Monday 28 June 2010

Getting to play god.

I've had a week or so in the position - which I still find bizarre - of being a 'grown-up boss': I have been recruiting a couple of new junior staff. In a small-ish business like ours  this is very much a one-person job without much formal process. It's also something of an eye-opener.

Unless you are a completely cold bastard it's impossible not to feel a paternalistic glow when offering someone a job that will give them the first foot on the ladder of their chosen career. Or equally -  feeling awful when you  have to dash others' hopes with a rejection. 

In reality it's often only a very precariously narrow thread that divides the two. It's inescapably a buyer's market at the moment. From an overwhelming field of qualified  and deserving candidates, you inevitably start making decisions by weeding out the badly laid-out CVs and the spelling mistakes in covering letters. (Although given that we are a graphics arts business that's not quite as arbitrary and heartless as it sounds).

And when you do get to the short-list for interview - at which point, given that this is a first job position there is pretty much a level playing field - you inevitably  fall back on choosing  the people you like best:  My own prejudices are not sexist or racist, but they do  favour people who I think are quirky and not boring - people who dress with a bit of individualism or display interesting tattoos - or better still people who are into any of my own extra-curricula interests.

Worse still, a sad reflection of the present economic climate, and the state of my own industry, is that the only objective criteria of differentiation is often the number and variety of unpaid internships that these candidates have undertaken.

In all this I'm always  very conscious that my own 'career' (for what's it worth) has hung off a few lucky breaks and twists of fate. And having kids of my own I'm very conscious that theirs' will too. But I have nothing to offer on any of this - you just try to do the right thing in the context of what is in front of you. 

It's depressing to reflect on how much talent is wasted and how many lives never get the chances they deserve. And if you don't stop and ponder that once in a while then you're well on the way to becoming just another arsehole-cog in the capitalist machine.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

World Cup Madness

I'm confused:

I'm groaning inwardly as I look around me at my workmates: St George's flags everywhere, grown men in replica team shirts, and that endless talk about whether E-N-G-E-R-L-A-N-D can salvage something of the spirit of '66. I'm not sure if it's simply nationalism or a form of tribalism and psychological displacement  that enables the terminally un-athletic to refer to 'their' team  as 'us'.

But then again I find myself bristling  with class solidarity when I read the condescending smugness of the Guardianistas looking down their liberal middle class noses as the 'false conscious' of those masses who can get so excited about what is after 'only a game'. For fuck's sake lighten up - its no wonder that  much of the Left are so alienated from the working class.

Footy (or soccer) isn't my game. But I can appreciate the passion and the drama of it. I can even sometimes appreciate the beauty of it when Brazil are at their best - although that does seem to be a completely different sport from the one that England play.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Just like Finchley ?*

The findings of the Saville report published today only confirm what should have been known all along - that this was an act of military repression against unarmed civilians. 

It's real significance lies  not in these  conclusions but in the reactions that it still provokes from unionists and apologists for the British authorities: That it was a 'waste of money' or that it should be set against attacks on the British army - particularly the Warren Point shootings - in a tit-for-tat manner. They show as little understanding now as they did at the time.

Unlike many people brought up as Catholics in this country, I am not of predominately Irish descent (one great-grandmother from County Leitrim). So  I didn't grow up on a diet of nationalist songs or tales about the 'boys back home' - although history O level at my school - taught by a priest - did spend a disproportionate time on Parnell and Home Rule, and prayers were offered for the Maze hunger strikers.

It wasn't really until I developed socialist ideas  that I came to understand  the injustices perpetrated in the name of British people in Northern Ireland. And that nationalism wasn't an abstract sentimentality but was inextricably linked to day-to-day struggles for employment and housing. 

And there lies the powerful significance of Bloody Sunday  - then and now - this wasn't a march commemorating some distant historical event or a tribal sense of communal pride - this was a march for civil rights. And those killed were very ordinary - and largely very young - working class people facing the full force of the state.

* Thatcher notoriously  claimed in 1981 that 'Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley'.

Monday 14 June 2010

Henry Vane The Younger

Continuing the occasional series of anniversaries of  slightly more obscure characters and events from the English Civil Wars:

Today is the anniversary of the execution in 1662 of Sir Henry Vane the Younger. To be honest it's not so much his life as his death that  I find most admirable:

He certainly doesn't really belong in the radical-pantheon of proto-democrats and socialists. In the Leveller disputes  he definitely took  the side of the men of property. He should be categorized as a patrician-republican in a similar vein to Arthur Hesilredge. Characterized by his belief in religious tolerance and the supremacy of parliament over the army, he belonged to  neither the Presbyterian  nor Army factions.  Consequently he followed a precariously independent path during the Republic and Protectorate.

With the restoration of the monarchy he was not initially targeted for retribution like so many leading parliamentarians. Essentially a 'moderate', Vane had actually refused to take part in the king's trial and  sentencing, but even so, the 'not-so merry monarch'  Charles II simply  deemed him 'too dangerous a man to be allowed to live'. 

At his execution he was noted for his calmness in delivering a long speech justifying his actions and those of the Republic. He also warned the axe-man to take care not to inflame the pain he was experiencing from a particularly large boil on his neck.

Vane is also thought to have probably had the distinction of coining the phrase 'The Good Old Cause' -  the rallying call for generations of radicals evoking the memory of the heady days of the English Republic.

Thursday 10 June 2010

The lonely musings of the long distance commercial traveller.

Back in the days when I was a studio manager I was virtually welded to my desk. I would regularly work a 12hour shift and felt that I couldn’t be away from the studio for much longer than it took to get a sandwich or I would loose control of what was going on. 

This was probably bollocks – but the thought of running my own diary and swanning around to meetings would have been a fantasy then. Nowadays it’s a curse – and I’ve just come to the end of a fortnight particularly dominated by having to doing it.   

But happily  ‘business travel’ is still far from typical of what I generally do and so has enough of a novelty to make me stop and think:

One trip was to Zurich, to pitch our services to a US owned multinational. Between the airport, the railway station, and the anonymous corporate HQ, I had no sense of actually being in Switzerland – or anywhere else specific for that matter. Staffed by shiny-eyed young aspiring execu-types drawn from across Europe and the US this was truly big business transcending nationality.

Another was to Thessaloniki to do a press pass on behalf of one of our clients - at least a  chance to use my technical skill rather than mere corporate whoring. I got only glimpses of the economic crisis in Greece. Lots of anarchist graffiti – a cab driver who suddenly became much more friendly when he discovered that I wasn’t German (for some reason I’m often mistaken for a German) – and a heavy riot police presence guarding some event at a conference centre. Staying at a typically ‘international’ business hotel didn’t really broaden my experience. Nor did my attempt to get a bit of culture in my downtime – the ancient city with all its associations with Alexander The Great and the Byzantines seems to have been rebuilt as an extensive shopping mall by the sea complete with Starbucks and GAP.

Strangely  the only trip in the past two weeks that actually made me think was to Blackburn, to pitch to a long established local business – one of the few still going up there.

I was shocked by the overwhelming post-industrial grimness of the town. Boarded-up shops, derelict factories, and significantly intact  BNP posters that anywhere else would have been defaced. It’s certainly not that I live a sheltered life – by any measurement my hometown of Tottenham is one of the poorest in the country. But even the most deprived parts of London have a certain life and vibrancy to them. In Blackburn there seemed to be a sense of hopelessness – from the Asian cabbie who took me to my meeting and regretted leaving his shop in Southall to join his family up here twenty years ago and now couldn’t afford to move out - to the white cabbie who took me back  - and jovially moaned about the ‘fooking pakis’ all the way. 

I suppose I really knew it already – but it was a reminder that London and the rest of England are very different places.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

John McDonnell. Bad taste old boy ...

Poor old John McDonnell - what little chance he had to be a serious contender for the Labour leadership was probably scuppered by his gag at the GMB hustings about going back in a time machine to assassinate Thatcher. It's not a great gag maybe  but it's an honest reaction probably shared by any socialist  who has lived through the Thatcher years, the Blairite betrayal and is now thinking 'here we go again' with the ConDems. Actually I suspect quite a few people will think that  a bit of passion and honesty makes a refreshing change from politeness and spin.

I remember a similar tumble-weed moment when I was on a Labour Students executive dominated by Clause4 / Democratic Left types (remember them  - they eventually morphed into the fresh-faced Blairites of '97 ?).

This was at the time of the IRA's Brighton bombing: At an  executive meeting one of these characters said we should put something out about the bombing and Thacher's narrow escape. Me -  being sensible for once -  said well yes obviously it was tempting and would be funny and all that -  but we should be careful about  how it might be perceived. Cue shocked faces all around and an awkward tumble-weed moment....

Whilst we're on the subject  -  I wonder how long it will be before it is considered acceptable for history students to speculate what would Britain have looked like if the bombing had succeeded ? 

It's just a thought of course  - I'm not implying anything - obviously that would be in poor taste ..

Monday 7 June 2010

Fight for your right to party ?

My daughter wanted to go on the Gaza demo this weekend. Remembering the demos from last year I wasn't too keen on her going on her own. I felt a bit bad about this - I went off on plenty of demos when I was her age - although back in those days the police hadn't become the twitchy rottweillers they seem to be now. I then felt worse when I heard that the Gazza protest had passed off without incident.

Then I head about this - a water-fight arranged for a hot afternoon in Hyde Park by some kids on Facebook. Perhaps disappointed by the lack of action at the Israeli embassy the  neathanderal coppers decided to treat the party as if it were a riot.

Friday 4 June 2010

History subverts religious nonsense

I can't understand  parents who bemoan their kids growing up. One of the biggest joys of being a parent is watching them figuring out the world for themselves. We had one of those impromptu family discussions in our house yesterday prompted by one of those delightfully innocent questions that cuts through all the bullshit of the polite grown up world - just why do religious people believe such obvious nonsense ?

I should explain that our kids have grown up in a thoroughly free-thinking household - but at their school they seem to be  largely  surrounded by friends who are either practicing Muslims of varying degrees of orthodoxy, or Evangelical Christians.  Either way - happily my kids genuinely struggle to comprehend the barminess of their friends' beliefs - both in  theory and practice - whether it's the concept of an imminent apocolypse and the bodily resurrection of our ancestors, or having at all costs  to cover your hair and not consume shellfish. 

We can try  to explain it to them in terms of psychology - religion gives people comfort, or in terms of sociology - it affirms people's cultural identity.  But on  a purely abstract level, having encouraged the application of reason in  every other aspect of their education, it's very difficult to explain religious belief in terms of anything else other than  wanton stupidity and simple superstition.

However I've found help  in the unlikeliest of places -  the BBC's 'History Of The World in 100 Objects' -  this week they have been looking at the rise of the major world religions. They do so in terms of power - both political and economic. The 15 minutes a day programmes chart why the big four religions we are stuck with today triumphed over other local 'pagan' religions. And clearly slow that was not because they were any more intellectually vigorous or morally superior, but because they won by  military conquest (Islam), or by providing the fabric of empire (Christianity and Hinduism) or by trade networks (Buddhism). Maybe the disciples of the Flying Spaghetti Monster were just less fortunate in their historical breaks.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Wallpaper and revolution

I am trying  my best to resist gracefully slipping into middle age. But my parents, with good intentions knowing my taste for history, recently gave myself and Mrs Journeyman a present of National Trust membership: I felt that I had finally become a card-carrying member of the tea-shop frequenting, garden viewing, beige wearing ranks of geriatric Middle England.

One of the first uses of our membership was visiting William Morris' Red House in Bexley Heath over the bank holiday weekend. The visit was a perfect example of the 'twee-ification' of history rendered by the National Trust to suit the bland palette of its constituency and demographic.

The house is of course very nice to look at. As are the well-tended gardens and the cafe in the coach house where 'light refreshments' are served. The terribly posh and earnest guide talked with passion about the architecture, the  hand-printed arts-and-craft wallpaper, and the neo-medieval frescos Morris had painted in the house. But managed at the same time to say virtually nothing about who Morris was or what he was about.

Nothing at all about his status as one of the unsung homegrown pioneers of English Socialism. Or the fact that the wallpaper and the frescos were an intrinsic part of a personal evolution that led to his disillusion with capitalism and adoption of revolutionary socialism. Or his sadness and frustration at the irony that the products of his design and manufacturing business could only be afforded by the middle classes .

I can guess how he would feel about the reproductions being sold in the gift shop. If nothing else I was inspired to dig out my copy of EP Thompson's biography of Morris.