Friday 29 May 2009

Goodbye to ER

After 15 years, watching the last episode of ER was a must last night. I’m sure I don’t have much to add to the volumes that will doubtlessly be written about the series, but I can’t let its passing go unmentioned.

In the pre-Sopranos era it shocked the complacency of us Brits who felt that our TV was inherently better than anything that came out of the US. Of course since the flood of HBO imports the superiority of these US shows is pretty much undeniable: The Brits may still excel when it comes to comfort viewing – talking bonnets in yet another Jane Austin adaptation - or soporific Middle England coziness like Heartbeat, but just compare ER with the interminable Casualty or Holby City.

ER gave us proper grown-up drama that managed to make something that was intelligent and moving, without being sentimental, out of that most tired of formulas the medical drama. I’m not by nature given to emotional outpourings, but the portrayal of Dr Greene’s drawn out death was one of the most genuinely poignant things I’ve seen on TV and I’m not ashamed to confess to being a little choked even when seeing it again in the retrospective last night.

Thursday 28 May 2009

The Corner

Just finished reading ‘The Corner’. The 600-odd page documentary of a year in the life of a neighborhood in West Baltimore that was the inspiration for ‘The Wire’ is not a light read.

But it should be compulsory reading for anyone who has a say in public policy on drugs. Including the new generation of “I didn’t inhale’ politicians. It paints a picture of a broken society. Not the kind that Cameron and the Tories talk about when they mean the decline of rural post offices, the vandalisation of bus stops or a general lack of respect for our elders and betters. This is really broken – as in completely fucking grim and (almost) entirely hopeless with the whole social and economic structure collapsed.

There’s no equivalent to it here in the UK – even where I live in the inner city. There maybe the odd street (in fact there is - just a couple of blocks from my house) that at certain times of night has aspects of it. In other places there may be certain estates that come close. But despite having one of the highest rates of unemployment – and crime - in the country, in general we are not there. Yet.

But there are some familiar echoes:

In particular, The Corner identifies the plight of the working poor – those people who desperately manage to keep from drowning in West Baltimore - a small and fragile minority who uneasily co-exist with the dope-fiends, the slingers, the dealers and the stick-up artists.

The other day I went to the local health centre for a blood test and witnessed a small taste of this phenomenon:

Needless to say the health centre is over-subscribed and under-resourced. At 8:30am, before it opens there are over 60 people in the waiting area – we take tickets from a machine to give us a number. There's a fair cross section of every social (and medical) problem imaginable gathered together in one room. In the background, staff are continually yelling at patients. And patients yelling at staff: The records have been lost. They have brought the wrong form. The nurse is not in today. They need to go back to another clinic to get a referral. They don’t have proof of residence. And always the same outcome – come back another day – make another appointment – or wait here but we can’t tell you when you’ll be seen.

In response, the anger is ritualized. Most people protest then stoically accept what they are told and settle down to wait. They seem used to it – it may not be fair or logical but they know that's just how it works - and time takes on a different meaning when you're up tp your neck in the system. But the ones who suffer most are those that are not in the system.

Like the bloke waiting next to me; He was there for tests, but there was some mix up and then they couldn’t tell him when he would be seen. From the phone-calls that I overheard, he was some sort of maintenance man for a small firm. His boss was calling him every ten minutes to check up on him – when could he get back to work ? – why wasn’t he able to say? – how was he going to make up his lost time ? what was really the matter with him ? was he going to be signed-off sick ? By the time it was my turn it was pretty clear that the guy was well down the road to being sacked.

A small undramatic episode but it shows the fragility of the narrow gap between being in work and being another welfare statistic, with everything that goes with it.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

No need to be polite - child abuse in the church

Yet another shocking – but tellingly not surprising story about child abuse in the Catholic church; this time in Irish children’s homes. Not the behavior of individual wayward priests, but systematic institutional abuses covered up for generations.

These scandals seem to be approached as if they were management issues; as happened when Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor was criticized for covering up abusive priests in his former diocese. As if they are on a par with the directors sweeping a misappropriation of funds under the carpet. Or when a government department hushes up negligence and incompetence. As a result, simply saying sorry and then doing a bit of an organizational review and maybe some remedial PR is seen as making it good.

But what we are talking about in the Catholic church is something much worse than either of those examples; and not just in the nature of the scandals, or in their scale. The uncomfortable truth is that there is causal link between the abuses and the underlying belief system itself. This is not often said, because of the ‘politeness’ that apparently surrounds religious belief. As an ex-catholic Atheist I have no such squeamishness – so here goes:

1.Original sin and guilt:
The idea that everyone, even the unborn child bears an inherited burden of guilt because they are the product of sexual intercourse, itself emblematic of man’s fall from God’s grace in the garden of Eden. That’s going to give you some pretty distorted views about sex, and about the upbringing of children. In any other circumstances, a psychiatrist would have a field day with anyone holding such views.

2. The notion of a priesthood:
The idea that there is a body of people who have been chosen by God and consequently have some sort of special authority. That’s a pretty special kind of power; in other circumstances - the theocracies of Ancient Egypt or the Aztecs, or in the modern-day, the Taliban of Afghanistan or the Branch-Davidians of Waco - we would talk smugly about wacky cults beyond the comprehension of civilized rational minds.

3. The concept of noble suffering:
The idea that bearing earthy suffering is a source of God’s grace that will somehow earn credit in an afterlife. Apart from many other types of weirdness, this gives us some pretty disturbing sado-masochistic imagery: like a lot of medieval art or Mel Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ. If secular equivalents of these had been found in the basement of a suspected serial killer they would doubtless be used as evidence of a deeply disturbed mind.

4. Priestly celibacy:
Perhaps not a fundamental belief but a practice shaped by the above beliefs. Throw in vows of obedience and again we are back to the psychiatrist’s chair again – a whole special kind of submission /repression/ power complex that flies in the face of the most basic biological imperatives.

This is not supposed to be an anti-Catholic rant – so I should qualify it by saying that growing up I knew many decent, sincere and well-intentioned Catholics (blah blah blah). My point however is that child abuse in the church is not an aberration, it is intrinsically linked with Catholic belief, and politeness should not inhibit is from telling it how it is:

To paraphrase Philip Larkin:
They fuck you up; your God and church
They may not mean to, but they do.

Monday 18 May 2009

The Levellers & corrupt MP's

The MP’s expenses scandal takes a new turn as it focuses on the difficultly of removing the Speaker Of The House of Commons. It seems we now have something of a mini-constitutional crisis along with a general loss of confidence in parliament. In such circumstances I always find that the 17th Century is a good starting point for guidance.

Curiously despite being usually painted as a tyrant and villain, Oliver Cromwell has recently been rehabilitated in the media. Although the context has largely been forgotten, his words on forcibly dissolving the Rump Parliament have lately been much quoted; “You are no longer a parliament …you have sat too long for any good you have done lately … In the name of God - Go !”

By 1653 the moderates who dominated the Rump parliament were badly out of touch with the country as a whole and especially the radicalized New Model Army. Some of the members had even been there since before the civil war when Charles 1st had summoned the ‘Long Parliament’ in 1640. Since then the world had been turned upside down. Supporters of the Presbyterian party had been expelled in Pride’s Purge of 1648 as potential (and indeed actual) royalist sympathizers. The MP's left to form the Rump Parliament were largely those who had been willing to countenance the execution of the king and the establishment of a republic but were also being overtaken by the radicalised sections of the army and the lower classes . Significantly it was these people that Cromwell and the army leaders lent on for their power-base, although ultimately they would abandon them.

Interestingly what made the MPs of The Rump most unpopular was that fact that many of them had not taken an active taken part in the fighting but were now getting rich on the confiscated assets of royalists. Also a great many MP's were also lawyers and their self-interest propelled them to resist legal reforms that would have given common people access to the system. It was this general disaffection with the parliament that gave a popular basis for Cromwell’s forcible dissolution – the now famous dismissal of the mace of office as “a fool’s bauble” and the resonant spectacle of Colonel Harrison dragging the speaker from his chair.

But with regard to the present crisis of confidence in the parliamentary system – we would do better to draw inspiration not from Cromwell but from the Levellers:

Just two of the demands from their ‘Agreement Of The People’ – annual parliaments and the right to recall members for re-election – would go quite a long way to restoring credibility. Add on a thorough-going modernization of the legislature, including an end to late night sittings and the ridiculously long summer recess, along of course with MP’s being paid only the national average wage – and we might get something like a representative parliament.

Just a footnote to all this; I see that in yesterday’s Mail On Sunday it is reported that the queen is appalled at the greedy behavior of MPs. From someone who has lived all their lives at the public expense along with her extended family and hangers on, is exempt from most forms of taxation, and has immunity from public scrutiny or criminal prosecution, that’s pretty ironic.

Friday 15 May 2009

The journey not the destination.

By rights I should be massively pissed off:

I had a meeting with a client this morning - followed by lunch - who is about fifty miles away. Unfortunately that's fifty miles the other side of London which means either riding around the M25 or battling my way across the capital in the rush hour. Either way it's a pig of a journey. I left early to avoid the traffic - made good time and pulled over for a leisurely coffee once I was almost there. Only then did I turn on my Blackberry - I always turn it off when I'm riding.

So I got the message from work that the client had cancelled - apparently she was 'too busy'. She hadn't even tried to phone me on the mobile - or bothered to reply to the email I sent yesterday trying to get her to confirm. Instead she'd phoned work my work at 8am that morning because obviously she thinks I actually live at the studio. Stupid bitch. And typical of a week of similar petty frustrations with arrogant corporate knobs who think that because you are a supplier they have a license to treat you like shit.

I want to be pissed off about this. But the trouble is that riding back into work in the not-quite-sunny weather I can't keep myself from grinning stupidly . The thing is, riding a bike for a few hours , even in the most pointless of circumstances, is still just about a million times better than anything else I could be doing in working hours ...

Monday 11 May 2009

MP's money

Difficult to believe in the current climate, but the idea that MP's should be paid a wage was once a progressive one. It enabled ordinary working people, like Keir Hardie, to enter parliament and so broke the monopoly of the political class, landowners and business men, whose 'private incomes' freed them for the need to earn a living.

Although under the current Tory set up, the toffs in the form of Cameron and Boris, are making something of a comeback, the new version of the political class is nowadays that of careerist apparatchiks - as equally divorced from the vast majority of the people they represent as their nineteenth century predecessors.

Whereas there used to be talk of a class that was 'born to govern' (and it wasn't said in a sense of irony) there is now talk of having to attract 'the best and most talented'. This reasoning is behind the argument that MP's must not be underpaid - with the implication that if they are then potential politicians will be tempted away to other fields, or at the very least tempted to top up their salaries by making dodgy expenses claims.

The concept of 'underpaid' is very odd - and one that I have not heard seriously challenged. Underpaid in relation to who ? Certainly not the majority of the electorate, not the average elector and not even public sector middle managers. The benchmark appears to be the most senior professionals in private practice and top management in large corporations. Implicit in this is a naive assumption that the job market is some sort of meritocracy where the most talented are the best paid.

A quick look at the real world would disprove this: At my workplace the highest paid group are not skilled craftsman, nor senior mangers with responsibilities, but salesmen whose skill set is primarily schmoozing, brown-nosing and bullshitting. I am sure that anybody could find similar examples in their own lives - and I haven't even mentioned teachers or nurses.

So why do so many people accept that MP's should be amongst the highly paid ? In all the talk of MP's salaries and their abuse of expenses hardly anyone seems to be arguing that it is a privilege to be a representative of the people and - dare I say it - an element of sacrifice is to be expected. And even fewer have made the glaringly obvious suggestion that MP's should take only the average wage of the people they represent so as to stay in touch with them and so prevent the growth of that new 'political class'.

And finally - back to those salesmen at work: it is 'within the rules' for them to put in expenses claims for pencil sharpeners and erasers. But at the same time it is generally accepted that for a highly paid individual to make such petty claims is a bit demeaning and marks them out as a bit of an arsehole - so they don't do it. It comes to something when salespeople have more sense of shame than our elected representatives.

Friday 8 May 2009

Life's A Riot (still)

On a whim I've just stuck on Billy Bragg's "Life's A Riot" on the i-tunes at work.

Great lyrics - crap voice. So crap it's actually good. If I ever sang in the bath it would sound just about identical.

Those lyrics are filled with 80's references. Just listening to it is a nostalgia rush - until his aberrational flirting with the Kinnock-ite Red Wedge movement - Billy Bragg was the epitome of the young radical of the era. Down to his Doc Martin shoes, black 501s with turn ups and flat-top. (I was never one of those people by the way - too much of a headbanger back then - but I loved the lyrics and the fact that someone could sing like that and get away with it - proper modern folk music)

I don't think anyone who was involved at that time can now hear 'Whose Side Are You On?' ; 'Between The Wars'; 'It Says Here' or 'World Turned Upside' without the hairs on the back of their neck standing up. The sad thing is 25 years on and in these times it all seems so relevant again...

Tuesday 5 May 2009

The end at Visteon ?

It's no longer news that the former Visteon / Ford workers at Enfield and Basildon have voted to accept an offer that goes most of the way to matching the Ford contracts they had been promised all along (with reservations about pensions and shift allowances). In other words; a victory. Like the Lindsey Oil Refinery strikers they have proved that in spite of the recession, in spite of anti-union laws and in spite of docile union leaderships, victories are possible if you're prepared to fight for them.

Having been involved on the sidelines of many disputes over the years - from the big ones like the miners strike and the Wapping dispute, to the small ones like the Addenbrookes cleaners or JJ Fast Foods - I know that we need victories more than we need noble defeats. So I'm not one of those (and there will inevitably be some on the Left) who will deny ourselves a moment of celebration.But having gone up to visit the pickets on Saturday it came home to me that the celebration is tempered by the sadness that goes with any factory closure.

Sitting outside the gates in Enfield , it is striking that the factory there is surrounded by derelict and empty sites that once were a thriving industrial belt in North London along the A10 corridor. Now it is becoming an industrial graveyard.

Because the Visteon plant was highly unionised, it was also unusual nowadays in maintaining the kinds of pay and conditions that generations of workers in the manufacturing sector once took for granted. And in its sense of community: Many of the workers have spent twenty years or more there, there are families working alongside each other - I even met several retired workers who came back to join the picket line. That has all gone now.

Although the workers will continue their pickets until the redundancy payments have actually been paid, there is also a sense of sadness as the ex-Visteon workers disperse. Inevitably the solidarity and camaraderie that has grown out of the dispute will also disperse with them .

However like in so many other disputes before, one thing that repeatedly comes up when talking with the workers is how much they have changed: In their views of the world , of politics and of activists of all hues who they previously regarded as an alien species. I've also heard the workers say a number of times how shocked they are that people they don't know have gone out of their way to support them. And how in spite of what is said, people aren't just out for themselves but are prepared to stick up for each other.

It's a simple message but a pretty fucking inspiring one - and one that will outlast the closure of the factory.