Monday 28 September 2009

Supermarkets and the cost of living

I spent last week working on a tender to get work from a supermarket.

Sadly enough I must admit that sometimes I get a bit of a kick about putting these things together – it’s a throwback to the days of writing essays – with the same essential ingredients of bluffing and bullshitting. With an added frisson, albeit a self deluding one, that if successful we are getting one over on ‘The Man’ – and of course paying the bills for a few more months.

The quasi-profession of ‘procurement’ has its own bullshit ethics of ‘fairness and transparency’. One consequence is that if any of the parties tendering have a question to ask then it is published, along with the answer, for all the other tenders to see. So after a week of bullshitting away on my tender I got to see the questions from ‘the competition’.

The answers let slip a few things that the supermarket hadn’t been quite so transparent about initially. Such as for every piece of work they gave us - we would have to pay them an ‘admin fee’ ; or that we had to employ a couple of staff to work in their head-office at specified wages way below what we would normally pay. Or that we would also have to pay the supermarket rent for the space taken up by the desks of our staff in their building. Or finally that they wouldn’t actually be paying any of the bills themselves – their suppliers would be picking up the costs and it was down to us to get the money out of them.

Imagine trying to negotiate such a deal in any other situation, say when buying a car or a house. Particularly if you weren't told about the 'hidden catches' up front - you would be sorely tempted to punch the cheeky fucker's lights out, or at the very least you'd walk away as quickly as you could. So I did the next best thing and immediately pulled out of the tender. The Bastard Supermarket seemed genuinely perplexed and offended.

I feel sorry for the poor sods who do win the contract - it will go one of two ways; if the company is a medium sized one – like ours - it will run the work at an increasing loss and so grind itself into the ground within a couple of years. Or if it’s a large one it will try to off-shore the work to a studio in India , Eastern Europe or wherever else labour is cheap that month. That's precisely what's going on in our industry when small businesses have to swim with the sharks. In any case, in a couple of years the Bastard Supermarket will have sucked everything it can out of the relationship and declared a new tender for fresh victims.

Blake’s 'dark satanic mills' may have been the universal symbol of old -style capitalism.If you want the equivalent for our own ‘post-industrial we’re all consumers now’ society – it’s the supermarket.

Friday 25 September 2009

The night the music died

On this day, an unbelievable 29 years ago, drummer John Bonham died - marking the end of what at the time, and still to this day, I believe to be the ultimate rock band.
I was a teenage head-banger at the time - and it is almost impossible now to convey the intensity of attachment we felt to just about every aspect of the band and its music.
It’s the human condition that over time we lose that intensity and forget how it is to be 15. Occasionally I now see glimpses of it in in my own daughter who at that age – although the metal obsession was/is probably a boy-thing.
It will always be one of my strongest and strangely warmest teenage memories – the night Bonzo died my friends and I sneaked into the local bikers/rockers pub. Grown men were weeping into their beards and the juke box played Led Zep all night. We retired to the car park where we sat in the cold night air with a few cans of Special Brew listening to Tommy Vance’s rock show tribute on a crappy little radio; the three of us sharing the moment.
Nowadays the pub is a fucking Harvester and I hear that arch smug-tosser Jeremy Clarkson is a big ‘Zeppelin fan - all of which depresses me deeply, but still; ‘The Song Remains The Same’.

Wednesday 23 September 2009


Our governments tell us that the Taliban is such a threat to the people of Afghanistan that air-strikes in villages where they are hiding are justified – in fact they are really for their own good. They also say that the Taliban is such a threat to the peoples of the western world that sending our young people to fight and die in a far off inhospitable country is justified – if fact it is a humanitarian duty.

But when some of those same victims of the Taliban, filled with stories of the peaceful and prosperous West, actually come here, and risk so much in the journey to do so, our governments don’t want them. They are treated like criminals and end up in detention centres to be ‘processed’ - or living like hobos in canvas shanty towns like something our of Steinbeck’s novels.

And then our governments break up these unofficial camps and herd them into official state-run ‘camps’ that may look neater but are actually far more sinister. From there the ‘processing’ will inevitably result in some children being separated from their families and some people being returned to the very places they are fleeing from.

Yesterday’s pitiful scenes of the French riot police breaking up the refugee camp near Calais are in reality just another piece of ‘collateral damage’ from the War On Terror.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

What gives the CBI a right to an opinion ?

Back in the dim and distant past when I was a student activist, student unions would be criticized for having policies on all sorts of things which we were told were none of our business. And from time to time there would really be a stink if students tried to donate money to worthy clauses like the striking miners.

Occasionally there was a smidgen of truth in these criticisms - back in the eighties passing resolutions supporting the armed struggle in Nicaragua or declaring the union bar a nuclear free zone were often a political fig-leaf for future New Labour careerists to ignore more pressing matters closer to home. But generally I would say that if ever there was a time to have an opinion on anything and everything it is when you are a student.

The same cannot be said of the CBI sticking an unwelcome nose into higher education.

Their proposals to allow free reign to market forces in universities is an outrageously reactionary piece of cheek on their part. To suggest, as they do, that university numbers be drastically reduced, that student loans are no longer subsidized, and that only 'useful' subjects are promoted would not only take higher education back to before the 1960's, it would introduce a new strain of philistinism unknown even in the elitist bad old days.

What make the fat cats of the CBI presume to think that have the right to say anything about higher education in the first place ? Only a mistaken belief that they are the true creators of wealth in society and therefore can dictate how this wealth is spent - or more appropriately 're-invested'. How fucking presumptious and arrogant of them: By sheer weight of numbers, by hard work and by tax, it is working people who create the wealth and whose children are getting the educational opportunities (albeit at a cost) that would have been unthinkable for the vast majority only a couple of generations ago.

And to add insult to injury when the CBI dare to question the numbers of students in higher education and to ridicule some of the 'new' subjects studied - it was the same industrial bosses who in the Thatcher era attacked the unions and with them the apprenticeship system. These were the bedrock of the skilled working class and thanks to this attack this group has now become an endangered species. So for their offspring going to university - even if it is to a former polytechnic for a so-called 'mickey mouse' subject - is the only option now of securing decent 'life chances'.

I thank my lucky stars that I was able to go through higher education in an era when it was still free at the point of consumption - I now fear for my own kids.

Monday 21 September 2009

Haringey Food Festival

My part of London doesn’t get much of a good press. Green Lanes, the site of the Haringey Food Festival, earned national notoriety a couple of years ago with a running gun battle between Turkish and Armenian gangs. It also features regularly on those reality TV shock-shows – I seem to remember one about the local environmental health team and another about the Met Police’s robbery squad.
But it is also one of the few genuinely 24hour streets in London with cheap restaurants, cafes, bakeries and fruit-and-veg stores selling exotic foods from South and Eastern Europe and the Caribbean. If you wanted to celebrate the diversity of this borough then closing the street and having a food festival there is a pretty effective way of expressing it.
As I stood in the street on Sunday afternnon, taking in the sun , sipping a can of Red Stripe and tucking into some Curry Goat whilst listening to my daughters’ school steel band, it occurred to me that I would like Cameron and the shire-smug-ites who talk about ‘broken Britain’ to come and have a look at this. And the likes of the English Defence League and all those Essex-geesers that I work with who ‘want their country back’.
We may well have fuck-knows enough problems in Haringey and in many respects we do tick all the boxes of ‘broken society’ - but in spite of it there is genuinely a community here. And a community does not have to look like Ambridge for it  to work: I see over at Penny Red she is saying something much along the same lines.
I also feel saddened that such is the nature of life in London that after twenty years of living here I am still on the periphery of this community. Spending most of my waking hours working somewhere else – even when it’s only a couple of boroughs away - it is inevitable that your hometown becomes a dormitory.
Something that the anarchists make much of, and which I have to say I agree with, is that the very act of being a community is itself political. Especially in these times when so many will deny us this.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Shit you can't make up

Seen this morning on my ride in to work - graffiti-ed very neatly on a newly painted shop-front in Camden:

Peasants beware
Abolish banal thinking
Embrace only radical thoughts and oppose capitalist pigs.

I'm not sure if this a quote from Mao - or a made-up piece of ironic genius - or maybe just that term is about to begin and the students are back in town.

Monday 14 September 2009

Brighton Burn Up

To Brighton for the end of season run the ‘Brighton Burn Up’. I took the ’89 Sportster as I did for the start of the season 'Southend Shake Down’ back in April. Now that the gearbox is sorted, this time it was rather less like trying to control a bucking bronco. Brighton is a helluva lot nicer than Southend but for me, taking in a detour to drop in on my parents, it was a 180mile round trip. That’s a long way to go for some very average fish and chips.

As always getting there was the thing and the arrival a bit of an anticlimax really – a saunter down the esplanade to check out the rows of something like 10,000 motorcycles and then jump on my bike and head home. It wasn’t a day to take your time and lounge in the sun - because there wasn’t any. In fact I discovered that I was decidedly chilly even in my new supposedly super-warm reproduction World War Two Tankers' Jacket.

Interesting bikes were in a small minority - plenty of Harleys to be seen but I was surprised that with the exception of a handful of old Shovelheads mine was one of the oldest. And tattiest. Some nice old 60’s British cafΓ© racers and their counterpart Vespa and Lambrettas, ridden by revivalists and some old boys who looked that they had actually been around for the original bank holiday shennanigans back in the day. I can’t help noticing that old age wears better with the rocker look than it does with the mod look. Over sixty, paunchy and trying to look like Paul Weller doesn’t really cut it – but good luck to them anyway – anyone who can keep a 40 year old two stroke machine in running order deserves some respect (even if it is Lambretta).

That’s it really – nothing spectacular to report. There is something very British about these runs to seaside towns. I’m sure I’ll carry on doing them out of some misplaced sense of tradition but I can’t help thinking that really I’d have been happier just riding on my own to some sleepy and deserted place on the coast. For some people biking is primarily a social activity but in my own case I think the appeal is in the solitude and the quiet – even with the noise of a big V-Twin engine heard through an illegal exhaust.

Friday 11 September 2009

Rover & The Phoenix Four

Who would have thought that it would take four years, 800+ pages and £16million to come up with a report that the Phoenix Four – owners of MG Rover – didn’t do anything illegal; they just acted like big businessmen do ?

Only four years after they brought the business for just £10, the last British-owned car manufacturer closed down and 6,500 jobs were lost. In the process The Four trousered £42million between them and even now they haven’t shared any of the pain arising from the collapse that left a hole in the manufacturing heartland of the West Midlands.

A year on from the Lehman Bothers’ collapse, a distinction is often heard being made, sometimes even on the Left, between evil ‘finance’ capitalists who get huge and undeserved bonuses for doing speculation at no personal risk and honest ‘manufacturing’ capitalists who actually make stuff and employ the people. But the Phoenix Four weren’t Gordon Geckos in red braces – three were engineers by background and one was an accountant. It still didn’t stop them from behaving like greedy cunts who were out for themselves.

The usual moral justification given for capitalism is that it rewards the entrepreneur for taking risks that are for the good of society as a whole – creating jobs and ever-new products and services. Maybe at the time of the industrial revolution this was true to some extent - although if you were employed in a factory or mill from the age of 10 risking life and limb you could be forgiven for not seeing the bigger picture.

But with capitalism these days, rather than inventing something, risking everything to develop it and working hard to produce it, with just a bit of financial sleight-of-hand in the book-keeping, you can still make the money and stick two fingers up at the people who made you rich.

It’s the system you see and it takes a pretty rare individual to buck it.

Monday 7 September 2009

The end for 'No Platform'

The news today that the BBC are to allow the BNP onto question time is something of a watershed for Anti-Fascists. 'No Platform’ has been around for such a long time that it is in danger of becoming a mantra. At times I confess that I have been guilty of joining in with that mantra. But in reality it is/was a tactic not a point of principle.

‘No Platform’ makes sense when it can be used to freeze the Fascists out of our communities – as happens when they find that they can’t book rooms managed by local groups . Putting forward ‘No Platform’ to be adopted as the policy of these groups is an opportunity to raise all the political questions about who the Fascists really are and what they represent.

But ‘No Platform doesn’t make sense when it is tantamount to calling for a state ban or some kind of prescribed list. That just plays into the hands of Fascists when they portray themselves as persecuted tribunes of the politically dis-enfranchised. Even worse state bans are lazy liberal -thinking – the same kind of thinking that believes it is enough to proclaim that ‘the British National Party is a Nazi party’ and call upon voters to support anybody rather than the BNP.

The reasons for dropping 'No Platform' isn’t, as some are claiming, because some dubious electoral successes give the BNP a democratic mandate, or because they are now just another party with the same rights to freedom of speech as any other. The BNP are the same hateful bunch of Fascist thugs they have always been. But the simple truth if it is that the politics of the BNP today are not those of the Mosleyites in the 30’s, or the NF in the 70’s, or Combat18 in the 90’s. Nor is the threat they now pose. (In many respects it is a worse threat because of the vacuum of class politics created by New Labour).

And the same tactics used in the past won’t work now: So by all means confront them physically when the opportunity arises and it isn’t counter productive, by all means expose their links with head-banging neo-Nazis - but above all; take up the issues of jobs, services and housing in the communities where they are building support.

Letting Nick Griffin onto Question Time isn’t going to do this of itself - but it plays more of a part in the process of challenging them politically than standing outside waving a placard and chanting that this ‘shouldn’t be allowed.’

Thursday 3 September 2009

Still mentioning the war

Born in the mid-60’s to parents who were teenagers at the time of the Second World War I seem to have grown up in the shadow of that conflict. And not just because of family war-stories. I think everyone of my generation grew up with the Airfix kits, reading “Commando” comic books, playing ‘war’ in the playground and watching the black and white films on a Sunday afternoon.

Even today, 70 years after, turn on cable TV and I can guarantee that at just about any time of the day or night there will be a couple of documentaries on the war. And in the week where we celebrate (?) the outbreak of war, Vera Lynn is back in the charts.

Why does it have such a strong hold on us?

Well it wasn’t just the movies that were black and white. Like no other conflict before or since it seems like a ‘just war’. Historical context* will quite correctly qualify that with Britain’s attempts to cling on to empire in the East, and with the cynical division of Europe as a prequel to the Cold War. But Nazism and the Holocaust are the trump cards that make it a war that had to be won. And won not by professional armies but by entire nations.

This makes it unique; the Great War before it had something of the same character, but few can now see any moral basis for the conflict - so when we remember it we do so only as tragedy. And wars since 1945 have been scary Cold War spill-overs like Korea or last throws of empire like Vietnam (or the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan). In any case whatever their morality, the nature of modern warfare is now such that it is unlikely we will ever see mass-conscription and People’s War again.

Perhaps it is precisely because of this we still hark back to the Second World War; with the ambiguities and ideological vacuums of own times the war years provide a more certain moral compass. That, and the living memory of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

NB * If you want this context - have a look at this piece by Peter Taafe or the debate over at Socialist Unity - what I am taking about here is our enduring perception of it as a People's War - which is in many senses as important as the reality.