Archives for category: Working

My latest Forest of Dean & Wye Valley Clarion magazine article (this is the submitted, unedited edition – expect the print edition to probably include different photos).

A review by C. Spiby of the photographic exhibition ‘Coalfaces: A Mining community in photos – Bargoed in the 1970s’ at the Winding House, New Tredegar, Newport, Wales (to Spring 2014).

Unlike the immediacy of photojournalism, the photo essay requires a photographer to immerse himself within his subject’s community. To even hope of capturing a real sense of social documentary, he must mine the spirit of a place and that of its people. Only the best photographers achieve this. Fewer still can present art over mere representation. But that’s exactly what Kjell-Ake Andersson has managed to achieve in this humbling collection of 1973 photographs exhibited under the title ‘Coalfaces’.

Moved by Eugene Smith’s 1950’s work on the subject, Andersson spent months living in the Welsh mining community of Bargoed. He rented a room with a local miner and with his host departed for work each morning to the pit. Eventually the young Swede was accepted by his subjects, thus allowing him to capture them at their most natural. In the evening he and has family mined the pubs and clubs in much the same way, embedding himself into their trust.

The collection, very simply but sympathetically and respectfully presented in this charming museum in New Tredegar, Newport (barely miles from Bargoed itself), is a masterful example of social realism of the highest quality. Consider the composition of ‘Marleen Wilkins in the family home, serving tea’. Andersson could not have predicted how kitsch the patterns of the carpet, wallpaper and tabard would be in the eyes of today’s viewers, but it is in this detail that Andersson proves a master of construction: the patterns – busy as they are – don’t clash at all; rather they flow in perspective and to me speak volumes of grace under pressure, pride, hospitality and fortitude.

‘Interior of George Pub, Arbergoed’ is equally arresting, whereas others remind me of Don McCullin’s British social documentary work. Then there’s his character study of Les Hughes; Andersson is multi-talented. Only the rugged beguiling landscape that surrounds his subjects is missing in his portfolio.

Life is clearly not easy at all, but neither is it hopeless. In virtually all the photographs based in social settings there is laughter and a real community spirit. At home it is peace, family responsibility: the day to day graft of making ends meet. At its core, of course, are the pits, the workers and the baths – the relentless before and after shift faces. The ghost-like whites of miner’s eyes and the dirt of labour.

Coalfaces2
The Winding House and Caerphilly Borough Council deserve recognition for bringing us this free exhibition, but also widening its appeal with a range of 1970’s commodities, National Coal Board paraphernalia (you can almost smell that distinctive odour of the NCB donkey jacket) and a selection of artefacts from the pit itself as well as Andersson’s original 35mm camera and that edition of LIFE magazine which featured Eugene Smith’s photos which gave Andersson the push to move his family to Wales.

Coalfaces1
A real treat is the family photo album with a wider range of Andersson’s photos from his time in the area. What we might use to store of shoddy family snapshots, Andersson offers as a wider portfolio, simple and unabashed. Such a pity those included don’t feature in the otherwise well-produced catalogue, let alone in the exhibition itself.

Yes, the whole thing is crude (especially the way the photos are framed) but this only adds to the charm of an unmissable exhibition of the heritage of a nearby area, and near history.

‘Coalface’ shows what Thatcherism destroyed. The 70’s is nostalgia for my generation and beyond, but driving around on a fine autumn day trying to find the venue (not the easiest!) I couldn’t help feel that today the place seemed soulless. That sense of community eroded by out-of-town supermarkets, let alone the general malaise of modernity which has closed public houses all over the country, took Bingo out of the social club and into massive megaplexes. Andersson’s photography does that rare thing and captures the soul. And it does so in all the black of coal, and the innocent white of the wedding veil.

This FREE exhibition runs until the Spring of 2014. Find out more at www.windinghouse.co.uk – for sat nav use post code NP24 6EG

from the Forest of Dean & Wye Valley  Clarion magazine

THE LEFT INSIDE column by C. Spiby

Things are getting a little ugly. Especially in Falkirk where the CLP is in a fizzle thanks to UNITE the union bombarding the local party with its members in an attempt to get the next Parliamentary candidate to be their preferred candidate.

While I see that, theoretically, an infiltration of any kind is dangerous, an infiltration of working class-conscious trade unionist is – SURELY – what Labour needs right now.

In fact, I wholeheartedly support it.

But there is a split of opinion as to Ed Milliband’s plan to re-boot the role Labour has with the Trade Unions. Even Len McCluskey endorsed the idea that the scheme might mean thousands of new official working class members paying their way in the Party ‘officially’ (rather than paying by default). The doom-mongers, however, see the move as an attempt to sever the historic link (which is probably why it got the support of Tony Blair!) and in doing so lose the Party millions in vital funding.

If the doom-mongers are right, then this leaves the door wide-open for the Party funding machine to head out and woo more donations from big business and the rich.

What started as a call for ‘8 hours for work – 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose’ spawned a workers movement. Workers coming together in union to end the tyranny of employers. The call went out in 1868 for the first Trades Union Congress.

The struggle for workers’ rights commenced and gathered pace with the rise of each challenge, each success and every knock-back. As Billy Bragg calls ‘There is power in a union’ and as is the popular noise of each and every protest the world-over: ‘The workers united, will never be defeated.’

But there were defeats, so we must take the latter as a rallying call – a call to metaphorical arms. For it soon became clear that to really change things, representation in Parliament was necessary. And thus the move toward a social democratic socialist party gathered pace. In the wake of the 1906 general election the Parliamentary Labour Party is born.

This history lessons informs us that something on both sides of the link has failed. The Unions has weakened their relevance (mostly through the actions of Tory Parliaments), but also the in the Labour Party has swung rightward for fear of militancy. Strikes – never popular – have ceased being the tool and call of the downtrodden worker as the right and the media present it as one massive, self-indulgent inconvenience for the rest of society. And in doing so breaks society.

Without Labour there’d be no welfare state. Without Trade Unionism there’d be no Labour.

The question is one only of relevance.

Now is the time for those Trade Unionists to re-embrace their Party. And to do it through the front door.

OTHER MATTERS But then there’s murkier water ahead with nuclear power and nuclear weapons. My personal beliefs seem out of kilter with my Party, although I will reserve full judgement until the final General Election manifesto is ready. So it is up to us to make sure they hear our voices on the topics we are moved by and join in at www.yourbritain.org.uk (the Party’s policy development platform).

So it is with relief that our leader e-mailed to remind us that…

“Only One Nation Labour will repeal David Cameron’s Health Act and put NHS values, not Tory values, back at the heart of our NHS. Our NHS is at the heart of what makes Britain great. Labour will always make safeguarding its future a priority. [a]”

Previously he let us know about some of things his leadership had on the agenda…

We all know Labour in 2015 will have less money to spend, because the Tories have failed on the economy. So we are going to take action on the big problems our country faces to control spending:

  • Cut costs by helping the long-term unemployed back to work
  • Make sure jobs are well-paid to reward work, so the state does not face rising subsidies for low pay
  • Get the cost of renting down by ensuring more homes are built – thereby reducing the welfare bill
  • Cap social security spending by focusing on the deep-rooted reasons benefit spending goes up.

This builds on an earlier message from Ed Balls, of the shadow Treasury. He said…

Tory economic policies aren’t working. On living standards, economic growth and on deficit reduction – they’ve got it wrong, and millions of people are suffering the consequences. It doesn’t have to be this way.  [c]

My worry is that these messages are being overtaken by noise from Labour vs the Unions. What the movement needs is a united voice and united message.

[a] E-mail from EM 2/7/13.

[b] E-mail from EM 6/6/13.

[c] E-mail from EB 3/6/13.

by Magnus Mills

This remarkable novel deals with the love of labour. And it does so uniquely. Imagine William Morris writing Emmerdale, all wrapped up in with a Wickerman touch of paranoia.

All Quiet on the Orient Express takes as its main theme the efforts of one man seeking to employ himself creatively in spite his newly borne freedom. In this sense it is an existential work but in an incredibly banal yet paradoxically readable way. Apparently on his way to travel to India, our protagonist is diverted by one and then another job for Mr. Parker, owner of the campsite he happened to be staying on come end of season. The endlessness of the chores recall Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, but this is a thoroughly English book and it is as interested in the value of work as it is in the absurdist, Kafkaesque situation.

In some senses the novel is a frank piece of rather old-fashioned social realism – imagine kitchen sink transposed to the twisty lanes and farmyard fronts of the Lake District a la Postman Pat or Whistle Down the Wind. But there’s a twist to this texture where on the surface of things nothing much happens at all. For example, one of the most dramatic moments is when our quiet antihero is painting a gate and a visiting milkman accidently knocks it over spilling its contents all over the roadway. He makes the best he can of a bad job by turning the splodge spillage into a green square and that’s just what this book is about: the struggle to be creative in one’s work despite the attempts (deliberate or otherwise) to disrupt the quiet peace of crafting an end-product. And, from a narrative perspective, the incident is an important one.

The mystery of local folk, especially Bryan in his cardboard crown and the various sidelines of Mr. Parker are both captivating, and the characterisation excellent.

The feel of its setting – the Lake District and, most notably its pubs – and of local, rural Britain is pervasive and, I’m sure for any British socialist, the book is contagious in its depiction of the leisure found in creative labour or being at rest while at work, as well as being at true rest (boat-rowing on the lakes or evenings at a warm pub playing darts with plenty of Topham’s Ex on tap).

On the other hand, the noise of interpersonal relationships and common misunderstandings disrupt this pleasure. Indeed, the coy politeness of our protagonist is the reason why he takes on so many tasks of which hold scant personal gain and it is this that often sees him exploited. These are things that spoil the beauty of the realm of physical, creative work. It is the labour itself that rewards the worker with a reduction of his world, personality and anxieties, no its capital value. It’s like gardening – the people’s art; a love of life through labour.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Marx, Morris nor Engels but a Cistercian Abbot (Andre Louf) who once wrote ‘We must work with some material substance that resists us, and against which we have to pit ourselves to reshape it.’ [1] Just as Magnus Mills has crafted a book of deceptively simple words and slender paragraphs, our protagonist labours before us fashioning a work of brilliant social realism, deadpan humour and life-enriching fiction. Indeed, I immediately sought out more Mills, which is as a reader has to be the best kind of recommendation.

[1 cited in Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams’ (Faber & Faber, 2007)]

Rarely has an album crept up on me so wholly. Laura Veirs‘ latest release (July Flame) was unremarkable at first, but I had got hooked on the track ” so stuck with it.

Then, driving with work to deliver on-site consultancy and through the flat Oxfordshire countryside on a warm British summer day, her collection of songs got under my skin.

And now the astonishing beauty of her lyrics similarly impresses whereas before it was a purely aural joy. Notably…

I wanted to make something sweet
The blood inside the maple tree
The sunlight trapped inside the wood
Make something good

I wanted to make something strong
An organ pipe in a cathedral
That stays in tune through a thousand blooms
Make something good

It’s gonna take a long, long time
But we’re gonna make something so fine

I wanted to make something pure
Emerald field from steer manure
A wide-eyed child in a moonlit room
Make something good

And if you love music and your friends then there really is nothing else to do but buy them a copy and that’s just what I’ve gone an done. On its way to you Jon.

In the last few days I’ve read two articles about Priority and living.

At work we do (or try to do) software development with scrum.

Creating a product from a sprint all comes down to Priority and it is my job, as Production Manager, to try and represent our customer’s interests by creating appropriate priorities. To me this is entirely consistent with Systems Thinking.

So it is a pity, then, that many of us don’t apply the same tenacity to our private lives. Rather we muddle along consumed by the pressures of everyday life. But at work, we delegate, work in teams and partnerships but most of all, successful people prioritize.

Making a priority is a decision. In his variable Guardian column ‘This Column Will Change Your Life‘, Oliver Burkeman recently included a superb spoiler to what looks like a self-help cash-in publication that is actually, in essence, really just one simple idea: priority.

By further reduction, here’s Burkeman’s summary:-

{the} ” 10-10-10 method for taking decisions is genuinely wise. When faced with any dilemma, she advises, ask yourself: what will the consequences be in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years? This process “surfaces our unconscious agendas”… though what it most ­obviously does is properly balance short- and long-term perspectives, avoiding both hedonistic impulsiveness and a grim-faced fixation with the future.”

This sounds like Motivational Interviewing to me; something my psychiatric nurse wife showed me. It is (I’m seriously paraphrasing here) a tool used to measure the motivation of addicts to really change their lives.

Burkeman offers more, however…

“Here are three more short cuts for taking ­everyday decisions:

1) 5-3-1: A dependable tactic for two people choosing a restaurant or movie: one person picks five options, the other narrows the field to three, then the first person selects one. This “has saved me and my girlfriend from starving to death on more than one occasion”, writes one commenter at ask.metafilter.com. Hint: couples should agree in advance to use this rule, so that “whether or not to use 5-3-1” doesn’t become a ­dilemma itself.

2) Be a satisficer, not a maximiser: “Satisficing”, coined by the economist Herbert Simon, means not ­letting the best be the enemy of the good. But it’s more rigorous than that. Rather than trying to pick the best bed-and-breakfast, for example, decide first on the criteria that ­matter most – “near woodland”, “serves a great breakfast” and “in Wales”, perhaps – then select the first one you encounter that ticks all the boxes. This is far less exhausting, and may actually bring you closer to the “best”, by focusing your mind on what matters, rather than alluring advertising or other distractions.

3) The 37% Rule. This is for ­sequential choices, where each ­option must be accepted or rejected in turn – as in flat-hunting, where an option may vanish if you hesitate, or, say, choosing where to picnic while hiking (assuming you don’t want to retrace your steps). Provided you can estimate the total number of options – the number of flats you’re prepared to look at, the number of potential picnic spots – it’s a weird mathematical truth that your best bet is to reject the first 37% of them, then pick the first one that’s better than any of those first 37%. (If none is, pick the final one instead.) According to an article in Lecture Notes In ­Economics And Mathematical ­Systems, this can be applied to choosing a mate, too. But maybe that journal’s not the greatest place to look for dating tips.”

To counter this, here’s Everett Bogue on priority, although his new e-book seems, on the surface, at least, not apply to people with family. I’ll check it out – though the remarks about priority still apply, assuming we’re placing our offspring and dearest at the centre of our ethical circle which, to me, has to be the our ultimate voice of reason. With decisions comes responsibility and none are arguably more foremost in our lives than our immediate family.

I remember at school that it was a sin tantamount to blasphemy, theft or plagiarism. But often I find myself doodling in general office meetings. Doodling was a shame – a sign that “YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!”

As an adult I find this is simply untrue.

In the same way vacuuming, walking, driving to classical music or washing up empties the mind of noise, so does doodling. Indeed, through doodling I think you focus on the matter at hand intuitively, in an uncorrupted sense.

My drawings happen naturally without a thought (perhaps that’s the definition of a doodle?), whereas the information being discussed and exchanged in the meeting is consumed and processed with a tenacious ease.
I’d argue that doodling really is quite a productive tool for listening as well as hearing.

I have a notebook for recording all pertinent information and decisions, as well as noting what I’ve been working on throughout the day so I know what to book time to on my timesheet at the end of it without having to make it up or rely on my grossly inaccurate memory.

The latter, of course, has been made redundant by the journal view in Pillar Software’s Time Manager, leaving less reason to carry a notebook. Though I still do. And I continue to doodle too. Normally its leaves and vine. A house. 3D cubes or vanishing point lettering. I wonder if our doodles say anything about who we are? Alfred Adler would probably agree but I’m not so sure what Sigmund Freud would make of my innocuous scribblings.

And now there’s a home for those among us who doodle with a distinctive flair: www.doodlersanonymous.com