Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Two ideas for Stoke's community assets

Why couldn't we spend a £40 million capital loan on current council-owned buildings across the city instead of just one? Here are two ideas for what we could do with them if we did, for debate:

Make every space a working web hub
The advantage of having so many buildings across the city in an era of broadband should be obvious. Forget the idea of single-use, purpose-built offices and make it possible for every council worker and councillor to book and log in to a computer in any council building. They could also use the spaces for meeting local people and partners or to support day service users and others with care needs. Charge organisations or projects that can afford it, otherwise allow free use - prioritising paid hiring and asking groups who are meeting for free to be flexible with the space they have. Make wifi available even if computers aren't possible. Put in more terminals if they can be supported - free for library uses and the unemployed, perhaps with subscriptions for those who want to spend longer on them. Train staff to train more volunteers to encourage even more people to get online and provide the often intensive one-to-one support this initially requires, or to run local informative web services the rest of the time. This would make a massive contribution to digital inclusion in the city, bringing cost-saving benefits to council and other government services. It could bring community members out of their houses and give them valuable experience and skills and the people who become really good at it can end up trainers, consultants or entrepreneurs.

Broadband also provides a wealth of further business possibilities: low-cost studios for local photographers or rooms with specialised hardware and software for organisations that occasionally need them but can't afford a full suite of their own, or for education. Secure storage facilities and meeting rooms could again be rented to organisations or provided to council workers to enable work across the city without always using cars. Huge numbers of us could then work within walking distance rather than having to commute, which would have a positive effect on rush hour and make Stoke an even more pleasant city to live in. If we need to go across the city for a meeting, then we can stay over there and work rather than having to dart back to a fixed office. A lot of these facilities will require funding as well, but this can be developed gradually with creative, small projects including, of course, energy generating projects.

Social enterprise coffee shops should be encouraged everywhere to provide grazing for the emerging generation of people who want to work virtually with wifi as well as older people who want to stay warm and get out to meet people. These shouldn't undercut local markets but should provide test-trading spaces that allow people to start out in small business, as has been done within some of the markets, and learn skills, as seen very successfully at the Burslem School of Art cafe. Again, as long as the basic infrastructure is provided, barriers to entry can be reduced and as people become more confident they can  move on and encourage more people to follow in their footsteps.

Broaden business planning and grow confidence 
The current CAT process puts enormous pressure on small community groups and committees to find all the answers by themselves. Just as with Tunstall pool, the likely answer is that there is no wealthy flock of pool-goers queuing up to maintain an expensive Victorian pool within the current recession. The pool was enormously popular but relied on subsidies and school visits. That isn't to say that the same group couldn't have been an effective steering group, growing local involvement and finding new income streams for the pool. The group's biggest problem was that as soon as the pool closed, its users dispersed and the life was drained from a passionate campaign and loyal groups.

You could have many groups working for different generations or different parts of a building and its gardens, spreading the workload and risk and drawing on wider population groups. The best example of this working is Burslem Park, where years of volunteer effort developed into a strong, viable Heritage Lottery funded project with equal input from the council and other partners.

The groups of volunteers who are attempting to take on big, risky community centres and run them sustainably deserve a confidence boost and a lot more love and respect. Councillors and officers should be shouting about their efforts from every rooftop and linking them up with every source of help they can think of. They're doing it for the benefit of others in their community, people who in many cases can't afford to go anywhere else. Many are themselves retired and would prefer to be users than building managers. Many more people will not - can not - get involved because they haven't got time or energy for what looks all too often like an impossible challenge. A few of these groups make it to become strong cooperatives or development organisations. Others dwindle and struggle on.

To hand over the entire risk of community buildings is unfair and, potentially, undemocratic unless you can get definite assurances that they will make it available for the whole community; borne more out of desperation to save money than any strategic thinking. Kneejerk hurtling towards closure leads to expensive, depressing, confidence-sapping monoliths sitting in some of the most high-profile parts of the city. Instead, basic coordination, facilitation and maintenance of buildings and land could be provided by the council while they are in their ownership - not forgetting that this cost and responsibility could be handed over if they are sold to viable organisations that have had the time and space to develop properly.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

This Land is Mine and Psycho - a comparison

Today I watched the 1943 movie 'This Land is Mine'. Amazed that the internet mice haven't written more about the links between this film and Psycho, I thought I should oblige. I've tried to avoid spoilers here as I do recommend both films if you're not already familiar with them. 

This Land is Mine is a fairly explicit propaganda film made once America was involved in the second world war. It is set "Somewhere in Europe" and that somewhere is probably France. It starts out as a lightly comical look at life under occupation but later becomes a courtroom drama. The transformation of the main character is from cowardly schoolteacher and mother's boy to upstanding pacifist martyr, speaking out for his nation and finding a voice to express himself to the woman he loves. It has some great speeches, wittily shows how resistance took place in nations that ceased to be free and effectively portrays the easy charm of the Nazi message in starving Europe. It highlights at several points how easily the "middle classes" (which has a wider meaning in America than Britain) in any country can become collaborators. It reaches out to different audiences across the seas by including a reading from the French Bill of the Rights of Man, which has much in common with the USA Declaration of Independence. They were both influenced by Thomas Paine who spent much of his life in France and America winding up his old country by being the really popular writer of Rights of Man. This Land is Mine is a wonderfully stirring affirmation of human rights. It had a record-breaking release at the box office, according to its Wikipedia entry. Its publicity poster, and the title, puts me in mind of Gone with the Wind with the red sky and a strong woman in the forefront (1939).

Source: Wikipedia: fair use claimed.

But enough background, onto the intertextuality! As a media studies student I gained more than a passing acquaintance with the symbolism in the 1960 version of Psycho and, although I'm going to have to watch it again to really indulge myself, many crossovers leap out. Most obviously, the mother and son relationship has been completely caricatured in the later film, with Bates picking up the metaphor in the courtroom scene that "we are all two people" and running with it to portray the twisted relationship in which his 'mother' persona kills women out of jealously and possessiveness. In This Land, the killing is not done with a big knife, but by informing. In a couple of cases, this looks far too much like deliberate copying for comic effect, such as a sillouette of Charles Laughton coming down the stairs that looks like the famous view of a Hitchcock cameo and his bursting towards a frosted door with murder in mind has echoes in Janet Leigh's shower scene. I'm sure someone will tell me if I'm reading too much in to this. 

In Psycho, Saul Bass's titles and much of Hitchcock's direction includes shadows and the screen being split by lines, suggesting split personalities. In This Land the shadows of windows elegantly show the reality of imprisonment despite apparent freedom. This is underlined by the release of a pigeon that is trapped and given to one of the main characters for food. This theme is again echoed in a monologue by Norman Bates about his creepy taxidermy collection. Is there a tabby cat in Psycho? In This Land, the tabby belongs to the woman Londy loves who comes into his bedroom through the window at night (the cat, that is, not the woman). He brings the cat down to breakfast in the morning and gives it treats in small acts of rebellion against his overbearing mother who, obviously, hates the cat. The camera lingers on a crushed rose given to the character by the emasculating Nazi soldier as he quoted lines from Romeo and Juliet at him and tried to woo him into yet more betrayal. More watching and reading to see if there are any links there. 

So the question, my fellow students, is: what were the makers of Psycho trying to do by nicking so many of the elements of a film about Nazi-occupied Europe? Psycho is based on a novel written the previous year, a fairly straightforward tale of an American gone mad and I think most of the crossovers have been added in Hollywood processes. How about personal links between film-makers? Hitchcock and Laughton were both British and contemporaries, born in the same year and with a similar career path. They never worked together again, as far as the listings tell, following Jamaica Inn, which was Hitchock's last UK-based film before they both went to Hollywood and in which, according to Wikipedia again, there were creative tensions between the two. Could the similarities in character portrayal, in particular of the mother, be theft of a rival's work, or a tribute made in admiration for strong and memorable performances? IMDB's entry on Psycho mentions how much of the film revolves around the new highways that ripped so much of old-time America apart; this could have been a shot at modern society's so-called freedoms or perhaps it was a way to remind some of the audience at least of a film they would have remembered from a more noble, or difficult, time when people faced the sort of choices that make Marion Crane's choices look like actions of a woman in a decadent and self-serving era. Incidentally, comparing the two the portrayal of women is probably more sexist in the later film; although Crane is a liberated modern woman she is punished for it, whereas the two women in This Land, although apparently more dependent on their men, are portrayed as less duplicitous and braver than most of the male characters. Even the mother is a fierce anti-Nazi when they get on the wrong side of her china collection.

Psycho could be trying to revive messages from the earlier period, or it could have been portraying a psychological reaction to the traumas suffered in the old world during the war: Norman Bates' character is portrayed as immature but could be old enough to have grown up in the late 1920s and 30s, coming with his mother like many others and changing their name to something more American. Are we to read Psycho as a portrait of a country pathologically damaged by its roots?

Ot it could all simply be coincidence that these were common symbols and the mother's boy/mother were stereotype characters in this period, making for easy shorthand for Hitchcock and his film-literate audience? Discuss...