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A year of many firsts

2020 was a year of many firsts for myself, and therefore in spite of the global pandemic (which brought with it the destruction of lives both figuratively and literally) it was actually quite an interesting personal year. I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to say I still have my health (physical, cannot claim with as much certainty about my mental health), a job, a roof over my head and have not suffered direct loss of loved ones due to COVID. Therefore, I feel a content warning is required: this blog does not look to boast or minimalize all the loss, hardship and destruction that was experienced in 2020. But taking a leaf out of my colleagues’ book, I would like to try and reflect upon 2020 positively where possible: and in all honesty I experienced some really beautiful firsts in 2020.

January 2020 saw the most magical ‘first’ I have experienced in my life: the first (and I am very hopeful my only) day as a bride! The day was filled with so much love, joy, food and laughter: where memories where created which cause me to smile on even my darkest days! And with this magical day came a wonderful honeymoon where my first experiences as a newly-wed were not too shabby at all! The Dominican Republic was beautiful in scenery, activities and people! Again, memories which fill me with warmth.

January also saw me graduate with my first masters, although I did not attend the graduation as was sunning it up with cocktails and novels in the DR!

During the first lockdown, my partner and I moved. This brought with it my first experience of living without a washing machine, along with my first experience of purchasing a washing machine (not that fun and quite expensive!). It was also my first experience of living in a house with my partner, with more than 3 rooms! Which, during a lockdown, proved to be essential in many ways: a luxury I know many could not afford.

The Criminology book club began in lockdown (not my first book club: sorry guys), but it was my first virtual book club which is something! Along with this came the delivery of workshops online, another first, and later in the year the delivery of lectures online, again another first! I also experienced my first online interview (panel, presentation the whole works) which was joyous. And received my first offer of full-time employment.

The holiday season brought with it the odd few firsts as well. It was the first holiday season my partner did not work in all the years I have known them (not through choice unfortunately), it was the first time we both drank on Christmas day (partner is usually driving or conscious of work on Boxing day). And it was the first time I did not feel the ‘lull’ in between Christmas and New Years, which was more scary than anything else.

2020 started out with such promise and hope, and threw some serious ‘end of the world’ vibes at us, and for some these were more than just vibes. It has been hard for all and catastrophic for many, but there have been glimmers throughout the year which have kept us going when it did not seem possible. For me 2020 will always be the year of destruction but also a year of firsts: some of which are currently up there as the best days, experiences and moments of my life 😊

My new year nightmare: finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy

“Pregnant and homeless” by Ed Yourdon is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; “Cash” by BlatantWorld.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The new year is here.  At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality.  The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time.  Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt. 

Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce.  Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said.  And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence.  So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance.  Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost?  No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.

We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure.  I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly.  I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought.  The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional.  I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently.  Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost.  By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.

Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country.  Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief.  I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them.  What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.

Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.

Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven.  At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much.  His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy.  If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many.  I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth.   Time to revisit higher education, I think.

Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day.  There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary.  Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk.  We hear that term an awful lot.  I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school.  Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally.  He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why?  A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it.   There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’.  By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk.  Time for a bit of honesty here.  Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.

It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?

And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.

We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for).  A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period.  I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly?  I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better.  After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten.  A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services.  I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.

Christmas ’20: I Bought Presents for the First Time in a Decade

As someone that lives in the privilege of not actually had to experience Coronavirus (to my knowledge), I have spent a good portion of last year on the sidelines. Losing my auntie during my undergrad in January 2017, and then my cousin Steve at the start of 2020 (some of you may know him as the owner of Kettering Road’s Driver), I think many would agree with me when I say ‘grief makes you humble.’ In typical Caribbean fashion, Steve’s wake made me remember the importance of community and togetherness. He ran Drivers Menswear in Northampton and if you blinked you wouldn’t know it was there, a shop that had been there since the 1980s. With its closure in 2020, that marked the end of an era, and I will now have to find somewhere else to buy jeans!

Growing up here, many of the people I know in the community and work with have actually known me for years. And in some cases, have known me for all my life (basically), very much including staples of the West Indian community like at Inspiration FM

Some time after Steve’s funeral, we were thrust into Lockdown 1.0 by the Government and it was in those months between March and June that I saw that power of community again. Albeit a symbolic gesture, clapping for the National Health Service on Thursdays in some cases was the one thing keeping some people going. It was a recurrence that kept their mind at bay in the chaos of the pandemic. I ran events online too, and people were grateful. In that same breath, it is evident to see the number of people grassing up their neighbours for flouting the rules, or attacking people for criticising the police’s £10,000 fines for those that break the rules. Last year, I also watched a number of films, including a rewatch of Goodfellas. Even in a health crisis where people have broken the rules, Robert DeNiro’s voice as Jimmy Conway is in my head telling me “to never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” When in doubt, listen to Scorsese!

These people may be rule-breakers but I know if it comes to the wire, these are also the same people (not government) that would put people ahead of profit. Fellow blogger @drkukustr8talk wrote a Facebook post saying “If anything, Corona taught us____” and I commented “There is more of a community than I thought there was”, to which he replied “NOW, dear Tre, THAT is a LOT coming from you.” Yes, I’m sure @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou will attest to that too, seeing from our number of conversations since meeting them in September 2019. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin and I grew up in The Commmunity. However, not like I have seen this past year. My work as an educator engaging with people inside and outside Northamptonshire’s borders tied, with the Murder of George Floyd/the protests and the pandemic, it’s left me thinking that when I gave humanity chance, locally, humanity actually delivered.

November came and I was awarded ‘Northampton’s Male Role Model of the Year.’ That was humbling. It wasn’t the award that really got to me. It’s the love and respect of your neighbours, and that’s not something one can articulate in words. I thought about this feeling again when I found myself watching the 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children. Albert Perks has always been my favourite character, very much a man of his generation. Not taking charity but also respects his community. You do right to others, they do right to you. That sort of mentality. This is a character I came across at twelve years old and I have not been the same since. The award is second to the number of people that voted for me, and I will take that to my grave.

Bernard Cribbins plays Albert Perks in The Railway Children (1970)

December came, and I bought Christmas presents. I am as surprised as you. For years, I have famously been a humbug inside and outside of my family. Forever anti-Christmas on the basis it was “a super-spreader of consumerism” (Ventour, 2010). My mother makes jokes about it, recalling to when I was kid walking around Abington Street in a hat with bah humbug on the side. The pandemic tied with BLM and meeting all the wonderful people at Amplified NN allowed me to break my “life rules.” Grief makes you humble. With the addition of Coronavirus, you could say it has made me soft (not that I was an awful person before). If the COVID pandemic and lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that so many of us were living life on incompatible frequencies and were trying to make the parts fit. We also saw how kindness was a shock to the system, since in the words Tennessee Williams so few have ever “depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I bought presents for the first time in ten years; I have the love and respect of my neighbours and I started a Masters in September. I don’t spend my days waving at ‘kind old gentlemen’ on the trains going by, but I think in fifty years that there may be three children that may think of me as that old gentleman (but not that old of course), or by the time I’m forty-one… I’m not too different to Albert Perks and there is power in that.

Covid -19: An opportunity too good to miss

“Wild Turkey strut” by stevevoght is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

And so, vast swathes of the country have gone into a new lock down (tier 4). We all must have known in hearts that this was coming and those of us that are not in tier 4 will be wondering just when the new lock down will hit us. We can all moan about our ruined Christmas and feel bitterly disappointed about not seeing relatives and friends.  We can blame Boris for this monumental cock up, but we have to face facts, Covid -19 is here and something has to be done to stop the spread of the disease.

I, like so many, am upset that I will not be able to see my family in person this Christmas but over the last few days I began to wonder just how much of a hardship that is.  There was a man on the news the other day that was moaning about the Christmas restrictions, he and his wife had a 15 lb turkey that was now going to waste.  My first thought was, so you’d rather catch Covid you *^&$£” **.  But this morning I thought, aren’t you lucky to have a 15lb turkey and, as my wife and I discussed whether we will be having a roast on Christmas day and the Sunday after, I thought aren’t I lucky too. There are two things that strike me, I’m able to have what food I want on Christmas day and I’m saving a bloody fortune not having to have all the family round or take them out for Christmas dinner and drinks.  The pandemic has some upsides.

But, this is the crux of the matter, how can I sit down to my Christmas lunch knowing that I have money I would have spent sitting in the bank when there are people out there who will be wondering right now, not about the massive turkey, or the family not coming round, or whether to have chicken on Christmas day and Sunday but, whether they can feed themselves and their family tomorrow, let alone Christmas day.  We could of course blame Boris and his government (a very rational decision) but judging by Reece Mogg’s comments the other day, they have little interest.  We could just ignore it, don’t think about it, pretend all is well and on Christmas day raise a glass to our nearest and dearest and those that we are missing.  But as we must face facts that Covid – 19 is here, so must we face facts that people, real people, are starving in this country.  It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.

So my wife and I have decided that we will work out how much extra we would have spent this Christmas, by going out, by going to parties, by catering for family and we will spend that money on food and give it to a food bank. It won’t be very much in the greater scheme of things, but it will be something.  I’m not writing this blog to say how marvellous we are, far from it, but rather to challenge all of you to do the same.  Even a little extra in your shopping before Christmas is going to make a huge difference.  Let’s turn this Christmas into one we can remember for the right reasons and turn the Covid- 19 pandemic into an opportunity that we seized for the good.

Please see below for a list of local and national organisations helping families this Christmas and throughout the year:

AmplifiedNN Community Group
AmplifiedNN Festive Family Fundraiser

End Child Poverty

Fareshare

Northamptonshire Food Poverty Network

Restore: Northampton

The Trussell Trust

A Lockdown Moan

As the second lockdown has come to an end, I find myself reflecting on my own lockdown experiences quite a lot. My overall sense is that of gratitude, in that I have been fortunate enough to maintain and be offered new employment during this difficult time.   

During the first lockdown I was a key worker and travelled to and from work on public transport whilst everyone else was ordered to ‘stay safe, and stay at home’. At times this was frustrating, and although I generally had faith in humanity my views on this were tested. During, lockdown 1.0 I witnessed people being much more aggressive to key workers. I worked in a place where I did not expect people to be nice to me, but even on my route to and from work I found that I was subjected to the odd remark.  

One morning at 6am whilst in the city center I was even called ‘a rapist’ because I did not have any change to give to a homeless person, he then sort of offered to fight me. Of course, I wouldn’t ever fight anyone, and he would have been completely unaware that I had just finished a night shift so I would not prove to be a worthy opponent in any sense. I also remember sitting on the bus one night whilst a man, who appeared mentally unwell, persisted to cough all over me (mask free) before exiting at his stop. 

I didn’t take any of these experiences personally, and thankfully I didn’t get Covid. It was clear that these people had many of their own problems – many of which may have been exacerbated due to Covid. The lack of understanding of Covid for some people also highlights a key issue i.e., that mainstream concerns are not being communicated to wider population within our society.  

I did find myself frustrated by the general population who in my experience, did not appear as positive and kind as the media seemed to suggest. I experienced many incidents of people being selfish, such as people snapping and venting their frustrations at others who are simply just trying to do their jobs (with shocking pay and poor contracts might I add). On top of this was the notion of visiting a supermarket after a 12 hour night shift whilst people scramble for the last scraps of essentials whilst you are walking around like a zombie. With bare shelves, rude people and long queues….what more could key workers ask for? For Christ sake, someone even tried to steal a tin of beans out of my shopping trolley on one occasion!  

During lockdown 2.0 I have been very privileged indeed, as I am able to work from home. Staying in this bubble of mine has also made me feel much less frustrated. But I do still wonder, why is it that we feel that those who provide a ‘service’ to us are not people themselves? People with their own problems, thoughts and feelings. Do we think that people are robots? Is this why some people think that it is ok to vent their frustrations at others? I am sure that other people have had more positive experiences than this, but I can’t understand why people aren’t being more kind and understanding of each other. There is a difference between being a service provider and being a servant…people seem to forget this sometimes.  

The Lockdown Lowdown

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It’s just a temporary thing
I took this photo a few years ago on a solo visit to Copenhagen, I had just quit my job and was in the process of leaving where I called home, my PTSD was certainly at its worst and the future was entirely uncertain…

A cosy Sunday evening, the flat has been hoovered, the washing is out to dry, lunch has been prepped for the following day…yet despite all of this normality me and my partner sit here on our cosy Sunday armed with the knowledge that another national lockdown is imminent. So whats next for us?

Before I explore whats next I want to reflect on what has been, it was only this time last year that my mental health was at its worst since I was diagnosed with PTSD some years ago and it was during this month last year that I found out I was pregnant. After many difficult conversations I decided that that chapter of my life was not ready to begin, not just yet, and so the guilt consumed me and I relied on anti-depressants to help me through that difficult time. Eventually as time passed so did the guilt and my mental health became stronger, because I willed it so, and after a short stint I stopped using the anti-depressants because I knew within myself I didn’t have to rely on them…

…More time passed and I found that the strength of my mental health had started to peak, I set myself goals that only I knew about and only I could achieve, I started to be critical of the people I surround myself with to ensure that I was living as authentically true to who I am as possible. This was my attempt at self care, As I withdrew from these friendships I simultaneously removed my negative addictions and repeated behaviours (drugs, alcohol, time-wasting, self-depreciation), I realised that my actions allowed me to concentrate my full energy on the things that truly matter in my life (my studies, my family, my relationship)… and then lockdown happened.

And boy was I prepared for that, I wont deny that I grew a few stretch marks and after some self hate Ive learnt to accept and love them as a natural process of my body. I realised I didn’t do much exercise during lockdown and my appetite was unruly, with zoom quiz night’s came alcohol and snacks (lots of them). Despite my growing waist I was okay mentally and yes I wont deny that having my own apartment and living with my partner helps but also having dealt with a bit of a breakdown some months prior helped order my perspective on my life, how I want to live it and how I would tackle this challenging time. As a 2nd year student I lost all hope and focus for a while as the outstanding assignments were piling up and I was heavily relying on the august submission date, I felt like I wasn’t worthy of being a university student, that I was never going to graduate and self doubt quickly reappeared into my life, Its a strange thing really during lockdown I didn’t really do anything at all, but I also never found the time to study? And the strangest thing is that actually most students felt this way and when me and my peers communicated how we were feeling we were able to support each other more and eventually those assignments were submitted and here we are… 3rd years!

So 3 days to go before lockdown 2 and how can I get through this?… how can you get through this? Undoubtedly there are many people who have dealt with a world of pain since coronavirus first graced our planet and yet in my experience I found this year to be quite grounding and it has allowed me to focus my energy on me, who I am, what I want and who I want to be (without sounding narcissistic but rather rightfully selfish), because I have no control over external happenings neither do you and thats okay. what we can do is focus on our little world; ourselves and the people around us. heres a few quotes I find to be quite relevant to this train of thought.

To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty; live immediately” – Seneca

Just keep in mind the more we value things outside our control, the less control we have” – Epictetus

Man conquers the world by conquering himself” – Zeno

So how can you, how can we, get through lockdown? granted it may not be as-long as the last one but we’ve had a taste of normality again and so this time round it may be harder, this time we have long winter days and a lack of vitamin D combined with the uncertainty of celebrating Christmas with family looming over us, so in consideration of Epictetus’ wise words lets focus on what we can control; 1. lets schedule consistent self care( for me that comes in the medium of being disciplined, in terms of uni work.. and diet), 2. Lets move our bodies! go for a walk outside and pick up litter? (later in this blog post you’ll find some of my suggestions for walks around Northamptonshire), 3. don’t pressure yourself into being consistently pro-active! 4. do drink hot chocolate. 5. And if your sad about missing out on getting your Christmas shopping in early then try to buy from local independant businesses, you might find many local stores posting available items onto their social media pages and offering contact-free deliveries! 6. Check up on your friends and family, be mindful of keeping communication going, you don’t know who just might be struggling! 7. Buy a homeless person a warm meal!
(TIP: when looking for businesses check out this new hashtag on instagram introduced by some local Northampton businesses to get people buying more locally)… #SHOPLOCALSAVECHRISTMAS

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/shoplocalsavechristmas/

Overall lets focus on our own self betterment and where possible our local communities betterment (and as always wear a mask!!)

And most importantly if you are struggling then reach out to someone and let them know, as always with my posts as the focus tends to be on mental health I will provide links to the university’s, the local communities and national charities mental health resources, so please take note and rely on them if you need to.

For my previous blogs/context have a read of the following:
Navigating Mental Health at University
Navigating your mental health whilst studying at university during a worldwide health pandemic

Joy comes to us from those whom we love even when they are absent” – Seneca

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present” – Marcus Aurelius

Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen: this is the path to peace” – Epictetus

I could continue on with a great deal more of these philosophical quotes and if you are interested in them then I’d recommend reading up on the discipline of stoicism, but if you’d like to read on you’ll find a few suggestions of areas to walk in and around Northamptonshire in aid of keeping your body moving during this lockdown, (and if you can take a bag and pick up litter).

Exploring Northampton’s Parks and Reservoirs

Abington Park; Located in the NN1 postcode a short distance from the town centre. The park has plenty of areas to explore with ponds, forestry areas and it offers some lovely autumnal photo opportunities, heres a particularly orangey-ember tree that caught my eye.

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One from my recent walk around Abby park
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One from a summery walk around Abington park, heading up the hill towards the church.
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You’ll likely find Abington Park filled with seasonal flowers.

Sixfields lakes and reservoir; Unless you know of this lake you wouldn’t know it was there, Its situated a little down from the Sixfields football stadium, there is a small roundabout you can take to go up towards the cinema (Walter Tull Way), down Edgar Mobbs way, or join the A5076, and there is a fourth almost hidden turning that will take you down a road adjacent to Duston mill road, it is down this road that you will find this little gem.
There are two lakes to walk around, one being the main option where most people park up (there is parking on site) at a leisurely stroll the walk will take around an hour, you may see plenty of fishermen and lots of wildlife!
There is a second walk which I’ve only recently discovered myself, just down from the car park there is a small gate and it is through there you can explore to your hearts content!

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One image from the summer; This is the main lake that I refer to.
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Apparently my crop function didn’t work on this image? Anyhow this is a lovely view from the walk around the main lake; it looks almost untouched by humans.

The Racecourse; I Imagine plenty of students and teachers alike will be aware of this location as it housed the university campus for many many years. As a budding criminologist I cant ignore the fact that the Racecourse has developed a rather unruly reputation for crime, I’ve personally never experienced anything and Ive lived in Northampton the majority of my life but thats not to say that it doesn’t happen, so as always be wise about your walk, perhaps avoid late night’s, let someone know where you are walking and stick to the street lights. The racecourse is a roughly 15 minute walk from the town centre and on good weather days offers views like this;

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dreamy skyscape at the Racecourse
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Looking up at the trees – Racecourse

a-bit further afield: Harlestone Firs; I would recommend driving to this location if you can, there may be local busses that run in the area but I would recommend checking the COVID guidance with regard to bus routes. So Harlestone Firs is a fantastic location to get lost in the woods for a few hours, and I literally mean get lost… I have been there countless times and I still lose myself in there, but its a welcome loss. You’ll find endless amounts of huge ferns, fir trees, endless pathways and there is a working timber yard in amongst this location too. Wear boots for this spot I always choose my trusty Dr.Martens.

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up in the woods… (kanye reference)

Brixworth Country Park/ Pitsford Reservoir; Another location you’ll likely need a vehicle to visit. This huge location offers a giant walk or a bike ride, you can of-course take your pooch with you too but keep them on a lead as theres plenty of cyclists at this location. I recently made the mistake of biking around here with the pooch on an extremely hot day and wow was that an interesting experience. There is paid parking on site or a little slip road you can park along. If you need to just take a few hours or even the whole day go and visit this location, take a packed lunch and sit and enjoy the view.

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That’s the pooch running in-front of me… soon to be a near miss incident with a cyclist.
Heres a little instagram reel of my recent trip to this location!

Here are some more locations that you may already know about and can explore during this lockdown, do make sure to check local COVID guidance, and even if you cant visit some locations now then make a note of them and visit them when you get a chance, Northamptonshire has such a vast amount of countryside to offer!

Becketts Park – Located just of the university campus offering a short distanced walk but plenty of wildlife and a nice view of the canals and lake.

A recent walk around Becketts park


Sywell Reservoir – You’ll likely need a vehicle to visit this location but you could also take the X46 bus (or X47?) Sywell takes around 2-3 hours to walk depending on pace, its one of my favourite spots as I grew up walking around this location.
Victoria Park and Dallington Park – Both are situated in St.James, and both are relatively small in comparison to the other locations but well worth incorporating into your daily exercise if you live within this location.
– Brackmills Country Park
– Delapre Park and Delapre Wood
– Earls Barton just of Doddington road, a pathway leading down to Summer Leys, here you can explore plenty of the river nene, beautiful views of the surrounding landscape and lots of horses!
– Rectory Farm fields; Here you can explore the fields (but be respectful of the farmers land) these fields stretch out to Overstone and Sywell, if you’d like to visit sywell reservoir and living within rectory farm then just take the fields route this route would take around 30 mins to walk to sywell reservoir and its well worth it.

So thats it for me, if you have any of your own suggestions not just in regard to walks around Northamptonshire but also how to keep your mind healthy during this next lockdown then please do comment any suggestions you might have, were all in this together!

If you’ve read this far then here’s one last quote to guide you into your day…
The impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way” – Marcus Aurelius

see below for references to guidance and advice.

Witches and warlocks

Time and time again we revisit previous times of our lives, especially when trying to come to terms with unprecedented realities.  Society works with precedent and continuity that allows people to negotiate their own individual identities.  We live in a society that fostered the culture of the one, and played down the importance of the collective, especially when people in positions of power declared that they can do more with less. 

One pandemic later, and we clapped at the heroes those we regarded as needy money-grabbers previously, those we acknowledge now, that we previously cast aside as low skilled workers.  One pandemic later, and social movements came to prominence, asking big questions about the criminal justice system and the way it interacts with those numerous people, that are not perceived as “mainstream”.  Across Western countries, people are registering the way the system is operating to maintain social order, through social injustice.  Each case that appears in the news is not an individual story as before, but are becoming evidence of something wider, systemic and institutional. 

Covid-19 affects people, and so we must maintain social distancing, cover our faces and clean our hands.  Clear advice from WHO about the pandemic, but people also die when they drown as refugees crossing troubled waters.  People also die when someone puts a knee on their throat (who knew?), people die when they have to deal with abject poverty and have no means to cover their basic subsistence.  People die, and we record their deaths but officially some of those are normalised to the point that they become expected.  Every year I pose the question about good and evil to a group of young adults who seem uncertain about the answer.   

I was recently reminded of a statement made a long time ago by Manos Xatzidakis in relation to the normalisation of evil: “If you are not afraid of the face of evil it means that you have become accustomed to it.  Then you accept the horror and you are frightened by beauty”.  When we are expecting death for seemingly preventable causes, we have crossed that Rubicon according to Xatzidakis. 

As a kid, one of my favourite stories was Hansel and Gretel.  Like all fairy-tales it has a moral signature and is a cautionary lesson.  In my mind it contracted the first image of evil, that of a witch.  The illustration made it very real, but also quite specific.  An oversized, badly dressed witch, with an unsatisfiable taste for children’s flesh.  It was the embodiment of true evil.  In later years, reading The Witches by Roald Dahl exacerbated the fear of this creature, seemingly normal but with layers of ugly under their skin.  The evil that was on the face of the beholder, their intentions clear and their behaviour manipulative but clear on their objectives.  This, I learn as an adult, is an evil that only exists in stories. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrjLNpfDTi0

This kind of witch, is a demonstration of the social vilification of women and especially those who actively try to challenge the status quo, but not the evil that runs in our societies.  The construction of social demons is a convenient invention to evoke fears and maintain order; well that is something a sceptic may say…but social scientists ought to question everything and be a bit of a sceptic.  In my version of the fairytale the wicked witch is pushed into the oven by Hansel and Gretel, the image of her oversized bottom sticking out, whilst the rest of her body is consumed by the flames. 

Admittedly, I was too old to get into the Harry Potter genre and read the books but the image of his opposition made it to popular culture. The “He who cannot be named” became another convenient, albeit complex, evil capable of unspeakable evils. An icon in its own right of the corruptive nature of evil.

 The reality of course is slightly different.  The big evils do not get extinguished with flames or other means.  They do not cease and there is not necessarily happy ever after; social injustice and unfairness is continuous and so is the struggle to fight them.  The victories are not complete, but gradual and small.  If the pandemic shows us something other than death and heartache, it is the brittleness of life and the need to ask for more in a society that is geared to prime individualism over social solidarity.  It is perhaps a good time, for those who never did, to engage with social movements, for those who left them to return and all find their passion of sharing human experience, that is predicated on equality and fairness.

Fairytales, are interesting insomuch of giving us some moral direction but they do not help us to understand the wider social issues and the actions people have to take. The witches out there may not carry brooms and mix spells in cauldrons but evil carries indifference, apathy and lack of empathy. As Edmund Burke said “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, now that is true evil. After all, is there such a thing called evil or are we content with finding easy answers?

  

Parole in Lockdown

Photo by Jayakumar Attoor from FreeImages

It’s a sad fact of life in and after lockdown that everything is a bit rubbish. We have called groups of friends a few times to chat via Zoom. It’s nice to see everyone but the conversation doesn’t flow. You can’t pick up the cues to detect who wants to speak next and if everyone talks at once you can’t hear anything. Zoom quizzes are fun, but, for the same reasons, they lack the banter of a real pub quiz and are therefore focussed and functional. A couple of times we have sat down as a family to watch streamed theatre performances. They were very good but it’s not the same as a night at the theatre and, without the atmosphere of a live performance, you might as well watch a TV drama which has been written for the medium through which it is presented. Things which were once simple are now complicated – you need an appointment to go to the tip for heaven’s sake! And while Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer is quite amusing, it is no substitute for the live international football that the Euros were promising.

On 23rd March 2020, the Parole Board made the decision to postpone all face to face hearings with immediate effect. The decision was inevitable – prisons had closed their gates to visitors and it was no longer possible for members and witnesses to travel the country for hearings. A couple of weeks of frenzied activity followed as cases were reviewed. Some were deferred, some were decided on the papers, others were converted to telephone or video hearings. Since then, I have participated in 20 remote Parole hearings, all conducted by Skype / telephone. So, has the Parole process, like so many other things, become a bit rubbish?

The simple answer to that is, surprisingly, no. Remote technology has been available to the Parole Board since I was appointed ten years ago. A new “Parole Hub” had just been established and its virtues were extolled at my initial training. The idea was that the panel would convene in a suite in London while the prisoner and witnesses would join via video link. It was to be the future. In reality, hub hearings never took off in the way that was hoped. While the Parole Hub has been running continuously, only a few prisons have the necessary technology. Most cases were considered too complex to risk making a decision without seeing the prisoner. Any suggestions of learning difficulties, mental health problems, serious or unusual offending meant that cases were deemed unsuitable to be heard remotely. Despite expressing a willingness to conduct hub hearings, I have only done two in ten years.

All that changed on 23rd March. If we had deferred every “complex” case, we would have a massive backlog by now. Instead, after the initial confusion of the first couple of weeks, the Parole system has adjusted. We are now hearing just as many cases as we would have expected in normal times and the backlog is reducing rather than increasing. Telephone hearings are by no means perfect. Sometimes the line crackles and you have to ask people to repeat themselves. Sometimes participants disappear altogether. In one of my hearings, the chair vanished for 10 minutes but after a few frantic e-mails he was able to re-join. Sometimes witnesses don’t pick up the non-verbal cues that they have answered the question and ramble on for longer than they may otherwise. As a result, remote hearings tend to take slightly longer than face to face hearings.

But there are advantages too. In my experience, telephone hearings start on time – everyone logs on when they are supposed to, no one gets stuck in traffic. From a personal point of view, I can wear what I like, I can get up and stretch, I can drink coffee and eat snacks during the hearing, all without looking unprofessional. Hearings may take a little longer but I don’t have a long drive home afterwards, so they are less tiring. If one of my hearings is cancelled, it is relatively easy to find another one to take its place because I’m no longer restricted by geography – I can pick up a vacancy anywhere in the country. And remote hearings cost the tax payer a lot less in travel expenses and hotel costs. As long as solicitors are able to consult with their clients by telephone prior to hearings, they are able to represent their interests effectively. Several of my remote hearings have involved vulnerable prisoners, with learning difficulties, mental health problems, physical health problems and dementia. Prior to 23rd March, none of these would have been considered for remote hearings but in most cases, despite these challenges, the prisoners were able to participate just as effectively as they would have been in face to face hearings.

The crucial issue, however, is whether the quality of our decisions is affected by our new way of working. That remains to be seen. We will have to wait for the statistics to see whether we are more risk averse and reluctant to release from remote hearings. Time will tell whether serious further offences by prisoners on Parole increase. In theory, the fact that we don’t know what the prisoners we are dealing with look like, may help to reduce unconscious bias and make our decisions fairer. It is very difficult to tell whether someone is lying to you, whether you can see them or not. Not being able to see the “whites of their eyes” is unlikely to make much difference to whether or not we are fooled by prisoners who present themselves well but have made little genuine change to the risk they present.

So remote Parole hearings are probably here to stay. While face to face hearings will return for the most complex and vulnerable prisoners, the majority will continue on the telephone or video link. COVID-19 has forced technological change on the Board in a way that the Parole Hub did not. This may be a good thing or it may not – we will have to wait and see.

The pandemic and me – Paula


Portrait de Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso, 1937

The last time I physically went to work was Thursday 19 March, over 12 weeks ago. Within days, I blogged about the panic and fear that risked overwhelming us all in the light of a pandemic. Some of that entry was based on observation and the media, other parts, my own feelings and emotions.

Prior to the pandemic, I had been the kind of person that felt the need to be at work, often for 10-12 hours a day This was partly to kid myself that there was a clear delineation between the personal and the professional (something, I’ve never managed to achieve since joining academia). Part of it was due to my previous career in retail; when there are customers there must be staff, so there is a necessity to presence. Part of it was tied up with notions of work ethic and fear of missing out, dropping out, losing connection. The regularity of the Monday to Friday (and sometimes, Saturdays for events) commute there and back, the same familiar route, the same familiar timetable, the same familiar faces. Even prosaic matters, like my wardrobe, is primarily designed for my professional life, however, #lockdown life requires something different than formal suit, dresses and court shoes. Similarly, make-up seems out of place, why paint your face or nails, without the rest of the professional apparatus, deemed so necessary to what Goffman (1969/1990) identified as The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

In his play Huis Clos (No Exit) Jean-Paul Sarte famously claimed that ‘Hell is—other people’ (1947/1989: 45). This is often interpreted as if the company of others is hellish, but that is a misreading. Sartre, like Mead (1934) before him recognised the role of the other, in our own understanding of ourselves. In essence, we can only ever see ourselves through the lens of others. In lockdown that lens dissipates or even disappears entirely, even with technology, which although we appreciate as an enabler of communication, I’ve yet to hear anyone say it is a complete replacement for human interaction.

Nevertheless, lockdown has forced us to look again and not only at our wardrobes. Once the panic and the novelty of not going to work, socialising and all the other activities, that are part and parcel of our lived experience passed, a new normality replaced this. Introspection is often missing in twenty-first century life, even among those of us that spend considerable amounts of time, professionally, if not personally, reflecting on what we’ve said, what we’ve done and how we can change, amend and ultimately improve as human beings. It’s also provided space to consider what we can’t wait to get back to, what we’re glad to have a break from and what we are looking for ways to avoid in the future.

For me, part of that introspection has focused on my need to be present at work. After all, in academia there is less pressure to be on campus, particularly on one which has been designed with the future in mind. There is no office, where I need to water plants, (most of) my academic books are here and I also have a work laptop, as well as my own pc. At home, I can have silence, or music while I work. If I am hungry or thirsty I can satisfy those needs. If I am overwhelmed, I can simply walk away for a little while, without explanation. If I am lonely, confused or need advice, I can pick up the phone, message, video call and everything else that technology can offer. My professional life can pretty much continue without too much interruption.

So what happens when things return to normal, should I throw myself back into the same patterns as before? I am hoping the answer is no, that I will do things differently, not least for my own wellbeing. Although I love the look and feel of the campus, I have always struggled with what, criminologists will understand as the panoptic gaze (Foucault, 1977). The sense that wherever you are, the threat of observation is ever present. The panoptic gaze does not differentiate between deviant or pro-social activity, it simply retains its disciplinary function designed to constrain and control For many, it is an open welcoming space, however, as a person who thrives on quietness, on privacy, on spending time away from human contact, it can have the opposite effect. Not all of the time, but at least some of it, I wouldn’t want to abandon campus life completely. The lockdown has shown me that it is possible to have the best of both worlds

References

Foucault, Michel, (1977), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, tr. from the French by Alan Sheridan, (London: Penguin Books)

Goffman, Erving, (1959/1990), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, (London: Penguin)

Mead, George Herbert. (1934). Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. (Ed. Charles W. Morris). (Chicago: Chicago University Press)

Sartre, Jean-Paul, (1947/1989), No Exit and Three Other Plays, (New York: Vintage International)

A weekend in London…. It’s not what you think

The weekend just gone has mirrored many weekends we have experienced in lockdown: glorious sunshine, hot temperatures, and longing to spend time with family and friends! However this weekend marked the beginning of an attempt at normalcy for our household, as we spent the weekend in London serving hotdogs, burgers, ice creams and cold drinks to park visitors. Something we have done year on year, summer after summer, weekend after weekend: yet this weekend was remarkably different. Therefore the notion that we can return to normalcy soon, doesn’t seem to be ringing true.

For some context: my partner works in/runs a takeaway kiosk by a park in London. It has been closed during lockdown, but re-opened this weekend. This time last year, there were 3, sometimes 4 members of staff (including myself in the summer and on weekends when an extra pair of hands are required), serving customers and giving directions to residents, visitors and tourists of London. This year, there is my partner and I: in a 4metre kiosk it is not possible to safely maintain a 2metre distance so the other members of staff are left waiting until it is safe and viable for them to come to work. They know this, and are happy with the decision as in times like these, safety should be at the forefront of all decisions.

And the added safety precautions are what makes this weekend so unrecognisable at the little kiosk in London (albeit rightly so). It is and has always been a cash business: cash is quicker to process, easier to return should it be required and safer with regards to checking for counterfeit (no issues of hacking machines or someone using stolen cards). In line with the current climate, the decision was made to try and move to contactless payments in order to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. This in itself was hassle and problematic, but I shall not bore you with those details. Alas the machine is here, and off we go. But it requires a steady 4G signal, which by a park is hit and miss, it also disconnects when it has not been used for periods of 30minutes, which happened frequently over the weekend, and there is a minimum spend in order to make the interest rate/payment of the machine justifiable. It is also slow when customer’s contactless does not work, in which case they have to hold and touch the machine, which then results in us having to clean down the machine after this has happened before we can move on to the next transaction, which is certainly not quicker than cash. And whilst most customers I must say have been patient and understanding, this has resulted in several getting quite verbal at the time it is taking to serve them (we are talking a matter of minutes instead of what used to be seconds with cash).

The differences are not just with the use of card, but also how the hot food is done (my area of expertise). Usually customers could apply their own sauces, but now in order to prevent lots of people touching the various sauces on offer and potentially spreading anything, it is left to me to apply. This has resulted in a whole host of comments relating to being stingy with sauces: ‘I know times are hard but come on’, or ‘I actually want to be able to taste the mustard’. I, personally, like to drown food in sauce, no actually mayo, not that fussed about other sauces. However my partner is the complete opposite, the smallest most pathetic amount of sauce you could imagine: that is what he applies to his food! But it is safer and easier to apply too little and add more than the other way, so I am justified in using a little amount of sauce! It has nothing to do with what the sauce costs! Grrrrrr! Cold drinks used to be placed on the top counter, which customers could take themselves, and then once all their selected items have been placed on top, we would charge them and handle the money. Now at the risk of people touching and then returning the item (which results in us having to clean down the bottle or can, slowing everything down), we are asking for money first: which people apparently are not pleased about. They want to feel how cold the drink is: it has come out of the fridge, which it has been in overnight and business is so slow the drinks are not being re-stocked: so trust me it is cold! (Face hitting emoji!)

All in all, it was a stressful weekend, when the amount of customers we served should not have meant it was stressful. I do not mind change and I appreciate that the changes in place are needed to keep everyone safer, which is fine. But things will be slower, things will be different. The media has pushed at the 15th June to resemble something we recognise as ‘normal’: but I do not think this is the case. ‘Normal’ whatever that really means, will not return and maybe this is not such a bad thing. But I will be grateful when it is safe again for customers to apply their own blooming sauces!

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