Sex, drugs and the electoral roll?

In terms of unusual musical collaborations, it’s right up there with Jay-Z and Coldplay or Ozzy Osbourne and Miss Piggy. Rising star of the urban grime scene, Ghetts, has paired up with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on a track urging young people to the complete the census form.

In a move that paves the way for Tinchy Stryder to hang out with MPs (oops, hang on – he already did) or Tinie Tempah to flex his lyrical muscle on behalf of the Electoral Commission (TBC), 25-year-old rapper Ghetts is calling on people to stand up and be counted on, Invisible, released this week.

On a serious note, however, the release of Invisible is part of a much-needed campaign that sees Ghetts (formerly known as Ghetto, real name Justin Regikala Clarke Samuel) encouraging young black people, to participate in the 2011 Census.

Ghetts’ reasons for taking part are simple and admirable; he feels the needs and interests of young people in the UK are ignored and that reaching them through music is one way of making sure they take part in the 2011 Census: “The point is that young people are the future. We’ve got to take every opportunity to get our views across so that we get the sort of communities that we want for our own kids. The census gives us a chance to shape the future of our neighbourhoods. It’s time to stand up and be counted.”

Grime star Ghetts

Ghetts involvement is a way for the powers that be to reach those they assume are ‘hard to reach’: “Young people can feel that they can’t influence the future, but with the help of Ghetts we can encourage them to take one step towards making a real contribution to their communities,” sas ONS head of stakeholder communications Helen Bray.

The slick production and marketing is as impressive as the message, which lends the whole project an air of credibility. As yet, it’s too early to see if it captures the attention of its target audience, or with how much cynicism the singer’s young fans will greet the track. But anything that can capture the attention of disinterested young people is welcome. Talking to an unemployed teenager from Hackney, east London, at a recent event, I asked her if she was cynical about the big society concept and she replied she had no idea what it meant (although this could just say more about the woolly nature of the concept than the teenager’s lack of knowledge).

In a break from usual pr form for a government agency, the track was launched at a school in Newham, east London and is getting airplay on radio stations with black listeners, such as BBC 1Xtra and pirate radio stations.

It’s the same tactic that led Def Jam records founder and hip hop impresario Russell Simmons to tackle election apathy among black Americans and and get involved in voter registration campaigns in the states (judging by the midterm results, it’s debatable as to how far his message got through).

Invisible explains that people need to fill in and return the census questionnaire to make sure local and national authorities know where services such as transport, housing, hospitals, schools, community centres and libraries are needed for the future. Ghetts raps: “Just remember this; if minorities don’t fill in the forms what’s the point in living in Britain at all? There ain’t nothing worse than being invisible but we can change that, ASAP.”

The census is carried out every 10 years by the ONS and helps government allocate resources to the areas that need them the most. On March 27 next year, 25m households in England and Wales will get a questionnaire through the post or by hand.

And now, in a gratuitously playful exercise not intended to detract from the message above, here are some tracks that might appear on Now That’s What I Call Census! Anyone got any others?
Nobody home – Pink Floyd
Where the streets have no name – U2
Across 110th Street – Bobby Womack
Say my name – Destiny’s Child
My name is – Eminem
Is there anybody out there – Pink Floyd
Who are You- The Who
That’s not my name – The Ting Tings

Here’s a neat idea: get rid of the neet label


By Andrew Purvis

I am currently CEO of youth charity Fairbridge, I have 20 rewarding years experience working in the private sector behind me, but it might surprise you to learn that I was ‘neet’ (not in employment, education or training) once – just like the million young people being tagged with that acronym today.

My experience was actually a good one, I had four months off following my first job after university, and it was a very productive time in my life. I gained skills which I then found useful in the job I moved into. Being neet wasn’t a problem for me, it was a situation I knew would be temporary and that I had the wherewithal to get myself out of. But I did not come from three generations of unemployment; I had not been the victim of domestic violence; I hadn’t been in care or excluded from school and I was lucky enough to have two loving parents to support me.

It’s this chasm of difference between the opposite ends of the neet spectrum that worries me in the wake of the comprehensive spending review. While schools funding has been ring fenced, complementary provision like that provided by Fairbridge is vulnerable. Benefits for the jobless and homeless are going to be reduced so for those million young people not in education, employment or training, difficult times are about to get even tougher. But not to worry, the government is using a payment by results approach to get lots of them back into work – so that’s okay, isn’t it?

Well no, it’s not. Having a neat, neet acronym is helpful shorthand and has undoubtedly brought attention to the problems of youth disengagement but the label is now confusing the issue and I want us to stop using it. Being badged ‘neet’ isn’t nice but it’s not the stigmatisation I have a problem with. It’s the fact that by putting the same label on a million young people, we’re preventing help reaching those who need it most.

A recent government report by the Audit Commission segmented the million neets and identified 380,000 young people, who were classed as being ‘sustained neet’. They have the biggest problems, are the biggest cost to society and are in greatest need of investment. By grouping all these young people together, it is easier for those who are commissioning services NOT to focus on these sustained neet. The term now creates great confusion over where support should be targeted. It is a real concern that much of the recent investment in reducing the neet figures, has gone to the top end – those closest to the job market like I was all those years ago – rather than the sharp end where it is genuinely needed.

As the economy recovers, those closest to the job market will move on to a job or education and the commissioners can put a tick in the box marked ‘reduced neet figures’ and go home thinking job done, ignoring the fact that the sustained neets are still there, without any targeted support. The label hides the fact that we need to start putting resource where it is needed most and where it will have the most impact.

Fairbridge runs courses across its 15 centres which focus on the skills these sustained neets will need to get back into employment, often in conjunction with corporate supporters. In London our Employ Me course gives young people, most of whom have never been in a workplace, basic skills to start them on the road to employment. From workplace behaviour to discovering what types of jobs are out there, they need to start from scratch which is what we help them to do. Without this support they will remain unable to take the even the first steps towards employment.

If we could make real inroads into that 380,000 sustained neets then many of our communities would be happier, safer and we would see a corresponding reduced burden on the coffers of the Ministry of Justice, Home Office, Department of Education and – because mental health is such an issue with our youth – the Department of Health.

To do that we need to commit to properly targeted interventions and this requires sophisticated commissioning of solutions. Let’s drop the neet label and let’s stop using money inefficiently by lumping together large groups of the population who have vastly differing needs. Only when we start being honest about where the real problems lie, can we start solving them.

Fairbridge is holding a parliamentary event today to raise awareness of its work among new MPs.

What the golden arches reveal about community aspiration

Mike Stevenson, MD, Thinktastic

By Mike Stevenson

On a Scotrail train a few weeks ago, my attention was caught by a sign with a smiling face and the words “thank you for not putting your feet on the seat.’” I felt immediate warmth towards the company as this positive reinforcement was a welcome change from the usual, punitive messages of “no parking”, “wait here until called” and “keep this area clear.” I’m sure most people can think of how some small, inexpensive communication has made them feel better or prompted them to behave differently.

To take a common example, the red and yellow arch of McDonald’s often provides the only whisper of colour on the landscape. Add words that lift your spirits are lifted and the impact can be dramatic; doesn’t “Happy Meal” sound more appealing than “burger and chips?”

Farther afield, the notorious favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are painted in candy colours, the result of a collaboration between residents and community artists. This doesn’t tackle the underlying issue of poverty but it does encourage positivity and optimism.

We all know how much our world is lifted by a warm smile. It’s magical and powerful. Yet I have worked with communities that report a persistent frown, characterised by a bleak landscape and negative surround sound. I recently spoke to residents who, when ranking preferences for their surroundings, placed colour and affirming messages in their top three desires. They are willing to make these changes happen; people want to see their towns and villages reflect their personality and aspirations. And why not? It’s affordable and has a lasting impact on residents during times of reduced public finance.

Does it work? Yes!

Outside of Edinburgh in Stoneyburn, I suggested using the drawings and words of primary school children to represent the landmarks of the village’s local history. This is now about to happen; the schools are behind the idea and the community is delighted to see the village’s long and illustrious history visibly featured. They believe this will restore a sense of pride in their heritage. We have used children’s words and paintings to encourage people to “Do More: Drink Less” in Stoneyburn. Adults were touched and it made far more impact than dire health warnings.

Similarly in nearby Armadale, because people asked for it, the village will now bear bright, distinctive signage, displaying the faces and words of local residents who speak of their dreams for the community. They also want to show young peoples’ art in the city centre. Displaying the talent and ideas of their residents is important to them.

Above, a poster designed by a child in Stoneyburn, West Loathian, speaks directly to the community.

Amazing Armadale” was the result of a series of creative workshops in schools, community halls, youth centres and at parents’ evenings. The result was a real consensus on what the town should look and feel like, and this has been put into practice. Armadale has held a music festival, regular “alcohol free Sundays” with street markets and a 5K charity run is being organised. This is real community change. Add their more colourful town centre and residents have helped to make quick, low-cost, tangible changes.

And it is local townspeople themselves who are making change happen – we’re not talking about huge budgets here. Earlier in the year, for example, 100 adults and children volunteered to take part in a clean-up in Stoneyburn. It’s also hoped that support will be offered from businesses with things like painting and gardening.

I would love to see more of this but, in terms of public services, I am struck by how little real creative dialogue exists between them and their constituents. Public consultation can be dry and driven by service references and needs. What if community engagement could be fun, lively and uplifting, allowing the language of participants to lead the discussion? Masterplans, blueprints, strategies and partnerships would rarely be mentioned. I know this because the techniques I use in my work elicit imaginative solutions from the most unlikely of people.

When I showed a class of 12-year-olds in East Lothian the logo of their local council, the first thing that came to mind for one youngster was the phrase “no ball games.” He views his council as a block to enjoyment. Others are likely to feel the same and the long-term impact of this attitude will drive further distance between councils and residents.

So, does this really matter, especially during a time of austerity? When I speak on this subject I get universal approval from audiences as diverse as business leaders, primary school children and local councillors. The consensus is that they are tired of a world that headlines bad news and displays signs that instruct and obstruct. In tough economic times, the need to create environments that lift, improve accessibility and value people could be more important than ever.

A post-cuts third sector; where business and back office are as vital as compassion

Shaks Ghosh
Shaks Ghosh, chief executive, Private Equity Foundation

By Shaks Ghosh

“A hard road, leading to a better future, is how Chancellor George Osborne spoke of the journey ahead of us in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

All I know for certain is that it’s already been a bumpy ride for charities, many more of which, it’s now been estimated, receive public money than previously thought. The Third Sector Research Centre believes that some 35% of organisations (rather than between a fifth and a quarter) get statutory funding and of those, 23,000, or 14%, regard it as their most vital source of income.

In the youth sector alone, the magazine Children & Young People Now, has found that of more than 130 charities, 82% are already being forced to cut youth projects because of funding shortages.

And, even with the very welcome one-year, £100 million transition fund announced yesterday to help voluntary sector groups adjust to new public spending budgets, it is going to get tougher. Think tank New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) warned on Monday that these government funded charities are approaching a “maelstrom”. It expects the sector’s income to drop by between £3.2bn and £5.1bn.

So that’s just some of the bad news. But there is good news too as we peer into the gaping chasm of what Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, has called “the deepest cuts to public spending in living memory”.

Along with the transition fund, there’s £470 million over the next four years to build the capacity of the voluntary sector to deliver the Big Society.

I don’t know what this expanded delivery role will actually mean, the devil will be in the detail, but the CSR adds that it will “look to set proportions of specific services that should be delivered by non-state providers including voluntary groups.”

Could this support amount to enough of a lifeline? Possibly, but only if we are really bold and act now! During the economic down-turn last year, the Charity Commission found that only 32% of charities surveyed had taken steps to limit the impact of the recession, with just 14% reducing costs.

An ostrich mentality isn’t going to help. And I don’t say that lightly. I’ve felt that pain. As a charity chief executive, I’ve had to lose staff on occasions when the funding didn’t materialise.

What my last few years at a venture philanthropy fund have taught me is the importance for charities to concentrate on their ‘back office’ as much as their compassion.

It won’t be for everyone, as charities are driven by much more complex ‘bottom lines’ than pure profit and there will be a learning curve, but there’s much to gain from partnership with business. The Private Equity Foundation (PEF) has organised some 15,000 hours of pro bono support for its portfolio charities so I’ve seen first-hand how powerful it can be. In some cases, we’ve worked with charities which have managed the move away from substantial government funding to more sustainable models, while others have achieved huge growth in impact.

Which leads me to better measurement and evaluation. Only the demonstration of effectiveness will ensure support, as government tenders and pays for more services by results and funders choose between a deluge of ‘asks’.

It’s not measurement for measurement’s sake; evaluation can also help create a virtuous circle as organisations scrutinise the data to see where they can improve outcomes. It will become a vital tool, in what’s likely to become a ‘race for quality’ and more foundations should be prepared to pay for it.

Funding from the public and philanthropists cannot plug the hole left by government cuts. But, I believe that business does have a huge contribution to make in safeguarding the sector and I will be doing everything humanly possible to bring more of its money and skills to charities in the coming years.

C.S.R Westminster – firm but unfair

Has anyone rung the equality police? For all the 70 or so mentions of ‘fair’ and ‘fairness’ in today’s comprehensive spending review (CSR), it’s the old, the infirm and the disabled who are caught in the eye of the storm. An estimated £7bn will be saved thanks to welfare cuts as well as a 60% reduction in the affordable housing budget and a 26% drop in local government funding. Changes to Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance, which effectively limit the use of such benefits, are plain nasty.

George Osborne might think he’s aiming at dole-bludgers, benefit-scroungers and fraudsters, but instead his firing range includes wheelchair-users, the learning disabled and the elderly.

As Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said today, it’s an assault on the most vulnerable “characterised by the callous removal of the mobility component of Disability Living Allowance for people living in residential care, which will simply increase dependency and mean many people will literally become prisoners in their own homes.”

Today’s CSR will have a huge and adverse impact on the vulnerable who rely on statutory services, leaving the community and third sector to pick up the slack. The big society concept could sweep in and save the day, casting out the necessary safety net for the vulnerable suddenly bereft of support, but there’s a snag; such charities and community groups are already suffering from under-funding and increased demand for services. Oops.

“Tough but fair” would be the three word George Osbourne would doubtless choose when summarising his CSR. Shadow chancellor Alan Johnson might go for “Dave’s Deficit Deceivers”. Mine: firm, but unfair.

Here’s a selection of some more three-word verdicts, thanks for the contributions so far – add by replying to this post or email me:

Kids comprehensively kicked – children’s charity Railway Children
Housing’s body blow – Sarah Webb, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Housing
Homes, what homes? – Kate Murray, journalist and The Social Issue guest blogger
George’s horrible medicine – Kate Murray
Poor get poorer – John Adams, general secretary, Voluntary Sector Disabilty Group
Expect eagle eye – Helen Donohoe, director of public policy at charity Action for Children
Ouch that hurts – Graham Faulkner, chief executive, National Society for Epilepsy
Time to re-think – Mike Stevenson, owner of social business Thinktastic

Thanks to Bill Mumford, managing director of the charity MacIntyre and chairman of VODG, who has pointed out one potential positive – the introduction of Individual Budgets (IB) for children with special educational needs (SEN) which could help create more flexibie short breaks for them and families and with transition.
Bill’s three-word verdict is an acronym (but we’ll allow it): S.E.N. I.B’s: F.A.B.

Young, gifted and blanked?

Sarah Dougan
Caroline Holroyd
“People assume because we’re young and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant,” says 19-year-old Edinburgh student Sarah-Jane Dougan. Dougan and Leeds-based Caroline Holroyd, 21, are members of Very Important Kids (VIK), a panel of campaigners advising mental health charity YoungMinds on its aims.

Both women have experienced mental health issues, including depression, for which they have undergone counselling and therapy. VIK aims to help shape health services; it recently worked with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, for example. Dougan and Holroyd’s brand of user involvement reflects health secretary Andrew Lansley’s patient-led vision for the NHS. Here they explain why politicians and policymakers should listen to them.

We got involved with VIK because… it was a chance to use our negative experience with mental health, and get something positive out of it. I’m sure a lot of service users have opinions on how their service can be improved or change, and they know what worked and what didn’t, and also what needs to be done. As part of VIK we have the opportunity to influence these things, and get the ball rolling to bring change (Sarah Dougan/SD).

Patients must influence services because… We’re the experts; real life experience is what has informed our opinions (Caroline Holroyd/CH).

Young people in particular must influence services because…we are the future, the next generation. We’re the ones who will be using these services in years to come (CH). Having a good service for young people will mean that they are less likely to have to use adult services when they are older. Prevention is better than treatment (SD)!

The biggest challenge has been…making people realise that young people with mental health problems can have a valuable input. People seem to assume that because we are young, and because we have suffered with a mental health problem, what we say is irrelevant (SD).

Consultation today is…rare, but improving. Sometimes I feel when services ask for young people’s participation it is simply a tokenistic gesture – lip service (CH).

The key to real patient involvement is…engaging with people from all areas of society and making sure it is easy for them to get involved (CH). It’s about listening and actually hearing what the patient has to say rather than the organization simply making a bunch of decisions and then asking if it’s ok (SD).

Mental ill-health among the young…isn’t always openly discussed even within families where one or more of them has a mental health problem. Mental illness in itself is an issue that is kept under wraps because of the prevailing stigma, lack of education and the many myths surrounding it, sometimes perpetuated by the media (people with mental illness as serial killers, and so on) (CH). It’s an issue that people would rather admit wasn’t happening (SD).

The biggest problem with the mental health system is…the waiting times for receiving treatment, particularly talking therapies. People can be waiting months and even then not end up receiving the correct treatment for their condition. On the whole treatment can be very hit and miss, and support isn’t always sustained meaning people can be suffering in silence (CH). People can’t access services when they need it. If you have anorexia for example, mental health services only seem to recognize it when your body weight is so low that you need to be hospitalized. This is relying on the patients physical health rather than their mental health (SD).

The biggest problem with psychiatric units is…they can feel like prisons; they can be very disempowering (CH). Patients are there to get help – not to be punished (SD)!

The biggest difference the government could make in mental health policy would be…to treat it with the same seriousness and urgency as physical health (SD).

If we had five minutes with health secretary Andrew Lansley…we’d ask him what he thinks needs to change. If he has the same points as us – why hasn’t something been done about it before (SD)? I’d emphasise the importance of prioritising young people’s mental health services and how promoting emotional wellbeing and using early intervention techniques can prevent more severe mental problems which will ultimately put less pressure on the NHS (CH).

New York, LA, Gravesend; Kent gets its own US-style big society phone app

Freelance journalist Kate Murray
Gravesend doesn’t have too many claims to fame, aside perhaps from being the place where Pocohontas is buried and the former home of Bond girl Gemma Arterton. It never makes the national headlines – unless it’s for recording record high temperatures in a heatwave. And before any Gravesendians out there start to protest, I think I’m allowed to say that as I was brought up in the town.

So imagine my delight when I saw my old home had scored a UK first by launching an application to report anti-social behaviour on a smartphone. The local authority, Gravesham borough council, announced it was joining New York, Boston, LA and San Francisco in making the ‘City Sourced’ application available to residents.

The app, the council said, would allow townspeople to send in instant reports of graffiti, flytipping or housing repairs, and would allow the authority to streamline its response. Its American supporters are even more effusive: the app, they say, represents the future for residents interacting with government. ‘It’s like having a city official in your pocket,’ said one satisfied LA resident.

Gravesham is the first in the country to use City Sourced but it’s not the only UK authority to engage with new technology in this sort of way. Brighton led the way last year with an app showing local bus times, followed by another one which lists council services and local entertainment. Trafford has an app which allows residents to find their nearest library or leisure centre, or to see what’s on at the weekend as well as to report litter or a missed bin collection. Preston even has one offering residents – and visitors – a ‘blue plaque’ trail of notable local sights.

These initiatives are not always popular in these tough economic times. Critics have accused authorities of wasting money developing applications for perhaps a few hundred iPhone or Blackberry users in their patch. I think the critics are missing the point.

Visiting Gravesend to see my mother on the day after Gravesham’s “Download Day”, I couldn’t resist having a go. I’d already downloaded the Gravesham 24 app and it didn’t take too long for me to find some graffiti that could do with being cleaned up. One quick snap on the camera phone, choose your anti-social behaviour category and press send. The GPS on your iPhone or Blackberry automatically shows the location of the problem and your report whizzes through to a terminal at the council offices to be prioritised and dealt with. You can also use the app to check how action on your complaint is progressing. Filing my report felt strangely satisfying. I might not have have had a council official in my pocket, but I could see why Gravesham had called the app empowering.

We hear a lot about how to promote real engagement between citizens and government. We’re going to hear a lot more about it as the coalition attempts to roll out its big society ambitions. But if the big society is to be about more than just getting volunteers to provide services on the cheap, then it has to have real, effective community engagement at its core.

Too often people feel that there is nothing they can do about the problems in their community. Offering them the chance to interact with government, in however small a way, has to be a good thing. There’s little point asking citizens to do more for you, if you don’t in turn give them fresh routes to get you to do your bit.

Half of all children spot signs of neglect in their peers

Full story on Action for Children’s shocking new research in a piece I did for today’s Society Guardian. Makes you think twice about the shabbily-dressed boy at school who no one wanted to play with or the scrawny girl who got bullied in the playground. There’s a fine line between creating a vigilant society and encouraging the scaremongering finger-pointers, but today’s new report raises some important concerns ahead of the spending review that’s likely to decimate funding for child welfare.

Caught in a trap: why the disabled can’t leave their care homes

From my Society Guardian feature this morning:
Anna McNaughton fell in love with the West Sussex seaside town of Worthing when she moved there two years ago. It’s a stone’s throw from Brighton, around an hour by train from London, and its bars, cafes and restaurants are edged by a tree-lined promenade. Having had a room in a shared house since moving, the 23-year-old wants her own space.

Some interesting comments posted about this article by Guardian readers are here.

Shades, strut and soul; a universal arts experience

Rapper Dean Rodney has a soulful strut, a powerful pair of lungs and a learning disability. Dark shades, smooth black suit, definitely supercool. I’ll be at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank tonight to see his band, the Fish Police, a fired-up trio that fuses hip hop with funk and punk and lists Japanese anime and fast food among its eclectic inspirations.

Fish Police met when musician and lyricist Charles Stuart trained two learning disabled youngsters, Dean (now Fish Police singer, rapper, bass and lyrics) and Matthew Howe (the trio’s equally cool rhythm guitarist) as part of a youth band based at disability arts organisation Heart n Soul.

Next month the Fish Police will be releasing their debut album, Cheeseburger Man (Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man for the McDonald’s generation?), performing at the Lincoln Center in New York and at Liverpool’s DaDa Fest, the UK’s largest disability and deaf arts festival. Their music is a fresh and freestyling antidote to the conveyor-belt fodder jostling for space in today’s uninspiringly plastic charts.

I came across Heart n Soul over a year ago when I heard about one of its artists, soul singer Lizzie Emeh. Lizzie broke new ground by becoming what’s thought to be the first learning disabled solo artist to release an album to the general public. Loud and Proud was three years in the making and produced with the support of Heart n Soul, 33 years after Lizzie’s parents were told never she would never walk or talk following complications at birth.

In 1984, musician Mark Williams (now Heart n Soul’s director) wanted to explore how music and art could make a difference in communities. He began running creative sessions in east London for a group of people with learning disabilities who went to the local day centre, The Mulberry Centre. Eventually The Mulberry Crew, as they came to be known, moved into a bigger arts complex in Deptford and became Heart n Soul, with the aim of working towards professional productions – not simply, as was then the norm, undergoing art therapy.

The charity now runs a hugely popular club night for people with learning disabilities, the Beautiful Octopus club, and has a consultancy arm to advise other organisations on setting up cultural events for those with special needs. It also employs people with a learning disability and markets arts events to the learning disabled.

The Fish Police, Lizzie Emeh and their other talented peers are also regulars at Heart n Soul’s summer arts festival which is based on the Beautiful Octopus club night. The event isn’t on most people’s summer festival radars, but it should be. Along with live music, the event a couple of months ago boasted a comedy stage, improv and open mic sessions, face painting, a massage tent, a chill out zone designed by the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, cinema room, dance floor and VJs and DJs. Performance art is notoriously hard to pull off, but the trio of artists performing as Live Heart did so with panache, demonstrating why the Tate Modern recently invited them to perform. K:DNA showed off their inspired blend of funk, reggae and classical music while the Riki Jodelko Band were an amazingly tight soul-pop outfit, astounding when they covered Bill Withers’ Lovely Day and Bob Marley’s Could You Be Loved.

Best of all, I loved the inclusive nature of the event. The Beautiful Octopus invites everyone to have a good time, regardless of ability or special need. When you enter the world of Heart n Soul’s festivals or club nights, when you immerse yourself in the melee of fancy dress, fairy wings and face paints, when someone in a clown outfit tumbles head over heels into a perfect cartwheel right in front of you, whether they have a learning disability or not is irrelevant – what’s important is that they’re having fun. And it’s infectious.

Frankly, in this environment (compared to other events I’ve blogged about) it’s impossible not to roll with the good times. I’m working on my cartwheel for next summer…for tonight, the shades and soulful strut will have to do.

* The Beautiful Octopus Club is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, tonight (Friday 8 Oct) 7pm-12am. Entry is free.

Saba Salman on social affairs