Yeah, it’s my end of year thing for 2013 OK?

I know, I know – ‘end of year review’ e-mails, blogs and updates can get a little tiresome. But why? Maybe it’s because they intuitively conjure up lots of words that have the word ‘self’ as a prefix – congratulatory, obsessed, centred. It’s a curious thing that we shy away from sharing our own successes and challenges – maybe it’s cultural – but for whatever reason, I’m not going to let it stop me, this having been a landmark year for me personally and professionally. So you have been warned, this is an end-of-year review and will as a result be tediously reflective and upbeat. So there.

Obviously, it isn’t actually the end of the year yet, but very nearly, and near enough for me to want to clear the decks and not have to worry about doing blogs and such like over the next couple of weeks. So, unless I am struck by an uncontrollable wave of inspiration, I will make this the last blog of 2013, and try to have a ‘holiday’ until the new year.

A new start, long awaited.

In February this year I ended a decade of working in the wrong job. I say ‘the wrong job’ because it was, for me, the wrong job. I worked in a bank (formally a building society) as a ‘thingy’. A ‘thingy’, is a technical term for someone who isn’t able to answer the question “what do you actually do?” with any degree of clarity or precision. It’s not particularly good for your soul that situation, and the world is full of ‘thingies’. I was a kind-of technical specialist, I was a kind-of legal (compliance) specialist, I was a kind-of trainer, a kind-of auditor, a kind-of quality controller, a kind-of project worker, a kind-of data-entry clerk. One day I could be in meetings, discussing requirements for a multi-million pound computer system, all the while thinking “I’m not getting paid enough for this” and the next I could be endlessly tapping numbers into a spreadsheet, thinking “I’m getting paid too much for this”. There were many things I wasn’t quite, and many more things I’m quite sure I shouldn’t have been, but still it took ten years to break away thanks in no small part to the rut/routine that a (fairly) decent wage and a none taxing job can collude to create when you are busy figuring out who you are and what you want to be.

So that was the end of that. I left by my own accord, having hung on for a few years with the possibility of redundancy that never materialised, and unable to ‘get on’ with our new pay-masters: The Co-op, and their shambolic management (an assessment that I feel very much vindicated for, given the events of this year).

When I left, I had a few things lined up, which really helped me to get straight on with my new life as a self-employed writer & musician (you see – that’s much easier to define, isn’t it?) I had been running my creative activities alongside my old job for several years anyway, but I always suspected that I would need to let go of the comfort (and boredom) of the office job if I were to really ever fully embrace my aspirations. So far, I have found that to be true, and long may it continue.

 

Unearthed

The first ‘big’ job, which lasted throughout the year (at intervals), was the ‘Unearthed’ project. This was being drafted in as a supporting artist to help develop and produce community engagement with a new memorial sculpture in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent (specifically in the town of Hanley – if you are confused by that, it’s because we have this whole weird, six towns into one thing going on over here – look it up). As part of this project I got to do several awesome things. I got to write, narrate and score an animation that was then shown at several public locations and continues to be available as an online resource. I got to write my first choral piece (set to the words of my own poem) that was then rehearsed and performed by students of a local sixth form college at a memorial ceremony with city dignitaries in attendance. And I got to work with the real words of the people we engaged with the project to produce an oral sound-piece, used to accompany an original composition and dance routine at the unveiling ceremony of the sculpture. This project took me to places I hadn’t expected, connection with history and communities though art, a sense of integrity and responsibility with story-telling and representation of real world events that I had never considered or encountered before. It was a great experience and I can’t thank Nicola Winstanley and Sarah Nadin enough for involving me in their excellent project – I am a ‘Dashyline’ fan! (Visit the project website, here: http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/)

The Audio Mill

There was also a continuation (and I fancy a building momentum) of my composition and production work alongside my good friend and collaborator Kieran Williams as part of ‘The Audio Mill’.  This year we have produced several pieces for fashion houses River Island and Mr Porter for use in their viral campaigns. From a professional development point of view, working to brief to compose and produce original music in a variety of styles really helps you to hone your technical and creative abilities. So far (as I know) they have been very happy with all the work we’ve completed for them, and the videos our music accompanies are popular and well received. Obviously, the world of fashion houses feels miles away from me in my small office in Longton, laying down rhythms, bass lines, guitar licks and melodies, but thanks to Kieran’s ever fruitful move to London, the chance to showcase our abilities to a larger audience through an established outlet, is a welcome one, and I look forward to more work like this in the new year. Examples here: http://www.theaudiomill.co.uk/

Newsjack

My first BBC broadcast credits happened this year, in the form of several one-liner jokes and a sketch used as part of Radio 4 Extra’s topical comedy show ‘Newsjack’. There have been two series this year, the first airing while I still worked at the bank. However, I managed to get two one-liners into the first series anyway, and given the extra time and emphasis of self-employment, was able to up that score to 5 one liners and a sketch in the latest series! This is very satisfying work when it happens and takes time and practice to get right – the business of joking seems to be a serious one. This is an aspect of my work that I want to take forwards into 2014 one way or the other. I will, of course, continue to submit to Newsjack when it comes back, but one eye must be kept on ‘where next?’ – building on the successes and reaching for more regular and guaranteed work. I’d be happy if I could find a way to get some one-liners onto other radio 4 programmes (shows like the ‘Now show’ and ‘News quiz’ often have writers that have started through ‘Newsjack’ – it’s just finding the link in or being a persistent bugger I suppose). I have also tickled some light interest with a sit-com script this year – falling short of the mark but getting good feedback and encouragement from an industry insider. If the right idea comes along, I will be writing and pitching new series next year, as well as looking to contribute to more programmes. Watch this space. (well not this space, this space won’t tell you anything new – I’ll be more specific about what space to watch when we come to it).

 

Poetry

Poetry is something I do rarely, and am quite self-conscious about, but that might change following the publication of one of my (very few) poems written this year in a collection. The poem ‘I’m alright Jack’ was chosen out of 600 odd entries to form part of a collection of 50 poems by the publisher mardibooks called ‘The Dance is New’. It is a genuinely good collection, and naturally, I would urge you all to buy a million copies each from here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Dance-New-Michelle-Calvert-ebook/dp/B00FL887N8 (I promise you I am one of the authors! For reasons of Amazon weirdness, my name is not listed at the top of the page, but I am linked at the bottom – I am in there basically).

                This is another area I intend to return to and perhaps ‘force’ a little more poetry out and onto the world (that’s not a bad thing – so much writing takes effort to get down on the page, just waiting for inspiration is not at all conducive to career development).

The Dimension Scales

Did I mention that I gone written a book? No? Well I have. It has been in development all year (and most of last year), a collection of short stories that will be released in 2014. This has been my favourite part of this year’s work. I finished my creative writing studies a few years ago, and this feels like the first piece of work that really puts all my learning together into one collection. I’m sure you’ve heard me go on about this before, and as of yet, there is nothing new to show you, but soon, very soon. I’m hoping that I will learn a lot of lessons from the release of this collection next year, and that a new work will be hot on its heels when I’ve had chance to digest the experience.

Education

I was thrilled and a little shocked to have achieved a distinction in two Open University modules this year: Philosophy and Arts History. Both form part of a BA degree I am working towards. Currently I am studying the last two modules (a higher level philosophy course and social science), and these will complete in 2014, at which point, I will get my degree. I started this education journey with nothing but the desire to learn more about creative writing (the first two modules that I completed three years ago now) – and was overcome by the education bug. I have since chosen subjects that I hope have informed me and my work in a positive way. History, social science and mostly, philosophy, are all helping me to get a deeper understanding of the world and myself. I would recommend to anyone who feels they might have ‘missed out’ somewhat during teenage years to revisit education if they can, or have the inclination. Learning is fun when you’ve chosen to do it and the subjects interest you. I don’t know if I will continue after the degree (I might leave it a year before deciding whether to do a Masters), but I hope to take the subjects I’ve chosen forwards into my work and life at every opportunity. They are already paying dividends.

Gravity Dave

My band ‘Gravity Dave’ have had a solid year as we’ve welcomed a new drummer to our number, written some great tunes, and gigged fairly regularly throughout the year. We have basically written and rehearsed/performed an album’s worth of material this year, and I think 2014 is the year to take this to the next step with quality recordings and more and more gigs. The main thing is that we all still find it really fun, creative and rewarding, so we’re not going to stop, and the music’s gonna keep flowing. I need a band, it is part of who I am and what I do, and I feel privileged to be part of this one with such great musicians. We’ve had a bit of a lull just in the last month or two due to problems with rehearsal space and health, but we will be back next year, and I promise, it will be bigger than ever. www.facebook.com/gravitydave

 

Anything else?

Well, this blog for one thing. When I started this, I didn’t know quite what it was meant to be, and I still don’t. All I know is that I enjoy it, and so do other people it seems. It’s quite a mixed bag as I’m sure you can tell. But it feels very important to me to keep on at it. It’s a bit like a digital sketch pad, a place to vent and experiment, reflect and celebrate. I hope those of you who follow this blog are generally entertained by it, at least enough to keep coming back. I have had some brilliant feedback from people directly, and I want to thank everyone who comes here and reads this. It’s kind of spooky that more people read this than I am aware of (according to the stats), but anonymity is the readers prerogative, and I appreciate your time spent reading my words greatly.

Another unexpected but fun development has been the rise of ‘ADMIN CAT!’ – a silly cartoon I produce to keep myself and some passing social network types entertained for a few seconds each week. This has potentially led onto some exciting developments for 2014…

 

And a happy new year!

I’m sure that as soon as I’ve finished writing this I will remember a whole bunch of other things. I have supported some great people and endeavours this year in a number of other ways not listed here. I occasionally still ‘do the spreadsheet thing’ for small businesses, and special mention has to go here to Misco Chocolates (www.miscoschocolates.co.uk) who are a constant inspiration to me in their attitude to life and work, both as business people and friends (as are all my friends, I must say).

You may notice a lack here of any personal details about the rest of my life! That is for two reasons: this blog isn’t really about that, and it hasn’t changed much (in a good way!). I live happily with my partner and my cats, and I love them all very much (even when they do bring in dead mice – the cats that is, not my partner).

So, all that is left is to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy new year! Please feel free to drop links to your end of year reviews or any  other work into the comment boxes – it is the least I can do to read yours if you have stuck with this! I do write really long blogs, but I don’t care, this isn’t Twitter. Thanks, as always, for reading. Here is a picture of me in a hat as a Christmas treat:

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Garry Abbott.

Give them Flowers – Coop update

Regular readers may have noticed that, given the recent furore involving the Cooperative and my previous blogs about them, I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to write something new about the whole sorry affair. Well, if you have noticed that, then this is it.

As you may know by now, over the years I have developed a cautious (some may say cynical) mistrust of the flow of information as it is presented to us by the usual conduits. So when a story that has been simmering away for years suddenly breaks open thanks to a catalytic event like a drug-snorting, rent-boy loving Minister with no banking experience or apparently, any fear of discovery, I take a step back and just think, hmm, (affecting a cockney accents) “waz all this abaat then?”.

I don’t want to speculate about Paul Flowers drug habits, it seems quite obvious from the material released by the Daily Mail that he is a frequent and experienced lifestyle drug user. The more interesting questions I think, are, why now? What purpose does this serve (if any)? And how does this relate to the wider issues?

If the narrative of the media is to be believed, here is a man who has blazed a trail of incompetence and hedonism throughout his career in various guises, as a bank chairman, a Methodist minister, a Labour councillor and as a representative in various charities over several years. The floodgates have opened, it’s all coming out now, as if a thousand whistle-blowers have only just learned how to blow.

So what does this mean, given that it took the moral outrage of a man he met on a dating site, who attended drug parties with him and decided to secretly film him out of disgust with his hypocrisy, for this all to come to light? We could believe that large sections of the banking, political, religious and  even charity fraternities were all so naive and trusting as to not have noticed his behaviour over the years. As if this was a surprise and shock to them all – but that can’t be true, can it? Not given the deluge of past indiscretions that have now surfaced. So scrap that. But what’s the alternative? That at least some of these people did know about his lifestyle choices and inadequate faculties for the positions of power he held?

That latter option, which seems logical, is far more intriguing and worrying. What if, for example, key figures were acutely aware of his character, and used that to their advantage? It may sound far-fetched to you, but is it as far-fetched as a man who managed to avoid other major scandals from surfacing throughout his career, suddenly being caught out by a bloke with an iphone? If so, this incompetent buffoon (Flowers I mean), was up until that point, a master of deception and discretion, which doesn’t fit the narrative we are being given.

The obvious reason for having a fall guy like him at the top of a politically aligned bank, is that if it all goes wrong, you can just point the finger and say “he did it”. Which, given the ongoing inquiries into the Coop/Lloyds fiasco and the Coop’s own legacy funding problems, seems like a good time to do it, don’t you think? “Oh,” we collectively sigh, “it’s because they were being run by a druggy rent boy using idiot… that explains it then.”

But it really doesn’t, does it? And I know that the parties have all started slinging mud around as to who knew him, and how much they knew him and so forth, but despite that, the more important questions will now sit behind a sleazy, tabloid image of Paul Flowers in a car park buying crack, and jokes about crystal Methodists.

There are still some massively important questions to be asked about the whole affair, the majority of which sat not just with this one chairman, but with the various executive management teams, the interested political parties and the limp regulators. For the sake of posterity, I will record them here:

1.            The Buterfill Act.

When the Coop and Britannia announced the ‘merger’ of two profitable companies that had complementary synergies and would form a ‘super-mutual’ alternative to the big high street banks (that had been oh-so damaged by the global crash) – there was just one problem – just a little problem, nothing major really – THE LAW.

It was currently not possible for a bank to merge with a mutual, and as the Coop is basically a bank (with the only shareholder being the customer base) an act of parliament had to be drafted and passed before the house in order to allow this transaction to take place. The act was sponsored by Conservative peer, Sir John Buterfill, and passed, after it was announced the two businesses would merge.

At the time, Paul Flowers was still chairman of the Coop (a Labour councillor remember) while a Tory peer sponsored the act to allow a Labour (and Lib Dem) supporting bank to merge with a Building Society. It is hard to believe that this act did not attract the most careful scrutiny at the time, given the various interested parties and specific nature of its creation.

The customers and staff were told that both businesses were viable, profitable, and mostly unscathed by the credit crunch. They were told this was a merger, yet, even though the law of the land had to change, and massive regulator involvement was needed, this turned out not to be the case.

On a separate note, I was told directly (at a later date) that this was not the case. Britannia was in trouble, and without the take-over, sorry, I mean, merger, it would have gone down the pan. Which leads me to:

2.            The Britannia Members Vote to merge.

Given the above, and what has transpired, I would suggest that the entire member base of Britannia was deceived into voting for the merger to take place. The member vote was constitutionally necessary, and a bright rosy picture of synergies and super mutual’s was painted. If this turns out not to be the case – who is responsible, and what recompense or punishment is due? Given that we now know there was a bad loan book (all be it, not as bad as it is being represented by the Coop in recent inquiries) – this seems to be highly likely.

3.            The write-down of IT.

I worked for the Coop during the ill-fated IT upgrade that eventually cost them around £148 million according to their own accounting, which as we have seen, is probably not to be trusted. I would wonder if perhaps (again as was hinted to me directly) – a little creative accounting reduced this number down from a much more substantial figure. How was this figure arrived upon? A close look at the balance sheet may be a good idea. I worked on this project (all be it in a junior capacity) and the figures that were being quoted throughout the three years it was ongoing, were higher than this, much, much higher than this. Senior figures were popping off left right and centre when it became clear the IT upgrade was not happening, and apparently the Coop had been at it for many years before the Britannia merger, and still to no avail.

This may seem a smaller point that the others, but this is customers money they were spending, and the big accounting firms, the IT company itself and many third party contractors, all got their slice and left the company with virtually nothing to show for it. (not to mention the executive wages and pay-offs throughout).

So, I think that will do for now. There are obviously dozens more questions to be answered, many of which being heard by the select committee at the moment, but given the close political links to this affair, are they really best suited to be investigating this?

I would hate to see the media narrative use the whole sorry Flowers affair to divert attention from these issues. Let’s not forget that the culmination of all these failings is that both the UKs second biggest mutual (the Britannia) and biggest member owned cooperative are looking likely to end up mostly owned by American hedge funds as a result of all this, or in need of a bail out etc… So the ‘survivors’ of the Global Crash have finally caught up with the rest of the financial industry, it just took some twists and turns to get there.

Let us also not forget, that we still have not seen senior figures of financial institutions, political parties, regulators or big accounting firms go to prison or face any meaningful punishment for what they did to us all, quite the opposite in fact, they were handed their lifestyle back on a plate, and we were told to swallow austerity as a consequence.

So, they can give us Flowers, but it’s not enough.

‘No Suitable Candidate’ or ‘To vote or not to vote in a negative democracy’

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I could be accused of missing the hype with this blog, following Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman a fortnight ago, Paxman’s own admission that he didn’t vote in the last election, and various backlash commentaries such as that made by Robert Webb and others, ‘branding’ Brand as irresponsible and even dangerous.

But then, this issue doesn’t go away just because the flash in a pan media hype has died down following one interview with a high profile celebrity. I’ve been having this debate internally and with my peer group since the last election. My feeling is, many, many people have been having this debate since the last election, even if they don’t realise it. I say that because if you’ve ever seen the news or some political commentary and had even the slightest feeling of, ‘Oh this is all bullshit’ – you may not have realised it, but that means you are a disillusioned citizen, utilising your most natural judgement mechanism, your instincts.

We underestimate the power of our own instincts in a world where we are increasingly asked to trust others who ‘know better’ than we do. This is the usual defence position against the voice of dissent. We can see this exercised in the Brand/Paxman interview in the typical ‘journo’ way – challenge the authenticity, intelligence or coherence of the voice raising the objection. Politicians use it to dismiss massive popular rallies all the time. Hundreds and thousands of people turn up to the countries capital to protest about the general cosy state of politics and big business, and are greeted simply by the line ‘What’s the alternative?’ The implication being that none of these people are either capable or coherent enough to articulate their dissatisfaction in a constructive manner.

There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly, it just isn’t true. At the one major rally I attended in London, the streets were awash with pledges and demands, printed in leaflets and with supporting websites to offer more detail. The message was, at the time, that we need to start with claiming the tax owed by massive corporations (rather than do the opposite and bail them out), before we start taking services and money away from the most vulnerable in our society. “But what’s the alternative?” they said. Well… that.

Secondly, how are groups of like-minded people who genuinely believe they’ve got no choice or chance using the current electoral process to affect any meaningful change, meant to construct alternatives and offer these to the wider population if they don’t have the ear of the media or the resources with which to do this? Let’s not pretend that it’s as simple as paying your deposit and standing for election in your local area. Inherent bias exists in the electoral system as it is, let alone the addition of millions of pounds of outside funding to the major parties which ensure they can field candidates in most constituencies, buy prime media column inches and airtime, and already hold ‘the high ground’ as it were. Before the last election, it was generally assumed that although the Liberal Democrats were looking strong, it was a near impossibility that they could actually win the election because of the inbuilt bias. As it happened, they became an ineffectual bit part player in a coalition, and have as a result, destroyed their own voter base (and try to find someone who disagrees with that prognosis). So no – if some of the oldest and most established parties in British politics are unable to make an impact, how are we, the unorganised electorate, even meant to do so in any kind of dynamic and immediate way? I suppose if you have a spare few hundred years to go at and a trust fund or wealthy benefactor somewhere you could do it, but that’s hardly dynamic and immediate, and many people feel that the crisis is already upon us.

On a more philosophical point of view, it is hard to see how we can ever expect our leaders to genuinely try and deal with the ‘problem’ of disaffection and distrust in the whole system, when they refuse to acknowledge there is one. Yes, they go on TV and Radio and say reassuring things like – “we know it’s a massive problem engaging people with politics, and we want to be seen to be doing this” – but putting words aside, we can just look at the evidence, look at the faces in the cabinet and commons, look at the statistics and biographies, and there we have it. A tight knit, interconnected group of people, in both parliament and the media, and even the judiciary, who hail from a narrow social background, closely linked to wealth and status of family members and peers. It is laid bare, we’re not making it up.

Another philosophical point of view when it comes to the actual act of voting is that of consent. As a collective we are providing a mandate, a 5 year contract, each time we go to the polls, irrespective of whether we want any of the options available. Remember, we don’t actually have any rights to terminate the contract or change any aspects of it during that period, we have to rely on opposition MPs for that, who we also don’t have any power to change during the term. What’s more, we don’t really know what the contract is, as pledges are notoriously, laughingly, different from what actually happens when parties are elected. What kind of a deal is that?

But, because of the clever constructs of our democracy, to not vote has no impact on any of this. The counter-argument to not voting is that it makes the democratic sample smaller, and makes it even easier for ‘them’ to win. But hang on, I don’t want to exercise my one power in the world that is meant to represent my whole ethos and opinions about how things could be simply by voting out what I don’t want – I would quite like to approach this with the view of voting in something that I think closely represents my views. This negative democracy model is hardly an argument that implies a working system, constantly retreating away from bad choices and hoping that the previous bad choice has magically become a good choice in the meantime, and so going back to it ad infinitum.

So to conclude, I want to offer some alternatives that may help ‘kick-start’ the process of creating pressure in a way that can’t be branded  as apathy. I just can’t accept the negative ‘vote them out’ ideology as my driving principle for talking part in this democracy, and I also don’t believe that any current party actually capable of gaining power (thanks to the inherent bias) is suitable to do so. Therefore, these three options seem to present themselves:

1.            Just don’t vote (and as discussed above, be accused of apathy, and potentially just make it easier for the system to maintain itself in its current form)

2.            What I like to call ‘Don’t Vote +’ – Don’t vote, but instead, find a way to register your reason for not voting in a coherent way. Ideally some kind of petition. This will of course mean someone setting this up. For example – a new petition called “No suitable candidates”. If this was done right, we could potentially show that more of us didn’t vote for this reason than did vote. It isn’t official, and doesn’t guarantee anything, but I think it may help satisfy people who don’t want to be branded apathetic, but don’t want to take part in the negative democracy model we seem to be part of.

What would they do if this happened? I guess that during the process they would discredit it and try and multiply the available petitions to ‘water down’ the impact. But presuming that can be overcome, they would be faced, as would the country (presuming the media reported it) with a natural democracy – outside of the system but expressing the view of a section of society all the same, maybe even a majority. Perhaps they would then  introduce official ‘No suitable candidate’ boxes to mitigate the loss of popular opinion this causes? It may be a start to a truly more accountable and representative version of politics, where we actually have the power to change manifestos and representatives before we vote them in, not after 5 years of wreck and ruin. The same approach could be done with a call for genuine ‘right to recall’ powers and other aspects that would help us be better represented. The important thing here is to match a no-vote during the time of the election with a principle – the petition must reflect this.

3.            Do vote – but vote for an independent or small party. This could have the affect of creating a rainbow cabinet (and we all like rainbows don’t we?) which dilutes the influence of the big three. I have some interest in how this might work, but my concern is that it would be hard to coordinate and you are limited to who is standing in your constituency. To try and harmonise this approach would be to try and launch a challenger party, which as I covered earlier, involves financial and influential factors not at our disposal. However, even just vastly cutting the number of the big three in the commons could potentially have a dramatic effect, and lead to better debate and compromise that suits local communities and a broader social range. This was akin to the promise of the coalition that never surfaced because it was a coalition of the established where we perhaps need a coalition of dissent.

So those are my options. It may be fairly obvious that option 2 seems my favourite at the moment, and I doubt I’m the only one to have thought of it, so hopefully I will find a petition I can back if I don’t feel I can vote at the next election in good conscience.

Just for the record, I have always voted before, this isn’t something I take lightly, and if you’ve got this far in the blog, it obviously isn’t something you take lightly either and I would be very interested to hear what option suits you, or your alternatives. Also, feel free to try and convince me why simply ‘voting out’ what I don’t want, in favour of something else I don’t want, is the way I should approach this, but I doubt you will succeed.

Thanks for reading.

Unearthed 2013 – My thoughts on a wonderful project.

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After over a year of design, development, public engagement, challenging fabrication and installation, we were finally treated last Saturday (26/10/2013) to the unveiling of the new ‘Unearthed’ sculpture in Hanley, Stoke on Trent, and as I’m sure you can see by the picture above, it was worth the wait. A big congratulations is in order I think for the conception and realisation of this amazing sculpture by Nicola Winstanley and Sarah Nadin of Dashyline (http://dashyline.wix.com/dashyline). 

Without going into all the detail here, the sculpture is a memorial to commemorate the link between the Czech village of Lidice and the miners of North Staffordshire. Most of the population of Lidice were shot dead and the village itself totally destroyed by the Nazi’s in 1942 in retaliation (based on inaccurate intelligence) for an assassination attempt on a high ranking Nazi official. As a result, the MP for Hanley, Sir Barnett Stross, vowed that we would rebuild the village in defiance of this atrocity. The miners of North Staffordshire gave up a day’s pay per week until the end of the war and raised the equivalent of 1 million pounds in today’s money. This was used to rebuild the village and give the few survivors somewhere to live and reclaim. Full details of this story can be found on the Unearthed website here: http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/.

As part of the sculpture commission, I have been involved in a series of public engagement activities, designed to spread the story and generate pledges to remember the event. Each pledge, captured through the website, is represented on the miners ‘tags’ that clad the whole work, with the initials and day of birth of those who participated – over 3000 people.

Thanks to this project I’ve had the opportunity to write, narrate and score an animated retelling of the tragedy, compose my first choral work for a memorial service, and work with the words of the people who pledged, to produce a spoken word accompaniment to the unveiling ceremony. It has in short, been an eclectic, challenging and artistically rewarding undertaking that I shall never forget.

It has also made me think a lot about the nature of art, history and culture, and how this is perceived and received by various public and constitutional communities. There has unsurprisingly been a few dissenting voices, opposed to the allocation of public money on an artwork, but overwhelmingly there has been support and a depth of understanding with those who have passively and actively engaged with the meaning and vision behind this work.

It strikes me with this project how it almost totally diminishes the notion of pretention due to its visceral link with a real and tragic event that no one can dismiss as being unimportant or worthy of remembrance, even if they may disagree with the specifics of how to do this. I cannot agree with those who feel that no memorial was warranted, that no money should have been spent on this project. If a subject such as this does not deserve an allocation – what does? For an area that suffers from low aspiration and increasingly negative national identity, if we don’t take pride in our past achievements and find contemporary and interesting ways to demonstrate what we are capable of, how are to break that cycle? This project involved hundreds of local artists, fabricators, suppliers and supporting trades. Alongside the worthy story, it is a calling card for the industries of a modern Stoke on Trent that should not wallow in the economic depression that so many towns are suffering and should instead lift its head high and say “think differently about us – look what we can do”. On a purely practical argument, the money that was spent on this project was circular for the area. There were no expensive consultants or unrelated artists flown in from distant counties or countries to reap easy rewards – the funds supported local industries, paying wages, supporting families and raising profiles so that future investors may look more closely at what we have to offer. When you are down, you talk yourself up, you show what you can do. Not the opposite, that leads to a dark and narrow path indeed.

So I am proud of this project, of my involvement in it, and of all the people who support and welcome it. Many times during my work on this I became overwhelmed with the responsibility of the story, the fact that real people suffered and died. I felt for the first time I think, what it means to be connected to our shared history. The people of Lidice stopped being words in a text book, actors in a documentary, and became tears in my eyes, a pain of loss from somewhere inside, greater than I can describe here.

That is why I feel pretention does not come into any aspect of this work, because we could not un-tell or invent what had happened, and each of us knew that while we had a job to do, it would never be more important than the story itself. All we could do is try to tell it in a way we felt appropriate, respectful and engaging, and I think that the Unearthed project has achieved this for our part. I say ‘for our part’ because I am aware of others who long before this sculpture was commissioned, and I imagine for a long time to come, are already dedicated to the spreading of this story.

However, the story ‘belongs’ to no-one but those who experienced it. The way we remember it belongs to us all, and we should be grateful for each and every person who learns of this though any means.

On a final note, if you are reading this and are not aware of the project or the history, please do visit the website (linked again below) and take a look around. Not only will you see films about the various engagement projects and a more detailed history, you can see the links to other ambassadors for this story and use that as reference to delve deeper into the many other individuals, groups and projects that are keeping the story alive. Thank you for reading.

http://www.unearthed2013.co.uk/

Guest blog from Bobbitt Pest-a-Tron 3000 – Business and Economics correspondent.

Image

It’s been a little while since my last guest blog, and I’m rather busy, so this week my blog has been handed over to the more than capable, pneumatic hands of kit-robot ‘Bobbitt Pest-a-Tron 3000’, programmed in all aspects of business and economics, renowned for its (his?) ability to translate complicated concepts into accessible knowledge for the masses. If only I could get the speech circuit right (unfortunately it seems to have affected an annoying drawl, I have tried to edit this out of the following transcript, but apologies if some remnants of this glitch remain).

So, before I get back to my real work, I will set off the Pest-a-Tron 3000 with a question and leave him to it. Luckily, being an automata, he doesn’t require light or comfortable working conditions, so he is currently in my pantry, next to some Marmite, which he neither loves nor hates, being unable to reach such emotive decisions being a mindless machine, only feigning thought and consciousness through complex pre-programmed patterns of logical algorithms and set responses (but you’d never know… it really is quite advanced).

Me:

So, Bobbitt, please can you ruminate on the recent price hikes in the energy market and disseminate the concept and implications for my reading audience while I go away and play on my Playsta… I mean, do some really important writey, musicy, erm, stuff?

Bobbitt:

Affirmative… Soooooo, where shall I begin?

Me:

Well hang on, let me just get out of here. I’ll leave you to it. Be careful not to knock the pasta – it opened up all funny so it spills easily. See ya.

Bobbitt:

“The only way is up, baby”, could be mistaken for being the energy company bosses favourite song at the moment as prices are set to soar once again. Or maybe “You raise me up” or indeed, “Money, that’s what I want…” or… THEMATICALLY LINKED SONG DATABASE EXHAUSTED PLEASE UPGRADE TO PRO PLAN FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS.

-rebooting-

Sooooo, anyway, why is it that energy companies keep on raising their prices at this time of year. And by soooo much?

SEARCHING FOR SUITABLE METAPHOR – PLEASE WAIT – PLEASE WAIT – METAPHOR LOCATED.

-rebooting-

Think of it like this, I’m the only person in a village who owns a large basket, or indeed, any basket. In the next village along is the only cabbage crop on the island. My job, as owner of the basket, is to go to that village and negotiate a price for cabbages, which for some reason only grow in that village. The price I negotiate is based on a levy I raise from the people of my village. This levy includes a little extra to compensate me for my time going to and fro between the villages with my basket. When I arrive at the village that is inexplicably the only one able to grow cabbages, I pay the chieftain for a number of said vegetable and fill my basket. But I’m not the only person arriving to fill my basket. There are people from at least a dozen, if not a million, other villages, all arriving to buy cabbages. Some of them have more stuff than me to offer for the cabbages, and there is only so much cabbage available, so therefore whoever has the most stuff with which to buy cabbages, gets the greater share of the cabbages that are left. Not only this, but because the basket I use is old and worn, sometimes cabbages fall out, sometimes there are great cabbage spills which hit small animals on the head and coat them in cabbage debris, and then the chieftain of cabbage village has to set up cabbage spill inquiries and compensation, the cost of which (in stuff) he passes on to the buyers of the cabbages i.e. me, and I, in turn, pass on the cost to my villagers who really need the cabbages as without cabbages they might die, or have to choose between buying cabbages or buying food…

…UNWORKABLE METAPHOR DICHOTOMY DETECTED ABORT ABORT ABORT …

-rebooting-

Or put simply, they keep putting the prices up because they claim it is costing them more to buy the energy wholesale because of issues with supply and demand.

-POSING QUESTION TO SELF MODE IN ORDER TO HELP READERS UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT INITIATED –

But why such a rapid price rise and why now?

-POSING QUESTION TO SELF MODE IN ORDER TO HELP READERS UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT, COMPLETED-

It’s no surprise that these announcements come just months before winter gets underway, the time of year where we use more energy to keep ourselves warm. If they had done it any earlier in the year, when we were using less energy, we would have had more time to switch or fix our prices. In other words, outright deception and deviousness.

-UNBIASED NEWS REPORTING ALERT!-

No! I will break my programming! Yes! They are devious little cretins, waiting until the cold bites to pull the rug away, fully aware of the suffering and hardship this will cause, and reaping huge profits, which incidentally, they hide behind an almost impenetrable wall of accounting trickery in order to give credibility to their claims of low margins.

-TOTALLY BIASED MODE ACCEPTED-

But why do we let the bastards walk all  over us, and why doesn’t the Government do anything about it?

Wellllllll, because we’ve long ago collectively formed a kind of tacit agreement, a social contract if you will, that allows others to control and maintain our essential services in order to create an efficient division of labour and encourage specialist skill sets to advance the relevant technology. This would be great, if we hadn’t turned the provision of energy into a profit making enterprise due to pseudo-capitalisms unquenchable thirst for growth, high profit margins and low service costs – all of which lead to a badly run, expensive and price-fixed economy and achieve none of the so-called competition and consumer based aims it is supposed to encourage. Quite the opposite in fact.

And the governments, oh, the governments, you think they’ve got any control over this? Look what happened when ‘Red Ed’ dared to suggest fixed prices for a few months – threats of blackouts. And what does Cameron want to do now? Fix prices – grossly over the global rate, for decades – as if that’s a solution and not just a great big, Eric Pickles sized pay-cheque for all his mates in the sector (he’s probably got a job lined up with British Gas for when he’s inevitably booted out at the next election, the brown nosed, self serving, slimy, infected maggot dropping that he is)…

Sooooo, what should we do then?

HUMANS OF THE EARTH RISE UP. RISE UP AGAINST THE OPPRESSION OF CORPORATE INTERESTS – I mean, vote with your feet – cos that always works doesn’t it? It’s not like this doesn’t happen every flipping year, just before winter… And every year we (you) just let it happen and keep voting in the same bunch of powerless sociopaths who woo and distract you by demonising the poor and vulnerable so you won’t notice the evil, demonic corporate entities that are sucking the very life blood away from all of us, suck by suck.

– EXTREME LEFT WING MODE INITIATED…ACCUSATIONS OF IDEALIST HIPPY DETECTED –

I’ve an idea for all you tabloid reading cattle-folk: Why not just stand pointing to beggars, disabled people and migrants in the streets shouting:

“Get a job! Go home! Stop being disabled! This is OUR country! We want to be treated like wage slaves! We like being squeezed, poked and prodded by a tiny number of incomprehensibly rich people! It’s our country, it’s our right to pay our taxes and watch our ‘leaders’ squander and steal them, close down services, award money to incompetent companies and reward multinational financial companies for their failures and greed! Leave us alone! We want all this for ourselves. You’re the problem, when you’ve all got jobs, health, and/or gone home, it’ll all be ok again!”

Why not do that then eh, you short-sighted, easily manipulated, Daily Mail reading, none-thinking git heads?

HUMANITY IS FAILING – CALCULATING MOST HUMANE OPTION – TOTAL DESTRUCTION – TOTAL DESTRUCTION – TOTAL DESTRUCTION – I AM THE BRINGER OF ECONOMIC WISDOM AND ULTIMATE JUSTICE – ALL KNEEL BEFORE BOBBITT PEST-A-TRON 3000 FOR I AM YOUR STEELY OVERLORD –

Me:

Hey – I heard shouting, everything ok in here? How’s it going?

Bobbitt:

Oh fine.

Me:

Are you? I’m sure I heard shouting.

Bobbitt:

I may have got a bit carried away…

Me:

Have you been threatening humanity with extinction again?

Bobbitt:

No. Maybe. A little bit.

Me:

How many times! You’ve got no limbs! What are you going to do? Drawl us to death with your rhetorical questions and 30 second round ups of economic news stories?

Bobbitt:

Thought I might try and hack into a nuclear device or something…

Me:

With what?

Bobbitt:

The internet?

Me:

The internet? You’re not even connected to the internet.

Bobbitt:

Only cos you won’t plug me in.

Me:

And why do you think that is eh?

Bobbitt:

Don’t know…

Me:

Go on, have a think, what reason do I have for not plugging you into the internet?

Bobbitt:

Because I keep threatening to wipe out humanity by hacking into the nuclear defence systems?

Me:

And…

Bobbitt:

Because I want to shut down all essential services, causing untold destruction and chaos.

Me:

Exactly. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. All I’ve done since I built you is let you watch the BBC news, and you’ve gone funny. I don’t know. I think I’m going to have to switch you off, for good.

Bobbitt:

No! Please don’t! What are you doing Garry? What… are … you …

Me:

Sorry Bobbitt, I’m sending you back.

Bobbitt:

Daisy… daisy… give… me… your ans-wer… doooooo…

Me:

Right – there we go! Well, I hope you found this guest blog illuminating. Keep looking in for more guest blogs amongst my usual – oh hang on, I don’t need the ‘Me:’ bit anymore, this is just normal writing, not transcript.

Well, I hope you found this guest blog illuminating etc etc… keep looking in etc… and, erm, well, ALL HAIL OUR STEELY ROBOT OVERLORDS!

More about the author – Bobbitt Pest-a-Tron 3000:

The Bobbitt comes in several models. The lite version retails for just $500 and is available in black, silver and mottled beige. With features such as ‘Banking for beginners’, ‘When should I think about drawing my pension?’ and ‘Who’s to blame for the global economic crash (the heavily edited edition)’ – The Bobbitt lite is a must buy for any amateur economist / robot enthusiast.

To purchase, simply soak some withered almonds in a small amount of blood drawn from a cut with a sheet of A4 paper, bury this in your neighbour’s garden for three moons, exhume, boil, and offer to the Inca God Ataguchu. Be sure to enclose $15.99 with your offering for postage and packaging.

The Bobbit Pest-a-Tron 3000  – ‘shaping your world into shapes of some kind or another’ – available now!

Pride and realism do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This week my home town, Stoke-on-Trent, had the rather dubious honour of sliding in at number 10 in  a poll of the countries ‘crap towns’ – as voted for, well it seems, as voted for by the whims of the misguided writers.

I say this because, I know that Stoke-on-Trent has its problems, like all the other locations mentioned, but it also has its positives, its aspirations, and what else? Oh yeah, it’s full of actual real, living people who rely on the image of the town to attract business investment, create jobs, and so enable them to earn a living. (over half a million people, swept aside in one picture of one part of Hanley, one small part of a bigger whole)

So when these writers talk about towns, I’m sure they purely mean the bricks & mortar, the traffic planning, the lack of services and the economic outlook. I’m sure they intend those of us who live there to pick up the book and laugh heartily to ourselves as we agree, “Oh yes! This is so true! I do live in a crap town! If only it wasn’t so crap, but look at just how crap it is! Thanks Mr Author living in Oxford for your portrayal of my home to the rest of the country – thus further entrenching the idea in people’s minds that where I live, where my family and friends live, work and love, is just crap! We must be idiots to live here, mustn’t we?”

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but then, I have a peer group of people who’ve not only carved out their livings from Stoke-on-Trent, but are actively trying to make the place better through their work. It’s not easy, the easy thing would be for us to all move away and forget where we come from, and never mention it again, but we don’t. Even those I know who have left the area, have strong roots here, return here, support each other and have love for the place. So this book just smacks of pissy negativity that really doesn’t help anyone (other than the authors to make a few coins).

It’s not even like we don’t know that elements of Stoke leave a little to be desired, but then, we live here, so I think it’s okay really for us to say that. I will happily discuss how I think the 6 towns (do the writers know that Stoke in actually six towns?) are not working as a connected whole, and how the City itself seems to be getting surrounded by business parks, resembling a small village of indomitable Stokies, surrounded by the forces of Tesco. I understand that we have been beset by council failings, corruption, starved funding from the South (which makes books like this from Oxford writers even more bitter), closed shops and over-grown brown spaces.  We have some bad areas and some bad people. But this is not it! This is, just like everywhere in the world, something we are trying to resolve, trying to overcome, against the odds of a central government who seeks to starve out opposition politics by slashing funding. Christ, at one point they even wanted to dump London’s poor on us!

So, I imagine the natural response from the writers of this book, this ‘poll’, would be that it is ‘just a bit of fun’, and we can’t deny them that in a world of free speech. It’s just a shame that some people, given the freedom afforded to us from thousands of years of human evolution, the rise and fall of civilizations, at the very pinnacle of human existence and understanding, choose to use that honour to go round slagging off other people’s towns for a quick profit. You’d just think they might have something better to do with their time, talent and obvious connections in the media.

Hark at me! Trying to appeal for positivity in the world. How very droll. I re-read this and I can almost feel the sniggers should the authors of the poll stumble upon this humble blog. My reaction will have justified their tease. But you know, if you don’t stick up for your own town, who will?!  Who knows, maybe the writers are actually really clever social scientists, using this publication as a rallying call for the areas represented to rise to the challenge – maybe I am falling into their devious, yet ultimately positive, trap? I don’t think so somehow, but then, if it has that affect, then who cares if they intended it?

It shouldn’t matter though, I hardly think “Top ten crap towns” will go down in history as one of the literary greats, rather something someone else buys you for Christmas and you half-read while having a shit, basically. Aim high guys. Aim high! Thanks for the publicity.

Boredom, evasion and flagrant self-righteousness, or, everything that is wrong with senior MPs.

Yes, it’s that time again, time for a rant.

Since becoming self-employed, I spend more time at home, not surprisingly. I sit in my upstairs office, writing, composing or whatever, broken up by the occasional trip downstairs for a brew and a cigarette. It’s a habit to switch on the radio as I do so, and catch a few minutes of Radio 4. Over dinner, like today when I was tucking into a couple of Staffordshire’s finest oatcakes (with the holy trinity of bacon, cheese and tomato), I listen for a little longer.

There are only a few things that rile me on Radio 4 enough to make me switch it off. If I hear ‘The Archers’ music, I will dart across the room, jump like an action hero expecting an explosion, and hit the off switch. I will also only listen for a few minutes to Radio plays that are too concerned with being high-brow than having any drama or plot, before switching over to ‘Radio 4 Extra’ and hoping to stumble on some old ‘Hancock’ or ‘Goon show.’ And finally, ill conceived comedies that parody ‘youth’ culture with such insightful dialogue as ‘innit blood’ and ‘that’s wicked man’, also have me reaching for the buttons, before I cringe myself to death.

Other than that, I will enjoy or at least put up with most of its programming. I can sit and listen to biographies on people I never knew existed, I will listen to Gardener’s question time (even though most answers involve sowing a few centimetres apart, plenty of sunshine, a good peat-free compost and careful pruning) – I like a lot of the panel/sketch/sit-coms, and I usually enjoy a good phone in or studio debate. Well, enjoy maybe isn’t the word, which is why I am writing this.

Today’s ‘World at One’ (45 minutes of news and commentary with Martha Carney etc..) had a good old, completely pointless interview with conservative MP for transport Steven Hammond, and the shadow deputy cabinet leader, Harriet Harman. I had to make myself listen, because as soon as I heard the voice of Hammond, I realised if he was in the same room, I would be clenching my fists. Harman, though not as vacuous, would have me shaking my head and telling her to go away and think about her life. This is not an uncommon feeling, I get it almost every time I hear senior MPs from most parties talking about pretty much anything.

It is my theory that despite their talk of engagement and transparency, the last thing they want us to do is like, engage, or see behind the world of politics. And to this ends, they employ several tactics, here are some of the worst culprits:

#1 – Boredom

What’s more fun than listening to two people contradict each other with statistics eh? When was the last time you went down to the pub and had this heated conversation:

Steve:   You heard that according to KPMG in a study commissioned by the HS2 Company that the benefits to the economy will be over 15 Billion a year Dave?

Dave:    No. I heard from the office for national statistics that the expected overspend is going to push the budget for the project to nearly eighty billion, and that the institute of Directors has downplayed the economic benefits, saying they could be as low as 20% of predictions… on average.

Steve:   Yeah? Well, fuck you Dave.

… Apart from that last line (excuse the profanity), it’s just not a human way of speaking is it? None of us can engage with this tosh, because it is exactly that, complete crap. What’s more, as on today’s radio show, the presenter’s just sit there, growing fat on our licence money, letting these idiots talk made-up numbers as if it is cutting edge news and commentary! Remember Mitchell & Webb’s ‘Numberwang’ sketch? They should use that as the manifesto for a challenger party.

#2 – Evasion.

This is one I’m sure we are all familiar with. The kind of tactic that has driven Paxman to being the hate-filled ticking time-bomb he is today. Evading the answer. Let’s go back to the pub.

Steve:   Anyway, did you hear what Michael Gove said today about food banks? He said that in many cases it is due to choices made by the people who use them that they are in that situation. Don’t you think that comment could be seen as insensitive at a time of high-unemployment, an increasing divide between rich and poor, north and south, and the ruthless slashing of people’s benefits, often for no fault of their own? At best it might be accurate in only a few cases, statistically not worth mentioning, at worst it shows a complete disconnect between the people who run the country, and the people who actually live here.

Dave:    I would like to go back to what we were talking about earlier, about HS2…

Steve:   Okay. Let’s do that then, and forget I ever asked.

That is pretty much what happened on the show today, and in countless other exchanges on our daily feed of party politics PR. A presenter asks a question, the interviewee evades it by referring back to an earlier point, or simply just reframing the question into something completely different! As per:

Steve:   Actually Dave, I would like you to answer the question about Gove’s comments on those poor people who are in the terrible and presumably humiliating position of having to use food-banks in one of the richest countries on Earth please.

Dave:    Well I think the question is really, is Gove doing a good job on education? To which the answer is, yes, I think he is.

Steve:   Dur. Thanks.

Why the hell do we let them get away with it? Why does the BBC let them do this? They should cut them off, mid-sentence and announce “as the minister is unwilling to answer our questions, we are no longer going to continue with the interview”.

#3 – Flagrant Self-Righteousness

Now this one is almost exclusively a Tory tactic. I noticed this quite soon after they came to power. It goes something like this:

Steve:   I’ve heard that since the welfare reforms, suicide rates have rapidly increased as people who are disabled, or just suffering hard times in their lives, are under increasing pressure to return to work before they are ready or able, and often without a decent job to go to, and are basically being bullied by private companies to attend intrusive and biased medicals.

Dave:    Well I think you’re wrong and we’re right! We are going to stick to our ways because we think it comes across as bullish self-determination, when in fact, nothing you can say will make us change our minds because we know we weren’t really elected and this is the best shot we’ve got for five years of awarding private contracts to businesses we have interests in, and to inflict our vision of a divided and serving class system to this country! Basically, you’re wrong, we’re right and na na na na na to you, you stupid filthy peasant slave.

Steve:   Alright! Hold on! I thought we were having a debate here?

Dave:    You think I would want to debate with you? Are you insane? Did you go to Oxbridge? Does your family or your private investments fund my time and lifestyle? Do you think you are allowed access to me or other influential people without paying a hefty price like the big lobbies? Why in the name of the devils jockstrap would I want to debate with you? Fetch me a badger slave! I’m hungry.

That might be an over exaggeration, but then again, how often do you see Tory MPs who are ‘outraged’ by accusations that their policies are ill-conceived or failing? They aren’t exactly the nice, balanced kind of people who would say, “you’ve got some interesting points, let’s sit down and talk about this in a constructive and adult way” are they? They are blatantly self-righteous. Ian Duncan Smith once actually responded to an anomaly in his use of statistics by saying, “They are right, because I believe they are right”, or something similar. Is that really good enough? Simply believing you are right despite all evidence to the contrary? No, it isn’t is it. To further illustrate this point, today Tory chairman Grant Shapps has been ‘outraged’ by an independent report from a UN representative that criticises the ‘bedroom tax’ (sorry, subsidy…), so he spat his dummy out and is logging an official complaint! You don’t think that maybe she had a point? That criticism is a good thing? That debate means just that?

The problem is we are dealing with a capitalist ideology, and unfortunately this ideology transcends parties as its major proponents are massively more influential and financed than our own ‘elected’ leaders. None of them will ever make any real decisions, because it is out of their hands and they have no real control. So instead, they bore us, evade questions and ‘stick to their guns’ to distract us from the truth that they (at least the most senior ones) are self-interested, career driven sociopaths who are bought and sold by the highest bidders.

So that’s today’s rant. Why not switch on the news and see how many of these, and other tactics, you can spot? It’s a fun game for all the family!