My visit to ‘Hell’s Waiting Room’ – or the perfectly decent Aylesbury estate in South-East London

After reading of two young men killed at the Aylesbury Estate in swift succession at the start of this year, on the same concrete walkway, I went down to the estate to find out what’s been happening there. Partly because of its vast, intimidating physical presence, the Aylesbury (where Tony Blair launched his sparkly new government in 1997) suffers from negative stereotyping – whether by film-makers (lots of gun and knifecrime flicks are set there, and that C4 urban depravation logo), media or just in local folklore. I live not far away and regularly take a bus that passes through the estate, and have a largely positive view of it, but wanted to see what the truth was. It was an interesting trip, helped by the Damilola Taylor Trust’s excellent contacts on the estate who helped me get right into the community there. Here’s the piece I wrote about it for the Mirror.

The Guerilla Librarians of Friern Barnet…

On April 5, Barnet council closed Friern Barnet library. Last month, it was ‘reopened’ by Occupy. Now, an alliance of anarchists, elderly ladies, local single mums and students are running an amazing guerilla library service with over 1,000 donated books – a brilliant and inspiring solution to the cultural vandalism taking place across the country. I went down to write an article and donate a book. Turned out that after 1,000 donations of books, what they actually need is more shelves.

Congratulations, it’s a Viking

This week’s assignments (and escapades) took me from Denmark to Morocco, two such extremes of life, barely 3 hours apart – cold to hot, ordered to chaotic, blonde to black, neat and pleasant to magnetically, magically mad. In Aarhus, I visited Cryos, the World’s Biggest Sperm Bank to write a feature for the Daily Mirror, which I’m posting here. Its slogan – Congratulations it’s a viking. (“It’s like the Viking invasion again,” Cryos’ founder Ole Schou told me. “Only this time, more polite.”) Marrakech was holiday. (Resisting jokes here about snake-charmers).

Enquirer – how I was thesp-hacked

There is a play on at the Barbican at the moment by the National Theatre of Scotland in which I am a character. Weird to write, and even weirder to see. Enquirer is a play about print journalism in crisis – besieged by Leveson, declining print sales, the advance of the web, paper prices, corruption scandals. The NTS spoke to nearly 50 journalists and has represented them verbatim.
I get quite a long bit, (quite hard to watch as it deals with a very difficult time in my career when I was reporting from East Timor – as well as many more flippant anecdotes about various national newspapers I’ve worked for). I wrote an article about it here in the Guardian.

Austerity isn’t working

Since the party conferences, I have been writing about Austerity for the Daily Mirror, and the dire consequences for ordinary British people. The coverage began with a piece from Birmingham as the Conservatives began their conferences there, looking at what Con-dem policies had done to the UK’s second city. The story took me on a dispiriting tour of foodbanks and shelters, talking to people with disabilities and young children, and meeting young unemployed people. Birmingham, is of course a tough city that won’t give up without a fight. But, these cuts are really hurting.
I also produced an 8-page pullout for the Mirror last week linked to the big TUC march at the weekend, with two investigations – on the stealth privatisation of the emergency services, and on poverty in the UK, where in 1 in 7 kids are now regularly going without a hot meal. (But, we’re all in this together).
After writing all this, I wouldn’t have missed the march at the weekend for anything.

Nina’s War

The loss of Nina Bawden last week made me think of the deep influence that books like *Carrie’s War and the **Peppermint Pig had on my childhood, but also to wonder about the effect on children’s lives now of the wars our country is still fighting. Of course the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not affecting Britain as profoundly as the Blitz, and there are nowhere near the numbers of families over here whose lives have been irrevocably changed. But for the children whose parents/brothers/aunts/uncles are away fighting in the British military, and for those who come from families with relatives (or parents from) Afghanistan and Iraq wars there is a still a deep influence. The Imperial War Museum’s Once Upon A War exhibition which finished this weekend, showed how some children’s authors have tried to make sense of war for their readers.
I wrote a piece for the Guardian about it here.

(*our grandparents’ homes in Wales took on new exciting significance, **overnight vegetarianism)

A tragedy on the Thames 100 years ago, and David Beckham

It’s not often you come across a 100-year-old David Beckham scoop pushing a pushchair through the local cemetery. I’d been intrigued by the memorial to the drowned scouts for a long time, a stone marking the deaths of eight boys who had drowned off the Isle of Sheppey in 1912. Buried next to a WW1 War Graves site, it is a sad corner of Nunhead Cemetery – a large wooded Victorian burial ground with views of St Pauls, that is now a nature reserve.

Recently, I saw the Scouts’ memorial was being cleaned up, and realised the centenary anniversary was approaching on August 5 1912. I arranged to meet Rex Batten from Friends of Nunhead Cemetery, an expert on the disaster. His painstaking assembly of the detail of what happened that day on the Thames has been extraordinarily thorough, and helped by the huge amounts of press coverage at the time. In 1912, the story caused a Diana-esque outpouring of grief. A million people lined the streets to welcome the boys’ bodies home. The coffins were viewed by 100,000 trooping through the little church at Walworth. The Daily Mirror published a special commemorative paper.

Then, on the day that David Beckham was ferrying the Olympic torch along the Thames in front of a global television audience of billions, I found out that one of the drowned scouts, William Beckham was Becks’ great great uncle. Even more intriguingly, his great-grandfather Ted Beckham had survived the tragedy. The story was published here in the Daily Mirror today.

How disabled people are paying for the banking crisis

Last week I spent some time at the Remploy factory in Barking where disabled and learned disabled workers recycle computers and make circuit boards. Some of the staff have worked there for over 20 years.

Later this month, the factory is to close, one of several up and down the country. The government say it’s nothing to do with the cuts agenda, it’s about ending Victorian ideas of segregated employment. But what it really means for the 40 workers at Barking – and another 1500 people across the country – is no employment. There are genuine arguments about the best way for people with disabilities to be part of the workforce. But why these people need to be reintegrated into the workforce right now, when there are no jobs in Barking or anywhere else, is anyone’s guess.

Last week in Barking, there were people in tears at the thought of everything they would lose with the factory – not just their jobs, their friends, their working family, their social lives, the dignity they take from paid employment, the counter balance to the isolation felt by many disabled people stuck at home. For these people, the decision to close Remploy is cruel beyond belief. Join the campaign to save remploy, and read the article here.