Category Archives: Bath

In memory of Douglas Nicol – former Bath Councillor

Douglas Nicol was a man who greeted with back slaps, booming smiles and sparking eyes but it was the way he gifted the most subtle of kindness that I will remember him by.

I first met him when working for Don Foster MP in Bath and Douglas was a newly elected councillor. He was as hard working a councillor as he was insistent that I join him in the pub after a day’s work. It is a memory of one of these such occasions that resonates as my main memory of him and what I wanted to share now after hearing of his death.

We were walking through the centre of Bath towards the sort of pub you have to duck through the doorway to get into – all low ceilings and eccentric locals. We were going to meet some of Doug’s friends to watch the rugby and enjoy a few beers, perhaps two of the things he enjoyed the most.

Douglas knew me reasonably well by this point and he also knew that at this time I had less than little money. As we walked Doug stopped to get money from a cash machine and handed me a £20 note. I looked quizzically at the note and then him. With sparkling eyes he said it was so I could buy his mates the first round of beers. The only way he insisted, to introduce yourself to his friends.

Everyone, myself included, would have thought Douglas a top guy if he had gone to the bar and paid for a round for me. But this small act which was more about enabling friendships than anything else optimised his endless thoughtful and unassuming kindness.

This anecdote could have been pulled from hundreds of different examples of his kindness. Someone who didn’t spend enough time with Douglas (or someone who had spent too much time with him) might have missed these small acts, but they were littered into his day to day life, into his actions as a councillor and into the very way in which he approached people.

I am sure he will be missed by many. RIP mate.

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The race to replace Don Foster as MP for Bath

Don
The race to replace my old boss, Don Foster MP, has finally formally got going.

The Bath Chronicle reported that the short-listed candidates to stand on the Lib Dem ticket for Bath in 2015 are:

  • Chris Lucas
  • Steve Bradley
  • Manda Rigby (Lib Dem, Abbey)
  • Andy Furse (Lib Dem, Kingsmead)
  • Martin Turner
  • Wera Hobhouse

I have written before about how big a pair of shoes they have to fill with the departing of Don Foster. But on initial reflection there are some extremely competent candidates on the shortlist to stand in what might be one of the few truly safe Lib Dem seats.

I wish all the candidates the best of luck. I would also love to hear who you want to see as the next MP for Bath and why…let me know in the comments below.

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Having depression in public life

mind_logoWill Sandry, a Liberal Democrat Cllr on Bath and North East Somerset, has announced that he is taking a minimum of 3 month leave to give himself time to address what he describes as his “depressive illness”.

Will has had the deeply difficult situation of having what is essentially a personal and private issue forced into the public light. The silver lining is that people have, so far at least, responded with empathy and support even in the usually rancid comments section of the local paper.

Will’s honesty about his illness will no doubt make a small difference to people in and around Bath. It will help raise awareness of the nature and severity of depression (about one in ten of us will be affected by clinical depression at some point in our lives although the symptoms of this can vary massively – statistically that is around 8,000 of Bath’s 80,000 residents).

My heart goes out to Will because I have seen the impact depression can have on people’s lives and I cannot even begin to imagine how hard it must be to then have to air your own depression publicly for people to pick over and worry about.

I often feel a twinge of unease when private matters such as a divorce are mulled over in public. This feeling is somehow amplified when the private matter is a condition the person has no control over and which leaves them feeling vulnerable and out of sorts anyway.

In light of this I have no idea how Will is feeling at the moment but I send him my heartfelt best wishes for the coming months.

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Working with Don Foster MP

For about a year and a half I worked for Don Foster MP who today announced that he would not be standing for re-election in 2015. Here a few reflections on what it was like working for him. 

Don

Don was first elected to the Bath seat in 1992 when he beat the then-chairman of the Conservative party Chris Patten. He was then re-elected with sizeable majorities on four separate occasions serving Bath over 5 parliamentary terms.

I am happy to debate the legacy of his 18 years in opposition and the last three years in government. For now though I wanted to write a little on what it was like working for Don as I think this hits at the heart of why so many consider him to be a fine MP.

The first thing that jumps to mind is his formidable work ethic. 80 hour working weeks became a norm for him spending his weekends back from Westminster attending both public and local Liberal Democrat events in the constituency.

I remember once slumping into the local leisure centre at 7:30 in the morning to go for a swim before work. On the way in I bumped into Don bouncing out of the gym with a huge smile on his face cracking some joke about having a running start to the day.

And this was perhaps the second thing that springs to mind about working with Don – his sense of humour was superb…even in the face of cock ups from his staff.

In the lead up to Christmas 2011, the local press failed to spot a spoof press release about Don’s renowned ukulele playing. The press release intended to invite them to Christmas drinks but in jest invited the press to Don’s launch party for his bid to become Christmas number one. Failing to spot that this story was a spoof it spread rapidly all over Europe with articles appearing in major national and international media – ‘Liberal Democrat MP in Christmas number one bid’. This story was then replaced with the ‘Liberal Democrat MP forced to deny he’s releasing Christmas single’ stories.

A bit of a cock-up.

It would have been understandable for an MP to be pissed off in such a situation. Instead Don took it all in his stride. That year, all his staff received big Christmas presents wrapped up – we all got our very own ukuleles.

To clarify, I am not saying he couldn’t be a grumpy git, he of course could be. But more that considering how hard he worked and the nature of his work he was impressively good natured about it all.

This good humour gave him a foundation on which to interact with people on a very personal level. Watching him interact with a room full of strangers – all of whom would normally know him – was impressive. He just had a way with people that didn’t stem from that stereotype that politicians have of ‘smoothing’ people, but from a genuine interest in people.

I remember sitting with Don just before he was due to go live on BBC Radio 4’s World at One. I was sat holding, and inexplicable reading to myself, a sheet of paper about key lines for the interview. Just before going on air he turned to me and started asking, not about the upcoming interview on national radio, but about a constituent whose case we working on at that time.

Casework for Don, it felt to me, wasn’t just an obligation or even an election strategy like it is for some MPs, but a reflection of his commitment to his constituents and actually caring about what happened to them.

This trait – of giving a shit about people – reflected in the way he showed interest in his staff. I left working for Don to work as a human-rights monitor in the West Bank. When I returned I had been back in London less than a week when he invited me in to have a chat about what my plans were for my next employment. He was eager to help and to ensure that working for him was a building block for me to go onto whatever I wanted to do next.

Don’s politics differ to my own but after working for him for 18 months I can say with certainty that he is a nice guy, an exceptional MP and that the constituents of Bath are lucky to have had him at their service for the last 21 years.

Today Don has been quick to remind everyone that he still has another year and half left to go until he steps down in 2015 and I don’t for a second think he is going to take his foot off the peddle in that time.

I wonder though when that time comes whether he will remember how to put his feet up or whether he will find something new to throw himself into?

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Eugene Grant: “I prefer the term dwarf”

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Eugene Grant is a dwarf and the founder of the viral site EveryDayDwarfism that chronicles the day-to-day experiences of what it is like to be a dwarf in 21 century Britain. Despite his experiences, Grant is optimistic that he can contribute to changing people’s understanding of dwarfism. Steve Hynd caught up with him to find out more.  

For many readers the term ‘dwarf’ is one they are not familiar with. I know some people are nervous about using it, afraid that it is derogatory. Can you tell us what the word means to you?

I personally much prefer the term ‘dwarf’ as opposed to others like ‘midget’, which many dwarfs I know find offensive. But, for me – and this is where the whole idea of political correctness becomes redundant – what’s more important are the intentions behind the terms used.

People can be ‘politically correct’ but employ such words with malicious intent; others may use quite derogatory terms without any idea or intention of insulting or hurting a person. It all depends on the way such terms are framed.

Can you tell us a little about why you set up EveryDayDwarfism?  

The aim behind EveryDayDwarfism is to document and present just some of the things that I – and my partner who also has dwarfism – go through during our day or week. Its purpose is to try to make people just that little bit more aware as to the things we encounter as dwarfs.

A lot of what we experience, I would put down to stigma and discrimination still being relatively acceptable to lots of people. The whole tone of the site is not supposed to be angry or ‘martyr-ish’, but relatively neutral, matter-of-fact and informative.

It’s to say: ‘these things happen, quite regularly. I just wanted you to know’.

Within the EveryDaySexism movement, there is a strong feeling of finally ‘shouting back’. Within EveryDayDwarfism it also feels like there is quite a lot of rage, is this an important element of responding to discrimination?

It depends what you mean by rage. Rage is very important but it needs to be channelled in the right way and used very carefully.

Leaving out abuse in the form of physical violence, I think when responding to discrimination it’s vital to ask oneself: ‘what is it that I want to achieve here?’ and, more importantly, ‘how will I get this person to change the way they think and act towards me and others like me’.

Can you tell us a bit about how you coped with the attention and discrimination before you started chronicling it on EveryDayDwarfism?

It really depends on two things: the type of abuse, attention or discrimination, and the intentions behind it.

Some abuse – e.g. an individual shouting insults from a moving car – is best left ignored. What can you achieve when they’re 100 metres down the road by the time they’ve finished their sentence?

Others – the attention from a small child for example – is normally fine; although, as I wrote on the site, it’s often the reaction – or lack thereof – from the parents that is the most frustrating thing.

Some abuse though might manifest itself in the form of totally unprovoked physical violence or confrontation.

Have you been in contact with other dwarfs, how do they feel about EveryDayDwarfism? Do others relate to your experiences?

It’s very important that people don’t think that EveryDayDwarfism or my own experiences reflect those of other dwarfs; I can’t speak for them. Not even my partner.

However, I do know that lots of people like me experience such things – sometimes less so, sometimes more so.

If you had one message to the metaphorical guy in the street who tries to take a photo of you with his phone, what would it be?

Just stop, for a moment, and think: What are you doing? Why are you doing this? Why would you or your friends find that photo or film to be of any value or interest? What does that say about your character, as an adult, and how you think about and respond to people who are different? What if I was your brother, son or cousin? How would you see it then?

A bit of a long message!

You wrote for the Guardian about the portrayal of dwarfs in the media, do you see EveryDayDwarfism as an effort to counter some of that through the illustration of agency?

Not really, no. Sadly, but also deliberately, EveryDayDwarfism documents some of the negative things that happen. And in this way, there is a negative tone to the blog.

What I was trying to say in the article you mention was that there needs to be more boring, regular, neutral representation of dwarfism in the media – weather reporters, Masterchef contestants, Question Time panelists, kids on CBBC – whatever.

Basically, more portrayals of dwarfism that do not limit that person’s identity to ‘a dwarf’ but reflects what they really are: a citizen, a parent, a doctor or lawyer, a voter, someone with views, ideas, etc.

What has been the reaction of family and friends to EveryDayDwarfism, are they shocked to hear of such day-to-day encounters? 

It was actually as a result of encouragement from friends to set up EveryDayDwarfism that I did.

Often friends have no idea of the things that I – and lots of others like me – encounter on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. Some have even been in situations with me when there has been abuse or something happen. Quite often, they are absolutely shocked at the way some people behave. It’s not a question of going looking for abuse or discrimination – that’s not a productive or positive way to live – it’s that, a lot of the time, this stuff finds youseeks you out, interrupts your day, your evening, when you’re just trying to live your life. And that’s what I wanted people to realise.

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Occupy Bath

Bath, it is not renowned for being the centre of protest. A small Georgian city tucked away in rolling green hills, it is a far cry from the busy streets of London where the Occupy movement has grabbed the limelight.  It was with interest then that I headed down this afternoon to have a chat with some of the protestors in Queens Sq in the centre of Bath. I asked them what their aspirations were, what they hoped to achieve, what sort of reception they had so far and why they were ‘occupying Bath’.

I was met by two young women, both looking slightly cold in the disappearing afternoon sun; both determined to sit in the last rays of sun before it slipped down behind the tall Georgian buildings that encircles Queens Sq. One was a student, who just wanted to give people a platform to talk and discuss. “I just want people to feel comfortable to come in and talk about what affects them”. The second girl was a young professional working with the homeless. She said she worked ‘flexible hours’ with a wry smile. She was passionate and articulate talking about the cuts faced to homeless services around the country. She briefly stopped for a second before adding “and why have they cut all the rural bus services”.

Both were realistic and grounded in the reality that surrounded them. Every critical thought that slipped through my mind was better articulated by my new found friends before I had a chance to whisper it aloud. The location isn’t perfect, we don’t have ‘an end goal’, people look at us as if we are different. Neither knew what they hoped to be different in 12 days time, when the camp was to break up. I saw what I thought was a glimpse of desperation as the young student looked at me and commented that she didn’t expect anything to change but hoped that this might be the start of a truly inclusive social movement. The metaphor of the seed was bounded around liberally.

I asked them what sort of reception they had received and they commented with artificial enthusiasm that it had been “brilliant”. On cue, a man outside the gardens shouted for them to get a fucking job, I suspect missing the irony that it was perhaps the not having a job that was providing the inspiration for many to be here.

We were joined by a young man, a student from the local university who looked like he was busy organising. He glanced at me, looked at my trousers and shirt and paused for an uncomfortable two to three seconds before simply nodding. He stood, sorting, smouldering with his will for change. Only when we started to talk about how to further publicize the camp did he join in, his initial rigidness melted into an impassioned, pragmatic eloquence. He reminded me slightly of the leader of The Green Party, Caroline Lucas – unbelievably driven, passionate, and yet also warm and friendly once relaxed.

Sat in the evening dusk I looked around at the toddlers playing on the grass, the elderly couple sat on the memorial benches and the young students plotting the downfall of capitalism one cup of tea at a time. I was baffled by what motivated their actions – what good they thought was going to come from sitting inside a virtual cage in the centre of Bath. I also however felt inspired, relaxed and at home. They talked with me in a friendly and informed manner.

As I was leaving they commented that a lot of people were going to come down after work and I should come as well. I thought about it for a split second and agreed.

Even if I wasn’t sure of what this group were asking, let alone the answer; I felt more inspired by the shared sense of humanity than I had for a long time. Even if we don’t sort out inequality, capitalism or bankers tonight I am convinced that I will be met with kindness and hope. Maybe this alone is enough to justify occupying Bath.

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