As hinted at yesterday I’m taking a break from blogging for Christmas. My last ‘official’ bit of council work for the year was last night (a meeting that finished at 11:30pm!) and while I’ll be using the Christmas break to keep on top of things and hopefully clear away a few loose ends I’m not intending to blog too much.

While I might be inspired to post something I’m not planning on anything until the New Year, so until then, have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

James Cousins Kemp foldOr maybe it’s Kemp ego-folding. I don’t know. One thing I do know is that despite my love of the internet it infuriates me to discover that little fads have passed me by.

And so it is with Kemp-folding which I’m currently finding very amusing, even though I can see that it is one of those things that eventually gets boring. It would appear the people behind the Kemp folding website agree, since they seem to have managed to keep their enthursiasm going from July until October – and then tired of it.

So how do I participate in a fad that has run its course? Why, by simply egotistically doing it myself. And somewhat lazily, since I didn’t even bother to print anything out, but ’emulated’ the folds on a computer. I call it, simply, “Nose”.

LFB Fire Safety Check
Re-using the LFB photo, if only because my wife likes it!

It isn’t unique to being a councillor (although it might be exacerbated by the lack of structure) but I struggle to think of the things I have been up to this week! So when I can look to my diary to remind me of what meetings and appointments I’ve had I find myself thinking “was that really this week?” So, in a slightly different format, this week’s wrap-up.

Stuff I’ve already blogged
A few of the things I have already blogged about, I attended a fund-raising dinner with Ken Clarke on Monday and spent time with the London Fire Brigade on their fire safety visits on Wednesday.

Stuff I missed
Annoyingly I missed two Christmas light switch-ons this week – Tooting last Tuesday and Northcote Road yesterday. I like to attend them where I can, partly to show support for our Town Centres, but also because it appeals to the child in me!

A prior commitment meant I also had to miss one of the regular meetings between the council and Chamber of Commerce. These are useful meetings, if only because it means we get to hear directly from local businesses. And I would have loved to hear how the season is going. We did, of course, get the good news that Wandsworth is going to benefit by £52,000 from the Department for Communities and Local Government. An early Christmas present (although probably too late to use before Christmas) that will help us with our plans, which are already fairly well advanced, to ensure Wandsworth’s high streets are blighted by the recession.

Stuff I did, but didn’t mention
I’ve had a few of the fairly ‘routine’ meetings this week. Next week sees a Full Council meeting, the last before Christmas and New Year, so we had our usual Conservative group meeting to discuss it. It has an element of smoky rooms to it, since while we’re sat talking in one room the Labour Party are having the same sort of discussions just down the corridor. And afterwards the two whips compare notes to agree the agenda of council meeting!

I also had one of my regular policy meetings with the officers in my portfolio area. Checking on how things are going (a much nicer task as the recession seems to be easing and the spate of gun crime has ended) and discussing how various projects and ideas can be taken forward. Or not, if you’re of the Yes, Minister school of government.

Finally, I was at the inaugural meeting of the national Advisory Panel on Tackling Worklessness. I was a little surprised, as a councillor from a borough with fairly low unemployment, to be asked onto a body like that. I often wonder if I’m wheeled out as a token cynic because I do like to focus and concentrate on the deliverables, if you will allow me a little jargon. But an interesting body and one I hope will be productive, not least because, as a national group made up of many fairly frontline people, so many different perspectives can be brought to bear on the problem.

Stuff I’m not going to mention
A fairly self-defeating headline. But I occasionally worry I give the impression that everything is blogged and, therefore, if it’s not on here I didn’t do it. As usual the week has been peppered with reading, emailing, casework and small meetings and discussions; none of which ever get close to a blog post. While I’d love to pretend it’s because they are important and super-secret, it’s mainly because they are quite dull!

Alan Thornhill's work being explained at the launch of the Putney Sculpture Trail last September
Alan Thornhill's work being explained at the launch of the Putney Sculpture Trail last September

One of the interesting things about blogging is the little things it throws up.

My post about the Battersea Park Act of Remembrance prompted an email about the state of the statue which, in turn, prompted discussion about the way the council ‘advertises’ the public art.

While we have various various publications about heritage trails around the borough and even a specific sculpture trail in Putney there isn’t a single listing of all the public art available. Until now(ish).

Creating a list was on the council’s to-do list, and this brought the creation of a web version up to the top of the list.

You can now see a listing of Wandsworth’s art on the council’s website. It’s a work in progress, most notably the Putney Sculpture Trail needs adding in and some of the descriptions are incomplete (a software hiccough I’m told). I’ve raised the ones I’ve spotted with the council, so they will hopefully be fixed soon.

There are some real gems in there, my favourite being ‘Ten Stone Carved Plaques on Nine Houses‘ – a set of faces on houses in Battersea Church Road, about which the council knows nothing! Can you add any information?

It’s occurred to me that I never returned to the comments I removed from the blog during the chugging episode, despite promising that I would either restore them or explain why I removed them.

In fact, I made the decision fairly soon after I removed them that they would not be returning. This was after a few people made some easy suggestions on how I could test my theories.

There were six comments deleted (along with my responses which made no sense on their own) which purported to come from two people. Both were from what I would call ‘disposable’ addresses, in other words webmail accounts that can be set up for free using any name. And all the comments came from the same place, which first aroused my suspicion that it they might be the same person. However, it was that the place in question was a charity that fundraises using chugging, while the commenters said they had no direct interest, that made me decide they would be permanently deleted.

While I’m prepared to accept that two individuals from the same charity independently decided to comment on my blog in defence of chugging I do think they should have stated their involvement with chugging rather than claiming to be “just an interested observer.”

After I suspended the comments one of the accounts was used to accuse me of censorship. Well, it is my blog and it’s up to me what goes on here, but even so there are a number of people who have commented to disagree with me and those comments have been allowed to stay – indeed, there are a number from the PFRA on this very subject and several on my original chugging post whose comments express their dislike of my position (and indeed me). With the exception of spam these are the very first comments I have deleted and I think I have every justification in that course of action.

Clearly anyone who works for a charity that is, at least in part, reliant on chugging will have an interest in defending chugging. We all have interests and prejudices – but we should be open about them. To my mind it’s slightly dishonest to pretend you are an impartial outsider since this adds more credibility to your argument, pretty much whatever the subject. It was because of this, rather than censorship or the fact they were getting a little offensive, that I decided not to reinstate the comments.

However, in the interests of openness I will briefly outline the points made. All I would ask is that you read them aware that they originate from staff at a charity that uses chugging:

  • I was shifty in the interview on the Today programme
  • The PFRA have been entirely honest and straightforward about the issue
  • I am only feigning concern about chugging as a publicity stunt
  • Anyone who opposes chugging prevents essential help getting to the world’s most needy
  • The campaign is solely to further my political career
  • People dislike chuggers because it reminds them of their shared guilt for colonial exploitation and slavery

It was partly because of this series of comments that I stopped blogging about the issue. However, we are continuing to monitor the situation in Wandsworth and are trying to seek a solution. We formally complained to one of the charities in September, copying the complaint to the PFRA, Institute of Fundraising and Fundraising Standards Board, but to date I have had no response from any of them, possibly because of the postal strike.

I’m happy with people of any viewpoint having their say, and would encourage anyone to comment. I do not require any details from you, and while your first comment is moderated (that is, I will read it before it is published) after that any comments are posted immediately. To my mind a blog is not a blog without comments, and those comments can – and should – include debate. If you ever read anything on here that you want to say something about, whether you agree or disagree, please be my guest and say what you want. All I ask is that you are honest and straightforward.

A silly little thing, but I can’t resist a copy and paste of one of the best bits of spam I think I’ve ever had:

Dear celebrity,

May I kindly ask you to send me one or two hand-signed autographs.

I am an enthusiastic collector of autographs for many years and would be delighted to increase my collecton with your photo and signature.

Thanking you in advance for your effort, and much luck and success for the future.

Kind regards form Alfred the Autogroph Collector,
from Schopfloch at the Romantic Road, Midddle Frankonia/Bavaria.

He includes an address. Am I really enough of a celeb to respond? Of course not, but while I’m pretty certain every other councillor has got one (at least in Wandsworth, since I think that’s where he scraped the address) I can die happy that Alfred thinks I’m Z-list at the very least.

Battersea Park memorialI took my son along to the Act of Remembrance in Battersea Park this morning.

It might, at first sight, be a slightly odd thing to do. He has just turned one and I can’t claim he showed much awareness of the service – the passing ‘planes interested him far more. But I felt it was an important thing to do. Now, more than ever, we should observe these small acts that force us to stop and think.

This was the first Remembrance Day for which there were no veterans of the First World War alive in this country. Indeed, we will soon be in the situation in which the ‘war to end all wars’ will have moved out of living memory. Even for the Second World War a veteran will have to be in their eighties (or have enlisted illegally) to have seen active service.

For people born in my generation such wars are unimaginable, and our links to them fairly distant. While my mother was old enough to remember WWII most of my classmates’ parents were either born after the war or were too young to recall it. Growing up the Falklands Conflict happened at a time when I was young enough to see it as exciting, and would watch the news marvelling at the Harrier. Our first involvement in the Gulf came when I was a teenager, and while I could intellectually grasp the issues I fear I had neither the age or the life experience to fully understand what a war really entailed.

Even now, with our troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, we perhaps allow distance and trivialities to crowd out what is happening and what our troops are facing on a daily basis.

We have, perhaps, become slightly arrogant. I think the UK, in particular, views relatively peaceful Western-style democracy as a stable end-point of a country’s development. In fact, it isn’t. History, both classical and modern is littered with examples of democracies failing or being overthrown, by internal and external forces, to be replaced by dictatorships and tyrannies.

If we value our freedoms and our liberty we must be vigilant and fight for them just as much now as our armed forces have done, almost continually, since the first Remembrance Day in 1919. As those terrible, all-encompassing, wars fade from living memory, those two minutes and everything they represent becomes all the more important.

We will remember them.

Last Saturday saw Wandsworth’s 2009 firework display in Battersea Park. I understand the dry and clear (if somewhat cold) conditions resulted in a huge turnout and they shouldn’t have been disappointed by the fantastic display put on.

The iPhone video isn’t great quality and the sound of the fireworks somewhat drown out the music – a cover of ‘One Love’ – but does a pretty good job of giving a flavour of the climax of the display.

One of the beauties of Twitter is that you can get an instant reaction to events (for those who could access it, O2’s ever worsening network meant I had no connection during the event) and it was great to see comments like:

  • “Just watched an amazing fireworks display at Battersea Park, really impressed :)” jamiebarry
  • “Just back from Battersea Park fireworks – amazing show.” rossbalham
  • “bonefire day fireworks in battersea park were awesome. best fireworks show i’ve seen so far.” cezarneaga
  • “Battersea Park fireworks;best I’ve ever seen.Musically choreographed & stunning.Bonfire was a bit huge & scary
  • “Battersea Park fireworks last night were insanely good – best ever. were behind it, def check ’em out.” louisedoherty

I can only agree. A spectacular display, my congratulations to the team at Wandsworth and Pains Fireworks who put it all together.

A series of events over the past few weeks have left me realising quite how dangerous it is to hold opinions – to the extent I’m thinking of giving them up.

In recent weeks I’ve had two episodes in which my opinion has elicited a surprising response. First when I suggested in my weekly wrap-up a couple of weeks ago that Tony Belton was a little too political in comments he made during a long service celebration at the council. Then when I made a comparison between the diagonal crossing at Balham and the “country’s first” at Oxford Circus.

Far more high profile have been the the response to Jan Moir’s article on the death of Stephen Gately, the BNP appearing on Question Time and the furore over Stephen Fry taking offence at a comment made about him on Twitter.

The simple fact is that all these involve someone’s opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. We all have a fundamental right to have opinions. And we all have a fundamental right to disagree with the opinions of others. What worries me is not the opinions expressed (however much I may disagree with them) but the response to them.

I commented in my post on Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time that “mob rule isn’t suddenly justifiable because the cause is right.” A comment I stand by.

Returning to my experiences, after my comments about Tony Belton I received an email which disagreed with my interpretation. I responded that it was a personal and political blog and, as you would expect, it was my perception. While that perception was shared by everyone I spoke with that night, I’m not so vain as to think it is the only perception one might have. My offer and suggestion of commenting on the post was rejected (well, ignored) and the complaint restated. I was also offered the warning that unless my blog was more balanced it “will soon be totally ignored.”

Well, I could live with that – there are plenty of other things with which to fill my life. But it’s a shocking state of affairs that I am expected to be balanced, as if I have some sort of equivalent to the BBC Charter and don’t stand for election under a party label.

When it came to Oxford Circus I was taken aback at Westminster’s response to the comments about Balham. I don’t think I would ever seriously compare the two crossings and it was tongue-in-cheek (as was my apology). I’m not sure if there’s an element of insecurity or unnecessary defensiveness on Westminster’s part, but I’m fairly certain their press team are lacking a sense of proportion or a sense of humour.

The simple fact is that I will display bias. You should expect that. I am a Conservative so I am far more likely to agree with them and disagree with any other party. I am a Wandsworth councillor and, naturally, everything in Wandsworth is better than anything anywhere else. Even within Wandsworth I would contend that it’s better in Battersea than the other bits of the borough. These opinions won’t always have an evidence base, they just reflect me and my position in the world. No human can ever be totally balanced and impartial, however much they strive towards that goal. With me, I would contend, at least it’s fairly transparent where my bias lies.

Equally, we shouldn’t be expecting balance from the likes of Jan Moir or Nick Griffin. But what I would expect is a sense of balance and proportion from the right-minded people who disagree with their bigotry.

I would have much preferred the BNP Question Time to be a discussion on policy, but can’t pretend to have shed any tears for Nick Griffin’s treatment. One could, at least, reason that while the ganging up was unpleasant, at least public opinion can be relied on to be right. Or can it?

The Stephen Fry episode suggests it can’t. The alleged assailant merely stated an opinion that despite his high regard for Fry he found his tweets boring. And they can be, just as mine often are. Just as anyone is boring unless the the person reading or hearing them has an interest. Boredom is rarely an issue with the person being boring – because it is a certainty that someone else would find it interesting – but with the person being bored.

Unfortunately, this caught Fry at a low ebb, and his response made news in both the online and offline media while the unfortunate opinion holder had to withstand a torrent of abuse for a perfectly valid opinion with people like Alan Davies suggesting an “Essex style” mob to persecute him for daring to call Stephen Fry’s tweeting boring.

This worries me since ideas, opinion and the expression of those are essential to progress. Many, if not most, scientific and social breakthroughs were, originally, totally contrary to the accepted order at the time. If we create a society in which people are afraid to air new ideas and opinions then maybe we should give up on progress. And maybe we should accept that people who think like the Griffins and Moirs of this world should be driven underground where their poison will do far more damage to society than it ever could out in the open where it can be held up, examined and defeated.

It is, perhaps, an extension of the Diana-isation of grief. It seems as if we can no longer hold an emotion on our own unless it is shared tribally. If we are disgusted by the beliefs of Nick Griffin and Jan Moir we should also be disgusted by the baying mobs that formed to attack them rather than attack their ideas.

The internet should be a wonderful tool for the sharing of knowledge and ideas, and the discussion and debate that leads to progress. Sadly, it might just prove that the internet is just giving us the tools to easily collectivise (and perhaps legitimise) our intolerance of what we perceive to be outside a shared norm.

Poppy buttonsI’ve added a poppy to the blog.  It’s a little amateurish, to be sure, but my thoughts were that it is more about the sentiment than the quality of the pixels.

It’s a home made effort, simply because I couldn’t find anything anywhere else.  The British Legion offer some badges (displayed to the left) but they aren’t quite the same as my blog ‘wearing’ a poppy.  Feel free to ‘borrow’ the file if you wish or download the official versions from the British Legion.

And don’t forget to buy a ‘real’ poppy if you haven’t already!