Sunday, 30 December 2012

Three cheers for Danny Boyle

Every year at about this time I usually find that some celeb I have had a degree of admiration for has eroded their credibility  by accepting an archaic gong or title in the New Year's honours list.

My biggest disappointment this year was that 'people's champion' and all round working class hero Bradley Wiggins has picked up a knighthood. 

Some will say that it is a small thing and that I should just lighten up. But the honours system is just another prop in the edifice of deference and elitism that bears down on our society. 

So let's hear it for Danny Boyle. In many ways the architect of our 'feel good Summer', you can be sure that the powers-to-be were beating a path to his door to offer him a knighthood. And he no doubt would be more deserving than many of the faceless apparatchiks of government who every year collect a gong for just turning up.

But it seems he turned it down. This shouldn't be a surprise - he's on the record as saying that in the Olympic opening ceremony he wanted  to celebrate being  British from the point of being 'an equal citizen'.

Perhaps one day when we've finally  scrapped all the fore-lock tugging and  royal bollocks that makes up the honour's system, we can put Danny Boyle in charge of a peoples' awards ceremony.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

NRA fuckwits

Like an alcoholic who tells you that what he really needs to sort himself out is just one more drink - you can only shake your head in despair when you hear that the NRA's response to the Newtown school shooting and the murder of twenty young children and six of their teachers is a call for armed guards at schools.

What the fuck is with Americans and their guns ? 

I'm as much a willing victim of American cultural imperialism as the next man. I have two American motorcycles, I'm told that I dress like a redneck trucker.  I listen to alt-country. If I could afford a pick-up truck I'd have one of those too. But still I can't understand the idea that gun ownership is somehow the soul of the nation. I've even studied American history: I get the obsession was the constitution as a sacred text. I get the need to define the nation in terms of a frontier - either real or metaphorical.

Even so.  We can contextualize as much as me like - it's time to just say for fuck's sake grow up and end this bollocks - and  join the rest of the modern world in the sanity of gun control.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Class in the classroom

In the world of education bollock-speak will go to convoluted lengths to avoid any mission-creep into the dangerous waters of politics - and  the elephant in the corner is class. Labour's recent dubious dablings  on the subject do not help in this.

At schools we will talk at length about the issues facing 'EAL' (that's English-as-an-alternative-language) pupils. But we all know that we aren't really talking about the offspring of diplomatic personnel or multinational managerial staff  posted in this country for a few years. We mean the children of immigrants living in inner cities.  Or we talk of 'targeted micro-populations' of underachievers - at the top of which list is 'White British. But we all know that we are not talking about the offspring of Guardian reading Merlot-sipping media types in Hampstead. We mean the white working class.

Ironically those stereotypical characteristics of the demonized chav: low aspirations; lack of respect for educational achievement; a deeply ingrained suspicion of both authority and middle-class do-gooders -  perhaps just reflect a slightly longer experience of British capitalism than the still optimistic hopes of immigrant communities. But as the present economic crisis deepens so does this experience  - and so the attitudes converge. Because that's how class trumps everything else.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A requiem for a generation of sorts

I am not by nature the most gregarious of people, which is perhaps why I am careful to maintain my oldest friendships. And I have been lucky enough that the friends of my teenage years also  still some of my closest. Over something like thirty years, despite the inevitable twists and turns of life we have all remained in touch, albeit rarely managing to all be in the same place at the same time. 

However Friday was one of those occasions. We met for the funeral of a man who played a bigger part in those formative years than any of us realised at the time, the headmaster of our school. The school was a Catholic one, and the man was a priest  - but that is in many ways irrelevant - he was quite simply a good man with some genuine wisdom,  and one of those rare self-effacing people who exert a greater influence on people than they ever know. 

It is said that there are two types of atheists - Catholic atheists and Protestant atheists. And I know that I fall into the first category. Despite the fact that none of us have stayed with the hocus-pocus to which we were subjected in our youth,  we did  honour  the occasion  the man, and perhaps the passing of our own youth,  in authentic Catholic fashion by following the funeral with a piss-up of truly epic proportions. 

It was a bitter-sweet melancholic evening  that perhaps only we can understand, but which I felt it only right to share here.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Workers' control is the only press regulation

It's easy to lose your way in the wake of the Leveson inquiry - and many sensible people have. Whilst all right-thinking people delight at the prospect of putting the boot in on the Murdochs and Desmonds of the media world, any sort of press regulation that curtails genuine investigative journalism is less appealing.

However as with many of these knotty issues that stray into the murky area of censorship I am inclined to give the devil the benefit of the doubt - for the sake of the rest of us. As with pornography and racism - or any of those other things that make us liberals reach for the statute book - there are enough laws already. Tapping phones is already illegal, paying bent coppers for stories is already illegal - and politicians manipulating press barons is a fact of life that no amount of laws short of revolution will stop.

On Facebook I came across this wonderful blank page from the Sun when in the midst of the miner's strike, NGA members refused to handle a picture that depicted Arthur Scargill as a Nazi.  And I remembered that it was a similar action by print workers that was a pivotal point in the escalation of the 1926 General Strike.

I can't help but thinking that declining press standards might just have something to do with the breaking of the media unions.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Zen of teaching

Some of my friends, knowing my background in martial arts, on hearing that I was going into teaching in inner city schools joked that I'd probably need my skills in the new job. In saying this they showed that they didn't know much about either martial arts, or about modern education. But now, three months or so into my training I am realizing that they might just have had a point. 

I am not talking about physical confrontations - because in a school that can only be a lose / lose situation - but in a sense they would never have imagined. 

Being constantly under the microscope and given feedback, constructive or otherwise, and a growing obsessive sense that whatever you do there will always be something else you could have done better - all of these aspects of being a student teacher have a parallel in martial arts training.

So does the ability to accept this criticism whilst maintaining your composure and carrying on with the task in front of you... Then lying awake at four in the morning whilst the criticism gnaws away at your brain. And most of all, getting up the next day with a compulsive optimism that today you will  be better.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Surgical strikes in Gazza

William Tecumseh Sherman said 'war is hell'. The US general is credited with having invented the concept of total war - war taken to the heart of an enemy's civilian population. This is nonsense of course. I immediately think of the Romans waging bio-warfare against Cathage - having levelled the city they then plowed salt into the fields so no crops would grew and the population would starve.  

Of course, the fact that it has always been so doesn't make it any more palatable. But  I find it particularly nauseating when I hear suggestions that there is some sort of other warfare perpetrated by those who can take a high-ground - that their sort of warfare is intrinsically different and more ethical. 

It's a suggestion that is a luxury only to 'top nations' equipped with a sense of moral superiority and better technology. In the nineteenth century the British empire spread civilization with the Maxim gun, and in the twentieth the US imposed American values of democracy with napalm.  And now  Israel talks of 'surgical strikes' with drone missiles against Gazza that will eliminate only the bad guys. 

Like many others I am witnessing the attacks in Gazza in horror - and I have no ready solutions. 

But instinctively I reject the sanctimony of Israeli army spokesmen who talk about the special nature of the IDF and their unique mission to protect civilian life and values of decency. It's the pious hypocrisy that only the bully and  imperialist can afford.

Monday, 12 November 2012

McAlpine v the BBC

I am not minded to spare too much sympathy for the out-going BBC Director General George Entwistle. A pay-out of a full year's salary of £450,000  for a job that he has held for a couple of months sticks in the throats of the thousands of us who have faced genuine redundancy in the past few years. But I also can't help having a couple of pauses for thought:

Firstly - If it had been an ordinary person rather than a Tory grandee who had been falsely accused of paedophilia - would justice have been quite so summary ? I am thinking of the twenty years that it took 96 ordinary football fans to clear their names after having been slandered. And a slander not arising from a bungling incompetence but from a malicious conspiracy between police and press - for which there are still quite a few heads waiting to roll. I guess scouse football fans just don't have quite the same leverage as Lord McAlpine.

Secondly - Entwistle went, quite  correctly, because he was the boss of an editor who fucked up having sub-contracted an investigation to an outside firm. Sloppy journalism and sloppy management. But then that's what happens when the media rushes to placate  pitch fork-wielding vigilantes demanding that 'something must be done' in response to the Jimmy Saville affair. Exactly the same mob who are now baying for the blood of Entwistle.

Most importantly none of this does anything for getting justice for the victims of what is undoubtedly a far-reaching paedophilia conspiracy .

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The new McCarthy-ism in education

Absorbing though my new life as a born-again student-teacher I have restrained myself from blogging excessively about it. Partly because I seem to have a lot less downtime generally these days - but also because I am conscious that what is fascinating for me may just be a bit less so for others. But I had to share this:

Whilst real teachers were enjoying their half term break, we students had to go in to university in our week away from our schools. Highlight of the week was a debate about part two of the new teaching standards. Now, I'm aware that this might sound pretty obscure - but it is actually of enormous significance. At a time when there is an ever-growing number of academies - who can opt out of the national curriculum and whose teachers do not have to have qualified teacher status - it is only the only part of the teaching standards which are going to be  universally applicable to everyone in the profession. In comparison to the wordy corporate speak that makes up the much longer part one of the standards - which do refer to the actual business of teaching - part two is  much shorter, much vaguer -  and altogether much more sinister:

'Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by ....not undermining fundamental British values*'
Fundamental British values is taken from the definition of extremism as articulated in the new Prevent Strategy, which was launched in June 2011. It includes ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’.

Defenders of this bit of nonsense will no doubt  argue that only members of Al-Quaida or the BNP need fear this, but as a history teacher I have a horrible sense of  deja-vu with a new notion of 'un-Britishness' taking the place of un-Americanism. If that sounds alarmist then just remember that without a disregard for 'the rule of law' we would have no right to vote and no trade unions

But most of all, this new definition of British values serves up a recipe to sack  teachers who are also activists  taking part -  in arenas that usually have  nothing to do with their work - in protests and actions such as demonstrations and picket lines. All of which in these illiberal days are increasingly on  the margins of legality.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

What doesn't destroy you and all that.

Almost a year to the day after I was bombed out of my old job I met up with a couple of former workmates - similarly 'lifers' with the old company - for a few beers in Covent Garden.

Between the three of  us we  must have notched up about 75years of service with the firm - so it's fair to say that all of us had our worlds turned upside by sudden redundancy. Of the the three of us I've probably moved the furthest from our previous world,  but we all agreed that the past year has been more enjoyable and more meaningful than anything we'd experienced for years with the old business.   In fact the only thing we missed - apart from the money - was the banter; and even that declined rapidly when we stopped being 'in the print' and morphed into the poncier world of the  'creative industries'.

I detest the new-age capitalism that preaches a mantra of self help about embracing change and using redundancy as an opportunity. It's a sanctimonious fig-leaf to justify that every few years the free market has to have a clear-out. Meaning that for most people who have been tossed out on to the rubbish heap there's simply not much hope of a way back. 

And it's worth remembering  that all that 'what doesn't destroy me makes me stronger' bollocks was originally coined by the Fascist's very own barmy pet philosopher. But for a small minority - those lucky enough to have some sell-able  skills or education and a bit of financial security behind them, the self-help mantra might just have a element of truth. 

It doesn't scale up to a societal level and it's certainly no model for a sustainable economy with any sort of morality - but thank fuck it seems to have worked out for me...


Saturday, 20 October 2012

Another walk in the park

I've just come back  from the TUC march today. One of many such demos over the years, but my first as a public sector worker.

With aching feet and a ridiculous wait for a bus home my feel-good factor has become worn a bit thin. 

Feel-good because I always think that  trade union demonstrations capture  the kind of  communal spirit that was so often spoken about at the time of the London Olympics - and so often is just bullshit. But today there was a genuine feeling that this is the real Britain - a country of working people who do actually give a toss about each other.

But it is a fine line between that and a frankly hollow sentimentalism. So when I hear the likes of Unison's Dave Prentis making their usual ritualistic fiery speeches or even worse, Ed Milliband brazenly trying to warn us to expect cuts from a Labour government, I can't help feeling much like one of the grand old Duke of York's weary foot-soldiers.

To maintain the momentum for a proper General Strike, it was important that today wasn't a flop. And thankfully it wasn't. But realistically that's as much as can be really said.

On a lighter note, as I walked down Oxford Street to get my bus home, I couldn't help but reflect how the Metropolitan Police show considerable political understanding by  stationing TSG squads outside Starbucks, Vodaphone, Boots and anything owned by Richard Green. Thereby unambiguously signposting  to the rest of the world which businesses are the worst tax-dodging corporate cunts.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Jimmy Saville - In defence of the odd

You don't have to be one of the usual self-appointed, self-righteous Daily Mail brigade to be stirred by the Jimmy Saville paedophilia case. 

Janet Street-Porter (along with others) has put it very well in revealing that in the 70's music and broadcasting industries celebs had a sort of droit de seigneur - or perhaps more accurately a  benefit of clergy - that turned a blind eye to everything from casual misogyny to rape. 

I suspect that forty year later. things  have got  worse rather than better. I've heard it argued that such a conspiracy of silence as surrounded Sir Jimmy OBE would simply not be possible in this inter-web twittering age. But the antics of Premiership footballers would suggest quite otherwise.

However, there has  also been a very dangerous argument being advanced in the wake of Saville-gate: A surprise that nobody had realised sooner he was a nonce - because it was so obvious. 

The shell suit. The jingle-jangle jewellery. The hairstyle. The fact that he was unmarried and lived with his mum. Or even more sinisterly, that he was a wealthy celeb who chose to do voluntary work. It all adds up to very disturbing a charter for vigilantes and bigots - and it evokes the memory of Stefan Kiszko the tragic misfit falsely imprisoned for 16years and hounded to an early death. And many other easy scapegoats similarly the victims of a lynch-mob mentality.

Saville - and more controversially I'd add Roman Polanski too - deserve to be exposed for what they are - paedophiles. And not just oddballs.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawn

I have to confess that I owe a slightly perverse debt of gratitude to Eric Hobsbawn who died yesterday.

It was his 'Labour's Lost Millions' article published in Marxism Today in 1983 that sent me on the trajectory that ended with me joining the then Militant. At the time I was a member of the Young Communist League having made the rookie mistake of believing that the Communist Party were to the left of Labour. My wonderfully tolerant Bennite parents didn't give me much to rebel against - but this was one way of expressing the unavoidable teenage rejection of the older generation. 

Fortunately this delusion only lasted a few months before Hobsbawn's article came out. Instinctively I knew it to be a rejection of class politics and of of the values of the labour movement in favour of something that would come to be later known as 'New Labour'. And so I probably became one of the few who joined the Labour Party with the express view of seeking out the Militant and the 'proper' Marxists. So thanks for that Eric.

Like any socialist  with an interest in history, I had his books - and it is only fair to say that his history was very much better than his politics and in a world of Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts and David Starkey, they remain essential reading.  

But strangely enough, I think that perhaps one of the things most to Hobsbawn's credit was the very thing that most obituaries are criticising him for - he maintained his party membership long after that brief period in the sixties when it may have had some cachet in academic circles. 

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Make-over time

I start my first teaching placement next week.  So yesterday I got my hair-cut. Over the past few months I've been picking up a suitable(ish) teachers' wardrobe on Ebay. It feels that I am in the process of crossing some sort of Rubicon.

I'm not sure why this seems like a big deal - but I suppose it is about taking on a new persona - a persona of 'authority'. Which is ironic  because in reality as a student teacher I will  have very much less authority than I did as a manager in my old life.  I might not have sought it, I might not ever have been comfortable with it, and I might have tried to play it down, but undeniably I was the boss. And all in a not a particularly worthwhile cause; making money for the owner of the business -  and even worse -  helping the arsehole clients making even more money for theirs.  That I could do so whilst dressed in the same clothes that I wore at the weekend and in the funky comfort of a Soho was scant consolation.

So I suppose - much as Henry of Navarre thought Paris was worth a mass  - then doing something more worthwhile  may be worth a second-hand collar and tie.  But  even so when I catch myself in the mirror it still looks like someone else.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Sort of TUSC report

I went to the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition conference yesterday. 

I'm totally on board with the TUSC project. Intellectually - because I see it as a necessary part of the process of getting a new workers' party off the ground. And emotionally because after the best part of thirty years swimming against the tide of Tories, bigots and other arseholes I'd rather work with people whose values I more or less share rather than seeking some kind of ideological purity.

The trouble is these people can be rather hard work: And this was much in evidence yesterday. The SWP were generally conspicuous by their absence - and sending only a sprinkling of people confirmed that at the moment their enthusiasm for TUSC constitutes no more than keeping a watching brief. The Communist Party of Britain at least made their reservations open - although in the truly bizarre way of declaring that we should not write off the possibility of Labour being transformed into a socialist party until the next election. And a certain member of Socialist Resistance behaved with the persecuted hysteria that confirmed the python-esque stereotype of the Far Left in his ability to pick an argument in a telephone box. More positively on the other hand the Independent Socialist Network and the Socialist Party are clearly committed to TUSC - and to the credit of both were very careful to express their differences with each other in a  fraternal and respectful way. And most significantly of all  -  the RMT couldn't disguise their impatience that other unions couldn't just follow them in breaking with Labour and signing up to a new party.

I knew what I was in for when I went, so I wouldn't describe the experience as depressing, but after six hours in the conference I did have a numb arse and  a distinct sense of wading through treacle to get to a far off prize. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Lost in translation

Setting aside for a moment any more serious thoughts about invasions of privacy, misogyny and tacky journalism - I was struck how even at their sleaziest the French do  seem to manage these things with a certain je ne sais quoi. 

Apparently accompanying the topless pictures  of our new Queen-of-Hearts  Princess Kate of Middleton and Cambridge was the caption: 

'Exulted by the fragrance of lavender from the neighbouring fields, Kate takes advantage of those delicious moments of doing nothing and offers her breasts to the soft caress of the Provence sun.[She is] simply a spouse who feels well enough in her body and who has nothing to hide from her husband. And love in its purest form. Pure images of happiness without any cloud ... like a new Eden.’

It may read like soft porn with literary pretensions but it's simply impossible to imagine reading prose like that in OK, Now, Hello or any of the other celeb-gos rags in this country.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Old dog learning new teaching tricks

Six years ago I came back from holiday and started this blog with a first post about the autumnal 'start of a new term' feeling. I never imagined that six years later it would be literally true. Yesterday I was back at university for my first offical day as a student.

Within moments I could see a  few things seem to have changed since the 1980's: Students now take notes in their lectures on their laptops. The students' union doesn't have anything remotely political on the noticeboard - and the bar isn't open at lunchtime. 

More disturbingly,  in a seminar we watched a YouTube clip of celeb-historian David Starkey talking about last year's riots; I seemed to be the only one - other perhaps than the tutor - whose immediate reaction was that Starkey was obvioulsy just  a racist cunt. (Although naturally I couched this in a slightly more academically-diplomatic way).

It's going to be a strange year, but I do feel as if I have finally flicked a switch  on in my brain that hasn't been touched for my years ....


Sunday, 2 September 2012

EDL humiliated in Walthamstow

Over the years I've been involved in a variety of anti-fascist activities. Some of these were of the more cloak and dagger variety - these involved a lot of skulking about and waiting for things to happen - usually in greasy spoon cafes. In the days before mobile phones became universal much of this bordered on the farcical. Only very occasionally did we ever get to grips physically with the fascists - and although this fuelled the bravado of pub reminiscences for many years to come, the problem was that they tended to be private victories away from the public eye. They served a purpose in disrupting them, but ultimately 'the propaganda of the deed' doesn't really work when nobody is watching. However many  more of these activities were of the kind where you march backwards and forwards - usually at a safe distance from the enemy, waving 'down with this sort of thing placards'. It's a ritual - and like many rituals does have some purpose. In the right circumstances in can boost morale by making everyone feel good about themselves and creating a sense of purpose. But also like many rituals it can easily slip into being counter-productive through repetition when it seem hollow and meaningless.

On the other hand, I was up the road in E17 for the anti-EDL protest yesterday - and it was one of the rare occasions when for once  everything seemed to work. For starters it was a proper community march and not just the usual suspects of the Left. And most importantly despite some high-handed organisation by the SWP/UAF, the march actually achieved its purpose of preventing the fascists from marching. In part this was through the simple and traditional tactic of blocking a road junction - although it seems difficult to believe that the police didn't just let this happen. (Despite the chants of 'police protect the fascists' I do sometimes wonder if things are as simple as that). But more than this -  a  alternative route for the march was also thwarted when a smaller group of us managed to slip the main kettle and get to the fascists rallying point. As a result there was a short stand-off with a handful of EDL leaders whilst the main body of their much-smaller-than-expected march was held in the side streets. The warriors of the master race were  unceremoniously whisked away in their coaches - and after being briefly held by the police lines, we were allowed to make our way home.

After about seven hours on my feet and without food or drink I got home hungry and shattered but with a rare sense of having actually achieved something. Quite simply the EDL were  stopped. And publicly seen to be stopped. And with the overwhelming support of the the local community.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Exams as rationing life chances.

I am off this afternoon to an NUT protest outside the Department of Education against the GCSE marking fiasco.

I'm tempted to say that Education Secretary Mr Bean Michael Grove is just the nerdy kid who was bullied at school and is now getting his own back. Although rather than climbing on to  the library roof with a sniper's rifle, he is taking pot-shots at the futures of a generation. 

But rather more seriously - the Tories have been bleating about GCSE 'grade inflation' for several years now.  They may be  hiding Pontius Pilate-like behind the examing body - but in fact their opposition to year-on-year progress in exams  reveals the underlying narrow and nasty elitist nature of their attitude to education. They claim  that exams are too easy and that kids are overly spoon-fed in preparation for them.  Balanced peversely  at the same time  with  an obssession with targets and league tables, and scare-mongering about standards of teaching.

So they have come up with the simple solution of just shifting the grade boundaries in the middle of an academic year.  Or as one headteacher interviewed by the BBC put it  - they brought on smaller goalposts in the middle of the game - to the extent that the same mark that would have earnt a C pass in January didn't in June.  

As someone who has gone back to school after a thirty year gap, I've seen the new culture in schools: And this 'over-coaching'  is actually just another way of talking about a more inclusive approach to exams, and education in general.

When I was a kid no marking schemes or success criteria were made explicit to us. We were jsut told to just do the we could - and pretty much  left to  ourselves to figure out how. Only  a minority of us - assuming we got the chance in the first place to sit the O levels that the Tories like so much - got to figure this  out for ourselves, either  by good luck  or good judgement. Against this the modern practice of setting indvividual targets and explaining success criteria  is nothing more than an attempt to create something like a level playing field.

In contrast to this, the current exam fiasco looks - and arguably the whole public exam process in general - looks like an exercise in rationing: 

Rationing of access to further and higher education, to genuine apprenticeships in proper trades, and to the job market in general. Because ithe magical  five A-C's at GCSE are rapidly becoming the passport without which kids at the age of 16 are going to be consigned to a lifetime of casual McJobs. And when times are tough, tightening up on rationing for the masses is just the natural thing to do. If you're a Tory.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Prince Harry and the titillating toff phenomenon

I have developed a disturbing addiction to watching 'The Tudors'. I missed out on it first time around, but I now find it has a dreadful fascination. It may be rubbish history but it makes for fun tv. 

It's so full of historical anomalies and inaccuracies that I don't know where to begin - but mostly there is the fat and forty syphillitic Henry VII's  portrayal as a renaissance pouty poster boy. Amongst the constant plotting, shagging and double-dealing there is some suggestion that Henry was a tortured soul. But mostly there is a sense that he is just a 'lusty good ole boy.'

From the original Prince Hal (Henry V), Henry VIII, Charles II, George IV, Edward VII  - to the current royal party animal, another Prince Harry. There seems to be a long tradition of the masses rather liking to be shocked and titillated when royalty behaves this way.

The phenomenon is much the same as with  professional footballers.  A mixture of deference, puerile fascination and an odd sense of living a more interesting life through someone with access to more temptation and toys. And most strangely of all - a sense that when our betters behave in this way they show their humanity and by implication demonstrate that they are most 'like us'.

All of which means that those party pictures of Prince Harry won't really do much significant damage to the monarchy. Sadly.

Monday, 20 August 2012

End of an era for the ANC

Back in the day, many's the time that I would be standing outside South Africa House protesting against the apartheid regime.

I knew about - and fully subscribed to - the sober Marxist analysis that there could be no peace or prosperity for the region until capitalism was eradicated. But to be honest even that wasn't enough to  stem a sense of good-will and optimism towards the ANC's 'rainbow nation'. In truth that bubble was burst long along - but the spectacle last week of 46 striking mineworkers being shot was still beyond shocking. It's a milestone marking  the ultimate decline of the ANC from liberation movement to just another party of capital.

Because most poignantly - the strikers in Marikana face an unholy coalition of not only the bastard mining company Lonmin, but also the ANC's security forces and their own former union - the once revered South African NUM who seemed to have turned this into a turf war with the independent break-away AMCU.

So despite having some sort of  grip on what's been happening there -  it was with a very heavy heart then that I found myself holding a placard in Trafalgar Square again  this evening - some  twenty years after  celebrating the end of apartheid.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Medieval human rights

Today two truly incredible stories are coming to a head. They've been much covered in inter-web land and I've got no miraculous new insights other than to quietly point out a connection between the two.

On the one hand we have  the Assange affair and the bizarre spectacle of the Ecuadorian embassy offering him a sanctuary. Which our own government is preparing to violate, and break with all diplomatic norms by entering and  arresting him so that he can be delivered up to our US overlords. And on the other hand in Russia we have the show trial  of  the Pussy Riot collective for 'hooliganism' in publicly ridiculing Putin - for which they face three years in prison.

Two modern states and world powers - both up to their necks in stories that are in fact straight out of the Middle Ages.

Actually that's not quite fair - whilst Putin's behaviour is perfectly consistent with medieval kings who regarded the state as their own personal fiefdom, generally everyone was loathe to violate the protocols of sanctuary.  

At times like this  democracy and human rights in modern states aren't much more than a thin and inconvenient veneer.

Monday, 6 August 2012

The faces of Cool Britannia ?

Last week I went to the Judo - I sport I have a limited knowledge of, and last night to the Graeco-Roman Wrestling - a sport I have no previous knowledge of at all. I had a great time at both. Doubtless my enjoyment would have been greater if  I'd had understood more of what I was watching - Graeco-Roman manages to be both deceptively simple and also highly technical - but after a few minutes I was completely immersed into it.  

This wasn't because I was a partisan spectator either -  Team GB were not represented at all - and with the  USA favouring  Freestyle Wrestling, Graeco-Roman seems to be dominated by Eastern Europe and Central Asia. So in the same vein as my previous post - the fact that I can came away from the Graeco-Roman so engaged speaks volumes about the 'pure' and universal ability of sport to inspire. 

There's a lot in the papers today about the feel-good factor of a weekend where Great Britain enjoyed record success in the 'mainstream' area of track and field. 

Sober reflection on this would say there is an undeniable element of jingoist distraction from the gloom of austerity in all this. I am fairly immune to this - and personally my immediate reaction to the announcement on the PA that the ever-miserable Andy Murray had won gold in the tennis was to just  groan inwardly.

But as with the 'Cool Britannia' opening ceremony, my cynicism is tempered.

There is certainly a whiff of 'one nation' bullshit about all this attempt to be all-inclusive. I'm sure there was an element of it in Lord Coe's decision to feature Jessica Ennis as the 'face of the games'. But it is worth remembering that in this country there remains a significant minority of nasty Little England shits, who would deny us the idea of a multicultural society, and wish that our society had been frozen in the Chariots of Fire era of sporting toffs we could all look up to.

One of them is Rick Dewsbury of the Daily Mail talking about the opening ceremony:'it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set up...'

The very visible success of a young state school educated, mixed-race woman from a working class background must stick in his throat and that of many others like him. And for that reason alone - despite the disgrace that 50% of British medals went to athletes educated at independent schools that cater for a mere 7% of the population - it worth (briefly) joining in the celebrations.

I promise my next post will be about something other  than the Olympics ...

Friday, 3 August 2012

Sport as culture

Yesterday I went to the first of the two Olympic events that I got tickets for (over a year ago back in the days when I still had money). And a great day I had too - from the sport itself to a totally painless experience of getting to the venue and passing through the much discussed security.

Recently I have spoken about going to the Olympics to a few of my 'right-on' friends who seem to think that doing so was some sort of petit-bourgeois deviationism. 

What sanctimonious bollocks. There is a peculiar trend in certain parts of the Left that regards sport as at best a kind of modern day opiate of the people, and at worst  an inherently reactionary celebration of competition. And of course they  throw in the obvious (and undeniable) points about the corporate manipulation of sport as profit.

It's a philistine attitude that they wouldn't dare make about any other aspect of art and culture. Because that's exactly how sport should be considered -  as a physical expression of human culture. As it was at the original Olympics - and in modern times too until 1952 - when medals were given for sculpture and so on just as they were for athletics.

Nobody living in London who has their head screwed on needs to be lectured on the highly dubious 'legacy' that the Olympics will leave behind in the capital's most impoverished boroughs. And we can hardly help but notice the branding onslaught that big business have taken the opportunity of the games to unleash.

But the answer to all this can be found in simply watching the reaction of South African gold-medalist Chad  Le Clos's father being interviewed. His reaction shows why sport can express everything that is great about being human.

As Ray says - let's now just sit back and enjoy the games - we can argue about them later.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

De-skilling in schools

I've spent the past twenty five years in an industry where de-skilling was a constant issue. Since PC's started to be found in every home the world and his wife have become typographers. Our trade was flooded with hipster designers who knew their way around a Mac but hadn't a clue about kerning, leading and ligatures. Now -  just I am about to invest time and money into joining the teaching 'profession' the same thing is happening there.  

Whilst Olympic euphoria is grabbing the nation, Education Secretary Grove has  snuck in an announcement that Qualified Teacher Status will no longer be required by teachers in academies. This matters because he also has a declared vision that the majority of schools will be academies - and in some parts of London they already are.

Perhaps Grove is trying to emulate 'independent' - or to give them their proper name    - fee-paying schools where teachers have never had to be formally qualified. Perhaps he really thinks that this in itself is the reason for their better academic results - with the implication that this is because of better teaching. Translated to the state sector, with all the very different real world challenges it faces, de-regulation of teaching represents one thing only - teaching on the cheap and de-skilling. 

Since being around schools one of the big differences I have seen from my own schooldays is the proliferation of people in the classrooms who aren't actually teachers. I have seen some very experienced, effective and highly motivated cover supervisors and Higher Level Teaching Assistants but they were never intended to replace teachers - although the pressure of work and scarcity of resources means that they are often called upon to do the work of teachers. This too is a form of creeping de-skilling.

There is a huge contradiction at the heart of current Tory education policy -  an unresolved clash between free market de-regulation and traditional paternalism. On the one hand more stringent 'skills tests' for student-teachers, and on the other no qualifications needed at all. Obsession with a prescriptive national curriculum - and a crusade to build up 'independent' academies, and free schools who don't have to follow it. Or harking back to traditional 'proper' subjects, whilst encouraging competitive league tables that drive academies to put students through questionable 'equivalent' vocational courses in order to hold their place in the rankings.

None of this deters me from wanting to be a teacher - or taking the year required to get my PGCE (followed by another NQT induction year).  It may not be necessary for much longer - but it remains to my way of thinking, the right way to do it. I am dubious about the coded class-distinction that differentiates 'trade' from 'profession' - but  in de-skilling I see the same trend that seems to permeate every aspect of late capitalism. A trend of 'good enough' and 'to a price' that de-values peoples' skills and belittles their pride in the work they do. To the detriment of everyone.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

London Olympics open at last

Like the finale of Hey Jude - or Paul McCartney's career in general - the Olympic opening ceremony went on far too long.

But it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been: Tory-twat Aidan Burley has got himself into trouble for branding Danny Boyle's pageant 'leftie-multicultural rubbish' and Her Maj appears to have run the gamut of emotions from bored shitless to mildly disapproving. So it can't have been all bad.

We did have a new version of the Whig interpretation of British history: Merrie England with (much anticipated) cows, village cricket and may-poles was rudely replaced with a spectacular Industrial Revolution. This was overseen by a very smug looking Kenneth Branagh as the supreme creator - Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You were left with the impression that this was a noisy and messy process but unquestionably a Good Thing because Britain became the workshop of the world. Or something.

It  then all became a bit less portentous and pompous. Danny Boyle managed to sneak in the NHS as one of Britain's greatest achievements - which doubtless must have caused a few Tories to squirm awkwardly  in their seats. But the moment passed as the pageant moved on again to remind us that although we might not have any industry or empire anymore, Britain is still really the top nation because we are the funniest (cue Mr Bean), the hippest (cue Dizzy Rascal and the Arctic Monkeys) and the nicest to kids (cue JK Rowling). So suck on that Mit Romney.

So there you go. Although I was struggling to stay awake by the end - the opening ceremony kind of surpassed my expectations in that it was NOT entirely awful. In fact it was a damn sight better than previous opening ceremonies with their overbearing  and fascistic undertones. But I couldn't help wondering if the doctors and nurses who had been roped into performing in the celebration of the NHS wouldn't have preferred instead to have just received a bit more funding. And of course we should have had some Morris dancing ...

Friday, 27 July 2012

Remploy strike

For the past couple of Thursdays I have been dropping in on my nearby Remploy picket line. Like many others it is faced with imminent closure - and my local factory is a small one that has been deemed 'uneconomic' for quite a while. The workers there are solid in their support for the strike - nearly all of them have been on the pickets - but in truth they don't seem to be holding  out for much more than a decent redundancy. Although they are still pinning some hopes on the union fighting it out  in the courts. 

I've seen quite a few picket lines over the years - but I don't think I've ever seen one where there was a stronger  sense of 'solidarity' between the workers. And I don't mean solidarity in the hack-sense of jargon-ese but of genuine mutual care and awareness for each other. It may be says something about the undeniably special aspect of Remploy workplaces.

It's a special something that the Tories who are effectively now withdrawing funding for  Remploy have no respect for.  Whilst also  adding insult to injury with a hypocritical spin that this is  not about austerity but about better 'integration' of disabled workers  who will now be supported by charities and quangos to gain work in 'mainstream' workplaces. 

Talking to the people on the picket yesterday they reckon that only  a third of current Remploy employees will be able to hold down work in these 'mainstream' workplaces. The rest simply won't be able to get the levels of support they require -  and so will join the ranks of those who are having to navigate their way around the increasingly punitive benefits system for disabled people who can't work. Most of all though - they said that they will all lose the sense of identity and mutual support that working together at Remploy has given them.

In giving these workers our support - it is not at all a question of patronisation or condescension - the rest of us could quite simply  learn a thing or two from them in terms of solidarity and class pride.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Armed bodies of men in our streets

In the summer of 1911 - almost a hundred years ago to the day - Britain was on the brink of civil unrest and a potential revolution. A dispute in the London docks had spread to the other major ports, railwaymen had gone on strike as well, and engineers had followed them. 20,000 troops from the Woolwich and Aldershot garrisons were put on standby to impose order in the capital when the Port of London Authority backed down and made concessions to the dockers' demands. Strikes continued in the other ports and in Liverpool two warships were ordered up the Mersey and troops deployed in the streets. Shots were even fired over the heads of protesters. It was not the finest hour for Winston Churchill the gung-ho Home Secretary who earlier in the same year had overseen the sending of troops into the Rhonda to impose order against striking miners.

Right now HMS Ocean is moored up near Tower Bridge, we have air to surface missile sites in the East End,  and there are large numbers of troops in camo uniforms all over the place. It is probably the most visible military deployment in London since the Second World War. But interestingly the general public response has been sympathy for the squaddies who have been obliged to give up leave after returning from Afghanistan in  order to pick up the pieces for the bungling of Olympic security by the ConDems and big-business private security contractor G4S. It speaks volumes though that  I am far more troubled by the sight of squads of tooled-up wannabe robo-cops from the Metroplitan Police. 

PC Simon Harwood, the un-convicted killer of Ian Tomlinson personifies the psychological type drawn to their ranks. An aspiring action man with a hair-trigger temper who hasn't got the bottle to join the real army and fight anyone who shoots back - so he opted for the safer option of combating unarmed civilians at home. If that seems like an exaggeration I challenge anyone (if they dare) to go and inspect any serial of TSG cops. The likes of PC Harwood or Sgt Delroy Smellie seem to fit a certain profile that is a prerequisite for the Met's goon squad.

Most ordinary people will treat the squaddies - disproportionately from the most economically shat-on parts of the UK - with good natured class solidarity, but they have every reason to be wary of the pit-bulls of the  Met currently  straining at the leash. I am certainly going to be careful about treading on the cracks of the pavement in the next few weeks ...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Hypocrisy of John Lewis

I have to confess to having had a soft spot for John Lewis/Waitrose. I know that an Orcado account has become almost a compulsory requirement for the card carrying liberal chattering classes of North London, but even so I can't help but feel that they are ethically preferable to the bare-faced cuntishness of a company like Tesco. And from a strictly consumers' point of view it seems that John Lewis' benevolent paternalism towards their own staff pays off in having a helpful workforce who generally seem to give a shit about what they do.

The story of how they become a profit-sharing partnership is - on human terms at least - not easy to ignore. The heir to the family business comes back from World War One having  experienced some sort of egalitarian epiphany as an officer serving alongside the working classes in the trenches .  So he resolves to share the profits and create a benevolent paternalistic business with generous staff benefits. It's certainly wasn't workers control but only the most doctrinaire  would not see this as anything other than massively preferable to the McJobs culture that dominates most retailers.

But the story that contract-cleaners at John Lewis are now on strike to secure a living wage blows this whole ethical mythology to pieces. It may not be a question of conscious hypocrisy on the part of the management (although of course it may be) but it is an insight into the dark vacuum at the heart of big business.  Quite simply they want to pay cheap prices -  for everything - and don't ask of their suppliers how these cheap prices are possible. Through some moral contortionism, the left hand of corporate ethics chooses not to know what the right hand of corporate procurement does. 

The same  contortionism means that these big business can have policy statements galore about minimum wages or  how they won't use child labour or how they recognise the right to join trade unions - but just so long as their sub-contractors sign up to these they won't ask them too many questions. In fact the John Lewis story is just a little too close to home: Over about five years I saw the small business I worked for rung dry by retailers who looked for savings year-on-year without any thought as to how these savings were possible. Then the same retailer cried crocodile tears when we were finally unable to give away any more because we weren't prepared to off-shore our own jobs. And if I sound bitter and twisted about it - it's because I am.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Union exit strategy

I feel as if I have crossed the Rubicon - I have finally cancelled my membership of UNITE (London Graphic branch).  It's no more than an acknowledgement of what I've known for some time - I'm not going to be working in the industry any more and in a few weeks I'll be in the NUT. 

Even so after twenty-five years it does feel like a bit of a milestone and it didn't feel right after so long to just cancel my direct debit as if I was cancelling a gym membership. So I phoned them up to let them know what I was doing and why.

As it turns out cancelling a gym membership is more of an emotional process. They at least ask you why are you cancelling your membership - Are you joining another gym? Were you unhappy with the services they provided ? My union on the other hand couldn't give a toss. In fact they seemed a little put out that I was disturbing them to let them know something they would have found out when my subs just didn't come through next month.

It was much the same when I phoned them back in October to let them know that I had been made redundant. They downgraded my subs to the unemployed rate but there was no concern expressed or follow-up. Nobody even asked if I was satisfied that I'd received my rights and I didn't get a standard hand-out to tell me what these rights were.

I knew that since the heady days of the 1980's most unions  have  became little more than  friendly societies providing discounted car insurance and legal support. But I didn't realise  that  even by the limited criteria of other service providing businesses - their level of 'customer care' is found wanting. In fact it seems that  KwikFit care more about me than the union I've paid my dues to for all my working life. 

At least every time I buy a  new tyre from them I get a text and a phone call asking  how my 'customer experience' was. I know they don't really care but at least they have the decency to pretend.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Economic migrants

Just listening to some non-story on Radio 4 this morning about the worry of Hollande's policies sparking a flight of capital from France. 

One 'entrepreneur' interviewed is off to Signapore to escape regulation and capital gains tax. It seems that his self-proclaimed public-spirited dedication to assisting start-up business is conditional upon tax breaks. And Brits from Muswell Hill drawn to the Dordogne by the lure of  sun,wine, cheeses and cheap period properties to restore are now  running scared of punitive taxes on second homes. Apparently these are the dangers of a government trying to make the better-off in some  way shoulder  their share of the pain of recession in a modest attempt to alleviate the worst of austerity. Such governments should be aware of the risks of the middle classes sulkily upping sticks and moving away.

Good. Fuck them all. When it comes to economic migration, the levels of  class hypocrisy and double standards is simply staggering: 

Imagine the outrage of a migrant worker blatantly saying that he was fed up with his own country where there were few prospects of employment and no welfare or health system -  so he was heading off somewhere that better suited the needs of him and his family - someone like Britain for example. The Daily Mail would bust a bollock in outrage. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Reasons to be cheerful ?

Since church-going has declined, new opiates-for -the-masses  have replaced religon. Celebrity obssession is one. But the old stand-by of patriotism to distract us from hard times is never far away - and this year more than ever.

The prospect of a triple-whammy of Jubilee, London Olympics - and Andy Murray winning Wimbledon just makes want to dive under the covers and not come out until September.

Setting aside 'our Andy's' apparent total  lack of personality - or to more precise  his utterly  boring, dour and sulky personality -  his  only apparent saving grace is that he is British. I'm afraid it all adds up with a horrible predictability -  Wimbledon with its  lawns, strawberries and cream, blazers and panamas - and much-discussed rain is about as British as it gets. 

So I wince at the flag-waving prospect of a Murray victory this year echoing Virginia Wade's victory in the silver jubilee year of 1977. Just wake me up when it's all over.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Bomber Command Memorial

I usually feel ambiguous around Rembrance day - and  I was even more troubled at the prospect of the unveiling of a memorial for Bomber Command on Friday. And today, realisng that it is Armed Forces day - an unabashed rehabilitated day of flag-waving and militarism - I am doubly so.

The story of the 'bomber boys' of the Second World War has been undeniably neglected. The popular image of the wartime RAF is the romance of the fighter pilots - a small band of  cavalier public-school boys saving us from invasion in the Battle of Britain.  Our own version of Thermopylae and the 300 Sparatans. On the other hand, the story of the bomber crews has been swept under the carpet.

For starters the bomber crews were more numerous and less glamorous. Their role was not to dash around the skies in aerial dog-fights but to sit in tight wing tip-to-wing tip formations every night like sitting ducks. Waiting to be picked up by searchlights or radar and shot down by night fighters or flak. Statistically they faced the most dangerous job on the allied side - one in twenty odds of not returning from a mission when an operational tour lasted thirty missions. It is not surprising that a kind of stoic fatalism and dark humour characterised  Bomber Command.

Their social composition was more diverse than Fighter Command - many sergeant-pilots were working class or at least lower middle class grammar school boys.  Becoming  an air-gunner was one route in which an 'erk' from the ranks could actually get into the air.

But most importantly, unlike the fighter pilots of 1940, they were not the heroic defenders preventing the bombing of women and children - they were the ones doing the bombing. Causing death and destruction on an industrial scale that between 1942-5 eclipsed anything seen in the Luftwaffe's attacks on this country.

It can be - and is - argued that the young men of Bomber Command cannot  be held responsible for the morality of decisions made by their political and military commanders. Maybe so - and maybe we are in no position to judge from the comfort of our peactime lives - although clearly many veterans did feel this responsibility for the rest of their lives.

It is an added tragedy that many wars seem to generate buried tales of  heroism. Perhaps in this case simply telling their forgotten story is more appropriate than commemorating them in stone.