I am now enjoying a short break between jobs. Fortunately (and I know there are many in a less fortunate position) it is a planned break. Originally intended to include the Paris marathon and a lengthy break with the family my plans have changed to pretty much just staying at home. Even the things I can still do are affected. I no longer run in a straight line as I curve around people mutually maximising our social distance. My plans to make up for lost time as a school governor have transformed from lesson walks and observations to video meetings and a focus on health and safety and safeguarding.

If it was a badly timed break it is also a badly timed job start. I am, after a brief dalliance in the private sector, returning to the NHS. I cannot pretend it’s a noble move: it was not COVID-19 motivated and by the time I’ve got to grips with my role, new organisation and relationships we may well be past the pandemic peak but the virus will still make starting a job in any organisation an unusual experience.

But the pandemic does highlight why I am going back to the NHS. I was a late and accidental joiner but felt a strong sense of purpose from my very first day. Part of the reason I’m returning is because, even though remained in healthcare, I never felt that same sense of purpose after I left. The NHS is a huge and complex organisation and my contribution was, and will be, small. But the NHS is the sum of those small contributions and each one is worthwhile.

As I stood at my front door joining in the last night I was reminded of the Nigel Lawson comment that the NHS was the nearest thing this country has to a national religion. He, of course, made that comment with the sneering contempt you would expect him to have for a public sector institution. It was clear last night, though, the public attitude would be very different.

The NHS, despite its imperfections (often introduced, I would argue, in the attempts to ‘improve’ by introducing the market) and years of underfunding, remains one of this country’s greatest assets. I’m very much looking forward to having some time with my family but incredibly proud and excited and just a little impatient to be back in the NHS.

Ever since I’ve been politically aware I’ve been a eurosceptic. If I’m honest, I don’t know why. There were probably childish elements, as a young Conservative (though not, I stress, a Young Conservative) it was probably as much feeling a need to fit in at a time euroscepticism was de rigueur than any intellectual concerns about the EU project.

That euroscepticism remained with me for years. Again, possibly a consequence of the company I kept: you tend to be an average of the people with whom you spend most time and in any case the possibility of Brexit was only ever theoretical.

Somewhere though, something has changed and during the campaign I have never seriously considered voting anything but remain. I am instinctively ‘in’ just as I would have been instinctively ‘out’ only a few years ago.

The referendum will never be considered British democracy’s finest hour whatever the result. From its conception to the final debates it has been defined more by the negative. This was perhaps inevitable when the referendum had no real purpose other than helping a party leader keep his party together.

That’s a shame, because the referendum should inherently be about positive, but competing, visions: whether we’d be more successful as a part of Europe or as an independent nation outside. Instead the campaign’s negative tone has created a corrosive political environment which will continue to take its toll on democracy, and society, for years to come.

Even knowing that, when I try to rationalise my decision I find I’m drawn to the negatives: put off by Boris Johnson’s opportunism, offended by what might be racist undertones, or just Nigel Farage being Nigel Farage.

Trying to look at things more objectively, I can start to feel more positive about ‘remain’. I believe my family would be financially worse off out of Europe. Likewise, I am concerned that Brexit puts many workers’ rights we take for granted at risk. And while the leave campaign highlights all the trade agreements we could enter if we left the EU, it seems a trifle bizarre to leave the one we are already in with 27 other nations.

But these are hypothetical. I know and respect many people who would take the opposite view, that we’d be better off out. It’s impossible to prove one way or the other.

Ultimately, I wonder if it’s just a question of faith. Do I just believe we are better off in than out?

I always take my children with me to vote. While I know, logically, my single vote makes no difference, I feel it’s important they grow up seeing democracy up close. Because while we might just cast one vote, it represents a core truth that we are part of something much bigger and much more important.

The EU may be far from perfect (our own democratic system is far from perfect too, that’s the way these things are), and sometimes it means we have to accept things we might not like. That’s part of life for nation states as much as it is for people. And like anything in life, you don’t get better by walking away from challenges.

I want my children to continue growing up in a world that’s increasingly connected, not a country that’s isolated; a world where they see other nations as friends and neighbours, not a country that just sees foreigners we should fear or suspect; in a world where their potential is limited by their imagination, not by the the arbitrary borders of a nation state.

I’m voting to remain in the EU not just because I know it isn’t just me that will be better off in, my children are better off in.

Various polling station signs

Of course, more than half of you won’t bother (or are readers of this more sophisticated than the general population? I rather hope so) but today is election day and polling stations are open from 7am until 10am.

If you are a Shaftesbury resident I would be delighted if you’d vote for me (and my colleagues, of course) but I recognise plenty of people might prefer some of the alternatives on the ballot paper and that for democracy to have meaning there has to be diversity of opinion.

Indeed, some people have taken the time to email me to tell me they are voting against me, which is nice. Thankfully some other people have taken the time to email me to wish me luck and say they are voting for me, which is nicer.

However, rather than being bipolar about it all, I find the election process rather relaxing. It is one of those times you can relax and accept you are not master of your own destiny:

  • Whether it’s during the campaign, when someone else analyses the numbers and decides where you will be knocking on doors to delivering leaflets.
  • Or on election day, when electors will go to the polls and make their decisions based on whatever criteria they see as important.
    • Or even at the count, when election staff will carefully count the ballots and award victory or defeat accordingly.

Never is the candidate really in charge.

And that’s the really important point of democracy. For once the politicians aren’t the bosses.

Though I still think it would be very very nice if you voted for me.

I don’t know if I could ever have been called a ‘campaigner’ against chugging, but for a short while a few years ago I did find myself occasionally commenting on one of the scourges of modern life. But having failed to make any real difference—the industry lobbying group relied on their right to be annoying and my attempts at lobbying ministers came to nothing—I retired from activism to return to being a mere disgruntled pedestrian like everyone else.

Despite that I do watch the news on chugging so found the nfpSynergy report, informatively headlined Doorstep and telephone fundraising very annoying for the public interesting even if it didn’t say anything I didn’t already know. Apparently over half of all people are annoyed at being disturbed at home, and over a third dislike being hassled on the street.

nfpSynergy, along with their non-traditional use of capital letters, have a “Driver of Ideas” who commented “fundraising must be to maximise the money raised and minimise the aggravation it causes. This data gives a good indication that we are not winning this battle.” However, the BBC News website’s coverage of the report suggested this lesson isn’t being learned, quoting a former call centre worker:

I had to phone people, give them a sob story, make them feel guilty and get their money. The company rule was that we had to hear them clearly say no three times before we should stop. If someone just hung up on us or was angry or upset, we were told to keep calling them back.

It’s obviously only one person, and I have no idea what his story is, but I have always suspected that the biggest problem (aside from the fact that very few formally complain, and therefore the industry thinks everything is hunky-dory) is that charities appoint agencies that are, effectively, charity mercenaries motivated far more by money than they are by the charity’s reputation.

After the run, with medal in place.
Looking undeservedly smug and a little stupid

Invoking the rule that this is a personal blog (and not a councillor blog) I come to the belated boastfulness of my performance in the Royal Parks Half Marathon. Some of the boastfulness comes in just completing it. Some in completing it in a fairly decent time, 1:36:06 (those six seconds are important).

Of course, the time isn’t exceptional: I still crossed the line nearly half-an-hour after the winner and in 942nd place on chip time. But as a chubby runner, who’d had a bad time in training, I think it’s something of an accomplishment.

Most of all, however, I was astounded at how much I enjoyed it. Having convinced myself that I was an anti-social runner, who liked to run in relative solitude, it turned out running with thousands of others along a course partly lined with friends, family, volunteers and charities was something very special indeed. I have no doubt that some of my run was powered by high fives from various children along the way.

My conversion was such that I had a short bout of post-race depression (which is actually a thing) and found myself searching for other runs I could pencil into the diary.

Of course, the personal blog façade was not going to last forever, and I think it’s worth highlighting some Wandsworth connection.

First is a personal one. Runners Need in St John’s Road did me an excellent deal on a new watch when my old one died two days before the run and I was paranoid that my pacing would fail me totally without the assistance of gadgetry. I sometimes worry that a developing narrative of independent-good, chain-bad means we overlook the value of the many great shops that are firmly rooted in their community despite being part of a much bigger business. Runners Need is one example, and I’d highly recommend their Wednesday night running club (which I attend when the diary allows).

Second is for a Putney business, Crewroom who provide the shirts the Royal Park Foundation give to runners. I only realised they were a Putney business when I met their founder at a business event the week before the run. But it is another example of a business firmly rooted in the local (rowing) community developing their product and creating an exceptionally good shirt that I know I’ll still be wearing on runs for years to come. Or, at the very least, until I get a new Royal Parks shirt next year (ballot permitting).

That really looks like fun, doesn't it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)
That really looks like fun, doesn’t it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)

I’m running the Royal Parks Half Marathon on Sunday. Not, I add, for any charity, but purely for the dubious fun of going for a run without the freedom to choose your own route and having thousands of other people in the way.

And, now I think about it, with added guilt for not having any fundraising element to it while many of the others will be doing it to raise cash for good causes.

I really have no idea how I will do. My training suffered towards the end–partly self-inflicted through an over-indulgent holiday and partly unlucky with some calf niggles–which has resulted in a real loss of form. I’m hoping for a decent-ish run, but certainly nothing close to my hopes of just a few weeks ago.

If you are at all interested in how I do then you can track me on the Royal Parks Half Marathon app, my bib number is 2632 (at least, I that’s the number I’m wearing, the organisers had a mix-up with bins and I’m in the app as 2633, I’ve no idea which is actually me). And if you are running it yourself, then good luck.

Staff and Victorians at Clapham Junction's 150th birthday
Staff and Victorians at Clapham Junction’s 150th birthday

I attended the small event held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Clapham Junction yesterday.

It is remarkable to think about the impact it has had on the millions of people who have worked, lived by, used and travelled through the station in those 150 years. Indeed, it defies comprehension. Having to say a few words at the event I was forced to think much smaller, and consider my own experiences of the station.

Like many, Clapham Junction, then a sprightly 133 years old, was my introduction to Battersea. And like many (I hope) I ended up leaving through the wrong exit and spending a cold, wet, winter night seeing a part of Battersea I probably wouldn’t have visited by choice that evening. But somehow, I found myself returning and realising Battersea was where I wanted to make my home.

After that, Clapham Junction punctuated my life. It was the start of unhappy commutes, and the end of happy commutes back home. But it was purely functional. A means to an end.

It was only after I had children that I started to see what it really is: a magical gateway. The hustle and bustle became exciting, and journeys were no longer drudgery, but adventures.

Whether it was the Overground to Westfield and the Lego Store, South West Trains to Waterloo and the London Eye and South Bank or – as we’ll be doing later this month – a pilgrimage to Wembley once we go through the barriers we become explorers. London and beyond is in our reach and the trip has untold potential.

And Clapham Junction’s metaphorical journey is the same. Over the past 150 years it has had a massive impact on Battersea; not least in confusing itinerant residents and corporate headquarters. It has driven change, allowing residents easy access to jobs and leisure, and bring others easily into the area. It plays a vital rôle in the local economy and with each improvement (and I will not pretend the station doesn’t need improvement) it creates even more potential for the area.

We’ve seen the physical improvements to the station and the arrival of the Overground in recent years. Soon we might be adding Crossrail 2 and, one day, maybe even an extended Northern Line from Nine Elms. Despite it’s imperfections, it serves as a wonderful heart of Battersea.

That really looks like fun, doesn't it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)
That really looks like fun, doesn’t it? (Photo from Royal Parks Half Marathon website)

I was lucky enough to get a ballot place for this year’s Royal Parks Half Marathon and, at the risk of annoying those who failed to get a place, am feeling strangely ambivalent about it.

I entered the ballot largely on a whim having been told it was open by a friend who ran it last year. And I entered fully expecting I wouldn’t get a place. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve failed to get a spot in the London Marathon (something I really do want to run at least once) and imagined my record of losing the random lottery and then being bombarded with offers to get a place by raising a huge amount of cash for charity would continue.

The problem is not because I have any problem with the distance. For a large part of last year my weekly long run exceeded the 13.1 mile half marathon distance. Nor am I concerned about the training, although I can’t help but wonder how on earth I will fit it in.

Instead I am troubled by the knowledge I’m an incredibly anti-social runner.

As an adult I have only run with other people on three occasions. Once in the Roehampton 10k, once with the Nike Run Club when they had the FuelStation on Clapham Common (and I do think its a shame it was removed, though recognise it was not universally popular) and once with my wife. I am an anti-social runner; the prospect of sharing a few miles with several thousand other people does not appeal.

While I found Haruki Murakami’s part-memoir, part-running diary What I Talk About When I Talk About Running slightly disappointing (perhaps because my expectations were not well-managed) his view of running as a solo challenge did resonate. I care little about my performance compared to other runners, but I care deeply about my performance compared to my past efforts. It is deeply troubling if my pace and stamina are not steadily improving. And my current form, suffering the impact of a bad chest infection at the beginning of the year is downright depressing, however much I tell myself it’s an understandable blip.

In addition the almost meditative nature of running provides an appeal. Murakami comments “Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I agree … No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.” I can see how exercise, or at least running, is often cited as beneficial to mental health. And I can even see the attraction of running to the likes of Sri Chinmoy devotees (even if my lack of spirituality leaves me viewing such groups with suspicion).

But how does that work in a large organised run? How can your performance be your own when pace will often be dictated more by the size of the pack and the road they are trying to fit? Or inner peace sought among the hubbub of runners and supporters?

So, I have eight months to prepare physically – and I have no concerns about that at all – but also mentally. I hope to divine some meaning to the undertaking of collective exercise, but I’m terrified that eight months just isn’t enough.

Having identified lots of reasons why I had, effectively, stopped blogging and deliberately taken several weeks off I found myself faced with another hurdle: what on earth do I post first if I am to attempt blogging again?

Should it be council or ward related (despite my feeling I should be less Wandsworth-centric), should it be personal (given that I’m keen to start making it a slightly more personal blog), or should it be a tedious navel gazing blog post about posting on a blog? Or perhaps a topical post about snow? (You’d be better off looking at wandsworth.gov.uk/snow, or just re-read some of my old ones.)

In the end, I decided it would be none of these. Instead it would be dedicated to my (sort of) home town. A simple and frivolous proof that it is the greatest place on earth: because Lego say so.

That hometown is Great Grimsby. Often the butt of jokes, but if you have ever been to Miniland at Legoland Windsor you will see no fewer than four Grimsby buildings memoralised in brick form.

The Grimsby Dock Tower – a local landmark built by the Victorians to provide hydraulic power for the dock gates but made redundant by technology almost as soon as it was complete.

Grimsby Dock Tower, in bricks and in Lego bricks
In real life (photo credit Paul Stainthorp) on the left, and in Lego.

The dock offices – a rather imposing building spoilt by pointless construction of a road bridge made redundant almost as soon as it was complete because hardly any trains use the line it crosses. (My main memories of this are going with my father to collect his wages and a rather striking warning poster of a crane driver having his fingers amputated by his crane door.)

Different angles, but both unmistakable Grimsby dock's offices
Different angles, but both unmistakable Grimsby dock’s offices

The flour mill – a huge building on the side of the almost entirely disused Alexandra Dock. I very nearly rented a flat here when I was narrowly losing (by 11,000 votes, give or take) the Grimsby seat in 2000-2001, but was put off by tales of rat infestation.

Grimsby flour mill. Left: with rats (allegedly). Right: without rats (unless they are tiny Lego rats).
Grimsby flour mill. Left: with rats (allegedly). Right: without rats (unless they are tiny Lego rats).

Corporation Bridge – allegedly functional, but sadly unused, lifting bridge that spans the aforementioned Alexandra Dock.

Corporation Bridge (with the flour mill in the background. Photo credit: David Wright/Wikipedia)
Corporation Bridge (with the flour mill in the background. Photo credit: David Wright/Wikipedia)

And there you have it. Independent evidence that Grimsby is the greatest place on earth.

I suspect that excluding capital cities, nowhere else can boast that sort of representation at Legoland. I also wonder if on a landmark per capita basis it even beats London.

As Elton John said: “Grimsby, a thousand delights couldn’t match the sweet sights of my Grimsby. Oh, England is fair, but there’s none that compare with my Grimsby.”

Not Wandsworth, for a change

After a few days of Jubilee-related events I found myself bloated and lethargic: the consequence of a little too much cake, ice cream and alcohol.

Battersea Park: with facilities for the 90,000
My weekend managed a degree of diversity. Saturday was spent in Kent, at a fair organised in my wife’s home village. It was the very image of what I imagined a village fête to be including morris dancers and a Women’s Institute tea-room.

On Sunday, along with tens of thousands of others, I braved the chill and rain to see the jubilee flotilla from Battersea Park. I was surprised, and rather proud to be British, to see the park absolutely heaving with people and portaloos despite the weather. I have no idea how many people were put off, but when we were looking for a place in front of one of the big screens to set-up a picnic it didn’t look like many had stayed at home.

Lavender Gardens' penultimate sing-a-long
Finally, on Monday, I popped along to the Elspeth Road and Lavender Gardens street party. A superb event that encompassed the whole community. The organisers deserve huge congratulations for all their work; it certainly paid off.

And all the car owners deserve credit for their parking.

Like any job, being a councillor changes the way you look at things. And even with the jubilee I couldn’t help noticing the parking.

In that small Kentish village cars were absent. No-one parked in the village square, or the village hall car park, or on any of the roads used for the celebrations.

Not that big a deal, perhaps. While those spaces are usually full a nearby field was turned over to parking and only added a few minutes inconvenience to residents.

In Lavender Gardens, though, no such alternative was available. Residents had to take their luck finding a space elsewhere. And this in an area where parking has a premium, created by the cost of a parking permit and charge for a parking bay suspension. But compliance was near total. Just two cars acted as blemishes on the otherwise pedestrian-only southern half of Lavender Gardens.

Like I said, being a councillor changes the way you look at things, my correspondence often sees parking elevated to the status of human right, the space immediately outside a house becomes consecrated ground being plundered by infidel neighbours parking their cars there.

So having experienced fourteen years of parking rights extremism it was refreshing to see such widescale voluntary compliance. In Lavender Gardens, at least, I know Her Majesty is truly valued.