The Obscure Death of Dorothy Woolmer

Dorothy Woolmer, an 88 year old widow, was found dead in her home in Waltheof Gardens, Tottenham, north London on the weekend of 3 – 4th August. She had been raped before she was killed.

A spokesman for Scotland Yard said Reece Dempster, 22, from Haringey, north London, had been charged with murder, rape, sexual assault by penetration and burglary. Assault by penetration usually involves penetration by an object. One can only hope that Dorothy Woolmer died quickly.

Today’s television news reports a man repeatedly stabbing a police officer who had stopped his van on a London street. The machete attack seems only to have stopped when the badly injured officer managed to fire his taser and immobilise the attacker. It was an appalling attack, but the officer’s condition is stable.

Unsurprisingly, national television news has covered the second story, but not the first. Equally predictably, Boris Johnson, our Prime Minister has spoken on television about the bravery of police officers and the need for more of them, but not the suffering of this unarmed and vulnerable woman. It seems the violation and killing of vulnerable, unarmed women continues to be of little interest to politicians and the media. Same old, same old.

News today suggests the number of women carrying knives is on the rise. The percentage increase looks alarming, but I suspect the numbers are small. In a way, it is hardly surprising that some young women, many subject to repeated humiliation, harassment and violence, carry knives.

After all, the police officer on the street, who was armed with a taser, survived. The unarmed old woman in her home died.

2.

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Forecasting the results of May’s local elections in Brighton and Hove – a dangerous activity

The local elections are just over two weeks away, and the outcome of these elections is the most difficult to predict in years.

The current state of the parties is:

  • Conservatives 21
  • Labour 19
  • Greens 11
  • Independents 2
  • Vacancy 1

All three parties have high hopes of increasing their representation, and all three have lesser or greater hopes of being the largest party. There is a slim, very slim, chance that there will be a majority administration for the first time in years.

Starting with the Conservatives, they have their eyes set on winning two seats snatched from them by Labour in 2015: Westbourne and Central Hove. They might also hope to hold on to one seat in Moulsecoomb and Bevendean, that of Anne Meadows who recently defected from Labour. They would also hope to pick up both seats in North Portslade, although I can’t see them shifting Labour’s Peter Atkinson. My prediction is that they will see no net change and remain on 21, gaining one seat and losing one.

Labour has high hopes of increasing their reputation from the 23 they won in 2015. This number has decreased to 19 with the defection of Anne Meadows, the recent vacancy caused by the resignation of Caroline Penn, and two councillors becoming independents, former leader Warren Morgan and t, both who joined the Independent Group (although the latter resigned from that Group last week). Labour will be confident of regaining all four of these seats and will be targeting Green-held seats in Hanover (2), Goldsmid (2) and Preston Park (1). The Party is also eying up an additional seat in both Central Hove and Westbourne. In an exceptional year they might fancy their chances of winning back Hangleton and Knoll, but it would require a political earthquake to do so this time. My prediction is Labour will see a net increase of two seats, gaining four and losing two, leaving them equal with the Conservatives on 21.

The Greens lost a large number of seats to Labour last time, taking them from the largest to the smallest group on the City Council. They are hoping to regain many of these including in Hollingdean and Stanmer (3), Queens Park (3), Preston Park (2), and Hanover (1). They have also been active in Moulsecoomb and Bevendean (3), targeting the student vote. And then there is Westbourne where that electoral phenomenon, Christopher Hawtree, is standing. Only a foolish person would write off his chances of winning the Greens first ever seat in that ward. If the Greens were to be successful in all these contests, they would end up with 24 seats, relegating Labour to third place. However, I predict that they will hold their current seats and pick up just one additional one.

The Liberal Democrat’s don’t hold any seats, and I cannot see any area where they will make a breakthrough this time.

All in all, all four parties will be left disappointed. A extra seat here or there will decide whether Labour or the Conservatives are the largest party, with the balance of power being held, once again, by the Greens.

David Cameron’s Big Lie about Syria

The following blog was published as a letter in the Guardian and Independent of 1st December 2015:

Tony Blair’s big lie, before the war in Iraq, was that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. David Cameron’s big lie is that there are 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian ground troops, ready to sustain ‘democracy’.

In fact, the majority of anti-Assad forces fighting alongside ISIS are violent Islamists – such as the Al Quaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. The Front is known to pose a serious threat here in Britain, yet we are expected to maintain the fiction that its fighters are moderates or de facto allies. If the government gets its way, we will bomb only ISIS – and civilians of course.

Cameron’s long term aim continues to be illegal regime change. He is intent on removing Assad by force, even if it means allying himself with people far worse than the Syrian President. The consequences for the people of Syria, especially for women, the Shia, Kurds and other minorities are likely to be truly terrible.
Jean Calder.

A Serious Case of Tail Wagging Dog, by Jean Calder

I recently wrote about the tendency of local councils to expand ‘innovative’ new departments, while at the same time failing to safeguard mainstream service delivery (Vampires at City Hall). Ian Healey responded, saying “..without numbers (of posts involved) or examples, it is difficult to see this as more than a partisan grumble. It may all be as you say, but what to do?”

As they say in Parliament, he makes a good point. In reality, it’s impossible to provide details. This is because council officers deny the information to the public, on grounds of staff confidentiality. It’s obviously right that the public should not have details about individual post holders and the exact level of their pay. However, it’s entirely improper that the very existence of these posts, their responsibilities and seniority, and crucially their broad salary grades, are shrouded in mystery.

During the recent public consultation that preceded Brighton & Hove’s budget-making, I telephoned the finance department to ask for more information – in particular about staffing structures and the costs of posts. I said I couldn’t answer the council’s questionnaire about budget priorities, unless I really understood the options. I was told that such detailed information wasn’t routinely provided because “it wouldn’t be fair” to the staff concerned. I persisted and was subsequently informed that more detailed information was available online if I cared to look. Unfortunately, it was not – or was so well buried that only a hacker could have found it.

I was annoyed at the refusal, but thought I’d get round it by speaking to councillors. However, I was stunned to learn from the two councillors I approached – both highly competent and holding senior positions – that they too were routinely denied detailed information about staffing. This was despite the fact that this was a very important and hugely contentious budget, in which cuts were to be agreed. Now, these were politicians and I am not naive. It may be that they actually did have access to the information, but were unwilling to admit that I and other members of the public couldn’t have it. However, from their somewhat confused and even embarrassed demeanour, I suspect not.

The implications of this, if true, are stunning. It means that the councillors we democratically elect to run the city, finalise budgets and agree strategies on our behalf, have been doing so with partial information – and that the people who have withheld key facts are those paid to carry out the council’s decisions. Elected councillors, accountable to us, are being ‘managed’ by people who ought to be accountable to them. If this is the case, I do wonder why we bother to vote. It’s a serious case of tail wagging dog.

I lament the loss of old fashioned senior council officers, who were hard working public servants – and generally accepted limits to their own authority. This all seemed to change in the late 1980s. Senior public ‘servants’ started to study for MBAs, ape the private sector, demand extortionate salaries and tell their workers there was ‘no such thing as a job for life’. Claiming to be ‘managing change’, they decimated services, cut the posts of manual staff who carried out the traditional work of the councils and justified their own promotion and pay rises by developing small fiefdoms of white collar staff, working in new and fashionable fields of endeavour.

Back in the day, senior council officers would have worked in the same local authority until they were 65, left with a secure pension and spent their retirement in unpaid good works. However, since the early 1990s, too many senior managers have taken early retirement at 50 or 55, sometimes with a golden handshake as well as a stonking great pension, then joined quangos and set up consultancy businesses selling their skills at inflated prices to – you guessed it – local authorities.

Where once senior council officers informed and advised elected members, and accepted they had operational not strategic responsibility, this new breed of senior officer, unaccountable, arrogant and well-paid, seeks to lead, not to serve. In such an environment, elected councillors, some new to their roles, reliant on officers and often earning far less than them, can readily be manipulated. Where there is no overall political control, it must be particularly easy for latter-day Sir Humphreys to play one politician off against another.

There have always been council officers who successfully managed, manipulated and flattered elected councillors into submission. However, the present situation in Brighton & Hove, in which senior officers withhold information and politely exclude councillors from crucial decisions about politically sensitive or senior staff appointments, is something new. I suspect councillors are concerned and frustrated, but that a culture may have developed that seems impossible to challenge.

But challenged it must be. A council which operates according to the priorities of an unaccountable elite is a dangerous beast and this is particularly so at a time of service cuts. My suggestion, now the election is over, is that councillors try to put aside partisan loyalties and come together to assert their position as elected representatives. Not for their sakes, but for ours.

Siren performing this coming Saturday in Brighton

Siren, the 1980s Lesbian New Wave Band are performing this coming Saturday (13th June) at 8 PM at the Malborough Theatre in Brighton. Fascinating insights into the feminist and gay politics behind their music. I saw them perform last time and it was a fantastic show.

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(Click to enlarge poster)

An alternative view to the Brighton and Hove Independent 100

The Brighton and Hove Independent last week (30th May) published a list of the “100 people who make our city what it is”. The Editorial Director, Greg Hadfield has said he “expects – and even hopes – that almost everyone will disagree” with the list.

Let me be the first. There are the predictable names but it is who Greg has missed that demands comment. For example, why is your Humble Blogger not included? No politician can hope for recognition and success without endorsement from this awesome blog.

It is all very well to have Martin Harris from the bus company, but what about former Mayor, Brian Fitch, who singlehandedly, in a career stretching back to when Methuselah was a boy in short trousers, has saved bus route after bus route, most recently the Number 5, from being callously axed without a second thought to those isolated on our estates. What hope is there for them now that Brian has moved to Eastbourne?

More seriously, in the media section, there is no mention of anyone from the Brighton Argus. I just can’t imagine why not! Adam Trimingham, at least, should be there.

Three politicians from each of the main political parties are listed although the Green, Major Druitt, is listed because of his business influence, and Katy Bourne appears to have transcended her party political affiliations to be listed under Public Services.

But how does one make a judgement on who has made a contribution to make our city what it is. When reviewing the list, I was hard pressed to say for over half of them one thing they have done to make or change the City. Merely holding a position, elected or otherwise, doesn’t mean that you have helped to shape a place.

A better list would be who, over the last 25 years or more, has helped to make Brighton and Hove what it is today. Who is the modern day Herbert Carden, Margaret Hardy, Lewis Cohen, Dorothy Stringer, John Morley, Denis Hobden, Tony Hewison, Asa Briggs, or Richard Attenborough? Their influence on the City remains even though they are no longer with us.

I could mention people like Linda Pointing, Dani Ahrens and Melita Dennett, who (amongst others) were pioneers in the movement for lesbian and gay rights and recognition, and opposition to Section 28. Or Shirley West who was, for many years, the backbone of the Women’s Centre. Jess Wood from Allsorts continues this work, particularly with children and young people.

For fifty years Patricia Norman was central to the Friends Centre and to its adult education arm. Into her nineties she continued with a group for pensioners run from the Friends Centre, as well as being involved in the work of Brighton Housing Trust for over 45 years, most recently as its Life President.

Kate Page has been at the Resources Centre for almost 35 years, helping countless community organisations shape their communities. And Faith Matyszak provided the backbone of BME services throughout the 1980’s, 90’s and noughties.

Local domestic violence services were saved by a group including the above-mentioned Shirley West and Jean Calder, who subsequently became the first Director of the Women’s Refuge Project (now Rise). Jean later led the successful campaign to save St Peters Church as a place of worship, alongside Janet King, Isabel Turner and others. (Jean now has the honour to be a regular contributor to this esteemed blog.)

Interfaith activities were championed by Tehm Framroze, and now by Anthea Ballam. They should be on the list. Andrew Manson-Brailsford and Ian Chisnall continue to make the Church relevant in the community. Rabbi Elli Sarah does likewise for Progressive Jewish community.

While he will no doubt write a strongly worded letter against his inclusion, Tony Greenstein should be included for being a public irritant of gargantuan proportions but, more so, for being one of the most consistent anti-fascist in Brighton and Hove.

What about the campaigners who helped to close down the Dolphinarium? Or Duncan Blinkhorn and Mark Strong for getting the needs of cyclists acknowledged.

Mushtaq Ahmed was pivotal in establishing Sussex CCC as a force to be reckoned with. Dick Knight could represent all those who helped secure a stadium fit for the 21st century at Falmer.

Michael Chowen, a local businessman and employer, has been a philanthropist with a particular commitment to women’s services. Peter Field has had a long history in charitable work, not least in nurturing and developing housing services for homeless people.

I could go on and on, and I usually do, but those named above would be 25 of my 100.

New Charges at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, by Jean Calder

I avoid public loos. I especially dislike the loos in the Pavilion gardens. I don’t care how many ‘awards’ they’ve received (I wonder who gives out these things and what contractors have to do to get them). They’re dark, depressing and terribly cold. And as any woman or child will tell you, temperature matters when you have to disrobe in the lavatory.  So I try to avoid them. 

My habit, for many years, has been to use the toilets in the museum and art gallery, though I admit it’s often just been an excuse to visit the museum. I love walking unimpeded through the stone entrance into the building, up to the purring Pavilion cat that my daughter and I used to feed with coins, past Salvador Dali’s red sofa shaped like Mae West’s lips (my daughter was always convinced she’d one day be rich enough to buy it) across to the stoneware bison and the Lalique table with the heavy glass bust of Beethoven. Then it’s on to the Voysey dresser and chair and brass lamp, a stop at the yellow glazed Minton pilgrim flask then right at the plate display and I’m almost there. Whatever my previous mood, by this time I’m happy. I’m walking on air. 

I look at other people peering at the displays and it occurs to me we’re like a family pottering around a well-loved family home that we haven’t visited for a while – along with visitors who haven’t been there before. I must admit I feel pride and a bit proprietorial. It occurs to me that that these are all our things, given, bought and paid for by previous citizens or by us. Sometimes I go upstairs and have coffee and a scone and read the paper and survey my, or rather our, domain.

As a child in South Africa, I visited the Durban library and museum each Saturday. I was too short to see over the library desk – and too young to understand why the only people there were white – but even then I had the same feeling of belonging and civic pride. The Victorian paintings were awful, but I loved the stuffed animals and birds, the lion and hyena, even an elephant and a hippo – and the model of a dodo bird, with a real dodo egg beside it. 

When I first came to this country in 1972, I lived in London and was terribly lonely and had very little money. Every weekend I’d leave my bedsit and visit the national gallery and the museums. They were all free and I’d mix with the people and look for hours at the portraits, especially the Rembrandts and feel just a bit less lonely.

In 1975, I came to Sussex University as a student. One of the first things I did was to visit Brighton’s museum and art gallery and make the acquaintance of its pictures and artefacts. Then my parents settled here and they too came to love the displays.

All this being the case, imagine my distress when, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit the museum, but was turned away. I strode in confidently, only to be stopped at a desk by several officials who told me the facility was no longer free to tourists – and that if I wanted to visit I needed to show proof of residence. A library card was not sufficient.

On that occasion, I rummaged in my bag and I was lucky enough to find a letter from my bank. My address was checked and entered on a computer (not a swift process) and I was allowed in, wearing a purple badge. In some distress, I left the museum through the Corn Exchange entrance.

Two days later, in a dream, I walked in again, only to be stopped again. I said “I’m on your computer”, but that cut no ice. I still had to show my letter. I said “This is an awful hullabaloo to go to the loo. Can’t I just go in?” Could I heck. “When was this decided?” I asked “Was there any consultation?”. “Oh yes,” one replied, while another said at the same time “I think they did try to keep it quiet”. Too true, they did – just before an election.

Two days later I visited again, but this time, I remembered. I went in through the Corn Exchange entrance where (note well) there are no barriers. I looked at the displays and visited the loo at my leisure, noticing with sadness how many people wore badges indicating they had had to pay. I somehow found it hard to meet their gaze. 

As I left by the main entrance, officials insisted on yet again checking my bank letter against their computer, presumably to make sure it wasn’t a fake address. As I walked out into the sunshine, past the sad little queue of people wanting to go in, I did not feel proud of my city.