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Hard Street - Energy Orchard

When I worked for the socialist republic of Islington, aka Islington Council, in the Arts and Entertainments Department, our strategy was to develop creative industries by supporting venues, theatres and pub theatres, cinemas and galleries in order to strengthen the borough's economy; and to invest in arts in the communities so as to improve social cohesion. All of this was delivered in the context of the Council's equal opportunities policy which meant that we could programme women, people of African, Afro Caribbean, Asian, Irish, Italian (yes there was a strong Italian community in Islington) descent, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, young people, older people and just about anyone except for middle-aged white men, unless they were homeless. So programming ZZ Top was out.

I am not in anyway criticising this policy. After all, the equal opportunities concept of recruitment developed by the inner city English Labour boroughs, while laughed at by the right of centre tabloids in the eighties as being "loony left", had been universally adopted by all UK local authorities, Tory councils included, by the mid nineties. This was because equal opportunities recruitment meant that you appointed the best person for the job, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexuality, disability etc. The best person for the job! As opposed to someone who got it because they were a friend of or were related to the recruiter, or went to the right school, or who the interviewers thought would "fit in". The requirement for all employers to practise Equal Opportunities recruitment was made law in the UK with the passing of the 2010 Equality Act.

Nowadays, most such recruitment policies exist in local councils only in name, a culture of cuts and consequent ring-fencing of posts to be filled internally, making it all to easy for people to gain jobs through the back door. The process is usually this: someone is ill, or on sabbatical or leaves suddenly, so their often non-specialist job is "temporarily" filled by someone who just happens to be available - often the relation, of someone in the council. These appointees have usually never had an interview - they are only temporary after all. When a permanent job comes up, or if the role they are fulfilling becomes available on a permanent basis, due to the currently constrained financial circumstances of local authorities, which are in turn due to central government cuts, it will initially only be advertised internally. The logic behind this is that employees whose posts are under threat or who are serving their notice on their existing jobs, should have first opportunity to fill the post. They are interviewed and considered for the job as long as their qualifications and ability "approach" those that are required for the role; the logic is that in time they will develop them, with experience and training whereas an external candidate would normally be expected to have these already to have chance of getting the job. Only if the employers fail to recruit someone by this method will the job then be advertised to the public.

This would be fine, let's face it, there's nothing wrong with redeployment in general, if it were not for the loophole that most councils, all of whom are supposed to be Equal Opportunities employers, allow, even encourage, their temporary staff to apply for internal vacancies. This was always a difficult one for me. I couldn't blame people for taking advantage of the loophole; I couldn't dislike people who had got the job through their contacts rather than on merit - they were usually perfectly pleasant and competent people. But local authorities are some of the largest employers around, especially in deprived areas where jobs are scarce. And the unemployed were, and are, often not getting a look-in. And the tax payers aren't getting the best people to deliver local services for their money.

In my last job, it was dangerous to criticise anyone as there was a significant chance they would be related to the person you were talking to. This culture is of course reflected in the accusations of cronyism by the current government, and once again, as it did in the past, threatens to run from top to bottom in our society.

One night, when I had been working late for Islington, I found myself sitting opposite a long-time friend on the last train home. He was director of a prestigious national publication dealing in a specialist and lucrative retail area and his magazine was the market leader in the field. I asked him why he was so late and he replied that he'd been interviewing for a new advertising rep - ie someone who sold advertising space in the publication. They hadn't been able to decide between two candidates, both young and full of energy, one white, one black. While both were young and and lacked experience in this kind of roll, they were enthusiastic and the panel were positive about training up a youngster for the job. The black candidate outdid the white one in every respect: he had better academic qualifications, better knowledge of the product area, better sales experience, and had a more impressive employment history; he also expressed himself more clearly and fluently and was smarter than his competitor. After long discussion, they selected the white applicant.

My friend was one of his advocates. He said that he personally had no prejudice against the black guy but that their customers were mostly seasoned professionals who might feel uncomfortable dealing with him, or felt that because he was black, he wouldn't know what he was talking about, and that they might lose sales as a result. I argued that his company had missed the opportunity to show that they were progressive and that, just as the interview panel had, their advertisers would soon discover that his product knowledge was excellent and that this would pay off with increased sales in the long run. After all, he was the best candidate. To this he replied that the time (this was the 1990's) was not right for such an appointment, but he hoped that it would be less risky to do so in the future. "Besides" my friend finished, "he, "(the white guy)" was at the same school as Harry" ( a fellow interviewer and 20 years his senior) "and we all felt that he would 'fit in' better with the team.

I don't know how the successful candidate turned out as I haven't seen my friend much, if ever, since. I wonder if the time is "right" yet.

But back to Islington. As keen followers of Uncle Stylus will know, we programmed musicians, artists, writers and so on and as a result received in the post a lot of cassettes from would-be performers which I used to keep in my car to listen to as I drove. Sometimes the cassette would get lost in the glove compartment or there were no appropriate events planned for the particular niche that they fitted into. In the case of Energy Orchard this meant Irish events and these tended to take place only around St Patrick's day, and were usually a combination of writers and, if there was music, it was more folk than rock.

Energy Orchard were a Belfast band that were much influenced by Van Morrison, whose success they hoped to emulate. By the time I finally became aware that their demo was my favourite tape , they had split up, due to lack of record sales. So I never got to put them on. This is a song from the tape that was also on their eponymous first album from 1990.

I still love the tape and often listen to it, 25 years later. It needs to be played loud for best effect.

You can lead people to the water. But will they drink?

"Should I drink the water?"

Every time, every time..


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