Wednesday 31 October 2007


Tonight’s the night we teach kids the valuable lesson of the power of extortion or as it’s now known ‘trick or treating’. With this in mind it’s easy to appreciate that Halloween is a quintessentially American festival.

And it is indeed an American import – twenty years ago Halloween was pretty much confined to Scotland and Ireland – but the numerous retail opportunities for selling cheap and tacky scary shit were too irresistible.

And so another ‘tradition’ was invented much like Father’s Day (a totally synthetic event manufactured by the greetings card industry).
In fact Halloween does have a bit more of a solid origin than that. It came to the USA from Scotland – the first written reference to it is in Robbie Burns – and it derives from All Hallows or All Saints Day – a festival in the Christian calendar.

But that’s not the whole story.

The Christians, as so often is the case, nicked the idea from a Celtic pagan festival – Samhain. There was an original Christian festival of the dead in May but somewhere in the Eighth Century, when the Christians were recruiting amongst the pagans, they swapped over the date to November so that they could capitalize on the existing celebrations.

For the pagans Samhain marked the end of the ‘light’ half of the year and the start of the ‘dark’ – it was marked with what was essentially a piss up around a camp fire. A time of celebration after the harvest and before the cold of winter set in.There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that confectionary was given to kids in exchange for not getting your windows egged - presumably that’s a later development.

So ironically all those Christian-mentalists who get hot under the collar about kids celebrating Halloween might actually have a point.

Still, bollocks to ‘em – lets celebrate the dark side tonight.

Tuesday 30 October 2007

'Shared values'

In London this week we are treated to the obscene spectacle of a state visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.

Kim Howells at the FO has told us not to focus on what divides us but on ‘our shared values’. Obviously I can’t speak for Mr Howells but I’m pretty sure that I don’t share any values with the bigoted tyrannical murderous arsehole that’s being feted at Buckingham palace today.

Let’s get it right about Saudi Arabia – its record on human rights clearly sets it apart as a pariah state:

• A record of capital punishment that puts it in the premier division of state killers.

• A legal system that is theocratic – using medieval Shari’a law as the basis for corporal punishments such as flogging and amputation.

• An absolute monarchy that bans political parties and extends political rights to a minority of the population.

• Systematic denial of women’s rights – an elaborate machinery of repression that tells them how to dress, limits their freedom to travel, and denies them access to education and many other aspects of civil society.

• An economy that rests on 9 million migrant workers largely from SE Asia who live lives of virtual slavery and are denied the most basic rights.

• Institutionalised corruption (remember the BAE scandal and the SFO investigation?)

And to add insult to injury, the cheeky fucker wants to lecture us about stepping up the war on terror! It was fifteen of his countrymen who participated in the 9/11 attacks and Bin Laden himself is a follower of the Saudi’s homegrown version of funda-mentalism – the Wahhabi sect.

The hypocrisy of the whole episode is appalling: Mugabe is (rightly) treated as a tyrant with whom the government will have no dealings, whilst Abdullah is given the red carpet treatment. And people seeking asylum from repressive regimes are turned away at our airports whilst Abdullah is given an official welcome when he flies in with his ridiculous entourage.

Shared values?

The only things I can see in common are a profound respect for OIL and everything else that flows from it – like £4.4 billion of exports.

Monday 29 October 2007

Whaddafuck ?

Last night the final Sopranos aired on British TV.

What has been hailed as the greatest ever TV series finished in the same vein as it operated all along - breaking our balls.

Were Tony and family going to be hit by the rival NY crew ? Were the FBI finally going to swoop ? Or was he going to cut a deal with the Feds ? The tensions of the last ten minutes as the family arrived one by one at the dinner was unbearable.

And in the end all we saw was Tony, typically tucking into some comfort food, then a blank screen.

Maybe it was the last seconds before his death - but I like to think that it was another of David Chase's genius pieces of anti-climax, and that for T it was just a case of 'business as usual'.

Whatever. Monster or tortured soul - we all got caught up in 'this thing of ours'. Is there anyone out there who wasn't rooting for him - or more to the point is there any man who doesn't in some way want to be Tony Soprano ?

Thursday 25 October 2007

The current lot make Carter seem a collusus ...

It says something for the current desperate political climate that I can be inspired by reading an interview with Jimmy Carter.. .

I’m just about old enough to remember him as president.

My only memories from that time was that he was ridiculed as a hick buffoon and that the fiasco of the bungled attempt to free US hostages in Iran was the final nail in his coffin before Reagan’s Republican landslide in 1980.

I'm fully aware that the born-again Christian peanut farmer from the Deep South is sure as hell no socialist or working-class hero.

But his record both as president and as ‘former president’ do put him head and shoulders above those that have since followed him. You could say that this just shows quite how far to the right the political consensus has shifted since the Reagan / Thatcher new order.

Just a few random things that put him in my good books:

• Early opposition to segregation in Georgia led to his family business being boycotted by local whites.

• Outspoken opposition to the death penalty

• Opposition to the war in Iraq

• Calls to shut down the Guantanamo Bay facility

• A description of Israel’s policies in Palestine as ‘apartheid’

And less conspicuous but equally endearing:

• Legalising home brewing in the US – thereby pissing off big business and sparking a movement for real ales and micro breweries

• Reporting his personal sighting of a UFO to the FBI (before the X Files hit the screens)

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Why so miserable Gordon ?

I'm not going to comment on the Rugby World Cup Final - a triumph in the end of skill over passion, and in spite of the disputed try probably a fair result. It was the presentation of the silverware at the end that got me going.

There was Sakozy as the host who, despite being a Tory still managed to look cool (well he is French after all) and then there was Gordon Brown, in contrast looking every inch the disgruntled Presbyterian bank manager.

Putting both to shame was the South African President Thabo Mloeki; the only one who actually looked like he wanted to be there. He was wearing a Springboks anorak and jumping up and down with excitement, laughing and joking , slapping the players on the back as they collected their medals. In fact I ignorantly assumed at first that he must be a member of the South African coaching entourage who had somehow got onto the platform. So obviously did some of the England players who appeared to ignore him when they collected their medals.

But why must politicians look so miserable in public - do they think it gives them some sort of gravitas ? Maybe Mloeki is a bit more self confident - after a lifetime in exile working for the ANC and with family members shot by the apartheid regime he possibly doesn't feel the need to prove anything.

Statesman who appear as human beings are surely worthy of more respect than stuffed shirts.

Remember the images at the previous South African victory in 1995 with Mandela in a Springboks shirt and cap embracing Francois
Pineaar ? This was not simply a well-spun photo opportunity - Mandela actually does have a genuine passion for the game - as incidentally did Che Guerva, who was apparently a useful scrum half.

Thursday 18 October 2007

A world of knowledge

When I was a student I can’t honestly say that I often found myself enthralled by my studies. However, apart from playing pool in the student bar, some of my best moments were spent on dark winter afternoons in the University Library or UL.

In its labyrinthine corridors it was possible to convince yourself that there was the entire world of learning captured under one roof and that you could actually stumble upon some previously undiscovered gem of knowledge. If you’ve seen library the ‘Name Of The Rose’ you’ve probably got the rough idea.

And the best bit of all was that the knowledge gained was usually completely random and irrelevant to anything that I was supposed to be studying. The perfect education for a renaissance man or a trivia bore – whichever you prefer.

I know it sounds a bit trite, and I’m probably showing my age here, but it never fails to blow my mind that sat at my desk bored shitless at work (a not infrequent condition) I can now wander around the virtual library that is this inter-web thingy and experience the same kind of wonder.

So I’ve just followed a trail of links that took me from articles about Ta Moko (a sacred Maori tattoo practice), to the liberation struggles of indigenous peoples, to the commoditisation and commercialisation of their cultures, to questions of racial identity and heritage in the west, to racism and the far-right.

There’s obviously a risk here that we’re all going to evolve into sad uber-geeks. But I’m basically an optimist and I find all this easy access to knowledge pretty inspiring for the future of the planet.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

What are the Lib Dems for ?

So 'Ming' is off. I have to say my initial reaction is that it doesn't really seem to matter and I don't really care.

I have never been really clear what the Liberals were for. In fact almost since the First World War, I'm not sure that they are 'for' anything at all.

At national level they are, depending on the circumstances, the Tories without the small mindedness, or New Labour without the 'embarrassing' links to a socialist past. I know they like proportional representation and civil liberties. And at local level they are very good at community relations - campaigning against dog shit on the pavement etc, when they run councils they are pretty much indistinguishable from wet Tories. Er that's about it ...

In most of the recent post-war period they were almost a regional party of the rural 'celtic fringe' - for some pretty quirky historic reasons. Very long memories of the Monmouth rebellion in the West Country, of the Highland Clearances in Scotland, and in Wales of non-conformist battles against the Church Of England - all made the Tories beyond the pail. Increasingly their place has been taken by proper nationalist parties like the SNP and Plaid Cmyru.

For a short time, when there was the flirtation with the SDP that gave birth to the modern 'Liberal Democrats', there appeared to be something like a coherent ideology of euro-style social democracy. But then New Labour came along and nicked those clothes leaving the Lib-Dems to play catch up.

So do the Lib Dems matter and should we care ?

Well ever since mainstream politics meant the abandonment of principle and hinged on the pursuit of a small layer of middle class voters in Middle England marginals, then sadly it just might.

I would advise them to choose another Blair/Cameron photogenic, unprincipled, opportunist charmer from the same cloning stable (somewhere in Oxbridge I think) that churns them out these days...

Which is of course exactly what they've done with Clegg and Huhne.

Monday 15 October 2007

Reunited and evolving ..

After struggling for two weeks with the joys of public transport I got my bike back at the weekend. It was in the workshop for a re-bore to take the engine up to 1200cc (or more correctly 74 cubic inches). Totally unjustifiable on any practical or logical basis except for the fact that ‘I can’.

This is the whole point of riding a bike like a Harley - to make it your own and not anyone else’s. Of course the fact that Harleys are primitive machines and need stuff doing to them to take up their specification actively encourages this. It's a deliberate ploy on the MoCo's part.

The process should also be ‘organic’ – so simply spec-ing it from a shop and buying it like that in the first place defeats the purpose – modification should be an evolution acquired in digestible chunks that you grow with over time. A bit like getting tattooed.

Ummm now what’s next ?

Thursday 11 October 2007

'Theology - what's that ?'

BBC Radio 4 hosts a quintessentially British institution – ‘Thought For The Day’.

It’s a sort of daily audio blog that’s been around for years. A 'worthy' guest speaker gets five minutes to mull over an ethical or philosophical subject, usually connected in some way with the news. In the past it was always done from a Christian point of view. Now, in a nod to multiculturalism, the view can come from any religion. But the worthy individual always represents some sort of religious connection, and invariably delivers his ramblings with smug piety and assumed gravitas.

And every time I hear it - it makes me fume.

I just can’t accept the premise that a religious conviction should be the basis for profound insight. In fact given the historical evidence of how religions have behaved through the ages, and the role of religion in most of the world’s current problems, I would rather seek the opinion of just about anyone else than a clergyman or theologian.

And I take offence at the idea that the study of religion should be synonymous with learning and wisdom or even just morality. As a relic from the Middle Ages when universities first sprang into existence we have Theology departments and even ‘Doctors of Divinity’. Imagine the scene of an ethical dilemma - 'make way I'm a doctor...'

Let's face it, in institutions dedicated to the pursuit of reason, theology departments should have been shut down at about the same time as departments of alchemy. (Or if we must study religion, in order to understand its cultural effects, let's stick it in the Anthropology and History departments).

On the subject of theology I love this quote from the God Delusion. Think of it as an epilogue to the story of the emperor’s new clothes:

'I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk...

Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor's taste. His training in biology may give him the ability to recognize dangling genitalia when he sees it, but it has not taught him the proper appreciation of Imaginary Fabrics.'

Monday 8 October 2007

Gordon Brown & The Levellers

Election or no election? In a sense it’s a storm in a teacup:

Brown never said there would be an autumn election and I can’t really imagine that anyone thought he would call one – so when Cameron challenged him to come off the fence – it was always going to be a non-event. Tactically you could say that Brown blundered by even appearing to contemplate it.

But media circus and parliamentary chicanery aside, there is a fundamental issue of democracy at stake, and it shouldn’t need take the Lib Dems to point it out. Under our archaic ‘non-constitution’ a government can manipulate the timing of an election for their own political advantage.

Marx had a name for this – he called it Bonapartism based on Napoleon III’s use of plebiscites to get a popular mandate for essentially anti-democratic purposes. A more recent example would be Thatcher’s timing with the ‘Falklands election’ – massively unpopular at home but using a heady wave of popular nationalism to get an endorsement.

The only solution to this is fixed term parliaments and a written constitution.

Of course this idea is nothing new. The idea was first forward as early as 1647 in the Levellers “Agreement of the People’. Some, but not much, of it would need updating from the seventeenth century – so keeping within the spirit of it I have added my own twenty first century comments in italics:

• Power to be vested in the people: We still need to abolish the monarchy and the use of crown prerogative.

• One year Parliaments, elected by equal numbers of voters per seat. The right to vote for all men who worked independently for their living and all those who had fought for the Parliamentary cause: OK we have universal suffrage now – but the one year parliament would really shake things up.

• Recall of any or all of their MPs by their electors at any time: Not as outrageous as it sounds – think of all those sleaze inquiries …

• Abolition of the House of Lords
: Overdue and we don’t need a nominated second chamber of Blair’s mates either.

• Democratic election of army officers: So we aren’t in the middle of a civil war and maybe this one isn’t so high on the agenda – but how about trade union rights for the armed forces ?

• Complete religious toleration and the abolition of tithes and tolls: We don’t have tithes but we do still have an official Church Of England, religious education in schools and blasphemy laws – all long passed their sell by date.

• Justices to be elected; law courts to be local and proceedings to be in English: Trials might be in English but they’re still hardly accessible to ordinary people with silly wigs and archaic proceedings. The judiciary are still a self-perpetuating old boys club. And amazingly we now find ourselves defending the right to trail by jury and habeas corpus – things that weren’t in the Leveller’s Agreement because they thought they had already secured them by winning the first civil war.

• Redistribution of seized land to the common people: Dare we say re-nationalization of privatised companies ?

Depressing that it's all still radical stuff 350 years on.

Friday 5 October 2007

It ain't all 'Belle de Jour'...

My bike’s in the workshop at the moment, which means that I am reduced to public transport for my daily commute.

Walking from my house to the tube takes me through a semi-derelict industrial area that by night is a mini red light district. As I’m going to work this morning at 7.30am, I walk past a couple of girls obviously going off-shift. They have the painfully thin look of the teenage junkie – the emaciated body of a Kate Moss stuck onto the head of someone twenty years older. They are wearing filthy micro dresses and high heels, covered with enormous parkas, many sizes too big, presumably borrowed from a pimp, and clutching tins of Tennant's Extra.

Walking to work at the other end of my journey takes me through Soho. Most of the adult bookshops have gone these days but the anonymous doorways that are still there. The ones that are always open to show just a staircase and usually a handwritten notice. They used to say things like ‘beautiful young oriental girl’ now these days they are more likely to say ‘new eastern European model’. Ironically just down the road in Trafalgar Square this week there has been an art installation following the life of a trafficked sex worker from Lithuania.

And even more ironically there was a story in the news yesterday highlighting operation “Pentameter” to target human trafficking. The police were asking for help and information, whilst the Immigration and Border Agency said at the same time that it could not be guaranteed that victims of trafficking would not be returned to their home countries. Go figure that one.

Just little glimpses into a horrific world that operates right under my nose but which most of the time I am blissfully unaware of. Which makes all the fuss about the televised blog of ‘high-class escort Belle de Jour’ seem even sillier.

I’m not morally outraged that prostitution is being used as the background for what seems to be a comic farce – I imagine that back in the day puritans were equally pissed off about Moll Flanders. Possibly the current outrage is because the series features the nation’s favourite girl-next-door, Billie Piper. I’m not bothered that its shows prostitution as valid and rational career choice. Maybe for a tiny minority such as “Belle’ it is.

And as for the argument that it shows empowerment in a post-feminist world – I take it about as seriously as I take Carry On Up the Khyber’s analysis of British imperialism and the strategic role of the North West Frontier. But not as funny.

My real problem with 'Diary Of A Call Girl' is that the subject deserves better.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Listen to this ...

Today, I am mostly listening to Steve Earle's latest album.

I've raved here before about my favourite REDneck, so I won't labour the point again.

The new album is not up to 2002's Jerusalem - and doubtless won't cause so much of a stir as that did; getting him banned from US radio station because of the anti-war John Walker's Blues.

This time around he's ranting less and it's more about him trying to stay sane in an increasing fucked up world. This mirrors his move to New York after many years of living at the heart of country in Nashville. I love his explanation of the move:

"If you feel like you don't know what America is all about right now, and you want to reorient yourself to what America should be about, it's a really good time to come to New York City. I needed really badly at this point in my life to see a mixed-race, same-sex couple holding hands in my own neighborhood. It makes me feel safer."

Tuesday 2 October 2007

I hate Tories.

I fucking hate Tories.

Sometimes nowadays, when all parties vie to out 'Thatcher' each other, it is easy to lose track of this. But one look at Tory conference is enough to remind me.

No amount of cool spin and Cameron wearing a suit without a tie, can hide what they really are. For all their talk of being the party for the environment, the party of the NHS, and how the internet is the best example of how free enterprise naturally develops society, they are still the party of over-privileged, bigoted and reactionary old farts.

Just look around the faces at conference to reveal the bizarre coalition that forms their social base. The blue-rinse ladies from the shires, the chinless toffs in their barbours, the smug double-breasted suits from the chambers of commerce, the mean spirited little men who fly the union jack from their bungalows, and the occasional essex-man, self-made and as awkward amongst the middle classes he aspires to as he amongst the relations he left behind.

And as for the Young Conservatives - hooray young-fogeys and cringe making geeks all of whom would have been remorselessly bullied if they had attended a state school.

I first started hating Tories when I was about thirteen. Studying history O-Level it was apparent that there was always someone you could rely on to oppose the extension of the right to vote or to object to reforms that prevented young children being stuffed up chimneys - the Tories.

And as an adult this historical prejudice was only confirmed when I witnessed Thatcher systematically destroy everything that my parents' generation had fought for.

And the new cool Tories are no different. What has come out of the conference ? What does it all amount to? Tax cuts that in reality can only be paid for by cutting public spending and a 'tough love' proposal to deny benefits to claimants who won't work.

I despise the betrayal of New Labour - but I still fucking hate the Tories.

Monday 1 October 2007


I’m pleased to see that unlikely 'have-a-go hero' Jack Straw has said that the laws on self-defence will be reviewed. Should I be involved in an incident that required the use of force, as a martial artist training two or three nights a week for many years, I could well be subject to a closer scrutiny than the average punter of what constitutes 'reasonable force’. Prosecutors have made such arguments in the past.

But also as a martial artist I’m afraid that kind of thinking perpetuates some basic misconceptions about self-defence: It is based on images in cheesy king-fu movies and preposterous teach-yourself books that show the restraint of multiple armed attackers and where the defender always escapes without so much as a scratch. Unfortunately such images are complete bollocks.

Martial arts training is great for many things, but it doesn’t give you magic powers. In fact the more you train the more you appreciate how vulnerable you are to being hurt by an attacker regardless of their skill level. I have heard it said that you can no more fight without getting hurt than you can swim without getting wet.

Boxers know this from day one, but many martial artists will insist on teaching differently. So in every community centre we have ‘self -defence’ classes that create a false sense of security. If the instructors were to be more honest they would call them ‘fighting lessons’ but then there would probably be rather less uptake.

Some of what these lessons teach is downright dangerous:

Elegant disarms from a knife attack: As an exercise we once practiced some of these with dummy knives smeared with soot. By the end of the session our arms and torso were literally covered in the stuff – each mark indicating a potentially lethal cut or thrust. In a real situation, if you fight someone with a knife you will get cut. Most serious practitioners will say, don't take them on unless your life depends on it.

Restraint techniques: All those locks and throws that prevent you getting hurt without actual hurting the other guy. The police, who quite rightly are subject to restrictions on the force they use, are taught them. But the police also usually outnumber the attacker and have back-up available. I am sure some frail and ancient Aikido mater after a lifetime of practice can restrain an 18 stone drunk prop-forward with an arm lock. But this takes a degree of precision in a stressful situation that you won’t achieve after a course of one-hour lessons at your local community centre.

Even for a trained person, when in a stress-charged situation, the only realistic way to remove a threat is to neutralise it by battering your opponent into such a state that they can either offer no resistance or you can run away.

But I still wouldn't fancy explaining that one in court...