Tuesday, 14 August 2018

So many political lessons for today in the brilliant dramatization of Robert Harris’s Roman trilogy

Imperium I – Conspirator / Imperium II - Dictator

The Royal  Shakespeare Company has produced a fantastic dramatisation of Robert Harris’s trilogy of books covering the life of Roman politician and philosopher Cicero.

The seven hours of theatre flies by in the two performances at the Gielgud theatre.

The first play Imperium I – Conspirator covers the period of Cicero’s ascent from a humble background to become consul of Rome. After that it is downhill, as Cicero struggles to safeguard the principles of the Republic and the rule of law against the mob, cleverly manipulated by rising dictator Julius Caesar.

The second play: Dictator covers Caesars time in power, his demise and the fall out that follows.

Mike Poulton brilliantly adapts Harris’s work for the stage, bringing nice touches of humour to lighten the atmosphere – a technique he used previously to effect in adapting Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies for the stage.

It is amazing how much of Harris’s books, Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, that Poulton manages to retain in the stage narrative. Much of the first book, which focuses on the rise of Cicero, is condensed down to a brief look at his sea change prosecution of the corrupt governor of Sicily Varres


Then the focus is on the battle to offset powerful forces, with power hungry individuals like Caesar and Marcus Crassus, continually conspiring to overthrow the republic.

Beyond Rome, much of the time, is Pompey, with his massed armies. He holds much power, demonstrated when he delivers a list of what he wants on return to Rome after a victory. The implication being that if his demands are not met, he will simply march his legions into Rome and take over as dictator.

Cicero himself experiences a momentous ascent to the heights of being lauded as the father of Rome, for saving it from a rebellion led by Cateline but backed by Caesar.

Pride though then takes over, leading onto a fall that forces Cicero to be stripped of many of his possessions and forced to leave the country.

Poulton’s linking with the present day political situation gives the production added poignancy. Pompey (played by Christopher Saul) is a hardly concealed characterisation of Donald Trump. The hair is obvious but cleverly from some angles Saul really does look like the US president.

There are the amusing asides, such as Cicero declaring stupid people elect stupid leaders.

But perhaps where Poulton most clearly makes the link between present and past is in bringing home the rapid change there can be in political situation. How once the mob is rallied institutions like the Republic and rule of law can so easily be swept aside.

Robert Harris himself made the point that the assumption that democratic institutions of the type that we have enjoyed over the past century have some preordained permanence is a mistake. They are relatively recent constructions that can just as easily be swept away - in the same way as happened in Rome.

Democracy today is still in its infancy, with a long way to go. We don’t for instance have an educated and informed electorate – something that is crucial to the effective working of democracy.

At present democracy is on the retreat in many areas of the world, whilst authoritarianism is on the ascent – often backed by the ignorant mob.

Imperium – Conspirator and Dictator offer seven hours of fantastic absorbing theatre. Brilliant performances abound across the cast, with particularly outstanding contributions from Richard McCabe as Cicero and Peter de Jersey as Caesar.

The power of the adaptation of Harris’s great trilogy is in condensing so much of the story into a lively narrative that has contemporary relevance for today. One of the best dramatisation of outstanding books to hit the West End for some time.

*Imperium I Conspirator/ Imperium II Dictator run at the Gielgud Theatre till 8 September 2018

Saturday, 4 August 2018

10th anniversary of the death of Denis Donovan - republication of an article from the Tablet magazine - written a month before he died

Journey into the dark

PAUL DONOVAN - 5/7/2008

“Hi mate, how are you?” is a rather ordinary phrase but it is one that has haunted me over the past few months. It keeps resounding because when I heard it during a January visit to the care home where my father now lives it reminded me of what my Dad used to be like.
Dad suffers with dementia. Usually when members of the family visit, he sits, occasionally acknowledging us but usually just fiddling with things. It is most unbearable when he appears to be in some kind of torment.
The home on the south coast seems a good one, and the care assistants see to his basic needs. As well as dealing with problems like his incontinence, they do their best to stimulate responses and seem very attentive.
It has been difficult for all the family to come to terms with my father’s situation. My parents have been married for 52 years and Mum copes, partly by reminding herself of better times.
Dad was always very much in control. He had come up the hard way. The son of a postman, he worked as a messenger in Mount Pleasant Post Office in London at the age of 14. He progressed in the Post Office before joining the navy during the Second World War. At the age of 19 he was flying a Swordfish plane on and off aircraft carriers. He came down in the Channel twice.
On leaving the navy, after the war, he trained as a teacher. He met my mother working at a school called Kensington in East Ham, east London. He later became a deputy head and then head of Elmhurst School in Upton Park, a stone’s throw from West Ham football ground. The school is one of the biggest primaries in the country.
He was a good father and never happier than when with the family. He wasn’t one of those men who constantly seem to be trying to run away from their family responsibilities, and if he were able to recall I have little doubt that his best times were on the beaches of Camber Sands, Hastings and Bexhill when we were all together in the school holidays of the 1970s. He loved swimming.
From my perspective he was always some one who was there for you in time of trouble or at any other time. Today it seems that the backstop of my life has gone and I am very much on my own.
Now 85, Dad first started to show serious signs of dementia around 2001 and it has been a gradual slide since then. He became more withdrawn. I remember him sitting more on the side at Christmas 2003 rather than being in the thick of things as had always been the case before. The situation became a great deal worse in May 2004 and was followed by 18 months of rapid drift downhill until he went into the first home. Since then he has been in three homes. The doctor mentioned there could have been a minor stroke.
I can trace his decline by reading his diaries. The entries begin to thin out and become a lot shorter around 2003. There are entries about how worried he is about not being able to remember things he did in the morning. He kept all this to himself and it must have been a very difficult time, being aware of his own deterioration and not being able to do anything about it. I think he always had worries about dementia, though, given that his mother had suffered from dementia.
Visits to his south coast home are particularly difficult, recalling the alert and vigorous man he once was. But however difficult it is for the family seeing Dad in this state, what might it be like for him? We don’t know how dementia sufferers feel. They may not be in torment at all, but in their own world where they are very happy. It is something we will probably never know.
When we visit the home, we do sometimes wonder whether there is any point in our visits. Does Dad remember anything? Does he know who we are? Then there are phases when a dementia sufferer has greater lucidity and remembers things from the past. The “Hi, mate” moment was one of those. Sometimes when Dad looks at us and then turns away, we do wonder if he is ignoring us in protest at being stuck in a home. The feelings of guilt arise.
There is always a worry about whether it is right to put someone you love in a home. Given what they did for you, surely the time has come to give up some of our lives for them? The questions and self-recrimination can go on and on and eventually a decision does have to be made. There is no manual for dealing with mental illness. That is why it is so encouraging for people like me for the Catholic Church’s Day for Life (the day in the year dedicated to celebrating the sacredness of life) to be used this year to highlight mental-health issues and raise awareness across parishes of the needs of people suffering with mentalhealth problems.
Today, one in four people suffers with some form of mental illness. Gratifyingly, most do get better. But as to chronic conditions, there are 700,000 dementia cases in the United Kingdom and around 25 million people, or 42 per cent of the population, are affected by dementia through knowing a close friend or family member with the condition. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, there is one new case of dementia every three minutes in England and Wales.
It is important that there is support not only for those with mental illness but for the carers. Looking after my Dad as he plunged deeper into dementia over a year and a half took its toll on my mother’s health. She lives with the consequences. She is now very nearly blind, and lives alone, supported in the main by the family and local parish.
The support of such networks is crucial to help people survive such traumatic times. While we are fortunate to have the NHS and social services, there is a kind of care, of love and support, that they cannot provide. It would be good to see as a result of Day for Life this year the question of mental illness become far more of an issue in parishes.
Mental-health problems can lead to a very lonely existence for patients and carers. But mental illness is a growing problem, not least because dementia and Alzheimer’s cases are growing in number as people live longer. It can only really be dealt with by the community coming together and offering its collective support.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

5 year struggle of Secured Energy Bond investor to get his money back

The offer looked good. The opportunity to invest in a project to put solar panels on 22 schools across the country. The return a decent rate of 6.5 per cent over three years.

That was 2013. I first saw the adverts in the Guardian newspaper. I was not a big investor, though looking to put some money into what I saw as environmentally sustainable projects.

SEB appealed to me as a small time investor on a number of levels. As a committed environmentalist I wanted to put some money into something that combatted climate change.

I was also one of the many investors hit by the rapid fall in interest rates and was looking for something that would provide a bit more of a return.

There were risks, this was afterall a mini-bond, which meant the project initiators had not been able to raise the funds from more traditional sources, such as the banks.

However, as an investor, my concerns were satisfied by the presence of Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulated Independent Portfolio Managers (IPM). They took on the role of security trustee and corporate director on the bonds. IPM also played a role as approver of the invitation document.

Despite any reservations there might have been, this seemed pretty safe, just so long as all involved did what it said on the tin (or in this case Invitation Document).

The solar panels would be fitted to the schools, so that even if some problems came along there would be those basic assets in place to claim against.

All went along smoothly for the first year, the quarterly interest payments being made.  Trouble began in January 2015, when the fourth interest payment was not made.

I had that queezy feeling the stomach that something was wrong. This grew, as emails to the company remained unanswered and the phone line was dead. A call to Capita, which dealt with interest payments confirmed that they had been suspended. There was a dawning feeling that I had been had, as well as a certain powerlessness.

The problems arose, when a large amount of the funds intended to provide solar panels, was siphoned off by the Australian parent company CBD Energy for other purposes. CBD Energy had been placed into administration in 2014.

SEB was then put into administration, with Grant Thornton appointed administrators.

The first opportunity to meet any of the other 900 odd investors who had similarly put their money in good faith into SEB came at the creditors meeting in April 2015. There was a lot of anger and a decided lack of optimism.

A few of us met afterwards, agreeing to stay in touch – establish an email contact list, so that investors could be kept informed about what was going on. Key members were Frances Goodchild and Fiona Pitkeathly. It was this group that rapidly morphed into the SEB Investors Action Group.

There was media coverage and contact made with MPs. Investors were directed to contact IPM in the first instance, then if their response was not satisfactory to go to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). A number of investors took this route, including myself.

In September, it was doubly irritating to learn that IPM boasting about their role as security trustee. They then took a similar role on bonds like Providence I and II, which also subsequently went into administration.

The initial response of the FOS was favourable, indicating that they were minded to look at the investors case against IPM.

However, this then changed, with the opposite viewpoint adopted. The SEB Investors Action Group contacted more MPs, made representations to the Treasury Select Committee and the FCA.

It was at this point that some investors took on FS Legal to challenge the FOS finding. A barristers opinion was obtained, which helped to get FOS to change its position.

So last year, FOS decided there was a customer relationship between investors and IPM, so they could look at our complaints.

They agreed to look at two test cases. The result was that FOS has now ruled in those cases for the investors and against IPM

The FOS ruled that IPM’s involvement was not only approving the promotion documents but that it ‘had an ongoing role in the investment scheme’ and was ‘central to the security and quality assurance arrangements’ of SEB.

It also ruled that the security that was put in place for the mini-bond was flawed, “leaving the security secured, in effect, on nothing. This was a fundamental flaw and one which IPM should reasonably have spotted.”

At time of writing, the two test case investors have accepted the ruling, so IPM have now been ordered to pay. IPM is no longer an FCA regulated company.

If they fail to pay and cease operating, then investors have to go to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. More delays but eventually I should see my money back.

It has certainly been a long road to come to this point. I cannot deny that for much of the five years I did not think I would see my money back. Sometimes it seemed things were being drawn out in the hope that investors would just give up and go away. Now, there is an immense feeling of relief, that I will be seeing my money come back.

There are many lessons though to be drawn from the case, not least the effect of collective action. Had that small group of investors not come together after the creditors meeting back in April 2015, I do not believe we would be seeing our money back at all.

There has also been recognition of the need for stronger regulation of this area, largely due to this case.
published - 28/7/2018 - Guardian newspaper -  https://www.theguardian.com/money/2018/jul/28/i-lost-my-cash-in-a-solar-project-but-after-a-five-year-battle-ill-get-it-back

Swimming pool is taking shape in Wanstead

Weeks of enduring the hot weather, I cannot be the only person in Wanstead to think wouldn’t it be nice to have somewhere local to go for a swim?

Somewhere that did not involve taking a journey on the stifling tube network. Well, in Wanstead, those prayers are about to be answered, with the arrival of the swimming pool.

Residents are invited on Monday to view at Wanstead library the design proposals for the new pool, leisure facilities and Wanstead High School improvements.

There will be a 12 week consultation period later in the summer for people to comment on the planning application, with work due to start on the facilities later in the year.

I remember when starting at Wanstead High School back in the 1970s, there used to be a small open air pool based on part of what is now the car park for the leisure centre.

Teachers and pupils would go along for a dip or simply to sit by the pool. Unfortunately, this pool was taken away and not replaced.

Local people have been calling for a pool at this end of the borough for many years. Until Labour took over the council in 2014, this call fell on deaf ears. Indeed, swimming pools practically disappeared from the borough under previous Conservative administrations.

Under the present Labour council leadership this policy has been reversed. Swimming pools have been built across the borough, with the Wanstead but the latest recipient.

Swimming is vital, just for survival in life. Put simply if you cannot swim you may drown. Beyond self-preservation, swimming is an excellent exercise, involving many muscle groups and not causing the damage to joints and other parts of the body that other exercise can do.

More people swimming will also mean a fitter, healthier population.  A healthier population will mean less call on NHS services. It is a real win, win.

Bringing the swimming pool plans to fruition was part of the manifesto that I together with Jo Blackman, Daniel Morgan Thomas, Sheila Bain and Paul Merry campaigned on in the local elections last May. All five of us were returned for Wanstead Village and Wanstead Park wards. We are all now very proud to be delivering on this manifesto promise.

So let’s celebrate the start of the creation of our new swimming pool in Wanstead. Long may it prosper. 

 Published - 28/7/2018 -Wanstead and Woodford Guardian - "Fancy a lovely cool pool to plunge into? Here's how you can have your say on it."





Thursday, 26 July 2018

Social media can help create a fear of crime

The development over recent years of social media as the place where increasing numbers of people play out their lives has been something to behold.

Social media offers great opportunities to learn as well as connect with a variety of people. It is also a forum whereby it is possible to cut oneself off from the real world surrounded by people who echo your own views.

It can be a force for good or ill. Take one example, the issue of crime. In many local areas, there are now hubs where people exchange information about all sorts of things. It can just be advice, services on offer or what is happening in terms of crime.

There are positives and negatives to these forums. It is good to know what is happening in the local area, especially on issues like crime. As I know from my own experience forewarned can very much be forearmed when it comes to avoiding becoming a victim of crime.

The problem comes when social media helps create hysteria. A crime takes place, that is then hyped up. Vengeance seems to be a popular sentiment expressed, though in most cases this is of little if any value to the victim. The blame game also ensues.

The most worrying aspect of this scenario is that it helps create fear in the community.

When recently canvassing for the local elections, there were some people who were literally cowering behind their doors due to fear of crime outside.

The potential for creating a crime panic on social media also came home when canvassing a local road. A number of people on social media told of how bad crime had got, others in the same road not on social media thought things no worse than usual.

Social media can ofcourse be of value in combatting crime, letting people know what is going on. Then more specifically there can be things like WhatsApp groups whereby people look out for each other in their own roads.

So there are pluses and minuses of social media when it comes to crime. The line is crossed when misrepresentation occurs which creates fear in the community of something that may not even exist.

- published in Wanstead and Woodford Guardian 9/8/2018 - "Social media can leave us afraid to go out"

Friday, 20 July 2018

Power of the community in Wanstead is second to none

It was fantastic to see a bench recently vandalised on Christchurch Green repaired, so that people in our community can once again enjoy resting there.

The repair resulted from the intervention of a local lady, who spoke to some builders working nearby. They generously fixed the bench without charge. A real case of community action and putting something back.

It is this type of community spirit that is so important in our often anonymous and sometimes seemingly uncaring society. This action was Wanstead at its best.

There are so many people that quietely contribute to the common good of life in Wanstead. The guerrilla gardeners who tend and create flower beds. The new Wild Wanstead initiative, which has planted tree pits in so many of our roads. The sea of colour expected is beginning to emerge, though slightly delayed due to the dry weather.

There are those helping out neighbours by picking up some shopping for them.

Much voluntary work goes on in Wanstead Park. There is a relative army of litter pickers who go around the park ensuring that rubbish is removed.

Members of the Wren group do other restoration work in the park.

Litter picking extends well beyond the park, with activities taking place on Christchurch Green, George Green and around the Tarzy Wood area.

These are all actions taken by individuals coming together in community to make our area a better place.

There is more that can be done though, especially on litter. It never fails to amaze me, how human beings will just drop rubbish around them and move off. I am not sure there is any other creature in the animal kingdom that behaves in such a way. Dirtying once own pitch as it were?

If those who drop rubbish in Wanstead Park, Christchurch and George Green, Tarzy Wood and elsewhere just took the stuff home and disposed of it through the correct channels, a lot of effort would be saved. It is really just a case of taking responsibility for ourselves and community.

But enough of the negative. The voluntary efforts of so many people in Wanstead should be recognised and applauded because it is they who make this such a lovely place to live.

*published - 19/7/2018 - Wanstead & Woodford Guardian - "Power of the community in Wanstead is second to none"


Friday, 13 July 2018

London Underground addressing the screech on the Central Line between Wanstead and Leytonstone but no air conditioning for 10 years

Central line users who have had to put up with the high pitched screech on the line between Leytonstone and Wanstead should soon get some relief.

Addressing the External Scrutiny Committee of Redbridge Council, Chris Taggart, head of line operations at the Central Line, explained how London Underground did some track fixing to alleviate the vibration that some residents had been enduring in their homes. “This created the screeching noise and we have been working hard to find a solution,” said Taggart.

The solution appears to be fixing pads alongside the track fixings, which takes away some of the noise. This approach has been used at Bethnal Green to good effect and will be used on the Wanstead stretch of the track.

Taggart also addressed the poor service on the Central line over the past six weeks. “The last six weeks has not been good on the Central Line, not as good as normally expected,” said Taggart, who explained there has been an overhaul of the trains going on, which has meant taking some trains out of service

The head of line operations conceded that the Central Line gets hot in the summer. He then outlined some of the measures that have been taken to alleviate the suffering of passengers, such as the fitting of a white film on the roof.  However, there will not be air conditioning on the trains till 2028.

On the question of reliability, he promised things would improve but this could take 18 months plus.

The Central Line operates 85 trains at present on its tracks, with plans to increase to 100. It runs 34 trains an hour.