Wednesday 27 April 2011

To AV or not AV ?

I've just taken the AV quiz on the Guardian website and apparently the conclusion drawn from my answers is:

You scored 52 out of a possible 85: A tactical voter or frustrated voter perhaps? You appear to want a different electoral system, and maybe the alternative vote is the one for you.

Obviously they don't have a method for computing a more accurate analysis of my motives:

You scored 52 out of a possible 85: A socialist who thinks that elections are as much about raising political consciousness as they are about the  actual result - regardless of which, the prospects of meaningful change are limited  so long as the system remains a capitalist one.  You want a different political system but regard dicking around with how we vote as nothing more than re-positioning deck chairs on the Titanic.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

'Some day our prince will come' ?

Like many other sane people I'm groaning under the weight of the media frenzy surrounding the marriage of William Windsor and Kate Middleton.

I find myself reaching for the calendar to remind myself that - yes it is really 2011 and still we are having to endure this monarchic nonsense. But on reflection there is a fairly recent new twist to this reincarnation of the people's princess: 

Previous royal-worshipping has been underpinned by deference and difference. They might display an occasional  condescending/endearing 'common touch' but ultimately the message is that the royals are simply better than the likes of you and me.  This time around though the message is that Kate is actually just like us. You know the sort of thing - her great grand-father was a miner and she's the ultimate girl next door (assuming you live in a fucking big house in Berkshire). 

Consequently her social trajectory is being portrayed as the ultimate evidence of an open society and the fulfilment of  some sort of American dream played in tweed and pearls.

In different ways the issue of social mobility has popped up in a few recent posts. In particular how  the most meaningful vehicle for social mobility - universally accessible free education to the highest level the individual is capable of attaining - is now being denied.  

In that context the whole  Middleton-phenomena is quite significant. It draws a line under the meritocratic mythology of the post-war boom - of working class boys done good through their own efforts and abilities - whether it was the grammar school technocrats of the Wilson era or  the cheeky geezers of swinging London. In it's place we have a return to the Cinderella story of the poor working  girl who becomes a princess.  

Of course having aspirational parents who own a successful business, a £1 million property in the shires, and being hockey captain at £30,000 a year Marlborogh College does give a girl a bit of a head start...

Thursday 14 April 2011

Clerkenwell crafts - nostalgia and melancholy

A really nice glimpse into a world of craftsmanship in Clerkenwell  today over at one of my favourite blogs.

My first job 'in the print' was in Clerkenwell. When I describe it to people now I am conscious that it sounds like something from the 1500's - in fact it was only the late '80s. I was  a production junior in pre press - having done a short course at the then London College of Printing - it was a backdoor route into the trade and the possession of that precious union card at a time when four year appenticeships were the norm and graduates virtually unheard of.

The first couple of years I spent in a small trade house was a fantastic education. My duties were general dogs-bodying around the studio and no small part of this was being a runner dropping off and collecting work around the small concentrated area of tenement-style buildings behind the Clerkenwell Road . These buildings were a warren of small businesses often with only half a dozen guys occupying  a single room and  engaged in  some very specific operation in the spectrum of arcane crafts that made up the 'print'. We were a lithographic planning/plate-making house - and that was all we did - so  a typical project would require me to scuttle back and forth from  the scanning house around the corner, the cromalin company next door, the wet proofers in the basement and the typesetters at the end of the street.

Thinking about it now I have no idea of how costs were recorded or even who was working for who - the client / supplier relationship would oscillate between different projects - often several times a day. It wasn't really clear either who was the management - most of the businesses were owned by one or two working managers who themselves were hands-on or 'on the bench'. Everybody seemed to have worked with - or for - everyone else at some point. And everyone of course was in 'the union'. In fact the union acted as part HR department and part recruitment agency - the officials were usually of the same generation as the working owners and they colluded in  placing their old mates in the best jobs. This was the age of the 'green list' and 'white card' when vacancies in other houses were only advertised by the union, from which you had to get a permission slip in order to go for an interview - to be presented to the Father Of Chapel before you spoke to  a prospective employer.

I'm almost getting dewy-eyed as I type all this - but of course the reality was a far cry from some sort of workers-controlled halcyon age. The system was rife was nepotism and corruption and a self-perpetuated  clique that kept out outsiders - particularly women and minorities - and a culture of bullying apprentices / juniors was almost institutionalised. But for centuries it created a layer of affluent skilled workers who took immense pride in what they did and didn't take too much shit from anyone. I feel privileged to have been a small part of that world for the last decade of its existence. By the mid '90s Thatcher, Murdoch and the Apple Mac had effectively killed it off. Some of us are still going having reinvented ourselves several times over in a digital age and shrouded ourselves in the bullshit of the 'creative industries'.

I suppose we are still a privileged little world - as working environments go it is probably better than most and a damn site better than the service industries and soulless white-collar jobs that nowadays  are the norm. But I can't helping thinking that nearly all those things that first drew me to it are now a part of history. And whilst there might be a whole lot of  renewal currently going on in  Clerkenwell, I did notice the other week  that the workshop where my first company was is now a gastro-bar packed with media-lovies...

Tuesday 12 April 2011

War by other means

The anniversary of the first man in space - Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin - is being celebrated not just by nostalgic  Stalinists but also in some unlikely places - with praise for Gagarin's proletarian origins or with wonder at the achievements of a 'planned ecomony'(albeit in a deformed workers' state).

But I just can't bring myself to join in this romantic view of the desire to 'boldy  go where no man has gone before'. Because you can't separate space exploration from the political context any more than you can detach adventures in the  exploration of the 'dark continet' from the brutality of the race for empire. As imperialism goes it doesn't get much more distasteful that the cold-war-by-other-means that was represented by the space race - culminating in the ultimate absurdity of sticking the stars and stripes in the moons surface and then going home again.

The thought that this represented some sort of pinnacle of  human achievement when at the same time as it was rushing to the stars, the Soviet Union was sending its own people to the gulags - or  the United States was busy  bombing an impoverished ex-colonial nation 'back into the stone age' -  is all rather obscene. 

As far as Yuri Gagarin  himself goes - by all accounts was a lovely chap from humble origins - but at the risk of repeating previous posts I'm afraid social mobility is no more evidence of social progress in space than it is here on earth.

Monday 11 April 2011

Young bullshit detectors

Owing no doubt to the large number of evangelical churches in my neck of the woods I have come  to accept the sight of people wandering around the streets clutching bibles like security blankets. 

Stepping back for a moment this is actually quite bizarre. I mean  they can't all be on their way to and from church and I can't imagine many real life scenarios in North London which require instant access to the surreal guidance of a holy book. To be fair though may be I underestimate the practicality of some of the seemingly crazy-shit advice such as this gem from Deuteronomy: 'If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity'.

It says something about my reaction to my own religious background that -  in a house groaning under the weight of books - until last week we didn't have a copy of the bible. 

Unlike myself, my kids have been brought up as freethinkers (and I use that old-fashioned term intentionally). So when my eldest asked if she could have a bible I didn't feel too concerned or threatened - she is of that age now when some of her friends are 'finding' religion and was just intrigued to check out what the attraction was.  Ironically through her friends she was probably better informed about Islam than she was about Christianity. So last time I visited my parents I borrowed on her behalf one of their several bibles (approved Catholic versions of course). 

A week later  I'm very happy to report that her independent findings are that from a historical, logical and ethical point of view the bible is every bit as nonsensical as I concluded myself at a similar age. In fact whilst I may have attuned my expectations to my environment she is stunned and outraged that so much dangerous and reactionary rubbish is treated with so much respect.

The revelation that 'religion is nonsense' is hardly an original topic for a blog post - but these days as a parent I set great store in trying to view things through the eyes of a young mind untainted by forty years of 'experience'. Sometimes it opens your eyes and makes you question some long held assumptions  - and just occasionally it reassures you of some fundamental truths that are worth be reminded of.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Is it ironic or just taking the piss?

We already know from  his outrageous lying and betrayal of  angst-ridden liberal Middle-England fretting over tuition fees that Nick Clegg has no sense of shame. Now in taking on the role of the government's champion of social mobility he  shows he has no sense of irony either.

You have to question just what PR genius came up with the idea of putting a toff  - with a few Russian aristocrats in his family tree who got his first career break when old-man got him an internship at a merchant bank and  who got into politics via the European Commission gravy train with the help of family neighbour Lord Carrington - in charge of social mobility. Even some hard-nosed mean spirited lower-middle class  type from the provinces (remember a certain  shopkeeper's daughter ?) would have had a bit more credibility.

I've said before that social mobility isn't all it's cracked up to be. And the obsession with getting 'ordinary' kids to Oxbridge as an index of this mobility (and take this from one such kid)  is hardly representative of a fairer society. BUT a lack of this mobility , or declining mobility such as we have nowadays, is conversely a pretty good indicator of a society that is choking on privilege and inequality.

And putting the bloke who probably more than any other in the ConDems personifies the shitting on the aspirations of working class kids - with the removal of EMA and increased university fees - just looks like gloating.

Friday 1 April 2011

In-fighting: actual & political

Like most people I live my life in neat compartments. In my case they correspond to the sub-headings of this blog. Once in a while one of these will spill into another:

My chosen martial art of Wing Chun has a pretty bad rep these days. Thirty years ago it was the bad-ass of the martial arts world. Partly this is a question of fashion - Karate exploded in the west in the sixties then in the seventies Wing Chun was the enfant terrible. The original  style of Bruce Lee  that by-passed the stylised formality and choreography  of traditional Karate and replaced it with the simple practicality of Hong Kong street fighting. Then along came along Brazilian Ju Jitsu and Mixed Martial Arts - the new kids on the block that made everything that went before look staid and unrealistic. Of course none of this is, or has ever been, true or does justice to any of these arts but always  in fashion perception is everything.

And the Wing Chun world imploded. We lacked the discipline and structure of the Japanese and Korean styles, which were also reinforced by the need for governing bodies for their sporting aspects, and we turned in on ourselves. Rival schools and lineages engage in wars of words - and less frequently of fists – trying to prove they are purer/more authentic / more effective than each other.  Some of this is just simple commercial rivalry – and some of it is born of a sense of inadequacy. Go online and have a look at any Wing Chun forum - it is a depressing minefield of infantile bitching and macho posturing. 

So sadly the style that I love and have practiced now for over 20 years is in some respects now frankly something of an embarrassment in the wider martial arts community.  But that doesn’t make we want to give up or change to another style - although it does make me less mindlessly loyal to my own tribe and a bit more reflective and respectful of other lineages, styles and traditions. Funnily enough talk to most mature practitioners of any martial art and you’ll often find the same. Maybe it’s because if you’re confident in what you doing, tolerance and open-mindedness isn’t a betrayal of your tradition.

And there’s an inescapable parallel to be drawn with the politics of the Left …