Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Sense After All The Nonsense

The tumultuous events of last week that saw first London and then other major cities erupt into violent disorder gave many people grave cause for concern. In the aftermath there has been much proselytising and hand-wringing, with the politicians desperate to make capital out of the events. There has been much written about the causes for the riots, and many socio-political theories about the looting; some of the articles have been incisive, each making valid points that I don't intend to regurgitate here. Suffice it to say that I will only offer my thoughts and opinions in order to generate debate and discussion. My theme, as often, is responsibility.

There were many young people who were involved in the disturbances who could give no credible justification for their actions. They were just caught up in 'the buzz' of the events. There were some who claimed it was an attack on "the rich" and to show "the Government that we can do what we want" - although when pressed they were not able to say exactly which party were in power. We can laugh at their ignorance or be disgusted by their lack of respect but these comments (amid a raft of others carried by the news channels) are indicative of a number of the issues that have lead to the situation where such riots can take place.

To have our young people so disengaged from mainstream politics - the kind with a small 'p' as well as the national arena - has left them with no stake in their communities. They do not engage therefore they do not care. One of the reasons, perhaps, that they do not engage is because no-one listens to them anyway. Politicians and policy makers pay lip-service to young people's concerns in the same way that they do those of the elderly or with disabilities. These groups are used as causes to hang careers on, and to score points against the opposition. A very clear example of this occurred on the BBC Newsnight programme broadcast last Thursday (11th August)

The producers has convened a discussion panel that included a young, black man, Margaret Costello who campaigns on behalf of the victims of crime, a rapper called 'Reveal', and Kelvin MacKenzie, ex-editor of The Sun newspaper. Whenever the young man was asked a question and began to answer it, within seconds of him starting to talk the two older people talked over his answers, did not let him finish a sentence, objected to his arguments or contradicted his opinions. This happened consistently throughout the segment. In the end, the young man just sat with a resigned and bemused expression on his face whilst Kelvin MacKenzie went apoplectic beside him.

The irony was that the young man (whose name I really should have taken note of) was stating that many young people are disaffected and disenfranchised precisely because their views are not sought or, if they are, they are not listened to. The point was eloquently made by the actions of the two older and, one would have hoped, wiser panellists.

So, yes, those involved in the anti-social, disruptive and criminal behaviour must take responsibility for their actions. They must repay the debt to their communities, without question. But maybe the number of those involved might have been smaller had people been more prepared to listen to the concerns and opinions of those who feel cut-off from mainstream society.

We owe it to our young people to value them enough to let them express themselves. It is our responsibility to teach them how to do that. Young people, especially adolescents, are self-absorbed and introspective; that is the developmental stage that they are at. Much of what they will have to say will reflect this and may well strike us as ego-centric or naive. But in there might be some truths that we need to hear. They may well be uncomfortable truths too about how we are failing to support our future generations.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Home Tourist 2 - The Leeds Owl Trail

Yesterday my two daughters and I braved the rain and headed to Leeds in order to find some owls. When I posted a message on my twitter account that we were going on the Owl Trail, a friend who lives in London asked, "What, pray tell, is the Leeds Owl Trail?". When I explained that it wasn't, in fact, some huge aviary dedicated to owls but rather a semi guided walk through Leeds city centre, in the course of which you search for statues, carvings, pictures and other representations of owls, his reply was, "Genius!" And it is...

Finding activities suitable for a ten year old and a five year old to enjoy that caters for both ages, is interactive, outdoors and (best of all) free is not an easy task but I remembered seeing the leaflet for the Leeds Owl Trail in the tourist information centre at Leeds Station on a previous visit, and thought that we would give it a go. So, having more or less convinced the two monkeys that they would enjoy the day, we set out.

Minimonkey (5 going on 30) took some drawing paper, pencils and a word search book with her "in case I get bored and need a sit down" - these all made an appearance on the short train journey between Bingley and Leeds but were not seen again all afternoon. The word search book was, I soon realised, just a cunning ploy to get her little hands on the highlighter pen that I have in my bag and keep it for the day in order to mark on the map the locations of any owls we might discover on our quest. Midimonkey (10 going on 35) took the Harry Potter book that she is re-reading for the second time. I think she was secretly hoping that Hedwig might put in a suprise appearance during the day.

We picked up the leaflet in the tourist information shop and had a quick pre-expedition study of the terrain. The graphical representation of the city centre is colourful and engaging, with photographs of the owls you need to spot and a brief statement about each one placed around the edges. There is a good deal of information squeezed onto the leaflet and our recce soon revealed that there were several owls to find quite near to the station. So, takng a rather carefree approach, we fastened up our raincoats and headed off in search of owl number 17.

This is one of the strengths of the trail, it can be followed in a number of ways: start with owl number 1 and work your way through all twenty five of them, pick a random number and try to find it, take the i-Spy book approach and just tick them off as you go about your business (no points awarded for finding them, though, in this case!) We found the first owl and were away. It soon became clear that the trail combines social history, architecture, folk-lore and art in a way that encourages visitors to Leeds to take a closer look around them. I am sure that other cities have something in a similar vein but having the owl theme just gives this experience a little something extra.

By the time we had ticked off owls number 16, 14 and 15 the girls were hooked. "This is really good fun, Dad!" Mini exclaimed as she spotted the carved owl on Hepper House (no.13). "It's more fun than I thought it was going to be." Midi agreed. We stood just inside the entrance of the posh hotel that now houses the Quebec Owl, dripping quietly onto the expensive carpet whilst gazing up at the elaborate and beautiful stained glass window. Nobody seemed to mind the bedraggled trio who clearly were not guests. Perhaps they were used to 'owl tourists'? We made up our own 'Owl Detectives' theme tune and sang it as we went round. We even searched in the style of action heroes, making dramatic pointing gestures and running across Millenium Square in slow-motion. On reaching the large golden owls outside the Civic Hall, however, Midi had noticed that some people were staring and mumbled, "Okay Dad, that's enough, you're embarrassing me now!" Ah, lost innocence...

The Monkeygirls on the Owl Trail

In a calmer manner we carried on searching for the owls, learning along the way the different materials that were used for the buildings, the architects' names, the predominant style in which the buildings were built. Midi read the map and lead the way, Mini coloured in the finds with the highlighter, and I had a lovely afternoon with my daughters. The rain stopped and the sun came out, illuminating the stones of St Anne's Cathedral. Mini declared that she was tired and needed a chai tea in Starbucks (her mother's daughter, definitely) and so we called it a day. Over a warm drink we chatted about the day; both girls had enjoyed the experience. Midi had liked the historical aspect of the trail, finding out about the City itself. Mini had liked finding the different types of owls and drew a picture of several on the paper she had brought with her. We had found twelve of the twenty-five owls on the trail - although technically we had discovered thirteen as there is one above the door to the old post office in City Square that does not currently appear on the list - and will definitely come back to find the remainder.

On the whole, the Leeds Owl Trail is a winner for anyone, either with or without kids, who is interested in architecture, history and art, and wants a novel way to discover the heritage of Leeds City Centre. It is fairly easy walking with no great distances involved, Leeds Parish Church being the current furthest point from the train station. The roads around King Street, Quebec Street, East Parade, The Headrow, and Park Row are busy and care should be taken when crossing them, especially with an energetic five-year-old! Drivers seem to care little for pedestrians, owl-hunters or no, as evidenced by the taxi driver who took great pleasure in driving through a huge puddle, soaking some poor young chap in a suit who looked like he was on his way to a meeting. So, if you do decide to follow the recommendation of a flawed monkey and two of the monkeykids, we hope you enjoy spotting the Leeds owls. For more information log on to http://www.leedsowltrail.com/

Now, how do you get bright yellow ink off of monkey paws? Mini, come here...!