Why women entrepreneurs (Part I) – Not enough Rooney’s to go around

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

Good afternoon.
I’m Karen Birch and since you probably have little idea who I am, partly for some of the reasons we’re about to explore, I’ll introduce myself before getting started.

I was born just down the road from here but have spent the last 20 years running entrepreneurial businesses in Scotland. They have ranged from biotechnology to advertising, e-commerce to software design. These days I spend my time supporting women-led businesses and developing co-operative and community enterprises. A large proportion of my time is spent as CEO of the 3rdimagazine, an on-line business publication. We have women and men from all over the UK writing articles on all sorts of business issues. The key factor is that we look at business issues from a woman’s perspective. You might wander, with good reason, what that means and it is an important question with regard to the rest of this discussion.

As a way of introducing the idea it might be helpful to consider how the3rdimagazine started. Essentially Phil Birch, co-founder of the magazine and author of the groundbreaking ethical enterprise system, Ethiconomics, was working with senior men and women executives and found that it was a different experience in terms of their thought processes, business practices and ambitions. In researching these differences it became clear that there wasn’t a business publication that addressed these issues. There were business magazines, which tended to be testosterone fuelled and focussed on salaries, fast cars, big houses and beautiful wives and women’s magazines, which focussed on handbags and spa days, so in true entrepreneurial fashion we decided to create the3rdimagazine to fill the gap.

So, why women entrepreneurs?
Clearly this is a topic that could fill a whole module not just an hour long lecture so I’ll keep things simple. This will no doubt mean that you have lots of “please miss, what about…” moments which I’ll be happy to address at the end.

Before we move on it is worth taking the time to consider what I mean when I use the word entrepreneur. Personally, I’m not a fan of the ‘mumpreneur’. Writing a book about bringing up baby, self-publishing and then spending the rest of your life tweeting about it does not, in my opinion, make you an entrepreneur. That’s not to say that it isn’t enterprising or that it shouldn’t be applauded. It is and it should. But for me the term entrepreneur implies a little more ambition for growth. J.K. Rowling was smart, or lucky, enough to create a character in her books that had huge film and merchandising potential. Is she an author or entrepreneur? Some definitions are based on turnover and I find this problematic too. My current business would not qualify me as an entrepreneur on consideration of turnover – the magazine was created as a co-operative to ensure collaboration and independence rather than to generate vast wealth. My previous ventures would have qualified in terms of business value. So am I now an entrepreneur or not? Perhaps better to say that I am entrepreneurial? And what of someone who has just sold a business for a fortune as it at the early stages of creating a new one? Do they have their status as entrepreneur suspended until this new business reaches a certain size?

You can see the difficulties so for the purposes of this discussion I will use the term entrepreneur very loosely to simply mean someone who has started a business. I’ll discuss why we need women entrepreneurs, how they are different from male counterparts and why this difference is important.

So, we all know women. You only have to look at the shelves of magazines in supermarket to see how women are viewed; models, gossips, victims, celebrities. I’m not making a feminist point here as it is as much about how women present themselves as how they are presented. I was at a conference a wee while ago hosted by RBS and called something like “Women into Business”. It was aimed at new and early start women-led businesses. All of the speakers, apart from the senior bank executives (we’ll come back to that later), were women and without exception the first thing that they said was to draw attention to the ‘fabulous’ shoes that they were wearing and how tricky it was to walk to the lectern in killer heels. Now, I’m a biologist, was a biologist, and there is well respected line of research that looks at the adaptive advantage of seemingly debilitating physical features such as the peacock’s tail. It may be that high heels fall into that category, after all Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels, but I think not.

And we know entrepreneurs.
So who do we think of? Richard Branson? Alan Sugar? Maybe the internet billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg. Most people would struggle to name a woman in their list. Even the recent Woman’s Hour poll of the top 100 most powerful women in the UK was woefully short of business women. The Queen was voted in at number one and the invisible Home Secretary that is Theresa May was in second. After that I pretty much lost the will to live.

So why is the lack of enterprising women in the public eye a problem?

Just this.
According to the study, “Girls’ Attitudes Explored… Role Models 2012”,

  • we have a generation of young women whose role models come from reality TV

In particular programmes such as TOWIE and Made in Chelsea where the female characters aspire to be nothing more than WAGS.

I go into primary schools and even girls as young as 11 say that they want to be pop stars, on the TV, work in a beauty salon or a tanning shop. And why are role models important? Here’s one reason why, according to the same survey,

  • One in six girls said that they were put off careers in engineering as they didn’t know that women worked in that industry.

I’ll give you an example from my own experience. One of my first jobs when I left university was as a water treatment engineer. For those of you that don’t know what one of those is, probably 100% of you as I didn’t know either when I applied for the job, it involves climbing up to the top of high buildings to check chemical levels in cooling towers and visiting dirty basements to check chemical levels in boilers. I was the only woman working in the industry and, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if I’d known that. But if we are going to get more women doing these jobs we are going to have to have more women doing these jobs. By the time I left I’d recruited two other women and suddenly water treatment engineer was a job that men and women could do.

And returning to the celebrity issue,

  • The girls asked could only name a handful of successful businesswomen, most of them because they have an established celebrity profile

Women like Stella McCartney and the grumpy woman from Dragon’s Den, who were known by dint of their celebrity profile rather than because of their business acumen. The lack of role models is important as it affects the attitudes of those thinking about starting a business, with women being far less confident of their abilities than their male counterparts. 45% of men, compared to just 29%, of women, felt that they had the skills, knowledge and experience to start a business. Role models play a crucial part in encouraging the “I can do that” mentality.

Again, from my own experience, I talk to many women’s groups, particularly to those women thinking about going into business. If anyone comes up to me at the end of the talk and says, “ I couldn’t do what you’ve done”, I know that I have failed. As a role model in these situations it is important that the women there do feel that they can do exactly what I have done – and hopefully much more. My fear is that the current ‘hero entrepreneur’ model, with a lone speaker talking wisdom to an audience much as I’m doing here today, is not a good one. It tends to, end is used to by many businessmen, illicit feelings of awe rather than feelings that it is possible to achieve similar success.

So the first reason why we need women entrepreneurs is to encourage aspiration and to broaden the horizons of the next generation of women. It is OK to want to be a singer or a dancer but it is about expanding the choices available. And anyway, not every young girl can be a WAG. There simply aren’t enough Wayne Rooney’s to go around!

And here’s where you all come in. For the women in the room to have the confidence to know that you can start your own business. And for the men in the room; you have a responsibility not to perpetrate the falsehood that there are certain jobs that are ‘men’s jobs’.

And we don’t have to speculate about what would happen if we had more positive role models. It has been fashionable, in the wake of the global financial crisis, to look at the Icelandic experience for guidance. True to form there is some great work going on to reduce gender imbalance across all sectors of business, including projects that help women to start their own business. Here’s what they have to say;

  • The increasing positive media attention on successful businesswomen has had an influence on the entrepreneurship culture. These women become role models, and the existence of role models is an important driver for women to start a business.
    (Bjarnheiður Jóhannsdóttir, Project Manager of Brautargengi )

Why women entrepreneurs (Part II) – Lessons from Zoology

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

Now we come to the second reason, and here I have to confess that I have a considerable advantage over most business students.

My first degree is in Zoology and as part of that degree course I studied Human Evolution, so please bear with me if my argument becomes overly complex and too scientific. The early record of human evolution threw up a number of incredible metrics, some of which are as true today as they were when early hominids first started to move from the East African Rift Valley.  The most important statistic for our discussion today is the staggering revelation that 51% of the population are women. Yes, women are not a minority group …. BUT

  • women make up just 22.5% of women MP’s. The picture is slightly better in Scotland but the number of women MSP’s is the second lowest in four Holyrood elections at just 34%

Staggering though this is, it is the high point as,

  • women make up just 15% of High Court Judges – which may go some way to explaining why prisons are filling up with single mums whose main crime is a failure to cope. But that is a discussion for another day.
  • according to the Davies Report women make up only 12.5% of the members of the corporate
    boards of FTSE 100 companies. Admittedly this  does represent an improvement from 2004 when the figure was just 9.4%. At this rate of growth it will take 70 years to achieve gender-balanced boardrooms in the UK’s largest 100 companies. Under Lord Davies’ recommendations, FTSE-listed boards are required to have 25% of positions held by women by 2015. We’ll look at progress in this regard a little later.
  • just 10% of bank CEO’s are women. In 2011 the EU issued draft proposals to force banks to take on more women directors. The proposal calls for women to make up one-third of bank directors.  At the time the proposal was launched, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group had female representation on the boards lower than 10%, at HSBC it was 25%,  at Barclays 15% and Standard Chartered 13%.  Ana Patricia Botín of Santander is the only female chief executive of a major bank.
  • only 5% of national newspaper editors are women – and remember what the Icelandic experience tells us about the importance of a positive media profile.
  • and 0% of the monetary committee are female. I’m not a fan of (the late) Margaret Thatcher, to put it mildly, as I was still in Liverpool when she was determined to destroy economic development in the city, but she did suggest that balancing the national budget was little different to what every woman did week in and week out in the home. I quote, “”Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.” I can’t help feeling that under the current economic circumstances having more women on the committee wouldn’t be a bad idea.

And the imbalance continues when we consider entrepreneurial activity. Women are only half as likely to be involved in entrepreneurial activity as men. The figures are woefully low in the UK for both sexes actually, with the result that only 5% of women are involved in entrepreneurial activity.

And it is reflected in the statistics showing who has control of the small businesses in the UK as over half of SME’s are run entirely by men. For those that don’t recognise the acronym, SME’s are small or medium-sized enterprises and defined as those businesses having less than 250 employees. For completeness the figures collected in 2010 show that

  • 52% of SME’s are entirely male led
  • 9% of SME’s are majority led by men
  • 25% of SME’s are joint led
  • 14%of SME’s are majority female led

Returning to the issue of women on boards for a moment, after an initial upsurge in female board appointments in the wake of the Davis Report, progress is slowing.  This is not just my opinion but that of Business Secretary Vince Cable responding to the latest report from the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders.

The latest figures show that the percentage of female appointments to FTSE 100 boards in the last six months is 26%. This is a considerable slow down from the previous six month period measured by Cranfield, where female appointments to the FTSE 100 were 44% . To dramatically emphasise just where we are now;

  • Right now there are only 18 women in executive positions in the FTSE 100, compared to 292 men.

So the second reason is the simple one of equity. It seems only fair that a gender that represents over 50% of the population should be proportionally represented in offices of state, in the board rooms of our major corporations and in SME’s.

As a post-script to this part of the discussion and an affirmation of Part I, Penny de Valk, Chief Executive of Cedar, said in response to the slow-down;  “The lack of female role models in senior positions feeds a vicious cycle, where the summit looks like a risky and alien place for women and the personal cost of success may seem too high.”

So we need more women entrepreneurs;

  1. To provide role models for the next generation of young women and
  2. Simply as a matter of fairness

The 3rd reason, which we’ll discuss next, is the simplest and most compelling, because it makes economic sense.

Why women entrepreneurs (Part III) – It’s the economy, stupid

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

If the first two reasons weren’t compelling enough, then the third surely will be as economic argument often wins over claims for fairness of outcome or opportunity. As expressed so eloquently in Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992, It’s “the economy, stupid”.

I’ve said that most businesses in the UK are small, but exactly what do I mean by that?

Well, 71% of businesses in the UK have 0 employees.
That is to say an individual has work for themselves and employs no-one else.

A further 24% of businesses in the UK employ between 1-10 people

So, a staggering 95% of businesses in the UK employ less than 10 people
Perhaps Napoleon would still recognise the UK as “A nation of shopkeepers”. We are certainly still a nation built around small businesses.

We’ve seen how existing businesses are managed largely by men, but what about new starts? What would be the effect of encouraging more women to start businesses?

As early ago as 2007, in a report into the state of women’s enterprise in the UK by R Harding, it was stated that,

  • “any significant increase in (overall) business formation will only come from encouraging more women into business”

If we look at the US for inspiration, as we are often encouraged to do, then women there are twice as likely to be active entrepreneurially than women here in the UK. What would it mean to the UK economy if we could achieve that level of entrepreneurial activity here?

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking at the Advancing Enterprise Conference in 2005, said

  • “If the UK could achieve the same levels of female entrepreneurship as the US, Britain would gain three quarters of a million more businesses”

750,000 more businesses!

Well, maybe that might be too ambitious; thinking that women in the UK could be as entrepreneurial as their US counterparts, though interestingly, the figures for male entrepreneurship are about the same on both sides of the Atlantic, so how about increasing activity in the UK?

What would it mean if women in the UK were as active entreprenerially as men in the UK?
Rt Hon Jacqui Smith, Former Minister for Women and Equality said that,

  • “In the UK, if women started businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 150,000 extra start-ups each year”

Slightly less impressive but still impressive numbers.

And it is not just about starting businesses simply for the sake of starting a business, to make the government statistics look better, but it is about sustainability. As Chief Executive of the Small Business Service, Martin Wyn Griffith put it,

  • “A pound invested in developing women’s enterprise provides a greater return on investment than a pound invested in developing male owned enterprise”

Why might that be?

We know from experience with the likes of the Grameen Bank, who put small, often very small, amounts of money into women led enterprises in developing countries, that the women use the money to grow their businesses and also to support their families and communities. I know from my own experience in Fair Trade co-operatives that Edinburgh based tea and coffee importer, Fair Exchange, buys only from women-led co-operatives as they also have shown that when you buy from women the money stays in the community rather than disappearing with the men to the nearest big town with a bar. Now I’m not suggesting that money invested in male-led businesses all ends up supporting cocktail bars in the city, though I would quite like to know what corporations do with all that money as it doesn’t appear much of it goes to paying tax, but we do need to take some of the learning from overseas developments into our own struggling communities.

And the 150,000 women-led businesses that Jacqui Smith felt could be created, there is likely to be a much more immediate effect on the economy than if those start-ups were from men as around one in five women come into self-employment from unemployment compared with around one in fifteen for men. Put simply, men are more likely to leave a job that they already have to start up on their own – net economic gain 0 jobs. Women entering the workforce from unemployment – net economic gain 1 job.

We have seen that 71% of businesses employ no-one but there is still the tendency to dismiss women in self-employment as running “life-style” businesses. A man with a white van and a ladder is entrepreneurial in setting himself up with a window cleaning businesses. A woman with a white van and a hairdryer is either working for pin money or biding her time waiting for mister right to come along – presumably bringing his ladder with him!

I’m in two minds as to whether we should try to reclaim the term “lifestyle business” or whether it is already so badly debased that it is beyond reclaiming. Fundamentally all businesses are lifestyle businesses, it’s just that Bill Gates has a different lifestyle to you and I. And why should a plumber be more respected than a hairdresser?

There is nothing wrong with running a business that provides work for just one woman in order that she can support herself and her family. And when it comes to hairdressers, mine employs more people than I do, and hires out space in the salon to beauticians and other therapists, creating and supporting jobs in the town. Yet it is me here talking about entrepreneurship! Something wrong somewhere?

And it is worth considering the types of businesses women start, and why, and I’ll do that next.

Why Women Entrepreneurs (Part IV) – Doing what we’ve always done

26 04 2013

Why women entrepreneurs?
(transcript of Common Business School lecture at Liverpool Hope University)

It is worth considering the type of businesses that women set up.

If we look at a comparison, by sector, of women-led SME’s versus all SME’s,

  • community, social and personal activities ~ +6%
  • health and social work ~ +9%
  • hotel and restuarants ~ +4%
  • production ~ -6%
  • construction ~ -9%

In summary women more often head up businesses within what is often termed the ‘soft sector’ rather than the ‘heavy’ industrial and manufacturing sectors.

Why might this be?

Well it’s simple, as any venture capitalist will tell you, entrepreneurs should always do business in areas they know. So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that many women start and run companies in ‘traditional’ female categories like food, shopping and things that are family-related – especially if those markets are profitable. The larger concern is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic were founded by men.

And it isn’t just in enterprise that women work in traditional female categories. We have many more women doctors now than we ever did, but women are over-represented in areas such as family practices and gynecology.  The same is true of female lawyers, who choose family law and non-profit work.

So while there are more women in traditionally male-dominated roles and professions than there have ever been, small “ghettos” within those professions, where women are allowed to work, are emerging. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this clustering but it is how we view that cluster. I chose the word ‘ghetto’ was deliberately to reflect the value that is placed on these clusters. It is clear that as a society we tend to put less value upon areas such as nursing and hairdressing, areas where women cluster.

So it is about what we value and, though it’s subtle, what we value is attached to the masculine or ‘gender neutral’ (and often saying ‘gender neutral’ is the same as saying  ‘largely masculine’).  As a result we tend to undervalue the business areas that women choose. This echoes my earlier point about the disparaging way we speak of ‘lifestyle businesses’ with particular regard to women-led enterprises operating in areas seen as traditionally female.

So you can see that we can’t really think about the types of businesses women start in isolation. We need to consider the bigger picture and include the types of jobs women take in the workplace and the value society places on that work.

The lack of value we place on work is important as it often translates into poorer pay and conditions for women in the workplace. I was at a conference a year back that was called in order to address the issue of getting more women into board and senior management positions within the businesses that constitute the co-operative movement. The debate raged about whether quotas needed to be introduced to get more women onto group, regional and national boards. My colleague stood up to make this very simple point;  ‘the movement could do more to improve the position of women not by giving more to few women nearing the top of the organisation but by paying a living wage to the thousands of women who work at the lower and middle-levels.’ I agree and would add that they should do more to value the work that the cleaners and shelf-stackers and check-out staff do.

If we are serious about changing the work women chose, we need to go right back to the start of this presentation and look closely at the role models that we are presenting to the next generation as these role models that will influence the choices young women make when entering the workforce and, therefore, when starting their own businesses too.

If we are serious about changing the landscape of businesses we need also to look at the value we place upon the type of work women do. And here I think that we might just be on the threshold of change. In the policy document entitled, “Supporting economic growth through local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones” Eric Pickles, on behalf of the coalition government opens with the statement, “Our economy is currently too dependent on a narrow range of industry sectors.” So, a suggestion at least that there should be less of an emphasis placed on traditional industries. If we read “male-led” instead of “traditional” as we have showed is a reasonable replacement earlier, then maybe signs of change – or an indication of an awareness that change is needed.

Here are just a few opportunities;
With an ageing population we are going to need far more carers – a female dominated industry. There is a really possibility that society may actually come to value care and carers in this growing market situation. It is up to women to start and lead the large-scale businesses that run and manage the care system rather than leaving it to men to head up these companies. And in healthcare there are many high growth opportunities. The biggest currently seems to be digital healthcare, which describes the development of systems and technologies that have the potential to save lives by equipping doctors with quicker and more accurate information about patients. There is no reason why this should not be headed by the people who actually come into contact with the patients – predominantly women carers.

With retail giants failing or otherwise leaving the high street there is a huge opportunity for small specialist retailers. My contention is that the high street is changing, not dying, and there is a real desire to halt the growth of commuter towns and build character back into the places in which we live and shop. This drive is personified by Mary Portas who is working, and has been given public money, to energise 12 towns. It’s not much, but it’s a sign of things to come.

While computer games have long been seen as a male-only enclave, this is changing. Games used to be sold on the quality of the graphics. This is no longer the case. The graphics are uniformly pretty good and so this aspect of the game is a given. What sells the games now is the game play – storytelling, and more than that the psychology of the characters. This opens up this whole arena to women. And I think no one would argue with the assertion that social media plays to women’s strengths in communication and collaboration.

Women have provided the backbone to volunteering in this country for many, many years. Activities like befriending, meals on wheels, staffing charity shops and supporting local PTA’s. In the current economic climate, with more and more closures of public services, it is often women who take responsibility for keeping open services such as post offices and libraries. We are starting to see the emergence of social enterprise as a way of providing community services and we are seeing a new band of social entrepreneurs – and these are more likely to be women.

The challenge, as before is that for years many of the biggest companies catering to a female demographic have been founded by men. The opportunity is that the changing landscape, moving businesses towards care and social enterprise, will favour the female demographic. The challenge is to make sure that women are in a place where they are able to capitalise on these opportunities.

We should, then, be keen to ensure that women think big enough with their start-ups, as while men are competing to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or eBay, women-led start-ups still tend to focus on small niches.  As we’ve seen the niches may be growing of their own accord, but we do need more women who are willing to build large businesses.

It may be that the rise of the social entrepreneur will aid this process as the emphasis for social enterprise is on creating surplus rather than profit and of creating value for all the stakeholders and not simply for the shareholders. Women may in the past have been discouraged at the prospect of creating billion-dollar businesses by the spectre of working in, and with, the old-style testosterone-fuelled board.  By replacing that competitive environment with one more conducive to collaboration, as is often the case with social enterprise, we should see more women creating large, sustainable and profitable enterprises.


Why I won’t be dancing on her grave

10 04 2013

While my grandmother and Barbara Castle were the dominant political figures of my childhood, Margaret Thatcher and the politics she ushered in have been the backdrop to my adult life.

She came to power in 1979, the first general election in which I could vote. At the time I was a student in Sheffield, living and voting in the constituency now held by Nick Clegg, and spending time campaigning to ensure that Gwyneth Dunwoody held onto her seat in Crewe, the only chance of labour holding a seat in the Cheshire countryside where I lived outside term-time.

At the time, when power had swung regularly between Wilson, Heath and Callaghan I was disappointed by her election but how bad could it be? At least she was a woman who in the general-election campaign had famously stated that “any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running the country.”

And anyway, she’d be voted out next time.

How wrong I was.  Following her election she did immeasurable damage to three things I hold dear;  Liverpool, Equality and Scotland.

  • Thanks to her involvement, the M62 stops at The Rocket roundabout rather than carrying on to the Mersey to serve the city centre, dockyards and airport, stifling the city’s economic development.
  • In the wake of Hillsborough she refused to fully accept the criticisms of the police,  writing in the margin of the report prepared in the aftermath, “What do we mean by ‘welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome? Surely we welcome the thoroughness of the report and its recommendations – M.T.” Thankfully, as a banner on the Kop once urged, we were able to “expose the lies before Thatcher dies.”
  • On her election she said: “The women of this country have never had a prime minister who knew the things they know. And the things that we know are very different from what men know”, yet with the exception of Baroness Young, she promoted no women to her cabinet. In fact she promoted no women above the post of junior minister.
  • She famously asserted, “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever. I hate those strident tones we hear from some Women’s Libbers.”
  • She destroyed the manufacturing base of this country in her bid to break the strength of organised labour. The Proclaimers wrote their “Letter from America”, listing the industrial sites that had closed: “Bathgate no more.. Linwood no more.. Methil no more . . .” The song was for Scots who had left to seek a better life in America but the truth is that most of those laid off of in the 1980s remained in Scotland, trapped on welfare.

I marched against her war in the Falklands and her Poll Tax.  I cheered as her car left Downing Street for the last time and my heart didn’t melt even the smallest amount to see her tears as she was driven away.  I was “Up for Portillo”, watching the 1997 election all through the night to watch the end of her 18 year direct rule and rule by proxy.

So, was I out partying on Monday? No.

Two reasons. The first is one of compassion. Not for her, but for myself and everyone else. It serves no purpose to hate and to continue to hate even when the object of that venom has been removed.

The second is that the job isn’t done. It isn’t over. Her legacy persists.

Her biggest failing was to encourage the growth of the “loadsamoney” mentality that first took hold in the 1980’s, perfectly portrayed by Harry Enfield’s eponymous creation. We were all encouraged to work hard, not to become better people or to create better societies, but to earn more money.  The underlying ethos was that there was “no such thing as society”.  People were encouraged to believe that social mobility was possible through the accumulation of wealth, by selling off council houses and privatising public services. But social mobility hasn’t improved. The system of privilege that has held sway in the United Kingdom for hundreds of years is more entrenched as ever, mainly due to the policies of Margaret Thatcher who begat Blair who paved way for Cameron and his Cabinet of millionaires. The bankers were allowed to run roughshod across the financial markets because they were making money for themselves and those wealthy enough to hold shares in their corporations.  The gap between rich and poor has reached levels not seen since Charles Dickens chronicled tales of the poor houses.

So, I will not be dancing on her grave come Wednesday as her legacy persists. I will happily dance upon the death of all of the divisive policies she ushered in – but that day is far beyond the burial of one woman.

They ARE the matrix

3 04 2013

We are living in a world of immediacy.

A world where the whole of the knowledge accrued by mankind can be accessed from a device that fits in the back pocket of my jeans.

When I was at school information was held in books, some of which were held at home while most had to be accessed through the library; a process which involved having tickets stamped, negotiating random opening times and fierce librarians, overdue book charges and not a small amount of reverence. Now my parents text me if they are unsure of an answer in Kate Mepham’s Sunday crossword and, if I don’t know either, I google and text back an answer.

My romances were conducted on the single telephone that we had in the house, while sitting on a small table/chair combination which had been designed specially for this purpose. Intimacies were exchanged in hushed tones as the rest of the family trooped past going about their business. While I write this, on an early afternoon train out of Edinburgh, the young woman opposite is having a mobile phone conversation with a friend. She is urging her friend not to follow/stalk her possibly errant boyfriend and giving detailed advice about how to ensure that he doesn’t stray while on holiday.

While at university I wrote letters to my boyfriend and agonised nightly over what I would say. Telephone conversations involved complex timetabling arrangements to make sure that he was standing beside his college payphone at the exact time that I rang from mine. Now texts have replaced letters, instant thoughts taking the place of tortured scribblings and the idea of arranging a time to talk, laughable.

I was, for reasons that I cannot now remember, thinking back recently to having my photograph taken in Lewis’s in Liverpool. This was a once-a-year event. I’d be dressed in my Sunday best for a visit to see Santa in his grotto and on to the in-store photographer. These photographs were included with the Christmas gifts to grandparents and aged aunts, all of whom cherished them, as I still do.  The train this morning was full of children on their Easter holidays taking photographs and being photographed. Instant images.

These thoughts are not about looking back to some imagined golden age but are by way of illustrating what a completely different world it is now to the one I grew up in. I understand as little about the way the generation below me is immersed in this world of instant communication than I understand about the world without electricity that my grandparents grew up in.  My lived experience is one of having heat and light available at the flick of a switch. The lived experience of the younger generation is one of instant access to everyone and everything.

They live in this space.

I stand outside the internet and use it to access the services, books and information that I have always accessed, just in a new way.

They are integral to the internet. They ARE the matrix.

In taking photographs on the train this morning they were not sharing the moment – they were the moment. They are at once creating and confirming their own identity and existence in a way that I cannot hope to fully comprehend. The internet to them is not the same as it is for me.

When they take their pictures, post inappropriate tweets, create Facebook alter egos they do not, for them, have relevance beyond that moment. They simply say, this is me now. I knew that my letters would have a life beyond the moment that I wrote them. The photographs taken in Lewis’s had, and were meant to have, a significance beyond that day. The act of sending a text or posting a picture on-line has the aura of permanence to us older folk but has no such association for young people. Texts are sent with the same abandon that we used to share confidences in the pub – transient and of little importance.

I have the strong feeling that this immediacy and lack of permanence might be why young people are so willing to share their lives so widely on the internet in a way that alarms us older people. But of course I cannot know for sure. And that is the point.

What happened to the charabangs?

2 04 2013

The idea of community has changed a lot over the past two generations.

My paternal grandparents lived in a terraced, back-to-back in Liverpool. My mothers parents in a terraced, back-to-back in Widnes. Their parents lived in the same street, as did an assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. The furthest away that a relative lived, other than those who had emigrated to America after the second world war, was Altrincham, just 30 miles away. To be this far away from home was considered exotic behaviour. Each year the whole street piled onto a couple of charabangs and we all headed to Southport for the day. There was a steady stream of people passing the door. My Nana would whitewash her front step and chat to her neighbours, all engaged in the same task. Services were provided by real people; a man from the Pru to collect insurance, the pools man with the coupon each week, the tallyman to collect payments for goods bought on tick. Groceries were bought from Sharp’s on the corner, fruit and veg from Appleton’s on Peel House Lane and a pint of beer enjoyed with friends over a game of dominoes in the local pub that everyone simply called “the bottom”, as it was at the bottom of the street.

I’m not trying to paint a picture of some idyll; having an outside toilet, no central heating, a tiny kitchen and even smaller bathroom, working at what my grandfather himself called “ignorant work” simply to pay the bills is not a state I would wish to go back to. What that life did have was a sense of community. People were linked to other people and to their businesses.

When my grandmother went to buy groceries she did so at Sharp’s, from Mr and Mrs Sharp, who owned the shop. If something wasn’t right, fell below standard or was otherwise defective my Nana could take things back and complain, if need be, directly to the person she bought it from. The same with fruit and veg, or meat. If the meat was tough or off, then a complaint could be made to the butcher. Or you could buy from a different butcher next time, as there was more than one on the main street.

With my parents generation came many improvements, better access to education, better jobs, more opportunities. They were able, and encouraged, to buy their own home. Not in the grim terraces of the old cities but in the new housing estates that were springing up on the outskirts of the old towns. So it was that my parents moved from Widnes to a new house on a small estate in Great Sankey, some 5 miles from Widnes and a dozen miles from Liverpool. If you go there now Liverpool, Widnes and Warrington have all merged into one massive housing estate pock marked with B&Q’s and IKEA’s, but back in the day this was open countryside. Shopping was still local; a ginger haired man in a red van delivered bread, the Alpine man delivered fizzy pop and old Mr Davidson, of Davidson’s the Grocers, delivered the weekly shop in his big green van every Friday. If we ran out of anything during the week I’d be sent out clutching a string bag and a couple of shillings to Davidson’s. If I hadn’t enough money it didn’t matter as Mr Davidson would make a note on the receipt and stick it on a spike next to the till. At the end of the week these odd pennies owed were added to Mum’s bill for the weekly shop. I should say, however, that it did matter to me! I could never understand why my Mum didn’t always make sure that I had the right money as I found it excruciating to watch as the pink receipt was speared and put on display for all to see. I can see now that it didn’t matter to Mr Davidson or my Mum. They knew each other and there was the trust that came from that personal relationship.

But then came KwikSave, the first supermarket round our way, closely followed by ASDA. KwikSave was truly dreadful, with cardboard cartons stacked on cheap metal shelving so it never caught on with my Mum, but it was a great adventure to shop in ASDA. Long wide aisles packed full of food and small electricals, with a bakery, greengrocery and butcher’s in the same store, plus cards and toys and all manner of other stuff. And slowly, just as the new out of town estates broke the link between people and the place they were born, the supermarkets replaced the small corner stores and broke the link between shopper and shopkeeper.

My generation moved further away from their place of birth. I was born in Widnes and spent the first 15 years of my life within easy walking distance of the maternity home I was born in. But my parents moved to upmarket Cheshire as my Dad’s career blossomed, then came my own university education and aspirations and then marriage to an ambitious young graduate, all of which conspired to take me further away from the close knit community of my grandparents. And the same is true of all my cousins, my generation. We are spread throughout the UK and beyond. We are still a close family but can no longer just pop across the road to see how each other are doing. And so communities have dissolved. Not because of the bulldozing or our inner cities to be replaced in the ’60′s by high rise blocks, though that didn’t help, but by the creeping aspirations of my generation.

Now aspiration is a fine thing but we now find ourselves hankering after the benefits that the communities of my grandparents took for granted. We have older people who, having bought their own house away from their birthplace, are now finding that they have a lonely old age in a big empty house. No one calls to collect the insurance money or HP payments. There is no front step to whitewash as a reason to stand and chat to neighbours. Their children have also taken the decision to move away from the place of their birth. No one calls. As a colleague of mine says, “we have a generation long on capital but short on care.”

And the supply chain for our food has become longer and more complex. The local butcher might have charged for a quarter of corned beef when the weight was only 3.5oz but these seem small faults compared to the large scale fraud that allows horse meat to enter the food chain purporting to be beef. With a complex chain of suppliers, speculators and middle-men between the animal and the processed beefburger it has proved easy to perpetrate large scale fraud. It is much more difficult for a butcher to look a customer in the eye and tell them that the joint of beef they are about to buy is real beef if they know it to be horse. The personal, one-to-one relationship between customer and supplier is a better guarantor of veracity than can be expected from multinational food conglomerates who seen their customers not as people but as profit centres.

It’s no wonder that we are looking back to communities as they existed a couple of generations ago for inspiration in creating the communities we would like to see for our children’s generation.