Monday 30 April 2007

Pictish Tattoo

More ink at the weekend, and so to pre-empt the inevitable question: Why ?

The look of it. There is something about spirals that draw you in and mezmorises: which is why I suppose that these patterns are so widespread in different cultures. My tattooist first assumed that this was a Maori pattern, having worked for a while in New Zealand.

The Pictish connection. Of the Celtic peoples of Britain, it was the Picts who most effectively avoided Roman-isation. Little is known of them, even whether they formed a single ethnic group. The were defined by their love of body-art and the name comes from the Roman description of them as 'the painted people' or Pictii. As in Polynesian cultures, tattooing was a mark of status, and to be unmarked was effectively to be a non-person or slave.

The next question. What is it ? Nobody is sure, but it is one of the most common Pictish symbols found carved in stones all over Scotland. It has been alternatively interpreted as a protective motif showing a spear breaking on a shield, or as a horizon bisected by the rising and setting sun. In any case it crops up everywhere, possibly as a kind of graffiti tag. The period from the fourth to the ninth century AD was one of pretty much constant conflict between a patchwork of Pictish, Saxon, Romano-British, Irish Gaelic and Norse enclaves. It is quite probable that the tag was used to mark territory after a victory in battle or maybe a raid.

And finally, just to address the idea that tattooing is some sort of macho thing: The design comes from the library of Pat Fish, a female tattooist in California who is one of the leading practitioners of Celtic body art and I had the tattoo done by a woman in an all-female studio. Oh yes, and the Picts were a matriarchal society.

So there you have it.

Friday 27 April 2007

Kids don't need a nanny-state.

Some puritan busy-bodies at Alcohol Concern have decided that our licensing laws do not go far enough, and that to protect children, it should be made possible to prosecute parents for serving children alcohol in their own homes.

What the fuck is the matter with these people?

There are plenty of shocking problems that face children. A recent report, based on various health, economic and educational indices, showed that the UK was the worst country in which to be a child in Western Europe.

My own borough is London is apparently the third worst place to be a child in the UK.

Here are some random stats from the Child Poverty Action Group:
• In 2006 12.7 million people were defined as 'income poor' (less than 60% of median income after housing costs).
• 49% of single parent households are income poor.
• 8% of single-parent families could not afford to eat vegetables most days.
• 60% of children who receive free school meals fail to obtain 5 or more GCSE grades at A to C.
• Children in the lowest socio-economic class are 5 times more likely than other children to die in an accident and 15 times more likely to die in a fire.

THIS is a scandal in a supposedly advanced western country.

Me introducing my own kids to responsible drinking with the occasional sip ISN'T.

Thursday 26 April 2007

Tommy Sheridan on You Tube

I have said here before that I have mixed feelings about the whole Tommy Sheridan thing.

But check out the Solidarity Election broadcast on You Tube.

It is quite simply one of the best in-your-face arguments for change.

Watch it till the end to catch the punch line - a politician who is prepared to take the the piss out of himself.

Wednesday 25 April 2007

Yelstin's legacy.

The state funeral today of Boris Yeltsin. Inevitably, several myths are being propagated:

• He was the liberator of his people from Communism. Actually he was not some persecuted dissident under the Soviet regime, but an unquestioning career bureaucrat with an eye for the main chance when the regime started to fall apart under Gorbachev.

• He was the father of modern democratic Russia. Really he was an expert in political brinkmanship who used any means necessary to ensure popular support. When it suited his own purposes he was quite prepared in 1993 to (literally) turn the tanks on his own parliament.

• He was a strong charismatic leader in times of crisis. But his only consistent ideology was nationalism, he is on record as saying that democracry is alien to Russia. This is the same nationalism that took his country into a brutal war of repression in Chechnya.

• He saved the faltering economy. The Soviet system was falling apart under the crushing weight of bureaucracy, what has replaced it though is a bizarre quasi-medieval mess throughout Eastern Europe. Coca-Cola and McDonalds might now be in the shops but corruption is institutionalised and forms a new kind of bureaucracy, organised crime is ingrained into the economy and in some parts of the region warlords make up a de-facto alternative government.

• He was a lovable rogue with a human side . A euphimism. He was a chronic alcoholic given to buffonery unfit to have his finger on the button of one of the world's superpowers.

Why are these myths being propagated in the West?

Modern Russia by most standards would be considered a 'pariah state' - imagine if an Islamic country had assassinated one of their dissidents in London, had the same record on human rights as Russia does in Chechnya, or so brazenly displayed weapons of mass destruction.

The fact is the new order in the East gives the promise of a new lease of life for the older Western economies. Markets and resources denied to the West by the cold war are now open more or less for exploitation and development. There is a clear parallel with the scramble for empire at the end of the nineteenth century.

Tuesday 24 April 2007

On the road again.

Thanks to the help of my local indie-Harley shop, my bike is back on the road again.

I don't think I could have taken much more of travelling on the tube. Maybe it's the weather getting warmer, or maybe I have an overly-heightened sense of personal space, but I am stunned at the sheer bloody rudeness of people on public transport. The last straw was being shoulder barged at the doors by some stuck-up, middle-aged secretarial bitch who appeared outraged when I asked '...what the fuck ? '. Amazing how 'office dress' bestows a misplaced air of superiority.

The nice people at the bike shop were embarrassed at the price for my repair. They had kept their own costs down, but it came down to the ridiculous cost of Harley parts. I am just stunned how Harley prices in Europe can be justified that are over double their equivalent in the US.

This is not just because of exchange rates. I'm convinced that this is a deliberate marketing ploy on the MoCo's part to position themselves as a luxury plaything over here, whilst they are 'blue collar transportation' in the US. Even worse, the huge industry in aftermarket parts frequently provides alternatives that are not just cheaper but actually often better.

Still, before anybody tells me that there are more practical forms of transport, motorcycling haven't been about practical transport since the 1960's. If I wanted practical I'd be riding a Honda C90 or a scooter. God forbid.

Monday 23 April 2007

St George's Day.

St George's day - and the campaign to have a patron saint's day to match St Patrick's, David's and Andrew's. Because let's face it, if there is one thing that the world needs right now, it's a bit more nationalism.

The campaign ignores the difference between the nationalism of the 'celtic-fringe' nations, denied nationhood and that of one of the largest empires the world has seen. Which is why the flag of St George is associated with the Far Right in this country, whilst on the other hand, the daffodil is not an emblem of Welsh fascists.

Like most aspects of patriotism, the whole St George thing is based pretty much on ignorance. What little that is known of St George is that he was an officer in the army of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD who was martyred for his Christianity. He came from Cappadocia; and so depending on your point of view he was either Turkish or Greek. The whole dragon-slaying thing it goes without saying, is undocumented. Unsurprisingly he is big in Eastern Orthodox countries like Serbia, Georgia and Armenia.

As to why the cult of St George came to England at all - you have to look at the crusades. The idea of a warrior saint was particularly appropriate for that blood thirsty period, and was brought west by returning crusaders who got it from the Byzantines. Before then the patron saint of England had been either Edmund, martyred by the Vikings or Edward the Confessor, the saint-king. The trouble with both of these was that they were unmistakably Anglo-Saxon, and this was politically inconvenient for the new Anglo-Norman monarchs and aristocracy.

Since the reformation the Anglican church, oscillating between Anglo-Catholicism and Protestantism, has been a bit shaky on the status of saints. On the other hand the Catholic church is a bit more vigorous in its dealings. Which is why in 1893 Pope Leo ruled that George fell into the category of saints about whom we didn't have enough evidence and could simply be myths. He was demoted to the second division, and as far as Roman Catholics were concerned, St Peter was made the official patron saint of England.

So what are we left with ? - A Turkish bloke who isn't a proper saint and whose flag has become a rallying point for racists and fascists.

If we want a bank holiday in April, and I'm all for as many public holidays as possible, why not keep April 23rd as Shakespeare's birthday? The date is questionable and he may turn out to really have been Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon, but at least he represents something positive and lasting that England has contributed to the world. And I'd love to see all those red-faced chavs running around in Shakespeare t-shirts getting pissed up and quoting sonnets.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

Looking mean doesn't really help.

News saturation about the Virgina Tech shootings.

Notice how in every report there appear to be dozens and dozens of cops lounging about in the background, supposedly 'securing the area' ? Just about every law enforcement agency is represented. Chewing gum, and wearing mirror shades they look well hard. But hasn't anyone pointed out to the SWAT teams that they are over 24hours too late ?

Sadly a small percentage of the cops now assembled could have been more fruitfully deployed on the day of the shootings, after the first wave and before the second two hours later. (As opposed to issuing an email warning to the students at 7:30 am to be cautious).

Trouble is this kind of misplaced machismo is at the root of the whole gun culture problem. (And dare I say militaristic foreign policy as well). Not that anyone is going to make themselves popular by raising any questions about this. In fact to date no US politician has even mentioned the words 'gun control'.

And lest we in the UK get too smug, we're not immune from such posturing here - remember the tanks patrolling the perimeter at Heathrow after 9/11 ? Presumably they were poised to pursue any terrorists boarding a plane with a box-cutter.

The trouble with posturing is that it leads you into situations that you can't back away from and that spiral out of control. And I speak from personal experience here; if we had the ready access here to guns that they have in the US, road rage could well have landed me dead or serving time.

Tuesday 17 April 2007

Guns don't kill people, they just make it (too) easy

33 dead at Virginia Tech. The 19th killing spree at a US educational establishment in 19 years.Gun control in the US is back on the agenda.

I used to find something appealing about the notion of the right to bear arms. Like many aspects of the US constitution it implies a nation formed by the consent of free individuals. But this is not 1776 and we are not talking about a government of free-thinking frontier settlers but a complex modern society with all the issues that go with it.

As Michael More showed in 'Bowling For Columbine', it isn't just about access to the guns; look at Canada and Switzerland. But access to guns doesn't half help. And so does a deeply fucked up society in a continual state of paranoia. Paranoia of islamo-terrorists or of the dark skinned youths that live in the projects.

Guns of themselves don't kill people, but there is something peculiar about how they make killing possible. The Greeks despised the Persians because they fought with bows and arrows rather than hand-to-hand. They felt that this was unmanly as it required no courage to kill a an enemy who you ran no risk from yourself. Similarly, it's just too easy to kill someone with a device that can magically transform the bullied class nerd looking for payback into a killing machine.

Guns don't of themselves kill people, but they do provide one hell of a fatal outlet for otherwise suppressed anger.

Monday 16 April 2007

Nazi chic.

Maybe it's a generational thing, but I feel that rock music should represent some kind of counter-culture. That's probably what keeps me loyal to much ridiculed trance-metal pyschic-guerillas Hawkwind.

By now I should have become used to rock musicians espousing the views of Middle England, moaning about high taxation, rising immigration, doing benefits for the Tories and accepting knighthoods. But I do draw the line when they start singing the praises of Nazi Germany: this from Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music:

"My god, the Nazis knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves. "Leni Riefenstahl's movies and Albert Speer's buildings and the mass parades and the flags - just amazing. Really beautiful."

I know Roxy Music, the grandaddies of the New Romantics, were always about image as much as music, but for fuck's sake !

Ferry's agent had defended him saying some of his critics are unable to separate the aesthetic from the politics. So, what are we saying, the Holocaust was a bit out of order, but those Nazis did have some really fabulous uniforms ?

Ferry's son Ottis (?!?) also made a name for himself a few years ago when he stormed parliament to protest in defence of hunting. Maybe I'm missing some aesthetic nuance here, but I can't help feeling that the Ferry family are just a bunch of over-privileged arseholes.

Friday 13 April 2007

Blair says it's a black thing.

Blair has been lecturing black community leaders on how they need to sort out a youth culture of violence that has led to some tragic and highly publicised fatal stabbings in London this month.

What the fuck ? Does he really think that the black community hasn't noticed these deaths ? Did he miss the demonstrations in London after the killings ?

Blair may like to think that he knows all about multi-cultural North London because he has a home in Islington. Truth is he is one postcode but a million miles away from the inner city part of North London where I live. In my area the large black community can hardly miss the yellow police incident borders that are a permanent fixture on our streets. Not so I imagine in Tony's Cannonbury Square.

Blair speaks as if gangsta-culture is the only voice heard in the the black community. If he took a bit more time to get to know what was happening on his door step, he would know that there is a very conservative part of Caribbean culture that promotes church and family values that would not be out of place in the US religious Right.

The fundamental problem is not race or culture, it is POVERTY.

ALL kids now experience a video-game culture of instant violence without consequences. White kids in Ali-G fashion aspire to the gangsta style. But none of this addresses the real question - a map of the most violent areas of Britain coincides with that of the poorest areas.

Perhaps the best example is (overwhelmingly white but poor) Glasgow - murder capital of Europe with what police have called an epidemic of youth stabbings.

Tuesday 10 April 2007

Joys & woes of biking.

A bank holiday for me dominated by bikes.

Briefly interupted by some bible-bashers who knocked on my door to ask about Jesus's message for Easter. I told them that I was a pagan and my mesage was that we had it first and that the bloody Christians (with the help of those bastard Romans) had nicked OUR festival of Aeosta. (It's easier than telling them you're an atheist and then trying to reason with them).

Anyway, Good Friday to the Ace Cafe - there is a hog roast and some sort of promotional nonsense going on for the new 'Wild Hogs' film coming out this week. There is a large attendance from the weekend-badass mid-life crisis brigade that seem to be missing the point that the film is primarily taking the piss out of them. Still, its a sunny day with plenty of nice bikes to look at.(Just as footnote to this, I find it hilarious that the Hells Angels MC are suing Walt Disney for infringement of copyright in the authorised use of their logo in the film).

Saturday I turn up for an Easter Egg Run to a kids centre from the local indie Harley shop. I find that it was last week. Feeling a bit of a prat I sit around the shop for an hour drinking tea and bullshitting before riding round to the Ace again and doing the same there.

Easter Monday is the annual ride out to Southend. A glorious day of sunshine and thousands of bikes make the run, for a brief moment you think that the A127 is route 66 and the flatlands of Essex the plains of the Mid-West. Southend never fails to disappoint though - the British seaside at its very worst, a shrine to the god of Chav. I catch a couple of numbers from a rock-a-billy band , soak up some sun and then beat a hasty retreat home.

Then this morning I got the bike out to go to work and the drive belt snapped. Bollocks. And double-bollocks.

Thursday 5 April 2007

Hostages freed & hypocrisy

So the hostage crisis has been resolved and the sailors and marines are on their way back to Britain.

On a human basis the only appropriate response is a sigh of relief for the families of the young service people involved. And on a political basis, a sigh of relief that an escalation of the war in the Middle East has been averted. Or at least postponed for the moment. Looking at the papers today, nobody seems sure if this is a triumph of British softly-softly diplomacy or a triumph of Iranian PR. I don't really care, either way it is a retreat from a dangerous game of brinkmanship by two regimes that don't speak for me.

Curiously, much has been made by The Sun of the fact that the hostages were released not in their service uniforms but in ill-fitting suits. This hardly seems like inhumane and humiliating treatment. After all the Iranians could have used orange jump-suits and shackled and hooded the prisoners. Or kept them in lock-down for twenty-two hours a day. Or imprisoned them for five years without trial or charge. All these points are made (with rather more humour) by Terry Jones in The Guardian.

To get all biblical on this one: Before the West can get sanctimonious about the capture and treatment of the hostages it needs to take the splinter out of its own eye - the splinter labelled Guantanamo.

Tuesday 3 April 2007

Iranian conspiracies.

• The second gunman on the grassy knoll
• The Apollo moon landings in a television studio
• Diana's car crash
• The planes and the twin towers
• Alien autopsies at Roswell
• The Illumentanti / Freemasons / Opus Dei
etc etc etc

The internet abounds with plots concocted by paranoid geeks who haven't seen natural daylight for years, but I' m not a fan of conspiracy theories.

I'm pretty sure that the powers-that-be often do sinister things that they would rather keep quiet. Our so called leaders and representatives are often corrupt. They also fuck up and do very stupid things that they then want to cover up. But I don't think that behind every news story there is a Dr Evil stroking a cat on a swivel chair chuckling at his devilish cunning.

The trouble with all this is that conspiracy theories actually make governments and rulers appear more powerful than they really are, and the rest of us mere pawns left to marvel at their abilities of deception. In fact the truth is at the same time both more simple and more complex.

Governments blunder around from incompetence to incompetence and then lie or 're-spin' the truth to make it look like it was planned all along. Of course they are capable of well thought out and sinister agendas, but they are usually able to carry these out quite openly by cleverly manipulating consensus.

Look at the road to the Gulf War. Through some deft sleight of hand we were 'persuaded' in increments that there was a link and logical causality between the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban, Sadam's regime and now Iran. And so some sort of consensus, certainly in the USA, was created that gave political legitimacy to what any sober analyst could see was a war for western control of the world's oil producing zone. No ninjas were required to assassinate anyone and no evidence was planted to 'prove' that Sadam had weapons of mass destruction. In fact when Hans Blix's UN inspection showed that he didn't, the concenus for war still survived.

I don't believe that the Royal Navy deliberately trespassed into Iranian territorial waters as part of a conspiracy to provoke war. Almost as strongly as I believe that the US and UK have no business being in the Middle East in the first place. In fact I believe that Blair (and Bush if he cares) probably don't have a clue what to do about the 15 hapless sailors and marines that have the misfortune to be caught up in this. The allies have created a political momentum that makes it difficult for them to back track on the road to war with Iran. But the fact remains that they have so underestimated the problems of occupying Iraq that militarily another war is now a venture too far.