How a remote bit of scrapyard skewed the government’s £35m Covid App

There is much talk on how using local knowledge, rather than centralised, broad-brush, top-down guesswork would be a better way to run the Tier system of alerts.

Here in Broxtowe, which went into Tier 3 at a minute past midnight today, that is evident more than ever. I checked the official Covid app this morning, expecting it to read ‘COVID alert level: very high’. After all, I live right on the edge of what was the most infected area of the UK recently, with cases still very high.

But what’s this? Shurely sum mistake?

NG9 is completely in Broxtowe, which is very much in Nottinghamshire, so what’s going on? Surely presenting clear, unambiguous information is the whole point of the Tier system?

I was wrong. Some of NG9 is actually in the Erewash area of Derbyshire Thanks to the skills of @owenboswarva, it turns out a tiny bit of postcode sits the wrong side of the Erewash canal.

I’m a former postman, I know there are anomalies -Long Eaton having a NG10 postcode etc, but I was unaware of this weirdness. Here it is: red dot in the top left: NG9 3NU.

It’s actually an obsolete postcode these days, due to it being the arse end of a scrapyard. If you’ve ever cycled the Nutbrook trail, you’ll be familiar with the yards that line it. This is one of them. The actual scrapyard office uses a Derbyshire postcode. No one lives there. No post ever gets delivered there. It’s a vestigial postcode, a useless bit of Broxtowe sitting the wrong side of the river.

And for that, the tens of thousands of people living in Broxtowe are today being told conflicting information about alert levels; we’ve been teetering on the edge for weeks. Because this weird nub of NG9 sits in Derbyshire, it skews the data for tens of thousands of people. Of course, most people here will know we’re in V. High alert – it’s still bizarre this can happen. Perhaps a little local input could have cleared up some anomalies.

Thanks to @robredpath for help. 

NG9: but not as you know it.

The latest issue of The Beestonian is out now: our first print issue since Lockdown (soon to be known as Lockdown#1), If you’d like a copy delivered donate a quid (if NG9: scrapyards not applicable) and drop us your address via email; £2 in any other UK postcodes, £5 anywhere in the world): https://ko-fi.com/thebeestonian .

Beeston! Nottingham! Where the hell are we?

I was unable to fulfil my promise to write an article of exactly 500 words on every day I’m in isolation: two days were missed as I returned to my job and realised I had to get my head around remembering what I do for a living after months of furlough. That, and the fact isolation is really biting now: I’m a creature of the outdoors and while I love my garden, it’s not quite the same. I feel a clammy claustrophobia. One more full day left.

Having some unexpected time on my hands, I took the decision to write 500 words today, and cast out the request to send me topics. There were several replies stating ‘writer’s block’ which was probably a hope rather than a topic. I received several DM’s, including from one of my writing heroes who I’d previously never had any contact with, but the one that spurred me to my keyboard was from a local MP, who asked me the mildly gnomic question “What’s the North, what’s the Midlands and what’s Nottingham?’.

Here’s my response. It’s divided into three pieces, each exactly 500 words.

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I ask this question in all seriousness as I suspect that you, like me, have something of an identity crisis, which on the surface looks cosmetic but has quite far-reaching implications.

I used to work in a pub in Tonbridge, Kent, a town on the banks on the Medway that serves as the rough older brother to its dandified near-neighbour / near-namesake Tunbridge Wells. There, the regulars knew me as ‘Northern Matt’. I would point out that in fact, I was a Midlander, to which they’d shrug and tell me ‘It’s all North after the Watford Gap innit?”

Similarly, I lived for a while in Newcastle Upon Tyne. My Geordie friends made much of my southernness equating it with the cliches we give to such folk: crap beer, an effete nature, and a habit of voting Tory. Similar protestations to the veracity of this would lead to shrugs and “It’s all South after Washington Services”.

Jokers to the North of us, fools to the South, here we are, stuck in the middle. 

I once heard a story that I assumed to be apocryphal, of how newspaper/ magazine critics would shun Nottingham as they only received overnight expense payments if they were, as the crow flies, 120 miles or more from London. Nottingham is 109 miles from London: therefore no Travelodge for journos. If only Nottingham relocated to Mansfield (122 miles) then our excellent cultural industries would have had more exposure in those pre-digital days. Many years after dismissing this as chippy excuse-making, a London journo friend, and member of the Critic’s Circle, confessed it had some truth to it “Why go see a band at Rock City and have to rush for the last train back to London, when you could see the same band at the (Sheffield) Leadmill and a bed for the night?” 

Asking people who aren’t from the East Midlands where Nottingham is on a map usually elicits wildly inaccurate stabs at patches of land from the Scottish Borders to the Norfolk Broads. Without a coastline, or any estuarine proximity; sans anything but a flat bit of green to locate it on your average atlas (more generous ones may show a ridge of brown for the Pennines; we’re just to the right of it). We are indistinct, floating in the imaginations of most other British people somewhere around Birmingham, perhaps near Leeds. As someone who regularly has to redirect press releases telling me of great events happening in Beeston, Leeds, the latter particularly rankles. 

To many, this might seem trivial, and people’s lack of geography is forgivable. After all, I’d struggle to locate the small cities of a country like, say, Spain ( I once flew to the wrong airport there, after not realising there might be more than one San Pablo). If it was just that, then fine. But it is about more than that, and this lack of geographic clarity can have profound effects on how we are treated by an increasingly centralised, heavily London based Government.

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What is ‘the North’? Stuart Maconie, in his travelogue-cum-boreal meditation Pies and Prejudice, gives precision in his interpretation: accents harden and flat-caps doffed at all points above Crewe Station. Jeremy Paxman, in The English, imagined a line drawn along the Severn and then the Trent (sorry Clifton, but you’ll have to hand your whippets in). The Government, via the Office for National Statistics, defines it as all counties inclusive of and above Merseyside, South Yorkshire and Cheshire. This invisible dividing line that cleaves the country translates into spending when the Government loosens its purse strings. 

This past week, Nottingham has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The sheer incompetence of failing to swiftly track and trace thousands of many positive Covid cases mean that Nottingham’s middling case rate soared five-fold  to 668.1 /100,000, the highest in the UK. As a news junkie, it’s rather strange seeing and hearing people I’m familiar with on the local scene: Notts City Council David Mellen, local journos such as Kit Sandeman and Hugh Casswell on the national stage. The Today programme on Radio 4 broadcast a vox pop from Derby Road. Channel 4 News is seen prowling Lenton Abbey. The spotlight is on us.

Yet all seem to struggle with exactly where we are. I’ve heard the phrase ‘Midland city’,  ‘Northern city’ and ‘Northern Cities – and Nottingham..’. We’re an awkward outlier to the idea that the surge in Covid is a Northern phenomenon.  Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle: all easy to define. Nottingham? Well, it’s near Birmingham, isn’t it?

A very Beeston-centric aside. When Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais conceived the sit-com Porridge, they wanted Slade Prison to feel like a limbo of no fixed identity. It was in the North East, but was inhabited by Scots (Mr Mackay) Northerners (Mr Barrowclough) and Southerners, with Ronnie Barker starring as the confident, bright and likable cockney Norman Stanley Fletcher. To get the balance right, a Midlander was sought, and Beestonian Richard Beckinsale was the obvious choice: his acting career was booming, he had vast appeal to younger viewers with a luxuriant thatch of brown hair and puppy-dog handsome face, well known to all Beestonians as it looks out from Bird’s wall. He was signed up, expanding the prison-slang work- in- progress name of ‘LAG’ into Lenny Arthur Godber. 

The chemistry between Barker and Beckinsale was instantaneous and obvious: they’d later become great friends, and Barker was devastated by his pal’s early demise. Yet there was an issue. To the producers, his Notts accent was too northern, and threatened to upset the show’s balance. To counter this, Beckinsale played the part with a defined Brummie accent. If ‘70s sitcoms are a measure of England’s hemispheric divide, we very much sit in the North. 

Will we be ‘levelled up’ (although right now it seems closer to William I’s harrying than levelling?). When the government speak of investing in the North, do they mean us? Are we even noticed, outside of despatches from a crisis?

_________________

The Notts of old is long gone. The lace factories are bouji flats; the bike factory long razed and replaced with halls of residence. Sherwood Forest is more an arboreal archipelago than a contiguous continent of trees. The collieries closed, and with it the air is cleaner, Wollaton Hall returning to its original beautiful Ancaster stone, no longer cloaked in the sooty dirt, a by-product of the same wealth that created it.

As heavy industry shuts, others open. The two universities have expanded across the city and into nearby suburbs over the past couple of decades: and with it, wealth. It is assumed that the benefits of the presence of these institutions comes chiefly from throwing seventy thousand plus young people into an area, where they’ll be obliged to spend, but the true economic boost comes from the bits of the University undergraduates obscure: the vast amounts of support staff and academics that keep the place running, and the often ground-breaking research that goes on within and without the campus: ibuprofen and MRI machines both were dreamt up and made reality in Nottingham through this. 

This also provides fertile ground for creativity in the arts to develop: not just through the available academic courses but also by having a vast amount of young people wanting entertainment, wanting culture. This creates a sustainable eco-system for the arts to thrive, and I’m lucky enough to have had a front row seat of what feels like an exponential rise in Good Stuff Happening for the last couple of decades. Even London occasionally pricks its ears up and ventures up to check the rumours are true (before scurrying back to St Pancras before midnight, of course).

Covid 19 threatens both of these elements oif Notts. Our Universities may be in a pretty good state, but the uncertainty of lockdown and the nightmare many students – particularly freshers – have had over the past few months is a threat. With much of the venue-based entertainment network very likely to be closed down, with little in the way of government support, in the next couple of days, that vibrant scene looks in a perilous position. 

We need to do what we can to support them both. It is becoming clear that they are our future, just as lace and coal, bikes and ciggies, were our past. Through this crisis, perhaps this will become more apparent, and begin to solidify not just in local, but national imaginations. This broth of creative talent, bubbling along in the middle of England, no mere ill-defined hinterland, but a place with a unique, enviable and fiery, intelligent temperament.

A place that is knowable by its very unknowability: a city that writhes from definition, a place that is in constant flux, as rushing forward as the Trent in spate. 

If this seems paradoxical, then good. Our slogan should be paraphrased from the words Alan Sillitoe used to breathe life into Arthur Seaton:  Whatever You Think We Are, That’s What We’re Not. Welcome to Notts. 

Isolation Wrting #4: Brox-it?

While I sit out a two week period of Track and Trace enforced lockdown, I’ve set myself a challenge to write a daily article of exactly 500 words in less than an hour about a different subject each day. Today I look at the prospect of abandoning our Borough chums and becoming city-slickers….

Back in my childhood, two important conventions were drilled into me when giving my address. The first has a whiff of ‘70s new-build aspirant working-class snobbery about it: I was told to always put that we lived in New Stapleford, to differentiate ourselves from our more ancient neighbour the other end of Hickings Lane. 

The second was small, but crucial. We didn’t write (‘New) Stapleford, Nottingham’ but ‘(New) Stapleford, Notts. I’m sure those lucky enough to grow up in Beeston felt the same. We were of the County. Not part of the city and all its industrial incontinence (these were the days Raleigh made stuff to get people fit, while the next door ciggie factory got them the opposite). It felt significant: while our region doesn’t have the long-held conventions of what divides a Brummie from a Yam-Yam; a Man of Kent rather than a Kentish Man; or the actual acoustic reach of the Cockney-creating Bow Bells, the division between city and county is noticeable -just watch the rection on the face a fan of the Tricky Trees when you utter the dread words ‘Notts Forest’.

As I grew older, and moved to Beeston, this pride started to appear a little arbitrary, not lease when I became a postal worker at Royal Mail: Long Eaton, which sits the other side of the Erewash, has a Notts postcode while many Notts villages have Doncaster and Sheffield postcodes. Living in Beeston at a time when the University campus has expanded and sent tendrils out into the town; and where the city-centred Robin Hood transport network takes in the whole of Beeston, and the tram ties us even closer to the city. Many of us work there. In Beeston, we face east. 

In the very early days of this blog I decided to cycled to all the Broxtowe wards during a local elections. It took all day (with many stops to do some journalism, of course) and what was striking was how long and narrow the area is. Most conurbations succumbed to the gravity of a city, with places such as Kimberley and Eastwood feeling more like outposts rather than possessing any sense of contiguity. It set me thinking “Should we be absorbed into the city?”.

I didn’t, to be honest, give it a great deal of thought since that day, but similar to other things the Covid Crisis has flung it to the forefront. Much is being made in the media as I write this about Nottingham – as a city – locking down due to a surge in cases. But of their immediate neighbours? It’s unclear. Broxtowe as a whole has marginally less case ratios than the national average, but here in Beeston it’s much higher. Application of a lockdown might prove tricky, not least for Broxtowe Borough Council. Here’s a useful thread from the BBC’s Hugh Casswell:

So let the debate commence: should we ditch the County for the City? Should we, as a town, consider the benefits / detriments of Brox-it?

Undergrads, underfire

While I sit out a two week period of Track and Trace enforced lockdown, I’ve set myself a challenge to write a daily article of exactly 500 words in less than an hour about a different subject each day. Today, I’m looking at the way students are scapegoated, with an actual real-life student (albeit in FE, not HE) with her perspective on how our students (and young people in general) are being treated shoddily right now.

While reading Peter Ackroyd’s epic and revelatory History of England, which charts the idea of our country from the first visiting hominids through to the rise of the Tudors, we visit Oxford in 1354, where the University was thriving. Students, refreshed from a trip to the pub turned violent leading to a pitched battle between locals and the undergrads; University hierarchy pitched in with weapons. Violence ensued for days, with many deaths: eventually the superior numbers of townsfolk overwhelmed the scholars and staff; for a few years the University lay empty. The concept of Town And Gown bloodily began.

It’s much less violent these days, yet tensions do arise. The transitory nature of undergrads means shared houses are often left unkempt, and the nocturnal habits of those studying can keep awake those who prefer an early night. Beeston, and it’s proximity to the University doesn’t escape such friction, yet it’s generally regarded as a small price compared to the vast benefits that having a campus for a neighbour bestows.

The annual influx of thousands of young people into the area has benefits. Beeston floats on money students / staff bring, keeping our High Street healthier than it should be (I grew up in Stapleford, which doesn’t bask in proximity: the town has suffered greatly over the years). It provides work, filling the the gap left by the shut-down of local heavy industry It brings relationships: the town is kept diverse and vibrant with new people setting up home here. It also brings love, to which i can personally attest: my wife ventured here to do a PhD and settled. It’s a morphing, fascinating situation.

It seems almost inevitable that Nottingham will go into enhanced lockdown in days. Beeston’s contiguity to Nottingham via the campus means it’s likely we will be included. Some people haven’t taken this well, and on social media some commentators are accusing students of being a collective Typhoid Mary. They bought the disease from elsewhere, goes the argument, spreading it to our innocent locals with abandon. 

It’s a shitty way of looking at the situation, but people need to blame and scapegoat. Students, who are often described as a homogeneous mass rather than a huge swathe of society, are painted as outsiders, aliens to repel. 

The reality is this years cohort of students have been incredibly poorly treated. They were messed around through their A-Levels through the sheer incompetence of Gavin Williamson. They then faced huge uncertainty about being able to study at all, if it would be online or in person, if they could have anything approaching a social life once at Uni. I’ve asked – with permission – to use a post put on a college chat from a local student I taught last year, which sums up the frustration felt by many young people.

We are fast changing into a knowledge economy, and Beeston is in an ideal place to thrive as that happens. Let’s stop blaming, start welcoming and celebrate our cerebral neighbours. It’s a no-brainer.

___________

A college student’s view:

I think we’re at a time where we will be able to vote in a few years if not already, the country have done us so dirty. I know for me personally I won’t forget how this government have treated young people, we were forgotten, blamed, downgraded (A- level and GCSE results leading in protests) and so much more. We were the ones who helped and became key workers to keep the country moving and we were then robbed of so much. University grads never got a proper celebration. Students were encouraged to go to university and not just stay at home, they were promised that university would not be just online.

They did this to force students into student accommodation so that they could line their pockets and forced young people into debt. Now we are seeing students quarantined in tiny apartments all by themselves, with the bare minimum, and paying ridiculous fees for unacceptable lessons/video chats and accommodation. The arts have sacrificed so much, and now Rushi Sunak “suggests” musicians and creatives should “find new jobs”.

No. I’m sorry. I won’t be forgetting. I definitely don’t think we are to blame, not one bit, as long as you followed Government guidelines none of us are to blame! We should be pointing the finger and holding the government accountable for their poor decision-making (too little too late!) Ever since Cummings went to test his eyesight all the way to Durham I agree everyone took that as a green light to not take lockdown seriously, and why should they?  It has always been one rule for them( the elitists and wealthy/powerful) and another for us!

Meagan Hutchinson, 2nd year Media Student.

Isolation writing #2: Viral Culture

I’m under mandatory isolation right now, so as a challenge will be writing a piece every day, with rules: no piece will take more than 90 minutes from first keystroke to publication; each piece has to be on a markedly different topic each day; each piece will be EXACTLY 500 words (excluding title/ float quotes, references and this intro).

Today sees my return to work with Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature after a few months of furlough, and as such it is a Very Good Day. I’m orienting myself with what we’re doing after a period of disengagement legally required under the Job Retention Scheme, and am delighted that a slew of projects are both underway and gestating. It’s also notable that these touch on a common theme: doing great things despite that nasty virus no one even knew about last year

Culture is in crisis, we cannot ignore that. I’m lucky to work for an organisation that doesn’t rely on possession of a venue, such as a cinema or a theatre, for its existence. I’m also lucky that we are a small, relatively young and therefore flexible organisation. Literature, literacy, publishing and so on are all important elements of what we do, and little directly impacted by the crisis. As more people take solace in reading and writing, our existence strengthens in value.

Larger, venue-based organisations sail choppier seas. With the government easing off financial support across the board, they are increasingly being exposed to the grim realities of covid restrictions: many friends are fearful for their jobs, some have already become unemployed. Things are grim. I have no remedy, no great panacea that will cure all cultural ills. I can’t force the government to bail out these jobs, and those in charge seem little interested to do so. 

Yet there has to be optimism, however bleak the prognosis. Culture is not a frivolous luxury, it is integral to our very being. “The human soul needs beauty more than bread”, DH Lawrence correctly noted. There will always be culture, and the constant mutation of culture alongside technology and politics is the story of our existence. It defines and reflects our moral outlook, it gives meaning, communication and continuity.  Yet when external elements – in this case a pandemic – steer civilization in a sharply sudden different direction, culture takes time to catch up.

During furlough I’ve been helping out with Nottingham Chamber Music Festival. Having had to abandon the traditional set-up of the scheduled events, the director behind it, Beestonian violist Carmen Flores, didn’t pack up her bow and hunker down. Instead she worked with local filmmaker Tim Bassford to produce a series of beautifully shot short films of Carmen playing Bach in iconic – and empty – Nottingham venues. I helped promote then, and in doing so came to realise the emotions they provoked – melancholy, loss / beauty, hope – were a metaphor for something much more: in these empty buildings, music played, and a flame flickered from the embers. Where there are humans, there will be culture and hope.

That won’t pay the wages of staff and creatives who face an uncertain future. They need support from elsewhere. Yet the pandemic will not kill culture. The truly creative are more important than ever, and are already on it. 
Back to Lawrence: “We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”

Isolation Writing #1: Into Isolation

Intro

For the next ten days, I’m legally obliged to put myself under house arrest after the Track and Trace system identified I had came into contact with someone who subsequently tested positive for Covid 19.

I’ve decided to set myself a challenge while this happens – after all, I’m hardly going to be chasing Strava PB’s on cycle rides until the middle of this month – and write something each day on a different subject. I have ideas for some proper journalism; some concocted theories; critical responses and so on.

Why? Well, it will lend structure to what could easily become a shapeless time, and ensure I always have something to chew over in my perpetually ravenous internal dialogue. Usually I take ideas for a walk or a bike ride; practically everything I write has gone through cogitation via moving around before I sit still and get it out into words. Denied this, I’ll challenge myself. Possibly self-indulgent, but I’ll try and keep it readable and eclectic rather than DAY 6: DID NOTHING. BARGAIN HUNT WAS DISAPPOINTING. RAINED. BEANS FOR LUNCH.

I’m also setting myself an arbitrary rule, a’la Oulipo, each piece will be exactly 500 words, excluding title, stand-first and quotes. No reason why, other than structure is sometimes comforting.

_______

1.

I get some warning before the text arrives: a friend and colleague lets m e know that a fellow colleague has come down with symptoms a couple of days after meeting us both. NHS websites are consulted, time scales are worked out and it actually seems that, by a whisker, I’m ok to carry on as per usual. I’m feeling absolutely fine, albeit with a slight depression of body and mind that a lurch into cold wet weather routinely brings. Plans are not changed, routines not re-routed.

The text arrives on the Friday afternoon, around the time I’d usually pick up my son from nursery. My wife has instead put herself forward for this, so as to get some air, so I’m free to indulge in the luxury commonly known as pottering. I potter, happily, doing nothing with any intent, then my phone buzzes and I’m directed to an NHS website.

There is no great inconvenience can’t teach my weekly class; I cancel a haircut. My planned return to the office, not entered since March, is delayed. I just have to stay in. It  rains incessantly the first day and I’d have no inclination to go out anyhow. My pedometer doesn’t get past 3,000 steps, but no matter. I’ll make it up when I get loose.

In contrast, many will be in dire situations when they get the text. Just about every previous iteration of my life would have struggled: when I shared a house with strangers, when our house was too tiny to work from: I’m lucky to have had the pandemic hit when I’m in a fortunate position in life. Others, less so. 

Those in a financially precarious situation will be worse hit by isolation. Remember that big announcement that the government will give those isolating and financially vulnerable a £500 incentive to isolate, a lump sum carrot to go with the £10,000 stick? Try and find out via the Track and Trace system, and you are blithely told to check your local authority for details.

I’ve been writing about local government for over a decade and I’m not even sure exactly how this is done. After a bit of searching, it seems Broxtowe Borough Council have yet to put in place their application process, and when I contacted an insider at the council told me “It looks great in a telly interview but for fuck’s sake, why didn’t they have it ready for us beforehand?” I’m most likely not entitled to this support, but for those who are, and are reliant on it, this seems cruel. Good headline though.

I see no monkeys: Broxtowe Borough Council have been left in the dark

As cases rise steeply, it’s likely that many more people will receive notification to isolate.I count my blessings. It’s a minor inconvenience to me, and hopefully, when your turn comes, it will be a similar experience. For many it will be terrifying, and as long as we have a government focussed on grand announcements rather than actually putting in place working systems, many will suffer.