Friday 27 December 2013

Henry Hyndman and Hampstead

A long traditional Boxing Day walk yesterday taking in part of  the 'Northern Heights' that winds it way across my bit of Northern London - from Alexandra Park to Hampstead Village and back.

This western side of Haringey couldn't be more different from Tottenham - and the walk was rather like taking a cross section through the underbelly of the chattering classes. Barbours, Hunter wellies, those South American hats with the ear flaps,  and all-terrain baby buggies were out in abundance.  The pub at the end of the walk was full of them.  Opposite the pub a blue-plaque on an imposing Victorian mini-mansion caught my geeky eye.  

Here lived Henry Hyndman, founder of the first 'Marxist' organisation in Britain. Also sometime Tory toff kicked out of the Liberal Party, ego-maniac and control freak. He managed to piss off Marx when he wrote a crude introduction to Marxist ideas without mentioning Marx at all. But most significantly he shattered his own organisation and drove out the best elements like William Morris and Eleanor Marx. Amongst other things, he did so by making some seriously fucked-up political decisions including taking money from the Tory party in return for splitting the Liberal vote, and supporting Britain's involvement in the Great War. His final political incarnation was in an organisation with the unfortunate name of the National Socialist Party.

In effect he began the phenomenon of ruling class interlopers screwing up the labour movement - a torch that was picked up most effectively in recent times by Tony Blair. And he couldn't have found a more fitting place to be commemorated than Hampstead Village.

Sunday 15 December 2013

Make room in Tottenham

I've been living here for over 25years  - and watched as Tottenham became left behind whilst so many of the surrounding areas have become gentrified. 

And this isn't a blog about house prices. I don't care about that because I believe that a house is somewhere to live and be comfortable, not a financial investment. But I do care that over these years Tottenham has become ghetto-ised rather than gentrified. A downward spiral of smothering low aspirations and low opportunities in every respect - not just in terms of employment but also in political self-belief.

In the past couple of years things have started to change. Not without controversy, the local council, the mayor's office and Spurs FC have begun a process of 'regeneration'. And let's be clear this policy is about exploiting commercial opportunities and carrying through the 'ethnic cleansing' of the ConDem's austerity program that will drive the poor out of the inner city housing with benefit caps.

It's a local joke that we turned the corner when a run-down record shop that was a favourite hang-out for local youth for years was replaced with a branch of Costa Coffee. In fact that was quite a symbolic change. Good news for the incoming young middle class - not so good for the communities that are already here and fast being left behind.

But it doesn't have to be this way. This weekend I looked in at a tiny pop-up art gallery that has been operating out of a closed down Caribbean take-away. It's the work of a local project aptly called 'Make Room'. A friend of mine who is an art teacher at a local school arranged an exhibition there for some of his pupils' work. It gave them a voice to  put some  input into the changes that are happening around them - and to think of themselves as proper artists.

Of course Tottenham needs a damn site more than community arts projects - and the thought of turning the area into the new Hoxton sends a shudder down my spine. But praise where it's due: Thank fuck for projects like this - and for the commitment of people like my friend - it shows that amidst all the corporate bullshit and political spin, there can be a genuine meaning for local people in 'regeneration'.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

The dangers of political sects

The emerging story of the Brixton 'slaves'  and the obscure Maoist sect is a gift to Left-bashers.

From obsessive anarchist anti-Marxists to Daily Mail witch-hunters, there is a smug sense of told-you-so. So let's be clear - there are some truly bonkers groups on the Left. And some truly bonkers individuals too. Any activist who has been around the block will have encountered their fair share of them. And also, sadly, the needy, the eccentric and the vulnerable.

It is not a phenomenon restricted to the Left. From amateur dramatic societies, to bible groups and motorcycle clubs - some  people will always  try to find a haven away from the mainstream.

 Society, particularly capitalists society, fucks people up in all sorts of ways and drives them towards some sort of refuge or release. And the flip-side, even more  sadly, is that these havens are also a magnet for the predatory, the manipulative and the exploitative - or simply those that enjoy being a big fish in a small pond.

Throw in some sort of legitimation for authority (and all those groups mentioned above have that) and there is the potential for some pretty nasty mind games.  The Brixton Maoist loony-tunes are a horrible and extreme example. But not unique - in the not too distant past the cases of the WRP and the RCP also spring to mind.

I am not going to jump on any reactionary bandwagon that rubs its hands in glee at these horror stories. But it is a salutary reminder to any activist - whatever organisation or campaign you are involved in - are you doing it simply because you want to change the world for the better -  does it fill some psychological vacuum in your life - have you been manipulated into thinking it will - or even worse do you get off on the whole closed-little world? 

In my experience the best revolutionaries are reluctant revolutionaries who would rather be with their families, down the pub or pursuing some unpolitical hobby. Only a peculiar cocktail of anger, solidarity  and education obliges them to be active.

Monday 11 November 2013

Remembrance hi-jacked

Every year I end up writing something about Remembrance. And looking back at previous posts it seems that every year I become increasingly ambivalent about poppy-wearing. Because recently the Remembrance campaign has become more and more jingoistic.

I was listening to Radio 4 on Sunday morning to a plummy vicar who talked about his father having flown 'Lancaarster' bombers in WW2 and then went on to talk about how angry he was at people (like me) who criticise the flag-waiving aspects of  Remembrance. This was then followed immediately by the massed bands at the cenotaph striking up 'Rule Britannia'. Rule-fucking-Britannia. If every there was a less appropriate tune to open a ceremony that supposedly marks the suffering and sacrifice of two generations in the World Wars. 

And I say two World Wars because that is what Remembrance is about - as I have said before. 

Not because killed and injured servicemen in other conflicts are not important but because these global  conflicts involving citizen-armies and civilian populations is qualitatively different from the Falklands, the Gulf Wars or Afghanistan. And yet much of this year's commemorations focused on scenes from Camp Bastion, and on casualties from recent conflicts.  Needless to say the same coverage did not feature  the scandalous treatment of  servicemen from these conflicts - particularly  how ATOS is now making them jumping through hoops to limit their disability benefits for example. 

Remembrance is not the same as 'Help For Heroes'. It is a time for reflection about the broader nature of war - the big questions and the awkward questions that go to the very heart of everything that is wrong with the world. No wonder these are swept under the carpet whilst the band strikes up a stirring tune.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Friday 25 October 2013

Racism and pedophiles

Genetics are a funny old business. I am distinctly Anglo-Saxon looking. My partner is Mediterranean-looking.  And one of our daughters has often been mistakenly assumed to be mixed-race. Fortunately we have never had the police swoop down to take away our daughter because of this aesthetic mis-match. 

But then again we are not part of a minority group that have been persecuted for centuries.

On the other hand the recent cases of Roma parents in Ireland having their blond kids taken away sends a chilling reminder that Third Reich-style racial theories are not far from the surface in some people's minds.

And I can't help but make a contrast between the readiness to believe that Roma families have kidnapped children to the decades-long denial and cover-up of White celebrity pedophiles.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Teachers - the new vanguard of the movement ?

A new experience for me today. Like many NUT and NASUWT members in London, I am on strike.

Ironic really after all those years spent in the highly unionized world of 'the print', but despite having a high level of control over control over the workplace that amazes many people, I was never personally on strike. 

We routinely refused work that came in from non-union firms, the NGA supervised apprenticeships and training, and the green list/white card system gave the union an (often corrupt) virtual control of hiring - but nowhere I worked  ever actually had a strike.

Maybe this is not so surprising. The firms I worked in, like most printing houses, were small/medium sized businesses. Relations in the workplace were generally pretty good, but any real sort of dispute would have been very up close and personal -  and was so generally avoided.

My experience of schools has been very different. In recent years, teachers have almost become one of the new militant vanguards of the labour movement. But in a very genteel kind of way.

At my school at the head's briefing one Monday morning, the reps of the two major unions were politely invited to addresses everyone about the issues and arrangements for the strike. As today got closer, the head invited us, although emphazising that we were not obliged to notify him, if anyone was planning to work on the strike day so he could make a decision as to catering arrangements. 

Of course the strike today is about the government not about an individual headteachers, and I am sure that many enlightened heads who are at the forefront of Gove's attacks will take a sympathetic attitude. But it still made me think of how a one day strike would have been handled in my former life. 

Even in the glory days of the NGA, I suspect that bitterness and intimidation (of one sort or another) would have been the first reaction from management. Doubly so these days, and so for many many non-union workers in the private sector  strike action has become almost unthinkable. 

Most teachers I speak to seem blissfully unaware of this situation - just as in the old days printers took it for granted that the union would always be there  to protect us. 

In some ways this  mindset is fantastic - but it is not without its dangers. Sadly the strength that any group of workers gets under capitalism is essentially fragile.

Friday 4 October 2013

Open evening

Until I got into teaching I never paid much attention to them, but now I see them everywhere I look: On the back of buses there are adverts on the back on buses for local schools.

There's a definite  formula for these things - an earnest looking kid in immaculate uniform and some sort of strap-line with a meaningless bit edu-corporate bollock-speak - such as  inspire aspire achieve. And of course the inevitable statistical factoid about that all important % of five A-Cs at GCSEs. It's a game that all schools seem to play  nowadays and it's a natural expression of the creeping introduction of market mechanisms into education and the sacred-cow of illusory  'parental choice'.

The other day I was at the sharp end of this. I spent a twelve hour day at school because of the annual open evening for prospective parents. I was dreading the idea of spending hours pimping out the school and trying to big it up at the expense of our local 'competitors'. I had flashbacks to some of the horrors of my previous life trying desperately  to drum up business in order to survive.

Fortunately this was not the case. Happily my school is one of an endangered species - a thriving community comprehensive school under local authority that is popular in the area. For the moment at least, the admissions criteria is staggeringly simple - if you live in the right postcode you get in and if you don't then you won't.

In my time, I've been one of those parents looking at schools and it is reassuring to see where your kids are going to be educated - so I have no problem with giving up an evening to provide this reassurance. 

But the idea that we are actually selling ourselves against other schools is ridiculous and deeply disturbing. Quite simply, until every school in every area attends a thriving community comprehensive that all local kids automatically attend, then the idea of some semblance of equality of opportunity is just a fantasy.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Performance pay. The salesman as role model.

In one  survey it is reported that something like 80% of people support performance related pay for teachers. Of course there will have been some manipulative bullshit leading question to arrive at that statistic. But it is depressing how all-pervasive the so called 'common sense' of market values of the private sector have become.

As someone who spent many years working in the private sector - some of them in the peculiar position of being both trade unionist and boss - I can testify that the idea that by some magical process hard work is rewarded is a myth

For the vast majority of private sector workers who aren't bankers - their pay packets simply bear no relation to relation to how hard they work or even how successful the companies they work for are. In a good year a company might splurge a bit more on the Xmas party and that's about it - and a few more sausage rolls makes a pretty poor incentive for the next twelve months. 

In most businesses the only people who get significant bonuses are the sales people. Collective bargaining tends not to be in the DNA of this species. So the best rewarded of this obnoxious elite group are as a rule the pushiest and the greediest, and when it comes to improving their sales figures - often simply the luckiest. In most companies this situation is grudgingly accepted by their colleagues because ultimately  the rest of the workforce depend on the sales these reptiles generate.

How did it happen that this 'necessity' has been elevated into a virtue? And how the fuck does it translate to a supposedly caring profession ?

Monday 2 September 2013

New boy again

Today most schools go back for the start of a new academic year. And I might be one of the few teachers for whom this day just can't come soon enough.

It has been 693 days since I was made redundant and experienced the sensation that a trap door had fallen open under my feet. If feels like a long wait.

Unlike thousands of other people who have experienced the same thing in the past few years, I was lucky. Because for me it was only a few days before I'd managed to re-orientate myself. Because I was able to dust off a qualification that I had from twenty five years ago. And because I was able to get on to  a course that enable me to start a new life. 

Admittedly, I had to wait through a nervous year of ducking and diving before the course began - but thousands are now permanently consigned to the ranks of the precariat. And admittedly I had to go through the emotional and intellectual roller-coaster of being an old dog learning new tricks on my teacher training course.  But thousands of other middle aged people are now being put on the scrap heap half way through their working lives - and even more young people are never even getting the chance to start a working life. 

So despite feeling a sense of excitement, nervousness, and generally being overwhelmed, that I have not experienced since the last time I faced my first day at 'big school' - today I am feeling  generally pleased with my lot.

Monday 26 August 2013

Goldman-Sachs' nauseating hypocrisy

 I went to the excellent Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum today. 

To my dismay the very first display board was from the sponsors, the leading one being Goldman-Sachs. They proudly announce:

 'We believe that exhibitions like this encourage and inspire the exchange of ideas and perspectives across generations, enriching the lives of many'.

This nauseating pomposity from the same people whose dodgy dealings in sub-prime mortgages in the USA precipitated the global economic crisis that is currently fucking up the lives of millions who live on this planet. So much for those perspectives across generations and the enrichment of the lives of many.

Fortunately I gritted my teeth and made it past the initial display. The exhibition was full of insight into the daily lives of ordinary Romans that would be otherwise unknown to us. And it did this in a way which also managed to be quite poignant and sensitive to the tragedy of their deaths. 

In fact it represented everything that the amoral corporate fuckers at Goldman Sachs aren't.

PS: I am already looking forward to the Vikings exhibition at the British Museum next year. Apparently it will be sponsored by BP. No doubt they will put up a board with some bollocks about their commitment to the preservation of  the world's heritage sites for future generations.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

In defence of the beard

It must be silly season when Paxo's newly grown beard attracts controversy. But as it is silly season, I think it is time to speak up in defence of beards. I have always felt that historically the clean-shaven have represented the forces of repression. Romans, Normans and Nazis were all notoriously anti-beard. 

I also wonder if it is any coincidence that when capitalism was in its progressive and creative phase, in the early nineteenth century, there was a rich variety of expression in facial hair. Ever since, as capitalism has plunged into decline and degeneration, facial hair has been pushed to the margins of beatniks and hipsters. To the point that these days you would be hard pushed to find a bearded senior banker.

Friday 9 August 2013

Liberating highway to the sun

My dad used to have an old AA Gazetteer from the 1960s that talked about the 'Highway To The Sun'. This was the age when motoring was a recreation not a daily chore. And the highway was the A303, the old trunk road to Exeter and 'The English Riviera'. It is also the same road that snakes its way across the sacred landscape of Salisbury Plain.

In my mind it is the road of megaliths and - for some equally mysterious reason - of endless Little Chefs. And this week I took a ride down it as part of a road trip to visit an old friend who has made a new life in the West Country. 

Along with the road from Glasgow to Oban through the Highlands, it is one of  my favourite rides, perfect for a motorcycle and full of stop-off points.

Naturally I had to pull over at Stonehenge,  although the crowds meant that I didn't make it past the entrance to the car park. I have no answer to the problem of preserving (or more accurately recreating) that very special atmosphere that defines the site as much as the stones - whilst still satisfying the right of public access. Although I suspect a Neolithic theme park built at the foot of the M3 would satisfy many of those punters who currently go there.

Strangely my westward-bound  visit, which was long over-due, was in many ways a mirror image of my  regular east-bound trips to the Fens to visit my friends there. Like them, the family are living a life of not so much dropping out of modern capitalism, as dropping in to a way of self-reliant, small-scale living that has actually endured -  albeit under threat -  in the countryside for centuries.  

They live in a late medieval Devon Longhouse, and with the obvious exception of the laptop and internet connection which provides a connection to another world and its sources of income, the daily routine based around the family kitchen would have be familiar to previous generations of occupants.  Or so it seemed to this city boy who has only just become liberated from twenty five years of commuting to work down the same streets and unwittingly treating the family home as a dormitory.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

The temptations of Facebook

I am back after a couple of weeks in France -  and happily managed to dodge the royal birth and the deferential cheer-leading that goes with it. I have no more to say about the birth of the new prince - and you'll see why in a minute:

These days, thanks to smart phones, going on holiday is not the isolating experience that it used to be. Rather than a hermit-like couple of weeks away from the news, thanks to Facebook and blogs, you remain connected to the world albeit through a rather peculiar lens.

So my awareness of the royal birth derived from what I read through the posts of my Facebook friends. Unsurprisingly, most of these are of a generally left/liberal/republican persuasion and a significant number of them have a reasonable sense of humour. But far too many of them felt obliged to post 'me-too' posts either taking the piss out of the new prince or making all-too obvious points about the birth. And if I had been at home, I would probably have done exactly the same thing.

But with the benefit of a bit of a distance I realised that we really don't need all this. All those posts may make us chuckle for a few seconds -  and that's fine -  but  more worryingly they give us a sense of smug self-righteousness that in so doing we have somehow struck a blow for something or other.  I  recall that back in the 1980s Billy Bragg used to sing something about 'wearing badges is not enough in times like these'. Maybe Facebook posts are the new badges.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Ed finally breaks the union link?

It would be an ironic twist of history that Ed-the-geek, the non-entity who crept into leadership only  because he was the least offensive option to the power-brokers of the Labour Party, should be the one who crosses the Rubicon and breaks the links with the unions.

Let's be clear that the arrangement whereby trade union members had affiliated membership of the party and where local branches affiliated to local parties and made up the general management committees of constituency parties never made Labour the worker-controlled party that the rhetoric would suggest. 

From its earliest days there was a mixture in the party membership of the middle class and workers. In earlier time the middle class component was drawn from intellectuals, bohemians and that layer of the middle class engaged in 'public service professions'. It is very different today. As both  UNITEs Len McCluskey and the CWU's Billy Hayes have pointed out in the past few days, Labour is now run by and for not working people but by a political class -  and politics has become a posh boy's game. 

Possibly the rot goes back to Harold Wilson - the working class grammar school boy who never actually worked outside of the union and party machine. Even coming from a working class background and having worked in a proper job has historically been no guarantee that individuals would continue to represent workers' interests - Ernest Bevin springs to mind as personifying the phenomenon of the thoroughly capitalist and collaborationist union baron.

But - in spite of all these caveats - the union link did mean something. The fact that local parties were structurally tied to local unions meant that at times some sort of control could be exercised. And so at certain times by a fragile,  indirect and imperfect process, the party was forced to reflect workers' interests - the 1945 government is the obvious example of this, but so too are the battles within the party in the 1970s.

Miliband's announcement yesterday  only goes to complete a process begun by Kinnock in the 1980s to make Labour finally free of this increasing  tenuous link. Surely nobody on the Left can now argue that there is any life still remaining in the Labour corpse. 

It defied all logic that some elements were arguing that this corpse could somehow be revived. Ironically it was McCluskey's own belief in this - brought to a head by the Falkirk affair - that has been the catalyst for Miliband's announcement. Incidentally McCluskey's welcoming reaction to the announcement may at first seem bizarre - but of course the removal of mass party membership will not represent the end of union funding only the breaking of automatic union funding. In fact it may even boost the power of union bosses in giving them the power to opt to make donations to party funds in return for influencing policies - possibly taking Labour even closer to the type of lobbying and power-play machinations seen in the Democratic party in the US. 

The only upside of all this is that it might just kill of the  few remaining illusions that people may have left in Labour.

Sunday 30 June 2013

Al-Andalus: 'The ornament of the world'

I am stocking up my holiday reading -  one of the perks of my new life is I can say that reading history is now actually part of my job. At the moment I am reading The Ornament of The World - a history of Muslim Spain.

It's appropriate timing for all sorts of reasons: Every few days we hear another story about Gove's plans to re-orientate school history towards Britain's glorious and civilizing relationship with the rest of the world, and even more worrying every few days there seems to be another story about another attack on a mosque, Islamic school or community centre. You don't have to be a paranoid liberal to see a connection between the two trends. 

Which is why re-telling the largely forgotten  story of Al-Andalus might just be a timely addition to the school curriculum. Whilst most of Medieval Europe was in the grip of a near Church-monopoly on culture and ideology, Al-Andalus was for nearly 800 years, a prototype multicultural society where Muslims, Jews and Christians not only co-existed but actually interacted to produce a flourishing centre of arts and knowledge.

And the major threats to this society were religious hardliners of all faiths: Invading Fundamentalist Berber Muslims from North Africa who objected to the tolerance of the Ummayad regime, and Jews and Christians who objected to their own communities' adoption of Arabic culture. Ironically the final downfall of Al-Andalus was at the hands of the much celebrated El-Cid - a mercenary who had spent much of his life fighting for Muslim princes who bore a Muslim name.

I am aware that it is always dangerously ahistorical to transplant our own values to an age which was so fundamentally different to our own. But in these dark days of prejudice and mis-information it might just be worth trying to redress the balance with a look at a story that challenges the lie of an inevitable 'clash of civilisations'. It's a lie perpetuated both by the likes of Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, and in a more respectable and articulate form, by Michael Gove and Nial Fergusson.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

The sinister face of British policing

Talking to some of my Turkish friends about the reports  of police brutality in the recent protests, you might get the impression that our own British bobbies are cut of a qualitatively different cloth.

Then just a couple of days apart, we get two shocking stories about the sinister machinations of our own police forces: 

Firstly, that an undercover cop was involved in writing the leaflet that prompted the McLibel case - the longest ever libel trial in British history. And secondly that another one was assigned the mission of digging up any dirt he could find that might discredit the Lawrence family's campaign to bring the racist murderers of their son to justice.

There's an element of humour in the first story, is so far that maybe McDonald's should now sue the Met police. Although I doubt the activists who devoted over a year of their lives to defending themselves  will find it quite so funny.  We already knew that the police had infiltrated anti-fascist organisations around the time of the Welling demo - but the news that they had done the same to the Stephen Lawrence campaign is beyond belief. Especially given what we now know about the police racism, incompetence and corruption that ran throughout their investigation.

Just as the British ruling class have been around longer than most, and consequently generally manage to keep us in our place with a seemingly lighter touch than in many countries - so maybe the police can afford to keep the water cannon and the tear gas back in reserve whilst they concentrate on 'black-ops.'

And if that sounds all a bit too paranoid, we should remember that  British history is riddled with instances of the state using infiltrators and provocateurs. Even before we had a police force, the Jacobean secret service connived in Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder plot to provoke an anti-Catholic back lash.  And government spies manipulated an emerging radical-democrat movement in the Cato Street Conspiracy as an excuse to bring in repressive legislation.

Of course all of this was in an age before the incentives of  book deals and fifteen minutes of fame to tease police whistle-blowers out of the woodwork - I predict more of these disturbing stories will follow ...

Saturday 8 June 2013

Solidarity with Taksim Square

In my part of North London we have a large Turkish and Kurdish community, with a whole host of very visible political and community organisations . 

Over the past few years I have had the privilege of working quite closely with one of them. They have unfailingly taken the position of working in a non-sectarian way with any section of the Left - or anyone else come to that - who shares their broad aims when it comes to local campaigns, and they have put their enviable facilities and resources at our disposal.

Very occasionally you get from them just a hint of exasperation at the sometimes pathetic nature of the British Left. Whilst we are arguing about the number of revisionists who can balance on a pinhead, and sometimes struggle to  mobilise two men and a dog, they regard any turnout of less than about fifty to a meeting as something of an embarrassment. 

And they are quite right. In so many ways their organisation is a microcosm of what a healthy new movement could and should be like in this country - part cultural, part social, part educational,  wholly inclusive and  none the less wholly political for it.

And I'm writing this because right now I am awe of their mobilisation of solidarity for what is going is Taksim Square. Frankly, they make the rest of us look like we are in a coma.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Back in the game

Blogging has slipped onto the back burner this month.

It's the point in the year when my teaching training got to crunch time - not quite qualified yet but on the last home straight - and the scramble to get a job for September before the recruitment window closes. Happily, after a stressful few weeks I've managed to do this. 

After my redundancy two years ago and dodging about as a member of the precariat and as a born-again student,  I will finally be back in the ranks of the PAYE wage slaves again. And it feels good. Doing something after all those years that I actually give a toss about, and with the added bonus of doing it locally and for the first time in thirty years working in the same community as the one I live in rather than commuting.

But yet again, I feel a twinge of resentment when I hear teaching contrasted with the 'real world' - or when I hear Gove whinging about the standard of recruits to the teaching profession. Because over the past few weeks I've felt on several occasions that getting an entry level teaching job is on a par with joining the SAS. 

In the real world that I once inhabited interviews consisted of a quick phone call and a twenty minute chat with a manager - or if you were a manager and going for a job paying twice the salary of a teacher, maybe sending a CV and a half hour chat in a bar. 

On the other hand for the past few weeks I've been going to interviews where I had to teach lessons on subjects I had no previous knowledge of to kids I have never met, which were then deconstructed by a panel under an Ofsted-shaped microscope lens. Followed by a panel interview and if I was really unlucky, a student panel too. And that circus typically lasted the whole day as the candidates were kept hanging around like X-factor wannabes awaiting a final decision from Simon Cowell.

But it's done with now -  and I'm back in the game.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Farage - fool or Fascist ?

Many years ago reading 'England Your England' I thought George Orwell was on to something when he said that in this country socialism would have to have a distinctly English flavour.  A tradition rooted in John Bull, John Lillburne and  William Morris as much Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. And much as I respect all those dead Russians - I agree with him.

Conversely the results for UKIP this week lead me to think that reaction in this country will also wear a similarly English face. 

The real threat to the working class has never really been social inadequates with Adolf Hitler's initials tattooed on their necks. It is the saloon bar bigots in blazers sipping ale from tankards. 

Whilst it is clear that Boris's bumbling persona cunningly  conceals an intelligent - and thoroughly nasty - political operator - the jury is still out on Nigel Farage.  I can't make my mind up if he really is the Alan Partridge of the new British Far-Right or if this is a genius construct to woe the ranks of alienated Middle England. 

If the former then I have no doubt he will be replaced as UKIP grows - either way we should be worried. An effective populist-nationalist movement has never really  achieved critical mass in this country. They might just do it yet.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Tories. Nasty then. Nasty now.

Maggie may be dead and buried - but the spirit of the thoroughly nasty party is alive and well.

I should know better, but I fell of my chair when I read the extraordinary story about Sussex  Tory Councillor John Cherry. He's the NIMBY racist who caused a minor shit storm in his reaction to the news that a South London Academy was going to set up a boarding school - for inner city kids - in his little patch of Middle England.

In an echo of the Smethick by-election Cherry says that the prospect of letting these kids - who he says will be 98% Black and Asian - out into the local villages will create a 'sexual volcano.'

He does concede that it wouldn't be so bad if these bussed-in 'ethnics' were Chinese or Indian because apparently these groups have a hard-working academic ethic. But he is quite clear that he doesn't want any Pakaistanis - because that group are 'uncertain what hard work is'.

Sadly, the interaction of class, culture and institutional racism means that there is a grain of truth in his observations about the over and under achievement of various groups. Although if he did his homework further he'd have found that one of the most under-achieving groups of all is the  "white British'.

Councillor Cherry has swiftly apologised and resigned and the Tories are of course now desperately back-peddling.  Cherry's views certainly don't sit well with the metro-savvy Notting Hill-ite wing. But I suspect that Cherry  just said what many of the Tory loyalists in the shires actually think.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Ding Dong. Trafalgar Square.

Last night, like many other right-minded people  I was wandering around Trafalgar Square looking for a celebration that was never going to be truly adequate.

About thirty years ago I was planning a very different kind of celebration.The 1983 'Falklands election' was the first one I was able to vote in. I had just turned 18 and somewhat still naive. I was possibly one of the few who was confidently expecting a Labour victory on the night of 9th June. Even in those pre-Miners's Strike days, how could it be otherwise ? 

So we stayed up all  night at a friend's house watching the results come in, fortified by way too many cans of Carlsberg Special Brew as celebration turned to sorrow-drowning. For some reason we went into school the next day - looking very much the worse for wear -  and were advised by a friendly teacher that it would probably be in everyone's interests if we discretely went home.

So it was with a certain sense of closure - both melancholic and contented - that I was at Trafalgar Square, along with my own 18 year old daughter and her friends. If only it wasn't thirty years too late.

Monday 8 April 2013

Let's take a moment to rejoice

Having spent most of my adult life waiting for this moment - Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out has been ringing in my ears since I was 16 - now that it's actually come I feel a bit of an anticlimax.

As a historian I am certainly  not inhibited in talking ill of the dead. I enjoy the childishness of all that stuff on Facebook as much as the next man. Although I do think that Tony Benn hits the nail on the head with his characteristically sober and dignified epitaph:

"Mrs Thatcher was a politician that believed what she thought, did what she said she was going to do and that gave her a certain integrity. However, she used that trust to make war on the working class. She taught us the meaning of class war through campaigns against the miners and the introduction of the Poll Tax. We are still dealing with the effects of that 'Neo-Con' economic experiment".

'Integrity' I would add only in the perverse sense of an enemy that looks you in the eye before stabbing you in the guts. As opposed to the turncoat Blairs, Browns and Millibands who stab you in the back. 

And that's my sense of anti-climax. Thatcher may be dead but Thatcherism is all too much alive and well. Still for tonight at least - let's permit ourselves a bit of time to rejoice.

Sunday 31 March 2013

A lot of balls

A new experience for me this weekend - I visited a pawnbrokers. 

That old-fashioned description wasn't what was over the door - but that's what it was.  It offers of course a very old-fashioned service, but one that - in my neck of the woods  anyway - is depressingly flourishing. In fact along with fried chicken shops and betting shops, places offering pay day loans at interest rates of over 1000% are just about the only enterprises that do prosper around here.

Thankfully I wasn't there for a loan - I wanted to collect a Western Union transfer from Greece.

I wanted to  - but I couldn't because I could not persuade them that the name on the paperwork from the sender - 'Chris' - was a universally acknowledged abbreviation of the name on my driving license 'Christopher'. Even my signature on the very same license  'Chris' was not enough to assuage their jobs-worthiness. Nor were my pleas that only the DVLA, the Passport office and my grandmother got away with calling me Christopher - and she's been dead for twelve years.

So I left empty handed. I am nor sure whether I should be relieved that bureaucratic bullshit seems to trump old-fashioned avarice. Or doubly depressed at a new corporate  take on old-fashioned parasitism.

Friday 22 March 2013

Standing on the shoulders of giants

It was always going to be a risk: 

Taking a bunch of cynical street wise London teenagers to an art-house cinema to watch two hours of largely black and white talking-heads in a worthy  documentary.

But getting my GCSE class to watch Ken Loach's 'Spirit of 45' paid off. You couldn't make it up - the kids came out wide-eyed and buzzing: Had it really happened ? And how come people had let that bitch Thatcher get away with destroying it all ?

As I walked back to where my bike was parked I have to confess to being choked with emotion: 

Satisfaction that a generation whose experience was so different, could be inspired by these old people talking about socialism. Melancholy for that older generation - my Mum and Dad's - who had seen their dreams fall apart and who we will never get a chance to properly thank. And anger for my own generation - those 40-somethings who bought into the 80's Thatcherite dream that shat on it all.

Thanks Mr Loach - you confirmed that I am in the right job.

Monday 11 March 2013

No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid*

Ironic. As mentioned in my last post I was going to interview my dad to use his reminiscences as a source for one of my classes. One that I had heard before was of  him going to a meeting as a teenager shortly after the war to hear Aneurin Bevan speak on the creation of the health service - a defining moment which persuaded him to join the Labour Party. 

I was going to brave the icy weather and ride down to Kent when I got a call from his carer to come early because he had been taken into hospital. Fortunately he was able to be discharged the same day. But whilst spending a fairly harrowing day in the very same AndE department from which my mum was admitted and never returned, we had an announcement advising us that waiting times were three hours and that anyone waiting to be seen should go to another hospital ten miles away, or to see their GP. 

And next week I will be on a march next Saturday  to protest the cuts at the Whittington Hospital - roughly a life time on and from my dad going to that meeting ...

* These words from Aneurin Bevan's 'In Place of Fear'

Tuesday 5 March 2013

History of our own

I am happy to be working in a school at the moment that promotes the kind of History that would get Mr Grove foaming at the mouth. No kings, queens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel or David Livingston. 

The student population is largely Black and the school makes no apology for featuring Black history heavily in the curriculum. And not just the usual GCSE focus on 1960s Civil Rights but Black British History - pre-colonial Africa, slavery in the Caribbean, decolonisation and post-war immigration. It shouldn't really be a surprise then  that as a result, History is popular at the school, and the kids are actually keen to take part in the lessons.

This attempt to connect what is being taught to student's own experiences and the world today is not restricted to Black History. Yesterday we were discussing the possibility of  a school trip to a viewing of Ken Loach's new film 'Spirit of 45'. And this weekend I was interviewing my Dad to use a source for his memories of hearing Aneurin Bevan speak at a public meeting at that time.

This teacher-training business is probably the most all-consuming and draining thing I've ever done -  but it certainly beats the crap out of what I used to put up with in my previous life ...

Monday 25 February 2013

Cardinal O'Brien - inappropriate ?

I hate the expression 'inappropriate'.  It is particularly over-used in schools. And in more general usage it has become a euphemism for anything from 'a bit naughty' to 'absolutely fucking outrageous'.  But I had to suppress a giggle (which in itself was probably inappropriate) when I heard that Cardinal O'Brien (Stonewall's 'bigot of the year) is standing down because of inappropriate behaviour towards young priests. 

Given the track record of the Catholic church - predatory sexual behaviour and the mis-use of positions of authority would seem entirely 'appropriate' with that particular organisation's ethos.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Everything becomes a commodity ?

I'm delighted to see that the  proposed sale of our local Banksy 'Slave Labour' mural has been stopped. 

I realise that in many circles the jury is out on Banksy's political credibility.  He straddles the mainstream and has now done pretty nicely  out of his public acts of subversion. 

But  at the moment that's quibbling - the mural in Wood Green was a much-needed  little bit of thoughtfulness and culture in what is otherwise a depressingly barren bit of North London.   The area's other  'attractions' are restricted to 'Shopping City'  - apparently one of the oldest shopping malls in the country - a couple of multiplex cinema chains and a brace of Witherspoons pubs. 

From whichever way you look at it, the mural - a child worker making union jack flags   sited outside a Poundland shop at the time of the queen's jubilee  - is a very apt reflection of our times. And we want it back where it belongs.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

What are we eating ?

It looks like Nestle is the latest next big business to be in the shit over contaminated food ingredients.  I suspect there will be many more of these stories to come.

In my previous life - working on packaging reprographics - I gained a bit of an insight into the murky world of retail. I used to do work for one of the particular brands recently featured in the horse meat scandal. 

Whilst we worked for them, as part of a cost-cutting exercise they shifted much of their production to Eastern Europe. As a result we were asked to retouch the picture on the front of the box so as to remove a layer of meat from their lasagna. More generally in the fifteen years or so that I dealt with the retail sector there was, predictably,  a huge shift in the supply base - whether it was food or textiles - away from suppliers in this country or Western Europe. 

The big businesses involved sat above this whole  process like Pontius Pilate.

They issued ethical sourcing policies which suppliers were to sign up to, committing them to maintaining decent working conditions and rights for their workers, and to 'transparency in the supply chain' (telling the retailer what they were doing and how they were do it). Having then indemnified and insulated themselves from any sort of shit sticking. the retailers largely left the suppliers  to it. But at the same time the brief every time that a contract was up for renewal was  to pursue more savings. And this crusade was on a 'no questions' asked basis. It is no surprise then that in the pursuit of fulfilling this quest - child labour, sweat shops - and shit unverified ingredients -  are all simply just part of the process. The stories emerging  over what is in the  food we eat is not an isolated scandal - it is endemic to capitalism - and I'm sure there is more to come. I'm also sure that somehow the retailers will manage to come up smelling of roses.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Gove loses the historical plot

Amidst the euphoria over Grove's humiliating climb down over the Ebacc, the proposed new framework for the national curriculum has gone relatively unnoticed. 

I can't speak for other subjects but for History the changes can only be described as daft and dangerous.

Daft - because you only have to look at the curriculum for Key Stage 2 to see the crazy body of knowledge that Grove now seriously expects kids to have before they turn up at secondary school.

Dangerous because, whilst no primary  school is ever really going to cover all this, undoubtedly some will try. And they won't be primaries in the inner cities because like my lovely local primary school that I had to spend a week in as part of my secondary training - they are  quite rightly too busy teaching seriously disadvantaged kids the basics of literacy and numeracy.

The changes, by further increasing and institutionalising the gaps between childrens' experience before they start secondary school, will have the same regressive and divisive effect that Grove originally intended with the Ebacc.

And the history is pretty dubious too:

Here's the KS2 History framework in all its glory:

"Pupils should be taught the following chronology of British history sequentially:
Early Britons and settlers, including: 
the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages
Celtic culture and patterns of settlement
Roman conquest and rule, including:
Caesar, Augustus, and Claudius
Britain as part of the Roman Empire
the decline and fall of the Western Roman Empire
Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, including:
the Heptarchy
the spread of Christianity
key developments in the reigns of Alfred, Athelstan, Cnut and Edward the Confessor 
The Norman Conquest and Norman rule, including: 
the Domesday Book
Norman culture
the Crusades
Plantagenet rule in the 12th and 13th centuries, including:
key developments in the reign of Henry II
the murder of Thomas Becket 
Magna Carta
de Montfort's Parliament
Relations between England, Wales, Scotland and France, including: 
William Wallace
Robert the Bruce
Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd
the Hundred Years War 
Life in 14th-century England, including: 
the Black Death
the Peasants’ Revolt 
The later Middle Ages and the early modern period, including: 
Chaucer and the revival of learning
Wycliffe’s Bible
Caxton and the introduction of the printing press
the Wars of the Roses
Warwick the Kingmaker
The Tudor period, including 
religious strife and Reformation in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary 
Elizabeth I's reign and English expansion, including: 
colonisation of the New World
plantation of Ireland
conflict with Spain
the Renaissance in England, including the lives and works of individuals such as Shakespeare and Marlowe 
The Stuart period, including: 
the Union of the Crowns
King versus Parliament
Cromwell's commonwealth, the Levellers and the Diggers
the restoration of the monarchy
the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London
Samuel Pepys and the establishment of the Royal Navy
the Glorious Revolution, constitutional monarchy and the Union of the Parliaments."