Thursday 26 February 2009

The apprentice

In my other life - the day job - I was invited to the government's apprenticeship roadshow. A seminar at Excel with a panel of Alan Sugar, Ed Balls and John Denham, an audience of captains of industry, assorted hangers on ... and myself.

I was one of the few not in a suit, definitely the only one who checked in a crash helmet at the cloak-room, and probably the only member of a Far Left Organisation there.

I don't have a major problem with the apprenticeship drive in itself - it was me who introduced the Modern Apprenticeship scheme at my work - hence the invitation I suppose. Despite its imperfections its not a bad scheme - almost as good as the union-run apprenticeships, and City & Guilds qualifications back in the supposed 'dark ages' of the print industry.

The crowd was a collection of familiar stereotypes - apparachiks from public sector quangos who are serial conference attenders, slimy big business types doing a PR job to show that offering training in shelf stacking is really making a contribution to society, and chippy small businessmen who complain the government should ' do something' to help them but in the same breath moan about being burdened with too much tax, red tape and political correctness.

Ed Balls and John Denham span the government-line with consummate polish whilst giving the impression that they have no idea about manufacturing industry at all. Alan Sugar (can't bring myself to call him 'Sir Alan' ) was greeted like a celebrity - the people's entrepreneur. In comparison to the oily politicians his bluntness was refreshing although he did lose a bit of credibility when in the Q&A session having berated business for not getting involved with the scheme, he also made it clear he has no idea how it actually operates.

In a similar vein at one of the interminable 'networking' breaks I got talking to some worthy from a housing trust - who had a go at me when I voiced my skepticism about how many apprenticeships and vocational courses actually led to proper skilled jobs - I asked him how many apprentices he had taken on in his organisation - the answer was none.

This is not surprising - the government is some 10,000 places behind its own targets for apprenticeships - and the poorest uptake is in the public sector.

Monday 23 February 2009

Left Book Club

Saw my parents at the weekend and was surprised to be given my Grandfather's collection of Left Book Club editions. I know little of this Grandfather who died when my own Dad was a boy. I do know he had been a Father Of the Chapel, but I had no idea that he was on the Left, or possibly even a Communist Party sympathizer.

The titles of the books, all from the late 1930's, show the uncritical attitude of many of the Left at that time to the Soviet Union. There's the Webbs' 'Soviet Communism - A New Civilisation', and Sloan's 'Soviet Democracy'. But perhaps Cole's 'The People's Front' best sums up the spirit of the times, when many otherwise independent lefts saw the Soviet Union as the last bulwark against rising Fascism. Almost impossible for our own post cold war generation to imagine.

Hilariously there is also an edition of Orwell's 'Road To Wigan Pier' - with a preface added by Victor Gollancz himself warning readers that the Left Book Club did not necessarily endorse Orwell's views. Particularly his skepticism about the Soviet Union and his criticisms of middle class socialists as 'cranks, pipe-smokers, fruit juice-drinkers and vegetarians' (all still perfectly valid today of course).

Apparently Gollancz refused to publish 'Homage To Catalonia' and subsequently put out a later version of 'Wigan Pier' with the offending sections censored out. To his credit though , following the Nazi-Soviet pact he himself became disillusioned with the CP.

At its peak just before the outbreak of war the Left Book Club had just under 60,000 members paying 2s 6d for a monthly book club choice - politics, economics, history or culture - always in an economy paperback edition with distinctive orange covers.

A fantastic concept that could be revived - without the Stalinism - maybe this time round as an online subscription service ?

Friday 20 February 2009

Nazi nostalgia

Depressing but maybe not altogether surprising news that the BNP have won a council seat in Swanley in Kent – one of the working class ‘white-flight’ bastions that the fascists target these days.

On a more cheerful note though:

Dame Vera Lynn (she wot won the war for us and all that) has threatened to take legal action against the BNP over the use of her ‘The White Cliffs Of Dover’ on a fund raising album they have produced. Clearly she does share their politics – nor I imagine do the Black or Jewish artists also featured on the compilation.

With typical charm a BNP spokesman had responded:
"She can complain but it is not going to do her any good. We have to raise money for the European election campaign and this is selling very well - a lot of our members like reminiscing about the Second World War. I really don't see why we should take it down, but if she wants to provide us with a really good reason rather than a legal threat we might consider it."

How about this for a reason: When these Nazi fuckwits are reminiscing I wonder if it occurs to them that they were on the OTHER side ?

Thursday 19 February 2009

Nuclear subs near miss

Setting aside the possibility of some horrendous apocalyptic accident, which does take the funny edge off a bit, there is something undeniably comic about but the two nuclear subs in mid-Atlantic.

All the gags have been done about the stealth technology being just a bit too good and of course the obvious danger of the French Triomphant being on the same side of the road as the British Vanguard. So I won't re-visit that now.

But surprisingly nobody seems to have asked the obvious question - what the fuck are these submarines for in the first place ?

The usual arguments about the wonderfully benign roles of military forces in the new world order just don't apply to these levithans :

They can't act as a peace keeping force in regions beset by civil war, they can't deliver humanitarian aid in the even of catastrophe, they can't keep the sea-lanes safe from piracy, they can't conduct a surgical-like regime change, and I even doubt they deter 'rogue states' run by religious mentalists.

But they do apparently cost something like £5 billion each.

Monday 16 February 2009

Joint Socialist Party & Respect meeting

Friday night I was at the Friends' Meeting House for the joint SP / Respect meeting with Keith Gibson, SP member and one of the Lindsey Oil Refinery Strike Committee, and Jerry Hicks, Respect member and the Left candidate for Unite (Amicus) general secretary. I may be getting a bit long in the tooth to be enthused by meetings - but I went along - and enthused I was. For two reasons:

Firstly because here was that all too rare a thing these days- a victory for an unofficial strike - in spite of the trade union leadership who at best sat on the fence. And a victory in spite of the anti-union laws that the leadership would have us believe are to be treated as sacrosanct. And most importantly a victory that required some skillful intervention to prevent the dispute being hi-jacked by xenophobia and the Rar-Right. A victory that secured jobs on TU rates and conditions for those workers who had been kept off the contract, but, and this needs emphasising, NOT at the expense of the migrant workers' jobs.

Secondly because the meeting provided an also rare taste of what a united Left might look like. Certainly there are still differences between Respect (obviously in its post SWP incarnation) and the SP. But here the two parties came together to make common cause, with the general secretaries of both organisations speaking from the floor in a manner which was at the same time respectful and yet didn't hide their distinct politics.

The same could not be said of some other Left groups . The SWP, Workers' Power and The Sparticists all opposed the strike to varying degrees, on the grounds that it was a reactionary dispute aimed against migrant workers.

Interestingly with one of the strikers on the platform, none of their speakers had the balls to actually call the strikers racists - in fact sickeningly they had to congratulate Keith and the strike committee on their attempts to steer the dispute away from the dangerous slogan of "British Jobs For British Workers".

One London Underground worker from the RMT, representing probably one of the most diverse workplaces in the country, summed up these groups when he said they 'would not recognise a genuine proletarian struggle if it bit them on the arse'.

I was reminded of the miners' strike and those middle class wadicals who were so shocked to discover that the miners might harbour sexist, homophobic or racist attitudes. For such people it's all very well to admire the workers class from afar - like heroic figures in a Soviet poster - but up close they're not quite so comfortable.

There's all sorts of horrible shit attitudes in capitalist society and some of it sticks - even shock horror - to workers in struggle. You can recoil from this and sit on the sidelines ... or you can engage with it and transform it into something else.

Friday 13 February 2009

Bike pin-ups

Stumbled upon these images on the excellent ArtBiker site. They are the work of a US artist called David Uhl - really evocative of a golden age of motorcycling; combining old-school bikes with the airbrushed pin-up girls of Alberto Vargas.

If I ever fulfill my fantasy of living like Steve McQueen in an old aircraft hanger full of stripped pine and moto-memorabilia then I would definitely want this artwork on the walls.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Thank You NHS

No posts for a while – here’s why:

Ironically after my previous post - I ended up being taken into hospital with a suspected stroke. Thankfully it wasn’t - just a virus of the inner ear that fucked up my balance, which in conjunction with my high blood pressure gave the symptoms of the stroke. Not having seen a doctor fro 15 years I didn’t know about the blood pressure – I do now. So along with all the tests and brain scans I’ve had over the past few days I can take it as a positive that I’ve had a thorough MOT and 10,000 mile service.

In the course of my stay in hospital I have pretty much run the full gamut of emotions from terror to contemplation of the state of the NHS at the sharp end.

At one point when I thought I was having a stroke - and possibly a fatal one at that – I did think it was the end. It’s said that there are no atheists in foxholes – however I can honestly say that isn’t true. As my body felt it was literally about to explode my thoughts were possibly predictable and clich├ęd but I did not turn to an imaginary maker. I felt that I wasn’t ready to die; I thought about my loved ones (although I also strangely felt overwhelmingly alone at the same time) and I regretted that I hadn’t been a better person, but there was absolutely no spiritual moment for me.

(Interestingly though I can now understand why our ancestors thought that trepanning was a good idea …)

The NHS ? Well I suppose as an emergency medical service it would be grossly ungrateful to say that it was nothing short of superb – the doctors were excellent throughout and I shudder to think at the cost of the CT and MRI scans .

In every other respect though I would have to say the NHS was found desperately wanting: Machines were constantly being borrowed from ward to ward because they were broken and there was no one to mend them. There were simply never enough nurses. I had to wait a stressful three days for my MRI scan, which was actually a mobile unit on a truck trailer in the hospital car park (outsourced from a private health company).

The nurses were ill-equipped in every respect to do their job. Most were committed to doing their best for their patients but still in the main failed them – hemmed in by protocols and working procedures that went out from other industries thirty years ago. The result was endless arguments between themselves as to whose job it was to perform any given task.

Many patients were rude and aggressive to the staff and this attitude was returned, not helped in many cases with language issues and cultural misunderstanding. This creates a vicious circle were it seems that only the stroppy and demanding survive.

Certainly this applied to the vulnerable, the elderly and the confused. In the opposite bed to me I watched an old man with althzhiemer’s die of cancer over the weekend. A sad and lonely way to end a life. The nursing staff could not make his wife understand that this was the end and that she should consider taking him home and so he died alone with little dignity.

Tragedy was then rendered into farce when one of the many teams of doctors attending him turned up the next day only to be told by the next shift of nursing staff that he had been discharged home. Another patient was lost overnight when he went out for a smoke and decided to discharge himself. Rather than call security or call the patient’s family the nurses dithered about for hours and then phoned the junior doctor at home. Another patient managed, though some mis-communication, to go unseen by any doctor for four days.

I still believe that the NHS is the finest achievement of the labour movement.

And to be around an organisation whose sole raison d’etre is to help people as opposed to making money (the word I live in most of the time) is inspiring and a small glimpse of what socialism might look like one day.

There’s a lot wrong with it of course: One of the main activities of all staff, at pretty much every level, seems to be wandering about with handfuls of paper looking for things or people who aren’t there. The manager in me can see that all those things that have transformed most organisations have passed the health service by – flatter hierarchies, more transparency for users (patients), more empowered staff and the liberating effect of information technology for starters.

It’s not just about more money, but more money would be a start. And I know this isn’t original; but we could start talking about reforms when they are collecting for tanks and missiles on street corners rather than kidney machines – or MRI units.

But most of all – I am just ridiculously happy to be alive.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Winter wonderland

A few inches of the white stuff and its the best of times and the worst of times.

A deserted West End. Usually stone-faced commuters talking to each other. Sliding down the middle of empty streets usually packed with traffic. Outside Ronnie Scotts someone made a snowman - complete with a fag in his mouth and a bottle of beer in his hand. And my own favorite sight - two Hari Krishna devotees in Soho Square having a snowball fight in their saffron robes.

On the other hand: On the tube incomprehensible messages of delays and cancellations mumbled through the tannoys and the surly fuck-wit LU platform guy telling passengers to look at a map when they asked for advice about alternative routes . No buses (at all!) and no joined-up thinking between the bus companies, TFL and the local authorities.

Or more seriously when one of our guys collapsed with a suspected stroke at work - the ambulance service after an half hour wait phoning back to tell us to get a cab for him.