Saturday, 1 June 2019

Diary: May 2019

1 May 2019, London
At the Guardian Archive today Box 22 of Don McPhee opened with five sets of negatives labelled 'Gay Weekend/Manchester'.

2 May 2019, Somewhere North Of Rugby
The speaking toilet on the Virgin train to Bangor tells me that, although she soldiers on being a bog with relative ease, it could be worse. "I used to be a public toilet," she chirps. 

3 May 2019, Penllech Farm, Bryncroes, Llŷn Peninsula, Wales
Jane has borrowed a pair of my longjohns. She thinks there might be something wrong with us townies because none of the natives seems to feel the cold. 

4 May 2019, Wales
The garden at Penllech Farm has walls with small cavities cut into the stone. These, I am told, are "goose holes", a safe haven from predatory foxes. Hard to believe a wily fox would not identify it as a place to trap unsuspecting bird.

5 May 2019, Gwynned, Wales
Some pictures from today.
criccieth shoreline

6 May 2019, Gwynned, Wales
A trip to Plas yn Rhiw, the National Trust house and gardens formerly owned by "three unmarried sisters", the Keatings. The woods rang out to the noisy cackle of crows or rooks.

7 May 2019, Gwynned, Wales
The way K&K talk about T's hopeless situation shacked up in a filthy HMO in Litherland with no sense of a future, it is like hearing about a new species of human, Homo Alienus. 

8 May 2019, London
There have been some feisty words in the Morning Star over the past few days about "internationalism" and how its definition has been hijacked by the neoliberals

11 May 2019, London
To 'Avalanche - A Love Story', starring Maxine Peake, at the Barbican last night. When the burden of obsession gets to a critical mass, your whole world caves in. Mike Leigh got out of a taxi as we arrived.

14 May 2019, London
Naively, I of had always thought of academics as Enlightenment types, and I'm sure that can be true. But not always, and maybe even not very often at all. This came to me as my brain was being examined by a Trinidadian researcher at the National Hospital in Queen Square.

15 May 2019, London
At the Guardian Archive today, I logged Don McPhee photo envelopes from Box 22 with the titles 'Single Parent, Salford' and 'Oasis, Lapland'.

15 May 2019, London
Does Art always follow the money?

16 May 2019, Glasgow
We are in the Merchant Quarter in a big serviced apartment. To The Pot Still for a quickie before supper at Gamba.

17 May 2019, Glasgow
Visited Project Ability on Trongate next door to TJ Hughes. Was greeted kindly by director Elisabeth and given a tour of the studio/workshop space (huge and very light) where we met a few artists, including stroke survivor John McNaught. He used to be a painter/decorator. Then off to Scotland Street School (I cheekily asked an actor playing fierce Victorian school teacher with leather strap whether she had ever appeared in Taggart), and House For An Art Lover for lunch. In the evening on the bus up to Hyndland we saw a fight at a bus stop and lots of red sandstone buildings. Glasgow is a lot like Liverpool, especially in centre around George Square. My Freedom pass does not work on Glasgow buses.

18 May 2019, Glasgow
In the Guardian today, Marina Hyde describes Boris Johnson as a "Frankenstein assemblage of all the rejected personality disorders of the minor Greek gods".

A man in the Ubiquitous Chip tonight told us he had us marked out as "theatre types" then went on, with little prompting, to rattle quickly from Brexit to Me Too. Maybe he was pissed.

20 May 2019, passing through Lancaster railway station
There is a Short Cuts article about Brexit in the London Review of Books, Volume 41, Number 9, in which the author, Tom Crewe, concludes: "But it's also possible to see the vote to Leave in another way: as a moment when reality triumphed over storytelling. The referendum was an opportunity for a section of the population to signal that they didn't believe in the existence of the country they were told they lived in - a land if high employment and opportunity, a prosperous and just nation at ease with itself - and that the gap between everyday life and everyday rhetoric had become too great. That disillusion is now, happily, general. Brexit, whatever the dangers, is forcing Britain to get to know itself better. Not all countries are given that opportunity."

This chimes with the happiness I felt seeing David and Tim, father and son, deep in earnest Brexit conversation alongside the sandwiches and cake during Mike's 70th birthday party in November last year.

Sketch done on train, stolen from the background of a photo by Therése.
And here's one I did earlier of Christ at the Renaissance Nudes exhibition at the Royal Academy.

nude sketch-billy-mann
May 22 May 2019, London
This one is called 'Another Bloody Nude'. A theft from the RA exhibition.
May 22 May 2019, London
Some of the Don McPhee pictures from the late 1990s (Box 22) I catalogued at the Guardian Archive today were titled: ‘Euro launched in Rotherham’, ‘Peat bogs in Yorkshire’, ‘Euthanasia conference in Telford’ and ‘Cliff Richard lookalikes’.

May 23 May 2019, London
'By the time she was prepared to speak the language of compromise her capacity to deliver it had shrivelled to nothing.'
Guardian editorial on Theresa May's failure at Brexit

May 23 May 2019, London
The William Eggleston picture I was supposed to talk about at Tate Modern today had been replaced, so I had to wing it. I survived with my dignity intact.

May 24 May 2019, London
'These elections are not for a government. They are an answer to a stupid question, asked incessantly by Nigel Farage: do you approve of how the big parties have handled Brexit? It would take a strong stomach for anyone to go to the polling station and put a cross against that.'
Simon Jenkins on the Euro elections, the Guardian

May 25 May 2019, Brighton
I am prompted to recall the names of two former local councillors, Jason Kitkat and Nimrod Ping.

27 May, 2019, London
Hi Connie
Just had a look at that picture and if you can flog an image of a woman with a massive set of male genitals up her long, floaty skirt as 'God Is...' you are a bloody genius.

27 May 2019, London
Just found this one hiding in my Autodesk gallery.

28 May 2019, London
A bit corny in places, and it’s always squirmy when actors sitting at the kitchen table suddenly break into song. Many of the songs carried a poignant narrative thread. 'Tiny Dancer’ was a standout for me. It made me like the Bernie Taupin character even more.

29 May 2019, London
Latest City Matters column. Disappointed to not be on a page with the puzzles, but happy to see Chris’s ‘Venus’ picture used so big.

31 May, 2019, Brighton
I can find something to like in most things.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Column: May (2) 2019

When Banksy sneaked onto Golden Lane that night back in September 2017 and gifted the walls with murals in homage to the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a commotion kicked off. The City Corporation couldn’t decide whether his handiwork was art or vandalism, spectators stood in long, excited queues to get selfies, and residents jumped straight into a debate on the nature of good taste.

The Square Mile’s prized zero-tolerance of graffiti had been breached and a fuming gang, nicknamed The Scrubbers, demanded cleanliness above culture.

The infamous Banksy artworks are still there today, available to view free of charge, protected by plastic shields. And I suspect even their harshest critics would miss them if they were gone.

For some, art should be in galleries; for others it should be allowed to occupy any available public space, and a strong case for this has been made with a collection of paintings by year six pupils from our local school, Prior Weston, inspired by the revered German-Swiss surrealist Paul Klee.

The pictures are displayed on building-site hoardings in Carthusian Street, opposite the red phone box at Charterhouse Square. Unfortunately, at the moment this one of the area's busiest roads as raging motorists negotiate the warren of rat-runs around the Crossrail developments at Farringdon.

Whether any of them notice the 14 superb multi-coloured images is a good question, but these paintings stand out for their quality, and will remain in place until September.

Prior Weston art teacher Marc Valiquette, a tall Canadian with a bushy beard, looks slightly stumped when I ask him what connects 10-year-old Londoners with Paul Klee, nerdy colour theorist and poster boy for the Bauhaus. “Mmmm,” he says, rubbing his chin, “that’s a hard question to answer.”

The project is rigorously educational. First the pupils picked a view from the school playground. Then they narrowed their focus using viewfinders and started sketching. The sketches were pieced together to make compositions and the compositions, once coloured (mainly in acrylics), became the paintings. Each of the vibrant colours has a purpose; some to harmonise, some as outlines and dividers for the bold shapes.

The students eagerly embraced the concept of abstraction, in which the thing you draw doesn’t have to be an exact copy of the thing you're looking at. This freed them to write their own rules and be individually expressive in their art.

All parents like to think their bundle of joy is a budding Picasso, but in this collection we see the industry behind the artistry, the hard work, the concentration and the great coaching that elevates the paintings from “Children’s Art” to “Art by Children”.

Another exciting local art project will be unveiled this month. It pairs an audio fairytale written by Letizia Binda-Partensky of Goldsmith's University and a decorative mural made by the Golden Lane Memory Group under the guidance of artist Madhumita Bose.

The story is about a young boy, bored on a family day out at the Barbican, who escapes his parents, gets lost and ends up on the Golden Lane Estate. Along the way he meets a rich cast of fantasy characters (based on interviews with real residents) and learns some valuable life lessons plus a potted history of the two companion estates. The mural tells the tale visually in weavings and stitchings in yellow (Barbican) and gold (Golden Lane), all lovingly crafted by members of the very successful Memory Group. The unveiling will take place on 11 June at 4pm in the Golden Lane Estate Community Centre.

The day before, 10 June, marks the start of 'Creativity and Wellbeing Week', an opportunity to join together and get creative. Sadly, the City is poorly represented in the week-long programme of activities and events (visit for details), but on 13 June at 6pm I will jump on the 243 to Haggerston to help Headway East London's Chris Miller present a talk about how art has shaped his life after brain injury and the importance of the 'Discovery Through Art' philosophy of Headway's creative hub, Submit To Love Studios. Miller is notorious for creating his own audacious versions of classic paintings such as Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus', with himself as the centre of attention.

Other nearby events worth checking out for 'Creativity and Wellbeing Week' include 'From The Unconscious Mind', an exploration of art-making and psychoanalysis at the Freud Museum in Chalk Farm (12 June), a session from the Peel Art Group in Northampton Row (14 June) and an intergenerational storytelling project 'What's the Best Piece of Advice You've Been Given', at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel, on 10 June.

Billy Mann lives in Basterfield House on the Golden Lane Estate. He is a teaching assistant, a City of London Community Builder and blogs at Write to him at

A version of this column appeared in the City Matters newspaper, issue number 099, page 23.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Micro-fiction: Dogcollared

It was the smell that got him. The mothball stench of the clergy. His stalker tried to make 'innocent' conversation, another dead giveaway.

Keep your nerve, don't look up, lock him out. Peripheral vision spotted a hole in a navy-blue Shetland wool cardigan.

Yes, it's a Kindle. I have around 250 books on it. Steady, you are opening the door to the confessional. Stop now, or you're a goner.

He wanted to tell him that even though he didn't 'believe' in God, there was a fairly OK syllogistic argument for God's existence.

It went like this:

God is a concept.
Concepts exist.
God exists.

Instead he kept his head down in his Donna Leon and began a contemplation of the women in Brunetti's life - Paola, Elettra, Griffoni.

Micro-fiction: No Harm Done

He always felt uncertain saying he wasn't really that bothered. Nothing could be worse than the thing he'd already survived.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Friday, 3 May 2019

Column: May 2019

A Family Day is not everyone's idea of a good time, but they are a growing trend as workplace wellbeing moves up the agenda.

City University joined the party recently with an afternoon of child-friendly activities and the chance for off-duty staff to do some crafty under-the-radar networking.

Just down the road from Golden Lane, the Great Hall in City’s College Building became a fevered indoor picnic/play area as children from toddler size up roamed freely, sneakily scoffing too many ice creams and cones of popcorn. They were only following the example of their parents and guardians, who seemed to sense the onset of some kind of free period and went straight to wreckless.

The biggest hit for the youngsters was a talented balloon bender, who stunned the assembled hordes with her ability to twist and squelch any type of obscurely named dinosaur into life.

Other creatures were available, and the college Dean flirted dangerously with humiliation when he confused a Line for a House during a closely contested game of Animal Bingo.

Every so often, the estate is treated to free cookery lessons from the Bags of Taste not-for-profit organisation. The idea is that you learn to cook a delicious meal from scratch costing no more than £1 a head. Sourcing ingredients from the best local suppliers is rolled into the plan, as is a professional demonstration, top tips and a chance to knock up plates of food there and then – induction hobs, all equipment and proper supervision included.

The sessions really come into their own when class members weigh in with tips of their own, like what to do with those knobbly broccoli stalks you normally toss in the composting bin (answer: peel, chop and add to stew).

Bags of Taste also has a Facebook group run by cash-strapped students, where you'll find plenty more tips and up-to-the-minute bargain buys in all the main supermarkets.

In the session I attended the menu included a peanut and vegetable stew from Timbuktu called Maafe Tigidigi and an Asian dish, Xinjiang Cumin Chicken.

Repeating the word Tigidigi for some reason sent a titter around the room, but the laughing stopped when the tutor asked if anyone knew where Timbuktu was (answer: Mali).

The chicken dish was superb, but when I later tried the Tigidigi at home, improvising with some frozen butternut squash, it misfired. The squash went mushy and the sauce ended up like orange wallpaper paste.

The Extinction Rebels have successfully pushed us into thinking how we can help save the planet, but being careful where we chuck our used teabags doesn't seem to carry much weight. Over on the Middlesex Street Estate here in the City, residents are getting behind a community energy scheme, but unless governments act alongside citizens, the overall effect is likely to be weak.

Here on Golden Lane there are two things residents can do to make a difference. The first is to shout into the ears of our Common Councillors that the estate should become a model for fuel efficiency in high-density housing complexes, and solar panels installed on all flat roofs (we have lots). The second is to insist that the City Corporation reverse its crazy decision of many years ago to turn the paved piazza outside Great Arthur House into a car park. The first might take time, the second could be done tomorrow.

The estate has suffered two losses this month. Margaret Prior of Crescent House sadly passed and will be missed by many, and Jade Ibegbuna, the estate's Community Engagement Officer for the past three years, departed for a top-flight job in Leeds. On a happier note, Cuthbert-Harrowing House sang Happy Birthday to veteran resident Leila Hardy on her 90th birthday, which prompted the appearance of bunches of flowers and a large cake, which always goes down well around here.

The never-ending fiasco of Brexit has left us all on the brink of the unknown, but at least we’ve started talking about important things. Enlivened by this new mood of citizen engagement, I decided to contact our local MP, Mark Field.

He is a busy man, so I kept my question quick and easy. It was: Liverpool or Manchester City to win the Premier League title? I fully expected him to plump for Liverpool since he shares his name with a leading heart surgeon at a Liverpool hospital (what better reason?).

But no, describing himself as a “long-suffering Bury supporter”, for some reason Mr Field sided with the sky blues. Bury FC are in League Two, 41 places from Champions League qualification.

Billy Mann lives in Basterfield House on the Golden Lane Estate. He is a teaching assistant, a City of London Community Builder and blogs at Write to him at

An edited version of this piece appeared in the City Matters nespaper, issue number 097.

Diary: April 2019

1 April 2019, London
‘We face the final completion of a Tory project … and the recasting of Britain – or, rather England – as a crabby, racist, inward-looking hole’
John Harris, the Guardian

2 April 2019, London
A nagging film.

4 April 2019, London
Jane tells me she bought some toilet rolls from Iceland, but discovered to her displeasure that “they’re a bit hard”.

4 April 2019, London
Operation Yellowhammer, Project Redfold, Operation Brock, Operation Kingfisher. These are the names of operations inside government to prepare for a worst-scenario departure from the EU. They sound like secret-service capers from the Cold War. Perhaps that is where we are now.

5 April 2019, London
This is a big story across all media this morning. Listening to the interview on the radio, I can't be sure that reporting it in this way tells the truth. The way I heard the player speak, and the slightly incoherent comments from him that led up to the quoted words, he might have actually have been saying that he wants to see the back of the inept governance in football that dishes out paltry fines for racism. But Danny Rose 'can't wait to see the back of crap football politics’ is not such a dramatic story. Of course, I could be wrong and the reporting might actually be a faithful reading of what he said.

8 April 2019, Winchester
This is a story in today's Morning Star.
It continues:
Alex Gordon reminded the party’s executive committee of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Coventry in February last year, when the Labour leader had warned that European Union treaties and directives would block some of his party’s policies.

These included providing state aid to cutting-edge industry, extending public ownership, outlawing the super-exploitation of imported agency labour, reforming public-sector procurement rules and putting an end to outsourcing and privatisation.

Mr Gordon pointed out that EU membership and Thatcherite economic policies together had transformed Britain’s economy from one with a large industrial sector in a trading surplus with the rest of Europe into a casino economy dominated by City institutions and transnational corporations.

The latter economy is dependent upon incoming investment and British imperialism’s earnings from financial services, property and cheap labour and raw materials around the world.

Mr Gordon, a former president of transport union RMT, said: “Today, without an economic Brexit from the EU single market and customs union rules, a future Labour government would face major obstacles in its efforts to implement left and progressive policies.

“This is one reason why the City, big business organisations and many right-wing Labour MPs are so desperate to prevent an economic Brexit, even if they cannot delay or prevent a formal, political Brexit.”

Meeting on the eve of what may be a decisive week for Britain’s future relations with the EU, the CP leadership reiterated its “uncompromising opposition” to any further postponement of Brexit Day and to any second referendum designed to keep Britain in the EU instead of honouring the people’s decision made in June 2016.

Britain’s Communists also decided to call for a “people’s boycott” of any British involvement in June’s elections to the “EU Commission’s fake parliament” in Brussels.

Meanwhile, CP general secretary Robert Griffiths reported a continuing upturn in party recruitment and membership. He revealed that more than 40 people had joined so far in 2019, the majority of them aged under 33.

10 April 2019, London
Polly Toynbee in the Guardian
‘Peter Mitchell, a Liverpool councillor, despairs of new attitudes in the wake of Brexit. “I see society changing before my eyes, empowering the worst. This is the end product of Thatcher’s 1980s, where individualism has won out over collectivism: it’s all me and mine; a selfishness that comes from that idea that the private is better than the public.”’

11 April 2019, London

C at Headway described this as “cut-price Monet”. The people were cold and lacking personality. The compositions were photojournalistic. He painted his wife naked a lot, often in shoes. I only really liked one picture, 'Woods in Autumn’ (1939).

11 April 2019, Hackney
At the bus stop last night outside Timber Wharf, Kingsland Road, a group of three youngsters on bicycles came weaving past at speed. A few minutes later I heard a sharp clack, turned around and saw a mobile phone in the centre of the road and the three cyclists disappearing back in the direction from which they had come. I turned around again and a young woman was standing next to me looking distressed. One of the cyclists had snatched her iPhone then thrown it violently to the ground. I asked the woman if she was OK, tried to console her on what must have been a jolting experience and glimpsed the condition of her phone. It was pretty wrecked, but seemingly still in one piece. The woman was shocked. Why would they steal a phone only to smash it to the ground? I suggested their task might have been to steal a specific type of iPhone, a sort of criminal commission, and that her phone did not meet the requirements. She attempted a resigned smile at this suggestion and we all got on the 243 bus, waving goodbye to B who had joined us at the bus stop. I noticed later, spying the internal security camera on the bus that she was talking on her phone. I took this as good news, that she was not too traumatised, and when she thanked us as she departed the bus, I felt slightly less disturbed by the whole event.

13 April 2019, Wallingford
“I wonder if Nigel’s failure to get elected to parliament seven times has anything to do with voters smelling his selfish priorities a mile off.”
Marina Hyde on Nigel Farage in the Guardian

13 April 2019, Wallingford
There is an article in the Telegraph magazine in which a 30-year-old woman is explaining why she doesn't want to have children. In the fourth paragraph she trembles with fear at being in opposition to “society's expectations of me as a woman”. I have barely reached the last of its 95 words before I have Marie-Claire Chappet cast as a sad misanthrope.

13 April 2019, Wallingford

At the museum. I was told later that photography was not permitted. Apologies.

14 April 2019, Wallingford
Food shaming. I have just read that some schools restrict the choices on the lunchtime menus for children on free school meals. They arrive at the front of the queue, make their lunch request to an adult serving them and are told, “No, you are on free school meals, you can't have that”.

18 April 2019, London

A very corny but also very sweet film. The role of women, especially motherhood, is the theme. The story itself resembles a country song in narrative. Rose is the difficult country-singing Glaswegian ex-con mother of two, Julie Walters plays her mother. Walters’ burning eyes are enough to pull a corny movie out of the mire of soft sentiment, and she don't half do class with class.

19 April 2019, Good Friday, East Croydon

Easter lunch with Margaret, Sue, Lil, Mia, me and Jane at The George pub.

20 April 2019, Sutton
A tree outside the Turkish restaurant near the train station.

21 April 2019, London
To the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern for an Easter Sunday treat. At an earlier visit I thought the compositions very studied and a bit photographic. This time I tried to keep my concentration on the figures and their shapes.

25 April 2019, Brighton
A quote in today's Guardian Weekly magazine from Malcolm Perera, a labourer at the scene of the Easter Sunday terror attack in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
"With my friends I carried 37 bodies and 50 bags of body parts ... the smell of blood is still on my body."

27 April, 2019, Brighton
"they [Brexiters say] won a referendum and that victory should be honoured. They have a point. The trouble is that the parliament to which they wish to return sovereignty – the very democracy they are fighting for – has not found a way to honour it".
Gary Younge, in the Guardian

28 April 2018, Brighton
Two more figures I just did. I also made one of Zinedine Zidane's legendary 2006 World Cup Final decking of the Italian player Marco Materazzi.

Monday, 29 April 2019

Picture: Isiah

This is a doodle I did during a pub quiz last night at the Artillery Arms. Some people said it looked like Jeremy Corbyn, someone else said it resembled our friend Jackie. It took me a minute to get the joke when Tim said it was a picture of Isiah, because "one eye's higher than the other". What compelled me to draw a man with a lopsided look on his face is a mystery. The words around the image are jottings from the questions quizmaster Pete was asking: "middleweight" is an anagram of "the wild midge" and Latvia's national anthem is called 'Bathe In The Blood Of The Fallen', apparently.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Picture: Bonnard study

I was bored on my first visit to the Bonnard exhibition at London's Tate Modern. The composition of his paintings looked as if they had been copied from a magazine design handbook. Maybe the handbooks des

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Column: April 2019

My hometown Liverpool is famous for many things – footballing greatness, pop music, comedy, the Grand National. It’s famous also for having two cathedrals: one is ancient, gothic and Anglican, the other modern(ish), metropolitan and Roman Catholic.

So when I arrived on Golden Lane many years ago to find it had two residents’ associations, nothing seemed odd. There was GLETA, the Golden Lane Tenants’ Association and GLOA, the Golden Lane Owner’s Association.

Back in the 1980s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offered council tenants the right to buy their rented properties, and many on Golden Lane went for it. The estate thus became a mixture of tenants and owner-leaseholders, hence the two resident associations. It made sense at the time. The issues for the two groups of residents were different. 

But slowly their interests (maintenance, cleaning, privacy) came together and the two associations became one – GLERA, the Golden Lane Estate Residents Association. GLERA’s standing among residents is split. Some see it as a helpful negotiator and mediator in matters with the City Corporation; others see it as a self-important talking shop with its head in the clouds. There’s no joining fee and all new residents gain membership automatically, so there’s not much to lose by tagging along (contact:

A sign that GLERA has found its form as a residents’ champion came recently with the launch of its ‘Community Conversation’ initiative. Crime was the subject for the first meeting and residents got the chance to have frank talks with officials from both the police and the City Corporation about issues such as drug-dealing. Two of our ward councillors also turned up and another from Portsoken to tell us how Middlesex Street residents tackle problems. It was a great start to a new idea that has the potential to work well for all residents, be they tenants or owners.

Residents of Cuthbert-Harrowing House woke up one Friday recently with hope in their hearts and a spring in their step. The ugly colony of six steel container units that have sat outside their homes for what seems like forever were finally to be removed. The makeshift village was a fixture of the repair work that is in progress on the estate. The metal modules acted as offices, toilets and storage sheds for the contractors.

The removal of this implanted eyesore had already been signalled twice earlier with optimistic-sounding letters saying that parking on the estate for Removal Day was banned. Residents hastily re-scheduled deliveries or risked missing them altogether. Nevertheless, this most recent announcement seemed confidently to predict some kind of closure on what has been a testy time.

Friday morning arrived and silence hovered. By midday a heavy-duty crane-lorry and a flatbed transporter were in place. Men in high-vis jackets buzzed around, preparing to lift the burden of congestion that had festered for so long. One hour later they were gone, as was their butch machinery, but the six iron boxes stood exactly where they had the day before, and the day before that.

A week later residents got another letter (number 3) stating that the offending structures – by now satirically nicknamed ‘Cans’, as in Cannes – would disappear the following Tuesday. And when last week they eventually did go, the expected sense of relief and celebration disappeared with them, replaced by the flat feeling that an obnoxious guest had finally gone home.
You’re never far from a quirk of history in the City of London, and one of the quirkiest is the annual wardmote, a strange ritual – outlined in both Charles Dickens’ ‘Sketches by Boz’ and in the last issue of City Matters by my colleague Ian McPherson – in which voters get to eyeball and question their elected representatives, whose honorific title is ‘councilmen’, regardless of gender.

The Cripplegate Wardmote takes place in a side room of the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall in Monkwell Square (motto: ‘How Would You Like It Cut?’). I was pleased this year to hear that most of the residents present were unhappy about the same things as me (public/private spaces, invisible councillors, the City Corporation’s anachronistic voting rules) and that nearly all of the key issues have been covered more widely in City Matters, and specifically in this column.

The news that I was editorially on the same page as my neighbours allowed me time to explore the BS Hall's impressive meeting room, its polished wood-panelled walls decorated with paintings of barbers and surgeons from the deep past. Surprisingly, one was a woman, a dead ringer for Jane Austen. In one corner of this hallowed chamber is a cabinet displaying Tudor surgical instruments. Among them were Sinus Forceps an Eyelid Retractor and a Tongue Depressor, which had a strangely ironic ring to it, given the purpose of our gathering. I returned to my seat feeling queasy and unable to speak for some time afterwards.

Billy Mann lives in Basterfield House on the Golden Lane Estate. He is a teaching assistant, a City of London Community Builder and blogs at Write to him at

An edited version of this column appeared in the City Matters newspaper, edition 095

Monday, 1 April 2019

Diary: March 2019

2 March 2019, London
At Two Temple Place for a Ruskin exhibition.
They were selling lapel badges for the Ruskin Today society.

3 March 2019, London
There is an article about the Labour Party in the Guardian Weekly that quotes a councillor in Liverpool saying that Momentum is/are just Militant with bus passes. The quote is positioned alongside a cut-out photo of Derek Hatton.

5 March 2019, London
City Matters column, 093
The Golden Baggers AGM always raises the bar in the dull-but-necessary meeting category. The homemade cake on offer is superb (this year a yummy ginger parkin), making it a truly pleasurable way to start planning for the growing season ahead.

The allotment project is now in its ninth year, yet the energy and enthusiasm for progress never flags. The scheme is based around 42 wooden planters (it started as one-tonne builders’ bags, hence the name Baggers), which residents can rent for an annual subscription of £20 ('Friends’ can join for £5).

Membership is open to all residents, experts or beginners, and on the first Sunday of every month they share more scrumptious home baking at their Social Sunday events.

I was especially disappointed this year to learn that one of our Hatfield House residents and veteran Bagger has gone to live in America. He was always very generous in sharing his show-stopping tomatoes, so I never needed to grow any of my own.

Key issues at this year’s AGM were the election of a new Chair and the agreement of a new constitution, the need to attract more ‘Friends’ and to promote the project’s core community values.

We also discussed the failed attempt to save the trees that border the allotment but will soon disappear as part of the development of the former Richard Cloudesley School and suggested locations for this year’s annual outing. Last year’s trip to Turn End house and gardens in Buckinghamshire will be hard to beat. Anyone wanting to join should write to

The Golden Baggers is clearly the most successful resident-led project on the estate and its example is proving influential, most obviously in the activities at our refurbished community centre.

The Christmas Day tea party was a riot of festive fun and the recent jumble sale added to the feeling that residents revel in the chance to do things together, preferably with cake included.

Jumble sales are a great chance to hone your people-watching skills. One minute residents will be chatting amicably about family fortunes and local issues; the next they will be cutting a tough deal for that old teapot, holding out for the last 50p.
Any offers for this fine item?

If anything can take the shine off this neighbourly bliss it is the clumsiness of the council. A number of residents met recently with housing chief Paul Murtagh, who arrived in a foul mood to explain and apologise for the City Corporation's stuttered response to a potentially deadly gas leak at the building site next to Basterfield House.

He’d hoped to make his task easier by fixing the meeting (two months after the event) as a drop-in rather than a full-throated Q&A grilling from the residents most affected. Unfortunately, his plans went awry when some canny individuals promptly rearranged the set-up and started firing their questions. Mr Murtagh looked more and more uncomfortable as the volleys of verbal shots whistled his way.

While admitting that the City Corporation had failed residents and was searching its soul for “lessons learned”, he stuck to the script that the site work met with all existing laws and regulations. He expressed this forcefully, but tripped slightly when it came to evacuation policy and revealed that, unlike almost every large building in the developed world, there are no emergency muster points or marshalling for the Golden Lane Estate.

On the day of the accident back in December, it was residents, acting on advice from the gas board, who cobbled together a plan of action until the emergency services arrived to offer some leadership. Confused residents eventually found a safe point at Prior Weston School, shaken and feeling sick.

Mr Murtagh told the meeting that the City Corporation's advice when faced with an emergency is to sit tight, keep calm and carry on until help arrives. Yes, even if, as has happened before, an unexploded wartime bomb is uncovered! It later emerged that the City Corporation is reviewing how it handles “events such as this one”, but is unable to share or publicise the findings.

The Square Mile's emergency plan to swerve Brexit appears to have paid off with a hush-hush deal in Paris last month to make sure all the City's hedge funds and derivative thingies do not turn to dust at midnight on March 29.

The best revelation about this mysterious caper would be proof of my suspicion that the audacious plot was hatched not at the Bank of England but here on Golden Lane with the help of Bayer House resident and YouTube sensation Elly Space, whose infectious Europop anthem 'Cancel Brexit’ is powerful enough to turn the tide of history. If you’re still in doubt, go to and turn the volume up to 11.

Billy Mann lives in Basterfield House on the Golden Lane Estate. He is a teaching assistant, a City of London Community Builder and blogs at Write to him at

7 March 2919, London
8 March 2019, London
Memory after the death of girl-about-London-clubland Magenta De Vine

10 March 2019, London There is a big long-read article in the Guardian about Aldi, the two Albrecht brothers, Theo and Karl, their mission, their progress and their business style. At times, the article seems to imply that the brothers saw a genuine social purpose in finding a way to the lowest price for the shopper, as if their purpose was to reduce the amount of money people spent on food [shit waiting to happen] in order that they may spend it on better things. In other words, that providing one of life’s essentials – food – should not drain on people's lives or present a struggle.

12 March 2018, London

Beautifully ambiguous. There are two stories. The child genius is a compelling narrative, but behind the success of Jimmy, the 5-year-old poet-who-doesn't-know-it, is the failure of his teacher Lisa, who is a lousy mother, wife, night-school poet and, it turns out, kidnapper. There is an unstated redemption for Lisa. She succeeded in teaching Jimmy to say “I have a poem” whenever one popped into his head, and by the end of the film it's unlikely he will ever forget to say it, even if it's only to himself. (Er, she taught him about point of view, too, by crawling around on the floor - Ed)

14 March 2018, London
Headline: "EU on no-deal Brexit motion: 'like Titanic voting for iceberg to move'"

Leader in The Economist
<< When historians come to write the tale of Britain’s attempts to leave the European Union, this week may be seen as the moment the country finally grasped the mess it was in.

In the campaign, Leavers had promised voters that Brexit would be easy because Britain “holds all the cards”. This week Parliament was so scornful of the exit deal that Theresa May had spent two years negotiating and renegotiating in Brussels that MPs threw it out for a second time, by 149 votes—the fourth-biggest government defeat in modern parliamentary history.

The next day MPs rejected what had once been her back-up plan of simply walking out without a deal. The prime minister has lost control. On Wednesday four cabinet ministers failed to back her in a crucial vote. Both main parties, long divided over Brexit, are seeing their factions splintering into ever-angrier sub-factions. And all this just two weeks before exit day.

Even by the chaotic standards of the three years since the referendum, the country is lost (see article). Mrs May boasted this week of “send[ing] a message to the whole world about the sort of country the United Kingdom will be”. She is not wrong: it is a laughing-stock. An unflappable place supposedly built on compromise and a stiff upper lip is consumed by accusations of treachery and betrayal. Yet the demolition of her plan offers Britain a chance to rethink its misguided approach to leaving the eu. Mrs May has made the worst of a bad job. This week’s chaos gives the country a shot at coming up with something better.

The immediate consequence of the rebellion in Westminster is that Brexit must be delayed. As we went to press, Parliament was to vote for an extension of the March 29th deadline. For its own sake the EU should agree. A no-deal Brexit would hurt Britain grievously, but it would also hurt the EU — and Ireland as grievously as Britain.

Mrs May’s plan is to hold yet another vote on her deal and to cudgel Brexiteers into supporting it by threatening them with a long extension that she says risks the cancellation of Brexit altogether. At the same time she will twist the arms of moderates by pointing out that a no-deal Brexit could still happen, because avoiding it depends on the agreement of the EU, which is losing patience.

It is a desperate tactic from a prime minister who has lost her authority. It forces MPs to choose between options they find wretched when they are convinced that better alternatives are available. Even if it succeeds, it would deprive Britain of the stable, truly consenting majority that would serve as the foundation for the daunting series of votes needed to enact Brexit and for the even harder talks on the future relationship with the EU.

To overcome the impasse created by today’s divisions, Britain needs a long extension. The question is how to use it to forge that stable, consenting majority in Parliament and the country.

An increasingly popular answer is: get rid of Mrs May. The prime minister’s deal has flopped and her authority is shot. A growing number of Tories believe that a new leader with a new mandate could break the logjam. Yet there is a high risk that Conservative Party members would install a replacement who takes the country towards an ultra-hard Brexit.

What’s more, replacing Mrs May would do little to solve the riddle of how to put together a deal. The parties are fundamentally split. To believe that a new tenant in Downing Street could put them back together again and engineer a majority is to believe the Brexiteers’ fantasy that theirs is a brilliant project that is merely being badly executed.

Calls for a general election are equally misguided. The country is as divided as the parties. Britain could go through its fourth poll in as many years only to end up where it started. Tory mps might fall into line if they had been elected on a manifesto promising to enact the deal. But would the Conservatives really go into an election based on Mrs May’s scheme, which has twice been given a drubbing by MPs and was described this week even by one supportive Tory mp as “the best turd that we have”? It does not have the ring of a successful campaign.

To break the logjam, Mrs May needs to do two things. The first is to consult Parliament, in a series of indicative votes that will reveal what form of Brexit can command a majority. The second is to call a referendum to make that choice legitimate. Today every faction sticks to its red lines, claiming to be speaking for the people. Only this combination can put those arguments to rest.

Take these steps in turn. Despite the gridlock, the outlines of a parliamentary compromise are visible. Labour wants permanent membership of the eu’s customs union, which is a bit closer to the eu than Mrs May’s deal. Alternatively, MPs may favour a Norway-style set-up—which this newspaper has argued for and would keep Britain in the single market. The eu is open to both. Only if Mrs May cannot establish a consensus should she return to her own much-criticised plan.

Getting votes for these or any other approach would require thinking beyond party lines. That does not come naturally in Britain’s adversarial, majoritarian policies. But the whipping system is breaking down. Party structures are fraying. Breakaway groups and parties-within-parties are forming on both sides of the Commons, and across it. Offering MPs free votes could foster cross-party support for a new approach.

The second step is a confirmatory referendum. Brexit requires Britain to trade off going its own way with maintaining profitable ties with the eu. Any new Brexit plan that Parliament concocts will inevitably demand compromises that disappoint many, perhaps most, voters. Mrs May and other critics argue that holding another referendum would be undemocratic (never mind that Mrs May is prepared to ask MPs to vote on her deal a third or even fourth time). But the original referendum campaign utterly failed to capture the complexities of Brexit. The truly undemocratic course would be to deny voters the chance to vouch that, yes, they are content with how it has turned out.

And so any deal that Parliament approves must be put to the public for a final say. It will be decried by hardline Brexiteers as treasonous and by hardline Remainers as an act of self-harm. Forget them. It is for the public to decide whether they are in favour of the new relationship with the EU — or whether, on reflection, they would rather stick with the one they already have.>>

18 March 2018, London
‘To rush through May’s deal would be like cutting corners when building the foundations of a house because you want to move in quickly.’
Matthew D'Ancona, the Guardian

19 March 2019, London

20 March 2019, London
At the Guardian Archives, one set of Don McPhee negatives I just catalogued is labelled “Bolton Gays”, which sounds like the title of an earthy TV comedy drama. I dared not look at the pictures on the light-box. Other sets of negatives I have filed recently include those labelled “Pigeon Exhibition at Leeds”, “Cars Crushed in Liverpool”, “Bridge Made Of Willow at Marsden” and “Christmas Pudding Factory near Derby”.

21 March 20199, London
‘It requests permission to carry on playing a game that she has lost.’
Guardian editorial on PM's begging letter to EU

22 March 2019, London
‘The French EU minister, Nathalie Loiseau, has called her new cat Brexit. “He wakes me up every morning meowing to death because he wants to go out,” she says. “And then when I open the door he stays put, undecided, and then glares at me when I put him out.”’
Gary Younge, the Guardian

23 March 2019, London
At the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ march.
And just in case you wanted some kind of evidence...

24 March 2019, London
Jane was one of the 500 voices in The Public Domain event at the Barbican today.
And Lucy was her conductor...
27 March 2019, London
To the Hackney CVS Annual Awards because I had nominated Headway for the 'Best Community Voice’ award, or something. Rosy was flabbergasted but nevertheless delighted to collect the award in a ceremony that was so inspiring for the number of stories of community success it delivered.

28 March 2019, London
At an anatomy workshop with clay in the studio in which Will presented his model of Callum to the man himself.

28 March 2019, London

I spotted one of the local market-stall women at this. Then I remembered that the play starred a heartthrob actor from TV's Peaky Blinders and realised why this was not such an unlikely sighting after all.

29 March 2019, London

30 March 2018, London
‘There will be a meeting of EU heads of government on 10 April: it’s probably best not to assume their patience with Britain’s ongoing nervous breakdown will be infinite’.
Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian

30 March 2019, London
Joined a Headway public-engagement thing last night in which Ben interviewed A, P and G for the benefit of a collection of Hackney creatives from somewhere up Kingsland Road near Tesco's. It was a nice way to shamelessly plug Headway's many talented artists and the three Friday enfants did a great job of being themselves, which is an irresistible proposition in itself, especially when G does his Stephen Hawking thing with his Macbook. Hilarious. The guests loved it and we must remember to give the event some quality follow-up if it is to have any lasting impact.