Monday 31 December 2007

History Boy.

Watched Alan Bennett's 'The History Boys' the other night. Set in the '80s around a bunch of grammar school kids studying for their Oxbridge entrance exams - it was too close to home for me to miss.

There was a basic error though. These were supposed to be 'outsiders' - boys who would not normally have expected to go to Oxbridge - but somehow they were afforded the luxury of a special post-A level preparatory course for the exam.

In the 80's, unlike today, there was an entrance exam rather than an offer based on A levels - but for those lesser mortals from state schools (like myself from a comprehensive) this exam was taken before A Levels. Our general disadvantages against pupils from the private sector were further reinforced by being a year younger and having no specific tuition. Which explains the outrageous domination of students from the private sector (about 60% at the time I think).

But in one respect Bennett got the Oxbridge ethos absolutely spot on - particularly in history. Here, the fetish of being 'smart' so outweighed the historian's basic duty to get it 'right' that revisionism - the quirks and exceptions horseshoe-nail school of history - was the only one that was acceptable. The irony of this was that if I had gone to another university less wrapped up its own cleverness I might well have been tempted to stick with academia.

Perhaps though the most important and lasting lesson that Oxbridge teaches those from ordinary backgrounds who manage to sneak in under the radar is how to not really fit in anywhere - and also not to be too bothered by it. Or was that just me?

Saturday 29 December 2007

Bhutto - a martyr ?

Spent some of the holidays in traditional fashion - stuck on the motorway visiting family at the other end of the country.

This was how I heard the hourly news bulletins on the radio of Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Strange how we have become desensitised to 'rolling news' on the TV with its constant repetition of the same clips, but somehow the radio actually emphasises the un-folding drama and poignancy of events .

The expression was used by one of Bhutto's supporters that she had 'become a martyr'. Martyrdom has had a bad press recently as it has become associated with suicide attackers such as her assassin. Personally I was turned off at an early age by tales of English Catholic martyrs who were prepared to suffer all sorts of tortures for 'principles' that seemed as relevant as how many angels could balance on a pin head.

However if ever the term martyr is deserved then perhaps it is in Bhutto's case - to face danger having weighed the odds and to pursue a cause in the face of these odds is true courage; not the death of the deluded like the religious 'mentalists of various hues. They show no more courage than someone who throws themselves from a building whilst on acid under the impression that they can fly.

In Bhutto's case though sadly courage is not enough.

Pakistan desperately needs a democratic opposition movement at the moment and what it got was a corrupt Patrician dynasty who had more in common with Western elites than with the Pakistani people. The irony of this is now seen with the future of the Pakistan People's Party now hanging not on a conference but on the reading of a will tomorrow ...

Thursday 20 December 2007

Supporting Tommy Sheridan

In 25+ years of being a socialist, like most activists in recent times in the West, I have not really been required to sacrifice or risk much at all. A bit of money in terms of financial contributions over the years and some of my time. There has been the odd occasion of fairly low level physical danger in anti-fascist activity, but much more frequently, a large dose of boredom in dull meetings.

However Tommy Sheridan, who has been charged this week with perjury, is no stranger to run-ins with the law. He has been arrested and detained several times – most recently in connection with the anti-nuclear protests at Faslane. And of course he served six months in prison for his part in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign.

Which is why it leaves a very bad taste in the mouth to read the relish with which many so called fellow-socialists and activists have greeted his current problems from the comfort and safety of their laptops.

Are they really so sectarian or naïve that they imagine for one minute that Tommy Sherdian faces prosecution for any reason other than his political stance and his temerity in suing the Murdoch press?

Personally I don’t particularly like Sheridan’s style. I also have some issues with his politics. Do I think he lied or acted stupidly to cover his 'indiscretions' ? Don’t know. Possibly. Probably. Do I really give a toss ? No.

But given the choice between the Strathclyde Police and the News Of The World on one hand and a rare socialist representative who has been prepared to put his liberty and his money* where his mouth is – there is no dilemma at all in supporting Tommy.

* Tommy has donated much of his salary and expenses to the movement over the years - to back up his electoral promises to live on an average worker’s wage.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

My blog awards for 2007

Once I’ve waded through the religious nutcases, the sites selling IT I don’t understand, the angst-ridden teen poetry, and the ill- disguised porn etc - I don’t really buy into the concept that there is a ‘blogosphere’.

Not in the sense that there is a community of kindred spirits all communicating in a democratic and de-centralised manner. So I don’t really do a blog-roll or tagging or linking with other blogs. It all seems a bit too much like a mutual admiration love-in.

But I do spend a lot of time reading other people’s blogs. Going through their archive posts makes for a pleasant if ultimately time-wasting way of killing a slow afternoon at work. And spinning off on unexpected tangents of discovery following their links.

So here are a few blogs that I seem to keep returning to, not because I particularly agree with what they have to say, or identify with the writer, but they just have a certain fascination. In no particular order here are some blogs I’ve been looking at this year - click the links and enjoy:

Diamond Geezer – shows a healthy obsession for all trivial and not-so trivial London things.

Learning Other Languages – someone I actually used to know a long time ago in the real world. An ex-pat in Budapest genuinely eccentric or ridiculously pretentious ? Both.

Dojo Rat – a martial artist and old hippy. What’s not to like ?

Sister Mary Martha – Catholic nun in the US. Completely fucking bonkers and scarily certain about everything. Hilarious, horrible and infuriating. Know your enemy - and be afraid.

Hobbo Stripper – lives a nomadic life in a camper van in Alaska and makes her living as a stripper. Sort of earth mother. Also bonkers – but in a good way.

Forty Years On Two Wheels – but claims not to be a ‘biker’. Makes a refreshing change from all those ‘righteous bro’ Harley blogs. Although I do read those too. Obviously.

Monday 17 December 2007

Happy Christmas Your Arse

As the trees and lights go up around me and the sound of Cliff Richard is piped through the PA in the malls, I am reminded of why I’m a fully paid-up card-carrying member of the Scrooge party.

I’m not a Christian so the birth of baby Jesus does nothing for me. And neither does the more secular concept of the season of goodwill and peace on earth. Don’t misunderstand me - I’ve nothing against goodwill and peace on earth in general. In fact I’m all in favour of it.

What I can’t stomach is the hypocrisy and sanctimonious sentimentality that surrounds this time of year. For a few days it obscures what is actually happening in the world by smothering us all with saccerine.

You know the kind of thing: An office party and a Christmas hamper - but we’ll be downsizing in the New Year. Visit your elderly relatives for a few hours - and then abandon them to fend for themselves till next December. Buy a copy of the Big Issue out of drunken guilt - but carefully step over the homeless on the way home when you’ve sobered up. Or come to that, a 24 hour Christmas Truce in the trenches and four years of otherwise sane and decent men being persuaded to kill each other.

As an antidote to all this, and reflecting the true spirit of Christmas: here are the lyrics to the greatest ever Christmas song by the Pogues and the late Kirsty MacColl:

It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The rare old mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last


I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you


Thursday 13 December 2007

Coppers on strike

The last police strike in this country was in Merseyside in 1919, a dispute basically for the right to form a trade union. It was defeated - and the 'non-strike' Police Federation was the result . Before that time the police had quite frequently taken industrial action, and with some success.

Which is why there has been so much fuss about the merest murmurings of industrial action that have resulted from the government's failure to honour an arbitrated pay settlement.

Now I know the mature and correct socialist response to this: To appeal to the police as 'workers in uniform' and try and win them over to the point of view of the labour movement etc. The rebellion of state forces has always in history been a precursor to wider movements for radical change.


Just for a moment I'd like to indulge a lovely fantasy:

Imagine that we bussed in coach loads of private security contractors to do the jobs of striking policemen. Imagine that we employed ex-miners, print-workers and dockers to ensure that the police pickets didn't try to prevent the scabs getting into work at the police station. Imagine that the moment these pickets gave the slightest provocation, they had their heads cracked open. And imagine they were then denounced in the tabloids as dangerous subversives ...

OK OK - I know it's not a viable position - but just don't ask me to wear a 'Support The Police Strikers' sticker.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The song remains the same.

I missed them at Knebworth in ’79, and now I missed them at the O2 Arena last night.

The chances of getting a ticket for the Led Zeppelin re-union gig last night were something like 1 in 1,000; so although I managed to register online for the lottery, which was no mean achievement in itself, I can hardly be too surprised that I didn’t make the draw.

I’ve seen Plant and Page; I’ve seen Robert Plant on his own several times. And despite having the back catalogue on vinyl and increasing on CD too, I’ve got the latest compilation ‘Mothership’ too – just to have something for the car. But I’m still gutted to have missed them last night.

Their longevity should be a lesson for lightweights like Amy Winehouse and Pete Docherty who have very publicly buckled under the ‘stress’ of the rock’n’roll lifestyle after just a couple of albums and a cancelled tour. On the other hand, Led Zeppelin pretty much wrote the rulebook for excess and bad behaviour, but are still going strong.

Their heroes and inspiration were always the hard working and hard living blues-men of an earlier generation. Like them, they’ve paid their dues.

Monday 10 December 2007

Grandad was a biker too

I saw my Mum at the weekend, and she reminded me of something that I had completely forgotten; I’m not the first in our family to have a Harley; my Grandad had one back in the 20’s.

My memories are a bit shaky of him – he died when I was 10 – but I do remember a gentle bear of a man. And also a visit to a museum where he was amazed to see the same model bike as he had owned. I vaguely recall him saying something along the lines of 'bloody hell – they’ll be putting me in a museum next !’.

Looking at the bike I’m struck by how much harder it must have been to both maintain and ride. But I am also struck by the similarities with my own bike – both are instantly recognisable as Harleys and could never be mistaken for any other bike.

I feel an inexplicable sense of continuity and re-connection too…

Friday 7 December 2007

Awesome. Sick. Rad .. Oh dear

Late night viewing on cable TV – I’m not sure if it is the cure or cause of my insomnia. Bikes and tattoos are always going to be a winning formula; easy on the eye and easy on the mind. But I’m not sure that the programmes are doing any favours to either the Custom Bike or Tattoo worlds.

We’ve had American Chopper and Biker Build-Off going for a while. Of course I always watch them but in reality they do little more than confirm that most Americans have no fucking taste. Over-the-top ‘theme bikes’ that are a tribute to something or other. And when the great American public get to cast their vote, they invariably choose some hideous monument to bad taste. Honourable exceptions would be the late Indian Larry or Russell Mitchell at Exile. To inject a frisson of ‘reality’ conflict - a deadline is always thrown in so that the guys can ‘kick some ass’ but by the end they can pat each other on the back and agree that results are ‘awesome – sick – rad’.

Now we have the tattoo equivalents Miami Ink – LA Ink and the home-grown London Ink . Again the same tired formulas are applied. Each tattoo has to have a poignant back-story – such as a memorial to the customers’ pet canary who tragically died of bird flu. Again there is some manufactured conflict – artistic differences or a wayward apprentice - and then a happy resolution that everything is ‘awesome – sick – rad’.

Just for a change it would be nice to see a custom project that started with a stock bike, maybe a crashed wreck, re-built with all the unnecessary shit taken off and taken back to basics in a stylish and classy way. Or someone could get a tattoo based on their own design just because they thought it looked good, without any sentimental crap or personal history.

Oh yes - and also showing the highly skilled and creative artists who do this work as articulate and capable of abstract thought. Now that would be 'keeping it real…'

Thursday 6 December 2007

Guantanamo and history

The US Supreme Court is considering the legality of the detention facilities at Guantanamo. It’s the third time this has happened, and on the previous occasions the court had found against the government only to have the government simply change the law.

This is fitting of course because the whole set up at Guantanamo is a piece of legal trickery. Habeus Corpus, enshrined in the Bill Of Rights can only be argued to apply on US soil and by using a military base in Cuba that is a colony in all but name this is conveniently circumnavigated.

By this fancy footwork, the US government has been able to detain the prisoners at Guantanamo in a state of limbo; denied the status and rights of either civilian prisoners or prisoners-of-war. Quite rightly this has been condemned by the international human rights community, and is a massive stain on the character of a nation that positions itself on the moral high ground. The lawyers acting for the detainees have summed it up perfectly:

"The Founders of our nation created a Constitution dedicated to the protection of liberty, not one that turns a blind eye to indefinite detention without a meaningful opportunity to be heard."

Apparently reference has been made to a historical precedent. In the 17th Century the Earl of Clarendon attempted a very similar trick by establishing his own detention camp for political prisoners on Jersey (which had its own legal status). He was the enforcer for the Restoration regime of Charles II, and contrary to the popular image this was not a time of laughing cavaliers and lusty serving wenches etc but a period when political supporters of the previous Republic and Commonwealth were ruthlessly suppressed. It was Charles I who originally flawted Habeus Corpus with the arbitrary authority of Star Chamber, and it was his successors who dug up Cromwell’s body some ten years after he died and gave it a ritual ‘execution’.

But the story does have a happy ending – Clarendon was impeached and fled the country rather than face the music. What a lovely thought that the same thing might happen with Bush, Rumsfeld and Rice …

Tuesday 4 December 2007

On hitting and being hit

I’m sporting a lump over my left eye today – the result of an accidental elbow blow at training last night. Sadly it tends to be things like that get people talking to me about martial arts. I guess it’s inevitable because it gives some physical evidence that they can relate to, and to the average person martial arts begins and ends with hitting and getting hit.

‘But I thought you were supposed to be good – haven’t you’ve been doing it for years?’

Ignoring the fact that doing it for years and being ‘good’ are not synonymous at all – ‘good’ does not mean that we develop an invisible force field that repels all incoming elbows and fists. One of the first thing beginners are told when they first come into the school is that they will get hit, and if they train a lot they will get hit often. If they are not prepared for that, and a lot of people aren’t, then they’d be better to look at some other martial art.

Getting hit (or hitting) should never be gratuitous though.

In fact the most common scenario when I do get hit gratuitously is by less experienced people who fire crazy shots, often reckless of their own safety and the counter that will inevitably follow. Skilled practitioners will let you know that they are ‘there’ with a controlled light touch, even at high speed and intensity. And they won’t launch kamikaze attacks that they know will result in a counter.

But accidents will occur – either physically, like last night because our sweaty arms skidded off each other and into my face. Or mentally – one guy makes an unexpected mistake leaving an opening and the other guy’s hands are on auto-pilot after years of training and fire a shot.

And in the circumstances when it makes heavy contact and someone gets hurt, there will be some mutual frustration. From the first guy that he fucked up and left an opening and from the second guy, if he is cool and genuine, that he didn’t anticipate the mistake and ‘point it out’ with better control.

In a good school that kind of scenario will be happening at some point in every session.
My teacher covers this very situation in a lot more depth in an article here:

Having said all this, I still have to contend with people looking at the lump over my eye and saying ‘wow that training of yours must be the real deal’…

Monday 3 December 2007

Police profiling

A company with a suitably scary name; OmniPerception, has sold some software to the Met Police that automatically scans images for logos.

The idea is to avoid the manual process of scouring through hours of CCTV footage. Its main use is in sports marketing for sponsors to analyse their brand exposure. But the police now want to use it because they have developed ‘criminal profiles’ that involve preferences for particular logos and styles of dress.

Apparently branded sportswear, particularly with hoodies, is a favourite of the criminal classes (!?!) So that should safely eliminate anyone who is white, over 55 and lives in the Home Counties from any enquiries. Which may of course well be the objective.

For fuck sake ! – This kind of pseudo-science is no more than institutionalised prejudice. The Victorian criminologists were obsessed with the idea that the criminal classes could be identified by the bone structure of their heads and the shape of their eyebrows. Maybe we haven’t come so far.

Still the scariness of this story is somewhat off-set by the news that police are also conducting a (finger-tip ?) search of rubbish tips in the hunt for the missing Child Benefit CD’s.

We may be heading for a bigoted police state but at least the good news is that the police are still as stupid as ever...