Till the Cows Come Home

There hasn’t been a review of a book appear round these parts in quite a while.  It’s not been for the want of investing energy in attacking the pile of ‘must read‘ books by the side of my bed – hopefully I will get around to reviewing them soon.  But as soon as I had devoured Sara Cox’s memoir of childhood on and around a Lancashire farm – “Till the Cows Come Home” (2019, London: Coronet, Hodder Books), I felt compelled to put that right.

Her book is a warm, intimate journey through her formative years, and family foundations, and I just loved it.  Hankering down over a few evenings to read it with my terrier Poppy was a sheer joy, and provided us with some quality time too.  The book had particular resonance for me – not just because I had the privilege of working with Sara when I worked at in the PR team at BBC Radio 1 over twenty years ago now, but because her book took me back to many similar component parts of my formative years.

Settled down with my terrier Poppy to read Sara’s book over a few evenings.

Yes, it was the same era providing the backdrop, through the 70s, 80s and into the early 90s, but it was also many elements of the story itself.  Much of the book plays out on the farm of her Dad, Len.  My Grandad spent much of his life working with livestock and on the farm, and for much of my early childhood was driving cattle, horses and pigs.  And, like her Mum, Jackie, running things behind the bar, particularly at the club, my Dad was a steward too.  So many of the glimpses of life Sara provides in the book were particularly evocative – I was taken right back to the smell of stale beer behind the bar with my Dad, Tony (he was always obsessed with cleaning the pipes), or the smell of the cattle lorries with my Grandad, ‘Dutch’, so ‘Thank you’!

My Dad, Tony in his natty steward’s uniform, ready to go and serve behind the bar.  We lived upstairs in the steward’s quarters for a bit.

Sara’s style of writing is as lucid and as easy as her delivery on the radio – these days on drivetime on BBC Radio 2.  It came as no surprise to me that as soon as I said I had bought her book, my Mum, my Sister, and my Auntie Eileen were forming an orderly queue to read it after me!  That never happens with the books I usually buy!

And it demonstrates why, at a recent conference I attended, organised by the Rural Services Network, looking at the need for Government to develop a rural strategy, Sara’s name kept coming up as a popular name from the audience as someone who could help rural voices be better heard, rather than the stereotypes which routinely dominate.   Sara is one of those names held with real affection across generations in the UK, and garners real respect because of her wit, warmth and intelligence – and she says it ‘as it is’.

My Gramps (centre) worked on farms much of his life, and drove cattle, horses and pigs.

I don’t often buy celebrity biography type books – I’d made an exception in this case because it was about someone in radio, and by someone I’d had the privilege to work with, and feel a great affection for.  But in any case, it isn’t that kind of book.  There is much about the fragilities of facing growing up, about the nature of friendship, and above all, about ‘home’.

The trucks from ‘B.N. Gray’ which we most associated my Gramps with, transporting horses, cattle and pigs.

Sara demonstrates her talent for making people laugh.  It ends with the story of how she successfully auditioned for what was to be her big break into TV (and ultimately radio) with Channel 4’s The Girlie Show, turning her natural skills to her advantage after a period of modelling which took in time in New York, Japan, South Korea – and on the front of packets of tights in Boots wherever you might find them.

But the book ultimately isn’t about that.  It is about navigating childhood, particularly on a farm (and at times, on horseback).  It is warm, funny and hugely reflective – and the chapter headings are just so well deployed – whether that involves jubblys or perms.  Thoroughly recommend you read this book!

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Late Junction – we must not lose this connection

Radio is my best friend.  I know it is the same for many people.

BBC Radio is a particular treasure.  Having worked as a press officer in BBC Radio back in the mists of time, I know all too well of the public service mission that the various stations have a duty to deliver, as well as the balancing act they must tread in terms of rising to that challenge, yet still delivering a large enough audience to justify the licence fee.

Equally, doing something distinctive, something which the commercial marketplace might not otherwise support is often one of the biggest justifications BBC Radio has for broadcasting a show.

The BBC recently announced that it is cutting its flagship BBC Radio 3 show, Late Junction (three nights a week, Tues, Weds, Thurs; 11.00pm-12.30am) to just one slot a week.  There is a Guardian piece on the proposal here.

Late Junction has become a refuge for me.  Sound art; experimental music – a space for artists, musicians and performers to challenge, to experiment, to play, and above all, to provoke.  There is no defining it by genre.

Late Junction presenter, Verity Sharp. Credit: BBC.

At a time when there is a pressure for culture to become more homogensised, and our senses euthanised by the onslaught, this programme provides a space for them to run amok.  The BBC should be providing more space for people on the ‘outside’ to flourish – not less.  It should be playing to its strengths, and learning from what it does well in terms of public service broadcasting, rather than chasing ratings.

I don’t like making easy comparisons, but what Late Junction does on the BBC radio schedules is probably the closest thing we have to what the role was of John Peel on BBC Radio 1.  When I was a BBC PR, we had a to develop an ear for any issues which might impair that public service mission, and rupture relationships with our audiences, whether important opinion-former ones, or loyal listeners.  This proposal does all three.

Late Junction presenter, Nick Luscombe. Credit: BBC.

Like many other people, I desperately hope the BBC reconsider this decision.  If you have never listened to the show, give it a try, either live on BBC Radio 3, or via BBC Sounds.  Regular presenters Verity Sharp, Fiona Talkington, Max Reinhardt and Nick Luscombe are just the most amazing curators of sound.

And if you’d like to join the campaign to save this programme, you might like to sign this petition. on Avaaz.  There is also a petition on the 38 Degrees site here.

Musician and laughter guru, Laraaji, who performed at the End of the Road Festival with Late Junction. Click here for more. Credit: BBC.

A range of people including performers, artists, and academics recently signed a letter, urging the BBC to reconsider (“Radio 3 cuts threaten our musical ecosystem”).  It includes Alex Kaprons (Musician), Billy Bragg (Singer-Songwriter/Activist), Bob Stanley (Writer/Musician), Brian Eno (Musician), Cleveland Watkiss MBE (Voice Professor, Trinity Laban Conservatoire), Cosey Fanni Tutti (Musician/Artist), Eliza Carthy MBE (Musician), Hannah Peel (Musician/Composer), Ian Rankin (Writer), Jane Besse (Head of Music, Roundhouse), Jarvis Cocker (Musician),  Jude Rogers (Music Journalist/Writer), Kathryn Williams (Singer-Songwriter),  Nitin Sawhney (Composer/Producer), Peaches (Musician), Peter Gabriel (Musician), Phill Jupitus (Comedian), Polly Eldridge (Co-Director, Sound UK), Rachel Unthank (Musician), Roisin Murphy (Musician), Sorcha Carey (Director, Edinburgh Arts Festival), Stewart Lee (Comedian/Broadcaster/Writer), Tim Burgess (Musician), and Toby Jones (Actor) – and has all the makings of the ultimately successful campaign which was launched when the BBC originally proposed to axe BBC 6Music.

Late Junction presenter, Fiona Talkington. Credit: BBC.

If the BBC can spend millions of pounds on programmes which could easily support themselves in the commercial sector, surely it can find funding for something which might better help justify its licence fee funding for the longer term.  Indeed, it should be doing much more of this kind of programming.  I usually think audiences can be too quick to dismiss change, but in this case, the BBC need to pick up on these signals before it loses a connection with what the licence fee is supposed to be about.

Late Junction presenter, Max Reinhardt. Credit: BBC.

And since it is sound which is what the show is all about, here are ten recent discoveries I have made, thanks to Late Junction.  Prepare to be provoked.

>> Lisa O’Neill & Radie Peat: “Factory Girl (This Ain’t No Disco)”

Such folk female power. I will never forget the night I first heard this track. I had to make sure my Mum was listening too.  It still brings a tear to my eye every time I listen to it.

 

>> Siffleuses: ‘Professional Women Whistlers’ (1917-27)

This really is what it says it is, from when it says it was – and it is a sheer delight!

 

>> Suitman Jungle: “Do Anything”

Spoken word drum and bass about you day job.  More, click here.

 

>> Alabaster dePlume: “What Do We Want (Hiro Ama Remix)”

More about this track by the ‘spoken-word artist and saxophonist’, with remix by Hiro Ama of Teleman, click here.

 

>> Noisee le Seque: “Instant Success”

This experimental piece immediately reminded me what it sounds like being in a car with both my sister, and her ten year old daughter (and my niece)!  Enjoy (I think)!

 

>> Let’s Get Lost: “Rabbit”

One of 28 intimate, audio portraits created for the Let’s Get Lost app and designed to be triggered by GPS, enabling listeners to walk in and out of stories whilst wandering through Tower Hamlets Cemetery. Once one of London’s magnificent seven cemeteries, now 31 acres of wilderness. The production was supported using public funding by Arts Council England. More at https://www.wearefornow.com/letsgetlost

 

>> Farai: “Secret Gardens”

Both the message and the sound stopped me in my tracks with Secret Gardens “where wild flowers blossom…  The young are so content, but the old are so bitter…  The wildcats are just wandering, just selling and buying, just selling and buying.”  More on Farai here.  Farai’s Bandcamp site is here.

 

>> Georgia Anne Muldrow: “Conmigo (Reprise)”

An incredible voice.  An incredible track which creates just the right mood for the time I’m usually listening to Late Junction.

 

>> Combo Chimbita: “Fro Severo”

As the blurb says, “Combo Chimbita returns, expanded and transformed into one of the most original and wild ensembles currently cutting their teeth in the New York City live arena. Their latest 4-track studio effort, EL CORREDOR DEL JAGUAR, co-produced by NYCT’s Greenwood Rhythm Coalition and featuring the powerhouse Carolina Oliveros on lead vocals, is an explosive tour de force of unbridled psychedelic energy and futuristic fire with firm roots in the ritmo of the African diaspora. With connections and inspiration drawn from the vast sea of Caribbean music — specifically the band’s native Colombia — these transplanted first-generation New Yorkers have carved a unique corridor in the thriving underground jungle of the big bad city.”  I loved it when Late Junction introduced me to the track.

 

>> From ‘Tzatzi’ by Carmina Escobar: CIHUANAHUALLI: Payatl​ ​Kamojpaltik​ ​(rebozo​ ​púrpura​ ​/​ ​purple​ ​shawl)

This is Late Junction at its most provoking – the kind of track that I’ve found myself most in need of during recent Brexit shenanigans.  I’ve needed to know my senses are still there.

 

Real Bread – is flour, water and salt really poetry, science, history – or politics?

To mark the start of “Real Bread Week” (23rd Feb – 3rd Mar 2019),  I did everything in my power to pass on the ‘sourdough bug’ to my 10 year old niece Olivia.

Olivia creates her levain – starter, plus a small amount of flour & water.

I’m not sure whether sourdough baking is more poetry or science – looking after the starter culture; autolysing the dough; the rhythms of the stretch & fold in the bulk fermentation (less aggression than a knead); the shaping; the proving; the scoring; and the eventual bake at 240 degrees with steam.

Olivia takes her levain, then adds a huge amount of flour and water, mixes to create the dough which she leaves to autolyse.

Or whether it is more history (the ancestry of your starter culture; and all those ancient organic grains – einkorn; emmer; khorasan), or more about ‘living in the now‘ (the texture; the smell; keeping to time – and of course, the taste)?

Olivia with her finished sourdough bake – in her ‘I Am Real Bread’ limited edition ‘Real Bread Week’ apron.

All I know is that it puts a smile on my face – and a loaf to pass on to a friend, neighbour or stranger. In that respect, and its total integrity as opposed to everything else you see going on in the formal structures of representative democracy, sourdough – and ‘Real Bread’ is one of the most political things I get my hands on right now!

Me in a ‘Real Bread Week’ special edition t-shirt as Real Bread Week kicks off.

Thank you for the continuing inspiration, with flair and style to Bake with Jack; Vanessa Kimbell (and her Sourdough Club & Sourdough School); Guildford Sourdough Club; The Wee Baker and so many more. Do look each of them up on Instagram – and Jack has a great YouTube channel.

Crumb shot. Crumbs!

You can find where I got the original recipe I used for sourdough starter here, and the recipe for the actual loaves here – both from Kitchn.

The two main books I always recommend are Emmanuel Hadjiandreou’s “How To Make Sourdough“, and Vanessa Kimbell’s “The Sourdough School.”  The book by Sarah Owens, “Sourdough:  Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savouries and More” explores a vast array of ingredients, and is beautifully laid out too.

The absolute key is to develop yourself a time schedule – draw a chart if it helps. Each batch takes me two days. Once you know your time pattern, it gets a lot easier.  And it is nothing more than flour, water and salt.  The more you practice, the more you learn – and Bake with Jack’s videos are great for practical tips and answer very specific questions too.

Find out more about the Real Bread movement here.

The floury corner of my kitchen.

Better connectivity could mean trams and light rail

In the summer of 2018, I got volunteered together with other local residents in helping to create a neighbourhood plan for our local area – Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore, in Hampshire.

My specific area of interest is ‘Getting Around‘, whether that is transport in all its shapes and sizes, or provision for those of us on the pavements.

In the course of our deliberations, a number of people have looked longingly at places which have improved connectivity using light rail, trams or guided buses.  We were going to look into the subject, hoping to include something of an aspirational nature in our plan, thinking the idea would be a bit ‘Alice in Wonderland‘.

Blackwater Station, on the North Downs Line, Hampshire.

Imagine our delight when we discovered that we had been beaten to it. There have already been studies in 1991 (about bringing local railway lines and a new interchange hub station with the London Waterloo mainline, as well as additional ‘community stations’ in the Blackwater Valley of which we are a part), and reports in 2002 & 2003 (which make reference to plans for a ‘Mass Transit System‘ for the Blackwater Valley), with the possibility of light rail, trams or guided buses connecting the likes of Aldershot, Farnborough, Camberley, and Bracknell – making the possibility of much better connections with places like Yateley, Fleet, and Farnham with new interchange stations.

You can keep up-to-date with the work we are doing on our neighbourhood plan here and the post which contains full details on all of those studies can be found by clicking here.  I think it is well worth a read, although I would say that!

Tramway de Gand. Credit: Claude villetaneuse (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While these might seem like long term aspirations, hopefully considering the wider strategic context for transport planning of the ‘Blackwater Valley‘, and previous work that has been done in this area for improving connectivity should provide grounds for including aspirations, if not our own specific policies, in our own neighbourhood plan.

 

Best of 2018

As ever, it has been a tough call pulling together my top tracks of the year, but in what has been a difficult year due to deaths in the family, and against the backdrop of stagnant cesspit of national politics, it has been a usefully therapeutic exercise.

Top (L-R): Sunflower Bean; Clairo; Jungle; Meldoy’s Echo Chamber; Middle (L-R): Tom DeMac; Trampolene; Gwenno; Scent; Bottom (L-R): Skoot; Peggy Gou; Rhye; Junodream.

I’ve included links to videos of my twelve favourite tracks from 2018.  You can also find a Spotify playlist at the end too.  The full list is:

  1. Sunflower Bean – “Twentytwo“;
  2. Clairo – “4EVER“;
  3. Jungle – “Heavy, California“;
  4. Tom DeMac & Real Lies – “White Flowers“;
  5. Melody’s Echo Chamber – “Cross My Heart“;
  6. Trampolene – “The One Who Loves You“;
  7. Gwenno – “Eus Keus“;
  8. Scent – “Soft Scoop” (iced_coma_mix);
  9. Skott – “Stay Off My Mind“;
  10. Peggy Gou – “It Makes You Forget (Itgehane)“;
  11. Rhye – “Waste“;
  12. Junodream – “To The Moon“.

When it comes to new music, I must make a personal ‘thank you’ during 2018 to Phil Taggart (BBC Radio 1), Janice Long (BBC Radio Wales), the Late Junction team (BBC Radio 3), Jo Whiley (BBC Radio 2) and Ricky Ross (BBC Radio Scotland/BBC Radio 2) who all continue to provoke and entertain, and signpost me to things I otherwise would not have discovered.

You can find all twelve tracks via this Spotify playlist (I am freeradiodutch on Spotify):

Making connections

A recent independent inquiry – Civil Society Futures – published its report in the middle of November, called “The Story of Our Times: shifting power, bridging divides, transforming society,” which said that civil society must up its game, or risk complete irrelevance.

I usually abhor acronyms, but it came up with one – PACT – to describe the process of change it says needs to occur:

* Power: argues power needs to be shifted so that everyone is involved in decision-making;

* Accountability: organisation must be more accountable to communities they serve;

* Connection: civil society must build broader and deeper connection within and between communities;

* Trust: organisations need to put effort into building and earning trust and ensure they are behaving in line with their values.

Top (L-R): Yogesh, Sue, Charlotte; Middle (L-R): Wilf, Mel, Di; Bottom (L-R): Camilla, Luke, Paul. Members of the ‘Getting Around’ subject group, bringing a variety of experiences from across the community.

It’s for reasons very similar to this that I’ve joined other residents where I live since July to be part of the process of building the new neighbourhood plan for the town – Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore, in the district of Hart, which is in the North-East corner of Hampshire.

I’m co-leading the subject group (members pictured above) which is looking at issues to do with ‘Getting Around‘ – that’s anything to do with being a pedestrian, with cycling, with using public and community transport, and of course, driving in its many and varied forms.

I’m on a bus… making connections.

We’ve just posted the latest update on our group’s work, entitled ‘Making connections‘ – click here for more – as well as all the previous posts here.

You can find the main website for our local neighbourhood plan here.

Neighbourhood planning will never be the answer to all the issues anyone has in their local area, but it can be a useful start – and what we’ve found as a group of residents is that, as an excuse for starting to have those conversations about issues, and engaging with the processes in the local community, some of those dynamics to do with power, accountability, connection and trust start to move.  And who knows – we might finally get that bus to Fleet we’ve waited so long for!

Campaign: Keeping the Sainsbury’s bus

I wanted to document what we have done so far to successfully campaign to maintain an important community resource. Having been a public relations practitioner, I felt it important to reflect on the steps we had taken. Taking a wider view, I was just so thoroughly depressed on what was happening on the Westminster stage with our European relations, it felt appropriate to concentrate on real issues, which effect real people locally.

Each day of the week, Sainsbury’s provide a free community (shopper’s) bus, serving a different destination on each day, taking residents to and from their Watchmoor Park superstore, on the Blackwater Valley trunk road. It is in the borough of Surrey Heath, but is right on the border with Hampshire and Berkshire. The service is contracted to Stagecoach.

Many of the group on the Thursday bus, on what we thought was our last trip!

The service is amazing. It serves areas like (I think) Mytchett, Ash Vale, North Camp and Frimley Green (Mondays); Church Crookham and Fleet (Tuesdays); Sandhurst, Owlsmoor, Old Dean and Heatherside (Wednesdays); Yateley, Darby Green, Frogmore, Blackwater, plus Frimley Road and Yorktown (Thursday); and Hawley Lane, Cove and Southwood (Fridays). One of the only problems with the service is that it is not promoted. There are no details anywhere either at at the store, or on noticeboards, and nothing on the internet.  When you rang up for details, Sainsbury’s refer you to Stagecoach, and Stagecoach refer you to Sainsbury’s. It’s as if the service is Sainsbury’s ‘dirty little secret’.  So much so, that a couple of years ago, as a group of passengers, we produced our own flyer to promote the service in Yateley, which to their credit, Stagecoach paid for printing, and Yateley Town Council put on all their noticeboards.

In mid-October 2018, the driver told us the service was ending in the week beginning 5th November. The sense of distress was palpable. The group of twenty or so people who use the service on a Thursday from the towns of Yateley, Frogmore, Darby Green and Blackwater are totally reliant on the service. Many do not live on other bus routes, some are disabled and most are not on the internet. Many live alone, and otherwise would be isolated without the service, which takes customers back to their doors with their shopping where possible.

Anger was not enough. It was important to get to the heart of the issue, and where power lay. Word went round the bus that someone remembered back in the midsts of time that they thought Sainsbury’s were obligated to provide the service as a condition of obtaining the original planning permission for the store.

Rather than letting emotion get the better of us, I wanted to find out how I would discover if this was true.  I looked at the various planning decisions connected with the store, listed on the council website.  There was not enough information there – an indication that the store were required to produce a ‘travel plan’, not when the store was originally conceived in 1987, or built in 1992, but much more recently in 2004, when it received planning permission for a store extension.

Meeting the county councillor for Yateley East & Blackwater, Adrian Collett (left). Not sure why I look so stoney faced!

As it was a transport issue, I sought advice and counsel from my own local county councillor over the bridge in Hampshire, Adrian Collett.  He gave me the confidence to approach Surrey Heath, who were very happy to allow me access to all the planning documents in the archive, associated with the planning decision (Ref. 02/1126) – hundreds of pages of them!

As the paperwork demonstrated – and the officers who I followed it up with confirmed, there was indeed a planning condition on the development in the form of a Section 106 Agreement, which meant the store could only open, if it would continue to provide, and extend a free bus service to shoppers in the surrounding local community. One of the central issues was that the store cannot be reached by public transport, and local planning policy is actually to reduce reliance on private cars (even though you might not think it!

Once this was established, it was important to see if there was any chance of a change of heart on Sainsbury’s part.  While Surrey Heath Borough Council looked into the enforceability of the planning condition on a legal basis, they also engaged with Sainsbury’s. I made sure that information was also communicated back about the situation via the Stagecoach drivers, and on a personal level, sent an email to the local Sainsbury’s manager, asking him to suspend the axing of the service, since the enquiries about the enforceability of this planning condition were now going ahead.

It was also important to keep our community informed, but not be loud for the sake of it.  Posts were made regularly via the over 17,500 strong ‘Yateley CommunityFacebook group, which included photos of the regulars on the bus.  This helped mobilise strong community support, and word-of-mouth solidarity throughout the town.

The woeful late leaflet.

When no response came, it became clear that we had to reach out, so that the reputational damage threat was clear, as well as the potential legal enforcement. In what we thought was the final week of the bus, things really started to crank up.  By the Tuesday of that week, Sainsbury’s were getting the drivers of the bus to hand out the above leaflet – it was woeful. Not only was it late in the day, it was misleading. The headline said ‘Changes to your free bus service’ when actually it was AXING it. It went on to imply that there was a replacement service, when it was merely referring people to a ‘Dial-A-Ride’ service which Sainsbury’s do not fund, and to which shoppers from over the border in Hampshire and Berkshire would not be able to use. It also says that the ‘replacement’ service is for people ‘who have no access to bus routes’, when the real issue is that it is Sainsbury’s that is not on a bus route!!

Heartfelt cards from passengers on the bus.

The campaign continued to hot up. There had to be a way of people feeling involved, but there was little point of a petition at this stage. We each decided to send greetings cards to the manager of the store. It meant we were able to make the issue a real human one, and give it a personal touch.

Originally, we were going to send ‘Goodbye, We’ll Miss You‘ and ‘Sorry You’re Leaving Us…. Standing At The Bus Stop‘ cards, but the news of a 20% increase in Sainsbury’s profits on the day of what was due to be our last bus gave us an additional hook. Some also sent “Congratulations on your 20% Rise in Profits Today” cards too. All shoppers made sure we were considered as human collateral.

As well as this, I shared the story and photos of our group on the bus on Twitter. I was overwhelmed by the response. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell, and influential tweeter James Melville were amongst those who backed our cause (between them having over 231k followers alone!). The careful wording of the tweet meant that even Stagecoach ‘liked’ it, adding to its impact. We received a substantial number of Re-Tweets, helping us secure over 18,000 impressions for the post. The local Hants & Surrey Bus blogger picked up the story too. I had primed the local print newspaper to be across the story, but was being careful not to make too much noise for noise’s sake, despite obvious pressure from other passengers to approach local newspapers, and regional TV and radio.

The priority was always to get Sainsbury’s to ‘do the right thing‘ – and late in the day on Friday afternoon, I was called by one of the drivers, to say that Sainsbury’s were having a change of heart, and had made money available to continue the service until at least February. The threat of legal enforcement, and the growing clamour of damage to reputation in the local community must have been taking their toll.

Loyal customer – it’s just my neurological condition means I can’t otherwise get to the inaccesible store without a driving licence.

So, despite much skepticism (including on my part), the bus is still with us – a campaign success for the regulars on the bus.  I cannot tell you the difference it makes to the lives of the people on that bus – it is such a lifeline.  It remains to be seen if it will be permanent.

We must maintain vigilance. Hopefully, something can be resolved, and Sainsbury’s will see how it improves their standing in the community, but also ultimately, how it contributes to their bottom line (I don’t see how any assessment is made of how much we spend in the store, versus the cost of running the service) – and still, above all of this, it is a civic obligation, irrespective of the enforceability of a planning condition, which was clearly written to be enforceable for as long as people shopped at the store – unless Sainsbury’s applied through due process for the service obligation to be modified.

However, that reprieve may only be temporary. It still seems more than likely that legal advice to the Council or Sainsbury’s is that the Section 106 agreement may be unenforceable, as it did not specify a time-frame as originally drafted, even if it was intended to be for as long as the store traded! Hopefully, Sainsbury’s will follow the spirit of the legal agreement, especially if usage demonstrates community need, and to do otherwise would dent reputations – not to mention the threat of enforcement still remaining.

One improvement for now is that, in updating passengers about the situation, Stagecoach have put the timetable for the service on their website! You can find details by clicking here (still buried away a little, usually in Service Updates, but at least it is there). It also informs us that while the service continues to run “usage will be reviewed by Sainsbury’s“.  That means everyone must do all they can to ensure people know about the existence of the service, so that it can be as well used as the Yateley route on a Thursday – and hopefully the bus can continue beyond February!

There’s still some room on top for this service!  Thank you for your support.

[Postcript – throughout this period, an amazing level of service from the officers of Surrey Heath Borough Council; great relationships built with people at Stagecoach – but when it comes to the main players, Sainsbury’s, I can’t even get a reply to an extremely personal, heartfelt and diplomatic email, despite the fact that I spend £000s in their store each year. As a loyal customer for decades (and a PR practitioner), that makes me feel sad.]

Psychogeography is killer!

Psychogeography has been emerging as a dimension in my life for a good few years – a way of navigating and making sense of my own personal space, and a paradigm worthy of use interrogating professional, social and cultural evidence and ideas in research. I make these claims (I’d previously even started to try to integrate it into the curriculum while I was still teaching public relations at university) yet, beyond actually walking, sensing, and reflecting, I had yet to invest much energy in reading around the subject. Luckily, Coverley’s paperback on the topic has come to my rescue, and is the ‘all points’ introductory text that many have rightly come to recommend. [“Psychogeography”, Merlin Coverley, (2018) Harpenden: Oldcastle Books]

The book takes a good wander around the terrain which the subject inhabits, highlighting the various strands which bring their own shades to this particularly vague of topics, and collecting useful contributions. from them all.

“Psychogeography: a beginner’s guide. Unfold a street map of London, place a glass, rim down, anywhere on the map, and draw round its edge. Pick up the map, go out into the city, and walk the circle, keeping as close as you can to the curve. Record the experience as you go, in whatever medium you favour: film, photograph, manuscript, tape. Catch the textual run-off of the streets; the graffiti. the branded litter, the snatches of conversation. Cut for sign. Log the data-stream. Be alert to the happenstance of metaphors, watch for visual rhymes, coincidences, analogies, family resemblances, the changing moods of the street. Complete the circle and the record ends. Walking makes for content; footage for footage.” [Robert MacFarlane, ‘A Road of One’s Own: Past and Present Artists of the Randomly Motivated Walk’, Times Literary Supplement, 07/10/05, 3-4, pg.3.]

Stumbled on, but strangely drawn to as if I was in the film ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, this concrete lump is the remnant of an age when gravel was extracted from an area in Hampshire that is now part development, part nature reserve – true ‘borderlands’.

I’d always understood that psycogeography was about exploring how a place makes us feel and behave, so getting beyond simple physical, and human geographical subject labels.  It’s a lot more than that. The book asserts that psychogeography is neither a political creed (which has mainly been embraced by the Situationalists), nor a literary movement, an ecological fashion, nor a set of ‘New Age’ ideas, or avant-garde practices, but instead, it charts an ever-moving definition which draws on all for sources of inspiration.

One of the most literal definitions to which the book repeatedly returns is that ‘point where psychology and geography intersect‘, and the practice of walking, through which to experience it is central too, although more recent writers have expanded this to included other forms of transportation, such as train, bus, car and plane.

Perfect for an aimless walk, this disused runway on Yateley Common was originally an RAF base in WWII, and in the 1970s, played host to a Bob Dylan concert with a crowd of over 200,000 people.

I suppose an aspect which has always appealed to me is that where there is also a preoccupation with drawing on the past, and what it has to tell us through the lived topology of place. For some people, this goes as far as to include the occult, and the New Age too.  I have always been interested in how two very similar, but neighbouring places can have very different personalities, and how such effects can endure over time. A friend of mine more aptly call’s this a place’s ‘soul’. The book starts to introduce how this is indeed an aspect of psychogeography.

A walk when on holiday in the ‘picturesque’ East Sussex town of Rye does not mean heading for the usual destinations for me. You never know what you might find – the history (and hue) of this ‘Private Members Club’ looked interesting.

While I wanted to get straight onto the contemporary and existential aspects of the practice, I found the historical and literary chapters really helpful, not only in charting its development, but helping to unravel particular characteristics of the practice, and what they can achieve.  The book takes us through Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe and a reimaging of the streets of London; William Blake and his visionary, transformative topography of London; Thomas de Quincey’s dream-like wanders, and metaphorical quests, such as for a ‘North West passage’; Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic trawls of gruesome, yet entrancing streets of Victorian times; Arthur  Machen’s art of wandering, particularly provoked by constantly looking for the unknown; and, Alfred Watkins and the near occult, hypothetical alignment of places or features with a wider geographic, spiritual or religious significance.

Turned a corner, and another part of Rye which made me feel, well, it spoke to me on a deeper level.

As well as in London, the book spends time in Paris, looking at the idea of the flaneur – and flags up one the huge issues, until recently, with the whole tradition – it’s near exclusion of a female perspective. While here, it touches on the debate over whether the idea is about being an observer, or a participant; spectator or agitator? Loner, or alone in a crowd? Can it be practiced sitting down, from a chair, as mental travel? Solitude is a concept which is something to which I will return. And when it moves on to examine the calls on it by the more avant-garde and the Surrealists, we touch on on the role space, and performance play in its discharge, and in doing so, I for one am invigorated by how it might wake us up to what our current political, economic and environment balance sheets are doing to our daily inter-actions with the places we inhabit, often in more of a sleep-walk, than anything than a real relationship of any kind with our surrounds.

Stationery for a long time in Rye!

Undirected ambling.?Dreamlike wandering? Detached observation? Committed and involved practice? Drifting purposefully? Purposeful gait? Pedestrianised stalking? Deep typology (as coined by Nick Papadimitrou)? Eavesdropping? The book provides so many ways of looking at the the practice.

“I’ve taken to long distance walking as a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix which compresses the space-time continuum, and decouples humans from physical geography. So this isn’t walking for pleasure – that would be merely frivolous or even for exercise, which would be tedious.” [Will Self, ‘Psychogeography #1, A walk though time and space,’ The Independent, 03/10/03]

Self is one of a number of contemporary authors who have embraced psychogeography in their writing, both fiction, and non-fiction. Iain Sinclair has done much to re-examine the practice, for examine, using the idea of the fugueur (who is fleeing, escaping) to chart things, as well as the flaneur. He has also discussed the obsessive charting, documenting, and journaling/storying which can accompany all of this.  Some can practice it in a very progressive, reclaiming, power challenging fashion; others can interpret it as an extremely conservative, affirming, identity expressive form. There is a wide spectrum, as with everything.

It does what it says on the tin. I love walking somewhere new as often as I can, being provoked by something I shouldn’t have found.

This is the perfect introductory book. As most reviews have said, “it does what it says on the tin”, with plenty of accurate references underpinning it.

I am fascinated by psychogeography on a personal level.  It really speaks to me, and helps me unravel the relationship I have with my town, and county, knowing I have been able to chart stories for generations of my family back past the year 1000, and in my town to the early 1600s.  I’m fascinated about the levels of relationship with place, what makes a town different from its neighbour, and how landmarks and developments shape the soul of a place, and intrigued by just what goes on in ‘borderlands‘. Should we be worried by a privatisation and sanitisation of public space making any prospect of free movement by modern day flaneurs nigh on impossible?

Feeling #1, in the churchyard of St. Andrew’s, in central Farnham.

Feeling #2, nearby in the grounds of Farnham Library in Surrey. A different feeling – more of a centrifugal force, as though the ground was twisting us. Not the calm that I thought the peaceful park would bring.

And on a professional level, from an industry that has always been a bit of a ‘jackdaw’, I’m fascinated about what psychogeography can do to help create new practice, or understanding in public relations and communications. If we can unleash more of allowing people to think more about how a place makes them feel, rather than more literal measurements, untangling human and physical geography  so that the pedestrian is born again, maybe we will open up a new flank of possibilities? Or maybe I’m clutching at straws. Thankfully, I’ve retired, and I’m free to ponder these things on long walks, rather than having to pitch them as new strategies in boardrooms!

Resist!

Over the last few months, I’ve had cause to concentrate my focus on the theory and practice of turning protest into power, to an extent that I probably haven’t done since the mid-90s. The campaigns-related side of public relations, and best ways of developing effective strategies are obviously things which have dominated my time as a communications practitioner, and then in teaching in around ten years as a lecturer on the subject, but I’ve been reflecting enough of late to feel the urge to post my thoughts here.

It began after reading ‘How To Resist: Turn Protest Into Power’ by Matthew Bolton (2017: London, Bloomsbury). This post would have remained a simple book review. I didn’t realise that I had failed to type up the notes I had made on the book, but in the intervening period, I managed to get embroiled in the democratic process more than I had intended. I’m now co-leading a group of local residents where I live examining issues connected with “Getting Around” as our local town council look towards developing a new neighbourhood plan) – as well as finding myself leading a very measured protest against the axing of a community bus service, so I may as well bring these three things together into a single post on the theory and practice of ‘resisting’.

And back in the middle of October, I had the added benefit of attending the launch of the RSATeenAgency’ which provides further scope for reflection on some of these themes.

I’ll begin with the book, as it had been on a pile of purchased, ‘yet to read’ titles by my bed, but circumstances conspired over the summer to make it even more attractive to read. With Brexit weakness and incompetence being displayed by our political class; Austerity-fuelled policies serving to deprive citizens of meaningful innovation or control over public policy, and a series of gigantic moral outrages such as Windrush and Grenfell, I know from my experience, and that of my peers that we have never felt so in need of political solutions, but equally, never so emasculated by the paucity of quality on offer from our party political system.

Having been involved to some degree in campaigning during my professional life too (only to feel let down by the bastardisation through a thirst for votes of some of the original campaigning ideals of the ‘community politics’ approach I had been introduced to as a teen by the Liberals), this new book tantalised me.  It is penned by Matthew Bolton, who has been at the heart of the Citizens UK movement, and as such, is able to call upon lessons from practical campaigns (and wins at that) such as for the Living Wage, particularly on campuses of specific universities, for their cleaners, and for contract cleaners at HSBC.

The book is full of valuable lessons, such as the need for anyone embarking on any campaigns to do a ‘power analysis’, not just of structures, but of people, not just external to the campaign, but within it too.  Also, the need to ask oneself, “What can I do in my everyday life to affect this?” – it might not just rely on megaphones and banners.

Indeed, if I had any criticism of the book (and I don’t really), it would be that I would like to see more dedicated to this last aspect, as well as the time/attention given to the flair with which  we can try to trip-up wrong-doers who might have excessive power. I’d maybe like to see as much attention given to the leading by example stuff, which I think probably has more scope in a tired and cynical age.

So, what other signposts for us? The importance of relationships – of the human aspects in our lives, in ultimately achieving change.  For example, activating word of mouth. In addition to power analysis, other priorities for Bolton are listening (what do people care about? What is their self-interest? How do they frame issues?); the need to constantly look out for potential team members; the importance of honing your story; and looking at both internal and external action as different priorities.

Once you get the ball rolling, numbers will ultimately be important – a critical mass. Networks and word of mouth are the best way of achieving this, and those direct relationships. Direct, broadcast shortcuts might be attractive, but they are no substitute.

Activity to achieve this, more often than not, must be meaningful (not gimmicky), yet enjoyable.

Bolton does propose some ideas to help with ‘tactical innovations’ in delivering campaigns – a phrase I picked up from a discussion I heard on a BBC World Service show (an episode of ‘The Real Story’), about whether protests have had their day, in the light of the ‘blimp’ during Trump’s visit during the Summer of 2018. It was coined by L.A. Kauffman (Direct Action and the Invention of American Radicalism), who argued that you often need such devices merely as ‘troop motivators’ during bleak times. Also on Ritula Shah’s panel were David Graeber, Dana Fisher, and Fatima Shabodien. You can listen to the show by clicking here. I thoroughly recommend it.

Click through to listen to this discussion on Protest.

He suggests widening the net – finding ‘unusual allies’ – it is from these connections that you will be successful in synthesising ideas, contributing from a wide range of experiences, so as to discover surprises, turn heads, and find those creative tactics and campaign content. Bolton offers some ultimate tips to campaigners:-

* look after yourself/pace yourself; * ask yourself what you really care about, to best identify motivators; * stop doing some things; delegate others; * weave social change into your life, to make it more effective and fundamental; * do it as part of a team; * be strategic; make a plan; * take control of your schedule, and ensure it includes one-to-one conversations; * find time.

Bolton ended with an iron rule – never do for others what they can do for themselves. I don’t always practice what he preaches, but I do see it’s importance.

This is important. It’s where I came in. It’s what that ‘community politics’ thing was supposed to be about, but politicians liked doing things ‘to’ people, because it helped them collect votes.

This should be about showing people how to do it for themselves – and the thrill of the transformative effect for themselves and the community when they do. Otherwise, we will be back to square one very quickly.

I’m not at all sure that there is much hope – but we have to be optimistic that it is worth a try – and willing to laugh at the absurdity of the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Using Slinkachu-style models as a consultation tool for qualitative research in local community cafe, Cafe 46.

Being in that frame of mind, and having read ‘Resist‘, when I saw that the Town Council group on my local patch working on creating a new Neighbourhood Plan earlier this summer, as a way of creating a shared vision for our town, and providing an ‘additional layer of control’ over development decisions’ were having a public meeting, me and a friend went along.

We came away, having ‘stepped up to the plate‘, volunteering together to co-lead the subject group looking at transport and traffic issues.  We already felt we had made a difference by getting agreement for its focus to shift to “Getting Around” so it can look at issues for pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users and users of public & community transport too, as a one of the best ways to solve issues for drivers stuck in jams and looking for a parking space.

My own personal motivation was having to surrender my driving licence a few years ago due to my neurological condition, I discovered just how woeful public transport has become. Despite being the second largest town in our district/borough, we have no bus connection to the largest town (despite it being only four miles away), no direct bus connection to the mainline London Waterloo railway services, and the last bus back from the nearest major town leaves there at 8.50pm!

Some days I have a real ‘high’ about the possibilities the process gives us, and just what level of innovation may be deliverable.  On other days, I am down in the doldrums, worried that it all might just be a toothless paper exercise (I have bad experiences of public sector ‘consultations’).  I’m sure the answer lies somewhere in between, and I just have to manage my expectations – but if you don’t take part, you can’t shape things.  In addition, as well as the formal process of creating a Neighbourhood Plan, the whole thing means conversations are happening that wouldn’t otherwise happen; the seeds of other campaign ideas are being planted; and networks are being created in the process, so it’s a valuable thing in itself for that reason, if nothing else.

You can read blog posts on the specific journey of our ‘Getting Around‘ group of the Yateley, Darby Green and Frogmore Neighbourhood Plan in our beautiful corner of North-East Hampshire at https://ydf-np.org.uk/getting-around/ .

The regulars on the free community bus facing the axe by Sainsbury’s.

I mentioned those days when I am in the doldrums.  One reason I had good cause to be reminded of why the clouds can often obscure my optimism is when Sainsbury’s recently announced with no notice that they were axing a valuable community resource – a free shopper’s bus which takes many older people, and disabled as well as other members of the community to a local superstore (Watchmoor Park, Blackwater Valley Road) otherwise inaccessible by public transport.  Many of these people are not on the internet either, and the Stagecoach contracted bus delivers passengers right back to their doorsteps with their shopping.

The reason I felt so down?  A little research on my part in the neighbouring council offices (Surrey Heath) unearthed the fact that Sainsbury’s were legally obliged to be providing the bus service as a condition of them securing planning permission for an extension to the store back in 2004!  Despite this, Sainsbury’s have felt able to ignore this, and no democratic scrutiny or enforcement has stopped them from doing so.  Hopefully, an intervention from me, with support from fellow passengers and a local councillor will get the wheels of legal enforcement moving by the local authority – but it may be too late to stop an interruption to the service on which many rely.  If the bus does end, despite my success in navigating the system and getting the supermarket’s ‘collar felt’, I will find it difficult to have any faith in shaping future planning policies, if I’ve just seen a historical planning condition which affects so many people woefully ignored!

Still, it has been a good example of putting some of the lessons of Matthew Bolton’s book into practice – particularly with regard to power analysis, and the importance of relationships. Yes, posting on Facebook groups, photo-opportunities, yes, but some of the most valuable insights were about talking to the people affected by the issue, and understanding the real heart of the power when it comes to the problem.

I’ve already combined a lot of things into this post, but I will touch on one other.  I was lucky enough to attend the mid-October launch of the RSA report “TeenAgency” on how young people people are changing the world, and how best to support them in their efforts to make a difference in their communities.  It deserves a post in its own right, and I will hopefully get round to doing so in  due course.

Panellists Ruth Ibegbuna (founder of the RECLAIM project in Manchester, and now of the Roots Programme) and Sam Conniff-Allende (founder of Livity, and now author of ‘Be More Pirate‘), together with some particularly powerful contributions from young people on the panel made strong points about the need to have ambition and imagination in supporting youth-led social action, and rather than accepting ‘tokenism’ which creates ‘special panels’ with a place for a young person reserved on them, we need to always question where power lies, and be prepared to help mentor young people to support them in building networks for themselves, and busting open established power structures, because it will probably benefit us all in creating a more open, transparent, supportive and dynamic society for all, not just for young people.

I was lucky enough to go along to the launch of the report with a few friends:- Ed Mather (the director of Yateley Sixth Form, at my local comprehensive, Yateley School); a good friend, Luke Buckland (who is co-leading the subject work I talked about earlier on our local Neighbourhood Plan), and a best friend who is soon to take up post in an exciting new academic leadership position when a powerhouse brand will take all its prestige and head-turning ‘clout’ and use it to make new moves in higher education.  We’d arrived after only having just met-up with one of my first bosses, Sir Simon Hughes, who has recently been installed as the new Chancellor of London South Bank University.

These networks, built from the friendships you assemble along the path you tread in life’s rich tapestry can also form the basis of some interesting partnerships, and the germ of some creative ideas when you campaign.  They need to be celebrated, nurtured, and above all, shared with a new generation.  One point which came out powerfully in the ‘TeenAgency’ event is that there are some people who are born into classes with these networks ‘ready made’, or bought, courtesy of private education.  The rest of us must make common cause to overcome that advantage of others – and often, it only takes a knock on a door, or a simple request to get that access shared.  We need a bit more solidarity!

And perhaps I need to write shorter posts! I’ll return to some of the more specific issues I’ve in bite-size form in future posts.  Thanks for bearing with me!

 

The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn

My desire to sniff out ‘the particular’ drew me towards reading “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” by Richard Mabey (2011) [London: Profile Books].  It had long been on my ‘books to read’ list after I had discovered one of his previous books, ‘Dreams of the Good Life’ about Flora Thompson – the author behind ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’, who served briefly as village postmistress in my home town, Yateley.

As the jacket puts it succinctly, he ‘attempts to marry a Romantic’s view of the natural world with the meticulousness of the scientist.  By Romanticism, he refers to the view that nature isn’t a machine to be dissected, but a community of which we, the observers are inextricably part.  And that our feelings about that community are a perfectly proper subject for reflection, because they shape our relationship with it.’  Wow!

Poetry and science are, in effect, comfortable bed-fellows in a book which is equally respectful to traditional country ways, as it is to the rules of the laboratory.

Six elegantly short chapters, illustrated by linocuts, take us through a tour of what the senses might inspire us with on a long walk in the countryside.  Early on, Mabey makes the point that while technological advances in devices like cameras on our phones are supposed to enhance our understanding of nature, they can often end up obscuring it by separating us from it in the moment so we don’t full experience it or reflect on it, or forget to see it within a larger frame, so we miss other relationships which it may be a part of, or a wider live experience in that moment which may have involved all of our senses (see #InstaHorror later).

I particularly identified with common experiences documented, like how he described his Dad (and himself) collecting anything that might ‘come in useful one day’ – just like my Grandad’s garage – and learning the lesson from when it did.

He returns to example of what now manifest themselves as what we might call #Instahorror making the point that we so often now seem to be looking for the perfect shot for our mantelpiece or social media account that it’s never actually from the perspective that you would see it in-situ in nature itself – and that many people are losing all sense of perspective for their own safety.

Not a Stinkhorn, but a Fly Agaric mushroom, which, you’ve guessed it, I’ve seen popping up all over my Instagram feed. Public Domain.

There are some perfect descriptions of ‘particular’ items on his journeys – like samphire  – and activities like foraging, and about how the quality of ‘gatheredness’ can make wild food actually taste different.

He dwells on taste, and in particular, smell, and their role in fixing our memory in place, moment, feeling, time – indeed, essence. And he goes on to document the quality of ‘petrichor’ (the smell after rain) which I’ve seen documented a fair deal elsewhere of late after a moist end to a particularly dry, hot summer.

Gorse on Yateley Common, Hampshire, alongside the disused runways of Blackbushe Airport.

I was particularly excited when he chose to write about a plant – gorse – very familiar to the common land heaths around the area I grew up in Hampshire, and I remembered a hearing Mabey present a short documentary about its characteristics on BBC Radio 4 in recent years too.  Closely associated with ‘courting’ because of the location of the plant on areas of heathland around London such as Richmond Common, and the fact they flower most of the year (hence the famous saying, “When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season“), its distinctive smell of coconut (which it as good as sprays intermittently, as a wonder of nature), and it’s “just right pricklyness” which made it perfect for gypsies over time to hang out washing on to dry (without having to worry about the thorns ripping the material).

The final chapter on maps was a dream for me – about our sixth sense (if we have such a thing) – that of ‘direction’, and dwelling on a sense of ‘place’.  As someone who loves revelling in old Ordnance Survey maps (but doesn’t quite know why), and thinks they inherited their grandfather lorry driver’s sense of direction (pre-Sat Nav), I loved reading this chapter. The whole book bears testimony to that same relationship I have with the area in Hampshire I live in, which my Mum also grew up in, and her Mum and Dad before her – and generations before them too. The soggy borderlands which Hampshire and Berkshire straddle along the Blackwater River; the flats of heath between Yateley and Elvetham, and the greener pastures towards Dogmersfield, Winchfield and Odiham.

A book of delights which makes the point that scientific insight and technological enhancement only powerfully assist our senses when they are guided by our imagination, and crucially, transformed by a special gift we bring to this mix as human beings – that of language.  As such, on this last measure, this book certainly delivers.  This is one of those books that I am the most glad ever that a friend (in this case, Elisabeth-Madalena) has bought for me as a gift.  Not a single strand of disappointment – a huge ‘thank you’, both for this gift, and nature’s gifts too!

Radio Mabey: – listen to some of Richard Mabey’s ‘Mabey in the Wild‘ shows on BBC Radio 4 here.

Richard Mabey on NPR on ‘Weeds’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey on Radio NZ on ‘The Cabaret of Plants’ – listen here.

Richard Mabey at the Hay Festival, 1997 – listen here.

Audiobook of this title, originally broadcast on BBC Radio, and known as “The Scientist and the Romantic”click here.