Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell. By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Henning Mankell has given me two significant things over the last few years – reigniting my love of reading and making me feel more in touch with my Swedish roots.

As a child I read avidly and writing was something I’d always wanted to do as a career (that dream still exists, but at 40 already feels less likely), but I reached a point in my 20s where I read little. Discovering Henning Mankell however helped get me reading avidly again, not just his books but many others too. Sadly, he is the second of my favourite authors who rekindled my love of reading to die in the last few years following Iain Banks in 2013.

Crime fiction has always been one of my favourite genres, but what makes Mankell’s stand out is the normality and humanity of the extraordinary events he writes about. Although he has written books with other lead characters it is of course the Kurt Wallander books that really stand out. As a character Wallander is a true human being with strong feelings about the world around him and the crimes he deals with, but this is conveyed in a way that is natural and not forcing you to take a particular view. The writing style of Mankell also really fits well with this and, like my other favourite crime writer Ian Rankin, is straight forward and easy to read even when you’re in a setting where it’s hard to concentrate. The plots are cleverly put together and he brings the people to life with a simplicity that I wish I could achieve myself.

Mankell was one of the first in a wave of Nordic crime writing that has been popular across Europe, and that also helped lead to the unlikely popularity of foreign language dramas on BBC4. But for someone who was born in Sweden and whose ability to speak or read Swedish is pretty poor, the availability and popularity of his books in English made me suddenly feel a lot more close to my roots. Reading great stories set in the Sweden of today has rekindled my sense of Swedishness and being able to truly understand my home country, and for that I’ll always be grateful. It’s not just the day to day life of Sweden and explaining how the country is, but for all the popularity they’ve had in the rest of the world there are still elements of Mankell’s books that have made me realise how much I understand about its culture that isn’t entirely obvious unless you have a connection to the country.

Henning Mankell has left a great legacy with his own writing, (and I will now savour even more every one of his books that I have yet to read), but as importantly he’s inspired so many other writers and readers to take an interest in the Nordic Noir genre that is now so popular.

Devolution for Sheffield – a lopsided deal but hopefully one to give us confidence

Sheffield City Region

When I woke up to the news on Friday morning that Sheffield City Region was to get a devolution deal with the government with an elected mayor, I was excited and disappointed all at the same time. Excited that Sheffield had got its act together and jumped the queue but disappointed about the mayor. Largely I’m positive though as I think it’s about time that Sheffield moved out of the shadows of the other big cities, but it does create some interesting complications. This post is looking at some of those but is also my initial instinctive feelings about it all.

Devolution within England has always been controversial, not so much about the principle, but at what level it is done. As I’ve written before, I’ve always had a scepticism about the benefits that a Yorkshire Regional Assembly would bring to my home city of Sheffield. My heart loves the idea of a single body that represents the county in which I grew up, but my head tells me that as far as Sheffield is concerned it makes more sense to have something more focused on the one city and to arrange economic and transport development around the city and its hinterland, much of which falls outside Yorkshire. This post however isn’t intended to go over that argument again but instead it’s to look at the latest proposals and the complications they create in terms of lopsided devolution within their own city region.

The new devolution deal gives Sheffield City Region and its directly-elected mayor a large number of new powers over areas such as transport management, policy and spending, economic development, work benefits and post 19 skills. Whilst many of these are about co-operating with central government to work out what would suit the region best, rather than necessarily a whole new way of doing things, it’s a start. For me the most exciting part of it though is what it could lead to in terms of greater powers, rather than necessarily what’s on offer now. It’s not as big a deal as Greater Manchester got, but it’s a start and I imagine it will gain a momentum that will inevitably lead to further powers.  These powers however apply to the area of the combined authority, which is formally only Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley. Whilst there are a further five local authority areas that form the Sheffield City Region, only the four I’ve named are legally ‘constituent members’ which means the powers of the combined authority only cover those. This creates a lopsided deal that gives lots of powers to one bit of the city region and less to the other.

If you look through the devolution document it is littered with phrases such as “The directly elected Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Combined Authority will be responsible for a devolved and consolidated local transport budget for the area of the Combined Authority (i.e. the areas of the constituent councils)” which means it only applies to the four authorities of South Yorkshire not the whole of the city region. This means that one of the new powers the region gets relating to smart-ticketing will only apply to South Yorkshire and not to those other parts of the region for whom they will be as, if not more, beneficial, and perhaps lead to transport authorities in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire not wanting to invest as much in those areas or instead arguing with South Yorkshire over any ideas it comes up with that they could all pragmatically decide to implement across the whole area. Despite this there are other powers that sound more inclusive by not referring just to constituent councils but to the region as a whole such as “Powers over strategic planning, including the responsibility to create a spatial framework for the city region and to chair the Sheffield City Region Joint Assets Board.” This would mean that the mayor had powers over an area that never voted for it. Perhaps the new deal with encourage those authorities who are classed as ‘non-constituent’ to vote to become ‘constituent’ members but it doesn’t seem clear if this is something they are currently considering. If they did however it would not only make everything more joined up but it will also mean they get to choose a mayor who will have a big influence on the future economic prospects of their area whether they are constituent members or not. Somehow the new mayor will need to show that this doesn’t lead to the region becoming dysfunctional if it wanted to gain further powers in the future.

One area in which all parts of the region participate fully is the Local Economic Partnership (LEP). All nine local authorities are part of this body which is actually led by the private sector rather than local authorities, and whilst separate from the combined authority is inherently linked and more or less perceived externally as one body. The new mayor will also sit on this which emphasises how much all of these areas are part of the same economic region and attracting people to invest locally is something for all areas and outside investors won’t really see much difference between the Advanced Manufacturing Park (actually in Rotherham), Markham Vale (in Chesterfield) and Robin Hood Airport (in Doncaster) when one of the attractions will be being part of the Sheffield set-up.  I know I write as someone who lives in Sheffield itself, but one of the issues that I think has stymied the area is the unwillingness to embrace the Sheffield name. Whilst I know the people of towns such as Rochdale or Stockport for example are very proud of the distinctiveness of their towns and hate being lumped in with Manchester, I have detected a general acceptance from those who live there that as Manchester is the main urban centre for their region and has a generally positive reputation that they are a part of the brand that is Manchester. In South Yorkshire, and whilst I think most surrounding areas do see Sheffield as the main urban centre, the other towns feel a lot less attached to it. This may partly be because Sheffield’s brand and reputation as somewhere to look up to isn’t as strong as Manchester’s, or perhaps it’s because when you go between towns in South Yorkshire you pass through countryside rather than it being a continuous urban area. Really though Sheffield as a name should be a lot more powerful and needs to be embraced if everyone is to benefit. In the city’s industrial height, the ‘Made in Sheffield’ name was known throughout the world as a sign of quality, and Sheffield remains to this day the only city in the UK whose name has legal protections which means that companies wishing to use it need extra permission from the government. This should be used to its real potential by the wider region.

Despite my criticism of this lopsided bit of devolution I am still really impressed it is going ahead. I don’t like directly-elected mayors and I would be a little more relaxed about the idea if the mayor also had a small authority alongside to scrutinise decisions and hold reviews in to the policies that the mayor is or could be pursuing just as happens in London. But the argument about the mayor as a model is a whole other post. What I thing is good about this devolution deal though is that I hope it will lead Sheffield to become a bit more pushy and able to be confident about raising its profile more.

As someone who was raised in Sheffield and has lived here most of my life, I get very frustrated when, despite being England’s fourth largest city at around 560,000 people and a city region of around 1.8 million people, people largely ignore the city when they think of the major cities of the country. Many people have no idea that the city is so large or that it isn’t just some scruffy rust bucket in the North of England whose best days are behind it. Whilst this again is enough for a whole other post, I think this perception (or perhaps a lack of a perception) is due to a whole variety of factors which includes things as diverse as an economy that was centred on industries that suffered hugely in the 80s recession, but also not being a base for a regional TV station, not having a metropolitan county named after it, being officially the second largest city in its government region not the first, having two football clubs that haven’t been at the top of football for some time, and many other things. But if there’s one thing that working in Manchester has taught me it’s that Manchester is a city that has a confident swagger and pride that Sheffield doesn’t even come close to. I hope that the introduction of the devolution deal and the mayor will lead to a confidence to talk up the city rather than the main message that has come out of the council in the last few years of just how much the government is giving us a raw deal.  All councils think they get a raw deal from government, but constantly talking about it gives the impression that we are an impoverished backwater, and whilst I would never deny that poverty is a problem in our region, taking the powers that this devolution deal gives us means we can get on and do more about it ourselves.

I have always loved Sheffield and hopefully this deal will give the leading voices in the city region the confidence to talk up how much they love it too.

Heritage Open Days – part two

As much as I love history and architecture, there’s some other loves that can sometimes distract me from my weekend plans – sleep, coffee and blogs by other people who enjoy exploring places and whose writing is far more accomplished than mine. This morning after waking up late, I did as I usually do on a weekend morning put on some filter coffee and start up my laptop and open up some of my favourite websites. Suddenly, the next thing you know it’s nearly midday and you’ve done nothing useful, although I suppose relaxing on a day off is the whole point of having them really. But on to where I did get to…

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Little Sheffield

Horn Handle Works, Club Garden Road, Sheffield

Starting where I left off the previous day, I began this morning with a trip to another local factory, but unlike Portland Works this one is no longer used for its original purpose. It got off to a slightly flat start with rain, low clouds, a venue that was difficult to park near (it turned out it wasn’t but the pay and display behind the building wasn’t obvious) and a destination that was deserted when I arrived. Having wandered round an empty building I was about to leave when I stumbled on someone outside doing a tour with a small group. I tagged on the end and he started the tour again shortly after.

Horn Handle Works started off life as Hill Brothers who made the handles for umbrellas and walking sticks largely out of stag horn unlike other local companies who imported ivory and other rare bones from abroad. Next door was a small separate factory next door that made the umbrellas themselves. Although the company closed in the 1970s the building survived and has now been taken over by Regather, a local co-operative that is using the small building for a host of community activities and events. When I visited they were in the middle of preparing food for an event tonight, the smell of which made me very hungry.

Despite the lacklustre start and despite the history of the building still in the process of being uncovered by volunteers, the brief tour was interesting and the man who did it was pretty engaging. You really needed the tour though as this was about the history of the building and the wider Little Sheffield area rather than what there was to look at in the building itself which was fairly limited. What’s clear is that they’re still at the beginning of developing something bigger in a little known bit of the city and their next event – Little Sheffield Feast (based on a real festival that used to happen in the area) – is a sign that in future there will be much more to take part in.

Christ Church, Pitsmoor Road, Pitsmoor

Christ Church, Pitsmoor, Sheffield

My experience of Heritage Open Days is starting to look like it’s all about the factories and churches, but this visit was for another reason – my family history. Both my great grandparents George Wakefield and Sarah Jane Woolhouse and my great great grandparents (on a different side of the family) John Radley and Thirza Chapman, were married at this church within three years of each other. Having driven past lots of times this was a good opportunity to see inside.

What was beginning to concern me at this point however was that this was my second visit of the day, and there still no coffee and cake! But this place had a very local charm about it. Greeted by the vicar I was asked the standard question at all Heritage Open Days – “so are you visiting for any particular reason?” – and I was then pointed towards parish registers (which sadly didn’t cover the 1880s when my family were there) and a random large collection of photographs, news clippings, parish magazines and other items that the church had clearly dug out of a cupboard somewhere and piled up on the tables. That sounds critical, but really it’s not meant to be, and they’d produced some posters that explained a bit about the history of the building. Consequently there were a lot of “ooh that’s such and such a person” from local residents perusing the photographs.

For me though, most of all it was great to stand in the spot where my ancestors did and which ultimately resulted in me being born just under a century later.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Jenkin Road, Wincobank
and Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank Avenue, Wincobank

This is a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. In a city that dines out on its industrial heritage, it all too often forgets about its much earlier history and that included the brigantine fort at Wincobank.

Wincobank Undenominational Chapel, Wincobank, Sheffield

This visit started off at Wincobank Undenominational Chapel which was built in 1841 by the sisters Mary Ann Rawson and Emily Read of Wincobank Hall. The chapel has a definite oldie worldy charm dominated by a huge (and apparently unique) organ, but the most interesting thing from visiting the chapel was discovering the story of these two phenomenal sisters who were leading lights in the campaign to abolish slavery, supported a variety freedom fighters and missionaries, who were benefactors to many local causes, and who should probably be much better known.

The bit I was most looking forward to with this visit was the guided tour of Wincobank Hill Fort. Led by a very knowledgeable geeky long-haired local guy in Brigantine costume complete with fake sword, and accompanied by two other local ‘friends’ of the fort, our small group of visitors were led past the dumped sofas on the street next door up to the woodland around the fort. The route that we took was actually well thought out as it led us along the hillside and up to the fort from below giving you a really good sense of the outer banks, ditches and ramparts and how sizeable the structure is. Reaching the top what was then really dramatically striking was its position. The views from the fort were dramatic, not only across the Don Valley but also across the Blackburn Valley towards Keppel’s Column and over northern Sheffield. Only by visiting the fort do you truly understand why it was built where it was and its strategic significance as you can see for miles.

The tour around the site was interesting, although there were moments when the main guide’s enthusiasm for the era needed reining in a bit as I got lost with all the detail of the people, the battles and the moments of Romano-British history that impacted on the site. It made me want to learn more about that time however. The walking tour over an hour and a half but it did give you a real sense of the significance of the place that you wouldn’t get from visiting on your own.

Wincobank Hill Fort, Wincobank, Sheffield

Wincobank Hill Fort is probably one the most significant historic monuments in Sheffield, if not the region, and yet it is little explored. What this visit really did was remind me how little we cherish our pre-industrial heritage with houses encroaching so closely to the fort that they felt as though they’d been built within the fort itself. Perhaps there is much more potential for the city to make more of this time in our history.

There ended my visits as part of Heritage Open Days. I’m looking forward to next year already.

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr

Heritage Open Days – part one

Heritage Open Days is one of those things that’s always put in to my diary early, as soon as I know the date.  But sadly, it’s often ended up clashing with work commitments so with it this year falling on a clear weekend, and an already scheduled day off, it was obvious I had to plan a weekend of heritage, architecture and exploring Sheffield.  So here’s part one of my visits:

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Richmond Road, Woodthorpe

St. Catherine of Siena Church, Sheffield

Built in 1959 this is one of Sheffield’s most modern listed buildings as grade II, but most significantly it’s one of two churches in the city designed by Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame.  The church was constructed for the new Richmond parish to serve the residents of the new Woodthorpe Estate that had grown up behind the church.

One thing I learnt straight away today was that the fall back fundraiser at Heritage Open Days is coffee and cake, as every place I visited had them offer.  However with no signs outside indicating that St. Catherine’s was part of Heritage Open Days I did feel ever so slightly as if I was intruding on a coffee morning. Despite this I pressed on in to the church.  It’s a fairly small and simply designed church, with little natural light and as an anglo-catholic church a strong smell of incense.  It also had slightly surreally music that started playing as you entered although this did however create a sense of calm and atmosphere that was pretty pleasant.

On the way out the priest appeared and pointed out a nice painting in a small hall behind the church proper which intriguingly shows the building the opposite way round from how it was built.  After a very short look around I went to examine the bell tower which personally I think is the best bit as it makes a fairly low key building stand out.

St. Paul Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Parson Cross

St. Paul's Church, Wordsworth Avenue, Sheffield

Having visited one of Basil Spence’s Sheffield churches I thought I’d go and explore his other one which as a grade II* is his Sheffield masterpiece.  Like St. Catherine’s, St. Paul’s was built in 1959 to serve a new housing estate which when built outside the Sheffield boundaries was unnamed and so unusually the parish church was named after the road it was on.

This building was more wholeheartedly in to the Heritage Open Day experience, with signs, information guides, people greeting you and telling you about the building, along with the usual coffee and cake.  However what it also had was a young enthusiastic trainee priest who wanted to discuss my faith. As it was a church I suppose I can’t really object but I always feel uncomfortable when ‘on their patch’ and asked to discuss my views on the church and whether I have any ‘spirituality’ with someone who so clearly wholeheartedly believes in something that I absolutely do not.  What was interesting though was discovering from him that the Archbishop of York has decided to use the opening of churches to the public over this weekend to go and engage more with the public in his province who don’t normally attend church, and Sheffield is this year’s focus for their efforts. With enthusiastic priests such as the one I spoke to I’m sure some of their churches will at least have a good future. During our conversation and after saying what I do for a living he did however also turn out to be one of the biggest Tim Farron fans I’ve met with the words “Wow, I can’t believe you know Tim Farron” being repeated several times during our conversation.

Back to the church.  Whereas St Catherine’s was a little gloomy, St Paul’s has lots of light with large windows at both ends and beautiful undulating walls and warm looking modern wooden pews.  Whilst clearly struggling with major 1950s design and technology flaws, it is still a masterpiece 60 years on.  It is archetypal minimalist modernism.  Once again though I have to say a bit about the bell tower which adopts a similar approach to St. Catherine’s and makes it obvious that it’s the same architect, but this one is also linked to the church via cloister like walkways which gives a sense of entering and leaving a peaceful sanctuary despite being in the middle of a Sheffield council estate.

Grenoside Reading Room, School Lane, Grenoside

Grenoside Reading Room, Grenoside, Sheffield

Now let’s go back in time.  Grenoside Reading Room started life in 1790 as a school room but has gone through various uses until it became a community building clearly very well used by local residents.  Along with yet more coffee and cakes (and some very impressive ones at that) the main focus of their participation was to celebrate the building and showcase what it does.  It had bunting fluttering outside, posters, two vintage cars parked in front, and displays showing many of the groups and activities that meet there.  It also had an exhibition from its local history group about health in Grenoside.

Unlike the other buildings architecture wasn’t really the focus here, but it was nice to see a lovely local building still being very actively used.  I also ended up catching up with a former local councillor for the area who happened to be on duty when I was visiting, in a day that despite being off work was developing a worryingly Lib Dem theme.

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Fir Street, Walkley

Walkley Community Centre (former Walkley Reform Club), Walkley, Sheffield

Tucked away in a backstreet off Walkley’s ‘high street’ of South Road is the former Walkley Reform Club, set up by local Liberals in the early 20th century, but now serving as the community centre.  Architecturally the building is not that significant but as this is Heritage Open Days it’s about history not just architecture, and the building has long held a significant place in the local community.

For me the political history was understandably a very interesting part, and this was thoroughly embraced by the volunteers involved in the building now and it’s impossible to go around the building without noticing many plaques and displays that show this off.  I don’t know why I should be surprised about that really given it’s the original reason for the building’s existence, but given the current political situation I thought they might be a little more shy about it.  Mind you there were the odd passing comments about how the Liberals were really quite left wing you know perhaps to appease the area’s currently left-leaning local residents.  The most fascinating part of the building was the billiard hall upstairs which included four full-size billiard tables whose size makes you realise how small the ones are that you see in pubs.  At the end of this room was a lovely commemorative window for members of the Reform Club who were killed in the First World War – a result of research by local historians spurred on by the recent commemorations of the start of that conflict.

Over a coffee (yes, more of that on offer again) I spent a long time talking to various volunteers involved in the centre about local history and a lot about family history generally – there’s and mine.  It was an enjoyable discussion and I suspect might lead to this not being my last visit to the building.

Portland Works, Randall Street, Highfield

Portland Works, Randall Street, Sheffield

My final visit of the day was something very different.  The campaign to save Portland Works from a planned redevelopment in to apartments has been very high profile in the city, and resulted in a very significant (and unusual) success in that the planning application was withdrawn and a fundraising effort resulted in it being sold to a not-for-profit company who now run it and are trying preserve the building whilst retaining both its traditional use and renovating it so new tenants will move and so make it financially sustainable.

Portland Works started off as the premises of Mosley’s cutlery manufacturers and was built in 1880 in an area that at that time would have been full of other cutlery works.  This was a place that had really gone to town on making sure that it was a worthwhile experience for those of us who were visiting – clear signs outside, a small group of volunteers welcoming people and handing out a short leaflet that included a self-guided tour, and then many other volunteers stationed around the building.

The tour takes in buildings dedicated to various stages of the cutlery making process – grinding, polishing, maintenance of the machinery, plating and also the offices and showrooms.  What was especially interesting was seeing how much of the old machinery is still in place and still being used by craftsmen today to continue with the making of bespoke knives, and also other businesses in some of the newly refurbished workshops with artists and one man who appeared to make electric guitars.  To my surprise, the tour also gave you the opportunity (health and safety should look away now) to go up some fairly flimsy looking metal stairs right up on to the flat roof of one of the old buildings where there was a great view over the building and surrounding area.

All in all a fascinating visit to a building that I’d heard and read so much about but not actually visited before.  It also goes to show that given the opportunity, people can turn traditional buildings that might be deemed scruffy and antiquated in to a viable thriving centre for craftspeople and artists.

So there ended the first part of my Heritage Open Days weekend with more to come…

Photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015

All of my photographs from Heritage Open Days 2015 on Flickr

The tipping point

Yet again tipping in restaurants is in the news following criticism of various restaurants for either keeping the tips that customers leave or by keeping a share of them in administration charges before giving it to their staff.  But the idea that we should rely on tips at all either for staff to earn an adequate salary or for restaurants to make money seems crazy.

The thing is I can’t actually eat at a restaurant without the service. In fact, food without service is essentially called eating in (or a picnic).  The very reason you go to a restaurant is because they do all the work for you before serving you at your table. Obviously it’s also the case that most restaurants produce food to a standard that you can’t, but the point stands that the service is an intrinsic part of why you’re there.  So a restaurant needs to charge a price that covers the work they put in and the amount it costs to pay their staff a salary.

I don’t begrudge giving a tip in a restaurant if I feel I’ve had a particularly good experience.  It is after all essentially an ultra democratic form of bonus scheme.  But why I’m expected to put in a set amount of money (usually 10%) simply to ensure a decent wage or a company’s profit feels the wrong way round.  After all, how many of us actually withhold the 10% and if we do it may end up punishing the very person who wasn’t at fault (it could be the management, it could be the chef, there’s so many other people involved who might have made or ruined the experience).

In this discussion about service charges little has been said about how this is simply an archaic way of paying for things.  Service should surely always just be part of the cost, as we can’t do without it, and a company sets its prices and its salaries based on that.  Then anything extra we leave beyond that is a bonus for the person or persons who did a particularly good job and at whatever level we want to set ourselves.

Round up – 19 July 2015

Until the end of March I’d been writing an almost weekly post called ‘This Week’ which included a round up of some of the things I’d found interesting that week – blog posts, TED talks, photographs, paintings, YouTube videos, music, all sorts of things. I’d begun it as a way of trying to get in to a routine of blogging without needing to think too hard and be too creative and also as a way of sharing with others things that I think are really good. I say share with others, but I think there’s probably only about 2-3 people who regularly read this blog anyway.

I do still love in principle the idea of blogging and I have loads of ideas of things I want to write about that aren’t time limited, but unfortunately it always gets relegated to the pile of things I should do when work, commute, reading, visiting friends and relatives, household chores and anything else that’s urgent are completed, with the inevitable result that by the time I’ve done all of them it doesn’t happen as I’m not feeling in the mood.  My This Week post had kept going semi-regularly for a while, and I’m pleased that I now very occasionally do a full blog post, although it is usually when I feel I must respond to something political, when there’s actually many more apolitical things I want to be blogging.  However, my This Week post died a death at the end of March and I then got out of the habit and it wasn’t resurrected.

Partly as a consequence of that, I’ve started to tweet more about things I like or find interesting, although I don’t quite do it enough. I really am mystified by those people who clearly just tweet all day. How do they find time to do anything else?  And at least with a tweet the character limit means I don’t have to think of lots to write, I just do the tweet and that’s it.  But I still feel I need to somehow round up the best things I think I’ve seen or done or read or watched and put them on this blog, partly for the record, partly for the benefit of those who don’t read my tweets, and partly for the benefit of me being able to expand slightly on something if I wish to.  As a consequence, this (following this initial very lengthy introduction) will be my first round up of stuff I’ve liked over the last week or two (or more, I won’t set a specific timescale) which will be largely based on tweets but with a bit of extra introduction. I hope it works and my 2-3 readers find it interesting…

There’s been three tweets that have garnered quite a few retweets and responses over the last few weeks and they’ve all been very different:

Ghost signs has become a bit of a thing for amateur (and some professional) historians to tweet or write about, such as this extensive collection on Caroline’s Miscellany, so having walked past these particular ones every day and conscious of Hobson’s imminent demise (and since the tweet it has now been demolished) it felt worthy of a tweet for those ghost sign lovers.

Another popular tweet was a rare political tweet. Despite my fascination with politics, I’ve usually held back from political tweeting as I can’t be doing with the abuse you get. Instead this one got lots of praise and little criticism, and the hypocrisy of Labour over welfare cuts sums up why I’ve got fed up with much of the political argument over the last five years (as summed up by Labour’s response to this criticism which is summed up as “well yes we’re being horrible, but you were REALLY horrible”.

The other popular tweet was a random fact (and I do love my random facts and my political history):  

So what else took my interest…

I picked last Sunday’s Listening Club album for the first time in a while and went with my favourite band of all:

I went for my first walk up through Clay Wood Bank since the new footpath was opened – a lovely spot right in the middle of Sheffield:  

I’ve praised a little known Sheffield legend who I’ve blogged about before and really should be a famous Sheffield hero:

But I’ve been rude about one of this country’s greatest writers:

I’ve indulged in my love of new interesting architecture on Grand Designs:

I’ve watched a really good 30 minutes of BBC’s Artsnight (a programme I’ve never seen before) where Samira Ahmed indulges in her love of photography and in the process sums up why I love it so much (I’m a particular Martin Parr fan and also quite like Richard Billingham, but the other two were unknown to me):  

and finally, another excellent talk by Ash Beckham on TED:

The post where I try to explain Farron’s religious dilemma, by comparing it to how I became a Liberal Democrat

Some years ago I attended a memorial service for a friend of mine. At it, one of the people giving a eulogy said something along the lines of “As someone who goes through the same conflicting emotions, I know how hard it was for him trying to reconcile his sexuality with his Christianity.” It was a very emotional part of the event, and it stuck with me and I still remember it many years later. Not only because the person giving the eulogy had at that time spoken little about his own sexuality, but also because many of those who knew the person for whom the memorial service was being held probably didn’t know he was a Christian. But this must be something that affects thousands of people in this country. It is also a conflict that will affect many more people who whilst not gay, have a strong Christian identity and have strong liberal convictions.

I deliberated a while before writing this post, as adding yet another post to the discussion about what Tim Farron’s attitudes are or are not on both religion and the morality of homosexuality or abortion, didn’t necessarily feel helpful. But when the quote above came to mind again, it felt like something I wanted to get off my chest. As someone who doesn’t believe in any religion and was brought up in a resolutely atheist household, wading in to any discussion on religion is also perhaps not helpful.  However that’s what I am about to do.

I imagine being a Christian has many parallels with how people such as myself became Liberal Democrats. We hadn’t initially thought about why we were, we just sort of knew deep down that it felt right. Later on as you read more about it, you get to know more people involved and you start to deliberate either with others or internally some of the issues that arise, you realise that your gut instinct was right, and yes you are a Liberal Democrat. But like being a Liberal Democrat you also find some of the things that are said or that are written don’t tally with quite how you feel about the world. Largely they aren’t fundamental issues, but they are places where if pressed you find it hard to reconcile your gut instinct view with the accepted view of what being a Liberal Democrat is about. In the end you have to accept that no one will ever agree on what is ideologically pure and even if they could then everyone’s beliefs are always a bit of a compromise as you have also been heavily influenced by other life experiences, the opinions of others or you simply just take a different view from the accepted wisdom of other Lib Dems.

I once wrote a comment on a blog where I disagreed with the party’s views on how education was structured. One person came back and asked me “why on earth therefore was I a liberal” because of my views on that one specific subject. It was, and is, entirely unfair to question someone’s whole political outlook based on their views on one issue, or even one part of an issue. Just as I have tended towards a more traditional socialist structure on the organisation of education, I have also over the years not agreed with votes at 16 (these days I tend more towards ambivalence) and I have also not felt entirely comfortable with allowing gay couples to adopt (although I’ve accepted that it’s better than the alternatives). These are all issues about which many Liberal Democrats feel passionate and they see as something that makes them identify as a Liberal Democrat. For me, they aren’t but I am a Liberal Democrat in nearly every other respect so why should a tiny handful of specific issues make me fundamentally not a Lib Dem.

Which brings me back to Tim Farron. Tim Farron has clearly supported same-sex marriage in parliament, and whilst there were parts of the specific act of parliament that he quibbled with, he has still on the whole supported it. He has also argued against changing the law on abortion. But that doesn’t stop him having some internal conflict about these issues based on two instinctive but at times conflicting beliefs that he holds. The words “at times” are also important here, as much of the time there won’t be conflict with the two and will actually reinforce each other. But at the end of the day, there are a number of issues, on which there is a conflict between what Christianity says and what the instincts of a liberal are, which makes it tough for those who are both. I won’t go in to here what is the truly Christian view on these or what exactly the Bible says, as I’ve realised how few Christians agree on that anyway. In the end Tim Farron has voted with a strongly liberal stance throughout his time as an MP.  If we knew that Tim Farron was a massive homophobe – which he absolutely clearly is not to the point where even just writing that sentence dismissing the idea still feels ludicrously unfair – then as Liberal Democrats we would question his views. But in reality he has a conflict between two powerful and at times contradictory, yet instinctive beliefs. He won’t be the only person to have that, and the reasons for his conflict on these specific issues are probably far more convincing that the doubts I have about the issues I mentioned earlier which can be summed up as “well it’s just how I feel”. Tim perhaps needs a better way of expressing this conflict that doesn’t resort to religious terminology (which does put off a large proportion of the country who aren’t religious), but instead looking at any conflicting instincts that we all have, which for the majority of apolitical people don’t involve their political stance, and arguing why his political instincts win out.

We all get different aspects of what we believe in from different parts of what goes to make us who we are. For some people it’s religion, for others it is family or friends, for others it is reading literature, and so on. It’s not what gets us there, it’s what our general attitude is at the end of it. And on that, I have no doubt about Tim Farron’s liberalism and it’s that liberalism that matters.