Thursday, 29 December 2011

Unfestive.

It's that weird time of year 'twixt one holiday and another -  a punctuation in the flow of normality that prompts introspection. And not necessarily of the healthy kind. I can't help dwelling on the fact this time last year I had no inkling that I'd lose the mum I'd known for 45 years, or the job I'd known for 23.

Back when I was in work I used to hate the 'festive' season: Parties for clients. Lunches for clients. Drinks with clients. Corporate gifts for the clients. Departmental parties. Company parties. Lunch for the sales team. Lunch for the managers. Secret-sodding-Santa.

But now that's all gone - I can't escape a nagging feeling that I'm  somehow missing  it: Not the people; not the work; not the bullshit from clients; not the doubt and self-loathing I felt when I thought I was becoming part of that bullshit.  Not even the money really. Although I do miss the not-having to worry about money. Mainly I miss the reassurance and security of routine and ritual. Of having an answer when people ask me what I do.

Rationally, I know it's like a released prisoner who craves being inside again.

So enough already  - I will choose to end the old year and start the new one like Papillon in the final scene of the movie, floating to freedom after his last and most desperate escape - "Hey you bastards - I'm still here !"

Rasputin.

I'm to be found again over at Dorian Cope's 'On This Deity'. Today is the anniversary of the murder of Rasputin. 

He's probably had far more historical attention than he deserves - but if nothing else his life is a weather-vane pointing the way to the real story of the Russian Revolution.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Portrait of the young man as a sell-out artist

My local MP writes today about the riots at some length in today's Guardian:

Hold the front page: Riots are bad. Communities are good. But life in Tottenham sucks. Cameron and his toffs are out of touch. Big business doesn't care - in fact it makes money from it all.

Lammy's answer ? Labour got it wrong with the nanny state - what we need to do is share the profit - share the power. 

OK - I'll sign up for that I guess. 

But hang on what does Lammy mean ? 

Actually he explains - worker representatives on the boards of big business. And dividends not fat cat bonuses. Just like they do in Europe.

Because of course there's no economic crisis there. Fucking hell. 

Even that near extinct species, an honest social-democrat could find something a bit more progressive to point to in the European model: Maybe  a still-functioning public sector that wasn't constantly portrayed as a parasitic pariah, or trade unions that hadn't been emasculated with generations of restrictive legislation.

Given the usual trajectory of Labour politicians towards the right - fuck knows where Lammy is going to end up. Right now  he seems to be one of Labour's rising stars -  and one of the very few who they think can speak to the inner cities and the yoof.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

I predict ...

'Tis the season for looking back to the old year and forward to the new.

I'll leave the celebration of the Arab Spring and the return of class politics in 2011 -  and anticipation of an inspiring year of struggle in 2012 -  to my comrades. 

As the ghost at the feast I'll predict a year of nauseating nationalist flag-waving. We have all the ingredients: 

• The gloom of recession that needs warming with an excuse for a street party
• London hosting the Olympics
• The queen's diamond jubilee or whatever the fuck it is
• The long anticipated death of Thatcher and her funeral
• Ditto the Duke Of Edingburgh

Of course it doesn't have to be this way ...

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Police want even more...

Given that the riots this summer - which started literally in my backyard  - began because the police shot someone, you'd think that the obvious conclusion would be that they shouldn't be so trigger happy. On the contrary though the Inspectorate of Constabulary reports that they weren't trigger happy enough. Apparently the riots could have been nipped in the bud if only they had been more willing to use rubber bullets -  and even live ammunition. Worse still the top coppers private club claims that they don't need any new laws to make this possible - they claim they are already within their rights to shoot 'arsonists'.

Scary stuff.

I'm reminded of a conversation with my dad shortly after the riots: 

Bear in mind he's a lifelong labour-man (with a small l these days) but he's also 84 and lived most of his life in the homogeneous affluent white working class hinterland of London - so you can maybe forgive him if his social attitudes are occasionally a bit conservative ( but always with a small c). Indeed when he spoke about some of the disturbances in his own area he did talk about copycat 'yobs'. But when we spoke about how it had all started here in Tottenham - he was amazingly spot-on: "Stupid police shot someone they didn't need to AGAIN. They bungled dealing with local  people AGAIN. And then  they lied to cover their tracks AGAIN."

And now the same police want more powers and more guns....

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Day trip to Chelsea

With time to kill and an eye for free stuff - I took myself down to Chelsea to see the Warhorse exhibition at the National Army Museum. We went with the kids to see the play at the National Theatre and I thought it was great - but the exhibition was a disappointment.

I say free but I  picked up TWO parking tickets with a face value of £260 - apparently in Chelsea you need a permit to park a motorcycle in a motorcycle bay. The two tickets I hope are an error as they were issued within two minutes of each other- but who knows. So possibly my verdict of the exhibition is retrospectively prejudiced, but then again I was already pissed off after riding around the ridiculously  smug moneyed  backstreets of Chelsea. If we could spare Warrs Harley Davidson off the Kings Road, there would be a strong case for nuking the whole fucking borough and all the hoorays who live there.

But I digress: The exhibition managed to be  both a not-quite-the-history of the British cavalry - and an attempt to convey the horrors of the Great War by anthropomorphising a horse and its sufferings. I wasn't too comfortable about this -  I can well imagine that many of the officer class 1914-18  being more upset at the loss of their favourite hunter than a few working class oiks...

Actually the exhibition came across primarily as a lure to bring kids into the National Army Museum - much like the exhibition of the history of Commando war comics going on at the same time on the upper floor.  

The museum itself is a strange one: full of the traditional glass cases of uniforms, weapons, dioramas and the history of military campaigns - which I have to confess I'm a sucker for - but also an underlying  message of 'join the army-it's great'. A message told with a poorly concealed subliminal attempt to be inclusive and politically correct.

So we have mannequins portraying a soldier at Waterloo from the West Indies (factual but hardly representative) and a lot of coverage of empire troops in the Second World War. But no explanation of why the British army was fighting a succession of campaigns in Africa, India, Burma etc - although these are grouped in a gallery titled with unconscious irony 'Changing The  World'. We are also treated to another gallery singing the praises of post-war national service which seems to have been a bit like a lads' holiday with camping and paint-balling thrown in. And  another gallery about life in the modern British Army - apparently it's all about 'the army family'.

There's a gift shop on the way out with a mixture of fairly esoteric military history books and a range of kid's versions of modern camo-clothing and equipment. The eleven year old me would have signed up on the spot and I didn't even visit the 'kids zone in the basement' ....

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Unilever strike

Eclipsed in the news by Lord Snooty's Churchillian 'we'll stand alone and fight them on the trading floors and in the city wine bars' moment - there's a breaking story that is a telling slice of real life in contemporary fucked-up Britain:

At Unilver's Gloucester plant 2,500 workers went on strike yesterday over their pensions. These weren't the 'pampered' public sector scroungers who we are told are now the enemy within. These are workers in that paragon of all Tory values - a profitable private business. Profitable to the extent that unlike many well known brands these days, business is actually booming for the nation's leading supplier of grocery products with profits last year of £6.5 billion. No wonder the chief exec trousered a package of over £3million.

So just why are Unilever trying now to get rid of their final salary pension scheme ? The only answer is because they think they can. Capitalism is a rapacious beast at the best of times - and in the midst of a depression it is savage. And the supposed Quaker antecedents of the firm and its heritage of ethical business is  whimsical bollocks. Just as it was at Cadburys a couple of years ago.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Jeremy-twatting-Clarkson

It shouldn't have taken 'The One Show-gate' to confirm that Jeremy Clarkson is a smug, mean-spirited Little Englander Tory-tosser.  

Regardless of taking his comments in or out of context  -  I'm troubled by   the backlash over his comments about having public sector strikers taken out and shot.

Asking for an apology - whatever that means - tends to cast the injured parties as humourless and self-righteous, something the Left hardly needs more of. And equating him with General Pinochet - who of course really did shoot trade unionists - is on a par with calling parking attendants Nazis; it's simply disproportionate, historically inaccurate and offensive to the memory of genuine victims.

There are plenty of genuine villains really worthy of our rage  from the strike last week - the entire Tory Party, the vast majority of the Labour Party and fat-cat fuckers like Philip Green who lecture the rest of us about tightening our belts. A b-lister with a dodgy perm who has built a career out of having his mid-life crisis in public,  comes some way down the pecking order.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Historic ?

Any socialist who has been around for a few years will have heard  the word 'historic' much used to describe things that almost certainly aren't.

Yesterday was one of those rare occasions when its use was actually justified. The biggest strike since the General Strike of 1926 - and perhaps most importantly the biggest strike since the Thatcher watershed. Having spent the day from  the early morning riding around visiting pickets in my borough, going on the central London demo and finishing  up with a shop stewards meeting in a pub in Whitehall - I'll happily confess that I was caught up in the euphoria of the day. And why not - there  is something qualitatively different about a demonstration of striking trade unionists - it means so much more than the usual suspects on a day out.

But the morning after is possibly the time for a bit of sober reflection: General strikes are a very big deal in this country: Rightly so when  2milllion plus workers are involved. And the idea of 'general strike' will forever be associated with that oh so un-typically 'British' moment when the country came close to revolution. But 24hour general strikes occur quite regularly in much of Europe. They are treated as ritualistic  fete-days for the labour movement. And we shouldn't be under any illusions that the TUC would happily adopt this European custom.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Survival of the insecure

I can't deny that I've got time on my hands. Too much fucking time - there's only so many hours you can spend online job hunting and researching. 

Whilst surfing through the nauseatingly smug cliches of the ever growing 'how to cope with redundancy' industry I came across an academic paper from Cranfield University - a study of redundant executives. A category I reluctantly have to accept I fell into.

There's a lot of pseduo-socio-psychological padding to it but the gist of it is that redundant executives in their survey group show the following personality characteristics in comparison with  their peers who weren't made redundant (or in bollock-speak 'out-placed').

More calm
More socially bold, uninhibited 
Much more imaginative and unconventional 
Less shrewd, more natural, forthright 
Less self critical
Less tense, overwrought

I think I tick all of those boxes - although some who know  me may laugh at the idea of 'calm' - in a work context I was perfectly stoic it's only motorcycle electrics that drive me psychotic.

In fact I could add a couple of more categories of my own:

Less likely to play golf with the boss
Less able to network / generally brown-nose
More inclined to take the piss out of corporate bullshit 

Or in other words, businesses like their managers to be properly socialised - and a bit jumpy. No shit Sherlock.  

I don't know if any of this makes me feel much better - I never felt that I sense of inferiority that I'd got the bullet when others didn't - but now I realise that I'm deficient in those attributes that will get me back in the game ....

Friday, 25 November 2011

My trade union CV

In the past few months I have written out my CV  dozens of times - so many times in fact  that I'm even starting to bore myself.  So just  for a change - I thought I'd set it out in terms of the chronology of my trade union membership. 

I  have to say it's not an inspiring story:

• TGWU - in between school and uni I worked as a lathe operator in a factory making photocopiers. It was an old-fashioned shitty  assembly line and played no small part in getting me politicised. The factory was run on the lines of a caste system; the T&G was the union for the 'un-skilled and semi-skilled' - we wore grey overalls; there were engineers (AUEW) who wore blue lab-coats; and technicians (ASTMS) who wore white lab-coats. Paranoia about demarcation and a kind of apartheid system prevailed.  I wasn't there long enough to form a proper view of it all but it did seem like  something out of disutopian sci-fi movie.

• NUS (students not seamen that is) - I couldn't really take this seriously as a proper trade union. Certainly at that time (the 1980s) and place (Oxbridge) it was a drinking club with overtones of political correctness. The high-point of this was an occupation against the proposal of fees (sounds familiar) - but being a respectable bunch the union actually  booked the venue they were occupying in advance.

• SOGAT - joined by mistake whilst I was a student at the London College of Printing. We used to go down to Wapping on a Friday night - which is where I was first  at the receiving end of  police thuggery . Once I started work - in the pre press sector - I found that I was in the wrong union. It then took about six months of arguing and pleading before I was allowed to transfer to the right one.

• NGA - I came in at a time which might considered the swan song of ascendant craft unionism. The chapel had a degree of control over recruitment and working practices which seems almost impossible in these post-Thatcher days. I thought it was great and in retrospect was a bit seduced by it all. It was corrupt and riddled with nepotism, racism and sexism.  And whilst new technology was about to bury us - the union was burying its head in the past. In my section many of the members identified more with the pre-merger( even more arcane) craft unions- like SLADE and the ASLP. The  leadership was more concerned with defining who could and couldn't join - certainly not the new generation of mac heads who did 'desk top publishing'.  The trouble was this was the next generation who were poised to replace many of our jobs.

• GPMU - at last a single union for the print. Trouble was the stable door was bolted  after the horse had run away. The union at my place - and many other smaller companies - had already been de-recognised and members were largely an aging minority.

• AMICUS and  then UNITE - successive swallowing-ups and the union became increasingly remote and irrelevant. Out of 80 odd people in our place there were three members and one of them was me - supposedly a senior manager. 

Which brings me to the latest installment: When I phoned the union offices a few week ago - the first time I had spoken to anyone there for years - to tell them that I had been made redundant, they could tell me only  that as I'd been in for 25 years  I was eligible for a free 'retired members' level of membership. They didn't even ask me if I was happy that I'd received my statutory rights or offer me any support or advice.  I was seriously tempted to tell them to poke my union card - although I have kept it as an 'unemployed member' out of some sort of misplaced sentimentality.

Here's hoping that wherever I end up next has something resembling a healthy union ...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Let's work together



Divide and rule is an ugly game as old as the hills - and  the latest flavour of this seems to be pitting  private against public sector workers. Now just to be clear, I've never worked in the public sector - although it looks like I might be about to reverse the much touted trend of public sector jobs flowing to the private sector. 

This supposedly inevitable  drift to private enterprise  is heralded as somehow emancipating. Because it's an ideologically driven impulse from Thatcher's heirs in the form of Lord Snooty and his chums. But it's not emancipating - and I speak from personal experience here - it sucks - statutory redundancy after 25 years and fuck-all pension to go with it. I don't feel liberated by the market I feel shafted.

But I'm not jealous of the public sector.  Well actually I am  - but not in the way that the Tories want me to be. I'm jealous that even the most 'lowly' of public sector workers goes home at night knowing that they have done something - however menial - that makes their community a better place.  Like many others in private business, when the sun goes down on another working day I can only reflect that I have helped someone else get a bit richer than they were this morning.  

And there's the simple truth - only a tiny number of capitalists (the 1% ?) truly depend on the private sector - for the rest of us it tends to be the public sector that delivers those things that make life bearable. 

So when the mini general strike on November 30th comes around those like me who have never worked in the public sector should get their arses down to the picket lines to let the strikers know that there is no such thing as 'the general public' to be pitted against them - only a different kind of worker. And we're all in it together. Literally.


Friday, 18 November 2011

A bit inspired. A lot frustrated.

I've just finished a week spent in a secondary school as preparation for applying to teacher training. It's been a strange week - after all I haven't even really been in a school since I was at school - maybe thirty years ago. I suppose the good news is that the experience hasn't put me off - in fact I want to get some more time under my belt -  but it has made me much more frustrated about how I can now change direction.

Contrary to all those ads - and the articles about bankers seeing the error of their ways and turning to something more worthwhile -  nobody  is  falling over themselves to lure people  into teaching with incentives to change careers.

Certainly not if - like me - you're thinking about teaching something as 'un-useful' as History. Maybe I might stand more chance if I'd elected for Business Studies - god knows I've had more than enough experience in that area, but I've also had enough of that shit and I just don't think it belongs in schools. 

It gets worse: Forget about any golden handshakes - even those 'earn while you learn on the job' GTP schemes just don't seem to  be available for 'non-shortage' subjects either.  If I  get a place on a PGCE course for the next academic year  I will have to face the prospect of living on not much more than fresh air for a year whilst at college. And only then after several years of working my way up to get something like an average wage. But first of course I've got to find something to keep me going for before I can start in Autumn 2012 -  and whilst I'm fully resigned to never again earning as much as I did in my previous over-paid existence -  I'm still wrestling with the implications of inflicting that on my family.

And that's all assuming I can even get on a course  -  the laws of supply and demand mean that applications for teacher training are up 40%  this year - as a result of redundancies and mid-life crisis - or in my case both simultaneously. There's  a catch-22 too of having to demonstrate in your application that you have spent time  in schools (inevitably unpaid) - which is a hard thing to do when you've also trying to find a paying job to keep you going and puts the 'mature' career-changer with responsibilities at a big disadvantage against the recent graduate in their 20's who can afford to take a gap year volunteering. 

Perhaps I should make a case for age discrimination.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

A true revolutionary role model

I'm running a bit short of blogging inspiration this week - so I'm  just going to repost a link to an anniversary  piece for Victor Serge that I wrote a year ago. 

Amongst the 'dead Russians' he's maybe not the greatest of revolutionary theoreticians but these days he's probably my favourite. 

'Early on, I learnt … that the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history … one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is in no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error to live for oneself.'

Friday, 11 November 2011

The radical face of Remembrance ?

Looking back at past posts I notice that at this time of year I always seem to say something about remembrance. Why is this ? For starters for anyone not entirely happy with the world as it is, then there is no better illustration of the fucked-up way our societies are run than war in allits poignancy. And when this poignancy connects with family history and personal experience it is a powerful way of making the big ideas human and digestible.

And that's why it pisses me off so much that remembrance is claimed by the political Establishment. All the pomposity of the cenotaph ceremony  - and the poppy one-up manship of public figures (by the way what is it with those special VIP super-size poppies that seem to get more prevalent each year?).

Remembrance is about ordinary people and it certainly isn't about armies and governments.

I've spoken before about how despite the remoteness of 1918 the whole remembrance thing is still very firmly rooted in the image of the  Armistice of the Western Front: 

There used to be a myth propagated that the armistice of 1918 came about  because eventually right prevailed over the horrible Huns. Now this seems to have been replaced with a idea that the powers that be of the war-weary protagonists had some sort of brief moment of clarity and so agreed to stop the slaughter.

Bollocks. The end of the Great War came about because the German ruling class decided that they would rather make peace with their counterparts amongst the allies than fight on and probably lose a revolution against their own people. They had the salutary lesson of the Russian revolution only a year earlier. And in fact at that time things might have gone very differently  when the French army mutinied en masse and their ruling class also had a wobble - saved only by the US turning up to save the day.

If there is a lesson to take from the Armistice it is not just that war is horrific - it is that just occasionally  ordinary people can take their fate in their own hands.

Monday, 7 November 2011

We're all anti-capitalists now.

I'm too young to be an old hippy - but Buffalo Springfield's lyrics keep ringing in my head at the moment:
There's something happening here  
What it is ain't exactly clear  
I think it's time we stop children what's that sound 
Everybody look what's going down
I had a job interview on Friday and - as I was in the area - found myself in the bizarre position of calling in at the St Paul's occupation if not exactly 'suited and booted' then certainly not in my usual scruffy state.

I didn't stay very long - but I was struck by a diverse bunch of committed people stoically enduring the miserable autumn drizzle and at great  pains to explain what they were all about to anyone who would listen. Quite eccentric and very English.

But these days I apply a kind of acid test to any movement - would it connect to the people I live with in Tottenham - the diverse inner city dispossessed ? or the people I used to work with - the white working class ? or to my daughter's friends - the next generation of activists ? If something doesn't hit at least one of these criteria then however well-intentioned it's probably barking up the wrong tree. And I'd have  confess that I came away from St Paul's still a bit ambiguous. But then a couple of surprising things happened at the weekend:

I went to the SP's weekend school 'Socailism 2011' and attended the session on the anti-capitalist occupations. I was prepared for some hack-interventions making predictable criticisms of the occupiers for not having a rounded-out socialist programme or connecting to the labour movement. But there was none of that. In fact there were several young comrades who had been on the occupations themselves - here, in the US and in Europe. They looked and spoke just like the people at St Paul's only they had pushed the anti-capitalist thing that vital last few yards into something like socialism.

Then I rode down  to Kent on Sunday for lunch with my dad. He's 82 and although he's been a Labour man all his life you could forgive him for carrying a certain conservatism at his age. In fact though - like Tony Benn - he seems to have got more radical as he's got older. He wanted to know about St Paul's what was going on -  what it was about - what did I think? As he said - and I quote: 'after all - we're all anti-capitalists now'.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Kiel Mutiny 1918

Another guest piece over at the wonderful 'On This Deity' - the anniversary today of the Kiel Mutiny and the start of the German Revolution of 1918.

History. Honesty. Tribalism. And PhD's.

Amongst the various wild geese that I have been chasing in my current  unemployed state, one possibility I considered was doing a PhD. Not because I seriously considered a new career as an academic but because it's something that I've always figured on doing at some point as a bit of self indulgence.

Having looked into some of  the practicalities, and got some very helpful advice from friendly academics I've decided not to pursue it. Quite simply there's a world of difference between having a pet subject you research a bit when you've got nothing else to do and a consuming passion that will keep you (and your family)  going for three to five years of poverty without much prospect of employment at the end.

My particular hobby horse (one of many I pick up and put out down regularly from time to time) was British Trotskyism and the Second World War - with a particular look at its disconnect with how Trotskyism in recent anti-fascist campaigns has appropriated the mythology of the 'People's War'. 

That may well sound like a typically academic 'angels dancing on pin heads' subject - but it also highlights a much more important and practical point - the invention of tradition and the honesty of organisations about their own history. I'll admit that a lot of this was aimed at the IS/SWP and the ANL /UAR tradition - but it also applies to some extent my own organisation and its predecessors.

There's not exactly a body of scholarship on this subject - which can be interpreted as hole in the market - and what there is falls pretty much into the category of 'party family histories'. These seem to consist of tortuous and labyrinthine attempts to demonstrate a continuity between an organisation's antecedents and its current position - and it goes without saying - the correctness of these positions on every occasion. This strikes me as basically ahistorical - but worse than that - fundamentally dishonest.

It reminds me of when I first got involved with Trotskyism having come from a very brief flirtation with  the YCL / CPGB as a teenager. I was given a book by Alan Woods called 'Lenin and Trotsky - What They Really Stood For'. It was a pretty good rebuttal of the Stalinist misrepresentation of Leninsm. But it also perpetuated the idea that Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were some kind of holy trinity - a single indivisible being of one mind in three incarnations. Even at the time I was uneasy about this - nowadays I'm still more so.

On a purely facile level I quite surprised myself when I took one of those daft online 'what kind of Marxist are you ?' quizzes - and  I came out as a 'Luxemburg-ist'. Thinking about it, these post-everything days I'd rather define myself (if I really have to) as a 'Libertian Marxist from the Trotskyist tradition'. I don't think it undermines  my continuing membership of the party I've been in for the past twenty-something years - but it's certainly more honest.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Go to gaol at the Southbank

I went to the Southbank the other day to see Steve Earle - as mentioned here before I'm a bit of an obsessive fan and have to catch him every time he tours. It was a great night -  and I thought one of the best performances I'd seen from him for several years. 

But enough of that: Whilst waiting for the show to start I looked around the free exhibitions in the foyers. Since I've slipped from the ranks of the frankly over-paid to those of the unemployed I've developed a particular appreciation for that kind of thing.

First up there was an exhibition of prisoners' art. In terms of quality I suppose you could say  it was mixed. Some of it looked like school room stuff - although the best of it could have sat in any 'proper' gallery. But all of it was moving and real. -  And in other circumstances if I read something like that in connection with looking at pictures I'd be the first to consign the author to pseud's corner.

I also saw the GoToJail installation. A reconstruction of a cell - complete with a couple of ex-prisoners you can enter the cell and talk to. 

I've never been inside a cell - other than a short spell in a police station after being nicked at a demo. But the thought of being in prison - usually in some kind of Kafka-esque unexplained way - is a recurring nightmare. Now I know that this is no irrational night terror. 

The installation is a recreation of a modern cell  - so presumably it is  a bit more bearable than the Victorian cells in many UK prisons. It may be plastic and clean, but it is an unimaginably  tiny space for two adult men to share with no privacy and no personal space. In fact I was reminded of the cabin of a cross-channel ferry - without the en-suite shower/toilet obviously - you'd  have to co-ordinate your every movement with your cell mate because there's not enough room for you to both stand up and move around at the same time.

And everyone of those Daily Mail prison's like a holiday camp fuckers should be forced to spend 24 hours in it.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

One strike worth a dozen protests. But good luck anyway.

Of all the reasons to have a go at the anti-capitalists camped out at St Paul's - the most spurious are that they are disrupting the life and community of the church. St Paul's isn't a parish church in some sleepy corner of middle England that serves as the hub of a local community. People who choose to get married or Christened there are toffs or people with some tenuous connection to the great and good of the City. Or in other words - 'fair game'. And let's be honest it's not exactly a quiet spiritual haven amongst the hurly -burly of city life -  its a  sodding tourist theme park. They even charge admission.

Some Christians of a liberal bent have welcomed the protests - citing the medieval tradition of the church giving sanctuary to the people in their battles with the secular power. OK - but let's be honest, whilst the medieval peasant might well seek sanctuary from the church against the local landowning nobles, often the church itself was the landowner. Then they'd likely as not seek the patronage against church and nobles alike from the monarch. And that's exactly what happened in the 1381 peasant's revolt. It didn't get them very far and their leader Wat Tyler ended up being - both figuratively and literally - stabbed in the back for his illusions.


What's the point of this medieval detour ? Well Engels pointed out that the problem with such peasant's revolts was that they would only ever be protests - they were incapable of challenging for power because they appealed to someone else to champion their cause. And with respect I think the same goes for the anti-capitalist movement. However much I admire the camp's commitment and emotion, I can't help but think that essentially the sentiment is the same as the peasants of Olde Englande: 'this is unfair - something needs to be  done and someone needs to do something about it'.

Fair enough if the camp raises consciousness and makes people who wouldn't otherwise do so ask questions - but as far as challenging capitalism - or even trying to knock off some of its sharpest edges - then I'd have to argue that implicit in almost any strike is something  far more revolutionary; people becoming aware of and learning to flex own power.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Time to change ?

Apologies for the introspection - I'm  now one week into redundancy. More will doubtless follow but I've not forgotten that there's a whole world in crisis and injustice either.

Pop-psychology would have it that being made redundant is something like being bereaved. Having been through that too recently I have to say 'it was only a job - only a job'.

It is hard to shake off being defined by your job so when you take the definition away you can't help but feel empty. But then again, I always cut a pretty unlikely - if not downright bizzarre -  figure in my old job and felt like an imposter as a 'senior manager'.

And my life - I hope - always had more dimensions - as  my profile description  says; 'biker. socialist. martial artist - in no particular order. It's probably no accident that I didn't include what I did to pay the bills.

And on that subject -  I'm really not sure whether I want to go on doing the same thing: When I went to my mum's funeral I was struck by how people I didn't know came along - they  had been her pupils over the years and were now  adults. And in her lifetime there must have been literally  thousands of others like them. But  I'm damned sure none of my clients from work would come to my funeral. And my lasting legacy would be mountains of now-discarded print.

Easy to say whilst I still have a bit of my  pay-off to live off of. And I don't know if I could hack it as a teacher. But it makes you think.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Capitalism. This time it's personal.

I got made redundant yesterday. 

I thought I'd created a funky little haven at  work - I tried to be a 'decent' boss and was a big fish in a small pond. Until that is the absentee owner decided to pull the plug.

23 years in the same firm is pretty unusual these days. As is the slightly  paternalistic old-fashioned ethos we tried to maintain. At one point we even had three sets of brothers working in the studio. I was quite proud of that. If we hadn't had that ethos I would have  been less inhibited in parring the workforce down when we hit the recession with a vengeance back in the Spring. Who knows it might even have got me a stay of execution this week - but at least I can look everyone in the eye and say I tried to do the best for them.

It was also some comfort on a spectacularly shit and emotional day to have a number of people with tears in their eyes thanking me and saying goodbye.  And I'm not ashamed to say that I struggled to keep it together too. 

But I'm not kidding myself - tomorrow I'll be at home but their work will continue without me. Everyone will work progressively harder for progressively less - until the next bump is hit when they are undercut by a bigger company with more automation or more off-shoring.

You can read all that stuff about the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. But it's another thing altogether when it gets up and bites you on the arse.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A measure of civilisation ?

Until recently I had always thought that funerals were nonsense. Having no religious belief I felt that my corpse could just as meaningfully be quietly disposed of at the nearest council incinerator or land-fill. But then when my mum died this summer I found her funeral very important. Although a painful day by the end of it I had got some sort of - and I apologise for the hideous use of psycho-babble - 'closure'.

My archaelogoical studies tell me that funerary practices are often the defining part of a culture - such as the beaker people. Of course sometimes that's just lazy-thinking because graves and grave goods are  the only tangible evidence left behid to speculate over. But attitudes to death and its rituals are a pretty good indicator of the underlying nature of a society. Think of the transition around the European Neolithic period from the communal 'houses of the dead' to the individual graves and how this mirrors the transition to a 'land-owning' economy with hierachies and elites.

All of which is a long-winded preamble to my depression at the news that 'pauper's  funerals' are on an alarming increase.  This Victorian concept applies to people who die without even the assets to cover their funeral expenses - and therefore have them provided by the local authority. It's often said that an indicator of civilisation is how a society treats its young and old -  and you might as now well add how it treat its dead. It makes me wonder how future archaeologist's will characterize our society.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Capitalism in a turtle-neck.

In my little bubble of the graphics / media world the death of Apple's Steve Jobs seems to being treated as somewhere up there with the loss of JFK and Martin Luther King. 

So this is a plea for a bit of fucking perspective: He wasn't the messiah -although he was undeniably a design visionary. I'll readily admit I've become one of those medja-wanka fashion victims who thinks that macs are for cool people and PC's er ... aren't. And I defy anyone who has used both not to come to the same conclusion.

Jobs was a vegetarian Buddhist and may well have been a very nice man. I'm sure he was a much nicer man than Rupert Murdoch, Philip Green or that knob-head trader who had his 15 minutes of  fame when he told the BBC that capitalists can benefit from recessions. He also made his millions by designing stuff that was  genuinely new and marketing it brilliantly - rather than on the roulette tables of the world's markets. So in a very limited sense he represented a rather less morally bankrupt version of capitalism.

But one of the turning points in Apple's history was the closing down of their manufacturing in the USA along with the 'downsizing' of about half the workforce and their replacement by cheap off-shored labour in China. Where there have since been repeated reports of appalling working conditions and abuses. 

And possibly more than any other compnay, Apple is the personification of the age of 'the brand' - where consumers are manipulated to have relationships with brands to fill the aspirational spaces which were once filled by ideology, belief and community. To the point where so long as you prefixed it with a lower case 'i' and put it in a frosted white box with a minimalist logo - you could literally package and sell a dog-turd.

In other words capitalism is still capitalism - even when it's funky.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Martial brotherhood

I'm not a natural joiner of things. Although my politics leads me to be a member of a fairly orthodox left party, I've never been entirely on message and I'm certainly not comfortable with 'party patriotism'. I'm also a member of a bike club - and although I'm happy to talk bikes until the cows come home with anyone who will listen,  I don't actually involve myself in the social life of the club at all - and the thought of riding around in a group seems to negate one of the major attractions of biking - the solitude.

Martial arts is essentially an individual pursuit, certainly in comparison to most sports, and in some respects it can be positively lonely. But I find a genuine camaraderie with my kung-fu brothers like nothing else I have experienced in any other area of my life. I'm sure I'm not unique in this but it's not something I have heard many people acknowledge.

I'm just back from a fantastic weekend seminar in Ibiza: My teacher lives there nowadays so I go back periodically - but also to catch up with other guys scattered all over Europe. It's as much about the eating, drinking and chilling as it is about the training. We must come across as a pretty odd bunch - a diverse mixture of races, nationalities, ages and individual styles. Particularly so  on that island which is  party-central for the white tribes of England with its twenty four hour full fried breakfasts and football-pubs  along the horrific 'west end strip' in  San Antonio.

One night at a restaurant we were asked what had brought us together and what the occasion was. Preferring to keep a low profile on the martial arts aspect which can often provoke some stupid, embarrassing and potentially even dangerous interest - we said that we were a family having a reunion.

And at the risk of being overly sentimental I think that's a pretty apt description. My teacher talks about how martial arts are best practiced with intensity  between friends because accidents so easily happen, misunderstandings occur and ugliness results. Very true. But I've  found more kindred spirits in my training than anywhere else. Perhaps its because we require a degree of mutual trust when we place our safety in each other's hands. Maybe by - literally - sharing blood, sweat and tears we inevitably forge closer bonds over the years than by sitting around in committee meetings.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

American girl

I haven't followed the circus around Mereditch Kurcher/Amanda Knox/the Italian bloke that nobody can remember/and of course the fall guy black guy in prison that is now no more than a foot-note.

I don't know the facts but that shouldn't make me feel any more inhibited than any of the others who are jumping in with their opinions. In the US corner we have the rescue of an all-American damsel in distress from the clutches of the  bungling and corrupt Italian courts and police. And in the Italian corner we have a well-financed PR machine disrupting the sovereign operations of their justice system much as Uncle Sam bullies and buys his way around the world to protect his own .

As I say, I don't know and can't say if justice has been served. Maybe I'll wait until the movie comes out. But here's a parting thought: If the crime had happened in many parts of the USA - the accused would probably have been either executed or languishing on death row by now. And if Amanda Knox had not been a photogenic white-bread  girl from a middle class family but a young black man dependant upon the public defender system - there is no probable about it.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The ties that bind ?

It's been around twenty years since I jumped out of the Labour Party - before I was pushed. It's even getting on for 10 years since my parents left in outrage at the decline of the party they had been lifetime members of: 

So just when will the time come that I finally stop feeling a sense of betrayal, anger and frustration with the Labour Party ? Because despite a theoretical understanding that the party has passed the point of redemption and that the task now is to build something new - I still can't help looking over my shoulder and feeling an emotional tug. And despite all our denunciations of Labour's bankruptcy I suspect many others on the 'ultra' Left,if they are honest ,feel the same.

But at some point I will settle for the resigned cynicism that labour movement activists in the US  must habitually feel towards the Democrats. A sense that they have been continually used and abused by a party that needs their support but fundamentally doesn't give a toss about them.

This year looking at Ed the geek 'the only thing I have fought for is my career' Miliband or Ed 'don't expect us to reverse the cuts' Balls - and their shiny faced army of a Mormon-like new generation of party hacks - I think the time has finally come...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Legal lynching of Troy Davis

Whilst I've been a member of a Marxist party for pretty much all my adult life (bloody hell) - for a similar length of time I've also been a member of Amnesty International. 

I know there are some contradictions here - Amnesty is  essentially a middle class liberal organisation with some serious political flaws. BUT when some of my comrades point this out I'm reminded of the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian:


My rationale - without illusions - is that so long as people are actually being imprisoned, tortured and killed in the real world then writing a few letters on the outside chance that it might make a slight difference isn't going to derail the revolution with a revisionist petit-bourgeois deviation-ism. Simply sometimes doing something - even if it's  pissing in the wind - is better than doing nothing.

I feel  depressed at the news this morning that Troy Davis was executed. And also absurdly guilty - although I've written previous letters I forgot to send an emergency last minute email - I was too wrapped up in stupid work shit.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Roots 3: Dark satanic mills - John and Kitty

More family history: Frustratingly I know very little about the paternal line of my family - the bit whose surname I carry. My granddad died twenty years before I was born and the  records have proved very elusive.

Although actually  from the point of view of social history these gaps are every bit as telling as the certainties. Inevitably there's a bit of speculation here thrown into filling these gaps - but it is informed by a background knowledge of a particularly grim phase in England's  rise as the major industrial nation:

The pivotal couple in the family's story seem to be my great-grandparents,  John and Catherine (Kitty) who were both born in the middle of the nineteenth century and lived in Dewsbury West Yorkshire.

John was a whitesmith - a craftsman who made household objects in tin and lead - but his origins are confusing and there doesn't seem to be any record at all of his birth. He was apprenticed to his step-father who bore a different name - which he briefly used himself before adopting his mother Ann's maiden name. 

There seems to be no record of Ann being  previously married and she first appears in the records in her mid-twenties working as  a live-in domestic servant to a small middle class household. The illegitimate children of the poor were fairly invisible to the authorities in those days, and so it doesn't seem too great a stretch to conclude that she gave birth to John out of wedlock and  only married later in life. If so - that must have been quite a story.

Now days this part of my family are Catholic and I had assumed that, like the other Catholic side of my family, this was because  they belonged to one of the peculiar pockets of English Catholics in the north of England who managed to dodge the reformation. But in fact John's mother wasn't Catholic and it seems safe to assume that he simply  married an Irish Catholic woman and the family's religious tradition began when the children were consequently raised in their mother's church.

Catherine or Kitty as she was known,  is also difficult to pin down in the archives. There is even some confusion as to her surname  - possibly because of some mis-transcribing in the records or more likely because she was illiterate. We know this because she was only able to make her mark on a number of official documents and it looks as if the surname was mis-heard at various times.

She was a worsted spinner  - a fairly usual job in the mill towns of West Yorkshire - and was born in County Leitrim. The west of Ireland was one of the  regions worst affected by the famines of the 1840's - and consequently one of the most depopulated by mass emigration. Leitrim was also a textile producing area and it's not hard to imagine why the people from there would be drawn to the booming mill towns of the West Riding. These hell-holes were the engine rooms of the golden age of British capitalism - which needed the cheap  Irish labour as much as they needed relief from their own sufferings at home. As Engels said: 'The rapid extension of English industry could not have taken place if England had not possessed in the numerous and impoverished population of Ireland a reserve at command'.  

Of John and Kitty's six children, four would go on to work in the mills at alarmingly young ages. One of them, my grandfather, was taken on as an errand boy on a local newspaper. Later - just after the Great War - he would come south to work on Fleet Street. And a new family tradition - of which I'm now the third generation - of working in 'the print' would begin. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The free and the unfree.

A nice angle over at The Bad Old Days Will End on the 'travellers and slavery' story. Or possibly non-story.

The discovery of a group of slave labourers at Leyton Buzzard  site in the run up to the eviction of the travllers' community at Dale Farm is both convenient and suspicious.

Ray is quite right in his post to also  raise the danger of us freedom-loving types instinctively  siding with the outsider who lives on the edges of society. Up close such communities can reflect exactly the same shit we see in the mainstream. In my own world I confess that sometimes I find myself romanticizing the outlaw MCs. But in reality, whatever the nobility of much of their ethos,   they often just act as predatory bullies. And  ironically those worst affected are often a group only slightly less on the periphery -  although indistinguishable in the eyes of Jo Public - the wider biking fraternity.

But specifically regarding the slavery angle in this story I do wonder about the police's motivation: Working in Soho I know that only a few yards away from my studio there is an open doorway to a staircase with a crudely hand-written sign advertising 'lovely new eastern European girl in town'. And its a sign that gets updated with a disturbing frequency.

I realise that the workings of the sex industry is  more complex and nuanced than simply human trafficking. But I also suspect that for every story of a Belle-de-Jour making an informed and voluntary career choice there is a parallel story about the exploitation of the vulnerable. Whilst I'm usually  loathe to suggest conspiracies of corruption, I can't help but notice that coppers must walk past these  doorways every half hour, often passing the respectable and be-suited punters on their way out. It seems like modern slavery doesn't raise too many eyebrows when it's an established part of the status quo. Like Woody Guthrie said:
Well, as through the world I've rambled, I've seen lots of funny men
Some rob you with a sixgun, some with a fountain pen
As through this world you ramble, as through this world you roam
You'll never see an outlaw drive a family from its home.


Friday, 9 September 2011

A day which will live in infamy - and myth

I can still  vividly remember exactly where I was when news broke of the attacks on the twin towers ten years ago and the unfolding horror of it all - and I only say that as a preamble to make it clear that I'm as sensitive to the human tragedy as the next man:

Even so. Maybe ten years is too soon to try and get some historical perspective - but it is necessary when myth-making spillls dangerously into policy-making. And doing so needn't take anything away from the individual tragedies nor does it add to the conspiro-loons or Islamo-fascists and their apologists.

Watching all the coverage of the 9/11 anniversary I can't help but recall the words of the historian Shelby Foote on American hubris regarding their civil war: “We think that we are a wholly superior people – if we’d been anything like as superior as we think we are, we would not have fought that war.  But since we did fight it, we have to make it the greatest war of all times...  It’s very American to do that.”

History - and suffering - is not a numbers game. But sometimes numbers do give a perspective. It's often quoted that more people died in the 9/11 attacks than at Pearl Harbour in 1941. True - but if we are measuring recent civillian casulaties then 41,000  were killed in the war in Bosnia and  another 70,000 in the Darfur conflict. These are often forgotten - simply because they occured in obscure parts of the world in countries that aren't global players.  

Of course it's not just about the numbers. 9/11 also defined a turning point in American relations with the outside world. The attack on the US homeland was something unprecedented and so represents what has been described as a 'loss of innocence' for a  nation, which unlike many others, even in Europe, has not endured foreign attacks, invasion or occcupation. Undeniably 9/11 changed international relations and heralded in the new concept of  'the war on terror'.

But such interventionism by the US  is nothing new.  The US empire (Howard Zin's phrase not mine)  has been policing the rest of the world  in defence of its own interests since the nineteenth century. And specifically when it comes to the Middle East and relations with the ex-colonial (and coincidentally or not Islamic) word, America has been waging undeclared wars for many years. 

Which leads to an ironic footnote - the date of 9/11 will forever now be remembered as it is - rather than for the anniversary of the US inspired  and financed military coup of 1973 in Chile that eliminated the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende and installed a fascistic-regime that enjoyed the support of US and British governments for the next seventeen years.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

No such thing as the 'criminal classes'

Ken Clark - the supposedly acceptable 'wet' face of the lounge-bar Conservatives - has been talking recently about the 'criminal classes.' Traditional Tory nonsense is nothing if not resilient.

At home I have a treasured early edition of Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour & The London Poor'. It isn't a revolutionary work in the sense of Engel's 'Conditon Of The Working Class In England' but it was in it's own way radical. 

Granted it reflects the Victorian obsession for recording and categorising everything in pedantic detail and you do sometimes feel that Mayhew, like a butterfly collector  would like to stick his subjects on a pin under a glass case. But it is ground-breaking in that it records the stories of London's working class in their own words - without too much middle class moral commentary. Most of all it paints a picture of the poorest elements of society - including those who make their living from crime - as victims of circumstance. Specifically of social injustice.

At the time this kind of thinking certainly wasn't the norm. Received wisdom would have it that there was some psychological or  genetic flaw that defined  the 'criminal classes'. Just have a look at Conan Doyle  - all very entertaining -  but  Holmes is constantly explaining to Watson how the 'degenerate' jawline or the low fore-head of a suspect confirms their innate villainy. This kind of thinking went hand in hand with  racial theories that mis-appropriated Darwinism in order to characterise some races as more primitive than other . Pseudo-science gave moral legitimacy to capitalism at home and imperialism abroad.

It's incredible that the idea of a criminal class is now being revived. But then again maybe it's the natural corollary of the old school toffs taking charge of government again.  Because by implication if one class is born to riot then another must be born to rule.