Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Jellybyism- a middle class disorder

Charles Dickens, whose bi-centenary falls next February, created the character Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House a character so obsessed with helping the poor of Africa that she is neglectful of her own family and own community. "Jellybyism" is alive and well in Leek in 2011 as an exchange I witnessed the other day proved

I occasionally attend a Tuesday night discussion held in the Blue Mugge. It’s usually very interesting although on this night the atmosphere was particularly charged. We were discussing "Marxism" and someone mentioning modern poverty said that it did not exist locally. As proof he cited the sale of champagne in a local supermarket as an indicator of affluence. Some one else agreed with him giving as an example of time he had spent in South Africa where real poverty did exist.
But is poverty in Leek easier to bear in 2011 with a welfare state than poverty in Johannesburg? Well, poverty is poverty wherever its experienced. And having no money or support in whatever society is a bitter thing to bear. The only thing that makes it possibly easier to bear is the existence of social support networks and the make do and mend skills needed to survive. If that is the criteria then who is better placed a member of an extended family in a Joburg township or a isolated pensioner shivering and lonely on a wintry council estate? The number of deaths from hypothermia nationally around 25,000 would suggest a problem.

Beside I know that there are people experiencing hardship in Leek now. I witnessed an example the other day when I was on an organised walk in the town centre. A homeless man sleeping in the churchyard approached the group, as he did not want to scare people. He told me of his predicament and that he was grateful to the Church for allowing him to sleep there. So to answer the modern day " Jellyby" the availability of cheap champagne suggests a restricted social awareness and yes poverty and hardship is out there

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Thanksgiving Day and what is there to be thankful for?

Its Thanksgiving Day today and a time to say what I am thankful for in living and knowing the communities I have lived and worked in. In Leek it would be the pubs especially the Roebuck, the independent book shop, the charity shops, Pronto, All Saints Church, the Co-operative Emporium, the Sugden houses in Queen St, Foxlowe the Nicholson Institute and War Memorial, the characters and the open spaces and the Market Place. And further afield the walk around Rudyard Lake

For Stoke- on Trent my home town I would say the Mitchell Memorial, Winton Square and Railway Station, staff in the Archive section of the Hanley Library, Webberley bookshop, the greenery esp the reclamation areas such a Forest park, and the pubs of Burslem and the people generally

Monday, 21 November 2011

Leek Community Benefit Society- why the cooperative approach

I have been involved in the Leek Co-operative for the Benefit of All since its inception in February. The driver behind the Leek group has been to develop the Co-operative Emporium the 100th anniversary is celebrated this year. A group was established at the beginning of the year with the aim of developing co-operatives in the town around the umbrella organisation of the Emporium. We opened the ground floor of the three stories building last August and we have held a number of events to inform the business planning process. For instance one event that I was involved in was the Enterprise Day on the 14th October which attracted a number of individuals interested in setting up a business. We are developing the co-operative on a piecemeal basis and we are having a formal opening next year. But why this approach?

The global economic crisis is the most recent and potent factor in changing the bigger picture. And Leek as other towns in North Staffs the impact has been deep. The crisis has resulted in a fundamental change in attitude to the traditional business model of investor ownership. Prior to that, since the collapse of communism, investor ownership had not just been the dominant business model; it really was the only show in town. It was the idea and questioning its validity – or suggesting that it was inherently flawed – was unthinkable. Those doubts have re surfaced with the Occupy movement posing searching questions of "crony" capitalism

Intellectually, the previously unquestioned assumptions are now open for discussion. The old ‘certainties’ have gone. At grass roots level, the change from a general feeling of prosperity and security to a feeling of worrying uncertainty has been dramatic and profound in all communities. More difficult circumstances and anxiety about the future undoubtedly affect how people think and behave. There is a natural tendency to band together, to look for and talk about ways of addressing immediate difficulties, and finding common solutions, which help individuals and others in need. Self-help revives in the face of adversity when other sources of help seem to be failing. The example of the USA in the 1930s is a good historical example

The context today is therefore very different from that of ten or even five years ago. Perhaps it gives rise to a more sober and reflective mood. The resurgence of interest in mutual models of ownership, both in terms of existing and of new organisations, suggest that the self-help business model may have a contemporary relevance which is growing in importance.

The recent economic difficulties have damaged the credibility of investor-ownership. Damage has been caused because of the perception that the loss of thousands of jobs and the collapse in the value of shares – affecting the savings and pensions of many people on modest incomes – are at least in part caused by greed and the pursuit of private interests. The profit motive is not a popular concept at the moment. The pursuit of huge gains by some prominent individuals in the commercial world, and the apparent failure of a significant number of politicians to understand how their behaviour in optimising personal private gain is unacceptable, have made this even worse. And this feeling gained further impetus with the publication of the High Pay Commission this week

So, given the social context, recent developments in mutuality and the prevailing economic circumstances, the self-help model seems to be both relevant and appealing. But how will it meet today’s needs? That is the question we are posing in Leek

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Blanketeers, Leek and the language of dissent.

One Tuesday in March 1817 the horrified people of Leek awoke to find 400 demonstrators had arrived in the town overnight. The group of decent working men had left Manchester to present a petition to Prince Regent protesting against the poverty and unemployment effecting cotton workers. England after the Napoleonic War was in the grip of a severe economic recession. Many radicals thought the Tory Government of aristocrats indifferent to the plight of the common man. As they slept rough, the marchers carried rolled up blankets on their shoulders to keep them warm at night. They were dubbed "The Blanketeers. The protestors marched peacefully passing through Stockport and Macclesfield before arriving in Leek.

The response of authority was a panicky one. They called out the local Yeomanry under the command of Lieutenant Copeland fearful of the possibility of violence. The vicar of Leek and magistrate Edward Powys ordered the detention of the Blanketeers and many were arrested. Local newspapers reported on the marchers describing them as " subservient to the all too evident design of disorganising society and destroying the constitution. They were dismissed as " gaping gulls who surround the altar of sedition made dupes by artful and wilful men".

What struck me about the accounts was the condescending language used about the Blanketeers is now used about the anti capitalist protestors at St Paul’s. Melanie Phillips wrote "The idea that this supremely self-indulgent exercise is a spontaneous protest by ordinary people is wide of the mark. The similarity of these worldwide tent cities suggests that a high degree of co-ordination is involved".

That comment tells me that the St Paul protestors are regarded as the Blanketeers were as "gaping gulls made dupes by the artful", unable to make their own analysis or come up with solutions. Something should not be forgotten that the Blanketeers were the beginning of a long campaign that ultimately achieved much of what they wanted. The right to vote, a welfare state, work reform and the ability to hold governments to account were all gained. We should recall this when today’s St Paul protestors are mocked.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Population reaches 7 billion

I was in conversation with local historian Bud Abbot last week who told me that in his research he had found a woman who lived in Ball Haye Green at the end of the 19th century had given birth to 17 children. The question of population is currently in mind as the human population has passed 7 billion according to the UN. It is estimated that the population of the world reached one billion for the first time in 1805. It would be another 122 years before it reached two billion in 1927, but it took only 33 years to rise by another billion people, reaching three billion in 1960. Thereafter, the global population reached four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, and six billion in 1999.
It has a bearing on competition on scant resources with some suggestion that we will run out of fresh water by the middle of the century. This all looks bleak, but it should be recorded that gloomy prophecies about population growth have been around since the 18th century
One aspect of the changes in population as far as the UK is concerned especially in the UK in the last 100 years is the rapid fall in the rate of infant mortality. From 1900 to 1930 the number of deaths fell from 140 to 63 per thousand births. This trend accelerated with the establishment of the NHS and improved prosperity after the war and the rate is in single figures. And family size is half it was in 1900. A family the size that Bud discovered is now a rarity.
The answer must lie in education and there is evidence that its can have a spectacular impact on population growth. There is a view that the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring people are able to make real choices about childbearing. That means access to family planning and other reproductive-health information and services. It also means empowering women through education and employment opportunities.
A stumbling block is culture and religion where aspects of Islam and Christianity are in fierce opposition to birth control, but the pressure on the world’s resources demands a solution.