Wednesday 30 January 2008

McEducation ?

Working for McDonalds seems to have taken the place of national service for a new generation.

Something along the lines of ‘well it might be shit but at least it taught me a thing or two about life’.

News that McDonalds will be able to award qualifications that are the equivalent of A-levels has not been greeted with the derision that I would expect. People are rallying to the defense of vocational education and branding those who joke about degrees in hamburger flipping as intellectual snobs.

I know a thing or two about this: I've introduced a vocational qualification scheme into my workplace; the Level 3 NVQ Advanced Modern Apprenticeship , which is also supposedly the equivalent of an A Level. And I’ve also been occasionally accused of being an intellectual snob because I believe in learning for learning’s sake.

The apprenticeship scheme is not perfect by any means; the self-development side of it seems to come from the back of a second-rate self-help book, and the technical side of it is out of step with current technology and practice. BUT it does give new entrants some sort of career structure and a sense that they are entering a skilled trade. And for a whole period of ten years, between the old craft apprenticeships being obsolete and the present scheme being adopted, this was not clear and many youngsters fell by the wayside.

It’s proper vocational training and it’s a good thing. So why don’t McDonalds just do the same? And why are the government recognising their home-grown scheme ?

Maybe because:

• Making hamburgers is not a skilled trade and doesn’t merit a full apprenticeship – the whole slick McDonalds operation is down to standardisation and de-skilling so that their burgers are the same everywhere – that’s actually the precise opposite of what a proper catering apprenticeship would be about.

• An apprenticeship teaches a general skill or trade rather than simply how to do specific tasks. But a large part of McDonalds' ‘training’ pride itself on learning to do things the McDonalds way. Or corporate brain-washing. Not really the kind of thing that City & Guilds is able to teach or evaluate.

• Muddled thinking on education and training: Vocational and non-vocational education are both good and should have equal status. But trying to come up with a system of equivalency will tie us in knots - hence the BA in Hamburger-Studies joke. The muddle can be seen in the fact that firms can't get funding for graduates to do an apprenticeship. Because degrees are deemed to be the equivalent of a Level 5 NVQ ! The idea that a graduate might want to pursue a skilled trade apparently just doesn’t compute – (that one jars with me personally).

• The new consensus that public bad / private good means that businesses are creeping more and more into education. We’ve already got city/technical academies – and before we realise it, commercially ‘useless' subjects will be unavailable to all but the most privileged.

But we can still at least all get a BA (McD).

Monday 28 January 2008

Britannia ... or Boudica ?

A bit of consternation in Little Britain that Britannia is to be removed from the 50p coin.

Apparently it's 'political correctness gone mad again' and an attack on British values.
Tory historian, Churchill hagiographer and British Empire cheerleader Andrew Roberts has lent some intellectual gravitas to the cause.

But why the fuss ?

Britannia was the invention of a repressive superpower who gave the name to these islands when we were a far flung colony, and created a quasi-goddesss as its personification. (I’m talking of course about the Romans not the Americans, they are far less colourful and prefer to call us simply ‘Yuurp’).

She then fell into disuse for a long time until it was politically expedient in the seventeenth century to find something to tie together the new and far from united kingdoms of England and Scotland. So one of Charles II’s mistresses posed for the design that was used on the farthing coin. Ironically once things had gone full circle for Britain, from Roman colony to world superpower, ‘Rule Britannia’ became the theme tune for our own brand of imperialism.

Over the years she may have become confused in the national psyche with Boudica, a confusion that the Romans would have found highly ironic. But in Boudica there really is a genuine national icon worthy of commemoration.

A female war leader who took ferocious revenge against injustice and came close to driving out a tyrannical empire. A proto-femminist with wild red hair and probably tattoos as well. I suspect that Andrew Roberts and company would not have approved of her at all.

Friday 25 January 2008

Tribute to Tower Colliery

The Tower Colliery closes today – the last deep mine in Wales and possibly the longest operating mine of this kind in the world - a poignant footnote to the death of the British mining industry.

It’s now easy to see that when Thatcher embarked on her programme of pit closures her motivation came from a sense of revenge for the NUM bringing down the Tories in 1974, and a strategy to take on the strongest section of the labour movement as the first stage in a general campaign to break the power of the unions. But at the time the Great Lie was perpetuated that mining was no longer economically viable, and that those who questioned this were dinosaurs refusing to acknowledge the march of progress.

So when the Tower Colliery was up for closure in 1994 and the miners pooled their redundancy money to buy the pit from British Coal, and then managed the mine profitably for the next thirteen years, the Great Lie was exposed.
And the workers-run mine became something of a symbol of pride and an inspiration. Now the mine is finally worked-out and truly uneconomical. Happily it appears that those miners who wish to continue in the industry are going to be working on two nearby open cast collieries.

Only those of us who never had to endure the danger and hardship of working underground can afford the luxury of sentimentality about the end of an era. But having lived through the miners’ strike and had the privilege at that time to meet striking miners from Wales, the closure brought a lump to my throat; The same sense of sadness and pride as when the miners marched back to work in 1985, defeated but defiant behind their banners and bands.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Judged by the company you keep ?

This is delicious.

I can't count the number of times that a legitimate protest has been undermined by the police and the media.

Demonstrations are portrayed as an excuse for 'rent-a-mob' and other assorted malcontents to block the streets at great inconvenience, expense and even danger to the general public. (The general public by the way are obviously a completely separate body of people who NEVER want to demonstrate about anything.)

Yesterday we were inconvenienced here in the capital by the police pay demonstration. I believe that the demonstration passed off peacefully - but this was despite the presence of a hardcore of troublemakers.

The bloke circled in the picture is none other than Richard Barnbrook - the BNP's mayoral candidate for London. He represents the 'acceptable metropolitan' face of the fascists; he is a sculptor and film director, and his partner is the fascist ballerina who caused such a stir a few years ago. So what the FUCK was he doing on the march and why was his presence tolerated ?

Ironically I can remember a few years ago a group of us tried to kick the fascists off a Remembrance Day parade - and were violently prevented from doing by - you've guessed it - the police. Hmmm.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Smith out of touch on the streets

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith says that walking around the streets of Hackney late at night is not ‘a thing that people do’ and that she wouldn’t feel safe. Tory Shadow Home Secretary David Davis says you can walk around the streets of other capital cities but not London.

What planet do these people live on?

Certainly not the same one as most of us. We have to walk around the streets of the cities at night: because we fucking LIVE HERE. And how else are we going to get back from the tube or pop out to the off-licence or grab a late night kebab or experience any other of the many joys of city-living denied to those in small towns and shires ?

Is it more dangerous here than any where else ? I grew up in the suburbs and can remember that walking home around closing time I had the choice of how many fights I could get into - and quite a few where I didn’t have any choice at all.

Is it more dangerous now than at any other time in the past ? Not when we had real Victorian values and the Whitechapel murders, or when we had the ‘spirit of the blitz’ and a crime-spree in the blackout.

Where did the most horrific spate of murders in recent times take place ? Not in Hackney, Brixton, Toxteth or Mosside but in the East Anglian backwater of Ipswich.

Sherlock Holmes actually has a better handle on it than our current politicians:

‘…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside… The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

Monday 21 January 2008

The N-Word

No - not the racist one (regardless of how it’s spelt). The one that New Labour have such a problem with, and which they find so deeply embarrassing whenever anyone else mentions it: Nationalisation.

Instead, they've come up with a convoluted solution to bail out Northern Rock: A scheme which if I’ve understood it correctly (and I could be forgiven if I hadn’t) creates government bonds out of the money so far loaned to prop up the bank, until such time that a private sale can be arranged. The important thing though is that it is intended to protect shareholders – and this seems to have worked because the shares have gone up 42%.

But these shareholders are not little old ladies who have poured their life’s savings into Northern Rock. 80% of the shareholders are hedge funds who only brought into Northern Rock after it got into trouble in the hope that they would make some easy money out of the government’s rescue scheme (obviously they were right).

So in the space of a few months public opinion has swung from sympathy for savers and a feeling that the government should do something to protect them, to resentment that public money is being used to bail out an unprofitable business just because it’s a bank.

It wouldn’t have been too difficult to have set a threshold that protected individual savers and kept the big investors out.
Remember the old slogan of ‘nationalism with compensation only in cases of proven need' ? Very much Old Labour of course.

New Labour is so afraid of the n-word that it never featured as a possible solution; same as it doesn’t with the railways, the water companies, the energy companies, healthcare …

Friday 18 January 2008

Japanese Whaling

Much to my whale and dolphin - loving daughter’s dismay, one side of my family comes from Whitby where for generations they were fishermen, seamen … and whalers.

I haven’t been there for a long time, but a focal point of civic pride, along with a statue of Captain Cook and the cliff-top abbey, is this giant jaw-bone of a whale. I have a sense of history so I can understand pride in the men who did a tough and dangerous job. I also know that in a pre-petrochemical age whale oil was a multi-purpose raw material - and that the techniques of whaling at that time did not threaten extinction. I'm also not a vegetarian or militant tree-hugger. All of which is why I don’t really have a problem with the small-scale whaling of indigenous peoples like the Inuit in Canada.

BUT: The Japanese whaling industry threatens to exterminate whole species, seriously damage the ecological balance of the oceans, and uses inhumane practices of killing (explosive harpoons).

Whether or not what they are currently doing is actually in breach of international agreements is a moot point - and largely irrelevant; the IWC has always been more concerned with industry regulation than the underlying ethics.

But legal or not, international opinion is now overwhelming against Japanese whaling. Which begs the question why the fuck do they carry on ?
The Japanese give two answers:

• Whale meat is a traditional delicacy in Japan – so was swan in England at one time but we managed to get over it.
• Scientific research – a smokescreen; no international body has ever commissioned any project from the Japanese scientific institute responsible.

Remember the ‘Cod War’ of the 1970s when the Royal Navy, would cut the lines of Icelandic fishing boats operating in contested waters ? It would be nice to see an international task force doing the same with the Japanese whalers. It isn’t going to happen of course - so until then, good luck to the Greenpeace and SeaShepherd.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Corruption & hypocrisy

Remember this scary big-brother-is-watching-you campaign from the Department Of Work and Pensions ?

No excuses, no mitigating circumstances, the poorest people in society were to be intimidated into declaring any changes in their circumstances or any casual work they might do to supplement their benefits, at the risk of not only losing their benefit but also criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile Peter Hain failed to declare having received £100,000+ for his deputy leadership campaign through a highly spurious think-tank. He's been defended by Gordon Brown; apparently he is guilty only of incompetence and it is quite sufficient for him to apologise.

His job ? Minister for Work and Pensions. Wanker.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

'British' Museum ?

Today is the anniversary of the opening of the British Museum in 1753.

Partly because it’s free, partly because it’s only 15 minutes away from where I work, but largely because I think it’s the best way to use public museums and galleries, I often nip out for a cheeky visit at lunchtime. Usually a half hour looking at a couple of specific galleries, rather than trying to digest three millenia in an afternoon.

I love it, but I do have a problem with the British Museum: It actually has very little to do with Britain. In fact you’ll find out much more about the Assyrian empire than about how our own ancestors lived. This is because in the past 255 years much of the museum's contents has been built up by the assorted plunderings of the British Empire. Not surprising given Britain’s historical role in the world - (although it’s highly dubious to try and now retro-fit our own values - I think we could now trust the Greeks to have the Elgin Marbles back).

This pre-occupation with the Classical world was probably the product of opportunism and an ideological empathy for empire as the by-word for civilisation and culture.As a result, the development of these islands in the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, and the culture of the Celts, Saxons, Picts, and Norse, were eclipsed or relegated to footnotes. So school-kids are still taught a disproportionate amount about the Romans in Britain, as if nothing much was going on before or until ‘real’ history begins with the middle ages.

When Little-Englanders say that we are ill-informed about our own history, their remedy is usually more lessons featuring Elizabeth 1st, Lord Nelson and Winston Churchill. But actually studying the complex and subtle interactions of all the peoples that made up ‘the British’ from earliest times might give kids (and most adults) a better understanding of our own ploygot and mongrol identity .

Friday 11 January 2008

Camden Town Nudes

Snuck out at lunchtime to have a look at the Walter Sickert exhibition at Somerset House. Looking at the brutal realism of his nudes, there is still something rather unsettling and compelling about them.

It’s easy to understand why the Victorians were shocked and regarded them as pornographic. Though less easy to see why Patricia Cornwall should have concluded a few years ago that they must be the work of a serial killer.

The Jack-The-Ripper factor probably explains the surprisingly large number of National Trust / Middle-England types at the exhibition. I can’t help wondering what their reactions would be if they were looking at the work of a contemporary photographer with the same bohemian fascination for the seedier side of life …

Thursday 10 January 2008


I've had a go in the past about the depressingly air-headed portrayal of the tattoo world in Kat Von D's LA ink.

Check out this short video piece as the antidote - from one of my favourite tattoo sites; Needled. Written by lawyer, journalist and tattoo-addict Marisa DiMattia it presents an altogether more articulate and accurate representation of the scene.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

US Primaries

On a par with the interminable length of X-Factor, Pop Idol and Big Brother we now have to endure weeks of US primaries.

It can all seem a bit of a mystery to those of us outside the US. That's not helped with each state doing its own thing; caucus or election, open (anyone can participate) or closed (only for registered Democrats and Republicans). But as so often with US politics the intention is a sound one and tries to address perceived historical weaknesses in other systems.

Until the 1830’s presidential candidates were informally chosen amongst the elected representatives in Washington. Around this time, with the growth of strong party organisations this was replaced with national conventions. But by the end of the century corruption and ‘boss-ism’ had become so powerful within the parties that the present system of popular votes was seen as a remedy.

But that was in an age before mass communications, when in a geographically huge country a protracted rolling road show was really the only way for potential candidates to campaign. That’s no longer the case with modern media - and the months' of campaigning is not only tedious and therefore devalued, it also skews the political process.

By quickly turning into a beauty parade, the primaries inevitably favour the bland and filter out the radical at an early stage. They also give undue importance to certain parts of the country, like Iowa and New Hampshire, socially, economic and ethnically unrepresentative of the country, simply because they have the first primaries.

But less we get too smug in the UK – our system is hardly inclusive, transparent or representative. Look at our own candidates for political leadership: One bloke who is in office but has had no popular mandate and two old-Etonians.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Pride in your work

My dad worked for most of his life as a print-buyer for a publisher. There’s a long standing family joke that when as a kid in primary school we had to tell the class what our parents did for work I said that mine was a bookmaker - because he made books.

Of course kids have a great knack of cutting through bullshit. So mine are not brought off by some grandiose job title when they ask me about my work. 'But what do you actually DO dad ?

And of course the truth is that I actually do the same as millions of us – I write emails and go to meetings.

I think a pretty good acid test of the worth of any job is ‘can a child understand it ?’ Things like fireman, doctor, mechanic, teacher, builder, carpenter. If the job title takes up several words and needs a sentence to explain it - then it’s probably bollocks.

But it was never meant to be this way: I made a conscious decision not to ‘use’ my education – I did a vocational course after I graduated – got my union card – and entered a traditional world of craftsmen. But somehow over the years I floated upwards into management and ‘progress’ transformed craft skills into technology.

So now - yes I mainly write emails and go to meetings, and occasionally bullshit for a living.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Martial Arts: Money & Karma

There’s a very old tradition that it is bad karma for a teacher to make his living from martial arts. Which is why traditionally many teachers would practice a trade from which they made their main livelihood. This isn’t mystical mumbo jumbo but actually sound practical wisdom. Here's why:

We’ve had a rift in my martial arts family – one of the seniors who teaches has fallen out with our Sifu.

Not an unprecedented situation but still a sad one. Chinese styles are notorious for this and often ridiculed for it – Japanese and Korean styles seem to avoid these clashes to some extent, but at a price by having hierarchical and authoritarian structures. In kung-fu we still have the extended family system built around a teacher or a Sifu –and like all families when it works it’s great but when it breaks down, things get ugly.

There’s a lot of charlatans and wankers in martial arts. But the senior student in question isn’t one of them. He's a good guy who has possibly just over-reached and over-sold himself in promoting his abilities and his school.

And this comes back to the karma thing. If you want to sell anything there are really only two fundamental marketing strategies:
(i) ‘The original authentic’ – ie: all the others aren’t the real thing.
(ii) ‘New & improved’ – ie: now even better than whatever it was before.

Unfortunately when applied to martial arts, both strategies are bollocks. Nothing is the original and authentic once you've passed a skill on to someone else they will unavoidably put a bit of themselves into it for better or worse. New and improved - given we all have two arms and two legs (OK most of us) - in all the years of human development does anyone really believe that they have dreamed up a new way of fighting that hasn't been thought of before ?

The truth is a complex one –studying any system is a journey for the student who must initially make the system his master until eventually he is the master of the system. (Now that may also sound like mystical mumbo jumbo too but think about and it’s actually spot on advice for learning anything).

But martial arts punters are as stupid and greedy as any other punter. And if you want to make your living from them you’re probably going to have to resort to the same bullshit as anybody else in marketing.