Monthly Archives: June 2015

Doing Things Your Own Way

I get very fed up when I think that it’s obvious that I need help to move on in what I’ve chosen to do yet find that that help is not as forthcoming as I expect it to be. After all, don’t I help whoever I can in any way that I can? So why don’t I get the help that I think I need in the way that I think I need it? Well, over the past few weeks, I think I’ve found the answer to that, at least for me.

The first of these is that I find actually asking for help to be extremely difficult. It’s a sign of vulnerability and, as anyone who really knows me will be aware, I don’t do vulnerability. I know why but, in this case, the knowing why has still made it hard to move on from those circumstances. Another reason is that I enjoy the challenge of change and need to both celebrate and be in charge of the process. Thus, I enjoy learning new things and doing it for myself. So, when I published my first two books, that’s what I did; organising it all and paying someone to set the manuscripts up in the appropriate software.

Yet, it is good to know that there are precedents for what you’re doing. Indeed, I remember, over 35 years ago, working on one of the early city farms and discussing just that with a good friend of mine, the inestimable Mike Primarolo. I remember saying that it would be good to see a template for what we were doing. His reply was that, not only were we walking the road, but that we were building it at the same time. I now realise that those are circumstances under which I thrive. Indeed they were central to my career in the voluntary sector. Either there wasn’t much in the way of a template or, what there was, had been discarded for some reason. That sort of challenge makes me determined to do something to make it work and, quickly, determine just how this should be done. In fact, I enjoy doing things my way.

Yet when I am in, what I feel to be a more commercial arena, asking becomes even more difficult. Until recently, that is, when someone said to me, “If you don’t ask, the answer is always no”. That statement brought me up short and made me realise the problem. People, after all, aren’t mind readers. Yours truly included. So, if you put on a big front, people will often respond to that by accepting it. Fortunately for me, some were available and they persisted.

That persistence helped me to see things differently and what I thought that I didn’t want to do, I did. The result has been that some of those doors that I felt were closed to me (they were, I closed them) have opened (they always were) and I am on the right road. It’s one where I can see others doing similar things, albeit maybe, in different ways. It’s early days and I’m still reluctant to “count my chickens”, however, if this carries on, I do feel that I will look back on the past few months as that period when I realised that the road ahead had already been built. I just needed my own route map.


Not Even on the Agenda

“When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”. This quote is attributed to both Clement Atlee, in 1956, and Archbishop Camara in Brazil in the 1980’s. It is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Now, much of my working life has been in the voluntary sector, mainly with small, practical charities that helped others to help themselves. Indeed, my one, unsuccessful, directorship was in a post that was largely to do with alleviating problems. Don’t get me wrong, the organisation did a good job for people in the direst need. It wasn’t, however, for me and I guess I knew from early on that my heart wasn’t in it. As a result, after 18 months, my contract was terminated. It was to be another eight months before I was back running the sort of charity I believed in and, when I did, both the organisation and I flourished. So you might say that it was good for both of us. I guess, in fact, that that’s why I’ve always felt at home in the voluntary sector or, at least, the part of it that I know. I like its ethos, its camaraderie and the fact that the people I met all took great satisfaction in helping others to change their lives, often in ways that their own had changed. Without being too evangelical about it, we helped to sow the seeds for the next generation.

Conversely, however, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the whole concept of charity and philanthropy. Especially when I read that those on lower incomes tend to give, proportionately, more to charitable causes than those with greater wealth. As I am with the thought that some private schools have charitable status. Once again, it seems that those with wealth contribute to organisations that already have wealth; probably their own, in fact.

This different world was highlighted to me this week when Gaynor and I watched a programme about antiques (as we are prone to do). It featured an auction house and  people who seemed to have more money than sense. Certainly they seemed very different to the people I mix with. My thoughts were that, from the characteristics they displayed, alleviating poverty seemed unlikely to feature highly on their agenda. So, they play with their toys while government cuts become deeper. It is now only seven weeks since the election and its promises and, suddenly, there isn’t enough money to pay for the new upgrades to the railways. As a result, one of the major engines for the new “Northern Powerhouse” has already been shunted into the sidings.

Dig it deep, friends. There are only another four years and ten and a half months to go and alleviating poverty, let alone preventing it, isn’t even on the agenda.

The Benefits of a Good Cup of Tea

For my birthday last week, my wife and daughter bought me a nice tea pot and some decent tea; the latter something I’m now rediscovering the joys of. Yet, this morning my feelings, that the world is a very sad place at the moment, are difficult to avoid. However (please not the use of the adverb at the start of a sentence, Mr Gove), is it any better or worse than it has been in the past? Well, the answer to that question is a bit like the story of the person who jumped off the top of a skyscraper. As he passed a window on the 10th floor, someone asked him how it was going. To which he replied, “So far, so good”.

Now I am very aware that I’m one of, what I call, the “lucky generation” who lived through the 60’s and, it could said, “never had it so good”. So, from that background, I do feel that the current generation are missing out on, what was, a more cohesive society with a great deal more radicalism, optimism and hope. Note the three qualities contained in that description. At the time, however, we were also living through the cold war and experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis, which came as close to nuclear war as we’re ever likely to get, short, of course, of the real thing.

I contrast this with the current situation where there is, seemingly, unending austerity and religious fundamentalists who believe in an afterlife that is paradise. Moreover, these latter have access to nuclear weapons. That chills me and not in the way that that word is now used. I also think about a climate change scenario that involves a “tipping point” and possible sea level rises of six metres and, even, my heart sinks. Yet, would I turn the clock back?

The answer to that is a simple “no”. This is based on, what I feel is, a very clear sense of history, a sheer wonder at the universe we live in and a belief in the inherent decency of the vast majority of the people I come into contact with. Anyway, if my knowledge of the laws physics is any good (memo to self, check that one out with grandson, Chris, studying this at uni) time is irreversible, so we have no choice.

However, (see, Mr Gove, I’ve done it twice just to annoy you) memo to humanity. We are now, according to reports, experiencing the sixth great extinction. We also know that Mother Nature doesn’t care whether or not any particular species actually exists or not. It wouldn’t be a bad idea, therefore, in the short time we each have on this planet, to do our best to STOP FUCKING IT UP!

Another memo to self. Make cup of tea and keep going.

Perception is All

There is reality (whatever that is) and there is perception. Furthermore the two are often not the same for most of us. The best example of which is, of course, a belief in supernatural beings; something that, it would appear that millions hold to. Now, not only do I not believe in such beings but, to quote a famous 18th century French scholar, I actually “have no need for that hypothesis” with the emphasis on the last word.

The point about perception is that it’s how we, individually, see things; something that is crucial to our actions. But what if our perceptions are wrong? After all, many of those who do believe in a god or gods, also believe in an afterlife which is better than this one. Furthermore, on that basis, they live a life that is, probably, not as good as it could otherwise have been.

Now, I don’t know about you but I don’t need any such beliefs to make me behave in a way that I think is right. That, I know, comes from my Aunt Doreen who used to tell me that I should always do what I believed to be the right thing and that that, in itself, was the reward. That and the love and care she provided were my bedrock and have determined my actions ever since. So, what’s this got to do with anything?

Now anyone who knows me knows that I can talk. After all, this was the 11 year old who was caned on the first day at Grammar School for talking during lunch (not allowed) and, one of whose family, described him as having been “vaccinated with a gramophone needle”. Well, I’ve been plugging away for three years now to build a career in public speaking. Moreover, I know that I’m a good speaker as, in my work as a charity Director, I’ve always been a good spokesperson. Yet without, what one of my friends called, that “charity cloak” that I wore. I found that talking about my own life, while extremely enjoyable, wasn’t as easy as I’d expected. On stage, my mind had a tendency to go blank.

Well, last night, I had a 20 minute showcase gig at the Professional Speaking Association in Reading and the audience reaction may well have made even me believe that, at last, it is coming together. That person who usually walks on stage wondering who the heck it is who’s just been introduced is starting to realise that people like listening to him instead of trying to shut him up. And, as I write that particular phrase, I realise what the problem may have been all along and, thus, my perception has changed. So, perception may not be all.  However, it surely is crucial.

The World of Work These Days?

My aunts and uncles worked hard to provide for the children. It’s what stands out in my memory. Manual labour for the men and housework for the women, the latter with the odd part time job thrown in when times were even harder than usual. Their ancestors were the same, going back many generations as barrel makers, first in Ireland then south London, as well as dockers, butchers and rag and bone men. Life wasn’t easy but they made up for that with the strength within the family. My generation were the beneficiaries of that bedrock.

When I grew up, work was what I did. Some boredom but making the best of it with, in the army, some anarchic and subversive fun followed by something similar in the various architectural practices I worked in. Life as a full time student while bringing up my children was also fun giving me time to get involved in the things that I had long dreamt about. In the 35 years since then, apart from a short period of about a year, what I’ve done for a living was what I’ve enjoyed doing; a situation that continues as I get older.

An important aspect of the desire to get on was, some sort of career path, even though, by jumping from one sphere to another, I tended to ignore it. I’m not sure how that can happen quite so easily for young people today, serving coffee in Starbucks or Costa or burgers in McDonalds. So, why am I writing this? Well, to highlight what I see as the creation of an unrewarding and punitive work environment.

My youngest daughter is at university and she recently did work experience at our local paper, the Camden New Journal. As her first job, she was sent out to do some vox pops and write an article based on the results. She rang me to say that she wasn’t having much luck and “what could she do?” I suggested that she just pop into a couple of the shops and interview the staff.

When she got home, she’d done what she set out to do but remarked on the response she’s received from those staff. This was that they couldn’t really say anything as they didn’t want to get the sack! Whether this was a real possibility or just their view is irrelevant, because, whichever it was, something had created a working environment for them in which that was uppermost in their minds. These stories further reinforced an experience I had a few years ago when I went to buy a roof rack for the car. When I took it to the checkout, the member of staff who served me asked if I wanted it fitted. As it was only ten pounds extra, I accepted. I walked to the car where I was joined by another shop assistant, with the rack, which he proceeded to fit.

While he was doing this, I passed the time of day with him; someone else who was no longer in the first flush of youth. I asked him about how long he’d worked there and what it was like. When he told me the hours and the number of days he worked, I expressed amazement. He also commented on the number of “young suits” who came around with their clipboards to check on the staff and who seem to have no idea of the realities of the work that the staff were engaged in. We talked about what life had been like in our younger days and the employment rights that had been fought for. At which point, he said that he really shouldn’t be talking to customers like this if he wanted to keep his job. Somewhat embarrassed, I changed the subject.

Now that may be an extremely limited experience. However, as I’ve described in my book, “The Real Big Society”, there were newspaper reports a few years ago of household name companies utilising a device, which their employees used to track orders, to monitor those same employees’ performance.  One was quoted as saying that it was a bit was like a slave camp.

So, not only are there a great number of people on zero hours contracts and/or longer working hours on low pay but the working environment itself is not as good as it could be. Whereas, in reality, you get the best out of people by making them feel valued and not just with facile mantras but by your everyday actions. Even the former football manager famous for his occasional “hairdryer” treatment of players, also said that the words most of us want to hear are “Well done”. After all, it must be just as easy to create pleasant instead of unpleasant working conditions and so much more rewarding.

A Prime Minister in Wonderland

Last week, I wrote of little bits of Wonderland. Well, today, I’m back on that theme, only this time more “Alice in Wonderland” than lovely places to visit. 

As many of you will know, I’ve had many years of therapy and it has made me a better and more rounded person. I know and feel the difference. So much so that I cringe when I think back to the way I used to behave. Don’t get me wrong, except for my nearest and dearest, most of you won’t have noticed much. How that difference manifests itself is that I get less angry and don’t treat others quite so much as intellectually inferior; the latter a defence mechanism. Not good, though, as you might win the argument but you will, likely, have lost the respect of the person you are trying to persuade. In fact, one of my proudest moments ever was when I was arguing with my son’s best friend, Tony. Matt got so fed up with the way I was putting his mate down that he looked at me hard and said, “You really piss me off. Let him have his say. You’re not always right, you know”. Good on you, son, telling your dad he was wrong. Because he was and he needed telling!

So, why am I writing this today. Well, I had the radio on the other day and it was Prime Minister’s Questions. Now I know that Parliament can behave like a men’s club with its arcane language and rituals but this was of a different order altogether. Does the man’s wife not tell him how he comes across? Mine certainly would, if it was me. Flashman personified with his gloating and sneering. And I thought the English were proud of their courtesy and good manners. Not, it seems, if this was any example.

Now, I am aware that, if you have been educated at one of the top private schools in the country, you may see yourself as superior to us hoi polloi. However, if you are the Prime Minister, you’d be well advised to tone it down a little,  especially when it’s on national radio. You bring yourself, the party you represent and the institution you serve into even greater disrepute than it is already.

By the way, Mr C, I have the name of a very good therapist if you ever feel that you need find out what makes you behave in this way. You too might then cringe when you look back. And, of course, you’ll be a better person for it. You have my contact details if you need to get in touch.

If You Look for Good, You Will Find It

Gaynor and I nearly always spend time during the weekend walking around London and I do know what I consider to be little bits of Wonderland that we like to visit. Among these are Spitalfields City Farm, St Mary’s Secret Garden and Roots and Shoots. Well, today we decided to visit the new Oasis Farm near Waterloo Station. Situated on a piece of, what was previously wasteland, it has only been going since November and is already starting to grow. While we were there, we were pointed in the direction of Old Paradise Yard, next door. Now I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Paradise, but it certainly was another piece of Wonderland. Hidden away is an old Victorian School where a number of people have set up galleries and workshops. Having bought coffee and coconut shortbread in the cafe, “I’klectic” (good coffee and shortbread, I have to say, from friendly staff), Gaynor and I sat in the garden amazed that we hadn’t even heard of this place. A wall separates it from busy A3036 but, driving by, you would never know that it was there. Peace and quiet, a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament. So, why do I write this?

Well, apart from letting you know of its existence, I don’t believe that it was a coincidence that we found it. You see, we are open to looking for such places and, thus, we find them. Which leads me to my point.

Now, I believe that the vast majority of people are honest, decent folk who just try to get by in life. In defence of my views, I would point out that, in time of war, many of them make the ultimate sacrifice. Yet there are people with views very different to my own, who seem to see the opposite in people. They see them as feckless, lazy shirkers. Something that my own experience wouldn’t support; bearing in mind my 35 years working with people on the receiving end of our social problems.  Indeed, these descriptions apply to nobody that I know. Do I just happen to mix with people who try to put in a shift for themselves and their families or am I blinkered? Well neither, actually. I do, however, see the good and then I find it. Not always but much more often than not.

So where do these other people get such a dreadful opinion of their fellow human beings? I can only conclude that it is formed by their own background and reinforced from among those they mix with. Which, of course, should give us all cause for concern.

Doing What You Enjoy

I like to think that I’m one of those people who make the best of things, who gets on with life. It seems to me to beat the alternative. My child hood set the pattern and it’s one that has continued ever since. Even those years from 15 until I was 27 in the army, I made the best of a bad situation. A degree of black humour and some, seemingly, submissive but, actually, subversive behaviour saw me through. Seven years in, somewhat anarchic, architectural practice was no real problem, even if it was a trifle boring at times. Again, I got by through doing my own thing as much as I was able. Being a single parent student was fun. For the first time in my life, I was me, looking after the two people who were the most important in my life. I was at home with myself. Working in the voluntary sector too, was just an extension of my personality. Indeed, the six years at the city farm in Leeds were ones in which I went into work each day just as me and did what I knew needed to be done. Except for one particular job, to a slightly lesser degree, this was so in my other work as a charity Director.

It has, however, been the last three years when I have done much more of what I’ve long wanted to do, ie write books. Something I had always persuaded myself that was beyond me. Yet, through a little application of what my wife calls my “incredible perseverance”, I managed to stick at the first one. Contrary to what I’d expected, it did come together and, after five days, I found that I’d written thousands of words. Interestingly, once I built up a rhythm, the words came out straight from my heart onto the computer screen. It seemed as though someone else was doing it for me. It has been that way ever since. Although I often need to force myself to get down to it, once I do, something takes over. Words fall out in the right order in ways that I hadn’t imagined when I started on any particular day. I am nearly always surprised at the phraseology and the quality of the writing. Apologies for the conceitedness.

So it has been for me recently. For some reason, I have put of finishing my third book until earlier this week. Then I thought that I really should get down to it. And the words, as usual, have flowed in ways that I hadn’t envisaged. Perhaps that’s what happens when you do what you enjoy. Right now, making a decent living out of it would be the icing on the cake. Let’s hope that Jeanette Winterson gets the chance to read the copy of “The Other Side of the Doors” that I gave her on Wednesday evening.

Britain’s Greatest Generation

In these, somewhat, depressing times, it is good to be reminded of the culture that used to prevail in this country a mere two generations ago. One that has formed me and, moreover, it’s one that is, even today, more in tune with what I see as heartbeat of the “ordinary” people of this country. Unfortunately, it’s one that the present government seems to have no understanding of whatsoever. It was, as I’ve previously written, encapsulated in that amazing Olympic opening ceremony of a mere three years ago.  In music, it is best described, for me, by Billy Bragg when he sings of “sweet moderation, heart of this nation”. So, why do we have a state of affairs in which those who are already badly off are further penalised as part of deliberate policy, while those who already have are let off more lightly?

Well it could be that I’m completely wrong in my view; that most people really do hold to the mantra, “Sod you, Jack, I’m all right”. I think not and, furthermore, I see evidence all around me that supports my view. That’s not to say that I don’t see examples of the sort of behaviour that I would prefer not to. However, these occur rarely which is exactly why they do stick in my mind. That, I think, demonstrates my thesis. And, before I go any further, yes, I do see a lack of consideration; one that is created by the social conditions that prevail exactly because of those policies.  If, after all, you utilise greed as one of your driving forces and, in doing so, push people to the margins via a system of rewards or penalties that are out of proportion to usefulness and talent, what do you expect?

I have to admit to a personal take on this as, when I left what was called “boy service”, to join the regular army at 18, my report was read out. It included the sentence, “Daligan tends to take the easy way out unless the effort will bring speedy, personal reward”. Now no one who has witnessed my 35 years in the voluntary sector or, indeed, anyone who knows me would, I hope, recognise that description. It came as a response to institutionalised bullying in order to minimise individuality; a regime that I survived through black humour and subversion. I can see how that response could have been misinterpreted by those in authority. I just think that they should have looked a little deeper; they might have discovered the real me. One that my subsequent career has well and truly demonstrated. It seems, however, it suits the government and sections of the tabloid press to label people as, for example, “shirkers” or “strivers”. As, it was for me, those are, I believe, false representations.


In all this, I was heartened last week to watch a programme on “Britain’s Greatest Generation” which featured people from that wartime generation. Their civic responsibility was humbling. Yet, in my occasional talks to schools, I find the young people of today with similar ideals. They have their lives in front of them and I just hope that someone helps them to find “the real me”, taps into their unrealised talents and uses these as the driving force in our society. It will achieve far more than simplistic, sweeping generalisations will ever do.