Wednesday 31 March 2010

Chi Sau interlude

For the best part of twenty years now I've been disappearing to training several evenings a week. Not unreasonably people ask me - 'what do you actually do there ?' So as some sort of answer I've included this clip of a couple of my Wing Chun brothers playing chi-sau at our school. Apologies for the Blair Witch quality of the footage - and the squeaking is coming from rubber soles on a wooden floor, we don't really train in an aviary.

One very important point to make - when clips like this go up on YouTube or wherever it usually provokes a barrage of negative comments from Walter Mitty types who couldn't fight their way out of a paper bag saying 'but that would never work in the real world'. In answer to that - this is a clip of chi-sau not fighting - it's two old friends playing an exercise which has been developed to condition body positioning and mechanics, techniques and reflexes.

Did I mention that it's also fun ?

Tuesday 30 March 2010

Anti-Fascist Sportster

 Following a re-spray the 'white bike' is no more. It's now officially the much more sober 'grey and black without the dodgy 80's graphics bike'.

I did contemplate taking it all the way back to the bare metal and just having some coats of lacquer to keep out the rust. Great for a truly shabby chic look but I tried doing it on just  a fender and it seemed much too much like hard work in comparison to a re-spray.

Then I came upon this image with the legendary inscription from Woody Guthrie's guitar on the tank  and wondered if I made the right decision .

Friday 26 March 2010

The fetishisation of mediocracy

My dealings with formal education ended twenty three years ago but I have never stopped being interested in teaching and learning. Since then, this has come in the form of work, where I am involved in the apprenticeship scheme, at home as a parent, and in my martial arts studies. 

And in those twenty three years, in all those fields, I have seen a disturbing phenomenon. It is not so much dumbing down or lowering standards - although these are both consequences of the process - as the growth of a teaching method that tries to  break everything down into its constituent parts but is unable to put them back together again. It is also literal, anal, guaranteed to kill any spark of passion in the subject, and ultimately devalues the very thing it is trying to promote - quality. 

And it is a vicious circle that produces mediocre teachers and mediocre students.

I see it at my daughters' school - every lesson starts with a stated 'learning outcome' and every piece of work has 'success criteria'. But the best learning happens when the student realize what they have learned  only after the event. And clumsy attempts to create tick-boxes for quality are not just spoon-feeding but  actually produce something that is less than the sum of  the parts, lacking in flair. 

At work I see the same thing with the 'evidence criteria' given for the NVQs - it may be vocational training but the emphasis is definitely on understanding the criteria and cross-referencing it in a portfolio, rather than actually knowing the skills to do the job. 

And in martial arts we see the rise of the McDojo approach - collecting techniques and belts like cub-scout badges with no reference to an imbibing of fundamental principles.

I'm reading Richard Sennet's The Craftsman at the moment. It argues for a modern restatement of the values of craftsmanship and explores the didactic process of 'craft' learning. Teaching by mentoring and osmosis so that knowledge is implied rather than stated and the acquired values feel as if they are intuitive. He talks about  traditional manual skills - like those of chefs or violin makers - but he argues that the same approach can be extended to more abstract skills - and specifically discusses linux-programming as an example of a modern craft. 

The crucial difference is that it develops people who are passionate and engaged with what they are doing, rather than people who are just going through the motions. 

Maybe I'm just a grumpy old git these days but it seems that our world is increasingly obsessed with just going through the motions. Bruce Lee talked about the dangers of being so concerned with pointing our finger at the skies that we end up seeing only the finger and not the 'heavenly glory'. Marx would have called it alienation.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Justice for cider drinkers

In a hysterical tide of witch-hunting and scape-goating a minority group is being singled out and persecuted. The budget announced a 10% above inflation increase in duty on cider.

The increase on ciders above 7.5% is going to be even greater. Possibly this is fair enough - it's hard to believe that  these 'white ciders' have ever seen an apple. They only really  exist to get you pissed in the most time and cost efficient manner possible - good only for binge drinking if the anti-freeze has run out.

It might also be fair enough to whack an increase on any cider served over ice. This has practically become the signature drink of the trendinestas of North London. In much the way that sticking a slice of lime in a bottle of insipid beer transformed it into an aspirational talisman for  80's yuppies. Hitting that demographic where it hurts is fine by me.

But cider in all its forms, from West Country scrumpy in earthenware jugs to Champagne-like Normandy cider is a wonder to behold with a fine and honourable tradition.

This isn't just about cider - its another example of the phenomenon of the madness of crowds - the same small-minded, smug, knee-jerk, need-to-be-seen-to-be-doing-something  reaction that blames the evils of  broken society on teenage mothers, hoodies, owners of pit-bulls , shoot 'em up gamers or whoever is the next folk-devil of the day. You could be next ...

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Fascist history 101.

Most people naturally assume  that Hitler and the Nazis came to power in some sort of violent coup d'etat. But today is in fact the anniversary of that day in 1933 when the parliament and head-of-state passed an enabling act that gave Hitler - the prime minister -  powers to rule without parliament for four years. And so dictatorship was established with at least a veneer of constitutional legitimacy.

True - this constitutional process needed some stage management: A fire in the parliament building, the work of the Nazis but pinned on the Communists, gave the excuse for a police  round-up  that managed to get the most effective opposition leaders taken out  a few weeks before the election.

Even then the election didn't return the Nazis as a majority - they depended on a coalition with conservative nationalists. But coalition wasn't an acceptable outcome for the Nazis, so they sought an Enabling Act that would dispense with the hassle of parliamentary democracy altogether. They counted (correctly) on the parties of the middle and ruling classes being willing to trade democracy for economic stability and the removal of left-wing opposition.

And most significantly they counted on Catholic politicians' willingness to trade democracy for a bulwark against 'god-less' socialism. It was the votes of the Catholic Centre Party, under the leadership of a priest, Monseigneur Ludwig Kaas, that ended up giving Hitler the two-thirds majority he needed to be voted dictator. His close links to Pius XII have since  fueled conspiracy theories that the Nazis offered a deal similar to that given by the Italian Fascists to the Vatican, a guarantee of security and non-interference for  the Catholic Church.

Of course with the Communist members of parliament either imprisoned or in hiding, only the Socialist members were left to vote against the enabling act. A few weeks later their party was also banned and many of their MPs were sent to the camps.

There's no denying that the Nazis' strength grew on a tide of brutal political violence in the street -   but it's worth remembering that they actually came to power through back-room deals with respectable politicians  and clergymen who felt that democracy was an inconvenient luxury that couldn't be afforded...

Monday 22 March 2010

The intimidation of protest

I will qualify this piece by saying I wasn't there and I haven't spoken personally to anybody who was; but the demo against the EDL in Bolton, and the arrest of Weyman Bennett throws up a  couple of very important points to anyone involved in anti-fascist activity or in fact any sort  political protest.

Weyman Bennet has been charged with the dubious offence of  'conspiracy to commit violence disorder'. Like anyone who has experience of the SWP leadership, I can quite believe that he is guilty of offensive use of a microphone but I am pretty sure that neither he nor any of this UAF comrades  can really be considered as some sort of street-fighting general.

Only a week after The Observer's story about police infiltration of the YRE in the 1990's and reawakened memories of the Welling demonstrations, this latest news is a salutary reminder of  how protest is being currently demonised. In conjunction with the physical tactic of kettling and then cracking heads - used again in Bolton despite all the G20 backlash  - this amounts to a conscious police strategy of intimidating protest off the streets.

Events in Bolton - and memories of Welling - also underline the need for proper stewarding on these occasions . Not just wearing day-glo bibs and then selling papers or organising chanting, but physically protecting the safety of demonstration - from police or fascists.

That doesn't mean individual heroics but it can mean preventing police snatch squads entering the body of the demonstration or even making a defended withdrawal  and getting people safely to their transport home. A certain amount of commitment,  organisation, and dare I say it, discipline, is required. I wasn't there at Bolton but I have seen sufficient from UAF and before them the ANL to question whether these organisations understand this at all.   

None of which by the way is any reason not to support the campaign to defend Weyman Bennet ...

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Discovering Julian Cope

I wish I'd got into Julian Cope some time ago. Back in the 80's I was way too much of a metal-head to have given the time of day to The Teardrop Explodes. In the 90's I was aware that Julian Cope was involved with the anti-Poll Tax movement. But I probably discounted him as part of the didgeridoo-and-cider tendency who just weren't rooted enough in the real world. But as Bob Dylan said, 'I'm younger than that now' and I've seen more than enough of the real world to appreciate  that a bit of un-worldliness is probably the best way to stay sane .

So I came round to Julian Cope - although not initially through his music but through his writing, specifically the Modern Antiquarian and the Megalithic European. Fantastic books that mix an erudite knowledge of pre-historic archaeology and societies with neo-pagan ramblings on the eternal Mother Goddess in a lovely way that is simultaneously  both bonkers and learned.

I'm an atheist not a pagan but still there is something rather wonderful about the oldest religion of all that cuts through the new-fangled bullshit of Judaeo-Christianity and honestly celebrates the life-force of the planet itself. I can identify with that - and it's at least partly the inspiration behind my on-going tattoo project. Damn those bastard Romans ...

So right now I found myself constantly re-playing his 1991 album Peggy Suicide. And I can see the back-catalogue beckoning ...

Monday 15 March 2010

Police provocateurs

At the weekend I was a steward on the march against the BNP in Barking. The event passed off uneventfully, but experience has shown that stewarding is always necessary  in case of the case of attacks  either by Fascists  - or the police. 

The only moment of doubt that it would be anything other than  peaceful  was when we were  told before the march - by a police officer - that the BNP had been given permission to hold a counter demonstration. As we initially thought, this turned out to be completely untrue, but the rumour still had the effect of un-nerving some of the demonstrators - most of them young people and students  - not exactly hardened Anti-Fascists. It is hard to avoid thinking that this misinformation was anything other  a deliberate police tactic.

So it was ironic to  see this weekend a  piece in The Observer about an undercover police officer from Special Branch's  SDS unit who infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe in the 1990s. From the melodramatic tone you would think he had gone undercover into the IRA, a football crew or the Mongols MC. Anyone who was actually  in the YRE will laugh at the officers' 'terrifying experience'; it was not exactly a challenge to infiltrate the organisation - all you had to do was sign a petition and turn up a meeting and you were in. Most of the activity was distinctly un-terrifying -  leafleting FE colleges and doing Saturday stalls.

Even the violent footage shown in The Observer's clip of Brick Lane in 1993 is evidence  of how  the  undercover cops missed the point. At Brick Lane, a long standing BNP paper sale was  run-off  by a very simple ruse:  Police lines separated the Fascists and protesters, so a small group simply went round a couple of blocks and then  joined the Fascists side of the street. Signing 'Rule Britannia' we were clapped by the Fascists as we joined them... immediately before steaming into them. The outwitted police had actually waived us through to join the Fascist lines. Despite their undercover operation they still couldn't comprehend that a group including blokes with short hair and bomber jackets could be anything other than Fascists.

It's not clear from The Observer piece whether 'Officer A' has turned whistle-blower because he had a stirring of conscience of whether he just wants to flog some Andy McNab style memoirs. He does confess to having some doubts when he found himself protesting outside a police station against deaths in police custody. He also  feels that the public should be made aware of how they risk such surveillance if they embark on any kind of political activism. Whatever - the effect  is the same as the malicious rumour from the police in Barking - the attempted intimidation of legitimate protest. 

It is scary and sinister stuff - but also laughable. Whilst they continue to be so amateur and inept we have little reason to be paranoid : As Lenin advised - the best thing to do with infiltrators and provocateurs is take their money and get them to do some of the donkey work.

Friday 12 March 2010

'I've never voted Tory before ...'

The latest Tory poster campaign is obviously consistent with Dave-bloody-good-bloke Cameron's new take on the one nation Tory vision. 

A vision that the party is no longer just for big business and small minds. But it is a  fantastic home goal just like the scary air-bushed  Cameron-face campaign before it.

Actually the Tory campaign has precisely the opposite effect to that intended: By  identifying the groups they consider to be naturally outside their natural constituency they actually remind us of their traditional core values. And they do so in a way that is so crude it manages to be both comic and offensive. I bet the old gits at central office were so pleased with themselves for demonstrating how down with the masses they were ...

There's token working class bloke - you can tell he's working class because he's got overalls on and  doesn't have the smooth well polished cheeks of the terminally posh.

There's token yummy-mummy  middle class woman with her kids who have been transported from an Enid Blyton story.

And best of all there's token young trendy woman - she's a bit - you know - 'ethnic' but in a very safe non-ghetto non-Muslim sort of way.

Have some fun creating your own personal variant here.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Vintage Tattooing

I had my 13th tattoo done the other day - I'm not sure if that is supposed to be lucky or unlucky.

I also came across this vintage Pathe News clip showing George Burchett - one of the pioneers of modern tattooing. I particularly love the  stuffy-but-slightly-saucy voice-over. Was everything in this era narrated by the one bloke or did everybody really sound like Cholmondley-Warner ?

Hilarious though all this is, I am sure there is some serious social history to be studied here regarding changing attitudes to body art. We keep seeing articles proclaiming that tattooing has only now entered the mainstream but judging from this it was never far from the surface.

Friday 5 March 2010

Professionalism ?

I'm getting some grief at work from an obnoxious young wannabe execu-type (who I am supposed to manage) about my 'professional values' - or rather lack of them.

My own work 'values' - for myself and for the people I am responsible for - are pretty simple really:
• Try always to do the best work you can
• Try to get some financial security for the people  you work with
• Try to treat people as you would want to be treated yourself
• And given how much time and effort it takes to do the above - try to have some fun too.

It's not exactly the stuff that will earn me an MBA: If required I'll have as  good a go at spinning the business-speak  as the next man -  but in truth I haven't really got a fucking clue what 'professionalism' really means.

The origins of the idea, and the only use of the concept that really bears scrutiny is the strict one that applies to a code of conduct for job roles in a certain number of middle class service industries that require a particular vocational qualification as a restriction to entry. Originally only  medics and lawyers, although over the years this was extended to include architects, accountants  and certain types of engineer. Nowadays it even includes chartered practitioners in  such dubious fields as 'human resources'.

Historically it is a concept that was born out of an inferiority complex of the middle classes in the early days of capitalism. Only the gentry could claim the social status and legitimacy bestoed by birth into the closed shop of land-ownership. The strictly classical eduction offered by Oxford and Cambridge allowed the younger sons of this class to gain a career in the church but for most of the leisure class  education was a non-essential and amusing diversion. 'Professionalism' gave sections of the middle class a means of attaining an almost equivalent  'honourable' status. 

And even more importantly it allowed them to differentiate themselves from other sections of their own class who engaged in the vulgar pursuits of trade and industry. It also differentiated them from those at the  borders of the middle and working classes - the artisans whose occupations depended on serving apprenticeships that in many cases were no less vigorous than the professionals but who got their hands dirty.

We now live in age where everyone from over-paid footballers to poorly-paid shop-workers are considered/expected to be 'professional'. And so the term has really come to mean nothing more than saying that we work for money  - and that to this end have to feign interest and politeness and hide our true feelings. The cliche that prostitution is the oldest profession is so true - because actually any professionalism invariably involves whoring out our talents and abilities and subordinating a part of ourselves. And I very much include myself in this.

But I am proud to occasionally cut through the bullshit of professionalism and unashamedly cling on to the comforting idea that we are honest artisans. 

Thursday 4 March 2010

Michael Foot and the end of an era

There is something nauseating about Tories - like Cameron and even Thatcher - now queuing up to heap praise on Michael Foot when whilst he was alive and active he stood for everything they detest. 

The same people who are now talking about a man of principle and an honoured elder statesman hounded him as a dangerous lunatic socialist who threatened the moral fabric of society  because he dared to wear a duffle-coat to the cenotaph parade.

It's tempting to say that the death of Michael Foot - the last of the 1945 generation of Labour MPs is symbolic of the death of the vision of that generation who marched into parliament after the landslide election singing the Red Flag (it really did happen). But a more honest balanced sheet should be drawn.

Unlike Tony Benn, Foot's politics took a distinctly right-ward trajectory as he got older and his finest hours were definitely in his early years as the firebrand anti-fascist journalist  who attacked the policies of appeasement in 'Guilty Men', or the public face of CND who opposed the Vietnam war.  

My own memories from the 1980's were of an inept Labour leader trying to plot a precarious balance between Left and Right within the party. Ultimately he did the work of the Right when he presided over the witch-hunt of Militant Supporters and  supported the Tories over the Falklands war. More so than the so called 'suicide note' manifesto of the 1983 election, this sowed the seeds of the steady degeneration into New Labour .

But despite all this, and despite his patrician background firmly rooted in the political ruling class, he was at least an honest Left Reformist / social democrat. In that respect he stands head and shoulders above the present generation. Can you imagine Blair or Brown's  well-spun media-savvy soundbites having the conviction of any of  these quotes ?:

''People must learn more and more that the strength of this country is the democratic power of the trade union movement''
''Is the Labour Party to remain a democratic party in which the right of free criticism and free debate is not merely tolerated but encouraged? Or are the rank and file of the party to be bludgeoned or cowed into an uncritical subservience towards the leadership?''
 or just:
''Most liberties have been won by people who broke the law''

Wednesday 3 March 2010

Still the 'king of cool'

By today's  PC criteria  he wouldn't pass muster as a reconstructed 'New Man' -  but still - is there any  male who doesn't want to be Steve McQueen ?

From 1963 Life Magazine:

Monday 1 March 2010

Rioting and radicalism

Over in anarchist land they are getting excited about the forthcoming anniversary of the 'poll tax riot'. There's  talk of linking this with anniversaries this year of the Peasants' Revolt and the Gordon Riots in a celebration of radical protest. 

The imminent possibility of either a Tory government, or another New Labour one, with renewed commitment to shit on what is left of the welfare state and the infrastructure of our communities means that we might be looking at another summer of riots. So it will need to be said again:  riots are not revolutions. They might occur as part of a radicalizing process, they may be brief episodes of people taking back power, but above all  they are a letting of of frustration and anger - and often nothing more.

Just for the record, contrary to what is being said and will no doubt be triumphantly proclaimed, the 'poll tax riot' did not bring down Thatcher and end an unjust tax. That was the result of a massive campaign of civil disobedience in working class communities, assisted by lots of unglamorous and unspectacular work by activists in the anti-poll tax movement organising non-payment unions. This convinced a section of the ruling class that Thatcher had gone too far and led to a palace coup within their own ranks. Putting in the windows of Starbucks and MacDonalds did not achieve this - although I can fully accept that it may be more exciting than leafleting estates and attending court hearings.

And also for the record: I was there at Trafalgar Square and saw the riot unfold - I saw a brutal and completely disproportionate level of violence from the police. I saw ordinary people, who had come to protest the tax but weren't political activists, terrified at this. And I  saw some dickheads, who may or may not have been anarchists, reveling in it. I also witnessed two leading comrades from my own organisation shooting themselves in the foot on national Televison offering to co-operate with the police in identifying rioters. A huge mistake in playing into the hands, not just of the anarchists, but of the authorities who wanted to shift responsibility for the violence to the protesters. That I believe, twenty years on, is an accurate  and dispassionate view of the events. 

With the benefit of several centuries of hindsight we should also be able to do the same for the Peasants' Revolt and the Gordon Riots. The Peasants' Revolt is seen as the beginning of the English radical tradition. In many respects it is - John Bull and the Lollards were the fore-runners of the seventeenth century revolutionaries who first expressed their radicalism in the form of religious freedom. The social basis for the movement  was the peasantry and urban artisan class whose economic position had been strengthen by a labour shortage resulting from the Black Death and who now faced a counter-attack in living conditions. But ultimately  there was no triumph for the masses, they ended up  as pawns in a power struggle between the king and a rival junta of nobles.

Far less deserving of celebration are The Gordon Riots - several days of  attacks on  Catholic properties and communities in London - including areas of  Irish immigrants - orchestrated by Lord George Gordon and his Protestant Association. The social basis was the impoverished  London working class, a layer of radicals sympathetic to the American revolution, and others critical of the government's failure to defeat  the same revolution. A confused mixture of populism and reaction, fueled by sectarianism and cheap gin, if anything the rioters could be seen as the forerunners of the foot-soldiers of the EDL - reflecting political dispossession rather than actually articulating anything radical.

If we want to celebrate early moments of mass protest then I would suggest that we would do better to look at the Putney Debates of  1649 or  the Chartist rallies of the 1840s'. Doubtless even at that time there were probably a few people standing at the back complaining about all the bloody pamphleteers (read 'paper-sellers' nowadays) wasting time intellectualizing when they could have been 'reclaiming the streets' by trashing the tavern or coffe-shop just down the road...