The Hows and Whys of the Hampshire heaths

With the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley, I posted recently about his contribution to a sense of ‘place’ in this corner of North-East Hampshire where I live, which referred to one of his works (“Prose Idylls, New and Old“), and how it described the ‘rough commons’ terrain of the area.

Since that post, I’ve learnt more about another of his works, “Madam How and Lady Why: First lessons in earth lore for children“, where he writes at length about the local landscape, name-checking very specific points on the heaths and commons, and in the woods of the area.

In the chapter titled ‘The Glen‘, he begins;

*You find it dull walking up here upon Hartford Bridge Flat this sad November day? Well, I do not deny that the moor looks somewhat dreary, though dull it need never be. Though the fog is clinging to the fir-trees, and creeping among the heather, till you cannot see as far as Minley Corner, hardly as far as Bramshill woods–and all the Berkshire hills are as invisible as if it was a dark midnight–yet there is plenty to be seen here at our very feet. Though there is nothing left for you to pick, and all the flowers are dead and brown, except here and there a poor half-withered scrap of bottle-heath, and nothing left for you to catch either, for the butterflies and insects are all dead too, except one poor old Daddy-long-legs, who sits upon that piece of turf, boring a hole with her tail to lay her eggs in, before the frost catches her and ends her like the rest: though all things, I say, seem dead, yet there is plenty of life around you, at your feet, I may almost say in the very stones on which you tread. And though the place itself be dreary enough, a sheet of flat heather and a little glen in it, with banks of dead fern, and a brown bog between them, and a few fir-trees struggling up–yet, if you only have eyes to see it, that little bit of glen is beautiful and wonderful,–so beautiful and so wonderful and so cunningly devised, that it took thousands of years to make it; and it is not, I believe, half finished yet.”

For those not so well versed in the area, Hartford Bridge Flat(s) is the long, open , flat area of land, traversed by the A30, and now home to Blackbushe Airport. During WWII when it was first built, it was named RAF Hartford Bridge.  Much of the area is now a nature reserve, home to Yateley Common, and nearby Castle Bottom.

The book is an introduction to the ways of nature (using the ‘fairy’ characters ‘Madam How‘ and ‘Lady Why‘), but for me, it is as much a physical connection with this same area of Hampshire that previous generations of my family would have been roaming at the very same time as Kingsley – in particular, the Vickery family, who, at that time, had lines in Minley, Hawley, Hartford Bridge and Elvetham.  Who knows, some of them may even have stumbled upon each other, although probably not my great, great grandfather Alfred, who was exactly two years old when Kingsley died in 1875. His descendants settled in Eversley, and Yateley.

Looking out over the nature reserve at Castle Bottom, which is between Eversley, and what is referred to as Hartford Bridge Flat(s).

Other mentions for locations on this patch in this book include:-

“All round these hills, from here to Aldershot in one direction, and from here to Windsor in another, you see the same shaped glens; the wave-crest along their top, and at the foot of the crest a line of springs which run out over the slopes, or well up through them in deep sand-galls, as you call them–shaking quagmires which are sometimes deep enough to swallow up a horse, and which you love to dance upon in summer time.”

On Yateley Common at Darby Green, looking back over towards the other side of the Blackwater Valley.

“But what could change a beautiful Chine like that at Bournemouth into a wide sloping glen like this of Bracknell’s Bottom, with a wood like Coombs’, many acres large, in the middle of it?…… and so at last, instead of two sharp walls of cliff at the Chine’s mouth, you might have–just what you have here at the mouth of this glen,–our Mount and the Warren Hill,–long slopes with sheets of drifted gravel and sand at their feet, stretching down into what was once an icy sea, and is now the Vale of Blackwater. And this I really believe Madam How has done simply by lifting Hartford Bridge Flat a few more feet out of the sea, and leaving the rest to her trusty tool, the water in the sky.”

Looking at ‘The Mount’ referred to by Kingsley, from the road outside his rectory in Eversley.

“Water, and nothing else, has sawn out such a chasm as that through which the ships run up to Bristol, between Leigh Wood and St. Vincent’s Rocks. Water, and nothing else, has shaped those peaks of the Matterhorn, or the Weisshorn, or the Pic du Midi of the Pyrenees, of which you have seen sketches and photographs. Just so water might saw out Hartford Bridge Flat, if it had time enough, into a labyrinth of valleys, and hills, and peaks standing along; as it has already done by Ambarrow, and Edgbarrow, and the Folly Hill on the other side of the vale.”

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards Wales.

Reading the text, and seeing the places name-checked finally inspired me enough to take a walk around Bramshill Woods for the first time this week.  I’d always wanted to see the ‘Welsh Drive‘ for myself – the historic, long-distance drove road along which cattle were herded from Wales to markets south of London, and along the route. I had to stop for a while to feel a connection with the track that is still there today, and which Kingsley must have walked himself.

The ‘Welsh Drive’ in Bramshill Forest, looking towards the A30.

Very little how, why, or wherefore, but I just felt inspired to go out, and to collect these words together too in one place, since they have helped make this place more particular for me as Kingsley’s 200th birthday approaches.

 

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Kingsley – making it quite a place

I don’t pretend to be a serious historian, but I do take an interest in the identity of my local area.  I was born in Farnham, on the Surrey/Hampshire border, and spent the entire 18 years of childhood growing up in Yateley, in Hampshire – the town to which I returned some four years ago at the age of 45.  Our neighbouring village is called Eversley.

The village sign indicates the meaning of the village name is ‘wild boar clearing’, in this case, on the edge of Windsor Forest.

Dabbling in my family history, I discovered generation after generation on my Mum’s side, deepening my roots in this area of North-East Hampshire, through Eversley, Elvetham, Hartford Bridge, Minley, Dogmersfield, Crookham, Fleet, Rotherwick, Winchfield, Crondall, Odiham, Dipley, Hazeley Heath, and north towards Tadley and Sherborne St. John too.  I go back around four centuries, before the blood lines start scattering further afield.

‘Place’ is very important to me, but even with the pride I have in this area of North-East Hampshire, I’ve never felt able to pretend to be able to tap into any great wells of social, political or cultural significance for this patch.  There’s always been William Cobbett, but that’s really over the border in Surrey – and of course there’s always been Jane Austen, but somehow, I’ve always felt she’s had too good a PR campaign, with huge swathes of Hampshire laying claim to be ‘Jane Austen country’, even though she probably didn’t have anything to do with huge parts of it.

Jane Austen’s PR machine has been beating Charles Kingsley’s in this corner of Hampshire for some time – take this sign as you cross the River Blackwater from Berkshire into Hampshire as an example.

That’s why I got so excited when I first heard about plans to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Kingsley on the 12th June, with a festival in Eversley – the neighbouring village to Yateley – on the 14th and 15th June.  Kingsley was rector of St Mary’s Church, Eversley from 1844 until his death in 1875, and was ordained in Farnham in 1842.

Charles Kingsley – writer of a diverse range of work; from The Water-Babies, to social commentary and natural history; historian; social reformer (helping to secure child labour reforms); and of course, local Hampshire rector.

I had no real understanding of Kingsley’s true legacy before I heard about the festival (novelist, poet, historian, social reformer, Christian socialist and keen interest in so much more) – and unravelling the various layers to his personality and career have provided an insight into just how much of a significant place Kingsley must have helped Eversley be back in Victorian times.  It has really given me a sense of pride in the relationship between my home town Yateley, and its neighbouring village, Eversley.

WATCH some clips from a BBC series on Kingsley and The Water-Babies, ‘The Secret Life of Books’ – pictured here, a stretch of the River Blackwater. Click on image above.

Kingsley’s friends, correspondents, and possibly visitors:

With Eversley effectively providing the nerve-centre where he was rector, the roll-call of names of Kinglsey’s friends, likely visitors, and correspondence through letters is quite breath-taking, and has helped me see my own ‘backyard’ through a completely different prism.

‘Authors’ (John Stuart Mill; Charles Lamb; Charles Kingsley; Herbert Spencer; John Ruskin; Charles Darwin), pub. by Hughes & Edmunds 1876, ©️ National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

It is likely that this circle could have included John Ruskin (visionary, & critic of art, & architecture); John Stuart Mill (philosopher & political economist); Charles Darwin (geologist, geologist & biologist); Henry Fawcett (economist & statesman) and Millicent Fawcett (campaigner for women’s suffrage); Herbert Spencer (philosopher, biologist & sociologist); Octavia Hill (social reformer); Lewis Carroll (best known as a children’s author); Thomas Hughes (lawyer & politician, best known as author of Tom Brown’s School Days); Frederick Denison Maurice (theologian, and one of the early founders of the Christian Socialism movement); Elizabeth Gaskell (author of Cranford, & North & South); Thomas Cooper (Chartist & poet); Charles Blachford Mansfield (chemist & author); and Charles Dickens.

Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales

Apparently, Kingsley’s sway in the pulpit could pull in audiences from far and wide, including officers from nearby Sandhurst and Aldershot (Blore, 1920).

St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire. Kingsley’s pulpit.

Kingsley’s appointments signpost too just how much influence he must have been able to command.  He was appointed as chaplain to Queen Victoria (1859), and in 1861, a private tutor to the Prince of Wales.  Royal patronage will have helped in his advancement in academic positions.  On Gladstone’s recommendation, with Victoria’s approval, he traded a position as Canon at Chester (1869), for one at Westminster (1873).

Heckfield Place

The front of Heckfield Place, by night.

And just like today, there was Heckfield Place.  Today, it is a source of wonder and speculation, recently snaring the prize as Sunday Times ‘Hotel of the Year’ 2018. and playing home to a range of speakers through ‘The Assembly’ series, such as Dr. Julian Baggini; Viv Groskop and Sir Michael Marmot.  It is inconceivable to think that it did not feature on Kingsley’s radar in some way.

The stunning underground cinema at Heckfield Place plays host to a regular ‘Assembly’ range of talks – I can just imagine a season of Kingsley’s network, back in the day!

Back then it was home throughout Kingsley’s tenure to Charles Shaw-Lefevre.  He was the second-longest serving Speaker of the House of Commons (serving between 1839-1857), who then went on to become Viscount Eversley of Heckfield from 1857-1888.  I’d love to know more.

A bit about the physical place itself

Kingsley wrote of the local ‘commons terrain’  in his book “Prose Idylls: New and Old” (1873), London, Macmillan and Co, and particularly the chapter entitled, ‘Winter Garden‘.  You can find a digital copy of the book here.

from “Winter Garden” – pg 164:  “Grand old moor! stretching your brown flats right away toward Windsor for many a mile – Far to our right is the new Wellington College, looking stately enough here along in the wilderness, in spite of its two ugly towers and pinched waist.  Close over me is the long fir-fringed ride of Easthampstead, ending suddenly in Caesar’s camp; and hounds and huntsmen are already far ahead, and racing up the Roman road, which clods of these parts, unable to give a better account of it, call the Devil’s Highway.”

Castle Bottom, on the edge of Eversley parish – part of that ‘wilderness’ featuring commons, firs and sandy heath to which Kingsley refers.

from “Winter Garden” – Pg 165:  “I respect them, those Scotch firs.  I delight in their forms, from James the First’s gnarled giants up in Bramshill Park – the only place in England where a painter can learn what Scotch firs are – down to the little green pyramids which stand up out of the heather, triumphant over tyranny, and the strange woes of an untoward youth.  Seven years on an average have most of them spent in ineffectual efforts to become a foot high.  Nibbled off by hares, trodden down by cattle, cut down by turf-parers, seeing hundreds of their brethren cut up and carried off in the turf-fuel, they are as gnarled and stubbed near the ground as an old thorn-bush in a pasture.  But they have conquered at last, and are growing away, eighteen inches a year, with fair green brushes silver-tipt, reclothing the wilderness with a vegetation which it has not seen – for how many thousand years?”

More of that ‘Winter Garden’ – pictured here in Spring!

from “Winter Garden: – Pg.169:  “I pass through a gateway, out upon a village green, planted with rows of oaks, surrounded by trim sunny cottages, a pleasant oasis in the middle of the wilderness.  Across the village cricket-ground – we are great cricketers in these parts, and long may the good old game live among us; and then up another hollow lane, which leads between damp shaughs and copses toward the further moor.  Curious things to a minute philosopher are these hollow lanes.  They set him on archaeological questions, more than he can solve; and I meditate as I go, how many centuries it took to saw through the warm sandbanks this dyke ten feet deep, up which he trots, with the oak boughs meeting over his head.”

The view from the top of ‘The Mount’ looking back towards St Mary’s Church, where Kingsley was parish rector, and where the festival takes place.

from “Winter Garden” – Pg 171:  “So I go slowly up the hill, till the valley lies beneath me like a long green garden beneath its tow banks of brown moor; and on through a cheerful little green with red brick cottages scattered all round, each with its large neat garden, and beehives, and pigs and geese, and turf-stack, and clip yews and hollies before the door, and rosy dark-eyed children, and all the simple healthy comforts of a wild ‘heth-croppers’ home.  When he can, the good man of the house works farm labour, or cuts his own turf; and when work is scarce, he cuts copses and makes heath-brooms, and does a little poaching.  True, he seldom goes to church, save to be christened, married or buried: but he equally seldom gets drunk.”

The Revd. Peter Ditchfield made note of this when writing a piece for the nearby Arborfield Local History Society.

“… his “Winter Garden“, that great stretch of country through which you can ride fifteen miles on end, wherein flourish great Scotch firs, bright hollies with their scarlet beads, furze patches rich with its lacework of interwoven light and shade, and the deep soft heather carpet, which invites you to lie down and dream for hours; and behind all the wall of fir-stems, and the dark fir-roof with its jagged edges a mile long against the soft grey sky.

He loved to ride through the fir-forests “with their endless vistas of smooth red green-veined shafts holding up the warm dark roof, lessening away into endless gloom, paved with rich brown fir-needle — a carpet at which nature had been at work for forty years. Red shafts, green roof, and here and there a pane of blue sky, while for incense I have the fresh healthy turpentine fragrance, far sweeter to my nostrils than the stifling narcotic odour which fills a Roman Catholic Cathedral”.

More of the barrenness, this time towards Yateley.

Kingsley admired greatly the grand old moor, stretching its brown flats right away towards Windsor for many a mile, and the green wilderness of self-sown firs. “There they stand in thousands,” he wrote, “the sturdy Scots, colonizing the desert in spite of frost, and gales, and barrenness ; and clustering, too, as Scotsmen always do abroad, little and big, every one under his neighbour’s lee, according to the good old proverb of their native land, ‘Caw me, and I’ll caw thee’. “

Two hundred years on

Kingsley died on 23rd January, 1875, and the breadth of his influence was demonstrated by the attendees at his funeral in Eversley, embracing everybody from the servants of the Bramshill Hunt, and the Gypsies of the local common, to Dean Stanley (the Dean of Westminster) to a representative from the Prince of Wales.

It has certainly made me think a little differently, whenever I might be prone to say, “nothing ever happens here”.  Much of his legacy remains to inspire and challenge, or to be explored.  Unusually in such cases, there is little ‘hype’ to ‘fall for’, which is refreshing.

Eversley today has it’s ‘celebrity’ connections – people like Laura Marling coming from the village, or Sky Sports News presenter Nick Powell living there, and former England cricket captain, Andrew Strauss.  But in Kingsley’s day, it is as if he helped connect the place, and open it to a wider range of influences unrivalled today.

It feels like a real privilege to have the programme of events marking the bicentenary of his birth on 12th June taking place on the 14th and 15th June in the field called ‘The Mount’, opposite the church where Kingsley was rector.

The festival features an outdoor opera spectacular (a ‘cantata dramatica’) based on one of his poems (Andromeda); a puppet-show interpretation of his most famous work (The Water-Babies); a play bring Kingsley back to his old parish today (starring Blue Peter favourite, Peter Duncan); a series of ‘Tent Talks‘ exploring Kingsley’s social, political and cultural legacy; a pageant on the theme of ‘child labour’ – and much more besides.  More at ck200.live .

Those ‘Tent Talks‘ feature a range of academics, including one of the main festival curators, Dr. Jonathan Conlin (University of Southampton); Professor of Economic History, Jane Humphries (Oxford); English Studies lecturer Dr. Jane Ford (University of Teesside);  English Literature lecturer, Dr. Alexandra Gray (University of Portsmouth), and Deisenroth Presidential Professor of the History of Science, Piers J. Hale (University of Oklahoma) – plus professional pundit/priest, Giles Fraser.

Any proceeds from the festival go the local school which bears Kingsley’s name, and the charity, Child Hope UK.

I think the bicentenary is a good opportunity to reassess Kingsley’s contribution to the local area.  If we can put up signs welcoming people to ‘Jane Austen country’ as you enter the county, we must be able to acknowledge Charles Kingsley’s rich contribution to this particular corner of Hampshire in some way?

References:

George Henry Blore; ‘Victorian Worthies – Charles Kingsley’ (1920);

Charles Kingsley; Prose Idylls, New and Old (1873)

Norman Vance: Artist biography of Charles Kingsley;

North Craven Heritage Trust, Journal 2011; ‘Charles Kingsley, Christian Socialist’

 

Lanny

As with the main dynamic of this book, when reviews of Lanny” by Max Porter first started appearing, it was as if I could hear this book talking to me, and I knew I had to read it. I was not disappointed at all.

Bluebell Wood at Eversley, Hampshire.

A number of themes spoke to me.  The first and over-riding one was that of the voice of the land, and the spirit of the generations through time speaking to us through nature, through our landmarks and customs, particularly in rural communities – those kinds of things often referred to as ‘the Particular‘, or celebrated by the likes of Robert MacFarlane.

Having returned to the semi-rural area where I grew up, I have been embraced by the bosom of the common-lands which surround my village, and am never happier than when on a long walk with my dog, and each finding myself travelling through time, imagining myself talking to people who may have previously trodden those same paths, whether ancestors through the generations, or air-crew who served on the old RAF base which are now disused runways, being encroached upon by gorse.

Disused runways at Blackbushe Airport, Hampshire, eith encroaching gorse.

“The village belongs to the people who live in it and to those who lived in it hundreds of years ago.  It belongs to England’s mysterious past and its confounding present.”

The second was the character who lends his name to the book – ‘Lanny’ – a child who who is a bit of a loner, never happier than when playing amongst those rural surrounds, talking to nature – or more accurately, singing to himself.

Little Paul in 1974, most likely to be seen singing/swinging on the garden gate.

One of the first images which was conjured up for me when I returned to the area in 2015 was of me swinging on our front gate, a loner, happy and singing to my heart’s content.  One of our neighbours said it is was her abiding memory of me as a small child.  I had no real memory of this.  Much of the way ‘Lanny’ is described reminds me of how my neighbour described me.  I remember getting an ‘ear’ for stories, listening to my Nan’s conversations with neighbours, as I hid under her kitchen table.

The third is how it deals with more of the darker side of modern discourse – a harshness, a rush to judgement, a binary nature, and the sheer volume of gossip, thanks to social media, particularly thanks to Twitter, and Facebook community groups, but more usually, just simple word-of-mouth.

The book was a sheer joy to read – I just could not put it down.  Some of the devices it deployed gave it a particular excitement.  As a lover of the vernacular, and of picking up on and borrowing snatches of everyday conversations, I was enthralled by how it was able to serve up the nature of village life.  And as a relatively recent subscriber to the embrace of the land, and celebrant of the ways of what are called ‘the particular’, the development of the character ‘Dead Papa Toothwort’ to cast this shadow or articulate its voice was genius. (see also Sarah Ditum, “Max Porter’s Lanny is a story of our fraught relationship to the countryside”, New Statesman, 10/04/19).

I wasn’t expecting the central storyline – I could very easily have still have devoured the book without it – but I suppose we would not have been able to explore many of the aspects without it.

One of the reviews I read said that “It’s not as political commentary or state-of-the-nation study that Lanny speaks most forcefully.  It’s the formal inventiveness that will stay in the mind, the shapes and pairings, the sudden eruptions of imagery.  It’s the idea of Lanny’s DNA as a magic trail shimmering through back gardens and playrooms, or his mother’s dream of herself as a Renaissance painted Madonna.  Porter’s writing is poetically concentrated while also deploying a wonderfully common-or-garden kind of language, loved and used, rolling off the tongue.” (Alexandra Harris, “A joyously stirred cauldron of words” – The Guardian 08/03/19)

While I agree wholeheartedly, I don’t want to lose sight of that wider commentary of taking of the temperature.  I’ve been reading the book with the backdrop of the Local and European Election campaigns of 2019, and the stasis around the downward spiral of the Leave versus Remain circus show.

On a personal level, I’ve never identified more with my four year old self, singing and swinging on that gate than I do today.  I can feel myself retreating from the hot-air and bustle of Twitter (where contributions rarely seem to add anything to a debate, and merely serve to enable the contributor to be seen to be throwing their tuppence into the pool for the benefit of a crowd), and swerving away from, for the main-part, the binary nature of loud, ill-informed postings on community Facebooks.

Castle Bottom, Hampshire – a great place to sit, reflect, & possibly listen out for Dead Papa Toothwort.

Reading ‘Lanny’ has helped me reflect on many of these issues.  I’d ended up working in PR, not just because I wanted to help people amplify their messages, but also to help them understand the benefits of being quiet or silent sometimes when it helps benefit a reputation, or a message to be understood.  All those years ago, when I first started working in such a role, the PR would have more of a ‘gatekeeper’ role, in which ‘listening’ was as crucial a part as the communicating.

Now, with everyone having a myriad of social platforms (and being on them 24/7), that is less so.  Yes – that is great from a democratising perspective.  And yes – there still remains a role for good counsel/advice from the best practitioners in the business.  But for the most part, I can only reflect that it has also meant a huge pressure for those on these platforms (that’s beyond PR) to be saying SOMETHING and generating CONTENT, regardless of the quality – and unbelievably, listening less (even though the platforms could enable them to do this more).  There is more noise than ever out there, and the incentive for it be binary, to be aggressive, and not to adhere to many of those aspects of quality practice built over years of experience – whether journalism, or PR – and some of these themes chimed for me on the central storyline in ‘Lanny’ too.

In the just the last couple of days, two example illustrated this perfectly.  The first was one of the only major ‘televised’ debates of the European Election campaign, broadcast via The Daily Telegraph Twitter page.  While I know Nigel Farage has been showered with milkshake, the level of ‘filth’ in terms of ageist comments that I witnessed about Vince Cable truly shocked me.  Comment, after comment (a torrent) about his physical appearance, his sanitary habits, possible disabilities, the likely onset of dementia – if this is what social media has made possible, or encouraged for our politics, it hurts.  Secondly, we had a police helicopter hover over our street for an hour or so in the middle of the night, which, it transpires, enabled officers to successfully conclude an operation.  All that a local Facebook community group site encouraged local people do was to pile in with hundreds of ill-informed comments, and criticism for the noise the Police made, and how it kept them awake.  I really began to question whether I was living in the same world as some of these people. What was the point?

As Callum McAllister notes in the review of ‘Lanny‘ on ‘The Millions’, writing about the nature of childhood and humanity pointed to in the book, “At one point, Jolie [Lanny’s mother] sees this ‘and she realises their life at home, his time at school, what she thought of as his real existence, was only a place he visited.’  It’s a line that could only have been written by a parent: that realization that something you thought of as entirely yours is an independent being.  That your children exist when you are not there.  That they have a life beyond you.  That for them, as for everyone, they are the absolute centre of their own existence.”

“Porter extends this idea to the village at large but conveys it in the exact opposite way.  He presents it to us, in Dead Papa Toothwort’s all-hearing, typographically experimental prose, as ‘A tapestry of small abuses, fights and littering, lake-loads of unready chemicals piped into my water bed, green and decline, preaching teaching crying dying and walking the fucking dogs, breeding and needing and working.”

“By giving us this stream of unfiltered human self-involvement, Porter shows us the nature of a village as a microcosm of human society, and he shows how difficult it is for people to live with one another.  The existence of characters – such as Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort – who seem more attuned to the world, suggests that there may be a way out.  Lanny’s character in particular implies that while self-centeredness is intrinsically human, it’s not an inescapable part of the human condition – maybe something learned rather than innate.  Early in the novel, Mad Pete gestures towards it: ‘Maybe it’s just Lanny taking things from whenever he’s been listening, soaking up the sounds of this world and spinning out threads of another.”

“Max Porter’s Lanny is an attempt to capture a village, entirely in language, and it does so by trying to represent the village’s breadth of narrative voices.  It’s an ultimately empathetic, even humanist project.  But its representation isn’t always positive.  People are human.  They’re unsympathetic, rude, racist, ungenerous, speculative.  They beat up pensioners and make false accusations and invite hysteria and sensationalism.  They can be judgemental neighbours or maybe self aggrandising, polluters or gardeners.  But in the act of reading, we’re made a mute witness to them.  Like Lanny and Dead Papa Toothwort, or Porter himself, we are made active, careful listeners.  In doing so, we give them space to speak.  We can’t live each other’s experience.  But we can start by listening to them.” (Callum McAllister , “The Choir of Man: Max Porter’s Lanny Wants You To Listen” – The Millions, 25/03/19)

Listen – the sequoia tree at St. Mary’s Church, Eversley, Hampshire.

We have forgotten what it means to be human.  It does not mean rejecting technology, but it does mean using it in a more savvy fashion – and using it in tandem with the physical and human infrastructure around us – people and places.  Not only will it improve the nature and effectiveness of our everyday discourse, it might also ensure we save ourselves from systems failure.  It certainly means we start listening to each other much more, rather than shouting at each other, or talking about each other in an ill-informed fashion for no particular reason other than to show-off or to entertain.

As Harris notes in her review, “Porter is telling stories that link the immediate crises of individual lives with ancient, ageless currents of feeling and experience.”  As I was focusing, reading the book, this was certainly something I was feeling.

And as Harris concludes, “The novel, though short, is optimistically intent on evoking forms of growth that capaciously accommodate all manner of personal trials and English emergencies, cumulatively making a kind of peace.”

Despite all the darkness and noise out there, and the twists and turns of the book, reading “Lanny” gave me a sense of hope.

 

 

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!

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.

Maltings radio project takes to the air

The Farnham Maltings is using the occasion of World Radio Day on Monday 13 February to announce that it is to launch its own radio project – and it wants the community to get involved. ‘Sound Vault’ will take to the air in the next year, and will seek to create a ‘radio space for all’, where volunteers can flex their creative muscles, the community can tell their stories, and everyone can get a platform for their artistic talents.

nickycampbell

Me with former ‘charge’, BBC Radio 5 Live breakfast presenter Nicky Campbell.

Sound Vault’ will utilise the possibilities offered by podcasting technology to give a wider range of people the chance to make programmes, and share them with a bigger audience. I’m thrilled to be able to say that I will be leading the project as a volunteer, after going to them with the germ of an idea, and capitalising on my experience working for BBC Radio 1, then later with Kiss FM and Bam-Bam (see below), and subsequently with Mark Goodier and Nicky Campbell.

wrd2017_logo_en_blackblue

Explaining the idea, Gavin Stride, who is the Farnham Maltings’ Director (and head honcho) said;

“World Radio Day – this year on Monday 13 February – was established by the United Nations to celebrate radio as a medium, and to encourage us all to use it to promote freedom of expression. Radio is the mass media reaching the widest audience in the world, and is a powerful storytelling tool. It is only right that the Farnham Maltings use World Radio Day to reveal our exciting plans.”

 

Initial programming plans centre around four themes:-

Voice: personal story-telling; oral history; and voices from the street;

Audio Collage: sound creations, where music meets speech;

Specialist Music: exploring music genres missing a platform elsewhere;

Maltings + : an audio dimension to the Farnham Maltings’ own programme.

The online radio platform will be accompanied by a website, and social media dedicated to celebrating listening more generally around the world.

Former Kiss FM breakfast show DJ Bam Bam has dropped by to advise me on the plans.

Former Kiss FM breakfast show DJ Bam Bam has dropped by to give me some advice on the plans. Bam presented the show for 7 years, and won countless Sony Radio Academy Awards, before going on to become a pioneer in podcasting. Back in 2006, he was one of the first DJs to launch a daily podcast, and his ‘Faceless‘ podcast was one of the most downloaded of that year.  Today, as well as presenting the breakfast show on Southampton’s Sam FM, his audioshows.com consultancy is behind the successful Brain Training Podcast which has reached number 11 in the Top 100 podcasts on iTunes.

Sound Vault’ is now putting out a call for volunteers who are interested in getting involved in the project – whether in the shape of production, technology, digital, legal, music or oral history/digital heritage expertise. People interested in becoming involved with the project can find out more details at Farnham Maltings’ refreshers, festival of retirement on Monday 27 February where I will be running a stand between 11.00am and 4.00pm – or by emailing me at paul@dutchHQ.com.

Once a volunteer team has been recruited, the plan is to reach out to source programme content from the community, using a studio at the Farnham Maltings, portable digital recording equipment, and ‘pop-up’ recording booths.

While I live just eleven or so miles up the road in Yateley, I was born in Farnham, and my family have lived around this area of the Surrey/Hampshire border, whether in Bentley, Church Crookham, Crondall, DeepcutDogmersfield, Elvetham, Frimley,Odiham, Rotherwick, South Warnborough or Yateley for hundreds of years – so a project dedicated to tapping into local story-telling is extremely important to me.

Farnham Maltings

Farnham Maltings

The project, while centred on the Farnham Maltings, and surrounding communities on the Surrey/Hampshire border, will ensure that its horizons are global as well as local. Updates about its development will follow in the coming months. It is expected to launch in time for World Radio Day 2018.  Updates will be posted at www.farnhammaltings.com/soundvault . Stay tuned!

 

a radio space for all.

a radio space for all.

Get involved – email paul@dutchHQ.com

** For anyone who doesn’t know, Farnham Maltings is a creative organisation that works with the artists and communities of South East England to encourage the greatest number of people to make, see and enjoy the best art possible. From a range of buildings, set in the heart of Farnham, they present events and workshops from large scale craft festivals to intimate cabaret shows, as well as proving space for voluntary and community groups to deliver their own ambitions. They enable artists making craft, theatre and dance work to thrive by providing affordable studio and rehearsal space, offering producing and tour booking, developing networks, sharing resources and equipping artists with the skills and opportunities to promote their work locally, nationally and internationally. farnhammaltings.com . They are a perfect fit for a project like Sound Vault – and I’m really excited to be working with them.

 

Boundaries

The Local Government Boundary Review have just published their final recommendations for Hampshire County Council.  I took part in the consultation process at the end of last year.

I wasn’t expecting my comments to be acted upon, but I at least expected them to be acknowledged in the consultation report.  They were not.

LGBCE_logo_1200x1200

Only four submissions were apparently received about the ward I made a submission about, so it is pretty easy to track whether my views were noted, let alone acted upon.  I felt the proposals were wrong, and did not meet statutory criteria – little room for confusion there.  I have copied my full response at the end of this post so you can see what I mean.  They refer to the Hart District area of Hampshire.

However, in the report, it says, “We received four submissions relating to this division. Two of the submissions commented on the parish warding arrangements for Yateley. We have considered the evidence and provided for revised parish electoral arrangements for Yateley at page 47 of this report. The remaining submissions commented on the division name. It was argued that Blackwater be included in the name as it would better reflect the communities which make up the division. We are persuaded by the evidence received; however, we consider a division name consisting of Fleet North, Yateley East & Blackwater to be too long. As Blackwater and Yateley make up a significant part of the division, we have re-named the division Yateley East & Blackwater which we consider better reflects communities represented in this division. Subject to this change of division name, we confirm our recommended division as part of our final recommendations.”

No mention that I objected to putting together half of Yateley with part of Fleet which are NOT natural communities, with zero public transport links.  For this, and reasons to do with lack of recognisable community groups and interests across the proposed division, I did NOT feel it met the statutory criteria.

Yateley's Dog & Partridge, near the boundary of two divisions under these proposals, rather than at the heart of one, as under mine.

Yateley’s Dog & Partridge, near the boundary of two divisions under these proposals, rather than at the heart of one, as under mine.

Indeed, additionally, on the proposal for ‘Hartley Wintney and Yateley West‘ division, the report states, “We received support for our draft recommendations relating to Hartley Wintney & Yateley West division,” despite my submission having said that I did not think they met the statutory criteria either for similar reasons.

By deciding to ‘change the name’ of the Yateley East division which had I made a submission about, to take out reference to Fleet, but not to take out the actually area it refers to kind of demonstrates the point I am making, without doing anything about it.

This has totally removed what little faith I had left in public consultation processes.  There has to be a better way if it even turns off political geeks like me from taking part.  Apologies for being such a bore, but I had to get it off my chest.  I don’t really mind that my argument didn’t win the day – I object to the fact that it was ignored completely despite being eminently valid.

My original submission in full, so you can see what I am talking about:

“I wish to comment about the proposed divisions in Hart, specifically, ‘Fleet North & Yateley East‘, but also ‘Hartley Wintney & Yateley West‘ which I do not believe reflect the statutory criteria.  On the summary report pages, the test of ‘Community Identity’ suggests that there should be good transport links across the division, and highlights public transport.  There is NO public transport between Fleet and Yateley, or between Hartley Wintney and Yateley – something I acutely feel as a disabled person.  It asks whether there are recognisable interests, and community groups across the divisions – but as the names suggest, both these divisions ‘bolt’ together natural communities which have been split apart – namely Yateley, and Fleet.  Surely it makes sense to build an electoral division around Yateley as ONE community (which includes Blackwater and Hawley, and possibly Eversley); and an electoral division around Fleet as ONE community – each with very different interests, boundaries, and community groups.  Hartley Wintney more naturally looks west, towards Odiham, and Hook.”

Lost-interest-boring

“To group together ‘Yateley East‘ with ‘Fleet North‘ makes absolutely no sense at all.  I was born in the area, lived here until I was 18, and have just returned a year ago at the age of 44 years.  My mother has lived in Yateley all her life, as has her mother.  When I consulted with my immediate neighbours about the proposition, they were totally bemused.  Fleet and Yateley are the two largest towns in Hart District, approx. five miles apart.  Why would you split each of them, and then create a new division which mixes part of one, with part of another, particularly when they share no public transport link?  Even if you do not accept this argument, then at the very least, the proposed name of the division is inappropriate.  It includes Blackwater and Hawley – places in their own right which share some focus with Yateley, but absolutely none at all with Fleet. ” 

shutterstock_85936765-bored

“My proposal, which I have not tested, would be for a division for the whole of Yateley (which would include Blackwater and Hawley, and possibly Eversley); one for Fleet Town (which could include parts of Fleet North from the previous proposal, including Elvetham Heath – and if any levelling up is needed, this could be done with the division of Church Crookham & Ewshot, which is a more natural fit, and low on numbers).  Similarly, Hartley Wintney would be a more natural fit for the division of Odiham and Hook, which could be renamed accordingly.  This would increase its numbers which are currently a little low.  I believe such a proposal would make a more natural community fit for Fleet and for Yateley (as well as surrounding population centres) reflecting community interests and identities, and could be a more equitable spread of population, thus providing good electoral quality. Crucially, in the case of Yateley and Fleet, it would be based on strong, easily identifiable boundaries, and help deliver strong, effective and convenient local government.  At the moment, local people often struggle to know who their local county councillor is because they do not know which side of an arbitrary boundary they fall on within Yateley or Fleet – this is patently absurd, particularly when it is written into the statutory criteria for your own consultation.”

Thank you for bearing with me!

Thank you for bearing with me!

Bad review for Hampshire’s library decision

Today (18th April) was decision day by Hampshire County Council about the future of its libraries.  A draft strategy had been prepared following one of the largest ever public consultations by the county.

Future of Hampshire's libraries

Future of Hampshire’s libraries

One of the main aspects of the plan was to put the county’s libraries into four ‘tiers’, reflecting their size and importance.  The top two tiers were essentially guaranteed their future, and have the best existing opening hours.

Comparison of Hampshire's library 'tiers'

Comparison of Hampshire’s library ‘tiers’

Like other responses to the consultation, I pointed out that, based on usage data provided my local library in Yateley had been placed in the wrong tier – ‘Tier 3’ rather than ‘Tier 2’.  This meant that, if confirmed, in a year’s time, the library could close, or be handed over to volunteers to run.

Data comparison for Hampshire's libraries

Data comparison for Hampshire’s libraries

Despite a water-tight case, we were ignored in the council’s draft response to the consultation, issued in March, so I took to the local media, and I know others to lobbying.  You can read more of my arguments below.

My letter, published in the Fleet & Yateley News and Mail

My letter, published in the Fleet & Yateley News and Mail

There is no question that we are right, and in the council’s announcement today, they have had to insert a paragraph, finally dealing with the issue.  However, that’s as good as it gets!

Hampshire responds

Hampshire responds

Despite the catchment area and usage figures unquestionably making Yateley a ‘Tier 2’ library, and the council recognising its ‘school library’ status as ‘unique’, it has remained a ‘Tier 3’ library in the decision – which means Yateley Library’s status in the medium term remains uncertain.  The points made about lack of family activities and adult learning opportunities are not something I recognised – and might be something that could be rectified were it open on Wednesdays, and after 5pm on other days.  Absurd!

I feel really let down by the quality of local democratic decision-making.  This is unquestionably a bad decision.  Do Conservative-run Hampshire County Council ignore the town of Yateley because it has had the temerity to return Liberal Democrats as county councillors?

I read more carefully, and discovered that between the original draft of the strategy document, and this final version, a ‘new’ paragraph had been ‘retro-fitted’ to explain how each library’s tier status had been decided (see below), so that Yateley conveniently sits just below the catchment area figure of up to 25,000 to justify ‘Tier 3’ status (Yateley is said to have a catchment of 24,803, although whether this includes new developments, or Eversley is unclear).  No one is convinced – this was never in the original documentation.

'Retro-fitted' explanation paragraph!

‘Retro-fitted’ explanation paragraph!

I owe so much to Yateley Library.  We had no books in my house as a child.  I spent hours in the place, and it stood me in good stead, helping me to get to University at Sussex, and then a career in public relations, including at BBC Radio 1, in parliament, and the civil service.  A second career as a lecturer meant that I have seen again the importance of young students coming to university not only with a love of books, but with an ability to navigate a library.  Yateley’s ‘Tier 3’ status already restricts the number of days it opens, its opening hours – and now leaves a question mark over its longer term future.

Today I have no alternative but to leave a ‘bad review’ for Hampshire County Council’s decision, but a big ‘thank you’ to everyone connected with Yateley Library!  The huge response to the consultation underlined the importance of this issue to local people.  I am grateful to the council for at least taking notice of the point we were raising, but feel deep disappointment at their inability to see it as anything other than nimby-ism, and as such, even having to retro-fit the paragraph in red above, so their plans make sense.  Very poor form.

A landmark decision – local news

Absurdity seems to rule the roost as far as public policy and bureaucracy goes, but when the latest planning application in my local village was submitted, it really seemed to have hoisted the flag to full mast.

The old post office building has been a landmark feature of Yateley village in North East Hampshire from around the early 1930s, replacing previous structures dating back long before.  The recent planning application to Hart District Council seeks to demolish the building, and the neighbouring old postmaster’s bungalow, and replace them with two ‘retail units’, two x three bedroom flats, and three x three bedroom houses.

The old post office is so much a feature of the village, that it has been featured solely, or prominently on a number of Francis Frith postcards.  I’ve featured a number of them on my Pinterest site, with links below:-

This postcard features the old post office stores in all its glory from c. 1950.

This postcard shows off just how much the unique wooden structure is a recognisable part of ‘Church End Green’ in Yateley – supposedly a conservation area.

It is one of the buildings that I most associate with my childhood growing up in the village over 40 years ago.  My Mum says the same, having lived in Yateley all her life of 63 years, and it would have been a feature of my Mum’s Mum’s childhood around 80 years ago (see photo below).

This postcard, from 1965 demonstrates just how much of a Yateley landmark the old post office is.  When ‘Greetings from Yateley‘ are sent, the old post office is one of the buildings chosen to represent the village.

And this is the full image of that highlighted in the postcard above.

This postcard demonstrates the extent to which the old post office dominates the view as you enter ‘Church End Green’ as you head towards Eversely.

And this postcard highlights an issue not strictly considered in the planning application – the extent to which the streetscape will be effected looking back from the area of green in front of Forge Court.  The benches by the Town Council notice board provide a different angle on the old post office, including the church tower peaking out behind it.  If the old post office were to be demolished, and replaced by two, two storey buildings, that view of the church tower would be obscured, and the green backdrop of trees to the village would  be removed.

This is a photo of a similar angle to that postcard above, taken in the last few years.

It has taken a bit of time for some noise to start to roll, mainly via the local newspaper (see here), the community page on Facebook, and word-of-mouth – thank you to those who have taken the time rally to the cause.  For many, it is the stories of the local post office’s links to ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ through author Flora Thompson, who served in the post office in Yateley around 1901.

My Mum's Mum (left) outside the nissen hut she lived in on the common immediately after WWII, demonstrating that pressure for new housing is not new, and something we have to deal with sensitively.

My Mum’s Mum (left) outside the Nissen hut she lived in on the common immediately after WWII, demonstrating that pressure for new housing is not new, and something we have to deal with sensitively.

Of course, it is a national priority that we need more housing – but there are plenty of brownfield locations and places where we can ‘fill in’ – and more effort needs to be put into using the planning system imaginatively to revive areas in more need of regeneration – for example, One Stop, Barclays, and the garage in Village Way are all identified in the most recent plan as locations in need of redevelopment, and all of the shop frontage along Reading Road/The Parade  could be used much more creatively to not only spruce up the shopping frontage, but create low-level housing, as is currently the norm in London.

If you live in Yateley, I urge you to reflect on the issues raised, and if you value your heritage, please take part in the planning consultation (sign a petition by all means, but if you object, you MUST take part in the formal consultation for your view to be counted).  Do not be complacent, or we will lose a local landmark.  You can take part in the consultation and see all of the supporting documents by clicking here and searching for planning reference 15/01828/FUL

It is a shame that such public consultations are not more user-friendly, or visible to the general public.

You can see the objection which I submitted, in full,  by clicking here.  For me, the proposal breaches all planning guidelines and policies.  Essentially;

1) the most recent planning document about this area (a conservation area) identified the buildings as ‘positive buildings’ (‘good examples of relatively unaltered historic buildings’), and under planning legislation, the council has a duty to protect/preserve its character and appearance, and reinforce local distinctiveness.

2) the proposal doesn’t factor in how much of a problem ‘on pavement’ parking already is in the immediate vicinity, and in front of the church, particularly impacting on the elderly and the disabled.  Adding extra retail, and residential development to the area, including a drive-through arch can only impact negatively in this village/conservation setting to the bizarre traffic situation.

If any of this wasn’t reminder enough, it demonstrates the real importance of politics to our everyday lives.

And in case the development does get the green-light, you might want to think about buying some of those Francis Frith images from their website here.