Sunday, 29 April 2012

Isleworth and Syon Conservation Action Group

Yet another new community-based organisation has sprung up in the locality. It is called the Isleworth and Syon Conservation Action Group (ISCAG), and the clue to its programme is very much in the title.

Tomorrow (Sunday 29th April) ISCAG will be holding a Grand Sale to raise funds at the Park Road Allotments behind All Saints' Church, from 1.30 till 4.30 pm.

There will be children's activities, homemade goodies, bric-a-brac, a book sale, a plant sale, Temptation Alley dog competition and a raffle.

If you are available please pop along and support this worthy activity.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Isleworth: Remembering our History, Defending our Future

Christine Diwell and ICG Chair Ian Speed lead a 
massive residents' campaign to save Isleworth Library
I spent an interesting few hours last week attending the Annual General Meeting of The Isleworth Society (TIS) at Isleworth Public Hall. Although I have been a member for many years it was the first AGM that I had been to for quite a while as it almost invariably seems to clash with something else in my chaotic life schedule.

AGMs in general are, as a rule of thumb, fairly mundane affairs in which the business of electing a Committee and of hearing last year's minutes is conducted to the exclusion of anything remotely interesting to any but the anoraks. TIS AGMs, however, do not follow this rule. Instead once the routine business is done there are tea and snacks, a raffle, and then a "Part Two" which is an integral feature of the meeting.

The elections to the Committee confirmed the current incumbents in situ, which now includes Paul Fisher who was co-opted a few months back and whose continued membership of the Committee was unanimously supported. Although he is not the first ICG member to take up office in TIS he is undoubtedly the most high profile, and his welcome elevation would appear to endorse the ever closer working relationship that the two groups enjoy. A relationship which one must say is something of a "no brainer" when one considers the convergence of interests that exists between us.

On this occasion "Part Two" comprised a fascinating talk by TIS Secretary Christine Diwell, whose great talent for holding an audience seems to grow with every presentation she makes. Even though I had heard much of the talk on a previous occasion my attention was as undivided as it had ever been.

I could not help but be struck by the sheer size of the meeting and the support that it drew from around the Isleworth community. Although the ICG is the larger of the two groups in terms of core membership we could only dream of bringing out half the number for one of our AGMs that TIS achieved last week. That TIS was also able to use the event to generate probably a three figure sum for its funds only served to underline the professionalism of the whole enterprise.

It would also be fair comment to say that the attendance was from the senior end of the age scale, and whilst both TIS and the ICG aspire to recruit more active young people I feel it would be wrong to underestimate the power of the grey activist base - retired, affluent by comparison and, in this day and age, still surprisingly capable when it comes to pushing out leaflets and participating in such things as community clean-ups as well as relentless lobbying.

It occurs to me that the ICG would appear to have morphed organically into an "action arm" of a wider movement, a movement that is given depth and meaning by the activities and the powerful presence of civic organisations such as TIS. It provides a potent combination, and in my view is a model that communities around the borough that find their independence and their unique character under threat from the soulless and unrelenting attentions of the planners and the politicians should seek with some urgency to replicate.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Are you a Luddite?

By Tom de Castella

They burned down mills in the name of a mythical character called Ludd. So 200 years after their most famous battle, why are we still peppering conversations with the word "Luddite"?

It's a popular retort to someone struggling to operate their new smartphone or refusing to buy the latest gizmo: "You're such a Luddite."

There is another word for it - technophobe - but it doesn't convey the same sense of irrational hostility to the modern world. So where did "Luddite" come from?

In the midst of the British industrial revolution, skilled textile workers feared for their jobs. An uprising began in 1811 when Nottinghamshire weavers attacked the new automated looms that were replacing them.

The workers took inspiration from a fabled General Ludd or King Ludd living in Sherwood Forest. His fanciful name may have come from a young Leicestershire weaver called Ned Lud, who in the late 18th Century was rumoured to have smashed two stocking frames.

The machine breaking spread to West Yorkshire wool workers and Lancashire cotton mills, in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm called "collective bargaining by riot". Machinery was wrecked, mills were burned down and the Luddites fought pitched battles with the British Army.

The response of the state was brutal. Machine breaking became a capital offence. At trials in York, 17 Luddites were hanged and another 25 transported to Australia, while in Lancaster eight were hanged and 38 sentenced to transportation.

One of the most serious incidents happened two hundred years ago this month. About 150 Luddites armed with hammers and axes attacked Cartwright's mill in Rawfolds, near Huddersfield. The authorities shot two of them dead and the attack was eventually repelled.

For Katrina Navickas, author of Loyalism & Radicalism in Lancashire 1798-1815, they were working class heroes. Trade unions had been banned in 1800 and here was another way for workers to defend their livelihoods.

There's no doubt that the Luddites have been romanticised, says Dr Emma Griffin, author of A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution. They are thought of as the first workers to destroy their machinery, yet this had been going on for years. What marks the Luddites out was that they were better organised than their predecessors, she says.

But both historians agree that today's use of "Luddite" is wrong. To use the term for someone who ignores Twitter or refuses to move from analogue to digital TV is a complete misrepresentation, says Griffin.

"We use it for people who are hostile to technology, who don't want to get a mobile phone," she says. "But what concerned the Luddites about technology was that it was going to cut their wages."

An accurate modern example, according to Griffin, is the 1986 battle of Wapping when print unions picketed Rupert Murdoch's new hi-tech newspaper offices in protest at the computerisation they feared would make them obsolete.

So how did the word evolve so much?

The first recorded usage of Luddite in the Oxford English Dictionary is for 1811. But its catch-all anti-tech meaning appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the OED, it wasn't until 1970 that the term was used - by the New Scientist - to describe technology refuseniks.

But soon this meaning was everywhere. In 1984 the novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote an essay asking "Is it OK to be a Luddite?" for the New York Times Book Review.

The debate has never been quite resolved, for the desirability of being a Luddite is a matter of personal taste. A common boast in the 1980s was that one couldn't programme the video. But for others "Luddite" is a useful putdown for Neanderthal technophobes that can be laced with different quantities of humour or contempt.

"Will mainframes attract the same hostile attention as knitting frames once did?", Pynchon wondered in his essay. "I really doubt it. Writers of all descriptions are stampeding to buy word processors."

And yet a neo-Luddite movement sprang up. The most extreme expression of this philosophy was the bombing campaign of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. His manifesto, which was eventually published by the New York Times, said that the "Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race".

Today with digital technology enlivening or intruding on - depending on your view - day-to-day experiences, the term is more popular than ever. People nostalgic for a time before mobile ringtones had colonised train carriages may class themselves as Luddites.

But whereas once it was cool for kids not to understand science, the tide now appears to be with the nerds and geeks. Luddite may sometimes be a fond term but its adherents are on the losing side.

The sheer variety of situations in which "Luddite" can be used would astonish the attackers of Cartwright's Mill were they to resurface today.

In recent years, the term has been used for opponents of planning reform, ID cards, Tesco and goalline technology. Prince Charles is a target, as is the novelist Jonathan Franzen - after an attack on e-books and Twitter - and Oasis were once described by fellow band Bloc Party as "repetitive Luddites".

Historians may bridle at such an inexact use of the word but it's too late, says Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language.

"There's absolutely no point historians getting indignant about language. It's never going to stop changing - they're trying to hold back the tide like the Luddites."

And "Luddite" is not unique. Many historical terms are bandied about casually, losing their precise meaning. "People have a "cavalier" attitude," Forsyth points out. "There are 'puritans' all over the place. And 'bolshie' is a bit of a classic."

None of this means that contemporary Britain is awash with supporters of Charles I, hardline Calvinists or Bolshevik revolutionaries. But these colourful terms add to the richness of the English language, he says.

For lexicographer Susie Dent, the evolution or "transferred" meaning of "Luddite" reminds her of how "philistine" has changed. "The figurative sense to mean an uneducated or unenlightened person is from 1825. Before then, the first transferred sense was an often humorous reference to a group regarded as one's enemies."

These new allusions are quite common, she says. "But what always strikes me is their endurance, centuries beyond their original application."

Navickas makes a point of correcting people, albeit in a lighthearted way, when she overhears them misusing "Luddite". And yet she is thankful for the frequent sloppy usage, as it keeps these textile workers' memory alive.

The rural equivalent of the Luddites were farm workers who took part in the Swing Riots of the early 1830s. Ricks were burnt, threshing machines destroyed and tithe barns attacked. But no-one remembers this now for they never developed a recognisable brand, she says.

So however grating it is to hear an iPhone refusenik invoking the weavers of Nottinghamshire, Navickas is glad that "Luddite" remains a popular part of everyday speech.

The irony is that as the speed of technological change accelerates, the term "Luddite" has never been more necessary.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to BBC News Magazine

Monday, 9 April 2012

Don't Tell 'Em Pike

I've been getting some stick from the Conservatives over the past week or so on the Chiswick W4 community forum. They would appear to be becoming a little tetchy over the fact that I take the opportunity to post there from time to time to remind Chiswick people of the incidents that led to the deterioration of the erstwhile good relationship between their Group and ours during the last months of the 2006-2010 Conservative/ICG coalition that managed Hounslow Council - when it is relevant to a topic that is being discussed, naturally.

I say "managed" because, in spite of the ICG's best efforts, the authority was still led by chief officers when we handed the chains of office back to Labour in May 2010, and needless to say that is still very much the case today.

Those incidents included the Mogden betrayal (made worse by a shameful officer-produced feature in the council's HM Magazine arguing the Conservative case for expansion against the ICG's contrary case), the effective non co-operation of chief officers with the ICG aspects of coalition policy and the discovery of a proposal discussed by the Conservative Group to try to split the ICG asunder following the May elections by offering coalition terms to some of our elected members and not to others should the distribution of seats have permitted.

I have rehearsed all of these incidents before and don't intend to go into them in detail again. None of them are denied by our former partners and they have if nothing else taught us an abject lesson about how political parties operate in general, and that this kind of low politicking is by no means confined to Labour.

But I would remind those who feel the need to taunt us over our election reverse (that these people can effectively celebrate their own defeat gives us some clue as to the limitations of their own ambitions), and make threats against us, that every action has a reaction.

Many Conservative members of our acquaintance are unhappy with the way things have turned out, and for obvious reasons. I am advised that this is the case in Chiswick as well as in Isleworth, and I would guess it applies elsewhere in the borough too. It may be that many of those people will reflect upon the prospect, brought about by their own local party officials, of what will effectively be permanent Labour domination of the local authority for the forseeable future and will be open to persuasion that there is a better way.

It may be also that the many channels of communication through which that conversation may be had will become increasingly open to us.

If there is one positive to emerge from the election defeat of 2010 it is that it has taught us to consider our whole long-term strategic approach and not just the two-dimensional business of delivering leaflets and winning votes. And there has never been more of an appetite for independent civic engagement than there is today.

Just thought I would mention it, Captain Mainwaring!

Friday, 6 April 2012

Bradford West - Aberration or Portent?

"You politicians. Conservative. Labour. Lib-Dems. Over my lifetime, and I am 65, you have sold the assets of this country to overseas masters, and you have sold the people of this country down the river. And still you play junior fart club between yourselves. Why don't you recognise that you are all finished. Come the next General Election, you will each get a share of the lowest turn-out ever. You will all be virtually wiped out. Surely George Galloway's triumph has shown that very few people are listening to you anymore. Your political parties and your posturing and political pimping no longer mean anything."

These comments were posted on the hugely popular community forum by a regular poster just a moment ago.

I would dearly love that his sentiments were true. Party politics continues to give an increasingly bad account of itself (some of the political posters on that forum are a particularly shining example of everything that is sick about our political process today). George Galloway's astonishingly resounding victory at Bradford West should give anybody who values democracy and integrity in politics, whether they happen to like Galloway or not, a sense of hope that the voting public is finally beginning to shed its chains.

But my enthusiasm is tempered by a sense of deja vu from past events that are by no means dim and distant. Shortly before the most recent general election in May 2010 there was a general sense that people were getting fed up like never before with the party politicians. The expenses scandal, both locally and nationally, left a very foul taste in the mouths of those who ought to be able to look to their self-proclaimed political masters for inspiration and example. There was much talk from the pollsters of a Lib Dem bounce (okay the Lib Dems are establishment party politicians as well, but a move to them would be a move away at least from the Janus-faced beast that is the two-party duopoly).

So what happened? As always the two major parties were given the lion's share of the support. The Lib Dem lion roared scarcely at all. At local elections all over the country independents and small parties were buried under a tidal wave of general election ovinity. In Brentford and Isleworth the much discredited Labour MP lost her seat to her Conservative opponent, but with a percentage swing against her that was actually lower than the national average.

So was Galloway's extraordinary victory in Bradford an aberration, or a sign of things to come?

Was, indeed, the triumph once again in 2010 of the two-headed monster an assertion that it will always ultimately triumph no matter what, or was it the swansong of a dying political establishment?

The last throes of a dying animal - violent, dangerous, but ultimately futile?

The common determining factor throughout is the mass media. It was the national media that teased us and tickled or palate with its mock indignation when our politicians were discovered with their collective snouts embedded firmly in the trough before the same mass media, as the general election drew closer, overwhelmed us all with news and images from the big party campaigns and persuaded us all that there really was no alternative after all.

It was the national media that lured voters to vote nationally, even at the local elections.

It is worth noting that the same national media all but ignored the parliamentary by-election that took place in Bradford West.

So I sound a note of caution, but that does not mean there is no hope. For the national media too is fast taking on a different character, with the Internet inducing more interactivity, the explosive growth of social networking and the steady but constant growth of alternative news channels. Just as the power of the two-headed monster over our political life is waning, so too is the relative influence of those who have traditionally controlled our sources of news and information.

The important thing is that politics is heading in the right direction, with politicians of all shades finding it necessary to at least pay lip service to localism and public engagement. Many of us are impatient for this process to reach its logical conclusion, but reach it one day it most certainly will.