March 2006 Archives

The U.K. Science and Innovation Framework 2004-2014 has taken on new significance with the recent Budget. Scientists, economists and the regeneration arm of government need to make common cause if the proposals to reshape particle physics (PPARC), medical research (MRC) and links between business and innovation are to achieve the promise which they appear in many ways to offer.

The Government, we gather, would like to elaborate its ten year plan for science, the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, by bringing together the Particle Physics and Astronomy Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC).

The proposal emerging from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Education and Skills is that these two august bodies be merged as a new body, the Large Facilities Council (LFC). The LRC would have a budget of half a billion GBP a year for current CCLRC work and that part of PPARC's work which concerns large investments. Other, grant awarding, parts of PPARC would merge with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The physicists are not happy
It would be fair to say that this proposal has not been greeted enthusiastically by everyone in the science community. To quote one astronomy blog:
This move would place astronomy and particle physics research in direct competition with the rest of the physical sciences for money. I would expect this to mean that it will be harder to get a particular research project funded, as the competition for the limited funds is greatly increased. It will also mean that the new EPSRC will have to develop a plan / road-map for the whole of engineering, physics and astronomy; a pretty huge field. Can one funding council do this alone while maintaining the breadth and depth of research in the UK?

Nor perhaps are the medics
Another of the Next Steps proposals is that the Department of Health's research and development budget should be merged with that of the Medical Research Council to bring together all public research in health and medicine in the U.K, with a budget of some billion GBP. Inevitably, there will be questions asked about whether this size of investment can be feasibly managed. (There are possible parallels, not least in the particle physics world, where Cern's much admired Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is funded by 20 European states, using the talents of 6,400 scientists from all corners of the globe.)

The wider contexts
These ideas are not, however, developing in a vacuum. Side by side with the recasting of the budgetary alignments are proposals to set targets for increasing numbers of school students, and to increase business investment and involvement in research and development. These are difficult objectives to challenge, except perhaps in the sense that 'more not less' might be the cry.

It's important to acknowledge all the levels at which these various concerns and considerations apply. There are fears for vulnerable / invisible research, there are fears about the status of academic institutions and research bodies, and there are the natural fears of scientists that their jobs maybe at risk. As we know from other change initiatives, these concerns cannot simply be dismissed.

Benefits of a new kind?
We should however try to factor in a number of newer perspectives as we consider these proposals. I have argued elsewhere that support for large-scale or 'Big Science' in the North West of England would have been easier to secure, had there not been a stand-off between those medical scientists funded by the NHS and those funded by other bodies.

The regeneration agenda does not, as of course Gordon Brown and his colleagues would argue, stand apart from the agenda for Big Science. The real challenge, however, is to manage the necessary transitions in a way which values and promotes the knowledge economy and those who work within it, rather than leaving them behind, bewildered and resentful about the proposals which are now emerging.

Never has there been a greater need, if we are all to benefit, for the scientists, the economists, the regeneration specialists and the politicians to talk amongst themselves. This, fundamentally, is what the current consultation period on Next Steps must be about.

Sefton Park 06.6.3 039 Straited sky.(small) jpg.jpg British Summer Time is welcomed by almost all of us - more daylight when we can use it is much appreciated, as Lord Tanlaw's proposed 'Lighter Evenings (Experiment) Bill' acknowledges, for reasons of health, safety, energy savings and business benefit. So why do we need to revert to the darkness next Autumn? The answer appears to be historical drag, a reluctance to be 'European', and an obdurate insistence by some of national identity over common well-being.

Like 99% of the rest of the UK population, I'm really looking forward to the extra hour of evening light which will be ours as of this weekend. We may lose an hour of sleep just one Sunday morning, but then we get months of beautiful daylight at hours when we can actually enjoy them. It can't come too soon.

It was always a huge puzzle to me why the 'experiment' to keep British Summer Time all year seemed to go so badly wrong when it was tried in 1968 to 1971. Then I learned that it was nothing to do with sensible allocation of daylight hours for nearly all of us - it was essentially a sop to the Scottish Highlands, where apparently people demanded the right to dark evenings for us all, so that they had a bit more daylight in the morning.

Why Highlanders couldn't just adjust their working day a bit if they so like first light, is beyond me.

Safety - and Health - take a back seat
Since the missed opportunity of thirty five years ago, things have moved on. We now know about SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and about the net increase in accidents - acknowledged in many countries - which wintry Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) brings in its wake - even for Scotland.

So there really is no excuse for any failure to support Lord Tanlaw's current private Parliamentary Bill to adopt Single Double Summer Time (SDST) for an experimental three years from 29 October this year. The idea has the support of ROSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) and of PACTS (the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety) - who jointly last tried to effect such a change via Nigel Beard MP's 10-minute bill in 2004. The previous time the change to all-year so-called 'daylight saving' was attempted before that was in 1994, with a Bill promoted by Nigel Waterson MP.

This debate has therefore now emerged as a matter of both safety and, equally importantly, health. The epidemiology of the proposed time shift suggests that it would not only reduce accidents, but also promote health; people would be more active in the winter, with beneficial effect to both physical and mental well-being.

My national identity before my health (and yours)?
The debate seems to boil down to two lines of argument:

Firstly, that it is the inalienable right of Scots people to conduct their morning farming activities in daylight - a 'right' which would be preserved in Lord Tanlaw's bill, because it expressly accedes that the Scottish (and Ulster and Wales) Parliament/s could adopt current 'winter time' if they so determined; and

Secondly, that this is some sort of 'European plot', against farmers milkman and postal workers (...), foisting 'non-British time' on us - despite the additional difficulties which British 'local' winter time causes for companies seeking business across both Europe and wider afield. (It's rather a surprise to learn in Hansard 8 Dec. 2004, Column 584W, that the Department of Trade and Industry has not conducted much research since 1989 (Cm 722) on potential economic and social effects of the 'biannual time change'.)

Don't play politics against common sense
Let us put aside the obvious issue that very few indeed of us live on farms (and that for many the sight of a postal worker before 10 a.m. - or a milkman at all - causes astonishment these days) and just focus on the facts.

Health and safety are what make our lives better. Not nationalities. And who wants his or her national identity to be seen as an obstacle to healthier and safer lives anyway?
~ ~ ~
The full debate about BST is in the section of this website entitled
BST: British Summer Time & 'Daylight Saving' (The Clocks Go Back & Forward)..... Specific articles include:
Making The Most Of Daylight Saving: Research On British Summer Time
The Clocks Go Forward... And Back... And Forward...
SaveOurDaylight: Victor Keegan's Pledge-Petition
British Summer Time Draws To A Close
Time Is Energy (And 'Clocks Forward' Daylight Uses Less)

Read the discussion of this article which follows the book E-store...

The NHS is experiencing another wave of 'reconfiguration', with a focus particularly on NHS Trusts and who runs them. But has there really been a shift from public sector thinking to the modern management of a complex part of the knowledge economy? On present evidence, opportunities to encapsulate hard-won insights into the organisational aspects of the health service are probably being lost.

The wholesale reconfiguration of the National Health Service, and particularly of Strategic Health Authorities and Primary Care Trusts, is now well underway. Public consultation finishes this week, and already some appointments are being progressed actively, albeit on a provisional basis.

This is probably not the place to go into the ins and outs of the basic argument - the bigger debate about the health economy is being conducted across the country and in Whitehall. What engages me more particularly is the essentially non-political issue of how much recognition is being given to the management of knowledge across this vast swathe of our public sector activity.

Is 'institutional memory' sufficiently acknowledged?
Whilst nealy all normal NHS employees are guaranteed jobs for a period following the intended reconfigurations, this arrangement does not extend to non-executive board positions. Indeed, the intention is now being taken forward to appoint new non-exec. posts not only through competition between existing post-holders, but with appointments being opened up to all comers - at a time when already many current non-executives will fall by the wayside anyway.

Yet non-executive directorships are the very roles which are intended to hold to account, and support, executive directors in their work. The risk is therefore that experience built up amongst non-execs. over the past few years since NHS Trusts have come into being is about to be lost, almost as soon as it has been developed.

This raises serious questions about how institutional memory and expertise amongst NHS non-executive directors is to be safeguarded. Where's the knowledge management?

Public sector or significant knowledge economy?
Little visible effort seems so far been made to bring together in recognisable form all the aspects of high-level experience and skill which will take forward this current wave of NHS reconfiguration. Just as at last there is an emerging real understanding by non-executive directors of their crucial role, the chances are that it is to be lost again.

This is a quite separate issue from that of the general merits (or otherwise) of current moves to reshape the NHS. That debate is critical, but it is not the one we are addressing now. What we have here is a public sector health service which still sees itself as run on the basis of aspiration, rather than as a serious element of the knowledge economy, with all that implies for the management of skills, resources and the like. The preservation of institutional memory is a management, not a poltical, issue.

Introduce all the changes in structure that you wish, but alongside these must be a clear and formal recognition and management of the knowledge and skills, of themselves, within the health service. This is what modern management of complex organisations is fundamentally about, and it has to apply as much in the management of the health service as it does in any commercially-led set up.

Trying to bring (appropriate) 'business' attitudes into the health service is fine - though there are probably plenty of high-level people already there who have good ideas about this. But for success in the immediate future NHS organisations will need to protect and formalise their institutional knowledge right now; and the arrangements in place at present for moving on don't make that easy.

Ice & Fire (small) 06.3.2 Snow 010.jpg How we learn is always more complicated than we might imagine. The evocation of 'fire and ice' by both poet Robert Frost and, much later, NASA scientist Donald Brownlee, is an example to hand. Science and the arts alike depend for their impact ultimately on imagination and creativity, as well as rigour and formal insights.

Many years ago I was an American Field Service International Scholar, spending my senior high school year in Phoenix Arizona. This was a very 'different' experience to any I had had before or since, meeting an enormous range of people not normally encountered in suburban Birmingham England, my family home town at the time.

One of the enormous number of things I learned in Phoenix was the vast variety of interests to be found in a large American high school. And, drilling down from this, I came across a group of enthusiastic young people who Actually Read Poetry - and especially the poetry of Robert Frost, who was born on 26 March 1874 and died in 1963, not that long before I went to the States..... In a way we were perhaps a prototype Dead Poets Society, but with no sting in the tail.

A direct voice
Icy lake Then a student of science, my knowledge of poetry at the time was (and sadly remains) pretty modest, but Robert Frost's poems fascinated me. They are direct and elemental - qualities I do not enjoy in American classical music - but also somehow quizzical, which made them very challenging in a gentle sort of way; I was never sure quite what, apart from the pastoral or earthy images, they intended to evoke. And this was especially true of Frost's Fire and Ice, which I learnt off by heart, and can indeed still quote:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

I subsequently discovered that there has been a huge amount of academic and also - engagingly - popular commentary on this poem, but at that time it simply drew me into a world away from the everyday, somewhere unknown and mysterious.

Where science meets art
Fire! (SP)16.9.05 010.jpg Given the impression Fire and Ice had on me all those years ago, I was rather startled to read the BBC News online a few days ago, reporting Dr. Donald Brownlee, as chief scientist of the Nasa Stardust mission, on evidence that comets are 'born of fire as well as ice'.

Immediately I was transported from a murky March day in Liverpool, back some decades past to the excitement of a group of young people in a sunny classroom in Phoenix Arizona, all seeking to understand the meanings, metaphorical and material, of the complex new world into which we were about to emerge as adults.

Frost had written of fire and ice as the future destruction of world; Brownlee spoke of the birth millennia ago of physical pieces of the universe; but the elements they referred to were the same. It seems fleetingly that we are back to the phlogiston philosophers, those earlier seekers after truth, but with an up-to-the-minute twist.

All ideas are creative
Here are modern observers interpreting their experience according to their different professional disciplines, each of them evoking, for me at any rate, striking and thought-provoking images. We all carry our own paradigms as the backdrop to our understandings, but explanations are worth little without imagination to bring them alive.

I may well have been studying science when I was in the States, but Robert Frost's poems stayed with me at least as strongly as any of the factual lessons I learned.

It would be untrue to say the science left me icy, and the poetry set my imagination on fire. But without doubt in both instances the elemental images have been retained far more strongly than the formal educational input.

Flat leaves & dew 134x124 0147aa.jpg 'Survival of the fittest' is often used to justify harsh business and other practices; but those who adopt this socio-economic position may also subscribe to 'Creationist' or 'Intelligent Design' notions about how life on earth has come about and diversified. This strange amalgum of beliefs arises from a lack of intellectual rigour which shows very clearly why Creationism should not become part of any serious school science curriculum.

It seems that Creationism is to be a feature of a new GCSE Biology curriculum in England. Whilst we have assurances that Creationism is not to be taught 'as a subject' I must admit to serious concerns about either Creationism or its close cousin, 'Intelligent' Design' becoming part of the mainstream science curriculum.

General Studies can be a good place to discuss the 'nature of science' issues that arise from looking at Creationism or Intelligent Design, and maybe Religious Studies can offer perspectives on (non-)belief systems, but Science as a subject should probably not include subjects which are, quite simply, not subject to serious scientific scrutiny.

A conundrum of conflicting beliefs
One of the strangest things about the proponents of Intelligent Design and / or Creationism is that, for the most part, they have socio-economic beliefs which fit well within the Evolutionary Theory which they so strongly reject as an explanation of biological difference.

How can 'survival of the fittest' be seen to explain, and be acceptable, in terms of socio-political and economic / business affairs, but not biological ones?

Underlying this conundrum is perhaps a sense of preordination, that things are 'given' and cannot be changed on the whim of mere human beings; and this sense fits very helpfully into much of right-wing politics. But for those of us who respect the idea of science as a discipline and mode of knowledge, this is if anything completely the wrong way around.

Millennia to 'change' biology, but maybe minutes to change our own behaviour?
Living things change naturally over the millennia, 'responding' (i.e. surviving or not) to their contexts and inherent make up. This is a very long term and complex business.

On the other hand, human beings' behaviour can, because we can perceive ourselves and reflect on what we do, change dramatically in the course of a single life time. 'Intelligent Design' is something we can all usefully engage in our own behaviour and outlook - not something which we need to dream up to 'explain' the amazing way in which the world as we know it has evolved over millions of years.

If survival of the fittest can be called upon by right wing thinkers to account for economic behaviour, they surely don't have to devise other, quite undemonstrable, 'explanations' for the diversity of life on earth.... which leads me to wonder what less obvious reasons there may be for this strange conjunction of beliefs.

Eco- Solar (small) 06.7.15 031.jpg The debate about lighting in Liverpool's parks continues, with strong views on both sides. One idea which resolves most of the issues raised would be solar lighting. It can be put anywhere, it's easily maintained, it's relatively cheap - and it has all the right ecological credentials.

Eco- Solar (azure sky) 06.7.15 030.jpg The nights are at last beginning to shorten, and we can finally think again of strolling around Sefton Park before supper.

There are big plans afoot for Sefton Park, as for several other of Liverpool's parks, but one of the sticking points has been lighting - much of Sefton Park is unlit, and there seems little likelihood that this will change even if the ambitious renovations promised do actually come to pass.

Why no park lighting?
Several reasons have ben given for withholding lighting from large swathes of the park and its pathways (even some of the widest and most used). These include a fear that it will frighten away the bats, badgers, whatever, or that it makes unlit areas look 'even darker and less safe'; and apparently these concerns are more compelling than the very understandable sense that a lot of people just don't like walking in an unlit park, albeit they would like to get some exercise.

But at base I suspect that the most pressing reason for no more lighting is cost. The powers-that-be know it would be quite expensive to install and maintain, and they don't want to 'overburden' the funding bids which are being developed to make our parks better and nicer places to visit.

An ecological solution
Eco- Solar (with tree & dark sky) 06.7.15 028.jpg So why can't we bring together concerns for cost and other issues, and reach a half-way position which, to me at least, looks rather sensible?

Let's have solar lighting.

Solar lights don't have to be joined together with bits of cable, they don't require electricity from a generator, they can be put anywhere (and more can be added as desired) and they don't need time switches. Solar lights come on as it gets dark and they turn themselves off after a few hours (short stretches of light when it's cold and only the sturdiest souls are striding out, and longer during those balmy summer evenings when everyone wants to promenade). Plus, once installed they are inexpensive, and their maintenance is easy.

And, perhaps best of all, solar lights are eco-friendly. If there's one place in the city which needs to set an example with green credentials, surely it's our parks?

See also: Sefton Park's Grebes And Swans

Liverpool's Sefton Park, Swans, Herons And Grebes

Sefton Park, Liverpool: Winter Solstice 2006

Cherry Blossom For May Day In Sefton Park, Liverpool

What Now For Liverpool's Sefton Park?

Cherry Picking Liverpool's Sefton Park Agenda

Liverpool's Sefton Park Trees Under Threat - Unnecessarily?

Friends Of Sefton Park

Plans for a future Mersey Tram are in tatters at the same time as the very real Mersey Ferry landing stage lies under water. More care for current assets and less dispute about proposals still on the drawing board might have served the Liverpool sub-region better. Regeneration is about looking after what we already have, even as we dream about the future.

Transport arrangements in Liverpool have been somewhat topsy turvey of late.

Am I the only person who wonders how we could be letting our main Passenger Ferry landing stage slip into the Mersey at the same time that we are making such a fuss about the 'loss' of the proposed Tram?

After five years of plans and plotting it seems the Trams are not to return to Liverpool, at least in the foreseeable future. This is obviously a blow to those who fought to see this mode of transport resurrected in the city, not least the Merseytravel team who had already invested heavily in track and the like for construction.

All was not as it seemed
But then we learnt that not everyone within the city council was enthusiastic about this idea. There are stories of counter-briefings and blame in high places.

And whilst this extraordinary tale was unfolding.... the Liverpool Pier Head landing stage fell into the Mersey River. And the Ferries had to be cancelled for the foreseeable future, all because of an 'unexpected' tide.

So not only will people from the starkly less advantaged east of Liverpool not get the rapid transport system which many insisted they had needed in order to develop work opportunities for the future, but also people who currently travel into Liverpool from Wirral to work (or vice versa) suddenly found their transport had, quite literally, been sunk.

Lessons worth learning?
There may be lessons here for everyone; and doubtless different people will conclude differently what these lessons are. But for me it's this: Don't let grand plans for the future ruin what's OK about the present.

Too much of the regeneration agenda, in Liverpool and quite possibly elsewhere, is taken up with filling the front pages of the local papers with imaginative and very likely undeliverable ideas; but far too little of this agenda is concerned with nurturing what we have already, whether this be people or physical resources. The second, 'nurturing' option may be less dramatic than the 'visionary' first, but it's equally important.

Visions for the future have produced a blinkered view of the present. Whilst Liverpool City Council, Merseytravel and others made plans and perhaps counterplans about the hugely expensive Tram, not much thought was, it seems, being giving to our already famous Ferries. And now we have neither. Perhaps, with a bit less posturing and a bit more thought, we could have had both.

Aix dancers (small) 80x74.jpg International Women's Day is not a huge occasion for most people; but maybe it could be if we all grasped this annual opportunity to examine and where possible to celebrate, on a year-on-year basis, what progress has been made in gender equality. A start could be made, Monday Women decided, by ensuring we learn Herstory alongside His.

How does one 'celebrate' International Women's Day? And, indeed, should one? This was one of the topics discussed by Monday Women in Liverpool, today.

Given that women make up over 50% of the population of the UK, I suppose I shall be impressed when we are also invited to celebrate International Men's Day... but I do know, really, that this misses the point at least for now.

Anyway, we all do what we can. One year we even managed to produce a chamber concert including previously unheard music by the composer, Dame Ethel Smyth (who probably wrote the music around the very time when first glimmers of the idea of IWD came into being, not that far from where she was studying in central Europe). And on many occasions there have been conferences, readings and much else to recognise the parts women play in contemporary society.

Not a big issue for women or men?
But generally people don't get very excited about International Women's Day, as far as I can see. I wish they would. It would be excellent if, on this day, we not only celebrated the contributions of many thousands of unseen, unheard women in our local communities, but also began to ask, really seriously, just why are they so unacknowledged?

There's a lead story in The Independent today about how campaigners say that unless urgent action is taken on the status of women, the Millennium Development Goals on reducing poverty, infant deaths and standards of education will not be met... but The Indy also reports that only one in four British women counts herself a feminist.

For those of us who have worked over many years to seek empowerment of women alongside men this is in some respects a truly puzzling and disappointing figure; but against it we need to ask what proportion of women in previous generations would taken this label. My guess, overall, is fewer than we imagine, despite Rosie the Riveter and all she taught us.

So let's make a start by being a bit more realistic. If young people don't know much about how things were (and how many young people actually want to look backwards at that point in their lives?) they will also not know about how things have changed. We more experienced feminists need to work from what is - i.e. an ahistoric perspective in which all that is wrong now actually seems to younger people to be 'worse' than what was before - and to find ways of challenging that strategically, not personally.

Rather than feeling upset that what we have worked for is not understood - upsetting though in my heart I must admit this is - those of us who champion gender equality need to find ways of ensuring that HERstory is told, to everyone, alongside HIStory. Then we shall be able to demonstrate what has already been achieved and, critically, to see more clearly where the obstacles to further progress lie.

Whose responsibility?
In curriculum terms, responsibility for herstory obviously lies with the schools and the government. But in other ways it lies with us all. I would like to see a focus on International Women's Day 2007 on what each aspect of our daily lives has offered over the past year in terms of opportunities and life experience for women and men. Could this be a challenge for the media, and for us all? An agenda we could start to set now, for next year and all the years which follow?

In the meantime, Monday Women have said it already today on our e-group - have a great day!

Different meanings apply to the words 'carnival', 'fiesta' and 'festival', but these are not always apparent in their day-to-day usage. The cultural, religious and indeed sometimes class-related nuances of these words influence decisions about what is appropriate for whom. But this may not help us to see that ideas of 'excellence' are not necessarily at all the same as the notion of 'elitism'. Nonetheless, this distinction is very important, and never more so than in cities such as Liverpool, as they strive to re-invent themselves.

When is a series of celebratory perfomances a 'Carnival', when is it a 'Festival' and when is it a 'Fiesta'?

My curiosity about these words was first aroused in the early 1990s, when we began to talk about resurrecting the Hope Street Festival in Liverpool. There is a tradition stretching back many years of Festival events in Liverpool - not least the Hope Street events (in some of which I was involved as a student) in 1977 for the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and in the city as a whole through several decades before then.

Changing expectations
What rapidly became apparent when we began to talk with people in the 1990s however was that there were several very different undersandings about what a contemporary 'Festival' might be - and that most of them did not at all equate to my previous expectation that a Festival in Liverpool would be something along the lines of those in Edinburgh, Harrogate or, say, any of the Three Choirs cities.

Liverpool does indeed still have an annual 'Festival', but that is a competitive event, mostly for children and amateur groups, and originally driven by a number of determined local citizens, such as the late Dennis Rattle, father of Sir Simon, and members of the Rushworth family (who had a music shop in the city). This performing arts competition, though in a fine British tradition, is neither a festival in the sense of a programme of formal professional events, nor a 'fringe' in the sense that, say, Edinburgh has one.

Rather, it seemed that what people across the city expected from a modern festival around Hope Street was something in my mind more akin to a fiesta or carnival, perhaps along the lines of the event which has subsequently developed in Liverpool's Mathew Street.

The formal definitions
These different understandings, which took a while to draw out from discussions, sent me off to look for the dictionary. What I found is interesting. The respective Oxford Concise Dictionary definitions are:
Carnival ~ festivities usual during period before Lent in R.C. countries; riotous revelry; travelling circus or fair; festivities esp. occurring at regular date
Festival ~ feast day, celebration, merry-making; periodic musical etc. performance(s)
Fiesta ~ religious festival in Spanish-speaking countries; festivity, holiday

All the terms I investigated arise from religious events, and usually Roman Catholic ones specifically - an interesting piece of background information in a city such as Liverpool, with in some parts its strongly Catholic, working class traditions.

Festivals are what you make of them
This has set me thinking. There is perhaps a tension here between what people in different places, with different previous experience, expect from a Festival. For the people of Liverpool, the large majority of whom have probably only a passing acquaintance with Edinburgh, Harrogate, Worcester, Salisbury, Cheltenham or other cities which host formal Festivals, the expectation is that celebratory performance will be community-based and, indeed, probably actually conducted on the street. A good example of this is the events offered by Hope Street Ltd, an arts training organisation in Liverpool.

Likewise, when the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra decided to start a summer concerts series some years ago, it chose to do so under canvas and on the waterfront, on a 'Pops' basis. (Since then, the event has taken a course which means that the RLPO is scarcely involved at all.)

Expectations can be important
There are however potential dangers in this apparent democratisation of performance art. Firstly, if people in a city are not encouraged to expect Festival performances by visiting artists such as we might expect in Edinburgh, Cheltenham or wherever, they are unlikely to value them; and the message that 'excellence' (both indigenous to the city and offered by visitors) is not the same as 'elitism' may be lost.

And, secondly, Liverpool will in 2008 become the European Capital of Culture. We in Liverpool may well have much to show visitors from Europe and beyond about how to engage local (largely working class) communities in arts performance - and I am genuinely eager that we should. But it is unlikely that visitors from further afield will be impressed by this if it is not backed up by evidence that we can also provide what many of them, from their previous experience, may expect in addition - which is a fine array of first rate professional offerings very visibly supported by the local populace.

In other words, there is still a lot of audience capacity building to be done in Liverpool before 2008, if we are to impress our very welcome visitors as we would wish. And time is short. Carnivals and fiestas are great; but they need to be nurtured alongside festivals of the sort offered by other sophisticated and ambitious cities, if we in Liverpool are to take maximum advantage of the possibilities now on the horizon for our Year as European Capital of Culture.

08.05.11  bookshelves  106x97  003a.jpg World Book Day is being celebrated today. It's an occasion to appreciate bedtime stories and learned journals alike. Even in this technological era there is a place in our everyday experience for books which no other medium can fill.... just try organising your bookshelves to see how true this attachment is, and how early in our lives it begins.

It's World Book Day today, and by a strange co-incidence in this house we spent quite a bit of it putting up new bookshelves in the hall - the only place left anywhere to park more books.

The decision to re-organise several boxes of books had nothing to do with today's more organised focus elsewhere, but it brought home to me just in how many ways we all use books in our daily lives. Of course books tell us things, they help us to learn and to retain knowledge, and they offer entertainment and amusement; but they are also mementos of our lives.

Books as the biography of their owners
Re-arranging my books, I thought how they had been acquired, and what impact they have had on me. My C. P. Snow Strangers and Brothers series takes me back to when I was still a student, as they opened my eyes to a world of 'corridors of power' that I didn't until then even know existed. Then there are the many books now back on view in our hall which attest to my academic and teaching years, ranging from the early writings on community, gender and health studies through to texts on the sociology and politics of science and knowledge. And side by side with these are those lovely books on European cities, each with their personal memories of summer days relaxing in the sun, and summer evenings listening to music and watching the stars.

Books as the biography of childhood
Then we can add to these adult memories, though still packed away in a cupboard but perhaps to claim their rightful place in a new home somewhere in the future, those children's books we couldn't bear to part with when 'the family' grew up and left. (I was delighted to discover recently that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is still a firm hit with the under-fives.... just as Winnie the Pooh and Toad of Toad Hall will never be forgotten.)

Legacies and futures
We rarely forget what we grew up with. There are moves afoot, both now via World Book Day, and through programme such as Sure Start's 'Book Start', to ensure that every child in Britain has books of their own before they begin school.

We look back on our personal libraries, however particular, and remember and refer. Events such as World Book Day will help to ensure that, even in this technological age, the citizens of the future will also be able to hold memories and ideas in solid form.

Wasn't there a saying somewhere (?the Jesuits) to the effect of, 'Give me a child until (s)he's seven, and I will show you the (wo)man...'? The earlier in childhood we start to know about books as the repositories of ideas and histories, the more we are able to share and extend these as we grow older.

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Calculator & toy (small) 80x90.jpg Choosing if and when to have a baby has never been an easy decision, especially if both partners want to continue in employment. But the debate has shifted quite a lot in the past few years, and perhaps now a deeper understanding is emerging of what 'work-life balance' is really about.

Actually, of course, some folk would say it's all-win for some, and never-win for others; but we do know, really, it's not like that.

The question does however have to be asked, how can you get it right, if you're a woman and a mum and a person who wants to make her way in the world?

History or Herstory?
Fact is, for the past fifty years it's been even more complicated than for the years before then. Whatever is thought by those with shorter memories, the time from the end of World War II (1945) until the end of the sixties, and well into the seventies, was dreadful for women wanting to maintain their families and their careers.

The landmark equality legislation of the 1970's certainly changed things for the better... but even I found myself in a situation, when 'the family' arrived, of having to resign my full-time post and then apply again for my job, as a part-timer. Maternity leave had never been taken by anyone at the college where I then taught, and anyway it was a mere four weeks or bust (which even after resigning was not much less than what I had, before I went back as a part-timer).

Strange then how, during WWII (I report here from the history books, not personal recollection), there was all sorts of support for 'working women', so it could be done when the will was there. But at that time of course, sadly, the men actually weren't 'there' as well....

Improved, but still problematic
So I don't go at all with the idea of some young women today that 'it's harder now than it was for our mums' - who, it is I gather supposed, just had to work for 'pin-money', or else stayed at home supported by a bread-winning spouse who could earn for the family; for most of us I suspect that only happened on The Archers.

Nor of course do I believe that 1939-1945, with all its horrors, was a time when women always thrived. But classic films such as Rosie the Riveter (about a group of female engineering production workers in New York in the '40s) demonstrate well the capability and willingness of women to take on 'men's jobs' when they have to.

And nearer to home, I discovered in my own research in the 1970s that women who had entered academic science during the 1940s had a better chance of professional progression than younger ones, who had to compete with the men.

Complex judgements and issues
No, the issues now more complex than they were either when the need for skilled workers required women to take the job on, or indeed when the campaigns for basic rights (oh heady days!) were still to be won.

It's rare for anyone today to announce their outright hostility to women - though there are many serious and shocking stories still to be told. The formal legal battles, if not the wage-related ones, have been quite largely secured. It's beginning at last to cost those who don't grasp equality a lot of money.

But that doesn't resolve everything. We read daily of 'reasons' why women 'should' only have their children in a very narrow age-slot; and why they 'must' keep close physical contact with their babies for a considerable time. On a personal level these are harder things to deal with, than is straightforward sexist write-off. Psychological pressures can cause real personal pain; for fair-minded people sexism just causes anger.

Where's the truth?
I don't think there is a single truth in all this - except that no way is it 'just' a 'women's dilemma'. Whoever heard of a baby that didn't have a dad somewhere along the line?

My recollection is that these psychological influences on decisions about having a family were always there, lurking in the scenes; but in previous decades we've had to concentrate on rights as such. Now young women (and their partners) have to make personal judgements, because genuine choice does at least to some extent exist.

It was never, ever, easy. But perhaps if real choices start to be made by women and men together, the climate might begin to change so that at least most folk understand and respect the dilemmas and decisions we all have to make, when we bring (or decide not to bring) babies into the world.

The expression 'work-life balance' could be about to become genuinely meaningful at last.

A version of this article was first published in Diverse Liverpool: the gender issue, in March 2006, pp. 113-115.

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