Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Not much changes...

For the present day, the word 'dead' has been banned from any editorial coverage of Burslem in my newspaper. The word rings around too much like a mantra for me to want any part in reinforcing it, as it does no service at all to all the living, breathing people working hard in the town*. You'll find the script here if you scroll down the depressing Doulton story and even more depressing bulldozer comment, by 'Burslem resident'.

Today I was told about a video from the 60s in which people talk about the decline of Burslem, which surprised me. To hear about that period today, you think it was the most bustling, thriving time. It reminded me to dig out a passage in the Old Wives Tale, coming up to its centenary next year, with Sophia's reflections upon returning to Bursley after a few decades getting rich in Paris:

In its contents the Square had not surprisingly changed during the immense, the terrifying interval that separated her from her virginity. On the east side, several shops had been thrown into one, and forced into a semblance of eternal unity by means of a coat of stucco. And there was a fountain at the north end which was new to her. No other constructional change! But the moral change, the sad declension from the ancient proud spirit of the Square--this was painfully depressing. Several establishments lacked tenants, had obviously lacked tenants for a long time; 'To let' notices hung in their stained and dirty upper windows, and clung insecurely to their closed shutters
The Square really had changed for the worse; it might not be smaller, but it had deteriorated. As a centre of commerce it had assuredly approached very near to death. On a Saturday morning thirty years ago it would have been covered with linen-roofed stalls, and chattering country-folk, and the stir of bargains. Now, Saturday morning was like any other morning in the Square, and the glass-roof of St. Luke's market in Wedgwood Street, which she could see from her window, echoed to the sounds of noisy commerce. In that instance business had simply moved a few yards to the east; but Sophia knew, from hints in Constance's letters and in her talk, that business in general had moved more than a few yards, it had moved a couple of miles--to arrogant and pushing Hanbridge, with its electric light and its theatres and its big, advertising shops.

The heaven of thick smoke over the Square, the black deposit on painted woodwork, the intermittent hooting of steam syrens, showed that the wholesale trade of Bursley still flourished. But Sophia had no memories of the wholesale trade of Bursley; it meant nothing to the youth of her heart; she was attached by intimate links to the retail traffic of Bursley, and as a mart old Bursley was done for.

* However, it does make for a great Facebook group title.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Voices from Burslem, Tunstall, Middleport, Cobridge...

As I think I've written here before, Global Voices is one of my favourite websites. It collates world voices in a way that amazes me - volunteers who manage to put together views of their region that are both comprehensible and complex. From my computer I've felt closer to people and countries that I may never visit but that tempt me with their stories of culture, current affairs and, often, food.

One of my criticisms of the site - though I understand the reasoning - is that they don't include disenfranchised voices from the so-called developed world. In an area like Stoke, blogging has not yet taken on the importance that it has in many of these countries. The internet is taken for granted as a tool for entertainment, education perhaps, but rarely self-expression. D'log and Two Up Two Down are two great local blogs that lead the way and Mindblogging has also made a good start with a directory of blogs encouraging people to write about mental health issues as well as everyday life. The bloggers in the group are exploring the medium, supporting each other and using blogging to engage in dialogue with each other, rather as they do in areas covered by Global Voices where bloggers have formed communities. There is a form of self-expression on the website of the main local paper but... I would cause myself problems if I wrote anything more about how soul-destroying it is.

In the first month of my new project, the articles I'm probably proudest of (many not written by me) have been those that give a flavour of local voices. A front page article had a hint of dialect in one of its quotes. “Them that’s got vehicles, they’re OK and I don’t begrudge them, but there’s a lot of us old ones today who never learnt to drive and can’t get very far now.” Bob Adams, whose handwritten contributions I'm loving even if they have to be typed out, writes about Burslem's past in a way that evokes local conversations about history, and again there are bits of dialect in there. "Mum and Dad however weren’t struck on Blackpool. “Your money goes too quick there, you’ll be spent up in no time.”" And a recent article included quotes from a public meeting, giving a voice to residents of Slater Street. Although the dialogue there is continuing, it felt important to reflect the anger expressed at the meeting in a way that gave the sense of the meeting (in Quakerly terms). I didn't include, but liked, the phrase "As far as I can see, you've gone all the way round Burslem and come back again".

This area is one of constant conversations. In Tunstall people are in more of a hurry, but in Burslem many now know me or know they can come to the shop to talk about some aspect of the area. When giving the paper out, it is normally impossible to cover the length of the shopping area on market day without having given out all my papers while talking to someone or other. In the first issue, we had an article about Sytch Village, one of our displaced/demolished communities, and people are still coming to tell me about their lives there. In Burslem, the past is constantly layered upon the present as older residents remind each other of what used to be where. Sometimes this is couched in negativity, but not by everybody. Our shop, for example, used to be Slacks, and because of the stories of so many people I can forget the bleakness of a quiet day and think of it when it was the place where girls used to wait for their dates for the evening. Those that could afford it went to one of the two cinemas on Bournes Bank, while those with less money, or no date, just walked round and round Burslem with their friends, meeting each other and eyeing each other up. Sometimes they would spot a celebrity near the Queens Theatre, but they wouldn't have been as interested in them as in the everyday interaction amongst themselves.

The constant conversation is also an education. Nothing is ever simple. Far from the safe office world where you are roughly in agreement in everybody, you have to grapple with your own views in the face of real experience of racism, crime and economic deprivation. After three weeks full time in Burslem, I suffered a real bout of culture shock, no longer knowing where I fitted in amongst the groups that we tend to classify: the people often bought in from outside trying to regenerate the area, the economic underclass, the creative workers, the traders, the powerful, the powerless... I could see parts of myself in all those groups and felt in danger of falling between the cracks. It doesn't help that there is a level of personal scrutiny that I was unprepared for. In this area, you have to constantly guard against bitterness here and where everything is a risk you have to avoid looking for people to blame. Luckily, I've got a support network of inspirational people who help me embrace the struggle to succeed and who affirm that it is worthwhile to try.

And so, in all, it's a lot of fun. And with more resources I hope that my project will draw more local voices out and help to represent this indefinable area in its true light: vibrant, problematic, diverse, exhilarating... just as other places have been able to do through Global Voices.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Which space?

Sad to see that is closing down (login probably needed). always seemed to me to be a great place of potential but I never had the time for it. It had an overload of discussion and it was frustrating to start reading an interesting conversation only to find it had been going on for two years and you were never going to absorb enough information to join in. I made some good connections there though and liked the project that enabled each person to sponsor a breakfast in Uganda. It was quick and simple.

Obviously every space can't be as simple and instantly-gratifying as, say, Facebook. But the online eco-system is something we're not making the most of yet. We move between overload and meaningless interaction. What would work for me is a space where:
- 'everybody' is and I can read their profiles to see if we have anything in common
- we have structured, timed conversations or seminars where I could learn something and go away with at least one action point, something manageable
- we move away from the instant-response model that we're moving towards online where if you don't act on something immediately the chance has passed, perhaps going back to a wiki-like structure that can be built upon by anybody to evolve but ideally without having to understand every layer
- we can access the information we need quickly and not always rely on others to answer questions for us - I guess this requires a collation of everything already out there by Google or somebody
- words & ideas can be tranformed into action by anybody, anywhere
- the burden of organisation is lower than that of action

Any ideas?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

I couldn't help myself. Up at 7am to start building templates and instead gave into temptation to get onto

So two hours later, I give you the White Llama playlist, currently indulging my deepest 90s memories... it's a bit flaky so far. Apparently I have to spend the rest of the morning on it too. Oh hell.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


This post will work just as well here as on the new Local Edition blog and is a helpful reminder to readers that I'm still here, though commuting much less.

Today I received official confirmation of my Unltd Milennium Award, given to support social enterprise. As long as I can get the forms sent back, this will be a great boost and it is a fabulous network to be involved with.

According to their website, 'UnLtd's social entrepreneurs are real visionaries - people who want to change the world. That doesn't mean they necessarily develop complex, global solutions to large-scale issues; often, social entrepreneurs simply take a problem in their own community and make a commitment to tackle it.'

They also demonstrate (quote):

  • Vision

  • Determination

  • Passion

  • Self motivation and self belief

  • Flexibility

  • Resourcefulness

This is a very nice description and I have enough self belief to think it all applies to me (that's the benefit of being an only child). It carefully misses out their (or at least my) lack of form-filling ability, fear of cold-calling and a slight tendency towards wasting too much time on the internet. And a terrible track record for turning up on time to anything, ever.

The best thing about this project so far has been all the support I've had from other people. People say it's a brave thing to set up a newspaper alone, but I haven't felt alone once in the whole process so far. It is difficult to sell the idea of free newspapers to people, especially in a place where suspicions run high, but when they have become clear on what the paper is setting out to do, they have wanted to help and be involved. Next week, of course, I'll be knocking on a lot of doors following up those offers, so be warned!

On which note, if anybody would like to start writing for the paper please get in touch with your ideas. Everything that comes in will be edited to fit the vision that is currently all in my head and indescribable (it will be great though) so it's the raw ideas I'm most interested in rather than if you're a highly experienced writer. As well as news and information, there will be opinion slots and features about everything that has a relevant angle. Sport is going to be covered by Anthony Munday, who comes very highly recommended, and obviously the more information people send us, the more we can include.

Apologies if my sentences have taken a very long turn. It's been a very long day.

Monday, June 04, 2007

I don't really like it when people write about Facebook, especially in the papers. It seems rather like jumping on the bandwagon, or worse, risking scaring everybody off. There's the inevitable fate becoming so popular that it becomes hijacked by the PR companies and eventually brought up by some media mogul who can take our data and manipulate us in all sorts of wicked ways. There's also the tedium of journalists blatantly putting together stories from their desks based on nothing more revelatory than the fact that 'celebrities' have friends in 'real life'! And we can find them seven degrees away through our own friends! Hold the front page!

But it is worth writing about, so forgive me for a post. I've done my fair share of evangelising and physically forcing people to sign up to the site ever since falling for the newsfeeds that make it so alluring to come back to and so easy to update. Most of the sites I've dragged friends onto have proven difficult to maintain and even that simplest of communication tools, email, has ground to a halt under sheer weight. I know I'm not alone in rarely reading them properly anymore and in spending far more time sorting my inbox into neat folders designed to manage time than actually ever getting round to responding. As a very useful article once said, all 'action' trays, whether physical or virtual, are simply there to hold everything until it has become old enough not to matter anymore. Which in today's world is about four hours.

But that's another issue. For now, Facebook is in a honeymoon period. As every social networking tool has tried but only Facebook actually appears to be succeeding in, it is providing millions of people with an eco-system for trivial interactions and passing viewpoints (OK, that might be a good description for all the web, but this one presents it particularly well). I think it is those in their twenties and thirties for whom this is going to be most significant - the point when its members are old enough to have children in their twenties or thirties could, I suspect, signal the exodus. This audience needed a lot of persuading to sign-up, unlike the sparrow-like hoards of teenagers who will sign up to a Nigerian lottery site if the rest of their class does. Some of this audience have never really experienced internet addiction before on this level, the quick fix that comes with a snippet of information that you can respond to just as quickly. Others have been addicted for years and are just glad other people have now joined them.

I was very pleased to read the story today of workers in a law firm who just won back their right to access Facebook, particularly after commiserating with a friend who has just been banned and will now miss out on the hours of newsfeed that reel away other bored friends' status updates and public wall gossip. It is positive that that people are demanding their right to this interaction because while it may be trivial, it is no less so than the smalltalk workers make around the watercooler. At least on Facebook people have, to a greater or lesser extent depending on their personal definition of what constitutes a 'friend', chosen to be in touch with that person rather than accidentally ending up in an office with them. Now I'm lucky to have had wonderful colleagues for the last few years but know plenty of people work in environments that are little better than Stalinist states. The ones who ban Facebook, for example (you know who you are). This particular law firm, backing down, came out with some spurious excuse about video streaming on Facebook taking all their bandwidth. You might ask yourself what else is broadband for? Then you might remember that few people upload videos to Facebook and the real culprit of such bandwidth-banditry is usually ugly, ugly, noisy Myspace.

The law-firm accepted the networking advantages of Facebook in their climbdown. While I fear slightly for a world where professional networking involves that much disclosure of your private life, it doesn't surprise me so much with lawyers. I was going to use the description 'coke-addled vandals' but this isn't a convenient time to be sued, so we'll move on.

Happy workers are those who can meet their friends, spend a little time laughing at a joke made by someone they like. Who can shriek, Wooster-like, at seeing old chums, all as they alt-tab back to their spreadsheets and databases. Happy workers are productive workers and far less likely to take a sick-day if they know they will see their friends at work. Only true addicts would really take whole days off or completely abuse their Facebook privileges, because it is quick, pleasing gratification that we crave, not more overload. It is our safe space where we can catch a glimpse of our friends' worlds, where we can share our good and bad news, emotions and opinions. Much like the pub, but cheaper, quieter and on tap all day and wherever we happen to be. Lovely.

But it isn't real life, so in case you're in the vicinity, here's another blatant plug for a real life gathering place (with its own Facebook event page, natch*):
Come to the Burslem Festival on June 23!

* Ooh. Memories of Just 17 just came flooding back.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Venturing into Burslem

A few months ago, readers may remember, I helped organised a trip for several Londoners to Burslem to find out all about the exciting opportunities on offer in the town for creative young professionals. I had no idea that the trip would so convince me of my own hype that I would be handing in my notice a few weeks later.

Now I find myself just about to welcome the new production manager of The Friend and handing over my job in order that I can start my new venture in Stoke. Call me superstitious, but I am hesistant to put the full details online until I have the company all set up and am absolutely sure I won't be going cap-in-hand for a job at some big Northern newspaper group, but the project is a real one and has already received an enormous amount of encouraging support.

I have been experiencing many of the support systems for businesses that I extolled on the Londoners' trip. It has been an interesting experience. I would still certainly say that if ever there was a time and a place for starting a business, Burslem provides a really attractive option, especially to anybody used to London prices.

It's a bit of a turbulent economy. Locals are having to get used to paying the same prices as everyone else for food in pubs - because energy costs are the same anywhere in the country - but we still have buildings selling for far under the national average and a lot of empty space. I'm not very worried about leaving London permanently because I assume I can still get a train back easily enough, but have been a bit perturbed to discover that the price of a railcard-less open return is the same as four-and-a-half weeks rent in a starter unit. Some article I read last night said that the West Midlands economy would have 10 billion pounds more if it only grew to the national average, which I didn't understand but seemed pretty monumental. Although I'm obviously one of those taking the route of 'if there aren't any jobs for you, create your own', it troubles me a little to wonder if the scope for start-ups is really quite as big as is implied. After all, you might get 1000 new ideas for startups employing five poeple each but are the next 1000 also going to have fresh ideas or will they compete with the first wave? And even on those employment levels, you're still not matching the massive employers that used to surround Burslem. But I'll leave such troubles in this cage for now as these are exciting times.

Writing as a form-phobic, the application processes for funding and business admin has been difficult but not impossible. One real problem is that while there are hundreds of grant and loan schemes out there, the vast majority of them have some exclusion in the small print that makes ploughing through many of them largely a waste of time. A genuinely transparent, useful and open system would see all the money pooled together and managed by organisations who would get to know your idea and then match you up to funding. A decent panel could make sure this wasn't abused. This approach - without the funding - is roughly equivalent to that taken by Bizfizz, whose coach Carolyn I say without a hint of hesitation has made it possible for me and many others to actually take the leap into business. Without frightening me with a single form, Carolyn's approach lured me into writing my own business plan *because I wanted to*.

So in a month, all being well, my project will be a real thing. I discussed giving up White Llama with Riaz, partly because it seemed so linked with the long distance commuting, and also because I was starting to fear the director and managing editor of the new company might start to see the blogger as a loose cannon. And that could lead to schizophrenia.

But Riaz convinced me to carry on, arguing that people would be interested in the adventures of a new media social enterprising entrepeuneur cutting its way through the edge of Britain's most exciting region. Well, I doubt that. But since another regular visitor, Jess gave me a little award, upon which I haven't even had the time to reflect and glow but intend to do so in another post, I will try to continue bringing you the new chapters of White Llama's adventures. Just remind me, if I start to rant too much about councillors, mayors and regeneration, that while the journalist without opinion may be a mythical beast, the quiet Llama is perhaps more likely to make friends.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Back on two wheels

After several months apart taking cowardly refuge in the warmth of the car, Warhorse and I (that's us two in my profile photo) are back together again.

Warhorse, clad in silver after being expensively repaired - a year is a long time for anybody to stand with a bare chest - came roaring out of Foleys and we quickly reacquainted ourselves with the joy that is Stoke traffic in a blur. 'Never stop!' Our mantra, except of course when it is safer to do so.

I nod again at all the bikers, caring not a bit if they ignore a scooter, because in my heart I know I am a biker with biker's blood, an armoured jacket and the words of my CBT trainer who said it would be a 'tragedy' for me to go back to the scooter after learning to ride a geared bike when I retook my CBT. A tragedy it may be, but I whisper under by breath that Warhorse, with her powerful forward thrust, is a greater bike than the Honda 125 and why use all that energy trying to remember where the back brake went, how to engage the clutch and what gear can I possibly be in? I hardly dare write it in a public place but it is so - Warhorse and I are very happy together.

We take up no more space on the road than we need, we - did I say it before? - skip past the endless traffic jams of Stoke while keeping beady eyes out for aggressive road users. ('What do we know about cars?' Said the trainer during the CBT. 'BAD....' we baahed in unison. 'That's right', he said, and we turned to another grim video set in the hospital) Being Spring, this is the time when all the youngsters are awarded scooters as part of their Asbos and so the little tykes are causing trouble everywhere, giving the rest of us a Bad Name. But we don't mind, we sail gracefully on, doing our death looks over our shoulders and at the cars all around. We hope for another summer of warm air (though accept there will be some soaking days and we praise our thick sturdy wheels) and for not joining the ranks of 'statistically, you will probably have an accident'.

* * * *

I had thought to take a camera with me to take a typically boring photomontage of the White Llama commute, but abandoned the idea after accepting that the train was moving too fast most of the time and that people look at you funny if you start snapping away out of the windows. Presumably you are plotting something terrorist or something.

And then, what happens? A virtually empty train and we stop at a lovely view.

Swollen river babbling away below the train, badger birds* flitting in the trees, wide expanses of green field spotted with white swans relaxing in the morning sun. In the background, barely visible amongst the old trees, rustic manor houses.


* These stripy birds are my favourite and are actually called long-tailed tits, but you can't say that in England without raising a snigger or bringing more unsavoury visitors to your site than since the last time you wrote about Mischa Barton. They are distinctive for the way they constantly move, flying with a bobbing motion and chattering all the time quietly and lower than most birds. They hang out in gangs and if you can sit and watch them quite closely you can see that they are very colourful. The tedious White Llama photo montage on the right has a couple of photos of them, but, as you would expect, they fail to do them justice.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Listening to the Voiceless

'If our poverty is the cause of our being ignored then I fear for the future. Where there is interest there is energy and I fear we will lose the energy. We will keep shouting to the end and keep suffering.'

This was said during a meeting in Kigali in 2005 and has always stuck with me, partly because I quoted him in an article. I believe it's based on an Abraham Lincoln quote. The participant speaking was from the DRC.

Today I found myself digging out the quote while I thought about Middleport, Stoke-on-Trent. It has taken a lot of shouting before I've really understood the point of view of the people of Middleport and I find myself listening more carefully to them at each meeting of the steering group for the area.

Middleport sits on the canal between Burslem and Longport. Frankly not a place you want to stop in at night. But an evocative place where there are still enough terraces to get lost in. It looked as if all those terraces were going to be knocked down like vast swathes of Stoke-on-Trent have been before. When I first heard the arguments against it I was pretty unsympathetic. It's got high crime, slum landlords, damp, unmodernised homes. Clear it and start again. Why not?

Well, the biggest why not is that it isn't just a few rows of old fashioned houses, it's a community of people who do not want to be uprooted. Many are very responsible, friendly citizens who just had the misfortune to live for decades in what is now deemed a 'blighted area'. So, turn the question round - why should those people be uprooted, displaced, rehomed while everyone around them lives in fear that the demolition ball will get them next? I've sat in steering group meetings where it has emerged, quite gradually because people are tired of expressing their anger, that the vast majority of people round the table think this will happen to them. For generation after generation, people in Stoke have been dispersed through interventions like this and communities have been broken up. It's not hard to see why people might feel powerless.

But, the action group have not let it just happen. In a clever move, they took their case to the Audit Commission, who have ruled that no decisions can be made until the masterplanning process is complete. RENEW agreed to this and have put all decisions on hold. And on hold they are. But meanwhile, youth and outsiders who think the place is being knocked down have moved in. Houses are being vandalised, stripped of their copper and the whole area is being made even worse. People's choice right now if therefore leave, before your house is pulled apart or your life is put at risk, or wait. They are already asking whether there will be houses left by the time the masterplanners' options come through.

This isn't choice. And though I am in favour of the steering group, it suits people like me, who essentially want to be involved in a process that will see house prices go up and the area generally become more successful. Who live in houses that are already seeing appreciation and who don't mind that we have borrowed to get on the housing ladder. It's easy to forget from the perspective of myself and absolutely everybody involved in national politics, that this is not the culture everybody exists in. With housing for so many people now out of reach, it may not be long before we are all reminded very strongly indeed.

House price rises do nothing but create more fear for many of the people of Middleport, who are perfectly well aware of the gap between the £65,000 the council is offering for their houses, the £40,000 or so value some are going for in the blighted areas, and the houses on the regular market which are up to £20,000 more for an equivalent. None of those figures make sense to people who have probably never spent more than £10,000 on a house in their lives and may not even be earning a salary anymore. Their only option is aid from the agencies to put them in another house, possibly putting a loan against their name and all in all ensuring that the developers get their profit on the houses they've built, with affordable houses subsideised by easily accessed mortgages for everybody deemed rich enough to borrow eight times their income.

At the moment there are two options, both passive for the residents:
- demolition & rehousing
- refurbishment through grants

I would like to suggest two more:
- community land ownership - the money granted to purchase people's houses passes on the land to a community trust rather than a developer and enables people to stay in their houses and only resell them at a reasonable rate for the whole community
- refurbishment by the community, which could start right now with residents associations, local artists, other community groups and agencies working together

If anybody has any other ideas, please comment. We will know in a few weeks what the options are going to be and how much genuine community involvement there will be.

In the meantime, this is a little part of Britain that deserves our attention. I don't think they would appreciate me wading in suggesting the best thing for them, or anyone else. But the more ideas that are out there, the more we can uphold their right to have their voices heard so that they can't be told 'this is the only possible way'.

They've been shouting and I hope their energy is not killed off by neglect.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dear stressed commuter,

I see you two or three times a week and you’re always shouting at someone. You seem to have more mobile reception than anybody else gets, except I don’t believe there’s anybody hearing you at the other end.

Have you ever wondered why everything is so difficult in your oh-so-high-powered job? Has it occurred to you that if you didn’t spend your time from 7 in the morning shouting at your minions and your family, life might go a little smoother for you? I saw you this morning, having a go at the innocent ticket inspector, claiming you spend £250 on a return ticket. That’s a lie. You travel standard class with me. Don’t exaggerate your woes with people who can’t do anything about the power failure in Watford, it just makes you look silly.

Can’t you calm down a little? I fear that you will kill yourself. The Virgin train is not a place for angst and stress, it is a place for sitting back, putting the phone on silent and watching the fields go by while you make the most of your time offline to plot and dream. We don’t like your seething frustration, it makes a mockery of times of genuine crisis. If you are so genuinely important, go away and sit in first class and stop mithering and moaning in our vestibules all the bloody time.

Yours sincerely,
White Llama

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

National Quaker Week

National Quaker Week is coming up in September and I, for one, am looking forward to the chance to become a Quaker for a week. Centrally, a programme of newspaper adverts and publicity is being planned and local Meetings will be doing their bit to bring people in off the streets or gather them in the market places and hills as in old.

It should be fun. Just as Fairtrade fortnight is a chance to indulge in good chocolate, coffee and again decide you will buy fairtrade clothes instead of cheap bright things from H&M, National Quaker Week will be a chance to enjoy some silent Meetings and worship in your own style. Be sure to give up violence (physical and structural) for the week, especially if you are an arms dealer, prime minister or manager. Wage real, active peace and discern some brilliant ideas, being sure to find collaborators who can change the world with you. If you really want to go for the Fox style of Quakerism, wear simple clothes, drop all titles for the week, wear a hat at all times (especially if asked to remove it) and step into pubs to verbally abuse the revellers in such a way that actually persuades them to come out and join you in a Great Gathering.

I hope that Quaker Week will spread internationally too, with all the great new Friendly bloggers sharing their journeys online. Online Meetings will undoubtedly take place but it's also worth checking out a real Meeting in your area where hopefully they will be holding some at better times than Sunday mornings (in my experience a time of silent slumber without me having to get up to sit in a circle with other people). The Meetings I've taken part in during busy times have been the most valuable, injecting inspiration and energy into the day from an apparently quiet time.

I've decided that the only way to celebrate National Quaker Week is through a Facebook group. Let's hope my addiction hasn't moved on by September. I'm now looking for real-life Quakers to be the elders and overseers of this enterprise so if you're on there, come and find it!

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Modern times

Yesterday I went to the Publishing Expo at Olympia, after a four hour journey to London Paddington via Reading. Paddington is lovely, shame about the rest of West London. The curious thing about the exhibition, but entirely expected if you think about it, was having a barcode on your entry badge scanned all time by people at the stalls and as you went to the lectures. Now as they have my work contact details and will probably want to write to me about services I can choose to use or not, I didn't much mind.I would probably find this more bothersome if I had paid to go in.

Apart from the books of fonts (as Chloe said: mmmmm), there was one thing that really impressed me. A tool to turn our whole world interactive.

There are links displayed all over the place nowadays. But the trouble with links is that you have to remember to go and look them up when you get onto your computer. And there's so much else to do online – once you've checked your email and updated your Facebook status you're in a whole different realm and what ou saw on the side of a bus has disappeared from your mind completely.

So there I was, a-wandering round the show, thieving as many pens as I could. 'Do you want to see our stenographics', he says [actually I have a feeling this might be a longer, more dinosaur-like word]. 'OK…' says she, one eye already on the bowl of sweets at the next stand. We peer at an ordinary looking page with pictures of clothes on.

And then, he whips out his mobile phone, takes a picture of a rather nice dress and before you know it, the phone is connecting to a website with more pictures and information on how to order the dress. Ooh! If you look very closely, you can see how it works. In the background of the
image, a faded yellow jumble of symbols acts rather like a barcode – but it's much
less ugly and indeed you barely notice it. Suddenly, with that, life is breathed back into the dead medium of paper. Your newspaper could become a truly interactive experience. You would be able to point and shoot at adverts on the bus or paintings in an exhibition and find out everything about it. That instinctive tactile feel we have for the web, where we click away wherever the whim takes us, will apply to the real world. Soon, I ponder, they'll be imbedding this stuff on plants so we can instantly tell if it's a daffodil or a pansy. After all, our memories, like hard drives, need to keep space free, so who wants to remember whether that's a chaffinch or a goldfinch and how far each migrates, when all this stuff can be accessed at the press of a button?

It's bloody amazing, that's what it is. And it's in Japan already, so expect it here in, well, probably less than ten years… Google it on the Fujitsu site to get a much more technical description.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Cats, cats, cats

I had to post this after watching it for the third time this morning and laughing just as much - it has everything that is amazing about cats: genius, stupidity, dexterity and a miraculous moment of a cat bouncing on water

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Tuesday's Observations

1. Steven Milliband suggests that all Londoners will one day carry carbon credit cards, probably attached to their Oyster, all-seeing-eye ID cards (trying saying that in one go). I'm happy with the idea of an individual carbon allowance but more worried about the idea that there will be benefits to not using your carbon allowance, such as being able to sell points. I hate to sound reactionary, but wouldn't this become some sort of alternative benefits system. Either you charge people to use their points, which is a disincentive to work for those who often have the least choice in their working hours or locations*. Or people can sell their points, which is (sounding more like the Mail by the word) an incentive to do nothing. If you sit in your flat, lights off, TV off, heating off and don't travel anywhere, you get paid by some gas-guzzler from Hammersmith. Is that going to keep the economy moving? Or, you have no incentives or disincentives but simply an allowance which, if my generalised view of the British is correct, will be treated as a target. I'm not sure of the way round it but I have a feeling that anything styled like credit cards is bad news in the current English climate.

* That assumes you have to travel to find the best jobs, which is currently often the case. Maybe the carbon allowance should provide more inventives for businesses to provide for working from home?

2. In The Commitments, a film whose soundtrack often makes it onto my phone-MP3 player, the link is quickly made between soul and sex. Nowhere, in my slightly nervous state of mind, is this more apparent than in the song 'Take me to the River'. There's a certain frisson to the invitation to take me to the river and wash me down (wash me down).

There's also a certain religious feel to the song and there is, you might argue, a parallel between the song in this film and the scenes of Oh Brother Where Art Thou where the beautiful girls are in the water being baptised and, in another scene, seducing the heroic felons while in both cases singing. Singing-water-sex, and not forgetting of course Danger. Like a lot of soul classics, Take me to the River has its roots in gospel and, as in Southern America, there are strong links in Ireland between music, religion and secret sex, probably on riverbanks.

The church, let us not forget, is/was the path to the marriage bed, although in truth I suspect this was never the untrodden destination it was billed as. Singing is the union of voices. So, think on.

This isn't going anywhere, just some passing themes and intertextuality to spice White Llama up a bit and remind this blogger of those happy media studies A-level days.

Isn't it getting nippy now?

Friday, January 19, 2007

There may be ice in Texas, but here we got hurricanes

(warning: this is long, and probably fairly dull)

Here's a few tips if you ever find yourself arriving at Euston for your regular train home, only to find all the lights off.

Don't take the first answer you hear. That person will tell you to go and find a hotel. Obviously, that's madness. How are you going to get a hotel with 1500 others banging at the door? Keep asking the people in the red coats and clipboards, persuing various route options with them on their computers if you must, until someone tells you something you want to hear. Hang around the people with the radios. Nothing, but nothing is traveling north of Wolverhampton, they will insist, clipboard in hand as, eventually, a tannoy sends you all off in a better direction. They will run some trains if they possibly can, you see, because the staff want to get home. So follow the staff. My train, the one that should have been inpossible, ended up going all the way to Manchester.

Once on board, wait a little while then go and investigate what treats are on board for you to have. If you're really lucky, there will be some free coffee on the go, but since the staff have been negotiating the Isle since dawn, they will more likely have abandoned the shop with a box of cakes, sandwiches and water bottles. If you're really lucky and go hunting early on, you might get juice. Go easy on the supplies though, you don't know how long you're all going to be stuck together and you don't want it turning into some savage zombie movie.

Mull over the CBB racism row for a while, giggling at the picture of Gordon Brown with the Indian finance minister. Poor sod.

Think on: If you're going to be racist to anyone, make sure it's the biggest star of the biggest film industry in the world. This was obviously the thought flitting around Jade's head as she embarked on a bullying campaign with fellow white contestants of Big Brother. It has given us the best headline in the Sun this year: 'halfwit Jade starts race war with India'.

If it's any comfort, passing Indians, nobody likes Jade or Danielle (?) much in Britain either. With any luck, their self-elavation to the status of biggest pariahs in the world will ensure they need to be kept in a cave for the rest of their lives. What is less comforting is the idea of two nuclear powers letting this escalate to the point when somebody, a fan of Shilpa or Jade perhaps, 'accidentally' hits the red button. After all, people on army bases monitoring the dusty old nuclear deterrents probably have a lot of time to watch telly. That, friends of the House, is why we'd be better off spending our money on polar bears than the Trident replacement. Listen to the Faslane 365 (419 arrested so far, *4* charged if I remember rightly – which I probably don’t)

Anyway, what people don't like to admit is that they * love * massive weather catastrophes in Britain. OK, you don't love them if your lorry is blown over or your roof is torn off et cetera et cetera, but on the whole there's nothing that brings the British (at least the travelling ones I brush shoulders with) more pleasure than getting on their phones and secretly outdoing the people near them about *how* late they're going to be and *how* bloody awful the information was. Most of all, it's a chance to show off your intercity knowledge as you vie over possibilities for interconnection, preferably to your bored child who you've put on standby on the home computer in order to find routes for you so you can then get your wife to pick you up from the nearest possible county and spare her the *hassle* of going 75 miles when, if you plan it right you can probably get 45 miles away from home and she can pick you up in central Birmingham. And won't she love that. Secretly, she's wishing you had stayed out for a quiet night with the secretary so she could just watch Emmerdale in peace.

Hail the bright lights of the Midlands spy-centres. Suppose they were built to brighten up Arnold Bennett's boring journey north, but probably a bit late.

Hope, somewhat, that it won't be like this next Thursday, when your author is due to be introducing several young Londoners to the delights of Burslem. Come to Stoke! Commute to London! But maybe not in January (wind), February (snow) or July (heat). Or October (birthday).

Get as far as Stafford, where hordes of stranded Virgin staff have converged to form a trainful of red uniforms wneding its way, slowly, to the North. Bargain with the coachdrivers outside until you have formed a gang wishing to go to Stoke and democracy wins out over the person who wants to get to Congleton. Joined by someone who will be taken to Liverpool and wonder at how optimistic they must have been feeling when they jumped on a train to Stafford in the hope they would find their way another 80 miles.

Home for ten, well into the 8th hour of commuting, feeling quite lucky. Decide to work from home tomorrow.