Wednesday 30 May 2007

Biking Renaisance Man Remembered

The anniversary today of the death in 2000 of Dr Maz Harris: PR officer of the Hells Angels MC, academic and journalist.

Back in the 80’s, the magazine Back Street Heroes helped define the British biker scene. Along with events like the HA’s Kent Custom Show, it developed an identity that encompassed outlaw-types right through to anyone who wasn’t interested in sports bikes and to whom biking was something more than just practical transport.

BSH was very different from most of the US imported magazines around at that time that focused on biker-babes draped over glitzy Arlen Ness style professionally commissioned bikes. BSH had something of the fanzine about it, and Maz’s regular column Radical Times was an essential part of this.

Radical Times was effectively a printed precursor of the blogging phenomenon. Maz's personalised rants came from the perspective of a biker with a passion for civil liberties and widely-read enough to back it up.

Writing in the Thatcher years, Maz's rants covered the Criminal Justice Act, the abuse of police powers, the British presence in Northern Ireland, the poll tax, racism and the health service. Dispelling the prejudices of the middle-class PC brigade who would regard bikers as reactionary Neanderthals, these rants were invariably from a progressive point of view.

Now it seems that every other celebrity has commissioned an Orange County Chopper. Thanks to the Discovery Channel and born again HOG-tyes, bikers have been embraced by the mainstream, and the idea of a counter culture has been eroded.

Sadly BSH, which still survives albeit under new ownership, now reflects this trend; but back in the day - Maz was the real deal.

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Why we need juries.

The British 'justice' system is a funny thing. There's a lot that's very wrong with it - but its one saving grace is the jury system.

In a trial little reported in the press, the system has endorsed the actions of two anti-war activists in Oxfordshire tried for criminal damage to B-52 bombers at an RAF base.

Faced with a possible jail sentence of up to ten years, they used the defence that their actions were justified because they were attempting to prevent criminal acts; war crimes in bombing civilians in Iraq and criminal damage to Iraqi property.

The judge permitted them to use thie defence but not to argue that the war itself was illegal. That argument is not legally possible because of the old chestnut of Crown prerogative - the war was initiated using Crown prerogative and all prosecutions are in the name of the Crown.

But the fact that the defence was accepted by the jury is a stinging indictment of the legitimacy of the government's actions over Iraq.

All of which underlines the duality of our legal system. On the one hand, the quasi-feudal bollocks that evokes the Queen and with it all the silly wigs and other nonsense, and on the other hand the jury system, which endorses the supremacy of ordinary people's commonsense.

It also underlines the importance of fiercely defending the jury system from those frequent attempts to 'reform' it by illiberal governments for whom such commonsense is a an inconvenience.

Friday 25 May 2007

A Bit Of Un-American History.

I'm reading the autobiography of Johnny Cash at the moment. There's a line in it which drew my attention to a relatively unknown piece of US history; recalling his childhood he says that he 'grew up under socialism'.

Like many farming families, the depression of the 30's tipped Cash's family over the edge from poverty into destitution. At one point his father was reduced to riding the rails 'hobbo' style to pick up casual work.

Under FDR's New Deal, in 1934, the Emergency Relief Administration came up with a program whereby poor farmers could buy 20 acres of uncultivated land, with no deposit and nothing to pay until the first harvest. 46 'colonies' were set up in the Mid-West, to be run on a co-operative basis. The farmers were given a house and a barn (all identical), a mule and a cow. Their crop would go into a farmer's co-operative to secure the best market price, and each family was given a stake in the cotton gin and grocery store, with a share in the profits.

By all accounts the life was unbelievably hard - no electricity, no running water and the land had to be cleared from wilderness by hand before any planting could be done. It wasn't socialism and it certainly wasn't idyllic.

Even so it's pretty amazing that it happened at all, and unthinkable in today's political climate. Hard to credit that some victims of Hurricane Katrina are still in shanty towns and the glorified refugee camps that you'd associate with a developing country not the richest in the world. And Hilary Clinton is denounced as a dangerous 'un-American' socialist.

Tuesday 22 May 2007

Sobering and humbling ...

This blogging business is very much a mixed blessing. I've heard it said that it is a democratising way of expressing free speech. But let's face it - it's also a self-indulgent and self-important way of sounding off at no great risk or inconvenience to the author. Or in other words, a masturbatory vehicle for smart-arses. Yes guilty.

I used to be much more of an activist, but as the years have passed, although my ideals haven't essentially changed, my focus has shifted a bit from marching stridently through life to treading carefully and trying to minimise the damage done along the way ... Nowadays I go to a few meetings for various causes, and every few weeks send out some letters on behalf of Amnesty International. Every now and then one particular campaign gets to you.

It's not a new campaign, the guy has been on death row for decades for fuck's sake, but somehow until now, the case of Gary Tyler has passed me by. It's all too familiar - convicted as a juvenile in the seventies in Louisiana in the wake of racial battles over school integration, he was convicted on very questionable evidence by an all-white jury and defended by an incompetent defender. He has been repeatedly denied appeals and pardons because of his unapologetic and militant stance. So much so that Amnesty have adopted him as a political prisoner.

I might have salved my conscience with a letter that took no more than ten minutes to write and the cost of stamp - but check out the work of Reprieve, an organisation who do this on a full time basis. The term 'do-gooder' gets thrown around as one of abuse. But I can guarantee that you can't help but feel a bit humbled when you read about people like this.

Monday 21 May 2007

'Bussiness/ office dress'

I had to attend some ghastly trade show last week at the NEC.

Everyone attending has to wear a badge with their company name and title. Largely this is so that those working the stands can tell if it's worth their time to talk to you. I revel in their confusion when they read 'Director' on my badge and then see how I am dressed. I also enjoy turning up for meetings and being mistaken for a bike courier.

Possibly childish I know, but
there's something absurd about the concept of 'business dress'.

Why are certain uniforms
expected in business ? I can maybe understand why doctors wear white coats - it arguably reassures their patients. But I don't feel reassured when I see some middle manager wearing the obligatory 'proper' trousers and a crisp white shirt. It doesn't tell me that he/she takes pride in their appearance, or is being 'professional', or is showing 'respect' etc etc. It just tells me that he/she doesn't have any fucking imagination or personality.

I could come out with some cheesy line about not judging a book by the cover. But it just wouldn't be true; we all do, it's just that we don't all see the same things. I recently was interviewing candidates and my own prejudices inevitably came into play; anyone in bland business dress was at a distinct disadvantage.

We all wear uniform to some extent. I know very few people who genuinely don't care what they wear. But let's at least wear the uniforms of our own choosing. If I'd wanted to be told how to dress I would have joined the sodding army.

All of which serves as a long preamble to this link, looking at tattooed 'professionals' and executives.

Thursday 17 May 2007

Why democarcies must be republics ..

So I was wrong. Apparently Prince Harry isn't expendable and he won't now be going to Iraq, even with a desk job.

The army have said that if anything happened to him it would be a 'disaster for the country'. Not sure how this is to be taken by the families of the other 150 odd British service people killed in Iraq to date. Presumably in comparison, these deaths were obviously a bit of bugger but not actually a disaster as such.

The army have also said if Harry were to go it would endanger the lives of his colleagues. You could say that it's bit late now to start worrying about the unnecessary risking of lives after embarking on an illegal war with no exit strategy.

It really does look like one rule for the nobs and another for the rest of us.

And in a similar vein:

The Diana inquest is foundering on the problems of crown immunity. It has been suggested that the queen should be questioned as part of the proceedings, but of course there is no constitutional basis for this. In fact the last time anybody tried to do this we had a civil war and a king ended up on the scaffold.

Just supposing for a moment that Mohamed Al-Fayed isn't the fantasist that he appears to be, and that the royal family did have a part in Diana's death, or more probably, that they had some influence in a cover-up of embarrassing details. Is it acceptable that there is no mechanism for holding them to account ?

There is a deep strain of inequality and privilege in this country, and the monarchy is at the centre of this in both a symbolic and also very real way.

Even in nations for whose governments I have little regard, there are not the ridiculous anomalies and fundamental injustices of a hereditary monarchy. In the US, heads of state have (and in recent times) been held to public account. In Israel, can you imagine the son of a politician being exempted from active service with the IDF ?

Perhaps it is no accident that both nations have a much more deep rooted concept of 'citizenship' than we do in the UK with one foot still in the middle ages.

Monday 14 May 2007

Biking chronicles

For no particular reason it popped into my head that this month, I think this week to be exact, marks the 25th anniversary of me riding bikes. So also for no particular reason, here are my bike riding chronicles:

• The prequel
Aged 11, a mate's dad had an enormous (well it seemed that way at the time) 500cc Husquava Moto-crosser. The mate's dad was a bit of a nutter - with a large back garden. So he encouraged us to have a go, which I did and promptly rode it into ( in fact straight through) his rotten wooden shed. Far from being deterred, I was hooked.

• Yamaha 50cc moped -thing.
My first legal bike.I can't remember the model, but it doesn't matter they were pretty ubiquitous. All mopeds were restricted to 30mph, unless you whacked a spike up he exhaust to de-restrict them. I do remember having to regularly de-coke the 2-stroke exhaust using bicarbonate of soda, which had a radical effect on performance. But most of all I remember that the bike meant freedom. No more getting lifts from parents or waiting for buses, and for the first time I acquired the habit of riding around for the sheer hell of it without any destination.

• Yamaha RSX125.
When I left home to go and be a student I abandoned the moped. There was some medieval university statute that banned students from having motor transport. Like a fool I believed this and it wasn't until my second year that I got a bike again. In the meantime the laws about learner bikes had been changed with the restriction going down from 250 to 125cc. This was provoked by the likes of my boy-racer mates who had stayed at home and were all tearing around on the RD250LC that could burn off 'super bikes' three times their size. I was pissed off at having to stay with a 125cc until I passed my test, but on the other hand two of those mates were killed on the road whilst I was off studying ...

Jawa 350.
Unquestionably the biggest pile of automotive shit I have ever owned. It was Czech and cheap. That's about all that can be said. The build quality and engineering, even to a socialist like myself, made a compelling argument for western capitalism. When it wasn't in bits, I think that I did more mileage pushing it than I ever did riding it. In the student houses that I shared this, and the carcasses of other failed mechanical projects, made the gardens look like breakers' yards, medieval statutes not withstanding.

• Honda CX500.
My first proper bike, and one that actually worked. Much loved by London dispatch riders because of its longevity it was also famed for its ugliness and was known as the plastic maggot. For reasons that made perfect sense at the time (too many Mad Max movies) I re-sprayed mine matt black and put hi-bars onto it. I thought it looked pretty good until, within a year the rattling cam-chain devoured the engine on our way to a wedding.

• BMW R75/5.
I still get dewy-eyed at the thought of this. It was more or less a classic when I got it. I ditched the police style fairing and put on a sidecar for the sake of my pillion-hating other half. On this we toured all over Europe. provoking startled responses from villagers who had last seen something like it when the Wehrmacht came to town. We even got to East Germany on the re-unification night, and took it the mother ship, the BMW museum in Munich. I had the bike for almost 15 years, but it finally made its age felt in the reliability of the electrics and for the last ten of these it was in pieces in the garage. Sadly the awaited restoration never happened and I ended up giving the bike away. I just wanted to see it go to a good home - hopefully it has now been fully restored.

• Suzuki GS850.
This was only meant to be practical transport, but I ended up keeping it on the road for nine years. At one point it I wrote it off in a slide, and brought it back from the insurers. I got it fixed up cheaply as a basic custom job; drag bars, plain black paint, mini-clocks and lowered seat etc. It just kept going and going, enduring neglect, commuting and touring. Finally it needed a bottom end rebuild that would have cost more than it was worth , and it had to go.

• Yamaha XV1100 Virago.
I had hankered after a Harley for years. When it got to the point that I could I afford one, I didn't do it. I allowed horror stories about their practicality, and their adoption by middle life crisis riddled yuppies to put me off. There was nothing wrong with the Virago except that it wasn't a Harley and yet it tried so desperately to be one. The engine was fine, it was the styling that the Japanese couldn't get right. Way,way too much chrome, even chrome on top of plastic. And what really bugged me, 'false' features - like dummy exhausts and air filters trying to look like the real thing. Whilst most Virago owners were working out how to bling up their bikes, I seriously considered spraying mine matt black.

• Harley Davidson Sportster.
I finally succumbed a couple of years ago. I found that it wasn't essential to be a wannabe "wild hog" to own one. But the brutal simplicity of the engineering and styling had me hooked. There are bikes that are more practical to ride every day; there are bikes that require less looking after; even some that don't cost a fortune every time something goes wrong. None of that however is the point - as they say when was the last time you saw someone with 'Honda' tattooed on their arm ?

Thursday 10 May 2007

Blair goes - but little to cheer about.

So he's off. Probably. Well sort of, in seven weeks.

I grew up politically in the '80s, with the chanting of Maggie, Maggie, Maggie - Out,Out, Out ringing in my ears. When she stood down in 1990 I went down to Trafalgar Square for an impromptu demonstration/street party - like many on the Left, and particularly those in the Anti-Poll Tax Movement, I felt some small personal part in her downfall.

But by the time of the New Labour landslide of 1997, I had no part of the euphoria that swept the country. I and the Labour Party had parted company by the time that Blair and his cronies completed the work begun by Kinnock in riding the party of embarrassing socialist ideas.

So I can't claim that I felt particularly betrayed by Blair - I had no expectations in the first place.

However many did, both inside and outside the Labour Party. People like my parents - Labour activists not driven by ideology but by a sense of fairness and what George Orwell called 'common decency'. Their idea of socialism draws on the experience of growing up in the war years and the 1945 Labour government. Asked for a defining philosophy they would probably reference something like the old Clause IV of the Labour constitution.

In rejecting this and adopting the Thatcher agenda of privatisation, anti-trade union laws, and authoritarianism, Blair has gone further than other previous Labour leaders such as Gaitskill, who have tried to take the party to the right. He has managed to make the process irreversible by constitutional changes that have killed off democracy and accountability.

In the not-so brave New Labour world, my parents are now branded as hard-Left dinosaurs. They will have hopes today that a Meacher or a McDonnell will emerge as a viable leadership challenger. I am sad to say that they are wrong.

Tuesday 8 May 2007

Sarkozy wins - merde !

There hasn't been much international solidarity shown by the socialist parties of Europe since 1914. Even so it was still galling to hear that New Labour were rooting for a Sarkozy victory in the French election. I shouldn't be surprised. After all, a platform of neo-liberal economic reform and a pro-US foreign policy are all very close to the Blair/Brown project.

But politics aside, I am particularly saddened by the presidential result because I am a bit of a Francophile:

Not that France is any sort of workers' paradise, just talk to the North African communities in the Paris suburbs, but I have always thought that France managed to retain something that the UK lost post-Thacherism.

The French resisted many of the worst features of modern Britain. Such as an American work ethic that takes the balance out of life/work balance. And a misplaced idea of consumerism that emphasises 'choice' at the expense of quality - 57 varieties of sandwich at Subway that all actually taste the same. A mantra of private=good and public=bad that denationalizes everything in sight.

And so the UK is rapidly becoming a pale imitation of the American mid-west; dowdy shopping malls full of chain retailers selling identical products. Whilst the French kept the 35hour week, trade unions that are more or less allowed to operate within the law, and small towns with farmer's markets and artisan shops.

And perhaps connected to this, a population unlike the UK that has not yet been disillusioned by and disenfranchised from politics, seen in an 85% turnout in the elections.

All this could be about to change. The 'socialist' Royale ironically ran a campaign that would not have been out of tune with New Labour. And
Sarkozy represents a new 'un-French' departure with a declared aim of making France more Anglo-Saxon.

Friday 4 May 2007

Local Elections

As the local election results start to come in, it looks like the political map of Britain is returning to that of the early nineties. A sea of blue with some red enclaves.

I've ranted against New Labour often in this blog. I despise Blairism for its betrayal of the Labour Party and for its disenfranchisement of those who wanted an alternative vision of how society might be run. But I take no pleasure in the Tory revival.

For those taken in by posh-boy Cameron's charm let's never forget that the Conservatives are the party of Thatchersism; that period of almost twenty years that fucked up the social and political fabric of this country more profoundly than six years of fighting Hitler.

And also let's not forget that Tory landslides are only possible when the working class majority votes that way. Working in the print industry, I've rubbed alongside working class Tories for years. Ironic really, given that printworkers only owed their relatively privileged position due to the strength of the labour movement and the unique situation of the pre-entry closed shop - a fact that has still only partly sunk in after the Wapping dispute.

Working class Toryism is a depressing phenomenon. I can only put it down to:

• Deference - amazing but many people still believe that Old Etonians constitute an officer-class that is born to lead.

• Greed - better paid workers who resent taxes subsidising the less fortunate; All those ex-print workers who looked down on the un-skilled and who are now driving minicabs are a classic reminder of how fragile these distinctions are.

• Small-mindedness - the classic call of the white-trash Little Englander; 'I might not have much but at least I'm not Black or Asian or Eastern European etc' - insert the bigotry of your choice.

In some ways, we are back to the period at the turn of the last century. The vast majority of people in this country don't have their interests represented by the Tories or by New Labour, and need to be reminded of this.

The basic arguments for socialism and for class-based politics need to be made again. We should be dusting off those old copies of The Ragged Trousered Philantrophists.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Harry Goes To War.

So it's official, Prince Harry is off to Iraq.

This can never really have been in doubt. What kind of message would be sent out otherwise - it's OK for the sons (and daughters) of the rest of us to die pointlessly in an illegal war but not for the royal family ?

I haven't got anything personal against Harry. No more so than I have against any other over-privileged, over-bearing and under-talented hooray-henry. At least he hasn't tried to duck out of going, but then again neither have thousands of other servicemen and women who didn't get the choice.

In fact I could almost feel sorry for him. Let's face it, he is utterly expendable. Unless James Hewitt insists on a paternity test, he is still only third in line to the throne. As with Uncle Andrew in the Falklands war, a tragic and heroic end would be fantastic PR for an increasingly unpopular monarchy.

Older brother William however will never see active service. Like his Dad there will be plenty of photo-opportunities of him in various uniforms like a a kind of human Action Man, and on the strength of this he will become the patron of various military units. But he won't be put at any actual risk.

It was not always so when monarchy really meant something. Our Celtic and Saxon fore-bears didn't have purely hereditary kings; the numero uno alpha male would be chosen from amongst the noble warriors on the strength of his leadership in the line of battle. Go and see '300' and watch Leonidas to see how it should be done. Even up to the Wars Of The Roses, it didn't matter who your mum and dad were, if you didn't come up to the mark as a military leader you were pretty quickly dispatched in favour of a relative who did.

The needs of a society in the Third Millennium AD are a little different. And the association of the royals as 'chocolate box soldiers' with the armed forces today, is a metaphor for the ridiculous and anachronistic nature of a monarchy in a modern society.