I heart my allotment…

10 June 2013

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From my allotment…

You can see the sea. Or, at least the Bristol Channel.

On a clear day, Exmoor is visible to the east. Pop your head over the hedge and there’s a view of Dartmoor.

It’s a peaceful place. Many days, I’m a lone allotmenteer. My accompaniment is singing blackbirds, swooping swallows, the odd pheasant and occasional high flying buzzard.

Sometimes, there is the interruption of tractors, motorcycles or cars. But, we’re without the constant drone of traffic.

More disruptive are strimmers and other lazy people’s tools.

Me? I’m hardcore. All done by hand. Digging, weeding and cutting: all back, shoulders and ibuprofen.

And, when I have company it’s great to down tools for ten minutes or so to discuss your uncooperative onions, composting tips or whatever’s going on in the village.

For a couple of months, frozen ground or Atlantic storms mean Sunday is spent on the sofa rather then hacking away at clay. Come spring, whenever Mother Nature decides that might be, my crooked wheelbarrow can be heard rumbling through the village up to my plot.

The fresh veg is nice. But, the time to think, the fresh air, the gossip. In equal measure these mean I heart my allotment.


iPodolatory – 3 June 2013

3 June 2013

Tunes on the way to work this morning:


Peas and beans and peat free

1 June 2013

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Thanks to the late Spring and general lethargy, I’ve been a bit behind on sowing seeds this year. There are potatoes and broad beans up at the allotment about which I’ll blog soon.

Back at the greenhouse, peas and beans have made a slow start. The runner beans are left over White Emperor which last year succumbed to rain, slugs and 2012’s overall rubbishness. Given that the season is “two weeks behind” according to something I heard on the radio, it’s not too late for the runners. At least, they have a home to go to: dug, and fed last weekend.

Keeping the beans company both in the greenhouse and in the legume trench are Ambassador peas. These are another left over from the 2012 apocalypse. I found another variety in my seed stash – Karina – but opted to go with Ambassador which, given the vote of confidence, have kicked off nicely.

(Note the toilet roll approach to sowing though I’m still getting used to the narrower diameter tubes.

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Together with another run of peas, today was brassica sowing day: broccoli, cabbage and Brussels. Though brassicas tend to do well up at the allotment, this is all a bit of a punt. Most of the seeds are near the “use by” date and I’ve planted a bit late in the season.

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Of the three, I’m holding out for broccoli. That’s handy as it’s one of my favourite vegetables even though I swear my mum put it in front of us for 100 days in a row one summer.

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This the first year of using coir as my general planting out compost. I do try to stay with peat free though I’m not too fussed about organic or otherwise. Coir was the only type on offer at my last garden centre trip. As far as I remember, it’s ground up coconut husks or something like that. It seems to hold moisture quite well. Let’s see if it’s providing decent nutrients.


Our Olympics

16 August 2012

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The flame may have extinguished (with due respect to the Paralympics), but the effects on our national conscience and pride should live on for some time. I want to reflect on my experience of London 2012 – our Olympics.

From before 6 July 2005 when London was awarded the games, I was firmly in the camp of the cynics. I didn’t want the cost and disruption and, if it went wrong, the embarrassment of a festival of vanity for politicians for the benefit of a few sports men and women and sponsors.

I’m old enough to remember Mexico ’68 held in police state conditions, controversially overshadowed by civil rights protests. The “friendly games” of Munich ’72 were shattered by terrorism. The city of Montreal spent decades paying off the debt of the 1976 games with its half finished stadium. Boycotts ruined Moscow ’80 and Los Angeles ’84 (though the latter proved two things: the Olympics can run at a profit and soccer can succeed in the US). Athens, so desperate to get the Millennium games (which it didn’t get) spent too much on lavish, mostly once-used, facilities for 2004 that have had hardly helped its economy.

Not a great history. Then, 7/7 showed our vulnerabilities.


I wasn’t much of a fan of Seb Coe – Ovett was more likeable and Coe was rubbish as an MP. As a Parliamentary Private Secretary (bag carrier) he had a reputation as being useful for running out to the get the coffee. How on earth could he pull it off?

But, I love sport and as much as I would have gladly travelled to Paris to see the games and laugh at the cost to France, I wanted to be at London 2012. I nearly wasn’t and I was quick to have a moan at the unfair ticketing process. Come May I spent a couple of hours desperately fighting the Locog website to get two tickets for anything. To my surprise, in the second chance for lottery losers, athletics went on sale early. For the only time this year I used my Visa credit card. Only afterwards did I think about how I would pay off the debt.

Tickets: £590

Hotel: £66

Petrol: £60

Train: £16

Food and drink: £38

Programme: £5

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Obligatory “I was there” t-shirts: £16

Preamble done, I’ve decided to cover five aspects – my five, multi-coloured circles (geddit?) – of my day at Stratford and the whole Olympic experience from Beckham with the flame to the Who.

People

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I’ll try to steer clear of the People’s Olympics cliche, but perhaps more than anything the Olympics said a lot about Britons and our love with events and celebration. The monarchy is not for me, but I recognise that the Jubilee was a great event that most of the population embraced. In tough times, people decided it was a good chance to celebrate and feel good about themselves as individuals and as a nation.

We can be as patriotic as any other nation. I don’t think we’re as reticent and reserved as we might think.

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The overriding memory of Stratford and the torch relay before was of people. There were over 100,000 in the park on the day we went. Everyone seemed to be having an absolutely marvellous time. it was like being in a theme park without the rides and the cartoon characters. The volunteers played such a vital role in keeping people entertained, even when they had to keep us penned as we waited for the train at the end of the day.

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The torch relay was a staggering success. We had it in north Devon early on. the crowds were phenomenal. All to see sight of someone they didn’t know, often from outside the area and for only a minute or so.

Seeing a chap in Braunton struggle out of his wheelchair to carry the torch a few steps brought a lump to many a throat.

And, we cheered, every step of the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

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We cheered too in the stadium with fans from around the world. We cheered every athlete. Yes, bigger cheers for Brits, but big cheers for the Americans, Jamaicans and Russians.

Buildings

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I used to live next door to the Olympic park, in the flats that housed the surface to air missiles. As the sculpture in the park says, it used to be the site of the largest refrigerator mountain in Europe. It was gritty. In estate agent speak it was not even “up and coming”.

Yes, businesses and a small community were forceably moved out of the site. That’s sad in a mature democracy.

I have no answer to that. Except to say that what has been built in Stratford is a collection of stunning sports venues. The stadium iteslf is beautifully simple: functional, but not oppressive with fantastic sightlines.

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I love the “Pringle” and we were so disappointed not to get cycling tickets. I hope that the building gets used every day of every year until memories of 2012 are dim and distant. I hope too that Herne Hill velodrome keeps its place in South London and produces another Bradley Wiggins.

Logistics

St Pancras to Stratford in 10 minutes. Wow!

When it became apparent that CrossRail would not be ready for 2012, there were many like me who thought that was another nail in the transport coffin. From our one day experience it’s hard to make a judgement. I’m sure if I was still living in London I would have grumbled about station closures, Olympic lanes and crowds.

On the day, everything worked. And, worked well. We were left thinking that London had never worked so well.

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That said, I am still not convinced that the ticketing succeeded. There was a whole bank of empty seats at the stadium on our day. There continued to be swathes of spectator-less plastic across most venues.

Sport

We were disappointed that we didn’t see a British success on our day in the park. But, the cheers echoed around the park as Britain took bronze in the women’s hockey.

So much sport and, at home, we loved every minute. Even the weightlifting, archery, handball and water polo. Red button coverage without commentary: nirvana!

We also cried as Mo Farah won his second gold.

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But, in the park, we saw the US women’s 4×100 team break the world record. We saw a thrilling pole vault competition. We witnessed the Bahamas first ever gold medal.

Money

My £700 odd pales into insignificance against the £9 billion or whatever the figure is. As I’ve said before, sporting events, stadia and the like generate minor additional economic activity over short periods. Justifying the cost in economic terms is a pointless exercise.

The sponsors didn’t quite kill the Olympic spirit. Their presence in the park and in the media has been irritating, but I’m sure I’ll forget who they are fairly soon. (I’ve already mistakenly identified the official logistics partner.)

There is certainly no way can I justify what I spent other than the fact that it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my 54 years.

I purposely avoided using the L-word as one of my five aspects. There is no escaping that legacy was the cornerstone of the bid. And, it will probably return as a point of argument in years to come such as when the stadium is half demolished or Newham locals complain about the lack of jobs or services.

From my perspective now, I can see legacy.

There is, hopefully and with a political will, a sporting legacy. Heck, I’m thinking of taking up archery! If Twitter is anything to go by, no one wants the football season to start because footballers are greedy cheats. Er, football is an Olympic sport; the women’s tournament was fantastic and threw up great British role models.

There is additional infrastructure in place (with CrossRail to come) that improves London.

East London has had an economic boost: with continued investment that could continue (but that’s a big austerity-driven political question).

That leaves the effect on us. I think as a nation we’ve surprised ourselves. Everyone seemed happy for two weeks. We found out we could pull off a huge project. We realised that we’re pretty good at sports across the Olympic range.

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We did it!

I’m now thinking ahead to Glasgow 2014…and volunteering…


I can haz strawberries

8 July 2012
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Fruity

My old strawberry planter has been useless in umpteen years of use. I never seem to get decent fruits. It seems to be a combination of lack of decent sun, over/under watering and little critters.

Last year, my little raised bed was home for old plants, producing a kilo or so of edible fruits, whilst my £20 of new plants did bugger all in the planter.

The raised bed got overrun so I transplanted some runners in a new bed up at the allotment. Up, away from easy maintenance, the bed has become weed infested, slug ridden. Despite those impediments, there’s been a couple of good batches to go with yoghurt or creme fraiche.

Yum.


Storifying the Torch Relay

24 May 2012

Until last week I had a healthy cynical view of the Olympic Torch Relay which passed through these parts on Monday 21 May. That cynicism diminished as the day got nearer and preparations in our office became more frantic.

Of course, there’s a lot of baggage with the whole Olympic movement, from the crass commercialisation to the bogus legacy to the dodgy sponsors to the undemocratic actions of the IOC and Locog.

I was at Trafalgar Square on 6 July 2005 secretly wishing Paris would get the games. But, I am truly excited about having the spectacle in our own backyard. I’ve even spent way too much money on tickets for the penultimate day of the athletics.

Back to 2012…

My role on 21 May was to handle the social media side of things. That basically meant tweeting the Torch’s progress through the district, responding to tweets and being available in case some loon decided to take a fire extinguisher to the flame. We’d also prepared to use Facebook and aggregate photos through a Flickr group.

A few nights before, I suddenly had a brain wave and thought about using Storify. For the uninitiated, this is a tool that allows you to create a story of an event using social media contributions. Effectly, Storify allows you to pull in posts from various sources using tags, users and other metadata.

To be honest, this was a last minute thought. I didn’t discuss it with the rest of the team and I’d never used Storify. My limited experience was reading a few stories previously created for conferences and other events.

I gave myself s short tutorial over the weekend and got the feel of it. I added a couple of items just to set the scene and then hoped for the best!

(Unfortunately, it’s not yet possible to embed Storify in WordPress, so you’ll have to settle for a link to our Story and a few embedded tweets.)

Monday dawned and I could feel the adrenaline pumping. It brought back good memories of other jobs where I had to arrange lobbying events and visits by senior bods. I generally got a buzz out of that as well as lack of sleep, blinding headaches and an empty feeling at the end.

We had our team scattered across the district as well as a professional photographer plonked on the Locog horsebox.

NDevon council Torch control room

I booted up my PC and logged in to the live BBC stream just as the convoy left Exeter. I also had my notebook as a backup, but mostly to get the streaming commentary which helped when the convoy was out of 3G range. As you can see, I’ve got two screens so I had Firefox open to run Storify, Echofon and Flickr. As I can’t add the Flash plugin on Firefox, I had to run IE to get the live stream.

And, I started tweeting like a mad thing and picking up content through the Storify media search.

We had about two and a half hours before the convoy hit Barnstaple. But, we also needed to be ready to help our colleagues in Torridge who are much thinner on the ground than us.

As my colleagues went off in various directions, the boss and I were left to run our coverage and provide emergency backup. I had several phone calls from Ilfracombe – highlight of our day as an emotional Jonathan Edwards carried the flame past his old house and into the rugby club for the lunch break. Poor guy probably posed for 500 photos, including our lot from Comms, Sports and all our volunteer stewards.

Meanwhile, I set up my camera and Flip video on the window ledge to catch the convoy as it passed by us, albeit 9.1 seconds away (if you’re Usain Bolt). You can see some of my pathetic attempts on the Storify stream.

For the best part of 8 hours I tweeted as the Torch moved from community to community, tweeted to others on the route and hoovered up content to add to Storify. All told we put out 120 tweets and were retweeted, metioned or favourited about 50 times.

As the Relay went to convoy mode (flame in the Davey lamp), I tidied up Storify. I did more editing overnight as I was able to pick up photos our team loaded to Flickr.

That’s a quick dash through how I put together our social media coverage. We’re still digesting the day, but a few quick thoughts:

  • probably tweeted a bit too much, but we did get a good footprint and lots of engagement from people on the route including press contacts
  • Storify-ing the day was a good experience and the end result is a nice story of the Torch going through our patch
  • what we did wasn’t a replacement for the coverage by the mainstream media, but we did add value, kept people informed and provided a backstop in case things went wrong

I’m thinking of presenting this as a short case study at LocalGovCamp in July. I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts now or, if you’re going to be there, at the event.

In the meantime, I’d like to add that there were so many lovely moments throughout the day. For all the torchbearers it must have been unbelievable. Some of what they achieved – such as the Parkinson’s sufferer who took a few steps out of his wheelchair in Braunton – was fantastic. I hope you all get the chance to share in this unique event. And, if your heart is still hard, well I don’t know what might melt it.

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WeeklyBlogClub


Playing shops – an update

3 May 2012

Much of my “spare” time, a dozen days off and (look away, boss) countless hours at work have been devoted to starting a community enterprise, a community owned and operated village shop operating within our local Methodist Church.

To get to where we are, I’ve turned my hand to cash flow forecasts, radio interviews, lobbying, writing grant bids, costing EPOS systems, cajoling villagers, negotiating with church bureaucracy, learning bookkeeping and Sage accounts, fund raising, fleeing farm dogs and other hazards.

There’s been frustration and elation in equal measure. At the end of March, I let out a loud whoop as we got the fantastic news of a grant offer from Village SOS, a Big Lottery Fund. That seems so long ago as we face challenges on a daily basis.

It’s nice then to get the odd day away from the village. What better way to spend it: a day of “retail therapy” at Dillington Hall, Somerset with the Plunkett Foundation. Do shopkeepers have busman’s holidays?

Like most of the other conferences I go to, the day was as much about networking as it was about learning new things. But, I did learn much about the thought process of turning people into profits. I know that sounds a bit calculating. But, what we’re trying to create is not only a community resources; it is an enterprise. For all the fluffy, middle-class-ishness of the project, the volunteerism and grant-aid, our venture has to turn a profit. Our neighbours are our customers. (They are also our owners as this is a true community owned project.)

This is serious business. Collectively, we have to act responsibly on behalf of the community. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m sure I will at one stage have to don a suit to pitch our case for that last bit of funding.

Plunkett, as I think I’ve said in a previous post, is at the forefront of the community shop movement. There are nearly 300 such ventures up and running in the UK, where a commercial shop has succumbed to rural decline, the Post Office’s slash-and-burn strategy, shopkeeper retirement and/or the power of out-of-town big boxes. Who in their right mind would want to work 24/7 over a village shop with squeezed income? Without such devoted business people, it’s left to communities to fend for themselves.

Last Friday was another great opportunity to meet many others who’ve trod the path, opened shops and successfully kept them running. My notebook is stuffed with advice and contacts. My colleague also picked up a list of local suppliers from another shop.

We’ve still got much to do: raise more funds, get our lease in place, recruit a part-time paid manager and volunteers and umpteen boring tasks.

It’s daunting, exciting. I’d like my life back, but I’m sure I’d do this all over again.

I hope you can make a trip to North Devon sometime to buy locally produced cakes, cheese from the next village, the best strawberries in the world or greeting cards from our village photographer.

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#WeeklyBlogClub


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