May 2006 Archives

Liverpool Vision Model - Hope Street (& cranes) 06.7.17 005.jpg Downtown Week (11-18 June 2006) is unique in the U.K. to Liverpool. Perhaps it's a sign of a new independence of mind in our citizens that people in the city are developing this entrepreneurial event for themselves, and not because of some outside or official imperative?

'Downtown' is, in the words of the organisers of Liverpool's Downtown Week 2006, 'the beating heart of our great city, a celebration of the culture, the creativeity, the business, the new downtown living renaissance; indeed all the activities that are bringing our downtown back to life.... and, what's more, it's unique to Liverpool! There's only one downtown in the UK and it's at the heart our great metropolis!'

With enthusiasm like that, how could I deny myself the opportunity to be a part of this imaginative enterprise?

We all know about the entrepreneurial drive which moves some of the great downtown cities of the USA; here's one Stateside bug which I really don't mind reaching British shores.

Enthusiasm begets energy; energy begets engagement
There is a fundamental truth in the claims of downtowners:- there's much more going on than we can ever know, but it's both essential and fun to explore and find out as much as we possibly can. It's a lesson also being learned, slowly and sometimes painfully, by other communities in other places.

This rich diversity, the result of centuries of ebb and flow, of enterprise and migration, is both a challenge and an enormous opportunity. It's what Downtown Week is really about.

Scheduled events for Downtown Week include guided walks, visits to special places, commercial and retail opportunities, cultural events and whatever more various people can come up with. In the end, however, what we're being offered is a chance to open our eyes and see what's right before us.

Social glue
As ever, it boils down to finding ways to get people to communicate and, from that, to collaborate to mutually beneficial ends. It's an engaging and enterprising technique which many of us find valuable (c.f. Arts Based Community Development), not least because it encourages people to explore areas of possible mutual interest.

Perhaps the point is that we need Downtown Week (and other civic and cultural celebrations) precisely because otherwise, in the concrete jungle, it's difficult to find occasions to share and jointly to develop the sorts of relationships which make life better for everyone. This is recognised in one way or another by, amongst others, the Civic Trust and my own organisation, HOPES: The Hope Street Association.

A commonality of meaning
The old-style village way of life most surely had its shortcomings, but it also had established cycles of events with meanings common to all. It is perhaps a sign of a maturing metropolis that, after many years of invisibility, Downtown is now once more coming to the fore through community programmes and celebrations.

There's so much still to be done, but at last there are signs it's understood people have to do it for themselves.

Liverpool's Downtown Week is still in its infancy. Before long however the infant will be a teenager and, like all teenagers, will doubtless seek to spread its wings elsewhere. As other parts of the UK also take up the idea of celebrating the heart of their civic communities, just remember where you heard about it first - from the real thing, the cutting edge of Liverpool's city centre, from people who actually live, work and play in Downtown Liverpool.

Tony Burrage (concert dress) May 2002.JPG Musicians and their instruments often have a very particular relationship, almost 'human' in some respects. Here is an example of a three-way arrangement which offers even those on the side-line, in this case the notoriously long-suffering 'orchestra wife', something uniquely special and positive.

Violinist Tony (Martin) Burrage & his Silvestre violin 170x158.jpgThe Strad dropped through our post box this morning, arriving on cue for our monthly up-date of All Things Violinistic (or, as they say of themselves, as the 'voice of the string music world since 1890').

The magazine (journal?) carried the usual range of articles about performing styles, who's the newest arrival on the block, current techniques for making instruments, the latest string recordings, and, in amongst the other inserts, a special poster of the exact dimensions of the Antonio Stradivari violin of 1721, the 'Kruse'. Hardly the stuff of general reading, this, but that kind of specialist detail has been the backdrop to my life for the past four decades or so. In other words, I'm married to a professional violinist.

Three's not always a crowd
There are no Stradivaris in our house, but there is a violin which has served very well for many years. It took some eighteen months to find - it had to 'speak' orchestrally and as a chamber instrument, whilst remaining within the stratosphere price-wise - and it caused us penury, but it's been a very constant companion.

Here is an almost ageless piece of 'equipment', already over a century old, which carries without doubt a fascinating history. (Anyone who saw the film The Red Violin, with such an impressively reflective performance by Joshua Bell of
John Corigliano's score, will want to know more... but we've been acquainted with this instrument - oddly, also red - only since the era of that very different cultural phenomenon, the age of Flower Power.)

A voice with a mind of its own
I've lost count of the number of violins which come and go in this household - tiny ('quarter' and 'half') ones for little beginner student violinists, tough relatively modern Mittenwald instruments for open air use, intriguing painted ones for amusement, most recently a genuine rock electric model - but 'the' violin remains aloof from these passing visitors, a trusted and constant companion to its owner, to his partner musicians and indeed to me.

This violin met its match in a beautiful bow, and it stays here, Elegant Music @ Heart & Soul (25.7.05) serenely assured of its incumbency. It has seen joy and sadness, comings together and partings, sickness and health. It has travelled the world and explored the local neighbourhoods.

A welcome guest
Often, I suspect, this instrument tells its owner more about inner thoughts and feelings than could any words.

In a very different way, the film Un Coeur en Hiver, with its haunting music from Ravel's Piano Trio, also explored the enigmas of this violinistic inner voice. For me too, though much more happily, our musical domestic 'trio' has offered a partnership which crosses from what can be articulated in normal ways to what cannot.

Inevitably, there are times when the violin takes first call - though I doubt any real examples of the stereotypically self-denying 'orchestra wife' now exist, not least because so many current players are women (and in any case, what orchestral salary supports a whole family?). When the music plays I go about my business contentedly alone, taking the distant musical role simply of involuntary audience whilst I work.
Ensemble Liverpool Nov 04 in the Lady Chapel, Liverpool Cathedral
But to know so well the relationship between an instrument, a player and that person's music - to have heard almost as though performing them wonderful works such as the Brahms' Quintet for Piano and Strings - is a gift well beyond any singular demands of this particular menage a trois.

Fruits & flowers (dahlia, small) 06.7.30 008.jpg Local communities need people who are engaged and involved - and if possible, even happy. Thanking people regularly for what they do would be a good start here..... and it might even fit the government's intended move to 'Double Devolution'.

There's been a lot in the media of late about how happy or otherwise people are. The gist often seems to be that although our wealth and standards of living are hugely better than they were, people are no happier than before.

I once read that one of the Scandinavian countries decided to do away with 'targets' for public services; they just set the objective of increasing 'customer' satisfaction by a certain percentage each year - and it worked.

This set me wondering whether the same sort of principle might be employed to increase community engagement.

'Thank yous' denote recognition
Flowers 002.jpg Perhaps every town should have a Thank You Officer - someone whose job or allocated task it is to find out about the good and helpful things which individuals and groups in the community have done, and who would then arrange for them to be thanked publicly. (There are of course already various formal awards systems etc; but this would be an on-going and integral part of the civic life of the community, not something you have to wait months in silence to be 'awarded'.)

This strategy might have three positive upshots. Firstly, the people who did the 'good deed' would feel appreciated, and perhaps even want to do more of the same.

Secondlly, public recognition offers positive role models and might encourage others also to make additional community input.

And thirdly, it would assist the powers-that-be and the strategists in perceiving the difference which local people (at all levels) can make in their own and their neighbours' communities. This, as has been commented before, is not always apparent to those whose job is to deliver policy.

Double Devolution
Perhaps encouragement to acknowledge what is contributed to a community would help the policy makers understand what matters to people in that community, and to see where simple support, not official 'direction' or formal strategy, can be the order of the day.

Not everything needs to be led from on high; and sometimes (though not always) local people have a better grasp of what needs doing next than anyone else. It's all a matter of combining local understanding with that essential wider vision - so why not start by appreciating much more those on the ground who seem keen to think-on about their communities? They're the folk who, with support, can make it happen.

This could be the start of a really genuine Double Devolution of power, at the points where it matters.

The ideal job?
Is Thank You Officer the ideal task or job? And would it repay the costs pretty quickly?

Only time would tell. There would be snags in this idea, as there are in all other ideas, but saying Thank You is something which might increase both engagement, and also satisfaction, across the board.

The knowledge economy is a huge area, with impact at every level from the micro to the massively macro. Yet there is still much debate, influenced by celebrated economists such as Robert Solow and Paul Romer, about whether technological progress produces economic growth, or vice versa. One commentator, David Warsh, has recently suggested that this debate currently throws only limited light on economists' understanding of how economies make progress. Perhaps nonetheless there are interesting questions which arise here in terms, particularly, of the impact of 'invention' and ideas in, say, social enterprise environments?

If technological progress dictates economic growth, asks The Economist, ('Economic focus: the growth of growth theory', 20 May 2006, p.96), what kind of economics governs technological advance?

The Economist article and blog praises David Warsh's new book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, and his analysis of the shifting understanding of the genesis and impact of technological advance.

'Ideas as goods'
In his book Warsh examines Nobel prize winner Robert Solow's supposed notion that ideas are bound to end up in diminishing returns (they are 'exogenous' to economic growth theory), and contrasts it with the proposition of Stanford University's Professor Paul Romer, that ideas are endogenous to growth theory - that they can be part of it.

In this analysis there are as I understand it three main principles:

1. ideas are 'non-rival' - i.e. they can be used by as many people as care to, at the same time;

2. ideas are expensive to produce, but almost without cost to reproduce;

3. nonetheless, the business of reproducing ideas does not usually give much in respect of financial returns, because ideas, being 'free' to reproduce, end up having very little economic value.

But goods in what market?
From these three premises it is easy to see that ideas have to be 'protected' if they are to have 'value' in normal business markets. In other words, they have to be copyrighted; and at the same time obviously other people have to be educated to a level where they can usefully employ these ideas, once they have 'bought' them.

But does this apply to all types of 'market'? I've been musing for a while on the idea that enterprise can be taxonomised in ways which make differentiation of impact (on ideas, people, systems) quite interesting. The normal 'for profit' economy behaves in one way, the 'ideas generator' 'academic' economy sometimes behaves rather differently, and the 'social' or 'not-for-profit' economy probably behaves in a different way again.

All these responses make sense to the 'actors' involved. Commercial business people aim very clearly at protecting their ideas in the knowledge economy; but academics and social entrepreneurs currently often promote their ideas without much reference to the 'business' value of the 'invention' because they are more concerned, respectively, with their status or with general social outcomes, than they are with how fast the actual money flows in their particular direction.

Shifting bases of ideas production?
Over time, things may change of course. The same edition of The Economist which carries the Growth Theory article also has a piece on shifts in the understanding of American academics concerning intellectual and real estate property values. Likewise, the economics of social enterprise is still in its infancy.

Maybe economics at the 'small' level - the level of academic and social-enterprise activity - is like the physics of particles... 'nano' behaviour is different from larger-scale activity in its impact.

Whatever (and here I'm trying to articulate something which others will understand much better than I), it's likely that over time the behaviour of those who produce academic and / or 'social-technical' ideas in the new knowledge economies will change. The question is, how and when?

The impact of benefit from ideas
Who will 'profit' from these changes? And, in the end, could the impact of freely shared ideas be felt even on the global scale, if the sharing extended to developing economies as well as those where the knowledge economy already has huge impact?

Will the growing realisation that all ideas have economic value in some sense lead to attempts to 'protect' social-technical invention as well as as the 'normal business' sort? Or will there be a continued wish to leave the way open for sharing and mutual development - just as, for instance, Tim Berners-Lee chose to do, when he created the world-wide web?

Many young people want to remain in cities like Liverpool after their higher education, but opportunities to develop professionally if they do so are still often quite limited. So what exactly is a 'graduate job'? And how do graduate jobs fit in with local economies?

There's a brand new 'Met Quarter' shopping arcade in Liverpool city centre which looks quite interesting, so that was where we headed in search of some coffee, after a meeting in town this morning.

The new arcade is indeed worth a good look - all shiny steel and glass and smart labels - but there was one aspect of it that certainly wasn't new to us. Our friendly and welcoming waitress was someone we already know because she's a recent graduate. Like several others of her graduating year, she is employed in a capacity which gives her an income, but doesn't really use her formal skills.

A conundrum for cities on the edge
This is a familiar problem for cities like Liverpool, perceived by bright young people to have excitement and 'edge', but with relatively weak economies.

The question which always arises in this context is, how long will a recent graduate stay in employment which doesn't fit their recently acquired formal skills? Is it right to encourage young people to stay? Or should we be encouraging them to fly the civic nest, with a promise that we'll keep in touch?

Liverpool has plenty of graduate incubators and 'Graduates into Work' programmes. Both have very important functions in the local economy. The former helps proto-type entrepreneurs to take their ideas forward; the latter, of course amongst other things, is often especially helpful for local graduates who already have their homes and families in Merseyside and need to stay.

The initial post-graduate years are critical
Is there an issue when young graduates remain in Liverpool in low-skill jobs, just at the time when they should be busily extending their experience and applying thier newly acquired knowledge?

Figures on graduate retention beyond a year or two are notoriously difficult to find for given locations. These are however crucial to our understanding of how the high skills agenda should be developed in an emerging economy such as Merseyside's.

What some graduates and those with second degrees actually do after graduation remains a mystery, but the suspicion is that if they stay in a city like Liverpool they do not always fully use their new skills. Maybe we need to be honest enough on occasion to help them get experience elsewhere which, we all hope, they will later come back to Liverpool to use.

A fair exchange?
That young graduates want to stay and enjoy the vitality of a city such as Liverpool is excellent. Their enthusiasm and determination to make something of their lives here is something everyone warmly welcomes. But if we want these young people to develop their potential properly, we need to think of ways to establish a freeflow of skills and experience between our own backyard and other places.

Then, when the local economy really does come up to speed, we'll have plenty of skilled and experienced people waiting, who already know us and want to be part of it.

Woman's purse with coins, diary, lipstick &c (small) 80x105.jpg There's a debate to be had about gender pay audits or reviews. To be effective, should they be compulsory and public? Do they have the desired effect on pay equality? And could they result in pay equity within given occupations, but even lower overall wages where the majority of the workforce is female?

The Fawcett Society reported recently that 30 years of equal pay legislation has taken us almost nowhere in terms of income equite between men and women. Apparently, it will be roughly another 85 years before we can hope to see this in reality.

In other words, sometime never... So obviously we're not getting it quite right, despite the legislation.

Equal pay audits
One 'solution' which has been proposed is compulsory equal pay audits in employing organsiations The logic of this way forward is already being followed by some organisations such as the NHS (National Health Service, Agenda for Change) and socially responsible companies, where careful parity of pay against task is already established. But many businesses do not do it.

At least in theory such audits or reviews would ensure equal pay for equal work. This is something few would argue against.

Making it fair
But is there a snag, unless the audit is compulsory for everyone? If only some types of employment - for instance, in the third and public sectors - oblige by doing the decent thing, will that result in higher wages, probably for the usual parties, in other unmeasured and unreported sectors?

And would this also mean that wages in those sectors which are monitored take a general downward turn? - There is plenty of historical evidence of average wages falling in given occupations as numbers of women in them increase.

Maybe this is a bit like the situation reportedly found in Scandinavia, where people's tax returns are posted for all to see? Cynics have been known to suspect that high earners sometimes find a haven for their money outside that declarable fiscal area... with the loss to the national economy which that is thought to entail.

Plugging the gaps?
How are we to deliver fair and equal return on endeavour without having 'havens' for those who consider themselves above that sort of thing? If there's a sensible answer, many of us would be pleased to hear about it.

Tesco and the other huge supermarkets want to show socially responsible, how green and cuddly, they are. The test will be in how much they actually deliver - and the power to encourage them to achieve this lies much more than some have so far conceded with the communities in which they are located.

The 'charm offensive' by Tesco can't be faulted. Their new 10-point plan says they are going to be 'green and good', and to blend in more with their retail neighbours, at least for the Tesco Express outlets. That's genuinely good news all round.

It's difficult to tell how much this intiative is in response to concerns, recently referred yet again to the Competition Commission, about large retailers who are 'stoking up' on land, and how much it's just part of the retail learning curve that all sensible commercial businesses need to be on. My guess is it's a combination of the two, but who knows?

And indeed, who cares? It's what happens which matters in the business world and to the average customer, not why it may have happened.

Green and forward looking?
We can only welcome the promise to use totally bio-degradeable bags, to have clearer product labelling, to deliver bulk merchandise more considerately on the high street and to promote healthy eating. Tesco knows very well that these promises will have to be kept - there are plenty of people watching out there who would be delighted to find them failing to deliver these undertakings. (To quote Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation, 'The good neighbour tag could come back to haunt them, rather like the Tories with their Back to Basics campaign.')

There are many debates to be had about Tesco, but the logic of the market still in the end applies. If enough people make a fuss, things will change. If they don't, change may occur, but not at the same rate. The really clever businesses, of course, change in anticipation of what the fuss will later be about, not as an overt response to it. Maybe that's the oft-commented genius of Tesco boss Terry Leahy?

Strength in numbers?
But for many local consumers the 'real' issue isn't so much the logic of the market as the perceived 'threat' to local communities and smaller businesses. This concern is probably reasonable in many respects. Tesco and the other huge supermarkets have enormous resources and strengths and the little shop on the corner doesn't. It might however be useful to remember that strength, for all parties, may lie in working together.

This could happen in two ways.

Firstly, have the small local businesses approached their bigger neighbours (or vice-versa?) to see what possibilities there are for, say, joint customer-faced training, local supplier support, promotion of healthy life-styles, community investment or anything else? Is there any real dialogue going on to test the depth and sincerity of the claim of the big stores that they want to work with their tiny neighbours? If there is, it's not hit the headlines...

And secondly, what are local business leaders and advisors doing to help small enterprises to get together and act as one to 'protect' their interests against the giants? Wouldn't this be a more constructive use of, say, council officials' time - paid for by all of us - than carrying on endless local enquiries?

Convoluted logic
There's a strange logic in the situation which often seems to come up, where on the one hand local activists persuade their council to oppose intended (and in many respects often much-needed) investment by the large interests, whilst at the same time most people in the community choose to shop in larger stores. Perhaps there's a message here somewhere?

Less fuss about Tesco and their ilk hoping (until the current initiative) to open as long as they want to on Sundays (they can already do this in Scotland...), and more attention to the ways that local businesses can collaborate to serve their particular communities, might be quite a good idea. To quote Sharon Fraser, head of audit at Deloitte in the north, 'Financial support could help the small stores improve their property portfolio.' And what applies to property portfolios applies equally perhaps to other aspects of local business.

In the meantime, the 'competition' between the Big Boys to show their green and cuddly credentials can be no bad thing either.

Wavertree Botanic Garden (headless statue, small) 06.5.12 001 Headless statue.jpg The long-delayed Edge Lane developments, constructing an Eastern Gateway to Liverpool by 2007 / 8, are about to start. What a pity, then, that the historic Wavertree Botanic Gardens located just by the intended new route (and initiated in 1803 by no less a person than William Gladstone) are in such a state of neglect.

Wavertree Park & Botanic Gardens (road)  06.5.7 007 (Edge Lane, last day before the roadworks start).jpg Today (Monday 8 May 2006) is expected to see the first major initiative in the Edge Lane 'Eastern Approaches' development.

There have been many delays in getting this work done. Housing and other contested issues have kept the plans from becoming reality for many years; but this is not the time to rehearse those matters yet again.

Wavertree Park & Botanic Gardens 06.5.7 002.jpg Wavertree Botanic Garden (chippings) 06.5.12 003.jpg Yesterday I decided to take a look for myself at the Botanic Gardens which were originated in 1803 by William Roscoe, near Abercromby Square in the city centre, and have since 1830 been situated alongside Edge Lane. Would there, I wondered, be a place of peace and tranquility in this under-recognised park, which might offer refuge from all the construction and inevitable chaos of the road works?

Nowhere to go?
Sadly, the Botanic Garden isn't any more a place you'd want to visit. I saw several locked and chained entrances (only one way in or out), some scarily secluded corners, and many piles of shredded wood where shrubs had been - but no flowers. There's a budding laburnum-arch walk (to another chained gate) which shows promise for later in the week, and a cherry tree lined path outside the walled garden, by the former Littlewoods Building. That, however, is about it.

Wavertree Botanic Garden 06.5.12 008 Labirnum Arch.jpg Maybe Liverpool needs to look more to its green image as well as its brownfield regeneration. With all the current disruption, surely local people deserve somewhere nearby where they can take their families, relax and feel safe? Already, there is concern because the 'step' between the two sides of the highway is not expected to be evened out - which will mean that it continues effectively to be impossible for people north of the dual carriageway to reach their park. To say this seems short-sighted would be a kindness to those who in all probability have never even thought about it. (If they have, why isn't anything happening to reassure local people?)

Edinburgh Botanical Gardens  06.5.28 016.jpg Other cities such as Edinburgh (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh: see photo, left, and below *) and Birmingham show us how we could value plants and gardens. Let's hope we shall too, by 2007 / 8. Otherwise, our expected visitors as we celebrate our 800th anniversary in 2007 and the European Capital of Culture 2008 will have to speed down the smart new Edge Lane past a sorely neglected vestige, rather than a wonderful living part, of our proud civic history.

* You can see another larger photo here: Early Summer In Edinburgh Botanic Gardens

Fruits & flowers 06.7.30 003.jpg The inner city is not an easy place to indulge green fingers, but there are many reasons why we all need to think about this. It's not even just about fresh, healthy produce; there's a really important issue of sustainability in all this. Let's start with the hesitant late-night gardener in Tesco.

Late night shopping (feeling very virtuous because we'd just been to a dance and inter-active media event at Unity Theatre and had even stayed for the discussion afterwards)... so it had to be Tesco Old Swan if we wanted bread and coffee for the morning.

Garden flowers 2006 (July) 001.jpg Inevitably, I gravitate to the plants and flowers stall - where else but the supermarket would you be tempted to buy seeds for weekend gardening at 11 p.m. on Friday night? A woman already there is eyeing a packet of French marigold seeds uneasily. Do I know anything about gardening?, she asks. She is thinking she might grow some flowers in a pot in the back yard

My 'advice' is limited by my own inexpertise. Perhaps it's a good idea to use water-holding gel to guard against neglect of the seedlings (my own major misdeed) and, if a dry patch is likely, nasturtiums are both delightful and very forgiving. We chat on such things for a while and the woman moves on, clutching the marigold seeds doubtfully.

Shops, jobs and flowers for everyone?
Old Swan is a part of town which faces many challenges. Much of the housing stock is derelict Victorian, doubtless magnificent in its prime but now 'student' flats, or else back-to-back terrace. The unemployment rate remains high and the educational attainment is well below average. Tesco is the only major store on the area, and a very significant local employer; and it stocks gardening products which, if my late-night encounter is anything to go by, tempt first time green fingers.

None of this justifies the particular business strategies which some say the superstores adopt. But perhaps it does point to a few important considerations about economic development of a run-down area, and it also tells us that people still hope for better - why else buy flower seeds?

And why is there so little that grows in the lives of people in Old Swan? There's nearby Newsham Park, curently a topic of hot debate amongst those who value green space, and the Edge Lane (Wavertree) Botanic Garden - would that it had the same recognition and status as its contemporaries in e.g. Birmingham! But not much else.

Green fingers from the start
Pears 06.7.30 012.jpg When then can we expect that inner-city chidlren will learn routinely how to grow things at school? When will we start to think carefully about more allotments and other community growing space for grown-ups? In what ways can we help with the active use of gardens and allotments in the city? When will we start to teach children (and their mums and dads) about seasonal, lcaol prodcue? And how can we link the urge to see things grow with wider matters of health, diet and environment?

These are matters of sustainability in the long-term; and if they start from marigolds in a pot from Tesco, that's an interesting conjunction too.

Mum & child, plus childless couple (small) 90x91.jpg A recent survey suggests young people prefer material benefits to babies. But maybe hesitation about starting a family is more about uncertainty whether one's parenting will be good enough, than in wanting 'more' materially. And there is hope for the future of young families, not least in the support which Sure Start programmes are now beginning to deliver across the country.

The Guardian / ICM poll on attitudes to having children, reported today (2.5.06), demands careful reading.

The Guardian editorial on this important survey identifies some critical issues about contemporary attitudes to families and parenting. Now that young women and men feel equally free to pursue serious careers it is unsurprising that both should be cautious about producing babies; though this does not self-evidently suggest that babies are not valued of themselves. Perhaps rather it's concern about whether potential parents can provide 'good enough' care for their intended offspring which holds them back..... That, and the certainty that mothers still can't win when it comes to combining work and parenthood.

It is true that, as the Guardian leader says, there is a role here for government in supporting families and parenting, but it's less than accurate in suggest that this nettle has not been grasped. Amongst a range of initiatives is the national Sure Start programme, now developing across the country.

Sure Start programmes support parenting
Local Sure Start programmes in many places are working on the issues which underlie current concerns of parents and potential parents. By 2008-10 there will be Children's Centres all around the country, catering not 'just' (as Sure Start programmes currently do) for less advantaged young families, but for everyone. They will aim to accommodate the crucial fact that, as one parent commented, it 'costs a lot' financially and personally to go out to work when one has children.

Sure Start and the anticipated Children's Centres still face many challenges, but they are genuinely good news..... look out for National Sure Start Month, in June.

Ironically, because Sure Start and Children's Centres have so far focused on less advantaged families, they have not yet reached the chattering classes; so no-one's noticing them. Soon however these programmes will be at a place near you, and to everyone's benefit.

Acknowledge it or lose it?
It would be a sad irony if, in having started where it matters most of all, the government were not now to be given the credit for what will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity really to make a difference to the prospects of families of every sort - including those of hardworking professionals of both genders - right across the nation.

May Day

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08.05.20 Sefton Park 028a 120x72.jpg May Day has been with us for centuries. Its overt meanings, and even the actual date, may change, but the sense of taking a day to do something different and more personal remains. People in every age and every part of the world have welcomed the onset of Summer and the chance to throw a party.

It's May Day today. The first of May, that unequivocal date which, unlike the contested first day of Spring (is it the vernal equinox on 20/21 March, or the newer BBC version on 1 March?), is firmly set in the European calendar.

When I was small I genuinely thought that May Day was about Morris Dancers and Maypoles. We lived in villages in Hampshire, Wiltshire and then Gloucestershire, and my father was a rural science teacher who took his local community involvement seriously - so we all enjoyed a flavour of the festive rituals of many centuries, and are none the worse for that.

Holding on to traditions and ideas
I suppose that in some ways that was the end of a very long period in history, already mostly shattered by global stife and the increasing grip of technology. Looking back, it might be seen as idyllic, though that it certainly wasn't; give me double glazing, wider horizons and lots of running hot water any day.

But there are vestiges of the 'old' May Day way of life which still resonate. The festivals (May Day, Harvest and what have you) were unselfconscious and for everyone. Our understanding of the seasons and cycles of the earth - I learned about crop rotation at a very early age, and about its history back to mediaeval times not much later - is something which still informs my perceptions, albeit now in terms of eco-systems. And the things we did were family inclusive; sometimes overly so, but at least everyone was there.

New meaning for old ideas
Only after I came to the city did I learn that there was also another 'meaning' to May Day - its use, on the first Monday of May, as a celebration of workers' rights. Thus, 1 May 1886 in the United States saw the very first International Workers' Day.... not to be confused with 1 September, which after historical debate is now set in America as Labor Day.

Such reinvention of celebratory events is not however confined to the U.S.A. In Liverpool since 1978, when the date first became a Bank Holiday, we have seen the first Monday in May used to underpin general festivities, to recognise Trade Unions and, occasionally, to celebrate shire horses. The scope is huge in a place with such long historical links to labour, but also with wide-open spaces such as Sefton Park right by the city centre.

Modern May Day
Activities this year for May Day are a million miles away from my hazy childhood recollections. There range from a demonstration in London to promote a Trade Union Freedom Bill, to a grass-roots Labor Arts Festival in Edmonton, Canada and a Maypole event at Liverpool's Tudor half-timbered Speke Hall and Morris dancers (yes!) outside our wonderful St. George's Hall, via big marches and strikes across the U.S.A. in favour of regularising the status of illegal workers.

Thus morphs the traditional May Day in a more politically conscious era, whether the objective be workers' rights or a determiniation to see celebration through the arts of community in a more fragmented world. We can only be glad, whatever the detailed argument about the causes espoused, that people still see fit to make the effort.

We have lost much of the original understanding of May Day, and I'd guess that many people active today are not even aware of its historical roots. But things change only in some ways. For every person involved in worthy trade union activity today, there are probably still hundreds carrying on the original idea behind May Day, taking a day off work and getting out their lawnmower or barbecue set, as they prepare for some family'n'friends time in the garden.

Let's hope the sun shines for everyone, demonstrators, gardeners and revellers alike.