Thursday, 24 March 2011

Libraries latest - send some e-mails

Just back from an excellent talk by Tim Coates at Kensal Rise Library. Tim, previously managing director of Waterstones, campaigns for improvements to the public library service in London, and he had taken a close look at Brent's figures...

For starters Tim pointed out a discrepancy of £299,863 between the figure given for the library service cost in 2010/11 in Brent's consultation document (£5,514,413) and the figure Brent gave to the government (£5,814,276). £300,000 matters when Brent is trying to save £1,000,000!

Tim then went through the items which make up the total cost of running the library service - please don't abandon ship here even if you don't like figures - this is really worth knowing about

If you're still reading, this is how it goes

Staff                     £2,521,200
Buildings                  £781,600
Stock                      £550,000
Supplies                    £61,000
Computer systems   £412,368

Which makes £4,326,168

You might wonder what else there could be - it looks like you could build a library service from the above, but you'd be wrong...

You've forgotten about other apparent essentials (or "non library costs") like

Development      £43,900
Support            £406,000
Outreach          £115,600
Stock support   £141,590
HQ                   £481,105

Which bring the total up to £5,514,413.

So, asked Tim, why aren't Brent trying to save  £1,000,000 from items in the second list ?. Why are they saying the only way to save the money is to close half the libraries? It could be that the second list represents the Head of Libraries' empire. As Tim put it, it's the box we've never looked in until now. We didn't need to until libraries came under threat of closure.

So Tim's first point was that Brent don't need to close any libraries to make the necessary saving - they need to cut back on some of the items in the second list.

His next suggestion was that all London libraries should be run by a not-for-profit trust - the London Public Libraries Trust - you might have read about it already in the Evening Standard in January. Across London the library service in the 32 boroughs costs £200,000,000, of which £50,000,000 of costs are probably unnecessary - like the £36 average cost for a book transfer. That's when you order a book from another library, a team of people swing into action and the book is chauffered across London.

That's all very interesting, I hear you say (if you've got this far without any photos), but will Brent listen? Tim's proposal has already been put to Brent council on behalf of all 6 threatened libraries.

Here's what we can all do
1. E-mail our councillors and tell them that we won't vote for them next time if they don't stand up for the libraries. If they're labour councillors they need to make their views known to the members of the Executive (as they will make the decision on 11th April). If they are lib dems or conservatives the Executive won't listen to them anyway. Find out who they are here

2. E-mail Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture at and copy in your MP ( or or saying that we object to Brent's proposals to close 6 libraries and that we are not satisfied that Brent are fulfilling their duties to provide a library service. If 20,000 people can be bothered to e-mail Jeremy Hunt in Lewisham, I'm sure we can too.

3. Don't give up!  Have a look at Tim Coates' blog

And, as a thank you for reading all this, here's a photo of a hedgehog who's seen better days

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Funky Junktion - Quality Street tin stool

Luckily Frugal February was extended by popular demand into March and overlapped with Funky Juncktion's pop-up craft drop in at 68 Kingsgate Road. Selena francis-Bryden (artist and author) and Dorota Beau-Ingle (photographer and artist) are on hand until 26th March to help you make something wonderful. From decorating clothes with sprayed on designs to melting old LPs to make fruit bowls to... making a stool from old Quality Street tins... which was my plan

Selena surveys the raw materials
After a bit of experimenting we glued the tins together with contact adhesive, putting thin foam rubber in between to try to fill the concave bases,

but they still seemed very wobbly so we taped them with gaffer tape (much easier and less smelly and messy)

We then balanced the cushion pad on top and swathed the whole thing in a piece of fabric, tying it very tightly around the lid of the top tin. We got so involved in this part of the process that we forgot to take photos, so the next stage I can show you is

Fixing braid to hide the cord which is holding the fabric in place 

Then I tied another piece of cord round near the base to hold the fabric in place there so that I could pull it underneath - tightly - and sew it together very roughly

Finally, a matching strip of braid near the base, a lovely circle of suede glued to the bottom, and the stool was ready for use!

Stool settling into its new surroundings

It was much more fun doing this project at Funky Junktion rather than at home because materials were available - glue, gaffer tape, suede - which I didn't have, and Selena and Dorota's combined enthusiasm and practical suggestions meant that it turned out well and I FINISHED IT!

Other stuff was going on there too - someone was painting a banner outside, someone else was melting old LPs with a paint stripper and making bowls - and you can see various other projects in some of the photos.  If you have your own idea that's fine, if not, just go along and let inspiration strike!

Elvis Presley's Greatest Hits being reshaped

Only until 26th March in this location, so hurry along (but not on Wednesday)

Monday, 14 March 2011

Cock Tavern - rockin' on

I told you the production of La Boheme at the Cock Tavern was good - well, it's just won the Olivier award for the best new opera production, against competition from Adriana Lecouvreur, which starred Angela Gheorghiu in November, co-produced by the Royal Opera House, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Liceu, Barcelona, and Opéra Bastille. The other Olivier contenders were Elegy for Young Lovers at the Young Vic; and A Dog's Heart at the London Coliseum. It's fantastic that the production by Up Close which was first seen by audiences of 35 at the Cock Tavern has beaten this weighty competition. Read more in the Stage

Now I am going to sign up for the Cock's Friends Scheme. Different levels of membership are chicks, chickens, cockerels and roosters. It's £30 to be a chick and you get 4 free tickets a year and a free programme at every show you see... up to roosters who pay £250 and get free tickets to every show, access to sold out shows and acknowledgment. So depending on how much you want to ruffle your feathers, get in touch at

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Cock Tavern - rocking yet again!

Quick post to urge you to see the Tennessee Williams' play being premiered at our very own Cock Tavern on the Kilburn High Road - "I never get dressed till after dark on Sundays" - unlike the title it's short and intense. Set in a New Orleans garrett rather than a Parisian one, Jane is a pale beautiful Mimi (you remember, La Boheme, famously performed at the Cock this time last year) living with a boorish (but physically irresistible- to her anyway) male stripper. I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil it... but don't miss it.  Closes 26th March, and then there's another TW premiere - of  A Cavalier for Milady

poor phone photo- sorry

Luckily I've been watching Clarke Peters and Wendell Pierce in Treme (the new serial by David Simon - of the Wire fame) set in New Orleans or I wouldn't know about the seedy clubs in Bourbon Street which get a mention.  Not that I need to justify my love of David Simon's work of course.

Read more and book tickets here

Read the review in the Independent

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Weeders' Weekly - what is there to harvest in March?

Early March is traditionally the "hungry time of year" if you're trying to live off what you grow (which I'm not, but it's a way of seeing whether your veg plot is doing all it can at this time of year).  If you haven't read Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" about trying to live off home grown and local produce for a year in the southern Appalachians, you should - it's really interesting, and funny and inspirational.  Much of her chapter about "Hungry Month" is a hilariously detailed account of turkey courtships, but she also talks about lack of veg and how grateful she is for frozen and bottled garden produce from the year before.

So I thought I'd see what I could eat from my garden in early March - it's better than I thought

Red chicory- bitter, but fine to eat raw when it's young, like this.  When it's older it makes a fantastic risotto.  I bet you didn't know it could cook.
Jerusalem artichokes- but maybe this is cheating because I should have dug them up last autumn
Mixed overwintered salad greens
More salads- you can't have too many
Landcress- the easiest of all.  Very hardy and seeds itself.  Related to watercress.  Delicious!
Last few leeks
Purple sprouting broccoli just getting going
Kale- a miracle- it's started to grow really tender side shoots which are much quicker to cook than the big leathery leaves

 Now these plants - nettles and ground elder- shouldn't really be growing in the garden anyway - although if you have enough space you could allow some nettles because you can eat them, make plant food from them, add them to compost and they support quite a lot of different insects and caterpillars but they're liable to spread to where you don't want them.

New nettle growth

Watch Alys Fowler, a Guardian's gardening writer, eating nettles here.  Nettle risotto really is worth making - especially if you have an old bag of risotto rice lingering in the cupboard.  Don't worry if you don't have stock - you can use a stock cube or some vegetable cooking water or if you put about half a glass of white wine in with the softened onions just before you start adding the liquid and let it bubble vigorously that gives a really good flavour.  I've just discovered at the library "Wild garlic, gooseberries... and me" by Denis Cotter, chef of Cafe Paradiso in Cork, (has anyone been there? what's it like?) with lots of recipes for home grown veg and  foraged ingredients.  He has a very engaging style, and recomends using nettles in "any way that suits simple greens such as spinach", such as in egg dishes (omelette, quiche, frittata), risotto or pasta.  I've just seen a recipe for nettle beer - I'm  trying that as soon as possible- it sounds a bit like elderflower champagne in that no real brewing techniques are required

You need rubber gloves for picking nettles

Ground elder - an infuriating weed- but edible!

Ground elder is hard to get rid of.  Like bindweed and couch grass (the unholy trinity of perennial weeds), it can re-grow from tiny bits of root and in our heavy clay soil bits of root are almost bound to break off as you try to dig it up.  A better (but untidy) method is to smother it for at least a year under cardboard with plastic sacks on top weighed down with bricks or stones.  Alys Fowler (the nettle eater) tried a method of making a "lasagne" of card with layers of organic material to get rid of difficult weeds - watch her here, but I thought that the top layer of card would get too dry and blow around, hence the unattractive addition of the old sacks!

If you can't get rid of it, try eating it!  The classic "Wild Food" by Roger Phillips (with the romantic outdoor cooking photos) tells us that ground elder was introduced into Britain by the Romans as a culinary plant (well, gratias, not, for that) and cultivated throughout the Middle Ages to be used as a spinach-like vegetable.  He's says it's delicious cooked in a tablespoon of butter and very little water, gently for about 10 minutes, stirring continuously, then tossed in butter before serving.  Maybe only the butter makes it edible, but here it is being prepared outdoors:

photo from "Wild Food" by Roger Phillips

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Libraries- Scandinavian Crime Season- Part two

Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen travelled from rainy Bergen to chilly Willesden Green last thursday night to take part in Brent's World Book Day celebrations.  The wine was delicious, the crisps disappointing (Gunnar was a bit delayed- clearly he'd brought his own delicious.... I can't guess what, as food was barely mentioned in "The Writing on the Wall", no, hang on, there were some open sandwiches, offered to Varg Veum, the private detective who stars in many of his novels, in rather awkward circumstances).

Back to the Willesden Green Library centre, where Gunnaar - in excellent English of course - told us that he'd wanted to be a writer since he was a boy, writing his first detective story when he was 12 or 13.  His first novel was published when he was 22 and he's been writing as a living (and living as a writer, no doubt) ever since.  "I love writing almost more than anything else in my life...I write the sort of books I like to read myself... starting with the Hardy Boys, the Hound of the Baskervilles, moving on to Dorothy Sawyers, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Agatha Christie...the Stockholm detective Martin Beck in the novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (who started the Scandinavian wave in crime literature)...communists who had a political mission... also very good writers..."  I have to write about this rather than tell anyone because although Gunnar mentioned their names several times I couldn't possibly pronounce them  (sounded like Shirl and Virl, but that can't be right).

The Scandinavian crime fiction is distinguished by its quality (typically Scandinavian, then), "and by reflecting so deeply society and the times we live in - even though Scandinavian societies are often looked on as ideal societies they have their dark side, their problems, and those problems create the crimes...we also have nature very close to us... even in Oslo, in Bergen... this is very specific for all nordic literature...".  This is certainly true of "The Writing on the Wall" where the topography of Bergen is as important in the story as the underworld of seedy bars run by dodgy characters and apparently respectable family men visiting teenage prostitutes.  It's great stuff!

So, Varg Veum, the imperfect (but not quite as imperfect as Stieg Larsson's Blomqvist in the Dragon Tattoo novels) private detective is mixing with the Bergen underworld and the police and victims' families in a series of well constructed novels.  He's ageing along with his creator (unlike Hercule Poirot or James Bond), bumping into old girlfriends and old enemies along the way, getting into fights and solving crimes.  Other characters are well developed too.  Gunnar wanted him to be a Norwegian Philip Chandler - read one of his novels and see whether you agree.  The three shown above can be ordered through Kilburn Library.

Gunnar was asked about the translation of his novels and he told us, worryingly "I'm in a coup (queue) for my translator...I cannot write in English...I cannot see all the nuaunces in the English language (but then neither can quite a few English writers... it's that Scandinavian quality shining through again)... the translator in a sense has to rewrite..."

Read more about Gunnar's books here

And, by the way, did you know that before he started writing, Stieg Larsson was mostly known for his struggle against racism and right-wing extremism. Starting in the late 1970's, he combined his work as a graphic designer with holding lectures on right-wing extremism. In 1995, when 8 people were killed by neo-Nazis in Sweden, he was the main force behind the founding of the Expo foundation, to expose neo-Nazi activity in Sweden. Maybe I've judged Blomqvist too harshly... Stieg (living under the threat of some nasty right wing violence) needed his detective to have fun in his private life...a stable (but open) long term relationship with Erika who was happily married to a friend...but also Lisbeth....Cecilia...

John Lanchester in yesterday's Guardian magazine wrote  "In cooking as in crime writing, the global trend is Scandinavian", not that we'd care if it wasn't, but it's always good to be up there with a trend, so see you in Kilburn Library's crime fiction section very soon....

Read Scandinavian Crime Season part one here

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Brent Council vote through budget cuts

The best place to read what went on in Brent council meetings is always the Wembley Matters blog. Not this time, as author Martin Francis was not allowed in to the meeting. As he says "democracy in action?". Well, hardly, but what was to come in the meeting itself was even worse...

Ann John, Leader of the Labour Group (and therefore Leader of the Council) told us that
"our residents rely on labour to protect their's a brave, determined and responsible response...not shied away from difficult decisions...a budget of priorities...proud of Executive...leadership and honesty...being honest with local people...budget takes £41.7m out of Council's budget this year further £25 to be taken out...we've balanced what's fair with what can be achieved...pledge that we would continue to improve Brent services...regeneration...South Kilburn...Wembley...old, young, vulnerable...mew Willesden Green centre (at no cost to tax payer) Civic Centre saving up to £4m per year in running costs...we will keep faith with our library users [an empty phrase if ever there was one]...cannot afford to keep all 12 libraries open... better home library service...dark times...have to choose...warm words not enough...[long attack on government, and on Liberal Democrat group in Council]"

I'm sure you've got the picture by now - although Ann John had a lot more to say, including that she had met residents and listened [and, in the case of libraries, then totally ignored what they had to say]

Last minute shreds of good news were that Youth Centres were reprieved, law centres would not lose all their funding, the Welsh Harp Environmental Centre would be part private funded. Interestingly, Ann John described the Youth Centres in glowing terms (they are this borough's future), while not having a single positive word for the importance of libraries to "the Brent residents of tomorrow".

So, no surprises there then.

The Lib Dems proposed a number of alternatives to specific labour cuts, explaining how these could be funded. In a cynical (but predictable) move, the Labour group voted for these amendments to be taken en bloc rather than individually, preventing labour councillors from voting independently on, say, one proposed amendment with particular relevance for their ward. Take Charteris Sports Centre, for example- the lib dems suggested it could be saved by cutting the Brent Magazine and "managing overspends in the Chief Exec's department", but that proposal could not be voted on individually.

Paul Lorber, the Leader of the Lib Dems, resisting the temptation to spend his whole 30minute slot criticising the previous Labour government, told us
"today is about the future...there is another way...proving it's possible to listen to residents and listen to their's proposals are not a real attempt to protect services...Lorraine Skinner [Lorraine- I hope you're reading this!] started a scheme called Greenzones to encourage her netighbours to recycle more and reduce their waste...cost next to nothing to run the scheme...something which residents run and which they support will always achieve more"

As to Libraries, the lib dems proposed that the £408,000 [really so little?] to be removed from the libraries budget be put back in. He stated the lib dem support for libraries...we didn't close any despite a consultants' report recommending closure...current consultation doesn't finish until 4th March...essential give more time to library support groups to come up with proposals...
Council assumes it knows best...why have the major consultations been a total sham?'d already made up your minds...on waste, on CPZs [controlled parking zones], on libraries...our amendments are not about political point scoring...they're an attempt to get the council to really work with local people...look around this room, and the communities you've been elected to serve...time for Brent council to listen"

Harshadbhai Patel, the leader of the Conservative Group, was hard to hear from the Gallery, but did say
"no proper representation...time for ward councillors to make decisions in their wards and speak out...libraries...councillors must vote in the interest of residents in their wards...propose an fund the libraries for the year 2011/12 to allow possible plans to be explored to allow all the libraries to continue...£2.5m could be found for this...[I'm not sure how - maybe by not increasing reserves by that amount- comments please to explain- thanks]

The particular significance of Patel's proposed amendment was that it could be voted on alone, and I allowed myself some small hope that ward councillors (including my two labour councillors) might therefore vote with their consciences and for the benefit of their residents rather than with the Labour party...but it was not to be [see below]

Patel also attacked the proposal to reduce street sweeping in residential areas from 3 times a week to twice a week...the borough will be dirtier...also cutting tree planting and maintenance

Of the other councillors who spoke, worth mentioning are Ann Hunter (lib dem) on Libraries:
"once they're gone they'll be gone for ever...we're proposing a rescue package...find £408,000 in budget to keep the libraries open for one year to give local residents chance to draw up business plans...John Murray the labour council leader of Salford did this...not a party political matter...Barry Gardiner [labour MP for Brent North] has spoken passionately about keeping libraries open, as has Sarah Teather [lib dem MP for Brent Central]...some issues are bigger than party politics, this is one of them. Not just about books...overheard a teenager on the bus saying she'd really miss that free hour on the internet...government was big enough to admit it got it wrong on changed its you've just done on the law centres...libraries are our urban forests...don't laugh...we want Brent to keep them all open...a year's reprieve...listen to the people you represent and vote with your hearts" [although even voting with their heads would be an improvement on blindly voting with their leader]

Great stuff, Ann, particularly as you seemed to have read my letter in the Kilburn Times last week urging Brent to listen to residents' views and do a forests sell-off type e-turn (I know, the dizzy heights of fame!) Read all three libraries letters here

Back to the meeting [nearly done, but this is important stuff, so bear with me]

James Powney, lead member for Environment and Culture, had been keeping a low profile, but was asked to speak by Ann John, and after a cheap jibe at the lib dems, said in relation to "various voluntary groups who want to do 3rd party takeovers... the timetable has been set by the government...if we have delays as proposed by the lib dems we'd have to pay for it by cutting something else..Greenzones...were paid for by a government grant...that grant was withdrawn...Libraries...we've seen some amendments which don't add up...spoke to Kensal Rise people [!] earlier tonight...officers will appraise any offer on the 10th of March...and report to the April Executive"

You'll notice that there was no mention of the fact that local residents have put enormous amounts of time and energy into exploring all ways of keeping libraries open, have organised meetings, printed posters, had read-ins, or any acknowledgment of the really encouraging community spirit, or any hint of any real interest in working with communities. It all seemed like it was really rather a nuisance.

Other lib dems pointed out that "this labour administration isn't listening to residents...thousands of people have written in in support of keeping libraries open...after 43 consultations on day care centres...the council knows better...and closed them...mismatch between what Ann John said and what's actually in the budget...

Our very own Simon Green [also best dressed and best haircut in the chamber] spoke in defence of Charteris Sports Centre, a vital local facility, suggesting an additional year of funding to allow community groups to put forward a business case, to be funded by scrapping the Brent magazine- Simon hadn't noticed any "Save the Brent Magazine" campaigns- and by a restructuring in the Chief Exec's office.

Finally the voting was reached and all the proposed amendments were rejected. Not a single labour councillor supported either the lib dems' amendments [which had to be accepted or rejected en bloc] or the conservatives' amemdment relating only to libraries- to keep them open for another year while other avenues were explored.

So, it was entirely as expected- the budget proposals voted through with only the labour group's own minor amendments [good news at least for the law centres, youth centres and Welsh Harp Environmental Education centre] but a very sad day for the libraries. However, the consultation is still going on until Friday 4th March- so please complete it here. Don't give up all hope yet!

If you feel that your councillors have not reflected your views or stood up for your interests, LET THEM KNOW! Find out who they are and how to contact them here
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