Thursday 29 May 2008

Swimming with sharks

It’s only business. And bizarre though it may seem to me, I am supposed to be a business man.

But I can’t see it that way. Not when a large corporate client, that we have regularly turned ourselves inside-out for over the past twelve years, suddenly sacks us out of the blue.

Without criticising our performance in any way, but because they are ‘rationalising their supplier base’ in favour of a bigger company. And without giving us the opportunity to put in a counter proposal.

We are expected to take the news stoically and bow to the compelling argument of the client's decision. Apparently that's called 'professionalism'.

But I just can’t help but take it personally. Very personally. As a betrayal of goodwill. As will the dozen or so guys here that now face redundancy, none of who can understand how the fuck it is possible that they have sweated their bollocks off over the years only to end up like this.

Intellectually I know that capitalism is a jungle and that when you work with big business the only rules that apply are those of the markets. But emotionally I'm a simple soul - and I can't shake of the idea that if you graft and produce good work you'll have success.

Most of the time it's actually not a bad management philosophy. But when something like this happens I realise that I'm not really a business man at all and I'm out of depth with the corporate sharks.

Wednesday 28 May 2008


Back to work after an extended bank holiday (Whitsun ?).

Over the weekend we were subjected to the full horror of the Eurovision Song contest. Fucking Hell.

It's a celebration of a genre of music that I'm pretty sure doesn't actually even exist outside of the annual contest. And a chance to reenact the kind of national alliances that we haven't seen in real life since before the First World War.

Except, unlike in 1914, this time it's very clear that the UK doesn't have any allies in Continental Europe. Only the Republic of Ireland and sometimes Malta.

Why this appalling shit continues so long after its sell by date puzzles me.

The only explanation I can come up with is that it's secretly funded and organised by the CIA as a subliminal attempt to turn us in the UK away from any kind of pan-Europeanism and towards the Atlantic alliance.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Schools and the military

Stopping short of suggesting the return of National Service, the government is promoting cadet units in schools as the answer to the problems of Britain's youth. Unlikely though it now seems, I was once, between the ages of 13 and 15 a corporal in the Air Training Corps. This was before I before discovered Heavy Metal, long hair, teenage rebellion and CND.

I had quite a lot of fun. I learnt about aircraft, radio, field-craft and how to shoot and strip down a rifle. I also learnt how to march, polish boots and crisply iron a shirt. There just wasn't any comparison with Sea Scouts, which I had been in for about six months - we had proper (free) equipment and when it came to anything dangerous, our instructors were professionals not well intentioned amateurs.

But there was also no getting round the fact that it was all a glorified recruitment exercise for the RAF. The ATC’s origins were in the second world war when the intention was to shave some time off the basic training of school boy recruits. And it's still really all about recruitment today; unsurprisingly given the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the services face a manpower problem.

Of course it’s also argued that experience in the cadets promotes ‘self-discipline’ and ‘values’ amongst young people. To a certain extent it does. But so does being in the Scouts, being a member of a sports team, or pretty much any other activity outside school that isn’t criminal and doesn’t involve sitting in front of a TV or games console.

So why the emphasis on uniforms and the military stuff ? Significantly the government’s proposals focuses on the Combined Cadet Force, the tri-service organisation that is based on schools – and until now predominately independent schools. Not the Army Cadets, Sea Cadets or ATC which are organised in local units and who, as far as I can remember, regarded the school-based CCF as a bit crap and poncey and altogether too school-like.

The CCF actually fits very well with an independent school's ethos. Attendance can be made compulsory, misbehaviour in class can be punished with extra duties in the evening with ‘the corps’, and there are ready-made officers amongst the teachers. Stuff that just doesn't really belong or work in a modern state school.

Apart from the sly recruiting of young people to fight in questionable wars, I regard this particular linking of cadets with schools schools as very suspect. It represents a distinct militarization of education. No doubt some would see this as a good thing, but it scares the hell out of me

Monday 19 May 2008

Ink & 'spirituality' (really)

My latest tattoo installment on Saturday: This time the stylised head of a beast, described variously as horse, dog, lion or otter, taken from a piece of 7th century Pictish silver found at Norrie Law in Fife.

Why? Well here’s one answer.

As an atheist I have absolutely no idea what religious people mean when they talk about ‘spirituality’. Nor I suspect do they. I could take the obvious cheap shot and say that their spirituality is nothing more than a kind of narcotic-like experience induced by singing, fasting, incense, being silent etc. Or any other stimuli depending on your particular brand of mumbo-jumbo on offer. If I were being more charitable I might say that spirituality is a sense of being part of something bigger or outside of yourself. Although passionate football fans could probably make the same claim.

Some atheists manage to take a kind of pseudo-spirituality from cosmology. For them contemplating the sheer scope of the universe puts the individual in perspective. Personally, to quote the classic line from Spinal Tap, for me that’s ‘a bit too much fucking perspective’.

Instead, I’ll settle for archaeology and tattoos to get my ‘spirituality’: I find the idea of wearing something on my arm that an ancestor carved 1,400 years ago gives me the same kick that others would get staring down a telescope at the stars. A simultaneous sense of connection and my place in the scheme of things.

Oh yeah and it looks the bollocks too. (Well I think so).

Friday 16 May 2008

1968 & all that

Went to a meeting last night to mark the anniversary of the 1968 movement in France.

I’d like to say that it re-ignited the spirit of ’68 in a new generation, but to be honest the meeting was full of the usual suspects that come to these things. Despite a rousing singing of the Internationale at the end, I have to say that whilst ’68 may have been the defining moment for a generation of the left, I fear that moment has now passed.

Certainly in this country much of the then student left have reverted to the safe middle class lives from whence they came. One particular sub-species, especially prevalent in academic circles, is the ‘New Left intellectual’ – for career enhancing purposes they had to define themselves as Marxist in the 70’s when it was fashionable. Now they can’t shake it off but having revised their revisionism so often, they have fully disappeared up their own arses. And are barely socialist any more let alone Marxist.

But bucking this trend was the main speaker – a dowdy little Frenchwoman who spoke through a translator. Still an activist today, in ’68 she had been in the thick of it. She described carrying paving stones in her shopping bags, roof top battles with the ‘flics’ and organising discussion groups at the local Renault factory. Today, if you passed her in the street she could pass as a member of the Women’s Institute (if there is such a thing in France). I found that strangely moving.

Thursday 15 May 2008

When the abused becomes the abuser ..

Sixty years ago the sinister euphemism of ‘ethnic cleansing’ wasn’t known to the world.

But today it is exactly how we would have described the bulldozing in 1948 of Palestinian villages and the displacement of 700,000 refugees to secure Israeli settlement of the region. And many more have been driven from their homes since then.

It’s a cliché that nationalism when suppressed is romantic, whilst nationalism in power is obscene. But never was it more poignantly true than when it comes to the history of Israel-Palestine

As far as Palestinians are concerned, Zionism crossed that line with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Maybe liberal Israelis could point to 1967 and the Six Day War as the defining moment when Zionism lost it’s innocence.

As a neutral observer, it didn’t come home to me until I saw on the news in 1982 the horror of Israeli forces facilitating and colluding with Lebanese Fascist militias in the massacres of Palestinians at the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps.

Today Bush is visiting the Kniset to cheer-lead Israel’s 60th birthday celebrations, describing the USA and Israel as ‘the ardent defenders of liberty’ in the Middle East. Meanwhile Palestinians describe the 15th May simply as al-Naka or ‘The Catastrophe’.

To many of us who watch in safety it is perhaps the most depressing injustice of our generation; and in a sense the fate of the Palestinian people has become a symbol of all injustice. How ironic that the fate of the Jewish people was the same symbol for a previous generation.

Monday 12 May 2008

SATs and stats.

This week my youngest daughter, in her final year at primary school, is doing her SATs. A whole week (more or less)of tests is inevitably stressful – inevitably she thinks it’s a big deal because for most of this school year they have been preparing for them and little else.

Except it isn’t - we know from experience with my eldest daughter that the secondary school will test the kids all over again. But it is a very big deal for the school because the performance of the pupils will be a major factor in how the school is rated. So we have a system which replicates the stress of the old 11+ system without even the carrot of getting a place at a grammar school.

Last week I went to parents’ evening at my eldest daughter’s secondary school. I was half way through a meeting with one of the teachers talking about ‘learning outcomes’ and projecting levels of attainment for the end of the year, before I realised that we were talking about Cookery for fucks sake !

And this is a good school – in fact it’s officially ‘outstanding’; a rare thing, an inner city comprehensive with all the usual
problems that actually out performs the national averages.

But I’m suspicious what all these rankings mean.

They seem very much like the tick-box collecting that we have to do at work to win contracts these days – and I know that they have sod all to do with quality in any meaningful sense. On the contrary they make a fetish of the mediocre.

There are a small number of inspirational teachers; the ones that you remember for the rest of your life, whose lessons often spin off at all sorts of tangents as the kids' interests take them. That is genuine education. I can’t imagine that all those averages and targets leave very much room for them these days.

Thursday 8 May 2008

Double standards

The level of class deference in this country never ceases to amaze me.

When a nutter starts shooting at his neighbours through their windows and is subsequently killed in a drunken gun battle with the police just off the Kings Road in Chelsea, it is reported as a tragic end to a glittering career.

As of course it is when any 32 year old suffering from substance-abuse and other emotional problems flips and ends up dead.

But Mark Saunders wasn't just anybody: He was a barrister tipped to become a QC. A graduate of Corpus Christi College Oxford and a part-time soldier in the poshest regiment in the territorial army, the Honourable Artillery Company. He lived in one of London's most fashionable and exclusive areas. And apparently he also had a drink problem and kept a shotgun at home.

Now imagine just for a moment that the shooting had happened in Brixton or Tottenham. And that Marks Saunders was a black man on crack cocaine, and a graduate of North London Polytechnic who worked in IT.

The papers would be talking about how gun crime and drugs were a blight on a community with a growing culture of violence. No doubt social services, political correctness and rap music would be held responsible.

Maybe the Metropolitan Police will now be setting up a special squad to tackle 'toff-on-toff' crime as a counterpart to Operation Trident. But I doubt it.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Austria needs a make-over ?

Austria’s having a bit of a bad press at the moment.

Obviously the paedophile incest in the cellar horror was never going to be good for the tourist trade. The Austrian government is trying to re-establish the country’s good name – you can just imagine the PR brief ‘emphasise the Sound Of Music and Mozart thing but play down the whole Hitler and child molesters angle’.

In this country the red-tops are carrying pictures of the small town of the Amstetten at the time of the anschluss. Unsurprisingly pictures from the time have surfaced of townspeople and members of Fritzl’s family giving Nazi salutes. The implication is something along the lines of 'see they’re all Nazis really with a genetic disposition to do evil'.

Naturally any sane person regards this kind of inherited collective guilt as absolute bollocks. Otherwise we’d be blaming all the serial killers in the USA on that country’s shameful near-genocide of its indigenous peoples and an inherited predisposition to callous violence. Truth is, no nation is any more predisposed to these horrors than any other. But when small town values predominate it doesn’t half help in keeping every thing hushed up.

And here is the serious and valid point: Culturally Austria is an affluent and conservative country with a strong Catholic influence. Attitudes that Hemmingway, in a different context, called ‘wide lawns and narrow minds’.

The sort of place we are told where neighbours address each other by their surnames and respect each others’ privacy. Where the word of the ‘head of the family’ is respected when he is asked where his children have gone. Not the sort of place where liberal nosy-parker do-gooders from social services stick their noses in.

In fact it sounds suspiciously like the Conservative vision of ‘family values’. Come to think of it - a bit like our own island of Jersey.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Almost summer music

A ride on an (almost) Summer’s evening over to the Hammersmith Apollo on Saturday. Although it’ll always be the Hammersmith Odeon to me – the venue in which I saw my first every gig – Thin Lizzy in 1978 or thereabouts.

A very different night on Saturday though; to see the Buena Vista Social Club. With 14 band members on stage I would guess that the average age was well over 70. The bass player literally had to be led off at the end – he’d just about shuffled away when the rest of the band came back for the encore.

It may be a terrible cliché to say so, but the old boys visibly seemed to come to life as they played. In true Anglo-Saxon manner I tend to show my approval at concerts by sitting with my arms folded and with the odd nod of the head. After a couple of numbers even I found a few involuntary dance-like moves overtaking me.

It hadn’t been my idea to get the tickets – my other half is big on world music – and I’ve got an inkling towards jazz - so we kind of meet in the middle when it comes to Cuban music. But I have to say that this was one of the best gigs of any sort that I can remember for a long time. And it proved that cool is definitely not age-related.

Saturday 3 May 2008

Nooooo !

I love London. Dirty and impoverished though it may be (at least the bit where I live is) - I don't think anywhere else has the same diversity, history and vibrancy.

How did this city get a racist, elitist, over-privilidged Tory buffon as its mayor?

I'm still pondering it - so far I can think of three things:

Like The Sun in 1992 - it was The Evening Standard 'wot won it' - the voice of Middle England inside the capital has been running a vendetta against Ken since the 1980's and it has finally paid off.

The 10p tax fuck-up - the fiasco of a Labour government tinkering with the tax system to ease the burden on the middle classes by shifting it to the lowest paid. Whether it was a policy decision or whether someone hit the wrong button on their calculator it is unforgivable and try as he might Brown can't take it back.

Morons with short memories who didn't think of the horror of bringing the Tories back in. Make a protest vote against Ken by all means but the whole point of the transferable vote system is that in doing so, you don't have to cut your nose off to spite your face. Any Lib Dem, Green or Left List first preference voters who didn't transfer to Ken frankly need their heads examined.

Possibly there's a silver lining and people need to experience again an ascendent Tory party, particularly one run by Old Etonians, to re-discover what politics is all about and get radicalised. But I fear that it doesn't work like that and that the shameful turning point of the fascists winning their first seat in the London Assembly may be a taste of things to come ....