Tuesday 28 July 2009

Political correctness gone very wrong

No - this blog hasn’t turned into a Daily Mail editorial written by Jeremy Clarkson.

I haven’t written anything previously about the Defend The Four campaign because in all honesty I had nothing original to add. The disciplinary charges brought against the Four were all too obviously a politically-inspired use of use internal procedures to discredit, and more importantly remove from office, left activists who dared challenged the UNISON leadership.

The UNISON leadership know it, the Four certainly know it, and so do the vast majority of trade unionists: The barring of the Four from holding office has nothing to do with the supposed racism of using an image of the three wise monkeys in a leaflet attacking the leadership and everything to do with their campaign for democratic reform of the union and for disaffiliation from the Labour Party.

But just for the benefit of anyone who genuinely doesn’t know, or for apologists of the UNISON leadership (some of whom disgracefully claim to be on the Left) the origin of the ‘three wise monkeys’ is in Japanese Buddhism. The monkeys actually have names; Mizaru, Mikazum and Mazan. They are commemorated at the Eighth Century Tisho-gu shrine and their cult is honoured elsewhere in the East. In fact Ghandi had a particular devotion to the three monkeys, and a statute of them has been erected in Gujarat to mark the site of his famous salt march protest.

In recent times the image of the three monkeys has been used satirically to symbolise ‘looking the other way’ in order to preserve a clean conscience – in Christian terms ‘doing a Pontius Pilate’. This may be from a misunderstanding of the image – of it may be from a subversion of the sanctimony of religious authority. Possibly Buddhists could feel aggrieved by its misappropriation but in absolutely no fucking way can it be said, as the UNISON leadership claims, to be a racist image of black people.

From Stalin to Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, the recourse to organisational and procedural measures in a witch-hunt to remove your opponents from the fight is a sign of political and ideological bankruptcy and failure. (I now await accusations of insensitivity on my part from any witches and other Wiccans).

Monday 27 July 2009

London (1992) Revisited

I am home alone at the moment – the family having debarked on a trip to visit the grandparents up north. In such circumstances I usually fall into an unhealthy pattern of staying up too late and drinking too much on my own. As I did last night making some inroads into a bottle of 12 year old malt – a recent present from a very old friend. My cable is down at the moment so I am raiding a stack of long neglected DVDs for my late night entertainment – last night I dug out, possibly for subconscioulsy sentimental reasons another present from the same friend, one from many years ago – Patrick Keiller’s ‘London’.

Made in 1994 before the onset of reality-TV and attention deficit disorder media, the film essay with its silent static camera work and dead-pan voice over has an unashamedly art-house feel to it. It covers a year in London – 1992 – through the eyes of two fictional characters – the narrator and his friend, Robinson. In a series of ‘expeditions’ they criss-cross the city on the pretext of some fairly obscure historical / literary quests. And along the way they document the state of the capital.The prevailing mood is one of decline and an abandonment of a sense of the future.

Reading reviews of the film from the intervening years since it came out they all seem to be saying – rather smugly – that things haven’t turned out as badly as Keiller predicted after all. But that of course was pre-recession – watching it last night again I felt the opposite.

In 1992 the Tories had been in power for 13years and people were talking of a one-party state, an IRA bombing campaign had created a climate of terrorism-scares, and the slump had begun with the developers of Canary Wharf – that temple of 80’s Thatcherism – going into administration. The final round of pit closures that finished the work of the miners’ strike was met with one of the biggest protest marches of recent years. Greeting the news that John Major has secured another election victory for the Tories, the fictional character Robinson predicts;

" his flat would continue to deteriorate and his rent increase – he would be intimidated by vandalism and petty crime – the bus service would get worse – there would be more traffic and noise pollution and an increased risk of getting knocked down – there would be more drunks pissing in the street when he looked out the window – there would be more children taking drugs when he came home at night – his job would be at risk and subject to interference – his income would decline – he would drink more and less well – he would be ill more often and would die sooner – for the old or anyone with children it would be much worse – the public transport system would degenerate into chaos – there would be more road schemes and hospitals would close – as the social security system was dismantled there would be increased homelessness and crime – with the police more often carrying guns …"

Friday 24 July 2009

Commonwealth - wot ?

Some fuss in the news today about the anniversary of the Commonwealth. It is from 1949, following Indian independence, that the modern new-look Commonwealth – the “Commonwealth Of Nations’ rather than the ‘British Commonwealth’ dates.

I have to confess that I struggle with the idea of the Commonwealth.

The PR spin of the Commonwealth would suggest that it is part multi-cultural jamboree and part the United Nations without all the arguments and those awkward problematic countries.

In reality the Commonwealth is a mechanism that allows a small island off the mainland of Europe to continue to punch above its weight on a global stage. Whereas the British Empire painted a large part of the atlas red by the use of gunboats and district commissioners it now does it more subtly with diplomacy and cultural influence. Or on occasion, with an iron fist in the velvet glove when the ‘constitutional’ role of the monarch is used to shape political events - as it was in Australia in 1975.

Of course there is more to it than that, the Commonwealth was driven by all sort of other factors: It managed to preserve some of the jobs for the otherwise redundant imperial functionaries. It assured that the royal family had an itinerary of places to go on holiday cruises (state visits). It gave Britain the opportunity to win medals at the Commonwealth Games in events that otherwise we would have had no chance in at the Olympics.

But most importantly when the British Empire was being dismantled in a wave of national liberation movements after the Second World War it gave a vehicle for assimilating some of the more moderate nationalist leaders into the establishment.

I am at a loss as to why such a wildly inappropriate name as ‘Commonwealth’ was chosen though. The Commonwealth – the real original seventeenth century one – was a glorious period of radicalism when the old order was turned upside down and we actually had, for all too short a time, a republic and a constitution. Even during the Second World War, a radical party - influenced by Christian Socialism, in some ways to the left of Labour - took the name of the ‘Common Wealth Party’.

Wintson Churchill, reactionary old git though he may have been, did at least know his British history and argued that because of these radical associations the name of Commonwealth was not an appropriate one for The British Empire Version 2.1. Incidentally he was similarly outraged when a warship and a type of tank were named after Cromwell…

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Social mobility isn't social justice.

A ‘social mobility czar’ sounds like an oxymoron but Alan Milburn seems to be now cast in that role. With the publication of a Sutton Trust report on social mobility, or more precisely the lack of it, it might seem that New Labour is putting the issue of class back on the agenda.

The report shows that in terms of social mobility, Britain has gone backwards. The professions and senior management are dominated by the products of fee-paying schools (not to mention much of the front benches). The likelihood of a working class child ‘advancing’ are apparently now lower than they were in the 1960’s.

‘No shit Sherlock’ is the response of most of us who live in the real world.

So far the debate hasn’t really touched on how our society and its economic system inevitably creates social inequality. It hasn’t even really tackled the issue of fee-paying private schools, the biggest perpetrator of unequal life chances on a scale that sets this country apart from every other country in Europe. Rather than attack the existence of these schools the report looks suspiciously like a preamble for the reintroduction of selective state schools and the ‘golden age’ of Harold Wilson’s meritocracy.

I know a bit about social mobility myself. I’ve moved ‘up’ via state comprehensive to Oxbridge then ‘down’ by taking a career amongst the diminishing ranks of the skilled working class and then ‘fuck knows what direction’ by ending up as a director of a small business. I often feel more confused than emancipated and the only certainty is that I don’t fit in well in any particular category. Even so on balance I’d rather live under a meritocracy than a system where the old-school tie dominates.

But a meritocracy doesn’t abolish inequality it just provides a different mechanism for it – and something of a safety valve.

The period in British history when there was possibly the greatest social mobility was at the start of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. A small but significant layer of skilled master craftsman became entrepreneurs and factory owners. Another layer of skilled craftsman lost their livelihood and status and joined the unskilled working class. The largest section of people exchanged the stability they had experienced for centuries as a rural semi-peasantry for the uncertainty of wage labour in the new urban factories.

There was never a better time to get rich quick, or, within a couple of generations to enter the ranks of the ruling class. It also was - for the majority of people; the labourers and the factory fodder - probably one of the grim-est, shittiest and most unjust periods in which to be alive.

Monday 20 July 2009

Random Summer Remembrance

As I often do, I had my lunch today in the graveyard of Soho’s parish church – St Anne's.

That’s not as eccentric as it sounds – the graveyard has long been a favourite lunchtime spot with locals and there are even picnic tables there. If it’s not much of a traditional graveyard – it’s not much of a traditional church either. Most of the old building burned down in 1940 during the Blitz and although the new building still operates as a church it is just as much a community centre.

I found my gaze wandering to the small war memorial and my eyes rested on a group of three identical surnames, presumably relatives. It’s not the first time by any means that I’ve seen this on a war memorial; but perhaps subliminally with the news of the death at the weekend of the death Henry Allingham - the oldest surviving Great War veteran – it seemed particularly poignant.

Back at work, using the Commonwealth War graves Commission website I was able to look up within minutes the three sons of Samuel Garraway, printer, and his wife Katherine:

Killed 03.08.1916 Private Wilfed Garraway of the Royal Fusiliers.
Killed 12.02.1917 Private Sydney Garraway of the Queens' West Surreys.
Killed 18.08.1917 Rifleman Gilbert Garraway of the Rifle Brigade.

A random discovery. Unimaginable. Commonplace.

Friday 17 July 2009

One small step, but an awful lot of bollocks

I hate to rain on the parade - but I couldn't get excited about the anniversary yesterday of the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, the one that ended up with a moon landing. Rather than being awe-struck at the prospect of boldly going where no man had been before - the vision of Neil Armstrong sticking the stars and stripes into the lunar surface strikes me as the epitome of imperialist arrogance and mankind's futile pomposity.

At this point I'm assuming someone will chip and cite the immeasurable benefits of the space program from non-stick saucepans to cancer research. But I am dubious, with an equivalent spend - of $85 billion - dedicated say solely to medical research, the benefits would not have been any less. The one and only reason for the space program was stated unequivocally by Kennedy in 1961 at the height of the cold war - for the USA to get one over the Soviet Union - everything else was nothing more than an afterthought.

In the 1970's a bizarre offshoot of some branch of Trotskyism argued that if extra-terrestrial life forms visited the Earth then they can only have come via the kind of technology which would have been developed by the highest form of civilisation - socialism. They then lost themselves in a Jesuitical debate as to what attitude Earth socialists should take to an alien invasion - should it merit 'critical support' ? Were there parallels with the role of the Red Army in post-war Eastern Europe?

Daft certainly - but no dafter than sticking a flag into a lump of barren orbiting rock.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

Stereotypical arsehole toffs

Boris Johnson is a fast writer. This is a handy talent because it allows him, as he puts it in his own words, to ‘knock off’ a couple of newspaper articles on a Sunday morning before he does the chores – all without impinging on the time he dedicates to his day job of being the Mayor Of London. (£140,000 pa) The moonlighting gig with the Telegraph pays him an extra £250,000 a year - a figure Boris dismisses as 'chicken-feed'.

Of course it’s reassuring that Boris can tell us that this sideline doesn’t mean that the London electorate is being short-changed in anyway. Although it does seem a little mean-spirited that he should at the same time begrudge tube drivers wanting more than £38,000pa for anti-social shift work. Or that he opposed tube cleaners getting the London Living Wage of £7.45 an hour. Of course he derided these workers as ‘dinosaurs’ living in the past and making ‘ludicrous’ claims.

But it's most reassuring of all that old Etonian Tories like Boris turn out not to be lovable buffoons masking an erudite intelligence with populist appeal but are actually just over-privileged and arrogant arseholes with nothing but contempt for the working class.

Monday 13 July 2009

Designer bikes. Rat bikes.

For no particularly good reason I was at my local Harley dealership on Saturday; just mooching about checking out the bikes and looking at all the branded merchandise that I had no intention of buying.

It was quiet in the shop and the only other people there were a couple talking to one of the sales staff. They had a his-and-her air of squareness about them: Sensible hair-cuts, very clean jeans that looked suspiciously like they had been ironed, and equally crisp official HD t-shirts. From the snippets I overheard, the fella had recently brought a new Softail with a custom paint job and he was now after something similar for his wife who had recently passed her bike test.

I'm positive that it wasn't simply envy on my part, but something about this jarred badly with me. Maybe I have some mis-guided sense of romanticism that holds that owning a bike like that should be something that is earned after serving an apprenticeship of owning lesser bikes, riding them in all weathers, and the frustration and bruised knuckles of working on them in ill-lit garages.

On Sunday I went to the Epping Forest tea hut: There was a gathering of rat-bikes and survivalist bikes. My initial reaction was that this made a refreshing contrast to what I'd seen at the dealership.

But on reflection taking a perfectly decent bike, as some of the survivalist types had obviously done - and spraying it camo-green, draping it with netting and festooning it with daft stickers and unnecessary 'hard' looking black skulls and other bits and pieces - seems just as shallow as mr-and-mrs middle-england wannabe bikers.

Both are all about getting trying to get instant access to an image/lifestyle - and both are equally lame (or I suppose equally valid ).

Thursday 9 July 2009

A less puritanical past

Wikipedia is a fantastic phenomenon.

At the same time both an old-curiosity shop of nuggets of genuine arcane and obscure trivia and also a source of mis-information and downright bigotry. Not to mention an excellent vehicle for plagiarists and sloppy thinkers everywhere.

Most days I look at the home page - to see the historical anniversaries such as today's anniversary of the ratification of the 14th amendment to the US constitution in 1868. And to look at 'today's featured article'. Today's is an absolute gem.

Made all the funnier by the
poe-faced and pedantic comments on the so-called 'discussion' page. Pure Monty Python but also a reminder that our ancestors had a far earthier and healthier attitude to life than we do. Personally I blame our present up-tightness on all those bloody Presbyterians and Victorian middle classes.

So here's to the spirit of Chaucer and Bruegel - and a version of the past you won't find in the school books or the costume dramas.

Monday 6 July 2009

Tower Blocks

It may be legal but it isn't right: Lakanal House, the tower block in Camberwell where six people died in a fire this weekend was built in the 1950's before the current building regulations came in. Apparently having a single stairwell was legal at the time, and these things are not retro-active. Ironically if the block had been a five star hotel rather than social housing then a different set of more stringent fire regulations would have applied.

It's not just about the architecture either. Some of the developers who led the campaign in the 1950's, 60's and 70's to rehouse the inner city poor in tower blocks may have genuinely brought into the vision of 'streets in the sky'. Whether they were misguided or cynical doesn't really matter to the residents of Lakanal House or thousands of other tower blocks on our cities.

Whatever the intention of the architects, tower blocks are pretty crappy places to live. The cheap, low-rise inner city housing they replaced may have been labelled 'slums' but they had streets for kids to play in, pubs, shops and places of employment all mixed together . When their residents were re-housed in tower blocks all that went, along with the communities that went with it.

As industries and businesses closed down in the city and the middle classes started to move in along with their retail-driven urban 'renewal' the people they displaced didn't evaporate they just became less visible. In every part of London now , amidst the yuppified terraced streets and the post-industrial retail developments, there are run-down tower blocks. Often there is a kind of social apartheid - the residents of the blocks, frequently not car owners, don't use the same retail parks, megastores and shopping malls - and they certainly don't socialise in the bars and coffee shops that now dominate the high street.

Of course inequality is nothing new. But in the old low-rise housing the different layers of working class people were pretty much mixed up together. Even Mayhew's street by street-map index of poverty in Victorian London shows 'artisans' living in streets adjacent to the so-called 'criminal underclass'. So, amazingly our own society is not only more polarised in terms of overall wealth than ever before, but within the working class we are actually more segmented than previous generations.

Urban planning has a lot to do with that. And so of course did Thatcher's war on social housing in the 1980's. The flip-side of the 'property owning democracy' was that generally only the very poorest and most disadvantaged were left in social housing. And a new and ugly description came into being - 'the sink estate'.

Thursday 2 July 2009

Sales farce

As I’ve mentioned before, an ironic by-product of all those years of getting up at political meetings and doing ‘lead-offs’ and making ‘contributions’ is an ability to do new business presentations and pitches.

In fact, against all expectations, mostly my own, I seem to have made something of a niche for myself in this role – much to the amusement of anyone who knows me outside of work.

More hilariously - I am in demand. To the extent that next week I am double-booked. And even more hilariously; potential client ‘A’ is a clothing retailer based in the North with budget warehouse outlets aimed at the ‘value’ end of the market. Whilst potential client ‘B’ is a well-known luxury fashion Italian brand.

It puts me in mind of the classic old British comedy film where a boy’s boarding school and a girl’s boarding school are sharing a building between them - unbeknown to either group of parents and governors. Farcical hilarity ensues with Alistair Sim as the headmaster and Margaret Rutherford as the headmistress combining in frantic efforts to keep the two sets of visitors apart when they arrive together for an open day.

Actually I am tempted to just give my visitors a joint presentation – they’re sure to both use the sweat shop factory somewhere in Indonesia anyway ...