Dreams to Reality at TEDxExeter 2016

Each year I summarise the posts I write for TEDxExeter on the theme of the annual conference. In 2016 it was “Dreams to Reality”; in 2015 it was “Taking the Long View” ; in 2014 it was “Ideas Without Frontiers”; in 2013, “Living the Questions”; and way back in the mists of time in 2012 it was “Sustainability and Our Interconnected World”. Here belatedly are my 2016 posts.

  1. Living the dream
    An introduction to the series… Once upon a time, the Old English dream meant “joy, mirth, noisy merriment” or “music”.
  2. First a dream
    “All we need to begin with is a dream that we can do better than before. All we need to have is faith, and that dream will come true. All we need to do is act, and the time for action is now.”
  3. Dream succeeds dream
    In the UK, the dream of suffrage has been succeeded by the dream of full equality for women.
  4. “Memories, Dreams, Reflections”
    For Carl Jung, dreams were a window on the unconscious, enabling the dreamer to communicate with and come to know the unconscious, and tap into it as a source of creativity.
  5. Killing dreams
    Tread softly because you might be treading on others’ dreams… or your own.
  6. Dream world
    When you wish upon a star, you’re a few million lightyears late. That star is dead. Just like your dreams.
  7. “Einstein’s Dreams”
    In his dreams, Einstein imagines many possible worlds, set in the towns of his homeland, in the valleys of the Alps, on the banks of the River Aare
  8. Technicolor Dreamcoats
    What is your dream? Are you willing to let it upend your reality?
  9. Dreamtime
    Some individuals have forgotten the songlines. They have become alienated from the land and cannot bear too much reality.
  10. I have a dream
    Martin Luther King dreamed of a better world, and he had been to the mountaintop. And yet it wasn’t about the mountain, but about the view over the mountain to what lies ahead.
  11. Dream location
    How we can help shape the place we live, through local government and at the grass roots.
  12. Dream team
    Even in football, it is possible to have dreams of community, to play as a team instead of individual starlets.
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Particulart, or the art of knitting, chemistry, meditation and gentle protest

The politics

The first Particulart exhibition was a collaboration between Diana Moore and myself, running in the Exeter Real Food café from Monday 13th October to Saturday 29th November 2014. Particulart is all about knitting. It’s also all about the Exeter Incinerator, which was inaugurated on 16th October 2014, and about waste management strategy, and monitoring emissions, and the environment, and health, and transparency, and visual impact, and chemistry.

The Incinerator had already happened, and we couldn’t change that. But we want to make sure it is operated properly, and knitting and emitting particles was our way of telling other people about it and its potential impacts. Hence the timing of the exhibition, and the exhibition launch party the evening before the Incinerator’s inauguration.

As we were preparing the exhibition, Brooks Newmark, in his first major speech as the new minister for civil society, said: “We really want to try and keep charities and voluntary groups out of the realms of politics… The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.” Mr Newmark, as well as being patronising, clearly doesn’t know his knitters very well. I expect there were a few tricoteuses cackling when his head metaphorically rolled into the basket three weeks later. We just laughed, tweeted the link, and carried on with our knitting and politics… although, broadly speaking, I did the knitting and exhibition and Diana did the politics and launch.

Diana composed a letter to Devon Council and Exeter City Councillors, inviting them to the exhibition launch and making a number of requests:

  • increased transparency to enable peace of mind on public health and the environment – that is, enhanced monitoring and public reporting of emissions
  • a commitment to waste reduction and recycling – including better information, and composting instead of incineration of food waste
  • increased transparency over the contract – including information about the cost to the tax payer, value for money, cost of operation, profit

We waited for their response, Diana wrote a press release and dealt with local media, and I continuing knitting and planning the exhibition hanging.

The Incinerator’s official name is the Marsh Barton Energy from Waste / Energy Recovery Facility, which makes it sound all nice and positive: all that waste just going to waste, and we can generate electricity and heat from it. But the beast needs feeding, and what if Devon County Council were fined if it couldn’t provide enough waste to operators Tiru and Viridor? The County Waste Manager states that “The [Exeter] plant has been sized to ensure that there will always be sufficient waste to feed it and as such there are no plans to have to restrict recycling to feed the plant or bring waste from further afield”, but also acknowledges the “concern that a degree of complacency [over recycling] may occur given Exeter’s waste would no longer be going to landfill but would be used to generate energy”. An incinerator is an incentive to generate more waste, rather than to reduce, reuse or recycle. And burning 1 tonne of waste generates on average about 1 tonne of carbon dioxide, so what if that electricity from waste displaced a lower-carbon alternative? And what if there were problems with its operation, so it emitted harmful, even toxic, pollution? Much of Exeter, not least Devon County Council’s offices, are downstream in a prevailing wind.

The artwork

Particulart comprised my 3D knitted representations of a series of particles that the Incinerator would inevitably emit, such as carbon dioxide, and that it shouldn’t emit, such as toxic dioxins and furans.

We also commissioned three new works from photographer Benjamin J Borley. The Incinerator is located on the corner of Grace Road South and Alphin Brook Road, on the edge of Marsh Barton Trading Estate next to the railway, Exeter Canal, and Riverside Valley Park. It all sounds as though it should be lovely and bucolic. But the Trading Estate certainly isn’t, and now the Valley Park is dominated by a hulking grey industrial armadillo. And the red light at the top of its chimney is visible from miles around, day and night – Sauron’s malevolent eye at the top of the Dark Tower of Barad-dûr.

In his studies, Ben beautifully captured the monolithic nature of the building, and its juxtaposition with the neighbouring green space. It stands both separate and other from its context, yet negatively impacts upon it. Ben used an infra-red filter in one photo, which turns vegetation a polluted pink. In another, the early light gives the Incinerator an almost radioactive glow. And in the final of the three studies we used, the building dwarfs the human scale of a team of local media.

By contrast, the knitted particles are homely, warm and comfortable, approachable, innocent, and non-threatening.

Each particle is made up of a number of atoms and bonds knitted in acrylic yarn. The design follows the ball and stick model and the CPK colour scheme used in chemistry. So carbon is black, mercury and other metals are grey, oxygen is red, hydrogen is white, nitrogen is blue, fluorine is light-green, chlorine is mid-green, bromine is dark green, and sulphur is yellow. I stuffed the atoms with those plastic bags that charities keep dropping through the letterbox, and stiffened the particles with coathanger wire.

The materials used are not natural and beautiful. The yarn is manufactured from oil not natural fibres. The plastic bags and wire are, well, plastic bags and wire. The carbon footprint of the particles, including yarn, bags and wire, is just over 5kg CO2, equivalent to a couple of burgers. However, as only a fraction of charity plastic bags are actually used to collect bric-a-brac, and it can be difficult to recycle wire coathangers, reusing them keeps a few at least out of the Incinerator.

Reflections

Particulart encompasses the senses of sight, through Ben’s photos worth a thousand words, and of touch. Knitting epitomises the material relationship between human being and things. It references the handmade, and the clothing which sits next to the skin and expresses our personalities. Particulart takes both the maker and the audience on a journey from data and scientific thought to the more tactile areas of the brain. So it is not just about thinking, but about doing and experiencing, as life must be.

Like other old skills coming back into vogue, knitting is a model of thrift, of making and mending. Old knitted garments can be darned, or unravelled and made anew. Reuse and recycling is creative; incineration is destructive. And yet Particulart subverts craft and chemistry. The particles are not useful, unlike warm woolly jumpers, socks or tea cosies. Nor is a toxic dioxin cuddly, unlike its 3D knitted representation (at least before I stiffened it with wire for hanging).

Particulart is also countercultural. The making of it required a certain slowness, presence in the moment and attentiveness. There are no short cuts to knitting a particle. Each stitch must be stitched, sometimes more than once if I made a mistake! At times it became a meditative practice, each stitch a mantra akin to the ancient Christian prayer-word “Maranatha”, which occupied my surface rational brain and allowed contemplation in the depths. At other times, I found myself mulling over the issue. While the act of assembling data and information about the particles increased knowledge of the issue, the act of making led to a deeper care and concern about the issue, and attention to how the audience might understand the issue and respond to the exhibition.

The concept of the exhibition emerged with a certain slowness. It all began with a cup of tea and general chitchat in the Real Food café in March 2013. Diana floated the idea of knitting molecules to leave around Exeter. I was interested and immediately started investigating the emissions from incinerators, but it wasn’t until July that I started looking into chemistry models and knitting patterns. With Diana’s encouragement, I prototyped a carbon dioxide, which was too big and time-consuming to knit, so I experimented with reducing the pattern. In September, we met again to discuss a new idea of displaying the particles in a gallery before ’emitting’ them into the community, the latest on Incinerator launch dates, and avenues for publicity.

It is important that there were two of us involved from the beginning. Together we could take ideas for a walk, and find that we had voices which were saying “we can do something”, and that we could be voices. The writer Betsy Greer coined the portmanteau word ‘craftivism’ in 2003, and defined it as “a way of looking at life where voicing opinions through creativity makes your voice stronger, your compassion deeper & your quest for justice more infinite”. In knitting, Diana and I had found a gentle way of creating an opening to get our message heard.

Particulart thereafter became a means of opening out the conversation and creating a community of interest.

Diana joined the Incinerator’s Liaison Committee, as a local resident, and the conversation extended to the construction companies, their PR, councillors and other members of the committee. Diana was invited to the inauguration, and we invited the Committee to our launch, which led to one of the most positive responses we had to the exhibition. One of the subcontractors who attended the launch told us they were used to attending shouty aggressive protests, which did little beyond alienating people. Our gentle protest made him much more interested in engaging, and he liked the potential for educating the public too.

Diana and I talked to other knitters who wanted to participate, to our friends, to members of the Politics department at the University, and to other artists in Exeter, as well as to the Real Food store who kindly hosted the exhibition. Then there were the networks and conversations that happened and are still happening on social media, Twitter in particular. And last but not least there were the interactions arising from the exhibition and its making: between the maker and the made, between the particles and Ben’s photos, and between the exhibition and its audience.

Diana crocheted a basket of PM2.5 (tiny clumps of carbon which cause havoc in the lungs) for giving away to people at the exhibition launch and the Incinerator inauguration, and leaving on the tables in the café during the exhibition. They went far and wide from the launch, and were a big hit with Viridor staff at the inauguration. At the end of the exhibition, we found only one left in the café. Who knows where the others went, and what conversations they prompted.

Kaleider is an arts production studio in Exeter that produces some really interesting work arising from the question “What can we do together that we cannot do apart?” They make art that interrupts the dominant narratives in our society: “We want to make interruptive gifts; we want to create experiences where those dominant narratives are problematised for a moment; to provoke a moment of reflection; to tell a counter story; to design different narratives.” The art is about encounter, where the work meets the audience and ‘forces’ interaction in a joyful, playful and engaging way. I got to know Kaleider after the exhibition, but it seems to me that serendipitously by showing Particulart in a café we did something similar. In any case, producing “interruptive gifts” is a good aim for the future. Here are a few of the comments and tweets we received:

  • I do like a bit of #knitted art over coffee.
  • I was drinking my tea at Real Food, when I noticed a knitted particle on the table, then I realised I was surrounded by organic chemistry.
  • Had a sneak preview. Looks amazing. Do go along and see something you will never have seen before.

It also strikes me that engaging with Particulart required as much slowness as the making of it did. And therefore an independent café, where time is slowed and the audience is relaxed, is the ideal location for an encounter with a bunch of knitted chemistry with a message. Maybe its impact wasn’t instant, but perhaps in conversation and subsequent reflection it formed and refined and sunk in and was digested and will be long-lasting.

But…

But is it art? Nowadays, the art of ideas jostles alongside the art that imitates the world. Although Particulart does represent the molecular building blocks of the world, it primarily reflects on the culture and society in which we live, exploring the issues and effects of consumerism and accountability: the production and treatment of waste, the interactions between humans and rest of our environment, and even the disjunction between science and the rest of culture.

In an episode of “What Do Artists Do All Day?” screened in November 2014, the Chapman Brothers said that in some of their work they were “trying to just ruin the assumption that art has some progressive motion to it. And we think that by doing things like flower arranging and knitting that in some ways we can undermine the heroic nature of making art. We can just turn it into something prosaic.” Their position supports the notion that knitting can be art, even if it is phrased somewhat pejoratively. But does it differ from the use of craft in activism? Perhaps other craftivism goes further in explaining its purpose, meaning and demands. We produced an interpretative board and website that outlined our requests, and this blog is overly explicative, but I think and hope the exhibition also allowed space for interpretation. Anyway, I suspect that question doesn’t matter because craftivism is art anyway.

Either way, some “real artists” (as I call them) in Exeter received Particulart as art, which is good enough for me. And Matt Harvey, the local Wondermentalist, also commented that the particle name “2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzo-para-dioxin” was poetry in its own right, which was an added bonus.

So now what?

Diana is continuing to hold Devon County Council to account. The set of Incinerator particles is available to other protest groups on loan. Except, that is, for my out-size prototype carbon dioxide, which we will one day soon give away via Free Art Friday. Maybe we could go into schools and teach pupils how to skpo and kfb as a means of introducing them (and their teachers) to the issues.

I am developing the Particulart concept further to encompass further issues and more chemistry. “A Stitch in Time” is on the subject of climate change, and is being exhibited in Bristol Cathedral during Lent 2015. This Wednesday, 25th February, I am giving a talk in Exeter (I have reused my title as the title of this blog) and I would like to do more speaking and writing about the concept and the issues.

But I will leave the last word to my favourite tweet: “I wish I could adequately describe how happy I am that knitted molecular chains are an actual thing.”

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Zombie Apocalypse

This post is prompted by a Mythogeography research project on ‘zombies’. He wants to write about the experiences people have when using a ‘tactic’ that he devised for Wrights & Sites’ ‘A Mis-Guide To Anywhere’ in 2006. His instructions: “I would ask you to take a walk on your own (where and at what time of day is up to you) for at least half an hour. I would like you to walk ‘as’ the last human survivor of a zombie apocalypse. Everyone is now a member of the living dead other than you. I don’t want you to act out this role (fleeing the zombies, etc.) but rather simply to walk and see and experience the world through the eyes and feelings of a survivor in that fiction. When you return from this walk I would like you to write and send me an account of how you experienced your walk, and how you experienced the terrain you walked through.”


My walk will take me from my home to the centre of Exeter. I am conscious as I prepare to leave the house at 3.20pm that I have never read a zombie book (not even a Jane Austen crossover), never seen a zombie film, and never met a zombie. I’m not even sure what a zombie is… The undead? A body which has been stripped of its mind, heart, and soul? Bandages covered in blood figure large in my mind’s eye, as do arms out-stretched, vacant eyes, and a certain amount of moaning. I have seen a number of dead bodies, and am always struck by how pale and waxen they are, and how empty and small. The person is no longer there. So I suppose any zombies I see today will be small and pale.

I have to say that even if it were true that I am the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse, I am not unduly bothered. The day is fair, there are snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils in my front garden, and all manner of things shall be well.

The housing estate is quiet, but not unusually so. A few cars pass me as I start to walk. The drivers are largely bandage-free, though some have their arms outstretched and their eyes are staring a little. Most seem to be heading for the side of the road outside St Peter’s school. Mid-afternoon is of course schools out, and these are zombie parents picking up their zombie kids.

I join the flow of zombie kids streaming out of the school gates. I do not try to match their pace to pretend to be just another one of them; they do not feel threatening, and the flow in any case is not continuous but has formed into groups.

There are more cars parked beyond the school, each containing one zombie parent immersed in their own zombie online world. Although the day is bright, it is quite chill. But many of the zombie kids are only in short-sleeve shirts; ambient temperatures are apparently irrelevant to the undead. Five or six whizz past on their bikes, turning right in front of an oncoming car. They seem to have no regard for life or limb… because of course what are these to the undead?

At the bottom of the hill, I join the main road, and walk up into Heavitree. There is a lot of traffic, and I notice that despite the lack of heart, mind, and soul, zombies still seem to be able to drive safely. Perhaps they are simply following the car in front, and conforming to rules of the road learnt before the apocalypse took hold. In other words, perhaps zombies are inherently conservative.

At this point, I realise that I am treating my walk as a piece of observational research, with the objective of characterising the nature of a ‘zombie’. This is entirely in character for me!

So then, I have formed a hypothesis: that zombies are conservative. Perhaps the reverse is also true: that conservatives are inherently zombies. I would need to take a sample to test each, find the odds ratio, do the chi-squared test, etc etc. But then I remember that I am the last survivor of the apocalypse, which means that the sample size of ‘not zombie’ is a maximum of 1, and therefore and unfortunately not statistically significant.

Ah well. I refocus on my walk and its terrain. I jay-walk across the road: a tiny piece of defiance in a conformist world. There is a group of zombies heading for me, taking up the whole pavement. They barely make room for me to get past. I make a mental field note that zombies also appear to lack courtesy.

Now I see an zombie old lady walking her dog. The dog is white, so it’s hard to tell whether or not it too is undead. Stories often depict animals as sensitive to ghosts and evil spirits, but the dog doesn’t seem fazed to have an undead owner. I take this to indicate that it is indeed undead, and (extrapolating wildly) that pets have also been overtaken by the apocalypse.

More and more traffic passes: cars and buses and vans and taxis. A JCB passes me from behind, and a man on a bicycle smiles… no, wait… his autonomic nervous system twists his zombie face into a rictus.

The sun comes out, and I no longer care about anything other than its warmth on my face and the feel of my body walking. With a squint in my eyes and smile in my mouth, I am dead to the undead. And in this state of being I walk past the Magdalen Road shops, right into Denmark Road to the memorial to a burnt witch, and left up Barnfield Road.

It occurs to me that although my thoughts have been revolving around zombies, my view of the world is little different from usual. I remember Anthony de Mello’s book Awareness, in which he writes about the need to Wake Up! from our sleep. I often despair at humanity’s sleep-walking tendencies, our acceptance of business as usual, consumerism, and inequality, and our head-in-the-bandages stance on issues like climate change. I suppose I think most of us are zombies most of the time, and a zombie apocalypse is unlikely to change things drastically.

Anyway, I avoid the temple of consumerism that is Princesshay, to enjoy the spring flowers in Southernhay instead. As I turn into Cathedral Close, I hear the squeals of zombie small children playing – I presume the squeals are not from terror of being sacrificed to Molech. And then I emerge onto Cathedral Green, where the dead and buried probably outnumber the living and the undead, and my walk comes to an end.

This evening I will watch the Lego Advert Movie, and ponder its allegorical meaning.

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A Suburban Serenade

It happened! Possibly not one of the daftest ideas I’ve had, but must be one of the dafter ideas I’ve pursued.

Programme-outer_web

Just before 3pm on a warm and muggy Sunday afternoon in September, the 12 members of Sine Nomine (one of the tenors couldn’t make it) drove to Elgar Close in east Exeter, wondering whether we would find any audience waiting for us. We did. And as we walked around the streets named after English composers, singing music by each on their street corner, we gathered more and more. A group of about 30-40 aged between 2 and 72 travelled with us all the way round, some responding to the leaflets through their doors, others walking past and spontaneously joining us. Many stopped what they were doing to listen, popping out of their front doors and garden gates, and appearing at windows.

As we sang and walked and sang, Sunday afternoon was happening around us: lawnmowers, cars apologetically making their way between choir and audience, planes overhead. Between corners, the audience and choir chatted about the music, the estate, being brought up in the area, or never having been to this bit of Exeter before. Not quite the Lord of Misrule and the overturning of all ordinary behaviour, but permission still given for conversation and overt curtain twitching.

Programme-inner_web

One enthusiastic lady on the corner of Sullivan Road suggested we sing on her lawn, obviously determined to video us in front of her house. There were many cameras, and many photos and videos taken that we will never see, and memories we will never know.  I hope I retain many memories, but perhaps the one that stands out is of the lad of about 4 who came all the way round with his Mum and younger sister, and stood listening intently at every corner.

Then after the final notes of Britten’s “Hymn to St Cecilia” died away on the playing field at Britten Drive, we walked back to our cars and were waved off by some of the audience as we headed back to my house for tea and cake.


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Big thanks to Chris and Josie for getting the choir and music together, to all the members of the choir, to Councillors Henson and Leadbetter and Exeter City Council for supporting the venture financially, to the Council again for letting us gatecrash the Unexpected Exeter Festival and providing a bit of publicity, and of course to the audience!

Photos

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Devon County Twouncillors

Following my post on Exeter City Twouncillors, here’s another listing the Devon County Councillors – sorry only those in Exeter for the time being.

Here’s my Devon County Twitter list, to which you can subscribe to follow the conversation in Exeter, and all councillors’ contact details on the Devon County Council website.

Councillor Division Political party Twitter handle
Andrew Leadbetter St Loyes & Topsham Conservative  
Percy Prowse Duryard & Pennsylvania Conservative  
Andy Hannan Priory & St Leonard’s Labour @andyhannan
Emma Morse Pinhoe & Mincinglake Labour @CllrEmmaMorse
Jill Owen St David’s & St James Labour  
Olwen Foggin Heavitree & Whipton Barton Labour @olwenfoggin
Richard Westlake Newtown & Polsloe Labour @WestlakeRichard
Rob Hannaford Exwick & St Thomas Labour @RobMHannaford *
Roy Hill Alphington & Cowick Labour  

* Hasn’t tweeted yet – please encourage!

 

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Exeter City Twouncillors

I have been impressed in recent weeks at the usefulness of Twitter in engaging with councillors and other movers and shakers in and around Exeter City Council. Within limits, though, as you’ll be able to see from the list below arranged by political party. (Please let me know if I’ve missed any.) It’s a shame that few of the @ExeterTories are individually on Twitter, not least because two of them are the councillors in my ward. Maybe it’s a policy, but they and their ‘constituents’ are missing out.

@TweetyHall aimed to  “Getting councillors out of the Town Hall and onto the Tweets”. On its [now defunct] website it said “We are passionately committed to local democracy and see Twitter as one key way to connect local residents with views and opinions on their local area with the people empowered to help them do something about it. TweetyHall helps join the dots.” Sounds good to me… Who’s doing this now?

Here’s my Exeter City Twitter list, to which you can subscribe to follow the conversation, and all councillors’ contact details on the Exeter City Council website.

Councillor Political party Ward Twitter handle
Andrew Leadbetter Conservative St Loyes  
David Henson Conservative St Loyes  
Jake Donovan Conservative Pennsylvania @CllrJakeDonovan
John Winterbottom Conservative St Leonards  
Lee Mottram Conservative Duryard @parklanegarden
Margaret Baldwin Conservative Topsham  
Norman Shiel Conservative St Leonards  
Percy Prowse Conservative Duryard  
Rob Newby Conservative Topsham  
Tyna Crow Conservative Heavitree @tynacrow
Yolonda Henson Conservative Polsloe  
Catherine Dawson Labour Mincinglake @cllrdawson
Gill Tippins Labour Priory @GillTippins
Greg Sheldon Labour Heavitree @CllrGregSheldon
Heather Morris Labour Cowick @CLLRMORRIS
Ian Martin Labour Mincinglake @ian0martin
Keith Owen Labour St James  
Lesley Robson Labour Priory @CllrRobson
Marcel Choules Labour Priory  
Margaret Clark Labour Alphington  
Moira Macdonald Labour Pinhoe @neBhasikoro
Ollie Pearson Labour Exwick @olliepearson
Paul Bull Labour Cowick @Paul4Cowick
Peter Edwards Labour Whipton Barton @CllrPeteEdwards *
Philip Bialyk Labour Exwick @philbialyk
Rachel Lyons Labour Polsloe  
Rachel Sutton Labour Exwick @CllrSutton
Richard Branston Labour Newtown  
Rob Crew Labour Alphington @Rob4Alphington
Rob Hannaford Labour St Thomas @RobMHannaford *
Roger Spackman Labour Newtown @cllrspackman
Rosie Denham Labour Whipton Barton @rosiedenham
Sarah Laws Labour St Davids  
Simon Bowkett Labour Pinhoe @Simon_Bowkett
Tony Wardle Labour Whipton Barton  
Adrian Fullam Liberal Democrats St Thomas @AdrianFullam
Kevin Mitchell Liberal Democrats St James  
Rod Ruffle Liberal Democrats Alphington  
Stella Brock Liberal Democrats St Davids @StellaBrock8 *
Tim Payne Liberal Democrats Pennsylvania  

* Hasn’t tweeted yet – please encourage!

Updated: Added a few I’d missed that didn’t come up in Twitter search, including the three Conservatives.

 

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The quite interesting-ness of pillar boxes

EX2 369 Exeter's only Edward VIII pillar box!

The caption for this photo I found on Flickr says this is the only Edward VIII pillar box in Exeter. Another photo says it is the only one in Devon. The box is just down the road from me in an estate built in 1936 to rehouse people from the Exeter slums. Edward VIII’s short reign – he came to the throne in January 1936 and abdicated in December 1936 – means that not many EVIIIR post boxes were made. (There are even fewer EVR boxes.) So far, so quite interesting.

But look up post boxes on the internet, and you stumble into a strange and fascinating place. There are websites dedicated to finding and photographing all the EVIIIR post boxes in the country. There is the Letter Box Study Group, the “the recognised definitive authority on the British letter box”, and its “Letter Box Study Group newsletter”, no better fodder for Have I Got News For You. It is the weird and wonderful world of the Great British Enthusiast, a place where interesting things in unlikely places become codified, classified, and nerdified. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, for ye are passing through the gate of Hell where the interesting-ness of any subject is electronically extracted and transmogrified into tables of data and forum discussions! On the other hand, without the dedication of this nerdy few, who have counted EVIIIR boxes and noted their distribution and rarity, how would the many know that there might be something of quite interesting-ness at all?

Amusingly, when I posted about the box on Facebook, both of the responses I received were by private message rather than public comment, as though ashamed of their, or their friend’s, interest. So for any secret spotters out there, the pillar box code number is EX2 369, and the map shows its location.


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“I have a dream” … for Exeter Bus Station!

I have a dream for the bus station site, or at least for the area bounded by Paris Street, Sidwell Street and Cheeke Street, if not the bus depot off Summerland Street.

I have a dream of a vibrant local ‘Market Quarter’, less Princesshay, more Gandy Street;
Of a mix of local retail, local business, charities and social entrepreneurs, artists’ studios and housing;
Of deliberately quirky architecture and winding streets that lead onward in a voyage of discovery;
Opening out into truly public space for public meeting, public meetings, and farmers’ markets.

I have a dream of zero-carbon buildings using shared services, based on the latest and best practice;
Of edible landscaping, nut and fruit trees, and herbs for all to pick;
Of a (non-edible) green screen to clean the air of bus exhausts;
And of artists’ interpretation to educate and delight and welcome.

I have a nightmare that it will be another alocal amoral* superstore and car parking.

* a- : Prefix used to indicate a lack of some feature that might be expected.

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Exeter Library Square

At the end of July, the Express & Echo ran an online poll asking readers what new Exeter Library Square should be called. Here’s my version of the story reporting the results.

Less than one-quarter of respondents to the poll voted for “Prince George Square”, even though the royal birth has been almost constantly in the media for the past two weeks.

“Bideford Witches Square”, which would recognise the last three people to be executed for witchcraft in England, was at almost level pegging. Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susannah Edwards are commemorated on a plaque nearby at Rougemont Castle.

Although in only third and fourth place, “JK Rowling Square” and “Bodleian Square” have perhaps the best cases. Rowling studied at Exeter University, and the author of Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy, and The Cuckoo’s Calling has an obvious link to the library. Thomas Bodley was born in Heavitree and gave his name to the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Most of the other candidates were a mix of famous Exeter names and organisations. As an indication of the weight that Exeter City Council should place on the poll, “The square that’s compromised by the ugly and unfriendly BT building” took fifth place ahead of them all.

How we name our streets and public buildings is a reflection of the values of history and our values today. It subconsciously and subtly affects our self-worth. City landscapes are often dominated by men, royalty and war, which gives men an inflated sense of their own importance, and undermines the self-esteem of women and girls. We need to see our public spaces named after women for the same reason we need to see women on our banknotes.

Residential roads in the new Newcourt development are all named after men or war. In my fairly recent suburb, the roads are all named after men. The link between the royal family and the military is strong; Prince George is likely one day to join the British forces and one day become their supreme commander.

It is time to redress the balance. The pen is mightier than the sword. We need to recognise arts, education and social justice, and we need to recognise women, not least those who have encouraged children to read, campaigned for public libraries, and paid their taxes to support them.

So Exeter City Council, please name the new space either after Rowling, or give it a neutral name. “Library Square” would do the trick.

Update:
Gene Kemp would fit the bill nicely too. Thank you to @organicARTS for prompting me to look her up.

Another update:
Yes, on second thoughts agree with @goal_media that “Library Square” isn’t inspiring enough.

Yet another update:
So magslhalliday suggests her top three of Rowling Square, Coade Square, Carpenter Square (all good stuff), and then maybe Babbage Square and Bodley Square.
My father, who gives tours of the Bodleian Library, suggested to me yesterday (tongue in cheek) that Thomas Bodley gave nothing to Devon but exploited it for the benefit of Oxford. His wealth came from marrying the widow of a Totnes merchant who had made his money from pilchards. Do we want to commemorate such a man?!

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A lane of two halves: one year on

Last year, I did the first half of a walk down the 1800s route of Woodwater Lane. I managed the western half as far as the Retail Park, before giving up due to the rain.

Exactly one year later, I completed the journey. Not quite in the same way; I cycled it instead of walking, and as a result was much less immersed in the journey and took far fewer photos. Call it more of a reconnaisance trip.

What I found was that the Lane continues to be erased, bit by bit.

When I compared old with new maps a year ago, I could see that the route still existed, despite the centre being obliterated by the Rydon Lane ring road and the Retail Park. To the east, the Lane is overlain by Digby Drive, then opposite the Park & Ride takes a right turn into a footpath. The path emerges on to Clyst Halt Avenue, becomes a contraflow on the one-way bridge over the A379 spur, and where the sliproad bends continues to the west of the railway line. All this section may not be along the exact route of the old Lane, but comes very close.

The whole path from the bridge over the A379 to Old Rydon Lane is named on Google Maps as Old Rydon Close, even though the first part is not passible by motor vehicles. Where the footpath widens out, the Google Satellite image shows, on the other side of the railway line, a hedge running parallel to Old Rydon Lane and joining the end of a farm lane. The 1800s route ends at the junction of the farm lane with Old Rydon Lane.*

The hedge appears on the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map too, but not on Google Maps or Open Street Map. What Open Street Map does show is a faint dotted red line across the railway line, which according to its key means a footway. So I thought it might be possible to cross the railway line, hug the hedge and nip down the farm lane. On the ground, however, I was confronted with a padlocked gate and a slightly cryptic Network Rail sign.

Dedication

Perhaps they dedicated it to their mums

So I had to keep going down Old Rydon Close to Old Rydon Lane, which goes under the railway, and approach the end of the 1800s route from the other direction. But the farm lane wasn’t welcoming either.

Farm lane

PRIVATE PROPERTY

That wasn’t quite that. Parallel to the lane, just the other side of the right-hand hedge, is the back entrance to the Exeter Chieftains’ rugby complex. So I cycled what I could and ogled what I couldn’t. What then of the hedge? Well, surprise surprise, it has been grubbed up, and the fields have been given over to growing turf, presumably for the rugby pitch. The hedge is no more, and Woodwater Lane is no more here, but it still possible to see where it used to run, given away by the different colours of the grass.

Hedge

Once-was hedge: from the railway crossing by the white-gabled house to join the hedge on the left

Nor is that quite that. It looks as though Exeter is going to get a new IKEA store, which it needs about as much as an alcoholic needs a bottle of gin. According to the “Have your say” (so long as it’s “Yes”) booklet, the site will be by the A379, half store, half housing. The housing will replace the one-way sliproad, which is no longer needed anyway. However, it looks as though the path over the A379 and along the railway will be retained.

Incidentally, IKEA’s aerial shot of the site was taken after the hedge was grubbed up, and in the spring before the field had greened, but the line of the hedge is as clear as the day.

* Update: Oops, no it doesn’t quite. As this fabulous map clearly shows, the 1800s route keeps going a bit further beyond the current farm before it turns right. I should have good a little bit further down Old Rydon Lane.

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