Saturday, 22 July 2017

Chester Bennington. We need to talk about it.

This week brought the tragic news of yet another relatively young father taking his own life. This one was famous, and famous particularly for lyrical angst. This was something that some people dismissed as mere sales-related, unhappy-teen-attracting, pseudo-angry posturing, of course, as is often the case with 'angry music', or anything that tries to use a musical medium to say anything more meaningful than 'Oooo I love you baby'.

We need to talk about mental health. We need to talk about changing public attitudes, and we need to talk about healthcare policy issues, and we need to talk about it in relation to our selves and our own lives. Thankfully awareness of that has been improving in recent years, but there's a very long way to go. It's not just about talking about problems when they start to get serious, because that can be too late to make a real difference. It's about understanding that this is something that can and does happen to anyone, anywhere, and in any walk of life. It's about destroying the taboo - understanding that mental health is an issue for every person, every day, just as physical health is.

We have public campaigns relating to eating healthily, taking regular exercise, and so on. We've had many such campaigns about physical dangers like seat belts in cars, swimming in dangerous waters, and so on. Where are the big public campaigns about maintaining mental health, though? It's an improvement to be saying that we should be talking about mental illness when it's already happened, and there have been campaigns on that, but that's not quite the same thing - we're trying to make people understand that suffering from a mental illness is a normal thing, but we need to look at prevention more too. We need to think about that. We need to talk about it.

Obviously there are some circumstances that can make problems worse, or make them more likely, and we have to consider and try to address those too. Poverty, and an endless daily struggle to physically survive, is just one example. It's not the only one, but on that specific issue I was very interested to here some comments recently about the potential benefits of 'Universal Basic Income'. As a Liberal, my instinct is to be wary of such an apparently 'redistributive' approach, but as a pragmatist I'm certainly interested in evidence relating to such a benefit - if it does, as has been suggested, really make a significant difference to the mental well-being of those struggling most in society, then I think it's certainly an approach worth looking at. Indeed, we have a duty to look seriously at it, whatever our ideological instincts might suggest to us.

Perhaps I'm digressing a little, though - poverty probably wasn't the main direct issue for a hugely successful multi-millionaire rock star. What were the factors in this case? How much stemmed from early life, and how much was later? How much was 'nature' and how much 'nurture'? What kind of stresses were being put on him, and how was he helped to deal with them? I'm obviously not going to speculate on the answers to those kind of questions - I didn't know him personally, and it wouldn't be fair or right to wander off into such an uninformed discussion. We do know that the factors can be many and varied in different cases, though, and it's unlikely to be the direct result of one single isolated factor. We need to think about all of those possible factors and how they apply to people across the huge spectrum of human lives.

It's not just about individual, personal 'coping mechanisms' - we need to consider the way in which our lives are organised and run - the pressures and expectations being put on people in all kinds of ways. It seems to me that, more and more, life is becoming about expectations and even deliberately applied stresses, in the belief that we have to quantify everything about everyone and apply standards of 'success' and 'failure'. Everything seems to be about competition and 'winning at life' in some way - we do it to children in schools, for example, 'testing' them from a very young age and putting huge pressure on them to at least 'meet expectations' and 'reach standards'. It might be that the pressure is unintentional, but it's still there - it's on teachers to 'get results', and it's on parents to prove how wonderful their child is compared with others, and if we think that isn't transmitted to the minds of the children themselves we are living in a fantasy world.

We have to think about that kind of thing when we look at any kind of policy, and we have to be able to talk about it too - there are too many elephants in too many rooms when we talk about public policy. We need to remember that these 'numbers' are always human beings, with real lives, real minds, and real combinations of circumstances. Obviously we can't ever remove any kind of stress or pressure from everybody's minds, but we have to understand that the effect is cumulative in the individual. Doing a school test at a very young age, and being pushed to do well because it's a statistic that actually matters (if not to them directly, to those who are pushing them), may not seem like a huge thing in itself, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum. The modern (western, particularly) world, with all of its pressures of expectation driven now by ready accessible and universally accessed multi-media in a way that has never existed before, is a place full of expectations of all kind, and full of fears of being a failure in some way or another (and mental illness is itself often still considered a 'failure', of course).

It's not just about sorting out our attitude to mental illness, but about sorting out our attitude to mental health in our daily lives, and in our public policy, and in the pressures and expectations we put on people who are apparently 'mentally healthy'. In policy terms, it's vital that we understand that it's not just about fixing the problems of treatment in the health service (though that is a huge issue, of course), but about trying to understand the impact of everything we do on the mental well-being of everyone who has to live with the results. It's not just about supporting people when something has gone wrong with their mental health, but about supporting people so that these problems aren't happening to so many of them. I don't pretend that's at all easy, of course, or that it is all under the direct influence of politicians, parties and governments. There are many people individually involved in many different ways in the complicated networks of human lives. That's why we need to talk about it.

So let's now talk about Chester Bennington, and about Linkin Park. I guess it's hard for some people to understand the context of just how huge, and how important, a band they have been. Although they are a name many probably know vaguely, and they have had some chart success of course, that doesn't really put it into context for a more 'mainstream' music audience. Their debut Hybrid Theory album is, without a shadow of doubt, among the most important and influential albums of all time, and one of the biggest selling albums worldwide of this century (estimated to be about 30 million copies, with their next album not being too far behind). That's a total up there with the likes of Abbey Road, Born in the USA and The Wall, but it was only released in 2000.

Of course, that's only part of the story - Hybrid Theory was a huge 'moment' in music and in time. It was at the start of the Nu Metal movement, and mixed different musical genres in a way that really caught the imagination of a generation of young fans. Ask any community of Heavy Metal (or related) fans about the album that was there 'gateway' into that kind of heavier music, and Hybrid Theory will be one of the most popular answers - probably the most popular of all, in fact. I'm a little (OK, a lot!) older myself, of course, but it was huge for me too - it was the time of MTV2, when there was suddenly a new generation of heavy music that was getting exposure, and it was a major part of what brought many older fans of heavier music back into discovering new music. It was genuinely something original and exciting, following on from the frankly dreary period of 'grunge' and 'brit pop' nostalgia-driven music that had all but drained the life out of the 'mainstream' rock and metal world in the 1990s. It's bigger even than that, though - it connected across genres too, and brought many fans of Hip-Hop to metal and vice versa. It wasn't isolated and alone in experimenting in that way, of course, coming after early works of bands like Korn, Papa Roach and Slipknot, but it was the one that hit the blend in just the right way at just the right time to become truly a global phenomenon.

I think it's fair to say that the band never quite recreated that moment of their debut (and arguably second) album. They modified their sound in ways that many didn't take to in the same way. They remained, however, one of the biggest bands on the live circuit, headlining major festival to huge crowds. I have seen them twice, in 2007 and 2014, both only partial sets at festivals (latter parts of sets after watching bands at other stages), and they were certainly a great live band to watch. In the usual way of these things, a heavier band very often doesn't quite get the public recognition of more easily accessible pop counterparts, but Linkin Park have been one of the biggest bands of the twenty first century in terms of sales and influence.

I don't pretend they are a particular favourite band of mine, obviously, hence only watching part of their sets when I've had the chance. Hybrid Theory is a fantastic album, but it's the only one I really like, and I find it a little 'of its time' in some ways now. It's not something I listen to often, although I am listening to it as I type, and it's one of those albums that I always enjoy listening to a little more than I expect to, even though I know it backwards. That doesn't diminish their importance as a band, obviously, or the success that they have rightly enjoyed over the last 2 decades.

That's a fairly long description of their importance, but it's impossible to over-emphasise, and Chester Bennington was very much at the centre of all that. So how does someone so successful come to choose to take their own life? It seems hard to understand - there's what might be called the usual collection of 'baggage' for a rock star, of course, but it seemed from the outside like he had his life in order more recently, and had everything going for him. Fame, success, money, a family - things that many people would envy. That's the point, though - it is hard to understand for anyone who hasn't experienced the kind of mental issues that convert stresses and expectations into something so negative. It's easy to say 'get over it', but it doesn't work like that. It's easy to say 'get help' and 'talk about it' too, but if that were so easy to do we'd have less tragic stories like this.

We need to understand that, which is itself not easy from the outside - it's hard to put yourself in the mental situation of someone else who isn't you, and who may not think quite like you. That's why it's so important to understand that those pressures work differently for different people, and the need to consider the pressures we put other people under at all stages in life, personally and in policy terms. What might seem a simply thing to you or me, might be a mental wall to climb for someone else - even if we walk in their shoes, we can't think in their minds. That, as we know, applies to 'famous' people as much as 'ordinary' people - this isn't the first such apparent suicide of someone who should be on top of the world, and sadly I'm sure it won't be the last. We also need to think about the pressures they are under, even if they are very different from our own (and, as an aside, we need to talk about the tabloids, too - those 'celebrity gossip' victims are human beings too).

One more thing I'd like to mention, in connection with mental health and the 'angst' in the music of bands like Linkin Park - the sometimes suggested link between angry and/or depressing music with anger and depression. It's a subject which I think is widely misunderstood, and some suggest that music and associated cultural lifestyles can lead to mental health issues. I think they are very wide of the mark there. There may well be some statistical link, but if anything it is the other way around - those who are suffering are drawn towards music and culture that speaks to them and reflects their suffering. Whether it be the darker aesthetic, or the musical and lyrical anger, of heavier forms of music, those things are very often a release for people - knowing that someone else has been where they are, and has felt like they felt, can be a huge thing for them. As well as Linkin Park being cited as a 'gateway' band into heavier music, they are also commonly cited as a band that have got people through some very hard times with their music and lyrics. Some like to suggest that darker, angrier music and culture can drive people into tragic situations - I know that it has saved many people from such situations. Sadly, it can't save everybody.

Finally, I think it would be wrong to talk about all this without remembering Chester Bennington and Linkin Park at their finest. This video was from the second and last performance I saw part of, and happens to be my favourite song from that Hybrid Theory album. Even if it's not your thing, do please take the time to watch and listen. The music matters a great deal to many people, and I think it's important to try to understand that (even if you don't particularly like it) to see this tragedy in its full context.

R.I.P. Chester Bennington

And if anybody is struggling, now or at any time, there are people out there who can help you:

Look after yourselves, and each other.

Monday, 17 July 2017

So...A Female Doctor. #DoctorWho13

There's been a huge explosion on social media since the reveal of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who yesterday. Much of that is a fuss about nothing, of course - ultimately, it's just a TV show. To many, though, the reality is that it's very much more than that. When something is that much of a fixture in the life of a lifelong fan, that emotional link matters to them. It matters to me, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. People care, and they have every right to care. Still, we should, I think, keep it all in some kind of perspective - the nastiness being flung in all direction is pointless nonsense.

Where do I stand on the introduction of a female actor in the role? Well, I'm certainly not with those celebrating it as some kind of revolutionary breakthrough - a moment in TV history to be seen as a landmark for equality. I don't buy that at all, in fact. In some ways, I think it's quite the opposite, though that is not my only objection. Oh, I know that will get me condemned on social media as a 'dinosaur' and a 'misogynist', and all of the other accusations that are being thrown around, including by supposedly liberal people, at anyone who dares to hold an alternative opinion for any reason (it's actually been one of the worst social media outpourings of insulting behaviour based on simplistic assumptions that I've ever seen coming from normally thoughtful 'liberal' people!). I've never been shy of standing up for what I believe, though, and I'm not about to start now, even if that wins me a torrent of entirely wrongly-aimed insults.

My first problem with this is that it looks and feels like a bit of a publicity stunt 'cop out' - an easy route to saying 'look - equality' without really having to think too hard. This is the kind of thing that seems to have been a trend for some years in various ways in a number of different artistic and dramatic fields - changing surface appearances rather than having to go to the trouble of breaking truly new artistic ground or having to go to the trouble of really inventive textual exploration of scripts and characters.

Take Jonathan Miller's 1980s production of the Mikado, for example. In that production, what was 'new' was really just a matter costumes and sets - largely a simple exercise in 'hey, let's set this thing set in Japan not really in Japan'. The Mikado (setting aside some of the accusations of 'racism', which I think are largely a misunderstanding of what it is all about, though there were clearly some lines in the original text that are unacceptable) actually has a fine script, with lots of space for interpretation (despite being stifled for three quarters of a century by the vice-like grip of the D'Oyly Carte company rules) - Gilbert knew how to produce characters, even in such a light and humorous work, that could exist on many levels, and could have many different interpretations and emphases drawn out by clever direction and acting within the confines of the existing text and setting. You could, for example, change the way that Nanki Poo is played to make him firmly the villain of the piece, without changing a single line - that would dramatically alter the relationships between characters, and reveal a whole new aspect to the work. There are many other such ideas that could be pursued to produce the same work in an entirely different light. They chose not to explore any of that, though, and instead make their 'artistic statement' with a bit of a cosmetic overhaul that really just ignored the basic premise of the work's setting for no apparent reason. That kind of thing doesn't really 'freshen up' a piece, in my opinion - it is merely change for the sake of change - a kind of 'faux artiness' that doesn't really contribute to shedding different or additional light, and doesn't draw anything new out of the plot and characters.

Don't even start me on the 'faux artiness' of Quentin Tarantino, by the way, and the use of silly devices like editing out of sequence and slow motion depictions of graphic violence to cover for the lack of basic plot, script or characterisation.

In the case of Doctor Who, there could have been so much done in terms of the existing, original premise of the work without resorting to this kind of obvious publicity stunt. The relationship of the Doctor with any given 'companion' is something that has unlimited scope. What we could have had was a truly strong new (or even 're-discovered' previous) female character - for example, one to whom the Doctor himself effectively became the 'companion' or 'assistant'. It's very easy to do without having to mess with the basic story and characters, and could certainly give plenty of opportunity to explore concepts like gender roles and stereotyping - bringing back Romana in a new 21st century form would be the most obvious way, of course. That would have been a really interesting new dynamic to create dramatically. Likewise on the villain side - the Master regenerating into 'Missy' was just an obvious attempt to push forward the idea that Timelords regenerate in that way, despite the fact that this never seems to have happened or been mentioned before (and Missy turning out to be the Rani would have been more interesting, too, and added extra characters to play with). It was a re-writing of the existing underlying characterisations specifically in order to create the circumstances for a female Doctor, not for any actual dramatic reason or gain within the context of the show. It all feels contrived to me, as if it is just an attempt to make a cheap statement rather than a genuine dramatic device for plot purposes.

And that is really the point - they have allowed a publicity stunt to make a point to guide the story and characters, rather than allowing the drama to take the lead in addressing the concepts that they wanted to address in a way that fitted within the pre-existing context. I don't think that's ever a good idea. The exact same point about equality could have been made more effectively by creating a new strong female character, rather than just inventing a contrived way to make an existing male character female for no dramatic purpose. It feels forced and contrived, and I don't think the cause of feminism is well served by saying 'OK - we'll let a woman do it' rather than creating a new strong female character with a different dramatic relationship with the existing characters.

In order for the drama to lead, I think you need to ask questions of what you are thinking of doing dramatically. 'Is it necessary or helpful?', for example. Is it actually of particular dramatic benefit to do what you are doing with the story. In this case, I don't believe it is. This is a science fiction series, not a soap opera. That's not meant to be insulting in any way towards the soap opera genre - quite the opposite. In that scenario, there is the scope to deal dramatically and at length with issues like sexuality, gender transition, equality, and many other important issues in modern society. They can be explored at length from multiple perspectives in story-lines that last for many years. Soap operas have done great work in dealing with a number of such issues with great sensitivity, and raising awareness of them in wider society. They have been hugely important, but, to be frank, if you want to make a soap opera or serious exploratory drama series, go and make those things - don't try to turn something else into something it isn't to satisfy that urge.

That leads me on to another issue - what I like to call 'the Cagney and Lacey effect' in long-running TV shows. Cagney and Lacey was, in its own time and in its own way, a truly ground-breaking TV show. A police action series that was firmly led by strong female characters, and dealt with equality and discrimination issues within that scenario extremely effectively (for its time - it was 'of its time' to a certain extent, of course, as everything is). The problem, though, was that as it went on it began to lose sight of its own purpose - what had been an effective dramatic device for dealing with those issues through a medium of the action series became more and more a soap opera about the lives of the characters, and as it went further and further into domestic issues it not only became considerably less good as a show to watch, but it also undid some of its own good work by gradually returning to bits of old stereotyping about domestic relationships between genders and so on. Where it has once been an effective vehicle for challenging ideas in a way that would naturally 'bring people along', it began to force ideas down their throats by gradually removing the original premise of the show (and the reason people began to watch it in the first place), and then even began to create a counter-productive counter-narrative to its own good early work on the issues of gender equality and stereotyping.

This drift from original purpose towards a form 'character development' directly at the expense of that purpose something we've begun to see in the NuWho era. True, the original 'monster a week' format allowed relatively little scope for character development, and there was space to shift the balance slightly. In the early days it did that, but then began at times to drift further down that road into explorations that weren't relevant, dramatically useful, or really working within the context of the original premise of the show. We began to see threads of love story and back story for the Doctor, which was OK in small doses as an aside to the main action, but seemed to creep ever more into the forefront to the point where it relegated the original purpose of the show into (sometimes a seemingly quite distant) second place. There is, I think, a serious danger of 'Cagney and Lacey' effect - the show losing sight of what it actually fundamentally is, and morphing into something else entirely. The essence of drama is conflict, but the real conflict in this case should generally be between the Doctor and his 'enemy' - it's becoming more and more between the Doctor and himself and his companions on a personal relationships level, and that is really a different show.

I could wax lyrical here on the last few series, and them being, in my opinion, mostly been below par, and often devoid of really good, inventive ideas. We've even lapsed into what seem to be purely 'magical' things (the point of scifi is to at least attempt some form of 'pseudo science', not to fall back on pure 'magical' impossibility - if you want magic, that's what the fantasy genre is usually all about), and them being defeated purely because 'love'. There have been some good scripts in terms of dialogue, but much of the plot invention and story-telling has been pretty dire. Peter Capaldi has been an OK doctor in some ways, but he could and should have been so much better - he's an excellent actor, and we had the new (for NuWho) 'device' of an 'older' doctor regeneration to explore. They didn't bother to explore it at all, really, and just made him the same jumpy around 'young' character as Tennant and Smith had been, but with added wrinkles (and occasional cheap gag lines on that basis).

And that is another thing that worries me about the idea of a female Doctor - we haven't explored the idea of an 'older' Doctor in any meaningful dramatic way during the time of the latest incarnation, so can we expect a female Doctor to be any different? Let's face it, in the 'Master meets Missy' scenario the scripts actually fell back on cheap nob gags - that might be 'new' for Doctor Who, but I'll make no apology for saying that I don't think it's the right direction for the series to be heading. In a dramatic sense, aside from the 'beyond the 4th wall' issues, is this just going to be an excuse for throwing in a bunch of one-liners about gender? I fear that it might be, and I don't see how that helps to advance the cause of equality.

And 'equality' is an important term here - gender is certainly not the only equality issue, but it is an issue that has required a pretty serious rewrite to the back story to allow for it to be dealt with in this unsatisfactory way, and for no particular dramatic purpose within the context of the whole ongoing story. There were other issues that could and should have been explored in a less disruptive and incoherent way, without need for the kind of ignoring of previous backstory that gender change required.

It all feels like a cosmetic change for publicity purposes rather than a genuine will for fresh dramatic exploration. There are so many things that could have been done in terms of the character of the doctor through this NuWho era, but they've not been done. Eccleston was a genuinely new kind of Doctor, but ever since they have been very much variations on a theme - that has limited the scope for character development, and got us to where we are. I just don't feel that simplistic gender change is a substitute for real in-depth consideration of dramatic relationships and character development.

And that is the basis of my issue with this casting - it's not because I think women aren't equal, or that only men can act in leading roles, or anything of that sort. It just feels like a really, really lazy option created by the desire to make a public statement without there being any real textual or dramatic reason for it. In other words, to use a rather provocative term, it feels 'token' - almost as if they haven't bothered to create a strong new female character, and have fallen back on an easy, contrived solution in the hope that one happens by default and everyone shuts up about all this equality business. I'm not suggesting that's how they see it themselves, of course, but it just feels like the desire to be provocative in society with a big headline now has overridden the desire to do the job properly with by creating strong female role-model characters (in Doctor Who and elsewhere).

Now of course those who say 'well it can be done within the story' are correct, certainly since they contrived to alter the story to make sure that it could be done a couple of years in advance. On the other hand, you could easily have a CGI Jar Jar Binks Doctor within the story, if you turn the Master into a rubbery big-eared alien thing first - that doesn't mean that it's the right thing to do, or has any dramatic benefit or justification. Indeed, the Doctor could easily have his 'life force' inserted into the circuits of the shooty dog thing, if Timelords were suddenly said to have special life force personality memory things that could be magically locked away in pocket watches or something (oh....wait.....!). The question should not be 'can it be done', but 'should it be done dramatically', and 'does it need to be done dramatically', and 'does it add potential value dramatically' - personally I'm not sure that my answer to any of those questions would be 'yes'.

Another example that's been cited by some on social media is that of the Ghostbusters remake using an all female lead cast, in the sense of 'those who don't like this probably hated that too because misogyny'. Well in a sense they are correct - I didn't like that either. I didn't like it because it was a classic film that didn't need to be remade, and I didn't like it because the remake was significantly less good than the original anyway. That was nothing to do with the women being in it. And that is perhaps the crux of the whole matter - what the creative world needs to be doing to truly advance equality (which is something they should be doing, like everyone else) is writing strong new characters, not simply rehashing old ones and using existing ones by making them female as if that somehow makes women 'equal'. It doesn't. It merely makes them 'fit to step into shoes vacated by men', and that really isn't the same thing at all. It's an easy artistic cop out to create a few headlines that I believe actually does almost nothing to advance the cause of real equality, and especially not to advance the cause of real equality within the industry itself (which is something that still desperately needs to be addressed).

Finally (almost), I'd like to make one thing very clear. I don't agree with this casting decision, as I'm sure you've worked out if you've got this far, and I don't think it's been done for the right reasons at all (although I certainly agree that it's probably been done with the best of intentions). That doesn't mean I'm going to 'go off on one', and proclaim that 'I'll never watch Doctor Who again', or whatever - I will give this new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance, as I have given every previous new Doctor (and new writer) a fair chance (whatever my reservations about them, and whatever conclusion I have ultimately come to about them in the end). As I said in the first paragraph, it matters to me - it's been a fixture of my life from my earliest memories (Tom Baker era, in case you were wondering!), and I've been watching it avidly ever since (whenever it's been on, at least!). I'm not going to cut that out of my life just because I don't like the choice of new Doctor (hell, if I haven't abandoned it because of the wobbly walls, wobbly rubber creatures and sometimes equally wobbly plots of the late McCoy era, or the way Moffat has treated it more recently, the reality is that I'll probably put up with almost anything!). As much as I'm a lifelong 'Whovian', I can keep it all in some kind of perspective with reference to real life. I'm not falling out with anyone or making this is into  bigger issue than it actually is (nor am I being a 'butthurt' 'crybaby', 'snowflake' or whatever!) - I'm entitled to my opinion and reasoning, though, as they are entitled to theirs.

I have my own opinion, but that isn't to say that some of those condemning this decision aren't doing so on the basis of simple misogyny, sexism and lack of imagination or tolerance for anything 'new' or 'different' - I'm sure that is the case for some, even though it certainly isn't the case for myself and some others. I will make one last observation, though - a number of those celebrating this as hailing some kind of great new era of televisual equality, while attacking anyone who dares to disagree with their view as just being 'misogynist dinosaurs' or whatever, seem to then be quietly admitting that they don't actually watch Doctor Who, or like Doctor Who at all, and never really have, and are never likely to, and really don't know or care much about the whole thing beyond this apparent 'victory for feminism' anyway. Do they actually care about the artistic integrity, the long term internal plot line coherency, or the dramatic value of the show itself? I guess I'll just leave you to decide for yourself about that.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Elections and things

It's been a while since I've posted anything new here - I've been pretty tied up with the practicalities of elections and things over the past few months. After fighting an ultimately unsuccessful council election campaign (more of that in a moment), unexpectedly having a general election dropped on us was not exactly fun - even more so, since I hadn't anticipated also being a candidate at said election. Still, that's how things go - I'm just going to use this post as a general ramble of my thoughts about those elections, and where we now find ourselves.

In a strongly Labour region, being a Lib Dem activist and candidate isn't always the easiest of tasks, and there are no guarantees of success even if you work hard over a long period. That's fine by me, though - politics for me has never been about being the most popular or successful, as much as I'd like a bit of success to allow us to get on with doing the things that we think should be done in the way that we think they should be done. I guess on one level it might sound strange, but the 'popularity contest' of elections has never made me feel that I just ought to be saying what I think would be most popular. I think that you have to be true to yourself and what you believe to be right.

It's also never been about advancing myself personally, or joining the party that I think will give me the best chance of getting elected. Let's face it, as Tim Farron pointed out in a conference speech a while back, joining the Lib Dems was never going to be a smart career move! I'm quite comfortable with that - I'd rather lose standing up for what I believe in than win on the basis of something I don't believe.

For me it's all about running what you believe up the flagpole to see who salutes, so to speak. Of course, in putting your ideas forward you should present them in a way that persuades people, particularly broadly like-minded people, that they are good ideas - that should go without saying. That's about presentation, though, not simply about following the crowd and repeating whatever you think they want to hear in the hope of winning their votes. You'll never persuade everyone, and I don't think you should ever even try - the breadth of political opinion among the public means that you would inevitably be compromised to such an extent that the original core ideas would have disappeared completely. Democracy is about choices, and from the point of view of candidates and parties I think it's about offering distinct options for the electorate to choose between. That doesn't mean offering nothing but bland platitudes in the hope that nobody notices - you have to nail your colours firmly to the mast, and accept that some people (maybe sometimes many people, and maybe sometimes most people) won't like them.

You also have to accept that you aren't ever in full control of your own destiny as a candidate - ultimately, it's all in the hands of the voters. Hard work makes a difference, of course, but it doesn't isolate you from existing prevailing views, unexpected new situations, or national events and campaigns. You have to try your best to get your message across, but everyone else is likely to be doing the same (and in many cases they may well have greater and more friendly media coverage, greater resources, and so on). You can only do what you can do, and I think you have to be philosophical about things not working out as you'd hoped (as well as being honest with yourself, and learning the lessons of the things that you could have done better).

Without going into too much boring detail about local election issues here, I was standing in a large ward that I'd been trying to do my bit in for about three years with regular focus leaflets (the only such leaflets locally - there were no regular communications from councillors or other parties/activists), regular door knocking sessions and surveying, dealing with casework issues for people, and so on. There was no record of Lib Dem activity in the ward, and all of the Lib Dem seats on the council had been lost in 2012 so we had no sitting councillors to cite good news stories from.

In the recent past it had really been a barely contested ward in terms of activity on the ground, with about 6 candidates for the 3 seats. This time, though, local circumstances changed significantly - with de-selections of sitting councillors who stood again as independents, a retirement of another popular local candidate, the sitting party putting up new candidates, and a rise in activity from another party locally, and an independent who was fairly well known locally (and associated with a loose collection of an independent campaign across the council area), we ended up with 11 candidates for 3 seats. Not only that, but they were 11 candidates who were all out campaigning pretty hard during the election period. As a single candidate from a currently 'unfashionable' party on my own in a three seat ward up against three teams of three it was always going to be difficult, and I got swamped by bigger campaigns.

Having said that, of course, my own campaign wasn't perfect, and I'm not going to claim that it was - I'm not going to ignore lessons that need to be learned by myself and the local party (and we have many lessons to learn from other wards too, of course). Even so, while for some time in advance it was a target ward that looked reasonably hopeful, the circumstances at the time of the election (not just those I've mentioned, though they were complicated enough - there were other large local issues in the ward (particularly surrounding a major new development issue) that suddenly appeared to make the whole thing more complicated anyway) I think made it a whole different ball game. That's fine, though - again, you have to be philosophical about such things.

Overall, despite not having a good result personally, I do think of that election being something of a success locally, and not just for the party. We did win one seat back on the council in another ward (and very strongly so), giving us a voice in the chamber for the first time in 5 years. We had more candidates than last time around - we were hoping for a few more than we ultimately ended up with, but it still shows some improvement on local activity, and that is always a good thing.

In my own ward, the success was that it really felt like an election for the first time in any election since I've been living in the area. There were people out in the streets from various groups and parties knocking doors and delivering leaflets, and genuinely working the ground locally. OK, that swamped me out in the end, but that's fine - in a very real sense local democracy was the winner, even if I wasn't. That is how local politics should always be, of course, and it might seem strange to some that it isn't - the reality in some places, particularly in 'heartlands', is that local democracy on the ground is virtually dead. As an example, in a neighbouring 3 member ward, 3 candidates from the dominant party were elected entirely unopposed (and that wasn't the only such ward in the area). Here, though, we had a real local election campaign, and that is huge. If my own work over the previous years and during the campaign contributed in some small way to that happening, then I'm certainly satisfied with that as something of a personal success too.

So that was the local election - we ended up with a brand new group of 3 councillors from 2 different parties who actually had to work hard to get there. That's a great result for democracy, and hopefully for the future of the community - I genuinely wish them every success. We may have different ideological backgrounds, but at the local level I know they all variously share some of my concerns about the area and the way things have gone over recent years at council level. It's all about supporting the local area and the local community, and giving them the support that they deserve over the coming years, and I sincerely hope that by the time the next election comes around their record of outstanding service to the community has been one that is unassailable. That might sound a little odd, but real success for the community is more important to me than mere party politics. I'm certainly not going to start petty party politicking for the sake of it, or hoping that our new councillors fail so that I or other Lib Dems can get elected in future, or just because they won and I didn't. Of course, they know I'm still around, and they know I'll still be keeping my eyes and ears open and trying to do my bit, but I genuinely hope what I'm seeing and hearing is that the new councillors are doing a great job for us.

So then we come to the unexpected general election, being dropped on us at short notice in the middle of the local election campaign. That probably didn't help the local campaigns either, and that may have been part of the idea of doing it. Indeed, if I were a cynical person I might be tempted to point out that the party who called it were the one party with virtually unlimited financial resources to throw at a general election campaign when most others would just have spent a great deal of what they had on local election campaigns. Perhaps I am that cynical. Perhaps the Conservative Party are too. Not for me to judge, really - I'll leave that to others to consider, and to consider what the implications of that are for our democratic system as it stands.

The election was unexpected (I had privately thought that there might by one this year, but if it were going to happen I'd expected it to happen around October/November sort of time), and so were the circumstances that meant I became the candidate. A combination of unexpected issues, but I was proud to be the one flying the flag local for Liberal Democracy. Of course, while knowing that it is always in the hands of the electorate and that any candidate can win, my own expectations of inevitable victory were tempered with the certain knowledge of the scale of mountain to be climbed!

I've not been active in politics for that long, really - I joined the party in 2010, and hadn't previously been more than a 'normal' voter and occasional party supporter. I remember something of the public perception of politics and political parties from the outside, and some of the misunderstandings about what a big election means for parties and the people within them. In that context, I'm reasonably satisfied about the job that we did locally, though there is much more I would like to be able to do in future of course.

One of the regular social media comments during a campaign, and particularly a short 'snap' election campaign, as an example of that difference between perception and reality, is 'well nobody has been to knock on my door, so obviously they don't care about my vote'. For perfectly understandable reasons, many people don't grasp just how time consuming such activities are, and just how limited the resources of the political parties are for doing them. As well as not understanding the sheer scale of the task of covering an entire constituency, I suspect many think of 'party machines' as great big things, with troops of people ready to get out and about and talk to everyone - as anyone in a political party (particularly a smaller party in a 'heartland' area) knows, that really isn't the case. To put a little meat on those bones, I reckon that on average two people can knock about 50 doors in an hour (assuming that nobody is home at two thirds or more of addresses). In this constituency there are, I believe, well over 30,000 doors to knock - in this general election, getting around that would have meant knocking something like 5 or 6 thousand doors a week. Those two people would have been knocking solidly for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. OK, so having more than two people obviously helps, but that would mean having a team of people willing and able to give up their jobs and lives full time for the duration of the campaign. The reality is that there aren't enough people able to do that to allow any party, and especially any smaller party locally, to get to every door during an election campaign (which is why it's so important to knock doors between election campaigns, of course, something that not enough parties tend to do).

That's just one example of reality not matching common voter expectations, and that's before we even start to talk about money. Just sending one undressed leaflet to every house in a constituency via the single 'freepost' option (the postage is free, but not the printing) that every candidate gets during an election is likely to have a minimum cost approaching £1,000 - this stuff ain't cheap, and most parties have limited resources. This is especially true when a party isn't expected to come close to winning in a particular seat - it's important for every party to do what it can everywhere, and give people the democratic option of voting for them, but parties obviously need to target their resources to win the seats where they can win. This, as I am sure I have said before, is one of the big problems with our frankly stupid 'first past the post' electoral system.

That was a bit of a tangent there, but the relevance is that obviously I didn't knock every door during the campaign - it just wasn't possible. Everyone should have had a leaflet, but mostly I had to concentrate on running a social media campaign, and to that extent I felt the campaign went reasonably well locally considering local context of it being a 'heartland' seat for another party, and the wider context of what was going on nationally in an election where all apart from the 'big 2' parties were getting very heavily squeezed everywhere. I obviously have lessons to learn for the future about which bits of that seemed to work better or less well than others, and it all adds to the 'things to think about' column (which is a good thing). Again, it wasn't 'successful' for me, but I had a pretty good idea of how things stood, so again being philosophical about it all has to be the order of the day. I was proud to fly the flag and stand up for what I believe, and I'm happy to have been able to give local people the option of voting for the Liberal Democrats.

The only frustration for me, really, was in seeing second place go to a candidate who, as far as I could see, hadn't even set foot in the constituency or done any campaigning of any sort at all (leaflets, social media, etc., etc.). This was a purely 'national' vote, and a reminder that hard work locally (or lack of it) doesn't always equate to votes (or lack thereof). While other candidates were doing what they could in knocking doors, social media campaigning, and so on, and turning up to the 'Facebook live' hustings that was held, one candidate got thousands of votes and came second (not their traditional place) even though they did pretty much nothing at all, and didn't even bother to turn up to the count. It's not for me to judge how people choose to cast their votes, of course, but it should give people something to think about.

A word about that 'Facebook live' hustings. That was a new thing, obviously, and I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Not only did it give opportunity for people to see what the candidates had to say without having to turn out to where there were speaking (and it's often the same people who turn out to such hustings every time, and a number of them are actually 'activists' of some kind there to support their chosen candidate anyway), but the lack of audience in the room I think actually helped (they could, and did, ask questions live via facebook, in addition to those that had been chosen by the chair from previous facebook posts). It was very, very well chaired by a local journalist (one of those who didn't see it as her role to get directly involved in the debate, but to simply make sure every candidate got their fair turn to make their point - that's how it should be), and the lack of 'noises off' (often, as I said, provided by 'activists' who had their own pro/anti candidate agendas) allowed everyone the opportunity to give their answers and debate each others answers in a much more even and open way. Watching it back later, it seemed to me that it meant each candidate was able to put across their own distinctive points and vision without other people in the room 'leading' the audience as a whole or trying to 'big up' their candidate or 'shout down' their opponents. That, I think, is a better way for voters to be presented with the alternatives than the usual 'bearpit' atmosphere.

Overall, the campaign was an enjoyable and constructive one all round between the candidates (those who bothered to get involved, of course!). It seemed to me to be held in good spirit (and I should say here, to be fair, that all of the candidates were civil and even friendly towards each other on a personal level generally throughout the campaign), and I saw no signs of anything nasty or personal, which is as it should be. We can be passionate about our own beliefs and questioning of others without it becoming a bun fight or a vicious verbal assault against another person who happens to believe something different (even if those differences are pretty stark at times). I will also say, as with the local election, that I wish the successful candidate well in representing the constituency and our communities - as much as I disagree with him about some things, of course, I hope he will serve the people well. We'll disagree about the best way forward, no doubt, and we'll still be there to oppose electorally next time around, and I'm sure we'll be saying things between now and then too, but ultimately I don't believe that it's in any way right to hope that my community lives for years with poor representation just so that my party can do better in elections. That's not what politics should be about at all - it's about wanting to make things better for people, not about wanting to 'get one over on the other side' at all costs.

So to summarise the two election campaigns locally for me, both were unsuccessful in electoral terms of course, but both were successful in other ways, and give much  to think about for myself and the local party going forwards. Beyond that, in the grander scheme of national politics, the party has both reasons to be positive and lessons to learn, as always. I'm not going to go into details here of assessing everything that's happened and is happening in and around the Liberal Democrats in the inevitably somewhat fraught and frantic immediate election and post-election periods, but there are obviously thing I'm happy about and things I'm less happy about, and some things I think we need to be thinking about - I'll discuss those at the proper time and in the proper context, of course. The important thing for now is that we've stood proudly and flown our flag, and that we must and will continue to do so, even if we don't always win, and even though it isn't always easy (or hugely popular). That's what democracy is all about.