Man walks into a column, no.50: End

Judging myself with appropriate strictness against the criterion I established exactly a year ago, I have failed.

A quick glance at the big fat fifty embedded within the title of this post tells the whole tale: this man may’ve walked into a weekly column but, well before the end, this man fell short. Crumbs of comfort come from 50 being a much nicer, rounder number than 52, and… actually that’s it really. I hope I can count on your goodwill; it’s the season for it, after all.

In my ‘statement of intent post’ on the last day of 2010 I specified no end point for my column partly, I would imagine, because to do so would’ve been rather over-confident: my non-resolution felt intimidatingly large and foolhardy from the start and it took many weeks for it to feel anything close to achievable.

But with happy irony the relative success of my 2011 blogging (relative to the paltry showing of 2010, that is) has encouraged me to branch out from the feathery down lining the wing of ac’s Chief Blogger (and my dear friend) Rich Watts, and set up shop on my own, in a neighbouring borough of this great big webby world.

Because if there’s one thing I’ve realised it’s that I enjoy blogging best when ‘on my own turf’: when I’m writing about something for which I feel a genuine interest – in some cases even a passion – and have a little more knowledge than usual, bred from familiarity with the topic in question.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that this is, indeed, the end of my column (tee-hee), although I can’t promise I’ll keep away from this grand blog entirely.

How to mark the end? Anyone who works with me will tell you that I’m a Category Addict, so rather than offer my columnar highlights in an arbitrary fashion, I proudly present the five categories of things I’ve posted about in 2011. In no particular order, my posts have been:

  1. Political – both small and slightly bigger ‘p’ – covering library cuts, AV, Scottish independence, privatisation, the census, UK constitution and protest. The largest number of posts (14) are in this broad category, and a particular run of four – written in the summer months – are the ones of which I’m most proud, dealing respectively with: public attitudes towards teachers, independent school dominance of Oxbridge, the stupidity of denying the ideological dimension of policymaking and, um, what Spotify can teach us about public service reform.
  2. Self-ish or sociable – a similarly-sized chunk of posts (12) have been either ‘about the self’ (neuroplasticity, meditation etc.), ‘about the self in relation to others’ (from Facebook to charitable giving), or just downright self-centred, for example ‘covering’ the day I gave up daily diary-writing, my arrival at a position of liberal personal atheism, and momentous decision to use my personal iPhone as my work phone too. You heard it here first.
  3. Phoned-in – this category (of 6) divides into posts that were written on the road – figuratively phoned-in – from locales including Brussels, Nottinghamshire and Sydney (the last accounting for a valiant long-haul series of three) and one that was just shit; ‘phoned-in’ in the Late Period De Niro sense of the phrase.
  4. Presidential – I’m referring here to the subject matter, not the quality of the writing: nine posts, all but two in the autumn and winter months, looked at US political shenanigans, mostly with a view to the 2012 presidential election. This category contains the majority of the posts I’ve enjoyed writing the most, of which more below.
  5. Phoney – last and certainly least (how refreshing to write that for once) are posts that, with hindsight, belonged elsewhere. The best blogs have a coherence, but with these eight posts I risked turning arbitrary constant into a jumble sale: with book reviews (of Banville, Powell and Pamuk) and half-baked musicology.

I’ve learnt more than one thing, naturally. I’ve learnt that blogging is utterly self indulgent, both in the positive sense of being overwhelmingly for one’s beneficence and in the less positive sense of being for (almost) no-one else’s, such is the maelstrom of competition for the attention of the online citizen. I think bearing this in mind at all times helps to preserve a sense of modesty in an over-inflated world.

(As footnote: I came across an updating of Warhol’s ‘famous for fifteen minutes’ saying today, which I’m sure will be familiar to everyone but me, but I still thought worth quoting here for its aptness. David Weinberger popularised this version for the blogging generation: ‘everyone will be famous for fifteen people’. I hope I’m getting there, but wouldn’t count on it. Quality not quantity.)

So that’s it: another chapter closes. A happy new year to you, and I very much hope to see you on or around my new blog Wannabe Yank in 2012 or on Twitter @philblogs.

Go Ron!


Man walks into a column, no.49: Newt

As news – hardly news – filters through that (whisper it) there’s a new frontrunner in the race to be the Republican presidential nominee I couldn’t resist offering my own personal perspective on why the likely voters in the Grand Old Party primaries seem so eager to leap onto Anyone Who Isn’t Mitt Romney.

The latest NonRom is someone deeply, uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has been following US politics over the last couple of decades: ex-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. New NBC/Wall Street Journal poll results (covered in the FT here) suggest that Newt has opened up a double digit lead over Mitt – first choice of 40 per cent of Republican primary voters compared to 23 per cent for Romney – but would be likely to struggle against Obama in the presidential election itself, if it were held today.

The race is far from over and Gingrich’s thirty odd years in politics (not to mention ‘colourful’ – i.e. sex and filthy lucre filled – personal life) could well mean he comes a cropper before too long – as Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod commented yesterday ‘the higher a monkey climbs … the more you can see his butt’. But with the first primaries only a couple of weeks away it could well be that the Republicans have found someone who they can comfortably, enthusiastically get behind.

Coverage of Gingrich’s sudden front-runner status often focuses by way of explanation on why Newt is a clearly ‘committed member of the tribe’ or why Romney is an untrustworthy flip-flopper (see for example this Washington Post piece which makes both points). But that doesn’t quite explain the speed with which successive NonRom candidates have been latched upon, including most recently a man who referred to himself in the third person and was, well, clearly an idiot.

I think the problem with Romney is this: he sells himself as a tactical choice to beat Obama and in so doing highlights the fact that as a person he is actually quite a lot like Obama. And if there’s one thing that Republicans hate – even more than married gay immigrant tree-hugging neo-commies – it’s Obama.

What really brought the Obama similarities home to me was this profile of Romney published on Sunday by veteran Washington Post writer (and Laura Bush biographer!) Ann Gerhart. That Romney is a rational, intelligent, wonky type is one thing. The problem is he is too good a person. Mitt’s record speaks for itself: married to his high school sweetheart for 42 years, donates 10 per cent of his considerable funds to church, earned his law degree and MBA at the same time. From Harvard. Before he was 30. When he already had a young family. You get the picture: hardly presidential material.

I say that but actually Republican voters – all voters in fact – have seen ample evidence in recent years that even a man with such prodigious talents as Obama is unable to achieve all that much in the face of the momentous pressures affecting the US in the early 21st Century. Everything from Congressional gridlock, global recession and the rise of new world powers conspires against.

It’s in this context that the stormtroopers of the GOP want someone who can fight their corner, who they can feel good about and who can make them feel good: ugly, imperfect, blinkered and angry as they are. That person is not Mitt, but it might well be Newt.

Man walks into a column, no.48: Meditative

As I reach the end of my 2011 blog-a-week-marathon, these posts are becoming as short as the days, and ‘weekly’ only in the sense of always being a week late.

Real life has a habit of rudely intruding upon the pleasurable pastime of blogging, and my offline world has been particularly rude in the last couple of weeks. Which is pretty much all the excuse I need to make my 48th post about mindfulness.

I blogged ages ago about my discovery – initially hesitant – of mindfulness meditation; and despite lapsing out of a regular schedule (just as with the blogging) I consistently find myself returning to mindfulness during particularly busy periods. It is, I have found, a jolly effective safety net.

And so it was with the usual sense of satisfaction I feel when I chance upon an article that brings together two things I’m interested in that I noticed a tweeted link to this post about why bloggers should meditate, by Irish-born London-based author Orna Ross (Orna’s blog is here).

It’s not entirely clear whether when Orna writes about meditation that she is referring to mindfulness meditation (there are several approaches), but I should imagine that the points hold. As well as opening up creative space and fostering insight, meditation can – on a more practical note – free blogging-blockages, help us to care less about potential criticism of what we write, and improve concentration.

Intuitively, these things make sense, or did to me at least, and I would love to think that I could, in the weeks to come, test them out. The challenge, as always, is finding the time. Because meditation rightly takes time. And so does blogging. Bugger!

There’s a risk of becoming evangelical about something that, like mindfulness, works really well for you: it isn’t necessarily right for everyone, and in any case I’m sure that the act of exploring/discovering it for oneself is part of the key to making it stick. But if you are interested in finding out more, The Mindfulness Manifesto is an absolutely excellent place to start.

Man walks into a column, no.47: Dylan

For me to say ‘I love Bob Dylan’ seems as nonsensical as saying ‘I talk too much’ or ‘I like books’: so obvious as to be redundant. But as I’ve blogged about before, putting the experience of listening to Bob into words – listening to anyone, in fact – seems like a fruitless task anyway. Writing about music is like etching about sex: the medium does not match the act.

And so it was with some considerable pleasure and no little surprise that I read novelist Edward Docx‘ article in Prospect magazine which somehow, miraculously, managed to capture the experience pretty darn well. I’d like to think this is the exception that proves my ‘rule’. In general the writing about Dylan (acres and acres of the stuff) is turgid, pseudo-scholarly and pretentious.

Like Mr Docx (what a great name, and not even a nom de plume) and most other Dylan fans, I discovered the music of the Weirdest Wilbury in my early teens. There was and still is something utterly other about the Sound of Dylan and it’s that, rather than the subject of his lyrics or the anger in his voice (neither of which are consistent features anyway) that mark his out as revolutionary protest music. Perfect for a teenager, basically.

Anyhow, reflecting the fact that I am no Docx or Dylan, best to give column space over to a much better writer. And as a bonus (also a nod to the fact that I’ve been woefully poor in supplying YouTuneage recently on this blog) here’s a video of a live performance that I feel reflects the experience of Dylan in full flow. Consider it an early Christmas present.

(For those poor souls who have somehow missed the chance to see Bob and crew – he does 100 dates a year for chrissakes – the Dylan that Docx is describing is that weird new beast ‘Old Man Dylan’, several regenerations on from the ‘Preacher Dylan’ shown in the video.)

The spotlight falls. And Dylan begins to sing. I say sing. Imagine an Old Testament prophet come down from the mountains of the desert. Imagine he has 70 years’ worth of visions to impart in rich and vivid verse—visions comprised for the most part of searing and timeless human truth about love and god and man. But imagine that he has neither heard nor spoken a single word during his many decades alone—that his voice is therefore as cracked as the tablets he bears and as croaky as the rocks among which he has lived, and that furthermore he has no sense of the speed, nor the sound, nor the stresses, nor the syntax of conventional speech. Now imagine that an unusually convincing joker selling ecstasy tablets and helium balloons has waylaid him on the way to the amphitheatre. And, finally, imagine that when at last he steps up before you to discourse upon what is undoubtedly the quintessence of existence, he chooses to do so by intoning through a hookah pipe using only the five notes of the pentatonic scale. That’s what I mean by singing.

Man walks into a column, no.46: Favouritism

Did your parents love you the most? If you are an only child this question makes no sense (one would hope, I guess they may’ve been particularly attached to the family dog) and this post will probably be of no interest: you may be excused, please wait in the corridor while the normal children enjoy their popular science lesson (with apologies to blog-brother Rich, who I’ve just remembered is an only child, but listen: I don’t make the rules).

Writing in TIME magazine last week (subscription only), scientist-in-residence Jeffrey Kluger (author of the book that inspired the film Apollo 13, factfans) takes us on a diverting tour of the scientific evidence that exposes Mom and Dad as liars when they claim ‘don’t be ridiculous dear, of course we don’t have a favourite’, thereby ensuring that the arguments in the Copestake family homestead this Christmas will have added intellectual heft (it doesn’t take much: my family may or may not be as ‘intellectual’ as the next, just not in late December).

So in the festive spirit of sharing here is a selection of the most memorable facts about favouritism; choose which apply best to your own sibling situation and deploy with glee just at the point that your brother or sister thinks they have succeeded in making the most attention-grabbing contribution to the day.

  • One of the most famous recent studies of parental favouritism was conducted in 2005, when a professor from the University of California at Davis, Katherine Conger, assembled a set of 384 sibling pairs and visited them and their parents three times over three years. Through videotaped observation, including of how conflictual situations were resolved, Professor Conger concluded that 65% of mothers and 70% of fathers exhibited a preference for one child, usually the older one.
  • First children have more parental time, care and invested in them – as Ben Dattner from New York University puts it parents ‘build up a sort of equity in firstborns’, how sweet – and as a result of being the exclusive focus of parental attention, firstborns are usually cleverer. One 2007 Norwegian study showed firstborn children have a three point IQ advantage over later siblings.
  • For those of you who are, like me, from tripartite sibling alliances: gender is apparently the key driver of who’s the favourite. First- and last-born children usually come out on top, middle kids have little chance; this is especially the case in all-boy or all-girl sets, because the one in the middle doesn’t stand out, but also holds for boy-boy-girl sequences and girl-girl-boy families. On the other hand if it’s a boy-girl-boy or girl-boy-girl trilogy then gender trumps everything, and the middle child will be favourite.
  • If you are a parent you may think you don’t have a favourite but you are deluding yourself: there are serious facts involved here and facts are never wrong. The key is keeping your favouritism under wraps: even if your children see through your fiendish attempts to overcome your inbuilt preference, the fact that you’re trying allows your children to pretend to believe you. Or something. I think basically the message is that happy families are built on a web of lies.
  • If having digested these facts and concluded that there’s no conceivable way you might be the fave (thereby confirming what you always suspected) then all is not lost. As Kluger puts it, the biggest risk may be that ‘when you spend your early life enjoying the huzzahs of your parents, you may be unprepared for a larger society in which you’re just one young adult out of many, with the special charms Mom and Dad saw in you invisible to everyone else’.
  • And in any case you could become one of the world’s greatest ever novelists. Charles Dickens suffered from ‘least favoured status’ (it has its own acronym, which I refuse to use), and wrote about how he never got over it: ‘My whole nature was so penetrated by the grief and humiliation…’ (Charles worked in a bootblacking factory whilst his older sister went to school) ‘…that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I wander desolate back to that time in my life’.

If, having launched your favouritism fact bomb, your brother, sister, aunt, child or grandparent retorts with ‘where’s the evidence for that though’, point out that serious American academics with serious academic names like Frank Sulloway from the University of California, Berkeley and Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at the University of New Hampshire are on your side.

And in case you were wondering, I am the eldest of three, with a younger brother and even younger sister. My sister is definitely the favourite but only because she’s a girl.

Man walks into a column, no.45: Obamacare

Yesterday, the 2012 US presidential election, already resting precariously on the sharpest of knife edges, became even more unpredictable, when the Supreme Court decided to review President Obama’s 2010 healthcare law. The ruling will come next March, smack bang in the middle of the election campaign.

But what’s arguably most interesting about this momentous decision is that howevermuch the ruling will change the election, it might have very little impact on healthcare itself, whichever way the judges come down. Just as in England, where a political vacuum is leaving local health services to make up their own minds, so in the US, people across the country are just getting on with implementing legislation that, whilst passed, could quite possibly be ruled unconstitutional.

In agreeing to review the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (so typically American: even its title is a political statement) the Supreme Court is responding to the only appeals court to have ruled that the Act is unconstitutional: most have said it isn’t. Even courts featuring conservative jurists have refused to strike it down: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia being the latest example.

This fact – along with the substantive reasons behind the mostly favourable rulings – may give Team Obama hope. The author of the District of Columbia decision, Reagan-appointed Justice Laurence Silberman, said the individual mandate, which requires Americans to buy health insurance or face a penalty (needless to say the most controversial bit) was necessary ‘because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.’

For Republicans, the Obamacare legislation – in particular its perceived infringement on individual liberty – has acted as an incredibly strong galvanising force. And GOP attacks on the reforms have certainly swayed public mood: the bill has a bad image. Most people like individual elements of the reforms, up to and including the individual mandate, but don’t like the act overall (see the Washington Post for an overview of the polling data).

So which way will the Supreme Court go? Andrew Cohen, legal analyst at CBS News, has a fun guide to the betting odds on the possible decisions of individual judges and the overall outcome, which smuggles in some useful stuff about precedent and ways for the Court to fudge the issue if it so chooses. It’s probably too early to say what impact the decision will have on the election, not least because, for example, it’s plausible that a strike-down ruling could energise the Democratic base, just as a vote in favour could.

Here’s the really fascinating bit, though: all of the above may come too late, because healthcare reform along the lines of the act is already happening. The New York Times has this overview of how, at local level, health providers are already preparing for reform, with many state legislatures implementing their own versions. Hospitals are already hiring clinicians on mass to cope with predicted influx of new patients. State regulators are keeping a closer watch on insurance premiums, saving citizens money in the process.

If the Supreme Court does decide to rule the healthcare act unconstitutional, there could be real problems caused by the ending of federal funding, but as the NYT piece shows, funding problems are acute already. So the Court’s decision is both momentous and a sideshow: the potential for a really significant impact on the election, and very little impact on what happens on the ground.

Man walks into a column, no.44: Librarians

The second in an occasional series – hopefully very occasional – of posts about conferences Phil’s been to in god awful places at antisocial times. 

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will, despite their best efforts, have been unable to miss, I was stuck in what can only be described, in all honesty, as ‘deepest’ and ‘darkest’ Nottinghamshire; this Friday evening and Saturday morning just passed. Seriously: the most notable and indeed only local landmark appeared to be a vast coal power station. Charming.

The ray of light amidst the mire was the event that had lured me there: the annual conference of the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians (ASCEL). Without wishing to get into ‘lovely people, those librarians’ territory, it is nevertheless only fair to note that I have never, in all my legged life, felt anywhere near as welcomed at such a shindig; all the more remarkable when one considers that I was very much an outsider intruding upon a gathering of people who have every reason to feel resentful and angry at the moment.

Why was I there (well may you ask)? Someone from ASCEL had been to one of OPM’s events about mutuals and social enterprises, and felt that it would be helpful to spend part of the conference thinking about the potential of these and other ‘different models’ of public service management and delivery in the school and public library context. The actual title of my session was ‘the future of library services…’ which in current circumstances had a distinctly oxymoronic ring to it.

Again, without wishing to sound patronising (I was less surprised, more simply relieved, given the prevailing winds) the only reason the session went off okay was because of the willingness of the participants to get stuck in. What emerged from the scenario-based group work was an intriguing mix of creative and astute tactical responses, which included:

  1. Political piggy-backing: if ‘saving libraries’ doesn’t have sufficient political salience, find an agenda that does – safeguarding children, for example – and do everything you can to make it impossible for local politicians to miss the full implications of closing libraries.
  2. Going where the money is: free schools, for example, were mentioned as one potentially lucrative (and indeed sensible) set of local partners, as were local leisure companies looking for space to expand (what better way to relax after exercising than exercising your mind with a good book?).
  3. Mixing and matching: several groups mentioned additional services that could be woven into the fabric of a library, ranging from the obvious cafes and community spaces, to things like job centres. Partly in the interest of adding revenue streams, but also demonstrating maximum bang for local buck: child learns to read, mum or dad finds a job etc.
  4. Networked libraries: all of the descriptions of ‘the library of the future’ contained tech elements, as one would expect, but more interesting were those that emphasised libraries as community hubs: not just for isolated older people, but for stay-at-home parents and homeworkers too.

There were plenty more besides, these are just the ones that stuck in my mind the most. The pressures on library services are such that no blame could reasonably be assigned to managers such as these if solutions aren’t found. But I thought the quality of this discussion bodes well: with people like this in charge, one would hope that libraries have at least a fighting chance. In the meantime I’m simply hoping that I can busy myself around the office for the next few weeks.

Man walks into a column, no.43: Segregated

The typical US neighbourhood is much more ethnically mixed than it was a decade ago. Last week the Washington Post published a two part analysis of the United States 2010 Census, which revealed a sharp decline in the number of residential areas that are ‘highly segregated’ or, to put it rather less technically, almost entirely full of people of the same race or ethnicity (85 per cent or more from one ‘group’ – there’s also an interactive map).

This is unsurprisingly the result of massive growth in the number of Hispanic and Asian residents: Hispanics accounted for more than half of the growth in the US population between 2000 and 2010. There’s been a steep rise in the number of what some researchers are calling ‘global neighbo[u]rhoods’. In Washington DC, for example, just one in three neighbourhoods is highly segregated, compared to more than half ten years ago. The biggest drop has been in Northern Virginia, where only one in 20 neighbourhoods is almost exclusively racially similar.

One of the things I find especially interesting about this analysis is how heavily focused on race and ethnicity it is. Despite, or maybe because of, decades and decades of immigration, Americans obsess about race often, it seems, at the expense of the many other ways in which people and communities can be segregated from one another. (Okay, I expect the centuries of oppression have something to do with it too, and indeed the picture is not a universally rosy one of consistent diversification: the analysis also shows that whilst places that were predominantly white are becoming less so, many majority black neighbourhoods are remaining that way.)

I remember many years ago, as a fledgling researcher at OPM, conducting a study on behalf of the then Office for the Deputy Prime Minister (remember that?) looking at future trends in segregation and polarisation. Amazingly, thanks to the benign indifference of web managers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the report from the study is still available online (links to a Word doc).

Now I wouldn’t for a minute want to pretend that this research met the lofty standards of academic studies, but it did at least openly acknowledge that segregation is a complex and contested concept, especially when one expands the meaning of the term to include social as well as residential/spatial overlap.

So for example ‘communities’ can be internally segregated (for example by age) just as much as they can be segregated from one another. As for what causes segregation: well, how long have you got? Structural factors – income, housing, education – mix with (some degree of) personal choice.

With all this said, it would be interesting to know how recent trends in the UK compare to those in the US, wouldn’t it, but unfortunately we’ll have to wait until September next year for the first findings from the 2011 Census. For the moment there’s Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson’s seminal myth-buster ‘Sleepwalking to segregation?’ published in 2009. To my shame I haven’t read the full thing but the freely-available summary (PDF) is packed with facts.

Time to return to my middle class enclave, where we’re blessed with people of every colour and creed, enjoy all the world’s cuisines on our doorstep, and respect every system of belief known to man. And where everyone works in the ‘creative sector’, is inordinately wealthy by national (let alone global) standards, and has free-range children with far too much hair.

Man walks into a column, no.42: Fat

I have long been fascinated with fat. This is partly for personal reasons: whilst not at the ‘morbidly obese’ end of the scale, I have moved in and out of the ‘could certainly do with losing a few pounds’ bracket for many years; usually in, rarely out.

But even if I hadn’t spent weeks, cumulatively, obsessing over my own (sad but true), I think fat – specifically: how we acquire it – is deeply interesting.

To start with, there’s a genuine tragic irony to being or becoming fat. Other ingestible substances that cause harm, such as alcohol, cigarettes or other drugs, are not integral to life in the way that food – the cause of fat – is. A fat person can only survive by consuming that which makes them unwell.

The second non-personal reason I find fat fascinating is that it’s a huge global capitalist conspiracy. This is the case made convincingly by David A. Kessler, ex-commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, in his compelling The end of overeating.

Kessler’s argument is that powerful profit-driven food companies have stacked the odds firmly against staying slim, in the interests of making money. By ‘layering and loading’ different combinations of sugar, salt and fat into manufactured food, these companies are rewiring our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of their products:

In a cyclical process, eating highly palatable food [high in sugar, salt and/or fat] activates the opioid circuits, and activating these circuits increases consumption of highly palatable food.

The killer is that because we all need to eat, the food companies have billions of people to use as guinea pigs to get the blend just right. So not only are we fighting a battle against our natural urges, we’re battling against globocorps too. Nice.

But who’s the ‘we’ here? For whom is this a real battle, rather than an occasional skirmish? Turns out it might be the most impatient amongst us. Seriously!

New research suggests that impatience increases the likelihood of obesity irrespective of demographic, occupational, financial and many other characteristics. This might help to explain why in one of the fattest lands – the US – the overall rise in obesity is being driven by big increases amongst a small sub-set of the population: the slimmest are as slim as they were 40 years ago.

Because it’s not just that foods are cheaper, or higher in calories: fatty foods are just so easy to get hold of. In his book Kessler talks about ‘vagabond eating’ – chomping on the go – and how highly calorific treats are available for mobile dining at every turn. If you are impatient, it seems, this makes it more likely that you will become fatter than ever before. If you are more of a patient person, however, you’ll probably be okay. (There’s a nice Washington Post piece on the research here.)

So when you next find yourself tempted to step into a Starbucks just think: you’ll be taking a stand against rampant capitalism if you don’t. I fervently hope this is the only time Louise Mensch and I arrive at the same conclusion.

Man walks into a column, no.41: Conferences

I’m writing this in a dingy hotel room in Brussels, where I’m staying for an EU conference on employee financial participation. If you’re still reading by this point then frankly I’m amazed, and tempted to suggest you should get out more. For those still with me (hello Mum!) I’ll continue.

This is only the second ‘international’ conference I’ve been to, the first being almost exactly two years ago, when I was jammy enough to speak at a conference on urban governance in Porto Alegre – home of participatory budgeting – in Brazil. Jammy in that it’s a great city, and secondly because my colleague who was originally invited – a real expert – couldn’t go.

Predictably, my trip to Brazil was one of the most surreal experiences of my young life. My first ever long haul flight was considerably marred by sitting in the seat next to a very very fat walrus of a man, and then having a ten hour stopover in Sao Paulo airport. On the plus side this gave me the time I needed to read the book that had brought my colleague to the attention of the Mayor of Porto Alegre. Reading about democratic urban governance in a strange South American airport is not, however, an experience I am particularly looking to repeat.

The conference itself was completely bizarre, alienatingly so. Unlike the Brussels gig where everyone speaks fluent English, I keenly felt my complete lack of Portuguese and spent the entire time trying to decipher rather sub-par English translation through headphones. Not the most natural mingler anyhow, I spent every available break chain smoking in the blistering heat, and trying to avoid the racist Greek professor who felt a kinship with me due to our having studied at the same university.

This time things feel much more familiar and less overwhelming (not least in that I am rather more confident in what I’m speaking about). And whilst – honestly – there was another obese man sitting next to me on the Eurostar, the seats were rather larger and the journey considerably shorter.

Tomorrow morning I shall be talking about the inherent tension between the Coalition Government’s ambitions for nationwide take up of employee ownership and its localism agenda (how to achieve widespread change when each local area gets to make up its own mind?). I shall mention my belief that yes, the relative lack of evidence about public sector mutuals is an issue but suggest that evidence only persuades so many people, some of the time, and say that we need broadly distributed political leadership to move forward. And I shall underline my strongly-held belief that we must not forget that the mutuals agenda is first and foremost about real people making difficult decisions during challenging times. And then I shall hop on the train again, fervently hoping to be seated next to someone slim.