Wednesday 20 December 2006

Happy Winterval / Yule

Tomorrow is the Winter Solstice.

And at this time there are the usual requests to remember the 'true meaning of Christmas'.

I suppose that to Christians this means the nativity story and the more general desire for a traditional Christmas, after all this is 'still a Christian country'. Traditional meaning to most people something like a scene from Dickens or if you prefer, a tin of Quality Street.

There is a tinge of xenophobia and racism in this of course. When people say a 'Christian country', there is also the implication of racism. There are no black or brown faces on the Quality Street to complicate the traditional Christmas.

And along with a bit of racism, this attitude shows quite a bit of ignorance.

There is no evidence I know of that specifically links the birth of Jesus to 25th December. But for many milena all cultures seem to have felt the need for a mid-Winter festival.

Maybe there was an early recognition of Seasonally Affected Disorder. But certainly in Western Europe, people have been marking mid-winter with festivals that involve feasting, giving presents and generally have a bit of a piss-up, since long before Christianity was on the scene.
Archaeologists are now of the opinion Stonehenge is aligned with the setting sun on the Winter solstice (and not the Summer solstice as neo-Druids seem to believe). The Ancient British had the festival of Samhain, and the Saxons and Vikings had Yule. It was the Romans, using Christianity as the ideological glue to hold together their rapidly disintegrating empire. who adopted the old festivals and 'Christianised' them. (They did exactly the same with Easter / Eosta).

So eat, drink , be merry and make a prat of yourself at the office party, it's what we've been doing for the previous six thousand years at least.

Tuesday 19 December 2006

Bullying the bottom of the pile.

New Labour again puts the boot in on those at the bottom of the pile. John Hutton is determined to tackle the problem of the ‘lazy and feckless’ long term employed who are not taking work in areas where there are unskilled job vacancies.

At the same time the government is running an ad campaign promoting zero tolerance to any benefit claimants who take additional part-time work. It follows on from the campaign a couple of years ago when we were urged to shop anyone we know who was fiddling benefits.

But let’s get this into perspective.

Job seekers allowance is £57:45 a week, in real terms it is worth roughly half what the equivalent benefit was worth in 1979. And the long-term unemployed that Hutton wants to target who have not worked for more than six years, represent 100,000 people.

My arithmetic makes that about £300 million a year. I can only guess, but let’s say that 20% (???) of that represents fraudulent claims – that’s £60 million a year.

On the other hand - tax evasion costs £75 BILLION a year.

And (legitimate) tax avoidance costs £10 BILLION a year.

I don’t remember seeing an advertising campaign asking you to shop anyone you know who fiddles their tax. Those who choose to live off of trust funds are not described as ‘lazy and feckless’ but instead are celebrated in Hello, Tatler and Country Life.

And whilst the Daily Mails rants about advice centres that help claimants ensure that they get their full entitlements, tax advisers are considered a perfect legitimate part of the accountancy profession.

So let’s not kid ourselves this isn’t about getting back ‘lost money’. It is New Labour sticking it to those least able to answer back whilst Middle England cheers them on.

Wednesday 13 December 2006

Ipswich Serial Killer

Five women found murdered in Ipswich (so far).

Over the years we’ve had Jack The Ripper, the Yorkshire Ripper and now, the Suffolk Ripper. The sensationalism is timeless and the media know that these stories tap into a primeval taste for murder and illicit sex. They give a glimpse into a dark and tragic world that is at the same time right under our noses, and is also far removed from most people’s lives.

The handling of the case this time does seem to show marginally more sensitivity than that of the Yorkshire Ripper, whose victims were initially seen as ‘just prostitutes’ and almost expendable until ‘ordinary women‘ were at risk.

I am not sure if this progress implies more understanding or whether it has something to do with the victims being young and good looking, a couple have even been described as ‘well spoken’.

But there is still no preparedness to get to grips with the issues of prostitution and drug use that made these women so vulnerable. No politician seems to have the guts to come out and call for the decriminalisation of street prostitution, or for a policy that permits the possession of drugs in quantities for personal use. And yet this is the inescapable logic of breaking the tragic cycle that propelled these women into victims.

Society seems to want knee-jerk reactions and simplistic morals. And we come to believe that what we don’t approve of should also be illegal: Even if that is at the expense of criminalising the victims.

The predator who killed these women may have done so because they were prostitutes or may be because they were simply women who were vulnerable and available.

But either way, it is our attitude to prostitution and drug use that put them in his path.

Monday 11 December 2006

Pinochet dead - good riddance.

By dying yesterday Pinochet managed to elude justice for one last time.

Of course he had already managed to con Jack Straw in to believing that he was unfit to stand trial (and so avoided extradition), and he had managed to get a spurious constitutional immunity in Chile by being declared a senator for life. I didn’t wish some summary justice for him, or his disappearance, but a public trial, as was denied so many of his opponents.

Growing up on the left in the eighties, Pinochet was THE universal hate figure. A few personal memories of the Pinochet era:

• Meeting Chilean exiles in the UK in the miners’ support groups. In particular Mario, an air force technician who had organised committees of servicemen loyal to the Allende government at the time of Pinochet’s coup. He escaped from Chile when he hid in the cargo-hold of a military aircraft at freezing temperatures .

• Being given a cassette of the music of Victor Jara, the Chilean Bob Dylan, arrested and tortured for three days, before being killed and his body dumped by a roadside.

• Attending a fringe meeting at Labour Party Young Socialist’s conference where members of the Chilean Socialist Youth movement spoke. Their faces were concealed to avoid identification because they planned to return to the interior.

• Picketing the private nursing home in a leafy London suburb where Pinochet sought sanctuary whilst fighting extradition.

And now, on his death, we have the same old arguments again put forward in Pinochet’s defence:

• He was simply a loyal soldier
But the role of the military in Chile has always been in the streets against their own people, not on the battlefield.

• He was a patriot
So much so, that he embezzled something like $28 million. Like Al Capone, it was the tax dodging that caught up with him.

• He was the saviour of his country from communism.
The US might not have like the fact that Allende was a socialist, but (inconveniently) he was democratically elected.

The only honest defence that can be made for Pinochet is “he may be a bastard but at least he’s our bastard”. This of course may be sufficient for his former allies in the US and UK but not for the 35,000 victims of his regime.

Wednesday 6 December 2006

Keep it simple - my favourite things.

I like simple things. I don't like clutter. And less is definitely more.

So here are a few random simple things that I enjoy:

Wing Chun - of all the martial arts it has the shortest syllabus and smallest range of techniques. What it does have is simple and direct. But it will take a lifetime of study to really understand it - there is more than enough to both fascinate and infuriate.

Harley Davidsons - primitive, big clunky engineering. I don't do the chrome and tassles thing. Bikes should be raw and stripped down - if it doesn't help you stop or go, then get rid of it.

• BB King - classic blues with maybe four bar structure, three cords and lead breaks with a standard blues scale. He says he doesn't play guitar and sing at the same time because he gets confused.

• Steve Earle - country music at its best, nothing that can't be played with one accoustic guitar, but has the ability to get the hairs at the back of your neck going. Check out 'Goodbye' if you don't believe me.

Ernest Hemingway - not a word wasted. No lengthy descriptions of scene or character, narrative and dialogue do it all. And if you haven't lived it, don't write it.

Kleftiko - Greek roasted lamb in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, serve with Greek salad and roasted potatoes.

Hawksmoor Churches - clean and neo-classic lines that are my favourite London architecture. You can keep all that gothic and baroque stuff.

• My CWC watch - as issued to the British Army. Simple black face. Swiss made. Who wants a computer on their wrist ?

• Our 18th Century corner cabinet - one of the few antiques we own. Very plain wall cabinet with a curved face to the door. None of that fancy engraving or marquetry.

P47 Thunderbolt - I'm no plane spotter but this is as close as you can get to a Harley that flies.

• Celtic La Tene Art - simple swirls and spiral shapes that lend themselves to complex and endless designs. The same goes for early early Islamic Art too.

Monday 4 December 2006

Tony's toys.

Tony's latest whitepaper says that New Labour's Trident updating programme will reduce the number of missiles in Britain's independent nuclear arsenal from 200 to 160. Costs will be kept down to a mere £25 billion.

Which begs the question; what is it all for ?

The argument that deterrents keep the peace was always spurious; even during the Cold War there seemed to be more danger from some escalated nuclear accident than from a deliberate threat from the Soviets to bomb London.

But if the logic of deterrents makes any sense at all then it can only apply to a rational opponent.

But Tony and Dubya repeatedly tell us that our opponents these day are madmen in rogue states. Applying deterrents to this 'axis of evil' is based on the same logic that says that psychopathic serial killers would think twice if only we had the death penalty.

I can't believe that serious strategists don't see this. So the only other possible explanations for New Labour's defence policy are:

• An underlying inferiority complex about Britain's status in the world.

• The desire to show that they are at least as nationalistic and belligerent as the Tories.

• To define themselves as something other than Old Labour with all it's CND connotations.

• Blair's personal sense of historic destiny as a statesman with a role on the world stage.

All explanations would be true to form but personally I prefer the latter. Which makes Trident a very expensive and dangerous toy to placate a mid-life crisis. Tony would be better advised to opt for the traditional therapy in these circumstances; start watching Top Gear and get himself a little sports car.

Monday 27 November 2006

Saying Sorry For Slavery

To mark the bicentenary of its abolition, Tony Blair has said that Britain’s slave trade was ‘regrettable’. Not quite the apology or reparation that has stirred so much controversy.

Everyone’s apologising for past sins these days, even the Pope (for the repression of women for centuries). But I’m not sure that I buy into the idea of collective and/or inherited guilt. And I don’t know how you compensate for crimes against peoples that span generations.

There may even be a kind of racism in thinking this way. Having seen the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum last year I found it difficult to look modern Germans in the eye. But in truth the only thing that links liberal young Germans today with the SS generation is their German-ness. Do they bear some sort of genetic stain of Nazism ?

The story of slavery is a horror that should be known and commemorated. How many tourist that visit the Jane Austen theme park that is Bath, with its Georgian crescents and assembly rooms, know the sinister reason for its splendour ? The eighteenth century town was built as a demonstration of the wealth that the slave trade brought to the West Country, and the respectability of the slave traders. We should know that modern Britain was largely built on slavery. Britain was the first industrial nation, and its economic take-off was made possible by wealth accumulated from the slave trade.

But in apportioning blame, who was more culpable the agricultural labourer in Britain, or the West African slave trader who captured the slaves and sold them to the Europeans ? By the logic of inherited collective guilt, their descendants in Nigeria and Ghana should apologise to African-Americans.

We should also remember that slavery disappeared because of a fight not the inevitable march of progress. Although the abolitionists may be revered today, at the time slavers argued fiercely that slavery was actually benevolent and an economic necessity. Much like those who now argue that sweat shops and free trade zones in developing countries are in the interests of those who are exploited. Rather than apologising for the past it would be more meaningful if we looked at
slavery today; glamorous designer brands that use child labour in developing countries, human traffic in the sex industry or the exploitation of migrant labour.

Friday 24 November 2006

God Bless America !

Thanksgiving yesterday. That other holiday of sentimentality, over-indulgence …and turkey.

The holiday commemorates the puritan settlers in Massachusetts being provided with food to survive their first New England winter. It would seem that the pilgrims were not particularly effective farmers and had to depend on the neighbouring Wampanoag Indians to provide the food.

This generosity was then repaid by stealing their land, killing many of them in wars of conquest and introducing them to smallpox and syphilis, both unknown until the Europeans arrival. The event was later decreed a public holiday by George Washington to give thanks (to God, not the Indians) for the founding of the nation

But it is a classic instance of history being re-written. This started after the North won the civil war and has been continued by the neo-cons of the Religious Right.

The first settlers in the area that became the USA were not puritans fleeing religious persecutions but Elizabethan merchants and adventurers (with only a whisker of legality separating them from pirates), and disgraced libertine courtiers. And that’s just the White Anglo Saxon Protestants. No mention of the (Catholic) French or Spanish, or the African slaves and European indentured servants who were the basis of the colonial economy.

And when the thirteen colonies became a nation and a constitution was written; the pilgrims were of far less significance than the patrician merchants and planters of Virginia and the Carolinas. Their ideology was more influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment than Puritan Protestantism.

Alarm bells start to ring when any nation claims that it has a special mission ‘under God”. This ‘manifest destiny’ has been used to justify:

• Acts of genocide against the native peoples of America.
• The Monroe Doctrine’s claim to intervene in the affairs of neighbouring nations.
• The Cold War and wars against independent nations like Vietnam
• The crusade against Islam.

Thursday 23 November 2006

What no bowing ?

A weekend workshop for my Sifu (martial arts teacher) at the weekend. He lives out of the country these days so I only get to see him a couple of times a year, and it is a chance to catch up with him and with the guys from other associated schools. When we meet up, one thing you won’t see is any bowing or saluting. But plenty of laughter, handshakes, back slapping and bear hugs. This sometimes shocks people from outside our martial arts ‘family’.

We respect tradition, but in the spirit not the letter. Ours are traditional kung-fu schools, not commercial franchises. We don’t have set class times; people drop in and train as hard, as often or as little as they want. We don’t line up and have a teacher bark orders at the students like a drill sergeant. Teacher and senior students will quietly observe, monitor, teach and correct. We don’t have uniforms either; they are a kind of caricature of oriental dress, a bit like thinking all Englishmen wear bowler hats or Frenchmen berets.

All that shouting, bowing and funny pyjamas do not make a traditional kwoon or dojo (school/training place). Many of the schools that do have them are fast-food ‘McMartial Arts’ franchises. Students are rushed through the ‘syllabus’ as quickly as possible to reach a spurious grade so that they can themselves become teachers, open their own schools, and set up a pyramid selling structure.

Martial arts training is about brotherhood and respect. Whatever style you practice you are playing a high intensity exercise with some risk of accidental injury. As my teacher says, if you're going to train it’s best to do it amongst friends to avoid misunderstandings and outbreaks of stupidity. There’s no room for phoney rituals that have no feeling behind them, you can often see bows snapped out as a form of ritual intimidation. Better to give genuine greetings to you training partners that actually means something to you and to him; the 'other guy' is supposed to be a brother to train with, not an enemy to be defeated.

Friday 17 November 2006

Milton Friedman (Fascist Collaborator) dies..

The granddaddy of neo-liberalism Milton Friedman died yesterday.

He wasn't simply a harmless old academic with some discredited ideas about inflation and money supply. I do resent the fact that he made possible the Right misappropriating the words 'liberal' and 'libertarianism'. Terms used to cover such bizarre ideas as the abolishing of licensing of the medical profession. But more seriously I can’t absolve him from responsibility for how his ideas were implemented by right wing politicians.

He called the Great Depression of the 30’s the 'Great Adjustment' and this sums up his disdain for the inevitable losers under his view of the economy's natural order. Over twenty years on, and the consequences of the implementing his ideas can still be seen in devastated former mining communities in the North of England that have never recovered from their ' adjustment'.

But the greatest stain on his memory is his co-operation with Pinochet military dictatorship. The regime in Chile provided a showcase for the ultra-free market philosophies of Friedman and the Chicago school. I can't imagine what mental acrobatics he must have used to reconcile his 'libertarianism' with a military coup to
overthrow the elected Allende government and the murder and torture of thousands of oppositionists.

Wednesday 15 November 2006

Queen's Speech

I’m not going to comment on the content of the Queen’s Speech. It’s pretty much the paranoia-fuelled, little Englander stuff we have come to expect from New Labour.

But I do have a problem with the fact that we have to endure a Queen’s Speech at all.

It’s just another reminder of how we are not a grown-up, twenty first century democracy, and that the outlining of the government’s legislative plans for the next session of parliament is delivered in the form an archaic farce.

Although it’s actually not as harmless that:

The presence of the queen in our legislative assembly at all is a reminder of that little-understood quirk in our ‘un-written constitution'; Crown Prerogative.

When a British government acts in the name of the Crown it effectively puts itself outside of the control or censure of parliament. This is not some obscure legal nit-picking, it means that the government doesn’t have to get parliament’s approval for example when it declares war, or in its diplomatic relations with foreign countries, or when it deals in matters of national security. Worrying isn’t it ?

If you can bring yourself to listen to the speech, it is striking that everything is prefaced with the phrases ‘my government will’ or ‘my government intends’. Not ‘our government’ but ‘mine’. Just to remind us all where we stand. Not citizens but subjects.

Oliver Cromwell’s statue might stand outside of the House Of Commons but we seem to have lost the spirit of 1649.

Tuesday 14 November 2006

Don't talk about Fight Club.

First rule of fight club - don't talk about fight club.
Second rule of fight club - DO NOT TALK ABOUT FIGHT CLUB.

And so, despite devoting a fair chunk of my free time to the study of martial arts for most of my adult life, I try to avoid discussing it with non-practitioners. This isn't some sort of elitism it just avoids at best stupid questions, and at worst ugly misunderstandings and machismo.

But today I came in to work with a black eye - not a big deal, just one of those unavoidable accidental bye-products of training - and I couldn't avoid the interrogation.

Typical stupid questions, along with some stupid and not-so stupid answers:

• What belt have you got ?
Snakeskin with a Harley Davidson buckle. Our (Chinese) style doesn't use belts. Others (usually Japanese or Korean ) do, but even then they are a relatively recent invention for Western consumption. You can usually get a black belt in three or four years and most people who know will tell you that is the beginning not the end.

• What's better Thai Boxing, Judo, Karate or your sysytem ?
Rugby Union, Rugby League, the NFL or Aussie Rules ? How can you compare them ? A Judoka is certainly better at Judo than I am. But they are schools / styles of training not fighting - when you fight you just fight you don't 'do' your martial art. But if you train properly your training will automatically come out. There are no bad martial arts, just bad martial artists.

• You've been training all those years - could you fight one of those guys from the UFC ?
You've been playing golf all your life - could you beat Tiger Woods ? Those guys are professional athletes in the prime of life, I am a middle aged guy who does this for a hobby. Even so UFC is a sport (albeit a very tough one) not a martial art, and there are still rules that they must keep to. Who knows ? It doesn't keep me awake at night.

• What would you do if (insert crazy scenario of your choice) someone came at you with a chain saw ?
It's martial arts not magic. You can't fight without getting hit any more than you can swim without getting wet.

• Have you ever made practical use of your martial arts ?
I'm using it right now to keep my cool in answering these stupid questions. It's about much more than fighting - like coping with pressure, self control and multi-tasking. As regards fighting - well I'd rather not put it to the test. But we do regularly face grown men offering us some kind of threat, whilst most people don't ever have a physical confrontation once they leave the playground. Maybe that helps in a practical situation. But even so, the Chinese say in fighting; firstly courage, secondly strength, and thirdly, kung-fu.

* So is it some sort of spiritual thing ?

Personally I tend to think that mumbo-jumbo is mumbo-jumbo whether it comes in the form of Western Christianity or Eastern mysticism. But on the otherhand for a few hours every week you are immersed in something totally absorbing that takes you away from mortgages, cashflows, deadlines and arguments with traffic wardens. Maybe you could call that a spiritual thing. But I'm sure that the guys who make models out of matchsticks have the same thing going for them. Or even train-spotters. In the final analysis it's a hobby and you enjoy it - do you really need anything more ?

Monday 13 November 2006

Christmas cheer on credit.

Farepak have gone bust, taking with them the savings of some of the poorest people in the country, who will now be faced with a grim Christmas. Probably it's not a name that is familiar to most people. They ran a savings scheme to provide food hampers and gift vouchers through a pyramid selling scheme of agents. The scheme does sound like something from Dickens rather than the 21st century, but it gives a glimpse into the under belly of the economy.

In the same category are catalogue companies which use local agents. In the internet era, they are not about the convenience of home shopping, but a means of providing credit to those that in other circumstances would not be able to get any.

More sinister still are the finance companies offering debt consolidation or credit to those who have previously been denied a loan from a mainstream lender. They advertise on digital tv channels often in the day-time slot, when ad time is cheap and the target audience of the long term unemployed are most likely to be watching. But the dark side of this is sky- high interest rates and debt recovery by intimidation. Only their corporate gloss separates them from the individual loan-sharks to be found on every estate.

It's an ironic and fucked-up feature of Capitalism that the less you need credit, the easier it is to get it. But if it is any comfort to the poor, apparently God agrees that they only have themselves to blame:

"For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away."
Matthew 25.29

Friday 10 November 2006


The BBC's Jon Snow is getting some flak for his refusal to wear a poppy whilst reading the news. He says that it is a personal choice and resents what he calls 'poppy-fascism'.

I have mixed feelings on this. There is something poignant about Remembrance Day, but there is also an association with flag-waving and militarism. And like the revival of St George's flag, there is a sense of nationalism and a pressure to conform.

I know that Remembrance covers veterans from all wars, but inevitably it is still the two world wars that stir the emotions most. I don't think that this is simply because of the sheer scale of loss from these conflicts. It is that those who faught were very much civillians in uniform rather than professional servicemen. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. To remember them with marching bands and military parades is somehow to miss the point.

Like many families we have the bronze memorial plaque sent to the next of kin of those who died in the First World War. Ours is of my great uncle, Albert. I was given it when I was a kid, and sadly as the years have gone by, there are no living relatives left who can tell me anything about him - he exists only as a name.

A few years ago I tried to research Albert's past by contacting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and his regimental association. I have visited France often and am always moved by the cemetaries there; whether it is the unimaginable scale of the graves at the Somme or Verdun battlefields, or just one of the numerous small graveyards that are scattered amongst country villages. I imagined myself visiting Albert's grave in such a place. In fact, what I found out was both more haunting and more ironic.

Albert had served as private in the Hampshire Regiment and he was killed in action in February 1917, aged 19. He has no known grave but is commerated at the Commonwealth memorial just outside Basra, in what was known at that time as Mesopotamia and is now more familiar to us as Iraq. The memorial has only recently been restored as it was damaged when it was in the middle of a tank battle in the First Gulf War.

Even amongst the horror and carnage of the First World War, the Mesopotamian Campaign stands out as a tragic waste. Faught for no clear strategic purpose; it was one of the last adventures of empire, in which poorly-led, disease-ridden and ill-equipped British and Indian troops struggled against the conditions of fighting in the desert.

The lowest point came with a disasterous siege at Kut-al-Amara in 1915-16, when the British garrison surrendered. It rates as one of the largest mass surrenders in military history. There was a public outcry at the mismanagement of the campign, and the fate of the prisoners of war in Turkish camps whose treatment was not unlike those in Japanese camps in the Second World War.

So I will be taking a few moments to remember Albert and others like him tomorrow, but without any sense of nationalism, and, like Jon Snow I resent any pressure to wear my feelings on my sleeve.

Wednesday 8 November 2006

A bloody nose for Bush.

YeeHaaa !!!

The Democrats have taken control of the House, and at the moment the Senate is too close to call. The only possible interpretation of this is that American people have voiced their disapproval of Bush's Iraq adventure.

But let's not get carried away - the Democrats are hardly a party of radicals. But the most important thing is that they are NOT the Republicans and will cramp the style of the Bush administration for the next two years. And no further adventures in Iran.

I'm getting used to that kind of thinking - low expectations, because British politics has gone pretty much the same way as the US; now there's only a wafer of fundamental difference between the Tories, New Labour and the Lib-Dems.

And before anyone here in Britain gets smug about the deficiencies of the US system: they have a written constitution, the separation of powers, and a system of checks and balances.
As prime minister, Blair has more real power than Bush does as president; he has used his parliamentary majority to railroad legislation and prevent criticism of the government. The US system of mid-terms is at least intended to curtail this.

Right now I think that Steve Earle's words, written at the time of a previous election, probably sums up best what we really need:

It's Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Gettin' into gear for four more years
Things not gettin' worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, 'He cannot seek another term
They'll be no more FDRs'
I sat home in Tennessee
Staring at the screen
With an uneasy feeling in my chest
And I'm wonderin' what it means

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

I followed in your footsteps once
Back in my travelin' days
Somewhere I failed to find your trail
Now I'm stumblin' through the haze
But there's killers on the highway now
And a man can't get around
So I sold my soul for wheels that roll
Now I'm stuck here in this town


There's foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You'd think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It's going straight to hell

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barracades are goin' up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We're marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring


Tuesday 7 November 2006

One for the 'hang 'em & flog 'em' brigade

Ronald Castree appeared in court in Oldham today, charged with the murder of Lesley Molseed in 1975. The 11 year old was sexually assaulted and stabbed a dozen times.

An instance of brilliant and relentless police work and the application of state of the art forensic science ?

Well maybe, but unfortunately they already had the wrong bloke in prison for sixteen years for the crime before his conviction was overturned.

Stefan Kiszko, a tax clerk who lived with his mother and suffered from a developmental condition probably conformed to the stereotypical police view of a 'nonce' and was accordingly fitted up. It wasn't until 1992 that evidence confirmed that he was innocent.

But this was a bit late for Stefan who died within a year of his release and for his mother who having campaigned on his behalf, also died months later.

I can't imagine a worse nightmare than being imprisoned as an innocent man for such a crime. Except perhaps being executed as one, as happens on a regular basis in the US.

Monday 6 November 2006

Not just a bigot but a hypocrite too.

I see that the Rev. Ted Haggard, vocal opponent of gay marriage in the US, has admitted that he brought methamphetamine and went with a male prostitute.

As a result Pastor Ted has now had to resign as head of the 30 million strong National Association of Evangelicals. That's a lot of pissed off Christian bigots (and Republicans too).


Sunday 5 November 2006

Justice for Saddam ?

So Saddam got the verdict and martyrdom that I am sure both he and George Bush wanted. Undoubtedly he's was a war criminal and a tyrant. You could say that he has it coming.

But so did former apartheid South African President Botha who died (of natural causes) last week. And he's getting a state funeral.

So let's not kid ourselves that this about justice - it's about politics. War criminals are generally ok so long as they're on the 'right side'; be it Botha, Pinochet, or even Saddam when he was America's champion against Iran a few years ago. But with the US mid-term elections next week, a convenient execution will look like Bush's crusade has been justified. Republicans' flagging fortunes will probably get a boost.

But in the cynical terms of 'real-poloitik' it may prove not be too smart. Parallels are going to be drawn with the Nuremburg trials but these are a bit thin - there was no on-going Nazi insurgency as the background, nor talk of a planned withdraw by the occupying forces.

And ethically:

Well I'm not a pacifist; I tend to think that human life is precious rather than 'sacred'. Sometimes violence is the only unavoidable answer. But I would have less of a problem with the killing of someone in defence of myself or others, or even an act of personal revenge, than I would have in giving my silent support to judicial execution.

There is something peculiarly obscene in state killing. It gives the lie to any moral authority that a state can claim to have beyond that of private individuals, and it implies the consent of the citizens of that state. And the United States record on the death penalty strikes at the heart of everything that is wrong with that nation. The same nation that flaunts the idea that it was created 'under God' with some special moral purpose, also ranks in the world's top three state-killers along with China and Saudia Arabia.

That's the same nation that boasts the largest number of Christian church-goers. As Bill Hicks observed it's ironic that these 'pro-lifers' who picket abortion clinics are comfortable with the death penalty and defend it against us godless liberal types.

Thursday 2 November 2006

Paranoid in times like this

Sometimes being paranoid is the best form of defence.

We have 4.2 million CCTV cameras watching us in the UK; that means there is one for every 14 of us. That is the highest per capita number in the world.

We have a DNA database that covers 5% of the population. It is not drawn from criminal records but from anybody whose record has ever been part of an investigation, including a large number of children. That constitutes the largest database in the world, the next largest is Austria with 1% of their population.

The Daily Mail response is that if you're not breaking the law you have nothing to fear. But history shows that even in democracies laws can quickly change and the innocent become criminalised.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, journeyman, all-round renaissance man and founding father of the United States in the days before that nation lost the plot:

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety".

Right now I think the best advice is to stay informed and watch your back.

Tuesday 31 October 2006

Stern Report.

I'm doing a distance-learning course in pre-history and am just getting used to thinking about massive environmental change happening over Milena.

Now it looks like mankind could screw the whole thing up within a generation. Here's the gist of the Stern Report:

· Temperatures could rise by 5C from pre-industrial levels.
· Warming of 2C could leave 15-40% species facing extinction.
· Warming of 3 or 4C will result in millions of people being flooded-by 2050, 200 million may be permanently displaced.
· Warming of 4C or more will seriously affect global food production.
· All countries will be affected by climate change, but the poorest countries will suffer worst and soonest.

But from what I understand of the report's proposals, I can't see that education and taxation is any more than a band-aid.

It is multinational businesses who control and exploit the world's natural resources and in the developing world they are often far more powerful than national governments. Infrastructure needs to be developed for transport and energy, on the basis of planning for need not profits.

To put it simply: Socialism.

But not too many of the green ghurus seem to have the balls for that kind of joined-up thinking.

Friday 27 October 2006

Not-So Wild Ones

A late night taxi ride last night, and we passed a group of HOG riders. (HOG - Harley Owners' Group - a kind of loyalty club run by Harley through their dealer network).

There were some pretty nice, and very expensive looking Harleys, although they do seem suspiciously clean as if probably haven't ever seen rain. So does the gear that the riders are wearing; very much a sanitised version of the outlaw MC look, complete with their version of a backpatch / colours.

This in particular makes me cringe. To Joe Public I suppose all bikers look pretty much alike. But these guys are about as far removed from real outlaws as an IT- company paint-balling team is from the SAS. And for them to wear a backpatch is as inappropriate/offensive as the paintballers affecting a green beret or para's wings.

I don't say this as some wannabe outlaw.

But I do respect outlaw MC's total 24/7 committment to the lifestyle, their sense of brotherhood, and their genuine ability to live on the edge of conventional society. Although the bottom line is that I could no more accept their code of loyalty that puts the club first, right or wrong - than I could support my country right or wrong. In any case, for me, part of the freedom of riding a bike is that it is a solitary pleasure not a social one.

Although I am a member of an independent Harley club.
It is older and in some respects more traditional and hardcore than HOG. The guys tend to be more likely to ride all week rather than just the weekends, and to do more of the spanner work themeselves or through indie/custom shops rather than official dealers.

But there is also a clause somewhere in the club rules that forbids the wearing of any club insignia as a backpatch.

Monday 23 October 2006

Campbell's depression.

Alastair Campbell has revealed that he suffered from depression.

Apparently this came about as part of a charity campaign last week to de-stigmatise mental health issues. Fair enough and I suppose it is commendable that several other celebrities have also stepped forward to speak out about their problems.

BUT - Alastair Campbell ! Surely some people just deserve to be depressed.

It would be nice to think that he had a moment of self-doubt at his part in 'sexing up' the case for taking the country into war. Or maybe a pang of guilt at his part in the suicide of Dr Kelly.

In the Roman Republic disgraced figures in public life would fall on their swords.

In Blair's Britain they seem to get a few weeks off for therapy and recuperation in Tuscany.Then they are rehabilitated in some other cushy adviser's role.

Thursday 19 October 2006

Zero Tolerance

Eldest daughter brought home a letter from the school's Attendance Supervision Manager yesterday (is that actually a real job with a business card etc ?). We were informed that she is to have half an hour's detention because she was recorded as being one minute late last week. (Yes - it is in bold on the letter too). I remember the day - there was a burst water main, traffic was gridlocked and I suspect half the school will be in detention.

The letter goes on to ask for our support for a policy of zero tolerance and refers us to the school handbook with its schedule of sanctions. The whole thing has an Orwellian ring to it - a mixture of pomposity, political correctness and brutal authoritarianism.

It is a metaphor for New Labour's Britain. And also very bad management. I think every text book will tell you that discipline has to be seen to be fair and to be proportionate. Otherwise you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Or according to the schedule of sanctions you might as well do something far more enjoyable for your half hour's detention like swearing or fighting. I'd know which I'd choose.

Anyway, daughter has learnt some valuable lessons. People in authority can behave unfairly, often talk absolute bollocks, and are then smug about it.

Monday 16 October 2006

Fresh Ink

There's a sign at the tattoo shop that says ' the only risk from tattooing is addiction'.

There is definitely truth in this - one week after the London Convention I find myself in the chair having some fresh ink done.

I am a bit of a late starter in all this. I'd been thinking about having something done for years and then just as I had decided to go for it, the whole world and his dog seem to be getting tattooed. Everyone was suddenly sporting 'Wayne and Sharon' in authentic ancient Tibetan script, and so I put the idea off. Then I thought 'if not now, when ?' So I first took the plunge a couple of years ago.

I have now started trying to work my way up over time to a Celtic half-sleeve. Being something of a history geek though the Celtic bit has to be authentic, so I am taking the designs from the shapes on actual artefacts.

So, as an authenticity snob, I have to say that most of what passes as Celtic tattoos are really nothing of the sort. All the fancy knotwork that you usually see may look good; but it actually dates from a much later period, by which time the Celts ( actually Britons is a better term) would probably have stopped tattooing. The designs show Saxon and Norse influences, and come largely from monks' illustrations in the Book of Kells.

And ironically it was the early Christians who made tattooing disreputable in the West with Pope Hadrian banning the practice in AD 787.

Friday 13 October 2006

Backward Christian Soldiers

When I first heard that Gen Richard Dannat the head of the British army had spoken out against the occupation of Iraq as unsustainable, I welcomed an unlikely ally to the anti-war movement.

Then I read what he actually said:

“When I see the Islamist threat in this country I hope it doesn’t make undue progress because there is a moral and spiritual vacuum in this country. Our society has always been embedded in Christian values; once you have pulled the anchor up there is a danger that our society moves with the prevailing wind. There is an element of the moral compass spinning. I think it is up to society to realise that is the situation we are in. We can’t wish the Islamist challenge to our society away and I believe that the army both in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably wherever we go next, is fighting the foreign dimension of the challenge to our accepted way of life. We need to face up to the Islamist threat, to those who act in the name of Islam and in a perverted way try to impose Islam by force on societies that do not wish it. It is said that we live in a post Christian society. I think that is a great shame. The broader Judaic-Christian tradition has underpinned British society. It underpins the British army.”

The implication is that the army shouldn't be fighting a crusade abroad when there is a more pressing need to fight a crusade at home.

In otherwords, that the front line should be Bradford not Basra.

Thursday 12 October 2006

Blunkett & the liberati

Martin Narey, the head of the Prison Service has said that at the time of the riot at Lincoln Prison in 2002, David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, suggested calling in the army, saying he didn't care if machine guns were turned on the rioters.

Meanwhile, Blunkett's memoirs are now out and serialised in the Daily Mail.

He blames his (twice) downfall on a conspiracy of the 'liberati' or 'Hampstead liberals' who apparently drove him to the verge of some sort of breakdown.

I seem to remember his downfall(s) as being rather more self-induced:

In 2004 when Home Secretary, he was found to have fiddled a visa for his ex-lover's nanny. And in 2005, after his miraculous restoration to office at the DWP, he was found not to have declared his outside business interests.

His main legacy though under New Labour was as the architect of their assault on civil liberties. He reduced the rights of assylum seekers to appeal and increased the use of detention centres. He increased police powers with the Investigatory Powers Act. He took away the right to trial by jury and the protection of double jeopardy that had existed since Anglo-Saxon times. And he was the principle advocate of introducing ID cards.

Ironically though whilst New Labour spits out 'liberal' with contempt, they are happy to accommodate to neo-liberalism with its emphasis on market deregulation. Maybe it's time to reclaim the term 'liberal'. It is a humane and rational tradition that includes Thomas Paine as much as it includes Adam Smith.

Blunkett likes to see himself as a straight talking man of the people, more in touch with the real world than airy-fairy intellectuals. As has every reactionary who wears a cloak of populism, from Mussolini to Stalin. But let's not forget that he was once the council leader of the 'Socialist Republic of Sheffield. Of course this was another age when being on the 'loony left' was a smart career move in the Labour Party.

Wednesday 11 October 2006

The tao of work

Annoyed about a couple of cock-ups at work this week. It's not about carelessness or the cost of putting them right. It's just that nothing pisses me off more than people not taking a pride in what they do.

That's not just an attitude that I have acquired since I went into management. I have always felt that way and so, I am happy to say, do most of the people I work with. Maybe it's a consequence of working in what is still more or less a craft industry.

And I don't see any contradiction with this and being a socialist. It's an issue of self -respect; we are wage slaves largely because we allow ourselves to be. It's no accident that throughout history independent craftsmen have generally been more radical than down-trodden sweatshop workers.

I'm also a martial artist and it is natural for me to feel that striving for excellence in anything is good for your well-being. 'Kung-Fu' can be translated simply as 'well done' and 'sifu' simply as teacher / master craftsman.

I love the idea of the Zen monk who seeks perfection by spending the day raking intricate patterns in the sand, only to then smooth them out and start all over again tomorrow.

Monday 9 October 2006

London Tattoo Convention.

This weekend was the London Tattoo Convention. The venue; three floors in the beautiful restored 18th century Truman Brewery building in Brick Lane at the heart of London's Bengali Community.

I can't imagine anywhere else where so many disparate types would rub shoulders: Old asian guys going about their business, Hoxton-ite media-fashion victims, fetishists, skinheads, butch gays, new-age crusties, fifties revivalists, bikers, and otherwise straight-looking types with glimpses of full bodysuit tattoos peeking out from under their clothing.

It was very crowded and pretty hot, but I was struck by how good-natured and laid back the whole thing was. At the trade shows I have to attend for work I am constantly barged and jostled by aggressive sales and execu-types. The Hells Angels provided the security for the show, but despite some 10,000 people attending there didn't seem much for them to do.

I had the same feeling my first time at the Kent HA's Custom Show over twenty years ago and ponder how the further removed from mainstream society the more tolerance and mutual respect there seems to be.

Friday 6 October 2006

Jack Straw's intolerance

Jack Straw wants female Muslim constituents to remove their veils when attending surgery meetings in his constituency. Apparently he finds the veil intimidating and repressive.

I'm not mad about veils either - to be fair all religion seem repressive to me, particularly the fundamentalist varieties . But then I am not an MP elected to represent all communities in a diverse constituency .

In fact, I'm a biker with a shaved head, a goatee, an earring and tattoos. Jack Straw might even think that I look a bit intimidating. But I would find it pretty offensive if he asked me to change my appearance just because I was going to meet him. Especially if he were my MP and I was asking him to take up some issue on my behalf. So would a Sikh asked to remove his turban, a Rasta to cut off his locks, or a Catholic nun to change out of her habit.

Of course there is a larger debate about multiculturalism or assimilation, but Jack Straw's insensitivity just looks like bad manners and intolerance.

Wednesday 4 October 2006

The War On Terror ?

This week is the anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street. Nowadays the BNP tries to position itself as a respectable electoral party with leader Nick Griffin as the concerned voice of Middle England. Their street fighting past is downplayed and the neo-nazis amongst them dismissed as embarrassing but harmless cranks.

But violence has never been taken off the Far Right agenda: The RedWatch site is an on-line picture library of activists who it calls upon to be identified and attacked as 'bolshevists and race traitors'.

I take this personally because, amongst the hundreds of photo's on the site, I can
find pictures of friends of mine, and somewhere in a background, even of myself . As always with the Far Right there is an element of farce in this: Most of the people on the site are actually harmless peace-activists not dangerous subversives.

The government is ignoring the campaign to take any action against RedWatch- looks like the war on terror may apply to 'Islamo-fascists' but not to traditional plain-old fascists.

Tuesday 3 October 2006

Scottish Socialist Sleeze

The wounds of the Tommy Sheridan affair were re-opened this week. Police are beginning a perjury investigation, and George McNeilage has leaked to the News Of The World a tape of a supposed confession by Tommy .

It seems at this point that the objective truth is unlikely to emerge, assuming that any kind of objectively can ever be expected in a media that is hardly neutral when it comes to its reporting of Left organisations.

As a member of one of these organisations since the early '80s, I obviously have a vested interest. But I long ago lost my taste for factional polemics or 'party patriotism'.

So here goes with what seem like the only certainties from the case:

1. Tommy Sheridan is one of the best agitational speakers on the Left today. He also appears to have an ego that is as striking as his perma-tan.

2. The News Of The World is a reactionary rag. It hyprocritically mixes sexual puritanism with titillation and is openly hostile to the Left and the labour movement in general.

3. There are political differences between Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party leadership on the question of independence for Scotland and on femminism. These differences make less interesting copy for the N.O.W. than Tommy's bedroom antics.

4. NOBODY has come out of this affair with much dignity or integrity. Former comrades have stabbed each other in the back and broken with all labour movement traditions by using the courts and a hostile press for their own purposes.

Everything else seems open to doubt.

But the final certainty is that Scotland needs a Left party to challenge Labour. The SSP has self-destructed in the course of this fiasco and so at the moment Tommy Sheridan and the new Solidarity Party looks like the best option.

Monday 2 October 2006

David Cameron & The 18th Century

Tory party conference this week, and there is some debate about David Cameron's background and his inner circle of fellow Old Etonians. One commentator dares to suggest that his obvious poshness might be a liability with the electorate at large, and that given the lack of any tangible policies from the Tories, opponents might latch on to this.

I am afraid that there is little mileage on this last point. Sadly, a century on from Kier Hardie the Labour Party has drifted so far from its origins that it cannot now play the class card.

But to those who would deny that class can or should be a part of modern politics, I would suggest trying a favourite pass-time of Lenin: During his period of exile in London, he would take long bus rides across the city observing the conditions of the different areas and suburbs, and the boundaries and nuances between shades of affluence and poverty.

Today exactly the same spectrum can be traced journeying through London's concentric circles of class. The city centre metro-liberal middle class , the inner city ghettos, the lower-middle class suburbs, the 'white flight' working class over-spill and the leafy commuter belt. And now as then, the largest part of this spectrum is unrepresented and disenfranchised watching the political process from the sidelines.

We have in effect a return to eighteenth century patrician politics. An arena where different factions of the political class fight it out (Court v County has been replaced with Blairite Islington v Cameronite Notting Hill). And where patronage is used to create a power base - peerages for sale anyone ? These modern day Whigs and Tories dare not mention the c-word, and whilst they may court our support at the hustings, neither can claim to represent us.

Friday 29 September 2006

God TV

Last night in the category of 'you couldn't make it up':

Late night cable TV is something of a modern day freak show. Monster truck racing, endless documentaries about the Third Reich, soft porn, Korean art-house movies ... and GOD TV.

The channel has a homely, amateur feel to it hosted by a scary, smiley South African couple Rory and Wendy. The programming consists of fire-and-brimstone sermons, financial appeals to help GOD TV to reach out to new areas apparently ripe for the good news (.. like Pakistan and China), Christian Rock videos, and messages sent in from viewers to request prayers for miraculous healing.

But best of all is their current affairs magazine, 'The 700 club'. This features Fox-type US-centric news alongside analysis from Pat Robertson. One minute we are looking at footage from the war in Lebanon and the next minute Pat is giving an explanation of the events with reference to the book of Revelation.

This incomprehensible bad acid trip seems to be their only guide in making sense of the new world order.
You can find the basic proposition on any crank website; we're living in the final days awaiting the last judgement and have to fulfill the pre-conditions; the temple has to be restored in Jerusalem, Jews return to the biblical borders of Israel and the Antichrist (Islam or the UN it seems to vary) is defeated. Pretty much any disaster that occurs in the meantime be it hurricane Katrina or global warming can be explained as evidence of the impending crisis (or 'Rapture' as they call it).

It's too easy to dismiss these cranks as obviously bonkers but it has to be said that they are actually evil as well.

Their attitude to the horrors and suffering that the Rapture obviously entails is; bring it on - its all part of God's plan. I can't understand how this sits alongside the prayer requests sent to help with in-growing toenails or cashflow problems. It's a strange view of God as a kind of Santa Claus who is quite happy to micro-manage small requests but when it comes to the fate of millions of innocents is a bit of an uncaring git.

I have to confess that I have an axe to grind here - I am an atheist. But I had a Catholic education and was taught by priests and brothers, and despite rejecting it all I did come to an understanding that good people can still believe crazy things.

The trouble with these evangelical nutters is that they read a lot of the Old Testament with all its smiting with plagues etc, and then skip on to the barmy book of Revelation at the end. Along the way they seem to miss out the Gospels. This is the only bit of the bible that I ever had much time for - all that stuff about being nicer to each other; don't judge others, show forgiveness, all that sort of thing.

But I guess all that seems a bit too much like liberalism to these self-righteous, joyless, loveless, bigoted bastards.

Thursday 28 September 2006

Who are the citizens ?

I see the BBC website today reports that UK schools are failing to teach citizenship.In the 'have your say' section there is a predictable chorus of Middle-England bigotry. 'Why not a flag in every classroom and start the day with the national anthem - it works so well in US schools ?'

Blairites call this 'respect' - the same thing the Thatcherites used to call 'traditional values'. Either way it doesn't add up. You don't have citizens in a monarchy; we are subjects and our national anthem is 'God Save The Queen'. Even in a republic where the concept of citizens does belong, there are a few inconvenient problems.

All the great republics were founded on the existence of a disenfranchised underclass. Athenians had slaves outside the body politic, as of course did the US founding fathers, and even the Jacobins didn't embrace universal suffrage. The same is true today, whether it is migrant workers in the 'black' economy or rigged electoral registers in Florida.

You can't teach citizenship without citizens. And nobody is a citizen unless we all are.

Wednesday 27 September 2006

That 'new term' feeling.

Despite being over 40 and having been out of the education system for almost twenty years, September always feels like the start of a new term. Maybe it is about coming back to work from holiday having done more reflection than is normally the case (or maybe than is actually healthy).

This September the theme of education seems to be particularly strong.

My eldest daughter started secondary school this month. On the first day she came home clutching a glossy spiral-bound manual full of mission statements and milestones. More reminiscent of the kind of corporate bullshit that I have got used to seeing at work. I had assumed that her school, a comprehensive that harked back to former 'glory days' as a grammar would be essentially like my own; a bit crap and run down but essentially humane and with its heart in the right place. This seems altogether more sinister.

I also attended my twenty year graduation reunion dinner. Being an Oxbridge institution this was an opulent and grandiose affair, including an overnight stay in college rooms. The whole thing is free, probably with an eye to encouraging alumni to make some sort of benevolent bequest (not much chance in my case though). I had very mixed feelings about the whole thing - much as I did about my time as a student. Twenty years ago I had a pretty big chip on my shoulder about class and I felt politically vindicated in regarding most of the students as 'the enemy'. At the reunion there were some that I could still quite happily regard as one day being on the other side of the barricades. But the vast majority were actually pleasant, albeit surprisingly very dull given the supposed collective intellect gathered in the room.

I go to the gym to keep in shape physically but I have become increasingly worried that my brain may be wasting away through neglect. So, I have signed on for a distant learning course in archaeology. It is only a short, non-accredited course because I just want to dip my toe in the waters of learning again and I am not really concerned about getting any further qualifications. I have always read widely and in spurts of interest on particular subjects that become an obsession for a few months - so it is good to have the discipline again of working through a reading list and taking notes.