Friday 30 January 2009

Refinery strike - class not country

There’s a shit-storm brewing in Lefty inter-web land: Everyone wants to show solidarity with workers in struggle – but what if they’re racist ?

There’s all sorts of spurious analogies being drawn between the refinery workers' action and the Dockers walking out in support of Enoch Powell – or even the Ulster workers’ sectarian strikes and the Chilean truck drivers.

Nonsense. The wildcat refinery strikes against work going to an Italian firm employing cheaper labour is fundamentally a class issue not a racial one:

Recessions promote competition between workers and some will become undercut by others prepared to work for lower wages and conditions. Sadly it’s a scenario as old as the hills – divide and rule - organised workers pitted against brothers and sisters who are worse off, un-unionised, and bussed in from ‘outside.’ The modern angle is that the process is now ideologically enshrined in neo-Liberalism and legally protected by the EU.

Under EU employment law so long as the minimum employment requirements of workers in their home countries are being met, this trumps the minimum requirements of the country in which they are employed. And that didn’t come about because of a commitment to the free movement of labour it’s about a charter for employers to maximise profit wherever they see fit.

There’s no need for the Left to tie itself in circles – certainly not for those of us who never abandoned class politics in the first place. It might pose problems however for New Labour and their fellow travellers who are committed to the EU project and the international solidarity of capital it promotes.

Of course things are never clear cut – some of the British refinery workers may harbour – or even voice – racist attitudes, and doubtless the BNP are rubbing their hands in glee. These attitudes need to be challenged and where necessary confronted if fascists try to intervene on the picket lines.

But there can be no question of not supporting the refinery workers.

Thursday 29 January 2009

Goodbye Habeus-Corpus

In a case that has gone backwards and forwards through the courts of appeal, but has received surprisingly little attention, Socialist Party member Lois Austin brought a case of unlawful imprisonment against the Metropolitan Police.

Along with thousands of other anti-globalisation protesters she was detained for seven hours at Oxford Circus back in 2001.
The police, as has now become a standard tactic of crowd control, sealed off exit routes and kept the protesters in a cordoned area.

It's been seen on countless occasions that far from calming down a volatile situation, this creates a pressure cooker environment guaranteed to piss-off the most peaceful of demonstrations. And of course for the police - when they send in their snatch squads of tooled-up goons - it's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Anyway the House Of Lords has now had the last word on this and in language that seems to have come more appropraitely from Orwell's Ministry Of Truth than the mother of parliaments has ruled:

"Anyone on the streets must be taken to be consenting to the possibility of being confined by the police."

Be afraid.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Hysterical history

I'm all for reclaiming our pagan heritage from those Roman imperialist attempts to falsify these islands' history with an onslaught of Christian propaganda - but this is just bollocks.

These blokes look more like extras from a particularly camp Wagnerian operatic production than Viking warriors. Where are the beards, the long braided hair, the tattoo sleeves, the eyeliner and the clothes washed in cow's piss that our Nordic ancestors were famous for ? Surely everybody knows these days that Vikings never wore helmets with horns or wings - that's straight out of Flash Gordon.

The Northern Islands does have a genuinely strong Norse heritage - evident in language and dialect, place name and archaeology - but the 'Up Hely-A' festival has no place in it. Apparently it dates all the way back to the 1870's when the locals were looking to celebrate civic pride and have an excuse for a bit of a piss-up. Although they didn't look any less unconvincing then:

Monday 26 January 2009

'Street activities'

Not often that I get to label a post both‘politics’ and 'martial arts'. But then it’s not often that someone disagrees with the analysis in a leaflet that you’re giving out to the extent that they start throwing punches at you.

The guy wasn’t too coherent – he had just come out of the pub – but I think the gist of his beef was that he wasn’t happy with us linking the situation in Gaza with western imperialism and oil interests. Fair enough I suppose. After a few minutes of abuse he tore up the leaflet and threw it in my face. Not really acceptable but also not worth escalating.

But then he started grabbing me and pushing me – I warned him a couple of times to back off and move on. At which he launched himself at me, we exchanged a couple of punches, I managed to get my hand under his chin and back him into a bus shelter and was ready to finish him off, but ended up giving him a very half-hearted head butt – I told him that I didn’t want to fight him and gave him a shove on his way. Nothing worth televising - really more of a stand-off than anything else.

Nevertheless with any encounter you end up replaying the scene in slow motion repeatedly in your head. Technically you could say the training worked - but in the bigger scheme of things I made a couple of basic mistakes:

I’m torn as to whether I should have finished him off when I has the chance rather than letting him go away thinking he had pulled off more than he really had. Or on the other hand maybe I should have just launched a pre-emptive strike once he had crossed the line and started putting his hands on me. Giving him a warning when I had papers and leaflets in one hand wasn’t, on reflection, that smart and it meant that for the vital first seconds I took a glancing blow that I only partially covered.

More basically though I have to question whether I should have allowed the situation to develop at all. The old adage is to either fight or not fight – and nothing in between. Instead I confronted the guy when I didn’t really want to have a stand up fight in public with all the shit and bad PR that could bring down (the reason we were there was to leaflet for a meeting not to brawl random nutters). Rather than confront him and give him no way out other than to fight or lose face I should have found a way to defuse the situation – (a warning isn’t going to make a drunk aggressor back off – he’ll only take it as a challenge). Even once we had started scrapping in the back of my mind I had the thought that I didn’t really want to be doing this and so I mistakenly tried to contain the guy rather than finishing the fight as soon as possible. I was lucky that I was able to regain the upper hand, and lucky again that once I had and I gave him the option of backing down he chose not to continue. Given a more serious aggressor the outcome could have been different.

I often hear it said that every fight in the real world being worth years of training and it’s certainly giving me something to think about as to how to manage the build up of aggression in a pre-fight situation.

Friday 23 January 2009

Local Anarchist Anniversary

‘In the Lenin Barracks in Barcelona, the day before I joined the militia, I saw an Italian militiaman standing in front of the officers' table... Something in his face deeply moved me. It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend - the kind of face you would expect in an Anarchist,though as likely as not he was a Communist…’

The opening paragraph from Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia pretty much sums up how I feel about anarchism. Although I’ve been a Marxist all my adult life, I have a gut inclination of emotional sympathy with anarchism. Trouble is though anarchists seem so often in the flesh to turn out to be … wankers.

Jan 23rd is the centenary of the ‘Tottenham Outrage’. Anarchists locally and nationwide are getting ready to celebrate an event that happened in my own backyard.The story pretty much sums up anarchism then and now:

In 1909 Tottenham, as it still is, was a working class district with a large immigrant population. It was home to two Jewish-Russian anarchists who decided to rob the payroll of a local rubber factory.

From the start the operation was a cock-up. They chose a factory practically next door to the local police station. They failed to make a clean getaway and consequently were chased by a posse of armed police and locals whilst they made their escape to Walthamstow. Eventually in Chingford they were cornered and shot themselves.

Along the way they shot off an estimated 400 rounds, killing one policeman and wounding seven others. They tried to hi-jack a tram with passengers aboard but were given short shrift by the driver, and then continuing in the farcical theme, tried to escape on a delivery cart that overturned because they left the brake on. Less comically they also managed to kill a ten-year-old baker’s boy who got in their way, and also wounded seventeen other assorted civilians.

Their only achievements were to unite the local working class community behind the police, and to stir up a general wave of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. And of course to enter permanently into anarchist folklore. Wankers.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Brave New World ?

I said at the time of Obama’s victory that it was more a case of a sigh of relief than a whooping for joy. But watching the incredible scenes of his inauguration yesterday it was impossible, unless you had absolutely no sense of history, to feel unmoved.

As I watched a few random thoughts popped into my head:

Such scenes would be unthinkable in the UK – and I don’t say that as either a positive or negative, simply a reflection on our very different political cultures. Of course under our quasi-feudal constitution there is no equivalent of an inauguration but if there was it would probably involve brass bands and lots of marching about – certainly not Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce.

It’s easy to be cynical about the naivety of the hopes around Obama, and the ultimately emptiness of his rhetoric. But that too misses the point – dashed hopes are a powerful driver of radicalism. I think we’re going to see plenty of both in the coming years.

One point that I an amazed nobody seems to have pounced on though:

The Gaza ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal coinciding with the US presidential handover. Not so much because the Israelis see Obama as a champion of the Palestinian people but because they saw a window of opportunity to stamp their authority before the departure of the Bush administration - their most powerful and most dependable ally.

Given that Obama’s was one Western voice that could have made a difference - you have to ask how many children in Gaza have paid with their lives for his respect for protocol and reluctance to speak out against Israeli aggression ahead of yesterday’s ceremonial.

Monday 19 January 2009

Kwoon reunion

Saturday afternoon was spent eating Dim-Sum in Chinatown at a reunion of the old boys from our Wing Chun school. It's now 25 years since our teacher opened up a ‘backyard kwoon’ in the basement of a builder’s yard in North London. Looking around the table at the twenty or so other guys who were amongst his earliest students I felt very much the baby of the group with a mere 18 years with my sifu.

Inevitably we've now scattered to many parts of the world, but just about everyone was still training: Some of us have stuck with the successor-school in London that has kept the original idea going, and others have opened their own schools, but all in the same backyard tradition - word of mouth, invitation only, no uniforms, no rituals, no fancy premises just blood, sweat … and laughter and friendship.

Of course a lot of reminiscences were swapped. One of my own memories sums up the ethos of the place that has kept me coming back for more:

The first time I visited the school was for a Sunday afternoon chi-sau session. I was na├»ve enough to tell my teacher that I had previously trained somewhere else – under a teacher I later found out he had a pretty poor opinion of. He got me to chi-sau with another new guy who had also recently joined from the same school. For ten minutes we stood toe-to-toe and whacked the crap out of each other. In retrospect it was horrible – ugly and unskilled - and I’m sure from what I now know our teacher would have been cringing at the sight – but we were pretty proud of ourselves.

Once we had got our breath back our teacher told me:
You’re obviously keen and you’re welcome to train here but I have to warn you that if any of these other guys tells me that you’re an arsehole, then as far as I’m concerned you’re an arsehole because these guys are my friends…

Friday 16 January 2009


An unusually productive day at work using some downtime to research my family history online:

As a child my family circle was small and ageing, even more so nowadays, so maybe there is some psychological need I’m fulfilling. But primarily there is simply a buzz from discovering , and also a very personalised sense of social history. I haven’t got beyond the census returns from 1841 to 1911 yet, but even from this, and with a bit of a deduction, some limited family memories, and a bit of knowledge of the period, a fair picture can be built from the ten-year snap shots.

My main fear was that I might discover some toffs or Tories lurking in the family tree. I found neither (I think) - all four grandparents’ sides of the family seemed to be fairly representative of the varying fortunes of the ‘respectable’ Victorian working class.

One line of them, from the 1800’s through to the 1960’s made their living from the River Thames as watermen, lightermen and boat-builders. For most of the nineteenth century they are living in the same house, and the eldest son has the same first name from generation to generation – in fact the same name that I have. Another line, from the other end of the country are seafarers for several generations. Both sets of families are large with a continuous history and I can picture them as solid and reasonably affluent artisan dynasties.

On the other hand, the other two sets of families reveal the fragility of a family’s fortune. One line shows an elderly widowed mother working as a seamstress with three young children, two of which disappear from the record at a worryingly young age and the third joins the army. He retires and gets a position as the town’s resident fireman, starting a tradition that then runs in my family for three generations. Another line of the family loses the father at a very young age and the siblings are dispersed, living with grandparents and then becoming adopted. Their fortunes seem to vary with one sibling being listed as ‘labourer’ and the other in the relatively new and upwardly mobile occupation of ‘newspaper reporter’. Another noticeable trend is quite how patriarchal the Victorian family was. Daughters quickly get lost in the record – either because they get married or because they move away and live-in as domestic servants.

I’m not too sure where, if anywhere, any of this is going to end up but I have to admit to becoming hooked and fairly blown away by the thought that I can now trace back my oldest relative, my Great, Great, Great Grandfather who was born in 1787.

Monday 12 January 2009

Kensington Gaza Demo

Yet again I spent a day on a good-natured demonstration consisting of people of all ages, races, religions and shades of political opinion coming together to protest against injustice. And then I went home to watch the TV reporting another event that apparently happened at the same time and place but which I could barely recognise.

I didn’t even recognise the ‘tiny handful of troublemakers’ that always seems to carry the can for turning a demo into a riot. Granted there are some who mistakenly think that doing the windows in at Starbucks will somehow free Palestine or bring Capitalism to it’s knees.

(It always does seem to be Starbucks by the way, although I’m unconvinced that they are worse than any other global brand on the high street that makes obscene profits from third world producers, treats its staff like shit and drives local independent shops out of business. The quality of their coffee alone probably renders them a legitimate if not always appropriate target).

The real troublemakers at the Gaza demo on Saturday were considerably more than a handful and were all too conspicuous on account of their paramilitary uniforms, and their armoury of hardware. They had also effectively engineered the violence in advance by denying permission for a rally in Kensington Gardens that would have taken the crowd away from the flash point of the Israeli embassy. And so when the demo inevitably became stuck by the embassy, these troublemakers sealed off escape routs down the side streets creating a claustrophobic bottle-neck of pissed-off and panicky protesters.

In such circumstances the same good-natured protesters are rapidly transformed in to an angry mob. Even the most mild mannered individual is inclined to lash out at bullying figures flouting arbitrary authority, and engage in a one-sided battle with a superior force that they know they cannot ultimately hope to beat.

It’s the reason why kids throughout the world will throw stones at tanks. And dare I say it; in a very very small way and for a only few brief moments, it is a taste of why people in Gaza may be inclined to fight back against a brutal army of occupation.

Tuesday 6 January 2009

Sitting on the Gaza fence

Watching the BBC news last night, they seem to attempt a bi-partisan approach to their reporting of the Israel’s invasion of Gaza. This is naturally an improvement on the Zionist cheer – leading of Fox (and presumably other US networks).

But it still misses the point. It reinforces an attitude of resigned neutrality – a kind of ‘plague on both your houses’. And so, at best, the West continues to sit on the fence whilst the horror in Gaza unfolds.

So, whilst it shouldn’t be necessary, there is a need to state simply and unequivocally that Israel and its backers are the bad guys here, and whatever Hamas may or not be, does not diminish this.

As A Very Public Sociologist explains it’s fine to emphasise the disproportionately of the current Israeli offensive – with an asymmetrical ‘kill ratio’ in excess of roughly 40-to-1. But this doesn’t address what is the fundamental cause of the suffering – forty years of illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Over the years there have been changes in tactics; from occupation to isolation and blockade - and now what appears to be an outright campaign of military conquest.

But the fundamental cause of Palestinian suffering hasn’t changed - aggressive and expansionist nationalism in the form of Zionism.

Monday 5 January 2009

Philistines of the world unite ...

Whilst many families will start the New Year worrying about the credit crunch, not so the Duke Of Sutherland. It looks like the £50 million that he wanted for part of his art collection has been raised, helped by the Scottish government’s pledge of £17m of public money.

Having your fortune tied up in old masters apparently is a real pain in the arse. The duke’s collection has been on loan to the National Gallery since 1945 but like many collectors he faces a problem if he wants to sell to a private buyer - the government tends to step in and place restrictions on such art going out of the country. What a bummer if you need to liquidise your assets. But the good news for his Grace today is not only that he can sell it ‘to the nation’ but also, and unbelievably, he will not have to pay tax on the deal either.

This seems to be a rare issue that unites both toff-twat conservative critic Brian Sewell and darling of the wadical new wave Tracy Emin, who both feel that it is a matter of national importance to preserve this bit of our cultural heritage.

But a minority voice in the art world points out that the National Gallery already owns many Titians – so many that they can’t even all be on public display – and that from an art scholarship point of view the pieces in question don’t add anything to our understanding of the artist.

From a more mundane point of view Ian Duncan MP points out that Titian can hardly be considered as part of ‘our’ heritage as he says ‘it’s not as if it was Jock McTitian’.

It all sounds like a case of the aristocracy and the chattering classes colluding to make a buck and indulge their own tastes at the expense of the rest of us.

Saturday 3 January 2009

From the barricades to panto

I would normally make a point of avoiding 'Celebrity' anything, especially Celebrity Big Brother, but I had to tune in last night to witness the car crash of Tommy Sheridan entering the house.

Whether he's driven like a moth to the glare of publicity, or whether he just needs the money, it does seem like the culmination of a downward spiral. I've heard Tommy speak many times and still maintain that from a purely agitational and emotional point of view he is one of the best I've ever heard. He is just about the same age as me, and reading his autobiographical 'Time To Rage' was inspirational and full of resonance for our generation radicalised in the 1980's.

In the 'Tommy-gate' SSP S&M scandal there was a sense of tragedy when former comrades turned on each other. And now there is a sense of farce as Tommy follows in the footsteps of Galloway. (I never had much time for Gorgeous George but his one saving grace - his bravura performance at the US Senate Hearing - has been eclipsed by visions of him crawling around in a cat suit).

Apart from a certain sadness the only thing to take from this is that socialists should be wary of leaders and personalities and that nobody is above time, place and circumstance. It's happened before and I'm sure it will happen again - Think of Plekhanov who devoted his life to the struggle, was the elder statesman of Marxism for a generation, and then when the Russian Revolution came along, found himself on the wrong side of history.

We would do well to remember that in the next few days when no doubt a lot of bile will be brought forth from opponents on both Left and Right to re-write Tommy's history and the organisations with which he has been involved.

And possibly in the future, remembering Tommy and before him Derek Hatton, we should also be a bit more wary of potential leaders with a predilection for sharp suits, sun beds and the sound of their own voice.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Training ?

The kwoon has been shut for a fortnight and I'm getting withdrawal symptoms.I've been to the gym most days but that just isn't the same. It's not that I feel a need to sweat and exercise per se. Of course the gym provides this although - despite having done so for years now - pushing weights bores me and the sauna and steam room are definitely the best bits . I find the gym no more than a necessary evil for fitness and strength maintenance and more generally a corrective for sitting on my arse for a living (if I had a more active job I'd probably just concentrate on the martial arts). In otherwords it's 'training' rather than fun.

I had a conversation about this with an old friend who is a serious distance runner. He's has some injuries which meant an enforced lay-off. We both said that we were missing 'training'. But then we came to talk about it more we wondered if training wasn't a misnomer.

In my case, I'm not training for anything. I don't compete - there's no big fight I'm preparing for. Some people talk about 'training for the street' but that is just macho bollocks - life is too short and if you look you for that kind of trouble you will almost certainly find it. You could say that I train to get better - but at the risk of sounding too zen - it's when you consciously try to improve that you usually end up worse. My running friend does compete, and at quite a high level, but equally much of the time he runs only for the sake of running - without a stopwatch and without much idea of where he's going to end up.

Truth is martial arts isn't really training at all. It's fun, or at least it should be - done simply for the sheer hell of it. Why else would you choose to make it a lifelong pastime? Or anything else for that matter ?