A blog recording the thoughts of a mum of one who does a lot of voluntary work because it's more fun than resuming her career and is a bit worried about the state of the nation.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Down in the Forest

I have spent half-term in the Forest of Dean. My mum was born a Forester and has a huge store of anecdotes about her girlhood. A vast clan of my ancestors hung out in a place called Primrose Hill, which has better views and a more friendly ambience then the one in London and has probably never been visited by Sadie Frost/Law or Kate Moss. Most of the clan worked in the tinplate works or on the River Severn, but they also had a good time drinking homemade alcohol, betting, bickering and going to chapel.

A few years ago I started to research the family history, concentrating first on such mysteries as "Why did Aunty Ivy have to be hidden every time a man called Fryer on a bicycle came up the road?" (he was her estranged father) and "Who was the lamented and absent Aunt Lizzie from Saul?" (the abandoned wife of a seaman whose unfortunate marriage had left her stranded on the wrong side of the Severn).

To my amazement my bemused Forest second cousins often knew the people I had found out about on Genes Reunited, but had sometimes forgotten that they were related to them: "O yes she's that nice woman from the chemists in the Co-op" or "Curly-haired big bloke, drives a green truck". Having grown up with not that much family around and now a bit short on descendants, it seemed incredibly careless to have forgotten that nice people with trucks were your own flesh and blood. I began to realise that when my mother's family had had to move away she had only kept up with a few of her favourites amongst the vast smorgasbord of relatives on offer.

This has left me brooding about my displacement: would my life have been different if I'd grown up in a place where ties of blood bound me to half my neighbours and been really fearless and outspoken? Would we still have been hiding kiddies to avoid access visits from unreliable men and have banded together to stop Primrose Hill Post Office from being closed? Would we be fighting together to stop the Government selling off the Forestry Commission and half the Forest of Dean with it? Sorry parents but I like to think my Big Soc. mentality has its origins in a genetic memory of what was lost when you reinvented yourselves as Londoners!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Comprehensive Spending Review Blues

As a very debt-adverse person I quite approve of trying to cut down on all that interest that we seem to be paying. As a household where neither of us pay higher rate tax we will get to keep our child benefit. As an OAP (with the sort of index-linked pension that was phased-out about 30 years ago) my mum gets to keep her free TV licence and winter fuel payment as it would be too fiddly to think of a way of taking it away from her (her tax return?). As an environmentalist I welcome the Green Investment Bank. As the daughter-in-law of a man with Parkinsons I don't need to worry that he will be taken off invalidity benefit and sent back to work as he is now 65 (had they interviewed him he would definitely have tried to bluff his way back in, preferably to a job that involved wielding heavy implements). Sigh of relief and happy then?

No of course not. I am worried about everything. All the local authorities that are going to lose money will cut the grants that provide core funding to the voluntary sector no matter what David Cameron says about Big Soc., the local dementia day centre is shutting, far more people will need advice on how to cope with less money from housing and welfare benefits but there will be fewer advice centres and no legal aid to provide it, eighty thousand families will have to move out of London to live in B & Bs in Hastings and Luton, and the Environment Agency will no longer have enough staff to inspect polluters. We even have to worry that too many cuts will lead to a double dip recession with less people paying taxes and then we will end up in as much trouble as the Irish.

So I am going to have to take a closer interest in the figures, read Robert Peston's blog avidly, and try to work out whether we can cut the deficit by clamping down on tax avoidance, bankers' bonuses, digestive biscuits for civil servants and red tape for charities and small businesses (even though most of the money I earn is from helping them to cope with it). But no doubt I will never get my head round it so I am going to spend the next few years feeling cross but without the economic understanding to fight back articulately.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Big Soc. Speech

David Cameron has set out his vision for the Big Society at the Tory party conference. I didn't watch it live but I have read it on a website, accompanied by a photo of him grinning a bit tentatively without showing his lips.

I am sympathetic to what DC has to say about the need for people to change the way that they think about themselves and their role in society. Yes, a lot of people do seem to think that if they pay their taxes (or not) someone else will sort everything out. I like the fact that he says that the state of the nation is determined not just by its government and those who run it but by "millions of individual actions - by what each of us do and what we choose not to do". I like his call for people to take the initiative and work together to get things done.

I confess that since becoming a bit more old and settled and moving to a suburb I have been rather shocked by how many affluent people don't seem interested in life outside their immediate social circle and day to day routines. It's not that I expect everyone to want to carry out undercover investigations of the Japanese whaling industry or fret about tar sands extraction in Alberta, but working together to sort out the swimming rota and find the best builder to do loft conversions is not going to get the UK very far down the road to Big Soc.

However, I part company with DC about whether Big Soc. is really "a brand new start" for Britain. A percentage of the population has always behaved in a big soc. way and many charities and other organisations, large and small, have been initiating and supporting community action successfully for a very long time.

There's something deeply irritating about the way in which politicians like to wipe the slate clean and get rid of their predecessors' initiatives and branding (and quangos) even if these are perfectly compatible with the ideas of the new administration. I heard an impassioned talk recently by a man who had set up an amazing social enterprise on his run down estate in Luton. It was about to receive funding from a programme launched by the last Government which would have create lots of jobs for the long term unemployed. At the 11th hour the programme was withdrawn by the new Government and the money had vanished, even though everything they planned to do was completely Big Soc. and DC had begged him to be in the Tory manifesto!

So I hope the Conservatives will be able to persuade more people that they will enjoy getting involved in their local communities as opposed to sitting in front of the TV every night. But please DC can you stop pretending that we are having a totally new start and try to minimise the number of new documents to read, new conferences to go to and new forms to fill in, as it will cause months if not years of delay.