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.