Saturday, 29 May 2010

The role of the state

A fascinating series of articles in The Times this week by Roger Boyes has made me think about the role of the state. Boyes’ articles report how he has been reliving the time he spent in communist Poland during the Cold War as a foreign correspondent when he was under regular surveillance by the authorities who suspected he was a spy. He met again his landlady who used to report on his movements, listen in to his meetings and, using her key, let the secret police into the flat to copy his correspondence. He has also seen some of the files recording all this information. Much was destroyed when Communism fell but enough remains to give an amazing insight to the intrusive state at the time. The Polish authorities eventually gave up on him but not before accusing him of ‘Nonchalantism’ – negative and nonchalant reporting of the Polish leadership.

At a time when our new coalition government is talking about reducing the size and impact of the state, both for idealistic and financial reasons, I’ve been thinking about our attitude to the state. The Boyes example is an extreme one although I believe we have more CCTV cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world. But we can trust our police and other authorities can’t we? However, we seem to have much lower respect for them than we used to and than other countries do. I spent three days in France last week. One day was with our French friends who live just outside Paris. Walking round their town I was struck by the civic buildings and developments – open areas, a market hall, a boules park and a magnificent Hotel de Ville. And I don’t detect any resentment about this level of spending.

I have similar thoughts when visiting Birmingham. The wonderful town hall and art gallery was built 125 years ago and echoes with civic pride.We seem to have lost this today. I’m sure any authority would have difficulty with such an investment these days. Back in France it’s easy to look at the extensive French high-speed rail network and compare it with our one line into St Pancras (I won’t mention HS2!) From the Eurostar train the sparsely-populated Northern France looks easier to plot a route through than Kent – much less the Chilterns!  But I sense that the French government would be much more assertive at making things happen – and would get away with it.

Looking at tax levels is interesting, too: I remember seeing some statistics a while ago when the government was trying to change our tax base – I forget which way but it was by less than half a point when measured as a percentage of GDP. Currently, if you believe Wikipedia, our total tax revenue in the UK is 39% of GDP, France is 46% and the USA 28%. Are we just culturally different from France or just ahead of them? I see that binge drinking is taking hold in France with Apéro Géant parties planned on Facebook: there was one threatened last Sunday on the Champ-de-Mars (the park around the Eifel Tower). The authorities didn’t ban it, they just reminded people that drinking alcohol in the park is illegal! So perhaps they’ll catch up with us one day.

Back to Poland in the cold war: one interesting comment from Roger Boyes refers to a time when he was having difficulty with his new Polish father-in-law. He says “I had never admitted that to myself; hadn’t framed or spoken the thought out loud. Yet the secret police had truffled it out and analysed it with precision. At times their knowledge of me was deeper than my self-knowledge.”

Now, what about all these potholes?

Roger Boyes' articles are available here, here and here

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

April in Paris

OK, so it’s May. We had a quick trip to Paris on Eurostar last weekend. It was a good weekend to pick – not a cloud in the sky and as it was Pentecost, a holiday weekend in France, lots going on. Champs Elysée was transformed into a sort of farm. Half the length of the road – from the Rond Pont to L’Etoile – was filled with all sorts of growing plants in large planters – virtually the full width of the road. There were wheat, beetroot, lavender, hops, haricots, maize and lots more including plants for bees!

Down the sides of the Avenue were stalls run by the French Young farmers – all sorts of things to taste including oysters from 3 sources: the Arcachon ones were the most expensive! And there was beer, wine and champagne to taste.

How’s your French? Have a look at the web site

And what are the crude wooden huts high up on the Pompidou centre?

Monday, 17 May 2010

Garden for the Children

We’re trying to persuade the local council who manage the cemetery adjacent to the Church to use a corner for a garden for the youngsters. Helen’s idea – the proposal is to have a wild garden and a more formal area. The wild garden would have bird boxes, bat boxes and rotting wood to encourage insects. We already have a rare butterfly - the white hairstreak – living in some elms in the Churchyard. The local natural society is planning to plant some more elm trees to maintain the colony. The butterfly only lives on elms and, not surprisingly, has suffered since Dutch elm disease.

The second part of the garden would have raised beds so that the children can grow some flowers and small vegetables. The area proposed for the garden is adjacent to the by-pass. The proposals have met with a very positive enthusiastic response from lots of people. We’ve had e-mails offering to sow extra seeds or give spare plants and the raised beds are already committed.

I’ve had an initial informal meeting with some of the council representatives – they happened to be in the cemetery when I was visiting the Church. I sense that the wild garden is not an issue because it’s in an area that is already fairly wild – to the left of the photo below. However, I sense some unease about the raised beds: we clearly need to ensure that any planting is sensitive: no beans or similar tall plants and nothing that makes the place look untidy. It also needs not to look inappropriate from the adjacent cemetery.

I hope we manage to persuade the councils of the value of this to the community because I’m sure that many people – not just the youngsters – will benefit.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Watoto Choir

We went to Watford today and who was singing in the Harlequin but the Watoto Choir. They were inspirational. Perhaps we can get them to our Church again?

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Zone plus - winning photos

Last Saturday, Anna was presented with her prize for winning in two categories of the photography competition.

For bigger versions, click on any of these images.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010


Over two weeks with no comment. I think I’ve surfaced after Zone Plus – but Helen is already booking the summer event. After several false starts, we’ve decided on the two days after the summer bank holiday – 31 August and 1 September. We have to move out of Church because the contractors are starting work on the clerestory windows so it’s not really practical to have children running round the Church. So it’s the Oldham Hall and school grounds. We’re widening the age range a little – allowing younger children to participate. One of the interesting factors of the first week was that virtually all the participants were organised by their parents. I had expected a number of older teenagers to pop in. Perhaps in the summer things will be different.

We’ve also been focussing on younger children in Church during the last few weeks. We’re trying to revitalise Junior Church – for the youngest members. We’ve had some good workshops. We’ve been missing active leadership for this age group but things are slowly dropping into place. I had an email from one of the mums today saying that her daughter – now a teenager – is full of ideas for the little ones. We need to find a way of tapping this enthusiasm without disrupting school and exam pressures! I don’t know how teenagers communicate these days: I hear they’ve gone beyond Facebook (“ that’s for parents now”) I’ve suggested a pizza with some of the young Zone Plus helpers to get ideas for new activities in the summer. Perhaps this is the way. I’ll keep you posted.

Communicating with adults is no better these days. We’re well into the Blackberry/IPhone era but people still don’t know what’s going on. Perhaps that’s the problem: information overload.