few square metres of Market Square, right outside the Council House.

However, there were about two or three dozen people, with around ten tents and a brazier, protesting about the UK debt, and the cuts introduced to reduce that debt. There were posters and notices highlighting some of the personal impact that cuts were having on people. Some people may well have passed by saying, "bloody hippies", and give no more thought to what was happening. But they would be wrong to dismiss such people, and to assume that everybody there was somehow part of a homogeneous group. One person had written how many O and A Levels they had; how they'd sent off 300 CV's, and never received a reply to one of them. These are people trying, but without success.

There's no doubt that most of us feel powerless to affect Government, and to bring about change, and that the only thing we can do is to get out on the streets and protest. Some take it to the next level and involve themselves in direct action, but Occupy Nottingham was a peaceful protest, from people who are frustrated and angry; they believe that is was politicians and bankers who caused the massive debt problem, but it's ordinary people who are being asked to suffer to clear up the mess. They have my support.

Peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society, and has a very long and respected tradition in the United Kingdom. What is not generally known is that there has never been a "right" to peaceful protest. This only changed in 2000, when domestic law incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights, where Article 11 gives the "Right to Peaceful Assembly". When I see the effect that the 'debt recovery plan' is having on so many people, it fills me with rage; I also feel a sense of impotence, and the only thing that can be done apart from direct action, is to engage in peaceful protest.

David Davis
The protesters in Old Market Square are assuming that those they are addressing with their grievances actually care about them, and what they say. I don't actually believe that the majority do.

Following my recent blog on "We're all in this together", my friend Tony sent me a comment that he said would make me even more apoplectic. He was right.

At the recent Conservative Party Conference, David Davis was speaking at a fringe meeting, and said that it is a Conservative principle "to have no limits on how low a person might fall". My friend called this Dickensian, with shades of the workhouse, and this is why I say that we're talking to people who really don't care. Because they will be alright, as beautifully captured by the Guardian, which said of David Davis, his "well heeled audience, with all their money, influence and connections would never have to live the principle themselves". I don't object to people having money, but I do expect those in Government to care about those who don't, and who are bearing the brunt of Government cuts. Perhaps the fact that people don't seem to care should be the focus of the next peaceful protest.

Arboretum
Yes, life is full of contrasts, all co-existing together. How to keep our sanity and our equilibrium is the important question.

The answer will be different for each of us; coping mechanisms come in all shapes and sizes, and for me, even if it might sound a bit strange, the Arboretum is a place that provides sanity (in spite of the presence of the occasional aggressive alcoholic) and a perspective on life.

However, there is one thing that I will always be passionate about, even obsessional about, and David Davis and his ilk need to know this, that it does matter how low a person might fall.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Journey from Illiteracy

The Up N Down Under
Wandering down St James' Street, just off the Old Market Square in Nottingham a little while ago, I read something that I hadn't thought much about, but which simple concept thrilled me to the core.

I came across the 'Up N Down Under Sports Bar'; of course I'd seen this many times, but on the gable end of the building is a notice, giving a little bit of the buildings history. It was this that thrilled me, and set me to thinking about literacy and the working class.

To quote from Wikipedia, "Literacy has traditionally been described as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about printed material". The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) takes this definition further, saying it is the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society". This of course is the ultimate goal, but over the years, people have been satisfied with being able to read and write.

Gable Wall of Up N Down Under Sports Bar
The 18th Century was an important period in addressing illiteracy in Europe. It is interesting to note that by the middle of the century, the ability to read and comprehend translated scripture led to Wales having one of the highest literacy rates.

This came about because of the 'circulating schools' started by Griffith Jones. One of the differences between non-conformist religion, and that practiced by the established Church, was the belief that everyone had the right to read the Bible for themselves, and not to rely on reading by others. Jones' aim was to have everyone read the Bible for themselves in Welsh (after all, that was the national language). In Sweden, by the end of the 18th Century, the ability to read was nearly 100%, because of enforced literacy on the people. However, in Wales, Sweden and England, the ability to write lagged far behind the ability to read. It is said that "as late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen, and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark, as they were unable to write". European countries were more successful than England in implementing educational reform because, as the historian Ernest Gellner says, "those governments were more willing to invest in the population as a whole". England didn't have government-financed public education until 1870, and even then it was limited.

Back to the 'Up N Down Under'. In the mid-18th Century it was known as The Talbot, (not to be confused with The Talbot in Long Row, which since the 1920's has been Yates, or with The Talbot House Hotel in West Bridgford). In 1799 the name was changed to The News House (also not to be confused with the current pub The Newshouse situated on Canal Street), in recognition of the newsreaders who had been paid to work there. William Ayscough began the first Nottingham printing press in Bridlesmith Gate in 1710, and before too long the Nottingham Post, and Nottingham Courant were being published. In the early days it was just a weekly sheet with three columns, with news "stolen from London papers". Newsreaders were paid to go to places like the News House and read the papers for the benefit of illiterate clientele. They were very popular. As technology improved, the newspapers could afford to hire reporters to record the local news, but they still put out special editions for newsreaders to read out in pubs. Because of increasing literacy levels in the 19th Century, the need for newsreaders died out. (Interesting how they re-surfaced on radio in 1922, and on TV in 1954).

Not everyone was enthused by the education of the working classes. In a visit to Nottingham in 1891, the American writer, Washington Irving saw the education of the working classes as a threat to the status quo. He said, "They become too knowing and begin to read newspapers ... and talk of reform". In this he was right, as in 1831 rioters opposed to the Reform Bill attacked Nottingham Castle. How dare they think for themselves, if this carries on, it will be the end of the class system. If only that were true.

In spite of opinions such as Irving's, there was a huge drive in the 18th and 19th Centuries to improve the reading ability, and in many cases, the writing ability of people. There were significant initiatives in the Scottish Highlands, Methodist Societies in England, and the Circulating Schools in Wales previously mentioned. It has been noted that in Wales, between 1737 - 1761, there appears to have been about 3,000 schools with over 150,000 scholars. 

While the schools were predominantly there to teach children, adults were also welcomed, but this work with adults was definitely seen "as subsidiaries to the teaching of children". The first proper school for adults is said to have begun in Nottingham in 1708 to meet the needs of women in lace and hosiery factories. This was independent of any other organisation and was run by a Methodist (William Singleton) and a Quaker (Samuel Fox). The main focus was on reading the Bible, and then writing from dictation or copies. Over 160 years later the national education programme was introduced by the Government through a system of mass schooling. Literacy teaching outside the formal school setting continued though. In the view of the historian Harvey Graff, the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to, and that this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading could lead to increased radicalisation of the populace. In his view, "mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not spread it". There was still the attempt to keep the working class down where they belonged, and to know their place.

Working Class Movement Library, Salford
But the working class were not to be kept down, and learning to read brought an appetite to read books for themselves, and the establishment of libraries. There is a long and glorious history of working class libraries, even though working class people had to fight through paternalistic provision before they got what they wanted.

I've just been reading a fascinating lecture given by Peter Hoare in September 2009, called, "Mechanics, Artisans, Operatives, Labourers and Others", which is about libraries for the working class in 19th Century Nottinghamshire. This is worth a blog on its own, which I may return to sometime, but for now let's just take a peek at the battle for control of working class libraries. Members of the Chartist movement in the 19th Century, such as William Lovell, "made intellectual freedom their first political priority, calling for adult education programmes and public libraries governed by the workers themselves". This is one of the reasons why I love the Chartist movement so much, in an age when we take 'intellectual freedom' for granted, they had to fight for it.

Peter Hoare points out that creating institutions such as the Mechanics and the Artisans Institutions were essentially 'top-down' institutions, run by the town's elite to improve the conditions of the working class. He saw this as an exercise in social control, as the book-stock was carefully monitored. The Founder of the Workers Education Association, Albert Mansbride, had particular comments to make about the Mechanics Institutes. To him they "were largely the result of philanthropic effort, set on foot by some local magnate, rather than upon the initiative of the mechanics themselves". Nottingham and district had these institutions (libraries) that were heavily influenced by the clergy. The Radford Artizans' Library was founded in 1837, and in its rules it states, "No works opposed to pure morals, or to the great doctrine of justification by faith alone, or of the divinity or atonement of Christ, shall be admitted". Though Peter Hoare says that a few dozen novels were stocked. This selection policy was not universally appreciated, and in August 1835 half a dozen members of the Radford Artizans' Library broke away and formed the first Operatives Library in Nottingham. How did this come about? They wanted to read, "Popular History of Priestcraft" by the radical Nottingham writer William Howitt. The committee refused, with the members breaking away; subscribed a small sum each to buy the book themselves, leading to further purchases and a growing list of borrowers. This new Operatives Library, based in the Rancliffe Arms, was totally democratic, had very low subscription rates and all decisions were in the hands of the members. Before long, other similar libraries had been formed in the working class suburbs of Sneinton, Radford and Hyson Green. Seven of these libraries formed a co-operative, and were numbered 1 - 7.

Exercising intellectual freedom, their rules showed how broad thinking these libraries would be. The first rule states, "As we believe, no political institution ought to stand that cannot bear examination, and no creed ought to be believed that cannot bear discussion, we, therefore, resolve to purchase works of every description, political, as well as those embracing history, science and literature". Unfortunately for the working class in Nottingham, in the end it was the paternalistic and socially controlling Mechanics that survived, while the Operatives disappeared almost without trace. However, this was not necessarily the case in other parts of the country. 

Working class libraries across the country existed long before the advent of public libraries. Some of the first working class libraries in Britain were The Leadhills Reading Society (1741), the Wanlockhead Miners' Library (1756) and the Westerkirk Library (1792). In lowlands Scotland, one of the first true public libraries was thought to be the Innerpeffray Library in Perthshire. Working Men's Clubs, Pubs and Co-operative Societies also contributed to mutual education. By 1903, 500 out of 900 Working Men's Clubs had libraries, with a total of around 187,00 volumes. Miners libraries in the coal fields of South Wales made exceptional efforts to support their own libraries right up to the middle of the 20th Century.

One commentator has said, "When public libraries were established, they were used by some working class people, but this was never a mass activity. Working class people who used libraries were the exception rather than the rule".

I'd be interested to know the demographics of library use today, to see if this situation has changed. There is so much opportunity, that I really hope it has.

But what of literacy today? It is not a good picture throughout England and Wales. When you think about what our forefathers went through to be literate, it is nothing short of disgraceful that we are in the position we are in in 2011.

In May this year, The London Evening Standard launched a literacy campaign to "Get London Reading". Though their statistics were for London, they bear comparison with many other parts of England and Wales. I spent many years working with prisoners and ex-prisoners, and I agree with a recent study by the Prison Reform Trust that found 48% of inmates have the reading age of a seven year old or younger. When the Westfield Stratford City shopping centre was recruiting for staff earlier this year, the Director was horrified by the educational standards of job applicants. The Director comes from Australia, and he could hardly believe that so many British young people have left school "functionally illiterate and innumerate". They had to bring in tutors for the people they thought might make it because their enthusiasm levels were high.

The Standard provided these statistics for London.
  • 1 in 4 children leaves primary school at 11 unable to read or write properly
  • 1 in 5 leaves secondary school without being able to read or write with confidence
  • 1 in 6 (one million) working age adults cannot read with confidence. From other sources we learn that around half of the working age population in England and Wales lack basic numeracy skill, and 1 in 6 lack basic literacy skills. In Wales it is 1 in 4
  • 16% is the estimated proportion of 16 - 65 year olds with the reading age of an 11 year old
  • 40% of 11 year olds at inner-city primary schools have a reading age of between six and nine when they start secondary schools
  • 40% of London firms say their employees have poor literacy skills - and report that it has a negative impact on their business
We don't need to go on. The problem throughout the country is a big one, and not being an educationalist, I struggle to understand why. I do understand however the facts. Achieving literacy levels as per UNESCO's definition seems a million miles away; we'd settle at the moment for confidence in reading and writing. If it was possible to turn in your grave, that would be happening with our working class forefathers who fought so hard for intellectual freedom through schools and libraries. What has to be done to reverse this appalling situation? Over to you educationalists.

"Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of all our citizens".

President Clinton on International Literacy Day, 8th September 1994