Monday 29 November 2010

Alice Beatrice West 1913 - 2010

My grandmother Alice died on Saturday at the grand age of 97. She woke up as normal but faded and passed away in the arms of a carer mid morning.
She really was a link with a different era or indeed eras. Born before the Great War or the Russian Revloution, her parents were Victorians. She came of age during the Great Depression and joined the many setting up home in London's new metroland suburbs.

She saw the abdication crisis, the rule of the dictators and brought her own children up in the Blitz.

She lived through an incredible century. There were properous as well as impoverished times -- she never had it so good with Macmillan and enjoyed a Saga brochure retirement. She enthusiastically took to the new Jerusalem with its foreign holidays, night schools and patio doors but never lost her sense of thrift and self reliance -- she had witnessed the impermanence of civilisations and systems, she had seen them come and go.

I do wonder if we will expereince lifetimes like hers again.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Love at first bite

I fell in love last night...with a chip, or in fact a whole portion. The cause of this potato epiphany, Mr Heston Blumentahl's celebrated thrice cooked version. Sublime. Not that the rest of the meal wasn't up to his "perfection" standards but the chips were something else. I have tried chips on five continents and to eat possibly the most familiar dish in the world and still be rewarded with such a sensation is a real achievement.

Thursday 11 November 2010

A blog for our times

I have been enjoying Redundant Public Servant's blog  if enjoying is quite the right word. He desribes it as "News from the front line of deficit reduction" and like all great blogs it merges the personal with the timely and the profound. He writes so well I cannot picture him as the author of anonymous government memos and disseminator of ghastly offcial gobbledegook. I feel we have a future Orwell prize winner. 

Tuesday 9 November 2010

New Internationalism

I was in the USA on Sunday. I recieved a text message from a friend in Zanzibar. He told me that a Spanish footballer in Liverpool had played a blinder, scoring twice and bringing his team, owned by an American, a much needed victory over another English team, owned by a Russian, and populated mainly by Africans...

The Zanzibari friend -- who goes by the name Gerrardi after his favourite English player -- partied all night.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

The Best Weather Service

We have launched the new weather service for S4C. It works. It is the UK's first service which uses 1km forecasting data -- that means the information you get is directly relevant to your actual location, not somewhere down the road or over the hill or in the next county.

This is most useful on the website -- here for the English language version, here for the Welsh. When you enter your postcode you get the forecasst for that exact postcode, so it gives a street or close neighbourhood picture. It works all over the UK. This is a huge improvement over the rather dishonest BBC weather website which asks you to enter the postcode and then gives you the forecast for somewhere miles away. Very little use in our highly localised climate.

Monday 1 November 2010


With the world's eyes turned on the US Mid-terms it is hardly surpirsing that yesterday's election in Zanzibar has gone unnoticed.

We are still waiting for the result and the EU monitors report no violence or intimidation. Not quite what I am hearing. My contacts on the ground say this morning there is a very heavy troop build-up in the centre of the capital and the usual heavy handedness in terms of beatings and intimidation. People are very scared just now.

Friday 29 October 2010

Future Weather

The new S4C weather service I have been working on goes live on Monday. We are just beginning to get some publicity. I hope it gets noticed becasue the web service really is something special. This is how Broadcast covered it today:

S4C brings Weather Central to UK
29 October, 2010
By Catherine Neilan

Welsh language channel S4C has signed a deal to become the first UK broadcaster to provide a weather service based on the technology of global forecasting group Weather Central.

Delivered through independent producer Tinopolis, S4C will provide the service both through the TV channel and a purpose-built website from 1 November, claiming it will be the UK’s “most sophisticated public weather information resource”.

Although the service will predominantly focus on the weather in Wales, the rest of the UK and Europe will also be covered. The website will be dual language, while the channel bulletins will continue to be in Welsh.

S4C’s established weather presenters – Chris Jones, Erin Roberts and Mari Grug – will continue to front bulletins, using Weather Central’s technology to zoom in to give a more precisely local picture of conditions.

Adam Salkeld, head of programmes at Tinopolis, said: “With the new S4C weather website you can enter any postcode in Wales and you will get a forecast for that exact street, neighbourhood, town or village… We believe this is the future of weather information services.”

The new service will be produced from Tinopolis’ Llanelli headquarters.

Tuesday 12 October 2010

We have all the time in the world...

The web is a fantastic place to root out those who clearly have too much time on their hands. Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for spotting this site - Hot Guys on Judge Judy. Publicly admitting to watching daytime TV is bad enough but setting up a site devoted to its unwitting stars...?

Even more kudos to Mr Sullivan for admitting to the guilty pleasure of drooling over these specimens of American manhood.

Friday 8 October 2010

A short tribute

Very sad news this week that Derry Wilkinson has died in a motorcycle accident. Whilst I can't claim to have known Derry very well we'd had a fair amount of contact over the past few years. He was one of those -- sadly uncommon -- altogether decent people you meet in the world of work sometimes. Honourable, generous, clever, funny and quietly very successful, Derry had it all in front of him. We shared a great interest in Africa as well as a "hood" in South London. I had always intended to get to know him better, sadly now that won't be possible.

Friday 1 October 2010

Recommended Reading

Winston Smith's latest post is harrowing and thought-provoking reading. I realise that policy can't be made by anecdote but you do have to ask some big hows and whys about our care system when you read such a story followed by an even bigger who on Earth...?

Monday 20 September 2010

The Pope's Little Helper

The British warmed a little to Pope Benedict last week, but by contrast they fell madly in love with his private secretary, Georg Ganswein. Even the Daily Telegraph has been drooling, offering pictures of gorgeous Georg where one would normally expect to see buxom sixth formers from a posh Catholic girls' school.

To lighten the load for all those who find Benedict a reactionary old hypocrite, or as Christopher Hitchens said in New York last week "an overdressed little ponce", an acquaintance tells me that Msg Ganswein's forename has been remodelled by friends as ""...

Saturday 18 September 2010

Mobile Maasai

After a long gap I get a call from Juma. He has been back on the mainland for a while. His father, an important Maasai elder, has been very sick but thankfully seems to be on the mend. Adding to the stresses of being a 21st century warrior and herdsman, the rains have failed this year. This means Juma has to take his and his father's cows further and further from the village to graze.

As Juma explains there is an upside. He gets to go far enough to find a patch of ultra rural Tanzania that gets a mobile signal. His village has none.  Now I wonder - is there a project for a terribly clever eco-geographer mapping Maasai grazing patterns against the footprints of East Africa's mobile networks? Is the place he is calling me from today over-grazed because of its Vodacom signal? As I have blogged before the Maasai hold most of the modern world in complete disdain but mobile phones...that's another matter. 

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Tea Party Victory

After Christine O'Donnell's shock win in the Delaware primary last night Republicans move to an anti-masturbation stance ...they should be careful, there are a lot of wankers out there.

Friday 6 August 2010


We are all so sorry to hear that supermodel Naomi Campbell was "inconvenienced" by having to attend the war crimes tribunal in the Hague yesterday. After all she must have so many better and more important things to be doing than helping fight for justice for the hundreds of thousands of victims of her generous friend Mr Taylor.   

Monday 2 August 2010

Another Coalition

Zanzibar had a referendum this weekend to vote on whether there should be a power sharing arrangement between the ruling party and the opposition.

Omari -- a strong oppostion supporter, as most actual Zanzibaris seem to be -- says he's in favour. He wants to "live in piss". I think he means "peace" but the text message does say "piss".

I am sceptical, allowing a few non-ruling-party bigwigs into the kleptocratic inner circle is unlikely to make a great difference.

A Grand Night Out

Saturday. To a packed Albert Hall for the Sondheim 80th Birthday spectacular. It was certainly the Prom to get to this year. We were lavishly hosted by Vaughan and Tony from a great box with supper in the Prince of Wales Room. The evening slid past on a wave of champagne.

But what music. The cast was, of course, starry but in the nicest possible way. Everyone was there to pay homage to the great man so silly performers' egos didn't get in the way. What we got instead were memorable performances of a range of SS's work, delivered with real panache and humour. Dame Judi got the 4995 non-straight members of the audience into all of a flutter. She was, naturally, fabulous, managing to balance the singing-speaking mix of Send on the Clowns perfectly.

Then there was the man himself. You have to admire someone who at age 80 sports a 23 year old boyfriend on his arm. He got a rare Albert Hall standing ovation and looked genuinely overwhelmed. Vaughan, who had to officially welcome him to the Hall, reported that this modesty continued behind the scenes. This was while, mind you, Dame Judi was declaring him to be a genius equal to Mozart. With a luvvy chorus like that maintaining a bashful air of surprise really is something.

Vaughan and Tony had arranged an interesting party including a former lover of Ivor Novello's which somehow made the evening even more poignant. We got back to Brighton around 2. Vaughan decalred it one of the most memorable Proms of his tenure at the Hall.

Monday 19 July 2010

Exam Success

Little Mussa has done well in his exams in Paje. When I first met him a couple of years ago he was chain smoking. Being an old fart I scolded him and said I would tell his father. He replied that he didn't have a father.

From then on he became known by the nickname "Sigara Mtoto" (cigarette boy) and has shown himself to be a hard worker -- in school and out. Like all of life's survivors he knows how to tag onto groups and make himself useful. He helps out in the kitchen when I am in Zanzibar. At the bottom of the pecking order with all the maestro chefs, he's the one that gets sent into the village on errands or up the palm tree for coconuts. Where he really comes into his own is in eating. He appears to eat his bodyweight in rice at each sitting and always manages more meat and vegetables than grown men several times his size. Because he's still quite small for his age I give him extra protein on top, so he'll often polish off his feast with eggs and peanut butter. Now at the age of eighteen he is beginning his growth spurt and going up, as they say locally, "like a coconut palm ".

He tells me that he wants to go to catering college next. Cheffing is a good transferable skill which will give him a better chance of an income than many other things. I still harbour a hope that he does a bit more at school, maybe even giving secondary a try.

In the meantime he loves dancing to Zanzbar's very own Freddy Mercury and watching Little Britain and Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor on DVDs.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Mandy reveals all...

I am enjoying the Mandy Memoirs, perhaps not for the right reasons. It reads rather camply as Uncle Pierre clutches us to his bosom and opens his carefullty airbrushed heart. As you progress the whiff of North Korea becomes stronger. Dear Peter's controlling hand is as omnipresent as any Pyonyang Kim -- from running his Hampstead Garden Suburb primary school to the Labour Party. He hasn't written any operas, performed open heart surgery or designed a hydro-electric dam yet but these are early days. I am only a third through.

Monday 12 July 2010

World Cup Finale

My friend Massimo sends me a dispatch from Barcelona (where he is one of the city's finest cocktail mixers). The world cup celebrations have been going on all night and still they party. The Spanish -- and Catalans in particular -- do undertand the science of joy. Massimo and colleagues (any excuse) have created and mixed the “Iniesta Surprise” and “Fabregas Fireball” as tribute.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Half a year ago

Six months ago tomorrow -- early in the morning -- I was wheezing my way up the final 1000 metres of Kilimanjaro. It seems like yesterday. Watching dawn rise from the rim of the volcanic crater wth just an hour or two to go to the summit was a fantastic experience. It was cold but the exercise and layers of clothes meant it didn't feel it, unless you kept your hands out too long or tried to touch your frozen water bottle.

The great thing about that last 24 hours of ascent was the focus. All consciousness was honed to a) worrying about own body b) worrying about companions c) thinking about mountain. Nothing else mattered. Even meeting some bundesgloaters coming down from the summit as we were on the final approach washed over me.

Schadenfreud II

I should really shut up about this -- it's certainly not a feeling with much currency in England just now. But my friend Paul came up with a new word, its exact opposite, to describe how the Germans are at the moment. Bundesgloating. I love it. 

Tuesday 29 June 2010

African heads

The most estimable Neil MacGregor will be discussing an Ife head in his History of the World in 100 Objects on Radio 4 tomorrow. I have looked at it and it is a very fine piece. Not, though, as starkly beautiful as mine

Popobawa's work done?

Well we hope so. We will have to see in club football next season whether the popobawa stayed in South Africa, slunk back to Zanzibar or became so addicted to the rear ends of the hapless England team that he followed them home. He certainly had a good run.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Tuesday 22 June 2010

World Cup

What's the French for schadenfreud ?

Saturday 19 June 2010

An explanation for England

The boys in Zanzibar -- whose football expertise was celebrated in the Zanzibar Beach Boys film premiered at Lusaka -- have come up with an explanation for England's dimsal World Cup performances so far.

They are convinced that a popobawa has somehow made its way from Zanzibar down to South Africa and has taken up residence in the England team hotel.

A popobawa for the uninitiated is a particularly rapacious Swahili vampire. Assuming the form of a bat it enters houses at night and then transforms into a devilish humanoid form and proceeds to sodomise its victim -nearly always male. The victim is badly affected -- experiencing a trance like state, lethargy and often appearing mentally unbalanced. Popobawas like to perform repeat attacks condemning their victims to a fate of nightly rapes.

In Zanzibar and other Swahili areas the appearance of a popobawa can lead to mass hysteria. The only protection against the night-time attacks is to sleep in groups out of doors hoping that the shy popobawa will stay away. The nights usually pass sleepless in an orgy of speculation about the various traits and behaviours of the popobawa. The peculiar forms of his genitalia are one of the hottest, and most exaggerated, subjects for debate.

If we hear of the England team being ordered out of their five star suites and onto chilly camp beds in the hotel grounds we will know that Fabio has taken action. It may of course be too late. By the standards of last night's performance the squad appears well under the popobawa's spell.       

Saturday 12 June 2010

The Call of the Hills

A lovely day in the Towy Valley. We are off to the Carmarthen Vans for a hike. Last time the intrepid trio attempted these forgotten mountains of Wales we got horrendously lost. As a chill October night fell we were still stumbling around on the hills. Eventually we spotted distant lights and made our way to a village. Our incompetent navigational efforts had deposited us over ten miles from our cars. A taxi was called.

Better luck today.

Thursday 10 June 2010

African Head

I have finally got my West African sculpture home. I love it.

Sadly it is not an original Benin bronze -- were it so I would not be writing this but sipping vintage Krug on my yacht moored off Cap d'Antibes. However it is a very good replica. It was reportedly made for the British Museum in the 1930s and as such has been done to the highest archival standard. The bust shows a young Oba (king) from Ife, an ancient Yaruba city. There is currently an exhibition of the genuine articles at the British Museum, which I must get to before it finishes. However I can't believe there is anything more beautiful than mine. 

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Behind the Scenes

There's a good behind the scenes account of production of the Zanzibar Beach Boys film on the Zanzibits blog here.

More publicity for African Digital Diaries

A nice piece from the United Nations Media Global news service on African Digital Diaries and focusing on Bishop Tilewa's keynote speech.

Sunday 6 June 2010


The day after the launch of African Digital Diaries I presented at the football and learning session and showed the Zanzibar Beach Boys film again. It went down very well. Expertly chaired by Harold Elletson from the UK and Mor Seck from Senegal it was a lively, varied and interesting forum. I was very impressed with the work of the Zambian EduSport Foundation described by its marketing officer Patrick Mweshi. And the session also gave me the chance to learn about iSchools Africa from the irrepressible Michelle Lissoos. I hope we will be able to collaborate in the future it was a serendipitous meeting.

Lusaka Conference

I think the trip to Lusaka can be counted a success. First the conference itself. Rebecca and the team from ICWE did a great job getting nearly 2000 delegates to Zambia from all over Africa. The conference had a really African feel and I was most refreshed that the usual poverty industry crowd had stayed away leaving the stage clear for constructive ideas and hope for the future. That is after all what the digital universe can offer.      

The launch of African Digital Diaries went very well. There was definitely a buzz around the project. Particularly after Bishop Tilewa Johnson gave us a cracking plug in his opening plenary address. His speech about the need for an African approach to social networking was the most memorable and reported of the conference. He is a class act.


We had been worried about filling our 90 minute slot but in the end we ran out of time. Our co-presenters -- Themba from Zimbabwe, Billy from Zambia and the Bishop from Gambia -- gave a really textured mix of viewpoints, styles and stories. The proof of it all came from the lively discussion that followed each presentation. We connected with other enthusiasts and that is what really matters. 

Now the challenge is for African Digital Diaries to build on this momentum and enthusiasm.

Paje Boys on Film

Gerrardi, Ahmedi, Zaharani and Maasai Juma worked wth Zanzibits and Stone Town director Ibrahim Matukuta to make "Zanzibar Beach Boys" which you can now see here along with all the other African Digital Diaries we launched with in Lusaka.

The little film shows how a passion for football can be a real driver to informal learning. The boys have taught themselves how to use computers, find a wifi signal and connect with other football fans worldwide. It's a great African Digital Diaries story and the team made a really special film. We presented it at two ELA 2010 sessions and it went down a storm both times.

I am very proud of them all. 

Thursday 3 June 2010


Kassim proudly wore the new Chelsea away shirt that Alison gave him and was very reluctant to take it off...

Rodent Cuisine

With the Lebanese restaurant, conference lunches and even the mini safari park we visited on Saturday for lunch I didn't manage a particular Zambian speciality that has been causing hilarity in Zanzibar. I speak of rats -- either skewered and barbecued or served in a stew with the local maize porridge, nshima. I think they are a regional, and a rural regional at that, speciality. Unlikely then that we found them in the smarter distructs of Lusaka. This hasn't stopped a stream of text messages from Zanzibar asking about my rat dinners.

Poor old Kassim was convinced nefarious Zambians would try to secretly feed him "panya" (Swahili for rat). On his Zambezi Airlines flight from Dar he was offered a beef dinner. He questioned the cabin crew member closely on what type of beef it was. When she was unable to be specific enough Kassim was convinced it was in-flight rodent and refused the meal. By the time he reacehd Lusaka and had come through his altercation with Zambian Immigration he was starving.

Friday 28 May 2010

Ministerial Transport

Only in Africa. I was waiting for my taxi to take me to the conference centre this morning when a big pick-up appeared. "Come-on let's go!" said the guy driving. "I'll take you to eLearning Africa". I was confused until he explained that he had spotted my pass and that's where he was headed. He was the Zambian Deputy Minister for Education and had given his driver the day off. We have a good chat. He told me all about a legal dispute he was in with Caterpillar Zambia and I told him about African Digital Diaries.


Kassim summed it up with a muttered "Marekani" and a sigh. We had enocuntered a bunch of Americans -- staff at the Embassy. Its Central Tossers Department I would guess.

Let me explain.

One of Lusaka's more surprising facilities is a very good Lebanese restaurant -- The Cedars-- which is very close to our hotel. The food is deliciously authentic, plentiful and the place has a great atmosphere overseen by its vernerable Lebanese patron. We all ate there on Wednesday night and liked it so much I took K back there last night. Mistake. Thursday night is the Central Tossers Department weekly quiz night. We were overwhelmed by Embassy Nerds of the the worst kind.

I will try not to go on but here's top list of annoyances:
1. Massive amplificiation of inane quiz master ("Hey I'm a really crazy guy!") and dreadful MOR US rock music that appeared requirement for nerds to have a good time. No consideration for others trying to enjoy a Lusaka evening, but hey they were the Embassy Nerds.
2. 99% white (only one mildly hispanic staff member). Is that reflecting today's USA? Where are they based again?
3. Complete lack of interest in their surroundings -- US music, US quiz questions, pathetic US attempts at humour. Travel broadens the mind unless you are an Embassy Nerd.
4. Personnel quality. Perhaps it's a feature of the homogenous crowd with all its inbreeding, but they seemed a dull lot. I thought getting a job at an embassy was a glittering prize reserved for the very finest.

Secretary of State Clinton you must be really proud.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Return to Lusaka

It must be 15 years since I was last here. Lusakans seem to have taken to fast food and shopping malls big time. These and a few other trappings of prosperity are the most obvious changes. The people look wealthier which in African terms means bigger and healthier as well as better mobiles, more cars and smarter clothes.

Most of all I am struck again how pleasant and courteous everyone is -- even offcialdom. In my own typically vacant way I have had two brushes with the powers of law and order. Firstly whilst out on a walk to stretch my legs after the 10 hour flight I inadvertently strayed into the barracks of the Presidential Guard, directly opposite His Excellency's palace. I was looking for a quiet spot away from the main road to make a call. A very smart Military Policement found me and asked if he coudl help me. He was so polite and offered to find me a quiet spot out of the restricted zone for me to make my call. Helpfully he explained that I might be suspected of being a terrorist giving instructions to my associates so it was better that I moved. Given the MP's AK47 and a large number of others in the immediate vicinity who was I to argue. He took me to the other quiet place and asked it there was anything else he coudl do to help.

Later on back at the airport to meet Kassim I was alarmed because the Dar flight had emptied and still no sign of him. Eventually an immigration offcial approached me and asked if I would come back airside. There I found K amid a gaggle of officers. He had been detained because he had no money, they felt (quite justifiably) that he had a rather sketchy story about being there and for reasons entirely of his own he was pretending not to speak very much English. The chief officer allowed me to explain, asked a couple of questions, said he believed me and stamped K's single A4 sheet temporary passport. He then said that it was not a good idea to overstay, because in that type of circumstance the Immigration Service might not be so willing to compromise. All in about 5 minutes with smiles, goodbyes and many welcomes to Zambia.

With both incidents I imagine what would happen if a Zambian had make equivalent errors on a visit to the UK.

It is a clear, sunny autumn here. Too cold at night for K but rather balmy by my standards. Lusaka remains the LA of Africa in terms of its sprawl and reliance on the motor car but the air is fresh and there are enough places within walking distance to keep us amused.  

Sunday 23 May 2010

Flying Tonight

Just sitting at Heathrow looking out at an absolutely scorching runway -- maybe it's hotter now than it will be in Africa tomorrow morning.

Have reacehd the point where all the preparations for the launch of African Digital Diaries have been taken as far as they can, we just have to do it now.

Friday 21 May 2010

Lusaka Football

The football session is getting some publicity.The ELA News Service has issued this. A bit worrying as I don't remember doing an interview. Even more worrying they think I am an expert!

British Airways

Dear Old BA...I get a call from them to say that my return flight from Zambia will be delayed by the strike. Delayed from May 29th to June 10th. They do however offer to "Try and find me another flight back from the Africa region". I explain that the "Africa region" is rather large and popping from Lusaka to Mogadishu or Accra isn't just a case of getting on a bus or in a taxi. A lot of phone calls and frantic internet sessions later and I am taking a detour via South Africa.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Busy week in Lusaka

I have also been asked to present at another session in Lusaka, this time about football as a stimulus to learning. The conference organisers are keen to capitalise on the buzz around the World Cup being in Africa. I will tell my Zanzibar stories again but need a bit more!

More Publicity for African Digital Diaries

The UN article about mobile learning has been picked up by the All Africa news service, you can see it here.

Lusaka Countdown

Well with just about 10 days to go it looks like African Digital Diaries at ELA is actually going to happen. We have confirmed the line-up for our session now.

Bishop Dr Tilewa Johnson will be joining us from Gambia

Thembinkosi Nyathi will be making a road trip from Zimbabwe to Lusaka to take part.


And we will be joined by Zambian distance learning student extraordinaire, Billy Sichone.

Each has a great story to tell. The aim of the session is to launch our African Digital Diaries project. Its ongoing success may depend a lot on the reception, ideas and offers we get there. Fingers are seriously crossed.

Naughty Maasai

I am not going to be seeing this young warrior friend for a while. Maasai Commander, as he is known, has been arrested by Tanzanian police on suspicion of having robbed his employer in Zanzibar of quite a large sum of money. Having been caught the chances of conviction are pretty high, especially as he was nabbed on the run. I don't imagine the next few years in prison are going to be very pleasant for him.

My Maasai "brother" Juma is very angry with him for letting the tribe down. He says village justice from the elders back home on the mainland will be even harsher than the offcial sort.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Morning Star

I enjoyed the comrades' headline today "Posh Chaps Take Power in Commons" -- refreshing after the Nick and Dave love-in yesterday which left me queasy. This story even took precedence over news that North Korea is winning the race to crack nuclear fusion.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

National Government

I haven't heard it mentioned yet but coudl a National Government be the fourth option...

We are at a moment when we have a number of issues that need handling above the fray of point scoring party politics. A long term approach and some degree of consensus are needed for:
  • Dealing with the deficit
  • The electoral system
  • Pensions and long term care fro the ageing population
  • Afghanistan
I don't know if there are any rules about when a National Government can be formed-- is there perhaps a catastrophe scale? Clearly we are not engaged in a full scale war with Hitler breathing down our necks. There are also many in Labour who shudder at the mention of Ramsay MacDonald's 1931-35 National Government. But these are surprising times...

Monday 10 May 2010

A little story...

This came from a colleague in the museum sector. This is a micro example of what people have to deal with when they try to do things.

"Once upon a time there was an independent museum situated in the heart of the Peak District with lots of things to see and do including woodland walks and a sculpture trail as well as the museum’s collections and exhibitions. The museum’s Education Manager wanted to develop its provision for families who made up 80% of its visitors. She signed up as a supporter of Kids in museums, ensured that families were at the heart of the museums HLF bid and looked for simple and cheap solutions (because the museum had no spare cash) to help a family visit go smoothly. She bought some kiddy steps for the toilets, because she could remember how much easier they made a visit to the toilet with three small children who wanted to wash their own hands. As soon as the steps were placed in the toilets she was brought to task as to what they were for, why we had to have them and how we were going to stop them being used for ‘other things’. She was somewhat surprised to be told that they were ‘access equipment’ and came under the working at height regulations. As such each would require a unique number and be entered into the access register which was inspected by the local council every year. They would also have to be chained to the wall to prevent them being moved for other purposes.

Another man came to see her and said that he wanted to see the paperwork that showed why they were good practice/a good idea and the risk assessment for their use. The baffled Education Manager asked colleagues from other museums if they had come across any problems and they hadn’t. She asked colleagues t6hat she used to work with at RoSPA (the Royal society for the Prevention of Accidents) and when they had stopped laughing they suggested that if there was a risk assessment that could be produced if necessary they didn’t see a problem. She asked the HSE who confirmed that anything which isn’t fixed that aids anyone to reach anything by allowing them to step up comes under the working at heights regulations (and that is anything higher than the floor).

So, in order to safely introduce kiddy steps to the toilets she will have to write a risk assessment and, because our Health and Safety Committee say it is the most important document, a Safe Systems of Work Manual describing the procedures for the safe usage of said equipment. She could only assume that a copy had to be available in each toilet for the toddlers to read before ascending to the dizzy heights of the sink.

However, if the step is fixed and immovable there is no problem, this magically makes it completely safe and impossible to fall from. A lower sink is also fine – which she knew, but was trying to look at the cheaper simpler option without refurbishing all the toilets at the museum.

The Education Manager, disillusioned and very sad, crawled back into her cave."

No comment.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Barking Sane

I will no longer associate Barking with "mad". The people of that consituency gave us a fresh blast of good sense in their voting this week. They showed the BNP it is not wanted and not part of the British way. Indeed it was a double humiliation for the Hate Party -- Nick Griffin helped Labour to a huge majority in the Westminster vote and on Barking and Dagenham Council the BNP lost all its twelve council seats.

I think we should introduce the phrase "Barking Sane" as our vote of thanks.

Best moment of the night was watching the buffoon Griffin bleating that his defeat was the electorate's fault for turning out to vote in such high numbers. No Nick that's democracy -- showing your true colours or just being thick? Perhaps if your party didn't spend the campaign infighting, candidates didn't brawl in the street, you didn't have one faction or another shutting down the party website or accusations from one of your own candidates about the Neo-Nazi links of party kameraden and perhaps, most of all, if you kept your mouth shut you might have got a few more votes. Not many though.

There will be tears before bedtime...

Friday 7 May 2010

We are not alone

Britain is not alone with an out of control state. Andrew Sullivan posts this very disturbing video of a US drug raid. The police -- dressed like Imperial Stormtroopers -- break into a guy's house, shoot his dogs and handcuff him. All in front of his wife and 7 year-old kid. They find a tiny amount of cannabis -- not enough to justify an arrest so instead charge him and his wife with endangering the child.

Domesday 2.0

Well that's all sorted then. Not. But we do, at least, have a big issue to discuss -- electoral reform.Unfortunately it is not the right one. Not right now anyway. Don't get me wrong I am broadly in favour of some sort of PR system. Not evangelically like the Lib Dems and -- now conveniently -- Labour. Even with its faults though PR it is still the least worst system. The real trouble for me is that it is a process issue, it is about how we choose governments not what governments actually do. I just can't get as excited about process as I can about policy and policy implementation. Probably my fault.

Anyway back to the big issue. The one we are still not discussing -- how we manage public finances -- the one all the three parties tried to skirt. It is more than a fiscal question, as I mentioned before this week, we need to be asking much more basic questions about what the state sector is for. A generation ago we could probably have answered this, even if we argued about which areas of activity should be in or out of the public sphere. Broadly speaking we had administrators, service practitioners like teachers, nurses or toilet attendants and those employed in the nationalised industries in our then "mixed" economy.

We still have teachers and nurses of course. But we have privatised or closed the mines, railways, car factories, in fact virtually all of the public side of the old mixed economy. You have to look very hard to find someone minding a public lavatory these days and the computer revolution is supposed to have automated much of the administration. Why then is the public sector still roughly the same size? It has clearly changed its role but it has undergone this change well out of view of the people at large. Did anyone ask us if we wanted to exchange park keepers for press officers, bus conductors for innovation managers, miners for leadership excellence champions? Anyone from outside who deals with the public sector will be able to regale you with tales of ridiculous non-jobs and then a millefeuille of managers administering them.  Anyone inside the public sector will tell you -- if they are being honest -- of waste and inefficiency, they will describe managerialism gone mad. Neither insiders nor outsiders can really define what so much of this is for, other than self-perpetuation. Looking back nationalised miners didn't dig the cheapest coal, British Leyland workers didn't make the world's best cars but at least they were doing something, they even created some wealth.

I am not being party political. Labour and Conservative have been equally guilty of encouraging or allowing this to happen.  It is nothing new. Bureaucracies have been creating work for themselves since human civilisation began. But our situation is new. Now we have to make cuts so we might as well make the right ones and yet we still haven't stopped to think properly what we are spending our £600 billion plus on every year. Spending reviews just do not cut it. They are run by insiders. Efficiency savings tend to create more waste and further layers of administration. The enormous state apparatus of measurement and targeting distorts every service it touches. So what do we do?

I propose a new Domesday exercise. A millennium after William of Normandy produced his grand and detailed report of the land he had conquered, I think we need a similar exercise.This time conducted on the public sector. A full, transparent and independent Domesday 2.0 survey of our public realm. A proper picture. Then we can start making our decisions about what we need, what we want and what we can get rid of.

UN Media Global

The African Digital Diaries session for ELA in Lusaka is getting more notice. Media Global -- a UN sponsored international news service -- features it here in a piece about how mobile phones are being used to support learning.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Election Day

Hardly a rush at the polls when I voted at 0800 this morning, I was the only voter in the Polling Station or anywhere close to it.

Reassuring to know that the Maasai from Zanzibar are again urging a Plaid vote...

Wednesday 5 May 2010

On the Road to Lusaka

I have written a short article here for the eLearning Africa news service. I talked to a few ordinary African practitioners who make great efforts to get to professional conferences. For me it was refreshing and rather humbling -- so many conferences are seen as freebies, opportunities for sightseeing and shopping, but here were people keen to learn, share and develop. 

You can see the conference programme for our session here and the main eLearning Africa website is here .

Pull em Up

Lest there be any doubt that there is endemic wastefulness in the public sector look at this example today...Crown Prosecutors in Bedford drop their attempt to obtain an ASBO requiring an 18 year-old to pull his trousers up so that his pants no longer show. The CPS tells us that the ban was "no longer necessary or proportionate to protect the public from further acts of anti-social behaviour".

Who the hell decided it was ever "necessary" or "proportionate"? I wonder how much this has actually cost with the time of the Police and CPS  "professionals" and then all the layers of management this decision will have been filtered through as it was made and then unmade. Then of course there will have been the time wasted by the defence solicitor which we can be fairly sure was paid for by Legal Aid. Not to mention all the press officers employed to come up with daft quotes like the above and attempt (and fail ) to spin away the stupidity of it all.

We have all that waste to pay for before we even start to question why the way this kid decides to wear his trousers is any of the CPS's business in the first place. There seem to have been plenty of genuine offences for which he could be punished so why make up stupid ones?

For me it is a small snapshot of the evidence -- should more be needed -- that spending reviews and efficiency savings go nowhere near where we need to be in controlling the hole in our national finances. But it's not just the fiscal issue, large as it is, we should be asking much deeper questions about what public servants are actually there to do. We are not. And we have run a whole election where we could have been. We have had a once in a generation chance to talk about the state of The State and we have been denied it or perhaps denied it ourselves.

As a footnote I am of course well aware of the great generational divide about the showing of underwear in public. I don't understand it but then I am old -- my worry is how they keep their trousers from falling all the way down, I thought that was what the buttocks were for but they can't if your trousers are below them. Perhaps young people have some special extra muscles. Anyway I would rather see colourful underwear than the more "traditional" builder's bum. 

Friday 30 April 2010

One's niche

I have at last found my aspirational target...

Thursday 29 April 2010


Marrakech, the place where my extended Moroccan stay began, offered white Atlas mountains and palm trees -- having done snow on the equator with Kilimanjaro I am in danger of getting blase about these climatic contrasts, but it was rather impressive nonetheless.

We stayed in a traditional ryad -- all arches, courtyards and cool cloisters.

It was made of mud brick, the most ancient of all man-made building materials, which I was surprised to see was still in widespread use.

I worried a bit about what would happen if it rained, but luckily it didn't. Judging from the inside I think it was fairly waterproof.  

The chap we rented it from claimed it was a  "ryad ecologique" although I wasn't really sure what that signified. I guess the traditional build goes a long way towards it -- but perhaps not the swimming pools and large flat screen TVs.

It provided a good base for our labours at the Menara Gardens where I helped-out with the REEP garden as part of the children's festival at Jardin'Art. We worked under garden designer maestro, Christopher Jordan. 

And built, Chelsea style, a show garden in 48 hours, ready for the onslaught of visitors...

I enjoyed running workshops for the kids. There seemed to be a pent-up demand for drawing, so with hundreds of coloured pencils and reams of paper we got them creating...