Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Strangely Isolated Place

We've all heard of 'writer's block' and many of us have suffered from it at one point or another. It's not always the same for everybody. With the advent of the Internet (I really must stop talking about it like it's a new thing), everyone went one step further than writing; they all become publishers. With a blog for instance, you don't just upload something, you 'publish' it now. This little ramble will get published, hopefully...

Because that appears to be the problem, of sorts. I don't have writer's block, I have publisher's block! My literary output has, if anything, increased over the last few weeks, yet there's been nothing appearing on any of my blogs. I have four articles in draft format and I'm loathe to publish any of them. Why? Simple, I have publisher's block!

The thing is, my candidacy as a prospective Independent councillor for the 2011 borough council elections have had a profound affect on me in a completely unexpected way. I've suddenly developed a fear. And it is a fear, it's not paranoia, it's out and out fear.

As genial old curmudgeon Phil Hall, I'd swear and pontificate about anything that tickled my fancy. My audience is small and most of the people who read it know me of old, so they know me better than say someone just dropping in to see what I have to say about stuff. But now I've suddenly, albeit pretty quietly, launched myself onto a public stage and suddenly all the things about politics that I hate have inveigled their way into my thinking.

I was out with Roger, one of my campaign manager candidates, on Wednesday; we were drinking in our preferred watering hole - The Queen Adelaide, in Kingsthorpe (It really is a nice pub) and I told him all of the above. Not because I was seeking guidance or an answer, because, basically a problem shared is sometimes a problem halved. I came to the conclusion that what was needed is me talking about it - being honest with you.

I think there are things that you just can't overlook. For example, I swear. I have a tendency to use bad language, especially in shit like this, for affect rather than my lack of vocabulary. I actually hate swearing (and that's a statement that will raise quite a few eyebrows), because seriously I should be able to use far more colourful metaphors without resorting to base Anglo-Saxon colloquialisms. But I am lazy; nearly ten years away from a disciplined writing job has made me stereotypical at best. Another good example would be my tendency to not suffer fools lightly; especially recently. Being opinionated, as far as I can see, isn't the best way to go about starting a political career. Roger, however, disagreed, saying that politicians are opinionated and that's why we vote for them. But what if my opinion doesn't reflect the mood of the voters?

Okay, we'll throw self-doubt into the mix along with fear. Suddenly, I'm wondering if I can be ME any more.

That throws doubt on at least two of my stockpiled blog entries. The main reason being, I think they're boring. Something that has never stopped me in the past. But, they're not that boring; they just no longer seem to have relevance. I suppose, I think I ought to be writing about issues that define Phil the politician, not just Phil the bloke that writes a blog and has a fair few friends that read it and suddenly I'm all self-conscious (a very rare thing for me) and worrying that I'm just going to come across as sermonising or worse still politicising. Roger rather succinctly put when I mentioned this to him that being a politician was all about politicising.

Damn it. I like to entertain and political blogs by definition are not entertaining, not unless you want to come across as superficial and not serious enough. Hell, I'm supposed to have gravitas am I not? (Well, I do, at least three times a week, but that's a different story).

The problem is, this is a public blog and by virtue of who I am and what I'm planning, has to stay that way. Therefore, in the future, when all possibilities exist, things I say here could be taken and used against me by my political opponents. This might suggest that I'm flippant and occasionally insulting; that I have a limited degree of tolerance or that I haven't got the right degree of maturity to represent the people of my ward. But, actually, what it does is show that I'm just as human as most other people. That we all have our prejudices, or that we all have opinions that probably don't sit well against our public political beliefs.

Blogs are dangerous things and can come back and bite you on the arse and my biggest dilemma over the last couple of weeks has been whether or not I should continue this, knowing that sometimes I get so emotionally charged that I'm apt to say things I might regret.

But, guess what? I'm not some automaton, who's sole purpose is to pander to every possible person who might read this. I'd like to think that if anyone who might vote for me in 2011 reads this they will see that I'm about fairness above all else. It doesn't matter if I have extreme beliefs about specific things just so long as they see me as the right person to represent them in the local parliament. Rather altruistically, I'd like to think that displaying human traits might just be a tempting proposition for the undecided voters.

This rather steep and sudden learning curve tailed off about three minutes ago when I realised the easiest thing to do is just apply a little bit of quality control - something I accuse many others of lacking. And, if I can't make a decision about something I write, I have a bunch of conscientious friends who can advise me. Because everyone needs an editor and most people probably also need a quality controller!

Now... Election News!

Or rather no news. Nothing is going to happen just yet because I have to find out if my job is considered 'sensitive' enough to preclude me from standing for the local council. The downside of this is my job might be sensitive - it just depends on whether my grade is classed as sensitive as others in higher posts. The upshot is that I might, just might, be able to stand for the County Council elections - which if I have to be brutally honest appeals to me, because if I really want to make a change that's where change does actually happen - on a grander scale. It would allow me the ability to argue my point for a Unified Council - quite possibly the only way this county is going to save its bacon in the long run.

My intention to stand has received nothing but positive feedback from everyone I've told and had me wishing that all my friends and colleagues all lived in my ward, because if intentions were votes I'd have won already. And news travels fast; colleagues of mine at the other office were quick to mention it to me when I was over there earlier in the week. It appears that my colleagues think that I'm an ideal kind of bloke to do this kind of thing and from the obvious honesty in their well wishes and support I have to start believing it myself!

I can think of at least 6 people I wish were still alive to see these intentions.

**********

Right... if people want to hear my political views and other such important stuff, then http://independentchoices.blogspot.com/ is the place to visit. For all the rest, my gig reviews, album critiques, moralising and general Phil Hallisms, it's here - no major changes; I'm just going to try and apply some quality control*

* That last line was edited 7 times!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Get 'Em Out By Friday

Sequels often make more money, but are usually far more over the top retreads, or in a lot of cases badly judged exercises in producing pap. But I have a sequel of my very own that promises to be neither of the above.

2009 will unofficially be known as The Year of the Shoulder, because it dominated most of my year. It really started to become a problem around February of last year and as any one following this will know it got so bad by May that I was off of work and awaiting a date to go under the surgeon's knife.

Just to recap - the operation was declared a 100% success and I was discharged.

But in November, I returned to the doctor and told him I thought there was something wrong with it. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was 47 and my body was going to take longer to heal, especially after the trauma of an operation. I realised that as it had only been 3 months since the operation that he could well be right, despite the fact that September and October had been wonderfully pain free months! So, I asked him to just make a note on my notes that I was concerned about my shoulder and that I'd wait at least 3 months before consulting him again.

Four months have now passed and we need to go back a couple of weeks. I noticed that while I still had lots of movement in my shoulder, it was growing stiff and painful. It was causing me some trouble sleeping, because it seemed to hurt more now when I didn't use it than when I did. In my head, this seemed to make some sense - exercise it more and it'll continue to build up muscle tone and the pain would go away. Except that didn't work and last Thursday, my shoulder seized up - just froze and the pain was on a level with the worst parts of 2009...

Now it seems that I've got a problem with it. My locum doctor this morning gave me a thorough examination and declared that she felt I needed to go back and see the consultant, because she felt there was something wrong (duh!). It now means that I have to wait, possibly not as long as a new patient, because I'm already firmly on the NHS books, but a wait is on the cards. I've been prescribed two new drugs - an even stronger paracetamol and codeine mixture and an industrial strength anti-inflammatory - I'm going to be rattling again.

It's too early for any kind of prognosis, but I'm a bag of mixed emotions at the moment - mainly anger and paranoia. I'm angry because the problem obviously hasn't been sorted out (I'm sure I blogged a few months ago that I reckon they only spotted one problem, but there might have been two) and I'm back in a lot of pain; and paranoid because I don't want to have any more time off of work, I have my big project starting on Wednesday and I'm desperate for that to be a huge success and simply, because I can't afford to - financially or emotionally. Some people I work with still find it difficult to accept that I had a serious problem last year, despite the operation and the resulting scars; so how am I going to be treated by these people if I end up having more time off. Yes, I work in the care industry, but some of my colleagues only care about certain things and colleagues aren't among them.

**********

As I said, my big project launches Wednesday. The No Generation Gap Project isn't my baby, but I've adopted it and it no longer views anyone else as its daddy.

Last July, a number of groups decided to give my organisation a lump sum of cash to create a project that fits into the government's new Intergenerational strategy. Fortunately for me, the powers that be at my place decided the best person to facilitate this project was yours truly and I didn't just pick the ball up and run with it, I invented entirely new rules and aims. It has been my project and I've had full backing from my superiors and it's going to be groundbreaking in many ways.

Yes, I'm being big headed about it and it hasn't even launched yet. But Intergenerational projects are the in-thing at the moment - getting all those pesky youngsters to work with all those grey pensioners - and while everyone, everywhere else, is sitting around deciding how and what they're going to do, I just got on with it and did it (which explains why I've suddenly become someone who everyone else wants to hear from).

We were given money to buy modern technology. With this bag of goodies, we'll be taking a group of technologically minded young people into pensioners' groups, village halls, libraries and the like and making ourselves available to teach the elderly about all the stuff they can't or don't understand about modern gadgets. I already have a fairly choc-a-bloc diary and I'm getting more bookings every week. But, this isn't just about teaching the old new tricks, this is about getting two disparate generations to start talking to each other again.

The elderly don't trust the young and this is a perception that is wildly exaggerated. The over 50s of this country think the world is a far more dangerous place than it actually is; the perception of crime in Northamptonshire is exponentially higher than the actual crime rate and my project is aiming to smash this misnomer to smithereens.

**************

My quest to seek a seat in the political arena of Northampton is moving along at a pace (ish). I have identified two people who I would consider potentially campaign managers; one is diametrically opposed to all my beliefs, but she and I see eye-to-eye about council politics, and the other is her partner, who isn't poles apart from my way of thinking. There might be other, more suitable, candidates emerge as I get closer to my goal, but that's all far too far away to consider at the moment.

However, I am meeting with former MP, independent local councillor and director of the Cobblers, Tony Clarke, on Friday - just for a chat. I've known Tony since I was 15, we went to the same school and he's married to a girl whose family I was friendly with at the time. He's the best placed person to give me the skinny and I promise I won't be too disappointed if he tells me I haven't got a snowball's chance of hell of achieving it.

****************

We are almost officially entering into the latter stages of the worst winter in living memory (and while I was alive in 1963, I can't remember it, so who am I to argue). The long range weather forecast offers nothing in terms of respite from the cold, with cold, wet, windy, snowy and frosty weather forecast now right into March. I get the impression that this winter is a little like the fantastic summer of 1976. Then there was an area of high pressure that just anchored itself off to the west of the UK and fed warm and dry air into the isles for 4 months. This year, we've had a number of high pressure areas sitting off to the north of the country, feeding in easterlies and more importantly cooling the country down faster than it has for a long time.

Our usual winter fayre of mild westerlies and a handful of cold or snowy days has been replaced by the exact opposite - almost a mirror image of what our weather normally is. The country, as a whole, has had so much cold air sitting over it that it's now difficult for milder air to have that much effect. There have only been two days where the temperature has risen into double figures since December 10th! In the winter of 2006 there were only two days of frost by the time we hit February!

The wife always jokes that it snows on her birthday and for best part of the last 27 years, it has, literally. March 4 seems to be a day that brings wintry weather almost as inevitably as night follows day (apart from last year which was exceptionally mild). It's still nearly 3 weeks away and at the moment it seems like it could take forever to arrive. You see there's this theory about time and the perception of time that I subscribe to. It is believed that people in the UK have a slightly different perception of time to people who live in places such as deserts or with stable and predictable weather patterns. The reason for this is that if you live in the desert you experience the same conditions for weeks and weeks on end - there is little change to the weather, so days tend to merge into each other. But, in the UK we have a temperate climate and our weather is amongst the most unpredictable on the planet. Our perception is quicker, because we literally can have four seasons in just one day. Our weather is always changing, so time seems to move faster.

So, if we are to experience another month, at least, of this Arctic conditions, it's going to make a winter that has already felt like it has been dragging on, even longer. And, of course, there's that caveat at the end of it, when summer arrives and fails to make an appearance...

I wonder if hairy people feel the cold less?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Embryonic

I suppose the seed was sown, initially, during a Saturday lunchtime drink at the Ranelagh Arms in Wellingborough. I was with two old friends, Matt and John (not my nephews) and I hadn't seen either of them for quite a few years. It was a case of previously... and previously John had been the closest thing I'd met to a young fascist in all my years. Yes, I'd met young Conservatives, but never someone so devotedly right wing as John. He could have been a poster boy for the BNP.

However, there was I, spouting how, if I ever had the chance to run the country, the first thing I'd do is turn us into Norway. Not literally, obviously, but world politically. I said I was fed up with the UK being the World's Peace keeper's deputy. I was fed up with the UK being a target for extremists, not because of who we are, but because of who we align ourselves with, in things that we should just keep our noses out of. I said, if I had any control at all I'd say, "I'm sorry UN and NATO, but we're turning ourselves into a neutral country; we're not going to be the world's policeman any longer; we're going to cut our defence expenditure by 70%. We're going to have a small, but perfectly formed armed forces, to defend ourselves - ONLY. Yes, we'd be happy to send a few thousand troops as UN peace keepers, but forget about anything else. That's means you America. We've just stopped subsidising your 'peace' machine.' Then I said we'd use the billions - yes, BILLIONS, of pounds saved, on fixing things like the NHS, the economy and unemployment. Maybe invest some of it into rebuilding an infrastructure again, or just paying off the people we owe money to. It's radical, but John sat there and, despite coming from a military background, said, "You get my vote!" And he was being absolutely serious about it.

I'm a greenback. I'm wet behind the ears. But, I'm not stupid. While I take a great interest in politics, I'm just a pathetic novice when it comes to actual politics and understanding the machinations, the moving and the shaking; but so are most other people who enter into politics. They do it, it would appear, because they think they can make a difference - especially in local politics. Now, I have to be careful here, because I work for one of my local councils - the one I can't run as a councillor for; plus I just have to be careful with what I say; walls have ears and blogs have tentacles that stretch far beyond our understanding (One of my Facebook friends is also friends with 4 other of my friends, but none of those friends know each other! That's just an example of how the Internet is a bizarre version of Six Degrees of Separation).

My personal beef, for years now, have been the gradual erosion of what I regard as front line services. But, you see, this is where my naivety comes in, big time. My idea of front line services are not other peoples idea. In modern parlance these are things like social services, education and local care; and while I agree that these are indeed important services, I'm talking about the services that the council tax payer sees on a weekly basis - the things he sees his or her money being spent on, out in the open. This, for Northampton, would be refuse collection, street lighting and road repairs, perhaps law and order, especially if you live in a notorious area.

Take garbage collection. It's all very efficient now, with recycling and... er... actually, rubbish collection had deteriorated so much in the 10 years I've lived in this house it's laughable and yet, one of the fantastic ways that local councils see themselves saving money is to make refuse collection chargeable - outside of your council tax. Collecting our rubbish is an essential service and in the last 15 years I've seen more rules, regulations and directives passed to sink a battleship. While living in Wellingborough, in 1998, the bin men, always a well respected section of society (regularly tipped at Christmas in old days) lost all of that respect almost over night when the council's health and safety executive decreed they could no longer retrieve wheelie bins from peoples front gardens; if it wasn't by the side of the road, it would be ignored. I lived in a road with at least 4 pensioners, two over 80, who pretty much depended on the friendly local bin man to collect their bins from under their front windows. Needless to say that after a few weeks, you didn't need verbally reminding that the pensioners' bins were not being emptied as often as they should.

Then the ban on black bin bags came into being. Yes, I understand that they might have infected needles in them, but trust me when I tell you that councils have lists and lists of character studies of dodgy residents. I know that the Borough has dossiers on a number of people living in their properties, who, for the want of better descriptions, are either drug addicts, fiddlers of some kind or unemployed and claiming benefits. We now live in an environment of sharing of information between key organisations - it doesn't work very well, but it's in place...

My whinges about refuse collection are specific and immovable, just as the Borough council is immovable about being flexible about their policies. Councils have always essentially been the purest form of service industry, yet, frankly, we don't get any service.

Personally, this county needs a unified council; we're antiquated and run by two tiers of local government that seem to continually fail to grasp the understanding that they were elected to serve the people of their wards or boroughs. Over the years, both councils have come up with ideas that are so bizarre and stupid that you wonder, sometimes, what these people are doing in the town hall - and I'm talking about Labour and Conservative; they're both as uniquely bad as each other. As far as I can remember these councils have never got it right and now we might have the lowest council tax in the country, but we're also £8million in debt; a figure that could rise. This means one of two things - cuts in services already stretched to the bone, or redundancies, meaning that services already stretched thin will suffer regardless.

However, my basic manifesto if I was to run for the borough councillor seat in the next local elections would be this: increase council tax by a minimum of 15%, preferably 30%. Look at the council's annual budget and suggest making cuts to things like the employment of consultants and agency staff; cutting out certain middle managers who do nothing but facilitate the upper and lower levels. Maybe abolish car parking charges in the town, to encourage more people to actually use it and once the businesses see an increase in turnover, crank up their rates accordingly; but get them moving in the right direction first. Instead of trying to turn the once historic market square into something, anything, but a market square, I'd turn it back into a real market, and I'd promote it. I'd cut the rents; I'd lay on more facilities (or open it up to more). I'd stand against anything being suggested that wasn't for the long term good of the town. Its time Northampton woke up and realised its big but its never going to be a city - not while most of us are still alive anyhow. The town needs revitalising and the only way to do that is to get people to want to return to it and at the moment that isn't happening.

I'd want to see more beat Bobbies; more solving of crimes rather than the passing out of crime numbers for insurance purposes; and obviously from a personal position, I'd like to see more money put into social services and the agencies and organisations that work in partnership with them; because if you make people feel happier about the place they live, they tend to be less rowdy and anarchic.

One of the craziest decisions the councils have made in recent years was the abolishing of the Youth Service (again). This is a little like a dairy farmer killing off all his female cows; yes there's plenty of animals left, but nothing for them to do and nothing ends up being produced. The youth are the future of this town, county, country and planet, yet this country's governments and all the local governments seems to disregard this - let the parents sort out that problem; this is the attitude that I think permeates the thinking of those in charge.

The bottom line is that for every pound you spend on council tax, a fairly whacking lump of it will go to pay for council employees (such as me), council follies and expenses, consultancy fees and emergency overpaid agency staff. In fact, like your income tax, you'd really be hard pressed, regardless of the financial breakdowns offered, to actually work out where your money goes.

But, of course, council tax is one of those indirect taxes we don't tend to think about because it doesn't come out of our wage packets. Plus, we're in a recession (or coming out of one, at least) and no one wants to have to pay more money for anything; despite the fact there's a growing need for us to pay more.

This week we saw the future in microcosm. Regardless of whoever gets elected at the next general election, the UK is so up to its neck in debt, it is going to have to cut public spending; that's less subsidies to local government and anywhere else that provides a service to the country. In Birmingham, the 2nd largest city, we're seeing a desperate situation. The incumbent Tory council have held council tax to the same level as inflation since they've been in power; this cumulative effect has meant that in 2010 they are £89m in debt and have to lose 2000 jobs, either through voluntary redundancies or natural wastage - possibly even enforced redundancies. That's life and we can all hope that the 2000 losses won't make much difference; but the UNISON union man summed it up pretty well - with public spending cuts every year to fight the national debt, unless council tax is increased to a level of sustainability then it means that even front line services may be seriously cut in the next 5 years. Or in other words, if you think this is bad, over the next 5 years its going to get so bad you'll be wondering why you pay council tax at all.

A Tory government will mean hikes in indirect taxes (council tax, VAT, etc) and because it isn't coming out of your wages it doesn't hurt as much. It also means a drastic reduction in the money being spent on YOU. You have to pay the price for the last 30 years of ups and downs and unstable governing. You elect these people; no one else is to blame, and if you don't ever vote, you're just as bad. Anyone entering politics now is in for a rough ride, because principles may have to be compromised if anything is to be achieved. What is needed, in this age of expenses scandals, extra-marital affairs and Eton toffs, is a way where real people actually get the chance to have a say, if they feel strongly enough and can convince the voters. There has been a real history of real people going into politics, but most of them whither and die or become stereotypical comedy politicians, like Denis Skinner.

So, I suppose what I'm saying is that I'm going to seriously look into running for local council in the next elections. Even if all I do is go into the chambers (if elected) and ask some difficult and albeit naive questions; I'll not pander to whims of other, ambitious, politicians. My principals have got me this far, they can take me a bit further.

Now, I know that I have some skeletons in my closet. Yes, I have inhaled; yes, I was unemployed for a long time during the 80s; I have probably either known or associated with some people who could quite easily destroy a serious political career; but I'd like to think that they were better for knowing me. I don't think real people give a toss about someones past, as long as it isn't to nefarious or sick. All they really care about is whether or not the person they vote for is going to do the job for them; which might explain why turn out for local elections is so woefully pitiful compared to the just plain old pitiful for general ones.

My cause was boosted at the knowledge that an independent who stood for her local council polled 1.034 votes, beaten into 2nd place by the extant councillor, who polled 1,312 votes. She spent £40 on her campaign, which involved A5 fliers, a few larger posters and a door-to-door campaign. The winner had the full force of the local Conservative election machine behind him!

So, the next few weeks are going to taken up with some conversations. An old acquaintance of mine stood for local elections last year; another old acquaintance was a mayor, and another one used to be a Labour MP; so I've got some experience at hand, if they chose to share it.

Let's see if we have a game worth playing, huh?