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