Conference

If I had anything I wanted to achieve, my ability to start chatting to people might be useful. As it is, it is only pleasant. The conference is muted this year. Scores or hundreds of workers, now funded by the Legal Services Commission, will lose that funding at the end of March. Some will find funding elsewhere, some will lose their jobs. One woman said that in the past she had come to be inspired and go back for the struggle, but did not feel that boost this year. One woman said that the plenary sessions were poor, previously there has been the sense of being at the heart of the debate, now she felt merely talked at from the stage. It did not help that while I could hear the comments from the floor, spoken into microphones, people on stage could not: this speaks of alarming incompetence or terror.

I chatted to a man from the Specialist Support Unit, which answers technical legal queries, about the withdrawal of employee rights. I had not known that the discrimination questionnaire was to be abolished. That makes it far more difficult to prove unlawful discrimination. A legal right has no value if it may not be enforced. With the loss of their LSC funding their service will be scaled back. Some CABx will not do tribunals at all: there is a right to challenge a decision, without the ability to prove the claim. And there are large charges for the claimant to pay, to make a claim or to arrange a hearing.

Two managers talked of how they had wanted their staff to work a help line, but the National association had instead made a bid with another organisation which provided the workers. Why should they bid with us when the contract is renewed? What value do we bring apart from our name, for the initial bid?

We have been breathtakingly arrogant. One told me of wanting to give the funders what they wanted to pay for. Cardiff CAB had sought to take the money and do what they liked, and it had been closed down. Now the Vale of Glamorgan CAB is organising CAB services in Cardiff.

And I was inspired. I went to a session entitled “Influence the influencers”, on what social policy campaigns the national organisation should focus. I had no idea, but a debt worker with fire in her belly talked of meeting the head of the firm of bailiffs which collects for her local council, and challenging him on the affordability of his repayment agreements.

Carol, from the Bahamas, had worked in that offshore tax haven helping the rich get richer, and felt this was wrong, so gone to do development work in Frencophone West Africa. When she married and came to Britain she had not thought she could use those skills, and had been shocked to discover the deprivation of the Gurnos estate in Merthyr. We talked of the Valleys. Why come from the Bahamas to Wales? The Bahamaian Summer is like the English winter, she says, unbearably hot, and it is hurricane season.

One woman could show that while the Government said that housing benefit would pay for the 30% cheapest houses available for rent, in her local authority area it only paid for 4.7%. That is useful work, she can empower the politicians with such statistics, and the current funding for her job will be withdrawn. Will the LSC pay for any cases started before 31 March but not closed then? Different people have heard different things, and no-one knows.

In Exeter

I went to Exeter, because the chance came up. It is a pretty town. Paul and I went into the cathedral, which had a sense of the numinous for me: possibly I was merely receptive on that day, possibly God is closer there. Here are two sides of a tower: I love the angles of the roofscape, and the view down to the west end of the cathedral, from the cafe in the department store. I love the colour of the stone of the tower, that rose is evident in several places in the city.

It is important to have beauty, and human made beauty enriches: so the sculpture at the University of Exeter would be a reason for me to consider it favourably. When I saw the caption on the statue, it added a new dimension to the work: is it a statue of the protestors, or the soldiers?

Barbara Hepworth is a major artist. No photograph can compare to walking around the piece, seeing the changes of the space within.

As for the children playing above the fountain, if I studied on that building they would capture my attention each day.

The other fountain, an irregular quadrilateral, would continue to intrigue, its solidity and its nympheades delighting me semi-consciously, viscerally.

The buildings also impress. Moira told me that the roofed area between the Forum and the Great Hall was only opened in April, by the Queen. Before this year, it was two separate buildings. I love the billowing roof, irregular triangles of glass and wood like a sheet to the wind; I could not photograph it well enough.

The campus is on a hill, and Holland Hall where we stayed looks out over the city nestling in its valley, round the river. The refectory takes full advantage of this: the wall looking over the valley is entirely of glass.

Self-deprecation

Driving to Exeter, I would take the motorway round Birmingham. Paul, dealing with the navigation, thrusts five pages of instructions from the internet at me. He has not printed out any maps. Do you have a road atlas? Er, no, it is in the other car. We could have turned around then, half a mile from home, and got my satnav, but, well, we were on our way. He does not like satnavs.

He wants to go via Oxford. He knows the first fifteen miles. I need to sleep on the car journey: not very sociable, but, well. Where now? We go North on the motorway, I say. I am surprised he is driving round the roundabout again. I told you, That way! I have a look through the five pages. It goes through back streets of Chichester, and I have no idea where that is. Paul, do you want to see Chichester? Not particularly. Go down the A34 to Newbury, and use the motorway. So we do.

In Exeter, well, possibly I misinterpret one instruction, possibly a signpost has been changed, but we miss one and the rest become useless. Without a map, I do not know where Prince of Wales Road is, it could be in any direction, and a hundred yards or a mile. I could lambast and excoriate him. It is his stupid fault, not printing out a map is ineffably stupid, what did he imagine would happen? Actually I go quiet. I want to be constructive, and get where we want to go, but have little idea how. I am getting anxious. He does not get angry either, saying I should have interpreted the instructions better: that would not be a strong argument, and I have never seen him angry. So we drive around, and we ask people, and we go off up a hill into the Devon countryside before he admits this is not the right way. Then he sees a road sign for the University. I could not have read that from here, I say, and he explains how long sight is a problem rather than a good thing.

I had not known we cannot book in until 6pm. I had quite fancied wandering in the town, but have lost my appetite for that. He buys me a drink. He is nice that way. It is hard to get angry with him. I had never worked out whether his self-deprecation, about how I, his wife’s family, just about everyone is cleverer than he is, is an affectation, or a belief which allows him to amble along, not achieving anything much. He is 57. When he joined CAB, someone proposed he did a management course, but he thought, at 38, he was too old for that. He has not advanced since then. He has told me that story several times.

In the evening, he wanted to go out and buy a radio. He would try the supermarkets. We drive off together, and indeed find two supermarkets, and he gets a radio, and then we manage to find our way back. His “travelling hopefully” has actually worked. And when we drove home, he just took another road, seemingly at random. I suppose this shows a trust in Providence, which can be beneficial.
-Why don’t they give any roadsigns?
-Paul, this is a residential street!
We carry on up the hill, past large detached properties, until we get out into the Devon countryside. Then we go back to the town centre, and the “inner bypass”, where we find signposts to the main roads out. When we are on the motorway, I poke around in his glove compartment, and find his satnav.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/08/MuMA_-_Pissarro_-_Un_carrefour_%C3%A0_l%27Hermitage%2C_Pontoise.JPG