Monday, 31 October 2011

The folklore of black dogs in Yorkshire

The problem with Hallowe’en is the Americanisation of an ancient festival.

What we fear nowadays has more to do with Hollywood. Forget the Vampires, the werewolves, Frankenstien’s monster, and the return of the mummy.

The forgotten history of the West Riding holds much more frightening things:

Behold the BLACK DOG – a creature to strike fear into the hearts of anyone – well may be not this one. But for many centuries a large Black Dog with glowing eyes could paralyse anyone with terror.

It can also manifest as a demonic Sheep or an enormous black donkey. The black dogs appears at night seeing it would herald the untimely death of someone nearby.

Throughout European mythology, dogs have been associated with death and guardians of the underworld. This association seems to be due to the scavenging habits of dogs.

Just hearing the Berghest is enough to herald the death of a close relative. Try to stop it, and you will only hasten your own demise rather. The name derived from the same term for other bedtime monsters like bogie men and boggerts, the term Berghest comes from burh-Town and ghest–ghost.

But it seems to have Germanic origins - linked to Odin, the leader of the Wild Hunt a lone hunter tracking down a lady of the forest accompanied only by his two dogs.

In Leeds one term for them is Gabble Retchets, or gabriel’s hounds, from the Old English word “ræcc”, meaning a dog that hunts by scent. Appropriated by the church Gabriel is an angel linked to death who serves as a messenger.

As Mother Shipton's Prophecies "For storms will rage and oceans roar, when Gabriel stands on sea and shore, and as he blows his wondrous horn, old worlds die and new be born.”

In 1879, folklorist William Henderson described them as “monstrous human-headed dogs, who traverse the air, and are often heard although seldom seen.” In the neighbourhood of Leeds the phenomenon is held to be the souls of un-baptised children doomed to flit restlessly around their parents’ home.

A man called Nichols, writing in 1828, sai :-'Leeds has it's distinct Padfoots, distinguishable one from another, for almost every street'.

Padfoot, another name for the black dog, come from Wakefield, Leeds, Pudsey, and Bradford The soft padding of feet is first heard before the clanking of chains. It pads softly behind you and if you look back you’d see a shadowy, half-real creature in the hedgerow. Enough to frighten some to death in an instant.

Although dismissed by some as bean geese, In 1664, Reverend Oliver Heywood wrote: “There is also a strange noise in the air heard of many in these parts this winter, called Gabriel-Ratches), the noise is as if a great number of whelps were barking and howling, and ‘tis observed that if any see them that person dies shortly after.”

Whilst One source from Sheffield informed Henderson that “the sound was exactly like the questing of a dozen beagles and highly suggestive of ideas of the supernatural”.

Story is told of a man, whose way being obstructed by the Padfoot, kicked the thing, and was forthwith dragged along through hedge and ditch to his home, and left under his own window.

A man in Horbury saw a white dog in the hedge. He struck at it, and the stick passed through it. He was so "flayed" that he ran home trembling, went to bed, fell ill and died

But is this just a tale from the past? In 1993, a driver saw a large shaggy beast roaming between Horsforth and Rodley, that left him in dread fear for days.

In 2001 in Leeming bar: A large blackdog with no face and floppy ears ran in front of a car with two women in it. The hound pass through the bonnet untouched. A man that the women spoke to once they reached their destination later killed himself.

In 2009, a large black beast was been spotted on the tracks near Burley Park station by railway workers. In 2011 in Carlton, organisers of a rave heard unearthly growls and snarls that appeared to follow them wherever they went but they couldn’t find the source of the noises.

Take care and don’t have nightmares.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

How good is your Reputation? Let's make a list

I can’t help feeling that the Lists function on Twitter is one of the most underused resources on the social media platform.
The problem is that lists evolved after many started using twitter and the early adopters found it too onerous to populate them.

I feel I underuse them and will often find folk who I’ve not categorised in a key list of mine.

One advantage of lists is you don’t have to follow anyone on them but you can get a feed of tweets.

This means a project at work, news feeds or accounts of mild interest can be separated from your main twitter feed, reducing the useless tweets.

I’ve also used them to follow particular events or conferences. In particular, I use the lists to follow the Tour De France by getting the latest reactions from the leading riders as they send them out shortly after each stage. During the stages, the breakaway updates can be tracked at a glance.

But there is another intriguing way of using lists. It is an easy way to look at someone’s reputation and find more about a person or company. It’s also a way you can register a protest, affecting someone’s reputation without their knowledge or ability to change it when they finally cotton on.

So how am I thought of by the good folk of twitter?

Most associate me with my work with 47% linking me to my core industry sectors or recognising my ability to help their business. Even within this list there are positive phrases that help show my reputation; for example “PRs I Like”. I also personally think “Grow my Business” is another list that shows I’m offering them assistance.

My locality accounts for 16% of the lists made about me. They recognise I’m from Leeds although some add me into Wakefield where I have worked in the past and done a fair amount of business. The global nature of Twitter does also show itself as I am also classed as a British tweeter by one account out of the UK.

The next significant grouping is blogging with 1 in 10 listing me related to my blog posts or in relation to the cultural blogs posting I make on this and other blogs.

But 14% of the lists I’m baffled by. What does IRL stand for in relation to me? Or Honk and Towit? What connection do I have with music promotion and why does someone think I am a shop? Answers on a postcard please.

One person does think that I’m cool, which is erm…. pretty cool. (But Just one? Pah)

Most of the rest know me personally and add me as a known friend with only one person sadly following me because of my hobby rowing. I say sadly as I follow quite a lot of people involved in rowing, and they follow me back. I’d have thought more would have listed me.

So what does your twitter listing say about you? May be its your chance to change your output to make people think of you in a different way.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Do companies really value social media?

Social media is often seen as the panacea, the cheap alternative or that silver bullet to solve a company's problems.

It isn’t any of these things, but a successful social media strategy can make a major impact on the way a company does business.

Because of the transparent and open nature of social media, it can affect a business down to its very core values and change the culture of the staff.

Finding different and effective ways of communicating with customers and stakeholders can turn a good SME into a growing business.

The problem is that some companies see the success of their peers and decide they want a slice of the action.

Social media strategies, particularly among SMEs, are becoming more ‘me too’ and less strategic.
I’ve been involved with projects which owe more to sticking a moist finger in the air than any analysis, benchmarking or realistic targets. 500 followers or likes sounds a good figure to aim at, so that’s the target even if the major competitor with a 2 year old Facebook page only has 125 followers despite a lot of hard graft.

The same goes for the level of investment. Just because a project is “cheap” to set up, labour costs and the intellectual property value of a concept or idea is seriously undervalued. Just because something is cheap to make, doesn’t mean that a fashion brand will charge basement prices.

Look at the adverts for vacancies linked to social media. They often look for someone who can impart a vital board-level vision for the company, deliver campaigns and carry out the day to day management. Sometimes this includes direct reports.

Change the words ‘social media’ for marketing, human resources or accountancy and you’d be looking at a big salary. Yet many firms think they can purchase this strategic knowledge for a wage just above the graduate entry mark.

There are enough examples of companies brought down by poor social media strategy, ignoring customer services, abusive messaging and failing to deal with issues with products despite plenty of people trying to help the business. If Vodaphone can be caught out, then what chance does the local cake shop have?

That said, the local cake shop social media is possibly run by the owner who is sensible, has strategic knowledge and knows their customers inside out. The danger comes when you give the task to a recent graduate because “young folk know about that social media thing.”

There is a massive myth about the capability of twenty somethings with social media. Some understand it, but basing strategic knowledge on keeping in contact with your mates is a very odd concept. They are also good at talking on phones, but does that make them experts on creating voice based information services or a search engine for a mobile based website?

Equally, why does being good at Facebook qualify you for understanding LinkedIn which has a hugely different demographic.

The people who get social media most are thirty to forty year olds. Social media started around 2000 with the growth of forum websites, Friends Reunited, online journals and chat rooms. LinkedIn is over a decade old.

They’ve more need to use technology to keep in contact with school and university friends scattered across the country and the world, rather than a group close to their friends bound by geography.

Equally, the older age group has some commercial experience and acumen. Social media experience is linked to more traditional communications theories and the application of these ideas is complex. Learning how to build a community is an ongoing process, not just a simple process.

And if anyone thinks these are just small companies, its large household names who think that by bringing in a youngster they can transform their business. But even if they were a whizz kid at twenty, if they are adding real value to your business, then paying them a decent wage will retain them for yourself. Do you think the best will stay for £20,000 if someone else values that individual more?

Look at the big brands, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Disney and even B2B firms like Ernst & Young. See how much they invest in social media as a strategic communications tool. They value their campaigns which is why they are happy to spend the money.

So before you join the social media gold rush, stop, think about why you are doing it and check it will be effective for your company. Get advice, benchmark against similar companies inside and outside your industry. Then you need to invest in the right people to manage or create campaigns.

This might be agency or in-house, but really understand what you are asking for versus what you’ll get in return. Remember, if you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys!

Monday, 5 September 2011

When Journalism chased the rainbow

Social media has changed journalism for good in a number of ways. Whilst many of the changes have been positive, not all the developments have been positive. On balance, does the positive’s still outweigh the negatives?

Ten years ago when the twin towers fell, social media didn’t really exist but online was suddenly became the most important media for the first time. Twenty four hour rolling news could only cover the pictures and the shock of the images on that day overshadowed the level of factual details of the event.

News of loved ones, details of the initial damage and the need to know what else was happening from billions lead to major news corporations drowning in the additional traffic; Message boards overflowing with comments. It was here that a new breed of internet only websites came to the wider public’s attention.
A few years later, the Hudson plane crash broke as hundreds of New Yorkers saw a plane descending at an unerring height – unsure whether it was a repeat or something else. By the time the plane had landed, the story had been recalled across Twitter countless times and the news stations were struggling to get the story.

Even now the pressure on rolling news sees them chase the story, often in vain. I’m regularly hearing about stories, particularly from other countries.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that rolling news is getting it wrong trying to catch up. Take the bomb in Sweden where Sky and the Sun were heralding the arrival of Al Qaida based on assumption upon assumption until they had built a constructed news story on speculation. The same people a few hours later were making similar claims about far right extremism.

Weeks later the riots were blamed on social media, despite social media being blameless – again because of speculation, guesswork and a desire to push the news agenda on.
Journalists feel the pressure to get results, but they are sometimes missing the trick of making the most of the medium you are in. When I trained as a journalist, I learnt that there were three stages to a news story:

• The initial breaking news
• The detail of the incident
• The analysis of the ramifications.

Then, this could mean a story lasts three or more days. Nowadays all three phases are covered off almost concurrently. As the news breaks, the details are assumed and the guests are wheeled on to discuss the assumptions without having had any time to gather their own information on the event. Relying on the news source, their views are skewed from the beginning.

Traditional media is never going to beat social media to the next earthquake. But it has the resource to get reporters to the scene with professional VJs (Video Journalists) relying more accurate and objective reports than the partisan mobile phone videos, however intriguing they are.
The death of radio has been exaggerated for so long now, but radio realised the power of the theatre of the mind. Emotions seem rawer with a detached voice and evocative wildtrack. Print cannot be beaten for double page spreads of stats and visual layouts that are tricky even on a computer screen. Yet journalists are chasing the big story while missing some of the more popular quirky stories by days – something online news sources and scraping services have been taking advantage for years.

The world has changed with social media but the basics of journalism are being lost. Attributing sources are becoming vague or non-existent. This week alone I heard a news story begin “according to reports on Facebook” – not quite the trusted news mole in the home office or facts based on cast iron documentation. Reports need to be checked and double checked. Many of the conspiracy theorists on 9/11 basis their entire fiction on the misreporting of a confusing and ever changing events of that day. It are these inaccuracies that distort the truth and perpetuate myths and fears.

The world of 24 hour news needs to slow down, play on its strengths and not rush past the story before its even begun - ensuring all three stages of reporting are played out. If they don't, then it is the viewers who lose out.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Why Google is still up in the clouds

Google is a smart, slick organisation and the launch of Google+ demonstrates they’ve put their nouse together with the lessons learnt from previous Social Media launches.

While Google Buzz and Wave were greeted with expectation, they flattered to deceive and became moribund very quickly.

Many of the criticism of the poor interactivity, the lack of applications, the difficulty of friend finding have been addressed with Google+. It’s closer to what one might have expected the first time when Google Wave was announced as a social media game changer.

But we’re over a year on from that time and social media has continued to develop, entrench their audience and gain mainstream acknowledgement.

The problem with Google is they’re chasing other social media and trying to blend the two. Most social media has been developed independently for purposes which are vastly different to their end use.

Twitter was a way for surf dude friends to check the sea conditions and which beaches people were going to. Facebook was a virtual year book system.

Equally, the rise and fall of social media has been sudden and difficult to predict. The loss of MySpace and Bebo show how fickle the industry can be when they find a new way to interact.

Not content with mashing existing social media, Google have also been looking to control how Google+ is being used. They are ensuring that it is a personal user experience, free from corporate or brand led accounts, which have led to accounts being suspended.

It will be interesting to see how industry gets round Googles rules. The adult industry is often the first to find a way. Will the breakout video rooms by full of young ladies who are desperate for a chat? Or will Google shut them down for being unsuitable.

I just feel that no successful social media can grow through interference and controlling how the users want to use the system.

But Google seem to be looking beyond the current and seem to be creating a platform that will be of importance in three to five years time.

Google+ sits as one of a number of tabs on a personal account page for Google. It has no prominence or priority in the navigation over a whole plethora of applications.

Far from being the big part of the offering, it’s a new service branching off the already heavy portfolio of services.

So why is this the case? What seems to be happening is a move towards cloud computing. Buy a laptop, install Chrome and you can run virtually everything without even muttering the name Microsoft.

Google docs, mail and chrome manage your documents, email and internet browsing. Google+ adds in Skype like connectivity and social media channels, with the ability to link pictures and videos stored on YouTube and Picasa. The data is held remotely along with the software keeping operating speeds high, as long as you’ve got a good broadband connection.

Bearing this in mind, it is odd that they aren’t looking at the SMEs who would love this sort of cheap and easy system. May be they are looking at creating a bundle package for consumers further down the road, ending the ad related business model.

Attracting them in and locking their data into the system could lead to long term loyal customers, like the overdrafts offered to students that are hard to clear once the real bank charges kick in after graduation.

The cloud’s the key, and it’ll be interesting to see how it develops in the future.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Social Media storm in a tea cup

Social media might be the latest fashion in communications strategy, but it doesn’t mean firms full understand how it affects them. There is a necessity for many firms entering the social media scene to evaluate some pretty core and fundamental cultural issues.

The problem is many social media projects are sold as the new must have by agencies or by internal PR functions keen to keep up with the Joneses. It is not normally looked at in greater detail.

While your consumer brand thrives on the boost given by a warm campaign based around giving out freebies, launching competitions and inviting photos, it sometimes hides problems that need to be addressed at planning stage.

Take a look at Twinings. Who could not like this warm and very British company, producing good quality tea and with a slick set of subtle adverts.

However, if you look at their own website there is a torrent of negative user generated comments pouring through, let alone their Facebook site. It seems a change to the blend has upset a large portion of their customer base that dislike the new blend brought in around June.

Looking around the social media sites and through their press release, there seems to be a key part of social media missing. There is nothing which engages with the customers whom find the new blend too lemony for their tastes. The closest to customer support seems to be talk of private correspondence confirming the change in product.

The Customer is Always Right

It might be an old adage, but the inaction is suprising for a brand with growing competition in the specialist tea market. Why would you buy an expensive blend you no longer like? Even if it leads others to experiment with other blends, it’ll lose customers as some will find that the supermarket own brand isn’t too bad.

There’s also a thought that a blend of Earl Grey available through the internet only or via specialist stores might actually retain loyalty. If its YOUR cuppa, then you’d be willing to pay a little more for the experience.

Brands are stronger than products

My other thought was the experience of Coca-Cola when they changed the formula of their drink.

Blind taste testing proved beyond doubt that a new formula was a preferred drink. So changing the
contents of a can should be an easy sell? Right?

We all know that wasn’t the case. The problem was that Coca-cola was the drink of choice for certain people. Changing the experience changed their relationship with the brand and made them sit up and think about why something seen as reliable and safe had changed.

I see the same issue here with Twinings. I’ve no idea which is the “better flavour”, but they’ve created an issue which could have been avoided. The person who buys a slightly different pack, is unsure about it, sits down and tastes the new blend will find their world has been changed a little. This makes them unsure about the world, the brand and the certainty the old blend gave them.

When I worked in radio, a change of DJ would cause a week of complaints, even if it was just for holiday cover. On the original DJs return, the same people would complain about the change.

Coca-Cola has learned from their experience. Have you ever wondered why they have so many diet colas? It’s not just to segment the market. They can launch the new TAB, or Zero cola whilst maintaining the original diet cola. Natural selection dictates whether the market fragments or replaces a moribund brand. Soap Powder companies have been doing it for years.

How could this have been avoided?

Good social media planning can avoid all the issues.

1.Is your organisation happy to be involved in an open, two way relationship with its customers. Not all firms are for reasons ranging from customer service strategy to resources available to quality of product to internal culture.

2.What social media will be entered into, who manages it and how.

3.What protocols do you have in place regarding topics, subjects, who should respond and when.

4.Putting in place a crisis management plan specifically for social media. Remember, silence is not an option and likely to be seen as an admission of guilt, even if you’re blameless.

5.What secondary channels can you use if their social media is flooded. Firms like Google use their blog to overcome torrents of feedback during outages. Traditional media is another useful channel despite obvious fears.

From the looks of it a big brand like Twinings haven’t grasped these five points. Deleting comments from your Facebook site and stoic silence is hardly a good strategy in the age of social media openness. It’s the second storm after an issue regarding the shifting of some operations to Poland and Twinings need to take a long hard look about how they react in future.

Just look at the problems caused to News of the World advertisers on social media. It doesn’t have to be an internal or controllable issue that causes a customer relations crisis.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The problem with good branding

Good branding is obvious and stands out in its environment to get your company’s messages out there in the open.

A well sited poster can direct those messages at thousands of people, creating an easily identifiable product or service.

Despite what people say, they do align themselves with brands even if it is an unconscious action. We all have our favourite snack or preferred clothes shop even if we don’t want their logos emblazoned across the backs.

But what happens when the branding is placed in the wrong environment? Or in the wrong context? How does that message appear?

During a short walk I carry out most days, I’m exposed to branding messages despite the journey taking me next to open fields. Whatever the intention, my personal reaction to the companies is negative.

I’m talking rubbish. The litter left at the side of the road and blown across open fields is something I’ve never been able to understand – far better to have a clean car than an unspoilt countryside?

It isn’t the firm’s fault that their logos are left as an eyesore, but they do have a responsibility. They also have an interest to ensure their brightly coloured logos don’t send the wrong message. It also says a lot about a company’s customers.

Creating Market segmentation through a litter survey

So just who are these litter louts? One technique is to look at trying to create a profile based on the information available. This is hardly a precise way of looking at things, but it does create interesting results.

So what did I find? Cigarette butts everywhere; left, right and centre. The brands are too indistinct to be noticed.

Discarded smoking packets were brand specific. Richmond, B&H and Lambert & Butler seemed to make up virtually all of the packets found. I could name a number of brands, but I didn’t see any of their packets.

The most noticeable was McDonalds. Cups, meal boxes and bags seemed to be everywhere. Interestingly, I didn’t notice any KFC litter despite having the same number of restaurants in the locality.

Snacks made up the majority of the litter. Coca-Cola, Tango, Fanta, Robinson’s flavoured water seem to be the drinks of choice with takeaway coffee cups also prevalent.

Walker’s crisps packets and multi-pack bag wrappers making up a sizeable portion of the snack rubbish. There was surprisingly few chocolate bar wrappers, and some litter from Jellybeans.
Larger cans made a few appearances through the undergrowth with Fosters seemingly the brand of choice.

From this we can create a profile of a thirst, larger drinking McDonald’s fan who likes Walkers crisps and smokes one of the two brands mentioned. You can imply age, sex and demography to a certain extent. The danger is to create a single profile, where there might be two or three.
One question I have is whether this profile could be replicated or whether it is particular to the route. Having lived in the countryside I’d suspect more the former.

Equally, although the litter is everywhere, it’s not a huge amount suggesting that the problem is caused by relatively few individuals.

So what are the solutions?

Packaging is far from straightforward. It’s quite interesting to look at the McDonald’s coffee cup which is much less obvious than many other items of its packaging. Its muted green still does stand out in the correct environment, but is a little more hidden in the long grass. Clever design can be invaluable.

Degradability is a red herring. Products can take around a year to degrade even if it’s degradable. It can help, but is far from being an answer. Litter bins? I doubt they’d help. Some research shows a badly placed bin can create litter problems by attracting too much rubbish for the level of collection available.

Education is the best solution. I remember my father challenged some youths dropping litter, and they politely suggested it was keeping someone in a job. Litter pickers don’t work in the countryside and even community service projects cover an insignificant portion of our roads and pathways.

It is somehow easier to drop, even when it’s not, because it’s ingrained. I’ve not really seen any campaign by leading companies to tackle the issue or fund it. Possibly they think the halo effect of litter is too bad to go near in case it admits liability.

The alternative is to shame the companies into helping educate the public, particularly the young, through surveying the brands that leave the litter. The survey could even be linked to school projects clearing an area near them.

Or even better, could the local McDonalds create this sort of campaign to reduce their share of the litter and educate the kids at the same time.

Too often litter education is untargeted and by looking at the rubbish dropped we can start to identify where to target education. Equally punitive measures like a rubbish tax affects all companies. The most interesting thing in my small scale survey was the brand specific nature of the rubbish.

And finally, if it is you who has dropped the litter, carry it a little bit further and drop it in a bin.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A sculling boat tour of the river Aire

This is the fabulous view of the River Aire between Hirsts Mill and the aquaduct just before Bingley five rise locks.

Strapped on to the stern of a sculling boat, its a fantastic view of the 700m or so that makes up Bradford Amateur Rowing Club's stretch of water.

The sound of the water moving past the hull is very hypnotic.

Monday, 13 June 2011

A portrait of Naomi Jacob: A true Yorkshire character

This is the story of Naomi Jacob, possibly one of the biggest Yorkshire characters of the twentieth century and I want to revive her name. I do have a vested interest as she was my great great Aunt.

With a gruff Yorkshire accent and well known for wearing men’s clothes, she was often mistaken for JB Priestley. But she was best known a prolific author, playwright, journalist, broadcaster, actress and a political activist.

Known as Micky, she is best known as a writer. Walk down the large print section of any library, if they haven’t been shut down, and you’ll find many of the 80 plus books she wrote in a 30 year career.

Unfairly compared to pulp fiction authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford or Barbara Cartland, she tackled issues such as anti Semitism in the 1930s when many authors were barred from producing works on this subject. This is possibly due to the fact that it was seen as women’s fiction rather than serious, weighty literature.

In 1935 she won the Eichelberger Prize for "services to humanity" but was forced to reject the accolade because she shared it with Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Naomi grew up in Ripon; the granddaughter of two time mayor Robert Ellington Collinson and owner of the Unicorn hotel. Her father Samuel Jacob was the son of a Jewish Taylor who had escaped the pogroms of Western Prussia and settled in Towcester. He had converted to Catholicism, had become a teacher and moved to Ripon to become the headmaster at the Ripon Grammar school.

But Naomi became the daughter of divorced parents when her mother left her father due to his unreasonable behaviour.

Her mother and sister left for the south and, later, on to New York. Naomi wanted to stay in school and moved around a fair bit. She finally went to a school in Middlesborough where she became a student teacher on leaving.

It was during her time at school when she fell in love with the theatre. Repremanded for wearing trousers and for her care of her pupils beyond the classroom, she soon lost her job and became a PA for a music hall star.

She was the married Marguerite Broadfoote and Naomi also became her lover. She slowly climbed the ranks to become a successful character actress, mainly in rep. But Micky loved the music hall –knowing all the great names like Little Titch, Fred Karno, Vesta Tilley and Dan Leno. Other people she associated with were the Gielguds, Du Mauries, Henry Irving and Sarah Bernhardt.

Marie Lloyd was another of her friends and shortly after her death, she wrote the first official biography. One close friend said of the book “[Naomi Jacob] doesn’t let facts get in the way of the truth.” Although some have questioned the accuracy of the book, it remains true to Marie Lloyds spirit and a truer image can be brought to life by reading it.

Naomi also had a political side to her, standing as a Labour PPC despite coming from a staunch Tory background. She was also a suffragette, Once sealing a clock in a biscuit tin and leaving it on the holiday home of then Prime Minister Lloyd George’s seaside retreat. The bomb was made safe when a panicked aide found the ticking device and hurled it into the sea.

When World War one, “Micky” claims she fooled the navy and joined as a male rating. She also spent time in the women’s corp managing a munitions factory.

TB took hold, an illness which would take her to Lake Garda in Italy, an enforced exile where she started writing with the stage no longer a long term option. Here she lived in the British ex-pat community with her Pekinese Sammy, associating along with people like Radclyffe Hall, the celebrated actor, who lived there with her partner Una Troughbridge, a woman Micky had a serious crush on.

During the Second World War, she came back to England working for the Minister of Information and then for ENSA near the front line, where she contracted Malaria.

She returned to Italy and at one stage was asked to bring her papers to the town hall under German occupation. The daughter of a Jew, she marched in and demanded they mark her papers as such, embarrassing the town’s officials and ordered to leave without the J being stamped on her documents.

Micky had also helped the many Jewish refugees in her home in Sirmione during the ends of the conflict, a fact I only recently learnt from an article on CNN’s ireport.

This stubborn Yorkshire women lived out the rest of her life in Italy, writing cook books on Italian food (“boil past for 30mins”), churning out novels and returning for many appearances on Woman’s Hour.

How many other strong regional accents featured on key BBC programming around this time?

It’s time we took another look at a truly remarkable Yorkshire woman.

But the story is not over with one of her books turned into a movie script. What an end to the story if the project were to get financial backing for a major film?

(Adadpted from a presentation for Bettakultcha: Bradford)

Friday, 27 May 2011

Why injunctions are an outdated solution

I doubt many people in the country are really that interested in the love life of Ryan Giggs particularly if you consider the the personal issues faced by many of his team mates and peers in the premier league.

The Daily Mash parodied the fact that it is hardly an earth shattering news story.

Yet the story has been played out for weeks. Even before the discussion about injunctions rose, the rumour mill had been churning out suggestions over the Manchester United player.

Like cats, curiosity is something most people have as a nagging urge in the back of their mind. Who was it and why keep it secret? Why an injunction? It’s this that has driven the media frenzy. My cat certainly hates a closed door.

The world has been changing subtly over the last ten or so years. With the information age has come a democratisation of facts, statistics and documentation. With the world opening up, the old tried and trusted tactics of the crisis manager have changed.

Many companies have learnt that clamming up is costly and it’s not the first time that an injunction or super injunction has caused this type of furore. A similar thing happened with Trafigura, one of the world’s biggest oil traders who put an injunction in place over claims made by The Guardian that waterways were being polluted in the Ivory Coast.

The barring of comment brought anger, recrimination and a serious vault face by Trafigura and their law firm Carter Ruck. This damage of reputation was worse than the investigation itself. Not only was there a slur on their names, but there was a concerted effort to cover it up.

That’s basically what an injunction is and an individual or organisation has to think really hard about why they are using an injunction and what it will achieve. In a blackmail case it would be justified, particularly if someone was being set up. Equally there might be genuine privacy issues at heart.

Playing away, in my mind, isn’t a privacy issue. It is a choice that individuals have made and normally the actions caused are made in public buildings like hotels rather than in the home. Equally, if you do something wrong, you face the prospect of being found out. Trying to obscure and hide your identity from your wife and children is a choice unavailable to most and hardly a just cause.

The easiest way to prevent a crisis situation is not to get yourself buried in one voluntarily. If a situation arises, you have two options. Silence or honesty.
In the older days it was easier to assess the situation. Who knew what, what evidence there is and how would a situation arise? A journalist asking uncomfortable questions would be trying to find a fact he can’t prove by bluffing and bravado. Ignoring journalists and carrying on regardless used to be the best way.

Nowadays with more information, it is easier to request information and search documents which may or not prove guilt. It is far more practicable to be honest and open. It not only makes businesses think more about the decisions they make but it also impacts on their social responsibilities in the community.

Corporate Social Responsibility has been seen as a smoke screen for business decisions. BP still has the oil tankers which claim to be carbon neutral. But true Corporate Social Responsibility goes to the heart of a business, its values and its brand. Footballers, too, have a brand image linked to countless sponsors desperate for their endorsement. Brand Giggs is/was a wholesome family man, active with charities and a vital part of a big team.

So he, and possibly his advisors, tried the closed door approach to crisis management to protect the reputation of the Giggs brand. At the point the information was to come out, Giggs instead should have taken a different course of action. He needed to tell those closest to him the situation and what was to happen. He needed to manage the information flow, possibly getting an “exclusive” with a tabloid. The reaction would be "oh dear, another footballer in trouble, now where’s the news."

Being honest, open and holding up your hands is more of a virtue than running for cover at the first sign of trouble. What has made it worse is the litigious second half of this situation – the legal disclosure request from Twitter and the potential contempt of court. Telling people who believe in free speech to shut up and stop mentioning his name isn’t going to do anything other than infuriate that group. It is against the public interest to prosecute en masse thousands of people for a widely circulated rumour.

There have been similar issues over graffiti before social media, proving knowledge outside court injunctions. If one person is selected, it is then seen as a malicious prosecution: “why only me?”. If the originator of the rumour is ever found, how can you prove their knowledge of the injunction and that they hadn’t found out another way. Looking at the twitter account mentioned in the media, it looks like a list of guesswork, parody and speculation rather than someone with any real knowledge.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Is West Yorkshire the Centre of the art world?

The opening of The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield is set to place West Yorkshire as a must see destination for anyone serious about twentieth century art. The new collection will bring some of Barbara Hepworth’s finest works to the former mining town, just a few miles away from another major sculpture gallery at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Add in the David Hockney exhibition at Salts Mill and the Leeds Art Gallery and it makes it a compelling region for modern and abstract art from Francis Bacon to Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer to Anthony Gormley.

The project creates a home for Barbara Hepworth’s work in her home town. Many of the works have been in storage at other museums like the Tate or which could not be displayed at the other Hepworth property in St Ives.

The involvement of David Chipperfield in the project also demonstrates the importance of the facility. One of the world’s leading architects has built a bespoke gallery allowing fine views and buckets of natural light to show off the works to their best.

Having visited the building before the installation of the works, I can safely say the interior is simply stunning for art works and is breathe taking. The exterior is more up for debate. The building does connect with the industrial landscape both on land and the canalised river.

Locally it is seen as a drab concrete building in amongst other drab, concrete buildings. The Hepworth sees it as a sculptural design which changes with the light. I’m somewhere in the middle. The design of the building is an interesting jumble of shapes, however it gets lost in the 1970s concrete flats and industrial buildings. A cream Mediterranean colour would make it otherworldly and improve the environment – but maybe I’m missing the point.

The Hepworth also has the advantage of being a stone’s throw from the mainline from London King’s Cross. It makes it an easy day trip, or even weekend escape, from the capital. Those used to the London galleries will get an opportunity to see a different environment. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a world away from the Tate Modern in display space and more in harmony with the type of environment Hepworth and Moore’s work were often placed – the civic parks of the British Isles and beyond. Salts Mill is another distinctive gallery.

But what makes Hepworth and Moore special. They brought modernism into sculpture, creating works that were based on natural curves and form. The works increasingly became more abstract but still gave the impression of figures, life and vibrancy. They are appealing to the eye and the touch, using a range of materials from wood to bronze to plaster. There is also a bringing together of classic art and the sort of work Picasso might do, but in three dimensions.

Hopefully the opening will bring a focus on the region’s art and its national importance. With free entry this can only help to inspire the region’s new breed of artists. It will also be interesting to see how it can inspire the young children taken along, with no preconceptions of art. In an area with high youth unemployment and low aspiration, may be it will inspire Wakefield’s children to see what education can do for you.

It will also bring economic benefits to the region. Wakefield is particularly in need of a boost to make it a worthy centre of modern art studies.

The Hepworth Wakefield
Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Leeds Art Gallery
Salts Mill

A fascinating video from The Guardian (If a little over edited).

Images: The Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds Art Gallery, The interior of The Hepworth Wakefield and Juame Plensa's work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Why the Liberal Democrats need to rebrand and communicate a new message

Communication should be at the heart of all politics. Communication isn’t a one way broadcast to the people. It’s a two way process where information flowing to the politicians should actually take precedent. They are the people’s representatives and are meant to represent their constituents.

At a local level, the Liberal Democrats have had a fine pedigree of taking on local issues, listening to the people and delivering a policy that won favour from the people. The local councillors probably paved the way for Lib Dem success at a general election level, particularly in by-elections.

It seems odd, then, that the party has been dogged by the national party and personality issues rather than the local fight on the doorsteps. In fact, it’s this variable message which has seen the party criticised over the years. The party is different in its grass roots policy making and it is this disconnection with the traditional Lib Dem members and the group of MPs that is making this worse.

In the weeks preceding the elections, the Lib Dem MPs were parading the party line as if there was no problem. People like Norman Baker and Sarah Tether were suggesting that the reports that grass roots supporters were unhappy with reforms to the NHS, tuition fees and the depth of cuts were untrue. Surely this tack was just sticking in the craw of potential voters and the results bear this out.

Norman Baker used to be the attack dog holding Governments to account through a ruthless search for factual evidence to undermine unfairness.

But why hasn’t this affected the Tory vote? Well, basically, their supporters are quite happy with the small government approach. There aren’t the issues which clash with the manifesto which the Lib Dem’s have. Equally, the party is not supposed to divert its attentions too much from the straight and narrow.

In areas like Chesterfield, a majority of 26 has turned into a Labour majority of 20 seats. In Barnsley, the Liberal Democrats had a lower share of the popular vote than the BNP. At the time of writing, the Party were approaching losses of some 500 councils. In Scotland the Liberal Democrats have a quarter of the seats they had last time.

So what are the issues which could have improved the situation?

Before the government was formed there were problems. The deal struck entwined the Liberal Democrats into the government inextricably. The coalition was a whipped single front with little room for dissent, disagreement or a clear division of responsibility.

Since then, the Liberal Democrats have been paraded when there’s bad news, the Conservatives when it’s good irrespective of who came up with the ideas to resolve the situation. The confusion has caused much negative press, often going against the impression voters had of their aims and objectives.

Had the Liberal Democrats taken a different approach, they could have followed the Northern Irish example. There, the coalition partners could not be more diverse and it works because departments are run by one party or the other, coming together as a cabinet. This means there is autonomy and clear accountability. It wasn’t us - the other lot run that department.

Second, the party has barely mentioned that they cannot influence the government fully. They have made some positive contributions to “toning down” the Conservative policy, but they also have less mandate and less people to push the points. If the Conservatives want to do something, they will. Rather than stand up and say this is a Tory policy we are supporting purely to get other policy through, they pretend to support the initiative.

Thirdly, they are not used to mudslinging. They put forward positive stories that have been swamped by negative focus on Nick Clegg by the Conservative supporting allies.

And finally, what makes the Lib Dem’s distinctive from the Conservatives? Because they are so entwined, the public don’t know what they stand for any more. Before the coalition, you might have felt the Liberal Democrats stood for Education and supporting the student. That group has been lost and there is no direct approach to win them back. Standing on a platform of no tuition fees and ending up trebling them, even if there are advantages to the system, could only lead to disillusionment.

So what should they do?

Listen – What are members and former members wanting.
Engage – Rather than blindly follow opinion, discuss the situation with key groups in, for example, the argument over the NHS reforms and make strategic alliances to force reform.

Differentiate – Put forward a policy document that shows voters what Liberal Democracy stands for in the coalition. It needs to be distinctive from the Tory view and show the divisions in policy making. It can’t be woolly and needs to be substantive, based on real action.

Claim Ownership – Take sovereignty over issues in the government or at least argue to be given power that makes it clear what difference they are making.

Ditch Clegg – It might not happen straight away, and it might not all be his fault, but it was he who agreed to a raft of policies that go against their own manifesto. He is the scapegoat who can hold his hands up, say mia culpa, and refresh the ‘old’ party vision.

And if they don't? Well the Greens are making some strong gains....

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

How telling stories can improve your reputation

Stories are as old as the hills and such a simple way of communication. A good yarn can create a positive narrative that reaches across audiences, let alone across generations. Some of the oldest tales have lived on thanks to their ability to capture emotion and imagination despite the lack of written records.

The Bible, the Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, many of the Roman histories all record stories that existed many centuries prior to their publication. Although details may have changed like Chinese whispers, central themes remain the same.

Everyone has a story or two to tell, and while my mother’s tales might get taller with every retelling, there’s a value to repeating them for entertainment, information and education. Even the most simple story can have a learning point as I mentioned in my blog before

So at the Harrogate 4N meeting, I decided to tell a story about myself to illustrate how stories say a great deal more than you may at first think.

How I saved the life of a celebrity donkey

As a sixteen year old, I delivered the newspapers around my village. Being a rural community, some of the homes were farms a mile or so from the next nearest house. The final house on my route was a fair old walk or cycle from the rest of my route.

At the top of the long winding drive, a donkey stood in the middle of the main road; quite motionless. Being on the brow of a hill and a blind bend, I feared this donkey was soon to cause one almighty accident. Assuming the beast had escaped the paddock of the house down the drive, I struggled to haul the donkey off the road.

Donkey’s aren’t called stubborn for nothing. After Struggling for ten minutes I had barely got the animal off the busy main road, and a further quarter of an hour later I was at the front door of the owner’s house.

A knock on the door early on a Sunday morning was not greeted warmly by the home’s owner, a dress maker to the Queen, who opened his bedroom and telling me to buzz off and stop waking him up. When I explained I’d returned his ass safely, he was even less enamoured with my Sunday morning alarm call.

I had drawn his attention to the noble stead now merrily munching on his best border plants whilst I was at the door. I quickly found out the donkey was not his property. A long haul back up the drive, and a similar stubborn journey down the next led me to discover this, too, was not the animal’s home. At least this was a proper farmer and he agreed to take the donkey and ring the police’s “Missing Donkey” department.

I thought nothing more about the incident until I looked at the front page of the local weekly newspaper the following Thursday. A large chunk was devoted to the sad tale of a Donkey, used in the filming of Tots TV, a programme from the same stable as Tellytubbies and In the Night Garden. The programme originally had a pony and donkey in it, but the pony had died. Mourning the loss, the donkey escaped its paddock and was found several miles away. The newspaper credited the discovery of the TV donkey by a local farmer, quoting his thoughts on the discovery.

So what does this actually teach us about Stories?

- One learning point is there are different versions of the same story. My story was the stubborn beast refusing to move, and the struggle to make the animal safe. The newspaper focussed on the sad tale of loss and reconciliation.

- If you don’t tell your side a story first, you might find someone else distorts the story, getting in first. This could be a corporate competitor.

- Stories are based on emotion and emotive issues. Even a big business story is about creating jobs and communities, and not about how many noughts are written on the contract.

- Stories tend to have a hook early on – in my case you want to find out more about why the donkey is a celebrity and what happened. Normally the first line or headline encapsulates the whole story.

- Stories have a halo effect on an individual or organisation. How do I come out the story? Caring, determined, struggling against the odds, sympathetic.

- If you have a message, make sure your stories reflect any relevant key messages you are trying to enlighten people about.

Public relations is about managing reputations and stories can help develop and build a reputation. The best stories are based on real life and true experience. Describing untruths as reality are also damaging to reputations. What I’ve discovered talking to people in business is how mangy good stories there are, and how little mileage businesses make of them. The times they’ve saved another person’s bacon, gone way past the extra mile yet failed to tell their customers and potential customers.

The image is taken from The Donkey Sanctuary, a worthwhile charity helping to protect the animals from abuse around the world.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

A Fresh Look at Creativity

This story begins with a young man, quite an ordinary, unremarkable man. And it’s all true.

Brought up in a large family, the eldest of five.

The most interesting thing about him is that his father has an interest in local politics.

He grew up in the same town as me – a small market town and again quite unremarkable.

Here it is – this is where he spent all of his early years.

Not much else to do growing up here.

He even went to the same school as me …… although not in the same year.

Unlike me, he crawled into school like a snail, reluctantly carrying his satchel which weighed him down – And he left with no qualifications.

Whilst still a teenager, he pursued a woman almost ten years older than him until she caught him. Quite literally.

But there was good reason. His wife was carrying his first child and this was very much the shotgun wedding.

The marriage had been rushed forward and there were rumours he’d actually proposed to another woman around the same time.

So six months after he exchanged rings with his wife, along comes Susanna.

No qualifications, married reluctantly to a woman much older than him and now a father. Life wasn’t easy.

He scraped by as a farm hand, often surviving on the charity of his in-laws farm a few miles away. How embarrassing.

Stone broke, so what do you do. You have two more children over the next three years.
And it wasn’t just hard for him. His Father is declared bankrupt and narrowly avoids a prison term.

It’s around now that he fell in with the wrong crowd.

And when I mean the wrong crowd, we’re not just talking about shoplifting and petty thefts. A few years later this lot were caught attempting to bomb the capital.

Our man was eventually caught stealing from one of the big houses in the area,

It was around this time he went missing. Nobody had seen him for about a decade, enough time for the heat to have died down.

What happened during this time is still a mystery. Some say he hid out in Lancashire, others say he went abroad.

But, Just like Dick Whittington, he turns up in London as a bit part actor – as far away from the West End as you could imagine.

He banded together with some friends and they created their own theatre company.

Performing in a theatre which backed onto a street full of brothels.

A good start so far isn’t it – but this is where he started to invent.

Being a young man and jobbing actor near the pubs and bordellos of London, he can seriously lay claim to having invented addiction in his evenings, followed by arousal and, finally, puking by the end of the night.

But he did invent some real things – the Blanket - imagine bedtime without one.

Most people have eyes, and half the population have balls – but this man put them together and invented Eyeballs,

And he even invented the alligator – imagine how you’d say see you later without them?

These creations have led him to developing one of Britain’s biggest industries, worth a cool £1bn a year.

That’s the same amount as the snow damage caused to the UK in December

The equivilant to the “grey” economy in Wales, or over 400 Valley Parade Stadia.

His inventions have inspired thousands of others including writers, dramatists, composers and choreographers.

Here are just some of the people he inspired –some you might not want to have him inspired but inspire them he did.

Yet he’s commonly described as a crow, a fraud, a plagiarist, an upstart
Often seen as irrelevant, inaccessible boring and stayed. There was even a pamphlet questioning his sexuality.

Some people claim his work was never created by him.

The person is William Shakespeare, possibly the most influential person in the Western World.

The terrorists were part of the gunpowder plot and he didn’t abandon his family, making regular trips back from the capital.

But why this subject –I wanted you to take a fresh look at him and his achievement.

We often get lost in the language and forget he was a real man.

He brought common language to the arts – or as he called them, household words.

It is not the plays, but the words, the rhythm, the vocabulary and emotion. It’s not always easy but it is almost 500 years old.

Take Anthony and Cleopatra – two of the great leaders – yet Shakespeare makes them talk like an old married couple.

And look at his start in life – he wasn’t the high achiever and while he wasn’t the poorest in society, it was still a meteoric rise.

Take a fresh look at the young people in your life and see how you can inspire them to achieve greatness.

A recent survey in Wakefield found it wasn’t attitude and laziness of teenagers that created youth unemployment, but the stifling of creativity by parents, friends and relatives.

And for those who ask why it’s relevant today, in Bradford, I can only thank the RSC.

His Birthday is celebrated on the nearest Saturday to the 23rd of April – only this year, due to commercial reasons, they’ve shifted it to the 30th.

And the Rosemary? The herb of remembrance mentioned in Hamlet by Ophelia.

To finish, some other inventions of Shakespeare’s we couldn’t do without.

What would Science Fiction be like without Wormholes – time travel from the 15th century.

What would Britain’s Got Talent be like without Buzzers? Breakfast without Skimm’d Milk Or Mary Poppins without the Chimney Pot.

Even my own Blog, Set the World at Nought, is inspired by Shakespeare, although he stole the line from a prayer by St Thomas More.

So remember to wear your sprig of rosemary, like the townsfolk of Stratford will be, on Saturday.

Review: Where's Your Mama Gone

One of the things that struck me when I was a publishing student was the understanding that the white space around text on a page is as important as the black squiggles that form the words. So what struck me when walking out of Where’s Your Mama Gone was what wasn't said in the play which is as important and powerful as the words of spoken by the cast of six at the Carriageworks in Leeds.

The play is only half the story and it is the questions and thoughts that leave with you out of the door that are almost as important to the work as the performance itself – but this is only possible by experiencing the play. The set also has this quality - A plain black stage, with black chairs and harsh white lighting, focusing attention on the players and their words without distraction.

There was an added dimension during the performance. Richard McCann.

Richard is the son of Wilma McCann, the first of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims and it was his book Just A Boy that inspired Brian Daniels to write the play. It was what Richard didn't say as he quietly left the auditorium that was important. A tacit approval, a shared experience and slight smile at the end of what must have been a deeply moving experience for him. On Twitter he commented that it was a: “Bloody powerful play, for me and some of the acting was extremely close to reality.”

The play, set in Leeds, tells the story of non-identical twins Stephen and Carol and the effect the murder of their mother. It deals with how they deal with the stigma of being “Kath Connor's” and how there life was dominated by what was missing and unseen. The flip side of the play shows the story of a serial killer, his motivations and his background.

While there is a macabre interest in the serial killer, it is a tough subject and yet it is surprisingly unusual to have a work focusing on the aftermath and the individual.

Having only had a few previews, Charlie Harrison and Emma Gordon have developed a powerful on stage relationship in the lead roles. Despite the deliberate physical mismatch, there quickly becomes a genuine family bond and togetherness which allowed the pair to create a microcosm of their own on stage. A protective bubble that sees the other characters interacting with their world rather than with the twins as individuals. Like the proton and the neutron, they get agitated the closer they are, yet the more distant they are, gravity brings them back together.

The timeline is mixed but the story flowing, taking you on the journey through their lives but losing the sense of stability and home, what Brian Daniels' calls heritage. Loss is a big part of the work and the characters spend most of the play searching for faint memories and something that isn’t there. Most of the Dialogue is delivered in monologue, interrupting the action and giving the innermost thoughts of the characters. But even in the monologue there is a feeling you aren’t getting the whole story. The feeling that Stephen and Carol cannot be honest about what lurks in the dark part of their mind.

Brian Daniels acknowledges there are more themes running through the play than you can deal with, but that is a consequence of the situation rather than a desire to cram more in. Serial killers, institutionalisation, care homes, abuse, broken homes, community, loss, family ties, addiction, domestic violence, drugs and more are touched upon. The way Carol jokes about being beaten and sexually abused by her father in a throw away comment could almost be the subject for a play in itself. But it is just a phrase within a sentence - the white space on the page.

The play turns on a scene between the Serial Killer and twin Stephen during a prison visit. Will Fox gives a compelling performance as Peter Sutton. He walks a fine line between normality and madness. It would be easy to ham up the performance of such an obvious villain, but there is just a hint of something not right which makes his performance chilling. It is the similarities he has with the twins that are as disturbing as the differences.

The twin’s mother haunts the play. Carolyn Eden plays her character on stage and you get the feeling she is of her time background. Again, there is a fine line in her character between caring mother and street worker.

Seeing Christa Ackroyd in the play as herself also adds an interesting dimension. Having trained as a journalist in Leeds and worked the patch, I met a lot of journalists who worked at the time of the ripper and a few policemen. She is someone who experienced the fear of the ripper as a young female reporter, not only a potential victim, but someone talking to the victims’ families.

Like the play, there’s a lot to cover and there is a danger of over running. However, Brian Daniels' play feels slightly unfinished. Again, this is deliberate. You could add twenty more minutes and the feeling would be the same. The characters will carry on being haunted the whole of their life, but the ray of hope offered is how they chose to accept their legacy and deal with their emotions.

A new play with limited stage time means there will be more improvement and development. The scene changes need smoothing out as the flow often slipped between scenes. I’d also liked to have seen more use of the sound effects used very well but so sparingly. The comic relief is needed and needs polishing to bring it to the forefront. But these are small gripes and it will be interesting to see the show closer to the end of its run.

Where’s Your Mama Gone isn’t a performance you watch as pure entertainment but it is an experience worth going through. After the applause, you can tell it has made people think as the normal chatter is replaced with near silence as they contemplate what they’ve seen.The play runs until the 28th May at The Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds.

Some of the issues tackled can be summed up in Richard McCann's self written article here.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Alternative View on the Alternative Vote

The problem with the debate on AV is the ridiculous position about which is best. In reality there is little difference between the systems being offered with marginal benefits. But the nub of the issue is that this could have serious implications for individuals and parties as many seats swing on such small margins.

Both sides have explained the systems poorly and it seems to be missing the point. Rather than focus on the benefits of AV and First Past The Post (FPTP), we need to look at the failures of both systems and work out which is our least disliked system, rather than our preferred systems.

First past the post gives the result to the person with more votes than anyone else. AV gives the result to the person 50% or more prefer to be the candidate.

The flip side is that FPTP can mean that people with 30-40% of the vote can win despite the majority voting against. Hazel Blears is a case in point. Equally, with low turn outs, you don’t necessarily get a clear indication of preference. Look at the Welsh devolution vote when the yes campaign was determined by 24% of the population.

Equally AV is seen as a system that rewards the 2nd best option and although you might want candidate A, you’ll actually promote candidate B through your 2nd preference because you prefer them to Candidate C.

People already carry out a form of AV when they tactically vote. They discount their preferred choice and put a cross on their 2nd/3rd preference as their least worst option.

The statistical evidence on various forms of democracy from people like Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Arrow shows that it is the least bad system, and your choice is effectively what you consider the least bad.

Let’s debunk some myths:

In a huge number of parliamentary seats, there will be no difference between AV and First Past the Post. Look at a place like Barnsley. There will be over 50% of the electorate wanting a Labour candidate possibly until the end of time itself. It’s pointless even bothering to put a number next to a second or third place vote.

The overall result is still decided via first past the post. Get 50% of the seats and you have an overall majority – even if your share of the vote is lower than 50%.

The BNP votes count more than everyone else’s. There are two points here. First, no they don’t. Secondly it’s a massive assumption to believe that, however horrid they are, that the BNP will be the last placed. In my Pudsey Constituency it was UKIP, in my parents it was the English Democrats, Green party and an Independent and where I went to University it was The Animal Protection Party. The BNP stood at two of these hustings.

Secondly, the system says if you vote for a numpty party, then they get disqualified for being unrepresentative – now pick a proper party. It does not ‘reward’ facists with an extra vote, only make the minority parties less single issue.

What about the Cost issue? A few hours extra on to the hourly costs of running an election can’t be much. Most are volunteers using council owned property so where’s the cost? Oh, the fancy electronic booths that no one will buy, let alone use. This could also be claimed back by other reforms set to cut the cost of campaigns.

It is unimportant what Nick Clegg thinks, or Ed Milliband, Or David Cameron. What makes more sense, selecting what you want or “trying to upset Cameron/Clegg” and not selecting what you want; frankly a bizarre state of affairs. Yet I imagine many confused (by the campaigning) and ignorant voters will select their preference this way.

Apparently, it will make two party politics a thing of the past really? And is this such a bad thing? I notice the Scottish parliament in grave strife at the moment. Oh! wait, it seems to work fine. There seems to be confusion over tribal loyalty to a party and how politics works. Just because other voices are heard in parliament, doesn’t make it bad. Nor do parties who work together negatively affect the party.

The campaigns will be based on ‘appealing to everyone’. At the moment, British politics is so negative and mudslinging that anything is an improvement. But AV doesn’t really change much. If you have a passionate belief, it’s as likely to win you votes as blanding out a campaign to the lowest common denominator. Does no-one actually see how voting happens on reality TV shows? They spend more time being passionate about how there pet budgie died when they were 7 than demonstrating any talent. Those with no passion and plenty of talent get voted out.

As we’ve come to complex voting systems. Firstly neither is difficult and if the public can fathom out the random rule changes of I’m a celebrity, they can work out how to count to five. This doesn’t mean that this is the preferred choice, merely it isn’t an argument against.

The final myth is that we need change. It’s not desperate and FPTP has worked well enough for a few centuries and will for a few more as well.

The point about the vote is that it isn’t a choice. It’s a Cameron stunt to prove no one wants voting reform when it’s clear that it needs looking into. There are about three alternative voting systems not even being considered that most the No2AV campaigner Lord Owen would prefer.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Contemplating Jaume Plensa

Normally when I sit down to write up a blog of an event or happening, I like to sit down straight away and relate the experience while the memories are still fresh in my mind.

Due to a hectic four days, I've not been able to this time and, in a way, I'm glad because I've reflected on the Jaume Plensa exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It is also fitting as, in his introduction, Jaume told us "We do not spend enough time in our own space just thinking."

This is demonstrated by a pair of glass brick boxes, just smaller than a telephone booth, that both cut you off from the outside world yet are open and airy. I thought that entering the box would be claustrophobic but far from it. The muffled sounds of the outside world and bright lit space was calming and a place to think, even if its thinking of nothing.

Jaume also said the themes of his work were the self and in the confusion caused by conflicting communication channels that dominate our lives. I personally felt the work was more of the self.

Despite promising to visit for more years than I can remember, this was my first visit to the sculpture park. Jaume Plensa's imposing crouched figures make an impact from the moment you enter the park, with a figure high on a plinth. The figures placed in the park look part of the outstanding scenery across the Valley despite being far from natural.

The silvery bodies view the vistas in calm reflection as if considering themselves and their lives, taking inspiration from their surroundings. Made of letters, these stunning and lifelike sculptures are meant to show how something as simple as a letter turns to a word, sentence, idea and on to being something more like a book.

And this is where my own reflections come in to play. The day after my visited, I was at Twycross Zoo with my family. The zoo specialises in caring for monkeys and I saw how they, like the statues, sat crouched with their arms wrapped around their legs contemplating their surroundings. Monkey's also see a smile as threatening behaviour and they show happiness when relaxed and with a downward turn to the mouth.

Thinking about the pieces in the Yorkshire Scultpure Park, it shows how Jaume Plensa has created something primal and slightly melancholic. But the melancholy isn't something sad, but just a reflective mood that shows a future hope and renewal of spirit.

One of the pieces is made from mesh and have a ghostly quality. You can never quite see them and the they don't impinge on the view but are always there and present. Another sees a series of figures hugging saplings in a quiet area of the gardens.

The exhibition is in two distinct areas. As well as the sculptures in the gardens, there are those in the underground galleries. You move from the brightness of the outside to the dark subterranean world. Had Jaume Plensa not said so, this reserved Englishman would have missed half of the exhibition. The experience is as much about touch and sound as it is about the visual art.

The galleries have a long curtain of verses strung from floor to ceiling separating the outside world from the interior. Running your hand across the letters make them chime, with the tintinnabulations evoking Jaume Plensa's memories of a beaded curtain from his childhood home.

The first gallery has the same crounched figures on the wall in the see no evil, hear no evil and say no evil. The evil here is the stress and anxiety of modern living rather than behaviour. The theme is replicated in the next room with three giant heads looking inwardly at each other.

The third gallery is an experience in itself and photographs do no do it justice. The six foot high elongated heads are lit brightly in a dark room and are so unexpected compared to the other rooms. Similar to the giant head Jaume created near St Helens, these androgynous and beautifully lifelike faces are calm and serene. Although digitally created, they feel ancient and almost living. Their feels to be a presence in the room as if something living inhabits the heads, may be only opening the closed eyes after midnight. A magical set of sculptures.

The final gallery is filled with gongs of varying tones which resound throughout the exhibition space. These red gold gongs are in a circle, filled with the words from the song of songs in the old testament.

The end room shows more detail and information about Jaume Plensa's life and work. It includes a mobile, lit deliberately to make the shadows as much part of the work of art as the figures clinging on to the mobile almost for dear life. This work is constantly changing as the strands of the mobile move round.

Before leaving, I climbed the hill to see the one, major sculpture as tall as a house, looking out across the valley. The work is totally different viewed from the inside than from the outside. With the light fading, it was also fascinating to see how the silver letter sculptures changed from bright silver to red tinged figures to dull grey before being lit up to being almost white beacons shining across the panorama.

My overall impression was this was as good an art exhibition as I remember seeing. This is partly down to the setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Having also been to the Compton Verney gallery in Warwickshire a few days after, the vistas of Capability Brown have nothing on the Yorkshire countryside when finding locations for sculptures. No white room in a London gallery could do the sculptures justice either.

The alabaster heads in the third gallery stayed with me, along with the inner contemplation of many of the works and will for a time to come.

The exhibition is on between the 9 April 2011 - 25 September 2011. For more information, visit the YSP website

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

How important are local newspapers to the community?

This was a question that I wrestled with when asked to fill in a survey recently. Even at the time I thought this a complex issue that could hardly be answered by ticking one box over another box.

This wasn’t even the question on the survey, but my own thought. The actual question was over communities and whether newspapers are an essential part of an effective local community. My answer is no – but that is doing newspapers a disservice.

Why did I say no? Community does not need newspapers partly because there are alternatives from the old fish wives gossiping to social media and beyond. Partly because local newspapers are so different and their role is so diverse that you couldn’t really identify what its core purpose is. Finally, what is a community and how big a geography does it cover? IS it even bound by geography?

What it is true to say is that local newspapers are a social glue. They bind people together by imparting information and requesting feedback. This isn’t just a noticed board for events and minutes of meetings. It also offers information over crime and punishment, emotional stories and pleas of help.

If I think of my own area, there are several layers of newspaper that make layers like an onion of community information. Starting at the Wharfe Valley Times, the news is focused mainly on charitable events, school projects and sports news. In fact, the main reason people read it isn’t the news but the car and house adverts. Go up a layer and you have the Yorkshire Evening Post, a good metropolitan evening paper focusing on crime and human interest stories. There’s also the Wharfdale and Airedale Observer, a rural focused weekly looking at life towards Ilkley and awy from Leeds City Centre. Then there is the Yorkshire Post, the newspaper read by the business community and those in the know from Scarborough to Sheffield.

Comparing local papers also gives you a flavour of key interests and how fast paced life is. I grew up with a weekly paper focussed on the rural community a world away from the Barnsley Chronicle.

But if I do what local information, is the newspaper the best or only way of accessing it? With an increasingly open information society, public information is increasingly available and, if you don’t understand the figures, there’s sure to be some person developing an app. to explain it. There are blogs, twitter feeds, community message boards and real events which allow me to engage in the community at a deeper level. My sense of community is not dictated to by the news agenda.

Equally, community has become disjointed. Is my community where I live? Where my children go to school? Where I work? Where I play sport? They are all of these things. When I was growing up all were available in reasonably small area, but now I can travel to different areas to engage with different areas of my life.

I think this is why newspapers have struggled. There is information relevant to me in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, the Harrogate Advertiser, The Wakefield Express and the Bradford Telegraph. It would be unfeasible for me to buy all these newspapers. Add in the school publications, the parish magazines, the sports club quarterly newsletter and it’s a mass of information I don’t necessarily have the time to consume.

Newspapers also have never recovered from the age of the internet and still struggle online. Their role has been superseded whether its small ads, selling homes and cars, message boards and piped information services. They also struggle with the balance of free information over paid for content.

Each person has their own communities they want to keep in touch with and newspapers are so restrictive in how you can access and consume information. To be effective, they need to be that social glue – responding to the needs of their community and not trying to dictate the agenda. They need to look at what is required and bundle those services in a branded offering. It is different in different places. They also need to look at how I could get the business news from the Evening Post, say, the sports reports on Bradford City from the Telegraph and Argus, my Facebook feed of friends and the message board from my sports club. People are already creating piped services that cut out the newspapers and people can create their own feeds of information.

The difficulty is working out who pays for the service at what point. Technology and newspapers can engage communities whether geographic or virtual. The final question is whether we want to remain a disparate group of individuals flitting between communities, or whether we want to go back to living in a local community where all our needs are met within a small geography. There are benefits and disadvantages to both, but personally I feel we have become a little too well travelled and need to discover what’s on our doorstep and re-engage in our locality. May be we would value our local newspapers more if we did.

Image: healingdream /