Monday, 31 December 2007

History Boy.

Watched Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys' the other night. Set in the '80s around a bunch of grammar school kids studying for their Oxbridge entrance exams - it was too close to home for me to miss.

There was a basic error though. These were supposed to be 'outsiders' - boys who would not normally have expected to go to Oxbridge - but somehow they were afforded the luxury of a special post-A level preparatory course for the exam.

In the 80's, unlike today, there was an entrance exam rather than an offer based on A levels - but for those lesser mortals from state schools (like myself from a comprehensive) this exam was taken before A Levels. Our general disadvantages against pupils from the private sector were further reinforced by being a year younger and having no specific tuition. Which explains the outrageous domination of students from the private sector (about 60% at the time I think).

But in one respect Bennett got the Oxbridge ethos absolutely spot on - particularly in history. Here, the fetish of being 'smart' so outweighed the historian's basic duty to get it 'right' that revisionism - the quirks and exceptions horseshoe-nail school of history - was the only one that was acceptable. The irony of this was that if I had gone to another university less wrapped up its own cleverness I might well have been tempted to stick with academia.

Perhaps though the most important and lasting lesson that Oxbridge teaches those from ordinary backgrounds who manage to sneak in under the radar is how to not really fit in anywhere - and also not to be too bothered by it. Or was that just me?

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Bhutto - a martyr ?

Spent some of the holidays in traditional fashion - stuck on the motorway visiting family at the other end of the country.

This was how I heard the hourly news bulletins on the radio of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Strange how we have become desensitised to 'rolling news' on the TV with its constant repetition of the same clips, but somehow the radio actually emphasises the un-folding drama and poignancy of events .

The expression was used by one of Bhutto's supporters that she had 'become a martyr'. Martyrdom has had a bad press recently as it has become associated with suicide attackers such as her assassin. Personally I was turned off at an early age by tales of English Catholic martyrs who were prepared to suffer all sorts of tortures for 'principles' that seemed as relevant as how many angels could balance on a pin head.

However if ever the term martyr is deserved then perhaps it is in Bhutto's case - to face danger having weighed the odds and to pursue a cause in the face of these odds is true courage; not the death of the deluded like the religious 'mentalists of various hues. They show no more courage than someone who throws themselves from a building whilst on acid under the impression that they can fly.

In Bhutto's case though sadly courage is not enough.

Pakistan desperately needs a democratic opposition movement at the moment and what it got was a corrupt Patrician dynasty who had more in common with Western elites than with the Pakistani people. The irony of this is now seen with the future of the Pakistan People's Party now hanging not on a conference but on the reading of a will tomorrow ...

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Supporting Tommy Sheridan

In 25+ years of being a socialist, like most activists in recent times in the West, I have not really been required to sacrifice or risk much at all. A bit of money in terms of financial contributions over the years and some of my time. There has been the odd occasion of fairly low level physical danger in anti-fascist activity, but much more frequently, a large dose of boredom in dull meetings.

However Tommy Sheridan, who has been charged this week with perjury, is no stranger to run-ins with the law. He has been arrested and detained several times – most recently in connection with the anti-nuclear protests at Faslane. And of course he served six months in prison for his part in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign.

Which is why it leaves a very bad taste in the mouth to read the relish with which many so called fellow-socialists and activists have greeted his current problems from the comfort and safety of their laptops.

Are they really so sectarian or naïve that they imagine for one minute that Tommy Sherdian faces prosecution for any reason other than his political stance and his temerity in suing the Murdoch press?


Personally I don’t particularly like Sheridan’s style. I also have some issues with his politics. Do I think he lied or acted stupidly to cover his 'indiscretions' ? Don’t know. Possibly. Probably. Do I really give a toss ? No.

But given the choice between the Strathclyde Police and the News Of The World on one hand and a rare socialist representative who has been prepared to put his liberty and his money* where his mouth is – there is no dilemma at all in supporting Tommy.

* Tommy has donated much of his salary and expenses to the movement over the years - to back up his electoral promises to live on an average worker’s wage.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

My blog awards for 2007

Once I’ve waded through the religious nutcases, the sites selling IT I don’t understand, the angst-ridden teen poetry, and the ill- disguised porn etc - I don’t really buy into the concept that there is a ‘blogosphere’.

Not in the sense that there is a community of kindred spirits all communicating in a democratic and de-centralised manner. So I don’t really do a blog-roll or tagging or linking with other blogs. It all seems a bit too much like a mutual admiration love-in.

But I do spend a lot of time reading other people’s blogs. Going through their archive posts makes for a pleasant if ultimately time-wasting way of killing a slow afternoon at work. And spinning off on unexpected tangents of discovery following their links.

So here are a few blogs that I seem to keep returning to, not because I particularly agree with what they have to say, or identify with the writer, but they just have a certain fascination. In no particular order here are some blogs I’ve been looking at this year - click the links and enjoy:

Diamond Geezer – shows a healthy obsession for all trivial and not-so trivial London things.

Learning Other Languages – someone I actually used to know a long time ago in the real world. An ex-pat in Budapest genuinely eccentric or ridiculously pretentious ? Both.

Dojo Rat – a martial artist and old hippy. What’s not to like ?

Sister Mary Martha – Catholic nun in the US. Completely fucking bonkers and scarily certain about everything. Hilarious, horrible and infuriating. Know your enemy - and be afraid.

Hobbo Stripper – lives a nomadic life in a camper van in Alaska and makes her living as a stripper. Sort of earth mother. Also bonkers – but in a good way.

Forty Years On Two Wheels – but claims not to be a ‘biker’. Makes a refreshing change from all those ‘righteous bro’ Harley blogs. Although I do read those too. Obviously.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Happy Christmas Your Arse

As the trees and lights go up around me and the sound of Cliff Richard is piped through the PA in the malls, I am reminded of why I’m a fully paid-up card-carrying member of the Scrooge party.

I’m not a Christian so the birth of baby Jesus does nothing for me. And neither does the more secular concept of the season of goodwill and peace on earth. Don’t misunderstand me - I’ve nothing against goodwill and peace on earth in general. In fact I’m all in favour of it.

What I can’t stomach is the hypocrisy and sanctimonious sentimentality that surrounds this time of year. For a few days it obscures what is actually happening in the world by smothering us all with saccerine.

You know the kind of thing: An office party and a Christmas hamper - but we’ll be downsizing in the New Year. Visit your elderly relatives for a few hours - and then abandon them to fend for themselves till next December. Buy a copy of the Big Issue out of drunken guilt - but carefully step over the homeless on the way home when you’ve sobered up. Or come to that, a 24 hour Christmas Truce in the trenches and four years of otherwise sane and decent men being persuaded to kill each other.

As an antidote to all this, and reflecting the true spirit of Christmas: here are the lyrics to the greatest ever Christmas song by the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The rare old mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

(chorus)
The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

(chorus)

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

(chorusx2)

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Coppers on strike

The last police strike in this country was in Merseyside in 1919, a dispute basically for the right to form a trade union. It was defeated - and the 'non-strike' Police Federation was the result . Before that time the police had quite frequently taken industrial action, and with some success.

Which is why there has been so much fuss about the merest murmurings of industrial action that have resulted from the government's failure to honour an arbitrated pay settlement.

Now I know the mature and correct socialist response to this: To appeal to the police as 'workers in uniform' and try and win them over to the point of view of the labour movement etc. The rebellion of state forces has always in history been a precursor to wider movements for radical change.

BUT:

Just for a moment I'd like to indulge a lovely fantasy:

Imagine that we bussed in coach loads of private security contractors to do the jobs of striking policemen. Imagine that we employed ex-miners, print-workers and dockers to ensure that the police pickets didn't try to prevent the scabs getting into work at the police station. Imagine that the moment these pickets gave the slightest provocation, they had their heads cracked open. And imagine they were then denounced in the tabloids as dangerous subversives ...

OK OK - I know it's not a viable position - but just don't ask me to wear a 'Support The Police Strikers' sticker.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The song remains the same.

I missed them at Knebworth in ’79, and now I missed them at the O2 Arena last night.

The chances of getting a ticket for the Led Zeppelin re-union gig last night were something like 1 in 1,000; so although I managed to register online for the lottery, which was no mean achievement in itself, I can hardly be too surprised that I didn’t make the draw.

I’ve seen Plant and Page; I’ve seen Robert Plant on his own several times. And despite having the back catalogue on vinyl and increasing on CD too, I’ve got the latest compilation ‘Mothership’ too – just to have something for the car. But I’m still gutted to have missed them last night.

Their longevity should be a lesson for lightweights like Amy Winehouse and Pete Docherty who have very publicly buckled under the ‘stress’ of the rock’n’roll lifestyle after just a couple of albums and a cancelled tour. On the other hand, Led Zeppelin pretty much wrote the rulebook for excess and bad behaviour, but are still going strong.

Their heroes and inspiration were always the hard working and hard living blues-men of an earlier generation. Like them, they’ve paid their dues.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Grandad was a biker too

I saw my Mum at the weekend, and she reminded me of something that I had completely forgotten; I’m not the first in our family to have a Harley; my Grandad had one back in the 20’s.

My memories are a bit shaky of him – he died when I was 10 – but I do remember a gentle bear of a man. And also a visit to a museum where he was amazed to see the same model bike as he had owned. I vaguely recall him saying something along the lines of 'bloody hell – they’ll be putting me in a museum next !’.


Looking at the bike I’m struck by how much harder it must have been to both maintain and ride. But I am also struck by the similarities with my own bike – both are instantly recognisable as Harleys and could never be mistaken for any other bike.


I feel an inexplicable sense of continuity and re-connection too…

Friday, 7 December 2007

Awesome. Sick. Rad .. Oh dear

Late night viewing on cable TV – I’m not sure if it is the cure or cause of my insomnia. Bikes and tattoos are always going to be a winning formula; easy on the eye and easy on the mind. But I’m not sure that the programmes are doing any favours to either the Custom Bike or Tattoo worlds.

We’ve had American Chopper and Biker Build-Off going for a while. Of course I always watch them but in reality they do little more than confirm that most Americans have no fucking taste. Over-the-top ‘theme bikes’ that are a tribute to something or other. And when the great American public get to cast their vote, they invariably choose some hideous monument to bad taste. Honourable exceptions would be the late Indian Larry or Russell Mitchell at Exile. To inject a frisson of ‘reality’ conflict - a deadline is always thrown in so that the guys can ‘kick some ass’ but by the end they can pat each other on the back and agree that results are ‘awesome – sick – rad’.

Now we have the tattoo equivalents Miami Ink – LA Ink and the home-grown London Ink . Again the same tired formulas are applied. Each tattoo has to have a poignant back-story – such as a memorial to the customers’ pet canary who tragically died of bird flu. Again there is some manufactured conflict – artistic differences or a wayward apprentice - and then a happy resolution that everything is ‘awesome – sick – rad’.

Just for a change it would be nice to see a custom project that started with a stock bike, maybe a crashed wreck, re-built with all the unnecessary shit taken off and taken back to basics in a stylish and classy way. Or someone could get a tattoo based on their own design just because they thought it looked good, without any sentimental crap or personal history.

Oh yes - and also showing the highly skilled and creative artists who do this work as articulate and capable of abstract thought. Now that would be 'keeping it real…'

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Guantanamo and history

The US Supreme Court is considering the legality of the detention facilities at Guantanamo. It’s the third time this has happened, and on the previous occasions the court had found against the government only to have the government simply change the law.

This is fitting of course because the whole set up at Guantanamo is a piece of legal trickery. Habeus Corpus, enshrined in the Bill Of Rights can only be argued to apply on US soil and by using a military base in Cuba that is a colony in all but name this is conveniently circumnavigated.

By this fancy footwork, the US government has been able to detain the prisoners at Guantanamo in a state of limbo; denied the status and rights of either civilian prisoners or prisoners-of-war. Quite rightly this has been condemned by the international human rights community, and is a massive stain on the character of a nation that positions itself on the moral high ground. The lawyers acting for the detainees have summed it up perfectly:

"The Founders of our nation created a Constitution dedicated to the protection of liberty, not one that turns a blind eye to indefinite detention without a meaningful opportunity to be heard."

Apparently reference has been made to a historical precedent. In the 17th Century the Earl of Clarendon attempted a very similar trick by establishing his own detention camp for political prisoners on Jersey (which had its own legal status). He was the enforcer for the Restoration regime of Charles II, and contrary to the popular image this was not a time of laughing cavaliers and lusty serving wenches etc but a period when political supporters of the previous Republic and Commonwealth were ruthlessly suppressed. It was Charles I who originally flawted Habeus Corpus with the arbitrary authority of Star Chamber, and it was his successors who dug up Cromwell’s body some ten years after he died and gave it a ritual ‘execution’.

But the story does have a happy ending – Clarendon was impeached and fled the country rather than face the music. What a lovely thought that the same thing might happen with Bush, Rumsfeld and Rice …

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

On hitting and being hit

I’m sporting a lump over my left eye today – the result of an accidental elbow blow at training last night. Sadly it tends to be things like that get people talking to me about martial arts. I guess it’s inevitable because it gives some physical evidence that they can relate to, and to the average person martial arts begins and ends with hitting and getting hit.

‘But I thought you were supposed to be good – haven’t you’ve been doing it for years?’

Ignoring the fact that doing it for years and being ‘good’ are not synonymous at all – ‘good’ does not mean that we develop an invisible force field that repels all incoming elbows and fists. One of the first thing beginners are told when they first come into the school is that they will get hit, and if they train a lot they will get hit often. If they are not prepared for that, and a lot of people aren’t, then they’d be better to look at some other martial art.

Getting hit (or hitting) should never be gratuitous though.

In fact the most common scenario when I do get hit gratuitously is by less experienced people who fire crazy shots, often reckless of their own safety and the counter that will inevitably follow. Skilled practitioners will let you know that they are ‘there’ with a controlled light touch, even at high speed and intensity. And they won’t launch kamikaze attacks that they know will result in a counter.

But accidents will occur – either physically, like last night because our sweaty arms skidded off each other and into my face. Or mentally – one guy makes an unexpected mistake leaving an opening and the other guy’s hands are on auto-pilot after years of training and fire a shot.

And in the circumstances when it makes heavy contact and someone gets hurt, there will be some mutual frustration. From the first guy that he fucked up and left an opening and from the second guy, if he is cool and genuine, that he didn’t anticipate the mistake and ‘point it out’ with better control.

In a good school that kind of scenario will be happening at some point in every session.
My teacher covers this very situation in a lot more depth in an article here:

Having said all this, I still have to contend with people looking at the lump over my eye and saying ‘wow that training of yours must be the real deal’…

Monday, 3 December 2007

Police profiling

A company with a suitably scary name; OmniPerception, has sold some software to the Met Police that automatically scans images for logos.

The idea is to avoid the manual process of scouring through hours of CCTV footage. Its main use is in sports marketing for sponsors to analyse their brand exposure. But the police now want to use it because they have developed ‘criminal profiles’ that involve preferences for particular logos and styles of dress.

Apparently branded sportswear, particularly with hoodies, is a favourite of the criminal classes (!?!) So that should safely eliminate anyone who is white, over 55 and lives in the Home Counties from any enquiries. Which may of course well be the objective.

For fuck sake ! – This kind of pseudo-science is no more than institutionalised prejudice. The Victorian criminologists were obsessed with the idea that the criminal classes could be identified by the bone structure of their heads and the shape of their eyebrows. Maybe we haven’t come so far.

Still the scariness of this story is somewhat off-set by the news that police are also conducting a (finger-tip ?) search of rubbish tips in the hunt for the missing Child Benefit CD’s.

We may be heading for a bigoted police state but at least the good news is that the police are still as stupid as ever...

Friday, 30 November 2007

Mentalists in Sudan... and elsewhere

More proof that religion is a complete blight on mankind.

This week it happens to be Islam that's in the spotlight: In Saudi Arabia news that a rape victim faces lashes for the crime of having shared a car with her attackers. In Iran a woman abused from childhood and sold into prostitution faces execution.

And of course in Sudan, an English teacher escaped flogging and gets away with mere imprisonment for the heinous crime of getting her class to name a teddy bear after the prophet.

Less any Christians out there are feeling smug though: I also see this week that the Catholic League, joined by various Protestant funda-mentalists, have denounced The Golden Compass. This is the film adaptation of Philip Pullman's excellent children's (and adults') atheist fantasy stories - a sort of anti-Narnia.

So let's be clear - all these religions are mad and bad.

I'm genuinely sympathetic to the English teacher, who appears to have honestly tried to help the kids of a particularly grim part of the world. But there's a certain amount of hypocrisy in the attention that her case has attracted in this country in comparison to the Saudi and Iranian women, both of whom's fate is far more outrageous.

And possibly when visiting a part of the world where medieval lunacy is taken for granted you'd do your homework and proceed with extreme caution.
Have you noticed how all those outraged of Tunbridge Wells types who now want the SAS to be sent in to Sudan are the first to criticise immigrants in this country for not respecting our own prejudices and customs ?

As I say, all religious types are hypocritical, repressive, joyless bastards. Except posibly for the pagans - I've always had a bit of a soft spot for them - they don't proselytize and they have no conception of heresy.

Actually I was thinking of naming my bike Thor after the god of thunder, I doubt anyone will be trying to persecute me for that ...

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Morrissey - tosser and bigot

If you were a student in the 80’s it was impossible to escape The Smiths. Their fucking miserable self-pitying dirge was invariably the soundtrack to every student bar.

Their theme the same as every bad teenage poet; “I’m so sensitive - why does no one understand me?”

In particular I hated Morrissey, the personification of pretentious twattery with his floppy hair and a bunch of daffodils stuck in his back pocket.

At the time my own musical tastes ran more to the NWOBH (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal to the un-elightened). This of course was derided in student circles as Neanderthal and reactionary because the ‘personal is political’. Usually by student politicos who are now enjoying careers as New Labour apparatchiks.

By the same logic because Morrissey was a tortured soul he must also be ‘right-on.’But now we know better – he’s actually just a Little-Englander racist cunt.

Suspicions were raised a long time ago when he appeared on stage draped in a Union Jack bemoaning that England had changed and that he felt that he didn’t belong here any more. Which is probably why he’s lived in Rome for years.

But now he’s back in the country at the moment and talking to the NME this week. In his interview he talks about the ‘immigration explosion’. ‘the floodgates opening” and “not hearing a British accent on the streets’.

I wouldn’t claim that Motorhead, Saxon, Iron Maiden et al were ever particularly politically aware. But at least the boys who wrote such classics as ‘The Ace Of Spades’, ‘Wheels Of Steel’ and ‘Bring Your Daughter To The Slaughter’ never sounded like a Daily Mail editorial.

Or a fucking BNP election leaflet.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Oxford Union & the fascists: What's so hard to understand ?

Posh-boy Fascist Nick Griffin and bogus-historian / Nazi apologist David Irving are to speak at the Oxford Union tonight.

Angst-ridden liberals are turning themselves inside-out trying to reconcile the right to free speech with the policy of ‘no-platform to racists.’ It’s a tired old argument that seems to be revisited every time the fascists get an airing.

As a (non-angst ridden) liberal, with some experience of fairly ‘direct' action against fascists, let me explain:

Free speech protects anybody, however repugnant their views, from prosecution by the state provided that they don’t incite hatred (something by the way that both Griffin and Irving frequently do and seem to get away with).

‘No platform’ is a practical policy that calls upon organisations to take a voluntary decision to deny the fascists opportunities to legitimise their views. Campaigning for no-platform is a practical way of exposing the neo-Nazis for what they really are - and there’s no contradiction between that and free speech.

The trouble with the Oxford Union Society though is that it isn't a local community centre or a trade union branch. In fact it's not even a 'proper' student union (the real Oxford Students' Union have a no platform policy). It's an elitist private debating club for over-privileged twits who think that they are the next generation of the nation's great and good. They think they can achieve what Paxman and numerous others have tried and failed: to out-debate Griffin and Irving - who let's face it - are not going to simply roll over because they've been humiliated in a debate.

Actually that's a charitable interpretation - the upper class brats have probably invited the fascists into their hallowed chamber for the wacky shock factor - the same way they they have invited porn stars and gangsters in the past. But of course Irving and Griffin aren't bothered about that - they are just pleased to be at the heart of an Establishment institution that gives them gravitas and respectability in the mainstream.

Which is why the protests are not only legitimate but necessary.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Paedophile priests

I was shocked to discover recently that my old school has featured in a sex-abuse scandal. The events happened ten years before I got there – but I did know many of the main characters who were still there in my time, and this has got me questioning my previous views of the priests who ran the place.

Personally I happily rejected the Catholic Church at the age of 15, but this was on a purely intellectual basis, not an emotional one. I just came to the conclusion that what they believed in was nonsense; dangerous and damaging nonsense. But nothing ever happened to me, or anybody that I knew, that suggested that the priests and brothers were abusers.

In fact I’ve argued with non-Catholic friends that it’s too easy and stereotypical to paint a picture of priests as an evil bunch of predatory abusers. I still don’t believe that paedophiles are necessarily driven to join the priesthood because it presents ‘easy pickings’. Let’s face it there are easier ways to get such opportunities than the seven years or so of studying and hardship that are involved in training for the priesthood. So although I don’t know the ‘stats, I imagine that there is no higher percentage of Catholic priests who are paedophiles than any other section of the population.

In my experience most of the priests were just well-intentioned individuals profoundly damaged and fucked up by their own beliefs. Let’s face it enforced celibacy fucks people up. Badly. This fucked-up-ness came out in ways that were generally more harmful to themselves than to others. So as a group they had more than their fair share of eccentrics, depressives and alcoholics.

In other-words I thought they were mad or sad, but not necessarily bad. But now I realise that was never the point.

What’s got to me is that whilst none of the priests I knew have actually been accused as abusers, they were still involved in the cover-up. In doing so they actually facilitated the abuse, and, in a nauseating and sanctimonious way, show more compassion to the abuser than the abused.


All close-knit groups protect their own: Freemasons, professional bodies, 1%er motorcycle clubs, the military, the police etc. But throw in religion and the authority and self-justification that goes with it, and you end up with a very powerful imperative to close ranks and deny everything, not just to protect each other but for ‘the greater good’.

That’s the real shocker for me; the moral gymnastics they must all have gone through to conceal and deny something so repugnant. Given the track record of the Catholic Church I should have expected no better. Diderot was right:

"Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Sorry Darling ...

After trying to scare us all witless with melodramatic commercials about identity theft, it turns out that some junior knob-head at HM Customs & Treasury has downloaded all the bank details of every family with kids in the UK on to a couple of disks. And 'lost' them.

Well actually it was TNT that lost them - it's not as if the government supports the 'People's Post Office'. And as they were too tight to even send it by traceable service, the disks have now be consigned to oblivion.

If the government were a business (and that's how it likes to see itself nowadays) then an employee could probably sue them on the grounds that they had neglected their duty of care for their personal details. But this is HM Government, so there's probably some sort of medieval crown immunity bollocks.

Still Chancellor Alistair Darling has sent out a reassuring message:

'Er sorry - we fucked up. Really sorry. Don't worry though it'll probably be OK. Best look at your statements to check that your account hasn't been cleaned out though. But don't contact your bank - they're really snowed under at the moment. Sorry again.'

Even forgetting about the financial risk - the confidential family details of all sorts of people has now been compromised - including families who are hiding from abusive partners. Until the disks are found, probably gathering dust in some TNT depot in Aberdeen because the junior knob-head put on the wrong post code, we'll never know for certain the damage that this has done.

Still on the upside: Surely nobody will now trust these fuckwits with a DNA database or a system of national identity cards ?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Whatever happened to rock and roll ?

Saw Lucinda Williams at the Indigo 02 last night.

Raw, smoldering and languid and very much a 'Southern Thing', her voice is definitely at the other end of the spectrum from the ethereal purity of Emmylou Harris. Both prove that there's a lot more to Country than Garth Brooks and silly hats.

But I wasn't so wild about the Indigo 02, although lot of people are raving about it as London's coolest new venue.

For starters it's in the middle of fucking nowhere - well Greenwich. The fact that the name is an exercise in corporate branding doesn't help. Neither does its association with the venue formerly known as 'The Dome': Part exhibition centre, part venue and now a kind of glorified shopping mall, with a 'village' of mid-market eateries.

Maybe I'm just a romantic traditionalist but I can't regard Pizza Express, Yo-Sushi, Pret-a-Manger or All Bar One as very rock-and-roll. As far as I'm concerned going to a gig means a bar with a sticky carpet, the smell of patchouli oil and dope and a greasy burger from a van.

And bottled beer at £4 a go is just taking the piss.

Monday, 19 November 2007

History means not having to say you're sorry ...

Apologising for injustices from previous generations is getting out of hand. Particularly so when values and concepts of our own times (like the nation state) are superimposed on an age that knew nothing of them.

The latest nonsense comes from the Danish Minister of Culture, who marked the arrival in Dublin of a reconstructed Viking longship to apologise for the behaviour of his ancestors towards the residents of the city over a thousand years ago. Well intentioned possibly, but he shows himself ignorant of his own people's history.

• The Viking raiders who came to Ireland were largely from the region we now know as Norway not Denmark. There were a small number of Danes in Ireland, actually largely Anglo-Danes, who came along shortly afterwards mainly to fight their Norwegian cousins.

• The Vikings didn't raid Dublin - they founded it. Along with many other Irish towns and cities like Wexford, Waterford and Limmerick. In fact there is little evidence that there were town settlements in Ireland before the Viking Age.

• The Vikings obviously did raid monasteries and settlements on the Irish coast. But actually if we take the Viking period as approx 780 to 1070 then there are at least twice as many recorded raids on these settlements by other Irish as there were by Vikings.

• Similarly the Vikings were not driven out by some sort of Irish national liberation struggle. Vikings were just as likely to appear as mercenaries fighting in one of the constant inter-Irish wars. The near-legendary battle of Clontarf in 1014 was not about Brian Boru reclaiming Ireland for the Irish - Vikings made up the elite troops on both sides.

The Vikings have had a bad press. Largely because they were pagan outsiders at a time when the rest of Western Europe was Christian. And most of the written records were produced by Churchmen, so they hardly present an unbiased view.

The Vikings were certainly no angels - but then life in general tended to be short and brutal wherever you were in those days. Rape and pillage was pretty much everyday behavior whether you were Irish, Frankish or Saxon. But the Vikings were also craftsmen, artists, merchants and explorers par excellence with an 'empire' of commerce not conquest that stretched from Baghdad to the coast of modern Canada.

Maybe History should be apologising to the Vikings ...

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Peasants & nomads

Riding a motorcycle in the city every day you rapidly become accustomed to people trying to kill you – ok maybe that’s a little melodramatic – but you certainly get used to people not giving a toss if they do you some serious damage.

My bike's a bright orange Harley with an exhaust note that is loud to the point of illegality; you’d think that I’d be pretty conspicuous. But this isn’t enough for the negligent driver who has their head so far up their arse that they are unaware of my presence. They’re too busy with the mobile phone clamped to their ear, doing their make-up in the rear-view mirror or reading the newspaper propped up on the steering wheel.

But most of the time you develop a kind of paranoia to protect you from the ‘oblivious driver syndrome’. What I’m really talking about though is the driver who deliberately tries to do you harm – here’s a couple of examples from recent weeks.

The salesman / middle manager in what was obviously a company car: I’d filtered alongside the outside of a stationery queue of traffic (perfectly legal in the UK by the way for any readers in the US), up to a red light. As the lights change, rather than let me cut in he wheel-spun for about twenty yards before doing an emergency stop, swerving towards me at he same time in an attempt to force me into a traffic island.

The builders in a white van: I seem to have offended them when I slowed down to allow a taxi to come out from the kerb in front of me. So they followed me for half a mile with their bumper about a foot from my rear wheel with the horn jammed on – they even followed me as I tried to weave through the lanes trying to shake them off.

Of course I ‘remonstrated’ with them and I expected a bit of hostility in return. But I was genuinely shocked by their sheer hatred and bile – these were people who really did want to kill or maim me (I know because that's exactly what they told me). One of them even took a laughable and very poorly executed swing at me.

I can only put this all this down to a kind of automotive penis-envy: Feelings of inadequacy and frustration at being trapped in their little metal boxes when someone else is so obviously enjoying their freedom. The eternal tension between the peasant and the nomad.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The war against the machines.

In the news this morning there's some talk about problems with SatNavs in vehicles.

In particular a couple of incidents of wrong directions - one where a motorist made a turn on a level crossing and consequently tried to drive up a railway line. And a coach driver who turned into a field and of course got his coach and passengers stuck in the middle of nowhere.

What the fuck is wrong with these people? This blind faith in technology combined with an unquestioning willingness to do what they are told be a dislocated synthetic voice is surely a depressing sign of our times.

I'd go as far as to say that unless you have a boat or a plane or are exploring the Sahara, the average person has no business using SatNavs or GPS. Just buy a sodding map, look where you're going and develop a sense of direction. And if you can't cope with this, really you'd be better off staying at home.

I even see that people are putting SatNavs on bikes now. The two things are incompatible as far as I'm concerned (unless you're Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman). I'm enough of a romantic to think that the defining moment of Easyrider is when Peter Fonda throws his watch away into the dust.

Anyway, I'll never be able to fit a SatNav to my Harley - the vibration would shake it to pieces.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Music whilst you fight.

Went training last night and there was some debate about what music we should be playing.

If your idea of a martial arts school is a zen palace with immaculately clean wooden floors and a silence broken only by the thuds of crisply executed techniques and the 'kias' and barked instructions of the sensei then you'll probably be horrified to hear that we have any sort of music at all.

Our place is a a slightly damp and musty room that could frankly do with a bit of a clean. There's also background music and plenty of chat and laughter between the students. The sort of behaviour that in a Japanese dojo or Korean dojang would earn you a punishment of twenty press-ups.

In doing things differently we are not being trendy or 'revisionist' though: For a Chinese kwoon it is entirely traditional to have a bustling school with a constant stream of people coming in and out, chatting and joking, and with a sifu sat in a corner drinking tea and keeping a beady eye on the proceedings.

But there's more to it than just a different tradition - there's a logic too: A big aspect of martial arts, the endless repetition of forms and drills, is the re-programming of reflexes and training of muscle memory. The idea is to remove the aspect of 'intent' so that you can pull off techniques without thinking or emotion. This is not some hippy spiritual thing - it's very practical too - in a fight you're in a highly stressed situation and you cannot rely on conscious rational actions, you revert to instinct - the training tries to condition these instincts. OK - but why the music ?

As part of the learning / conditioning process at times you actually want some distractions. Maybe not in the very early stages of learning, but certainly at some part of the training dealing with
multiple stimuli and still getting it right is vital. I can remember time and time again when doing chi-sau being told by my sifu to lose my 'warrior face' and smile instead. This is easier said then done when some guy is trying to hit you at point blank range - but doing so relaxes you and definitely un-nerves your opponent.

(And this is quite apart from the obvious fact that music makes the place more enjoyable and it's all supposed to be fun after all).

Anyway back to last night:

I happened to be the senior guy there so I stuck on some Tinariwen and some Charlie Parker. There were requests for some jungle and drum and bass, but in my experience that kind of rhythm makes everyone chi-sau like a psychotic motherfucker and I'm getting too old for all that shit ...

Monday, 5 November 2007

Is Jehovah happy now ?

Twenty two year old Emma Gough died last weekend at a hospital in Shrewsbury giving birth to twins. In any other circumstances a human tragedy, but actually it's a fucking scandal - Emma was a Jehova's Witness who refused a blood transfusion that would have saved her life.

If ever proof was needed that religion is a form of mental instability the Jehovah's Witness must take the credit for removing any doubt.

They base the ban on blood transfusions on some part of the bible that prescribes ingesting blood (presumably vampirism and eating black pudding are also out), but obviously not on the bit that prohibits suicide.

Quite why God should require a young woman to die and leave two children without a mother escapes me. But if it's part of some mysterious divine plan then I'm afraid Jehovah can fuck right off with it.

Legally doctors are powerless to intervene in these bizarre circumstances unless the patient is a child. But surely two doctors should be able to determine that, adult or not, the patient is not of sound mind and go ahead and give them the transfusion anyway ?

This isn't an infringement if human rights; doctors will regularly ignore patients' wishes when they try to revive suicides. (And ironically doctors who assist terminally ill people in making a dignified death of their own choosing can face prosecution for 'assisting a suicide').

Yet again beliefs that are not simply bonkers, but actually dangerous and evil, are beyond question because they are 'sacredly held'. But let's take two steps back and see the Jehovah Witnesses for what they really are - an abusive cult.

Apparently they believe that at the last judgement only 144,000 elect souls will be saved. If this is really the case why do the keep knocking on my door trying to sell me The Watchtower - surely if I sign up I'm only lengthening the odds of them not frying ?

Friday, 2 November 2007

De Menezes shooting verdict.

I have noticed at work that some of the first aid boxes we have on each landing are missing; items like sticking-plasters have been used and not replaced. And every Wednesday the cleaners pile up the recycling bags against the fire doors where they remain for a few hours before they are collected. Sometimes spills of tea and coffee are not immediately wiped up.

These things are breaches of health & safety.

But pumping seven shots into someone’s head at point blank range isn’t. It's murder - or to be legally precise - Corporate Manslaughter.

But 'endangering public health & safety' is what the Met were charged with over the De Menezes shooting. Still Ian Blair has not offered to resign despite the guilty verdict. Although he has offered these insightful words to give reassurance to the public: "Sometimes, that's what happens."

And as helpful advice to travelers on public transport, the aptly named Commander Cressida Dick who oversaw the police operation has explained that: “Nervousness, agitation, sending text messages, using the telephone, getting on and off the bus, all added to the picture of someone potentially intent on causing an explosion."

So now you’ve been warned. Don't appear agitated on your way to work - you're just asking for a bullet in the head.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Samhain

Tonight’s the night we teach kids the valuable lesson of the power of extortion or as it’s now known ‘trick or treating’. With this in mind it’s easy to appreciate that Halloween is a quintessentially American festival.

And it is indeed an American import – twenty years ago Halloween was pretty much confined to Scotland and Ireland – but the numerous retail opportunities for selling cheap and tacky scary shit were too irresistible.

And so another ‘tradition’ was invented much like Father’s Day (a totally synthetic event manufactured by the greetings card industry).
In fact Halloween does have a bit more of a solid origin than that. It came to the USA from Scotland – the first written reference to it is in Robbie Burns – and it derives from All Hallows or All Saints Day – a festival in the Christian calendar.

But that’s not the whole story.

The Christians, as so often is the case, nicked the idea from a Celtic pagan festival – Samhain. There was an original Christian festival of the dead in May but somewhere in the Eighth Century, when the Christians were recruiting amongst the pagans, they swapped over the date to November so that they could capitalize on the existing celebrations.

For the pagans Samhain marked the end of the ‘light’ half of the year and the start of the ‘dark’ – it was marked with what was essentially a piss up around a camp fire. A time of celebration after the harvest and before the cold of winter set in.There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that confectionary was given to kids in exchange for not getting your windows egged - presumably that’s a later development.

So ironically all those Christian-mentalists who get hot under the collar about kids celebrating Halloween might actually have a point.

Still, bollocks to ‘em – lets celebrate the dark side tonight.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

'Shared values'

In London this week we are treated to the obscene spectacle of a state visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

Kim Howells at the FO has told us not to focus on what divides us but on ‘our shared values’. Obviously I can’t speak for Mr Howells but I’m pretty sure that I don’t share any values with the bigoted tyrannical murderous arsehole that’s being feted at Buckingham palace today.

Let’s get it right about Saudi Arabia – its record on human rights clearly sets it apart as a pariah state:

• A record of capital punishment that puts it in the premier division of state killers.

• A legal system that is theocratic – using medieval Shari’a law as the basis for corporal punishments such as flogging and amputation.

• An absolute monarchy that bans political parties and extends political rights to a minority of the population.

• Systematic denial of women’s rights – an elaborate machinery of repression that tells them how to dress, limits their freedom to travel, and denies them access to education and many other aspects of civil society.

• An economy that rests on 9 million migrant workers largely from SE Asia who live lives of virtual slavery and are denied the most basic rights.

• Institutionalised corruption (remember the BAE scandal and the SFO investigation?)

And to add insult to injury, the cheeky fucker wants to lecture us about stepping up the war on terror! It was fifteen of his countrymen who participated in the 9/11 attacks and Bin Laden himself is a follower of the Saudi’s homegrown version of funda-mentalism – the Wahhabi sect.

The hypocrisy of the whole episode is appalling: Mugabe is (rightly) treated as a tyrant with whom the government will have no dealings, whilst Abdullah is given the red carpet treatment. And people seeking asylum from repressive regimes are turned away at our airports whilst Abdullah is given an official welcome when he flies in with his ridiculous entourage.

Shared values?

The only things I can see in common are a profound respect for OIL and everything else that flows from it – like £4.4 billion of exports.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Whaddafuck ?

Last night the final Sopranos aired on British TV.

What has been hailed as the greatest ever TV series finished in the same vein as it operated all along - breaking our balls.

Were Tony and family going to be hit by the rival NY crew ? Were the FBI finally going to swoop ? Or was he going to cut a deal with the Feds ? The tensions of the last ten minutes as the family arrived one by one at the dinner was unbearable.

And in the end all we saw was Tony, typically tucking into some comfort food, then a blank screen.

Maybe it was the last seconds before his death - but I like to think that it was another of David Chase's genius pieces of anti-climax, and that for T it was just a case of 'business as usual'.

Whatever. Monster or tortured soul - we all got caught up in 'this thing of ours'. Is there anyone out there who wasn't rooting for him - or more to the point is there any man who doesn't in some way want to be Tony Soprano ?

Thursday, 25 October 2007

The current lot make Carter seem a collusus ...

It says something for the current desperate political climate that I can be inspired by reading an interview with Jimmy Carter.. .

I’m just about old enough to remember him as president.

My only memories from that time was that he was ridiculed as a hick buffoon and that the fiasco of the bungled attempt to free US hostages in Iran was the final nail in his coffin before Reagan’s Republican landslide in 1980.

I'm fully aware that the born-again Christian peanut farmer from the Deep South is sure as hell no socialist or working-class hero.

But his record both as president and as ‘former president’ do put him head and shoulders above those that have since followed him. You could say that this just shows quite how far to the right the political consensus has shifted since the Reagan / Thatcher new order.

Just a few random things that put him in my good books:

• Early opposition to segregation in Georgia led to his family business being boycotted by local whites.

• Outspoken opposition to the death penalty

• Opposition to the war in Iraq

• Calls to shut down the Guantanamo Bay facility

• A description of Israel’s policies in Palestine as ‘apartheid’

And less conspicuous but equally endearing:

• Legalising home brewing in the US – thereby pissing off big business and sparking a movement for real ales and micro breweries

• Reporting his personal sighting of a UFO to the FBI (before the X Files hit the screens)

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Why so miserable Gordon ?

I'm not going to comment on the Rugby World Cup Final - a triumph in the end of skill over passion, and in spite of the disputed try probably a fair result. It was the presentation of the silverware at the end that got me going.

There was Sakozy as the host who, despite being a Tory still managed to look cool (well he is French after all) and then there was Gordon Brown, in contrast looking every inch the disgruntled Presbyterian bank manager.

Putting both to shame was the South African President Thabo Mloeki; the only one who actually looked like he wanted to be there. He was wearing a Springboks anorak and jumping up and down with excitement, laughing and joking , slapping the players on the back as they collected their medals. In fact I ignorantly assumed at first that he must be a member of the South African coaching entourage who had somehow got onto the platform. So obviously did some of the England players who appeared to ignore him when they collected their medals.

But why must politicians look so miserable in public - do they think it gives them some sort of gravitas ? Maybe Mloeki is a bit more self confident - after a lifetime in exile working for the ANC and with family members shot by the apartheid regime he possibly doesn't feel the need to prove anything.

Statesman who appear as human beings are surely worthy of more respect than stuffed shirts.

Remember the images at the previous South African victory in 1995 with Mandela in a Springboks shirt and cap embracing Francois
Pineaar ? This was not simply a well-spun photo opportunity - Mandela actually does have a genuine passion for the game - as incidentally did Che Guerva, who was apparently a useful scrum half.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

A world of knowledge

When I was a student I can’t honestly say that I often found myself enthralled by my studies. However, apart from playing pool in the student bar, some of my best moments were spent on dark winter afternoons in the University Library or UL.

In its labyrinthine corridors it was possible to convince yourself that there was the entire world of learning captured under one roof and that you could actually stumble upon some previously undiscovered gem of knowledge. If you’ve seen library the ‘Name Of The Rose’ you’ve probably got the rough idea.

And the best bit of all was that the knowledge gained was usually completely random and irrelevant to anything that I was supposed to be studying. The perfect education for a renaissance man or a trivia bore – whichever you prefer.

I know it sounds a bit trite, and I’m probably showing my age here, but it never fails to blow my mind that sat at my desk bored shitless at work (a not infrequent condition) I can now wander around the virtual library that is this inter-web thingy and experience the same kind of wonder.

So I’ve just followed a trail of links that took me from articles about Ta Moko (a sacred Maori tattoo practice), to the liberation struggles of indigenous peoples, to the commoditisation and commercialisation of their cultures, to questions of racial identity and heritage in the west, to racism and the far-right.

There’s obviously a risk here that we’re all going to evolve into sad uber-geeks. But I’m basically an optimist and I find all this easy access to knowledge pretty inspiring for the future of the planet.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

What are the Lib Dems for ?

So 'Ming' is off. I have to say my initial reaction is that it doesn't really seem to matter and I don't really care.

I have never been really clear what the Liberals were for. In fact almost since the First World War, I'm not sure that they are 'for' anything at all.

At national level they are, depending on the circumstances, the Tories without the small mindedness, or New Labour without the 'embarrassing' links to a socialist past. I know they like proportional representation and civil liberties. And at local level they are very good at community relations - campaigning against dog shit on the pavement etc, when they run councils they are pretty much indistinguishable from wet Tories. Er that's about it ...

In most of the recent post-war period they were almost a regional party of the rural 'celtic fringe' - for some pretty quirky historic reasons. Very long memories of the Monmouth rebellion in the West Country, of the Highland Clearances in Scotland, and in Wales of non-conformist battles against the Church Of England - all made the Tories beyond the pail. Increasingly their place has been taken by proper nationalist parties like the SNP and Plaid Cmyru.

For a short time, when there was the flirtation with the SDP that gave birth to the modern 'Liberal Democrats', there appeared to be something like a coherent ideology of euro-style social democracy. But then New Labour came along and nicked those clothes leaving the Lib-Dems to play catch up.

So do the Lib Dems matter and should we care ?

Well ever since mainstream politics meant the abandonment of principle and hinged on the pursuit of a small layer of middle class voters in Middle England marginals, then sadly it just might.

I would advise them to choose another Blair/Cameron photogenic, unprincipled, opportunist charmer from the same cloning stable (somewhere in Oxbridge I think) that churns them out these days...

Which is of course exactly what they've done with Clegg and Huhne.