Saturday 23 October 2010

It's Up To Us

I've spent a lot of time and energy this week thinking about the Comprehensive Spending Review cuts, as well as the recent cuts to science and education in this country.

A lot of that time has been spent cursing under my breath at the Great British Public for voting in the Tories -- did people honestly think they wouldn't be horrible? -- and at the LibDems for selling out and allowing their coalition partners to get away with this. A further chunk has been spent in fuming ire at the banking bailouts of 2008 and the various unpaid tax bills of large corporations. I find it hard to believe that the money so freely given away by the government is justified by the contribution the banks and large corporations make to the economy.

None of those are useful responses.

I think that the cuts to education and benefits are wrong, but I also think they're very short-sighted. If my neighbour's house is on fire, you can bet I'm going to be there with a bucket trying to help put it out, not only because of any love I might have for my neighbour but also because I know full well that my house is next. Poverty and lack of access to good education don't work as fast as fire, but I know that the world is so interconnected that what affects the poorest in our society will have knock-on effects for the rest of us. Only the rich and very rich can insulate themselves from this with their money.

For the rest of us, I think it's been clear for some time that relying on the government safety net of cradle-to-grave welfare is just not going to work. The government is far too beholden to a financial services industry with not enough regulation to prevent bubbles, and has forgotten about Keynesian economics or about any sort of duty to act on behalf of voters. Single-provider welfare doesn't work because it is so vulnerable to abuse. This is just as true now as when the Church was the arbiter of assistance.

The idea of the "Big Society" that has been waved about is, in some ways, a solution to this. I don't think the current government really believes in it: if they did, they'd be funding Big Society projects to get us started rather than removing vital support from the most vulnerable people in our society. But the lack of government support for the Big Society doesn't mean it's a bad idea in and of itself.

Imagine a society where everyone volunteers for something, or donates a substantial portion of their income to charities. Imagine a society where people can form meaningful friendships with people different than themselves. Imagine a society where if you fall on hard times, there is not just one route to get help but three or four; where everyone is concerned with the wellbeing of their neighbours (near and far -- we are all neighbours), where people are involved in deciding how resources are used, where even the most vulnerable are valued as having something to contribute. Imagine a society where nearly nobody is on government benefits because their communities take care of their needs. That's the Big Society, as I imagine it. I don't think it'll be easy to build, and there are serious issues of competence in relying entirely on volunteerism (but this could be offset by those who don't volunteer but instead donate money). There will always be an element of waste in that there will always be people who game the system, even if that system is actually many systems which overlap. But I do think that the vision of a Big Society where people care for one another and the vast majority of basic needs are met is one that is possible and is worth striving for.

What's interesting about this is that there are parallels in access to information. For most of the 20th century we had mostly one-way broadcast media; that is now changing to networked media. There are advantages and disadvantages of this and it is becoming apparent that the peer selection effect is very strong now compared to the days when one had less choice in one's social surroundings. Rather than the internet being one huge network where everyone pays attention to everyone else, it functions more as a system of networks which sometimes overlap. I'm on the edges of at least two such networks that spring to mind immediately, one full of church folks and one full of geeks, but there are several more.

I don't think the Big Society is going to happen overnight and I don't think that we can expect the current government to lift a finger to help us, but I don't think that has to prevent us working for change. I've been trying to say this on Twitter for a day or two and mostly I am getting compared to Boxer in Orwell's Animal Farm, who, faced with each new difficulty in the fourlegs-led revolution, vows to work harder. I've been told that I shouldn't be trying to take up the slack because that's exactly what our rich Tory overlords want me to do. I've been told that asking Vodafone UK to pay their £6bn tax bill would be fruitless, because our government wouldn't spend that money on benefits for the disabled but on police-state surveillance and guns to kill brown people.

The reason I think this is different is that, while network communication (rather than uneven broadcast) doesn't guarantee democratization of information access, it does make it easier, in the same way that Gutenberg's printing press and increases in literacy brought about huge changes in the society of the time. We have amazing tools for connecting to one another and people are recognising that it's about relationships.

I do think that organised resistance does need to be part of this, and I've signed the statement committing to get involved with that.

I also don't think that my signing a petition is going to have much immediate effect. I don't think that the risks of going ahead with creating a better society outweigh the need to get on and do it. Signing a petition or a statement will not give a homeless person a safe place to sleep. Volunteering with a homeless shelter will. Writing to my MP will probably not change how my high-street bank uses my money, but switching to something more ethical will. That doesn't mean I don't sign the petitions or write to my MP, but it means I do need to think about how my decisions affect everyone else, not just fob them off onto the government.

The government, as far as I am concerned, has proven that it cannot be trusted to help.

It's up to us to build the Big Society.

The government won't enforce tax laws, so it's up to us to withdraw or withhold custom from the worst tax evaders.

The government won't stop banks lending irresponsibly, so it's up to us to provide debt counseling and aid to those who've been wooed into "cheap" credit they can't afford.

The government won't protect disadvantaged people from destitution, so it's up to us to provide food and shelter for those who have none.

It's up to us to teach one another the skills we need to survive.

It's up to us to strengthen the weak. It's up to us to care for the sick. It's up to us to comfort the brokenhearted. It's up to us to protect the vulnerable.

I'm not saying it should be that way, but that it is. Like it or loathe it, it's up to us.

What are you doing to help?

Sunday 17 October 2010

Travel time and time travel

This morning feels about a million years away! Really, I only had two main events today, but the day felt much longer.

I started with a Gregorian Chant workshop put on by RSCM EEL. I wouldn't ordinarily have gone to something like that with such short notice -- I got an e-mail about it on Thursday -- but it was led by Nick Gale, director of music at St George's RC Cathedral, and it was close to home at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Wanstead. Our first chant of the day was not Gregorian but Ambrosian chant, a setting of the Gloria. It dates from around 400 CE, and it was interesting to see how the later additions to the text of the gloria were clearly of a different musical pattern than the earlier text. There was also quite a lot of actual Gregorian chant, including some things that might be useful for Advent.

I enjoyed the workshop immensely. After that I was off to a Harvest Supper at St Mary's Addington, where I was to play the serpent and the piano as part of the entertainments. The journey was quite horrific; I was kindly offered a lift by another workshop participant who lives near Addington, and as it had only taken him about 45 minutes to get to Wanstead in the morning I accepted. Unfortunately the southbound Blackwall Tunnel was closed and we spent about two hours on Blackwall Tunnel Approach. I couldn't even get out and take public transport until after we'd cleared the start of the tunnel.

I got there in the end, though, and the entertainments hadn't yet started. Phew! My piano playing was accompanying two friends singing "Misalliance" by Flanders and Swann. I was still a bit rattled after the journey and my hands were shaking badly, so I didn't play as well as I might have, but we got through okay and the audience loved their singing -- and acting! Later on was the serpent number. The choir had rehearsed "O God, my heart is fixed, 'tis bent", a metrical setting of Psalm 57 vv7-11 from the London Gallery Quire book Your Voices Raise, but we hadn't had a chance to play it together at all; it went well. The tune is "Lynn" by Uriah Davenport (1690-1784) and the words are from the New Version of Tate and Brady (1696). I had left my notes for the brief chat about the serpent and about West Gallery music at home, so forgot large parts of them; hopefully I didn't baffle people too much. I closed that set with a brief rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon" for reasons which I won't go into here. I have found that, anachronistic as it might seem, some of the jazz standards work remarkably well on the serpent. Possibly it's because I'm so accustomed to playing vocal basslines.

Then it was just the long journey home again... given the earlier transport problems, I accepted with some trepidation a lift as far as East Croydon station from a choir member, and though there were indeed some roadworks and a detour it was smooth driving all the way there. Then came the train, and the tube, and the rail replacement bus, and the walk home.

Dates for music I have sung/played today:
18th century
20th century

Types of transport I have used today:
private cars (not mine -- I don't drive!)
bus route 15
Docklands Light Railway (a sort of train)
London Overground (another sort of train)
Croydon Tramlink
British Rail
TfL rail replacement bus.

Clearly what I need is one of these:

No wonder the day felt long. It's far past my bedtime now, though; I've got to get up in the morning to play the organ at church.

Friday 15 October 2010

A transport of delight...

Allow me to indulge in a little off-topic blogging...

Today was my day off, and it is nearing my birthday, so I went to pick this up:

Her name is Millicent, and she is a birthday present from a certain boy who seems to take inordinate pleasure in spoiling me rotten. No complaints here!

Since I was a teenager I have been hankering after a bicycle that is a grown-up version of the big old blue pushbike I had for a few years. I want to be able to sit absolutely upright, I don't use many gears and dislike derailleurs, I want to be able to carry a fair amount, and I don't want to get too muddy or have to wear much in the way of special clothing.

I think I may have found what I've been looking for. Millicent is more sophisticated than the old blue pushbike: she has three gears, which will be a help for hills, and also a front caliper brake to supplement the back-pedal brakes. In the picture above she's only got one pannier on but the rack is quite sturdy and will easily take one on the other side and a top rack as well; I haven't opted for a front basket just yet, but that is also a possibility in future. The model I opted for has battery-operated lights, and I have some extra ones to attach for added visibility. I have my cycle maps and I know that as I ride more, I'll get more confident riding in the traffic and be able to deal with unfamiliar routes and busy roads more safely.

Unfortunately, I'll still need to rely on public transport a fair amount. I like the pannier but there is no way it will take the serpent! Any trailer rack that will would add sufficient length to be a problem in traffic and sufficient width that getting through the keep-the-cars-out barriers would be a real pain. I don't want a longbike (longbike is lonnnnng), Millicent only just fits in the hallway as it is. In any case, bikes offer less padding for the instrument than either walking or being in a car, and that's just not going to work with such a fragile beast. It might be possible with a custom case, or a trailer with some shock absorption.

The horn is a little easier: I have a Marcus Bonna backpack case already, and though it isn't great for wearing for long periods it could be adapted (I've done this before when I had to carry it a lot). It will be a while, though, before I'm confident enough with the bicycle and the traffic to be happy about wearing my horn on my back whilst zooming about London. Give it three or four years, maybe.

Trying to cycle with a piano or a pipe organ? Right out of the question.

I do hope, though, that in a year or two I will be fit enough to manage my commute from Leytonstone to Hendon for teaching. I'm told there's a rather steep hill in the way, which isn't so noticeable on the Tube.

Meanwhile, tomorrow I am traveling to Addington Village via Wanstead with no Central Line (or not the bit of it I need) and a serpent. I don't think it's time to turn in the travelcard yet!