Monthly Archives: January 2017

Good News Issue Number 1

Anyone who knows me knows that there are certain things I hold to be true. Moreover, I also like the concept that opinions should, ideally, be based on facts. So, that when these two come together in life, I’m doubly pleased. Indeed, these situations confirm my belief in that supportive, sharing and caring society and, in the process, sustain me.

So, where is this leading? Well, it’s to some of the ideas described in my book, “The Real Big Society”, among which is the belief that talent is fairly evenly spread throughout society whereas the resources to develop it aren’t. The results of which are detrimental both individually and communally. Now I could go on all day about the fact that women are still paid less than men for equivalent work or any of the host of other discriminatory issues that still prevail today in 21st century Britain. What I will do instead is to describe practical examples in which people in the worst of circumstances, both men and women, tackled their own problems in very practical ways and, in doing so, changed their lives. I refer, of course, to the projects that I had some involvement with in which people, who were homeless and unemployed, built their own homes.

These were based on a couple of housing schemes designed by the architect, Walter Segal, in the 1970’s. They utilised his simple timber framed methods of building which enabled people, without previous building experience, to build. When I first came across this idea, I was sceptical; once I saw it in operation, I was knocked out.

Well, after a lot of hard work, Lewisham Council, to their eternal credit, agreed to let a small group of people on its housing waiting list, build their own homes in this way. Using land that was difficult to build on with more conventional techniques, the authority provided the land and the self builders, the labour. The only other requirement was a mortgage which, again, the council provided; making the whole thing affordable. The scheme, at Segal Close, was so successful that a second one was built in Walter’s Way, affording Walter the unique distinction, I understand, of being the only architect to have two London streets named after him. When he died, a charity was set up in his name to further his ideas and I was lucky enough to become its Director.

Among the schemes which followed was one in Brighton, Hedgehog Self Build Group; something I’ve described previously as one of my “little pieces of Wonderland”. Twelve families whose members were homeless and/or unemployed went on to, over a period of two years, to build their own homes. The scheme was even featured on TV’s “Grand Designs”. Thirteen years later, it featured on “Grand Designs Revisited”. Those twelve families are still there. Moreover, when I last checked, they were all working with their children now grown up.

Maybe that’s why these schemes were described by one government minister at the time as demonstrating “the extraordinary abilities of ordinary people. Good news indeed.

Nothing to Lose

I’ve never had too many personal expectations in life. I’m also not an ambitious person and the only competition I have is with myself, so I am somewhat driven. In addition, I have a tendency to see the good in people rather than the opposite and am guided by a sense of fairness and of wanting a better world.  So, much like most other people, I guess.

I also thought that the Thatcher years were an aberration and that, when she left the scene, society would return to what was called the “post war consensus”. This latter a movement in which we would become more egalitarian and get further involved in the civic life of the country. Much as working people had tended to do since the Industrial Revolution. I never, in my wildest dreams, envisaged what is now happening, both here and “over the pond”. It is, I have to say, very disconcerting and, more than a little, frightening.

Yet, for those of us with a liberal bent and our dreams of a more caring and sharing society, what is heartening, is the reaction. In response to the election of, shall we just say, someone with a rather strange mindset, to the most powerful position in the world, there is large scale opposition. Moreover, if any of the banners, at last Saturday’s demo in London, are any guide, it is being organised with some humour and sense of camaraderie. This, in case anyone should need reminding, was part of a worldwide movement involving millions of people protesting against the inauguration of a US President; probably the first such event in my lifetime. Closer to home for the President is the news that several top officials at the State Department have resigned sooner that serve under him. The official response, under the heading of “alternative facts” is, predictably, that they’ve all been sacked.

So, while watching the UK head off in a direction that is almost totally opposite to where I think it should be travelling, I am heartened by the fact that there are millions like me. So, whether it’s Brexit, Trump or whatever, please make your voices heard. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.


How Thin is the Glue?

More mundane matters have affected the household this morning when, on a very cold day, the boiler has developed a fault. Our plumber is extremely helpful but can’t get out until later this afternoon. So, I compensate for the lack of heating by wearing three pullovers, two pairs of thick socks and a hat; in addition, I might add, to my usual clothing! I also have a back up heater but it’s not really adequate for the task, so I’m soldiering on without it.

Now, what’s interesting in this scenario is the effect that it’s having on my ability to work. Yes, I am working but the cold is sufficiently distracting to hinder my concentration. At which point, this Camden located liberal is brought up against the reality of many peoples’ day to day lives. And that’s before any lack of food, permanent home or any of the other things that we, top few per cent of the world’s population, take rather for granted.

That’s not to say that I’m unaware, it’s just that the actual experience make me think even more about how thin is the glue that that holds our society together. I also thank my lucky stars for what I have. In the meantime, I will persevere and look forward very much to the arrival of the plumber.

Do What You Think is Right

“Cheer up” they said “it can’t get any worse”. So I cheered up and guess what? It got worse. Well, fortunately for me, I am, by nature, an optimist, albeit a somewhat more cynical one these days.  So, when things don’t go according to plan, I look afresh at what is happening, reassess the situation and carry on; sometimes on the same track and sometimes on a slightly different one. What I try not to do is let what is happening change those things that I hold to be dear. It’s a modus operandi that has served me well for many years. Not that I haven’t changed; I have enormously. Having not been dealt the best of hands as a child, I came to the realisation that I didn’t want to continue living the life that I’d been given. So I did something about it with very positive results. OK, so what is my point today?

Well, there are occasions when what happens is totally beyond your control. I speak, of course, of times when there are people in high office who might be more gainfully employed in a circus, along with the other clowns. So, yes, I am worried. However, I spent my formative years during the Cold War and equally worrying times. Indeed one of my small claims to fame was that I was in the army marking up the War Room map during the Cuban missile crisis. Scary times indeed with nuclear war probably being avoided when one side blinked.

So, what do I plan to do now? Well, the answer is straightforward. I will continue to live my life as I was brought up to do by an aunt and uncle who took me into their family when I was a child; the lovely Doreen and Bill. They brought us children up to help others and do what we thought was right.   And with them in mind, I have cheered up immediately.

“Whaddya Got?”

There’s a line in “The Wild Ones”, a film featuring Marlon Brando, in which he’s asked “Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” To which he replies, “Whaddya got?” What a great line describing, as it did, how the generation that preceded my own felt about some of their offsprings’ attitudes. The result, in our case, was the social and cultural explosion that was the 1960’s; a period that I recently heard described as “A golden age, the like of which we are unlikely to see again”. So, how is this relevant today?

Well, “The Big Society” that was the former Prime Minister’s slogan for a while, has been replaced, along with him, by the “Shared Society”. A little like “Brexit means Brexit” all three actually mean very little. Unless, of course, you address the root causes of our problems and actually do something about them. Now, in this respect, although we live in times of economic conservatism, our social world, in many regards, reflects the ideals that my generation would have hoped for.  Which is why many of us find the ignorance and bigotry, that we witnessed during the referendum, so upsetting.  To me, these  represented none of those liberal values we feel are central to what makes this country what it is. Values, I might add, that the generation that preceded mine fought a war to preserve.

So, why today’s blog? Well because, according to a recent report from Oxfam, the world’s eight richest people control the same wealth as the poorest half of the global population. That’s so startling, that I feel that I need to repeat. Just 8 individuals compared to 3.6 billion of them! Some sharing that.

What’s even more interesting is, what the report identifies, as the root causes, issues such as rising inequality, aggressive wage restraint and the fact that businesses were too focussed on delivering ever higher returns to wealthy owners and top executives.

So, today “Whaddya got?” is very obvious. Moreover, we owe it to the next generation to, at least, provide them with the opportunities that we had. They, too, need the chance to create their own golden age and that won’t happen unless the causes of our current ills are dealt with. That doesn’t require a slogan. It does, however, require action.

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

One of the best things about being married to my wife is that she is, both loyal and honest. She will, therefore, tell me when she thinks that I’m doing something that, maybe, I shouldn’t. So it was over the weekend when we were talking about our families.

One of the things she managed to tell me was that I was in danger of becoming a grumpy old git. Apart from the fact that I was a little unsure of the “in danger” bit, I had to admit that she was right. As a result, some effort needs to be put in, yet again, to change something in my life. Now, this has two main effects on me, one of which is to make me angry that it’s me who has to change, while the other is an acceptance and a determination to do something about it. After all, if others see you in ways that you would prefer that they didn’t, then it’s you who needs to do something about it and not the other way around. In addition, of course, a grumpy old git isn’t a persona that anybody should want.

Now, I’ve long been aware that this person, who I see as helpful, amenable and interested in others, can also be rather abrasive and political. I have tried to explain that way by saying that I’m not very good at small talk whereas, in certain situations, I can be. I also know that there are social situations in which I feel like an outsider. I know why this is and I need to do something about it. Unfortunately, this can be just those situations where, as a speaker, I need to “network”. Utterly counterproductive.

Which leads me to another of the benefits of being married to this particular wife. You see, she will then talk about how I might go about this in simple, practical ways.  For example, in those wider social situations, I need to demonstrate that interest in others that I show with close friends. I may also have to accept that some people are happier with their lot than I think that they should be.  She then went on to say that I was, probably, one of the widest read people she’d ever met and, surely, I could find something to talk about as a result. She, not only, made it sound pretty straightforward but also provided me with the road map. Much as I try to do with others yet, often, fail to do for myself.

Oh to see ourselves as other see us.

Faith Restored

I now realise that I shouldn’t let the shenanigans, of those who purport to govern us and some of the rich and powerful, get to me as much as I have done during the latter part of 2016. They, almost by definition, behave in ways that the rest of don’t. Indeed, as all my friends know, I still believe that the vast majority of humanity are decent, honest people just trying to get by in life. Not only is this a belief but it is confirmed by my day to day experience.

Well, I’d nearly forgotten that recently so much so that I had a bout of the blues; made worse by having to do all those things that I’d put off over the holiday period. Well, over the last few days, I’ve done most of those and just needed to do one more. You see, I’ve had a few twinges in my chest since the beginning of the week and, being hyper cautious in regard to health, went to our local GP.

Now, even in these difficult times, if you get there very early, you can often get an appointment which I did for 20 minutes later. The lovely doctor asked me a lot of questions, gave me a thorough check (blood pressure, etc), suggested that I had a blood test (which I did) and said that it was more likely to be a pulled muscle. However, just to be on the safe side, she gave me a form to take to the walk in clinic at UCH to have an ECG. So, off I trotted, book in hand in case it took a long time.

A mere 10 minutes after arriving, a wonderfully humorous nurse called my name and in I went.  She told me to strip to the waist, put my things on the chair and lay on the bed. I put my book, newspaper and glasses on the waste bin and started to do as I’d been asked. At which point, she gestured towards the chair indicating that that was where they should be.

“Men never listen, you know”, she said with a smile. “I’ve noticed, however, that when they’re with their wives, they listen to them. Usually with a prod.When I tell them to strip to the waist, their wives prod them and repeat the instruction. Which is then complied with.  Similarly with my other requests. Always a prod and a repeat of what I’ve said, followed by compliance. It’s as if they’re only programmed to respond to that particular voice”.

By which time, I was in fits of laughter in my very own Victoria Wood sketch. She then said that, although the cardiographer would need to look at the results, they all looked perfectly normal to her.

So here I am back home, less than three hours since I walked into my local GP, having been speedily and courteously dealt with and my fears assuaged.  All with a very human touch and great humour.  So my faith in humanity remains along with a message to this government. Provide the NHS with the money it needs; it is priceless!

Keep On Keeping On

I’m going to try to start this year of 2017 with my usual optimism although, right now, I’m not finding it that easy. There are a number of reasons for this which, I think, are largely to do with the fact that I see little room for such optimism. Not on the personal side, you understand, but related to the fact that this member of that Lucky Generation feels that most of the hopes that he has harboured for as long as he can remember, are further away than ever. If the truth be told, they appear to be off the radar.

This has been highlighted for me over the past year when many of those who have been part of my youthful cultural framework have died. That’s not to say I was, for example, a great fan of David Bowie; rather that he had always been around and is no longer. Similarly with Victoria Wood. Iconic figures have left the stage. This was reinforced when I was listening to the radio just before Xmas and, whoever was being interviewed, was talking about the social and cultural revolution that was the 1960’s. She went on to say that it had been a golden age the likes of which we would never see again. And that hit home hard.

You see, for me, that was a time for working class young people, not only to dream but to see those dreams having a real chance of being realised.  To be around during those times was to experience hope, optimism and colour in real life and that’s before I mention the music; this in sharp contrast to the austerity of post war Britain. And, yes, I know that there is always another side to any coin but those times gave me hope for the future. Hope that is less likely to be realised by the generations that have followed. That makes me sad. Not only for its actuality but because things could be different; it doesn’t need to be this way.

So, how do I react to these, less harmonious times? Well, despite the fact that I’m getting older, I will not let them determine how I live my life. In fact, I will keep on keeping on and writing and speaking about a world that could be in addition to trying to live it. There, I feel better already.