Friday, 28 June 2013

Glastonbury - 4 Top Tips from a Local

It's that time of year again, kids. The cagoules are sold out, Points West have their news story of the year and if you want to get to Evercreech this week, it's going to take at least forty minutes. That's right, Glastonbury Festival is upon us.

I've grown up with the festival being a part of my consciousness. It's just something that happens around here. I turned up to one of my GCSE exams to find that only three of us had arrived - where were the others? Yep, you guessed it, they'd been gurning away to the Arctic Monkeys all weekend. With the festival just down the road, it's something of a rite of passage for any Somerset teen. So, from this Somerset chap to you, here are four things you need to know.

1. Don't go to Glastonbury. 

If you actually go to the beautiful town of Glastonbury, you're going to be a few miles from your destination. Glastonbury Festival is held on Worthy Farm, which is actually in Pilton. Pilton is a completely separate place, and you should remember it. Local people get incredibly annoyed when people don't know the difference. In that same vein, if a local is talking about going to Pilton, it's very unlikely that they're going to visit the Church. Calling Glastonbury Festival simply 'Pilton' is likely to do you favours with any locals you might meet.

2. The real celebs are nowhere near Pilton. 

Babington House - a bit like stumbling into
Brideshead Revisited... or so Bentley says.
One of the things that I think makes the festival so successful, is it's ability to pull in celebrity festival goers. From Kate Moss to Emma Watson, the festival is one of the places to see and be seen. However, don't be duped into thinking that these people are actually likely to be staying on site. The surrounding area has a great array of boutique hotels and celeb friendly hidey holes. One of which - Babington House - I regularly trespass the grounds of when walking my dog Bentley. Whilst Kate Moss might have a trailer in the VIP area, she'll more likely be holed up at Babington House for the weekend.

3. Visit Frome on your way back. 

Catherine Hill in Frome.

 Now, I suppose I'm biased, but it would be such a shame if, when visiting Pilton, you didn't see some of the amazing things the local area has to offer. There's no point in trying to get on and off site during the weekend, but it will be worth your while visiting Frome on your return journey, partly because it's lovely, and partly because you'll duck most of the return traffic. Frome has become famous for Catherine Hill, the largely independent shopping area loved by Pearl Lowe among others - but don't let that put you off. Frome is surely worth a look for any festival goer.

4. Men from Shepton Mallet love Glastonbury Festival.

You might think that for people living in the nearby town of Shepton Mallet might hate Glastonbury Festival for all the congestion it causes on local roads. You'd be wrong. A lot of them love it for exactly that reason, at what other time of the year can Shepton's men get away with giving arduously lengthy travel instructions for avoiding traffic holdups?
Some choice travel morsels I've been given are "Which end are you coming in? Cannard's Grave? It's best avoided if you want to be home by Christmas." and the ever helpful "No. Beardly Batch will be hell until at least Tuesday." Glastonbury Weekend is when Sheptonians truly come into their own.

So, remember those four things and you won't go far wrong. Of course, whilst it is only a few minutes down the road, I'll be spending the weekend watching Saturday Kitchen and crocheting. That makes me one happy camper.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Troubling images of Julia Gillard

I'm going to put a public health warning on this post - it contains some images of Julia Gillard that I had to think long and hard about before reproducing. I've decided to go ahead with it, because I think that they need to be in the public domain, because it's in the public interest. I do it with a heavy heart and an understanding of the implications it might have on my own health and standing in the party.

As some of you may know, Julia Gillard stopped being the Australian Prime Minister today - largely due to incredibly shady yarn-based dealings. Ms Gillard thought it appropriate to solicit services from a photographer, and then to pass on the resulting images to Women's Weekly. I'm not even going to try and understand why she might try and do something so sick and wrong.

Ms Gillard, who thought it appropriate to pose with what I can only assume is an acrylic based substance. 

What I find even more galling is that this isn't the first time. People argued that she might be doing this to try and alter her image before elections - but it simply isn't true. These images form part of a pattern that has been going on for years in what some could see as an addiction. A twisted addiction to being occasionally photographed doing a craft that you actually enjoy.

Whilst grainy, this image depicts Gillard with another troubled knitter.
This picture, if not a sad enough portrayal of two women, bonded only by their love of garter stitch, also proves more wrongdoing. Ms Gillard knowingly visited Radio Brisbane in July last year and became a fully certified 'Knit-wit'. I don't know what the term means, but I can only assume it's part of some secret language that these people have developed so that addicts can go about their ways undetected.

Ms Gillard knits some kind of 'gift'
The above picture shows the horrifying extent of Ms Gillard's affliction. She's pictured here crafting with the understanding that another human being will receive her handiwork. Those who thought that they were protected from this kind of thing by the 'Restriction of Transfer of Knitted Goods Act 2010' may sleep less soundly in their beds. Julia Gillard clearly has no regard for law and order.

The final picture is the most shocking, and I'd advise those of a delicate disposition to stare at the Google welcome screen for at least ten minutes to calm yourself down before attempting it.

Julia presents her finished creation in all it's stomach-churning softness. 
I find this last image most shocking of all, because, to me, it shows Gillard, proud as punch with her finished knitted item, almost lunging at the camera man. Desperate to be photographed holding it. It is sick, it is wrong and it scares me.

Gillard's defence that she wasn't really a knitter, and that she was only doing it to soften her image may fool some, but I'm led to believe there is far worse at play here. Julia Gillard actually enjoyed knitting. She actually enjoyed making things with her hands using yarn and knitting needles.

I for one will sleep more safely in my bed knowing that Australia is under the safe guidance of a man who, when asked if he preferred to knit or purl, answered 'What? Who are you? Get out of my garage.'

Can you help with a future post? Anybody with any information on whether Gillard liked sock knitting, or whether she ever used a circular needle please email me on 

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Hillary Clinton : why she's running.

I'm going to out myself right now. I'm a shameless Hillary Clinton fanboy. During the 2008 Democratic  Presidential Primary I campaigned online for Hillary and I'm quite sure that there are some pictures floating around somewhere with me wearing a 'Hillary is my homegirl' t-shirt.

That's why I'm so excited that Hill-dogg looks to be eyeing up the White House again. Here's my view on what the self confessed 'Pant-suit aficionado' and 'glass-ceiling cracker' is up to right now, and why I think it all points to 2016.

1. She's writing a book.

Anybody who read 2003's 'Living History' will have realised that whilst it did cover Hillary's life, it was far more than that. 'Living History' was a five-hundred and sixty-two page election broadcast. Yes, it gave just enough information about Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater - the things that people had a real interest in, but it spent a great deal of time positioning Hillary in a way that Americans could access. Did 'Living History' paint Hillary as a powerful, often bulshy businesswoman, able to hold her own and dig herself out of trouble? No. It painted her as a down-home American woman, doing right by her husband and family. It spoke of how she's living the American dream - working hard and getting on. All of these things have a direct line to people across the US, political or not.

Earlier this year it was announced that Hillary will be releasing another memoir - this time about her time as Secretary of State. Will it be an academic piece outlining the difficulties of diplomacy in a fractious world? I doubt it. It's far more likely that it will be a portrait of Hillary, rolling her sleeves up and getting on with it - like all American women do when it's needed. It's the exact same thing that Thatcher achieved when talking about government in terms of housekeeping. It will place Hillary in that sweet-spot of American politics, capable but not threatening. It will be another exercise in political positioning.

2. She's building her network.

Have you heard of 'Ready for Hillary'? It's a Political Action Committee, an independent body which can fundraise and build networks, without Hillary's consent or support, so that a campaign is ready and in place just as soon as Hillary throws her hat in the ring.

Ready for Hillary have been gathering data from supporters, raking in donations and even sending out 'Ready for Hillary' bumper stickers. The most important one of those, I'd guess, is the data. Hillary won't have any problems gathering donations if she decides to run. The data could win the day. Having great lists of supporters, or at least interested parties, means that Hillary has a direct line to those people who are already susceptible to her message. In 2008 she made great use of it, though was admittedly overshadowed by the Obama campaign - in 2016 she won't be left out. If the data wins the day - Hillary already has a leg up.

3. She just joined Twitter.

Hillary got a lot of press attention back along for the 'Texts from Hillary' tumblr page. What started as a joke about what Hillary might be texting people about, turned into a viral meme, and ended with Hillary submitting her own. It showed not only that Hillary had the 'tech thing' down, it showed that she had a sense of humour.

Cut to six days ago, and Hillary joined Twitter. Having tweeted four times, she's gained more than 502,000 followers. More still - her bio is hilarious.

If Hillary's joining Twitter, she's staying relevant, and staying in the public eye. I wonder why she might be doing those things?

4. Hillary just started 'Too Small to Fail'

Too Small to Fail is an initiative by the Clinton Foundation and Next Generation, who campaign for better opportunities for American children. Who is the figurehead? You guessed it, Hillary Clinton.

There are two strands to this one, first, it positions Hillary very well. Far from being the nasty, scary politician that people came to be concerned about in 2008, it's key message is that Hillary is everyone's favourite Mom. She isn't somebody to be concerned about, she just cares about children.

The second thing it does, is gathers email addresses. As it says, 'I agree with Hillary and Next Generation that our children are too small to fail' - doesn't everybody agree with that? So, sign up, give your email address, and wait for a few emails from Hillary talking about children and why they deserve better chances. It is gold.

5. The timing is all a bit too good...

I don't know about you, but I have the sense that the speed in which all these things are happening hasn't been left to chance.

Feb 1st - Hillary stops being Secretary of State
Feb 5th - Bill and Chelsea email supporters inviting them to 'Thank Hillary' for all her work
Early Feb - Launches
March 18th - Hillary launches online video supporting LGBT marriage
Early April - Release date set for Hillary's new memoir
June 10th - Hillary joins Twitter
June 14th - Hillary launches 'Too Small to Fail'

Is it just me, or is somebody very carefully remaining in the press, for all the right reasons? Since she left her position as Secretary of State to spend more time at home with her family, she's spent a great deal of time championing specific causes and positioning herself very carefully. Are those the actions of somebody about to retire and eat boiled sweets on the front porch?

I don't think so.

So, that's what I think. What do you think? Leave your comments below.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Stephen Fry, the NHS and my being as mad as a box of frogs.

Over the next couple of weeks, I can promise you that there will be a lot of different things written about Stephen Fry and his disclosure that he'd attempted suicide last year. I realise that calling it a disclosure is the most horribly clunky language to use, but it's also right. It wasn't a confession, it wasn't a tell-all interview, he just told a room full of people. I haven't a doubt in my mind that given two weeks, Stephen Fry will have been called courageous and brave more times that you might care to remember. He'll be so safe a national treasure that the National Trust will put down a deposit. Whilst I don't disagree with any of that, I do think it blunts the power of his action. 

Stephen Fry, wearing a rather fetching hat.
In telling an audience, and listeners, or viewers, about such a private and lonely time, he will have blown the lid off depression and mental health issues for many people. For me, the real power of the thing was the fact that he didn't wait ten years to tell everybody on the pages of an autobiography - this was last year, this was recent, this was alive. Too often mental health episodes aren't seen from the present, they're seen as a retrospective glance to something that has passed. Stephen's choice has meant that rather than this being something that happened back then, that happened, but can be largely ignored, this issue is alive and real. That's something I have great gratitude for. 

A few years ago, different events led to me withdrawing from my English Literature course at the University of Sussex. I found that I'd been travelling home nearly every weekend, sometimes taking the four hour journey to Brighton for an hour-long lecture then coming straight back home to Somerset again. When I was at Sussex for any great length of time I would lock myself in my room and comfort eat to a horrible extent. My withdrawal was my acceptance that it wasn't the right time and that I couldn't take it. 

But that wasn't the end of it. My therapist tells me now that I'm probably severely depressed. I hadn't realised, because, like the rest of the world, I get on with things, and as a rule, I keep going. When you're a busy person, it's easy not to realise the fact that you're finding it harder to get proper sleep, or you have incredibly small personality changes, or you can't really get up in the morning. I didn't realise that anything was wrong until I started having panic attacks. Going into therapy actually really helped me realise how I was feeling. What's more, it isn't over. I'm forced to get out of bed every morning because the dog needs to go on a walk. Given half the chance, there's a great possibility I'd just stay there. There are still days when I wake up and I'm concerned for my own wellbeing because I actually feel that I'm dying, that very slowly, the light and joy that I used to find in everything is fading, and leaving for good. It's alive. The feelings and emotions are alive. This isn't something I'm over, it's something I'm still in the middle of and trying quite desperately to make sense of. 

Stephen Fry's comments bring mental health problems to life, and I for one am grateful for that. 

But, what does it all mean? Why is any of this relevant for Liberal Democrats? Because, as is often the case, we're not going far enough or fast enough to protect and support the mentally ill. 

I sometimes feel like Hillary looks in this picture -
like a bit of a nutter. *
I have real concerns that the changes to Clinical Commissioning will mean that whilst, yes, Doctors and hospitals have more freedom, they also have to worry less about how they're spending their money. By and large, I don't have many bad things to say about the Medical Practice in my home town in Frome. You can get an appointment pretty quickly, and the Minor Injuries Unit has always been really helpful. However, I'm fully aware that when I presented to a Mental Health Nurse with these problems, she said I had low self esteem and needed to use an online application to try and solve myself. Failing that, I needed to go to group therapy sessions on a short term basis, and failing that, they'd refer me to a Counsellor for six weeks. It doesn't take a genius to work out why exactly they suggested the cheapest option first and kept the treatment I really needed as a last resort. 

I'm concerned that the NHS reforms that have been made on our watch will mean that there's even less influence over how our local health services are run and what local priorities are. 

One thing I'd love to see, would be some kind of Mental Health Gold Standard, whereby, there's a certain expected level of care for those presenting with certain problems. The years of the postcode lottery are still upon us, with vastly different care being provided in different areas. I would support a properly consulted, properly costed plan that meant that the NHS had a clear duty of care, universal across hospitals and practices and commissioning groups. I won't pretend not to be troubled about the fact that we now have less and less power over how that is actioned. 

I'm all for reducing the excesses of 'big government' and I'm all for localism, but not when it makes little sense, and not when you forfeit the opportunity to make a real and direct difference to people's lives. Don't get me wrong. I'm not just ragging on the Lib Dems here. Labour are mostly to blame in many senses, because of the Primary Care Trust model. Regardless of the politics of it - more needs to be done to support people at what can be a very dark time indeed. 

So, a real thank you to Stephen Fry. Not because he's been brave, and not because he's now such a national treasure that he should be on tea towels, but because he was honest about his struggle. We all need to be open and honest about our struggles and concerns, maybe then, people will realise that Mental Health issues can affect us all. It affects Stephen Fry, and myself, and probably lots of the people reading this post. Only when we're truly open about all of this can we really hope to move toward a reasoned and fair-minded plan to help those struggling the most. 

* Whilst I'm a real Hillary fan, it is worth googling 'Hillary Clinton crazy', I think she must just have an unfortunately expressive face. Tyra Banks suffers the same thing, if you have time of your hands.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Is our party fit for purpose?

I don't know about you, but over the past few months I've noticed a recurring theme, within the Lib Dems as well as the other political parties. Whether it's the allegations against Chris Rennard or the new developments regarding the Member for Portsmouth South, the whole thing smacks of a party which isn't very good at keeping it's own house in order. And it isn't just us. There were allegations this week that a Labour Councillor was basically bullied by Luciana Berger, the MP for Liverpool Wavertree and I've lost count of the number of scandals the Tories have been beset with, where it's been found that abuses of power took place, or where party processes simply were not fit for purpose.

It's really concerning.

As a political party, we operate in the public domain, and part of our very purpose is to attract volunteers and new Councillors. In that sense, it is of incredibly importance that our party has the proper checks, balances and processes to make sure that our people are protected from abuse from without and within.

I have been in positions myself where I've been very nearly pulling my hair out because I'm so aware that the actions taken within the party wouldn't stand up if they were in the private sector or open to proper scrutiny.

Here's an example.

Like many other people, before I was selected as a Council candidate, I had to sign the Councillor's Charter (do other constituencies use these too?) which was my word that I would agree to deliver four focus leaflets a year, actively engage with my political group and refrain from making public attacks against colleagues. I took the signing of the charter very seriously, in no small part due to the fact that it does in some sense limit what I can or cannot say in the public arena. I know however, that locally we don't really do four focus leaflets a year (we often don't have an organiser, which tends to cause problems) and so we've all probably broken the charter already. This renders it meaningless, and so, what's to say that you wouldn't brief against a colleague, because there isn't likely to be any backlash.

As a party, we rely very often on the good will of normal people. We rely on the fact that Councillors aren't going to start active warfare against eachother, or that MPs aren't going to act in a dishonourable way. But, let's realise that sometimes, that doesn't happen. Sometimes, things get a bit nasty.

I'm a massive fan of Cllr Abi Bell from Hull, who runs things in a very different way. Council candidates are made fully aware of the party's expectations, they are given targets regarding canvassing or leaflet delivery and they are held to account by a strong and stable party. I'm quite sure that this doesn't happen in most local parties, and it doesn't seem to have happened in our own National Party, where it appears that a lot of brushing things under the rug has taken place over a long period of time.

If we're to look to build our party on a strong base, and move toward taking actual power in the House of Commons, and in Council chambers up and down the country, then we need a strong, fair and enforced party model to allow it to happen.

I'm not entirely confident that it exists yet, but I am absolutely supportive of Helena Morrisey's work into this very problem. Whilst I'm not a proponent of political naval gazing, I think that might be what is needed. We need to have a long hard look at how we deal with complaints, arguments, bullying - all sorts - because we need to be a Party ready to take on challenges and ready for the future.

More power to Helena's elbows.