Monday 30 March 2009

Put People First

A guilty confession - I ended up missing the G20 "Put People First" demo on Saturday as I had fixed up to have my latest tattoo, started three weeks ago, finished off. I'll have to make up for my self-indulgence later in the course of the week. (See - I just can't shake off that ex-Catholic guilt thing even when it comes to political activity)

So, for once from the position of an observer rather than a participant here are a few random thoughts:

The broad nature of the movement from church groups to anarchists confirms that there an opposition consensus is forming that something is not right in how our world is ordered. Herein lies both a strength and weakness - it can easily amount simply to a cry of 'why can't we be nicer to each other ?'

If this is left unanswered then the movement will easily become a moment that is assimilated into the status quo much like "Make Poverty History' was. Signs of the assimilation are already evident. The Sunday papers were hilariously occupied with 'how not to dress like a banker' and patronising profiles on previously demonised anarchist Ian Bone.

Of course the qualitative difference this time round is a looming Depression that is transforming our daily lives in a way that just wasn't the case at the time of the 2005 G8.

Interesting times ...

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Bike withdrawal

My bike is off the road and I am thoroughly pissed-off.

I woke up in a good mood last weekend - it was a sunny Saturday and an early start for a two day martial arts seminar I was helping to organise. Jumped on the bike - went to pull away - and then nothing except a familiar sinking feeling. Familiar because it has happened to me twice in 30,000 miles - my drive belt had snapped. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Reading the reams of online debate about the subject it seems that the Harley world both here and in the US is divided over whether belt drive is the best thing since sliced bread or a royal pain in the arse.

I'm contemplating going over to a chain drive conversion - seemingly a retrograde step since Harley abandoned it in the late 90's. They're dirtier and require a bit more maintenance than a belt - but at least they don't mysteriously break without warning. All the custom boys seem to favour chains - there's more flexibility when it comes to tyre sizes; and in my case I'm probably overdue changing the gearing since my re-bore to 1200cc. And they do appear to be considerably cheaper.

But for the moment my bike is stuck in the shop waiting for parts and I'm just thoroughly pissed off. So sick of public transport that I am even contemplating buying a push bike.

And I so desperately need some motorcycle inspiration that I am surfing the brilliant custom Sportster site that supplied the logo above - and catching up online with US TV biker-soap Sons Of Anarchy. AAAARGH !!!!

Friday 20 March 2009

The new 'national question'.

The whole ‘British Jobs For British Workers’ controversy has come close to home this week: My Mum and Dad, both in their eighties, after many years as activists and local councillors have finally resigned from the Labour Party.

They showed me their letter of resignation. In probably unconscious imitation of Woodrow Wilson – it gave their reasons for leaving in 14 points:

13 of these were very good (albeit almost twenty years too late); the illegal war in Iraq, failure to tackle increasing social inequality, failure to defend education and the health service, failure to reverse Thatcher’s privatisation and anti trade union laws, lack of party democracy and the courting of the City rather than ordinary people. Not exactly a programme for radical change but heart-felt and I can imagine quite an emotional rift for them after years of involvement with the party.

But then there was the shock – one of their points cited Labour’s failure to ‘tackle’ immigration. Basically they took the position of John Crudas.

They live in an area that has not been affected by immigration in recent years, there is a pretty well-integrated community up the road with a significant Sikh population. Despite the occasional verbal clumsiness of their generation (talking about ‘coloured people’) they are not racists.

But I was wrong-footed and my clumsy attempts to put forward a ‘no borders’ counter position didn’t get very far and in fact only provoked some fairly nationalist criticisms of the EU. So it came home to me quite how difficult it is to take these questions up – and also how wrong it is to simply label all those who express these confused views as reactionary bigots.

The controversy over the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike was an example of exactly how this can be skilfully navigated and also something of a litmus test for the Left – with those who prefer to live in sectarian ivory towers (usually in a middle class district) lining up on one side, and socialists who are capable of dealing with the real world on the other.

And so to the news that RMT has put its weight behind a campaign to stand anti-EU Left candidates in the European elections.

Predictably, some have hailed it as a significant step in the breaking away of the trade union movement from the Labour Party, and will intervene in it to build support for a socialist alternative. But others will stand on the sidelines and denounce it as ideologically impure and politically incorrect.

I hope I can intervene similarly in my own family’s split with Labour. I've started by sending my Dad this link.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

John Lambert & The Instrument Of Government

Another significant anniversary – on this day in 1653 the monarchy was formally abolished.

This lead to the adoption of the world’s first (and England’s only) written constitution – The Instrument Of Government. This was essentially a patrician republican, not a democratic constitution, but it did establish:

• A president for life – under the title of Lord Protector – as an elected rather than a hereditary position.

• The executive (the Lord Protector) answerable to an elected Council Of State

• Parliament to be the supreme legislature, with the Lord Protector having the right to delay but not veto legislation

• Joint control of the armed forces by parliament and the Lord Protector

• A parliament consisting of a single elected house

• A guaranteed term for parliaments of three years with sessions of a minimum of five months

• Electoral boundaries that reflected the shifting population and the growth of urban areas

• Freedom of worship and assembly for all except Roman Catholics

It wasn’t the system envisioned by the Levellers or the other radicals and it wasn’t even the system that lasted for any period of time – the instability of continuing civil wars led to the proto-military rule of the Major Generals, the inherited Protectorate of Richard Cromwell and ultimately to the restoration of the monarchy.

The Instrument was the work of General John Lambert – one of the ‘army grandees’ who represented the narrow but powerful social base of the radicalised upper middle classes – prepared to break with the old order but wanting strong and stable government and above all reluctant to allow the masses onto the political stage. Tellingly the reforms to the electoral boundaries were geared to enfranchise the growing urban middle class and end the domination of the gentry. But with the property qualification set at £200 it certainly did not include the ‘honest freeborn artisans’ that the radicals drew on for their support.

Nonetheless it does represent a milestone in the struggle for democracy and like so many of the achievements of the English Revolution, is still in some respects to be equaled.

Lambert is an ambiguous character: Having been the architect of Cromwell’s Protectorate he later fell out with him. He plotted at various times in a confusing succession of twists and turns with just about all the parliamentary factions. To some extent this reflected the narrow base on which his power rested. However he did lead the opposition that ended the Protectorate of Richard Cromwell and helped replace it with a short-lived revival of the Republic. And he did try to prevent the Restoration of the monarchy at the very last minute by staging a military uprising , symbolically raising his standard at Edgehill, the site of the first battle of the civil war.

Isolated from many of his former allies, he was easily defeated and arrested. Under the restored monarchy he escaped execution, partly because he had been campaigning in the North at the time of the king’s trial, and partly because many of the parliamentarian turncoats who stage-managed the Restoration had been implicated themselves at some point in Lambert’s various machinations.

He spent the remaining twenty four years of his life in various prisons and in the process went insane. A sad footnote to a largely forgotten episode in the history of our struggle for democracy.

Monday 16 March 2009

Alan Moore and a sense of honour

Marx predicted that under capitalism all social relations would become reduced to the 'cash nexus'.

But it still grates to see talentless wannabees desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame and a cheque from Hello magazine losing any semblance of dignity on 'reality' TV. Or incompetent banking executives pocketing fat bonuses and pensions failing to see the problem when their customers are losing homes and savings.

The idea of honour has always been a movable feast and specific to time and place but it seems that our age is possibly the first where it seems to have no place at all.

There have always been contradictions and hypocrisies when it comes to honour - but even the very fact that there was hypocrisy at all is an indication that there was some sort of universal ethic. Individual behaviours may slip but honour gave legitimacy, particularly to societies' leaders: So decadent Roman emperors stabbed each back whilst citing the civic principles of the long dead Republic, Henry II arranged for Thomas A Beckett to be assassinated and then had himself flogged as public penance. More recently Victorians stuck kids up chimneys and built a brutal empire whilst talking about philantrophy, civilisation and progress.

But the naked attitude of 'greed is good' and 'fuck the rest of you' has only really gained the upper hand in our own time of late capitalism.

What brought on this rant ?

Actually the comforting news that genius graphic novelist Alan Moore has signed over the earnings from the film adaptation of 'Watchmen' to the illustrator. He has disowned the film which he feels does not justice to his original concept - exactly as he did with From Hell - The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V For Vendetta. Sometimes honour is found in the unlikeliest of places.

Friday 13 March 2009

Comic Relief

The target for Comic Relief this year is £40million. A conservative estimation of the UK working population is 28 million. The cost of a new nuclear submarine is about £50 million.

So; we could fore go some useless life-threatening hardware or everyone in work could pay an annual levy of £1.50.

Either way we would save ourselves an evening of crap TV as celebrities attempt to revive their failing careers, or a day of attention seeking office jokers making tits of themselves.

I've just dodged a guy in the street dressed as a giant ladybird using his comedy-antennae to block innocent passers and saying 'you can't get passed me without giving to comic relief'. Now there's a challenge.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Saracens' demise ?

I stopped playing rugby at university where I was put off by the whole rugby club scene that was synonymous with just about everything that I found repulsive during my time in the belly of the elitist beast.

But I do love the game, so a few years on I (briefly) started playing again. I also became a regular supporter at my local North London club, Saracens. That was at the end of the amateur era when Sarries were regular giant-killers beating the likes of the then dominant Bath and Leicester. We were always the poor relations in National League One (pre Guinness Premiership of course), playing on a municipal park that had to be cleared of dog shit before a match.

Amateur status may have been the refuge of the Colonel Blimps of the game, but it did give it all a rather wonderful homely nature. In the club house the half time food was prepared by the players’ partners, and after a game you could find yourself in the bar next to an international player you’d seen on the telly the week before. There were teams going doing to the level of 4ths and 5ths, along with juniors and vets, all of whom could claim to be part of the same club family as the occasional capped superstar.

That all went with the professional era. Along came a ground share with the local football club – Enfield Town. For a few glorious seasons the games were played in front of packed crowds – there was an influx of international big name players and the feeling that the club had entered the top flight. But the whole inclusive family thing was gone – insidiously the club experience switched from participation to spectacle.

A few years later there was the move to Watford FC. Initially there was some long overdue silverware won, but ground sharing with a Premiership football club meant that there was huge over-capacity and invariably soul-less empty stands at most games. The initial success of the early professional era waned and Sarries have since become long-term mid-table underachievers in the Premiership. At the same time, my own support also waned - once a regular at every home game I now maybe make one or two games a season.

Then came the news last week: The coach has departed and 15 players will go at the end of the season. Saracens will be bailed out by South African Investors Limited who want to turn the club into a rugby home for exile South Africans. Now there’s rumours of moving the ground to South London – Fulham’s Craven Cottage - and even of changing the shirt colours to green and gold.

It’s not a unique story - it’s happened before at many clubs, in all sports, and I suppose it is inevitable when sport becomes a business - but it still fucking depressing.

Monday 9 March 2009

Lessons for the next generation

A few weeks ago my daughter went to a ‘silent rave’ –a flash mob event in Trafalgar Square - a pretty daft concept maybe but an essentially harmless one. She tried to go to another one but was prevented by a heavy police presence who stopped anyone looking young-ish who looked they might be in the pursuit of some innocuous fun.

Understandably she was pissed off – she asked me what gave the police the right to prevent a peaceful public gathering – and anyway didn’t the public spaces of central London belong to us all anyway ?

Aptly given that this week is the 25th anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike: I found myself reminiscing about the time in the Summer of 1984 when I found myself in a mini-bus from the Miners’ Support Group being stopped on the motorway and turned around as we crossed the Nottinghamshire county line.

It’s an odd feeling when events that you personally took part in enter in history. At the time for anyone who was involved, in any capacity, it was clear that this was an all-out class war. What was less apparent was that the results would have such enormous consequences and that the progressive erosion of our civil liberties can be dated back to that struggle.

So to answer her questions – I said that the police had the right to stop her because our governments are scared of people gathering together and we have not challenged unjust laws because we have been bullied and scared. And no - ‘we’ don’t own the public spaces of central London – that’s down to the Duke Of Westminster and various others.

It’s all part of her education I am afraid.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Blitz tube deaths anniversary

The anniversary today of the Bethnal Green tube disaster. The worst incident of civilian casualties in the Second World War when 173 people were killed during an air raid in 1943. Fearing for public morale the affair was effectively hushed up and it is only recently that local residents have taken up a campaign to commemorate the victims.

It wasn't actually enemy action that caused the deaths but panic amongst the crowd going down the steps into the station after the warning sirens had sounded - ironically a panic induced by the unfamiliar sound of a new anti-aircraft weapon being fired in a nearby park. But the whole story of the use of underground shelters (and Bethnal Green was not the only disaster) belies the mythology of the 'spirit of the blitz' and cheerful cockneys.

The truth is that at the start of the war the government had made little provision for public air raid shelters. In fact some thought that they would be bad for morale and would discourage people from continuing their normal business in the face of bombing ( the same logic that said parachutes would be bad for pilot morale in the First World War). In the early raids the police actually locked the gates at tube stations to prevent people from taking shelter there.

This was perceived as a class issue - many better-off Londoners had private shelters built in their gardens. Notoriously lavish shelters were built in some of the West End hotels and gentlemen's clubs. Communist MP for Stepney Phil Piratin led an occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter to expose these double standards. In fact the campaign for public shelters that led to the opening of the tube stations was largely led by the Communist Party. More so than most, Communists would have had memories of the horror of aerial bombardment of cities in the Spanish Civil War.

Equally they would have been aware of the double standards of the wartime patriotic rhetoric. Far from the mythology that has since arisen, Churchill and the royal family were jeered and booed when they visited the East End in the early days of the Blitz. And the Queen Mother's famous comment about being able to look the East End in the eye after Buckingham Palace was bombed (whilst the royals were secure in their shelters) was literally all too true.

Monday 2 March 2009

NABD at The Ace

To the Ace CafΓ© at the weekend for the NABD day (National Association Of Bikers with a Disability).

For obvious reasons, trikes predominated. Ratty matt black post-apocalyptic trikes based on Reliant engines, kit-trikes based on VW Beatles, bonkers track-ready trikes based on Suzuki-Hayabussas or, my own favourite a V-12 Dodge engined trike.

All had some sort of adaptation to suit the personal needs of the rider – hand operated gears – multiple levers on one side of the handlebars – carrying racks for wheel-chairs. I saw guys without the use of the their legs literally crawl on to their machines and tie themselves on to the seat with ratchet straps.

Every now and then there’s some debate in the bike magazines about who is a real biker – is it the one-piece leathers plastic rocket brigade - or the hardcore build your own chopper in the garden shed faction - or the old boys who ride the same BSA Bantam in all weathers for 40 years?

These NABD guys get my vote – the unique mixture of independence, mutual support, ingenuity and sheer bloody-mindedness in never accepting any sort of limitation is surely what being a biker is all about.