December 2005 Archives

The Annual EDGE Question is something which deserves sharing with as many as possible of those who'd enjoy challenging scientific-style 'mind gym'.

This is the part of the annual calendar when people set themselves puzzles to solve and quizzes to answer, so perhaps it's a good time to share a world-wide 'quiz' which was set twelve months ago.

The non-profit Edge Foundation Inc. sets an annual EDGE Question, published on the first day of the year. The 2005 Question was

What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove It?

Answers to this question, as given by some of the most well-known 'science thinkers' in the world, were published by EDGE on 1st January 2005; and with subsequent contributions - 120 in all - the responses constituted 60,000 very challenging and absorbing words. (They have subsequently been edited by the novelist Ian McEwan and published by the Free Press (UK) as a book entitled What We Believe But Cannot Prove.)

The next question
So, mull over the 2005 Question today, the last day of that year - it'll be a fascinating exercise! - and then begin to ask yourself, what will the Edge Annual Question 2006 look like?

By this evening we should know, as the 2006 Question is imminently to be published online at Edge ... the responses from (I quote) a '"who's who" of third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers' should be very well worth a good read - and then the debate can begin all over again.

Perhaps you've been blowing away the cobwebs already, or perhaps you haven't. Whatever, here's an opportunity to do a bit of mind gym, no matter if you're striding purposefully up a hill against the icy blast, or sitting snugly in your favourite chair at home. Enjoy!

All the evidence is that most people in the U.K. are living longer and more healthily. They often take up new activities and lead self-sufficient lives into their 80s and even 90s. Why then are some commentators viewing The Turner Report's proposals to increase the retirement age through the perspective of the past, not the future?

It's amazing how many very elderly people one sees during social visits over the festive season. Just in the course of the last few days I've in some way encountered half a dozen or more close family and friends who are over 85, and some of them over 90 - and all still holding their own nicely, thank you very much.

Looking back, I'm sure that years ago meeting anyone much over the age of 80 was really quite the exception - and it turns out this isn't just my memory playing tricks. The Guardian leader of 27 December tells us that average life expectancy has increased by two years in every decade for the past two centuries.

And then I read today that women even more than men use the internet to keep in touch - and men more than women use it to find out new things. But the most striking thing of all is that (in the U.S.A. at least) two thirds of both men and women are internet users.... and we all know that silver surfers - internet users aged 50+ - are increasing in numbers all the time, so that over a third of people aged up to 64 are now on-line, and many of these find it invaluable.

The future will be techno, but will it be work?
What are we to make of this? There seems to be ample evidence that age is not now necessarily an obstacle to learning to do things one wants to do, at least as long as the resources are there to do it. It's patently obvious that age itself is no longer the sole determinant of what people can do.

All of which leads me to ponder, along with many others, why there's so much fuss in some quarters about raising the retirement age as a general policy. (Always assuming that people who for some reason are unwell or whatever will, as before, be able to retire earlier.)

Judging the future by the standards of the past
If people want to carry on linking in with others, or learning and trying new things, why can't they do this at work as well as in their leisure time? Those who decry the new thinking on work and pensionable age (The Turner Report) are judging the future by the standards of the past.

Looking forward, many of us will be able to choose to maintain our health and activity for much longer than, say, most of our grandparents. And if part of this activity is earning money to maintain ourselves in the style to which older people are now becoming accustomed, that looks fair enough too.

Making housing even cheaper than at present is not the way to keep professional workers in the north, whatever the short term arguments about attracting inward investment and skills. Professional workers in the north as much as the south need easy mobility, if they are to increase their experience and value both to themselves and to their employers.

An arfticle in this Wednesday's Business Week has business writer Bill Gleeson pondering the demise of a well-known Liverpool restaurant.

From this Bill Gleeson moves on to consider the need for 'policies that will allow real points of difference to emerge between the north and the south, the sorts of difference that can work in our [the north's] favour.' One of these ways, it is proposed, might be for the Government to introduce policies which make the cost of housing up north fall.

This move would, it is suggested, attract more workers from the south because the quality of life would be better. But how, I wonder, would it make the quality of life of those currently in the north better as well?

Internal U.K. migration needs to be more, not less, equitable
For those of us who live in the north, but have interests and skills which are applicable across most parts of the nation, anything which restricts our mobility is definitely a minus, not a plus. It would be difficult to persuade me that lessening even further the value of my northern (and only) property would be for the common good, let alone in my own financial interests.

On several occasions in the past year or two I have heard speakers say that it's imperative to keep wages and prices down in the north 'to attract investment'.

In the short-term there may be an argument of sorts for this position; but as a rule of thumb for inward business it's surely not only a weak position, but also in many ways downright against the interests of the employment economy and directly antagonistic to those of go-ahead workers already in the north.

Skilled workers need to be mobile
If anyone is serious about developing their skills they need to operate in a free market, at least within their own country. Experience and connections across the nation are invaluable, both to the people directly concerned and to their employers.

Seeking to reduce the mobility of those already in the north is not only detrimental to their personal interests, but will also act as a longer-term deterent to workers from the south who might otherwise be willing to consider northern migration.

All public roads in Britain which have a legal speed limit. So whatever is the purpose of 'derestricted' speed signs on British roads?

As ever at Christmas, I've spent many hours during the celebrations making distinctly un-festive journeys along motorways and travelling between various towns. (No trains, so we have to drive.)

This is never fun, but the more I look around me - I'm usually the passenger - the more I wonder about whether it actually also has to be confusing as well as tedious.

Everybody, or so I assume, now knows that the maximum speed limit on motorways is 70 miles per hour (m.p.h.). But does everyone know exactly the speed limits on other parts of the road system? Yes, most (but not all) built-up roads have a limit of 30 m.p.h.; and some smaller domestic routes are now 20. But there's far more to it than that.

The speed guessing game
So what should you read into a deresticted sign? There are general rules about speed limits for different types of road, but this isn't supposed to be an elaborate game of 'guess the speed limit'. Speed limits are there to stop accidents, not to test whether drivers have read the right parts of the Highway Code of late (though of course they should).

Since there is no public road in Britain which doesn't have a speed restriction, why are there derestricted signs? Why can't every speed limit sign display fair and square the maximum speed permitted at that point? This is one situation in which ignorance is definitely not bliss.

And shouldn't all speed cameras and their warning / approach signs display the maximum speed permitted? I have even actually seen derestricted signs up on the roadside immediately before (operating) speed cameras. Mixed messages or what?

Let's get real. The roads are no place for unnecessary confusion; and there is likewise no place anywhere for road signs which give no constructive, useful information. Either give every speed sign a proper m.p.h. limit, or, in the name of uncluttered minds and roads, take them down.

Big coloured ball Kids' play is in one way serious stuff, but that's no reason why fun shouldn't also be far less than serious for them and for the grown-ups too. Here are some ideas to try which came from a survey of children earlier in the year, plus a few suggestions for the adults as well... Go for it, and enjoy!

Do you remember the Persil ads of last Summer? They were all on the theme of children playing, with the subtext, 'never mind the dirt, have fun'.... a rather useful notion, if you happen to sell washing powder, since there were thirty three of these ideas:

33 things kids should do before they’re 10 – the official list
Sefton Park 06.7.24 & 25  Girl rolypoly grass slide 014.jpg 1. Roll on your side down a grassy bank
2. Make a mud pie
3. Make your own modelling dough mixture
4. Collect frogspawn
5. Make perfume from flower petals
6. Grow cress on a windowsill
7. Make a papier mache mask
8. Build a sandcastle
9. Climb a tree
10. Make a den in the garden
11. Make a painting using your hands and feet
12. Organise your own teddy bears picnic

Face Paints.JPG 13. Have your face painted
14. Play with a friend in the sand
15. Make some bread
16. Make snow angels
17. Create a clay sculpture
18. Take part in a scavenger hunt
19. Camp out in the garden
20. Bake a cake
21. Feed a farm animal
22. Pick some strawberries
23. Play pooh sticks
24. Recognise five different bird species
25. Find some worms
26. Ride a bike through a muddy puddle
Rosemont Back Garden 06.4.27 003.jpg 27. Make and fly a kite
28. Plant a tree
29. Build a nest out of grass and twigs
30. Find ten different leaves in the park
31. Grow vegetables
32. Make breakfast in bed for your parents
33. Make a mini assault course in your garden

Not all fun things need be grubby
We might also want to say that you don't have to get grubby to enjoy yourself, even as a child; but there may be a useful idea or two in the message, especially as we reach that part of the Festive Season when for some (holiday guests, if not perhaps rushed-off-their-feet festive host/s) the main question is, 'What shall we do next?'

The Guardian reports that what kids enjoy and apparently want to do before they reach the age of ten does not always meet with adult approval in our sanitised society, and there are concerns that children themseves are now sometimes reluctant to enjoy things which their parents expected to do without chastisement. Certainly, I for one as a child much enjoyed almost all the activities on the list - though I fear that face painting and scavenger hunts must have arrived after my time - and, although there were in those days no 'to do' lists of fun activities, we were keen also to ensure that our own family tried the current Persil ideas too. So maybe these things are perennial, and none the worse for that.

You don't have to be a child to have fun!
6 Rosemont 06.3.12 (snow) 008.jpg And, since it's holiday time right now, let's add to these suggestions with more ideas I've heard for the grown-ups: Try acting out a little play / panto with the kids, make some music, tell / read a story, or simply enjoy a good walk somewhere refreshing. (By all means try to spot lots of different birds and plants on the way.) But I don't have to elaborate this list, everyone has their own - though it's always interesting to know what the best and simplest ideas are.

Plus, if we do get the predicted post-Christmas snow, maybe we should all try the Persil suggestion which most of us probably hadn't heard of as children - the Snow Angel. All you have to do is lie on your back in the snow (very briefly, but thereby already providing loss of dignity and thus huge amusement for the Juniors present) and 'wave' your arms above your head. When you get up, you're promised an imprint in the white stuff of an angel.

So now we can all be angelic during the Festive Season, for very little effort; and we'll have the sparkly image in the snow to prove it.

Have you read....?

Things To Do When You're 11 - 15

Things To Do When You're 19 - 21

Things To Do When You're 22 - 25

Things To Do When You're 26 - 30

Things To Do When You're 31 - 40

What To Do At Any Age - Be Happy

* Life is not a rehearsal
* Smile when you can
* Do acts of random kindness
* Try no-TV days
* Be cautious sometimes, cynical never
* Use your pedometer
* Treat yourself daily to a 'Went Right' list

So You Want To Put On A Show?

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HOTFOOT(small) orange 2005 027.jpgShows are far more complicated to produce than many in the audience will ever realise. Here's a lighthearted 'poetic' guide for anyone who fancies chancing their hand as promoter or director of a musical or theatrical event. Hopefully, everything you need to think about is here...


So you want to put on a show?
Well, here are the things you must know:

What’s the date, when’s the time, where’s the money?
What’s the theme, is it straight, sad or funny?
Who can act, who can play, who can sing?
Who’ll direct, can they do the whole thing?

What’s the venue, location and cost?
If the tickets don’t sell, are you lost?
Who’ll do your box office, and how?
Do you need to start marketing now?

Who’ll design programmes, posters and flyers?
Will you cope if a team member tires?
Have you found all your quotes for the print-run
And settled dates for it to be done?
Who’ll design any costumes and sets?
Are you confident budgets are met?

Have you found all your scripts and / or scores?
Are there copies for all, and some more?
Have you sorted rehearsals and places
So performers can go through their paces?

Will you use a presenter, and who?
If you have to cut back, will that do?
Will your artists require expenses,
Are these likely to be quite extensive?
Have you registered with Performing Rights
(Or composers could give you sleepless nights)?
Do you know that your players need cuppas
And without these they’ll end on their uppers?

Are you certain your insurance’s updated
Just in case your poor venture is fated?
Have you checked your venue is licenced
To avoid legal questions or sentence?
Are your sponsors signed up and contented?
Have you made sure no egos are dented?
Can you say hand on heart
That you'll still play the part
When frustrations or worries are vented?

Have you thought if your venue needs heating?
Have you sorted there’s adequate seating?
Have you sound-checked against any din?
Is your access well-lit coming in?
Are your backdrops and props fine and dandy?
Your producer not reaching for brandy?
Are the stage lights and spots in good order?
Can the musos all see their own folders?
Is the piano in tune?
Has the stage enough room?

Have you ordered the squash, wine and biccies?
Can you wash your hands clean if they’re sticky?
Do performers have costumes which fit them?
And a place where they change to get in them?

Come the day when the show’s set to go
Who will do all the tapes and photos?
Will there be a recording on the night?
(And what about the media rights?)
Have you vendors for tickets and nibbles?
And some stewards to sort out the quibbles?

Have you marked out seats on the front row
Where your V.I.P. guests will all go?
Will a few words be said when the show starts
By a ‘vip’ with sound wisdom to impart?
Are there flowers gift-wrapped with a bow
To present at the end of the show?
Are your thank-yous all done to be posted,
So your artists and hosts feel toasted?
Will the audience know
When it’s over, to go
With a smile and a song in their hearts?

Oh! You’ve had quite enough
And you think it’s too tough
And you wish that you never had started.
But the show must go on
And there’s no escape from
The idea which began so stout-hearted.

Then the audience arrives
And the tails and bow ties
Are put on by your doughty performers;
And they go on the stage
And the show is a rage
(So you hope in your dreams,
If the critic thus deems)
And the buzz when it ends is high order.

But there’s just one more task
As you sort out the costs –
Fingers crossed, not a loss? -
And the hall’s cleared at last
As the costumes and music are stowed.

Now the hassles are over,
And though you are sober
You feel as if you’re quite heady.
And somehow a notion
Sets itself into motion
For another performance or show……

Are you c e r t a i n you’re r e a d y ???

© HB/Nov.04

The BBC Radio 3 Bach experience has been an extraordinary experiment; but sharing something like this with people all over the world as Christmas approaches surely has a particular meaning for many.

Anyone who enjoys classical music will be aware that the BBC has just offered us ten days of uninterrupted Bach. This has to be the tour de force to beat 'em all.

I'd be less than candid if I didn't admit there have been times when I decided enough was enough - and turned to Dinah Washington, the Walker Brothers or other entirely 'off site' artists for a bit of contrast... or when I chose instead to listen to my usual fare of the wonderful chamber music of the past two centuries.

Nonetheless, in this season of good cheer, perhaps it's worth just thinking how amazing it is that the BBC can arrange for us to listen to all, everything, J.S. Bach has left us, from three hundred or so years ago.

A global legacy shared
My guess is that people all over the world have been 'tuning in' on their broadband computers and hearing Bach in the morning, Bach at lunchtime and Bach in the evening [postscript, 27 Dec: 2.5 million hits were recorded!].

Maybe Bach is not everyone's cup of tea, but here we have something really quite extraordinary - a community of 'People on Earth' who, without knowing each other, are sharing a legacy of three hundred years which has been the basis for much of our contemporary music, popular, 'classical' and even cutting edge.

Just as we can share the hoped-for goodwill of Christmas without necessarily the religious aspects, so through music and very 'new' technologies we can share a heritage which means something, whatever our own contemporary musical preferences.

Evolutionary scientists have been awarded the top accolade by the journal 'Science' this year. Perhaps scientists until now have taken too much for granted the public understanding of the scientific basis of evolution; but recent attacks on evolutionary theory by proponents of 'intelligent design' have demonstrated the need to be much more pro-active about ensuring that the amazingly complex evolutionary process is generally understood.

The the leading U.S. journal Science has just published its top ten list of major accomplishments for 2005. Happily, its top placing, for 'breakthrough of the year' was awarded jointly to a number of studies about evolutionary theory.

The aspect of the science of evolution which attracted particular plaudits was the way the selected studies illuminated the very complex mechanisms underlying evolution as a general concept. These included the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, reconstruction of the flu virus of 1918, and a study of European blackcap birds which demonstrated how two different populations can become separate species.

The fightback starts in earnest
Science says that its award this year was solely on the basis of the excellence of the work done on evolutionary studies. And deservedly so.

But there is also another aspect of evolutionary science which has for a while been of deep concern to observers and scientists alike - the attack on formally constituted science as knowledge, by proponents of 'intelligent design' and 'creationism'. Neither of these latter ideas carries any credence as science.

There would for many be no problem if these ideas were claimed only as alternative, non-scientific, belief systems, but there's a huge issue for the very basis of science itself if these 'theories' have to be placed in the school curriculum alongside the continously tested and explored notion of scientific knowledge. Yet that is exactly what sizeable, wealthy and powerful groups of people in the U.S.A. are currently seeking through their very highest law courts to do.

An attack on science is an attack on rationality
The debate about what this attack on evolutionary theory actually means is becoming much more overt (e.g. Guardian Unlimited blog earlier this week) but it still sees some scientists at a loss. Yes, there are risks in challenging big sponsors of universities and other large-scale institutions. But without peer-reviewed and tested knowledge, scientific education itself means nothing.

In the end an attack on scientific method (for such it is) is indeed an attack on science and rationality themselves - which makes for a strange conundrum, given that the 'intelligent designers' have chosen the courts of law as their vehicle for attempting to impose their 'theory' as a serious contender, against evolution, as an explanation of the physical basis of our being.

So now the founder of the world-wide web has his own website. And it's great to see how warmly people have responded to it.

It's a bit of a surprise that it's only just happened, but Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the world-wide web, has just started a weblog. I just saw an entry about it, dated 12 December this year... and then the excellent 'In Praise Of' Guardian editorial appeared.

Too early no doubt to say what we shall all learn from this contribution to the www, but it's heartening to see that many of the early responses have been outpourings of appreciation and thanks for what Sir Tim achieved. He may not, as a contributor on this humble weblog noted, have made any money from his amazing contribution to communication technology, but he must surely be enjoying the warmth of all the responses to his work.

Tesco has won its appeal to expand a store in South Liverpool (Allerton) by 50%. Some - though not all - local people are very worried by this. But the retail giant has also offered to set up consultation with residents to see how developments can be made to have the most positive impact. This offer must be taken up.

I see (front page of today's Daily Post) that Tesco's appeal for their South Liverpool development has been successful.

It's been interesting that so many people have read and / or responded to my postings on Tesco and the environment. This is clearly a matter about which a lot of people have strong feelings, one way or the other. My own view however is that the debate, whilst it's probably now come to an end legally - unless there's a challenge? - has been beneficial whichever view one takes.

The community has gained influence
Perhaps those members of the local community who were and are against the development of the South Liverpool (Allerton) site - and by no means all local people took this view - are currently despondent about the outcome of Tesco's appeal. I'm not so sure that they should be.

Yes, Tesco has the go-ahead to enlarge their store very considerably, but there have been serious efforts made to reduce the 'green impact' of the development as far as possible, and the University is pleased they can confirm they will go ahead with their own sports proposals. Also, of course, the promised money from Tesco will now be forthcoming for the public realm work along the Allerton shopping corridor.

But that's not the only positive outcome. The most recently evident one is that Tesco is striving to show itself in very publicly 'listening' mode. They want to set up a residents' committee to work on the local impact of their development, and they have acknowledged the significance of the concerns expressed. The opportunity is therefore now available to take Tesco up on these offers and see if the promises of consultation etc are kept.

The ball is now firmly in the objectors' court. I hope, to continue the sporting reference, that those who protested will choose to pick that ball up and run with it. Tesco has offered to work and liaise with local people. Let's respond in kind and see if and in what ways the offer is meaningful.

Protagonists for City-Regions are often much less sympathetic to the rationale for the English Regions as such. But perhaps it's all a matter of differential scales. City Regions could well choose, to their mutual benefit and that of their hinter-lands, to collaborate on some of the much bigger strategic things without fear of damage to historic and local identities.

The debate about City-Regions vs. English Regions shows no signs of resolving. The recent launch of a campaign for an Elected Mayor in Liverpool (and some other towns and cities) has if anything exacerbated the differences between those who support regionalism as such, and those who support city-regions within England, or presumably, come to that, anywhere else.

Whilst there are obviously some areas where people may not ever agree, I do however believe there are a number of areas of common cause between the protagonists for each 'side', if the issues are looked at in a particular light.

The meaning of 'regionalism'
For those who take a strongly anti-regional line the main problem seems to be that they perceive this as inevitably favouring one stronger city over other cities in the region... indeed, they may even take the view that there is no such thing as a region, as a way to circumvent such a perspective entirely.

In this view the real issue is the power of one place over others, and the expectation that, given half a chance, this place will take unfair advantage, at significant cost to other towns and cities nearby.

On the other hand, to at least some people who would support a regional persepctive alongside a city-focused one (and there are few regionalists who don't also favour the healthy growth of cities per se), the underlying issue is connectivity. Who will make the case for, e.g., good road and rail connections between different cities within the region and, even more importantly, the way that very large centres of population - especially the metropolis - connect with the region at all?

Taking this perspective, there may be surprising commonalities even with towns and cities in other regions. For instance, Birmingham shares with the northern cities the issue of getting traffic up and down the country - and has in fact begun exploring solutions to this problem with them.

Size is the basic issue
Evidence elsewhere in Europe suggests that a population of between 7 and 10 million can be effectively self-sustaining in terms of producing all the requirements for modern society. But no U.K. city outside London is of this size - which means that English cities must necessarily be inter-dependent in some respects. For instance, (genuinely) Big Science can never happen just with the resources of one city, any more than can 'Big Medicine / Technology' and so forth. There are plenty of win-wins in inter-city collaboration for science and industry, just as there are endless reasons why the more ambitious aspects of tourism are often best promoted on at least a regional basis (see quote in New Start magazine from the English Regional Development Agencies).

But what the size issue doesn't mean is that cities have to lose their identities, or that there must be 'regional centre' cities wicih will effectively dictate to all the other places in a region what they may and may not do. This maintenance of identity and self-determination provides one of the strongest cases for elected mayors or similar - provided always (a big proviso) that such leaders are well-informed, brave and sensible....

Unique identities, shared strengths
This is a rather optimistic view, but maybe there will come a time when people generally can see that there is indeed strength in commonality when it comes to the big things (massive inward investment, the knowledge economy, large-scale infrastructure etc.), but that with this does not need to come loss of identity for individual places and smaller areas within a geographical location such as a 'region' of England. Rather the opposite.

Perhaps it's a matter of confidence. When we, smaller-city citizens across the nation, are confident that our own patch is well-recognised and well-defined, it will be easier to agree with our neighbours on shared strategies for the bigger things. But how to develop that confidence from where we're at now is, however you look at it, a challenge and a half.

Xmas tree (small).jpgChristmas round robin letters evoke strong views; but they're an excellent way to keep in touch, even if they often do 'accentuate the positive'. We're no longer in communities where we can just pop down the road to share our news.

Should one, or should one not, enclose with one's festive greetings a newsletter-cum-salutation which brings the recipient up to speed on at least the more positive of one's experiences over the past twelve months?

'Round robins', it is said, are so named because originally they were delivered in Victorian times by postmen wearing red uniforms, a cheery thought for this festive season. Which brings me to the crux of the matter. To round robin or not to round robin? Is it good form to put an annual 'family newsletter' addressed to 'Dear All' in with the Christmas card?

Keeping in touch
Here's a question to which there is absolutely not a 'right' answer. The pro- and anti- camps are, each of them, both persuasive and unpersuadable.

It's a question on which both 'sides' claim the high moral ground, and a situation in which faux pas is often the order of the day.

But for my money, the answer is Yes, please do send a newsy note with your Christmas card if you (a) can, and (b) would like to ..... providing always that what you are about to relate is mostly pleasant and / or necessary news, and that it will read as sharing rather than blaring.

And I will try to reciprocate in similar manner.

Change of context, change of comms.
Life for most people in the Western world has changed a great deal in the past several decades.

Almost no-one from my youth still lives where they grew up; in fact, few of them even live anywhere near where they studied or started their professional lives. And to this we can add likewise that few of our children now live anywhere near us.

In other words, for large numbers of people their 'communities' are many and varied. There are our initial reference points - family and school days; then there are college and early career friends; then we add in-laws or similar; and then our careers often take us in very different directions from those which we may have expected... and so it goes on.

Obviously, not everyone experiences such steadily shifting contextual arrangements, but for an ever-larger proportion of the population such, up to the present, has been life as we know it.

Hardly surprising then that for many of us the Christmas card list continues to grow, and the possibility of individual meaningful and handwritten seasonal letters becomes less and less feasible, despite our very good intentions. We'd have to start the Christmas cards in October, to achieve anything like a respectable output on a fully 'individualised' basis.

It's the intention that counts
So I for one like to receive the annual round robin messages and notes which come through my letterbox during the festive season. We read and share them with others. It's become a part of the Christmas ritual.

Newsletters make the saluations in the Christmas cards meaningful; these are not greetings from shadowy figures from my past, but from real people in the here-and-now.

The news and views I read from past colleagues and old friends are ever-interesting. The diaspora underpinning our modern lives continues to expand, but the community of interest and shared experience remains.

Shared meaning writ large
Another sense in which we use the term 'round robin' is to describe the making of a patchwork quilt, sometimes by a number of friends and family together and often as a part of the tradition of American community life. (Though now there are even internet quilting groups!)

Like this simple shared craft activity, round robin letters are not meaningless. Enjoy, joke or even grimace if you must, but also please know that for most of those who write round robins they are a genuine attempt to show that you have not been forgotten. The spirit of Christmas letters reflects the basic commonality of meaning from which we have all emerged to go our separate and fascinating ways.

A new campaign has been launched by local figure Liam Fogarty today for an Elected Mayor in Liverpool. If nothing else, such a move will perhaps encourage a healthy debate about the democratic process and accountability, and perhaps more.

Today has seen the emergence of a campaign for Liverpool to have an Elected Mayor. The first step if this campaign is to succeed is to obtain enough signatures to trigger a referendum on the matter - no small challenge in itself.

The campaign, headed by ex-BBC presenter Liam Fogarty, claims that in Liverpool 'too many decisions are taken by invisible committees and un-elected officials. Important projects fail to materialise, yet no-one takes responsibility.'

'Only an Elected Mayor can provide the vision and leadership needs at this crucial time in the City's history,' we are told. This, of course, is a reference to the much-trumpeted events in Liverpool of 2007 and 2008, which certainly require great cultural leadership, skill and planning if they are to succeed.

The democratic deficit
But it is also claimed that an Elected Mayor would re-involve people in democratic process. They would be more likely to vote and become engaged in local decision-making if there were such a person. Perhaps this is true.

Whatever, there is a serious case for any sort of initiative which takes local political involvement more into the community. It would probably be worth a try - though interestingly, so far only 12 towns and cities of those which have considered having an Elected Mayor have actually gone along that option in the end.

Previous mayoral campaigns
This is not however the first time that there has been a campaign for an Elected Mayor. In 2000 the media group Aurora took up the cudgels, publishing with other organisations a book entitled Manifesto for a New Liverpool [see also 'cultural leadership', above], in which the case was made for such a civic leader.

Only time will tell whether this is an enduring and positive initiative. This time as far as I can see there is a strong pro-cities but anti-regional sentiment there too, and that second position (pro-cities is fine, anti-region in my books isn't) convinces me less than does the case for democracy at grass roots.

But for the time being I suppose it's enough to feel heartened that people are energised to do what they believe is best for Liverpool, putting heads above parapets and saying what they think. Now that really is democarcy in action.

Big celebratory events are always at risk of failing to fulfil their hyped-up promise. London experienced this so it is said when they tried one year to introduce laser lights for the Oxford Street Christmas illuminations. How much more embarrassing it would be if Liverpool were not to deliver fully on the promise for the celebrations in 2007 and 2008.

Twice in the past fortnight I've been in London, a city currently sporting serious Christmas illuminations, and both times I've heard from cab drivers the Tale of the Christmas Laser Lights.

The story goes that one year London's Oxford Street Christmas lights (normally, as this year, fairly predictable arrangements) were redesigned to include lasers. This caused considerable excitement, to all accounts across the globe, and visitors travelled from far and wide to see these splendid displays. The problem, as related by my cab drivers, was however that splendid the lasers were not.

Promise only what you can deliver
Thus, in one case, my taxi driver told me that he had actually attempted to talk a potential visitor out of an expensive ride to see the lasers; but to no avail. His fare's disappointment was huge, having as it then transpired travelled from abroad to see them, when it became evident to the visitor that these high-tech features of the Christmas illuminations were almost undetectable.

And there's surely a moral here. If you're going to talk something up, make sure you can actually deliver it. The story of the Christmas laser lights has clearly become a part of the folk lore of London tourism. It's evolved, rightly or wrongly, into a benchmark for How Not To Do It.

The lesson for Liverpool
In the next two or three years Liverpool is lined up to deliver enormous celebratory events, firstly, in 2007, for the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the city, and then, in 2008, for the European Capital of Culture Year.

As things stand, few of us are privy to any substantive information about what will happen in Liverpool during these two years (and even fewer of us have been involved in making proposals). All, however, are regaled on a daily basis with tales of how splendidly impressive these signal events will be.

Let's not forget the moral of the story of the Christmas Laser Lights. A visitior disappointed is a visitor who will very likely remember for many a year to come the time and resources s/he ill-advisedly invested.

Redeeming a nondescript set of annual Christmas illuminations is one thing. Redeeming two very special and critically high profile, but ultimately nondescript, years in a world-renown city such as Liverpool would be on a different scale of significance altogether.

Paper Lantern (small).jpgNo-one has the perfect answer to the question, 'What shall we do with the kids over Christmas?' But here are some day-by-day suggestions for the family during the Christmas week, with an indoor, an outdoor and a foodie activity for each date. Mix and match, with something for everyone, is the general approach. And, whatever you do, have fun.

The Christmas break, however we choose to celebrate it (or not), is a time when everyone wants to involve the younger members of the family, taking advantage of the opportunity to share interests, activities and food whilst people are at home together. Here is one brief set of suggestions for doing this, with ideas for younger and slightly older children. (There is also a list of activities for the New Year holiday, with some extra and 'alternative' activities; click here.) Most suggestions below are linked directly to free websites providing ideas on materials, ingredients and / or recipes, for easy reference.

Nearly every activity in the suggested day-by-day schedule which follows (addressed in the listing below directly to the children) can be done with just an individual child and adult, or with a group of friends, neighbours and visiting family. These ideas offer
* one outdoor activity,
* one indoor activity and
* one 'fun' cooking / eating experience
for each day of the Christmas week (from the Winter Solstice of 22 December), that is 22 - 28 December inclusive.

Mix and match the day-by-day activities
Whilst generally each foodie idea 'matches' the other activities for that day, these activities can of course be mixed around to suit the occasion and the general mood of any given date. As far as possible, the ideas require neither visits beyond the local neighbourhood nor buying in extra things. (For completeness those who take the role of Santa's helpers will find at the very end of this article a list of items which he might consider adding to the children's Christmas stockings / pillowcases, should these bits and pieces not already be available at home.)

So, take time together and enjoy; but please note, of course, that some activities require adult supervision (and perhaps preparation), and all should be checked for safety at the time of the activity. But who minds joining in with the kids when they're having fun? That surely is what Christmas is really all about.

Herewith, then, a day-by-day list of Christmas week things you might do:

22 December
* Collect leaves, twigs and fir cones etc in the garden or park and, when they have dried, use them as Christmas decorations. (You can use e.g. silver paint, ribbons or sparkly string etc to do this if you like.)

* Make paper 'angels' or lanterns (no 'real' lights; and keep everything away from any heat) to hang on your Christmas tree or twigs.

* Bake some potatoes for when you get back from the park and add your favourite filling (baked beans, cheese, coleslaw...) just before you eat them. Serve them with soup and a salad or 'finger fruit' like grapes, satsumas and dates. Use your imagination to make an easy, colourful meal.

23 December
* Remember this is a difficult time of year for birds, so leave out some bird food and, if you can, plan ahead by putting up a bird box somewhere (out of reach of local cats!). You could see how long it takes the birds to start feeding on the food you've put out. It might be interesting to watch and see how many different species of bird come at various times, and perhaps also start a photo record of this for over the Christmas period, if you have a camera.

* Start to make some papier mache puppets or other items. This will take quite a few days to complete because you have to wait at each stage for the models to dry, before you can go on to the next one. But you could use this time to plan a little performance or to find another way to use what you make, if it's not puppets. This can be a sticky business, so wear an apron and try not to get glue everywhere.

* Make jelly in a mold, ready for Christmas Eve. (You can add frothed evaporated milk to the jelly mix instead of some of the water if you like, to get a 'layered' effect when you turn it out tomorrow.) Again, try not to get too sticky!

24 December (Christmas Eve)
* Take a walk around the neighbourhood to do a 'chimney survey' of your street, as a guide for Father Christmas when he calls after you're asleep tonight. For your survey you will need sharp eyes, a notepad and a pencil. Later on, you might like to use your drawings to make a picture of the skyline where you live.

* It's Christmas Eve, so you must sing some songs this evening! Make a l'choir' of your friends and family. After your concert you can share the jelly that you made yesterday. (Dip the mold in warm water before you tip the jelly out, carefully.)

* Obviously, you need to make some mince pies to leave for for Santa and his reindeer when they call tonight - but no harm in everyone in your 'choir' munching a few of these pies whilst they're still warm from the oven, along with the beautifully turned out jelly.

25 December (Christmas Day)
* There will already be lots to do with the family today, so why not just take a little time for fresh air outside with a new skipping rope or hula hoop or something similar? If there are a few children around, you could do some skipping games, too.

* A traditional party game for Christmas Day is charades. This is great fun and can be fitted in after tea / supper, when people often want to just sit and relax. This game gives you time when the other team is 'performing' to take it easy too.

* No cooking by the children today - but you can plan ahead by sowing some mustard and cress seeds somewhere out-of-the-way, in the hope that in a week or two there will be lovely fresh cress to make egg sandwiches for everyone. (Don't forget that the seeds will need to be kept damp until they've grown and are ready to cut.)

26 December (Boxing Day)
* The perfect day for a treasure hunt with family and friends. Some of the adults (or older teenagers) will need to make the arrangements and hide the treasure somewhere it's safe to go, so there is an opportunity here for everyone to get out and about.

* Whilst the adults are sorting the treasure hunt you can wrap up little presents for a big game of pass the parcel. after tea. Don't forget to add some 'forfeits' and small gifts into each layer of the parcels!

* Gingerbread 'men' are also a traditional part of Christmas. Make some before your treasure hunt in the morning, adding currant 'eyes' before they are baked, and then decorate them with icing sugar later on, when they have cooled down. Eat them for your supper, if you can wait that long.

27 December
* Have a quiet hour outside, making a miniature garden on a tray with moss, tiny twigs and other very small plants and stones etc which you find around your house or flat. If you want to, you can see how much like a small 'real' garden you can make this miniature one, by caring for it over the next week or two.

* You will want to get your thank you notes written and posted off. Why not make some nice notelets by sticking cut-out designs from saved Christmas wrapping paper onto your letters before you write them, choosing pictures each person you write to will like?

* Bake something savoury to nibble as you write your notes. There are lots of versions of that firm favourite, cheese straws, so experiment a bit with different cheeses or condiments and herbs as you make them.

28 December
* Make a mystery trail today, either in the garden or in your local park, for your friends and family to follow. (If you are going to the park or another public place, be sure to take an adult with you.) Do a bit of research first on how people like the Amerindians or Indigenous Australians ('Aborigines') traditionally left signs or clues about where things are, using skills which were developed over centuries in many places. You can offer a prize or a certificate (you can design one specially) for the first person to get all the way round your mystery trail.

* Learn how to play the indoors games of marbles or 'fives' / 'jacks'. If there are a few of you playing, make up teams and have a competition.

* Make vegetable kebabs for supper, to serve with rice. You can prepare the ingredients earlier in the day and then cook them at the same time as you boil the rice.

[New Year activities and Santa's list in preparation]

Bright ideas are an essential part of adaptation and change; but failing to think empathetically through how and by whom the ideas will be implemented, and what personal impact of the ideas will have on all concerned, is almost guaranteed to produce problems.

It's hardly a new concept, but sometimes it needs to be said: the inspiration behind change may be how it all (anything) starts, but if the people involved don't buy in, it won't happen as it was supposed to.

I've been thinking about this quite a lot, as I observe the many changes currently taking shape at national and local level. The 'people' bit is so obvious, that surely it must be the first consideration when the bright ideas folk get together to decide what's to happen. But often it's not.

Human beings, not 'agents'
Say, for the sake of argument, that the local authorities decide to take forward an environmental, health or housing proposal. Firstly, there will be discussion amongst a small group of officials or other movers and shakers, then there will be a public phase where posters or leaflets are put about inviting involvement, and perhaps modifications to the plans are made; and then there will be the implementation.

But by the time implementation arrives the ideas will have taken on a life of their own. Many folk will have no idea why the proposals arose in the first place, and all they will see are problems - some of these identified at the consultation stage, and some of them more directly about the personal issues which have since arisen. And, more often than not, some of these problems will affect those, theoretically the agents of change, who are supposed to be taking the idea forward.

Unexplained actions and unanticipated consequences
The classic of course is, as part of the process, to threaten the employment or other security / safety of those who will have to effect or experience the change. It might be supposed that this will have been considered, but often it appears not to have been.

Rearguard action is almost guaranteed if jobs, homes or other deeply familiar / personal experience is under threat; and whilst compliance may be possible if enough cash or other incentive is on the table, many of those who are least receptive may also be least well informed... or else they do understand very well, but feel they have no stakehold in what's happening. This is the recipe for a pretty rough ride all round.

Empathy
Change is never easy, but I often think it would be easier - and probably more accurately focused - if those who produce the ideas could empathise more with those who will encounter, or will have to deliver, the consequences. Empathy is not the same as sympathy, it's just a way of imagining how others may perceive or feel about something, and then managing that well for everyone.

There are very few areas of human activity where empathy or emotional intelligence, properly used, will not help things along. It's a shame, therefore, that more emphasis isn't put on this important aspect of human experience right from the first glimmer of any significant people-involved idea. The development of empathy as a professional skill is much undervalued.

The launch of the final Report of the Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission this morning has thrown up some interesting facts, some challenging ideas and a number of practical 'can do's'. The big question now is, where do we go next?

This morning I went to the launch of the Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission's final Report. It was a well attended meeting; and I gather there are to be events throughout the week to exemplify the core messge, that enterprise is doing, not talking about it.

Is Merseyside different?
It would I think be difficult to claim that Merseyside is really different from other similar areas of Britain in terms of the need to bring the entrepreneurial message into focus. But it may be that the particular context of European Objective 1 funding makes the situation a little more striking. It's not unusual for areas such as this to have about 60% dependency in one way or another on public funding, but perhaps the huge plethora of agencies purporting to offer 'advice' is fuelled by the availability of this funding stream.

Whatever, I have to agree wholeheartedly that there are too many agencies, and that they are insufficiently monitored in respect of the quality of what they have on offer. I do wonder, however, what impact there might be on Merseyside's economy if the 300 or so agencies were 'rationalised' in the way some might wish. Would there be a local mini-recession? And would this kick-start or stifle further developments?

Emphasis on technology
It's also interesting that one proposal for the way forward is to have a web forum. As I was one of, no doubt, many who suggested the web 'ideas exchange', I am pleased to see that this notion has now taken on a life of its own.

The web forum has been entitled 'ucan' (make it) and is intended to be a virtual reference point for all things entrepreneurial in Merseyside. Hopefully, it will be a means by which those other, non-e agencies can streamline and provide a joined up service for budding entrepreneurs, as well as for established followers of the mode who want to exchange news, views and so on. Perhaps it will also be able to support the educational initiatives which the Commission obviously wants to see extended and nurtured.

Where now?
The Merseyside Entrepreneurship Commission told us this morning that it has now completed its formal work. It will be interesting - if not fascinating - to see what happens next. The website is to be sponsored for six months to see how much it is used and how it develops; and the challenge is firmly presented to the many agencies and other operators to get themsleves aligned in terms of the clients' wider experience and access.

We shall all, I suspect, watch this space with interest.

Young instrumentalists 05.jpg Is 'high culture' in reality only for 'tourists' in a city like Liverpool? Have civic leaders confused seeking excellence with its occasional and much less desirable adjunct, exculsivity? If the city is serious about opportunities to support the personal development of its citizens and the economic health of its communities, 'high' arts and culture surely have to integral to the experience of the many, not just of the few.

Liverpool City Council's new Leader, Councillor Warren Bradley, has already given his opinion on the city's current plans for the European Capital of Culture in 2008.

'I want to raise the profile of Capital of Culture because many people feel it is not for them', he says. 'We will need high art for the city centre for tourists, but it must hold the hand of community art.'

Social inclusion
Well, what does this mean? Warren Bradley was before his elevation Executive Member for Culture in the city, so it's good to see, if I'm reading him correctly, that he intends to bring the Capital of Culture programme to as many people in Liverpool as possible.

It's quite true that not everyone in Liverpool will willingly pay to sit through a long performance of a play, concert or perhaps opera; and in that of course Liverpool is no different from any other city anywhere.

Community politics
But is it true that as things stand (almost?) no-one in the city would or does enjoy 'high art'? I don't think so. This has a feeling, albeit perhaps unintentional, of playing to the gallery.

It's a strange world where it's suggested that only 'tourists', presumably from elsewhere since that what tourists generally are, will appreciate or want to see 'high art'. There significant numbers of people who live in Liverpool and Merseyside who enjoy and support 'high art' already - we have three universities, two famous cathedrals, well-known theatres, a very significant collection of museums and galleries, and a world-renown orchestra. And these instituitions were integral to the winning bid to take on the mantle of 2008 European Capital of Culture. So why are they by implication now perhaps for 'tourists'?

Leadership in challenging cultural barriers
I'd like to see two things happen fairly quickly as far as Liverpool's 'high arts' assets are concerned.

Firstly, it needs to be acknowledged absolutely without question that nearly everyone involved in 'high art' in this city strives very hard indeed to make what they have on offer more 'accessible'; and even those who aren't actively involved in this mission fully accept its imperative. And the same will apply to those additional visiting 'high' artists who come to Liverpool during 2008. So there is already a huge will to challenge the barrier which may be keeping some Liverpool people away from the excellent range of high art in their own city. 'Community' art in Liverpool is already a central plank in the 'high art' cultural offer.

Secondly, I believe very strongly that people should be helped to understand the role of high art in their communities. It can and should serve them directly, but it is also a significant factor in attracting and / or maintaining other highly skilled people within the local economy. Professional and many business people expect to be able to attend quality performances in their own city, they expect to be able to take potential investors and customers to good plays, opera, concerts and whatever. These high art commodities are not fluffy add-ons, they are essential to the developing local and regional economy. And they need to be presented in this light by our city leaders.

Cultural entitlement
But there's also another thing we all need to keep in mind..... Like many other things which are worth doing, 'high art' takes a bit of effort and getting used to. Moving outside previous experience and comfort zones is not always an easy option, but that's absolutely not a 'reason' why it would not be attractive to many so-called 'ordinary' people, if they were given genuine opportunities to enjoy it.

'Community arts' whilst essential, and indeed an excellent way to engage people in the artistic experience, are not a substitute for the 'real thing'. Let's not apologise for the fact that high art can be challenging or even difficult. There are plenty of massively accomplished performers and artists in Liverpool who came originally from less privileged backgrounds; what took them forward was the chance, often in unlikely circumstances, to discover that they had real talent in their specialist fields.

An exciting route to personal development
Music, drama and other arts can offer people amazing ways to expand their experience and lives. Everyone in Liverpool who cares about opportunities opening up for all our citizens must, as Councillor Bradley would surely if asked agree, say loud and clear that high art and community art alike are part of everyone's cultural entitlement.

All the citizens of Liverpool should be encouraged by the active example of our leaders to try the whole cultural offer, not just (though this may come first) the 'community' part of it. 'High art' isn't just for 'tourists', it adds meaning to the lives of many people of every background and experience; it's for us all.

There seems to be a growing consensus from different parts of the world about the benefits of education both to individuals and to the common good and economic well-being. What this means in terms of particular policies in different places may however be less obvious.

It's probably not just random co-incidence which finds the New York Times and the BBC putting out complementary news items on education today.

The first of these items concerns the 'return' on education for the economy as a whole. The second is about the positive effects of nursery education on adults' employment prospects and earnings. Each of these reports offers yet more evidence that education, as an overall experience and in the context of early years, is worthwhile both for the individuals concerned and for society as a whole.

Individual impact
In a British study, researchers Alissa Goodman and Barbara Sianesi of the Institute of Fiscal Studies have just reported that 'starting education before the compulsory school starting age at five can have long-lasting, positive impacts on children's lives.'

The IFS research findings suggest that adults with a nursery or playgroup background were more likely to have gained qualifications and be in work at the age of 33, and also offer evidence that such adults were able to sustain a 3-4% wage gain over others at that age. This is obviously encouraging to those currently engaged in enhancing pre-shcool provision in the U.K.

Impact on society
The American studies, some of them by Princeton's Professor Alan Krueger, also point to an educational advantage (of up to 10% overall) for individuals who continue in education, with the impact being most pronounced for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The particularly interesting debate however concerns the effect on education on the economy as a whole. And in this there seems to be consensus across the Atlantic: UK economist Professor Jonathan Temple of Bristol is reported as agreeing with Harvard's Professors Lawrence Katz and Claudia Goldin that the impact on total economic growth of extra education is at least as significant as that for individuals, with perhaps up to a 10% growth in gross domestic product. But as ever how this education should be funded, and to what extent, is less clear.

What's good for people is good for society
The conclusion from these and other studies seems quite firmly to point towards a commonality of interest between those who strive as individuals to benefit from education, and those who as a matter of policy provide it. The evidence is unsurprising - education, from the early years onwards, produces people who are more able both to succeed in their personal lives and to contribute to their communities, society and overall well-being.

The next question, as politicans and decision-makers both sides of the Pond acknowledge, is at what level of public investment at any stage in individuals' educational careers will there be optimal return in respect of socio-economic pay-off? Answers to that question may, even within the current economy-led consensus across the western world, yield very different specific policies in different places.

The latest report from Lord Rogers and colleagues makes an interesting read. There's an enormous amount of urban and infrastructural renewal still to be undertaken, but we now understand the challenges much more clearly, and this is obviously a good starting point for further endeavours.

It's been an interesting experience today, travelling (again, again) between London and Liverpool, and reading The Urban Renaissance six years on, published in November 2005 by Lord Rogers and his Urban Task Force colleagues.

As we whizzed past towns, villages and fields, packed like sardines in our Pendolino, I mused on the messages of this report:- people who can and who have families are moving out of towns, neighbourhoods are neither well-designed nor well-served, transport provision is too dislocated, environmental issues abound, there is confusion at the macro levels about who leads economic development, and who regeneration, and so forth. To see that much of this is true I had only to look around me, out of the window or at my fellow travellers, most of them self-evidently long-distance commuters.

Not all bad news
But it would be unfair to suggest that Rogers and friends simply criticise. They point to impressive areas of development over the past few years, such as the 'measurable change of culture in favour of towns and cities, reflecting a nationwide commitment to the Urban Renaisance', and to the much larger numbers of (mostly younger) people now living in city centres.

And that's before we get to the significant increases in investment in transport infrastructure, brownfield site development and the huge amounts of money (£39bn) allocated over the next five years to the Sustainable Communities Plan across England.

Why then so glum?
This is an issue which no doubt repays much further thought by us all, but the one thing which comes to mind immediately is, why are people in the U.K., one of the most wealthy countries in the world, so pessimistic about the future? There's a will from the very top to address many serious issues (though we may all have views on the exact hows and whys) and there's a demonstrated capaibility to achieve this.

What's needed next is a wider commitment to excellence and a genuine engagement and determination to tackle identified problems energetically; that's presumably what this latest Urban Task Force is all about. Of course there are enormous problems on the ground, and of course no-one has all the answers, but what I experienced first-hand today was a very different train ride from those I used to take between my home city and the metropolis, in grim, slow and meandering style, and often with little company.

The renewal has started
It's difficult to remember this at times, but that crowded and fast train today should be a sign not of resigned despondency but of hope. There were lots of people on it, and they were obviously busy and successful folk - which seems as good as any a confirmation that we have arrived at the starting point for the social and economic renaissance we all seek.

Monday Women Xmas (small) 80x84.jpg The Monday Women group in Liverpool held its end-of-year celebration this evening, bringing together women of many different experiences and walks of life. The future may continue to be challenging for us all, but there is no doubt that the women who came together tonight feel very positive about what is in store for 2006.

This evening was the annual Monday Women end-of-year event, or 'Christmas Do', as ever at the Everyman Bistro in Liverpool's Hope Street. We usually meet on the first Monday of the month just from 5.30 till 7 pm, but for the December meeting only we have a rather more extended event.

This year our chosen theme, presented with great flair by two 'members' of the group, was our wishes for ourselves and others for the coming year - and so we found ourselves, after a meal and a drink, sitting in a big 'circle' (actually a four-tables-length oblong) creating paper flags, with coloured pens, glue and glitter, which then became our thirty-flag pendant-bunting for the future.

A mixed group, but a strong commitment
The Monday Women 'group' is a completely free, and totally accessible, company of women from all walks of life who simply chose whenever they can to come together to talk and share. Sometimes this coming together is via the Monday Women Yahoo e-group, and sometimes it's in the physical space of the Everyman Bistro.

People come and people go, but there is always a welcome when they appear; no-one organises it, the appearances and the welcome are both offered without reservation or condition. Some of those involved are young, some really quite a bit older, some already know each other, some when they arrive do not. It really doesn't matter. Despite the variety of Monday Women, though, there is a strong sense of shared values and commitment, to the human condition in general and to the specific part/s women take in it.

Wishes for a strong and fair future for us all
Perhaps it is not surprising that the women this evening, some first-timers, some now 'old friends', shared a common optimism and good will as they surveyed the year ahead.

No-one, as I saw it, considered that issues of equality have now been resolved; no-one thought these were not worthy still of consideration; but everyone saw their future as positive.

We have (literally) flown our paper flags for 2006, and we have written ourselves good wishes for the coming year which we shall revisit next December. The evening was a lively, positive affirmation of our hopes for what is to come, both for those of us who were there in the Everyman this evening, and for women everywhere.

There is, despite modern technology and communications, a huge divide in understandings between rural and urban communities. Those in isolated locations are in some ways particularly vulnerable, as their young people leave and they resist change. Perhaps in this they have more in common with inner-city living than they appreciate, but the real risk is that these isolated communities may simply disappear.

What proportion of the UK population, I wonder, has ever been to the Scottish Highlands and Islands, or the very tip of Cornwall, or even to Pembrokeshire or Holy Island? Not that many, I'd guess, despite the fame and slightly mysterious aura of such locations.

But there again, I doubt that most people who live in these beguiling places have much knowledge, or even perhaps an accurate image, of what happens in our great cities, or in Britain's busy market towns and ports. And of those folk who are well acquainted with urban society, I'd guess most don't much like it, if they've chosen to live in the more far-flung of our wilder or more isolated places.

Does it matter if people stay in their comfort zones?
Most of the time, it's none of anyone else's business whether people in given locations are aware of other ways of life. None of us has the template for the ideal lifestyle, and none of us can claim we've got it sorted.

There is however a difficulty with the laisser faire approach to lifestyle at the point where it constrains and even threatens the very style we may have chosen. Things are never at a standstill; and this means that with denial of change may actually come the destruction of the way of life preferred.

Small communities become unviable without change
My musings on this subject arise from a recent conversation about an isolated community in north-west Scotland where a new arrival had the bright idea of developing a 'sanctury' to which wealthy paying visitors would come. This idea so shocked the more established residents, despite the promise of more jobs and increased investment in their community, that it had to be dropped.

Yet at the same time, here was a rapidly dwindling and aging population who constantly bemoan the way their youngsters have deserted the fold for places urban, or at least more 'exciting'. What a surprise.

The local perspective isn't all the story
So, on the one hand we have an enthusiastic newcomer who wants to attract new work and interests into the area, and on the other we have a group of villagers who resent and are highly suspicious of all things new.

The idea that visitors might seriously want to pay to come and enjoy what is there every day for locals doesn't come into it, because the locals appreciate in a very different way the wonderful commodities (clean air, peaceful and stunning beauty, calm and quiet) they routinely experience. For local people, this 'experience' is not a 'resource' to invest in reviving their village.

Visitors of course bring with them a certain amount of disruption - but the very topography of these isolated locations means that this cannot be huge. There is absolutely no risk of motorways or hideous ten storey hotels! The problem, it seems to me, is that familiarity - the comfort zone as ever - is often dangerous. If you can't adapt to new opportunities, you are in danger of losing those you already have.

Fear of the unknown
Perhaps the underlying problem is fear of the unknown - a strange and puzzling phenomenon in these days of instant-fix communication, but one which can afflict people anywhere, urban or rural.

But there's a special urgency here for some isolated communities. In modern society a culture which doesn't adapt is likely to be one which contains the seeds of its own destruction. Ironically, without some acceptance of change there is the prospect of a tragic scenario for numbers of small rural communities which until recent times may have existed relatively unchanged for centuries.

Musicians in Many Guises

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Child's drum &c (small) 80x85.jpg The music profession is amongst the least clearly defined of occupations. Neither within the profession nor amongst the wider public is there a proper understanding of how everything functions and fits together in this apparently most abstract and etherial of worlds.

I went to a very interesting session with musicians across the northern part of England today.

We were discussing how to bring diverse people in diverse parts of the music profession together, to support them and their work. This as an end point is obviously a challenge too far for one day's debate, but there are a few things I suspect struck everyone as we got into our allocated task.

Avoiding division in diversity
One of the most difficult things about being 'a musician' is that on its own it doesn't mean a great deal. Some musos work a full week, every week, in a contracted, salaried (but often very poorly paid) job, whilst others wing it in free-lance, or maybe just do the occasional weekend gig for a local pub or whatever... in which case they are probably either also in another job, not as a musician, or are perhaps retired or a student.

Add to that the obvious range of ways in which one 'can' be a musician - everything from banjo strummer to band vocalist, to jazzer or church organist, to a player in a major orchestra, or an opera singer, composer / arranger, conductor or, of course, educator / teacher - and it's easy to see that people in the same 'trade' often appear to have little in common. And that's before we acknowledge properly that amateurs and, say, students - both groups eager to perform in front of an audience for the sake of the experience as such - will have a very different take on things from (relatively) hard-headed pros, determined as ever to make a living of sorts from their skills.

Musicians' training takes years, but life as a pro is a helter-skelter
The problem for many serious professional musicians, whatever their genre, is that they've probably invested most of their conscious lives in developing performing and / or other musical skills. But they are going to spend the rest of their lives 'competing' with non-professional musicians who are willing to perform for nothing or next-to-nothing, albeit at usually significantly lower levels of skill.

Amateur and semi-pro groups can take months to prepare a performance; full professionals, if they are to earn their crust, often have to get a concert or show ready, at higher levels of skill, in just a few hours. No wonder then that different parts of the musical community don't always see eye-to-eye.

The answer is in the image
The public at large has a fairly vague idea about the who and how of life as a professional musician and performer. Most musicians hear quite frequently the view that they are 'lucky' because they must 'love' what they do.

Well, probably yes, but not to the extent that they don't need a living wage and a bit of time to themselves, or for their families. (No doubt, just as many amateur performers enjoy the buzz of performance, there are times when the professionals, conversely, would appreciate simply quietly being themselves.)

So here's a connundrum: Music is a very visible activity, usually done in full public gaze. But it is not an activity which just 'happens'; it's one which done properly has demanded years of hard work and determination.

Educate the audience as well as the performer
How then do we square the reality of life as a professional musician with the idea that anyone can do it? Can there be any doubt that the answer to this question, (and to the conflicting interests of different sorts of musicians as such) has to lie in education?

Much more money than before is now going into music education in schools, youth groups and the like; but let's ensure that at least some small part of this and other available resources is invested in telling people about what the lives of musicians of all types offer and demand.

There's room for every sort of musician, doing different things in different ways, but confusion exists both within the profession itself, and in the wider public, about quite what it all entails. No surprise then that misunderstandings and misapprehensions can become the order of the day, with performers often the first casualty of this failure to connect image and reality.

See also: Orchestral Salaries In The U.K.

Life In A Professional Orchestra: A Sustainable Career?

The Healthy Orchestra Challenge

British Orchestras On The Brink

Where's The Classical Music In The Summer? An Idea...

The idea of 'joined up' services and support for babies and young children and their carers is excellent. The delivery is of course more complex. Sure Start may not as yet be a complete or fully accessed programme, but it is already showing us ways forward which hold promise for the future.

Sure Start's a great idea. It's intended to bring together all the support and services required by parents and carers of young children (up to their fourth birthday), so that those perhaps otherwise at risk will be able to flourish alongside their more fortunate classmates-to-be.

A National Evaluation of Sure Start report out this week from Birkbeck College, London, suggests however that at best the impact of Sure Start so far is 'patchy'. Well, just three years from inception, I'd be rather surprised if it were anything else.

Grounded research
This, of course, is also what the evaluators say. Sure Start is a programme to reverse unconstructive or unfocused cultural patterns of behaviour which have sometimes now been embedded for decades. This is quite a challenge; and at present the programme still struggles to reach some of its target 'audience'.

It may feel difficult to say this so starkly, but children may have very little chance unless they are offered more care and encouragement than some parents and carers can give. Fortunately, the very large majority of parents love their children; but that, without a synergy between positive examples of how to conduct onesself in adulthood and the opportunities to do so, is a tough call. This I think is what the evaluators are seeing thus far.

Tying future prospects into current contexts
It's not just provision for small children which is on the agenda here. There's also the whole question of how adults with the care of these children perceive and respond to their own world.

The message is not necessarily that new mothers (or indeed fathers) need to work full-time right now, but rather that they need to feel engaged in and connected with their communities and the opportunities which are there and on offer - whether joined up services, voluntary and social activities, education and training or whatever else.

Adults who themselves thrive in the world they inhabit are also adults who can care more confidently for their children. If we can help those currently engaged in caring for their young children to see a promising and potentially more prosperous future, then surely these adults will be more comfortably able to enjoy and nurture their small charges now.