2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 6 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 42 posts. There were 23 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 10mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was January 7th with 58 views. The most popular post that day was Lovely Londoners!.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, earth-policy.org, thersa.org, zebbakes.wordpress.com, and mail.live.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for michael wells, michael wells facebook, michael wells actor, mike wells facebook, and michael wells hands.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Lovely Londoners! April 2009
17 comments

2

About December 2008

3

There is no such thing as big society… why we should listen to Mr Brown May 2010
1 comment

4

Storytelling with Christian Salmon in London April 2010
7 comments

5

Mark Alexander Smith, 25 February 1960 – 2 November 2009 November 2009
3 comments

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In praise of public services

It is a wonderful thing to live in a civilised country, in which the needs of the most vulnerable in society are met by public institutions and paid for out of the public purse.

Micheline (not her real name, but she is real and this is a true story) was sleeping rough in a little square in Victoria. She would find clean cardboard boxes every evening and bed down between 11 pm and 5 am. In the morning she would wash and groom herself for 50p in one of those automatic public loos. She likes to keep clean and tidy. During the day, map in hand, she would walk the city, going as far as Brixton, Peckham and even Lewisham, sometimes pushing the supermarket trolley in which she kept her possessions. In the evening she would return to her comfortable little square not far from Victoria station. Sometimes people at the bus stop would give her a little money. She would buy Sainsbury’s own brand products to feed herself as they were cheap.

After over a year on the streets, Micheline was picked up by the police and placed in a psychiatric hospital under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. The law stipulates that a mentally disordered person “may be detained for a period not exceeding 28 days beginning with the day on which he is admitted, but shall not be detained after the expiration of that period unless before it has expired he has become liable to be detained by virtue of a subsequent application, order or direction under the following provisions of the Act.”

Micheline had been admitted compulsorily to a psychiatric hospital in Victoria, near where she had been staying. She is charming, looks after herself, is quite chic in a simple way, particularly to an English eye. This is perhaps because she is French Caribbean, from Guadeloupe. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to London in May 2009, to re-visit the city she loved, which she had first visited as an au pair in 1985, the year her parents died. She was quite confused and evasive about her parents, natural or foster, and always changed subject when asked about them, as if the best way of dealing with her grief was to dismiss it airily in a cloud of vagueness.

The 28 days of detention were nearly up, so the hospital had to present her to a Mental Health tribunal to assess whether she should be released or whether she should be further detained. Was she at risk to herself or to others? Was she able to look after herself? Did she have family or friends who could take care of her? Did she have enough money in her pocket to buy a train ticket back to Paris? Was she in a fit mental state to be allowed back on the streets of London without supervision? All these questions were asked with great kindness and humanity by the system, by the National Health Service, the police and the judiciary; in short by the bureaucracy that we have built up in Britain to take care of the poor, the destitute and the feeble-minded.

My involvement in Micheline’s London adventure came about as I took on an assignment as a Public Service Interpreter, engaged by the legal aid solicitors who had been appointed to represent her at the Mental Health Tribunal. As the solicitors do not speak French and Micheline does not speak much English, there is money available to pay for an interpreter. It was a bit less than £100 for the morning, which comes from the tax-payer, but the value added in terms of care and consideration and civilisation seems to me incommensurable. Arriving at the hospital at 8.30 am I met the external psychiatrist who had come to assess Micheline. It has to be a doctor who is not connected to the hospital in which the patient is detained. I interpreted her interview with Micheline. Then came the solicitor, a young English Nigerian woman, bright as a spark, articulate and committed. She went through the medical reports with Micheline, explained her rights to her and how the tribunal would be conducted. Accompanied by a nurse from her ward, we all went downstairs to the room used for the hearing. Also present were the hospital psychiatrist, the social worker and three member panel of the tribunal itself, all external independent people: the above-mentioned psychiatrist, a lay person and the judge, who chaired the hearing.

I interpreted for Micheline, both into and from French and left with her after she had spoken. She wished to speak first and not to stay and hear the outcome. I don’t know what decision was made; whether she is still in hospital or not.

The point of this post is simply to say that if we want this place in which we live to remain as civilised as it is, then we have to pay for it. I believe the best way is to pay for it out of public money. Tax-payers are getting value for money. Let’s not cut spending in public services, let’s raise enough taxes from the great wealth of this nation to pay for our fantastic public services. Amen!

The Tale of Two Pee


Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves, so goes the saying.  Well, the two pence from Citibank have been a source of great amusement to me. And I have a feeling that they have cost everybody involved quite a lot more in time and money. The cashier at NatWest who credited the cheque to my account yesterday had a laugh when I told her the story.

I meant to write a blog post book review of John Lanchester’s  Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, so perhaps this will do the job indirectly instead. John Lanchester’s book is about the crazy financial mess we all got into. He starts with a description of what serious, old-fashioned people-facing banks used to do, then explores the Icelandic bank crash and explains how and why our liberal capitalist system has gone so badly wrong.

My tuppence worth backs his analysis up completely.

I returned to England five years ago and was advised by a financial advisor friend to get a credit card for my credit rating, in case I wished to buy property. I did, but with rising prices there was no way that I could afford the most modest property in London. Having lived abroad for twenty years, mainly in France, where personal overdrafts are illegal and the attitude to credit is quite different and more stringently regulated, I had never had a credit card. Not having debt is BAD, said my financial advisor, so I phoned up my bank and they sent me a MasterCard, with a reasonable credit limit. I used it occasionally, but always paid it off so as not to incur any interest charges.

In the summer of 2008, I was going on holiday to Bulgaria, flying with easyJet from Stansted. At the airport, I was accosted by a friendly Liverpudlian lady who offered me an easyJet credit card, which would earn me lots of free air miles, she said. I was reluctant at first, but was in a good mood at the prospect of a holiday in the sun and she was so friendly. She told me that she had promised to take her daughter on a shopping spree to Primark if her daughter cleaned the house while she was out working, i.e. flogging people like me credit cards. So I relented and signed the forms and sure enough, a fancy orange easyJet Citi bank MasterCard arrived in the post. I used it once or twice and they gave me a credit limit of £6,000 immediately. I sometimes day-dreamed about spending that amount all in one go and seeing what happened, but I’m not really a gambler.

A few air miles accrued, but I preferred to use my other cards, as this one was a hassle to pay off. In November 2009, I received a letter from Citi informing me that they were discontinuing the easyJet MasterCard, but that I would be transferred to a Citi Platinum MasterCard. I could redeem my points or convert them to cash by phoning them up. I got through to a nice lady at a call centre in India who looked at my points and told me that I had lost most of them, as they had expired. However, what was left was worth two pence. We had a laugh about it, but money is money and she credited the 2p to my balance.

A while later my Platinum card arrived. It was silver plastic, really, but nonetheless. Wow, how about that?! Platinum credit, thank you very much. I must say I felt *BIG* wandering around town with a Platinum credit card in my wallet and six grand to splash out.

But bubbles, as they say, burst.

In April this year, I received another letter from Citi telling me that they had transferred their card services to a third party, that I was not included in the transfer and that therefore they were unilaterally closing my account and cancelling the card! So platinum dreams turned to dust.

But the people at Citi bank are good and honest and sent me the cheque for two pence, which is now safely (I hope) in my real bank account.

Whatever the moral of this story, it does seem rather a silly saga of time wasted… Will it affect my credit rating I wonder and if so will that make any difference?

There is no such thing as big society… why we should listen to Mr Brown

No, it’s not what you might think… Today is election day in the UK, so I hurried back from Brussels and made it to the polling station in good time. This blog post is not about the British general election, but in many senses our election should be about the issues raised here.

Last evening at the European Parliament in Brussels, Lester Brown, the veteran environmentalist, was launching his latest book, Plan B 4.0, Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which gives a scary account of how far down the road of environmental hooliganism we have gone, yet he remains optimistic that there is scope for action. He was hosted by sun-glassed Estonian MEP, Indrek Tarand.

Lester Brown is credited with pioneering the concept of sustainable development, which has become such a buzzword in the green – and not so green – policy environment. At the talk yesterday, he reckoned that ‘food may be the weakest link’ and raised the spectre of food wars when the food bubbles burst. If countries – which presently rely on over pumping (non replenish-able) water for their food production – run out of water, what are they going to do to feed the people?  Into the mix add the notion that the melting ice sheets and shrinking mountain glaciers are going to raise the sea level and inundate low-lying rice lands and agriculturally rich river deltas, then the number of hungry people with no place to grow food is going to increase. Lester Brown estimates that there are now one billion hungry humans on our planet.

Consider that China is number one producer of wheat, followed by India and then the United States in third place. When the Chinese ask the Americans to share their grain and the latter are not so keen, the former are going to use their collateral in American bonds as leverage. Should be interesting to see what happens then.

Lester Brown’s four point Plan B 4.0 advocates:

1. Cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2020.

2. Limiting the human population to a maximum of 8 billion people.

3. Eradicating poverty.

4. Nurturing the global economy’s natural support systems.

I haven’t read the book yet, so hope I am not doing it an injustice here, but I couldn’t help feeling pessimistic about our collective capacity to change quickly enough to avert disaster for future generations.  According to many, perhaps most commentators, the Copenhagen Climate Conference was a failure. The big reason is that our national and international organisations are ineffectual and only serve the vested interests of a relatively small range of stakeholders.  We do not have a big global society that perceives itself as a homogeneous community with a sufficient identity of shared interests to effect coordinated change. I hope that the optimists prove us pessimists wrong, that it is not too late to mobilise to save civilisation.

Storytelling with Christian Salmon in London

Once upon a time… Il était une fois…

Last week I was driving in my trusty old Ford Mondeo down the M40 on my way home to London via my friend Liz’s allotment in Oxford. I had been on a whirlwind Easter weekend road trip which had taken me from Bayswater to Glastonbury, to Kelways nursery in Somerset and then to Shropshire to pick up my mother. We had then driven to see Joanna in Bristol to deliver a special French bread tin, then on to my brother and sister-in-law’s farm in West Sussex.  After a nice family Easter egg time, we drove back to Shropshire to drop my mother off.

So there I was driving along, wondering when my next work assignment would drop into my email inbox.

I stopped at the Warwick service station to manage the output-input of fluids that human-motorcar journeys require and to consult e-mail on my telephone. Instead of the expected translation from my sort-of coal-mining client in Lille, there was a message from Sarah at Verso, the publishers, asking me if I would like to interpret for Christian Salmon who was coming to London to promote his book, Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind, which has just been published in English, translated by David Macey.

The power of the blogosphere connected us correctly. Sarah emailed me the details and I arranged to pop into Verso’s offices in Soho to meet Christian the next day. He is a charming, humorous French thinker and writer who has a wry take on the strange mediated world in which we now live. David Evans’s Financial Times review gives a succinct account of the book, which I recommend you buy, e.g. on Amazon.

Well, if you don’t buy it, at least read it, as it gives a lot of insight into the whoppers we have been fed about Afghanistan, Iraq and the way in which politics has been reduced to propaganda rather than democratic debate. There are some great stories (sic) about Weapons of Mass Distraction, the use of Afghan nail varnish removing press conferences to prompt our indignation and obtain our consent. And there are chilling accounts about how the link between video war games and real killing has blurred the distinction between real and virtual reality.

Thursday morning early a BBC car took us to the BBC television centre in White City, where Christian was interviewed by Sarah Montague for the Radio 4 Today programme. Another car dropped us back in town. The sun was shining as we walked across Hyde Park, resplendent in Spring blossom, so we stopped by the Serpentine to drink coffee and bask in the cool sunshine. Christian explained the ideas behind the book, which was first published in French in 2007 and has since been a surprising success, translated into several languages and selling tens of thousands of copies around the world.

Check out the Afterword to the English edition: Obama in Fabula for an explanation of Obama’s Magic Square: storyline, timing, framing and networking and you’ll get the picture.

We wandered through Green Park and St James’s Park and I showed Christian around the the fascinating area between Hungerford Bridge and Waterloo Bridge, which I blogged about in my Adelphi Amble post. Self-referential, moi?!

The Royal Society of Arts grandly hosted us in their auditorium, which used to be a covered street running from the Strand down to the Thames. Steven Poole, the writer and Guardian columnist, introduced Christian, I interpreted and there was an interesting discussion with the audience. I spotted Simon, a former JustGiving colleague, but he left before I had time to ask him what he’d thought about it. Christian’s Storytelling aroused a lot of interest, and he was interviewed on an iPhone by David Wilcox for Social Reporter.

After lunch and a period of quiet at home to calm a buzzing mind, I met Christian in the evening at the ICA for a talk about Making Believe, hosted and chaired by Ekow Eshun, with Julia Hobsbawm and Neil Boorman. Lots of engaged people were there, but there was not enough time to talk more about the invidual as personal brand-maker and self-promoter in our neoliberal capitalist age. This is discussed in Christian’s latest book, Kate Moss Machine, which is not yet available in English, but you can get it in French here.

Propaganda and debate. I heard the wonderfully incisive Shropshire Lass, Mary Beard on the radio this morning talking about the forthcoming British elections. She was lamenting the fact that there was so little to discuss in terms of content. Why would any one not want a fairer society? Why would anyone want to vote for one storyteller rather than another. The ‘historic’ debate‘ on the BBC this evening is perhaps just that, a hiSTORY. Let the people decide, I wonder about what? At least I am happy that I will be able to vote for Big Society, not Big Government, a Fairer Society and a Future Fair for All. Everyone needs at least three historic votes… Qu’en conclus-tu, Christian? What do you reckon, Christian?

Bland Brands @ the Bush

So today I finally made it to the Westfield shopping centre at Shepherd’s Bush Green. Very impressive and clean and shiny, but somewhat dull I have to say.

It reminded me of a long stopover at Dallas Airport about 15 years ago, when I sat reading my book, surrounded by people all looking the same and bumbling around like contented zombies.

What struck me most about Westfield is the branding. There are brands and nothing else. No room for inventiveness, no room for individuality, only conformity and conformism. Perhaps something like the Church of England before Methodism.

Still, I was very happy with my chicken noodle soup from Pho, a little Vietnamese chain, whose place in Clerkenwell is a favourite. And I bought a couple of things and the sales people were friendly.

The second thing that struck me after the blandness of the branding, was the nature of the private public space, which is the thing with shopping centres. I’m sure as a young girl out shopping on Shepherd’s Bush Green in the 1930s my mother would have felt she was in an open public space, with a shape of personal freedom that has been clinically removed from the new shopping centres. People must like the security and the security cameras and the security guards and the lack of dirt and tramps and other undesirables, but I couldn’t help wondering quite where I was. I suppose the fact that there was a branch of Boots reminded me I was in England, but otherwise I could have been anywhere else in the galaxy.

Happy shopping, fellow consumers!

Lively London Life

In spite of all the economic uncertainty and political mediocrity, there is much to celebrate culturally. This week in London has been very stimulating.

On Wednesday evening went to the French Institute in South Kensington for the launch of The Invention of Paris, by Eric Hazan. The London author, Iain Sinclair, an old friend of Saskia’s was there in conversation with Eric Hazan. The library was packed with interested and interesting people and the atmosphere refreshingly non-corporate and creatively critical; vive l’entente culturelle!

Then on Thursday evening I cycled on my two-wheeled hack to the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn to see my friend Sean Campion play in “The Dead School” I’m not the best audience for theatre, but this was brilliant; fast-moving, funny, sad and sensitive about values and the pace of change in Ireland. Relevant to everyone. The staging was very inventive and good performances from all the cast.

And what’s more they have  a great bar and kitchen with charming staff. A home-cooked quarter pounder and chips for an amazing £3.90!

Last night was Friday, and thanks to Facebook I got a £5 front row seat to hear Emanuel Ax at the Barbican play Chopin, Schumann and a UK première of Thomas Adès’s Three Mazurkas, Op. 27. I could hardly believe my luck as I took my seat about 10 feet away from the Steinway and was able to see Ax’s hands at close quarters. And there was a free programme!

I had never heard Emanuel Ax play before, but what a sensitive performance. He had the score for the Adès piece, but played all the rest from memory. It never fails to amaze me how pianists can remember so much music.

I wish I had an apartment in the Barbican; imagine living above the culture beehive. You could pop downstairs to a concert or a film in two ticks. Pure honey.  And it would be particularly convenient this weekend as I’ll be back there this afternoon for a film about the Thames Liquid History, A Journey along the Thames and London’s Waterways.

Tomorrow, it’s the Barbican again for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. It’s looking good!

And it doesn’t stop, as on Monday lunchtime, I’m hoping to go to a concert at St George’s Hanover Square as part of the London Handel Festival to hear David Allsopp sing Love’s Folly

And going from Handel’s favourite place of worship to mine that evening, I shall carry on with more of his music in Covent Garden for Tamerlano.

So, although we may be going to hell in a handcart, there are certainly some great cultural moments to send us on our way…