Monday, 25 July 2016

Books, adventures and Enid Blyton

Books tend to be a bit of a passion with me. I love reading them. I even love writing them. I love sharing them. Books fill my house. We are supposed to be clearing out because we are "supposed" to be moving (you can tell this isn't a positive as far as I'm concerned)so thinning them out would be a good idea. I say this because last time we moved they had to get two vans because we had so much junk. I clearly remember (as do the Mr Shifters) that they were about to set off and I said, "Oh have you cleared the small bedroom then?". They looked puzzled. I pointed to the door on the landing, opening the door. There were thirty boxes of books standing neatly to attention.
"What's in 'em love?"
"Books," I said, smiling nervously.
"But we've already put loads of books in the van!"
I shuffled a bit-feeling rather embarrassed.
They said no more and began carting the heavy boxes down the stairs. When they finished they looked relieved.
"I've never seen anyone with as many books! Have you actually read 'em all?"
I admitted there might be on or two not yet read, but most had been... if not cover to cover, then dipping in and out for research. I don't think they believed me.

Obviously, having been a teacher, Patron of Reading, mother and Grandma I have always believed in reading... and books. I replicated my birthdays and Christmas for my children by loading up the books. I love giving books, but love receiving them more. Relatives groan when they ask what I want as a gift-they can't understand the joy of unwrapping a book. The feel, the look and the smell! My heart misses a beat. Yes, I've dabbled with Kindle but its not the same!

I first began book collecting at about 7 years old. I used to get 2/6d pocket money and every Saturday we went to town. Every Saturday I would mount the stairs to the top floor of my favourite shop-Heaths. I'm glad to say its still a thriving book shop today-in fact they are promoting my new book. In front of me were shelves full of every sort of book, but my favourites were "Armada Paperbacks" and in particular Enid Blyton. Ideally the books were 2/6d. I amassed quite a collection-many of which... you guessed it... I still have!

Now I know old Enid gets a bit of a dissing theses days. They've even had the audacity to rewrite some! Look I can live with jolly japes, lashing of ginger beer and macaroons and I really don't mind the Dicks, Nobbys and Fannys at all! I mean-would you rewrite Roald Dahl or Mark Twain? I know she was a middle class snob but frankly I don't care! It never prevented me from enjoying the adventures and stories where children were clever and in charge. I never felt disadvantaged when reading about Darrel Rivers (or Waters as she mystifyingly became in later imprints)at Malory Towers. It never occurred to me that these children were privileged and rich; in fact I felt sorry that their mothers and fathers sent them away.

 I never batted an eye-lid at the comic working class characters, gardeners, maids and char ladies- after all I was still watching Sunday afternoon films with Kathleen Harrison talking in faux cockney "thank you very much, I'm sure!" I never recognised the oblique racism of the "gypsy" characters or circus performers, I took each character for their own worth-very two dimensional, either goodies or baddies! Even in 1965 the language was a little twee, but the stories overcame all that.

Whether it was "The Faraway Tree" or Famous Five I lapped them up. My favourite series was "The Five Find-Outers and Dog"-always a scary and exciting adventure, with disguises, tough criminals and a really stupid policeman Mr Goon who the hero "Fatty" (Algernon Trotteville to his parents)never failed to humiliate. After all-what other author would get away with a protagonist called Fatty?

I admit-my own books occasionally have a passing nod to Enid-the influence is embedded and I am still, at 59 waiting for a really big adventure. I still hold the hope that I will discover a long lost treasure-you will have seen me lurking at Furness Abbey! Surely, even in these sophisticated times, children still want the same? I certainly see them looking for clues at the abbey when they have read my Out of Time books-and why not? What's wrong with a ripping yarn?

Surely, the whole point about books is escapism and creating pictures in your head? If I am reading fiction I want to be transported away from mundane and pedestrian things, into a new or alien world. If I read any book at all it must feed my imagination first, whether it is fact or fiction. It's great to have "real life" or gritty books with a social message, but not always! Sometimes just let me escape to the 1950s. Let me explore the dungeons of the medieval castle on the island off the coast of Cornwall (all adventures happen in Cornwall! Or the Lake District if you're reading Ransome). Let me disturb smugglers, track down the petty thief, find secret messages and most definitely, let me sup on steaming hot chocolate with plenty of home baked scones and jam. Most of all leave the old favourites alone! They are what they are and it is an act of anachronistic vandalism to update them. And don't even get me started on Beatrix Potter and Emma Thompson! Oh and did I tell you? My mother chose my first name "Gillian" after Enid's daughter!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Keyboard Warriors, Localisation and People Power

I can hardly believe I am writing this after two years of hard campaigning, ups and downs and anguish-but we have a result! The Planning Inspector has turned down the appeal by Story Homes for housing at Manor Road within the Furness Abbey Conservation Area. This is a triumph for local opinion and democratic protests.

We -a merry band of warriors- decided on Facebook-against the odds to stand up for this last piece of rurality-a barrier between the 21st century and the past. Meetings were held and local support was rallied. What started as a rather desperate attempt to halt this ill advised building proposal soon grew into a wave of protest and it became clear that we were voicing the feelings of most local people who know and love the field approach through the West Gate.

The commentary was unfortunately less than clear from the bodies we hoped would stand forthright against this-but this did not deter us. We battled on regardless and took flack from those (few) who disagreed with us and we were delighted that finally the council showed their mettle and rejected the plans without hesitation.

Naturally, an appeal was expected-and it was an eye opener. The power of money and influence was evident in that the appellant had the funds to bring in expensive consultants, specialists and lawyers. The council had less to spend but my goodness they fought the good fight! The 3,000 signatures on the petition helped too. The appeal stretched over a week and then a further day was needed later on. However, this was probably the decider-the site visit must have told the whole story (no pun intended). Nobody visiting could fail to see the harm (less than significant or otherwise) that would be done to the abbey approach.

Whatever the reasons (and the are outlined in the report) the inspector cut through the flim-flam and saw what we -the local people saw. He understood the emotional and aesthetic impact that this block of green has as one wander towards the West Gate and the build up of anticipation as you reach the point where the red sandstone of the abbey reveals itself through the gate and the trees. He cannot have failed to understand the historic importance of our amazing abbey and appreciated that to build a housing estate-however high status and beautiful-would detract from the reverence and spirituality of the approach. In short the scales fell from his eyes and the heritage outweighed commercial interest and development.

Our little group, I know, will be delighted. We believed in this wholeheartedly and our actions were not from self-interest or nimbyism. Neither were we opposed to Story Homes or the landowner in principle. However, this field was not the right place to build anything. We firmly believe that our actions have safeguarded the future of Furness Abbey and we brought together people of all political persuasions and viewpoints for the greater good. Never again will we accept that the little man or individual cannot stand up for their beliefs-this is a test case and I wish other protesters of a similar persuasion strength and belief in a just cause-it can be done.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Public consultations and planning-a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!

Well, that's at least 5 days of my life I won't get back! The final day of the appeal Story Homes vs Barrow Council ended today after a tediously long day listening to the most repetitive and boring testimony from the appellant and finished off with a yomp (that inspector certainly walks fast) around the whole site.

Who knows how it will turn out? I go from positivity to negativity quicker than a magnet and I really couldn't read the mood. Today our barrister seemed to make some good points and the other lot droned on and on with very little variation. If I had been the inspector I would have awarded us the win due to total boredom! However, in this system that's not how it works. It was hard to see what does work to be honest because interventions were prohibited in the main and it was all very legal-speak. Common sense and plain truths were not the order of the day and it made me think that opinion or judgment is very transient and ethereal. Really, you can make any case at all and fly in the face of reality. One example was the "rurality" of Manor Road and the adjoining Manor Farm and the field in question. Ironically, as we completed the site visit a pungent smell of manure drifted around our nostrils and as if to amplify the point a cow mooed very loudly! I could not help but comment that the cow must be an urban cow-then adding that I was in no way trying to influence the decision!
Urban cows at Manor Road

So much energy, effort and angst over one small field. But that's the point-it is the last field and it provides a buffer between old and new. Yes, its close to schools and a road and power lines-but it has the effect of calm and tranquility as soon as you cross its threshold. The ambiance begins as you walk down the lane and the 21st century recedes into the background. And No, Mr Lancaster it doesn't happen once you go through the 13th century gateway (insignificant though you deem it to be). The whole journey builds the anticipation and the pleasure of the final reveal of the magnificent abbey and this will be diminished by the noise of an urban estate just metres away. Yes we can see the blank brick wall of the Sixth Form College, but this is way out in peripheral vision-38 houses will be within a stones throw and I won't be able to miss them. Peripheral they are not!
Courtesy Story Homes-this will cause less than significant damage to the heritage approach apparently

But when the tale is told... yes by idiots (because they can't see the value of what's in front of them), the sound and fury means nothing! They can't tell me -or you how to feel, when to feel it or whether it's important. They can't convince me by repeating the same quotation from English Heritage that there will be "less than significant harm" done to the heritage asset (Furness Abbey to you and me). In my book-less than significant harm means that there is some harm! With a nationally important Grade 1 Listed building should we allow ANY harm at all? What of the local appraisal of "harm" and protecting this much loved heritage environment? Over three thousand people objected-this was mentioned only once and pooh-poohed by the appellant's barrister as insignificant. So, if we have a system which goes to public consultation-that would mean they want to know our views wouldn't it? But then to dismiss it at stage two as irrelevant is incongruous and unfair! Granted our merry little band got a limited hearing-but it's not representative is it? 

At the end it comes down to power-power derived from money-of which Story Homes have shed loads. They can go the course-and sit with an expensive criminal lawyer, two experts and a consultant and secretary-all beavering behind the scenes (quite noisily sometimes too) to refute, argue and contradict. Our little hard pressed council have the Planning Officer, barrister and solicitor and one expert-not present today. So its David and Goliath all over again! And I'm afraid I'm a sucker for the underdog... aren't you?

Manor Road and the West Gate

Saturday, 30 January 2016

When is a field not a field?

      When is a field not a field?

 Easy answer? When it has houses on it! 

Manor Road field

After watching the process of a planning appeal this week against Barrow Council's decision to turn down the development by Story Homes at Manor Road, I despair of local people ever having a voice. Don't get me wrong, the process is all very fair and the inspector diligent in ensuring all parties have a chance to put their cases. However, the rigidity of the process eliminates the chance to rebut certain aspects because it can be objected to in terms of "new" evidence. Of course it isn't new evidence, but it's classed as new because it hasn't been introduced in the mountains of files and paper  accrued since the screening stage of the debate. Our little protest group-who has been active since day one, said our piece, but  when trying to correct some blatant misinformation re the historic value of this little field, we were slapped down by the opposition flatly. Sadly, the objection was upheld and we were unable to correct this.

Naturally, the developer has appointed a costly barrister-who believe me is thorough and uncompromising-and good. The council have appointed a very competent young woman, and as good as she is, you can bet your life the council couldn't spend the same type of money that the developer has. So, we already have an unbalance. Allegedly.

Maybe the appeal will fail. So where does that leave us? Well-maybe the land owner and the developer will pack in then and there. After all, 38 houses -neither here nor there to a big company like Story Homes. However, There is a great deal at stake here-for a start the landowner allegedly stands to lose a huge sum; pension fund, self-interest-whats one paltry field? But let us examine... I am using barrister speak here... let us examine,the possibility that the 38 houses are merely a subterfuge, a test case, a blind. Maybe... other land owners are sitting waiting in the wings for payday too. Who knows? There are lots of fields round there and those don't have the annoyance of being part of a conservation area. These being adopted would finally urbanise the whole of Rating Lane up to and including Manor Farm and with some clever planning an enterprising speculative developer would sweep that site up and extend his greedy reach behind and beyond. Of course this is all in my fevered imagination... nothing more than a conspiracy theory... I am a writer after all. 

In our real world, it could never happen. After all the land is protected with being close to the abbey. Isn't it? But then with set backs, buffers and planting I'm sure any new builds in those locations would enhance and improve the scrappy fields. Let's face it-they are "urban edge" (whatever that means)-they have power lines and walls etc (watch out Lake District-you have pylons and power lines too). So the superior (definitely NOT standard houses-because they will have decorative roundels, gables and sandstone facing-and you KNOW Barrow is crying out for a better class of housing-because we all apparently live in slums) will improve all this field stuff! And of course-I am sure there are no landowners queuing up with their hands held out-most of them are guardians of the land and take care to conserve it for the future generations-don't they?

I'm glad we cleared that up! It would be unbearable if the future of our green fields, heritage and countryside was at risk from the highest bidder. It would be unthinkable that a massive, wealthy developer, who can fund litigation up to the highest level would be able to overcome extensive local opposition and even the council's rejection of their scheme wouldn't it? If the council win- surely the developer will cease - if its only for 38 houses-wouldn't be worth the while-they've made their point anyway? However, if it goes further- until they finally win-then one must wonder what comes next, because you can take a good bet that it won't stop at 38 houses... and if in the meantime if the council is bankrupted... well, hey... it's only Barrow!

But of course...none of this is true... is it? It's all in my imagination... isn't it? Oh... and put me down for the house that overlooks the abbey!

The blog has been amended to remove speculation about Sixth Form College-apparently this is not owned by the LA (Cumbria) and no plans are afoot to cease the use of the site for education despite amalgamation with another college. This was written as a speculative piece and I apologise for the inaccuracy of that comment. On the other hand, it is a great relief that this is so as it means further speculative development is less likely because of access; though of course not entirely impossible.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Time's little tricks

 With David Bowie's passing today it stirs a lot of memories and thoughts. I already hate January so maybe this melancholy turn of mind is just amplified with this news. I liked Bowie... I remember the first time I listened to Hunky Dory... when I didn't like him that much! On a rare occasion I skipped school (in Sixth form I might add) a girl called Melanie took me to her house for a cuppa. We weren't friends as such but we found refuge in each other's truancy. I was 16 and shy. She put on  a record (as we used to call it)-Hunky Dory... I had heard of it of course but was more of an Elton John fan-but I felt duty bound to listen and enthuse politely. It was a bit "far out" for me at the time and Bowie was one of the artistes on Top of the Pops who provoked the most expletives from my dad-who didn't really embrace the androgynous nature of David Bowie- or in fact any of those who dressed less than masculinely.

That said, my boyfriend who appeared the next year on, did like Bowie and we always shared music and often (with odd exceptions) adopted each others tastes. So Bowie then became the portfolio of our young adult lives. The significant songs matched to significant events and the memories attached. The excitement and familiarity of songs over the years passing to our children too-one of whom came to our 70s Pearl wedding dressed as Aladdin Sane! So, there is a catch in the throat and a small tear in the corner of the eye. Its not because he is a celebrity. Its because he has written the soundtrack to our and many others lives. Because he symbolises our lost youth and reminds us that we are all mortal! 
Bowie ever changing

Time plays a nasty little trick on us poor mortals-when we are young we hear our elders reminiscing about youth, which we dismiss. We have a quiet arrogance-we secretly believe we will not age or die. But suddenly, we wake up one day and we realise we have probably already had more years on earth than we are likely to have left. And its a shock! The death of someone immortalized on the screen or disc is a shock to us because it nudges our own mortality. When a young person dies its tragic and we acknowledge this-but we pretend its rare and unusual. Some of us say things like "only the good die young" to make it seem acceptable. But in this pretense that life goes on forever we feel the need to rationalize when it obviously doesn't! We trot out platitudes like "he had a good innings" or "he was getting on"- but it just isn't true-its never a good innings. All deaths are painful to those loved ones left behind and it matters not if you are 5 or 95! Life is precious and we want to hang on to it. Days like today just amplify the fact that death is one thing nobody-no matter how wealthy, successful, clever, beautiful or famous can avoid forever! And that's what makes it sad! That's what in the end is the great leveler and when we react or mourn-granted at different levels and extremes-to the death of someone like Bowie-its that human connection. We aren't just mourning him... we are mourning our own eventual demise too.
When a young person dies its tragic and we acknowledge this-but we pretend its rare and unusual.
Homage to Aladdin Sane

Thursday, 5 November 2015

If ye break faith with us who die...

In Flanders Field the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

There is always debate at this time about the poppy and whether it should or shouldn't be worn, whether it glorifies war or is purely an act of remembrance. As with everything that endures over a long time, its meaning can become muddled and incongruous-usually because we have lost the meaning or because we anachronistically place our own flawed interpretation onto it. It has become a political instrument though it was never meant to be and I am a little irked by its detractors.

I am not one of those who dogmatically insists that everyone should wear a poppy, not would I insult or criticize you whether you did or did not! Neither would I post one of those passive/aggressive Facebook declarations which threatens and vilifies for either wearing or not wearing a poppy. To me the essence of the poppy is about choice- when it first began a huge majority of the population was proud to wear one-mainly because they all knew or had lost someone in the terrible war. As time moves on the remembrance is more distant and perhaps more collective, but certainly in my own case I remember the young men in the family (great uncles) who had no chance to live their lives as I have done. I like the poppy for its simplicity, for its symbolism. I don't see it as jingoistic or political and I certainly can't associate it with racism.If it is perceived as such-then the fault lies with those who have tried to use the poppy to promote a right wing nationalistic interpretation-not the poppy itself.

I refuse to abandon it or wear a "white" poppy on the strength of this. The whole point of the poppy is that it is red-to symbolise the blood spent for our freedom. The white apologist poppy is almost an insult-what's the point? Nothing is more poignant than the silent fluttering of the thousands of poppies falling from the ceiling of the Albert Hall at the end of the Remembrance ceremony. Each one representing the fallen-yours and mine... and even the apologists. It has nothing to do with glorification and sentimentality, it has to do with humanity and loss... and remembrance. So, although I would never wish to inflict my choice upon you... please don't try and denigrate mine and many others who are still proud to wear the poppy, in thanks for those long past and in the hope that by remembering we might one day stop the bloodshed and aggression in the world. We have not yet learnt from our mistakes, but if we extinguish remembrance, because it is not always presented in the way we would like then we have lost an important lesson. 

So I will wear my poppy and will not be made to feel guilty because it might represent something it isn't meant to! Flanders Fields by Canadian McCrae is poignant, because he was there. He died of meningitis and pneumonia at the Canadian Hospital in Boulogne-a less obvious casualty of war and buried at Wimereaux Cemetery. He experienced the worst of the war but he believed he was making a difference and believed in what he was doing-as most men at the front did. Who are we a hundred years later to criticise and denigrate the beliefs of a man who was proud to sacrifice his life-not just for his country but for the "Empire"? To do so is not only anachronistic but also a little insulting. We might not hold those views now-but we have no right to manipulate them into a time when things were very different.

"If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields."

In the same cemetery lies my great uncle John Wilkinson-one of three uncles who died. He was rejected at the start of the war due to poor eye-sight, but was recalled in 1917 when men were needed to replenish the human cannon fodder. I am sure he went with the same beliefs as McCrae-I am also sure they must have questioned why they were there, but that is part of the tragedy of war-which is probably as true today as it was then. The poppy still stands for those men and as simple as it is I think it does its job admirably.

In Flander's Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

This is a party political broadcast on behalf of ... the confused!

I say I am not political. However, I am political. Political with a small p -in a more holistic way-not in a red/blue or yellow way...political in a human way. As long as I remember politics has been discussed in my environment-as a child at the tea table, at my Nannies, at my Grandma and Granddad's, through the news on TV and in any gathering of more than two or three. So you might think I would have a distinctive political leaning. Well you would be wrong.

My politics has veered left to right, right to left through the years, cherry picking certain elements, admiring certain political strengths but never coming down wholly on one side or another-mainly because I have a distinct aptitude for seeing value in many opinions and being persuadable. In fact I have reached a point where I don't think there is a party to represent me totally.

Today, has brought this into sharp relief. I have to declare I have found what Jeremy Corbyn has had to say quite refreshing. He appears to be honest, steadfast and genuine-time will tell I suppose and some of what he says convinces me. Obviously, there are bits that I have problems with-mainly due to personal circumstances-son and husband working in the nuclear industry, my town reliant on the success of Trident... but his stance on the NHS, housing and refugees resonate well! 

Then I think back. My brief flirtation with Thatcher (ok ok  I know-I grew out of it) but again-circumstance defined some of that too- a GLC mortgage-when we were struggling to get a house in London, the feeling in the early days that if you work hard you are rewarded. Then Maggie lost it totally and became a raging dictator...

I remember the feeling of euphoria when Blair and new Labour emerged from the ashes of old Labour! The sort of politics that seemed all encompassing-a genuine guy and all that! Then Blair lost it totally and became a raging dictator and got us into an illegal war-well we know what that led to...

So middle of the road it was. Lib Dem -a bit loosey goosey and less extreme than the other two.Well that turned out well! An alliance from hell with the Tories-and this lot more about elitism than ever-no room for social mobility and removal of much of the public service built up in the halcyon days of Labour.

So look to family, friends and acquaintances. I have a schism in my family-one half rabid red -t'other bright blue! So no help there! Friends-a spectrum of colour! On the red team- I have to say-united in hatred of Thatcher and all things Tory-but shades of red from cerise to pink! This highlighted even more with the Corbyn issue-I have friends I would previously have marked as just socialists... now? Well hard to say what to call them-disagreeing as vehemently with each other as if they were on different sides. Blue team-Tories more united and gloating over the Corbyn emergence and believing everything the Murdoch press tells them. 

I don't think I am a stupid person-but I am confused! I believe British politics is in a mess and the electorate are fed up with disingenuous politicians who only seem to be concerned with image and self-promotion. I know this is not all politicians-but the public do tend to tar all with the same brush! I think this is why Corbyn is appealing to so many-he has, on record stuck to his guns for 40 odd years. We might not like what he says and we might fear the effect he will have-but what you see is what you get! Its that and his traditional views on housing, education and the NHS which are impressive-he actually does believe in fairness and equality. I don't know if he's good or bad for the country. He is in opposition now and I don't know whether he will lead Labour to victory. But at the very least he has promoted a massive debate and I believe he could be exactly the catalyst we need to kick start politics again and throw off the shackles of this elitist, unsympathetic, feudal Tory government. Surely anyone who can promote this level of debate and rock the foundations of a political system which has become unreliable and untrustworthy must be for the public good.

So, come voting day-what type of party do I want to vote for? One that values people, all kinds, all creeds, colours and persuasions. One that cares for the old, the young, the sick, the disabled, the homeless, the weak, the vulnerable... one that watches the pennies and spends on the right things and values public service. One that invests in children and education-but allows professionals space and doesn't quantify success with league tables, one that pays nurses and doctors properly and doesn't stop people's drugs because they are too short a party that cares. It remains to be seen if JC is the new messiah! One can hope-or dream...