This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A word: Thanks to a work colleague this week I discovered the Japanese word tsundoku which is the act of buying books and then leaving them piled up to read later.  It pretty much describes my flat and my life more generally.  At the same time I discovered the French word l’esprit d’escalier which is to think what you should have said during a conversation when it’s too late. Another common occurrence. This website provided me with a few more, although not all may be that useful.

A blog: I’ve been a fan of the Diamond Geezer blog for some years and I’m firmly of the view that what he has dubbed his ‘pointless London quests’ are the highlights of his writing, and he is just starting a new one.  DG writes a well written post every single day, which I’d love to emulate here but just know I never will, usually on interesting little known places in London, transport stories (with a particular interest in his own area of Bow and the Emirates ‘dangleway’) and really anything that he thinks is interesting.  It’s fascinating, albeit in quite a geeky way.  His new pointless London quest is to visit London’s unlost rivers over 2015 i.e. the many rivers within London that are still there but overshadowed by the Thames, rather than the now ubiquitous lost rivers.  His first is the River Shuttle.

A TED talk: This is just quite a nice talk by Daniele Quercia about the dangers of mapping apps just sending us on the fastest route, when what we need is an app that can also send us on the most beautiful, or the quietest or use some other characteristic.  As someone who loves to spend his time just wandering streets exploring this really appeals to me, although personally my answer is to use a printed map and just see where I end up.


A TV series: OK, so it’s had enough attention already but the first episode of Broadchurch was very good. Whilst I did really enjoy the first series of the much praised programme, I was never convinced it was quite as deserving of the massive amount of hype that it got.  This first episode of this new series though dispelled any doubts that the second series wouldn’t be up to the mark. The secrecy with which the producers and writers go about making and releasing details of the series also means it’ll be full of unexpected twists and it includes some interesting new characters.

A blog post: Everyone loves a list these days, and Caron Lindsay has produced a brilliant list on Lib Dem Voice of ‘48 good things Nick Clegg has done.’  It’s an interesting list as it picks out not only the achievements that the Lib Dems will want to trumpet, but also many smaller more subtle things.  Given the flack Nick gets it’s nice to see something positive for a change that is quite good at showing the real Nick, that many of us who’ve known him for years have always liked.

An article: Admittedly I initially read this article as I know Laura Willoughby who gets a mention, but I found its discussion on groups trying to reduce alcohol consumption among people who perhaps aren’t alcoholics but do still drink more than they should.  Whilst it’s focused largely on women, the issue it raises is universal, and one I certainly can relate to. I’ve been determined to drink less in this year which is both about saving money and improving health, which is largely about dealing with regular low level drinking rather than occasional excessive nights out that don’t occur that often. So far it’s gone well.

Another TV series: Silent Witness is back and it’s another of my favourite regular series on the BBC. The stories are well written and the lead characters are good despite occasional changes over the years it’s been running. For a series that was dominated by Amanda Burton when it began it’s impressive how much Emilia Fox has made it her own. I accept that a pathologist wouldn’t get involved in all the things they do in the series, but if it was that realistic no one would probably watch it.

Another article: The former Labour MP Tony Wright has written an interesting article on the LSE politics and policy blog about ‘The problem of politics as a game‘.  The issue he raises is something that has become increasingly of concern to me and I think is partly what has led to the rise of some of the fringe parties along with an undeserved general contempt for politicians. What I think the article doesn’t do is mention that this is an issue that not only politicians need to address but the media, campaign groups and even voters too. It is much wider and politicians cannot do it on their own as the first to ‘say it as it is’ will probably be destroyed.

My 2014 in books

2014 was a real year of books for me.  Through the course of the year I read 79 of them, which compared to the previous year’s 45 was good going, and it also prompted one person I know to ask me how I found the time.  The simple answer to that is that I spend nearly two hours a day commuting to and from work by train, a period which is spent almost entirely by me reading.  However, I’ve also read far more at home this year as it’s proved quite a good means of escape on the days where I’ve not wanted to go out and so have instead languished at home drinking coffee thinking I really should be somewhere else, but instead I have read and read.  The full list of what I read in 2014 can be found here on the excellent Goodreads website, which I used for the first time this year and has been great at not only keeping a record of which books I’ve read, but also what friends have read, what I thought of the books and then finding recommendations for other similar books.

My favourite book of 2014 was Capital by John Lanchester.  This highly praised novel set on one street in south London was about how unexpected events can change people’s lives completely.  It had some great characters and I was fascinated by it and missed it when I’d finished it.  This was the only book I rated as 5/5 this year, although a few of the 4/5 books came pretty close and I’ll pick out the top ones of those.  Early in the year I read the first of David Kynaston’s Tales of a New Jerusalem history series – Austerity Britain 1945-1951, which was the sort of great long tome that I’d normally be put off but it was fascinating, easy to read and really brought to life those times and I can’t wait to read more of them.  Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov was heartwarming and fun, yet also a well written satirical mystery, and the wonderful Misha the Penguin (as opposed to Misha non-penguin) can’t entirely escape my mind now.  The Wasp Factory helped to confirm my love for Iain Banks and in particular his style of writing, and was surprisingly a book I had yet to read, and although I loved this bizarre, violent and yet at times oddly humane story, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed with the twist at the end which is what knocked it down from a five.

One thing that changed last year, apart from the amount I read, was the types of books I read.  Traditionally I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction, and I still did in 2014, but I read much more widely.  I read a lot more general fiction, especially that written in the last few years such as Christos Tsiolkas, Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Edward St Aubyn, Muriel Barbery and Naomi Alderman, but I’ve also read more classics both modern and older by writers such as Muriel Spark, Ivan Turgenev, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Iris Murdoch and Joseph Heller.  Whilst there continue to be many of the great writers who I’ve read nothing or next to nothing of, it’s been interesting to add some more of the names that I really should have read before.

If there’s one genre I’ve always struggled with it’s historical fiction, with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall being a particular disappointment, but last year I seemed to have added another – post-modernist fiction.  Whilst I can’t say I really understand what it is, many of the books I’ve not been getting on with seem to be described as part of the genre, such as in 2014 The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, London Fields by Martin Amis and The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster.  The last of which was a particular shame as I’ve loved some of his other books.

So to sum up 2014:

  • Capital by John Lanchester was my best overall and best general fiction
  • Austerity Britain 1945-1951 by David Kynaston was my favourite history book
  • Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man by Ed McBain was my favourite crime fiction (and another writer who I’ve newly discovered and loved and wrote about here)
  • Fire & Ashes by Michael Ignatieff was my favourite political book of the year and a really good insight in to life at the top of politics (thanks to Ruth Bright for the recommendation on Lib Dem Voice)
  • The Element by Ken Robinson was the best non-fiction, as he helped me to really think through what I want from life.
  • This year I started using Sheffield’s Central Library again and I’ve been both impressed and disappointed by what’s on offer.  Impressed as I’ve found books I wanted to read that I never thought they’d have and I’ve discovered books I never knew about otherwise that I could take a punt on as it’s free, but disappointed where I’ve found a book by a writer I like but for some reason they don’t have the first in the series.  However, I’ve nearly always had books on loan since early in the year when I started making regular trips.
  • I’ve discovered the glories of Waterstones on Deansgate in Manchester, which is apparently the largest bookshop in the north of England, and a great place to while away my lunch hour.

So we’re now in to 2015 and whilst I am determined to carry on reading, it also feels like a good year to start writing my book.  The one that I’ve had in my mind for years, and which I want to finally put down on paper.  Let’s see if I do.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A food and drink place:  I’d say cafe, but it’s not really that, nor is it a bar nor a restaurant.  Craft & Dough in Kelham Island, Sheffield is a bit of all of those.  It sells some amazing looking pizzas, great coffee, cocktails, craft beers, ice cream and general brunchy type stuff, and is open from 9am in to the evening.  It opened a couple of weeks ago but the advantage of a week off work is that I could pop in for the first time and it’s already doing well.  A great addition to Kelham Island and as it’s owned by the Milestone down the road it has a good pedigree.

A TV series:  As my previous posts will confirm I love the ‘behind the scenes at…’ type programmes and so Posh People: Inside Tatler on BBC2 was one I wanted to watch despite me thinking the people in it would just annoy people.  Well they didn’t annoy me, but it did make me realise how little I have in common with these people and how their world and mine are so utterly different, although I confess to having met one of the people in the programme (the Earl of Glasgow who is a Lib Dem peer and a genuinely lovely man).  It’s interesting to see though quite how this world functions and how removed it is from ordinary life.

An exhibition:  The other week I finally visited an exhibition I’ve been looking forward to and it was wealth worth the wait – Constructing Worlds at the Barbican in London.  It brought together two things I’ve always found fascinating – architecture and photography, and includes some photographers whose work I enjoy such as Bernd & Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore, Walker Evans and Ed Ruscha, but also introduced me to some other great photographers such as Bas Princen and Hiroshi Sugimoto,  The Barbican’s photography exhibitions are always very well done and this one was no exception.

A song:  This isn’t a new song but one I’ve listened to a lot this year and having heard it twice playing in the background in the last week I felt I should include it.  The Mother We Share by Chvrches is a catchy indypop type song and a great singer and one that definitely sticks in your mind.


A TV programme: Billion Pound Base: Dismantling Camp Bastion was a one-0ff programme on Channel 4 showing the lead up to the departure of UK troops from Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.  What strikes you is the scale of the place (the same size as Reading!) and the careful and methodical way the base has to be deconstructed  whilst still ensuring troops are safe from Taliban attacks.  You also can’t help but feel that the Afghan troops are woefully under-prepared for what they’re taking on and yet also how ungrateful they are for the equipment the UK troops are leaving them.  Worth a watch just to shed a light on something we generally know so little about.

Preview of English Lib Dem Executive – 13th Dec 2014

One commitment I made when I stood for election to the English Liberal Democrats Executive (ECE) was that I’d write on this blog about what was coming up at each meeting, and then do a post summarising what was discussed or decided after the event.  I was pleased to be elected back on to ECE for 2015 (I currently sit on it as Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Lib Dems) and so here’s my first of these posts.  I warn people who have no interest in internal committees of political parties, especially those that deal with internal issues, that this will be very long and very dull and that is largely why I’ve inserted a ‘read more’ tag to the article!  I will endeavour to be much shorter in future, but as this is the first one I need to explain the background to more things.

This is the last meeting of ECE of 2014 and is taking place a few weeks later than usual to allow the newly elected regional chairs and directly-elected committee members to attend, along with the existing members from 2014.  If the meeting had taken place on the usual date the election results wouldn’t have been announced in time for that to be possible.  The benefit of this is to allow elections for those positions that are elected by the other members of the ECE to be held before the New Year and to take office alongside the new chair (Steve Jarvis) on 1st January.  The full set of positions to be elected are – treasurer, vice-chair, four members of the Finance and Administration Committee (EFAC), four members of the Regional Parties’ Committee (RPC), a rep to the International Relations Committee and the English Diversity Champion.

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This week

Some things I’ve been in to this week:

A TED talk:  This recent talk by Kare Anderson is an inspiring encouragement to us all to try and get people together who have the same enthusiasms and who can make an idea they have a success if they just worked together on it.  The term she uses is ‘opportunity makers’ which I think is quite nice.  What I also like is her acknowledgment how difficult this can be for people who are shy.


A TV series:  This is an old one, so a bit different from usual.  I discovered Building Sights by chance on iPlayer and it’s a series from the late 1980s and 1990s of personal thoughts on  some of the most important British architecture of the twentieth century.  The presenters are a diverse group of people including architects such as Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers, to musicians, presents and artists such as Jools Holland, Janet Street-Porter and Bea Campbell.

Another TV series:  I loved the first series of Liberty of London on Channel 4 and this new series has got off to a really good start.  Although I enjoy this time of programme anyway I particularly enjoy this one because it gives you a better idea of how they operate and some of the people who work there than most.  The first episode of this second series is a really promising start as well giving a more wide ranging idea of how the shop is run as well as some of the day to day tensions and issues.  My experience of working in a customer-facing industry is that it can be pressured and difficult but hugely satisfying when things work well and this shows that.

An event:  Pecha Kucha is something I find most people have never heard of, but those who have are usually evangelists.  It started in Japan and involves invited speakers to talk about something they care about or have done to a set of prepared Powerpoint slides.  The skill is that they have 20 slides and each appears on screen for just 20 seconds and so once they’ve started they have to keep going.  I’ve been to a few Pecha Kucha Sheffield events now and I always learn something new and discover some interesting people doing interesting things.  Well worth going to and the next one is on next week.

And another TV series: Alan Yentob’s BBC culture series Imagine… is always worth watching, but his two part programme ‘The Art that Hitler Hated‘ about the suppression of modern art by the Nazis and those who profited from forced sales of Jewish art is particularly good.  Since the programme was produced the story has moved on a little, but it’s an interesting aspect of European cultural history.  It’s on iPlayer for another couple of weeks.

Why I’m standing for the English Lib Dem Executive

The ballot papers will be arriving shortly for the English Party Elections, and as I’m standing for election to the English Liberal Democrat Executive Committee (ECE) I thought I should explain in a bit more detail why I’m standing. If you want to know what the ECE does then I’ve written a summary here.

Firstly, there are three particular things I want to do if I’m elected.

Supporting regional parties

I’ve spent the last year as Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Liberal Democrats. The English Executive has been really useful as a place for swapping best practice and finding out what other people are doing so you don’t need to keep re-inventing the wheel. This is something that it has got a lot better at over the last few years, but there’s much more that could be done. Despite spending three years on my own regional executive it wasn’t until I became its chair that I fully appreciated the amount of time and the demands on resources that running a good regional party involves. I’d now like to use that experience and knowledge to get the English Party to do even more to help strengthen regional parties so they are better able to take on the different roles they have. Some people style the English Lib Dems as the “English Party of the Regions” and that is probably the most important role that it has.

Openness

As with most party committees, the English Executive has been poor at communicating what it does and why it is doing it. With the major issues its had to deal with over the last year or two, this has come in to focus even more, and has led to a lot of misunderstandings as well as some mistrust. If I’m elected to the English Executive I’ll use this blog to let people know what it is planning to discuss and what happens at its meetings. But I’m also clear that a party committee shouldn’t have to rely on a third party blog to communicate what it is doing, and so I will also press for it to be a lot more open using official party channels. Although there is inevitably some need for confidentiality and discretion, I’m firmly of the view that there is actually very little that is truly secret.

Not just about two meetings

Although the English Executive meets roughly every two months, the full English Council only gets together twice a year, and both of those meetings are in the second half of the year. Whilst I wouldn’t want to bring in yet more meetings, there’s a real need to keep members of English Council engaged throughout the rest of the year. This would allow us to stop using just the ‘usual suspects’ for any work that needs to be done, and it would allow us to address issues as they come up through the year rather than all the focus being on just two already busy meetings that end up full of reports. English Council is the way that members from all English regions come together to discuss the party, but you shouldn’t have to wait several months to be able to do that.

But when standing for a party committee, there’s always some personal reasons for standing on top of the key things you want to get done and here’s mine:

Whoever is elected as Chair of the English Party this year, (I’m not aware of there ever having previously been a four-way contest for it before), is going to be dealing with a real desire to shake things up and improve the party’s effectiveness. Many would say it’s about time too although there is also a lot that’s already good about it and that’s why I enjoy being a part of this committee. A key part of what is good about it is the people involved and the way that it is the only committee that I’ve been on that has full, frank and detailed discussions on a host of party issues without grandstanding and with members who are fully engaged in the party and what the committee itself is there to do. I’m very keen for the party to look at ways in which it can be more effective, (and I have no set view on how that should be done), but I’m also very clear that it isn’t just about changing structures. There’s three things that the English Party should do now to improve using the existing skills and enthusiasm that it has, and that’s why I’ve outlined them above and I will try and make them happen if I’m elected.

Finally, if you want to know more about me in general, then the About page on this blog should help.

You can also view a PDF of my A5 ‘official manifesto’ here.

A short guide to ECE

ECE as it’s abbreviated is variously known as the English Executive Committee or English Council Executive and the committee that has day to day responsibility for the work of the English Liberal Democrats. As a federal party everyone is a member of both a state party and the federal party, and so we also have executive committees for each of the three states – Scotland, Wales and England – and although the first two have quite extensive functions, the English Party has passed some of these up to the federal level.

The main responsibilities that the English Party has retained are parliamentary candidate selection and approval rules (for Westminster, Europe, PCCs and Directly-Elected Mayors), co-ordinating selections (although each region manages the process for its own seats), membership rules and systems, disciplinary rules, updating regional parties on how they and local parties are complying with PPERA rules, the basic principles and rules for constitutions for local and regional parties along with providing model constitutions, representing the English regions to the federal committees and providing communication between them, funding various initiatives such as the G8 grants scheme and the current membership incentive schemes, co-ordinating and promoting best practice between the English Regions and as the main way that the federal party communicates with regional parties as a group. It was once graphically described by a former English Party Chair as “plumbing, maintenance and sewage”, i.e. creating rules to make the party function, maintaining the systems they create and dealing with the fall out from when people break them or bend them.

ECE is made up of each of the eleven regional chairs as well as a Chair, Candidates’ Chair, representatives to federal committees and eleven directly-elected members who are all elected by members of English Council. There are 150 members of English Council who are elected as representatives of their region or Liberal Youth at their conferences. ECE meets roughly every two months, and English Council meets twice a year in June and November.

This week

Some things I’ve been in to in the last few weeks:

A song:  This song Atlantis by Swedish band Postiljonen is dream pop but with a few nods towards Lily Was Here, Baker Street and other 80s saxophone hits and has a real film soundtrack feel.  It’s incredibly relaxing and carries you away to another place.

A TV series (or four):  As I’ve slipped behind in my This Week posts I’m going to do a run down of some of my favourite programmes from the last few weeks that are still available online.  Grayson Perry: Who Are You on Channel 4 was always going to be a winner as I love the way that he talks about art in a very down to earth way, but the way he uses his art in this programme to explore some fascinating people is great, especially for me with his first episode including Chris Huhne as it reminded me of the Chris I know from two years spent working for him.  Michael Portillo’s railway programmes are always worth watching and his third series of Great Continental Railway Journeys is now on BBC Two starting with a fascinating trip across Russia.  He manages to combine a great love for railways as a whole and their history of creating massive change across the world, along with some interesting and unusual places to visit on the way.  Another brilliant travel series is Sacred Rivers with Simon Reeve, an intelligent and personable presenter whose programmes are also always worth watching, and often show a side to the places he visits that are unexpected.  Sadly, the first in the series about the River Nile has expired, but the other two are still there for a few more days.  It’s no surprise that I love The Apprentice and the start of a new series is a highlight of my TV viewing for the year.  Yes, I know it doesn’t reflect well on business and some of the people are pretentious and unlikeable, but I find some of the business tasks they’re given interesting and just as with other talent shows there is that voyeurism and enjoyment at other people’s downfall that isn’t something to be proud of but enjoyable none the less.

A photography book:  As my interest in photography currently exceeds my own talent, finding really good books on the subject are really important to me in satisfying my enjoyment of the medium.  One I recently found in the library was The Pleasures of Good Photographs by Gerry Badger, which contains a series of essays about his favourite photographers and topics and debates around photography.  Whilst I struggle with some of the language used (this is where I feel I’m not intellectual enough to be able to properly discuss why I love photography) he brings the subjects alive and really reminds me why I am so enthusiastic about it.

An event and a series of TED talks:  As my previous This Week posts show I’m a fan of the website TED, and so I’m looking forward to my first TED event – TEDx Sheffield at the old St. George’s Church on Brook Hill next Saturday.  Tickets are now £30 (or £17.50 concessions) and can still be bought via their website.  A fascinating line-up of speakers and I can’t wait.

Another song: Sia was an artist I first became aware of 14 years ago now with her song Taken for Granted which led me to buy the album Healing is Difficult.  Well after a low profile ever since, she’s now back with a song that has appeared on all sorts of mainstream programmes, including the Graham Norton Show the other week when I discovered that she now sings with her back to the audience as she doesn’t want to be famous.  A bit odd, but regardless of that, it’s a great catchy pop song that really shows off her unusual voice.

An article:  A couple of months ago the BBC Magazine ran an interesting article looking at the optimism and the new future that concrete buildings ushered in.  This article in particular uses Jimmy James’ collection of photographs that have been recently digitised at the University of Sheffield, and so even if you think that 60s concrete blocks are awful its worth looking at for the pictures alone, a number of which unsurprisingly include pictures of Sheffield.

An online music ‘club’:  I’m not sure how best to describe it so an online music club had a to do.  A number of my friends have spotted Listening Club that I do most Sundays now.  Listening Club has been around for nearly three years and I was introduced to it earlier this year by one of my friends as a nice way of discovering music that you didn’t know otherwise.  Essentially, one of the participants chooses an album that everyone in Listening Club (which is anyone who wants to join in) then listens to via a link on the blog and without knowing what it is at 8pm on a Sunday, and then discuss it using the #ListeningClub hashtag.  At the end, the person who chose that week’s album then chooses another Listening Club person to pick the next one.  Once a month there’s also a vortex when there’s a theme and anyone can nominate a particular song that fits the theme and these are then put together in to one long playlist.  The explanation makes it sound more complicated than it is, but I’ve discovered some great tracks this way, found some nice friendly people in to music, and have now also had my own musical interests tested with two weeks when I had to do the album pick.