Sunday 10 July 2011

No: don't stop the carnival ...

Margaret Thatcher at Finchley Carnival, 1984 - photo John Hodder

What is Finchley famous for, do you know, apart from stroppy women? (Yes, above and to the side ...)

Well, let's see ... we have plenty of interesting historical, literary and cultural associations. Yes, we do: don't tell our Tory councillors, though, because it will confuse their poor little empty heads. We don't like culture, here in Broken Barnet, and we close it down wherever and whenever we find it, with our relentless drive for efficiency.

History, then. Take for example Finchley Common: the former lair of infamous highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and Jack Shepherd. Turpin's Oak has been preserved, as it happens, and carved with the inscription ' Stand and Deliver', and placed on the edge of the last remaining strip of the common, now the location of alternative outdoor pursuits, especially after dark. No doubt soon there will be a tribute to Reggie and Ronnie Kray, who once holed up in flat nearby, not long before their detention at Her Majesty's pleasure. Wonder what the inscription will be? Give me all your cash or I'll nail your f**king hand to the floor? Nice. We like protection rackets, though, here in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, don't we?

What else? Well, adjoining the Common was once Cobley's Farm, where Charles Dickens lived in 1843, while he was writing 'Martin Chuzzlewit'. He often reminisced about wandering the 'deep lanes' here on his rambles with friends, and being inspired to create the character of Sarah Gamp from encounters with a well known, drunken and rather disreputable woman who staggered around the neighbourhood in those days. No: not Mrs Angry. Dickens knew the area well, in fact, from an earlier period he had spent here researching the life of the clown Grimaldi, who lived in a cottage near the farm. We like clowns here too, in the London Borough of Broken Barnet, don't we?

Cobley's Farm was built on, of course, by housing development in the late nineteeth century: Mrs Angry lives in one of these houses, in fact. One field was not developed, but became Victoria Park, a much needed greenspace and public amenity. And for more than a century, the park has been the focal point of Finchley Carnival, always celebrated - or until recently - with a funfair, and a parade, with floats presented by local organisations and charities, marching bands, that travelled through Finchley's shops, to the park, watched by people lining the streets, and volunteers collecting for charity. (Mrs Angry remembers one year when her then small son was deeply traumatised by the surreal sight of a hundred or so marching trumpeters all dressed - for no apparent reason - as Spiderman. Still not over it, are you, Joe?) These parades, in fact, were probably the only time throughout the year when there was, for a brief hour, some sense of community and pride in what is now a high street in decline, like so many others, unable to compete with supermarkets and local shopping centres.

Not any more though. This year, there was no carnival. A bitter and public feud has erupted between the organisers of the Carnival and uh oh: guess who -no, go on, have a try - yes our favourite, much loved local councillor and GLA member, Mr Brian Coleman. Brian is Cabinet member for Environment, don't you know, and a part of his responsibilities is to oversee the use of our greenspaces.

Councillor Coleman, unsurprisingly, loves local carnivals and shows, as this gives him the opportunity to attend them in his official capacity, dress up in all his municipal bling and stomp about feeling Very Very Important, wowing old ladies with his charms in the tea tent, and cheerily taking his turn in the stocks for the 'throw a wet sponge' challenge. Ok, I made that last bit up: but wouldn't it be fun? Imagine the money it would raise. Queues of eager punters, from here to St Albans. Me first, though.

Sideshow Bob/Brian is especially concerned about Finchley Carnival, as he lives, conveniently, just across from the park, and is sometimes to be seen lurking in the vicinity, just popping in for a little stroll, I imagine, incognito, you know.

So what's gone wrong? What could possibly go wrong with, let's see, a group of hard working voluntary organisers, and an impossibly rude, opinionated, and obstinate individual who thinks he knows better than anyone else what should be done in any given situation?

According to a report in the local Times group paper, Councillor Coleman, demonstrating the masterful display of the tact and diplomacy for which he is so widely admired, and which is guaranteed to return him to his role as GLA member next year, is quoted as claiming:

“The council has rescued the event and saved it for the benefit of the people of Finchley. We saved it from a bunch of amateurs who failed to deliver.

“Last year it was sad and pathetic. This year it’s going to be fun in Finchley.”

How dare this puffed up, egotistical little nobody speak about any residents in such terms, let alone those who have given years of dedicated - and voluntary - service to the community, and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for local charities?

Who the hell does he think he is?

Yes, the last couple of events have been frankly pretty awful. It was a mistake to get rid of the parade. But it is clear from remarks made in a letter to the Finchley Arrow site by Bill Lethorn, one of the long term organisers of the show, that they have been struggling to maintain proper control over the planning of the carnival, thanks to interference from the council. Rather amusingly, the editor of the Arrow has felt moved to ask, in the interest of political balance, for someone to volunteer to write in with fulsome praise for any of the positive and generous things that our Brian has done for the local community. There appears, strangely enough, not to have been an over abundance of replies to this request.

This year further problems in arranging the carnival were caused by Mr Coleman and his Tory councillor chums upping the charges for use of the park from £140 to a stonking £3,500. Mrs Angry understands that discretion could have been used to waive the fees, but someone, who exactly, I just cannot imagine, decided to impose the full cost. A suggestion was then made that the council would be prepared to lower the cost if fees were shared with a large funfair that the council wished to force the organisers to hire. The organisers refused to be bullied into the council's terms and decided to withdraw, cancelling eleven events, including a blues & soul night and events involving local dance and drama groups, ending a hundred years of history of the carnival, and enabling Brian to get his own way, as he always must.

Late in the afternoon yesterday, Mrs Angry and daughter wandered home through the park. The funfair chosen by Councillor Coleman, we noted, was poorly attended, and nothing like the lively, buzzing event it used to be. It was so boring, even the Graveyard Family & the Bally Gang didn't bother to show up.

Around ten o'clock, Brian's much vaunted firework display sent who knows how much of the fees from the fair up into the sky, pointless as it was hardly dark, and no one cared anyway. Mrs Angry didn't watch, preferring instead to lie on the sofa feeling gloomy, watching angst ridden Swedish policemen not get shot in Wallander.

The end of the Carnival says a lot about the state of things here in Broken Barnet: all the usual themes are to be found running right the way through the whole sorry affair. The lie of the Big Society laid bare for one thing.

Here in our borough we treat community volunteers with contempt and insult them, rather than 'empower' them, and respect their right to make their own decisions. The failure in the negotiations between organisers and the council was doomed by the dysfunctional relationship that this Tory administration has with its electorate. It does not want to listen, to engage and to consult, it wants to dictate, and use our money for its own purposes, rather than be accountable to us for the way in which it is spent. All the important decisions are made, secretively, by a minority of councillors who are paid a premium for their roles a Cabinet members - but believe they have the absolute right to ignore the views of the people they represent.

This is not localism, or democracy: this is life in Broken Barnet, and oh, Margaret: this is all the doing of some of your most devoted, die hard fans. The Carnival you used to come and watch is dead, and, almost everywhere else, Thatcherism may be dead too, but not among the ranks of the Tory party in Barnet - did you know? In more ways than one, here in your old constituency, we're still living in 1984.


Mr Mustard said...

My local pub is having a Charity Fun day next weekend Mrs A and it includes the game, and I am not making it up - I can scan the flyer if required, a "Swat the Cock" game which seemed apposite when you were talking of putting Councillors in the stocks. It also says ( wet sponges!! ) in brackets afterwards. The mind boggles.

Perhaps its like Mornington Crescent and you make up the rules as you go along - or is that Barnet Council , I can't quite remember.

Mrs Angry said...
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Mrs Angry said...

er, as I was saying: goodness me: are you taking part Mr Mustard? Perhaps you could invite a few councillors too: Andrew Harper springs to mind ...

Rog T said...

Mr Mustard, you should write to Councillor Coleman and invite him to the event. The bloke who set this website up may be interested