Monday, 20 August 2018

Planning for the future of our local High Street - How to transform Mill Hill Broadway

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The Broadway
Mill Hill Broadway has always been a central part of my life. As a small child, there were four shops I loved. These were Callis's bike shop (on the site that is now M&S), Kentfields Toy Store (now a Barber), Woolworths (Now Icelands) and H.A Blunt and Sons (AKA The Model Shop and now Cosways). There were three butchers, three greengrocers and two fishmongers. Times have changed a bit, I suspect that they are going to change a whole lot more in the next ten years. Will our High Streets be recognisable? Is there even a future for the small High street? Is it worth fighting for?

First of all lets consider why High streets change. Generally the properties are owned by Landlords. They want to make as much money as possible from their assets. If Cosways Estate Agents will pay a higher rent than the model shop, then any sane businessman would be quite happy to see them take over the lease. As a Landlord of commercial properties, I fully understand that the first priority is to get a return on your investment. Tenants sign leases for periods often between five and twenty years with rent reviews built in. If property prices in an area double in that time, then the rental values will follow suit. If you are renting a shop in Mill Hill Broadway for £50,000 a year and making a profit of £50,000 and you get a rent review which doubles your rent, overnight your business is making nothing. On top of that there have been big rises in business rates for many High St businesses. The government has not recognised that a) Thriving High Streets are good for the nation and b) Most of the businesses in them are currently struggling. It is clear to anyone with any knowledge of retailing (I run a shop as one of my businesses), that the goverment needs to overhall the way it taxes business, both small and large. The percentage of tax that the countries largest retailer, Amazon pays in relation to independent High Street businesses is obscenely unfair. Small businesses do not want special treatment, but asking for a level playing field is not unreasonable. Not only can Amazon use their huge buying power to leverage massive bulk discounts, they pay miniscule taxes on what they sell. Sadly very few of us would want to pay a higher price because we would like to retain our High Street stores.

One byproduct of the rise of the internet retailers is the huge proliferation of delivery van on our streets. I'd be interested in comparing the carbon footprint of a pound of sausages bought from Cooksleys (our local butcher in the Broadway) with one ordered from an on line retailer. There are many aspects of the move to online retailing which are detriminetal to our quality of life and pollution and traffic are certainly things that should be taken into consideration when working out a more equitable taxation policy. This may even encourage the likes of Amazon to consider cycle couriers as a first choice in urban areas. I was speaking to a friend who works in civil engineering who told me that there has been a marked increase in wear and tear on local roads in recent years. As delivery vans and lorries are significantly heavier than private cars, could the boom in online deliveries be contributing to the pothole epidemic we're seeing? If it is, then this is in effect another hidden subsidy that taxpayers are giving on line retailers.

There is little doubt that many of us like buying goods online. For many things, it is the easiest and most sensible way. For me, as a record collector, it has meant that albums I spent years scouring the second hand vinyl stores of London for, have now been easily and conveneiently been bought from dealers in the USA etc. I can't rememeber the last time we bought a kettle or toaster from a shop. For shops to survive selling such items, they have to have an amazing story to tell in this day and age. There is fantastic kitchenware shop in West Hampstead, if they were in Mill Hill, I would have bought many of the items in the window, but as we only go past it on a night out, sadly I've never actually set foot inside. But this type of niche shop to me is the future for High Street retailing. I suspect that to survive, you have to convince people to buy items they didn't know they want when they left the house.

A good example of this are Gerard's butchers in Daws Lane. They sell the most amazing Chorizo sausages. I wasn't even aware of the existence of such delicious treats when I first saw them in the shop. They also do some amazing mustards and pickles. This has caused some friction between my wife and myself, as I insist on buying them in the shop (as I believe the shop deserves rewarding for introducing me to such delights), she insists on buying the on line (as they are cheaper). My arguments that we wouldn't know of them if Gerard wasn't there falls on deaf ears and meets with a response of  the look given to an unfortunate imbecile. But Gerard has a loyal band of customers who do value his services.

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Mill Hill Wines - Regular Tastings
When Matthew Offord was first standing as MP for Hendon, he told a local resident in Mill Hill that he wanted the Broadway to be the type of High Street that an independent cheesemonger would want to open up. Although this lead to much mirth (not least from me), I actually totally agree with Matthew. I would love to see such a shop and I think that it would thrive, if run properly. Mill Hill wines in an example of such a model. They have an amazing selection of products (all there to tempt the impusle buyer). They have regular tastings. They have expert knowledge. I have developed a love of fine wines, very much thanks to them. I think that what the High Street really needs is a  "food quarter", If Matthew Offords cheese shop was next to Mill Hill wines, with Gerards or Cooksleys butcher from Daws Lane, Elias Fish and the organic greengrocers from Mill Hill East roundabout were all in a row next to each other, with some sort of loyalty card system, I think you'd have a very viable and thriving Mill Hill food quarter. I'd also love to see a high class delicatesant, a top quality baker and a health food shop present. The new store next to Costa has an amazing range of fruit and veg as well as a whole range of middle eastern and european foods. The trouble is that there is no attempt to form a "centre of gravity" in the Broadway for the food retailers. It is my belief that until such retailers start working together, they will be fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. I believe that both Cooksleys and Gerards butchers could thrive in the same parade as they are both excellent and would provide a strong attraction to locals who are seeking quality foods.

The next thing to consider is the restaurant offering of Mill Hill. Given the high turnover of restaurants in the Broadway, we again should have a look at what might be done to make this work better. The very best will always just work. Look at The Good Earth. It has been there for decades and is always busy. As for the newcomers, Bobs seem to have cracked the burger and beer niche pretty well. As a long term resident, the message is that if you want to succeed in Mill Hill, you have to be very good at your niche. Last year, an independent Italian restaurant opened in the Broadway. I assumed they would rake it in. They failed, as they were completely clueless as to how to run a restaurant. Perhaps their biggest sin was not to have a proper wine list. I'd love to see such establishments thrive, but they have to be well run. I'd also like to see the restaurants working with the food sector, so that they say "Wines selected by Mill HillWines, meat provided by Gerards/Cooksley, Fish by Elias". I love food and drink and if I have an excellent cut of steak, I might want to cook it myself the next day. What amuses me is that the restaurants in Mill Hill sometimes see each other as the enemy. The opposite is true. The more good restaurants you have in a High St, the more of a destination it becomes. When the Broadway had two Indian restaurants, we ate far more curries. I love the Mill Hill Tandoori, but it was nice to also have the option of the excellent cooking of Romel at the Day of The Raj. Variety was the spice of life. I'd love to see the restaurants get together to operate some sort of joint loyalty scheme and do co-marketing to get people to come to Mill Hill. I do however think we need two or three more top class restaurants to really make that work.

As for the cafe bar end of the market. There was much gnashing of teeth about Cafe Nero opening in certain quarters. There was a cry of "not another coffee bar". I was a little disappointed with this. Cafe Nero are a very different proposition to Costa. I think both can thrive. I'm not a coffee drinker, but the rest of my family are.  A bit of choice is a good thing and it will up the game of the existing businesses. Given the trends in High Streets and retail, I think town centres need to embrace the cafe culture, it really is here for the foreseeable future. They are good for the High Street, they make people appreciate that it is worth spending time on them. The Broadway has a thriving cafe culture. When I was kid, there was really no such thing.

The next element we see in our High Streets are the charity shops. The Broadway is seeing a new one opening soon. The British Heart foundation are opening in the recently vacated Halifax bank site. Again there was much nashing of teeth, but any reading of the runes shows that charity shops are one aspect of the High Street retail that is more or less immune to the likes of Amazon. We all have junk we want to get rid of and there is an army of people who want to rummage around for bargains. Arguments that there are too many such establishments are simply a denial of the realities of 21st century. The challenge should not be how to rid the High Street of Charity shops, but how to make sure that they are a positive addition. This means that there should be design rules, ensuring they blend in and strict rules about leaving bags of donations outside, forbidding the practice. Charity shops have tax exemptions as well. This means that they are a far less risky proposition for Landlords. I would like to see these rules changed so that other small retailers and start ups get similar deals.

Then there are the nail bars and hair dressers. Every time a new nail bar opens in the Broadway, there is a chorus of "oh no, not another one". Then you notice that they are full all the time. The coffee shops of Mill Hill are often filled with well presented ladies, having a pre or post beauty treatment coffee, so there is a very valid argument to be made that these are good for the High Street. As you can't buy a haircut or a nail job on Amazon, I suspect they are there to stay. Again the challenge is to make them a little more in keeping with the ambience that says "This is a great High Street".

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Next up we have the niche non food retailers. I will give a massive shout out to two of them in Mill Hill. Firstly Gary at Rockman Jewellers in the Broadway. If like me, you are a hopeless romantic (hopeless in as much as I always forget to get the wife a present for her birthday and Xmas), Gary is a saviour. He is a shining example of a great retailer. He knows his customers, he gives great advice and he supplies a product that you simply can't gauge on a picture on the internet. Such great retailers will survive, I have no doubt of that. Then there is Raj at Kilworth Audio. He does high end audio visual gear. We always buy our tellies and turntables from him. He is a proper retailer, adapts with the times and gives great service. Such firms will survive. As a community though, we do need to make sure to tell our frinds that such great businesses are there and that they need our custom.

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A&Y Locksmiths
Another side of the non food retail business are the locksmiths and grocers. Locksmiths are pretty much Internet proof. When you need a new key, you have to use them. Mill Hill has an excellent locksmith. They have a whole host of other ironmongery products and also do cheap shoe repairs. Such businesses that hae skills are the real key to a town centre, yet get little recognition in any discussion. Then we have the retailers like the "pound shop". There is a debate about the unsightly display of goods on the pavement. I'm not a fan of unsightly encroachment onto the pavement, but given the current retail climate, I think we have to cut such businesses a bit of slack. In the long term, we need to ensure that new businesses coming onto the Broadway have rules that stop any further proliferation of street clutter.

Another contentious area are the bookmakers that crop up on our High Streets. As these businesses are hugely cash generative, they are a favourite with landlords. I really don't know of anyone who welcomes the opening of new ones. I would like to see them zoned out of the busier areas of the Broadway and other High Streets, possibly with a local limit on the number of them. I have an old fashioned view of their activities and believe they siphon money away from other businesses that add more. For me, bookies are one business that I'd definately say yes when asked if I'd prefer to see an empty shop. I would not ban them completely, but better zoning and limits would make a huge improvement to our High Streets.

A very thorny issue is the issue of banks. I have had countless rather pointless discussions with people who don't run businesses about the flight of banks from the High Street. For people in 9-5 PAYE jobs, they seem like anachronistic dinosaurs. To people like me who run businesses dealing with cash, they are an essential High Street resource. Barclays are the only big four bank left in Mill Hill and have a constant queue.  If you operate a business, having to go to Edgware to pay in money is a huge overhead. I think that the big banks have completely mismanaged their branch networks. The way forward would have been for outlets to be shared resources, with a banking function. What I would say is that if your bank leaves your High Street, leave your bank for one that has remained. Vote with your wallet.

Finally there is the pub. Mill Hill has the Bridge, which is a rather niche operation. It is my regular watering hole and if you want a pint of Carlsberg on a Thursday night with a couple of mates after five a side footie, that you can walk home from it is great. If ever I am going to have any extra marital relationships, I'd conduct them in the Bridge, as it is the one place my wife would not come looking for me with the rolling pin. The Broadway desperately needs another pub (not a replacement pub), if it is to thrive. I'd love to open one a few doors down from Cannons Fish and Chip shop. Generally, they make you wait 10-15 minutes for your take away, so a pub for a crafty pint next door would work extremely well. A pub where I could take my wife without her objecting would be lovely. Somewhere for a quick drink before or after a meal with friends. I'd love somewhere that you could listen to music without jumping on a bus. Not a punk rock venue (great though that would be), just pleasant singer/songwriters and jazz trios etc. I'd like fresh food, nothing fancy, things like good quality sandwiches, burgers and steaks. Going back to the food quarter, it would be a great showcase for Matthew Offords cheese shop.

Finally on the general subject of attracting business to the Broadway. We need a more sympathetic parking regime. Short visits (20 mins or less) should get free parking. Thameslink should work with local retailers to help reinvigourate the Broadway. This could be done with joint promotions, money off meal vouchers for season ticket holders (God knows they deserve it) and a more "Mill Hill feel" about the station with Murals and artwork with local themes. TFL should also consider such schemes in relation to the bus network in Mill Hill. There should also be measures to make the Broadway and surrounding roads more cycle friendly (bike docks on the Broadways), segregated safe cycle spaces where feasable.

 So to summerise, I'd like to see the following written into any area plan for Mill Hill Broadway (or any other High Street).

1. Phasing out of cluttering street displays.
2. Zoning for food quarters and removal of bookies etc (as tenants vacate premises)
3. Stricter rules on signage with display standards
4. Loyalty schemes and joint promotion for town centres.
5. Tax incentives for innovation and start ups ( a points system for business rates, where social advantageous enterprises pay far lower rates than business that are not beneficial)
6. Fairer taxes in relation to online retailers
7. A more cohesive and local orienation for transport providers
8. Measures to make the Broadway more cycle friendly

What is tragic is that several Town centres in the London Borough of Barnet have received grants in the millions for regeneration. Most of this has been completely wasted, when a bit of thought and planning could have delivered regeneration at virtually zero cost.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Tweets of the week in the London Borough of Barnet 19/8/2018

So here it is again. The local roundup through the eyes of our local Tweeters

Don't forget to follow any who tickle your fancy

1. First up, lets start with the solving of the mystery of the performing seals at Apex Corner, courtesy of the Mill Hill Historical Society

2. Did I ever tell you that Tom Robinson's drummer used to Jam with us in Mill Hill back in the day. I was reminded of this when I saw this post. I used to organise benefit gigs for the ANL at Harwood Hall in Mill Hill

3. Our favourite Rugby teams season started with a friendly yesterday. Well done lads!

4. Dramatic scenes on the Broadway on Friday as a van caught fire

5. Great pics from the Finchley Horticulturalist!

6. I can't find the words to adequately describe my feelings about this

7. We support the amazing work of our fantastic local litter pickers

8.This is well worth checking out

9. It really is criminal that there are houses empty and rotting as people are sleeping rough

10.Want a nice dance studio in Mill Hill

That's all folks

Saturday, 18 August 2018

The Saturday List #184 Ten things I didn't expect to still be doing at 56!

This week I turn 56. My Dad was that age in 1973, which seemed very old to me at the time. I was thirteen then. I was think about this last night as I made my way to Powerleague to play five a side football. My father was a far better sportsman than me. As an Aussie he was an excellent cricketer and told me that if it hadn't been for the war, he'd have loved to have been a professional fast bowler. That was his passion. He gave up completely when he was 32 as he realised his performance was declining. He played for Finchley Cricket Club after the war and had some excellent bowling figures. I assumed that my life would follow a similar path and I'd never be playing sport in my 50's. I thought I'd make a list to celebrate my birthday of all the things I didn't dream I'd be doing at fifty six when I was a teenager

1. Playing football. I assumed that like my Dad, you got to your mid thirties and just stopped. whilst some of those I play with probably wish I would, I love it and it keeps me fit. When I see friends who do no sport and are my age, I have noticed many have aged more than those who are still active.

2. Playing punk rock guitar in a band. I sort of assumed that when you got old, you suddenly morphed into a Chris De Burgh fan and your sole association with music would be watching the Val Doonican show on TV as my Dad would do. Strangely I enjoy playing in a band more now than ever. Maybe it is the lack of egos.

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Grandad is the baldy behind the Babe in arms

3. Going to the barber. I assumed I'd be like my maternal grandfather and be as bald as a coot. Everyone told me that "baldness skips a generation".

I can't say that the idea of baldness ever filled me with glee, in some ways I'm quite vain. In the 80's I saw Mr Leonard Poutney on TV, he was a hair expert and said that eating excess salt made you go bald. I have avoided it ever since. I don't know if it is true, but I still have to visit the barber

4. Going to gigs with my mates. My Dad would occasionaly go to a show with my mum. The only activity he did with his mates was boozing and playing snooker on a Thursday night at Mill Hill Services club. He told me "When you reach my age, you can't be bothered with all that" when I asked why he didn't go to more shows. He said he only went because it kept my mum happy. Both myslef and my missus regularly go out with friends, without each other. I think it keeps us sane (and together).

Image result for Judge Dredd Sometimes The Human Race makes me sick
5. Reading comics. I've always read comics. My mum encouraged me to, as she felt it would help me read. I was a bit thick as a child (a condition now called dyslexia). I had a massive collection that my mum unilaterally slung out when I was sixteen. I was furious. She told me I was "too old for that rubbish". In 1997 I showed her an article that stated comics had proved a better investment than gold. She rather irritatedly said "You never let go do you, that's the Irish in the family". I still enjoy them. My comic of choice is 2000AD, which is dark and written for adults (immature ones Mrs T would say).

6. Be interested in UFO's and the paranormal. I am fascinated by UFO's and the paranormal. I know quite a few people who have seen all manner of unexplainable phenomina and have seen several things myself. I think it is the height of imbecility to believe that in the whole universe we are the only life form or the only one to have reached a level of technological sophistication to have the capacity to leave our planet. I discussed the issue with my Dad, who as an ex WWII pilot had seem some very strange things. His advice was "keep all that to yourself son, everyone will think you are a nutcase". Sound advice, but I am not ashamed to say I still have an interest.

7. Still be going to Lourdes with my family. One thing I really didn't expect to be doing when I was in my late teens was to be an active member of the Catholic church and still be going to Lourdes. My Dad was very religious and from the age of six until eleven, my annual holiday was with my Dad (mum stayed home to run the business) to Lourdes. This was a blast. My Dad would do a religious thing in the day, then in the evening go out on the razzle around the bars, taking me in tow. I was allowed a shandy. I loved the vibe, the people from all different nationalities and the banter and cameradarie. Sometimes Dad would get into card schools and pay for me to drink pop all night. By the time I was 18 I was identifying myself as an atheist. In my mid 30's I had a long hard look at myself and started attending church again. After my Mum had a stroke in 2000, I went as a helper with a group of disabled adults in 2001. This gave me the strength and the understanding to deal with my mum's condition. I took her four times until her death in 2008. I've taken all my kids, who although very unreligious get the vibe and love helping people. I am not a holy Joe, but I love being with a mixture of people and I get to play a lot of guitar, drink, eat french cooking and have great friends in the group. I'd never have predicted that as a teenager.

8. Married. To be honest, I never expected to get married. At school, my former headmaster took great delight in trying his hardest to belittle me and undermine me. On one occasion he told me that I was an idiot and I'd never manage to have a girlfriend, let alone get married. This was truly shocking to me at the age of 13. I assumed he was right. He told me that "no suitable gorl would ever look at you!". I analysed this and realised he was right. I decided that the best strategy was to find rather more unsuitable girls. I found that unsuitable girls were far more fun, so I guess I owe him a big debt of gratitude. Somehow I managed to think my extremely pretty and lovely wife was one such unsuitable candidate, like most things, I was wrong and we are approaching 33 years together and married.

9. Be taken seriously as a writer. I'm dyslexic. As well as my headmaster undermining my belief in my sexual prowess, my English teacher, Miss Amy Walsh at FCHS told me I was completely illiterate. If it hadn't been for a whole series of strange and rather lucky coincidences, I would never have written a word. The first of these was when my sister Caroline asked me, aged 14 to go to the The Roundhouse to watch NYC punks The Ramones. This changed my life. I changed school, I formed a band and I started writing songs. I also became politically active and started writing letters to papers. I had letters published in the Guardian and The Express. Then I was asked to write a blog on the Barnet Times website. This soon developed a huge readership. When Barnet Council forced the paper to drop me, I set up the Barnet Eye and have subsequently had over 2.5 million page views. I've also written articles for The Guardian, The Londonist and a series of other publications. The one I am proudest of is a blog back where it stated, on the Roundhouse website! That is probably all the acclaim I need in life.

10. Be alive. Seriously. As a teenager, I didn't really take care of myself and was incredibly reckless. I did all manner of things, any of which could have resulted in instant death. When I was 22, I had serious health problems, resulting in a long spell in hospital. I didn't have a Eureka moment, but oer a period of time adjusted my lifestyle. I seem to have some sort of health scare every ten or so years.  I was born a "blue baby" (no not a City fan).In my early teens I was seriously depressed and self harming, in my 20's I had stomach issues. In my 30's it was ear problems and mastoids, in my late 1940's I was diagnosed with Prostate Cancer. My mother once told me that my ill health was a blessing. She was similarly afflicted with a lifetime of bad health. She said "You are used to being ill, you'll last forever, it's those who never have a days illness that get a cold and drop dead". I'm not really convinced. If nothing else, it's made me appreciate the NHS.

I suppose it will serve me right if I drop dead before Wednesday.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Aretha Franklin RIP

I seem to be writing far too many obituaries  for musical greats these days. I don't think that any compare with Aretha Franklin in terms of sheer talent. When writing these obituaries, I always write about my personal relationship with the artist and their music and how it has affected me. It is fair to say that Aretha Franklin was one of my greatest musical influences. I first got into music in 1977 as a 14 year old punk rocker. The very first band I saw were the iconic Aussie punks The Saints, who were supporting The Ramones at The Roundhouse. I loved their raw, powerful sound. In October 1978, they released Prehistoric Sounds. I excitedly pre ordered it and when it arrived stuck it on the turntable. My first impression was really negative, I hated it and didn't even bother listening to the second side. It languished in my collection, unplayed and unloved until around late 1981 . I have always regularly pulled a random album from the collection and spun it. When I saw the album, I groaned. But then I thought "No, I'll give it a go". As I'd listened to some of the A Side, I thought I'd try the B side. I put it on and I thought "hey, this is OK". Then the final track came on. I'd never heard it before, but it was awesome. It started like a standard punk song with a guitar riff, but as the vocals came in, so did a barrage of brass. The song was Save Me. I was obsessed with it. It had never occurred to me that brass could work in a punk environment. I loved everything about it. I was just recovering from breaing up with someone who I thought was special. Two lines really struck home.

Love leaves you cold and hurt inside
These tears of mine, they are justified

As  a comic book nut, I was also transfixed by the references to "the caped crusader" and "the Green Hornet". I listened to it three times on the bounce. I thought "Kuepper and Bailey are geniuses" having put together such a great track. Then I looked at the label and was gobsmacked to see that it was written by Aretha and Caroline Franklin with Curtis Ousley. I was vaguely aware that Aretha was a good singer, but I'd never listened to her.

I thought it was worth taking a trip down town and getting one of her albums. The logical choice was "I never loved a man the way I loved you", the album which had Save Me on it.

In truth, I probably only bought it to be able to show off to my mates when we were having debates about obscure punk rock tracks. I rather sceptically went home, almost writing the narrative in my head as to why the Saints version was superior to Aretha's. I got in, made a cup of tea and put it on the turntable. I thought I'd start with side 2, as this had Save Me on it. It starts with Dr Feelgood. I was totally transfixed by this track. I was a bit of a fan of Dr Feelgood, the Canvey Island blues combo. I sort of expected a Feelgood style blast.

What I got was this


This was a totally different style of music to anything I'd ever listened to before and it was absolutely awesome. I think my jaw hit the floor. I'd sort of formed an ill informed opinion that Soul music was fairly trite and not for me. It opened my eyes. By the time it got to Save me, I was hooked. Given the other songs, I was amazed when the track started with the same guitar riff as The Saints. It became clear to me that if you have a singer like Aretha Franklin, you can do anything in your band. I was inspired. At the time my band had a girl singing, but she was vocally on a par with Madonna, I wanted Aretha. Of course, there is only one Aretha. I also wanted brass and better arrangements. Aretha made me see what was wrong with the music we were writing.

The album finishes with the old Sam Cooke Song "A change is gonna come".

I developed a mild obsession with this song. On the first listen, after Save Me, the first few bars really didn't do it for me. I didn't like the tinkly piano at all (I'm a guitarist). But I stuck with it. The song is an absolute masterclass in how to build a track. It also has a poweful message. I was determined to find out a bit more about Aretha. Her story was incredible. Daughter of a preacher, a mum at 12. A complicated personal life, drugs, drink. An amazing catalog of music, without peer.

I got to thinking about what I liked about Aretha and why I've always loved her but found the likes of Whitney Houston harder to get into. The thing about Aretha is that she's economical when she has to be and goes for it like a train when it is right. There is no showing off or pointless noodling. She always hits the spot and gets it right.

Perhaps the most recent thing I've listened to featuring Aretha was a remix of A deeper love. It just shows that her voice is completely timeless.
I always thought that calling Aretha "The Queen of Soul" was doing her a total injustice. She was so, so much more. I thought I'd pull together a little Spotify playlist. It finishes with her cover of Let it Be by The Beatles. Quite a fitting way to finish a playlist by a preachers daughter. Thanks Aretha, I can honestly say that you've enriched all our lives.

I hope you enjoy these

Thursday, 16 August 2018

A Level Results - Our education system is not fit for purpose

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Exam stress
Today my youngest child received his A level results. We've been through this three times. Each time the pattern is similar. A levels are done over two years, during this time each of my children selected a University of their choice and then had to buckle down to get the results. The exams are done in May and June and then there is a 'phoney war' as they finish and the results are awaited. For all involved, the whole process is highly stressful. We are lucky in as much as all of ours acheived the grades to get their preference. For those who don't there are three options, clearing, resits or get a job. This year, students have had the pleasure of a complete overhaul of the way the exams are marked, with coursework no longer playing a role.

As I won't have to endure this process again as a parent, this is really my last opportunity to give my views on the whole system from the coal face. I also have the added perspective of being an employer, running a small business. As our company is a music studio, we are somewhere that many would like to work. We get to see first hand what the educational system produces. Of the twelve people we currently employ, 1 is recently graduated, one has just done A Levels, One has just done GCSE's and one is at Uni. Another did a degree in Sound Engineering and joined us last year. Most have worked for us through the process of education (apart from the lad who has just done GCSE's who is a new recruit). For them the studio is an ideal part time job. There are a fixed number of shifts and they have organised themselves into a WhatsApp group to cover each other. They have to deal with the public, take bookings and deal with equipment issues. Evening shifts are usually 6pm-12pm (although staff can leave earlier as studios shut at 11pm and when close down is done they can go).

So I get to chat with them, see how they deal with the public, see how quickly they learn. As we have a requirement that staff have experience of music, we probably get a higher than aaverage intelligence and commitment level than you might find piling up tins of beans in TESCOS. What is abundently clear is that the school and university system does not prepare people who are fit for purpose in the workplace. The GCSE and A Level system is totally geared to producing results that look good in school league tables. Interpersonal skills needed for dealing with customers are not developed. Problem solving is not a valued skill, as pupils are slavishly pushed to follow the syllabus. I suspect that teachers don't really relish being challenged and it is easier to get results simply by using a follow the herd mentality.  What we notice is that the young people who work for us develop hugely over the first few months. They become confident talking to people and we try and build problem solving skills. When you are dealing with customers, you can't simply shrug your shoulders and say "not my problem mate".

I also participate in the NCS - The Challenge scheme, where young people build citizenship skills and are mentored to deliver community related projects. We get groups of young people come down to the studio for mentoring and to receive feedback on presentations. We've been participating in the scheme for maybe five or six years. I have noticed that over the period, the young people have become more shy and reserved. The first year I participated in the scheme, there was lively banter from the group and a bit of friendly heckling (which I encouraged) as I try and make my sessions interactive. This has become markedly less so. The young people still prepare excellent pitches and have a passion, but seem far more reluctant to interact with adults. At one recent session, they told me that one team, working on a charity project supporting a community garden project found it difficult interacting with some of the people who were volunteers at the site (although they were very inspired by the leader of the scheme).

It is clear to me, as  a father, an employer and a mentor that the results based system is causing a huge dam of social problems to build up. We see this in the ever increasing number of young people on medication for stress and anxiety. Yesterday there was an illumiating article in the Guardian on obesity by George Monbiot, who is one of my favourite writers in the paper. As I was reading this, a very interesting thing struck me. At our studios, we see between 1,500 and 2,000 musicians a week pass through. When I thought about it, very few of these are what I'd call obese. By definition, being a musician requires a higher level of mental stimulation than someone who spends their life in front of the TV. To play in a band requires a greater degree of social interaction. Could it be that isolation is another contributory factor to obesity? I am not a scientist, but I'd be fascinated to see if there is any correlatuon between being in a band and being a healthy weight. What has this got to do with education? Well music is one aspect of education and self improvement that people have to be self motivated to achieve in. Unlike GCSE's and A Levels, the end game is creative and productive. It is also achieved in collaboration rather than by being locked in a bedroom for months on end.

The UK is at a major crossroads. When we leave the EU we will see the end of a huge saftey blanket. We will have to compete in the world, often with people in countries who are far more motivated than the average UK citizen. Our only real assets are the rule of law and the inventiveness of our population. As someone who works in creative industries and who understands their contribution, it is vital that our young people develop problem solving skills, interpersonal skills and are motivated to do great things. The exam factory schools so prevalent in Barnet are not doing this. When it comes to my own experience, all of the most useful things I learned have been from teachers, but not teachers at schools I went to. I was totally put off English at Finchley Catholic High School doing O Levels. I thought I had no aptitude. As I got into music, I started writing songs. At the time I had a friend who was an elderly Jamaican poet. He was reading my lyrics and said "Man, what is this?" I said "It's a some lyrics". He replied "Who would want to listen to that, it sounds like someone is shouting at you. Do you really like people shouting at you? You have to make the song start a conversation with them". He then carried on "In life you will find one day that you will need a weapon to defend yourself. The best weapon you can have is your language. It will save you when a gun or a knife can't. So learn to use the English language properly. One day it will save your life". As I had great respect for him, I didn't argue, but I didn't really understand what he was saying. I did however think about what he was saying about my lyrics. Over the years, It was the best lesson I ever received. I just wish I'd had a teacher who could have given me the passion when I was at school. As it was I had five wasted years staring out of the window. My personal view is that the most dangerous word in the English langauge is "Syllabus". It means that learning is restricted. It is dangerous and wrong. It puts people off and discriminates against creative people.

As for Universities, I've yet to meet a graduate of a college that teaches sound engineering that can run a full band recording session, despite doing a three year course. In contrast, all of our past and present chief engineers have been intelligent and self motivated learners, who have put the hard work in to develop their skills. What particularly irks me is that there is a training provider I use who does a three day course that gives all the skills necessary to run a band recording session. Why on earth can't this be covered in degree courses. Friends in other businesses tell me exactly the same thing.

One example of this, was on BBC London this week. An etiquette specialist on the Vanessa Feltz show explained that HSBC bank were teaching graduates to eat with knives and forks, as many couldn't and this would reflect badly on the bank when staff entertained clients. I'd assume that a blue chip company such as HSBC would get the pick of graduates, so what does it say if they can't even eat with a knife and fork?

We have to end the obsession with grades. We need more preparation for life. We need a totally different approach to the we put together the "syllabus" focussing on making people love English, solve problems in engineering subjects and lean life skills in practical subjects. We need more people to mentor, especially from minority groups. I'd like to see every pupil have to study "life skills". Making mortgage applications, counselling the bereaved, organising funerals, learning how to compare electicity bill prices, etc. I'd like to see a proper appreciation of culture. I'd like to see every student have to prepare a thesis on what they love most about music and culture in our amazing country. At Orange Hill School, I was forced to do a General Studies O Level. I had to do a project and I chose Punk Rock. It was one of only two subjects I got a B in. It was a revealation having to study a subject I loved. I don't know if my teacher, Mr Phillips reads this blog, but if he does, I think he is the man who really deserves the credit. That, to me, was a proper education. I suspect it is why I run one of London's top studios.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Can you solve the mystery of the Apex Corner Seals?

Many of us pass through Apex corner roundabout every day and never give a thought to the architecture. Apex Corner is one of the busiest road junctions in London, where the A41 and A1 collide. Thousands of cars every day pass by. I've walked and driven pas these shops thousands of times and never given a thought to the architecture. The shops are definately pre 1958 (there is a picture of Apex Corner from 1955 on the Francis Frith Website).

I was quite shocked to have my attention drawn to two stone plaques of seals balancing balls on their noses above the shops at Apex Corner by a good friend of this blog Mark Amies.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am always one for a good mystery. What do the seals signify and why 1958 and 1959? The buildings date from before then, so what monumental event involving seals occurred at Apex corner in 1958 and 1959.

Good friend of this blog, Robert Elms on BBC Radio London has joined in the hunt to find the mystery seals and made the subject one of his notes and queries this morning! I'm hoping the answer will be found between Noon and 12.30pm on his show. Click here to listen

Got a local mystery? Let us know and we'll see if we can sort it out

If you can help call Robert on 0800 731 2000 before 12.00 or leave a comment on this page!

**** Update @ 12:10 **** A surveyor has rung up Robert to state that the part of the parade in question was built 1958/9 - closer examination of the picture on Francis Firth backs this up. You can see that the second half of the parade was not built. He suspects that they are simply to commemorate the year of construction and are simply decorative

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

#TravelTuesday I thought Thameslink was bad until I used SNCF!

It may surprise you to learn that I rather enjoy travelling by train. The years of ineptitude by Thameslink have not dimmed this. It is generally my preferred method of travel, when it is a practical option. You can have a drink, you can wander around and around London it is invariably quicker to get in, apart from in the middle of the night. You can read a book or the papers and watch the world go by. As a Manchester City fan living in London, I regularly use the Virgin service from Euston to Manchester and it has been fine. As my wife was at Manchester University, I used to travel up more or less every week to see her on British Rail. I'd take the 16:59 up on Friday and the 06:24 back, which could be done cheaply on a weekend supersaver return. I'd read a book on the way up and sleep on the way back (as would most people). I don't recall having any problems. I'd be in work in Windmill Street by 9.30am.

Thameslink has been a different story. It is definately worse than British Rail, there are no contingency plans for when it goes wrong. When one train is cancelled, they often make sure the next one doesn't stop at your station. If I have the option, I will just go to the pub till it sorts itself out, if it is an evening. If it is a morning, a trip to Burnt Oak is the sensible option and the Northern Line.

Regular readers will know that most years, in the summer I volunteer with HCPT, a charity that takes a group of people with disabilities to Lourdes in France. This year, a friend was getting married on the Saturday, but the group departed on a Friday. I wanted to join the group on the Sunday. The flight options were not feasable and hugely expensive. I thought I'd check out the train. This seemed doable.

I paid 200 Euros for the following journey

11:31 London St-Pancras
14:47 Paris Gare du Nord

Passenger: Roger

Carriage 6, seat 31

15:48 Paris Montparnasse TGV 8591
20:39 Lourdes

Passenger: Roger

Carriage 6, seat 107
London → Lourdes - Sunday, 29 July 2018 €200.00
As you can see, this allowed just over  an hour to connect. I booked the ticket. I then checked how long the connection would take. I was disturbed to see that it was 40 minutes and was worried that this was cutting it a bit fine.

On the day, I turned up and boarded Eurostar with plenty of time to spare. I had breakfast in the station with the Mrs, then she bade me Au Revoir and I boarded the train.

The first wrinkle was that the train departed rather late, nearly 15 minutes after it was scheduled. I started to worry about making my connection. I pinged my wife. She pinged me back a rather worrying message. "Check your emails, there's one from SNCF".

So I did. I was horrified to read it.

Dear customer,

Regarding your travel booking with SNCF on 29/07/2018 on train 8591 from PARIS MONT 1 ET 2 to LOURDES.

We regret to inform you that your train has been cancelled due to production problems.

Find out details about how our services are running on:
  • website under the timetables and live traffic updates section
  • SNCF mobile app
  • By calling +33 892 35 35 35 (cost of international call + fees of your phone operator) or at your original selling point

If you've already changed or cancelled your booking, please disregard this message.

Thank you for your understanding

So I would be turning up in Paris with no connecting train. At least it solved the problem of the connections. On emerging from the tunnel another problem became apparent. This was a very 21st century problem. A subsequent email from Sky Mobile explained
We're really sorry that you may be experiencing problems trying to use your Sky Mobile service if you're abroad at the moment.
There's a technical problem with the roaming network and we are working very hard to get this fixed as soon as possible.
We'll let you know when it’s back up and running.
To say sorry, we'll be adding 1GB of data into your Sky Piggybank within the next week.
If you can connect to local Wi-Fi you'll be able to continue using services such as email, WhatsApp, iMessage and Skype.
So I coundn't ring anyone to sort anything. As there was wifi on the train, I spoke to the Mrs, who had spoken to SNCF and they said "Go to information at Gare Du Nord and they will sort it out". I also spoke to the conductor who said "There are power supply problems at MontParnesse, but ther is a train at 17:48 that gets in at 22:38.".

On arrival, I went to Information at Gare Di Nord. I've never had a worse customer experience. I was simply waved away. You would expect an international terminal to have some sort of ability to help but no. I was now totally flummoxed. I decided to go to Montparnasse, and see if they were more helpful. I took  a 30 minute trip across Paris. As the Eurostar had been 25 minutes late into Paris, it is debatable whether I'd have made the train. As it was, I then had to take a ticket and queue for 25 minutes to get help. Lord help me if my train had actually been going shortly. Eventually I was seen and was told that the train was actually going from Gare D'Austerlitz. I was told that I could not reserve a seat and may have to stand for five hours, I was advised that as the train was busy, I could travel the following day, if I preferred. This was not an option. I was advised to get a bus. I opted for a cab. On arrival at Austerlitz, it was chaos. The station is being rebuilt and the information system comprised of one screen. As I had time to spare I grabbed a beer. I thought I'd have a meal on the train. I'd been lead to believe the food was OK on SNCF trains.

As the departure time approached, I was disturbed to see that there was no platform displayed. In broken French, I asked "Excuse Moi, ou est le train pour Tarbes?". The SNCF official sneered at me like an imbecile and pointed at the screen. About 15 minutes after the scheduled time, an announcement had the words Tarbes and Quatorze in it. I made a mad dash for the train. My plan was to sit in the seat I'd been allocated on the previous service and play dumb. This worked. Eentually the train left 30 minutes late. I texted my friends in Lourdes who were collecting me.

At around 8pm, I decided to try and get some food and a beer. On arrival at the buffet, I was informed that it was shut and given a bottle of water. That was that. On th train, no one checked tickets. My French isn't great but there was no real attempt to apologise for the late running, other than operational reasons.

I've never travelled on SNCF or a TGV train previously. I had been anticipating a blog saying how clean, efficient and punctual it was and how Thameslink might learn something. As it turned out, there was no apologies, no attempt to help, no food, no hot drinks and the most appalling customer service I've had in years. At least with Thameslink if you are delayed by over two and a half hours, you get some sort of refund.

You will be pleased to know that my friends were there to collect. They'd saved me some dinner and I had a very pleasant couple of beers. Would I go by SNCF again? Not if I can help it. I've no idea if SNCF have a customer relations team, but if they do, I hope they read this and recognise that they have failed miserably. I am an experienced traveller and have enough French to get by. Lord help anyone who doesn't.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Barnet Council and Capita - The Marriage made in Hell

This morning, Barnet Council has once more been in the National Press. It wasn't meant to be like this. Back in May 2006, the Tories were lead to a massive victory in Barnet Council by Brian Salinger. His manifesto promised competent local government, low council taxes and good services. Salinger was a competent administrator and a sensible council leader. What he wasn't was a good politician. Immediately after the elections, the then Councillor Brian Coleman lead a palace coup and the Tories replaced Salinger with hard right Thatcherite Mike Freer. As a Thatcherite, Freer believed that there is no such thing as society and that public services should be provided by private contractors. The first I heard of this was in 2008. looking back on my blog archive, there are a whole raft of blogs on the subject (when it was called 'Future Shape").

Back then, this was the only blog in Barnet. There was all manner of sniping and ludicrous comments from people associated with Freer. They dismissed this blog and my opinions as the rantings of an idiot. It hadn't occurred to Freer or his cronies that I had  a skill that I sometimes wondered at the time was unique in Barnet politics. I was reading the documents. It is all very well calling people names, however I was simply providing detailed analysis of their own documents. It took a few years, but eventually the penny dropped. These days the Barnet Tories never comment on my blog and privately most admit to me that I was right all along about Capita. One blog from this period that stands out is the one from Wednesday 18th December 2008. I wrote the following

"I looked up the word zombie on the cambridge on-line dictionary.
zombie Show phoneticsnoun [C]1 INFORMAL DISAPPROVING a person who lacks energy, seems to act without thinking and is not aware of what is happening around them:He just sat in front of the TV all day like a zombie.
2 a dead person who is believed, in some Caribbean religions, to have been brought back to life by magic
Both definitions brought to mind the "Future Shape" scheme. Remove all personal resoponsibility from staff, employ the lowest common denominator. If Zombies 'R' US tendered for the contract ("They're dead, they don't want to be paid") they'd win hands down. They may do a rubbish job, but hey they're cheap.
Barnet has experience of Outsourced contracts. Fremantle, Sodexho (meals on wheels). Does it bode well? Now I'm all for a bit of efficiency and lower tax bills (who isn't).   It's just that Barnet has a history of not implementing schemes very well."
So nearly ten years later and five years into what Future Shape morphed into, was this a fair description? I said then "It's just that Barnet has a history of not implementing schemes very well. " My worry in 2008 was that with Barnets track record of managing external suppliers, they simply didn't have the skill set to make this work.

Over the years since then, the Barnet bloggers have built up their strength. In 2009, John Dix AKA Mr Reasonable joined the scene. John has a very different style of blogging to me. John is very much a facts and figures man. Someone once commented to me, in a rather sneering fashion that 'The Barnet Eye is The Sun of Barnet blogs and Mr Reasonable is the Financial Times". Although I loathe and detest The Sun, in many ways it is a fair comparison. Like the Sun, I cover a whole range of subjects, football, music, news and just about anything else that tickles my fancy. I try and write in a way that is engaging. John concentrates on detail and making sure that facts and figures are central. John rarely blogs off topic. I blog because I enjoy it, I suspect John does it out of civil duty.  What the comment perhaps missed is that we are both 100% serious about the subject. I put a huge amount of work into researching the blogs on the subject. Unlike our councillors, I read the papers that the council publishes. I am sometimes shocked that the questions asked by myself and other bloggers result in quite astonished looks on the faces of councillors on the committees. They are supposed to read the papers, so they should know what is being questioned, but time and again they don't. The questions are published before the meeting, and they don't even seem to read them in advance. They certainly don't read the officers responses, as often they are truly appalling and I can't believe anyone who read them would.

Last month John published a whole series of blogs on the subject of why the Capita Contract isn't working and why we are being ripped off. 

Whilst there are many things I anticipated about Mike Freer's grand scheme that I thought would be a disaster, some things I completely failed to see on the horizon. Perhaps the biggest one would be that Capita itself was a sham and that it would expose Barnet taxpayers to huge risk. It should have been clear to all. In 2013, the Barnet Eye held "Capita Week", This was a whole week of blogs dedicated to the failures of Capita.

Here are the stories

Capita Week - Capita blamed in schools' data loss

The Friday Joke - 21/12/2012 (link to Richard Cornelius taking about One Barnet on the Sunday Politics show).

It is worth watching the Sunday Politics show again that is included in the clip. 

Richard Cornelius states that they were "only outsourcing things that were easy like back office services" in the clip. Having recently attended council meetings where we've heard that Council audits have missed statutory deadlines, unpopular local development applications have been passed by default as the Capita run planning department have not processed the paperwork and as John Dix has demonstrated, the schemes have not saved money.

One of the points we made to Capita at the time was that they would be under constant scrutinty from bloggers and that everything would be exposed. We warned Capita that this would be very bad for their share price. They didn't listen. I have no doubt that their shareholders are ruing the day they set up shop in Barnet.

As you can see, Capita's shareprice has tumbled. In short the One Barnet contracts are a marriage made in Hell. Every cock up that Capita makes is exposed. Journalists such as Aditya Chakrobortty at the Guardian watch the Barnet blogs like hawks, as they know we have broken numerous stories on the failings of Capita in Barnet.

This is why we are running the #KickOutCapita campaign. When you are in a marriage from hell, the best way forward is an amicable divorce. The sooner the better. Here is a video we made to support this campaign.

There is no earthly reason for either side to continue the charade, so lets end it ASAP.