Fixing the roof – how civic societies can keep it together

Don’t lose your slates!

When’s the best time to fix the roof? In the summer, when the sun is shining, or in the winter, when it’s pouring with rain?

Now, you might argue that the winter is the best time – after all, if it’s raining, you can see where the problems are while in the summer, when there’s no indication of any problems, you just want to relax and enjoy the good times.

In some ways, this analogy is akin to the coronavirus epidemic. Before it hit, we were all getting on with our lives and not really thinking about storm clouds on the horizon. But then the virus emerged and life, as we knew it, changed for everyone, and suddenly we had to start fixing the roof.

My point here is that events can overtake any of us, unexpected and unbidden at any time. Some events will be relatively minor – no more than a slipped slate or roof tile – but others will be much more serious and have huge consequences – more akin to the whole roof coming off. Coronavirus definitely falls into the latter category.

So, how prepared were you for the calamity that has beset us? I’m talking here about how equipped your civic society was to manage its way through the situation. How agile and resilient is your society to keep going through the current emergency?

As some readers will know, I’ve been ‘involved’ in the civic society movement for over 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes over that time. Some societies have been on the front foot (and I’d like to count my own society among that number) while others have been much more hesitant and, indeed, resistant to change.

I became a member of Wakefield Civic Society in 1989 having already enjoyed some of their outings and events prior to taking out membership. In April 1990, I agreed to join the Society’s Executive Committee and then, in 2002, I became its president. When I first joined the committee, minutes and newsletters were printed using a typewriter and copied using an old-fashioned duplicator. They were then assembled, put in envelopes and hand delivered or posted to members, a time-consuming and costly process. Electric typewriters and eventually computers were introduced but ‘modern technology’ was still a minority sport.

When I became president, I decided to ‘modernise’ by getting everyone on the committee to use email. It took some effort to convince people that this was the future and some people never made it on-line; they either retired or passed away without ever using a computer. But we pushed forward, extending email distribution of our newsletters and other information to our wider membership. Over the years, we have moved from having just a handful of members on email to the position we are in today, where we have over 95% of our membership now receiving their news from us by email. On top of that, we have a website and make full use of social media – yes, we are on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram.

These channels allow us to communicate not just with our members, but with a much wider audience – stakeholders, partners and the general public. We do, of course, still keep in touch with members who are not on email. This is usually by post (and sometimes telephone) but occurs less frequently than for those on email.

The coronavirus epidemic changed everything. We have had to cancel all our events for the time being which is a considerable blow and will affect our ability to fundraise and attract new members. However, we have not stopped working. We continue to talk to our members, mostly by email of course, but we are using social media too. Oh, and we have just opened a Zoom video conferencing account which has enabled the committee to see and speak to each other at our monthly committee meetings. Once you get used to the technology, it’s actually good fun to ‘see’ people in this way. On 23rd April, we even held the Society’s Annual General Meeting using Zoom. It was a much-slimmed down version of our usual AGM and we asked for volunteers from the membership to take part. The important thing is that we did it and that enabled us to do the legal stuff we have to do to comply with the requirements of our constitution and also the Charity Commission.

One benefit from the experiment is that it has given us confidence to start experimenting with more on-line communication, possibly even putting short videos on-line. It’s early days yet, so we are not sure exactly what we are going to be doing, but it clearly won’t be business as usual. We need to be innovative if we are going to stay relevant.  We certainly don’t want people to forget we are here!

So, by fixing the roof while the sun shone – by which I mean moving on-line early on and then, over the years, building up communication lines with members and others through a variety of channels, we were reasonably well-placed for when the weather turned bad. Who knows, even after lockdown ends and the need for social distancing is reduced, we may continue to apply some of the new methods we are adopting now.

Video conferencing might not always be the way we would prefer to work, but it’s a really useful facility. In fact, so many people are using it that I now find myself taking part in meetings with people across the country to the point where my diary is once again filling up – and the real beauty of it is the convenience and low cost. I no longer need to do a two-to-three-hour commute to get to a meeting in London, say, and then repeat the journey to get home, taking a whole day out of my calendar and a wodge of cash out of my wallet.

I’d like to think that the civic society movement has cottoned on to the benefits of technology and that civic societies are firing on all cylinders still. Sadly, though, I know that’s not always true and I have heard from a few people who don’t know how they will keep things going over the next few months. Well, now is the time to start experimenting. Open that Twitter account, think about video conferencing and try to get email addresses for as many of your members as you can.

Don’t worry too much about getting things wrong to begin with; we all make mistakes in the early days, and you can always ask others for help if you get stuck. One useful tip is that you can often find on-line tutorials on YouTube for almost anything you need help with (some better than others!). They have certainly helped me on a number of occasions!

Now, I know that some of you will say ‘most of our members aren’t on-line, so there’s no point’ and you’ll shrug your shoulders and do nothing. I’ve encountered that reaction so many times over the years! But you have to start at some point and now is as good a time as any – it’s not as if you’ll be going anywhere, is it? Take the plunge – start a tweeting, ask your committee to join you in a video conference, start broadcasting to the world about what you are doing!

And while I am not advocating that you abandon your members who are not on-line, think about the future of your society. Is the future of the civic society movement going to be based on an outdated model of printing and posting newsletters to a predominantly older membership group, or is it going to be based on attracting lots of new members who are geared up and wired for both sound – and video?

Lockdown Jottings – 09

No cause for alarm

Tick tock

So, what chronotype are you? Are you a morning lark who gets up with the dawn, full of vim and vigour and a smile on your face, or a night owl who is just coming into your own as the sun sets over the horizon and who views early-risers with suspicion? Or are you someone in between, happy to rise and go to bed at what might be considered ‘reasonable’ times of the day?

One of the advantages of lockdown is that, for many of us forced to stay at home, it no longer matters which type we are. For the duration of lockdown at least, we are all free to follow our own natural circadian rhythms. We can get up and go to bed whenever we please. Even if you’re working from home, you don’t have to be up and dressed to tap away at a laptop. No one can see you when you’re sitting on the sofa unless, of course, you’re invited to one of these new-fangled video conferences that everyone is using now – but even then, you only need to dress the bits that show up on screen – just take care not to stand up while on-line…..

I don’t think anyone would describe me as a morning person. It’s not that I hate mornings – I actually quite like them and I’ve seen the sun come up many a time, even in the summer months when it comes up very early. But I’m almost as likely to welcome the dawn while on my way to bed as greeting it as I wake up. Yes, I’m one of those people who stays up late, cracking on with things while others sleep, and who then goes to bed just as the sun’s coming up. I am what you might call a creature of the night.

Being nocturnal has implications of course. I’ve been subjected to the tyranny of the early start for most of my life. The world is organised for larks, not owls, and it’s the owls who have to make the compromises.

In my school days, I found it hard, particularly as a teenager, to get up, get dressed and get off to school on time. To arrive late at the grammar school I attended (with an 8.45am start), meant being sent to see the headmaster to explain one’s tardiness. I avoided such encounters by not being late, but I owe that much more to my parents’ constant nagging than to my own willpower. If it hadn’t been for their persistent urging to get up, I suspect the headmaster and I would have been on very familiar terms.

The early starts continued into my working life. Being someone who worked in an office, I had to be at my desk by 8.30am. As people arrived, they had to sign a register. At 8.30, a red line was drawn across the page just beneath the last person who had signed in. The manager would inspect the register mid-morning and anyone whose name was signed in below the line was called into his office for a reprimand and one of his ‘motivational chats.’ Again, being a good boy, I am pleased to say that I was never called in.

Flexible working hours, introduced in the late 1970s, and then homeworking which really became possible around 15 years ago for me, changed everything. The demands of the early start was still there when working from home but at least, when I didn’t need to go into the office, I was spared the daily commute – heck, I didn’t even need to get dressed! (I feel I must now offer apologies to any colleagues from back then who are now picturing me sitting in my pjs while taking part in those telephone conferences! Yet more apologies may be due when I tell you I don’t wear pyjamas….)

Today, video conferencing has necessitated a re-think to what to wear. I do think one has to make an effort: the implications of ‘Come as you are’ really don’t bear thinking about when you can see and be seen from the comfort of your sofa. I might be talking to you from my lounge but this is no time to be seen in what I think stores call ‘lounge wear’.

Since I retired from full-time work, my alarm clock gets very little use. I can’t quite relegate it to the back of the cupboard as I still have to get up occasionally to go to meetings. Most days, though, I can sleep in if I want to and I often do. I can, at last, deal with the world on my terms. Now, I don’t even answer the telephone before 11am.

One of my pet hates is people who ring me up at 9am (or even earlier) and begin their remarks with “Did I get you up?”. Some of them even sound faintly surprised to hear my voice, fully expecting to go through to the answering service (so why not just phone me later?). I try not to signal my irritation but give me strength! Sometimes I tell a downright lie. “No, I’ve been up ages”, I’ll say, stifling a yawn, or “No I’ve been out and just come back” and so on. It’s a bit harder to come up with an excuse for not answering the phone under lockdown without giving the game away: I can hardly say I’ve been out, can I?

Occasionally, I think I might try scheduling a meeting for 2am, just to see who’s up for it, or giving one of my morning lark friends a call at, say, 3am? “Did I get you up?” I would ask, in all innocence.

Lockdown Jottings – 08

Raising Spirits

I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!

Usually, the arrival of better weather and lighter evenings heralds the launch of Wakefield Civic Society’s programme of guided walks. These are usually led by me. They are a great way to show off my home city and the walks attract both people who live locally – who always learn something new – and people who are visitors to the city. This year, for the first time, I was planning to embark on a series of new guided walks in my own name, rather than under the banner of the civic society: you should see the plans I had for my ‘Carnival of the Animals’ walks!

Sadly, though, the coronavirus has kicked all such plans into touch, at least for the foreseeable future. This a great shame, not least because we were all set to resurrect our very successful ‘Historic Ghost Walks’ in the coming weeks.

At the end of 2018, I was contacted by Wakefield BID to explore the possibility of my doing some ghost walks around the city centre. It was pointed out that many cities have them and that they can be a big draw: ghost walks, I was told, are an increasingly popular way of finding out something of the history of a place while also having a bit of fun. Having been on one myself in York a few years back, I understood what was meant and I said I’d give the idea some thought.

The first problem was that I don’t personally ‘believe’ in ghosts! I also had the credibility and reputation of the civic society to consider so I couldn’t just make things up. What I eventually came up with was more a ‘Murder and Misery’ tour, telling the rather sad stories of the malcontents and miscreants, the misfortunates and the miserabilists, who inhabited Victorian Wakefield. And if ever there was a time to take off the rose-tinted glasses about the ‘good old days’ my stories certainly had that effect!

Although the walks were advertised as ‘Historic Ghost Walks’, the historic part was really that these were the first ghost walks to ever be offered in Wakefield (as far as we know!). We were also very clear in our promotions that there were no actual ghosts on the walks – well, none we expected anyway – and the ‘Ghosts not included’ strapline was prominently displayed. Despite this, the first batch of four ghost walks booked up solidly in a matter of days. We didn’t charge for the walks (thanks to a grant from Wakefield BID) and we had the usual problem of people booking and then not turning up (but these were compensated for in part by some people turning up who hadn’t booked!) but nonetheless over 100 people took part over the four walks.

So popular were the walks (and the demand expressed on social media was palpable) that I asked Wakefield BID to sponsor more walks, which they agreed to do. So, another four walks were offered in the autumn and they too were solidly booked, with bookings coming in within minutes of the walks being promoted on social media. A further 100+ people took part in the second set of walks.

The walks looked at some actual cases reported in the local press in the Victorian era and some original court records. Although we hadn’t heard of the coronavirus in the summer of 2019, Wakefield’s cholera outbreaks of the 19th century did get a mention on my walks, and we looked at the original location of the mass burial ground in the city centre (the remains were later removed to allow development to go ahead).

I didn’t have to do much original research of my own as the late Kate Taylor, a local historian and writer, had written a book (Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Wakefield) which contained many of the stories I needed (there are similar books in the series for other towns and cities written by different authors). All I had to do was to identify suitable stories, plot a route which took me past the crime scenes or where the stories had unfolded and then, on the night of each walk, help to set the scene by explaining some of the history of the buildings and the streets we were walking, adding some overarching social history about living conditions at the time, and tell the sometimes gory stories that made up the walks. A little embellishment and improvisation here and there, not to mention some occasional extemporisation, all helped to add colour.

Well, guess what? People loved it! They laughed a lot (yes, I know, people will laugh at anything!) and were very complimentary in their feedback. Hence our plans to bring them back in 2020.

Time will tell if it’s going to be possible to do that this year; I do that we can, but even if we don’t, I’m sure the walks will return when conditions allow. We all need something to look forward to and the walks were great fun, both for those taking part and for me to do. We may not have seen any actual ghosts last year, but I’d like to think that I raised a few spirits.

Lockdown Jottings – 07

Watching with Mother

I’m trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to wean myself off the 24-hour television news channels. Yes, they are depressing and repetitive at the best of times but even more so at the moment – the coronavirus story just isn’t unfolding fast enough for an hourly news cycle – but it’s my yearning for good news about a vaccine being discovered, or some other discovery that will bring an early end to lockdown, that keeps me tuning in. I have the television on in the background most days, sound turned down a little while I get on with my work but keeping one ear cocked just in case there’s some optimistic new development that will help to move the story forward.

A couple of nights ago, the BBC broadcast a programme looking back to a gentler time. “From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children’s Television” took me straight back to my own childhood and revived memories of watching TV at home with my parents, particularly my mum while dad was out at work.

I can still remember the day (if not the date) that our first television was delivered. It was during the spring or early summer of 1957 around the time my younger brother was born. It was a sunny day as I stood in the hallway of my parents’ home, clutching onto my teddy bear, from whom I was at the time inseparable. The set was delivered and set up in the living room while Teddy and I did our best not to get in the way. I can remember the delivery man tousling my hair and asking what my teddy bear was called…..

As it was our first television, an aerial had to be fixed to the chimney stack and the cable fed down the back of the house. A small hole was drilled in the (wooden) window frame to allow the cable to pass through into the living room. Once the aerial was connected to the set, instructions were shouted back and forth between the man setting up the set and the man on the roof so that the aerial could be adjusted to ensure we had the best picture.

Once they were satisfied, off they went, leaving us to admire the new arrival (– the TV set, not my new brother!).

It was a large cube-shaped affair, made by Baird, in a mid-brown polished wood veneer and stood atop a matching table. On the front, and beneath the square screen, were two cream-coloured plastic knobs, one either side of the speaker grille. One knob turned the set on and adjusted the volume, the other enabled the selection of channel – from a grand choice of just two: BBC or ITV.

The set (and the table) were supplied by Radio Rentals – for a weekly payment, you too could watch TV: sets were just too expensive to buy back then and many families with television sets relied on the rental companies. (DER – Domestic Electric Rentals – was another such company.)  

The TV took a time to come on – valves had to warm up – and when it did, the picture was in black and white. When you switched it off, the picture shrank rapidly to a little white dot at the centre of the screen which then took a few moments to fade completely away – and we’d sometimes watch it as it did (we took our pleasures where we could!).

One consequence of the time is that so many of my childhood memories are in black and white: TV programmes, films newspapers, family photos, all in black and white. (Even buildings came in soot-stained black back then.)

Occasionally, and right in the middle of a favourite programme, the TV would break down – and that meant not only that you missed the rest of the programme (not to mention the rest of the evening’s programmes) but also the possibility you’d be without TV for several days as you had to wait for a repairman to come out to fix it – a job that could take a few minutes or a couple of hours. Sometimes, the TV set would have to go back to the shop to be fixed and a loan TV would be supplied until your own could be repaired.

One of the biggest disruptions to my childhood television viewing was when the ITV television mast at Emley Moor collapsed in the winter of 1969, brought down by the weight of snow and ice that had accumulated on it and the power of strong winds. I seem to remember that we lost our ITV reception but could still receive BBC transmissions which came from the Holme Moss transmitter. Nearer to home, our own aerial blew down one evening in bad weather and we had to wait until someone could come out and put it back up for us.

My earliest memories of watching television still centre around the weekday ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes broadcast around lunchtime: Picture Book (Monday), Andy Pandy (Tuesday), Bill and Ben (Wednesday), Rag, Tab and Bobtail (Thursday) and The Woodentops (Friday).

Children’s television programmes were also broadcast in the late afternoon. Particular favourites from childhood were The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene, a name I always thought rather apt for a character meant to be dressed in Lincoln green), Ivanhoe (starring Roger Moore – on horseback! – later to go on to become The Saint and then, of course, James Bond), and The Lone Ranger (a US import). We also had The Forest Rangers (a Canadian TV series broadcast in the 1960s: I’ve just discovered some episodes are available on YouTube – and they are in colour, a revelation!), and Four Feather Falls, a puppet show produced by Gerry Anderson who was to go on to produce other puppet shows such as Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and, best of the lot in my view, Thunderbirds! Four Feather Falls was the name of a (fictional) town in Kansas where Sheriff Tex Tucker, voiced by Nicholas Parsons, kept order. Still in the world of animation, The Magic Roundabout, with Florence, Dougal, Brian and Zebedee (amongst others) broke new ground, shall we say.

On Saturday afternoon, 23rd November 1963, I watched a programme such as I’d never seen before. This was the first ever episode of Dr Who starring William Hartnell. If truth be told, it was so unexpected that I didn’t know what to make of it and it was only later in the following week when I watched Junior Points of View and saw all the letters that the programme had generated that I realised how significant that first screening of Dr Who had been. The programme had got a bit lost, however, as it was broadcast the day after the assassination of President John F Kennedy in the United States and many people, it seemed, had missed it. This led the BBC to repeat the first programme and run it back to back with the second episode on Saturday, 30th November. From that moment on, I was hooked, and I’ve been a Dr Who fan ever since, even though some episodes terrified me as a child.

We stayed in black and white right through the 1960s. Our set was capable of receiving transmissions on what was called the 405-lines service – and sometimes, you could see every one of those lines when the picture broke down. Every so often, the picture would slip – you’d see the top half of the picture at the bottom of the screen and the bottom of the picture at the top, the two halves divided by a black line. And sometimes, they’d continue to slip as if someone was pulling a reel of cine film through the set with every frame individually visible. Usually, it took no more than a sharp slap to the side of the set to restore the image to how it should be.

BBC2 was launched in 1964, but you needed a TV set that could receive transmissions on 625 lines to watch it. Ours couldn’t do that, so we had to do without BBC2 for a while after that.

In the run-up to the wedding of Princess Anne on 14th November 1973, the first ‘modern’ royal wedding to be broadcast live, we moved up in the world and migrated to a modern, colour television on the 625-line service. So posh was it that it came housed in a large, floor-standing cabinet with sliding doors that could be closed when the set was not in use. And the world of news bulletins and other programmes came to life in full colour.

The TV was still rented from Radio Rentals, but when they collected the old set, we got to keep the table – and that continued in use for another twenty years as a slightly too tall ‘coffee table’.

Watching television was a pastime for the whole family. Assuming we were all at home, we would all settle down on an evening to watch TV. It led to some arguments, of course, over which programmes to watch but we had our favourites. One of my dad’s was All Our Yesterdays with Brian Inglis; for mum, it was Emergency Ward 10 and Coronation Street and we all liked Z Cars.

But whatever we watched, and so unlike today, you knew that broadcasting would stop each evening, the set would be switched off, the little dot on the screen would eventually vanish and it was time for bed, as Zebedee would have said.

Lockdown Jottings – 06

The Easter Bunny fails to call

So that’s the Easter weekend out of the way. For some, today should have been a return to work and a resumption of routine, but of course, we’re in lockdown so many people will find today very much like the days which have preceded it. Stopping at home, trying to find things to do, keeping up to date with friends and news on social media – and watching the daily government press briefings, hoping for some good news in the latest statistics.

I don’t ‘do’ Easter myself (or Christmas for that matter). I’m not a theist so Easter has no religious significance for me, and I’m not that bothered about chocolate – so no Easter treats were delivered or consumed chez nous. I guess the Easter Bunny was also in lockdown.

It’s now just over three weeks since the PM announced the beginning of our own lockdown and it looks set to go on for a while longer yet. The number of reported cases seems to be levelling off a bit with ‘only’ 4,342 new cases added to the official UK tally yesterday (Easter Monday), a slight reduction on the previous two days but a considerable drop when compared with the number of new cases reported on Good Friday, when 8,681 new cases were added to the list. The daily count of people having died because of the virus has also fallen – 717 announced on Easter Monday down from a high of 980 on Good Friday.

It’s still too early to see these reductions as a trend; we’ve seen reductions in the numbers before only for a sudden spike to reappear taking us to new levels. There have now been 11,329 deaths attributed to Covid-19 and that number will go up again when today’s figures are published. It’s widely accepted that the figures being reported are not showing us the full picture as they only count the number of people in hospital where people are being tested for the virus. Deaths of people in the community, particularly in care homes, are not being added to the figures because there has, as yet, been no significant testing for the virus outside of hospitals.

So, the lockdown goes on – we’ve not yet been given any official confirmation for how long it will be extended but it will probably go on until at least the end of April and quite possibly into May. There are concerns that the lockdown will do long-lasting damage to the economy and that, because of this, lockdown needs to be relaxed early to get the economy back on its feet. No doubt there will be some phasing out of the current strictures but it will need to be done carefully to avoid the risk of a sudden upturn in new cases and yet more deaths.

I can see some sense in this – unable to work, people are suffering financially, and some businesses may never recover (an increasing number of retail chains are already going into administration and the future of these companies and what will happen to their workforce is at best uncertain). But there’s another major downside to the lockdown and that’s the stress it’s causing and the impact it’s having on physical and mental health – whether it be due to financial worries, or depression and loneliness triggered by self-isolating or, in some cases, domestic abuse (which is reported to be on the increase while people are being forced into close and unrelenting proximity).

Despite the problems, easing the rules around lockdown will need to be done very carefully. Some workers may have to be coaxed back to work – given assurances that their workplaces are safe and that social distancing can be practised while they do their jobs. If people are allowed out and there’s no upswing in the number of reported infections (and concomitant deaths), then confidence will start to grow. However, until the virus is eliminated, or an effective vaccine is produced and a mass inoculation programme implemented, there’ll be certain sections of the population for whom lockdown may have to continue indefinitely. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions are obviously most at risk – but it’s not just about staying home for them, it’s about keeping their distance from the people they would usually come into contact with, including family and friends, while carers will need to continue exercising caution when in close proximity with the people they are looking after.

Lockdown will be even harder to bear for those people who have to continue with their own self-isolation once the rest of the country starts to return to anything like normal. There’s been a heart-warming upsurge in community volunteers offering to help neighbours, the sick and the elderly. I hope that such community spirit might continue for those who need it once the doors are unlocked. For some, such support has been a lifeline in these troubling times.