Tag Archives: community

Learning democracy

The unschooling diaries: week twenty-three

Today I took Arthur to vote for the fourth time in his three and a half years. The most recent was only a few weeks ago – another referendum, then on the mayoral system in Torbay. It was clearly fresh in his mind as we walked down to the town hall today as when I told him we were going to vote he said “We’re going to vote? Again?”

He wanted to mark the cross on the ballot paper. I couldn’t quite bring myself to delegate that task to him – not yet – but it made me smile that he was so keen.

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He’s starting to learn what it’s all about. He has a head start, I guess, having a mum on the local council. Last Spring he spent hours with me delivering leaflets around the streets of our small town, and he has been to a fair few council meetings since, generally letting the talk wash over him but still with a creeping awareness that this is how decisions are made: that people get together, and they talk, and they work out the best way forward.

We’ve talked about the national picture too – he knows when conversation between me and Leigh is heating up politically, and he always asks shat it is we’re talking about. And we try to explain, as simply as we can, why we feel so strongly about the things going on in the world around us.

It is vital, I think, that our children are aware of – and engaged in – the democratic process. When I have wobbles about not sending Arthur off to preschool it’s one of the big selling points for the life we have chosen: he may not yet fully understand it all, but this immersion in the workings of our society is definitely seeping into his psyche.

After we voted today, we sat with our coffee and croissant in our favourite local cafe and the mood was reflective. I could swear there was a part of his mind that was pondering the impact that all of this would have on his future. Maybe not quite consciously, but still there was a sense of the importance of what we had done.

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I may be reading too much into it, but whether Arthur is starting to get the hang of this whole democracy business or not it is him – and all of our children – that this is all about. I felt this more keenly with the EU referendum than with any of the other votes he has cast with me.

If the people of the UK have chosen to Leave the EU (I am nervously watching the first results roll in as I write this and they are not looking good), then it is likely to have a dramatic impact on the life that my son will lead. We will have choices to make, as a family, about where we want to live: I am not convinced that a post-EU UK will be a good fit for any of us. Even if the vote leans towards Remain the months and years ahead are going to be difficult. So much fear and xenophobia has been stirred up by this divisive campaign that I worry about the tensions that will embed themselves if people feel that their voices have not been heard.

Whatever lies ahead, though, I want Arthur to be entering into it as informed as he possibly can be, and with a sense that he has an important part to play in deciding his future and the future of his country.

Amongst the many, many articles that I have read over the past week, there is one that stood out and made me fear for that future. It was the story of a woman whose son had come home from a school assembly about the referendum and told her that she should vote Remain. The details of what had led him to think that are open to debate and somewhat immaterial, but her reaction floored me. She was ‘disgusted’ that her eight year old child had been exposed to discussion about this political event, indeed about politics in general – in her own words she said:

I was so shocked because I have never voted in my life and I keep that stuff away from the kids.

I mean, what?

I’m not advocating schools (or anyone) politically brainwashing kids, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the issue here. What this woman seems to have taken umbrage with is the very notion that her son should be educated about the politics that underpins every single aspect of his life – and that is intrinsically linked with her own complete disengagement from the democratic process.

One of the most compelling arguments I have heard from Leave campaigners surrounds the undemocratic nature of the EU. That in itself is open for debate, but is surely a moot point if even within the UK people are opting out of democracy.

Our young people need to understand how the decisions made by different tiers of government impact on their lives – and in order to be able to do that they need to be invited to consider and discuss the choices and challenges we are facing.

I am looking forward to seeing how my continued discussion with Arthur unfolds. I do hope, though, that it’s against the backdrop of unity rather than division.

 

On words, and truth

This past week, for me as for many others, has been almost entirely consumed by the EU referendum.

I have been pretty certain of how I would vote since the idea of a referendum was even mooted – I feel more European than I do British, and the thought of walking away from an institution that has successfully secured peace on our volatile continent, and has always been there as a buffer to protect us from the increasingly right-wing leanings of our government, just does not sit easily with me.

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Still, though, I have wanted to put my conviction to the test – both as an individual and as a town councillor I have wanted to ensure that I am not missing a trick: that I am not so blindly caught up in an emotional response to this seminal issue that I skirt over the facts, and promote a stance that is, in fact, not in the best interests of me or my community.

I expected to discover, as I delved deeper into the realities behind the propaganda, that things were not as clear cut as my gut was telling me. That whilst there were good reasons to Remain, the Leave camp would also have compelling evidence to support their point of view. After all, there are many people just as passionate about getting rid of the EU as there are about staying within it – almost exactly as many, if the polls are to be believed.

But the more I dug, and read, and reflected, the more I became convinced that not only is remaining in the EU the right thing do, but that a huge number of people who are planning to vote to leave are doing so not because they believe that it will lead to a better future, but because they are fed up with the status quo.

They are fed up of there not being enough money to go round, of our resources not being enough to sustain us, of other people deciding their destinies. With this referendum, they have been offered a scapegoat: and bolstered by the lies of the Leave campaigners they have been fuelled to protest against this (to them) faceless organisation that (they believe) has done far more harm than good.

Except they are participating in a ‘revolution’ led by the very people who have the most to gain by reducing their voice even further, and they are protesting against a reality which doesn’t actually exist.

Take fishing, for example.

This is probably the key issue for voters here in Brixham, and the reason why even breathing in the direction of the Remain campaign gets you labelled a traitor and an enemy of our community. When I started looking into what it was that had prompted the fishermen to bedeck their boats with the livery of the Leave campaign, I was almost certain that this was one area where I would be proven wrong: everybody knows that our fishing industry has suffered at the hands of the EU, right? Meaning that, surely, leaving the EU would solve all their woes.

Except the reality isn’t quite that simple.

There is little doubt that, over its lifetime, the fishing policies introduced by the EU have had a negative effect on our fishermen. However, the policies were introduced in response to very real concerns about over-fishing – the impact of which has a potentially devastating effect on both the environment and fish stocks, and therefore on fishermen themselves.

Since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight campaign the Common Fisheries Policy has actually been subject to considerable reform – and is one of the best examples of how we as a member state of the EU can affect change from within. The figures now actually point to a real growth within our fishing industry, which is heavily reliant on the EU as a market for its exports.

There is still a problem with quotas, but the allocation of these is within the hands of the U.K. Government – it is them that have chosen to favour the huge commercial players at the expense of smaller-scale fishermen.

I completely understand why people in the fishing industry might want to use their referendum vote to retaliate against past injustices, but I do not believe that their position reflects the current realities. Given how many other areas – the NHS, the arts, scientific research (to name but a few) – will suffer if the UK votes to leave the EU, a Leave vote as a protest seems a very, very risky move to make indeed.

This whole issue of risk seems to be the thing that the referendum is hinging on right now. The Leave camp have somehow manipulated themselves into the position where to support them is the maverick move, the thing to do if you are fed up with any aspect of your life within the current system. Nigel Farage, with his hate-fuelled political career, is on the verge of precipitating the biggest shift in our government in my lifetime: he has made people believe that this is the only real opportunity to effect change that we will ever be offered.

But let’s just leap forward thirty-six hours to Friday morning. Let’s imagine what that vote to leave would really mean. We would have not only rejected the views of our current Prime Minister – someone who, on the vast majority of issues, I am utterly polarised from – but we would also have rejected the views of the vast majority of our academics, our business leaders, our artists, our scientists, our health practitioners, our trade unionists. The only group who would be united in celebration of this outcome would be UKIP, and in a blur of fear and propaganda they would have leapt from being a minor political force to the key drivers of our future as a country.

I really hope that is not going to be the case.

There is no doubt that Europe is not perfect, but no aspect of our political system really is. If we vote Leave, we are decisively saying to all of the European countries who want to be our friends, that we have no regard for them – and we have no regard either for the myriad of experts and professionals who have been warning us that this is a very bad idea. And that vote to leave would be conclusive: whatever the consequences there will be no going back, not without convincing the rest of Europe that despite us shunning them so hugely we deserve to be welcomed back into the fold.

If we vote Remain, we are putting our faith in unity. We are recognising that, in the words of the late Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us”.

There is still a long way to go before this European Union that we are a part of is the perfect fit for all of its members, but those are words that I would like to strive for, and a truth that I believe is the key to the future of our world.

 

Writing Bubble

Brixham: the next big thing?

When we first chose to move to Brixham, almost four years ago now, it struck us as a place with so much potential. That has only been confirmed by the people that we’ve met since, and the exciting businesses and events that we have watched grow out of the community. I’m only just beginning to work out ways in which I can contribute to this, but I still felt a swell of pride when I read the feature on the ten best up-and-coming seaside towns in this month’s Coast magazine which put Brixham at number one.

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As part of Leigh’s birthday celebrations last weekend we were able to treat ourselves with meals at not one but two of the brilliant new restaurants that have opened up in the town.

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First, Bistro 1909. Up until the end of last year this was Brixham Deli – it was the only place to get a decent coffee when we first moved here, and a real sign that there was maybe more to this sleepy little seaside town than met the eye. When its owners, Roy and Gill, decided it was time for a change it was hard to hide my disappointment at first… But the restaurant they’ve created in its place makes it more than worth it.

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Delicious locally sourced food cooked to perfection – Leigh declared the pate the best he’d ever had, the steak and mussels were seriously good, and the chips are, I have decided, the best in Brixham. The setting is classic and cosy: custom made leather banquettes, industrial chic lighting and old Brixham photographs. With their own twist on a traditional formula they have hit upon something that works very well indeed. We’re already trying to work out when we can go back…

The other place we had to try – this time with Arthur in tow – was the latest addition to Mitch Tonks’ Rockfish chain, right above Brixham fish market.

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There’s been an understandable buzz about this place – it has after all been a long time coming. Mitch Tonks lives in Brixham, and has had his eye on this site since it first went out to tender. Unfortunately Torbay Council had other ideas, and we ended up with a really disappointing restaurant in there for a while – all style over substance, with no attempt to make the most of its unique location. Every time I looked at it across the harbour I grumbled with a sense of missed opportunity, so it was brilliant to see the site finally occupied by a restaurant that does it justice.

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It looked great, the fish was (of course) supremely fresh, and the atmosphere was buzzing. We shared a fruits de mer starter which was a real treat (it was Leigh’s birthday after all) and then went for classic fish and chips to follow. I’m very glad they offer the option of replacing batter and chips with grilled fish and salad as again this is somewhere I imagine we will revisit often!

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In conversation over both of these meals the subject of how our town is changing was never far away. It is one that is naturally taking on increasing significance with the possibility that I will soon have a role on the local council and actually be able to play an active part in the decisions that shape Brixham’s ongoing regeneration.

There will definitely be some difficult decisions to be made.

Brixham is regularly compared to nearby Devon towns like Dartmouth and Salcombe. In a lot of ways it has much more in common with them than it does with the other two towns in Torbay. But when we chose to move here, it was precisely because it wasn’t like them: it has a thriving, year-round community, fed to a large extent by its fishing industry. It attracts a diverse range of tourists, not only those with huge amounts of money to spend. And it is still reasonably affordable as a place for young families to bring up their kids.

Lots of the changes that we’ve already seen have been incredibly positive: the new selection of local eateries, the coffee shops like The Bay Coffee & Cake Company and Millie & Me that mean I no longer need to wait until I’m in London for my flat white fix, tired drinking establishments transformed into inviting pubs like New Quay Inn and The Manor. Shoalstone Pool is going from strength to strength, our theatre is full of ambition and ideas for the future, and Brixham YES is doing increasingly impressive work with young people and their families.

But there have been conflicts too, particularly around proposed developments which appear to meet the needs of some but for others cut right through what they perceive as the heart of our community.

As Brixham rises to the challenge of becoming the next big thing, we must remember that it’s not just its physical heritage and charm that needs to be protected. It is the local community that gives our town its soul, and as we continue to move forward we can only do so together.

Standing up for my community

With the London Book Fair this week the latest draft of my novel is, I imagine, languishing somewhere near the bottom of my agent’s to do list. Which is fine by me – having been so deeply embroiled in the edit since the beginning of this year I’m happy to allow my brain to wander elsewhere.

It has been dancing around the edges of my next project, one which I’m really excited about but can’t quite face throwing myself into when I don’t know where I’m at with the current one. It has also enjoyed a bit of a break, getting lost in other peoples’ novels with the gentle sound of waves lapping against a Cretan beach. But it is now time for some action – and what better than the adventure of standing as a candidate in my local town council elections?

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Regular readers of this blog will know that I love my town. Brixham has been my home for the past four years, the culmination of a lifelong dream to live by the sea. It is a vibrant, creative, complex and inspiring place to live, and the more people I get to know here the more happy I am that this is where we ended up.

There is a huge swathe of positivity at the moment, lots of people keen to make the most of the town with independent shops and new restaurants opening up and a real buzz from locals and tourists alike. But beneath this there is something more sinister simmering – a spat between longstanding members of the town council that threatens to undermine the sense of community and the growth that Brixham has enjoyed in the past few years.

A group has been set up with the sole purpose of abolishing Brixham Council. They claim it is a waste of money, that it doesn’t get anything done. But my experience of living in this town says different. I don’t believe that we can rely on Torbay Council to stand up for Brixham. We are smaller than Paignton and Torquay, and very different in character. Historically there have been issues with withheld funding and a lack of understanding of the needs of our town. I believe we need our own voice.

It is against this background that I have decided to stand with a group of independents as a candidate in the upcoming council elections. And with that decision has come a new type of writing for me – my election campaign leaflet.

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It is hard to convey on a single side of A5 everything that I would like to achieve for Brixham, let alone knowing how to present myself in a way that will persuade people I have never met that I am worth voting for. I am not an expert in local politics. I have had a keen interest for years in what it is that makes a community great, but I do not pretend to know the ins and outs of exactly what has gone on in the Brixham Council chambers that has led to such disgruntlement.

What I do know is that people find it tough to engage with democracy, and with every layer of that democracy that is stripped away they will find it even tougher. I would love the opportunity to speak up for the people of Brixham, to give them a voice within the town council and further afield, and to work to grow and celebrate everything that is great about our town.

So I may be a little preoccupied between now and May 7th. No doubt there will be updates here, and if you’re interested you can follow the Stand Up For Brixham election campaign on Twitter too. Wish me luck!

 

Writing Bubble

 

Weaving a world

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Slowly but surely the world of my next novel is beginning to take shape…

I’ve had two really interesting research meetings so far with local people who responded to my request for information about Brixham in the 1970s. Last week I finally made it into our local museum to see some artefacts from the past. And as I walk through the streets of my town its history is beginning to become more and more apparent.

I’ve learnt about the changing face of the harbour, with working shipyards once occupying the sites of luxury flats. About the Seaman’s Boys Home which is now a flourishing outdoor education centre. About the holiday camps which saw people flocking to Brixham, enjoying diving platforms off Breakwater Beach and pedalos at St Mary’s Bay that are now long gone. My imagination was piqued today by talk of an untamed Berry Head, and of the hippies who used to attract admiring glances to their paintings by day and raise eyebrows with their skinny dipping by night.

I found interesting too the description of the local community as incredibly friendly and welcoming on one hand, and yet closed off to outsiders on the other. I can recognise that to some extent. However much I’m coming to love this place, I know I’ll never truly be able to call myself a local.

But I’m beginning to see where my two main characters might fit in here, forty years ago. Where their grandparents might have lived, where and how they might have spent their days, where they might have socialised, and where they would have escaped to when they needed some privacy. There’s still more work to be done – the local library’s my next port of call (always takes someone else to point out the bleeding obvious), and I’m going to try to fit in a visit there this week.

And then I think I’ll call it a day, for now at least. I believe there’s a fine line between not enough research and too much, and I want to get this story flowing whilst it still has space to breathe. The people I’ve spoken to so far have very kindly offered to do some fact-checking once I have a first draft to show them, and I’m sure our conversations will be able to be much more specific once I actually have a story to share.

I have to say I’ve really enjoyed my face-to-face research so far. I was nervous at first – I’m naturally quite shy, and feel much more confident seeking out information from the comfort and security of a keyboard. But there is most definitely much to be gained from talking to people, especially when the world you’re seeking access to is in the past.

I just hope I can mange to do their memories justice – and I’m very much looking forward to trying.

 

Muddled Manuscript