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>Twilight robbery


We live in a fairly low crime suburban neighbourhood in the South of England. Still, this didn’t stop someone making off with our pumpkin jack o’lantern from the house during the course of Halloween night. A backhanded compliment to my pumpkin carving skills I suppose – it was stolen, after all, not trashed – but downright infuriating nevertheless. After all, an Englishman’s pumpkin is his castle. Seems to be another social problem imported from the US – YouTube is full of irate videos like this – and at least one US jury is deadlocked over the issue of whether the right to defend yourself and your home extends to blowing a pumpkin thief away with a deadly weapon. No doubt Barack Obama will improve things along with the rest of the world situation when he gets elected tonight.

>Path of at least some resistance


A few months ago I discovered that the leafy local footpath to our town centre was due to be closed because it crosses the grounds of a local secondary school and the headmaster reckoned the path was a source of crime and disorder. Quite a few others reckoned it was some of his students, who were the main source of disorder. But backed by our local county councillor, who is also a governor of the school, it was all quickly signed and sealed behind-closed-doors ‘consultation’ helped by a tailor made section of the Highways Act allowing local rights of way to be closed in the interests of preventing crime and disorder. There is with a special provision for public footpaths passing near schools to get the chop. A very New Labour mix of social authoritarianism and simple kneejerk approach to prioritizing education.

Venting my frustration, I wrote a Disgusted-of-Mid-Sussex letter to the local newspaper and when they printed it (local newspapers will print anything) and forgot about it. Some time latter got a call from the local representative of the Ramblers’ Association, who lives in a neighbouring town. At about 600 metres, the path ‘s not exactly a hiking route, but the Council in their wisdom – while not telling the locals about on, they did inform the RA as a standard bit of consultation. The key thing he tells me is keep a eye on the Official Notices section hidden away at the back of the local paper and send off a letter of objection in time when the Extinguishment Order is officially published. It finally appears in August as he anticipates- so as a few people as possible will see it – and I duly send off my letter. The RA man, out councillor on the District Council and ‘other interested local organizations’ also meet and distribute a Friends of Footpath leaflet to our and nearby streets. They will, he tells me, be a lot of objections and hopefully forcing the County Council to hold a local public enquiry. They could have spared themselves the expense, if they had

The RA man tells me that as well as the headmaster, Conservative councillors and the Director of Children’s Services are pushing to close the footpath. It is a kind of test case. The first time in the county that a footpath would have been closed under the crime and disorder clause. The Tories, he tells me are ideologically opposed to footpaths, crossing any kind of private property and instinctively like closing them. I am capable of believing pretty much anything bad about the Tories, but , in fact, I discover both the anti-footpath county councillor and the pro-footpath district councillor are actually Liberal Democrats.

All this rather reinforces my view that local politics is very much a closed game played by councillors, officials and a small cadre of worthy older people who are ‘active in the community’. Fortunately, however, there are some differences within this small pond of political participation, so it will be a while before the somewhat misnamed local Community College gets to fence itself off from the local community.

>You’re nicked – why the UK’s best ever cop show is even better in Czech


Meeting academic colleagues for lunch at Sussex University, the conversation turns from the US elections (McCain’s campaign under-reported and under-estimated), politics in Brighton (would the Tories sweep all three seats at the next election, or could Green leader Caroline Lucas come through the middle in Brighton Pavilion) to life in Lewes (hilly, human and with a rather cool new local currency featuring 18th century revolutionary Tom Paine). Then we move seamlessly to talk about TV cops. One of my colleagues thinks Taggart is the British best TV cop show. It’s certainly the longest running. But sitting up late and switching on the telly after I was unable to face reading through yet another conference paper, I’d downloaded I realized that the best UK cop show surely has to be 1970s classic The Sweeney, which ITV4 was thoughtfully re-running in the small hours. for the benefit of pooped academics.

The series, which centres on Inspector Jack Regan (John Thaw) and sidekick Sergeant George Carter (Dennis Waterman) of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad was considered pretty shocking when it came out in early 1975. This was partly because it had a dose of sex and violent, but mainly because it for transferring the (today well worn) stereotype of rough, tough, morally ambiguous cops, who break the rules to beat the crooks to realistic-looking British context. Previous depictions of British cops in TV and film had showed them as stolid, decent and reliable, if not always too quick on the uptake.

These days The Sweeney’s 1970s setting and formula of blags, fags and slags is seen as something of a period piece, well made popular entertainment cum sociological document and nostalgia trip try for anyone old enough the remember the period. I am, just. Sometimes everyday objects and street scenes bring the childhood memories rushing back. Indeed, the Sweeney has been skillfully and ironically pastiched by the hit show Life on Mars in which a modern cop is spookily sent back to 1970s (or thinks he has – he is a coma) and tries to make his way in the less rule-bound politically incorrect, more boozy, violent and corrupt police culture depicted in the Sweeney and similar shows of the period.

While ITV4 shows old episodes, its more high-brow digital cousin BBC4 has even done a documentary, musing over the issues and serious critics have chewed over just how Reganesque the police of 1970s actually were and whether the Sweeney’s focus on old style villains blagging banks was a bit dated even when it was made. Little mention of drugs, terrorism, race, political extremism, strikes etc – as Life on Mars’s lovingly crafted pastiche reminded viewers.

Oddly, however, the re-runs don’t quite match up to Czech language version of The Sweeney I used to watch in the mid-1990 on Prima TV, the country’s second private channel, which packed with old krimis from various West European countries. The series, rendered Inspektor Regan, was well dubbed and the dialogue, as far as I could tell, seemed make a rather easy transition into low colloquial Czech, yielding such lines as “Ten je velkej práskač, šéfe. Bydlí s nějakou kočkou v Epping Forestu” (‘He’s a right grass, ‘guv. Lives with some bird in Epping Forest’). It also produced a few interesting insights into the Regan-Carter relationship at the heart of the show. Carter, the younger and more (relatively speaking) more scrupulous character, invariably calls his boss Regan as ‘Guv’ (or Guv’nor), while the cynical but charismatic Regan calls him ‘George’. The translators in the Czech version captures the distance in their outwardly matey relationship more directly: Regan calls Carter ty, but Carter always address him as vy. For me the dilapidated urban landscapes, corrupt – or at least cynical – cops with little regard for law, armed robberies and organized crime of seventies London also had echo of the Czech Republic of the 1990s, although the Czech internet suggests the show had few Czech fans. In Central Europe, the cardboard-cut out antics of The Professionals (Profíci) – screened on Czech TV even under the communists- are far more popular.

There is though, perhaps one a crucial underlying difference. The cops of the Sweeney, however violent, cynical and obliviously to the rule of law – are still basically, at bottom, the goodies for most British viewers, even now. Czech public, I suspects, regards its own regards the police officer as thick useless, corrupt and not ultimately on their side, an attitude seeping into views about politicians, officials of all kinds. And, of course, they don’t need to be told that in the 1970s, they were living on another planet.

>Communist ice (cream) age


The long shadow of the communist-era even reaches the ice cream stall at the Luhačovice municipal lido. My daughter wants a Helena ice cream – named after and endorsed by Helena Vondráčková, the politically conformist 1960s pop diva turned stalwart of normalization era light entertainment. Vondráčková looks about 20 on the wrapper, but must be well over 60. “Helena, she’s a famous Czech singer, kočičko”, the man at the stall helpfully explains to my daughter, who isn’t interested and also objects that she isn’t a cat. Curiously, the lolly is actually made in Poland. Presumably Vondráčková (her name is mis-spelled Vondráčkowá on the wrapper) has a few fans there . Meanwhile, as the anniversary of the 1968 invasion is near, on the radio they are playing a song by Marta Kubišová, another star of the Prague Spring era whose less than compliant attitude to normalization led to two decades of obscurity before 1989. She is a better singer, but doesn’t have an ice cream named after her.

>So near, so spa


After six hot days in Brno, we finally head out for the countryside. My wife’s family has a holiday home dating from 1970s in rolling hills near the Slovak border. We speed a long a lot of bits of newly opened motorway between Brno and Zlín being built with EU structural funds, although there’s still a lot of driving through villages and on small windy roads to be done in between before we finally get there.

As we have already discovered, for any family holiday in the CR the koupák is king and we know from previous experience that the nearby village, a kilometre down the road, has a particularly pleasant and clean open air pool near the municipal football pitch. When we arrive, however, disaster strikes. The koupáliště has been closed down under EU hygiene regulations. The problem, as in many rural locations, is sewerage. Too few toilets and an outdated septic tank, they tell us in the village shop.

When walks in the forest, insect life and table tennis have amused the kids as much as they are ever going to, the only solution to get the bus to nearby Luhačovice, a small spa town nestling in wooded hills, which has historically been popular with Czech political and cultural elites of various ideological stripes (there is a direct train daily to Prague). As well as wafers and ice cream sundaes, crucially it also has a koupák – somewhat old fashionably termed a plovárna – where a good time is had by all and I even manage to have a swim and read the papers.

Later we hit the jackpot when we get given a leaflet about a children’s theatre performance the next day being given as part of the annual theatre festival by Brno’s Divadlo Polárka company. When we pack into the town’s small theatre, I wonder quite what we will have in store, but as it turns S koníčkem přes hory a doly (loosely translatable as ‘Travels with a horse over hill and dale’) is beautifully staged and also thoroughly entertaining for the kids, who emerge delighted.

>Modernize the Czech Republic? Childsplay


It’s holiday time and, as usual we are in the Czech Republic. As ever the country is visibly, if slowly improving. If the early 1990s saw an explosion of stalls and small shops and the late 1990s the emergence of superstores and hypermarkets what’s striking now is the obvious the investment in infrastructure. The panel built high rise estate on the Southern outskirts of Brno where my parents-in-law and sister-in-law, whose flat we are kindly borrowing for a few days before heading off for the countryside, is – at least in parts – being insulated and re-faced in pastel colours. After this beauty treatment after the hideous grey paneláky look pretty civilized. There seems to have been a slow draining of younger, better off people from the estate over the years and there’s a lot of graffiti, but French style urban ghetto it certainly isn’t. Indeed, looking at some of the refurbished blocks, you might blink and briefly think you were in Holland or Germany. At least, you might until you looked round at the rest of the estate at the remaining communist-era high rise monstrosities, or down to the ground at the scrubby and unmaintained grass verges. A large university science park, a new regional library and a new regional archive are springing up nearby, the borough council’s newsletter – stuffed into the letterbox with a mass of flyers for Interspar, Tesco and Kaufland – tells me.

The Czech Republic is still rather badly off for children’s play facilities, however, and the kids are quickly bored. There are plenty of playgrounds on the estate, but with a few exceptions they are small and poorly maintained. The sand in sandpits looks like builder’s aggregate, rather than anything you would want your kids to play in. There are few better, newer playgrounds, including one near where we are staying with an interesting climbing frame and a cable ride, which was built a couple of years ago as part of a EU backed scheme to humanize high rise estates. But the cable ride is broken, although a long-winded notice says the council will fix any faults reported within a week if the responsible officer is contacted. I wonder if anyone has bothered.

There is a rather arty playground with wooden sculpted animals in central Brno’s Lužánky park, where also has a complete miniature mockup road system complete with road signs next to, where some cops from the municipal police are putting kids through their paces doing some kind of cycling proficiency test. Our youngest like the wooden animals, but both kids are only really satisfied when we discover the cheap and cheerful open air swimming pool (koupaliště aka koupák) in the local sports club across the tram tracks on the estate. This has water, hot dogs, a trampoline and climbing frame. At last both are placated.

>Barack the Builder?


British radio comedy The Now Show wickedly points out that Barack Obama’s campaign slogan (‘Yes, we can’) is basically the same as the theme for children’s TV favourite Bob The Builder. Various right-wing American bloggers have also noticed this and there are quite a few amateurish medleys of Bob and Obama on You Tube . But isn’t that exactly what you’d expect? Both politicians of a vaguely centrist persuasion and children’s TV producers share a need to come up with nice simple, feelgood messages, which are catchy easy to understand and have some basic moral points that pretty much no one could disagree with. Frankly, I’m surprised spin doctors and political PR people have mined the children’s channels more extensively for more decent campaign slogans. My tip for any who might be reading ‘Teamwork – Do It Together’, one of the bouncing disco numbers from the frenetic pre-schoolers’ show LazyTown, Iceland’s greatest export. And, yes, Obama definitely gets my vote.

>Another referendum, another master plan derailed?


Never mind the Irish referendum – a predictable outcome, which allowed the EU’s carefully crafted constitutional compromise to become the target of a set of contradictory anxieties and antagonisms and allowed voters to give the political establishment a kick up the backside (hard to resist in any democracy) – the most interesting referendum I’ve come across of late is the one in the neighbouring commuter town of Haywards Heath. The local district council in collaboration with Thornfield Properties has been trying to push through a 20 year masterplan for the grandiose redevelopment of HH and its satellite town of Burgess Hill with many details – despite some careful top down ‘consultation’ – rather vague or rather confidential. Many locals suspected they weren’t getting a good deal – too many civic and community facilities bulldozed, too little certainty of proper replacements – and thought the relationship of Thornfield, the district council’s chief executive and the councillors a little too opaque and a little too cosy. In HH opponents, including the Liberal opposition and the town’s long serving single Labour councillor, organized in the Haywards Heath Referendum Group, used fairly new legal provisions to force a local (consultative) referendum on the plan: half a day’s voting, 20% turnout of the town’s 19,000 voters with almost 94% voting to put the plan on hold until fuller information is available. Local elected worthies and council bureaucrats – the (appointed) chief executive seems to play a surprisingly prominent role in all this – don’t quite have an EU-sized dilemma as they can, in theory, ignore the result, but there will be political pressure to respond to this obvious public thumbs down. As in the EU, consultation’ and a pause for reflection seem likely until civic opposition dies down. Then I imagine they’ll just go ahead with what they planned anyway – certainly the local press seems to think so.

>That’s the Volunteer Fire Department…


For reasons that are not entirely clear, a camper van with the markings of the Volunteer Fire Department of a small German town, of Stickenbuettel has appeared in our suburban street. Stickenbuettel is somewhere near the North German seaside resort of Cuxhaven near the mouth of the river Elbe. The van is UK-registered but, naturally, left-hand drive so presumably someone as bought it as a cheap way of going on holiday in Europe (Europe outside the British Isles , I mean. )

The Cuxhaven Fire Department, you will be pleased to hear, has its own exhaustive Wikipedia entry (in German) which tells us everything you need to know including the fact that they have their own cadet force, but not why they are flogging their surplus vehicles to suburban mid-Sussex.

>Path dependence in West Sussex


I was annoyed to discover that our local regional authority, West Sussex County Council, plans to close and block up the public footpath that leads from out street to the town centre. It is quick, traffic free and ideal for parents with small kids. Alternative routes are much longer and involve crossing roads. The reason, as I later discovered, is that part of the path cuts through a local secondary school and the head teacher, in his wisdom, had put a request for the path to be closed to the public and blocked because he thinks it ’causes’ anti-social behaviour, crime and vandalism, which – like a lot of secondary schools – his school is prone too.

This would be all very well, if true, but I don’t buy these arguments all. The school is on accessible open site near the town centre and drug dealers, vandals and burglars could easily simply walk through the car park or across the playing field to gain access to the school buildings. Indeed, I would have thought without a regular flow of regular citizens walking to the shops and back, they would probably be more likely to do so unhindered. Ironically considering it wants to keep the local community out, the school styles itself a ‘Community College’.

What’s most annoying is the secretive – or perhaps I should say ‘pseudo-open’ – nature of the whole process. You can, if you know of what is going on access the minutes of the relevant council committee meeting on the web and read how the head’s arguments about ‘security’ trumped anything else anyone could say (Why a decision about a local footpath has to be made in Chichester two hours drive away by authority responsible for 500,000 people, I don’t know, but I guess that’s another issue). I, and anyone else living locally, could theoretically even have made written and orally submission to the committee asking for path to stay open, if, of course, we had actually known about the proposal in the first place. But what normal person habitually reads county council agendas and minutes?

It would have been helpful if they could have put up a notice for passers-by to read, but that would clearly have been too transparent. Instead, very oddly the Council informed two well established and worthy bodies, the Ramblers Association and the Open Spaces Society. In an oddly corporatist twist, this is standard practice with proposed footpath closures – the RA and OSS are deemed to represent all footpath users, so wider publicity is unnecessary. They at least did have the decency to object to this closure and the OSS mentions that local people use the path to get to town, but it’s easy to imagine how they were just seen as lobby groups going through the motions, while local headteacher appeared more of real community leader . The committee minutes, it should be said do mention local councillors (it’s not clear how local, as there are three layers of local government in this part of the world: town council, district council and county council) transmitting some residents’ concern about access to their fences, but this seems to refer only to a few houses near the school. I do find it a little odd, that despite living here for two and half years and assiduously reading public notices and anything from local council or political parties that came through our letterbox, I knew nothing about it.

I found out about the in a pretty odd way – in a leaflet put through out door by the local Neighbour Watch – a government backed community crime prevention scheme. The leaflet suggested anyone concerned should email our town councillor. She actually lives in the same street as us, so I did this a week ago, but have had no reply whatsoever. This kind of suggests that she is not bothered by the footpath being scrapped and that the mention in the Neighbourhood Watch leaflet was probably inserted by someone other local person bothered about it, rather than her.

Thoroughly fed up, I made a mental note not to vote Liberal Democrat in the local elections again and wrote a letter to the local paper. God knows if this will have any effect. Local government at this level kind seems to be about various local elites agreeing things between themselves with minimal and token public consultation – and the perhaps the occasional sharp prods from central government.

As far as I can work out, footpaths have quite strong legal protection so it may still be possible to make some kind of formal appeal against the decision – please leave a comment if you do. Otherwise, I guess the kids I and will join local yobbos in skirting across the playing field to avoid whatever defences the head teacher plans to erect.