Monday 30 August 2010

View from a self-loathing (ex) Catholic

Back to blogging after the family holiday:

Catching up on the news in the Sunday papers there seems to be some talk along the lines of 'we're an oppressed minority too' by English Catholics in anticipation of the Pope's visit this month. This not only doesn't wash - it also strikes me as pretty offensive to draw comparisons with Islamo-phobia or antisemitism. A distasteful sort of  me-too-ism when there are real problems facing genuine minority groups.

Catholics in England - and I make the distinction here between England and Scotland or Northern Ireland where ascendant Presbyterian sectarianism has created a very different situation - haven't faced oppression for probably over a hundred years. To be a Catholic in England is now no more than a minor eccentricity with the added bonus of an education system that perpetuates your faith and is subsidised by the state. Any restrictions on marrying into the royal family and succession to the crown are archaic anomalies of our ludicrous pseudo constitution rather than a serious affront to any one's human rights. (In a historic context actually they are fairly understandable given the Church's uncanny  knack of being on the wrong side of most political disputes in this country ever since Pope  Innocent III excommunicated the rebel barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta and then declared the charter 'null and void').

As an ex-Catholic Atheist I can say all this without bitterness - I am not unduly damaged by my religious upbringing - it left me only with a possibly over developed since of 'duty' and guilt and gave me an education that was undeniably better than the equivalent non-faith state school up the road. I'd even argue that it is unfair that the first association in most people's minds with the Catholic Church is paedophilia - statistically I believe priests are no more likely to be abusers than many other groups: The real problem is a more fundamental and universal one that Catholicism simply propagates nonsense that is both dangerous and damaging to society and mankind as a whole.

Monday 9 August 2010

A sober pause

I'm not big on the rituals of baptisms, weddings and funerals. But on Sunday I attended such an event that stirred some genuine emotion for once:

Some people are so ever-present that they become part of the scenery and  Jamie (Panster) was one of these.

I wouldn't presume to say that I knew him, but he was a familiar face on the local bike scene from before I got into Harleys - at the tea hut, on toy runs, and just generally out and about on his beautiful old machines. And later, once I'd got my first Sportster, we would take a few minutes to chat whenever we bumped into each other - and he patiently helped me out with some sage technical advice.

Inevitably perhaps you take it for  granted that such people will always be around  - so I was more shocked than I could have imagined to hear that Jamie had been killed in an accident on his way to a rally last weekend.

He had requested that his ashes be scattered at the tea hut at High Beech - and this was what happened on Sunday. I can't think of a better resting place - now he will truly be a part of the scenery he loved. 

In all honesty I don't believe in an after-life, and I have no idea what 'RIP' means. But he certainly deserved a few respectful moments to mark his life - and  my thoughts are with all those who knew Panster better than I did.

Friday 6 August 2010

What's in a name ?

I live in the London Borough of Haringey - it is not a place name that has any great sentimental pull on most of its inhabitants. Most people who live there would probably identify themselves as residents of a more specific and recognisable district - in my case Tottenham.

I would probably go as far as to say that the more artificially contrived  the name of the local government body of an area the less likely people are to identify with it. For example my home town of Staines is now officially the Borough Of Spelthorne - an even more  anodyne and bland name choice.

The rationale behind these place names is not really historic or geographic but political. They both revive some fairly obscure historic connections  - Haering  was a Saxon chief who gave his name to the district of Harringay which confusingly is just a very small part of Haringey and Spelthorne was a hundred recorded in the Doomsday book. In other words these names may mean  bugger-all to the inhabitants for generations but they don't actually offend anyone or stir up any local rivalries.

Strangely, although  the  suburb where I grew up feels  a world away from the inner city borough I now live in , both are part of the same historic  county of Middlesex. So purely by coincidence  and in a theoretical sense only, I've spent almost all of my life there - despite the fact that the county hasn't existed as a local government entity since 1964 - just before I was born. But it did  live on  as an optional postal address -  however the final nail in Middlesex's coffin has been driven  in now that  it has just been announced that the Post Office is going to remove counties from postal addresses.

Over the years my 'homeland' has been messed about with quite a bit as far as local government goes - at various times it has  been:
• The land of the Trinovantes (the pre-Roman tribal area)
• Camulodunum / Londinium (under the Romans)
• Maxima Caesariensis (the Late Roman province)
• Middlesex (land of the Middle Saxons)
• Essex  (transferred following Saxon internecine wars)
• Mercia (transferred again to avoid being taken into the Danelaw)
• Then back to Middlesex for  nine centuries or so ...
• Until in  1889 when  the metropolitan bit was hived off to become  the County of London ...which in 1964 was re-branded as Greater London, with the remaining bits  of Midldlesex parceled out to neighbouring Surrey and Hertfordshire.

In these days when local government is the main deliverer and consequently now the main cutter of public services there are unquestionably far more important issues to get worked up about than place names.

But in fact the two things are not unconnected - it comes down to  entitlement, accountability and democracy - and people feeling that an area belongs to them. Names are political and can be manipulated to change how people feel about them. Just think of the ever changing names for our main welfare state body in recent years - the DHSS, the DSS, the DWP  -  all bureaucratic nonsense perhaps -  but also an effective  and cynical tactic to make these bodies appear more obscure and less readily defended by the people that need them.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Right on Tony

A working class hero is something to be - and unfortunately Tony Benn isn't. But without a doubt, outside of  small introspective activist circles, he's the most universally respected and authentic voice on the Left.

The statement he has issued today  offers nothing  that hasn't already been said before -  but it still puts everyone else in the Labour Party to shame. So much so, it's worth repeating in full here:

'It is time to organise a broad movement of active resistance to the Con-Dem government's budget intentions. They plan the most savage spending cuts since the 1930s, which will wreck the lives of millions by devastating our jobs, pay, pensions, NHS, education, transport, postal and other services.
The government claims the cuts are unavoidable because the welfare state has been too generous. This is nonsense. Ordinary people are being forced to pay for the bankers' profligacy. The £11bn welfare cuts, rise in VAT to 20%, and 25% reductions across government departments target the most vulnerable – disabled people, single parents, those on housing benefit, black and other ethnic minority communities, students, migrant workers, LGBT people and pensioners.
Women are expected to bear 75% of the burden. The poorest will be hit six times harder than the richest. Internal Treasury documents estimate 1.3 million job losses in public and private sectors.
We reject this malicious vandalism and resolve to campaign for a radical alternative, with the level of determination shown by trade unionists and social movements in Greece and other European countries.
This government of millionaires says "we're all in it together" and "there is no alternative". But, for the wealthy, corporation tax is being cut, the bank levy is a pittance, and top salaries and bonuses have already been restored to pre-crash levels.

An alternative budget would place the banks under democratic control, and raise revenue by increasing tax for the rich, plugging tax loopholes, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, abolishing the nuclear "deterrent" by cancelling the Trident replacement.
An alternative strategy could use these resources to: support welfare; develop homes, schools, and hospitals; and foster a green approach to public spending – investing in renewable energy and public transport, thereby creating a million jobs.
We commit ourselves to:
• Oppose cuts and privatisation in our workplaces, community and welfare services.
• Fight rising unemployment and support organisations of unemployed people.
• Develop and support an alternative programme for economic and social recovery.
• Oppose all proposals to "solve" the crisis through racism and other forms of scapegoating.
• Liaise closely with similar opposition movements in other countries.
• Organise information, meetings, conferences, marches and demonstrations.
• Support the development of a national co-ordinating coalition of resistance.
We urge those who support this statement to attend the Organising Conference on 27 November 2010 (10am-5pm), at Camden Centre, Town Hall, London, WC1H 9JE.

Tony Benn

Monday 2 August 2010

Relaxing not killing

I've got a lot of time for Benjamin Zephaniah - but I have to say that in  one of the captions for his  photo-story in The Guardian today illustrating a recent trip to China, he reinforces a cliche about the martial arts:   

'I checked myself into a kung fu/t’ai chi school for two weeks. People in the west perceive t’ai chi to be a gentle form of exercise – what they don’t realise is it’s a deadly martial art. This girl is 15 and a t’ai chi master – she could kill someone within a moment if she wanted to...'

It's all been said before... technique triumphs over force, what appears gentle actually kicks ass, blah blah blah. We all know the potential for maximizing the effectiveness of physical violence so how about a different take ? :

'These guys are the best of friends and they're really just having fun together. One is a scholar and the other a successful businessman much-respected in his community.  Their training helps  maintain their mental health when coping with the stresses of daily life. They don't want to kill anybody':