TEDx Houses of Parliament – a gonzo report

TEDx Houses of Parliament

Since the whole controversy around TEDxWhitechapel and the talks given by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake, TEDx events, or more specifically TEDx events in London, have a certain air of danger and excitement – the ‘x’ standing for sexy, not even requiring the usual additional two xs. So when I was invited to TEDxHousesofParliament I couldn’t resist. Would any of the speakers take advantage of the ancient rights of free speech associated with Broad Sanctuary to fall foul of the mysterious TED ethics and standards committee that had censored the Hancock and Sheldrake talks?

On the way in to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre I chatted with a member of the Unite Trade Union picketing the meeting of Tesco shareholders taking place in the same venue. He is one the 184 drivers from Doncaster made redundant by Tesco. I try to explain what TED is and stumble a bit, eventually resorting to spelling out Technology Entertainment Design but then adding that I think the theme today is Democracy and Representation, but wasn’t sure.


The event was hosted by Steve Richards – ubiquitous political pundit who sofa hops around Westminster TV studios when not penning commentary for the Independent. First up is Julian Treasure talking around a previous TED Talk he did on ‘Conscious Listening’. He warns that we are losing our listening, that we are ‘addicted to outrage’ and love to prove that we are right by blaming people and proving they are wrong. He suggests political ‘talks’ should be renamed ‘political listens’.
His Powerpoint looks nice. Very slick with a slight corporate feel. The programme tells us his company provides advice on sound to ‘clients such as Harrods, Nokia, BP and many shopping malls across Europe.’

I’m regretting not having second breakfast.

Conrad Wolfram was good value. He believes that we need a ‘societal data challenge’, computation for everyone where each person becomes an expert. He called for a Computational Knowledge Economy and then did some coding live on stage – geek performance art.

Jonathan Driori pondered on whether technology helps tyrannical regimes and introduced the very touching and relevant personal background to his talk (how the Nazis used technology for the Holocaust in which members of his family were murdered).

The introduction of a personal connection became a recurring part of many of the talks that followed, as if we would be unable to take the speaker seriously unless somehow they had been touched on a personal level at some point. BBC News  Editor and Reporter Shaimaa Khalil says she ‘touched herself’ in the newsroom when covering the protests broke out in Egypt in 2011. I allowed myself a snigger at the double entendre but then thought it still sounded odd when taken as intended. I thought News was meant to be objective.

Brook Jazz Lawrence uplifted us with her belting vocals – this wouldn’t be all powerpoints and well crafted hand gestures – they’d be tunes too.

Unfortunately the soaring melodies were followed by a Tory MP (Penny Mordaunt). All I could think was ‘why does anyone become a Tory MP?’ She was talking about the use of Smart Power and shoehorned in anecdotes about her aid work in a Romanian orphanage (how could we not see her as a compassionate empathetic person once we had that image of her helping those poor little orphans). Oh, she doesn’t think defence spending should be cut – but remember the orphans.

There was a woman from the City who started off with the personal stuff including family photos of her Mum and Dad in the good ol homespun Canadian backwoods. I don’t really know what her talk was about but at the end it seemed to have something to do with Entrepreneurs going into schools preaching that Greed is Good, or maybe that was what I heard through the filter of my prejudice. Julian Treasure had warned of this at the beginning of the day.

Guy Browning from the Guardian did a funny talk about Outrageous Optimism, funny and also a bit pointless. He got the people of his village in Oxfordshire together to make a rom-com. Why? I don’t know. The world already has far too many rom-coms. He needs to engage more with his pessimistic side.

I was unimpressed, lunch had better be good or there might not be any point hanging around.


Lunch was decent. Chicken and bacon + coronation chicken sandwiches. The vegetable wrap was a bit disappointing but you can’t have it all.

‘Wobbly’ comedian, Francesca Martinez got the afternoon underway in the best possible way and was solely responsible for me seeing out the rest of the event. She talked about how we should eradicate inequality rather than disability and how consumerism only works if we don’t like ourselves. ‘Accepting yourself as you are is an act of civil disobedience’ she told us. And she was very funny. Very funny and with a powerful point to make.

Academic, Matt Flinders did an impassioned and provocative talk about democracy and how we perhaps have too much of it, or rather too much of the wrong sort of democracy. He complained about our attack politics, a click and collect politics – how we all love democracy but hate politics but you can’t have one without the other. ‘Even if you aren’t interested in politics, politics is interested in you’, he rounded off. Good stuff and he didn’t tells us any personal anecdotes. I was already forgetting the morning.

Meera Vijayann talked about sexual violence in India, advocated using citizen journalist platforms such as iReport and Guardian Witness and received a standing ovation.

Steve Richards talked about politics, adopted a patronising mockney accent when playing the character of the person who thinks politics is boring. If I’d had a rotten tomato I would have lobbed it at his smug mug.



Pepstar gave the stand-out performance of the day – sampling the sounds of the houses of Parliament, mixing with samples that he played live onstage on drums, piano and violin, then brought on a string section and opera singer and MC’d over the top. It was sensational, effortless talent.

It was as well this was followed by a brilliant short film by Mads Damsbo of an orchestra playing a surprise performance on a train in Denmark. He then did a great, simple to the point talk about democratising classical music and demo’d the online orchestra.

Anthea Lawson spoke about the role of London in global corruption. How the London property market is fuelled by corrupt money from around the world – our whole financial sector being built around the proceeds of corruption. Over 44,000 properties in London have been bought by off-shore companies owned by nameless investors.

Rick Edwards did a talk because he’s on the Telly.

Actor Femi Oyeniran talked about his work with young offenders and the success of Prison Youth Council in Cookham Wood prison and how the disengagement of young people should be reframed as disapproval. He said the young men he’d worked with learnt more about democracy on the inside than they would have on the outside.

There were other speakers including a video by that nice Burmese lady who we like because her English is so good and she went to Oxford – but I won’t go into them all, this blog post is getting a bit long and you can watch them all online.

It had been a odd day – started badly but found its way in the afternoon once the speakers came from more diverse backgrounds and points of view. It was beautifully rounded off by spoken word artist Suli Breaks, emitting humility and impish wisdom. He worked through the theme of leadership and how we are taught to follow from a young age rather than lead – rounding off that we don’t need leaders we need ideas.

So there was no Graham Hancock or Rupert Sheldrake moment, but there were some great tunes and some nice sandwiches.

Oh, the coffee and biscuits were above average as well.

Pylon porn & mysterious alignments (comics n stuff)

Ducked into GOSH comics at lunchtime while passing through Soho on a mission to feed my sons’ insatiable and financially destabilising manga habit.

At the top of the stairs into the basement I was caught between the eyes by a copy of Tim Bird’s Grey Area Issue 2 – The Old Straight Track. I’ve always been a sucker for a bit of Alfred Watkins and I’m currently reading Graham Robb’s engrossing Ancient Paths – so I couldn’t resist a quick flick.

It’s “a tribute to the Great British Motorway System”, one panel showing an alignment between megalithic monuments and a glorious ribbon of pylons stretching across the landscape. Realising I’d been sidetracked I placed it back on the shelf and slid into the basement to pick up the goods for the kids, which happened to be out of stock.

So while at the info counter I dipped into the cardboard boxes of old copies of 2000AD. I collected every issue from around 1979 till 1986 which when I went away to Poly my mother thoughtfully gave to our next-door neighbour never to be seen again. Over the years I pick up a copy, mournfully remembering the mighty stacks that filled every cupboard and shelf in my childhood bedroom.

I walked away with a May 1990 edition of Crisis – “Pol Tax” – sealed in a cellophane wrap.

I broke it open on the tube home digging straight into the first strip – Killing Us Softly 2 about a group of Eco Terrorists in Brixton plotting attacks on the infrastructure of the power system. One devilish plot involved taking down a long procession of pylons mainlining electricity into a brightly lit city (also beautifully illustrated two pages over from the image below).

Crisis pylons-edit

Art – Glyn Dillon. Story – Pat Mills & Alan Mitchell

As the pylons are toppled the panel reads:

The country is the placenta that feeds the tiny child – the City…. An over-demanding foetus, draining her blood .. A gross, middle-aged baby, too frightened, too stupid to be born. It’s time to cut the umbilical”Pat Mills & Alan Mitchell Crisis #44

It seems there’s no escaping the pylons.

‘Patch Map’ of Wanstead Flats


Love this fantastic ‘patch map’ of Wanstead Flats from Wanstead Birder marked with ‘boggy bit’, ‘motorbike wood’, a red cross warning (or notifying) of cruising in Long Wood, ‘Police Scrape’ (I was showing this to someone this morning), ‘Pub Scrub’ etc. Have a look at the comments as well for a list of birds spotted on the Flats.

Over Pole Hill

I‘d taken a mazy path from Woodford Green, through Knighton Wood, across Whitehall Plain and onto Station Road Chingford for a bag of chips munched on a bench at Chingford Green outside the Assembly Hall which was hosting a performance by the Ex-Servicemen’s Wives Choir. It was like the 1950’s.

Pole Hill Chingford

A path in the car park at the rear of the Kings Head pub led to the summit of Pole Hill. I was breathing heavily as I came upon the clearing and soon realised that the view would be significantly better in winter when the bare boughs wouldn’t obscure the vista.

Pole Hill obelisk




The stone obelisk bears two plaques. The highest records the association with T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia – forever in my mind Peter O’Toole garbed in white and directed by David Lean) who bought 18 acres at the top of Pole Hill where he planned to build a house where he and his friend Vyvyan Richards would print his now famous work The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
The dream remained unfulfilled but they did build a hut with a pool where Richards lived until 1922.


The second plaque – well you can read it yourself – but I take this as meaning that Chingford Green isn’t the land that time forgot but the place where time began. It wasn’t the 1950’s down there – it was the year 130.

I don’t know why some annoying pedant has scribbled that “This is not the Highest Point in Ldn”, nobody claims that it is to my knowledge, a portion of the population of Chingford deny that it’s even in London – refusing to acknowledge the 1963 London Government Act that brought the area into London from Essex.

Yardley Hill

Moving on through Hawk Wood I then made the steep ascent of Yardley Hill through a field of buttercups to fantastic views down the Lea Valley and westwards over the Northern Heights.

Lea Valley view from Fernhill Wood

Skirting the huge Scout encampment at Gilwell Park and surviving a narrow country road with no footpath that appears to be a where the speed limits of 4×4 vehicles are tested, I was rewarded with this view from the edge of Fernhill Wood – creation smiling upon Brimsdown.


I came down off the hill into Sewardstone (named after, “Seward, a great Saxon thane” – Village London 1883) just before 9pm.  Just beyond the edge of London, a place where the buses stop running at 6.23pm. Sewardstone is an oddity – the only area outside Greater London with a London postcode – E4. I’d long wondered what was out here, the lack of detail on the OS map is matched by the reality on the ground. A couple of farms, a row of houses and a pub with a nice garden … oh and a Premier Inn.

McDonalds Waltham Abbey

My only desire had been to hit the outer limits of London through the forest, to land on a name on a map like a game of ramblers monopoly. But now the reality of finding some transport back into town hit home. The only thing left was to take the long road schlepp in the dying light towards Waltham Abbey.

The peaceful A21 that bypasses the town centre is as tranquil as the hills and certainly safer than that death track by Gilwell Park. The MaccyD’s on the Middlesex/Herts border, now a familiar waypoint on recent Lea Valley wanders, shows the way to Waltham Cross station and the return to London.